Monday 30 April 2012

Theatre review: The Conquest of the South Pole

Going to the theatre is a hobby I enjoy, as is blogging about it afterwards. But sometimes it can be a chore when you feel like you're run out of ways to say the same thing. Take this past month, for instance: A certain brand of late 20th Century, expressionistic European drama always goes down like a cup of cold sick in this country but in recent weeks producers seem determined that we're going to learn to like it, dammit! Stephen Unwin, who directed the original production, revives Manfred Karge's story of disaffected, unemployed youth The Conquest of the South Pole at the Arcola. All the pre-publicity has focused on the fact that the 1988 production had Alan Cumming in it (and Ewen Bremner, but with the best will in the world they're stretching there as far as name-dropping goes) and he ended up becoming famous so... come and see it this time because maybe one of this lot will become famous. Er, yay?

Friday 27 April 2012

Theatre review: Pericles (National Theatre of Greece / Globe to Globe)

The Globe's main contribution to the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival is Globe to Globe, in which all of Shakespeare's plays are performed by international companies, each in a different language. (So, remind me, who's doing The Two Noble Kinsmen? *cough*) Most of the shows are getting just two performances each, a handful of the more popular ones will get three. The Globe is encouraging audiences to collect the full set with a £100 deal for Yard tickets to all shows but I'm being a bit more selective and only going to shows I have a particular reason to want to see. So being half-Greek my first visit, accompanied by my mum and sister, was to the National Theatre of Greece's offering. The heavy rain that's been a feature all week took a break for tonight's performance, although if it had persisted it wouldn't have been too inappropriate for Shakespeare and Wilkins' story of storms, shipwreck and the high seas, Pericles.

Thursday 26 April 2012

Theatre review: Wild Swans

Jung Chang's memoir of three generations of women in Maoist China, Wild Swans has been a blockbuster book for 21 years. It now gets its first stage adaptation by Alexandra Wood, directed by Sacha Wares. The book is by all accounts a bit of an epic, but instead of trying to recreate that the creative team has opted to pare it down to 90 minutes, creating an explosion of colour that looks like a carnival but actually reveals the fear, hunger and crushed idealism underneath it. Yu-Fang (Julyana Soelistyo) had her feet bound as a child, and in her teens was forced to become the concubine of a warlord. When the Communists take over, this "privileged" past is still held against her and her family.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Theatre review: Making Noise Quietly

Josie Rourke continues her first season at the Donmar with a show that links it to her previous theatre - Robert Holman's Making Noise Quietly premiered at the Bush in 1986, and director Peter Gill has worked at both theatres before. The play is a triptych, and in a programme note David Eldridge says its format directly influenced his own play Under The Blue Sky (which I liked, so I'll take that as a recommendation) and Simon Stephens' Wastwater (which I'm sure is also meant to be a recommendation but I don't think I know anyone who actually saw Wastwater who'd consider the comparison as a good thing.) Eldridge and Stephens also, of course, co-wrote A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky with Holman, and he seems to be a writer with a huge influence on other playwrights.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Theatre review: The Great Gatsby (Wilton's Music Hall)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This review is of the final preview performance. Not that it matters what I or any of the "real" critics think - the whole run's already sold out.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is back in fashion at the moment, with a film on the way, and at least three stage versions coming to London. This resurgence in popularity is entirely down to artistic reasons, namely that the book's just come into the public domain so producers don't need to pay royalties to stage it. For similar highbrow reasons, when choosing which version to see I went for the one that doesn't run for eight hours, Peter Joucla's adaptation at Wilton's Music Hall. Nick (Nick Chambers) moves into a small Long Island house, next to the mansion of the mysterious Gatsby (Michael Malarkey.) The latter holds parties every weekend in the hope of attracting his lost love Daisy (Kirsty Besterman) who lives nearby; but the source of his wealth seems a bit shady.

Monday 23 April 2012

Theatre review: Neighbourhood Watch

There's nothing worse than an annoying neighbour - I should know, I had Vanessa sitting next to me at the latest Alan Ayckbourn play. (Well I say the latest; it premiered late last year so he's probably written another three by now. The amount of plays he's credited with increases the further into the programme you get.) Ayckbourn also directs Neighbourhood Watch, a rather dark little satire about middle class paranoia and prejudice getting out of control. A middle-aged, virginal brother and sister, Martin and Hilda (Memorable Actor Matthew Cottle and Alexandra Mathie) have just moved into a new house in a leafy suburb. Somewhere in the distance is a housing estate, demonised by the locals as the source of unimaginable evils. When they invite the new neighbours round for a housewarming, their horror stories of violent crimes that could theoretically happen lead Martin to start a Neighbourhood Watch scheme; and when his beloved garden gnome gets broken, he's angered into extreme measures.

Saturday 21 April 2012

Theatre review: King John (RSC / Swan)

When you go to as much theatre as I do, certain Shakespeare plays do keep cropping up. Two Lears in a year wouldn't be that unusual but two King Johns? I was excited when the RSC's new one at the Swan was announced last year, and booked straight away, even paying a bit extra for a front row seat since it's such a rarity (at the time I'd last seen it a decade ago.) Since booking, a smaller-scale production appeared much closer to home, so this is now my second King John of 2012. But even if the play's not quite Hamlet it still rewards getting to know it better, and this turns out to be a show well worth making the trip to Stratford-upon-Avon for.

Friday 20 April 2012

Theatre review: Misterman

The original production of Disco Pigs helped make the names of both Enda Walsh and Cillian Murphy. The two have now teamed up again, Walsh (who also directs) writing solo show Misterman especially for Murphy. Thomas Magill is a disturbed young man, living with his disabled mother in a small Irish town. Since his father's death, they lost the shop that was their livelihood, and Mammy subsists on Jammie Dodgers while Thomas wanders around Inishfree, recording every conversation he has with the locals.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Theatre review: Oedipussy

The word "silly" could serve as the full review of Spymonkey's Oedipussy, which opens with the cast of four lamenting a negative review of their previous show. Having been criticised for being too frivolous for their age (the cast are in their forties and fifties) they announce they'll be taking on the much more serious topic of classical Greek tragedy. But Sophocles probably didn't have this in mind as the company's take on the Oedipus myth is frantic, ridiculous, and very funny. Aitor Basauri, Stephan Kreiss, Petra Massey and Toby Park, a multinational cast with seemingly no embarrassment threshold, spend the next couple of hours strutting around in nappies, taking on all the characters and coming up with endless physical comedy and creative use of props.

Theatre review: Someone Who'll Watch Over Me

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Southwark Playhouse doesn't specify preview periods for its shows, but this review is of the second public performance.

When Jessica Swale comes to Southwark Playhouse it's usually to put her very distinctive stamp on Restoration comedy. This time though she returns for a darker theme, a 20th anniversary revival of Frank McGuinness' hostage drama Someone Who'll Watch Over Me. Simon Kenny's thrust set stabs out into the audience, and as we enter a triangle of black curtain shields the small basement room where American doctor Adam (Joseph Timms) and Irish journalist Edward (Billy Carter) are being held hostage in Lebanon. Soon they're joined by English university lecturer Michael (Robin Soans) and the three men build a friendship that rallies their spirits against their unseen captors.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Theatre review: Mary Rose

A couple of years ago J.M. Barrie's Quality Street turned out to be a forgotten gem. Now his odd little ghost story Mary Rose receives a revival, but though not without its moments, proves to be no lost classic. In the 1880s, when she was 11 years old, Mary Rose disappeared on a tiny Hebridean island. About a month later the girl reappeared, unaware that any time had passed. Her parents keep the mystery from her, a secret that could have tragic consequences now Mary Rose (Jessie Cave) is 17 and preparing to get married. The story is bookended by scenes set in 1919 when a young man (Charlie Kerson) returns from Australia to the now-derelict house where she lived, now rumoured to be haunted.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Theatre review: Gross und Klein

Sydney Theatre Company's production of Botho Strauss' Gross und Klein is subtitled with the English translation of the title, Big and Small, a subtitle that's been getting bigger in the publicity as the months went on, presumably to avoid disappointment from people expecting a cop show featuring the mismatched partnership of Paul Gross from Due South and underpant merchant Calvin Klein. Instead it's a slice of 1970s German expressionism, modernised in a translation by Martin Crimp. Lotte is on a journey, starting on holiday in Morocco before returning to Germany. She drops in on other people's lives, finding all their little pronouncements, from pearls of wisdom to tedious management-speak "amazing!" She moves into an apartment block where everyone wanders in and out of each other's flats at whim, and a girl lives permanently in a tent. She joins her brother's family at a bizarre garden party, starts dating a man then plays at being his secretary, and preaches Kabbalah to a man at a bus stop. And there we have it.

Monday 16 April 2012

Theatre review: Black T-Shirt Collection

Writer/performer Inua Ellams returns to the National Theatre with Black T-Shirt Collection, a gentle fable about globalisation and identity. When her husband is killed in a religious conflict, a Nigerian Muslim woman adopts a Christian boy into her family as her own small act of religious harmony. The boy and his new foster brother becomes best friends, and Ellams narrates the story of Muhammed (Muslim and gay) and Matthew (Christian and straight) as they start a little designer t-shirt business that becomes a cult hit with the locals. When Muhammed's sexuality becomes publicly known the brothers flee to Cairo and start again, then relocating their business to London and eventually a Chinese sweatshop.

Thierry Lawson directs Ellams on a plain black set in a truncated Cottesloe, with sparing use of cartoonish projections to help tell the story. It's a very gentle, sometimes moving tale as the brothers' priorities in life start to change and diverge, and the author remains a very likeable, softly-spoken performer. Perhaps too softly-spoken though: His voice can verge on the soporific (indeed there were, briefly, loud snores from one audience member) and his writing is better at differentiating the story's various characters than his perfromance is. I thought a couple of shocking moments were a bit overdone and not quite in keeping with the rest of the piece, but Black T-Shirt Collection is a likeable, clearly heartfelt story, that could have done with a bit more gusto in the actual performance.

Black T-Shirt Collection by Inua Ellams is booking in repertory until the 24th of April at the National Theatre's Cottesloe.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

Sunday 15 April 2012

Re-review: Shivered

You can read my original review of Philip Ridley's latest play Shivered here; at the end of it I said I could have gone straight back to the theatre and watched it again. That, of course, wasn't possible (apparently even actors have homes to go to) but as the end of the run neared I increasingly wanted to catch the show again before it ended, and a few days ago booked for its final performance last night.

It's no secret that as far as I'm concerned, Shivered is the show to beat this year, and a second visit did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm. The scenes are shown out of chronological order, which means on a first viewing one of the pleasures is in putting the story together in your head and realising how seemingly innocuous events seen early on have a greater significance. But even without this element of surprise, there's satisfaction to be found in the dramatic ironies that pepper early scenes (Gordy's bullshit "story of Baby G" features an event that closely mirrors how Mikey's story will end, as well as links to Alec's experiences in the Middle East.)

Saturday 14 April 2012

Theatre review: Black Battles With Dogs

Southwark Playhouse's Vault space is drowned in haze for Bernard-Marie Koltès's Black Battles With Dogs, the lighting picking out four characters in and around a sealed-off compound in an unnamed African country. The cast features two former members of the RSC's EnsembleTM: Supervisor Horn (Paul Hamilton) has been in Africa for some time, and stays there despite having lost his genitals in a local conflict. Cal (Joseph Arkley) is younger, more volatile, and fiercely racist towards the locals. They both work for a French construction company that is about to pull out of the area. A couple of days ago Cal shot a black worker and disposed of the body into a sewer. Now Alboury (Osi Okerafor,) claiming to be the dead man's brother, has arrived demanding the body be returned. Also in the camp is Leonie (Rebecca Smith-Williams,) a pretty but poor young Parisian girl who's planning to marry Horn for his money.

Friday 13 April 2012

Non-review: Where the Shot Rabbits Lay

Again, not a review as Brad Birch's Where the Shot Rabbits Lay is not a fully-staged play but the last rehearsed reading in this year's Young Writers Festival (I really want there to be an apostrophe in there somewhere but there isn't) at the Royal Court; although director Nick Bagnall allows his cast to act out some of the action, with the odd prop thrown in.

Birch's short play (I also saw an in-development work by the writer here last year) is a father-son bonding moment, as a Man (Nicolas Tennant) and surly 13-year-old Boy (Lewis Lempereur-Palmer) go camping for a weekend. Following his divorce, the father is keen to make a connection with his son and, he hopes, impart a bit of wisdom if he has any. Though things don't end up going as smoothly as he might hope, the two do end up improving their relationship a bit by the end. Along the way there's confrontations and a lot of witty lines which Tennant times beautifully even with script in hand. Quite a sweet, entertaining playlet, on the strength of this I'd go see full-length work from Birch.

Where the Shot Rabbits Lay by Brad Birch is booking until the 14th of April at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 45 minutes straight through.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Theatre review: Long Day's Journey Into Night

If an actor gets too closely associated with a single role, he can end up trapped in it, and be seen as nothing more than that one part. So says Poirot, and he should know what with the little grey cells. In fact David Suchet has made sure to avoid the fate of his character James Tyrone, and his latest foray into stretching different acting muscles on stage is Anthony Page's new production of Long Day's Journey Into Night. Eugene O'Neill's play is hard work, but rewarding with it. The title gives away the structure as we join the Tyrone family in their summer house by the sea, and rejoin them several times during a day and night when a lot of harsh realities come out.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Theatre review: Chalet Lines

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This review is of the final preview performance.

Madani Younis makes his debut as Artistic Director at the Bush with Lee Mattinson's Chalet Lines, which follows a family of Newcastle women backwards through the decades as they revisit a holiday camp, the scene of many tense encounters between mothers and daughters. Linking the scenes is Barbara (Gillian Hanna,) celebrating her 70th birthday as we join them in a shabby chalet bedroom. She's accompanied by oldest daughter Loretta (Monica Dolan) and granddaughters Abigail (Laura Elphinstone) and Jolene (Robyn Addison.) But as Barbara makes no bones about expressing to Loretta's face, all she really cares about is the absence of her other, favourite daughter. We don't meet Paula (Sian Breckin) until the action jumps back to the 1990s, Loretta's daughters are teenagers, and she too has a clear favourite: Pretty and gregarious Jolene will presumably be easy to marry off but wallflower Abigail is to be berated at all times for her shortcomings.

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Theatre review: Mercury Fur

The Philip Ridley-fest continues with a revival of Mercury Fur at the Old Red Lion. The country is in chaos, the young people caught up in world of riots, looting and indiscriminate violence. While the poor underclass turn on themselves, bankers seem to remain a wealthy elite, untouched by the anarchy and holding a certain amount of control over it through their money. The pre-publicity for this show quite gleefully dug up the original reviews from the play's 2005 debut, dismissing it as far-fetched; and compared them to news images from last August. This being Ridley though there's a fantastical touch to his apocalyptic dystopia: Some time in the past, a freak storm rained sand and brought with it numerous new species of butterfly. When eaten, the butterflies have a narcotic effect, creating hyper-realistic hallucinations, usually of a violent nature. Addicted to their effect, people start to seek it out in reality as well.

Monday 9 April 2012

Theatre review: Blue Heart Afternoon

Nigel Gearing's Blue Heart Afternoon is set in 1951 Hollywood, and he populates it with four archetypes of the period: Ernie (Stephen Noonan,) an Oscar-winning songwriter who wasn't particularly supportive of his colleagues accused of Communist activity, and is worried this will affect his future career; an ageing, sexually-ambiguous German Diva (Sian Thomas,) whose star is on the wane; Harry (Peter Marinker,) a dying studio mogul; and the not-as-naïve-as-she-looks Ingenue (Ruby Bentall,) freshly arrived from Texas. Overlooked by the Hollywood sign they try to make deals with each other that might launch or save their careers.

Saturday 7 April 2012

Theatre review: The King's Speech

David Seidler tried to hawk his play The King's Speech to theatre producers but attracted the attention of a film producer instead. People more up-to-date than I on news of magic lantern shows, inform me the ensuing film did "quite well," so now the original play finally gets its chance on stage; and a West End stage at that, with a strong cast. King George V (Joss "DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY" Ackland) is nearing the end of his life, and not too thrilled about the succession. David, the future Edward VIII (Daniel Betts) is a bit of a raving Nazi and, much more importantly by the ruling classes' standards, shagging an American. Everyone except David himself seems to see the abdication crisis coming, but the trouble is the next in line is Bertie (Charles Edwards,) whose severe stammer doesn't make him the ideal person to make reassuring speeches to the nation as WWII approaches.

Friday 6 April 2012

Theatre review: A Warsaw Melody

Apparently a big hit in its native Russia and throughout Europe, Leonid Zorin's A Warsaw Melody hasn't premiered in the UK until now. Of course as we've seen before, what's popular in mainland Europe doesn't always fly here, and there may be a very good reason nobody's tried it before. In Moscow in 1946, Victor (Oliver King) meets Polish music student Helya (Emily Tucker) at a concert hall. They strike up a relationship but Soviet policy is fated to get in the way.

The play actually starts well, with the duo's awkward first meeting suggesting a likeable couple we might root for. Very soon though her flirtatious teasing just seems like smugness, his correcting her Russian grammar becomes patronising, and these remain pretty much all the personality they're invested with. Oleg Mirochnikov's sluggish production makes little effort to inject life into proceedings. There's occasionally little observations about how life in Eastern Europe just after World War II has affected them, and perhaps for audiences who've lived behind the Iron Curtain, the backdrop gives this chaste, bloodless romance an added poignancy. It's hard for just two characters to sustain interest for two hours in the best of circumstances: These nondescript characters in one-note performances stand no chance. There's a recurring theme of people asking what time it is, unfortunately apt as I was looking at my watch a lot.

A Warsaw Melody by Leonid Zorin is booking until the 28th of April at the Arcola Theatre's Studio 2.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Thursday 5 April 2012

Theatre review: Sweeney Todd

Sometimes you can feel a lot better about yourself by spending some time with the very worst specimens of humanity. But enough about Vanessa, who's a big Stephen Sondheim fan and so got first dibs on my spare ticket for Sweeney Todd, now at the Adelphi in Jonathan Kent's production, originally seen in Chichester. Anthony Ward's multi-level set of metal staircases and curving walkways is an industrial Dante's Inferno in which *Michael Ball* can take centre stage as the vengeful barber, Benjamin Barker, who was transported to Australia because the corrupt Judge Turpin (John Bowe) wanted a shot at his wife. Changing his name to Sweeney Todd, Barker returns to his old Fleet Street premises above a pie shop, and plots bloody revenge on Turpin and his accomplice Beadle Bamford (Peter Polycarpou.) Meanwhile he tries to get back the daughter the judge raised, and is now trying to force into marriage.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Theatre review: A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange is best-known for the movie adaptation. Not being a Kubrick fan I've avoided the film, although its iconic imagery is of course familiar. I've read the original book (but as I recall I was in hospital at the time, so whatever my response at the time was it's probably not to be trusted.) Andy on the other hand was familiar with the film but not the book, so a good combination as we went in to see Volcano Theatre's adaptation, which has moved into the Arcola's main house. Directed by Paul Davies, the production uses five actors (Paul Coldrick, Kyle Edward-Hubbard, Alex Moran, Mairi Phillips and Billy Rayner) to alternate playing the role of narrator Alex, and those of all the other characters.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Theatre review: Vera Vera Vera

The Veras in the title of Hayley Squires' debut play have nothing to do with The Shamen, but instead refer to the (basically quite similar) musical stylings of Dame Vera Lynn. Her songs play over the scene changes of Vera Vera Vera, the second and final full production in this year's Royal Court Young Writers Festival. The cast of five are split over two connected storylines: On the day of the funeral of Bobby, a soldier killed in Afghanistan, his sister Emily (Danielle Flett,) brother Danny (Tommy McDonnell) and best friend Lee (Daniel Kendrick) gather, bicker, and try to move on. Interspersed with their scenes is a story that happens a couple of weeks later: Charlie (Abby Rakic-Platt) and Sammy (Ted Riley) are a couple of teenage best friends. As Sammy prepares to meet a school bully for a fight, the two are forced to acknowledge their real feelings for each other.

Monday 2 April 2012

Theatre review: The Duchess of Malfi

The Old Vic's baroque Duchess of Malfi is clearly not going to be the venue for another wedding disco, thus bucking the trend for Jacobean tragedy this year. Of course, the wedding in question being a closely-guarded secret (a secret that somehow survives several years and three children) the chances of the cast doing the "Tragedy" dance were always going to be slim. Instead Jamie Lloyd gives us an epic production of John Webster's best-known work, on Soutra Gilmour's sumptuous set of arches, walkways and candles. The Duchess of Malfi has recently been widowed, and her two brothers advise her not to remarry. Obeying them on the surface, she in fact secretly marries her young steward. When it all finally comes out, her brothers deal with the class-defying relationship in typically bloody fashion.