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*.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Theatre review: Woyzeck

When the Old Vic announced that Jack Thorne would be writing an adaptation of Woyzeck and John Boyega would star I did wonder if the combination of a Harry Potter writer and a Star Wars actor would draw an audience unprepared for a play people have famously struggled to get to the bottom of for over a century. As it turns out I really hope there aren't too many kids being taken along as they'll have come away from the evening with a whole new vocabulary. Georg Büchner's play was unfinished when the playwright died in 1837, so all versions have always taken a bit of leeway in filling in the gaps. Thorne's version moves the action to 1980s West Berlin, where Boyega plays Frank Woyzeck, part of the British army presence patrolling the Berlin Wall. It's a job both stressful and dull, and those stationed there are thought of as inferior to those in the thick of it in Northern Ireland.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Theatre review: Othello (English Touring Theatre / Wilton's Music Hall)

Richard Twyman takes over as Artistic Director of ETT with a production of Othello whose stripped-back nature points to the restrictions of a touring production, but doesn't get in the way of atmosphere and dangerous intensity. Othello (Abraham Popoola) has wooed and married Desdemona (Norah Lopez Holden) in secret, and when her father finds out he tries to get the soldier punished. But it's clear Desdemonda acted entirely of her own volition and besides, despite being an outsider to Venice, he's one of their most effective generals, and is needed at a battle in Cyprus. So this plan to take down Othello fails, but its architect remains unsuspected: Iago (Mark Lockyer,) a trusted ensign overlooked for promotion, has developed a violent hatred of his general, and now comes up with a much more complicated and bloody plot, to convince Othello his new bride is cheating on him, and fan his jealousy into a murderous rage.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Theatre review: Angels in America, a Gay Fantasia on National Themes Part 1: Millennium Approaches

For the second year in a row London's hottest theatre ticket, with reviews to match the level of anticipation, is an epic play in two parts with a supernatural element. But far from the obvious appeal of Harry Potter, this year it's a 25-year-old American play about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s that was the instant sell-out. Tony Kushner's Angels in America comes in at well over seven hours, the first three acts of which are haunted by a sense of dread at something apocalyptic on the way - hence its subtitle, Millennium Approaches. Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) is a flaboyant gay man who's just found out he's got the virus. His boyfriend of a few years, Louis Ironson (James McArdle,) is still deeply in love with him but very quickly realises a fact he hates himself for: He can't handle staying with Prior to watch him get sick and die.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Theatre review: Vice Versa, or, The Decline & Fall of General Braggadocio at the Hands of his Canny Servant Dexter & Terence the Monkey

The Roman theme of this year's RSC season in Stratford extends to the Swan, most obviously in Vice Versa, or, The Decline & Fall of General Braggadocio at the Hands of his Canny Servant Dexter & Terence the Monkey. Phil Porter's farce is inspired by the plays of Plautus, although they're not the only thing that's been "lovingly ripped off" - that tagline itself comes from Spamalot, and Janice Honeyman's production resembles nothing so much as a Carry On film - there's even a nod to the famous "Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me" line from the play's gull, Braggadocio (Felix Hayes.) The vain and ludicrous General returns to Rome from a war, bringing with him some of the people he's enslaved - including the lady Voluptua (Ellie Beaven,) whom he's taken as a concubine.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Theatre review: Life of Galileo

Lizzie Clachan has turned the Young Vic into a planetarium for Joe Wright's production of Brecht's Life of Galileo, one of the most visually stunning and inventive shows on the London stage right now. The set is in the round, with a central pit where some of the audience sit on cushions, with the actors mingling around them. It gives the impression of a group of students in a relaxed setting, sitting around a charismatic teacher who's on a roll. The teacher is Galileo Galilei (Brendan Cowell,) the subject he's excited about the Copernican Heresy, which proposed that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and which astronomer Giordano Bruno had recently been burned at the stake for promoting. But Galileo teaches in Padua, which has a special exemption from the Inquisition's clutches and besides, having stolen credit for the invention of the telescope, he now has a tool that he can actually use to look at the stars and prove Copernicus right.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Theatre review: Salomé (National Theatre)

It's looking as if the successful Les Blancs was a fluke, and Yaël Farber really does believe that people walking around a stage incredibly slowly is the very essence of Dame Theatre. Her Salomé, which she writes as well as directing, has the tagline "the tale retold," but it's arguable whether it does even that - if you were raised in a non-Christian society and had never heard of Salomé, would you be any the wiser after this? I wouldn't put money on it. She's the niece and adopted daughter of King Herod, who lusts after her and demands an erotic dance from her in return for anything she desires; she asks for the head of the prophet Iokanaan, also known as John the Baptist. On stage the story is best known in the sole tragedy written by Oscar Wilde - which the RSC are, coincidentally, about to stage - in which her motives are those of a vengeful woman spurned, but Farber has a different interpretation of why she was so bloodthirsty.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Theatre review: A Lie of the Mind

I'm still a long way from being a fan of Sam Shepard's work but I've been getting on a lot better with the plays that have been revived this year. They're still quintessentially American, and a focus on what it means to be an American man is at the heart of them, but like in Buried Child there's a wider scope of interest and an unsettling edge of the surreal to A Lie of the Mind. Initially appearing to be about domestic violence, it becomes a spiral of insanity as the violent, unpredictable drunk Jake (Gethin Anthony) arrives at his brother's house claiming that he's beaten his wife to death. In fact Beth (Alexandra Dowling) is still alive, but the attack has left her with brain damage. Jake, too, seems to be out of his mind, the extremity of his violence leading to a nervous breakdown. Both of them get taken back to their parents' homes to recover, but neither house is really a good place for anyone's mental health.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Theatre review: Romeo and Juliet (Union Theatre)

Sometimes my, some might say fairly reasonable, resolution not to see plays I already know I don't like, is at odds with my intention to keep an eye on gay-themed theatre, and see if it's being held to a high quality. Which brings me to the Union's adapted version of Romeo and Juliet, which director Andy Bewley gives not one but two high concepts: It's now a gay love story, and one set in a world synonymous with toxic masculinity - professional football. Montague and Capulet are two Verona teams with an historic rivalry, Romeo (Abram Rooney) plays on the former's youth team, Juliet (Sam Perry) on the latter's, and when they fall instantly and violently in love feel the need to keep it secret. Especially once Romeo ends up in the middle of a violent clash between the two sides that leaves two people dead.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Theatre review: The Treatment

The latest Almeida season opens with Martin Crimp's 1993 play The Treatment - "treatment" as in the summary of a movie pitch, as well as the way people treat each other. Anne (Aisling Loftus) is describing a difficult life, culminating in her marriage: Kept in a small apartment she never leaves, her husband would sometimes tie and gag her, not to abuse her physically but to give lengthy speeches, waxing lyrical about car parks and strip lights. She's telling her story to Jennifer (Indira Varma) and Andrew (Julian Ovenden,) married as well as being producing partners, and interested in developing her story. They bring in down-and-out playwright Clifford (Ian Gelder) to script it, and bombastic actor John (Gary Beadle) to play the husband, as well as to provide some star wattage that'll attract investors.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Theatre review: Manwatching

It originated at the Edinburgh Festival a couple of years ago, which may explain why Manwatching's high concept relies on a plentiful supply of stand-up comedians: The comic monologue is written by a woman, who's been kept anonymous for reasons that aren't entirely surprising (the fact that she mentions having trained as an actor made me think Alecky Blythe*, but it would be a major change of style for her, and besides, there's nothing to say it's an established playwright, for all I know this could be her first work ever staged.) Whoever she is, this is very much a woman's story, but delivered by a different man every night. The Royal Court has listed the male comedians who'll be taking part but not their schedule, so you don't know who your performer is until they arrive onstage - tonight it was Adam Buxton, to the obvious excitement of some of the audience, who walked out onto a stage bare except for an elderly printer. The printer's there because the comedians have no idea what the content of the monologue is; it prints out 45 pages of script while they introduce themselves.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Theatre review: Assata Taught Me

It must surely be time for Ellen McDougall to announce her first shows as Artistic Director of the Gate, and if there's one thing I hope she carries on from her predecessor's run - apart from the overall quality, but you'd hope she's aiming for that anyway - it's the short and snappy running times. After the epic run of last night's show I was looking forward to something more concise, and Christopher Haydon's final piece of programming provides it. Kalungi Ssebandeke's debut play Assata Taught Me is short, sharp and sometimes even sweet, imagining what life might be like as one of the world's most-wanted women. Assata Shakur was a high-profile Black Panther, imprisoned for killing a policeman; she escaped and fled to Cuba where she's been ever since, but she remains on the FBI's Most Wanted list, with a $2 million bounty on her head. So, at least as Ssebandeke imagines her, she's free but always has to stay on the alert.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Theatre review: The Ferryman

The last time Jez Butterworth wrote a 3-and-a-half hour rural epic for the Royal Court Downstairs it was the mega-hit Jerusalem, and his latest looks to replicate at least some of that success: It sold out at the Royal Court and had already announced a West End transfer months before opening. But where Jerusalem was a very particular vision of England, The Ferryman takes us to 1980s Northern Ireland and the issue that's dominated centuries of its history. The Troubles are both distant and ever-present in a remote farm in County Armagh where IRA man-turned-farmer Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) now lives with his extended family. As well as his wife Mary (Genevieve O'Reilly) and their seven children, this includes several elderly aunts and uncles plus his sister-in-law Caitlin (Laura Donnelly) and her teenage son Oisin (Rob Malone,) who've lived there ever since Quinn's brother vanished ten years earlier.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Theatre review: Julius Caesar (RSC / RST & Barbican)

It's ironic that Gregory Doran, to me the epitome of reverential, by-the-numbers Shakespeare, should have delivered my favourite-ever Julius Caesar a few years ago in a comparatively exciting and revelatory production; because Doran having temporarily handed over the reins to Angus Jackson for the Roman season at the RSC, it's Jackson who now serves up perhaps the most vanilla version of the same play I've seen so far. Have no doubt you can expect togas, swords and sandals from Robert Innes Hopkins' design as Julius Caesar (Andrew Woodall) returns to Rome triumphant after a military victory. His popularity sees the people clamour to give him political power at home, but not everyone's impressed: Cassius (Martin Hutson) has never been a favourite of Caesar's and doesn't want to wait and see how he'll fare under the new regime.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Theatre review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

In one of the complete restructurings of the Donald and Margot Warehouse auditorium that have been an occasional theme during Josie Rourke's tenure, Peter McKintosh has added an extra row of seats to make the circle in-the-round, and removed all the stalls seating, to be replaced by tables and chairs all around the stage. It transforms the venue into a Prohibition-era Chicago speakeasy for Simon Evans' production of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, about a man seen as a joke, rising to great power and bringing destruction in his wake. Arturo Ui (Lenny Henry) is a lumbering, awkward gangster who chances upon some dirt on the powerful Dogsborough (Michael Pennington,) and blackmails his way into the city's cauliflower trade. With the success of his protection racket over the vegetable market, Ui takes acting lessons to disguise his awkwardness and make him a better public speaker, and his new mix of threats and rhetoric starts to build a following.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Theatre review: The Cardinal

It may be a Troupe production at Southwark Playhouse's smaller space but the Royal Shakespeare Company's fingerprints are all over The Cardinal: The director and many of the cast are RSC regulars, there's a feeling the text has been thoroughly investigated, the programme features both articles from academics and a misleading running time, and there's even a dance break, as was de rigeur during the Michael Boyd years. The fact that James Shirley's play has even seen the light of day again can be traced back to the RSC as well, as it made the final four a couple of years ago when they were looking for an obscurity for the Swan. It lost out to Love's Sacrifice but director Justin Audibert clearly thought it was a shame for it not to reach an audience. On this evidence I would have to agree, it's got its problems, especially in the second half, but has a lot to recommend it as well.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Theatre review: While We're Here

Barney Norris is an up-and-coming playwright who's presumably got a big change of style in store - this time next year his Nightfall will be playing at the new 900-seat Bridge Theatre. For now though things remain super-intimate again as he opens another new space, the Bush's Studio which aims to recreate roughly the size of the original pub theatre. While We're Here takes place in a cosy living room (designed by James Perkins) in Havant, a town near Portsmouth which, if the play is anything to go by, seems more like the middle of nowhere. Carol (Tessa Peake-Jones) has lived there, and in the same house, almost her entire life. Eddie (Andrew French) is more of a drifter, literally so in recent years when he's fallen on hard times and been sleeping rough. The two had a brief relationship twenty years ago soon after Carol's divorce, and have now reconnected by chance when they bumped into each other in a park. Carol has invited him to stay at hers until he can get himself settled.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Theatre review: Late Company

The Shaun-Hastings are setting places for a dinner party with people they don't really know. Michael (Todd Boyce) is a conservative politician recently elected to the Canadian Parliament, Debora (Lucy Robinson) a "campaign wife" and one-time artist (a steel cock-and-balls she sculpted is the first thing the audience sees in Zahra Mansouri's design when coming into the Finborough.) They've looked into their guests and are a bit worried that while they themselves are clearly wealthy, Tamara (Lisa Stevenson) and Bill (Alex Lowe) might be the wrong kind of rich, and Debora thinks they're probably a bit vulgar. The reason for this awkward comedy of manners is a lot darker than the surface makes it look. Michael and Debora had a teenage son, Joel, who killed himself some months earlier. Bill and Tamara's son Curtis (David Leopold) was a ringleader among those who bullied him to his death.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Theatre review: City of Glass

It's a week of adaptations within adaptations - last night's Obsession was an English translation of a Dutch stage adaptation of a film adaptation of a novel, and tonight City of Glass is Duncan Macmillan's version not just of Paul Auster's novel, but also specifically of Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli's graphic novel adaptation of the story. Which is itself full of retellings of itself, and who exactly is narrating it is very much up for discussion. To wit, the lead character of Daniel Quinn is played simultaneously by two actors: Chris New and Mark Edel-Hunt occasionally appear on stage together but mostly alternate scenes, swapping places during blackouts. In fact, given how low the lighting is, I imagine people sitting quite far from the stage would have taken a while to realise this was happening, as despite the two men not looking much alike, even from the third row of the stalls it sometimes took a moment to be sure which one was on stage.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Theatre review: Obsession

Toneelgroep Amsterdam's season at the Barbican continues with a new play, based on a film by Luchino Visconti - whose work Ivo van Hove frequently stages - and with a cast half made up of Dutch ensemble members, and half of British guest actors (although at times even the latter seem to have picked up the Dutch accent.) After filling it with furniture and audience members for Roman Tragedies, Jan Versweyveld uses the size of the Barbican stage to leave vast empty spaces for Obsession, which takes place in a bar - one that apparently does have some customers, we just don't get to see them. Instead Gino (Jude Law,) a drifter, wanders in playing the harmonica and looking for something to eat, which he may or may not be able to pay for. He's a mechanic and stays to do a few jobs around the place in exchange for his room and board, but the real reason he's sticking around is because he's fallen instantly in lust with the barmaid Hanna (Halina Reijn,) and the second her much older husband Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) is gone they start an affair.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Dance review: Nuclear War

Unusually for a British playwright, Simon Stephens is a vocal fan of European directors' theatre, where the text is a starting point to be treated as faithfully or otherwise as the director decides. So it's not too big a stretch that he's also interested in his work being interpreted through the gift of dance, and the premiere production of Nuclear War is directed by Imogen Knight, who usually works as a movement director, with the instruction that she could use as little or as much of the scripted speech as she wants. In the event, though some of it is spoken by the actors on stage, much is pre-recorded as voiceover by Maureen Beattie, who plays a woman still in mourning for someone she lost seven years ago, but has finally decided to go out into the city again in search of someone - as the short piece goes on it seems increasingly that she's looking for a new man, maybe just to have sex with.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Non-review: The Philanthropist

If the odds of me coming back after the interval are anything to go by, West End comedy plays are in dire straits this year. I made an early escape from The Miser, and now another play with a Molière connection, Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist, had me rushing for the exit as well. Cast entirely through watching Channel 4 catch-up, plus that episode of Doctor Who where Lily Cole played a fish, Simon Callow's production offers little justification for why it should be revived. In roles they're patently too young for, Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal play stuffy university English lecturers who witness a (probably accidental) suicide in the opening scene. Perhaps out of empathy, the play also proceeds to die a death as Bird's Philip and his fiancée Celia (Charlotte Ritchie) host an evening of drinks for a few colleagues and a successful author.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Theatre review: Whisper House

The venue formerly known as the St James Theatre has been bought by Dr Baron Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Lord Webber BA (Hons) MEng, QC, MD to stage new musicals and, presumably on the basis that it being hidden in a back street wasn't obstacle enough to audiences finding it, has been renamed The Other Palace. A nod, I guess, to it being between the Victoria Palace and Buckingham Palace, but with there actually being two Palace Theatres in London already, one of them down the road, that technically makes this The Other, Other, Other Palace. In any case, everyone seems to read it as The Other Place, which is yet another theatre entirely, so basically what I'm saying is good luck with the #brand recognition, guys. Anyway, my first trip there since the name change is to a musical from Spring Awakening and American Psycho songwriter Duncan Sheik, but Whisper House is a much less explosive affair than either of those two.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Theatre review: Guards at the Taj

The Bush has just reopened after a major rebuild of its new building, that comes with reserved seating and new separate entrances for the box office, auditorium and toilets, which should hopefully all add up to a less nightmarish time in the bar area. It looks nice enough, although let's hope Madani Younis doesn't have any ideas about it being the most beautiful theatre there ever was or ever will be - if Guards at the Taj is anything to go by I'd hate to think what he might do to the builders. Rajiv Joseph's play takes its theme from a popular myth about the building of the Taj Mahal: Over the 16 years of its construction it was hidden behind temporary walls, and only its architect and the men building it were allowed to see it before it was finished, on pain of death to anyone who snuck a look. Joseph sets his play on the night before the unveiling, with Taj Mahal out of bounds for a few more hours.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Theatre review: The Hypocrite

2017 is the year of Hull as UK city of culture, and although they're based in Warwickshire the RSC have got in on the act, co-producing a new commission with Hull Truck Theatre. The city is at the heart of The Hypocrite, which although being written in the style of a Restoration comedy takes its story from true events from well before the Restoration, indeed before there was any need for a Restoration, as the titular character, Sir John Hotham (Mark Addy,) was the Governor of Hull in 1642, just as the Civil War was about to break out. His story was a scandal that put the city at the centre of the action, so it's natural that Hull's best and funniest living playwright should be chosen to tell it. But he must have been busy so they just got Richard Bean in to recycle some of the more successful bits from One Man, Two Guvnors.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Theatre review: The Winter's Tale (Cheek by Jowl)

After a couple of years away Cheek by Jowl finally return to London, and with their English-speaking company, with a rather odd production of a Shakespeare play I rarely like. Director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod go pretty basic for The Winter's Tale, on an almost-bare stage, with music only playing occasionally, and a monochrome Sicilia where King Leontes' (Orlando James) story opens with a dumbshow that gives us an idea of his relationship with the three most important people in his life, his lifelong best friend Polixenes (Edward Sayer,) King of Bohemia, wife Hermione (Natalie Radmall-Quirke,) and their son Mamillius (Tom Cawte.) The happy tableaux of the opening belie the fact that Leontes will soon lose all three of them due to a violent fit of jealousy that's completely unprovoked and makes little sense.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Theatre review: 46 Beacon

A gentle - perhaps too gentle - coming out story parks up at the smaller Trafalgar Studio for a month, Bill Rosenfield's 46 Beacon looking back at gay life in early 1970s America through rose-tinted glasses. Or possibly rose-tinted velour. Robert (Jay Taylor) is an English actor approaching middle age, who's taken a job in a Boston theatre to take a break from problems at home. Alan (Oliver Coopersmith) is a teenager with a part-time job at the theatre, and Robert has spotted and taken an interest in him, noticing that Alan is interested too. After one performance he invites him back to his small flat where he gently seduces him. And yes, although it's made clear Alan wants to be seduced but is mostly just reticent because of nerves about his first time and admitting his sexuality to himself, there is a bit of a creepy undertone to the age gap (though Robert doesn't realise at first just how big the gap is. The age gap, not his anus.)