Tuesday 30 April 2013

Theatre review: Glory Dazed

Second Shot is a theatre company that works with prisoners, and Cat Jones' Glory Dazed is a piece developed with ex-servicemen in jail, attempting to shine a light on why so many of them end up there. The scene is a grubby pub in Doncaster, where landlord Simon (Adam Foster) habitually waters down the spirits, and new barmaid Leanne (Kristin Atherton) is far from the brightest spark. Soon after closing, Simon is clearing up when Ray (Samuel Edward-Cook) bangs on the door, demanding to speak to Carla (Chloe Massey,) a customer who's hanging around after hours. Carla is his ex-wife, and Ray has returned to try and get her back - an ambition that probably won't be helped much by the fact that he's shown up drunk, sweating, shouting and covered in someone else's blood.

Friday 26 April 2013

Theatre review: Rooms - A Rock Romance

In the speculation over who will succeed Nicholas Hytner as Artistic Director of the National Theatre in two years' time, one name unlikely to even cross the selection panel's minds is Neil McPherson. But he runs an unsubsidised, 50-seat room above a failed pub as if it were the National; I can only imagine what he could achieve if you gave him some actual resources to work with. The Finborough regularly punches above its weight in new writing, political theatre, classic revivals and international work, and now it reminds us it can also do the unashamed crowd-pleaser. The venue's occasional musicals tend to be revivals but this is the European premiere of Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon's 2005 off-Broadway hit Rooms - A Rock Romance. There's not much that's new about the story of co-songwriters who fall in love, but Andrew Keates' production makes it fresh, helped by some strong tunes.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Theatre review: Beautiful Thing

Although Jonathan Harvey's TV writing career continues to be successful, none of his stage plays has ever matched the popularity of his debut, Beautiful Thing, which turns 20 years old this year. To mark the anniversary Harvey's lifted a self-imposed ban on revivals to allow Nikolai Foster's production which runs at the Arts prior to a limited UK tour. A piece of gay theatre groundbreaking both in the optimistic matter-of-factness with which it approaches its love story, and in the mainstream appeal it achieves, it premiered at a time when Section 28 was still in effect and AIDS remained a hot topic closely associated with the gay community. As such, it was a breath of fresh air, political in its very refusal to acknowledge politics. Harvey's script hasn't been updated, so the action still takes place in 1993 with many a pop-culture reference of the time. But the romance of two 15-year-old boys on a Thamesmead estate, and the witty characters surrounding them, ensures Beautiful Thing has kept its appeal.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Theatre review: Othello (National Theatre)

Here's one that's been a long time coming: It feels as if an Adrian Lester / Rory Kinnear Othello has been promised at the National for even longer than the SRB Lear we'll finally be getting next year. Nicholas Hytner's production takes a very literal approach to the play's setting, with a military installation in a hot country that could easily be Cyprus. Othello (Lester) is a career soldier who's risen through the ranks to become General, and is called upon to lead a force in Cyprus when there's a sudden Turkish threat. He brings along his new young wife Desdemona (Olivia Vinall,) who will also become the crux of a plan by his trusted ensign Iago (Kinnear,) who after being passed over for promotion among other perceived slights, has decided to destroy the General's life - or rather let him destroy it himself.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Theatre review: #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei

It was only a matter of time before a play came along with a hashtag in the title. At least it's appropriately on-theme in #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, as the artist's criticism of the state on blogs and Twitter are at the heart of how he offended the Chinese government. But any admission of this is a long time coming, as Howard Brenton's play is a study in disinformation, trumped-up charges and fabrication as a series of officials try to break his spirit. Ai Weiwei (Benedict Wong,) an artist and architect who designed the Bird's Nest Stadium, was attempting to fly to Hong Kong for an exhibition two years ago when he was arrested at the airport. He would spend 81 days detained and ordered to confess to any number of vaguely-defined crimes, before being released to house arrest on a charge of tax avoidance.

Sunday 21 April 2013

Theatre review: Table

While the Cottesloe regenerates into the Dorfman, the National Theatre are continuing to operate as a 3-house venue thanks to a big red temporary structure they're calling the Shed, which is currently adding a splash of colour to the South Bank (but it does sadly mean the familiar oversized AstroTurf furniture won't be making its customary summer appearance this year.) Instead a more traditional-sized piece of furniture takes up residence inside the Shed, as the pop-up venue's season starts with a piece developed by the NT Studio, Tanya Ronder's Table. The result of workshops with Rufus Norris, who directs, Table follows the titular piece of furniture down the decades from 1898 to the present day, as it stays in the family of the carpenter who built it, but in the process acquires as many scars as there are memories associated with it, as well as managing to travel to Africa and back.

Saturday 20 April 2013

Theatre review: The Empress

When did the House of Commons get its first Indian-born MP? I suspect most people wouldn't guess 1892, when Dadabhai Naoroji was elected MP for Finsbury Central, serving for 3 years. (Of course we'd already had a Jewish Prime Minister by then so perhaps a bit of diversity in the Victorian Houses of Parliament isn't that surprising.) Naoroji shows up as a supporting character in Tanika Gupta's The Empress, which shows South Asian people being a familiar sight in London long before the 1950s' wave of immigration. It opens with a ship arriving from India, two of whose passengers we'll be following: Abdul Karim (Tony Jayawardena) has been sent as a gift to Queen Victoria, a manservant to serve her breakfast. His air of superiority antagonises much of the royal family and household staff, but the Queen (Beatie Edney) is charmed by Karim, promoting him to be her "Munshi" or teacher, to teach her Hindi and about the country she's Empress of but has never visited.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Theatre review: Narrative

If Anthony Neilson writes a play called Narrative, one thing you can be fairly confident about going in is that there won't be a traditional narrative on offer. Although the action does coalesce into a story as the play goes on and the characters form relationships, what Neilson and his actors are interested in is the way life itself can be experienced as a story, and consequently rewritten in hindsight. A mother (Christine Entwisle) channels her grief over her son's death into a petition to ban the drug that killed him; when new information shines a different light on events, how does it also change what her life has become? A young woman (Zawe Ashton) goes through a series of failed relationships; she changes her backstory about how her mother's love made her who she is, but the outcome of her relationships is always the same. And an actor's (Big Favourite Round These Parts Oliver Rix) success sees his life become as fake as the character he's playing on screen.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Theatre review: Children of the Sun

Howard Davies directing a Russian play has become a bit of an annual National Theatre tradition, often in a translation by Andrew Upton. This year they tackle Maxim Gorky, and his 1905 look at young intellectuals in a safe bubble that won't last forever, Children of the Sun. Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfeild) is head of a family that's owned much of their small town for decades - although their finances aren't quite what they used to be, perhaps in part due to Protasov's occupation: A scientist, he spends his days in a home laboratory doing chemical experiments that seem to require constant supplies. His sister Liza (Emma Lowndes,) who suffers from an unspecified illness, is regularly rejecting the advances of family friend and local vet Boris (Paul Higgins.) His wife Yelena (Justine Mitchell) is spending all her time with artist Vageen (Gerald Kyd.) And Protasov himself is the unwilling target of romantic advances from Boris' sister Melaniya (Lucy Black.)

Monday 15 April 2013

Theatre review: The Low Road

Bruce Norris provided Dominic Cooke with his first show as artistic director of the Royal Court, as well as the play that perhaps best summed up his tenure for me, Clybourne Park. So it's to Norris that Cooke turns again for his farewell production, and an epic, comic and sometimes downright bizarre parable in The Low Road. With the American War of Independence looming, a baby is left on the doorstep of a brothel, with a note promising whoever raises him will be rewarded when he turns 17. There will be money coming Jim Trumpett's way by the end of his teens, but it'll be of his own making, as the budding capitalist "reorganises" the brothel's finances, cheerfully ripping off the prostitutes who helped raise him in the process. Setting off on a ruthless moneymaking odyssey, Jim's first financial transaction is to buy a slave, and his subsequent business dealings don't get any nicer.

Saturday 13 April 2013

Theatre review: Jumpers for Goalposts

Andy Rush must have really impressed the creatives on The Kitchen Sink - he's barely out of Hello/Goodbye, helmed by that show's director Tamara Harvey, when he crops up in writer Tom Wells' latest play. Watford, where Jumpers for Goalposts premieres for Paines Plough with the intention of subsequently touring, is further than I like to travel for theatre but Wells' past work's been so good I was tempted to make the trip even before other bloggers insisted I must. Set around a gay and lesbian five-a-side football tournament (soccer to Americans and other aliens) it follows a team whose self-deprecating name, Barely Athletic, conceals a rabid desire to win - at least on the part of head coach and team captain Viv (Vivienne Gibbs.) The manager of a local gay pub, Viv has put a team together from a couple of regulars; and as her sister has recently died, she's also recruited as "token straight" her brother-in-law Joe (Matt Sutton,) in the hope that the distraction will help him cope.

Friday 12 April 2013

Theatre review: Ubu Roi

Alfred Jarry's 1896 play Ubu Roi is seen as the forerunner to absurdist theatre, a bloodthirsty and scatological satire on greed and tyranny, with a central character who's a cross between Macbeth and Mister Punch. Ubu originated in Jarry's schooldays as a caricature of his teachers, and this informs the way Declan Donnellan frames his production with Cheek By Jowl's French company: Nick Ormerod's set is a pristine, modern Paris apartment, where a dull dinner party is taking place. The story of Ubu becomes the fantasy of a 14-year-old boy who starts by seeking out his home's grubby underside with a video camera (projections on the back wall show us what he finds,) then proceeds to cast himself, his parents and their guests as malevolent puppets. Père Ubu (Christophe Grégoire) has squandered all his money, and his wife (Camille Cayol) convinces him to solve his financial woes by killing King Wenceslas (Vincent de Bouard) and taking the throne of Poland for himself.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Theatre review: My Perfect Mind

At about the same time that Ian McKellen was due to arrive in New Zealand with the RSC's King Lear, a much smaller local company was rehearsing a rival production. They had also recruited an English actor to play Lear, but Edward Petherbridge's hopes of giving McKellen a run for his money were crushed when he suffered a debilitating stroke a couple of days into rehearsals. Petherbridge recovered well enough to be back on stage a few years later in the disastrous musical The Fantasticks, where he co-starred with Paul Hunter and told him of his wish to attempt the role again, as a one-man show. Instead, the pair teamed up to create My Perfect Mind, a hectic look at Petherbridge, Lear, and how the stroke bound the two together, the character's lines surviving in the actor's memory even as the simplest daily tasks became impossible.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Theatre review: Say It With Flowers

Hampstead Theatre's small studio space Downstairs isn't an obvious venue to try a promenade performance in, but designer Alex Eales gives it a go, creating three small spaces for Say It With Flowers, Katie Mitchell's attempt to stage some of the works of Gertrude Stein. I wasn't familiar with the American modernist writer, but evidently she experimented with prose, poetry and plays, and the snippets seen here show a stream-of-consciousness style that fixates on repetition, particularly in the opening scene which sees a family sit around the dinner table getting into the finer points of language, the shifting and multiple meanings of words, and their malleability. For the second scene the audience are led into a darkened clearing in a forest, where identity seems to be an issue, Sarah Malin's character seemingly unsure which of two people she is, then believing herself bitten by a snake but unable to find any useful advice to deal with it.

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Theatre review: The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle

The second Irish play in a row for me, although this one originated for an Irish audience rather than an American one. The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle by Ross Dungan sees a young ensemble of eight actors employ a storytelling style to follow the titular small-town man, soon after his premature death in his fifties in a car accident. As Eric's 1am funeral is attended by just two people, and a woman from his past babysits her nephew, a young woman who's never heard of Eric receives several thousand letters from him in the mail. The deceased himself is spending the night in some kind of court of the dead, where events from his life are played out in the hope of reaching judgement on some critically important, but mysterious matter that will play out by morning.

Monday 8 April 2013

Theatre review: Once

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Press Night for Once is tomorrow night.

Has the latest Broadway musical import timed its arrival in the West End as well as it could have? A multiple Tony-winning hit in New York, where it's still running, Once may have it all to do to get noticed above the sound of The Book of Mormon. But perhaps the cult fanbase of John Carney's original movie will give Enda Walsh's adaptation a push - tonight's Monday preview was pretty packed (although of course I can't tell how many in the audience had paid full price.) John Tiffany brings to the stage an Irish Guy (Declan Bennett,) a vacuum cleaner repairman and busker who's recently had his heart broken and is ready to ditch his musical dreams when he meets a Girl (Zrinka Cvitešić.) A Czech whose husband returned home, leaving her in Dublin with her family and young daughter, the Girl falls for the Guy's music and convinces him to stick with it, helping him build up a band out of friends and relatives so he can record a demo CD.

Thursday 4 April 2013

Theatre review: Before the Party

The scene is set a couple of years after the War, and food rationing is still in place, leaving the more privileged classes a bit tetchy about their lack of options for dinner. But the Skinner family will soon find plenty more to worry about in Rodney Ackland's Before the Party, which Matthew Dunster revives at the Almeida. Anna Fleischle's set is framed as a 1940s cinema (a conceit extended to the ushers' outfits,) a nod to the salacious movies lawyer Aubrey Skinner (Michael Thomas) disapproves of, filled with stories of crimes of passion the likes of which are about to be reenacted in his own country home as the screen pulls back to reveal the bedroom of his eldest daughter, the recently-widowed Laura (Katherine Parkinson.) Less than a year after her husband's death she's planning to remarry, to David (Alex Price,) two years her junior and with no apparent financial prospects.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Theatre review: Moby-Dick

For the second half of simple8's residency at the Arcola, Sebastian Armesto tackles Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Almost the entire ensemble from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari returns, although as this is very much a story drenched in testosterone as much as it is in sea-water, the two women in the cast have been replaced by Nicholas Bishop as Starbuck, the first mate who tries to provide a voice of reason, and Leroy Osei-Bonsu as Queequeg, the enormous African cannibal (lapsed) who makes for an odd-couple pairing with the bookish narrator, Sargon Yelda's Ishmael. Needing to supplement his income from teaching, Ishmael chooses whaling as an unlikely spot of moonlighting. Being thrown together with Queequeg, the latter's prayers direct them to the Pequod, owned by a pair of eccentrics and captained by the single-minded Ahab.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Theatre review: The Thrill of Love

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The Thrill of Love invites the critics in tomorrow.

Still finding its identity as a venue, the St James Theatre transfers Amanda Whittington's melodrama The Thrill of Love from Newcastle-under-Lyme. Looking at Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, the play focuses on the years leading up to her murder of her lover David Blakely, when she worked in London's private gentlemen's clubs. First a hostess at the Court club, then later given her own club, the Little, to manage by her unseen gangster boss, Ruth becomes popular and, initially, successful. But, clearly damaged by a traumatic childhood, she continues to behave in a self-destructive way, collecting many lovers but always going back to the abusive Blakely in the end. The only man on stage is a fictional police detective (Robert Gwilym,) determined to get to the bottom of her story and find out why she refuses to defend herself; The Thrill of Love's angle is to tell Ellis' story through the other women in her life.

Monday 1 April 2013

Theatre review: The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution

Caryl Churchill's The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution, based on Dr Franz Fanon's observations of the 1950s Algerian revolution, dates from 1972 but had never been performed before the Finborough added it to its Sunday-Tuesday repertory slot. The after-effects of torture are the play's focus, not just on the direct victims - indeed the only character actually to have been tortured is entirely silent, and played here by a disconcerting puppet - but on everyone who's come into any kind of contact with the violence. We're in a mental hospital during the uprising the colonial French resolutely refuse to call a war, and its resources are being stretched to breaking point by the influx of patients whom Fanon (Miles Mitchell) observes, mostly silently and without getting directly involved.