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Saturday 24 February 2024

Theatre review: Just For One Day

I've got to say I found the idea of Just For One Day a bit baffling, and having now seen John O'Farrell's jukebox musical setting the story behind the scenes of Live Aid to songs from the setlist, I still feel a bit vague about what exactly's going on at the Old Vic at the moment. I want to say the framing device is a young woman in the present day, Jemma (Naomi Katiyo) wanting to know more about the event for, I guess, a history project, but the use of multiple narrators muddles this. She gets help from Suzanne (Retired Lesbian Jackie Clune,) who was at Wembley for the concert, as well as Bob Geldof (Craige Els) himself, who for some reason is available to give the inside scoop. So in 1984 Bob sees a news report about a famine in Ethiopia and is horrified - by the suffering, the general indifference and lack of aid from wealthier nations, and from the fact that while he knows others will be upset by the story as well, it'll soon be forgotten by most people when the news cycle moves on.

Thursday 22 February 2024

Theatre review: Double Feature

John Logan has written two major West End plays (plus wrangled the general madness of Moulin Rouge,) so a third is to be approached with a mix of excitement and trepidation, as I loved one of his previous plays and hated the other. Fortunately while his latest premiere isn't the instant classic that Red was, it also never threatens anything like the tedium of Peter and Alice. Logan is best-known as a screenwriter, and it's in the movies where he's found his inspiration for Double Feature. Particularly in the spiky relationships between actors and directors, as he gives us two pairings behind the scenes of famous movies: Anthony Ward's set is a dimly-lit Suffolk cottage, an authentically old building in the countryside that a studio has given young director Michael Reeves (Rowan Polonski) to stay in while he shoots the grisly 1967 horror movie Witchfinder General.

Wednesday 21 February 2024

Theatre review: An Enemy of the People

Trigger Warning: This review contains references to an actor who doesn't really seem to understand what trigger warnings are for.

Paul Hilton has catapulted himself across the river and straight from one Ibsen play into another, as the corrupt mayor in Thomas Ostermeier, Florian Borchmeyer and Duncan Macmillan's adaptation of the overtly political An Enemy of the People. Matt Smith is the star turn in Ostermeier's production, playing Thomas Stockmann, the (medical) doctor who works at a spa known for its borderline miraculous water, and which is at the heart of a small town's economy. But an industrial complex that was built a few years earlier has been polluting the waters, and Thomas has just completed a study proving as much. He informs his brother Peter (Hilton,) the town's mayor, but doesn't get the enthusiastic spring into action he's rather naïvely expecting: Closing the springs to make repairs wouldn't make the shareholders too happy.

Monday 19 February 2024

Theatre review: The Frogs

I've seen two previous shows from Spymonkey, the veteran physical comedy troupe who tend to be a lot more hit than miss. Even if I wasn't seeing it on a quiet Monday night their latest show would come across as a little less full-on than the others though, as it comes with an added element of melancholy as the established quartet is now a duo: Petra Massey has left the company and Stephan Kreiss died suddenly in 2021, so there's an added significance to the remaining pair of Toby Park and Aitor Basauri tackling Aristophanes' The Frogs, itself written in reaction to the death of a beloved theatrical figure. That figure is Euripides, the Greek tragedian who'd died a year before Aristophanes premiered this parody of a heroic quest. With him gone Dionysus, Olympian god of drama (Park) thinks theatre is doomed, and decides to get him back.

Saturday 17 February 2024

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream
(RSC/RST)

When a theatre decides when to schedule A Midsummer Night's Dream they tend to do so with a fairly literal approach to the title; if it shows up out of season that usually means we're in for one of the "darker and edgier" takes that honestly believes it's the first production ever to notice the line "I wooed thee with my sword" and proceeds to apply it to every scene, Joe. So it's refreshing to see Eleanor Rhode's new RSC production - the last Shakespeare of Erica Whyman's interregnum period - open in a very different way: The lines about winning love with injury are still there, but their context feels a lot less personal. The Duke of Athens and Queen of the Amazons' wedding is definitely an arranged one made as part of a peace treaty, but both of them are pawns in this situation, and Bally Gill's sweetly awkward Theseus is clearly intimidated by Sirine Saba's businesslike Hippolyta.

Thursday 15 February 2024

Theatre review: Plaza Suite

Back at the theatre after another unscheduled, Covid-related break of a couple of weeks, and it's to one of the year's first London visits from big US names: Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick are the real-life couple playing three different pairs in Neil Simon's Plaza Suite. Wonder if they'll explore the country while they're here? Probably best to steer clear of Liverpool, that's Cattrall country. And hopefully he won't be driving. Anyway, John Benjamin Hickey directs Simon's portmanteau of stories taking place at the end of the 1960s in the same suite of New York's Plaza Hotel overlooking Central Park. For the first couple it's a significant location - if Parker's Karen has got the right room, that is: She and her husband Sam are staying there for the night while their house gets redecorated, but she's decided to surprise him for their anniversary by booking the same suite they stayed in on honeymoon.

Thursday 1 February 2024

Theatre review: Othello (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Interesting times to be visiting the Globe, the venue that can do everything except draft a press release that doesn't dig them into a deeper hole. Ola Ince is looking like one of those directors who can reinvent a Shakespeare play to fit a very specific modern-day issue, and actually follow through with the idea. After her 2021 Romeo & Juliet was filtered through the way Tory cuts would have caused every beat of the story, her Othello in the Swanamaker becomes about racism in the Metropolitan Police, and some of the language is modified to match this setting: Othello is no longer referred to as the General but the Guvnor, Desdemona is usually called Desi, one of the story's inciting incidents now involves Othello choosing an Eton old boy as his new Inspector rather than a more experienced cop, and instead of a military action from Venice to Cyprus, the characters from Scotland Yard are going on an undercover cartel bust in Docklands.

Tuesday 30 January 2024

Theatre review: Cruel Intentions: The '90s Musical

My third show in a row to make liberal use of bisexual lighting, Roger Kumble, Lindsey Rosin and Jordan Ross' Cruel Intentions: The '90s Musical is based on Kumble's 1999 film, which is based on Stephen Frears' 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons, which is based on Christopher Hampton's 1985 play Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which is based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 novel. But yeah, as the subtitle says, we're very much sticking with the 90s teens here, and the version that famously starred Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon, and Ryan Phillippe's arse. Set in a New York private high school for the rich, bored and terminally horny, Sebastian Valmont (Daniel Bravo, whose parents Johnny and Juliet must be very proud,) is the resident fuckboi whose bad reputation precedes him. His step-sister Kathryn Merteuil (Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky) is the class president and golden girl.

Monday 29 January 2024

Theatre review: Cowbois

Considering that attempting a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon amid rolling rail strikes is a bit of a coin-toss, I decided not to book for the RSC's Cowbois last year, fairly confident that we'd get a chance to see it transfer to London. Given the creative team I would have guessed the Globe, but instead the Royal Court gets Charlie Josephine's queer fantasy Western. Co-directed by Josephine and Sean Holmes, whose signature style of letting the actors use their own accents even in plays where you'd expect a very specific one means the Wild West is populated with voices from every corner of the UK and Ireland, the action takes place in a little town built on principles of acceptance and equality. Whether that's how it actually plays out when the men are around is a different story, but right now they're not: Most of the men left over a year ago to go prospecting for gold, and with no word from them and news of a cave-in, they're presumed dead.

Saturday 27 January 2024

Theatre review: Northanger Abbey

It's no great insight to say people in this country, and probably most of the world, love Jane Austen's stories in the original novels and the many stage and screen adaptations, but maybe we love metatextual Austen just as much: We've had Lost In Austen, The Watsons, and now Zoe Cooper's queered-up interpretation of the beloved author's swipe at the lurid gothic novels that were all the rage in her day: Northanger Abbey isn't the most famous of the books - it was one I never got round to reading, and I don't think I've even seen an adaptation before, given how unfamiliar the story was to me. Then again I'm sure some of the places Cooper takes her heroine would have been unfamiliar to the 18th century author herself, if not outright sent her straight to her fainting couch. Stripped down to a three-person show, Cooper puts Catherine Morland, aka Cath (Rebecca Banatvala) in charge of telling us her own story.

Thursday 25 January 2024

Theatre review: Afterglow

S. Asher Gelman's Afterglow was a big success for Southwark Playhouse a few years ago, so with theatres still needing a few bankable hits to keep them afloat, maybe it's not entirely surprising if a show about three attractive men who shower on stage a lot, and also some other stuff happens probably, is back in The Large for another run*. And if I'm sounding judgemental about the "sex sells" policy, regular readers of this blog will both know I am absolutely the target audience for this, or why else would I be back for a play whose actual merits I was always fairly ambivalent about in the first place? Broadway director Josh (Peter McPherson) and his husband Alex (Victor Hugo,) who is a Something Something Chemistry, have an open relationship which has always seemed to work well for them - their marriage is happy and stable, and they're about to have a baby with a surrogate.

Tuesday 23 January 2024

Theatre review: Blood On Your Hands

Blood was nearly spilt before the show even started, as we got to ten minutes after the advertised start time and the twentieth repetition of the 60-second loop of funereal accordion music on the speakers. But officially the villain of Grace Joy Howarth's Blood On Your Hands is the meat industry, not The Araby Bazaar's sound design. Dan (Phillip John Jones) and Konstyantyn (Shannon Smith) are slaughterhouse workers who meet on their lunch break: The latter is a Ukrainian vet who's just arrived in Wales, taking on a grim minimum wage job until he can get himself settled and bring his family over. The former is a local who, after making some mistakes in his teens, has struggled to find anything better and has been in the job for five years. Most mornings they go into work to the sound of vegans protesting outside the abattoir.

Saturday 20 January 2024

Stage-to-screen review: Hamlet (Bristol Old Vic / BBC)

It's been a couple of years since I last saw a full production of Hamlet, and with a while yet before the next major one is due (now watch as another gets announced the second after I click Publish,) it seemed as good a time as any to check out the version the BBC offered up recently as part of their First Folio season. This was John Haidar's 2022 production at the Bristol Old Vic, one that had caught my eye for casting real-life husband and wife Finbar Lynch and Niamh Cusack as the king and queen of Denmark. Haidar didn't cast Calam Lynch in the lead to complete the family set, but instead Billy Howle plays Hamlet, the prince of Denmark who's moping quietly at the start of the play after his father's sudden death. Alex Eales' set is slickly black and I want to call Natalie Pryce's costumes modern-dress, except the characters' tech is very Nineties: Hamlet loves soliloquising into his dictaphone, and "The Mousetrap" is interrupted when Polonius' pager goes off.

Thursday 18 January 2024

Theatre review: Ķīn

Mixing outgoing National Theatre boss RuNo's intention of making it more of an international theatre, with an ambition to give different performance styles a chance in the main stages, physical theatre company Gecko's show Ķīn uses an international cast and dance-like style to tell stories of immigration over the last century. Although whether any actual stories end up getting told in the process might be a matter of opinion. Devising performer Amit Lahav's show takes as its inspiration the story of his real grandmother, who as a young girl in the 1930s fled Yemen for Palestine. We begin with a Jewish family fleeing persecution - they're chased away by officials painting yellow streaks onto their coats - before various encounters with malicious border guards and an eventual arrival in a modest home that offers safety for a while.

Tuesday 16 January 2024

Theatre review: Kim's Convenience

The Park's main house kicks off the year with what looks like a surefire hit: Not only was tonight's performance pretty packed, but from the enthusiasm of the audience it didn't seem like anyone needed their arm twisted (in a dubious use of an obscure Korean martial art) to shop at Kim's Convenience. Ins Choi's 2011 play about a Korean-Canadian corner shop (a detailed design by Mona Camille) in Toronto gets its UK premiere after the success of its TV sitcom adaptation, with the playwright - who originated the role of prodigal son Jung - now returning to play his father. Appa (Choi) and Umma (Namju Go) moved from South Korea to Canada in hopes of a better life for their children; Appa's limited English meant he couldn't continue to work as a teacher, but he found his niche as a shopkeeper with an unfailing nose for shoplifters. Umma runs the shop with him, but her involvement with the church means she has more of a life outside it.

Thursday 11 January 2024

Theatre review: Ulster American

With a name like David Ireland, you can imagine that the playwright who specialises in controversy-courting stories about how the Troubles have left Northern Ireland with collective PTSD might attract a certain kind of American fan. If that is part of the inspiration for his latest play, it would seem to confirm suspicions that some vocal Irish-Americans care more about appearing to belong to a culture than they do about actually knowing the first thing about Irish history. Equally under the microscope and subject to ridicule is the left-leaning British theatre establishment that's championed his brutal form of comedy in recent years, as Ulster American throws together theatre people from America, England and Northern Ireland in a violent mix of hypocrisy and misunderstanding. Ruth (Louisa Harland) is a rising Northern Irish playwright whose latest play is getting a starry London premiere from director Leigh (Andy Serkis.)

Monday 8 January 2024

Theatre review: Cold War

Well it was snowing as I made my way to the Almeida, and that fits one of the meanings of Conor McPherson (book) and Elvis Costello's (music) Cold War, whose characters are often to be found shivering in big coats. Another is the more familiar meaning of the term, as the doomed love story is adapted from Paweł Pawlikowski's film set over the first couple of decades of Russian-occupied Poland. Beginning in 1949, Wiktor (Luke Thallon) is a composer who's part of a team led by Kaczmarek (Elliot Levey,) who are going around Poland collecting traditional folk songs. Previously dismissed as insignificant peasant music, their connection to people working the land makes them ideal to be co-opted by the Communists as stirring anthems. Wiktor is there to help make new arrangements that fit the themes of industry and productivity, for a show that'll be toured around Poland and eventually the rest of the Eastern Bloc.

Saturday 6 January 2024

Theatre review: Unfortunate

Like Wicked with more clit jokes, Robyn Grant, Daniel Foxx (book & lyrics) and Tim Gilvin's (music) Unfortunate tells a famous fairy tale from the point of the view of the villain. But Ursula the Sea Witch is quite specific to one particular telling of The Little Mermaid, so it's important to clarify that this is a parody musical, for legal reasons. Sorry, you'll have to wait a few more decades for her to come into the public domain and get immediately cast as a slasher movie killer. In the meantime Ursula (Shawna Hamic) is here to tell us how she escaped her apparent death at the end of the movie: Quite easily as it turns out, it's not like it was the first boatload of seamen she ever took to the chest. Yes, that's the Carry On level we're at, but contrary to the title we're fortunate in that this is Southwark Playhouse once again staging the best kind of musical silliness.

Thursday 4 January 2024

Theatre review: This Much I Know

My theatrical 2024 kicks off in chaotic fashion, with me trying to find a last-minute replacement for my second show of the year after a friend had to drop out of the trip, and next week's shows looking unlikely for me to get to because of tube strikes. As for my first play of the year, I was doubting I'd actually get to see the whole thing after a technical issue at the interval made it unclear whether or not we'd actually get a second act - we did, with the show eventually running 20 minutes over the advertised 2 hours 20. On the other hand if this start is anything to go by quality-wise, I could end up having a much less disappointing time at Hampstead Theatre than I did in 2023. Jonathan Spector is the playwright behind the Old Vic's big, starry 2022 show Eureka Day, and while this three-hander in Hampstead's studio space is a more modest proposal in some ways, its storytelling is more ambitious and, to me, more consistently satisfying. Although it does also get laughs from projections of emojis.

Sunday 31 December 2023

2023: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

Oh, hello. It's this again, the bit where I look back at the last twelve months of theatre in and around That London (and by "in and around That London" I obviously mean "just London and very occasionally Stratford-upon-Avon, which isn't particularly near London") and really get to grips with the news, trends, shocks, horrors, highs and lows of one of the world's great cultural hubs. And then I tell you which actor has the nicest bottom. I've got a Drama degree, you know. I always divide this review of the year into different sections, and in recent years I've started giving the chapter headings a bit of a running theme, with half-hearted puns based on the Spider-Man movie titles or last year's biggest non-theatrical obsession, The Traitors. In other words I've made a right rod for my own back when another December comes round and I've got to try and be clever.