Friday 29 March 2013

Theatre review: I Didn't Always Live Here

Among its many other strengths, the Finborough Theatre is increasingly punching above its weight with its set designs, coming close to challenging the Gate for how ambitiously you can transform a seemingly restrictive space. This time, resident designer Alex Marker has managed to fit two storeys of a Glasgow tenement into a room above a pub. Written in 1974 and receiving its first revival since 1973, Stewart Conn's memory play I Didn't Always Live Here looks at two elderly women in adjoining flats, but focusing in particular on the lovable, bubbly Martha (Jenny Lee.) Housebound by her arthritis, and with only the occasional visit from a community volunteer (a beehived Alice Haig) and the local minister (Joshua Manning,) Martha spends much of her time talking to her pet budgie.

Thursday 28 March 2013

Theatre review: Steptoe and Son

Galton and Simpson's TV comedies seem to be endlessly popular as material for remakes, whether back on TV like Paul Merton's Hancock reboots, or on stage like this latest Steptoe and Son from Kneehigh. The justification is usually that the original scripts deserve to shine, and prove that they're works of comic genius even without the familiar casts people grew to love. The 50-year-old Steptoe and Son is particularly beloved, the theme tune, surely Ron Grainer's second most famous, is practically synonymous with classic sitcom (but actually barely makes an appearance here.) The story of two rag and bone men is acclaimed not just for its humour but for its underlying melancholy, darkness and humanity: Harold Steptoe longs to escape a life of buying and selling rubbish, but his mutually dependent relationship with his filthy, elderly father Albert keeps sucking him back in.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Theatre review: Three Birds

Are Three Birds at the Bush worth one in the hand? Madani Younis' vastly improved second season concludes with Janice Okoh's Bruntwood Prize winner from 2011, in a co-production with Manchester's Royal exchange. A sort of South London version of Tusk Tusk, Okoh's play follows three young siblings left at home alone after their heroin-addicted mother disappears. The oldest, 16-year-old Tiana (Michaela Coel) is at college, hoping to become a beautician, and keeping her younger sister Tanika (Susan Wokoma) calm with stories of the fabulous life they'll lead when she makes it big. The middle child, selectively mute Tionne (Jahvel Hall,) is allegedly doing a GCSE project but never seems to go to school, spending all his time in his pyjamas doing increasingly odd experiments involving dead chickens and vast amounts of vodka. The siblings are determined to keep the fact that they're home alone from the authorities, convinced that Social Services will split them up in Care.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Theatre review: Proof

Mental illness and prime numbers both seem to be theatrical memes at the moment, and they're coming together at the Menier as Polly Findlay revives David Auburn's Proof. Robert was an exceptionally gifted mathematician in his youth, but the last ten years have been blighted by an unspecified mental illness which left him delusional and unable to work on coherent theories. His younger daughter Catherine (Mariah Gale,) although unable to finish her studies as she's been caring for him, may have inherited some of his mathematical genius but could that also mean she's inherited his madness? In the opening scene she worries about this threat to her sanity as she has a conversation with her father (Matthew Marsh) but she may already have her answer - as he's been dead for the last week.

Monday 25 March 2013

Theatre review: The Winslow Boy

Terence Rattigan's centenary celebrations in 2011 included a number of revivals of his plays, resulting in a renewed interest in his work, which continues to make regular returns to the stage a couple of years after the anniversary. It's no wonder; the last decade's reevaluation of his work has revealed one of the great playwrights of the 20th century, unfairly allowed to slide into obscurity after the Angry Young Men put him out of fashion in the 1960s. I've really enjoyed the work of his I've seen so far so was really looking forward to the latest revival, and one of his most famous works: After joining in the birthday party with Cause Célèbre two years ago, the Old Vic takes on The Winslow Boy, Lindsay Posner directing a cast led by Henry Goodman as the father taking on the government in a fight to clear his son's name.

Sunday 24 March 2013

Theatre review: Quasimodo

Quasimodo means "unfinished," which is ironic because this is how Lionel Bart left his musical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame on his death, despite having worked on it for decades. As a result, apart from the odd concert performance, the show remained unseen until Robert Chevara's production at the King's Head. The writer of Oliver! may have swapped Dickens' London for Victor Hugo's Paris, but there's still an unmistakeable cockernee sound to the songs, especially the ensemble numbers. Abandoned by his mother as a baby, the physically deformed Quasimodo is taken in by Archdeacon Frollo (James Wolstenholme.) Given the job of bell-ringer at Notre Dame Cathedral, and making his home in the bell tower as well, by the time he's grown up Quasimodo (Steven Webb) is deaf in addition to his twisted bones and scars.

Saturday 23 March 2013

Theatre review: Hamlet (RSC / RST & TR Newcastle)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This production invites the critics in next week.

Although I'd like to approach every show with no preconceptions, some productions are easier to get excited about than others. I like Hamlet, and the cast the RSC has assembled, enough to warrant a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon. But David Farr is one of the company's most prolific directors, and Jonathan Slinger has been an almost constant presence in Stratford for the last few years. It's hard not to feel as if the pair have been let loose on the "big one" having paid their dues, rather than because of any really exciting idea they wanted to explore. It's a feeling not helped by the fact that Slinger isn't an obvious match to the role at this point in his career - at 40 he's the oldest Hamlet I've seen, overtaking Simon Russell Beale who was 39 when he tackled the role. Having put my preconceptions on the table from the outset I will say that as the show approached I got more excited about it; the production photos revealed an interesting set by Jon Bausor, and the publicity suggested a particular focus on the fencing that gives the play its climax, and I was intrigued by how that conceit would work.

Friday 22 March 2013

Re-review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I put the original Cottesloe run of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at #2 in my best shows of 2012, and would have probably returned to see it again had it not sold out its entire run before it even opened. The initial success, based on the popularity of Mark Haddon's original novel, was borne out by the overwhelmingly positive reception to Simon Stephens' adaptation, and has led to a West End transfer which seems to be enjoying similar levels of success - it's not been open long at the Apollo but has already extended its booking period twice. The transfer gives me the opportunity to experience it again, as well as to see how the staging that was very specific to the Cottesloe fares when adapted to a proscenium arch stage. Plus I could bring along Andy, who had to miss out the first time, and Penny and Amy, both fans of the book.

Thursday 21 March 2013

Theatre review: Peter and Alice

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: I don't recall booking to see this during the preview period, but apparently I did, and the critics aren't being invited in until next week.

The second in Michael Grandage's 14-month residency in the West End is the only new play, reuniting him with the author of the hit Red, John Logan. Once again this is a fictionalised look at real historical figures, Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench playing the real-life inspirations for the immortal literary characters Peter and Alice. Or Q and M, as Logan was also one of the writers of the most recent Bond film Skyfall, and this play reunites him with two of the franchise's stars.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Theatre review: Mies Julie

Strindberg's Miss Julie seems to be striking a chord with theatre-makers at the moment, we're onto the third adaptation of the play I've seen in the last year. At least, unlike the last attempt I saw, Yael Farber's Mies Julie relocates the action to a new setting that still makes sense of the old story: Post-Apartheid South Africa, on the surface a country that's made huge leaps in racial relations in the last two decades, but in reality still simmering with tensions that come down to the ancestral ownership of the land the action takes place on. We're in the farmhouse kitchen of Veenen Plaas ("Weeping Farm,") an estate in the unforgiving Karoo region. The landowner is away on the night of a big celebration by the staff, and his daughter Julie (Hilda Cronje) braves first the party, then the kitchen where ageing maid Christine (Thoko Ntshinga) and her son John (Bongile Mantsai) are working into the night.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Theatre review: Above Me The Wide Blue Sky

Theatre companies seem to be quite happy lately to ditch the old adage about working with children and animals, and none more so than Fevered Sleep, whose last show On Ageing featured an entirely prepubescent cast. Their return to the Young Vic's Maria sees a dog join Laura Cubitt on stage for performance art piece Above Me The Wide Blue Sky, although like some of the audience, Leuca the whippet is content to nap through the performance. Above Me The Wide Blue Sky takes place in the middle of an installation of lights and film, which is open for an hour before and after every performance, should the audience wish to relax into the chattering soundscape of natural sounds and spinning Super-8 projectors. Fevered Sleep's idea behind the piece is to look at the relationship between humans and their natural surroundings, and how that relationship has been eroded in the centuries since the Industrial Revolution.

Monday 18 March 2013

Theatre review: Dirty Great Love Story

I've said before that ever since the wonderful Midsummer, Soho Theatre seems to have been trying to repeat its success with other quirky romantic comedies. Fringe First winner Dirty Great Love Story may be the closest they've come yet to replicating that magic, without the music but with plenty of rhyming couplets. Co-writers Katie Bonna and Richard Marsh play characters also called Katie Bonna and Richard Marsh, who first meet and have a one-night stand when her friend's hen party ends up in the same club as his friend's stag do. In a hotel room the next morning Richard is smitten while Katie makes a run for it. Things should end there but on the same night two of their best friends also got together, and as things between them start to get serious, Richard and Katie keep getting awkwardly thrown together, but never at the right time to give anything more than friendship a chance.

Friday 15 March 2013

Theatre review: The Living Room

A rather different meditation on religion tonight than the one I watched last night. Tom Littler revives Graham Greene's first play at Jermyn Street, and like some of Greene's novels it wrestles with the Catholicism he converted to. In The Living Room 20-year-old Rose (Tuppence Middleton,) whose father died when she was a baby, has just lost her mother as well. She is to be placed in the care of her great uncle and two great aunts, in a large London house that appears to have been badly affected during the Blitz. Her uncle James (Christopher Timothy) is a Catholic priest, confined to a wheelchair 20 years previously, so the secret Rose is barely able to keep will be a problem in this household: She's recently started having an affair with Michael (Christopher Villiers,) the much older, married executor of her mother's will.

Thursday 14 March 2013

Theatre review: The Book of Mormon

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The Book of Mormon invites London critics in next week.

The Book of Mormon has had a lot to live up to. Avenue Q is one of my all-time favourite shows, so its co-creator Robert Lopez teaming up with South Park's Matt Stone and Trey Parker for a new musical was an exciting prospect even before the rave reviews and Tony awards started flooding in. Add to that the fact that when I went to New York in 2011 I tried a number of times, unsuccessfully, to get a ticket to the Broadway production via its daily lottery (which is being replicated for the West End run) and this has been a long time coming. I went along with much of the same group of people I made several trips to Avenue Q with (bar Vanessa, who realised she'd get disowned if she saw it before her daughter) and the good news is it wasn't long before Evil Alex's loud, rather hysterical laugh started up.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Theatre review: A Thousand Miles of History

Last year the Royal Court did one of its Theatre Local seasons in the Bussey Building in Peckham, and the venue is now attempting to continue as a performance space. Although the third floor of a freezing building in a gloomy back alley off Rye Lane is perhaps a hard sell as a theatre, as evidenced by tonight's turnout: A Thousand Miles of History may be flawed, but it deserves an audience bigger than the seven people1 it got tonight. Harold Finley's play looks at the rise and fall of two of the biggest New York artists of the 1980s, Jean-Michel Basquiat (Michael Walters) and Keith Haring (Simon Ginty.) In a white warehouse space, hung with blank canvases in Mike Lees' design, Basquiat and Haring are friends who take the art scene by storm, blocking from their minds the knowledge that being the height of fashion means an inevitable fall from favour is coming.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Theatre review: In The Beginning Was The End

Wandering around the bowels of Somerset House didn't feel like something I'd like to do in the dead of winter, so I saved my trip to dreamthinkspeak's new show until March. Of course, this has turned out to be the coldest March in 30 years, but fortunately most of the spaces used for In The Beginning Was The End are well-heated, which is probably a particular relief to the nine members of the cast who have to get nakey. Tristan Sharps' promenade installation (which is now sold out) starts at 5-minute intervals, when a group of about 10 is taken from a generic waiting room down murky staircases to a conference room, where the annual figures of a company are read to us from an ancient-looking tome. The numbers don't sound too good, in fact they're so bad an alarm goes off and we have to escape through the company's laboratories.

Monday 11 March 2013

Theatre review: Paper Dolls

I don't know if these reviews ever influence what people choose to go see, but sometimes surely the bare summary of a show is enough to decide for you: The true story of a group of Filipino drag queens with day-jobs as live-in carers for elderly Jewish men in Israel is either one you can't miss, or one you'd run a mile to avoid. For me it was the former as Indhu Rubasingham directs the premiere of Paper Dolls, Philip Himberg's play inspired by a documentary film by Tomer Heymann. Unable to express their sexuality in their native Philippines, five gay men move to Tel Aviv. Their work as carers means money to send to their families, and their evenings performing '80s classics brings out their glamorous side. But on top of their daily dramas is the threat of deportation: Their visas depend on them staying in work, with no time allowed to find a new one if they get fired or their charge dies.

Sunday 10 March 2013

Theatre review: Laburnum Grove

After scoring a hit with Cornelius last year, the Finborough delves into J.B. Priestley's less-performed work again, although 1933's Laburnum Grove only gets the alternate treatment, running Sundays to Tuesdays. Suburbia had really started to come into existence between the wars, and despite the state of the economy some middle-class families were doing quite well for themselves and settling into comfortable neighbourhoods. One such family are the Radferns, led by the solid, dull George (Robert Goodale) and brisk Dorothy (Karen Askoe.) George always seems to have cash to spare, so Dorothy's sister Lucy and her husband Bernard (Lynette Edwards and Timothy Speyer) are frequent visitors. On one Sunday evening, Bernard asks for yet another loan, on the same night that George's daughter Elsie (Georgia Maguire) brings a young man home.

Friday 8 March 2013

Theatre review: Longing

As well as his better-known work for the theatre, Anton Chekhov was also a prolific writer of short stories, and it's two of these that William Boyd uses to fashion a new Chekhov play, Longing. Successful lawyer Kolia (Iain Glen) has been invited back to a small town where he spent much of his childhood, by two old friends, Tania (Natasha Little) and Varia (Tamsin Greig.) But the women don't just want to catch up - Tania's alcoholic husband Sergei (Alan Cox) has frittered away her fortune on doomed business deals, and mortgaged the estate to the hilt. Everything is due to be repossessed within days, and Tania hopes that Kolia can help come up with a solution. But he has distractions of his own as Tania's teenage sister Natasha (Eve Ponsonby) has fallen for the much older man.

Thursday 7 March 2013

Theatre review: The Audience

Possibly inspired by her own initials, Helen Mirren has carved out a niche for herself playing Queens of England, particularly the current one. Peter Morgan's award-winning film The Queen focused in part on her relationship with Tony Blair, through the weekly audiences the monarch holds with the Prime Minister. This is what Morgan expands on in his new stage play - leaving Blair himself behind, he looks at eight of the other people to have held the post during the Queen's reign, and how she might have got on with them during The Audience. Mirren reprises her role as well-known stamp model Elizabeth Windsor, and a high-profile cast join her as the procession of PMs in what are, of course, encounters completely imagined by Morgan - exactly what is really discussed at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday evenings remains strictly confidential.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Theatre review: Hello/Goodbye

Peter Souter's previous writing credits are all in TV and radio, and there's a definite hint of sitcom to his playwrighting debut - particularly the first act, the "hello" part of Hello/Goodbye. Not that there's anything wrong with sitcom, especially when it's done this well, and with an edge of something deeper creeping in as the story goes on. Having burnt all her bridges with her friends Juliet (Jo Herbert) has rented a new flat. Or so she thinks - a mistake by the estate agents sees her arrive to find Alex (Andy Rush) already halfway through moving his things in. And there's plenty to move in, as in classic odd-couple style her chaotic nature is contrasted with his obsessive tendencies, which include a number of mounted collections ranging from shells and insects to Happy Meal toys - it's not necessarily what's in the collection that interests him, it's the completeness of it.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Theatre review: God's Property

Arinze Kene's God's Property looks at what it is to be mixed-race in Britain, particularly at a time when people were still discovering what kind of racial identity that might be. It's 1982, with the Brixton riots a fairly recent memory, and Onochie (Ash Hunter,) the teenage son of a Nigerian father (now deceased) and white Irish mother, returns to his home in Deptford to find an unexpected visitor. His mother has disappeared, and in her place is his older brother Chima (Kingsley Ben-Adir,) just released from prison after 10 years, during which the rest of his family made no contact with him. Partly as a result of his brother's crime and the cloud it's left over his family in the neighbourhood, Onochie has in the intervening years stopped thinking of himelf as black, and even joined a local group of skinheads.

Monday 4 March 2013

Theatre review: Purple Heart

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The Gate invites the official reviewers in tomorrow night.

Pulitzer-winning Clybourne Park author Bruce Norris has a new play debuting at the Royal Court at the end of the month, but first one of his earlier plays gets its first UK showing courtesy of Christopher Haydon at the Gate. We're in a traverse again in Simon Kenny's design for Purple Heart, looking in on a typically beige 1970s living room, in some unnamed American suburb. A few months ago, Lars died in Vietnam. His alcoholic widow Carla (Amelia Lowdell) has been left to look after teenage son Thor (Oliver Coopersmith,) with the unwanted help of mother-in law Grace (Linda Broughton.) With Grace trying to thwart Carla's attempts to get hold of alcohol, their Saturday evening seems dramatic enough, but things take an odder turn at the arrival of what seems to be another person offering condolences: Purdy (Trevor White,) an old army buddy of Lars'.

Sunday 3 March 2013

Theatre review: Facts

Jewish Canadian playwright Arthur Milner's father was a right-wing Zionist, so in writing a play about Israel and Palestine he takes the opportunity, in part, to deal with some of his issues around his disagreement with his father's politics. Inspired by a true story, Facts takes place in a police interrogation room in the Occupied Territories where Palestinian detective Khalid (Philip Arditti) has asked an Israeli colleague he's collaborated with in the past to help him with a murder case that's going nowhere. Khalid and Yossi (Michael Feast) start to piece together the events around the shooting of an American archaeologist whose work made him controversial in the region: Publishing evidence that directly contradicts the version of history in Exodus, he's casting doubt not only on the Old Testament as a factual source, but also on the entire basis for the Jewish claim on modern Israel.

Friday 1 March 2013

Theatre review: A Time to Reap

The Royal Court's having another of its international seasons, which this year takes us to Poland, and Anna Wakulik's A Time to Reap, which looks at the influence of the Catholic Church via a love triangle that keeps things in the family. Jan (Owen Teale) is a gynaecologist whose business suddenly thrives when Poland passes an anti-abortion law, and he makes a fortune performing them secretly after hours. One patient is 17-year-old Marysia (Sinéad Matthews,) a girl from the small rural town where he used to take his son on holiday. After terminating a pregnancy that was the result of Marysia's fling with a priest at Catholic camp, Jan takes her on as his assistant and, soon enough, lover. Eight years later, when Jan's son Piotr (Max Bennett) resurfaces, he invites Marysia to London with him, and soon she has need of his father's services again.