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.