Thursday, 29 September 2022

Theatre review: Blues for an Alabama Sky

I know theatre always uses the past to illustrate and comment on the present, but the National staging a play set during the Great Depression right now feels a bit on the nose. Specifically, Pearl Cleage's Blues for an Alabama Sky takes place at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance, where the creative explosion and progressive attitudes that came with it are still strongly felt, but the financial realities are starting to kick in as well, and the residents of the ground floor of a New York apartment block are balancing dreams with realistic expectations. Angel (understudy Helena Pipe) has just been dumped by the gangster who turned out, to nobody's real surprise, to have a wife; he's turfed her out of the apartment he was keeping her in just as she lost her job in a cabaret. Her friend, dressmaker and notorious homosexual Guy (Giles Terera) has taken her in, to stay on his couch in a living room dominated by a photo of Josephine Baker.

Tuesday, 27 September 2022

Theatre review: The Wonderful World of Dissocia

Anthony Neilson is certainly a playwright of extremes - I've seen plays of his that have ranged from horror to panto, occasionally within the same scene. Sometimes this is a response to mental illness, like Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness, the surreal freak show he wrote as an antidote to a bout of depression. A play that deals even more directly with the theme is one I'd heard of but never had the chance to see before: The Wonderful World of Dissocia, which Emma Baggott revives at Stratford East. Lisa (Leah Harvey) has been feeling out of sorts for a while, and the reason is revealed when she tries to get her watch mended. Watch repairer Victor (Hollywood Body Double Leander Deeny) reveals that there's nothing wrong with the timepiece, it's Lisa who's an hour out of time: She was on a delayed plane when the clocks went back in October, and she never got back the hour she lost when they went forwards the previous March.

Monday, 26 September 2022

Theatre review: The Snail House

There are many multi-talented theatremakers who spend their whole careers working - sometimes with varying levels of success - in a number of different disciplines. There are also those who, later in their careers, decide to use their years of experience to add another string to their bow, usually playwrighting. Richard Eyre's career as a director has been a particularly distinguished one, including running the National Theatre, and he isn't entirely without writing experience either, having done a number of his own adaptations of existing work. But The Snail House - which he also directs on Hampstead's main stage - is his first completely original piece of writing for the theatre. I've seen actors, directors and critics make this kind of late addition to their careers, and I'd like to say it usually pays off, but in my experience it's surprisingly common for them to fall into every trap a play can possibly set.

Saturday, 24 September 2022

Theatre review: I, Joan

On to my third play in a row with trans and non-binary themes, and by far the most high-profile: Charlie Josephine's I, Joan garnered angry and entirely predictable criticism long before anyone had seen it, once it was revealed that Joan of Arc would be portrayed using they/them pronouns*. Obviously, the idea that a woman who chose to die rather than wear a frock might have been less than 100% femme is a bit of a leap, but let's suspend disbelief for a bit shall we? Joan's story, from illiterate peasant girl, to unlikely military leader, to 14 seasons of Knots Landing, to martyrdom and finally becoming a patron saint of France, has been told on stage many times, and apart from a few speeches that directly address the play's take on gender, Josephine follows the familiar story beats: France has been beaten down by England, and Charles the Dauphin (Jolyon Coy) has been disinherited from his position as heir to the throne.

Thursday, 22 September 2022

Theatre review: Clutch

In one of my unplanned theme weeks, every show I've got booked this week features at least one transgender or non-binary character; in another bit of continuity Geoffrey Aymer, last seen driving an unlicensed minicab in Jitney, stays behind the wheel for Will Jackson's Clutch in the Bush Theatre's Studio space. He plays avuncular driving instructor Max, who offers his new student the first lesson free and won't take it personally if he doesn't come back for more - he isn't to everyone's taste. Max's no-nonsense teaching style tends to border more on the loud and distracting, but Tyler (Charlie Kafflyn) sticks with him, and soon the seemingly timid young man relaxes and shows his cockier side as he starts to improve. Tyler's job is as a techie for touring bands; a driving license will help him get more work, and Max boasts of a 100% first-time pass record.

Tuesday, 20 September 2022

Theatre review: The Prince

In addition to the usual pre-show information most theatres send to audiences a couple of days before the show, the email from Southwark Playhouse about Abigail Thorn's The Prince also comes with an added warning that tickets will be checked multiple times, and audience members must not attempt to interact with the cast after the performance. It's depressingly easy to guess what this might be all about, and indeed the cast list confirms that, with a number of trans and non-binary cast members and a corresponding theme in the play itself, there's extra security because of threats from terven. Two trans women also find themselves in danger in the story itself, but the violence is both more immediate, and more surreal, as Sam (Joni Ayton-Kent) and Jen (Mary Malone) materialise on a battlefield at the start of Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1.

Friday, 16 September 2022

Theatre review: Who Killed My Father

Ivo van Hove's work tends to play bigger and higher-profile venues in the West End and on Broadway these days, but the Young Vic, where A View From the Bridge really made his name in this country, still occasionally gets the superstar director's work. In particular, it seems to be the home of English-language premieres of solo shows from some of his Internationaal Theater Amsterdam core ensemble members. A few years ago we saw Eelco Smits in Song From Far Away, now it's the turn of an actor often seen as a patrician figure in the company's work, showing a much more vulnerable side here: In van Hove's own adaptation of Who Killed My Father, Hans Kesting plays the book's author Édouard Louis, who confronts his dying father with the ways in which he traumatised him during childhood; but also with the political circumstances that led both to the father's early death, and the knock-on effect on the son.

Thursday, 15 September 2022

Theatre review: The P Word

Waleed Akhtar's two-hander at the Bush is about gay Pakistani men in their thirties, so the title The P Word could refer to a couple of different slurs; they get called both of them over the course of 90 minutes although it's the racially-charged one which features more, and which at times becomes a bone of contention between the pair. Akhtar himself plays Bilal, a second-generation British Muslim whose parents theoretically accept his sexuality, but with a level of tutting and undisguised hope that it might be a "phase" after all, that's left the family relationship sour. It's fractious, but it's a level of family peace asylum seeker Zafar (Esh Alladi) could only dream of: He's fled Pakistan in secret after his father discovered his sexuality and threatened to kill him. He's got connections in the army and the threat's no idle one: He did murder Zafar's boyfriend when he caught them together.

Tuesday, 13 September 2022

Theatre review: The Clinic

Written during Dipo Baruwa-Etti's residency at the Almeida as the Channel 4 bursary playwright, The Clinic is a combustive family drama where race and politics don't even pretend to be far from the surface, but which ends up as tangled up by them as the characters themselves. The British-Nigerian family in question are a very successful, upper-middle class one whose achievements are so varied they sometimes refer to themselves as The Clinic, because of the wealth of solutions they could come up with for any number of problems: Segun (Maynard Eziashi,) turning 60 in the opening scene, is a successful therapist and writer of self-help books; his wife Tiwa (Donna Berlin) also studied psychology but never practiced it professionally, and instead has spent much of her life volunteering for causes and committees. Their son Bayo (Simon Manyonda) was recently promoted to DCI in the Metropolitan Police, and his wife Amina (Mercy Ojelade) is a Labour MP.

Friday, 9 September 2022

Theatre review: Antigone

The Open Air Theatre's set designers seem to have gone for a thematic progression over the 2022 season: For Legally Blonde the set was pink, for 101 Dalmatians it was made up of the characters in the show's title; so for the concluding production, Leslie Travers gives us the title of the show... in pink letters. The name Antigone is spelt out in graffiti-like letters that form a skate park, as Inua Ellams' adaptation of Sophocles is not just a modern-dress one but essentially a complete reworking of the myth. So we open at a London youth centre where Antigone (Zainab Hasan) volunteers, alongside sister Ismene (Shazia Nicholls) and brother Polyneices (Nadeem Islam.) Their oldest brother Eteocles (Abe Jarman) has recently joined the police, and after an introduction that sets up the siblings' contrasting personalities we skip forward a few years during which Polyneices disappears. It turns out he's gone to Syria where he's been radicalised; when he returns as part of a terrorist attack, both he and his brother end up dead on opposite sides of the conflict.

Thursday, 8 September 2022

Theatre review: Doctor Faustus

Perennially Christopher Marlowe's most popular play, Doctor Faustus gets another revival, this time from Lazarus, the small-scale classics company that returns to Southwark Playhouse after last year's gender-bending take on Salomé. Faustus (Jamie O’Neill) is an arrogant young academic who's decided he's exhausted all the knowledge available to him in books, and will cheat his way to learning the secrets of the universe: He employs a demon to be his servant, to answer any question he may have, and show him the wonders of the world. Mephistopheles' (David Angland) services, of course, come at the highest possible price: In return for 24 years of service, he gets Faustus to sell his soul to Lucifer (Candis Butler Jones.) Faustus manages to convince himself he doesn't believe in the afterlife anyway so it's a zero-risk gamble, until the deal is done and he has to face the consequences.

Tuesday, 6 September 2022

Stage-to-screen review: London Assurance

When NTatHome first launched I tried it out with the oldest recording they'd put on the platform; I think Phèdre still holds that title but another of the early NTLive screenings has recently joined it, giving me a chance to rewatch a show I remembered fondly, and see how well it held up. A far cry from Peloponnesian angst and bloody horse-related deaths (although they do have a bit of forbidden lust in common,) in 2010's London Assurance Nicholas Hytner revived the early hit for largely forgotten 19th century theatrical juggernaut Dion Boucicault. Boucicault's work generally hasn't stood the test of time, and tends to work best when radically reconceived or flat out parodied, and this too has needed some tinkering: In an ongoing collaboration that would have its most famous example the following year, Hytner got Richard Bean to do a thorough rewrite of the script.

Friday, 2 September 2022

Theatre review: Horse-Play

Tim (David Ames) and Tom (Jake Maskall) are a middle-aged couple who've been married for ten years and are starting to worry that the excitement might be going out of their sex lives. To try and spice things up a bit they decide to tap into one of Tim's fantasies, from the childhood memories of watching the 1960s Batman series and getting a bit excited whenever Batman and Robin got tied up by the villain. They come up with their own superhero names, make the costumes and hire a dom to play the villain, but when Karl (Matt Lapinskas) gets a bang on the head, all three of them end up stuck in an awkward situation. Now, I'm not saying Ian Hallard's new play might be benefiting from people's curiosity about the lives of famous people, but could it be accidentally letting slip some secrets about his and Mark Gatiss' own relationship?

Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Stage-to-screen review: Oliver Twist

The National Theatre's NTatHome platform won't be troubling Netflix in terms of volume of content any time soon, but its library has grown significantly since it launched a couple of years ago. As well as the NT's own archive and the productions screened to cinemas with NTLive, it also makes sense as a longer-term home for filmed performances that were screened online during lockdown by a variety of UK theatres, on a variety of platforms. So one such show is Leeds Playhouse's 2020 adaptation of probably the best-known full-length novel by Charles Dickens (Chickens to his friends,) Oliver Twist. Intended to tour, which obviously in 2020 wasn't going to happen, Amy Leach's production was instead made available to stream, in a filmed version that occasionally uses subtitles to supplement the access features that are incorporated into the staging itself.

Sunday, 28 August 2022

Radio review: 'Tis Pity She's a Whore

It's the couple of weeks of calm before the storm when London theatres gear up to grab the attention back from Edinburgh and all launch new shows at once. While they build up to that and I have a rare full week without theatre, as usual I'll top it up with radio and screen adaptations. A few years ago I listened to Radio 3's production of Lucy Prebble's The Effect, which starred Damien Molony and Pirate Jessie Buckley. It seems the two actors made the most of their time in the recording studio as at the same time they played Giovanni and Annabella, the incestuous brother and sister in John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. In a play Pauline Harris' audio version sees as a twisted response to Romeo & Juliet, Giovanni seduces Annabella, and they begin an affair that soon leaves her pregnant.

Thursday, 25 August 2022

Theatre review: Cruise

2021 was a game of two halves in theatre, with an almost even split between the time when shows were all online, and when they started to reopen to live audiences. It was something I reflected in my end of year review, skipping my usual Top Ten shows and instead offering two #1 shows, one live, one in the quickly-evolving digital format. Jack Holden's Cruise straddled both media, appearing first in a filmed version before being chosen as one of the shows to reopen the West End, in a socially distanced Duchess Theatre. Chez Partially Obstructed View the show got my top spot in the online category - I loved it and would have been happy to see it again, but the original live run came right after I'd seen it digitally, which was a bit too soon to revisit it. Now, helped in part by an Olivier nomination for Best New Play, Bronagh Lagan's production gets another short run, this time playing the Apollo at full capacity.

Tuesday, 23 August 2022

Theatre review: The Trials

With climate catastrophe seeming more bleakly inevitable by the minute, you'd think the near future looked depressing enough without imagining an even more dystopian version of it; but fair play to Dawn King, whose The Trials goes for it anyway. At some point in the future, climate change has made the air outside unbreathable without masks, droughts and flooding are regular occurrences, and refugees have had to flee much of the planet for the few areas that are still just about habitable. Being the generation that will have to live with the consequences of what the preceding ones did, children and teenagers have seized control, and the twelve young protagonists of King's play have been called to two weeks' jury duty, to judge their elders' crimes. But these aren't politicians or industrialists who wilfully destroyed the environment for profit; all of them were tried long ago, and the spotlight has now moved onto anyone who could be considered to have done less than they could have to stop the disaster.

Thursday, 18 August 2022

Theatre review: Tasting Notes

With Southwark Playhouse's Large auditorium currently experiencing a yeast infection, it might have been complementary if the Little had put on a show about beer. Unfortunately the scheduling hasn't worked out quite so on-theme, and instead we get a show about wine: Richard Baker (music & lyrics) and Charlie Ryall's (book & lyrics) Tasting Notes takes place between 7pm on Monday and 7pm on Tuesday in a reasonably successful wine bar, LJ's: The eventful 24 hours, which include the deaths of one cat and one lead character, are played out in song six times, from the differing perspectives of five of the staff and one of the customers. Hassled owner LJ (Nancy Zamit) is exhausted by having to cover for missing staff and a business that's picking up, but not quickly enough to afford some of the necessary improvements. She's essentially good-natured but her tiredness makes her snap at her staff, and to cap it all off she's about to make a grim discovery.

Tuesday, 16 August 2022

Theatre review: Sister Act

I've so far managed to avoid every incarnation of Sister Act The Musical that's run in London, not out of any particular animosity towards it, just because the idea's never really grabbed my interest. I was quite happy to skip the latest production as well, which was originally due to run exactly two years ago, then got postponed again last year. Due to star the source film's leading lady Whoopi Goldberg, it was a hot ticket but I was put off by the idea of the venue. Two years and two reschedules later, Goldberg was no longer available, but to be honest Beverley Knight was a bigger draw for me personally; she leads a cast of big names that include Jennifer Saunders, Keala Settle, Clive Rowe, Lesley Joseph and Lizzie Bea. Alan Menken (music,) Glenn Slater (lyrics,) Bill & Cheri Steinkellner (book) and Douglas Carter Beane's (additional material) musical moves the film's story to 1977, to give the songs disco and Motown influences.

Thursday, 11 August 2022

Theatre review: All of Us

All of Us opens with a neat little reverse: Two women sit opposite each other, Jess (Francesca Martinez) needing some help to get to her chair because she has Cerebral Palsy, Rita (Lucy Briers) apologising for being late and taking out a pad to take notes on the session. But Jess isn't the patient, she's the therapist, who's making slow but steady progress with Rita's OCD. Martinez is probably most recognisable as a comedian but here doubles as writer and star of a tragicomic play tearing into the last 12 years of austerity cuts to vital benefits, particularly to people with disabilities. Jess is busy, productive and independent in everything except her own body, whose "wobbly" nature means she needs help from flatmate Lottie (Crystal Condie) and care assistant Nadia (Wanda Opalinska) to dress herself and cook.