Thursday, 25 November 2021

Theatre review: Moulin Rouge!

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This is one of those Broadway-style long preview periods, with the official press being invited in on the 8th of December.

I often get songs stuck in my head when I look at what shows are coming up in my diary, and lately I've just been hearing "Moulin Rouge! Aha! Take it now or leave it, now is all we get, nothing promised no regrets!" Which is ironic, because that's more or less the only song from the last 150 years not to make its way into John Logan's jukebox musical, which puts the much-loved Baz Luhrmann film on stage with a few twists on the soundtrack. The original Moulin Rouge! gave Bohemian 19th century Paris and the titular burlesque club a doomed love story set to incongruous, anachronistic music that mainly consisted of relatively recent pop hits, and Logan's stage version does the same: Many of the most popular numbers from the film remain (so it opens with an energetic "Lady Marmalade" from the club's chorus girls,) but it's been 20 years since the original, so a lot of newer hits also get a look-in.

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Theatre review: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Another example of American and British tastes often differing, Christopher Durang's uneven comedy-drama Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike won a Best Play Tony in 2012, but didn't make it to the UK until this 2019 Theatre Royal Bath production, which was further delayed in transferring to London by... the usual*. As the title suggests, Durang throws together characters and situations from Chekhov in different configurations, with modern-day rural Pennsylvania standing in for turn-of-the-last-century remote Russia. Here three siblings in their fifties grew up, and two of them still live: Vanya (Michael Maloney) and his adopted sister Sonia (Rebecca Lacey) looked after their elderly parents, and following their deaths have stayed there, with no jobs and little to do with their time. They're supported by sister Masha (Janie Dee,) who sees herself as a classical actress but has made her fortune in a slasher movie franchise.

Monday, 22 November 2021

Theatre review: Rare Earth Mettle

Like every other industry at the moment, London theatre can't seem to let a year go by without a scandal; and since "getting to run the National despite presiding over the Spacey years at the Old Vic" apparently isn't troubling anyone, it's fallen to the Royal Court instead, and Al Smith's Whoops I Done An Antisemitism binfire surrounding Rare Earth Mettle. The furore surrounded Smith giving a stereotypically Jewish name to the morally dubious millionaire at the centre of the story, which is ironic because this could all have been avoided if he'd just called him something like Melon Husk - it's not like the inspiration is subtly concealed. Instead he's been renamed Henry Finn (Arthur Darvill,) a man who's made a fortune in tech and has ploughed it all into an electric car company (called Edison, because like I say... not subtle.)

Sunday, 21 November 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Constellations
(Anna Maxwell Martin/Chris O'Dowd cast)

I doubt regular readers of this blog (either of them) will be particularly shocked to see me make one last return to the 2021 West End casts of Constellations in the final week of their availability online: Having watched three out of four casts it would have felt like unfinished business not to complete the set. And it's no slight on Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O'Dowd that they were last on my list, but with the first and second London casts of Nick Payne's play having been straight white couples in their thirties, a straight white couple in their early forties weren't as much of a stretch when Michael Longhurst's consciously diverse season also offered a black couple in their twenties, an interracial gay couple and a pair in their sixties and seventies. But Payne's love story with infinite possibilities across the multiverse has also proved to take on almost as many possibilities with different casts, so another one always seems to be worth the time.

Friday, 19 November 2021

Theatre review: The Comedy of Errors
(RSC / Barbican)

The RSC reopened last summer with the production that was in rehearsals when it had to close in 2020, minus its original star cast, and in a temporary venue designed to make the audience feel confident that they were getting adequate airflow: Phillip Breen's The Comedy of Errors premiered at an outdoor theatre in the RSC's gardens. This very different origin feels relevant as the production transfers to London and the sometimes unforgiving Barbican stage. This is the one with the two pairs of identical twins: Antipholus of Ephesus (Rowan Polonski) and his servant Dromio (Greg Haiste) have lived in Ephesus since they were babies, unaware that they arrived there shipwrecked, and that they each have an identical twin brother in Syracuse, coincidentally with the same names. The Syracuse pair were raised by their father Egeon (Antony Bunsee), so they do know about their brothers, and have been searching for them for some years.

Thursday, 18 November 2021

Theatre review: The Wife of Willesden

Given an extra push by the announcement, a couple of years ago, that Brent would be the London Borough of Culture*, the Kiln Theatre continues to commission hyper-local shows that celebrate the diversity and big personalities of the area. Indhu Rubasingham's latest production sees novelist Zadie Smith turn playwright, and adapt "The Wife of Bath's Tale" from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, into a raucous modern-day version - The Wife of Willesden. The venue's recent major refurbishment has given it a very flexible auditorium, and designer Robert Jones takes the opportunity to more or less strip out the Stalls seats, replacing them with pub tables and benches that reach right up to the edges of the stage. In keeping with the theme of staying close to home, the design is based on the Sir Colin Campbell pub, right across the road from the theatre.

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Theatre review: Straight White Men

If Straight White Men are the demographic who've historically held all the power and are still trying to ensure things stay that way, Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee's play of the same name is an outsider's perspective on what it might look like to have that power, or at the very least the assumption that it's a deserved birthright, eroded. In many ways Straight White Men is That American Play Where An Extended Family Gets Together After A Long Time, Preferably At Thanksgiving But That’s Optional, complete with the must-have accessory of a character who's a writer with one reasonably successful book under his belt, who teaches at a university for his day job and is struggling to write the second. Instead of Thanksgiving the occasion for this reunion is Christmas, and widower Ed (Simon Rouse) is excited to have all three of his adult sons back at home with him for a few days.

Sunday, 14 November 2021

Radio review: The Oresteia - The Furies

When I started listening to and reviewing Radio 3's 2014 Oresteia earlier this week, I suggested a couple of practical reasons why we don't really see theatres staging it as three separate plays, instead usually getting a playwright to create a single epic out of them. Getting to the end of the trilogy, it also suggests how on an artistic and storytelling level it would make quite an unusual experience for modern audiences. Of course one reason the jump from one play to the next is quite jarring is that this production took the idea of treating them as separate plays to its natural conclusion, entrusting each to a different writer. Rebecca Lenkiewicz takes over for The Furies, with Sasha Yevtushenko directing as Orestes (Will Howard,) who was last seen fleeing the titular ancient goddesses because he murdered his mother (in revenge for her murdering his father, in revenge for him murdering their daughter,) arrives at Apollo's temple in Delphi for sanctuary.

Wednesday, 10 November 2021

Radio review: The Oresteia - The Libation Bearers

I'm continuing to fill this live theatre-free week with the 2014 Radio 3 adaptation of Aeschylus' Oresteia, which saw the cast continue in their roles but the writing and directing duties pass to Ed Hime and Marc Beeby respectively for the middle play in the trilogy, The Libation Bearers. Some years after the murder of Agamemnon, his son Orestes (Will Howard) secretly returns from exile to leave an offering at his father's tomb. There he's reunited with his sister Electra (Joanne Froggatt,) who along with the titular Chorus of slave women (Sheila Reid, Amanda Lawrence, Carys Eleri) is also there to leave a tribute. But this is on the behalf of their mother Clytemnestra (Lesley Sharp,) who's acting in fear after having a prophetic dream - these offerings are a paltry attempt to make up for murdering her husband.

Monday, 8 November 2021

Radio review: The Oresteia - Agamemnon

In the last couple of years when there's been months of theatre downtime I've tried to help replace with BBC Sounds' archive of radio plays, one positive that's come out of it is that I've enjoyed those times when audio drama can do things I'd like to see on stage, but am unlikely ever to because of practical reasons. It could be something like the recent Doctor Faustus, where having John Heffernan play both leading roles for the whole play would technically be possible but probably end up being awkward. Or, as is the case with Aeschylus' Oresteia, a proposition too risky for a venue to programme: Usually heavily edited into a single epic play, it is of course a trilogy of individual tragedies that I've never seen presented on stage separately. Much like Shakespeare's second* Henriad, which even the Globe and RSC tend to ignore as much as humanly possible, it's a big ask to hope audiences will either book in their droves for one part of a larger story, or take a punt on booking an entire trilogy.

Sunday, 7 November 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Constellations
(Sheila Atim/Ivanno Jeremiah cast)

Do you know why you can't lick your own elbow? I certainly do, given the amount of times I've heard the opening lines of Nick Payne's Constellations, and Marianne's eccentric pick-up line that, depending on how she delivers it and what kind of Roland she meets, either falls flat on its arse or begins a complex relationship that'll be a major part of both their lives. I've previously seen the roles played by Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall (twice,) Joe Armstrong and Louise Brealey, Peter Capaldi and Zoë Wanamaker, and most recently Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey. When Michael Longhurst's production returned to the West End this summer as the Donmar's response to the challenges of Covid-safe theatre, it was with four alternating casts, and I was tempted to see all of them. But I thought after a year without live theatre, the same play four times in a couple of months might blow my mind, so I gave myself the rule of sticking to two - the casts I considered furthest from what I'd seen before.

Thursday, 4 November 2021

Theatre review: Old Bridge

There are a few theatrical tropes I really should start putting money on: For example if a playwright says his play "is about hope, really," it's a pretty safe bet that just outside the theatre there'll be a trigger warning longer than your arm, to tell you it's a play about war, murder, suicide, prejudice, sexual assault and wound detail, really. Having moved from the Finborough to Southwark Playhouse's Little space, the annual Papatango playwrighting prize continues to upgrade to bigger venues, and its new home is the Bush's main house. Igor Memic's professional debut is actually the overdue 2020 winner; Memic comes from a Yugoslavian family, in the sense that that country still existed when they moved to the UK. And the play's setting is the town of Mostar, now in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but in 1988 a good example of Yugoslavia's many ethnic groups unsuspecting of the coming division: The Old Bridge of the title technically separates the Christian and Muslim parts of town, but in reality they, as well as a few Jews and people from a variety of other backgrounds, basically coexist quietly.

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Theatre review: Indecent Proposal

Of all the musicals to be based on an unlikely source, Michael Conley (book and lyrics) and Dylan Schlosberg's (music) Indecent Proposal is definitely the latest. Best known for the Robert Redford / Demi Moore / Woody Harrelson film, it's probably fair to say this doesn't quite fit into the category of recent shows cashing in on beloved movies - it's unlikely the first thing that attracted the creatives was that sweet, sweet 35% Rotten Tomatoes score. Instead they went back to the original source, Jack Engelhard's late-Eighties novel, and have stuck with both the time period and the grubby Atlantic City casino setting. Jonny (Norman Bowman) works as a musician in various dingy casino rooms, while his wife Rebecca (Lizzy Connolly) also juggles multiple jobs. It's still barely enough to keep them in hot dogs, let alone pay college tuition for Jonny's daughter from his first marriage.

Monday, 1 November 2021

Theatre review: 'night, Mother

Marsha Norman's 1982 play is called 'night, Mother, because one of the cast is called Night, and the other one's Alicia Florick's mother. Its return to Hampstead Theatre, where it received its UK premiere, makes for another piece of evidence in my ongoing thesis that the Pulitzer is a booby prize as, despite the efforts of Roxana Silbert's production and its cast, it remains baffling to think the play itself is ever staged, let alone got singled out for a prestigious award. Set in a remote farmhouse, Jessie (Rebecca Night) moved back in with her mother after her divorce, supposedly to help look after her. But Thelma (Stockard Channing) seems very sprightly and capable, and as her daughter is very much aware, caring for her is essentially an excuse to try and keep her busy - Jessie has epilepsy which seems to have dominated her life, and the recent problems in her personal life have only made her retreat further from the world.

Saturday, 30 October 2021

Theatre review: Tender Napalm

Philip Ridley is a playwright whose work often comes round to the same themes, subtly in some, crystallising elsewhere. As its title suggests, Tender Napalm is perhaps the play where the poetic clash between sex, love and violence comes most to the fore, in its duologue between a couple holding onto each other for comfort, perhaps even for survival, in the wake of a personal tragedy. The Man (Jaz Hutchins) and Woman (Adeline Waby) start by flirting with each other, if the extremes of sex and violence they fantasise about can be called flirting: She loves his eyes so much she wants to scoop them out with a spoon; he wants to tenderly push a bullet into her mouth, never mind where he wants to shove a hand grenade. They paint a number of fantastical scenarios for themselves, involving fairytale parties and alien abductions, but the main one is the magical island where they've been deposited by a Tsunami.

Wednesday, 27 October 2021

Theatre review: The Shark is Broken

Big name stars are one way of getting bums on seats, but less well-known actors can also fill a theatre if the subject matter is one enough people care about, like a beloved film. There's no shortage of outright stage adaptations of movies, musical or otherwise, but The Shark is Broken takes a different tack, by taking us behind the scenes of the movie credited with inventing the summer blockbuster - and as the cast end up discussing, a new kind of movie where you don't need famous actors to draw in the crowds. The movie is of course Steven Spielberg's Jaws, and the shark in question is a mechanical one; or actually three mechanical ones, all known as Bruce, and all prone to breaking down at the same time, driving the shoot over schedule and over budget, and leaving its three lead actors stuck in a small boat with little to do for days on end. Ian Shaw co-writes the play with Joseph Nixon, as well as playing his father Robert Shaw, the English classical actor who would be best remembered for his role as gruff shark hunter Quint.

Sunday, 24 October 2021

Radio review: Doctor Faustus

The last time the RSC tackled Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the concept of the damned scholar and his demon servant as a two sides of the same coin was played with by having two actors alternate the roles of Faustus and Mephistopheles, with both actors and audience only finding out who would play whom at the start of the performance. Radio is a medium that allows for the idea to be taken easily to the next conclusion, so adaptor/director Emma Harding gives us hot Heff-on-Heff action: John Heffernan plays both roles in this recent Radio 3 broadcast. Faustus is a Wittenberg scholar frustrated by the limits of human knowledge found in the approved books; he expands his horizons to forbidden tomes on demonology, and manages to summon Mephistopheles. Despite the demon himself warning him against it, Faustus signs a contract to sell his soul to Lucifer in exchange for 24 years of Mephistopheles giving him any knowledge and power he desires.

Saturday, 23 October 2021

Theatre review: Rice

Asian-Australian playwright Michele Lee names her new play Rice, after the staple food of China and India, to tell a story about two Australian women who are the product of immigration from those countries. Nisha (Zainab Hasan) is third-generation, her grandmother having moved from Bengal to Melbourne, and the family having thrived to the point that Nisha could become a high-ranking executive in Australia's largest rice-manufacturing company. Yvette (Sarah Lam) is a first-generation immigrant with an entrepreneurial spirit, who arrived from China a single mother. Her various schemes having all failed, she's now got a minimum-wage office cleaning job. Nisha is a workaholic whose every meal is a takeaway at her desk, and we first meet them when they're arguing over her leaving the containers everywhere: She says it's the cleaner's job to tidy up; Yvette says the bargain-basement cleaning contract her firm negotiated means a maximum of two minutes per office, so if it's not in the bin it's not getting thrown away.

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Theatre review: The Beauty Queen of Leenane

I do worry about my memory sometimes; I saw a revival of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane just over a decade ago, and upon revisiting it now it seems most of the plot points I most clearly remembered were completely wrong. On the other hand the overall effect of this twisted dark comedy of co-dependent relationships is exactly what I'd remembered, if anything revealing new layers in Rachel O’Riordan's production at the Lyric Hammersmith. The play premiered in 1996 and is set a year earlier, but the village of Leenane exists in a much vaguer time that harks back to early 20th century Irish plays, while the most popular TV dramas appear to be the 1970s Australian series The Sullivans and The Young Doctors, and the exaggerated Irish dialect that McDonagh's dialogue is sometimes known for is particularly pronounced here. It feels like a deliberate attempt to create an Irish rural stereotype that the play goes on to both nod to and subvert.

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Theatre review: Yellowfin

In the middle of what seems to be a constant stream of doom-laden theatre (I thought light comedy was meant to flourish when the actual outside world was relentlessly depressing?) at least Marek Horn's environmental satire Yellowfin gives its dire warnings with a distinct side of quirkiness. Set in Washington DC some decades in the future, and specifically 35 years after all the oceans' fish mysteriously disappeared overnight, three US Senators have gathered to question Mr Calantini (Joshua James,) a manufacturer of artificial fish meat, who's already spent some time in prison for dealing in cans of the real thing on the black market. Led by the seemingly unflappable Marianne (Nancy Crane,) the panel also consists of the cold-bloodedly ambitious Stephen (Beruce Khan,) and the affable Roy (Nicholas Day,) who's prone to letting proceedings go off-course when he reminisces about his youth when you could eat real fish.

Monday, 18 October 2021

Theatre review: Love and Other Acts of Violence

The Donald and Margot Warehouse only now reopens its venue, having used lockdown as an opportunity to do another refurbishment of the building, in part to improve accessibility. While the finishing touches were put on they of course had their summer West End residency with four versions of Constellations, and in the first new show back in Seven Dials director Elayce Ismail often nods to Michael Longhurst's now-famous staging, with a couple meeting and falling in love on a fairly bare stage, the lights flashing on and off quickly to take us from one scene to the next. But Love and Other Acts of Violence is a new play by Cordelia Lynn, a writer with a history of presenting us with horrors under a deceptively smiley face, and her couple inhabit only one reality, that's going to take them to some dark places. The unnamed couple first meet as graduate students: Tom Mothersdale's Him is an aspiring writer and enthusiastic political activist; Abigail Weinstock's Her is a gifted physicist.

Friday, 15 October 2021

Theatre review: The Tragedy of Macbeth (Almeida)

Yaël Farber has in the past few years added herself to a fairly exclusive club, considering how undiscerning my theatre bookings can seem: Creatives who are widely lauded but I've never seen the appeal of, to the point that I eventually decided just to skip their future work altogether. This is inevitably a rule I keep finding exceptions for, and in a year that's been short of major event theatre for obvious reasons, her new take on The Tragedy of Macbeth has, thanks to the London stage debut of Saoirse Ronan (I don't watch many films but I'm assured she's a Famous,) become such a hot ticket that the Almeida introduced a Byzantine new booking process especially for it. It also doesn't seem quite as risky a booking as some - one of my problems with Farber is the lack of any discernible sense of humour, and that's not often much of an issue where this play's concerned. James McArdle plays Macbeth, the Scottish warrior lord whose prowess in battle sees him promoted by King Duncan (William Gaunt).

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Theatre review: White Noise

In recent years when British theatre has dealt with race and the history of slavery, it's largely been about acknowledging that Britain even had any part in or benefited from the slave trade. America's legacy is even more entrenched in slavery and racism, but (apart from the more extreme fringe) it's widely accepted that it's a great burden of debt and shame that the nation still carries. So American plays exploring where its history puts the nation today have gone for a different trend, which often uses extreme situations and shock value to blow up the polite multicultural surface and show racial conflict as written into Americans' DNA. Suzan-Lori Parks' White Noise definitely falls into that category, presenting us with a happy quartet we can tell from the first moments are probably going to end up tearing each other to pieces. Friends since university, the two men and two women have in the past paired up in various combinations, but have ended up in two long-term, interracial couples.

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

Theatre review: Metamorphoses

With the last few outdoor shows at Shakespeare's Globe still running, the summer season concludes by taking us back inside the Swanamaker for the delayed end result of the new Scriptorium project: Billed as the first time the Globe has had a team of writers-in-residence in 400 years, the first year of the project culminated in the team of Sami Ibrahim, Laura Lomas and Sabrina Mahfouz collaborating on a play that, appropriately enough, mixes the old with the new. The stories are almost as old as they get, with a collection of Greco-Roman mythology as collected by Ovid in his Metamorphoses; the storytelling style, treating the stories with a mix of respect and irreverence, is both fresh and well-suited to the intimate space. Sean Holmes and Holly Race Roughan direct a cast of four - Steffan Donnelly, Fiona Hampton, Charlie Josephine and Irfan Shamji - who tell some of the best-known, as well as some of the more obscure myths, especially those, as the title suggests, that feature their lead characters going through a magical transformation.

Monday, 11 October 2021

Theatre review: East Is East

The National Theatre returns to having three auditoria open with a 25th anniversary revival of Ayub Khan Din's East Is East, co-produced with Birmingham Rep. It was of course already a period piece when it premiered, as it's set in 1971 - in part because it's based on the playwright's own upbringing, in part because it means a growing conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir dominates the news, and becomes an obsession for George Khan (Tony Jayawardena,) who was Indian when he first emigrated to England before Partition, but now identifies proudly as Pakistani. For his seven children though, finding an identity that they want and that also accepts them, is a lot more complicated. George left a first wife in Pakistan and still sends money back to her, but for the last 25 years he's been married to white Englishwoman Ella (Sophie Stanton,) the mother of all his children, who runs the household as well as the family's fish and chip shop.

Sunday, 10 October 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Diana the Musical

On the one hand, mere days after its release, what could I possibly have to say about Diana the Musical that hasn't already been said? On the other this is a theatre blog that, over the last 18 months, has by necessity had to diversify into a lot more on-screen theatre, and it's one hell of an elephant in the room to try and ignore: David Bryan (music and lyrics) and Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) have collaborated on musicals before, scoring a big international success with Memphis and more of a cult hit with The Toxic Avenger. Their latest work hits some kind of cursèd sweet spot between "obvious cynical moneymaker" and "obvious terrible idea" to give the musical treatment to the life of Diana, Princess of Wales (Jeanna de Waal,) and especially her miserable marriage to Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf.) As if what Diana's life really needed was another car crash.

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Theatre review: Hamlet (Young Vic)

Returning to the London stage after a few years of fighting The Good Fight and, more dangerously, The Good Wife in America, Cush Jumbo comes to the Young Vic to play Hamlet for Greg Hersov, a director she worked with a lot in the past when he was Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange in Manchester. There's centuries' worth of tradition of women taking on the role, as well as black actors more recently, but I think she might be making history as the first woman of colour to do it in a major London production. There was never much doubt that she was up to the task, and she gives a powerful performance; but while Hamlet remains my favourite Shakespeare play on account of how infinitely flexible it is, it is of course performed very often because it's seen as such a pinnacle of an actor's career. And this was one of those productions that made me wonder - outside of wanting to give an actor their shot at the big role, what was the reason for staging this particular production, at this time?

Monday, 4 October 2021

Theatre review: Is God Is

The Royal Court is currently offering up two shows a night on its main stage, and if What If If Only is concerned with wishing someone would return from the dead, Is God Is opens with just that happening: Twins Racine (Tamara Lawrance) and Anaia (Adelayo Adedayo) thought their mother had died in the same fire that left them both scarred, until they get a letter from her. Even more horrifically burnt, she's been clinging on to life in a convalescent home for 18 years, but now she thinks her time is finally up, and she wants to see her daughters. From her deathbed, their mother (Cecilia Noble) gives them the full story of how their father tried to burn her to death because she "wouldn't hold him," and asks for one favour before she goes: They need to find him, kill him (ideally breaking his spirit first,) and bring her back a bloody trophy to prove that he's gone. The hot-headed Racine and more reserved, thoughtful Anaia head off to California, letting no-one stand in their way.

Theatre review: What If If Only

If Caryl Churchill's career wasn't already distinguished enough, in recent years it's also become notable for her work's increasing brevity - slowly but surely she's moving towards the point where she can emotionally devastate you in under a minute. What If If Only brings us to the 20-minute mark (positively epic compared to the 14 minutes originally advertised,) and it manages a feat that's both impressive and, annoyingly, virtually impossible to convey in a review: Being completely nebulous in its content, yet crystal clear in its intentions and emotional impact. In Churchill's surreal, political ghost story, Someone (John Heffernan) is at his dinner table mourning the loss of a loved one to suicide, still talking to them and wishing they could return. A ghost does materialise with some resemblance to the person he lost, but she's not quite right - she's older, like a future version who never got to exist.

Sunday, 3 October 2021

Theatre review: The Mirror and the Light

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The official press night is this Wednesday.

When the RSC staged Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the first two novels in Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy, the final volume had yet to be published. So it's taken seven years for The Mirror and the Light to make it to the stage, and unlike the other two this installment skips a Stratford-upon-Avon premiere to open straight in the West End. Mantel herself, co-writing with the returning lead actor Ben Miles, takes over adaptation duties from Mike Poulton, and at times the absence of a more experienced playwriting hand is felt in the tying together of plot strands as Miles' Cromwell continues trying to satisfy the many intricacies and demands of Henry VIII's (Nathaniel Parker) court, while fighting off the constant machinations of nobles who still resent his rise from commoner to the King's most trusted aide. At least when we rejoin the story the usual problem of finding Henry another wife has been (for the time being) resolved.

Saturday, 2 October 2021

Theatre review: How To Survive An Apocalypse

After a longer closure than most theatres, and not one but two productions of Not Quite Jerusalem getting postponed by Covid, the Finborough finally reopens, at a reduced capacity due to the venue's intimacy (so, only four people per three-seater bench.) With that relaunch show falling foul of a positive test result, we're straight in to one of the Finborough's familiar remits, that promotes work from Canadian playwrights. And Jordan Hall's How To Survive An Apocalypse does have a suitably ironic title for a theatre coming out of lockdown, although it dates from 2016; and while there's little about it that couldn't happen today, Jimmy Walters' production doesn't update the timeline. Probably because no mention of Covid would be unusual in a play whose characters start to become obsessed with possible world-ending scenarios. To start with, though, the lives they're used to are under threat from much more mundane financial pressures.

Thursday, 30 September 2021

Theatre review: Blithe Spirit

The latest West End outing for Blithe Spirit is a show I was perhaps looking forward to more when it became one of my first casualties of lockdown, than I was by the time Richard Eyre's Bath production finally made it back to London. In large part this is probably because in the interim I listened to an audio version that ended up being my favourite out of any version I'd actually seen on stage, and likely hard to beat. Now at the Pinter Theatre, a decent-sized but far from packed audience suggests that despite being perhaps the best-loved Noël Coward play, there's still maybe not the appetite for quite how frequently it ectoplasmically manifests itself. Still, it's always someone's first time, and Vanessa was unfamiliar with the play about Charles Condomine (Geoffrey Streatfeild,) a writer who tries to research fraudulent psychics for his new book, by inviting a local eccentric to hold a séance.

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Theatre review: The Normal Heart

A couple of years ago the National Theatre scored one of the biggest hits of the RuNo era with its revival of the iconic American AIDS play, Angels in America. Now the reconfigured Olivier plays host to an earlier work that it's probably safe to say is the seminal work of the genre. First seen in 1985, Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart never actually mentions AIDS - not out of any artistic choice, but because we're dealing with a time when the authorities were loath to admit there even was a disease that seemed to be targeting New York's gay men, let alone give it a name. Far from the magical realism of Tony Kushner's epic, Kramer's play deals very much with the down-to-earth. And while Vicki Mortimer's set is dominated by a memorial eternal flame for the victims, and the play is far from short on heartbreak, the main emotion is anger and frustration at a bureaucratic brick wall; one that seems increasingly purpose-built to help purge Reagan's America of a population it would rather see the back of.

Thursday, 23 September 2021

Theatre review: Back to the Future

A perennial contender for the title of best movie ever made, Back to the Future never seemed like an obvious candidate for a musical theatre makeover, but given its popularity it was bound to happen at some point. If it's taken this long it's because, ironically, it's proven very bad at turning up on stage on time: Originally intended to open in 2015 to coincide with the date they visit in the first sequel, the long gestation period of musicals (including a well-publicised setback when Jamie Lloyd pulled out of directing duties) meant a further five years' delay, giving it an opening of... spring 2020. That Manchester run got cut short like everything else last year, and its return skipped Manchester entirely to open straight in the West End. Only for it to close again soon after Press Night when too many cast and crew members tested positive for Covid. I wasn't sure until the last minute that I'd actually get to see the show tonight but, still with a few understudies in place, performances started again yesterday.

Monday, 20 September 2021

Theatre review: NW Trilogy

When Indhu Rubasingham took over what was then called the Tricycle Theatre, she did so with a manifesto of reflecting and celebrating the cultural diversity of its North London home. It's a promise her programming has kept to, and in my first trip back to what is now the Kiln she throws a lot of that diversity together in a single night, commissioning three playwrights to celebrate the history of three of the communities that have called Kilburn home in the last century. Directed by Susie McKenna and Taio Lawson, NW Trilogy has an overall epic scope, touching on a couple of events of cultural and political significance, but the individual stories are intimate and personal, and - whether this was a conscious part of the commission or a coincidence - all feature to a greater or lesser extent music and dance as a way of connecting the characters to their wider communities.

Sunday, 19 September 2021

Stage-to-screen review:
Everybody's Talking About Jamie

I loved Everybody's Talking About Jamie when it first transferred to London, but I did worry how long it would last without star names attached. As it turns out, it eventually took a pandemic to knock it off the West End stage, and while its recent return to the Apollo was short, its London run is officially only "paused," while a UK tour goes on, and a North American premiere is on the cards. And then there's this from the original creative team of writers Dan Gillespie Sells (music) and Tom MacRae (book and lyrics,) director Jonathan Butterell and choreographer Kate Prince, who've decided to turn it into something incredibly rare and precious: A movie musical without James Corden in it. There's a new, slightly starrier cast taking on the central roles, although a few of the original stage performers get cameo appearances, as do Jamie and Margaret Campbell, the story's original inspiration.

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.