Saturday, 18 May 2019

Theatre review: Out of Water

In a South Shields school that's permanently getting "Requires Improvement" on its OFSTED reports, teacher Claire (Lucy Briggs-Owen) has been brought in to pilot an inclusion class scheme that's been successful elsewhere at turning round the fortunes of the most neglected students. It's not an obvious place for a pregnant, middle class lesbian to move to, and she's palpably nervous about how she'll be received there, but it's where her policewoman wife Kit (Zoe West) grew up, and she's convinced Claire it could be the place to start their family. Out of Water is the new play by Zoe Cooper, whose last play at the Orange Tree was Jess and Joe Forever, which means this an exciting prospect, but also has a lot to live up to. As in Cooper's earlier play this is a storytelling form of theatre, with Claire and Kit narrating fairly recent events, reliving their own part in them and taking on the other characters as needed.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Theatre review: Death of a Salesman

Spoiler alert: The salesman still dies.

If London's unofficial Arthur Miller festival has been all about the playwright's unforgiving criticism of capitalism, it's only fitting that its finale is Death of a Salesman, in which an unremarkable man gives his life to the system in hope of its promised rewards, and is instead discarded by it as soon at his usefulness is done. But as is very clear in Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell's production this is actually the tragedy of two men, father and son, each broken by a different aspect of what the American Dream promised them. Willy Loman (Wendell Pierce) is a 63-year-old travelling salesman who's been doing the job since his teens, and returns home early from a trip after a near-miss car accident. It's one of many in recent months and his wife Linda (Sharon D. Clarke) has reason to believe they've not been accidents at all but suicide attempts.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Theatre review: Small Island

This time last year Rufus Norris strayed out of his comfort zone for his big Olivier stage production with notoriously disastrous consequences, but he's back to much more familiar territory now for a big emotional, political epic that spans years, continents and clashing cultures. Helen Edmundson adapts Andrea Levy's Small Island, whose story about the Windrush generation has become topical again in recent years. Its three narrators are initially separated by an ocean, but chance and the Second World War will throw them together in life-changing ways: First up we meet Hortense (Leah Harvey,) a teacher in a remote Jamaican village whose romantic feelings about her cousin Michael (CJ Beckford) are crushed so abruptly it leaves her cold, spiky and pragmatic to the point of calculating; while she stays in Jamaica, Michael goes to England to join the war effort.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Theatre review: Jude

Edward Hall is stepping down as Artistic Director of Hampstead Theatre, and on paper a new Howard Brenton play seems a fitting swansong to his time there - after all Brenton is a big-name playwright who's had numerous premieres at the theatre during Hall's tenure. But where in recent years he's been best known as a writer of engrossing history plays, his latest is a loose adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure that, while always watchable, makes for a very, very odd choice of victory lap for Hall. Jude throws together the huge politics of asylum seekers with the more intimate politics of academia, all of it haunted - literally - by the classics. Teenager Judith (Isabella Nefar) is a Christian Syrian refugee in Hampshire, taking a job as a cleaner for graduate student Sally (Emily Taafe) and nearly getting fired on her first day when she steals a volume of Euripides in the original Ancient Greek.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Non-review: The Provoked Wife

Not a review because I'm afraid the curse of Restoration Comedy as directed by anyone-who-isn't-Jessica-Swale strikes again. Under normal circumstances I sit through shows in Stratford-upon-Avon to the bitter end regardless, because I'd only have to wait for my train anyway if I ducked out at the interval, but with today's train schedules all over the place with engineering work I had the chance for an early escape from The Provoked Wife. John Vanbrugh's third play (according to the prologue, in which he apologises for writing so many) opens with the familiar grumbling of Sir John Brute (Jonathan Slinger) about how much he's tired of his wife after two years of marriage. As a result he treats her with such indifference and rudeness that Lady Brute (Alexandra Gilbreath,) who's keen to point out she's never cheated on her husband despite never liking him much, now feels provoked to pursue an affair with his friend Constant (Rufus Hound, mainly delivering his lines when other actors are trying to deliver theirs.)

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Theatre review: Rosmersholm

Rosmersholm seems to get variously described as Ibsen’s masterpiece, or one his most obscure and difficult works. I would lean towards the latter description – it’s certainly not as frequently performed as the likes of Hedda Gabler or A Doll’s House, and although Ian Rickson’s production makes a stronger case for it than the last time I saw the play, it’s still a dense and wordy evening. Rae Smith takes advantage of having a West End stage (and even pushes it out a bit past the proscenium arch) to create the set, a huge hall in the titular house in rural Norway. The house is a character in the play inasmuch as it represents the legacy of generations of Rosmers, the family who own the adjacent mill and have been the town’s main source of work for centuries. The portraits may still look down imperiously from the walls but it’s onto a crumbling room – Smith’s set takes particular inspiration from the fact that room’s had water-damage.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Theatre review: The Comedy of Errors
(Shakespeare's Globe & tour)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The production is previewing at the Globe prior to a tour.

Second night in a row for me of Brendan O'Hea's new touring ensemble, and another completely ridiculous play - although unlike Pericles at least The Comedy of Errors has every indication that Shakespeare actually meant for it to be ridiculous. Once we get a particularly egregious Basil Exposition speech out of the way the stage is set for Antipholus of Syracuse (Colin Campbell) and his servant Dromio (Beau Holland) to land in the hostile city of Ephesus, in search of their respective long-lost identical twin brothers. Despite having been looking for them for seven years they're unprepared for the fact that their doppelgangers actually do live there, and don't take the hint when they constantly get mistaken for Antipholus (Andrius Gaucas) and Dromio (Eric Sirakian) of Ephesus, including by the local twin's wife Adriana (Evelyn Miller.)

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Theatre review: Pericles (Shakespeare's Globe & tour)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The production is previewing at the Globe prior to a tour.

The summer season at Shakespeare's Globe has started, and like last year I'm starting it with the Tiny Tour. These continue to take the new format of three shows in repertory, with some* of the performances being an "audience choice" - neither cast nor audience will know until the last minute which of the three plays will be staged, subject to an audience vote. Brendan O'Hea's productions get a new cast to take over last year's Twelfth Night, with two new shows joining the rotation. Once again I have to wonder if the best-known play will get the nod almost every time - I doubt it's a coincidence that's the one making a return - but audiences will also have one of the real obscurities on offer. In fact the Globe seems to be one of the few places to give Pericles the time of day: The majority of productions I've seen have been there, and even the RSC quietly shelved it the last time it was due.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Theatre review: All My Sons

After a pair of more obscure plays a couple of months ago, this year's second brace of Arthur Miller plays offers up some of his most famous works; once again the Old Vic is involved in this unofficial mini-season, with Jeremy Herrin's starry production of Miller's early hit All My Sons. Bill Pullman (he's the Bill who's still alive) plays Joe Keller, a businessman whose factory became notorious during the Second World War when it was exposed as having provided faulty aircraft parts that led to the deaths of 21 airmen. Bill was exonerated but his business partner is still in jail for it. His own son Larry wasn't flying one of the affected planes but he disappeared on a mission, and three years after the end of the War everyone's accepted he must be dead except for his mother Kate (SALLY FIELD!) who still holds onto the hope that he might return. But her other son Chris (Colin Morgan) had returned home with news that will make her have to confront the facts.

Friday, 3 May 2019

Theatre review: The Half God of Rainfall

Inua Ellams scored his biggest hit to date by keeping things very much down to earth for his Barber Shop Chronicles, but for his follow-up he returns to more mythical storytelling with a vengeance: The Half God of Rainfall mixes Greek and Nigerian mythology with the more modern deities of professional sports. Modupe (Rakie Ayola) was high priestess to a river goddess and under her protection, but the Yoruba gods end up in a war with the Olympians, seemingly for no other reason than the fact that they're gods, and fight is what gods do. The Greeks win and Modupe is claimed as one of Zeus' spoils; he impregnates her and her demigod son is a baby who causes floods when he cries. When he's older Demi (Kwami Odoom) makes it rain in a more metaphorical way, as a star basketball player whose talent begins to earn him adoring fans.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Theatre review: Ain't Misbehavin'

Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr’s 1978 show Ain’t Misbehavin’ was something of a precursor to jukebox musicals, celebrating songs written or popularised by Fats Waller between the wars, becoming one of the first people to bring jazz to a wider audience. Southwark Playhouse’s revival sees two people better known as performers making their debuts telling other people what to do: Tyrone Huntley as director and Oti Mabuse as choreographer. Adrian Hansel, Renée Lamb, Carly Mercedes Dyer, Landi Oshinowo and Wayne Robinson take on all the performance duties in a show that runs through thirty of Waller’s hits in under two hours. I’ve seen it described as a “revue-style musical,” although in reality it’s a straightforward revue without much connection to a traditional musical – there’s no thematic link between the songs, takis’ set recreating a glittering nightclub in which Alex Cockle’s band are ensconced to back up the five performers.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Theatre review: Other People's Money

Southwark Playhouse’s publicity blurb for Other People’s Money originally included an endorsement from the current (at time of writing) US President; if it was intended to appeal to audiences’ morbid curiosity it presumably failed, as that quote’s now been taken down from the website* and audiences can make their own minds up as to whether there’s a character in Jerry Sterner’s 1989 play whom Trump could possibly have identified with. Sterner essentially pits against each other two archetypes of what American business is all about: Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgenson (Michael Brandon, the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine,) is the 68-year-old CEO of The Wire and Cable Company of New England, a Rhode Island business founded by his father, which employs over a thousand people in its central plant; this has long since ceased to be profitable, but a number of successful side projects keep the company afloat.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Theatre review: Market Boy

David Eldridge’s Market Boy was commissioned for the Olivier in 2006, so the Union Theatre is a much smaller canvas for its first London revival; but there’s certainly something appropriate about the kaleidoscopic story of a busy market in the second half of the Eighties being housed in a repurposed row of railway tunnels. The titular Boy (Tommy Knight) first arrives at Romford Market in 1985 aged thirteen, when his Mum (Amy Gallagher) decides he needs a part-time job to make his pocket money. The Trader (Andy Umerah) gives him a job on his ladies’ shoe stall, which is obviously booming as he already has three other boys, Snooks (Joey Ellis,) Don (Callum Higgins) and Mouse (Joe Mason) working for him. And although from the start there are obvious tensions between some of the stallholders, the market is generally a busy and dynamic place with a lot of cash flying around.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Theatre review: Three Sisters

Great timing from the Almeida, as Rebecca Frecknall and FD Patsy Ferran return for their next collaboration straight after their Olivier success for Summer and Smoke. For Ferran at least this is something of a different proposition though: Where Tennessee Williams can be relied on for a barnstorming female lead, Chekhov is much more of an ensemble affair, and Ferran's Olga is by far the most low-key of the Three Sisters. For Frecknall, on the other hand, there's a more obvious link with her last show here as a fairly stripped-down production conjures atmosphere and heartbreak. As far as overwhelming visual themes go the closest thing to Summer and Smoke's gutted pianos are the plain wooden chairs that fill Hildegard Bechtler's askew stage, arranged like church pews in a wordless prologue that takes place at the General's funeral, a year before the events of Act I.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Theatre review: Sweet Charity

I started this blog in 2012, which coincided with when Josie Rourke took over the Donald and Margot Warehouse; barring the odd performance that got cancelled, that means I’ve now covered her entire run as Artistic Director as we get to her grand finale. Having had a hit with City of Angels, Rourke returns to Cy Coleman, who provides the music (with book by Neil Simon and lyrics by Dorothy Fields) for Sweet Charity. Anne-Marie Duff plays the titular Charity Hope Valentine, a New York “taxi dancer” – a barely-veiled front for prostitution, except unlike most of the other women Charity doesn’t do anything more than advertised. Nor has she really made the connection between this and the fact that she’s not managed to make any money in her eight years on the job – her tragedy is that she’s just not very bright, which combined with a romantic sensibility that makes her believe in a Hollywood ending means she invariably trusts the wrong men.

Monday, 15 April 2019

Theatre review: A German Life

Twelve years after unofficially retiring from the stage Maggie Smith* is back and, in typical fashion, not doing things by halves - A German Life is just her on stage for nearly two hours. Christopher Hampton’s monologue about Brunhilde Pomsel is based on the 106-year-old’s testimony, given shortly before her death after a lifetime of refusing to comment, to a documentary crew interested in her unique perspective on World War II. That perspective was as a secretary for the Nazi Propaganda Ministry, never working directly for Joseph Goebbels but for a number of his right-hand men. But her story begins earlier, with her first few jobs which were all for wealthy Jewish businessmen, an avenue of work which soon dried up as the Nazis came to power – and the Nazi party themselves became the best source of work, first at the state broadcaster and then at the Ministry of Propaganda itself.

Friday, 12 April 2019

Theatre review: Little Miss Sunshine

Michael Arndt, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton's 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine was something of a sleeper hit despite being a downbeat comedy whose story takes some wild lurches in tone. Add the fact that it's essentially a road trip movie and it's fair to call it, at the very least, an eccentric choice for musical adaptation. James Lapine (book) and William Finn (music and lyrics) are the writers attempting it in a show that premiered in 2011, and finally comes to the UK in a production by Mehmet Ergen that starts a tour at the Arcola. Hoping to be crowned the titular junior beauty queen is 8-year-old Olive (Sophie Hartley-Booth, Lily Mae Denman or Evie Gibson,) who finds out that the girl who beat her in a local heat has been disqualified (for taking slimming pills) and she's now in the finals - with only a couple of days to make it from New Mexico to the pageant in California.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Theatre review: Ghost Stories

For his final season at the Lyric Hammersmith Sean Holmes returns to the biggest commercial hit of his time there - Ghost Stories went on to have a couple of West End runs, international productions and a film adaptation – reviving the production he co-directed with its writers Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman. That means it’s the same production I saw when it premiered in 2010 so technically I could call this a re-review, but nine years is probably enough time to say I’m seeing it with fresh eyes. Having said that, I remembered a lot of detail, probably refreshed in my memory when I saw the film version. Which is fun, but the stage remains where this story works best: Simon Lipkin takes over the role originally played by Nyman himself, as parapsychologist Professor Goodman gives a lecture on ghosts, looking at paranormal tales from the earliest legends to the newest websites collecting “ghost” photos, and showing as he goes how they’re actually the mind’s eye seeing what it wants to see.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Theatre review: Pah-La

In the grand tradition of student activism (or at least in the tradition of talking about it,) when I was at university one of the student union spaces was called the Free Tibet Room. That was in the 1990s, and I wonder if it’s since been renamed to reflect a more recently popular cause; if people have forgotten about Tibet and its struggle to regain independence from China, Abhishek Majumdar is here to remind them with Pah-La, a play inspired by real events during the 2008 Lhasa riots. The title is a Tibetan word for “father,” and teenager Deshar (Millicent Wong) has gone against the wishes of her own to become a Buddhist nun, studying at a local temple. When Chinese police chief Deng (Daniel York Loh) leads a force to “re-educate” the nuns to the five principles of the Motherland’s supremacy over Tibet, Deshar’s Buddhist principles of non-violence are tested.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Theatre review: So Here We Are

DRAMA SCHOOL DISCLAIMER: Drama school productions are classed as amateur performances, which is why I always make this disclaimer; that said, I’ll hopefully be seeing everyone involved in professional productions soon, so I avoid judging them differently.

Yes, catching the odd LAMDA production does open up the possibility that I’ll get bragging rights for spotting a star of the future, but it can also be a chance to see a play I missed the first time round – in this case because Luke Norris’ 2013 play So Here We Are premiered in Manchester. While Norris-as-playwright is yet to have had as big an impact as Norris-as-actor had on that girls’ school party when he took his shirt off in A View From The Bridge, I’m pretty confident he’s got it in him, as the first half in particular of this play about young men’s mental health demonstrates. Nate Gibson’s set is a concrete wall on the banks of the Thames, where four men in their twenties are hanging around after the funeral of their friend Frankie, drinking, smoking, and waiting for the dead man’s girlfriend Kirstie (Amy Vicary-Smith) to arrive with balloons for one last ceremony she has in mind.