Saturday 30 April 2016

Theatre review: Wendy Hoose

A low-key trend in recent years, but one that's resulted in more than its fair share of interesting theatre, has been the idea of not just making shows accessible to audiences with disabilities, but also integrating these accessibility aids into the structure of the show itself. Deafinitely went from a company that created sign-language shows to one aiming to make theatre that deaf and hearing people could enjoy equally together; while only a few months ago Graeae brought The Solid Life of Sugar Water to London, with audio-description at every performance, and surtitles integrated into the projections. It's the latter show's technique, as well as its wincingly frank sex talk, that comes to mind in Johnny McKnight's Wendy Hoose, in which Jake (James Young) answers a booty call on Tinder and goes to meet Laura (Amy Conachan) in her flat, where she's already in bed waiting for him.

Friday 29 April 2016

Theatre review: Elegy

Bucking 2016's trend for interminable plays is Nick Payne, whose Elegy tells its story in 75 minutes - and that's with one scene being played out twice in its entirety. The setting is sometime in the near future, and Lorna (Zoë Wanamaker) has an unnamed illness that's causing her brain to rapidly degenerate; but medical science has found a cure. An implant can replace the damaged part of her brain and reverse the progress of her illness, but one thing it can't replicate are her memories: The surgery will remove everything she remembers of the last 25 years, a significant period as it includes the whole time she's known her wife Carrie (Barbara Flynn.) As the disease will very soon leave Lorna unable to make her own decisions, it's left to Carrie to use her power of attorney to see that her wishes are respected.

Thursday 28 April 2016

Theatre review: Doctor Faustus (Jamie Lloyd Company / Duke of York's)

Doctor Faustus' charmed 24 years on earth seem to pass him by in a matter of seconds, a process that Jamie Lloyd's production has cunningly reversed for the audience. Christopher "Kit" Marlowe's anti-hero is an academic, frustrated by the limits of human knowledge and willing to sell his soul to find out the secrets of the universe. He conjures the fallen angel Mephistopheles (Jenna Russell) to do the deal: She will serve Faustus for 24 years, after which he will spend eternity in Hell - a deal he makes flippantly since he doesn't actually believe in Hell (despite having a conversation with an actual demon at the time.) But this isn't quite Marlowe's version of the play: Lloyd uses a text that replaces the middle two acts, in which Faustus travels the world using his magic powers to expose the corrupt and impress the powerful, with a completely new script by Colin Teevan in which Faustus (Kit "Christopher" Harington) becomes a Vegas magician.

Wednesday 27 April 2016

Theatre review: Show Boat

Before Rodgers and Hammerstein were a thing there was Kern and Hammerstein, Oscar Hammerstein II writing book and lyrics for a number of shows with music by Jerome Kern, although of these only Show Boat is particularly remembered and revived - and indeed credited with creating the 20th century American musical. Daniel Evans' production from Sheffield has been quite rightly praised as it moves to London, although however stellar the production and performances are they can only go so far in papering over the many problematic elements. Starting in the 1880s and spanning approximately 40 years, Show Boat follows Magnolia "Nola" Hawks (Gina Beck) from her time as a teenager on the steamboat run by her father Cap'n Andy (Malcolm Sinclair,) which goes up and down the Mississippi every summer, stopping off at small towns and playing from their repertoire of melodrama. Nola's mother Parthy (Lucy Briers) would never hear of her daughter taking to the stage herself, but when their leading lady is chased out of town for being secretly mixed-race, she gets her chance.

Sunday 24 April 2016

Theatre review: Kings of War

Very much in-demand to direct work in English both here and on Broadway, Ivo van Hove is of course also still running Toneelgroep Amsterdam, and bringing over Dutch-language work to a niche - but not quite as niche as it was a couple of years ago - audience. For the weekend of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, I didn't manage to fit in the Globe's film series along the South Bank, but my own way of marking the event is van Hove's 4-and-a-half hour compression of the History Cycle - beginning at the end of Henry IV Part 2 with the death of that king, then following on through Henry V, the Henry VI plays and Richard III - collected as Kings of War. Henry V (Ramsey Nasr) distracts England from his line's dubious claim to the throne with a successful offensive in France, but like the king himself the victory is short-lived: His son takes the crown when less than a year old, and even as an adult Henry VI (Eelco Smits) is plagued by mental illness and unable to control his lords.

Friday 22 April 2016

Theatre review: The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie

Having studied China and the Chinese language for much of his life, political playwright Anders Lustgarten finally turns to it as the subject for a play in The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie - named after a quote from a Chairman Mao speech. It's a history of China in microcosm from 1949 to the present day in the village of Rotten Peach, beginning with Party representatives Xu (Andrew Leung) and Tang (Louise Mai Newberry) arriving to tell the peasants they have to put the local landlord Zhang (Siu Hun Li) on trial. Zhang is confident they'll fear change as much as ever and vote to let him keep everything, but events take a sudden and violent turn, leading to Rotten Peach becoming a model co-operative and enjoying a few years of high productivity before things start to go wrong.

Thursday 21 April 2016

Theatre review: The Comedy About A Bank Robbery

I was apprehensive about whether the latest show from Mischief Theatre, of The PlayThat Goes Wrong and Lights! Camera! Improvise! would live up to their past work; within minutes the opening scene, a prison breakout complicated by cheesy wordplay straight out of a Zucker Bros movie, had proved the company knew what they were doing when they branched out - slightly - from plays going wrong. Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields return as writers and Mark Bell as director of The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, cast almost entirely with familiar faces from their farces and improv shows. The setting is 1950s Minneapolis, and gangster Mitch (Shields) has fled jail and sought out ex-girlfriend Caprice (Charlie Russell.) But he's not after a romantic reunion: Her father Mr Freeboys (Lewis) is the manager of a bank that'll be holding the enormous diamond of a visiting Hungarian prince in its vaults.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Theatre review: The Flick

My Twitter feed's been bubbling over with excitement for months over the arrival of Annie Baker's The Flick at the National - which probably says more about how I've filled my feed with other theatre geeks than anything else, since this is far from headline-grabbing fodder, rather an incredibly slow and measured three-hander clocking in at nearly three-and-a-half hours. (At least the NT has offset the running time with an early start - almost as if they've heard of people with jobs to go to the next morning.) Sam Gold's original production crosses the Atlantic with a couple of the US cast in tow, and the Dorfman auditorium looks in on a whole other bank of empty seats as David Zinn's set is a small fleapit cinema somewhere in Massachusetts, the fourth wall where the screen would be. We're following ushers Avery (Jaygann Ayeh) and Sam (Matthew Maher,) and projectionist Rose (Louisa Krause) in the time between movie showings or after the cinema closes, as they clean up after the customers.

Tuesday 19 April 2016

Theatre review: Deathwatch

The Print Room has now opened what is presumably going to be its main house in the former Coronet cinema: It's what would have been the balcony, with a new floor put in, and the original stalls converted into a bar (the design of which has really embraced the "serial killer's lair" theme of a building with dolls nailed to the bathroom doors.) The fact that the theatre's surroundings are the dilapidated red walls of an old cinema, meanwhile, is a theme that Lee Newby's design has run with, turning the pit into a circus-like stage, with a cage in the middle of the sawdust. It's people, not tigers we'll be watching perform as Geraldine Alexander directs Deathwatch, Jean Genet's play inspired by his own time in prison. The cell is shared by three men and, as the play opens, Lefranc (Danny Lee Wynter) is trying to throttle his cellmate Maurice (Joseph Quinn.)

Saturday 16 April 2016

Theatre review: The Brink

I don't know if young playwrights are all being specifically inspired by Florian Zeller at the moment, or whether the French writer was just the advance guard for a generation that likes to put audiences in the middle of minds in collapse, and letting them try to put the pieces back together. In Brad Birch's The Brink it's the late-twenties crisis of History teacher Nick (Ciarán Owens,) trying to be a positive adult influence on his pupils while not entirely feeling like an adult yet himself. He's been with his girlfriend Chloe (Shvorne Marks) since university, but while she's increasingly career-driven he doesn't seem to know what he wants. For several nights in a row, he's woken by the same nightmare: Going into work with the intention of resigning, he arrives to find the whole school blown up. He soon has reason to believe this isn't just in his big head, but a premonition.

Thursday 14 April 2016

Theatre review: The Suicide

2016 definitely likes its comedy dark, and after the serious version as the Almeida used the moving (literally) Boy to look into a young man feeling disenfranchised in modern Britain, the National takes the same subject and plays it for big laughs. Suhayla El-Bushra's The Suicide is an adaptation of a controversial Stalin-era Russian satire by Nikolai Erdman, and sees Javone Prince's affable everyman Sam Desai frustrated after five years without a job, his wife Maya (Rebecca Scroggs) having to support them both, and the two living in her mother Sarah's (Ashley McGuire) flat. When he tries to help a friend he ends up late for the Job Centre, meaning he has his benefits sanctioned and, feeling completely useless, goes to the top of his tower block in the middle of the night, toying with the idea of jumping off.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

Theatre review: Boy

Last year director Sacha Wares and set designer Miriam Buether transformed the Almeida for Game, the design becoming the clear star of a show that would have floundered without it. Leo Butler's Boy fills its hour-and-a-quarter a lot more confidently in its own right than Mike Bartlett's play did, but there's no denying the cleverness of the staging is one of the things that stands out - possibly, at times, to the detriment of the script. Liam (Frankie Fox) is 17 and, as the publicity describes him, "a boy at a bus stop, easily missed." For the audience he's the focal point of the 75 minutes, but for everyone else on the stage with him he might as well be invisible, except at those times where they're going out of their way to ignore or dismiss him. Boy opens with him visiting a doctor (Wendy Kweh,) with a concern he's too inarticulate to express, so she can't find anything physically wrong with him.

Tuesday 12 April 2016

Theatre review: Cyprus Avenue

Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone is currently directing both shows at the Royal Court, and both feature people's minds being fractured by paranoia. X might take us to the future in the main house but Upstairs Cyprus Avenue is dominated by the past, and the sectarian Troubles that have defined Northern Ireland for centuries. Black comedies don't come much blacker than David Ireland's play about Eric (Stephen Rea,) an Ulster loyalist who's spent his life fighting the IRA and hating all Catholics. Now there's a peace in which neither side got everything they wanted, and he's not sure what the country's identity is or, by extension, his own. This crisis has been bubbling under the surface until he sees his newborn granddaughter and becomes convinced that she's actually Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in disguise, leading a charge to invade Protestant homes.

Monday 11 April 2016

Theatre review: X

A much-anticipated new play from Alistair McDowall, after his sleeper hit Pomona, and following the dark fantasy of that play he goes sci-fi for X, set on a research station on retired planet Pluto. Not that there's much there to research (the Americans get all the interesting missions) and even if there were Ray (Darrell D'Silva) and his team's contracts expired weeks ago - or possibly months, but the clock which keeps the base on Earth time is increasingly unreliable - it might have been much longer than they think. Ray second-in-command Gilda (Jessica Raine) is visibly feeling the strain, prone to regular panic attacks and tears, and snapping at her co-workers Cole (Rudi Dharmalingam) and Clark (James Harkness.) Surprisingly chipper is Mattie (Ria Zmitrowicz,) who rattles around in the ceiling taking care of the life support systems which she refers to as "the girls."

Saturday 9 April 2016

Theatre review: Radioman

Written and performed by Felix Trench, Radioman is a sort of pastoral idyll that turns into a dark fantasy - along the lines of a Roald Dahl short story where no good deed goes unpunished. The narrator, Walker, tells of walking along a canal on a summer Sunday when he comes across The Gadfly, a seemingly abandoned narrowboat, dirty and overgrown but with a speaker through which the faint sounds of music and a voice occasionally come out. Curious, Walker lets himself into the narrowboat where he finds a disheveled old man with a huge supply of music, acting as DJ for a radio station only he can hear, and keeping the music running constantly. Concerned, he returns every week with food, but as the Radioman seems to get stronger, the Gadfly proves harder to get away from than he first thought.

Friday 8 April 2016

Concert review: Sunset Boulevard

It's a bit unusual for a famous actor not to be particularly associated with musical theatre except for one specific role, but it's certainly the case for Glenn Close But No Cigar as Norma Desmond. Sunset Boulevard is one of Dr Baron Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Lord Webber's best shows, largely because he and lyricists Don Black and Christopher Hampton have such strong material to work with in Billy Wilder's classic film. Now it becomes the second of the Coliseum's series of semi-staged concerts (after last year's Sweeney Todd,) and Close returns to reprise Norma in the same OTT outfits she stole from her last production twenty years ago. Close may be the star turn but Michael Xavier is barely ever off the stage as Joe Gillis, the struggling Hollywood screenwriter fleeing creditors when he hides in the driveway of a Sunset Blvd mansion belonging to a former silent movie star.

Thursday 7 April 2016

Theatre review: The Caretaker

The Matthew Warchus era might have kicked off with a promise to take the "old" out of the Old Vic, but so far this year at least it's felt as if there's still plenty of cobwebs in the building, with a couple of ponderous productions of classics. For the second show in a row there's a deeply old-fashioned two intervals, which feels particularly perverse when it's Pinter - a writer with whom even one interval usually feels like an extravagance. At least they're only 15-minute breaks this time, but it still pushes The Caretaker up to the three-hour mark. Warchus himself directs Timothy Spall as Davies, a homeless racist given a bed for the night by the slow-witted Aston (Daniel Mays.) But despite his effusive thanks and protestations that he'll be leaving very soon, Davies quickly makes himself comfortable and shows no sign of actually leaving the flat.

Wednesday 6 April 2016

Theatre review: How The Other Half Loves

It's a phenomenon that's already certain to turn up in my theatrical memes of the year, and one nobody will be looking back on fondly: Theatres' insistence on programming long shows without an early start time to compensate for it. Adding its name to the National, Almeida and, worst offender, the Old Vic, the Theatre Royal Haymarket joins in with what seems almost spiteful scheduling: At just over two and a half hours, How The Other Half Loves is just longer-than-average rather than an epic, but an inexplicable 7:45pm start time makes sure nobody gets home before 11pm - if they're lucky. That unwelcome slice of 2016 aside, it's like any other year: If it's spring there must be an Alan Ayckbourn revival somewhere, and Memorable Actor Matthew Cottle must be in it. Vanessa loves Ayckbourn so she always gets an early birthday present she'll like, even if my own feelings about his work are more variable.

Tuesday 5 April 2016

Theatre review: Princess Caraboo

It's a little over five years since I saw a rehearsed reading of Phil Willmott's musical (songs co-composed with Mark Collins,) Princess Caraboo, as part of a Vibrant season at the Finborough, and I guess it's true what they say about the time it takes to develop a musical, as it's only now that Willmott returns to direct a full production at the same venue. Based on the true story of a notorious 19th century hoax that took in polite society, Sir Charles Worrell (Phil Sealey) narrates the story of how he and Lady Elizabeth (Sarah Lawn) were approached by Spanish con-man Osvaldo Agathias (Joseph O’Malley,) who claimed to have found a shipwrecked princess from an unknown land. Princess Caraboo (Nikita Johal) speaks no English, and the motherly Lady Elizabeth takes a liking to her, so instead of running off with the silverware as planned, Caraboo sticks around, and meets their nephew Eddie (Christian James,) who they hope might be able to communicate with her.

Monday 4 April 2016

Theatre review: Bug

If temporary theatre Found 111 have a USP (other than always seeming to leave some sort of booby-trap for the audience to trip over when they cross the tiny stage - last time it was books, this time it's dirty dishes,) it seems to be casting actors who've long been known to theatregoers, but have in recent years got a whole new audience from high-profile TV work. So after Andrew Scott in The Dazzle, another guaranteed sell-out as James Norton returns to the stage for Tracy Letts' Bug. He joins Kate Fleetwood who plays Agnes, a crack addict whose young son disappeared several years ago, and now lives in an Oklahoma motel room. She's more jittery than usual today as she's heard her abusive ex-husband Jerry (Alec Newman) has been released from prison early, and she expects him to turn up any minute. But first her friend (Daisy Lewis) brings another addict round to share her crack pipe.

Saturday 2 April 2016

Theatre review: Hamlet (RSC / RST)

A few duff Hamlets in recent years haven't quite shaken my belief that Shakespeare's best-loved play deserves its reputation if only because of how infinitely adaptable it can be; but it always helps to have a great production come along and justify my faith in what is probably the play I've seen more times than any other. The latest RSC Hamlet is a particularly stark contrast to their last one three years ago: Where David Farr's production was intellectual, clinical, relentlessly bleak and ultimately dull, Simon Godwin's new take is playful, emotional and colourful - literally so in Paul Wills' design, as Paapa Essiedu's Hamlet expresses his "antic disposition" with furious, expressive and very messy painting.

Friday 1 April 2016

Non-review: The Fifth Column

Ernest Hemingway wasn't really known as a playwright; for much the same reason, it turns out, as Eric Pickles isn't really known as a rhythmic gymnast. His only play, The Fifth Column, takes place where it was written, in the only two rooms of the Hotel Florida to be sheltered from bombing, in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. Preston (Michael Shelford) and Dorothy (Alix Dunmore) are American war reporters but Rawlings (Simon Darwen) is only posing as one - he's actually a spy working for the International Brigades, and has dangerous suspects locked away in various other rooms of the hotel, although a sleepy soldier (James El-Sharawy) keeps letting them escape, at which point they invariably try to kill Rawlings. Despite this the play very quickly lost my interest; I can't call this a review as I only saw the first act.