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.