Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

It's been like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.

Whenever I do my annual roundup of the theatre year in and around London I like to say a little thanks to the readers (both of them) who've put aside a few minutes of computer time that could have been more usefully spent masturbating, and have used them to read my reviews instead. Although given my preferred policy on what photos to illustrate this blog with, there's probably been a couple of times when multitasking was possible. I may already be getting off track a bit - the point is especially thanks this clusterfuck of a year when there's been enough other stuff you could have been worrying about. Maybe my blog's a diversion from it all for you, like theatre largely is for me (although of course, The Horrors Of 2016 have already been creeping into shows and will no doubt be doing so with a vengeance in future years.) But for now let's look back and give out the least important theatre awards in existence (or the most important - it really depends on how strongly you feel about nipples.)

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Theatre review: She Loves Me

I started 2016 with a musical about a rather niche subject; I end the year on a more old-fashioned one that isn't strictly speaking formulaic - it became the formula for several Hollywood Rom-Coms. She Loves Me has a book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and takes its story from Hungarian play Parfumerie, about hate turning to love in the titular shop. Georg (Mark Umbers) is the perennially single deputy store manager who's resorted to a lonely hearts column, and has fallen for a woman he's been exchanging letters with. When one of the shop clerks leaves, her replacement Amalia (Scarlett Strallen) instantly annoys him by selling a music box he'd bet would be unsellable, and their relationship is fractious from then on. Needless to say, Amalia is actually the "Dear Friend" he's been writing to, and she feels the same way about his letters.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Theatre review: Hedda Gabler

Having played a part in Lazarus existing, Ivo van Hove has a chance to redeem himself with the classic reinterpretations he does best. He brings a production he originally staged at his own theatre to the National, as Ibsen's Hedda Gabler gets a new translation by (inevitably) Patrick Marber, and Ruth Wilson plays Hedda, married for six months and already deeply regretting it. The daughter of a celebrated and wealthy general, she grew up the centre of attention, including from numerous male suitors. After telling a series of seemingly innocuous lies, and in a sudden moment of paranoia about getting older, she agreed to marry the academic Tesman (Kyle Soller.) By the end of their extended honeymoon she's realised she'll never care about the esoteric subjects her husband fixates on, while he'll never be able to keep her in the style she's accustomed to unless he gets a professorship.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Dance review: The Red Shoes

Time for one of my very occasional dips into the world of dance - this year my mum decided she'd like to be taken to the ballet for Christmas, and when she heard that Matthew Bourne had adapted a film she remembers fondly, The Red Shoes, into a new ballet that decided it. Bourne's also looked to the cinema for his music, choosing the work of Bernard Herrmann - best known for scoring Hitchcock films, although most of the music used here predates that collaboration. In many ways the story is a natural fit for a ballet as it's about ballet: Victoria Page (Ashley Shaw) is a dancer in the Ballet Lermontov who's never really caught the attention of its conductor Boris (Sam Archer,) and so has never got further than background roles. That's until prima ballerina Irina (Michela Meazza) is injured on tour.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Theatre review: "Art"

Florian Zeller is the French playwright who's all the rage in London at the moment, but in the nineties that title belonged firmly to Yasmina Reza. A few of her plays got West End runs but it was "Art" that brought her to public attention and became a big hit. Matthew Warchus' production ran for eight years, its gimmick of replacing the three-strong cast every couple of months keeping it in the public eye and ticket sales going strong. With Warchus now in charge of the Old Vic he's seen an opportunity to revive the play for its 20th anniversary. In fact he may well be said to be reviving the same production - I saw that twice, with one of the early cast changes at Wyndhams* and then a few years later when it had moved to the Whitehall Theatre (before it became Trafalgar Studios.) And though it's been a while this feels familiar: The latest trio to play the 40-something men who've been friends for 15 years are Rufus Sewell, Tim Key and Paul Ritter.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Theatre review: Saint Joan

When other actors have had Hollywood commitments this year, Gemma Arterton's turned them into opportunities: When Gugu Mbatha-Raw couldn't make the transfer of Nell Gwynn she stepped in, and now that Cush Jumbo's one-season stint on The Good Wife has turned into a spin-off, she's left another juicy lead free for Arterton to grab with both hands, taking over as Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan at the Donmar. Following Henry V's military success, much of France is ruled by England, and though they fight back the odds always seem to be against the French army. That's until Joan's combination of guileless charm and forcefulness makes them take the gamble of letting a young girl who claims to hear the voices of saints, take command of the military. She quickly does everything she promised, getting the Dauphin (Fisayo Akinade) his overdue coronation, and control of much of his country. But with her job done, Joan is a liability.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Theatre review: Platinum

Martha (Siân Thomas) was a legendary protest singer in the 1970s, but she retired both from music and from public view. Simon (George Blagden) is a music academic doing his PhD on protest music and Martha in particular, but he's hit a brick wall and only speaking to the elusive singer herself will give him the details he needs. In a last-ditch attempt, he contacts her estranged daughter Anna (Laura Pitt-Pulford,) a commercial pop singer who's had some success with her first album, and is now struggling to put together a follow-up. Confronted with Simon's questions about her mother at a time when she's feeling vulnerable about her own work, Anna lets slip Martha's big secret: Her biggest, most influential hit was so different from her other songs because she didn't actually write it. She now lets Simon know where he can find her mother so she can give her side of the story, as writer Hannah Patterson returns to Hampstead Downstairs with her short play Platinum.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Theatre review: Wild Honey

Nobody could accuse Ed Hall's Hampstead Theatre of wild programming, but the word itself is one they're very fond of - we've had Wildefire, Wild and now Wild Honey, Michael Frayn's version of Chekhov's unfinished Platonov. This revival was due to be directed by Howard Davies, who sadly died at the beginning of rehearsals, and his replacement should be well-versed in the play: Jonathan Kent directed a different version of Platonov as part of his Young Chekhov trilogy at the National only a few months ago. There's another connection to that day-long epic, as Geoffrey Streatfeild returns to the one play out of the three that he didn't appear in this summer. Frayn's play is a shorter, broader version of the story of Platonov (Streatfeild,) a provincial schoolteacher who's spent the winter in virtual hibernation with his wife Sasha (Rebecca Humphries) and their baby son.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Theatre review: All the Angels

New plays in the Swanamaker have tended to have a classical music theme to tie in with the venue's concert series - Farinelli and the King has so far been the big hit. Nick Drake's All the Angels is a returning show from the Dominic Dromgoole era, with a look at a particularly famous piece of music: Handel (David Horovitch) was best-known for opera but had had some embarrassing flops when the libretto to Messiah came his way. A religious choral work seemed a welcome change from opera, an art form he felt had betrayed him, while an invitation to do a residency in Dublin got him away from the scene of his humiliation, as well as a much-needed paycheck.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Theatre review: Dreamgirls

Not every Broadway hit makes a quick move to the West End but Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's 1981 show Dreamgirls taking until 2016 to make it to London must be one of the longest delays. The film adaptation a few years ago can't have hurt it finally making the trip, as it now has an enthusiastic audience ready for it, so the vast Savoy is the venue for Casey Nicholaw's production of a story set in the 1960s and '70s, about black music making a play to break out of its "specialist" niche and into the pop mainstream. Girl group The Dreams are childhood friends Effie (Amber Riley, doing this to supplement her income because her day job as a Dream Ghost doesn't pay so well,) Deena (Liisi LaFontaine) and Lorrell (Ibinabo Jack,) who sing original songs composed by Effie's brother C.C. (Tyrone Huntley.) Shifty producer Curtis (Joe Aaron Reid) convinces them to take a job as backing singers as a stepping stone to their own career.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Theatre review: Rent

I have my own theories as to why one of Broadway's biggest-ever hits only ever had modest success in the UK, and although I've seen Rent twice before, this is the first time I've seen what could be called a "straightforward" production in this country: I saw the notorious Rent Remixed, which must still serve as the gold standard of "so bad it's good," and the one time I have seen it played straight was the 2011 off-Broadway revival, in which the audience could be described as... very much what you might imagine an American audience to be. So it's interesting to see this 20th anniversary touring production played more or less as written to a British crowd, although clearly one made up largely of established fans. Technically an adaptation of the Puccini opera La Bohème, Jonathan Larson's rock musical is an ensemble piece set in New York's "alphabet city" in the mid-nineties, with the AIDS crisis still in full swing.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Theatre review: Aladdin (Lyric Hammersmith)

For the fifth year running it was a big group outing to the Lyric Hammersmith's pantomime, where last year's director Ellen McDougall and set designer Oliver Townsend are back, as is Cinderella's Prince Charming Karl Queensborough in the title role of Aladdin. It's all change elsewhere though, most notably in the script where, after three years, Tom Wells has left (probably because he had two new plays of his own this year to worry about) and former co-writer Joel Horwood has returned without his writing partner Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. Panto of course always has a bit of a topical edge and so here the story's introduced by the villain - Nigel David Donald Theresa Boris Abanazer (Vikki Stone,) who lives in Fulhammerboosh, where the rich have all the power and the poor are vilified.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Theatre review: Once in a Lifetime

It's fair to say my past experience with director Richard Jones' work hasn't been stellar; at least I didn't leave his last three shows at the interval, but that is partly down to the fact that they didn't have intervals. I've liked a couple of his shows though so went along to his return to the Young Vic, and though it's lacking in some crucial ways at least I wasn't tempted to take an early bath. Once in a Lifetime is a product of the ten-year playwrighting partnership of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, who had numerous Broadway hits, in a version restructured for 12 actors by Hart's son Christopher. (Not that 12 is a tiny cast, but it seems as if the original required so many bodies it became prohibitively expensive and nobody wanted to revive it.) It's obvious why extravagance might have been on the playwrights' agenda though as their subject is Hollywood, and the particular excitement after the first talking picture was released in 1927.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Theatre review: Dr Angelus

"Ah well, you did your best and it wasnae very good... And that's a fair epitaph for most of us." Obscure mid-20th century plays really are delivering the best lines at the moment, this one courtesy of the Finborough's current alternate show, James Bridie's Dr Angelus. Set in 1920 and inspired by a true crime story, it follows recently-qualified Dr George Johnson (Alex Bhat,) who's moved to Glasgow to take a too-good-to-be-true partnership with the eccentric Dr Angelus (David Rintoul.) His gratitude and respect for the older man let him overlook some suspicious behaviour - like the fact that his heavily-insured mother-in-law only gets sicker the more Angelus treats her, and when she finally dies he insists Johnson sign the death certificate. George keeps his silence even when Angelus' wife (Vivien Heilbron) starts exhibiting the same symptoms her mother did.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Theatre review: Sheppey

I'd always thought of Somerset Maugham as a novelist and short story writer who'd also written the odd play, but it turns out in the early part of his career he was quite a prolific and successful playwright. He did give up the theatre for the last three decades of his life though, and 1933's Sheppey was his final play. It's a satirical, political comedy on issues that are sadly timeless, and starts in a barber's shop where Sheppey (John Ramm) is assistant to Mr Bradley (Geff Francis.) His sense of humour makes him popular with the customers and his ability to sell Bradley's various potions to pretty much anyone is legendary. He's always said he was born lucky and it's proven when he wins the £8,500 jackpot in the sweepstakes. But this financial fortune comes at the same time as a health scare, and when he recovers from what might have been a mini-stroke, he's significantly changed his mind about what to do with the money.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Theatre review: The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales

"Candles are so much better than electricity, aren't they?" Emma Rice's family Christmas show for Shakespeare's Globe opens with a gag about her drive-by Artistic Directorship of the venue, and the row over a lighting rig that'll see her leave in 18 months. Things don't stay quite as meta for the rest of The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales, in which Rice and Joel Horwood adapt three Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, held together by the story of the titular sinister puppet. The homeless matchgirl meets Ole Shuteye (Paul Hunter,) who says they can warm themselves up not just with the matches but also with stories - for every match they strike, Shuteye and his troupe of actors will act out a story, starting with "Thumbelina" (Bettrys Jones, cast against type as an adult woman, admittedly a very small one.) I don't think "Thumbelina" was a story I heard or read particularly often as a child because I didn't really remember much of what happens in it.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Theatre review: Nice Fish

It seems like "whimsy" is the word of the week - a couple of days ago it was a particularly Welsh brand of it, now it's an American version brought to life by Mark Rylance, himself very much an English eccentric (in fact this play only makes me find more plausibility in Weez' theory that Rylance isn't actually an actor, but a collection of small woodland creatures standing on each other's shoulders in a coat,) who actually grew up in America. Nice Fish is by US writer Louis Jenkins, whose poems Rylance has a habit of reading out in lieu of acceptance speeches for his many awards, and it definitely feels like what it is: A collection of existing writings strung together, rather than a narrative. Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) has gone out onto a frozen Minnesota lake to fish through the ice, and brought with him Ron (Rylance,) who'll be keeping him company but has no interest in fishing himself.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Theatre review: The Children

After the large-cast, continent-hopping Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood scales things down to a story about three retired nuclear scientists, in a single scene that plays out in real time. But looked at another way The Children is Kirkwood's take on a disaster movie - albeit a look at the behind-the-scenes emotional devastation behind the explosions. There have been explosions - in an event literally described as The Disaster, a freak earthquake off the English coast caused a tsunami that hit a nuclear power station, triggering a meltdown. Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook) met while they were both working at the nuclear plant, and even after their retirement they stayed in their home nearby. Their house is now in the quarantined exclusion zone, and while work goes on to make the plant safe again, they've moved to a small holiday cottage further down the coast. This is where Hazel is surprised by a visit from their former colleague and friend Rose (Francesca Annis.)

Theatre review: The Duke

Shôn Dale-Jones is the creator and performer behind "emerging performance artist" Hugh Hughes, but for his latest show The Duke he's making a point of performing as himself. He also runs all the sound effects from a laptop on his desk, something that's practical as he can't afford to pay a sound engineer - the show is, by definition, not going to make any money. This is because the story itself touches on the refugee crisis, and in a more tangible sense the show is an attempt to help in some way: Tickets are free, and instead the audience are asked to make a donation to child refugee charities on the way out. It might be Shôn on stage rather than Hugh but it's still an hour of storytelling, and the starting point is a porcelain figurine of the Duke of Wellington on horseback, bought by his father in 1974 as an investment. Ten years after his father's death, Dale-Jones gets a distraught call from his mother to say she's accidentally broken the Duke while dusting.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Theatre review: After October

"I can't imagine ever being able to laugh about any of this," says Rodney Ackland's author substitute. Which is actually one of the evening's better gags as After October is a play that does exactly that. Ackland ended up becoming one of the most popular West End playwrights of the mid-20th Century before falling back into obscurity, but this autobiographical play goes back to before his success: Clive Monkhams (Adam Buchanan) is a young writer who occasionally makes a living out of magazine articles, and has published three novels that nobody bought. But his big hopes lie with a play that's actually found a producer willing to stage it in a small West End theatre. It's 1936, and Clive lives in a basement flat with his mother Rhoda (Sasha Waddell,) a former actress who fostered a bohemian spirit in her children but, after her husband died penniless, can't actually afford for them all to maintain their lifestyle.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Theatre review: The Tempest (RSC & Intel / RST & Barbican)

At some point during rehearsals at the RSC the following conversation must surely have taken place:
"You know how we've marketed this production of The Tempest as being especially family-friendly and a good first Shakespeare for younger kids? Well there's a scene coming up that's basically a 25-minute information dump where the whole plot gets described and nothing happens visually. So you know how this production uses some of the most sophisticated projections ever seen on stage? Maybe we could use some of those to illustrate that scene?"
"... Nah."
That's right, I'm getting my usual gripe about Prospero's Basil Exposition speech out of the way early this time, and no, except for one moment Gregory Doran's production doesn't use its theatrical toolbox to make it any less dry.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Theatre review: Peter Pan (National Theatre)

"Sorry Peter, Wendy can't play today, she's getting a hip replacement."

Last year I left Sally Cookson's Jane Eyre at the interval, and Peter Pan isn't a favourite story of mine, so the combination of the two didn't make this year's NT family Christmas show appeal too much. It was only the eccentric casting of Sophie Thompson as Captain Hook that made me book, so the fact that Thompson broke her wrist (the irony!) and had to withdraw from the production was a disappointment to say the least. She's been replaced by Anna Francolini, an excellent choice but, after her villain on the same stage in last year's wonder.land, perhaps not quite as surprising. Wendy (Madeleine Worrall) and her younger brothers John (Marc Antolin) and Michael (John Pfumojena) are left home alone when their parents go to a work party, and flying green child Peter Pan (Paul Hilton) gets into their bedroom. After Wendy helps him get his shadow back, Peter teaches the siblings how to fly, and leads them to Neverland.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Theatre review: Dead Funny

Comedians Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd died within days of each other; it's during that week in 1992 that Dead Funny takes place, so it's no surprise that 2016, with its bloodbath of the national treasures, would be a good time for Terry Johnson to revive his play. It's a pretty extreme comedy-drama that looks at an imploding marriage through the prism of the silliest kind of classic British comedy. Richard (Rufus Jones) and Ellie (Katherine Parkinson) haven't had sex in 18 months because Richard says he's lost all interest in it. They're seeing a couples therapist who's prescribed an hour every other night of them gradually getting used to touching each other again, even if it's in a non-sexual way, but even this seems to make Richard uncomfortable. What he's much more enthusiastic about is his love of classic comedy, and his position as chairman of the Dead Funny Society, who share his passion. When the news of Benny Hill's death is announced, they plan a tribute party.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Theatre review: Half a Sixpence

So... thruppence then?

Two big musicals are opening at the same time in London with books by Julian "only living human rich enough to read Shakespeare without his head falling off" Fellowes (and both feature gay stereotypes used for cheap gags, but sure, let's give him another couple of dozen chances before we make any judgements.) Like School of Rock, this is an adaptation of an existing piece, although David Heneker and Beverley Cross' Half a Sixpence is a lot less fresh in the collective memory; in any case we're told Fellowes, along with songwriters Styles and Drewe, have done a very extensive rewrite of the original. Arthur Sixpence Kipps (Charlie Stemp) is a draper's apprentice in Folkestone with a crush on one of the upper-class customers, and Helen (Emma Williams) is charmed by him too. The class difference means they could never pursue a relationship, until Arthur inherits a fortune from the grandfather he never knew.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Theatre review: School of Rock

I know it's getting to the point where I'm seeing The Horrors Of This Year in absolutely everything, but you've got to admit there's something very 2016 to a show all about "sticking it to the man" composed by, and making a healthy profit for, the very dictionary definition of The Man. Dr Baron Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Lord Webber BA (Hons) MEng composes the stage adaptation of the film School of Rock, with lyrics by Glenn Slater and book by Julian "here proles, let me dumb down Shakespeare for you so you don't get drool all over him" Fellowes, just in case the disconnect between subject matter and creative team wasn't surreal enough already. School of Rock is the story of an expensive private school that should be the subject of numerous lawsuits due to its dangerously negligent lack of background checking on potential new staff.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Theatre review: I Call My Brothers

Once again theatre feels like the medium responding the fastest to worrying trends around the world, with a Swedish play touching on the rise of a far-right party to power in that country, but more so on the way this sentiment trickles down to the man on the street. In Jonas Hassen Khemiri's I Call My Brothers, that man is Amor (Richard Sumitro,) an Asian man in his twenties who's out clubbing on a Saturday night when a car bomb, soon to be attributed to an Islamic terrorist, goes off in downtown Stockholm. We follow Amor over the next 24 hours as he goes into town to do chores, chatting to friends and family members on the phone. The more the day goes on the more he feels targeted and under suspicion by the police and the public, but whether he's really being looked at differently or is imagining it might be up for debate.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Theatre review: Orca

Not a 1970s movie made up largely of stock footage from Seaworld, this Orca is the latest Papatango winner, a playwrighting award that seems to have a weakness for scripts with a dark fantasy or sci-fi touch. But Matt Grinter's play only features the supernatural as part of its mythology, the actual immediate threat is all too inevitably human. The setting is a remote Scottish island, the time could be almost any part of the last hundred years, and the atmosphere is one of determined isolation: Fishing is naturally the main occupation, but while the boats go out to sea every day, it's very unusual for anyone to visit one of the neighbouring islands, let alone the mainland. Orca pods have been spotted in the ocean over the centuries, and are blamed for scaring off the fish whenever times are bad; the islanders have created a mythology and an associated annual ritual to protect their catch.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Theatre review: King Lear (Old Vic)

Matthew Warchus' second year in charge of the Old Vic is shaping up to be as starry as his predecessor's time, starting with King Lear - not just any bit of gender-blind casting in the lead role but Glenda Jackson coming out of retirement after decades of giving up acting for politics. She's hardly surrounded by obscure actors either, with Celia Imrie and Jane Horrocks as Goneril and Regan, Harry Melling as Edgar and Rhys Ifans as the Fool; plus many familiar London stage faces like Karl Johnson as Gloucester, Sargon Yelda as Kent, Danny Webb as Cornwall and Simon Manyonda as Edmond. Deborah Warner's production brings its star onto the stage and promptly has her turn her back to the audience, but this turns out to be a cannier move than it first seems: Jackson's King Lear is about to divide his kingdom, and asks his daughters to quantify their love for him.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Theatre review: Lazarus

Fuck knows what this is supposed to be.













Lazarus by David Bowie and Enda Walsh, based on The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis, is booking until the 22nd of January at the Kings Cross Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes straight through,

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

NB: There is sustained strobe lighting, to the extent that I think Jan Versweyveld might have a specific grievance towards epileptics.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Re-review: Tonight with Donny Stixx

When I did my annual roundup last year there was a first in my list of favourite shows - two new plays by the same writer made it into my top ten. Regular readers (both of them) will know there's only a couple of likely candidates, and while I wouldn't be surprised if Tom Wells manages it too some year, this time it was of course Philip Ridley whose Radiant Vermin I put at number 1, and Tonight with DonnyStixx at number 8; I also gave the latter's star Sean Michael Verey my award for best solo performance. You can read my original review here, from the first-ever public preview, before it officially opened in Edinburgh. It's taken over a year but the murderous but horribly sympathetic amateur magician Donny Stixx is back, David Mercatali's production finally returning to London but to a new venue: The Bunker is an underground former art studio next to the Menier Chocolate Factory that's been converted into a decent-sized thrust stage; I'm pretty sure the multicoloured benches that form the central seating bank are left over from the Menier's production of Assassins.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Theatre review: The Last Five Years

While America was voting to royally fuck up the next four years, I was watching The Last Five Years, a show I'd long been aware of but never got round to seeing until now. Jason Robert Brown's musical follows a fairly straightforward story of a relationship that doesn't quite stand the test of time: Jamie (Jonathan Bailey) is an aspiring writer, Cathy (Samantha Barks) an aspiring actress, and they fall in love soon after graduating from college. His career takes off pretty quickly, with a book deal and reading tours around the US, but her acting career never really matches it - a rep season in Ohio that she takes as a stopgap looks like it's as good as it's ever going to get for her. Cathy gets frustrated and bitter, Jamie cheats on her, and their marriage disintegrates. The twist is that we hardly ever see the two characters interact because their story is being told from different directions: We meet Jamie in the first flush of love, laughing at the fact that he's met his perfect girl, if only she was Jewish.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Theatre review: Kiss Me

He's still considered something of a big-hitter after the success of One Man, Two Guvnors, but Richard Bean's more recent plays have tended towards the disappointing, so a step back to something a bit more low-key and intimate could be a good move. And so it proves as Kiss Me is a two-hander running just over an hour, and premieres at Hampstead's Downstairs studio space. A romantic comedy-drama with a period setting but some unexpectedly modern attitudes, it takes place a few years after the First World War, which has left women all over Britain widowed, or with husbands so badly injured they can't father children. Enter the unseen and mysterious Dr Trollope, who finds desperate women and offers them an extreme solution: With fertility treatment still in its infancy, she can arrange for a visit from a particularly potent young man to make a baby the old-fashioned way.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Theatre review: Amadeus

Michael Longhurst makes his Olivier debut in epic fashion with a revival of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, which takes its title from the middle name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - the middle name because that's the one that means "love of god," and it's a twist on that that causes the obsession at the heart of the play. Antonio Salieri (Lucian Msamati) is a star composer in 18th century Vienna, court composer to Emperor Joseph II (Tom Edden) and with much of the aristocracy as students. His choice of career comes from his religious faith, having prayed to be able to express the glory of god through his music. When the former child prodigy Mozart (Adam Gillen,) now a fully-fledged performer and composer himself, arrives and becomes flavour of the month, Salieri has a violent reaction to the younger man's talent.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Theatre review: The Nest

Unusually, all the Young Vic auditoria are in use at the moment, with the mid-sized Maria getting a couple of big-name creatives - Ian Rickson directs an adaptation by Conor McPherson, The Nest. The original is a 1970s environmental fable by Franz Xaver Kroetz, about a couple's attempts to make a home for their new son, regardless of the consequences. Martha (Caoilfhionn Dunne) is heavily pregnant and pretty sure her old job won't still be there for her after she gives birth. So her lorry driver husband Kurt (Laurence Kinlan) is taking as much overtime as he can manage, including a cash-in-hand job to dispose of what he's told is spoiled wine, which he doesn't see fit to question. The consequences end up coming back sooner and in a much more direct way than expected, and the couple are left trying to figure out if their family can survive the damage.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Theatre review: Comus

It's a strange time to see the start of a new Globe season, given all the current sound and fury over Emma Rice's premature departure (personally I'm sure the situation is far more complex than it initially appeared, but I think the board's official statement suggesting they're now interfering directly in artistic policy was disastrous, whether that's literally true or just a badly-worded press release.) Still, for the couple of remaining seasons we will be seeing Rice in charge, it's starting to look as is there's a theme to what'll end up on the Swanamaker stage: Weird shit, possibly involving Philip Cumbus. For the first time the venue attempts to recreate one of the elaborate masques that were a private treat for the upper classes, with John Milton's Comus: A Masque in Honour of Chastity. As the subtitle suggests, this is a rather po-faced morality tale, but that's not quite what director Lucy Bailey puts on stage.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Theatre review: Magnificence

Nowadays Howard Brenton is our top writer of history plays but in the 1970s he was a more overtly political writer, and things don't get much more overt than Magnificence, which opens with a group of idealistic young protesters breaking into - what they think is - an abandoned flat. In the first sign of why the Finborough might have seen the play as ripe for revival, they're planning to squat there in protest at people being made homeless all over London while houses are left empty, as tenants get kicked out of flats they've lived in all their lives so they can be redeveloped and rented out at an inflated price. They're enthusiastic and somewhat naïve, but as the days go by the squat is watched by bailiff Slaughter (Chris Porter) - a man profiting from the situation they're campaigning against, and one with a reputation for dangerous practices.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Theatre review: The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

Tony Kushner's 2009 play - set two years before that - The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures gets its UK premiere at Hampstead, who've appended the alternate title iHo (you can't really tweet the whole thing, I guess.) But the full title is probably worth sticking to as the wordiness and sheer unnecessary length give a better indicator of what the play itself is like, as opposed to iHo, because it isn't actually about what would happen if Apple made prostitutes. Instead it's something of a family saga, though playing out over just a few days, set mainly in a Brooklyn brownstone that's in need of fairly regular repair but has still skyrocketed in value as the property boom gets going. Tom Piper's design puts the bare white shell of the four-story building on a revolve.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Theatre review: Side Show

A 1997 musical with the dubious reputation of having been produced on Broadway twice and tanked both times, writer Bill Russell and composer Henry Krieger's Side Show finally arrives in the UK in the version from the 2014 revival, with additional book by Bill Condon. Based on the story of the real-life Hilton sisters who appeared in Tod Browning's Freaks, it opens with conjoined twins Daisy (Louise Dearman) and Violet (Laura Pitt-Pulford) as the star attraction in a freak show during the Depression. The show's owner Sir (Chris Howell) is also their legal guardian for life and essentially treats them as his property as well. When vaudeville impresario Terry (Haydn Oakley) visits the show he spots the twins' potential as performers, as well as the abusive situation they're in, and helps them mount a successful court case to be liberated from Sir. He does succeed in making them stars, for a while, and they also seem to find a chance at love, but their disability gets in the way of both in the end.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Theatre review: Harrogate

The first time I ever went to the Royal Court Upstairs it was for a play called Scarborough, named after a resort town where the central couple had sex in a B&B room (I was impressed by its star Jack O'Connell, wonder what happened to him...) So there's some déjà vu in the fact that Al Smith's Harrogate gets its title from a similar dirty weekend, although this time we're not in the room itself but in a London kitchen a week or two after the fact. Nigel Lindsay and Sarah Ridgeway play characters identified only as Him and Her, but while Lindsay's character remains the same throughout, Ridgeway is actually playing three different people over the course of the evening. Yes, it's one of those plays that's hard to even give a synopsis of without giving everything away so consider everything after the text cut as potentially spoilery.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Theatre review: One Night in Miami...

A bit of a thought out of nowhere: Not only are Professor X and Magneto on a London stage at the moment, there's also plays set in the motel rooms of both the civil rights figures who inspired those characters. This time last week it was Martin Luther King, now One Night in Miami... is spent in Malcolm X's room - again with some surprising company. Kemp Powers' play is another fictionalised version of a night that really happened: Four famous men who were also old friends, meeting on the night in 1964 that Muhammad Ali first won the heavyweight title. At the time Ali was still called Cassius Clay (Sope Dirisu,) but Malcolm X (Francois Battiste) had convinced him to join the Nation of Islam, and Clay was on the verge of going public with his support and change of name. Also there are the American football star Jim Brown (David Ajala) and singer-songwriter Sam Cooke (Arinzé Kene,) at the time best known for soppy but successful love songs.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Theatre review: Blue Heart

Shopping and Fucking might be the most attention-grabbing title getting a 20th anniversary revival but, already long-established by the time Mark Ravenhill & co emerged, Caryl Churchill showed around the same time that she could more than match the new faces for experimentation in form - even if, like her more recent Escaped Alone, she does it with middle class ladies rather than sexually charged Gen X-ers. Blue Heart is in fact a double bill of short works that play around with, in the first instance form, and in the second case language. In Heart's Desire, Alice (Amelda Brown) and Brian (Andy de la Tour) are waiting for their daughter Susy (Mona Goodwin) to arrive from the airport; She emigrated to Australia and this is her first visit back. But the wait is infinitely prolonged because Churchill keeps taking the action back to the start, or to a particular point in the conversation.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Theatre review: A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer

A musical about cancer sounds a dubious proposition at the best of times, let alone when there's the terrible precedent of Happy Ending. At least A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is a musical with actual songs in it; performance artist Bryony Kimmings directs, co-writes the book with Brian Lobel, provides the lyrics to songs by Tom Parkinson, and appears as a pre-recorded voiceover narrating and occasionally interacting with the cast. Parts of the play are verbatim, with the majority of the patients we see based on specific people, but the central figure is more loosely based on Kimmings herself and a prolonged health scare her son had: Emma (Amanda Hadingue) takes her baby son to an oncology ward for tests she assumes will take a couple of hours; as it becomes increasingly clear the results are bad, this turns into 24 hours in a purgatorial grey hospital ward with people at various stages of their illness.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Theatre review: Shopping and Fucking

A few years ago Sean Holmes seemed to be initiating a tradition of reviving a famously dark and controversial play at the Lyric every autumn. We had Sarah Kane and Edward Bond's respective bouts of cruelty to babies, and now after a few years the nasty stuff returns for the 20th anniversary of another noted shocker - and one that did very well out of its reputation, getting a couple of West End runs out of it in the '90s - Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking. Young couple Robbie (Alex Arnold) and Lulu (Sophie Wu) live with the older Mark (Sam Spruell,) as his property - he bought them for £20 from a man he met in a supermarket. All three seem pretty happy with the arrangement until Mark has to leave for a few months to go to an addiction treatment clinic. Robbie and Lulu aren't used to fending for themselves, and in their search for work Lulu auditions for a TV shopping channel.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Theatre review: The Red Barn

After his transatlantic success in Ivo van Hove's A View From The Bridge, Mark Strong returns to the stage to work with a director who's always shown van Hove's influence in his work; but in Robert Icke's first production at the National, it's a legendary film rather than stage director who immediately comes to mind. David Hare's new play The Red Barn is an adaptation of crime writer Georges Simenon's novel La Main, taking place in the winter of 1968-69 in New England, where lawyer Donald Dodd (Strong) and his wife Ingrid (Hope Davis) have their friends Mona (Elizabeth Debicki) and Ray (Nigel Whitmey) visiting. On the way back from a party they get caught in a blizzard, and only three of them make it back to the house: Despite Donald going back out to search for him, Ray is never seen alive again. Although the storm causes a number of deaths, Donald's jittery behaviour makes this one seem particularly suspicious.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Theatre review: The Mountaintop

This year's JMK award winner Roy Alexander Weise gets a more recently-staged play to direct than we usually see in this competition - or maybe seven years is in keeping with other productions, and the 2009 premiere of Katori Hall's Olivier-winning play has just stuck particularly well in my memory. The Mountaintop takes its title from the speech Dr Martin Luther King made in Memphis the day before his assassination, and takes place on that last night in his motel room. Needing to stay up to work on the next day's sermon, King (Gbolahan Obisesan) orders a coffee and gets more than he bargained for with it. Room service maid Camae (Ronke Adékoluejo) catches his eye straight away and seems to be flirting back, so he asks her to stay a while and share a few cigarettes with him.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Theatre review: The Dresser

Ronald Harwood is best-known for his contribution to the field of gibbering misogyny, but he also wrote some plays. Sean Foley's new production of the best-known one, The Dresser, comes to London after a short out-of-town tryout, and follows a co-dependent relationship over the course of one night during World War II. For the last 16 years Norman (Reece Shearsmith) has been personal dresser to the grand old stage actor Sir (Ken Stott,) a fairly well-respected name but appaently not enough to ever get the knighthood he desperately wants. They're currently on their latest leg of an endless regional tour of Shakespearean rep, with a company largely made up of the elderly and injured because all the professional young actors are in the army. Tonight's performance is King Lear, but Sir has gone missing.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Theatre review: Oil

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Once again I don't remember specifically booking a preview but it looks like the professional critics are in tomorrow.

Ella Hickson's plays have been steadily growing in size and scope, and Oil at the Almeida sees her take on not just a global issue but an epic story that spans centuries. In 19th century Cornwall, May (Anne-Marie Duff) lives on her husband's remote farm, a hand-to-mouth existence but she's genuinely in love with her husband Joss (Tom Mothersdale,) and the fact they can't keep their hands off each other makes it no surprise that she's pregnant. But when William Whitcomb (Sam Swann) arrives from America with a ridiculously generous offer to buy the farm as a UK base for his kerosene business, Joss turn him down and May can't forgive his lack of ambition. She steps out into the snow and on a journey that now takes on a surreal note. Because in the style of Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine, a few years pass for May, but many more pass in the world around her.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Theatre review: Confessional

This publicity image has nothing whatsoever to do with the show but who am I to discourage innovative advertising drives?

As well as his famous and much-revived melodramatic Southern sagas, there's a whole other Tennessee Williams canon of more experimental work, and coupled with Jack Silver's less than traditional staging I think if you went into Confessional not knowing who wrote it, you'd be unlikely to guess correctly. A collection of character studies rather than a narrative as such, it takes place in - as Williams wrote it - a California bar late at night, Monk (Raymond Bethley) pouring drinks for the regulars, most of whom were drunk before they even got there. It may be an atypical piece but it still revolves around a powerful female character, Leona (Lizzie Stanton,) a trailer park-dwelling beautician who's commemorating the anniversary of her brother's death. Drunk, but less so than anyone else there, she's having a moment of clarity and has decided to pack up her trailer and move on to somewhere new.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Theatre review: Travesties

Taking a few moments out from writing and directing everything at the National, Patrick Marber pops a bit further down the South Bank to the Menier to direct a revival of one of Tom Stoppard's better-known plays. Travesties is a treatise on the meaning and relevance of art, for its own sake or as a commentary on the state of the world, through the medium of a sometimes silly comedy seen through the muddled memory of a retired civil servant. Henry Carr (Tom Hollander) is a doddering figure reminiscing about his days working at the British Consulate in Zurich during the First World War, neutral Switzerland a strange kind of calm in the middle of Europe's chaos. As a result it's a focal point for artists and political thinkers, and Carr has dealings with James Joyce, the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, and the exiled Lenin.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Theatre review: The Tempest (Donmar King's Cross)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: I can't see any sign of the papers having been invited to this yet.

Phyllida Lloyd's all-female Shakespeare productions were announced as a trilogy, and the theme of "red hands" that ran through the other two plays made me think Macbeth might be the final bloody part. As it turns out Lloyd's idea was actually to do one tragedy - the original Julius Caesar - one history - the condensed Henry IV - and one comedy, which turns out to be The Tempest. As with the other two productions, the framing device is that Shakespeare's play is being staged by the inmates of a women's prison, a setting that would seem to lend itself better to the other two genres, but in fairness this is one of the comedies that's rarely actually funny. Instead the more accurate term of "late romance" would seem particularly appropriate here, as the prison story focuses even more on a character whose backstory has been becoming more prominent over the trilogy, and who of course is also the real-life company's big name: Hannah, the character Harriet Walter uses in the framing device, based on a real American lifer with no hope of parole.