Wednesday 31 July 2013

Theatre review: The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart

One thing that looks likely to become a feature of Vicky Featherstone's tenure at the Royal Court is co-productions with her former company, the National Theatre of Scotland. So it is with the final show in the Open Court "taster" season, which falls under the Theatre Local umbrella, taking it to the London Welsh Centre near King's Cross. Which is a pretty strange choice of location for a show as resolutely Scottish as The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, the brainchild of its writer David Greig and director Wils Wilson. The prevalence of Welsh dragons in the decor aside though, this proves an apt enough space for the piece, the long bar set up for a lock-in as if in the Kelso pub where a couple of crucial scenes take place. The story is told by five actor-musicians, and is a tribute to the traditional Border Ballads - as well as a deconstruction of them.

Tuesday 30 July 2013

Theatre review: Titanic

I wonder how many people will turn up at Southwark Playhouse for Titanic the Musical expecting an all-singing, all-dancing adaptation of the James Cameron film? I'm afraid you won't be seeing any high-kicks to "Paint Me Like Your French Girls, Jack" or a curtain-call rendition of "Oops I Did It Again" complete with the bit where the Heart of the Ocean gets retrieved from the depths. Instead, Maury Yeston and Peter Stone's version takes all its characters from real people who sailed on the iconic but doomed liner, some of them staying on to her final destination, others getting off at an earlier, more convenient point. This is a true ensemble piece that tries to build a flavour of all four different groups of people who sailed on Titanic, simplified down to a mostly-American First Class, mostly-English Second Class, mostly-Irish Third Class plus a crew from around the British Isles.

Monday 29 July 2013

Theatre review: Indian Tempest (Footsbarn / Globe to Globe)

The Globe's encore Globe to Globe season continues to bring back productions from various countries, and as I'm sure you can tell from the title, Indian Tempest hails from France. Footsbarn bring an international cast to the story of Prospero (Reghoothaman Domodaran Pillai,) exiled Duke of Milan, and the magical island he's since become ruler of. He wants his original land back though (despite not having given two shits about ruling it back when it was actually his job, why does nobody care about this?) and when his usurpers sail near the island he raises a magical storm to shipwreck them, and uses his daughter Miranda (Rosanna Goodall) to create a new political alliance. It's in the visuals where the company's Indian theme is most clearly imposed on the play - the language it's performed in is a combination of English, Malayalam, French and Sanskrit, reflecting the cast's origins.

Friday 26 July 2013

Theatre review: Sea Wall

A couple of years ago Simon Stephens wrote Sea Wall especially for Andrew Scott and it played for a handful of performances at the Bush and in Edinburgh. A 30-minute monologue performed by a little-known actor, it understandably wasn't going to find a huge audience, so its main run was brief and I missed it - although I did watch the filmed version that was released last year. Now, Scott's increased visibility since his love/hate appearances on Sherlock means the play can have another brief lease of life at the NT's Shed, where it's having a limited run as a late show. Scott plays the amiable, easily distracted Alex, who has brought us here to share - very enthusiastically - his thoughts about two of his favourite people: His young daughter, and his eccentric, ex-soldier father-in-law, whom Alex and his family regularly visit for holidays in the South of France. It's a funny, likeable story of playful arguing and philosophising, and of course like the sea wall of the title it's going to plunge abruptly into a dark and terrifying place.

Theatre review: The Hush

Sound designers often make a huge contribution to a performance's overall effect but they're rarely the instigators of an entire production, as composer and DJ Matthew Herbert is for the latest show in The Shed, The Hush. Unfortunately it doesn't involve floating Gentlemen stealing people's voices, although it does involve the audience losing their shoes - in the interests of not making noise, we're asked to take our shoes off and leave them in a rack at the back of the stage. In a small theatre at the end of a hot day the show threatens to become an assault more on the nose than the ears; on the other hand if you're a theatre usher with a foot fetish, I think I've identified your dream job. Back to the stage though where a space that looks like an anonymous hotel room turns out to be a place called The Hush, where sound is created and listened to.

Thursday 25 July 2013

Theatre review: Josephine and I

The first of two consecutive playwrighting debuts from popular stage actors at the Bush, Josephine and I also sees Cush Jumbo take to the stage in her one-woman show that's actually about two women: The "I" in the title is a fictionalised version of herself, a young black actress in the present day who's just auditioned (having been recalled seven times now) for an American cop show that could make her a star; and she's often distracted by thoughts of this job opportunity and how it impacts on her personal life, from the story she's actually trying to tell: That of another black performer, except in those days the word would have been "coloured" as we're going back to the mid-20th century to meet a woman who found ways to overcome the limitations put on her race, the vaudeville legend Josephine Baker.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Theatre review: Circle Mirror Transformation

Although it's finished in the Royal Court's building itself, the Open Court season lives on via the venue's occasional Theatre Local strand, which has two offerings this year. The Rose Lipman Building is a community centre in Haggerston, which I'm reliably informed is the next area due to get gentrified. (Seems a bit lazy to me - I thought hipsters were supposed to seek out surprising new places to proclaim cool, not just move one Overground station down when they overflow from Dalston.) If the surroundings aren't (yet) that glamorous, a starry cast makes for a big draw instead to Annie Baker's unusual but addicitive Circle Mirror Transformation. The Jerwood Upstairs seating has been brought into a mirrored studio in the East London community centre, which stands in for a similar space in Vermont where hippyish Marty (Imelda Staunton) has convinced the centre to let her run a 6-week acting class for adults. The fact that she's only got four students, one of whom is her husband James (Danny Webb,) isn't going to dull her enthusiasm.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Theatre review: Billy Budd

Is the new Southwark Playhouse deliberately stripping themes across its two studios or is it happening by accident? After an (aborted) South American theme to open with, it's all going nautical now. The Large will shortly be hosting a musical Titanic but for now The Little brings us some more peril at sea with Herman Melville's Billy Budd. The titular Billy (Charlie Archer) has worked on merchant ships since childhood when, aged about 20, he's conscripted by the HMS Indomitable. A simpleton who's unable to see anything but good in people, he quickly charms the rest of the sailors and becomes a calming influence over the whole crew. It could also be said he charms the master-at-arms as well, but this coldly sadistic man reacts very differently: He deals with his attraction to Billy by trying to destroy him.

Monday 22 July 2013

Theatre review: The Precariat

Fin (Scott Chambers) is a teenager preparing to do his A'levels, and expected to do well as he's highly intelligent and articulate, hard-working and comfortably placed somewhere in the middle of the social strata at school. But if his prospects look good academically, his home life begs to disagree, as he belongs to a new class Chris Dunkley's new play christens The Precariat: A generation growing up into an uncertain future, precariously balanced and at the whim of the global markets. Living with his unemployed, depressive mother Bethan (Kirsty Besterman,) Fin's part-time job at a fried chicken shop makes up a disproportionate part of the family income. And ever since the 2011 riots, his younger brother has got increasingly involved with the local drug dealing gang, the unseen Leo becoming a constant concern for his older brother, whose tragedy may be that he's all too acutely aware of his own limited prospects.

Saturday 20 July 2013

Theatre review: Dark Vanilla Jungle

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This was the first in a series of London and Manchester Previews before Dark Vanilla Jungle officially premieres at the Edinburgh Festival.

Andrea (Gemma Whelan) is a rather reserved-looking teenager, dressed as if her mother chooses her clothes for her, and entering the room nervously, stumbling over her words as she tells a story about getting stung by a wasp at the age of five. But her speech sometimes degenerates into obscenities screamed at the audience, her stories feature the phrase "I must have blacked out or something" far too often, and it becomes apparent her speech is some sort of confession or testimony. It seems the young woman's become a regular in the newspapers, which call her a witch or monster because of "what she did to the soldier and the baby." After experimenting with a much more epic scope in his two 2012 premieres, Philip Ridley pares things right down to a monologue for his latest play, Dark Vanilla Jungle.

Friday 19 July 2013

Theatre review: Gabriel

After 2011's The God of Soho Shakespeare's Globe steered clear of staging new commissions for a while for, er, some reason, but this year they're jumping back in, with the casts of each of the three main Shakespearean productions each getting a premiere to work on as well. First up Dominic Dromgoole directs Samuel Adamson's Gabriel, a celebration of the music of Henry Purcell, and particularly of the trumpet, built around trumpeter Alison Balsom. Purcell himself never appears as a character, instead the play is an attempt to contextualise his music by showing us an epic sweep through London in the time of William and Mary. Our guide is John Shaw (Richard Riddell,) a talented trumpeter who becomes Purcell's preferred player and has pieces written especially for him - Balsom providing the actual music when Riddell mimes playing the instrument.

Thursday 18 July 2013

Theatre review: The Taming of the Shrew (Propeller)

The second of Ed Hall's Propeller shows that Dugald Bruce-Lockhart has revived for another tour is perhaps my least favourite Shakespeare comedy, and a problematic one in anyone's book, The Taming of the Shrew. Baptista Minola (Chris Myles) is a wealthy Paduan merchant whose younger daughter Bianca (Arthur Wilson) is much sought-after by the men of the city. But their hopes are threatened by Baptista's decree that before she marries her elder sister has to find a husband first - Katherine (Dan Wheeler) is notorious for her terrible temper. Some of her suitors hatch a plan to pose as tutors to get close to Bianca and compete for her affections; while for the obstacle in their way they've enlisted Petruchio (Vince Leigh,) who's willing to take on Katherine in return for her sizeable sodwry. But a wife with a mind of her own doesn't suit him and he proceeds to "tame" her into submission.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Theatre review: A Season in the Congo

The film director and Keira Knightley-enabler Joe Wright only made his theatrical debut a few months ago, but he's already looking very assured in his follow-up, A Season in the Congo. Aimé Césaire's play was written in 1966, only a few years after the events it describes, as it follows the story of Congolese independence through the eyes of its first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. A former beer salesman who'd sneak rhetoric against the Belgian colonists into his sales pitch, a few years later he would win the country's first democratic election. But his idealism overlooks both the Belgians' sneaky plan to hold onto financial interests in their former colony, and the tribal enmities it will exploit to do so. Within a few months he has catastrophically lost control, and inadvertently paved the way for a far from democratic Congo.

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Theatre review: Talk Show

After last week's all-female show, an all-male cast rounds off the Royal Court's weekly rep season, although a couple of absent women do loom large in Alistair McDowall's Talk Show, which Caroline Steinbeis directs. Three generations of unemployed men share a small house in an unnamed town that's been badly hit by the recession. Bill (Ferdy Roberts) has moved into the living room to let his ageing father Ron (Alan Williams) have his bedroom, while the basement is occupied by Bill's 26-year-old son Sam (Ryan Sampson.) With little else to do, Sam hosts a YouTube talk show every night, interviewing locals for the benefit of eight viewers (on a good night.) After one of these shows has wrapped up, a filthy, half-naked man (Jonjo O'Neill) crawls in through the basement window: It's his uncle Jonah, who's been missing for five years, and now wants Sam to hide him there for a while.

Saturday 13 July 2013

Theatre review: As You Like It (RSC / RST & TR Newcastle)

From a Shakespeare play that's new to me to one I'm very familiar with, As You Like It having been the first Shakespeare comedy I saw on stage in 1989, and the one that made me realise their humour can still work today. Accordingly it's also a play I can be very particular about, and have been known to get stroppy if I think it's been poorly served by the production. This year's RSC offering though comes with a promising pedigree: Maria Aberg directed my favourite Shakespeare of 2012, King John, and here she reunites with its leads, Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann, to take on Rosalind and Orlando. Rosalind's father, the Duke Senior, has been deposed and exiled by his younger brother Frederick. When she spots the mistreated young nobleman Orlando de Boys winning a wrestling match, he and Rosalind fall in love. Shortly afterwards they're banished, separately, to the forest, and by the time they meet again Rosalind is disguised as a boy - a subterfuge she now uses to test and toy with her lover.

Friday 12 July 2013

Theatre review: Titus Andronicus (RSC / Swan)

It's not something that I can say very often, and it can only happen a handful more times, but here's a Shakespeare play I'd never seen before until tonight. Shakespeare's first tragedy and one of the plays that made his name, Titus Andronicus was a huge success but one that had already gone out of fashion in the playwright's lifetime and, unlike some, has never really regained its popularity in the ensuing centuries, still often dismissed as juvenile. It's hard to argue that it's one of the better pieces in the canon, its plot a pretty straightforward cycle of revenge and counter-revenge that glories in violence and gore, but Michael Fentiman's new production in the Swan revels in the opportunities the play presents and certainly proves that it can still make for a hugely entertaining night at the theatre, and perhaps one with the odd moment of depth as well.

Thursday 11 July 2013

Theatre review: The American Plan

It's always nice when a play caters to my interests right from the start, like The American Plan does by opening with Luke Allen-Gale climbing out of a lake in bathing trunks, soaking wet. He eventually puts his clothes back on but Richard Greenberg's play soon compensates in other ways. It's July 1960 and Nick (Allen-Gale) is the son of an old wealthy New York family, holidaying with friends in the Catskills. Finding the resort's full schedule of "fun" oppressive, he swims across the lake to an odd-looking house owned by Eva (Diana Quick,) a Jewish refugee who escaped Germany on the last ship out, before her husband came up with a useful but unexciting invention that made their fortune. Nick is captivated by Eva's daughter Lili (Emily Taaffe,) a compulsive fantasist who enjoys teasing him with lies like how her late father's mysterious invention was a reversible condom.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Theatre review: Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Official critics have not yet been invited to review this.

Considered a bit of a feminist classic but not revived for decades, Pam Gems' Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi follows the titular four women sharing a small flat. All are strong-willed and appear liberated but each has her problems holding her back: Dusa (Sophie Scott) is trying to get her children back after her ex-husband ran away with them to Argentina. Stas (Emily Dobbs) is a hospice nurse with a sideline in prostitution and a knack for shoplifting, saving up to study Marine Biology in Hawaii. The tiny Vi (Helena Johnson) is obsessed with yoga and vegetarianism, to the point that it's become an eating disorder and she barely eats any more. On the outside, Fish (Olivia Poulet) seems the strongest of the quartet, a working woman and Union representative, she's a public speaker campaigning for equal working conditions and pay for women.

Tuesday 9 July 2013

Theatre review: Untitled Matriarch Play (or Seven Sisters)

I know people who were hoping to skip the Royal Court's Weekly Rep season (when you're a theatre geek there's enough shows to keep up with without one venue launching a new one each week) but had to relent and book a couple of shows when they saw the quality of the ensemble. And this cast (who it's hard to believe were in their first public performance after only a week's rehearsal) are once again saving an evening that could have gone very differently in the penultimate show of the season, Untitled Matriarch Play (or Seven Sisters.) And a lot of the time Nikole Beckwith's work is as bizarre as you'd expect from a play that has an alternate title despite not having a first title. Also, there's seven women in the cast and most of their characters are related, but only four of them are sisters.

Monday 8 July 2013

Theatre review: Private Lives

It's really not that long since Noël Coward's Private Lives was last in the West End - just three years in fact since Kim Cattrall headlined a production. So Chichester Festival Theatre must have felt pretty confident in Jonathan Kent's production to risk a new transfer - indeed had it not been for the £10 Time Out ticket offer, which got us perfectly good seats in the back of the Stalls, I'm not sure I would have bothered with this. But it's worth the tenner and a couple of hours of my time as it turns out to be quite a different beast to the last time I saw the play. Elyot (Toby Stephens) and Amanda (Anna Chancellor) were married for two years, divorced for five, and have both now married new partners. On the same day, in fact, as their honeymoons bring them to adjoining balconies of a French hotel, where moments after reassuring their new spouses that their exes are ancient history, their accidental meeting reignites the spark. (Literally - it's Noël Coward so there's a lot of languid smoking.)

Sunday 7 July 2013

Theatre review: Love's Labour's Lost (Grassroots Shakespeare London / Old Red Lion)

Apparently not wanting to give themselves an easy ride in any way, the second play Grassroots Shakespeare London have chosen for their Old Red Lion repertory is the early comedy Love's Labour's Lost. It's easy to forget how much of a mess, plot-wise, some of the world's best-loved plays can be, but though there's fun to be had here, the production doesn't do anything to disguise the play's problems. Ferdinand, King of Navarre (Lucas Livesey) decides he wants to dedicate himself to study, and convinces his three best friends and his court to join him in a three-year vow to abstain from all other pursuits - especially romantic ones. No sooner is the ink dry on the contract though than the Princess of France (Andrew Gruen) arrives with her own entourage of three women, so each of the four men has someone to severely test his vow of celibacy.

Saturday 6 July 2013

Theatre review: Romeo and Juliet (Grassroots Shakespeare London / Old Red Lion)

Last summer the Old Red Lion ambitiously tried a classic rep season, and this year they repeat the project - although the theatre's collaborated with a different company, Grassroots Shakespeare London, this time around. The company of young actors bill themselves as employing Original Practices, which means the actors work without a director, and they've come up with their own interpretation of the all-male Jacobethan casts: Their shows are cast gender-blind, although in practice the male-to-female ratio in this ensemble is no more balanced than in any other Shakespeare production. They're calling this Old Red Lion season "The Summer of Love," with the tricky comedy Love's Labour's Lost to come, but first up a tragedy with many fans - but I'm generally not one of them - Romeo and Juliet.

Theatre review: Short and Stark

You can't accuse Short and Stark of having a misleading title: Originally commissioned by various theatres for their short play festivals, Joel Horwood collects all his playlets together into an hour with a bitter tang and the occasional jab of dark humour, with mixed results. Opening and closing with the longest piece, each about 20 minutes long, the first may be the weakest, monologue "Everything I've Ever Done Wrong (Amplified.)" An office worker and sex addict (Simon Yadoo) doesn't actually list all his misdeeds, but the encounter with a temp he relates sums up, he feels, all the worst things about himself. It's presented as if it were a piece of stand-up comedy, delivered into a mike, but is dark and full of self-loathing. And I know there were only eight people in today's matinee audience to choose from, but I couldn't help but take it personally when the actor delivered an entire speech about arseholes towards me. Literal arseholes.

Friday 5 July 2013

Theatre review: Mint

Director Clare Lizzimore tries her hand at playwrighting (and immediately makes it into my good books by not attempting to pull double duty and direct it herself.) Instead Caroline Steinbeis directs Mint, this week's offering from the Royal Court's rep season. Mint is the name of the colour of paint in Alan's jail cell, and he chose it himself - one of the few times during his lengthy incarceration that he had any small measure of control. The exact nature of Alan's crime is revealed later on, but we know from the off that it's something pretty serious - he's behind bars for several years and he starts off in a maximum security prison, although good behaviour sees him moved elsewhere down the line. Sam Troughton may never have been more intense than as the man whose supposed rehabilitation we follow from the end of the last millennium into the start of this one.

Thursday 4 July 2013

Theatre review: Twelfth Night (Propeller)

It's July, which means it must be time for one of my annual theatrical highlights: Having toured their current season since last autumn, the brilliant all-male Shakespeare troupe Propeller end at Artistic Director Ed Hall's London base, Hampstead Theatre. This year the company revisit a hit double bill from a few years back, and the reins are handed to Associate Director Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, who revives Hall's productions of Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew. From my perspective, Propeller are giving themselves a challenge this year: At the end of the current run I'll be returning to see if they can make me love the Shrew, a problem comedy I've never been a fan of. First though a much better play, but one so popular I seem to see it at least twice a year. Can they make Twelfth Night feel fresh?

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Theatre review: The Moment of Truth

A bit of a rarity in the temporary Southwark Playhouse's Large auditorium, as the playwrighting career of Peter Ustinov is dusted off with Rob Laycock's revival of his 1951 play The Moment of Truth. Inspired in part by the collaborators during the Nazi occupation of France, it takes place in an unnamed country whose days of military glory are far behind it, and is now being attacked by a powerful enemy and betrayed by its allies. In the face of his ministers' denial, a brutally pragmatic Prime Minister (Miles Richardson) accepts the inevitable and begins plotting how to spin this to everyone's advantage. When The Victor (Damian Quinn) finally arrives at his office demanding surrender, the Prime Minister instead offers him a deal: He and his Foreign Minister (Mark Carey) will collaborate, keeping some vestiges of power for themselves, while making the Victor's ruling of a hostile population easier. Their little coalition will hide behind a puppet dictator.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Theatre review: Fences

Continuing one of the more successful reinventions from standup comedian to stage actor, Lenny Henry stars in Fences, part of August Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" of ten plays about being a black American in the 20th century, each covering a different decade. This is the 1950s' installment, where Henry plays Troy Maxson, a rubbish man who at the start of the play is lobbying his union to help make him the first black man in the city to drive the truck instead of picking up the rubbish behind it. He'll get the wished-for promotion (despite his lack of a driving licence,) but like many things in his life it won't turn out to be quite what he expects. Now in his fifties, he's haunted by the professional baseball career he never quite had, and sees his life as a series of duties he has to carry out for his family.

Monday 1 July 2013

Theatre review: Responsible Other

Sometimes, it turns out, it actually is Lupus. At least it is for 15-year-old Daisy (Alice Sykes) who, in Melanie Spencer's Responsible Other, has the disease whose obscurity and mass of possible symptoms made it a weekly suspect for Dr House. Only a couple of years after her mother's death from cancer, Daisy has been diagnosed with the disease that turns the immune system against itself, and in her case is making kidney failure a real possibility. Weekly chemotherapy could help, but her father Peter (Andy Frame) is struggling to stay afloat as a single parent, and the trips from Northampton to St Thomas' Hospital would mean missing more work than he can afford to. In desperation he turns to the sister-in-law he hasn't seen since Daisy was a baby: Diane (Tricia Kelly) is a recluse with a history of mental illness, and the thought of accompanying the niece she barely knows to London is terrifying to her.