Thursday 31 July 2014

Non-review: A Bright Room Called Day

I'm not calling this a review because I can't comment on the whole show: I left at the interval. Tony Kushner's A Bright Room Called Day was written in the 1980s, in response to Ronald Reagan barely acknowledging, let alone helping fight, the AIDS epidemic. Kushner compares the situation with the rise of Hitler in 1930s Germany: Suggesting, on the one hand, that the most dangerous periods in history are those when people get a bit too comfortably complacent in society's progress, allowing the right wing to take hold insidiously. And on the other hand, saying that regarding the Holocaust as the ultimate evil has allowed the powerful to get away with more than they should, that they escape criticism because even if they're mass-murderers, they're not quite as bad as the Nazis.

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Theatre review: Great Britain

Playwright Richard Bean has been off the radar a bit since the all-conquering One Man, Two Guvnors, but he's going to be cropping up regularly in London in the next few months. First up is a topical play - so topical that it had to wait for a high-profile court case to end before the National could even officially confirm it was being staged. That's because Great Britain is a fictionalised version of the recent phone-hacking scandal that's seen the press become its own biggest story. Paige Britain (Billie Piper) is the news editor of tabloid newspaper The Free Press, and expected to be its next editor. Her story-gathering methods have never been squeaky clean, but a seemingly minor story brings to her attention a crucial piece of information: Each mobile phone operator has a single default pin number across all its users. Since hardly anyone changes their pin, all you need to know is someone's phone number to be able to listen to their voicemail remotely.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Theatre review: Holes

Some productions seem to appear with perfect timing while others have the worst; it's certainly the latter when a black comedy about a plane crash coincides with news of a real one. So there's a certain amount of blocking out unfortunate associations to be done here, but Holes deserves it. Tom Basden's writing has gone from the witty, silly Party, which also became a Radio 4 sitcom, to darker absurdism including adapting Kafka for the stage. Both styles are apparent in his latest play which had an Edinburgh run last year and now comes, slightly rewritten, to the Arcola's infrequently-used third space, the Tent. I'd not seen anything here before, and it turns out to be a fun space, in the round and feeling a bit like a small circus tent, although the constant noise of traffic, Overground trains and even a gospel choir may explain why it usually houses comedy or music rather than straight plays.

Monday 28 July 2014

Theatre review: The Nether

Jeremy Herrin's first show as director since taking over Headlong is a co-production with his old stomping ground at the Royal Court, where he brings the UK premiere of an unsettling American play to the Downstairs stage. The Nether is a future iteration of the internet that's not only highly realistic but also totally immersive. It hasn't quite managed to replicate touch yet but a virtual community called The Hideaway seems to have perfected it. The trouble is that The Hideaway is a community for paedophiles, a virtual Victorian estate where "Poppa" invites his guests to spend time with his children. As The Nether acquires a fledgling police force, Detective Morris (Amanda Hale) has managed to track down the man behind Poppa and his realm, the aptly-named Sims (Stanley Townsend.) Taking him in for questioning "in-world" (i.e. in the real, non-virtual world,) Morris tries to get him to reveal the whereabouts of his server.

Sunday 27 July 2014

Theatre review: 17

It got two shows into my Top Ten last year, but it has to be said lately the Finborough's productions haven't really been grabbing my attention. Getting a short run after a reading at last year's Vibrant festival, Dameon Garnett's 17 sees teenager Scott (Ryan Blackburn) moving in with his birth mother Lisa (Catherine Harvey) and her family after his adopted mother dies. Desperate to get Scott to instantly fit in to their routine, Lisa becomes over-eager, getting him to share a bedroom with her younger son Leo (Greg Fossard) and trying to get him straight back into school. But as the fact that he's stolen his adopted mother's ashes and is hiding them will attest to, Scott isn't ready to move on yet, and while the two half-brothers gradually start to become friends, Lisa and her husband Daniel (Paul Regan) start to feel the strain.

Friday 25 July 2014

Theatre review: Medea

Among the many current discussions about jobs and representation for women on stage, one question that often comes up is what constitutes a "strong female role." I would have thought it obviously meant "a strong role, but for a woman," but if Hollywood thinks it means a woman who punches people, others seem to confuse strong roles with positive ones. But the title role in Euripides' Medea is undoubtedly a strong role, while far from anyone's idea of a heroine; and Helen McCrory doesn't make the mistake of trying to make her one as she takes it on. Medea helped Jason steal the golden fleece from her family, and they married and fled to Corinth. Some years later, their fortunes faded, Jason (Danny Sapani) leaves Medea and their two sons to marry Kreusa (Clemmie Sveaas,) the daughter of King Kreon (Martin Turner.)

Thursday 24 July 2014

Theatre review: This Was A Man

Among the plays the Finborough unearths that haven't been performed for decades, there's the odd one that hasn't been performed at all, at least not in this country. That's how they can produce the UK premiere of a play by a beloved, long-dead author: Noël Coward's This Was A Man was banned in 1925 for its flippant approach to marital infidelity, and ended up getting its first outing on Broadway instead. By the time the Lord Chamberlain's office had lost the power to ban plays, this one was long-forgotten, so Belinda Lang's is the first production to dig it up in decades. Edward (Jamie De Courcey) is an artist who's started to get some success with his portraits of society women in uncomfortable poses (it makes them feel like they've got their money's worth.) But he's not happy, because his wife Carol (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) has been carrying out a string of affairs, often in public.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Theatre review: Holy Warriors

Are they only partly warriors? No! They're...

Holy Warriors is the second of this year's war-themed new commissions at Shakespeare's Globe. The publicity keeps calling David Eldridge's play about the Crusades "kaleidoscopic," a term which strikes me as sounding interesting but not actually meaning anything; but having now seen it I have a bit more of an idea what it's trying to describe, and what the play's attempting to do. It's the story of the crusade of Richard the Lionheart (John Hopkins) that saw him spend most of his reign of England in the Middle East but not, crucially to this play, actually enter Jerusalem. The decision not to hangs over the story as it takes in the conflicts that continue in the area to this day, eventually fusing 12th and 21st centuries as a modern-day Richard resumes his fight against Saladin, hoping to find a way to a different outcome.

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Theatre review: Shakespeare in Love

Déjà vu at the Noël Coward Theatre, where six months after The Full Monty another screen-to-stage adaptation opens. Whether it'll fare any better is yet to be seen, but for now crowds seem keen to get in to Shakespeare in Love. Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's film script has been adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, but the story is still one that places the world's best-loved playwright in a plot straight out of his own comedies: Will Shakespeare (Tom Bateman) is having writer's block after a few early successes, until he meets a new muse in noblewoman Viola De Lesseps (Lucy Briggs-Owen,) who's already madly in love with his poetry before she's even met him. But he's married, and she's about to be married off too, so it seems unlikely they'll be able to find a happy ending together.

Sunday 20 July 2014

Theatre review: The Curing Room

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This was a London preview of a show officially premiering at this year's Edinburgh Fringe.

Regular readers of this blog (both of them) might have spotted that among the many things I like to see on stage, male nudity and a spot of gory violence are perennial favourites. So a play that combines large amounts of both should be very much my idea of fun (in fact I only found out about this play because a number of people contacted me about it, as if I have a reputation or something1.) But among the many strengths of The Curing Room, "fun" isn't too high on the list. Inspired by a couple of brief, anecdotal accounts from the Second World War, as well as taking in elements from famines in Stalinist Russia, David Ian Lee's play sees seven Russian soldiers thrown naked by the Nazis into the cellar of a Polish monastery. They try to keep their spirits up but after a few days it becomes increasingly apparent they're unlikely to be rescued - indeed, they may have been forgotten altogether. (Some NSFW imagery after the text break.)

Saturday 19 July 2014

Theatre review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona (RSC / RST & TR Newcastle)

One of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is called Valentine, and Simon Godwin's production takes this as its cue to open on Valentine's Day, a card from Proteus (Mark Arends) to Julia (Pearl Chanda) setting up one of the play's central romances. Valentine himself (Michael Marcus) isn't much of a believer in love - at least not until he leaves Verona for Milan, and promptly falls in love with the Duke's daughter Silvia (Sarah MacRae.) Her father disapproves, so the pair decide to elope. When Proteus also arrives in Milan they confess their plan in the hope that he'll help them, but there's one problem: Proteus has fallen for Silvia himself. He betrays his best friend to the Duke, who banishes him. With Valentine out of the way, he thinks the path is clear for him to try and woo her himself, but Silvia's not as fickle as he is.

Friday 18 July 2014

Theatre review: The Roaring Girl

The show that gives this year's RSC Swan season its overall title is Dekker and Middleton's The Roaring Girl, a comedy inspired by a real-life Jacobean woman nicknamed Moll Cutpurse, whose fondness for dressing in men's clothes, drinking in taverns and starting fights made her notorious. Jo Davies transfers the fictional Moll to the 1890s, and a Victorian London obsessed with sex, but uncomfortable with any kind of gender-bending. So when Sir Alexander Wengrave (David Rintoul) disapproves of his son marrying Mary (Faye Castelow) because her dowry isn't big enough, Sebastian (Joe Bannister) has a plan: Pretend to be in love with Moll Cutpurse, and his father will be so horrified that Mary seems the perfect daughter-in-law in comparison. One slight problem with the plan is that Moll (Lisa Dillon) doesn't actually know about it, and may not want to cooperate.

Thursday 17 July 2014

Theatre review: In Lambeth

Getting naked on stage can't be many actors' favourite thing, although at least on a night as warm as tonight I guess they can feel confident they're the most comfortable people in the room. The characters, in any case, are entirely relaxed in their own skins as the poet and illustrator William Blake (Tom Mothersdale) and his wife Catherine (Melody Grove) spend an evening in their garden, sitting up a tree as he reads to her from Paradise Lost. The Blakes may be recreating the Garden of Eden but outside their walls things are less peaceful: The American Revolution has ended, the French Revolution is in full swing, and restless London crowds fear similar scenes in England. Their bogeyman is Thomas Payne (Christopher Hunter,) author of Rights of Man, who is currently fleeing an angry mob. Knowing that Blake lives nearby, and wanting to meet him, Payne escapes into the garden.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Theatre review: Richard III (Trafalgar Studios)

Jamie Lloyd opens the second season of Trafalgar Underwhelmed Transformed like the first, with a big-name star in a popular Shakespeare play. Martin Freeman is Richard III in a production that takes its visual cue from the other famous Winter of Discontent, and sets the action in the late 1970s. In a drab Government office, Edward VI (Paul McEwan) has won - so far - the War of the Roses, but his health is rapidly failing. He has an heir, but his youngest brother Richard (Freeman) fancies the crown for himself. His plots quickly despatch middle brother Clarence (Mark Meadows) and with Edward's death he gets himself installed as Lord Protector over the underage prince. With a gift for manipulation, no qualms about bumping off half the court, and a number of supporters hoping to get a slice of power if he succeeds, he soon steps over his nephews to claim the throne himself.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Theatre review: Midsummer Mischief Programme A - The Ant and the Cicada and
Revolt. She Said. Revolt again

As a companion piece to the RSC's "Roaring Girls" season, Erica Whyman commissioned a quartet of short plays by female playwrights on the theme of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's quote "Well-behaved women seldom make history." Collectively called Midsummer Mischief, their run in Dame Stratford-upon-Avon is followed by a brief showcase at the Royal Court Upstairs. The one-acters are presented in two double bills, each only getting two performances here, and Programme A was the only one I could fit into my schedule; but it was the one I wanted to see more as the writers were more promising: The double bill opens with Timberlake Wertenbaker and her take on a modern Greek tragedy. Of course, classic Greek tragedy is a specialty of Wertenbaker's, and its themes percolate through The Ant and the Cicada (a reference to the Aesop fable commonly known as The Ant and the Grasshopper.)

Monday 14 July 2014

Theatre review: Wonderland

Wonderland seems an unlikely description of life in a coal mine but Ashley Martin Davis' show-stealing set goes some way to making it seem plausible, in Ed Hall's premiere production of Beth Steel's play. 30 years on from the miners' strike, miner's daughter Steel tells its story without featuring the two faces that came to represent the opposing sides, Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill. Instead we're thrown into the lives of the people on (and in) the ground, and as with many stories of this kind we open with people just starting out: We first meet Jimmy (Ben-Ryan Davies) and Malcom (David Moorst) on their first day in a Nottinghamshire mine, shown the ropes by Colonel (Paul Brennen) and Bobbo (Nigel Betts) and taken under their wing by Spud (Gunnar Cauthery) and Fanny (Paul Rattray.) We see the dangers they face as well as the pride they take in their work, but there's also another story being told that puts their way of life into question.

Saturday 12 July 2014

Theatre review: Nell Gwynn

This was a drama school production so technically an amateur performance; as usual I'll try to treat it the same as a professional show, since that's what the cast will be hoping to be in next.

Already one of my favourite directors, Jessica Swale made for a promising playwright as well with Blue Stockings, so her latest look at a trailblazing woman from history had to be worth checking out. Swale has been working with some of the LAMDA students around whom she's written Nell Gwynn, about the woman best remembered as Charles II's (in)famous mistress. This does, of course, feature in the play, but its larger concern is with the high profile that got the King's attention in the first place, and Gwynn's place in theatre history as the first woman to act on the Drury Lane stage. A former prostitute who moved on to the barely-more-respectable profession of orange-seller, Nell's (Bathsheba Piepe) confident sales pitch catches the eye of actor Charles Hart (Donal Gallery.) When a rival theatre company makes headlines with an actual female Desdemona (whose topless death scene is completely integral to the plot) Hart convinces impresario Killigrew (Adam Scott-Rowley) that Nell should be their own first "actoress."

Friday 11 July 2014

Theatre review: Perseverance Drive

Without the hype that accompanies some multitasking actors, Robin Soans has had a second career as a playwright for some years, and does so with a light touch that shows in his latest play. Perseverance Drive is an address in Barbados where the Gillard family still keep a holiday home, although Leytonstone has been their real home since the '50s. It was back in Barbados where Grace Gillard died, and where her husband Eli (Leo Wringer) is arranging her funeral. Eldest son Nathan (Derek Ezenagu) is a minister, but middle son Zek (Kolade Agboke) was thrown out of the church for marrying divorcée Joylene (Akiya Henry.) But he's popular compared to Josh (Clint Dyer,) who was kicked out of the house as well as the church when Eli discovered he was gay. Although not invited, Josh has come along to pay his respects; and while he's the target of the family's open hostility, the real battle is between the other two brothers and their claims to holiness.

Thursday 10 July 2014

Theatre review: The Boss of it All

If the concept of a Lars von Trier comedy isn't weird enough, the comedy itself certainly is. Based on a more-or-less forgotten1 von Trier film, Jack McNamara's The Boss of it All is set in a Danish IT company that's been running for 10 years largely thanks to the success of a single programme. It's owned by the ruthless Ravn (Ross Armstrong,) who despite being happy to trick his staff out of their rights to the programme they created, and cutting their perks to boost his own profits, wants to be loved by them. So for the last decade he's hidden the fact that it's actually his own company. The staff think he's a long-suffering manager, grudgingly passing down the draconian commands of a fictitious MD, Svend. When he decides to sell the company to an Icelandic millionaire with a hatred of the Danes who will inevitably fire everyone, he needs Svend to actually make an appearance, so hires unemployed actor Kristoffer (Gerry Howell.)

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Re-review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

If you don't know the plot of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, or anything about the adaptation by Simon Stephens and Marianne Elliott's hit production, you can read my previous reviews from when it ran at the Cottesloe and the Apollo, to get up to speed. The latter run came to an abrupt end when the ceiling fell in, but after a 7-month hiatus it's back, crossing the road to the Gielgud. It's not a desire to see the show in every theatre it sets up camp in that brought me back a third time (I won't be following it around on its upcoming tour or to Broadway, I'm not a crazy person.) It was rather the second major cast change that made me want to witness its return. Not just Graham Butler as the painfully literal-minded protagonist Christopher Boone, but Nicolas Tennant as his father Ed also seemed like perfect casting.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Theatre review: The Art of Dying

Last year the Royal Court ran a season curated by a number of its playwrights, whose programming included pieces written specially for it, and read by the writers themselves. Of those, Nick Payne's The Art of Dying was singled out as deserving a wider audience, and returns for a couple of weeks' run this year. Rather than find an actor to perform it Payne returns to deliver it himself, from memory this time, with Michael Longhurst directing. And it's a (sometimes uncomfortably) appropriate piece to have the writer himself deliver, as it deals with three deaths, one of which is that of Payne's own father, the main inspiration for this monologue as well as one of the underlying themes of Constellations. Punctuated by beeps from a life support machine, these recollections are interspersed with another true story, that of Richard P Feynman, an American physicist who worked with Oppenheimer. On discovering his fiancée was terminally ill Feynman quickly married her so she'd die his wife; we also find out how he was faring a couple of years after her death.

Monday 7 July 2014

Theatre review: The Colby Sisters of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Canadian playwright Adam Bock had the idea of throwing together a group of roughly similar-looking actresses, who would normally be competing for the same roles and therefore rarely get to act together. He probably had specific New York-based actresses in mind as that's where he usually works, but a meeting with Indhu Rubasingham led to The Colby Sisters of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania getting its world premiere in London, at the Tricycle. Loosely modeled on the likes of the Mitfords and the Hiltons, the five Colby sisters are socialites who did, indeed, grow up in Pittsburgh, but sometime after their mother's death their father's fortunes greatly improved (perhaps by marriage, to the hated stepmother occasionally alluded to?) Now the sisters live in New York City, most of them married to artists and architects, and lead lives of vague celebrity: Famous for being famous, they're strangers to work but not to the pages of Vanity Fair.

Saturday 5 July 2014

Theatre review: The Kindness of Strangers

A different kind of immersive theatre at - or rather near - Southwark Playhouse, where we're immersed not just in the situation but in the neighbourhood as well. curious directive's The Kindness of Strangers takes place in the back of an ambulance that sets off from behind the theatre and drives around the local area, simulating the night shift of a King's College Hospital ambulance crew. There's only space for five audience members per performance, all wearing headphones through which we hear the unseen driver Sylvia, who's on her last-ever shift. In the back with us is Lisa (Emily Lloyd-Saini,) who's on her first. As they wait to be called out, the two women discuss their very different points of view on the NHS - Lisa has an optimism that they can still do good, but while Sylvia seems to be cynical about the "dying beast" they work in, she's leaving to take a job leading the ambulance trust, in the belief that she can improve things.

Friday 4 July 2014

Theatre review: The Crucible

Will the critics still shit stars all over the Old Vic once Kevin Spacey leaves? I can't help but wonder after the newspapers heaped praise over Yaël Farber's production of The Crucible. Arthur Miller wrote his play about the Salem witch trials in the wake of McCarthyism, in which he was caught up; but it functions just as well as a metaphor for any mass hysteria in which accusation is treated as the same as guilt in the court of public opinion. In Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, fear of witchcraft is rife. A group of teenage girls are glimpsed dancing naked in the woods, and divert attention from themselves by pinning the blame elsewhere, accusing various local women of being in league with the devil. This escalates quickly into a trial where half the town seems to stand accused, and the only way to avoid hanging is to confess - and give the court another name to go after.

Thursday 3 July 2014

Theatre review: Pacific Overtures

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This was the second public performance.

Famous as one of Stephen Sondheim's most complex and ambitious (trans: unpopular) works, Pacific Overtures follows a turning point in the history of Japan. Having got rid of the Dutch a couple of centuries earlier, the Japanese have practically turned isolationism into a religion: Leaving the country is illegal, but worse would be for a foreigner to set foot on Japanese soil, which would be viewed as something close to sacrilege. But by 1853 preserving this sanctity is looking less and less possible, as American ships arrive, demanding to deliver a letter from the President. With the Emperor still a child, and the shōgun an incompetent, it's left to low-ranking samurai Kayama (Oli Reynolds) and English-speaking fisherman Majiro (Emanuel Alba) to try and come up with a solution.

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Theatre review: The Glass Supper

It's a common storytelling setup to have a seemingly happy domestic situation reveal its demons when unexpected guests intrude, but they don't always explode in quite such a surreal way as this: In The Glass Supper, Marcus (Michael Begley) and Colin (Owen Sharpe) appear on the surface to be the picture of a "respectable" gay couple. Together for 20 years and recently married, they've moved from London to a remote cottage where writer Marcus can work in peace, and the two of them can - at least in theory - give up smoking, drink and drugs. There's some tension in the air as Colin has so far failed to quit any of them, but it's nothing compared to what happens when a couple they met the year before on a gay cruise (of the ocean liner variety) turn up on their doorstep on the way to this year's holiday.

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Theatre review: East of Berlin

Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch looks at a legacy of the Second World War, the families of Nazi war criminals who fled to South America, in the 1960s-set East of Berlin. Rudi (Jordan McCurrach) grew up in a German ex-pat community in Paraguay, naïvely accepting well into his teens the vague explanation that they had to leave Germany "because they lost." It's only when a classmate makes a crack about science experiments that Rudi realises his father, a dull pharmacist, has a past life as an SS doctor at Auschwitz, who used Jews as human guinea pigs. His disgust and anger at his father lead him to rebel, initially by making sure he gets caught having sex with his gay friend Hermann (Tom Lincoln.) But he really needs to confront his family's dark history, so he assumes the false identity he was originally smuggled out with, and returns to West Berlin.