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.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Theatre review: Terror 2012 - All In The Mind

There's plenty of shivers during Halloween show Terror 2012, but only because the air conditioning's been put on full in an underground room in October. This is the third year I've been to the annual mix of spooky theatre and cabaret, and the shows tend to be best described as a mixed bag: Usually there's more laughs than frights, with at least one downright terrible piece, a couple of fun ones, a couple of jumps in the dark and one piece of psychological horror that manages to send the odd chill down the spine. This year unfortunately doesn't even aspire to being hit and miss. I couldn't even call it "miss and miss," as that would suggest some attempt at least is being made at fulfilling the poster's promises, even if it doesn't succeed. But this is one of the laziest pieces of work I've seen in some time.

Monday 22 October 2012

Theatre review: Red Velvet

One of the biggest changes to come out of Artistic Director Musical Chairs is at the Tricycle, where Indhu Rubasingham takes over after nearly three decades of Nicolas Kent at the helm. Interestingly, considering Rubasingham was involved in the theatre's recent portmanteau political shows, she has said she's going to move away from the venue's focus on political theatre, as she doesn't want to compete with her predecessor's legacy. Instead she's looking to focus on a multicultural programme, influenced by the need to co-produce shows with other companies following the funding cuts that led to Kent's resignation. First up, Rubasingham herself directs the premiere production of Lolita Chakrabarti's Red Velvet, a project 14 years in the making, about the 19th century American Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play the role of Othello in a London theatre.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Theatre review: The River

Like a lot of businesses, theatres have tried to capitalise on the Olympics this year; although who would have thought the Olympic theme the Royal Court would choose to emulate would be a ticketing system that confused and angered people, leaving some unable to get hold of tickets at all, and others with more than they actually wanted? It'd be nice to approach The River with a completely open mind, but this really would be ignoring the elephant in the room, as the decision to stage the new play from the creative team behind the juggernaut hit Jerusalem in their smallest venue, for the standard month-long run, with a starry cast and no advance tickets available, has been one of the theatrical stories of the year, widely seen as a cynical marketing ploy to drum up demand for a money-spinning West End transfer. I wasn't willing to skip booking other shows I wanted to see on the off-chance of catching this one, so had left only one day next week free to try my luck. As it happens I didn't need to, as two of my friends were trying to book simultaneously in hopes of doubling their chances and getting two tickets between them; they ended up with two each, and a quick Twitter message later I had a ticket a lot sooner than expected, and without the stress.

Well I'll say right from the start that I thought The River was a very good play; but is it good enough to justify not just the faff, but the animosity the Royal Court has courted with its perverse marketing?

Theatre review: You Can Still Make a Killing

Theatre responded so quickly to the global financial crisis that it already feels like a well-trodden topic. Playwright Nicholas Pierpan has already visited the subject in The Maddening Rain, but his new play could not have been written a few years ago, as it has a more epic scope that starts with the fall of Lehman Brothers and spends the next few years with a pair of investment bankers, reacting to some of the major financial events of the recent past. You Can Still Make a Killing does have strands in common with the earlier monologue as we see these people's personalities varying wildly depending on how much of a hold the City has on them at any given time. But here we start with Edward (Tim Delap) and Jack (Ben Lee) at the top of their game, and consequently as the most dickish City-boy stereotype, arrogantly throwing money around. With the start of the economic downturn Jack lands on his feet in a job with Sir Roger Glynn (Robert Gwilym) but Edward struggles to keep wife Fen (Kellie Bright) and their children in the lifestyle to which they've become accustomed.

Friday 19 October 2012

Theatre review: Dead On Her Feet

After several months closed for renovation, the Arcola's Ashwin Street base reopens. There's been some major restructuring of the bar and Studio 2 has been moved but, apart from a new entrance to the auditorium, the unloved Studio 1 remains as it was. So you still need to remember to dress warm if you don't plan on freezing while watching Dead On Her Feet, the opening production in the reopened theatre. Ron Hutchinson's play is about the Depression-era "dance marathons" in the US, endurance events where the very poorest would dance for days at a time in the hope of being the last couple standing and collecting a cash prize that may or may not actually exist. Showman Mel Carney (Jos Vantyler) arrives in a desolate town and sets up a contest, hiring a local to act as his bodyguard and general dogsbody - McDade (Ben Whybrow) is a fictionalised version of Horace McCoy, who wrote They Shoot Horses, Don't They? based on his experiences at these marathons.

Thursday 18 October 2012

Re-review: Cabaret

In a busy year for Kander & Ebb revivals this was always going to be the main event (especially with Chicago finally giving up the ghost.) Rufus Norris revisits his 2007 production of Cabaret, which returns to London with all its grotesquery intact, plus a couple of star names in the leads. With it being just over a month since I saw I Am A Camera, it's easy to spot some of the major changes Joe Masteroff made to John Van Druten's play and Christopher Isherwood's original stories - most notably the conflation of Isherwood's character with that of Clive Mortimer, so now the outsider's view of Berlin is provided by Clifford Bradshaw, an impoverished, bisexual American wannabe writer. There's also a gentler, more emotional storyline to the subplot where landlady Fräulein Schneider makes concessions to the rising Nazis for an easy life, as well as the creation of a new lead character as we see some of the Kit Kat Klub where Sally sings, and its enigmatic Emcee.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Theatre review: Desire Under the Elms

Eugene O'Neill transposes Greek tragedy (mostly Phaedra, with bits of Oedipus and Medea) to 19th century America in Desire Under the Elms, which Sean Holmes revives at the Lyric Hammersmith. Youngest son Eben (Morgan Watkins) has finally managed to get rid of his older half-brothers (Mikel Murfi and Fergus O'Donnell) as they go West to join the Gold Rush, and he hopes the family farm will now be all his when his father Ephraim dies. But when Ephraim (Finbar Lynch, thrilled I'm sure to be getting cast as a 76-year-old) disappears for a few weeks he returns with a new young bride, Abbie (Denise Gough,) and she now stands to inherit everything. But Eben and Abbie's fight over the land is complicated by their attraction to each other, and when Abbie gives birth to a son that only Ephraim believes is his, the scene is set for things to take a grisly turn.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Theatre review: Scenes from an Execution

For the second week in a row, I arrive at the National Theatre to see a show whose reputation precedes it, and not necessarily in a good way: During its preview period, Scenes from an Execution become notorious for the amount of people cutting their losses at the interval, and inspired newspaper articles about the rights and wrongs of leaving a show early. Writer Howard Barker is known for saying he doesn't think theatre should be an enjoyable experience, so I guess you could call it a success that so many people decided grabbing another drink/watching the Bake-Off/going home for a wank was a better use of their time than staying for Act II. But Barker's attitude about art having to provide something other than what its audience is necessarily looking for is also thematically at the heart of this play, the first of his ever to be staged by the National (their failure to do so until now has also, apparently, been a regular bone of contention with him.)

Monday 15 October 2012

Theatre review: Fireface

The James Menzies-Kitchin Award returns for a second year to its current home in the Young Vic's Clare auditorium, where this year's winner Sam Pritchard has chosen to revive Marius von Mayenburg's Fireface, in a translation by Maja Zade. A twisted look at the frustrations and raging hormones of adolescence, von Mayenburg's play takes us into the home of a disfunctional family, whose laissez-faire parents are unwilling or unable to see how far their children's angst differs from the norm. Olga (Aimeé-Ffion Edwards) is impatient to leave her childhood behind, and when her younger brother, pyromaniac Kurt (Rupert Simonian,) starts to have his own sexual awakening, she decides to take a more hands-on approach to educating him in such matters than is usual for a sister. When an outsider breaks into the siblings' private world, Kurt's love of fire and explosions reaches a new level.

Saturday 13 October 2012

Theatre review: A Tender Thing

Of all the former EnsembleTM members who might have made a speedy return to the RSC, I would have put Kathryn Hunter at the bottom of the list after her very public resignation from both that season and her position as an RSC Associate. But return she has, and as she's one of those actors whose performances are always worth catching if at all possible, A Tender Thing saw me make a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon for a show that's not even as long as the train trip each way.

Apparently the question "what would have happened if Romeo and Juliet had lived and grown older" is one that continues to haunt writers and actors. (I don't know why, the answer is "they'd have broken up within a fortnight." Oh shush, you know they would.) Ben Power doesn't quite attempt to answer this question: Instead he creates a new Romeo and Juliet out of the original words of Shakespeare's play.

Friday 12 October 2012

Theatre review: Mother Courage and her Children

Last year touring company Blackeyed Theatre's production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle sneaked into my top ten of 2011, so when I saw that director Tom Neill's next foray into Brecht would also be coming to Greenwich, booking was a bit of a no-brainer. This time Neill tackles perhaps the best-known of Brecht's plays, Mother Courage and her Children, using Lee Hall's translation. Anna Fierling, aka Mother Courage, makes war her business: She travels the battlefields of Europe with her cart, changing allegiances as necessary, selling food, drink, clothing and anything she can make a profit out of to the various armies. She's determined that she can make a living out of war without having to pay the price herself, but over the years she has to watch as all three of her children die either directly or indirectly as a result of the conflicts.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Theatre review: Damned by Despair

"Ooh, Betty, they're going to hang me in the morning!"

With Our Class, Eurydice and his take on Ghosts, Bijan Sheibani was shaping up as one of my favourite directors, with a talent for bringing out the best in what looked like unpromising subjects; but in the last year or so his name has been attached to more than its share of stinkers, especially at the National Theatre. Meanwhile Sebastian Armesto is an actor I like, but who also seems to have been plonked by the National into some of its more unremarkable, at best, stuff. So a production on the National's biggest stage, directed by Sheibani and starring Armesto would seem, to a superstitious person, to be some kind of omen of disaster. But just because mystical signs seem to be predicting a horrible doom doesn't mean you have to act accordingly, does it? So along I went to Damned by Despair, this year's final Travelex production.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Theatre review: The Sound of Heavy Rain

The casts of both Lungs and One Day When We Were Young come together for the final play in Paines Plough's Roundabout season at Shoreditch Town Hall, The Sound of Heavy Rain. Where the other two plays are intimate relationship stories, Penelope Skinner's contribution is a drily witty pastiche, relocating the hard-boiled detective tropes of film noir from LA to the rain-soaked streets of Soho. Dabrowski (Andrew Sheridan) is a PI who spends his nights drinking to get over being dumped, when the dowdy Maggie (Maia Alexander) arrives at his office with a case for him. Her best friend and flatmate has disappeared, and the detective sets off to find the glamorous cabaret singer Foxie O'Hara. But the further he gets into the case, the more Dabrowski starts to suspect that Foxie may never have even been real.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Theatre review: A Life

The Finborough used to be a pub theatre, then it was a pub theatre without a pub attached, then a wine bar theatre. Now it's a wine bar theatre without a wine bar attached, as yet another business on the ground floor unfortunately goes under. Upstairs though the theatre continues, touch wood, to thrive with another full house, for another of its "lost" classics - although in this case, apparently Hugh Leonard's memory play A Life is fairly regularly revived in its native Ireland, if not here. Desmond Drumm (Hugh Ross) is a couple of months away from retirement, but he won't get to enjoy it: He's told his wife that he's been diagnosed with an ulcer, but in reality he's been given less than six months to live. When he visits his estranged friend Mary to make up, it sets off memories of his youth, and we see him in his twenties (David Walshe,) the mistakes he made then - and the ones he continues to make even now with time running out.

Monday 8 October 2012

Theatre review: Our Boys

Director David Grindley scored a hit with his revival of Journey's End, which most recently popped up in the West End last year. His latest production sticks with the army theme but moves on both in time - to the mid '80s - and to a point after the front line, looking at the damage done to soldiers and what kind of life they can expect afterwards. Jonathan Lewis' Our Boys is set in a grim military hospital in Woolwich, where a trainee officer has been sent for a routine operation. Because of a shortage of private rooms, Potential Officer Menzies (Jolyon Coy) ends up in a ward with three regular squaddies, who resent having a "Rupert" in their midst. Ian (Lewis Reeves) has had severe head injuries in a bomb blast, and is in the middle of lengthy rehabilitation to get him walking and talking normally again. Northern Irish Meatloaf fan Keith (Cian Barry) is increasingly losing all feeling in his right leg for reasons, whether physical or psychological, that the doctors can't figure out. And Joe (Laurence Fox,) who seems the most mobile of the lot, is there for reasons that aren't revealed until later in the play.

Saturday 6 October 2012

Re-review: The Busy Body

A quick note about my return visit to Susanna Centlivre's The Busy Body (the second show this year at Southwark Playhouse that I felt I couldn't let close without a second viewing - talk about a theatre punching above its weight.) I wondered in my original review two weeks ago if I might squeeze in the final performance, and the frantic comedy was something I thought might appeal to Evil Alex, who's pretty hard to match to shows (he says he's pretty open to anything, as long at it involves puppets having sex, and a song about racism; so he's been trickier to cater for ever since Avenue Q closed.) So I dragged Alex along, and when there bumped into my Twitter friend Rob, also seeing it for a second time, and also bringing someone along, another Twitter friend, Emma. So there was a decent group of us taking our place in (of course) the front row, and enough other opinions to confirm that I wasn't mistaken the first time in how uproariously funny Jessica Swale's production is.

Theatre review: Tanika's Journey

Deafinitely Theatre were one of the companies contributing to this year's Globe to Globe festival, bringing their British Sign Language storytelling to Love's Labour's Lost. As one of Shakespeare's more verbally dexterous plays I found that silent treatment to have mixed results, but now in a new production at Southwark Playhouse' Vault they present a simpler story, devised by the company. A group of refugees is trudging through a frozen Russian forest. Exhausted, deaf Tamil refugee Tanika (Nadia Nadarajah) collapses in the snow, refusing her guide's (Graeme Brookes) attempts to give her food. As she appears to have given up, she flashes back to her earlier life in Sri Lanka with her family (Mouna Albakry, Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke) and English BSL teacher Edward (Matthew Gurney) who convinces her she needs to try and flee to London; as well as slipping into fantasies of her future life should she finally manage to complete her journey.

Friday 5 October 2012

Theatre review: Richard III (Shakespeare's Globe & Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue)

With the usual Indian summer refusing to turn up this year, I'm quite glad that tonight's rainy, freezing cold night at the Globe was my last outdoor theatre trip until next spring. I booked Richard III pretty late into its Globe run (although it too will be wintering at the Apollo) so as to leave a decent gap after the earlier Dick 3s at the Roundhouse and in Stratford. Paired with the revival of his Twelfth Night, Tim Carroll directs much of the same cast in a new production of Richard III, although this too uses the Original Practices techniques that I've expressed reservations about before. Mark Rylance plays the hunchbacked, withered-armed Richard Duke of Gloucester, brother to King Edward V and a few places down the line of succession to the throne. But the three people ahead of him are no obstacle if he kills them all, and once he becomes King Richard, his murderous insanity shows no sign of letting up.

Thursday 4 October 2012

Theatre review: Berenice

For the fifth production in Josie Rourke's... unusual first year in charge of the Donmar, designer Lucy Osborne has partly reconfigured the auditorium, moving one of the stalls seating blocks. Combined with the curved wooden staircase that forms the set's centrepiece, it creates a kind of spiral in-the-round staging, and as the whole stage is covered with sand, it feels as if this production of Racine's Berenice is being performed inside a sea shell. Rourke directs, and the novelist Alan Hollinghurst makes a rare foray into theatre to write the translation of one of Racine's Roman tragedies. Titus, who has just become Emperor of Rome, is in love with Berenice and plans to marry her. But Berenice is a foreign queen, and despite having lived through Caligula and Nero, the idea of the Emperor marrying an outsider, let alone a member of a hereditary royalty, remains one of the most appalling things he can do in the eyes of the Roman people.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Theatre review: Lungs

Back to Paines Plough's pop-up theatre in Shoreditch for the second of three short plays, Lungs by Duncan Macmillan. We were in the popular blue seats this time, and I was solely responsible for our seating arrangements because Vanessa, it turns out, is afraid of buttons ("What the hell is that?" she thundered at the three bowls of different-coloured buttons on the box office desk.) Like One Day When We Were Young, Lungs is a two-hander that condenses two people's relationship over a number of years into a one-act play, although here most of the focus is on one period of their lives. A young couple (Kate O'Flynn and Alistair Cope) are shopping in IKEA one day when Man suddenly brings up the question of whether they should have a baby. Woman is completely thrown by this and so begin lengthy discussions about the pros and cons of starting a family, and apart from how the pair of them will be affected, she also keeps coming back to the social responsibility of bringing a child into an already overpopulated world.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Theatre review: Bully Boy

Advertising itself as London's first new purpose-built theatre complex in 30 years, the St James Theatre's first task will be convincing anyone that London actually wants it. On a corner a few minutes' walk from Victoria, a shiny foyer with a bar/brasserie looks more like the lobby of a chain hotel than a creative space. Hopefully time will bring a bit more character to its public face. Meanwhile the opening season of programming seems surprisingly low-key, and they shouldn't be surprised to have attracted comments that they're presenting regional theatre at London prices (on the surface there doesn't seem a huge difference in the programming here and that at my local theatre, a receiving house that struggles to put bums on seats at a fraction of the ticket price.) The auditorium itself is a nice medium size (312 capacity) with stadium seating meaning decent sightlines to the small thrust stage - though I would have hoped for better soundproofing in a newly-built theatre. But of course what it's all going to come down to is the quality of the work actually put on that stage, and for its inaugural production the St James has turned to Northampton's Royal and Derngate Theatres, and a play by writer, performer, and Chief Lesbian to the Court of Radio Four, Sandi Toksvig.

Monday 1 October 2012

Theatre review: A Chorus of Disapproval

I do hope that somewhere there's a theatre called the Alan Ayckbourn Theatre that predominantly shows plays by Pinter, as a bit of balance because since getting renamed, the Harold Pinter Theatre seems to have mainly specialised in Ayckbourn. The latest is Trevor Nunn's revival of A Chorus of Disapproval, a 1980s (though in this production at least, the setting is largely cosmetic) trip to a small English town and its troubled amateur operatics company. We follow their production of The Beggar's Opera from early rehearsals to public performance, through the eyes of newcomer Guy (Nigel Harman,) a shy widower. Over the three months' worth of rehearsals, Guy goes from socially awkward nonentity to star of the show, resident stud and the man everyone wants to be friends with, all the way out the other end to least popular man in the company - largely by accident, and to his great confusion.