Monday, 18 March 2019

Theatre review: Admissions

Trafalgar Studios is just down the road from The Motherfucker Of Parliaments but while its main house show is highly topical, it’s a current American scandal it links into – that of Ivy League Universities, and the lengths people will go to to get their kids into the best ones, regardless of whether they deserve a place. Although Joshua Harmon’s Admissions looks at a different angle of the story than the outright bribery and cheating that’s been in the news, it could still have coasted on topicality to become a hit – if only it was any good. Sherri (FD Alex Kingston) is the admissions officer, and her husband Bill (Andrew Woodall) the headmaster, at an exclusive private boarding school. The measure of Sherri’s success seems to largely be in how much diversity she can bring to the student body, and in her decade or so in the job she’s managed to get the non-white student populace from negligible to nearly 20%.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Theatre review: Betrayal

I've seen Pinter's Betrayal twice before, most recently eight years ago in the same theatre that's since been named after the playwright, and where it returns now; Jamie Lloyd's light touch with Pinter's work makes this probably the best production of it I've seen. Lloyd's Pinter at the Pinter season was meant to have ended with Pinter Seven, but whether it turned out they'd leased the building for longer than intended, or that Tom Hiddleston was interested in taking part and could put some bums on seats, his company have added this one last run to the bill, the one-act play about a love triangle with its famous reverse-chronology structure. Zawe Ashton plays gallery owner Emma, whose marriage to Robert (Hiddleston) is ending after he admitted to cheating on her; in a night-long heart-to-heart, she retaliated by confessing she'd had a seven-year affair with his best friend Jerry.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Theatre review: Alys, Always

For Nicholas Hytner’s latest project at his own theatre he directs Alys, Always, Lucinda Coxon’s adaptation of Harriet Lane’s novel that plays out like a low-key (very low-key) Talented Mr Ripley - a book that’s name-checked in the play itself. In fact lots of books get name-checked as Frances (Joanne Froggatt) works at a Sunday broadsheet with a dwindling readership, a sub-editor on the book reviews section but, if she’s noticed at all, treated as a glorified gopher by the more dominant personalities on her team. Driving home at night after Christmas at her parents’, she witnesses a car accident and sits with the injured driver waiting for the ambulance. She ends up being with the driver, Alys, when she dies, and a few weeks later the family ask to meet Frances so she can tell them about her last moments in person. Frances doesn’t think it’s a good idea until she realises who the family are.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Theatre review: Medea

A Dutch company presenting an Australian version of a Greek tragedy to a British audience; if it sounds like Ivo van Hove's Toneelgroep Amsterdam (now renamed Internationaal Theater Amsterdam) you'd be right, although this time it's Simon Stone adapting and directing Euripides, Vera Hoogstad and Peter Van Kraaij translating his new text into Dutch and captions translating it back to English at the Barbican. One of my favourite performers from van Hove's Roman Tragedies, Marieke Heebink leads a reinvented Medea, a play whose basic story is a faithfully modernised version of the one Euripides told, but which in a couple of crucial details - one of them at the start, one at the end - is as major a departure from the original as Stone's version of Yerma was. The first big difference is that, although the Medea of the original myth had a history of violence against her own family, at the opening of Euripides' version nobody has an inkling she might turn it against her husband.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Theatre review: Waitress

Jessie Nelson (book) and Sara Bareilles’ (music and lyrics) musical tragicomedy Waitress, based on Adrienne Shelly’s film and currently entering its fourth year on Broadway, comes to the West End with one of its former New York leading ladies, Katharine McPhee, in the title role. Jenna is one of the waitresses at a small-town diner that specialises in pies, but she’s also the cook who bakes them, and comes up with a new flavour invention every day to be the daily special. She themes these around her moods and preoccupations of the day, so ends up with flavours like blueberry and bacon, or marshmallow and mermaid (?) pie that have become the diner’s signature dish. At the start of the show she’s devastated to discover that she’s pregnant – and that it is her husband Earl’s (Peter Hannah) baby.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Theatre review: Tartuffe, the Imposter

Molière’s religious con-man Tartuffe has been around a lot in the past year, but for various reasons (having bronchitis when I was meant to be seeing it in Stratford-upon-Avon; avoiding the Theatre Royal Haymarket like the plague) the National’s is the first of the current crop I’ve caught. And certainly as adapted by John Donnelly and directed by Blanche McIntyre the play shows why so many people have chosen it at this particular moment. Robert Jones’ set is a garishly opulent living room that nods to the play’s origins at Versailles, but the action’s been relocated to Highgate where Orgon (Kevin Doyle,) who made his fortune in unspecified dubious ways, lives with his mother Pernelle (Susan Engel,) daughter Mariane (Kitty Archer,) son Damis (Enyi Okoronkwo,) second wife Elmire (Future Dame Olivia Williams) and her brother Cleante (Hari Dhillon.) All except Pernelle are currently horrified at the puritanical turn the household has taken.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Theatre review: The Son

The Son is being advertised as the final installment in a trilogy of Florian Zeller plays that began with The Father and continued with The Mother; apart from the obvious connection in the titles there isn't, to me, a link that The Height of the Storm couldn't lay equal claim to. If not more so, because while all four are about families dealing with one person's deteriorating mental health The Height of the Storm, like the first two in the series, features a narrative that dips in and out of that fractured mind, putting the audience on the back foot. If The Son's narrative is also meant to be unreliable that's not apparent, though, as we appear to be seeing what the other characters can when 17-year-old Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston) reacts to his parents' divorce with a violent depression. His mother Anne (Amanda Abbington) discovers that he hasn't turned up at school for three months, and turns to her ex-husband for help.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Theatre review: Richard II
(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The professional reviews for Richard II don't appear to be in yet.

It'll get overtaken by the ubiquitous Midsummer Night's Dream later in the year, but for the moment Richard II is the Shakespeare play everyone wants a piece of. It's unsurprising given the grim topicality of John of Gaunt's speech, but at Michelle Terry's theatres it's also meant as the kicking-off point for the entire eight-play History cycle to be produced over the next year. Not that Lynette Linton and Adjoa Andoh's production doesn't stand on its own, being notable for its all-women of colour cast and company. The Swanamaker is currently also playing the story of how the title character's great-grandfather took his crown for granted and ended up losing it, but Richard (Andoh) isn't really one to learn lessons from the past and, having ascended to the throne at the age of three, assumes the god-given nature of his power means no mere human would dare to challenge it.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Theatre review: As You Like It (RSC / RST & tour)

A chaotic train journey nearly scuppered my first Stratford-upon-Avon trip of 2019, but it's a good job I made it in the end because Kimberley Sykes' low-key metatheatrical As You Like It is at times delightful. Stephen Brimson Lewis' design for the opening scenes is a simple grass carpet on the thrust in front of black curtains, although the court of the usurping Duke Frederick (Antony Byrne) doesn't seem particularly austere to start with - but the back story in which he banished his own brother, the lawful Duke, is an indicator that nobody's safe from his violent whims, not even his niece Rosalind (Lucy Phelps.) He's allowed her to stay on at court for the sake of his own daughter, but a reminder that there are still people loyal to his exiled brother makes him kick her out. That reminder comes in the form of the son of a former enemy, and when Rosalind is banished so is Orlando (David Ajao.) They both end up in hiding in the forest, which would be great for them because they've fallen in love; except neither knows the other is there.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Theatre review: Come From Away

Not actually a show about ejaculating from a distance, Come From Away is in fact a hit Broadway musical about the week following 9/11, and the huge impact the attacks had on a place a long way from New York or Washington: In the early days of Transatlantic flight the Canadian island of Newfoundland was a refuelling stop, and as a result a large airport was built there; once planes became able to make the journey without stopping it was left largely unused, except for emergency landings. There were suddenly a lot of those when the USA became a no-fly zone in September 2001, and 38 planes carrying nearly 7000 people were diverted to the town of Gander. Irene Sankoff and David Hein's musical follows the people of the town as they respond to the emergency by trying to make the situation as welcoming for the stranded, frightened passengers as possible when they end up staying nearly a week.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Theatre review: Shipwreck

Now a regular name at the Almeida, American playwright Anne Washburn’s previous plays there Mr Burns and The Twilight Zone (about to get a West End transfer) have taken well-known popular fiction and refashioned it into something different; the former in particular explored the blurring lines between made-up stories and what we believe is true, so it makes an inevitable kind of sense that Washburn would be at the front of the line of playwrights to tackle Donald Trump, whose reality is made up of confidently-asserted fictions. She does this in typically sideways fashion in Shipwreck by looking at the guilt and panic of a group of upper middle-class liberals wondering if there was more they could have done to prevent Trump’s election and the worst of what he did once in office. The Trump presidency always offers up new topics of conversation but in this instance the latest is former FBI director James Comey’s revelations about a private dinner between the two of them.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Theatre review: Equus

Peter Shaffer's 1973 play Equus is a psychological thriller heavily inspired by the then-popular theories of R. D. Laing; the theories have long since been discredited but Equus remains popular, and Ned Bennett's new production for English Touring Theatre makes it clear why it still has something that resonates 46 years later. Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla) is a child psychiatrist convinced to add to his already-heavy workload because his friend, the magistrate Hester (Ruth Lass) thinks he's the only one who can give the boy a fair hearing. 17-year-old Alan Strang (Ethan Kai) has been sent to an institution after blinding six horses in the stables where he had a weekend job. When he meets the initially uncommunicative Alan, Dysart discovers a young man who rather than hating the animals he maimed, has had a lifelong love and fascination for them that tipped over into religious worship.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Theatre review: Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train

Kate Hewitt's production of Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train is the first time Stephen Adly Guirgis' play has been revived in London since 2010, when I saw a production at the smaller of the Trafalgar Studios. The Young Vic's main house is a much larger space but set designer Magda Willi has found interesting ways to evoke the different kinds of confinement and freedom in this prison-set drama. The location is New York's Rikers Island prison, and as the play opens the glass walls on Willi's traverse set form a small central cell where Angel Cruz (Ukweli Roach) waits to hear his fate. He's there because, after all his attempts to free his friend from a cult failed, he shot the "son of god" cult leader in the ass. He's facing an attempted murder charge but insists he only planned to hurt the man, and his lawyer should be able to plead the charge down; until complications in surgery kill his victim and he suddenly finds himself up for First Degree Murder.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Theatre review: Gently Down the Stream

Martin Sherman, who turns 80 this year, has a long list of theatre and movie writing credits but is still best remembered for Bent - which itself has its 40th anniversary this year - a play that reminded people of the oft-forgotten persecution of LGBT people by the Nazis. Having long wanted to write a more general "gay history" play he finally struck on the way to do it by following 13 years of a relationship with a 35-year age gap, in Gently Down the Stream. And "gently" is the right word for a play that covers some of the same ground, and has some of the same concerns as, The Inheritance, but in a much more intimate way. The concerns are those of Beau (Jonathan Hyde,) originally from New Orleans but, having travelled the world accompanying torch song singers on the piano, now long since settled in London where he works as a lounge pianist in a restaurant.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Theatre review: All About Eve

Ivo van Hove's love of translating cinema to the stage (while keeping a few cinematic tricks in his back pocket) brings him to the 1950 classic All About Eve, a fairly obvious fit for a return to the theatre as it's all about backstage intrigue and ambition, and based on a stage play in the first place. The production was originally set to star Cate Blanchett in the role made famous by Bette Davis, but she ditched it to star in a play that you can only see if you win a load of old ballots. For me it worked out, as I prefer her replacement Gillian Anderson, a woman who can spell both "Gillian" and "Anderson," as opposed to one who can spell neither "Kate" nor "Blanket." Anderson is Broadway grand dame Margo Channing, a star currently wowing the crowds in a role specially written for her by popular playwright Lloyd Richards (Rhashan Stone,) who's lining up a role in his next play for her as well.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Theatre review: Berberian Sound Studio

Before Josie Rourke takes on her own final production at the Donald and Margot Warehouse she's bringing back a well-known theatre name in an unfamiliar role: Tom Scutt makes his directorial debut with Berberian Sound Studio, an unexpected first venture for someone whose day job is designing visuals. Because although Scutt and Anna Yates have indeed designed a detailed 1970s Italian sound studio that gives the play a strong visual identity, Joel Horwood's play is, as the title suggests, really all about its soundscape. Based on a 2012 horror film by Peter Strickland - apparently a cult favourite although I'd never heard of it before this adaptation was announced - it sees sheltered sound designer Gilderoy (Tom Brooke,) who's only ever worked on nature documentaries from the isolation of his shed in Surrey, accept a job offer from an Italian director who's a big fan on his work.

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.