Thursday 30 June 2022

Theatre review: Invisible

They say write what you know, so actor/writers performing their own work tend to deal with their own experiences in the job - or, as often as not, their difficulty in finding one, especially if they belong to a minority that tends to get typecast. In Nikhil Parmar's Invisible, we're in an alternate present where peace has unilaterally broken out in the Middle East, so South Asian actors don't even have the option of bad guy terrorist roles any more, and are stuck fighting it out for the doctors and shopkeepers. Parmar plays Zayan, a classically trained actor who's not had a role for a while, and has largely given up even auditioning because of his fear of rejection. He scrapes a living with catering jobs and occasionally weed-dealing for his cousins (when he doesn't get mugged for the drugs by children,) and the effect it's had on his state of mind is threatening his personal life: His ex-girlfriend is dating a more successful actor, and is wondering whether Zayan is stable enough to look after their young daughter, even for the odd weekend.

Monday 27 June 2022

Theatre review: The Fellowship

Roy Williams, whose Death of England trilogy inadvertently ended up bookending the Covid lockdowns, now turns his hand to a traditional intergenerational family drama at he continues to explore the tensions and contradictions of the children of the Windrush generation. The Fellowship, set in 2019, makes explicit reference to that generation, in the unseen 91-year-old mother of Dawn (Cherrelle Skeete.) She moved into her younger daughter's house when her health started to fail terminally - it's implied if never explicitly stated that her deterioration really began with the Home Office scandal that she got caught up in. Dawn's feelings about a mother who was physically and emotionally abusive are complicated at best, but she's still taken on most of her care compared to older sister Marcia (Suzette Llewellyn,) a barrister and one of a tiny minority of black QCs, whose career has always taken precedence.

Thursday 23 June 2022

Theatre review: Mad House

A few years ago Bill Pullman gave a memorable performance at the Old Vic in All My Sons, and now he returns to the West End to play a more grotesque, but no less scene-stealing character. And he's clearly not a star name who wants all the limelight for himself: After sharing top billing with Sally Field last time, he now shares it with David Harbour at a time when he must have known the latest season of Stranger Things would give him most of the attention. This time Pullman plays Daniel, the patriarch of a dysfunctional family in a small Pennsylvania town, whose wife died of cancer a year earlier, and who's now slowly dying of multiple organ failure himself. He doesn't want to die in a hospice so, with the help of palliative care nurse Lillian (Akiya Henry,) his primary caregiver is eldest son Michael (Harbour.) He's the only one of Daniel's children willing to do it, and it may just be because he needs somewhere to live after spending a year in a mental institution.

Monday 20 June 2022

Theatre review: That Is Not Who I Am

Theatres are going to have to keep trying to make up their Covid losses for some years to come, so you can forgive them if they try the odd gimmick to get bums on seats. Or at least you'd think you could, but the Royal Court's latest show has come with an elaborate framing device that extends way beyond the stage and begins with the publicity; something that could be described as underhand but in reality feels more like the theatre overtly trying to create an air of mystery, so why it seems to have made some critics quite so angry is a bit beyond me. In any case the setup is that the venue had discovered a first-time writer, a man in late middle age called Dave Davidson, who'd dabbled in playwrighting before but not had anything produced until That Is Not Who I Am. This pretence barely seemed to last a couple of days before it was commonly known Davidson was the pseudonym of an established author. Now that it's opened the information is easy to find but just in case anyone's still trying to go in blind, I'll keep the spoilers for after this text break.

Saturday 18 June 2022

Theatre review: The False Servant

Paul Miller is coming up to his final season as Artistic Director of the Orange Tree, a theatre he notoriously took over on the day it lost all its funding. He turned its fortunes around with an eclectic menu of surprisingly ambitious new work alternating with reliable classics, predominantly from Rattigan and Shaw, and it'll be interesting to see how far his successor Tom Littler will want to tinker with a successful formula. One thing I won't miss if they go in the new regime are Miller's occasional ventures to 18th century France for the comedies of Pierre Marivaux, which between The Lottery of Love and the latest offering, The False Servant, haven't exactly got my pulse racing. A wealthy young woman (Lizzy Watts) is contemplating a potential suitor, but wants to be sure of his character. Disguising herself as a man and calling herself The Chevalier, she befriends Lelio (Julian Moore-Cook) and immediately finds out why she should avoid the match at all costs.

Friday 17 June 2022

Theatre review: Britannicus

In a year that's been dominated by stories of swings and understudies keeping the theatre industry going - halfway through and I've probably already seen more people covering roles than in any other year - another show having to cope with cast illness has been the Lyric Hammersmith's take on Jean Racine's Britannicus: Ben and I were meant to see the show last Friday but it got cancelled, and there were further cancellations this week. With the theatre, like so many, not being able to afford to carry regular understudies, it's only by bringing in two actors to cover roles script-in-hand that they've managed to reopen tonight, in time for us to be second time lucky and catch it before it closes next week. And even if not quite at its best I'm glad I managed to see a show I'd been particularly looking forward to - I've seen and enjoyed a past production that used the same Timberlake Wertenbaker translation that Atri Banerjee's production uses.

Thursday 16 June 2022

Theatre review: Cancelling Socrates

Howard Brenton made his name as a topical political playwright, and in recent years has become mostly known for his history plays. Cancelling Socrates, as suggested by a title that mixes a contentious, politicised modern term with a classical figure, is something of both, although in the end maybe not quite enough of either. It's the story of the trial of Socrates in 399 BCE Athens, when he was accused of blasphemy with a side order of corrupting youths. As played by Jonathan Hyde, Socrates isn't necessarily any more of an atheist than anyone else around him, and though he's got some very arch thoughts about the badly-behaved Olympian pantheon he does seem to pray to them and make all the right gestures. The trouble is his famous, eponymous Socratic method of philosophy, which relies on asking questions and seeing where the answers take him. Sooner or later he's going to end up asking questions with dangerous answers.

Tuesday 14 June 2022

Theatre review: Jitney

With Jitney I hit my personal half-century point in August Wilson's American Century Cycle - having seen the plays covering the 1910s, 1920s, 1950s and 1980s, Headlong's production at the Old Vic takes us to the 1970s, and the first play in the cycle in order of writing. The next one Wilson wrote was Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and this play shares some similarities in setup: We're in another sunless room with a group of men taking breaks from work. This time it's a cabin that houses an unlicensed cab office: The licensed ones won't go to some of the more dangerous parts of Pittsburgh, which is where Becker's (Wil Johnson) drivers come in. And even they're not willing to stay there too long - one of their mantras to customers who call is "be ready, I won't wait." In between jobs they come back to the office to warm up by the electric fire, and when the phone rings the man who's been waiting longest gets to answer it and take the next fare.

Thursday 9 June 2022

Theatre review: The Glass Menagerie

I'm sure the likes of A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof beat it in terms of name recognition, but in my experience The Glass Menagerie is the most frequently-produced Tennessee Williams work; the latest take on it makes five productions I've seen. It was the first Williams play I saw on stage and remains my favourite, although Jeremy Herrin's production seems determined to change that: As lifeless hatchet-jobs on beloved classics go it's not quite on a par with Mark Rylance's energy-sapping Much Ado, but it does share some of that sense of someone just plopping the play onto the stage, and walking away shrugging. In a play whose autobiographical nature is barely disguised, a cramped 1930s St Louis apartment houses what's left of the Wingfield family, scraping by ever since the father abandoned them. Williams' avatar Tom (Tom Glynn-Carney) works in a soul-destroying warehouse job by day, and spends his nights "at the movies."

Tuesday 7 June 2022

Theatre review: Starcrossed

Mercutio's most memorable scene in any given production of Romeo & Juliet is likely to be the showboating Queen Mab speech, but his most famous line is the "a plague o' both your houses" refrain of his dying speech. As I get older and look at Shakespeare plays in different ways, one of the things I find notable about the play is that this speech, largely directed at Romeo, isn't entirely fair: The historic feud between the Montagues and Capulets might be the root cause of Mercutio's death, but the immediate cause is his own recklessness. Romeo has actually defused a volatile situation before Mercutio riles the thuggish Tybalt again, leading to a duel and, eventually, both their deaths. Rachel Garnet's Starcrossed, a reimagining of Romeo & Juliet, works in part as a possible explanation of this plot hole around why a character unrelated to either side of the feud, who's been happy to play the class clown until then, suddenly stokes up the fire in one of its most dangerous participants.

Sunday 5 June 2022

Theatre review: Bonnie & Clyde

It's a human peculiarity to take dead-eyed career criminals and turn them into heroes, celebrated by the very people whose money they've taken. But I'm not here to talk about the Jubilee parade, instead I bypassed the crowds and went to the Arts Theatre for Bonnie & Clyde, a musical I had to postpone when I got Covid in April. Frank Wildhorn (music,) Don Black (lyrics) and Ivan Menchell's (book) show flopped on Broadway but has developed a cult following since, and a concert version last year has now been developed into Nick Winston's production, its first full staging in London. During the Great Depression, West Dallas is a dead end its residents just want to get away from; Bonnie Parker (Frances Mayli McCann) dreams of becoming a famous film star, but a different kind of celebrity comes along when Clyde Barrow (understudy Barney Wilkinson) escapes from prison.

Thursday 2 June 2022

Theatre review: Henry VIII (Shakespeare's Globe)

Despite being named after a monarch more famous than any of Shakespeare's other History Plays, Henry VIII has always languished in obscurity - this is only the second time I've seen the play, and I've yet to see any evidence that it deserves better. It's one of the late collaborations with John Fletcher, with all the unevenness that implies, but it's also a play that reflects the way Shakespeare's work tended to bow to the trends of its time, in this case the popularity of big spectacle and pageantry (so much so that it's best known for including the special effect that burned down the original Globe.) It also came a decade after the death of the last Tudor monarch, meaning it was now safe to portray that particular dynasty on stage, while also tapping into nostalgia for Elizabeth I's reign. All solid commercial reasons for creating a show, and the latter element feels topical, seeing it on the Jubilee weekend, but they don't suggest a great play for the ages.