Sunday 31 May 2015

Theatre review: Stony Broke in No Man’s Land

Many theatres took time in 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War beginning, but the Finborough's THEGREATWAR100 is an occasional series of programming due to keep returning until the centenary of its end. It means that in a few years' time we're sure to get a return of the theme as theatres mark the Armistice and the way the dead were memorialised, but the Finborough's current season steals a march on them as far as the latter subject goes: The main show took us to Australia for ANZAC Day, and the Sunday-Tuesday rep show brings us closer to home for John Burrows' Stony Broke in No Man's Land. David Brett and Gareth Williams play two old buskers who, some years after returning from the front, look back at the promises that the survivors' old jobs would be waiting for them, and the reality that saw them feel their sacrifice had been swiftly forgotten.

Theatre review: Shock Treatment

Famous flops are, of course, often revived years later to great acclaim, so that isn't what kept me away from Shock Treatment so long - especially since Julie Atherton leads the cast. But the King's Head's scheduling of the show at 10pm or midnight showings put me off until now, when the show's success has seen its run extended, and I could make a Sunday matinee performance. Richard Hartley, Richard O'Brien and Jim Sharman's sequel to The Rocky Horror Show took the opposite path to the original by being made into a film first - it was a critical and box office failure, meaning it hasn't turned up on a stage until now, with a new book by Tom Crowley. Brad (Ben Kerr) and Janet (Atherton) are now a married couple settled into small-town American anonymity, but Brad losing his job and Janet becoming the breadwinner has put a strain on their marriage.

Friday 29 May 2015

Theatre review: Sunspots

Family drama mixes with romantic comedy in the latest play Downstairs at Hampstead, and the best show in either of the venue's theatres in some time. In David Lewis' Sunspots Catholic siblings, lapsed to varying degrees, are reunited after their father's death. Clare (Clare Burt) never moved more than a few blocks away from her parents but eldest brother Joe (Robert Hands) has lived in California for the last couple of decades. Having struggled with his sexuality well into his thirties, he finally came out to his mother, but now that Olive (Gwen Taylor) has mild dementia he finds he has to come out to her again on an almost daily basis. Joe keeps muttering about returning to America, but youngest brother Tom (Laurence Mitchell) doesn't have as many options: Having lost the latest in a long line of jobs, he's had to move back in with his mother, settling into the attic room where his amateur astronomer father kept his telescope.

Thursday 28 May 2015

Theatre review: Temple

Following his Lear last year Simon Russell Beale has said he's not quite ready to find a way of topping that challenge in the classics, so this year he's appearing in two new plays instead. First up is Temple, Steve Waters' fictionalised version of the Occupy London movement in 2011, which ended up camped outside St Paul's Cathedral. Among safety fears, the Cathedral was closed - an unprecedented event in a church that stayed open throughout the Blitz, and a place of worship that predates the City of London itself. SRB plays an unnamed, fictional version of the Dean of St Paul's, on whom responsibility for every decision taken eventually falls. It's St Jude's Day - patron saint of lost causes - and after a fortnight closed to the public, the Cathedral will be reopening its doors, with the Dean himself leading the morning Eucharist.

Wednesday 27 May 2015

Theatre review: Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage

An interesting day to see Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage, as today director Max Stafford-Clark has been interviewed for an article about how, despite great reviews, his latest touring show has played to dwindling audiences, blaming arts funding cuts for the regions losing their taste for new theatre. Of course, last year's offerings from Out of Joint were This May Hurt A Bit and Pitcairn, so people may just have been wary of getting burned a third time. Robin Soans' verbatim play (with a few reconstructed scenes) about openly gay rugby player Gareth Thomas is, though, a much better proposition; and if tonight's audience at the Arcola is anything to go by, it's coming a lot closer to filling the house on this final London leg of its tour. Gay audiences will surely find a lot of interest in the story of the first major international sportsman to come out, but Thomas isn't the sole focus of Soans' play.

Monday 25 May 2015

Theatre review: As You Like It (Shakespeare's Globe)

Between Thea Sharrock's near-perfect 2009 production, two helpings of the touring version and most recently a charming visit from Georgia, As You Like It must be the play I've seen the most times at Shakespeare's Globe. All those past productions have established their own identity in my memory despite being in the same setting, but I'm skeptical that Blanche McIntyre's new production will prove quite as memorable. The big deal this time around is the casting of Shakespearean star and Globe regular, Michelle Terry in Shakespeare's biggest female role, Rosalind, daughter of a banished Duke, and herself banished when her usurping uncle takes against her on a whim. She flees to the Forest of Arden disguised as a boy, accompanied by her cousin Celia (Ellie Piercy.) There they encounter Rosalind's father (David Beames) and the exiled court who've made themselves at home there.

Sunday 24 May 2015

Theatre review: The One Day of the Year

I guess it's a big month for Australians: Last night they fulfilled their collective national ambition of competing in the Eurovision Song Contest despite the restrictions of, you know. Geography. Meanwhile the Finborough is staging Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year, evidently a frequently-revived play in Australia but not seen here since 1961. I can see why Australian theatres would be so drawn to it, as it both celebrates and criticises what it means to be Australian, by looking at its annual memorial, ANZAC Day. Now a more general tribute to those who died in wars, it gets its name from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps of the First World War, who spent nine months in Turkey on the notoriously unwinnable assault on Gallipoli; the few survivors returned to Australia national heroes.

Saturday 23 May 2015

Theatre review: McQueen

Tapping into a general fascination with the designer Alexander McQueen that's only become greater since his death in 2010, James Phillips' play McQueen doesn't offer a straightforward biography. Instead it takes inspiration from a fairytale McQueen made up - and the resulting collection themed around it - about the 600-year-old elm tree in his garden, and a princess who lived in its branches. Stephen Wight plays Lee (the designer's real name; but he couldn't be called Lee McQueen or he'd have to speak about himself in the third person. And be CONCERNED,) who is having a bad sleepless night, unable to come up with a theme for his next collection. He catches Dahlia (Dianna Agron) when she breaks into his house; she claims to have been watching the house from the tree, and to have come in, thinking Lee was out, because she wanted to steal a dress for a special occasion.

Friday 22 May 2015

Theatre review: Hamlet (Ninagawa Company)

With Billyclub Grumbleduke due to start skull-gazing at the Barbican in a couple of months' time, other London venues haven't been in any hurry to compete, so Hamlets are thin on the ground this year. One exception comes at the Barbican itself, which precedes the main event with the 80th birthday celebrations of leading Japanese Shakespeare director Yukio Ninagawa. This is a new production, but not the first time Hamlet's been tackled by Ninagawa - in fact this is his eighth, and the second one to star Tatsuya Fujiwara. The setting this time, in designs by Setsu Asakura and Tsukaka Nakagoshi, is a run-down, poor province in the 19th century, around the time the play was first taken to Japan. Behind the rickety wooden walls, King Claudius (Mikijiro Hira) enjoys the trappings of wealth and power he stole from his brother. The old king's son Hamlet suspects something, but it's only when his father's ghost appears that he finds out Claudius murdered him, and vows to plot revenge. Mainly plot it, not so much do anything about it.

Thursday 21 May 2015

Theatre review: Klippies

Continuing the unplanned "African women" theme running through London theatre this year, actress Jessica Siân takes us to South Africa for her impressive playwrighting debut, the coming-of-age story Klippies, A pair of Johannesburg teenagers, poor, white Yolandi (Samantha Colley) and rich, black Thandi (Adelayo Adedayo) are in a couple of the same classes at school, but only really speak once a week, when they both have a long wait to be picked up by their parents from the swimming pool. They slowly build up a friendship that retains a spiky, confrontational edge throughout, even though their mutual affection is real and obvious. Over a long drought season, Thandi tries to help Yolandi out of trouble at school, while Yolandi in turn helps Thandi find a more rebellious side, as they sit by the rich girl's pool smoking and drinking stolen Klipdrift "Klippies" brandy.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Theatre review: Communicating Doors

Ever since we saw the Old Vic's production of The Norman Conquests in 2008, Vanessa has been an Alan Ayckbourn fan, and as you can pretty much put money on there being at least one production of his plays a year, it's ended up reliably being my birthday present to her. But while she's continued to love the plays, for me there's been seriously diminishing returns. So maybe my expectations were low, but it turns out Communicating Doors is the Ayckbourn I've enjoyed the most since that first trip. Perhaps it's the fact that, while still recognisably Ayckbourn in many ways, the play has quite a different feel to it to the domestic comedies I've been used to in the last few years. It's a very English take on a time travel adventure as, in the year 2020, dominatrix Phoebe (Rachel Tucker) travels through a riot-torn London, past where Big Ben used to be, to meet a wealthy old client in a five-star hotel.

Tuesday 19 May 2015

Theatre review: Skin in Flames

Iconic images of conflict are a recurring subject of interest for playwrights: Both Chimerica and The Witness were built around the idea of the relationship between the subject and the person behind the camera, and so is Spanish writer Guillem Clua's Skin in Flames. The UK premiere at the Park is in an English translation by D J Sanders, but the cast of Sîlvia Ayguadé & Franko Figueiredo's production remains mostly Spanish. Two parallel storylines play out at the same time in identical rooms of a "luxury" hotel in an unnamed Third World country. Twenty years ago the country was war-torn, when war photographer Salomon (Almiro Andrade) took a picture of a seven-year-old girl being blown through the air by a bomb blast. It got the credit for drawing the world's attention to the conflict, and a fragile peace was reached. A rather dubious brand of democracy is now in place.

Monday 18 May 2015

Theatre review: The Father (Tricycle Theatre)

André (Kenneth Cranham) has lived in his Paris flat for decades, but after he's scared off a number of carers his daughter Anne (Claire Skinner) is worried he won't be able to live alone there much longer. She's planning to move to London with boyfriend Pierre (Colin Tierney,) and sending her father to a care home might be the best option. Or maybe she should move André in with them, and get a new carer, Laura (Jade Williams) to look after him during the day? In fact, maybe this has already happened? Florian Zeller's play The Father, which arrives at the Tricycle in a translation by Christopher Hampton and production by James Macdonald first seen in Bath, is a rather extraordinary look at ageing and dementia, that takes us through the story of Anne being increasingly unable to recognise the sometimes charming, sometimes cruel man her father has become. But unlike other takes on the subject, Zeller attempts to give the audience an idea of what the story seems like from inside André's head.

Saturday 16 May 2015

Theatre review: The Verb, 'To Love'

The Old Red Lion joins the ranks of pub theatres staging musicals, although The Verb, 'To Love' is more like gently dipping a toe into the water: Andy Collyer's show is almost a musical monologue, to a piano accompaniment. It charts an entire relationship from beginning to end and beyond, from the perspective of Simon (Martin Neely,) who at the beginning is in his mid-forties and coping badly with the end of a relationship that lasted over half his lifetime so far. Having been ditched for a younger man he feels like he's on the shelf until he finds a younger man of his own: Ben is, he's all too aware, young enough to be his son, but they hit it off and the relationship genuinely works - they stay together for several years, even moving towns a couple of times as Ben's career progresses.

Friday 15 May 2015

Theatre review: High Society

Kevin Spacey's final piece of programming at the Old Vic is a musical and, after his recent performance at the Olivier Awards, as a special treat he doesn't turn up on stage to sing himself. Instead, director Maria Friedman has assembled a cast many of whom were established names in straight theatre, before making inroads into musicals in recent years. Notably Kate Fleetwood, whom I'd not known as a musical actress before London Road, leading the cast of High Society as Tracy Lord. The wealthy heiress and socialite is preparing for the latest in a long line of weddings, to the humourless George (Richard Grieve.) Her resolve to settle for a safe-but-dull marriage is tested by the arrival of one of her ex-husbands: She and Dexter (Rupert Young) had a tempestuous relationship that was ended by his alcoholism. But he's on the wagon now, and the two clearly still have feelings for each other.

Thursday 14 May 2015

Theatre review: Carrie

"Plug it up! Plug it up!" I can't have been the only one hoping Carrie would have a Rocky Horror-style interactive element, with the audience throwing tampons at the stage in the opening scene? No I wasn't, shush. May seems to be the month for Southwark Playhouse to get a big hit musical on its hands, but while last year's In The Heights came from New York with Tonys attached, this year's offering has, to say the least, more of a checkered past: Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford and Lawrence D. Cohen's Carrie has gone down in history as one of the biggest-ever musical flops. Despite a Stratford-upon-Avon run plagued by cast accidents (the blood short-circuited the radio mics, electrocuting them) it went straight to Broadway. The humiliation suffered there meant the performance rights were withdrawn for decades. So this heavily rewritten version, seen off-Broadway in 2012, is the first time it's ever been seen in London.

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Theatre review: In the Dead of Night

"It breaks all the rules" is one of those clichés that crops up all the time when describing shows; it usually means "food gets thrown around in a vaguely symbolic way." At least In the Dead of Night at the Landor has made a very specific decision about which rules it's going to break: Those of the Hays Code, which censored Hollywood movies between 1930 and 1968. Since this included the heyday of film noir, writer/director Claudio Macor has tried to imagine what those movies would have been like if they'd actually been able to show the sexuality, swearing, violence and criminals getting away with it, that actually underpinned much of their source material. The result is a story set in a South American shanty town that doesn't fall under any regional jurisdiction, and as such is the ideal place for illegal bars, prostitution and drug trafficking to flourish.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Theatre review: Everyman

If the first show programmed by the new Artistic Director was anything to go by, we would have been in for a dull time at the National Theatre over the next few years, but we've got something more interesting - if eccentrically so - in the first play Rufus Norris has taken on to direct himself. It may be a new era but Norris goes right back to the beginning of extant English theatre with the mediaeval morality play Everyman, "Ev" to his friends in this new version by Carol Ann Duffy. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Ev, whom we first meet tumbling through the air to the stage in slow motion, in what could be a symbolic Fall of Man but turns out to be somewhat more prosaic: An accident after a coke-fuelled 40th birthday party. Death (Dermot Crowley) arrives to tell him his time is up, and soon Ev will need to make a reckoning with God (Kate Duchêne,) and justify the way he's lived his life.

Sunday 10 May 2015

Theatre review: Closer to Heaven

Snatching Romeo & Juliet's crown as the most nipple-thrusting show in Southwark, Closer to Heaven is the latest in the Union's attempts to turn West End flops into fringe hits. This one certainly seems to have done the trick, the Jonathan Harvey / Pet Shop Boys musical sold out long before it had even opened. Recent "Irish" arrival Straight Dave (Jared Thompson) is so called because he really is straight, but he does seem a bit insecure in his sexuality, possibly because of all those men he turns out to have slept with. He tries to suppress this side of himself in the most masculine job he can think of, as a go-go dancer in a gay club, while dating Shell (Amy Matthews) daughter of club owner Vic (Craig Berry.) Vic is variously a heavy drug user or violently opposed to them depending on the scene, which makes for a tricky relationship with resident rough trade and drug dealer Mile End Lee (Connor Brabyn - I see the project to clone Ryan Phillippe has been successful.) Straight Dave visibly drools any time he sees Lee, then is confused when people ask him if he's gay.

Saturday 9 May 2015

Theatre review: Matchbox Theatre

Last year Michael Frayn published Matchbox Theatre, a short story collection in the form of playlets, meant to be read and imagined as they might play out; apparently it was greeted with comments that the collection would inevitably be staged for real some day. Hampstead Theatre used to have a Michael Frayn Space that his name got dropped from when it was rechristened "Downstairs," so maybe they felt they owed him something - it's in their main space, in its in-the-round configuration, that Matchbox Theatre has been turned into a sketch show, directed by Hamish McColl and with Esther Coles, Tim Downie, Mark Hadfield, Felicity Montagu, Nina Wadia and Chris Larner (also serving as composer) making up the acting troupe. After a rather self-conscious introduction, we get the opening sketch in which Hadfield and Montagu rise from below the stage as the statues on a tomb, their centuries' sleep disturbed by the trendy vicar holding a disco in the church basement.

Theatre review: Deluge

Moi Tran's set for Fiona Doyle's Deluge has certainly taken the play's title literally: The traverse stage is flooded, with a raised central platform forming a kitchen area on which most of the action takes place. The front rows have been given towels because there's a lot of splashing about - I found that sitting on the left-hand audience bank from the entrance, and draping the towel over my legs and bag were enough to keep me dry, although when a chair gets chucked into the water it's every man for himself. All the water is because the play has an apocalyptic feel, with biblical levels of flooding - Ireland, where the story is set, has it pretty bad, but from what we hear America has it much worse. As more clouds gather overhead, farmer Kitty (Elaine Cassidy) is behind bars.

Friday 8 May 2015

Theatre review: Hay Fever

It was only three years ago - and in his eponymous theatre - that Hay Fever was last on St Martin's Lane, but already Noël Coward's partner-swapping comedy of manners is back. This time it's down the road at the Duke of York's, in a production that comes to London from Bath with most of its original cast, plus Edward Killingback (Yeah!) Them Motherfuckers Don't Know How To Act (Yeah!) as Sandy. It's a June weekend at the country home of the desperately affected Bliss family: David (Simon Shepherd) is a successful novelist whose work keeps them all in luxury, but the alpha personality is his wife Judith (Felicity Kendal,) a retired actress considering returning to the stage because she hasn't had quite enough letters demanding it. Everyone claims to be looking forward to a quiet weekend as they've each invited someone to the house - four new admirers the Blisses can spend the weekend toying and flirting with.

Stage-to-screen review: The Vote

The second James Graham political play to have been running in London concurrently with The Angry Brigade, tickets for The Vote at the Donmar Warehouse were allocated by ballot, so although I applied I wasn't able to see the show at the theatre. I guess that's democracy for you, Donmar members didn't get preferential treatment, and neither did critics - it's just a fortuitous coincidence that all the newspaper critics' applications successfully got them tickets for the same night. And just in time to give it a boost for its showing on More4 on election night! That was the alternative option for those of us who didn't get to see the starry cast in the flesh, a live broadcast at the exact time that the show is set: 8:30 to 10pm, the final 90 minutes of voting in a Lambeth polling station. It's a marginal seat and, with the election looking like a closer-run thing than it actually turned out to be, every vote could be crucial.

Thursday 7 May 2015

Theatre review: The Angry Brigade

Although a new James Graham play is always worth a look, when The Angry Brigade premiered last year I decided against going all the way to Watford for it, taking the gamble that it would probably make it to London sooner or later. And so it has, playing a season at the Bush during the election, which feels appropriate: Even though it takes its story from 1971 and only tangentially features any politicians, the Britain the titular organisation live in has a lot in common with 2015. The Angry Brigade feels almost like two different plays: In the first act, we meet a specially-assembled police investigation team, led by the newly-promoted Smith (Mark Arends,) who's been given the task of finding a terrorist organisation who've sent threatening letters against the pillars of traditional society. A couple of their explosive devices have also been discovered, and it's only a matter of time before one of them goes off.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Theatre review: Eclipsed

The second show in London this year to deal with girl soldiers in Liberia's succession of civil wars, Danai Gurira's Eclipsed is the more powerful piece in the way it brings a brutal conflict to a domestic level. While horrors keeps going on outside daily, a fragile, compromised kind of domesticity exists in quarters of a rebel compound, where the warlord's wives live in a strict hierarchy based on the order in which they arrived. The Girl (Letitia Wright) has been hidden away by Helena, aka Wife #1 (Michelle Asante,) but she's soon discovered and enlisted as Wife #4, to be used for sex by the C.O. as he pleases - although at least that means she isn't readily available to the whole camp. While Wife #3, the pregnant Bessie (Joan Iyiola,) is worried that the C.O. no longer wants to have sex with her as often as he used to, however much she adapts to their domestic setup, the Girl can't get used to that.

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Theatre review: Product

Leah (Future Dame Olivia Poulet) is a mid-ranking Hollywood executive who thinks she's found the script to take her to the big leagues, in Mark Ravenhill's 2005 monologue Product. With the right leading lady in place she might be able to get it green-lit, and she's managed to get a meeting with a big enough name. The whole 50-minute show is Leah's pitch to the actress, as she talks her through what she believes will be a bold and moving epic: Mohammed and Me, the story of a 9/11 widow who falls in love with a suicide bomber. Product is a pretty straightforward play, a satire on how Hollywood latches onto tragedy in the most crass possible way, as well as of stereotyped Western attitudes to Islam. The tasteless movie being pitched is clearly ridiculous but feels just on the edge of something that might actually have got made.

Monday 4 May 2015

Theatre review: A New Play for the General Election

Often when a new play is announced before its contents are finalised - such as the work of Mike Leigh and Anthony Neilson who write their scripts during rehearsal - it remains untitled until just before it opens. They do tend to get a title eventually though, but A New Play for the General Election at the Finborough has remained simply a new play,* which makes me think they're not that concerned that anyone might ever want to revive it. In addition, it was originally announced as being written by Chris Dunkley, but somewhere along the way director Chris New also got bumped up to deviser and author of the piece. So all the signs point to this not being as smooth a creative process as might have been hoped, but great things can come from adversity so no need to dismiss it out of hand. I don't know if they had too much adversity or not enough, but great things have not materialised.

Sunday 3 May 2015

Theatre review: The Merchant of Venice (Shakespeare's Globe)

My second (though not my last) Merchant of Venice of 2015 is one of the tent poles of the "Justice and Mercy" theme in this year's Globe season. Already deep into debt, Bassanio (Daniel Lapaine) believes marrying a wealthy heiress - who also happens to love him - will solve all his money problems. But in order to get to Portia (Rachel Pickup) and the eccentric conditions under which she has to choose a husband, he needs another loan. His merchant friend Antonio (Dominic Mafham,) confident of his investments paying out soon, is willing to secure the loan from Jewish moneylender Shylock (Jonathan Pryce.) But while Venetian society as a whole is openly prejudiced against the Jews who keeps its business running, Shylock has always found Antonio's behaviour particularly egregious. As a gesture of his power over him, he gets the merchant to sign a clause allowing him to cut a pound of flesh from his body if he defaults on payment.

Saturday 2 May 2015

Theatre review: Love's Sacrifice

The more obscure of this summer's Swan shows have been chosen in part as a reflection of one of the main RST Shakespeares. John Ford's Love's Sacrifice, which is meant to mirror Othello, really is an obscurity: No definite record seems to exist of it ever having been revived after its 1632 premiere, until now. Matthew Needham returns to the RSC and, with no Roman Emperors available in this year's rep, has to make do with the brattish Duke of Pavy, newly ascended to power and just married to Bianca (inter-species space lesbian Catrin Stewart,) a commoner whose beauty alone he fell for. The closest thing to an Iago figure is D'Avolos (Jonathan McGuinness,) the Duke's vaguely disgruntled secretary, who plans to tell his master that Bianca is cheating on him with his best friend. Where Love's Sacrifice differs from Othello is that - thanks in part, admittedly, to D'Avolos' interference - Bianca and Fernando (Jamie Thomas King) really have fallen in love.

Friday 1 May 2015

Theatre review: Romeo & Juliet (Shakespeare's Globe & tour)

My first trip to the Globe's Summer 2015 season coincides with the surprise announcement of Emma Rice as its next Artistic Director. It'll be interesting to see if she continues what has become one of the trademarks of the Dominic Dromgoole era: The "tiny" touring productions of some of Shakespeare's most popular plays, that see a handful of actor-musicians play all the roles. Last year's great Much Ado About Nothing is due back in a couple of months' time, but first the new production, and as comedy and tragedy alternate on these tours, it's the turn of Romeo & Juliet. Dromgoole and Tim Hoare direct a cast of eight actors plus two musician/stage hands, and the usual rustic look (designs by Andrew D Edwards) has a suitably Italian flavour in this story of fair Verona, where for generations the Montague and Capulet families have been at each other's throats, the original cause forgotten. A friar sees a way to end the feud - he succeeds, but not in the way he'd envisaged.