Sunday 31 December 2017

2017: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

BABY BABY BABYthat's another year done with in London theatre, which means it must be time for me to pass judgement on it. I have to say that in all the years I've written one of these roundups, this is probably the least idea I've had starting out, what the Top Ten is going to look like by the time I get to the end of it. It feels like a pretty solid year in terms of what's actually ended up on stage, with two categories in particular coming out very strong and likely to dominate my list. It probably helps that I've tried to be more selective with what I go to see, it's amazing how much less crap you see when you deliberately avoid things that sound terrible. If you look at the total number of blog posts for every year since 2012, you'll see that managing to keep it under 200 shows is, by my standards, something of an achievement in handling my theatre addiction.

Wednesday 27 December 2017

Theatre review: Bananaman

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Bananaman is having its press night late in its run, presumably for reasons of Christmas.

Southwark Playhouse has looked to Japanese comics in the past for its Christmas family show, but this year it's found a superhero closer to home. Based on a character created by David Donaldson in 1980 (his first-ever comic strip is reprinted in the programme) who appeared in various British comics as well as the famous TV cartoon voiced by The Goodies, Bananaman now gets his own musical written and composed by Leon Parris. Eric Wimp (Mark Newnham) is a nerdy 16-year-old who's bullied at school and can't pluck up the courage to ask out his friend Fiona (Emma Ralston.) But one night, while he's out watching the skies, a shard from a comet falls to earth, knocking him out. When he wakes up he finds that every time he eats a banana he transforms into Bananaman (Matthew McKenna,) a superhero with the muscles of twenty men, and the brains of twenty mussels.

Saturday 23 December 2017

Theatre review: Misalliance

Paul Miller's seasonal offering is what has become his personal trademark at the Orange Tree, another lesser-known play by one of the best-loved late 19th or early 20th century playwrights. It's Bernard Shaw's turn again, with Misalliance a fairly straightforward attempt at a knockabout comedy, although one with a message that would have still ruffled a few feathers in 1909. Tarleton (Pip Donaghy) is a self-made man who made a fortune with his brand of hard-wearing underwear. He sent his children to the most expensive schools so that they wouldn't mingle with the aristocracy (they're always asking for loans they never pay back) but somehow his daughter Hypatia (Marli Siu) has still got engaged to Bentley (Rhys Isaac-Jones,) youngest and oddest son of Lord Summerhays (Simon Shepherd.)

Friday 22 December 2017

Theatre review: Pinocchio

Going by the last couple of offerings, Rufus Norris' vision for Christmas family shows at the National involves the most familiar stories being given unfamiliar stagings. If I wasn't really sold on a vision of Peter Pan as "quite looking forward to getting his bus pass," this year's interpretation of Pinocchio as "Joe Idris-Roberts with his nips out" is perhaps a more likely fit to my interests. And the story itself, a pretty dark one at heart and much less frequently staged, is closer to my liking of the more gothic side of children's stories. Adaptor Dennis Kelly and director John Tiffany certainly seem to agree, with a disorientating production: This saw me return to the theatre after a few days of being too ill to go out and having to miss some shows I was really keen on, and perhaps there could be no better fit when I'm still feeling a bit wobbly, as Pinocchio has always had a touch of the fever-dream to it.

Sunday 17 December 2017

Theatre review: Barnum

One thing you can usually expect from the Menier Chocolate Factory is a pretty safe palate and a commercial sensibility, so it’s a surprise to see them spaff a big budget and their Christmas show on a gamble, and one that doesn’t pay off at that. Maybe it’s a reflection of Cy Coleman (music,) Michael Stewart (lyrics) and Mark Bramble’s (book) hero and his tendency to lay the big decisions in his life on the toss of a coin that’s led Gordon Greenberg’s production to cast Marcus Brigstocke in a part he has no obvious qualification for, the titular role in Barnum. The 19th century impresario P.T. Barnum was given the name (most likely by himself) The Greatest Showman, and the musical follows his earlier forays into show business (his co-founding of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus is pretty much the show’s epilogue) and his relationship with his wife Charity (Laura Pitt-Pulford,) who provides the nous behind his flair for spectacle.

Saturday 16 December 2017

Theatre review: Imperium Part I: Conspirator

Following the transatlantic success of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, it's not a big surprise if the RSC wants to replicate it by giving Mike Poulton another sequence of historical novels to adapt into a two-part epic play. And as 2017 has been the company's year for exploring Shakespeare's Roman plays, Rome is where Poulton now takes us, for Robert Harris' Cicero Trilogy. Imperium begins with Conspirator, an accusation that could be leveled at a number of its characters, including the man with the biggest claim to defeating them: Cicero (Richard McCabe) is still remembered as one of the great orators, but his political career will require him to adopt means of manipulation beyond what he can persuade a crowd of. Tiro (Joseph Kloska,) the slave who serves as his private secretary, is the affable narrator of an eventful year in Cicero's life, and its aftermath.

Thursday 14 December 2017

Theatre review: The Twilight Zone

There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It’s quite camp there, actually.

There’s definitely something that feels seasonal about the Almeida’s latest show, although it’s hard to put my finger on quite why; maybe it’s not Christmassy as such but there’s something apt about cold days and long nights welcoming The Twilight Zone. Anne Washburn’s is the first stage adaptation of Rod Serling’s TV series – the 1960s original which Serling created, narrated and wrote most of the episodes of, rather than either of the revivals. In Richard Jones’ production John Marquez plays a version of Serling as well as, like the rest of the 10-strong cast, numerous other roles in a selection of stories from the original series that have been thrown together into a pleasingly disorienting show. Prior to the show opening the Almeida were being secretive about which episodes in particular were being adapted, so if you want to go in keeping that a surprise consider this a SPOILER ALERT about which stories go into the mix.

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Theatre review: Grimly Handsome

In a week at the theatre that’s fast developing a theme of dreamlike oddity – and I haven’t even seen The Twilight Zone yet - Julia Jarcho’s Grimly Handsome plays out like a Christmas comedy nightmare. The Royal Court’s old rehearsal space above Sloane Square station has been used as an actual performance venue so often by now that they’ve given it a name – The Site – and that’s where designer Chloe Lamford and director Sam Pritchard – credited as co-creators – have set their particular vision for the play. This sees the whole building decked out as an art installation, with the audience invited to turn up twenty minutes early and explore the various rooms Lamford has decorated with a kitsch aesthetic: A gym with walls covered in magazine cuttings of bodybuilders, a room filled with artsy photos on the theme of infidelity and, on the balcony, a crime scene tent.

Monday 11 December 2017

Theatre review: Dear Brutus

J. M. Barrie’s Dear Brutus may take its title from Julius Caesar, but the Shakespeare play it borrows most overtly from is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lob (Robin Hooper) is a puckish – literally – old man who’s invited a group of strangers with one thing in common to spend the week at his home. As his guests try to figure out what their mysterious common characteristic is, they hear a local legend of a magical wood that appears in a different spot every Midsummer’s Eve; anyone who enters it is never seen again. The enchanted wood does appear, of course, and most of the guests do enter it, but in a three-act structure that’s like a much better-done version of The Passing of the Third Floor Back, they do all emerge again, all changed to varying degrees. This is a play full of wild variations in tone, as what each group of characters discovers in the wood is very different.

Saturday 9 December 2017

Theatre review: The Box of Delights

The Box of Delights was, for me, one of those things from childhood I'd completely forgotten about until a stage version was announced, and I suddenly remembered loving the slightly sinister 1984 TV adaptation. I'm normally worried about seeming a bit creepy turning up to kids' shows on my own but staging this at Wilton's Music Hall with a big-name creative team - Justin Audibert directing, Tom Piper designing - made this a memory lane trip I didn't want to miss. I needn't have worried about standing out, as with the majority of tonight's audience being in their forties I think this is largely attracting people for the same reason. Not that those children who were brought along didn't seem to be entirely enchanted as well by a production whose simple aesthetic fits in as well with the faded grandeur of its surroundings, as John Masefield's alternative Christmas story itself does.

Friday 8 December 2017

Theatre review: Hamilton

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Although tonight's performance wasn't due to be a preview when I booked it, the repair works on the Victoria Palace overrunning meant the press night was put back*.

If there was any doubt that the people I work with aren't really theatre fans, Exhibit A: When they asked me what I was doing for my birthday and I said I was going to Hamilton they said "what, in Scotland?" Outside of my office, though, excitement over Lin-Manuel Miranda's latest musical seems to be at fever pitch. Quite apart from all the awards it's been the hottest ticket on Broadway since it opened, and its (slightly delayed) London opening more or less sold out instantly. I'd deliberately avoided listening to any of the songs so it could stand on its own, but it was clear that even on its third public performance the theatre was full of people familiar with the score and enthusiastic for Miranda's high-speed history lesson about America's founding fathers and particularly Alexander Hamilton (Jamael Westman,) who appears on the $10 note but is otherwise comparatively obscure.

Wednesday 6 December 2017

Theatre review: How to Win Against History

With drag all over the West End, the Young Vic's Maria gets in on the act, although the cross-dressing in How to Win Against History is a bit of a red herring, or at least the tip of the iceberg. Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquis of Anglesey, was ridiculously wealthy even for an Edwardian aristocrat, but managed to end up dying destitute at the age of 29 thanks to his extravagant lifestyle, which included elaborate drag, rebuilding his family chapel into a personal theatre, and travelling the country putting on shows nobody wanted to see. His family were so ashamed of him they burnt all pictures of him they could find after his death, and attempted to wipe him out of history altogether. Clearly they didn't quite succeed, but very little information about this notable eccentric has survived, so Seiriol Davies' cabaret version of his life story is by necessity largely guesswork.

Tuesday 5 December 2017

Theatre review: The Passing of the Third Floor Back

As you might be able to infer from my photo, I’m quite partial to a cheeseburger. Although it would presumably be pretty synonymous with an instant heart attack, I can’t say I haven’t been tempted by Byron’s Christmas Fromagemas burger this year, featuring four different types of cheese as well as a jug of cheese sauce to pour over your cheese in case your cheese wasn’t cheesy enough. If all this indulgence seems like a particularly 21st century type of excess, I would have to point out that 110 years ago West End audiences made a hit of Jerome K. Jerome’s The Passing of the Third Floor Back, a play featuring toxic levels of cheese they presumably couldn’t get enough of. Mrs Sharpe (Anna Mottram) runs a London boarding house for what she considers to be a better class of clientele, but everyone there is miserable and trying to get one over on each other.

Thursday 30 November 2017

Theatre review: Privates on Parade

Peter Nichols and Dennis King’s revue-style play Privates on Parade was last in London five years ago in an entertaining, starry West End production that papered over a lot of the problematic cracks. It now gets a much more intimate 40th-anniversary revival at the Union, and while Kirk Jameson’s production has its moments, it also feels much more exposing of the ways Nichols’ social commentary has dated. During the Malayan Emergency that came soon after the Second World War, Private Steve Flowers (Samuel Curry) is transferred from intelligence to SADUSEA, the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia, which tours the area giving morale-boosting performances to the troops. They’re led by Acting Captain Terri Dennis (Simon Green,) who likes to perform as Vera Lynn, Carmen Miranda and, if he’s feeling particularly butch, Noël Coward.

Wednesday 29 November 2017

Theatre review: Yellowman

There are plenty of stories about people whose fates are sealed by the colour of their skin, but Dael Orlandersmith offers one where every tiny difference in pigmentation seems to have a specific, unavoidable path attached to it. As part of a Genesis Award Nancy Medina directs a revival of 2002 play Yellowman, which is part love story, part memoir, but overwhelmingly about prejudice and class distinctions based on skin tone within the black community. Eugene and Alma both grew up in South Carolina, each of them with one parent darker-skinned than the other. Eugene (Christopher Colquhoun) has taken after his lighter-skinned mother and so is a colour referred to (usually with some resentment) as “high yellow-red;” Alma (Nicola Hughes) also looks like her mother, which means she’s much darker and has to put up with a lifelong tirade from her alcoholic mother about how fat, ugly and black she is.

Saturday 25 November 2017

Theatre review: Everybody's Talking About Jamie

In what must be the first West End musical to be based on a BBC3 documentary, Dan Gillespie Sells (music) and Tom MacRae's (book and lyrics) Everybody's Talking About Jamie transfers to the Apollo from Sheffield, where it's set and where it premiered earlier this year. Jamie (John McCrea) is 16 and facing pretty dispiriting careers advice from his sour-faced form teacher Miss Hedge (Tamsin Carroll,) but he's already got very different and specific plans for how to make a living: He's never really been in the closet about his sexuality but the fact that he's always liked dressing up in his mother's clothes is more of a secret; but now, realising that it can actually be a job (there's a hat-tip to "Our Lady RuPaul,") he wants to be a drag queen when he grows up, and sees no reason not to get started straight away.

Thursday 23 November 2017

Theatre review: The Secret Theatre

Anders Lustgarten doesn’t seem an obvious fit for the Swanamaker, but in comparing present-day paranoia and manipulation by politicians to the intrigue of Elizabeth I’s court he’s found a subject that doesn’t just suit the time the venue recreates, but also feels at home in the shadows of the candlelit playhouse. The Secret Theatre is about the Queen’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham (Aidan McArdle,) who responded to the numerous assassination plots against her by creating the first surveillance state. He lives surrounded by paper, collecting files on Catholic threats and potential traitors, planting spies everywhere he can - often to spy on each other – and seeding an atmosphere of suspicion that seeps into every corner of the country. His plan is that his secret service should be the world’s worst-kept secret: You don’t actually need to watch everyone if everyone thinks they’re being watched.

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Theatre review: The Suppliant Women

The Oresteia is the only complete surviving Aeschylus trilogy, and consequently his most-performed work, but a couple of other individual plays of his are also extant; The Suppliant Women is the first in another sequence the rest of which has been lost. Of course, the same can be said of many of the plays by later writers that are still performed regularly, but Ramin Gray’s production, which goes right back to theatre’s early roots, quickly shows why this one might be seen as less ripe for reinvention than others. The titular women, a community chorus led by Gemma May Rees, are the Danaids, the Egyptian daughters of Danaos (Omar Ebrahim.) They have been ordered by the king Aegyptos to marry their first cousins, and they’ve fled Egypt with their father to escape the forced marriages. They trace their lineage to Argos, and one of Zeus’ various bestiality-themed extra-marital affairs, so that’s where they’ve sailed to seek asylum.

Saturday 18 November 2017

Theatre review: Quiz

My policy on making theatre trips to Chichester changed from "never" to "three times this year" in part thanks to each of the three shows feeling like they completed some kind of set: The decider was the chance to bookend a decade with different Ian McKellen performances of King Lear, but Sweet Bird of Youth made for a double bill of Tennesse Williams plays starring Brian J. Smith, and now the final show in Daniel Evans' first season in charge concludes a trio of new James Graham plays in 2017. Quiz is less obviously political than most of Graham's plays but you don't have to scratch too deep to find some of the wider themes that often come up in the playwright's work, particularly Privacy, about transparency in personal life, politics and the law; and whether the tendency towards leaving nothing secret in the name of full disclosure is in fact harming the chance of fair treatment behind closed doors. The reason this comes up is that Graham's creating a fictionalised version of a legal case considered to have become trial by media.

Thursday 16 November 2017

Theatre review: Network

It’s been a week of US TV stars on stage for me, with Mr Robot on Monday, Sideshow Bob on Tuesday, and now the big one: The dad from Malcolm in the Middle (he’s also done some… slightly edgier stuff since then.) Very much the director all the big names want to work with now, Ivo van Hove brings Bryan Cranston to the London stage for the first time to play Howard Beale in Network, Lee Hall’s adaptation of the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky film. Beale is the lead news anchor on a poorly-performing TV network, and the news is struggling more than anything. When he’s told he’s being replaced Beale, taking advantage of the fact that nobody’s really paying attention to him, announces that he’ll commit suicide live on air during his final broadcast. It turns out to be exactly the thing to give his ratings a boost.

Tuesday 14 November 2017

Theatre review: Big Fish

I’m not above enjoying something a bit sentimental at times, and Tim Burton’s film Big Fish was one case that hit the mark for me, so a musical adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s novel seemed worth a look. The film’s writer John August also provides the musical’s book, with songs by Andrew Lippa and, following an unsuccessful Broadway production, Nigel Harman directs a much-reworked, smaller-scale British premiere at The Other Palace. Edward Bloom (Sideshow BobKelsey Grammer) is in hospital, dying, and his recently-married son Will (Matthew Seadon-Young) wants to find out about his father’s life before it’s too late. The trouble is Edward has spent his life spinning tall tales and isn’t planning on telling a more down-to-earth version just yet. The play is based around his hospital room, as Will and his fellow-journalist wife Josephine (Frances McNamee) search for clues to the truth.

Monday 13 November 2017

Theatre review: Glengarry Glen Ross

According to Wikipedia, the Playhouse Theatre was designed by F.H. Fowler & Hill. A little-known fact about the architects is that they were semi-sentient, amorphous energy blobs who never actually met a living human being so assumed that, like the Fistyfelch people of Prang Centauri 9, our legs retract completely when we sit down. This is the only possible explanation for the seating in the Upper Circle, where you can't really accuse the audience of bad behaviour for moving around constantly when it's so obviously because they're in actual physical pain (I was on an aisle and there was nobody in the seat in front of me so I could hang my legs over the seat back, and that still wasn't enough leg room, and I'm not tall.) So the burden’s on any show staged there to hold the interest through the distractions; following Speed-the-Plow a couple of years ago, it’s again the turn of a David Mamet revival to try it.

Sunday 12 November 2017

Theatre review: Quaint Honour

This review is brought to you by codeine – I put my back out again on Saturday, and if I hadn’t got it under control by Sunday I’d have had to miss what might be the Finborough’s best rediscovery in years. The theatre’s official contribution to the 50-year anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, Roger Gellert’s Quaint Honour dates from a decade earlier, and is set in the location with perhaps the most ambiguous attitude to relationships between men: An all-boys’ boarding school. Sexual relationships between the pupils are of course strictly forbidden, but not quite so strictly policed – perhaps because the staff know the can of worms they’d be opening. But Head Prefect Park (Oliver Gully) is on a personal crusade to root out which of the boys are sleeping with each other. He hopes his deputy, Tully (Harley Viveash) will help him, but Tully thinks he’s imagining the problem.

Thursday 9 November 2017

Theatre review: The Retreat

There’s comedy royalty behind the scenes of The Retreat, the stage debut by Peep Show and Fresh Meat co-writer Sam Bain, directed by Kathy Fucking Burke; and it shows in an evening that may not hit every mark but doesn’t put a foot wrong when it comes to the laughs. Samuel Anderson plays Luke, a former high-flying city broker who’s given it up since meeting Tara (Yasmine Akram) at a festival. She runs a meditation centre in the Highlands, where – in a bare shack designed by Paul Wills - the whole play takes place in a single scene. In the course of a year since meeting Tara, Luke has become a Buddhist and left the consultancy he founded, and is now two months into a three-month meditation retreat. This is when his older brother Tony (Adam Deacon) turns up unannounced, ostensibly to tell him about the death of a distant relative.

Wednesday 8 November 2017

Theatre review: Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage is, apparently, the role Josie Lawrence has most wanted to play her whole career, and now she's got the chance she doesn't waste it, bringing a whole new level of nuance to Bertolt Brecht's antiheroine. Hannah Chissick's production of Mother Courage and Her Children at Southwark Playhouse uses the Tony Kushner translation from the last National Theatre outing, right down to the Duke Special versions of the songs that intermittently break into the narrative. Nominally set during the Thirty Years War, allowing for an epic scope both in time and ranging across Northern Europe, the play follows Lawrence’s Anna “Courage” Fierling as she travels from battlefield to battlefield, lugging a cart filled with food, drink and random provisions she sells to the desperate soldiers. She’s come to dread the possibility of peace, as war is what her entire livelihood depends on.

Tuesday 7 November 2017

Theatre review: Trestle

Although it's discovered some great plays over the last few years, the Papatango Prize winners tend to suggest the judges favour pretty bleak stories. So Stewart Pringle's Trestle feels like a bit of a change of pace, a gentler, more ambiguous play about barely-a-relationship between two pensioners. Widower Harry (Gary Lilburn) is the chairman of a "local improvement" committee in a small Yorkshire town, and every Thursday afternoon they meet at the local community centre. Denise (Connie Walker) is more recently retired, and has booked the next slot to teach a Zumba class for seniors. She meets Harry while he’s still clearing up after his meeting and, after an awkward misunderstanding where he mistakes her for the cleaner, helps him fold the trestle table. Over the next six months or so they meet for a few minutes like this every week, soon timing their arrivals and departures to make sure they don’t miss each other.

Saturday 4 November 2017

Theatre review: The Firm

Roy Williams was last at Hampstead Theatre writing about the police; now he comes to the Downstairs space with a look at the other side of the law. Gus (Clinton Blake) was once the leader of The Firm, the brains behind one of South London's most successful gangs of robbers and the only one of them never to be caught and jailed. Now pushing fifty they've all pretty much left that life behind them, and true to form Gus has had the most success since going legit: The play takes place in a wine bar he's about to reopen, one of a number of investments he owns. He and right-hand man Leslie (Jay Simpson) are preparing a party for Shaun, the last of the gang to still be in prison, to celebrate his release. Trent (Delroy Atkinson) and Selwyn (Clarence Smith) soon join them, but there's no sign of the guest of honour.

Friday 3 November 2017

Theatre review: Heather

Déjà vu on the way into the Bush's studio space, where Lily Arnold's sparse design gives us a desk with the script on it, with chairs and microphones for two performers. But where Nassim was largely about revealing truths about the writer's life, Thomas Eccleshare's Heather is about a fictional writer - one whose fictions extend further than it first appears. Harry (Ashley Gerlach) is an editor who thinks he's discovered the next J.K. Rowling in Heather (Charlotte Melia,) who's emailed him the first volume of her children's fantasy trilogy. The book is picked up and published without the two ever meeting, Heather at first being pregnant, then getting a terminal cancer diagnosis. But as the series becomes a sensation the press and public get curious about the elusive author, and Heather's excuses for staying in the shadows start sounding more and more desperate.

Thursday 2 November 2017

Theatre review: A Woman of No Importance

Another day, another former Artistic Director of a major South Bank theatre launches his new commercial production company. Where Nicholas Hytner's unique selling point - a large-scale London theatre that's actually fit for purpose - is one I can see the need for, I can't say the same for ex-Globe boss Dominic Dromgoole's new Classic Spring venture: The idea is to present seasons of late-19th and early-20th century classics in the West End proscenium arch theatres they were originally written for (Jonathan Fensom's designs fairly lush but offering no surprises.) A Shaw season is coming up, but first a year-long residency of Oscar Wilde plays at the Vaudeville, which is what makes me wonder exactly what gap Dromgoole thinks he's spotted in the market: The inevitable conclusion next year will be The Importance of Being Earnest, at which point it'll be only three years since the play's last revival at the very same theatre. At least the opening production is of a play not revived anywhere near as often, although for too much of A Woman of No Importance it's obvious why.

Tuesday 31 October 2017

Theatre review: Young Marx

Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr finally unveil what they've been working on since they left the National - the Bridge Theatre, billed as the first new-built commerical theatre in London in 80 years, with a promotional drive that seems to focus much more on baked goods than you would usually expect (they're trying to make interval madeleines A Thing.) Who knows how many unused shells of theatres are knocking around London basements at the moment thanks to the tax breaks luxury developments get for including a community arts space* - Hytner and Starr picked one next to Tower Bridge to occupy and flesh out, with what looks like a very effective design: Front-of-House is a bit Expensive Hotel but the auditorium has a touch of the RST about it, with three galleries above the stalls, and what look like good sightlines from most seats and a comparatively intimate feel. The opening three productions are designed to showcase the three possible seating configurations, starting with end-on.

Saturday 28 October 2017

Theatre review: The Exorcist

Just in time for Halloween, Sean Mathias brings to London what should be a surefire hit while everyone's looking for something spooky, although whether it can sustain that for the rest of its run to March will have to remain to be seen. John Pielmeier adapts William Peter Blatty's book - although William Friedkin's film is at least as much, if not more of an inspiration. Actress and single mother Chris (Jenny Seagrove) is put up in an old Georgetown house while on location for her latest film. Her daughter Regan (Clare Louise Connolly) has just celebrated her 12th birthday (give or take a couple of decades,) and her absent father has forgotten it for the second year running, so she's vulnerable to any father substitute who might be on offer. So when the disembodied voice of Gandalf starts talking to her in the attic she agrees to play a game with him - one which results in the demon "Captain Howdy" taking up residence in the girl's body and terrorising her family and friends.

Friday 27 October 2017

Theatre review: Beginning

With no shortage of drama about the end of relationships, David Eldridge's new play at the Dorfman looks at a possible Beginning. It's 3am and Laura's (Justine Mitchell) flatwarming party has just ended; all the guests have left except one she only met tonight. Danny (Sam Troughton) is a friend of one of Laura's clients, and they've been flirting with each other across the room all evening. He hasn't quite picked up on the fact that she returns his interest though, or that she's engineered him being left behind alone with her. Even when she makes it clear she wants to have sex with him Danny is nervous and reluctant. The two end up getting to know each other better, as Danny reveals the reasons he's so reticent even to have a one-night stand, let alone something that could turn into a relationship with someone he seems to be making a real connection with.

Thursday 26 October 2017

Theatre review: Of Kith and Kin

With his third play Chris Thompson continues to suggest he's a playwright whose next subject matter and style will always be a surprise. Of Kith and Kin introduces us to Daniel (James Lance) and Oliver (Joshua Silver,) married twice (once when it was Civil Partnership and again to upgrade to equal marriage) and now expecting a child. Priya (Chetna Pandya) was the one who first introduced them, and has already acted as a surrogate once before so she's a natural choice to carry their baby. The play opens with a baby shower just for the three of them, which gets crashed by Daniel's mother Lydia (Joanna Bacon.) It's clear from the start that Oliver can't stand her - at some point she offended his own mother although the dislike seems to stem from much earlier - and the atmosphere soon turns toxic.

Wednesday 25 October 2017

Theatre review: Labour of Love

A later-than-planned trip to the second of three James Graham premieres this year: When Sarah Lancashire had to pull out of Labour of Love due to illness, a number of performances were cancelled, including the one I'd originally booked for. The rescheduled trip proves well worth the wait though, and Lancashire's late replacement Future Dame Tamsin Greig is nobody's idea of second best. She plays Jean Whittaker, constituency agent for a Nottinghamshire seat so safe that it's never not gone to Labour in its history ("a tub of cottage cheese could win it.") That could change in the 2017 election though as, with Jeremy Corbyn's Labour making unexpected gains, this looks like being the one place to buck the trend: They're on their second recount and, after 27 years in the job, David Lyons (Martin Freeman) looks set to lose his seat to the Conservatives.

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Theatre review: The Lady From The Sea

The Lady From The Sea is Ellida (Nikki Amuka-Bird,) second wife to Dr Wangel (Finbar Lynch.) After an initially happy marriage, Ellida has become distant in recent years, and her husband suspects she has unresolved feelings for a lover from her past. In a turn of events that reflects Ibsen's ahead-of-his-time fascination with psychology, the doctor decides on a radical cure, inviting her former suitor Arnholm (Tom McKay) to visit. Wangel's hunch is correct but he's miscalculated: Arnholm isn't the man Ellida still has feelings for. Instead her unfinished business is with a sailor, her first love at the age of sixteen, who vowed they'd be bound forever before running away to escape a murder charge. She believes he's somehow found out that she's married someone else, and her depression comes from feeling she's betrayed him.

Monday 23 October 2017

Theatre review: Saint George and the Dragon

To Rory Mullarkey falls the dubious honour of giving the Olivier stage its best piece of new writing this year; a bar set so low the only challenge it could provide is in a limbo contest. Straight after I saw Albion, another play's title gives away the fact that it'll touch on English identity in the face of Brexit, as Mullarkey gives us his centuries-spanning, epic twist on Saint George and the Dragon. John Heffernan plays failed dragon-slayer George, who returns to the country of his birth only to find that one of the creatures he's been running from has taken up residence there too, turning it into a dark place in constant fear. Charles (Gawn Grainger) begs the knight to slay the beast, but it's only when he sees and instantly falls for Charles' daughter Elsa (Amaka Okafor) - who happens to be the Dragon's next meal - that he agrees to challenge him.

Saturday 21 October 2017

Theatre review: Albion

When Rupert Goold first took over the Almeida, he launched with a Mike Bartlett play that took inspiration from Shakespeare, to great effect; now they reunite to channel Chekhov. Naming a play Albion in 2017 is a pretty big clue that this is Bartlett's Brexit play, and it takes very little time for the metaphor to reveal itself: It may not be subtle but it's very good. Audrey (Victoria Hamilton) is the self-made owner of a chain of luxury stores where "everything's white, including the customers." On discovering that an Oxfordshire country house where she spent some time as a child is up for sale, she buys it and resettles her family there without asking them. It's not the house so much as the garden she's interested in: Named Albion, it was designed in the 1920s in what was then a revolutionary new style of small, themed gardens, but has fallen into disrepair for decades. Audrey's dream is to recreate the original gardener's vision, even if it alienates first everyone in the village, then everyone she knows.

Friday 20 October 2017

Theatre review: Hair

In what I doubt is the first time someone's got their genitals out for strangers under Waterloo Station, Hair has come to The Vaults, in a 50th anniversary production first seen last year in Manchester. Gerome Ragni, James Rado (book and lyrics) and Galt Macdermot's (music) hippie musical finds a natural home in these railway tunnels, and Maeve Black's design doesn't just fill the auditorium from floor to ceiling, it also extends out into the bar and surrounding areas, turning them into a chill-out zone complete with couches draped in ethnic throws and tents to have a lie-down in. Berger (Andy Coxon) is the sort-of leader of the Tribe, and sort-of narrator of the musical, which spends much of its first act introducing us to various members of the group of anti-war protesters. The focus gradually falls most onto Claude (Robert Metson,) Berger's best friend who's received his draft notice to fight in Vietnam.

Thursday 19 October 2017

Theatre review: Venus in Fur

Patrick Marber’s new project this week sees him direct the British premiere of US hit Venus in Fur, David Ives’ riff on the 1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – who gave his name to masochism, largely due to the book and its scandalous reputation. In it Severin, a man who traces back to childhood a desire to be dominated and punished by women, meets a woman he believes can give him what he’s been looking for all his life. She agrees to marry him if he completes a year as her slave to her satisfaction, and produces a contract to that effect; he ends up getting what he asked for but not exactly what he expected. This story becomes the play-within-Ives’ play, in which Thomas (David Oakes) is a New York playwright who’s written an adaptation of the novel he also plans to direct. After a day of disappointing auditions he’s failed to find an actress to play his Venus.

Tuesday 17 October 2017

Theatre review: Every Brilliant Thing

Having toured the world but, in true Paines Plough style, largely avoided London, Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing takes up residence at Richmond’s Orange Tree, with the play’s co-writer and original performer still at the helm: Jonny Donahoe tells a story billed as being based on “true and untrue events,” about a child’s coping mechanism when his mother attempts suicide, that remains part of his life well into adulthood. Aged 7, and with his only previous experience of mortality being the death of the family dog, he’s unable to understand what would make his mother try to kill herself. He begins writing a list of every brilliant thing in the world worth living for, in the hope that it’ll help her. It can’t, of course, but regardless of how many times he outgrows it, the list ends up becoming a constant and comfort in his own life, even playing a part in how he meets his wife.

Monday 16 October 2017

Theatre review: Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

Getting in on the Breaking Bad theme before Bryan Cranston himself arrives on the London stage, Marianne Elliott launches her new production company with Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle. But there's neither a real scientist nor a fictional drug kingpin to be seen because this is the latest play from Simon Stephens, a writer more than a little fond of cryptic titles whose connection to the subject matter is hard to pin down. 75-year-old butcher Alex (Kenneth Cranham) is minding his own business, listening to music on a bench in a train station, when 42-year-old American waitress Georgie (Anne-Marie Duff) kisses him on the back of the neck. She says she couldn't help it because he reminded her of her late husband, but she soon confesses that everything she said to him at first was a lie: She's actually a primary school receptionist who's never married but has a 19-year-old son, who's moved back to New Jersey to get away from her.

Sunday 15 October 2017

Theatre review: Lucky Stiff

The first show by the Ragtime and Dessa Rose team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Lucky Stiff could be a musical version of Weekend at Bernie's - though that film came out a year after this premiered in 1988, for all I know they could both have taken inspiration from Michael Butterworth's 1983 book The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo. Harry Witherspoon (Tom Elliot Reade) is a dull shoe salesman with a wish to lead a more exciting life, but no drive to actually do anything about it. But opportunity falls into his lap when a long-lost American uncle dies, leaving his only living relative $6 million. Obviously there's a catch: Tony's (Ian McCurrach) wealth came late in life, and before he died he'd booked a holiday of a lifetime to take advantage of it. He doesn't see why dying should mean he has to cancel, so in order to get the money Harry has to take Tony's stuffed corpse around Monte Carlo in a wheelchair, sticking to a strict itinerary.

Friday 13 October 2017

Theatre review: Young Frankenstein

Mel Brooks' musical adaptation of his own classic film The Producers was a Broadway and West End smash hit, so it was no surprise that the same creative team would try to follow it up. But giving Young Frankenstein the same treatment resulted in an overblown flop, which is why it's taken a decade to cross the Atlantic. But in that time Brooks has continued to work on it, and although I don't have anything to compare it to the version that director/choreographer Susan Stroman has brought to London is, although problematic, hugely entertaining and crowd-pleasing. If one of the criticisms of the 2007 production was that it was too much of a big-budget juggernaut, that's been amended: Although there's a large cast with a vast amount of costume changes (designed by William Ivey Long,) Beowulf Boritt's set tends for a more old-fashioned look with curtain backdrops, and the whole show has a music-hall feel.

Thursday 12 October 2017

Theatre review: The Seagull

Despite the bleak turn it takes in its final act, The Seagull makes by far the best case for Chekhov’s claim that many of his plays are comedies, and Sean Holmes’ production makes a particularly good example: We laugh at the characters’ flaws and vanities, before the same things turn around and destroy them. Irina (Lesley Sharp) is a famous actress on one of her rare visits back to her childhood home, a working farm whose running she’s passed over entirely to her brother Peter (Nicolas Tennant) and his staff. Still living there is her son Konstantin (Brian Vernel,) an aspiring writer who, in the opening act, is preparing to premiere a surreal new piece of theatre he’s written to family and friends. It stars his neighbour Nina (Adelayo Adedayo,) whom he’s desperately in love with, so a lot rides for him on the performance going well – but his mother has other ideas.

Tuesday 10 October 2017

Theatre review: Victory Condition

It’s not often a Chloe Lamford set fails to be striking and interesting, and she provides another memorable design for the Royal Court’s nightly rep, seeming utterly appropriate to both very different plays: The large Downstairs stage is filled with exposed scaffolding that reaches well into the wings, flies and below the stage, with the actors confined to one large white room in the middle of it all. For B, this maze of dangerous-looking metal exploding out of the centre could be a metaphor for a play whose characters are preparing to plant a nail-bomb. Now, for the second play, a much more luxurious, modern flat takes up the central playing area, and the exposed chaos that surrounds it makes a good clue for what Chris Thorpe’s Victory Condition does. Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Jonjo O’Neill are a nameless couple returning home to have dinner and relax for the evening before going to bed.

Theatre review: B

The Royal Court is aiming to produce a great volume of plays over its current season, in part by creating temporary performance spaces, in part by producing short shows so they can play two in repertory in a single night in the larger Downstairs Theatre. The first of the two alternating one-acters is Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón's surreal meditation on terrorism and general dissatisfaction, B. The "B" word that must never be said is "bomb," which is what teenagers Marcela (Aimée-Ffion Edwards) and Alejandra (Danusia Samal) are planning to plant in a bank as a mission statement - although what statement they're actually trying to make is hard to pin them down to. In an abandoned flat they arrange to meet with José Miguel (Paul Kaye), a bomb-maker with decades of experience, but there's a number of obstacles to them actually carrying out their plan.

Monday 9 October 2017

Theatre review: A Day by the Sea

Southwark Playhouse’s publicity is keen to label rediscovered 1950s playwright N C Hunter as “the English Chekhov,” and if A Day by the Sea is a fair representation of his work it’s a comparison he would have been actively seeking. There’s a family and extended group of hangers-on, reuniting at a home in the country; wistful hopes that generations in the future will have eradicated the problems that plague its characters daily; the characters moping around long after the story’s come to a natural end; and even the requisite alcoholic doctor. As a child, Frances Farrar was taken in by the Anson family in Dorset when she was orphaned, but while she remembers her time there happily she more or less lost touch for twenty years after she moved out. Now, widowed from her first husband in World War II and divorced from her second – who then attempted suicide – Frances (Alix Dunmore) is invited back there with her own children for the school holidays, to sit out the scandal.

Sunday 8 October 2017

Theatre review: The Busy World is Hushed

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The official opening is on Tuesday.

In Keith Bunin's The Busy World is Hushed, a woman struggles to prioritise the men in her life, two of whom are dead - one of them for the last two millennia. Hannah (Kazia Pelka) is an Episcopalian minister and bible scholar, whose husband drowned (possibly a suicide) a couple of months before she gave birth to their only son. Thomas (Michael James) has grown up restless and easily distracted, and has been disappearing from home for months at a time ever since he was 16, trying new ventures in life or just wandering out into the wilderness. He's now 26, older than his father was when he died, which has led him back home to delve through his papers and try to find out about a man his mother will tell him very little about. Hannah is worried he’ll leave again as soon as he finds what he’s looking for, but she’s got a plan to make him stick around a bit longer.

Saturday 7 October 2017

Theatre review: Dido, Queen of Carthage

No good deed goes unpunished for Dido, Queen of Carthage in the latest Christopher Marlowe play to get an RSC revival in the Swan. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas (Sandy Grierson) leads the only surviving Trojan warriors on an expedition to create a new colony in Italy. On the way they're shipwrecked on the coast of Libya but Aeneas has friends in high places - his mother is the goddess Venus (Ellie Beaven,) who ensures everyone survives, even if their ships don't. There's more good luck because Libya was an ally of Troy's, and Queen Dido (Chipo Chung) greets the men as honoured guests, offering them lives of honour and luxury in Carthage. This still isn't enough for Venus, though, who wants Dido to give her son her own fleet to replace the one he lost. Being the goddess of love she knows just the way to do it, making Dido fall in love with Aeneas and pledge him her entire navy. The catch is she wants him to stay and be her king.

Thursday 5 October 2017

Theatre review: Macbeth (Ninagawa Company)

The much-loved Japanese theatre director Yukio Ninagawa died last year, not long after reviving his signature 1987 production of Macbeth, which was the one that made his name in this country. So it was a natural choice of tribute to him to tour that production internationally again. An all-Japanese cast is led by Masachika Ichimura as Macbeth, the Scottish nobleman instrumental in crushing a rebellion, and showered with honours for it. But a supernatural vision has promised him even more power, and once he shares his ambitions with his wife (Yuko Tanaka) he commits himself to speeding up the process – by murdering the king, framing the heirs, and assuming the throne himself. But ill-gotten power is hard to hold on to, and as armies build to depose him, his paranoia leads him back to the witches, and more deliberately misleading prophecies.