Saturday, 30 March 2019

Theatre review: The Taming of the Shrew
(RSC / RST & tour)

With Shakespeare's plays so well-known, and the amount of people who presumably include a theatre trip to one of the plays, whichever one's playing, in a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, the RSC must get more than its share of audience members who don't really look at the description of the show. You could even miss the fact that Justin Audibert's production of The Taming of the Shrew was going to be notably high-concept. That would explain the "ooooohhhh"s of sudden understanding, after opening scenes full of women eager to push the plot forward, when Baptista (Amanda Harris) introduces her eldest and most difficult son, Katherine (Joseph Arkley.) Audibert's idea isn't to cross-cast the play but to set it in an alternate 1590 (the likely year of the play's premiere,) in which the world has developed exactly the same, but as a matriarchy. So wealthy women like Baptista run the show, and their sons depend on marriage to secure their futures. But the yobbish Katherine is too independent to attract a husband when there's more compliant men like his brother Bianco (James Cooney) around.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Theatre review: Grief is the Thing With Feathers

Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a poetic novel about a man who’s unable to tell the difference between Grief and a duster suddenly left widowed and looking after two young sons; as well as dealing with the grief he also has to figure out how he’s going to organise his family’s life now that the person who did it all is gone, and once all the well-meaning visitors have left. A writer who’s meant to be starting a book on Ted Hughes’ Crow poetry, Hughes’ trickster bird becomes an imaginary friend to both him and his children, guiding them through the process in an erratic, sinister way. Enda Walsh adapts and directs the text for the stage as a vehicle for his regular collaborator Cillian Murphy, who plays the grieving Dad, as well as the Crow. Designer Jamie Vartan has provided a vast, mostly empty flat for Murphy to play out the story in, helped by a lot of projection work from Will Duke.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Theatre review: After Edward

As the name suggests, Shakespeare’s Globe is and always will be most associated with reviving work by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. But they’ve always included some new writing in the mix, and a year into her tenure as Artistic Director I’m wondering if that’s what’s going to define Michelle Terry’s time there. Granted, there’s been one honking error of judgement in Eyam, but Emilia has just transferred to the West End and a second raft of good reviews, and now Edward II gets a companion piece written by its lead actor, which certainly speaks to Terry’s nose for trying something new. Tom Stuart’s After Edward takes place not only immediately after Marlowe’s play, but specifically after Nick Bagnall’s production that’s still playing in repertory. So the room’s in total darkness when recently-deceased Edward (Stuart) falls through the trapdoor in the ceiling onto the Swanamaker stage, and Richard Bremmer’s Archbishop of Canterbury makes sure he’s OK and helps him light the candles before reverting to character and berating him for his sexuality.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Theatre review: Undetectable

Tom Wright's Undetectable opens with a pretty unorthodox gay relationship: Personal trainer and Instagram influencer Lex (Freddie Hogan) has been going out with former client and primary school teacher Bradley (Lewis Brown) for three months but they haven't had sex, or indeed done anything more than kiss, yet. This is on Bradley's instigation that they should try an old-fashioned kind of courtship, and although they've shared a bed they've never even seen each other naked in person (although Lex has sent a few dick pics.) They've not quite got to the point of meeting each other's families yet but the next best thing is Lex introducing Bradley to his friends, after which they decide that tonight's the night to make their relationship physical. Except neither of them has a condom, which leads to an angsty conversation about HIV.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Theatre review: Blood Knot

Probably South Africa's best-known living playwright, Blood Knot is one of Athol Fugard's earliest (1961) anti-Apartheid plays, and it's one in which the regime splits a family down the middle. Sons of the same black mother but with different fathers, Zach (Kalungi Ssebandeke) is black, while his brother Morrie (Nathan McMullen) can pass for white, but has lived most of his life on the black side of the divide. There was a brief period when Morrie went away, but he returned a year ago to their shared shack where, for reasons that are never explicitly revealed, he seems to stay 24/7. Zach goes out to work - as a gatekeeper making sure no black kids go into a white park - and does the shopping, while Morrie stays at home every day cooking and planning for the small farm they'll buy when they've saved up enough of his brother's wages. But after a year, Zach is also feeling trapped.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Theatre review: Downstate

Whether it’s tackling racism with hilarious consequences, or tackling capitalism with… well, there were definitely consequences, for those of us who had to sit through it at least*, Bruce Norris hasn’t been a playwright to shy away from a tricky subject and an explosive format. Downstate is more low-key than some of his earlier work but subjects don’t get more contentious than convicted paedophiles, or Norris’ - impressively successful - attempt to approach them in an even-handed way. Todd Rosenthal’s set is the shared living room of the four-bedroom Illinois bungalow that serves as a halfway house for sex offenders who’ve served their prison terms, but are still considered dangerous and have to live under severely restricted conditions. Early in the play we discover a new one of these restrictions, as the exclusion zone around a school has ben extended to include the local grocery store – as well as the bus stop that would take them to the next best option.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Theatre review: The Rubenstein Kiss

When Roy Cohn dies in Angels in America he’s visited by the ghost of one of the earliest and most notorious victims of his long and questionable legal career: Ethel Rosenberg, like her husband Julius, was sent to the electric chair for alleged collusion with the USSR at the height of McCarthyism, Cohn having been the chief prosecutor for the communist-obsessed senator. His role as mentor to a young Donald Trump means I won’t be surprised if Cohn himself starts turning up as a ghostly figure in plays still to come, but he doesn’t make an appearance in The Rubenstein Kiss, James Phillips’ barely-fictionalised version of the Rosenbergs’ case and legacy. A shame, because a larger-than-life figure might have been just the kick this long, drawn-out evening desperately needs. Jakob (Henry Proffit) and Esther Rubenstein (Ruby Bentall) are dedicated communists, something that doesn’t cause too many problems during the War, when the USSR is still America’s ally.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Theatre review: Admissions

Trafalgar Studios is just down the road from The Motherfucker Of Parliaments but while its main house show is highly topical, it’s a current American scandal it links into – that of Ivy League Universities, and the lengths people will go to to get their kids into the best ones, regardless of whether they deserve a place. Although Joshua Harmon’s Admissions looks at a different angle of the story than the outright bribery and cheating that’s been in the news, it could still have coasted on topicality to become a hit – if only it was any good. Sherri (FD Alex Kingston) is the admissions officer, and her husband Bill (Andrew Woodall) the headmaster, at an exclusive private boarding school. The measure of Sherri’s success seems to largely be in how much diversity she can bring to the student body, and in her decade or so in the job she’s managed to get the non-white student populace from negligible to nearly 20%.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Theatre review: Betrayal

I've seen Pinter's Betrayal twice before, most recently eight years ago in the same theatre that's since been named after the playwright, and where it returns now; Jamie Lloyd's light touch with Pinter's work makes this probably the best production of it I've seen. Lloyd's Pinter at the Pinter season was meant to have ended with Pinter Seven, but whether it turned out they'd leased the building for longer than intended, or that Tom Hiddleston was interested in taking part and could put some bums on seats, his company have added this one last run to the bill, the one-act play about a love triangle with its famous reverse-chronology structure. Zawe Ashton plays gallery owner Emma, whose marriage to Robert (Hiddleston) is ending after he admitted to cheating on her; in a night-long heart-to-heart, she retaliated by confessing she'd had a seven-year affair with his best friend Jerry.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Theatre review: Alys, Always

For Nicholas Hytner’s latest project at his own theatre he directs Alys, Always, Lucinda Coxon’s adaptation of Harriet Lane’s novel that plays out like a low-key (very low-key) Talented Mr Ripley - a book that’s name-checked in the play itself. In fact lots of books get name-checked as Frances (Joanne Froggatt) works at a Sunday broadsheet with a dwindling readership, a sub-editor on the book reviews section but, if she’s noticed at all, treated as a glorified gopher by the more dominant personalities on her team. Driving home at night after Christmas at her parents’, she witnesses a car accident and sits with the injured driver waiting for the ambulance. She ends up being with the driver, Alys, when she dies, and a few weeks later the family ask to meet Frances so she can tell them about her last moments in person. Frances doesn’t think it’s a good idea until she realises who the family are.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Theatre review: Medea

A Dutch company presenting an Australian version of a Greek tragedy to a British audience; if it sounds like Ivo van Hove's Toneelgroep Amsterdam (now renamed Internationaal Theater Amsterdam) you'd be right, although this time it's Simon Stone adapting and directing Euripides, Vera Hoogstad and Peter Van Kraaij translating his new text into Dutch and captions translating it back to English at the Barbican. One of my favourite performers from van Hove's Roman Tragedies, Marieke Heebink leads a reinvented Medea, a play whose basic story is a faithfully modernised version of the one Euripides told, but which in a couple of crucial details - one of them at the start, one at the end - is as major a departure from the original as Stone's version of Yerma was. The first big difference is that, although the Medea of the original myth had a history of violence against her own family, at the opening of Euripides' version nobody has an inkling she might turn it against her husband.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Theatre review: Waitress

Jessie Nelson (book) and Sara Bareilles’ (music and lyrics) musical tragicomedy Waitress, based on Adrienne Shelly’s film and currently entering its fourth year on Broadway, comes to the West End with one of its former New York leading ladies, Katharine McPhee, in the title role. Jenna is one of the waitresses at a small-town diner that specialises in pies, but she’s also the cook who bakes them, and comes up with a new flavour invention every day to be the daily special. She themes these around her moods and preoccupations of the day, so ends up with flavours like blueberry and bacon, or marshmallow and mermaid (?) pie that have become the diner’s signature dish. At the start of the show she’s devastated to discover that she’s pregnant – and that it is her husband Earl’s (Peter Hannah) baby.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Theatre review: Tartuffe, the Imposter

Molière’s religious con-man Tartuffe has been around a lot in the past year, but for various reasons (having bronchitis when I was meant to be seeing it in Stratford-upon-Avon; avoiding the Theatre Royal Haymarket like the plague) the National’s is the first of the current crop I’ve caught. And certainly as adapted by John Donnelly and directed by Blanche McIntyre the play shows why so many people have chosen it at this particular moment. Robert Jones’ set is a garishly opulent living room that nods to the play’s origins at Versailles, but the action’s been relocated to Highgate where Orgon (Kevin Doyle,) who made his fortune in unspecified dubious ways, lives with his mother Pernelle (Susan Engel,) daughter Mariane (Kitty Archer,) son Damis (Enyi Okoronkwo,) second wife Elmire (Future Dame Olivia Williams) and her brother Cleante (Hari Dhillon.) All except Pernelle are currently horrified at the puritanical turn the household has taken.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Theatre review: The Son

The Son is being advertised as the final installment in a trilogy of Florian Zeller plays that began with The Father and continued with The Mother; apart from the obvious connection in the titles there isn't, to me, a link that The Height of the Storm couldn't lay equal claim to. If not more so, because while all four are about families dealing with one person's deteriorating mental health The Height of the Storm, like the first two in the series, features a narrative that dips in and out of that fractured mind, putting the audience on the back foot. If The Son's narrative is also meant to be unreliable that's not apparent, though, as we appear to be seeing what the other characters can when 17-year-old Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston) reacts to his parents' divorce with a violent depression. His mother Anne (Amanda Abbington) discovers that he hasn't turned up at school for three months, and turns to her ex-husband for help.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Theatre review: Richard II
(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The professional reviews for Richard II don't appear to be in yet.

It'll get overtaken by the ubiquitous Midsummer Night's Dream later in the year, but for the moment Richard II is the Shakespeare play everyone wants a piece of. It's unsurprising given the grim topicality of John of Gaunt's speech, but at Michelle Terry's theatres it's also meant as the kicking-off point for the entire eight-play History cycle to be produced over the next year. Not that Lynette Linton and Adjoa Andoh's production doesn't stand on its own, being notable for its all-women of colour cast and company. The Swanamaker is currently also playing the story of how the title character's great-grandfather took his crown for granted and ended up losing it, but Richard (Andoh) isn't really one to learn lessons from the past and, having ascended to the throne at the age of three, assumes the god-given nature of his power means no mere human would dare to challenge it.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Theatre review: As You Like It (RSC / RST & tour)

A chaotic train journey nearly scuppered my first Stratford-upon-Avon trip of 2019, but it's a good job I made it in the end because Kimberley Sykes' low-key metatheatrical As You Like It is at times delightful. Stephen Brimson Lewis' design for the opening scenes is a simple grass carpet on the thrust in front of black curtains, although the court of the usurping Duke Frederick (Antony Byrne) doesn't seem particularly austere to start with - but the back story in which he banished his own brother, the lawful Duke, is an indicator that nobody's safe from his violent whims, not even his niece Rosalind (Lucy Phelps.) He's allowed her to stay on at court for the sake of his own daughter, but a reminder that there are still people loyal to his exiled brother makes him kick her out. That reminder comes in the form of the son of a former enemy, and when Rosalind is banished so is Orlando (David Ajao.) They both end up in hiding in the forest, which would be great for them because they've fallen in love; except neither knows the other is there.