Saturday, 18 November 2017

Theatre review: Quiz

My policy on making theatre trips to Chichester changed from "never" to "three times this year" in part thanks to each of the three shows feeling like they completed some kind of set: The decider was the chance to bookend a decade with different Ian McKellen performances of King Lear, but Sweet Bird of Youth made for a double bill of Tennesse Williams plays starring Brian J. Smith, and now the final show in Daniel Evans' first season in charge concludes a trio of new James Graham plays in 2017. Quiz is less obviously political than most of Graham's plays but you don't have to scratch too deep to find some of the wider themes that often come up in the playwright's work, particularly Privacy, about transparency in personal life, politics and the law; and whether the tendency towards leaving nothing secret in the name of full disclosure is in fact harming the chance of fair treatment behind closed doors. The reason this comes up is that Graham's creating a fictionalised version of a legal case considered to have become trial by media.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Theatre review: Network

It’s been a week of US TV stars on stage for me, with Mr Robot on Monday, Sideshow Bob on Tuesday, and now the big one: The dad from Malcolm in the Middle (he’s also done some… slightly edgier stuff since then.) Very much the director all the big names want to work with now, Ivo van Hove brings Bryan Cranston to the London stage for the first time to play Howard Beale in Network, Lee Hall’s adaptation of the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky film. Beale is the lead news anchor on a poorly-performing TV network, and the news is struggling more than anything. When he’s told he’s being replaced Beale, taking advantage of the fact that nobody’s really paying attention to him, announces that he’ll commit suicide live on air during his final broadcast. It turns out to be exactly the thing to give his ratings a boost.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Theatre review: Big Fish

I’m not above enjoying something a bit sentimental at times, and Tim Burton’s film Big Fish was one case that hit the mark for me, so a musical adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s novel seemed worth a look. The film’s writer John August also provides the musical’s book, with songs by Andrew Lipa and, following an unsuccessful Broadway production, Nigel Harman directs a much-reworked, smaller-scale British premiere at The Other Palace. Edward Bloom (Sideshow BobKelsey Grammer) is in hospital, dying, and his recently-married son Will (Matthew Seadon-Young) wants to find out about his father’s life before it’s too late. The trouble is Edward has spent his life spinning tall tales and isn’t planning on telling a more down-to-earth version just yet. The play is based around his hospital room, as Will and his fellow-journalist wife Josephine (Frances McNamee) search for clues to the truth.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Theatre review: Glengarry Glen Ross

According to Wikipedia, the Playhouse Theatre was designed by F.H. Fowler & Hill. A little-known fact about the architects is that they were semi-sentient, amorphous energy blobs who never actually met a living human being so assumed that, like the Fistyfelch people of Prang Centauri 9, our legs retract completely when we sit down. This is the only possible explanation for the seating in the Upper Circle, where you can't really accuse the audience of bad behaviour for moving around constantly when it's so obviously because they're in actual physical pain (I was on an aisle and there was nobody in the seat in front of me so I could hang my legs over the seat back, and that still wasn't enough leg room, and I'm not tall.) So the burden’s on any show staged there to hold the interest through the distractions; following Speed-the-Plow a couple of years ago, it’s again the turn of a David Mamet revival to try it.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Theatre review: Quaint Honour

This review is brought to you by codeine – I put my back out again on Saturday, and if I hadn’t got it under control by Sunday I’d have had to miss what might be the Finborough’s best rediscovery in years. The theatre’s official contribution to the 50-year anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, Roger Gellert’s Quaint Honour dates from a decade earlier, and is set in the location with perhaps the most ambiguous attitude to relationships between men: An all-boys’ boarding school. Sexual relationships between the pupils are of course strictly forbidden, but not quite so strictly policed – perhaps because the staff know the can of worms they’d be opening. But Head Prefect Park (Oliver Gully) is on a personal crusade to root out which of the boys are sleeping with each other. He hopes his deputy, Tully (Harley Viveash) will help him, but Tully thinks he’s imagining the problem.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Theatre review: The Retreat

There’s comedy royalty behind the scenes of The Retreat, the stage debut by Peep Show and Fresh Meat co-writer Sam Bain, directed by Kathy Fucking Burke; and it shows in an evening that may not hit every mark but doesn’t put a foot wrong when it comes to the laughs. Samuel Anderson plays Luke, a former high-flying city broker who’s given it up since meeting Tara (Yasmine Akram) at a festival. She runs a meditation centre in the Highlands, where – in a bare shack designed by Paul Wills - the whole play takes place in a single scene. In the course of a year since meeting Tara, Luke has become a Buddhist and left the consultancy he founded, and is now two months into a three-month meditation retreat. This is when his older brother Tony (Adam Deacon) turns up unannounced, ostensibly to tell him about the death of a distant relative.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Theatre review: Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage is, apparently, the role Josie Lawrence has most wanted to play her whole career, and now she's got the chance she doesn't waste it, bringing a whole new level of nuance to Bertolt Brecht's antiheroine. Hannah Chissick's production of Mother Courage and Her Children at Southwark Playhouse uses the Tony Kushner translation from the last National Theatre outing, right down to the Duke Special versions of the songs that intermittently break into the narrative. Nominally set during the Thirty Years War, allowing for an epic scope both in time and ranging across Northern Europe, the play follows Lawrence’s Anna “Courage” Fierling as she travels from battlefield to battlefield, lugging a cart filled with food, drink and random provisions she sells to the desperate soldiers. She’s come to dread the possibility of peace, as war is what her entire livelihood depends on.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Theatre review: Trestle

Although it's discovered some great plays over the last few years, the Papatango Prize winners tend to suggest the judges favour pretty bleak stories. So Stewart Pringle's Trestle feels like a bit of a change of pace, a gentler, more ambiguous play about barely-a-relationship between two pensioners. Widower Harry (Gary Lilburn) is the chairman of a "local improvement" committee in a small Yorkshire town, and every Thursday afternoon they meet at the local community centre. Denise (Connie Walker) is more recently retired, and has booked the next slot to teach a Zumba class for seniors. She meets Harry while he’s still clearing up after his meeting and, after an awkward misunderstanding where he mistakes her for the cleaner, helps him fold the trestle table. Over the next six months or so they meet for a few minutes like this every week, soon timing their arrivals and departures to make sure they don’t miss each other.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Theatre review: The Firm

Roy Williams was last at Hampstead Theatre writing about the police; now he comes to the Downstairs space with a look at the other side of the law. Gus (Clinton Blake) was once the leader of The Firm, the brains behind one of South London's most successful gangs of robbers and the only one of them never to be caught and jailed. Now pushing fifty they've all pretty much left that life behind them, and true to form Gus has had the most success since going legit: The play takes place in a wine bar he's about to reopen, one of a number of investments he owns. He and right-hand man Leslie (Jay Simpson) are preparing a party for Shaun, the last of the gang to still be in prison, to celebrate his release. Trent (Delroy Atkinson) and Selwyn (Clarence Smith) soon join them, but there's no sign of the guest of honour.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Theatre review: Heather

Déjà vu on the way into the Bush's studio space, where Lily Arnold's sparse design gives us a desk with the script on it, with chairs and microphones for two performers. But where Nassim was largely about revealing truths about the writer's life, Thomas Eccleshare's Heather is about a fictional writer - one whose fictions extend further than it first appears. Harry (Ashley Gerlach) is an editor who thinks he's discovered the next J.K. Rowling in Heather (Charlotte Melia,) who's emailed him the first volume of her children's fantasy trilogy. The book is picked up and published without the two ever meeting, Heather at first being pregnant, then getting a terminal cancer diagnosis. But as the series becomes a sensation the press and public get curious about the elusive author, and Heather's excuses for staying in the shadows start sounding more and more desperate.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Theatre review: A Woman of No Importance

Another day, another former Artistic Director of a major South Bank theatre launches his new commercial production company. Where Nicholas Hytner's unique selling point - a large-scale London theatre that's actually fit for purpose - is one I can see the need for, I can't say the same for ex-Globe boss Dominic Dromgoole's new Classic Spring venture: The idea is to present seasons of late-19th and early-20th century classics in the West End proscenium arch theatres they were originally written for (Jonathan Fensom's designs fairly lush but offering no surprises.) A Shaw season is coming up, but first a year-long residency of Oscar Wilde plays at the Vaudeville, which is what makes me wonder exactly what gap Dromgoole thinks he's spotted in the market: The inevitable conclusion next year will be The Importance of Being Earnest, at which point it'll be only three years since the play's last revival at the very same theatre. At least the opening production is of a play not revived anywhere near as often, although for too much of A Woman of No Importance it's obvious why.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Theatre review: Young Marx

Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr finally unveil what they've been working on since they left the National - the Bridge Theatre, billed as the first new-built commerical theatre in London in 80 years, with a promotional drive that seems to focus much more on baked goods than you would usually expect (they're trying to make interval madeleines A Thing.) Who knows how many unused shells of theatres are knocking around London basements at the moment thanks to the tax breaks luxury developments get for including a community arts space* - Hytner and Starr picked one next to Tower Bridge to occupy and flesh out, with what looks like a very effective design: Front-of-House is a bit Expensive Hotel but the auditorium has a touch of the RST about it, with three galleries above the stalls, and what look like good sightlines from most seats and a comparatively intimate feel. The opening three productions are designed to showcase the three possible seating configurations, starting with end-on.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Theatre review: The Exorcist

Just in time for Halloween, Sean Mathias brings to London what should be a surefire hit while everyone's looking for something spooky, although whether it can sustain that for the rest of its run to March will have to remain to be seen. John Pielmeier adapts William Peter Blatty's book - although William Friedkin's film is at least as much, if not more of an inspiration. Actress and single mother Chris (Jenny Seagrove) is put up in an old Georgetown house while on location for her latest film. Her daughter Regan (Clare Louise Connolly) has just celebrated her 12th birthday (give or take a couple of decades,) and her absent father has forgotten it for the second year running, so she's vulnerable to any father substitute who might be on offer. So when the disembodied voice of Gandalf starts talking to her in the attic she agrees to play a game with him - one which results in the demon "Captain Howdy" taking up residence in the girl's body and terrorising her family and friends.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Theatre review: Beginning

With no shortage of drama about the end of relationships, David Eldridge's new play at the Dorfman looks at a possible Beginning. It's 3am and Laura's (Justine Mitchell) flatwarming party has just ended; all the guests have left except one she only met tonight. Danny (Sam Troughton) is a friend of one of Laura's clients, and they've been flirting with each other across the room all evening. He hasn't quite picked up on the fact that she returns his interest though, or that she's engineered him being left behind alone with her. Even when she makes it clear she wants to have sex with him Danny is nervous and reluctant. The two end up getting to know each other better, as Danny reveals the reasons he's so reticent even to have a one-night stand, let alone something that could turn into a relationship with someone he seems to be making a real connection with.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Theatre review: Of Kith and Kin

With his third play Chris Thompson continues to suggest he's a playwright whose next subject matter and style will always be a surprise. Of Kith and Kin introduces us to Daniel (James Lance) and Oliver (Joshua Silver,) married twice (once when it was Civil Partnership and again to upgrade to equal marriage) and now expecting a child. Priya (Chetna Pandya) was the one who first introduced them, and has already acted as a surrogate once before so she's a natural choice to carry their baby. The play opens with a baby shower just for the three of them, which gets crashed by Daniel's mother Lydia (Joanna Bacon.) It's clear from the start that Oliver can't stand her - at some point she offended his own mother although the dislike seems to stem from much earlier - and the atmosphere soon turns toxic.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Theatre review: Labour of Love

A later-than-planned trip to the second of three James Graham premieres this year: When Sarah Lancashire had to pull out of Labour of Love due to illness, a number of performances were cancelled, including the one I'd originally booked for. The rescheduled trip proves well worth the wait though, and Lancashire's late replacement Future Dame Tamsin Greig is nobody's idea of second best. She plays Jean Whittaker, constituency agent for a Nottinghamshire seat so safe that it's never not gone to Labour in its history ("a tub of cottage cheese could win it.") That could change in the 2017 election though as, with Jeremy Corbyn's Labour making unexpected gains, this looks like being the one place to buck the trend: They're on their second recount and, after 27 years in the job, David Lyons (Martin Freeman) looks set to lose his seat to the Conservatives.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Theatre review: The Lady From The Sea

The Lady From The Sea is Ellida (Nikki Amuka-Bird,) second wife to Dr Wangel (Finbar Lynch.) After an initially happy marriage, Ellida has become distant in recent years, and her husband suspects she has unresolved feelings for a lover from her past. In a turn of events that reflects Ibsen's ahead-of-his-time fascination with psychology, the doctor decides on a radical cure, inviting her former suitor Arnholm (Tom McKay) to visit. Wangel's hunch is correct but he's miscalculated: Arnholm isn't the man Ellida still has feelings for. Instead her unfinished business is with a sailor, her first love at the age of sixteen, who vowed they'd be bound forever before running away to escape a murder charge. She believes he's somehow found out that she's married someone else, and her depression comes from feeling she's betrayed him.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Theatre review: Saint George and the Dragon

To Rory Mullarkey falls the dubious honour of giving the Olivier stage its best piece of new writing this year; a bar set so low the only challenge it could provide is in a limbo contest. Straight after I saw Albion, another play's title gives away the fact that it'll touch on English identity in the face of Brexit, as Mullarkey gives us his centuries-spanning, epic twist on Saint George and the Dragon. John Heffernan plays failed dragon-slayer George, who returns to the country of his birth only to find that one of the creatures he's been running from has taken up residence there too, turning it into a dark place in constant fear. Charles (Gawn Grainger) begs the knight to slay the beast, but it's only when he sees and instantly falls for Charles' daughter Elsa (Amaka Okafor) - who happens to be the Dragon's next meal - that he agrees to challenge him.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Theatre review: Albion

When Rupert Goold first took over the Almeida, he launched with a Mike Bartlett play that took inspiration from Shakespeare, to great effect; now they reunite to channel Chekhov. Naming a play Albion in 2017 is a pretty big clue that this is Bartlett's Brexit play, and it takes very little time for the metaphor to reveal itself: It may not be subtle but it's very good. Audrey (Victoria Hamilton) is the self-made owner of a chain of luxury stores where "everything's white, including the customers." On discovering that an Oxfordshire country house where she spent some time as a child is up for sale, she buys it and resettles her family there without asking them. It's not the house so much as the garden she's interested in: Named Albion, it was designed in the 1920s in what was then a revolutionary new style of small, themed gardens, but has fallen into disrepair for decades. Audrey's dream is to recreate the original gardener's vision, even if it alienates first everyone in the village, then everyone she knows.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Theatre review: Hair

In what I doubt is the first time someone's got their genitals out for strangers under Waterloo Station, Hair has come to The Vaults, in a 50th anniversary production first seen last year in Manchester. Gerome Ragni, James Rado (book and lyrics) and Galt Macdermot's (music) hippie musical finds a natural home in these railway tunnels, and Maeve Black's design doesn't just fill the auditorium from floor to ceiling, it also extends out into the bar and surrounding areas, turning them into a chill-out zone complete with couches draped in ethnic throws and tents to have a lie-down in. Berger (Andy Coxon) is the sort-of leader of the Tribe, and sort-of narrator of the musical, which spends much of its first act introducing us to various members of the group of anti-war protesters. The focus gradually falls most onto Claude (Robert Metson,) Berger's best friend who's received his draft notice to fight in Vietnam.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Theatre review: Venus in Fur

Patrick Marber’s new project this week sees him direct the British premiere of US hit Venus in Fur, David Ives’ riff on the 1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – who gave his name to masochism, largely due to the book and its scandalous reputation. In it Severin, a man who traces back to childhood a desire to be dominated and punished by women, meets a woman he believes can give him what he’s been looking for all his life. She agrees to marry him if he completes a year as her slave to her satisfaction, and produces a contract to that effect; he ends up getting what he asked for but not exactly what he expected. This story becomes the play-within-Ives’ play, in which Thomas (David Oakes) is a New York playwright who’s written an adaptation of the novel he also plans to direct. After a day of disappointing auditions he’s failed to find an actress to play his Venus.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Theatre review: Every Brilliant Thing

Having toured the world but, in true Paines Plough style, largely avoided London, Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing takes up residence at Richmond’s Orange Tree, with the play’s co-writer and original performer still at the helm: Jonny Donahoe tells a story billed as being based on “true and untrue events,” about a child’s coping mechanism when his mother attempts suicide, that remains part of his life well into adulthood. Aged 7, and with his only previous experience of mortality being the death of the family dog, he’s unable to understand what would make his mother try to kill herself. He begins writing a list of every brilliant thing in the world worth living for, in the hope that it’ll help her. It can’t, of course, but regardless of how many times he outgrows it, the list ends up becoming a constant and comfort in his own life, even playing a part in how he meets his wife.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Theatre review: Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

Getting in on the Breaking Bad theme before Bryan Cranston himself arrives on the London stage, Marianne Elliott launches her new production company with Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle. But there's neither a real scientist nor a fictional drug kingpin to be seen because this is the latest play from Simon Stephens, a writer more than a little fond of cryptic titles whose connection to the subject matter is hard to pin down. 75-year-old butcher Alex (Kenneth Cranham) is minding his own business, listening to music on a bench in a train station, when 42-year-old American waitress Georgie (Anne-Marie Duff) kisses him on the back of the neck. She says she couldn't help it because he reminded her of her late husband, but she soon confesses that everything she said to him at first was a lie: She's actually a primary school receptionist who's never married but has a 19-year-old son, who's moved back to New Jersey to get away from her.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Theatre review: Lucky Stiff

The first show by the Ragtime and Dessa Rose team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Lucky Stiff could be a musical version of Weekend at Bernie's - though that film came out a year after this premiered in 1988, for all I know they could both have taken inspiration from Michael Butterworth's 1983 book The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo. Harry Witherspoon (Tom Elliot Reade) is a dull shoe salesman with a wish to lead a more exciting life, but no drive to actually do anything about it. But opportunity falls into his lap when a long-lost American uncle dies, leaving his only living relative $6 million. Obviously there's a catch: Tony's (Ian McCurrach) wealth came late in life, and before he died he'd booked a holiday of a lifetime to take advantage of it. He doesn't see why dying should mean he has to cancel, so in order to get the money Harry has to take Tony's stuffed corpse around Monte Carlo in a wheelchair, sticking to a strict itinerary.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Theatre review: Young Frankenstein

Mel Brooks' musical adaptation of his own classic film The Producers was a Broadway and West End smash hit, so it was no surprise that the same creative team would try to follow it up. But giving Young Frankenstein the same treatment resulted in an overblown flop, which is why it's taken a decade to cross the Atlantic. But in that time Brooks has continued to work on it, and although I don't have anything to compare it to the version that director/choreographer Susan Stroman has brought to London is, although problematic, hugely entertaining and crowd-pleasing. If one of the criticisms of the 2007 production was that it was too much of a big-budget juggernaut, that's been amended: Although there's a large cast with a vast amount of costume changes (designed by William Ivey Long,) Beowulf Boritt's set tends for a more old-fashioned look with curtain backdrops, and the whole show has a music-hall feel.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Theatre review: The Seagull

Despite the bleak turn it takes in its final act, The Seagull makes by far the best case for Chekhov’s claim that many of his plays are comedies, and Sean Holmes’ production makes a particularly good example: We laugh at the characters’ flaws and vanities, before the same things turn around and destroy them. Irina (Lesley Sharp) is a famous actress on one of her rare visits back to her childhood home, a working farm whose running she’s passed over entirely to her brother Peter (Nicolas Tennant) and his staff. Still living there is her son Konstantin (Brian Vernel,) an aspiring writer who, in the opening act, is preparing to premiere a surreal new piece of theatre he’s written to family and friends. It stars his neighbour Nina (Adelayo Adedayo,) whom he’s desperately in love with, so a lot rides for him on the performance going well – but his mother has other ideas.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Theatre review: Victory Condition

It’s not often a Chloe Lamford set fails to be striking and interesting, and she provides another memorable design for the Royal Court’s nightly rep, seeming utterly appropriate to both very different plays: The large Downstairs stage is filled with exposed scaffolding that reaches well into the wings, flies and below the stage, with the actors confined to one large white room in the middle of it all. For B, this maze of dangerous-looking metal exploding out of the centre could be a metaphor for a play whose characters are preparing to plant a nail-bomb. Now, for the second play, a much more luxurious, modern flat takes up the central playing area, and the exposed chaos that surrounds it makes a good clue for what Chris Thorpe’s Victory Condition does. Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Jonjo O’Neill are a nameless couple returning home to have dinner and relax for the evening before going to bed.

Theatre review: B

The Royal Court is aiming to produce a great volume of plays over its current season, in part by creating temporary performance spaces, in part by producing short shows so they can play two in repertory in a single night in the larger Downstairs Theatre. The first of the two alternating one-acters is Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón's surreal meditation on terrorism and general dissatisfaction, B. The "B" word that must never be said is "bomb," which is what teenagers Marcela (Aimée-Ffion Edwards) and Alejandra (Danusia Samal) are planning to plant in a bank as a mission statement - although what statement they're actually trying to make is hard to pin them down to. In an abandoned flat they arrange to meet with José Miguel (Paul Kaye), a bomb-maker with decades of experience, but there's a number of obstacles to them actually carrying out their plan.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Theatre review: A Day by the Sea

Southwark Playhouse’s publicity is keen to label rediscovered 1950s playwright N C Hunter as “the English Chekhov,” and if A Day by the Sea is a fair representation of his work it’s a comparison he would have been actively seeking. There’s a family and extended group of hangers-on, reuniting at a home in the country; wistful hopes that generations in the future will have eradicated the problems that plague its characters daily; the characters moping around long after the story’s come to a natural end; and even the requisite alcoholic doctor. As a child, Frances Farrar was taken in by the Anson family in Dorset when she was orphaned, but while she remembers her time there happily she more or less lost touch for twenty years after she moved out. Now, widowed from her first husband in World War II and divorced from her second – who then attempted suicide – Frances (Alix Dunmore) is invited back there with her own children for the school holidays, to sit out the scandal.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Theatre review: The Busy World is Hushed

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The official opening is on Tuesday.

In Keith Bunin's The Busy World is Hushed, a woman struggles to prioritise the men in her life, two of whom are dead - one of them for the last two millennia. Hannah (Kazia Pelka) is an Episcopalian minister and bible scholar, whose husband drowned (possibly a suicide) a couple of months before she gave birth to their only son. Thomas (Michael James) has grown up restless and easily distracted, and has been disappearing from home for months at a time ever since he was 16, trying new ventures in life or just wandering out into the wilderness. He's now 26, older than his father was when he died, which has led him back home to delve through his papers and try to find out about a man his mother will tell him very little about. Hannah is worried he’ll leave again as soon as he finds what he’s looking for, but she’s got a plan to make him stick around a bit longer.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Theatre review: Dido, Queen of Carthage

No good deed goes unpunished for Dido, Queen of Carthage in the latest Christopher Marlowe play to get an RSC revival in the Swan. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas (Sandy Grierson) leads the only surviving Trojan warriors on an expedition to create a new colony in Italy. On the way they're shipwrecked on the coast of Libya but Aeneas has friends in high places - his mother is the goddess Venus (Ellie Beaven,) who ensures everyone survives, even if their ships don't. There's more good luck because Libya was an ally of Troy's, and Queen Dido (Chipo Chung) greets the men as honoured guests, offering them lives of honour and luxury in Carthage. This still isn't enough for Venus, though, who wants Dido to give her son her own fleet to replace the one he lost. Being the goddess of love she knows just the way to do it, making Dido fall in love with Aeneas and pledge him her entire navy. The catch is she wants him to stay and be her king.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Theatre review: Macbeth (Ninagawa Company)

The much-loved Japanese theatre director Yukio Ninagawa died last year, not long after reviving his signature 1987 production of Macbeth, which was the one that made his name in this country. So it was a natural choice of tribute to him to tour that production internationally again. An all-Japanese cast is led by Masachika Ichimura as Macbeth, the Scottish nobleman instrumental in crushing a rebellion, and showered with honours for it. But a supernatural vision has promised him even more power, and once he shares his ambitions with his wife (Yuko Tanaka) he commits himself to speeding up the process – by murdering the king, framing the heirs, and assuming the throne himself. But ill-gotten power is hard to hold on to, and as armies build to depose him, his paranoia leads him back to the witches, and more deliberately misleading prophecies.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Theatre review: What Shadows

I can’t wait until a time when I can go months without seeing a play about a dark chapter in history, and finding it painfully relevant to the present day. We’re not there yet though, and so Roxana Silbert transfers her Birmingham production of What Shadows to the Park Theatre, in which playwright Chris Hannan looks at one of the most notorious instances of a British politician fanning racism. After decades playing Emperor Palpatine Ian McDiarmid is about as qualified as you can get to play Enoch Powell, the Conservative politician whose hate-filled “Rivers of Blood” speech in Birmingham made him a by-word for racism. In 1967, with the Tories in opposition, Powell starts to see himself on the one hand as the man to get them into power, and on the other marginalised by his own party, who view him as a crank who gives shit-stirring populist speeches to regional Conservative clubs.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Theatre review: Le Grand Mort

Sex and death have always been uncomfortably linked in people’s minds, and that’s an idea that Stephen Clark’s Le Grand Mort opens with; 85 minutes later I’m not sure it’s made any further point. Clark wrote it as a rare dramatic vehicle for Julian Clary, who plays Michael, cooking pasta and monologuing – in verse – about famous deaths from history. He’s particularly interested in ones with a grotesque story behind the death (despite him debunking the story of Catherine the Great being crushed to death by the horse she was fucking, it gets repeated a number of times,) or those that have either fact or urban legend attached to them about the corpse being subject to some kind of necrophiliac attention. Eventually we’ll find out the source of his obsession is mother issues that go from the Oedipal to the downright Sir Jimmy, but for now he’s focusing on his guest for the evening.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Theatre review: King Lear (Minerva, Chichester)

Then shall the realm of Albion come to great confusion. Parklife!

Ten years ago I'd only ever seen one King Lear, because my first production had stuck with me so much I was afraid of seeing one I liked less and spoiling the memory. I'm now well into double figures, and what made me first break my own ban was the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Ian McKellen, then pushing seventy, play the title role. Well I guess there's no such thing as once-in-a-lifetime, as McKellen was rumoured never to have been quite happy with that production and especially the cavernous venues it played. Now, pushing eighty but still at the top of his game, he gets another go in Chichester's intimate Minerva theatre. So there's something of the vanity project to making this such an exclusive event*, and it's almost a surprise - a great one - that Jonathan Munby's production is among the best I've seen, with a luxury cast including two Big Favourites Round These Parts as the warring Eds.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Theatre review: After the Rehearsal / Persona

It would be far too time-consuming and expensive for the Barbican to send someone to every single audience member’s home to scream “WE HATE YOU!” into their faces, but they’ve come up with a more straightforward way of getting the message across: When scheduling a Belgian director’s Dutch version of two Swedish films that comes in at over three hours, why not make the start time 7:45pm? Also, you can make tannoy announcements that it’ll start dead on time, which the audience dutifully follow, and then start five minutes late anyway. That way anyone seeing Ivo van Hove’s ponderous double bill After the Rehearsal / Persona can be tired and a bit grumpy going into a claustrophobic, impenetrable evening, downright sleepy by its last hour and not much the wiser about any of it by the end. The bit where Jan Versweyveld’s set fell apart and splashed into a lake was good though.

After the Rehearsal by Ingmar Bergman in a version by Karst Woudstra, and Persona by Ingmar Bergman in a version by Peter Van Kraaij, is booking until the 30th of September at the Barbican Theatre.

Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Theatre review: Ramona Tells Jim

In a story that jumps back and forth fifteen years, Sophie Wu has put together what feels like parts of two different plays, one of which works much better than the other. Ramona Tells Jim takes place in a remote part of coastal Scotland – “the shittest village in Scotland” according to Jim (Joe Bannister.) At age 17, he’s a loner who likes collecting crustacea and dreams of becoming a marine biologist. Meeting Ramona (Ruby Bentall) will make for a memorable few days but will also be partly responsible for thwarting his ambition: An awkward 16-year-old English schoolgirl on a geography field trip, she’s his first romance, but early on in the play we get a clue that a violent event will sour the memory of their relationship. 15 years later Ramona turns up again unexpectedly, first on Facebook, then on Jim’s doorstep.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Theatre review: The Lie

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Official critics are invited this Wednesday.

The critics may well get to see one of the leads performing most of the play script-in-hand as Alexander Hanson, a late replacement for an ill James Dreyfus, was at today’s performance only off-book for two of the play’s scenes. This is for the latest from Florian Zeller, who seems to like his plays to come in pairs: The Truth is followed up by The Lie, another comedy of infidelity, which even has its characters share the names of the earlier play’s quartet (although they don’t actually appear to be the same characters, unless they’re alternate-universe versions.) And as The Truth was about lies, then The Lie is about truths, and passing off the truth as a lie. If that all seems a bit convoluted and circular you should see the actual dialogue, which at one point I thought had actually turned into a real-life version of the famous “loop” scene from The Play That Goes Wrong.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Theatre review: Coriolanus (RSC / RST & Barbican)

Season director Angus Jackson returns for the fourth and last of the RSC's Roman plays, and although Coriolanus is set earlier than the other three, designer Robert Innes Hopkins eschews the togas of the middle two plays, to match the modern dress of Titus Andronicus. In fact this also starts with a rioting gang in hoodies, and since it will actually play first when they all transfer to London, it annoyed me a bit that it'll look there like Blanche McIntyre copied the idea. Fortunately there was less to annoy me about the rest of the production, in which Sope Dirisu takes on the least likeable of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. Caius Martius, later given the title Coriolanus after one of his many military victories, is a one-man Roman army, raised as such by his batshit bloodthirsty mother Volumnia (Haydn Gwynne.)

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Theatre review: Wings

Just like a plane, a stage, a sanitary towel or a bucket of fried chicken, Juliet Stevenson has Wings in Arthur Kopit’s 1979 Broadway play. The Young Vic’s revival sees her reunite with director Natalie Abrahami, who has a very specific vision for this story of a highly active older woman relearning how to interact with the world after suffering a stroke. Stevenson plays Emily Stilson, who not only piloted vintage planes but used to do wing-walks on them. But we meet her just as she has her stroke and she’s thrown into confusion, feeling at a disconnect as if she’s floating over the world. It’s a stream-of-consciousness narrative that Abrahami takes literally, having Stevenson fly on wires above the stage, initially unable to touch down on the ground.

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.