Thursday, 23 March 2023

Theatre review: Farm Hall

When looking at the ethics of science, there's no more fertile ground for writers to explore than the atomic bomb. In her impressive playwrighting debut, Katherine Moar explores the issue through six scientists who've already lost the nuclear arms race - they just don't know it yet. Based on a real event and secretly recorded conversations, Farm Hall takes place during the last days of the Second World War, after Hitler's fall and the revelation of the true horrors Germany had perpetrated. The six German men are under house arrest in an English country pile, filling their time playing chess, mending a broken piano, and staging a reading of Blithe Spirit, whose recent success in the middle of the Blitz baffles them. They are Hitler's surviving nuclear physicists who hadn't already defected by VE Day, and nobody seems sure what to do with them, or even if they'll be allowed to survive their comfortable prison.

Tuesday, 21 March 2023

Theatre review:
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

I've not really enjoyed Complicité's work much so their latest, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, was an easy one to skip; until Kathryn Hunter was announced as the lead, making it a much more exciting proposition. Unfortunately Hunter has been taken ill, with Amanda Hadingue taking over the lead role of Janina for tonight's performance, which leaves me back where I started, with a Complicité show and no real selling point. And as it turns out, Simon McBurney and the company's adaptation of Olga Tokarczuk's eco-thriller is almost entirely narrated by its leading lady, so while Hadingue delivers a strong and likeable performance, having her perform the three-hour show with three teleprompters feeding her her lines is no substitute for Hunter's unique talents.

Sunday, 19 March 2023

Theatre review: The Tempest (Shakespeare's Globe /
Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank)

Hey, you know what's a great way to stop me from spending an entire review of The Tempest ranting about how awful Prospero is? Edit the text so you cut out... more or less everything he does. Yes, for a second year the Globe has added a public performance schedule to the Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank production - essentially a scaled-down version of a play on the curriculum, designed for school parties. Pleasingly, Diane Page's production follows the others I've seen both live and online, in that apart from cutting the script down to a little over 90 minutes, and some particularly shiny and gaudy designs from Moi Tran, this doesn't feel like a "kids'" version and doesn't patronise the audience for a second. The short running time also meant I could stand through it without hospitalising myself, and get to be in the thick of it as groundlings with my goddaughter Evie.

Thursday, 16 March 2023

Theatre review: The Great British Bake Off Musical

Would you believe, my friend Ian says that sometimes he chooses what shows to come to with me because I've booked some camp old nonsense. The nerve! Anyway here's The Great British Bake Off Musical, a stage tribute to the international TV phenomenon best known for contestants who become instant best friends, technical challenges where the entire recipe reads "make a Latvian Backwards Cake," and a commitment to smutty double entendres that means nobody can make a blancmange without an accidentally-on-purpose pegging reference. The character names in Jake Brunger & Pippa Cleary's musical are made up, but the judges in particular make no disguise of who they're based on: Phil Hollinghurst (John Owen-Jones) is a silver-haired Scouse baker known for his blue eyes, bad jokes and dishing out handshakes as if they have inherent value. Pam Lee (Haydn Gwynne) is a Dame fond of statement necklaces, colourful glasses and desserts that are 90% booze.

Tuesday, 14 March 2023

Theatre review: Medea

Back to @sohoplace, the theatre with a name so current it's been proudly wearing its new Central Perk T-shirt out in public, where Sophie Okonedo takes on Medea, and a procession of male antagonists all played by Ben Daniels. Dominic Cooke's production has a modern design by Vicki Mortimer, but the 1946 adaptation by Robinson Jeffers is a pretty faithful one to Euripides' original, both in story and style. And while I don't necessarily have a problem with the very loose adaptations of Greek tragedy that have been popular lately, it's interesting to see a production that sticks to basics but still feels fresh. When the Argonauts reached their destination in Colchis, local princess Medea fell for their leader Jason, and helped him steal the Golden Fleece from her father. In their subsequent travels she continued to help him out of scrapes - I'd say "by any means necessary," but that implies disembowelling a relative was a last resort, whereas for Medea it's usually Plan A.

Friday, 10 March 2023

Theatre review: Brilliant Jerks

Capping a really strong week at the theatre for me, Joseph Charlton's Brilliant Jerks at Southwark Playhouse Borough follows three people who work at very different levels for a ride-hailing app, from the founder to a long-standing driver. The hook may be a look behind the scenes of NOT UBER but Charlton's play is more concerned with a toxic tech-bro culture that affects everyone from the top down and could apply to any number of huge corporations or ambitious start-ups. Tyler (Shubham Saraf) co-founded the company with his friend when they ended up stranded in Paris after a tech conference, unable to find a cab. He looks back at how this grew into an app that expanded to hundreds of cities worldwide, in parallel with the story of his relationship with the woman he thought was the love of his life. But with the company's success, the senior developers start behaving increasingly out of control, culminating in a seedy night in a Seoul karaoke bar/brothel.

Thursday, 9 March 2023

Theatre review: Standing at the Sky's Edge

Thanks to its original run at Sheffield Theatres, Richard Hawley (music & lyrics) and Chris Bush's (book) Standing at the Sky's Edge had barely started playing at the National Theatre when it became the most-nominated musical at this year's Olivier Awards. Both venues it's played feel appropriate: Sheffield is the city its sprawling cast of characters call home; and now one of the most famous brutalist buildings in the country is a fitting place to house another surprisingly beloved concrete structure. In fact, when Ben Stones' design puts several floors of a Park Hill Estate tower block on the Olivier stage, it blends right into its surroundings. The band gets pride of place in a first-floor flat for a musical history of one specific home, where in three overlapping timelines, three generations of residents move in - starting with steelworker Harry (Robert Lonsdale) and his wife Rose (Rachael Wooding) in 1960, when the building is brand new.

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

Theatre review: Trouble in Butetown

If you wanted to prove that multiculturalism is, rather than a recent fad being imposed on Britain, a major part of its history and a source of pride compared to other countries, playwright Diana Nneka Atuona suggests there are worse places to look than Tiger Bay (as the area's most famous daughter is Shirley Bassey, it's hard to argue with.) The Welsh port's status as a gateway to the world has seen sailors from around the world settle down with locals since the 19th century, and when we meet widow Gwyneth (Sarah Parish) in the 1940s her home is a microcosm of this diversity: She and mixed-race daughters Connie (Rita Bernard-Shaw) and Georgie (Ellie-Mae Siame, alternating with Rosie Ekenna) have been running the house as an unlicensed guesthouse. Their current guests are fiercely protective local Patsy (Ifan Huw Dafydd,) Norman (Zephryn Taitte) who's just missed his ship because of a hangover, and Dullah (Zaqi Ismail,) who's in love with Peggy (Bethan Mary-James) but can't afford to marry her, and may have to agree to an arranged marriage the next time he sails out.

Monday, 6 March 2023

Theatre review: Shirley Valentine

With theatre still in recovery, a guaranteed hit (it extended its run before even opening) without huge cast and set requirements is something producers could do with, so a one-woman show for the hugely beloved Future Dame Sheridan Smith would fit the bill. Add to that a title as familiar as Willy Russell's Shirley Valentine and Matthew Dunster's new West End production seems a no-brainer. Still, I did wonder, with Russell's heyday being a very specific time in the 1980s (this, Educating Rita and Blood Brothers came out within a few years of each other) if the story would feel dated. I'm not sure why, since I remember Meera Syal doing well with the show a few years ago, and in any case Smith and Dunster prove the adage true, that the more specific something is, the more universal it becomes.

Friday, 3 March 2023

Theatre review: The Winter's Tale
(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse & Shakespeare's Globe)

Leontes (Sergo Vares) is the king of Sicilia, whose life of privilege, happy marriage and lifelong friendship with Bohemian king Polixenes (John Lightbody) all come crashing down when he has a sudden burst of insanity. For no reason he becomes convinced his wife Hermione (Bea Segura) is having an affair with Polixenes, and that the baby she's carrying is his. His violent outbursts lead, directly or indirectly, to the death of his young son and only heir, the apparent death of Hermione, and a number of trusted servants and aides fleeing Sicilia in fear of their lives. In particular Antigonus (Colm Gormley) ends up in Bohemia with the newborn daughter Leontes has declared a bastard, and it's this fourth-act change of scenery that has inspired Sean Holmes to make The Winter's Tale the first production to take place in both of Shakespeare's Globe's theatres: Taking the entire audience from the indoor Swanamaker to the outdoor Globe and back again.

Thursday, 2 March 2023

Theatre review: Romeo and Julie

It's 2023 but shows that I originally had tickets to see in 2020 are still making their belated returns. Callum Scott Howells had already been slated to appear in Gary Owen's Romeo and Julie then, but in the intervening time his appearance in It's A Sin and subsequent status as The Gay Internet's Official Fantasy Boyfriend of 2021 means he brings some added star power now the show finally premieres. It was worth the wait to get the show on with Howells in place: He plays Romeo (pronounced Romeo, but usually referred to as Romy,) an 18-year-old single dad who can't even rely on his alcoholic mum Barb (Catrin Aaron) for help babysitting his daughter. Like Owen's previous plays this takes place in the impoverished Cardiff suburb of Splott, but presumably on its edges: Julie (Rosie Sheehy) only lives a couple of streets away, but has led a much easier life so far.

Tuesday, 28 February 2023

Theatre review: Akedah

Named after a Biblical term from Abraham's fakeout sacrifice of Isaac, Michael John O’Neill's Akedah follows two sisters who grew up in a turbulent household - their father was abusive, their mother a prostitute who abandoned her youngest daughter in a crackhouse and was never seen again. Gill (Amy Molloy,) the oldest, was 15 at the time and tried to look after her much younger sister for a while, but after their father died Kelly was taken into care, and the sisters rarely communicated after that. One night Gill gets a cryptic phone call from her sister asking her to come to her, and she manages to track down Kelly (Ruby Campbell,) now 18, living at a Pentecostal megachurch on the Northern Irish coast, where she's been since leaving her foster home two years earlier. Gill thinks she's there to rescue her sister from being groomed, but the truth may be more personal.

Monday, 27 February 2023

Theatre review: The Walworth Farce

After many delays Southwark Playhouse finally opens its new, permanent main house, a few minutes' walk away from its other venue on the other side of Elephant and Castle. Southwark Playhouse Elephant has staged a couple of community shows as a warm-up, but its first professional production is an overt reference to its new location: Enda Walsh's The Walworth Farce takes place around the corner, in a 15th-floor council flat some years before the recent redevelopments that include the current building. Dinny (Dan Skinner) lives there with his two adult sons, and as the play begins Sean (Emmet Byrne) returns from his daily trip to Tesco, just in time for them to begin a performance: They will act out the day Dinny had to leave Ireland, fleeing to the flat that used to be his brother's before the events of that day.

Thursday, 23 February 2023

Theatre review: Women, Beware the Devil

James VI & I's legacy for Britain included a paranoid obsession with witchcraft which would long outlast his own reign; his son's mainly boiled down to a bloody Civil War, the temporary overthrow of the monarchy itself, and Charles I suddenly finding himself shorter by one head. Both of these dark elements of 17th century history feature in Lulu Raczka's new play at the Almeida, although Rupert Goold's slick production never quite gets to the bottom of why Women, Beware the Devil is doing any of this. In rural England in 1640, Agnes (Alison Oliver) has been accused of witchcraft, and accusation would usually be enough to get her hanged. The local lady of the Manor, Elizabeth (Lydia Leonard,) offers her protection and a job as a maid, but there's a catch: She wants Agnes to use the demonic powers she swears she doesn't have to help secure a wife for her brother: If Edward doesn't have a legitimate male heir before he dies, Elizabeth could lose her ancestral home.

Tuesday, 21 February 2023

Theatre review: Phaedra

Australian writer-director Simon Stone's calling card appears to be classical adaptations that keep the original title but very little else; at least his take on Phaedra, after a couple of hours that are unrecognisable even as radical adaptation of the original myth, end up in a place that deals with the same kind of actions and consequences. The play is credited as being "after Euripides, Seneca and Racine." I haven't seen the Seneca version because nobody stages Seneca, but there's certainly no initial link to the story told in the other two. Helen (Janet McTeer) is a high-profile opposition MP, her husband Hugo (Paul Chahidi) a diplomat who grew up in Britain after his parents fled the Iranian Revolution. As a family they don't seem too big on boundaries, and if Helen is going to develop a fixation on a younger man, the initial candidate seems to be her son-in-law Eric (John Macmillan,) with whom she has an awkwardly flirtatious relationship.

Friday, 17 February 2023

Theatre review: Sylvia

Sometimes theatre rewrites history; for instance, the official line on Kate Prince (book & lyrics,) Priya Parmar (book), Josh Cohen & DJ Walde's (music) Sylvia is that it got a short work-in-progress run in 2018, whereas the way I remember things it was sold as part of the regular season, and only had its entire run reclassified as previews when it lost its leading lady early on. In any case, when I saw it the first time I thought there was a lot about it that was promising, but that it certainly still needed a lot of work before you could call it finished. Four and a half years later enough of that work's been done for Prince's production to return to the Old Vic for its official premiere, largely with a new cast but keeping a couple of its original stars, most importantly the powerhouse Beverley Knight as the title character's mother, legendary suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.

Thursday, 16 February 2023

Theatre review: Graceland

Upstairs at the Royal Court, Ava Wong Davies' Graceland offers up a monologue about a relationship that slowly, almost imperceptibly turns abusive; perhaps too slowly and imperceptibly to fully bring the story to life. Sabrina Wu plays Nina (although neither her name nor that of her boyfriend are mentioned until very late in the play,) who addresses her speech to the man she met at a barbecue at her friends' house, and had an instant spark with: She doesn't believe in love at first sight, but can't think of a better way of describing it. She's the daughter of Chinese immigrants who doesn't want to take over their restaurant, and has ended up in an office job with a handsy boss and no real career ambitions. He's a poet, which needless to say means he's actually a trust fund baby who doesn't need a day job to pay the bills.

Tuesday, 14 February 2023

Theatre review: Macbeth / Partners of Greatness
The Faction / Wilton's Music Hall & Tour

The Faction are another established Fringe company whose work I've been following for many years - predating this blog, so I'm kind of going on memory to say I think I first encountered them with an all-male Macbeth. Director Mark Leipacher's new take on the Scottish Play goes for gender parity, although that's mainly because it uses only two actors: Macbeth / Partners of Greatness cuts down the cast to just the titular character and his wife, telling the story entirely from their perspective. The latter has been renamed Bellona, after the line early on calling Macbeth "Bellona's bridegroom," so perhaps the idea is to posit her as the more bloodthirsty of the pair, as a literal Roman war deity. Either that or it's a reference to Lidl's own-brand version of Kinder Bueno, given some of the things that happen later on in the show I'm not sure we can discount anything entirely.

Monday, 13 February 2023

Theatre review: Linck & Mülhahn

Not that there seem to be a lot of great times for the trans and non-binary community lately, but we're in the middle of some particularly bad days at the moment, so it's fitting timing for a historical drama about a pioneering gender-bending couple. Linck & Mülhahn may be a tragicomedy that delivers on the tragic side as much at the comic, but it's also undeniably triumphant, celebratory, and optimistic that, while not enough has changed between 1721 and 2023, the day is coming. It's inspired by real people and events, but Ruby Thomas' play does add its own caveats about what exactly constitutes a true story - is it the story as interpreted by the laws and mores of the time, or the truth as felt and experienced by the people at the heart of it? In 18th century Prussia, Anastasius Linck (Maggie Bain) is a well-liked soldier in his regiment and as much known for his debauchery and female conquests as any of them.

Saturday, 11 February 2023

Theatre review: The Tempest (RSC / RST)

2023 marks the 400th anniversary of the First Folio's publication, and both the RSC and the Globe are using that as the theme for their seasons, predominantly programming plays that don't exist in quarto form, so wouldn't have survived if they hadn't been included in the OG collected works edition. This means there's going to be a bit of overlap between the two major Shakespeare venues, and Stratford-upon-Avon kicks off the year with one of those that's getting multiple productions, and the one that got the opening slot in the Folio itself: Elizabeth Freestone's production of The Tempest uses the titular bad weather as a prompt to theme the play around the climate crisis, and attempt a carbon-neutral, waste-free production - Tom Piper and Natasha Ward's designs reuse props and costumes from past productions, upcycle a lot of plastic rubbish, and rescue a huge distressed mirror from Indhu Rubasingham's bins.