Friday 31 July 2015

Theatre review: Bakkhai

The second full-scale show in the Almeida's Greek season goes for the opposite aesthetic to the first: Where Robert Icke's Oresteia not only brought Aeschylus into the 21st century cosmetically but also in a radical reworking of the text, James Macdonald brings back some of the original staging conventions of ancient Greece, specifically with regards to casting. All the named roles are played by the same three actors, while the chorus - who aren't quite as authentic in that they're played by real women - speak or sing their lines in unison. The former convention leads to a bit of gender-bending, which is appropriate enough when the play is Euripides' Bakkhai. Dionysus (Ben Whishaw,) best-known as the god of wine and revelry, is a fairly new addition to the pantheon of Olympus, in fact when we meet him much of his mortal mother's family are still alive, and it's they who will bear the brunt of the new god's wrath when they don't show him due respect.

Wednesday 29 July 2015

Theatre review: Three Days in the Country

The summer of Patrick Marber Must Have Some Dirt On Rufus Norris concludes in the Lyttelton (although he hasn't had a show in The Artist Formerly Known As Shed yet, so maybe there's more to come?) This time Marber turns to Russian theatre and Ivan Turgenev's A Month in the Country, which he re-writes, directs and compacts down to Three Days in the Country. Rakitin (John Simm) is visiting old friends at their country estate, but while he's been not-so-secretly in love with Natalya (Amanda Drew) for the best part of 20 years, her husband and his best friend Arkady (John Light) never seems to have cottoned on. Rakitin arrives for another bout of declarations of love she never quite reciprocates, but there's a new dynamic now: The couple recently hired a new tutor for their son, the handsome and brooding Belyaev (Royce Pierreson.) All the women in the house seem to have fallen for him, including Natalya herself. In fact she's quite convinced that she's in love with Belyaev to an extent that she never felt for Rakitin or her husband.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Theatre review: American Idiot

Green Day's one of those bands I never really followed too closely but, as it turns out, I know and like a lot more of their songs than I would have guessed. In any case they're an unlikely choice to get a jukebox musical, but it happened with American Idiot - largely consisting of songs from the concept album of the same name - which has only previously had concert performances in this country, so Racky Plews' production is the first full UK staging. The songs are held together by a fairly vague story of Johnny (Aaron Sidwell) and his two friends, who all find themselves at a loss after 9/11. Johnny leaves his parents' suburban home to move to a city where he soon becomes a junkie; Tunny (a newly-buff Alexis Gerred) joins the army, losing a leg in Iraq; and in the least-developed storyline Will (Steve Rushton) stays behind with his pregnant girlfriend, spending his days getting stoned and feeling abandoned by his friends. X Factor song-shouter Amelia Lily also appears as Johnny's girlfriend Whatsername.

Monday 27 July 2015

Theatre review: Tonight with Donny Stixx

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This was the first public performance of Tonight with Donny Stixx, which is previewing in London and Oxford before officially premiering at the Edinburgh Festival.

Philip Ridley's second new play this year is a monologue described as a companion to 2013's Dark Vanilla Jungle. That starred Gemma Whelan, so there's a nice symmetry to the fact that Tonight with Donny Stixx is performed by Whelan's Radiant Vermin co-star, Sean Michael Verey. Both monologues take the form of a confession of sorts, although whether Verey's character quite realises that's the crux of his story is another matter: Donny Stixx is a teenager who lost his mother when he was a child, and whose father is now also seriously ill; he's also a deluded amateur magician; and a notorious mass-murderer. He's gathered an audience tonight to entertain them with the story of his life, which he's going to tell very much on his own terms, even though people keep annoyingly interrupting him to ask about all those dead people.

Saturday 25 July 2015

Theatre review: Othello (RSC / RST)

Iqbal Khan's production of Othello opens with a coup de théâtre courtesy of Ciaran Bagnall's set: The initial setting is Venice, and as Iago (Lucian Msamati) and Roderigo (James Corrigan) plot to reveal the secret of Othello's recent marriage, water bubbles up through grills in the floor, flooding part of the stage and creating the canal their boat floats in. It's an understated and effective start to a production that stays strong on visuals and atmosphere throughout. Hugh Quarshie plays Othello, the black general whose military skill makes him the go-to man when the Duke of Venice (Nadia Albina) needs someone to deal with a conflict in Cyprus. He takes with him his young lieutenant Cassio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd,) newly promoted over Iago, who hasn't forgiven his general for overlooking him. He plots revenge on both men, and Othello's new wife is the tool he plans to use against them: If he can convince Othello that Desdemona is cheating on him with Cassio, his jealousy might destroy them all.

Theatre review: The Jew of Malta

Ever since I first read Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta a few years ago I've been keen to see it on stage; not necessarily because of its virtues as a piece of writing, but to see how a 21st century production would cope with the aggressive antisemitism and racism that is even more at the heart of this story than it is in The Merchant of Venice. I thought it might crop up on the fringe at some point but in the event it was one of the country's biggest companies that took on the challenge, with Justin Audibert getting a baptism of fire on his RSC directing debut. The solution he's come up with is an interesting one, particularly in light of the fact that Merchant's LOLantisemitism attitude is often dealt with by ramping up the play's dark side: The opposite happens here, Marlowe's bloodthirsty and vicious revenge tragedy revealed as a black comedy.

Friday 24 July 2015

Theatre review: Volpone

In an RSC summer season that's focusing on often dark issues of prejudice and outcasts, it falls to Ben Jonson to provide the madcap comic relief, as Trevor Nunn returns to Stratford-upon-Avon to revive one of Jonson's classic con-men in Volpone. Henry Goodman plays the immensely rich Volpone who - as the stock tickers dominating Stephen Brimson Lewis' design suggest - made his fortune on the markets. But he's hungry for more riches and wants to have some fun acquiring them, so he turns other people's greed against them: Pretending to be on his death bed, he lets it be known that he has no heir, and soon there's a queue of people at his door bearing gifts, all in the hope of being named in his will. As his pile of gold gets ever-bigger, he also sets his eye on Celia (Rhiannon Handy,) wife of one of his victims, Corvino (Matthew Kelly.)

Thursday 23 July 2015

Theatre review: Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs

January 1st 1965, and Malcolm Scrawdyke (Daniel Easton) is stuck in his freezing Huddersfield bedsit, having just been kicked out of art school. Feeling persecuted by the world and especially the Headmaster of his former college, he plots to get some control back by forming his own political party-cum-terrorist cell called Dynamic Erection. Clive Judd revives David Halliwell's political satire Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs for its 50th anniversary and presents it as a tragicomic, prescient look at extreme, angry and ultimately hollow student activism. Malcolm recruits his art school friends Wick (Laurie Jamieson) and Irwin (Barney McElholm,) persuading them to quit their own courses. First on the list is a heist on a local art gallery, followed by the kidnap of the hated Headmaster. They're convinced power will follow, but don't have any plans of what to do with it.

Tuesday 21 July 2015

Theatre review: Richard II (Shakespeare's Globe)

Back to the Globe for the second night in a row, and right back to the beginning of the octet that ends with Richard III. In fact I can now say I've seen all of Shakespeare's Histories at this venue, now that Richard II has been added to the list. Charles Edwards plays King Richard, who was crowned as a child - in fact Simon Godwin's production opens with the additional scene of the young Richard's (Thomas Ashdown or Frederick Neilson) coronation. On a golden throne on a golden stage, he's showered with golden confetti that'll probably be stuck in the theatre's nooks and crannies for years to come (I know from groundlings that it's been stuck in their nooks and crannies for a while.) All this bling is in honour of a king who's grown up with the certain knowledge that his power is god-given, and who behaves accordingly. But when he banishes and disinherits his cousin Bolingbroke (David Sturzaker,) he finds that he's pushed the wrong man around.

Monday 20 July 2015

Theatre review: Richard III (National Theatre of China / Globe to Globe)

This year's Globe to Globe visits both come from China; there's a Hong Kong Macbeth coming later this summer, but you'd be forgiven for thinking it had turned up early as a couple of scenes into the National Theatre of China's Richard III, performed in Mandarin with scene summaries in English, the titular character encounters three witches. They greet him as a future king, and this sets Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Zhang Hao) first to consider if he could indeed bypass all the relatives between him and the crown; and then to ensure it by bumping them all off. The various nationalities that have come to the Globe have tended to bring their own performance styles, and it's always interesting to see Shakespeare taken on by East Asian nations whose theatrical styles and traditions developed for centuries entirely separately from Western performance.

Friday 17 July 2015

Theatre review: The Mentalists

I may have written the odd scathing review in my time but as criticisms go you can't really get much more to-the-point than the girl in the middle of the Royal Circle's front row tonight, who suddenly vomited all over herself halfway through the first act of The Mentalists. A bit of an overreaction, as this misguided attempt at a star vehicle is a misfire, but not enough of one to get that het up about. I quite like Stephen Merchant, who seems funny and down-to-earth in interviews, and I suspect he's behind most of the best work in his collaborations with Ricky Gervais. But his brief, broad comic acting appearances have seemed very much like extensions of his personality, and haven't given me the impression that he'd have a lot of range as an actor. Still, Merchant is the star name in Abbey Wright's revival of Richard Bean's tragicomic play as Ted, who books into a cheap Finsbury Park hotel room.

Thursday 16 July 2015

Theatre review: Positive

The first generation of HIV/AIDS plays kicked off with As Is, which was seen at the Finborough in 2013 and is currently being revived at Trafalgar Studios. But we now live in a very different environment in which HIV is much more treatable, but on the downside this has led to confidence bordering on flippancy about unsafe sex, with rates of infection, especially among young gay men, on the rise again. So Shaun Kitchener's play could perhaps be part of an overdue new wave of theatre on the subject. It's one in which, as the title suggests, Positive doesn't just have to be the test result but can be the outlook too, but the fact that it's not an automatic death sentence doesn't mean everything goes smoothly either. Benji (Timothy George) was diagnosed HIV-Positive a year ago, and although he's found a supportive friend and flatmate in Nikki (Nathalie Barclay) he's rarely ventured out of his room in that time except to go to work.

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Theatre review: Orson's Shadow

Just as there's a disproportionate amount of novels about writing novels, and films about making films, theatre too has a fondness for shining its light on itself. Austin Pendleton's off-Broadway hit Orson's Shadow, getting its London premiere at Southwark Playhouse in a production by Alice Hamilton, does so with a self-mocking wink at the big personalities and bigger egos the stage attracts: Laurence Olivier (Adrian Lukis) is soon to become the first-ever Artistic Director of the National Theatre, and the respected critic Kenneth Tynan (Edward Bennett - tonight half a dozen of last Christmas' RSC ensemble had come along to watch him) wants to be one of his advisors. But he doesn't really know Olivier that well, and to impress him he decides to find him a director for his latest project, the UK premiere of Ionesco's Rhinoceros at the Royal Court.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

Theatre review: The Trial

In the past I've left a Richard Jones production at the Young Vic at the interval, but for his new show he's found a cunning way to prevent that: The Trial doesn't have an interval. Nick Gill adapts Franz Kafka's surreal nightmare of bureaucracy in which, after a drunken night out, Josef K (Rory Kinnear) wakes up on the morning of his birthday to find a group of officials at his flat - at least he assumes they're officials, they have no documentation to show him. But they do tell him he has to prepare to go on trial, although neither he nor the court must know what he's being accused of. Over the next year he is required to attend hearings at unspecified times and places, complete endless paperwork and make deals with shady bureaucrats. Initially dismissing the accusations as a joke, he becomes increasingly paranoid as everyone he meets seems to know about the trial and take it very seriously.

Saturday 11 July 2015

Theatre review: The House of Mirrors and Hearts

The summer of new British musicals continues with The House of Mirrors and Hearts, an intimate, atmospheric chamber musical with more than a hint of The House of Bernarda Alba in its grief-stricken rooms. Eamonn O'Dwyer provides the songs, and co-writes the book with actor Rob Gilbert, for the story of Anna (Gillian Kirkpatrick) and her family. Her unseen husband custom-makes mirrors, until his sudden and somewhat mysterious death. It involves a broken mirror, so appropriately it's seven years later that we rejoin them. They've been taking in lodgers to help pay the bills, and the latest is Nathan (Jamie Muscato, a late addition to the cast after another actor had to withdraw,) who is researching a local obscure poet and distant ancestor of his. The family as he discovers them are still strangely dominated by their grief for Anna's lost husband.

Friday 10 July 2015

Theatre review: The Invisible

The Bush Theatre's skylights and lack of air-conditioning make it one of the least comfortable London theatres during the hotter months, so its summer show needs to be something that can distract from this. It managed it flamboyantly in 2013 with Josephine and I, and with family tensions as heated as the atmosphere in 2014's Perseverance Drive, but this year's offering is a much drier affair, and I'm still not sure what - except the vague, as it turns out false suggestion of a cliffhanger - even brought me back to The Invisible after the interval. It's not for lack of an important topic: Rebecca Lenkiewicz's play looks at the brutal government cuts to Legal Aid, which in the Magna Carta anniversary year seem to break one of that document's major tenets, that Justice is not to be either bought or denied. But three of the characters in The Invisible can't pay for justice, so they may have to go without: Aisha (Sirine Saba) is an Indian arranged bride being beaten and restrained at home by her husband and his family; Ken (Nicholas Bailey) is being denied access to his children.

Thursday 9 July 2015

Theatre review: A Number

Caryl Churchill's A Number seems to be a popular choice for real-life father/son acting teams to take on; a few years ago I saw Timothy and Samuel West play opposite each other at the Menier, and for the latest revival at the Young Vic John and Lex Shrapnel are the father/son team-up. Although it provides strong roles, especially for the son, it still feels to me a bit of an eccentric choice to show off the family dynamic, as it portrays an especially twisted relationship. (And if you're planning on seeing it I recommend not reading the rest of my review until afterwards, as discovering the nature of the relationship is one of the play's strengths.) As the play begins Salter (John) is confronted by his son Bernard (Lex,) who's just discovered the truth about himself: He is actually Bernard 2, a clone of the first son Salter lost in a car crash. In fact as it turns out he's only one of a number of clones, the scientists having made more than requested, so they could follow their lives and discover more about nature vs nurture. But there's a lesson in that much closer to home.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Theatre review: I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change

The Arts Theatre's new studio space Upstairs has only been open a few months but already seems to have become one of the most disliked venues in London. Fortunately the weather's cooled down a bit so I didn't have to deal with the sweltering heat people were complaining about last week, but it's still a far from ideal experience: After having to queue in a busy street, blocking the entrance to a comics shop, the audience gets to fight for a front-row seat as, between the lack of a raised stage or seating rake, and the pillar in the middle of the room, the views from any other row don't look too promising. I did snag the last front-row seat, but even then the wide, shallow stage makes anything other than upstage centre hard to see. At least what's actually on that stage is worth the trip: I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change seems to get revived quite often on the fringe, but reuniting original West End Avenue Q cast members Julie Atherton and Simon Lipkin was what finally got me along to the show.

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Theatre review: The Importance of Being Earnest

Productions of The Importance of Being Earnest aren't exactly a rarity - in fact the last West End outing was only a year ago, and it didn't even do particularly good business. So it's a show I don't feel compelled to catch any given production of as the next one will be along soon enough. But I last saw it at the Old Vic, which a quick google reveals to have been twenty years ago, so I figured it was time to give it another go in Adrian Noble's production, which has settled into the Vaudeville for the summer. There's famously far too many roles available for older women - it's something like that, right? - so David Suchet has stepped in to ease the workload by taking on the role of Lady Bracknell, the archetypal formidable aunt. In another outrageous bit of casting, the show also stars Philip Cumbus, meaning not only is he missing a Globe summer season in an odd-numbered year for the first time since his first season in 2007, he's also missing his beard.

Monday 6 July 2015

Theatre review: A Third

With the Finborough Theatre turned into an upper-middle class living room for Alpha Beta, they couldn't venture too far from that for their alternate show. Hence A Third, Laura Jacqmin's look at modern marriage and how the reality of polyamorous relationships stacks up against the fantasy. After six years of marriage Paul (Jeremy Legat) and Allison (Asha Reid) are still in love and still attracted to each other, but want to pre-empt the seven-year itch and think threesomes - with very strict rules - are the answer. They find Jay (Will Alexander,) who's been "a third" many times before on Craigslist, and have a successful evening with him; next they go to a lesbian club night, where they convince Mariella (Lucy Roslyn) to join them. Not sure if they want to continue with the open relationship, the couple stop contacting both of them.

Friday 3 July 2015

Theatre review: 36 Phone Calls

At Hampstead Downstairs at the moment you can catch a man having a breakdown over the course of 36 Phone Calls. This monologue by Jeremy Brock sees Martin (Lee Ross,) an accountant recently thrown out of the house by his wife for cheating, having to live and work in what looks like a storage lock-up (designs by Anna Bliss Scully.) He has a landline and three mobile phones, to variously call family, his mistress and clients. As his time stuck in this small room lasts longer than expected, we see him attempt to make up with his wife, try to get his daughter to speak to him again, and help his son with his homework, all while one of his clients asks him to hide a huge amount of cash from the Inland Revenue, and a mysterious heavy breather keeps calling on one of his phones.

Thursday 2 July 2015

Theatre review: To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is never far from the top in any poll of best-loved novels, a fact that Timothy Sheader's production references throughout with copies of the book ever present: All different shapes, sizes and covers reflecting how many editions there have been, the supporting cast sit at the sides when they're not playing a role, reading through the story that's unfolding on stage. It also turns them into a chorus, narrating the story of the Finch family of Alabama in 1935. Scout (Ava Potter at this performance, alternating with Jemima Bennett and Rosie Boore) and her older brother Jem (Tommy Rodger, alternating with Harry Bennett, Billy Price and Arthur Franks) lost their mother when they were very young and now live with their father Atticus and their cook Calpurnia (Susan Lawson-Reynolds.) This production originated at Regents Park, and for this Barbican revival Robert Sean Leonard returns to play Atticus, a lawyer putting his all into a case he knows he can't win in a still overtly-racist South: Tom Robinson (Zackary Momoh) is a black man accused of raping a white woman.

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Theatre review: Measure for Measure (Shakespeare's Globe)

Of the three major productions of Measure for Measure in London this year, Shakespeare's Globe was always going to offer the least high-concept approach. I'm not sure I expected its opening to be quite so literal though: About 10 minutes before it starts, the Globe fills with actors, running around the groundlings and climbing up ladders to the higher galleries. Some offer the services of whores, others are preaching against all the debauchery around them. Meanwhile Dominic Rowan sits quietly onstage with his back to both the sexual freedoms enjoyed in Vienna, and to those offended by them. Because Rowan is the Duke, literally turning his back on behaviour that, in theory, carries the harshest penalties in his state. But he's let these laws lapse for decades, and doesn't know how to enforce them again. So instead he's going to take a leave of absence, leaving the city in the hands of the severe Angelo (Kurt Egyiawan,) who he thinks will bring back the morality laws.