Saturday 29 May 2021

Theatre review: Shaw Shorts

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

Thursday 27 May 2021

Radio review: The Likes of Us

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

Sunday 23 May 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Lights Up - Buttercup

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

Friday 21 May 2021

Radio review: Folk

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

Sunday 16 May 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Lights Up - Harm

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

Tuesday 11 May 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Lights Up - Sitting

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

Monday 10 May 2021

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

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

Thursday 6 May 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Lights Up - Sadie

It's back to the BBC's virtual theatre festival for what must be one of the most-anticipated entries: David Ireland is the most recent playwright to contribute to the Royal Court's dubious history of plays where babies meet a violent end, so he comes with a certain amount of notoriety. So far we've had plays that had already been seen by live audiences in one form or another; Sadie is one rescued from obscurity by the Lights Up season, as it had been commissioned by Cyprus Avenue's star Stephen Rea for his own company, only to be cancelled by lockdown. The BBC and Lyric Theatre Belfast (where Conleth Hill's production was filmed) stepped in to ensure the show (presumably slightly rewritten as it includes a few references to Covid-19 and lockdown) could be seen after all. A kind of memory play, it begins with middle-aged office cleaner Sadie (Abigail McGibbon) conjuring up her long-dead uncle Red (Patrick Jenkins,) a Catholic communist who'd married into her Protestant Northern Irish family but largely stayed out of their political conflicts.

Sunday 2 May 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Eurobeat - The Pride of Europe

I didn't see the original West End production of Eurovision spoof Eurobeat; if I recall correctly, I had tickets to see it a couple of months into its run at the Novello, but it closed before then. Maybe a streamed version, available in the weeks leading up to the real song contest returning, will prove a better home for it: Craig Christie's (book, music and lyrics) Eurobeat - The Pride of Europe is a new version of the musical, with completely different songs to its 2008 premiere, some of them reflecting recent Eurovision trends more obviously than others. In a way this is only half a review: The original show had an audience text vote resulting in a different winner every night;'s version has an online vote carrying on throughout its run, and will invite viewers of this first part to watch a special results show once the results have been tabulated and independently verified by the accountants of Liechtenstein.