Thursday 28 February 2019

Theatre review: Come From Away

Not actually a show about ejaculating from a distance, Come From Away is in fact a hit Broadway musical about the week following 9/11, and the huge impact the attacks had on a place a long way from New York or Washington: In the early days of Transatlantic flight the Canadian island of Newfoundland was a refuelling stop, and as a result a large airport was built there; once planes became able to make the journey without stopping it was left largely unused, except for emergency landings. There were suddenly a lot of those when the USA became a no-fly zone in September 2001, and 38 planes carrying nearly 7000 people were diverted to the town of Gander. Irene Sankoff and David Hein's musical follows the people of the town as they respond to the emergency by trying to make the situation as welcoming for the stranded, frightened passengers as possible when they end up staying nearly a week.

Tuesday 26 February 2019

Theatre review: Shipwreck

Now a regular name at the Almeida, American playwright Anne Washburn’s previous plays there Mr Burns and The Twilight Zone (about to get a West End transfer) have taken well-known popular fiction and refashioned it into something different; the former in particular explored the blurring lines between made-up stories and what we believe is true, so it makes an inevitable kind of sense that Washburn would be at the front of the line of playwrights to tackle Donald Trump, whose reality is made up of confidently-asserted fictions. She does this in typically sideways fashion in Shipwreck by looking at the guilt and panic of a group of upper middle-class liberals wondering if there was more they could have done to prevent Trump’s election and the worst of what he did once in office. The Trump presidency always offers up new topics of conversation but in this instance the latest is former FBI director James Comey’s revelations about a private dinner between the two of them.

Friday 22 February 2019

Theatre review: Equus

Peter Shaffer's 1973 play Equus is a psychological thriller heavily inspired by the then-popular theories of R. D. Laing; the theories have long since been discredited but Equus remains popular, and Ned Bennett's new production for English Touring Theatre makes it clear why it still has something that resonates 46 years later. Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla) is a child psychiatrist convinced to add to his already-heavy workload because his friend, the magistrate Hester (Ruth Lass) thinks he's the only one who can give the boy a fair hearing. 17-year-old Alan Strang (Ethan Kai) has been sent to an institution after blinding six horses in the stables where he had a weekend job. When he meets the initially uncommunicative Alan, Dysart discovers a young man who rather than hating the animals he maimed, has had a lifelong love and fascination for them that tipped over into religious worship.

Thursday 21 February 2019

Theatre review: Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train

Kate Hewitt's production of Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train is the first time Stephen Adly Guirgis' play has been revived in London since 2010, when I saw a production at the smaller of the Trafalgar Studios. The Young Vic's main house is a much larger space but set designer Magda Willi has found interesting ways to evoke the different kinds of confinement and freedom in this prison-set drama. The location is New York's Rikers Island prison, and as the play opens the glass walls on Willi's traverse set form a small central cell where Angel Cruz (Ukweli Roach) waits to hear his fate. He's there because, after all his attempts to free his friend from a cult failed, he shot the "son of god" cult leader in the ass. He's facing an attempted murder charge but insists he only planned to hurt the man, and his lawyer should be able to plead the charge down; until complications in surgery kill his victim and he suddenly finds himself up for First Degree Murder.

Wednesday 20 February 2019

Theatre review: Gently Down the Stream

Martin Sherman, who turns 80 this year, has a long list of theatre and movie writing credits but is still best remembered for Bent - which itself has its 40th anniversary this year - a play that reminded people of the oft-forgotten persecution of LGBT people by the Nazis. Having long wanted to write a more general "gay history" play he finally struck on the way to do it by following 13 years of a relationship with a 35-year age gap, in Gently Down the Stream. And "gently" is the right word for a play that covers some of the same ground, and has some of the same concerns as, The Inheritance, but in a much more intimate way. The concerns are those of Beau (Jonathan Hyde,) originally from New Orleans but, having travelled the world accompanying torch song singers on the piano, now long since settled in London where he works as a lounge pianist in a restaurant.

Tuesday 19 February 2019

Theatre review: All About Eve

Ivo van Hove's love of translating cinema to the stage (while keeping a few cinematic tricks in his back pocket) brings him to the 1950 classic All About Eve, a fairly obvious fit for a return to the theatre as it's all about backstage intrigue and ambition, and based on a stage play in the first place. The production was originally set to star Cate Blanchett in the role made famous by Bette Davis, but she ditched it to star in a play that you can only see if you win a load of old ballots. For me it worked out, as I prefer her replacement Gillian Anderson, a woman who can spell both "Gillian" and "Anderson," as opposed to one who can spell neither "Kate" nor "Blanket." Anderson is Broadway grand dame Margo Channing, a star currently wowing the crowds in a role specially written for her by popular playwright Lloyd Richards (Rhashan Stone,) who's lining up a role in his next play for her as well.

Monday 18 February 2019

Theatre review: Berberian Sound Studio

Before Josie Rourke takes on her own final production at the Donald and Margot Warehouse she's bringing back a well-known theatre name in an unfamiliar role: Tom Scutt makes his directorial debut with Berberian Sound Studio, an unexpected first venture for someone whose day job is designing visuals. Because although Scutt and Anna Yates have indeed designed a detailed 1970s Italian sound studio that gives the play a strong visual identity, Joel Horwood's play is, as the title suggests, really all about its soundscape. Based on a 2012 horror film by Peter Strickland - apparently a cult favourite although I'd never heard of it before this adaptation was announced - it sees sheltered sound designer Gilderoy (Tom Brooke,) who's only ever worked on nature documentaries from the isolation of his shed in Surrey, accept a job offer from an Italian director who's a big fan on his work.

Saturday 16 February 2019

Theatre review: Cougar

Rose Lewenstein's strange and sexy Cougar puts a luxury hotel room on the Orange Tree's in-the-round stage, a single set that stands in for dozens of identical rooms around the world. The first one is in London where Leila (Charlotte Randle) has been speaking at a conference. One of her colleagues made an aggressive pass at her in the hotel bar afterwards, and barman John (Mike Noble) came to her defence, hitting him with an ice bucket and losing his job in the process. Leila's taken a room in the hotel and brings John back to it for the night - nothing happens between them but they both want it to, so she proposes a deal: She'll pay for him to come with her on her many international business trips, have sex with her at night and see the world during the day while she's at work. But as soon as they get through customs they're strangers again, and John has to promise not to fall in love.

Friday 15 February 2019

Theatre review: The American Clock

London's improptu Arthur Miller festival continues with my second of his more obscure works in a week. The Old Vic will be featuring one of the more famous plays in a couple of months when All My Sons opens, but first The American Clock, which has another close link to The Price in that it's once again a story of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the resulting Depression. Except this is a much more on-the-nose approach, a sweeping review of the way people were affected throughout America, although it does have a single Jewish family at its heart, played in Rachel Chavkin's production by three sets of actors: We follow Moe Baum, initially played by James Garnon, his wife Rose (Clare Burt) and teenaged son Lee (Fred Haig - you know when you suddenly realise something like "oh he must be David Haig's son seeing as how they have the same last name and THE EXACT SAME FACE" and then feel stupid for not noticing it the first second you saw him? That.)

Thursday 14 February 2019

Theatre review: Edward II

The second winter mini-season at the Swanamaker takes the theme of kings who were deposed, opening with Christopher Marlowe’s take on the subject; later in the season we’ll have Shakespeare’s response to it, as well as a more modern take. But first Edward II, the 1592 play that Ian McKellen is praising on his current UK tour as the first English play with an openly gay protagonist. It’s something that productions in more prudish eras must have tried to downplay – I imagine the whole LOOK THEY JUST DON’T LIKE FLATTERERS, OK? thing would have been made a big deal of – but it must have been a stretch, because it’s hardly subtext. Nick Bagnall’s production certainly doesn’t leave much room for doubt as to why, as soon as Edward II (Tom Stuart) takes the throne, his lords and ministers immediately take so violently against him.

Tuesday 12 February 2019

Theatre review: The Price

I’m not aware of any particular Arthur Miller milestone this year (both his centenary and the tenth anniversary of his death would have been in 2015) so maybe it’s just a case of everyone having the same idea that’s led to so many theatres staging his work this year. In a couple of months’ time two of his most famous works will be back in London but first a couple of lesser-known pieces; and while at times The Price justifies its comparative obscurity, for most of its lengthy running time Jonathan Church’s production makes a strong case for the revival. Both written and set in the 1960s, the story is nevertheless rooted in the Depression of the ‘30s. The Franz family were children of New York millionaires who lost everything in the Crash except for their house; their mother having died around the same time, they moved everything into the attic so they could let out the rest of the building.

Monday 11 February 2019

Theatre review: Ian McKellen on Stage - With Tolkien, Shakespeare, others...and you!

A couple of years ago Ian McKellen did a series of gala shows as a fundraiser for the Park Theatre, and with 2019 marking his 80th year he’s decided to revive that performance for a wider audience. This time around he’s doing 80 performances, each on a different stage across the country, with the proceeds going to the theatres or to a charity or community project associated with them. A couple of the venues have a few seats whose prices don’t break the bank, so I caught up with the awkwardly-titled Ian McKellen on Stage - With Tolkien, Shakespeare, others...and you! at the Arts Theatre. Many of the theatres on the tour have a personal connection to McKellen, and in the case of the Arts it’s where he made his amateur West End debut in a University show, and where he decided (after a particularly glowing review) to try it professionally. He says he can show you the exact paving stone outside the theatre where he made the decision.

Sunday 10 February 2019

Theatre review: Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist

I don’t harbour any particular illusions that my reviews make much difference to what anyone does or doesn’t go to see at the theatre, but there’s certain shows where what I, or anyone else for that matter, thinks is going to have even less influence on people’s decisions than usual: A play in which Tom Lenk from Buffy the Vampire Slayer plays Tilda Swinton is something you either want to see or you don’t. For me it’s an automatic yes, and I’m glad it is because Byron Lane’s Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist might be the funniest, silliest comedy I’ve seen since Bears in Space. In Tom DeTrinis’ production, writer Lane also plays Walt, who’s reacting badly to a breakup, and when his hamburger is delivered with pickles he didn’t ask for it’s the final straw that leads him to attempt suicide. It’s only the fact that he’s tried to overdose on hair-restoration pills that means he fails, and is alive to discover that when his ex-boyfriend moved out, he advertised the spare room on Craigslist.

Friday 8 February 2019

Theatre review: Wild East

The Young Vic's Clare Studio continues to be the home for the Genesis Future Director Award Winners, and 2019's first production sees Lekan Lawal take on April De Angelis' absurdist take on the job interview from Hell format, 2005's Wild East. Frank (Zach Wyatt) is a socially inept anthropology graduate applying for a job at a company that collates and analyses data from people in emerging markets, for use in product marketing. It seems an unlikely match for him but it would involve spending a lot of time in Russia, a country he's always felt a strong connection to, and where a girl he likes lives. So he's keen to impress his interviewers, but even if his lack of social skills didn't trip him up, the fact that Dr Pitt (Lucy Briers) and Dr Gray (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) start imploding in front of him will.

Thursday 7 February 2019

Theatre review: Pinter Seven - A Slight Ache /
The Dumb Waiter

In what was originally meant to be the season’s finale before one more show got added to the end, Pinter Seven is the busiest I’ve seen the theatre during this run, probably due to the combined star power of Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer you slag. They appear together in The Dumb Waiter, and the double bill also stars Gemma Whelan and John Heffernan, the latter of whom has previously played one of Dyer’s ancestors. Although I don’t suppose Dyer brings that royal connection up much. As well as the casting, two of Pinter’s more accessible short works have to be part of the draw; although given who we’re talking about “accessible” still means a lot of very dark humour and an almost indescribable sense of existential menace. This menace gets personified in A Slight Ache, the 1957 radio play which forms the first act you slaag.

Tuesday 5 February 2019

Theatre review: Superhoe

It’s about time someone wrote a play about a really terrific gardening implement, but writer-performer Nicôle Lecky’s monologue Superhoe is about the other kind of hoe. She plays 24-year-old Sasha, living at home with her mother, half-sister and stepfather in East London and harbouring dreams of being a singer-songwriter and rapper. She’s written a lot of songs and spent an inheritance from her grandmother on recording them, but apart from regularly announcing on Instagram that her EP is about to drop she doesn’t actually seem to be trying to promote her music. Instead she spends her days passed out in her bedroom and her nights out with her long-term boyfriend or getting stoned. But when the boyfriend suddenly ghosts her – for reasons that are never revealed but can probably be inferred – she sets fire to his front garden.

Monday 4 February 2019

Theatre review: Cost of Living

Time to take a risk on another Pulitzer winner at the Hampstead; it’s a combo that should sound promising but on past evidence is to be approached with caution. Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living does come with a couple of selling points though: Adrian Lester is usually worth catching on stage; and at a time when the film industry is once again taking flak for casting able-bodied actors in disabled roles, theatre gets to show how it’s done, as Edward Hall’s production casts two actors with disabilities. Usually seen as rather suave characters, Lester plays against type as Eddie, a former long-distance trucker who lost his job after a DUI. He’s also in the middle of a separation from his wife of 20 years Ani (Katy Sullivan,) when Ani has a car accident that leaves her quadriplegic. As she sets herself up in a tatty New Jersey apartment he initially decides to hold fire on divorce proceedings so she can keep using his health insurance; before volunteering to be her carer himself.