Wednesday 31 January 2018

Theatre review: Julius Caesar (Bridge Theatre)

Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theatre is intended to predominantly showcase new writing, but in only his second production there Hytner can’t resist going back to Shakespeare. This is in part because the opening season is also meant to show off the flexibility of the auditorium, and Julius Caesar is a play that lends itself to promenade staging, or in this case in-the-round staging with a section of the audience in promenade (of sorts.) Making the audience part of the action fills in the play’s reliance on crowds – whether as baying mobs, horrified onlookers, armies or, most crucially, the general populace of Rome in whose name the central characters act. Hytner’s production is modern dress, and David Calder’s Julius Caesar certainly has a visual nod to one current political figure as he shuffles onto the stage wearing a red baseball cap and revelling in the attention as much as anything.

Tuesday 30 January 2018

Radio review: The Effect

Remember those old BBC sound effect albums? I don't recall there being a "hand job" effect on them but I guess Auntie really does have something for every occasion.

Although I listen to a fair bit of half-hour radio comedy I don't often get round to any full-length drama, but Lucy Prebble's 2012 play The Effect was one of my top shows of that year, and one that I still remember vividly; add a top voice cast for Abigail le Fleming's Radio 3 production and I couldn't resist revisiting it. Lorna (Christine Entwisle) is the doctor in charge of the intensive medical trial of a new antidepressant; she's suffered from depression herself, and is skeptical about the use of drugs to treat it, so she's concerned about the reaction two of the test subjects are having: Connie (Pirate Jessie Buckley) and Tristan (Damien Molony) appear to have fallen very quickly in love with each other. If the development is worrying for the medical team, it's even more so for the pair themselves, their emotions - particularly Connie's - bouncing between elation at a new love, and the horror that one of the strongest things they've ever felt might just be a side-effect.

Monday 29 January 2018

Theatre review: The Brothers Size

After twenty or so years running the Young Vic it’s understandable if David Lan wants to bring back a past hit in his final season; and unsurprising if that’s The Brothers Size, given playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s high profile following Moonlight’s win (and the headline-grabbing mix-up) at last year’s Oscars. This is the play that first made McCraney’s name in the UK and, written around the same as the unperformed play that inspired Moonlight, it’s different but recognisably covers some of the same ground. Oshoosi Size (Jonathan Ajayi) has recently been released from prison and, while on parole, is living with his older brother Ogun (Sope Dirisu,) a mechanic who’s been making a success of his own garage while Oshoosi’s been away. Oshoosi is enjoying his freedom and wants his own car so he can test its limits, but Ogun insists he get a job and stick strictly to the terms of his probation.

Saturday 27 January 2018

Theatre review: Imperium Part II: Dictator

The phrase "all political careers end in failure" wasn't coined until the twentieth century (by Enoch Powell of all people,) so Cicero wouldn't have been able to pay it any attention when, in the events at the close of Conspirator, he found himself far from the political heights he'd once scaled. A shame for him, as he might have been able to accept that failure as the end of his career, rather than setting himself up for a much greater fall in the second part of Mike Poulton's Imperium, based on a trilogy of historical novels by Robert Harris. Dictator opens with Julius Caesar (Peter De Jersey) enjoying that formal title of dictator, the civil wars of the first play having left the Roman Republic in chaos, and willing to let one strong hand rule it while it tries to reestablish its democracy. Of course, now that he's sole ruler Caesar is unlikely to give up his power in a hurry, and Cicero (Richard McCabe) is brought out of retirement to advise his opponents.

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Theatre review: Lady Windermere's Fan

Dominic Dromgoole passes the directing reins over to Kathy Burke for the second major production in his Oscar Wilde season at the Vaudeville: Lady Windermere’s Fan slightly predates A Woman of No Importance but, for my money, feels the more rounded and accomplished play; and while it also has a strong cast, it doesn’t depend on them as strongly to do a salvage job as the first in the season depended on Eve Best. Lady Margaret Windermere (Grace Molony) has been married for two years, and has failed to pick up on the hints everyone’s dropping that her marriage is the subject of much gossip. It’s only when the Duchess of Berwick (Jennifer Saunders) outright tells her that she learns her husband Arthur (Joshua James) has in recent months started to pay regular visits to a mysterious woman; a look through his bank book reveals he’s also been paying her large sums of money.

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Theatre review: Yous Two

Chelsea Walker directs Georgia Christou’s debut play Downstairs at Hampstead Theatre, a short and entertaining look at co-dependency and the fear of hereditary mental illness. Yous Two are 15-year-old Billie (Shannon Tarbet,) and her father Jonny (Joseph Thompson,) who’ve been pretty much the only family each other has since Billie’s mother committed suicide, so long ago her daughter was too young to really remember her. Jonny struggles to work thanks to a shoulder injury from his last job, and makes ends meet as a ticket tout until the expected compensation payout arrives. Billie expects a more academic future – she’s a maths and science geek at school, and though she’s not as good at the humanities her more artistically-inclined best friend Rachel (Leah Harvey) helps her out with her English. The play takes place entirely in the bathroom (designed by Rosanna Vize) where Billie was born.

Monday 22 January 2018

Theatre review: Rita, Sue and Bob Too

The Royal Court run of Rita, Sue and Bob Too has turned out to be Schrödinger’s Play – for a while it was simultaneously happening and not happening. Vicky Featherstone cancelled the London performances when the subject matter seemed a bit too close both to the revelations of sexual harassment in the theatre industry in general, and by the production’s original co-director Max Stafford-Clark in particular. She was persuaded to change her mind on the basis that the play could help illuminate the issue, as well as the irony that it was a female playwright – Andrea Dunbar wrote the play when she was 19 – who wouldn’t be heard. So Out of Joint’s touring production, now directed solely by Kate Wasserberg, gets to bring 1982 Bradford to 2018 London for three weeks and show 15-year-olds Rita (Taj Atwal) and Sue (Gemma Dobson) spend their Friday night babysitting for a local couple.

Saturday 20 January 2018

Theatre review: The Here and This and Now

Paired up with The War Has Not Yet Started in Theatre Royal Plymouth's rep season at Southwark Playhouse, Glenn Waldron's The Here and This and Now takes a look at pharmaceutical companies on an intimate scale and, eventually, a global one. Niall (Simon Darwen) leads a team of pharmaceutical reps on a team-building away-day. Alongside games where they recite their sales mantra of "Captivate! Associate! Detonate! Kill!" the central point is for them all to rehearse Niall's trademark pitch to receptionists, a cheesy story about his sick son designed to create empathy and get them five minutes with a senior consultant to sell discount liver-spot cream. Gemma (Tala Gouveia) is new to the team and enthusiastically delivers her own version of the pitch, but the other two members have been working for the company much longer and have a much more cynical outlook on what they're doing.

Theatre review: The War Has Not Yet Started

Southwark Playhouse's Little space kicks off the year with a rep season transferring from Plymouth. The banner name it's been given is "Strange Tales From The West Country," something certainly borne out by The War Has Not Yet Started - the strangeness at least, the country it comes from is actually Russia. Mikhail Durnenkov's play, translated here by Noah Birksted-Breen, is a darkly surreal sketch show in which Hannah Britland, Sarah Hadland and Mark Quartley run through a series of scenes of very modern paranoia and isolation. Gordon Anderson's production matter-of-factly casts the roles age- and gender-blind, so in a couple of permutations Quartley is a mother, Britland a father and Hadland their son. In the same costumes throughout they bring a naturalistic performance style to scenes that are anything but.

Friday 19 January 2018

Theatre review: All's Well That Ends Well (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Caroline Byrne would appear to be the director the Globe turns to when they've got a problem play that needs solving; she previously had to deal with the alleged comedy of The Taming of the Shrew, and now comes indooors to the Swanamaker for a play that belies its title of All's Well That Ends Well. Byrne's production includes the unusual credit of Ben Ormerod as "candle consultant," and perhaps the consultation was over how few candles they could get away with in the playhouse - only two of the chandeliers get lit, and then only for a single scene, with a few small candelabras and handheld candles doing all the work of lighting the action. Fortunately things aren't so murky that it becomes difficult to see what's going on, but they are murky enough to take us into the slightly nightmarish world the play's two leads find themselves in.

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Theatre review: The Birthday Party

Paradoxically famous both for making Harold Pinter’s name as a playwright and for being a notorious flop when it was first produced – its only rave review being published after it had already closed early - The Birthday Party gets a birthday party of its own, as Pinter’s eponymous theatre hosts a 60th anniversary production from Ian Rickson. The setting, in a suitably shabby design by Quay Brothers and gloomy lighting by Hugh Vanstone, is the sitting room and kitchen of a boarding house in a seaside town where Petey (Peter Wight) is a deckchair attendant. His wife Meg (Zoë Wanamaker,) possibly in the early stages of dementia, runs the house and looks after the guest, serving up corn flakes with sour milk and burnt fried bread. This may explain why there’s only one guest – Stanley (Toby Jones) is a former concert pianist who’s lived there for the last year, barely leaving the house where Meg variously babies him and flirts with him.

Monday 15 January 2018

Theatre review: Strangers in Between

Trafalgar Studio 2 has, unsurprisingly given its size, carved out a niche as a venue for transferring shows that did well on the fringe to somewhere a bit more central. The Finborough and Old Red Lion have been regular visitors and now the King’s Head takes a turn with Australian playwright Tommy Murphy’s Strangers in Between. Shane (Roly Botha) is 19 but both looks and acts young for his age, having grown up gay in a remote town best known for its prison, which houses a couple of notorious recent criminals. He’s fled his abusive older brother and turned up in Sydney’s King’s Cross district, known as a dodgy area but soon feeling safer for him than his home town. Still getting used to being open about his sexuality, he soon finds a couple of mentors in camp father figure Peter (Stephen Connery-Brown) and potential romantic interest Will (Dan Hunter.)

Thursday 11 January 2018

Theatre review: My Mum's a Twat

First-time playwrights often prove naturals at certain aspects of the job, while others need to be developed over time. One thing Anoushka Warden has clearly got an instinct for is coming up with a title that’ll get people in to see your play in the first place, as evidenced by her debut My Mum’s a Twat. It’s an autobiographical monologue (it’s described as “an unreliable version of a true story filtered through a hazy memory and vivid imagination”) performed by Future Dame Patsy Ferran on a Chloe Lamford set that at first glance looks like a teenage girl’s bedroom (the audience seating includes beanbags as well as more traditional chairs.) In fact it’s more like a scrapbook come to life, the different sections of the walls decorated with pictures of her favourite things – Tupac, David Jason, her dog – and the shelves full of music and films that remind her of her extended family of siblings, half-siblings and step-siblings.

Tuesday 9 January 2018

Theatre review: The Grinning Man

A musical based on a Victor Hugo novel? IT’LL NEVER WORKetc.

It feels like I’ve had a long wait for Carl Grose (book,) Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler’s (music) new musical The Grinning Man (with lyrics by all of the above, plus director Tom Morris.) I heard raves when it opened in Bristol in 2016, and then I had to postpone my trip to the London transfer last month when I got ill. But a great cast help make this arrestingly grotesque show worth the wait. In many ways it reminded me of last year’s The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare The Freak: It also makes heavy use of puppetry to tell the musical story of a freak show, and a star attraction equal parts repellent and attractive. It’s also another French story, although instead of elaborating on historical fact this comes from a late Victor Hugo fantasy, here relocated to an alternate Lon Don; its palace might be in Catford, but the theatre’s real-life location a few blocks from Downing Street is frequently evoked in relation to the royal family motto of “to him that hath, much more shall be given; to him that hath little, it shall be taken away.”

Thursday 4 January 2018

Theatre review: Belleville

Paris Syndrome is a temporary mental illness that affects visitors to the French capital, possibly caused by a place so romanticised in popular culture turning out to be just as real and down-to-earth as anywhere else. It primarily affects Japanese tourists because the “city of love” image is particularly strongly endorsed in Japan so the disappointment is greater, but presumably Americans are also susceptible to this: It would explain why it becomes the obvious setting for Amy Herzog’s Belleville, a play that takes place entirely in an American couple’s apartment. Zack (James Norton) and Abby (Imogen Poots) got married pretty young, most likely too young as Abby wanted her terminally ill mother to make it to her wedding. Since her mother’s death she’s suffered from anxiety and depression, but is now attempting to come off her medication.

Wednesday 3 January 2018

Theatre review: White Fang

When the Park announced its winter season, an adaptation of White Fang in the studio space seemed easy to skip until I noticed it was written and directed by Jethro Compton – after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance became a surprise favourite of mine a few years ago, another trip to the 19th century North American frontiers suddenly seemed more appealing. This is described as “inspired by” rather than “adapted from” Jack London’s novel, and although I haven’t read it a look at the Wikipedia page suggests that’s fair, the story bears little resemblance beyond the setting – Canada’s Yukon Territory during the Gold Rush – and some of the characters. Lyzbet Scott (Mariska Ariya) is a young Native American girl whose entire tribe was massacred in a dispute with wolf hunters when she was a child; one of the hunters, Weedon Scott (Robert G. Slade,) rescued her and adopted her as his granddaughter.