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.)