Monday 30 June 2014

Theatre review: Julius Caesar (Shakespeare's Globe)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The critics don't seem to have been invited to this yet.

Rounding off (albeit in the wrong order) the trio of Roman plays in this summer's Globe season is Dominic Dromgoole's production of Julius Caesar. After defeating the tyrant Pompey, Julius Caesar (George Irving) returns to Rome a hero. Despite refusing three times to take the throne himself, Cassius (Anthony Howell) manages to convince a number of senators that Caesar is dangerously ambitious, and a plot to assassinate him is formed. A crucial part of Cassius' plan is to recruit Brutus (Tom McKay) to the conspiracy, as he is known as an honourable man and friend of Caesar's. If he's seen to be part of the plot it'll lend it legitimacy, rather than it appearing like a coup for power by the senators. But Brutus underestimates Caesar's faithful protégé Mark Antony (Luke Thompson,) and his powers of persuasion over the people.

Sunday 29 June 2014

Theatre review: Hostage Song

It's a truism that no subject matter is too difficult to get the musical theatre treatment, but creatives always seem to find new ways to test the theory. In the Finborough's Sunday-Tuesday slot the unlikely subject matter is the kidnapping and beheading of American hostages in the Middle East. Clay McLeod Chapman's Hostage Song features rock songs with music and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow, performed by an onstage band with Pierce Reid on vocals, as well as some numbers taken on by the couple at the centre of the story: Jim (Michael Matus) is a contractor for the Pentagon, Jennifer (Verity Marshall) a journalist reporting the plight of the very people who have now captured them both. Thrown together in a cell and both expecting to be executed, the pair try to deal with their fear and missing their families, by playing games that develop into an extended fantasy where they're a normal couple, meeting in a bar, being introduced to each other's parents and planning a future.

Theatre review: Dream of Perfect Sleep

Continuing what's been something of a bleak-themed 2014 at the Finborough is a look at dementia and mortality in Kevin Kautzman's Dream of Perfect Sleep. At one time a scholar who traveled the world, Mary (Susan Tracy) is now gradually losing her mind to dementia. Her husband Gene (Martin Wimbush,) having recovered from an unspecified illness a few years back, has now had an incurable relapse. It's not Christmas, but Gene has told Mary it is, and decorated the house accordingly becuase he's invited their children to visit: Insomniac, ex-pill addict Robert (Cory English) and their adopted daughter, the hippie-ish Melissa (Lisa Caruccio Came) are coming to this pretend Christmas Eve because Gene wants to tell them about their parents' failing health, but also how they plan to deal with it: In her more lucid moments Mary has asked that she is not left alone to lose who she is.

Friday 27 June 2014

Theatre review: Idomeneus

The mythology of the Trojan War often sees the Greeks' triumph soured, as they return home to face tragedy and betrayal. Cretan king Idomeneus tops off his decade at war with a catastrophic storm on the way home. Of all his ships, only the one carrying Idomeneus himself survives, and only because the king promises the sea god Poseidon a gift: On reaching Crete he'll sacrifice the first living creature he sees. Of course he docks to find his own son Idamantes waiting to greet him. With its themes of human sacrifice, family tragedy and a classic dick move by the gods, it seems like this should be one of the better-known Greek myths, but Idomeneus' post-Troy fate doesn't feature in the Iliad and remains fairly obscure. The sources that do mention it differ on how the story plays out, and that's where Roland Schimmelpfennig's Idomeneus comes in.

Thursday 26 June 2014

Theatre review: The Valley of Astonishment

I'm always excited by the prospect of seeing Kathryn Hunter, one of the most extraordinary actors alive, on stage, so to see her in something distinctly underwhelming is more than a little disappointing. How much more so when legendary director Peter Brook and his regular collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne have chosen what should be an endlessly fascinating subject matter: In The Valley of Astonishment, Hunter plays Sammy Costas, a 44-year-old woman whose photographic memory excites scientists. Mrs Costas, it transpires, has synaesthesia, the condition that muddles the responses of the senses. So words can have a colour, numbers a taste, sounds a personality. It means everything she sees or hears automatically becomes part of a mental landscape she carries with her, and every memory can be easily recovered.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Theatre review: Skylight

Two people whose lives are going in opposite directions met and, for a few years, were very important to each other. In David Hare's Skylight they meet again a few years later for a night dealing with unfinished business. From humble beginnings Tom (Bill Nighy) opened a restaurant that became a chain and a thriving business, and he uses his wealth ostentatiously: He's chauffeur-driven everywhere, has a luxurious new house and enjoys giving extravagant gifts to friends and family. Kyra (Carey Mulligan) is a young woman who works long hours teaching in a rough East London school, and lives in a grubby council flat a long bus commute from work. A few years back she worked in Tom's business, as well as having a long-standing affair with the older man. Although her relationship to his family, it turns out, was a bit more complex than that.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Theatre review: Red Forest

"I am not a stereotype!" says a Native American man, shortly before waving his feathered stick around, performing a rain dance and telling a story about a shaman and a peace pipe. Moving on from their niche examining life in a dictatorship, Belarus Free Theatre explore environmental issues in Red Forest, although if the publicity hadn't clarified that it might not have been immediately apparent. Taking place on a central sandpit flanked by shallow pools of water, this is a heavily movement-based piece devised by the company, following a research trip around the world collecting mythology and what they like to call "real human stories." As opposed to the kinds of stories told by animals or bits of string. These testimonies are either played back, or spoken into microphones by members of the cast, to provide a commentary to the central story of an Earth-mother figure (Michal Keyamo) carrying her baby - or sometimes babies - around the world, facing a number of perils.

Monday 23 June 2014

Theatre review: Adler & Gibb

Artworks and their perceived value tend to be viewed in the light of the artist's life and personality. A certain brand of "method" acting on the other hand claims to put the real personality by the wayside entirely, immersing the actor in their character. Both ideas are present, bringing with them a kind of artistic temperament that edges into the unhinged, in Tim Crouch's Adler & Gibb. In 2004, a year after the mysterious death of modern artist Janet Adler, a student (Rachel Redford) attempts to secure a scholarship to art school with a lecture about Adler and her partner Margaret Gibb. She has a personal reason for her fascination with the pair, but it seems the interviewing panel don't share her enthusiasm.

Friday 20 June 2014

Theatre review: Klook's Last Stand

There's a film noir-ish feel to Klook's Last Stand but it's a tongue-in-cheek one, as the snappy back-and-forth in the bar where the leading man picks up the leading lady is present and correct, but it's a juice bar and Klook (Ako Mitchell) is buying Vinette (Sheila Atim) a carrot juice (hold the ginger.) An ex-con who's drifted around the USA getting fired from a number of jobs, Klook's journey has led him here to a much younger woman, who may be his soulmate or even his salvation. Ché Walker's play with songs follows the pair's spiky but mutually supportive relationship, the two actors backed by Rio Kai on guitar, keyboard and double bass. The skeletons in both their pasts threaten their relationship but those in Klook's could present a much more literal threat when his creepy boss takes a shine to Vinette.

Thursday 19 June 2014

Theatre review: Khandan (Family)

Roxana Silbert recently took over at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and has started by bringing back a controversial figure from the theatre's past: Ten years ago Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play Behzti (Dishonour) was taken off after offending Sikhs. But Bhatti is also a writer for The Archers, and as her new play Khandan (Family) comes to London, it proves to be less explosive, and more gentle family drama. Jeeto (Sudha Bhuchar) has recently lost her husband, by all accounts a kind man but one with a drink problem. She now lives in a suburban house that's too big for her with her son Pal (Rez Kempton,) who's now running the shop his late father left him. Jeeto keeps up a pretense of disapproval that he married a white woman, but in reality she dotes on Liz (Lauren Crace,) who's as much part of the family as her own children.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Theatre review: Hobson's Choice

Harold Brighouse's Hobson's Choice is apparently both a GCSE text and an old stalwart of regional rep. As a result it's the sort of play whose title I'm familiar with but I've never actually seen. Written in 1915 but set in Victorian Salford, it gets a further time shift in Nadia Fall's production in Regent's Park, which moves the action to the 1960s - probably as late as you could take its title character's attitudes. The affable Mark Benton plays against type as Henry Horatio Hobson, who's run his own shoe shop for years. But since the death of his wife, his daughters Maggie (Jodie McNee,) Alice (Nadia Clifford) and Vickey (Hannah Britland) have been running the place for no wages, while he spends his days in the local pub, the Moonraker's1. But business is booming, because in the basement workshop is young shoemaker Willie Mossop (Big Favourite Round These Parts Karl Davies) whose boots are so good all the wealthier ladies of Salford flock to the shop.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

Theatre review: The Last Days of Troy

The Globe's contribution to the WWI centenary sees all four of this year's new plays themed around bloody conflicts. The first is the mythical Trojan War, and Simon Armitage gives us his version of the Iliad in The Last Days of Troy. In a war whose alleged purpose is to recover the absconded queen Helen (Lily Cole,) the Greeks have been laying siege to Troy for a decade. Following an argument between general Agamemnon (David Birrell) and the virtually indestructible Achilles (Jake Fairbrother,) the great warrior is refusing to fight, leading to an extended stalemate. Achilles took offence at Agamemnon demanding one of his concubines, but the cunning politician Odysseus (Colin Tierney) knows his affections really lie with his cousin Patroclus (Brendan O'Hea.) Odysseus thinks he knows a way to get Achilles angry, and back in the fray.

Monday 16 June 2014

Theatre review: Enduring Song

A few years after delivering a small-but-perfectly formed Bound at the old venue, Jesse Briton returns to Southwark Playhouse to deposit something much bigger and messier onto its main stage. Enduring Song is a story of the Crusades that starts in a small French farming village and goes to Antioch and Jerusalem - although in a very real sense it also goes precisely nowhere. Matthew (Tom Roe) has just got married to the girl he accidentally knocked up when he's visited by bishop Peter (Alex Harland,) the shiftiest priest ever to priest shiftily. Peter tells Matthew that he has to go to the Middle East and kill some brown people because Jesus. He himself will help him, mostly by running away. This stirring sales pitch is successful, and Matthew and three of his friends are soon leaving his disabled father, mute sister and drunken grandmother to take care of the failing farm by themselves.

Sunday 15 June 2014

Theatre review: Zanna, Don't!

Can you get much camper than a pun on the infamous Olivia Newton-John flop Xanadu? If Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris' musical Zanna, Don't! is anything to go by, probably not. It's a gentle satire not just on homophobia, but on the American High School pecking order in general. At Heartsville High boys date boys, girls date girls, heteros stay firmly in the closet and the Bible insists on a bit of sleeping around. Steve (Liam Christopher Lloyd,) the lowly captain of the football team, is punching above his weight when he dates the school sex symbol, chess champion Mike (Jonathan Dudley,) and last year the girls scored a big hit performing Swan Lake on mechanical bulls. The school even boasts its own magical matchmaker Zanna (David Ribi,) whose big purple wand finds people who'd be perfect together, but can't seem to find someone for Zanna himself.

Saturday 14 June 2014

Theatre review: Mugs Arrows

One of those shows that's very hard to say anything about without the risk of spoilers, Eddie Elks' Mugs Arrows features two men in suits and a woman in a wedding dress. The Old Red Lion pub has encroached on the little theatre upstairs, where Ken McClymont's set has done a nice job of recreating a pub in the middle of nowhere, surrounded only by fields and livestock. It's long after hours but the two men in the bar are friends of the landlord's, who's gone to bed after a big day. Ed (Elks) and Pat (Rhys King) play darts and exchange cryptic remarks about their friend, the day that's just passed, and their own lives which have had some difficult recent times, until they're joined by Sarah (Chiara Wilde,) who wants to join in the game. Her smiley, enthusiastic friendliness make no difference to the mix of discomfort and hostility the two men show towards her.

Friday 13 June 2014

Theatre review: Mr Burns

Some shows come with such a Marmite reputation that it feels odd to find yourself quite firmly on the fence about them. Anne Washburn's Mr Burns had a love/hate response when it debuted off-Broadway, and the reaction to its London premiere has ranged from one star to five from the critics. Its basic conceit is certainly an interesting one: Some time in the near future, disasters at a series of nuclear power plants have wiped out most of the US population. The survivors are left to try and get by in a world without power (Mr Burns is subtitled "A post electric play.") Small groups band together for safety, and as one of these welcomes, cautiously, a newcomer (Demetri Goritsas,) we see the ways they've tried to maintain a network of communication. But we also see how they try to keep their spirits up by reliving a comforting story from their earlier lives: Around the fireside they try to remember and retell an episode of The Simpsons.

Thursday 12 June 2014

Theatre review: Fathers and Sons

Concluding the Spring season at the Donmar Warehouse is a revival of Fathers and Sons, Brian Friel's adaptation of the Turgenev novel. Two outspoken St Petersburg students spend their summer returning to the rural homes they grew up in: First the recently-graduated Arkady (Joshua James) goes to his father's country estate, bringing with him his flatmate Bazarov (Seth Numrich.) Things aren't quite as Arkady remembered them - his father Nikolai (Anthony Calf) has a new baby with one of the servants, Fenichka (Caoilfhionn Dunne,) and on confirming that his son's happy for him prepares to marry her. Meanwhile Nikolai's lack of flair for managing his farm has led him to ask for advice from a neighbour, the wealthy widow Anna (Elaine Cassidy.) She and her sister Katya (Phoebe Sparrow) will catch the eye of the two young men, with very different results.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Theatre review: Lear (Union Theatre)

After dabbling in the decidedly dodgy apocrypha last year, Phil Willmott's annual Shakespeare production at the Union returns to the canon, but with a twist: Having decided that, of his regular collaborators, Ursula Mohan was best equipped with the range to take on the part, he gives us a female Lear. Among a number of edits to the text, Willmott comes up with a slightly different context for the story. Mohan's Lear is now the recently-widowed Queen, assuming power herself but already displaying mental health problems which mean she has to distribute it elsewhere. The kingdom is divided between the two daughters who flattered her the most, while the third is disowned for her bluntness. But Lear adjusts badly to life without influence, and soon finds herself cast out to the elements with nothing.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Theatre review: Hotel

Polly Stenham, the poet laureate of incontinence, has written a loose trilogy of plays Upstairs at the Royal Court, which have seen her prove accomplished at taking on the dysfunction of the upper middle classes; although by the third there were calls for her to broaden her horizons. She does so, not altogether successfully, with her fourth play Hotel, which also sees her move to the Artist Formerly Known As Shed outside the NT. Vivienne (Hermione Gulliford) is a Cabinet Minister - or at least she was until a couple of days ago. Her husband Robert (Tom Beard) was caught trying to pick up women online, and when the ensuing scandal made them a laughing stock, Vivienne resigned. Now, to escape the press, she's taken Robert and their children Ralph (Tom Rhys Harries) and Frankie (Shannon Tarbet) to the most remote holiday destination they could find, a small tropical island off the coast of Africa. It's the off-season, so theirs seems to be the only occupied suite in the hotel.

Sunday 8 June 2014

Theatre review: Spokesong

Any 1970s Northern Irish play is going to at least touch on the Troubles, but Stewart Parker's Spokesong does so with a surprisingly light, even quirky approach. Frank (Stephen Cavanagh) runs the Belfast bike shop that's been the family business since the 1890s, but its future is threatened by a planned bypass that will see the building demolished in the name of easing traffic. The very idea of town planning in a city whose landscape is regularly changed by bombs seems like a kind of dark joke, but bicycles are Frank's passion as well as his job, and he has a plan to put forward to the council meeting: A fleet of free bicycles throughout the city, to be used by anyone as needed. As he meets his very own Daisy Bell (Elly Condron) and finds romance, Frank starts to imagine that his bicycle utopia could actually be the solution to all the city's troubles.

Friday 6 June 2014

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Deafinitely Theatre / Globe to Globe)

Deafinitely Theatre first came to Shakespeare's Globe for the original 2012 Globe to Globe season, contributing British Sign Language as one of the many languages the canon was performed in. Love's Labour's Lost was a bit of a wordy choice of comedy to have performed silently, but the company's been invited back this year to produce a new show, and A Midsummer Night's Dream is an infintely sillier play with plenty of opportunities for physical comedy. In addition, there's more here now for people who don't know BSL: The popularity of their first Globe vist led Deafinitely to broaden their scope, from a deaf theatre for deaf audiences, to a deaf theatre for all audiences. So as well as the scene synopses on screens, we now also get a bit of Shakespeare's original text. The cast now includes the odd hearing actor, like Anna-Maria Nabirye, who was a standout in the 2013 Faction season, and here plays a fairy who, along with Alim Jayda's Puck, translates back into English some of the more crucial dialogue.

Thursday 5 June 2014

Theatre review: Clarence Darrow

Clarence Darrow was a legendary American lawyer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a relentless advocate of human rights who represented workers and unions against big companies and black Americans against a racist establishment, and whose barnstorming style in court affected the way all US lawyers have addressed juries ever since. Well, they address them like that in every legal drama I've ever seen, so that's definitely accurate. He's also a character Kevin Spacey has kept returning to throughout his career, most recently in Inherit the Wind at the Old Vic. Now, for his penultimate season running the venue, Dame Kev returns to the role in David W Rintels' eponymous monologue. The theatre is still reconfigured in the round, one of Kev's better ideas and a setup I really like - it fits surprisingly well into the architecture, and gives the large building an intimacy, even from the front of the Lilian Baylis Circle where I was sitting.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Theatre review: Between Us

Really quite an odd little play settles into Arcola Studio 2 at the moment, as a therapist tries her hand at stand-up comedy in Sarah Daniels' Between Us. Julia's (Charlotte Cornwell) comedy act provides the narration for a play that sees her try to reconnect with Kath (Georgina Rich,) the daughter she gave up for adoption. This story is interspersed with monologues from two of her patients, whose confessions in the therapist's chair also touch on relationships between parents and children. Some years earlier, Teresa (Rich) came to see Julia to unburden herself about her problems raising her own two adopted children, and the realisation that she can't cope. A more recent client is Dave (Callum Dixon,) who's depressed since the birth of his daughter. His fears for her future stem from an event in his past that dovetail unexpectedly with Teresa's confessions.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

Theatre review: Pornography

Although technically amateur performances, I try to review drama school productions impartially as the people involved hope to be working professionally in the near future.

Simon Stephens' Pornography is a story of London, and a particularly dark underbelly of it at that. In stories that for the most part don't directly intersect, people who seem likeable and ordinary at first reveal twisted, often shocking sides. A brother and sister (Abubakar Salim and Bryony Corrigan) meet up again after a long time; the reason they stayed apart so long may be connected to their incestuous feelings for each other, and their reunion sees them give in to them. An 83-year-old woman (Rhiannon Neads) reveals an obsession with porn, while a lecturer (Nemanja Oskorus) misinterprets the attentions of a former student (Gemma May) with uncomfortable results, and a hassled working mother (Sasha Wilson) starts to imagine taking revenge on the company that's overworking her. Schoolboy Jason (James Fletcher) seems to be our guide through all this, but he may actually have the most disturbed mind of all.

Monday 2 June 2014

Theatre review: Circles

The theatre may be called the Tricycle, but there's a different mode of transport at the centre of the latest play on its stage. Rachel De-lahay's Circles takes its title in part from the route of the number 11 bus, which goes all around Birmingham in two and a half hours. But there's also a much darker cyclical nature to the play's structure, as three generations of women keep making the same mistakes with men, all of them blaming each other for how their lives turned out. Angela (Sarah Manners) arrives at her mother Phyllis' house, to stay for a few nights after her husband beat her up - far from the first time it's happened. Phyllis (Janice McKenzie) herself endured violence from Angela's father, that's left her disabled and withdrawn from the world - particularly men. Angela, though, deals with her problem with a blindly optimistic search for the next man, and trusts things will turn out better.

Sunday 1 June 2014

Theatre review: Antony and Cleopatra (Shakespeare's Globe)

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety. Parklife!

Eve Best brings one of the dirtiest laughs in theatre back to Shakespeare's Globe, at a time when the place seems like a bit of a deathtrap for actors: There was an actor off when I saw Titus Andronicus, and now at Antony and Cleopatra Christopher Saul had to read in Lepidus as James Hayes is injured1; the show's only just got its Antony back as Clive Wood had to miss most of the previews due to illness; and at today's matinee Best herself had a strapped up foot that seemed to be causing her some pain, but she gamely kept going. And just as well because although Jonathan Munby's production is probably the best I've seen yet of a Shakespeare play I've never been a fan of, Best's Cleopatra is still the highlight, utterly embodying the play's most famous quote about the mercurial queen.