Friday 26 February 2016

Theatre review: The Maids

In the play considered Jean Genet's masterpiece, The Maids are Solange (Uzo Aduba) and her younger sister Claire (Zawe Ashton,) downtrodden and patronised but allowed into any corner of their Master and Mistress' lives. They've already used this insider knowledge to take revenge on the Master, Claire having sent the police an anonymous letter detailing certain illegal activities that have now landed him in prison. They'd like to go one step further with the Mistress (Laura Carmichael) though: When she's out they like to dress up and rehearse ways of murdering her. When they hear the Master has been released on bail, they realise he'll soon figure out who framed him, and decide they have to turn their fantasy of killing the boss into reality - but despite a poisoned cup of tea it proves harder than they thought.

Thursday 25 February 2016

Theatre review: Hand to God

A pretty speedy transfer from Broadway to the West End - with the original creative team but a new British cast - for a show that's quickly gained a Marmite reputation, but ended up with me having no strong feelings either way. In Robert Askins' Hand to God, recently-widowed Margery (Janie Dee) is distracting herself from her grief by running a Christian puppetry class in the local church's basement, with the intention of getting teenagers to perform Bible stories at services. There's only three kids in her class though, and very little enthusiasm for the project, except from her son Jason (Harry Melling,) who's a bit too enthusiastic: Timid and bullied by classmate Timothy (Kevin Mains,) everything Jason has been repressing gets let out by his sock puppet Tyrone, who speaks to him even when they're alone, threatens violence if the boy tries to take him off his hand, and quickly becomes the dominant personality.

Wednesday 24 February 2016

Theatre review: Cleansed

It can be hard to buy the critical opinion that underneath the torture porn Sarah Kane's work is essentially about love; but it's a fact that seems strangely obvious, yet hard to quite grasp, in the two hours of body horror that is Cleansed. Heroin addicted Graham (Graham Butler) dies of an overdose injected into his eye by Tinker (Tom Mothersdale,) in a decrepit institutional building (grungily designed by Alex Eales.) Some months later his (twin?) sister Grace (Michelle Terry) voluntarily checks herself into Tinker's care in an attempt to connect with her dead brother. There she witnesses, and becomes part of, the sadistic experiments that go on there: A couple, Rod (George Taylor) and Carl (Peter Hobday) are made to declare their love for each other, and Carl unwisely says he'd die for his lover, a statement the torturer decides to test - piece by piece.

Monday 22 February 2016

Re-review: Nell Gwynn

Jessica Swale's Nell Gwynn, which I put at number 4 in my Top Ten productions of 2015, has made it to the West End for a deserved wider audience; you can read myoriginal review of Christopher Luscombe's production here, from its run at Shakespeare's Globe. With Hugh Durrant's design recreating a slightly smaller version of the Globe's stage for the Apollo, much of my original review stands (except for Sarah Woodward nicking someone in the audience's drink; harder to do on a pros arch.) Of course, one major change is in the lead, Gugu Mbatha-Raw having had filming commitments. But you couldn't have asked for a better replacement than Gemma Arterton, who has just the right kind of charisma - much of it consisting of a wicked sense of fun - to bring both the steely determination of the first-ever female star actor, and her warmth to life. (And we already knew from her turn in Made in Dagenham that Arterton could handle Nell's bawdy songs.)

Sunday 21 February 2016

Theatre review: Four Play

The cliché about gay relationships is that everyone is cheerfully shagging around, so anyone in a more old-fashioned, monogamous pairing might well feel like they're missing out on something. Jake Brunger's Four Play looks at two gay couples in their twenties, a generation that's always had the option of civil partnerships and now marriage, for whom a traditional relationship is as much of an expected option as something a bit kinkier. Rafe (Cai Brigden) and Pete (Michael Gilbert) met at university, came out together and have been a monogamous couple for seven (and a half - it's an important distinction to Rafe) years. It means neither of them has ever slept with anyone else and, although they still insist everything is fine between them, they think a one-off with someone else might be the thing the shake off any seven-year-itch.

Saturday 20 February 2016

Theatre review: Doctor Faustus (RSC / Swan)

There's always at least one play that behaves like a bus, away from the stage a few years then two come along at once; this year it's Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, with two interesting directors taking it on. Up first, Maria Aberg sees Faustus and Mephistophilis as two sides of the same coin, and as such two actors share the roles, who plays whom determined by chance. As the performance opens, the two actors stand opposite each other and light matches. Oliver Ryan's match burned out first, so he was Faustus this afternoon. The scholar has exhausted medicine, the Law and theology, and is yet to find a truth about the world that'll satisfy his curiosity. His last option is to turn to the occult. He conjures the demon Mephistophilis (Sandy Grierson,) and sells his soul to hell.

Friday 19 February 2016

Theatre review: The Encounter

Simon McBurney writes, co-directs (with Kirsty Housley) and stars in The Encounter, an adaptation of Petru Popescu's book Amazon Burning, about a photographer whose search for a lost tribe ended up a lot more immersive than he'd planned. Loren McIntyre went into the rainforest with his camera in 1969, making sure to mark his way so he could get back again at the end of each day. That's until the day he actually spotted a member of the tribe, his caution left him and he ended up needing to put himself at their mercy for food and shelter. Having experienced only death and destruction at the hands of white men before, most of the tribe are hostile to him, but one man seems friendly and, despite their lack of a common language, McIntyre becomes convinced they're communicating telepathically.

Thursday 18 February 2016

Theatre review: Mrs Henderson Presents

The latest screen-to-stage musical sees Terry Johnson (writing and directing) take inspiration from Stephen Frears' 2005 film Mrs Henderson Presents, that starred Judi Dench as a real-life, unlikely pioneer of onstage frontal nudity. With music by George Fenton & Simon Chamberlain and lyrics by Don Black, this stage version sees Tracie Bennett take on the role of Laura Henderson, the wealthy widow who, more or less on a whim, decides to spend her late husband's money on the Windmill Theatre. She gets struggling impresario Vivian Van Damm (Ian Bartholomew) to run it for her, but "revudeville" is a flop. Mrs Henderson isn't ready to give up just yet though, and she finds a loophole in the censorship laws that will allow her Windmill Girls to appear nude on stage, as long as they stand still, recreating famous artworks. Unsurprisingly, she soon finds an audience of men interested in the rechristened "renudeville."

Wednesday 17 February 2016

Theatre review: The End of Longing

My sister, who saw him on The One Show the other day, says that Matthew Perry comes across as very witty and spontaneous in interviews. So it's interesting that he chose not to utilise any of that in his playwrighting debut. The star of Six White Complainers has based The End of Longing on his own struggles with alcoholism, but says his lead character in the play is based neither on him nor his sitcom character. I can't vouch for the former but as for the latter, Perry himself stars as a sarcastic New Yorker with a very small circle of friends; let's call him Bandler Ching. Bandler meets a pair of female friends in a bar, and starts a relationship with Stephanie (Jennifer Mudge.) Her friend Stevie (Christina Cole) turns out to be shagging Bandler's best friend Joseph (Lloyd Owen,) in one of many such coincidences - there may be the bright lights of a cityscape behind Anna Fleischle's set, but the characters keep bumping into one of the other three people they know.

Tuesday 16 February 2016

Theatre review: Uncle Vanya

For the second of his Good But Incredibly Long shows at the Almeida (if the rumoured Andrew Scott Hamlet pans out, I imagine we'll be looking at a trilogy,) Robert Icke jumps forward a couple of millennia from the Oresteia to Chekhov, and his rural tragedy* Uncle Vanya. When his late sister married a noted academic and was given a farm as a dowry, John (Paul Rhys) dedicated his life to managing it, sending the money to his brother-in-law to fund his writing. When his first wife died, Alexander (Hilton McRae) got remarried, to the much younger Elena (Vanessa Kirby.) Now retired, Alexander has brought Elena to live on the farm with him, and actually spending time with the man he idolised for years has made John realise a harsh truth: Alexander is in fact a very minor, derivative scholar, and John's worked 25 years to fund an academic legacy that will actually be instantly forgotten.

Monday 15 February 2016

Theatre review: Rabbit Hole

American playwright David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole has had a bit of a stuttering journey to the London stage - a couple of years ago a big West End production was announced, only to get cancelled almost as soon as it went on sale. Now, after the venue had a hit with Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, Hampstead Theatre becomes the natural home for his family drama of grief. We open with a domestic scene as Becca (Claire Skinner) washes and folds a child's clothes as her sister Izzy (Georgina Rich) catches her up with her latest personal dramas. This surface of normality is hard-bought though, as it turns out Becca is getting the clothes ready to take to charity, her 4-year-old son having run out into traffic and died eight months earlier. She and her husband Howie (Tom Goodman-Hill) are both trying to deal with the loss in their own ways, but their different coping strategies are putting a strain on their relationship.

Sunday 14 February 2016

Theatre review: Andy Capp The Musical

Taking its cue from the success of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, a British comic strip got in on the game of trying a musical spin-off; the unlikely team of Alan Price from The Animals (music and lyrics) and Trevor Peacock from The Vicar of Dibley (book and lyrics) came up with Andy Capp The Musical in 1982. It did make it to the West End but presumably not for long, as it becomes the latest "forgotten" British musical to get a revival as the Finborough's alternate show. Roger Alborough plays Reg Smythe's famous creation Andy Capp, the permanently unemployed layabout who still seems to find the money to get drunk every night. Andy's wife Flo (Lynn Robertson Hay) is the one with a job, but she still has to beg him for money if she wants to go to bingo, or to buy something special - like a new dress for a wedding.

Saturday 13 February 2016

Theatre review: The Spanish Tragedy

With the Swanamaker having a Shakespeare year it's left to other venues to showcase his contemporaries, and the Old Red Lion does have previous form with Jacobethan revenge tragedies. Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy gets seriously pared down both in text and style in director Dan Hutton's production. A brief war between Spain and Portugal gets resolved with a treaty in which Spain has both the upper hand, and a Portuguese prince: Technically a hostage, Balthazar (Jamie Satterthwaite) is more like a guest at court, who's made great friends with one of the royal princesses, Lorenzo (Janet Etuk,) and has set his sights on marrying the other, Bel-Imperia (India Semper-Hughes.) She's not so keen because Balthazar killed her fiancé in the battle and besides, she's now moved on to his friend Horatio (Lee Drage.) So Balthazar and Lorenzo kill Horatio as well, convincing the King (Leo Wan) a royal marriage would be a good idea.

Friday 12 February 2016

Theatre review: Road Show

After the rise of the Nazis in the first part of his two-show season at the Union, director Phil Willmott goes for something a bit lighter but not necessarily easier: Road Show is the fourth title, and who knows how many dozen rewrites and reinventions, for Sondheim and Weidman's attempt to tell the story of Addison Meisner, the turn-of-the-20th century architect whose style defined much of how Florida looks to this day. After their father dies, leaving them poorer than they expected, Addy (Howard Jenkins) and his brother Willie (Andre Rafig) seek their fortune in the Alaskan gold rush. Addy's hard work and determination sees their plot of land yield results, only for his brother to lose it in a card game. It sets a pattern: The drunk coke-head Willie is a schemer whose plans always seem to leave him penniless and take any number of other victims with him.

Thursday 11 February 2016

Theatre review: The Winter's Tale (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

The Swanamaker's first all-Shakespeare season opened, very successfully, with two of his least-performed plays, but its second half brings two late plays that are much more popular - if not always with me. The regularity with which The Winter's Tale is revived is something I find a bit baffling, but every so often a production comes along to justify its popularity and, except for an overly hefty running time, Michael Longhurst's definitely fits into that category. John Light is Leontes, the king of Sicilia who's been best friends with his Bohemian counterpart Polixenes (Simon Armstrong) since childhood; until for no reason at all, he becomes convinced his wife Hermione (Rachael Stirling) is cheating on him with Polixenes, and tries to have both killed. He doesn't come back to his senses until it's too late, and has seemingly lost all his family. But his baby daughter has in fact survived and 16 years later Perdita (Tia Bannon) has the chance to make things right between the royal houses with her romance with Polixenes' son Florizel (Steffan Donnelly.)

Wednesday 10 February 2016

Theatre review: In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises)

My ongoing attempts to see less theatre always seem to come up against snags; I'd stopped myself from booking for In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises) at the Gate, as the blurb about a couple kept up all night by their baby didn't really pique my interest. But then Alex Waldmann and Adelle Leonce were announced as the couple and it suddenly seemed harder to skip. Their nameless couple are young, but not so young they don't know what they're doing when they get together - they're a good match and have a fun, stable relationship, living together for some years although not getting married (he'd like to but she doesn't believe in it.) Even a well-adjusted pair aren't a match for the strain put on them by a baby though, and the two narrate the story of a particularly difficult night. Their immediate worries about how well they can look after their daughter get swamped by larger ones about the world they've brought her into.

Tuesday 9 February 2016

Theatre review: Battlefield

It's probably a safe enough bet to say that Peter Brook is quite fond of the Mahabharata; he staged the entirety of the Indian epic poem 30 years ago, but that doesn't seem to have got it out of his system. Brook and regular collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne have returned to the story, although this time they mercifully don't have a 9-hour theatrical endurance feat in mind: Battlefield, from an adaptation by Jean-Claude Carrière, deals only with one section of the epic. In fact we very much enter in the middle of the story as the battle fought on the titular field has just ended; whole armies have been wiped out, and all that's left is for a couple of the mortally wounded to shuffle off the mortal coil, with a few parting words of advice for the new king (Jared McNeill) before he takes his throne. Much of this will take the form of fables and recollections.

Monday 8 February 2016

Theatre review: Escaped Alone

Mrs Jarrett (Linda Bassett) is passing an open door in a garden fence when she peers in and is invited - by someone who already seems to know her name - to join the three other women in there for tea and a chat. Lena (Kika Markham) hasn't been leaving the house, and the other women suspect she's not been taking her medication properly. It's best never to mention cats in front of Sally (Deborah Findlay,) as it upsets her (birds are fine, in fact they discuss birds a lot, as long as it doesn't lead to talk of cats chasing them.) And Vi (June Watson) spent six years in prison for accidentally-on-purpose killing her husband, after which her hairdressing career never really recovered. Escaped Alone is Caryl Churchill's latest play and the women's conversations are delivered in the minimal style she often employs - exchanging only fragments of sentences but the meaning still managing to come across clearly.

Sunday 7 February 2016

Theatre review: Weald

As well as the Finborough's numerous official remits, Neil McPherson does also seem to have a fondness for scheduling rural dramas. The latest is Daniel Foxsmith's Weald, set in what used to be a large farm, but over the years much of it has been sold off, and Sam (David Crellin) is the last of the family that owned it for a couple of centuries. What he's got left is a stables, currently housing eight ageing horses and just about enough work to keep him busy, but when a young man arrives asking for a job he can't turn him down: Jim (Dan Parr) worked for him as a teenager before leaving to try his luck in London. He's come back up North now fleeing something (the same something every young man in a show I've seen recently seems to be running to or from) and, having been with Jim's father when he died, Sam's developed something of a surrogate father/son relationship with Jim.

Saturday 6 February 2016

Theatre review: Stay Awake, Jake

Jamie Muscato has taken over the role of Joe for Bend It Like Beckham's final few months, but for a week he's swapped a particularly colourful West End show for a moody hour under Waterloo Station as part of the annual(ish) Vault Festival. Tim Gilvin's chamber musical monologue Stay Awake, Jake sees Muscato play the titular Jake, who's set off at one in the morning to drive from London to Carlisle. He's had a phone call from his estranged girlfriend Sophia that's shaken him up, and an all-night drive to where she's staying at her parents' house is his desperate attempt to reconcile. Jake is an aspiring comics writer with writer's block; as he tries to think about how to resolve the problems in his superhero duo's relationship, he goes back over the history of his own, which is how we get to hear what went right and wrong for them as he goes up the motorway.

Friday 5 February 2016

Theatre review: The Meeting

On the one hand, Andrew Payne's The Meeting is a pretty straightforward - and very effective - office sitcom, but on the other it's obvious from the start that it's going to deal with some pretty dark sexual politics. Somewhere fairly senior, but still a couple of floors away from the top, in an unnamed corporation, departmental head Stratton (Mark Hadfield) has been working for months on a project dreamt up by abrasive wunderkind Cole (nice to see Big Favourite Around These Parts Sam Swainsbury back on the London stage.) It's a Monday morning and they're ready to finalise a licensing deal with another company across the road but Jack, the man they've been in talks with, doesn't show up: Rumours are rife about him having had some kind of breakdown and being escorted off the premises. Instead the final deal is postponed to later in the week, with one of Jack's underlings taking over.

Thursday 4 February 2016

Theatre review: The Master Builder

Ralph Fiennes is The Master Bator Builder in another of Ibsen's looks at a failing marriage with a tragic backstory. He plays Halvard Solness, a self-taught architect whose popularity over the last decade has driven every other local architect out of business, including the now-ailing Knut Brovik (James Laurenson.) Solness employs Knut's son Ragnar (Martin Hutson) as an apprentice, deliberately holding him back as he recognises a talent who could replace him in turn. As his career has thrived, Solness' family has suffered - a house fire that kickstarted his career also led to the death of his twin sons; his wife Aline (Linda Emond) has never recovered, not helped by her husband's (probably well-deserved) reputation as a womanizer. Although he protests there's nothing going on between him and his smitten assistant, Ragnar's fiancée Kaja (Charlie Cameron,) he's certainly fond of leading her on.

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Theatre review: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Dominic Cooke directs the 1920s installment of August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle - actually the only one of the plays not to be set in Pittsburgh, taking place entirely inside a Chicago recording studio - Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. In this decade of Wilson's look at the black experience in 20th century America, the experience is still one of being second-class citizens, but real-life blues singer Ma Rainey (Sharon D Clarke) isn't going to let that stop her doing exactly what she wants: As the highest-earning artist on Sturdyvant's (Stuart McQuarrie) record label, she can get away with diva behaviour like flaunting her young girlfriend Dussie Mae (Tamara Lawrance,) refusing to sing until she's had her three bottles of Coke brought to her, and demanding the spoken-word intro to the titular song be performed by her nephew Sylvester (Tunji Lucas) - despite his stutter.

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Theatre review: Iphigenia in Splott

Following well-received runs at Sherman Cymru and the Edinburgh Festival, Gary Owen's monologue Iphigenia in Splott gets a run at the Keith outside the National Theatre. Effie (Sophie Melville) is a grotesque figure of an angry, drunken chav, assumed by everyone who sees her to be a slut and viewed with a mix of fear and contempt. She does spend most of her time either drunk or hungover, has a permanently curled lip, an attitude of sexual superiority and an aggressive way of dealing with anyone who dares to get in her way, but obviously Owen plans to reveal greater depths to her, and the way in which he sees her as a modern-day Iphigenia - Agamemnon's daughter sacrificed by the state at the beginning of the Trojan War. Melville and director Rachel O'Riordan have opted to open the show in a deliberately alienating style that sees the actress create a cartoonish Effie, whose rubber-faced drawling put me in mind of a Spitting Image puppet.

Monday 1 February 2016

Theatre review: The Mother

Not only was The Father a critical hit last year (including with me - I put it in my 2015 Top Ten,) it was also a surprising commercial success: One West End transfer would have been impressive for a hallucinatory show about mental illness, but it's getting a second one and a tour. So it's not surprising to see Florian Zeller's companion piece The Mother (again translated by Christopher Hampton) follow it quickly to London, with Laurence Boswell's production setting up shop at the Tricycle. Where The Father's deliberately confusing scenes took us into the head of a man with a form of dementia, The Mother has a much younger character at its heart and a less obvious diagnosis, initially at least, as Anne (Gina McKee) seems to have reacted in an extreme way to empty nest syndrome. An upper-middle class housewife in her late forties, she's dedicated her life to her children, especially her son Nicholas (William Postlethwaite, adding to an already-impressive list of dubious facial hair choices,) for whom she shows an uncomfortably Oedipal level of devotion.