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.