Friday 30 September 2016

Theatre review: Imogen (Shakespeare's Globe)

Not that theatrical trends are weird and unpredictable, but this time last year I'd only ever seen one production of Cymbeline - and that would have been twenty-odd years ago - but I've since seen it three more times. It's enough to make even this bonkers plot familiar, but the Globe's version makes it clear it's got something different in mind: Matthew Dunster has retitled Shakespeare's play Imogen to put focus back on the character who actually has the most to do; but it also has the effect of warning the audience not to expect the familiar, not a bad idea in a season that's famously angered the traditionalists (or at least those confident they know best what that tradition actually is.) It turns out Imogen becomes the star turn of Emma Rice's first summer season by exemplifying its theme of experimentation that may or may not work - but of all the new productions, finding a lot more that does work.

Thursday 29 September 2016

Theatre review: R and D

After its usual summer lull Hampstead Downstairs starts its new season with Simon Vinnicombe's R and D, a short sci-fi take on grief and betrayal. Lewis (Aden Gillett) is a writer who lost his wife a year ago, and whose moving eulogy for her went viral; the resulting popularity has only driven him further into grief and seclusion. His brother David (Martin Hutson) is a scientist working at some mysterious institute, the nature of which becomes apparent when he asks Lewis to take part, in return for a large fee, in some research and development on a long-running project. April (Jess Murphy) is a highly-realistic humanoid robot, and David and his team have reached the end of what they can find out in the lab. They want Lewis to spend time alone with her and report back on how convincingly human April can be.

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Theatre review: The Complete Deaths

Just in case you haven't been paying attention - not just to this blog but to anything even remotely theatre-related - 2016 marks 400 years since the death of Shakespeare, and many companies (not the National) have been marking the occasion. They've mostly been doing this by staging his plays, which to be honest they do all the time anyway so it's not been altogether noticeable. Physical comedy troupe Spymonkey, though, have come up with a more fitting tribute to a morbid occasion with The Complete Deaths, which runs through the 65 deaths Shakespeare wrote (there's more than that in the canon, but for the purposes of this show only onstage deaths count) in a single evening. The framework is the classic comedy device of a company not quite on the same page, as Toby Park opens the show by announcing that after 18 years of silliness Spymonkey really need to go in a new, more serious direction and use these fictional deaths to explore dark realities.

Monday 26 September 2016

Theatre review: Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3

Perhaps inspired by August Wilson's Century Cycle of plays exploring the African-American experience, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has created her own epic sequence, Father Comes Home From The Wars, that looks at the legacy of slavery in America. It's a series of nine plays following a single family down the centuries, and the Royal Court here presents Jo Bonney's original Off-Broadway production of the first three in the sequence, with a largely British cast. These three sections of the story take place during the American Civil War, and the central figure is the dubiously-named Hero (Steve Toussaint,) whose master has promised him his freedom if he serves with him in the Confederate Army. Part 1 opens as the other slaves wait for day to break, taking bets on whether Hero will decide to stay or go.

Saturday 24 September 2016

Theatre review: The Greater Game

Another football-related First World War play doesn't look, this time, at amateur kickabouts in No Man's Land, but at professional players who were the predecessors of the kind of superstar footballers you get today. Michael Head's The Greater Game sees lifelong friends Mac (Peter Hannah) and Jonas (Will Howard) playing semi-professional football in Newcastle as well as working down a mine, when they're given the opportunity to turn professional with a transfer to Clapton Orient. It means uprooting their wives to London, and although the women take a long time to settle there the men quickly become beloved members of the team, Mac as the star player while the female fans inundate Jonas with love letters. But there's a war on, and while the official line is that it'll be over by Christmas, there's also an increasing voice that sportsmen should be leaving their games behind and joining the troops.

Theatre review: Out There

While Elliot Davis and James Bourne's first stage musical, Loserville, was unfairly maligned by the press, it's also true that it felt like it had gone too big too quickly with a West End run, and it did a lot better a couple of years later as a fringe show. So it's back to the Union Theatre (albeit in its new location across the road) and to director Michael Burgen that they return for the first outing of their sophomore effort. On the evidence so far, Davis & Bourne's niche is a British take on Americana: After the high school antics of Loserville we have the space race, dysfunctional fathers and sons, and a brash stranger finding redemption in a small town and saving it in the process, in Out There.

Friday 23 September 2016

Theatre review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and tour)

The "tiny" touring actor-musician Shakespeare productions haven't quite become a casualty of the Globe's new regime as Nick Bagnall returns to direct The Two Gentlemen of Verona, although the home lap of the tour now has a different venue, being squeezed into the Swanamaker rather than the main house. The candlelit Jacobean playhouse is a bit of an odd fit for Katie Sykes' mini-stage and a 1960s-themed take on Proteus (Dharmesh Patel,) who's sworn undying love to Julia (Leah Brotherhead,) but first has to make a trip to Milan to visit his friend Valentine (Guy Hughes,) who's been serving the Duke there. Valentine is in love with the Duke's daughter Sylvia (Aruhan Galieva,) a match he's not considered good enough for, and so the two have planned to elope, a plan he's shared with Proteus.

Thursday 22 September 2016

Theatre review: The Libertine

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Despite already having had a full run in Bath, this doesn't seem to have invited the newspaper critics in yet.

A comedy about the Restoration, as opposed to a Restoration Comedy, although we do see something of that genre's creation in The Libertine, a 1994 play by Stephen Jeffreys first seen at the Royal Court and now getting a West End revival from Terry Johnson. George Etherege's best-known work The Man of Mode* is reputed to have been based on the real-life 2nd Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot, and it's Rochester (Dominic Cooper) that Jeffreys puts centre-stage, a favourite of Charles II (Jasper Britton) which is probably the only reason he managed to avoid execution. A regular at London's playhouses, except when he's been banished to the country for pissing off the king, at the start of the play Rochester returns from one such involuntary trip to find a new actress in town: Lizzie Barry (Ophelia Lovibond) is routinely booed off the stage for what, compared to the highly stylised acting style of the time, seem like incredibly unenthusiastic performances.

Tuesday 20 September 2016

Theatre review: Things I Know to be True

Frantic Assembly use their signature physical style on an unlikely genre, the family melodrama, for Australian playwright Andrew Bovell's Things I Know to be True. The title refers to a mental list kept by Rosie Price (Kirsty Oswald,) a young woman on her gap year in Europe, who gets fucked in more ways than one by a handsome Italian and, heartbroken, makes an early return to suburban Adelaide and her parents Fran (Imogen Stubbs) and Bob (Ewan Stewart.) The baby of the family, Rosie's list is of comforting things about her family and how she'll always know where she stands with them, so of course she's barely back before it all starts to change. Eldest brother Mark (Matthew Barker) has been dumped by his long-term girlfriend due to a crisis he's not yet shared with the others, while Ben's (Richard Mylan) big-spending lifestyle is clearly leading to trouble.

Monday 19 September 2016

Theatre review: Labyrinth

Playwright Beth Steel seems to like titles reminiscent of kids' classics: Much as her Wonderland featured miners at the bottom of the tunnel rather than a white rabbit, her Labyrinth offers up bankers instead of David Bowie and muppets. In fact the reference that most often came to mind was Lucy Prebble's ENRON, as Labyrinth too aims to illustrate more recent financial collapse through the story of a historical one - in this case the late 1970s / early 1980s mountain of debt that crippled South America. Hampstead Theatre have brought back their recent discover Sean Delaney and put a whole show on his shoulders as John, son of a fraudster and determined to make a fortune in a more reputable way himself. He's taken on by a bank that specialises in making loans to foreign governments, and learns from Alpha male Charlie (Tom Weston-Jones) how the world is run on behind-the-scenes handshake deals.

Saturday 17 September 2016

Theatre review: Jess and Joe Forever

When a 9-year-old girl is caught spying on a group of skinny-dipping boys, they make fun of her until the smallest of the boys, and the only one wearing swimming trunks, distracts them by jumping out of a tree into the water. It's a little kindness that'll develop into a friendship over the next few years. Two young adult actors give convincingly wide-eyed and halting performances as the titular characters of Zoe Cooper's Jess and Joe Forever. Jess (Nicola Coughlan) is the city-girl daughter of a rich couple who've bought a cottage in a remote part of Norfolk just so they can send her there with the au pair for a couple of weeks every summer to "learn how to have a childhood." Her real holiday will be with them straight afterwards, for quality time and to brush up on her Italian language skills.

Thursday 15 September 2016

Theatre review: No Man's Land

If you're looking to cast a play about a pair of septuagenarian eccentrics you can't really go much starrier than the original theatrical bromance of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Sean Mathias' production of No Man's Land originated on Broadway where it played in repertory with the same team's Waiting for Godot, but it's taken its time coming back to the West End (via a short national tour.) Not that Harold Pinter is ever exactly an open book, but No Man's Land has a reputation for being particularly impenetrable: Hirst (SirPatStew) is a writer, a successful one with a large Hampstead house and a couple of assistants, but also a reclusive one who doesn't venture out much further than the pub. It's on the way back through Hampstead Heath one night that he encounters the much shabbier poet Spooner (Serena,) and invites him back to his drawing room to continue drinking into the night.

Wednesday 14 September 2016

Theatre review: Torn

Nathaniel Martello-White's second play Torn has, like his first, a deliberately messy structure, although with much more successful results this time. Angel (Adelle Leonce) opens the show with the cryptic statement "it happened," words which she intends to open up old family wounds, but which most of the family aren't willing to listen to: As a child she accused her stepfather Steve (James Hillier) of abuse, something she then quickly retracted. Now she's decided to confront everyone with the fact that it was true all along, and she especially wants to deal with her mother 1st Twin (Indra Ové) - most of the characters don't get names beyond their position in the family - and the reasons she wanted Angel to keep quiet. In his first play Blackta, Martello-White focused a lot on gradations of skin tone, and if there's anything even remotely autobiographical about Torn it explains a lot about where this interest comes from.

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Theatre review: punkplay

Last year Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre hosted a hit (in fact I'm surprised and disappointed it didn't get a further life) production of Xanadu, and this year in the Little space Olivia Newton-John's title song plays on a constant loop before the start of another show largely performed on rollerskates. In theory the song's a symbol of everything this play's characters are revolting against, and a sign that we're in for a very different experience, but in fact Gregory S. Moss' punkplay might turn out to have more in common with that affable piece of '80s nostalgia than it first appears to. It's the mid 1980s in New England - Reagan's America - and Duck's (Matthew Castle) father has kicked him out of the house after an argument over military school. Duck turns up at his best friend Mickey's (Sam Perry) house asking if he can stay there for a while, which turns out to be the best part of a year during which the teenagers discover hallucinogenic cough syrup, some really bizarre porn, and punk.

Sunday 11 September 2016

Theatre review: If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You

The second gay-themed plawrighting debut in a row at the Old Red Lion, and not only a more contemporary play but a much more successful one in John O'Donovan's fucked-up romance If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You. It's Halloween, and Mikey (Alan Mahon) and Casey (Ammar Duffus) have just robbed a petrol station to the tune of €16 and some loose tobacco, and are now running away from the police. Mikey grew up in the small Irish town where the story is set, and has barely left it, but Casey is originally from Croydon, his family having run away to Ireland five years earlier under shady circumstances. They've climbed onto the roof of Casey's house, stealing some cash and cocaine from his mum along the way, and now have to wait up there until the police leave.

Saturday 10 September 2016

Theatre review: King Lear (RSC / RST & Barbican)

This year's installment of The Greg & Tony Show brings us to what has always been inevitable, as Antony Sher takes the title role in Shakespeare's bleak but beautiful King Lear. Gregory Doran's rule of the RSC has been criticised (largely by me, to be fair,) for sometimes resembling an extended vanity project for his husband, a criticism he's presumably not too worried about dispelling, as this is a production whose aesthetic is all about showing Lear not so much as a king but as a god. Funnily enough that meant I saw parallels with the show I saw last night, but where Haile Selassie worked into his old age to desperately try and cling on to power, Lear starts to believe the adoration he gets is his divine right, and gives up the power that is the only reason anyone respected him.

Friday 9 September 2016

Theatre review: The Emperor

There's people with a mixed reputation, and then there's Haile Selassie, who ruled Ethiopia for half of the Twentieth Century. Depending on who you ask he was everything from a narcissistic dictator who watched his people starve to death while he lived in luxury, to the literal Second Coming, with the religion built around him - Rastafarianism - still thriving to this day (plus he seems perfectly nice on Bake Off.) If there was any doubt that the subject's a controversial one you could add the lone protestor outside the Young Vic tonight, with placards calling Ryszard Kapuściński's book The Emperor "literary colonialism." The book is adapted for the stage by Colin Teevan and directed by Walter Meierjohann, reuniting Kathryn Hunter with the team behind her tour-de-force Kafka's Monkey.

Thursday 8 September 2016

Theatre review: Diary of a Madman

A loose adaptation from Gogol, Diary of a Madman does deal with mental illness, but it doesn’t do so explicitly for its first hour, instead setting a detailed scene. Al Smith’s Scottish transposition takes inspiration from the popular metaphor of the Forth Bridge, said to take so long to paint that by the time it’s done the other end needs starting again. Here it becomes the job of a single family who’ve been doing it for generations, Pop Sheeran (Liam Brennan) taking a year to put on each new coat before going back to the start. His son’s unable to help him at the moment so the company that manages the bridge has sent along Matthew (Guy Clark,) an English post-grad at Edinburgh University, whose thesis studies the effectiveness of a new formulation of paint intended to cut down on all this work. In one of those plot-driving coincidences, Matthew then discovers that Pop’s teenage daughter Sophie (Louise McMenemy) is the girl he slept with a few weeks earlier.

Wednesday 7 September 2016

Theatre review: The Inn at Lydda

Although the initial description didn't instantly grab me, I eventually booked for The Inn at Lydda based on the cast - not only a strong cast but one largely made up of faces familiar to the Globe, suggesting that the new regime doesn't entirely want to burn bridges with the old one (something tricky to do anyway in the Swanamaker, where Dominic Dromgoole's face is part of the decor.) John Wolfson's play, getting a short run in the indoor playhouse, imagines a meeting in ancient Judea: The Emperor Tiberius Caesar (Stephen Boxer) is sick and dying, but has heard of a miracle worker in a distant part of his empire, who he's sure can cure him. Unfortunately by the time he and his entourage make it to Jerusalem, Jesus of Nazareth has been crucified by Rome's own representatives. But unlike the last version of the story we saw on a London stage, this one is based on Christian apocrypha, so the story doesn't end there.

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Theatre review: Home Chat

I'm on the record as not being as convinced of Noël Coward's enduring genius as so many people seem to be, but that doesn't mean I haven't had some decent evenings at his plays - even, as it turns out, at one so little-regarded that it hasn't been seen on a London stage since its premiere in 1927. Home Chat is a light comedy about a lucky escape with an unexpected downside, and one surprisingly sympathetic to a woman with a mind of her own (there is the usual suggestion that women need a slap now and then to keep them in line because it's still Noël Coward and he's awful that way, but at least it's not done as a gag.) Martin Parr's production opens dramatically (thanks to lighting by Christopher Nairne and sound design by Pete Malkin) with a fatal train crash in France. One sleeper carriage is particularly wrecked, so much so that the miraculous escape of two English passengers makes the papers. But as Janet Ebony (Zoë Waites) was sharing the compartment with Peter (Richard Dempsey,) her friend since childhood but definitely not her husband, tongues quickly start to wag back home.

Monday 5 September 2016

Theatre review: Unfaithful

Back to the popup venue that can't pop down again soon enough for my liking, Found111. The chairs are still uncomfortable but at least now they actually seem to have been designed for adult humans to sit on, rather than stolen from a dollhouse; and there's even a bit of a rake in the traverse seating for Unfaithful. Owen McCafferty's play sees a younger and older couple cross paths in ways that put both relationships at risk: Married plumber Tom (Sean Campion) is having a drink after work when a much younger woman, Tara (Ruta Gedmintas,) starts flirting with him, before out-and-out suggesting sex in an alley. Tom returns to his dinnerlady wife Joan (Niamh Cusack) to confess he slept with Tara. In revenge, Joan arranges a date with male escort Peter (Matthew Lewis.) Tara is Peter's girlfriend, and her frustration at what he does for a living might be what leads her to hit on other men.

Friday 2 September 2016

Theatre review: Much Ado About Nothing (The Faction / Selfridges reFASHIONed Theatre)

Alongside the theatres that have been marking the 4th centenary of Shakespeare's death, there's been various other tributes from the obvious, like commemorative coins, to the less likely, like Selfridges (they sell fridges) theming their window displays around quotes from the plays. Taking the idea full-circle, the department store has also decided to actually stage one of them on-site, in a pop-up venue in the Oxford Street shop's basement. They're calling it the reFASHIONed Theatre, and handing out glossy programme/brochures PRINTED SINGLE-SIDED ON THICK PAPER HOW MANY TREES HAD TO DIE that remind us of the many high-fashion brands you can buy in-store (they also sell fridges) so the fact that this is largely a marketing stunt would normally have kept me away.

Thursday 1 September 2016

Theatre review: The Entertainer

If the whole point of SirKenBran's eponymous, year-long residency at the Garrick was to prove that he could programme a whole season and actually remember to turn up for the whole thing, then it looks like a success. If we're also meant to take into account the actual shows, though, this has made Michael Grandage's underwhelming West End season of a few years ago seem like a resounding triumph in comparison. For the finale SirKenBran lets Rob Ashford take the directing reins on his own, while he himself takes on the lead role in John Osborne's The Entertainer, a part the playwright himself once told him he should play. Of course, Osborne's been dead for over twenty years so he probably wouldn't be too offended if his suggestion had been ignored, and maybe SirKenBran should have thought instead of the living who actually have to sit through it every night. He plays Archie Rice, a music hall entertainer who followed his father Billy into showbusiness.