Thursday, 31 December 2020

2020: Sort-of a Theatre Review of the Year

In January, You Stupid Darkness! imagined a world assailed by an invisible, unknowable enemy, where we couldn't leave the house without protective equipment. What will these crazy playwrights think of next? No really, tell me, I could do with the warning.

I usually end every year with a review of the best and worst theatre I saw, interspersed with me being a bit smutty about men who got their kit off, and giving out some dubious award to people or shows that amused or horrified me. Well, I think we all know why 2020 might not be too much fun to recap in any great detail; with theatre all but shut down from mid-March onwards it should also be obvious that I don't have many shows to pick from, and there's something vaguely patronising about trying to make up a Top Ten, never mind award an earth-shatteringly important title like Best Nipples, out of the 42 live shows I did manage to squeeze in. That said, a couple of shows in those first two-and-a-half months did make strong entries in certain categories, and theatres' attempts to keep something going both for audiences and their own survival were downright heroic.

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Nine Lessons and Carols
- stories for a long winter

My "stage to screen" reviews were meant to be a very occasional feature in among the live theatre trips, but of course in 2020 they've ended up dominating. For my last one of the year it's one more of the shows I'd actually booked to see live but the government's Department of Tossing a Coin to See if Theatres Can Stay Open This Week put an end to that; having dipped their toe into digital content a couple of months ago when The Duchess of Malfi was briefly made available, I wasn't surprised when the Almeida offered a recording of their seasonal show to ticket-holders as an alternative. I say seasonal, but while the short preparation time led most theatres to dust off some version of A Christmas Carol, director Rebecca Frecknall, writer Chris Bush, songwriter Maimuna Memon (who also performs) and the cast were sent off to devise a more melancholy reflection on the season and the year leading up to it with Nine Lessons and Carols - stories for a long winter.

Saturday, 26 December 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Dick Whittington
(National Theatre)

British theatres' biggest annual earner, the Christmas pantomime, attempted a limited return in those areas that were allowed to, before everything got promptly shut down again (it's OK though, the Culture Secretary and Prince William had already been very publicly allowed to take their families to one, so it's not like anyone who matters was being excluded.) In what is hopefully a one-off attempt to make up for something people were missing out on elsewhere, the National Theatre were one of the venues putting on a panto, with an updated version of a Jude Christian and Cariad Lloyd script for Dick Whittington first seen at the Lyric Hammersmith two years ago. When this too was put on ice, they put Ned Bennett's new production up on YouTube for a few days over Christmas (available for free internationally, which raises the possibility of people all over the world watching and being baffled by the British concept of wholesome family entertainment consisting predominantly of dick jokes.)

Monday, 14 December 2020

Theatre review: A Christmas Carol (Bridge Theatre)

For what is almost certainly going to be my last live theatre visit of the year (I have two more booked but Tier 3 will put paid to them,) it's a story that always shows up a lot around this time of year, but this Christmas, with short lead times and the need for something straightforward and familiar, has been pretty much ubiquitous - or would be if the theatres weren't closing again the minute the shows opened. Maybe the two are connected, and the government's renewed vendetta against theatre is something to do with the popularity of a story that might as well be subtitled "All Tories Are Guaranteed Eternal Damnation," who knows? Out of many options the version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol I chose was Nicholas Hytner's at the Bridge - it's one of the easier theatres for me to get to, but more importantly the cast includes a Future Dame in the form of Patsy Ferran, and a current one in Simon Russell Beale.

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Theatre review: The Dumb Waiter

"It's not like Pinter where you can more or less say what you like so long as you leave enough gaps."

In what I suspect will be a pretty short window of time to catch live theatre in London before we get bumped up a tier, a classic Pinter makes a surprisingly swift return to the stage - it's less than two years since The Dumb Waiter was in the West End, but Hampstead Theatre were keen to mark the 60th anniversary of a show that premiered there in its own debut season. Planned to run last spring as part of the theatre's 60-year retrospective season, it does of course also feature a bubble-friendly cast of just two, with Alec Newman as Ben and Shane Zaza as Gus, a pair of mobsters who've been holed up all day in a basement room waiting for the instruction to carry out a hit on an unknown target. But when instructions do come, via the titular miniature elevator, they're confusing and increasingly extravagant food orders, seemingly intended for a restaurant kitchen that's long since closed.

Friday, 4 December 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Rent

The latest leg of my virtual tour around the UK's theatres takes me to Manchester and the Hope Mill, where Blake Patrick Anderson and Millie O'Connell must be feeling particularly hard done by 2020 - their run in Be More Chill, which for Anderson in particular had been expected to be a star-making performance, got cut short by the first lockdown, and when they reunited for Luke Sheppard's revival of Rent it only lasted five performances before Lockdown 2: Emetic Boogaloo scuppered that as well. Intended to be a mix of socially distanced audiences with simultaneous live-streaming, with Manchester still barred from live performance even after lockdown lifted they've had to rejig the plan, and stream a recording of the final live performance of Jonathan Larson's iconic, none-more-nineties musical.

Friday, 20 November 2020

Stage-to-screen review: The Poltergeist

Philip Ridley continues to go above and beyond in providing Southwark Playhouse, production company Tramp and director Wiebke Green with replacement work for the cancelled Beast of Blue Yonder that was meant to play when the first lockdown came in. And while the venue was among the first out of the gates to get live audiences back in they were also comparatively prepared for things to go tits up again for Lockdown 2: Electric Fuckeroo: I was meant to be in Elephant & Castle in person tonight for Ridley's latest, The Poltergeist, but the limited run was always going to be live-streamed as well, and when the kybosh got put back on live audiences my ticket just got converted to an online one. A shame in the sense that seeing Joseph Potter's performance in an intimate space would no doubt have been an electric experience, but a lot of that power still comes through on screen.

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Theatre review: Death of England - Delroy

Back what was either five minutes or about twelve years ago depending on how time is passing, Clint Dyer and Roy Williams​' Death of England was a hit in the National's Dorfman; a major part of the conflicted, grieving Michael's monologue revolved around his black best friend Delroy, and the way his father treated him. Like everyone else in that story, Delroy got an unfiltered taste of how Michael felt about him in an eventful, coke-fuelled eulogy, but he also ended up hooking up with his lifelong crush, Michael's sister Carly. Although the original monologue was powerful and self-contained, it did also effectively set up its unseen supporting cast of characters enough that Rufus Norris commissioned a companion piece soon after it opened. The resulting sequel/spin-off Death of England - Delroy hasn't had the best of luck - original star Giles Terera got appendicitis but his hand-picked understudy Michael Balogun has ably taken over; only for the NT's post-lockdown return to fall victim to Lockdown 2: Here We Go Again, meaning tonight's official opening is also its closing night (it was filmed so people who'd booked for a cancelled performance can be offered a digital alternative.)

Monday, 2 November 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Crave

With Crave I've now seen all of Sarah Kane's inevitably small canon of theatrical work; originally premiered under a pseudonym to avoid being judged on the playwright's notoriety, her penultimate play marks a shift of direction into a more abstract poetic style. It famously has no stage directions and the characters are lettered rather than named, leaving it up to the actors and director to find characters in the stream of words (by the time of her de facto suicide note 4:48 Psychosis, Kane had also dispensed with telling us which character says which line, or indeed how many characters there are.) It's a piece that defies an easy summary of what it's about, although like its successor it's built on despair - though rather than that wider existential horror this is more specifically rooted in having despaired of love. There's a failed relationship at the heart of Crave, an intense and highly sexual one and almost certainly abusive to some degree, although whether this is the voice of the abused or the abuser is as fluid as anything else here.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Theatre review: Nine Lives

My last visit to the Bridge Theatre's initial season of monologues is to another tale of the precarious life of an immigrant seeking asylum in the UK, and after the religious persecution behind An Evening with an Immigrant, Zodwa Nyoni's Nine Lives gives us a man fleeing the country of his birth because it's dangerous for him to be gay there. But while his sexuality forms part of what he's looking for, as with Inua Ellams' play the need for somewhere to belong is a more important element of the story than what he's running away from. Ishmael (Lladel Bryant) has fled Zimbabwe after his relationship with another man was discovered; he tries to contact David, who left before him, but his ex seems to be ignoring all his Facebook messages.

Friday, 23 October 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Bubble

"Zoom? It'll never catch on."

It's no surprise if one of the most prolific playwrights working today is among the first out of the gates with a new Covid play, nor that James Graham has approached the subject with a sharp political focus but from a highly original direction. Bubble is playing for three performances only at Nottingham Playhouse, with a socially distanced live audience and everyone else able to buy a pass to watch one of the performances on Zoom. Micro-pub owner Ashley (Pearl Mackie) and teacher Morgan (Jessica Raine) are buzzing after having been on a great first date, the first successful one for either of them in a long time. Then lockdown laws are announced and they have a very reckless thought: What if they went into isolation together and found out just how accurate those great first impressions were?

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Stage-to-screen review: The Boys in the Band

Last seen in London four years ago, Mart Crowley's seminal 1968 gay play The Boys in the Band got a Broadway revival in 2018, which responded to the calls to let gay actors be the first choice to play gay roles by using an all-openly gay cast. Given that's something clearly close to TV mogul Ryan Murphy's heart as well, it's not too surprising that he's behind a movie adaptation of Joe Mantello's production that was released as a Netflix original a couple of weeks ago. Michael (Jim Parsons) is hosting a birthday party for Harold (Zachary Quinto,) the only member of his friend group who can rival him for bitchiness. Five more of their friends have been invited, and two unexpected guests also arrive, with one of them, Michael's straight former college roommate Alan (Brian Hutchison,) dredging up such strong self-loathing emotions in the host that he goes on an emotionally destructive rampage.

Monday, 12 October 2020

Theatre review: An Evening with an Immigrant

Another trip to the Bridge Theatre's monologue rep season while I still can, and an artist who's become a firm favourite at the National, and who started working there while the current Bridge team were running it; though as An Evening with an Immigrant reveals, Inua Ellams might have more to thank Nick Starr for than just his big break. The story of his and his family's attempts to be made permanent, legal UK residents, which has taken more than half of his life so far, the blurb warns that there's some crossover with Ellams' breakthrough show The 14th Tale, but that was long enough ago that I don't remember much detail - there's passing mention here of Ellams' twin sister, who I think was a much bigger element in the earlier story. Here the focus is more on Ellams himself and his parents - with a Muslim father and Christian mother, the family manages to live harmoniously with their religious differences.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Theatre review: The Last Five Years

When The Last Five Years originally ran at Southwark Playhouse in March it became my first show this year to fall victim to illness - although that was because the performance I'd booked was cancelled due to non-COVID-related cast ill health. There was no time to reschedule before it joined the rest of the UK's theatre in limbo, but with socially-distanced performances inching their way back to the stage it was an obvious candidate to make a return: Jason Robert Brown’s musical features a bubble-friendly cast of only two, who barely even have to interact as they inhabit the same story, but almost never at the same time: Jamie (Oli Higginson) takes us through his five-year relationship with Cathy (Molly Lynch) from the excitement of realising he might have met the "Shiksa Goddess" of his dreams, through their marriage and up to the point of him leaving her a letter asking for a divorce.

Monday, 5 October 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Monday Monologues

A quick roundup of a series of very short pieces courtesy of the Bush Theatre, which posted a new YouTube video every few weeks over the summer as their contribution to keeping theatre in people's minds and lives over lockdown. And lockdown is very specifically the theme of most of the Monday Monologues, beginning with Skype d8 by Travis Alabanza, in which Ibinabo Jack plays a woman fretting over what to wear for a virtual date with a man she'd only met a couple of times in person. It's frantic and funny as Jack's character recognises the ridiculousness of how much time she's spending making a good impression on Skype, but it does reveal an underside about how the starkness of having to deal with people virtually makes people feel exposed in a way face-to-face communication smooths out. The Bush's artistic director Lynette Linton directs most of the videos including this and the second, Shaun Dunne's Beds.

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Radio review: Andromache

17th century French playwrights had a trend for recreating the themes and styles of Ancient Greek theatre, but while the originals are regularly seen as ripe for restaging and reinvention, I haven't seen a Racine play since 2012's Berenice. This Radio 3 adaptation by Edward Kemp, first broadcast in 2017, is one of those that literally went back to the same source of Greek mythology, although the story strand explored in Andromache was entirely obscure to me (and seems largely contradictory to some of the better-known stories.) It's Trojan War: The Next Generation as, a year after the sacking of Troy, the children of the victorious Greek generals try to tie up the remaining threads. So Pyrrhus (Alex Lanipekun,) son of Achilles and his successor as King of Epirus, has been betrothed to Hermione (Susannah Fielding,) daughter of Helen and Menelaus, for some time.

Friday, 25 September 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Romantics Anonymous

I've more or less consigned Emma Rice to the same "I'm just never going to see the appeal" box Samuel Beckett has been sitting in, for more or less the exact opposite reasons, for years. But anything resembling live theatre is still a rarity, and Romantics Anonymous is a show that's inspired a lot of love among people whose opinion I consider worth listening to. It debuted at the Swanamaker at the tail end of Rice's notorious run at Shakespeare's Globe, and after playing at the Bristol Old Vic earlier this year it's now returned there to play to an empty theatre with the live performances streamed to computers (the platform they use, TicketCo, turns out to also have an app that works on my TV so that was better than expected.) Based on Les Émotifs Anonymes by Jean-Pierre Améris and Philippe Blasband, Rice (book,) Michael Kooman (music) and Christopher Dimond's (lyrics) musical plays out the familiar French movie trope of quirky misfits finding love.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Stage-to-screen review: My Beautiful Laundrette

Leicester's Curve Theatre continues to dip into its archive recordings to provide online content and fundraise during lockdown; latest is last year's My Beautiful Laundrette, adapted by Hanif Kureishi from his own screenplay. It's something of a rollercoaster ride during the early eighties for an extended Pakistani-British family, rising above the general wave of unemployment by building a small business empire (albeit one that isn't quite as legal and respectable as it initially appears) while at the same time being regularly reminded that they're still viewed by many as an underclass. It's seen through the eyes of Omar (Omar Malik) and his complicated relationship with old schoold friend Johnny (Jonny Fines, who seems pretty spot-on casting for a play about laundry, considering he's always struck me as looking literally very clean, but metaphorically a bit dirty.)

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Death of a Hunter

Fond as I am of the Finborough Theatre, some of its deadly-serious, issue-based programming can be a hard sell. It does produce its share of joyous shows - I still sometimes go on about how funny Quality Street was a decade later, and only last year they camped After Dark up to within an inch of its life - but its online offerings during lockdown haven't exactly been focused on escapism. Which brings us to September's offering, the story of Ernest Hemingway blowing his brains out. Mercifully not in musical form, but in German playwright Rolf Hochhuth's 1977 play Death of a Hunter, which got its English-language premiere at the Finborough in 2018 (this archive recording is being released as a tribute to the playwright, who died in May.) We follow Hemingway (Edmund Dehn) in the last hour of his life, having already decided to follow his father's example and commit suicide.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Theatre review: Beat the Devil

My first visit in nearly six months to an actual theatre for a live show takes me to the Bridge, and while there's a kind of minor triumph to a limited number of venues finding a way around social distancing to present shows despite the indifference of the powers that be, I was also acutely aware of being in the same place where I saw my 2019 Show of the Year: The large space with its seating capacity greatly reduced to allow distance between audience groups, standing in stark contrast to the heaving bodies at last year's Shakespearean party. I guess it would also have been nice if my first tentative venture back out into live theatre had been for some escapism from what's kept us apart all these months, but instead we're right in the thick of it as playwright David Hare came down with Covid-19 at the same time that a belated lockdown was introduced in the UK; Beat the Devil is his furious memoir of his time suffering from a "mediaeval" disease and the actions of those he squarely blames for his having contracted it.

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Three Kings

After a busy first couple of months, theatres' commitment to streaming content has been tailing off as it's become increasingly apparent how much they're being hung out to dry by the government, and their resources to create online content must be running low. But they haven't given up the ghost yet entirely, and the Old Vic's occasional series of broadcasts, "In Camera," has aimed for a particularly authentic feel of a trip to the theatre: The show is performed live and streamed via Zoom; there's the sound of audience hubbub and the ten-minute bell as you take your seat (in front of the computer) and, of course, the show starts a few minutes late. Some of the less appealing features have also come with it: The Old Vic has persisted with a system of staggered ticket prices and the related online queue, despite everyone getting the same view (in theory it promotes a "pay what you can" policy but don't tell me the Duchess of Argyll wouldn't grab a £10 subsidised ticket if she got first place in the queue) and it comes with the pitfalls of live theatre - Three Kings' entire run was postponed twice when its star Andrew Scott had to have minor surgery.

Monday, 31 August 2020

TV Review: Talking Heads -
Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet / The Shrine

I've been spreading out watching the remake of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads over the summer, and with Nicholas Hytner's London Theatre Company behind the production it's perhaps not entirely surprising that one of the first tentative steps towards bringing live theatre back involves Hytner's Bridge Theatre staging a selection of the monologues with their new actors. I'm not currently planning on watching any of the planned double bills, but I do still have the last of my televised ones to catch up with, and as Sarah Frankcom's production opens with a shot of Maxine Peake's slippered feet walking down the stairs we're in for one of the more bizarre explorations of suburban kinks and secrets from the 1998 series, Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet. The second monologue to have been originally written for Patricia Routledge, Frankcom and Peake seem to have found their own take on the story.

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Stage-to-screen review: The Beast Will Rise - Star / Night / Puzzle / Snow

It's been a while since I checked in with Philip Ridley and his lockdown monologue collection: That's because I've been watching them in groups of four or five playlets (you can also read my reviews of the first and second sets) and I'd been waiting for all fourteen to become available before winding the reviews up. But production company Tramp are among those dipping a toe back into live performance, and a final monologue called Cactus appears to be being saved to premiere live. So maybe that'll eventually surface on YouTube as well and I could give that a quick review, but in the meantime parts 10-13 of the sequence feature another one of the somewhat longer speeches, followed by a trio of very short snapshots. They've got a tough act to follow as the 30-minute opener Star is frantically memorable.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

TV review: Talking Heads -
Nights in the Garden of Spain / The Hand of God

I do like a random connection in my shows and the new 2020 remake of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads has featured Martin Freeman, plus Sarah Lancashire, his intended co-star in James Graham's 2017 comedy Labour of Love, and now Tamsin Greig, who actually appeared as his sparring partner in that play when Lancashire had to pull out. Greig appears in the latest of my double bills, a pair from the second, 1998 series, and although still laced with sadness these are two of the most straightforwardly funny monologues from the collection. The comedy is very dark in Nights in the Garden of Spain, which Marianne Elliott directs, as Greig's quietly unhappy Rosemary uncovers the dark underside of her bland suburban neighbourhood. And all it takes is helping her neighbour deal with the sudden death of her husband - because she's just shot him.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Reasons to be Cheerful

Punk and jukebox musicals don't seem obvious bedfellows, unless the music comes from Ian Dury and the Blockheads and the theatre company doing the adaptation is Graeae, who champion the work of D/deaf and disabled actors and creatives: Not only did Dury himself have disabilities caused by childhood polio, but he regularly referenced them and celebrated his difference in his songs (most famously "Spasticus Autisticus.") Paul Sirett's book for Reasons to be Cheerful keeps the story very simple as a hook to hang the songs on - not a bad move, given what can happen when a jukebox show overcomplicates its story - and follows Vinnie (Stephen Lloyd) and his best friend Colin (Stephen Collins) as they try to get tickets to a sold-out Blockheads gig in Hammersmith, at the height of their popularity in 1979.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

TV review: Talking Heads - A Chip in the Sugar /
The Outside Dog / Bed Among the Lentils

It's hard to separate Alan Bennett's Talking Heads from their original performers but my next selection of remakes sees their actors put a new stamp on them. In among the collection of current and future dames each of the two original series had one male monologue, and the original series opened with Bennett himself in A Chip in the Sugar. So if any piece is associated with the writer's distinctive voice even more than the others it's this one, and Martin Freeman is the actor taking on the role of Graham for director Jeremy Herrin. Like most of the actors in this remake Freeman isn't trying too hard to emulate the original accent, which might lose something in authenticity but helps avoid too many direct comparisons. Graham is a closeted middle-aged man who lives with his mother, having had trouble living alone in the past due to paranoid schizophrenia. He's now on medication but his mother's chance meeting with an old boyfriend from her youth unsettles his routine and he starts to think the house is being watched again; except maybe this time it actually is.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Radio review: I Am the Wind

I guess we're now reaching the point where I'm starved enough of theatrical content to be seeking out stuff I strongly suspect I won't like: Nearly ten years ago the Young Vic staged an elaborately designed and directed production of Jon Fosse's I Am the Wind, which came with much discussion of how the Norwegian playwright was one of the most frequently staged throughout Europe, except for the UK where he was virtually unknown. Well in the subsequent decade I haven't seen another Fosse play, nor do I even think I've heard of any major production being staged, so it's probably safe to say the play wasn't the hoped-for London breakthrough. I think the reviews were generally scathing, and my own opinion was that while the production was spectacular I remained unconvinced that there was much of substance underneath it. Now the same English version by Simon Stephens gets a radio production from Toby Swift, and what better way to see if my opinion's changed than by stripping the play down to just words and sound effects?

Sunday, 5 July 2020

TV review: Talking Heads - Her Big Chance /
Playing Sandwiches

Of the collection of current and future dames in the new version of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads the most zeitgeisty is surely Jodie Comer - even with the discussion about Killing Eve largely focusing on how much it falls foul of the law of diminishing returns, she's still one of the biggest names to emerge in recent years. The other big name she replaces in these monologues is Julie Walters, as Comer takes on Her Big Chance. She plays young actress Lesley, who's not very bright but still isn't quite dim enough to fool herself that she's not really being used and abused by the film industry she's trying to break into: More by luck than judgement she lands a role as the villain's mostly-naked girlfriend in a low-budget German crime thriller being filmed in Lee-on-Solent, a distinctly chillier location than the Riviera setting it's meant to be. Her Big Chance is a very cleverly balanced tragicomedy - there's a profound sadness to the inevitability with which every man Lesley meets uses her for sex while pretending to help her career, not just on a one-to-one level but the entire cast and crew barely registering her as a person and walking out on her the morning after the night before.

Monday, 29 June 2020

TV review: Talking Heads - A Lady of Letters /
An Ordinary Woman / Soldiering On

I can't realistically brand the new Talking Heads as "stage-to-screen" since they originated on TV in the first place; but Alan Bennett's beloved '80s and '90s monologues have occasionally been produced on stage as well, and this new lockdown version corralled by Bennett's regular collaborator Nicholas Hytner features a new collection of current and future dames who are mostly stage regulars, and some big theatre names directing. So I think we can call them stagey enough to keep my blogging muscles exercised on. Monologues filmed on an existing set - the Eastenders complex - are a clever way of making socially-distanced TV without resorting to the ubiquitous Zoom calls, and while I agree that giving some out-of-work playwrights the job of creating new ones might have been a better way of supporting talent, there's nothing stopping the BBC from doing that as well, and if something's acclaimed as a modern classic it should be able to stand up to reinvention.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Stage-to-screen review: It Is Easy To Be Dead

If UK theatres had anything to celebrate at the moment, the Finborough Theatre would be celebrating its 40th birthday today. Still, it's a milestone worth marking for the ambitious fringe venue, hence my second virtual trip this week to Earl's Court. The Finborough had a unique take on marking the centenary of the First World War, and instead of doing a full season of work in 2014, its THEGREATWAR100 strand staged relevant work intermittently over five years, between the points 100 years from the war's beginning, and 100 years from its end. Even so I was probably still worn down by many shows on the subject when It Is Easy To Be Dead came along in 2016, as despite rave reviews, a transfer and an Olivier nomination, I didn't get round to seeing it live. It now forms part of their online fundraising drive, and despite being inevitably heartbreaking the play has more of a bittersweet edge to it.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Jane Clegg

It's one of my own personal clichés that the Finborough Theatre approaches programming as if it's the fringe's answer to the National, with the ambition if not the budget to match. It proves true too during lockdown, with the room above an Earl's Court pub matching some of the country's biggest venues, by offering up archive recordings on YouTube for people missing their theatrical fix. Jane Clegg falls into the venue's remit that 50% of its shows be revivals of forgotten classics, as the play was a hit when it debuted in 1913, and its original star Sybil Thorndike kept returning to the title role throughout her career, but the play hadn't been seen in London since 1944 until David Gilmore's revival last year. St John Ervine's play was written with the Suffragettes in the news, and it reflects a new reality where a man might still legally be the king of his castle, but can no longer necessarily rule unquestioned.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Stage-to-screen review: The Madness of George III

National Theatre At Home, which uses recordings made during the NT Live cinema screenings that have become very popular internationally in the last ten years, has been at the forefront of online theatre in lockdown, with whole shows being made available on YouTube for one week only. I only haven't mentioned them on this blog yet because, being predominantly shows from the NT itself, I'd already seen them live and reviewed them at the time*. In recent weeks the NT has expanded the project's horizons though, offering shows from other venues, and with it the opportunity to share in the fundraising drive. This week this means a trip to Nottingham Playhouse, and Adam Penford's production of The Madness of George III. Alan Bennett's enduring play looks at the institution of royalty in all its alienness and pomp, and the frail, sometimes banal humanity holding it up.

Friday, 5 June 2020

Stage-to-screen review: The Beast Will Rise - Wound / Telescope / River / Eclipse / Performance

Back to Coronavirus, lockdown and isolation as seen through the uniquely, romantically twisted viewpoint of Philip Ridley, as I go back for a second selection of online premiere monologues in his The Beast Will Rise series (my review of the first four is here.) The next five feature both the longest and the shortest so far, and while most of them can be seen as having a specific significance to the circumstances under which they've debuted, they all could easily remain interesting taken out of context. Probably the least obviously tied to the theme of lockdown is Wound, in which Mirren Mack gives us a journey into a troubled mind in pain, escape into both self-harm and fantasy worlds, but also a resilience that keeps her coming back to reality. A few months into lockdown and everything being done on Zoom has become visually boring, but director Wiebke Green gives Wound  its own identity with a stark clinical whiteness and maintaining an extreme close-up on Mack's face that heightens the sense of anxiety.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Macbeth (Shakespeare's Globe / Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank)

Playing Shakespeare is the Globe and Deutsche Bank's annual education programme tying in with the GCSE curriculum, creating 90-minute productions aimed at teenagers. Tickets are exclusively given free to schools, and while it's not entirely impossible for regular audience members to get hold of them - I know people who've raved about past productions' playful, irreverent tone - I've never managed to get round to one. Now this year's production, which played in February and March just before the theatres closed, is the latest addition to the Globe's online offerings on YouTube. Ekow Quartey plays the title role in Cressida Brown's modern dress production of Macbeth, as the previously loyal Scottish general whose ambition is fired up by a supernatural prophecy, kills the king and steals his throne, only to find that having unleashed his inner darkness he becomes a tyrant with enemies everywhere.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Grounded

I didn't so much miss Deafinitely Theatre's revival of Grounded when it played at Park Theatre as actively choose not to see it: Not out of any dislike for the company, but because it was only two years since I'd seen the UK premiere of George Brant's monologue, and I knew there was no chance I could realistically watch another version without comparing it to Lucy Ellinson's extraordinary performance. Even another five years down the line it's hard to feel entirely unbiased towards Paula Garfield's production, despite it inevitably having its own identity because it makes the one-woman show a two-hander, or perhaps two one-woman shows happening concurrently: As part of Deafinitely's aim to produce shows that can be enjoyed together by D/deaf and hearing audiences, Nadia Nadarajah performs The Pilot's lines in BSL, while Charmaine Wombwell provides the English language version.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Radio review: Blithe Spirit

One of the first shows in my diary to get cancelled because of lockdown was the latest revival of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit, but as with so many things the BBC comes to the rescue, with a 2008 radio adaptation by Bert Coules returning to the BBC Sounds app. Roger Allam plays Charles, the novelist who hires a local medium in order to copy her language and mannerisms for a fraud in his upcoming book; but Madame Arcati turns out to be the real thing, and after playing her favourite song in the room where she died, his first wife Elvira's (Zoë Waites) ghost materialises. Unfortunately for Charles, only he can see her, which causes much confusion with his second wife Ruth (Hermione Gulliford,) and soon a rivalry causes chaos in the house between the two wives, one of whom is dead, and possibly turning homicidal.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Great Apes

Remember that time when Will Self was a team captain on Shooting Stars? It's a thing that actually happened (I googled it and it's definitely not just something I dreamed) but feels about as surreal and unlikely as one of the novelist's plots. Great Apes is one his best-loved books but also one based on one of his most bizarre and complex high concepts; essentially unstageable, which in some ways makes it inevitable that someone would attempt to stage it. Two decades after the book's publication the Arcola gave it a go, and director Oscar Pearce has shared an archive recording of the 2018 production to add to the list of lockdown theatre available. Over the millennia human beings have found their way to the top of the evolutionary tree, and with dominance comes a sense of superiority and the assumption that our instincts and behaviours are the ones that make sense.

Monday, 27 April 2020

Stage-to-screen review: The Beast Will Rise - Gators / Zarabooshka / Chihuahua / Origami

A lot of exciting-sounding shows got cancelled or postponed for the current lockdown, but some losses hurt more than others; a new Philip Ridley play is always something to look forward to and the blurb for The Beast of Blue Yonder made it sound like a particularly crazy, epic ride. Let's hope it's not too long after Southwark Playhouse reopens that they reschedule it, but in the meantime Ridley lost no time providing an alternative. And frankly, who better to whip up something for quarantine out of nowhere than a writer who deals in the apocalyptic as his bread and butter? With The Beast of Blue Yonder's production company Tramp, director Wiebke Green, and intended cast, he's put together The Beast Will Rise, a series of 14 monologues for the actors to record in their own homes, released on a weekly basis. But I couldn't wait that long for the whole set to be available so I'm going to be catching up with it every few weeks, beginning with the first four.

Friday, 24 April 2020

Stage-to-screen review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (BBC Wales)

Russell T Davies' TV adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream first aired in 2016 as part of the BBC's commemoration of the fourth centenary of Shakespeare's death. I had planned to watch it at the time but never got round to it - that summer was one of those particularly full of competing productions of the play and I'd seen quite enough of them. Apart from that, it was clear from the opening shot of Athens as a fascist state draped in red, white and black ersatz-swastika insignia that Davies' version was going to be one of those defined entirely by the line "I wooed thee with my sword" (not necessarily a problem in itself, by this point I think I was mainly tired of people thinking they'd discovered a uniquely dark take on the play, when in fact I would say bad-guy Theseus was the standard interpretation of the 2010s.) In any case, with "Culture in Quarantine" the latest BBC strand to heavily feature Shakespeare, the film got repeated on BBC Four, giving it another month on iPlayer for me to finally catch up.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Stage-to-screen review: What the Butler Saw

A second virtual trip to Leicester, where the Curve Theatre has actually been ahead of the curve so to speak as one of the first venues to get its online alternative to live performances up and running. As with Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual the next show they've made available has a Leicester connection, as it was the birthplace of Joe Orton (I don't think he had much good to say about the place, but in fairness he was Joe Orton, he didn't have much good to say about anything.) What the Butler Saw was his final play, in which he delivers every beat of the perfect farce while breaking all the genre's unwritten rules. The setting is the Hampstead mental health clinic run by Dr Prentice (Rufus Hound) and his wife, and as the curtain rises the doctor is "interviewing" prospective secretary Geraldine (Dakota Blue Richards,) a process which involves making her strip for a medical examination with a view to sexually assaulting her.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Radio review: Elizabeth and Essex

A few words about an odd little (but in some ways huge and epic) audio drama, written by Robin Brooks as an original Radio 3 play but feeling like it has a strong theatrical connection in the sense that I can imagine Simon Russell Beale was probably going to find a way to play Elizabeth I sooner or later. Although technically in Elizabeth and Essex he's playing the writer and Bloomsbury Group member Lytton Strachey, whose writings the play is based on, and reveal him as a drama queen imagining himself as the Virgin Queen while writing his book about her relationship with the Earl of Essex. Strachey has recently become besotted with Roger (Harry Lloyd,) a much younger man who's star-struck by the writer and becomes hugely fond of him, but clearly doesn't feel anywhere near as strongly about him as the older man does, and who is gradually drawn away from Strachey as he falls for fellow Bloomsbury Group member, the economist John Maynard Keynes (Julian Harries.)

Monday, 13 April 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Twelfth Night
(RSC / RST & Marquee TV)

Christopher Luscombe's Shakespeare productions tend to have a touch of the Merchant/Ivory to them, and so it is with this 2017 production of Twelfth Night, one of the few productions of the RSC's current run through the complete works that I'd missed until now, when it's just been added to Marquee TV's roster. Simon Higlett's set and costume designs are of a sumptious, solid kind a thrust stage like the RST rarely seems to need or bother with, and Nigel Hess' music is used like a movie score, much like he and Luscombe experimented with a decade earlier in their Merry Wives of Windsor for the Globe. The period movie they're making here is a Victorian one, where Shakespeare's fictional Illyrian coast becomes London and the countryside, by now comparatively easily accessible by train.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Flowers for Mrs Harris

My latest virtual visit to a regional theatre is to one I've been to before in person, although not for a couple of years: Chichester Festival Theatre, and Daniel Evans' production of Flowers for Mrs Harris, which he transferred there in 2018 after a run at his previous job in Sheffield. Rachel Wagstaff (book) and Richard Taylor's (music & lyrics) musical is based on a novella by American author Paul Gallico better known as Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris, which is perhaps a helpful indicator of the kind of salt-of-the-earth working-class image of a London charlady Ada Harris (Clare Burt) is. Widowed in the Second World War and childless, she has little in her life except making ends meet through the various ungrateful clients whose houses she cleans. She ploughs through stoically until one day she covers a friend's shift cleaning for a deluded minor aristocrat (Joanna Riding,) where she spots a Christian Dior dress and becomes determined to own one some day.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Stage-to-screen review: It's True, It's True, It's True - Artemisia on Trial

I think any attempt for me to see It's True, It's True, It's True live is cursed: After hearing nothing but raves for Breach Theatre's show I snuck a performance into a packed schedule when it ran at the New Diorama, only to get bronchitis and have all my theatregoing go out of the window for a few weeks. It recently spent a month available on iPlayer but I didn't watch that because I'd booked to catch its return to London for a run at the Pit; well I was due to have seen it this week, so we all know how that worked out. Now the company have put it online for another month on their YouTube channel, and let's hope finally managing to see it will break the run of bad luck. The title comes from the repeated testimony of 17th century painter Artemisia Gentileschi (Ellice Stevens) in a rape trial where she was the key witness, but it also describes the piece itself, which Stevens and director Billy Barrett have translated into vernacular modern English from the almost-complete transcripts of the 1612 trial in Rome.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Henry V (Barn Theatre)

Another regional theatre uploading an archive production online to fundraise while the doors are closed, and another grungy show to contrast with the slick offerings from the likes of the West End, National and RSC, this Henry V comes courtesy of the Barn Theatre in Cirencester, with Hal Chambers' production consciously using the ambiguity of Shakespeare's patriotic hero to reflect on the rise of populist, xenophobic politics in the 21st century. In a frantic opening, speeches from this play and the Henry IV ones preceding it are mixed with soundbites of frothing Brexiteers on Question Time, and the wild past of Prince Hal is referenced with real headlines about the current Prince Harry's party lifestyle. That Prince Harry has in recent years shown a more serious side, and so too does Shakespeare's Hal, now King Henry V (Aaron Sidwell), put on a much more serious face once he's running the country.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Stage-to-screen review:
Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual

More online theatre is being announced all the time to fill in the gap left by the buildings being shut, with the majority of what's coming up being shows I've already seen in person and reviewed. But that mainly applies to London and Stratford-upon-Avon, and the regional theatres I don't generally get to have been releasing material as well. In return for a donation, Leicester Curve are offering a recording of their 2018 show Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual for a week - this is an archive recording that was never intended for public release, but I guess even those have moved on in quality over the years, and instead of a static shot this is a perfectly watchable recording done with multiple moving cameras. Riaz Khan's original book was a response to the resurgence of racism on the football terraces in the noughties, through the lens of him finding an identity in the eighties in the unlikely family of the much-derided gangs of violent football hooligans known as casuals.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Stage-to-screen review: An Ideal Husband

With London theatres now closed for the foreseeable future the focus has very quickly shifted to how those of us who spend far too much time there can get our regular fix from home. Streaming quickly jumped in to take the strain and there should be plenty of culture available soon with the BBC planning a whole online festival, and a number of individual recordings starting to show up. In the meantime there's also a few existing platforms available; Marquee TV is one I only heard of recently, and which seems to lean heavily on the side of opera and dance, so its theatre offerings consist almost entirely of shows I've already seen. Their library does include almost all of Classic Spring's Oscar Wilde season from 2017-18 at the Vaudeville, including one installment I skipped at the time, An Ideal Husband. Jonathan Church directs a Wilde play with a more overtly political slant than most.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Theatre review: The Mikvah Project

The Mikvah Project feels a bit of an unlikely play to get a major revival within a few years of its premiere, when I was interested but not entirely convinced by it. But I've got a certain reputation to live down to as far as plays with extensive male nudity go and besides, I wanted to know if a different perspective would make it feel a bit more focused than it seemed last time. And Georgia Green's production - her professional debut, following its appearance last year as part of an Orange Tree new directors' showcase - does go some way towards filling in some gaps. The Mikvah is a Jewish ritual bath, more commonly used by women, but there are ones available for men as well, like the pair in Josh Azouz' play who meet there every Friday for particular reasons of their own. 35-year-old Avi (Alex Waldmann) goes to pray for the child he and his wife are trying to conceive (or as he puts it, he's praying to his balls.)

Friday, 13 March 2020

Theatre review: Love, Love, Love

I imagine there's a hiatus coming up in my theatregoing and reviewing, thanks to a certain global situation targeting the Baby Boomers, but in the meantime here's Mike Bartlett's own dig at that generation. After the Brexit result came in I predicted Love, Love, Love would be a play that kept coming back over the years, and here it is as Rachel O'Riordan's second directing gig in her inaugural Lyric Hammersmith season. It follows Sandra (Rachael Stirling) and Kenneth (Nicholas Burns) from first meeting to happy ending - but every chapter in their story has collateral damage they've become uncannily adept at ignoring. The first of these is Kenneth's brother Henry (Patrick Knowles,) whom Sandra has just started dating at the beginning of the play; older by only four years he appears to be from an entirely different generation.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Theatre review: Women Beware Women

Seeing two Shakespeare productions in a row isn't that unusual, especially once the summer season kicks off; two Middletons (Thomas, not Kate and Pippa) is rarer. Women Beware Women concludes the current Swanamaker season in a production by Amy Hodge that's fully aware of the potential for the play to chime with #MeToo, and gives Joanna Scotcher's design a 1980s aesthetic that nods at a time a lot of current cases date back to. The Florentine court becomes a gilded Art Deco hotel where Leantio (Paul Adeyefa) brings his new wife Bianca (Thalissa Teixeira,) only to immediately demand she be hidden away from public view because their elopement is still a dangerous secret. But on a public walkabout the Duke (Simon Kunz) spots Bianca at her window, and decides he must have her. Enter Livia (Tara Fitzgerald,) who's got a plan to get the Duke access to her in return for her own advancement.