Thursday, 23 March 2017

Theatre review: Limehouse

In the last couple of years the Donald and Margot Warehouse has been increasingly staging new political plays, with the latest finding painfully topical relevance in events from 1981, when a breakaway group from Labour formed the Social Democratic Party. Steve Waters' Limehouse takes place over a long Sunday, after a party conference in which the Unions' influence overturned every centrist proposal, positioning Labour firmly at the far left. Already known as the Gang of Four for their vocal disagreement with the direction the party was taking, David Owen (Tom Goodman-Hill,) Bill Rodgers (Paul Chahidi,) Shirley Williams (Debra Gillett) and Roy Jenkins (Roger Allam) see this as the final straw that will make the party permanently unelectable. They usually meet at the more central home of one of the others, but today Owen insists they come to his house in Limehouse for a change of scenery.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Theatre review: The Frogs

Well into the realm of Stephen Sondheim marginalia, it sounds as if the original 1974 version of The Frogs was never even meant as a full musical. Sondheim and Burt Shevelove took Aristophanes' comedy and built a short revue out of it, not very well-received and soon becoming an obscurity. Nathan Lane then took that revue and expanded it into a full-length show in 2004, Sondheim bulking it up with seven new songs. This, too, was poorly received and went back to being a footnote, but the Jermyn Street Theatre now gives it another try, inspired by the bleak state of current affairs that mirrors the premise of Aristophanes' original: Dionysus (Michael Matus,) god of theatre and wine among other things, despairs at the state of the world and decides people need a great mind like Bernard Shaw to boost their spirits while showing them the error of their ways.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Theatre review: The Kid Stays in the Picture

Telling a true story that features more than a couple of troubled movie productions, The Kid Stays in the Picture has had some teething problems of its own. Simon McBurney and James Yeatman's adaptation of Hollywood producer Robert Evans' memoirs had to cancel its first few previews and postpone press night to tonight. Whether this was down to technical glitches in the multimedia - of which there were still a few in evidence - or the format of the show not coming together I don't know, and to be honest would believe either. Evans started his cinematic career as an actor, one given a chance by a couple of powerful producers who went against the advice of actors and directors to cast him in major roles (the title is a quote from Darryl F. Zanuck putting his foot down.) As it turns out the directors were right, the producers were wrong, and Evans was a critical flop in both his big movies.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Theatre review: Roman Tragedies

It visited the Barbican several years ago, but now that Ivo van Hove is one of the biggest names in theatre internationally, there's enough of an enthusiastic audience for his work to sell out three more performances of one of his most famous Toneelgroep Amsterdam productions. And it certainly takes a certain amount of confidence in the director to commit to watching Roman Tragedies - it runs for six hours without a conventional interval, and is performed entirely in Dutch (with surtitles.) This promenade production conflates three of Shakespeare's four Roman tragedies - the three that have at least some basis in historical fact, beginning with Coriolanus. This first play is the least connected to the rest of the action, as we skip a couple of centuries forward at the end of it, but it does add a symmetry to the evening: Early on Coriolanus (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) sneers in disgust at the prospect of having to smell the common people if he has to campaign for their votes, a sentiment expressed again almost word for word by Cleopatra (Chris Nietvelt) near the end.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Theatre review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

This year's big-name West End casting is getting into its stride now, and after her all-conquering Gypsy Imelda Staunton is one of the biggest; although, having long been a stage stalwart the amount of seasons Conleth Hill has managed to survive in Game of Thrones must have made him a draw to much of the audience as well. Add Luke Treadaway and you've got a high-powered cast for James Macdonald's revival of a 20th century American classic. Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the archetypal story of a toxic marriage imploding but, as slowly becomes apparent over one very long night, the situation is even more twisted than it initially appears. George (Hill) is a History lecturer at a small East Coast university, and as his wife Martha (Staunton) is the daughter of the all-powerful college president, it might be expected that he'd have easily advanced in his career.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Theatre review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Southwark Playhouse puts comic books on stage again although we're in significantly darker territory than Usagi Yojimbo with Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which adapts Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel set in 1976 San Francisco. Minnie (Rona Morison) is 15, the same age her mother Charlotte (Rebecca Trehearn) was when she had her. She might not be adding another teenage pregnancy to the family but her own sexual awakening is far from healthy, as she's been seduced by her mother's seedy boyfriend Monroe (Jamie Wilkes.) It's an ongoing affair and although Minnie hasn't particularly fooled herself that it's love, she's still pretty smitten. With an out-of-her-depth mother fond of a number of recreational drugs, and a seemingly more sensible ex-stepfather, Pascal (Mark Carroll,) who writes her letters encouraging her to keep studying, but has something of a distant, academic interest in her himself, Minnie's left to find her own way.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Non-review: The Miser

Professional reviewers get most of the perks but there's one reserved for those of us who pay for our tickets: The right to make a run for it at the halfway point without feeling guilty about it*. So I can't call this a review of the whole of Molière's The Miser, loosely adapted by Sean Foley and Phil Porter, and directed by the former. I didn't actually hate it - if I had I'd probably have stuck it out so I could rip it to shreds with all the information to hand - I just knew by the interval that there was little to be gained from sticking around. In a production that appears to have been cast by watching a week's worth of repeats on Dave, Griff Rhys Jones plays the titular Harpagon, whose children won't see a penny while he's alive, which is a problem as they've both fallen for poorer people: Daughter Elise (Katy Wix) loves butler Valere (Matthew Horne) and son Cleante (Ryan Gage) their neighbour Marianne (Ellie White.)

Monday, 13 March 2017

Theatre review: Ugly Lies the Bone

Lindsey Ferrentino's Ugly Lies the Bone is a play for only five actors - one of whom stays offstage almost throughout - looking at a domestic situation. There's a reason it's landed on the big Lyttelton stage at the National though, and that's because it also encompasses a much larger world, albeit a virtual one. Jess (Kate Fleetwood) has returned from her third tour in Afghanistan after getting caught in an IED explosion, with horrific burns that cover half her face and much of her body. She's in constant pain and coming back to where she grew up doesn't even have the comfort of familiarity: Her Florida town's economy was based around space shuttle launches, but with NASA ending the programme the town has dried up, jobs are scarce and it's becoming a ghost town. Her mother is now in a nursing home with dementia, and Jess refuses to visit her because she's afraid she won't recognise her.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Theatre review: Snow in Midsummer

A few years ago the RSC got caught up in a controversy over not casting enough British East Asian actors in classic Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao - a controversy that now looks very minor compared to the recent Print Room shitshow - but they now seem to be trying to make amends with a new ongoing project of translations of classical Chinese theatre. Of course the RSC's tendency to announce instantly-forgotten projects is notorious - how's that plan to stage the Shakespeare canon in the RST in 5 6 8 years with no repeats going? - but if the opening production is any indication, we have to hope this one has legs. Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's Snow in Midsummer is a free adaptation of a 13th century classic, Guan Hanqing's The Injustice to Dou E That Moved Heaven and Earth.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Theatre review: Othello (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

With its black title character Othello is, unsurprisingly, most often used as a way of looking at racism, but for the last of this year's Swanamaker season Ellen McDougall has a different approach in mind. After all, the only overt racism in the play comes from Othello's enemies, but with help from a little tinkering with the text McDougall exposes how the misogyny in the play's world is even more deep-rooted. General Othello (Kurt Egyiawan) has made Michelle Cassio (Joanna Horton) his new lieutenant, to the fury of his ensign Iago (Sam Spruell,) who'd been expecting the promotion. Using his reputation as the most trusted of the officers, Iago decides to take revenge in a slow, insidious way.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

theatre review: a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun)

debbie tucker green is one of the few playwrights who seems to get away with directing the premiere productions of her own work. this may be because, despite a poetic quality they all share, each of her plays has a very distinct feel, and the way they're staged is often integral to that. take her latest, a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun), which marks itself out as doing things differently as soon as you walk into the royal court upstairs: merle hensel's set design is like an inverted thrust staging, with the five actors on a raised stage that runs around three of the walls, while the audience sits in the middle on stools, turning to watch the action. sometimes the actors perform together, others they stand across the room from each other, delivering their lives over the audience's heads. and that's a very on-theme metaphor for a play about the way love can alternately attract and repel people.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Theatre review: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Like so much about Hamlet, the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are open to endless interpretation. Two old friends of Hamlet's, they're brought in by King Claudius to spy on his nephew's erratic behaviour, get to the bottom of it if they can, and report back. Later they're used by him again as messengers in an attempt to have Hamlet killed, a plot that ends up backfiring on them. But their appearances are sporadic and brief, leaving each production to fill in the gaps, particularly with regard to how guilty they are of collaboration: Are they happily betraying their friend in return for promised reward? Unhappy with their actions but aware they'll be in danger if they don't comply, like Rosencrantz in the current Robert Icke production, or honestly believing they're helping, like Guildenstern in the same production? Or are their onstage scenes the only idea they have of the main plot, meaning they're barely aware of the story or their part in it?

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Theatre review: I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard

A disturbing little piece at the Finborough in Halley Feiffer's I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard, another American play about writing but dealing with a different popular opinion about the profession than Sex With Strangers did: Laura Eason's play was about the writer as part of some noble calling; Feiffer's subject is the writer as damaged goods, the Hemingway model of the alcoholic genius and the idea that the better the writer, the worse the human being. By that logic David (Adrian Lukis) must be an amazing writer: A celebrated playwright, he has a single daughter, Ella (Jill Winternitz,) whom he had late in life with his second wife. Ella is an actress who's just opened as Masha in a prestige revival of The Seagull, but her father wastes no opportunity to mention that getting any role other than Nina makes her a failure. It's Press Night but instead of waiting with the rest of the cast for the reviews, she's getting drunk at home with David.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Theatre review: Hamlet (Almeida)

Now a fixture as well as a draw at the Almeida following a number of reinterpretations of foreign classics, Robert Icke turns to English theatre's most famous play; but if the text of Hamlet doesn't need translating, the director still finds ways to edit and reshape it. It's a respectful edit that still feels true to Shakespeare but also opens up plenty of opportunities to look at the story from a different angle and throw up a few surprises even to people familiar with the play (which means once I get into details about the production there will be things that could be considered spoilers, even if you know the story inside and out.) Icke's profile means he can get a big name to take the lead, and indeed the days when Andrew Scott was London theatre's secret are long gone. But for all the fanbase he's built on TV, this proves a reminder that it's on stage that he really shines - and not quite in the way that might have been expected of him.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Theatre review: Scarlett

Scarlett (Kate Ashfield) is, or at least was until recently, a successful businesswoman with her own home furnishings shop. For reasons unknown, modern life becomes too much for her and she flees London, disappearing for a week before her mother Bette (Joanna Bacon) and daughter Lydia (Bethan Cullinane) track her down to a remote part of Wales. She plans to sell her shop, buy a chapel on a farm and do it up as her new home. One week in the country has made Scarlett a lot happier in herself, and after a bumpy start she's become close to the farm's owner Eira (Lynn Hunter) and her granddaughter Billy (Gaby French.) But Bette and Lydia are horrified with her decision, and are worried she needs to be hospitalised immediately for the sake of her mental health.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Theatre review: Speech & Debate

An off-Broadway hit that's about to get a film adaptation, Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate is a gentle high school comedy, and a pleasingly mainstream look at LGBT teenagers' issues. Solomon (Tony Revolori) is an aspiring journalist whose ambition to get noticed means he always writes about subjects too controversial for the school paper to print. When the town is rocked by the scandal of the mayor having sex with much younger men, he decides to follow up on a rumour of one of his teachers doing the same thing. Howie (Douglas Booth) is an openly gay student who's only just transferred to the school, and been propositioned on Grindr by the drama teacher. He and Solomon find each other in the comments section of a podcast by Diwata (Patsy Ferran,) who's got a vendetta against the teacher for never casting her in school plays.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Theatre review: Killer

In the second of two Philip Ridley plays running in rep underneath Shoreditch Town Hall, Jamie Lloyd returns as director and Soutra Gilmour as designer, but the creatives who have the most obvious impact are sound designers Ben & Max Ringham and George Dennis. Killer is a collection of three monologues, each with a grisly theme as the title (and the fact that it's Ridley) suggests, performed by John MacMillan in the dingy basement rooms. It's a promenade piece that opens with the audience sitting in a circle, facing away from MacMillan in the middle; the lights go out and he narrates a young teenager's fascination with a new gang who - reminding me of the far-right party in Moonfleece - embrace a fascist style and a philosophy based around preparing for an inevitable apocalypse. When the narrator tries to join the gang they have a brutal way of initiating him.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Young Vic)

My first two Shakespeare productions of the year fell on consecutive nights, and while both are comedies they couldn't present more of a contrast, even before I got to their respective theatres: Where I'd been looking forward to Twelfth Night, last year saw A Midsummer Night's Dream even more overexposed than usual, so I was approaching it with some trepidation. Added to that was the publicity promising a particularly dark approach to the play, a cliché that can usually be taken as meaning "we failed to actually make it funny," and in any case the nightmare flipside of the Dream is frequently-explored territory. In the runup to a royal wedding Hermia (Jemima Rooper) and Lysander (John Dagleish,) whose love is forbidden, escape the threat of death by fleeing to the forest. They're pursued by Demetrius (Oliver Alvin-Wilson,) in love with Hermia, and Helena (Anna Madeley,) in love with Demetrius.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Theatre review: Twelfth Night (National Theatre)

For most plays, having seen another production within four years would seem very recent, but the most popular Shakespeares come along a lot more often than that, and avoiding Twelfth Night for three full calendar years feels like an achievement - and one I was keen to make, because however fresh a director's twist on the story, there's only so much you can do to overcome familiarity. Realistically it would take a lot longer to forget a play I know this well, but under the circumstances this is pretty good going, and at least I break my run with a production I was looking forward to: The big selling point of Simon Godwin's production for the National is that Tamsin Greig plays a gender-flipped Malvolio. Now called Malvolia, she's housekeeper to the wealthy Olivia (Phoebe Fox,) the last in her family and as a result in a declared state of permanent mourning, any romance officially ruled out.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Theatre review: Spring Awakening

DISCLAIMER: Drama school productions are classed as amateur performances; but as ever, I try to treat them the same as I would professional ones as that's what the cast will be aiming to do next.

It's been a while since I went to one of LAMDA's public performances, and I've not seen them do a musical before, but Vanessa wouldn't have forgiven me if we'd missed a chance to see one of her absolute favourites, Spring Awakening. Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's Broadway musical takes Frank Wedekind's famously banned 19th century play and plays it pretty well straight in the spoken-word scenes, adding deliberately anachronistic songs revealing what the kids are really thinking. Melchior (Ross Kugman tonight - two casts alternate between performances) is the first of his classmates to find out about sex, and only because he reads about it in a book. Apart from those Melchior informs himself, the others remain completely unaware as their parents refuse to discuss it. In the case of his girlfriend Wendla (India Shaw-Smith,) her mother's painfully coy description of the facts of life leads to tragedy. Other kids suffering include the resident loser Moritz (Soroosh Lavasani,) whose parents will disown him if he fails, which his teachers are determined he will.