Friday, 5 March 2021

Rehearsed reading review: Girl on an Altar

Alongside the more finished works that have been appearing online during the last year of lockdown, it's perhaps surprising that more rehearsed readings haven't also been on the menu - perhaps theatres have been too busy trying to ensure they can eventually reopen their doors, to spend much time trying out the shows they hope to put on when they do. But if the latest in a long line of promises actually turns out true there might be light at the end of the tunnel, and Marina Carr’s new play Girl on an Altar is one Indhu Rubasingham hopes to add to a future Kiln season. So she and Susie McKenna direct a one-off reading that was live-streamed tonight from the Kiln stage, and in a companion piece to her Hecuba, Carr returns to the aftereffects of the Trojan War to look at the Greek side of the story. The play focuses on the first major murder of the Oresteia, but like Robert Icke she first looks back ten years to the inciting event: The sacrifice of Iphigenia.

Sunday, 28 February 2021

Stage-to-screen review: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Intended as Southwark Playhouse's first big show of 2021, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice went the way of... everything else in recent months, although Richard Hough (book and lyrics) and Ben Morales Frost's (music and orchestrations) musical was among the luckier ones, in that the production got to finish rehearsals and actually perform in The Large. To no live audience, of course, but for a recording that's streaming "as-live" on the stream.theatre platform for the next few weeks. It's based on the Goethe poem that is of course best-known for its adaptation in DisneyTM's Fantasia©, and little suggestions of Paul Dukas' music do find their way into Morales Frost's compositions. But this is essentially a new treatment of the material, starting with a new story that expands on Goethe's simple fable about not trying to run before you can walk.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Hymn

Another play that had hoped to be part of the first wave of theatres reopening has instead had to be reimagined for live streaming at home: Lolita Chakrabarti's new play sees her once again, nine years after the international success of Red Velvet, team up with her husband Adrian Lester; in Hymn he plays another charismatic character, although perhaps not this time with quite the same depth to back it up. We meet Lester's Gil giving the eulogy at his father's funeral, a family man who built up a small business empire of dry cleaners and stationers. Whether the father Gil describes was quite the open book he thought is put into question immediately after the service though, with the revelation that Benny (Danny Sapani,) only six days younger than Gil, may be his half-brother: It was only when she saw the death notice in the paper that Benny's mother admitted the identity of the married man who got her pregnant then abandoned her.

Monday, 15 February 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Good Grief

An intimate piece of theatre, created specially for streaming at home: Nearly a year into lockdown, can a one-act two-hander feel too different from a one-off TV drama? Natalie Abrahami has some ideas on how to make this feel, if not quite like theatre, like a hybrid of the two mediums as she directs Lorien Haynes' tragicomedy Good Grief for the screen. Adam (Nikesh Patel) has lost his partner Liv after eight years of cancer. Their friend Cat (Sian Clifford) is the last one left at his house after the wake, and one of the people who it seems best understands, if not entirely approves of, his eccentric ways of grieving. These include compartmentalising Liv's belongings around a house that's now far too big for just him in rooms like "the sad room" and "the boring room," and a lot of inappropriate humour, like opening the eulogy by mentioning Liv's extraordinary promiscuity before they got together.

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare's Globe / Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank)

I mentioned recently that after 2020's overload of Romeo and Juliets failed to materialise for obvious reasons, it was due to turn up in 2021 in largely digital form. But before a rather odd-looking green screen affair and the National's repurposing of the Lyttelton into a TV studio turn up, there's a version already available on YouTube, and free to view (as ever, donations are encouraged,) until the end of next month. Last year I had my first experience of the Globe's Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank strand of shows for schools with the 2020 production of Macbeth, and now for their 2019 offering, and a 90-minute edit can't be a bad call for a play I tend to lose my patience with, can it? Certainly playing the story at speed can only accentuate the way Romeo (Nathan Welsh) and Juliet (Charlotte Beaumont) decide they're in love with each other having barely met.

Sunday, 31 January 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Among the many instances of time seeming to move unpredictably lately is the realisation that the National's production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was exactly five years ago; the fictional story of the real-life "Mother of the Blues" who weaponised diva behaviour feels much more recent to me than that. The 1920s instalment of August Wilson's Century Cycle (better known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, except for the fact that this one play isn't set there) has been one of the more notable stage adaptations for the screen in recent months, unfortunately notable in large part for being Chadwick Boseman's final onscreen role. He plays Levee, horn player for the superstar singer, and the most cocky, vocal and jumpy member of the four-strong band waiting in a rehearsal room for her to arrive and begin recording an EP of some of her most famous songs. This includes the one which gives the play its title, and for which Levee has prepared a new arrangement.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Radio review: The Two Noble Kinsmen

Even speaking optimistically it'll be a while before any live Shakespeare productions come along in 2021 (although multiple competing Romeo and Juliets are on their way digitally,) but in the meantime the BBC Sounds app offers an alternative: The Shakespeare Sessions podcast features, alongside various Bard-related documentaries and interviews, some of the Radio 3 adaptations from recent years. So with me not fancying another lockdown night in front of Netflix, one of the most obscure plays in the canon and the last one I ticked off my "seen onstage" list, but one which I've become more familiar with in the last few years, was an option. A candidate for the title of his final (collaborative) work, Shakespeare and Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen is an eccentric, tragicomic adaptation of Chaucer's The Knight's Tale.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Northern Ballet's Dracula

Regular readers of this blog will both know that ballet/dance in general isn't something I know anything about, but it is something that will very occasionally creep into my theatregoing. Often as a gift for my mum or sister, but sometimes for myself when the choice of subject matter is eccentric enough to grab my interest: Matthew Bourne's tendency to tell unlikely stories like Edward Scissorhands and Lord of the Flies through the gift of dance for example, or Drew McOnie turning Jekyll & Hyde into Sexy Sexy Little Shop of Horrors. So with my theatregoing still of the virtual variety, and both the BBC and Sky Arts having had a lot of ballet in their scheduling over the last few months, Northern Ballet's take on Dracula, still available on iPlayer, seemed to fit the bill. This is very much David Nixon's vision for Bram Stoker's story as he directs, choreographs and designs the costumes for the classic vampire tale.

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Phèdre

A new year starts much as the old one ended, in lockdown and with theatres trying their best to remain not only above water financially, but alive in the public's minds. Most high-profile has been the National Theatre, which late last year launched a major new international streaming platform, NTatHome. Of their initial selection of shows available, I've already seen everything except their kids' offering I Want My Hat Back, but if I was going to revisit one I'd already seen and reviewed, Nicholas Hytner's Helen Mirren-starring production of Phèdre would seem the obvious choice: It dates from 2009, making it the oldest recording currently on the service, which means that with over a decade since seeing this live I can treat it more or less with fresh eyes (all I really remembered was that Dominic Cooper's attempt to give "Phèdre" the correct French pronunciation ended up with him repeatedly calling the leading lady "veg.")

Thursday, 31 December 2020

2020: Sort-of a Theatre Review of the Year

In January, You Stupid Darkness! imagined a world assailed by an invisible, unknowable enemy, where we couldn't leave the house without protective equipment. What will these crazy playwrights think of next? No really, tell me, I could do with the warning.

I usually end every year with a review of the best and worst theatre I saw, interspersed with me being a bit smutty about men who got their kit off, and giving out some dubious award to people or shows that amused or horrified me. Well, I think we all know why 2020 might not be too much fun to recap in any great detail; with theatre all but shut down from mid-March onwards it should also be obvious that I don't have many shows to pick from, and there's something vaguely patronising about trying to make up a Top Ten, never mind award an earth-shatteringly important title like Best Nipples, out of the 42 live shows I did manage to squeeze in. That said, a couple of shows in those first two-and-a-half months did make strong entries in certain categories, and theatres' attempts to keep something going both for audiences and their own survival were downright heroic.

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Nine Lessons and Carols
- stories for a long winter

My "stage to screen" reviews were meant to be a very occasional feature in among the live theatre trips, but of course in 2020 they've ended up dominating. For my last one of the year it's one more of the shows I'd actually booked to see live but the government's Department of Tossing a Coin to See if Theatres Can Stay Open This Week put an end to that; having dipped their toe into digital content a couple of months ago when The Duchess of Malfi was briefly made available, I wasn't surprised when the Almeida offered a recording of their seasonal show to ticket-holders as an alternative. I say seasonal, but while the short preparation time led most theatres to dust off some version of A Christmas Carol, director Rebecca Frecknall, writer Chris Bush, songwriter Maimuna Memon (who also performs) and the cast were sent off to devise a more melancholy reflection on the season and the year leading up to it with Nine Lessons and Carols - stories for a long winter.

Saturday, 26 December 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Dick Whittington
(National Theatre)

British theatres' biggest annual earner, the Christmas pantomime, attempted a limited return in those areas that were allowed to, before everything got promptly shut down again (it's OK though, the Culture Secretary and Prince William had already been very publicly allowed to take their families to one, so it's not like anyone who matters was being excluded.) In what is hopefully a one-off attempt to make up for something people were missing out on elsewhere, the National Theatre were one of the venues putting on a panto, with an updated version of a Jude Christian and Cariad Lloyd script for Dick Whittington first seen at the Lyric Hammersmith two years ago. When this too was put on ice, they put Ned Bennett's new production up on YouTube for a few days over Christmas (available for free internationally, which raises the possibility of people all over the world watching and being baffled by the British concept of wholesome family entertainment consisting predominantly of dick jokes.)

Monday, 14 December 2020

Theatre review: A Christmas Carol (Bridge Theatre)

For what is almost certainly going to be my last live theatre visit of the year (I have two more booked but Tier 3 will put paid to them,) it's a story that always shows up a lot around this time of year, but this Christmas, with short lead times and the need for something straightforward and familiar, has been pretty much ubiquitous - or would be if the theatres weren't closing again the minute the shows opened. Maybe the two are connected, and the government's renewed vendetta against theatre is something to do with the popularity of a story that might as well be subtitled "All Tories Are Guaranteed Eternal Damnation," who knows? Out of many options the version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol I chose was Nicholas Hytner's at the Bridge - it's one of the easier theatres for me to get to, but more importantly the cast includes a Future Dame in the form of Patsy Ferran, and a current one in Simon Russell Beale.

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Theatre review: The Dumb Waiter

"It's not like Pinter where you can more or less say what you like so long as you leave enough gaps."

In what I suspect will be a pretty short window of time to catch live theatre in London before we get bumped up a tier, a classic Pinter makes a surprisingly swift return to the stage - it's less than two years since The Dumb Waiter was in the West End, but Hampstead Theatre were keen to mark the 60th anniversary of a show that premiered there in its own debut season. Planned to run last spring as part of the theatre's 60-year retrospective season, it does of course also feature a bubble-friendly cast of just two, with Alec Newman as Ben and Shane Zaza as Gus, a pair of mobsters who've been holed up all day in a basement room waiting for the instruction to carry out a hit on an unknown target. But when instructions do come, via the titular miniature elevator, they're confusing and increasingly extravagant food orders, seemingly intended for a restaurant kitchen that's long since closed.

Friday, 4 December 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Rent

The latest leg of my virtual tour around the UK's theatres takes me to Manchester and the Hope Mill, where Blake Patrick Anderson and Millie O'Connell must be feeling particularly hard done by 2020 - their run in Be More Chill, which for Anderson in particular had been expected to be a star-making performance, got cut short by the first lockdown, and when they reunited for Luke Sheppard's revival of Rent it only lasted five performances before Lockdown 2: Emetic Boogaloo scuppered that as well. Intended to be a mix of socially distanced audiences with simultaneous live-streaming, with Manchester still barred from live performance even after lockdown lifted they've had to rejig the plan, and stream a recording of the final live performance of Jonathan Larson's iconic, none-more-nineties musical.

Friday, 20 November 2020

Stage-to-screen review: The Poltergeist

Philip Ridley continues to go above and beyond in providing Southwark Playhouse, production company Tramp and director Wiebke Green with replacement work for the cancelled Beast of Blue Yonder that was meant to play when the first lockdown came in. And while the venue was among the first out of the gates to get live audiences back in they were also comparatively prepared for things to go tits up again for Lockdown 2: Electric Fuckeroo: I was meant to be in Elephant & Castle in person tonight for Ridley's latest, The Poltergeist, but the limited run was always going to be live-streamed as well, and when the kybosh got put back on live audiences my ticket just got converted to an online one. A shame in the sense that seeing Joseph Potter's performance in an intimate space would no doubt have been an electric experience, but a lot of that power still comes through on screen.

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Theatre review: Death of England - Delroy

Back what was either five minutes or about twelve years ago depending on how time is passing, Clint Dyer and Roy Williams​' Death of England was a hit in the National's Dorfman; a major part of the conflicted, grieving Michael's monologue revolved around his black best friend Delroy, and the way his father treated him. Like everyone else in that story, Delroy got an unfiltered taste of how Michael felt about him in an eventful, coke-fuelled eulogy, but he also ended up hooking up with his lifelong crush, Michael's sister Carly. Although the original monologue was powerful and self-contained, it did also effectively set up its unseen supporting cast of characters enough that Rufus Norris commissioned a companion piece soon after it opened. The resulting sequel/spin-off Death of England - Delroy hasn't had the best of luck - original star Giles Terera got appendicitis but his hand-picked understudy Michael Balogun has ably taken over; only for the NT's post-lockdown return to fall victim to Lockdown 2: Here We Go Again, meaning tonight's official opening is also its closing night (it was filmed so people who'd booked for a cancelled performance can be offered a digital alternative.)

Monday, 2 November 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Crave

With Crave I've now seen all of Sarah Kane's inevitably small canon of theatrical work; originally premiered under a pseudonym to avoid being judged on the playwright's notoriety, her penultimate play marks a shift of direction into a more abstract poetic style. It famously has no stage directions and the characters are lettered rather than named, leaving it up to the actors and director to find characters in the stream of words (by the time of her de facto suicide note 4:48 Psychosis, Kane had also dispensed with telling us which character says which line, or indeed how many characters there are.) It's a piece that defies an easy summary of what it's about, although like its successor it's built on despair - though rather than that wider existential horror this is more specifically rooted in having despaired of love. There's a failed relationship at the heart of Crave, an intense and highly sexual one and almost certainly abusive to some degree, although whether this is the voice of the abused or the abuser is as fluid as anything else here.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Theatre review: Nine Lives

My last visit to the Bridge Theatre's initial season of monologues is to another tale of the precarious life of an immigrant seeking asylum in the UK, and after the religious persecution behind An Evening with an Immigrant, Zodwa Nyoni's Nine Lives gives us a man fleeing the country of his birth because it's dangerous for him to be gay there. But while his sexuality forms part of what he's looking for, as with Inua Ellams' play the need for somewhere to belong is a more important element of the story than what he's running away from. Ishmael (Lladel Bryant) has fled Zimbabwe after his relationship with another man was discovered; he tries to contact David, who left before him, but his ex seems to be ignoring all his Facebook messages.

Friday, 23 October 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Bubble

"Zoom? It'll never catch on."

It's no surprise if one of the most prolific playwrights working today is among the first out of the gates with a new Covid play, nor that James Graham has approached the subject with a sharp political focus but from a highly original direction. Bubble is playing for three performances only at Nottingham Playhouse, with a socially distanced live audience and everyone else able to buy a pass to watch one of the performances on Zoom. Micro-pub owner Ashley (Pearl Mackie) and teacher Morgan (Jessica Raine) are buzzing after having been on a great first date, the first successful one for either of them in a long time. Then lockdown laws are announced and they have a very reckless thought: What if they went into isolation together and found out just how accurate those great first impressions were?