Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Theatre review: Finishing the Picture

Arthur Miller must have spent half his life being asked to write about Marilyn Monroe, and in his final play he did. Finishing the Picture may take place on the set of an unnamed 1961 film with fictional creatives, but there’s little question what the inspiration is: The film is the famously troubled The Misfits, the safari-suited director Derek (Stephen Billington) is John Huston, and the screenwriter Paul (Jeremy Drakes,) married to the unpredictable leading lady, is Miller himself. We never see Kitty, the film’s star, but she’s all anyone talks about. The production is nearing the end of its filming schedule – and budget – and the new producer, Philip (Oliver Le Sueur,) has flown in to see what’s holding up the final scenes. These all require Kitty, but she refuses to leave her trailer; even on the rare occasions she’s attempted to perform, the camera’s easily picked up how heavily sedated she is so the footage is unusable.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Theatre review: Romeo and Juliet
(RSC / RST, Barbican and tour)

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of Romeo and Juliet, but it's also no secret that I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise - Rupert Goold's production was my favourite show of 2010, an accolade I gave it largely because making me like the play is a feat in itself. Since then no version I've seen has given me reason to think that was anything other than an outlier. I wonder how many others see Goold's as such a landmark, because since then the RSC has steered clear of one of Shakespeare's most popular plays: For comparison, Michael Boyd's Antony and Cleopatra opened around the same time, and the company has already revisited that twice since then. Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman is the brave soul tasked with finally taking on the star-crossed lovers again, and while this won't be another production to entirely defy my expectations, she's taken a suitably bold approach to the play, and one that attempts to solve many of the problems I have with it in performance.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Theatre review: Machinal

The Almeida’s current season of female playwrights now looks back to 1928 for a play whose expressionist style places it very firmly in that time, but whose script often feels almost unnervingly up-to-date. In Machinal, Sophie Treadwell despairs at the world treating all people like part of a machine, but there’s no question it’s women’s role in that machine that’s the particular target. Initially known only as Miss A, later revealed to be called Helen, Emily Berrington plays a young woman who works as a stenographer in a New York office where she doesn’t fit in, largely due to being the only one who openly admits she feels like she’s wasting her life there. Not that this deters the company vice-president, Jones (Jonathan Livingstone,) who proposes to her. Helen flinches at his touch, but she knows marriage is the expected next step in her life, and a wealthy husband would get her out of her 9-5 job, so she accepts.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Theatre review: Utility

Emily Schwend's Utility concludes another successful season at the Orange Tree, albeit one that's felt more quietly consistent than full of explosive hits. This, too, is in the same vein, an American kitchen sink drama about a woman just about keeping her head above water. The play starts with Amber (Robyn Addison) tentatively agreeing to let her husband Chris (Robert Lonsdale) move back in with her and their kids after a separation. It's implied, if never explicitly stated, that there was another woman, but in any case this doesn't seem to be what she's worried about: He's charming and well-meaning, but Chris is also unreliable and can barely seem to manage a couple of shifts at work every week, so Amber feels he'll end up being just another mouth to feed as she works two jobs. This week she's also got to worry about preparing an eighth birthday party for her daughter.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Theatre review: My Name is Lucy Barton

Ladies and gentlemen, LAURA MOTHERFUCKING LINNEY.

I’m still not sure any more review is actually necessary for My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout’s short novel adapted into a stage monologue by Rona Munro and directed by Richard Eyre at the Bridge Theatre. Bob Crowley’s simple set is a hospital room, where writer Lucy spent nine weeks in the early eighties after an appendectomy went wrong. She looks back on that time now, specifically the day that her estranged mother suddenly appeared at the foot of her bed – Lucy’s husband had asked her to come and paid for the air fare, otherwise she wouldn’t have visited. It sends her on a disjointed recollection of her childhood in rural Illinois, where the family were so poor she would stay late at school because it was better-heated than their house. The effect of this extra study time was a scholarship to university, where she met her future husband and moved with him to New York.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Theatre review: Translations

With the high-profile flops it’s hosted over the last year the usual arguments have come up about how the Olivier’s size and shape make it hard to fit anything but the biggest epic on it, so Rae Smith’s design for Ian Rickson’s production of Translations comes along to comprehensively disprove them: Brian Friel’s play takes place almost entirely in a schoolroom, and that’s what Smith puts downstage, but she surrounds it with foggy moors that suggest the country whose future is being discussed inside it, in ways whose significance is more far-reaching than it may first appear. This is a “hedge school” – a small private school teaching basic literacy and numeracy – in 1833 County Donegal, where a weekly class teaches those of the town’s adults who want to improve their skills. For Sarah (Michelle Fox,) who is almost mute, this can be as basic as building up the confidence to say her own name.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Theatre review: Fatherland

Frantic Assembly’s verbatim piece Fatherland is the brainchild of director Scott Graham, composer Karl Hyde and playwright Simon Stephens, who come from Corby, Kidderminster and Stockport respectively. Their idea was to return to those home towns and conduct a dozen interviews with local men about fatherhood – most of them fathers themselves, all of them at least having something to say about their own fathers. The resulting play puts their thoughts and memories on stage in a text put together by Stephens, sometimes set to music by Hyde, and brought to typically physical life by Graham, but the actual interview process and creation of the play ends up being as much if not more of what it’s about: As well as casting actors to play their subjects, the trio put versions of themselves on stage too, with Nyasha Hatendi’s Simon and Declan Bennett’s Scott leading the interviews while Mark Arends’ Karl absent-mindedly records everything in the background.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Theatre review: The Two Noble Kinsmen (Shakespeare's Globe)

A minor way in which Michelle Terry has already differed from her predecessors at the Globe is that this is the first summer season at the venue not to have an official overall theme - just how well past seasons ever really tied in to those themes is a different story. It's been no secret though that there's a very low-key connection between four of this year's shows, and that's "Emilia," a name that crops up in a number of Shakespeare's plays. The theme will culminate in a new play about the woman they may or may not have all been named after, but the first Emilia on stage this summer is the one who inadvertently puts a rift between The Two Noble Kinsmen. Fletcher and Shakespeare's last play together tells a story taken from Chaucer's Knight's Tale, a pretty thin story that's padded out in a way that leaves us with a messy, but in the right hands entertaining, few hours.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Theatre review: The Rink

Does Southwark Playhouse have an ultimate goal of staging Starlight Express some day? They seem to have cornered the market in shows involving roller-skates (who knew that was even a market to be cornered?) and after Xanadu and punkplay comes Kander and Ebb’s 1984 musical The Rink. It takes a while for anyone to actually get their skates on though, as the rink in question is one that’s seen better days and has fallen into disrepair. Anna (Caroline O’Connor) inherited it from her father-in-law, and for many years it was a main attraction of the boardwalk in an East Coast town. With the economy closing most of the businesses on the boardwalk, Anna has sold off the rink to developers who plan to knock it down. The demolition crew are already there helping her clear everything out, but so is someone she didn’t expect: Her daughter Angel (Gemma Sutton) is co-owner of the rink, and Anna forged her signature to make the sale.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Theatre review: The Strange Death of John Doe

Fiona Doyle’s second play for Hampstead Downstairs, The Strange Death of John Doe is structured as a post-mortem on what was, indeed, a strange death – though one not only based on a true story but on circumstances that are surprisingly common. The John Doe body in question will eventually be identified as Ximo (Benjamin Cawley,) found dead under the Heathrow flightpath with no sign of how he got there. The conclusion is that he’d stowed away in a plane’s landing gear and fell as it prepared to land, although whether the fall killed him or he was already dead from hypothermia is something pathologist Ger (Charlotte Bradley) and her team may never be able to establish. As they cut into Ximo’s body to find answers, detective John Kavura (Rhashan Stone) tries to figure out how he got there. Put on suspension because of his alcoholism and taken off the case, John is haunted too much by the story to let it go, and investigates anyway.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Stage-to-screen review: King Lear (BBC & Amazon)

Anthony Hopkins played King Lear in his fifties, in a National Theatre production so famously derided he ended up retiring from the stage. Now 80, he still can’t be tempted back to the theatre but Richard Eyre has tempted him back to Shakespeare and to a role he’s now the exact same age as. A BBC and Amazon co-production, Eyre’s TV version sets King Lear in an alternate present day where Britain is still ruled by the monarchy from its seat in the Tower of London, where Lear invites his three daughters to share out the ruling of his kingdom. Goneril (Emma Thompson) and Regan (Emily Watson) stick to the script and dole out rote flattery, but Cordelia (Florence Pugh) attempts a more casual response which backfires. She finds herself exiled while her older sisters share the kingdom – and the responsibility of caring for an increasingly unpredictable and dangerous father.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Theatre review: As You Like It (Shakespeare's Globe)

The second show from the Globe’s new Michelle Terry-led ensemble is As You Like It, nominally paired with the Hamlet they’re playing it in rep with as “sibling” plays; to be honest what connections the company have found between the plays aren’t too obviously apparent, but if it doesn’t really come across as a double bill that’s no bad thing because where Hamlet was underwhelming, As You Like It is, well, much more like it. Although the idea of gender-blind casting has been gaining traction in recent years, it’s not often it feels as natural as in these ensemble shows – there tends to be the feel of it mainly being male roles assigned to women to redress the gender imbalance, with the odd recasting the other way so it’s not a box-ticking exercise. Not so in these plays, and particularly this one, where the casting announcement was exciting because it seemed more genuinely gender-blind than anything I’ve seen before: Regardless of gender, the roles assigned seemed like ones I thought would be an interesting match to that particular actor.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Theatre review: The Grönholm Method

Frank (Jonathan Cake) arrives at the final interview stage for a senior sales job at a Fortune 500 company only to find no interviewers present. Instead Rick (John Gordon Sinclair,) Melanie (Laura Pitt-Pulford, somehow feeling brave enough to return to the Menier Chocolate Factory so soon after an excruciating experience) and Carl (Greg McHugh) join him in the conference room, the other candidates competing for the job. They’re not here for a traditional interview but to be tested for their suitability for a stressful job, according to the rules of The Grönholm Method. Observed, they assume, through hidden cameras or two-way mirrors, a concealed drawer occasionally slides out of the wall containing instructions for the games they have to play – anyone who finds it too much is welcome to leave the room, but they forfeit their chance at the job if they do.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Theatre review: Describe the Night

Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj took its inspiration from a false, but widely believed, legend about the building of the Taj Mahal; for Describe the Night he mixes real historical figures and events with fiction of his own invention, in a play that looks at Fake News in a context that made an art form of it: Soviet Russia. His story ranges over 90 years and could be described as the journey taken by a diary, written by journalist and novelist Isaac Babel (Ben Caplan) in 1920. Following the Russian army to Poland, he was employed to write the official dispatches, but also kept this personal journal to record his reactions and descriptions of places and events. In 2010, a plane crash near Smolensk killed the Polish president and much of his cabinet on the way to a memorial service, inspiring conspiracy theories about the Russian government’s involvement. When Feliks (Joel MacCormack) finds the wreckage, a dying woman gives him the diary.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Theatre review: Red

It’s nine years since John Logan’s Red premiered at the Donald and Margot Warehouse, and while I would have happily seen it again at the time its hit transfer to New York meant it never had a further life in London. Michael Grandage has finally been able to rectify this with a revival at Wyndham’s, and has even managed to bring back his original star, Alfred Molina, to play the artist Mark Rothko. The play is the imagined story of the painting of The Seagram Murals, a sequence of red and black paintings originally commissioned to decorate the elite Four Seasons restaurant. It immediately sounds like an unlikely home for a collection of moody, ominous canvases, and Rothko did in the end withdraw from the commission. In a way Red is the story of how he comes to that decision, as he bats ideas back and forth with a fictional assistant, Ken, played by Startled Giraffe Alfred Enoch. The role was originally played by Eddie Redmayne, because Grandage is seemingly committed to only casting Red with actors who have red in their names.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Theatre review: Hamlet (Shakespeare's Globe)

After the “teaser” of the touring Twelfth Night and Shrew, it’s time for the main season as Michelle Terry takes over as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe. Not only has the venue gone back to having an actor in charge (the first one to hold the post will be returning later in the summer) but the idea of the productions being “actor-led” has been heavily promoted leading up to her first season; in fact the new Globe Ensemble’s first pair of productions were originally announced as being put together without a director, although Federay Holmes and Elle While have since been brought in to fulfil that role. This reliance on actor input is apparent, in both positive and negative ways, in the opening show of the Terry era, and she’s come straight in to take on a challenge, playing the title role in Hamlet*. The Prince of Denmark is in mourning two months after the sudden death of his father, but the royal court around him has already moved on.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Theatre review: The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare's Globe & tour)

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

After a pretty safe opener in Twelfth Night, the second of Brendan O’Hea’s Globe productions vying for votes on the tour is The Taming of the Shrew. It’s a play that seems ripe for exploration in a year when #MeToo is a major theme in theatre, but it’s also one that, precisely because of the modern context, needs a lot of work and a high concept to find its place on a 21st century stage. Can an eight-strong company who are also rehearsing two other plays at the same time bring that level of nuance? No. Lucentio (Luke Brady) arrives in Padua and instantly falls in love with Bianca (Sarah Finigan,) daughter of the wealthy Baptista (Cynthia Emeagi.) Baptista knows his youngest daughter has many suitors, and has used this to deal with a problem: His eldest, Katherina (Rhianna McGreevy) is so bad-tempered she’s widely considered to be cursed. Baptista has decreed that he’ll only give his blessing for Bianca to marry when a husband has also been found for Katherina.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Theatre review: Chess

Growing up in the 1980s I remember chess championships, particularly those that pitted an American grand master against a Soviet one, always seeming to be in the news, so at the time basing a blockbuster musical around a chess match didn't seem entirely like a terrible idea. But time can put perspective on a lot of things, and from a viewpoint not just of 2018 but pretty much every year since Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice's Chess first took to the stage it's been obvious that it is, entirely, a terrible idea. Musically, the songwriting team behind ABBA provide some predictably strong numbers, but the story is so notoriously bad that it's been constantly rewritten in a desperate attempt to make it even borderline comprehensible. This is the third production I've seen, each using a slightly different book, and this one barely uses any book at all, but after thirty-odd years of rewriting at least one thing has succeeded: In terms of the basic story beats at least, it is now borderline comprehensible.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Theatre review: Nightfall

Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theatre launched with the announcement of its first three shows, designed to be a showcase of the three main seating configurations the auditorium could use. Of these the third, Barney Norris’ Nightfall, stood out as an unusual choice for a new, large-scale venue: He’s been building a name for himself Off-West End but it seems a big ask for Norris to fill a 900-seat theatre for a month, especially without a headline-grabbing cast. There’s also the fact that the playwright’s previous work has all been very intimate, and I wondered how he’d handle something more epic. As it turns out that’s not really what he’s aiming for anyway: Rae Smith’s set, putting the yard of a farmhouse on the thrust stage, could happily stage a naturalistic Uncle Vanya, but unlike Chekhov’s multiple story strands there’s only four characters to follow here.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Theatre review: Building the Wall

Robert Schenkkan’s dystopian Building the Wall has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been a hit in the USA, where it was one of the first plays to imagine the consequences of a Trump presidency. Set in a Texas jail cell in November 2019, Trump has been impeached, for reasons that may or may not turn out to be connected to the cell’s inhabitant: Rick (Trevor White) is awaiting sentencing for a crime that’s made him the most hated man in America, and following his lawyer’s advice he didn’t testify at his own trial, so his side of the story remains unheard. From the pile of letters asking for interviews, he’s picked out Gloria’s (Angela Griffin,) and we follow the uninterrupted 80 minutes the historian has been granted to interview him. The actual nature of his crime is the play’s big reveal so it’ll be a while before we can get to that; first we have some background to the characters, particularly Rick himself.