Friday, 2 June 2023

Theatre review: Once On This Island

Regent's Park opens its 2023 Open Air Theatre season with Once On This Island, Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty's (music) loose musical adaptation of The Little Mermaid, reinterpreted as a fable about colourism in Haiti. Ti Moune (Gabrielle Brooks) is introduced as a legend of the island, a dark-skinned foundling girl adopted by Mama Euralie (Natasha Magigi) and Tonton Julian (Chris Jarman.) They are peasants, a class dictated by their darker skin - the wealth and power of the island rests with the lighter-skinned Grands Hommes, descended from Napoleonic settlers and their black mistresses. They congregate at a luxury hotel, banning the peasants from profiting off the tourists, but one day the heir to the hotel fortune has a car accident on the wrong side of the tracks. Ti Moune finds Daniel (Stephenson Ardern-Sodje) close to death.

Thursday, 1 June 2023

Theatre review: Bleak Expectations

We've had films and TV get stage adaptations, now radio gets in on the act; it ended on Radio 4 eleven years ago, but like its characters Mark Evans' Bleak Expectations has risen from the dead in a new and disturbing form. Evans has written a stage version that adapts mainly the first of the five series of frantic Dickensian parody about Pip Bin (Dom Hodson) and his sisters Pippa (Serena Manteghi) and Poppy (Rachel Summers.) Their rich, happy Victorian childhoods go wrong when their father dies in a freak penguin-related accident, and their mother (Ashh Blackwood) does the only respectable thing for a widowed woman of her time, and immediately goes mad. The siblings' nemesis is their new guardian, Gently Benevolent (John Hopkins,) who makes no secret of the fact that he's constantly plotting to murder Pip and marry one of his sisters for the inheritance.

Tuesday, 30 May 2023

Theatre review: Brokeback Mountain

Back to @sohoplace, the theatre with a name so current it's planning on upgrading to Windows ME any day now. In what, quite frankly, I thought was going to be a bigger event among The GaysTM than it seems to have been, the theatre stages a world premiere adaptation of Annie Proulx' Brokeback Mountain, the beloved gay cowboy story (they actually meet herding sheep, but there's no such thing as a sheepboy hat,) best-known for the Ang Lee film adaptation. In 1963 Jack Twist (Mike Faist,) an itinerant cowboy with dreams of working at rodeos, takes a shepherding job on the titular Wyoming mountain where he's paired up with the taciturn Ennis Del Mar (Lucas Hedges.) The two are mainly meant to work separately, taking turns guarding the sheep from coyotes, but on one of the freezing nights Jack persuades Ennis to share the tent with him.

Monday, 29 May 2023

Theatre review: The Shape of Things

The production companies that last year brought Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park to the Park Theatre return, with another early hit from a playwright whose later career featured an unfortunate incident involving bees, Neil LaBute. The Shape of Things is the defining LaBute story on themes he's returned to many times - mainly around body image, and the battle of the sexes. Set in and around a college campus, Adam (Luke Newton) is overweight, nerdy and has few friends and fewer relationships. When working one of his two part-time jobs to pay his student loans, as security at an art gallery, he meets Evelyn (Amber Anderson,) an art postgraduate who's planning on defacing one of the statues as a protest against censorship. Far from stopping her he turns a blind eye because he's flattered by her flirting with him.

Saturday, 27 May 2023

Theatre review: Hamnet

After lockdown, the RSC decided to keep the Swan theatre closed for refurbishment, so this is my first trip back there for over three years. As it turns out, "refurbishment" here means more standing room, fewer and less comfortable seats, and somehow the sightlines seem to have got worse as well. Paying for all this probably needed a decent-sized hit, so Erica Whyman directs an adaptation of a recent bestselling novel - and one that keeps the action largely locally in Stratford-upon-Avon, and with its most famous son. Lolita Chakrabarti adapts Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet, focusing on the women around William Shakespeare and especially his wife Anne Hathaway - here known as Agnes, with a silent G. I haven't read the book but the title, and the trigger warnings about themes of death and grief, gave me a good idea what part of their lives the story would focus on.

Thursday, 25 May 2023

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare's Globe)

Previously at Shakespeare's Globe... the theatre was the target of hate, protests and threats when they staged a play about how celebrity cross-dresser Joan of Arc might, and brace yourself for this one, not have been entirely a girly girl. Continuing to stake her claim as the most casually badass Artistic Director out there at the moment, Michelle Terry has launched her latest summer season with A Midsummer Night's Dream - a reliable crowd-pleaser at a time when they need bums on seats, but with a cast guaranteed to piss off exactly the right people. Outside of being cast almost entirely with female, trans and non-binary actors, Elle While's production isn't a particularly high-concept one, but it's a lot of fun. With at least three separate storylines vying for attention, and some of the plots disappearing from the stage for long periods, I often come out of the play thinking one element has dominated.

Wednesday, 24 May 2023

Theatre review: Leaves of Glass

I may be wrong - he's nothing if not prolific after all - but Leaves of Glass might be the last remaining full-length Philip Ridley play I hadn't yet seen; I think it premiered just before Piranha Heights, which was the first play I saw by someone who became one of my favourite playwrights. Leaves of Glass, which Max Harrison revives at the Park, is definitely on the more naturalistic end of Ridley's work, focusing on two East End brothers: The eldest, Steven (Ned Costello) is the successful owner of a business that cleans graffiti. In theory it's a partnership with his younger brother, but in practice Barry (Joseph Potter) is just one of the cleaners, and isn't even particularly good at it. He eventually quits the job after running away rather than destroy a mural he finds powerful, and makes a second attempt at the art career he failed at when he was younger.

Saturday, 20 May 2023

Theatre review: The Circle

A play full of references to the ravages of ageing could be taken as a bit of an on-the-nose way for a new Artistic Director to introduce himself to the Orange Tree's regular audience, but Tom Littler's debut production seems to have gone down well enough this afternoon. During Paul Miller's tenure the theatre helped subsidise its risky new writing scheduling with regular crowd-pleasing revivals, with a particular focus on Shaw and Rattigan. For his opening salvo Littler goes for Somerset Maugham, and the 1921 romantic comedy-drama The Circle. Arnold (Pete Ashmore) never really knew his mother, who left his father Clive (Clive Francis) and ran away with his best friend. But Arnold's wife Elizabeth (Olivia Vinall) has learnt that Lady Kitty (Jane Asher) and Lord Hughie Porteus (Nicholas Le Prevost) have returned to England after thirty years in France.

Thursday, 18 May 2023

Theatre review: The Motive and the Cue

The National Theatre has lured a couple of the most commercially successful British playwrights amd screenwriters to the South Bank to premiere new shows this season, starting with Jack Thorne in the Lyttelton, with stage and screen director Sam Mendes at the helm of a play about screen stars, and what draws them to the stage. The Motive and the Cue is inspired by the real story of Richard Burton (Johnny Flynn,) who in the middle of the honeymoon for (one of) his marriages to Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton) went to Broadway to rehearse for Hamlet. John Gielgud (Mark Gatiss) had already become a legendary Shakespearean actor by his mid-20s, but by 1964 and at the age of 60 his glory days seem to be far behind him.

Thursday, 11 May 2023

Theatre review: August In England

Sir Lenny Henry has a couple of high-profile careers under his belt, with decades as a popular comedian followed by a move to classical acting later in life. Both feed into his playwrighting debut August In England, a monologue he also stars in and which opens with Henry arriving on stage to calypso music, pouring drinks for himself and the front row, and generally working the audience like a seasoned comic. It's perhaps not too surprising for an actor writing his first play to stick to a familiar persona, but I think there's something else going on here as well: In a sold-out show people have booked for its star power, he's reminding us that he's someone considered part of the fabric of this country, and his character August Henderson (I did wonder if the name was a tribute to the August Wilson plays Henry's appeared in) is very similar to his creator, with the crucial difference that Henry was born in the UK.

Wednesday, 10 May 2023

Theatre review: Retrograde

Sidney Poitier would probably be the name most people would come up with if you asked who was the first black movie star to really achieve global fame and acclaim, but needless to say he didn't get to be a trailblazer without some major obstacles. Ryan Calais Cameron's Retrograde dramatises one particularly critical turning point, but the challenges the actor faces are a bit more complicated than pure, bare-faced racism. In the 1950s Poitier's (Ivanno Jeremiah) star is on the rise, and studios are interested. But there's also rumours that he turned down a lucrative role because he didn't want to play a passive black stereotype, so he might have a few more opinions and principles than Hollywood likes in its stars. His next step up could be a role in a TV movie written by his friend Bobby (Ian Bonar,) a minor screenwriter who's been the first person to offer him a role in which he'd be equal or senior to the white cast.

Monday, 8 May 2023

Theatre review: Private Lives

The Donald and Margot Warehouse has been one of the high-profile venues to lose all its funding in the latest round of cuts, so we can probably expect a few seasons of familiar faces and titles to help keep the lights on. A David Tennant Macbeth has already been announced, and in the meantime a combo deal of Stephen Mangan, Rachael Stirling and one of Noël Coward's most popular plays has provided a much-needed sell-out hit. But at least Michael Longhurst's production defies expectations in other ways, with a Private Lives not quite like the ones I've seen before. Elyot (Mangan) is on honeymoon with his second wife Sibyl (Laura Carmichael,) who's 17 years his junior and only first met him a few months ago. So maybe she should have asked him a few questions earlier, as she's particularly intrigued by his first wife Amanda and their divorce.

Saturday, 6 May 2023

Theatre review: Cymbeline (RSC / RST)

What better way to mark the Coronation than with Shakespeare's late romance about a forgettable king with a dead first wife and a panto villain second wife? The last time the RSC staged Cymbeline they gender-swapped the King and Queen to avoid the cliché of the wicked stepmother. For Gregory Doran's final show as Artistic Director things stay very much as written, because that particular cliché - and the play's extended collection of weird bad guys in general - feed into the production's feel of a dark fairytale. Peter De Jersey plays Cymbeline, the King of Britain who gets all but written out of his own play when he starts to fall ill, suspiciously soon after the new Queen starts brewing him a mysterious health tonic. Alexandra Gilbreath goes full Cruella as the Queen who also advises that the princess Imogen marry her son Cloten (Conor Glean,) so he can inherit the throne should the King suddenly die for some reason.

Thursday, 4 May 2023

Theatre review: Jules and Jim

New Artistic Director Stella Powell-Jones makes her Jermyn Street directing debut with an adaptation of Henri-Pierre Roché's iconic French novel Jules and Jim, best-known for being adapted into a Truffaut film. It's not the kind of story that would necessarily attract me, but the stage adaptation is by Timberlake Wertenbaker, who doesn't usually steer me wrong. Well I knew it was going to be French, but surely nothing has any business being that French. Taking place in the first few decades of the 20th century, Jules (Samuel Collings) is a German visiting France to improve his French, where he meets Parisian Jim (Alex Mugnaioni,) his instant platonic soulmate. They discuss literature a lot and go on a grand tour to Greece, where they see a recently-excavated statue whose smile they say they would follow to the ends of the earth if it was a real woman.

Tuesday, 2 May 2023

Theatre review: Dancing at Lughnasa

Five years ago the National Theatre staged Brian Friel's Translations in the Olivier, a hit production the publicity calls back to as they return to the Irish playwright for another of his best-known plays, Dancing at Lughnasa. And it's not the only thing that recalls that past hit, as Robert Jones' design for Josie Rourke's production also looks familiar - this time it's a small farmhouse kitchen that's exposed in the middle of rolling hills and vegetable gardens. This is August 1936 in the Donegal village of Ballybeg, as remembered by Michael (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor,) who was a child being raised by his unmarried mother Chris (Alison Oliver) and her four middle-aged sisters: Stern, primly Catholic schoolteacher Kate (Justine Mitchell,) joker Maggie (Siobhán McSweeney,) hard-working Agnes (Louisa Harland) and slow-witted, romantic Rose (Bláithín Mac Gabhann.)

Friday, 28 April 2023

Theatre review: The Good Person of Szechwan

The Lyric Hammersmith's programming is currently giving me flashbacks to my drama degree, and particularly playwrights who, if you'd believed my course, are produced way more regularly than they actually are. After Dario Fo and Franca Rame it's the turn of Bertolt Brecht, and his political morality tale The Good Person of Szechwan. Three gods come to Earth on a mission to find a good person: If there isn't at least one left in the world, they won't be able to avert an apocalyptic flood that will wipe out the unworthy mankind. They've landed in a very poor district, where people are too busy trying to keep themselves and their families alive to worry about anyone else, but prostitute Shen Te (Ami Tredrea) has a reputation for generosity, and is chosen as the experiment's subject. The gods give her $1000 to set her up for the future, and she uses it to buy a tobacconist's shop.

Thursday, 27 April 2023

Theatre review: Fucking Men

A big fringe hit a few years back, Joe DiPietro's Fucking Men is a take on Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, the controversial 1920 play about a series of one-night stands that form a circle of people who find different kinds of comfort or release in sex. I don't think DiPietro's is the only version to have ever made the leap of adapting the story for gay characters, but it seems to have been by far the most successful. Past productions have been quite luxurious in their casting, with a different actor playing each of the ten characters, but some things have changed since 2008, including fringe venues' attitudes towards actually paying actors, so for Steve Kunis' revival at Waterloo East we get a cast of four, taking two or three parts each. Alex Britt, Charlie Condou, Derek Mitchell and Stanton Plummer-Cambridge are the cast taking on a series of variously sexy, funny and sad scenes.

Monday, 24 April 2023

Theatre review: Animal

David (Christopher John-Slater) has cerebral palsy; he's also gay and as sexually frustrated as any man in his mid-20s who's physically unable to have a wank would be. We meet him on the phone to a sex shop's complaints line, after the sex toy he hoped would solve all his problems turned out to be too difficult to use. His best friend Mani (Harry Singh) suggests he bite the bullet and try to have sex with some actual men: After resisting for a long time David joins Grindr. Jon Bradfield's Animal, based on a story by Josh Hepple, is a witty and full-on look at people with disabilities as sexual beings with the same needs as anyone else, but with a different set of obstacles to satisfying them. Different rather than necessarily greater, as the issues and hangups of the able-bodied men he meets are at least as much of an obstacle to his happiness as anything to do with his condition.

Friday, 21 April 2023

Theatre review: Eugenius!

Since its 2016 concert debut Ben Adams & Chris Wilkins' (book, music & lyrics) musical Eugenius! has been popping up in various concerts and full stagings; I have a feeling I was planning to catch its West End transfer, but that became a lockdown casualty. But the show's become known for developing an instant cult following, so instead we now get Hannah Chissick's revival at the Turbine Theatre, which may in fairness be a better home for a comic book musical much of whose appeal comes from a likeably thrown-together feel. Set at some point in the 1980s in a generically John Hughes Ohio high school, Eugene (Elliott Evans) is a bullied geek who dreams of an intergalactic superhero called Tough Man (Dominic Andersen) and his evil nemesis Lord Hector (understudy Louis Doran) by night, and turns the stories into comic books by day.

Thursday, 20 April 2023

Theatre review: The Secret Life of Bees

Composer Duncan Sheik has developed quite the relationship with the Almeida, what with the premiere of American Psycho and the recent reimagining of Spring Awakening. It's the latter whose musical style immediately comes to mind as his latest show, written with Lynn Nottage (book) and Susan Birkenhead (lyrics) opens. This distinctive musical signature remains throughout, but with the addition of bluegrass, gospel and rock'n'roll flavours in keeping with the time and place of The Secret Life of Bees: In 1964 South Carolina, teenage Lily (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) feels ostracised by the rest of her town, because for reasons she doesn't like to discuss they blame her for the death of her mother, despite the fact that she was a small child at the time. So she's grateful for her family's maid Rosaleen (Abiona Omonua,) who's become her best friend.