Wednesday 31 December 2014

2014: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

I don't know if you noticed, but 2014 was the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. I know, you'd have thought some theatre or other would have at least mentioned it. So yes, there was one big overarching theme to a lot of this year's theatre, some productions coming up with moving and fresh reactions to the centenary, others treading familiar old ground. But as with any year you never can tell what unexpected subject matters will crop up to make for the best or worst shows, and as usual I'll be listing my 10 favourite and 5 least favourite theatrical experiences this year - including what follows 2013's Jumpers for Goalposts as my Show of the Year, and Barking In Essex as the worst of the worst. But before we get to that, I'm going to babble on about what's caught my eye this year. Don't worry, there'll be pretty pictures to keep you from falling asleep.

Monday 29 December 2014

Theatre review: Treasure Island (National Theatre)

The National Theatre goes back to the classics for this year's big family show, with a new version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Orphaned Jim Hawkins (Patsy Ferran) and her Grandma (Gillian Hanna) run an inn whose only regular customer is Bill Bones (Aidan Kelly,) an ex-pirate raving about his fear of a one-legged man. When Bones is killed with all his bills still unpaid, they take their payment from his chest, where they also find a treasure map. The excitable Squire Trelawney (Nick Fletcher) finds out about Treasure Island and is soon leading Jim and Dr Livesey (Helena Lymbery) to Bristol to find a ship and crew to take them there. Jim remains wary of the one-legged man Bones warned her of, but after all many men lose a leg at sea, the mythical pirate captain couldn't possibly be her new friend, the ship's cook Long John Silver (Arthur Darvill.)

Sunday 28 December 2014

Theatre review: Almost, Maine

Earlier this year we saw Our Town arrive in North London, a rare visitor to these shores but one of the most performed plays in America. It seems in the last decade it's acquired a new rival though, John Cariani's Almost, Maine having apparently already notched up over two thousand productions in the US despite only premiering in 2005. I can see how it would be popular for local and amateur companies - it's another slice of small-town Americana with a large collection of characters, although as the majority of scenes are two-handers Simon Evans' UK premiere production can manage with just three male and three female actors playing all the roles. A portmanteau rom-com along the lines of something like Love, Actually, Almost, Maine takes place in a cold winter in the titular Northern Maine town - although as its name suggests it's almost-but-not-quite a town, a vaguely-connected community that's never quite got its act together enough to formalise its borders.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Theatre review: City of Angels

I saw City of Angels in its Edinburgh Fringe premiere in, I think, 1996; all I really remember is being underwhelmed by a show that had been a modest Broadway hit but didn't last long in the West End. Josie Rourke now chooses it as her first musical since taking over the Donmar (and hikes ticket prices accordingly.) With book by Larry Gelbart, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by David Zippel, it's the story of Stine (Hadley Fraser,) a writer of pulp detective novels, but with a hint of social commentary that's earned him a reputation as something of a literary author. He's now made the move to Hollywood, and having sold the rights to big-shot producer Buddy Fidler (Peter Polycarpou) he's now adapting his first novel into a screenplay. As he writes, we see his story come to life as his gumshoe Stone (Tam Mutu) takes on a dangerous case.

Monday 22 December 2014

Theatre review: Tiger Country

There's something of a mini-trend at the moment, of productions from about four years ago returning. At Hampstead there's Nina Raine's Tiger Country, which she once again directs on a wide traverse stage designed by Lizzie Clachan. A hospital drama with more than a little touch of the soap opera about it, it does in fact rise above what look like fairly generic beginnings. Young doctor Emily (Ruth Everett) transfers from Brighton to the Casualty department of a London hospital where her boyfriend James (Luke Thompson) also works - although he doesn't seem too keen on everyone knowing they have more than a working relationship. Emily is still heavily emotionally invested in her patients, in apparent contrast to Vashti (Indira Varma,) a surgeon whose colleagues joke has buried all trace of a personal life to help her progress in her job. But when her aunt (Souad Faress) is admitted to the hospital, Vashti finds it harder to maintain her stiff upper lip.

Sunday 21 December 2014

Re-review: The Knight of the Burning Pestle

Although the launch season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse only ran for a few months, it already provided a hit they deemed worthy of revival, and I was excited to see that the show in question was Adele Thomas' production of The Knight of the Burning Pestle. You can read my original review here, from which you can probably tell I was glad of the chance to revisit it, and most of the original cast have returned with it. New additions are Paul Brendan as the giant, Louise Ford as Luce, and Jolyon Coy as Jasper (sporting what I think may be his actual hair colour, a rare occasion indeed!) Aside from a couple of new faces and the addition of a few Christmassy touches, the major obvious change from earlier this year is that one of the short interludes has been cut, leaving just one in the first half and one in the second; a good choice, as the only major fault with the show remains that it's too long, and already has too many pauses for a musical number.

Saturday 20 December 2014

Theatre review: The Shoemaker's Holiday

The latest former RSC regular making a return to Stratford-upon-Avon is David Troughton, in the title role of Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday. But while there's a starring role for him, this comedy with occasional lurches into darkness is quite an ensemble piece. It starts with a serous premise: The King is going to war with the French (possibly Henry V at Agincourt although the play never makes it explicit) and many men are being conscripted. Apprentice Shoemaker Ralph (Daniel Boyd) has recently got married, and doesn't want to leave his new wife Jane (Hedydd Dylan) alone. He begs to be excused, but Rowland Lacy (Josh O'Connor) refuses to make an exception, and packs Ralph off to war. Lacy, though, has his own love in London, Rose (Thomasin Rand,) daughter of the Lord Mayor (William Gaminara.) Because of the difference in class, neither of their families approves of the match, and think Lacy leading a charge to France will split them up.

Thursday 18 December 2014

Theatre review: Henry IV Part 2 (RSC / Barbican)

Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 2 follows straight on where Part 1 left off: King Henry's forces have beaten the rebels led by Hotspur, but the unrest hasn't died with him, and the Archibshop of York (Keith Osborn) plans to lead a fresh wave of rebellion. But unlike the battle scenes of the first play, this insurgence will be beaten down with politics, and the machinations of Prince John of Lancaster (Elliot Barnes-Worrell.) His older brother Hal (Alex Hassell,) meanwhile, is about to show his own true colours as well: Henry IV (Jasper Britton) is dying, and while Hal is still keeping up the image of the playboy prince slumming it in an Eastcheap tavern, his mind is already on what kind of king he's going to be. As for Falstaff (Antony Sher,) more civil wars on the horizon mean more opportunities to line his own pockets under the pretext of recruiting soldiers.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Theatre review: Henry IV Part 1 (RSC / Barbican)

Antony Sher takes on his new mantle as First Lady of the RSC by playing Falstaff in Shakespeare's two most acclaimed Histories, the Henry IV plays. Following on from last year's Richard II in Gregory Doran's complete History sequence, Part 1 reminds us of quite how tenuous the new King Henry's (Jasper Britton) hold on his crown is, his coronation haunted by the ghost of Alanis Morisette. And Britton continues to play him as a man with little that's royal about him, more of a politician with a touch of the warrior than a true-born king. The Percys of Northumberland helped him claim the throne, but when he offends them they mount a new rebellion. The support of the Prince of Wales will be essential to help crush it, but Hal (Alex Hassell) shuns his father's court, spending all of his time getting drunk in Eastcheap with Poins (Sam Marks) and committing petty crime with Falstaff.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Theatre review: A Christmas Carol (Old Red Lion)

Charles Dickens' novella A Christmas Carol is not only one of his best-loved stories, it's even credited with forming much of the modern idea of how Christmas should be celebrated. The story of miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Alexander McMorran,) visited on Christmas Eve by a series of ghosts who teach him how to save his soul by embracing the spirit of the season, is one most people will have come across a number of times. So Metal Rabbit's production managing to make it feel fresh and new is quite an achievement. An early indicator that this isn't your usual family fare is in the show's scheduling: Playing at the Old Red Lion after the main show Charming, a 9:30pm start time clearly isn't aimed at getting a big kiddie audience in. Instead this version reveals A Christmas Carol as an all-too-contemporary story by stripping it back to its original political message.

Theatre review: Charming - A Farcical Fairytale

With Christmas being pantomime season, there's always a couple of companies offering an alternative twist on the traditional fairytale, and at the Old Red Lion it's Ross Howard's Charming - A Farcical Fairytale. Four brothers are in the running to be the next King of England, and rather than age, the succession will come down to who finds a fairytale princess to marry first. Foot-fetishist Prince Charles Charming (Tom Oxenham) is touring a clog around the kingdom to find the foot he fell in love with, but Cinderella (Gemma Smith) turns out to be a bit more down-to-earth than he can handle. Rupert (Tom Everatt) has fallen for Rapunzel (Zakiyah Rawat,) but getting to the top of her tower is nothing compared to the question of whether she's old enough to have her hair climbed up. William (Alex Frisby) has bought a beautiful girl from some dwarves, but is a bit squeamish about kissing a corpse, while Simon's (Alexander Stutt) plan to rescue Sleeping Beauty is hampered by the fact that he faints at the sight of blood.

Monday 15 December 2014

Theatre review: Elephants

Another family Christmas on stage can only mean another opportunity to reevaluate your own family Christmas and decide it's not so bad after all. In Elephants we're in the comfortable depths of Middle England, where Sally (Imogen Stubbs) has gone all out to embrace the festive spirit. She and husband Richard (Richard Lintern) have invited friends Valerie (Helen Atkinson Wood) and Dick (Jonathan Guy Lewis) to spend the holiday with them, and as everyone arrives on Christmas Eve the mood is upbeat. But this is forced jollity, as the big blowout is Sally's attempt to deal with a darker fact: This is also the one-year anniversary of the brutal murder of their son Christopher (Adam Buchanan appearing in a dream sequence.) Christopher's ex-girlfriend Jenny (Antonia Thomas) has also been invited to what is planned as one last celebration of his life, but when Sally and Richard's daughter Daisy (Bel Powley) arrives, she has other ideas.

Friday 12 December 2014

Theatre review: Fear in a Handful of Dust

In what is, I think, the last of the World War I dramas I'll be seeing this year, Sevan K. Greene's Fear in a Handful of Dust takes us right down to the intimate level of two men on the front line, but has a perspective on the War that takes in the outposts of the British Empire. During a severe bout of German bombing, some trench walls fall in trapping recent arrival Simon (Jack Morris,) a private from an English regiment but who grew up in the Raj, so considers India his real home. Buck (Henry Regan,) shot in the leg, manages to clamber into the hole with Simon, but with a German sniper watching the trench, they're both stuck there for at least the night, hoping someone from their side will think to look for them in the morning. It's 1916, so the war's been on for a couple of years, and Buck has been with his Irish regiment all that time; but although he's the more experienced soldier, Simon will also be able to teach him a thing or two.

Thursday 11 December 2014

Theatre review: Golem

The follow-up to their big hit The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, 1927's Golem is based on a novel by Gustav Meyrink and follows a bullied, socially awkward young man called Robert, who finds a job manually backing up binary data where he makes similarly-geeky friends and even a possible girlfriend. One day, though, his inventor friend Philip manages to create real Golems - the mythical clay men who obey their owners' every command - and sell one to Robert. Golem not only helps with work but has handy hints for a better social life as well, but when a sinister corporation buys out Philip's company, Golem first finds the power of speech, then starts to use it to tell his owner what to do. As more people buy Golems, the slaves start to become the masters and homogenise the world in their own image.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Theatre review: Assassins

Here's one of those shows I had huge expectations of: Assassins is my favourite Sondheim, and one of my favourite musicals full stop, but the last production of it I saw was disappointing, missing, in my opinion, most of the dark humour that gives the piece its real genius. So I was really hoping for a more successful production from Jamie Lloyd at the Menier Chocolate Factory, especially as he's assembled such an impressive cast to play nine of the people who've attempted, four of them successfully, to assassinate US Presidents. Soutra Gilmour has taken the musical's setting at a shooting gallery to give us a whole Dustbowl carnival in a traverse staging, with the seating reupholstered in lots of different colours, the words "HIT" or "MISS" lighting up after every attempt, and a bumper car in which Jamie Parker's Balladeer sits, which will eventually stand in for JFK's open-topped limo.

Monday 8 December 2014

Theatre review: Hope

The Royal Court's Christmas shows tend not to be like other theatres' Christmas shows, and while for the second year running the creative team is writer Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany, this year's offering makes vampires seem positively festive in comparison. Hope follows the year 2014 in the life of the Labour council of an unnamed, working class town (everyone in the cast keeps their own accent, so it could be pretty much anywhere.) The actual business of running the town doesn't get a look-in though, as the Government's austerity measures have seen their budget slashed by £22 million a year, and everyone's primary concern is to determine which essential services have to be cut. Thorne's play identifies Government policy as a cynically genius plan: Slash budgets from the top but leave the details, and all the resulting ill-feeling, to the local, opposition councils.

Saturday 6 December 2014

Theatre review: The Christmas Truce

The RSC's winter season contributing to the World War I centenary even takes in the family Christmas show; and where Love's Labour's Lost and Won take us either side of the war, Phil Porter's The Christmas Truce puts us in the thick of it. Part of the inspiration was a local Stratford celebrity other than the usual one: Bruce Bairnsfather was an electrician who helped set up the electrics of the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and lit some early productions. But once war broke out he became famous for a different talent, as the comic cartoons he submitted to magazines became hugely popular. He was considered such a morale-booster that once injured he wasn't allowed to return to the front, so he could keep the nation's spirits up writing full-time. But before that he was also present at an event at Christmas 1914 that would become legendary.

Friday 5 December 2014

Theatre review: Dick Whittington and his Cat (Lyric Hammersmith)

Writer Tom Wells and director Dan Herd return for a second year as the creatives behind the Lyric Hammersmith pantomime, and this time Wells brings along his regular collaborator Andy Rush to play the leading man in Dick Whittington and his Cat. Of course, this isn't the first time this year we've seen Andy Rush's Dick, but this version is the country boy - or, this being the Tom Wells take on the story, he's from Hull and comes complete with flat-cap - who travels to London to seek his fortune. With help from a trainee fairy called Bauble (Rebecca Craven) he finds his sidekick, a belligerent Cat (Delroy Atkinson) who's lost his meow. On arriving in London they quickly make an enemy of the evil mayor, Queen Rat (Tiffany Graves,) whose plans to give rats the vote will see her running the city forever. With a quick detour to the North Pole to fight a Yeti and get Cat's meow back, they hatch a plot to help love interest Sooz (Aretha Ayeh) beat Queen Rat in the upcoming election.

Thursday 4 December 2014

Theatre review: 3 Winters

As we reach Nicholas Hytner's final months running the National, a number of the most successful creatives from the last few years of his reign feature heavily. Howard Davies has been most closely associated with directing Russian classics on the Lyttelton stage, and though his latest production is a new Croatian play, it feels very much part of this ongoing series. In part it comes down to the set, this time provided by Tim Hatley: These shows have been noted for their audacious scene changes, and they're not only present and correct but a vital component of Tena Štivičić’s 3 Winters. This is because the winters in the story occur decades apart in the same house, and to the same family. In 1945, as the Communists take over, they evict the old royalist families. Rose (Jo Herbert,) her husband Alexander (Alex Price in 1945, James Laurenson in 1990) and their baby daughter Masha are allocated a large room in the mansion where Rose's mother Monika (Josie Walker) was once a servant.

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Theatre review: Usagi Yojimbo

Southwark Playhouse, who like to find something a bit different for their Christmas family show than the usual panto fare, are this year attempting to put manga on stage. Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo has been a hit comic for thirty years, following the adventures of the titular samurai rabbit. Stewart Melton's adaptation takes its story from the earlier books in the series, so we first meet Myamoto Usagi (Jonathan Raggett) playing at swordfighting with his friends. But as he can't stay away from his late father's swords, his mother (Amy Ip) decides it's time for him to begin training for real. He and his best friend set out on a journey over the mountains, but while Kenichi (Siu Hun Li) goes on to the nearest school as planned, when Usagi meets the elderly samurai lion Katsuichi (Dai Tabuchi) he thinks he's found his sensei, and begs to be accepted as his student.

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Theatre review: Silent Planet

Instead of facing imprisonment, many dissidents in Soviet Russia were given false diagnoses of mental illness, and packed off to insane asylums. It's a subject Tom Stoppard dealt with in epic fashion in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, but Eve Leigh has a much more intimate take on the subject in her new play Silent Planet. A metal grill raised on breeze blocks forms the thrust stage at the Finborough for Tom Mansfield's production, where Gavrill (Graeme McKnight) has to attend regular sessions with his psychiatrist, Yurchak (Matthew Thomas.) Of course, Gavrill is there because of his anti-Soviet writing, and has a number of former associates who are still at large, so these therapy sessions look suspiciously like interrogations, and in between them there's every chance he'll be given some kind of radical treatment that looks just as suspiciously like torture.

Monday 1 December 2014

Theatre review: Obama-ology

You got an ology? You're a scientist!

I don't know if it's very good or very bad timing that Aurin Squire's play Obama-ology makes its UK debut just as Obama's presidency looks likely to end on a whimper; probably the former, as the frustrating difficulty of making real change is one of the major themes of a story that takes place during his first presidential election campaign. Warren (Edward Dede) is a black, gay, Buddhist university graduate who joins the campaign's New York headquarters but is quickly shipped off to a strategically important, but difficult voting ward: East Cleveland could be a major part of winning the crucial Ohio vote. An almost exclusively poor black neighbourhood, it ought to be an easy sell, but many residents aren't registered to vote at all, and those that are still view Obama with suspicion, as a white man in black man's clothing.