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Sunday, 22 January 2023

Stage-to-screen review: Prima Facie

When I caught Covid last spring and had to miss a number of shows I'd booked, some felt more of a wrench than others; Suzie Miller's Prima Facie, named after a legal procedure to determine whether a case has enough standing to go to court, was very well-received but also counted as one of 2022's big theatrical events, thanks to Jodie Comer making her West End debut in the monologue. I did at least figure it would eventually turn up on NTatHome since I knew it had been screened to cinemas, but thought it might take a couple of years since a Broadway run is coming up. In fact it's streaming for a limited time a bit earlier than expected, albeit not in all territories so it won't impact on live ticket sales. Comer plays Tessa, a young barrister whom we first meet on cocky form, bragging about the way she tricks witnesses into incriminating themselves on the stand.

Friday, 20 January 2023

Theatre review: Hamlet
(Lazarus / Southwark Playhouse)

I don't have a lot of firm rules for myself on how to write reviews, and those I do have mainly involve avoiding bad habits I dislike in other writers. So I try to always include some description, however cursory, of a play's basic story: Everyone's knowledge and experience is different, so why should I assume that a reader already knows the plot, even if the play's Hamlet? But it's not always easy to follow my own rule if the production itself seems to make the assumption that the audience is ahead of the game - if it's not really telling a story, how do I summarise it? I've been following the work of Lazarus Theatre Company on and off over the years, especially since they've become regulars at Southwark Playhouse. Ricky Dukes' productions of the classics tend to be ambitious, with all that that entails, but they always feel like a risk worth taking: Results can be mixed, but there's usually at the very least some interesting elements to take from his ideas. But he may have overreached himself this time.

Thursday, 19 January 2023

Theatre review: Allegiance

Jay Kuo (book, music and lyrics,) Marc Acito & Lorenzo Thione's (book) Allegiance had a relatively brief Broadway run a few years ago, but its original star, the beloved queer elder and Star Trek icon George Takei, whose own family partly inspired the story, has remained a staunch supporter of the project. He's evidently been instrumental in its getting a London transfer - so much so it's been rebranded as George Takei's Allegiance for its run at Charing Cross Theatre. It's not surprising that the Japanese-American actor wants the story to be widely told, as it covers a chapter of its racist past America has been remarkably good at hushing up: I'm not sure when I first heard about the internment camps for Japanese-Americans but it must have been a couple of decades after I first learnt about the Second World War. I guess having American movies control much of the way that story's told makes it easy to leave out inconvenient facts.

Tuesday, 17 January 2023

Stage-to-screen review: The Play What I Wrote

As usual January has some lulls in theatregoing that I'm topping up with filmed productions I missed the first time. and one BBC iPlayer offering leftover from the Christmas schedule seems a pretty appropriate choice for the time of year, even if it wasn't specifically festive: Morecambe and Wise were a comedy duo and beloved British institution, and particularly in the 1970s their Christmas special was always the most-watched show, fondly remembered to this day. (I'm sure it creates an annual bind for the BBC - if they don't show an episode they'll get complaints about breaking with tradition, if they do they'll get them about flooding the schedules with reruns.) I'm sure we did get a showing of the real thing, but a good compromise between new and old is this filming of the 2021 revival of Sean Foley, Hamish McColl and Eddie Braben's tribute The Play What I Wrote, inspired by Braben's original scripts.

Thursday, 12 January 2023

Theatre review: As You Like It (@sohoplace)

Back to @sohoplace Theatre, the venue with a name so current it has a pretty solid strategy in place for the Y2K bug, and it gets its first Shakespeare production in Josie Rourke's autumnal As You Like It. Opening with a song from Martha Plimpton's Jaques, it sets the tone for a production that largely reflects that character's melancholy worldview. Rosalind (Leah Harvey) and her cousin Celia (Rose Ayling-Ellis) leave the court they grew up in after a coup by Celia's father, and go to the forest of Arden in search of Rosalind's father, the banished rightful Duke. But before they leave Rosalind's just had time to meet and fall in love at first sight with Orlando (Alfred Enoch,) a dispossessed noble who's also just been banished. By the time they meet up again in the forest Rosalind has disguised herself as a man, and instead of coming clean comes up with a convoluted plan to test his love, because while this may be my favourite Shakespeare comedy honestly he's just throwing plots at the stage to see what sticks.

Tuesday, 10 January 2023

Theatre review: Mandela

I may not have started the year with a rescheduled show but that doesn't mean theatre's out of the woods yet - I was due to see Greg Dean Borowsky, Shaun Borowsky (music and lyrics) and Laiona Michelle's (book) new musical Mandela a month ago but the performance was cancelled due to cast illness as, it was recently announced, have half the performances of a show that seems to have been particularly unlucky. There were still covers on tonight, including in the title role, so it's not quite the full Nelson, but the show did go ahead... and what an odd show it is. Covering the bare bones of roughly three decades of Nelson Mandela's (understudy Akmed Junior Khemalai) life, it shows him as one of many in the crowd of black South Africans whose peaceful protest is broken up with violence.

Friday, 6 January 2023

Theatre review: The Art of Illusion

After a couple of homegrown successes, Hampstead Downstairs premieres a play that's already been a hit in France for Alexis Michalik (whose plays have all had long runs there, as the playwright himself informs us in the programme. Multiple times.) The Art of Illusion gets its UK premiere in a version by Waleed Akhtar and a production by Tom Jackson Greaves, but while its premise playfully tunes into an appealing sense of wonder, it soon comes a cropper when trying to make a story out of it. In fact the play follows three Parisian stories, two real, one fictional: In the first half of the 19th century, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (Kwaku Mills) is a magician and automaton-designer who becomes the father of modern magic, taking the tricks from carnival sideshows to theatres and royal courts. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Georges Méliès (Norah Lopez Holden) is a big fan of Robert-Houdin's, who uses this sense of magic and spectacle when he becomes a filmmaker and pioneer of visual effects.

Wednesday, 4 January 2023

Theatre review: Watch on the Rhine

My first theatre trip of 2023 is to the Donald and Margot Warehouse. It's the show I'd actually planned to open the year with, and that in itself is one up on last year (which started with a bunch of cancelled and hastily-rescheduled performances from 2021.) I went into Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine knowing very little about it beyond the vague blurb on the website, and frankly being able to go in and be surprised is my ideal way to see a show. That blurb promised a German-American family taking in German relatives during the Second World War, before the USA had officially picked a side, so I was prepared for some queasy revelations about where the family's sympathies lie. Instead Hellman has a more defiant message in mind, and director Ellen McDougall delivers a tense domestic thriller about the moral ambiguities of heroism.

Saturday, 31 December 2022

2022: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

Here we are then, for the last two years I haven't wanted to call my annual roundup a "Theatre Review of the Year" because for most of 2020 and half of 2021 live theatre wasn't really a thing. 2022 hasn't felt quite back to normal in that respect, and I continued to have a number of shows cancelled because of illness or injury, Covid-related or otherwise - the Donmar and Almeida seemed to have been particularly unlucky on that front. And that's before we get to the week or so of shows I had to reschedule or miss entirely because I had Covid. Where shows did go ahead, swings and understudies continued to be more important than ever, so seeing someone other than the star name step up to the plate, usually with impressive results, became another recurring theme of the year. But overall things were sufficiently back on track for me to present, once again: A confusing and bloated roundup of shows I saw, loved, hated or forgot instantly, followed by a bit of light perving over actors who were just trying to do their job, bless'em.

Tuesday, 27 December 2022

Theatre review: Mother Goose (Duke of York's & tour)

I haven't regularly been to Christmas pantomime since Tom Wells stopped writing the Lyric Hammersmith one, but Ian McKellen returning to the role of Dame at the age of 83 has to be something worth catching, and anyway I never saw his Twankey. This time it's as Mother Goose, with Jonathan Harvey writing and Cal McCrystal directing, and with McKellen's commitment to touring it's not even technically a Christmas event - by the time it gets to its last couple of stops it'll be an Easter outing. Another initial selling point was Mel Giedroyc as the goose Cilla Quack, but she had to drop out for personal reasons and Anna-Jane Casey turned out to be very much available to replace her. McKellen's Mother Goose and her husband Vic (John Bishop) run an animal sanctuary in the building that used to house defunct department store Debenhams before 12 years of Conservative government ruined the economy (I'm not editorialising, that's the script.)

Thursday, 22 December 2022

Theatre review:
Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol

I said before that it takes something really distinctive to make me consider seeing one of the many stage versions of A Christmas Carol out there at the moment: A couple of weeks ago the attraction was a comedy version that largely ignored everything about the actual story; for my last show before Christmas itself, I would have thought the title Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol probably tells you all you need to know. Parton (music and lyrics) and David H. Bell's (book) musical version of the Charles Dickens story started life as a Dollywood attraction before being expanded into a full-length show, and Alison Pollard's production now gets its UK premiere at the South Bank Centre. They've moved the story from Victorian London to 1930s Tennessee and added Parton's distinctive country music sound, but it ends up a surprisingly faithful adaptation both in plot and intention.

Wednesday, 21 December 2022

Theatre review: A Streetcar Named Desire

Warning, the first couple of rows may get wet: Yes, Rebecca Frecknall's production of A Streetcar Named Desire stars the Internet's official fantasy boyfriend of 2020. Oh, there's also regular floods of rain pouring on every side of Madeleine Girling's in-the-round set. Frecknall returns to Tennessee Williams, and to the star of her career-making Summer and Smoke, although the latter collaboration is a last-minute one: Future Dame Patsy Ferran plays Blanche Dubois only because original star Lydia Wilson got injured. The first week of previews was cancelled to give the new lead at least a little rehearsal time, but apart from a running time that'll likely tighten up by the delayed press night, there's little on stage to suggest the production has only been in front of audiences for a few nights, least of all from the extraordinary leading lady.

Monday, 19 December 2022

Theatre review: Sons of the Prophet

I had mixed feelings about booking for Sons of the Prophet: Stephen Karam's last play at Hampstead Theatre was That American Play Where An Extended Family Gets Together After A Long Time, Preferably At Thanksgiving But That’s Optional, but surely even the most determined American playwrights can't write that one too many times, and the premise and cast were appealing. And the play, which takes its title from the central family's distant and regularly overplayed relation to Kahlil Gibran, is certainly not clichéd in its premise: It centres on two gay brothers from a Lebanese-American Maronite Christian family, from a part of Pennsylvania where all the towns seem to be named after places in the Middle East. A few years after their mother's death, their father also dies in a car crash after a student prank goes wrong.

Wednesday, 14 December 2022

Theatre review:
Hakawatis: Women of the Arabian Nights

After last year's Metamorphoses, another winter's evening of adult - sometimes very adult - storytelling by candlelight at the Swanamaker. This time it's Hannah Khalil's take on the 1001 Nights, which she reimagines as much less of a one-woman show than it's usually seen as. For Hakawatis: Women of the Arabian Nights, Rosa Maggiora's set is a dungeon, comparatively comfortable with piles of cushions and plates of fruit but a prison nonetheless, where four women have been kept for so long they've lost track of time. When they're joined by a fifth, Fatah the Young (Alaa Habib,) they have to break it to the teenager that the marriage she's been preparing for isn't all it seems: When the King's first wife cheated on him, he vowed revenge on all women. He takes a new wife every night, and after some no-doubt-entirely-consensual sex, murders her. The plan is to eliminate every unmarried woman in his kingdom, and he's nearly done.

Monday, 12 December 2022

Theatre review:
Wickies: The Vanishing Men of Eilean Mòr

My eccentric reasons for booking shows can result in some disastrous choices as well as unearthing some hidden gems. The fact that I realised I could see both the gays from Two Doors Down on stage in consecutive shows led me to a couple of twists on traditional seasonal stories, and after something inspired in the very loosest possible sense by A Christmas Carol, it's Park Theatre's Scottish take on the traditional Christmas ghost story. But Paul Morrissey's Wickies: The Vanishing Men of Eilean Mòr takes its inspiration from a very real mystery: In 1900, three lighthouse keepers vanished without trace from the Flannan Isles, a particularly remote and dangerous part of the Outer Hebrides. Morrissey's play is only the latest in a long tradition of poems, stories and songs that have taken the mystery into the realms of folk legend.

Saturday, 10 December 2022

Theatre review:
A Christmas Carol-ish... by Mr Swallow

Two years ago when theatre made an (unsuccessful) attempt to come out of Covid into the lucrative Christmas show season, there was no shortage of adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, something I put down to it being a reliably popular, out-of-copyright story that could be quickly adapted to a wide range of budgets and a wide variety of styles. If anything it's even more ubiquitous in 2022, when for any number of financial reasons it seems wise to play it safe. While I'm generally happy to avoid yet another iteration of the story, there's a couple of versions this year that are so out there they were hard to say no to. Starting with Nick Mohammed (book & lyrics) and Oliver Birch's (music) A Christmas Carol-ish... by Mr Swallow, a deranged musical adaptation by Mohammed's chaotic magician alter-ego and his sidekicks Mr Goldsworth (David Elms) and Jonathan (Kieran Hodgson.)

Thursday, 8 December 2022

Theatre review: Orlando

With the changing understanding of gender, and the arrival of bankable non-binary stars like Emma Corrin in recent years, it's not surprising if this seems an apt time to revisit Virginia Woolf's original gender-bending story, Orlando, on stage. The aristocratic Orlando (Corrin) is born during the reign of Elizabeth I (Lucy Briers,) who toys with the idea of recruiting the then 15-year-old boy to her court. As he grows up, he remains close to the seat of power, but the kings and queens seem to change constantly, as Orlando ages much more slowly than he should. So by the time Charles II is on the throne the nobleman is only 30, and takes a job as ambassador to Constantinople. Having spent his life avoiding settling down with one person because that life doesn't offer answers to his many and vague questions about the universe, he continues a life of wine and women - until his sudden death.

Wednesday, 7 December 2022

Theatre review: Kerry Jackson

The Dorfman's final piece of new writing of 2022 takes a despairing look at the polarisation of opinion by politics and class in modern Britain, and the impossibility of reconciling the warring points of view, but chucks it into a blender with a pretty frantic comedy. What comes out isn't exactly gazpacho, despite April De Angelis setting Kerry Jackson in a tapas restaurant: Opening a new restaurant is a risky business at the best of times, but Kerry (Fay Ripley) has taken a punt on launching her business in the middle of a cost of living crisis. Walthamstow Village is up-and-coming so her opening weeks don't go too badly, but she's concerned that homeless Will (Michael Fox,) who sleeps rough across the road, is putting off her customers. When she aggressively confronts him she makes matters worse, and soon he's leaving dirty protests by her wheelie bins.

Thursday, 1 December 2022

Theatre review: Othello (National Theatre / Lyttelton)

Othello must be one of the most-frequently performed Shakespeare plays at the National Theatre, and the latest production by Deputy Artistic Director Clint Dyer - the first at the venue by a black director - is in part inspired by how long the version with Laurence Olivier in blackface continued to hold pride of place in the archive. That's one of the photos that adorn the back wall of the stage as the audience enters the Lyttelton, among an ever-changing projection display of past production posters that suggests the different approaches to the play taken over the years. As the display ticks past the years since it was written, we get the idea that we've reached a very 2022 reading, which strips the play back to show its racial conflicts as the primary motivator. Here, only Giles Terrera's General Othello isn't white; almost everyone in the rest of the cast doubles as a member of a sinister, black-shirted chorus Dyer has christened the System.

Monday, 28 November 2022

Theatre review: Baghdaddy

Whoa, Baghdaddy (Bam-ba-lam)

Jasmine Naziha Jones' wildly hyperactive playwrighting debut Baghdaddy deals with the guilt of a woman who feels she could have done more to support her British-based Iraqi father when he was trying to process the wars in the country where much of his family still lived; but how much could she be expected to understand, when she was eight years old at the time? In Milli Bhatia's production the playwright herself plays Darlee, who remembers her Dad (Philip Arditti) and how he coped with living in safety while Baghdad was burning on the news. In both the 1990s' and 2000s' wars, he tried to support his family by doing one-man humanitarian runs, smuggling medicine, cash, and information held back by the regime to neighbouring countries where his brother could collect them. But back at home, all Darlee sees is her beloved father becoming distant.