Sunday 30 October 2016

Theatre review: Magnificence

Nowadays Howard Brenton is our top writer of history plays but in the 1970s he was a more overtly political writer, and things don't get much more overt than Magnificence, which opens with a group of idealistic young protesters breaking into - what they think is - an abandoned flat. In the first sign of why the Finborough might have seen the play as ripe for revival, they're planning to squat there in protest at people being made homeless all over London while houses are left empty, as tenants get kicked out of flats they've lived in all their lives so they can be redeveloped and rented out at an inflated price. They're enthusiastic and somewhat naïve, but as the days go by the squat is watched by bailiff Slaughter (Chris Porter) - a man profiting from the situation they're campaigning against, and one with a reputation for dangerous practices.

Saturday 29 October 2016

Theatre review: The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

Tony Kushner's 2009 play - set two years before that - The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures gets its UK premiere at Hampstead, who've appended the alternate title iHo (you can't really tweet the whole thing, I guess.) But the full title is probably worth sticking to as the wordiness and sheer unnecessary length give a better indicator of what the play itself is like, as opposed to iHo, because it isn't actually about what would happen if Apple made prostitutes. Instead it's something of a family saga, though playing out over just a few days, set mainly in a Brooklyn brownstone that's in need of fairly regular repair but has still skyrocketed in value as the property boom gets going. Tom Piper's design puts the bare white shell of the four-story building on a revolve.

Thursday 27 October 2016

Theatre review: Side Show

A 1997 musical with the dubious reputation of having been produced on Broadway twice and tanked both times, writer Bill Russell and composer Henry Krieger's Side Show finally arrives in the UK in the version from the 2014 revival, with additional book by Bill Condon. Based on the story of the real-life Hilton sisters who appeared in Tod Browning's Freaks, it opens with conjoined twins Daisy (Louise Dearman) and Violet (Laura Pitt-Pulford) as the star attraction in a freak show during the Depression. The show's owner Sir (Chris Howell) is also their legal guardian for life and essentially treats them as his property as well. When vaudeville impresario Terry (Haydn Oakley) visits the show he spots the twins' potential as performers, as well as the abusive situation they're in, and helps them mount a successful court case to be liberated from Sir. He does succeed in making them stars, for a while, and they also seem to find a chance at love, but their disability gets in the way of both in the end.

Wednesday 26 October 2016

Theatre review: Harrogate

The first time I ever went to the Royal Court Upstairs it was for a play called Scarborough, named after a resort town where the central couple had sex in a B&B room (I was impressed by its star Jack O'Connell, wonder what happened to him...) So there's some déjà vu in the fact that Al Smith's Harrogate gets its title from a similar dirty weekend, although this time we're not in the room itself but in a London kitchen a week or two after the fact. Nigel Lindsay and Sarah Ridgeway play characters identified only as Him and Her, but while Lindsay's character remains the same throughout, Ridgeway is actually playing three different people over the course of the evening. Yes, it's one of those plays that's hard to even give a synopsis of without giving everything away so consider everything after the text cut as potentially spoilery.

Monday 24 October 2016

Theatre review: One Night in Miami...

A bit of a thought out of nowhere: Not only are Professor X and Magneto on a London stage at the moment, there's also plays set in the motel rooms of both the civil rights figures who inspired those characters. This time last week it was Martin Luther King, now One Night in Miami... is spent in Malcolm X's room - again with some surprising company. Kemp Powers' play is another fictionalised version of a night that really happened: Four famous men who were also old friends, meeting on the night in 1964 that Muhammad Ali first won the heavyweight title. At the time Ali was still called Cassius Clay (Sope Dirisu,) but Malcolm X (Francois Battiste) had convinced him to join the Nation of Islam, and Clay was on the verge of going public with his support and change of name. Also there are the American football star Jim Brown (David Ajala) and singer-songwriter Sam Cooke (Arinzé Kene,) at the time best known for soppy but successful love songs.

Saturday 22 October 2016

Theatre review: Blue Heart

Shopping and Fucking might be the most attention-grabbing title getting a 20th anniversary revival but, already long-established by the time Mark Ravenhill & co emerged, Caryl Churchill showed around the same time that she could more than match the new faces for experimentation in form - even if, like her more recent Escaped Alone, she does it with middle class ladies rather than sexually charged Gen X-ers. Blue Heart is in fact a double bill of short works that play around with, in the first instance form, and in the second case language. In Heart's Desire, Alice (Amelda Brown) and Brian (Andy de la Tour) are waiting for their daughter Susy (Mona Goodwin) to arrive from the airport; She emigrated to Australia and this is her first visit back. But the wait is infinitely prolonged because Churchill keeps taking the action back to the start, or to a particular point in the conversation.

Thursday 20 October 2016

Theatre review: A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer

A musical about cancer sounds a dubious proposition at the best of times, let alone when there's the terrible precedent of Happy Ending. At least A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is a musical with actual songs in it; performance artist Bryony Kimmings directs, co-writes the book with Brian Lobel, provides the lyrics to songs by Tom Parkinson, and appears as a pre-recorded voiceover narrating and occasionally interacting with the cast. Parts of the play are verbatim, with the majority of the patients we see based on specific people, but the central figure is more loosely based on Kimmings herself and a prolonged health scare her son had: Emma (Amanda Hadingue) takes her baby son to an oncology ward for tests she assumes will take a couple of hours; as it becomes increasingly clear the results are bad, this turns into 24 hours in a purgatorial grey hospital ward with people at various stages of their illness.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Theatre review: Shopping and Fucking

A few years ago Sean Holmes seemed to be initiating a tradition of reviving a famously dark and controversial play at the Lyric every autumn. We had Sarah Kane and Edward Bond's respective bouts of cruelty to babies, and now after a few years the nasty stuff returns for the 20th anniversary of another noted shocker - and one that did very well out of its reputation, getting a couple of West End runs out of it in the '90s - Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking. Young couple Robbie (Alex Arnold) and Lulu (Sophie Wu) live with the older Mark (Sam Spruell,) as his property - he bought them for £20 from a man he met in a supermarket. All three seem pretty happy with the arrangement until Mark has to leave for a few months to go to an addiction treatment clinic. Robbie and Lulu aren't used to fending for themselves, and in their search for work Lulu auditions for a TV shopping channel.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Theatre review: The Red Barn

After his transatlantic success in Ivo van Hove's A View From The Bridge, Mark Strong returns to the stage to work with a director who's always shown van Hove's influence in his work; but in Robert Icke's first production at the National, it's a legendary film rather than stage director who immediately comes to mind. David Hare's new play The Red Barn is an adaptation of crime writer Georges Simenon's novel La Main, taking place in the winter of 1968-69 in New England, where lawyer Donald Dodd (Strong) and his wife Ingrid (Hope Davis) have their friends Mona (Elizabeth Debicki) and Ray (Nigel Whitmey) visiting. On the way back from a party they get caught in a blizzard, and only three of them make it back to the house: Despite Donald going back out to search for him, Ray is never seen alive again. Although the storm causes a number of deaths, Donald's jittery behaviour makes this one seem particularly suspicious.

Monday 17 October 2016

Theatre review: The Mountaintop

This year's JMK award winner Roy Alexander Weise gets a more recently-staged play to direct than we usually see in this competition - or maybe seven years is in keeping with other productions, and the 2009 premiere of Katori Hall's Olivier-winning play has just stuck particularly well in my memory. The Mountaintop takes its title from the speech Dr Martin Luther King made in Memphis the day before his assassination, and takes place on that last night in his motel room. Needing to stay up to work on the next day's sermon, King (Gbolahan Obisesan) orders a coffee and gets more than he bargained for with it. Room service maid Camae (Ronke Adékoluejo) catches his eye straight away and seems to be flirting back, so he asks her to stay a while and share a few cigarettes with him.

Friday 14 October 2016

Theatre review: The Dresser

Ronald Harwood is best-known for his contribution to the field of gibbering misogyny, but he also wrote some plays. Sean Foley's new production of the best-known one, The Dresser, comes to London after a short out-of-town tryout, and follows a co-dependent relationship over the course of one night during World War II. For the last 16 years Norman (Reece Shearsmith) has been personal dresser to the grand old stage actor Sir (Ken Stott,) a fairly well-respected name but appaently not enough to ever get the knighthood he desperately wants. They're currently on their latest leg of an endless regional tour of Shakespearean rep, with a company largely made up of the elderly and injured because all the professional young actors are in the army. Tonight's performance is King Lear, but Sir has gone missing.

Thursday 13 October 2016

Theatre review: Oil

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Once again I don't remember specifically booking a preview but it looks like the professional critics are in tomorrow.

Ella Hickson's plays have been steadily growing in size and scope, and Oil at the Almeida sees her take on not just a global issue but an epic story that spans centuries. In 19th century Cornwall, May (Anne-Marie Duff) lives on her husband's remote farm, a hand-to-mouth existence but she's genuinely in love with her husband Joss (Tom Mothersdale,) and the fact they can't keep their hands off each other makes it no surprise that she's pregnant. But when William Whitcomb (Sam Swann) arrives from America with a ridiculously generous offer to buy the farm as a UK base for his kerosene business, Joss turn him down and May can't forgive his lack of ambition. She steps out into the snow and on a journey that now takes on a surreal note. Because in the style of Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine, a few years pass for May, but many more pass in the world around her.

Monday 10 October 2016

Theatre review: Confessional

This publicity image has nothing whatsoever to do with the show but who am I to discourage innovative advertising drives?

As well as his famous and much-revived melodramatic Southern sagas, there's a whole other Tennessee Williams canon of more experimental work, and coupled with Jack Silver's less than traditional staging I think if you went into Confessional not knowing who wrote it, you'd be unlikely to guess correctly. A collection of character studies rather than a narrative as such, it takes place in - as Williams wrote it - a California bar late at night, Monk (Raymond Bethley) pouring drinks for the regulars, most of whom were drunk before they even got there. It may be an atypical piece but it still revolves around a powerful female character, Leona (Lizzie Stanton,) a trailer park-dwelling beautician who's commemorating the anniversary of her brother's death. Drunk, but less so than anyone else there, she's having a moment of clarity and has decided to pack up her trailer and move on to somewhere new.

Friday 7 October 2016

Theatre review: Travesties

Taking a few moments out from writing and directing everything at the National, Patrick Marber pops a bit further down the South Bank to the Menier to direct a revival of one of Tom Stoppard's better-known plays. Travesties is a treatise on the meaning and relevance of art, for its own sake or as a commentary on the state of the world, through the medium of a sometimes silly comedy seen through the muddled memory of a retired civil servant. Henry Carr (Tom Hollander) is a doddering figure reminiscing about his days working at the British Consulate in Zurich during the First World War, neutral Switzerland a strange kind of calm in the middle of Europe's chaos. As a result it's a focal point for artists and political thinkers, and Carr has dealings with James Joyce, the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, and the exiled Lenin.

Thursday 6 October 2016

Theatre review: The Tempest (Donmar King's Cross)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: I can't see any sign of the papers having been invited to this yet.

Phyllida Lloyd's all-female Shakespeare productions were announced as a trilogy, and the theme of "red hands" that ran through the other two plays made me think Macbeth might be the final bloody part. As it turns out Lloyd's idea was actually to do one tragedy - the original Julius Caesar - one history - the condensed Henry IV - and one comedy, which turns out to be The Tempest. As with the other two productions, the framing device is that Shakespeare's play is being staged by the inmates of a women's prison, a setting that would seem to lend itself better to the other two genres, but in fairness this is one of the comedies that's rarely actually funny. Instead the more accurate term of "late romance" would seem particularly appropriate here, as the prison story focuses even more on a character whose backstory has been becoming more prominent over the trilogy, and who of course is also the real-life company's big name: Hannah, the character Harriet Walter uses in the framing device, based on a real American lifer with no hope of parole.

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Theatre review: The Boys in the Band

A genuine classic of gay theatre - groundbreaking in its subject matter at the time, and with a clear influence on later writers' work - Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band gets revived by Adam Penford for the Park Theatre. A look at gay life in 1968 New York, its characters have found a subculture they feel reasonably safe in, but their sexuality is still something they need to keep behind closed doors. Michael (Ian Hallard) is hosting a birthday party for Harold (Mark Gatiss) who, as always, is expected to show up late. An early arrival is Donald (Daniel Boys,) Michael's on-off lover and a neurotic who's had to move out of the city as can't handle it full-time. The rest of the invited guests all soon turn up, as does an unexpected one - Michael's college roommate Alan (John Hopkins,) who hasn't been told about his friend's sexuality.

Tuesday 4 October 2016

Theatre review: Adding Machine

Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt's Adding Machine, based on a 1923 piece of expressionism and getting its UK premiere from Josh Seymour at the Finborough, follows Mr Zero (Joseph Alessi,) who works in a large store, adding up figures in the back room. He's had the same job for 25 years, the same amount of time he's been married to Mrs Zero (Kate Milner-Evans,) who mainly screams abuse at him through the medium of opera. Zero believes that his 25-year anniversary at work will surely be marked with a promotion to the front store, but in fact his boss (James Dinsmore) cheerfully informs him he's being fired and replaced with an adding machine. Zero's reaction to being discarded is violent, and he soon finds himself on Death Row alongside Shrdlu (Edd Campbell Bird,) a highly religious murderer who's looking forward to getting tortured in Hell for his crimes.

Saturday 1 October 2016

Theatre review: The Rover, or, The Banish'd Cavaliers

Best-remembered today as England's first female professional writer (although it turns out in the 19th Century her name was a euphemism for a reet dorty hoor, society having decided that "female professional writer" wasn't actually something they were ready for yet, thanks,) Aphra Behn's most famous play is The Rover, or, The Banish'd Cavaliers. The subtitle sets the action a couple of decades before the play's writing, during the exile of the prince who would eventually be Restored as Charles II. His followers, equally unwelcome in England during Cromwell's rule, had a mixed reputation, seen by some as accomplished soldiers, by others as thrill-seekers lacking morals. Behn gives us just such a mixed picture - veering towards the latter - in her quartet of Cavaliers who end up in an unnamed Spanish town during Carnival season, and intend to make the most of its spirit.