Monday 30 November 2015

Theatre review: Ben Hur

With West End long-runner The 39 Steps finally shutting up shop this year, it could be that the people behind it are hoping to replace it with another iconic film turned into a frantic four-actor comedy. Whether it'll be making a trip to the Criterion is anyone's guess, but for the time being Ben Hur is providing a lot of laughs at the Tricycle, with surely the silliest Christmas show outside of panto. This time Patrick Barlow's script has a touch of The Play That Goes Wrong about it, as we meet Daniel Veil (John Hopkins,) the self-styled theatrical impresario who's written, directed and produced his stage adaptation of General Lewis "Lew" Wallace's biblical novel, and will of course also be taking on the title role. Alix Dunmore, Richard Durden and Ben Jones join him to play everyone else, and to try and keep the constant set and costume changes running smoothly.

Sunday 29 November 2015

Theatre review: 3 Guys Naked From The Waist Down

Not literally though :(

The Finborough's Sunday to Tuesday slot sometimes plays host to forgotten small-scale musicals, and here's one so small-scale the five-strong band outnumber the cast: Jerry Colker (book and lyrics) and Michael Rupert's (music) 3 Guys Naked From The Waist Down premiered off-Broadway in 1985, and while it retains some of its charm there's also much to explain why this is the first UK production since the eighties. Ted (Simon Haines) emcees at a small New York comedy club and feels trapped there, until he spots "Angry Guy" comic Phil (Benedict Hastings.) Ted knows a talent-spotter from The Tonight Show and thinks if they team up they stand a chance of impressing him. But he insists they're also joined by his best friend Kenny (Guy Woolf,) who has an irritating surreal routine, a fondness for interrupting other people's acts, and obvious real mental health issues behind the scenes. Despite problems like Kenny's tendency to walk off mid-show and, frankly, the quality of their act, they get their live TV slot and become an overnight success.

Friday 27 November 2015

Theatre review: Harlequinade and All On Her Own

When life gives you harlequins, make...

Harlequinade has a reputation as a very minor part of the Terence Rattigan canon. It's certainly not notable for its depth, but it's no doubt also suffered from often being paired with one of the playwright's masterpieces, The Browning Version, for no other reason than their both being one-acters. Playing in rep with The Winter's Tale in the SirKenBranCo season, it's paired with a different Rattigan piece, but it's no less of an unusual combination: The evening opens with Zoë Wanamaker in the monologue All On Her Own as widow Rosemary, returning from a date to an empty house. Sitting in the room where her husband died of an overdose, she has a conversation with him about whether it truly was an accident as the coroner ruled, or a suicide; she replies to herself on his behalf, expressing thoughts she's been afraid to say out loud before.

Thursday 26 November 2015

Theatre review: Pericles (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

From no Shakespeare at all in its first two winter seasons, Dominic Dromgoole's swansong at the Globe is an all-Shakespeare season in the Swanamaker. I hope this doesn't become the norm, as I liked having the indoor playhouse as a place to showcase other Jacobean playwrights and works that don't often see the light of day. Of course, even a Shakespeare play can be pretty obscure, and as the theme of the season is to play four of the late romances in rep, two of the quartet are rarities. The reason we seldom see the first is that, apart from the entirely lost plays, Pericles is the one of which the least has survived. The version we have is reconstructed from a a dodgy quarto of fragmented scenes, some attributed to Shakespeare, some to George Wilkins. So it's episodic, inconsistent and full of bizarre tangents and plot contrivances. But Dromgoole opts to view the problems as strengths, playing it as a kind of silly alternative to the Odyssey.

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Theatre review: The Divided Laing, or, The Two Ronnies

The psychiatrist RD Laing's theories were a major influence on Equus, so I was interested in seeing a play about the man himself. Laing's work is now widely discredited but Patrick Marmion's The Divided Laing, or, The Two Ronnies takes place in 1970, when Ronnie Laing (Alan Cox) is in his prime: A minor celebrity thanks to regular appearances on BBC2, and running his own mental institution-cum-hippie commune, The Philadelphia Association. There the line between doctors and patients is hard to see: Aaron (Kevin McMonagle) is his long-standing colleague and the sensible balance to Laing's excess; also there is the intermittently American psychiatrist Joe (James Russell,) and Mary (Laura-Kate Gordon,) the resident nurse, who may or may not have got over her coprophilia. But Laing seems to identify most with David (Oscar Pearce,) a South African with a voracious appetite for drink and drugs, who has to be kept in a medically-induced coma much of the time.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Theatre review: Flowering Cherry

According to the Finborough's publicity, when Flowering Cherry premiered in 1957 it was called a British Death of a Salesman, and there are certainly parallels to be drawn. Robert Bolt's Willy Loman figure is Jim Cherry (Liam McKenna,) at one time a travelling insurance salesman who, despite his dislike for the job and actual undisguised contempt for the customers, was good enough at it to be promoted to management. This office job hasn't been as much of a success though, and between frustration and fear of being sacked, he starts to claim he's resigned. Always a compulsive liar and a fantasist, he retreats into a long-held dream of selling up and returning to his native Somerset to start an apple orchard. It's left to his long-suffering wife Bel (Catherine Kanter) and their children to try and find the truth in what he tells them, and figure out what kind of future they actually have.

Friday 20 November 2015

Theatre review: Sparks

Jess (Sophie Steer) turns up on the doorstep of a woman too stunned to speak, soaked by the rain and carrying a goldfish in a bowl. Simon Longman's Sparks is the classic theatrical staple of family members suddenly reunited after a long time apart - in this case over twelve years, and as the women only appear to be in their early twenties, it's obvious they were separated when they were very young. The woman is Jess' sister Sarah (Sally Hodgkiss,) who maintains a shocked silence as the girl who walked out one day and hasn't been heard from since returns as a motor-mouthed woman with a backpack full of booze. The latter is part of what will eventually help Sarah loosen up and discuss the abandonment she's felt since her last remaining relative left her, and the lonely life she's led since.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Theatre review: Waste

I have a certain amount of healthy suspicion for plays best-known for being banned. What was too unspeakably controversial to be staged in - in this instance - 1907, tends to have lost its shock value by now, and all too often what's left without it would have been long-since forgotten under normal circumstances. It seems to have been a combination of themes of abortion, suicide, and corruption at the highest levels of power that kept Waste off the stage until 1936. Harley Granville Barker's play about political scandal sees the Conservative Party win a General Election, with a mandate that requires them to pass a law separating Church from State. It's not a job anyone in the party actually wants so the new Prime Minister, Horsham (Michael Elwyn) takes the unusual step of inviting Independent MP Henry Trebell (Charles Edwards) to join his cabinet with particular responsibility for drafting and passing the disestablishment bill.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Theatre review: Thirty Million Minutes

Dawn French's monologue is advertised as being neither standup comedy nor theatre but somewhere in between; essentially Thirty Million Minutes is a personal memoir that, instead of publishing, French has chosen to perform. The thirty million minutes of the title correspond roughly to her current age of 58, and the show is loosely held together by a theme of her learning how to be the things life demands of her: First a daughter and sister, then wife and mother, and later single again - before eventually and unexpectedly becoming a wife and stepmother again. The majority of her reminiscences come from childhood, growing up in an RAF family and therefore often moving around, calling places as diverse as Cyprus and Plymouth home. Discussion of her adult life also focuses on the personal and doesn't touch at all on her comedy career, although there's a few audience-pleasing offhand references to Jennifer Saunders, and photos of many of her comic contemporaries.

Tuesday 17 November 2015

Theatre review: A Further Education

A shaky start could resolve itself in great things or a complete nosedive; true of many people's first year at university, and of Will Mortimer's debut play about a mature student, A Further Education. At an unnamed (more on this later) university, new tutor Chris (Oliver Hembrough) has three first year students in his tutorial group. Straight out of school are Lydia (Isabella Laughland) and Joshua (Makir Ahmed,) while Charlotte (Stella Gonet) is a local, much older but sharper than any of them when it comes to dissecting the classics. Her grades are high and her fellow-students quickly accept her in their social circle as well, and she even ends up becoming friendly with the strident but scatty new Vice-Chancellor Rachel (Issy van Randwyck.) There's more than just her age and the breadth of her knowledge that sets Charlotte apart from the rest of the students though, and Joshua and Lydia soon stumble upon a secret about her.

Monday 16 November 2015

Theatre review: Henry V (RSC / Barbican)

Shakespeare's history sequence comes to a close with Henry V. Well no, obviously it doesn't; but after initially suggesting the entire octet would form the spine of the RSC's complete works over the years, Gregory Doran's more recently been talking about the project as wrapping up here. Accordingly this production will eventually be joined in rep by the return of his Richard II and Henry IV Part 1 & Part 2, and I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up farming directing duties for the Henry VIs out to someone else. In the meantime this tetralogy concludes with Henry IV's dynasty finding a brief but memorable moment when its legitimacy isn't questioned: The best way to distract from trouble at home is to make a big noise abroad, so Henry V pursues a dubious claim to large parts of France.

Friday 13 November 2015

Theatre review: The Winter's Tale (Kenneth Branagh Company at the Garrick Theatre)

The latest director to launch his own West End residency is Kenneth Branagh, and he promises to stick around until the end and not get distracted by a shiny thing this time. For the opener SirKenBran co-directs with Rob Ashford and stars as Leontes in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Leontes is king of Sicilia, and lifelong best friends with the king of Bohemia, Polixenes (Hadley Fraser.) Until, that is, for no reason at all, he becomes convinced that Polixenes is having an affair with his wife Herminone (Miranda Raison) and that the baby the queen is pregnant with isn't his. By the time the oracle at Delphi confirms Hermione's innocence it's too late: His public accusation and humiliation of her has brought about deaths and divine retribution, and Leontes' misery can only be ended 16 years later, when his lost baby daughter Perdita (Pirate Jessie Buckley) is found in Bohemia.

Thursday 12 November 2015

Theatre review: Medea (Gate Theatre)

This is certainly the year not just for Greek Tragedy, but for plays that take some of the mythology's most famous stories and rewrite them in a new way. The Gate's Medea opens just as the Almeida's nears the end of its run, and while that interpretation - one I liked less the more I thought about it - sidelined the story's most notorious victims, to the point of not caring whether they were actually dead or not by the end, this one puts them centre stage. Writer Kate Mulvany and writer-director Anne-Louise Sarks tell the story from the bedroom shared by serious pre-teen Leon (Bili Keogh, alternating with Keir Edkins-O'Brien) and his hyper little brother Jasper (Samuel Menhinick, alternating with Bobby Smallridge.) They play, argue and discuss - tentatively - the conversation going on downstairs between their parents, which they are vaguely aware is about the future of their marriage. They're to stay in their room while their parents talk; the ominous first sound we hear is them being locked in by their mother.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Theatre review: As You Like It (National Theatre)

With Rufus Norris, by his own admission, nowhere near as strong on the classics as his predecessor and relying heavily on advice from his associates, the choice of As You Like It as the first Shakespeare play of his tenure was greeted as something of a predictably safe choice. Happily this isn't something that extends to Polly Findlay's production which, though far from the funniest version of the play I've ever seen, may be one of the most charming and visually inventive. The setting is the court of a usurping duke - here a modern-day stock trading office - whose daughter Celia (Patsy Ferran) has been allowed to keep her cousin Rosalind (Rosalie Craig) as a companion. But Duke Frederick's (Leo Wringer) moods are unpredictable, and he decides to banish Rosalind. She and Celia escape to the forest, taking with them the clown Touchstone (Mark Benton.)

Monday 9 November 2015

Theatre review: RoosevElvis

A couple of years ago American company the TEAM brought their show Mission Drift to The Artist Formerly Known As Shed, a Vegas-based piece of Americana that was generally well-liked but which I didn't warm to. I believe in giving second chances though, and this time they're at the Royal Court with a show that had many moments that entertained me, but as a whole struggled to remain memorable even as far as the journey home. Ann (Libby King) is a butch, shy lesbian who works in a meat processing plant in South Dakota; having started on reception she was moved to the factory floor as her bosses thought she was "more suited" to that environment, and she's been there for 15 years. She loves Elvis Presley and when she gets back home has imagined conversations with him to stave off her loneliness, until she finds Brenda (Kristen Sieh) on a dating site. After a couple of days together they decide it isn't going to work out, but their extended date includes a trip to Mount Rushmore, where Brenda tells her she comes from the same town as Theodore Roosevelt, whom it seems Elvis idolised in turn. Emboldened by her recent experiences, Ann decides to drive to Graceland in RoosevElvis.

Saturday 7 November 2015

Theatre review: Love for Love

In the prologue to William Congreve's Love for Love Angelica (Justine Mitchell) promises all sorts of fun over the next few hours on the stage then ends by saying that, for the more discerning audience member, they'll even throw in a plot. Well there's lots of fun moments on the Swan's stage but calling what happens an actual plot might be stretching the term to breaking point. We're in Restoration Comedy territory, in genre if not historically, as the play premiered in Queen Anne's time and - in a nod to Helen Edmundson's play that will be in rep later in the season - Queen Anne herself is in the audience: In one of many fourth wall-breaking touches, an audience member gets to wear the crown (this afternoon's Queen was clearly thrilled to be chosen as she kept it on throughout.)

Friday 6 November 2015

Theatre review: Husbands & Sons

The National's new epic is called Husbands & Sons but it's the wives and mothers - underappreciated and overbearing, respectively - who hold centre stage. Ben Power adapts three DH Lawrence stories of a coal-mining town between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire in 1911, having them play out in parallel in a single neighbourhood. Three houses are marked out on Bunny Christie's in-the-round set: At the Holroyds', Lizzie (Anne-Marie Duff) is always saying she's finally had enough of her husband Charles (Martin Marquez,) an angry drunk who's not above stumbling home in the middle of the night with other women in tow. But she always takes him back, despite the efforts of the plant's electrician Blackmore (Philip McGinley,) even when he reveals he's in love with her, and his plan to help her escape with him to Spain.

Thursday 5 November 2015

Theatre review: The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead

To complete the Homeric theme of the Swanamaker's pre-season we have writer Simon Armitage and director Nick Bagnall, who gave us a play based on the Iliad in 2014, now returning to tackle the Odyssey. I wasn't sure what to expect as I found their take on The Last Days of Troy a somewhat redundant addition to the many other versions of the story, but for The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead Armitage has found a new angle and explored it well. In modern-day Britain, a few weeks before a general election, Smith (Colin Tierney,) a minister popular with the people but not necessarily so with his own party, wants to go home to Cumbria for his son's 18th birthday. But the Prime Minister (Simon Dutton) co-opts him to show his face at a World Cup qualifier in Istanbul. England win the match but in the aftermath Smith and his friends get caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time - attempting to break up a violent brawl, a photo taken from the wrong angle makes it look like the minister dealt a killer blow, and it goes viral.

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Theatre review: The Glass Menagerie (Headlong)

Tennessee Williams' early masterpiece The Glass Menagerie has suddenly proved popular for fresh interpretation; the production in Southampton was a bit too far for me, but Headlong's tour includes a stop at Richmond, which is certainly doable, especially when it's an adventurous company taking on one of my favourite playwrights. Ellen McDougall's production is very much stripped down - not in the way that its star Greta Scacchi used to be best known for but in a way that, like so much else in the last 18 months, wears an Ivo van Hove influence on its sleeve. Fly Davis' set is a black box, bare except for a staircase, a couple of lamps and a single snowglobe representing the collection of glass animals that gives the play its title. But this isn't too far a departure from what's intended, as the prologue informs us this is a memory play where everything is a bit hidden in shadow and fuzzy around the edges, its narrator - an obvious stand-in for Williams in this autobiographical work - an unreliable one.

Tuesday 3 November 2015

Theatre review: Tomcat

After a few years based at the Finborough, the annual Papatango playwrighting prize has moved to a new home with roughly twice the seating capacity, in Southwark Playhouse's Little space. This year's winner, James Rushbrooke, taps into the current trend for plays about science with Tomcat. In a not-too-distant future, genetic screening of foetuses has resulted in the eradication of most illnesses, but at the cost of roughly one in four pregnancies being terminated - a legal requirement if a scan finds anything out of the ordinary. A subculture does exist that rejects this degree of state interference, so there are a few exceptions - one of them is 12-year-old Jessie (Eleanor Worthington-Cox,) who's been kept under observation by the authorities since they discovered her at the age of three. She's lived in the same windowless room since then, forbidden from touching people or making any sudden moves: According to her genetic makeup, she might be a psychopath.

Monday 2 November 2015

Theatre review: The Moderate Soprano

A strong cast headed by Roger Allam and Future Dame Nancy Carroll struggles to make David Hare's latest play feel like the finished article. A former chemistry teacher at Eton, John Christie (Allam in an embarrassingly ill-fitting bald cap) was a 50-year-old virgin when he went to the opera and fell for The Moderate Soprano. A barrage of gifts began the wealthy eccentric's courtship of the much younger woman, and eventually convinced Audrey (Carroll) to marry him and settle in his country home in Sussex. Today the name Glyndebourne is synonymous with opera but in 1934 the idea of building a small opera house in the grounds was the latest of Christie's bizarre grand schemes, his plan for an annual season a thinly-disguised showcase for his wife's modest talents. A Wagner fan, Christie looked to Germany for his creatives, and with the rise of Hitler some big names had found themselves out of favour with the Nazi regime.