Monday, 14 October 2019

Theatre review: Hansard

It can’t be the easiest time in history to be a political playwright; the audience could be walking into the theatre at 7:15 ready for an urgently topical exploration of the current state of affairs, but the play doesn’t start until 7:30 by which point the whole thing’s hopelessly dated. Better, as actor-turned-playwright Simon Woods does, to go for a very specific political event in the past and (apart from the obligatory deliberate winks to topical issues) let the audience draw their own parallels. Hansard takes us to 1988, the weekend after the passing of Section 28 (which banned “the promotion of homosexuality [and] pretended family relationships” in schools,) as Conservative back-bencher Robin Hesketh (Alex Jennings) returns to his home in the Cotswolds. His wife Diana (Lindsay Duncan) is waiting for him looking dishevelled, at the very least hungover from the night before if not already a few drinks the worse for wear this morning.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Theatre review: The Watsons

Emma Watson (Grace Molony) was all set for a life of unusual financial independence for a Georgian woman, as the ward and heir to a wealthy dowager aunt. But after 14 years the aunt surprised everyone by marrying an officer who will now inherit everything instead, so Emma has been sent back to the comparative poverty of her own family, to stoically help her eldest sister Elizabeth (Paksie Vernon) care for their dying father. The only way out of being stuck there is marriage, and as the newcomer to the village Emma is the belle of the inevitable ball. She soon has three suitors to choose between: She likes the charming Tom Musgrave (Laurence Ubong Williams) but so does her other sister Margaret (Rhianna McGreevy) and besides, Tom is the story's designated cad. The character Jane Austen seems to have wanted her to end up with is parson Mr Howard (Tim Delap,) but while he might be a thoroughly decent man he doesn't seem like an interesting enough one to really engage someone as dynamic as our heroine.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Theatre review: Our Lady of Kibeho

Definitely fitting the bill of a long-awaited show, ten years after The Mountaintop first became a surprise smash (and notwithstanding her doing book duties on a musical,) we finally get a follow-up play from Katori Hall in London. Our Lady of Kibeho is a much more epic affair than its predecessor but it shares its theme of looking at an incredibly dark moment in black history from a fantastical, mystical perspective, and bringing an element of hope and humour to it. Inspired by true events, Kibeho is a remote village in the mountains of Rwanda, home to breathtaking scenery, a Catholic girls' school and not much else. But in 1981 it looks like it could be put on the map in a big way when Alphonsine (Taz Munya,) an unremarkable student who, as a Tutsi, is in the minority at the school, claims to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Theatre review: The Man in the White Suit

Sean Foley’s comic instincts have never been infallible (remember Ducktastic? I certainly don’t, it closed with unseemly haste before I could see it) but I do seem to be disappointed with his work more often lately. Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense was one of his bigger hits a few years ago, but teaming up again with its star Stephen Mangan hasn’t really recaptured that magic as they bring Roger MacDougall, John Dighton and Alexander Mackendrick’s Ealing comedy The Man in the White Suit to the stage. Mangan plays Sidney Stratton, a lab technician at a Lancashire textile mill in the 1950s, who keeps blowing things up in his attempts to create a revolutionary new kind of material. When he gets fired from Corland’s (Ben Deery) factory he wangles his way into rival mill owner Burnley’s (Richard Cordery) lab, where he finally comes up with a fabric that never deteriorates, loses its shape or even gets dirty.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Theatre review: Mephisto [A Rhapsody]

Deconstructing itself as it goes along, Samuel Gallet's Mephisto [A Rhapsody] is based on a novel by Klaus Mann which was banned for decades – as argued successfully in court by his family, the real-life target of his satire was all-too-easily identifiable. That target was a German actor whose liberal principles went out the window when he realised the Nazis could be good for his career, and ended up performing Faust for Hitler. Gallet transposes the action to present-day France, and the actor making a deal with a metaphorical devil is Aymeric (Leo Bill,) a company member in a provincial rep. They tour Chekhov around a region with poor transport links to the rest of the country, which leaves it a financial and cultural backwater, and a centre for the rise of neo-fascism. Aymeric, along with colleagues Luca (Elizabeth Chan) and Nicole (Subika Anwar-Khan) urge the artistic director Eva (Tamzin Griffin) to ditch the classics in favour of more urgent work addressing the current political crisis.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Theatre review: Two Ladies

Biddle de-dit de-dee,

Two Ladies sees the Bridge Theatre return - after a glorious summer diversion into Shakespeare - to its official identity as a new writing venue; as well, unfortunately, as to its entirely unofficial one as a rather disappointing new writing venue. Nancy Harris' new play isn't just about two ladies but about two First Ladies, behind the scenes at a crisis summit following multiple terrorist attacks on US soil. The highly conservative American President is expected to respond in the usual way, by declaring war on whichever Middle Eastern country he can blame the attacks on, while his liberal French counterpart, who's hosting the summit, is expected to try to dissuade him. Meanwhile their wives are meant to be making speeches at a women-in-business conference that feels even more like a sideline given the severity of what the politicians are discussing.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Theatre review: Groan Ups

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Groan Ups is having an extended preview period and invites the official reviewers in next week.

Mischief Theatre's success story has gone beyond fairytale to downright ridiculous as they're now a worldwide brand, who recently took out an ad promoting their current and upcoming London shows, and needed an entire Evening Standard wraparound to fit them all in. Having been a fan of their work since The Play That Goes Wrong was a one-acter testing the waters at Trafalgar Studio 2 I've been dreading them losing their magic touch and falling flat on their faces (in the bad way.) A year-long residency for the core company at the Vaudeville could have been the over-ambitious move that proved too much, but the opening show certainly suggests they're nowhere near running out of steam yet. As usual Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields are the writers, but Groan Ups gets its laughs from a more traditional farce structure than their earlier hits, as well as suggesting they do have a more thoughtful side when they want to.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Theatre review: "Master Harold" ...and the Boys

Probably South Africa’s most famous playwright, Athol Fugard is known for his plays skewering Apartheid; ”Master Harold” …and the Boys is described as semi-autobiographical, which may explain some of the background to why an Afrikaner turned so violently against a system designed to keep him in privilege. The setting is a tea room in Port Elizabeth, during a rainy afternoon in 1950 – water hammers down on a skylight over Rajha Shakiry’s set, keeping any potential customers away. So in between cleaning jobs the two black staff members Sam (Lucian Msamati) and Willie (Hammed Animashaun) have plenty of time to practice their steps for an upcoming ballroom dancing competition. That is until teenager Hally (Anson Boon,) son of the tea room’s owners, comes back from school, setting up at one of the tables to do his homework.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Theatre review: Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.

Caryl Churchill’s later career has been typified by her enviable ability to make her point incredibly succinctly – her plays tend to be short and sharp, culminating in her writing Love and Information in the format of a sketch show. Her latest premiere at the Royal Court is a more loosely connected quadruple bill of plays: Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.’s stories are self-contained and varied in style, but all share a theme of deconstructing legends and fairytales, bringing the fantastical into an often comically banal light and finding the dark truth behind the magical fiction. Each play is slightly longer than the one before, so the first act consists of the first three stories, opening with Glass in which Kwabena Ansah, Louisa Harland, Patrick McNamee and Rebekah Murrell tell the story of a girl made of glass (Murrell,) trying to navigate her teenage years and a romance with a boy (McNamee) who may be as fragile as she is in his own way.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Theatre review: King John (RSC / Swan)

In a theatrical landscape experimenting excitedly with gender-flipped, gender-blind and gender-neutral casting, it's good for a company to find its own niche, although the RSC's take seems to be an eccentric one: Casting women in male title roles, but largely going with the ones male actors weren't in any particular hurry to play in the first place. So a couple of years ago there was a female Cymbeline, and now the unloved - both in-universe and within the canon - King John, as Rosie Sheehy takes the nominal lead in Eleanor Rhode's production. John - the gender-flipped characters are largely given dresses in Max Johns' design but the pronouns stick to what Shakespeare wrote - has inherited the throne from his much more popular brother Richard the Lionheart, along with the usual convoluted politics with England and France fighting over claims to each other's kingdom.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Theatre review: Big

Where musicals in 2019 have been concerned, the smaller ones have been much more likely to strike a chord with me than the big ones so far. So how does that bode for a musical whose actual title is Big? Spoiler alert and everything, but not well. John Weidman (book,) David Shire (music) and Richard Maltby's (lyrics) musical is based on Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg's 1988 film that remains a well-loved classic and a milestone in Tom Hanks' career. This 1996 stage adaptation, on the other hand, was apparently such a financial disaster I'm surprised it's not better-known among the legendary Broadway trainwrecks like Carrie and Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. So it's not much of a shock if it's taken this long to make it to London; more of one, though, that nobody seems to have learnt their lesson, and instead of a quiet, soon-forgotten run on the fringe we get Morgan Young's flashy production in the absolute barn that is the Dominion.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Theatre review: Either

Do the box office at Hampstead Theatre keep a nightly record of how people pronounce Either when collecting their tickets, and take bets on which pronunciation will win every night? And if not, WHAT EVEN IS THE POINT OF ANYTHING?

Two consecutive trips to Hampstead Theatre wasn't exactly planned but it's not always easy to space things out in my diary, especially when a season is announced at late as this one was. Still, it makes for an interesting way to judge a new Artistic Director's mission statement to make a kind of double bill of the launch shows in both the main and studio spaces, and Either certainly suggests Roxana Silbert won't want to be left behind when theatre starts experimenting with changing ways of looking at the world. Specifically, in this instance, the changing understanding of what gender is and how it affects people's interactions: Ruby Thomas' play is about a couple, but is explicitly genderless - a stage direction projected onto Bethany Wells' set at the start insists that the two characters can and should be played by any and all genders.

Monday, 23 September 2019

Theatre review: The King of Hell's Palace

The last in September's trio of new Artistic Directors to make their debut is Roxana Silbert, another experienced hand who comes to Hampstead straight from Birmingham. She breaks with the unwritten convention by not directing the season opener herself, in fact she won't be taking the wheel until the fourth main-house show of her tenure. Instead former RSC boss Michael Boyd directs The King of Hell's Palace - a challenging choice of opener but an exciting prospect as far as I'm concerned: Writer Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig was behind Snow In Midsummer, which I was completely smitten with a few years ago. This time around there's a more brutally down-to-earth subject matter, although death remains a common denominator as the early days of China taking on the West at its own capitalist game in the 1990s see a medical scandal and huge cover-up rock the impoverished countryside.

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Theatre review: Amsterdam

The Orange Tree's autumn season opens with the UK premiere of a play whose urgent theme and potentially fascinating story get buried under its frenetic, wilfully eccentric storytelling device. Maya Arad Yasur's Amsterdam, translated here by Eran Edry, follows a reasonably successful Israeli violinist now based in the titular Dutch city, heavily pregnant when her gas gets cut off and a €1700 bill arrives for it. The unpaid debt originates from 1944 and has been accumulating interest and fines ever since. Her enquiries into the bill's history reveal that it's not been forgotten or fallen through the cracks, but been left deliberately unpaid by generations of the late landlady's family because its very existence adds insult to historic injury.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Theatre review: Preludes

Prolific off-Broadway composer Dave Malloy hasn’t had much work seen in the UK that I’m aware of, but with his shows starting to move to Broadway and win Tonys London theatres seem to be catching up, with two works from his back catalogue opening this autumn. If the opening salvo is anything to go by we’re in for an… odd time, if not quite as irritating to me as some of his peers’ experimental work. Preludes takes its theme from the late 19th/early 20th century Russian pianist, conductor and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, who became an overnight sensation with his Prelude aged 19, only to have a disastrous reception to his Symphony No. 1. There followed a three-year period of depression and writer’s block, which he only came out of with the help of extensive analysis and hypnotherapy from Nikolai Dahl (Rebecca Caine.) Malloy imagines this period of Rachmaninov’s life through the prism of the trances he was put into.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Theatre review: Torch Song

Have you ever felt like a theatre's gaslighting you? It's how I felt when the new Turbine Theatre announced its launch show as Harvey Fierstein's iconic 1970s gay play Torch Song, and none of the articles leading up to the production seemed to acknowledge that it's much better known as Torch Song Trilogy. It turns out that no I'm not going mad, yes that is the title of the 1970s play cycle, and yes there is a distinction: This is in fact the 2017 version of the script that Fierstein made significant cuts to, the slight title change differentiating between the two texts. Not that Drew McOnie's production departs from the original structure, even announcing the original plays' titles in neon signs over Ryan Dawson Laight's set. It's a story whose cast grows as it goes on, so opening act "International Stud" lights up just on drag queen Arnold (Matthew Needham) as he gets changed after a show, confessing to the audience how much he longs for a man he truly belongs with in the hedonistic underworld of gay '70s Manhattan.

Friday, 13 September 2019

Theatre review: A Doll's House

The seasoned veteran in 2019's round of Artistic Director Musical Chairs, Rachel O’Riordan taking over the Lyric Hammersmith means she's run theatres in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and now England. On the other hand she could be seen as the one with the most to prove to a London audience, considering her last outing here was last year's catastrophically misjudged revival of Foxfinder. Well her opening production feels like it's done a good job of catching the Lyric's brand, taking as it does a well-loved classic - Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, a play that seems to be on a lot of people's radar at the moment - and giving it a fresh twist. It's also, despite the fact that the story's been kept in the year of the play's premiere, 1879, a reinvention that ties in to a lot of current concerns, namely the way the rose-tinted view of Britain's colonial past has finally come back to cause destruction in Britain itself, and that past is ripe for reevaluation.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Theatre review: Falsettos

Another week, another show gets embroiled in controversy - in the case of Falsettos it's over whether the long-delayed (27 years) UK premiere of William Finn (music and lyrics) and James Lapine's (book) musical engaged meaningfully with the Jewish community during the rehearsal process. Tara Overfield-Wilkinson's production has no Jewish cast or creatives, and when a show opens with a number called "Four Jews in a Room Bitching" (as well as later featuring a major plotline about a bar mitzvah, and a whole song about the cliché that Jews are bad at sports) it does seem mind-blowing to me that nobody considered at the very least having someone in the room in a consultancy role for some scenes, just to make sure the show's brash, cartoonish style didn't tip over into something insensitive.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Theatre review: Evita

Regent's Park Open Air Theatre says they only cancel 5% of performances due to bad weather; I must be particularly unlucky then because I'm averaging 33% over the last two years. So this is my second attempt at Jamie Lloyd's take on Evita; regular readers will both know I regularly grumble about not much liking the work of The Rev. Dr Baron Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Lord Webber BA (Hons) MEng, QC, MD, P.I, FSB, while consistently finding reasons to go and see it anyway. In this case, it's the fact that the Open Air will be trying to recreate the success of 2016's revelatory Jesus Christ Superstar, and getting Lloyd for it is something of a minor coup for the venue. Evita is ALW and Tim Rice's take on the controversial figure Eva Perón (Samantha Pauly,) First Lady of Argentina during the 1940s and seen as the power behind the throne for her populist husband Juan Perón (Ektor Rivera.)

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Theatre review: Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation

Two years before the performance in the Royal Court Upstairs, Miles' son fell through the ice on a lake and drowned. Miles tried to save him but failed, and although he survived he ended up in a coma. In the present day, he regains consciousness, waking from dreams of the end of the world which he believes are premonitions; others believe him too, and follow him to the cult he sets up in a remote part of Bolivia. Fifteen years from now, the solar eclipse that portends the apocalypse is finally due, and Miles' estranged wife Anna (Susan Vidler) has flown out in a last-ditch attempt to get their daughter Sol (Shyvonne Ahmmad) away from his clutches. As with most plays, Sol's words and actions are pre-determined by the playwright's script. But the playwright in question is Tim Crouch, an experimental theatre-maker who regularly plays with the idea of how stories are told and who's in control of them, so Sol the character actually has a copy of the script in her hand.