Monday, 29 May 2017

Theatre review: Angels in America, a Gay Fantasia on National Themes Part 2: Perestroika

Previously, on Angels in America...

I can joke but while I may have seen the two parts of Angels in America a week apart, Phill, who could only get tickets two months apart, wondered if he'd need a "Previously..." at the start of Part 2 to refresh his memory. And it turns out the National have thought of people in that predicament, as my reminder email about Perestroika included a short YouTube video summarising the major events of Millennium Approaches. These included the brief appearance by Ethel Rosenberg (Susan Brown,) a woman convicted of treason decades earlier, whose execution Roy Cohn ensured by dubious means. Her ghost continues to appear to Cohn (Nathan Lane) as a patient, ominous harbinger of his own much slower death from AIDS. There's also a bigger role now for Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett,) who's got the unenviable job of being Cohn's nurse, and whose acidic put-downs make him the right man to stand up to the notorious lawyer's vitriol.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Theatre review: An Octoroon

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is an African-American playwright who got tired of everyone assuuming that his plays, regardless of their actual subject, must all be a metaphor for the black American experience. So, when looking for a subject to write about to cheer him up from a fit of depression he embraced this instead, adapting a play that confronted slavery head-on, and even has a title now considered offensive: 19th century Irish playwright Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon. This, at least, is the origin of the darkly comic new version of the play as described by an author-substitute in the prologue: BJJ (Ken Nwosu) tells us his An Octoroon got derailed when he couldn't find white actors to play the unrepentant racist slave-owners, and this is where things get creative as the races get well-and-truly muddled up in a show featuring blackface, whiteface and even redface*.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Theatre review: Woyzeck

When the Old Vic announced that Jack Thorne would be writing an adaptation of Woyzeck and John Boyega would star I did wonder if the combination of a Harry Potter writer and a Star Wars actor would draw an audience unprepared for a play people have famously struggled to get to the bottom of for over a century. As it turns out I really hope there aren't too many kids being taken along as they'll have come away from the evening with a whole new vocabulary. Georg Büchner's play was unfinished when the playwright died in 1837, so all versions have always taken a bit of leeway in filling in the gaps. Thorne's version moves the action to 1980s West Berlin, where Boyega plays Frank Woyzeck, part of the British army presence patrolling the Berlin Wall. It's a job both stressful and dull, and those stationed there are thought of as inferior to those in the thick of it in Northern Ireland.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Theatre review: Othello (English Touring Theatre / Wilton's Music Hall)

Richard Twyman takes over as Artistic Director of ETT with a production of Othello whose stripped-back nature points to the restrictions of a touring production, but doesn't get in the way of atmosphere and dangerous intensity. Othello (Abraham Popoola) has wooed and married Desdemona (Norah Lopez Holden) in secret, and when her father finds out he tries to get the soldier punished. But it's clear Desdemonda acted entirely of her own volition and besides, despite being an outsider to Venice, he's one of their most effective generals, and is needed at a battle in Cyprus. So this plan to take down Othello fails, but its architect remains unsuspected: Iago (Mark Lockyer,) a trusted ensign overlooked for promotion, has developed a violent hatred of his general, and now comes up with a much more complicated and bloody plot, to convince Othello his new bride is cheating on him, and fan his jealousy into a murderous rage.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Theatre review: Angels in America, a Gay Fantasia on National Themes Part 1: Millennium Approaches

For the second year in a row London's hottest theatre ticket, with reviews to match the level of anticipation, is an epic play in two parts with a supernatural element. But far from the obvious appeal of Harry Potter, this year it's a 25-year-old American play about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s that was the instant sell-out. Tony Kushner's Angels in America comes in at well over seven hours, the first three acts of which are haunted by a sense of dread at something apocalyptic on the way - hence its subtitle, Millennium Approaches. Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) is a flaboyant gay man who's just found out he's got the virus. His boyfriend of a few years, Louis Ironson (James McArdle,) is still deeply in love with him but very quickly realises a fact he hates himself for: He can't handle staying with Prior to watch him get sick and die.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Theatre review: Vice Versa, or, The Decline & Fall of General Braggadocio at the Hands of his Canny Servant Dexter & Terence the Monkey

The Roman theme of this year's RSC season in Stratford extends to the Swan, most obviously in Vice Versa, or, The Decline & Fall of General Braggadocio at the Hands of his Canny Servant Dexter & Terence the Monkey. Phil Porter's farce is inspired by the plays of Plautus, although they're not the only thing that's been "lovingly ripped off" - that tagline itself comes from Spamalot, and Janice Honeyman's production resembles nothing so much as a Carry On film - there's even a nod to the famous "Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me" line from the play's gull, Braggadocio (Felix Hayes.) The vain and ludicrous General returns to Rome from a war, bringing with him some of the people he's enslaved - including the lady Voluptua (Ellie Beaven,) whom he's taken as a concubine.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Theatre review: Life of Galileo

Lizzie Clachan has turned the Young Vic into a planetarium for Joe Wright's production of Brecht's Life of Galileo, one of the most visually stunning and inventive shows on the London stage right now. The set is in the round, with a central pit where some of the audience sit on cushions, with the actors mingling around them. It gives the impression of a group of students in a relaxed setting, sitting around a charismatic teacher who's on a roll. The teacher is Galileo Galilei (Brendan Cowell,) the subject he's excited about the Copernican Heresy, which proposed that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and which astronomer Giordano Bruno had recently been burned at the stake for promoting. But Galileo teaches in Padua, which has a special exemption from the Inquisition's clutches and besides, having stolen credit for the invention of the telescope, he now has a tool that he can actually use to look at the stars and prove Copernicus right.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Theatre review: Salomé (National Theatre)

It's looking as if the successful Les Blancs was a fluke, and Yaël Farber really does believe that people walking around a stage incredibly slowly is the very essence of Dame Theatre. Her Salomé, which she writes as well as directing, has the tagline "the tale retold," but it's arguable whether it does even that - if you were raised in a non-Christian society and had never heard of Salomé, would you be any the wiser after this? I wouldn't put money on it. She's the niece and adopted daughter of King Herod, who lusts after her and demands an erotic dance from her in return for anything she desires; she asks for the head of the prophet Iokanaan, also known as John the Baptist. On stage the story is best known in the sole tragedy written by Oscar Wilde - which the RSC are, coincidentally, about to stage - in which her motives are those of a vengeful woman spurned, but Farber has a different interpretation of why she was so bloodthirsty.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Theatre review: A Lie of the Mind

I'm still a long way from being a fan of Sam Shepard's work but I've been getting on a lot better with the plays that have been revived this year. They're still quintessentially American, and a focus on what it means to be an American man is at the heart of them, but like in Buried Child there's a wider scope of interest and an unsettling edge of the surreal to A Lie of the Mind. Initially appearing to be about domestic violence, it becomes a spiral of insanity as the violent, unpredictable drunk Jake (Gethin Anthony) arrives at his brother's house claiming that he's beaten his wife to death. In fact Beth (Alexandra Dowling) is still alive, but the attack has left her with brain damage. Jake, too, seems to be out of his mind, the extremity of his violence leading to a nervous breakdown. Both of them get taken back to their parents' homes to recover, but neither house is really a good place for anyone's mental health.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Theatre review: Romeo and Juliet (Union Theatre)

Sometimes my, some might say fairly reasonable, resolution not to see plays I already know I don't like, is at odds with my intention to keep an eye on gay-themed theatre, and see if it's being held to a high quality. Which brings me to the Union's adapted version of Romeo and Juliet, which director Andy Bewley gives not one but two high concepts: It's now a gay love story, and one set in a world synonymous with toxic masculinity - professional football. Montague and Capulet are two Verona teams with an historic rivalry, Romeo (Abram Rooney) plays on the former's youth team, Juliet (Sam Perry) on the latter's, and when they fall instantly and violently in love feel the need to keep it secret. Especially once Romeo ends up in the middle of a violent clash between the two sides that leaves two people dead.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Theatre review: The Treatment

The latest Almeida season opens with Martin Crimp's 1993 play The Treatment - "treatment" as in the summary of a movie pitch, as well as the way people treat each other. Anne (Aisling Loftus) is describing a difficult life, culminating in her marriage: Kept in a small apartment she never leaves, her husband would sometimes tie and gag her, not to abuse her physically but to give lengthy speeches, waxing lyrical about car parks and strip lights. She's telling her story to Jennifer (Indira Varma) and Andrew (Julian Ovenden,) married as well as being producing partners, and interested in developing her story. They bring in down-and-out playwright Clifford (Ian Gelder) to script it, and bombastic actor John (Gary Beadle) to play the husband, as well as to provide some star wattage that'll attract investors.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Theatre review: Manwatching

It originated at the Edinburgh Festival a couple of years ago, which may explain why Manwatching's high concept relies on a plentiful supply of stand-up comedians: The comic monologue is written by a woman, who's been kept anonymous for reasons that aren't entirely surprising (the fact that she mentions having trained as an actor made me think Alecky Blythe*, but it would be a major change of style for her, and besides, there's nothing to say it's an established playwright, for all I know this could be her first work ever staged.) Whoever she is, this is very much a woman's story, but delivered by a different man every night. The Royal Court has listed the male comedians who'll be taking part but not their schedule, so you don't know who your performer is until they arrive onstage - tonight it was Adam Buxton, to the obvious excitement of some of the audience, who walked out onto a stage bare except for an elderly printer. The printer's there because the comedians have no idea what the content of the monologue is; it prints out 45 pages of script while they introduce themselves.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Theatre review: Assata Taught Me

It must surely be time for Ellen McDougall to announce her first shows as Artistic Director of the Gate, and if there's one thing I hope she carries on from her predecessor's run - apart from the overall quality, but you'd hope she's aiming for that anyway - it's the short and snappy running times. After the epic run of last night's show I was looking forward to something more concise, and Christopher Haydon's final piece of programming provides it. Kalungi Ssebandeke's debut play Assata Taught Me is short, sharp and sometimes even sweet, imagining what life might be like as one of the world's most-wanted women. Assata Shakur was a high-profile Black Panther, imprisoned for killing a policeman; she escaped and fled to Cuba where she's been ever since, but she remains on the FBI's Most Wanted list, with a $2 million bounty on her head. So, at least as Ssebandeke imagines her, she's free but always has to stay on the alert.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Theatre review: The Ferryman

The last time Jez Butterworth wrote a 3-and-a-half hour rural epic for the Royal Court Downstairs it was the mega-hit Jerusalem, and his latest looks to replicate at least some of that success: It sold out at the Royal Court and had already announced a West End transfer months before opening. But where Jerusalem was a very particular vision of England, The Ferryman takes us to 1980s Northern Ireland and the issue that's dominated centuries of its history. The Troubles are both distant and ever-present in a remote farm in County Armagh where IRA man-turned-farmer Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) now lives with his extended family. As well as his wife Mary (Genevieve O'Reilly) and their seven children, this includes several elderly aunts and uncles plus his sister-in-law Caitlin (Laura Donnelly) and her teenage son Oisin (Rob Malone,) who've lived there ever since Quinn's brother vanished ten years earlier.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Theatre review: Julius Caesar (RSC / RST & Barbican)

It's ironic that Gregory Doran, to me the epitome of reverential, by-the-numbers Shakespeare, should have delivered my favourite-ever Julius Caesar a few years ago in a comparatively exciting and revelatory production; because Doran having temporarily handed over the reins to Angus Jackson for the Roman season at the RSC, it's Jackson who now serves up perhaps the most vanilla version of the same play I've seen so far. Have no doubt you can expect togas, swords and sandals from Robert Innes Hopkins' design as Julius Caesar (Andrew Woodall) returns to Rome triumphant after a military victory. His popularity sees the people clamour to give him political power at home, but not everyone's impressed: Cassius (Martin Hutson) has never been a favourite of Caesar's and doesn't want to wait and see how he'll fare under the new regime.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Theatre review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

In one of the complete restructurings of the Donald and Margot Warehouse auditorium that have been an occasional theme during Josie Rourke's tenure, Peter McKintosh has added an extra row of seats to make the circle in-the-round, and removed all the stalls seating, to be replaced by tables and chairs all around the stage. It transforms the venue into a Prohibition-era Chicago speakeasy for Simon Evans' production of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, about a man seen as a joke, rising to great power and bringing destruction in his wake. Arturo Ui (Lenny Henry) is a lumbering, awkward gangster who chances upon some dirt on the powerful Dogsborough (Michael Pennington,) and blackmails his way into the city's cauliflower trade. With the success of his protection racket over the vegetable market, Ui takes acting lessons to disguise his awkwardness and make him a better public speaker, and his new mix of threats and rhetoric starts to build a following.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Theatre review: The Cardinal

It may be a Troupe production at Southwark Playhouse's smaller space but the Royal Shakespeare Company's fingerprints are all over The Cardinal: The director and many of the cast are RSC regulars, there's a feeling the text has been thoroughly investigated, the programme features both articles from academics and a misleading running time, and there's even a dance break, as was de rigeur during the Michael Boyd years. The fact that James Shirley's play has even seen the light of day again can be traced back to the RSC as well, as it made the final four a couple of years ago when they were looking for an obscurity for the Swan. It lost out to Love's Sacrifice but director Justin Audibert clearly thought it was a shame for it not to reach an audience. On this evidence I would have to agree, it's got its problems, especially in the second half, but has a lot to recommend it as well.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Theatre review: While We're Here

Barney Norris is an up-and-coming playwright who's presumably got a big change of style in store - this time next year his Nightfall will be playing at the new 900-seat Bridge Theatre. For now though things remain super-intimate again as he opens another new space, the Bush's Studio which aims to recreate roughly the size of the original pub theatre. While We're Here takes place in a cosy living room (designed by James Perkins) in Havant, a town near Portsmouth which, if the play is anything to go by, seems more like the middle of nowhere. Carol (Tessa Peake-Jones) has lived there, and in the same house, almost her entire life. Eddie (Andrew French) is more of a drifter, literally so in recent years when he's fallen on hard times and been sleeping rough. The two had a brief relationship twenty years ago soon after Carol's divorce, and have now reconnected by chance when they bumped into each other in a park. Carol has invited him to stay at hers until he can get himself settled.