Thursday, 23 June 2022

Theatre review: Mad House

A few years ago Bill Pullman gave a memorable performance at the Old Vic in All My Sons, and now he returns to the West End to play a more grotesque, but no less scene-stealing character. And he's clearly not a star name who wants all the limelight for himself: After sharing top billing with Sally Field last time, he now shares it with David Harbour at a time when he must have known the latest season of Stranger Things would give him most of the attention. This time Pullman plays Daniel, the patriarch of a dysfunctional family in a small Pennsylvania town, whose wife died of cancer a year earlier, and who's now slowly dying of multiple organ failure himself. He doesn't want to die in a hospice so, with the help of palliative care nurse Lillian (Akiya Henry,) his primary caregiver is eldest son Michael (Harbour.) He's the only one of Daniel's children willing to do it, and it may just be because he needs somewhere to live after spending a year in a mental institution.

Monday, 20 June 2022

Theatre review: That Is Not Who I Am

Theatres are going to have to keep trying to make up their Covid losses for some years to come, so you can forgive them if they try the odd gimmick to get bums on seats. Or at least you'd think you could, but the Royal Court's latest show has come with an elaborate framing device that extends way beyond the stage and begins with the publicity; something that could be described as underhand but in reality feels more like the theatre overtly trying to create an air of mystery, so why it seems to have made some critics quite so angry is a bit beyond me. In any case the setup is that the venue had discovered a first-time writer, a man in late middle age called Dave Davidson, who'd dabbled in playwrighting before but not had anything produced until That Is Not Who I Am. This pretence barely seemed to last a couple of days before it was commonly known Davidson was the pseudonym of an established author. Now that it's opened the information is easy to find but just in case anyone's still trying to go in blind, I'll keep the spoilers for after this text break.

Saturday, 18 June 2022

Theatre review: The False Servant

Paul Miller is coming up to his final season as Artistic Director of the Orange Tree, a theatre he notoriously took over on the day it lost all its funding. He turned its fortunes around with an eclectic menu of surprisingly ambitious new work alternating with reliable classics, predominantly from Rattigan and Shaw, and it'll be interesting to see how far his successor Tom Littler will want to tinker with a successful formula. One thing I won't miss if they go in the new regime are Miller's occasional ventures to 18th century France for the comedies of Pierre Marivaux, which between The Lottery of Love and the latest offering, The False Servant, haven't exactly got my pulse racing. A wealthy young woman (Lizzy Watts) is contemplating a potential suitor, but wants to be sure of his character. Disguising herself as a man and calling herself The Chevalier, she befriends Lelio (Julian Moore-Cook) and immediately finds out why she should avoid the match at all costs.

Friday, 17 June 2022

Theatre review: Britannicus

In a year that's been dominated by stories of swings and understudies keeping the theatre industry going - halfway through and I've probably already seen more people covering roles than in any other year - another show having to cope with cast illness has been the Lyric Hammersmith's take on Jean Racine's Britannicus: Ben and I were meant to see the show last Friday but it got cancelled, and there were further cancellations this week. With the theatre, like so many, not being able to afford to carry regular understudies, it's only by bringing in two actors to cover roles script-in-hand that they've managed to reopen tonight, in time for us to be second time lucky and catch it before it closes next week. And even if not quite at its best I'm glad I managed to see a show I'd been particularly looking forward to - I've seen and enjoyed a past production that used the same Timberlake Wertenbaker translation that Atri Banerjee's production uses.

Thursday, 16 June 2022

Theatre review: Cancelling Socrates

Howard Brenton made his name as a topical political playwright, and in recent years has become mostly known for his history plays. Cancelling Socrates, as suggested by a title that mixes a contentious, politicised modern term with a classical figure, is something of both, although in the end maybe not quite enough of either. It's the story of the trial of Socrates in 399 BCE Athens, when he was accused of blasphemy with a side order of corrupting youths. As played by Jonathan Hyde, Socrates isn't necessarily any more of an atheist than anyone else around him, and though he's got some very arch thoughts about the badly-behaved Olympian pantheon he does seem to pray to them and make all the right gestures. The trouble is his famous, eponymous Socratic method of philosophy, which relies on asking questions and seeing where the answers take him. Sooner or later he's going to end up asking questions with dangerous answers.

Tuesday, 14 June 2022

Theatre review: Jitney

With Jitney I hit my personal half-century point in August Wilson's American Century Cycle - having seen the plays covering the 1910s, 1920s, 1950s and 1980s, Headlong's production at the Old Vic takes us to the 1970s, and the first play in the cycle in order of writing. The next one Wilson wrote was Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and this play shares some similarities in setup: We're in another sunless room with a group of men taking breaks from work. This time it's a cabin that houses an unlicensed cab office: The licensed ones won't go to some of the more dangerous parts of Pittsburgh, which is where Becker's (Wil Johnson) drivers come in. And even they're not willing to stay there too long - one of their mantras to customers who call is "be ready, I won't wait." In between jobs they come back to the office to warm up by the electric fire, and when the phone rings the man who's been waiting longest gets to answer it and take the next fare.

Thursday, 9 June 2022

Theatre review: The Glass Menagerie

I'm sure the likes of A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof beat it in terms of name recognition, but in my experience The Glass Menagerie is the most frequently-produced Tennessee Williams work; the latest take on it makes five productions I've seen. It was the first Williams play I saw on stage and remains my favourite, although Jeremy Herrin's production seems determined to change that: As lifeless hatchet-jobs on beloved classics go it's not quite on a par with Mark Rylance's energy-sapping Much Ado, but it does share some of that sense of someone just plopping the play onto the stage, and walking away shrugging. In a play whose autobiographical nature is barely disguised, a cramped 1930s St Louis apartment houses what's left of the Wingfield family, scraping by ever since the father abandoned them. Williams' avatar Tom (Tom Glynn-Carney) works in a soul-destroying warehouse job by day, and spends his nights "at the movies."

Tuesday, 7 June 2022

Theatre review: Starcrossed

Mercutio's most memorable scene in any given production of Romeo & Juliet is likely to be the showboating Queen Mab speech, but his most famous line is the "a plague o' both your houses" refrain of his dying speech. As I get older and look at Shakespeare plays in different ways, one of the things I find notable about the play is that this speech, largely directed at Romeo, isn't entirely fair: The historic feud between the Montagues and Capulets might be the root cause of Mercutio's death, but the immediate cause is his own recklessness. Romeo has actually defused a volatile situation before Mercutio riles the thuggish Tybalt again, leading to a duel and, eventually, both their deaths. Rachel Garnet's Starcrossed, a reimagining of Romeo & Juliet, works in part as a possible explanation of this plot hole around why a character unrelated to either side of the feud, who's been happy to play the class clown until then, suddenly stokes up the fire in one of its most dangerous participants.

Sunday, 5 June 2022

Theatre review: Bonnie & Clyde

It's a human peculiarity to take dead-eyed career criminals and turn them into heroes, celebrated by the very people whose money they've taken. But I'm not here to talk about the Jubilee parade, instead I bypassed the crowds and went to the Arts Theatre for Bonnie & Clyde, a musical I had to postpone when I got Covid in April. Frank Wildhorn (music,) Don Black (lyrics) and Ivan Menchell's (book) show flopped on Broadway but has developed a cult following since, and a concert version last year has now been developed into Nick Winston's production, its first full staging in London. During the Great Depression, West Dallas is a dead end its residents just want to get away from; Bonnie Parker (Frances Mayli McCann) dreams of becoming a famous film star, but a different kind of celebrity comes along when Clyde Barrow (understudy Barney Wilkinson) escapes from prison.

Thursday, 2 June 2022

Theatre review: Henry VIII (Shakespeare's Globe)

Despite being named after a monarch more famous than any of Shakespeare's other History Plays, Henry VIII has always languished in obscurity - this is only the second time I've seen the play, and I've yet to see any evidence that it deserves better. It's one of the late collaborations with John Fletcher, with all the unevenness that implies, but it's also a play that reflects the way Shakespeare's work tended to bow to the trends of its time, in this case the popularity of big spectacle and pageantry (so much so that it's best known for including the special effect that burned down the original Globe.) It also came a decade after the death of the last Tudor monarch, meaning it was now safe to portray that particular dynasty on stage, while also tapping into nostalgia for Elizabeth I's reign. All solid commercial reasons for creating a show, and the latter element feels topical, seeing it on the Jubilee weekend, but they don't suggest a great play for the ages.

Sunday, 29 May 2022

Theatre review: Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare's Globe)

2022's ubiquitous Shakespeare is the much-loved but problematic Much Ado About Nothing, and for my second major production of the year (and the first I've actually managed to get to in person) it's Lucy Bailey's return to Shakespeare's Globe. And groundlings will be pleased to know that this time she's embraced the venue's tradition of gently teasing and playing with the standing audience members, rather than actively trying to kill them. Joanna Parker's design keeps the Italian setting and moves it to 1945; the company's regular singing of "Bella Ciao" reassures us the soldiers at the heart of the story were anti-fascist rebels (or just big Money Heist fans.) After their victory, Don Pedro's (Ferdy Roberts) battalion retire to the estate of Leonata (Katy Stephens,) where two of Pedro's soldiers will find romance with major obstacles: In Benedick's (Ralph Davis) case a classic love/hate rom-com, but in Claudio's (Patrick Osborne) something more sinister.

Friday, 27 May 2022

Theatre review: Legally Blonde

The Open Air Theatre launches its 2022 season with one of its trademarks, a hit Broadway/West End musical reinvented for the space; but both the choice of musical and the kind of reinvention feel like a big step forward for what can traditionally be an old-fashioned, tourist-courting venue. Laurence O'Keefe & Nell Benjamin (music & lyrics) and Heather Hach's (book) Legally Blonde is based on a novel by Amanda Brown, but more famously the Reece Witherspoon-starring film adaptation. Elle Woods (Courtney Bowman) is a wealthy Malibu girl who likes tiny dogs and the colour pink; from the start, Bowman's take on Elle is no dumb blonde, but neither has she done much to dispel the stereotype. She did graduate from UCLA, but she mainly seems to have gone there to join a sorority and nab herself a future husband.

Tuesday, 24 May 2022

Theatre review: The Father and the Assassin

Despite, or perhaps because of, the amount of extra-long shows I've seen recently, I seem to be in the mood to see something epic at the theatre lately - in scope if not necessarily in length. The Olivier is a natural home for that kind of event, and the latest premiere there seemed like it might deliver. The good news is that Anupama Chandrasekhar's The Father and the Assassin does that in spades, and in a subtler way than the huge stage might suggest. The Father of the title is Mohandas Gandhi (Paul Bazely), but the play's real focus is on the man who killed him, Nathuram Godse (Shubham Saraf.) Godse narrates his story, and begins by running his own childhood in parallel with the rise of Gandhi to political prominence with his Ahimsa philosophy of non-violent resistance.

Monday, 23 May 2022

Theatre review: The Breach

In the mid 1970s in Louisville, Kentucky, a construction worker fell off scaffolding and died. Faulty equipment was to blame, but the company managed to get away with paying the family the bare minimum compensation, so by the time we meet his teenage children in 1977, they're struggling to keep their heads above water, and the younger child is being badly bullied at school. Acton (Stanley Morgan) might be small, asthmatic and awkward, making for an easy target, but he's also very smart, so soon he finds a pair of protectors: Two older boys will keep him safe if he helps them prepare for their exams. Naomi Wallace's The Breach takes place entirely in the basement of his small house, which the well-off Hoke (Alfie Jones) and his sidekick Frayne (Charlie Beck) think would make a great clubhouse for the trio. But first they need permission from Acton's older sister Jude (Shannon Tarbet.)

Saturday, 21 May 2022

Theatre review: Wars of the Roses (RSC / RST)

I'm back in Stratford-upon-Avon for the Empire Strikes Back of Shakespeare's York v Lancaster trilogy: Originally titled Richard, Duke of York, most commonly (and confusingly) known as Henry VI Part 3, the RSC have opted for the blindingly obvious title that both Shakespeare and the First Folio editors managed to miss, Wars of the Roses. Following straight on from Rebellion, the gloves are off and so are any masks hiding who's behind the threats to Henry VI's reign. The Duke of York (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) makes his challenge known, and begins to muster forces, supported by his sons Edward, later Edward IV (Ashley D Gayle,) George (Ben Hall) and Richard (Arthur Hughes.) When the "kingmaker" Warwick (Nicholas Karimi) pledges his allegiance to the Yorkist cause as well, their victory seems assured.

Thursday, 19 May 2022

Theatre review: The House of Shades

Anne-Marie Duff returns to the stage, bringing with her the usual trepidation over what her generally questionable taste in plays will serve up this time. Beth Steel's The House of Shades isn't among the dodgier shows I've seen Duff in (I made it to the end of this one,) but it does suggest that if you asked her if she wanted a side of subtlety with her political commentary, you'd get a firm "no thanks!" Blanche McIntyre directs a family saga of a Nottinghamshire mining town, spanning from 1965 to 2019 - from optimism about what the trade unions and the Labour Party could do to help the country, all the way to the fall of the "red wall." Duff plays Constance, who fled an abusive father in the only way available to a woman in her position: By marrying the first man who came along. But starting her own family with Alistair (Stuart McQuarrie) soon just turned into a different kind of trap.

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Theatre review: House of Ife

After her tenure running the Bush got interrupted soon after she took over, Lynette Linton continues to put her stamp on the venue by directing House of Ife, Beru Tessema's drama about three Ethiopian-British siblings and the family tensions that come to a head when their brother dies. Twins Ife and Aida (Karla-Simone Spence) moved to England when they were just about old enough to remember something of living in Ethiopia; Tsion (Yohanna Ephrem) and Yosi (Michael Workeye) were both born in London. The three siblings we meet are combative but pretty well-adjusted, but around the age of 16 Ife went off the rails in ways we gradually find out more about; the play opens after his funeral, as they try to celebrate their brother's memory while their mother Meron (Sarah Priddy) tackles the competitive mourning of the ladies from church in the next room.

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Theatre review: Two Palestinians Go Dogging

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Press Night for this is next week. This may mean the running time issue I mention later in this review may have been improved a bit by then.

The Royal Court isn't afraid to tackle the political issues that most steer clear of, so it's perhaps not entirely surprising that their latest premiere tackles the conflict between Israel and Palestine - from the Palestinian perspective that's generally shied away from, and largely through the medium of black comedy. Sami Ibrahim's Two Palestinians Go Dogging has a title that's meant to sound like the setup to a joke, but we're also assured many times that public sex is literally something its indefatigable leading lady has been known to indulge in; it's also the setting for a couple of unlikely Israeli-Palestinian encounters on a more intimate level. The story begins in 2043, although apart from the fact that the Prime Minister of Israel is the reanimated corpse of Benjamin Netanyahu there's nothing much to differentiate it from 2022.

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Theatre review: Oklahoma!

Regular readers of this blog will both know I traditionally have certain reservations about musical theatre pioneers Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II - namely that if it weren't for the famous and beloved tunes, their work would fall somewhere between "horribly dated" and "nightmarishly distressing" and not get staged anymore. One of their shows I hadn't seen before - I don't think I've even seen the film - is their original, genre-defining hit Oklahoma! But Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein's production, which transfers to the Young Vic from New York, promised to come with a radical, twenty-first century reimagining of the musical Western about farmers trying to squeeze a bit of singing and dancing in between the relentless dry-humping. Because Fish and Fein's approach to the show is to dispense with any euphemisms and cuteness, and strip it down to a story about people who just want to have sex with each other (whether or not the other party is entirely consenting, because Hammerstein.)

Sunday, 8 May 2022

Theatre review: Age of Rage

Six Greek tragedies in four hours, told through the medium of Dutch Doom Metal? Ivo van Hove must be in town. And given what he deposited on the stage the last time he was here, that's not necessarily the most reassuring thought, but at least Age of Rage comes to the Barbican courtesy of van Hove's regular ensemble at Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, with the promise of following in the footsteps of past epics like Roman Tragedies and Kings of War. In fact, now that Robert Icke has joined the company as a resident director, with shows like The Doctor joining their repertoire, it's surprising that this show was created instead of Icke's Oresteia doing likewise, because in terms of story if not style, Age of Rage follows the same cycle of Greek mythology: The Oresteia, but expanded to take in the beginning of the family feud with the sacrifice of Iphigenia in Aulis.