Saturday, 16 February 2019

Theatre review: Cougar

Rose Lewenstein's strange and sexy Cougar puts a luxury hotel room on the Orange Tree's in-the-round stage, a single set that stands in for dozens of identical rooms around the world. The first one is in London where Leila (Charlotte Randle) has been speaking at a conference. One of her colleagues made an aggressive pass at her in the hotel bar afterwards, and barman John (Mike Noble) came to her defence, hitting him with an ice bucket and losing his job in the process. Leila's taken a room in the hotel and brings John back to it for the night - nothing happens between them but they both want it to, so she proposes a deal: She'll pay for him to come with her on her many international business trips, have sex with her at night and see the world during the day while she's at work. But as soon as they get through customs they're strangers again, and John has to promise not to fall in love.

Friday, 15 February 2019

Theatre review: The American Clock

London's improptu Arthur Miller festival continues with my second of his more obscure works in a week. The Old Vic will be featuring one of the more famous plays in a couple of months when All My Sons opens, but first The American Clock, which has another close link to The Price in that it's once again a story of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the resulting Depression. Except this is a much more on-the-nose approach, a sweeping review of the way people were affected throughout America, although it does have a single Jewish family at its heart, played in Rachel Chavkin's production by three sets of actors: We follow Moe Baum, initially played by James Garnon, his wife Rose (Clare Burt) and teenaged son Lee (Fred Haig - you know when you suddenly realise something like "oh he must be David Haig's son seeing as how they have the same last name and THE EXACT SAME FACE" and then feel stupid for not noticing it the first second you saw him? That.)

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Theatre review: Edward II

The second winter mini-season at the Swanamaker takes the theme of kings who were deposed, opening with Christopher Marlowe’s take on the subject; later in the season we’ll have Shakespeare’s response to it, as well as a more modern take. But first Edward II, the 1592 play that Ian McKellen is praising on his current UK tour as the first English play with an openly gay protagonist. It’s something that productions in more prudish eras must have tried to downplay – I imagine the whole LOOK THEY JUST DON’T LIKE FLATTERERS, OK? thing would have been made a big deal of – but it must have been a stretch, because it’s hardly subtext. Nick Bagnall’s production certainly doesn’t leave much room for doubt as to why, as soon as Edward II (Tom Stuart) takes the throne, his lords and ministers immediately take so violently against him.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Theatre review: The Price

I’m not aware of any particular Arthur Miller milestone this year (both his centenary and the tenth anniversary of his death would have been in 2015) so maybe it’s just a case of everyone having the same idea that’s led to so many theatres staging his work this year. In a couple of months’ time two of his most famous works will be back in London but first a couple of lesser-known pieces; and while at times The Price justifies its comparative obscurity, for most of its lengthy running time Jonathan Church’s production makes a strong case for the revival. Both written and set in the 1960s, the story is nevertheless rooted in the Depression of the ‘30s. The Franz family were children of New York millionaires who lost everything in the Crash except for their house; their mother having died around the same time, they moved everything into the attic so they could let out the rest of the building.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Theatre review: Ian McKellen on Stage - With Tolkien, Shakespeare, others...and you!

A couple of years ago Ian McKellen did a series of gala shows as a fundraiser for the Park Theatre, and with 2019 marking his 80th year he’s decided to revive that performance for a wider audience. This time around he’s doing 80 performances, each on a different stage across the country, with the proceeds going to the theatres or to a charity or community project associated with them. A couple of the venues have a few seats whose prices don’t break the bank, so I caught up with the awkwardly-titled Ian McKellen on Stage - With Tolkien, Shakespeare, others...and you! at the Arts Theatre. Many of the theatres on the tour have a personal connection to McKellen, and in the case of the Arts it’s where he made his amateur West End debut in a University show, and where he decided (after a particularly glowing review) to try it professionally. He says he can show you the exact paving stone outside the theatre where he made the decision.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Theatre review: Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist

I don’t harbour any particular illusions that my reviews make much difference to what anyone does or doesn’t go to see at the theatre, but there’s certain shows where what I, or anyone else for that matter, thinks is going to have even less influence on people’s decisions than usual: A play in which Tom Lenk from Buffy the Vampire Slayer plays Tilda Swinton is something you either want to see or you don’t. For me it’s an automatic yes, and I’m glad it is because Byron Lane’s Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist might be the funniest, silliest comedy I’ve seen since Bears in Space. In Tom DeTrinis’ production, writer Lane also plays Walt, who’s reacting badly to a breakup, and when his hamburger is delivered with pickles he didn’t ask for it’s the final straw that leads him to attempt suicide. It’s only the fact that he’s tried to overdose on hair-restoration pills that means he fails, and is alive to discover that when his ex-boyfriend moved out, he advertised the spare room on Craigslist.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Theatre review: Wild East

The Young Vic's Clare Studio continues to be the home for the Genesis Future Director Award Winners, and 2019's first production sees Lekan Lawal take on April De Angelis' absurdist take on the job interview from Hell format, 2005's Wild East. Frank (Zach Wyatt) is a socially inept anthropology graduate applying for a job at a company that collates and analyses data from people in emerging markets, for use in product marketing. It seems an unlikely match for him but it would involve spending a lot of time in Russia, a country he's always felt a strong connection to, and where a girl he likes lives. So he's keen to impress his interviewers, but even if his lack of social skills didn't trip him up, the fact that Dr Pitt (Lucy Briers) and Dr Gray (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) start imploding in front of him will.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Theatre review: Pinter Seven - A Slight Ache /
The Dumb Waiter

In what was originally meant to be the season’s finale before one more show got added to the end, Pinter Seven is the busiest I’ve seen the theatre during this run, probably due to the combined star power of Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer you slag. They appear together in The Dumb Waiter, and the double bill also stars Gemma Whelan and John Heffernan, the latter of whom has previously played one of Dyer’s ancestors. Although I don’t suppose Dyer brings that royal connection up much. As well as the casting, two of Pinter’s more accessible short works have to be part of the draw; although given who we’re talking about “accessible” still means a lot of very dark humour and an almost indescribable sense of existential menace. This menace gets personified in A Slight Ache, the 1957 radio play which forms the first act you slaag.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Theatre review: Superhoe

It’s about time someone wrote a play about a really terrific gardening implement, but writer-performer Nicôle Lecky’s monologue Superhoe is about the other kind of hoe. She plays 24-year-old Sasha, living at home with her mother, half-sister and stepfather in East London and harbouring dreams of being a singer-songwriter and rapper. She’s written a lot of songs and spent an inheritance from her grandmother on recording them, but apart from regularly announcing on Instagram that her EP is about to drop she doesn’t actually seem to be trying to promote her music. Instead she spends her days passed out in her bedroom and her nights out with her long-term boyfriend or getting stoned. But when the boyfriend suddenly ghosts her – for reasons that are never revealed but can probably be inferred – she sets fire to his front garden.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Theatre review: Cost of Living

Time to take a risk on another Pulitzer winner at the Hampstead; it’s a combo that should sound promising but on past evidence is to be approached with caution. Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living does come with a couple of selling points though: Adrian Lester is usually worth catching on stage; and at a time when the film industry is once again taking flak for casting able-bodied actors in disabled roles, theatre gets to show how it’s done, as Edward Hall’s production casts two actors with disabilities. Usually seen as rather suave characters, Lester plays against type as Eddie, a former long-distance trucker who lost his job after a DUI. He’s also in the middle of a separation from his wife of 20 years Ani (Katy Sullivan,) when Ani has a car accident that leaves her quadriplegic. As she sets herself up in a tatty New Jersey apartment he initially decides to hold fire on divorce proceedings so she can keep using his health insurance; before volunteering to be her carer himself.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Theatre review: The Ruffian on the Stair

The similarities between Joe Orton and Harold Pinter's work don’t always jump out at you, but timing is everything and the Hope Theatre’s production of The Ruffian on the Stair comes near the end of Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season, specifically after The Room. Written as a radio play (and later revised for the stage) in 1963, it’s hard not to see The Ruffian on the Stair as a response to Pinter’s debut from a few years earlier. Both short plays are set in a poky apartment in a larger building, in which the lady of the house is terrorised by unwelcome visitor(s) when her husband is out, driving a van for what is probably some nefarious purpose (although in Orton’s case, the purpose is eventually made very clear.) Joyce (Lucy Benjamin) is a former (and possibly current) prostitute now living with Mike (Gary Webster,) whom she calls her husband - although whether or not they’re actually married seems up for debate.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Theatre review: Violet

It’s been an unusually musicals-heavy January, and with Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, or Change currently transferred to the Playhouse, a few feet away her 1997 show (with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley) gets its UK debut at the Charing Cross Theatre. Another link to the composer’s more recent work is Fun Home’s leading lady Kaisa Hammarlund, looking significantly less like Sue Perkins as she takes the title role in Violet. Set in the Southern US states in 1964, Violet is a woman who was hit in the face with an axe by her father when she was 13 (probably by accident, although she doesn’t seem entirely convinced.) The resulting scar makes people recoil at the sight of her, and as the play opens she’s leaving her small North Carolina town and getting on a Greyhound bus to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to see a televangelist and faith healer she hopes can restore her looks.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Theatre review: Leave to Remain

It's mercifully not about Brexit, but the title of Matt Jones and Kele Okereke's new musical Leave to Remain is still enough to bring me out in hives. Instead it's "leave" as in "permission," as the story begins when London-based American Alex's (Billy Cullum) firm decide to relocate their business entirely out of the UK to Abu Dhabi (...so I guess it is about Brexit?) His visa is entirely dependent on his job, so if he resigns he'll no longer be entitled to stay in the country. He's built his life here and the fastest obvious way to stay is to marry his boyfriend Obi (Tyrone Huntley.) But their relationship is very new so it's an extreme step, and despite quickly agreeing to it Obi is emotionally very distant so it's hard to be sure how he really feels about his partner. Besides, formalising his relationship will mean Obi confronting his family and the way they reacted when they found out he was gay.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Theatre review: SIX

The historical musical continues to be a phenomenon in the wake of Hamilton, and the good news is that however much reviewers (including me) like to compare the latest ones to the Broadway juggernaut, none of the British entries have really used Lin-Manuel Miranda as a template, each instead taking its own eccentric path. SIX is the first of the current crop to be sent back across the Atlantic – a Chicago production in the spring will be hoping to carry on to New York – and it’s hard to think of a piece of English history that’d be an easier sell to American audiences than the six wives of Henry VIII. Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’ musical played a short run at the Arts Theatre in the autumn, when I was too busy to catch it, but it’s now returned there after a national tour, and is already booking a year in advance. And it’s not hard to see why, as the publicity campaign must be getting help from enough enthusiastic word of mouth to fill the small theatre for a while.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Theatre review: Aspects of Love

Although I’m not much of a fan of Dr Baron Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Lord Webber BA (Hons) MEng, QC, MD, P.I., shows come along sometimes like the Open Air Theatre’s Jesus Christ Superstar that mean I haven’t written the millionaire supervillain off completely; and I vaguely remember enjoying the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Aspects of Love nine years ago. But I think on that occasion I must have just enjoyed looking at Michael Arden for three hours because revisiting it now at Southwark Playhouse it turns out the show is a right turd. This is the latest of Jonathan O’Boyle’s musical revivals to transfer from Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, and in fairness I don’t have much issue with the production itself or the cast. Set mainly in France between 1947 and 1964, it begins with 17-year-old Alex (Felix Mosse) getting an Ibsen boner for actress Rose (Kelly Price) and inviting her to spend a fortnight with him at his wealthy uncle’s country house.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Theatre review: Approaching Empty

Ishy Din’s Approaching Empty takes place in 2013, specifically between the announcement of Margaret Thatcher’s death and her state funeral. It’s an on-the-nose framing for the story of two lifelong friends whose lives were largely defined by the dead sociopath’s policies: Mansha and Raf moved from Pakistan to Middlesbrough in the 1970s to work in a steelworks specialising in bridge-building, but in the ’80s Thatcher’s policies saw the factories close and the onus put on the workers to make their own way. Raf (Nicholas Khan) largely views this as a success, as he used his redundancy package to start a minicab business; it’s managed day-to-day by Mansha (Kammy Darweish,) who used his own redundancy to pay off his mortgage, but then spent the next thirty years stuck in a rut professionally. So when out of nowhere Raf expresses an interest in selling the business to a larger cab firm, Mansha finally sees an opportunity to be his own boss.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Theatre review: Sweat

On past experience, a play having won the Pulitzer isn’t much of a guarantee that I’m going to like it, if anything the opposite; identifying a hot-button topic to write about often seems to be enough to win regardless of execution. Lynn Nottage is the first woman to have won the theatre prize twice, and the Donald and Margot Warehouse gets the UK premiere of the latest, Sweat. Nottage certainly identified her hot-button topic early: She started research in 2011, for a play which in part feels like an explanation for why parts of America were so vulnerable to the rise of Trump. The good news is that, in Lynette Linton’s production, the execution lives up to the idea. Nottage was inspired by the statistic that Reading, Pennsylvania, a relatively comfortable industrial city in the 20th century, was now the poorest place in America. The shift came when the textile mill that was the area’s primary employer significantly downsized and outsourced its work, leaving people who’d always felt comfortable in their job security suddenly unemployed.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Theatre review: Time is Love/Tiempo es Amor

It’s got to be something of a coup for a 50-seat theatre to land a recent Olivier winner – in a supporting role no less – but there’s a couple of reasons Sheila Atim might be happy to lend a bit of star power to the fringe: Not only has she worked with writer/director Chè Walker before, she’s also composed the original music for his latest play, Time Is Love/Tiempo es Amor. Walker’s Been So Long, recently reinvented as a Netflix film, had a strong flavour of London but the playwright subsequently moved to Los Angeles, and that’s the location, and the atmosphere he tries to capture here. This is partly through a film noir-ish feel to the story of Blaz (Gabriel Akuwudike,) who spends three years in prison after a robbery goes wrong. His friend Karl (Benjamin Cawley) was the one who talked him into it, but managed to get away; but apart from missing his friend he doesn’t seem to have much regret for what he got him into, if anything acting like he’s the wronged party.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Theatre review: The Tragedy of King Richard
The Second
(Almeida)

Simon Russell Beale first made his name as a Shakespearean actor taking on roles that didn't always seem immediately obvious fits for him (I first saw him as Edgar in King Lear, then Ariel in The Tempest.) By contrast Richard II seems like a part he was born to play, but in recent years he's often said he regretted never getting the chance while he was young enough (the real king died aged 33, inasmuch as historical accuracy ever matters where Shakespeare's Histories are concerned.) If someone was going to come along and give him the chance to play the part in his fifties, it makes sense for it to be Joe Hill-Gibbins, never a director to get too hung up on the literal. Hill-Gibbins has restored the full original title The Tragedy of King Richard The Second but elsewhere he and Jeff James have ruthlessly cut down the text so the play comes in at a little over 90 minutes.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Theatre review: Pinter Five - The Room /
Victoria Station / Family Voices

If something happens in London theatre and Patrick Marber isn’t involved, did it really happen? Well Pinter at the Pinter has definitely happened now, as for only the second time Jamie Lloyd has relinquished directing duties for an entire anthology to someone else, and Marber takes over the triple bill that comprises Pinter Five. This one goes right back to the beginning and Pinter’s first produced work, as 1957’s The Room slightly predates The Birthday Party, and sees the playwright make no bones about the fact that his style is going to be eerie and ambiguous. Soutra Gilmour’s revolve stays still this time as a single, large but comparatively cosy room, but the rest of the boarding house it’s in is as much a character in the short play as anything else: Rose Hudd (Jane Horrocks) knows she has neighbours but doesn’t seem to know them; she’s fascinated with who might live in the dark, damp basement, and thinks people also live in the floors above them, but nobody seems to know how many floors the building actually has.