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.