Tuesday 31 March 2015

Theatre review: The Three Lions

When England made an unsuccessful bid to host the 2018 World Cup it was represented by three famous faces: Football kicker and underpant wearer David Beckham, trainee king Prince William, and reptilian demon overlord David Cameron. Actor and playwright William Gaminara saw this unlikely mix of personalities as a classic comic setup, hence The Three Lions, which sees them having to spend a lot of time together in small hotel suites. A double-booking means Cameron (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) is stuck without a room and already grumpy when he arrives in Beckham's (Séan Browne) suite to discuss with him and William (Tom Davey) who will meet with which FIFA official before the vote, and what incentives (which are definitely not the same thing as bribes) they should offer them. Meanwhile Cameron's downtrodden intern Penny (Antonia Kinlay) and a rabidly Anglophile hotel employee (Ravi Aujla) are at their beck* and call.

Monday 30 March 2015

Theatre review: Trainspotting

Before Trainspotting was a film that launched half a dozen careers, there was a stage adaptation by Harry Gibson. This is the version now given an immersive revival at the King's Head, to commemorate 21 years since the publication of Irvine Welsh's original novel. Much of the bench seating has been removed in Sandy Hale's set design, which crams the audience around the action for Greg Esplin and Adam Spreadbury-Maher's production. Renton (Gavin Ross) narrates the story of his life as a heroin addict in late '80s-early '90s Edinburgh, surrounded by friends who are mostly fellow junkies or, if they're not, are somehow even more fucked up, like the psychotically violent Begbie (Chris Dennis.) If you're somehow unfamiliar with Trainspotting, you might have missed the fact that it's a black comedy, an element that's much in evidence in the play's early scenes, but which gradually subsides as the consequences of addiction become impossible to ignore any longer.

Friday 27 March 2015

Theatre review: The Royale

Inspired by the real story of Jack Johnson, Marco Ramirez' The Royale is a fictionalised version of the early days of black boxers entering the mainstream in a still-segregated America. It's 1905, and Jay "The Sport" Jackson (Nicholas Pinnock) has been rising through the ranks to become Negro Heavyweight Champion and is hugely popular, selling out larger and larger venues. The real goal, though, is to be Champion, not of the Black World or the White World, but of the World; and for that he needs the white, reigning heavyweight champion to come out of retirement. It's a challenge nobody expects him to accept but Jay's promoter Max (Ewan Stewart) manages to arrange the match. So we follow Jay as he trains for his historic fight, but to let him concentrate Max and his trainer Wynton (Clint Dyer) are shielding him from some of the consequences his challenge is having in the world outside the ring.

Thursday 26 March 2015

Theatre review: Rules for Living

For the final production in Nicholas Hytner's 12 years in charge of the National Theatre, he brings out one of the star directors of his tenure, Marianne Elliott. But in a final season that has brought big-name actors and writers back to the South Bank, it seems a bit surprising that his swansong would be a family comedy - set at Christmas, but premiering in March - by a less well known playwright, in the smallest of the permanent theatres. All becomes clear though on watching Sam Holcroft's high-concept comedy Rules for Living: Hytner wanted to go out with a party. The unseasonal setting isn't distracting as Christmas is just the easiest excuse to bring a family together: Matthew (Miles Jupp) brings his girlfriend Carrie (Maggie Service) to stay at his parents' home for the first time, where they'll be joined by his brother Adam (Stephen Mangan) and his wife Sheena (Claudie Blakley.) Before lunch they'll play an unnecessarily complicated board game, as is the family tradition.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Theatre review: The Broken Heart

I'd struggle to explain the plot of The Broken Heart; then again I suspect John Ford would have trouble getting his head round it as well, and he wrote it. The final installment in this year's main Swanamaker season (the Young Players show is still to come,) it sees Orgilus (Brian Ferguson) and Penthea (Amy Morgan) contracted to be married, but when her father dies Penthea's brother Ithocles (Luke Thompson) forces her to marry the much older Bassanes (Owen Teale) instead. Penthea eventually forgives her brother for denying her her true love, but Orgilus never does, and even as they get caught up in numerous other intrigues around the court, nurses a grudge that will end in bloody revenge. Bassanes instantly becomes paranoid about his young bride's faithfulness, and his main fear is that she'll have an incestuous affair with her own brother, because presumably he knows he's in a John Ford play but isn't sure which one.

Monday 23 March 2015

Non-review: Stevie

I can't really review Stevie at the Hampstead Theatre because I only saw the first act. My vague resolution not to book for shows that don't look like my kind of thing hasn't gone so well, but I can at least give a supplementary resolution a go: Not to be afraid to cut my losses, and leave at the interval when a show really isn't doing anything for me. So it was with Hugh Whitemore's play about the poet Stevie Smith (Zoë Wanamaker,) whom we find living in suburban London with her elderly Aunt (Lynda Baron.) As they go through an evening's little domestic rituals - preparing the dinner, having a glass of sherry as a treat - Stevie recounts her life story, starting with the move from Hull to London at the turn of the 20th century, when she was still a toddler.

Saturday 21 March 2015

Theatre review: A Breakfast of Eels

I don't think I can be blamed for approaching Robert Holman's plays with a little trepidation. It's not the fact that they're largely impenetrable; but while his thoughtful poetic works can sometimes be moving there's always the risk that, like Making Noise Quietly, they'll tip over into the downright boring. Fortunately his latest work falls into the former category and is, for my money*, the most entertaining of his plays I've seen. Holman's written A Breakfast of Eels specifically for its two stars, and it's the second role he's tailor-made for Andrew Sheridan (the role of Jonah in Jonah and Otto, which Alex Waldmann recently played in the revival, was the first.) Sheridan has an older-than-his-years quality - I've always thought his face looks like it belongs in the 1940s - while Matthew Tennyson, whom Holman wanted to work with again after Making Noise Quietly, has the disconcerting quality of seeming like an overgrown child, to the point of playing Puck as a creepy toddler a couple of years ago.

Friday 20 March 2015

Theatre review: Frozen

Bryony Lavery is a writer whose name is attached to a lot of work, but it's often the text for a high-concept production like the immersive Kursk, where the script isn't necessarily the star. When the staging lacks something - as with the disappointing Treasure Island - I haven't seen her writing rise above it. So I was interested to see what is presumably one of the plays that made her name, 2002's Frozen, inspired by the surviving relatives of Fred West's victims. Nancy (Sally Grey) is a mother whose youngest daughter Rhona disappeared at the age of 10, but her faith that she's still alive keeps her going, even leading her to start a charity searching for missing children. Her hopes are finally dashed when serial killer Ralph (Mark Rose) is caught, and Rhona is revealed to have been one of his victims. Nancy's energies now go into wishing she could confront him and take revenge.

Thursday 19 March 2015

Theatre review: Radiant Vermin

Philip Ridley's latest play brings together plenty of people who've worked with the playwright before: Sean Michael Verey starred in Moonfleece, Amanda Daniels was in Shivered, and most recently Gemma Whelan soloed Dark Vanilla Jungle. Director David Mercatali, meanwhile, is one of Ridley's most regular collaborators. They come together for a play that, in its use of language and twisted fairytale, is unmistakeably Ridley's, but stylistically feels like a departure: Radiant Vermin has the stripped-down theatricality of Tender Napalm, but with a frantic vaudeville comedy style. This is why I think the use of actors he'd worked with before was significant - I don't think Ridley could have written the play quite like this if he didn't know he had actors who could handle it, particularly Whelan and Verey who have to carry most of the show like the world's most sinister comedy double act.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Theatre review: Shrapnel - 34 Fragments of a Massacre

Anders Lustgarten can be something of a blunt instrument as a writer, a political playwright whose work is fuelled by anger - sometimes to its advantage, other times to its detriment. There's a slightly different approach in his latest play, though: The anger is still there in Shrapnel - 34 Fragments of a Massacre, but instead of something fiery he lets it seethe, as he observes from a distance the different situations and interests that conspired to cause the 2011 Roboski Massacre in Turkey. A group of Kurdish men, mostly teenagers, regularly smuggled diesel near the Syrian border. Despite knowing that such smuggling missions were common, the Turkish army seemingly mistook them for a terrorist cell on the move, and authorised a US missile drone to open fire and effectively vaporise them.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Theatre review: The Cutting of the Cloth

After a couple of explosive shows to open the year, things get very low-key in Southwark Playhouse's Large space with the posthumous premiere of Michael Hastings' The Cutting of the Cloth. The setting is the basement workshop of a Savile Row tailor's in 1953, where Spijak (Andy de la Tour) and his daughter and "kipper" - a tailor's female assistant - Sydie (Alexis Caley) make a suit or two a week, lovingly hand-stitching all but a single seam. He prides himself on the quality of his work, but Eric (Paul Rider) and his kipper Iris (Abigail Thaw) machine-sew everything, making twice as many suits and taking home twice as big a paycheck. The two men have a family history, and they take out their personal frustrations with each other by having regular arguments over their very different ways of working.

Monday 16 March 2015

Theatre review: Deposit

March seems to be the month for plays about the frighteningly spiraling cost of property, with a number of playwrights imagining young couples signing up for bizarre, twisted conditions in return for a place to live. If Mike Bartlett's Game was a Big Brother nightmare though, Matt Hartley's Deposit feels grimly plausible. Ben (Ben Addis) and Rachel (Akiya Henry) know that paying inflated rent even on a tiny flat will mean they'll never raise the deposit for their own place. If they could find a way to halve the rent though, they could scrimp and save and have something to show for it at the end of a year. So they move into a one-bedroom studio with Rachel's old university roommate: They'll take the bedroom and Melanie (Laura Morgan) and boyfriend Sam (Jack Monaghan, so handsome our Earth instruments are unable to measure it,) will take the sofabed, and a makeshift screen will be their only hint of privacy.

Sunday 15 March 2015

Theatre review: Buyer & Cellar

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The Menier isn't inviting the critics in until Thursday; Stephen Brackett's production has previously played in the US.

In a rather awkward little prologue, Jonathan Tolins' Buyer & Cellar assures us that, should any notoriously litigious superstars be listening, the story is a complete fabrication. But it's inspired by a bizarre truth found in a coffee-table book Barbra Streisand published in 2010, effectively an ode to her own good taste in home furnishings. Among the many photos and informative paragraphs, is the fact that she's bought so much stuff over the years that she built a fake mall in her basement to store it. Tolins imagines it might be a lonely place to wander through on her own, and so comes up with Alex (Michael Urie.) Having been fired from Disneyland for threatening a child with a churro, the out-of-work actor is in need of a new job, and his experience of working in a demented kingdom of make-believe makes him ideal for what Streisand's housekeeper has in mind.

Saturday 14 March 2015

Theatre review: Closer

It's a busy year for Patrick Marber - he's got two shows coming up at the National, not to mention constantly turning up on celebrity editions of Only Connect, despite appearing to have no idea how the game worksPUSHING THE BUZZER MEANS YOU HAVE TO ANSWER THE QUESTION, IT DOESN'T GIVE YOU AN EXTRA COUPLE OF MINUTES TO CHAT ABOUT IT. You know Victoria Coren-Mitchell wouldn't stand for that shizzle if it wasn't for charity. Meanwhile, David Leveaux revives Marber's misanthropic four-piece Closer at the Donmar Warehouse. Obituary writer and failed novelist Dan (Oliver Chris) has been going out with the much younger, ex-stripper Alice (Rachel Redford) for a couple of years when he meets, and instantly falls for, photographer Anna (Nancy Carroll.) When she rejects him Dan vindictively sets her up with a horny dermatologist he finds in a sex chatroom.

Friday 13 March 2015

Theatre review: Loserville

It's barely more than two years since James Bourne and Elliot Davis' amiable teen musical Loserville took an early bath at the Garrick, and already it's back to make its fringe debut. Even with a big budget behind it the show had the feel of being cobbled together from old yoghurt pots and sticky-back-plastic - perhaps one of the qualities that baffled many of the critics and made them take so violently against it - so this lo-fi aesthetic means it translates well to a smaller scale in Michael Burgen's production at the Union. It's set in 1971 and follows the template of every American High School movie, as Michael Dork (Luke Newton) and his friend Lucas (Jordan Fox) obsess over computers, and hope to find a way to send messages between them - what will eventually be known as email. It's only when geeky girl Holly (Holly-Anne Hull) joins the school though, that they start to make real progress.

Thursday 12 March 2015

Theatre review: Antigone (Barbican / Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg / Toneelgroep Amsterdam)

Already celebrated internationally, Ivo van Hove became an instant superstar director in London as well last year, by stripping down Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge until it was exposed as a Greek tragedy. So despite Juliette Binoche in the title role, a lot of the excitement about Antigone has come from the director returning to take on an actual Greek tragedy. A civil war between Antigone and Ismene's brothers has left them both dead, and their uncle Kreon (Patrick O'Kane) King of Thebes. Having somewhat unexpectedly got this new power, Kreon is keen to appear strong from the off, and decrees that while Eteokles, the brother who fought on his side, will have the traditional funeral rites, the rebel Polyneikes' body will be denied burial or mourning. This goes against every tenet of the gods, and while Ismene (Kirsty Bushell) and the townspeople are cowed by Kreon into following his demands, Antigone determines to bury her brother.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Theatre review: Lardo

London's fringe theatres seem to have an unofficial, ongoing competition to see who can put the most ambitious set design into a small room above a pub. The Old Red Lion's latest attempt sees designer Max Dorey squeeze in a wrestling ring for Mike Stone's debut play Lardo. His father died in a wrestling ring when he was young but that hasn't put Lardo (Daniel Buckley) off from trying to follow in his footsteps. The scripted, OTT wrestling of the 1970s is making a comeback in Glasgow thanks to a just-about-legal club called Tartan Wrestling Madness, and Lardo wants in. He gets his girlfriend Kelly (Laura Darrall) to film him for YouTube videos challenging the reigning champion Wee Man (Stuart Ryan.) But becoming a local hero is only the start of his problems, as ruthless promoter Stairs (Nick Karimi) is determined to get some real violence into the matches to keep the punters interested.

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Theatre review: peddling

Following successful runs at the HighTide Festival and off-Broadway last year, Harry Melling brings his playwrighting debut to London for a run at the Arcola's basement space. In the monologue peddling, Melling plays a nameless, homeless teenager caught up in a gang of pedlars: A sinister Fagin-like boss puts a bunch of boys onto a bus into London every evening, pretending to be part of a scheme for young offenders, and knocking on doors to try and sell cleaning cloths and toothbrushes, "life's essentials." The boss demands plenty of sales so he can get his cut, but the locals have cottoned on that it's a scam, and our narrator has a pretty fruitless night. His worries about disappointing the boss are forgotten though, when a familiar face appears behind one of the doors - but she doesn't recognise him.

Monday 9 March 2015

Theatre review: Chicken Dust

The conditions in which animals meant for cheap food are raised are something we probably wouldn't want to think about too much; but Ben Weatherill's play Chicken Dust isn't so much about the birds themselves, as about how the lives of the people who work there aren't much more fun than those of the doomed chickens. A student who's had to grab the first job going when his father gets ill, Tim (Christopher Hancock) arrives at a Leicestershire farm that's been taken over by a large corporation. Chicks that have been hatched elsewhere are transported there to be raised and fattened up in a barn, and when they're ready for slaughter it's his job to catch them. He joins a team two of whom, Freddie (Roger Alborough) and Val (Paddy Navin) had their own farms before falling on hard times and having to sell out to the same sort of company that now pays them minimum wage.

Sunday 8 March 2015

Theatre review: The Armour

Last year a trio of Tennessee Williams Hotel Plays was staged at the Langham, a luxury hotel just off Oxford Circus. 2015 is the hotel's 150-year anniversary, and after the success of last year's show, they commissioned the theatre company Defibrillator to return and commemorate it, but this time with a piece written specifically for this space. After running a competition to find a suitable play, the company settled on a pitch by Australian playwright Ben Ellis, which would look back at certain events that are unique to the Langham's history. The result is The Armour, a three-act-play which like the Williams shorts takes audiences around the building at half-hour intervals, moving upwards through the hotel's floors, while moving backwards through its history. So we begin in the present day, in one of the private basement bars where pop star Jade (Hannah Spearmint From Off Of S Club) has locked herself away when she's meant to be performing an arena gig.

Saturday 7 March 2015

Theatre review: The Rise and Shine of Comrade Fiasco

Set in 1986, in a Zimbabwe still finding its post-independence feet, Andrew Whaley's The Rise and Shine of Comrade Fiasco is set in a police station cell in the middle of the night. Getting aggressive with the police has landed Chidhina (Kurt Egyiawan,) Jungle (Gary Beadle) and Febi (Joan Iyiola) in here, and they're bickering their way through the night when a fourth prisoner materialises, seemingly out of nowhere. Ragged, wrapped in a tattered blanket and looking confused and afraid, he initially doesn't speak but it eventually comes out that Comrade Fiasco (Abdul Salis) was a freedom-fighter in the late 1970s. Hiding in a mountain cave for safety, he ended up losing track of time and only being discovered eight years later. By the time he rejoined the world the independence he was fighting for had been achieved, and the Zimbabwe he now sees isn't the one he knew.

Friday 6 March 2015

Theatre review: Harajuku Girls

Irish-Japanese playwright Francis Turnly tackles one of the less salubrious stereotypes about Japan in Harajuku Girls. Tokyo teenager Mari (Haruka Abe) is about to finish high school, and hopes to go to the national theatre school in the new term. As she waits for her results she spends her free time in her favourite way: Dressing up in Sailor Moon cosplay and going to Jingu Bridge in the Harajuku district, where tourists take photos of the girls in costumes. When her father forbids her from going on her drama course and demands she find an office job, Mari decides to fund it herself, and her hobby could turn into a money-spinner: She follows her best friend Keiko (Elizabeth Tan) to an "image club," a quasi-brothel where girls dress as cops, schoolgirls and anime characters, renting out their time to middle-aged salarymen who want to act out their fantasies.

Thursday 5 March 2015

Theatre review: Game

Ever since Cock, Mike Bartlett has been writing plays based around a very specific set design, often putting his central characters under vicious attack. After that first cockfight, and the recent bullfight, he now puts a young couple in the middle of a real-life shoot-'em-up video game. The first of a number of plays coming up that look at the spiralling cost of housing, Game sees Ashley (Mike Noble) and Carly (Jodie McNee) move into a luxury two-storey apartment for free. Of course, there's a catch: Like the Big Brother house, Ashley and Carly's new home is under 24-hour camera surveillance, and every wall is a two-way mirror behind which visitors can watch them. But simply watching isn't the main attraction - paying customers are there to play a kind of human safari. At any time of day, an unseen stranger might shoot one of them with a tranquilliser dart. And this isn't a TV set but the home where the couple plan to live and raise a family for several years.

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Theatre review: Man and Superman

Simon Godwin seems to be the director the National Theatre immediately thinks of when there's a very long play to be staged at the Lyttelton - a couple of years ago he took on Strange Interlude, which was pretty strange but far from a mere interlude; now it's Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, a play so hefty its third act is usually omitted entirely. Not here though, as Ralph Fiennes leads a modern-dress production that comes in at over three-and-a-half hours. Fiennes plays Jack Tanner, a radical author notoriously fond of the sound of his own voice, and particularly prone to diatribes against marriage. There's plenty of these when he and Roebuck Ramsden (Nicholas Le Prevost) are unexpectedly made joint guardians of an old friend, the heiress Ann Whitefield (Indira Varma,) and Jack has much to say against his smitten friend Octavius' (Ferdinand Kingsley) hopes to propose to her. In fact it's Jack himself Ann has her eye on, and he's willing to go a long way to avoid that.

Tuesday 3 March 2015

Re-review: A View From The Bridge

You can read my original review here, of the production that eventually made it to #2 in my best shows of 2014 - a result only unusual in that most other blogs and reviews put Ivo van Hove's production of A View From The Bridge at #1. The original cast from the Young Vic's production has come along for the West End transfer to Wyndhams, led by Mark Strong as Eddie Carbone, the Brooklyn longshoreman whose tragedy is that he never recognises his own attraction to his niece Katie (Phoebe Fox,) even as it makes him bring his life crashing down around him. The production originally played in thrust, something Jan Versweyveld's design attempts to replicate by putting two banks of seating on stage, either side of the enclosed performance area; it's a successful recreation of the design, and even from a seat much further away than last time, I didn't feel the experience was lessened - after all, the effect was always one of making us distant, helpless observers of the inevitable tragedy.

Monday 2 March 2015

Theatre review: Multitudes

Much as it suits the narratives of particular papers and politicians to pretend otherwise, British Muslims aren't a homogenous group with a single mindset but are, as the title of John Hollingworth's play has it, Multitudes, all with their own experiences and priorities. Hollingworth attempts - with variable success - to put as many of these points of view, as well as some that oppose them, into a single Bradford family. The famously multicultural city becomes the unlikely venue for the Conservative Party Conference, at the same time as military action in Syria is being mooted. A moderate Muslim and longstanding local councillor with Parliamentary ambitions, Kash (Navin Chowdhry) is due to make an optimistic speech at the conference. He's a widower with a teenage daughter, and a white girlfriend, Natalie (Clare Calbraith,) who's got a surprise in store for him.