Friday, 20 November 2020

Stage-to-screen review: The Poltergeist

Philip Ridley continues to go above and beyond in providing Southwark Playhouse, production company Tramp and director Wiebke Green with replacement work for the cancelled Beast of Blue Yonder that was meant to play when the first lockdown came in. And while the venue was among the first out of the gates to get live audiences back in they were also comparatively prepared for things to go tits up again for Lockdown 2: Electric Fuckeroo: I was meant to be in Elephant & Castle in person tonight for Ridley's latest, The Poltergeist, but the limited run was always going to be live-streamed as well, and when the kybosh got put back on live audiences my ticket just got converted to an online one. A shame in the sense that seeing Joseph Potter's performance in an intimate space would no doubt have been an electric experience, but a lot of that power still comes through on screen.

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Theatre review: Death of England - Delroy

Back what was either five minutes or about twelve years ago depending on how time is passing, Clint Dyer and Roy Williams​' Death of England was a hit in the National's Dorfman; a major part of the conflicted, grieving Michael's monologue revolved around his black best friend Delroy, and the way his father treated him. Like everyone else in that story, Delroy got an unfiltered taste of how Michael felt about him in an eventful, coke-fuelled eulogy, but he also ended up hooking up with his lifelong crush, Michael's sister Carly. Although the original monologue was powerful and self-contained, it did also effectively set up its unseen supporting cast of characters enough that Rufus Norris commissioned a companion piece soon after it opened. The resulting sequel/spin-off Death of England - Delroy hasn't had the best of luck - original star Giles Terera got appendicitis but his hand-picked understudy Michael Balogun has ably taken over; only for the NT's post-lockdown return to fall victim to Lockdown 2: Here We Go Again, meaning tonight's official opening is also its closing night (it was filmed so people who'd booked for a cancelled performance can be offered a digital alternative.)

Monday, 2 November 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Crave

With Crave I've now seen all of Sarah Kane's inevitably small canon of theatrical work; originally premiered under a pseudonym to avoid being judged on the playwright's notoriety, her penultimate play marks a shift of direction into a more abstract poetic style. It famously has no stage directions and the characters are lettered rather than named, leaving it up to the actors and director to find characters in the stream of words (by the time of her de facto suicide note 4:48 Psychosis, Kane had also dispensed with telling us which character says which line, or indeed how many characters there are.) It's a piece that defies an easy summary of what it's about, although like its successor it's built on despair - though rather than that wider existential horror this is more specifically rooted in having despaired of love. There's a failed relationship at the heart of Crave, an intense and highly sexual one and almost certainly abusive to some degree, although whether this is the voice of the abused or the abuser is as fluid as anything else here.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Theatre review: Nine Lives

My last visit to the Bridge Theatre's initial season of monologues is to another tale of the precarious life of an immigrant seeking asylum in the UK, and after the religious persecution behind An Evening with an Immigrant, Zodwa Nyoni's Nine Lives gives us a man fleeing the country of his birth because it's dangerous for him to be gay there. But while his sexuality forms part of what he's looking for, as with Inua Ellams' play the need for somewhere to belong is a more important element of the story than what he's running away from. Ishmael (Lladel Bryant) has fled Zimbabwe after his relationship with another man was discovered; he tries to contact David, who left before him, but his ex seems to be ignoring all his Facebook messages.

Friday, 23 October 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Bubble

"Zoom? It'll never catch on."

It's no surprise if one of the most prolific playwrights working today is among the first out of the gates with a new Covid play, nor that James Graham has approached the subject with a sharp political focus but from a highly original direction. Bubble is playing for three performances only at Nottingham Playhouse, with a socially distanced live audience and everyone else able to buy a pass to watch one of the performances on Zoom. Micro-pub owner Ashley (Pearl Mackie) and teacher Morgan (Jessica Raine) are buzzing after having been on a great first date, the first successful one for either of them in a long time. Then lockdown laws are announced and they have a very reckless thought: What if they went into isolation together and found out just how accurate those great first impressions were?

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Stage-to-screen review: The Boys in the Band

Last seen in London four years ago, Mart Crowley's seminal 1968 gay play The Boys in the Band got a Broadway revival in 2018, which responded to the calls to let gay actors be the first choice to play gay roles by using an all-openly gay cast. Given that's something clearly close to TV mogul Ryan Murphy's heart as well, it's not too surprising that he's behind a movie adaptation of Joe Mantello's production that was released as a Netflix original a couple of weeks ago. Michael (Jim Parsons) is hosting a birthday party for Harold (Zachary Quinto,) the only member of his friend group who can rival him for bitchiness. Five more of their friends have been invited, and two unexpected guests also arrive, with one of them, Michael's straight former college roommate Alan (Brian Hutchison,) dredging up such strong self-loathing emotions in the host that he goes on an emotionally destructive rampage.

Monday, 12 October 2020

Theatre review: An Evening with an Immigrant

Another trip to the Bridge Theatre's monologue rep season while I still can, and an artist who's become a firm favourite at the National, and who started working there while the current Bridge team were running it; though as An Evening with an Immigrant reveals, Inua Ellams might have more to thank Nick Starr for than just his big break. The story of his and his family's attempts to be made permanent, legal UK residents, which has taken more than half of his life so far, the blurb warns that there's some crossover with Ellams' breakthrough show The 14th Tale, but that was long enough ago that I don't remember much detail - there's passing mention here of Ellams' twin sister, who I think was a much bigger element in the earlier story. Here the focus is more on Ellams himself and his parents - with a Muslim father and Christian mother, the family manages to live harmoniously with their religious differences.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Theatre review: The Last Five Years

When The Last Five Years originally ran at Southwark Playhouse in March it became my first show this year to fall victim to illness - although that was because the performance I'd booked was cancelled due to non-COVID-related cast ill health. There was no time to reschedule before it joined the rest of the UK's theatre in limbo, but with socially-distanced performances inching their way back to the stage it was an obvious candidate to make a return: Jason Robert Brown’s musical features a bubble-friendly cast of only two, who barely even have to interact as they inhabit the same story, but almost never at the same time: Jamie (Oli Higginson) takes us through his five-year relationship with Cathy (Molly Lynch) from the excitement of realising he might have met the "Shiksa Goddess" of his dreams, through their marriage and up to the point of him leaving her a letter asking for a divorce.

Monday, 5 October 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Monday Monologues

A quick roundup of a series of very short pieces courtesy of the Bush Theatre, which posted a new YouTube video every few weeks over the summer as their contribution to keeping theatre in people's minds and lives over lockdown. And lockdown is very specifically the theme of most of the Monday Monologues, beginning with Skype d8 by Travis Alabanza, in which Ibinabo Jack plays a woman fretting over what to wear for a virtual date with a man she'd only met a couple of times in person. It's frantic and funny as Jack's character recognises the ridiculousness of how much time she's spending making a good impression on Skype, but it does reveal an underside about how the starkness of having to deal with people virtually makes people feel exposed in a way face-to-face communication smooths out. The Bush's artistic director Lynette Linton directs most of the videos including this and the second, Shaun Dunne's Beds.

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Radio review: Andromache

17th century French playwrights had a trend for recreating the themes and styles of Ancient Greek theatre, but while the originals are regularly seen as ripe for restaging and reinvention, I haven't seen a Racine play since 2012's Berenice. This Radio 3 adaptation by Edward Kemp, first broadcast in 2017, is one of those that literally went back to the same source of Greek mythology, although the story strand explored in Andromache was entirely obscure to me (and seems largely contradictory to some of the better-known stories.) It's Trojan War: The Next Generation as, a year after the sacking of Troy, the children of the victorious Greek generals try to tie up the remaining threads. So Pyrrhus (Alex Lanipekun,) son of Achilles and his successor as King of Epirus, has been betrothed to Hermione (Susannah Fielding,) daughter of Helen and Menelaus, for some time.

Friday, 25 September 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Romantics Anonymous

I've more or less consigned Emma Rice to the same "I'm just never going to see the appeal" box Samuel Beckett has been sitting in, for more or less the exact opposite reasons, for years. But anything resembling live theatre is still a rarity, and Romantics Anonymous is a show that's inspired a lot of love among people whose opinion I consider worth listening to. It debuted at the Swanamaker at the tail end of Rice's notorious run at Shakespeare's Globe, and after playing at the Bristol Old Vic earlier this year it's now returned there to play to an empty theatre with the live performances streamed to computers (the platform they use, TicketCo, turns out to also have an app that works on my TV so that was better than expected.) Based on Les Émotifs Anonymes by Jean-Pierre Améris and Philippe Blasband, Rice (book,) Michael Kooman (music) and Christopher Dimond's (lyrics) musical plays out the familiar French movie trope of quirky misfits finding love.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Stage-to-screen review: My Beautiful Laundrette

Leicester's Curve Theatre continues to dip into its archive recordings to provide online content and fundraise during lockdown; latest is last year's My Beautiful Laundrette, adapted by Hanif Kureishi from his own screenplay. It's something of a rollercoaster ride during the early eighties for an extended Pakistani-British family, rising above the general wave of unemployment by building a small business empire (albeit one that isn't quite as legal and respectable as it initially appears) while at the same time being regularly reminded that they're still viewed by many as an underclass. It's seen through the eyes of Omar (Omar Malik) and his complicated relationship with old schoold friend Johnny (Jonny Fines, who seems pretty spot-on casting for a play about laundry, considering he's always struck me as looking literally very clean, but metaphorically a bit dirty.)

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Death of a Hunter

Fond as I am of the Finborough Theatre, some of its deadly-serious, issue-based programming can be a hard sell. It does produce its share of joyous shows - I still sometimes go on about how funny Quality Street was a decade later, and only last year they camped After Dark up to within an inch of its life - but its online offerings during lockdown haven't exactly been focused on escapism. Which brings us to September's offering, the story of Ernest Hemingway blowing his brains out. Mercifully not in musical form, but in German playwright Rolf Hochhuth's 1977 play Death of a Hunter, which got its English-language premiere at the Finborough in 2018 (this archive recording is being released as a tribute to the playwright, who died in May.) We follow Hemingway (Edmund Dehn) in the last hour of his life, having already decided to follow his father's example and commit suicide.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Theatre review: Beat the Devil

My first visit in nearly six months to an actual theatre for a live show takes me to the Bridge, and while there's a kind of minor triumph to a limited number of venues finding a way around social distancing to present shows despite the indifference of the powers that be, I was also acutely aware of being in the same place where I saw my 2019 Show of the Year: The large space with its seating capacity greatly reduced to allow distance between audience groups, standing in stark contrast to the heaving bodies at last year's Shakespearean party. I guess it would also have been nice if my first tentative venture back out into live theatre had been for some escapism from what's kept us apart all these months, but instead we're right in the thick of it as playwright David Hare came down with Covid-19 at the same time that a belated lockdown was introduced in the UK; Beat the Devil is his furious memoir of his time suffering from a "mediaeval" disease and the actions of those he squarely blames for his having contracted it.

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Three Kings

After a busy first couple of months, theatres' commitment to streaming content has been tailing off as it's become increasingly apparent how much they're being hung out to dry by the government, and their resources to create online content must be running low. But they haven't given up the ghost yet entirely, and the Old Vic's occasional series of broadcasts, "In Camera," has aimed for a particularly authentic feel of a trip to the theatre: The show is performed live and streamed via Zoom; there's the sound of audience hubbub and the ten-minute bell as you take your seat (in front of the computer) and, of course, the show starts a few minutes late. Some of the less appealing features have also come with it: The Old Vic has persisted with a system of staggered ticket prices and the related online queue, despite everyone getting the same view (in theory it promotes a "pay what you can" policy but don't tell me the Duchess of Argyll wouldn't grab a £10 subsidised ticket if she got first place in the queue) and it comes with the pitfalls of live theatre - Three Kings' entire run was postponed twice when its star Andrew Scott had to have minor surgery.

Monday, 31 August 2020

TV Review: Talking Heads -
Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet / The Shrine

I've been spreading out watching the remake of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads over the summer, and with Nicholas Hytner's London Theatre Company behind the production it's perhaps not entirely surprising that one of the first tentative steps towards bringing live theatre back involves Hytner's Bridge Theatre staging a selection of the monologues with their new actors. I'm not currently planning on watching any of the planned double bills, but I do still have the last of my televised ones to catch up with, and as Sarah Frankcom's production opens with a shot of Maxine Peake's slippered feet walking down the stairs we're in for one of the more bizarre explorations of suburban kinks and secrets from the 1998 series, Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet. The second monologue to have been originally written for Patricia Routledge, Frankcom and Peake seem to have found their own take on the story.

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Stage-to-screen review: The Beast Will Rise - Star / Night / Puzzle / Snow

It's been a while since I checked in with Philip Ridley and his lockdown monologue collection: That's because I've been watching them in groups of four or five playlets (you can also read my reviews of the first and second sets) and I'd been waiting for all fourteen to become available before winding the reviews up. But production company Tramp are among those dipping a toe back into live performance, and a final monologue called Cactus appears to be being saved to premiere live. So maybe that'll eventually surface on YouTube as well and I could give that a quick review, but in the meantime parts 10-13 of the sequence feature another one of the somewhat longer speeches, followed by a trio of very short snapshots. They've got a tough act to follow as the 30-minute opener Star is frantically memorable.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

TV review: Talking Heads -
Nights in the Garden of Spain / The Hand of God

I do like a random connection in my shows and the new 2020 remake of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads has featured Martin Freeman, plus Sarah Lancashire, his intended co-star in James Graham's 2017 comedy Labour of Love, and now Tamsin Greig, who actually appeared as his sparring partner in that play when Lancashire had to pull out. Greig appears in the latest of my double bills, a pair from the second, 1998 series, and although still laced with sadness these are two of the most straightforwardly funny monologues from the collection. The comedy is very dark in Nights in the Garden of Spain, which Marianne Elliott directs, as Greig's quietly unhappy Rosemary uncovers the dark underside of her bland suburban neighbourhood. And all it takes is helping her neighbour deal with the sudden death of her husband - because she's just shot him.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Reasons to be Cheerful

Punk and jukebox musicals don't seem obvious bedfellows, unless the music comes from Ian Dury and the Blockheads and the theatre company doing the adaptation is Graeae, who champion the work of D/deaf and disabled actors and creatives: Not only did Dury himself have disabilities caused by childhood polio, but he regularly referenced them and celebrated his difference in his songs (most famously "Spasticus Autisticus.") Paul Sirett's book for Reasons to be Cheerful keeps the story very simple as a hook to hang the songs on - not a bad move, given what can happen when a jukebox show overcomplicates its story - and follows Vinnie (Stephen Lloyd) and his best friend Colin (Stephen Collins) as they try to get tickets to a sold-out Blockheads gig in Hammersmith, at the height of their popularity in 1979.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

TV review: Talking Heads - A Chip in the Sugar /
The Outside Dog / Bed Among the Lentils

It's hard to separate Alan Bennett's Talking Heads from their original performers but my next selection of remakes sees their actors put a new stamp on them. In among the collection of current and future dames each of the two original series had one male monologue, and the original series opened with Bennett himself in A Chip in the Sugar. So if any piece is associated with the writer's distinctive voice even more than the others it's this one, and Martin Freeman is the actor taking on the role of Graham for director Jeremy Herrin. Like most of the actors in this remake Freeman isn't trying too hard to emulate the original accent, which might lose something in authenticity but helps avoid too many direct comparisons. Graham is a closeted middle-aged man who lives with his mother, having had trouble living alone in the past due to paranoid schizophrenia. He's now on medication but his mother's chance meeting with an old boyfriend from her youth unsettles his routine and he starts to think the house is being watched again; except maybe this time it actually is.