Monday 30 September 2019

Theatre review: Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.

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

Saturday 28 September 2019

Theatre review: King John (RSC / Swan)

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

Thursday 26 September 2019

Theatre review: Big

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

Wednesday 25 September 2019

Theatre review: Either

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

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

Monday 23 September 2019

Theatre review: The King of Hell's Palace

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

Saturday 21 September 2019

Theatre review: Amsterdam

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

Tuesday 17 September 2019

Theatre review: Preludes

Prolific off-Broadway composer Dave Malloy hasn’t had much work seen in the UK that I’m aware of, but with his shows starting to move to Broadway and win Tonys London theatres seem to be catching up, with two works from his back catalogue opening this autumn. If the opening salvo is anything to go by we’re in for an… odd time, if not quite as irritating to me as some of his peers’ experimental work. Preludes takes its theme from the late 19th/early 20th century Russian pianist, conductor and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, who became an overnight sensation with his Prelude aged 19, only to have a disastrous reception to his Symphony No. 1. There followed a three-year period of depression and writer’s block, which he only came out of with the help of extensive analysis and hypnotherapy from Nikolai Dahl (Rebecca Caine.) Malloy imagines this period of Rachmaninov’s life through the prism of the trances he was put into.

Sunday 15 September 2019

Theatre review: Torch Song

Have you ever felt like a theatre's gaslighting you? It's how I felt when the new Turbine Theatre announced its launch show as Harvey Fierstein's iconic 1970s gay play Torch Song, and none of the articles leading up to the production seemed to acknowledge that it's much better known as Torch Song Trilogy. It turns out that no I'm not going mad, yes that is the title of the 1970s play cycle, and yes there is a distinction: This is in fact the 2017 version of the script that Fierstein made significant cuts to, the slight title change differentiating between the two texts. Not that Drew McOnie's production departs from the original structure, even announcing the original plays' titles in neon signs over Ryan Dawson Laight's set. It's a story whose cast grows as it goes on, so opening act "International Stud" lights up just on drag queen Arnold (Matthew Needham) as he gets changed after a show, confessing to the audience how much he longs for a man he truly belongs with in the hedonistic underworld of gay '70s Manhattan.

Friday 13 September 2019

Theatre review: A Doll's House

The seasoned veteran in 2019's round of Artistic Director Musical Chairs, Rachel O’Riordan taking over the Lyric Hammersmith means she's run theatres in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and now England. On the other hand she could be seen as the one with the most to prove to a London audience, considering her last outing here was last year's catastrophically misjudged revival of Foxfinder. Well her opening production feels like it's done a good job of catching the Lyric's brand, taking as it does a well-loved classic - Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, a play that seems to be on a lot of people's radar at the moment - and giving it a fresh twist. It's also, despite the fact that the story's been kept in the year of the play's premiere, 1879, a reinvention that ties in to a lot of current concerns, namely the way the rose-tinted view of Britain's colonial past has finally come back to cause destruction in Britain itself, and that past is ripe for reevaluation.

Thursday 12 September 2019

Theatre review: Falsettos

Another week, another show gets embroiled in controversy - in the case of Falsettos it's over whether the long-delayed (27 years) UK premiere of William Finn (music and lyrics) and James Lapine's (book) musical engaged meaningfully with the Jewish community during the rehearsal process. Tara Overfield-Wilkinson's production has no Jewish cast or creatives, and when a show opens with a number called "Four Jews in a Room Bitching" (as well as later featuring a major plotline about a bar mitzvah, and a whole song about the cliché that Jews are bad at sports) it does seem mind-blowing to me that nobody considered at the very least having someone in the room in a consultancy role for some scenes, just to make sure the show's brash, cartoonish style didn't tip over into something insensitive.

Wednesday 11 September 2019

Theatre review: Evita

Regent's Park Open Air Theatre says they only cancel 5% of performances due to bad weather; I must be particularly unlucky then because I'm averaging 33% over the last two years. So this is my second attempt at Jamie Lloyd's take on Evita; regular readers will both know I regularly grumble about not much liking the work of The Rev. Dr Baron Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Lord Webber BA (Hons) MEng, QC, MD, P.I, FSB, while consistently finding reasons to go and see it anyway. In this case, it's the fact that the Open Air will be trying to recreate the success of 2016's revelatory Jesus Christ Superstar, and getting Lloyd for it is something of a minor coup for the venue. Evita is ALW and Tim Rice's take on the controversial figure Eva Perón (Samantha Pauly,) First Lady of Argentina during the 1940s and seen as the power behind the throne for her populist husband Juan Perón (Ektor Rivera.)

Tuesday 10 September 2019

Theatre review: Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation

Two years before the performance in the Royal Court Upstairs, Miles' son fell through the ice on a lake and drowned. Miles tried to save him but failed, and although he survived he ended up in a coma. In the present day, he regains consciousness, waking from dreams of the end of the world which he believes are premonitions; others believe him too, and follow him to the cult he sets up in a remote part of Bolivia. Fifteen years from now, the solar eclipse that portends the apocalypse is finally due, and Miles' estranged wife Anna (Susan Vidler) has flown out in a last-ditch attempt to get their daughter Sol (Shyvonne Ahmmad) away from his clutches. As with most plays, Sol's words and actions are pre-determined by the playwright's script. But the playwright in question is Tim Crouch, an experimental theatre-maker who regularly plays with the idea of how stories are told and who's in control of them, so Sol the character actually has a copy of the script in her hand.

Monday 9 September 2019

Theatre review: Chiaroscuro

After the explosion of new female artistic directors of London theatres earlier this year, this month sees the start of them all debuting in their new roles with productions that will inevitably be seen in part as a mission statement. It's something Lynette Linton acknowledges at the Bush: It's overwhelmingly a new writing venue but being the opener for a new regime can put a different kind of pressure on a premiere so I can understand Linton's motives for kicking off with a revival. In her introduction to the show, the director says she wants an ongoing theme at the Bush to be the stories of queer women of colour, so Scottish Poet Laureate Jackie Kay's 1986 play Chiaroscuro fits the bill. Meanwhile integrating the music that formed part of the play, so that the women performing are also making their own music - something that becomes integral to the play's themes - gives the show its own identity.

Sunday 8 September 2019

Radio review: Great North Run

Just a few words about Tom Wells' likeable new contribution to Radio 4's stalwart Afternoon Play strand, Great North Run, which takes place in the buildup to the titular Newcastle half-marathon. It also takes place largely in the head of its narrator Will (Andrew Finnigan, who might have overtaken Andy Rush in the "regular Wells collaborator" stakes,) who tells the story in an imagined conversation with best friend Em (Amy Cameron.) Imagined because, as is often the case with these events, it's being run for charity in someone's memory - when she was ill with cancer, Em got Will to promise they'd run together in aid of Macmillan, and when she died, she left him instructions making it clear she expected him to stick to the plan (she also left him the tutu she expects him to wear.) Will's training coincides with his first year at university, in which he struggles to fit in, and provides a welcome nightly escape.

Friday 6 September 2019

Theatre review: A Very Expensive Poison

It's seven years since Lucy Prebble has written for the stage, a self-imposed exile because - as the playwright herself admitted when that play got adapted for radio - she was so happy with The Effect that she genuinely didn't believe she'd ever match it. Well, she's finally braved the weight of her own high expectations to debut A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic, and instead of taking similar ground to her last play it instead goes back to ripping its story from the headlines like her earlier hit ENRON. It also uses something like that play's genre-hopping, metatheatrical style, although director John Crowley can't quite bring the flair of a Rupert Goold to it. Based on Luke Harding's book of the same name, A Very Expensive Poison follows the murder of Russian whistle-blower Alexander Litvinenko with Polonium 210, a radioactive substance so rare it could be traced back to the precise nuclear plant where it was produced; and despite this the trouble Litvinenko's widow Marina had getting anyone in power to point the finger at the most obvious suspect.

Thursday 5 September 2019

Theatre review: Bartholomew Fair

The 1980s Canadian sprinter wasn’t the first Ben Jo(h)nson to very obviously be on drugs, as evidenced by the Jacobean playwright’s Bartholomew Fair. Jonson’s comedies tend to be madcap affairs with a lot of grotesque characters getting themselves tied up into convoluted plots and gulled by con-men. Bartholomew Fair’s slice-of-life look at the characters who populate the titular fair features all of this, but without even the suggestion of a coherent plot holding it all together – as Phill put it, if someone asked what happened in the play, you’d have to answer “everything.” But a couple of plotlines do just about start to make sense: Bartholomew Cokes (Zach Wyatt) is due to get married on the feast day of the saint who bears his name and, laden with cash, is spending the day at the celebratory market (in what is now Spitalfields,) keen to stock up on food and luxuries for the wedding day.

Sunday 1 September 2019

Theatre review: World's End

With its 1990s-set teenage gay romance in neighbouring flats of a London tower block (albeit in Chelsea rather than Thamesmead,) World’s End invites inevitable comparisons to Beautiful Thing. Actor James Corley’s playwriting debut lacks the relatable characters to have anything like the same impact on audiences, but it does have its moments. In late 1998, Viv (Patricia Potter) returns to London after two failed marriages and many years of constant moving around; she rents the tiny flat next to Ylli (Nikolaos Brahimllari,) an Albanian widower and once-aspiring artist who now takes odd jobs in security. Both have 19-year-old sons, Viv’s new one-bedroom flat meaning Ben (Tom Milligan) has to sleep in the living room, where he locks himself away most of the time playing on his new Playstation. Besnick (Mirlind Bega) is more socially confident, and while perhaps not technically out to his disapproving father seems unfazed by Ylli’s occasional digs at his effeminacy.