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Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Theatre review: A Fight Against...
(Una Lucha Contra...)

Chilean playwright Pablo Manzi's A Fight Against... (Una Lucha Contra...) was developed at the Royal Court at a time when his country was experiencing a lot of violent unrest against the state and inequality, culminating in recent elections that saw voters lean much more to the Left than had been expected. Some of the play's scenes inevitably reflect this energy, but as the ellipsis in the title suggests, not all of the characters know - or necessarily care - who or what they're fighting. In five separate, but possibly connected scenes spanning the last 140 years, we see characters trying to make sense of their own, or other people's anger: Beginning with Chilean university professor Carla (Jimena Larraguivel,) who returns from a day's teaching to announce that one of her students attacked and threatened to kill her. Her husband (Joseph Balderrama) understandably wants to know more, but something her student said might have alarmed Carla even more than the violence, and she's reluctant to say much.

Thursday, 6 January 2022

Theatre review: Peggy For You

As we go into 2022 Hampstead Theatre finally gets to finish its 2020 season reviving notable works that premiered there over its first six decades. After the bleakness of the last offering we get something lighter in Peggy For You, Alan Plater's affectionate - but not uncritical - tribute to legendary agent Peggy Ramsay. She was the top name for representing playwrights, but despite her fearsome reputation she would have seen any success her clients achieved as largely incidental; and over the course of the day we meet three clients at very different stages of their careers. But first we meet Peggy (Tamsin Greig) crashing on the sofa of her office, having spent the night bailing out one of her most illustrious clients after he ran amok at the French Embassy. Arriving far too early for his appointment is Simon (Josh Finan,) a young writer who sent her a script.

Tuesday, 4 January 2022

Theatre review: Force Majeure

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Force Majeure has had its press night pushed back by the usual.

Are steep stages going to be a 2022 theatrical meme? After Spring Awakening's set of steps comes an off-kilter, steeply raked white stage dominating the Donald and Margot Warehouse for Michael Longhurst's production of Force Majeure. The reason for these white expanses is that Tim Price's midlife crisis play, based on a film by Ruben Östlund, takes place at a ski resort in the French Alps, where a Swedish family have decided to take a rare holiday together. Ebba (Lyndsey Marshal) thinks her husband spends too much of his time at work and not enough with their kids, so she's convinced Tomas (Rory Kinnear) to revisit a place he often went to as a child, and try to forge a relationship with his own, increasingly difficult children: Vera (Bo Bragason, alternating with Florence Hunt) is entering her teenage years and has, in a detached way, decided her parents are heading for divorce, while Harry (Oliver Savell, alternating with Henry Hunt) is having an alternately clingy and shouty phase.

Saturday, 1 January 2022

Theatre review: Spring Awakening

I'm starting 2022 as I'd like it to go on, not only with a show that got cancelled at the end of 2021, but one which proves an absolutely storming opener to the year: Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik's (music) Spring Awakening is the musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind's radical 19th century play about teenagers' repressed sexualities and the devastating consequences of their parents keeping the realities of the world from them. The pop-rock songs are an anachronistic jolt from the 1890s German setting of the dialogue scenes, but it's surprising how much of the plot - that encompasses teenage pregnancy, abortion, suicide and same-sex relationships - comes straight from Wedekind. Friends since childhood, the teenagers have been separated into single-sex schools and discouraged from meeting each other.

Friday, 31 December 2021

2021: Almost a Theatre Review of the Year

This round-up post for 2021 makes it ten full years of me writing reviews nobody asked for and calling it Partially Obstructed View, and it would be nice to have a bumper year to look back on and celebrate (I did consider doing a ten-year retrospective post but honestly who could be bothered; it would only be me pitting ten Shows of the Year against each other before picking Jumpers for Goalposts in the end anyway.) Of course nobody got that, but at least while 2021 started as a continuation of 2020 (and didn't end that differently to be honest,) we did end up with a good six months' worth of live theatre, new and old. So this won't be quite as extensive a post as usual, but it should be a bit closer to it than last year's cut-down version. A few more of my traditional dubious awards will get a chance to come back, and while I still won't do a full Top Ten and Bottom Five, I am planning on two Shows of the Year and one Stinker.

Monday, 27 December 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Death of England -
Face to Face

You could certainly call what the National Theatre's been on with Death of England a rollercoaster ride, as there have been sharp ups and downs ever since Clint Dyer and Roy Williams premiered what was then a standalone monologue: Michael's side of the story, about a man both mourning his father and confronting his racist legacy, was one of the venue's hits of the year. The fact that the year in question was 2020 is a clue to where the downs came from: The same team came up with Delroy, a sequel from the point of view of Michael's black best friend, which culminated in him having a baby with Michael's sister Carly - while also crtically well-received, this installment suffered first from appendicitis taking out its star, and then from a story set during the first Covid lockdown being cut short by the second. Having managed to catch Delroy on stage I guessed that Dyer and Williams might now have an eye to a trilogy, with Carly perhaps the final piece of the puzzle: I was half right.

Thursday, 23 December 2021

Radio review: The Octoroon

So I guess I'm rounding out 2021 in the same way I started it, making up for a lack of live theatre with screen and radio alternatives. A few years ago American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins scored a hit with An Octoroon, his deconstruction of problematic Victorian melodrama The Octoroon. The play worked in its own right but like, I would imagine, most people, I went into it unfamiliar with what it was deconstructing. It's one thing when the source material is Hamlet, but when it's a play whose then-radical sympathy for black lives now comes across as deeply patronising, it's not exactly revived much. So once again Radio 3 provides an alternative, with a 2013 production in which Mark Ravenhill adapted Dion Boucicault's 1859 play set on a Louisiana cotton plantation, where George (Trevor White) has returned to claim his inheritance.

Friday, 17 December 2021

Theatre review: Habeas Corpus

The Menier Chocolate Factory tends to feel like London's most conservative, if not most Conservative theatre, and as such some of its safe programming choices for a coffin-adjacent audience base can translate to disinterring creaky old farces that should have stayed buried in the 20th century. But if the farce in question is an early Alan Bennett play (early, I mean he was forty but these things are relative,) and it's directed by the prolific but usually reliable Patrick Marber, I'm prone to think it might be worth checking out anyway. Unfortunately both writer and director seem to have made a colossal error of judgement where Habeas Corpus is concerned: With a plot set in a doctor's surgery and an approach that tries to dig up the darker side of farce's obsession with sex, the play feels like it could be paying homage to Joe Orton's What The Butler Saw*. Except that play's genuinely sexy, shocking and funny.

Thursday, 16 December 2021

Theatre review: Best of Enemies

Apart from the occasional exception, James Graham is overwhelmingly known as a political playwright, often one who uses the past to illuminate the present, but even within those bounds there's a wide variety of styles he employs. His latest play does bring one very specific precedent to mind though: It could almost be a sequel to Ink, which pinpointed a particular moment in British newspaper history that changed the way political discourse and media influence would work right up until the present day. This time, the very topical issue is the abrasive and polarised style of political debate that fosters an almost tribal allegiance to extremes, and rejection of compromise. Inspired by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon's documentary of the same name, Best of Enemies seeks the origin in American television, and the 1968 party conventions that would choose the Republican and Democratic candidates for the next election.

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Radio review: Don Juan

Not for the first time, and to be honest I think it's unlikely to be the last time this year, Covid has caused the show I was due to see tonight to be cancelled. And once again I've turned to BBC radio drama for an alternative, and Robin Brooks' Don Juan, an adaptation of the first few cantos of Lord Byron's epic satirical poem. Byron's version of Juan (Matthew Tennyson) isn't a famed lothario, or at least not yet, but a beautiful but gormless teenager who proves irresistible to all the young women he meets, especially those with husbands or fathers who'd disapprove. So he first catches the eye of neighbour Donna Julia (Pippa Nixon,) unhappily married to a much older man, who seduces Juan and then gets caught with him in a bedroom farce when her husband returns. Juan flees the city and is shipwrecked, and found by Haidée (Dolores Carbonari,) who also falls for him - and this time it's her fearsome pirate father who causes them trouble.

Saturday, 11 December 2021

Theatre review: The Child in the Snow

Writer Piers Torday has become a regular contributor of the Christmas show at Wilton's Music Hall ever since The Box of Delights, and with the return of director Justin Audibert and designer Tom Piper this should be a team that knows its way around London's most atmospheric venue, and the sort of story that works there. And in a couple of story points you can see why Elizabeth Gaskell’s short ghost story "The Old Nurse's Story" made them think of the Victorian music hall which in recent years has seemed much safer from demolition than it used to be, but whose partial restoration means it still easily conjures up the thought that it might be haunted. Unfortunately the resulting play, The Child in the Snow, does nothing to live up to the setting - in fact the only ghostly thing about it is how insubstantial it feels.

Wednesday, 8 December 2021

Theatre review: Life of Pi

Another show I've had rescheduled a couple of times over the last 18 months, the stage adaptation of Life of Pi that originated in Sheffield finally gets its West End opening. Yann Martel's novel was a huge bestseller twenty years ago and has already had a CGI-heavy film adaptation, and its fantastical story of animals on the high seas lends itself to stage spectacle - if they could figure out how. Lolita Chakrabarti writes the adaptation and Max Webster directs, but it's puppet designers Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell who ultimately make it possible. Piscine Patel, known as Pi (alternate Nuwan Hugh Perera) is an Indian teenager whose father (Nicholas Khan) runs a zoo. When 1970s politics turns violent and the family get stuck in the middle, they accept an offer from a Canadian zoo to relocate there along with all their animals. But along the way the cargo ship they're on sinks, and Pi is the only survivor.

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Theatre review: Trouble in Mind

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: I seem to be having a run of shows I could only fit in before they officially open to the press; this was the penultimate preview.

A play that made me spend a lot of the evening wondering if I'd misread how old it was, Alice Childress' Trouble in Mind was first staged off-Broadway in 1955; which makes it ahead of its time, to say the very least. Wiletta Mayer (Tanya Moodie) has made a successful career as an actress, admittedly mostly in all-black revues and a succession of bit-part "mammy" roles on screen. Now she's preparing to go back to Broadway for a ground-breaking new drama that will make a powerful statement about racism, and mobilise its comfortable white audience into empathy. It's just a shame that the play-within-a-play, written and directed by white men, is terrible, and full of as many offensive stereotypes as any number of overtly racist works. But as she tells newcomer John (Daniel Adeosun) when rehearsals begin, there's a certain repertoire of polite nods, smiles and giggles black actors have to offer up to white creatives if they're going to feel comfortable around them and continue giving them work.

Thursday, 2 December 2021

Theatre review: Cabaret

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This is another one with a long preview period, and the official reviews aren't out yet.

Rebecca Frecknall had a career-defining hit with Summer and Smoke, which she's capitalised on creatively with her ongoing associate role at the Almeida; now she makes a bold play to capitalise on it commercially as well, staking her claim as a name we could be seeing in the West End for some time: A reimagined production of Kander & Ebb's dark but enduring musical Cabaret, with not only a big-name cast but also a reconfigured Playhouse Theatre that tries to give the feeling of entering the eponymous Kit Kat Club in 1920s Berlin. With staggered entry times, the audience enters the theatre's basement and is guided around the dingy corridors, passing showgirls doing their makeup until eventually ending up at front of house to find their seats*. Once inside Tom Scutt's traverse design has replaced the Stalls seats with tables surrounding a raised revolve.

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Theatre review: Manor

The world may be far from out of the pandemic woods yet, but in some parts of the theatrical landscape nature is healing: After a few months' honeymoon period, the papers have gone back to announcing that Rufus Norris has scheduled a show that will single-handedly bring down the National Theatre (a feat even Damned by Despair couldn't manage, calm down.*) The latest recipient of this dubious honour is Manor, Moira Buffini's new topical - perhaps too broadly topical - play that sets a political crisis against the backdrop of the climate crisis. Diana (Nancy Carroll) is the heir to a crumbling manor house somewhere near the coast, where she lives with her ageing rocker husband Pete (Owen McDonnell) and their daughter Isis (Liadán Dunlea). As a catastrophic storm destroys the area and threatens to flood the grounds, a number of unexpected guests seek shelter - not great timing, as Diana's just accidentally pushed Pete down the stairs during an argument, killing him.

Sunday, 28 November 2021

Theatre review: Yes So I Said Yes

David Ireland's plays see modern-day Northern Ireland as a place suffering from an identity crisis and collective PTSD from the Troubles; his viciously dark comedy takes on a Kafkaesque surreal journey in this English premiere of an earlier play, Yes So I Said Yes. Alan "Snuffy" Black (Daragh O’Malley) was a loyalist paramilitary in his youth, and spent some time in prison for an unspecified, but according to him fairly trivial, number of terrorist killings. Released into a country that no longer defaults to violence, he's a lonely old man who feels marginalised, depressed, and unfamiliar with the world around him, a situation which comes to a head when his neighbour's dog starts waking him up every night at 3am with his barking. But his neighbour (Owen O’Neill) insists there is no dog and, no longer sure if he's imagining things, Snuffy hopes a doctor can help him. Or, if not a doctor, Eamonn Holmes.

Friday, 26 November 2021

Theatre review: Measure for Measure
(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: I can't easily tell from the Globe website when the press night is due, but as I had a member of the creative team sitting next to me making notes I'm guessing we're still in the preview period for this one.

I'm going to get a big grumble out of the way first this time, because I have a lot of good things to say about Blanche McIntyre's production of Measure for Measure, and don't want them to be overshadowed by something that's a regular irritation. But you know, if it's a regular irritation at one particular theatre that's because they just keep doing it, namely underselling how long a show is. I know I often say I like short shows, so can understand why saying a show isn't that long is good marketing, but if it's not true the advertised running time is useless at best, a lie at worst. I use the info to figure out when and how is the best way to get home, especially when, like tonight, a Tube strike makes that more complicated. So as seems to happen every time I go to the Globe now, I spent the last half-hour wondering if the play would overrun by 15 minutes (can still catch my train) or 20 (1 hour 15 minute gap until the next one for some reason, not getting home until after midnight) instead of paying attention to the show*.

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Theatre review: Moulin Rouge!

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This is one of those Broadway-style long preview periods, with the official press being invited in on the 8th of December.

I often get songs stuck in my head when I look at what shows are coming up in my diary, and lately I've just been hearing "Moulin Rouge! Aha! Take it now or leave it, now is all we get, nothing promised no regrets!" Which is ironic, because that's more or less the only song from the last 150 years not to make its way into John Logan's jukebox musical, which puts the much-loved Baz Luhrmann film on stage with a few twists on the soundtrack. The original Moulin Rouge! gave Bohemian 19th century Paris and the titular burlesque club a doomed love story set to incongruous, anachronistic music that mainly consisted of relatively recent pop hits, and Logan's stage version does the same: Many of the most popular numbers from the film remain (so it opens with an energetic "Lady Marmalade" from the club's chorus girls,) but it's been 20 years since the original, so a lot of newer hits also get a look-in.

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Theatre review: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Another example of American and British tastes often differing, Christopher Durang's uneven comedy-drama Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike won a Best Play Tony in 2012, but didn't make it to the UK until this 2019 Theatre Royal Bath production, which was further delayed in transferring to London by... the usual*. As the title suggests, Durang throws together characters and situations from Chekhov in different configurations, with modern-day rural Pennsylvania standing in for turn-of-the-last-century remote Russia. Here three siblings in their fifties grew up, and two of them still live: Vanya (Michael Maloney) and his adopted sister Sonia (Rebecca Lacey) looked after their elderly parents, and following their deaths have stayed there, with no jobs and little to do with their time. They're supported by sister Masha (Janie Dee,) who sees herself as a classical actress but has made her fortune in a slasher movie franchise.

Monday, 22 November 2021

Theatre review: Rare Earth Mettle

Like every other industry at the moment, London theatre can't seem to let a year go by without a scandal; and since "getting to run the National despite presiding over the Spacey years at the Old Vic" apparently isn't troubling anyone, it's fallen to the Royal Court instead, and Al Smith's Whoops I Done An Antisemitism binfire surrounding Rare Earth Mettle. The furore surrounded Smith giving a stereotypically Jewish name to the morally dubious millionaire at the centre of the story, which is ironic because this could all have been avoided if he'd just called him something like Melon Husk - it's not like the inspiration is subtly concealed. Instead he's been renamed Henry Finn (Arthur Darvill,) a man who's made a fortune in tech and has ploughed it all into an electric car company (called Edison, because like I say... not subtle.)