Thursday 31 May 2018

Theatre review: The Rink

Does Southwark Playhouse have an ultimate goal of staging Starlight Express some day? They seem to have cornered the market in shows involving roller-skates (who knew that was even a market to be cornered?) and after Xanadu and punkplay comes Kander and Ebb’s 1984 musical The Rink. It takes a while for anyone to actually get their skates on though, as the rink in question is one that’s seen better days and has fallen into disrepair. Anna (Caroline O’Connor) inherited it from her father-in-law, and for many years it was a main attraction of the boardwalk in an East Coast town. With the economy closing most of the businesses on the boardwalk, Anna has sold off the rink to developers who plan to knock it down. The demolition crew are already there helping her clear everything out, but so is someone she didn’t expect: Her daughter Angel (Gemma Sutton) is co-owner of the rink, and Anna forged her signature to make the sale.

Wednesday 30 May 2018

Theatre review: The Strange Death of John Doe

Fiona Doyle’s second play for Hampstead Downstairs, The Strange Death of John Doe is structured as a post-mortem on what was, indeed, a strange death – though one not only based on a true story but on circumstances that are surprisingly common. The John Doe body in question will eventually be identified as Ximo (Benjamin Cawley,) found dead under the Heathrow flightpath with no sign of how he got there. The conclusion is that he’d stowed away in a plane’s landing gear and fell as it prepared to land, although whether the fall killed him or he was already dead from hypothermia is something pathologist Ger (Charlotte Bradley) and her team may never be able to establish. As they cut into Ximo’s body to find answers, detective John Kavura (Rhashan Stone) tries to figure out how he got there. Put on suspension because of his alcoholism and taken off the case, John is haunted too much by the story to let it go, and investigates anyway.

Monday 28 May 2018

Stage-to-screen review: King Lear (BBC & Amazon)

Anthony Hopkins played King Lear in his fifties, in a National Theatre production so famously derided he ended up retiring from the stage. Now 80, he still can’t be tempted back to the theatre but Richard Eyre has tempted him back to Shakespeare and to a role he’s now the exact same age as. A BBC and Amazon co-production, Eyre’s TV version sets King Lear in an alternate present day where Britain is still ruled by the monarchy from its seat in the Tower of London, where Lear invites his three daughters to share out the ruling of his kingdom. Goneril (Emma Thompson) and Regan (Emily Watson) stick to the script and dole out rote flattery, but Cordelia (Florence Pugh) attempts a more casual response which backfires. She finds herself exiled while her older sisters share the kingdom – and the responsibility of caring for an increasingly unpredictable and dangerous father.

Thursday 24 May 2018

Theatre review: As You Like It (Shakespeare's Globe)

The second show from the Globe’s new Michelle Terry-led ensemble is As You Like It, nominally paired with the Hamlet they’re playing it in rep with as “sibling” plays; to be honest what connections the company have found between the plays aren’t too obviously apparent, but if it doesn’t really come across as a double bill that’s no bad thing because where Hamlet was underwhelming, As You Like It is, well, much more like it. Although the idea of gender-blind casting has been gaining traction in recent years, it’s not often it feels as natural as in these ensemble shows – there tends to be the feel of it mainly being male roles assigned to women to redress the gender imbalance, with the odd recasting the other way so it’s not a box-ticking exercise. Not so in these plays, and particularly this one, where the casting announcement was exciting because it seemed more genuinely gender-blind than anything I’ve seen before: Regardless of gender, the roles assigned seemed like ones I thought would be an interesting match to that particular actor.

Wednesday 23 May 2018

Theatre review: The Grönholm Method

Frank (Jonathan Cake) arrives at the final interview stage for a senior sales job at a Fortune 500 company only to find no interviewers present. Instead Rick (John Gordon Sinclair,) Melanie (Laura Pitt-Pulford, somehow feeling brave enough to return to the Menier Chocolate Factory so soon after an excruciating experience) and Carl (Greg McHugh) join him in the conference room, the other candidates competing for the job. They’re not here for a traditional interview but to be tested for their suitability for a stressful job, according to the rules of The Grönholm Method. Observed, they assume, through hidden cameras or two-way mirrors, a concealed drawer occasionally slides out of the wall containing instructions for the games they have to play – anyone who finds it too much is welcome to leave the room, but they forfeit their chance at the job if they do.

Monday 21 May 2018

Theatre review: Describe the Night

Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj took its inspiration from a false, but widely believed, legend about the building of the Taj Mahal; for Describe the Night he mixes real historical figures and events with fiction of his own invention, in a play that looks at Fake News in a context that made an art form of it: Soviet Russia. His story ranges over 90 years and could be described as the journey taken by a diary, written by journalist and novelist Isaac Babel (Ben Caplan) in 1920. Following the Russian army to Poland, he was employed to write the official dispatches, but also kept this personal journal to record his reactions and descriptions of places and events. In 2010, a plane crash near Smolensk killed the Polish president and much of his cabinet on the way to a memorial service, inspiring conspiracy theories about the Russian government’s involvement. When Feliks (Joel MacCormack) finds the wreckage, a dying woman gives him the diary.

Thursday 17 May 2018

Theatre review: Red

It’s nine years since John Logan’s Red premiered at the Donald and Margot Warehouse, and while I would have happily seen it again at the time its hit transfer to New York meant it never had a further life in London. Michael Grandage has finally been able to rectify this with a revival at Wyndham’s, and has even managed to bring back his original star, Alfred Molina, to play the artist Mark Rothko. The play is the imagined story of the painting of The Seagram Murals, a sequence of red and black paintings originally commissioned to decorate the elite Four Seasons restaurant. It immediately sounds like an unlikely home for a collection of moody, ominous canvases, and Rothko did in the end withdraw from the commission. In a way Red is the story of how he comes to that decision, as he bats ideas back and forth with a fictional assistant, Ken, played by Startled Giraffe Alfred Enoch. The role was originally played by Eddie Redmayne, because Grandage is seemingly committed to only casting Red with actors who have red in their names.

Tuesday 15 May 2018

Theatre review: Hamlet (Shakespeare's Globe)

After the “teaser” of the touring Twelfth Night and Shrew, it’s time for the main season as Michelle Terry takes over as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe. Not only has the venue gone back to having an actor in charge (the first one to hold the post will be returning later in the summer) but the idea of the productions being “actor-led” has been heavily promoted leading up to her first season; in fact the new Globe Ensemble’s first pair of productions were originally announced as being put together without a director, although Federay Holmes and Elle While have since been brought in to fulfil that role. This reliance on actor input is apparent, in both positive and negative ways, in the opening show of the Terry era, and she’s come straight in to take on a challenge, playing the title role in Hamlet*. The Prince of Denmark is in mourning two months after the sudden death of his father, but the royal court around him has already moved on.

Sunday 13 May 2018

Theatre review: The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare's Globe & tour)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The production is previewing at the Globe prior to a tour.

After a pretty safe opener in Twelfth Night, the second of Brendan O’Hea’s Globe productions vying for votes on the tour is The Taming of the Shrew. It’s a play that seems ripe for exploration in a year when #MeToo is a major theme in theatre, but it’s also one that, precisely because of the modern context, needs a lot of work and a high concept to find its place on a 21st century stage. Can an eight-strong company who are also rehearsing two other plays at the same time bring that level of nuance? No. Lucentio (Luke Brady) arrives in Padua and instantly falls in love with Bianca (Sarah Finigan,) daughter of the wealthy Baptista (Cynthia Emeagi.) Baptista knows his youngest daughter has many suitors, and has used this to deal with a problem: His eldest, Katherina (Rhianna McGreevy) is so bad-tempered she’s widely considered to be cursed. Baptista has decreed that he’ll only give his blessing for Bianca to marry when a husband has also been found for Katherina.

Friday 11 May 2018

Theatre review: Chess

Growing up in the 1980s I remember chess championships, particularly those that pitted an American grand master against a Soviet one, always seeming to be in the news, so at the time basing a blockbuster musical around a chess match didn't seem entirely like a terrible idea. But time can put perspective on a lot of things, and from a viewpoint not just of 2018 but pretty much every year since Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice's Chess first took to the stage it's been obvious that it is, entirely, a terrible idea. Musically, the songwriting team behind ABBA provide some predictably strong numbers, but the story is so notoriously bad that it's been constantly rewritten in a desperate attempt to make it even borderline comprehensible. This is the third production I've seen, each using a slightly different book, and this one barely uses any book at all, but after thirty-odd years of rewriting at least one thing has succeeded: In terms of the basic story beats at least, it is now borderline comprehensible.

Thursday 10 May 2018

Theatre review: Nightfall

Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theatre launched with the announcement of its first three shows, designed to be a showcase of the three main seating configurations the auditorium could use. Of these the third, Barney Norris’ Nightfall, stood out as an unusual choice for a new, large-scale venue: He’s been building a name for himself Off-West End but it seems a big ask for Norris to fill a 900-seat theatre for a month, especially without a headline-grabbing cast. There’s also the fact that the playwright’s previous work has all been very intimate, and I wondered how he’d handle something more epic. As it turns out that’s not really what he’s aiming for anyway: Rae Smith’s set, putting the yard of a farmhouse on the thrust stage, could happily stage a naturalistic Uncle Vanya, but unlike Chekhov’s multiple story strands there’s only four characters to follow here.

Tuesday 8 May 2018

Theatre review: Building the Wall

Robert Schenkkan’s dystopian Building the Wall has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been a hit in the USA, where it was one of the first plays to imagine the consequences of a Trump presidency. Set in a Texas jail cell in November 2019, Trump has been impeached, for reasons that may or may not turn out to be connected to the cell’s inhabitant: Rick (Trevor White) is awaiting sentencing for a crime that’s made him the most hated man in America, and following his lawyer’s advice he didn’t testify at his own trial, so his side of the story remains unheard. From the pile of letters asking for interviews, he’s picked out Gloria’s (Angela Griffin,) and we follow the uninterrupted 80 minutes the historian has been granted to interview him. The actual nature of his crime is the play’s big reveal so it’ll be a while before we can get to that; first we have some background to the characters, particularly Rick himself.

Monday 7 May 2018

Theatre review: Twelfth Night
(Shakespeare's Globe & tour)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The production is previewing at the Globe prior to a tour.

After a turbulent couple of years for the venue, Michelle Terry has now officially taken over as Artistic Director of Shakespeare's Globe, and next week I'll be making my first trip to her summer season proper. But first, as well as any innovations of her own she might have planned, there were a couple of Globe favourites that had fallen by the wayside during the Emma Rice years that I'd hoped to see return; I'm still keeping my fingers crossed that Globe To Globe will be back in future years but in the meantime the "tiny" touring shows - small casts of actor-musicians frantically doubling all the roles in some of Shakespeare's best-known plays - are back, but with a twist that's Terry's own: Brendan O'Hea directs a cast of eight in three plays; once the company hits the road they won't know which play they're going to perform until the last minute, leaving it to an audience vote to decide the night's entertainment.

Saturday 5 May 2018

Theatre review: Mayfly

If plays about forgotten corners of the countryside have been the low-key growing trend of the last couple of years, then the Orange Tree has been the theatre quietly putting itself at the forefront of it; and even if it's not quite another Jess and Joe Forever, Joe White's Mayfly is the second impressive playwrighting debut of the week (and the second one touching on grief, as it happens.) Cat's (Niky Wardley) horoscope says today is the day a special person will appear out of the blue, and the play's conceit is that it's right: Within a couple of hours Harry (Irfan Shamji) has met all three members of her family, starting when he pulls her husband Ben (Simon Scardifield) out of a river. Ben was trying to down himself because today marks the one-year anniversary of the death of his son.

Thursday 3 May 2018

Theatre review: Mood Music

It takes a while for plays to get commissioned, written and programmed, so we haven’t seen a major theatre touch directly on the Kevin Spacey story yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Given the hamfisted way it dealt with the aftermath, is it particularly likely that theatre will be the Old Vic itself? In the meantime, Spacey’s successor Matthew Warchus has said there is a certain element of acknowledging the subject in his programming Mood Music, even if Joe Penhall’s new play touches more on the wider subject of powerful men’s treatment of younger women, than the specific one of a powerful man’s treatment of younger men. In any case even that’s arguably not what Mood Music’s really about: Up-and-coming singer Cat (Seána Kerslake) is thrilled to find out that industry legend Bernard (Ben Chaplin) will be producing her first album. He was, in fact, just looking for a female singer to take lead vocals on an album he’d written, but agrees to work on her songs instead.

Wednesday 2 May 2018

Theatre review: The Prudes

The characters in writer-director Anthony Neilson’s The Prudes know they’re in a play called The Prudes, and they resent the implication somewhat – although Jess (Sophie Russell) thinks it might be fair in the sense that she doesn’t like the idea of dogging (she worries about the dogs being left alone while all the sex is going on and anyway, she doesn’t have a car.) But it’s true that she and her partner of nine years, James (Jonjo O’Neill,) haven’t had sex in 14 months, and they’re here to do something about it. Specifically, they’re here in Fly Davis’ chintzy pink boudoir set to have sex in front of a live audience. But first they need to introduce themselves and give some background to their relationship and its recent intimacy issues – basically, they need to keep talking about anything that’ll put off doing the act itself.

Tuesday 1 May 2018

Theatre review: Nine Night

Actor Natasha Gordon’s accomplished first play Nine Night takes its name from a Jamaican funeral custom: The wake takes place over nine nights, with a series of boisterous parties in honour of the deceased; on the final night their spirit is encouraged to move on. In another case of a play arriving at a time that makes it accidentally topical, we’re in the house of a woman from the Windrush generation, Gloria, who’s just died of cancer. Nine Night is an ensemble piece but at the heart of it is Gloria’s younger daughter Lorraine (Franc Ashman,) who took voluntary redundancy to care for her mother during her final months, and has now been left in charge of the funeral arrangements, and of keeping up with the food and drink demands of a regular stream of guests. We only hear the parties in the background; the action takes place in the kitchen, still done up in 1970s style (set design by Rajha Shakiry.)