Thursday, 18 October 2018

Theatre review: Wise Children

After famously making her mark on the Globe with an innovative use of its budget, Emma Rice was controversially given a large Arts Council grant to launch her new company Wise Children, named after the Angela Carter novel she adapts for its first production. Dora Chance (Gareth Snook) narrates the story of her life with twin sister Nora (Etta Murfitt,) and particularly their relationship with their father, also one of a pair of twins. Their mother died in childbirth and their father, famous Shakespearean actor Melchior Hazard (Ankur Bahl,) didn’t want anything to do with them but, not wanting them to surface many years later and cause him a scandal, arranged for them to be financially supported on the proviso they kept quiet. The story he’s always been happy to imply is that they’re actually his twin brother’s children, and Peregrine (Sam Archer) does end up behaving more like a father to the girls (albeit an abusive one, in a throwaway part of the story that’s one of my main issues with the show.)

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Theatre review: The Trench

Across the road from Southwark Playhouse there’s a full-sized billboard ad for the show that’s just opened in the Large proving that, if nothing else, Oliver Lansley’s The Trench has a larger-than-usual publicity budget for a fringe show. With detailed design, original songs (composed and performed by Alexander Wolfe, with the ensemble’s James Hastings also playing multiple instruments,) projections and extensive use of puppets, Les Enfants Terribles’ 2012 show, being seen in London for the first time in this revival, certainly wears its high production values on its sleeve; what else it’s really got to offer is a bit more doubtful. Lansley, who also co-directs (with James Seager) plays Bert, a First World War soldier whose former job as a miner makes him an obvious candidate to be a sapper – digging tunnels under no man’s land to bury mines near the enemy trenches. It’s a job with the inevitable added danger of getting caved in when a bomb goes off nearby, which is what happens to Bert and his new assistant Collins (Kadell Herida.)

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Theatre review: The Wider Earth

You never know where the next pop-up theatre is going to materialise (which I guess is why they're called pop-ups,) and there's particularly majestic surroundings for the transfer of David Morton's Australian and US hit The Wider Earth. In fact the excuse to pay a visit to the Natural History Museum what must be decades since I last went there was one of the attractions of the play, which has set up shop in the Jerwood Gallery, a space that normally houses temporary exhibitions and now has a custom-built theatre in it. The gallery is right next to the museum's Darwin Centre, so it couldn't be better-placed to house the story of the young Charles Darwin (Bradley Foster) on his two-year journey (that actually ended up lasting five years) circumnavigating the globe on the Beagle.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Theatre review: Company

Marianne Elliott’s production of Company has been a long time coming – tickets have been on sale for a year and a lot of excitement has been built up over Elliott’s twist to the famous 1970 musical: Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s story of the one singleton in a friendship group full of couples has gender-flipped the lead, with a number of other characters either following suit, or having their roles mixed around a bit to suit the new premise. Bobbie (Rosalie Craig) is turning 35, and her friends are waiting at her apartment to throw a surprise birthday party; when she arrives they will inevitably keep bringing the subject round to her single status and asking when she’s going to get married. The show’s original working title was Threes, because that’s what Bobbie keeps finding herself in as her married friends invite her to be a third wheel and see how great coupled life is – something that’s not as convincing as they think it is.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Theatre review: Twelfth Night (Young Vic)

The Young Vic gets its first new artistic director in nearly twenty years as Kwame Kwei-Armah debuts in carnival fashion with a show first seen in New York two years ago: A musical adaptation of Twelfth Night. Kwei-Armah heavily edits Shakespeare’s text, something made easier by the inclusion of Shaina Taub’s original songs, whose modern-language lyrics help summarise and move on the story so that the whole thing comes in at well under two hours. Originally set in New Orleans, Kwei-Armah and Oskar Eustis’ production has been relocated to Notting Hill for its UK premiere, with Robert Jones’ thrust stage creating a long road where Viola (Gabrielle Brooks) is washed up after a storm, right into a funeral – but a lively one that turns into a street party, only the deceased’s sister Olivia (Natalie Dew) keeping up the mourning for long. It’s too long for Duke Orsino (Rupert Young,) who’s determined to woo her despite her obvious lack of interest.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Theatre review: The Sweet Science of Bruising

I don't think we can really call it a 2018 meme when it's so obviously a timely and appropriate response to a conversation going on everywhere, and particularly in the arts, but there's certainly been an explosion this year of shows by and about women: Particularly ones like Emilia, Sylvia and, just ending its run in the space next door to this one, Wasted, that illuminate the present through the women who've fought against society's expectations in the past. That fight is literal in Joy Wilkinson's The Sweet Science of Bruising: Her subject is Victorian women's boxing, her heroines four women from very different backgrounds who all find themselves fighting for a newly-invented world championship title when London boxing promoter Professor Charlie Sharp (Bruce Alexander) travels to Manchester in search of new talent, and discovers that promising fighter Paul Stokes (James Baxter) has a girlfriend, Polly (Fiona Skinner,) who's every bit as good if not more so.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Theatre review: The Height of the Storm

After premiering in Bath and Richmond, The Height of the Storm is the latest Florian Zeller play to make it to the West End, with director Jonathan Kent taking a risk on putting two notoriously difficult actors on stage together. The vague description in the publicity suggests another rather dark, sad journey into confusion and failing mental health, and while I’m generally a fan of cheerier things, where this writer is concerned I’d rather see him return to intimate tragedies than the so-so farces of his lighter side. Anne (Amanda Drew) and Elise (Anna Madeley) have gone to their parents’ home in the French countryside for the weekend; it soon becomes apparent that one of their parents has recently died, but Zeller deals in confusion and it’s hard to figure out which one, as both André (Jonathan Pryce) and Madeleine (Eileen Atkins) appear on stage regularly.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Theatre review: James Graham's Sketching

Apparently kicked off by his feeling guilty about having three plays in West End theatres in the last year while other writers struggle to get work staged, James Graham's Sketching sees him take that high profile and use it to put a few emerging playwrights in the spotlight. His idea for doing this was an update of Charles Dickens' early hit Sketches by Boz, a collection of character pieces set around Victorian London, with the gimmick that this would be the first "crowdsourced" play, accepting submissions of short plays that would be woven into the overall story. Eight playwrights' submissions were eventually accepted, and Thomas Hescott directs Samuel James, Penny Layden, Nav Sidhu, Sean Michael Verey and Sophie Wu in around fifty roles between them. Graham himself contributes four storylines that try to link all the different threads together over the course of 24 hours.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Theatre review: Antony & Cleopatra (National Theatre)

Ralph Fiennes has a tendency to use his fame to get himself cast in roles he's always wanted to play - his Richard III was something he himself pitched to the Almeida, and this time it's the National staging a huge production at his request. This one's a bit more of an unusual bucket list role though, as he's always wanted to star in Antony & Cleopatra - and not as Cleopatra. Instead Fiennes is Antony, a male lead notorious for being completely overshadowed by his female counterpart (Nothing Like A Dame even features a whole conversation about how none of the Dames know an actor who didn't hate playing him.) Instead it's Sophie Okonedo who gets the plum role of Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen who'd already taken Julius Caesar as her lover before doing the same with his successor. The affairs might have been motivated by politics as she sought to keep the powerful Roman Empire on her side, but as Shakespeare sees it at least, the relationship with Antony turned into something real.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Theatre review: Pinter Two - The Lover / The Collection

Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season continues with a double bill that he’s directed before, in this same theatre ten years ago when it was still called the Comedy. If Pinter One was bleak and timeless, Pinter Two is more broadly comic, while Soutra Gilmour’s design places it firmly in the early 1960s when the one-acters were both written. In The Lover a cheesily domestic married couple prepare for their day; Richard (John MacMillan) is off to work, wishing Sarah (Hayley Squires) a fun afternoon with her regular lover. He’s not jealous – it would be hypocritical, since he’ll be taking the same afternoon off to spend with a whore. After the interval comes The Collection in which the same actors play another married couple, whose complex sex life takes in unsuspecting outsiders when James (MacMillan) barges into Bill’s (Russell Tovey) house and accuses him of sleeping with his wife.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Theatre review: Foxfinder

Last seen in London in 2011 when it was the Papatango award winner, Dawn King's Foxfinder is, on the face of it, a canny revival for 2018 when its paranoia and scapegoating can be repackaged as a Brexit play. But something's gone wrong in the execution of Rachel O'Riordan's production, and it’s left a play that can be genuinely creepy and atmospheric floundering. Samuel (Paul Nicholls) and Judith Covey (Heida Reed) own a farm somewhere in a dystopian England where food is scarce, so farmers like them are under immense pressure to live up to – seemingly quite unrealistic – crop quotas. Some months earlier, the couple’s four-year-old son drowned, and Samuel retreated into a long depression. Between this and bad weather they’re struggling to live up to their targets so the government has sent an investigator to determine if they’ve mismanaged the farm, or worse: If there’s a fox on their land.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Theatre review: The Prisoner

Some creatives are rightly lauded for revolutionising their fields but, if they stay in their job long enough, almost inevitably go from the person creating theatre's future to a relic of its past. For most of my theatregoing life the legendary Peter Brook has been based in Paris, so I've only seen the odd example of his later work. I have no doubt his status in the theatre world is justified, but works like The Prisoner can't help but make me feel they're getting staged because of that status and not their own merits. Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne write and direct the short (but still very slow) fable of a man sitting outside a prison, technically able to walk away at any time but evidently trapped there by something more powerful than walls.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Theatre review: Tamburlaine

The RSC's "T" season opens with the return of former Artistic Director Michael Boyd, and his edit of Christopher Marlowe's two Tamburlaine the Great plays into a single bloodthirsty epic. Mycetes, King of Persia, is played by Mark Hadfield in the performance that Mark Hadfield gives, meaning his brother Cosroe (David Sturzaker) sees him as a joke who should be replaced - by him. Cosroe joins forces with Tamburlaine (Jude Owusu,) a Scythian shepherd's son and bandit with a growing reputation as a soldier, to overthrow his brother. This they do easily, but Cosroe has underestimated his new ally, who promptly betrays him, kills him and takes the throne for himself. But all this gives him is a taste of the kind of power he wants - kings seem to be ten-a-penny and Tamburlaine wants to be above them all, Emperor of as much of Asia Minor, Africa and Eastern Europe as he can manage in his lifetime.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Theatre review: Sylvia

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The entire run of Sylvia has been reclassified as work-in-progress previews.

The actual reason for this is that the already-short run of Kate Prince, Priya Parmar, Josh Cohen and DJ Walde's suffragette musical was cut even shorter by cast illness, with the need to rehearse understudies meaning a number of performances were cancelled - including the one I was initially booked to see. As it turns out, the work-in-progress label is also justified, as there's clearly an outstanding evening at the theatre here somewhere - it's just struggling to get out of what's actually made it onto the stage. Whether it was a rush to get this on stage for the centenary of (some) women getting the vote, or to remind people that the Hip-Hop musical didn't start and end with Hamilton, Sylvia has arrived in front of an audience before it's quite ready. Sylvia Pankhurst (understudy Maria Omakinwa, excellent,) was part of the legendary family of women fighting for the vote, but her beliefs on non-violence and the inclusion of working-class women in their demands put her at odds with her mother and sister.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Theatre review: Eyam

It's long been a truism that Shakespeare's Globe is a very hard place to write new plays for - Howard Brenton and Jessica Swale are the only playwrights to have succeeded there multiple times - but Michelle Terry started her tenure there well when Morgan Lloyd Malcolm's Emilia was a popular hit. Any hopes she might have helped the venue lift that curse for good are dashed by the final show in her debut season though: Matt Hartley's Plague drama Eyam suffers from many of the classic problems that afflict new writing here. In 1665, with England still feeling the aftereffects of the Civil War, shit vicar William Mompesson (Sam Crane) and his wife Katherine (Priyanga Burford) are sent to the Derbyshire village of Eyam, not being told that the reason they need a new minister is because the villagers lynched the last one. This is a place divided by the wealthy Phillip Sheldon's (Adrian Bower) attempts to claim the common land as his own OH GOD NOT A PLAY ABOUT THE LAND ENCLOSURES ACT, ABORT, ABORT!

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Theatre review: Every Day I Make Greatness Happen

Launching Hampstead Theatre's autumn season Downstairs is a play by high school teacher and comparatively new playwright Richard Molloy. Sticking to the tenet of writing about what you know and reaping the results, he sets Every Day I Make Greatness Happen in a little-used, leaky-roofed classroom in a North London school, where students are not allowed to join the Sixth Form unless they've passed their English GCSE. For three students who failed it, the Head of English, Miss Murphy (Susan Stanley,) has agreed to coach them through a re-take while they also take their AS-level classes. They have six weeks to make their second chance count and be allowed to stay on. Iman (Josh Zaré) is timid and nerdy but a bit slow, and has spent the last five years at school being relentlessly bullied by Kareem (Moe Bar-El.)

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Theatre review: Pinter One - Press Conference / Precisely / The New World Order /
Mountain Language / American Football /
The Pres and an Officer / Death / One for the Road /
Ashes to Ashes

Preview disclaimer: Pinter One invites the critics in next week.

Pinter One is the collective name being given to a nonuple bill of short writing by Harold Pinter that launches Pinter at the Pinter, the Jamie Lloyd Company's ambitious project to stage all of Harold Pinter's one-act plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre. I'm going to be using the word "Pinter" a lot over the next few months, is what I'm saying. Originally announced as a quadruple bill, other poems and sketches have been gradually getting added so that the evening's full title should now be Press Conference / Precisely / The New World Order / Mountain Language / American Football / The Pres and an Officer / Death / One for the Road / Ashes to Ashes. Which may explain why they renamed it Pinter One. Lloyd directs the first eight playlets and poems in a selection linked by an overtly political theme.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Theatre review: Holy Shit

After a couple of years closed for major redevelopment the Tricycle Theatre has reopened with a controversial (for reasons that elude me) rebranding. Kiln is, admittedly, quite a hard word to say if you've got a cold, but I don't know that I'd call that reason enough to have protests in the street on press night, which actually happened because people... I don't know, needed a reason to get out of the house? Why have a certain group of old white men taken offence at everything this theatre's done ever since an Asian woman took over as Artistic Director, WE MAY NEVER KNOW. Slightly-awkward-to-say venue names aside, I liked the redesign of the building, which keeps the basic structure of the old Tricycle but with a bit more café space, and toilets you're not instantly convinced you'll get murdered in. The auditorium also keeps the same structure (including the old proscenium arch visible in the background) but with more comfortable seating and what looks like decent sightlines (though quite a few rows near the front of the stalls now seem to require looking quite far up to the stage.)

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Theatre review: Losing Venice

Will the Orange Tree's 2018-19 season have an overarching theme? I only ask because they'll shortly be staging some Martin Crimp, and following Losing Venice that could end up signaling a theme of complete impenetrability. Jo Clifford's 1985 play has been revived by Paul Miller with the strong implication that it's gained a new Brexit-related significance, dealing as it does with a fading Empire that's not quite grasped the fact that it no longer holds the sway it once did, and so engages in an arrogant international display of regaining control that's doomed to failure. In practice this proves a bit of a stretch of what the play's actually about, its blustering imperialism more about the macho posturing of a couple of impotent men than anything wider.

Friday, 14 September 2018

Theatre review: Wasted

"Fuck off, I'm writing Jane Eyre."

The success of Hamilton on both sides of the Atlantic means musical theatre throwing distinctly anachronistic musical styles at historical figures are all the rage, so it's a pleasure to report that even with all that going on Wasted feels pleasingly original - and bonkers. The Brontës were a quartet of troubled artists who didn't fit into the world they were born into, faced romantic problems and drug addiction, but briefly became a popular sensation (and hugely controversial because of the bad influence they might have on their fans) before fizzling out and dying young. At least that's how Carl Miller (book and lyrics) and Christopher Ash (music) see them, framing their show as a Behind the Music documentary about a band who barely made it past one-hit-wonders, and interviewing Charlotte - the last left alive, having given up writing and married a dull curate - about what went wrong.