Monday, 31 December 2018

2018: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

Wow, my end-of-year roundup of London theatre seems to come round quicker every year doesn't it? And don't you hate how commercial it's become? It's like people don't even remember the true meaning any more. (The true meaning is nipples.) No really though, this has been another of those years when theatre seems to have largely forgotten to programme shows entirely based on thirst-traps tailored specifically to me. I mean, I'll manage to horribly objectify some men, don't worry. But we'll get to that, first as always I'd like to thank those of you who've kept coming back and reading my reviews regularly, you've both been very loyal. If this is your first one of these you've read, have a seat, I go on a bit. I also give out a few awards along the way. They're not quite in the same categories everyone else gives out awards in.

Once I've rounded everything up I'll be doing my usual best and worst lists: In my 2017 review I decided only three shows were horrific enough to deserve a place on my Shit List, will this year have had enough badness to go back to the usual five? We'll see, it's a real mystery. But yeah, totally, there will be.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Theatre review: The Boy Under the Christmas Tree

A low-key but seasonal end to my theatre year with one of the King's Head's LGBT Christmas offerings. Glenn Chandler's The Boy Under the Christmas Tree does what it says on the tin, opening with call centre manager and aspiring standup comedian Lawrence (Jamie Loxton) waking up hungover on a lonely Christmas morning to find a seemingly lifeless Boy (Daniel Grice) wearing only wrapping paper under his tree. Taking it remarkably well with an "I just can't be doing with this today" attitude instead of, say, screaming, he calls the emergency services who dismiss it as a prank. Instead he has to rely on an incompetent doctor neighbour (Sam Sheldon) who finds that, while not actually dead, the Boy doesn't seem to be alive either, and since this seems suspiciously like a fairytale suggests that Lawrence kiss him to wake him up.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Theatre review: The Double Dealer

The Orange Tree tends to be quite traditional about having something light and frothy for Christmas, and this year it's Restoration comedy that's on the menu. It's a genre that earlier this year was proven to need fairly broad strokes to make it work, and fortunately Selina Cadell has experience directing these kinds of plays. Whether the efforts of Cadell and her cast are actually enough to make William Congreve's The Double Dealer look like a neglected classic is another story altogether. Mellefont (Lloyd Everitt) is engaged to Cynthia (Zoë Waites) but their upcoming marriage may be derailed if his aunt has her way: Lady Touchwood (also Waites) is angry at him for rejecting her own advances, and wants to sabotage the union, getting her hands on Mellefont's inheritance in the process.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Theatre review: Pinter Six - Party Time / Celebration

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This installment of Pinter at the Pinter hasn't invited the critics in yet.

I booked for all the Pinter at the Pinter shows before they'd been retitled to give each anthology a number, so I've ended up with Pinter Six before Pinter Five; as the season is (currently) due to conclude with Betrayal seeing some of it in reverse order seems apt enough. Jamie Lloyd directs the shortest double bill so far, starting with Party Time, which I couldn't help thinking of as what it would be like if Pinter had written The Masque of the Red Death, except the plague outside is all the partygoers' doing, and they're cheerfully set to make things a lot worse. Accordingly, the majority of the characters on stage may be laughing and drinking wine, but Soutra Gilmour's designs keep everything positively funereal, in all-black outfits and a torchlit black box set that could have come out of a vampire movie.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Theatre review: The Convert

When Kwame Kwei-Armah announced his first season at the Young Vic, his second main-house show definitely raised a few eyebrows: After all, The Convert only had its London premiere last year, in a warmly-reviewed (including by me) production at the Gate. Given how prominently the publicity mentions that writer Danai Gurira and star Letitia Wright both appeared in Black Panther, perhaps the reasoning was that the film's huge success would draw a much bigger crowd to a play that deserves to be seen. In this Victorian-era tragicomedy Wright plays Jekesai, a Shona girl in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) fleeing an arranged marriage her uncle (Jude Akuwudike) is trying to set up with a man who already has a number of wives. Her own culture allows this but the religion of the white British forbids bigamy, and her aunt Mai Tamba (Pamela Nomvete) is housekeeper to a man who can help.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Theatre review: The Cane

It's Christmas at the Royal Court, which is like Christmas anywhere else except the word "cunt" features a lot more prominently than in most seasonal fare. Also there's nothing remotely Christmassy about it, as Mark Ravenhill creates what could be a twisted flipside to The Browning Version. Here too a teacher is about to retire, but unlike Rattigan's protagonist Edward (Alun Armstrong,) who's taught at the same school for 45 years, many of them as Deputy Head, has been generally well-liked by the students and staff, at least as far as he's aware. But with a week to go until his retirement, Edward's estranged daughter Anna (Nicola Walker) returns to her parents' home, to try and forge some kind of relationship between her children and their grandparents; only to find it under siege by hundreds of angry children.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Theatre review: Timon of Athens (RSC / Swan)

With its story of economic inequality and social unrest - in Greece no less - Timon of Athens seems like a play that would have attracted a lot of revivals in recent years, but the fragmentary nature of the text means Shakespeare and Middleton's tragedy remains as obscure a part of the canon as ever. Its obligatory appearance in the "T" season as part of the RSC's complete works is only the third time I've seen it, and marks one of the few occasions when the company's departed from their current policy of staging all the Shakespeares in the main house, presumably figuring the Swan would be easier to fill. But if the play's obscure the casting is, to me at least, a definite draw, with Kathryn Hunter taking on the title role. Timon has a seemingly infinite belief in the goodness of humanity, as she has more friends than any other woman in Athens. Of course, she's also one of the richest, and famously generous.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Theatre review: The Tell-Tale Heart

Celeste (Tamara Lawrance,) an actress-turned-writer, wins an award for her debut play but turns it down at the ceremony, in an attempt to make a political point that misfires and makes for a lot of bad publicity – even Judi Dench hates her. She tries to escape the attention by renting an attic room in Brighton to write her follow-up, but her writer’s block persists, and she ends up distracting herself by making friends with her landlady. Nora (Imogen Doel) has led a sheltered life, home-schooled and nervous about being seen in public without the half-mask that covers a facial deformity. Confident that she’s above discriminating against her friend because of her looks, Celeste convinces her to show her what she really looks like, but it turns out the enormous right eye hiding under the mask is too much for her to cope with. Disgusted and haunted by the eye, Celeste wants to get it out of her life in any way she can, even if that means murder.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Theatre review: Doctor Faustus

Will you have infinite knowledge in return for a bit of the old eternal damnation? Ah you will.

With two plays each over the winter, the Swanamaker is giving William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe equal billing this year, and the last of Michelle Terry’s “Ambitious Fiends” is the most ambitious of all (although Macbeth might be the more fiendish) as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus seeks to gain knowledge – and by extension power – over the whole of creation. Faustus (Jocelyn Jee Esien) is a voracious scholar who, as far as she’s concerned, has exhausted all human knowledge and wants more. The only books left are the forbidden volumes of necromancy, which she uses to summon a demon. Mephistopheles’ (Pauline McLynn) contract specifies that she’ll serve Faustus for 24 years on Earth, in return for her immortal soul. Believing herself to have outsmarted the demon, Faustus takes the deal and begins a journey to learn the mysteries of the universe.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Theatre review: The Messiah

Patrick Barlow’s spoof of Ben Hur featured a Nativity scene, and that’s now expanded to become the main focus of his latest, The Messiah (billed as a new play, although there’s clearly been versions of it around for over thirty years courtesy of Barlow’s National Theatre of Brent company.) And although there are new faces in the cast, the setup is familiar: Self-styled impresario Maurice (Hugh Dennis) has written and stars in his own adaptation of the Nativity, sharing all the roles with his unpredictable friend Ronald (John Marquez.) Musical accompaniment will be provided by opera singer Mrs Fflyte (Lesley Garrett,) who the two men are somewhat in awe of, and who will be joining them as soon as she can find the stage. Beginning with the Godhead (Dennis) asking how things are going on Earth (which he seems to have a somewhat romantic love for) and finding out they could be better, and moving on to the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary (Marquez,) who’s not best pleased about the whole thing because she’s only fourteen.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Theatre review: Drip

Tom Wells' Folk centred on a folk-singing, spoon-playing nun, while his Broken Biscuits WHICH NEVER CAME ANYWHERE NEAR LONDON SO I DIDN'T GET TO SEE IT, AS IF THAT'S AN ACCEPTABLE STATE OF AFFAIRS was about teenagers putting a band together. So you could say music's been becoming more and more central to the playwright's work, or you could say he's been inching ever closer to writing a musical. Well Drip is classified as a one-man musical comedy, although "play with songs" is probably a closer description - maybe don't chuck a full tap-dancing chorus at Wells just yet, he's building up to it slowly. This is about teenager Liam (Andrew Finnigan,) and while it's set in Wells' beloved Hull Liam isn't quite as at home there yet - he moved there a year ago when his mother remarried, and he's not yet made a lot of friends there.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Theatre review: The Night Before Christmas

Anthony Neilson’s The Night Before Christmas is inevitably nothing like any story called The Night Before Christmas anyone else would write, although that is when it takes place, in the last hour of Christmas Eve. Gary (Douggie McMeekin) has a warehouse full of knockoff goods, a business that’s technically legal as long as you don’t look too carefully at where everything came from. On Christmas Eve he catches an intruder (Dan Starkey) dressed as an Elf, with track marks on his arms and a bag of tools useful for breaking into buildings, who tells him he’s fallen off Santa’s sleigh, and Gary mustn’t call the police or it’ll cancel Christmas. With the possible explanations being “junkie trying to steal something to fence” and “magical elf who’ll die if he doesn’t get his Christmas happiness powder,” Gary is convinced by the latter option, and calls his friend Simon (Michael Salami) for help with what to do next.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Theatre review: Jeannie

Aimée Stuart was a popular playwright between the wars, but she’s now virtually unheard of and her hit romantic comedy Jeannie hasn’t been performed in London since 1940. If you think this sounds like a prime candidate for the Finborough you’d be right, and Nicolette Kay brings it to Earl’s Court as this year’s light-hearted Christmas show. And light-hearted fun is definitely the order of the day, despite Jeannie (Mairi Hawthorn) starting the play as essentially an unpaid servant to her miserly father, cooking, cleaning and, her personal nemesis, washing the sheets. He’s so mean, in fact, that despite charging the neighbours to borrow a cup of milk, when he dies Jeannie discovers he’s left behind £200 in savings. Having spent her whole life forbidden from spending any money on herself, Jeannie decides to put her skills to work as a housekeeper, but not before blowing most of her inheritance on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday to Vienna.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Stage-to-screen review: I and You

Portrait (orientation) of the artist as a young woman.

One of the shows I had a ticket to but had to skip when I was ill last month was Hampstead Theatre's latest imported US hit, Lauren Gunderson's I and You. Sometimes unexpected second chances do come up though, and while the run's now ended the theatre has decided to stream a recording of it for free for 72 hours. Not quite a unique occurence, but the platform's an unusual one, as Gunderson's teen tragicomedy will have attracted a younger audience than usually frequents Swiss Cottage, and accordingly its new home is Instagram and its IGTV service for longer-format videos. What's immediately notable about this is that although of course it can be accessed on a PC, IGTV's optimised for phones and can only be shot in portrait. Which means if nothing else, Edward Hall's production is going to look different to any other stage-to-screen adaptation I've seen before.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Theatre review: Hadestown

It would be unfair to say it left me cold, but the latest American musical to be heralded as the next big thing certainly left me a bit nonplussed. Anaïs Mitchell’s 2010 concept album Hadestown has been steadily gaining a following as a musical in the last couple of years, and having been performed off-Broadway and in Canada it’s due to open on Broadway next year. This is the production, directed by the show’s co-creator Rachel Chavkin, which opens first in the Olivier for what is essentially a big-budget try-out. A meandering rewrite of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Hadestown takes its musical style from New Orleans folk and jazz, and has accordingly transplanted Greek mythology to something like Depression-era Louisiana and a bar run by narrator Hermes (André De Shields.) The seasons are determined by the movement to and from the Underworld of its queen Persephone (Amber Gray,) but in recent years something’s gone wrong, leaving the world mostly in winter, with occasional bursts of summer but no autumn or spring.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Theatre review: Ralegh: The Treason Trial

Shakespeare's Globe dip their toe into verbatim theatre, although as befits the venue there's no recent politics or songs about serial killers - actor Oliver Chris has turned playwright and director by editing together the equivalent of court transcripts from 1603. The second of Michelle Terry's Ambitious Fiends is Sir Walter Ralegh (his preferred spelling, although like most of his contemporaries he doesn't really seem to have cared much either way,) a man who like most people I associate with Elizabeth I (and tobacco, and potatoes,) but whose later life I don't remember ever hearing much about. This gap in my knowledge might not be an accident, as once Elizabeth's reign was over Ralegh seems to have been a bit of an inconvenience to have around, and her successor's regime was keen to sweep him under the carpet as much as possible. As the title Ralegh: The Treason Trial suggests, this didn't happen in the subtlest of ways.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Theatre review: Macbeth (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Michelle Terry’s summer season at the Globe was the first time the venue didn’t have an official overall theme for the year, but for her first winter at the Swanamaker she has two: She’s split her season into two themed “festivals” starting with “Ambitious Fiends,” looking at power and corruption, with an optional supernatural element. That option is taken and really played with in the opening production: The candlelit playhouse has been open for a few years now so I find it a bit surprising that this is its first Macbeth, a play thought to have been written with this kind of theatre in mind. Indeed, given it’s notoriously an enthusiastic rimjob on James I, there’s a popular theory that the mirror that displays the line of kings in Act IV scene 1 would have once ended up reflecting the actual king in an intimate setting. Robert Hastie doesn’t have any royalty to play with, unless you count the theatrical royalty of Terry herself as Lady Macbeth, with real-life husband Paul Ready as her on-stage husband.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Theatre review: Pinter Four - Moonlight / Night School

For only the second time so far in his Pinter at the Pinter season, Jamie Lloyds hands the directing reigns to someone else for Pinter Four, with one big established name and one up-and-comer each taking one of the plays in this double bill. Just how generous a move this actually was is a bit of a different story, as apart from having one of the least ostentatiously famous casts in the whole season Pinter Four is made up of a couple of the more dubious entries in the writer's canon. This has been the installment I've least looked forward to in the whole season, because it opens with Moonlight which, when I saw it seven years ago at the Donmar Warehouse, was the single worst Pinter experience I've had, a 75-minute performance I remember as having lasted hours. Lyndsey Turner is the director who's been put in charge of this one, and on the plus side not only does she shave a few minutes off that running time but it actually feels just over an hour long this time as well.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Theatre review: White Teeth

A definite case of déjà vu walking into the Kiln, as Tom Piper’s perspective set for the musical White Teeth is reminiscent of Robert Jones’ street for the Young Vic’s Twelfth Night. Except instead of Notting Hill this is set right outside the theatre’s doors in Kilburn High Road; in fact I can think of no reason other than scheduling clashes for this not being the opening show of the renamed theatre’s season, given how much fuss has been made about the Kiln tying into the local community and its identity. Zadie Smith’s novel, adapted here by Stephen Sharkey with music by Paul Englishby, is something of a twisted love letter to Kilburn and its multicultural community with all its clashes and contradictions, through a convoluted intergenerational family epic. It’s predominantly the story of Irie (Ayesha Antoine) growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s alongside identical twins Millat (Assad Zaman) and Magid (Sid Sagar.)

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Theatre review: Bury the Dead

Back in 2014 theatres were falling over themselves to stage seasons built around 100 years from the start of the First World War, but the Finborough took a slightly different approach: Calling the strand THEGREATWAR100, they committed instead to revisiting the theme sporadically over the whole five years from the centenary of war breaking out, to the centenary of the Armistice. Which brings us very neatly to today and the concluding part of the series, and after a number of different approaches to the legacy of the trenches we get 1930s American Expressionism in Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead. That’s what the soldiers are trying to do at the start of the play, 48 hours after a failed advance left six of their friends dead, and they’re in a hurry to get on with it as the bodies are starting to smell. But while the men are indisputably dead they don’t act like it, rising from their graves and refusing to get back into them.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Theatre review: The Funeral Director

I try to catch the Papatango playwrighting award winner every year, and this year's offering doesn't lack for ambition in its subject matter: Iman Qureshi's The Funeral Director takes on the line where different marginalised groups' human rights clash. Ayesha (Aryana Ramkhalawon) and her husband Zeyd (Maanuv Thiara) run a funeral home specialising in Muslim funerals in "a small divided town in the Midlands." Married for five years they seem to be ticking along with their lives well enough but clearly aren't actually happy - Zeyd is just about comfortable enough to confront the fact that his wife is completely uninterested in sex, but she always dodges the conversation. An unexpected crisis comes to their lives in the form of Tom (Tom Morley,) who comes into the funeral parlour in a state of shock after his Muslim boyfriend dies of an overdose that may or may not have been suicide.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Theatre review: Pinter Three - Landscape /
Apart From That / Girls / That’s All / God’s District / Monologue / That’s Your Trouble / Special Offer / Trouble in the Works / Night / A Kind of Alaska

If there’s a running theme to Pinter Three, the hendecuple* bill that continues Jamie Lloyd’s collection of the playwright’s short writings to mark ten years since his death, it’s a kind of bittersweet romance. It’s something that becomes most apparent in Night, the penultimate piece in which Meera Syal and Tom Edden play a long-married couple whose love seems to remain genuine and strong, but whose memories of their relationship differ entirely: They each remember their first date completely differently, and may in fact be recalling encounters with different people - but does it even matter? The evening is bookended by the longest plays, and Night’s miscommunication somewhat mirrors the opener, Landscape, in which Beth (Tamsin Greig) and Duff (Keith Allen) have a conversation consisting of two entirely different threads – he recounting his day, she remembering stories from the early days of their relationship.

Monday, 5 November 2018

theatre review: ear for eye

et tu, debbie?

ideally, if coming back to the theatre after over a week sick, i’d choose something short and fairly fluffy to ease myself back in. things don’t always work out that way though, and with an acclaimed new debbie tucker green play in my diary fluffy was never going to be on the cards; you’d have thought short would at least be a given with the usually concise tucker green at the helm, but ear for eye plays out as a two-and-a-quarter hour epic with no interval. told in three distinct parts, each of which could have been a show in its own right but which feed into each other in subtle ways, the play is a look at the black experience in both america and the uk, one of its themes (and i wouldn’t want to pretend i can unpick every layer the writer’s built into her deceptively pared-down dialogue) being the way that even though we don’t have the epidemic of police shootings that plagues african-americans, this side of the pond doesn’t necessarily have the moral high ground, and black british people feel many of the same pressures.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Stage-to-screen review: Been So Long

If my theatregoing currently appears to be at something like normal human frequency that's because I've been stuck at home with bronchitis, but Netflix have filled in the gap a bit by releasing their film adaptation of Been So Long - Ché Walker and Arthur Darvill's first musical (maybe you shouldn't hold your breath for their second one to get filmed too soon) which I saw when it premiered at the Young Vic in 2009. From that original cast only Arinzé Kene has returned to play Raymond, released from prison and finding nobody to celebrate with him because while he's been away all his friends have got partners and families. Instead he ends up alone at a bar that's days away from closing, where he meets single mother Simone (Michaela Coel,) who's as attracted to him as he is to her, but has put up a lot of barriers to protect herself and her disabled daughter.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Theatre review: A Very Very Very Dark Matter

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. Parklife!

Martin McDonagh's Lieutenant of Inishmore was revived this summer, a reminder of his early work's wilfully controversial nature, love of blood and gore, and tendency to go to some pretty surreal places. Seventeen years on from that play's debut and with McDonagh now a big name in film as well as theatre, all of those remain present and correct, except the weirdness has been dialled up to new levels. Kicking off the Bridge Theatre's second year and playing from now until early January, there's a feel of the dark Christmas story to A Very Very Very Dark Matter, especially since it includes an appearance by the man most credited with creating the modern image of Christmas; it should go without saying that it's not one for the kids though, and even if you go in with the playwright's reputation preceding him the places he goes are likely to be very unexpected.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Theatre review: Measure for Measure
(Donmar Warehouse)

During Josie Rourke’s tenure the Donald and Margot Warehouse’s Shakespeare productions have tended to confound expectations – whether it be the expectation that Julius Caesar be played by a man or Coriolanus by someone with range – and for what is likely to be her last Shakespeare there she’s given it a new twist. Another of the original “Problem Plays,” Measure for Measure is a story full of hypocrisy, right from the start as the Duke of Vienna (Nicholas Burns) announces that he’ll be taking a sabbatical and leaving the city in the hands of his strict deputy. Vienna has draconian morality laws that the Duke’s let lapse during his rule; he wants to enforce them again, but doesn’t want to be seen as the bad guy so leaves it up to the deputy to bring terror not only to the city’s red light districts but even to anyone who has pre-marital sex – Claudio (Sule Rimi) has got his girlfriend pregnant and the strict word of the law demands his execution.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Theatre review: Stories

Nina Raine returns to the Dorfman, this time also directing her latest play Stories. It’s named after the idea that there are only seven basic stories in the world, and Anna (Claudie Blakley) seems to go through most of them – mainly the quest - in her attempts to have a baby. After a couple of years of trying with her partner Tom (Sam Troughton,) IVF is the step that makes it feel all too real for him and he breaks up with her. Approaching forty and finding herself single again, Anna becomes all too aware of her biological clock and decides to have the child on her own. She looks into finding a sperm donor online but doesn’t like the anonymity of it, and instead comes up with a plan to find the father herself – never quite giving up on the hope that Tom might change his mind, she nevertheless arranges to meet several men she knows (all also played by Troughton) who she thinks might be suitable candidates.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Theatre review: Troilus and Cressida (RSC / RST)

The thing about committing to doing the entire works of Shakespeare with no repetition is that at some point you have to knuckle down and do Troilus and Cressida. If you're the RSC you've also got the added pressure of hoping it doesn't get overshadowed by the memory of the last time you attempted it. Artistic Director Gregory Doran has taken the job on himself with a bombastic production that plays a few weeks in the middle of the "T" season, the high concept being that designer Niki Turner has taken inspiration from Mad Max (presumably the Tom Hardy rather than Mel Gibson version, as Agamemnon doesn't take time out to blame the Jews for the Trojan War) and composers Evelyn Glennie and Dave Price have created a cacophonous, percussion-heavy soundtrack that's meant to evoke the noise of a war dragging on indefinitely in the background. It's a clanging, crashing noise that Troilus (Gavin Fowler) is not so much haunted as irritated by after seven years of siege.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Theatre review: Wise Children

After famously making her mark on the Globe with an innovative use of its budget, Emma Rice was controversially given a large Arts Council grant to launch her new company Wise Children, named after the Angela Carter novel she adapts for its first production. Dora Chance (Gareth Snook) narrates the story of her life with twin sister Nora (Etta Murfitt,) and particularly their relationship with their father, also one of a pair of twins. Their mother died in childbirth and their father, famous Shakespearean actor Melchior Hazard (Ankur Bahl,) didn’t want anything to do with them but, not wanting them to surface many years later and cause him a scandal, arranged for them to be financially supported on the proviso they kept quiet. The story he’s always been happy to imply is that they’re actually his twin brother’s children, and Peregrine (Sam Archer) does end up behaving more like a father to the girls (albeit an abusive one, in a throwaway part of the story that’s one of my main issues with the show.)

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Theatre review: The Trench

Across the road from Southwark Playhouse there’s a full-sized billboard ad for the show that’s just opened in the Large proving that, if nothing else, Oliver Lansley’s The Trench has a larger-than-usual publicity budget for a fringe show. With detailed design, original songs (composed and performed by Alexander Wolfe, with the ensemble’s James Hastings also playing multiple instruments,) projections and extensive use of puppets, Les Enfants Terribles’ 2012 show, being seen in London for the first time in this revival, certainly wears its high production values on its sleeve; what else it’s really got to offer is a bit more doubtful. Lansley, who also co-directs (with James Seager) plays Bert, a First World War soldier whose former job as a miner makes him an obvious candidate to be a sapper – digging tunnels under no man’s land to bury mines near the enemy trenches. It’s a job with the inevitable added danger of getting caved in when a bomb goes off nearby, which is what happens to Bert and his new assistant Collins (Kadell Herida.)

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Theatre review: The Wider Earth

You never know where the next pop-up theatre is going to materialise (which I guess is why they're called pop-ups,) and there's particularly majestic surroundings for the transfer of David Morton's Australian and US hit The Wider Earth. In fact the excuse to pay a visit to the Natural History Museum what must be decades since I last went there was one of the attractions of the play, which has set up shop in the Jerwood Gallery, a space that normally houses temporary exhibitions and now has a custom-built theatre in it. The gallery is right next to the museum's Darwin Centre, so it couldn't be better-placed to house the story of the young Charles Darwin (Bradley Foster) on his two-year journey (that actually ended up lasting five years) circumnavigating the globe on the Beagle.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Theatre review: Company

Marianne Elliott’s production of Company has been a long time coming – tickets have been on sale for a year and a lot of excitement has been built up over Elliott’s twist to the famous 1970 musical: Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s story of the one singleton in a friendship group full of couples has gender-flipped the lead, with a number of other characters either following suit, or having their roles mixed around a bit to suit the new premise. Bobbie (Rosalie Craig) is turning 35, and her friends are waiting at her apartment to throw a surprise birthday party; when she arrives they will inevitably keep bringing the subject round to her single status and asking when she’s going to get married. The show’s original working title was Threes, because that’s what Bobbie keeps finding herself in as her married friends invite her to be a third wheel and see how great coupled life is – something that’s not as convincing as they think it is.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Theatre review: Twelfth Night (Young Vic)

The Young Vic gets its first new artistic director in nearly twenty years as Kwame Kwei-Armah debuts in carnival fashion with a show first seen in New York two years ago: A musical adaptation of Twelfth Night. Kwei-Armah heavily edits Shakespeare’s text, something made easier by the inclusion of Shaina Taub’s original songs, whose modern-language lyrics help summarise and move on the story so that the whole thing comes in at well under two hours. Originally set in New Orleans, Kwei-Armah and Oskar Eustis’ production has been relocated to Notting Hill for its UK premiere, with Robert Jones’ thrust stage creating a long road where Viola (Gabrielle Brooks) is washed up after a storm, right into a funeral – but a lively one that turns into a street party, only the deceased’s sister Olivia (Natalie Dew) keeping up the mourning for long. It’s too long for Duke Orsino (Rupert Young,) who’s determined to woo her despite her obvious lack of interest.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Theatre review: The Sweet Science of Bruising

I don't think we can really call it a 2018 meme when it's so obviously a timely and appropriate response to a conversation going on everywhere, and particularly in the arts, but there's certainly been an explosion this year of shows by and about women: Particularly ones like Emilia, Sylvia and, just ending its run in the space next door to this one, Wasted, that illuminate the present through the women who've fought against society's expectations in the past. That fight is literal in Joy Wilkinson's The Sweet Science of Bruising: Her subject is Victorian women's boxing, her heroines four women from very different backgrounds who all find themselves fighting for a newly-invented world championship title when London boxing promoter Professor Charlie Sharp (Bruce Alexander) travels to Manchester in search of new talent, and discovers that promising fighter Paul Stokes (James Baxter) has a girlfriend, Polly (Fiona Skinner,) who's every bit as good if not more so.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Theatre review: The Height of the Storm

After premiering in Bath and Richmond, The Height of the Storm is the latest Florian Zeller play to make it to the West End, with director Jonathan Kent taking a risk on putting two notoriously difficult actors on stage together. The vague description in the publicity suggests another rather dark, sad journey into confusion and failing mental health, and while I’m generally a fan of cheerier things, where this writer is concerned I’d rather see him return to intimate tragedies than the so-so farces of his lighter side. Anne (Amanda Drew) and Elise (Anna Madeley) have gone to their parents’ home in the French countryside for the weekend; it soon becomes apparent that one of their parents has recently died, but Zeller deals in confusion and it’s hard to figure out which one, as both André (Jonathan Pryce) and Madeleine (Eileen Atkins) appear on stage regularly.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Theatre review: James Graham's Sketching

Apparently kicked off by his feeling guilty about having three plays in West End theatres in the last year while other writers struggle to get work staged, James Graham's Sketching sees him take that high profile and use it to put a few emerging playwrights in the spotlight. His idea for doing this was an update of Charles Dickens' early hit Sketches by Boz, a collection of character pieces set around Victorian London, with the gimmick that this would be the first "crowdsourced" play, accepting submissions of short plays that would be woven into the overall story. Eight playwrights' submissions were eventually accepted, and Thomas Hescott directs Samuel James, Penny Layden, Nav Sidhu, Sean Michael Verey and Sophie Wu in around fifty roles between them. Graham himself contributes four storylines that try to link all the different threads together over the course of 24 hours.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Theatre review: Antony & Cleopatra (National Theatre)

Ralph Fiennes has a tendency to use his fame to get himself cast in roles he's always wanted to play - his Richard III was something he himself pitched to the Almeida, and this time it's the National staging a huge production at his request. This one's a bit more of an unusual bucket list role though, as he's always wanted to star in Antony & Cleopatra - and not as Cleopatra. Instead Fiennes is Antony, a male lead notorious for being completely overshadowed by his female counterpart (Nothing Like A Dame even features a whole conversation about how none of the Dames know an actor who didn't hate playing him.) Instead it's Sophie Okonedo who gets the plum role of Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen who'd already taken Julius Caesar as her lover before doing the same with his successor. The affairs might have been motivated by politics as she sought to keep the powerful Roman Empire on her side, but as Shakespeare sees it at least, the relationship with Antony turned into something real.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Theatre review: Pinter Two - The Lover / The Collection

Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season continues with a double bill that he’s directed before, in this same theatre ten years ago when it was still called the Comedy. If Pinter One was bleak and timeless, Pinter Two is more broadly comic, while Soutra Gilmour’s design places it firmly in the early 1960s when the one-acters were both written. In The Lover a cheesily domestic married couple prepare for their day; Richard (John MacMillan) is off to work, wishing Sarah (Hayley Squires) a fun afternoon with her regular lover. He’s not jealous – it would be hypocritical, since he’ll be taking the same afternoon off to spend with a whore. After the interval comes The Collection in which the same actors play another married couple, whose complex sex life takes in unsuspecting outsiders when James (MacMillan) barges into Bill’s (Russell Tovey) house and accuses him of sleeping with his wife.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Theatre review: Foxfinder

Last seen in London in 2011 when it was the Papatango award winner, Dawn King's Foxfinder is, on the face of it, a canny revival for 2018 when its paranoia and scapegoating can be repackaged as a Brexit play. But something's gone wrong in the execution of Rachel O'Riordan's production, and it’s left a play that can be genuinely creepy and atmospheric floundering. Samuel (Paul Nicholls) and Judith Covey (Heida Reed) own a farm somewhere in a dystopian England where food is scarce, so farmers like them are under immense pressure to live up to – seemingly quite unrealistic – crop quotas. Some months earlier, the couple’s four-year-old son drowned, and Samuel retreated into a long depression. Between this and bad weather they’re struggling to live up to their targets so the government has sent an investigator to determine if they’ve mismanaged the farm, or worse: If there’s a fox on their land.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Theatre review: The Prisoner

Some creatives are rightly lauded for revolutionising their fields but, if they stay in their job long enough, almost inevitably go from the person creating theatre's future to a relic of its past. For most of my theatregoing life the legendary Peter Brook has been based in Paris, so I've only seen the odd example of his later work. I have no doubt his status in the theatre world is justified, but works like The Prisoner can't help but make me feel they're getting staged because of that status and not their own merits. Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne write and direct the short (but still very slow) fable of a man sitting outside a prison, technically able to walk away at any time but evidently trapped there by something more powerful than walls.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Theatre review: Tamburlaine

The RSC's "T" season opens with the return of former Artistic Director Michael Boyd, and his edit of Christopher Marlowe's two Tamburlaine the Great plays into a single bloodthirsty epic. Mycetes, King of Persia, is played by Mark Hadfield in the performance that Mark Hadfield gives, meaning his brother Cosroe (David Sturzaker) sees him as a joke who should be replaced - by him. Cosroe joins forces with Tamburlaine (Jude Owusu,) a Scythian shepherd's son and bandit with a growing reputation as a soldier, to overthrow his brother. This they do easily, but Cosroe has underestimated his new ally, who promptly betrays him, kills him and takes the throne for himself. But all this gives him is a taste of the kind of power he wants - kings seem to be ten-a-penny and Tamburlaine wants to be above them all, Emperor of as much of Asia Minor, Africa and Eastern Europe as he can manage in his lifetime.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Theatre review: Sylvia

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The entire run of Sylvia has been reclassified as work-in-progress previews.

The actual reason for this is that the already-short run of Kate Prince, Priya Parmar, Josh Cohen and DJ Walde's suffragette musical was cut even shorter by cast illness, with the need to rehearse understudies meaning a number of performances were cancelled - including the one I was initially booked to see. As it turns out, the work-in-progress label is also justified, as there's clearly an outstanding evening at the theatre here somewhere - it's just struggling to get out of what's actually made it onto the stage. Whether it was a rush to get this on stage for the centenary of (some) women getting the vote, or to remind people that the Hip-Hop musical didn't start and end with Hamilton, Sylvia has arrived in front of an audience before it's quite ready. Sylvia Pankhurst (understudy Maria Omakinwa, excellent,) was part of the legendary family of women fighting for the vote, but her beliefs on non-violence and the inclusion of working-class women in their demands put her at odds with her mother and sister.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Theatre review: Eyam

It's long been a truism that Shakespeare's Globe is a very hard place to write new plays for - Howard Brenton and Jessica Swale are the only playwrights to have succeeded there multiple times - but Michelle Terry started her tenure there well when Morgan Lloyd Malcolm's Emilia was a popular hit. Any hopes she might have helped the venue lift that curse for good are dashed by the final show in her debut season though: Matt Hartley's Plague drama Eyam suffers from many of the classic problems that afflict new writing here. In 1665, with England still feeling the aftereffects of the Civil War, shit vicar William Mompesson (Sam Crane) and his wife Katherine (Priyanga Burford) are sent to the Derbyshire village of Eyam, not being told that the reason they need a new minister is because the villagers lynched the last one. This is a place divided by the wealthy Phillip Sheldon's (Adrian Bower) attempts to claim the common land as his own OH GOD NOT A PLAY ABOUT THE LAND ENCLOSURES ACT, ABORT, ABORT!

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Theatre review: Every Day I Make Greatness Happen

Launching Hampstead Theatre's autumn season Downstairs is a play by high school teacher and comparatively new playwright Richard Molloy. Sticking to the tenet of writing about what you know and reaping the results, he sets Every Day I Make Greatness Happen in a little-used, leaky-roofed classroom in a North London school, where students are not allowed to join the Sixth Form unless they've passed their English GCSE. For three students who failed it, the Head of English, Miss Murphy (Susan Stanley,) has agreed to coach them through a re-take while they also take their AS-level classes. They have six weeks to make their second chance count and be allowed to stay on. Iman (Josh Zaré) is timid and nerdy but a bit slow, and has spent the last five years at school being relentlessly bullied by Kareem (Moe Bar-El.)

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Theatre review: Pinter One - Press Conference / Precisely / The New World Order /
Mountain Language / American Football /
The Pres and an Officer / Death / One for the Road /
Ashes to Ashes

Preview disclaimer: Pinter One invites the critics in next week.

Pinter One is the collective name being given to a nonuple bill of short writing by Harold Pinter that launches Pinter at the Pinter, the Jamie Lloyd Company's ambitious project to stage all of Harold Pinter's one-act plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre. I'm going to be using the word "Pinter" a lot over the next few months, is what I'm saying. Originally announced as a quadruple bill, other poems and sketches have been gradually getting added so that the evening's full title should now be Press Conference / Precisely / The New World Order / Mountain Language / American Football / The Pres and an Officer / Death / One for the Road / Ashes to Ashes. Which may explain why they renamed it Pinter One. Lloyd directs the first eight playlets and poems in a selection linked by an overtly political theme.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Theatre review: Holy Shit

After a couple of years closed for major redevelopment the Tricycle Theatre has reopened with a controversial (for reasons that elude me) rebranding. Kiln is, admittedly, quite a hard word to say if you've got a cold, but I don't know that I'd call that reason enough to have protests in the street on press night, which actually happened because people... I don't know, needed a reason to get out of the house? Why have a certain group of old white men taken offence at everything this theatre's done ever since an Asian woman took over as Artistic Director, WE MAY NEVER KNOW. Slightly-awkward-to-say venue names aside, I liked the redesign of the building, which keeps the basic structure of the old Tricycle but with a bit more café space, and toilets you're not instantly convinced you'll get murdered in. The auditorium also keeps the same structure (including the old proscenium arch visible in the background) but with more comfortable seating and what looks like decent sightlines (though quite a few rows near the front of the stalls now seem to require looking quite far up to the stage.)

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Theatre review: Losing Venice

Will the Orange Tree's 2018-19 season have an overarching theme? I only ask because they'll shortly be staging some Martin Crimp, and following Losing Venice that could end up signaling a theme of complete impenetrability. Jo Clifford's 1985 play has been revived by Paul Miller with the strong implication that it's gained a new Brexit-related significance, dealing as it does with a fading Empire that's not quite grasped the fact that it no longer holds the sway it once did, and so engages in an arrogant international display of regaining control that's doomed to failure. In practice this proves a bit of a stretch of what the play's actually about, its blustering imperialism more about the macho posturing of a couple of impotent men than anything wider.

Friday, 14 September 2018

Theatre review: Wasted

"Fuck off, I'm writing Jane Eyre."

The success of Hamilton on both sides of the Atlantic means musical theatre throwing distinctly anachronistic musical styles at historical figures are all the rage, so it's a pleasure to report that even with all that going on Wasted feels pleasingly original - and bonkers. The Brontës were a quartet of troubled artists who didn't fit into the world they were born into, faced romantic problems and drug addiction, but briefly became a popular sensation (and hugely controversial because of the bad influence they might have on their fans) before fizzling out and dying young. At least that's how Carl Miller (book and lyrics) and Christopher Ash (music) see them, framing their show as a Behind the Music documentary about a band who barely made it past one-hit-wonders, and interviewing Charlotte - the last left alive, having given up writing and married a dull curate - about what went wrong.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Theatre review: The Woods

A fairly common thing on film, the ability to create the feel of a dream - or particularly a nightmare - on stage is rarer, and something I always find impressive and quite transfixing when someone gets it right; so Lucy Morrison's production of The Woods kept my attention even as it became apparent that Robert Alan Evans' play itself was going to be a frustrating affair. Shuffling around in a dirty summer dress, Future Dame Lesley Sharp's nameless Woman is simultaneously a young mother and an ancient crone of the wilderness, who comes across a Boy (Finn Bennett) unconscious in the woods and drags him to safety in a shack that she gradually has to pull apart to feed a fire to keep him warm. Nursing him back to health and feeding him, she's desperate to keep the boy safe while also resenting him; and somewhere in the trees lurks a charismatic Wolf (Tom Mothersdale,) who tries to tempt her away in various guises (including that of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, for some reason.) Possible spoilers after the text break, although personally I felt a lot of what I discuss was laid out too early in the play to really be considered much of a twist.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Theatre review: An Adventure

It may only have a cast of six, rarely putting more than three of them on stage at the same time, but coming in at nearly three and a half hours and spanning three continents An Adventure fits the bill if Vinay Patel was aiming to create an epic. Inspired by his grandparents’ journey to the UK, it begins in India where Jyoti (played initially by Anjana Vasan, later by Nila Aalia,) has to pick between four suitors. She doesn’t particularly want to get married but her father wants her out of the house and the only choice she’s getting in the matter is whose arm she’ll be walking out on. Turning up in a borrowed suit and bumbling his way through his interview with her, Kenyan-born Rasik (Shubham Saraf, later Selva Rasalingam) seems an unlikely candidate, but the quick-witted Jyoti has a quip and an answer for everything, and Rasik’s willingness to try and keep up with her verbal sparring puts him at the top of the pile.