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Thursday, 16 September 2021

Theatre review: Camp Siegfried

The Old Vic's latest show is to a great degree being sold as the opportunity to see a pair of the most promising young British* actors on stage together before their careers go stellar, although for London theatre regulars Patsy Ferran and Luke Thallon have been star names for a while (Future Dame Patsy Ferran's even got the Olivier to back it up.) They play the nameless teenagers spending the summer at Camp Siegfried in Bess Wohl's play inspired by a real Long Island summer camp of the 1930s. Named after the Wagnerian hero and aimed at American families of German extraction, it targeted young people still being made fun of for Germany losing the First World War, and aimed to use that sense of victimhood to indoctrinate them into Nazi ideology. But as the play opens at the start of summer the camp's more sinister purpose is very far in the background, as Thallon''s cocky Him spots Ferran's awkward newcomer Her at a dance, and they try to flirt over the sound of an oompah band.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Radio review: Othello

Nowadays the title character of Othello is pretty much universally seen as being a black man (and given some of the specific racist language in the play, I tend to agree that's probably what Shakespeare had in mind,) but the word "Moor" was pretty loosely defined at the time, and as well as Africans could encompass anyone Middle-Eastern or Muslim. This is the angle Emma Harding takes for another of her very specific, modern day Shakespeare adaptations, which first aired on Radio 3 in 2020: Othello (Khalid Abdalla) is a Muslim who converted to Christianity, his military skill seeing him quickly rise to the position of General in the Venetian army. Not previously romantically inclined, he's just eloped with the young noblewoman Desdemona (Cassie Layton) when he's given an urgent command: Turkey has sent forces in to recapture Cyprus, and Othello must lead the counterattack.

Thursday, 9 September 2021

Theatre review: Frozen

In what will with any luck be the start of me regularly going to the theatre with actual, human friends again, it's a twice-postponed trip with my resident Disney© queens Phill and Alex, and third time lucky takes us to the refurbished* Theatre Royal Drury Lane for Frozen. The wildly popular, very loose adaptation of The Snow Queen comes to the stage in a production directed by Michael Grandage and designed by Christopher Oram, but the look and feel of Jennifer Lee (book,) Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez' (music and lyrics) show never strays too far from the original movie. Understandably so - the film and its signature song are notoriously like catnip to little girls, so this probably isn't the show to get all experimental with†". Elsa (Samantha Barks) is heir to the throne of the Scandinavian-inspired kingdom of Arendelle, but since her parents' death she's been a recluse, even from her beloved younger sister Anna (Stephanie McKeon.)

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Theatre review: Rockets and Blue Lights

Winsome Pinnock's Rockets and Blue Lights takes its title from a JMW Turner painting, but its subject revolves around a different one of the painter's seascapes, unveiled in the same year and possibly a kind of companion piece: Best-known as The Slave Ship, it shows the aftermath of a slave ship (possibly the Zong) jettisoning its human "cargo" in a storm. It was part of the backlash against slavery that led to abolition in British territories, and the painting and its ambiguities - is Turner's not showing the bodies of the victims letting the viewer off the hook, or forcing them to imagine horrors he can't satisfactorily put to canvas? - becomes a recurring symbol, and a starting-off point for trying to reframe the narrative: Instead of making abolition a cause for self-congratulation, looking at the legacy of slavery both at the time and down the generations.

Saturday, 4 September 2021

Theatre review:
Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act

The JMK Award returns to its new home at the Orange Tree Theatre, a home which feels fitting as it has staged Athol Fugard plays before, and this year's winner Diane Page has chosen to direct Fugard's 1972 play Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, about the aspects of the Apartheid laws that banned interracial relationships. Errol (Shaq Taylor) is black or "Coloured," the headmaster of a school, with a religious background but an enquiring mind about evolutionary theories that leads him to seek out a book recommended by his university course, but unavailable in any library he'd be allowed to join. Frieda (Scarlett Brookes) is white or "European," six years older than him, single, and the librarian who allows him to study the texts he wants even though he's not allowed to actually borrow them. We meet them a year after they first met, in the darkened back room of the library, where they've been conducting their illegal affair.

Thursday, 2 September 2021

Theatre review:
Once Upon A Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia

It's not often the main focus of war movies or other popular culture, so I'm probably not alone in finding where Africa fits into the Second World War something of a blind spot. If German officer Grandma (Adrian Edmondson) is to be believed, it was seen as a backwater during the War as well: He says the most promising Nazis are kept in Europe, and only the "animals" are sent to Africa where nobody's paying much attention to what they might get up to. Josh Azouz' Once Upon A Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia takes place in 1942, when officers like Grandma and his henchman Little Fella* (Daniel Rainford) presided over a somewhat precarious occupation: Their defeat of the hated French gave them some degree of sympathy with the Arab locals, but while there wasn't much resistance to the persecution of Jews in Tunis, neither did they find the enthusiastic allies they hoped for - perhaps because, under the Nazis' rhetoric supporting an independent nation, many knew that once they were done with the Jews, the Muslims would likely be next.

Saturday, 28 August 2021

Theatre review: Salomé

Oscar Wilde is known for extremes: The frothy comedies on one hand, the disgrace and despair of his later years on the other. Somewhere in between was his desire to add a more dramatic string to his bow, and like Racine a couple of centuries earlier he wanted to take Greek Tragedy as his starting point. His personal life having other plans, the only one of these tragedies he actually got to write was Salomé, which applies a biblical story to that format, ending up with a twisted and gory dance through the extremes of sexual obsession. And that's before you get to the added twists individual productions might have in mind: Ricky Dukes' for Lazarus Theatre isn't even the first I've seen to queer up Wilde even further, by gender-flipping the title character. King Herod (Jamie O'Neill) has, in a plot point reminiscent of another famous tragedy, had his own brother killed and married his widow, Herodias (Pauline Babula.) Apart from the obvious, the tension in their marriage is also caused by Herod's undisguised interest in her son Salomé (Fred Thomas.)

Thursday, 26 August 2021

Theatre review: 2:22 A Ghost Story

SPOILER ALERT: I don't spoil any twists that actually happen in the play in this review; however I do mention a couple of red herrings that don't lead to anything, so you may want to consider that if you're planning on seeing the show and want it to fully misdirect you.

Tuesday's West End trip saw a TV show spin off to the stage; Thursday's doesn't actually do the same with a podcast (although that's bound to be on the cards next,) but it does market itself heavily on the back of one. I did in fact listen to The Battersea Poltergeist, which I found a suitably chilly accompaniment to a winter lunchtime walk around the park, but I hadn't realised quite how many others were doing the same - apparently at one point it was the most listened-to drama podcast worldwide, so it makes sense that playwright Danny Robins' new play would want to capitalise on the notoriety of a show he wrote and hosted. Especially when that play is called 2:22 A Ghost Story. New parents Jenny (Lily Allen) and Sam (Hadley Fraser) are renovating the large East London house they recently bought off an elderly widow. But for the most part Jenny has been there alone with their baby, as astronomer Sam has been working on Sark, an island noted for its clear skies with no light pollution.

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Theatre review: The Windsors: Endgame

I'm not sure I like the increasing trend for popular TV sitcoms to get a West End outing and haven't been to many of them, but George Jeffrie & Bert Tyler-Moore 's The Windsors has been one of my favourite shows of recent years so I made an exception: The TV version is presumably not going to be returning following Jeffrie' s (non Covid-related) death just under a year ago, but he had managed to finish the first draft of The Windsors: Endgame with his writing partner. For those unfamiliar with the sitcom, it essentially plays the current members of the British Royal Family (minus the Queen and Prince Philip) as an overwrought soap opera, with Camilla Parker-Bowles as the overarching villain, plotting to get Charles the crown, and then grab power for herself. This stage finale sees what would happen when she finally got her way - funnily enough the broad strokes of the plot are similar to King Charles III, although this being a much sillier affair it doesn't actually kill off Elizabeth II, it just follows up on the real-life death of Prince Philip to have her abdicate in favour of Charles (Harry Enfield.)

Thursday, 19 August 2021

Theatre review: Big Big Sky

The studio venue with the most disproportionate set design budget in London recreates a real place from Tom Wells' past, as Hampstead Downstairs plays host to Big Big Sky, and designer Bob Bailey takes us into a café where the playwright used to work. In the village of Kilnsea where Wells grew up, the café is at a particularly remote point, because it serves the hordes of birdwatchers who arrive every spring and summer, hoping to catch sight of some of the rare sea birds that flock to the coast. Angie (Jennifer Daley) only gets customers between April and October so she closes the café every winter, and will soon close it for good - the play essentially tracks her last year running the place, as a new bird observatory nearby will put her out of business. She's helped out by local teenager Lauren (Jessica Jolleys,) and most days Lauren's widowed father Dennis (Matt Sutton) pops in just after closing, hoping to get a free Cornish pasty from the leftovers, and maybe a chat with Angie.

Tuesday, 17 August 2021

Theatre review: Paradise

Kae Tempest's Paradise was originally due to run in the Olivier last summer, which makes it the latest rescheduled show to have me wondering how much rewriting or reimagining it had over lockdown - one of its themes is of people who've been isolated for some time, baulking at the thought of returning to the outside world. Then again this new version of Sophocles' Philoctetes is so full of themes and musings that it would no doubt strike some topical notes at any time. Certainly in light of the last few days' news, it finds an instant relevance in the setting for Ian Rickson's production - a dusty Mediterranean or Middle Eastern refugee camp, where the chorus of women (Claire-Louise Cordwell, ESKA, Amie Francis, Sutara Gayle, Jennifer Joseph, Sarah Lam, Penny Layden, Kayla Meikle and Naomi Wirthner) talk about wars that, after decades of fighting and death, only ever go round in circles when they look like they're about to be resolved.

Thursday, 12 August 2021

Theatre review: John & Jen

A chamber musical by Andrew Lippa (music and lyrics) and Tom Greenwald (book and lyrics,) John & Jen was the composer's first musical, premiering in 1993. Originally set between 1952 and 1990, Guy Retallack's production in the Little at Southwark Playhouse is the debut of a rewritten new version: With the protagonists' personal lives sometimes being buffeted about by world affairs, the action has been moved forward to strike familiar notes to a new generation. So John (Lewis Cornay) is now born in 1985, and the action takes us all the way through 2020 Zoom calls to an ending slightly in the future*. Five or so years older than him, his sister Jen (Rachel Tucker) is old enough to know he's going to have a tough time, and swears to protect him from life, and particularly from their abusive father. In the first act we see their close relationship growing up, but as a teenage Jen has the chance to go to university and escape their family, she leaves John behind as well.

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Theatre review: Twelfth Night (Shakespeare's Globe)

Without the new writing or more obscure revivals that sometimes take us into the autumn at Shakespeare's Globe, it's already time for my last outdoor visit of this summer season (there is one more show scheduled, but it's in the Swanamaker,) and it's the regular onstage appearance of the Artistic Director, as Michelle Terry takes on Viola in Twelfth Night. Shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria - here a scrapyard full of car parts, old neon signs, a jukebox and other clutter of 1950s Americana in Jean Chan's design - Viola makes a beeline for the local Duke, Orsino (Bryan Dick.) Disguised as a boy called Cesario, she falls for him immediately, but he's smitten with the unattainable, grieving Countess Olivia (Shona Babayemi.) When "Cesario" is sent as an envoy of Orsino's love to Olivia, the circle of unrequited love is completed when she's instantly attracted to "him."

Saturday, 7 August 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Masks and Faces, or,
Before and Behind the Curtain

The Finborough has held off on reopening for live performances until next month due to the added challenges faced by a venue of its size; but not having any intention of being forgotten until then, it's continuing with the online offerings. This time it's the unlikely pairing of Restoration Comedy with Zoom calls with, as part of the Kensington and Chelsea Festival, the rediscovery of Charles Reade and Tom Taylor's Masks and Faces, or, Before and Behind the Curtain. It's fair to say I approached this one cautiously: I've enjoyed Restoration Comedy before but usually it takes quite a lot of work from a production for me to like it. Most of the time we see people in the usual ridiculous outfits and wigs blandly exchanging lines that were very funny at the time but... not so much now. So in a format that just relies on the lines and the actors' faces, with no chance of physical interaction with each other, let alone the audience, I didn't expect much. So what a pleasant surprise for Matthew Iliffe's production to add Masks and Faces to the list of "where has this been hiding all these years?" Finborough rediscoveries.

Thursday, 5 August 2021

Re-review: Constellations
(Omari Douglas/Russell Tovey cast)

For anyone who needs catching up: Nick Payne's Constellations, one of my favourite plays of the last decade, is back in the West End this summer in Michael Longhurst's original production, with a casting twist that sees four new pairs of actors take on the two-hander in repertory. Tempted as I was to book all four I decided to limit myself to two versions, and even if I hadn't alluded to it in my review of the Capaldi/Zwanamaker version, regular readers of this blog will both have been able to easily guess at the second. Even if it hadn't been for the presence of OG Big Favourite Round These Parts Russell Tovey, part of the idea behind this new casting gimmick was for as many theatregoers as possible to see themselves in Roland and Marianne: So they became a young Black couple, then a much older couple than is usually cast, and now the third cast is here to make them an interracial gay couple*.

Tuesday, 3 August 2021

Theatre review: The Two Character Play

If it's not common knowledge quite how long and prolific Tennessee Williams' writing career actually was, it's not just a case of not all his Southern melodramas being up there with A Streetcar Named Desire and the other hits; it's also that later in his career he experimented with other styles wildly different from what he's best-known for. As Hampstead Theatre resumes its aborted 2020 anniversary season of shows that premiered there over its long history of new writing, we get to Williams channeling Beckett (worrying,) Ionesco and Pirandello (better) in 1967's The Two Character Play. It does share with earlier work like The Glass Menagerie a personal inspiration: Williams' relationship with his troubled sister Rose, whose mental health problems and the brutal way they were treated give those plays a tragic undertone. But here not only does it seem like we meet a Rose avatar after the lobotomy, that could be the state of mind the whole play takes place in.

Saturday, 31 July 2021

Theatre review: My Night With Reg

If established theatres were hit hard by lockdown, how bad must it have been for new venues that hadn't had a chance to build up an audience base or cash reserves? The much-trumpeted, shiny new Boulevard Theatre seems, according to its website, to have permanently shuttered after barely getting a chance to open, but across the river at Battersea Power Station Paul Taylor-Mills' Turbine Theatre is back up and running, reopening with a fairly safe bet: Despite its underlying bleakness, Kevin Elyot's My Night With Reg has been consistently popular with audiences: Both its 1990s debut at the Royal Court and the 2010s revival at the Donmar Warehouse got West End transfers. The only question is, was seven years (it feels a lot less) since last seeing the play too soon for me to revisit it?

Thursday, 29 July 2021

Theatre review: Oleanna

David Mamet's most recent foray into gender politics provided the definitive unflushable theatrical turd of 2019, so the return of his much-more lauded 1992 play about the battle of the sexes inevitably raises the question of how well its arguments will have aged. After all, Mamet isn't exactly best-known for his great roles for women, and although Oleanna is largely thought of as one of his better plays it was met with as much controversy as it was praise, for reasons that become apparent in the final moments. I haven't seen the play before, so the transfer of Lucy Bailey's production from Bath to the Arts Theatre is an opportunity to fix that: Jonathan Slinger is John, a University lecturer in... I think maybe Philosophy, although his love of waffling self-importantly means it's often anyone's guess what he's actually talking about. It's no wonder his student Carol (Rosie Sheehy) seems so confused. Set entirely in John's office, Oleanna opens with Carol arriving for an unscheduled meeting.

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Theatre review: Operation Mincemeat

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Although Operation Mincemeat premiered a couple of years ago, it has been so extensively rewritten during lockdown that the Southwark Playhouse run has now been reclassified as a Work In Progress.

In fact it sounds as if we should consider this a completely different show from the one that the company SpitLip originally produced at the New Diorama: An usher informed me that the show that had been due to transfer in 2020 ran 75 minutes without interval; which means as it currently stands the first act runs longer than the entire show used to. Written and composed by David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoe Roberts, Operation Mincemeat is a farcical musical based on a real World War II mission with a particularly macabre remit: The Allies planned to invade Sicily, but needed Germany to think the target was Sardinia, so they'd redeploy their forces. The decoy was to be a dead airman, washed up on the coast of Spain with top secret documents handcuffed to him in a briefcase.

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Radio review: Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein

A rainy Sunday afternoon after a fairly quiet week of live theatre is as good a time as any to dip back into the Drama on 3 archive of radio plays on BBC Sounds, and an original play written by Sarah Wooley and directed by Abigail le Fleming. Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein is, as the title gives away, a story all about theatre and particularly the formative years of Broadway musicals, but you'd be right if you suspected that one of the main draws for me was wondering if we'd get to hear Oscar Hammerstein II explain just what attracted him so much to stories whose lead characters have killed a man, honestly it's no big deal why does everyone keep going on about it, who hasn't killed a few people, if anything it's a positive and you should definitely marry off your daughter to him. Sadly this particular bit of psychological insight isn't one we get in what is for the most part a highly sympathetic look at three men who between them largely defined what the Broadway musical was.

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Theatre review: Anna X

"What if Sergey Lazarev's performance of 'You Are The Only One' at the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest, but roughly 30 times longer?"

Concluding Sonia Friedman's Re:Emerge season at the Pinter is the superficially frantic but essentially quite ponderous Anna X, Joseph Charlton's play about apps, influencers and the business of turning the appearance of success into a genuine commodity. Both characters in the two-hander trade on appearances, Ariel (Nabhaan Rizwan) by developing a dating app whose USP isn't so much the people on it as those off it: There's a waiting list to have your profile approved, and it's a lot longer than the actual list of users because you can't get on until you're vetted for looks and influence. Exclusivity is what'll make Ariel's fortune, and while the value of his company is still speculative he spends money like it's already in the bank. It's no surprise if he soon attracts Anna (Emma Corrin) who, and I don't think it's a spoiler as it's heavily hinted from the opening lines and confirmed soon after, is much more of a traditional con artist.

Sunday, 18 July 2021

Theatre review: The Comeback

In between booking new shows that will almost certainly get cancelled or postponed by Lockdown Four, there's time to squeeze in a show postponed by Lockdown Three - I was due to see Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen's The Comeback in December last year, but it's returned to finish its run at the Noël Coward for a few weeks this month. Ashenden and Owen are the sketch comedy duo best known for The Pin on Radio 4, and they write and perform this show that's an attempt to mix that kind of sketch show with a farcical narrative: Although Morecambe and Wise didn't say "fuck" on stage quite as often that's definitely the comic tradition that's in The Pin's DNA, and similarly The Comeback has clear echoes of Hamish McColl and Sean Foley's Morecambe and Wise tribute The Play What I Wrote, which was a West End (and, improbably, Broadway) hit twenty years ago.

Saturday, 17 July 2021

Theatre review: Last Easter

I think Last Easter was one of the plays that had to be cancelled mid-rehearsal for the first lockdown, now getting a second chance at a London premiere at the Orange Tree. Tinuke Craig directs Bryony Lavery's four-hander about a group of friends who all know each other through their jobs in theatre - although it's June's (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) job as a lighting designer that is most frequently mined for symbolism. June has recently learned that the breast cancer she overcame has spread to her liver and is now terminal, and her friends Gash (Peter Caulfield) and Leah (Jodie Jacobs) decide to take her on an Easter road trip to France. Knowing they can fit a fourth person in the car and spread the costs, alcoholic actress Joy (Ellie Piercy) is invited as the least-worst option out of their friendship circle, but she ends up becoming connected to the core group in surprising ways.

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Out West

Another show where I opted for the streaming option rather than a lengthy Undergound journey each way, Out West comes from the Lyric Hammersmith, a venue with a history of work that often takes very specific inspiration from its West London location. Co-directed by Diane Page and the venue's artistic director Rachel O’Riordan, these three specially-commissioned monologues from big-name playwrights all have some kind of connection to Hammersmith or the surrounding areas of London, beginning with a historical one: At the end of the 19th century Mohandas Gandhi (Esh Alladi) lived in Hammersmith for three years while studying for the Bar. In Tanika Gupta's The Overseas Student we follow the teenage Gandhi from the ship taking him from India to London, to the ship taking him back three years later. It may well be the same ship, and the treatment he receives is certainly the same, but in the intervening time Gupta subtly suggests the development from awkward young man embarrassed when confronted by women and made to feel guilty for his vegetarianism, to a future world-changing figure.

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Theatre review: Pippin

I first saw Avenue Q long before I ever saw Pippin, so maybe that's why it's taken me until now to wonder if the former's recurring theme of Princeton searching for his Purpose is a deliberate pisstake of the latter, and the title character's wandering through the world in the conviction that there's a great meaning to his existence that'll reveal itself if he can just tick off all the mundane things other people do. In Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson's tuneful but demented musical "the mundane things" include ruling half of Europe, because it's (very) loosely based on the son of Charlemagne, who actually was called Pippin (well, Pepin, which is a bit more plausible as a Mediaeval French name.) At the start of the show he's just come back from years of study, but as heir to the throne Pippin (Ryan Anderson) thinks he should learn the ropes to succeed his father (Daniel Krikler.)

Sunday, 11 July 2021

Theatre review: The Tempest
(Shakespeare's Globe & Tour)

The second of two tiny tour shows playing at the Globe this summer is Brendan O’Hea's production of The Tempest; not a play I like as much as the companion piece, As You Like It, but of course the flipside to that is that I don't come into it with quite as high expectations. So while it's still true that these smaller-scale shows suffer from the lack of a full crowd (the make-do-and-mend style is endearing but really gets much of its energy from audience interaction,) this is two hours that go by pretty briskly. Prospero (Mark Desebrock) was deposed as Duke of Milan after showing a complete lack of interest in doing the job, and fled to sea with only his baby daughter and a set of magic books that he used to obtain vast powers. On arriving on a small, almost-deserted island, he used these powers to enslave the inhabitants Ariel (Emma Ernest) and Caliban (Stephenson Ardern-Sodje,) before waiting years for a chance to take revenge on the usurpers and reclaim his dukedom.

Thursday, 8 July 2021

Stage-to-screen review: and breathe...

Even though I've started to go back to live theatre and get around London a bit more, venues like the Almeida, Lyric Hammersmith, Hampstead and Kiln that involve a fairly long Tube journey for me still feel like a bit of a trip too far. My second vaccination is booked for tomorrow so within a couple of weeks I should be happier travelling a bit further, but in the meantime some of those theatres are continuing to offer a digital alternative. Yomi Ṣode's and breathe... is coming to the end of its run but the Almeida have snuck in a live stream of the production, an autobiographical monologue in which Junior (David Jonsson) relates the story of a family bereavement, in part as an apology to his cousin Ade, who broke the bad news to him and got a violent reaction for his pains. Junior is the oldest in his generation of the family, and has a partner and child of his own; but it also means he feels like he should be taking responsibility for the cousins in times of crisis, and feels like he's neglected his duties when he hears of Big Mummy's illness.

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Re-review: Constellations
(Peter Capaldi/Zoë Wanamaker cast)

I'm calling this a re-review because it's still the same Michael Longhurst production that Nick Payne's Constellations premiered with in 2012, and which I've seen three times before. But don't worry if you're unfamiliar with the play, you don't need to go back and read three previous reviews to understand this one (though if you really want to you can find them on the Nick Payne label on the blog,) I'll still introduce the original high concept. Along with a whole new high concept for this West End revival in particular: The two-hander has four rotating casts, starting with Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah, followed by Zoë Wanamaker and Peter Capaldi, then Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey, and finally Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O'Dowd, each hoping to bring a unique angle to the story. And yes, I was very tempted to book for all four, but after a year of no theatre, a summer of the same play four times might have been too much of a shock to the system, so I decided to pick two that seemed the furthest from the casts I've seen before.

Sunday, 4 July 2021

Theatre review: Romeo & Juliet (Shakespeare's Globe)

After the government's handling of Covid-19 in general, and the arts in particular last year, I think there was always an expectation that when theatre did come back, it was unlikely to have become any less critical of those in power. I'm not sure anyone would have guessed that a Globe production of Romeo & Juliet would be the first to really give it to them with both barrels; unless, of course, they'd seen a certain political photo opp featuring Michelle Terry in the background, glaring with the heat of a hundred suns. Ola Ince's production was one originally planned for the scrapped 2020 season, and was presumably always conceived as intensely political, but I wonder how much the last year sharpened its teeth. In a city where the ruler cracks down on violence to avoid having to look too deeply into its causes, Romeo (Startled Giraffe Alfred Enoch) and Juliet (Rebekah Murrell) fall in love, against the wishes of the rival gangs they both belong to.

Saturday, 3 July 2021

Theatre review: Bach & Sons

The Bridge Theatre's large, easily flexible auditorium, together with Nicholas Hytner's contacts meaning he could quickly bring in many small-scale shows that could play to diminished capacity without breaking the bank, meant that during 2020's two false starts coming out of lockdown it became my most visited venue. The socially distanced seating remains but the programming has gone back to business as usual, with a play that allows Simon Russell Beale to combine his acting day job with his side hustle presenting documentaries about choral music. In Nina Raine's Bach & Sons he plays Johann Sebastian Bach, the most successful and best-remembered of many generations of composers, although in the years covered by the play that doesn't look like it'll be the case: He correctly predicts that his death will be a great career move as he'll get reevaluated, but at the time his meticulous, mathematical musical style is going out of fashion.

Thursday, 1 July 2021

Theatre review: As You Like It
(Shakespeare's Globe & Tour)

Returning to the Globe and beyond for 2021 are Michelle Terry's version of the Tiny Touring Shows, which sees Brendan O'Hea direct the same small cast in three stripped-back Shakespeare plays. On tour, these mainly play as "Audience Choice," with the decision on which of the plays will be shown at any given performance left to a last-minute audience vote. Unusually, this year that choice includes one play that's also part of the main season, so presumably to avoid confusion with the Sean Holmes version still playing, A Midsummer Night's Dream can only be seen in London if and when it wins one of these votes. But the other two have as usual been given a few regularly scheduled dates at the Globe, and my first encounter with this year's touring ensemble is an enduring musical favourite that matches the productions' actor-musician aesthetic, As You Like It. Set mainly in a rather idyllic Forest of Arden, most of the characters are nobles and courtiers banished from court after a coup, who hang out in separate groups, sometimes in disguise, despite the fact that they're all either related or already knew each other and could have easily just reestablished their old dynamics.

Monday, 28 June 2021

Radio review: The Rival

The closing of the theatres for Covid has been compared many times to the Elizabethan closing of the theatres for plague, and I wouldn't be surprised if we get a few plays in the next few years explicitly making the connection and following Shakespeare in that time. But while Jude Cook's radio play The Rival does that, its inspiration is one that's been giving writers and academics food for thought for centuries, most recently in the Globe's hit Emilia: The story of Shakespeare's Sonnets, and the mysterious figures they're dedicated to. The poetry collection starts in workmanlike enough fashion, when Shakespeare (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) is hired by Lord Burghley (Philip Jackson) to write 17 sonnets meant to convince his wealthy ward to marry his granddaughter. They fail completely on that front but the Earl of Southampton, known as Wriothesley (Freddie Fox,) becomes Shakespeare's patron, and when the plague closes the theatres he returns to Wriothesley's home to write the long narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Radio review: The Merchant of Venice

Despite the theatres gradually reopening this will still end up being a very Shakespeare-light year for me, so it's as good a time as any to catch up on a few more of the recent audio adaptations from Radio 3, which remain available on BBC Sounds under the Shakespeare Sessions strand. It's not a particular favourite of mine but it's been a few years since my last Merchant of Venice and the casting for Emma Harding's 2018 production is intriguing, notably that of Andrew Scott as Shylock. Harding has set the story in the City of London during the 2008 financial crash, and to open with a sidebar, I was once interviewed for a theatre job by someone who supposedly specialised in "authentic" Shakespeare, who grumbled a lot about a modern-dress RSC production of this play, saying it was impossible to set it post-Holocaust. Unless you base your interpretation entirely on the fact that the play's antisemitism is openly state-sanctioned (and I've talked elsewhere about my feelings on defining an entire production by one line or scene,) that seems either a naïvely sunny view of modern tolerance, or more likely a restrictively literal-minded approach to theatre: In the years leading up to that particular crash Jews might not have been the bogeyman of choice, but the post-9/11 world wasn't exactly shy about demonising one group of people.

Thursday, 24 June 2021

Theatre review: Under Milk Wood

A collection of our more sprightly older actors populate Lyndsey Turner's production of Under Milk Wood, which reopens an Olivier Theatre that is wisely playing it safe, and staying in its temporary in-the-round configuration for the next few shows. And, after a year they probably spent shielding more carefully than most, I guess you could do worse as a high concept at the moment than a cast who've all had both their jabs. The reason for the high concept is that Dylan Thomas' beloved play for voices has been given a new framing device by writer Siân Owen, putting the action into the morning routine of a retirement home. After we've got to meet some of the staff and residents, Owain Jenkins (The Actor Michael Sheen) arrives unexpectedly in hopes of speaking to his father, whom he hasn't seen for a long time. So long that he doesn't realise Richard (Karl Johnson) has become almost non-verbal with dementia.

Monday, 21 June 2021

Theatre review: J'Ouvert

Second in the season of three new plays reopening the Harold Pinter Theatre is one that originally debuted in the much more intimate Theatre 503, where it must have felt pretty cramped as Yasmin Joseph's J'Ouvert tries to cram the whole Notting Hill Carnival on stage. It is, to start with at least, a pretty loose journey through the day with three young women: Nadine (Gabrielle Brooks) and Jade (Sapphire Joy) have known each other since they were children, while Nisha (Annice Boparai) is a newer friend who recruited them for a local activist group. Nadine is a bit cold and standoffish with Nisha, who she sees as a bit of a cultural tourist at an event with specifically Afro-Carribean roots, but Nisha believes it's an opportunity for women of colour to stand together and stand up for each other, and sees Jade as a potentially inspiring speaker for their cause.

Saturday, 19 June 2021

Radio review: Lights Up - The Meaning of Zong

Another BBC Lights Up instalment to make it to radio rather than TV, actor Giles Terera's playwrighting debut has an epic scope and emotional intimacy that would, between them, have made trying to film it using social distancing difficult. Helped by Jon Nicholls' sound design, The Meaning of Zong finds a natural home as an audio drama that can conjure up some of the bleakest crimes of British history along with triumphs (am I saying that radio is closer to theatre than film or TV are in how much of the work the audience's imagination has to do? Maybe I am.) It's a topical story, especially given that Tom Morris' production was commissioned for Bristol Old Vic, a city at the centre of the ongoing argument about Imperial Britain's racist and oppressive heart, and the loud voices that insist any attempt to reveal the truth about history is the same as erasing it. This is alluded to in a present-day framing device in which Rachel (Moronke Akinola) has an argument with a bookshop manager over a book about the slave trade being displayed in the African, rather than British, history section.

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Theatre review: After Life

The Dorfman reopens with a Headlong co-production in which all the characters are dead. Arguably a questionable subject after the reason theatres were closed for so long in the first place, if it weren't for how charming and gently moving After Life proves to be. Designer Bunny Christie, director Jeremy Herrin and writer Jack Thorne are credited with co-creating the concept for a stage adaptation of a cult Japanese film from 1998, set entirely in a limbo that feels somewhere between a small office and a mid-range hotel (there is, unequivocally, no steam room.) Every Monday the Guides, led by Kevin McMonagle's phlegmatic line manager Five, meet a new group of the recently-deceased, or Guided. In private meetings they discuss happy, significant or otherwise precious memories from the life that just ended, and by the end of Wednesday the Guided need to have made an enormous, perhaps impossible decision.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Lights Up - The Winter's Tale

The RSC's a funny old company, isn't it? At one time considered downright avant-garde, in the last four decades its reputation has gone to the opposite extreme, as a byword for safe, old-fashioned, "heritage" Shakespeare. Nowadays I'd say it sometimes tries (with wildly varying levels of success) to push the envelope, but for the most part slips back into the kind of Shakespeare that reveres the text just that little bit too much over the theatricality. They make for an odd choice to provide the longest, largest-scale entry in the BBC's Lights Up festival, following as they do a lot of new writing with small casts and current concerns. Exactly what concerns Erica Whyman's production of The Winter's Tale deals with is anybody's guess, as apart from a couple of neat design ideas I came out of it with not much clue as to how Whyman interprets the odd, bleak story of Sicilian king Leontes (Joseph Kloska,) who essentially has a complete personality change mid-sentence, accusing his wife Hermione (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and best friend Polixenes (Andrew French) of having an affair.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Hushabye Mountain

In the 1980s and '90s there was a whole raft of gay plays dealing - albeit sometimes with charm and humour, like Angels in America or My Night With Reg - with the bleak reality of living through the AIDS pandemic. In more recent years there have been new approaches to the subject, whether it be assessing the legacy of a lost generation like The Inheritance, or seeing what the disease means to younger gay men like Undetectable, Jumpers for Goalposts, or the recent Cruise. But Jonathan Harvey's Hushabye Mountain dates from 1999, and it consciously attempts to deal with an uncertain period of hope somewhere in between the two: AIDS still dominates gay men's lives and people are being lost to it, but AZT trials are promising a real hope of successful treatment. It's no longer an automatic death sentence but for Danny (Nathan McMullen,) currently in a celestial waiting room somewhere outside the Pearly Gates, it's come just a little bit too late.

Thursday, 10 June 2021

Re-review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare's Globe)

I have fond memories of, and emotional connections to, a lot of venues, but in the last year of theatres facing an existential crisis it was the thought of never being able to go to Shakespeare's Globe again that hurt the most. So it's probably for the best, given I might have got a bit emotional, that my first trip back to the main house in two summers was to a production I'd seen there before: Sean Holmes' fiesta-style A Midsummer Night's Dream from 2019 has returned to launch the 2021 season, and though both venue and production have had to make a few changes while COVID-19 restrictions are still in place, both have retained the atmosphere that makes them special. In the audience, along with social distancing in the three galleries, and all shows playing without intervals (to stop everyone crowding to the loos at once,) the most obvious change is in the Yard, where there's usually up to 700 standing groundlings. For the first couple of months of the season these have been replaced with just three rows of temporary seats arranged by support bubbles.

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Lights Up -
Orpheus in the Record Shop

Virtual theatrical offerings like the BBC's Lights Up festival have been a godsend in terms of keeping some form of theatre going during lockdown and reminding us of what we want to get back to, but they've done the live arts a service even when they don't quite hit the mark: Shows like Orpheus in the Record Shop come with the distinct feeling that they really are missing a dimension when you're not there in the room. Written, composed and performed by Testament, this was a show premiered to a socially distanced audience at Leeds Playhouse during one of the thwarted attempts to come out of lockdown in autumn 2020, and Aletta Collins' production has been reimagined for an (almost) empty auditorium by James Brining and Alex Ramseyer-Bache. Named after the mythical musician better known for his trip to the Underworld, Orpheus owns a failing record shop that trades in vinyl of all genres, but with a focus on his own preference for hip-hop, Northern Soul and funk.

Saturday, 5 June 2021

Rehearsed reading review:
A Brief List of Everyone Who Died

Not all theatres can reopen in person just yet: If the Finborough attempted to do social distancing that'd be one audience member in the theatre and the next one at Earl's Court station, so for the moment they're still going strong with online content. Some brand-new content in the case of Jacob Marx Rice’s tragicomic A Brief List of Everyone Who Died, which gets its world premiere as a Zoom rehearsed reading, directed by Alex Howarth. At the age of 5 Graciella (Vivia Font) has her first experience of death; her parents (Caoimhe Farren and Paco Lozano) try to get her to say goodbye to her pet dog before he's put down, but she's distracted. The next day she's forgotten what they told her, and when she realises she'll never see her dog again she blames them for the loss. It becomes a frequently-recounted anecdote but it also feeds into Marx Rice's recurring question of whether someone's first experience of death in childhood influences the way they deal with it for the rest of their lives.

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Theatre review: Walden

My first trip in over fourteen months to yer actual West End, much of which is hoping to go right back to normal in the next couple of months at full capacity. A few venues are more gradually dipping their toes back in with smaller-scale productions, playing to the socially distanced audiences allowed by current regulations. At the Pinter this takes the form of a short warm-up season, ReEmerge, courtesy of Sonia Friedman Productions and curated by Ian Rickson, who directs the first of three new plays. Amy Berryman's Walden is named after Henry David Thoreau's proto-Environmentalist book and is set entirely in a remote cabin in the woods that barely has electricity, but its genre is Sci-fi, not pastoral or slasher horror. It's some decades in the future and twin sisters, both Duchesses of Malfi, are the daughters of the NASA astronaut with the most Air Miles: Over a number of missions their late father spent a total of five years on the International Space Station.

Saturday, 29 May 2021

Theatre review: Shaw Shorts

If you don't count a couple of false starts in autumn 2020, there's a nice symmetry to my first theatre trip after the third lockdown being to the Orange Tree, where I also saw my last show before the first lockdown. Let's hope it's a good omen for this reopening being the one that sticks and marks the start of things going back to normal. It is just a start though, and for now most venues are taking baby steps: For Paul Miller that means a return to one of his theatre's signature playwrights, Bernard Shaw, in intimate mode - Miller directs a double bill of short one-act comedies about marriage, extra-marital affairs and the adherence to social expectations that stops couples from making the choices that might actually mean happy lives for them. They can be booked separately but they really are very brief, and since they're very close thematically it makes sense to see them in the double bill they're calling Shaw Shorts (I mean "Shawts" was right there but I guess after the last 14 months everyone's too tired for shenanigans.)

Thursday, 27 May 2021

Radio review: The Likes of Us

After another week of staring at screens all day a radio play sometimes feels like the order of the day, this time a dip into the recent archive of Radio 3's drama strand, courtesy of the great Roy Williams: The Likes of Us premiered in February last year but has remained available on BBC Sounds. As mentioned by the playwright himself in his introduction, it was inspired by the Grenfell Tower fire, an event that provides both a framing device and a couple of crucial plot points in the life story of a woman loosely based on Williams' own mother. We first meet Gloria (Doreene Blackstock) through the prism of her daughter Sharon (Clare Perkins,) a teacher who's been tasked with writing her mother's eulogy. Having always had a combative relationship with her mother she finds this difficult, but takes some inspiration when she discovers Gloria kept secret diaries. These describe, as she would have expected, her arrival from Jamaica as part of the Windrush Generation, the racism she experienced, and the deterioration of her relationship with her husband (Steve Toussaint,) in part as a result of those experiences, in part because of his many affairs.

Sunday, 23 May 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Lights Up - Buttercup

One thing I'm looking forward to about being able to see theatre in person again? People standing in the same room as you tend, by and large, not to freeze and start buffering. I'm generally lucky with my home broadband so I think the problem is with my TV's iPlayer app, which seems particularly prone to it. Unfortunately iPlayer is, of course, where you can catch the BBC virtual theatre festival Lights Up, and I eventually had to relent and just watch on my laptop because frequent interruptions don't half mess with the flow of a gentle, thoughtful piece like Dorcas Sebuyange's Buttercup. On the other hand having to make a Covid-secure staging can give rise to other creative touches, like Julia Samuels' production introducing the idea that this monologue is a live stream that had been intended to play to a live audience: Before it begins Fortune, Sebuyange's character, is trying to make sure her mother has managed to connect to the stream from home.

Friday, 21 May 2021

Radio review: Folk

A break from theatre rescued from pandemic obscurity by BBC TV, for some theatre rescued from pandemic obscurity by BBC radio: Folk had been commissioned by Hampstead Theatre and was presumably due to have been staged by now, but instead it gets an audio outing as part of Radio 3's drama strand. Sadly this doesn't feature a spoon-playing nun but it does feature spoon-playing, as like the Tom Wells play of the same name the Folk in Nell Leyshon's play is folk music. It's inspired by the story of the man credited with recording English folk songs for posterity, composer Cecil Sharp (Simon Russell Beale,) and the woman who first inspired him, Louie Hooper (Amanda Lawrence.) Living in rural Somerset with her sister Lucy (Amanda Wilkin,) the two have just buried their mother in 1903 when Sharp arrives to spend a week at a local manor house, and Louie gets volunteered as a housemaid for him to make some extra cash.

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Lights Up - Harm

The next BBC Lights Up offering comes courtesy of the Bush Theatre, where Phoebe Eclair-Powell's Harm had been due to premiere during one of the various false starts of the last year. Instead Atri Banerjee's production of the monologue has been reimagined on location, with Leanne Best's nameless Woman wandering the empty rooms of a modern mansion. She's an estate agent who, after selling the place to Alice, a minor Instagram star, struck up an unlikely and very uneven friendship with her. To Alice, The Woman is an older acquaintance who can be an occasional drinking buddy and a sounding board for her frustrations about trying to get pregnant, but to The Woman Alice very quickly becomes an obsession: Soon she has a secret online alter-ego, sadbitch11, dedicated to taking down her new friend.

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Lights Up - Sitting

Future Dame Katherine Parkinson's Sitting was staged at the Arcola two years ago. Although the credits acknowledge that it's based on Sarah Bedi's original production, and keeps one of the original cast members in Mark Weinman, this film for the BBC's Lights Up strand is a new production from Jeremy Herrin, with the playwright now also taking on one of the roles: Parkinson plays Mary, a recently-divorced mother of one with some unresolved feelings about her dead sister. Luke (Weinman) is unemployed and soon to be a father; though he keeps insisting he hates his pregnant wife, the way he talks about her suggests otherwise. Cassandra (Alex Jarrett) is an aspiring actress and seemingly a compulsive liar. Their monologues are interspersed with each other, each of them speaking to an artist, John (briefly seen played by Paul Jesson,) who's painting their portraits.

Monday, 10 May 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Lights Up - Half Breed

Staged by Talawa at Soho Theatre in 2017, Half Breed returns there for its TV incarnation for the Lights Up season, and in something that still weirdly seems to set off more nostalgia for me than seeing the auditorium itself*, it opens with writer-performer Natasha Marshall entering the empty building and steeling herself with a drink from the bar. Inspired by her own experience growing up mixed-race in the Westcountry, Marshall's alter-ego for the play is 17-year-old Jazmin, the only person in the mostly-white village to be even partly black (although there are people of South and East Asian descent, who mainly seem to run takeaways and have to put up with casual racism from their customers.) Jazmin feels as if her personality matches her racial identity, never feeling quite one thing or the other, always sitting on the fence. She does, though, know that she doesn't want to stay there forever, and despite not being convinced she "gets" Shakespeare has been practising a monologue for a drama school audition.