Monday, 31 July 2017

Theatre review: Road

In a rare instance of the Royal Court revisiting a past work, John Tiffany directs a 30th anniversary production of Road, Jim Cartwright’s slice of life in an unnamed Lancashire town. It seems a rather pointed revival of a play which comes down hard on Thatcher’s Britain, as despite the – nostalgic and funny by turns – period trappings it still feels relevant, its characters going out to get drunk and try to pull, covering up their desperation at the dead end their lives are in. Some have been led to unusual extremes, like Mike Noble’s Skin-Lad, a Buddhist skinhead, or Joey (Shane Zaza) and Clare (Faye Marsay,) dying in bed on hunger strike over something they can’t quite articulate. Most have more familiar stories of trying to cope though, and unemployed ex-sailor Scullery (Lemn Sissay) offers to be the audience’s tour guide over one typical Saturday night from dusk to dawn.

Theatre review: Queers Part 2

A companion piece to Friday's one-off performance at the Old Vic, Max Webster joins Mark Gatiss on directing duties for the concluding four monologues from BBC4's Queers series. Once again the stories take us through the decades before and after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, beginning during the Blitz with Keith Jarrett's The Safest Spot in Town. Kadiff Kirwan plays a dapper West Indian who immigrated to London a few years earlier, finding a more insidious, two-faced form of racism than he'd expected. The arrival of German bombers has created, for a while at least, a more inclusive atmosphere as everyone's up against a common enemy. But, in what is probably the slightest of the eight short plays, he finds it hard to forget being turned away from the places that now want his custom, and goes cottaging instead - a life-changing decision.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Theatre review: Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare's Globe)

Lots of hey! but no nonnny nonny in the Globe's latest Much Ado About Nothing, as Matthew Dunster takes the play's opening, with soldiers returning triumphant from a battle, as his cue to set the action during the Mexican Revolution in 1914. A group of fighters take a break at the home of Leonato (Martin Marquez,) where young soldier Claudio (Marcello Cruz - Hispanic Daniel Radcliffe, amirite?) falls for Leonato's daughter Hero (Anya Chalotra.) As the soldiers wait for the wedding to be hastily arranged, they amuse themselves by tricking the battling exes Benedick (Matthew Needham) and Beatrice (Beatriz Romilly) into getting back together, by convincing each that the other is desperately in love with them.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Theatre review: Queers Part 1

It hasn't been marked quite as ubiquitously on stage as the centenary of the First World War, the 4th centenary of Shakespeare's death or even the King James Bible were, but theatres are now starting to step up the events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. The Old Vic has paired up with the BBC, whose Queer Britain season includes the upcoming Queers on BBC4, eight monologues curated by Mark Gatiss giving snapshots of gay life before and after decriminalisation, to give each one of the short plays a one-off live performance. About half of the performers from the TV version have been able to reprise their roles, with the rest recast, and Gatiss shares directing duties with Joe Murphy on Part 1 as well as writing the first of the four stories in this first collection.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Theatre review: Nassim

Currently previewing at the Bush Studio before officially opening in Edinburgh, Nassim features a format I’m seeing more and more of: A performer who knows as little about the piece going in as the audience does. Nassim Soleimanpour’s play, directed by Omar Elerian and designed by Rhys Jarman, features a new performer every night, and like the Royal Court did with Manwatching, the Bush are releasing a list of the performers in advance, but not revealing who will appear at which performance until it actually begins. The performer - Khalid Abdalla tonight - is confronted with a screen on which flash cards are projected, with the script for him to read out, and instructions for him – and occasionally the audience – to carry out. Soleimanpour himself is turning the pages backstage, and about halfway through the play the playwright joins the performer onstage.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Theatre review: Mosquitoes

After the success of Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood’s latest play Mosquitoes gets its premiere at the National Theatre, with Rufus Norris directing, a Katrina Lindsay set full of bells and whistles and spectacular projections, and most of all the central roles filled by two Future Dame Olivias: Williams plays Alice, a particle physicist working at CERN in the buildup to the Large Hadron Collider being switched on for the first time. Colman is her sister Jenny, the black sheep in a family full of scientists, as she’s superstitious and much more likely to believe any unfounded rumour she reads online than empirically proven facts. In particular, she believed the scare stories about the MMR vaccine causing autism and refused to vaccinate her baby daughter, with tragic results that kick off the story: In need of some support Jenny is visiting her sister in Switzerland, along with their mother Karen (Amanda Boxer.)

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Theatre review: Nina - a story about me and Nina Simone

Josette Bushell-Mingo and Dritëro Kasapi’s extraordinarily angry piece Nina – a story about me and Nina Simone is closer to performance art than theatre: Bushell-Mingo starts the show in an afro wig, describing the jubilant atmosphere leading up to a Nina Simone concert in 1969, and the suggestion is that she’s going to impersonate Simone and perform some of the songs from that set. But this is more about Nina Simone the activist than the performer, and having barely started the first song Bushell-Mingo finds she can’t carry on, because the inequality Simone was fighting against back then is still present today – Simone wrote a song called "Mississippi Goddam" and Bushell-Mingo is all too aware that with anti-black violence continuing to be disproportionate to this day, the song could just as easily be renamed “Ferguson Goddam.”

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Theatre review: Disco Pigs

I almost skipped the 20th anniversary production of Disco Pigs because I felt like I’d seen a version at the Young Vic quite recently; as it turns out that production was actually six years ago and besides, casting a Harry Potter actor I hadn’t “collected” on stage before is always a good way of making me stump up for a ticket. Enda Walsh’s two-hander uses a mixture of strong Cork accents and dialect with a convoluted, poetic style of speech that channels Joyce, Beckett and A Clockwork Orange to tell a story of two teenagers, Darren aka Pig (Colin Campbell) and Sinead aka Runt (Evanna Lynch,) who were born a second apart in the same hospital. Ever since being placed on adjacent tables they’ve been closer than real siblings, to the point in fact of isolating themselves from their families, speaking in their own language and dealing with the outside world mainly with violence.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Theatre review: Twilight Song

Kevin Elyot’s final play is called, appropriately enough, Twilight Song, and it’s a short, distinctly odd one that left me with the suspicion he hadn’t quite finished working on it when he died. Alternating between the 1960s and the present day in the same suburban London villa, it was bought, largely thanks to a cash gift from a wealthy uncle, by Isabella (Bryony Hannah) and her meek new husband Basil (Paul Higgins.) Partly due to events that unfold in the play, the improvements they planned to make to it never happened and by the time their son Barry (also Higgins) is in his fifties, the place seems to be falling apart and he’s thinking of selling it. Estate agent Skinner (Adam Garcia) is optimistic that it can fetch a good price regardless, but he may just be buttering him up because he supplements his income with a side-line in prostitution, and he’s spotted a likely customer in the lonely and repressed Barry.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Theatre review: Dessert

Oliver Cotton’s flawed but fun, issue-based thriller Dessert is another of those plays that hinges on a major plot twist, this time coming about 20 minutes in – in fact much of the publicity has revolved around Cotton and director Trevor Nunn tying themselves up in knots trying to discuss the play without actually mentioning what it’s about. So once again I’ll try to keep things vague in the opening paragraph before getting spoilery after the text cut. Certainly the promotional image of an unevenly cut cake gives a clue that we’re in for a story about the 5% who own 95% of the world’s wealth, and Rachel Stone’s set is an opulent dining room whose walls are covered with priceless paintings. This is just another room in the house of Hugh (Michael Simkins,) a company director notorious for liquidating a struggling company causing investors to lose their savings, while he got away with a £5 million bonus. SPOILER ALERT for the rest of the review.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Theatre review: Bodies

With Future Dame Billie Piper about to reprise her Yerma at the Young Vic, over at the Royal Court we have another childless woman taking a much more pragmatically 21st century approach to the problem. She’s not yet got the profile of someone like James Graham, Lucy Kirkwood or Polly Stenham but ever since her debut with Mogadishu* Vivienne Franzmann has been delivering such consistently good work she’s as much of a must-see playwright for me as any of them. In Bodies the woman desperate for a child is Clem (Justine Mitchell,) who after five miscarriages has opted for surrogacy. Her husband Josh (Jonathan McGuinness, reading in the role after Brian Ferguson got ill,) will provide the sperm, the eggs come from an unknown woman in Russia, while actually carrying the baby will be Lakshmi (Salma Hoque) in India, where surrogates have very few rights.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Theatre review: The Mentor

I think last year’s great revival of Amadeus made the prospect of seeing the film version’s star, F Murray Abraham, on stage even more of a draw for me. So it’s a good job his performance in The Mentor lives up to expectations, because little else about Daniel Kehlmann’s play was really memorable enough to stay with me past the Vaudeville’s front doors. Kehlmann is apparently a huge name in Germany right now, and being the first to bring him to the UK are the team of translator Christopher Hampton and director Laurence Boswell, who in recent years also introduced us to Florian Zeller. And there is more of a French than German aesthetic to Polly Sullivan’s design, a country garden inside a white box, with chairs shaped like human hands as a clue that pretension is welcome here – a retreat owned by an arts charity that pairs established names with promising newcomers to develop new work.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Theatre review: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

A delayed arrival in the West End for Broadway star Audra McDonald – she was due to appear in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill a couple of years ago, but the entire run got cancelled because she was pregnant. Now she finally gets to take the stage at Wyndham’s – the same theatre she was due to play in the first place – and demonstrate why she couldn’t have been replaced. Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play recreates an evening in the titular Philadelphia bar, where Billie Holiday (McDonald) performed in 1959, a few months before her death. She has mixed feelings about playing there – she loves the bar and has friends there but Philadelphia itself is where she pled guilty to her first husband’s drug charges expecting to be let off easy, and ended up in prison for a year instead. By the time she takes to the stage she’s already a few drinks down and she’s never too far from a full glass of neat gin the whole evening, but this is far from a unique reaction to a city she doesn’t feel comfortable in.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Theatre review: Superhero

In most ways the temporary Southwark Playhouse venue at Elephant and Castle has been an improvement on the one they’ll be returning to next year, but I can’t say I don’t miss the London Bridge one in the summer, when the fact that the smaller auditorium, The Vault, was so far into the network of railway tunnels meant it was cool, even in the middle of a heatwave. No such luck at The Little, which has no air conditioning and was pretty unbearable tonight – in fact I’m not sure how well I can even review Superhero because my main take from it was wondering if I’d make it to the end of the 90 minutes without passing out. I suppose one thing you can take in its favour is that I didn’t escape into the night, which is a tribute to Jeremy Corbyn Michael Rouse, the performer in this one-man musical by Michael Conley (book,) Joseph Finlay (music) and Richy Hughes (lyrics.)

Monday, 3 July 2017

Theatre review: Gloria

I try to write reviews without major spoilers in them but it can be a minefield: Gloria is a play that I could try to talk about without mentioning the twist halfway through, but it’s so crucial to what the play’s about there’d be little point writing about it at all if I didn’t at least allude to it. So I’ll start with the story’s setup in the first paragraph, and after that read at your own risk if you’re planning on seeing the show. We start with a bitter, and not all that funny, office sitcom: Kae Alexander, Colin Morgan and Ellie Kendrick play PAs to various editors in the New York headquarters of a national magazine, with Bayo Gbadamosi as an intern who’s been kept deliberately far from any useful work just in case he develops an interest in working there for real, and gets in the way of the others’ ambitions. But Michael Longhurst’s production sets their realistic cubicles in front of chipboard walls that overtly remind us this is a theatrical setting; and besides the writer is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and anyone who saw An Octoroon will know he likes to play around with form. SPOILER ALERT after the text cut.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Theatre review: Titus Andronicus (RSC / RST & Barbican)

For the most famous playwright in history, Shakespeare is surprisingly subject to the whims of fashion, or at least individual plays of his are. Having been in almost constant rotation in the repertory when I first started going to the theatre, The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew have become a lot rarer, although the former did briefly become ubiquitous again a couple of years ago. On the opposite trajectory is a play you'll still find plenty of people willing to swear is Shakespeare's worst, but which has been cropping up a lot more in hit productions, and I'm yet to see a truly bad one: My first Titus Andronicus was only in 2013, on the RSC's smaller Swan stage; I think Michael Fentiman's take was one of the things that reminded people of what a crowd-pleaser it could be, and on its next Stratford outing it gets a go on the main stage as well as a limited London transfer, as part of this year's overarching Roman theme.