Monday, 23 May 2022

Theatre review: The Breach

In the mid 1970s in Louisville, Kentucky, a construction worker fell off scaffolding and died. Faulty equipment was to blame, but the company managed to get away with paying the family the bare minimum compensation, so by the time we meet his teenage children in 1977, they're struggling to keep their heads above water, and the younger child is being badly bullied at school. Acton (Stanley Morgan) might be small, asthmatic and awkward, making for an easy target, but he's also very smart, so soon he finds a pair of protectors: Two older boys will keep him safe if he helps them prepare for their exams. Naomi Wallace's The Breach takes place entirely in the basement of his small house, which the well-off Hoke (Alfie Jones) and his sidekick Frayne (Charlie Beck) think would make a great clubhouse for the trio. But first they need permission from Acton's older sister Jude (Shannon Tarbet.)

Saturday, 21 May 2022

Theatre review: Wars of the Roses (RSC / RST)

I'm back in Stratford-upon-Avon for the Empire Strikes Back of Shakespeare's York v Lancaster trilogy: Originally titled Richard, Duke of York, most commonly (and confusingly) known as Henry VI Part 3, the RSC have opted for the blindingly obvious title that both Shakespeare and the First Folio editors managed to miss, Wars of the Roses. Following straight on from Rebellion, the gloves are off and so are any masks hiding who's behind the threats to Henry VI's reign. The Duke of York (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) makes his challenge known, and begins to muster forces, supported by his sons Edward, later Edward IV (Ashley D Gayle,) George (Ben Hall) and Richard (Arthur Hughes.) When the "kingmaker" Warwick (Nicholas Karimi) pledges his allegiance to the Yorkist cause as well, their victory seems assured.

Thursday, 19 May 2022

Theatre review: The House of Shades

Anne-Marie Duff returns to the stage, bringing with her the usual trepidation over what her generally questionable taste in plays will serve up this time. Beth Steel's The House of Shades isn't among the dodgier shows I've seen Duff in (I made it to the end of this one,) but it does suggest that if you asked her if she wanted a side of subtlety with her political commentary, you'd get a firm "no thanks!" Blanche McIntyre directs a family saga of a Nottinghamshire mining town, spanning from 1965 to 2019 - from optimism about what the trade unions and the Labour Party could do to help the country, all the way to the fall of the "red wall." Duff plays Constance, who fled an abusive father in the only way available to a woman in her position: By marrying the first man who came along. But starting her own family with Alistair (Stuart McQuarrie) soon just turned into a different kind of trap.

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Theatre review: House of Ife

After her tenure running the Bush got interrupted soon after she took over, Lynette Linton continues to put her stamp on the venue by directing House of Ife, Beru Tessema's drama about three Ethiopian-British siblings and the family tensions that come to a head when their brother dies. Twins Ife and Aida (Karla-Simone Spence) moved to England when they were just about old enough to remember something of living in Ethiopia; Tsion (Yohanna Ephrem) and Yosi (Michael Workeye) were both born in London. The three siblings we meet are combative but pretty well-adjusted, but around the age of 16 Ife went off the rails in ways we gradually find out more about; the play opens after his funeral, as they try to celebrate their brother's memory while their mother Meron (Sarah Priddy) tackles the competitive mourning of the ladies from church in the next room.

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Theatre review: Two Palestinians Go Dogging

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Press Night for this is next week. This may mean the running time issue I mention later in this review may have been improved a bit by then.

The Royal Court isn't afraid to tackle the political issues that most steer clear of, so it's perhaps not entirely surprising that their latest premiere tackles the conflict between Israel and Palestine - from the Palestinian perspective that's generally shied away from, and largely through the medium of black comedy. Sami Ibrahim's Two Palestinians Go Dogging has a title that's meant to sound like the setup to a joke, but we're also assured many times that public sex is literally something its indefatigable leading lady has been known to indulge in; it's also the setting for a couple of unlikely Israeli-Palestinian encounters on a more intimate level. The story begins in 2043, although apart from the fact that the Prime Minister of Israel is the reanimated corpse of Benjamin Netanyahu there's nothing much to differentiate it from 2022.

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Theatre review: Oklahoma!

Regular readers of this blog will both know I traditionally have certain reservations about musical theatre pioneers Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II - namely that if it weren't for the famous and beloved tunes, their work would fall somewhere between "horribly dated" and "nightmarishly distressing" and not get staged anymore. One of their shows I hadn't seen before - I don't think I've even seen the film - is their original, genre-defining hit Oklahoma! But Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein's production, which transfers to the Young Vic from New York, promised to come with a radical, twenty-first century reimagining of the musical Western about farmers trying to squeeze a bit of singing and dancing in between the relentless dry-humping. Because Fish and Fein's approach to the show is to dispense with any euphemisms and cuteness, and strip it down to a story about people who just want to have sex with each other (whether or not the other party is entirely consenting, because Hammerstein.)

Sunday, 8 May 2022

Theatre review: Age of Rage

Six Greek tragedies in four hours, told through the medium of Dutch Doom Metal? Ivo van Hove must be in town. And given what he deposited on the stage the last time he was here, that's not necessarily the most reassuring thought, but at least Age of Rage comes to the Barbican courtesy of van Hove's regular ensemble at Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, with the promise of following in the footsteps of past epics like Roman Tragedies and Kings of War. In fact, now that Robert Icke has joined the company as a resident director, with shows like The Doctor joining their repertoire, it's surprising that this show was created instead of Icke's Oresteia doing likewise, because in terms of story if not style, Age of Rage follows the same cycle of Greek mythology: The Oresteia, but expanded to take in the beginning of the family feud with the sacrifice of Iphigenia in Aulis.

Friday, 6 May 2022

Theatre review: Jerusalem

Just as there are a lot of actors who get forever identified with one role, there are also roles that get identified strongly with one actor. But I've never seen so many people insist that it's unthinkable for anyone other than the original star to take over a role, as I have with Mark Rylance and Rooster John Byron in Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem. It's a theory the latest West End revival has no intention of challenging as, 13 years after first playing the role, Rylance returns to Ian Rickson's production. He brings with him some more of the original Royal Court cast, including Mackenzie Crook as Rooster's hapless sidekick Ginger, an unemployed plasterer who insists he's actually a DJ. What he mostly is is off his face, as what brings him to the dilapidated caravan on the edge of a Wiltshire wood is the same as brings most people there: Rooster is the village's resident drug dealer.

Thursday, 5 May 2022

Theatre review: Middle

After what was meant to be a busy couple of weeks of theatregoing got derailed by me catching Covid, my first show back since testing negative again is the second in a loose trilogy about relationships: Beginning, the hit play about the first couple of hours of a brand-new relationship, was intended as a one-off, until writer David Eldridge decided during previews that it could in fact live up to its title, and begin a cycle of plays about relationships at different stages. So five years later we get a different couple whose marriage is, the title tells us, somewhere in the Middle. Although that's not how it initially feels when Maggie (Claire Rushbrook) gets up in the middle of the night to make herself a hot drink because she can't sleep, and husband Gary (Daniel Ryan) follows her downstairs, asking what's wrong. Her reply doesn't beat around the bush: "I'm not sure I love you any more."

Saturday, 23 April 2022

Theatre review: Henry VI: Rebellion (RSC / RST)

After a couple of years kept away from Stratford-upon-Avon by Miss Rona, followed by a further delay caused by Miss Eunice, it is at least apt timing that I should return to the RSC on Shakespeare's birthday. And, leading up to the end of Gregory Doran's tenure there and the conclusion of his staging the Complete Works (some exclusions apply, the amount of plays we say Shakespeare wrote may go down as well as up) that began with Richard II, the inevitable end point was the series of Henry VI plays leading up to Richard III. The play usually known as Henry VI Part 1 is probably Shakespeare's least-loved work and the company must have been dreading having to convince people to come see it, so they used the excuse of lockdown to present it as a streamed rehearsed reading, aka Let's Not Stage It And Say We Did. Which does have the added advantage of being able to skip ahead and present a trilogy of plays that were actually intended as such.

Thursday, 21 April 2022

Theatre review: The Corn is Green

Future Dame Nicola Walker gets the top billing she's always deserved as the Lyttelton revives The Corn is Green, Emlyn Williams' semi-autobiographical play about escaping the narrow constraints put on the people of a remote Welsh village by class, poverty, and the simple expectation that things will always be as they have always been. Somewhere in North Wales, the locals are sent down the coal mines from the age of ten, most never learn to read or write, and nobody can imagine a future where the next generation doesn't do exactly the same dangerous work as their fathers. It's certainly not a thought the local landowner, referred to only as The Squire (Rufus Wright) would want to encourage - as the majority shareholder in the mines, a steady supply of cheap, uneducated labour suits him well. So he's unimpressed when Miss Moffat (Walker) arrives, having decided to spend a recent inheritance on opening a school in the village.

Tuesday, 19 April 2022

Theatre review: Wolf Cub

Ché Walker wrote Wolf Cub in Atlanta, in the aftermath of Donald Trump's election in 2016. While people around the world wondered how it could have happened, for Walker it seemed obvious the seeds were sown decades earlier, by another Republican President who was a celebrity before he was a politician, who used polarising language to turn Americans against each other and demonise the poor and minorities. Crucially for this story, Ronald Reagan also survived an international scandal, in which in order to interfere with a foreign nation's election results, both arms sales to Iran and an influx of drugs into the US were fair game as fundraisers. Wolf Cub tells the story of the Reagan (and Bush) years through the experiences of Maxine (Clare Latham,) who when Reagan first comes to power is a nine-year old living with her father in the rural South. Her mother having apparently fled years earlier, she's left alone to deal with her father's physical and emotional abuse.

Friday, 15 April 2022

Theatre review: Anyone Can Whistle

Following Stephen Sondheim's recent death, I'm sure we're going to be getting a whole slew of new revivals commemorating a legendary songwriter whose work is rarely off the stage at the best of times. If they haven't materialised yet it's probably because high-profile producers are fighting over the rights to his most beloved works, so I guess in that context it makes sense that the first new production in London since his death is a fringe take on a show most famous because, even in the 1960s, critics and audiences weren't stoned enough to think it was any good: I imagine that at any given time the rights to Anyone Can Whistle are very much available. In a former industrial town whose only remaining business seems to be a psychiatric clinic known as The Cookie Jar, the nonspecifically corrupt mayor Cora Hoover Hooper (Alex Young) orders her lackeys to revive the town's fortunes by any means necessary.

Thursday, 14 April 2022

Theatre review: Scandaltown

All of a sudden we're getting to see everything Mike Bartlett kept himself busy with during lockdown, with his second premiere in the space of a week. I hadn't quite registered that I'd booked them two days apart from each other, but they do show a contrast in a playwright who likes to experiment with style, and has grown fond in recent years of using familiar classic theatrical genres to reflect on the present day. So if The 47th was a tragicomedy so dark it bordered on the apocalyptic, Scandaltown, opening at the Lyric Hammersmith in a production by Rachel O'Riordan, goes for much less ambiguous laughs, applying the convoluted plots and stock characters of Restoration comedy to 21st century concerns. Phoebe Virtue (Cecilia Appiah) and her twin brother were raised in the country, and are considerate, environmentally conscious and unselfish.

Tuesday, 12 April 2022

Theatre review: The 47th

Mike Bartlett has played around with pastiche in the past, never more successfully than when King Charles III took Shakespearean themes and language and applied them to an imagined future of the British Royal family. Later this week he'll be premiering his take on Restoration Comedy, but for The 47th he returns to blank verse, also reuniting with director Rupert Goold, and Lydia Wilson on Lady Macbeth duties, although the venue changes to the much larger Old Vic, befitting a lead character who's fond of a rally: As with the previous production, most of the fictionalised characters aren't played as impressions of the real people, but Donald Trump's mannerisms are so pronounced and familiar that it would be odd not to recreate them. And after a few years of TV work where you could actually tell what his face looked like, Bertie Carvel returns to his days as a theatrical chameleon with a comic but creepily uncanny impersonation of the 45th President of the United States.

Saturday, 9 April 2022

Stage-to-screen review: Much Ado About Nothing

After Covid kept me away from Stratford-upon-Avon for two years, the aftermath of 1990s Gladiators winner Storm Eunice kept me away a bit longer when I was due to see the RST reopen with Roy Alexander Weise's take on Much Ado About Nothing. The BBC has come up with another chance to catch it though, with a filmed performance that's now available on iPlayer. Much Ado is set to be this year's most ubiquitous Shakespeare play, and another 2022 meme it's contributed to is the understudy having to permanently take over a lead role: Michael Balogun, himself the beneficiary of a sudden promotion, dropped out just before opening and Luke Wilson (not that one) got the plum role of Benedick. And he makes the most of the opportunity, easily becoming one of the best things in a frankly bizarre production whose high concept design overwhelms it.

Thursday, 7 April 2022

Theatre review: "Daddy" A Melodrama

It's hard enough trying to keep up with everything going on in London theatre without adding Broadway to the mix, but even so I can't help but know that Slave Play was causing a stir in New York before Covid. So far I haven't heard any suggestion of it making the transatlantic trip but Jeremy O. Harris' earlier play "Daddy" A Melodrama has, after a lockdown delay of its own, now landed at the Almeida complete with its original creative team. Franklin (Terique Jarrett) is a young, gay black artist who moved to California a couple of years ago to pursue his career. His collections of doll versions of himself are slowly building a following, and while he's not quite got to the stage of making big money from his creations yet, he's got an enthusiastic supporter in gallerist Alessia (Jenny Rainsford,) who's about to host his first high-profile exhibition. A few weeks before it opens, he meets wealthy, white, fifty-something Andre (Claes Bang.)

Monday, 4 April 2022

Theatre review: The Fever Syndrome

Hampstead Theatre may now be run by Roxana Silbert but some things don't change, and it remains London's main home for That American Play Where An Extended Family Gets Together After A Long Time, Preferably At Thanksgiving But That’s Optional. Silbert herself directs the latest iteration of a play every American playwright seems, for some reason, to be legally obligated to write and just change the character names. The twist is Alexis Zegerman isn't even American so The Fever Syndrome is... a tribute act maybe? It does tick every other box, including the ever-popular Asshole Genius add-on feature, as the excuse for bringing three siblings and their partners to the New York brownstone they grew up in is their father receiving a lifetime achievement award. Richard (Robert Lindsay) is an obstetrician and IVF pioneer, who still bears a grudge against the Republicans for delaying his research on religious grounds, meaning Britain beat America to the first test tube baby.

Saturday, 2 April 2022

Theatre review: Macbeth (Shakespeare's Globe / Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank)

A familiar annual feature at Shakespeare's Globe has been the Playing Shakespeare With Deutsche Bank production created specially for schools, which gives away thousands of free tickets to students. Its popularity has seen it become increasingly open to general audiences, and after a couple of past productions were made available online during lockdown, this year's has been given an additional few weeks' run after the school parties have seen it. The fact that the shows are heavily edited meant that for the first time ever I felt able to risk a standing ticket among the groundlings without too much fear of putting my back out, so after over a decade seeing most shows at the Globe I finally got to be right at the front of the action, where Rose Revitt's design has added a deep thrust into the yard. As these shows are tied to the school curriculum I don't remember it ever being anything other than Macbeth or Romeo & Juliet, and the fact that this thrust is a blasted heath is a clue as to whose turn it is.

Thursday, 31 March 2022

Theatre review: Straight Line Crazy

Playwright David Hare, actor Ralph Fiennes and director Nicholas Hytner reunite at the Bridge Theatre where they last collaborated on Beat the Devil; that one was a monologue, and while Straight Line Crazy surrounds Fiennes with a large cast, it can sometimes feel just as much of a one-man show. Certainly the true story it tells, of a man whose influence changed the face of America's cities in the twentieth century, seems a fascinating one: Robert Moses (Fiennes) was an urban planner, although he hated the term because it implied a lot of theory, not action, and he was determined to get things done regardless of whether the people they impacted wanted them or not. In the first act we meet him in the 1920s, pushing through his plans for Long Island: A playground for the rich, he intends to open up its parks and beaches to the public of New York by building roads, giving them a break in the leisure time the workers are now starting to see as a right.