Saturday 31 July 2021

Theatre review: My Night With Reg

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

Thursday 29 July 2021

Theatre review: Oleanna

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

Tuesday 27 July 2021

Theatre review: Operation Mincemeat

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

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

Sunday 25 July 2021

Radio review: Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein

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

Tuesday 20 July 2021

Theatre review: Anna X

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

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

Sunday 18 July 2021

Theatre review: The Comeback

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

Saturday 17 July 2021

Theatre review: Last Easter

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

Wednesday 14 July 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Out West

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

Tuesday 13 July 2021

Theatre review: Pippin

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

Sunday 11 July 2021

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

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

Thursday 8 July 2021

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

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

Tuesday 6 July 2021

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

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

Sunday 4 July 2021

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

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

Saturday 3 July 2021

Theatre review: Bach & Sons

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

Thursday 1 July 2021

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

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