Saturday, 16 September 2017

Theatre review: Boudica

Closing this year’s Globe summer season is a new play that playwright Tristan Bernays has crafted to fit in very well with the old ones that make up most of the theatre’s repertory. And it’s based around a character who it’s strange to think none of the original Globe’s playwrights tackled, the only reason I can think of being the ban on female actors meaning too big a burden being placed on a young boy; because Boudica has all the elements Jacobethan theatre liked to get stuck into. Set during Nero’s reign, the Roman Empire occupies Britain with the help of some of the former tribal kings. Known as client-kings, they pay taxes and stop their people from rebelling in return for getting to keep their titles and lands. The play begins with the death of a leading client-king, whose widow Boudica (Gina McKee) expects to inherit half his land as per the agreement he made with the Romans.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Theatre review: Oslo

Getting a quick transfer from a hit Broadway run to the West End, J.T. Rogers’ Oslo first spends a couple of weeks at the Lyttelton; Bartlett Sher’s production gets an all-new British cast to tell the behind-the-scenes story of historic Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It’s the early 1990s and Middle East peace talks are dominated by the Americans, who insist on a negotiating style that puts all demands on the table – it’s never yielded results, and attacks continue from both sides. Norwegian sociologist Terje Rød-Larsen (Toby Stephens) believes he’s come up with a better model, based around smaller groups of negotiators getting to know each other as people, and chipping away slowly at concessions. Terje’s wife Mona Juul (Lydia Leonard) works at the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, and helps set up a back-channel between senior Israelis and PLO members, behind the Americans’ backs.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Theatre review: Doubt, a Parable

The Catholic Church is famous for its choirboy-abusing priests, but a lesser-known fact is that there’s also a system of religious beliefs attached to it. John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, a Parable uses the former to look into questions of the latter, in a story set in a New York convent school in 1964. Headmistress Sister Aloysius (Stella Gonet) is a stern disciplinarian who’s fiercely opposed to change, ball-point pens, the song “Frosty the Snowman,” and either teachers or students actually enjoying their lessons. Her mission to crush all the joy out of young teacher Sister James (Clare Latham) has to be interrupted as she needs her help to investigate the school priest Father Flynn (Jonathan Chambers,) whom she suspects of taking an inappropriate interest in the pupils. The school has just taken on its first-ever black student, and Flynn seems keen to get particularly close to him.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Theatre review: Follies

Follies is probably the best-known Stephen Sondheim musical I hadn’t yet seen, and the sheer scale of Dominic Cooke’s production at the National suggests why it’s a risky proposition for any smaller theatre to take on. Between 1918 and the early 1940s, Weismann’s Follies were a Broadway staple, but the story takes place in 1971, and the theatre where they played is being demolished to make way for offices. On the building’s last night, Weismann invites the show’s former stars to the site for a farewell party and to reminisce about their time in the limelight. In Vicki Mortimer’s striking design the theatre is already half-demolished, and what remains of it is haunted by the ghosts of the characters’ younger selves, who recreate the routines from their heyday, and watch the people they’ll turn into in curiosity and sometimes horror.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Theatre review: Edward II

A few years ago Ricky Dukes directed a production of Dido, Queen of Carthage I enjoyed, and now he and Lazarus Theatre return to Christopher Marlowe for a heavily edited and adapted version of Edward II. Luke Ward-Wilkinson plays the titular king, who in the opening scene learns of his father’s death and his own accession to the throne, and responds by immediately recalling his banished lover Gaveston (Bradley Frith,) much to the displeasure of his nobles. Whether Gaveston is at court or in exile, he’s a constant distraction to the king, and with conflict at home and abroad his attention is needed for the safety of England. At least that’s their story: Beneath the rhetoric the rebellion led by Mortimer (Jamie O’Neill) looks more like an opportunistic grab at power from a weak and distracted king.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Theatre review: Gypsy Queen

Writer/performer Rob Ward seems to have found a niche for himself with plays about gay sportsmen; a few years ago he co-wrote and acted in monologue Away From Home, about a gay footballer in a secret relationship, and now he takes on solo writing duties while sharing the acting with Ryan Clayton in a story where the relationship is still secret, but the sport’s much more up-front about its aggressive side. In Gypsy Queen Clayton plays Dane “The Pain” Samson, a promising boxer, openly gay in his father’s gym where he trains, and where everyone pretty much accepts this; but wary about his sexuality being known more generally, and worried that one sports reporter in particular keeps sniffing around it. Ward is “Gorgeous” George O’Connell, from an Irish traveller background, who bare-knuckle boxes in pub car parks until Dane’s father talent-spots him and invites him to turn professional.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Theatre review: Knives in Hens

Wheel! Of! Misfortune!

After joyless South African director Yaël Farber royally shat the bed at the National a few months ago, she was lucky to have her next London gig already lined up, or I don’t think we’d have seen her here again for some time. In any case I saw her production of Knives in Hens at the Donmar as giving her a last chance before deciding if I just don’t see what others apparently see in her, and putting her on the same shelf as Samuel Beckett. David Harrower’s play is set in a non-specifically pre-industrial North of England, a place dominated by work and a combination of austere religion and superstition. Judith Roddy plays an unnamed Young Woman (significantly, only one person in the play gets to know her name,) married to ploughman Pony William (Christian Cooke,) so called because he may or may not fuck his plough-horses.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Theatre review: King Lear (Shakespeare's Globe)

It's likely to be overshadowed very shortly by Ian McKellen's return to the title role, but the Globe's production of King Lear delivers a clear, if not particularly distinctive telling of the story. Kevin R McNally plays Lear, a king who decides to go into retirement, hoping to maintain all the perks of rule with none of the responsibilities. It doesn't work that way though, as he discovers when he divides his kingdom between his older daughters Goneril (Emily Bruni) and Regan (Sirine Saba,) cutting off his youngest Cordelia (Anjana Vasan) when she fails to flatter him to his liking. Inevitably he finds he's trusted the wrong daughters and as his mental and physical health start to deteriorate he's cast out into the wilderness, while around him storms rage and England breaks out into civil war.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Theatre review: Loot

What Joe Orton did to farce in What The Butler Saw, he does to black comedy in Loot: Deconstruct the genre by taking it to its logical extreme, so we get jokes about rape and child prostitutes, and the naked corpse of an old woman being unceremoniously dragged around the stage. But despite being the first UK staging to restore Orton’s original text with all the censored stuff back in place, what Michael Fentiman’s 50th anniversary production ends up most memorable for is the sharpness of the dialogue. McLeavy’s (Ian Redford) wife died three days ago, and her body is laid out for the last time in their house. Last night his son Hal (Sam Frenchum) robbed a bank with his best friend/boyfriend Dennis (Calvin Demba,) and the loot is stored in a cupboard. Then Inspector Truscott (Christopher Fulford) arrives, demanding to search the house.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Theatre review: Against

2008’s Now or Later has made me look forward to Christopher Shinn’s work, but so far none of his other plays have lived up to that one for me. His latest premieres at the Almeida in a production by Ian Rickson, and tries to deal with huge issues of faith and the human capacity for violence, as a self-made billionaire believes he’s been given a message from god to go out into the world and solve America’s violence problem. Ben Whishaw is no stranger to playing messianic figures so he’s a natural match to Against’s protagonist Luke, a tech and aerospace giant who leaves behind all his companies when he claims to have been given a divine message to “go where the violence is.” He interprets this vague missive as meaning he should travel to the scenes of violent crimes and stay there long after the press have moved on to the next story, collecting feelings and reactions from the survivors and compiling their stories on a website.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Theatre review: The Majority

Although the current policy at the Dorfman is not to play shows in rep, Mosquitoes gets a bit of a break as another show uses its in-the-round set to tell a different kind of story – although there’s still buzzing insects involved, as The Majority’s design (by Jemima Robinson) features a lot of bees and honeycomb motifs. It’s the latest play by Rob Drummond, aka that bloke I shot that time, who keeps an audience participation element but spreads it out equally this time: The last few years have been marked by hugely impactful votes on binary, not always well-defined choices, and this is the structure The Majority is based around. As with the recent Terror, every audience member is given a keypad which will record their vote on a number of yes/no questions posed by Drummond. Most of them will serve to give an idea of the audience’s moral position but a couple will affect where his story goes and how it’s told.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Theatre review: Dangling

Not actually the story of Mr and Mrs Gling’s son Daniel, Abigail Hood’s Dangling is inspired by missing persons stories, and particularly by the families left behind, not knowing if they’ll ever have closure on what happened to their loved one. Hood herself plays Charlotte, a prostitute hired by Greg (Jasper Jacob,) to dress up like his missing teenage daughter. He doesn’t actually want sex from her, but his actions don’t exactly help quash rumours that his daughter ran away because he abused her; nor does an accusation by some of her friends, whom he claims he was only talking to as a way of feeling close to the missing Carly. The real reason for Carly’s disappearance is never revealed, and Hood’s play leans towards Greg’s innocence, but these London-based scenes alternate with another story set in Oldham, and here the reason why a young girl might want to vanish without a trace is made all too clear.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Theatre review: Coming Clean

Right now you can bookend Kevin Elyot’s playwriting career by travelling one stop on the Victoria Line: As the run ends on his final play, Twilight Song, in Finsbury Park, over in Islington the King’s Head revives his 1982 debut, Coming Clean; and taken together they do make it look like My Night With Reg was, if not a fluke, at least an outlier. American writer and lecturer Greg (Jason Nwoga) and lazy wannabe writer Tony (Lee Knight) have been together for five years and are happy together if a bit set in their ways. These ways do include a bit of extramarital action, though – we’re in the pre-AIDS era here and they’ve got an agreement that they can sleep with other people as long as it’s confined to one-night stands. This gets complicated when they hire an unemployed actor, Robert (Tom Lambert) as a house cleaner, and Greg’s apparent impatience with him conceals an attraction.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Theatre review: Apologia

Add to the list of things I never realised I needed to see: Alicia Florrick’s mom, Martha Jones, Fit Dad and my first Malvolio, all on stage together. Plus the woman who woke Peter Hall up from his nap that time, although she’s got a bit better at the acting since then. Following The Pride a couple of years ago, Jamie Lloyd revives another Alexi Kaye Campbell play at Trafalgar 1, with Stockard Channing taking on the role of esteemed art historian and 1960s political activist Kristin in Apologia. The setup is the well-worn dinner-party-from-hell format, as Kristin hosts family and friends to celebrate both her birthday, and the publication of her latest book, also titled Apologia. This one’s marketed as a memoir of her life, which makes the fact that it doesn’t even mention the existence of her two sons (both played by Joseph Millson) an omission which seems to distill their relationship.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Theatre review: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾

After an initial run in Leicester, where Sue Townsend’s much-loved series of books is set, Jake Brunger (book and lyrics) and Pippa Cleary’s (music and lyrics) musical version of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ has been rewritten and now lands at the Menier Chocolate Factory with an eye on giving Matilda a run for its money. And it could well manage it as Cleary, Brunger and director Luke Sheppard have pitched the show between nostalgia for the adults and silliness to keep kids occupied, in a production that kept an audience of both captivated this afternoon. On January 1st 1981 Adrian (Benjamin Lewis, alternating with Ilan Galkoff and Samuel Menhinick) decides to start the titular diary for what will turn out to be an eventful year, as his parents Pauline (Kelly Price) and George (Dean Chisnall) separate after Pauline has an affair with the next-door neighbour.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Theatre review: Girl From The North Country

If a Meat Loaf jukebox musical at the ENO seemed like the summer’s most eccentric bit of programming, how about a Bob Dylan jukebox musical at the Old Vic? Conor McPherson writes and directs Girl from the North Country, which I hadn’t initially planned to see but some very interesting casting convinced me otherwise. Cast mostly with actors-who-can-sing rather than predominantly musical theatre actors, I already knew the likes of Sheila Atim, Bronagh Gallagher, Jack Shalloo, Debbie Kurup, Michael Shaeffer and Karl Queensborough could sing, but there’s also a number of pleasant surprises in a show that, music aside, I didn’t quite know what to make of. Set in Depression-era Duluth, the story centres on a guest house run by Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds,) whose wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson) has early-onset dementia, and whose main relief from the financial and personal pressures he faces is an affair with one of his guests, Mrs Neilsen (Kurup.)

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Theatre review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

In a Young Vic production that, for the first time, skips the Young Vic entirely and goes straight to the West End (and its prices,) the theatre follows up Benedict Andrews’ revolving Streetcar Named Desire with another of the most famous Tennessee Williams plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. We’re still in a sweltering part of the American South (Tennessee itself, this time,) but unlike most Williams characters nobody here is strapped for cash: Big Daddy (Colm Meaney) owns the largest plantation in the state, and his whole family have gathered to celebrate his 65th birthday. What most of the family knows but he doesn’t is that this is his last birthday: The tests he was told came back negative actually revealed he has terminal cancer and very little time left. We see the action from the perspective of alcoholic younger son Brick (Jack O’Connell) and his wife Maggie (Sienna Miller.)

Monday, 31 July 2017

Theatre review: Road

In a rare instance of the Royal Court revisiting a past work, John Tiffany directs a 30th anniversary production of Road, Jim Cartwright’s slice of life in an unnamed Lancashire town. It seems a rather pointed revival of a play which comes down hard on Thatcher’s Britain, as despite the – nostalgic and funny by turns – period trappings it still feels relevant, its characters going out to get drunk and try to pull, covering up their desperation at the dead end their lives are in. Some have been led to unusual extremes, like Mike Noble’s Skin-Lad, a Buddhist skinhead, or Joey (Shane Zaza) and Clare (Faye Marsay,) dying in bed on hunger strike over something they can’t quite articulate. Most have more familiar stories of trying to cope though, and unemployed ex-sailor Scullery (Lemn Sissay) offers to be the audience’s tour guide over one typical Saturday night from dusk to dawn.

Theatre review: Queers Part 2

A companion piece to Friday's one-off performance at the Old Vic, Max Webster joins Mark Gatiss on directing duties for the concluding four monologues from BBC4's Queers series. Once again the stories take us through the decades before and after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, beginning during the Blitz with Keith Jarrett's The Safest Spot in Town. Kadiff Kirwan plays a dapper West Indian who immigrated to London a few years earlier, finding a more insidious, two-faced form of racism than he'd expected. The arrival of German bombers has created, for a while at least, a more inclusive atmosphere as everyone's up against a common enemy. But, in what is probably the slightest of the eight short plays, he finds it hard to forget being turned away from the places that now want his custom, and goes cottaging instead - a life-changing decision.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Theatre review: Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare's Globe)

Lots of hey! but no nonnny nonny in the Globe's latest Much Ado About Nothing, as Matthew Dunster takes the play's opening, with soldiers returning triumphant from a battle, as his cue to set the action during the Mexican Revolution in 1914. A group of fighters take a break at the home of Leonato (Martin Marquez,) where young soldier Claudio (Marcello Cruz - Hispanic Daniel Radcliffe, amirite?) falls for Leonato's daughter Hero (Anya Chalotra.) As the soldiers wait for the wedding to be hastily arranged, they amuse themselves by tricking the battling exes Benedick (Matthew Needham) and Beatrice (Beatriz Romilly) into getting back together, by convincing each that the other is desperately in love with them.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Theatre review: Queers Part 1

It hasn't been marked quite as ubiquitously on stage as the centenary of the First World War, the 4th centenary of Shakespeare's death or even the King James Bible were, but theatres are now starting to step up the events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. The Old Vic has paired up with the BBC, whose Queer Britain season includes the upcoming Queers on BBC4, eight monologues curated by Mark Gatiss giving snapshots of gay life before and after decriminalisation, to give each one of the short plays a one-off live performance. About half of the performers from the TV version have been able to reprise their roles, with the rest recast, and Gatiss shares directing duties with Joe Murphy on Part 1 as well as writing the first of the four stories in this first collection.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Theatre review: Nassim

Currently previewing at the Bush Studio before officially opening in Edinburgh, Nassim features a format I’m seeing more and more of: A performer who knows as little about the piece going in as the audience does. Nassim Soleimanpour’s play, directed by Omar Elerian and designed by Rhys Jarman, features a new performer every night, and like the Royal Court did with Manwatching, the Bush are releasing a list of the performers in advance, but not revealing who will appear at which performance until it actually begins. The performer - Khalid Abdalla tonight - is confronted with a screen on which flash cards are projected, with the script for him to read out, and instructions for him – and occasionally the audience – to carry out. Soleimanpour himself is turning the pages backstage, and about halfway through the play the playwright joins the performer onstage.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Theatre review: Mosquitoes

After the success of Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood’s latest play Mosquitoes gets its premiere at the National Theatre, with Rufus Norris directing, a Katrina Lindsay set full of bells and whistles and spectacular projections, and most of all the central roles filled by two Future Dame Olivias: Williams plays Alice, a particle physicist working at CERN in the buildup to the Large Hadron Collider being switched on for the first time. Colman is her sister Jenny, the black sheep in a family full of scientists, as she’s superstitious and much more likely to believe any unfounded rumour she reads online than empirically proven facts. In particular, she believed the scare stories about the MMR vaccine causing autism and refused to vaccinate her baby daughter, with tragic results that kick off the story: In need of some support Jenny is visiting her sister in Switzerland, along with their mother Karen (Amanda Boxer.)

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Theatre review: Nina - a story about me and Nina Simone

Josette Bushell-Mingo and Dritëro Kasapi’s extraordinarily angry piece Nina – a story about me and Nina Simone is closer to performance art than theatre: Bushell-Mingo starts the show in an afro wig, describing the jubilant atmosphere leading up to a Nina Simone concert in 1969, and the suggestion is that she’s going to impersonate Simone and perform some of the songs from that set. But this is more about Nina Simone the activist than the performer, and having barely started the first song Bushell-Mingo finds she can’t carry on, because the inequality Simone was fighting against back then is still present today – Simone wrote a song called "Mississippi Goddam" and Bushell-Mingo is all too aware that with anti-black violence continuing to be disproportionate to this day, the song could just as easily be renamed “Ferguson Goddam.”

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Theatre review: Disco Pigs

I almost skipped the 20th anniversary production of Disco Pigs because I felt like I’d seen a version at the Young Vic quite recently; as it turns out that production was actually six years ago and besides, casting a Harry Potter actor I hadn’t “collected” on stage before is always a good way of making me stump up for a ticket. Enda Walsh’s two-hander uses a mixture of strong Cork accents and dialect with a convoluted, poetic style of speech that channels Joyce, Beckett and A Clockwork Orange to tell a story of two teenagers, Darren aka Pig (Colin Campbell) and Sinead aka Runt (Evanna Lynch,) who were born a second apart in the same hospital. Ever since being placed on adjacent tables they’ve been closer than real siblings, to the point in fact of isolating themselves from their families, speaking in their own language and dealing with the outside world mainly with violence.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Theatre review: Twilight Song

Kevin Elyot’s final play is called, appropriately enough, Twilight Song, and it’s a short, distinctly odd one that left me with the suspicion he hadn’t quite finished working on it when he died. Alternating between the 1960s and the present day in the same suburban London villa, it was bought, largely thanks to a cash gift from a wealthy uncle, by Isabella (Bryony Hannah) and her meek new husband Basil (Paul Higgins.) Partly due to events that unfold in the play, the improvements they planned to make to it never happened and by the time their son Barry (also Higgins) is in his fifties, the place seems to be falling apart and he’s thinking of selling it. Estate agent Skinner (Adam Garcia) is optimistic that it can fetch a good price regardless, but he may just be buttering him up because he supplements his income with a side-line in prostitution, and he’s spotted a likely customer in the lonely and repressed Barry.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Theatre review: Dessert

Oliver Cotton’s flawed but fun, issue-based thriller Dessert is another of those plays that hinges on a major plot twist, this time coming about 20 minutes in – in fact much of the publicity has revolved around Cotton and director Trevor Nunn tying themselves up in knots trying to discuss the play without actually mentioning what it’s about. So once again I’ll try to keep things vague in the opening paragraph before getting spoilery after the text cut. Certainly the promotional image of an unevenly cut cake gives a clue that we’re in for a story about the 5% who own 95% of the world’s wealth, and Rachel Stone’s set is an opulent dining room whose walls are covered with priceless paintings. This is just another room in the house of Hugh (Michael Simkins,) a company director notorious for liquidating a struggling company causing investors to lose their savings, while he got away with a £5 million bonus. SPOILER ALERT for the rest of the review.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Theatre review: Bodies

With Future Dame Billie Piper about to reprise her Yerma at the Young Vic, over at the Royal Court we have another childless woman taking a much more pragmatically 21st century approach to the problem. She’s not yet got the profile of someone like James Graham, Lucy Kirkwood or Polly Stenham but ever since her debut with Mogadishu* Vivienne Franzmann has been delivering such consistently good work she’s as much of a must-see playwright for me as any of them. In Bodies the woman desperate for a child is Clem (Justine Mitchell,) who after five miscarriages has opted for surrogacy. Her husband Josh (Jonathan McGuinness, reading in the role after Brian Ferguson got ill,) will provide the sperm, the eggs come from an unknown woman in Russia, while actually carrying the baby will be Lakshmi (Salma Hoque) in India, where surrogates have very few rights.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Theatre review: The Mentor

I think last year’s great revival of Amadeus made the prospect of seeing the film version’s star, F Murray Abraham, on stage even more of a draw for me. So it’s a good job his performance in The Mentor lives up to expectations, because little else about Daniel Kehlmann’s play was really memorable enough to stay with me past the Vaudeville’s front doors. Kehlmann is apparently a huge name in Germany right now, and being the first to bring him to the UK are the team of translator Christopher Hampton and director Laurence Boswell, who in recent years also introduced us to Florian Zeller. And there is more of a French than German aesthetic to Polly Sullivan’s design, a country garden inside a white box, with chairs shaped like human hands as a clue that pretension is welcome here – a retreat owned by an arts charity that pairs established names with promising newcomers to develop new work.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Theatre review: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

A delayed arrival in the West End for Broadway star Audra McDonald – she was due to appear in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill a couple of years ago, but the entire run got cancelled because she was pregnant. Now she finally gets to take the stage at Wyndham’s – the same theatre she was due to play in the first place – and demonstrate why she couldn’t have been replaced. Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play recreates an evening in the titular Philadelphia bar, where Billie Holiday (McDonald) performed in 1959, a few months before her death. She has mixed feelings about playing there – she loves the bar and has friends there but Philadelphia itself is where she pled guilty to her first husband’s drug charges expecting to be let off easy, and ended up in prison for a year instead. By the time she takes to the stage she’s already a few drinks down and she’s never too far from a full glass of neat gin the whole evening, but this is far from a unique reaction to a city she doesn’t feel comfortable in.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Theatre review: Superhero

In most ways the temporary Southwark Playhouse venue at Elephant and Castle has been an improvement on the one they’ll be returning to next year, but I can’t say I don’t miss the London Bridge one in the summer, when the fact that the smaller auditorium, The Vault, was so far into the network of railway tunnels meant it was cool, even in the middle of a heatwave. No such luck at The Little, which has no air conditioning and was pretty unbearable tonight – in fact I’m not sure how well I can even review Superhero because my main take from it was wondering if I’d make it to the end of the 90 minutes without passing out. I suppose one thing you can take in its favour is that I didn’t escape into the night, which is a tribute to Jeremy Corbyn Michael Rouse, the performer in this one-man musical by Michael Conley (book,) Joseph Finlay (music) and Richy Hughes (lyrics.)

Monday, 3 July 2017

Theatre review: Gloria

I try to write reviews without major spoilers in them but it can be a minefield: Gloria is a play that I could try to talk about without mentioning the twist halfway through, but it’s so crucial to what the play’s about there’d be little point writing about it at all if I didn’t at least allude to it. So I’ll start with the story’s setup in the first paragraph, and after that read at your own risk if you’re planning on seeing the show. We start with a bitter, and not all that funny, office sitcom: Kae Alexander, Colin Morgan and Ellie Kendrick play PAs to various editors in the New York headquarters of a national magazine, with Bayo Gbadamosi as an intern who’s been kept deliberately far from any useful work just in case he develops an interest in working there for real, and gets in the way of the others’ ambitions. But Michael Longhurst’s production sets their realistic cubicles in front of chipboard walls that overtly remind us this is a theatrical setting; and besides the writer is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and anyone who saw An Octoroon will know he likes to play around with form. SPOILER ALERT after the text cut.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Theatre review: Titus Andronicus (RSC / RST & Barbican)

For the most famous playwright in history, Shakespeare is surprisingly subject to the whims of fashion, or at least individual plays of his are. Having been in almost constant rotation in the repertory when I first started going to the theatre, The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew have become a lot rarer, although the former did briefly become ubiquitous again a couple of years ago. On the opposite trajectory is a play you'll still find plenty of people willing to swear is Shakespeare's worst, but which has been cropping up a lot more in hit productions, and I'm yet to see a truly bad one: My first Titus Andronicus was only in 2013, on the RSC's smaller Swan stage; I think Michael Fentiman's take was one of the things that reminded people of what a crowd-pleaser it could be, and on its next Stratford outing it gets a go on the main stage as well as a limited London transfer, as part of this year's overarching Roman theme.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Theatre review: Ink

The more I think about Ink, the more overtly it seems like a take on Doctor Faustus. James Graham’s latest play – his first of three premieres over the next five months – is an origin story for the The Sun, Britain’s bestselling and most politically influential newspaper. The paper had already been running for a few years when we join the story in 1969, as an unloved stablemate of the bestselling Daily Mirror, with tiny sales figures and considered a bit of a Fleet Street joke, a job there even less in-demand than one in a local paper. Having already bought the Sunday paper News of the World, Australian businessman Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) doesn’t want his printing presses to go unused the rest of the week, and buys The Sun with a plan to turn it into a rival for The Mirror, and eventually overtake it. He courts Larry Lamb (not that one) (Richard Coyle) to be the first editor, responsible for finding that elusive mass appeal.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Theatre review: Mr Gillie

Last year the Finborough’s search for forgotten hits of the past found Scottish playwright James Bridie, whose black comedy Dr Angelus proved well worth another look; now the Sunday-to-Tuesday alternate slot is given up to another of Bridie’s West End hits of the ‘50s, and while Mr Gillie hasn’t stood the test of time anywhere near as well, the amiable little tragicomedy has its moments. Perhaps its most interesting facet is the very premise, which takes a more critical look at a dramatic cliché that’s remained popular long after the play’s 1950 premiere: That of the inspirational teacher who instils an ambition in his students to transcend the limitations they were born into. That’s been Mr Gillie’s (Andy Secombe) aim all his years as headmaster in a small Scottish mining town, and it’s made him much-beloved of his ex-pupils, and hugely unpopular with the school board. And it’s hard not to see the latter’s point, because over the course of his career Gillie has found two students in particular who showed extraordinary talent: Both took his advice to pursue them, and in both cases their lives took such a turn for the worse they’re still spoken of in hushed tones now.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Theatre review: Terror

Billed as international event theatre and certainly designed as such, Ferdinand von Schirach's Terror has played over 1000 performances in Germany and been seen in numerous countries, with the Lyric Hammersmith now giving it its UK premiere in David Tushingham's translation. It's a courtroom drama with the audience serving as jury on an ever-topical case involving terrorism: A passenger plane carrying 164 civilians was hijacked, with it looking increasingly likely it would crash into a stadium filled to its 70,000 capacity. A hastily drafted and redrafted law allows for the plane to be shot down to save the majority, but as it stands only the Minister for Defence can give the order, and he refuses to do so. Faced with the reality, fighter pilot Lars Koch (Ashley Zhangazha) took it upon himself to sacrifice the plane and save the 70,000. Having gone against orders, he's now charged with mass murder and faces life in prison.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Theatre review: Sweet Bird of Youth

I had a feeling that Daniel Evans taking over as Artistic Director of Chichester's theatres would make me break my previous rule of not making the trip to West Sussex; and with Ian McKellen revisiting King Lear there later this year it proved a bit too tempting. So in for a penny, in for a pound, I ended up booking three shows in the two theatres, and why not when there's the chance to see Brian J. Smith in another Tennesse Williams play only months after his memorable performance in The Glass Menagerie? This time he's Chance Wayne, the wannabe actor, more realistically a hustler, in Sweet Bird of Youth. A couple of weeks before we first meet him, Chance hooked up with a woman calling herself the Princess Kosmonopolis, who 's paying for a luxury lifestyle in return for his discreet companionship.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Theatre review: Tristan & Yseult

Tristan & Yseult was one of the shows that catapulted Kneehigh from Westcountry touring company to major name in UK theatre, and as Emma Rice's second and final summer season at Shakespeare's Globe has a "Summer of Love" theme, her take on the mediaeval romance takes the South Bank in as part of a new tour. Tristan (Dominic Marsh) is a French prince allied to King Mark of Cornwall (Mike Shepherd,) who helped the king defend against an Irish invasion. As part of his reparation, Mark demands the Irish king's sister Yseult as a bride, and sends Tristan to collect her. Yseult (Hannah Vassallo) swears eternal hatred for the man who killed her brother, but also brings along a love potion to help her get on with her new husband. One mix-up later and the two are in love, or at the very least passionate lust.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Theatre review: Working

Studs Terkel has been one of America’s favourite radio hosts and journalists since 1945, and is known especially for his interviews with regular people and the books he’s published collecting them. Working, which unsurprisingly looks at people from the perspective of their jobs, is the most famous of these, but is still an unlikely subject for a musical, and Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso’s adaptation is in its turn an unusual musical: In its current form, only three of the songs are by the Wicked composer himself, as Schwartz asked a number of other writers and musicians to contribute different voices. Craig Carnelia is the most frequent contributor with four songs, James Taylor and Micki Grant each provide two, and there’s one by Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead. Since its 1977 debut it’s been further rejigged, so now it also boasts the current biggest name in musical theatre with two songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Theatre review: The Ugly One

It’s nine years, almost to the day, since I saw the Royal Court’s original production of Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One, and it’s a show I remember surprisingly well. This revival is directed by Roy Alexander Weise, who after last year’s The Mountaintop seems to have similar taste to me in plays from the last decade or so; and I was particularly interested to see what he did with it because the original staging is one thing that particularly stood out in my memory – because it was virtually non-existent. Well Weise hasn’t followed suit, but his production’s still comparatively minimal despite the ubiquitous video element – here it gets projected onto Loren Elstein’s raised stage floor, a sort of enormous desk that sometimes doubles as a platform for the public presentations its characters make. And public presentations are something Lette (Charlie Dorfman) isn’t allowed to make: He’s invented a revolutionary (within his industry; otherwise stultifyingly dull) new plug for car-manufacturing machinery, but his company insists his assistant Karlmann (Arian Nik) present it to customers.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Theatre review: Barber Shop Chronicles

If my way home from the theatre is by bus, which includes trips back from the National, even if the show finished quite late chances are the row of black barber shops in Camberwell will still be open and doing business. Clearly there’s a cultural significance that’s built up around barber shops rather than a huge market for 10:30pm haircuts, and this is what Inua Ellams’ new comedy-drama at the Dorfman explores. Barber Shop Chronicles is made up of vignettes from barbers’ around Africa, but the central thread is set in a shop that – based on the local references the characters make – could easily be one of those in Camberwell: Three Kings Barbers was set up years ago by three friends, but only one is still working there. Emmanuel (Cyril Nri) has taken over the business after an incident between the other two we don’t hear about at first. Samuel (Fisayo Akinade) has taken over the second chair from his father, and harbours some resentment towards Emmanuel for something he believes the older man failed to do.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Theatre review: Salomé (RSC / Swan)

It's not the subtlest form of flirtation but if you ask a lady nicely she might get her cock out for you - although you might have to give her head in return. Yep, it's the story that's been striking dread into London's theatregoers but I'm not crazy enough to see the National's Salomé again - this time it's Stratford-upon-Avon and Oscar Wilde's one-act tragedy. But even this isn't quite the version Wilde imagined, although he'd probably have enjoyed watching it for a couple of reasons: The text is unchanged but director Owen Horsley is using it to mark the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The online trailer for the show has the feel of a gentleman's specialist film, and Bretta Gerecke's designs immediately suggest a gay club, the kind that probably isn't too surprised or bothered if more than one person uses the same toilet cubicle.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Theatre review: Bat out of Hell

Could I have picked a more appropriately-titled show to see on this election night than Bat out of Hell?

When Colin and Harriet Loaf’s eldest son Meat said he wanted to be a professional musician they were understandably concerned, but fortunately for him he met musical theatre writer Jim Steinman, who was writing a futuristic Peter Pan musical because of course he was. He ditched the musical, used the songs on the album Bat out of Hell instead, and Mr Meat C. Loaf* became the king of 1980s and ‘90s power ballads, The End. BUT NO IT WASN’T THE END, because thirty-odd years later Steinman remembered about the musical and decided to finish it, make it completely fucking mental, and bolt “I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)” onto the end whether it really made sense or not, because people would be expecting that one. AND THEN IT GOT BOOKED INTO THE COLISEUM FOR THE SUMMER TO REALLY CONFUSE THE SHIT OUT OF OPERA FANS AND PUT THE ICING ON THE CAKE. And lo, it could not take itself any less seriously if it tried, and it was duly declared shitmazing† by some bloke on an internet blog.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Non-review: Common

My concerted efforts in the last couple of years to avoid booking for shows I’m not likely to enjoy have been reasonably successful. Failing that, I’ve also let myself feel less self-conscious about leaving at the interval if a show I went for in high hopes turned out to be a dud. So I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed that one of my favourite current playwrights, DC Moore, has choked so badly when let loose on the Olivier stage. His new play for the National and Headlong, Common, is set in the early 18th century, a time when the Enclosures Act took what had until then been common farming land and divided it up into private plots – an early example of privatisation, then. The local Lord (Tim McMullan) is due to start enclosing the land in Hampstead when Mary (Anne-Marie Duff,) who’d left some years earlier and was presumed dead, returns to cause havoc.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Theatre review: Jam

In Matt Parvin’s first full-length play Jam, Bella Soroush (Jasmine Hyde) is a teacher at one of the high schools in a rural part of the South West. She used to teach at the other local school until an incident with a pupil, Kane McCarthy, ten years earlier. It was an event that scarred her and nearly ended her career, but she got back on track, and is alone at her new school one night, marking papers when Kane (Harry Melling) breaks in with a baseball bat. He says he isn’t going to harm her and she lets him have his say, but she’s clearly still afraid and no wonder: A chaotic presence at 13, with ADHD, dyslexia and an obsession with elaborate pranks, he still seems volatile at 23. He says he’s returned now because he’s got a brain tumour and has been given six months to live, and wants to tie up loose ends in his life; his story is detailed but Bella isn’t quite prepared to accept it isn’t a new and particularly dark practical joke.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Theatre review: Other People

DISCLAIMER: Drama school productions are technically amateur productions, but I try to review them like anything else as the cast will be hoping to go on to professional work next.

LAMDA has opened its new building, including two specially-built stages, and in my occasional trips to try and spot the stars of the future a revival of Christopher Shinn’s – he of the much-loved Now or Later and the rather unloved Teddy Ferrara – second play caught my eye. Written in 2000 but set over Christmas 1997, Other People’s pop culture references, particularly numerous nods to the film Men in Black, make it something of a period piece. Wannabe playwright Stephen (Max Loban) shares a flat with his friend Petra (Alexandra Jiménez,) who’s just returned from a lucrative job stripping in Japan, and has continued to do so now she’s back, even though she doesn’t need the money. They agree to let Stephen’s ex-boyfriend Mark (Eduard Buhac,) a filmmaker who developed a drug habit while he was in Hollywood, stay on their couch when he gets out of rehab. It’s largely because Stephen is still in love with him and hopes to rekindle something, but it seems unlikely once Mark turns out to have found religion in a big way while in rehab, and appears to be more interested in his Bible than sex.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Theatre review: On The Town

Continuing Drew McOnie's inexorable rise to challenge Matthew Bourne as Britain's most famous choreographer, and after his dances were one of the reasons for last year's Jesus Christ Superstar's success, he returns to Regent's Park to add directing to his CV as well. And it makes sense to have the same person direct and choreograph On The Town because it's the kind of show where the two seem very much like the same job: It was originally conceived as a ballet, and wordless dance sequences still form a huge part of Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's musical. Best known for the Gene Kelly / Frank Sinatra film version, and for its big number "New York, New York," it follows three sailors on 24 hours' shore leave who each have a different idea of how to spend their big day, but all end up going on the same quest once Gabey (Danny Mac, who turns out not to be a discount cosmetics brand but a person,) sees a poster of a beauty queen on the subway.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Theatre review: Killology

Playwright Gary Owen is making a niche for himself as the very disturbing voice of a dispossessed underclass, as well as being, presumably, the Welsh tourist board's worst nightmare, giving us as he does a Wales that's an almost apocalyptic wasteland stalked by feral gangs. These gangs are the bane of Davey's (Sion Daniel Young) life growing up, and occasional incidents of horrific violence shape who he becomes as a teenager - fighting back against the bullies doesn't work so he learns to pick on those weaker than him himself. But there's even worse violence waiting for him, and this time he's unlikely to survive to continue the cycle. On the opposite end of the social scale, entirely fictional violence has shaped the life of Paul (Richard Mylan,) the designer behind a hugely successful computer game, Killology, which skips the fights of traditional beat-em-ups and goes straight for the kill, with the most creative and sadistic ways of killing opponents gaining the most points.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Theatre review: Angels in America, a Gay Fantasia on National Themes Part 2: Perestroika

Previously, on Angels in America...

I can joke but while I may have seen the two parts of Angels in America a week apart, Phill, who could only get tickets two months apart, wondered if he'd need a "Previously..." at the start of Part 2 to refresh his memory. And it turns out the National have thought of people in that predicament, as my reminder email about Perestroika included a short YouTube video summarising the major events of Millennium Approaches. These included the brief appearance by Ethel Rosenberg (Susan Brown,) a woman convicted of treason decades earlier, whose execution Roy Cohn ensured by dubious means. Her ghost continues to appear to Cohn (Nathan Lane) as a patient, ominous harbinger of his own much slower death from AIDS. There's also a bigger role now for Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett,) who's got the unenviable job of being Cohn's nurse, and whose acidic put-downs make him the right man to stand up to the notorious lawyer's vitriol.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Theatre review: An Octoroon

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is an African-American playwright who got tired of everyone assuuming that his plays, regardless of their actual subject, must all be a metaphor for the black American experience. So, when looking for a subject to write about to cheer him up from a fit of depression he embraced this instead, adapting a play that confronted slavery head-on, and even has a title now considered offensive: 19th century Irish playwright Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon. This, at least, is the origin of the darkly comic new version of the play as described by an author-substitute in the prologue: BJJ (Ken Nwosu) tells us his An Octoroon got derailed when he couldn't find white actors to play the unrepentant racist slave-owners, and this is where things get creative as the races get well-and-truly muddled up in a show featuring blackface, whiteface and even redface*.