Thursday 31 October 2019

Non-review: Frankenstein

Not calling this a review mainly because I didn’t see the whole of the National Youth Theatre’s new production of Frankenstein; I also won’t be reviewing the cast, as they weren’t really responsible for me taking against the show so strongly. If you are in the cast reading this, don’t worry, Judi Dench couldn’t salvage Madame de Sade, why should you be expected to salvage this? Carl Miller’s new version of Mary Shelley’s classic story has the high concept of moving the action to the present day; instead of more general 19th century fears about where science could take us we have the very specific 21st century fear of where Artificial Intelligence is heading, and whether it could end up usurping us. So the monster becomes a robot with AI, whose creator ramps up its ability to understand and feel emotions to the point that it achieves a level of consciousness identical to a human’s; cue an existential crisis in the form of a murderous rampage.

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Theatre review: Botticelli in the Fire

Roxana Silbert must be planning on giving her new theatre’s regulars a bit of a fright if her second main-stage show is anything to go by – you don’t know what silence sounds like until you’ve heard a Hampstead audience’s reaction to a comedy cunnilingus scene. Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli is best known for his “Birth of Venus” but his private life seems to have been full of mystery and contradictions: There are reports of him having been promiscuously gay as well as, in later life, having been a devoted follower of homophobic, fire-and-brimstone preacher Girolamo Savonarola. Both his sexuality and the extent of his religious conversion are disputed, however, and for his fictionalised biography Botticelli in the Fire Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill takes both stories to be true; in what Botticelli himself (Dickie Beau) introduces as the story of his downfall, we see what might have led him from poster child for Renaissance excess to allegedly burning many of his own paintings in the 1497 Bonfire of the Vanities.

Monday 28 October 2019

Theatre review: Lungs

Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs was first seen in London in 2012, and though even then it was obvious that its environmental politics was heartfelt, there was an inevitable touch of the First World Problems to its middle-class couple worrying about whether they were destroying the world by buying imported avocados. So 2019, right in the wake of London’s Extinction Rebellion protests, is a canny time to revive the play as its unnamed couple’s concerns have become much more universally relatable – the play is still funny, but the fear of contributing to the planet’s extinction is no longer a punchline. Except for the bit about the avocados, for some reason the very mention of them will forever be automatically funny to the sort of people whose laugh sounds like “fwaw fwaw fwaw fwaw.” Still, topical or not, a two-hander about a couple facing an environmental and personal crisis might have been a hard sell to fill the Old Vic with if director Matthew Warchus didn’t have another trick up his sleeve.

Saturday 26 October 2019

Theatre review: Little Baby Jesus

All change for the JKM Award, which for several years has been based in the Young Vic's smallest studio space with productions getting very short performance runs, and now not only moves to the larger (albeit much less central) Orange Tree, but also runs for a full month as part of the theatre's main season. In addition its scope seems to have expanded in terms of the "classic plays" the winning directors get to choose from - the prize's definition has always embraced comparatively recent work but Little Baby Jesus only dates back to 2011. It's a canny choice as its writer Arinzé Kene had a recent hit with Misty, but you can also see why it would appeal to director Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu as a vehicle to showcase and hone his talents: A three-hander that uses a storytelling style to show the moments a trio of teenagers each felt they grew up, it offers a lot of opportunities to play around with style.

Friday 25 October 2019

Theatre review: Solaris

Every time someone puts science fiction on stage the reaction seems to be wondering why it's not done more often; perhaps it's the association with big-budget movies that means nobody expects the story to work without the kind of special effects the stage can't recreate. But there's also a very pared-back side to much sci-fi, a coldly clinical world holding off the unknowable just the other side of the monitor, and that's what David Greig's Solaris taps into so well. Stanisław Lem's novel has been filmed twice but I've not seen either film, which feels like a decided advantage as Matthew Lutton's production - an Edinburgh / Melbourne / London co-production now playing the last of those cities on its tour - unfolds its mystery. A three-person team has spent two years on a space station orbiting the impossible planet of Solaris - entirely covered in ocean, and orbiting two suns, one red, one blue. The story begins as the mission comes to an end.

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Theatre review: [BLANK]

The Donald and Margot Warehouse’s association with women’s prisons continues into Michael Longhurst’s regime as Clean Break, the company that works with women who’ve been through the Criminal Justice System in some capacity, celebrates its 40th anniversary with a kind of kaleidoscope of their experiences. Alice Birch’s [BLANK] is described as a “theatrical provocation” which, as written, is too long to be staged – the idea is that a director is challenged to choose from 100 scenes with unnamed characters, to construct a performance from it and in many cases decide on the characters’ genders and relationships. Maria Aberg is the director given the task, and she opts for an all-female cast, giving all the characters the first name (and in some cases last name) of their actor, and weaving a story consisting of several short, sometimes connected scenes, with one much longer one as the centrepiece.

Monday 21 October 2019

Theatre review: Baby Reindeer

Actor/writer/comedian Richard Gadd won the Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2016 for a show that definitely doesn’t sound like the usual fare for stand-up: A confessional about being groomed and raped while he was a drama student, and the subsequent feelings of self-loathing that came from questioning his masculinity and sexuality. It was cathartic for him but all the time he was performing that show he was in the middle of another traumatic experience, as he’d been targeted by a prolific stalker. Baby Reindeer tells that chapter in his life, moving on from comedy and presenting it as more of a traditional dramatic monologue; in part as a straightforward development of Gadd’s writing and performing style, in part because he sees this particular tormentor as more of an ambiguous figure and a victim of the system in her own right, and doesn’t think it’s appropriate to use her for out-and-out comedy.

Thursday 17 October 2019

Theatre review: Vassa

Of course, Vassa isn’t the original title. The full title is Vassa Matter You? (Hey!) Gotta No Respec’?

The last time Mike Bartlett wrote for the Almeida he did it in the style of Chekhov, and he’s back with the Russians now, although this time it’s a direct adaptation. Maxim Gorky’s Vassa Zheleznova turns out to be a play I’ve seen before, although either that adaptation or this one (or both) must be pretty loose, as the stories appear to have some massive differences. Bartlett’s is a claustrophobic family drama: Vassa (Siobhán Redmond) is the matriarch of a wealthy industrial family who rules with an iron fist and absolutely no velvet glove – the tone she’s established for the household is one of undisguised cruelty and personal attacks. It’s not just their business fortunes that are built on blackmail and corruption: Every relationship in the family seems to have come about because Vassa or her henchman Mikhail (Cyril Nri) has dirt on someone, right down to the servants they despise, but who they keep on because they have leverage that means they can treat them like shit.

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Theatre review: A History of Water in the Middle East

A History of Water in the Middle East sounds like the title of a lecture, and that’s its conceit – and kind of what it is, albeit in an inevitably more theatrical form Upstairs at the Royal Court. It has an unlikely origin: Writer/performer Sabrina Mahfouz has dual British/Egyptian nationality which, when she graduated from university, made her of interest to MI5 recruiters. She applied to become a British spy, but found that the vetting process seemed to be ruling her out largely because of the same background that had made her a candidate in the first place. One of the sticking points was her thesis about water in the Middle East, and the many ways over the last two centuries that it’s been both used as an instrument of colonisation and weaponised in the conflicts that followed. Together with Laura Hanna, who has a similar ethnic background to Mahfouz and does the heavy lifting where the singing’s concerned, she gives us a potted history of the region through story and song.

Monday 14 October 2019

Theatre review: Hansard

It can’t be the easiest time in history to be a political playwright; the audience could be walking into the theatre at 7:15 ready for an urgently topical exploration of the current state of affairs, but the play doesn’t start until 7:30 by which point the whole thing’s hopelessly dated. Better, as actor-turned-playwright Simon Woods does, to go for a very specific political event in the past and (apart from the obligatory deliberate winks to topical issues) let the audience draw their own parallels. Hansard takes us to 1988, the weekend after the passing of Section 28 (which banned “the promotion of homosexuality [and] pretended family relationships” in schools,) as Conservative back-bencher Robin Hesketh (Alex Jennings) returns to his home in the Cotswolds. His wife Diana (Lindsay Duncan) is waiting for him looking dishevelled, at the very least hungover from the night before if not already a few drinks the worse for wear this morning.

Sunday 13 October 2019

Theatre review: The Watsons

Emma Watson (Grace Molony) was all set for a life of unusual financial independence for a Georgian woman, as the ward and heir to a wealthy dowager aunt. But after 14 years the aunt surprised everyone by marrying an officer who will now inherit everything instead, so Emma has been sent back to the comparative poverty of her own family, to stoically help her eldest sister Elizabeth (Paksie Vernon) care for their dying father. The only way out of being stuck there is marriage, and as the newcomer to the village Emma is the belle of the inevitable ball. She soon has three suitors to choose between: She likes the charming Tom Musgrave (Laurence Ubong Williams) but so does her other sister Margaret (Rhianna McGreevy) and besides, Tom is the story's designated cad. The character Jane Austen seems to have wanted her to end up with is parson Mr Howard (Tim Delap,) but while he might be a thoroughly decent man he doesn't seem like an interesting enough one to really engage someone as dynamic as our heroine.

Friday 11 October 2019

Theatre review: Our Lady of Kibeho

Definitely fitting the bill of a long-awaited show, ten years after The Mountaintop first became a surprise smash (and notwithstanding her doing book duties on a musical,) we finally get a follow-up play from Katori Hall in London. Our Lady of Kibeho is a much more epic affair than its predecessor but it shares its theme of looking at an incredibly dark moment in black history from a fantastical, mystical perspective, and bringing an element of hope and humour to it. Inspired by true events, Kibeho is a remote village in the mountains of Rwanda, home to breathtaking scenery, a Catholic girls' school and not much else. But in 1981 it looks like it could be put on the map in a big way when Alphonsine (Taz Munya,) an unremarkable student who, as a Tutsi, is in the minority at the school, claims to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary.

Thursday 10 October 2019

Theatre review: The Man in the White Suit

Sean Foley’s comic instincts have never been infallible (remember Ducktastic? I certainly don’t, it closed with unseemly haste before I could see it) but I do seem to be disappointed with his work more often lately. Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense was one of his bigger hits a few years ago, but teaming up again with its star Stephen Mangan hasn’t really recaptured that magic as they bring Roger MacDougall, John Dighton and Alexander Mackendrick’s Ealing comedy The Man in the White Suit to the stage. Mangan plays Sidney Stratton, a lab technician at a Lancashire textile mill in the 1950s, who keeps blowing things up in his attempts to create a revolutionary new kind of material. When he gets fired from Corland’s (Ben Deery) factory he wangles his way into rival mill owner Burnley’s (Richard Cordery) lab, where he finally comes up with a fabric that never deteriorates, loses its shape or even gets dirty.

Monday 7 October 2019

Theatre review: Mephisto [A Rhapsody]

Deconstructing itself as it goes along, Samuel Gallet's Mephisto [A Rhapsody] is based on a novel by Klaus Mann which was banned for decades – as argued successfully in court by his family, the real-life target of his satire was all-too-easily identifiable. That target was a German actor whose liberal principles went out the window when he realised the Nazis could be good for his career, and ended up performing Faust for Hitler. Gallet transposes the action to present-day France, and the actor making a deal with a metaphorical devil is Aymeric (Leo Bill,) a company member in a provincial rep. They tour Chekhov around a region with poor transport links to the rest of the country, which leaves it a financial and cultural backwater, and a centre for the rise of neo-fascism. Aymeric, along with colleagues Luca (Elizabeth Chan) and Nicole (Subika Anwar-Khan) urge the artistic director Eva (Tamzin Griffin) to ditch the classics in favour of more urgent work addressing the current political crisis.

Saturday 5 October 2019

Theatre review: Two Ladies

Biddle de-dit de-dee,

Two Ladies sees the Bridge Theatre return - after a glorious summer diversion into Shakespeare - to its official identity as a new writing venue; as well, unfortunately, as to its entirely unofficial one as a rather disappointing new writing venue. Nancy Harris' new play isn't just about two ladies but about two First Ladies, behind the scenes at a crisis summit following multiple terrorist attacks on US soil. The highly conservative American President is expected to respond in the usual way, by declaring war on whichever Middle Eastern country he can blame the attacks on, while his liberal French counterpart, who's hosting the summit, is expected to try to dissuade him. Meanwhile their wives are meant to be making speeches at a women-in-business conference that feels even more like a sideline given the severity of what the politicians are discussing.

Friday 4 October 2019

Theatre review: Groan Ups

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Groan Ups is having an extended preview period and invites the official reviewers in next week.

Mischief Theatre's success story has gone beyond fairytale to downright ridiculous as they're now a worldwide brand, who recently took out an ad promoting their current and upcoming London shows, and needed an entire Evening Standard wraparound to fit them all in. Having been a fan of their work since The Play That Goes Wrong was a one-acter testing the waters at Trafalgar Studio 2 I've been dreading them losing their magic touch and falling flat on their faces (in the bad way.) A year-long residency for the core company at the Vaudeville could have been the over-ambitious move that proved too much, but the opening show certainly suggests they're nowhere near running out of steam yet. As usual Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields are the writers, but Groan Ups gets its laughs from a more traditional farce structure than their earlier hits, as well as suggesting they do have a more thoughtful side when they want to.

Wednesday 2 October 2019

Theatre review: "Master Harold" ...and the Boys

Probably South Africa’s most famous playwright, Athol Fugard is known for his plays skewering Apartheid; ”Master Harold” …and the Boys is described as semi-autobiographical, which may explain some of the background to why an Afrikaner turned so violently against a system designed to keep him in privilege. The setting is a tea room in Port Elizabeth, during a rainy afternoon in 1950 – water hammers down on a skylight over Rajha Shakiry’s set, keeping any potential customers away. So in between cleaning jobs the two black staff members Sam (Lucian Msamati) and Willie (Hammed Animashaun) have plenty of time to practice their steps for an upcoming ballroom dancing competition. That is until teenager Hally (Anson Boon,) son of the tea room’s owners, comes back from school, setting up at one of the tables to do his homework.