Saturday, 18 November 2017

Theatre review: Quiz

My policy on making theatre trips to Chichester changed from "never" to "three times this year" in part thanks to each of the three shows feeling like they completed some kind of set: The decider was the chance to bookend a decade with different Ian McKellen performances of King Lear, but Sweet Bird of Youth made for a double bill of Tennesse Williams plays starring Brian J. Smith, and now the final show in Daniel Evans' first season in charge concludes a trio of new James Graham plays in 2017. Quiz is less obviously political than most of Graham's plays but you don't have to scratch too deep to find some of the wider themes that often come up in the playwright's work, particularly Privacy, about transparency in personal life, politics and the law; and whether the tendency towards leaving nothing secret in the name of full disclosure is in fact harming the chance of fair treatment behind closed doors. The reason this comes up is that Graham's creating a fictionalised version of a legal case considered to have become trial by media.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Theatre review: Network

It’s been a week of US TV stars on stage for me, with Mr Robot on Monday, Sideshow Bob on Tuesday, and now the big one: The dad from Malcolm in the Middle (he’s also done some… slightly edgier stuff since then.) Very much the director all the big names want to work with now, Ivo van Hove brings Bryan Cranston to the London stage for the first time to play Howard Beale in Network, Lee Hall’s adaptation of the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky film. Beale is the lead news anchor on a poorly-performing TV network, and the news is struggling more than anything. When he’s told he’s being replaced Beale, taking advantage of the fact that nobody’s really paying attention to him, announces that he’ll commit suicide live on air during his final broadcast. It turns out to be exactly the thing to give his ratings a boost.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Theatre review: Big Fish

I’m not above enjoying something a bit sentimental at times, and Tim Burton’s film Big Fish was one case that hit the mark for me, so a musical adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s novel seemed worth a look. The film’s writer John August also provides the musical’s book, with songs by Andrew Lipa and, following an unsuccessful Broadway production, Nigel Harman directs a much-reworked, smaller-scale British premiere at The Other Palace. Edward Bloom (Sideshow BobKelsey Grammer) is in hospital, dying, and his recently-married son Will (Matthew Seadon-Young) wants to find out about his father’s life before it’s too late. The trouble is Edward has spent his life spinning tall tales and isn’t planning on telling a more down-to-earth version just yet. The play is based around his hospital room, as Will and his fellow-journalist wife Josephine (Frances McNamee) search for clues to the truth.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Theatre review: Glengarry Glen Ross

According to Wikipedia, the Playhouse Theatre was designed by F.H. Fowler & Hill. A little-known fact about the architects is that they were semi-sentient, amorphous energy blobs who never actually met a living human being so assumed that, like the Fistyfelch people of Prang Centauri 9, our legs retract completely when we sit down. This is the only possible explanation for the seating in the Upper Circle, where you can't really accuse the audience of bad behaviour for moving around constantly when it's so obviously because they're in actual physical pain (I was on an aisle and there was nobody in the seat in front of me so I could hang my legs over the seat back, and that still wasn't enough leg room, and I'm not tall.) So the burden’s on any show staged there to hold the interest through the distractions; following Speed-the-Plow a couple of years ago, it’s again the turn of a David Mamet revival to try it.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Theatre review: Quaint Honour

This review is brought to you by codeine – I put my back out again on Saturday, and if I hadn’t got it under control by Sunday I’d have had to miss what might be the Finborough’s best rediscovery in years. The theatre’s official contribution to the 50-year anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, Roger Gellert’s Quaint Honour dates from a decade earlier, and is set in the location with perhaps the most ambiguous attitude to relationships between men: An all-boys’ boarding school. Sexual relationships between the pupils are of course strictly forbidden, but not quite so strictly policed – perhaps because the staff know the can of worms they’d be opening. But Head Prefect Park (Oliver Gully) is on a personal crusade to root out which of the boys are sleeping with each other. He hopes his deputy, Tully (Harley Viveash) will help him, but Tully thinks he’s imagining the problem.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Theatre review: The Retreat

There’s comedy royalty behind the scenes of The Retreat, the stage debut by Peep Show and Fresh Meat co-writer Sam Bain, directed by Kathy Fucking Burke; and it shows in an evening that may not hit every mark but doesn’t put a foot wrong when it comes to the laughs. Samuel Anderson plays Luke, a former high-flying city broker who’s given it up since meeting Tara (Yasmine Akram) at a festival. She runs a meditation centre in the Highlands, where – in a bare shack designed by Paul Wills - the whole play takes place in a single scene. In the course of a year since meeting Tara, Luke has become a Buddhist and left the consultancy he founded, and is now two months into a three-month meditation retreat. This is when his older brother Tony (Adam Deacon) turns up unannounced, ostensibly to tell him about the death of a distant relative.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Theatre review: Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage is, apparently, the role Josie Lawrence has most wanted to play her whole career, and now she's got the chance she doesn't waste it, bringing a whole new level of nuance to Bertolt Brecht's antiheroine. Hannah Chissick's production of Mother Courage and Her Children at Southwark Playhouse uses the Tony Kushner translation from the last National Theatre outing, right down to the Duke Special versions of the songs that intermittently break into the narrative. Nominally set during the Thirty Years War, allowing for an epic scope both in time and ranging across Northern Europe, the play follows Lawrence’s Anna “Courage” Fierling as she travels from battlefield to battlefield, lugging a cart filled with food, drink and random provisions she sells to the desperate soldiers. She’s come to dread the possibility of peace, as war is what her entire livelihood depends on.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Theatre review: Trestle

Although it's discovered some great plays over the last few years, the Papatango Prize winners tend to suggest the judges favour pretty bleak stories. So Stewart Pringle's Trestle feels like a bit of a change of pace, a gentler, more ambiguous play about barely-a-relationship between two pensioners. Widower Harry (Gary Lilburn) is the chairman of a "local improvement" committee in a small Yorkshire town, and every Thursday afternoon they meet at the local community centre. Denise (Connie Walker) is more recently retired, and has booked the next slot to teach a Zumba class for seniors. She meets Harry while he’s still clearing up after his meeting and, after an awkward misunderstanding where he mistakes her for the cleaner, helps him fold the trestle table. Over the next six months or so they meet for a few minutes like this every week, soon timing their arrivals and departures to make sure they don’t miss each other.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Theatre review: The Firm

Roy Williams was last at Hampstead Theatre writing about the police; now he comes to the Downstairs space with a look at the other side of the law. Gus (Clinton Blake) was once the leader of The Firm, the brains behind one of South London's most successful gangs of robbers and the only one of them never to be caught and jailed. Now pushing fifty they've all pretty much left that life behind them, and true to form Gus has had the most success since going legit: The play takes place in a wine bar he's about to reopen, one of a number of investments he owns. He and right-hand man Leslie (Jay Simpson) are preparing a party for Shaun, the last of the gang to still be in prison, to celebrate his release. Trent (Delroy Atkinson) and Selwyn (Clarence Smith) soon join them, but there's no sign of the guest of honour.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Theatre review: Heather

Déjà vu on the way into the Bush's studio space, where Lily Arnold's sparse design gives us a desk with the script on it, with chairs and microphones for two performers. But where Nassim was largely about revealing truths about the writer's life, Thomas Eccleshare's Heather is about a fictional writer - one whose fictions extend further than it first appears. Harry (Ashley Gerlach) is an editor who thinks he's discovered the next J.K. Rowling in Heather (Charlotte Melia,) who's emailed him the first volume of her children's fantasy trilogy. The book is picked up and published without the two ever meeting, Heather at first being pregnant, then getting a terminal cancer diagnosis. But as the series becomes a sensation the press and public get curious about the elusive author, and Heather's excuses for staying in the shadows start sounding more and more desperate.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Theatre review: A Woman of No Importance

Another day, another former Artistic Director of a major South Bank theatre launches his new commercial production company. Where Nicholas Hytner's unique selling point - a large-scale London theatre that's actually fit for purpose - is one I can see the need for, I can't say the same for ex-Globe boss Dominic Dromgoole's new Classic Spring venture: The idea is to present seasons of late-19th and early-20th century classics in the West End proscenium arch theatres they were originally written for (Jonathan Fensom's designs fairly lush but offering no surprises.) A Shaw season is coming up, but first a year-long residency of Oscar Wilde plays at the Vaudeville, which is what makes me wonder exactly what gap Dromgoole thinks he's spotted in the market: The inevitable conclusion next year will be The Importance of Being Earnest, at which point it'll be only three years since the play's last revival at the very same theatre. At least the opening production is of a play not revived anywhere near as often, although for too much of A Woman of No Importance it's obvious why.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Theatre review: Young Marx

Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr finally unveil what they've been working on since they left the National - the Bridge Theatre, billed as the first new-built commerical theatre in London in 80 years, with a promotional drive that seems to focus much more on baked goods than you would usually expect (they're trying to make interval madeleines A Thing.) Who knows how many unused shells of theatres are knocking around London basements at the moment thanks to the tax breaks luxury developments get for including a community arts space* - Hytner and Starr picked one next to Tower Bridge to occupy and flesh out, with what looks like a very effective design: Front-of-House is a bit Expensive Hotel but the auditorium has a touch of the RST about it, with three galleries above the stalls, and what look like good sightlines from most seats and a comparatively intimate feel. The opening three productions are designed to showcase the three possible seating configurations, starting with end-on.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Theatre review: The Exorcist

Just in time for Halloween, Sean Mathias brings to London what should be a surefire hit while everyone's looking for something spooky, although whether it can sustain that for the rest of its run to March will have to remain to be seen. John Pielmeier adapts William Peter Blatty's book - although William Friedkin's film is at least as much, if not more of an inspiration. Actress and single mother Chris (Jenny Seagrove) is put up in an old Georgetown house while on location for her latest film. Her daughter Regan (Clare Louise Connolly) has just celebrated her 12th birthday (give or take a couple of decades,) and her absent father has forgotten it for the second year running, so she's vulnerable to any father substitute who might be on offer. So when the disembodied voice of Gandalf starts talking to her in the attic she agrees to play a game with him - one which results in the demon "Captain Howdy" taking up residence in the girl's body and terrorising her family and friends.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Theatre review: Beginning

With no shortage of drama about the end of relationships, David Eldridge's new play at the Dorfman looks at a possible Beginning. It's 3am and Laura's (Justine Mitchell) flatwarming party has just ended; all the guests have left except one she only met tonight. Danny (Sam Troughton) is a friend of one of Laura's clients, and they've been flirting with each other across the room all evening. He hasn't quite picked up on the fact that she returns his interest though, or that she's engineered him being left behind alone with her. Even when she makes it clear she wants to have sex with him Danny is nervous and reluctant. The two end up getting to know each other better, as Danny reveals the reasons he's so reticent even to have a one-night stand, let alone something that could turn into a relationship with someone he seems to be making a real connection with.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Theatre review: Of Kith and Kin

With his third play Chris Thompson continues to suggest he's a playwright whose next subject matter and style will always be a surprise. Of Kith and Kin introduces us to Daniel (James Lance) and Oliver (Joshua Silver,) married twice (once when it was Civil Partnership and again to upgrade to equal marriage) and now expecting a child. Priya (Chetna Pandya) was the one who first introduced them, and has already acted as a surrogate once before so she's a natural choice to carry their baby. The play opens with a baby shower just for the three of them, which gets crashed by Daniel's mother Lydia (Joanna Bacon.) It's clear from the start that Oliver can't stand her - at some point she offended his own mother although the dislike seems to stem from much earlier - and the atmosphere soon turns toxic.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Theatre review: Labour of Love

A later-than-planned trip to the second of three James Graham premieres this year: When Sarah Lancashire had to pull out of Labour of Love due to illness, a number of performances were cancelled, including the one I'd originally booked for. The rescheduled trip proves well worth the wait though, and Lancashire's late replacement Future Dame Tamsin Greig is nobody's idea of second best. She plays Jean Whittaker, constituency agent for a Nottinghamshire seat so safe that it's never not gone to Labour in its history ("a tub of cottage cheese could win it.") That could change in the 2017 election though as, with Jeremy Corbyn's Labour making unexpected gains, this looks like being the one place to buck the trend: They're on their second recount and, after 27 years in the job, David Lyons (Martin Freeman) looks set to lose his seat to the Conservatives.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Theatre review: The Lady From The Sea

The Lady From The Sea is Ellida (Nikki Amuka-Bird,) second wife to Dr Wangel (Finbar Lynch.) After an initially happy marriage, Ellida has become distant in recent years, and her husband suspects she has unresolved feelings for a lover from her past. In a turn of events that reflects Ibsen's ahead-of-his-time fascination with psychology, the doctor decides on a radical cure, inviting her former suitor Arnholm (Tom McKay) to visit. Wangel's hunch is correct but he's miscalculated: Arnholm isn't the man Ellida still has feelings for. Instead her unfinished business is with a sailor, her first love at the age of sixteen, who vowed they'd be bound forever before running away to escape a murder charge. She believes he's somehow found out that she's married someone else, and her depression comes from feeling she's betrayed him.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Theatre review: Saint George and the Dragon

To Rory Mullarkey falls the dubious honour of giving the Olivier stage its best piece of new writing this year; a bar set so low the only challenge it could provide is in a limbo contest. Straight after I saw Albion, another play's title gives away the fact that it'll touch on English identity in the face of Brexit, as Mullarkey gives us his centuries-spanning, epic twist on Saint George and the Dragon. John Heffernan plays failed dragon-slayer George, who returns to the country of his birth only to find that one of the creatures he's been running from has taken up residence there too, turning it into a dark place in constant fear. Charles (Gawn Grainger) begs the knight to slay the beast, but it's only when he sees and instantly falls for Charles' daughter Elsa (Amaka Okafor) - who happens to be the Dragon's next meal - that he agrees to challenge him.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Theatre review: Albion

When Rupert Goold first took over the Almeida, he launched with a Mike Bartlett play that took inspiration from Shakespeare, to great effect; now they reunite to channel Chekhov. Naming a play Albion in 2017 is a pretty big clue that this is Bartlett's Brexit play, and it takes very little time for the metaphor to reveal itself: It may not be subtle but it's very good. Audrey (Victoria Hamilton) is the self-made owner of a chain of luxury stores where "everything's white, including the customers." On discovering that an Oxfordshire country house where she spent some time as a child is up for sale, she buys it and resettles her family there without asking them. It's not the house so much as the garden she's interested in: Named Albion, it was designed in the 1920s in what was then a revolutionary new style of small, themed gardens, but has fallen into disrepair for decades. Audrey's dream is to recreate the original gardener's vision, even if it alienates first everyone in the village, then everyone she knows.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Theatre review: Hair

In what I doubt is the first time someone's got their genitals out for strangers under Waterloo Station, Hair has come to The Vaults, in a 50th anniversary production first seen last year in Manchester. Gerome Ragni, James Rado (book and lyrics) and Galt Macdermot's (music) hippie musical finds a natural home in these railway tunnels, and Maeve Black's design doesn't just fill the auditorium from floor to ceiling, it also extends out into the bar and surrounding areas, turning them into a chill-out zone complete with couches draped in ethnic throws and tents to have a lie-down in. Berger (Andy Coxon) is the sort-of leader of the Tribe, and sort-of narrator of the musical, which spends much of its first act introducing us to various members of the group of anti-war protesters. The focus gradually falls most onto Claude (Robert Metson,) Berger's best friend who's received his draft notice to fight in Vietnam.