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Monday, 28 November 2022

Theatre review: Baghdaddy

Whoa, Baghdaddy (Bam-ba-lam)

Jasmine Naziha Jones' wildly hyperactive playwrighting debut Baghdaddy deals with the guilt of a woman who feels she could have done more to support her British-based Iraqi father when he was trying to process the wars in the country where much of his family still lived; but how much could she be expected to understand, when she was eight years old at the time? In Milli Bhatia's production the playwright herself plays Darlee, who remembers her Dad (Philip Arditti) and how he coped with living in safety while Baghdad was burning on the news. In both the 1990s' and 2000s' wars, he tried to support his family by doing one-man humanitarian runs, smuggling medicine, cash, and information held back by the regime to neighbouring countries where his brother could collect them. But back at home, all Darlee sees is her beloved father becoming distant.

Saturday, 26 November 2022

Theatre review: Arms and the Man

Paul Miller directs his final show as Artistic Director of the Orange Tree, and it's no real surprise that it involves one of the two classic playwrights who've kept the wolves from the venue's door during his tenure. I would have personally preferred a Rattigan swansong, but Miller's gone instead for Bernard Shaw: Arms and the Man is one of Shaw's most famous titles, although I don't think I've had the opportunity to see it before, so like most of the two writers' works presented in Richmond, it's presumably fallen out of favour and been forgotten. It turns out to be a lightly farcical romantic comedy for the holiday season, and less overtly political than its title and premise might have suggested: Set in rural Bulgaria during one of the endless 19th century conflicts between the Russian and Austrian empires, the Bulgarian army (under the Russians) have just scored a major victory over the Serbians (under the Austrians.)

Thursday, 24 November 2022

Theatre review: Here

Southwark Playhouse's current home on Newington Causeway has been rechristened Southwark Playhouse Borough, to differentiate it from the new venue down the road that it's going to be coexisting with for the next couple of years. It's also once again become the host of the annual Papatango playwrighting prize after it moved to the Bush last year - although it's now in the Large space after several years in the Little. I've often thought Papatango tends to favour fairly downbeat plays, though they generally come with some spark of inspiration that makes them worth catching. Well 2022's winner, Clive Judd's kitchen sink play Here, definitely provides the downbeat part, but unfortunately I personally failed to find in it the redeeming features to make its hefty running time worthwhile. The kitchen is in the West Midlands home of Monica (Lucy Benjamin,) which she inherited when her father died two years earlier, and which still has the 1980s decor he left behind.

Wednesday, 23 November 2022

Theatre review: Henry V (Headlong)

This year's second London Henry V is a radically different beast than the Donmar's bombastic war epic, and different in fact from any I've seen before in 30 or so years of Shakespeare productions. The clichéd view of the play is of a jingoistic celebration of Englishness, but in the last two decades it's been rare to see it through anything other than a cynical eye as a story of British imperialism, and increasingly through the prism of an arrogant attitude towards Europe. Holly Race Roughan's production for Headlong, which opens at the Swanamaker before transferring to Leeds and Northampton next year, takes it right out of the canon of Shakespeare's Histories, reimagining it entirely as a brooding and claustrophobic Tragedy. And if I was less excited than some about Kit "Christopher" Harington's casting earlier this year, Big Favourite Round These Parts Oliver Johnstone getting his chance at one of the big Shakespearean leads is more the kind of thing to grab my attention.

Monday, 21 November 2022

Theatre review: Blackout Songs

Joe White's Blackout Songs is an alcoholic love story, which Guy Jones' production plays as a kind of twisted rom-com: Anisha Fields' traverse set design is bordered by rows of chairs that call to mind AA (Alcoholics Anonymous, not the Automobile Association.) That's because an AA meeting is where the protagonists meet, but it soon becomes apparent they're not ready to commit to sobriety: Rebecca Humphries' Alice and Alex Austin's Charlie (the characters are listed as just "Her" and "Him" in the programme) both claim this is their first-ever AA meeting, and they don't even stay past the coffee: When she finds out he's going cold turkey, Alice tells Charlie that has a one-in-twenty fatality rate, and they should go out and get him one last drink to save his life.

Thursday, 17 November 2022

Theatre review: From Here To Eternity

When Stuart Brayson (music) Tim Rice (lyrics) and Bill Oakes' (book) musical adaptation of From Here To Eternity debuted in the West End in 2013, I found it hard work, but the songs from Brayson were a highlight, and have stayed on my playlists since. So on balance I decided to give it another go in its off-West End return at Charing Cross Theatre, where it gets a smaller-scale production from Brett Smock. And while it still feels like adapting James Jones' novel and the classic film for the stage was an idea flawed from its conception, this more streamlined take on the show (it's a revised script with a number of songs moved, removed or replaced with new ones entirely - the balance of book to music was one of my issues with the original) is a definite improvement. The action takes place in Hawaii in the fortnight before the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack.

Tuesday, 15 November 2022

Theatre review: Not Now

When a planned revival of last year's Yes So I Said Yes fell through, the Finborough Theatre avoided going dark for a month by scheduling the London premiere of another David Ireland play, his recent short comedy Not Now. It's a story that almost feels like it could have been inspired by a running Twitter joke about Jonjo O'Neil's 2012 Richard III, as it opens with aspiring Belfast actor Matthew (Matthew Blaney) rehearsing the opening soliloquy, and trying not to pronounce the first word as "NOY." He's got up early to rehearse his speech because he's flying to London later in the day to audition for RADA, and he feels like he should deliver it in a laboured English accent he associates with classical performances of Shakespeare (he's also able-bodied but putting on an exaggerated hunchback and limp, so never mind it not getting him into drama school, he'd have been cancelled before his career even began.)

Monday, 14 November 2022

Theatre review: Mary

Rona Munro's second James Plays trilogy has kicked off in Scotland (hopefully with a London run in its future) with James IV, but before that there's another entry in her cycle of plays about the Stuart rulers. Although Mary feels like a bonus feature rather than the next chapter, and not just because it's premiering out of chronological order: Instead of the bloody epics of the main sequence, Mary is a two-scene discussion with just three characters, and the titular Queen of Scots isn't even one of them. There is a James though, but he's not King: James Melville (Douglas Henshall) is a Lord loyal to the Queen at a time when much of the Scottish aristocracy seems to be plotting against her. We open at Linlithgow Palace in 1567, shortly after the murder of Mary's second husband Lord Darnley, father of James VI and I. The scheming Lord Bothwell is the likely culprit, but gossip also puts Mary herself under suspicion.

Thursday, 10 November 2022

Theatre review: Good

John Halder (David Tennant) is a University literature professor and author of a few well-received novels, whose generally happy life does bring him a few causes for stress: His elderly mother has lost her eyesight and is struggling to cope on her own; his best friend, the Jewish psychotherapist Maurice (Elliot Levey) is as neurotic as any of his patients and insists on trying to analyse John whenever they meet; and he's seriously considering leaving his wife Helen (Sharon Small) for one of his students. At least his professional life is going well, as he's a rising star of the Nazi party. Dominic Cooke's production of CP Taylor's Good finally makes it to a West End stage on the third attempt*, and like any play chosen for its uncomfortable topicality the precise moments that chime with recent events may have changed slightly in two years, but the overall relevance remains.

Tuesday, 8 November 2022

Theatre review: Marvellous

Nica Burns' pet project @sohoplace, the first new-build West End theatre in 50 years (as long as you define that very strictly within both geographical and SOLT-membership terms) has opened on what was formerly the site of the Astoria. A glass-fronted building with the general design aesthetic of a multiplex in a shopping centre, and toilets that do exist, as long as you don't look for them where the signs tell you to, it will probably, like most new theatres, take a while to feel welcoming and familiar. It also has an @ in its name, to show that it's at the cutting edge, assuming that it's currently 1997. At least things are done right in the auditorium, where it matters: In-the-round as the default configuration is a bit of a challenge to the idea that West End theatres look a certain way, and gives the venue an intimacy - I was in the Stalls but it looks like the galleries would feel reasonably close to the action as well. They're being praised for having the best seats in the West End, admittedly a bar that can be cleared just by pointing them at the stage.

Friday, 4 November 2022

Theatre review: Not One of These People

Martin Crimp is no stranger to the main stage of the Royal Court, although the way some of his past work has gone down there might be why his latest isn't being presented as a full run, but for only four performances - so short that by the time I can write and publish this review it'll already be finished. Or it might be that Not One of These People is being treated more as a short performance art installation, which it was originally conceived as: A rolling monologue that would require only one live performer and some technology, to be part of the theatre's reopening after lockdown. In the end that timing didn't work out so it eventually developed into something different, but still with a novel approach to avoiding crowds of actors on stage together: In Christian Lapointe's production Crimp himself reads the lines of 299 characters, and their faces are projected onto a screen.

Thursday, 3 November 2022

Theatre review: A Single Man

Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man was famously made into a film a few years ago, best known for starring Colin Firth and Nicholas Hoult in his pants. Now the Park Theatre's main house plays host to a stage adaptation by Simon Reade, and while the white pants are ably filled, the Firth-shaped hole proves harder to ignore. The story is a day in the life of a fifty-something English academic who teaches literature at a California university. His last day on earth, in fact, as foreshadowed in Philip Wilson's production when we first meet George (Theo Fraser Steele) asleep in his bed, lying flat on his back under a white sheet as if on a slab. It's less than a year since his boyfriend died in a car accident, and George is still adapting to being single again; we see him fill his day with work, friends and bars, in between memories of his lost love.

Friday, 28 October 2022

Theatre review: Elephant

Another short writer-performer show premieres in the Bush's Studio space as Anoushka Lucas puts an Elephant in the room in a more literal way than it might first appear. Lucas plays Lylah, a young singer-songwriter who showed promise a few years ago, but whose career appears not to have taken off as well as hoped. Her story bounces around three periods, beginning with her childhood in the 1990s, growing up in a working-class London family with middle-class aspirations, who squeezed a piano into their small council flat to nurture her talent. Thanks to her French mother, she also manages to get a music scholarship to a French private school that will eventually help her get into Oxford. Her skin colour makes her an outsider and a target for bullies, but she succeeds in creating a more middle-class identity for herself even as her family move up in the world, buying and remodeling their flat.

Thursday, 27 October 2022

Theatre review: Something in the Air

Veteran playwright Peter Gill's latest play could be said to join the ranks of the new generation of AIDS stories most prominently including It's A Sin and Cruise, although its focus is slightly different: Part of the theme of those stories has been the generation of queer elders who barely exist because of the pandemic of the 1980s and '90s wiping them out, but Something in the Air brings us a pair of men who've survived into old age and, with the rest of their community long-gone, have found some comfort in each other. Colin (Ian Gelder) and Alex (Christopher Godwin) live in the same retirement home where they've become friends and, to the consternation of Alex's son Andrew (Andrew Woodall,) have started holding hands while they sit in their armchairs. Colin's niece Clare (Claire Price) is more sanguine about it, and in fact has some news for Andrew: The pair have asked to be moved into the same room, but as they're not always lucid, it needs to be run by their families.

Saturday, 22 October 2022

Theatre review: The Solid Life of Sugar Water

Jack Thorne wrote The Solid Life of Sugar Water for Graeae, the company giving opportunities to D/deaf and disabled artists, and has stipulated that this should be respected in any revivals - the character of Alice is explicitly stated to be Deaf, and is required to be played by an actor with a hearing impairment, like Katie Erich in the Orange Tree's production. It's not specified what disability her husband Phil has, if any at all, but Adam Fenton has Tourette's. I'm not sure if the production integrating creative captioning to make it as inclusive for the audience as it is for the company is also a contractual requirement for staging it, but both productions I've seen have done so. So it's a play that foregrounds inclusivity, but the truth is it uses this as something of a red herring: Alice's deafness is occasionally referenced to dramatic effect, but the central tragedy the couple face is a - hopefully rare - potentially universal one.

Thursday, 20 October 2022

Theatre review: My Neighbour Totoro

Hayao Miyazaki's 1988 cartoon My Neighbour Totoro is a hugely beloved film that's totally embedded in Japanese culture, but the popularity of Studio Ghibli films worldwide means any new adaptation has the potential to be a hit anywhere - something the RSC's stage version had already proved to an extent before it opened, with record-breaking advance ticket sales at the Barbican. It still had to live up to those expectations of course, and this Japanese-British co-production sets out the "British" side of that deal from the start, with a visual gag correcting the spelling of "Neighbour" from the American dub of the film. Like the titular massive furry bear/rabbit/owl... thing itself, Tom Morton-Smith's adaptation has to be huge and unwieldy, utterly bizarre, a little bit creepy but strangely lovable. No pressure.

Tuesday, 18 October 2022

Theatre review: The Canterville Ghost

Southwark Playhouse offers up a ghost story for October, although hardly a classic Halloween chiller: Tall Stories' The Canterville Ghost, which has been touring on and off since 2018, adapts Oscar Wilde's comic short story about a ghost who meets his match when a new family move into the mansion he's been haunting for three centuries, and fail to be in the slightest bit scared of him. Instead the two children play practical jokes on the ghost until he enlists the girl's help to pass on to the other side for good. It's a very simple story, and I've grumbled at other Wilde adaptations before that if a story was likely to work on stage he'd probably have written it that way himself. But Olivia Jacobs, Toby Mitchell (writer-directors,) Jon Fiber & Andy Shaw (music and lyrics) aren't going for anything like a straightforward adaptation of the original here.

Monday, 17 October 2022

Theatre review: Ravenscourt

Qualified NHS therapist Georgina Burns' first fully-staged play Ravenscourt opens at Hampstead Downstairs, and though there's the odd line of clunky dialogue for the most part it goes against my usual complaint about the venue's sets being more fully developed than the scripts (although Debbie Duru's set is a nicely economical use of the space.) It's set within the NHS' Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme, a service both lauded as a world leader in its ambition for helping the nation's mental health, and critically underfunded and oversubscribed. Ravenscourt is a psychiatric facility; the day surgery is loomed over by an institution for those with the most serious mental illnesses, and occasionally therapy sessions are interrupted by the patients next door having an attack. Lydia (Lizzy Watts) is a comparatively young therapist but she does have some years of private practice under her belt by the time she decides to join the public sector.

Saturday, 15 October 2022

Theatre review: John Gabriel Borkman

John Gabriel Borkman isn't one of the more frequently-produced Henrik Ibsen plays - I've only ever seen it once before, and then in a short, heavily rewritten, monologue adaptation. It can't be topicality that's the problem - given that the title character is a corrupt, arrogant banker, you could theoretically have a production of it playing somewhere in the world 24/7 and guarantee the famous phrase "timely revival" got chucked at it. It does, however, conform to all the stereotypes about Ibsen's work being dark, moody and bleak. JG Borkman (Simon Russell Beale,) once a financial giant, was convicted of embezzlement. He spent five years in prison and, since his release, a further eight years essentially under self-imposed house arrest. In the first act, all we know of him is the sound of him relentlessly pacing his room.

Thursday, 13 October 2022

Theatre review: The Band's Visit

A number of interesting shows start with a "what if?" premise. In the case of David Yazbek (music & lyrics) and Itamar Moses' (book) 2016 musical The Band's Visit, the question is "What if Come From Away, but bearable?" Based on an Israeli film, this also features unexpected visitors to a sleepy town, but in a much more low-key way: In 1996, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra travel from Egypt to Israel to perform at an Arabic culture festival in the bustling city of Petah Tikva. But a mixup at the airport leads to them getting the bus to Bet Hatikva, a tiny, sleepy town in the middle of nowhere. By the time they realise their mistake they're already there, and the next bus back to the city isn't until the next day. There's no hotel, so café owner Dina (Miri Mesika) takes in conductor Tewfiq (Alon Moni Aboutboul) and trumpet player Haled (Sharif Afifi) herself, and arranges for other locals to find space for the rest of the band for the night.