Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Theatre review: Mosquitoes

After the success of Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood’s latest play Mosquitoes gets its premiere at the National Theatre, with Rufus Norris directing, a Katrina Lindsay set full of bells and whistles and spectacular projections, and most of all the central roles filled by two Future Dame Olivias: Williams plays Alice, a particle physicist working at CERN in the buildup to the Large Hadron Collider being switched on for the first time. Colman is her sister Jenny, the black sheep in a family full of scientists, as she’s superstitious and much more likely to believe any unfounded rumour she reads online than empirically proven facts. In particular, she believed the scare stories about the MMR vaccine causing autism and refused to vaccinate her baby daughter, with tragic results that kick off the story: In need of some support Jenny is visiting her sister in Switzerland, along with their mother Karen (Amanda Boxer.)

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Theatre review: Nina - a story about me and Nina Simone

Josette Bushell-Mingo and Dritëro Kasapi’s extraordinarily angry piece Nina – a story about me and Nina Simone is closer to performance art than theatre: Bushell-Mingo starts the show in an afro wig, describing the jubilant atmosphere leading up to a Nina Simone concert in 1969, and the suggestion is that she’s going to impersonate Simone and perform some of the songs from that set. But this is more about Nina Simone the activist than the performer, and having barely started the first song Bushell-Mingo finds she can’t carry on, because the inequality Simone was fighting against back then is still present today – Simone wrote a song called "Mississippi Goddam" and Bushell-Mingo is all too aware that with anti-black violence continuing to be disproportionate to this day, the song could just as easily be renamed “Ferguson Goddam.”

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Theatre review: Disco Pigs

I almost skipped the 20th anniversary production of Disco Pigs because I felt like I’d seen a version at the Young Vic quite recently; as it turns out that production was actually six years ago and besides, casting a Harry Potter actor I hadn’t “collected” on stage before is always a good way of making me stump up for a ticket. Enda Walsh’s two-hander uses a mixture of strong Cork accents and dialect with a convoluted, poetic style of speech that channels Joyce, Beckett and A Clockwork Orange to tell a story of two teenagers, Darren aka Pig (Colin Campbell) and Sinead aka Runt (Evanna Lynch,) who were born a second apart in the same hospital. Ever since being placed on adjacent tables they’ve been closer than real siblings, to the point in fact of isolating themselves from their families, speaking in their own language and dealing with the outside world mainly with violence.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Theatre review: Twilight Song

Kevin Elyot’s final play is called, appropriately enough, Twilight Song, and it’s a short, distinctly odd one that left me with the suspicion he hadn’t quite finished working on it when he died. Alternating between the 1960s and the present day in the same suburban London villa, it was bought, largely thanks to a cash gift from a wealthy uncle, by Isabella (Bryony Hannah) and her meek new husband Basil (Paul Higgins.) Partly due to events that unfold in the play, the improvements they planned to make to it never happened and by the time their son Barry (also Higgins) is in his fifties, the place seems to be falling apart and he’s thinking of selling it. Estate agent Skinner (Adam Garcia) is optimistic that it can fetch a good price regardless, but he may just be buttering him up because he supplements his income with a side-line in prostitution, and he’s spotted a likely customer in the lonely and repressed Barry.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Theatre review: Dessert

Oliver Cotton’s flawed but fun, issue-based thriller Dessert is another of those plays that hinges on a major plot twist, this time coming about 20 minutes in – in fact much of the publicity has revolved around Cotton and director Trevor Nunn tying themselves up in knots trying to discuss the play without actually mentioning what it’s about. So once again I’ll try to keep things vague in the opening paragraph before getting spoilery after the text cut. Certainly the promotional image of an unevenly cut cake gives a clue that we’re in for a story about the 5% who own 95% of the world’s wealth, and Rachel Stone’s set is an opulent dining room whose walls are covered with priceless paintings. This is just another room in the house of Hugh (Michael Simkins,) a company director notorious for liquidating a struggling company causing investors to lose their savings, while he got away with a £5 million bonus. SPOILER ALERT for the rest of the review.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Theatre review: Bodies

With Future Dame Billie Piper about to reprise her Yerma at the Young Vic, over at the Royal Court we have another childless woman taking a much more pragmatically 21st century approach to the problem. She’s not yet got the profile of someone like James Graham, Lucy Kirkwood or Polly Stenham but ever since her debut with Mogadishu* Vivienne Franzmann has been delivering such consistently good work she’s as much of a must-see playwright for me as any of them. In Bodies the woman desperate for a child is Clem (Justine Mitchell,) who after five miscarriages has opted for surrogacy. Her husband Josh (Jonathan McGuinness, reading in the role after Brian Ferguson got ill,) will provide the sperm, the eggs come from an unknown woman in Russia, while actually carrying the baby will be Lakshmi (Salma Hoque) in India, where surrogates have very few rights.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Theatre review: The Mentor

I think last year’s great revival of Amadeus made the prospect of seeing the film version’s star, F Murray Abraham, on stage even more of a draw for me. So it’s a good job his performance in The Mentor lives up to expectations, because little else about Daniel Kehlmann’s play was really memorable enough to stay with me past the Vaudeville’s front doors. Kehlmann is apparently a huge name in Germany right now, and being the first to bring him to the UK are the team of translator Christopher Hampton and director Laurence Boswell, who in recent years also introduced us to Florian Zeller. And there is more of a French than German aesthetic to Polly Sullivan’s design, a country garden inside a white box, with chairs shaped like human hands as a clue that pretension is welcome here – a retreat owned by an arts charity that pairs established names with promising newcomers to develop new work.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Theatre review: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

A delayed arrival in the West End for Broadway star Audra McDonald – she was due to appear in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill a couple of years ago, but the entire run got cancelled because she was pregnant. Now she finally gets to take the stage at Wyndham’s – the same theatre she was due to play in the first place – and demonstrate why she couldn’t have been replaced. Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play recreates an evening in the titular Philadelphia bar, where Billie Holiday (McDonald) performed in 1959, a few months before her death. She has mixed feelings about playing there – she loves the bar and has friends there but Philadelphia itself is where she pled guilty to her first husband’s drug charges expecting to be let off easy, and ended up in prison for a year instead. By the time she takes to the stage she’s already a few drinks down and she’s never too far from a full glass of neat gin the whole evening, but this is far from a unique reaction to a city she doesn’t feel comfortable in.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Theatre review: Superhero

In most ways the temporary Southwark Playhouse venue at Elephant and Castle has been an improvement on the one they’ll be returning to next year, but I can’t say I don’t miss the London Bridge one in the summer, when the fact that the smaller auditorium, The Vault, was so far into the network of railway tunnels meant it was cool, even in the middle of a heatwave. No such luck at The Little, which has no air conditioning and was pretty unbearable tonight – in fact I’m not sure how well I can even review Superhero because my main take from it was wondering if I’d make it to the end of the 90 minutes without passing out. I suppose one thing you can take in its favour is that I didn’t escape into the night, which is a tribute to Jeremy Corbyn Michael Rouse, the performer in this one-man musical by Michael Conley (book,) Joseph Finlay (music) and Richy Hughes (lyrics.)

Monday, 3 July 2017

Theatre review: Gloria

I try to write reviews without major spoilers in them but it can be a minefield: Gloria is a play that I could try to talk about without mentioning the twist halfway through, but it’s so crucial to what the play’s about there’d be little point writing about it at all if I didn’t at least allude to it. So I’ll start with the story’s setup in the first paragraph, and after that read at your own risk if you’re planning on seeing the show. We start with a bitter, and not all that funny, office sitcom: Kae Alexander, Colin Morgan and Ellie Kendrick play PAs to various editors in the New York headquarters of a national magazine, with Bayo Gbadamosi as an intern who’s been kept deliberately far from any useful work just in case he develops an interest in working there for real, and gets in the way of the others’ ambitions. But Michael Longhurst’s production sets their realistic cubicles in front of chipboard walls that overtly remind us this is a theatrical setting; and besides the writer is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and anyone who saw An Octoroon will know he likes to play around with form. SPOILER ALERT after the text cut.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Theatre review: Titus Andronicus (RSC / RST & Barbican)

For the most famous playwright in history, Shakespeare is surprisingly subject to the whims of fashion, or at least individual plays of his are. Having been in almost constant rotation in the repertory when I first started going to the theatre, The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew have become a lot rarer, although the former did briefly become ubiquitous again a couple of years ago. On the opposite trajectory is a play you'll still find plenty of people willing to swear is Shakespeare's worst, but which has been cropping up a lot more in hit productions, and I'm yet to see a truly bad one: My first Titus Andronicus was only in 2013, on the RSC's smaller Swan stage; I think Michael Fentiman's take was one of the things that reminded people of what a crowd-pleaser it could be, and on its next Stratford outing it gets a go on the main stage as well as a limited London transfer, as part of this year's overarching Roman theme.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Theatre review: Ink

The more I think about Ink, the more overtly it seems like a take on Doctor Faustus. James Graham’s latest play – his first of three premieres over the next five months – is an origin story for the The Sun, Britain’s bestselling and most politically influential newspaper. The paper had already been running for a few years when we join the story in 1969, as an unloved stablemate of the bestselling Daily Mirror, with tiny sales figures and considered a bit of a Fleet Street joke, a job there even less in-demand than one in a local paper. Having already bought the Sunday paper News of the World, Australian businessman Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) doesn’t want his printing presses to go unused the rest of the week, and buys The Sun with a plan to turn it into a rival for The Mirror, and eventually overtake it. He courts Larry Lamb (not that one) (Richard Coyle) to be the first editor, responsible for finding that elusive mass appeal.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Theatre review: Mr Gillie

Last year the Finborough’s search for forgotten hits of the past found Scottish playwright James Bridie, whose black comedy Dr Angelus proved well worth another look; now the Sunday-to-Tuesday alternate slot is given up to another of Bridie’s West End hits of the ‘50s, and while Mr Gillie hasn’t stood the test of time anywhere near as well, the amiable little tragicomedy has its moments. Perhaps its most interesting facet is the very premise, which takes a more critical look at a dramatic cliché that’s remained popular long after the play’s 1950 premiere: That of the inspirational teacher who instils an ambition in his students to transcend the limitations they were born into. That’s been Mr Gillie’s (Andy Secombe) aim all his years as headmaster in a small Scottish mining town, and it’s made him much-beloved of his ex-pupils, and hugely unpopular with the school board. And it’s hard not to see the latter’s point, because over the course of his career Gillie has found two students in particular who showed extraordinary talent: Both took his advice to pursue them, and in both cases their lives took such a turn for the worse they’re still spoken of in hushed tones now.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Theatre review: Terror

Billed as international event theatre and certainly designed as such, Ferdinand von Schirach's Terror has played over 1000 performances in Germany and been seen in numerous countries, with the Lyric Hammersmith now giving it its UK premiere in David Tushingham's translation. It's a courtroom drama with the audience serving as jury on an ever-topical case involving terrorism: A passenger plane carrying 164 civilians was hijacked, with it looking increasingly likely it would crash into a stadium filled to its 70,000 capacity. A hastily drafted and redrafted law allows for the plane to be shot down to save the majority, but as it stands only the Minister for Defence can give the order, and he refuses to do so. Faced with the reality, fighter pilot Lars Koch (Ashley Zhangazha) took it upon himself to sacrifice the plane and save the 70,000. Having gone against orders, he's now charged with mass murder and faces life in prison.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Theatre review: Sweet Bird of Youth

I had a feeling that Daniel Evans taking over as Artistic Director of Chichester's theatres would make me break my previous rule of not making the trip to West Sussex; and with Ian McKellen revisiting King Lear there later this year it proved a bit too tempting. So in for a penny, in for a pound, I ended up booking three shows in the two theatres, and why not when there's the chance to see Brian J. Smith in another Tennesse Williams play only months after his memorable performance in The Glass Menagerie? This time he's Chance Wayne, the wannabe actor, more realistically a hustler, in Sweet Bird of Youth. A couple of weeks before we first meet him, Chance hooked up with a woman calling herself the Princess Kosmonopolis, who 's paying for a luxury lifestyle in return for his discreet companionship.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Theatre review: Tristan & Yseult

Tristan & Yseult was one of the shows that catapulted Kneehigh from Westcountry touring company to major name in UK theatre, and as Emma Rice's second and final summer season at Shakespeare's Globe has a "Summer of Love" theme, her take on the mediaeval romance takes the South Bank in as part of a new tour. Tristan (Dominic Marsh) is a French prince allied to King Mark of Cornwall (Mike Shepherd,) who helped the king defend against an Irish invasion. As part of his reparation, Mark demands the Irish king's sister Yseult as a bride, and sends Tristan to collect her. Yseult (Hannah Vassallo) swears eternal hatred for the man who killed her brother, but also brings along a love potion to help her get on with her new husband. One mix-up later and the two are in love, or at the very least passionate lust.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Theatre review: Working

Studs Terkel has been one of America’s favourite radio hosts and journalists since 1945, and is known especially for his interviews with regular people and the books he’s published collecting them. Working, which unsurprisingly looks at people from the perspective of their jobs, is the most famous of these, but is still an unlikely subject for a musical, and Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso’s adaptation is in its turn an unusual musical: In its current form, only three of the songs are by the Wicked composer himself, as Schwartz asked a number of other writers and musicians to contribute different voices. Craig Carnelia is the most frequent contributor with four songs, James Taylor and Micki Grant each provide two, and there’s one by Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead. Since its 1977 debut it’s been further rejigged, so now it also boasts the current biggest name in musical theatre with two songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Theatre review: The Ugly One

It’s nine years, almost to the day, since I saw the Royal Court’s original production of Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One, and it’s a show I remember surprisingly well. This revival is directed by Roy Alexander Weise, who after last year’s The Mountaintop seems to have similar taste to me in plays from the last decade or so; and I was particularly interested to see what he did with it because the original staging is one thing that particularly stood out in my memory – because it was virtually non-existent. Well Weise hasn’t followed suit, but his production’s still comparatively minimal despite the ubiquitous video element – here it gets projected onto Loren Elstein’s raised stage floor, a sort of enormous desk that sometimes doubles as a platform for the public presentations its characters make. And public presentations are something Lette (Charlie Dorfman) isn’t allowed to make: He’s invented a revolutionary (within his industry; otherwise stultifyingly dull) new plug for car-manufacturing machinery, but his company insists his assistant Karlmann (Arian Nik) present it to customers.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Theatre review: Barber Shop Chronicles

If my way home from the theatre is by bus, which includes trips back from the National, even if the show finished quite late chances are the row of black barber shops in Camberwell will still be open and doing business. Clearly there’s a cultural significance that’s built up around barber shops rather than a huge market for 10:30pm haircuts, and this is what Inua Ellams’ new comedy-drama at the Dorfman explores. Barber Shop Chronicles is made up of vignettes from barbers’ around Africa, but the central thread is set in a shop that – based on the local references the characters make – could easily be one of those in Camberwell: Three Kings Barbers was set up years ago by three friends, but only one is still working there. Emmanuel (Cyril Nri) has taken over the business after an incident between the other two we don’t hear about at first. Samuel (Fisayo Akinade) has taken over the second chair from his father, and harbours some resentment towards Emmanuel for something he believes the older man failed to do.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Theatre review: Salomé (RSC / Swan)

It's not the subtlest form of flirtation but if you ask a lady nicely she might get her cock out for you - although you might have to give her head in return. Yep, it's the story that's been striking dread into London's theatregoers but I'm not crazy enough to see the National's Salomé again - this time it's Stratford-upon-Avon and Oscar Wilde's one-act tragedy. But even this isn't quite the version Wilde imagined, although he'd probably have enjoyed watching it for a couple of reasons: The text is unchanged but director Owen Horsley is using it to mark the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The online trailer for the show has the feel of a gentleman's specialist film, and Bretta Gerecke's designs immediately suggest a gay club, the kind that probably isn't too surprised or bothered if more than one person uses the same toilet cubicle.