Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Theatre review: Anna X

"What if Sergey Lazarev's performance of 'You Are The Only One' at the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest, but roughly 30 times longer?"

Concluding Sonia Friedman's Re:Emerge season at the Pinter is the superficially frantic but essentially quite ponderous Anna X, Joseph Charlton's play about apps, influencers and the business of turning the appearance of success into a genuine commodity. Both characters in the two-hander trade on appearances, Ariel (Nabhaan Rizwan) by developing a dating app whose USP isn't so much the people on it as those off it: There's a waiting list to have your profile approved, and it's a lot longer than the actual list of users because you can't get on until you're vetted for looks and influence. Exclusivity is what'll make Ariel's fortune, and while the value of his company is still speculative he spends money like it's already in the bank. It's no surprise if he soon attracts Anna (Emma Corrin) who, and I don't think it's a spoiler as it's heavily hinted from the opening lines and confirmed soon after, is much more of a traditional con artist.

Sunday, 18 July 2021

Theatre review: The Comeback

In between booking new shows that will almost certainly get cancelled or postponed by Lockdown Four, there's time to squeeze in a show postponed by Lockdown Three - I was due to see Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen's The Comeback in December last year, but it's returned to finish its run at the Noël Coward for a few weeks this month. Ashenden and Owen are the sketch comedy duo best known for The Pin on Radio 4, and they write and perform this show that's an attempt to mix that kind of sketch show with a farcical narrative: Although Morecambe and Wise didn't say "fuck" on stage quite as often that's definitely the comic tradition that's in The Pin's DNA, and similarly The Comeback has clear echoes of Hamish McColl and Sean Foley's Morecambe and Wise tribute The Play What I Wrote, which was a West End (and, improbably, Broadway) hit twenty years ago.

Saturday, 17 July 2021

Theatre review: Last Easter

I think Last Easter was one of the plays that had to be cancelled mid-rehearsal for the first lockdown, now getting a second chance at a London premiere at the Orange Tree. Tinuke Craig directs Bryony Lavery's four-hander about a group of friends who all know each other through their jobs in theatre - although it's June's (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) job as a lighting designer that is most frequently mined for symbolism. June has recently learned that the breast cancer she overcame has spread to her liver and is now terminal, and her friends Gash (Peter Caulfield) and Leah (Jodie Jacobs) decide to take her on an Easter road trip to France. Knowing they can fit a fourth person in the car and spread the costs, alcoholic actress Joy (Ellie Piercy) is invited as the least-worst option out of their friendship circle, but she ends up becoming connected to the core group in surprising ways.

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Out West

Another show where I opted for the streaming option rather than a lengthy Undergound journey each way, Out West comes from the Lyric Hammersmith, a venue with a history of work that often takes very specific inspiration from its West London location. Co-directed by Diane Page and the venue's artistic director Rachel O’Riordan, these three specially-commissioned monologues from big-name playwrights all have some kind of connection to Hammersmith or the surrounding areas of London, beginning with a historical one: At the end of the 19th century Mohandas Gandhi (Esh Alladi) lived in Hammersmith for three years while studying for the Bar. In Tanika Gupta's The Overseas Student we follow the teenage Gandhi from the ship taking him from India to London, to the ship taking him back three years later. It may well be the same ship, and the treatment he receives is certainly the same, but in the intervening time Gupta subtly suggests the development from awkward young man embarrassed when confronted by women and made to feel guilty for his vegetarianism, to a future world-changing figure.

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Theatre review: Pippin

I first saw Avenue Q long before I ever saw Pippin, so maybe that's why it's taken me until now to wonder if the former's recurring theme of Princeton searching for his Purpose is a deliberate pisstake of the latter, and the title character's wandering through the world in the conviction that there's a great meaning to his existence that'll reveal itself if he can just tick off all the mundane things other people do. In Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson's tuneful but demented musical "the mundane things" include ruling half of Europe, because it's (very) loosely based on the son of Charlemagne, who actually was called Pippin (well, Pepin, which is a bit more plausible as a Mediaeval French name.) At the start of the show he's just come back from years of study, but as heir to the throne Pippin (Ryan Anderson) thinks he should learn the ropes to succeed his father (Daniel Krikler.)

Sunday, 11 July 2021

Theatre review: The Tempest
(Shakespeare's Globe & Tour)

The second of two tiny tour shows playing at the Globe this summer is Brendan O’Hea's production of The Tempest; not a play I like as much as the companion piece, As You Like It, but of course the flipside to that is that I don't come into it with quite as high expectations. So while it's still true that these smaller-scale shows suffer from the lack of a full crowd (the make-do-and-mend style is endearing but really gets much of its energy from audience interaction,) this is two hours that go by pretty briskly. Prospero (Mark Desebrock) was deposed as Duke of Milan after showing a complete lack of interest in doing the job, and fled to sea with only his baby daughter and a set of magic books that he used to obtain vast powers. On arriving on a small, almost-deserted island, he used these powers to enslave the inhabitants Ariel (Emma Ernest) and Caliban (Stephenson Ardern-Sodje,) before waiting years for a chance to take revenge on the usurpers and reclaim his dukedom.

Thursday, 8 July 2021

Stage-to-screen review: and breathe...

Even though I've started to go back to live theatre and get around London a bit more, venues like the Almeida, Lyric Hammersmith, Hampstead and Kiln that involve a fairly long Tube journey for me still feel like a bit of a trip too far. My second vaccination is booked for tomorrow so within a couple of weeks I should be happier travelling a bit further, but in the meantime some of those theatres are continuing to offer a digital alternative. Yomi Ṣode's and breathe... is coming to the end of its run but the Almeida have snuck in a live stream of the production, an autobiographical monologue in which Junior (David Jonsson) relates the story of a family bereavement, in part as an apology to his cousin Ade, who broke the bad news to him and got a violent reaction for his pains. Junior is the oldest in his generation of the family, and has a partner and child of his own; but it also means he feels like he should be taking responsibility for the cousins in times of crisis, and feels like he's neglected his duties when he hears of Big Mummy's illness.

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Re-review: Constellations
(Peter Capaldi/Zoë Wanamaker cast)

I'm calling this a re-review because it's still the same Michael Longhurst production that Nick Payne's Constellations premiered with in 2012, and which I've seen three times before. But don't worry if you're unfamiliar with the play, you don't need to go back and read three previous reviews to understand this one (though if you really want to you can find them on the Nick Payne label on the blog,) I'll still introduce the original high concept. Along with a whole new high concept for this West End revival in particular: The two-hander has four rotating casts, starting with Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah, followed by Zoë Wanamaker and Peter Capaldi, then Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey, and finally Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O'Dowd, each hoping to bring a unique angle to the story. And yes, I was very tempted to book for all four, but after a year of no theatre, a summer of the same play four times might have been too much of a shock to the system, so I decided to pick two that seemed the furthest from the casts I've seen before.

Sunday, 4 July 2021

Theatre review: Romeo & Juliet (Shakespeare's Globe)

After the government's handling of Covid-19 in general, and the arts in particular last year, I think there was always an expectation that when theatre did come back, it was unlikely to have become any less critical of those in power. I'm not sure anyone would have guessed that a Globe production of Romeo & Juliet would be the first to really give it to them with both barrels; unless, of course, they'd seen a certain political photo opp featuring Michelle Terry in the background, glaring with the heat of a hundred suns. Ola Ince's production was one originally planned for the scrapped 2020 season, and was presumably always conceived as intensely political, but I wonder how much the last year sharpened its teeth. In a city where the ruler cracks down on violence to avoid having to look too deeply into its causes, Romeo (Startled Giraffe Alfred Enoch) and Juliet (Rebekah Murrell) fall in love, against the wishes of the rival gangs they both belong to.

Saturday, 3 July 2021

Theatre review: Bach & Sons

The Bridge Theatre's large, easily flexible auditorium, together with Nicholas Hytner's contacts meaning he could quickly bring in many small-scale shows that could play to diminished capacity without breaking the bank, meant that during 2020's two false starts coming out of lockdown it became my most visited venue. The socially distanced seating remains but the programming has gone back to business as usual, with a play that allows Simon Russell Beale to combine his acting day job with his side hustle presenting documentaries about choral music. In Nina Raine's Bach & Sons he plays Johann Sebastian Bach, the most successful and best-remembered of many generations of composers, although in the years covered by the play that doesn't look like it'll be the case: He correctly predicts that his death will be a great career move as he'll get reevaluated, but at the time his meticulous, mathematical musical style is going out of fashion.

Thursday, 1 July 2021

Theatre review: As You Like It
(Shakespeare's Globe & Tour)

Returning to the Globe and beyond for 2021 are Michelle Terry's version of the Tiny Touring Shows, which sees Brendan O'Hea direct the same small cast in three stripped-back Shakespeare plays. On tour, these mainly play as "Audience Choice," with the decision on which of the plays will be shown at any given performance left to a last-minute audience vote. Unusually, this year that choice includes one play that's also part of the main season, so presumably to avoid confusion with the Sean Holmes version still playing, A Midsummer Night's Dream can only be seen in London if and when it wins one of these votes. But the other two have as usual been given a few regularly scheduled dates at the Globe, and my first encounter with this year's touring ensemble is an enduring musical favourite that matches the productions' actor-musician aesthetic, As You Like It. Set mainly in a rather idyllic Forest of Arden, most of the characters are nobles and courtiers banished from court after a coup, who hang out in separate groups, sometimes in disguise, despite the fact that they're all either related or already knew each other and could have easily just reestablished their old dynamics.

Monday, 28 June 2021

Radio review: The Rival

The closing of the theatres for Covid has been compared many times to the Elizabethan closing of the theatres for plague, and I wouldn't be surprised if we get a few plays in the next few years explicitly making the connection and following Shakespeare in that time. But while Jude Cook's radio play The Rival does that, its inspiration is one that's been giving writers and academics food for thought for centuries, most recently in the Globe's hit Emilia: The story of Shakespeare's Sonnets, and the mysterious figures they're dedicated to. The poetry collection starts in workmanlike enough fashion, when Shakespeare (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) is hired by Lord Burghley (Philip Jackson) to write 17 sonnets meant to convince his wealthy ward to marry his granddaughter. They fail completely on that front but the Earl of Southampton, known as Wriothesley (Freddie Fox,) becomes Shakespeare's patron, and when the plague closes the theatres he returns to Wriothesley's home to write the long narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Radio review: The Merchant of Venice

Despite the theatres gradually reopening this will still end up being a very Shakespeare-light year for me, so it's as good a time as any to catch up on a few more of the recent audio adaptations from Radio 3, which remain available on BBC Sounds under the Shakespeare Sessions strand. It's not a particular favourite of mine but it's been a few years since my last Merchant of Venice and the casting for Emma Harding's 2018 production is intriguing, notably that of Andrew Scott as Shylock. Harding has set the story in the City of London during the 2008 financial crash, and to open with a sidebar, I was once interviewed for a theatre job by someone who supposedly specialised in "authentic" Shakespeare, who grumbled a lot about a modern-dress RSC production of this play, saying it was impossible to set it post-Holocaust. Unless you base your interpretation entirely on the fact that the play's antisemitism is openly state-sanctioned (and I've talked elsewhere about my feelings on defining an entire production by one line or scene,) that seems either a naïvely sunny view of modern tolerance, or more likely a restrictively literal-minded approach to theatre: In the years leading up to that particular crash Jews might not have been the bogeyman of choice, but the post-9/11 world wasn't exactly shy about demonising one group of people.

Thursday, 24 June 2021

Theatre review: Under Milk Wood

A collection of our more sprightly older actors populate Lyndsey Turner's production of Under Milk Wood, which reopens an Olivier Theatre that is wisely playing it safe, and staying in its temporary in-the-round configuration for the next few shows. And, after a year they probably spent shielding more carefully than most, I guess you could do worse as a high concept at the moment than a cast who've all had both their jabs. The reason for the high concept is that Dylan Thomas' beloved play for voices has been given a new framing device by writer Siân Owen, putting the action into the morning routine of a retirement home. After we've got to meet some of the staff and residents, Owain Jenkins (The Actor Michael Sheen) arrives unexpectedly in hopes of speaking to his father, whom he hasn't seen for a long time. So long that he doesn't realise Richard (Karl Johnson) has become almost non-verbal with dementia.

Monday, 21 June 2021

Theatre review: J'Ouvert

Second in the season of three new plays reopening the Harold Pinter Theatre is one that originally debuted in the much more intimate Theatre 503, where it must have felt pretty cramped as Yasmin Joseph's J'Ouvert tries to cram the whole Notting Hill Carnival on stage. It is, to start with at least, a pretty loose journey through the day with three young women: Nadine (Gabrielle Brooks) and Jade (Sapphire Joy) have known each other since they were children, while Nisha (Annice Boparai) is a newer friend who recruited them for a local activist group. Nadine is a bit cold and standoffish with Nisha, who she sees as a bit of a cultural tourist at an event with specifically Afro-Carribean roots, but Nisha believes it's an opportunity for women of colour to stand together and stand up for each other, and sees Jade as a potentially inspiring speaker for their cause.

Saturday, 19 June 2021

Radio review: Lights Up - The Meaning of Zong

Another BBC Lights Up instalment to make it to radio rather than TV, actor Giles Terera's playwrighting debut has an epic scope and emotional intimacy that would, between them, have made trying to film it using social distancing difficult. Helped by Jon Nicholls' sound design, The Meaning of Zong finds a natural home as an audio drama that can conjure up some of the bleakest crimes of British history along with triumphs (am I saying that radio is closer to theatre than film or TV are in how much of the work the audience's imagination has to do? Maybe I am.) It's a topical story, especially given that Tom Morris' production was commissioned for Bristol Old Vic, a city at the centre of the ongoing argument about Imperial Britain's racist and oppressive heart, and the loud voices that insist any attempt to reveal the truth about history is the same as erasing it. This is alluded to in a present-day framing device in which Rachel (Moronke Akinola) has an argument with a bookshop manager over a book about the slave trade being displayed in the African, rather than British, history section.

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Theatre review: After Life

The Dorfman reopens with a Headlong co-production in which all the characters are dead. Arguably a questionable subject after the reason theatres were closed for so long in the first place, if it weren't for how charming and gently moving After Life proves to be. Designer Bunny Christie, director Jeremy Herrin and writer Jack Thorne are credited with co-creating the concept for a stage adaptation of a cult Japanese film from 1998, set entirely in a limbo that feels somewhere between a small office and a mid-range hotel (there is, unequivocally, no steam room.) Every Monday the Guides, led by Kevin McMonagle's phlegmatic line manager Five, meet a new group of the recently-deceased, or Guided. In private meetings they discuss happy, significant or otherwise precious memories from the life that just ended, and by the end of Wednesday the Guided need to have made an enormous, perhaps impossible decision.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Lights Up - The Winter's Tale

The RSC's a funny old company, isn't it? At one time considered downright avant-garde, in the last four decades its reputation has gone to the opposite extreme, as a byword for safe, old-fashioned, "heritage" Shakespeare. Nowadays I'd say it sometimes tries (with wildly varying levels of success) to push the envelope, but for the most part slips back into the kind of Shakespeare that reveres the text just that little bit too much over the theatricality. They make for an odd choice to provide the longest, largest-scale entry in the BBC's Lights Up festival, following as they do a lot of new writing with small casts and current concerns. Exactly what concerns Erica Whyman's production of The Winter's Tale deals with is anybody's guess, as apart from a couple of neat design ideas I came out of it with not much clue as to how Whyman interprets the odd, bleak story of Sicilian king Leontes (Joseph Kloska,) who essentially has a complete personality change mid-sentence, accusing his wife Hermione (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and best friend Polixenes (Andrew French) of having an affair.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Hushabye Mountain

In the 1980s and '90s there was a whole raft of gay plays dealing - albeit sometimes with charm and humour, like Angels in America or My Night With Reg - with the bleak reality of living through the AIDS pandemic. In more recent years there have been new approaches to the subject, whether it be assessing the legacy of a lost generation like The Inheritance, or seeing what the disease means to younger gay men like Undetectable, Jumpers for Goalposts, or the recent Cruise. But Jonathan Harvey's Hushabye Mountain dates from 1999, and it consciously attempts to deal with an uncertain period of hope somewhere in between the two: AIDS still dominates gay men's lives and people are being lost to it, but AZT trials are promising a real hope of successful treatment. It's no longer an automatic death sentence but for Danny (Nathan McMullen,) currently in a celestial waiting room somewhere outside the Pearly Gates, it's come just a little bit too late.

Thursday, 10 June 2021

Re-review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare's Globe)

I have fond memories of, and emotional connections to, a lot of venues, but in the last year of theatres facing an existential crisis it was the thought of never being able to go to Shakespeare's Globe again that hurt the most. So it's probably for the best, given I might have got a bit emotional, that my first trip back to the main house in two summers was to a production I'd seen there before: Sean Holmes' fiesta-style A Midsummer Night's Dream from 2019 has returned to launch the 2021 season, and though both venue and production have had to make a few changes while COVID-19 restrictions are still in place, both have retained the atmosphere that makes them special. In the audience, along with social distancing in the three galleries, and all shows playing without intervals (to stop everyone crowding to the loos at once,) the most obvious change is in the Yard, where there's usually up to 700 standing groundlings. For the first couple of months of the season these have been replaced with just three rows of temporary seats arranged by support bubbles.