Saturday, 13 July 2019

Theatre review: Fiver

Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre has long been a home for American musicals that never quite made it to the West End; could the Little (or whatever its equivalent ends up being in the new venues) find a similar niche as a home for new British musicals? It's only a couple of months since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button premiered there, and if Fiver doesn't come with quite the same gut-punch of having witnessed something very special, Alex James Ellison and Tom Lees' show about a five pound note shows off a prolific talent for composing a strong tune. The writer-composers also direct, and Ellison appears in the cast as a busker who kicks off the story when an audience member puts the titular note in his collection jar. He sticks around as narrator and guitarist for the rest of the show, but his co-stars Luke Bayer, Dan Buckley, Aoife Clesham and Hiba Elchikhe do most of the vocal heavy lifting from here on in.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Theatre review: Peter Gynt

The latest main-stage epic at the National is largely selling itself on the way it reunites the creatives from 2016 hit Young Chekhov on the Olivier stage - adaptor David Hare, director Jonathan Kent and star James McArdle. Building the whole show around the latter, Hare has transported Henrik Ibsen's weird social fantasy Peer Gynt to Scotland, although much of the mythology remains jarringly Nordic. Retitled Peter Gynt, it sees McArdle's title character starting out as a lovable fantasist, returning to Scotland from a war in which he's seemingly made a name for himself, except all his exploits start to sound suspiciously familiar to anyone who's seen any movies*. In reality, his biggest claim to fame is fighting mechanic Duncan (o hai, Lorne McFadyen,) but he gets the idea for a bigger stunt when he finds out his ex-girlfriend Ingrid (Caroline Deyga) has got together with Spudface (Martin Quinn) in his absence.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Theatre review: Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner

One of the advantages of middle age is being able to more or less ignore anything to do with the Kardashians, but it's impossible to be online and not osmose some things about them. Funnily enough, one of those things is the specific headline that kicks off the events of Jasmine Lee-Jones' Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner: The preposterous statement that the titular enemy of the gays* was the youngest-ever "self-made" billionaire, as if the wealth, privilege and profile she was born into weren't a factor. For student Cleo (Danielle Vitalis) this is more than just ridiculous but also a slap in the face, as she considers Jenner's personal brand to be built on appropriating black looks and culture, something which has been particularly on her mind both as the subject of her dissertation; and because her ex just dumped her for a white woman with a Jenner-like tendency to appropriate black style.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Theatre review: Jellyfish

I didn't catch Ben Weatherill's Jellyfish when it premiered last year but Tim Hoare's production has been given a higher-profile second life, transferring from the Bush's Studio to the National's Dorfman for a brief run. Written specifically for its lead actress Sarah Gordy, Jellyfish approaches a subject that feels uncomfortably taboo - a romantic relationship in which one person has a learning disability - with such casual sweetness it soon feels nothing of the sort. But there's no denying that it's a relationship with a unique series of challenges as 27-year-old Kelly (Gordy,) who has Down's Syndrome, flirts with 30-year-old Neil (Siôn Daniel Young,) who doesn't have a disability. Despite his own reservations Neil realises that his feelings for Kelly are real, and that she's also deadly serious about wanting a relationship with him.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Theatre review: The End of History...

Ten years ago Jack Thorne set an entire play in the wee small hours of the 2nd May 1997, and with his latest play's opening scene taking place about six months after that date it's clear he's not yet done interrogating what the hope and optimism of Tony Blair's first victory actually ever amounted to. Blair is much more of a background noise than a central theme in The End of History..., a family drama spanning twenty years that often has the feel of a sitcom that's gone unusually dark. Sal (Future Dame Lesley Sharp) and David (David Morrissey) are a kind of embarrassing sitcom mum and dad (right down to the clichéd trope of the mum who's a terrible cook,) with the main source of embarrassment being their commitment to their left-wing beliefs and causes, their enthusiasm for which has never dulled.

Friday, 5 July 2019

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream
(Regent's Park Open Air Theatre)

After a valiant effort by Richard II at the start of the year, A Midsummer Night's Dream has well and truly come along to replace last year's Macbethorama as 2019's most ubiquitous Shakespeare. The Bridge, Open Air Theatre and Globe are all showing off their Bottoms, and it's the second leg's turn for me as director Dominic Hill is brought in from Glasgow to Regent's Park for a new take on the play that must surely be the venue's most-performed. It's the story of Oberon, King of the Fairies (Kieran Hill) and his plan to humiliate his Queen Titania (Amber James) into giving him a changeling child of hers, with a plot involving a love potion; and the mortals who get caught up in the middle of the chaos when they wander into the woods, including a troupe of amateur actors and a quartet of starcrossed lovers.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Theatre review: Noises Off

The Old Vic's 2012 production of Noises Off was only the second show I reviewed on this particular blog, so given Michael Frayn's play is regularly described as the greatest farce (and one of the greatest comedies in general) ever written it's probably not that surprising if someone thought it was time for it to return to London. The Lyric Hammersmith is where it premiered in 1982, and as it's currently in a bit of a limbo state between artistic directors Jeremy Herrin has grabbed the opportunity to bring the play back to where it all began. It's a farce within a farce within a farce, as director Lloyd (Lloyd Owen) attempts to preside over the technical rehearsal of Nothing On, a creaky and convoluted farce about to embark on a national tour after nowhere near enough rehearsal. The cast barely know their lines let alone their blocking, but that's not going to cause as many problems as the company's personal lives.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Theatre review: Europe

I first went to the Donald and Margot Warehouse during the Sam Mendes days, so I'm on to my fourth Artistic Director of the venue as Michael Longhurst starts his tenure by directing Europe, a 25-year-old David Greig play whose original inspiration was the breakup of Yugoslavia but whose nebulous, borderline-surreal setting makes it feel timeless. The town where the action takes place is never named, but it's somewhere in Europe, close to a national border but otherwise pretty remote and easy to ignore. Even easier, soon: Trains going to every corner of the continent pass through, but all of a sudden they don't stop at the local station. Station Master Fret (Ron Cook) can't figure out the new timetable he's been sent, not realising the fact he can't find when the trains are meant to arrive is an underhand way of telling him the station is closing.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Theatre review: Henry V, or Harry England (Shakespeare's Globe)

Now I'm not saying things in my day job have been a bit fraught lately, but there's been a lot of office discussions about the theory that sociopaths make the most natural and successful company directors. It's a thought you can't help but apply to one of England's best-loved kings when, as with the Globe Ensemble's Trilogy Day performances, the same company play Henry V following straight on from Henry IV Part One and Part Two. For those first two plays designer Jessica Worrall draped the theatre's middle gallery with the standards of many noble houses involved in the fighting, but now they've been replaced and it's just Henry's three golden lions that adorn the whole theatre; a sign that there's no more time for infighting and now everyone's together under one banner against a foreign foe? Or that it's now the Plantagenet way or the highway?

Theatre review: Henry IV Part Two, or Falstaff (Shakespeare's Globe)

"Fie, this is hot weather gentlemen."

Henry IV Part Two lacks the single clear antagonist of Part One, so instead the Globe Ensemble's renaming of the plays calls this one Falstaff, after the character who in this instalment finds out he grossly overestimated his importance to Prince Hal (Sarah Amankwah.) With the start time at 4pm this play occupies the hottest part of this Trilogy Day, and while the emotional depth of this part means it's frequently seen as superior to its predecessor, the story takes a while to get going which sometimes, especially in the first hour or so, gives the production the feel of Difficult Second Album Syndrome. But Federay Holmes and Sarah Bedi's production continues, as in Part One, to have scenes overlap, which keeps the energy up; with the multiple character doubling it also has the actors make a point of swapping roles onstage, nowhere more effectively than when Philip Arditti goes from Doll Tearsheet to Henry IV.

Theatre review: Henry IV Part One, or Hotspur (Shakespeare's Globe)

Michelle Terry's Globe Ensemble returns for a second year with a couple of returnees from last year's cast - including, of course, Terry herself. This time around their shows are a continuation from the winter season's Richard II in what is intended to be a year-long complete run through both of Shakespeare's History Tetralogies. Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes direct a trio that takes us to the end of the First (in historical if not writing order) Tet, and which as well as regular performances are also getting a handful of Trilogy Days, following the characters (those of them who make it) throughout the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V. There's also been renaming of these three instalments to reflect who the Ensemble see as the central character of each piece, so we open with Henry IV Part One, now named Hotspur after the fiery rebel played by Terry.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Theatre review: Present Laughter

While I appreciate a lot of the witty lines I've never been quite sure why Noël Coward's popularity has never majorly faltered - there's good stuff there but never enough to convince me he deserves quite the standing he continues to have. It's something that nags at the background of even the most successful revivals like this one - fortunately for Matthew Warchus, his production of Present Laughter has enough aces up its sleeve to keep those niggles very firmly in the background. The most obvious of these is Andrew Scott, who after years of being a firm favourite among regular theatregoers in the know got an overnight worldwide following after Sherlock, but who in recent months seems to have stepped up to another new level thanks to Fleabag. It's apt enough, then, that he's playing Garry Essendine - Coward's fairly transparent author-substitute may be famous predominantly for his stage work, but he also commands a kind of obsessive fandom.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Theatre review: The Hunt

From the first Rupert Goold productions I saw I've associated the director with the ability to put the nightmarish on stage (in a good way,) and it's not a knack he's lost as his latest Almeida show plays out like a horror film, innocuous beginnings building to hair-raising tension. But there's no serial killers or supernatural elements to The Hunt, David Farr's adaptation of a Danish film by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm. Instead there's two very modern fears at play, the one of monsters in our midst and the other of being falsely accused of being one of those monsters. Of course my main current image of Denmark is of somewhere almost empty, apart from the odd person suddenly keeling over dead or running around yelling "Rasmuuuuuuuuuuus!" and, while the town where the play's set isn't quite that deserted, it's clearly been shrinking in recent years.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Non-review: Stuff

DISCLAIMER: Not calling this a review because I don't think it’s fair to review amateur productions, let alone school shows. But this is a different kind of school show, part of the National Theatre's annual Connections Festival.

It's years since I last went to one of these performances (I think I was last tempted by an Anthony Neilson offering) but it's probably no huge surprise that what got me back this time was finding out, very last-minute, that Tom Wells had written one of this year's new short plays that the National sends to schools and youth theatre groups around the country. Teachers and students choose the play they want to stage, and of all the various productions one of each play gets a public performance at the Dorfman. Wells' Stuff is the sixth-form play by Bolingbroke Academy, a new-ish London school in their first year of Connections. And while I won't review the likeable kids performing, the play itself shows Wells, unsurprisingly, as a natural writer for teenagers, with his mix of serious subjects and goofy optimism matching the kids' attempts to figure out the world and where they fit in it.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Rehearsed reading review: Geography of Fire /
La Furie et sa géographie Part One

I'd say roughly 8% of my online #brand is me grumbling at the Finborough Theatre for never bringing back Armstrong's War for a full run (yes they know, yes they'd like to, no they can't get the funding.) So in the absence of that the best I can do is check out the other Colleen Murphy plays the theatre regularly premieres in the hope that she's got another gem up her sleeve. This year's Vibrant Festival includes a rehearsed reading of another of her works to deal with war, but on a much more epic scale - in fact the three hours plus of Geography of Fire / La Furie et sa géographie that we get here is only Part One of a planned two-parter. The website blurb says the play stands alone in its own right, but I'd argue there's too many threads left hanging at the end to really call it a complete story, not least of all that the battle at the centre of the play has only just about got started by the curtain call. Specifically the 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham near Quebec during the Seven Years' War.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Theatre review: The Damned (Les Damnés)

The continuing demand for Ivo van Hove to collaborate with companies around the world led to this 2016 production for the Comédie-Française for which the director's love of filmmaker Luchino Visconti's work once again inspired him: This time van Hove and his regular team of collaborators adapt Visconti's film The Damned (now Les Damnés,) about a wealthy family imploding during the rise of the Nazis. In other words yes, in the latest instalment of "shows that couldn't be more Barbican if they tried," it's a French company's production of a Belgian director and Dutch creative team's adaptation of an Italian film about Germans. The story starts on the night of the burning of the Reichstag, an incident that almost overshadows the birthday party for Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Didier Sandre.)

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Theatre review: Bitter Wheat

Let's face it, the prospect of an incredibly rare John Malkovich stage appearance has to be the main if not only draw to Bitter Wheat, David Mamet's new play which sounded like a pretty bad idea from the moment it was announced: A #MeToo-themed play officially not based on Harvey Weinstein but absolutely and undeniably based on Harvey Weinstein, if nothing else it seemed to demonstrate a remarkable tin ear to exactly whose story this is to tell. Or maybe Mamet is the best person for the job, in the sense that at least he got there before Neil LaBute. And who knows, maybe the play would surprise everyone and be much better than expected. But no, it's actually worse, because as well as hitting all the bum notes feared, it's also kind of... dull. In what I feel incredibly generous in describing as the plot, Malkovich plays Barney Fein (again, not to be in any way confused with Harvey Weinstein,) one of Hollywood's most powerful and feared movie producers, who we first see screwing over a writer by refusing to pay for the script he delivered.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Theatre review:
After Dark; or, a Drama of London Life

Whenever a radical new playwright comes along to change the kind of theatre people want to watch, the big names in vogue at the time tend to get swept away for a while, but get rediscovered and brought back into performance eventually. But while Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw are credited with that kind of revolution in Victorian theatre, their immediate predecessors have pretty much stayed in the obscurity they were cast into. I’ve always sort of assumed this was partly because the popularity of music hall at the time meant there weren’t many big names there to be swept away in the first place; and of what’s left, if even somewhere like the Finborough hasn’t seen fit to rediscover the hits of the time, there’s probably a pretty good reason. Well now the Finborough has rediscovered the big West End hit of 1868: Dion Boucicault’s comedies occasionally resurface but it was his melodramas that made him a household name, and my suspicions for why these plays remain obscure are proven right: From a 2019 perspective After Dark is very, very bad – in the best possible way.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Rehearsed reading review: The Wooden Meadow

I should be at the Finborough Theatre a fair bit in the next week, because as well as their regular Tuesday-Sunday show it’s also time for the annual Vibrant Festival of new writing, and for the first time in a few years I can make a couple of rehearsed readings I was interested in. First up Stewart Pringle, who was Artistic Director of the Old Red Lion pub theatre for three years, has written a play about a pub theatre that’s not too far from Sadler’s Wells and may or may not have a slightly laissez-faire attitude towards fire safety laws*. The protagonist of The Wooden Meadow has been running the place for a bit longer than three years – Jim (Ian Redford) has been there since at least the late eighties, when he had a few big successes with new writing, including the bizarre-sounding war epic the play is named after. Audiences have long since dropped off though, budgets are non-existent and the brewery demands heavy footfall or it’ll turn the space into a function room, but Jim ploughs on.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Theatre review: While the Sun Shines

I sometimes wonder, if anyone's still alive and staging theatre in 100 years' time, which plays by current writers will be the ones they're remembered for, and whether their biggest hits in their lifetime are forgotten while their flops get regarded as classics? Will Monster Raving Loony be thought of as James Graham's masterpiece, while Ink is an obscurity, a slightly baffled tone to the Wikipedia footnote about all the awards it won? It's been the fate of so many playwrights over the centuries* that you can't help but wonder, and the latest piece of evidence comes from Terence Rattigan: The writer sometimes described as an English Chekhov, whose Browning Version and Winslow Boy among others are considered 20th century masterpieces, had his biggest-ever commercial hit with an amiable but decidedly slight, bed-hopping wartime comedy. The latest in the occasional series of Rattigan and Shaw rediscoveries that seem to be the Orange Tree's most reliable rainmakers, While the Sun Shines hasn't been staged in London for decades, and while Paul Miller's production packs in the laughs it's unlikely to lead to any major reevaluation of the play itself.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream
(Bridge Theatre)

About 25 years ago Adrian Noble’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of a string of RSC productions that first inspired my love of theatre in general and Shakespeare in particular, and Anthony Ward’s design – the enchanted forest made entirely of a mismatched collection of light bulbs, umbrellas and wooden doors – cemented the way I see magic being created out of the purely theatrical. A cack-handed attempt at a screen adaptation means it’s probably not that fondly remembered any more, but it inevitably holds a special place for me. As one of the most popular Shakespeare plays I’ve seen many – too many – productions since, so while it’s hard to say if Nicholas Hytner’s pansexual, Cirque du Soleil-style Dream is flat out the best one I’ve ever seen (and in among the bad and average ones there’s been a lot I’ve really loved,) I can say that in that quarter of a century it’s the first one to send me out of the building with the same excited buzz and reinvigorated love of theatre as the first time.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Theatre review: Afterglow

There’s nothing unusual about a gay-themed play heavily promoting itself on the fact that it features male nudity, although there’s a couple of promising signs that suggest Afterglow might be a bit different from the majority: Tom O’Brien’s production is being staged at Southwark Playhouse, one of the most successful and well-respected London fringe venues; it appears to have an actual budget; the actors are in fact real actors who have had previous professional acting experience as actors, possibly even being paid for it*; as well as being people you might actually want to see naked, and indeed being the same people as featured on the show’s poster. All these are radical departures from what we’re used to, and they successfully put Afterglow a cut above a lot of the theatre served to niche gay audiences, but how does it fare compared to fringe theatre more broadly?

Monday, 10 June 2019

Theatre review: Wife

We're going to be seeing a lot of Ibsen's A Doll's House in the next year or so as various theatres have programmed new interpretations on the classic story that gave its heroine an agency and independence that was scandalous at the time. But before that at the Kiln Samuel Adamson offers up several Noras in one, as Wife tells a story of queer history that sees several generations - from 1959 to the 2040s - take inspiration from her. It comes down to Daisy (Karen Fishwick,) who recently married Robert (Joshua James) to please her father, only to fall in love with actress Suzannah (Sirine Saba.) When she takes her husband to see Suzannah play Nora she knows she's got a similar big decision to make, but she ends up sticking with what society expects of her. We then jump to 1988, and though we don’t see Daisy, from what we hear of her the decision proved catastrophic: A lonely alcoholic, she's estranged from her only son Ivar (James.)

Friday, 7 June 2019

Theatre review: Armadillo

It's hardly a fresh observation to say Americans have a uniquely odd, unhealthy relationship with guns; so it says something about Sarah Kosar's new play that she's found a new and disturbing twist on the subject. Armadillo follows three people in their late twenties who've grown up in families where firearms were seen as essential, to the point of fetishisation. For newly-married Sam (Michelle Fox) and John (Mark Quartley) the fetish has literally become sexual - they use loaded guns as foreplay, until an accident six months into their marriage leaves Sam with a gunshot wound in her arm. Realising that it's not just dangerous but an addiction, John comes up with a regime for them to give up having guns in the house. For a while they seem to be managing it, except for the fact that gunplay was so tied up in their love life that Sam can't have sex without it.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Theatre review: The Knight of the Burning Pestle

In Francis Beaumont’s The London Merchant, Jasper (Kirill Chernyshenko) is in love with his master’s daughter Luce (Anna Vardevanian,) but their plans to elope are thwarted at every turn by both her parents and his. Except the biggest obstacle to their being together isn’t actually a part of their own story, because The London Merchant doesn’t exist, except as the play-within-a-play that gets disrupted in Beaumont’s proto-postmodernist The Knight of the Burning Pestle. When I saw the Swanamaker production a few years ago I loved its inspired, multi-layered silliness and the feeling that the play was centuries ahead of its time so much I went back for seconds, which made the prospect of director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod, a team who deliver eccentric and chaotic results at the best of times, tackling it something to look forward to.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Theatre review: Rutherford and Son

If it seems like Roger Allam has been building up to playing King Lear for a few years now then Rutherford and Son absolutely feels part of that progression. Although while there’s echoes of Lear in Githa Sowerby’s dictatorial patriarch, even more so he feels like a precursor to Bernarda Alba – trapping his children in dead-end lives for self-destructive reasons of his own – with a story that even suggests Mother Courage in terms of what happens to his legacy. Rutherford owns and runs the Tyneside glassworks founded by his father, which remains the principle employer in his small town. He commands fierce loyalty from his workers, but at home it’s only bullying and intimidation that’s made his children obey him all their lives. For the last few years the glassworks has been operating at a slight loss, and oldest son John (Sam Troughton) has returned after some time in London with a new wife, child, and a formula he believes could cut down production costs significantly and turn around the company’s fortunes.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Theatre review: Orpheus Descending

We've had the unofficial Arthur Miller festival, now it looks from my diary of upcoming theatre trips like it's the turn of Tennesse Williams. Orpheus Descending seems to be regarded pretty firmly as mid-tier Williams but the Menier Chocolate Factory's production - co-produced with Theatr Clwyd, where it played before the current run and whose Artistic Director Tamara Harvey directs - goes all out to put it up there with the better-known of his brooding Southern Gothic tragedies. A veteran of the playwright's doomed heroes, Seth Numrich returns to the UK to play Valentine Xavier, a drifter who's made a living playing his guitar in bars since his teens, but as he turns 30 decides to try and settle down somewhere - whether or not he's actually hiding from the law is never quite clear. He ends up in a small Tennesse town where Vee Talbott (Carole Royle) takes him under her wing and suggests a job at the general store.

Friday, 31 May 2019

Theatre review:
Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs)

Much of Sean Holmes' last season at the Lyric Hammersmith has been about revisiting notable moments from his time as Artistic Director, and for the finale (the upcoming Noises Off revival appears to be something of a filler show between regimes) he brings back Kneehigh, a company who've had a couple of residencies at the theatre during Holmes' time there. They're also, of course, a company I've tended not to get along with, but it's been a couple of years under new management so it's got to be worth a fresh look. And while Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) has much of the trademark inventive chaos, it's probably safe to say that Emma Rice took her whimsy gun with her when she left. John Gay's The Beggar's Opera has been an endless source material for adaptation and reinterpretation over the centuries, and in Carl Grose (writer) and Charles Hazlewood's (music) hands it becomes an anarchist rock/ska Punch and Judy show.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Theatre review: The Starry Messenger

Sam Yates’ production is the first time The Starry Messenger has been staged in London, but it’s not my first encounter with Kenneth Lonergan’s 2009 play: Seven years ago the Royal Court invited four of its playwrights to direct rehearsed readings of plays they found influential, and this was Nick Payne’s choice. At the time I found it enjoyable, if long, but while there’s still a lot to like, seeing it fully-staged does open a lot of questions about the play; plus it’s even longer. The lead role of Mark was written for Matthew Broderick, who makes his West End debut to reprise the role of a generally good-natured but dull astronomer who’s always dreamed of working on exploratory projects but has actually ended up making a living teaching at a community college, as well as the occasional evening class at New York’s Hayden Planetarium. The play is set in the last months of 1996, leading up to the planetarium being demolished to make way for a new science centre, and Mark is feeling as defunct as the building.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Theatre review: Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens

It seems to be revived frequently enough but I hadn’t got round to seeing Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens until the Union’s current production by Bryan Hodgson. Bill Russell (book and lyrics) and Janet Hood’s (music) musical is described as a “song cycle,” although I’d put it much more firmly in “play with songs” territory – the musical numbers only occasionally interrupt what is for the main part a series of monologues by the dead. The show dates from 1989 but has apparently been regularly revised since because its subject matter hasn’t become as irrelevant as many think. That subject is of course HIV/AIDS, and the play takes its inspiration from the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt that was made in response to the fact that, at the time, the official response to victims remained to sweep them under the carpet. The quilt was (and is, as it continues to be added to,) an attempt by loved ones not just to record the names of those lost, but to reflect something of each unique personality as well.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Theatre review: The Merry Wives of Windsor (Shakespeare's Globe)

Despite being a spin-off for one of Shakespeare’s best-loved characters, The Merry Wives of Windsor’s main claim to fame is a highly dubious story about Queen Elizabeth I wanting to see “Falstaff in love” (which if it were true would surely have seen Shakespeare at the very least spend some time in the stocks because love… ain’t really what Falstaff’s in here*.) Not that the play’s one of the harder comedies to get a laugh out of, but it’s rarely one of the big hitters either. Now Elle While’s production for Shakespeare’s Globe comes along to make a solid case for this proto-sex farce as, if far from the subtlest of comedies, one that can deliver reliable laughs all evening. It doesn’t hurt that While has brought back, from last year’s rep company, someone whose name in the casting announcement instantly makes a production a must-see: Pearce Quigley plays Sir John Falstaff, the viciously amoral but strangely likeable knight from the Henry IV plays.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Theatre review: Our Town

Our Town is American theatre's archetypal metatheatrical play, and for anyone not sure what that means Ellen McDougall's staging provides a pretty strong hint: Rosie Elnile's set puts a miniature version of the Open Air Theatre's seating banks on the stage, reflecting the audience's place back at them. It's an inspired setting for a story that's so much about people sitting back and observing life, although that significance isn't revealed until late. For the first two acts Thornton Wilder's play is pointedly about the everyday as it follows life in the 1900s and early 1910s in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. In particular two families - that of Dr (Karl Collins) and Mrs Gibbs (Pandora Colin) and their next-door neighbours, local newspaper editor Mr Webb (Tom Edden) and his wife (Thusitha Jayasundera.) Narrated by the Stage Manager (Laura Rogers,) the first act follows a decidedly ordinary day.

Theatre review: Anna

On the one hand, it's disappointing to have a show at the National where cheap tickets are very thin on the ground; on the other, I can't complain if this is part of a new policy not to sell Dorfman side seats if they offer no view of the stage whatsoever. The reason you need to watch Anna head-on or not at all is that Vicki Mortimer's set is entirely behind a letterbox of sound-proof glass. This is because Ella Hickson's play is co-created with star sound designers Ben and Max Ringham, and making sure the audience hears, through headphones, only exactly what the creatives want them to hear is at the heart of the show. This is another show built on binaural sound, and the technology has obviously now progressed to the point that it can be made portable. And so everything we hear comes from the perspective of Phoebe Fox's titular character as she walks around her East Berlin flat.

Friday, 24 May 2019

Theatre review: King Hedley II

Part of Nadia Fall's mission statement for her inaugural season at Theatre Royal Stratford East was to put the venue back on the theatrical map, and on the one hand a powerful play by a respected American playwright starring a much-loved British actor is a great way to do that, and the theatre seemed nearly full tonight. On the other hand keeping the start time at 7:30 for a three-and-a-half hour play does make it a pretty off-putting prospect for anyone who doesn't live locally, and faces a long journey home at 11pm. King Hedley II turns out to be worth the hassle, just about, but it's a heavy-going evening. This takes me up to 4 plays in August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, the second I've seen to star Sir Leonard of Henry, and is the 1980s entry in his ten-play sequence about black life in America in every decade of the 20th Century.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Theatre review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Jethro Compton’s love of Americana really seems to have translated into stories audiences want to see: According to the programme notes his work is regularly staged in the USA and South Korea, he himself works steadily as a director in Vienna, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has been licensed for fifty productions worldwide. But while his first venture into musical theatre (book and lyrics, with Darren Clark providing music and lyrics,) once again takes an American classic as its inspiration, this time he brings the story closer to home. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fantasy The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is transplanted to North Cornwall between 1918 and 1988, with a cast of five actor-musicians telling the story of a man who’s born a fully-grown seventy-year-old, and ages backwards. James Marlowe plays Benjamin, whose birth as a frail old man is such a horror to his mother (Rosalind Ford) that she soon kills herself, while his father (Joey Hickman) locks him away in an attic room so that people don’t see him and start to ask questions.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Theatre review: White Pearl

I was getting occasional flashbacks to Clybourne Park in the Royal Court Downstairs as a black comedy about race goads its characters into voicing their most extreme thoughts to a mix of laughter and shocked gasps from the audience. But instead of America’s relationship with blackness it’s Asia’s relationship with whiteness that Anchuli Felicia King explores in White Pearl. Inspired by real-life advertising campaigns that went viral for the wrong reasons, Moi Tran’s set is the flashy Singapore headquarters of a comparatively new cosmetics company that’s been fast becoming a market leader in a number of countries; to reflect this, Indian founder Priya (Farzana Dua Elahe) and her Singaporean right-hand woman Sunny (Katie Leung) have made sure all the executives are women representing the different countries where their products are sold.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Theatre review: Out of Water

In a South Shields school that's permanently getting "Requires Improvement" on its OFSTED reports, teacher Claire (Lucy Briggs-Owen) has been brought in to pilot an inclusion class scheme that's been successful elsewhere at turning round the fortunes of the most neglected students. It's not an obvious place for a pregnant, middle class lesbian to move to, and she's palpably nervous about how she'll be received there, but it's where her policewoman wife Kit (Zoe West) grew up, and she's convinced Claire it could be the place to start their family. Out of Water is the new play by Zoe Cooper, whose last play at the Orange Tree was Jess and Joe Forever, which means this an exciting prospect, but also has a lot to live up to. As in Cooper's earlier play this is a storytelling form of theatre, with Claire and Kit narrating fairly recent events, reliving their own part in them and taking on the other characters as needed.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Theatre review: Death of a Salesman

Spoiler alert: The salesman still dies.

If London's unofficial Arthur Miller festival has been all about the playwright's unforgiving criticism of capitalism, it's only fitting that its finale is Death of a Salesman, in which an unremarkable man gives his life to the system in hope of its promised rewards, and is instead discarded by it as soon at his usefulness is done. But as is very clear in Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell's production this is actually the tragedy of two men, father and son, each broken by a different aspect of what the American Dream promised them. Willy Loman (Wendell Pierce) is a 63-year-old travelling salesman who's been doing the job since his teens, and returns home early from a trip after a near-miss car accident. It's one of many in recent months and his wife Linda (Sharon D. Clarke) has reason to believe they've not been accidents at all but suicide attempts.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Theatre review: Small Island

This time last year Rufus Norris strayed out of his comfort zone for his big Olivier stage production with notoriously disastrous consequences, but he's back to much more familiar territory now for a big emotional, political epic that spans years, continents and clashing cultures. Helen Edmundson adapts Andrea Levy's Small Island, whose story about the Windrush generation has become topical again in recent years. Its three narrators are initially separated by an ocean, but chance and the Second World War will throw them together in life-changing ways: First up we meet Hortense (Leah Harvey,) a teacher in a remote Jamaican village whose romantic feelings about her cousin Michael (CJ Beckford) are crushed so abruptly it leaves her cold, spiky and pragmatic to the point of calculating; while she stays in Jamaica, Michael goes to England to join the war effort.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Theatre review: Jude

Edward Hall is stepping down as Artistic Director of Hampstead Theatre, and on paper a new Howard Brenton play seems a fitting swansong to his time there - after all Brenton is a big-name playwright who's had numerous premieres at the theatre during Hall's tenure. But where in recent years he's been best known as a writer of engrossing history plays, his latest is a loose adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure that, while always watchable, makes for a very, very odd choice of victory lap for Hall. Jude throws together the huge politics of asylum seekers with the more intimate politics of academia, all of it haunted - literally - by the classics. Teenager Judith (Isabella Nefar) is a Christian Syrian refugee in Hampshire, taking a job as a cleaner for graduate student Sally (Emily Taafe) and nearly getting fired on her first day when she steals a volume of Euripides in the original Ancient Greek.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Non-review: The Provoked Wife

Not a review because I'm afraid the curse of Restoration Comedy as directed by anyone-who-isn't-Jessica-Swale strikes again. Under normal circumstances I sit through shows in Stratford-upon-Avon to the bitter end regardless, because I'd only have to wait for my train anyway if I ducked out at the interval, but with today's train schedules all over the place with engineering work I had the chance for an early escape from The Provoked Wife. John Vanbrugh's third play (according to the prologue, in which he apologises for writing so many) opens with the familiar grumbling of Sir John Brute (Jonathan Slinger) about how much he's tired of his wife after two years of marriage. As a result he treats her with such indifference and rudeness that Lady Brute (Alexandra Gilbreath,) who's keen to point out she's never cheated on her husband despite never liking him much, now feels provoked to pursue an affair with his friend Constant (Rufus Hound, mainly delivering his lines when other actors are trying to deliver theirs.)

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Theatre review: Rosmersholm

Rosmersholm seems to get variously described as Ibsen’s masterpiece, or one his most obscure and difficult works. I would lean towards the latter description – it’s certainly not as frequently performed as the likes of Hedda Gabler or A Doll’s House, and although Ian Rickson’s production makes a stronger case for it than the last time I saw the play, it’s still a dense and wordy evening. Rae Smith takes advantage of having a West End stage (and even pushes it out a bit past the proscenium arch) to create the set, a huge hall in the titular house in rural Norway. The house is a character in the play inasmuch as it represents the legacy of generations of Rosmers, the family who own the adjacent mill and have been the town’s main source of work for centuries. The portraits may still look down imperiously from the walls but it’s onto a crumbling room – Smith’s set takes particular inspiration from the fact that room’s had water-damage.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Theatre review: The Comedy of Errors
(Shakespeare's Globe & tour)

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

Second night in a row for me of Brendan O'Hea's new touring ensemble, and another completely ridiculous play - although unlike Pericles at least The Comedy of Errors has every indication that Shakespeare actually meant for it to be ridiculous. Once we get a particularly egregious Basil Exposition speech out of the way the stage is set for Antipholus of Syracuse (Colin Campbell) and his servant Dromio (Beau Holland) to land in the hostile city of Ephesus, in search of their respective long-lost identical twin brothers. Despite having been looking for them for seven years they're unprepared for the fact that their doppelgangers actually do live there, and don't take the hint when they constantly get mistaken for Antipholus (Andrius Gaucas) and Dromio (Eric Sirakian) of Ephesus, including by the local twin's wife Adriana (Evelyn Miller.)

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Theatre review: Pericles (Shakespeare's Globe & tour)

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

The summer season at Shakespeare's Globe has started, and like last year I'm starting it with the Tiny Tour. These continue to take the new format of three shows in repertory, with some* of the performances being an "audience choice" - neither cast nor audience will know until the last minute which of the three plays will be staged, subject to an audience vote. Brendan O'Hea's productions get a new cast to take over last year's Twelfth Night, with two new shows joining the rotation. Once again I have to wonder if the best-known play will get the nod almost every time - I doubt it's a coincidence that's the one making a return - but audiences will also have one of the real obscurities on offer. In fact the Globe seems to be one of the few places to give Pericles the time of day: The majority of productions I've seen have been there, and even the RSC quietly shelved it the last time it was due.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Theatre review: All My Sons

After a pair of more obscure plays a couple of months ago, this year's second brace of Arthur Miller plays offers up some of his most famous works; once again the Old Vic is involved in this unofficial mini-season, with Jeremy Herrin's starry production of Miller's early hit All My Sons. Bill Pullman (he's the Bill who's still alive) plays Joe Keller, a businessman whose factory became notorious during the Second World War when it was exposed as having provided faulty aircraft parts that led to the deaths of 21 airmen. Bill was exonerated but his business partner is still in jail for it. His own son Larry wasn't flying one of the affected planes but he disappeared on a mission, and three years after the end of the War everyone's accepted he must be dead except for his mother Kate (SALLY FIELD!) who still holds onto the hope that he might return. But her other son Chris (Colin Morgan) had returned home with news that will make her have to confront the facts.

Friday, 3 May 2019

Theatre review: The Half God of Rainfall

Inua Ellams scored his biggest hit to date by keeping things very much down to earth for his Barber Shop Chronicles, but for his follow-up he returns to more mythical storytelling with a vengeance: The Half God of Rainfall mixes Greek and Nigerian mythology with the more modern deities of professional sports. Modupe (Rakie Ayola) was high priestess to a river goddess and under her protection, but the Yoruba gods end up in a war with the Olympians, seemingly for no other reason than the fact that they're gods, and fight is what gods do. The Greeks win and Modupe is claimed as one of Zeus' spoils; he impregnates her and her demigod son is a baby who causes floods when he cries. When he's older Demi (Kwami Odoom) makes it rain in a more metaphorical way, as a star basketball player whose talent begins to earn him adoring fans.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Theatre review: Ain't Misbehavin'

Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr’s 1978 show Ain’t Misbehavin’ was something of a precursor to jukebox musicals, celebrating songs written or popularised by Fats Waller between the wars, becoming one of the first people to bring jazz to a wider audience. Southwark Playhouse’s revival sees two people better known as performers making their debuts telling other people what to do: Tyrone Huntley as director and Oti Mabuse as choreographer. Adrian Hansel, Renée Lamb, Carly Mercedes Dyer, Landi Oshinowo and Wayne Robinson take on all the performance duties in a show that runs through thirty of Waller’s hits in under two hours. I’ve seen it described as a “revue-style musical,” although in reality it’s a straightforward revue without much connection to a traditional musical – there’s no thematic link between the songs, takis’ set recreating a glittering nightclub in which Alex Cockle’s band are ensconced to back up the five performers.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Theatre review: Other People's Money

Southwark Playhouse’s publicity blurb for Other People’s Money originally included an endorsement from the current (at time of writing) US President; if it was intended to appeal to audiences’ morbid curiosity it presumably failed, as that quote’s now been taken down from the website* and audiences can make their own minds up as to whether there’s a character in Jerry Sterner’s 1989 play whom Trump could possibly have identified with. Sterner essentially pits against each other two archetypes of what American business is all about: Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgenson (Michael Brandon, the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine,) is the 68-year-old CEO of The Wire and Cable Company of New England, a Rhode Island business founded by his father, which employs over a thousand people in its central plant; this has long since ceased to be profitable, but a number of successful side projects keep the company afloat.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Theatre review: Market Boy

David Eldridge’s Market Boy was commissioned for the Olivier in 2006, so the Union Theatre is a much smaller canvas for its first London revival; but there’s certainly something appropriate about the kaleidoscopic story of a busy market in the second half of the Eighties being housed in a repurposed row of railway tunnels. The titular Boy (Tommy Knight) first arrives at Romford Market in 1985 aged thirteen, when his Mum (Amy Gallagher) decides he needs a part-time job to make his pocket money. The Trader (Andy Umerah) gives him a job on his ladies’ shoe stall, which is obviously booming as he already has three other boys, Snooks (Joey Ellis,) Don (Callum Higgins) and Mouse (Joe Mason) working for him. And although from the start there are obvious tensions between some of the stallholders, the market is generally a busy and dynamic place with a lot of cash flying around.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Theatre review: Three Sisters

Great timing from the Almeida, as Rebecca Frecknall and FD Patsy Ferran return for their next collaboration straight after their Olivier success for Summer and Smoke. For Ferran at least this is something of a different proposition though: Where Tennessee Williams can be relied on for a barnstorming female lead, Chekhov is much more of an ensemble affair, and Ferran's Olga is by far the most low-key of the Three Sisters. For Frecknall, on the other hand, there's a more obvious link with her last show here as a fairly stripped-down production conjures atmosphere and heartbreak. As far as overwhelming visual themes go the closest thing to Summer and Smoke's gutted pianos are the plain wooden chairs that fill Hildegard Bechtler's askew stage, arranged like church pews in a wordless prologue that takes place at the General's funeral, a year before the events of Act I.