Friday 31 December 2021

2021: Almost a Theatre Review of the Year

This round-up post for 2021 makes it ten full years of me writing reviews nobody asked for and calling it Partially Obstructed View, and it would be nice to have a bumper year to look back on and celebrate (I did consider doing a ten-year retrospective post but honestly who could be bothered; it would only be me pitting ten Shows of the Year against each other before picking Jumpers for Goalposts in the end anyway.) Of course nobody got that, but at least while 2021 started as a continuation of 2020 (and didn't end that differently to be honest,) we did end up with a good six months' worth of live theatre, new and old. So this won't be quite as extensive a post as usual, but it should be a bit closer to it than last year's cut-down version. A few more of my traditional dubious awards will get a chance to come back, and while I still won't do a full Top Ten and Bottom Five, I am planning on two Shows of the Year and one Stinker.

Monday 27 December 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Death of England -
Face to Face

You could certainly call what the National Theatre's been on with Death of England a rollercoaster ride, as there have been sharp ups and downs ever since Clint Dyer and Roy Williams premiered what was then a standalone monologue: Michael's side of the story, about a man both mourning his father and confronting his racist legacy, was one of the venue's hits of the year. The fact that the year in question was 2020 is a clue to where the downs came from: The same team came up with Delroy, a sequel from the point of view of Michael's black best friend, which culminated in him having a baby with Michael's sister Carly - while also crtically well-received, this installment suffered first from appendicitis taking out its star, and then from a story set during the first Covid lockdown being cut short by the second. Having managed to catch Delroy on stage I guessed that Dyer and Williams might now have an eye to a trilogy, with Carly perhaps the final piece of the puzzle: I was half right.

Thursday 23 December 2021

Radio review: The Octoroon

So I guess I'm rounding out 2021 in the same way I started it, making up for a lack of live theatre with screen and radio alternatives. A few years ago American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins scored a hit with An Octoroon, his deconstruction of problematic Victorian melodrama The Octoroon. The play worked in its own right but like, I would imagine, most people, I went into it unfamiliar with what it was deconstructing. It's one thing when the source material is Hamlet, but when it's a play whose then-radical sympathy for black lives now comes across as deeply patronising, it's not exactly revived much. So once again Radio 3 provides an alternative, with a 2013 production in which Mark Ravenhill adapted Dion Boucicault's 1859 play set on a Louisiana cotton plantation, where George (Trevor White) has returned to claim his inheritance.

Friday 17 December 2021

Theatre review: Habeas Corpus

The Menier Chocolate Factory tends to feel like London's most conservative, if not most Conservative theatre, and as such some of its safe programming choices for a coffin-adjacent audience base can translate to disinterring creaky old farces that should have stayed buried in the 20th century. But if the farce in question is an early Alan Bennett play (early, I mean he was forty but these things are relative,) and it's directed by the prolific but usually reliable Patrick Marber, I'm prone to think it might be worth checking out anyway. Unfortunately both writer and director seem to have made a colossal error of judgement where Habeas Corpus is concerned: With a plot set in a doctor's surgery and an approach that tries to dig up the darker side of farce's obsession with sex, the play feels like it could be paying homage to Joe Orton's What The Butler Saw*. Except that play's genuinely sexy, shocking and funny.

Thursday 16 December 2021

Theatre review: Best of Enemies

Apart from the occasional exception, James Graham is overwhelmingly known as a political playwright, often one who uses the past to illuminate the present, but even within those bounds there's a wide variety of styles he employs. His latest play does bring one very specific precedent to mind though: It could almost be a sequel to Ink, which pinpointed a particular moment in British newspaper history that changed the way political discourse and media influence would work right up until the present day. This time, the very topical issue is the abrasive and polarised style of political debate that fosters an almost tribal allegiance to extremes, and rejection of compromise. Inspired by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon's documentary of the same name, Best of Enemies seeks the origin in American television, and the 1968 party conventions that would choose the Republican and Democratic candidates for the next election.

Tuesday 14 December 2021

Radio review: Don Juan

Not for the first time, and to be honest I think it's unlikely to be the last time this year, Covid has caused the show I was due to see tonight to be cancelled. And once again I've turned to BBC radio drama for an alternative, and Robin Brooks' Don Juan, an adaptation of the first few cantos of Lord Byron's epic satirical poem. Byron's version of Juan (Matthew Tennyson) isn't a famed lothario, or at least not yet, but a beautiful but gormless teenager who proves irresistible to all the young women he meets, especially those with husbands or fathers who'd disapprove. So he first catches the eye of neighbour Donna Julia (Pippa Nixon,) unhappily married to a much older man, who seduces Juan and then gets caught with him in a bedroom farce when her husband returns. Juan flees the city and is shipwrecked, and found by Haidée (Dolores Carbonari,) who also falls for him - and this time it's her fearsome pirate father who causes them trouble.

Saturday 11 December 2021

Theatre review: The Child in the Snow

Writer Piers Torday has become a regular contributor of the Christmas show at Wilton's Music Hall ever since The Box of Delights, and with the return of director Justin Audibert and designer Tom Piper this should be a team that knows its way around London's most atmospheric venue, and the sort of story that works there. And in a couple of story points you can see why Elizabeth Gaskell’s short ghost story "The Old Nurse's Story" made them think of the Victorian music hall which in recent years has seemed much safer from demolition than it used to be, but whose partial restoration means it still easily conjures up the thought that it might be haunted. Unfortunately the resulting play, The Child in the Snow, does nothing to live up to the setting - in fact the only ghostly thing about it is how insubstantial it feels.

Wednesday 8 December 2021

Theatre review: Life of Pi

Another show I've had rescheduled a couple of times over the last 18 months, the stage adaptation of Life of Pi that originated in Sheffield finally gets its West End opening. Yann Martel's novel was a huge bestseller twenty years ago and has already had a CGI-heavy film adaptation, and its fantastical story of animals on the high seas lends itself to stage spectacle - if they could figure out how. Lolita Chakrabarti writes the adaptation and Max Webster directs, but it's puppet designers Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell who ultimately make it possible. Piscine Patel, known as Pi (alternate Nuwan Hugh Perera) is an Indian teenager whose father (Nicholas Khan) runs a zoo. When 1970s politics turns violent and the family get stuck in the middle, they accept an offer from a Canadian zoo to relocate there along with all their animals. But along the way the cargo ship they're on sinks, and Pi is the only survivor.

Tuesday 7 December 2021

Theatre review: Trouble in Mind

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: I seem to be having a run of shows I could only fit in before they officially open to the press; this was the penultimate preview.

A play that made me spend a lot of the evening wondering if I'd misread how old it was, Alice Childress' Trouble in Mind was first staged off-Broadway in 1955; which makes it ahead of its time, to say the very least. Wiletta Mayer (Tanya Moodie) has made a successful career as an actress, admittedly mostly in all-black revues and a succession of bit-part "mammy" roles on screen. Now she's preparing to go back to Broadway for a ground-breaking new drama that will make a powerful statement about racism, and mobilise its comfortable white audience into empathy. It's just a shame that the play-within-a-play, written and directed by white men, is terrible, and full of as many offensive stereotypes as any number of overtly racist works. But as she tells newcomer John (Daniel Adeosun) when rehearsals begin, there's a certain repertoire of polite nods, smiles and giggles black actors have to offer up to white creatives if they're going to feel comfortable around them and continue giving them work.

Thursday 2 December 2021

Theatre review: Cabaret

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This is another one with a long preview period, and the official reviews aren't out yet.

Rebecca Frecknall had a career-defining hit with Summer and Smoke, which she's capitalised on creatively with her ongoing associate role at the Almeida; now she makes a bold play to capitalise on it commercially as well, staking her claim as a name we could be seeing in the West End for some time: A reimagined production of Kander & Ebb's dark but enduring musical Cabaret, with not only a big-name cast but also a reconfigured Playhouse Theatre that tries to give the feeling of entering the eponymous Kit Kat Club in 1920s Berlin. With staggered entry times, the audience enters the theatre's basement and is guided around the dingy corridors, passing showgirls doing their makeup until eventually ending up at front of house to find their seats*. Once inside Tom Scutt's traverse design has replaced the Stalls seats with tables surrounding a raised revolve.

Tuesday 30 November 2021

Theatre review: Manor

The world may be far from out of the pandemic woods yet, but in some parts of the theatrical landscape nature is healing: After a few months' honeymoon period, the papers have gone back to announcing that Rufus Norris has scheduled a show that will single-handedly bring down the National Theatre (a feat even Damned by Despair couldn't manage, calm down.*) The latest recipient of this dubious honour is Manor, Moira Buffini's new topical - perhaps too broadly topical - play that sets a political crisis against the backdrop of the climate crisis. Diana (Nancy Carroll) is the heir to a crumbling manor house somewhere near the coast, where she lives with her ageing rocker husband Pete (Owen McDonnell) and their daughter Isis (Liadán Dunlea). As a catastrophic storm destroys the area and threatens to flood the grounds, a number of unexpected guests seek shelter - not great timing, as Diana's just accidentally pushed Pete down the stairs during an argument, killing him.

Sunday 28 November 2021

Theatre review: Yes So I Said Yes

David Ireland's plays see modern-day Northern Ireland as a place suffering from an identity crisis and collective PTSD from the Troubles; his viciously dark comedy takes on a Kafkaesque surreal journey in this English premiere of an earlier play, Yes So I Said Yes. Alan "Snuffy" Black (Daragh O’Malley) was a loyalist paramilitary in his youth, and spent some time in prison for an unspecified, but according to him fairly trivial, number of terrorist killings. Released into a country that no longer defaults to violence, he's a lonely old man who feels marginalised, depressed, and unfamiliar with the world around him, a situation which comes to a head when his neighbour's dog starts waking him up every night at 3am with his barking. But his neighbour (Owen O’Neill) insists there is no dog and, no longer sure if he's imagining things, Snuffy hopes a doctor can help him. Or, if not a doctor, Eamonn Holmes.

Friday 26 November 2021

Theatre review: Measure for Measure
(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: I can't easily tell from the Globe website when the press night is due, but as I had a member of the creative team sitting next to me making notes I'm guessing we're still in the preview period for this one.

I'm going to get a big grumble out of the way first this time, because I have a lot of good things to say about Blanche McIntyre's production of Measure for Measure, and don't want them to be overshadowed by something that's a regular irritation. But you know, if it's a regular irritation at one particular theatre that's because they just keep doing it, namely underselling how long a show is. I know I often say I like short shows, so can understand why saying a show isn't that long is good marketing, but if it's not true the advertised running time is useless at best, a lie at worst. I use the info to figure out when and how is the best way to get home, especially when, like tonight, a Tube strike makes that more complicated. So as seems to happen every time I go to the Globe now, I spent the last half-hour wondering if the play would overrun by 15 minutes (can still catch my train) or 20 (1 hour 15 minute gap until the next one for some reason, not getting home until after midnight) instead of paying attention to the show*.

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.