Friday 31 January 2014

Theatre review: Carthage

Carthage opens and closes with the same scene, a cyclical nature that mirrors the life of the character at its centre: Tommy (Jack McMullen) was born in a prison, and he died in one. Robert Hastie's production at the Finborough often references these cycles in Chris Thompson's debut play, in which scenes from Tommy's life alternate with those following his death, in which the question of who's to take the blame for it is bandied about with very few people willing to accept responsibility. His childhood is spent yo-yoing between foster care and his mother Anne's (Claire-Louise Cordwell) flat, until he commits a particularly heinous, unnamed crime that lands him in a young offenders' institution. There a particularly aggressive attack on the guards ends up with a routine restraint procedure going wrong, and Tommy stops breathing.

Thursday 30 January 2014

Theatre review: The Body of an American

The Gate's "These American Lives" season concludes with a piece of verbatim theatre that looks at the work of a war photographer and the effect this kind of life has on a person's mind. The Body of an American explains its title early on, with one of the more graphic of the images to be projected onto the theatre's walls over the course of the evening: Canadian photographer Paul Watson's photo from Mogadishu, of a dead American soldier who'd been almost stripped by a baying crowd about to tear it apart as some sort of grim trophy. The photo was credited in part for America's withdrawal from Somalia, but Paul feels haunted by the man whose death was at the centre of it. Playwright Dan O’Brien is fascinated by the effect on the man behind the camera and contacts Paul to propose writing this play about him, but the photographer proves elusive.

Wednesday 29 January 2014

Theatre review: Happy Days

I really should learn that if I've imposed a rule on myself it's probably for a good reason, and I should just follow it. But no, it's Juliet Stevenson starring, I thought, it's Natalie Abrahami directing, I thought, it's at the Young Vic, who've built themselves an identity of staging classics in exciting, dramatic new ways, I thought. Of course, the latter point is meaningless - reinterpretation was never on the cards with a writer whose estate is notorious for forbidding it, and regularly refuses performance rights to any production that deviates even slightly from the script. The writer is, of course, Samuel Beckett. The play is Happy Days, in which Stevenson plays the Fonz Winnie, buried up to her waist in sand, loud screams of static alerting her to when she must sleep and when wake up. But she chatters away cheerfully to her husband (David Beames,) who's scrabbling around in a hole in the ground nearby.

Tuesday 28 January 2014

Theatre review: A Lady of Little Sense

The first chance for the Arcola's Spanish Golden Age rep season to atone for its green-trousered sins is another comedy of arranged marriages. There's nothing spectacular about Lope de Vega's A Lady of Little Sense, but it does have its moments, which at least puts it above the season opener. If there's echoes of a Shakespeare play again, this time it would be The Taming of the Shrew, as once again two very different sisters seek husbands. Nise (Katie Lightfoot) is highly intelligent and educated, but arrogant and abrasive with it. Her younger sister Finea (Frances McNamee) on the other hand is a childlike, clumsy, prattling moron. Finea's dowry is vastly bigger than her sister's to make up for her shortcomings, but it's still not enough for any man to put up with her borderline insanity. Until Nise's favourite suitor Laurencio (Nick Barber) decides to switch his attentions to the wealthier, stupider sister.

Monday 27 January 2014

Theatre review: Rapture, Blister, Burn

Perhaps in an attempt to counteract the testosterone overdose from last Tuesday I still haven't quite recovered from, theatre has since been serving me up a whole lot of feminism. The latest is at Hampstead, where Gina Gionfriddo's Rapture, Blister, Burn looks at the age-old question of whether a woman can have it all. A feminist writer and lecturer specialising in the politics of pornography, Cathy (Emilia Fox) is not just a successful academic but a bit of a media darling. When her mother Alice (Polly Adams) has a heart attack, Cathy's satisfaction in her life of career over family is shaken, and she starts to believe that when Alice dies she'll be left alone. She takes a sabbatical to return home and look after her mother, but she's not the first person she calls: It's Don (Adam James,) the ex-boyfriend who married her best friend Gwen (Emma Fielding) when Cathy's career started moving faster than he could keep up with.

Sunday 26 January 2014

Theatre review: Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins

Barely has my bum recovered and I'm back at the Swanamaker, although mercifully for a shorter show. On nights when the main production isn't on, the plan is to use the venue for candlelit chamber concerts, but first up when the Duchess of Malfi cast take a break, we get Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins: Surprisingly, the opening season at the companion venue to Shakespeare's Globe doesn't feature any actual Shakespeare, but any Bard buff surely can't feel short-changed thanks to the inclusion of this performance-cum-lecture. One of the most celebrated Victorian actresses, Ellen Terry was also, in defiance of the expectations of her day, a Shakespearean scholar who explored her theories on his characters with the benefit of having played many of them herself. When she retired she didn't venture too far from the stage, co-writing (with Henry Irving) and delivering lectures on Shakespeare's women and how she believed they should be played.

Friday 24 January 2014

Theatre review: Blurred Lines

Nick Payne and Carrie Cracknell's devised piece for The Shed was meant to be the final production at the National Theatre's temporary venue, but its shelf life has now been extended into the spring. It would have made an explosive finale though, a theatrical exploration of the themes from Kat Banyard's feminist book The Equality Illusion. On a vast staircase that fills The Shed's stage, eight women discuss, act out, and sometimes sing about the ways women continue to face inequality today, from the workplace to the law, and a culture of sexual violence that's officially condemned but often glamourised in practice. The insidious misogyny of the music business is a recurring theme so it's no surprise that, with pointed topicality, the piece has been titled Blurred Lines.

Thursday 23 January 2014

Theatre review: The Duchess of Malfi

Shakespeare's Globe serves up a feast for the eyes and a torture for the back and buttocks as it finally unveils the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The much smaller indoor companion to their summer theatre launches its first season with the best-known tragedy by Jacobean nutter John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi. The titular Duchess (Gemma Arterton) is a young widow, who secretly marries her steward Antonio (Alex Waldmann) and has three children with him without almost anybody noticing. The Duchess has a pair of psychotic brothers, her jealous twin Ferdinand (David Dawson,) who is inappropriately possessive of his sister's virtue, and the oily, hypocritical Cardinal (James Garnon.) When their spy Bosola (Sean Gilder) brings them news of their sister's secret life, they plot a cruel, brutal and, this being Webster, generally batshit fucking insane punishment.

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Theatre review: Thebes

I don't think I've seen The Faction tackle Greek Tragedy before - surprising really, as the importance of the Chorus would seemingly make it a good match for a company built around an ensemble. If they've neglected the genre before they make up for it by doing three in one: Gareth Jandrell has taken the various plays by Aeschylus and Sophocles dealing with noted motherfucker Oedipus and his legacy, and knitted them into a single epic history of Thebes. We begin with the city's king Oedipus (Lachlan McCall) at the height of his hubris, angrily demanding that the killer of his predecessor be found, and dismissing all the signs pointing to the fact that he himself is the killer. When it becomes obvious that he fulfilled the prophecy to kill his father and marry (or fuck, in this no-nonsense translation) his mother (Kate Sawyer,) he blinds himself and sets out to die - but in the process leaves a dangerous power vacuum in his city.

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Theatre review: The Pass

Much as I'd like to approach every show I ever see as a blank slate, some inevitably have more levels of anticipation built up around them than others. The latest stage appearance from Big Favourite Round These Parts Russell Tovey is always bound to be a bit of an event. The news that he'd be playing a gay footballer didn't make it any less exciting. The publicity photos confirming the rumours that he spends most of the play wandering around in his underwear... well, you've read this unholy excuse for a blog, you know where this is going. The good news is that The Pass will disappoint only the most demanding of theatrical perverts. The better news is that John Donnelly's play is a bit of a triumph, equal parts funny and disturbing, which would be memorable even if the cast didn't spend most of it in a state of undress. Although just in case it wasn't clear: The fact that the cast spend most of it in a state of undress is a good thing.

Monday 20 January 2014

Theatre review: fiji land

Guantanamo Bay gets an absurdist makeover in Nick Gill's fiji land, which follows three men being slowly broken by a strange responsibility. Grainer (Jake Ferretti) has taken a well-paid job somewhere hot, remote, and in some way connected to the military. He shares his shifts with two others, working two-on, one-off: Wolstead (Matthew Trevannion) is a loud-mouthed conspiracy theorist who likes to document everything with a Polaroid camera. Tanc (Stephen Bisland) is laconic, sinister and, in some vague way, in charge. They work in a greenhouse "guarding" six rows of small pot-plants. When an alarm sounds, they have to water the plants - except for the back row, which is being "punished." Grainer tries to relate to his co-workers to help get through their work, but behind their confident facades they too are being slowly driven mad by what they do.

Friday 17 January 2014

Theatre review: Ciphers

Dawn King follows up the strange, mystical Foxfinder which made her name, with a play set in an altogether slicker world, but still one with a constant air of menace. In fact the danger is definitely real here, as within a couple of scenes the leading character of Ciphers is dead. Justine (Gráinne Keenan) is an MI5 agent who, after starting out listening in to phone conversations, is soon promoted to field work. Keenan also plays Justine's sister Kerry who, after the spy's apparent suicide, hears rumours of foul play and wants answers. The play bounces back and forward in time as we see Kerry try to deal with her sister's death, and pressure Justine's boss Sunita (Shereen Martin) for answers; as well as giving us flashbacks to two missions Justine was involved in, either one of which could have led to her death.

Thursday 16 January 2014

Theatre review: Hamlet (The Faction / New Diorama)

For the third year running ambitious fringe company The Faction return to the New Diorama to perform a three-play repertory season. Shakespeare is back on the menu this time around, indeed they've gone for the biggie: Hamlet is an interesting one for a company so heavily invested in ensemble playing to tackle, as it's weighted so much in the lead's favour. Although I didn't know when I booked which member of the company would take the title role, I correctly guessed that director Mark Leipacher would give it to Jonny McPherson, one of the stronger actors among the regulars, and the one with leading-man good looks. Though the performance space is small as is the cast, Leipacher has gone for a pretty epic sweep in a production that hasn't taken scissors to the text too liberally, and so despite maintaining a speedy pace it comes in at over three hours - but for the most part it uses the time well.

Tuesday 14 January 2014

Theatre review: The Blackest Black

Abi (Charity Wakefield) is an English artist who's managed to get sponsorship to spend time at an observatory in the middle of the Arizona desert, to create artworks inspired by the exploration of space. Even before we meet him, we can tell from the way Abi huffs about the arrogance of the "spaceman" that she has feelings for him, and when astronomer Martin (John Light) does appear it's quickly made clear that the two have been sleeping together. As Martin settles in for a night of observations crucial to his research, Abi tries to force the married scientist to engage with her world-view, while he resolutely plays his cards close to his chest. As these two big personalities clash, the timid technician Chuck (Ian Bonar) gets caught up in the middle of their drama, with potentially tragic consequences.

Sunday 12 January 2014

Theatre review: Valley of Song

With Lost Boy transferring to a larger theatre mid-run, the Finborough's policy of having a secondary show in repertory pays off again, as Valley of Song gets promoted to a longer run. Having previously staged Ivor Novello's final completed work, the theatre now moves on to one he died midway through composing, and which despite having been finished by other writers (Christopher Hassall writing the lyrics, Phil Park the book, and Ronald Hanmer completing the music) hasn't been professionally staged before. David (Linford Hydes) is the choirmaster in the small Welsh town/venereal disease of Cromidris, and is in love with his star soprano Lily (Katy Treharne.) But she doesn't return his affection, and when her wealthy employer Nan (Sandy Walsh) decides to retire to Venice, taking all of her staff with her, Lily gets her chance not only to try for an international singing career, but also to meet new men.

Saturday 11 January 2014

Theatre review: Wolf Hall

I haven't read Hilary Mantel's double Booker-winning historical novels about Thomas Cromwell (I wasn't too fond of her Beyond Black a few years ago, so wasn't tempted by her more recent literary blockbusters.) Theatre, of course, is always much easier to tempt me with, so the RSC bringing the court of Henry VIII to their smaller Swan stage was intriguing (and, even with the train journeys factored in, quicker than reading the books.) I'm watching each show on its own, so first up is Wolf Hall, in which we join Cromwell (Ben Miles) as the trusted, but still lowly, lawyer in the service of the Lord Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey (Paul Jesson.) We're a couple of decades into Henry's reign, which means he's unhappy about Catherine of Aragon's failure to bear him a male heir - and starting to look at alternatives.

Thursday 9 January 2014

Theatre review: Don Gil of the Green Breeches

The Arcola's main space starts the year by transferring from Bath a trio of plays performed in repertory, forming a Spanish Golden Age season. On the evidence of the first show, if this is what their Golden Age was like, I'd hate to see what happened when Spanish playwrights were having a bad hair century. Tirso de Molina's Don Gil of the Green Breeches is a comedy, it says here, of disguise and mistaken identity. Don Martin (Doug Rao) has promised marriage to Donna Juana (Hedydd Dylan) and already claimed his conjugal rights. But before he put a ring on it, his father demanded that should instead marry wealthy heiress Donna Ines (Katie Lightfoot.) Rather than not mention the existence of a girlfriend in the first place, it's decided that Martin should go to Ines in disguise and claim her hand as the fictional Don Gil, because ???

Wednesday 8 January 2014

Theatre review: Lost Boy

There was a lot of Peter Pan around last year, and as 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, there's going to be a great deal of theatre coming up commemorating it. The two years' themes come together as the Finborough is first out of the gate with its "THEGREATWAR100" series: Phil Willmott has imagined a Peter Pan who not only grew up but, like the Llewellyn Davies boys who inspired him, ended up fighting in the French trenches. Faced with orders to lead his men into yet another pointless bloodbath, George Llewellyn Davies retreats into a fantasy where it's his childhood hero who has to fight instead. Drawn from Neverland by the feeling that there's an awfully big adventure going on in Europe, Peter (Steven Butler) arrives in London to find Wendy still saving herself for him, and with the help of the Lost Boys finds out what sort of thing a woman expects from a grown man.

Monday 6 January 2014

Theatre review: Stephen Ward

Spotting a gap in the market for West End musicals about osteopaths, Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Lord Webber has visited the Profumo affair from the point of view of the doctor who introduced the scandal's major players to each other, Stephen Ward. Ward (Alexander Hanson) had a fondness for attractive provincial girls, but didn't seem too interested in sleeping with them himself. Instead he saw himself as a sort of kingmaker of 1960s London society, discovering the latest ingenue and introducing her to older, wealthy, often powerful men. One of his favourites was Christine Keeler (Charlotte Spencer,) who had a six-month affair with the War Minister John Profumo (Daniel Flynn.) She also may or may not have been sleeping with a Soviet Diplomat (Ian Conningham) and when the papers made the connection the fear of leaked secrets brought down the government - but not before Ward, scapegoated as the girls' pimp, was brought down too.

Saturday 4 January 2014

Theatre review: Wendy and Peter Pan

Peter Pan gets a feminist makeover from Ella Hickson in the latest RSC family show, but there's also a definite hint of Philip Pullman being thrown in with the J.M. Barrie in Wendy and Peter Pan. And before we even get to these new underlying themes there's a new look to the Darling family right from the start: As well as Wendy, John and Michael, there's a fourth child, Tom (Colin Ryan.) But even as he plays with his sister and brothers he has a nasty case of Period Drama Cough that soon sees Tom dead, and the Darling family plunged into melancholy. A year later, a flying boy enters the children's bedroom and invites them to Neverland. Hearing that that's where the Lost Boys live, Wendy agrees to join Peter Pan on his adventures, believing she'll be able to find their own lost boy there too.

Friday 3 January 2014

Theatre review: Dickens Abridged

I wasn't sure if I was going to bother with Dickens Abridged, in which Adam Long of the Reduced Shakespeare Company gives the same treatment to another of England's best-loved writers. This was largely because unlike Shakespeare, Dickens isn't a particular favourite of mine, so although I'm as familiar with the broad strokes of his stories as anyone, I'm not interested enough to get every in-joke. But there was a GILT offer for the show, and there's worse ways to start the year than a bit of Jon Robyns. Not that bit of Jon Robyns - that would be one hell of a start to the year. No, he's fully-clothed as one of a five-strong cast who, through songs and sketches, do a 100-minute run-through of the life of Charles Dickens, as well as some of his best-known stories (what with all the short stories and Boz sketches on top of the novels, the show makes no claim to present the complete works.)