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Monday, 18 October 2021

Theatre review: Love and Other Acts of Violence

The Donald and Margot Warehouse only now reopens its venue, having used lockdown as an opportunity to do another refurbishment of the building, in part to improve accessibility. While the finishing touches were put on they of course had their summer West End residency with four versions of Constellations, and in the first new show back in Seven Dials director Elayce Ismail often nods to Michael Longhurst's now-famous staging, with a couple meeting and falling in love on a fairly bare stage, the lights flashing on and off quickly to take us from one scene to the next. But Love and Other Acts of Violence is a new play by Cordelia Lynn, a writer with a history of presenting us with horrors under a deceptively smiley face, and her couple inhabit only one reality, that's going to take them to some dark places. The unnamed couple first meet as graduate students: Tom Mothersdale's Him is an aspiring writer and enthusiastic political activist; Abigail Weinstock's Her is a gifted physicist.

Friday, 15 October 2021

Theatre review: The Tragedy of Macbeth (Almeida)

Yaël Farber has in the past few years added herself to a fairly exclusive club, considering how undiscerning my theatre bookings can seem: Creatives who are widely lauded but I've never seen the appeal of, to the point that I eventually decided just to skip their future work altogether. This is inevitably a rule I keep finding exceptions for, and in a year that's been short of major event theatre for obvious reasons, her new take on The Tragedy of Macbeth has, thanks to the London stage debut of Saoirse Ronan (I don't watch many films but I'm assured she's a Famous,) become such a hot ticket that the Almeida introduced a Byzantine new booking process especially for it. It also doesn't seem quite as risky a booking as some - one of my problems with Farber is the lack of any discernible sense of humour, and that's not often much of an issue where this play's concerned. James McArdle plays Macbeth, the Scottish warrior lord whose prowess in battle sees him promoted by King Duncan (William Gaunt).

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Theatre review: White Noise

In recent years when British theatre has dealt with race and the history of slavery, it's largely been about acknowledging that Britain even had any part in or benefited from the slave trade. America's legacy is even more entrenched in slavery and racism, but (apart from the more extreme fringe) it's widely accepted that it's a great burden of debt and shame that the nation still carries. So American plays exploring where its history puts the nation today have gone for a different trend, which often uses extreme situations and shock value to blow up the polite multicultural surface and show racial conflict as written into Americans' DNA. Suzan-Lori Parks' White Noise definitely falls into that category, presenting us with a happy quartet we can tell from the first moments are probably going to end up tearing each other to pieces. Friends since university, the two men and two women have in the past paired up in various combinations, but have ended up in two long-term, interracial couples.

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

Theatre review: Metamorphoses

With the last few outdoor shows at Shakespeare's Globe still running, the summer season concludes by taking us back inside the Swanamaker for the delayed end result of the new Scriptorium project: Billed as the first time the Globe has had a team of writers-in-residence in 400 years, the first year of the project culminated in the team of Sami Ibrahim, Laura Lomas and Sabrina Mahfouz collaborating on a play that, appropriately enough, mixes the old with the new. The stories are almost as old as they get, with a collection of Greco-Roman mythology as collected by Ovid in his Metamorphoses; the storytelling style, treating the stories with a mix of respect and irreverence, is both fresh and well-suited to the intimate space. Sean Holmes and Holly Race Roughan direct a cast of four - Steffan Donnelly, Fiona Hampton, Charlie Josephine and Irfan Shamji - who tell some of the best-known, as well as some of the more obscure myths, especially those, as the title suggests, that feature their lead characters going through a magical transformation.

Monday, 11 October 2021

Theatre review: East Is East

The National Theatre returns to having three auditoria open with a 25th anniversary revival of Ayub Khan Din's East Is East, co-produced with Birmingham Rep. It was of course already a period piece when it premiered, as it's set in 1971 - in part because it's based on the playwright's own upbringing, in part because it means a growing conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir dominates the news, and becomes an obsession for George Khan (Tony Jayawardena,) who was Indian when he first emigrated to England before Partition, but now identifies proudly as Pakistani. For his seven children though, finding an identity that they want and that also accepts them, is a lot more complicated. George left a first wife in Pakistan and still sends money back to her, but for the last 25 years he's been married to white Englishwoman Ella (Sophie Stanton,) the mother of all his children, who runs the household as well as the family's fish and chip shop.

Sunday, 10 October 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Diana the Musical

On the one hand, mere days after its release, what could I possibly have to say about Diana the Musical that hasn't already been said? On the other this is a theatre blog that, over the last 18 months, has by necessity had to diversify into a lot more on-screen theatre, and it's one hell of an elephant in the room to try and ignore: David Bryan (music and lyrics) and Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) have collaborated on musicals before, scoring a big international success with Memphis and more of a cult hit with The Toxic Avenger. Their latest work hits some kind of cursèd sweet spot between "obvious cynical moneymaker" and "obvious terrible idea" to give the musical treatment to the life of Diana, Princess of Wales (Jeanna de Waal,) and especially her miserable marriage to Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf.) As if what Diana's life really needed was another car crash.

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Theatre review: Hamlet (Young Vic)

Returning to the London stage after a few years of fighting The Good Fight and, more dangerously, The Good Wife in America, Cush Jumbo comes to the Young Vic to play Hamlet for Greg Hersov, a director she worked with a lot in the past when he was Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange in Manchester. There's centuries' worth of tradition of women taking on the role, as well as black actors more recently, but I think she might be making history as the first woman of colour to do it in a major London production. There was never much doubt that she was up to the task, and she gives a powerful performance; but while Hamlet remains my favourite Shakespeare play on account of how infinitely flexible it is, it is of course performed very often because it's seen as such a pinnacle of an actor's career. And this was one of those productions that made me wonder - outside of wanting to give an actor their shot at the big role, what was the reason for staging this particular production, at this time?

Monday, 4 October 2021

Theatre review: Is God Is

The Royal Court is currently offering up two shows a night on its main stage, and if What If If Only is concerned with wishing someone would return from the dead, Is God Is opens with just that happening: Twins Racine (Tamara Lawrance) and Anaia (Adelayo Adedayo) thought their mother had died in the same fire that left them both scarred, until they get a letter from her. Even more horrifically burnt, she's been clinging on to life in a convalescent home for 18 years, but now she thinks her time is finally up, and she wants to see her daughters. From her deathbed, their mother (Cecilia Noble) gives them the full story of how their father tried to burn her to death because she "wouldn't hold him," and asks for one favour before she goes: They need to find him, kill him (ideally breaking his spirit first,) and bring her back a bloody trophy to prove that he's gone. The hot-headed Racine and more reserved, thoughtful Anaia head off to California, letting no-one stand in their way.

Theatre review: What If If Only

If Caryl Churchill's career wasn't already distinguished enough, in recent years it's also become notable for her work's increasing brevity - slowly but surely she's moving towards the point where she can emotionally devastate you in under a minute. What If If Only brings us to the 20-minute mark (positively epic compared to the 14 minutes originally advertised,) and it manages a feat that's both impressive and, annoyingly, virtually impossible to convey in a review: Being completely nebulous in its content, yet crystal clear in its intentions and emotional impact. In Churchill's surreal, political ghost story, Someone (John Heffernan) is at his dinner table mourning the loss of a loved one to suicide, still talking to them and wishing they could return. A ghost does materialise with some resemblance to the person he lost, but she's not quite right - she's older, like a future version who never got to exist.

Sunday, 3 October 2021

Theatre review: The Mirror and the Light

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The official press night is this Wednesday.

When the RSC staged Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the first two novels in Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy, the final volume had yet to be published. So it's taken seven years for The Mirror and the Light to make it to the stage, and unlike the other two this installment skips a Stratford-upon-Avon premiere to open straight in the West End. Mantel herself, co-writing with the returning lead actor Ben Miles, takes over adaptation duties from Mike Poulton, and at times the absence of a more experienced playwriting hand is felt in the tying together of plot strands as Miles' Cromwell continues trying to satisfy the many intricacies and demands of Henry VIII's (Nathaniel Parker) court, while fighting off the constant machinations of nobles who still resent his rise from commoner to the King's most trusted aide. At least when we rejoin the story the usual problem of finding Henry another wife has been (for the time being) resolved.

Saturday, 2 October 2021

Theatre review: How To Survive An Apocalypse

After a longer closure than most theatres, and not one but two productions of Not Quite Jerusalem getting postponed by Covid, the Finborough finally reopens, at a reduced capacity due to the venue's intimacy (so, only four people per three-seater bench.) With that relaunch show falling foul of a positive test result, we're straight in to one of the Finborough's familiar remits, that promotes work from Canadian playwrights. And Jordan Hall's How To Survive An Apocalypse does have a suitably ironic title for a theatre coming out of lockdown, although it dates from 2016; and while there's little about it that couldn't happen today, Jimmy Walters' production doesn't update the timeline. Probably because no mention of Covid would be unusual in a play whose characters start to become obsessed with possible world-ending scenarios. To start with, though, the lives they're used to are under threat from much more mundane financial pressures.

Thursday, 30 September 2021

Theatre review: Blithe Spirit

The latest West End outing for Blithe Spirit is a show I was perhaps looking forward to more when it became one of my first casualties of lockdown, than I was by the time Richard Eyre's Bath production finally made it back to London. In large part this is probably because in the interim I listened to an audio version that ended up being my favourite out of any version I'd actually seen on stage, and likely hard to beat. Now at the Pinter Theatre, a decent-sized but far from packed audience suggests that despite being perhaps the best-loved Noël Coward play, there's still maybe not the appetite for quite how frequently it ectoplasmically manifests itself. Still, it's always someone's first time, and Vanessa was unfamiliar with the play about Charles Condomine (Geoffrey Streatfeild,) a writer who tries to research fraudulent psychics for his new book, by inviting a local eccentric to hold a séance.

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Theatre review: The Normal Heart

A couple of years ago the National Theatre scored one of the biggest hits of the RuNo era with its revival of the iconic American AIDS play, Angels in America. Now the reconfigured Olivier plays host to an earlier work that it's probably safe to say is the seminal work of the genre. First seen in 1985, Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart never actually mentions AIDS - not out of any artistic choice, but because we're dealing with a time when the authorities were loath to admit there even was a disease that seemed to be targeting New York's gay men, let alone give it a name. Far from the magical realism of Tony Kushner's epic, Kramer's play deals very much with the down-to-earth. And while Vicki Mortimer's set is dominated by a memorial eternal flame for the victims, and the play is far from short on heartbreak, the main emotion is anger and frustration at a bureaucratic brick wall; one that seems increasingly purpose-built to help purge Reagan's America of a population it would rather see the back of.

Thursday, 23 September 2021

Theatre review: Back to the Future

A perennial contender for the title of best movie ever made, Back to the Future never seemed like an obvious candidate for a musical theatre makeover, but given its popularity it was bound to happen at some point. If it's taken this long it's because, ironically, it's proven very bad at turning up on stage on time: Originally intended to open in 2015 to coincide with the date they visit in the first sequel, the long gestation period of musicals (including a well-publicised setback when Jamie Lloyd pulled out of directing duties) meant a further five years' delay, giving it an opening of... spring 2020. That Manchester run got cut short like everything else last year, and its return skipped Manchester entirely to open straight in the West End. Only for it to close again soon after Press Night when too many cast and crew members tested positive for Covid. I wasn't sure until the last minute that I'd actually get to see the show tonight but, still with a few understudies in place, performances started again yesterday.

Monday, 20 September 2021

Theatre review: NW Trilogy

When Indhu Rubasingham took over what was then called the Tricycle Theatre, she did so with a manifesto of reflecting and celebrating the cultural diversity of its North London home. It's a promise her programming has kept to, and in my first trip back to what is now the Kiln she throws a lot of that diversity together in a single night, commissioning three playwrights to celebrate the history of three of the communities that have called Kilburn home in the last century. Directed by Susie McKenna and Taio Lawson, NW Trilogy has an overall epic scope, touching on a couple of events of cultural and political significance, but the individual stories are intimate and personal, and - whether this was a conscious part of the commission or a coincidence - all feature to a greater or lesser extent music and dance as a way of connecting the characters to their wider communities.

Sunday, 19 September 2021

Stage-to-screen review:
Everybody's Talking About Jamie

I loved Everybody's Talking About Jamie when it first transferred to London, but I did worry how long it would last without star names attached. As it turns out, it eventually took a pandemic to knock it off the West End stage, and while its recent return to the Apollo was short, its London run is officially only "paused," while a UK tour goes on, and a North American premiere is on the cards. And then there's this from the original creative team of writers Dan Gillespie Sells (music) and Tom MacRae (book and lyrics,) director Jonathan Butterell and choreographer Kate Prince, who've decided to turn it into something incredibly rare and precious: A movie musical without James Corden in it. There's a new, slightly starrier cast taking on the central roles, although a few of the original stage performers get cameo appearances, as do Jamie and Margaret Campbell, the story's original inspiration.

Thursday, 16 September 2021

Theatre review: Camp Siegfried

The Old Vic's latest show is to a great degree being sold as the opportunity to see a pair of the most promising young British* actors on stage together before their careers go stellar, although for London theatre regulars Patsy Ferran and Luke Thallon have been star names for a while (Future Dame Patsy Ferran's even got the Olivier to back it up.) They play the nameless teenagers spending the summer at Camp Siegfried in Bess Wohl's play inspired by a real Long Island summer camp of the 1930s. Named after the Wagnerian hero and aimed at American families of German extraction, it targeted young people still being made fun of for Germany losing the First World War, and aimed to use that sense of victimhood to indoctrinate them into Nazi ideology. But as the play opens at the start of summer the camp's more sinister purpose is very far in the background, as Thallon''s cocky Him spots Ferran's awkward newcomer Her at a dance, and they try to flirt over the sound of an oompah band.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Radio review: Othello

Nowadays the title character of Othello is pretty much universally seen as being a black man (and given some of the specific racist language in the play, I tend to agree that's probably what Shakespeare had in mind,) but the word "Moor" was pretty loosely defined at the time, and as well as Africans could encompass anyone Middle-Eastern or Muslim. This is the angle Emma Harding takes for another of her very specific, modern day Shakespeare adaptations, which first aired on Radio 3 in 2020: Othello (Khalid Abdalla) is a Muslim who converted to Christianity, his military skill seeing him quickly rise to the position of General in the Venetian army. Not previously romantically inclined, he's just eloped with the young noblewoman Desdemona (Cassie Layton) when he's given an urgent command: Turkey has sent forces in to recapture Cyprus, and Othello must lead the counterattack.

Thursday, 9 September 2021

Theatre review: Frozen

In what will with any luck be the start of me regularly going to the theatre with actual, human friends again, it's a twice-postponed trip with my resident Disney© queens Phill and Alex, and third time lucky takes us to the refurbished* Theatre Royal Drury Lane for Frozen. The wildly popular, very loose adaptation of The Snow Queen comes to the stage in a production directed by Michael Grandage and designed by Christopher Oram, but the look and feel of Jennifer Lee (book,) Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez' (music and lyrics) show never strays too far from the original movie. Understandably so - the film and its signature song are notoriously like catnip to little girls, so this probably isn't the show to get all experimental with†". Elsa (Samantha Barks) is heir to the throne of the Scandinavian-inspired kingdom of Arendelle, but since her parents' death she's been a recluse, even from her beloved younger sister Anna (Stephanie McKeon.)

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Theatre review: Rockets and Blue Lights

Winsome Pinnock's Rockets and Blue Lights takes its title from a JMW Turner painting, but its subject revolves around a different one of the painter's seascapes, unveiled in the same year and possibly a kind of companion piece: Best-known as The Slave Ship, it shows the aftermath of a slave ship (possibly the Zong) jettisoning its human "cargo" in a storm. It was part of the backlash against slavery that led to abolition in British territories, and the painting and its ambiguities - is Turner's not showing the bodies of the victims letting the viewer off the hook, or forcing them to imagine horrors he can't satisfactorily put to canvas? - becomes a recurring symbol, and a starting-off point for trying to reframe the narrative: Instead of making abolition a cause for self-congratulation, looking at the legacy of slavery both at the time and down the generations.