Thursday 31 January 2013

Theatre review: Our Country's Good

Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good toured last year, but that hasn't put original director Max Stafford-Clark off returning to it with his Out of Joint company to mark its 25th anniversary. The play has become an A'level set text, and accordingly the St James Theatre - where the new production ends a national tour - was fuller than I'm used to seeing it, largely with school parties. From the snippets of conversation I overheard, Our Country's Good inspires a lot of strong feeling in the teenagers who study it, and they seemed completely satisfied by a production that's been cast with a number of actors who aren't exactly household names, but will be familiar to theatre aficionados. Most of them have to play multiple roles in Wertenbaker's sometimes overtly Brechtian telling of the true-ish story of the early days of Australia, when some of the recently-arrived prisoners performed George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer.

Wednesday 30 January 2013

Theatre review: Mare Rider

After several failed attempts to have a baby, Selma (Anna Francolini) has had a difficult birth, and is now recovering in Homerton Hospital in Hackney. Spending much of her time asleep or sedated, her dreams are invaded by a nightmare figure from Turkish mythology, Elka the Mare Rider (Kathryn Hunter.) Elka is a millennia-old woman who haunts new mothers if they're not constantly attended, eventually taking the baby's life or - in exceptional circumstances - the mother can bargain with her to take her own. In Mare Rider Leyla Nazli brings a modern woman who's left it quite late to try for a baby, face to face with an ancient creature who doesn't think that much has changed for women since the days her legend was born.

Tuesday 29 January 2013

Theatre review: Port

It's been almost half an hour since Simon Stephens wrote a new play and the National Theatre are clearly worried audiences might be suffering withdrawal symptoms. So they've dug into his archives and Marianne Elliott (who directed this play's premiere in 2002 and most recently collaborated with Stephens on The Curious Incident) directs Port in the Lyttelton. Over two-and-a-half hours Stephens makes the case for his home town of Stockport as the most depressing place on earth, a concrete tomb in Lizzie Clachan's design, where we first meet Racheal (Kate O'Flynn) in 1988, aged 11. In a drunken fit of violence her father Jonathan (Jack Deam) has locked himself into the flat so Racheal's mother Christine (Liz White) has taken her children to the car, where they sit all night waiting for a sign that Jonathan might let them back into their home.

Monday 28 January 2013

Theatre review: Gruesome Playground Injuries

There's nothing metaphorical about the title of Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries, receiving its UK premiere at the Gate in a new collaboration with the National Theatre Studio. When Kayleeri and Doug meet for the first time aged 8 at a Catholic school, they're both in the nurse's office, she for a stomach-ache, he for having "broken his face." Joseph's play follows their relationship over the next 30 years, jumping around in time - the action always jumps 15 years forward, then 10 years back, from the preceding scene - and always in a clinic or hospital where one or the other needs care of some kind. It's usually the reckless, clumsy Doug, who's come to believe that Kayleeri's touch can heal his wounds, or at least soothe the pain. Although their friendship survives in some form or other from the ages of 8 to 38, they're not always that good at being there for each other.

Friday 25 January 2013

Theatre review: The Turn of the Screw

Theatre rarely attempts horror, but when it does it can be a profitable experiment, as The Woman in Black and Ghost Stories proved. Latest to give it a go is the Almeida, teaming up with horror movie legends Hammer, who are launching a live performance arm. Rebecca Lenkiewicz adapts The Turn of the Screw, Henry James' endlessly popular ghost story, more commonly seen on stage as an opera.

An unnamed Governess (Anna Madeley) is hired by the distant Mr Sackville (Orlando Wells) to care for his orphaned niece and nephew, on the understanding that she never contacts him should anything go wrong. Which, of course, it immediately does - she forms an instant affection for Miles and Flora, but is just as quickly convinced they are in grave supernatural danger from the ghosts of their former governess and her lover.

Thursday 24 January 2013

Theatre review: The Silence of the Sea

For the final Donmar Trafalgar production, Simon Evans directs Vercors' The Silence of the Sea, set in a recently-occupied French fishing village. An Older Man (Finbar Lynch) has kept himself pretty much to himself for most of his life, but he's recently been joined in his hilltop home by a Young Woman (Simona Bitmaté,) his niece. When the Germans arrive a young officer, Werner (Leo Bill) is stationed to live in their upstairs room. Right from the start Werner is talkative, giving enthusiastic speeches to the pair about his philosophical beliefs and his excitement to finally be in a country he always dreamed of visiting, insensible to the fact that these are people whose nation he's invaded. In his monologues to them he almost seems not to notice how they're responding to his unwanted presence in their home: For the entire duration of his stay, the Man and Woman don't speak a single word to him.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Theatre review: Old Times

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Old Times is having a lengthy preview period and doesn't invite the official critics in for another week.

A Harold Pinter play gets staged at the Harold Pinter Theatre for the first time since it was renamed in his memory, Ian Rickson directing Kristin Scott Thomas, Rufus Sewell and Lia Williams in 1971's Old Times. Kate (Scott Thomas) is waiting, with what looks like quite a lot of apprehension, for the arrival of an old friend: She used to share a flat with Anna (Williams,) describing her as her best and only friend, but hasn't seen her in 20 years. Kate's film director husband Deeley (Sewell) has apparently never met Anna before, but seems more enthusiastic about her return than his wife does. In two scenes, the three reminisce about earlier days and how Kate and Deeley met, but not only do their memories start to look conflicting and unreliable, but it seems both Kate and Deeley have an intimate physical history with Anna they'd previously kept to themselves.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Theatre review: Cinderella, a Fairytale (St James Theatre)

I'd not had any plans to see the St James Theatre's Christmas show, Cinderella, a Fairytale, but an enthusiastic recommendation from another blogger coupled with a decent last-minute discount deal saw me fill an empty evening with Sally Cookson's production, originally seen in Bristol. As well as avoiding the pantomime route, Cookson has also dropped the more familiar French version of the fairytale, devising her version with the cast principally from the Brothers Grimm's Aschenputtel, with elements from the Chinese version Yeh-Hsien as well. So Ella (Lisa Kerr) is a girl whose widowed father dies soon after he remarries, leaving her in the care of a wicked Step Mother; and there's still a Prince seeking a wife at the Palace ball. But instead of a fairy godmother there's a flock of magical birds to help Ella on her way, and when it comes down to fitting a lost slipper onto the girls of the kingdom, a couple of toes might have to be chopped off it helps nab a royal husband.

Monday 21 January 2013

Theatre review: One Monkey Don't Stop No Show

A middle-class black family in Philadelphia get their lives shaken up when a smart-talking niece from the country comes to live with them. If the basic premise of Don Evans' 1982 play One Monkey Don't Stop No Show has echoes of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, it's a similarity director Dawn Walton has obviously spotted as well: For the play's UK debut (which toured last year and now starts a second leg at the Tricycle) she's framed it as a 1970s/'80s US sitcom, complete with "ON AIR" announcement, jaunty theme tune and a canned audience cheering the arrival of every new character on stage (although fortunately the laughs come from the real audience.) It's an innovative approach that at times stifles some of the satirical intent behind Evans' comedy but, aided by some game performances, for the most part it gets away with it.

Sunday 20 January 2013

Theatre review: Fair Em

Director Phil Willmott has made a bit of an annual tradition of reviving Shakespearean obscurities at the Union Theatre, with the dubious Double Falsehood and the largely neglected King John in past years. I would have thought there were enough relatively unpopular Shakespeare plays left in the canon (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Titus Andronicus, The Two Noble Kinsmen, the Henry VIs) to keep him busy for a while yet before having to dip into the Apocrypha - the collection of anonymously-authored plays falsely attributed to Shakespeare around the time of the Restoration. But that's what he's done this year with the "modern world premiere" of Fair Em, a charmless romantic comedy where the funniest joke is the suggestion that anyone could have ever actually thought Shakespeare wrote it.

Saturday 19 January 2013

Non-review: Rough Cuts - Bytes

Not a review as this is the return of the Royal Court's occasional series of rehearsed readings and works-in-progress, Rough Cuts. This time around, established playwrights have been given the remit of touching on issues of technology and the internet. Jack Bence, Mandeep Dhillon, Malachi Kirby, Rebecca Night, Sarah Woodward and Al Weaver perform the four shorts collected as Bytes, performed in the Wilson Studio - a small rehearsal room behind Sloane Square tube station.

Alia Bano starts us off with a play set in a high school, where a handsome new teacher (Weaver) catches the eye of one of his students (Night.) There's a familiar story of accusation and rumours to be told but modern technology gives it a new twist: The girl suddenly has a naked photo of Mr Burns she says he sent her, but this happens to be just after she learned how to hack into locked Facebook accounts.

Friday 18 January 2013

Theatre review: No Quarter

Polly Stenham's first two plays made waves not just because of her age (she famously wrote That Face aged 19) but also because they punctured a popular image of well-adjusted middle class "normality." For her long-awaited (Tusk Tusk appeared back in 2009) third play the location has moved away from the suburban kitchens and bedrooms of her earlier efforts, but she hits her targets with similar levels of success. For No Quarter, designer Tom Scutt has configured the Royal Court Upstairs into a thrust, packed to the rafters with books, musical instruments and stuffed stag heads, the trappings of an upper-class rural life that's fallen on hard times. This remote manor house is where musical prodigy Robin (Tom Sturridge) was raised almost in isolation, and where he's now returned after dropping out of an exclusive music college.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Theatre review: Three Sisters

For their second show in the current rep season The Faction tackle Chekhov for the first time, and in keeping with Glum January it's perhaps his most despairrific play, Three Sisters. Stuck in a small, dull provincial town with only the local regiment to provide subjects for discussion, the Prosorov sisters and their brother are fed up, but sure that a return to Moscow and happiness isn't that far off. But Olga's (Kate Sawyer) teaching career takes over more of her life than she intended; Masha's (Derval Mellett) unhappy marriage is made more complicated by the arrival of a dashing new colonel; Irina's (Elizabeth Twells) romantic dreams of working life are crushed by the reality; and Andrei's (Lachlan McCall) marriage to local girl Natasha sees him sucked into a domestic role he never expected. Over the next couple of years the family's dreams are steadily crushed or simply fade away.

Monday 14 January 2013

Theatre review: Olga's Room

Once Christmas and New Year are firmly in the rear-view mirror January's theatre offerings tend to embrace darker subject matters as an antidote to all the jollity. Olga's Room could be said to fit the bill as the Arcola offers up the true story of German Jewish communist Olga Benario, who spent time in Brazilian and German prisons in the 1930s and '40s before finally being sent to a concentration camp. This is where we first join Olga (Bethan Clark,) who spends her time writing on the walls and floors, to remind herself of the significant events in her life as her sense of identity starts to fall apart. Dea Loher's play then takes us back to the cell she shared with teenager Genny (Larisa Faber) and actress Ana (Ceridwen Smith) following her revolutionary activities against the Brazilian dictatorship, which had links with Nazi Germany. There she lives under the constant threat not only of torture, but also of deportation back to Germany and the gas chamber.

Sunday 13 January 2013

Theatre review: Hymn and Cocktail Sticks

If Alan Bennett's new play People turned out not to be what everyone was expecting - and not in a good way - the National has teamed it up with a pair of autobiographical shorts that are much more classic Bennett, in style but more importantly in quality. Alex Jennings plays Bennett himself as the narrator of Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, one of which plays in repertory before evening performances of People; and both can be seen as a double bill on selected Sundays. Jennings is not an actor you'd immediately think of as physically similar to the playwright, which makes his transformation all the more impressive: Having worked with the writer on The Habit of Art it's not entirely surprising if Jennings has picked up the writer's voice and, crucially to the telling of these stories, its particular inflections and quirks.

Thursday 10 January 2013

Theatre review: Fiesco

There's always a number of big theatrical events, often featuring star names, on the horizon in London to look forward to. Those of us with less West End-centric tastes though can get equally excited about the return of lesser-known artists whose work we've enjoyed in the past. If you're a listener to the podcast I often contribute to, you might have heard me plug as one of my fringe tips for 2013 the latest repertory season from The Faction, the classics company with a minimalist, highly physical aesthetic, and a particular fondness for Friedrich Schiller. And it's to the German playwright they turn again for the first of three new productions, and their continuing ambition to write and stage new translations of his complete works. Which this year leads to a surprising claim, given that Schiller isn't entirely obscure: That this is the UK premiere of Fiesco, not seen in English since it was written in 1783.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Theatre review: Somersaults

Russell Bolam directed my top show of 2012, and he kicks off 2013 with an English premiere, Iain Finlay Mcleod's Somersaults. The main show at the Finborough, it shares with the venue's current alternate show a Scottish lead character with Scots Gaelic as his first language, but is a very different, and in many ways even odder, creature. When he first reconnects with old university friend Mark (Simon Harrison) via Facebook, James (David Carlyle) seems to have it all: Thanks to a canny discovery and good investments, he's got a lot of cash and free time, which he's used to fill the Hampstead flat he and wife Alison (Emily Bowker) share with lots of desirable stuff. But his finances aren't what he thought they were, and soon an unusually posh bailiff, Barrett (Richard Teverson) turns up and his belongings and home are gone, with Alison not far behind.

Monday 7 January 2013

Theatre review: So Great a Crime

The Finborough's never been a theatre to drag its heels about getting topical issues onto its stage, doing things like staging fully-formed plays about a revolution while that revolution's still going on. It's hard not to spot a certain topicality to their first Sunday-Tuesday show of 2013 as well - the story of a once much-loved public figure and knight of the realm whose reputation was destroyed by allegations of paedophilia. But what David Gooderson's So Great a Crime actually does is quite different from a warts-and-all exposé, instead attempting to restore the reputation of Sir Hector Macdonald. Nicknamed "Fighting Mac," Sir Hector (Stuart McGugan) was known as Queen Victoria's favourite general, a Gaelic-speaking Scot and career soldier with an impressive war record who becomes General Officer of Ceylon. But the governor (James Wooley) of the genteel colony and his cronies don't take well to a gruff Highlander with no interest in playing by their rules, and soon he finds himself accused of inappropriate relations with local boys.

Friday 4 January 2013

Theatre review: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This production has toured festivals, but this review is of the first London performance.

I'm not much of a poetry fan, but having missed Fiona Shaw's much-praised performance of The Waste Land I decided to make up for it with her interpretation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Apart from its most famous (and usually misquoted) line, all I knew about the poem was that seeing an albatross at sea isn't unlucky - it's killing it that's going to get you into trouble. And so it proves for the ancient mariner, who accosts a guest at a wedding and makes him listen to the grisly tale of what happened when, as a younger man, he'd shot the albatross that had until then brought his ship good luck. Soon the luck and wind run out, along with the fresh water, and the guilty sailor is strapped to the mast with the albatross around his neck, supernaturally staying alive to suffer and watch the rest of his crew die. Also, there's zombies.

Thursday 3 January 2013

Theatre review: Tu i Teraz

For quite some time immigrant Poles have been a favourite target of the right-wing press so it's perhaps surprising that London's cosmopolitan theatre scene hasn't staged more plays showing their side of the story. Nicola Werenowska's Tu i Teraz (Here and Now) is a very low-key attempt to do so. When Marysia (Ania Sowinski) first came to England with her six-year-old son Kuba it was as an illegal immigrant. Over the years, and following Poland's joining the EU, she became a UK citizen, cut off all ties with her home town, and worked her way out of dead-end jobs into a more comfortable life. When we rejoin her, she and Kuba (Mark Strepan,) now 16, have moved from London to Colchester, where she works in a bank and he's a straight-A student, considering himself completely British and no longer even able to speak any Polish. But their lower-middle class life is shaken up by two faces from the past.

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Theatre review: Salad Days

Other theatrical bloggers and tweeters have raved about its past runs at Riverside Studios, so I decided to check out Bill Bankes-Jones' production of Salad Days, back by popular demand (although tonight a bit quiet, the post-New Year lull meaning only about a half-full house.) 1950s musicals aren't high on my must-see lists, but this one proved to be worth making an exception for as it turns out to operate on a level of silliness that manages to stay the right side of twee, while occasionally veering into outright insanity. As we enter, it's the graduation ceremony at Oxford University, 1954, and the audience are handed diplomas congratulating us on passing our degrees - which, it turns out, have included a module on Suspension of Disbelief which will prove handy. Graduates Jane (Katie Moore) and Timothy (usually played by Leo Miles) are now faced with the problem of returning to their families: Her mother has lined up a number of eligible suitors to marry her off to; his wants him to take a job with one of his many uncles. A husband for her and something to keep him busy would give them the excuse to keep their independence.