Monday 30 May 2016

Theatre review: The Threepenny Opera

Prepare for shares in eyeliner to soar as Rufus Norris brings Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's satirical musical The Threepenny Opera to the Olivier with a new translation of the book and lyrics by Simon Stephens, and Rory Kinnear at the head of a real luxury cast. Mack the Knife (Kinnear) is a violent East End criminal, who's managed to avoid punishment so far through a combination of Chief Inspector Tiger Brown (Peter De Jersey) being an old army buddy of his, and the fact that Mack has an incriminating dossier that could cause the new King of England some embarrassment. But his downfall might well come not from his crimes but from his marriage: His new wife is the seemingly timid accountant Polly (Rosalie Craig,) who he hopes can use her organisational skills to help build his criminal empire up.

Sunday 29 May 2016

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare's Globe)

I think I've done a good job of keeping an open mind about Emma Rice taking over the Globe; the former Kneehigh boss has been responsible for various shows I've really not liked in the past, and hasn't helped with comments in the papers about shaking up the text, and the rarely-performed Shakespeares staying rarely-performed under her watch. But people can surprise you* and there's been good buzz around her debut production - indeed the sole Shakespeare play she'll be directing herself in her first year - so I was cautiously optimistic about her take on the currently-ubiquitous A Midsummer Night's Dream. The setting is, sort-of, the Globe itself, where the rude mechanicals become a group of the venue's volunteer stewards, led by Rita Quince (Lucy Thackeray,) who opens the show with a funny but stern lecture on how to behave, before deciding to turn actors themselves with a show to celebrate the royal wedding.

Saturday 28 May 2016

Theatre review: Cymbeline (RSC / RST & Barbican)

Shakespeare's fevered crack dream of Roman Britain, Cymbeline has come back into vogue lately; the programme notes for the RSC's latest take suggest it's because the context of England in an uncomfortable co-dependent relationship with mainland Europe strikes a chord in the year of the EU referendum. And so director Melly Still and designer Anna Fleischle conjure up a dystopian near-future in which, left to its own devices, Britain has used up its natural resources, the only remaining hint of nature in Cymbeline's court the trunk of a chopped-down tree encased in glass (now a 2016 theatrical meme, what with the similar idea in Elegy.) Innogen (Bethan Cullinane,) daughter of Queen Cymbeline (Gillian Bevan) has secretly married childhood sweetheart Posthumus (Hiran Abeysekera,) a match that enrages her mother, who promptly banishes her new son-in-law.

Friday 27 May 2016

Theatre review: This is Living

Following a well-received Edinburgh run in 2014, Liam Borrett's This is Living gets re-written as a two-act play for its London premiere, and what I consider very exciting TV-to-stage casting: Never mind your Downton escapees who get the papers het up, Michael Socha is a better actor than he gets credit for, awkwardly sexy and a core Being Human cast member to add to the collection to boot. He plays Michael, who at the start of the play is trying to get a difficult message across to his wife Alice (Tamla Kari.) Namely that she's dead, having drowned the previous day while trying to get their 3-year-old daughter out of a river when she fell in. The child is making a good recovery in hospital but the ambulance was too late for Alice, and every time he sleeps between her death and her funeral, Michael dreams that he's reunited with his wife as she waits to pass on to whatever's next.

Thursday 26 May 2016

Theatre review: Romeo and Juliet (Kenneth Branagh Company at the Garrick Theatre)

The SirKenBranCo season at the Garrick has put two of my least favourite Shakespeare plays at the centre of its programming, and where The Winter's Tale at least had Dame Judi bringing attention to one of the unsung standout roles in that play, a couple of good turns don't stop Romeo and Juliet from being every bit as much of a chore as I usually dread (and am occasionally pleasantly surprised, but not often.) This time SirKenBran doesn't take to the stage himself, sharing directing duties with Rob Ashford for the story of two wealthy Verona families who've been at war for generations, for reasons long-forgotten. Romeo Montague (Richard Madden) sneaks into a party held by the rival Capulets in hopes of bumping into Rosaline, the girl he fancies, but forgets her as soon as he spots Juliet (Lily James.)

Wednesday 25 May 2016

Theatre review: Folk

Apart from my regular trips to Stratford-upon-Avon it takes a lot to get me to the outer reaches of the Oyster card for theatre - there's already more than enough in Zones 1-2. But even if, like Jumpers for Goalposts did three years ago, Folk does get a more central transfer, once again a new Tom Wells play is reason enough to travel to Watford rather than risk missing it. Wells' full-length plays have all featured an introverted young gay man from somewhere outside Hull, but while the character of Stephen (Patrick Bridgman) is 50-something, he's still similar to StitchBilly and Luke in most ways. The setting is the front room of Winnie (Connie Walker,) his best friend, a Catholic nun with a fondness for cigarettes, Guinness and - this being 2016 - playing the spoons. A young man a few doors down has died in a car accident, and to cheer themselves up after the funeral the pair enjoy their favourite Friday night activity: Folk music.

Tuesday 24 May 2016

Theatre review: Human Animals

Playwright Stef Smith takes the metaphorical language of dangerous animals and swarms of insects that accompany right-wing scaremongering about immigration, and imagines it as something literal in her apocalyptic Human Animals, but somewhere along the way the dark absurdity turns tiresome: Nancy (Stella Gonet) is waiting for her daughter Alex (Natalie Dew) to come back from a gap year, but her return coincides with a mysterious, localised plague among animals and birds that sees hundreds of pigeons at a time fly into windows, and dead foxes piling up in every garden. Nancy's friend John (Ian Gelder) is befriended by an odd man in the pub - Si (Sargon Yelda) turns out to be in charge of the efforts to deal with the crisis, which largely consist of quarantining the whole neighbourhood and incinerating first the diseased animals, then whole buildings, just in case.

Monday 23 May 2016

Theatre review: The Invisible Hand

I think this is the last time a trip to the Tricycle will feature the theatre's trademark red scaffolding holding up the auditorium, as it's the next venue about to get a major facelift. The seating's all going to be replaced, which may be why designer Lizzie Clachan was at liberty to get started on that a little early, reconfiguring the stalls slightly to turn the stage into a corner thrust - a prison cell that juts out into the audience, but slides gradually backwards as the play goes on and the situation gets bleaker. The Invisible Hand is set in some remote corner of Pakistan, where an obscure terrorist group opposed to the Taliban have kidnapped American banker Nick Bright (Daniel Lapaine.) He's actually a fairly minor figure in the bank, as they were really trying to abduct his boss, so the hoped-for $10 million ransom is slow in coming.

Sunday 22 May 2016

Stage-to-screen review: Richard III (BBC Hollow Crown)

What do BBC budget cuts look like? Geoffrey Streatfeild with some muesli on his face to show that Edward IV is poorly, that's what they look like.

It's been tempting throughout this second series of The Hollow Crown to see adaptors Ben Power and Dominic Cooke as using the re-cut Henry VI Part 1 and especially Part 2 as warm-up for the main event of The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses - Richard III, whether because of  Brobdingnag Arafat being cast in the title role or simply because it's always been the most popular play in the tetralogy. And while there's been some strong moments along the way to belie the fact that these are Cooke's first foray into directing for the screen, there's no denying that he's saved the flourish for the finale. With the exception of the climactic Battle of Bosworth Field, there's not so many wide open spaces as before, instead the "bottled spider" gets to work in claustrophobic rooms with a lot of blue filters (so blue at one point it looks like Barry Chuckle is wearing electric blue nail polish.)

Saturday 21 May 2016

Dance review: Jekyll & Hyde

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This is only on for a week so I don't think the press have been in yet.

The only reason I knew the Old Vic has a history of presenting dance was that the upper circle is named after Lilian Baylis, who also has one of Sadler's Wells' dance stages named after her. It's a connection new Artistic Director Matthew Warchus said he wanted to bring back in his first season, and he does so by giving a platform to Drew McOnie, the choreographer behind the breathtaking moves of In The Heights, and his own company. It's a high profile that could, and on this evidence should, send McOnie on the road to being the next Matthew Bourne - his Jekyll & Hyde has the dangerous sexiness of Bourne's career-making Swan Lake. McOnie and composer Grant Olding adapt Robert Louis Stevenson's novella, and don't make the mistake of trying to stick to it too closely (the story's too famous for its own good; its whole structure builds to a huge twist that everyone already knows.)

Theatre review: The Philanderer

Bernard Shaw's The Philanderer is set in and around a gentlemen's club with a difference: One that allows in both ladies and gentlemen, on the proviso that the women be approved as "un-womanly" and the men as "un-manly." It's Shaw's response to the scandalously independent women of Ibsen - the club is called The Ibsen Club - and sees its titular character use women's new wish for independence and equality to carry out his affairs without being expected to commit. Charteris (Rupert Young) is sort-of considering settling down with the widow Grace Tranfield (Helen Bradbury,) but first he needs to get rid of his other lover, Julia (Dorothea Myer-Bennett.) He tries to dump her, reminding her that she bought into a relationship where she could break it off at any time so the same applies to him. When that doesn't work, he tries to marry her off to another of her suitors instead.

Friday 20 May 2016

Theatre review: Blue/Orange

I've been waiting a long time to see Blue/Orange; I missed the National Theatre's original 2000 production, and subsequently the play has gained a reputation as a modern classic - any time a lacklustre new Joe Penhall play premieres, I hear people say he owes his career to this one big hit. A three-hander taking in mental illness, racial stereotyping and professional backstabbing, it takes place in a generic meeting room in a psychiatric hospital. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) has been sectioned after a public incident involving an orange, but his 28 days of observation are up and it's time to decide if he's well enough to be released, or if he's a danger to himself and others. The diagnosis is that he has Borderline Personality Disorder, but his doctor, Bruce (Luke Norris,) believes he's actually schizophrenic, and calls in a consultant for a second opinion.

Thursday 19 May 2016

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream - A Play for the Nation (RSC / Barbican & tour)

This year's official "Shakespeare play I'm going to end up seeing so often I'll be quoting it in my sleep" is clearly A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is packing in the productions over the next couple of months - I've got at least three planned between now and July, and I'm not even seeing all the versions London has to offer. First up is Erica Whyman's touring one for the RSC, subtitled A Play for the Nation for reasons that will become apparent. As a royal wedding approaches in ancient Athens, another potential marriage is in jeopardy: Hermia's (Mercy Ojelade) father won't approve of her marrying her beloved Lysander (Jack Holden) because he sees Demetrius (Chris Nayak) as a more suitable match. The two lovers escape to the forest, but Helena (Laura Riseborough,) in love with Demetrius, inexplicably thinks betraying them to him will help her own chances of getting him back.

Wednesday 18 May 2016

Re-review: Radiant Vermin

A quick word about a show that, of course, I had to return to - I saw Philip Ridley's Radiant Vermin twice last year and ended up choosing it as my show of the year, making Ridley the first playwright to get pole position twice (although there's one, possibly two new Tom Wells plays in store this year so he could well have company soon.) You can read my original review of Radiant Vermin here,spoilers and all, and it's about to play off-Broadway so David Mercatali's production has taken the opportunity to warm up back at Soho Theatre - in the smaller Upstairs space this time. Sean Michael Verey returns to the role of Oliver, but Gemma Whelan, who'd originally been due to rejoin him, had to drop out. So Scarlett Alice Johnson now replaces her as Jill, while Debra Baker takes the dual role - or is it? - of Miss Dee and Kay.

Tuesday 17 May 2016

Theatre review: Monster Raving Loony

You do tend to get a little something extra when you're in the audience for a James Graham play; The Man had its receipts, Privacy came with airline safety-style instruction cards, while his latest, Monster Raving Loony, comes with a whole goody bag on every seat, containing party hat, bingo card, raffle ticket and a gift - mine had a party blower but I spotted comedy mustaches and plastic Groucho Marx glasses elsewhere*. This being Graham, the sort of party this is is a political party, but not the kind with actual hopes of winning an election - in fact one rule of the Monster Raving Loony Party was that anyone who actually won their seat would be expelled from the party. This is the story of Screaming Lord Sutch, born in 1940 as David Sutch (Samuel James) in Harrow, North London, growing up in a cluttered house with his widowed mother while the nearby public school churned out future ministers.

Monday 16 May 2016

Theatre review: Lawrence After Arabia

Howard Brenton’s latest trip into history looks at the man best known as Lawrence of Arabia - although as the title Lawrence After Arabia suggests, it doesn't look at T.E. Lawrence's most famous deeds except in flashback. In fact most of the action takes place in the home of George Bernard Shaw, where Lawrence (Jack Laskey) liked to hide away from the press, despite the fact that his friend's own fame meant reporters were rarely far away. Jeff Rawle plays Shaw, or possibly Captain Birdseye, and Geraldine James his wife Charlotte, who takes on the job of editing Lawrence's autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and discovers more in it than she'd expected. John Dove, who's directed Brenton's work at the Globe before, now moves to the playwright's other regular haunt on Hampstead's main stage, and a story that opens with Lawrence a national hero after his victories in the Middle East during World War I.

Sunday 15 May 2016

Radio Review: The Winter's Tale (Radio 3)

Of the new BBC radio adaptations of Shakespeare for the 400th anniversary of his death, I probably have the least the say about David Hunter's production of The Winter's Tale for Radio 3 - again one of the plays I least enjoy, and I was quite happily going to skip it until spotting the name Eve Best in the credit list. That's not a performance you're going to want to miss, but as always the trouble with a great Hermione is she's not actually in the play that much. Best's infectious laugh is in full force at the start as the Queen of Sicilia, whose husband Leontes (Danny Sapani) is welcoming his old friend and Bohemian king Polixenes (Shaun Dooley) to court when he suddenly gets an insane burst of jealousy that convinces him the two are having an affair, and the baby Hermione is carrying isn't his. His witch-hunt tears his family and kingdom apart, and it's only when his baby daughter Perdita (Faye Castelow) grows up and is found again in Bohemia that things can start to heal.

Stage-to-screen review: Henry VI Part 2 (BBC Hollow Crown)

The cynical side of me thinks that the middle part of the BBC's Wars of the Roses wouldn't have focused quite so squarely on the future Richard III if they hadn't got Banoffee Hydrochloride to play him; but realistically I think Shakespeare's first tetralogy of English Histories is so roundly considered to be unloved that the one character everyone's heard of would probably have been at the center of Ben Power and Dominic Cooke's The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses - Henry VI Part 2, regardless of who they got to strap on the hunchback. In any case, making this mix of Shakespeare's Parts 2 and 3 effectively a prequel to Richard III lends it the closest thing it has to an overall story arc, in an adaptation that doesn't live up to the dramatic impetus Power and Cooke managed last week in Part 1.

Friday 13 May 2016

Theatre review: Giving

Usually to be found working somewhere like the Olivier, Bijan Sheibani directs in Hampstead's smaller Downstairs space, and brings with him a similarly impressive cast for Hannah Patterson's Giving, which looks at the ethics behind charity. Journalist Laura (Sinéad Matthews) is assigned to interview reclusive billionaire Mary (Sylvestra Le Touzel,) who's just announced the single biggest charitable donation in UK history. In trying to find the person behind the generosity, Laura soon discovers that Mary is taking advice from Michael (Simon Manyonda,) the representative of an American company that matches philanthropists with charities. After a boozy dinner Laura spends the night with Michael, but this indiscretion starts to look a lot more unprofessional as he and the company he works for become the real focus of the article.

Thursday 12 May 2016

Non-review: Pleasure

Obviously, I can't make any kind of claim to actually be able to review an opera: I know nothing about them and have only ever seen a handful - there's far too much theatre to keep up with without adding opera and ballet to the mix regularly. But the Lyric Hammersmith are hosting a couple of touring productions from the Royal Opera, and Mark Simpson's Pleasure stars Lesley Garrett as a toilet attendant in a Northern gay club; and if that sort of thing isn't enough to at least make you curious you're probably in the wrong place. Simpson is apparently the only person ever to have won both BBC Young Musician of the Year and BBC Young Composer of the Year, and his music here mixes somewhat discordant strings with occasional hints of synthesizer, reminiscent of Peter Davison-era Doctor Who when the entire score was done on a Casio keyboard.

Wednesday 11 May 2016

Radio review: King Lear (Radio 3)

BBC Radio 4 have been serialising Shakespeare but there's no such messing about over on Radio 3 - Gaynor Macfarlane's production of King Lear was presented as an uninterrupted 150 minutes (although personally I downloaded the iPlayer version onto my kindle and listened to it over a couple of days' worth of train journeys and lunch breaks.) When staging or filming Shakespeare it's easy to impose a high concept; less easy without the visuals, but this production has been given an all-Scottish cast, led by the distinctive voices of Ian McDiarmid as Lear, the king who, as madness sets in, puts his faith in the wrong two daughters while banishing the only loyal one; and Bill Paterson as Gloucester, who makes a similar error of judgement with his two sons. The fact that everyone has a Scottish accent (except for Simon Harrison's King of France who, paradoxically, is given an English one) could have been confusing but there's enough variety in voice and subtle differences in accent never to make it a problem.

Tuesday 10 May 2016

Theatre review: The Buskers [sic] Opera

John Gay's 18th-century Beggar's Opera has been called a precursor to the modern musical as well as directly influencing various adaptations - most famously The Threepenny Opera. Brecht and Weill's version is about to get revived at the National, so whether that's good or bad timing for a new rewrite remains to be seen. Dougal Irvine's The Buskers OperaSHOULD THERE BE AN APOSTROPHE IN THERE SOMEWHERE OR ARE YOU TRYING TO USE "OPERA" AS A VERB?* references its predecessors in its opening number, in a self-referential style that will become typical of the rest of the evening: Macheath (George Maguire) is a former X Factor contestant kicked out at Boot Camp because of his temper, and now films himself singing anti-establishment songs and posts them on a fairly successful YouTube channel.

Sunday 8 May 2016

Radio review: Julius Caesar (Radio 4)

As well as TV spectaculars, radio has also been getting in on the BBC's Shakespeare Festival, and after listening to their version of Hamlet a couple of years ago, I gave Radio 4's three-part Julius Caesar a go - with a bit more trepidation this time, as regular readers will both know it's far from my favourite Shakespeare play. But director Marc Beeby had once again assembled a quality cast, and audio-only Shakespeare can throw up some interesting details you don't always notice with everything else going on on stage. The three 45-minute episodes ended up dividing the story up quite neatly - episode one boiled down to the building of the conspiracy, with Cassius (Sam Troughton, who's previously played Brutus on stage,) convincing Brutus (Robert Glenister) that the newly-promoted Julius Caesar (Tim Pigott-Smith) has the potential to be every bit as much of a brutal tyrant as Pompey, the man he's just overthrown; and that assassination is the only way to protect Rome from this.

Saturday 7 May 2016

Stage-to-screen review: Henry VI Part 1 (BBC Hollow Crown)

After  the BBC's 2012 series The Hollow Crown presented the second (in order of writing) tetralogy of Shakespeare's Histories, there was a general assumption that it would be followed up with the rest of the story as told in the Henry VI plays and Richard III. But response to that quartet was mixed, and the Henry VIs, written earlier in Shakespeare's career, aren't particularly well-loved, and I got the distinct impression the BBC weren't too keen on going there. The occasion of the 4th centenary of the playwright's death and the resulting on-screen festival got them to reconsider - although I can't help suspecting it was the fact that the ever-popular Botulism Nanobot agreed to play Richard III, probably guaranteeing big ratings, that finally got this green-lit. Ben Power has stayed on from the first series as adaptor, but Dominic Cooke has been given directing duties on all three films - a good idea, as the first series wasn't always that cohesive from one part to the next.

Theatre review: The Local Stigmatic

The Old Red Lion unearths an obscure slice of 1960s kitchen sink drama in Heathcote Williams’ The Local Stigmatic, given a 50th anniversary production by Michael Toumey. It's an Angry Young Man play, or in the case of Wilson James' Graham a STUCK ON CAPSLOCK YOUNG MAN, given a bad tip about a greyhound race at the start of the play, and screaming in his flatmate's face about it for the rest of the hour. Ray (William Frazer) is seemingly more level-headed and placid, but something between fear and a crush keeps him in thrall to his friend, and he reveals a gift for actually carrying out violence rather than just threatening it. When Graham wants to beat up a blind man in the street Ray stops him, but he's more supportive of his next choice of victim: They spot moderately famous actor David (Tom Sawyer) in a pub, and flatter him with their knowledge of his work.

Thursday 5 May 2016

Theatre review: The Iphigenia Quartet - Agamemnon and Clytemnestra

Two more points of view on the story of Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis at the Gate as part of The Iphigenia Quartet; you can read my review of Iphigenia and Chorus here, but tonight Caroline Bird gets arguably the toughest job, of trying to see things from the perspective of Agamemnon. Although it's his brother whose wife has been abducted, Agamemnon (Andrew French) is leading the Greek charge to get her back, and is therefore the man in the spotlight. Bird focuses on him not as a bloodthirsty villain but as a rather weak man buffeted by circumstance and unable or unwilling to stand up to it. As the play begins he's consented to the sacrifice of his daughter but changed his mind, sending a letter to his wife telling her to stay away. It's too late, of course, and besides the Messenger (Louise McMenemy) is brutally pragmatic about the Greek cause and makes sure the letter doesn't reach Clytemnestra.

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Theatre review: The Iphigenia Quartet - Iphigenia and Chorus

Greek tragedy continues to get reinvented, and after a Medea last year that told the story from a very different point of view than usual, the Gate now turns to the story of Iphigenia, and asks four different writers to each put their own spin on the myth behind Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis, that also forms the background to the Oresteia: The Greek ships are waiting to sail out to Troy, but the war can't begin if the army never gets there, and the winds stubbornly refuse to blow. It turns out the goddess Artemis is pissed off with General Agamemnon for killing one of her sacred stags while hunting; she'll only let the winds blow if he sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia. What happens next varies depending on the version of the myth, but blood always ends up getting spilt, and Agamemnon gets his war.

Tuesday 3 May 2016

Theatre review: The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People

Although I don't listen to The Archers myself, it's hard to miss the discussion going on at the moment about its current domestic abuse storyline, that has apparently been building up for a couple of years before exploding into violence. So it's a comparison I can't help but make with The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People, which Rosalind Blessed writes and stars in, and which has a nastiness barely concealed under its smiley surface. James (Duncan Wilkins) introduces himself to the audience as he cooks a surprise anniversary meal for his wife Robin (Blessed,) but it quickly becomes apparent this'll be less of a surprise and more of a shock, as the two have separated and this is Robin's new house, which he's broken into. The rest of the show bounces back and forth in time through their relationship, their best times always seeming to revolve around the various rescue dogs they've adopted over the years, their worst when they're left to deal with each other.

Monday 2 May 2016

Theatre review: The Toxic Avenger

In what's definitely becoming something of a Southwark Playhouse specialty, it's another kitsch American musical based on an unlikely source - this time the cult 1980s Troma horror movie by Lloyd Kaufman (who was in tonight's audience and got a shout-out from the cast,) The Toxic Avenger. Tromaville, New Jersey is the world's toxic waste capital, thanks to the corrupt Mayor (Lizzii Hills) who secretly owns the company dumping mysterious green sludge everywhere. When nerdy environmental activist Melvin Ferd the Third (Mark Anderson) finds out what she's been up to, the Mayor has her goons drown him in a vat of toxic waste. But instead of killing him it transforms him into a deformed, smelly but super-strong monster, and as The Toxic Avenger - or Toxie to his girlfriend, the blind librarian Sarah (Hannah Grover) - he goes on a violent rampage to clean up Tromaville.