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Tuesday 18 June 2024

Theatre review: Babies

The Other Palace has managed to combine its remit to discover new British musicals with the high school musicals that have been its bread and butter in recent years: Martha Geelan (book) and Jack Godfrey's (music & lyrics) Babies isn't even an adaptation of an existing property, although its premise has been a mainstay of teen TV drama since even I was a teenager: Back then it would most likely have been an egg that each of a class full of kids would have been given to look after as if it was a baby; here Year 11 are delivered a shipment of hi-tech Japanese dolls that cry like real infants and need feeding and care. The class have to look after them for a week while juggling all their usual schoolwork, a cautionary project meant to put them off becoming single teen parents for real, as the entirety of the year above them seem to have done.

Saturday 15 June 2024

Theatre review: The Merry Wives of Windsor (RSC/RST)

Known for being particularly good with some of the lesser-loved Shakespeares, Blanche McIntyre returns to Stratford-upon-Avon for the new RSC regime's first season. And in the first half at least, The Merry Wives of Windsor justifies its place as very few people's favourite: While the popular myth of Elizabeth I demanding to see Falstaff in love seems very unlikely, it does feel probable that this Henry IV spin-off was written because of popular demand, and its mix of characters from a very different world with a whole bunch of new comic foils begins as a tangle of plots, tricks and misunderstandings. There's even a very tedious version of the Twelfth Night subplot about convincing two different types of idiot that the other wants to duel them to the death, which even the characters get openly and mercifully bored with and ditch after the first couple of acts.

Thursday 13 June 2024

Theatre review: English

Marking both one of the last shows from Indhu Rubasingham at the Kiln, and one of the first from the Harvey/Evans regime at the RSC, this co-production of Sanaz Toossi's English is a great reflection on both companies. A play about language and identity, this was the 2023 Pulitzer winner for drama, and marks another year to buck the trend of underwhelming winners of that prize. Some while ago Marjan (Nadia Albina) spent nine years living in Manchester, before returning to her native Iran. She's married and settled now, but is constantly trying to reconnect with how she felt then, which she does by teaching English classes. Over a five-week course she helps four adults prepare for their TOEFL exam in a classroom she optimistically announces will be a Farsi-free zone (the fact that the play uses the conceit of the actors speaking English in Iranian accents, with "Farsi" represented by English in their own accents, tells you how successful they are at sticking to this.)

Wednesday 12 June 2024

Theatre review:
Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White

Alice Childress' 1966 play about segregation Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White is set in South Carolina in 1918, and the fact that it's the final year of the First World War is a constant underlying theme: Black soldiers like Lula's (Diveen Henry) adopted son Nelson (Patrick Martins) and sailors like Mattie's (Bethan Mary-James) husband are fighting the same as white Americans and risking their lives the same, but in an upcoming celebration Nelson will, like the rest of the black troops, have to add himself to the end of the parade uninvited; and when the war ends, however much they try to convince themselves otherwise, they know their contribution won't be recognised by allowing them into the spaces they're currently forbidden from. But if Lula and Mattie think they've seen it all, their new neighbour will confront them with one more taboo.

Tuesday 11 June 2024

Theatre review: Passing Strange

Ben Stones' white wedge of a set, with four musicians stationed around the stage along with the odd prop and piece of furniture, clues the audience in from the start to the fact that we're in for a night of gig theatre. The fact that it opens with a quartet of backing singers arriving on stage to find the star turn hasn't shown up yet, and it takes a few blackouts and resets for the Narrator (Giles Terera) to kick proceedings off, correctly lets us know that there's also a chaotic element in store: Stew Stewart (book, music & lyrics) and Heidi Rodewald's (music) 1970s-'80s-set coming-of-age musical Passing Strange pretty much plays by no other rules than its own. The Narrator introduces himself as Stew so from the start it's implied this piece will be autobiographical, and that he himself is an older version of our young protagonist.

Sunday 9 June 2024

Theatre review: Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare's Globe)

Apparently Shakespeare's Globe is out of the worst of its post-lockdown budget hole, which hopefully means Michelle Terry (who let's not forget chucked The Two Noble Kinsmen into her inaugural season) won't be quite as obliged to programme just the hits, which has essentially seen the venue having to reboot A Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado About Nothing in alternate years. But for the time being it's an even-numbered year so I guess it's the latter they have to find a new take on, even as Lucy Bailey's production still feels fresh in my memory. At least Much Ado is a play the Globe rarely seems to fudge, and Sean Holmes' take on it is no exception. Grace Smart's design seems to take inspiration from the text's laboured pun on Seville oranges to set the action in an orange grove, and the cast seem to be liberally handing out fruit to the groundlings in a production that makes particularly good use of the shared space with the audience.

Friday 7 June 2024

Theatre review:
Fun at the Beach Romp-Bomp-a-Lomp!!

It's a week of exclamation marks in theatre and I wonder if the creators of the latest musical parody to hit the stage are unaware of musical theatre history, or just deliberately flying in the face of it: Because famously Oliver Exclamation Mark was an enduring hit, but when Lionel Bart followed it up with Twang Exclamation Mark Exclamation Mark that went so badly that, to my knowledge, nobody's ever even been allowed to revive it even as a curiosity. So with Kathy & Stella Solve a Murder Exclamation Mark opening in the West End, are Brandon Lambert (music and lyrics) and Martin Landry (book) setting themselves up to be the catastrophic flipside at Southwark Playhouse with Fun at the Beach Romp-Bomp-a-Lomp Exclamation Mark Exclamation Mark? Well... a bit.

Thursday 6 June 2024

Theatre review: The Harmony Test

Writer Richard Molloy and director Alice Hamilton were the team behind low-key favourite Every Day I Make Greatness Happen in 2018 so their return to Hampstead Downstairs has to be worth a look: The Harmony Test takes us out of the classroom and into the kitchen, but if kids don't show up on stage they're on everyone's minds: Kash (Bally Gill) and Zoe (Pearl Chanda) are trying for a baby; their friends Naomi (Jemima Rooper) and Charlie's (Milo Twomey) only daughter has gone to university, leaving them wondering what's next. Charlie makes an offhand suggestion that Naomi join a gym to get her endorphin hit, something she does with gusto - almost immediately starting an affair with greased-up personal trainer Rocco (Sandro Rosta.) She leaves her husband and moves into Zoe and Kash's spare room, just as the couple get some major news.

Tuesday 4 June 2024

Theatre review: Kathy & Stella Solve a Murder!

I've listened to many podcasts since the pandemic but they've never included the true crime ones that seem to be the most popular genre out there. Still, I know how big they are and can see some of the attraction of digging into cold cases for new clues - after all the mix of morbid curiosity and trying to find sense in the senseless has always been popular in other media, why not this one? I suppose this means a musical about a true crime podcast was only a matter of time, and Jon Brittain (book & lyrics) and Matthew Floyd Jones' (music & lyrics) Kathy & Stella Solve a Murder Exclamation Mark had been a big Edinburgh fringe hit before this London transfer. Kathy (Bronté Barbé) and Stella (Rebekah Hinds) grew up at a time when the hunt for a serial killer called the Hull Decapitator was dominating the city, and this fed into a love for all things gory that turned into a lifelong friendship.

Saturday 1 June 2024

Theatre review: Suite in Three Keys -
A Song at Twilight

The third and final play in Noël Coward's Suite in Three Keys is a full-length one, so it plays on its own in Tom Littler's revival of these late dramas. A Song at Twilight is, at least in Littler's production, the part of the trilogy that most acknowledges the fact that the Sixties are starting to swing. Well, ageing Hollywood starlet Carlotta (Tara Fitzgerald) acknowledges it, anyway, sporting the most preposterous and gravity-defying of Chris Smyth's wigs for these shows, enjoying the sound of pop songs playing outside the window, and firmly believing that an overhaul of social opinion on sexuality is overdue. But the man she's visiting (in Louie Whitemore's Swiss hotel suite that the story shares with the earlier double bill) is the sort to slam the windows shut against the noise, and certainly one who'd rather keep certain things behind closed doors.

Theatre review: Suite in Three Keys -
Shadows of the Evening and
Come into the Garden, Maud

The Orange Tree marks the 50th anniversary of Noël Coward's death by staging very nearly his last works for the stage, the trilogy Suite in Three Keys. The plays are performed as originally intended, in a double bill alternating with the third, longer play, all set in the mid-1960s in the same luxury suite of a Lausanne hotel. And there's a distinctly unpromising start as we open with the damp squib of a drama Shadows of the Evening, apparently such a critical flop it got ditched entirely when the original production transferred to Broadway. George (Stephen Boxer) has lived with his lover Linda (Tara Fitzgerald) for several years after leaving his wife: Anne (Emma Fielding) has stayed on relatively good terms with them for the sake of her children, except for the fact that she's refused to grant him a divorce in all that time. Now Linda, at one time Anne's friend, has asked her to come urgently from London to Switzerland.

Thursday 30 May 2024

Theatre review: Spirited Away

All of a sudden London theatre seems to have cottoned on to the popularity of East Asian culture, so in the coming months we've got the return of Totoro, new musicals with Korean and Manga roots, and first up another adaptation of a beloved Studio Ghibli film. Spirited Away comes to the Coliseum in John Caird's original Tokyo production, in Japanese with surtitles. Like many a Hayao Miyazaki story it begins with a child nervous about moving to a new home: Chihiro's (Momoko Fukuchi, alternating with Kanna Hashimoto, Mone Kamishiraishi and Rina Kawaei) family are driving to a new town when they stop off to check out an ancient building. Once inside they find a market full of food stalls but nobody manning them, so Chihiro's parents help themselves, promising to pay once somebody arrives. But as night falls the market will transform into a place for 8 million gods to congregate in, and as fairytale logic applies the parents will be transformed into pigs for their gluttony.

Tuesday 28 May 2024

Theatre review: Boys from the Blackstuff

Alan Bleasdale's Boys from the Blackstuff has become the stuff of legend, so even though I've never seen it - even if I'd been living in the UK at the time, I'd have been seven when the original TV series aired in 1982 - there's many iconic images and catchphrases from the show I'm familiar with. An early and influential critique of Thatcher's Britain, I won't go into the reasons a story about the unemployed being both left without a safety net and blamed for their predicament seems ripe to revisit today - we'd be here all night. I guess if you want to tell a story about men who just want to work there's some logic to getting an officially diagnosed workaholic to do it, so James Graham is on adaptation duties for Kate Wasserberg's production, which debuted at Liverpool's Royal Court before this brief run at the National, with a West End run coming next due to high demand.

Sunday 26 May 2024

Theatre review: Hamlet (Riverside Studios)

Following last year's solo Great Expectations, Eddie Izzard returns to the stage, once again with her older brother Mark adapting a famous work into a monologue. This time, though, instead of a novel with a fair amount of first-person narration to keep the story going, it's Shakespeare's most lauded tragedy Hamlet, a story that's already written for the stage. So the source material is all dialogue, leaving it entirely down to the performer to make sure the audience knows who's saying what to whom. Eddie Izzard does of course have a lot of acting credits but remains best known as a comedian, and if she's previously performed Shakespeare professionally I can't find any reference to it, so this endeavour has to fall somewhere between ambitious and foolhardy, with the distinct possibility of coming across as pure vanity project. What we get in the end is a little bit of all of the above.

Friday 24 May 2024

Theatre review: Twelfth Night, or What You Will
(Regent's Park Open Air Theatre)

Well it's a good job I'm already more than familiar with the plot of this one, because any show featuring Nicholas Karimi as a sugar daddy in a low-cut top is going to be a tricky one to remember anything else about. Drew McOnie's first season of programming at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre starts with Twelfth Night, but it does share a thematic connection with his predecessor's final production, La Cage Aux Folles: Owen Horsley sets his production in a faded cabaret club, and even gives us a drag queen version of Sir Toby Belch. If the club's not heaving with customers it's probably because the owner, Olivia (Anna Francolini) has imposed a lengthy period of mourning for her dead brother, whose ashes she carries around with her everywhere, addressing her soliloquies to the urn. One regular patron is Orsino (Raphael Bushay,) who's performatively in love with Olivia, and keeps hoping despite all signs to the contrary that he might be able to woo her.

Thursday 23 May 2024

Theatre review: Richard III (Shakespeare's Globe)

I'm starting 2024's summer Globe season with the venue's now-traditional, annual raging controversy: For a change this involves protests about the casting not being inclusive enough, rather than the usual protests about it being too inclusive. Artistic Director Michelle Terry's contract requires her to take a role in at least one show per season, and this year that was the title role in Richard III, a role written as disabled, traditionally played by able-bodied actors (often as grotesques) and in recent years reclaimed as a plum role for actors with disabilities. It's a tricky one, and with many disabled actors speaking out against Terry you've got to take that into consideration, but at the same time it seems like making an example of an easy target, and someone who's spent years putting disabled actors, among other minority groups, into other iconic roles that aren't explicitly written for them.

Tuesday 21 May 2024

Theatre review: Sappho

Not much is known about Sappho, the ancient Greek poet from Lesbos, except for the fact that what little survives of her work often consists of romantic verse about other women - hence her inspiring both the terms "sapphic" and "lesbian." So Wendy Beckett has carte blanche to create her for her play Sappho, which imagines her falling for a woman while trying to get out of an arranged marriage to a young boy. Why, then, she's chosen to make her such a wet blanket who barely seems to register in her own play until the end is a mystery. Sappho (Georgie Fellows) has an adoring coterie of young women who love her poetry, but she's only interested in Adore (Eleanor Kane.)

Saturday 18 May 2024

Theatre review: Love's Labour's Lost (RSC/RST)

I would rather see a show relatively early in its run, especially since I review them online and people could read my recommendations and decide what to see based on them (stop laughing at the back, I've been assured it happened once.) But sometimes between rail strikes and me being busy the rest of the run I end up in Stratford-upon-Avon for the final matinée, so you're reading this after the run's ended, sorry if you fancied it. And yes, speaking of fancying, the star name here is Luke Thompson, who for the last eleven years I've been watching on stage have his clothes fall off on the slightest pretext with such regularity it can't all just be down to thirsty directors, he's got to be initiating some of it himself. In an unrelated matter, the show that's now given him above-the-title star status is Bridgerton. In any case, it's also always interesting to see what a new regime at one of the major theatres has chosen as its opening production.

Thursday 16 May 2024

Theatre review: Between Riverside and Crazy

Most actors take a bit of a break after playing King Lear; Danny Sapani barely seems to have taken a breath between his run at the Almeida and another intense, deeply damaged leading man at Hampstead, in Stephen Adly Guirgis' 2014 play Between Riverside and Crazy. Eight years ago Walter "Pops" Washington (Sapani) had to retire from the NYPD after being shot six times by a rookie cop - not actually in the line of duty, although his former employers have more or less treated him as if he was. But Pops has turned down every compensation offer they've ever made, preferring to continue being a thorn in their side and an embarrassment to them, who's still convinced he can get a settlement worth millions. Now Pops' wife has died after a long illness, and he's filled his large rent-controlled apartment with a collection of ex-cons he's trying to help reform.

Tuesday 14 May 2024

Theatre review: Captain Amazing

Captain Amazing dates from ten years ago, so it's just before playwright Alistair McDowell was a big enough name to get the budget for eldritch abominations, deep space mysteries and time-travelling mythical figures. But while it's a monologue dealing with very down-to-earth causes for joy and despair, it's still couched in terms of an SF world - in this case that of comic-book superheroes. Mark Weinman appears in jeans and a T-shirt, along with a long red cape as he takes us through a decade or so of the life of a man, also called Mark, who's been drunkenly pestering people in a club, insisting he's the titular hero. What led him to this point begins at his job in B&Q, helping a customer who will eventually become his wife. Sooner than they might have expected they become parents, and Mark is a devoted dad although not necessarily one who feels he knows what he's doing - especially once the marriage starts to break down.