Monday 31 December 2012

2012: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

First and foremost, thanks everyone who's visited this blog and made 2012 a busy first year for Partially Obstructed View. I hope you found something worth reading here, and maybe even the odd recommendation for a show you ended up loving. Like most bloggers, I can't resist the temptation to inflict my own judgement upon the year just gone, like I did for the last three years on my old blog. So if you haven't had quite enough reviews of 2012 yet settle down for another one. At the end I'll be doing my usual Hit List and Shit List, with my Top Ten and Bottom Five productions, and I'll decide which is my Show of the Year 2012, joining 2009's Our Class, 2010's Romeo and Juliet, and 2011's London Road. But in the meantime here's some of the hits, misses, and unexpected running themes of the year, and I might chuck in a few non-awards along the way.

Thursday 27 December 2012

Theatre review: The Dance of Death

My final show of 2012, and an alternative take on the idea of festive entertainment - very alternative, as we're off to an isolated Swedish island to spend some time with Strindberg. Titas Halder directs the latest Donmar Trafalgar show, The Dance of Death, for which Richard Kent's design turns Trafalgar Studio 2 into a particularly grim, filthy little shack in a military garrison. It used to be the prison, so the fact that it's been allocated to Edgar (Kevin R. McNally,) an ageing Captain, as living quarters, may offer some hint as to what the rest of the officers think of him. Certainly he doesn't have much good to say about them as they party next door - Edgar and his younger wife Alice (Indira Varma) are the only ones not invited. Almost 25 years into a marriage that doesn't appear to have had a single happy day, Edgar and Alice bicker and hiss at each other, looking forward to the release from each other that their eventual deaths will bring.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Theatre review: Viva Forever!

They've been calling Viva Forever!, the latest jukebox musical to hit the West End, Viva For The Next Couple Of Months, although with the Piccadilly Theatre absolutely heaving tonight maybe it'll do a We Will Rock You and defy the critics. Album Tracks: The Musical is the nickname that came more to mind as I watched this bizarrely misfiring musical based on the music of the Spice Girls. I usually steer clear of jukebox shows but I guess what made me book for this one is that there's something really fun about Spice Girls songs, that made me figure that even if it was a bit of mess it should at least brighten up my evening. So perhaps the most disappointing thing about Jennifer Saunders' clusterfuck of a book is its utter mechanical joylessness. A by-the-numbers X Factor parody jostles with a shameless Mamma Mia ripoff to create a mass of loose ends that doesn't even segue into the songs particularly well.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Theatre review: Mydidae

DryWrite is a company that commissions playwrights to produce work on very specific briefs, and there's nothing dry about their challenge to Jack Thorne, to set a play entirely in a bathroom. Named after a kind of short-lived fly, Mydidae takes place over a day in the life of a couple, Marian (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and David (Keir Charles.) It starts as a fairly light piece that looks at how comfortable the pair are together, their morning peeing, flossing and shaving all done in front of each other, sharing a lot of in-jokes that suggest a couple who've got to know each other really well. But a darker underside becomes apparent - the day ahead is one they're both dreading, and it's not just because of the important business pitch David has to make: This is also the anniversary of an event which Thorne makes the audience aware of with a nice degree of subtlety.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Theatre review: Julius Caesar (Donmar Warehouse)

My final Shakespeare trip of a Bard-heavy year takes me back to one of those plays I've never warmed to, Julius Caesar. Back in the summer, Gregory Doran's Africa-set production was probably the best I've seen the play done, so this one at the Donmar Warehouse had a lot to live up to. And Phyllida Lloyd's is another take to go for high-concept casting, this time an all-female version of the story. We still follow the conspiracy of Brutus (Harriet Walter,) Cassius (Jenny Jules) and a select group of Roman senators to assassinate the hugely popular Julius Caesar (Frances Barber) before his increasing political power leads him to tyranny. But we're now in a women's prison, where the inmates have been given permission to stage the play in the recreation room, and some of the cast are taking it all much more seriously than others.

Monday 17 December 2012

Theatre review: In the Republic of Happiness

Surely one of the most experimental pieces the Royal Court's staged in a long while, Martin Crimp's In the Republic of Happiness starts with what looks like a familiar Christmas scene, but quickly turns into one of the most baffling festive offerings you're likely to see. The play is divided into three distinct sections, each given a very different look in Miriam Buether's great set design (and for a change at the Jerwood Downstairs, the audience actually gets to watch the super-speedy scene changes take place.) First up is the traditional family discord around the Christmas dinner table. But as the sun goes down it turns out Dad (Stuart McQuarrie) has taken all the light bulbs out of their fittings, and the family secrets prove just as murky as the living room as the afternoon wears on.

Sunday 16 December 2012

Theatre review: The Architects

I've never seen anything by Shunt before, but The Architects doesn't make me think I'll be rushing back. Allegedly inspired by the legend of the Minotaur, this is a site-specific show in a vast, freezing former biscuit factory in Bermondsey - there's a reference to the Labyrinth in the tunnels you have to traverse to get to the main playing area, but you're more likely to get lost trying to find the completely un-signposted entrance to the show. Once past these MDF walls you find yourself in the bar of a huge cruise liner, where you wait for the show to start - it's worth noting that nothing happens until 70 minutes after the "doors open" time on your ticket. As it turns out, the bit waiting in the bar is the highlight, as long as you've brought someone to chat to. Eventually a decent band arrive, as do four members of the "Biscuit family," cruise organisers with nonspecific North European accents, who, between blackouts, make announcements about events on the ship. Occasionally there's a video link-up with the same four actors playing the decadently wealthy owners, checking up on how things are going.

Saturday 15 December 2012

Theatre review: The Orphan of Zhao

Next up in the "A World Elsewhere" season is the first Chinese play ever to be staged at the RSC, The Orphan of Zhao. Although its provenance is slightly less straightforward than that - the story has been retold on stage in China for centuries, with the best-known version being Ji Junxiang's 14th century telling, with 17th century amendments by Zang Maoxun. What we have here is a new adaptation by James Fenton, taken from a variety of original Chinese sources (and adding a new ending to tidy up a nagging plot hole.) Gregory Doran directs, making this either his final production as Chief Associate, or his first as Artistic Director, or neither, or both. The publicity has been keen to call the play the "Chinese Hamlet" although the main similarity is in this being a bloody revenge tragedy - The Orphan of Zhao is a much more epically sprawling affair, and at times a gripping one.

Friday 14 December 2012

Theatre review: Feathers in the Snow

The early part of this year was defined in many ways (by us obsessive theatricals at least) by a surge of Philip Ridley plays, which we christened the unofficial Ridleyfest 2012. So it seems appropriate that he has a second new play premiering as the year ends, and that it should open in the main house of Southwark Playhouse where his plays regularly appear, as the final production in the current venue (Simon Kenny's set and Gary Bowman's lighting making an atmospheric farewell to the railway tunnels.) Ridley's violently poetic plays have a recurring fascination with fairytales, which perhaps goes some way to reconciling his very adult plays with his other career as a children's author. Both of these strings to his bow come together now for Feathers in the Snow, an ambitious (perhaps too ambitious) family show with a scope that spans generations and a story that covers the births and deaths of nations.

Thursday 13 December 2012

Theatre review: The Shawl

The Young Vic's tiny Clare studio seems to be becoming the home for the winners of directing awards: Having already played host to the JMK winner, we now get the Genesis Future Director's Award winner, Ben Kidd. He brings an interesting dynamic to The Shawl, the short 1985 play in which David Mamet returns to his recurring theme of con-artists, this time looking at mediums whose comforting messages from the dead are entirely bogus - or are they? Kidd's production opens with a beautifully spooky touch: Merle Hensel's design sees chairs bolted down in a fairly haphazard-seeming in-the-round configuration, and as the audience take their seats a security camera's live images are shown on a number of TV screens, scattered around the cardboard boxes that line the walls. But when the play starts and Miss A (Denise Gough) enters, with some trepidation, for her first consultation with a psychic, the TV screens show her entering a deserted room, as if the audience are now spirits the cameras can't pick up.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Theatre review: Boy Meets Boy

I did have tonight down as a rare theatre-free evening, but Ian recommended Boy Meets Boy at Jermyn Street Theatre as a rather mental must-see, and I'm not one for resisting theatrical temptation so off I popped. The musical, with songs by Bill Solly and book by Solly and Donald Ward, was a 1975 off-Broadway hit, but written in the style of a 1930s golden age show with Americans in Europe, mismatched but made-for-each-other couples, a bunch of misunderstandings and a lead who thinks his love interest is two different people. The big conceit of the show though is that this is an alternate 1930s, where homosexuality is not just legal with complete equal marriage rights (giving the revival a bit of topicality as well) but considered so run-of-the-mill as to be completely unworthy of mention.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Theatre review: Privates on Parade

Regular readers of this blog (both of them) will probably know not to expect too much in the way of sensible reviewing from my musings on Privates on Parade at the Noël Coward. Any poor unfortunates who've googled their way here in the hope of figuring out whether the show's worth seeing, I hope you enjoy disappointment, because here you go: The reason, of course, is that Privates on Parade is among other things notorious for how literally its title should be taken with regard to male nudity. And once it was announced that Big Favourite Round These Parts Sam Swainsbury would be in the cast, along with the not unwelcome additions of Joseph Timms and Harry Hepple, I basically spent the couple of months leading up to the show like a toddler who'd overdosed on Sunny Delight. Look, I'm just very, very sexually frustrated, OK? So the fact that, although the nudity remains, it's rather more coy than expected about flashing actual front bottoms, was a bit of a disappointment (people who saw previews tell me things were a bit more clearly on display then; maybe the West End audience clutched their pearls a bit too hard and it was toned down?)

Monday 10 December 2012

Theatre review: Kiss Me Kate

My patience for the books of musicals is less than legendary, but I've mostly learned to deal with their lackadaisical approach to storytelling by just trying to ignore it in the hope that it'll go away. It doesn't always work though, and despite going in quite optimistic after hearing raves from various sources including my sister, my first experience of Cole Porter's classic musical Kiss Me Kate was a frustrating one. Actor/director Fred Graham (Alex Bourne) is staging a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew with himself as Petruchio opposite his ex-wife Lilli Vannessi (Hannah Waddingham) as Katherina. She still holds a torch for him despite her engagement to a general with political aspirations (Mark Heenehan) and when she discovers the flowers she thought were for her were actually meant for the show's Bianca, Lois (Holly Dale Spencer,) her real anger spills over into the show and derails the performance.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Theatre review: Pack

Straight on to the Papatango winner, which this year is Louise Monaghan's Pack. We're in a community centre in Leeds (Olivia Altaras has designed a set that serves both this and Everyday Maps For Everyday Use well) where maths teacher Dianna (Denise Black) evidently doesn't get enough teaching in her day job, so holds a class on bridge for beginners in the evenings. Her students are Deb (Angela Lonsdale,) a brash widow who's gone up in the world since collecting her husband's life insurance; Stephie (Sarah Smart,) her slightly dim-witted friend; and Nasreen (Amita Dhiri,) a doctor Deb seems a bit sniffy towards at first. As we get to know the women in the ensuing weeks of card-playing, their outside lives start to encroach on their new friendships, as a BNP rally approaches and the politics of the women, as well as their husbands', come under the spotlight.

Theatre review: Everyday Maps for Everyday Use

When the Finborough played host to the Papatango playwrighting competition for the first time last year, they went for an ambitious programme of staging, alongside the winner's month-long run, week-long runs of the other three finalists. This year they've reined things in a bit, with a couple of rehearsed readings of finalists, but full productions for the top two plays, running in repertory. First, the runner-up, Tom Morton-Smith's Everyday Maps for Everyday Use.

The soundtrack as the audience enters is a selection of Bowie's more space travel-fixated songs, as the play is set in Woking, where HG Wells had the aliens first invade in The War of the Worlds, and Morton-Smith's characters' lives, ambitions and sexual inclinations are all in some way or other tied up with Mars; the play follows the various ways the six people's lives intertwine.

Saturday 8 December 2012

Theatre review: Boris Godunov

Thanks to the World Shakespeare Festival, 2012 has shown us how other countries interpret his plays, but for the Winter season in the Swan the RSC takes its turn to play host in the foreign exchange, staging three international classics that can be seen as Shakespeare's contemporaries - either in when they were written, or the historical period they deal with. Alexander Pushkin deliberately intended to take inspiration from Shakespeare in the way he put Boris Godunov together, and certain moments do mirror scenes from his plays. Adrian Mitchell's verse translation also occasionally references particular well-known Shakespearean lines. So we open with echoes of Julius Caesar as Boris Godunov (Lloyd Hutchinson) is repeatedly offered the Russian throne by the people, and keeps turning it down. It'll take a month of pleading but Godunov will accept the position of Tsar.

Friday 7 December 2012

Theatre review: Cinderella (Lyric Hammersmith)

I'm not really much of a pantomime connoisseur, not having grown up in the UK and never having had a reason to get into them since moving here as an adult. Having a December birthday, in the last couple of years I've tended to celebrate it with a trip with friends to the Stag's smutty adult panto, but with that venue closing (although as it turned out its panto will still go ahead; look out for a review in a couple of weeks' time) one of the more traditional, family shows looked like providing an alternative. In the last few years, the Lyric Hammersmith has really made a name for itself with its quality pantos, but there was an extra reason this year's Cinderella became a must-see: Steven Webb has become a fixture of the Christmas show there, and this year he was joined, in her first ever panto role, by musical theatre star (and original West End Kate Monster in Avenue Q) Julie Atherton. Atherton is always worth seeing, let alone teaming her up with Webb - the two are friends, and used to entertain themselves by doing things like this when they shared a flat. In a theatrical style that thrives on improvisation and corpsing, putting the two of them on stage together should be a fun recipe.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Theatre review: Old Money

Hampstead Theatre ends its current main house season of new plays with Sarah Wooley's Old Money, about a 60-something widow's second lease of life. Following the death of her husband, Joyce (Maureen Lipman) gets hold of the house and all the money, and slowly realises she can enjoy it. After making the 30-minute train journey to London, seen all her life as some kind of impossible distance, she gradually gets bolder - going to the opera, chatting to men, and eventually striking up a friendship with stripper Candy (Nadia Clifford.) But back in Surrey, Joyce's family are unable to see that anything's changed: Her elderly mother Pearl (Helen Ryan) has been a controlling presence all her life and expects this to continue. And her daughter Fiona (Tracy-Ann Oberman,) married to the rarely-employed Graham (Timothy Watson) and pregnant for the third time, sees her mother largely as a childcare opportunity, also good for regular loans when they have trouble paying the mortgage.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Theatre review: Hero

Lightning struck twice with Polly Stenham and Anya Reiss both being discovered while still at school, but the Royal Court's attempts to make it a hat trick with E.V. Crowe haven't, to my eyes, borne fruit. Her schoolgirl debut Kin was underwhelming and I found her latest offering even more problematic: Hero tackles casual homophobia at a primary school by taking us into the flats of two male teachers: Charismatic Danny (Liam Garrigan) lives with his civil partner Joe (Tim Steed,) and they are hoping to adopt. His colleague and neighbour, the much more chaotic Jamie (Daniel Mays) is also an old friend of Joe's, and as such invites himself round a lot more often than Danny would like. At the start of the play his visit is to ask for advice, because the 7-year-olds have started a false rumour that he's gay, and he massively overreacted when he found out.

Monday 3 December 2012

Theatre review: Stories from an Invisible Town

Hugh Hughes, the mostly-fictional rising Welsh multimedia artist and alter-ego of actor/writer Shôn Dale-Jones, returns to the Pit with his fourth show following a national tour. (Dale-Jones claims to have been surprised after his first show, Floating, at people not realising Hugh wasn't real; but as his cast lists continue to credit the writing and acting to the characters, with the real creatives' names listed as "artistic associates," there's obviously a certain amount of deliberate blurring between him and his creation. It also makes crediting people in reviews tricky, so any crediting that follows is, I think, right, but comes mainly from a fair amount of googling.) This time around, for Stories from an Invisible Town, Hugh has been given siblings, Delyth (Sophie Russell) and Derwyn (Andrew Pembrooke,) who join him on stage for a loosely-structured memory play about their childhoods in Anglesey, and their more fractured relationships as adults.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Theatre review: Once Upon a Mattress

Some likeable, if a bit undercooked, family entertainment at the Union, where Once Upon a Mattress promises to tell the untold story behind the fairytale of the princess and the pea. The inaccurately-named Prince Dauntless (the Tovey-eared Mark Anderson) must marry a true princess, as defined by his mother (Paddy Glynn.) The Queen's definition is incredibly strict and subject to frequent change because, of course, she wants to keep her son to herself, and devises the various tests with her court wizard (David Pendlebury) specifically so that each princess is doomed to fail. And it's not just her gormless son who's affected - the law of the land says nobody else in the kingdom can get married until the prince does, which is particularly tricky for Sir Harry (Stiofán O'Doherty) and lady-in-waiting Larkin (Kimberley Blake) who've just found out their relationship is going to become quite public in about nine months' time. So Sir Harry determines to find the prince a wife, and discovers Winnifred (Jenny O'Leary,) the no-nonsense princess of a swamp.

Friday 30 November 2012

Theatre review: Merrily We Roll Along

Maria Friedman has a long association with Stephen Sondheim's work as a performer, and she now has a go at directing his work as well, with Merrily We Roll Along coming to the Menier Chocolate Factory as the big winter musical (Sondheim at the Menier presumably considered a safer bet after last year's crack dream.) Merrily, like Pinter's Betrayal, is famous as "the one that takes place in reverse." At a California beach house in 1976, we meet Frank (Mark Umbers,) a hugely successful composer of musicals and movie scores. The financial success can't disguise the personal failure though - his second marriage is on the rocks thanks to an affair with the star of his new film (Zizi Strallen - I would say I've now got a full set of Strallen sisters seen on stage, but I've heard there's further models in production) and his wife's going to react in the strongest way to the betrayal.

Thursday 29 November 2012

Theatre review: The Promise

Donmar Trafalgar's final season has an overall theme of lesser-known foreign language classics, presented in new adaptations by well-known playwrights. First of these is Penelope Skinner, who writes a version of Aleksei Arbuzov's The Promise (from a translation by Ariadne Nikolaeff.) The Soviet love triangle spanning 18 years, is a showcase for director Alex Sims. In 1942, during the Siege of Leningrad, 17-year-old Marat (Max Bennett,) following the rest of his family's deaths, returns to their tiny flat only to find that neighbour Lika (Joanna Vanderham,) whose own home has been bombed, has moved in. Starving and freezing, the two pool their meagre resources and become each other's support network, until a few weeks later the even worse-off Leonidik (Gwilym Lee) arrives on their doorstep and they decide to nurse him back to health. As post-war Russia starts to take shape, we rejoin them at various points when the three reunite.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Theatre review: Straight

There's a definite kinky theme developing to this week's theatregoing (how traumatic for me, I'm sure you're all thinking, given the famously prim and proper nature of my reviews.) After last night's definitely-not-gay shenanigans, tonight a play that takes a look at what it means to be Straight, by taking the very notion to its extreme. DC Moore has shown an ability to write not only powerful but quite varied plays with the likes of The Empire, Honest and The Swan (varied, but if they can be set in/actually take place in a pub, so much the better it seems.) This time he's taken as his inspiration a fairly recent film, Lynn Shelton's Humpday, to look at the platonic relationship between straight male friends, and in the process use it as a prism to look at men and women's relationships as well.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Theatre review: A Clockwork Orange (Action To The Word/Soho)

Certain shows you expect to have multiple London productions in a year, but they tend to be your Shakespeares and Chekhovs. Anthony Burgess' own stage adaptation of his most famous book, A Clockwork Orange, would seem less likely. But following a production at the Arcola earlier in the year that I wasn't convinced by, Action To The Word's Edinburgh hit rocks up at Soho Theatre as an unlikely Christmas offering. Burgess' notes for the 1986 adaptation are rather bizarre, and his apparent lack of enthusiasm for the project makes it unsurprising it originally flopped. Having knocked out the novella over three weeks in 1960 when he thought he was dying, he remained frustrated that it became his signature piece above works he considered superior; and only wrote his own stage adaptation to stop other people from doing so, and to make sure it had his original ending (which was ditched from US editions of the book.)

Monday 26 November 2012

Theatre review: Ignorance/Jahiliyyah

In 1948-9, the Islamic scholar Sayid Qutb (Jude Akuwudike) spent 18 months studying at a small American university. Already a much-published authority, the reasons the middle-aged Egyptian joined the freshmen in the first place seem a bit nebulous, but on his return to Egypt his writing became increasingly extreme (a quick Google search of Qutb sees him described as "the man who inspired Bin Laden") and he became a leading figure of the Muslim Brotherhood, acquiring a martyr's reputation after his arrest and execution. In a present day UK university, Philip (Daniel Rabin) is a lecturer finishing a book on Qutb, when he takes on new postgrad Layla (Laila Alj,) ostensibly writing her doctorate thesis on the same subject. Steve Waters' new play Ignorance/Jahiliyyah, the latest to premiere at Hampstead Downstairs, jumps between the two connected stories as Layla presents some documents that contradict the popular opinion that Qutb became radicalised after his return to Egypt, and suggests that his experiences in America simply confirmed a hatred of Western values that he already held.

Friday 23 November 2012

Theatre review: Medea

New adaptations of Greek tragedy often take a modernising approach to the play, but Mike Bartlett's version of Euripides' Medea for Headlong goes further than most: Nicknamed the "IKEA Medea" it feels less like an adaptation of Euripides' work, more like Bartlett has started afresh with the mythology and written a whole new play based on the story, bringing Medea and Jason to suburban England. Ruari Murchison's set is the front of a row of identical-looking houses, often pulling back to reveal the interior of Medea's two-up two-down home. Medea and Jason divorced nine months ago after he ran off with the landlord's daughter. Shortly afterwards she had a breakdown, and when we join them on the eve of Jason's second marriage, she is still more or less locking herself away in the house.

Thursday 22 November 2012

Theatre review: The Magistrate

Things haven't gone smoothly this year for the National's annual Christmas extravaganza: After taking the unusual, for them, step of putting tickets for The Count of Monte Cristo on sale nearly six months in advance, they then had to refund them when they decided the adaptation wasn't ready. Instead Timothy Sheader, who had been down to direct that show, was put in charge of a starry production of Arthur Wing Pinero's Victorian farce The Magistrate. When widow Agatha (Nancy Carroll) met the amiable magistrate Posket (John Lithgow) on holiday, she knocked five years off her age to seem more marriageable. Now they're married and back in London, Agatha's spotted a flaw in her plan: Her son Cis (Joshua McGuire,) whose fondness for port, cigarettes and groping his piano teacher (Sarah Ovens) seems a bit mature for a 14-year-old. That's because to make her lie work, his mother also knocked five years of Cis' age, and he's really 19.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Theatre review: The Effect

Following their hugely successful (except in America) work on ENRON, writer Lucy Prebble and director Rupert Goold reunite for a play with no lightsabres or velociraptors but plenty of fireworks of a different kind. The final show to be staged in the Cottesloe in its present form, The Effect is a "clinical romance" set in the world of drug trials on human guinea pigs. Connie (Billie Piper) and Tristan (Jonjo O'Neill) are being paid to spend a month locked away in a testing clinic, with almost no contact with the outside world, and have a new antidepressant tested on them. As the dosage is increased their bodies' reactions will be monitored, but one effect the doctors haven't prepared for is for the two to fall in love. As Lorna (Anastasia Hille,) the independent psychiatrist monitoring the results, tries to keep them apart, the pair keep finding ways to get together. What their love might not be able to weather though is the fact that it might not even be real - are their feelings for each other simply a side-effect of the drug?

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Theatre review: The Seagull

Russell Bolam, who directed Shivered, returns to Southwark Playhouse's main house to tackle Chekhov, bringing with him one of that show's stars, Joseph Drake. The play is my favourite Chekhov, The Seagull, and for this modern-day version Bolam uses a first foray into adapting classic texts from rising playwright Anya Reiss. The setting is an island that may or may not be the Isle of Man, and celebrated stage actress Arkadina (Sasha Waddell) is staying for the summer with her elderly brother Sorin (Malcolm Tierney.) Arkadina's son Konstantin (Drake) feels as if his mother resents him, and tries to get out of her shadow by writing plays, the first of which will be premiered for an exclusive audience of family and friends, and star Nina (Lily James,) the neighbour he's in love with. When this performance goes awry, it provides a turning point for Konstantin's rather fragile mental state, and sets off a tragic chain of events.

Monday 19 November 2012

Theatre review: The Dark Earth and the Light Sky

I'm all for giving people second chances, and at £8 for the Almeida's behind-a-pillar obstructed view seats, it's not as big a gamble as it might be. Because while the National's adaptation of Frankenstein was one of last year's biggest theatrical blockbusters, you'd be hard pushed to find someone who thought Nick Dear's script (o we are poor but happy and in love i do hope a monster doesn't suddenly turn up and kill us how tragically ironic that would be) was a factor in its success. Dear's new play has to make do without the bells and whistles of the Olivier's stage, star casting and direction. Instead The Dark Earth and the Light Sky rocks up at the Almeida with a pretty bare stage, Bob Crowley's design giving us an earth-covered playing area, conjuring up perhaps the native British soil in whose defence the early 20th century poet Edward Thomas enlisted in WWI, ultimately leading to his death.

Friday 16 November 2012

Theatre review: People

Inevitably one of the biggest theatrical events of the year was always going to be the premiere of the new Alan Bennett play, the latest in his long-standing collaboration with the National Theatre's Artistic Director, Nicholas Hytner. People also reunites Bennett with Frances de la Tour, who had memorable supporting roles in both The History Boys and The Habit of Art, and here gets her turn centre stage. The setting is a crumbling country pile somewhere in South Yorkshire. The house and most of its contents are, in theory, priceless, but death duties have left little money to actually take care of the place, and it's now an unheated mausoleum, occupied by two batty old ladies: Dorothy (de la Tour,) the owner, who lives a virtual hermit's life and only keeps up with "current" events via a pile of newspapers from 1982; and her even battier friend Iris (Linda Bassett,) who sits in a world of her own knitting scarves for the troops (Dorothy's informed her there's a war on in the Falklands.)

Thursday 15 November 2012

Re-review: Constellations

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Although this is a production I've already reviewed, this West End transfer doesn't get its second Press Night until tomorrow.

The third and final in the Royal Court's current season of transfers to the Duke of York's is the most recent, dating from the start of this year. Nick Payne's Constellations is also the only one of the trio to have originated in the smaller Upstairs Theatre, and I was interested to see how it coped with moving to a very different space from the one I'd originally seen it in. Michael Longhurst's production has come to the West End with its excellent original cast intact, and only minor alterations to Tom Scutt's set, other than the obvious change from an intimate in-the-round staging to a proscenium arch stage. Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins are Roland and Marianne, whose romance is played out in Quantum Multiverse Theory.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Theatre review: The Trojan Women

After a successful first season of "Revolt," Christopher Haydon at the Gate looks at "Aftermath," and first in the new season is Euripides' classic of those left behind when the fighting ends, The Trojan Women. Poet and playwright Caroline Bird has come up with a loose translation of the play that brings the language and action bang up to date. The war has just ended, and the Trojan men have been killed. The women are waiting in a hospital to find out which Greek general will claim each of them as his slave or concubine. Their babies are being taken from them - allegedly to be raised as Greeks, but it looks likely the reality is grimmer. Lucy Ellinson's Chorus is heavily pregnant, not far from giving birth. The only other occupant of the maternity ward is Troy's former Queen, Hecuba (Dearbhla Molloy,) put in the relatively quiet ward as the one remaining mark of respect afforded to her.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Theatre review: Daddy Long Legs

The publicity for the second show at the new St James Theatre has heavily plugged John Caird as the co-director of the original Les Misérables1, although anyone approaching Daddy Long Legs expecting blood and rebellion will be disappointed. In fact getting a bit hot under the collar might be too much to ask of this adaptation of Jean Webster's novel, which Caird also writes the book for with songs by Paul Gordon. It's 1908 and Jerusha (Megan McGinnis) is the oldest girl in a grim orphanage, when hope comes in the form of a mystery benefactor who pays for her college tuition. In exchange "Mr Smith" (Robert Adelman Hancock) asks only that Jerusha write him regular letters, although he will not reply to them or reveal his true identity. With only these two characters on stage, the story plays out through the letters Jerusha sends to the man she's nicknamed "Daddy Long Legs."

Monday 12 November 2012

Theatre review: Sweet Smell of Success

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The official critics are being invited to this on Wednesday.

There's quite a selection of musicals to choose from on the fringe at the moment, and the next to throw his hat in the ring is the Arcola's Mehmet Ergen, who directs a musical adaptation of 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success. With celebrity gossip seeming to be all that's keeping the print media in business, a look back at its earlier days suggests it was a dirty business even then. Based on the real-life journalist Walter Winchell, who first popularised the gossip column with his overheard conversations of Broadway and Hollywood stars, JJ Hunsecker (David Bamber) is the man everyone needs to impress if they're going to make it big in showbiz. Sidney Falcone (Adrian der Gregorian) is a floundering agent who can't get his clients into the paper for love nor money, until a chance encounter with JJ, who thinks Sidney is a friend of his sister's. JJ has a somewhat creepily overprotective relationship with his much younger sister Susan (Caroline Keiff,) and wants Sindey to spy on her and particularly her romantic life - in exchange he'll take him under his wing.

Sunday 11 November 2012

Theatre review: Steel Pier

Another lesser-known Kander and Ebb musical gets revived, this time at  the Union. It's now the turn of the 1997 Broadway flop Steel Pier, and in one of those weird bits of theatrical synchronicity it's the second show in as many months about 1930s dance marathons. This is a somewhat less nightmarish vision of the Depression-era endurance phenomenon than Dead On Her Feet but it still features a group of desperate young people dancing to the tune of a ruthless promoter who's probably out to rip them off anyway. Former stunt pilot Bill Kelly (Jay Rincon) turns up at Atlantic City's Steel Pier for a dance marathon run by Mick Hamilton (Ian Knauer.) He meets ageing starlet Rita Racine (Sarah Galbraith) whose dance partner hasn't shown up, and convinces her to team up with him instead. But Bill doesn't know that Rita is secretly married to Mick, and is essentially a ringer whose husband will rig things to make sure she wins.

Friday 9 November 2012

Theatre review: but i cd only whisper

There were cheers when it was announced there would be major improvement works done to the Arcola's unloved new building. Less so when it turned out the biggest changes would be to Studio 2, pretty much the only part of the theatre that was liked by audiences the way it was. The smaller studio has been relocated to the basement, directly below its previous home (which is now the bar.) The good news is that if the first show to be staged there, but i cd only whisper, is anything to go by, the transition has been fairly smooth. Kristiana Colón's play is set in an American city in 1970, and looks at the experience of black Vietnam veterans through a character study of a particularly damaged one: Following a dishonourable discharge from the army, Beau Willie Brown (Adetomiwa Edun) has committed an unnamed but seemingly appalling crime since his return home.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Theatre review: Uncle Vanya (Vaudeville Theatre)

Vanya has spent his life looking after his late sister's estate, taking a pittance for himself and sending all the profits to support his brother-in-law: An illustrious professor, Serebryakov has been a source of pride to the whole family. But when Serebryakov remarries and retires, he decides to move himself and his new young wife Yelena to the country estate that's been supporting him all these years. As Uncle Vanya opens, the title character (Ken Stott) has started to see that the professor (Paul "WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU?" Freeman) is a hack who's contributed nothing to his field and will leave no legacy. Chekhov's play looks at what happens when Vanya begins to realise that if the man he's sacrificed his life's work to is a nonentity, his own life's been a waste. Meanwhile the beautiful but listless Yelena (Anna Friel, like I just got home, Anna Friel) enraptures both Vanya and the local doctor.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Theatre review: Victor/Victoria

Thom Southerland's musical revivals have become a regular feature in Southwark Playhouse's Vault and hopefully one that will follow to wherever the new venue turns out to be. For the final show underneath Platform 1 of London Bridge he's taken us to 1930s Paris for Blake Edwards, Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse's Victor/Victoria. Anna Francolini is Victoria, a talented singer trying to get onto the Paris cabaret scene but lacking the extra something special that'll get people's attention. A chance encounter with Toddy (Richard Dempsey,) a gay cabaret singer who's also just found himself out of a job, leads to an idea for what that X factor might be: Victoria will use her vocal range to cash in on the trend for female impersonators by becoming Victor - a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. But the plan's instant success is put at risk when she falls for American gangster King (Matthew Cutts) and may need to reveal her true identity to get him.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Theatre review: Forests

Limping in at the tail end of the World Shakespeare Festival is a contribution from Catalan director Calixto Bieito, spending a few days at the Barbican Theatre, and aiming to bring together the worlds and moods of the various Forests from Shakespeare's plays. Starting in the Forest of Arden and indeed spending most of its first half in the world of As You Like It, the performance takes a darker turn in the second half with soul-searching or violent moments from the likes of Macbeth, King Lear, Timon of Athens, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida and several other plays plus a few sonnets. There's a few brooks and blasted heaths here too in among the actual forests - I got the impression that as long as a scene could conceivably happen within ten miles of a tree, it was fair game. In theory I suppose this is meant to be somewhere along the lines of A Tender Thing, reappropriating Shakespeare's lines to give them new meaning, but in practice meaning is rather short on the ground.

Monday 5 November 2012

Theatre review: NSFW

I'm sure this'll come as a complete surprise given how purer-than-pure my reviews are, but the blog stats do show that people sometimes get here after Googling for some pretty dirty stuff. How disappointed they must be to find posts that, at most, might happen to give a description of someone's genitals. In passing, like. I imagine the amount of disappointed punters will only increase now that my text includes the title of Lucy Kirkwood's new play at the Royal Court, NSFW (for the benefit of people who don't use the internet - HOW ARE YOU READING THIS? - the acronym for Not Safe For Work, or stuff, usually of a mucky nature, you wouldn't want your boss catching you looking at on your computer screen.) Although in the case of the workplaces in Kirkwood's play, those kind of images are exactly what you're supposed to be looking at at work, because we're in the editorial offices of two - apparently - very different magazines.

Saturday 3 November 2012

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

The RSC's big Christmas show this year is an all-guns-blazing Merry Wives of Windsor, although the seasonal feel is more Halloween - complete with jack o'lantern in a window - than Christmas. Phillip Breen's modern dress production comes straight out of the pages of Country Life, with wives in scarves and high-heeled wellies, and huntin', shootin', rugger-playing husbands. Legend has always had it that Elizabeth I herself requested that Shakespeare write The Merry Wives of Windsor, wanting to see Falstaff in love. If that old story were true, Shakespeare would probably have met with a sticky end because that's not what's provided here: Instead the fat old knight from Henry IV is very much in lust, with two married, upper-middle-class women. They're better friends than he realised though, and on discovering he's sent them both identical love letters decide to lead him on, and into embarrassing and increasingly public mishaps.

Friday 2 November 2012

Theatre review: Khadija is 18

Sociology lecturer Shamser Sinha has a decade's experience working with young asylum seekers, so it's no surprise that this informs his debut full-length play, Khadija is 18. It focuses on two 17-year-old unaccompanied refugees, Khadija (Aysha Kala) from Afghanistan, whose whole family were killed; and Liza (Katherine Rose Morley) from an unnamed Eastern European country, who is pretending that her baby sister is her daughter, in an attempt to get them both asylum. We spend six months with them as they worry about the usual teenage issues like their college classes and Khadija's relationship with Ade (Victor Alli.) But their refugee status means they also have to deal with additional problems like sub-minimum wage jobs, Liza's isolation looking after the baby, and people like Ade's friend Sam (Damson Idris,) who spouts tabloid opinions about benefit-cheating "refs." And above it all loom their 18th birthdays, when Immigration will decide if they can stay in the UK.

Thursday 1 November 2012

Theatre review: Blackta

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Blackta invites the official critics in next week.

Nathaniel Martello-White, who was a rather good Lysander at the RSC last year, is a black actor - or, as the title of his playwrighting debut has it, a Blackta. He paints a pretty bleak picture of it as a profession in this play, which follows four black actors who are friends, but a friendship tinged with aggression and professional rivalry, often going up against each other for the same roles and trying to make their rivals nervous: They're constantly coming up with new gym regimes and diets to give them an edge, and fretting over just how black is too black to appeal to a casting director. The latter fact also gives the characters their names: There's the fiery Brown (Anthony Welsh,) laid-back Yellow (Howard Charles,) apparently indestructible Black (Daniel Francis,) and the butt of their jokes, the fantasist Dull Brown (Javone Prince.) For all the difficulties they face getting jobs now, an even grimmer fate seems in store for them with age, as in the background sits Older Black (Leo Wringer,) permanently waiting for a callback that never comes.

Wednesday 31 October 2012

Theatre review: THE HORROR! THE HORROR!

A perfectly-timed seasonal theatre trip for once as I go to a horror show on Halloween night. The faded grandeur of Wilton's Music Hall seems a perfect fit for a show about Victorian spookiness, but with the main auditorium itself still closed for much-needed restoration work, Theatre of the Damned's THE HORROR! THE HORROR! becomes instead a promenade around the rest of the building. With a bit of a nod to the constant fundraising needed to keep Wilton's standing, the show is framed as a Victorian vaudeville, the audience standing in for wealthy potential investors. Our hosts (Tom Richards and Ben Goffe) inform us that the venue is under "new management" and they hope that a suitable donation can be made tonight, a special preview of their new lineup.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Theatre review: Loserville

It's all looking very retro at the Garrick at the moment, as it may be playing host to a new musical, but Elliot Davis and James Bourne's Loserville is set in 1971, while there's something of the Starlight Express to Francis O'Connor's neon microchip of a set. Though a British musical, this is very much the classic American high school story, as Michael Dork (they... they know what that word actually means, right?) and his Star Trek-loving friends spend their time in the school's computer room, steering clear of the popular kids. When a similarly geeky girl, Holly, arrives at the school, Michael not only gets a romantic interest on his wavelength, but also an ally who can help with his attempt to make computers send messages to each other: He essentially wants to invent email, and get there before the big computer corporation up the road does.

Monday 29 October 2012

Theatre review: Blue Sky

Having put her once-abusive mother in an old people's home, investigative journalist Jane (Sarah Malin) returns to her old house to clear it out. While there she meets up again with a childhood friend, plane-spotter Ray (Jacob Krichefski) and asks him for help identifying a small airplane: She believes it was used by the CIA to abduct a British citizen and take him to be "questioned" as a suspected terrorist. Jane thinks she's uncovered an American plot to send terror suspects to be tortured in various countries with oppressive regimes and diplomatic ties to the US. Clare Bayley's play Blue Sky is set around the time of the protests against the Iraq war (so the action probably starts in late 2002, continuing into 2003) although it takes a while for it to become apparent that it isn't set in the present day.

Friday 26 October 2012

Theatre review: 55 Days

Howard Brenton's run of historical/political plays continues with a look at the English Civil War, and the 55 Days leading up to Charles I's execution. Hampstead Theatre's main house has been configured in traverse for the clash between Charles (Mark Gatiss) and Oliver Cromwell (Douglas Henshall,) the man who would go on to lead the country's brief period as a republic. Cromwell speaks of the power of the people but right from the start this is a story of rules being bent, broken and rewritten completely to get the desired result. When Parliament votes overwhelmingly against putting the king on trial for treason, the republican-leaning army "purges" the Commons by getting rid of all the MPs who voted in Charles' favour.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Theatre review: All That Fall

Sometimes it becomes apparent that a particular writer's lauded genius is something you're just going to have to take on trust, and you're never going to get on with their work. So it is with me and Samuel Beckett whose work, after many attempts, I decided I was just never going to "get," and would stop booking revivals of his plays unless a very good reason presented itself. (I've sometimes wondered if the Beckett estate's famous stranglehold on how his work is performed is part of the problem; that maybe some director might have a radical vision that would make one of his plays come to life for me, but he or she would never be allowed to stage it.) But as far as reasons to make an exception go, the one that's made All That Fall such a hot ticket is a pretty good one: The chance to see Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon acting together, and in a very intimate space.