Friday 31 March 2017

Theatre review: The Life

I would consider Sharon D. Clarke to be a fairly big name, certainly in London theatre circles, so it's a bit of a coup for Southwark Playhouse that she's starring in their latest musical. But then Clarke seems like the kind of actor who'll choose roles based on how much she likes them rather than how starry they are, whether it's panto or an ageing hooker in an ensemble piece like The Life. If Guys and Dolls is the classic musical about Broadway's past as one of New York's seediest streets, then Cy Coleman (music) Ira Gasman and David Newman's (book and lyrics) musical catches up with it a little while before it gets cleaned up and tourist-friendly, and finds it more dangerous than ever. It's 1978* and almost every character we meet is either a prostitute or a pimp; Vietnam vet Fleetwood (David Albury) currently only pimps out his own girlfriend Queen (T'Shan Williams) as they save up to get away from New York and make a new start.

Wednesday 29 March 2017

Theatre review: Don Juan in Soho

Having heard there was a stage left in London without one of his shows on it, Patrick Marber directs a revival of his Don Juan in Soho at Wyndham's. A modern relocation of Molière's Don Juan, it does stick to blank verse and a sometimes stylised turn of phrase in among the text speak and swearing. David Tennant plays DJ, heir to an earldom who, with no real demands on his time, chooses to spend all of it chasing after sex. Although he's happy enough to pay for it, he takes particular pleasure in pursuit and corruption, and in the opening scene has just returned from honeymoon: Having pursued the virginal Elvira (Danielle Vitalis) for two years and married her just to get her into bed, he's now got what he wanted and has cheerfully broken her heart, telling her he wants a divorce after a fortnight.

Tuesday 28 March 2017

Theatre review: The Wipers Times

Next year's centenary of the Armistice will probably see as many First World War plays as the centenary of its start did, but Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have got in early with their offering, and as befits editor and writer of Private Eye their angle is to look at a satirical publication. The Wipers Times takes its title from a weekly (if they could find the paper to print it that week) newspaper published from the trenches, which in turn was named after the English soldiers' mispronunciation of Ypres. That's where former printer Sergeant Tyler (Dan Tetsell) discovers a working printing press, which his Captain Fred Roberts (James Dutton) and Lieutenant Pearson (George Kemp) use to create a morale-boosting collection of spoof advertisements and takedowns of the official war correspondents, whose articles make it sound as if they're in the trenches, it's just that no soldier has ever actually seen them there.

Sunday 26 March 2017

Theatre review: The Chemsex Monologues

Patrick Cash's The Chemsex Monologues has had some good buzz in the last year, but the King's Head's packed schedule (which tends to put shows I might otherwise be interested in on at 9pm on a school night,) meant there wasn't a chance for me to see it; Luke Davies' production now returns and has a couple of matinees, so I managed to fit it in. Although it deals with gay characters I can identify with the play about as much as I can with one set in a remote African village: I've never been a big clubber, my sanity's fragile enough without adding drugs to the mix, and frankly the idea that you could be having enough sex to get bored of it and need chemicals to spice it up seems like science fiction. Still, Cash manages to invoke a world that doesn't seem all that alien in the end, despite revolving around a series of club nights and the private sex parties that follow them, where everyone is on a cocktail of drugs so safe sex easily becomes an afterthought.

Saturday 25 March 2017

Theatre review: Antony and Cleopatra (RSC / RST)

The bonkers Titus Andronicus aside, the Roman plays aren't among my favourite Shakespeares, but they're hard to avoid this year: The RSC is basing its entire summer season around them, and only a week after seeing Ivo van Hove's Roman Tragedies I'm in Stratford-upon-Avon for a full take on the play that provided that epic with its climax: Antony and Cleopatra starts with Mark Antony (Antony Byrne,) who was among the victors at the end of Julius Caesar (which I'll be catching, out of order, in a few weeks' time,) as part of a Triumvirate sharing power over the Roman Empire. Lepidus (Patrick Drury) is older and a voice of reason, but the younger Octavius Caesar (Ben Allen) is more unpredictable, and could make a play for sole power if he thinks Antony's no longer up to the task of maintaining an empire.

Friday 24 March 2017

Theatre review: The Bear / The Proposal

In response to the battle lines that have been drawn around the world's public bathrooms with regard to transgender people in recent years, the Young Vic was one of the first London theatres to put up signs making clear visitors there can use whichever loo they feel more comfortable in. So it's not too surprising to see this inclusive attitude extend to the programming, and the latest Genesis Award winner in the Clare has a cast made up of a trans man, a trans woman, and the bearded drag cabaret star better known as Le Gateau Chocolat. And it is, of all things, an Anton Chekhov double bill that director Lucy J Skilbeck uses to look at fluid gender identities. The Bear / The Proposal is a pair of one-act comedies, and in the first half things are played, no pun intended, straight.

Thursday 23 March 2017

Theatre review: Limehouse

In the last couple of years the Donald and Margot Warehouse has been increasingly staging new political plays, with the latest finding painfully topical relevance in events from 1981, when a breakaway group from Labour formed the Social Democratic Party. Steve Waters' Limehouse takes place over a long Sunday, after a party conference in which the Unions' influence overturned every centrist proposal, positioning Labour firmly at the far left. Already known as the Gang of Four for their vocal disagreement with the direction the party was taking, David Owen (Tom Goodman-Hill,) Bill Rodgers (Paul Chahidi,) Shirley Williams (Debra Gillett) and Roy Jenkins (Roger Allam) see this as the final straw that will make the party permanently unelectable. They usually meet at the more central home of one of the others, but today Owen insists they come to his house in Limehouse for a change of scenery.

Wednesday 22 March 2017

Theatre review: The Frogs

Well into the realm of Stephen Sondheim marginalia, it sounds as if the original 1974 version of The Frogs was never even meant as a full musical. Sondheim and Burt Shevelove took Aristophanes' comedy and built a short revue out of it, not very well-received and soon becoming an obscurity. Nathan Lane then took that revue and expanded it into a full-length show in 2004, Sondheim bulking it up with seven new songs. This, too, was poorly received and went back to being a footnote, but the Jermyn Street Theatre now gives it another try, inspired by the bleak state of current affairs that mirrors the premise of Aristophanes' original: Dionysus (Michael Matus,) god of theatre and wine among other things, despairs at the state of the world and decides people need a great mind like Bernard Shaw to boost their spirits while showing them the error of their ways.

Monday 20 March 2017

Theatre review: The Kid Stays in the Picture

Telling a true story that features more than a couple of troubled movie productions, The Kid Stays in the Picture has had some teething problems of its own. Simon McBurney and James Yeatman's adaptation of Hollywood producer Robert Evans' memoirs had to cancel its first few previews and postpone press night to tonight. Whether this was down to technical glitches in the multimedia - of which there were still a few in evidence - or the format of the show not coming together I don't know, and to be honest would believe either. Evans started his cinematic career as an actor, one given a chance by a couple of powerful producers who went against the advice of actors and directors to cast him in major roles (the title is a quote from Darryl F. Zanuck putting his foot down.) As it turns out the directors were right, the producers were wrong, and Evans was a critical flop in both his big movies.

Saturday 18 March 2017

Theatre review: Roman Tragedies

It visited the Barbican several years ago, but now that Ivo van Hove is one of the biggest names in theatre internationally, there's enough of an enthusiastic audience for his work to sell out three more performances of one of his most famous Toneelgroep Amsterdam productions. And it certainly takes a certain amount of confidence in the director to commit to watching Roman Tragedies - it runs for six hours without a conventional interval, and is performed entirely in Dutch (with surtitles.) This promenade production conflates three of Shakespeare's four Roman tragedies - the three that have at least some basis in historical fact, beginning with Coriolanus. This first play is the least connected to the rest of the action, as we skip a couple of centuries forward at the end of it, but it does add a symmetry to the evening: Early on Coriolanus (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) sneers in disgust at the prospect of having to smell the common people if he has to campaign for their votes, a sentiment expressed again almost word for word by Cleopatra (Chris Nietvelt) near the end.

Thursday 16 March 2017

Theatre review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

This year's big-name West End casting is getting into its stride now, and after her all-conquering Gypsy Imelda Staunton is one of the biggest; although, having long been a stage stalwart the amount of seasons Conleth Hill has managed to survive in Game of Thrones must have made him a draw to much of the audience as well. Add Luke Treadaway and you've got a high-powered cast for James Macdonald's revival of a 20th century American classic. Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the archetypal story of a toxic marriage imploding but, as slowly becomes apparent over one very long night, the situation is even more twisted than it initially appears. George (Hill) is a History lecturer at a small East Coast university, and as his wife Martha (Staunton) is the daughter of the all-powerful college president, it might be expected that he'd have easily advanced in his career.

Wednesday 15 March 2017

Theatre review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Southwark Playhouse puts comic books on stage again although we're in significantly darker territory than Usagi Yojimbo with Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which adapts Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel set in 1976 San Francisco. Minnie (Rona Morison) is 15, the same age her mother Charlotte (Rebecca Trehearn) was when she had her. She might not be adding another teenage pregnancy to the family but her own sexual awakening is far from healthy, as she's been seduced by her mother's seedy boyfriend Monroe (Jamie Wilkes.) It's an ongoing affair and although Minnie hasn't particularly fooled herself that it's love, she's still pretty smitten. With an out-of-her-depth mother fond of a number of recreational drugs, and a seemingly more sensible ex-stepfather, Pascal (Mark Carroll,) who writes her letters encouraging her to keep studying, but has something of a distant, academic interest in her himself, Minnie's left to find her own way.

Tuesday 14 March 2017

Non-review: The Miser

Professional reviewers get most of the perks but there's one reserved for those of us who pay for our tickets: The right to make a run for it at the halfway point without feeling guilty about it*. So I can't call this a review of the whole of Molière's The Miser, loosely adapted by Sean Foley and Phil Porter, and directed by the former. I didn't actually hate it - if I had I'd probably have stuck it out so I could rip it to shreds with all the information to hand - I just knew by the interval that there was little to be gained from sticking around. In a production that appears to have been cast by watching a week's worth of repeats on Dave, Griff Rhys Jones plays the titular Harpagon, whose children won't see a penny while he's alive, which is a problem as they've both fallen for poorer people: Daughter Elise (Katy Wix) loves butler Valere (Matthew Horne) and son Cleante (Ryan Gage) their neighbour Marianne (Ellie White.)

Monday 13 March 2017

Theatre review: Ugly Lies the Bone

Lindsey Ferrentino's Ugly Lies the Bone is a play for only five actors - one of whom stays offstage almost throughout - looking at a domestic situation. There's a reason it's landed on the big Lyttelton stage at the National though, and that's because it also encompasses a much larger world, albeit a virtual one. Jess (Kate Fleetwood) has returned from her third tour in Afghanistan after getting caught in an IED explosion, with horrific burns that cover half her face and much of her body. She's in constant pain and coming back to where she grew up doesn't even have the comfort of familiarity: Her Florida town's economy was based around space shuttle launches, but with NASA ending the programme the town has dried up, jobs are scarce and it's becoming a ghost town. Her mother is now in a nursing home with dementia, and Jess refuses to visit her because she's afraid she won't recognise her.

Saturday 11 March 2017

Theatre review: Snow in Midsummer

A few years ago the RSC got caught up in a controversy over not casting enough British East Asian actors in classic Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao - a controversy that now looks very minor compared to the recent Print Room shitshow - but they now seem to be trying to make amends with a new ongoing project of translations of classical Chinese theatre. Of course the RSC's tendency to announce instantly-forgotten projects is notorious - how's that plan to stage the Shakespeare canon in the RST in 5 6 8 years with no repeats going? - but if the opening production is any indication, we have to hope this one has legs. Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's Snow in Midsummer is a free adaptation of a 13th century classic, Guan Hanqing's The Injustice to Dou E That Moved Heaven and Earth.

Friday 10 March 2017

Theatre review: Othello (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

With its black title character Othello is, unsurprisingly, most often used as a way of looking at racism, but for the last of this year's Swanamaker season Ellen McDougall has a different approach in mind. After all, the only overt racism in the play comes from Othello's enemies, but with help from a little tinkering with the text McDougall exposes how the misogyny in the play's world is even more deep-rooted. General Othello (Kurt Egyiawan) has made Michelle Cassio (Joanna Horton) his new lieutenant, to the fury of his ensign Iago (Sam Spruell,) who'd been expecting the promotion. Using his reputation as the most trusted of the officers, Iago decides to take revenge in a slow, insidious way.

Thursday 9 March 2017

theatre review: a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun)

debbie tucker green is one of the few playwrights who seems to get away with directing the premiere productions of her own work. this may be because, despite a poetic quality they all share, each of her plays has a very distinct feel, and the way they're staged is often integral to that. take her latest, a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun), which marks itself out as doing things differently as soon as you walk into the royal court upstairs: merle hensel's set design is like an inverted thrust staging, with the five actors on a raised stage that runs around three of the walls, while the audience sits in the middle on stools, turning to watch the action. sometimes the actors perform together, others they stand across the room from each other, delivering their lives over the audience's heads. and that's a very on-theme metaphor for a play about the way love can alternately attract and repel people.

Wednesday 8 March 2017

Theatre review: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Like so much about Hamlet, the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are open to endless interpretation. Two old friends of Hamlet's, they're brought in by King Claudius to spy on his nephew's erratic behaviour, get to the bottom of it if they can, and report back. Later they're used by him again as messengers in an attempt to have Hamlet killed, a plot that ends up backfiring on them. But their appearances are sporadic and brief, leaving each production to fill in the gaps, particularly with regard to how guilty they are of collaboration: Are they happily betraying their friend in return for promised reward? Unhappy with their actions but aware they'll be in danger if they don't comply, like Rosencrantz in the current Robert Icke production, or honestly believing they're helping, like Guildenstern in the same production? Or are their onstage scenes the only idea they have of the main plot, meaning they're barely aware of the story or their part in it?

Tuesday 7 March 2017

Theatre review: I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard

A disturbing little piece at the Finborough in Halley Feiffer's I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard, another American play about writing but dealing with a different popular opinion about the profession than Sex With Strangers did: Laura Eason's play was about the writer as part of some noble calling; Feiffer's subject is the writer as damaged goods, the Hemingway model of the alcoholic genius and the idea that the better the writer, the worse the human being. By that logic David (Adrian Lukis) must be an amazing writer: A celebrated playwright, he has a single daughter, Ella (Jill Winternitz,) whom he had late in life with his second wife. Ella is an actress who's just opened as Masha in a prestige revival of The Seagull, but her father wastes no opportunity to mention that getting any role other than Nina makes her a failure. It's Press Night but instead of waiting with the rest of the cast for the reviews, she's getting drunk at home with David.

Saturday 4 March 2017

Theatre review: Hamlet (Almeida)

Now a fixture as well as a draw at the Almeida following a number of reinterpretations of foreign classics, Robert Icke turns to English theatre's most famous play; but if the text of Hamlet doesn't need translating, the director still finds ways to edit and reshape it. It's a respectful edit that still feels true to Shakespeare but also opens up plenty of opportunities to look at the story from a different angle and throw up a few surprises even to people familiar with the play (which means once I get into details about the production there will be things that could be considered spoilers, even if you know the story inside and out.) Icke's profile means he can get a big name to take the lead, and indeed the days when Andrew Scott was London theatre's secret are long gone. But for all the fanbase he's built on TV, this proves a reminder that it's on stage that he really shines - and not quite in the way that might have been expected of him.

Thursday 2 March 2017

Theatre review: Scarlett

Scarlett (Kate Ashfield) is, or at least was until recently, a successful businesswoman with her own home furnishings shop. For reasons unknown, modern life becomes too much for her and she flees London, disappearing for a week before her mother Bette (Joanna Bacon) and daughter Lydia (Bethan Cullinane) track her down to a remote part of Wales. She plans to sell her shop, buy a chapel on a farm and do it up as her new home. One week in the country has made Scarlett a lot happier in herself, and after a bumpy start she's become close to the farm's owner Eira (Lynn Hunter) and her granddaughter Billy (Gaby French.) But Bette and Lydia are horrified with her decision, and are worried she needs to be hospitalised immediately for the sake of her mental health.

Wednesday 1 March 2017

Theatre review: Speech & Debate

An off-Broadway hit that's about to get a film adaptation, Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate is a gentle high school comedy, and a pleasingly mainstream look at LGBT teenagers' issues. Solomon (Tony Revolori) is an aspiring journalist whose ambition to get noticed means he always writes about subjects too controversial for the school paper to print. When the town is rocked by the scandal of the mayor having sex with much younger men, he decides to follow up on a rumour of one of his teachers doing the same thing. Howie (Douglas Booth) is an openly gay student who's only just transferred to the school, and been propositioned on Grindr by the drama teacher. He and Solomon find each other in the comments section of a podcast by Diwata (Patsy Ferran,) who's got a vendetta against the teacher for never casting her in school plays.