Tuesday 31 December 2019

2019: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

It's the end of another year in theatre, as well as the end of the decade, and the trend on both professional and amateur sites has been to do a post rounding up ten shows that defined the decade in theatre. Well nobody can say I follow the herd because I won't be doing that; although I've been reviewing theatre online since the late noughties I didn't actually start Partially Obstructed View until 2012, so the blog only covers eight of those ten years. Much more importantly, I honestly can't be arsed. I mean, do you know how much effort it is to do a detailed, smutty, rambling and confusing roundup of the last year's highs and lows, spending hours over Christmas writing thousands of words so that regular readers (both of them) can skim-read it to look at the photos and see if there's any decent nipples this year, let alone doing that for an actual decade? Well you know now so we might as well get on with it.

Monday 23 December 2019

Theatre review: Amélie

My final theatre trip of 2019 isn't explicitly a Christmas show - in fact it very specifically takes place in the late summer and early autumn of 1997 - but it certainly feels seasonally magical and warm-hearted. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 film Amélie was an international hit, which got away with its wilfully naïve nature with a genuinely warm and distinct brand of eccentricity. The word here is whimsy, and regular readers will both know that means I'll go into Craig Lucas (book,) Daniel Messé (music and lyrics) and Nathan Tysen's (lyrics) musical adaptation with a great deal of apprehension. Not because I don't necessarily like whimsy, but because in my experience it's incredibly hard to pull off without overdoing it. In fact, thanks to The Other Palace leaving the audience crushed in the foyer with no explanation, only opening the doors at the time the show was meant to start, and therefore inevitably starting late, Amélie had it all to do to get me on side; but it soon did with apparent effortlessness.

Saturday 21 December 2019

Theatre review: My Brilliant Friend

The quartet of Italian books known collectively as The Neapolitan Novels are apparently A Big Deal, and one that I had absolutely no idea existed until I heard about April De Angelis' stage adaptation (which originally played at the Rose Theatre Kingston, and now transfers in expanded form to the Olivier.) All I've really gleaned is that their author, Elena Ferrante, doesn't actually exist, being a pseudonym shrouded in secrecy. It's no doubt a huge part of the novels' popularity and mythos, given that their narrator is a popular novelist called Elena, better known as Lenù (Niamh Cusack,) who flashes us back to 1950s Naples and her first meeting with Lila (Catherine McCormack,) who stole her beloved doll and threw it into the cellar of the local mob boss. Lenù did the same to hersin revenge, and their (unsuccessful) adventure into the cellar to retrieve the dolls bonded them in a tumultuous friendship.

Thursday 19 December 2019

Theatre review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The National usually puts a family show on one of its larger stages around Christmas but this year's offering winds up in the Dorfman; perhaps because, although it has its share of spectacle in Fly Davis and Samuel Wyer's design and Jamie Harrison's illusions, Katy Rudd's production relies heavily on old-fashioned theatricality and the work of its ensemble to bring its magic to life. Joel Horwood adapts Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, in which the favourite Gaiman trope of the witchy Maiden, Mother and Crone guard the borders between realities. Samuel Blenkin is the unnamed Boy who, in 1983, a year after losing his mother, has another encounter with death on his 12th birthday when he finds the body of his family's lodger. The man has killed himself after gambling away other people's money, and the traumatic event close to a place where the boundaries between realities are weak wakes something on the other side.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

Theatre review: Snowflake

Mike Bartlett's already on his second Brexit play (third, if you count Love, Love, Love as foreshadowing, which next year's revival will almost certainly feel like.) Like Albion (also returning in 2020) his latest puts the UK's breaking up into factions in microcosm, and Snowflake manages both to create a metaphor and play it literally as a widower longs to reunite with his estranged daughter at Christmas. The play's first act is a monologue until its closing moments, and Bartlett plays with the concept of the unreliable narrator: In an empty church hall on Christmas Eve, Andy (Elliot Levey) rehearses for how he wants to greet his daughter Maya (Ellen Robertson) when he sees her for the first time in three years. Their relationship went sour after her mother died suddenly, and one argument in particular saw her walk out and break off all contact. She's now back in Oxford and Andy's hired out this hall as a neutral space for them to try and restart their relationship.

Monday 16 December 2019

Theatre review: A Kind of People

Racism and insidious forms of discrimination seem to have been a major theme in London theatre over the last week, and at the Royal Court Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's A Kind of People aims to cover not just the obvious instances of casual and not-so-casual racism, but also deeply-ingrained prejudices and preconceptions based on class and background. It's an ambition that doesn't quite pay off but builds some strong moments in a story built around a mixed-race couple – Gary (Richie Campbell) is black, his wife Nicky (Claire-Louise Cordwell) is white, and they've been together since they were 16. At the time they faced a lot of obstacles, particularly from her father, but several years and three children later they're settled in a flat on an estate, to all intents and purposes as happy together as they've ever been. Their close circle of friends are people they grew up with, including Mark (Thomas Coombes,) with whom Gary also works as a dishwasher engineer.

Saturday 14 December 2019

Theatre review: Candida

I'm not sure there's much at the moment that can't set off depressing thoughts on the current political situation, but walking into the Orange Tree to see the question "why are so many living in poverty?" as part of Simon Daw's set when, 120 years after Bernard Shaw's Candida premiered, the nation's official answer remains a resolute "who cares?" definitely has to qualify. The writings on the wall come from the Fabian Society, the influential Socialist group of which Shaw was a member, as is his character the Rev. James Morrell (Martin Hutson.) James is a much sought-after speaker who uses his day-job as a minister to drive home the similarity between Christian and Socialist values; he works tirelessly with support from his wife Candida (Claire Lams,) and practises what he preaches - some months earlier the couple helped a teenager they found sleeping rough on the Embankment.

Thursday 12 December 2019

Theatre review: Fairview

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s dark comedy about cultural appropriation Fairview begins as That American Play Where An Extended Family Gets Together After A Long Time, Preferably At Thanksgiving But That’s Optional, and let’s face it that was probably enough to win it the Pulitzer on its own. The play ends up divided into three distinct sections plus a powerful postscript, but to begin with Nadia Latif’s widescreen production is practically a sitcom as an African-American family prepares a meal: Beverly (Nicola Hughes) is stressing about getting everything just right for her mother’s birthday dinner; her husband Dayton (Rhashan Stone) is much more relaxed – a bit too relaxed as far as she’s concerned, but he has helped organise more of the cooking than she realised, and he helps her calm down a bit by dancing to their favourite songs. When her sister Jasmine (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) arrives she’s sassy and combative and manages to get the guest of honour to lock herself in the bathroom, but she does have a soft spot for Beverly and Dayton’s tomboyish daughter Keisha (Donna Banya.)

Wednesday 11 December 2019

Theatre review: Three Sisters

For London's second major Three Sisters of the year the National filters Chekhov through Inua Ellams, coming up with a new play that's the same but different: Olya, Masha and Irina are now Lolo (Sarah Niles) Nne Chukwu (Natalie Simpson) and Udo (Racheal Ofori,) turn-of-the-twentieth century Russia becomes a remote part of Nigeria in the late 1960s, and the sisters long for Lagos, not Moscow. The characters have new names but in the first and fourth acts especially they follow their counterparts' trajectories closely, but it's in the middle two acts that the play most takes on a new identity. The play opens in 1967 in Biafra, at the start of what would turn out to be a failed bid for independence from Nigeria. It's youngest sister Udo's birthday, which is also the anniversary of their father's death; he was a general who moved the family from Lagos to a remote village to prepare the rebel army for the coming uprising, but with him gone they’re left with no purpose, and only soldiers for company.

Monday 9 December 2019

Theatre review: I Wanna Be Yours

There’s a telling moment in Zia Ahmed’s I Wanna Be Yours, where poet Haseeb (Ragevan Vasan) goes on a playwrighting course aimed at encouraging more minority voices, and finds that every attempt to write about the everyday, casual racism he experiences as a Muslim is rejected, and he’s told instead to focus on bigger issues of global politics and terrorism. In that context his bittersweet romantic comedy about an interracial relationship feels like a deliberate pushback against that mindset about what people want to see in the theatre, avoiding the grand tragedies and sticking instead to the way the little daily discriminations build up to become exhausting (there is a reference to a terrorist attack on a mosque, but mainly in the context of Haseeb having to miss a dinner date so he can console his mother.) The main focus is on his relationship with Ella (Emily Stott,) an actress he meets when she leads another workshop aimed at making poets more confident reading their own work in public.

Saturday 7 December 2019

Theatre review: Dear Evan Hansen

Following The Book of Mormon and Hamilton as the hottest ticket on Broadway, it's inevitable that Steven Levenson (book,) Benj Pasek & Justin Paul's (music and lyrics) Dear Evan Hansen would make its way to the West End sooner rather than later, but there was always a question mark over whether this particular show would connect in the same way with a British audience. I can see how it might share the fate of the painfully earnest Rent, which has a dedicated UK fan base and has had a couple of decent runs here but never became what you might call an equivalent phenomenon. I have heard some Marmite responses since Michael Greif's production opened at the Noël Coward, but thanks to the way the world's been changed by the Internet - and the way it affects the musical's story - Evan Hansen's story could end up striking a chord everywhere.

Thursday 5 December 2019

Theatre review: Midnight Movie

The Royal Court has long been at the forefront of trying to put the online world on stage – most recently Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner was an award-winning hit – and now Eve Leigh’s Midnight Movie plunges us into a sleepless night’s distracted browsing. We never meet the play’s protagonist, instead we follow Avatar 1 (Nadia Nadarajah) and Avatar 2 (Tom Penn) as they tell loosely connected stories, some funny, some mystical, many with a creepy edge. The starting point is a YouTube video of a woman in a hotel elevator appearing to fight an invisible monster; when she reached the top of the building she disappeared, only to be discovered months later, drowned in a water tank the laws of physics suggest she couldn’t have got into on her own. It’s a mystery that’s consumed a lot of people’s time, including the narrator’s, who’s obsessed with finding out what really happened; but investigating it online has pitfalls.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Theatre review: Ravens: Spassky vs. Fisher

You might think that a game of chess would be hard to make a compelling stage story out of, but as Chess has been proving for the last thirty years… you’d be right. But this hasn’t dissuaded playwrighting bear Tom Morton-Smith from giving his own take on the way a board game ended up encapsulating the entire Cold War; instead of fictionalised versions and illicit affairs he goes back to the real people who, like it or not, found themselves representing the entirety of the USSR and USA in Ravens: Spassky vs. Fischer. While the Arms Race and Space Race provided the most direct dick-measuring contest between the two nations, each also attempted to dominate in fields that more obliquely showed off their strengths and values: Movies for America, while Russia had ballet, circus and chess. Boris Spassky (Ronan Raftery) is the latest in a long line of Soviet chess champions, and the first to be in serious danger of losing the title to an American, as former child prodigy Bobby Fischer (Robert Emms) has been climbing up the ranks and is now challenging him at the 1972 World Championship in Reykjavik.

Saturday 30 November 2019

Theatre review: The Boy in the Dress

With Cameron Mackintosh recently finding a loophole around having to give them a cut of the Les Misérables profits, it's not surprising if the RSC are on the lookout for another big musical earner to replace it, and join Matilda as a way of bankrolling some of their less commercial work. And it's definitely the latter show they have in mind with this new musical of David Walliams' popular children's novel The Boy in the Dress - just as Walliams' books themselves invite a Roald Dahl comparison by using Quentin Blake illustrations, so Robert Jones' colouring-book design for Gregory Doran's production instantly calls to mind the company's last big musical juggernaut. Mark Ravenhill (book,) Robbie Williams, Guy Chambers and Chris Heath's (music and lyrics) adaptation opens in a nameless English town, the setting for a family to explosively break up as a woman walks out on her husband and two young sons.

Thursday 28 November 2019

Theatre review: The Arrival

In a year when many theatre professionals have been branching out into new fields, prolific director Bijan Sheibani presents his first show as playwright at the Bush. Taking particular inspiration from his productions of The Brothers Size and Barber Shop Chronicles, The Arrival looks at the relationship between two men who only find out in their late twenties that they’re brothers. Tom’s (Scott Karim) biological father had Middle Eastern heritage, so he always knew his white parents had adopted him; what was a surprise, when he eventually sought out his birth parents, was that they were still married, and had had two more children, who they kept. His sister now lives in Germany but his brother Samad (Irfan Shamji) has, by coincidence, moved to the same part of London as him, and when the two meet up they instantly get on. The play opens as they start to spend time together and get to know each other.

Saturday 23 November 2019

Theatre review: Mary Poppins

Disney© seem to have well and truly moved into the Prince Edward Theatre, as no sooner has Aladdin ended its run than Mary Poppins is back at the same theatre where this version of P L Travers' stories debuted in 2004. This is the Julian Fellowes adaptation which uses familiar songs from the film by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, rearranged by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe who also provide a few new numbers of their own. Zizi Strallen (part of the Z-series of Strallens that also includes Zeppo, Zumba and Zermajesty) takes over the iconic title role of the magical nanny who flies in out of nowhere one day to take care of Jane (Ellie Kit Jones, alternating with Adelaide Barham, Imogen Bourn, Charlotte Breen and Nuala Peberdy) and Michael (Edward Walton, alternating with Joseph Duffy, Samuel Newby, Gabriel Payne and Fred Wilcox) Banks.

Thursday 21 November 2019

Theatre review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

- Runs off with a suspicious stranger who offers her cake.
- Takes her siblings to Narnia in the full knowledge it'll put them and Mr Tumnus in danger.
- Is a PreCIOUs pRiNCEss.
- Runs off with a suspicious stranger who offers him Turkish Delight.
- Betrays his siblings only because he's enslaved by magic.
- Is a nasty little traitor who's probably going straight to Hell LOL.
Yes, it's one of the most famous stories of Christians living in the closet, C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe getting a new staging as the Bridge Theatre imports Sally Cookson's Leeds Playhouse production. And no, I'm not sure why I booked again to see a story I mainly grumble a lot about, except I probably quite like grumbling about it.

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Theatre review: Richard III
(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

There's a lot of good actors about but not all of them have a Dick in them; Sophie Russell makes her own case as she continues in her role from Henry VI to play the deranged lead in Richard III. After the first play in this pairing I wondered if Ilinca Radulian and Sean Holmes would take a completely different tack with the Henriad's conclusion or follow right on from where they left off; the graffitied, muddy stage we open with immediately shows it's the latter, although as the play goes on it develops some new flourishes of its own. Playing Richard III as an immediate continuation of the Wars of the Roses has an effect on how Richard is played: The York family were happy to indulge Richard's psychotic side to do their dirty work, resulting in Edward IV (Sarah Amankwah) in power; their mistake was assuming that would be enough for him. Instead Richard wants the spoils for himself - so what if the only people left in his way are his own family?

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Theatre review: Henry VI (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

The Globe's announcement that last winter's Richard II was the start of the complete Henriad cycle being performed on their stages this year was something to get excited about but also came with the inevitable problem for the company: The first tetralogy is full of popular hits but while the second ends on another crowd-pleaser in Richard III, the three Henry VI plays that precede it are a much harder sell. Peter Hall and John Barton's Wars of the Roses trilogy compressed them into two plays, and as it turns out the Globe Ensemble's way around the issue is even more drastic, chopping and changing them into a single three-and-a-half hour epic. In reality, and entirely unsurprisingly, if there is such a thing as a massive fan of Part One they should probably not get their hopes up - the fact that King Henry (Jonathan Broadbent) is already old enough to walk and talk as the play begins should be a clue that the largely unrelated prequel wouldn't figure, and we open with the introduction of the figure who will haunt the whole second tet, his queen Margaret (Steffan Donnelly.)

Saturday 16 November 2019

Theatre review: A Museum in Baghdad

Wars in the Middle East have taken a horrific toll on human lives; sometimes just as well-publicised is the loss of archaeological sites and priceless historical artefacts to collateral damage, looting and wanton destruction. Hannah Khalil's A Museum in Baghdad explores the tricky ground of trying to weigh out the relative value of lives and history. In overlapping scenes it follows two women, one historical, one fictional, both trying to launch the same titular museum eighty years apart. The nation of Iraq was created after the First World War out of various warring tribes in the region then known as Mesopotamia, under a king installed by the British rulers, and the understanding that it would be granted independence once the country was on its feet. Archaeologist Gertrude Bell (Emma Fielding) was one of the architects of the country and its laws, and when we meet her in 1926 she's in the process of setting up a central museum of treasures that tell the story of the region's history and cultural significance.

Thursday 14 November 2019

Theatre review: Unknown Rivers

Chinonyerem Odimba’s Unknown Rivers is a reaction against stereotypes about black women, particularly the “strong black woman” trope, which Odimba feels is an expectation that only adds more pressure to a group with a higher-than-average tendency towards mental illness. She offers as an example four women of colour, two of whose mental health problems are quite quickly apparent, but all of whom have had issues with depression at some stage in their lives. When Nene (Nneka Okoye) became a teenage mother she retreated completely from the outside world: She never leaves the flat, and looks after her daughter when she’s at home but her mother Dee (Doreene Blackstock) has to take her to school, the playground and anywhere else outdoors. Nene’s best friend Lea (Renee Bailey) has been visiting her twice a week ever since she got ill, and thinks the time might have finally come for her to brave the outside world.

Wednesday 13 November 2019

Theatre review: Shook

Papatango award winners have tended towards some pretty bleak plays in the past, but while this year’s winning entry goes to some nasty places – both metaphorically and literally – its overwhelming tone is of a very dark comedy. Samuel Bailey’s Shook takes place in the small classroom of a young offenders’ institution in London, where the teenage inmates can’t study for the GCSEs their peers on the outside are taking except in special circumstances, but they are required to fill their time with vocational classes, as well as on other subjects that could help them in the outside world and stop them from returning in the future. For those inmates who are, or are about to be, teenage dads, Grace (Andrea Hall) is starting a class on how to care for the baby once they get released; Bailey’s play rarely takes place during the sessions themselves, but usually catches up with the three boys just before or after class.

Monday 11 November 2019

Theatre review: Ghost Quartet

Hot on the heels of Preludes another Dave Malloy musical makes its London debut, as does the venue where it plays: The Boulevard Theatre is built on the site of a long-lost theatre of the same name in central London; the website says the Boulevard “sits in the centre of Soho’s infamous streets and alleyways,” and I don’t know that I would have personally led with a reminder of the chances of getting mugged but hey, you do you. The building was formerly the Raymond Revue Bar and still has a massive sign for it on the wall, but once you run the gauntlet of shops selling poppers and Viagra the inside is less tits’n’minge, more the looking-like-a-mid-range-hotel feel that the front of house areas of new-build theatres always go for these days. The auditorium itself is promising though – the seats are comfortable with actual leg room, and the venue looks well-equipped and flexible: Simon Kenny’s design puts us in the round but it looks like various other layouts would be possible without losing the good sightlines.

Friday 8 November 2019

Theatre review: The Antipodes

In what is becoming a regular occurrence Annie Baker's latest play gets its UK premiere in the Dorfman, where for The Antipodes her particular brand of hyperrealism tips that little bit further into surrealism. Baker herself co-directs with designer Chloe Lamford, whose deep thrust stage is a luxurious but personality-free conference room in which the characters will spend weeks or maybe months of their lives around the table - there's enough Perrier stacked up against the wall to get them though a siege. There is a real-life situation the scene evokes: The writers' room of an American TV show where stories are pitched and constructed. But exactly what kind of story Sandy (Conleth Hill) has gathered a team - some of whom have worked with him before, some of whom are new - to tell remains vague.

Thursday 7 November 2019

Theatre review: Great Expectations

After last week’s debacle I was hoping the other show alternating in the National Youth Theatre’s rep at Southwark Playhouse would actually give the young people it’s meant to be showcasing something to work with; and while on paper I’m not a great fan of Charles Dickens, Great Expectations proves a much more successful evening. In stark contrast to Frankenstein tying itself in knots, Neil Bartlett streamlines Dickens’ story of social climbing and a poor young boy given a glimpse of a world (and a girl) he’s not willing to say goodbye to. Its children may not be quite as blatantly abused as in other Dickens books but in Great Expectations they’re very much a commodity to be handed around at adults’ whims – Pip (Joseph Payne) begins the story as an orphan in the care of his sister, and the most exciting event of his life was discovering the escaped convict Magwitch (Jemima Mayala) in the marshes and helping him.

Monday 4 November 2019

Theatre review: On Bear Ridge

Shifting constantly between intimate lament for rural communities and ways of life that are gradually dying out, and outright apocalyptic drama, Ed Thomas’ On Bear Ridge takes place in a butcher’s shop on the top of the titular mountain. Given the character names, all-Welsh cast and the fact that Thomas and Vicky Featherstone’s production has come straight to the Royal Court from National Theatre Wales there’s a definite flavour of where this remote area might be, but the Beckettian tone of the play suggests it’s more the case that it’s everywhere and nowhere. Almost everyone has left Bear Ridge but devoted couple John Daniel (Rhys Ifans) and Noni (Rakie Ayola) have been running the butcher’s as more of a general store for years and are sticking around despite the fact that there’s barely any food left to feed themselves, let alone sell to anyone else, and they’re running out of furniture to burn for heat.

Friday 1 November 2019

Theatre review: When the Crows Visit

If the last few years have seen a cultural shift towards highlighting the harassment and abuse women have been routinely suffering around the world, Indian playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar has some particularly brutal truths to speak to her own country, and horrors she sees as having been silently passed down the generations. She takes inspiration - very loosely - from Ibsen's tale of the sins of the father being visited on the son, Ghosts, for her own story of a son returning home with a terrible secret, When the Crows Visit. Widow Hema (Ayesha Dharker) lives in the home she inherited from a husband so violently abusive she's considered lucky to have survived him. The seven years since his death have been a kind of liberation for her but she still has a constant reminder in her mother-in-law Jaya (Soni Razdan) who still lives with her, along with her young carer Ragini (Aryana Ramkhalawon.)

Thursday 31 October 2019

Non-review: Frankenstein

Not calling this a review mainly because I didn’t see the whole of the National Youth Theatre’s new production of Frankenstein; I also won’t be reviewing the cast, as they weren’t really responsible for me taking against the show so strongly. If you are in the cast reading this, don’t worry, Judi Dench couldn’t salvage Madame de Sade, why should you be expected to salvage this? Carl Miller’s new version of Mary Shelley’s classic story has the high concept of moving the action to the present day; instead of more general 19th century fears about where science could take us we have the very specific 21st century fear of where Artificial Intelligence is heading, and whether it could end up usurping us. So the monster becomes a robot with AI, whose creator ramps up its ability to understand and feel emotions to the point that it achieves a level of consciousness identical to a human’s; cue an existential crisis in the form of a murderous rampage.

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Theatre review: Botticelli in the Fire

Roxana Silbert must be planning on giving her new theatre’s regulars a bit of a fright if her second main-stage show is anything to go by – you don’t know what silence sounds like until you’ve heard a Hampstead audience’s reaction to a comedy cunnilingus scene. Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli is best known for his “Birth of Venus” but his private life seems to have been full of mystery and contradictions: There are reports of him having been promiscuously gay as well as, in later life, having been a devoted follower of homophobic, fire-and-brimstone preacher Girolamo Savonarola. Both his sexuality and the extent of his religious conversion are disputed, however, and for his fictionalised biography Botticelli in the Fire Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill takes both stories to be true; in what Botticelli himself (Dickie Beau) introduces as the story of his downfall, we see what might have led him from poster child for Renaissance excess to allegedly burning many of his own paintings in the 1497 Bonfire of the Vanities.

Monday 28 October 2019

Theatre review: Lungs

Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs was first seen in London in 2012, and though even then it was obvious that its environmental politics was heartfelt, there was an inevitable touch of the First World Problems to its middle-class couple worrying about whether they were destroying the world by buying imported avocados. So 2019, right in the wake of London’s Extinction Rebellion protests, is a canny time to revive the play as its unnamed couple’s concerns have become much more universally relatable – the play is still funny, but the fear of contributing to the planet’s extinction is no longer a punchline. Except for the bit about the avocados, for some reason the very mention of them will forever be automatically funny to the sort of people whose laugh sounds like “fwaw fwaw fwaw fwaw.” Still, topical or not, a two-hander about a couple facing an environmental and personal crisis might have been a hard sell to fill the Old Vic with if director Matthew Warchus didn’t have another trick up his sleeve.

Saturday 26 October 2019

Theatre review: Little Baby Jesus

All change for the JKM Award, which for several years has been based in the Young Vic's smallest studio space with productions getting very short performance runs, and now not only moves to the larger (albeit much less central) Orange Tree, but also runs for a full month as part of the theatre's main season. In addition its scope seems to have expanded in terms of the "classic plays" the winning directors get to choose from - the prize's definition has always embraced comparatively recent work but Little Baby Jesus only dates back to 2011. It's a canny choice as its writer Arinzé Kene had a recent hit with Misty, but you can also see why it would appeal to director Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu as a vehicle to showcase and hone his talents: A three-hander that uses a storytelling style to show the moments a trio of teenagers each felt they grew up, it offers a lot of opportunities to play around with style.

Friday 25 October 2019

Theatre review: Solaris

Every time someone puts science fiction on stage the reaction seems to be wondering why it's not done more often; perhaps it's the association with big-budget movies that means nobody expects the story to work without the kind of special effects the stage can't recreate. But there's also a very pared-back side to much sci-fi, a coldly clinical world holding off the unknowable just the other side of the monitor, and that's what David Greig's Solaris taps into so well. Stanisław Lem's novel has been filmed twice but I've not seen either film, which feels like a decided advantage as Matthew Lutton's production - an Edinburgh / Melbourne / London co-production now playing the last of those cities on its tour - unfolds its mystery. A three-person team has spent two years on a space station orbiting the impossible planet of Solaris - entirely covered in ocean, and orbiting two suns, one red, one blue. The story begins as the mission comes to an end.

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Theatre review: [BLANK]

The Donald and Margot Warehouse’s association with women’s prisons continues into Michael Longhurst’s regime as Clean Break, the company that works with women who’ve been through the Criminal Justice System in some capacity, celebrates its 40th anniversary with a kind of kaleidoscope of their experiences. Alice Birch’s [BLANK] is described as a “theatrical provocation” which, as written, is too long to be staged – the idea is that a director is challenged to choose from 100 scenes with unnamed characters, to construct a performance from it and in many cases decide on the characters’ genders and relationships. Maria Aberg is the director given the task, and she opts for an all-female cast, giving all the characters the first name (and in some cases last name) of their actor, and weaving a story consisting of several short, sometimes connected scenes, with one much longer one as the centrepiece.

Monday 21 October 2019

Theatre review: Baby Reindeer

Actor/writer/comedian Richard Gadd won the Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2016 for a show that definitely doesn’t sound like the usual fare for stand-up: A confessional about being groomed and raped while he was a drama student, and the subsequent feelings of self-loathing that came from questioning his masculinity and sexuality. It was cathartic for him but all the time he was performing that show he was in the middle of another traumatic experience, as he’d been targeted by a prolific stalker. Baby Reindeer tells that chapter in his life, moving on from comedy and presenting it as more of a traditional dramatic monologue; in part as a straightforward development of Gadd’s writing and performing style, in part because he sees this particular tormentor as more of an ambiguous figure and a victim of the system in her own right, and doesn’t think it’s appropriate to use her for out-and-out comedy.

Thursday 17 October 2019

Theatre review: Vassa

Of course, Vassa isn’t the original title. The full title is Vassa Matter You? (Hey!) Gotta No Respec’?

The last time Mike Bartlett wrote for the Almeida he did it in the style of Chekhov, and he’s back with the Russians now, although this time it’s a direct adaptation. Maxim Gorky’s Vassa Zheleznova turns out to be a play I’ve seen before, although either that adaptation or this one (or both) must be pretty loose, as the stories appear to have some massive differences. Bartlett’s is a claustrophobic family drama: Vassa (Siobhán Redmond) is the matriarch of a wealthy industrial family who rules with an iron fist and absolutely no velvet glove – the tone she’s established for the household is one of undisguised cruelty and personal attacks. It’s not just their business fortunes that are built on blackmail and corruption: Every relationship in the family seems to have come about because Vassa or her henchman Mikhail (Cyril Nri) has dirt on someone, right down to the servants they despise, but who they keep on because they have leverage that means they can treat them like shit.

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Theatre review: A History of Water in the Middle East

A History of Water in the Middle East sounds like the title of a lecture, and that’s its conceit – and kind of what it is, albeit in an inevitably more theatrical form Upstairs at the Royal Court. It has an unlikely origin: Writer/performer Sabrina Mahfouz has dual British/Egyptian nationality which, when she graduated from university, made her of interest to MI5 recruiters. She applied to become a British spy, but found that the vetting process seemed to be ruling her out largely because of the same background that had made her a candidate in the first place. One of the sticking points was her thesis about water in the Middle East, and the many ways over the last two centuries that it’s been both used as an instrument of colonisation and weaponised in the conflicts that followed. Together with Laura Hanna, who has a similar ethnic background to Mahfouz and does the heavy lifting where the singing’s concerned, she gives us a potted history of the region through story and song.

Monday 14 October 2019

Theatre review: Hansard

It can’t be the easiest time in history to be a political playwright; the audience could be walking into the theatre at 7:15 ready for an urgently topical exploration of the current state of affairs, but the play doesn’t start until 7:30 by which point the whole thing’s hopelessly dated. Better, as actor-turned-playwright Simon Woods does, to go for a very specific political event in the past and (apart from the obligatory deliberate winks to topical issues) let the audience draw their own parallels. Hansard takes us to 1988, the weekend after the passing of Section 28 (which banned “the promotion of homosexuality [and] pretended family relationships” in schools,) as Conservative back-bencher Robin Hesketh (Alex Jennings) returns to his home in the Cotswolds. His wife Diana (Lindsay Duncan) is waiting for him looking dishevelled, at the very least hungover from the night before if not already a few drinks the worse for wear this morning.

Sunday 13 October 2019

Theatre review: The Watsons

Emma Watson (Grace Molony) was all set for a life of unusual financial independence for a Georgian woman, as the ward and heir to a wealthy dowager aunt. But after 14 years the aunt surprised everyone by marrying an officer who will now inherit everything instead, so Emma has been sent back to the comparative poverty of her own family, to stoically help her eldest sister Elizabeth (Paksie Vernon) care for their dying father. The only way out of being stuck there is marriage, and as the newcomer to the village Emma is the belle of the inevitable ball. She soon has three suitors to choose between: She likes the charming Tom Musgrave (Laurence Ubong Williams) but so does her other sister Margaret (Rhianna McGreevy) and besides, Tom is the story's designated cad. The character Jane Austen seems to have wanted her to end up with is parson Mr Howard (Tim Delap,) but while he might be a thoroughly decent man he doesn't seem like an interesting enough one to really engage someone as dynamic as our heroine.

Friday 11 October 2019

Theatre review: Our Lady of Kibeho

Definitely fitting the bill of a long-awaited show, ten years after The Mountaintop first became a surprise smash (and notwithstanding her doing book duties on a musical,) we finally get a follow-up play from Katori Hall in London. Our Lady of Kibeho is a much more epic affair than its predecessor but it shares its theme of looking at an incredibly dark moment in black history from a fantastical, mystical perspective, and bringing an element of hope and humour to it. Inspired by true events, Kibeho is a remote village in the mountains of Rwanda, home to breathtaking scenery, a Catholic girls' school and not much else. But in 1981 it looks like it could be put on the map in a big way when Alphonsine (Taz Munya,) an unremarkable student who, as a Tutsi, is in the minority at the school, claims to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary.

Thursday 10 October 2019

Theatre review: The Man in the White Suit

Sean Foley’s comic instincts have never been infallible (remember Ducktastic? I certainly don’t, it closed with unseemly haste before I could see it) but I do seem to be disappointed with his work more often lately. Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense was one of his bigger hits a few years ago, but teaming up again with its star Stephen Mangan hasn’t really recaptured that magic as they bring Roger MacDougall, John Dighton and Alexander Mackendrick’s Ealing comedy The Man in the White Suit to the stage. Mangan plays Sidney Stratton, a lab technician at a Lancashire textile mill in the 1950s, who keeps blowing things up in his attempts to create a revolutionary new kind of material. When he gets fired from Corland’s (Ben Deery) factory he wangles his way into rival mill owner Burnley’s (Richard Cordery) lab, where he finally comes up with a fabric that never deteriorates, loses its shape or even gets dirty.

Monday 7 October 2019

Theatre review: Mephisto [A Rhapsody]

Deconstructing itself as it goes along, Samuel Gallet's Mephisto [A Rhapsody] is based on a novel by Klaus Mann which was banned for decades – as argued successfully in court by his family, the real-life target of his satire was all-too-easily identifiable. That target was a German actor whose liberal principles went out the window when he realised the Nazis could be good for his career, and ended up performing Faust for Hitler. Gallet transposes the action to present-day France, and the actor making a deal with a metaphorical devil is Aymeric (Leo Bill,) a company member in a provincial rep. They tour Chekhov around a region with poor transport links to the rest of the country, which leaves it a financial and cultural backwater, and a centre for the rise of neo-fascism. Aymeric, along with colleagues Luca (Elizabeth Chan) and Nicole (Subika Anwar-Khan) urge the artistic director Eva (Tamzin Griffin) to ditch the classics in favour of more urgent work addressing the current political crisis.

Saturday 5 October 2019

Theatre review: Two Ladies

Biddle de-dit de-dee,

Two Ladies sees the Bridge Theatre return - after a glorious summer diversion into Shakespeare - to its official identity as a new writing venue; as well, unfortunately, as to its entirely unofficial one as a rather disappointing new writing venue. Nancy Harris' new play isn't just about two ladies but about two First Ladies, behind the scenes at a crisis summit following multiple terrorist attacks on US soil. The highly conservative American President is expected to respond in the usual way, by declaring war on whichever Middle Eastern country he can blame the attacks on, while his liberal French counterpart, who's hosting the summit, is expected to try to dissuade him. Meanwhile their wives are meant to be making speeches at a women-in-business conference that feels even more like a sideline given the severity of what the politicians are discussing.

Friday 4 October 2019

Theatre review: Groan Ups

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Groan Ups is having an extended preview period and invites the official reviewers in next week.

Mischief Theatre's success story has gone beyond fairytale to downright ridiculous as they're now a worldwide brand, who recently took out an ad promoting their current and upcoming London shows, and needed an entire Evening Standard wraparound to fit them all in. Having been a fan of their work since The Play That Goes Wrong was a one-acter testing the waters at Trafalgar Studio 2 I've been dreading them losing their magic touch and falling flat on their faces (in the bad way.) A year-long residency for the core company at the Vaudeville could have been the over-ambitious move that proved too much, but the opening show certainly suggests they're nowhere near running out of steam yet. As usual Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields are the writers, but Groan Ups gets its laughs from a more traditional farce structure than their earlier hits, as well as suggesting they do have a more thoughtful side when they want to.

Wednesday 2 October 2019

Theatre review: "Master Harold" ...and the Boys

Probably South Africa’s most famous playwright, Athol Fugard is known for his plays skewering Apartheid; ”Master Harold” …and the Boys is described as semi-autobiographical, which may explain some of the background to why an Afrikaner turned so violently against a system designed to keep him in privilege. The setting is a tea room in Port Elizabeth, during a rainy afternoon in 1950 – water hammers down on a skylight over Rajha Shakiry’s set, keeping any potential customers away. So in between cleaning jobs the two black staff members Sam (Lucian Msamati) and Willie (Hammed Animashaun) have plenty of time to practice their steps for an upcoming ballroom dancing competition. That is until teenager Hally (Anson Boon,) son of the tea room’s owners, comes back from school, setting up at one of the tables to do his homework.

Monday 30 September 2019

Theatre review: Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.

Caryl Churchill’s later career has been typified by her enviable ability to make her point incredibly succinctly – her plays tend to be short and sharp, culminating in her writing Love and Information in the format of a sketch show. Her latest premiere at the Royal Court is a more loosely connected quadruple bill of plays: Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.’s stories are self-contained and varied in style, but all share a theme of deconstructing legends and fairytales, bringing the fantastical into an often comically banal light and finding the dark truth behind the magical fiction. Each play is slightly longer than the one before, so the first act consists of the first three stories, opening with Glass in which Kwabena Ansah, Louisa Harland, Patrick McNamee and Rebekah Murrell tell the story of a girl made of glass (Murrell,) trying to navigate her teenage years and a romance with a boy (McNamee) who may be as fragile as she is in his own way.

Saturday 28 September 2019

Theatre review: King John (RSC / Swan)

In a theatrical landscape experimenting excitedly with gender-flipped, gender-blind and gender-neutral casting, it's good for a company to find its own niche, although the RSC's take seems to be an eccentric one: Casting women in male title roles, but largely going with the ones male actors weren't in any particular hurry to play in the first place. So a couple of years ago there was a female Cymbeline, and now the unloved - both in-universe and within the canon - King John, as Rosie Sheehy takes the nominal lead in Eleanor Rhode's production. John - the gender-flipped characters are largely given dresses in Max Johns' design but the pronouns stick to what Shakespeare wrote - has inherited the throne from his much more popular brother Richard the Lionheart, along with the usual convoluted politics with England and France fighting over claims to each other's kingdom.

Thursday 26 September 2019

Theatre review: Big

Where musicals in 2019 have been concerned, the smaller ones have been much more likely to strike a chord with me than the big ones so far. So how does that bode for a musical whose actual title is Big? Spoiler alert and everything, but not well. John Weidman (book,) David Shire (music) and Richard Maltby's (lyrics) musical is based on Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg's 1988 film that remains a well-loved classic and a milestone in Tom Hanks' career. This 1996 stage adaptation, on the other hand, was apparently such a financial disaster I'm surprised it's not better-known among the legendary Broadway trainwrecks like Carrie and Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. So it's not much of a shock if it's taken this long to make it to London; more of one, though, that nobody seems to have learnt their lesson, and instead of a quiet, soon-forgotten run on the fringe we get Morgan Young's flashy production in the absolute barn that is the Dominion.

Wednesday 25 September 2019

Theatre review: Either

Do the box office at Hampstead Theatre keep a nightly record of how people pronounce Either when collecting their tickets, and take bets on which pronunciation will win every night? And if not, WHAT EVEN IS THE POINT OF ANYTHING?

Two consecutive trips to Hampstead Theatre wasn't exactly planned but it's not always easy to space things out in my diary, especially when a season is announced at late as this one was. Still, it makes for an interesting way to judge a new Artistic Director's mission statement to make a kind of double bill of the launch shows in both the main and studio spaces, and Either certainly suggests Roxana Silbert won't want to be left behind when theatre starts experimenting with changing ways of looking at the world. Specifically, in this instance, the changing understanding of what gender is and how it affects people's interactions: Ruby Thomas' play is about a couple, but is explicitly genderless - a stage direction projected onto Bethany Wells' set at the start insists that the two characters can and should be played by any and all genders.

Monday 23 September 2019

Theatre review: The King of Hell's Palace

The last in September's trio of new Artistic Directors to make their debut is Roxana Silbert, another experienced hand who comes to Hampstead straight from Birmingham. She breaks with the unwritten convention by not directing the season opener herself, in fact she won't be taking the wheel until the fourth main-house show of her tenure. Instead former RSC boss Michael Boyd directs The King of Hell's Palace - a challenging choice of opener but an exciting prospect as far as I'm concerned: Writer Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig was behind Snow In Midsummer, which I was completely smitten with a few years ago. This time around there's a more brutally down-to-earth subject matter, although death remains a common denominator as the early days of China taking on the West at its own capitalist game in the 1990s see a medical scandal and huge cover-up rock the impoverished countryside.

Saturday 21 September 2019

Theatre review: Amsterdam

The Orange Tree's autumn season opens with the UK premiere of a play whose urgent theme and potentially fascinating story get buried under its frenetic, wilfully eccentric storytelling device. Maya Arad Yasur's Amsterdam, translated here by Eran Edry, follows a reasonably successful Israeli violinist now based in the titular Dutch city, heavily pregnant when her gas gets cut off and a €1700 bill arrives for it. The unpaid debt originates from 1944 and has been accumulating interest and fines ever since. Her enquiries into the bill's history reveal that it's not been forgotten or fallen through the cracks, but been left deliberately unpaid by generations of the late landlady's family because its very existence adds insult to historic injury.