Monday 29 June 2015

Theatre review: Luna Gale

An uneven play but one with a lot of positives at Hampstead Theatre, where Michael Attenborough directs Rebecca Gilman's drama Luna Gale. Caroline (Sharon Small) is a social worker in an Iowa district still recovering from a scandal in which her former boss managed to lose the records of dozens of at-risk children. Caroline herself was not implicated, but it has meant her department now has to pass all decisions by state-appointed supervisor Cliff (Ed Hughes.) It means her decades' worth of experience is still being questioned when she deals with the case of Luna, the baby of teenage parents who recently and unexpectedly developed a meth habit. While Karlie (Rachel Redford) and Peter (Alexander Arnold) undergo counselling and wait for a rehab slot to become available, Luna is to be cared for by her grandmother Cindy (Caroline Faber.)

Sunday 28 June 2015

Theatre review: Alpha Beta

Ted Whitehead’s 1972 play Alpha Beta is a forgotten piece of kitchen sink drama getting a taste of a much more modern immersive style at the Finborough. Before the space above a pub was a theatre it was a family living room, and that's what Verity Quinn's design reverts it to for Purni Morell's production: The window shutters and usual seating banks are gone, with the audience invited to sit all around the room, as well as on some of the couches and dining table chairs, putting us uncomfortably in the middle of a disintegrating marriage. As we enter the scene is obviously present-day, with scented candles on the table and a CD player on the bookcase, the radio playing today's news as Norma (Tracy Ifeachor) paints the walls white. It's a happy atmosphere as she gets on with her work in peace, but as the play begins and her husband Frank (Christian Roe) returns, things get icier even if she doesn't realise it at first. It's the eve of Frank's 29th birthday and he's ready to share some of his thoughts about morality as he sees it, and the marriage he feels stuck in.

Thursday 25 June 2015

Re-review: Constellations

Having conquered the Royal Court, the West End and most recently Broadway, Nick Payne's Constellations returns to the UK for a regional tour; in the last few days it's been announced it'll also make another trip to the West End, ending this tour at Trafalgar Studios, but I'd already got a ticket to see it on its stop at Richmond. This is still Michael Longhurst's production on Tom Scutt's balloon-filled set, with Joe Armstrong and Louise Brealey taking over the roles of Roland and Marianne who meet, fall in love, break up, get back together, and get married. Or just meet, fall in love and break up. Or even just meet once. Because the story takes place in the quantum multiverse, and we get to see dozens of the infinite directions their relationship could go in, from hating each other on sight and never seeing each other again, all the way to their happily ever after.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Theatre review: We Want You To Watch

Rashdash and Alice Birch don't want you to watch, actually. Porn, that is, although a warning against this show might have been more helpful all round. Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland play two women on a mission, and as soon as they figure out exactly what that mission is I'm sure they'll let us know, but the main thing is they really don't like porn. It's violent pornography in particular they have an issue with, but just to be safe they'd like to get rid of all types, and possibly all of society, and replace it with ??????? We Want You To Watch opens at least with something resembling logic, albeit a spurious kind: The pair are interviewing a man (Lloyd Everitt) with a porn addiction and a particular preference for violent rape fantasies. He's suspected of murdering and mutilating a young woman in ways that mirror his favourite videos. There's no proof though, and the women's initially confident case falls apart.

Theatre review: An Oak Tree

"Do you think it's a bit contrived?" asks one of many knowing references in Tim Crouch's An Oak Tree, which is getting a 10th anniversary revival in The Artist Formerly Known As Shed. It's a piece performed by Crouch himself, playing a stage hypnotist who, a few months back, accidentally ran over and killed a young girl. Performing to a drunken crowd above a pub, he doesn't realise at first that the audience member who's volunteered to be hypnotised tonight is the dead girl's father. He's not there for revenge or confrontation; instead, seeing what his child's killer did for a living, he thought it might be a way of dealing with his own pain. The twist in the show's staging is that while Crouch always plays the hypnotist, the role of the father is played by a different actor every night - tonight it was Maggie Service.

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Theatre review: Bend It Like Beckham

With screen-to-stage adaptations the most common form of new musical, it's not always the most obvious candidates that work best. But while a story about women's football and clashing generations doesn't seem like an obvious candidate, in fact the different cultures coming together in Bend It Like Beckham make for an interesting mix of musical styles. Gurinder Chadha adapts (with Paul Mayeda Berges) and directs her own film, with songs by Howard Goodall and Charles Hart. Jess (Natalie Dew) is a teenage tomboy who enjoys playing football in the park, where her talent is spotted by Jules (Lauren Samuels,) who asks her to try out for the local women's team. The two girls become friends and teammates, although the fact that they're both interested in their coach Joe (Jamie Campbell Bower) could put a wedge between them. But just as Jess discovers that football doesn't have to be a dead end for her, her family decide otherwise.

Monday 22 June 2015

theatre review: hang

for her new play, hang, debbie tucker green returns to the subject of her 2008 hit random, which saw an ordinary family devastated by a sudden crime. but this production, which tucker green also directs, has a much more high-concept starting point: she takes us to an alternate present day where not only is the death penalty still in use, but the victims of crime have a say in the punishment. one (claire rushbrook) and two (shane zaza) are civil servants working in an anonymous office, where they have a meeting with three (marianne jean-baptiste) to discuss a decision she's had the last couple of years to come to. she knows on the way in what she's going to say - and the play's title means it's no huge secret from the audience - but the necessary bureaucracy before we get to that point is where the play's story lies, as the tensions of the last few years come to the surface.

Saturday 20 June 2015

Theatre review: The Merchant of Venice (RSC / RST)

With three productions of The Merchant of Venice in the same year it might be difficult for each one to establish its own identity, but they've managed it; Polly Findlay's at the RSC does so by stripping everything back to the bare essentials, both of text and staging. One thing that isn't pared down though is the story's homoerotic potential: Antonio (Jamie Ballard) is the wealthy titular merchant, Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) his young friend, and with Findlay showing the pair kissing from the outset, it's clear they're more than just friends, and there's a reason Antonio is so smitten he'd do anything to help him. Anything including signing a decidedly dodgy bond to guarantee a loan on Bassanio's behalf: He's been openly abusive to Jewish moneylender Shylock (Makram J. Khoury,) but to finance Bassanio's get-rich-quick scheme Antonio agrees to forfeit a pound of his flesh if he fails to repay the debt. It's impossible for all his outstanding investments to fail at the same time - except of course they all do.

Friday 19 June 2015

Theatre review: One Arm

Tennessee Williams' prolific career means that however many Streetcars get produced, there's always a wealth of lesser-known works to draw from as well. His occasional attempts to get something more controversial past the censors can mean some genuine firsts are out there, like One Arm. Written as a screenplay but too explicit to get produced in the 1970s, it's been combined by Moisés Kaufman with the short story on the same subject to create this stage version. It's told in flashback from the prison cell of Ollie Olsen (Tom Varey,) who's on Death Row. No pardon seems likely but ever since his face appeared in the papers, letters of support have been flooding in from across the USA. A former Navy boxing champion, Ollie found work hard to come by after losing his right arm in a car crash. But his good looks weren't affected in any other way, meaning he was still much in demand for other reasons.

Thursday 18 June 2015

Theatre review: The Motherfucker with the Hat

Indhu Rubasingham makes a splash on her Lyttelton debut, as was probably inevitable with a play called The Motherfucker with the Hat1. Stephen Adly Guirgis' comedy follows ex-con Jackie (Ricardo Chavira,) whose life finally seems to be getting on track when he goes to girlfriend Veronica's (Flor De Liz Perez) flat only to find suspicious smells on the bedsheets and an unfamiliar hat hanging off the radiator. After a big fight with Veronica his next port of call is the person he trusts most, his AA sponsor Ralph (Alec Newman.) But for all his platitudes and prayers, Ralph's own marriage to Victoria (Nathalie Armin) is far from perfect. His own worst enemy, Jackie goes off on a comic Odyssey trying to find the truth about Veronica and her mystery lover, all the while coming close to endangering both his sobriety and his parole.

Wednesday 17 June 2015

Theatre review: Oresteia (Almeida Theatre)

Freud used characters from Greek tragedy as archetypes and now Robert Icke reverses the process, turning Aeschylus' Oresteia into a complex psychological study of Orestes - his actions, the contradictory aspects of his personality, and above all the unreliability of his memories. And that's only one of the ways Icke rewrites the rulebook in his glorious headfuck of a production, which it seems ridiculous to even attempt a short review of: By the second interval I already thought I could write an essay about it. It's unlikely a recording of it will be commercially released but I hope it's at least easily available to students, as it could be good fodder for dissertations for years to come. The story, at least, is the same one it always was: To help him win a war, Agamemnon (Angus Wright) sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia. On his return, his wife Klytemnestra (Lia Williams) murders him in revenge.

Tuesday 16 June 2015

Theatre review: Violence and Son

Naturalism doesn't have to be a synonym for unadventurous; if a play is naturalistic in the way Gary Owen's Violence and Son is, it can play out in the way life, rather than dramatic convention does, leaving it incredibly unpredictable. Six months ago Liam's (David Moorst) mother died of cancer, and ever since the teenager has been living with his father in a remote part of Wales. But when he moved there that was the first time he ever met Rick (Jason Hughes,) who'd abandoned Liam's mother before his son was born. They're very different: Rick didn't get the nickname "Violence" for nothing, and claims to have last been completely sober when he was 14; Liam is clever, timid and a Doctor Who geek - when we first meet him he's just come back from a sci-fi convention dressed as the Eleventh Doctor (appropriately enough in the same theatre where Matt Smith first astonishingly coup'd his théâtre.) So the father/son relationship is spiky, but they're getting on with things.

Monday 15 June 2015

Theatre review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the one story Oscar Wilde chose to tell in novel rather than play form, but this is something others have been trying to change ever since - so far I've seen adaptations including a musical and a ballet. The latest to bring it to the stage is professional Wilde descendant Merlin Holland, who adapts it with John O’Connor. Dorian Gray (Guy Warren-Thomas) is a rich and handsome young man who's caught the attention of London's aesthetes, and enthusiastically become one of them. Lord Henry (Gwynfor Jones) tells him that his youth and beauty are his defining qualities, and this leads Dorian to fixate on his fear of losing them. He makes a wish that he would sell his soul if the portrait just painted of him by Basil (Rupert Mason) aged while he got to keep his looks. When it comes true, he embarks on a life of debauchery seemingly without consequences.

Sunday 14 June 2015

Theatre review: The Clockmaker's Daughter

Even with huge commercial musicals there's not always a guarantee you'll get a cast recording, so the odds are stacked against one turning up for a fringe show, no matter how ambitious. This unlikelihood is one that I was already feeling sad about within a few songs of The Clockmaker's Daughter, as among the many things right with Michael Webborn and Daniel Finn's new musical are songs I'd happily stick on my iPod. Set in the fictional Irish town of Spindlewood, it's an original story but with echoes of everything from traditional fairytales to more modern ones like Edward Scissorhands, as clockmaker Abraham (Lawrence Carmichael) mourns the death of his wife and decides to deal with the grief by building a replacement: Constance (Jennifer Harding) is a clockwork girl who magically comes to life, but although she does love her creator, as the title suggests it's as a father figure, not a lover. Frustrated, he forbids her from ever leaving the house.

Saturday 13 June 2015

Theatre review: The Dead Monkey

Apparently Nick Darke's The Dead Monkey is regularly revived internationally, but it's not a play I'd heard of before. Set in 1970s California, Hank (James Lance) and Dolores (Ruth Gibson) have been married 15 years, living in a tatty little beach house. Hank's wages as a travelling salesman don't stretch too far, especially as he has an insatiably hungry and disruptive pet monkey to feed. As the play opens, the monkey has died while Hank was away, and Dolores is trying to figure out how to break the news to him. It seems at first that their marriage will survive the loss of its unusual third member, especially when they get a Macedonian curly piglet called Dogduck to replace it. But this is clearly a destructive relationship and the more they try to pretend it isn't, the closer they come to things getting really ugly.

Theatre review: An Audience with Jimmy Savile

When a show bills itself as controversial long before it's even opened, and withholds photos of Alistair McGowan in character so as not to cause distress*, it's a fairly safe bet that the controversy is manufactured to attract attention. But the first drama to deal with a sexual predator who hid in plain sight was bound to raise questions over whether it was too soon, and the Park's main house was packed for the matinee of An Audience with Jimmy Savile. McGowan plays the notorious rapist, paedophile, necrophile and close personal friend of Margaret Thatcher, whose crimes were long-rumoured but never made public until after his death. The 1970s DJ and TV presenter was instead treated to decades of sycophantic behaviour for his popularity and charity work, regularly referred to as a National Treasure and knighted by both the Queen and the Pope. As the title suggests, Jonathan Maitland's play takes as its starting point just that unquestioning respect, framing the show as a TV special.

Friday 12 June 2015

Theatre review: Image of an Unknown Young Woman

In an unspecified country with a poor human rights record and a corrupt government, a woman wearing a yellow dress offers no resistance when the police attack and shoot her. Her identity and fate are unknown, but the attack is being filmed and the clip soon goes viral worldwide - as the story begins, a chorus of Oliver Birch, Emilie Patry and Isaac Ssebandeke send each other the link and react with a mixture of horror and voyeuristic excitement. Elinor Cook's Image of an Unknown Young Woman follows the repercussions of the image becoming public, both in the country itself where it sparks protests that could even become a revolution, and internationally. Although the character names suggest we're in a Middle Eastern country, the colourblind casting and stark, industrial design in Christopher Haydon's production at the Gate lend the story a universality - and unpredictability.

Thursday 11 June 2015

Theatre review: The Red Lion

When the two-and-a-half-hour Rules for Living got an 8pm start time in the Dorfman, word was this was an accident, caused by underestimating the run time. Well either that was a lie and shows are going to stick to the later time slot there regardless of how late that makes the finish, or the National have got really bad at judging running times because The Red Lion has an 8pm start time for a show of similar length. This is the centrepiece of Operation Get As Much As Possible Out of Patrick Marber Before His Writer's Block Returns, his first new play in 9 years. It's partly inspired by Marber's experience helping a failing football club avoid closure, and suggests he finds as much to dislike in football people as he does in humanity in general. The red lion is the logo of an unnamed non-league club not all of whose players get paid, leaving them open to the risk that as soon as they find a decent player, a professional club can easily swoop in to poach him with a better offer.

Wednesday 10 June 2015

Theatre review: Teddy

Another new British musical, although playwright Tristan Bernays and composer Dougal Irvine have gone for the more accurate description "play with songs" for Teddy, set in the 1950s but right in the middle of where Southwark Playhouse is today, at the Elephant and Castle. It was then an area full of Teddy boys and girls, the first post-war teenage rebels who'd grown up with rationing and defined themselves as Edwardian dandies to indicate that there was more to them than their poverty. But the places they hang out are bomb sites that haven't been cleared yet, and Max Dorey's set design reflects the grubby environment that the likes of Teddy (Joseph Prowen) and Josie (Jennifer Kirby) bring their own brand of glamour to (costumes by Holly Rose Henshaw.) The pair meet in a makeshift nightclub in a bombed-out church, when Teddy helps Josie escape the attentions of a thuggish admirer.

Tuesday 9 June 2015

Theatre review: King John (Shakespeare's Globe & tour)

Following runs at Temple Church and in Northampton one of only two standalone Shakespeare histories, King John, finally makes it to Shakespeare's Globe. It's part of the Magna Carta-themed Justice & Mercy season, and James Dacre's production does drop in a reference to that most famous - and unwanted - legacy of the king, even if Shakespeare himself famously didn't. Instead we follow King John (Jo Stone-Fewings) from his (first) coronation to his death, a reign whose every battle, treaty or political machination seems to instantly flop when chance throws a spanner in the works - usually in the form of a smug Papal Envoy (Joseph Marcell,) who likes to pop up occasionally to remind the various princes that the Vatican trumps their authority. With candles, incense and chanting hooded figures dominating Jonathan Fensom's design from the start, it's clear this is a world where the Church is a presence that's not to be messed with.

Sunday 7 June 2015

Theatre review: Duncton Wood

There's a number of new British musicals popping up on the fringe at the moment, and first for me is what will hopefully be the oddest offering, an adaptation of William Horwood's first novel Duncton Wood, about violent gangs of moles fighting over territory in and around the titular wood. I wouldn't want to try and be more specific than that about the story, as exactly what's going on is pretty much impossible to follow. Certainly the central couple are Bracken (Josh Little) and Rebecca (Amelia-Rose Morgan,) who don't actually meet until quite late in the show and both shag other people (/moles) but they do smell each other's scent around the wood often and are sure they're destined to be together. But Rebecca's father Mandrake (Anthony Cable) is the tyrannical leader of the mole gang. I think they're actually the Duncton Moles, which technically means Bracken is on their side, but I think it's the fact that he worships a magic stone that looks like a ball of string that makes him unpopular with Mandrake.

Saturday 6 June 2015

Theatre review: The Harvest

Michael Boyd never did get round to completing that Russian season he kept announcing when he was running the RSC, and he doesn't seem to have got it out of his system now he's back to freelance directing: The Harvest is by Pavel Pryazhko, originally from Belarus and apparently the current darling of Russian theatre. Boyd also brings with him a familiar face from the EnsembleTM to keep him company: Dyfan Dwyfor plays Valerii, the informal leader - because he's done the job before - of a quartet making a bit of cash picking apples in a large orchard. Valerii instructs the others on how best to store the apples, while competing with Egor (Dafydd Llyr Thomas) for the attentions of Ira (Beth Park) and Lyuba (Lindsey Campbell.) This particular kind of apple is meant to be left to ripen for some months after picking, so a single bruised fruit in a crate is not to be allowed.

Theatre review: The Dogs of War

A programme note by author Tim Foley mentions that while The Dogs of War wasn't written as a political play, it's taken on some of that significance in light of the new Conservative majority. Certainly this Government isn't one likely to be friendly even to disabilities that are visible and obvious, and those that are invisible have often struggled to be taken seriously anyway. So mental health seems to be a subject matter the arts are increasingly trying to remind people exist, and it's certainly there to be seen in Foley's play, even if something else is invisible. Mam (Maggie O'Brien) has been mentally ill for many years, and when she had to leave work Dad (Paul Stonehouse) took early retirement to care for her. When their son Johnny left for university, they moved from Yorkshire to a remote little house in rural Northern Ireland.

Friday 5 June 2015

Theatre review: The Elephant Man

A Broadway transfer that, unusually, comes to the West End with its entire original cast, The Elephant Man has of course had a lot of attention because if features that bloke who played Dr Chilton in The Silence of the Lambs, giving it his best Dick Van Dyke. But it turns out it also has Bradley Cooper from off of Alias in the title role of Joseph "John" Merrick, whose numerous physical deformities made him the star of a freak show. Once he's served his purpose there and is left to die, he's "rescued" by Dr Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola) who finds a home for him in his hospital, hoping to be able to study him and discover exactly what combination of illnesses caused Merrick's condition. This also, though, brings out the ordinary human in the carnival freak, and eventually Merrick becomes the fashionable star of Victorian high society.

Thursday 4 June 2015

Entertainment review: James Freedman: Man of Steal

After a short, sold-out run at the Menier Chocolate Factory James Freedman: Man of Steal gets a transfer to Trafalgar Studio 1, where on tonight's evidence it's not playing to houses quite as full - but if the box office takings aren't what what was hoped for, I'm sure Freedman knows a way or two to get a bit more cash out of his audiences. Although by his own promise he'd have to give it all back, as he describes himself as an "honest thief." Fascinated by pickpockets from an early age he became a master of the craft, but although he keeps himself well-practiced on the dummy he brings on stage with him, he uses his abilities to advise the police, and pass on warnings to the public in an entertaining way, in shows like this one. And it's definitely fun to watch, although chances are it'll leave you not so much entertained in the long run as paranoid.

Wednesday 3 June 2015

Theatre review: The Beaux' Stratagem

I can't remember when I last saw a Restoration comedy at the National, but it feels like it's been quite some time. Simon Godwin makes up for this with George Farquhar's The Beaux' Stratagem, which takes up residence in the Olivier with an impressive cast. Aimwell (Samuel Barnett) and Archer (Geoffrey Streatfeild) are a pair of noblemen whose love of the high life has left them close to penniless. Their stratagem is to travel the country, Aimwell posing as a wealthy lord and Archer as his footman, until they can find a pair of heiresses to marry. Aimwell finds one in Lichfield, but of course he falls for Dorinda (Pippa Bennett-Warner) for real. Archer also soon has eyes for her sister-in-law Mrs Sullen (Susannah Fielding) but she's still unhappily married to Dorinda's waster brother Sullen (Richard Henders.)

Tuesday 2 June 2015

Theatre review: Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby

Welcome to this year's installment of "Nick never learns his lesson about Beckett." I have, in fact, had a Beckett rule in place for some time, that rule being "no Beckett, ever," but I still seem to keep finding excuses to break it, whether it be Juliet Stevenson or the prospect of unusually attractive tramps. Lisa Dwan's performance of Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby, three short plays dealing in some way or other with women reflecting on their lives, has been knocking around for a couple of years, starting at the Royal Court then spending some time in the West End before touring extensively. I'd avoided it, but what finally changed my mind was a story about the production causing audience members to have panic attacks: Like the prospect of getting splashed with stage blood, this is the sort of thing I find a perverse kind of selling point.