Thursday, 16 January 2020

Theatre review: Hamlet: Rotten States

Almost as numerous as productions of Hamlet itself are reinterpretations and reimaginings of Shakespeare's play, and in 6FootStories' Hamlet: Rotten States, the play's the thing - being created on the fly. Will Bridges, Amy Fleming and Jake Hassam are the company of travelling players Hamlet enlists to perform "The Mouse-Trap," the performance that's meant to elicit a guilty response from Claudius, his uncle and the new King of Denmark. But in this version of the story, the script Hamlet has given the actors to perform is unusable gibberish. The ghost of Hamlet's father has to appear to the actors themselves to give them the backstory: How Claudius murdered him then stole his wife and crown. With it now left up to them to bring the secret to light the players decide to rewrite the play from scratch, and the play they end up writing isn't an unsubtle metaphor, but Hamlet itself.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Theatre review: Cyrano de Bergerac

“They set in in the 17th century, gave him a long nose, maybe made it a bit funnier... but for the British, Bergerac will always be John Nettles.”

Jamie Lloyd is a director known for being able to get big names on stage, rather than one who has an unofficial company of actors he keeps working with; but one regular collaborator is James McAvoy, who takes the lead as Lloyd launches his latest West End residency, this time a selection of eyewateringly-priced international classics at the Playhouse. And if there's any doubt that this opening salvo is going for a stripped-back style, the one thing that everyone automatically associates with Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac doesn't make an appearance on McAvoy's face. In 1640 Paris, soldier Cyrano is notorious for three things: One is his proficiency with a sword, which sees him able to take out multiple assailants on his own, and also means he can take brutal revenge on anyone who seems to be making fun of his second notable feature, his unusually large nose. But it’s the third thing that becomes central to the play’s plot, and therefore the only one that Lloyd actually stages in a literal way.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Theatre review: Magic Goes Wrong

Taking up half of Mischief Theatre's year-long residency at the Vaudeville Theatre is a return, after an attempt at a slightly more conventionally-structured play in Groan Ups, to the "Goes Wrong" format of their original hits and their current BBC1 show, and a "does what it says on the tin" approach of fitting as many comic disasters as they can into the running time. The usual writing team of Jonathan Sayer, Henry Lewis and Henry Shields are this time joined by Penn & Teller to create their most spectacular show yet - and one where the accidents get grislier than ever before, as Magic Goes Wrong. The format seems to be inspired by the Vegas-style magic shows that have recently been making a return to the West End, whose posters promise a whole team of magicians with superhero-style names. And so Shields' Sophisticato has organised this evening as a charity gala for the victims of disasters in magic, in memory of his father, the original Sophisticato (crushed to death by his own props.)

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Theatre review: Teenage Dick

A dick joke about Richard III? Who would do such a thing?

Michael Longhurst's second directing gig at the Donald and Margot Warehouse since taking over as Artistic Director is Mike Lew's take on the once-ubiquitous teen movie sub-genre of Shakespeare plays (or other classics) relocated to American High Schools. Richard III becomes Teenage Dick and the role of Senior Class President is the crown a physically disabled anti-hero will do anything to get. In a story that for much of its running time is savagely funny, Richard Gloucester (Daniel Monks) has been bullied and marginalised throughout his school years because of his hemiplegia (apparently Lew makes it a condition of staging the play that this role and that of his sidekick Buck be played by disabled actors, with the script adapted to match their real disabilities.) Quarterback and Junior Class President Eddie (Callum Adams) has been his chief tormentor, and Richard hatches a plot to steal the upcoming election out from under him.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Theatre review: The Duchess of Malfi

Rebecca Frecknall has inherited Robert Icke's Associate Director position at the Almeida and with it, it would seem, the van Hove-style captions and a set dominated by a glass-panelled room. Why this one, designed by Chloe Lamford, appears to be a gym changing room I'm not sure, but if the visuals are a bit more elaborate than in her last couple of shows here, Frecknall's style continues to pare scenes down to a breathtaking minimum. The Duchess of Malfi is John Webster's tale of a woman afflicted with two sexy-but-evil brothers, and Lydia Wilson gives a steely performance as the Duchess who's widowed very young, and claims she has no intention of marrying again. It's a lie she tells because she's in love with her steward Antonio (Khalid Abdalla,) and the gulf between their stations means her older brother the Cardinal (Michael Marcus) would rather see her dead than marrying beneath her and disgracing the family.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Theatre review: Swive [Elizabeth]

I'm starting to think of the 2019/2020 Swanamaker season as "the chipboard season," given the material that's covered the stage for Henry VI, Richard III, and now the winter season's only premiere, Ella Hickson's Swive [Elizabeth]. It's revealed in a flourish that makes a very early bid for coup de théâtre of the year, as Hickson and director Natalie Abrahami remind us that for all its atmosphere and quaintness this theatre is actually barely six years old, and a biographical play about Elizabeth I (Abigail Cruttenden) might turn out to be surprisingly devoid of courtly niceties. In fact it's an 85-minute race through Elizabeth's life from toddler to menopause, and how her treatment by men throughout her life might have led her to dig her heels in against all the pressure to marry and produce an heir, and instead make the rule of England's only unmarried Queen one of the most iconic eras in history.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

2019: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

It's the end of another year in theatre, as well as the end of the decade, and the trend on both professional and amateur sites has been to do a post rounding up ten shows that defined the decade in theatre. Well nobody can say I follow the herd because I won't be doing that; although I've been reviewing theatre online since the late noughties I didn't actually start Partially Obstructed View until 2012, so the blog only covers eight of those ten years. Much more importantly, I honestly can't be arsed. I mean, do you know how much effort it is to do a detailed, smutty, rambling and confusing roundup of the last year's highs and lows, spending hours over Christmas writing thousands of words so that regular readers (both of them) can skim-read it to look at the photos and see if there's any decent nipples this year, let alone doing that for an actual decade? Well you know now so we might as well get on with it.

Monday, 23 December 2019

Theatre review: Amélie

My final theatre trip of 2019 isn't explicitly a Christmas show - in fact it very specifically takes place in the late summer and early autumn of 1997 - but it certainly feels seasonally magical and warm-hearted. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 film Amélie was an international hit, which got away with its wilfully naïve nature with a genuinely warm and distinct brand of eccentricity. The word here is whimsy, and regular readers will both know that means I'll go into Craig Lucas (book,) Daniel Messé (music and lyrics) and Nathan Tysen's (lyrics) musical adaptation with a great deal of apprehension. Not because I don't necessarily like whimsy, but because in my experience it's incredibly hard to pull off without overdoing it. In fact, thanks to The Other Palace leaving the audience crushed in the foyer with no explanation, only opening the doors at the time the show was meant to start, and therefore inevitably starting late, Amélie had it all to do to get me on side; but it soon did with apparent effortlessness.

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Theatre review: My Brilliant Friend

The quartet of Italian books known collectively as The Neapolitan Novels are apparently A Big Deal, and one that I had absolutely no idea existed until I heard about April De Angelis' stage adaptation (which originally played at the Rose Theatre Kingston, and now transfers in expanded form to the Olivier.) All I've really gleaned is that their author, Elena Ferrante, doesn't actually exist, being a pseudonym shrouded in secrecy. It's no doubt a huge part of the novels' popularity and mythos, given that their narrator is a popular novelist called Elena, better known as Lenù (Niamh Cusack,) who flashes us back to 1950s Naples and her first meeting with Lila (Catherine McCormack,) who stole her beloved doll and threw it into the cellar of the local mob boss. Lenù did the same to hersin revenge, and their (unsuccessful) adventure into the cellar to retrieve the dolls bonded them in a tumultuous friendship.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Theatre review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The National usually puts a family show on one of its larger stages around Christmas but this year's offering winds up in the Dorfman; perhaps because, although it has its share of spectacle in Fly Davis and Samuel Wyer's design and Jamie Harrison's illusions, Katy Rudd's production relies heavily on old-fashioned theatricality and the work of its ensemble to bring its magic to life. Joel Horwood adapts Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, in which the favourite Gaiman trope of the witchy Maiden, Mother and Crone guard the borders between realities. Samuel Blenkin is the unnamed Boy who, in 1983, a year after losing his mother, has another encounter with death on his 12th birthday when he finds the body of his family's lodger. The man has killed himself after gambling away other people's money, and the traumatic event close to a place where the boundaries between realities are weak wakes something on the other side.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Theatre review: Snowflake

Mike Bartlett's already on his second Brexit play (third, if you count Love, Love, Love as foreshadowing, which next year's revival will almost certainly feel like.) Like Albion (also returning in 2020) his latest puts the UK's breaking up into factions in microcosm, and Snowflake manages both to create a metaphor and play it literally as a widower longs to reunite with his estranged daughter at Christmas. The play's first act is a monologue until its closing moments, and Bartlett plays with the concept of the unreliable narrator: In an empty church hall on Christmas Eve, Andy (Elliot Levey) rehearses for how he wants to greet his daughter Maya (Ellen Robertson) when he sees her for the first time in three years. Their relationship went sour after her mother died suddenly, and one argument in particular saw her walk out and break off all contact. She's now back in Oxford and Andy's hired out this hall as a neutral space for them to try and restart their relationship.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Theatre review: A Kind of People

Racism and insidious forms of discrimination seem to have been a major theme in London theatre over the last week, and at the Royal Court Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's A Kind of People aims to cover not just the obvious instances of casual and not-so-casual racism, but also deeply-ingrained prejudices and preconceptions based on class and background. It's an ambition that doesn't quite pay off but builds some strong moments in a story built around a mixed-race couple – Gary (Richie Campbell) is black, his wife Nicky (Claire-Louise Cordwell) is white, and they've been together since they were 16. At the time they faced a lot of obstacles, particularly from her father, but several years and three children later they're settled in a flat on an estate, to all intents and purposes as happy together as they've ever been. Their close circle of friends are people they grew up with, including Mark (Thomas Coombes,) with whom Gary also works as a dishwasher engineer.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

Theatre review: Candida

I'm not sure there's much at the moment that can't set off depressing thoughts on the current political situation, but walking into the Orange Tree to see the question "why are so many living in poverty?" as part of Simon Daw's set when, 120 years after Bernard Shaw's Candida premiered, the nation's official answer remains a resolute "who cares?" definitely has to qualify. The writings on the wall come from the Fabian Society, the influential Socialist group of which Shaw was a member, as is his character the Rev. James Morrell (Martin Hutson.) James is a much sought-after speaker who uses his day-job as a minister to drive home the similarity between Christian and Socialist values; he works tirelessly with support from his wife Candida (Claire Lams,) and practises what he preaches - some months earlier the couple helped a teenager they found sleeping rough on the Embankment.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Theatre review: Fairview

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s dark comedy about cultural appropriation Fairview begins as That American Play Where An Extended Family Gets Together After A Long Time, Preferably At Thanksgiving But That’s Optional, and let’s face it that was probably enough to win it the Pulitzer on its own. The play ends up divided into three distinct sections plus a powerful postscript, but to begin with Nadia Latif’s widescreen production is practically a sitcom as an African-American family prepares a meal: Beverly (Nicola Hughes) is stressing about getting everything just right for her mother’s birthday dinner; her husband Dayton (Rhashan Stone) is much more relaxed – a bit too relaxed as far as she’s concerned, but he has helped organise more of the cooking than she realised, and he helps her calm down a bit by dancing to their favourite songs. When her sister Jasmine (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) arrives she’s sassy and combative and manages to get the guest of honour to lock herself in the bathroom, but she does have a soft spot for Beverly and Dayton’s tomboyish daughter Keisha (Donna Banya.)

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Theatre review: Three Sisters

For London's second major Three Sisters of the year the National filters Chekhov through Inua Ellams, coming up with a new play that's the same but different: Olya, Masha and Irina are now Lolo (Sarah Niles) Nne Chukwu (Natalie Simpson) and Udo (Racheal Ofori,) turn-of-the-twentieth century Russia becomes a remote part of Nigeria in the late 1960s, and the sisters long for Lagos, not Moscow. The characters have new names but in the first and fourth acts especially they follow their counterparts' trajectories closely, but it's in the middle two acts that the play most takes on a new identity. The play opens in 1967 in Biafra, at the start of what would turn out to be a failed bid for independence from Nigeria. It's youngest sister Udo's birthday, which is also the anniversary of their father's death; he was a general who moved the family from Lagos to a remote village to prepare the rebel army for the coming uprising, but with him gone they’re left with no purpose, and only soldiers for company.

Monday, 9 December 2019

Theatre review: I Wanna Be Yours

There’s a telling moment in Zia Ahmed’s I Wanna Be Yours, where poet Haseeb (Ragevan Vasan) goes on a playwrighting course aimed at encouraging more minority voices, and finds that every attempt to write about the everyday, casual racism he experiences as a Muslim is rejected, and he’s told instead to focus on bigger issues of global politics and terrorism. In that context his bittersweet romantic comedy about an interracial relationship feels like a deliberate pushback against that mindset about what people want to see in the theatre, avoiding the grand tragedies and sticking instead to the way the little daily discriminations build up to become exhausting (there is a reference to a terrorist attack on a mosque, but mainly in the context of Haseeb having to miss a dinner date so he can console his mother.) The main focus is on his relationship with Ella (Emily Stott,) an actress he meets when she leads another workshop aimed at making poets more confident reading their own work in public.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Theatre review: Dear Evan Hansen

Following The Book of Mormon and Hamilton as the hottest ticket on Broadway, it's inevitable that Steven Levenson (book,) Benj Pasek & Justin Paul's (music and lyrics) Dear Evan Hansen would make its way to the West End sooner rather than later, but there was always a question mark over whether this particular show would connect in the same way with a British audience. I can see how it might share the fate of the painfully earnest Rent, which has a dedicated UK fan base and has had a couple of decent runs here but never became what you might call an equivalent phenomenon. I have heard some Marmite responses since Michael Greif's production opened at the Noël Coward, but thanks to the way the world's been changed by the Internet - and the way it affects the musical's story - Evan Hansen's story could end up striking a chord everywhere.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Theatre review: Midnight Movie

The Royal Court has long been at the forefront of trying to put the online world on stage – most recently Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner was an award-winning hit – and now Eve Leigh’s Midnight Movie plunges us into a sleepless night’s distracted browsing. We never meet the play’s protagonist, instead we follow Avatar 1 (Nadia Nadarajah) and Avatar 2 (Tom Penn) as they tell loosely connected stories, some funny, some mystical, many with a creepy edge. The starting point is a YouTube video of a woman in a hotel elevator appearing to fight an invisible monster; when she reached the top of the building she disappeared, only to be discovered months later, drowned in a water tank the laws of physics suggest she couldn’t have got into on her own. It’s a mystery that’s consumed a lot of people’s time, including the narrator’s, who’s obsessed with finding out what really happened; but investigating it online has pitfalls.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Theatre review: Ravens: Spassky vs. Fisher

You might think that a game of chess would be hard to make a compelling stage story out of, but as Chess has been proving for the last thirty years… you’d be right. But this hasn’t dissuaded playwrighting bear Tom Morton-Smith from giving his own take on the way a board game ended up encapsulating the entire Cold War; instead of fictionalised versions and illicit affairs he goes back to the real people who, like it or not, found themselves representing the entirety of the USSR and USA in Ravens: Spassky vs. Fischer. While the Arms Race and Space Race provided the most direct dick-measuring contest between the two nations, each also attempted to dominate in fields that more obliquely showed off their strengths and values: Movies for America, while Russia had ballet, circus and chess. Boris Spassky (Ronan Raftery) is the latest in a long line of Soviet chess champions, and the first to be in serious danger of losing the title to an American, as former child prodigy Bobby Fischer (Robert Emms) has been climbing up the ranks and is now challenging him at the 1972 World Championship in Reykjavik.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Theatre review: The Boy in the Dress

With Cameron Mackintosh recently finding a loophole around having to give them a cut of the Les Misérables profits, it's not surprising if the RSC are on the lookout for another big musical earner to replace it, and join Matilda as a way of bankrolling some of their less commercial work. And it's definitely the latter show they have in mind with this new musical of David Walliams' popular children's novel The Boy in the Dress - just as Walliams' books themselves invite a Roald Dahl comparison by using Quentin Blake illustrations, so Robert Jones' colouring-book design for Gregory Doran's production instantly calls to mind the company's last big musical juggernaut. Mark Ravenhill (book,) Robbie Williams, Guy Chambers and Chris Heath's (music and lyrics) adaptation opens in a nameless English town, the setting for a family to explosively break up as a woman walks out on her husband and two young sons.