Friday 8 December 2023

Theatre review: The Time Machine

The Park Theatre wouldn't have the clout to get the whole of Mischief Theatre for its main seasonal comedy show, but they have managed one of the core cast members to take the lead. And if the amount of laughs turns out to be roughly proportionate, that's... still a pretty decent hit rate to be honest. In Steven Canny and John Nicholson's The Time Machine Dave Hearn, Amy Revelle and Michael Dylan play characters with their own first names, although Dave's surname here is Wells, because the premise is he's a descendant of H. G. Wells, author of the original science fiction novel. The three are a theatre troupe rehearsing a touring production of The Importance of Being Earnest when Dave discovers that his ancestor's book wasn't fiction, but an account of a journey into the future he had actually made, published as a warning of what would happen if humankind didn't change its ways.

Thursday 7 December 2023

Theatre review: Infinite Life

From the writer who brought you three hours of vacuuming popcorn out of a carpet comes two hours of pensioners sitting on sun loungers talking about their bladders: America's queen of low-key experimental theatre Annie Baker makes another return visit to the Dorfman with Infinite Life - James Macdonald's premiere production for Atlantic Theater Company in New York comes over with US cast intact, as Sofi (Christina Kirk) spends ten days (or thereabouts... her precise memory of her time there can get hazy) at a quasi-mystical fasting retreat in Northern California. People, mostly women, go there for extreme pain, life-threatening diseases or both, and if you believe Yvette (Mia Katigbak) the unseen doctor's combination of starvation diets and juice drinks have had miraculous healing results.

Saturday 2 December 2023

Theatre review: I, Malvolio

One of a series of Tim Crouch monologues for Shakespearean supporting characters, I, Malvolio is the first of them to come to the Swanamaker, and the first one I've seen. Malvolio is the puritanical steward in Twelfth Night, who's tricked into believing his mistress loves him, humiliates himself for her, and is imprisoned as a madman for it. It's an uncomfortably dark subplot of an otherwise popular comedy, and that's the aspect Crouch focuses on as he brings Malvolio back on stage after the play's end, muttering and ranting to himself, quite possibly having been driven mad for real. In a show that's half play half stand-up routine, he starts on time, all the better to berate latecomers, or anyone who's given themselves a seat upgrade or left their phone on. But he's also brought a noose with him, and wants audience participation to help him use it.

Thursday 30 November 2023

Theatre review:
Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York)

While we wait for news of whether my long-running campaign to have Indhu Rubasingham take over the National could actually come to something (she's currently considered the runaway favourite which... is basically a guarantee it won't happen,) the outgoing Artistic Director of the Kiln programmes one of the venue's biggest hits in a while, which extended its run before it even opened: Dougal (Sam Tutty) is a 25-year old Englishman whose father abandoned his mother shortly before he was born; he's never actually met him, but it's not been hard to keep up with what he's been up to because his father went on to become a millionaire. Now it seems Mark has finally remembered his son exists, as Dougal has received an invitation to his wedding in New York, to a much younger woman. He's flown over for two days, and is as excited to finally meet his father at he is to see the city of his favourite films.

Wednesday 29 November 2023

Theatre review: The House of Bernarda Alba

The National Theatre's biggest stages are currently giving a lot of actresses work, although neither of the titular roles are exactly feminist icons: If anything the Grand High Witch is a sweetheart compared to the matriarch of The House of Bernarda Alba. For Rebecca Frecknall's first show at the National, designer Merle Hensel supplies one of the multilevel buildings that fit so well on the Lyttelton stage, and while the script and costumes keep things in the rural 1930s Spain of the original, the pale green institutional set of little rooms piled on top of each other is a bit too on-the-nose, but an effective metaphor for the prison Bernarda (Harriet Walter) has created for herself and her family: Recently widowed for the second time, she declares that she and her five daughters will observe eight years of mourning for her husband, never to leave the grounds of the house without her permission.

Saturday 25 November 2023

Theatre review: She Stoops to Conquer

Tom Littler continues to find his own stamp on the Orange Tree's traditional money-spinning revivals with Restoration Comedy given a 1930s twist: One of the most famous examples of the genre, Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, gets set in a rural pub at Christmas, with Anett Black and Neil Irish's design adding tables and stuffed animal heads, to reflect a story about a posh county house that could easily be mistaken for an inn. It's a conceit that's set up early so that Charles Marlow (Freddie Fox) and George Hastings (Robert Mountford,) lost on their way to meet their prospective spouses, can be tricked into thinking they're taking shelter in a roadside tavern, when in fact they've reached their destination: The home of Mr Hardcastle (David Horovitch,) an old friend of Marlow's father, whose daughter Kate he's been sent to meet and court.

Thursday 23 November 2023

Theatre review: The Witches

One of Roald Dahl's most popular books saw him write about an evil underground cabal he thought were secretly running the world for nefarious purposes, but fortunately on this occasion he was talking about witches. Lucy Kirkwood (book and lyrics) and Dave Malloy (music and lyrics) take on the latest Dahl classic to get the musical theatre treatment. With Lizzie Clachan's staging cutting the front of the Olivier stage off and using designs that could easily fit into a more conventional proscenium arch, the National must be hoping The Witches does for them what Matilda did for the RSC. And, notwithstanding a running time that's pushing its luck with family audiences, they might get their wish. Ten-year-old Luke (Vishal Soni, alternating with Bertie Caplan and Frankie Keita) gets briskly orphaned at the start of the story, with the Norwegian grandmother he's never met before becoming his new guardian.

Tuesday 21 November 2023

Theatre review: Backstairs Billy

The Michael Grandage Company returns to the West End for a light comedy whose more serious intentions never quite cohere: Backstairs Billy by Marcelo Dos Santos (so named because he's currently got dos shows on in London) is based on real people, and capitalises on the ever-popular conceit of imagining what the Royal Family get up to behind closed doors. In this case it's one of the most beloved members throughout the 20th century, popular prequel Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Penelope Wilton may not seem obvious casting, but I've seen her play Bernarda Alba before so I know she can embody evil. One person who bought into her saintly image from a young age was William Tallon (Luke Evans,) a bouffant hairdo with footman attachment, who by 1979 has reached the senior position of Page of the Back Stairs.

Monday 20 November 2023

Theatre review: Mates in Chelsea

The fact that the Royal Court, still probably best known for popularising kitchen sink plays and retaining a reputation as a political powerhouse, is based at the heart of Sloane Square has always been a bit of a contradiction, and one the venue has occasionally played on. The latest variation on the theme is also an attempt to link the location to the scripted reality show Made in Chelsea - "The Poshos," as my sister calls it - and the obliviously privileged characters people are familiar with from TV. Rory Mullarkey's Mates in Chelsea puts modern-day aristocrats in a P.G. Wodehouse-inspired farce in which Tug Bungay (Laurie Kynaston) lives a louche life in his Chelsea flat, looked after by his grumpy Leninist housekeeper Mrs Hanratty (Amy Booth-Steel,) whom he keeps around mainly because a wise-cracking Jeeves type suits the image of himself he likes to project.

Friday 17 November 2023

Theatre review: Ghosts

The Swanamaker's tenth anniversary season opens with the venue's first venture into Ibsen - a classic playwright but still thoroughly modern by the standards of a Jacobean theatre. Thoroughly modern by most standards in fact - it's often commented how ahead of his time Ibsen was, and after the show Ben checked with me if this was a revival or a new play. Ghosts, which Joe Hill-Gibbins adapts and directs, was actually first seen in 1881 - well, seen in any territory that didn't immediately ban it. Oswald (Stuart Thompson) has returned to the remote Norwegian home he didn't actually spend much of his life in, having been sent off to study as an artist abroad - most recently he's been living a Bohemian life in Paris. The occasion is the tenth anniversary of his father's death, and his mother Helene (Hattie Morahan) is opening an orphanage in the name of a man remembered as a great moral force.

Thursday 16 November 2023

Theatre review: Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen

I don't really go to stand-up comedy (as with most things, going to All The Theatre leaves no time or money for that,) but I know a big trend in recent years has been for comedy shows that delve not only into the personal, but into the downright traumatic. Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen is a play written in the style of a stand-up special, rather than an actual stand-up special, but its mix of rapid-fire gags with something a bit darker and more heartfelt probably wouldn't feel too out of place at the Edinburgh Festival (where it was, in fact, first seen before transferring to the Bush.) Marcelo Dos Santos writes the monologue, but it's Samuel Barnett who plays the unnamed gay Comedian, whose sexual preference is "passive aggressive," and who greets us on stage by announcing he's going to kill his boyfriend.

Monday 13 November 2023

Theatre review: Blue Mist

Mohamed-Zain Dada's tragicomic Blue Mist, going into its last week Upstairs at the Royal Court, is a story of young British Muslim men set in a shisha lounge – apparently there’s a lot more of these dotted around London than is immediately apparent, serving as an alternative place to socialise for people who don’t drink so don’t have much interest in pubs. It’s not a subculture I was particularly aware of, but then that’s kind of the point: As something that’s a part of Muslims’ lives but not particularly on the radar of most other people, it’s an easy target for right-wing figures who want to build up a narrative of dodgy underground networks breeding terrorists at worst, segregation at best. Hoping to become a documentary-maker, Jihad (Omar Bynon) sees this both as fertile material, and a chance to reclaim the narrative (as well as help save his beloved Chunkyz Shisha Lounge from being targeted and closed down.)

Thursday 9 November 2023

Theatre review: The Interview

Last year's season of The Crown had an episode dedicated to the Princess of Wales' notorious interview with Martin Bashir, and the dubious techniques by which he secured it, so when the Park Theatre announced its 2023 season would include a new play on the subject I did wonder what more (apart from the hoped-for box office clout anything Lady Di-related still has) Jonathan Maitland's The Interview had to offer. Considerably less, as it turns out. In 1995, following a TV interview with her husband, Diana (Yolanda Kettle) is fielding offers from various interviewers who want her side of the story. Moving to America and doing a tell-all with Oprah Winfrey is an option, but that doesn't seem like something a member of that family would do. Instead she goes for the BBC's reputable journalism, specifically Panorama reporter Bashir (Tibu Fortes,) because her brother thinks she can trust him.

Tuesday 7 November 2023

Theatre review: Lyonesse

Elaine Dailey (Kristin Scott Thomas) was a rising star of TV and film who'd just made a celebrated stage debut when she vanished the day after Press Night, disappearing for decades and becoming almost a figure of legend, with rumours abounding over whether she was alive or dead. Now a figure from her past has died, and she's ready to resurface and tell her story - and she hopes she can be centre stage again when it gets told. In Penelope Skinner's Lyonesse Lily James plays a Mrs Trellis of North London, an executive at a female-led film production company who are looking for a #MeToo project to develop. Her boss Sue (Niky Wardley, who's replaced Doon Mackichan at short notice after she had to leave the show for personal reasons,) has heard that Elaine's story might fit the bill, and sends Kate Trellis to her crumbling Cornish home to secure the rights.

Monday 6 November 2023

Theatre review: Lizzie

Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt's musical Lizzie premiered in 2009, but hasn't had a full UK production before. The Hope Mill's touring production, which lands at Southwark Playhouse Elephant, makes a pretty strong case for why there was no rush. A rock musical about notorious American axe-murderer Lizzie Borden (she was actually acquitted, but that's not really the part anyone remembers, and this version of her story assumes her guilt,) it's a strange, monotonous misfire that puts women centre-stage to reclaim their story (if it didn't long predate SIX it would seem like an obvious rip-off; of course that one has some actual female creatives...) The musical style is a kind of punky rock, although the vocal style is very much traditional American musical theatre, in the sense that any note not belted at the top of the actors' lungs is considered a note wasted.

Thursday 2 November 2023

Theatre review: The Time Traveller's Wife

Audrey Niffenegger's 2003 fantasy romance The Time Traveller's Wife has been so popular it's already been given multiple screen adaptations, in an apparent contest to see how many times you can do a story revolving around a lot of male nudity without ever showing cock. Now it's the, somehow simultaneously inevitable and utterly unlikely, musical theatre adaptation: Lauren Gunderson (book,) Joss Stone & Dave Stewart (music & lyrics) and Kait Kerrigan (additional lyrics) take on the story of a naked man who grooms a young girl over a period of several years, and then his feet fall off. Librarian Henry (David Hunter) meets Clare (Joanna Woodward,) who does papier-mâché professionally, in a library when they're in their twenties, but she already seems to know a lot about him, including his supernatural secret.

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Theatre review: King Lear (Wyndham's)

The received wisdom on Kenneth Branagh is that he's been living out a lifelong Laurence Olivier fixation by playing all the major roles he was most associated with, in performances that increasingly make the late Baron of Brighton seem like a master of gritty naturalism. This has inevitably built up to King Lear, and watching the production - which he also, of course, directs himself in - I have to wonder if this is really the case, or if in fact his role models are the 19th century actor-managers who gave their names to the West End theatres he plays in. Certainly the performances, not only his own but those he gets out of a cast largely made up of recent graduates, are the kind of thing you can imagine a Victorian audience being used to. The evening opens with a projection of the Earth seen from space, perhaps as a clue to where SirKenBran's performance will be visible from.

Monday 30 October 2023

Theatre review: The Confessions

A British / Australian / Luxembourgish co-production, Alexander Zeldin's The Confessions, which he also directs at the Lyttelton, is based on conversations with his mother and her peers, and follows one woman's life from Australia in 1943 - when, as a child, she meets her father for the first time returning from the war and is confused because she thought the portrait of him on the wall was her father - to London in 2021, when she finally tells her son, who's been quizzing her just like the real author, to stop poking around for more details of her life. For the most part Amelda Brown narrates the story as the older Alice, while Eryn Jean Norvill plays her younger self in the scenes, but they occasionally trade places at particularly critical moments; perhaps Alice is so shaken by these events she steps out of her body, and can only confront them with the benefit of time.

Friday 27 October 2023

Theatre review: To Have and to Hold

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: To Have and to Hold was meant to be well into its run by now, but following the cancellation of its preview period this is now a review of the second public performance.

So yes, a shaky start for the divisive Richard Bean's new comedy-drama To Have and to Hold; no official announcement has been made about why its opening was put back, but the show was originally slated to be directed by Richard Wilson, who's now credited as co-director with Terry Johnson. You can see why an octogenarian director might have been a good fit for a story revolving around a couple in their nineties: Jack (Alun Armstrong) and Florence (Marion Bailey) have lived in Wetwang in Yorkshire for 70 years of married life, and both their children have long since moved away. Now, with it becoming apparent that Jack at least is very ill and nearing the end, mystery novelist Rob (Christopher Fulford) and private medicine entrepreneur Tina (Hermione Gulliford) are visiting to convince their parents to sell the house, and move in with Tina's family where they can be looked after.

Thursday 26 October 2023

Theatre review: Owners

I talk about Caryl Churchill being an outlier among playwrights, in that the older and more venerated she becomes, the shorter and more succinct her work gets. Does that mean going back to one of her first-ever plays will find her at her most rambling and unfocused? Well, yes as it turns out, but Owners, which Stella Powell-Jones revives at Jermyn Street, also shows her not only commanding some great dialogue, but also occasions when she seems decades ahead of her time. Right from the comic opening scene in fact, where Clegg (Mark Huckett) closes the doors for the last time on the butcher's shop he inherited from his father and hoped to pass on to his son. But his wife can't have children, and is such a high-flying success that she'll be the one supporting both of them from now on.