Sunday, 30 June 2019

Theatre review: Henry V, or Harry England (Shakespeare's Globe)

Now I'm not saying things in my day job have been a bit fraught lately, but there's been a lot of office discussions about the theory that sociopaths make the most natural and successful company directors. It's a thought you can't help but apply to one of England's best-loved kings when, as with the Globe Ensemble's Trilogy Day performances, the same company play Henry V following straight on from Henry IV Part One and Part Two. For those first two plays designer Jessica Worrall draped the theatre's middle gallery with the standards of many noble houses involved in the fighting, but now they've been replaced and it's just Henry's three golden lions that adorn the whole theatre; a sign that there's no more time for infighting and now everyone's together under one banner against a foreign foe? Or that it's now the Plantagenet way or the highway?

Theatre review: Henry IV Part Two, or Falstaff (Shakespeare's Globe)

"Fie, this is hot weather gentlemen."

Henry IV Part Two lacks the single clear antagonist of Part One, so instead the Globe Ensemble's renaming of the plays calls this one Falstaff, after the character who in this instalment finds out he grossly overestimated his importance to Prince Hal (Sarah Amankwah.) With the start time at 4pm this play occupies the hottest part of this Trilogy Day, and while the emotional depth of this part means it's frequently seen as superior to its predecessor, the story takes a while to get going which sometimes, especially in the first hour or so, gives the production the feel of Difficult Second Album Syndrome. But Federay Holmes and Sarah Bedi's production continues, as in Part One, to have scenes overlap, which keeps the energy up; with the multiple character doubling it also has the actors make a point of swapping roles onstage, nowhere more effectively than when Philip Arditti goes from Doll Tearsheet to Henry IV.

Theatre review: Henry IV Part One, or Hotspur (Shakespeare's Globe)

Michelle Terry's Globe Ensemble returns for a second year with a couple of returnees from last year's cast - including, of course, Terry herself. This time around their shows are a continuation from the winter season's Richard II in what is intended to be a year-long complete run through both of Shakespeare's History Tetralogies. Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes direct a trio that takes us to the end of the First (in historical if not writing order) Tet, and which as well as regular performances are also getting a handful of Trilogy Days, following the characters (those of them who make it) throughout the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V. There's also been renaming of these three instalments to reflect who the Ensemble see as the central character of each piece, so we open with Henry IV Part One, now named Hotspur after the fiery rebel played by Terry.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Theatre review: Present Laughter

While I appreciate a lot of the witty lines I've never been quite sure why Noël Coward's popularity has never majorly faltered - there's good stuff there but never enough to convince me he deserves quite the standing he continues to have. It's something that nags at the background of even the most successful revivals like this one - fortunately for Matthew Warchus, his production of Present Laughter has enough aces up its sleeve to keep those niggles very firmly in the background. The most obvious of these is Andrew Scott, who after years of being a firm favourite among regular theatregoers in the know got an overnight worldwide following after Sherlock, but who in recent months seems to have stepped up to another new level thanks to Fleabag. It's apt enough, then, that he's playing Garry Essendine - Coward's fairly transparent author-substitute may be famous predominantly for his stage work, but he also commands a kind of obsessive fandom.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Theatre review: The Hunt

From the first Rupert Goold productions I saw I've associated the director with the ability to put the nightmarish on stage (in a good way,) and it's not a knack he's lost as his latest Almeida show plays out like a horror film, innocuous beginnings building to hair-raising tension. But there's no serial killers or supernatural elements to The Hunt, David Farr's adaptation of a Danish film by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm. Instead there's two very modern fears at play, the one of monsters in our midst and the other of being falsely accused of being one of those monsters. Of course my main current image of Denmark is of somewhere almost empty, apart from the odd person suddenly keeling over dead or running around yelling "Rasmuuuuuuuuuuus!" and, while the town where the play's set isn't quite that deserted, it's clearly been shrinking in recent years.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Non-review: Stuff

DISCLAIMER: Not calling this a review because I don't think it’s fair to review amateur productions, let alone school shows. But this is a different kind of school show, part of the National Theatre's annual Connections Festival.

It's years since I last went to one of these performances (I think I was last tempted by an Anthony Neilson offering) but it's probably no huge surprise that what got me back this time was finding out, very last-minute, that Tom Wells had written one of this year's new short plays that the National sends to schools and youth theatre groups around the country. Teachers and students choose the play they want to stage, and of all the various productions one of each play gets a public performance at the Dorfman. Wells' Stuff is the sixth-form play by Bolingbroke Academy, a new-ish London school in their first year of Connections. And while I won't review the likeable kids performing, the play itself shows Wells, unsurprisingly, as a natural writer for teenagers, with his mix of serious subjects and goofy optimism matching the kids' attempts to figure out the world and where they fit in it.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Rehearsed reading review: Geography of Fire /
La Furie et sa géographie Part One

I'd say roughly 8% of my online #brand is me grumbling at the Finborough Theatre for never bringing back Armstrong's War for a full run (yes they know, yes they'd like to, no they can't get the funding.) So in the absence of that the best I can do is check out the other Colleen Murphy plays the theatre regularly premieres in the hope that she's got another gem up her sleeve. This year's Vibrant Festival includes a rehearsed reading of another of her works to deal with war, but on a much more epic scale - in fact the three hours plus of Geography of Fire / La Furie et sa géographie that we get here is only Part One of a planned two-parter. The website blurb says the play stands alone in its own right, but I'd argue there's too many threads left hanging at the end to really call it a complete story, not least of all that the battle at the centre of the play has only just about got started by the curtain call. Specifically the 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham near Quebec during the Seven Years' War.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Theatre review: The Damned (Les Damnés)

The continuing demand for Ivo van Hove to collaborate with companies around the world led to this 2016 production for the Comédie-Française for which the director's love of filmmaker Luchino Visconti's work once again inspired him: This time van Hove and his regular team of collaborators adapt Visconti's film The Damned (now Les Damnés,) about a wealthy family imploding during the rise of the Nazis. In other words yes, in the latest instalment of "shows that couldn't be more Barbican if they tried," it's a French company's production of a Belgian director and Dutch creative team's adaptation of an Italian film about Germans. The story starts on the night of the burning of the Reichstag, an incident that almost overshadows the birthday party for Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Didier Sandre.)

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Theatre review: Bitter Wheat

Let's face it, the prospect of an incredibly rare John Malkovich stage appearance has to be the main if not only draw to Bitter Wheat, David Mamet's new play which sounded like a pretty bad idea from the moment it was announced: A #MeToo-themed play officially not based on Harvey Weinstein but absolutely and undeniably based on Harvey Weinstein, if nothing else it seemed to demonstrate a remarkable tin ear to exactly whose story this is to tell. Or maybe Mamet is the best person for the job, in the sense that at least he got there before Neil LaBute. And who knows, maybe the play would surprise everyone and be much better than expected. But no, it's actually worse, because as well as hitting all the bum notes feared, it's also kind of... dull. In what I feel incredibly generous in describing as the plot, Malkovich plays Barney Fein (again, not to be in any way confused with Harvey Weinstein,) one of Hollywood's most powerful and feared movie producers, who we first see screwing over a writer by refusing to pay for the script he delivered.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Theatre review:
After Dark; or, a Drama of London Life

Whenever a radical new playwright comes along to change the kind of theatre people want to watch, the big names in vogue at the time tend to get swept away for a while, but get rediscovered and brought back into performance eventually. But while Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw are credited with that kind of revolution in Victorian theatre, their immediate predecessors have pretty much stayed in the obscurity they were cast into. I’ve always sort of assumed this was partly because the popularity of music hall at the time meant there weren’t many big names there to be swept away in the first place; and of what’s left, if even somewhere like the Finborough hasn’t seen fit to rediscover the hits of the time, there’s probably a pretty good reason. Well now the Finborough has rediscovered the big West End hit of 1868: Dion Boucicault’s comedies occasionally resurface but it was his melodramas that made him a household name, and my suspicions for why these plays remain obscure are proven right: From a 2019 perspective After Dark is very, very bad – in the best possible way.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Rehearsed reading review: The Wooden Meadow

I should be at the Finborough Theatre a fair bit in the next week, because as well as their regular Tuesday-Sunday show it’s also time for the annual Vibrant Festival of new writing, and for the first time in a few years I can make a couple of rehearsed readings I was interested in. First up Stewart Pringle, who was Artistic Director of the Old Red Lion pub theatre for three years, has written a play about a pub theatre that’s not too far from Sadler’s Wells and may or may not have a slightly laissez-faire attitude towards fire safety laws*. The protagonist of The Wooden Meadow has been running the place for a bit longer than three years – Jim (Ian Redford) has been there since at least the late eighties, when he had a few big successes with new writing, including the bizarre-sounding war epic the play is named after. Audiences have long since dropped off though, budgets are non-existent and the brewery demands heavy footfall or it’ll turn the space into a function room, but Jim ploughs on.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Theatre review: While the Sun Shines

I sometimes wonder, if anyone's still alive and staging theatre in 100 years' time, which plays by current writers will be the ones they're remembered for, and whether their biggest hits in their lifetime are forgotten while their flops get regarded as classics? Will Monster Raving Loony be thought of as James Graham's masterpiece, while Ink is an obscurity, a slightly baffled tone to the Wikipedia footnote about all the awards it won? It's been the fate of so many playwrights over the centuries* that you can't help but wonder, and the latest piece of evidence comes from Terence Rattigan: The writer sometimes described as an English Chekhov, whose Browning Version and Winslow Boy among others are considered 20th century masterpieces, had his biggest-ever commercial hit with an amiable but decidedly slight, bed-hopping wartime comedy. The latest in the occasional series of Rattigan and Shaw rediscoveries that seem to be the Orange Tree's most reliable rainmakers, While the Sun Shines hasn't been staged in London for decades, and while Paul Miller's production packs in the laughs it's unlikely to lead to any major reevaluation of the play itself.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream
(Bridge Theatre)

About 25 years ago Adrian Noble’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of a string of RSC productions that first inspired my love of theatre in general and Shakespeare in particular, and Anthony Ward’s design – the enchanted forest made entirely of a mismatched collection of light bulbs, umbrellas and wooden doors – cemented the way I see magic being created out of the purely theatrical. A cack-handed attempt at a screen adaptation means it’s probably not that fondly remembered any more, but it inevitably holds a special place for me. As one of the most popular Shakespeare plays I’ve seen many – too many – productions since, so while it’s hard to say if Nicholas Hytner’s pansexual, Cirque du Soleil-style Dream is flat out the best one I’ve ever seen (and in among the bad and average ones there’s been a lot I’ve really loved,) I can say that in that quarter of a century it’s the first one to send me out of the building with the same excited buzz and reinvigorated love of theatre as the first time.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Theatre review: Afterglow

There’s nothing unusual about a gay-themed play heavily promoting itself on the fact that it features male nudity, although there’s a couple of promising signs that suggest Afterglow might be a bit different from the majority: Tom O’Brien’s production is being staged at Southwark Playhouse, one of the most successful and well-respected London fringe venues; it appears to have an actual budget; the actors are in fact real actors who have had previous professional acting experience as actors, possibly even being paid for it*; as well as being people you might actually want to see naked, and indeed being the same people as featured on the show’s poster. All these are radical departures from what we’re used to, and they successfully put Afterglow a cut above a lot of the theatre served to niche gay audiences, but how does it fare compared to fringe theatre more broadly?

Monday, 10 June 2019

Theatre review: Wife

We're going to be seeing a lot of Ibsen's A Doll's House in the next year or so as various theatres have programmed new interpretations on the classic story that gave its heroine an agency and independence that was scandalous at the time. But before that at the Kiln Samuel Adamson offers up several Noras in one, as Wife tells a story of queer history that sees several generations - from 1959 to the 2040s - take inspiration from her. It comes down to Daisy (Karen Fishwick,) who recently married Robert (Joshua James) to please her father, only to fall in love with actress Suzannah (Sirine Saba.) When she takes her husband to see Suzannah play Nora she knows she's got a similar big decision to make, but she ends up sticking with what society expects of her. We then jump to 1988, and though we don’t see Daisy, from what we hear of her the decision proved catastrophic: A lonely alcoholic, she's estranged from her only son Ivar (James.)

Friday, 7 June 2019

Theatre review: Armadillo

It's hardly a fresh observation to say Americans have a uniquely odd, unhealthy relationship with guns; so it says something about Sarah Kosar's new play that she's found a new and disturbing twist on the subject. Armadillo follows three people in their late twenties who've grown up in families where firearms were seen as essential, to the point of fetishisation. For newly-married Sam (Michelle Fox) and John (Mark Quartley) the fetish has literally become sexual - they use loaded guns as foreplay, until an accident six months into their marriage leaves Sam with a gunshot wound in her arm. Realising that it's not just dangerous but an addiction, John comes up with a regime for them to give up having guns in the house. For a while they seem to be managing it, except for the fact that gunplay was so tied up in their love life that Sam can't have sex without it.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Theatre review: The Knight of the Burning Pestle

In Francis Beaumont’s The London Merchant, Jasper (Kirill Chernyshenko) is in love with his master’s daughter Luce (Anna Vardevanian,) but their plans to elope are thwarted at every turn by both her parents and his. Except the biggest obstacle to their being together isn’t actually a part of their own story, because The London Merchant doesn’t exist, except as the play-within-a-play that gets disrupted in Beaumont’s proto-postmodernist The Knight of the Burning Pestle. When I saw the Swanamaker production a few years ago I loved its inspired, multi-layered silliness and the feeling that the play was centuries ahead of its time so much I went back for seconds, which made the prospect of director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod, a team who deliver eccentric and chaotic results at the best of times, tackling it something to look forward to.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Theatre review: Rutherford and Son

If it seems like Roger Allam has been building up to playing King Lear for a few years now then Rutherford and Son absolutely feels part of that progression. Although while there’s echoes of Lear in Githa Sowerby’s dictatorial patriarch, even more so he feels like a precursor to Bernarda Alba – trapping his children in dead-end lives for self-destructive reasons of his own – with a story that even suggests Mother Courage in terms of what happens to his legacy. Rutherford owns and runs the Tyneside glassworks founded by his father, which remains the principle employer in his small town. He commands fierce loyalty from his workers, but at home it’s only bullying and intimidation that’s made his children obey him all their lives. For the last few years the glassworks has been operating at a slight loss, and oldest son John (Sam Troughton) has returned after some time in London with a new wife, child, and a formula he believes could cut down production costs significantly and turn around the company’s fortunes.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Theatre review: Orpheus Descending

We've had the unofficial Arthur Miller festival, now it looks from my diary of upcoming theatre trips like it's the turn of Tennesse Williams. Orpheus Descending seems to be regarded pretty firmly as mid-tier Williams but the Menier Chocolate Factory's production - co-produced with Theatr Clwyd, where it played before the current run and whose Artistic Director Tamara Harvey directs - goes all out to put it up there with the better-known of his brooding Southern Gothic tragedies. A veteran of the playwright's doomed heroes, Seth Numrich returns to the UK to play Valentine Xavier, a drifter who's made a living playing his guitar in bars since his teens, but as he turns 30 decides to try and settle down somewhere - whether or not he's actually hiding from the law is never quite clear. He ends up in a small Tennesse town where Vee Talbott (Carole Royle) takes him under her wing and suggests a job at the general store.