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.