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.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Theatre review: What Shadows

I can’t wait until a time when I can go months without seeing a play about a dark chapter in history, and finding it painfully relevant to the present day. We’re not there yet though, and so Roxana Silbert transfers her Birmingham production of What Shadows to the Park Theatre, in which playwright Chris Hannan looks at one of the most notorious instances of a British politician fanning racism. After decades playing Emperor Palpatine Ian McDiarmid is about as qualified as you can get to play Enoch Powell, the Conservative politician whose hate-filled “Rivers of Blood” speech in Birmingham made him a by-word for racism. In 1967, with the Tories in opposition, Powell starts to see himself on the one hand as the man to get them into power, and on the other marginalised by his own party, who view him as a crank who gives shit-stirring populist speeches to regional Conservative clubs.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Theatre review: Le Grand Mort

Sex and death have always been uncomfortably linked in people’s minds, and that’s an idea that Stephen Clark’s Le Grand Mort opens with; 85 minutes later I’m not sure it’s made any further point. Clark wrote it as a rare dramatic vehicle for Julian Clary, who plays Michael, cooking pasta and monologuing – in verse – about famous deaths from history. He’s particularly interested in ones with a grotesque story behind the death (despite him debunking the story of Catherine the Great being crushed to death by the horse she was fucking, it gets repeated a number of times,) or those that have either fact or urban legend attached to them about the corpse being subject to some kind of necrophiliac attention. Eventually we’ll find out the source of his obsession is mother issues that go from the Oedipal to the downright Sir Jimmy, but for now he’s focusing on his guest for the evening.