Saturday 31 December 2022

2022: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

Here we are then, for the last two years I haven't wanted to call my annual roundup a "Theatre Review of the Year" because for most of 2020 and half of 2021 live theatre wasn't really a thing. 2022 hasn't felt quite back to normal in that respect, and I continued to have a number of shows cancelled because of illness or injury, Covid-related or otherwise - the Donmar and Almeida seemed to have been particularly unlucky on that front. And that's before we get to the week or so of shows I had to reschedule or miss entirely because I had Covid. Where shows did go ahead, swings and understudies continued to be more important than ever, so seeing someone other than the star name step up to the plate, usually with impressive results, became another recurring theme of the year. But overall things were sufficiently back on track for me to present, once again: A confusing and bloated roundup of shows I saw, loved, hated or forgot instantly, followed by a bit of light perving over actors who were just trying to do their job, bless'em.

Tuesday 27 December 2022

Theatre review: Mother Goose (Duke of York's & tour)

I haven't regularly been to Christmas pantomime since Tom Wells stopped writing the Lyric Hammersmith one, but Ian McKellen returning to the role of Dame at the age of 83 has to be something worth catching, and anyway I never saw his Twankey. This time it's as Mother Goose, with Jonathan Harvey writing and Cal McCrystal directing, and with McKellen's commitment to touring it's not even technically a Christmas event - by the time it gets to its last couple of stops it'll be an Easter outing. Another initial selling point was Mel Giedroyc as the goose Cilla Quack, but she had to drop out for personal reasons and Anna-Jane Casey turned out to be very much available to replace her. McKellen's Mother Goose and her husband Vic (John Bishop) run an animal sanctuary in the building that used to house defunct department store Debenhams before 12 years of Conservative government ruined the economy (I'm not editorialising, that's the script.)

Thursday 22 December 2022

Theatre review:
Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol

I said before that it takes something really distinctive to make me consider seeing one of the many stage versions of A Christmas Carol out there at the moment: A couple of weeks ago the attraction was a comedy version that largely ignored everything about the actual story; for my last show before Christmas itself, I would have thought the title Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol probably tells you all you need to know. Parton (music and lyrics) and David H. Bell's (book) musical version of the Charles Dickens story started life as a Dollywood attraction before being expanded into a full-length show, and Alison Pollard's production now gets its UK premiere at the South Bank Centre. They've moved the story from Victorian London to 1930s Tennessee and added Parton's distinctive country music sound, but it ends up a surprisingly faithful adaptation both in plot and intention.

Wednesday 21 December 2022

Theatre review: A Streetcar Named Desire

Warning, the first couple of rows may get wet: Yes, Rebecca Frecknall's production of A Streetcar Named Desire stars the Internet's official fantasy boyfriend of 2020. Oh, there's also regular floods of rain pouring on every side of Madeleine Girling's in-the-round set. Frecknall returns to Tennessee Williams, and to the star of her career-making Summer and Smoke, although the latter collaboration is a last-minute one: Future Dame Patsy Ferran plays Blanche Dubois only because original star Lydia Wilson got injured. The first week of previews was cancelled to give the new lead at least a little rehearsal time, but apart from a running time that'll likely tighten up by the delayed press night, there's little on stage to suggest the production has only been in front of audiences for a few nights, least of all from the extraordinary leading lady.

Monday 19 December 2022

Theatre review: Sons of the Prophet

I had mixed feelings about booking for Sons of the Prophet: Stephen Karam's last play at Hampstead Theatre was That American Play Where An Extended Family Gets Together After A Long Time, Preferably At Thanksgiving But That’s Optional, but surely even the most determined American playwrights can't write that one too many times, and the premise and cast were appealing. And the play, which takes its title from the central family's distant and regularly overplayed relation to Kahlil Gibran, is certainly not clichéd in its premise: It centres on two gay brothers from a Lebanese-American Maronite Christian family, from a part of Pennsylvania where all the towns seem to be named after places in the Middle East. A few years after their mother's death, their father also dies in a car crash after a student prank goes wrong.

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Theatre review:
Hakawatis: Women of the Arabian Nights

After last year's Metamorphoses, another winter's evening of adult - sometimes very adult - storytelling by candlelight at the Swanamaker. This time it's Hannah Khalil's take on the 1001 Nights, which she reimagines as much less of a one-woman show than it's usually seen as. For Hakawatis: Women of the Arabian Nights, Rosa Maggiora's set is a dungeon, comparatively comfortable with piles of cushions and plates of fruit but a prison nonetheless, where four women have been kept for so long they've lost track of time. When they're joined by a fifth, Fatah the Young (Alaa Habib,) they have to break it to the teenager that the marriage she's been preparing for isn't all it seems: When the King's first wife cheated on him, he vowed revenge on all women. He takes a new wife every night, and after some no-doubt-entirely-consensual sex, murders her. The plan is to eliminate every unmarried woman in his kingdom, and he's nearly done.

Monday 12 December 2022

Theatre review:
Wickies: The Vanishing Men of Eilean Mòr

My eccentric reasons for booking shows can result in some disastrous choices as well as unearthing some hidden gems. The fact that I realised I could see both the gays from Two Doors Down on stage in consecutive shows led me to a couple of twists on traditional seasonal stories, and after something inspired in the very loosest possible sense by A Christmas Carol, it's Park Theatre's Scottish take on the traditional Christmas ghost story. But Paul Morrissey's Wickies: The Vanishing Men of Eilean Mòr takes its inspiration from a very real mystery: In 1900, three lighthouse keepers vanished without trace from the Flannan Isles, a particularly remote and dangerous part of the Outer Hebrides. Morrissey's play is only the latest in a long tradition of poems, stories and songs that have taken the mystery into the realms of folk legend.

Saturday 10 December 2022

Theatre review:
A Christmas Carol-ish... by Mr Swallow

Two years ago when theatre made an (unsuccessful) attempt to come out of Covid into the lucrative Christmas show season, there was no shortage of adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, something I put down to it being a reliably popular, out-of-copyright story that could be quickly adapted to a wide range of budgets and a wide variety of styles. If anything it's even more ubiquitous in 2022, when for any number of financial reasons it seems wise to play it safe. While I'm generally happy to avoid yet another iteration of the story, there's a couple of versions this year that are so out there they were hard to say no to. Starting with Nick Mohammed (book & lyrics) and Oliver Birch's (music) A Christmas Carol-ish... by Mr Swallow, a deranged musical adaptation by Mohammed's chaotic magician alter-ego and his sidekicks Mr Goldsworth (David Elms) and Jonathan (Kieran Hodgson.)

Thursday 8 December 2022

Theatre review: Orlando

With the changing understanding of gender, and the arrival of bankable non-binary stars like Emma Corrin in recent years, it's not surprising if this seems an apt time to revisit Virginia Woolf's original gender-bending story, Orlando, on stage. The aristocratic Orlando (Corrin) is born during the reign of Elizabeth I (Lucy Briers,) who toys with the idea of recruiting the then 15-year-old boy to her court. As he grows up, he remains close to the seat of power, but the kings and queens seem to change constantly, as Orlando ages much more slowly than he should. So by the time Charles II is on the throne the nobleman is only 30, and takes a job as ambassador to Constantinople. Having spent his life avoiding settling down with one person because that life doesn't offer answers to his many and vague questions about the universe, he continues a life of wine and women - until his sudden death.

Wednesday 7 December 2022

Theatre review: Kerry Jackson

The Dorfman's final piece of new writing of 2022 takes a despairing look at the polarisation of opinion by politics and class in modern Britain, and the impossibility of reconciling the warring points of view, but chucks it into a blender with a pretty frantic comedy. What comes out isn't exactly gazpacho, despite April De Angelis setting Kerry Jackson in a tapas restaurant: Opening a new restaurant is a risky business at the best of times, but Kerry (Fay Ripley) has taken a punt on launching her business in the middle of a cost of living crisis. Walthamstow Village is up-and-coming so her opening weeks don't go too badly, but she's concerned that homeless Will (Michael Fox,) who sleeps rough across the road, is putting off her customers. When she aggressively confronts him she makes matters worse, and soon he's leaving dirty protests by her wheelie bins.

Thursday 1 December 2022

Theatre review: Othello (National Theatre / Lyttelton)

Othello must be one of the most-frequently performed Shakespeare plays at the National Theatre, and the latest production by Deputy Artistic Director Clint Dyer - the first at the venue by a black director - is in part inspired by how long the version with Laurence Olivier in blackface continued to hold pride of place in the archive. That's one of the photos that adorn the back wall of the stage as the audience enters the Lyttelton, among an ever-changing projection display of past production posters that suggests the different approaches to the play taken over the years. As the display ticks past the years since it was written, we get the idea that we've reached a very 2022 reading, which strips the play back to show its racial conflicts as the primary motivator. Here, only Giles Terrera's General Othello isn't white; almost everyone in the rest of the cast doubles as a member of a sinister, black-shirted chorus Dyer has christened the System.

Monday 28 November 2022

Theatre review: Baghdaddy

Whoa, Baghdaddy (Bam-ba-lam)

Jasmine Naziha Jones' wildly hyperactive playwrighting debut Baghdaddy deals with the guilt of a woman who feels she could have done more to support her British-based Iraqi father when he was trying to process the wars in the country where much of his family still lived; but how much could she be expected to understand, when she was eight years old at the time? In Milli Bhatia's production the playwright herself plays Darlee, who remembers her Dad (Philip Arditti) and how he coped with living in safety while Baghdad was burning on the news. In both the 1990s' and 2000s' wars, he tried to support his family by doing one-man humanitarian runs, smuggling medicine, cash, and information held back by the regime to neighbouring countries where his brother could collect them. But back at home, all Darlee sees is her beloved father becoming distant.

Saturday 26 November 2022

Theatre review: Arms and the Man

Paul Miller directs his final show as Artistic Director of the Orange Tree, and it's no real surprise that it involves one of the two classic playwrights who've kept the wolves from the venue's door during his tenure. I would have personally preferred a Rattigan swansong, but Miller's gone instead for Bernard Shaw: Arms and the Man is one of Shaw's most famous titles, although I don't think I've had the opportunity to see it before, so like most of the two writers' works presented in Richmond, it's presumably fallen out of favour and been forgotten. It turns out to be a lightly farcical romantic comedy for the holiday season, and less overtly political than its title and premise might have suggested: Set in rural Bulgaria during one of the endless 19th century conflicts between the Russian and Austrian empires, the Bulgarian army (under the Russians) have just scored a major victory over the Serbians (under the Austrians.)

Thursday 24 November 2022

Theatre review: Here

Southwark Playhouse's current home on Newington Causeway has been rechristened Southwark Playhouse Borough, to differentiate it from the new venue down the road that it's going to be coexisting with for the next couple of years. It's also once again become the host of the annual Papatango playwrighting prize after it moved to the Bush last year - although it's now in the Large space after several years in the Little. I've often thought Papatango tends to favour fairly downbeat plays, though they generally come with some spark of inspiration that makes them worth catching. Well 2022's winner, Clive Judd's kitchen sink play Here, definitely provides the downbeat part, but unfortunately I personally failed to find in it the redeeming features to make its hefty running time worthwhile. The kitchen is in the West Midlands home of Monica (Lucy Benjamin,) which she inherited when her father died two years earlier, and which still has the 1980s decor he left behind.

Wednesday 23 November 2022

Theatre review: Henry V (Headlong)

This year's second London Henry V is a radically different beast than the Donmar's bombastic war epic, and different in fact from any I've seen before in 30 or so years of Shakespeare productions. The clichéd view of the play is of a jingoistic celebration of Englishness, but in the last two decades it's been rare to see it through anything other than a cynical eye as a story of British imperialism, and increasingly through the prism of an arrogant attitude towards Europe. Holly Race Roughan's production for Headlong, which opens at the Swanamaker before transferring to Leeds and Northampton next year, takes it right out of the canon of Shakespeare's Histories, reimagining it entirely as a brooding and claustrophobic Tragedy. And if I was less excited than some about Kit "Christopher" Harington's casting earlier this year, Big Favourite Round These Parts Oliver Johnstone getting his chance at one of the big Shakespearean leads is more the kind of thing to grab my attention.

Monday 21 November 2022

Theatre review: Blackout Songs

Joe White's Blackout Songs is an alcoholic love story, which Guy Jones' production plays as a kind of twisted rom-com: Anisha Fields' traverse set design is bordered by rows of chairs that call to mind AA (Alcoholics Anonymous, not the Automobile Association.) That's because an AA meeting is where the protagonists meet, but it soon becomes apparent they're not ready to commit to sobriety: Rebecca Humphries' Alice and Alex Austin's Charlie (the characters are listed as just "Her" and "Him" in the programme) both claim this is their first-ever AA meeting, and they don't even stay past the coffee: When she finds out he's going cold turkey, Alice tells Charlie that has a one-in-twenty fatality rate, and they should go out and get him one last drink to save his life.

Thursday 17 November 2022

Theatre review: From Here To Eternity

When Stuart Brayson (music) Tim Rice (lyrics) and Bill Oakes' (book) musical adaptation of From Here To Eternity debuted in the West End in 2013, I found it hard work, but the songs from Brayson were a highlight, and have stayed on my playlists since. So on balance I decided to give it another go in its off-West End return at Charing Cross Theatre, where it gets a smaller-scale production from Brett Smock. And while it still feels like adapting James Jones' novel and the classic film for the stage was an idea flawed from its conception, this more streamlined take on the show (it's a revised script with a number of songs moved, removed or replaced with new ones entirely - the balance of book to music was one of my issues with the original) is a definite improvement. The action takes place in Hawaii in the fortnight before the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack.

Tuesday 15 November 2022

Theatre review: Not Now

When a planned revival of last year's Yes So I Said Yes fell through, the Finborough Theatre avoided going dark for a month by scheduling the London premiere of another David Ireland play, his recent short comedy Not Now. It's a story that almost feels like it could have been inspired by a running Twitter joke about Jonjo O'Neil's 2012 Richard III, as it opens with aspiring Belfast actor Matthew (Matthew Blaney) rehearsing the opening soliloquy, and trying not to pronounce the first word as "NOY." He's got up early to rehearse his speech because he's flying to London later in the day to audition for RADA, and he feels like he should deliver it in a laboured English accent he associates with classical performances of Shakespeare (he's also able-bodied but putting on an exaggerated hunchback and limp, so never mind it not getting him into drama school, he'd have been cancelled before his career even began.)

Monday 14 November 2022

Theatre review: Mary

Rona Munro's second James Plays trilogy has kicked off in Scotland (hopefully with a London run in its future) with James IV, but before that there's another entry in her cycle of plays about the Stuart rulers. Although Mary feels like a bonus feature rather than the next chapter, and not just because it's premiering out of chronological order: Instead of the bloody epics of the main sequence, Mary is a two-scene discussion with just three characters, and the titular Queen of Scots isn't even one of them. There is a James though, but he's not King: James Melville (Douglas Henshall) is a Lord loyal to the Queen at a time when much of the Scottish aristocracy seems to be plotting against her. We open at Linlithgow Palace in 1567, shortly after the murder of Mary's second husband Lord Darnley, father of James VI and I. The scheming Lord Bothwell is the likely culprit, but gossip also puts Mary herself under suspicion.

Thursday 10 November 2022

Theatre review: Good

John Halder (David Tennant) is a University literature professor and author of a few well-received novels, whose generally happy life does bring him a few causes for stress: His elderly mother has lost her eyesight and is struggling to cope on her own; his best friend, the Jewish psychotherapist Maurice (Elliot Levey) is as neurotic as any of his patients and insists on trying to analyse John whenever they meet; and he's seriously considering leaving his wife Helen (Sharon Small) for one of his students. At least his professional life is going well, as he's a rising star of the Nazi party. Dominic Cooke's production of CP Taylor's Good finally makes it to a West End stage on the third attempt*, and like any play chosen for its uncomfortable topicality the precise moments that chime with recent events may have changed slightly in two years, but the overall relevance remains.

Tuesday 8 November 2022

Theatre review: Marvellous

Nica Burns' pet project @sohoplace, the first new-build West End theatre in 50 years (as long as you define that very strictly within both geographical and SOLT-membership terms) has opened on what was formerly the site of the Astoria. A glass-fronted building with the general design aesthetic of a multiplex in a shopping centre, and toilets that do exist, as long as you don't look for them where the signs tell you to, it will probably, like most new theatres, take a while to feel welcoming and familiar. It also has an @ in its name, to show that it's at the cutting edge, assuming that it's currently 1997. At least things are done right in the auditorium, where it matters: In-the-round as the default configuration is a bit of a challenge to the idea that West End theatres look a certain way, and gives the venue an intimacy - I was in the Stalls but it looks like the galleries would feel reasonably close to the action as well. They're being praised for having the best seats in the West End, admittedly a bar that can be cleared just by pointing them at the stage.

Friday 4 November 2022

Theatre review: Not One of These People

Martin Crimp is no stranger to the main stage of the Royal Court, although the way some of his past work has gone down there might be why his latest isn't being presented as a full run, but for only four performances - so short that by the time I can write and publish this review it'll already be finished. Or it might be that Not One of These People is being treated more as a short performance art installation, which it was originally conceived as: A rolling monologue that would require only one live performer and some technology, to be part of the theatre's reopening after lockdown. In the end that timing didn't work out so it eventually developed into something different, but still with a novel approach to avoiding crowds of actors on stage together: In Christian Lapointe's production Crimp himself reads the lines of 299 characters, and their faces are projected onto a screen.

Thursday 3 November 2022

Theatre review: A Single Man

Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man was famously made into a film a few years ago, best known for starring Colin Firth and Nicholas Hoult in his pants. Now the Park Theatre's main house plays host to a stage adaptation by Simon Reade, and while the white pants are ably filled, the Firth-shaped hole proves harder to ignore. The story is a day in the life of a fifty-something English academic who teaches literature at a California university. His last day on earth, in fact, as foreshadowed in Philip Wilson's production when we first meet George (Theo Fraser Steele) asleep in his bed, lying flat on his back under a white sheet as if on a slab. It's less than a year since his boyfriend died in a car accident, and George is still adapting to being single again; we see him fill his day with work, friends and bars, in between memories of his lost love.

Friday 28 October 2022

Theatre review: Elephant

Another short writer-performer show premieres in the Bush's Studio space as Anoushka Lucas puts an Elephant in the room in a more literal way than it might first appear. Lucas plays Lylah, a young singer-songwriter who showed promise a few years ago, but whose career appears not to have taken off as well as hoped. Her story bounces around three periods, beginning with her childhood in the 1990s, growing up in a working-class London family with middle-class aspirations, who squeezed a piano into their small council flat to nurture her talent. Thanks to her French mother, she also manages to get a music scholarship to a French private school that will eventually help her get into Oxford. Her skin colour makes her an outsider and a target for bullies, but she succeeds in creating a more middle-class identity for herself even as her family move up in the world, buying and remodeling their flat.

Thursday 27 October 2022

Theatre review: Something in the Air

Veteran playwright Peter Gill's latest play could be said to join the ranks of the new generation of AIDS stories most prominently including It's A Sin and Cruise, although its focus is slightly different: Part of the theme of those stories has been the generation of queer elders who barely exist because of the pandemic of the 1980s and '90s wiping them out, but Something in the Air brings us a pair of men who've survived into old age and, with the rest of their community long-gone, have found some comfort in each other. Colin (Ian Gelder) and Alex (Christopher Godwin) live in the same retirement home where they've become friends and, to the consternation of Alex's son Andrew (Andrew Woodall,) have started holding hands while they sit in their armchairs. Colin's niece Clare (Claire Price) is more sanguine about it, and in fact has some news for Andrew: The pair have asked to be moved into the same room, but as they're not always lucid, it needs to be run by their families.

Saturday 22 October 2022

Theatre review: The Solid Life of Sugar Water

Jack Thorne wrote The Solid Life of Sugar Water for Graeae, the company giving opportunities to D/deaf and disabled artists, and has stipulated that this should be respected in any revivals - the character of Alice is explicitly stated to be Deaf, and is required to be played by an actor with a hearing impairment, like Katie Erich in the Orange Tree's production. It's not specified what disability her husband Phil has, if any at all, but Adam Fenton has Tourette's. I'm not sure if the production integrating creative captioning to make it as inclusive for the audience as it is for the company is also a contractual requirement for staging it, but both productions I've seen have done so. So it's a play that foregrounds inclusivity, but the truth is it uses this as something of a red herring: Alice's deafness is occasionally referenced to dramatic effect, but the central tragedy the couple face is a - hopefully rare - potentially universal one.

Thursday 20 October 2022

Theatre review: My Neighbour Totoro

Hayao Miyazaki's 1988 cartoon My Neighbour Totoro is a hugely beloved film that's totally embedded in Japanese culture, but the popularity of Studio Ghibli films worldwide means any new adaptation has the potential to be a hit anywhere - something the RSC's stage version had already proved to an extent before it opened, with record-breaking advance ticket sales at the Barbican. It still had to live up to those expectations of course, and this Japanese-British co-production sets out the "British" side of that deal from the start, with a visual gag correcting the spelling of "Neighbour" from the American dub of the film. Like the titular massive furry bear/rabbit/owl... thing itself, Tom Morton-Smith's adaptation has to be huge and unwieldy, utterly bizarre, a little bit creepy but strangely lovable. No pressure.

Tuesday 18 October 2022

Theatre review: The Canterville Ghost

Southwark Playhouse offers up a ghost story for October, although hardly a classic Halloween chiller: Tall Stories' The Canterville Ghost, which has been touring on and off since 2018, adapts Oscar Wilde's comic short story about a ghost who meets his match when a new family move into the mansion he's been haunting for three centuries, and fail to be in the slightest bit scared of him. Instead the two children play practical jokes on the ghost until he enlists the girl's help to pass on to the other side for good. It's a very simple story, and I've grumbled at other Wilde adaptations before that if a story was likely to work on stage he'd probably have written it that way himself. But Olivia Jacobs, Toby Mitchell (writer-directors,) Jon Fiber & Andy Shaw (music and lyrics) aren't going for anything like a straightforward adaptation of the original here.

Monday 17 October 2022

Theatre review: Ravenscourt

Qualified NHS therapist Georgina Burns' first fully-staged play Ravenscourt opens at Hampstead Downstairs, and though there's the odd line of clunky dialogue for the most part it goes against my usual complaint about the venue's sets being more fully developed than the scripts (although Debbie Duru's set is a nicely economical use of the space.) It's set within the NHS' Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme, a service both lauded as a world leader in its ambition for helping the nation's mental health, and critically underfunded and oversubscribed. Ravenscourt is a psychiatric facility; the day surgery is loomed over by an institution for those with the most serious mental illnesses, and occasionally therapy sessions are interrupted by the patients next door having an attack. Lydia (Lizzy Watts) is a comparatively young therapist but she does have some years of private practice under her belt by the time she decides to join the public sector.

Saturday 15 October 2022

Theatre review: John Gabriel Borkman

John Gabriel Borkman isn't one of the more frequently-produced Henrik Ibsen plays - I've only ever seen it once before, and then in a short, heavily rewritten, monologue adaptation. It can't be topicality that's the problem - given that the title character is a corrupt, arrogant banker, you could theoretically have a production of it playing somewhere in the world 24/7 and guarantee the famous phrase "timely revival" got chucked at it. It does, however, conform to all the stereotypes about Ibsen's work being dark, moody and bleak. JG Borkman (Simon Russell Beale,) once a financial giant, was convicted of embezzlement. He spent five years in prison and, since his release, a further eight years essentially under self-imposed house arrest. In the first act, all we know of him is the sound of him relentlessly pacing his room.

Thursday 13 October 2022

Theatre review: The Band's Visit

A number of interesting shows start with a "what if?" premise. In the case of David Yazbek (music & lyrics) and Itamar Moses' (book) 2016 musical The Band's Visit, the question is "What if Come From Away, but bearable?" Based on an Israeli film, this also features unexpected visitors to a sleepy town, but in a much more low-key way: In 1996, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra travel from Egypt to Israel to perform at an Arabic culture festival in the bustling city of Petah Tikva. But a mixup at the airport leads to them getting the bus to Bet Hatikva, a tiny, sleepy town in the middle of nowhere. By the time they realise their mistake they're already there, and the next bus back to the city isn't until the next day. There's no hotel, so café owner Dina (Miri Mesika) takes in conductor Tewfiq (Alon Moni Aboutboul) and trumpet player Haled (Sharif Afifi) herself, and arranges for other locals to find space for the rest of the band for the night.

Tuesday 11 October 2022

Theatre review: The Boy With Two Hearts

Phil Porter's The Boy With Two Hearts transfers to the Dorfman after originating last year at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff - appropriately enough, as that's the city where Hamed & Hessam Amiri, authors of the memoir Porter's play adapts, and their family made their home. But not before a rough journey: Beginning in 2000 in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are at their strongest, Hamed (Farshid Rokey) and Hessam's (Shamail Ali) mother Fariba (Houda Echouafni) speaks out publicly against the regime's treatment of women. She expects repercussions but doesn't realise they'll be so quick or so brutal: Within hours the local Taliban has sentenced her to death, and when husband Mohammed (Dana Haqjoo) refuses to give up her whereabouts he's lucky to escape with his life after getting "disappeared" for a while. The family manage to escape Herat for Moscow, but it's only the beginning of their journey.

Friday 7 October 2022

Theatre review: Brown Boys Swim

It's nowhere near as hard as trying to figure out what to see at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe itself, but there's still something overwhelming about trying not to miss anything you shouldn't once the hits start coming to London a couple of months later. So I don't really try to as a general rule, but it certainly seemed this year as if Karim Khan's Brown Boys Swim was a show getting a lot of positive attention, and when I spotted John Hoggarth's production for Oxford's North Wall company doing a run at Soho Theatre I grabbed a ticket before it sold out completely. It follows two teenage boys who've been friends since primary school - at first, perhaps, because they were both in a minority as Muslims in Oxford, but the friendship is by now a deep and genuine one. Mohsen (Anish Roy) is the quieter, more studious one, whose grades are good enough that he's considering going to Oxford University - although is it because of its prestige, or because it's the local university and he wouldn't need to move away from home?

Thursday 6 October 2022

Theatre review: Eureka Day

Jonathan Spector's Eureka Day dates from pre-Covid days, and its story would probably play out a bit differently if it didn't, but maybe not that differently: The crux of the plot revolves around vaccination, but its wider themes look at the best intentions of avowed liberals, and whether they can leave the door open for things to go seriously wrong. Rob Howell's bright and colourful set is a classroom in the titular private California primary school, and the scenes are meetings of the five-strong Executive Committee, led by old hippie Don (Mark McKinney,) who runs the school, the rest being parents. Suzanne (Helen Hunt) is such a stalwart of the school, the only half-joking rumour is she had IVF later in life only so she could still be involved with the committee. When she isn't knitting furiously in the corner, single mother May (Kirsten Foster) is having an affair with stay-at-home dad (because he's a millionnaire) Eli (Ben Schnetzer.)

Tuesday 4 October 2022

Theatre review:
The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore

As a Tennessee Williams fan there's mixed emotions coming to a new production of a lesser- known play: He was so prolific there's always something new to discover, but if that prolonged burst of creativity owed something to his prodigious coke habit, the quality of some of the later plays seems to attest to it just as much. The Wikipedia page for this 1963 meditation on mortality and grief, thought to have been written in response to the terminal illness of his long-term partner, is essentially a list of how many times Williams wrote it, and it tanked, rewrote it, and it tanked worse, rewrote it as a film, and it tanked globally. But as well as simply wanting to tick another title off the list, there's always the hope that someone will do a Summer and Smoke, and reveal an almost-forgotten work as a misjudged classic with a revelatory production. Robert Chevara's take on The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore at Charing Cross Theatre is not that production.

Monday 3 October 2022

Theatre review: Jews. In Their Own Words.

When the Royal Court announced Jonathan Freedland's Jews. In Their Own Words. as the opener for its autumn season, my brain autocorrected the title to Jews. Please Don't Boycott Us. After last year's antisemitism fiasco it was pretty obvious that this was an attempt at a mea culpa from the venue, and while there's definitely something to be said for not dragging their feet about addressing the issue, ten months since that happened seems a very quick turnaround for a theatre where scripts can percolate for years. (For anyone not up to speed: Rare Earth Mettle was meant to feature a shifty billionaire called Hershel Fink. Having seen the play, I'd say playwright Al Smith was probably going for something with the vague cadences of "Elon Musk," but he actually landed on a hugely stereotypical Jewish name, paired with an equally stereotypical moneybags character. When the play opened in previews and caused offence, the name was changed, but further controversy came with reports that some people had highlighted the connotations and been ignored.)

Thursday 29 September 2022

Theatre review: Blues for an Alabama Sky

I know theatre always uses the past to illustrate and comment on the present, but the National staging a play set during the Great Depression right now feels a bit on the nose. Specifically, Pearl Cleage's Blues for an Alabama Sky takes place at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance, where the creative explosion and progressive attitudes that came with it are still strongly felt, but the financial realities are starting to kick in as well, and the residents of the ground floor of a New York apartment block are balancing dreams with realistic expectations. Angel (understudy Helena Pipe) has just been dumped by the gangster who turned out, to nobody's real surprise, to have a wife; he's turfed her out of the apartment he was keeping her in just as she lost her job in a cabaret. Her friend, dressmaker and notorious homosexual Guy (Giles Terera) has taken her in, to stay on his couch in a living room dominated by a photo of Josephine Baker.

Tuesday 27 September 2022

Theatre review: The Wonderful World of Dissocia

Anthony Neilson is certainly a playwright of extremes - I've seen plays of his that have ranged from horror to panto, occasionally within the same scene. Sometimes this is a response to mental illness, like Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness, the surreal freak show he wrote as an antidote to a bout of depression. A play that deals even more directly with the theme is one I'd heard of but never had the chance to see before: The Wonderful World of Dissocia, which Emma Baggott revives at Stratford East. Lisa (Leah Harvey) has been feeling out of sorts for a while, and the reason is revealed when she tries to get her watch mended. Watch repairer Victor (Hollywood Body Double Leander Deeny) reveals that there's nothing wrong with the timepiece, it's Lisa who's an hour out of time: She was on a delayed plane when the clocks went back in October, and she never got back the hour she lost when they went forwards the previous March.

Monday 26 September 2022

Theatre review: The Snail House

There are many multi-talented theatremakers who spend their whole careers working - sometimes with varying levels of success - in a number of different disciplines. There are also those who, later in their careers, decide to use their years of experience to add another string to their bow, usually playwrighting. Richard Eyre's career as a director has been a particularly distinguished one, including running the National Theatre, and he isn't entirely without writing experience either, having done a number of his own adaptations of existing work. But The Snail House - which he also directs on Hampstead's main stage - is his first completely original piece of writing for the theatre. I've seen actors, directors and critics make this kind of late addition to their careers, and I'd like to say it usually pays off, but in my experience it's surprisingly common for them to fall into every trap a play can possibly set.

Saturday 24 September 2022

Theatre review: I, Joan

On to my third play in a row with trans and non-binary themes, and by far the most high-profile: Charlie Josephine's I, Joan garnered angry and entirely predictable criticism long before anyone had seen it, once it was revealed that Joan of Arc would be portrayed using they/them pronouns*. Obviously, the idea that a woman who chose to die rather than wear a frock might have been less than 100% femme is a bit of a leap, but let's suspend disbelief for a bit shall we? Joan's story, from illiterate peasant girl, to unlikely military leader, to 14 seasons of Knots Landing, to martyrdom and finally becoming a patron saint of France, has been told on stage many times, and apart from a few speeches that directly address the play's take on gender, Josephine follows the familiar story beats: France has been beaten down by England, and Charles the Dauphin (Jolyon Coy) has been disinherited from his position as heir to the throne.

Thursday 22 September 2022

Theatre review: Clutch

In one of my unplanned theme weeks, every show I've got booked this week features at least one transgender or non-binary character; in another bit of continuity Geoffrey Aymer, last seen driving an unlicensed minicab in Jitney, stays behind the wheel for Will Jackson's Clutch in the Bush Theatre's Studio space. He plays avuncular driving instructor Max, who offers his new student the first lesson free and won't take it personally if he doesn't come back for more - he isn't to everyone's taste. Max's no-nonsense teaching style tends to border more on the loud and distracting, but Tyler (Charlie Kafflyn) sticks with him, and soon the seemingly timid young man relaxes and shows his cockier side as he starts to improve. Tyler's job is as a techie for touring bands; a driving license will help him get more work, and Max boasts of a 100% first-time pass record.

Tuesday 20 September 2022

Theatre review: The Prince

In addition to the usual pre-show information most theatres send to audiences a couple of days before the show, the email from Southwark Playhouse about Abigail Thorn's The Prince also comes with an added warning that tickets will be checked multiple times, and audience members must not attempt to interact with the cast after the performance. It's depressingly easy to guess what this might be all about, and indeed the cast list confirms that, with a number of trans and non-binary cast members and a corresponding theme in the play itself, there's extra security because of threats from terven. Two trans women also find themselves in danger in the story itself, but the violence is both more immediate, and more surreal, as Sam (Joni Ayton-Kent) and Jen (Mary Malone) materialise on a battlefield at the start of Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1.

Friday 16 September 2022

Theatre review: Who Killed My Father

Ivo van Hove's work tends to play bigger and higher-profile venues in the West End and on Broadway these days, but the Young Vic, where A View From the Bridge really made his name in this country, still occasionally gets the superstar director's work. In particular, it seems to be the home of English-language premieres of solo shows from some of his Internationaal Theater Amsterdam core ensemble members. A few years ago we saw Eelco Smits in Song From Far Away, now it's the turn of an actor often seen as a patrician figure in the company's work, showing a much more vulnerable side here: In van Hove's own adaptation of Who Killed My Father, Hans Kesting plays the book's author Édouard Louis, who confronts his dying father with the ways in which he traumatised him during childhood; but also with the political circumstances that led both to the father's early death, and the knock-on effect on the son.

Thursday 15 September 2022

Theatre review: The P Word

Waleed Akhtar's two-hander at the Bush is about gay Pakistani men in their thirties, so the title The P Word could refer to a couple of different slurs; they get called both of them over the course of 90 minutes although it's the racially-charged one which features more, and which at times becomes a bone of contention between the pair. Akhtar himself plays Bilal, a second-generation British Muslim whose parents theoretically accept his sexuality, but with a level of tutting and undisguised hope that it might be a "phase" after all, that's left the family relationship sour. It's fractious, but it's a level of family peace asylum seeker Zafar (Esh Alladi) could only dream of: He's fled Pakistan in secret after his father discovered his sexuality and threatened to kill him. He's got connections in the army and the threat's no idle one: He did murder Zafar's boyfriend when he caught them together.

Tuesday 13 September 2022

Theatre review: The Clinic

Written during Dipo Baruwa-Etti's residency at the Almeida as the Channel 4 bursary playwright, The Clinic is a combustive family drama where race and politics don't even pretend to be far from the surface, but which ends up as tangled up by them as the characters themselves. The British-Nigerian family in question are a very successful, upper-middle class one whose achievements are so varied they sometimes refer to themselves as The Clinic, because of the wealth of solutions they could come up with for any number of problems: Segun (Maynard Eziashi,) turning 60 in the opening scene, is a successful therapist and writer of self-help books; his wife Tiwa (Donna Berlin) also studied psychology but never practiced it professionally, and instead has spent much of her life volunteering for causes and committees. Their son Bayo (Simon Manyonda) was recently promoted to DCI in the Metropolitan Police, and his wife Amina (Mercy Ojelade) is a Labour MP.

Friday 9 September 2022

Theatre review: Antigone

The Open Air Theatre's set designers seem to have gone for a thematic progression over the 2022 season: For Legally Blonde the set was pink, for 101 Dalmatians it was made up of the characters in the show's title; so for the concluding production, Leslie Travers gives us the title of the show... in pink letters. The name Antigone is spelt out in graffiti-like letters that form a skate park, as Inua Ellams' adaptation of Sophocles is not just a modern-dress one but essentially a complete reworking of the myth. So we open at a London youth centre where Antigone (Zainab Hasan) volunteers, alongside sister Ismene (Shazia Nicholls) and brother Polyneices (Nadeem Islam.) Their oldest brother Eteocles (Abe Jarman) has recently joined the police, and after an introduction that sets up the siblings' contrasting personalities we skip forward a few years during which Polyneices disappears. It turns out he's gone to Syria where he's been radicalised; when he returns as part of a terrorist attack, both he and his brother end up dead on opposite sides of the conflict.

Thursday 8 September 2022

Theatre review: Doctor Faustus

Perennially Christopher Marlowe's most popular play, Doctor Faustus gets another revival, this time from Lazarus, the small-scale classics company that returns to Southwark Playhouse after last year's gender-bending take on Salomé. Faustus (Jamie O’Neill) is an arrogant young academic who's decided he's exhausted all the knowledge available to him in books, and will cheat his way to learning the secrets of the universe: He employs a demon to be his servant, to answer any question he may have, and show him the wonders of the world. Mephistopheles' (David Angland) services, of course, come at the highest possible price: In return for 24 years of service, he gets Faustus to sell his soul to Lucifer (Candis Butler Jones.) Faustus manages to convince himself he doesn't believe in the afterlife anyway so it's a zero-risk gamble, until the deal is done and he has to face the consequences.

Tuesday 6 September 2022

Stage-to-screen review: London Assurance

When NTatHome first launched I tried it out with the oldest recording they'd put on the platform; I think Phèdre still holds that title but another of the early NTLive screenings has recently joined it, giving me a chance to rewatch a show I remembered fondly, and see how well it held up. A far cry from Peloponnesian angst and bloody horse-related deaths (although they do have a bit of forbidden lust in common,) in 2010's London Assurance Nicholas Hytner revived the early hit for largely forgotten 19th century theatrical juggernaut Dion Boucicault. Boucicault's work generally hasn't stood the test of time, and tends to work best when radically reconceived or flat out parodied, and this too has needed some tinkering: In an ongoing collaboration that would have its most famous example the following year, Hytner got Richard Bean to do a thorough rewrite of the script.

Friday 2 September 2022

Theatre review: Horse-Play

Tim (David Ames) and Tom (Jake Maskall) are a middle-aged couple who've been married for ten years and are starting to worry that the excitement might be going out of their sex lives. To try and spice things up a bit they decide to tap into one of Tim's fantasies, from the childhood memories of watching the 1960s Batman series and getting a bit excited whenever Batman and Robin got tied up by the villain. They come up with their own superhero names, make the costumes and hire a dom to play the villain, but when Karl (Matt Lapinskas) gets a bang on the head, all three of them end up stuck in an awkward situation. Now, I'm not saying Ian Hallard's new play might be benefiting from people's curiosity about the lives of famous people, but could it be accidentally letting slip some secrets about his and Mark Gatiss' own relationship?

Wednesday 31 August 2022

Stage-to-screen review: Oliver Twist

The National Theatre's NTatHome platform won't be troubling Netflix in terms of volume of content any time soon, but its library has grown significantly since it launched a couple of years ago. As well as the NT's own archive and the productions screened to cinemas with NTLive, it also makes sense as a longer-term home for filmed performances that were screened online during lockdown by a variety of UK theatres, on a variety of platforms. So one such show is Leeds Playhouse's 2020 adaptation of probably the best-known full-length novel by Charles Dickens (Chickens to his friends,) Oliver Twist. Intended to tour, which obviously in 2020 wasn't going to happen, Amy Leach's production was instead made available to stream, in a filmed version that occasionally uses subtitles to supplement the access features that are incorporated into the staging itself.