Friday 28 September 2012

Theatre review: One Day When We Were Young

Touring company Paines Plough bring a series of new plays to London in the Roundabout Auditorium, a small wooden pop-up theatre that's reminiscent of the one Mike Bartlett displayed his Cock on. Set up in Shoreditch Town Hall, it's an intimate in-the-round space with three banks of seating with different-coloured cushions on them: At the box office there's jars with pink, blue and yellow buttons in them, and the colour you choose tells you which part of the auditorium to sit in - although, being small and in-the-round, it probably doesn't matter much where you end up. Judging by the spread of audience members, given that choice of colours, most people will go for blue, and pink is very unpopular. Andy and I sat in the yellow area for the first of the three plays, Nick Payne's One Day When We Were Young, directed by Clare Lizzimore.

Thursday 27 September 2012

Theatre review: This House

In 1974, two general elections resulted in a hung parliament (no clear majority) followed by a slim Labour majority. Without forming a coalition government, this was a parliament never expected to survive long, but against the odds they hung on for almost the full five years. With such a slim majority getting any legislation passed was a herculean task, so This House, James Graham's fictionalised take on these turbulent years in the House of Commons, avoids putting the best-known public faces of 1970s politics on stage. Instead the focus is on the whips of the two main parties. (For the benefit of Americans and other aliens: Whips are MPs for each major party whose job it is to ensure all MPs on their side vote according to the party line. With a majority of just 3 right after the election, just a couple of rebel backbenchers could scupper a government's attempts to push new bills through.)

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Theatre review: Donny's Brain

Donny (Ryan Early) is in hospital with brain damage following a car crash. Neurologist Al (Nikesh Patel) is studying him, helping him piece together the parts of his memory that he's lost, and he seems to be making some slow progress. But what would really help is if his partner Emma (Emily Joyce) and her daughter Flea (Skye Lourie) were to visit him, and he can't understand why they haven't. Actually he and Emma had a messy break-up two years ago, and Donny's memory has reset to three years ago when he still loved her - erasing in the process his memories of new wife Trish (Siobhan Hewlett.) Hampstead Theatre's Downstairs season returns with Donny's Brain, Rona Munro's bittersweet play about what might happen if someone really did get the opportunity to turn back the clock on a failed relationship. As the initially angry Emma, who hasn't seen Donny since the break-up, gets a glimpse of the man who was so much in love with her, she also starts to wonder if they could go back to how things were.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Theatre review: Twelfth Night (Shakespeare's Globe & Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue)

Not a PREVIEW DISCLAIMER as such, apparently newspaper critics are not being invited to review this production until after its West End transfer, so the whole Globe run is either fair game, or we're to infer that it consists entirely of previews. In any case, one of the papers has already broken that embargo.

Mark Rylance was the original Artistic Director of Shakespeare's Globe (ironically enough, since he presumably considers the venue's name to be inaccurate) and, for reasons I won't go into unless anyone is especially interested, an interview of his where he discussed his plans for the venue rather put me off the place, hence my never having visited it until four years ago. Having now seen plenty of enjoyable shows at the Globe though, I didn't feel the need to stay away from the return of Rylance and his Original Practices team, his first since 2006. As well as a new production of Richard III (which I've booked at the very end of its run to leave a decent gap after seeing the RSC's version) director Tim Carroll also brings back perhaps the most famous production of Rylance's tenure, with him as Olivia in Twelfth Night. Unbeknownst to each other, a pair of twins wash up on the Illyrian coast after a shipwreck, where they get confused for each other by the households of the Duke Orsino, and the object of his romantic affections, the grieving lady Olivia.

Monday 24 September 2012

Theatre review: Mademoiselle Julie

"Hello, is that Substance? Style here. Just calling to let you know your services will not be required this evening."

It seems an adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie is only ever a few months away. Earlier this year we had Patrick Marber's 1940s take on the play, and next year it gets a South African makeover. In between is Frédéric Fisbach's French production, Mademoiselle Julie, spending a short run at the Barbican. Juliette Binoche is Miss Julie, the "mad" daughter of a wealthy count. On Midsummer's Eve, most of the servants (played by a "local community cast," or "unpaid extras" as they're otherwise known,) are partying in the garden, seen through glass doors. But cook Kristin (Bénédicte Cerutti) is in the kitchen, left behind by her boyfriend Jean (Nicolas Bouchaud) who's been spirited away by the lady of the house to dance. When the exhausted Kristin nods off, Miss Julie steps up the flirtation a notch into full-on seduction. The morning after, the two fantasize about ignoring their backgrounds and running away together.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Theatre review: Charley's *unt

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This review is of the final reduced-price preview. All remaining performances are being sold at full price, and the critics aren't being invited in for another week.

I'd heard of Brandon Thomas' famous comedy Charley's *unt, but all I knew was the title, the fact that cross-dressing figured somewhere, and its best-known quote "Brazil... where the nuts come from" (which, as famous highlights go, isn't entirely encouraging about the rest.) When it was announced that the Menier Chocolate Factory would be reviving it, the reaction online didn't bode well either, with surprise at the choice, and the phrase "horribly dated" being used quite liberally. On the other hand, Big Favourite Round These Parts Dominic Tighe is in the cast, so what can you do? Turn up at the Menier, where Jack (Tighe) and his friend Charley (Benjamin Askew) are trying to find a way to propose to their girlfriends. Charley's *unt Donna Lucia, whom he's never met before, is due to return from Brazil, and seems like a suitable chaperone. When she fails to turn up and Jack finds himself at risk of having to go work abroad before finding a moment alone with Kitty (Leah Whitaker,) their friend Lord Fancourt Babberley (Matthew Horne) is called upon to throw a dress on and impersonate Donna Lucia.

Saturday 22 September 2012

Theatre review: The Busy Body

Southwark Playhouse seems to be on an absolute roll for its final season before moving house, a record they can hopefully continue to build on. But if there's one thing I hope comes along to their new venue it's Jessica Swale's annual production of a Restoration Comedy (the programme note that The Busy Body is "part of a series exploring the 'lost' female wits" makes me optimistic about there being more to come.) This year a couple of cast members from The Rivals and The Belle's Stratagem return with the director for a story by another early female playwright, Susanna Centlivre, with a few adaptations by Swale herself: The play's original prologue quickly gets ditched in favour of a new one, in the form of a song celebrating Britain's female playwrights from Aphra Behn to Polly Stenham and - a handy plug for coming attractions at the same venue - Anya Reiss.

Friday 21 September 2012

Theatre review: Taboo

A show named after a seedy club gets revived in a site-specific production at a not-entirely-salubrious-looking club in Brixton. Original director Christopher Renshaw, bringing with him an original cast member (Paul Baker as Philip Sallon,) returns to Boy George's autobiographical musical Taboo. It's the early 1980s and straight(ish) aspiring photographer Billy (Alistair Brammer) moves out of his parents' home and in with his Siouxsie-esque girlfriend Kim (Niamh Perry.) The "landlady" is Sallon, and the other residents include a cross-dressing wannabe poet - Boy George (Matthew Rowland.) Billy is our eyes through which to relive a culture that fought against the austerity of a recession under Thatcher by creating flamboyant looks on a shoestring. The fictional Billy's story runs parallel with George's real history with drugs but the show is largely about bringing to the stage some of the iconic figures of the scene.

Thursday 20 September 2012

Theatre review: Sunset Baby

Dominique Morisseau's Sunset Baby is the final play in Christopher Haydon's inaugural season at the Gate, entitled "RESIST!" and looking at revolutions and the people behind them. But it also seems to me a good bridge to the already-announced next season, themed around "Aftermath," as it looks at how the crucial figures in an uprising deal with the rest of their lives when the fight that defined them no longer takes up their whole lives - especially where it leaves their family relationships. Ashanti X was a leading figure in the Black Power movement, but she died a crack addict. Her daughter Nina (Michelle Asante) is a drug dealer and thief whose only legacy from her mother is a collection of letters she wrote to Nina's father Kenyatta after he left them, but never posted. Now Kenyatta (Ben Onwukwe) has returned to claim the letters.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Theatre review: Oh, The Humanity and other good intentions

This seems to be the week for plays made up of shorter playlets, although as Oh, The Humanity and other good intentions consists of five 15-minute scenes, largely monologues, it's miles away from Love and Information's frantic pace. Instead, American playwright Will Eno's stories tend to revolve around people in fairly recognisable situations, who veer away from what they're meant to be saying, to go off on an existential tangent. So the opening scene features John Kirk as the coach of a professional baseball team, holding a press conference under the glare of constantly-flashing cameras. As he tries to explain the disastrous season he's just presided over, his thoughts turn to where life has taken him, and memories of a long-lost love. There's another press conference later, as in the third play a mousy airline employee (Lucy Ellinson) tries to make an official statement in the wake of a fatal crash, but the disaster leads her into memories of her father's death and thoughts of her own mortality.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Theatre review: Choir Boy

The cross-dressing black American playwright Tarrell Alvin McCraney first made his name with a well-received trilogy of plays. Unfortunately I didn't see those, and only caught up with his work for his last two plays - both of which were pretty universally panned. So would his return to the Royal Court also prove a return to form, and help me see (although I didn't hate the other two plays, I wasn't blown away either) what the fuss was about?

Choir Boy takes place in an all-male, all-black US prep school, where the Headmaster (Gary McDonald) tries to juggle the tensions of a hormone-filled building with keeping the alumni happy and their all-important donations coming in. And this is a school board that's easily offended: As the play begins they're demanding he punish Pharus (Dominic Smith) because he briefly looked behind him while singing the school song at commencement.

Monday 17 September 2012

Theatre review: Love and Information

Nikki Amuka-Bird, Linda Bassett, Amanda Drew, John Heffernan, Paul Jesson and Amit Shah are among the cast of 15 for Caryl Churchill's latest play, Love and Information. Almost as if she'd seen the Royal Court Downstairs' flair in recent years for lightning-fast scene changes and wanted in on the action, Churchill gives us essentially a fast-paced sketch show format. On what looks like the same white box, endless configurations of people and settings appear, to perform vignettes no longer than a couple of minutes at most, some lasting only seconds; a couple of them with barely any dialogue. The significance of some of the scenes is occasionally hard to pinpoint but overall a picture builds up of information in modern life: The demand for it (the opening scene is of Shah demanding a secret from Amuka-Bird,) the overload of it (he soon regrets asking,) and where emotions and individuality fit into a world made up of endless streams of data, both useful and useless.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Theatre review: Passing By

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This review is of the first public performance (of only eight in total) with the press being invited tomorrow.

Paired with Hindle Wakes in the Sunday-Tuesday slot at the Finborough is another play whose initial impact was probably a lot more radical than it seems in 2012. Best known for Bent, Martin Sherman tells a very different kind of gay story in Passing By, an unconventional romantic comedy-drama whose protagonists spend most of their time in bed together, but not in quite the way that might sound. It's 1972 and Toby (Steven Webb) is an unfit, neurotic New York artist enjoying less than stellar success in his career. He meets Simon (Alex Felton) at a cinema, and they have a one-night stand. Giving the show a bit of a belated Olympic tie-in, Simon is a bronze medal-winning diver, physically fit and, in contrast with Toby, on the surface at least appears to be pretty untroubled. But having only recently come to New York he finds his hotel room lonely and seeks out Toby for company, not realising that a less-than welcome reason will soon have them spending even more time together.

Theatre review: Hindle Wakes

"It isn't fair, but it's usual." Stanley Houghton's story of the small industrial Lancashire town of Hindle, where three families are trying to avoid scandal, has been seen as a classic proto-feminist play, and apparently when first produced Hindle Wakes proved controversial. Given a fairly light-hearted revival at the Finborough Theatre by Bethan Dear, it's still possible to see how it could have put people's backs up in 1912, with its cheeky asides about the suffragettes amid a surprisingly modern attitude to female sexuality. When the friend who was meant to provide her alibi meets with a tragic accident, Fanny's (Ellie Turner) weekend away with mill owner's son Alan Jeffcote (Graham O'Mara) is exposed. If word gets out that Fanny's a "ruined woman" nobody will marry her, so her father Christopher (Peter Ellis) is dispatched to get Alan to do the "decent thing." But there's a complication as Alan's long been engaged to another woman.

Friday 14 September 2012

Theatre review: Hedda Gabler

I've seen a fair selection of Ibsen plays in my theatregoing by now, but hadn't managed to see one of his most famous works, and what is considered one of the greatest female roles in all of theatre, Hedda Gabler. I've tried to remain unspoiled about the play, so Sheridan Smith is my first impression of what is apparently a very enigmatic character, interpreted by different people in a variety of different ways. I was perhaps expecting another Nora but Hedda is a much less straightforward figure. The much-admired daughter of a late general, out of a selection of suitors she's chosen to marry the unremarkable academic George (Adrian Scarborough.) On their return from a disastrously boring extended honeymoon, George cheerfully settles into their new life, not noticing Hedda's despondency. Feeling like she lacks control, his wife tries to wrest it back by viciously manipulating the lives of those around her.

Thursday 13 September 2012

Theatre review: The Judas Kiss

"Why on earth did you do it?" One of the programme notes, written by his grandson Merlin Holland, asks one of the biggest questions about the trials of Oscar Wilde: He instigated the whole thing with a libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry's accusation of being a "somdomite" (sic) knowing all along it was not only true but easily proved. This is one of the two main questions tackled by David Hare in his play The Judas Kiss, which is revived by Neil Armfield at Hampstead Theatre prior to a tour. The second central mystery concerns the other man at the centre of the trials, the Marquess' son Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas: Why did Wilde not only keep coming back to, but willingly allow his life to be ruined because of a young man who (in Hare's interpretation at least) seems to have had no redeeming features whatsoever?

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Theatre review: Three Sisters

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Three Sisters invites the official critics in tomorrow night.

Still in previews it may be, but Benedict Andrews' take (he both adapts and directs) on Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters already seems to be causing some pretty heated debate, judging by the reaction I've seen on Twitter over the last couple of nights. Having now seen the production myself, I must admit I'm a bit baffled as to why it's been quite such a love/hate affair. Still set in Russia but relocated to the present day, the three sisters of the title live comfortable but unfulfilling lives in a small, remote town, notable only for the army regiment stationed there. Longing for a return to Moscow, where they grew up, theirs is a story of disappointment at every turn, as their plans are thwarted, love turns out not to be anything like the books and movies say it is, and it looks like their lives are stuck in a dead end before they're even out of their twenties.

Monday 10 September 2012

Theatre review: I Am a Camera

Cabaret returns to London next month but first up we get the play that inspired it, John Van Druten's I Am a Camera, based on Christopher Isherwood's recollections of his time in Berlin. In the suitably dingy space of Southwark Playhouse's Vault, designer James Turner has created a room in Fraulein Schneider's boarding house on a two-sided raised thrust - it doesn't come with any mod cons, but it does come with a three-piece band playing mournfully behind the walls. It's the room that Isherwood (Harry Melling) occupies at the start of the play, but his ailing finances mean he's about to move to an even smaller and cheaper room across the hall. Replacing him in this room will be another English ex-pat, Sally Bowles (Rebecca Humphries,) an aspiring actress with a fondness for all the wrong men. Over the summer and autumn of 1932 we follow their friendship, and the way they and their bohemian circle of friends react to the rise of the Nazis.

Saturday 8 September 2012

Theatre review: Morning

Phew! I'd been starting to get concerned about Simon Stephens' wellbeing, it must be nearly five minutes since he last premiered a new play. Here to reassure us of his continued existence is Morning, a new commission by the Lyric Hammersmith for its Young Company, first seen in Edinburgh last month. Billed as a "dark coming of age play," it follows the always eerily-smiling Stephanie (Scarlet Billham,) about to lose her mother to cancer and her best friend Cat (Joana Nastari) to university, and willing to go to insane extremes to try and keep her life from changing. In the play's central scene, she invites smitten boyfriend Stephen (Ted Riley) to the woods to surprise him with a threesome with Cat, but the girls soon find their sexual preferences have a violent edge.

Friday 7 September 2012

Stage-to-screen review: Henry V (BBC Hollow Crown)

The BBC's Hollow Crown series of Histories comes to an end with Henry V, the final play in Shakespeare's quartet. Although I somehow think even if it had been a collection of Shakespeare's romantic comedies it would have somehow managed to end with Henry V - it's been a Henry V kind of year, and even having skipped a couple of productions I could have seen, this is the fourth interpretation I've seen in 2012 so far. Fortunately, each version has had a fairly different take on the story. Tom Hiddleston's Prince Hal is now King Henry V, and on the surface of things he's left his reckless days behind him. But the defining event of his reign betrays that wild side - a bloody campaign against France, based on a spurious historical claim to the French throne. Meanwhile we see how some of Hal's former Eastcheap drinking buddies are getting along since he renounced their company.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Theatre review: Mary Stuart

The main reason I've added the New Diorama to the list of theatres I keep an eye on is that the excellent Faction theatre company seem to have made it their base of operations. I skipped their first repertory season earlier in the year because I didn't want to add another venue to my collection when I have too many to keep up with already. But a second season has now been added for 2013, so it seemed silly to keep avoiding a company whose work I've always enjoyed in the past. In the meantime one of the productions from the first rep season has returned on its own prior to a small tour: The Faction have always expressed a particular interest in staging the works of Friedrich Schiller, and director Mark Leipacher has now turned to Mary Stuart, which he and Daniel Millar have written a new translation for. The story is the classic clash between two powerful women: Queen Elizabeth I, wanting to cement her power in the face of Catholic plots; and the figurehead for those rebels, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, currently imprisoned.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Re-review: As You Like It (Shakespeare's Globe & tour)

As with the Hamlet that's toured the last two summers, the 2011 touring production of As You Like It returns to the Globe with some of its original cast intact, but a new lead - here Deirdre Mullins takes on Shakespeare's biggest female role, Rosalind. Shortly after meeting and falling in love at first sight, Rosalind (the daughter of a deposed Duke) and Orlando (a young man of noble birth but denied his fortune by his older brother) both find themselves on the wrong side of the new Duke. Banished to the Forest of Arden, the two bump into each other again. But by now Rosalind has disguised herself as a man, and instead of revealing her true identity decides to test Orlando's love - a scheme that soon gets out of her control.

Monday 3 September 2012

Theatre review: Blink

Phil Porter's "voyeuristic love story" Blink comes to Soho Theatre after a successful Edinburgh run. A tragicomic, often joyous but ultimately rather sad look at modern isolation, it follows the unconventional relationship between two socially awkward misfits, both of whom have just lost a parent, and found themselves with both more money and more free time than they're sure what to do with. Sophie (Rosie Wyatt) has lost her job just weeks after her father's death, and is starting to believe herself invisible. Jonah (Harry McEntire) grew up on an isolated Christian farming community in Yorkshire, but his mother's dying wish is that he expands his horizons, so he takes the suitcase full of cash she left him to London, where he moves into the flat below Sophie's. Now a virtual recluse, she spots him feeding a mangy fox in their garden and hatches a plan to start up a relationship without actually interacting in any way.