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.