Monday 31 March 2014

Theatre review: Another Country

The past may be Another Country but I had to double-check when Julian Mitchell's play was set, as the real foreign environment in his fictionalised take on Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt is public school. It's an insular world with its own rules and language, and one that seems to exist outside of time. The play is a look at the formative years of the men who would grow up to be the country's most notorious spies for the USSR, through two fictional public schoolboys in the 1930s. Judd (Will Attenborough) is the school's resident Marxist, awake in the small hours studying theories that oppose the system he's at the heart of, and dreams of changing from within. Judd seems to be one of the few pupils in his house not to have had sex with his friend Bennett (Rob Callender,) a brazenly effeminate boy in an environment where everyone else is trying to assert their masculinity.

Radio review: Hamlet (Radio 4)

For a while now I've wanted to see Jamie Parker play Hamlet, but the theatre that seems the most likely venue to let him, Shakespeare's Globe, is still very much committed to its "Tiny Hamlet" from a few years ago. They're about to send it on a global tour, so I can't see them planning another production any time soon. So this may be the best alternative we get - as part of a Radio 4 season on the best-loved fictional characters, they ran a serialisation of Shakespeare's longest tragedy every afternoon last week in an audio production directed by Marc Beeby. Hamlet is the story of the young prince who discovers his uncle murdered his father, stealing his wife and crown and swears revenge; but is racked by existential questions that delay him carrying it out. Anastasia Hille played Gertrude, Paul Hilton Claudius in a production that despite the lack of visuals could be safely described as being period-set, thanks to the occasional sound effects of horses and carts clattering past the castle.

Sunday 30 March 2014

Theatre review: BASH latterday plays

Neil LaBute's reputation has never painted him as a ray of golden sunshine, and he's happy to live up to his misanthropic image in a harsh, but excellent collection of one-acters. BASH latterday plays is a trio of monologues that exposes a dark underside to Mormon life, giving it a recurring connection to Greek tragedy. Jonathan O'Boyle's production at the Old Red Lion sees a roomful of small chairs (design by Sarah McCann) in which each of the pieces is played, the performer(s) of the next piece looking on, grimly awaiting their turn. So first up we have a monologue from a businessman in a hotel room. Spending a few nights there on business, he's spotted someone in the bar who seems drunk enough to serve as confidante: The man has a story he needs to get off his chest, but ideally he'd rather his confessor didn't remember it the next day.

Friday 28 March 2014

Theatre review: See How They Run

Someone's had the idea of touring a farce cast entirely with dwarves. Fortunately the person who thought of it was Warwick Davis, which I think makes it OK and not frighteningly inappropriate. Davis has set up his Reduced Height Theatre Company to produce plays for shorter actors to play roles not usually written for them; slightly scaled-down sets are used to make their size less of an issue. Their opening production is Philip King's wartime farce See How They Run, which is probably many people's idea of what a farce looks like: Rather a lot of vicars running round trying to avoid a bishop while a severe spinster of the parish looks on disapprovingly. Being set right in the middle of World War II, this one also features an escaped Nazi prisoner of war. Also dressed as a vicar.

Thursday 27 March 2014

Theatre review: Fatal Attraction

OK, so I've sometimes been guilty of getting the giggles when a show's attempt to be dramatic goes badly wrong. But 30 seconds into a performance is a record that's surely going to be hard to beat. Yet that's how long it takes for the stage to go dark except for a frame of blue neon lighting, and for Mark Bazeley to walk out of a crowd of extras (more on them later,) stride downstage and announce to the audience that sometimes you take the wrong road in life and it leads you STRAIGHT TO HELL! Bazeley is playing Dan, the anti-hero of Fatal Attraction, which James Dearden has adapted from his own screenplay, and Trevor Nunn has put on stage in the form of a fevered crack dream. Natascha McElhone plays Alex, the original bunny-boiler, and Kristin Davis plays Beth, the wife with the personality of a wet tissue.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Theatre review: Other Desert Cities

A few years ago the Old Vic was reconfigured in the round for a production of The Norman Conquests that proved a big hit, followed by some other shows memorable for... other reasons. This configuration has been brought back for Dame Kev's final season in charge of the venue, beginning with the UK premiere of a hit American play, Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities. The setting is Palm Springs on Christmas Eve 2003, with 9/11 and the Iraq War still feeling very new. But a war that still haunts the family of Republican politician Lyman Wyeth (Peter Egan, from the 1980s) is Vietnam: Their oldest son became notorious in the '70s when, at the age of 20, he bombed an army recruitment office in protest at the war, accidentally killing a man, and subsequently committed suicide.

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Theatre review: A Study in Scarlet

The last time Tacit Theatre were at Southwark Playhouse (when it was still in London Bridge) was with a version of The Canterbury Tales told with a lot of live music. So the next piece of literature they chose to adapt was a bit of an unlikely one: A Study in Scarlet, the first of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Victorian drawing rooms and a fascination with different types of tobacco ash have attracted readers for well over a century but they're not exactly a raucous subject for a musical extravaganza. But if the style never quite gels with the material, Nicholas Thompson's production is a faithful and entertaining enough telling of the story of Dr John Watson (Edward Cartwright) whose quest for a cheap room to rent leads him to Sherlock Holmes (Philip Benjamin.) He's given a baptism of fire into what it's like to flatshare with a consulting detective when they're drawn into the case of a dead American, a body surrounded by blood but with no wound.

Sunday 23 March 2014

Theatre review: Philip Pullman's Grimm Tales

An adaptation of an adaptation at Shoreditch Town Hall: Philip Pullman recently published his own retelling of the classic fairytales by the Brothers Grimm, Grimm Tales for Young and Old, and it's these versions of the stories that Philip Wilson has adapted for an immersive theatre version in the old building's basements. As seems to now be the law, the audience is colour-coded into groups - only two this time, red and black, as there's just two teams of four actors each to tell the stories. Five of the Grimms' tales have been chosen, two of them among the most famous fairytales in the world, one ("The Juniper Tree") that I was slightly familiar with, and two that as far as I can remember I hadn't heard before. The black group started with the familiar "Rapunzel," told by the team of Ashley Alymann, Sabina Arthur, James Byng and Lyndsay Dukes.

Saturday 22 March 2014

Theatre review: I Can't Sing!

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: No idea when the producers are going to risk letting the critics in for this one.

All the press about new musical I Can't Sing! has focused on the fact that it's got songs by Glen Ponder from Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge. OK, so strictly speaking none of the press has been about that - they seem to be more interested in the fact that it's a show about The X Factor and has a book by Harry Hill. But it's also true that Steve Brown, who was better known in the mid-nineties as the sidekick whose house band had a different name every week, has brought his musical Savoir Faire to composing the show's songs. All the signs building up to I Can't Sing! were less than promising, from the early previews cancelled due to technical issues to the most worrying fact of all - that this is an official X Factor spin-off, fully authorised and approved by Simon Cowell. To be honest I was planning on skipping this one, but the casting of Nigel Harman as Simon meant my sister wanted to see it as a late Christmas present.

Friday 21 March 2014

Theatre review: Two Into One

As far as I can tell the Menier Chocolate Factory's artistic policy is "to make the Old Vic look positively avant-garde in comparison." It's a theory in no way dispelled by their latest offering, which sees them dig up  farce legend Ray Cooney. Not literally, although I must admit until this show was announced I didn't realise he was still alive; he is, and still directing and even appearing in a revival of his 30-year-old farce Two Into One. The setting remains 1984, as it would have to for the plot still to work, so references to Margaret Thatcher abound, especially since the setting is a hotel in Westminster where MPs sometimes stay, presumably not having figured out the second home scam yet. Michael Praed is junior minister Richard Willey (just so we're clear what kind of level we're operating on here) who's taken a suite with his wife (Josefina Gabrielle,) who'll be popping out to catch a matinee of Evita. That's when Richard plans to get his new mistress round for an afternoon of sex in the suite next door.

Thursday 20 March 2014

Theatre review: Blithe Spirit

You know that TV show about the old woman who commits a murder every week, frames someone for it, then writes a book about it? It's called something like Murder, She Did. Well, it turns out she has another way of profiting from death, with a sideline as a dodgy medium who claims to communicate with ghosts. Or to put it another way, Angela Lansbury has returned to the West End after a few centuries' absence, to play Madame Arcati in Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit. Charles (Charles Edwards) and his second wife Ruth (Janie Dee) are holding a dinner party followed by a séance led by the local eccentric, Madame Arcati. Charles is a writer of mystery novels, and his true motive for hosting the evening is to observe the psychic, and use her as inspiration for a fraud in his latest book. But the medium's haphazard approach to raising the dead actually yields results when the ghost of Charles' first wife Elvira (Jemima Rooper) returns - and wants him back.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Theatre review: Away From Home

Sometimes an issue becomes so widely discussed that a number of responses to it come up all at once. And so for the second time this year I'm at a play about the conspicuous lack of a single openly gay professional footballer in a country where gay rights and visibility have come on in leaps and bounds in almost every other area. Where The Pass looked at what that kind of life might do to the closeted player himself, Rob Ward and Martin Jameson's Away From Home looks at the effect on someone who loves him. Jameson directs, and Ward plays Kyle, a Liverpudlian rent boy who narrates the story of the last couple of years of his life, to someone he's just slept with. A football fan himself, he's shocked to find his latest client is a well-known footballer who's just signed for his team's local rivals, so will be around in the city a lot for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Theatre review: Chewing Gum Dreams

The second offering in The Shed's pairing of monologues by women, playing a 9:30 show after riverrun, is a lot more down to earth and a lot closer to home. Hackney, to be precise, where Michaela Coel grew up, and where she sets Chewing Gum Dreams, which she also performs. Coel plays Tracey, a 14-year-old girl dealing with friends, school and her budding love life, as well as the way these elements come together when her best friend ends up in a relationship with an abusive older man, and the knock-on effect colours the way Tracey herself is perceived. As with most monologues written by actors to perform themselves, there's more than a suggestion of Chewing Gum Dreams being primarily a showcase for Coel's talents. It does at least do this pretty effectively and organically, a variety of characters and emotions on display.

Theatre review: riverrun

James Joyce's Ulysses is one of those classics people set themselves almost as a challenge, a novel anyone who believes themselves a fan of literature needs to tackle. His later, even more oblique work Finnegan's Wake however, is more likely to be seen as a punchline, a metaphor for something that makes about as much sense as a Coveney article. One of my English lecturers at University announced at a seminar that tackling Ulysses was rewarding, but taking on Finnegan's Wake was nothing more or less than a waste of time. And it's the latter book that gets a one-woman version at The Shed, or at least one of the voices from that book - the lyrical narrative of the river is embodied by Olwen Fouéré, who's also adapted and directed it (with Kellie Hughes) for the stage as riverrun.

Monday 17 March 2014

Theatre review: Good People

Class comedy is a particularly British genre but there's an American variant as well, often puncturing the aspirational clichés of the American Dream. David Lindsay-Abaire's comedy-drama Good People opens with a woman who's far from living that dream, as Margie (Imelda Staunton) loses her minimum-wage job at a dollar store for being late one time too many. It's been the story of her life ever since she got pregnant in her teens and had a premature, brain-damaged baby. Today her daughter is grown up but still has the mind of a child, and problems arranging a carer have led to Margie losing one job after another. It seems a bleak setup but Margie is a fighter, and surrounded by friends with big mouths and questionable loyalties, her search for work is peppered with acidic one-liners. Especially when an old boyfriend returns to town and a couple of new options present themselves.

Friday 14 March 2014

Theatre review: The Boy Who Cried

I know that most theatres barely pay lip service to their own "no latecomers" rules, but at least they usually try to let stragglers in at an appropriate pause. Evidently there's a different policy at a new pub theatre in Islington, where latecomers are allowed to drop in at any time, wander across the traverse stage and, at one point, step over one of the actors lying on the floor as they look for a free seat. Still, at least that sort of thing provides a distraction from Matt Osman's The Boy Who Cried. The play has a great premise: An alternate world where werewolves may or may not exist, but are certainly believed in and blamed for all society's ills. When Sylvia (Shelley Lang) thinks her son's been acting a bit oddly, she calls in Protection Officer Thompson (Jake Curran) to determine if he's been bitten or not. But a young girl has also just gone missing, and Sam (Jordan Mallory-Skinner) finds himself accused of her murder if he turns out to be a wolf.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Theatre review: Visitors

An accomplished first full-length play from Barney Norris, Visitors looks at the effect on a family when one member of it is stricken with dementia - and how a new, big problem doesn't negate all the smaller ones that have been dogging them for years. 70-somethings Edie (Linda Bassett) and Arthur (Robin Soans) have been married over half a century. and have remained essentially happy together on their small farm all that time. They remain in love but they know their life together is coming to a close as Edie's memory is starting to go. Still at an early stage, her dementia only causes occasional memory lapses but she knows her condition will soon deteriorate. Hoping to keep his wife at home as long as possible, Arthur has got their son Stephen to arrange a live-in carer, Kate (Eleanor Wyld.)

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Theatre review: I'd Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole

Putting in a bid for the oddest show of the year is the Gate with a play that casts something before swine, although whether or not it's pearls I'm still not altogether sure. Going by the punchy (by recent standards) title of I'd Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole, Rodrigo Garcia's play, translated here by William Gregory, is a surreal nocturnal ride through Madrid. The title is a bit of a mantra for a man, played by Steffan Rhodri, driven to distraction by insomnia. Rather than be kept awake by the financial and social worries of modern life as he is now, he decides to spend his savings on a wild night culminating in a trip to see Goya's Black Paintings, housed in a museum two blocks away. When he proposes this to his sons though they'd rather go to Disneyland Paris, although for an 11-year-old and a 6-year-old their reasons for wanting to go are rather existential. Not that that's all that's unusual about them.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Theatre review: The Act

Matthew Baldwin is a stalwart of the Above the Stag gay panto, usually alternating between waspish dames and kinky villains, so it's surprising how gentle his one-man show, co-created with director Thomas Hescott, is. The Act is a short trip to the 1960s, following both the Parliamentary debate that would end in the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and the life of a Westminster civil servant for whom the matter is close to home. Matthews had a couple of encounters at school but since then has buried his feelings for other men, busying himself with work and friends. But with the act yet to pass, he grows bolder and starts going to an underground gay bar. Soon he's fallen for a younger man whose feelings aren't returned quite as exclusively, and he finds himself on the wrong side of the law - his job making him a juicy target to be made an example of.

Monday 10 March 2014

Theatre review: Versailles

The Donmar Warehouse weighs in on the centenary of World War I, but although this year marks a century from the outbreak of hostilities, Peter Gill's new play takes us to the Treaty of Versailles, which marked the War's end. Or, as is generally believed, it failed to put a full stop to anything, instead laying the foundations for World War II, and that's certainly how Gill's Versailles sees things. It focuses on Leonard (Gwilym Lee,) a civil servant whose job in Westminster meant he didn't see active service, and who is now on his way to Paris to play a small part in the treaty. Having some knowledge of the world's coal reserves, he's been brought in to advise on how Germany's coal resources are to be distributed in reparation. Those around him want to see Germany's assets bled dry, but Leonard fears catastrophic financial instability if that happens, and hopes he can promote a more lenient approach.

Sunday 9 March 2014

Theatre review: The Hard Man

About as big a contrast as you could ask for with the French Riviera exploits it shares a stage with, the Finborough's current alternate show takes us to a Scottish prison cell in the 1970s. One of the writers of The Hard Man, Jimmy Boyle, was still in jail when it was first produced, and when he collaborated with playwright Tom McGrath on what is clearly an autobiographical story. Johnny Byrne (Martin Docherty) narrates the first act from his prison cell, as he goes over his teenage years. Growing up with no prospects, he and his friends Bandit (Adam Harley) and Slugger (Jack McMillan) graduate quickly from petty theft to catching the eye of a local criminal who offers them jobs in his illegal after-hours bars. By the time they're 16 they're well into Glasgow's underworld and Johnny in particular thinks they've outgrown their henchman roles and should be running things - he's also acquired a liking to marking anyone who crosses him by slashing their face with a straight-razor.

Saturday 8 March 2014

Theatre review: Unusual Unions

Yet another collection of short plays to include a contribution from the ubiquitous Tom Wells, this is a one-day event playing a total of two performances only, and commissioned by the Royal Court as one of a number of companion pieces to their main-house show The Mistress Contract. Inspired by that piece's unorthodox relationship, five writers have been asked to come up with something on the theme of Unusual Unions, and each one of them has contributed, in my opinion, something far superior to the main event. The way this promenade show works is actually very similar to I Do: The audience is colour-coded into "teams," who are led round the building to various areas, so the order anyone saw the plays in is fairly arbitrary and varies from group to group. So, as part of the green team Phill, Andy and I started by being taken to an unused Downstairs dressing room, for Rebecca Lenkiewicz's Anhedonia, directed by Simon Godwin. We meet a girl (Rona Morison) wearing a hijab, although not for the reasons we might expect. A violent incident has left her in a very dark place and interestingly, in contrast to the dramatic cliche, her encounter with the friendly foreman (Nathan Osgood) of a building site she's walked into doesn't leave her in a good place exactly, but it does make her that one step closer to coping. The subtle use of changing pronouns is a clever way of showing how the story develops in Lenkiewicz's powerful little piece.

Friday 7 March 2014

Theatre review: Analog.Ue

Daniel Kitson returns to the Lyttelton stage with a one-man show that really takes advantage of the space's vast emptiness. A piece of storytelling theatre whose high concept came before the story; indeed the storytelling device determined the story. Analog.Ue features a lot of words spoken by Kitson, but he doesn't say any of them live. When he enters the stage is almost bare, a stack of reel-to-reel or cassette recorders stored at the back, a number of plug sockets on a table downstage. In almost-darkness, Kitson carries one machine after another, sets it up and plugs it in. Each of the 46 tape recorders contains a fragment of the story a few minutes long, and as each one is set up and played the stage gradually fills up with machines, electrical cables spreading out from the central table like a giant spider.

Thursday 6 March 2014

Theatre review: Urinetown

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: I think the press night for Urinetown is sometime next week.

When tickets first went on sale last summer for the latest show at the St James, it was with a slightly awkward attempt at the recent fashion for secret theatre and cinema, that saw people invited to buy tickets for a show whose title wouldn't be announced until a few months later. All that was known was that it would be directed by Jamie Lloyd, but then so are most things. But its codename "UGC" led people with a knowledge of Broadway hits to quickly identify it as a 1999 show that won Tony awards and ran for three years on Broadway, but never made it to the UK until now. Mark Hollmann (music & lyrics) and Greg Kotis (book & lyrics) present a bleak environmental satire about the inevitable drain on resources, but in the form of a spoof musical. And, perhaps explaining why Lloyd's production was keen to shift a few tickets before people got a whiff of the title, it's called Urinetown.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Theatre review: I Do

Hotel rooms are already becoming a 2014 theatrical meme; The Pass' set represented a number of them, but Dante or Die's I Do follows the example of The Hotel Plays and takes us to the real thing. This time it's the Hilton Docklands, and although once again the audience visits a number of rooms, there's one story being told overall: As the title suggests, the rooms have been taken for a wedding, that of Georgina (Rachel Drazek) and Tunde (Tas Emiabata.) On arrival, the audience are split into six groups according to the colour of their lapel rose. This determines the order in which they visit each of the six rooms - the bride's, the groom's, the best man's, the mother of the bride, her grandparents and the honeymoon suite itself, which should be empty - but actually ends up seeing a lot of traffic.

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Theatre review: We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884 - 1915

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The Bush invites professional critics in tomorrow. Photos below are from the show's rehearsals.

I usually make it a rule not to read any other reviews before writing my own, but every rule has exceptions and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884 - 1915 is one; I felt the play's reception when it premiered in America would provide some context I needed to interpret certain things about it. As the unwieldy title suggests, Sibblies Drury's play presents something that deliberately looks incredibly rough-and-ready, a showcase by six actors based on a genocide in Africa just before the First World War. The years 1884 - 1915 are the ones when Namibia was a German colony, and over time the Germans favoured various local tribes to do their dirty work for them. One such tribe were the Herero, whose resistance resulted in the order to wipe them out.

Monday 3 March 2014

Theatre review: The A-Z of Mrs P

You might assume the story of the first A-Z map of London wouldn't make much of a musical. And you'd be right, but not for the reasons you might think. A new show with book by Diane Samuels and music & lyrics by Gwyneth Herbert, The A-Z of Mrs P is based on the autobiographies of Phyllis Pearsall, whose company made the first detailed street guide of London since motor cars came along and made the whole enterprise all the trickier. We first meet Phyllis (Isy Suttie) in Venice as she walks out on her husband and returns to the city of her birth after many years away. With barely a penny to her name she quickly gets back on her feet making a living as a painter, but soon an alternative offer comes in from her father: A mapmaker, he now lives in New York, where he's published the first street guides of the city and wants his daughter to do the same for London.

Saturday 1 March 2014

Theatre review: Variation on a Theme

The latter years of Terence Rattigan's life saw a decline in his popularity as the Kitchen Sink playwrights knocked him out of favour, and Variation on a Theme had a particularly unfortunate part to play in his story: It was the play Shelagh Delaney saw, and was so unimpressed by it propelled her to try and do better herself. Rattigan would eventually, posthumously, reclaim his place on British stages, with his better-known plays getting plenty of major revivals in recent years, but it takes the Finborough to unearth Variation on a Theme again half a century after it was last seen. And with the play Delaney wrote in response, A Taste of Honey, enjoying a major revival at the National right now, what better time to reevaluate whether Rattigan's offering deserves its ignominious place in history.