Tuesday 29 September 2015

Theatre review: Roaring Trade

When Steve Thompson's Roaring Trade premiered in 2009, it was nominally set a couple of years earlier, as it lifted the lid on some of the dodgy-but-legal trading practices that had caused the banking crash. In Alan Cohen's revival at the Park, today's Evening Standard is clearly displayed at one point, because this is a play about characters, and an industry, that doesn't learn lessons (unless it's the lesson that they can keep doing what they like because they'll get bailed out if it goes wrong.) Donny (Nick Moran) is the archetypal barrow-boy trader; he and his colleague Jess (Lesley Harcourt) spend their days buying and selling stock for millions of pounds at a time; their preferred technique includes bullying and manipulating their co-workers into making mistakes that will work out to their own benefit.

Monday 28 September 2015

Theatre review: Mr Foote's Other Leg

In what must be one of history's cruellest cases of nominative determinism, the 18th century actor Samuel Foote really did lose a leg. Ian Kelly adapts (and appears in) his own historical biography Mr Foote's Other Leg, in which Foote (Simon Russell Beale) meets fellow aspiring actors Peg Woffington (Dervla Kirwan) and David Garrick (Joseph Millson) at an elocution class. When their tutor, and the leading actor of his day, Charles Macklin (Colin Stinton) accidentally kills a co-star on stage he's banned from acting, and his students see an opportunity. With the Lord Chamberlain coming down hard on new plays, the three decide to focus instead on revivals of a respected but neglected playwright - William Shakespeare. For Garrick, the rest is history: He became one of the first superstar actors, and still has a London theatre named after him. And his love of Shakespeare proved infectious, helping create the icon we know today.

Sunday 27 September 2015

Theatre review: The Sweethearts

Sarah Page's play The Sweethearts, which has graduated from a Vibrant reading to a full production at the Finborough, introduces us to two very different sets of characters: First, a troop in Afghanistan, preparing to hand over power but still getting regularly attacked by the Taliban. Mark (Jack Derges) is the resident ladies' man with delusions of being Maverick from Top Gun; David (Joe Claflin) the intellectual of the group, teased for writing poetry; Trevor (Jack Bannon) is a relative newcomer who recently dumped his girlfriend back home, and has come to regret it. They're being supervised by their Corporal, Rachel (Laura Hanna,) one of the lads except in her obvious crush on their Commanding Officer, Captain Nicholls (Stevie Raine,) a much-decorated hero they all hold in awe to one degree or another.

Saturday 26 September 2015

Theatre review: Dinner with Saddam

Children's author Anthony Horowitz has a fondness for playing in other people's sandpits - he's written Sherlock Holmes novels and recently gave James Bond a sassy gay friend - and now he turns playwright. The subject is his enduring anger over Tony Blair and George W Bush's military action in Iraq, and he's attempted to confront it with shocking comedy - well, "shocking" is definitely a word you could use. Dinner with Saddam is an attempt at a farce based on the true fact that Saddam Hussein would sometimes appear unannounced at the home of one of his subjects; ostensibly to show solidarity with his people, though it didn't hurt that it meant the US army didn't know where he was so couldn't blow him up. In 2003 Ahmed (Sanjeev Bhaskar) and his wife Samira (Shobu Kapoor) are bickering over the lack of fresh food and water, the broken toilet and their daughter's impending marriage, when it's announced Saddam (Steven Berkoff) will be joining them for dinner.

Friday 25 September 2015

Non-review: Jane Eyre

The regular readers of this blog will both recall that I don't technically like to say what I've written is a review, if I didn't see the whole show. Full disclosure, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre was one of my A'Level English texts and I didn't like it then. So when an adaptation was announced at the National Theatre I was cautious, but booked anyway because the production - which originated in Bristol - had got good reviews and been praised as a revelatory take on the story. Director Sally Cookson and her cast have adapted and devised a highly physical telling of the story of Jane (Madeleine Worrall,) orphaned as a baby1 when her parents catch a fatal case of interpretative dance. She's sent to an uncle, who also promptly pops his clogs, and after the requisite Wicked Stepmother behaviour from her aunt (Maggie Tagney) and cousins, she's shipped off to a charity school for unwanted girls.

Thursday 24 September 2015

Theatre review: Nell Gwynn

One bonus of blogging my thoughts about every show I see is that when I spot future talent, I can go back and be smug about it when I'm right. It's not just actors* - it's a pretty quick turnaround since I saw Jessica Swale's Nell Gwynn being premiered at LAMDA, and said the play deserved to be picked up by a professional company. A year later and it has been, by Shakespeare's Globe where Swale's playwrighting debut Blue Stockings was also staged. Christopher Luscombe directs the first professional production, and the venue's unique dynamic is a great match for a play that not only concerns itself with theatre behind the scenes, but is also positively meta about it. Because although Nell Gwynn's remembered mostly as the King's mistress, this is if anything the "B" plot of the play.

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Theatre review: Octagon

The titular Octagon in Kristiana Rae Colón's play is the venue for a US national poetry slam competition; but it's also the shape of the relationship between the eight characters, which makes a love triangle seem positively straightforward. A former poet herself, Pen (Estella Daniels) runs a bar that holds regular slam nights, where the crew who've qualified for the Octagon are local celebrities. Chimney (Solomon Israel) is the captain, although nobody seems to have told the others that; Chad (Harry Jardine) is a teacher by day, whose religious beliefs come with a judgmental side; and Palace (Asan N'Jie) is currently in the doghouse after sleeping with the fourth member's girlfriend, prompting him to quit. Not wanting to go to the nationals as a trio, they hold an open-mike slam at Pen's club; the winner gets to become the new fourth member.

Tuesday 22 September 2015

Theatre review: Photograph 51

The last time Nicole Kidman appeared on a London stage she famously got her neeps and tatties out; the sight gave an elderly critic an erection we've had to hear about for the best part of two decades. He's retired now, so I guess Kidman felt safe to return, with her pants on this time (better safe than sorry,) to play Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51. Anna Ziegler’s play looks at the race to discover the structure of DNA - although, in what will turn out to be a fatal flaw that consigned her to a footnote in history, Franklin never quite realises that it is a race. Soon after the War, she's working in Paris when a place at King's College becomes available. But she may have been brought there on false pretences as she's instantly taken off her work on protein: Dr Wilkins (Stephen Campbell Moore) wants her to help boost his own research into DNA, like pure theatrical Sanatogen.

Monday 21 September 2015

Theatre review: Hangmen

The Royal Court ended its last season Downstairs with a play about hanging; it begins its autumn season with another one. But where debbie tucker green imagined a Britain where capital punishment is still in place, Martin McDonagh's Hangmen takes us to the day after its abolition. Most of the action takes place in a small Oldham pub run by Alice (Sally Rogers) and her husband Harry (David Morrissey.) But up until yesterday Harry's main job was as the country's second-best hangman, after the legendary Albert Pierrepoint. Any mention of Pierrepoint is taboo in this pub though, as instead of notoriety, Harry's job has gained him a macabre kind of celebrity, and he's been happy to capitalise on it for status. With the abolition of hanging in the news, a reporter from the local paper wants Harry's side of the story, and while he pretends to keep a dignified silence, he can't wait to hold court again.

Saturday 19 September 2015

Theatre review: Casa Valentina

If I hadn't seen those fucked polar bears in between, this would make a double bill of Harvey Fierstein shows about cocks in frocks, and while Kinky Boots is the big hitter at the moment, for me the real heart is with Casa Valentina. Fierstein's latest non-musical play, it receives its UK premiere at The Large, with Luke Sheppard returning to direct before he revives In the Heights. It's 1962 in a remote part of New York State's Catskills, where married couple George (Edward Wolstenholme) and Rita (Tamsin Carroll) run a weekend resort that sometimes hosts hunting parties. But their main clientele, and the reason they opened the resort in the first place, is very different: George has another identity as Valentina, and the remote location provides a safe environment for him and other transvestites to dress as women in public without fear or judgement.

Friday 18 September 2015

Theatre review: Fuck the Polar Bears

I guess this year's "plays with Fuck in the title" meme has well and truly jumped the shark, because after a couple of strong entries we now get Tanya Ronder's egregious Fuck the Polar Bears at the Bush. A play about the damage done to the environment by everyday energy usage, it makes its points with all the subtlety of an anvil made of shit. Our heroes are Gordon and Serena, a wealthy middle-aged couple and the worst human beings ever to have existed. Gordon (Andrew Whipp) is the new CEO of an energy company that wants to start fracking; he celebrates his promotion by bringing home six Sloppy Giuseppe pizzas he knows his family will barely pick at*. I think we might be meant to infer he's happy to waste food but it was all a bit subtle for me. His big new wage packet means he and his wife can finally sell their enormous mansion, and move into an even more enormous mansion they like better.

Thursday 17 September 2015

Theatre review: Kinky Boots

If it's one of the biggest new musical openings of the year, then chances are Killian Donnelly's involved: He plays Charlie, who's been trying to escape Northampton all his life, and has finally moved to London with his girlfriend when he gets news of his father's sudden death. He's left behind the shoe factory that's been in their family for generations, but once he gets his hands on the books Charlie realises the factory is failing. The only solution is to close it, and put the staff he's known all his life out of a job, unless he can find a new niche market for the company to specialise in. A chance encounter with drag queen Lola (Matt Henry) provides just that; soon Price & Son are exclusively manufacturing Kinky Boots, in Harvey Fierstein (book) and Cyndi Lauper's (music & lyrics) adaptation of Geoff Deane and Tim Firth's hit 2005 film.

Wednesday 16 September 2015

Theatre review: Lela & co

Real-life atrocities are given an additional level of horror by the smiling face painted on them by Cordelia Lynn's Lela & co. Ana Inés Jabares Pita's black, white and red set feels like something out of a toybox or a circus, a setting for Lela (Katie West) to tell a fairytale-like life story of growing up in the mountains of an unnamed, distant country. There's early signs of an underlying darkness she takes for granted, as she cheerfully recounts how her father would occasionally get violent with his wife and daughters, but the worst is to come once Lela reaches the age of 15. More importantly, this is when her older sister gets married: Her new brother-in-law may or may not have sexually abused Lela; what he definitely does do is arrange a marriage for her, possibly for a fee, with a friend from a different part of the country. In the aftermath of a civil war, the girl finds herself isolated from her family with an abusive husband.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

Theatre review: The Christians

Post-show Q&As often unearth information that reveals much about more than just the production in hand - like the Gate's Artistic Director being an atheist whose mother is a vicar, a contrast he credits as one of the reasons he's often drawn to work with a religious theme. Such as his latest production The Christians, by American playwright Lucas Hnath. An additional draw in this case was the fact that Hnath's mother is also a preacher, albeit in an Evangelical church, and that's where, in an unnamed part of the US, the story takes place. Pastor Paul (William Gaminara) has spent 20 years building a congregation from the ground up, until it's become that most American of phenomena, a Megachurch with worshipers in their thousands. They got into debt to build it but they've finally paid it off, a fact whose timing will become of particular interest as the story plays out.

Sunday 13 September 2015

Theatre review: See What I Wanna See

The plot of Michael John LaChiusa’s See What I Wanna See spans from mediaeval Japan to 21st century New York, which makes it sound like a David Mitchell novel (not that David Mitchell, the other one.) In fact the 2005 musical is based on three short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, presented without an obvious connection, other than the general theme of different perspectives to the same events. The mediaeval Japanese story is “Kesa and Morito,” which kicks off each of the acts with the end of the affair between a married woman (Cassie Compton) and her lover (Mark Goldthorp.) We get a different viewpoint in each half, with an ambiguous ending that sees one or both of the lovers come to a sticky end. The vast majority of the show however takes place in New York, the first act’s “R Shomon” is a noir story set in 1951, when a gangster (Marc Elliott) confesses to raping a singer (Compton) and murdering her husband in Central Park.

Saturday 12 September 2015

Theatre review: Creditors

Strindberg's Creditors is about Adolph and Tekla, a husband and wife with some cracks in their relationship that are exploited by a malevolent stranger, Gustav. The immediately obvious high concept in the new production by Rikki Henry - winner of this year's Genesis Award - is to turn it into the story of a gay marriage. Adolph (Tom Rhys Harries) is an acclaimed young artist, married to Tekla (Jolyon Coy,) a novelist a few years older than him, who's been married and divorced before. They're spending some time on a hotel on an island when Tekla needs to go away for a few days on business. In his absence Adolph meets another guest, Gustav (Gyuri Sarossy,) who for reasons that will become apparent is determined to sabotage their marriage. By the time we meet them at the start of the play, he's managed to expose Adolph's biggest insecurities about his relationship.

Friday 11 September 2015

Theatre review: Future Conditional

To herald the Old Vic's new era with a heterosexual Artistic Director at the helm, it's had a bit of a facelift: There's a new, simpler logo without the coat of arms that screamed "heritage theatre," while the black-and-white photos of century-old productions have been hidden away at the top of the stairs, and above the entrance to the stalls a neon sign says "Dare always dare." Why a theatre would choose "they're always there" in an Irish accent as its motto is anyone's guess, but the message that things will be different under Matthew Warchus extends to the first show he's programmed - a new British play would have been unheard of in Dame Kev's day. And to counteract the "old" in the venue's name, it's a play with a young cast - unusually in a world where 30-year-olds routinely play teenagers, it's even a show where many of the actors are actually playing characters older than themselves.

Thursday 10 September 2015

Theatre review: Song from Far Away

After making for the most celebrated venue/director pairing of last year, Ivo van Hove returns to the Young Vic; surprisingly, given he's been a big name in the Netherlands and internationally long before becoming a London favourite, this is his first time directing a new play, having made his name deconstructing classics. But Simon Stephens wrote Song from Far Away especially for van Hove and actor Eelco Smits: It's the monologue of Willem, a 34-year-old Dutch man who's lived in New York for the last 12 years. The play describes a trip back to Amsterdam that may be his first in all that time, and only happens when his much younger brother Pauli dies suddenly of an undiagnosed genetic heart condition. The visit back home will be a difficult one, and not just because there's a funeral at the heart of it: His family view Willem as a cold character who deserted them. (Some potentially NSFW imagery after the text break.)

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Theatre review: The Late Henry Moss

Sam Shepard delivers another dose of a particularly American kind of masculinity crisis, at Southwark Playhouse this time with The Late Henry Moss. Ray (Joseph Arkley) receives a call from his older brother Earl (Jack Sandle) to let him know their father has died. He goes down to the New Mexico shack the titular Henry lived and died in, to find that the body is still in its deathbed, and nobody's alerted the authorities. Earl says that he went to New Mexico when a neighbour told him Henry was ill, but got there too late. His naturally suspicious brother doubts his story and, convinced Earl actually arrived before their father died, starts to investigate what really happened. After he pays and bullies a taxi driver (Joe Evans,) who was one of the last people to see him alive, for information, we see flashbacks to Henry's (Harry Ditson) final days.

Sunday 6 September 2015

Theatre review: This Heaven

Once again the Finborough Theatre takes us to Australia, which in Nakkiah Lui's This Heaven is shown up as very much backward where civil rights are concerned, at least for the indigenous people. A few years before the play's start, an Aboriginal man died in police custody. A number of legal battles later and the police are let off with a fine, while his family are left feeling abandoned. His widow Joan (Elizabeth Uter) feels particularly betrayed as she actually worked at the police station for 17 years as their Aboriginal Liaison Officer, a role she's now being quietly shunted out of. But for her children Sissy (Nicôle Lecky) and Ducky (Bevan Celestine) their main reaction is anger. Although they have a sympathetic lawyer in James (Timothy Knightley,) he now advises that they've reached the end of what they can do through the courts.

Saturday 5 September 2015

Theatre review: The Win Bin

A satire on arts funding cuts takes a surreal turn in Kate Kennedy and Sara Joyce's The Win Bin: There is now only enough cash for one person a year to get a job in the arts, and it's to be decided by a behind-closed-doors mix of interview day and talent show. After a series of preliminary rounds - which may or may not have involved Rock, Paper, Scissors - six finalists have been found, all played by Kennedy and Wilf Scolding. The three men and three women pair off after a while: A photographer's project documents his life after being dumped; it turns out the ex-girlfriend in question is another of the candidates, a highly-strung puppeteer. An unprepared but charming choreographer flirts with a comic book artist - but is he just trying to put her off? We don't see much of the third pair - whose talents appear to be taxidermy and "trying to put her whole fist into her mouth" - they cower nervously in a corner while the other four implode.

Thursday 3 September 2015

Theatre review: The Oresteia (Shakespeare's Globe)

In only its second-ever staging of Greek Tragedy, Shakespeare's Globe goes straight for the big one, and the oldest extant piece of Western theatre, Aeschylus' trilogy The Oresteia. The Trojan War is over, and Agamemnon (George Irving) is on his way back to his kingdom. But his wife Clytemnestra (Katy Stephens) hasn't forgotten, or forgiven, what he did to get his victory: To guarantee fair winds Agamemnon sacrificed their youngest daughter Iphigenia. Ten years on, he will pay for it with his own life, when his wife's smiles hide a plan for bloody revenge. But in a family that's carried a curse for generations, violence breeds violence. Another decade passes and Agamemnon's son Orestes (Joel MacCormack) returns to the House of Atreus, intent on avenging his father's death in turn.

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Theatre review: People, Places and Things

Emma (Denise Gough) is an actress who, halfway through a performance of The Seagull, loses sight of the difference between herself and her character, forgets her lines and is soon collapsing onstage. There's a prosaic reason for this blurring of identity: Emma is an alcoholic and addicted to various - mostly prescription - drugs, and soon she's checking herself into a rehab centre. The physical withdrawal is traumatic but over comparatively quickly, but what she finds the hardest is the the next part of her treatment, when in group therapy she's asked to reveal something of her true self and prepare to go back out into the world. The latest collaboration between the National Theatre and Headlong, and the first since both companies got new artistic directors, Duncan Macmillan's People, Places and Things attempts to shed a tragicomic light on the subject of addiction.

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Theatre review: My Eyes Went Dark

I don't know if it's the fact that there's multiple Oresteias in London at the moment, but I saw something of that tragedy in microcosm in Matthew Wilkinson's My Eyes Went Dark. Here, too, the death of a child - or children - sets off a cycle of blame and revenge that, in a more heightened theatrical style, would have meant generations of bloodshed. But here the initial tragic events are kicked off by accident rather than cold calculation, and the avenging Fury is a man who allows his grief to become his entire personality. Nikolai (Cal MacAninch) comes from a remote part of Russia, but is working abroad when his wife and children, en route to visit him, are killed in a plane crash. Within hours of the accident, he's seeking someone to blame for his loss, and when it turns out an overworked air traffic controller made a mistake, Nikolai develops an obsession with him.