Tuesday 31 December 2019

2019: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

It's the end of another year in theatre, as well as the end of the decade, and the trend on both professional and amateur sites has been to do a post rounding up ten shows that defined the decade in theatre. Well nobody can say I follow the herd because I won't be doing that; although I've been reviewing theatre online since the late noughties I didn't actually start Partially Obstructed View until 2012, so the blog only covers eight of those ten years. Much more importantly, I honestly can't be arsed. I mean, do you know how much effort it is to do a detailed, smutty, rambling and confusing roundup of the last year's highs and lows, spending hours over Christmas writing thousands of words so that regular readers (both of them) can skim-read it to look at the photos and see if there's any decent nipples this year, let alone doing that for an actual decade? Well you know now so we might as well get on with it.

Monday 23 December 2019

Theatre review: Amélie

My final theatre trip of 2019 isn't explicitly a Christmas show - in fact it very specifically takes place in the late summer and early autumn of 1997 - but it certainly feels seasonally magical and warm-hearted. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 film Amélie was an international hit, which got away with its wilfully naïve nature with a genuinely warm and distinct brand of eccentricity. The word here is whimsy, and regular readers will both know that means I'll go into Craig Lucas (book,) Daniel Messé (music and lyrics) and Nathan Tysen's (lyrics) musical adaptation with a great deal of apprehension. Not because I don't necessarily like whimsy, but because in my experience it's incredibly hard to pull off without overdoing it. In fact, thanks to The Other Palace leaving the audience crushed in the foyer with no explanation, only opening the doors at the time the show was meant to start, and therefore inevitably starting late, Amélie had it all to do to get me on side; but it soon did with apparent effortlessness.

Saturday 21 December 2019

Theatre review: My Brilliant Friend

The quartet of Italian books known collectively as The Neapolitan Novels are apparently A Big Deal, and one that I had absolutely no idea existed until I heard about April De Angelis' stage adaptation (which originally played at the Rose Theatre Kingston, and now transfers in expanded form to the Olivier.) All I've really gleaned is that their author, Elena Ferrante, doesn't actually exist, being a pseudonym shrouded in secrecy. It's no doubt a huge part of the novels' popularity and mythos, given that their narrator is a popular novelist called Elena, better known as Lenù (Niamh Cusack,) who flashes us back to 1950s Naples and her first meeting with Lila (Catherine McCormack,) who stole her beloved doll and threw it into the cellar of the local mob boss. Lenù did the same to hersin revenge, and their (unsuccessful) adventure into the cellar to retrieve the dolls bonded them in a tumultuous friendship.

Thursday 19 December 2019

Theatre review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The National usually puts a family show on one of its larger stages around Christmas but this year's offering winds up in the Dorfman; perhaps because, although it has its share of spectacle in Fly Davis and Samuel Wyer's design and Jamie Harrison's illusions, Katy Rudd's production relies heavily on old-fashioned theatricality and the work of its ensemble to bring its magic to life. Joel Horwood adapts Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, in which the favourite Gaiman trope of the witchy Maiden, Mother and Crone guard the borders between realities. Samuel Blenkin is the unnamed Boy who, in 1983, a year after losing his mother, has another encounter with death on his 12th birthday when he finds the body of his family's lodger. The man has killed himself after gambling away other people's money, and the traumatic event close to a place where the boundaries between realities are weak wakes something on the other side.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

Theatre review: Snowflake

Mike Bartlett's already on his second Brexit play (third, if you count Love, Love, Love as foreshadowing, which next year's revival will almost certainly feel like.) Like Albion (also returning in 2020) his latest puts the UK's breaking up into factions in microcosm, and Snowflake manages both to create a metaphor and play it literally as a widower longs to reunite with his estranged daughter at Christmas. The play's first act is a monologue until its closing moments, and Bartlett plays with the concept of the unreliable narrator: In an empty church hall on Christmas Eve, Andy (Elliot Levey) rehearses for how he wants to greet his daughter Maya (Ellen Robertson) when he sees her for the first time in three years. Their relationship went sour after her mother died suddenly, and one argument in particular saw her walk out and break off all contact. She's now back in Oxford and Andy's hired out this hall as a neutral space for them to try and restart their relationship.

Monday 16 December 2019

Theatre review: A Kind of People

Racism and insidious forms of discrimination seem to have been a major theme in London theatre over the last week, and at the Royal Court Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's A Kind of People aims to cover not just the obvious instances of casual and not-so-casual racism, but also deeply-ingrained prejudices and preconceptions based on class and background. It's an ambition that doesn't quite pay off but builds some strong moments in a story built around a mixed-race couple – Gary (Richie Campbell) is black, his wife Nicky (Claire-Louise Cordwell) is white, and they've been together since they were 16. At the time they faced a lot of obstacles, particularly from her father, but several years and three children later they're settled in a flat on an estate, to all intents and purposes as happy together as they've ever been. Their close circle of friends are people they grew up with, including Mark (Thomas Coombes,) with whom Gary also works as a dishwasher engineer.

Saturday 14 December 2019

Theatre review: Candida

I'm not sure there's much at the moment that can't set off depressing thoughts on the current political situation, but walking into the Orange Tree to see the question "why are so many living in poverty?" as part of Simon Daw's set when, 120 years after Bernard Shaw's Candida premiered, the nation's official answer remains a resolute "who cares?" definitely has to qualify. The writings on the wall come from the Fabian Society, the influential Socialist group of which Shaw was a member, as is his character the Rev. James Morrell (Martin Hutson.) James is a much sought-after speaker who uses his day-job as a minister to drive home the similarity between Christian and Socialist values; he works tirelessly with support from his wife Candida (Claire Lams,) and practises what he preaches - some months earlier the couple helped a teenager they found sleeping rough on the Embankment.

Thursday 12 December 2019

Theatre review: Fairview

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s dark comedy about cultural appropriation Fairview begins as That American Play Where An Extended Family Gets Together After A Long Time, Preferably At Thanksgiving But That’s Optional, and let’s face it that was probably enough to win it the Pulitzer on its own. The play ends up divided into three distinct sections plus a powerful postscript, but to begin with Nadia Latif’s widescreen production is practically a sitcom as an African-American family prepares a meal: Beverly (Nicola Hughes) is stressing about getting everything just right for her mother’s birthday dinner; her husband Dayton (Rhashan Stone) is much more relaxed – a bit too relaxed as far as she’s concerned, but he has helped organise more of the cooking than she realised, and he helps her calm down a bit by dancing to their favourite songs. When her sister Jasmine (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) arrives she’s sassy and combative and manages to get the guest of honour to lock herself in the bathroom, but she does have a soft spot for Beverly and Dayton’s tomboyish daughter Keisha (Donna Banya.)

Wednesday 11 December 2019

Theatre review: Three Sisters

For London's second major Three Sisters of the year the National filters Chekhov through Inua Ellams, coming up with a new play that's the same but different: Olya, Masha and Irina are now Lolo (Sarah Niles) Nne Chukwu (Natalie Simpson) and Udo (Racheal Ofori,) turn-of-the-twentieth century Russia becomes a remote part of Nigeria in the late 1960s, and the sisters long for Lagos, not Moscow. The characters have new names but in the first and fourth acts especially they follow their counterparts' trajectories closely, but it's in the middle two acts that the play most takes on a new identity. The play opens in 1967 in Biafra, at the start of what would turn out to be a failed bid for independence from Nigeria. It's youngest sister Udo's birthday, which is also the anniversary of their father's death; he was a general who moved the family from Lagos to a remote village to prepare the rebel army for the coming uprising, but with him gone they’re left with no purpose, and only soldiers for company.

Monday 9 December 2019

Theatre review: I Wanna Be Yours

There’s a telling moment in Zia Ahmed’s I Wanna Be Yours, where poet Haseeb (Ragevan Vasan) goes on a playwrighting course aimed at encouraging more minority voices, and finds that every attempt to write about the everyday, casual racism he experiences as a Muslim is rejected, and he’s told instead to focus on bigger issues of global politics and terrorism. In that context his bittersweet romantic comedy about an interracial relationship feels like a deliberate pushback against that mindset about what people want to see in the theatre, avoiding the grand tragedies and sticking instead to the way the little daily discriminations build up to become exhausting (there is a reference to a terrorist attack on a mosque, but mainly in the context of Haseeb having to miss a dinner date so he can console his mother.) The main focus is on his relationship with Ella (Emily Stott,) an actress he meets when she leads another workshop aimed at making poets more confident reading their own work in public.

Saturday 7 December 2019

Theatre review: Dear Evan Hansen

Following The Book of Mormon and Hamilton as the hottest ticket on Broadway, it's inevitable that Steven Levenson (book,) Benj Pasek & Justin Paul's (music and lyrics) Dear Evan Hansen would make its way to the West End sooner rather than later, but there was always a question mark over whether this particular show would connect in the same way with a British audience. I can see how it might share the fate of the painfully earnest Rent, which has a dedicated UK fan base and has had a couple of decent runs here but never became what you might call an equivalent phenomenon. I have heard some Marmite responses since Michael Greif's production opened at the Noël Coward, but thanks to the way the world's been changed by the Internet - and the way it affects the musical's story - Evan Hansen's story could end up striking a chord everywhere.

Thursday 5 December 2019

Theatre review: Midnight Movie

The Royal Court has long been at the forefront of trying to put the online world on stage – most recently Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner was an award-winning hit – and now Eve Leigh’s Midnight Movie plunges us into a sleepless night’s distracted browsing. We never meet the play’s protagonist, instead we follow Avatar 1 (Nadia Nadarajah) and Avatar 2 (Tom Penn) as they tell loosely connected stories, some funny, some mystical, many with a creepy edge. The starting point is a YouTube video of a woman in a hotel elevator appearing to fight an invisible monster; when she reached the top of the building she disappeared, only to be discovered months later, drowned in a water tank the laws of physics suggest she couldn’t have got into on her own. It’s a mystery that’s consumed a lot of people’s time, including the narrator’s, who’s obsessed with finding out what really happened; but investigating it online has pitfalls.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Theatre review: Ravens: Spassky vs. Fisher

You might think that a game of chess would be hard to make a compelling stage story out of, but as Chess has been proving for the last thirty years… you’d be right. But this hasn’t dissuaded playwrighting bear Tom Morton-Smith from giving his own take on the way a board game ended up encapsulating the entire Cold War; instead of fictionalised versions and illicit affairs he goes back to the real people who, like it or not, found themselves representing the entirety of the USSR and USA in Ravens: Spassky vs. Fischer. While the Arms Race and Space Race provided the most direct dick-measuring contest between the two nations, each also attempted to dominate in fields that more obliquely showed off their strengths and values: Movies for America, while Russia had ballet, circus and chess. Boris Spassky (Ronan Raftery) is the latest in a long line of Soviet chess champions, and the first to be in serious danger of losing the title to an American, as former child prodigy Bobby Fischer (Robert Emms) has been climbing up the ranks and is now challenging him at the 1972 World Championship in Reykjavik.