Friday 28 February 2014

Theatre review: The One

Ian had just turned the conversation - I'll leave you to guess if there was a gleeful tone to his voice - to the early closure of Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical, when the house lights went down and "Music of the Night" started to play. The love song from Phantom recurs over the next 75 minutes as the backdrop to another unhealthy relationship in Vicky Jones' The One. University lecturer Harry (Rufus Wright) and his long-term girlfriend - originally his student - Jo (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) are staying up throughout the night, waiting for news of Jo's sister, who's gone into labour. Prompted by a late-night visitor, the couple confront each other and their relationship, revealing it to be a viciously antagonistic one that seems to thrive on them permanently goading each other into obnoxious behaviour, and with a sexual power play that's uncomfortable to watch.

Thursday 27 February 2014

Theatre review: The Knight of the Burning Pestle

With The Duchess of Malfi, Shakespeare's Globe explored the possibilities for atmospheric lighting in their new candlelit venue. For the second full production in the Swanamaker, it's the dynamics of the space that are put to the test: Even more than the main house, the indoor playhouse feels as if the actors and audience are on top of each other, so what better way to exploit that than in a play that blurs the lines even further, Francis Beaumont's The Knight of the Burning Pestle. It seems post-modernism, despite the name, predates modernism, and was alive and well in the 17th century, when a Grocer (Phil Daniels) and his wife (Pauline McLynn) sit in the front row to watch a light romance called The London Merchant. But the pair have very specific ideas about what they'd like to see, and they go on go on go on go on go on go on go on go on go on to wreak havoc.

Wednesday 26 February 2014

Theatre review: Secret Theatre Show 4

After a break for panto the Lyric Hammersmith's Secret Theatre returns with one notable change: The secret is now revealed slightly earlier, the sheet with title, writer, cast and creative details being handed out before the show rather than after. But for the purposes of this review I'll be sticking to the same format as before: If you're planning to see Show 4 and don't want spoilers, stop reading now.

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Theatre review: Finian's Rainbow

Can a show be so naff it comes out the other end and becomes cool? Actually the answer is no, cool is in no way on the table, but if you're prepared for enough cheese to floor Wallace and Gromit, you could be in for an entertaining night. It seems Finian's Rainbow is revived fairly regularly in America, where tolerance to high levels of begorrah and bejaysus are higher than here - the Union's is the first professional London production for 50 years. And it's actually not surprising, because I imagine this ridiculous bit of Irish-American whimsy from songwriter Burton Lane and writers E.Y Harburg and Fred Saidy is pretty hard to pull off for British audiences. But that's what Phil Willmott has done, funnily enough by failing to do what he'd intended to: The rights-holders had considered letting him do a rewrite for modern audiences, but changed their minds.

Monday 24 February 2014

Theatre review: The Full Monty

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The press get invited in tomorrow.

"Oh, I've seen that film, pure fantasy! People aren't unemployed, there's no such place as Sheffield, and anyway, you don't even get to see their cocks at the end!" The thoughts of Shirley Bassey (via Matt Lucas) on The Full Monty, the 1997 film comedy that permanently changed the meaning of the title phrase: "The full monty" used to be a generic expression similar to "the whole hog" or "all the way," but now it exclusively means full-frontal nudity. And I just can't imagine why that sort of thing would be of interest here. There's already been a (not very highly-regarded) musical adaptation, which may explain why it took until 2013 for another attempt to stage it. But Daniel Evans went back to original screenwriter Simon Beaufoy for his Sheffield production last year, which then toured the UK; and that's the version that's now made it to the West End.

Sunday 23 February 2014

Theatre review: The Hotel Plays

Three Tennessee Williams vignettes come together to form an interesting promenade show from Defibrillator, a theatre company that's taken over three bedrooms and a function room of the Langham Hotel in central London to create The Hotel Plays. Small audience groups are led up and down stairs by an usher, and the stories linked by appearances from porter Charlie (Linden Walcott-Burton) as we witness intimate scenes from fracturing lives. The Langham is a pretty swanky hotel, but for Defibrillator's purposes its rooms represent places that probably aren't quite as posh, and more likely to witness the kind of nefarious business we see in the short plays. Like the long-running affair in The Pink Bedroom, directed by Anthony Banks, where a Man (Gyuri Sarossy) arrives expecting another no-strings night with his mistress. But the Woman (Helen George) is starting to want something a bit more from the relationship - something like respect.

Friday 21 February 2014

Theatre review: Smallholding

Chris Dunkley's Smallholding follows young couple Andy (Chris New) and Jen (Matti Houghton) as they leave London to return to a farming life in rural Northamptonshire, where they both grew up. Jen's brother has bought a plot of land as an investment, and is letting them stay in the dilapidated cottage on the property for free. Their plan to make a modest living growing parsnips seems naïve but earnest, a desperate measure suggesting the demons they're trying to escape are pretty major ones. And so it proves as the next hour or so charts a drastic decline for them both when Jen starts to suspect Andy of slipping back into bad habits (spoilers from the next paragraph onwards.) What emerges is a story about dangerous co-dependence, of people who love each other but shouldn't be near each other.

Thursday 20 February 2014

Theatre review: The Mystae

Author of the gently Kafkaesque The Complaint, Nick Whitby returns to Hampstead Downstairs with something pretty different in The Mystae. An August night in a Cornish cave near the sea, just after the A'Level results have come out, and Ina (Beatrice Scirocchi) has told her boyfriend Holman (Adam Buchanan) about an ancient Eleusinian ritual that they plan to reenact. A ham pastie replaces the slaughtered pig, and a bar of Cadbury's Fruit and Nut represents the bounty of the Earth, but the powerful hallucinogens they've got hold of are authentic. Before they can get started though there's another arrival - Holman told his friend Tre (Alex Griffin-Griffiths) where they'll be, in case they need rescuing. Tre has decided to join them instead, and the third wheel's not too welcome an addition for Ina, who thinks Holman's best friend fancies her.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Theatre review: A Taste of Honey

A seminal kitchen sink play, Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey gets revived by Bijan Sheibani at the Lyttelton. At the tail end of the 1950s Helen (Lesley Sharp) arrives at the small, grubby Salford flat she's rented, accompanied by her teenage daughter Josephine (Kate O'Flynn.) It's far from the first time they've moved; the alcoholic Helen's past is full of failed love affairs and every time one sours she's moved to a new town, dragging her daughter with her. But this time Helen's found a wealthy younger man she won't let slip through her fingers - when the spivvy Peter (Dean Lennox Kelly) proposes, she's soon married and moved in with him, leaving Jo to deal with a marriage proposal of her own: She knows sailor Jimmie (Eric Kofi Abrefa) is only really after one thing but she doesn't care. Soon he's back at sea, and she's alone and pregnant.

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Theatre review: For The Trumpets Shall Sound

A break of an hour in The Vault's bar area (which smells OVERBEARINGLY of cloves - something's gettin' mulled to within an inch of its life in there) and then into another of the railway tunnels to see For The Trumpets Shall Sound, a look at gay love a century ago, when it being socially unacceptable was the least of your worries given there was a war on. James' (Tom Syms) 1916 diary documents his time on the Western Front and his first meetings with nurse Nora (Kayleigh Hawkins,) the woman who would eventually become his wife. But it also reveals his close friendship with fellow officer Robert (Ben Bridgeman,) Nora's cousin who's in love with James, and with whom he shares a drunken night's sexing.

Theatre review: Symphony

I'm back at the Vault Festival underneath Waterloo station, this time to catch two short shows in a night. First up, nabokov's Symphony, in which three playwrights contribute stories to be performed by a quartet of actor-musicians, to music by Ed Gaughan. Remy Beasley, Jack Brown, Iddon Jones and Adam Sopp are a multi-talented lot who all play numerous instruments in a show that's set up to look like a rock gig. Dressed in bolier suits, first to strip his off is Iddon Jones, who reveals a tiny pair of shorts and a singlet. The writer is the currently-ubiquitous Tom Wells, and the piece is called Jonesy. A teenage asthmatic, Jonesy is determined to take GCSE PE and prove himself one of the lads. Except rugby's a bit much for his asthma, so he ends up having to prove his manliness at netball instead.

Monday 17 February 2014

Theatre review: Superior Donuts

I imagine Tracy Letts is used to people assuming that he's a woman, especially with the likes of August: Osage County having plenty of good female roles. There's an unmistakeable dose of testosterone running through Superior Donuts though, as it receives its UK premiere at Southwark Playhouse's Little space. Ned Bennett directs the story of Arthur Przybyszewski (Mitchell Mullen,) an old hippie still running (in the loosest sense of the word) the donut shop established by his parents in the 1950s. Quite how he's managing to hold onto it is a mystery, as he seems to give away more donuts than he sells, the Russian who owns the shop next door (Nick Cavaliere) keeps trying to buy the premises off him and the place doesn't look the most hygienic - even if you discount the fact that when we first see the shop it's been broken into and vandalised.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Theatre review: Outbox: Snapshots

Something a bit different to my usual reviews of fully-staged shows, this was a one-off performance of short gay and lesbian plays from Outbox, a company that stages work from all-LGBT writers, creatives and actors. Don't Cock It Up by Frazer Flintham is a bit of a dig at gay theatre in general, in which a playwright tries to make a commentary on how gay plays are shallow and focused on just sex; only to have the producers remove the commentary and make his play just about sex. Frog Stone's Waiting for Yoko sees two women who don't know each other well, waiting for their mutual friend to arrive so they can go to the titular concert. While they wait for her, Alex (Victoria Jones,) tries to put Jen (Stella Taylor) off dating the woman she herself is still clearly in love with. Then comes the reason that I and three of my Twitter friends dragged ourselves to Dalston on a Sunday night, a new Tom Wells monologue, My number 1 favourite lesbian.

Theatre review: King Lear (National Theatre)

The first King Lear I ever saw, 20 years ago, starred Robert Stephens in the title role, and Edgar was played by the then rising star of the RSC, Simon Russell Beale. It maybe says a bit too much about my age that the wheel, which is so often referenced in the play, has come full circle and it's now SRB's turn - admittedly at the comparatively young age of 53 - to play the king who abdicates in all but name. He reunites with his long-time collaborator Sam Mendes on the National's main stage, and although it's a long-awaited event I couldn't help but feel a little bit apprehensive given I didn't love any of Mendes' Bridge Project productions. King Lear, though, sees the director get his Shakespearean mojo back for a truly epic - there's no major text cuts so we're in it for the full three-and-a-half hours - and emotionally devastating production.

Saturday 15 February 2014

Theatre review: Bring Up the Bodies

The second Mantel piece at the RSC's Swan, Bring Up the Bodies carries on the story of Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) where Wolf Hall left off. That play saw Henry VIII (Nathaniel Parker) saddled with a wife he's gone off and who can't bear him sons, and wanting heaven and earth to be moved so he can replace her with a younger model. He got what he wanted but at the start of Bring Up the Bodies his situation feels remarkably familiar. Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard) has produced the future Queen Elizabeth I but a son still eludes her, yet she continues to throw her weight around at court, blind to the potential danger. With Anne wildly unpopular, there's an opportunity to satisfy a lot of people's agendas by getting rid of her when the King's gaze starts to stray towards the silly, timid Jane Seymour. And having been instrumental in securing the second wife, Cromwell knows he has to be similarly useful with marriage number 3.

Friday 14 February 2014

Theatre review: Sizwe Banzi is Dead

Last autumn, as well as Athol Fugard's Apartheid-era The Island in the Clare, the Young Vic had a short run of another of his plays (also co-devised with John Kani and Winston Ntshona.) So short a run in fact that I couldn't fit it into my schedule, and it also sold out very quickly. But its popularity didn't go unnoticed so the theatre has brought Sizwe Banzi is Dead back to the Maria for a longer run, and the story of black South Africans making their way in the world of work while navigating the labyrinthine system of paperwork and arbitrary restrictions proves worthy of the attention. But before we get to the show itself, Matthew Xia's production manages something of a first: I've never before seen what could legitimately be called a coup de théâtre pulled off 20 minutes before the play even started. In case you're trying to stay spoiler-free I'll save it for the next paragraph, after the text break.

Thursday 13 February 2014

Theatre review: Punishment Without Revenge

A dirty old man marries a young beauty for political reasons, then neglects her. Going off to war, he leaves her alone with his dashing illegitimate son. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? That's the setup for Lope de Vega's Punishment Without Revenge, a tragedy that provides the final installment of the Arcola's mixed, to say the least, Spanish Golden Age season. At least the last play in the repertory is the strongest offering, Laurence Boswell's production finding the drama in the Mediterranean histrionics, but tempering it with a dose of humour that works better than certain comedies I could mention. The central pairing from A Lady of Little Sense is reunited as a more tragic set of lovers, Nick Barber playing the illegitimate son Federico, who's always been promised he'd inherit his father's dukedom.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Theatre review: In Skagway

A minor alchemical miracle at the Arcola, where they've learned the secret of turning gold into base metal. The gold is in them thar hills - it's the tail end of the American gold rush, which has reached as far as Alaska. The base metal is the leaden thunk of everything else about Karen Ardiff's breathtakingly inept first play In Skagway. Frankie (Angeline Ball) was a terrible actress who, possibly by accident, gave one good performance and traded on it the rest of her life. May (Geraldine Alexander) was her adoring flunky who tirelessly accompanied her around the United States, along with May's daughter T-belle (Kathy Rose O'Brien.) For reasons unknown to god or man, the trio wound up in Skagway, Alaska, where T-belle became a prospector and Frankie had a stroke, leaving her babbling incoherently or, to put it another way, making more sense than any of the other dialogue.

Monday 10 February 2014

Theatre review: The Mistress Contract

Vicky Featherstone is starting to look like one of those Artistic Directors who are better at programming shows for other directors than for themselves. Her second outing on the main stage of the Royal Court is Abi Morgan's The Mistress Contract, based on the anonymously-authored memoir of "She & He," a couple from somewhere on the West Coast of the USA, who've lived in an unusual domestic setup for decades, and recorded much of their time together. Having first met as graduate students in the 1950s, the two didn't get together then, and had a couple of unsuccessful marriages each before meeting again in the 1970s and beginning an affair. She (Saskia Reeves) is a committed feminist who's uncomfortable with the different things she and He (Danny Webb) want from their relationship, and in 1981 decides to take control of the situation by drawing up the titular contract.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Theatre review: The Domino Heart

Apparently the same organ can be transplanted more than once. It's called a Domino Transplant and forms the basis of Canadian actor Matthew Edison's playwrighting debut The Domino Heart. It's made up of three monologues by people who, whether literally or metaphorically, have at some point had possession of the heart in question, that of a writer killed in a car crash. First up we have the newly-widowed Cara (Amanda Hale,) who like many people dealing with grief blames herself - in her case it's because she and her husband were arguing at the time of the accident, about an affair she had had ten years previously. On top of this, the fact that a heart her husband said belonged to her, will now be harvested to be given to someone else, makes her want to say quite a literal goodbye to it.

Friday 7 February 2014

Theatre review: The Cement Garden

The Vault Festival is an annual(ish) event that takes place underneath Waterloo station, in railway arches on the opposite side of the graffiti tunnel from where the Old Vic Tunnels used to be. It's a slightly less chaotic space than that was, a main corridor with doors to various performance spaces on each side, and a bar at the end (followed by a magical mystery tour should you need the loos.) As well as music, the programme comprises fringe theatre shows, most of which are only playing for a week. There's a couple of headline shows that'll be playing straight through the festival though, and the one I chose was The Cement Garden, which David Aula and Jimmy Osborne have adapted from Ian McEwan's novel about four siblings who lose their parents and have to find their own path to adulthood - what turns out to be an insular, creepy path.

Thursday 6 February 2014

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Bristol Old Vic / Handspring Puppet Company / Barbican)

One of the directors of War Horse, Tom Morris reunites with South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company for the first time since they created the animals for that global juggernaut. This time their skill at breathing life into inanimate objects is required to bring to life Shakespeare's fairyland of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Two unconnected stories are brought together by the fairies in the woods outside Athens: Lysander and Hermia flee the city and her father's demands that she marry another man. But that man, Demetrius, has followed them, led by Helena, the woman he once loved and who still loves him. A fairy plot to untangle the muddle only makes things worse. Meanwhile the upcoming marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta spurs the city's tradesmen to put on a play to perform at the royal wedding. They rehearse in the woods, where they too fall foul of mischievous spirits.

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Theatre review: The Robbers

The Faction conclude their 2014 rep season with their pet playwright, Friedrich Schiller, and a tale of warring siblings. Handsome, charismatic Karl (Tom Radford) has got in with the wrong crowd but begs his father for forgiveness. Crippled, twisted younger brother Franz (Andrew Chevalier) wants the family wealth and titles for himself, so convinces their father to disinherit his brother instead. Believing himself damned by a father's curse, Karl agrees to lead his friends as they go from libertines to all-out gang of vicious robbers who lay waste to whole cities at a time and laugh in the face of the church. But when Karl learns of Franz's advances towards his beloved Amalia (Kate Sawyer,) he returns home for a showdown. Mark Leipacher directs his and Daniel Millar's translation of Schiller's The Robbers.

Saturday 1 February 2014

Theatre review: What the Women Did

Southwark Playhouse is the latest venue to commemorate the First World War's centenary, and does so with a trio of plays by different writers that all look at some aspect of women's experience of the Great War. Although it's perhaps a bit unfortunate that each play in What the Women Did deals with women in terms of their relationship to men - first as wives, then as single women who've found the pool of available men suddenly diminished, and finally as mothers. And it's an odd little triple bill, in which the final segment is so superior to the other two it seriously overbalances the evening. But first up we've got Gwen John's Luck of War, which takes place in T'North, where Ann's (Victoria Gee) husband has been missing in action long enough to be declared legally dead, and for Ann to remarry.