Friday 30 October 2015

Theatre review: The Hairy Ape

After a year or so in the round, the Old Vic has returned to its traditional proscenium arch configuration, but in every other respect the second show in the season continues new boss Matthew Warchus' efforts to distance himself from the heritage style of his predecessor's tenure. This time Warchus has looked down the road to the Young Vic for one of its regular artists - one I've had trouble warming to in the past. Director Richard Jones brings his cartoon-like style to Eugene O'Neill, with Bertie Carvel bulking up to create another new look as The Hairy Ape. Carvel plays Yank, the de facto leader of a team of workers stoking the fires below decks on a cruise ship.They sweat and get filthy in the dark to keep the engine going while above them the wealthy passengers enjoy the view, rarely giving them a thought.

Thursday 29 October 2015

Theatre review: Dinner With Friends

Like many of the Pulitzer winners I've seen before, Dinner With Friends - Donald Margulies' play won the literary prize in 2000 - concerns itself with middle class American couples spending time in each others' homes. Unlike the others, it isn't actually about racism, or indeed any subject larger than the relationships we see on stage. Food writer Gabe (Shaun Dooley) and his wife Karen (Sara Stewart) are having a friend and her children round for dinner, giving her a blow-by-blow account of their recent holiday in Italy. It's not the relentlessness of their narrative that makes Beth (Finty Williams) suddenly burst into tears though: She said the reason her husband didn't join them at the dinner party was that he was away on business, but in fact he's left her for another woman, and they're now planning to get a divorce.

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Theatre review: Omeros

Before the Globe's winter season kicks off in earnest with the first Shakespeare productions to be designed especially for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse*, there's something of a Homeric mini-season as a taster. We start with the return of Joseph Marcell in a piece he performed a couple of times last year, Derek Walcott's epic poem Omeros, which transposes some of the characters from the Iliad to the Caribbean setting of the poet's birthplace, St Lucia. So we have a fisherman called Achille, at odds with Hector, who drives a bus to and from the airport, over who owns a little rusted tin; and an elderly Philoctète who believes his rotten, stinking foot is a curse passed down from his slave ancestors, a throwback to the chains around their ankles. There's also, of course, a Hélène, pregnant and fought over by the local men even as they seem to despise her for her pride and vanity.

Sunday 25 October 2015

Theatre review: Treasure

The latest "forgotten" play to be unearthed at the Finborough Theatre is thought to be a British premiere: Colin Chambers has written a new adaptation of David Pinski's 1906 Yiddish play Treasure. Part of a whole genre of Yiddish theatre that went on to inspire Fiddler on the Roof, the play is set in a Jewish town in a part of Russia that would nowadays be within the boundaries of Belarus. There Chone (James Pearse) has been the local gravedigger for the last 14 years, not a well-paid job but a steady one as the harsh conditions mean he's never short of customers. When his simpleton son Judke (Sid Sagar) buries his dog, he finds a stash of sovereigns which he gives as a gift to his sister Tille (Olivia Bernstone.) This puts Tille in an unusual position of power over Chone and his wife Jachne-Braine (Fiz Marcus,) who beg her for the gold coins; but she has plans to see what it's like to be rich, if only for one day.

Friday 23 October 2015

Theatre review: Playground

Enid Blyton's Famous Five books were a major part of my childhood: Adventure stories about upper-class children who survive deadly peril despite one of them being too stupid to know his own name, and another getting herself kidnapped on a roughly hourly basis, they taught the valuable lesson that it's easy to spot a criminal through the practical application of casual racism. The books get a sinister part to play in Peter Hamilton's Playground, or at least a sinister effect is attempted; or is it? I still haven't discounted the possibility that it's meant to be a comedy. Whatever it's trying to be, it fails. In Victoria Park in Bow, a serial killer has been decapitating children and leaving Famous Five books at the scene. When the murderer's identity is eventually revealed, it turns out the kids had a very obvious connection pointing to the culprit, which it took the police five corpses to spot.

Thursday 22 October 2015

Theatre review: Xanadu

You'd imagine an '80s-themed jukebox musical based on a notorious Olivia Newton-John movie about a roller-disco to be very, very camp. But actually Douglas Carter Beane's 2007 stage version of Xanadu will surprise you. By being so much camper than you'd ever expected. "Wow, this is like children's theatre for 40-year-old gay people!" is how one of the characters describes it: It's Venice Beach, California in 1980, and street artist Sonny (Samuel Edwards) has drawn a chalk picture of (seven of) the nine muses on a wall, but isn't quite happy with it. To help him with inspiration, the real leader of the ancient Greek muses, Clio (Carly Anderson,) descends from Olympus. But instead of helping him with his art, together they hatch a plan to create the ultimate expression of all arts, from music to dance to epic poetry: A roller-disco in an abandoned theatre called the Xanadu.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Theatre review: Plaques and Tangles

Plaques and Tangles are two kinds of formations in the brain that are thought to be responsible for Alzheimer's Disease; tangles are also a good description of how Nicola Wilson's play is structured, and not always in the way the playwright, and director Lucy Morrison intended. Megan (Monica Dola) is in her forties, and fast approaching the age at which her mother (Bríd Brennan) died, driving a car the wrong way down a motorway. She had a hereditary form of early-onset Alzheimer's, and as she starts to forget words and get her memories mixed up, it becomes increasingly obvious that Megan has inherited it. In fact, concerned about whether she had the gene, she took a test decades ago, but never told her husband Jez (Ferdy Roberts.)

Monday 19 October 2015

Theatre review: A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes

Last year Marcus Gardley took loose inspiration from Lorca's bleak The House of Bernarda Alba, to create the serious but hugely entertaining House That Will Not Stand. So I was very much looking forward to him teaming up with director Indhu Rubasingham again for a play based on a much lighter source: A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes is an adaptation of Molière’s satirical farce Tartuffe. The play could also be seen as a comic companion piece to Lucas Hnath's The Christians, as both playwrights are the sons of preachers in American megachurches, and that's where they've set their stories. But unlike Hnath's successful church, Gardley's play takes place in one that's hardly thriving: Tardimus Toof (Lucian Msamati) is the self-styled Apostle whose apparently successful healing of the sick isn't drawing in any cash - although it does give him the chance to hit on the young women he heals, much to the fury of his wife.

Saturday 17 October 2015

Theatre review: Richard III (The Wars of the Roses at the Rose Theatre, Kingston)

I don't know if it's John Barton's edit/adaptation or Trevor Nunn's direction (probably a bit of both,) but this trilogy version of The Wars of the Roses seems to be a lot less overtly Lancastrian in sympathy than Shakespeare's four-play original. Not that it's become Yorkist instead, but both sides of the conflict come off about equal in terms of culpability for the lives lost. Richard III is by far the most frequently performed play in the tet as it's considered something of a standalone story, but it definitely benefits in a couple of ways from being seen in context, and one of these is in a titular villain who isn't quite as villainous here: Robert Sheehan's Richard spent Edward IV as the Yorkist enforcer, doing the dirty work that'll get his family into power. Once they've got it, it turns out that the biggest obstacle to keeping it is the family themselves, so he proceeds to turn on them, killing both relatives and former allies.

Theatre review: Edward IV (The Wars of the Roses at the Rose Theatre, Kingston)

Henry VI's queen, Margaret of Anjou (Joely Richardson,) is a figure who looms over the whole of Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy - or in the case of John Barton's War of the Roses edit, trilogy. In Edward IV, the determination and strength she showed earlier in the sequence starts to reach a level of insanity that'll inform much of the climactic play as well. What kicks it off is a deal her husband (Alex Waldmann) makes in an attempt to pacify his Yorkist rivals: He will remain king to the end of his natural life, but the Duke of York (Alexander Hanson) and his sons will be his heirs. As this disinherits their son Edward (played by Freddy Carter's cheekbones,) Margaret won't stand for it; soon she's leading the charge herself, the treaty's forgotten and the wars are back on, bloodier than ever. York won't live to see the crown himself, but it will pass back and forth between Henry, and York's son Edward IV (Kåre Conradi - for the sake of NUNNSTORICAL ACCURACY the king of England is Norwegian.)

Theatre review: Henry VI (The Wars of the Roses at the Rose Theatre, Kingston)

I don't know why, but I just get the impression that Trevor Nunn favours the white roses.

A Shakespearean epic in Kingston (Jamaica? No, she went of her own accord) as Trevor Nunn looks back at one of the most famous productions from the RSC's history - The Wars of the Roses. John Barton adapted the second tetralogy (first in order of writing) of Shakespeare's Histories into a trilogy, combining the three Henry VI plays into two, and topping off the event with Richard III. Nunn credits Peter Hall's original production with inspiring his own theatrical career, and so revives the sequence as a tribute both to him, and to Barton's editing work. The trilogy has been slightly overshadowed, deservedly, by controversy, as Nunn has deliberately eschewed colour-blind casting, claiming on the one hand that an all-white cast is more historically accurate, and on the other that audiences will find it easier to follow the complex family trees if all members of a family are the same race.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Theatre review: French Without Tears

The Rattigan revival remains in such full swing it seems insane he vanished from the stage for so long. And given how well plays like French Without Tears hold up, it feels downright criminal. The playwright has a knack for understated heartbreak but while there's glimpses of that here, we're mainly in full-on, mischievous comic mode. The setting is the rural French home of Professor Maingot (David Whitworth,) where young Englishmen - usually those hoping to become diplomats - can spend a few months learning the language from him and his daughter. Kenneth (Patrick McNamee,) nicknamed Babe as he's the youngest, has brought along his sister, and she's caused a stir among the other students. As the story begins she's swearing love to Kit (Joe Eyre,) but when Bill (William Belchambers,) a Navy Commander joins their class, he catches her eye too.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Theatre review: Ticking

TV and film writer Paul Andrew Williams makes his stage debut with Ticking, a play that seems to take inspiration from Michael Wall's 1986 play Amongst Barbarians but then takes its dark theme off into a weirdly domestic direction. Simon (Tom Hughes) is a middle-class Englishman in his twenties who's been found guilty of murdering a prostitute in China. He's always protested his innocence but after four years in a Chinese prison he faces execution by firing squad at midnight. With a few hours to go and his American lawyer (David Michaels) desperately trying to get a last-minute reprieve, Simon's parents (Anthony Head and Niamh Cusack) arrive to spend a final hour with their son. They find him angry and frustrated, unsurprisingly, but instead of his captors his anger seems to be directed at them, and especially his father.

Monday 12 October 2015

Comedy review: Showstopper! The Improvised Musical

A couple of months ago I first took Evil Alex to Mischief Theatre's improv show Lights! Camera! Improvise! On being told they ask the audience for genre suggestions, he wanted to know if they ever do a musical (they don't, although they usually do a song somewhere along the way.) It wasn't long after that I found out Alex was going to get his wish, as another company were going to bring their improvised show to the West End; and the Showstopper! team's USP is that they exclusively make up musicals. On the spot, a new one every night. Dylan Emery acts as master of ceremonies and takes suggestions of a theme and style from the audience. Tonight we ended up with a show about NASA called Rock-It (a pun the woman who suggested it hadn't quite intended, but she got a mug as a reward anyway.) The last two Mischief shows we saw were also sci-fi, so if that's what audiences keep voting for there's obviously an untapped market somewhere.

Sunday 11 October 2015

Re-review: In The Heights

After a sold-out run at Southwark Playhouse last year, Luke Sheppard's UK premiere of In The Heights was widely rumoured for a transfer. It's taken nearly 18 months to happen, but the timing may be fortuitous - as a London audience eagerly awaits the latest Broadway smash Hamilton to make it across the pond, Lin-Manuel Miranda's earlier show is an exciting alternative, and as the limited run has already announced an extension it seems to be doing well in its new home. That home is the King's Cross Theatre, a disused platform of the train station, converted specially to house an adaptation of The Railway Children. So the show has been restaged to suit a larger, traverse stage, but Drew McOnie's memorably energetic choreography has settled in well, with a lot of the original cast also returning.

Saturday 10 October 2015

Theatre review: Hecuba

While the Almeida's spent the summer giving us radical rewrites of Greek classics, the RSC has cut Euripides out of the picture altogether and, in what would probably have been a more accurate description of Icke's Oresteia and Cusk's Medea as well, commissioned Marina Carr to write an entirely new play based on the legend - in this case, that of Hecuba. There's a lot of dead children in this story too but Hecuba (Derbhle Crotty) isn't as okay with this as Medea: A mother of eighteen and the former queen of Troy, as the play begins the city has just been taken after ten years of war, and she's not yet quite understood the "former" part of her title. The Greeks have demanded that no male Trojans be left alive, and as most of her children were sons, she sits in her throne room surrounded by their dismembered bodies. Taking comfort from her two remaining children, she stands up to the triumphant Agamemnon (Ray Fearon.)

Friday 9 October 2015

Theatre review: Measure for Measure (Young Vic)

My third, and presumably last Measure for Measure of the year, and after a typically caustic, physical and anti-naturalistic one from Cheek by Jowl's Russian arm and an unsuccessful attempt to ramp up the bawdy comedy at the Globe, the Young Vic's production pitches it somewhere in the middle. Joe Hill-Gibbins returns to the venue where he made his name, although instead of the jelly that featured heavily last time he was here, he brings along the video cameras from his Edward II at the National. Miriam Buether's set is a plain wooden box that, when the curtains go back, is piled high with blow-up plastic sex dolls. This, it seems, is what the people of Vienna have been reduced to in the eyes of the Duke (Zubin Varla.) The city's morality laws are actually incredibly strict, so he's let them slip during the 19 years of his rule. He now feels this was a mistake, but he'd feel hypocritical enforcing them now himself. So he pretends to leave the city, posing as a friar to see what happens when he leaves the puritanical Angelo in charge. What could possibly go wrong?

Thursday 8 October 2015

Theatre review: Teddy Ferrara

It's been seven years since we last saw a play by Christopher Shinn in London - he had a big hit with Now or Later, which gave Eddie Redmayne a career-boosting role. That play's themes of political ambition and high-profile young gay people are also present in his new play Teddy Ferrara, and Shinn's return has also coaxed back director Dominic Cooke, who's been off the radar since leaving the Royal Court. Hildegard Bechtler's set design turns the Donmar stage into a functional meeting room in a modern US university campus building. But this is a space for impassioned arguments rather than coursework, because most of the students we meet are particularly driven and ambitious, with a high profile on campus. The central character is Gabe (Luke Newberry,) the leader of the college's LGBTQ group. His best friend Tim (Nathan Wiley) is the student president, and Gabe has been persuaded to run for the post himself in his Senior year.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Theatre review: La Musica

At the start of their marriage Michel (Sam Troughton) and Anne-Marie (Emily Barclay) spent three months living in a hotel room, while they waited for their home to be built. They return to the hotel, or at least to its otherwise empty bar, on the last night of their marriage: Having both been unfaithful they ended up getting divorced, a protracted process that's gone on for three years. They've met again after all that time on the eve of signing the decree absolute as well as, ostensibly, to discuss what to do with a few last pieces of furniture and boxes of books. In reality what they want to do is pick at old wounds, as Marguerite Duras' La Musica is essentially a post-mortem on a failed relationship.

Friday 2 October 2015

Theatre review: Medea (Almeida Theatre)

Rupert Goold concludes his hit Greek season at the Almeida by directing by far the most frequently produced of the three tragedies (the end of this run will clash with the Gate's take on it,) Euripides' Medea. For me this production has a similar effect to Simon Russell Beale graduating from Edgar to King Lear last year: The first professional role I ever saw Kate Fleetwood in was as part of the chorus to Fiona Shaw's Medea, and now it's her turn at the titular role, in one of her comparatively rare collaborations with her husband. As with Robert Icke's take on the Oresteia, Rachel Cusk's adaptation of the story of the woman who takes brutal revenge when her husband leaves her is a pretty broad re-write of the original; and while Goold's production and his cast's performances are excellent, I'm a bit less sure about how well the story changes work.