Thursday, 17 January 2019

Theatre review: Aspects of Love

Although I’m not much of a fan of Dr Baron Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Lord Webber BA (Hons) MEng, QC, MD, P.I., shows come along sometimes like the Open Air Theatre’s Jesus Christ Superstar that mean I haven’t written the millionaire supervillain off completely; and I vaguely remember enjoying the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Aspects of Love nine years ago. But I think on that occasion I must have just enjoyed looking at Michael Arden for three hours because revisiting it now at Southwark Playhouse it turns out the show is a right turd. This is the latest of Jonathan O’Boyle’s musical revivals to transfer from Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, and in fairness I don’t have much issue with the production itself or the cast. Set mainly in France between 1947 and 1964, it begins with 17-year-old Alex (Felix Mosse) getting an Ibsen boner for actress Rose (Kelly Price) and inviting her to spend a fortnight with him at his wealthy uncle’s country house.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Theatre review: Approaching Empty

Ishy Din’s Approaching Empty takes place in 2013, specifically between the announcement of Margaret Thatcher’s death and her state funeral. It’s an on-the-nose framing for the story of two lifelong friends whose lives were largely defined by the dead sociopath’s policies: Mansha and Raf moved from Pakistan to Middlesbrough in the 1970s to work in a steelworks specialising in bridge-building, but in the ’80s Thatcher’s policies saw the factories close and the onus put on the workers to make their own way. Raf (Nicholas Khan) largely views this as a success, as he used his redundancy package to start a minicab business; it’s managed day-to-day by Mansha (Kammy Darweish,) who used his own redundancy to pay off his mortgage, but then spent the next thirty years stuck in a rut professionally. So when out of nowhere Raf expresses an interest in selling the business to a larger cab firm, Mansha finally sees an opportunity to be his own boss.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Theatre review: Sweat

On past experience, a play having won the Pulitzer isn’t much of a guarantee that I’m going to like it, if anything the opposite; identifying a hot-button topic to write about often seems to be enough to win regardless of execution. Lynn Nottage is the first woman to have won the theatre prize twice, and the Donald and Margot Warehouse gets the UK premiere of the latest, Sweat. Nottage certainly identified her hot-button topic early: She started research in 2011, for a play which in part feels like an explanation for why parts of America were so vulnerable to the rise of Trump. The good news is that, in Lynette Linton’s production, the execution lives up to the idea. Nottage was inspired by the statistic that Reading, Pennsylvania, a relatively comfortable industrial city in the 20th century, was now the poorest place in America. The shift came when the textile mill that was the area’s primary employer significantly downsized and outsourced its work, leaving people who’d always felt comfortable in their job security suddenly unemployed.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Theatre review: Time is Love/Tiempo es Amor

It’s got to be something of a coup for a 50-seat theatre to land a recent Olivier winner – in a supporting role no less – but there’s a couple of reasons Sheila Atim might be happy to lend a bit of star power to the fringe: Not only has she worked with writer/director Chè Walker before, she’s also composed the original music for his latest play, Time Is Love/Tiempo es Amor. Walker’s Been So Long, recently reinvented as a Netflix film, had a strong flavour of London but the playwright subsequently moved to Los Angeles, and that’s the location, and the atmosphere he tries to capture here. This is partly through a film noir-ish feel to the story of Blaz (Gabriel Akuwudike,) who spends three years in prison after a robbery goes wrong. His friend Karl (Benjamin Cawley) was the one who talked him into it, but managed to get away; but apart from missing his friend he doesn’t seem to have much regret for what he got him into, if anything acting like he’s the wronged party.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Theatre review: The Tragedy of King Richard
The Second
(Almeida)

Simon Russell Beale first made his name as a Shakespearean actor taking on roles that didn't always seem immediately obvious fits for him (I first saw him as Edgar in King Lear, then Ariel in The Tempest.) By contrast Richard II seems like a part he was born to play, but in recent years he's often said he regretted never getting the chance while he was young enough (the real king died aged 33, inasmuch as historical accuracy ever matters where Shakespeare's Histories are concerned.) If someone was going to come along and give him the chance to play the part in his fifties, it makes sense for it to be Joe Hill-Gibbins, never a director to get too hung up on the literal. Hill-Gibbins has restored the full original title The Tragedy of King Richard The Second but elsewhere he and Jeff James have ruthlessly cut down the text so the play comes in at a little over 90 minutes.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Theatre review: Pinter Five - The Room /
Victoria Station / Family Voices

If something happens in London theatre and Patrick Marber isn’t involved, did it really happen? Well Pinter at the Pinter has definitely happened now, as for only the second time Jamie Lloyd has relinquished directing duties for an entire anthology to someone else, and Marber takes over the triple bill that comprises Pinter Five. This one goes right back to the beginning and Pinter’s first produced work, as 1957’s The Room slightly predates The Birthday Party, and sees the playwright make no bones about the fact that his style is going to be eerie and ambiguous. Soutra Gilmour’s revolve stays still this time as a single, large but comparatively cosy room, but the rest of the boarding house it’s in is as much a character in the short play as anything else: Rose Hudd (Jane Horrocks) knows she has neighbours but doesn’t seem to know them; she’s fascinated with who might live in the dark, damp basement, and thinks people also live in the floors above them, but nobody seems to know how many floors the building actually has.

Monday, 31 December 2018

2018: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

Wow, my end-of-year roundup of London theatre seems to come round quicker every year doesn't it? And don't you hate how commercial it's become? It's like people don't even remember the true meaning any more. (The true meaning is nipples.) No really though, this has been another of those years when theatre seems to have largely forgotten to programme shows entirely based on thirst-traps tailored specifically to me. I mean, I'll manage to horribly objectify some men, don't worry. But we'll get to that, first as always I'd like to thank those of you who've kept coming back and reading my reviews regularly, you've both been very loyal. If this is your first one of these you've read, have a seat, I go on a bit. I also give out a few awards along the way. They're not quite in the same categories everyone else gives out awards in.

Once I've rounded everything up I'll be doing my usual best and worst lists: In my 2017 review I decided only three shows were horrific enough to deserve a place on my Shit List, will this year have had enough badness to go back to the usual five? We'll see, it's a real mystery. But yeah, totally, there will be.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Theatre review: The Boy Under the Christmas Tree

A low-key but seasonal end to my theatre year with one of the King's Head's LGBT Christmas offerings. Glenn Chandler's The Boy Under the Christmas Tree does what it says on the tin, opening with call centre manager and aspiring standup comedian Lawrence (Jamie Loxton) waking up hungover on a lonely Christmas morning to find a seemingly lifeless Boy (Daniel Grice) wearing only wrapping paper under his tree. Taking it remarkably well with an "I just can't be doing with this today" attitude instead of, say, screaming, he calls the emergency services who dismiss it as a prank. Instead he has to rely on an incompetent doctor neighbour (Sam Sheldon) who finds that, while not actually dead, the Boy doesn't seem to be alive either, and since this seems suspiciously like a fairytale suggests that Lawrence kiss him to wake him up.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Theatre review: The Double Dealer

The Orange Tree tends to be quite traditional about having something light and frothy for Christmas, and this year it's Restoration comedy that's on the menu. It's a genre that earlier this year was proven to need fairly broad strokes to make it work, and fortunately Selina Cadell has experience directing these kinds of plays. Whether the efforts of Cadell and her cast are actually enough to make William Congreve's The Double Dealer look like a neglected classic is another story altogether. Mellefont (Lloyd Everitt) is engaged to Cynthia (Zoë Waites) but their upcoming marriage may be derailed if his aunt has her way: Lady Touchwood (also Waites) is angry at him for rejecting her own advances, and wants to sabotage the union, getting her hands on Mellefont's inheritance in the process.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Theatre review: Pinter Six - Party Time / Celebration

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This installment of Pinter at the Pinter hasn't invited the critics in yet.

I booked for all the Pinter at the Pinter shows before they'd been retitled to give each anthology a number, so I've ended up with Pinter Six before Pinter Five; as the season is (currently) due to conclude with Betrayal seeing some of it in reverse order seems apt enough. Jamie Lloyd directs the shortest double bill so far, starting with Party Time, which I couldn't help thinking of as what it would be like if Pinter had written The Masque of the Red Death, except the plague outside is all the partygoers' doing, and they're cheerfully set to make things a lot worse. Accordingly, the majority of the characters on stage may be laughing and drinking wine, but Soutra Gilmour's designs keep everything positively funereal, in all-black outfits and a torchlit black box set that could have come out of a vampire movie.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Theatre review: The Convert

When Kwame Kwei-Armah announced his first season at the Young Vic, his second main-house show definitely raised a few eyebrows: After all, The Convert only had its London premiere last year, in a warmly-reviewed (including by me) production at the Gate. Given how prominently the publicity mentions that writer Danai Gurira and star Letitia Wright both appeared in Black Panther, perhaps the reasoning was that the film's huge success would draw a much bigger crowd to a play that deserves to be seen. In this Victorian-era tragicomedy Wright plays Jekesai, a Shona girl in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) fleeing an arranged marriage her uncle (Jude Akuwudike) is trying to set up with a man who already has a number of wives. Her own culture allows this but the religion of the white British forbids bigamy, and her aunt Mai Tamba (Pamela Nomvete) is housekeeper to a man who can help.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Theatre review: The Cane

It's Christmas at the Royal Court, which is like Christmas anywhere else except the word "cunt" features a lot more prominently than in most seasonal fare. Also there's nothing remotely Christmassy about it, as Mark Ravenhill creates what could be a twisted flipside to The Browning Version. Here too a teacher is about to retire, but unlike Rattigan's protagonist Edward (Alun Armstrong,) who's taught at the same school for 45 years, many of them as Deputy Head, has been generally well-liked by the students and staff, at least as far as he's aware. But with a week to go until his retirement, Edward's estranged daughter Anna (Nicola Walker) returns to her parents' home, to try and forge some kind of relationship between her children and their grandparents; only to find it under siege by hundreds of angry children.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Theatre review: Timon of Athens (RSC / Swan)

With its story of economic inequality and social unrest - in Greece no less - Timon of Athens seems like a play that would have attracted a lot of revivals in recent years, but the fragmentary nature of the text means Shakespeare and Middleton's tragedy remains as obscure a part of the canon as ever. Its obligatory appearance in the "T" season as part of the RSC's complete works is only the third time I've seen it, and marks one of the few occasions when the company's departed from their current policy of staging all the Shakespeares in the main house, presumably figuring the Swan would be easier to fill. But if the play's obscure the casting is, to me at least, a definite draw, with Kathryn Hunter taking on the title role. Timon has a seemingly infinite belief in the goodness of humanity, as she has more friends than any other woman in Athens. Of course, she's also one of the richest, and famously generous.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Theatre review: The Tell-Tale Heart

Celeste (Tamara Lawrance,) an actress-turned-writer, wins an award for her debut play but turns it down at the ceremony, in an attempt to make a political point that misfires and makes for a lot of bad publicity – even Judi Dench hates her. She tries to escape the attention by renting an attic room in Brighton to write her follow-up, but her writer’s block persists, and she ends up distracting herself by making friends with her landlady. Nora (Imogen Doel) has led a sheltered life, home-schooled and nervous about being seen in public without the half-mask that covers a facial deformity. Confident that she’s above discriminating against her friend because of her looks, Celeste convinces her to show her what she really looks like, but it turns out the enormous right eye hiding under the mask is too much for her to cope with. Disgusted and haunted by the eye, Celeste wants to get it out of her life in any way she can, even if that means murder.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Theatre review: Doctor Faustus

Will you have infinite knowledge in return for a bit of the old eternal damnation? Ah you will.

With two plays each over the winter, the Swanamaker is giving William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe equal billing this year, and the last of Michelle Terry’s “Ambitious Fiends” is the most ambitious of all (although Macbeth might be the more fiendish) as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus seeks to gain knowledge – and by extension power – over the whole of creation. Faustus (Jocelyn Jee Esien) is a voracious scholar who, as far as she’s concerned, has exhausted all human knowledge and wants more. The only books left are the forbidden volumes of necromancy, which she uses to summon a demon. Mephistopheles’ (Pauline McLynn) contract specifies that she’ll serve Faustus for 24 years on Earth, in return for her immortal soul. Believing herself to have outsmarted the demon, Faustus takes the deal and begins a journey to learn the mysteries of the universe.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Theatre review: The Messiah

Patrick Barlow’s spoof of Ben Hur featured a Nativity scene, and that’s now expanded to become the main focus of his latest, The Messiah (billed as a new play, although there’s clearly been versions of it around for over thirty years courtesy of Barlow’s National Theatre of Brent company.) And although there are new faces in the cast, the setup is familiar: Self-styled impresario Maurice (Hugh Dennis) has written and stars in his own adaptation of the Nativity, sharing all the roles with his unpredictable friend Ronald (John Marquez.) Musical accompaniment will be provided by opera singer Mrs Fflyte (Lesley Garrett,) who the two men are somewhat in awe of, and who will be joining them as soon as she can find the stage. Beginning with the Godhead (Dennis) asking how things are going on Earth (which he seems to have a somewhat romantic love for) and finding out they could be better, and moving on to the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary (Marquez,) who’s not best pleased about the whole thing because she’s only fourteen.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Theatre review: Drip

Tom Wells' Folk centred on a folk-singing, spoon-playing nun, while his Broken Biscuits WHICH NEVER CAME ANYWHERE NEAR LONDON SO I DIDN'T GET TO SEE IT, AS IF THAT'S AN ACCEPTABLE STATE OF AFFAIRS was about teenagers putting a band together. So you could say music's been becoming more and more central to the playwright's work, or you could say he's been inching ever closer to writing a musical. Well Drip is classified as a one-man musical comedy, although "play with songs" is probably a closer description - maybe don't chuck a full tap-dancing chorus at Wells just yet, he's building up to it slowly. This is about teenager Liam (Andrew Finnigan,) and while it's set in Wells' beloved Hull Liam isn't quite as at home there yet - he moved there a year ago when his mother remarried, and he's not yet made a lot of friends there.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Theatre review: The Night Before Christmas

Anthony Neilson’s The Night Before Christmas is inevitably nothing like any story called The Night Before Christmas anyone else would write, although that is when it takes place, in the last hour of Christmas Eve. Gary (Douggie McMeekin) has a warehouse full of knockoff goods, a business that’s technically legal as long as you don’t look too carefully at where everything came from. On Christmas Eve he catches an intruder (Dan Starkey) dressed as an Elf, with track marks on his arms and a bag of tools useful for breaking into buildings, who tells him he’s fallen off Santa’s sleigh, and Gary mustn’t call the police or it’ll cancel Christmas. With the possible explanations being “junkie trying to steal something to fence” and “magical elf who’ll die if he doesn’t get his Christmas happiness powder,” Gary is convinced by the latter option, and calls his friend Simon (Michael Salami) for help with what to do next.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Theatre review: Jeannie

Aimée Stuart was a popular playwright between the wars, but she’s now virtually unheard of and her hit romantic comedy Jeannie hasn’t been performed in London since 1940. If you think this sounds like a prime candidate for the Finborough you’d be right, and Nicolette Kay brings it to Earl’s Court as this year’s light-hearted Christmas show. And light-hearted fun is definitely the order of the day, despite Jeannie (Mairi Hawthorn) starting the play as essentially an unpaid servant to her miserly father, cooking, cleaning and, her personal nemesis, washing the sheets. He’s so mean, in fact, that despite charging the neighbours to borrow a cup of milk, when he dies Jeannie discovers he’s left behind £200 in savings. Having spent her whole life forbidden from spending any money on herself, Jeannie decides to put her skills to work as a housekeeper, but not before blowing most of her inheritance on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday to Vienna.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Stage-to-screen review: I and You

Portrait (orientation) of the artist as a young woman.

One of the shows I had a ticket to but had to skip when I was ill last month was Hampstead Theatre's latest imported US hit, Lauren Gunderson's I and You. Sometimes unexpected second chances do come up though, and while the run's now ended the theatre has decided to stream a recording of it for free for 72 hours. Not quite a unique occurence, but the platform's an unusual one, as Gunderson's teen tragicomedy will have attracted a younger audience than usually frequents Swiss Cottage, and accordingly its new home is Instagram and its IGTV service for longer-format videos. What's immediately notable about this is that although of course it can be accessed on a PC, IGTV's optimised for phones and can only be shot in portrait. Which means if nothing else, Edward Hall's production is going to look different to any other stage-to-screen adaptation I've seen before.