Wednesday 31 December 2014

2014: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

I don't know if you noticed, but 2014 was the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. I know, you'd have thought some theatre or other would have at least mentioned it. So yes, there was one big overarching theme to a lot of this year's theatre, some productions coming up with moving and fresh reactions to the centenary, others treading familiar old ground. But as with any year you never can tell what unexpected subject matters will crop up to make for the best or worst shows, and as usual I'll be listing my 10 favourite and 5 least favourite theatrical experiences this year - including what follows 2013's Jumpers for Goalposts as my Show of the Year, and Barking In Essex as the worst of the worst. But before we get to that, I'm going to babble on about what's caught my eye this year. Don't worry, there'll be pretty pictures to keep you from falling asleep.

Monday 29 December 2014

Theatre review: Treasure Island (National Theatre)

The National Theatre goes back to the classics for this year's big family show, with a new version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Orphaned Jim Hawkins (Patsy Ferran) and her Grandma (Gillian Hanna) run an inn whose only regular customer is Bill Bones (Aidan Kelly,) an ex-pirate raving about his fear of a one-legged man. When Bones is killed with all his bills still unpaid, they take their payment from his chest, where they also find a treasure map. The excitable Squire Trelawney (Nick Fletcher) finds out about Treasure Island and is soon leading Jim and Dr Livesey (Helena Lymbery) to Bristol to find a ship and crew to take them there. Jim remains wary of the one-legged man Bones warned her of, but after all many men lose a leg at sea, the mythical pirate captain couldn't possibly be her new friend, the ship's cook Long John Silver (Arthur Darvill.)

Sunday 28 December 2014

Theatre review: Almost, Maine

Earlier this year we saw Our Town arrive in North London, a rare visitor to these shores but one of the most performed plays in America. It seems in the last decade it's acquired a new rival though, John Cariani's Almost, Maine having apparently already notched up over two thousand productions in the US despite only premiering in 2005. I can see how it would be popular for local and amateur companies - it's another slice of small-town Americana with a large collection of characters, although as the majority of scenes are two-handers Simon Evans' UK premiere production can manage with just three male and three female actors playing all the roles. A portmanteau rom-com along the lines of something like Love, Actually, Almost, Maine takes place in a cold winter in the titular Northern Maine town - although as its name suggests it's almost-but-not-quite a town, a vaguely-connected community that's never quite got its act together enough to formalise its borders.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Theatre review: City of Angels

I saw City of Angels in its Edinburgh Fringe premiere in, I think, 1996; all I really remember is being underwhelmed by a show that had been a modest Broadway hit but didn't last long in the West End. Josie Rourke now chooses it as her first musical since taking over the Donmar (and hikes ticket prices accordingly.) With book by Larry Gelbart, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by David Zippel, it's the story of Stine (Hadley Fraser,) a writer of pulp detective novels, but with a hint of social commentary that's earned him a reputation as something of a literary author. He's now made the move to Hollywood, and having sold the rights to big-shot producer Buddy Fidler (Peter Polycarpou) he's now adapting his first novel into a screenplay. As he writes, we see his story come to life as his gumshoe Stone (Tam Mutu) takes on a dangerous case.

Monday 22 December 2014

Theatre review: Tiger Country

There's something of a mini-trend at the moment, of productions from about four years ago returning. At Hampstead there's Nina Raine's Tiger Country, which she once again directs on a wide traverse stage designed by Lizzie Clachan. A hospital drama with more than a little touch of the soap opera about it, it does in fact rise above what look like fairly generic beginnings. Young doctor Emily (Ruth Everett) transfers from Brighton to the Casualty department of a London hospital where her boyfriend James (Luke Thompson) also works - although he doesn't seem too keen on everyone knowing they have more than a working relationship. Emily is still heavily emotionally invested in her patients, in apparent contrast to Vashti (Indira Varma,) a surgeon whose colleagues joke has buried all trace of a personal life to help her progress in her job. But when her aunt (Souad Faress) is admitted to the hospital, Vashti finds it harder to maintain her stiff upper lip.

Sunday 21 December 2014

Re-review: The Knight of the Burning Pestle

Although the launch season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse only ran for a few months, it already provided a hit they deemed worthy of revival, and I was excited to see that the show in question was Adele Thomas' production of The Knight of the Burning Pestle. You can read my original review here, from which you can probably tell I was glad of the chance to revisit it, and most of the original cast have returned with it. New additions are Paul Brendan as the giant, Louise Ford as Luce, and Jolyon Coy as Jasper (sporting what I think may be his actual hair colour, a rare occasion indeed!) Aside from a couple of new faces and the addition of a few Christmassy touches, the major obvious change from earlier this year is that one of the short interludes has been cut, leaving just one in the first half and one in the second; a good choice, as the only major fault with the show remains that it's too long, and already has too many pauses for a musical number.

Saturday 20 December 2014

Theatre review: The Shoemaker's Holiday

The latest former RSC regular making a return to Stratford-upon-Avon is David Troughton, in the title role of Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday. But while there's a starring role for him, this comedy with occasional lurches into darkness is quite an ensemble piece. It starts with a serous premise: The King is going to war with the French (possibly Henry V at Agincourt although the play never makes it explicit) and many men are being conscripted. Apprentice Shoemaker Ralph (Daniel Boyd) has recently got married, and doesn't want to leave his new wife Jane (Hedydd Dylan) alone. He begs to be excused, but Rowland Lacy (Josh O'Connor) refuses to make an exception, and packs Ralph off to war. Lacy, though, has his own love in London, Rose (Thomasin Rand,) daughter of the Lord Mayor (William Gaminara.) Because of the difference in class, neither of their families approves of the match, and think Lacy leading a charge to France will split them up.

Thursday 18 December 2014

Theatre review: Henry IV Part 2 (RSC / Barbican)

Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 2 follows straight on where Part 1 left off: King Henry's forces have beaten the rebels led by Hotspur, but the unrest hasn't died with him, and the Archibshop of York (Keith Osborn) plans to lead a fresh wave of rebellion. But unlike the battle scenes of the first play, this insurgence will be beaten down with politics, and the machinations of Prince John of Lancaster (Elliot Barnes-Worrell.) His older brother Hal (Alex Hassell,) meanwhile, is about to show his own true colours as well: Henry IV (Jasper Britton) is dying, and while Hal is still keeping up the image of the playboy prince slumming it in an Eastcheap tavern, his mind is already on what kind of king he's going to be. As for Falstaff (Antony Sher,) more civil wars on the horizon mean more opportunities to line his own pockets under the pretext of recruiting soldiers.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Theatre review: Henry IV Part 1 (RSC / Barbican)

Antony Sher takes on his new mantle as First Lady of the RSC by playing Falstaff in Shakespeare's two most acclaimed Histories, the Henry IV plays. Following on from last year's Richard II in Gregory Doran's complete History sequence, Part 1 reminds us of quite how tenuous the new King Henry's (Jasper Britton) hold on his crown is, his coronation haunted by the ghost of Alanis Morisette. And Britton continues to play him as a man with little that's royal about him, more of a politician with a touch of the warrior than a true-born king. The Percys of Northumberland helped him claim the throne, but when he offends them they mount a new rebellion. The support of the Prince of Wales will be essential to help crush it, but Hal (Alex Hassell) shuns his father's court, spending all of his time getting drunk in Eastcheap with Poins (Sam Marks) and committing petty crime with Falstaff.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Theatre review: A Christmas Carol (Old Red Lion)

Charles Dickens' novella A Christmas Carol is not only one of his best-loved stories, it's even credited with forming much of the modern idea of how Christmas should be celebrated. The story of miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Alexander McMorran,) visited on Christmas Eve by a series of ghosts who teach him how to save his soul by embracing the spirit of the season, is one most people will have come across a number of times. So Metal Rabbit's production managing to make it feel fresh and new is quite an achievement. An early indicator that this isn't your usual family fare is in the show's scheduling: Playing at the Old Red Lion after the main show Charming, a 9:30pm start time clearly isn't aimed at getting a big kiddie audience in. Instead this version reveals A Christmas Carol as an all-too-contemporary story by stripping it back to its original political message.

Theatre review: Charming - A Farcical Fairytale

With Christmas being pantomime season, there's always a couple of companies offering an alternative twist on the traditional fairytale, and at the Old Red Lion it's Ross Howard's Charming - A Farcical Fairytale. Four brothers are in the running to be the next King of England, and rather than age, the succession will come down to who finds a fairytale princess to marry first. Foot-fetishist Prince Charles Charming (Tom Oxenham) is touring a clog around the kingdom to find the foot he fell in love with, but Cinderella (Gemma Smith) turns out to be a bit more down-to-earth than he can handle. Rupert (Tom Everatt) has fallen for Rapunzel (Zakiyah Rawat,) but getting to the top of her tower is nothing compared to the question of whether she's old enough to have her hair climbed up. William (Alex Frisby) has bought a beautiful girl from some dwarves, but is a bit squeamish about kissing a corpse, while Simon's (Alexander Stutt) plan to rescue Sleeping Beauty is hampered by the fact that he faints at the sight of blood.

Monday 15 December 2014

Theatre review: Elephants

Another family Christmas on stage can only mean another opportunity to reevaluate your own family Christmas and decide it's not so bad after all. In Elephants we're in the comfortable depths of Middle England, where Sally (Imogen Stubbs) has gone all out to embrace the festive spirit. She and husband Richard (Richard Lintern) have invited friends Valerie (Helen Atkinson Wood) and Dick (Jonathan Guy Lewis) to spend the holiday with them, and as everyone arrives on Christmas Eve the mood is upbeat. But this is forced jollity, as the big blowout is Sally's attempt to deal with a darker fact: This is also the one-year anniversary of the brutal murder of their son Christopher (Adam Buchanan appearing in a dream sequence.) Christopher's ex-girlfriend Jenny (Antonia Thomas) has also been invited to what is planned as one last celebration of his life, but when Sally and Richard's daughter Daisy (Bel Powley) arrives, she has other ideas.

Friday 12 December 2014

Theatre review: Fear in a Handful of Dust

In what is, I think, the last of the World War I dramas I'll be seeing this year, Sevan K. Greene's Fear in a Handful of Dust takes us right down to the intimate level of two men on the front line, but has a perspective on the War that takes in the outposts of the British Empire. During a severe bout of German bombing, some trench walls fall in trapping recent arrival Simon (Jack Morris,) a private from an English regiment but who grew up in the Raj, so considers India his real home. Buck (Henry Regan,) shot in the leg, manages to clamber into the hole with Simon, but with a German sniper watching the trench, they're both stuck there for at least the night, hoping someone from their side will think to look for them in the morning. It's 1916, so the war's been on for a couple of years, and Buck has been with his Irish regiment all that time; but although he's the more experienced soldier, Simon will also be able to teach him a thing or two.

Thursday 11 December 2014

Theatre review: Golem

The follow-up to their big hit The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, 1927's Golem is based on a novel by Gustav Meyrink and follows a bullied, socially awkward young man called Robert, who finds a job manually backing up binary data where he makes similarly-geeky friends and even a possible girlfriend. One day, though, his inventor friend Philip manages to create real Golems - the mythical clay men who obey their owners' every command - and sell one to Robert. Golem not only helps with work but has handy hints for a better social life as well, but when a sinister corporation buys out Philip's company, Golem first finds the power of speech, then starts to use it to tell his owner what to do. As more people buy Golems, the slaves start to become the masters and homogenise the world in their own image.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Theatre review: Assassins

Here's one of those shows I had huge expectations of: Assassins is my favourite Sondheim, and one of my favourite musicals full stop, but the last production of it I saw was disappointing, missing, in my opinion, most of the dark humour that gives the piece its real genius. So I was really hoping for a more successful production from Jamie Lloyd at the Menier Chocolate Factory, especially as he's assembled such an impressive cast to play nine of the people who've attempted, four of them successfully, to assassinate US Presidents. Soutra Gilmour has taken the musical's setting at a shooting gallery to give us a whole Dustbowl carnival in a traverse staging, with the seating reupholstered in lots of different colours, the words "HIT" or "MISS" lighting up after every attempt, and a bumper car in which Jamie Parker's Balladeer sits, which will eventually stand in for JFK's open-topped limo.

Monday 8 December 2014

Theatre review: Hope

The Royal Court's Christmas shows tend not to be like other theatres' Christmas shows, and while for the second year running the creative team is writer Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany, this year's offering makes vampires seem positively festive in comparison. Hope follows the year 2014 in the life of the Labour council of an unnamed, working class town (everyone in the cast keeps their own accent, so it could be pretty much anywhere.) The actual business of running the town doesn't get a look-in though, as the Government's austerity measures have seen their budget slashed by £22 million a year, and everyone's primary concern is to determine which essential services have to be cut. Thorne's play identifies Government policy as a cynically genius plan: Slash budgets from the top but leave the details, and all the resulting ill-feeling, to the local, opposition councils.

Saturday 6 December 2014

Theatre review: The Christmas Truce

The RSC's winter season contributing to the World War I centenary even takes in the family Christmas show; and where Love's Labour's Lost and Won take us either side of the war, Phil Porter's The Christmas Truce puts us in the thick of it. Part of the inspiration was a local Stratford celebrity other than the usual one: Bruce Bairnsfather was an electrician who helped set up the electrics of the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and lit some early productions. But once war broke out he became famous for a different talent, as the comic cartoons he submitted to magazines became hugely popular. He was considered such a morale-booster that once injured he wasn't allowed to return to the front, so he could keep the nation's spirits up writing full-time. But before that he was also present at an event at Christmas 1914 that would become legendary.

Friday 5 December 2014

Theatre review: Dick Whittington and his Cat (Lyric Hammersmith)

Writer Tom Wells and director Dan Herd return for a second year as the creatives behind the Lyric Hammersmith pantomime, and this time Wells brings along his regular collaborator Andy Rush to play the leading man in Dick Whittington and his Cat. Of course, this isn't the first time this year we've seen Andy Rush's Dick, but this version is the country boy - or, this being the Tom Wells take on the story, he's from Hull and comes complete with flat-cap - who travels to London to seek his fortune. With help from a trainee fairy called Bauble (Rebecca Craven) he finds his sidekick, a belligerent Cat (Delroy Atkinson) who's lost his meow. On arriving in London they quickly make an enemy of the evil mayor, Queen Rat (Tiffany Graves,) whose plans to give rats the vote will see her running the city forever. With a quick detour to the North Pole to fight a Yeti and get Cat's meow back, they hatch a plot to help love interest Sooz (Aretha Ayeh) beat Queen Rat in the upcoming election.

Thursday 4 December 2014

Theatre review: 3 Winters

As we reach Nicholas Hytner's final months running the National, a number of the most successful creatives from the last few years of his reign feature heavily. Howard Davies has been most closely associated with directing Russian classics on the Lyttelton stage, and though his latest production is a new Croatian play, it feels very much part of this ongoing series. In part it comes down to the set, this time provided by Tim Hatley: These shows have been noted for their audacious scene changes, and they're not only present and correct but a vital component of Tena Štivičić’s 3 Winters. This is because the winters in the story occur decades apart in the same house, and to the same family. In 1945, as the Communists take over, they evict the old royalist families. Rose (Jo Herbert,) her husband Alexander (Alex Price in 1945, James Laurenson in 1990) and their baby daughter Masha are allocated a large room in the mansion where Rose's mother Monika (Josie Walker) was once a servant.

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Theatre review: Usagi Yojimbo

Southwark Playhouse, who like to find something a bit different for their Christmas family show than the usual panto fare, are this year attempting to put manga on stage. Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo has been a hit comic for thirty years, following the adventures of the titular samurai rabbit. Stewart Melton's adaptation takes its story from the earlier books in the series, so we first meet Myamoto Usagi (Jonathan Raggett) playing at swordfighting with his friends. But as he can't stay away from his late father's swords, his mother (Amy Ip) decides it's time for him to begin training for real. He and his best friend set out on a journey over the mountains, but while Kenichi (Siu Hun Li) goes on to the nearest school as planned, when Usagi meets the elderly samurai lion Katsuichi (Dai Tabuchi) he thinks he's found his sensei, and begs to be accepted as his student.

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Theatre review: Silent Planet

Instead of facing imprisonment, many dissidents in Soviet Russia were given false diagnoses of mental illness, and packed off to insane asylums. It's a subject Tom Stoppard dealt with in epic fashion in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, but Eve Leigh has a much more intimate take on the subject in her new play Silent Planet. A metal grill raised on breeze blocks forms the thrust stage at the Finborough for Tom Mansfield's production, where Gavrill (Graeme McKnight) has to attend regular sessions with his psychiatrist, Yurchak (Matthew Thomas.) Of course, Gavrill is there because of his anti-Soviet writing, and has a number of former associates who are still at large, so these therapy sessions look suspiciously like interrogations, and in between them there's every chance he'll be given some kind of radical treatment that looks just as suspiciously like torture.

Monday 1 December 2014

Theatre review: Obama-ology

You got an ology? You're a scientist!

I don't know if it's very good or very bad timing that Aurin Squire's play Obama-ology makes its UK debut just as Obama's presidency looks likely to end on a whimper; probably the former, as the frustrating difficulty of making real change is one of the major themes of a story that takes place during his first presidential election campaign. Warren (Edward Dede) is a black, gay, Buddhist university graduate who joins the campaign's New York headquarters but is quickly shipped off to a strategically important, but difficult voting ward: East Cleveland could be a major part of winning the crucial Ohio vote. An almost exclusively poor black neighbourhood, it ought to be an easy sell, but many residents aren't registered to vote at all, and those that are still view Obama with suspicion, as a white man in black man's clothing.

Friday 28 November 2014

Theatre review: The Green Bay Tree

Concluding the Jermyn Street Theatre's season reviving forgotten inter-war plays is one that could probably have done with being left forgotten. In Mordaunt Shairp's The Green Bay Tree, Dulcie (Richard Stirling) is a flamboyantly camp, vastly wealthy middle-aged aesthete who, twelve years ago, adopted an alcoholic's son as his ward. Now 23, Julian (Christopher Leveaux) has been raised to his mentor's lifestyle, so is barely-educated in anything other than flower-arranging and turning up fashionably late to the opera. So it's a shock to him to discover, on presenting his guardian with Leonora (Poppy Drayton,) that if he marries her Duclie will cut him off from his allowance. Reconnecting with his reformed father (Richard Heap,) Julian attempts to live a more frugal life and study so he can join Leonora's veterinary practice, but once the novelty wears off he finds luxury is hard to give up for long.

Thursday 27 November 2014

Theatre review: Chimera

A chimera is a mythological creature that combines parts of various different animals, but in medical terms it describes someone with two completely separate types of DNA. It occurs when a foetus reabsorbs its twin, too early in the pregnancy to result in conjoined twins, but too late for the surviving foetus to eliminate every trace of its sibling. So, in Deborah Stein's Chimera, which she co-created and co-directs with performer Suli Holum, Jennifer is a woman most of whom is made up of her own DNA, but a couple of organs have that of her unborn sister. Crucially, this includes her reproductive organs, which means technically her 8-year-old son is not genetically hers. The identity crisis that results from Jennifer's discovery is quite a severe one; it sees her unable to connect with the boy any more, and culminates in her leaving her family.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Theatre review: Stink Foot

Topless men covered in treacle may not be the first thing that comes to mind about Greek tragedy, but then Sophocles' Philoctetes does take its storyline from one of the odder subplots of the Trojan War myth: One of the Greek generals headed to Troy, Philoctetes was bitten on the foot by a snake, a wound which became badly infected. So badly, in fact, that the smell got too much for the others on the ship, and en route Odysseus dumped him on a deserted island. But, nine years on, a prophecy reveals that Troy will only fall to Hercules' magic bow, which now belongs to Philoctetes. The bow needs to be wielded by Neoptolemus, son of the late Achilles, so Odysseus decides to kill two birds with one stone: Neoptolemus will be brought to Troy, and on the way will stop off to get Hercules' bow - one way or another.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Theatre review: Saxon Court

If December's on the horizon then it's a good bet there'll be a play about an office Christmas party. It's a very specific Christmas in Daniel Andersen's debut Saxon Court, that of 2011, and the office is near St Paul's Cathedral. So as well as the ongoing effects of the financial crisis, the recruiters at Saxon Court also have to deal with the Occupy protesters on their doorstep. Donna Saxon's (Debra Baker) company recruits for the financial sector, and though they have plenty of clients on their books it's been a while since they found a job for any of them, and Donna's facing the probability that her company may go under. She knows she needs to fire someone if they're to stand any chance of staying in business, but with the staff from the Dartford branch due to arrive for the party later in the day, she tries to bury this harsh reality, and demands her staff have an aggressively good time.

Monday 24 November 2014

Re-review: Urinetown

When I first saw Jamie Lloyd's production of off-Broadway musical Urinetown back in March, I thought Soutra Gilmour's too-large-for-the-St James set indicated that a West End transfer was planned; but I also thought it would always be a hard sell there. Both proved true: It's currently playing at the Apollo but has recently shaved a couple of weeks off its run to accommodate the incoming My Night With Reg transfer next year. You can read my original review of Urinetown here; I enjoyed it at the time but probably wouldn't have made a return visit if there hadn't been a very good discount deal at the Last Minute. It turned out to be worth the revisit though, partly thanks to some central recasting. And no, although Nathan Amzi is good as the new Officer Barrel, it's not him I mean.

Saturday 22 November 2014

Theatre review: Pomona

A huge amount of Twitter buzz saw me make a last-minute trip to Richmond for Alistair McDowall's wildly surreal Pomona, a mix of urban thriller, epic fantasy quest and Lovecraftian horror. Ollie (Nadia Clifford) is searching for the identical twin sister who vanished some weeks earlier. There's also been a number of disappearances at the brothel where Fay (Rebecca Humphries) fled to after her policeman husband abused her. Both mysteries may find a solution in Pomona, a concrete island in the middle of Manchester isolated by canals and defunct train lines. Nobody seems to quite notice Pomona is even there, but just in case anyone gets curious the gangsters who make mysterious deliveries there have hired Moe (Sean Rigby) and Charlie (Sam Swann) as security guards. But their boss Gale (Grace Thurgood) now wants them to take a more hands-on role in the business.

Friday 21 November 2014

Almost-a-review: God Bless the Child

Not quite a review because I didn't see all of Molly Davies' God Bless the Child. Not because I didn't want to, but because 10 minutes from the end the performance had to be cancelled due to one of the cast getting ill. As it's pretty much sold out tonight's audience had to be refunded rather than reschedule to another date, so this is the best I can do as far as reviewing Vicky Featherstone's production goes.

The first time I ever went to the Royal Court Upstairs, it had been turned into a pretty realistic B&B room in Scarborough, and this is the most uncanny transformation I've seen there since: Chloe Lamford has turned the attic space into the primary school classroom of Class 4N, who have been chosen to trial a new government teaching initiative.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Theatre review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is Rufus Norris' final directing job at the National before he takes over as its artistic director, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's typical of what's to come from a director who's always had a very global perspective. The part of the world we're taken to by David Hare's play, based on the non-fiction book by Katherine Boo, is the Annawadi slum outside Mumbai, near its ever-expanding airport. On the other side are a number of luxury hotels, their guests shielded from the poverty by advertising billboards offering, among other things, "a beautiful forever." While India's economy booms, the residents of Annawadi are at the bottom of the food chain: The neighbourhood's chief industry is collecting and sorting litter, so it can be sold on for recycling. And even in this business rivalries cause a lot of animosity, as the Husain family's fast turnaround is leaving less work for others.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Theatre review: Piranha Heights

The original 2008 production of Piranha Heights was the first Philip Ridley play I ever saw, and in stark contrast to how big a fan of the playwright I've become in the years since, I didn't like it. I know from experience of introducing others to his work, though, that his very particular style can take a while to get used to, and people don't always respond to the first play of his they see. So I was interested to see what I thought of it the second time around, as Max Barton revives it at the Old Red Lion. Piranha Heights layers its characters on one by one, shifting the tone and upping the peril each time. The setting is a tower block flat whose resident of many years has recently died. Her youngest son Alan (Alex Lowe) hopes the housing association will let him have it next, as he plans to leave his wife and wants somewhere to live afterwards. But when his older brother Terry (Phil Cheadle) returns to sign the paperwork, he has plans of his own for the flat.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Theatre review: Not About Heroes

As 2014 nears its end so does the series of shows commemorating the First World War's centenary, but there's still a couple to go. Stephen MacDonald's 1983 play Not About Heroes seems to have had a couple of rival productions touring this year, and the one that's made it to London and Trafalgar 2 is the inappropriately-named Feelgood Theatre production. Based largely on the letters of the two best-known war poets Siegfried Sassoon (Alasdair Craig) and Wilfred Owen (Simon Jenkins,) it charts the friendship and professional relationship that developed while they were both at a mental hospital in Edinburgh. The then-unknown Owen was there for shell-shock, the already-famous Sassoon suspects he's there largely to be kept out of the way: His early jingoistic verse has been replaced by a much more realistic and critical view of the war, that goes against the official script.

Monday 17 November 2014

Theatre review: Wildefire

Constable Gail Wilde (Lorraine Stanley) was a minor character in a Roy Williams play, who the playwright decided he'd like to see as the central figure in her own right. The result is Wildefire, which premieres in the main house as part of Hampstead's police-themed season that also includes State Red Downstairs. Patrolling a quiet town isn't quite fulfilling enough for Wilde, who at the start of the play transfers to the Metropolitan Police. With stories of her grandfather making a real difference on the same beat, she stays cheerfully optimistic in the face of cynicism from her partner Spence (Ricky Champ,) who keeps an unauthorised informant (Eric Kofi Abrefa) out of his own pocket, and isn't above outbreaks of violence. When things become personal, though, Wilde finds that the pressure soon leads her to even greater extremes than Spence.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Theatre review: Man to Man

Manfred Karge's monologue Man to Man, translated by Anthony Vivis, sees a young couple marry in Germany a little before Hitler's rise to power. The marriage lasts barely over a year before Max dies of cancer. From a combination of needing the income, and wanting to keep her husband alive in some way, his widow (Tricia Kelly) dresses as a man and takes on Max's identity, and his job operating a crane. The deception seems to fool everyone, even getting him a young female admirer, but with war on the horizon Max has a dilemma: War means conscription for a young man, but if she returns to her former identity as Ella, she'll appear vulnerable at a time when plenty of men will be willing to take advantage. Man to Man follows Germany's history throughout World War II, the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, through the eyes of a person whose identity - for most of that time at least - is male.

Saturday 15 November 2014

Theatre review: The Witch of Edmonton

Curses, demon dogs and, worst of all, enforced Morris dancing in the final show of the RSC's Roaring Girls season in the Swan. William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford and possibly other unknown writers worked together on The Witch of Edmonton to get it quickly to the stage in 1621 after a woman was hanged in Edmonton for witchcraft. Mother Sawyer (Eileen Atkins) is sick of being accused of witchcraft and used as a scapegoat for all the town's ills, and wishes aloud that she actually did have the powers she's accused of, so she could take revenge for all the abuse she receives. Her wish is heard by the devil, who takes the shape of a large black Dog (Jay Simpson,) and offers her the traditional deal of doing evil on her behalf, in return for her soul. Dog variously possesses and enchants the townspeople, but their downfall comes largely from the revelation of sins they'd been up to already.

Friday 14 November 2014

Theatre review: Far Away

This year's JMK Award-winner is Kate Hewitt, who directs Caryl Churchill's Far Away at the Young Vic's Clare. It's a fairytale nightmare that follows Joan, first as a child (Emilia Jones or Sasha Willoughby,) who on a visit to her aunt Harper's (Tamzin Griffin) farm witnesses something horrific in the stables. As an adult, Joan (Samantha Colley) gets a job creating elaborate hats alongside co-worker Todd (Ariyon Bakare.) Their work is creative and beautiful, but the hats serve a grotesque purpose. Finally we see Joan, Todd (now her husband) and Harper all together, trying to stay safe from an enemy with eyes and ears everywhere. But the trio are as suspicious of each other as they are of anyone outside their walls, and in a world where anyone and anything could be an enemy, and allegiances shift constantly, it's hard to even know which side you're on.

Thursday 13 November 2014

Re-review: King Charles III

When it opened at the Almeida in the spring, Mike Bartlett's King Charles III instantly felt like a classic, so Rupert Goold's production transferring to the West End was not only a much-deserved chance for more people to see it, but also gave me an excuse for a repeat visit. For the story of this "Future History Play" and my initial thoughts you can read my original review. To start with the whole of the Almeida cast followed the show to Wyndham's, although prior commitments mean Oliver Chris has now been replaced as Prince William by Rory Fleck Byrne, whose portrayal of the next in line to the throne emphasises even more how much of a pawn he is to the Lady Macbeth-like Kate (Lydia Wilson.) And this recasting also means the balance is now redressed to make Richard Goulding's Harry the hotter prince. Unfortunately this isn't the only cast change at the moment as Tim Pigott-Smith has broken his collarbone, so the title role is being understudied by Miles Richardson, with Tim McMullan taking on Richardson's usual role as royal press secretary James.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Theatre review: State Red

Hampstead Theatre has a police-themed programme at the moment; next week I'll be seeing the main house show, but first I'm at the studio space for Atiha Sen Gupta's State Red, which looks at both the highest levels of the Metropolitan Police, and those on the ground who have to make split-second decisions and live with the consequences. Richard (Geoff Leesley) and Joyce (Maxine Finch) return from a black tie event to find their son, Luke (Samuel Anderson) has returned after going missing for a year. Luke was in the police, but had a breakdown after fatally shooting a black teenager he thought, wrongly as it turns out, to be armed. His best friend and colleague Matthew (Toby Wharton) has been keeping an eye on Luke's parents during his absence, and has driven them home tonight. As the two friends catch up, it becomes apparent that Luke hasn't been getting over the events over the last year; instead, he's decided to add some details to his statement about the killing, which could incriminate both him and Matthew.

Monday 10 November 2014

Theatre review: 2071

2071 is the year climate scientist Professor Chris Rapley's oldest granddaughter will be the age he is now, which gives his lecture at the Royal Court its title. Rapley describes how he first became fascinated with the Antarctic as a child, and how as an adult his work has seen him studying the melting of the polar ice and the ramifications for Earth's climate. He presents inarguable evidence for climate change, a bleak prospect of how much worse it'll get when his grandchildren are adults, but finally he has some optimism that the initiatives of the world's governments have some chance of preventing the worst of it. I did puzzle over whether to call this a theatre review or come up with something else, like "lecture review," but director Katie Mitchell has insisted that it's theatre, so I have to judge it on those terms.

Sunday 9 November 2014

Theatre review: Girlfriends

The Howard Goodall season at the Union concludes with Girlfriends, about the Women's Auxiliary Air Force during World War II, with Goodall providing the music and collaborating with Richard Curtis and John Retallack on book and lyrics. The cast features 10 women, playing the girls who enlisted to help behind the scenes on RAF missions, starting with menial but crucial jobs like folding and packing parachutes, getting to know and have relationships with the airmen, not all of whom would be returning from their missions. It's largely an attempt to give an overview of the WAAFs' lives, but it does feature a fairly slight central story of best friends Amy (Corrinne Priest) and Lou (Perry Lambert.) The latter falls for dashing pilot Guy (Tom Sterling) but he only has eyes for her friend. Meanwhile Jas (Catriana Sandison,) whose family has been devastated by bombings, becomes disillusioned and questions the value of simply inflicting similar damage on German families.

Saturday 8 November 2014

Theatre review: Jonah and Otto

We first meet ageing clergyman Otto (Peter Egan, from the 1980s,) hugging a wall, but he's not the most unpredictable character in Robert Holman's Jonah and Otto. Somewhere in a seaside town, Otto is accosted by Jonah (Alex Waldmann,) a younger man pushing his six-week-old daughter in a supermarket trolley, and trying to get money by variously begging, stealing, and performing magic tricks. Despite having only just met, the two men seem to have become quickly invested in each other, and are soon questioning each other on not only their life stories, but also their deepest thoughts on life itself. Holman is a writer whose work I approach with a fair amount of trepidation - I found Making Noise Quietly oppressively boring, but there were parts of Across Oka I thought worked beautifully. On the surface Jonah and Otto is as wilfully oblique as the former play, but in Tim Stark's production at least I found it much more successful.

Friday 7 November 2014

Theatre review: First Episode

The ongoing Terence Rattigan revival collides with the trend for classic rediscoveries as Tom Littler revives Rattigan's professional playwrighting debut, First Episode. A modest West End hit in 1934, he shares the writing credit with his university friend Philip Heimann, although current opinion seems to be that this is a courtesy gesture, as the play is partly based on their friendship, and Heimann contributed to the plotting; the final draft is thought to be almost entirely Rattigan's though. Another inspiration is an unlikely but true story of an Oxford University amateur dramatics production that somehow convinced John Gielgud to direct Romeo and Juliet, and bring along Peggy Ashcroft to be the leading lady. Ashcroft here becomes Margot (Caroline Langrishe,) a film and theatre star persuaded to play Cleopatra opposite undergraduate Tony (Gavin Fowler) as her Antony. Finding her approachable in rehearsals, Tony invites Margot to a party at the flat he shares with three other students.

Thursday 6 November 2014

Theatre review: Made in Dagenham

The film-to-musical adaptation has well and truly become a West End fixture, but when the end result is as fresh and downright eccentric as Made in Dagenham, it's clear there's a labour of love involved, not just a cynical recycling of a familiar property. The story of the 1968 strike by female workers at the Ford plant in Dagenham now has a book by Richard Bean, music by David Arnold and lyrics by Richard Thomas, and gets a typically inventive debut production from Rupert Goold. Gemma Arterton plays Rita, who works as a machinist sewing chair covers for Cortinas. As part of a larger deal with management, the workers' union has agreed that this job can be downgraded to "unskilled" and, reluctantly at first, Rita joins in the talks to get their pay grade back. But even if the women's skill is recognised, they will still earn significantly less than men on the same grade, so she aims higher: The women's demands have now changed to equal pay with the men.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Theatre/Dance review: JOHN

After 2012's Can We Talk About This? physical theatre company DV8 return to the National's Lyttelton with another dance piece based on a verbatim text; but this time the majority of the interviews are with one man. JOHN (Hannes Langolf) describes a pretty nightmarish life: A childhood dominated by an abusive father saw his mother commit suicide, his siblings also dead, and John himself with a heroin addiction. Unsurprisingly, he grows up into a life of crime, mostly petty theft to fund his drug habit, but what sends him away for a long stretch is an act of arson he can't even remember, the result of a psychotic episode following an overdose. As well as the drug addiction, he's dealt with his lifelong depression with compulsive overeating, so when he goes into prison he tips the scales at 25 stone. While inside he trades both addictions for an obsessive exercise regime, and he's released a lot fitter, but it's not the only significant change. He likes cock now.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

Theatre review: Coolatully

A certain bleakness seems to be a good way to catch the attention of the Papatango judges, a competition whose winners often delve into dark and depressing places. This year's winner is Fiona Doyle, whose Coolatully sees a full-on exodus from rural Ireland as opportunities for young people dry up. Where America was once the dream destination, following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger Australia and New Zealand are where people are now pinning their hopes, and Eilish (Yolanda Kettle) has already secured a nursing job in Sydney, departing in six months. She wants her on/off boyfriend Kilian (Kerr Logan) to join her, but he feels he still has responsibilities in Coolatully: After his brother's death the year before, his mother has all but withdrawn to her bed, and Kilian now runs her pub despite the fact that the're barely enough people left in the village to provide any customers.

Saturday 1 November 2014

Theatre review: The Rivals

The most popular of late Restoration comedies, Sheridan's The Rivals follows the titular suitors for the hand of wealthy Bath heiress Lydia Languish (Jenny Rainsford.) The two most significant candidates are actually the same person: Jack Absolute (Iain Batchelor) has the approval of his father Sir Anthony (Nicholas Le Prevost) and of Lydia's guardian, her aunt Mrs Malaprop (Gemma Jones.) Lydia, though, is a fan of the new florid romantic novels, and won't be satisfied by a romance without a bit of danger in it. So Jack knows the only way to her heart is to pose as the lowly Ensign Beverley and promise her a scandalous elopement. Meanwhile the bumbling country gentleman Bob Acres (Justin Edwards) believes he has a chance with the heiress, as does Sir Lucius O'Trigger (Adrian McLoughlin,) who has letters to prove it - in fact O'Trigger's secret admirer isn't Lydia but her aunt.

Theatre review: Unidentified Item in the Bagging Area

Sarah Simmonds is a young playwright having her first full play produced, but Unidentified Item in the Bagging Area deals with the problems of a woman twice her age. A visit to the gynaecologist reveals that 50-year-old Victoria (Jenny Ogilvie) has already gone through the menopause without realising it. She may have avoided the hot flushes, night terrors and hair loss some of her contemporaries have gone through, but the sudden realisation that she's biologically entered a latter stage of her life leads to a crisis that makes her reevaluate her position in life and as a mother. Most of all though it leads her to look at her marriage to Jeremy (John McAndrew,) who took early retirement but is, as she sees it, wasting his time pottering in the garden, having lost all interest in her sexually. With no communication with her husband any more, she tries to find someone who'll listen in supermarkets, a menopause support group, and even a phone sex line.

Friday 31 October 2014

Theatre review: Grand Guignol

I described 'Tis Pity She's a Whore last night as grand guignol, but here's a play that looks back at the theatre that put that phrase into the vocabulary. Carl Grose's comedy Grand Guignol arrives at Southwark Playhouse from Plymouth in time for Hallowe'en, and despite being played for laughs rather than scares, comes with enough gore and splatter to live up to the name. It's the early days of the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris, and impresario Max Maurey (Andy Williams) has scored a hit with his formula: An evening of short horror plays, each crammed with madness and violence, and invariably culminating in gory murder and dismemberment. Lead actors Mlle Maxa (Emily Raymond) and Paulais (Robert Portal) have become stars, and the pressure is on writer Andre De Lorde (Jonathan Broadbent) to come up with even bigger extremes for the next season.

Thursday 30 October 2014

Theatre review: 'Tis Pity She's a Whore

I'm reading A Game of Thrones at the moment, so blond siblings shagging each other is something of a theme as I get to the Swanamaker, whose first full winter season opens with 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. John Ford's tragedy sees a number of suitors wooing the wealthy and beautiful Annabella (Fiona Button,) who has little time for any of them. That's because her interests lie elsewhere, with her own brother Giovanni (Max Bennett.) When he admits he feels the same way, the two start a torrid and, of course, secret affair. Annabella continues to turn away her suitors, until she discovers she's carrying her brother's baby, and quickly consents to marry Soranzo (Stefano Braschi.) The deceit can't last long though, and with Soranzo having a few skeletons in his own closet, a traditional Jacobean bloodbath can't be far off.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Theatre review: Neville's Island

Plugging a couple of months' hole in the Duke of York's programme is a seemingly last-minute transfer from Chichester: Neville's Island, Tim Firth's spoof of "stranded in nature" stories like Lord of the Flies. Four middle-managers from a Salford mineral water company are on a team-building expedition in the Lake District, but having elected Neville (Neil Morrissey) as team captain, he misreads the instructions and lands them on a tiny, uninhabited island downriver. Thanks to Angus' (Miles Jupp) seemingly bottomless rucksack they have no end of supplies, except for anything they might actually need - like food. After Roy (Robert Webb) had a nervous breakdown followed by a religious conversion, the others treat him with kid gloves in fear of setting him off again; everyone except Gordon (Adrian Edmondson) that is, whose default reaction to everything is sarcasm and disdain.