Friday, 2 June 2023

Theatre review: Once On This Island

Regent's Park opens its 2023 Open Air Theatre season with Once On This Island, Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty's (music) loose musical adaptation of The Little Mermaid, reinterpreted as a fable about colourism in Haiti. Ti Moune (Gabrielle Brooks) is introduced as a legend of the island, a dark-skinned foundling girl adopted by Mama Euralie (Natasha Magigi) and Tonton Julian (Chris Jarman.) They are peasants, a class dictated by their darker skin - the wealth and power of the island rests with the lighter-skinned Grands Hommes, descended from Napoleonic settlers and their black mistresses. They congregate at a luxury hotel, banning the peasants from profiting off the tourists, but one day the heir to the hotel fortune has a car accident on the wrong side of the tracks. Ti Moune finds Daniel (Stephenson Ardern-Sodje) close to death.

Thursday, 1 June 2023

Theatre review: Bleak Expectations

We've had films and TV get stage adaptations, now radio gets in on the act; it ended on Radio 4 eleven years ago, but like its characters Mark Evans' Bleak Expectations has risen from the dead in a new and disturbing form. Evans has written a stage version that adapts mainly the first of the five series of frantic Dickensian parody about Pip Bin (Dom Hodson) and his sisters Pippa (Serena Manteghi) and Poppy (Rachel Summers.) Their rich, happy Victorian childhoods go wrong when their father dies in a freak penguin-related accident, and their mother (Ashh Blackwood) does the only respectable thing for a widowed woman of her time, and immediately goes mad. The siblings' nemesis is their new guardian, Gently Benevolent (John Hopkins,) who makes no secret of the fact that he's constantly plotting to murder Pip and marry one of his sisters for the inheritance.

Tuesday, 30 May 2023

Theatre review: Brokeback Mountain

Back to @sohoplace, the theatre with a name so current it's planning on upgrading to Windows ME any day now. In what, quite frankly, I thought was going to be a bigger event among The GaysTM than it seems to have been, the theatre stages a world premiere adaptation of Annie Proulx' Brokeback Mountain, the beloved gay cowboy story (they actually meet herding sheep, but there's no such thing as a sheepboy hat,) best-known for the Ang Lee film adaptation. In 1963 Jack Twist (Mike Faist,) an itinerant cowboy with dreams of working at rodeos, takes a shepherding job on the titular Wyoming mountain where he's paired up with the taciturn Ennis Del Mar (Lucas Hedges.) The two are mainly meant to work separately, taking turns guarding the sheep from coyotes, but on one of the freezing nights Jack persuades Ennis to share the tent with him.

Monday, 29 May 2023

Theatre review: The Shape of Things

The production companies that last year brought Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park to the Park Theatre return, with another early hit from a playwright whose later career featured an unfortunate incident involving bees, Neil LaBute. The Shape of Things is the defining LaBute story on themes he's returned to many times - mainly around body image, and the battle of the sexes. Set in and around a college campus, Adam (Luke Newton) is overweight, nerdy and has few friends and fewer relationships. When working one of his two part-time jobs to pay his student loans, as security at an art gallery, he meets Evelyn (Amber Anderson,) an art postgraduate who's planning on defacing one of the statues as a protest against censorship. Far from stopping her he turns a blind eye because he's flattered by her flirting with him.

Saturday, 27 May 2023

Theatre review: Hamnet

After lockdown, the RSC decided to keep the Swan theatre closed for refurbishment, so this is my first trip back there for over three years. As it turns out, "refurbishment" here means more standing room, fewer and less comfortable seats, and somehow the sightlines seem to have got worse as well. Paying for all this probably needed a decent-sized hit, so Erica Whyman directs an adaptation of a recent bestselling novel - and one that keeps the action largely locally in Stratford-upon-Avon, and with its most famous son. Lolita Chakrabarti adapts Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet, focusing on the women around William Shakespeare and especially his wife Anne Hathaway - here known as Agnes, with a silent G. I haven't read the book but the title, and the trigger warnings about themes of death and grief, gave me a good idea what part of their lives the story would focus on.

Thursday, 25 May 2023

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare's Globe)

Previously at Shakespeare's Globe... the theatre was the target of hate, protests and threats when they staged a play about how celebrity cross-dresser Joan of Arc might, and brace yourself for this one, not have been entirely a girly girl. Continuing to stake her claim as the most casually badass Artistic Director out there at the moment, Michelle Terry has launched her latest summer season with A Midsummer Night's Dream - a reliable crowd-pleaser at a time when they need bums on seats, but with a cast guaranteed to piss off exactly the right people. Outside of being cast almost entirely with female, trans and non-binary actors, Elle While's production isn't a particularly high-concept one, but it's a lot of fun. With at least three separate storylines vying for attention, and some of the plots disappearing from the stage for long periods, I often come out of the play thinking one element has dominated.

Wednesday, 24 May 2023

Theatre review: Leaves of Glass

I may be wrong - he's nothing if not prolific after all - but Leaves of Glass might be the last remaining full-length Philip Ridley play I hadn't yet seen; I think it premiered just before Piranha Heights, which was the first play I saw by someone who became one of my favourite playwrights. Leaves of Glass, which Max Harrison revives at the Park, is definitely on the more naturalistic end of Ridley's work, focusing on two East End brothers: The eldest, Steven (Ned Costello) is the successful owner of a business that cleans graffiti. In theory it's a partnership with his younger brother, but in practice Barry (Joseph Potter) is just one of the cleaners, and isn't even particularly good at it. He eventually quits the job after running away rather than destroy a mural he finds powerful, and makes a second attempt at the art career he failed at when he was younger.

Saturday, 20 May 2023

Theatre review: The Circle

A play full of references to the ravages of ageing could be taken as a bit of an on-the-nose way for a new Artistic Director to introduce himself to the Orange Tree's regular audience, but Tom Littler's debut production seems to have gone down well enough this afternoon. During Paul Miller's tenure the theatre helped subsidise its risky new writing scheduling with regular crowd-pleasing revivals, with a particular focus on Shaw and Rattigan. For his opening salvo Littler goes for Somerset Maugham, and the 1921 romantic comedy-drama The Circle. Arnold (Pete Ashmore) never really knew his mother, who left his father Clive (Clive Francis) and ran away with his best friend. But Arnold's wife Elizabeth (Olivia Vinall) has learnt that Lady Kitty (Jane Asher) and Lord Hughie Porteus (Nicholas Le Prevost) have returned to England after thirty years in France.

Thursday, 18 May 2023

Theatre review: The Motive and the Cue

The National Theatre has lured a couple of the most commercially successful British playwrights amd screenwriters to the South Bank to premiere new shows this season, starting with Jack Thorne in the Lyttelton, with stage and screen director Sam Mendes at the helm of a play about screen stars, and what draws them to the stage. The Motive and the Cue is inspired by the real story of Richard Burton (Johnny Flynn,) who in the middle of the honeymoon for (one of) his marriages to Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton) went to Broadway to rehearse for Hamlet. John Gielgud (Mark Gatiss) had already become a legendary Shakespearean actor by his mid-20s, but by 1964 and at the age of 60 his glory days seem to be far behind him.

Thursday, 11 May 2023

Theatre review: August In England

Sir Lenny Henry has a couple of high-profile careers under his belt, with decades as a popular comedian followed by a move to classical acting later in life. Both feed into his playwrighting debut August In England, a monologue he also stars in and which opens with Henry arriving on stage to calypso music, pouring drinks for himself and the front row, and generally working the audience like a seasoned comic. It's perhaps not too surprising for an actor writing his first play to stick to a familiar persona, but I think there's something else going on here as well: In a sold-out show people have booked for its star power, he's reminding us that he's someone considered part of the fabric of this country, and his character August Henderson (I did wonder if the name was a tribute to the August Wilson plays Henry's appeared in) is very similar to his creator, with the crucial difference that Henry was born in the UK.

Wednesday, 10 May 2023

Theatre review: Retrograde

Sidney Poitier would probably be the name most people would come up with if you asked who was the first black movie star to really achieve global fame and acclaim, but needless to say he didn't get to be a trailblazer without some major obstacles. Ryan Calais Cameron's Retrograde dramatises one particularly critical turning point, but the challenges the actor faces are a bit more complicated than pure, bare-faced racism. In the 1950s Poitier's (Ivanno Jeremiah) star is on the rise, and studios are interested. But there's also rumours that he turned down a lucrative role because he didn't want to play a passive black stereotype, so he might have a few more opinions and principles than Hollywood likes in its stars. His next step up could be a role in a TV movie written by his friend Bobby (Ian Bonar,) a minor screenwriter who's been the first person to offer him a role in which he'd be equal or senior to the white cast.

Monday, 8 May 2023

Theatre review: Private Lives

The Donald and Margot Warehouse has been one of the high-profile venues to lose all its funding in the latest round of cuts, so we can probably expect a few seasons of familiar faces and titles to help keep the lights on. A David Tennant Macbeth has already been announced, and in the meantime a combo deal of Stephen Mangan, Rachael Stirling and one of Noël Coward's most popular plays has provided a much-needed sell-out hit. But at least Michael Longhurst's production defies expectations in other ways, with a Private Lives not quite like the ones I've seen before. Elyot (Mangan) is on honeymoon with his second wife Sibyl (Laura Carmichael,) who's 17 years his junior and only first met him a few months ago. So maybe she should have asked him a few questions earlier, as she's particularly intrigued by his first wife Amanda and their divorce.

Saturday, 6 May 2023

Theatre review: Cymbeline (RSC / RST)

What better way to mark the Coronation than with Shakespeare's late romance about a forgettable king with a dead first wife and a panto villain second wife? The last time the RSC staged Cymbeline they gender-swapped the King and Queen to avoid the cliché of the wicked stepmother. For Gregory Doran's final show as Artistic Director things stay very much as written, because that particular cliché - and the play's extended collection of weird bad guys in general - feed into the production's feel of a dark fairytale. Peter De Jersey plays Cymbeline, the King of Britain who gets all but written out of his own play when he starts to fall ill, suspiciously soon after the new Queen starts brewing him a mysterious health tonic. Alexandra Gilbreath goes full Cruella as the Queen who also advises that the princess Imogen marry her son Cloten (Conor Glean,) so he can inherit the throne should the King suddenly die for some reason.

Thursday, 4 May 2023

Theatre review: Jules and Jim

New Artistic Director Stella Powell-Jones makes her Jermyn Street directing debut with an adaptation of Henri-Pierre Roché's iconic French novel Jules and Jim, best-known for being adapted into a Truffaut film. It's not the kind of story that would necessarily attract me, but the stage adaptation is by Timberlake Wertenbaker, who doesn't usually steer me wrong. Well I knew it was going to be French, but surely nothing has any business being that French. Taking place in the first few decades of the 20th century, Jules (Samuel Collings) is a German visiting France to improve his French, where he meets Parisian Jim (Alex Mugnaioni,) his instant platonic soulmate. They discuss literature a lot and go on a grand tour to Greece, where they see a recently-excavated statue whose smile they say they would follow to the ends of the earth if it was a real woman.

Tuesday, 2 May 2023

Theatre review: Dancing at Lughnasa

Five years ago the National Theatre staged Brian Friel's Translations in the Olivier, a hit production the publicity calls back to as they return to the Irish playwright for another of his best-known plays, Dancing at Lughnasa. And it's not the only thing that recalls that past hit, as Robert Jones' design for Josie Rourke's production also looks familiar - this time it's a small farmhouse kitchen that's exposed in the middle of rolling hills and vegetable gardens. This is August 1936 in the Donegal village of Ballybeg, as remembered by Michael (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor,) who was a child being raised by his unmarried mother Chris (Alison Oliver) and her four middle-aged sisters: Stern, primly Catholic schoolteacher Kate (Justine Mitchell,) joker Maggie (Siobhán McSweeney,) hard-working Agnes (Louisa Harland) and slow-witted, romantic Rose (Bláithín Mac Gabhann.)

Friday, 28 April 2023

Theatre review: The Good Person of Szechwan

The Lyric Hammersmith's programming is currently giving me flashbacks to my drama degree, and particularly playwrights who, if you'd believed my course, are produced way more regularly than they actually are. After Dario Fo and Franca Rame it's the turn of Bertolt Brecht, and his political morality tale The Good Person of Szechwan. Three gods come to Earth on a mission to find a good person: If there isn't at least one left in the world, they won't be able to avert an apocalyptic flood that will wipe out the unworthy mankind. They've landed in a very poor district, where people are too busy trying to keep themselves and their families alive to worry about anyone else, but prostitute Shen Te (Ami Tredrea) has a reputation for generosity, and is chosen as the experiment's subject. The gods give her $1000 to set her up for the future, and she uses it to buy a tobacconist's shop.

Thursday, 27 April 2023

Theatre review: Fucking Men

A big fringe hit a few years back, Joe DiPietro's Fucking Men is a take on Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, the controversial 1920 play about a series of one-night stands that form a circle of people who find different kinds of comfort or release in sex. I don't think DiPietro's is the only version to have ever made the leap of adapting the story for gay characters, but it seems to have been by far the most successful. Past productions have been quite luxurious in their casting, with a different actor playing each of the ten characters, but some things have changed since 2008, including fringe venues' attitudes towards actually paying actors, so for Steve Kunis' revival at Waterloo East we get a cast of four, taking two or three parts each. Alex Britt, Charlie Condou, Derek Mitchell and Stanton Plummer-Cambridge are the cast taking on a series of variously sexy, funny and sad scenes.

Monday, 24 April 2023

Theatre review: Animal

David (Christopher John-Slater) has cerebral palsy; he's also gay and as sexually frustrated as any man in his mid-20s who's physically unable to have a wank would be. We meet him on the phone to a sex shop's complaints line, after the sex toy he hoped would solve all his problems turned out to be too difficult to use. His best friend Mani (Harry Singh) suggests he bite the bullet and try to have sex with some actual men: After resisting for a long time David joins Grindr. Jon Bradfield's Animal, based on a story by Josh Hepple, is a witty and full-on look at people with disabilities as sexual beings with the same needs as anyone else, but with a different set of obstacles to satisfying them. Different rather than necessarily greater, as the issues and hangups of the able-bodied men he meets are at least as much of an obstacle to his happiness as anything to do with his condition.

Friday, 21 April 2023

Theatre review: Eugenius!

Since its 2016 concert debut Ben Adams & Chris Wilkins' (book, music & lyrics) musical Eugenius! has been popping up in various concerts and full stagings; I have a feeling I was planning to catch its West End transfer, but that became a lockdown casualty. But the show's become known for developing an instant cult following, so instead we now get Hannah Chissick's revival at the Turbine Theatre, which may in fairness be a better home for a comic book musical much of whose appeal comes from a likeably thrown-together feel. Set at some point in the 1980s in a generically John Hughes Ohio high school, Eugene (Elliott Evans) is a bullied geek who dreams of an intergalactic superhero called Tough Man (Dominic Andersen) and his evil nemesis Lord Hector (understudy Louis Doran) by night, and turns the stories into comic books by day.

Thursday, 20 April 2023

Theatre review: The Secret Life of Bees

Composer Duncan Sheik has developed quite the relationship with the Almeida, what with the premiere of American Psycho and the recent reimagining of Spring Awakening. It's the latter whose musical style immediately comes to mind as his latest show, written with Lynn Nottage (book) and Susan Birkenhead (lyrics) opens. This distinctive musical signature remains throughout, but with the addition of bluegrass, gospel and rock'n'roll flavours in keeping with the time and place of The Secret Life of Bees: In 1964 South Carolina, teenage Lily (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) feels ostracised by the rest of her town, because for reasons she doesn't like to discuss they blame her for the death of her mother, despite the fact that she was a small child at the time. So she's grateful for her family's maid Rosaleen (Abiona Omonua,) who's become her best friend.

Tuesday, 18 April 2023

Theatre review:
Vardy v Rooney: The Wagatha Christie Trial

It's ………

A speedy journey of less than a year from real-life courtroom drama to verbatim stage drama, the background to Vardy v Rooney: The Wagatha Christie Trial is a story I should probably recap, although I have a feeling this very British celebrity feud is one that probably became infamous worldwide: Two women best known for being the wives - aka WAGs - of top-flight football players, Coleen Rooney (Laura Dos Santos) and Rebekah Vardy (Lucy May Barker) had been fodder for newspaper gossip columns for years. When an increasing number of personal stories were published about her, Rooney suspected someone on her private Instagram account had been leaking them to the press and set a classic trap: She planted fake stories only her prime suspect could see, and when they duly appeared in the papers she publicly called her out in the most famous ellipsis since Monty Python: "It's ……… Rebekah Vardy's account.”

Saturday, 15 April 2023

Theatre review: Quality Street

Back in 2010 the Finborough Theatre revived Quality Street, the play that made J.M. Barrie's name, and was his most famous work before it was comprehensively overshadowed by Peter Pan. I've been waiting to see it turn up again ever since - and still find it odd that TV hasn't rediscovered it for adaptation as a Christmas special. What we do finally get is a new touring production courtesy of Laurie Sansom and Northern Broadsides. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, it's a farcical twist on Jane Austen romances as Phoebe Throssel's (Paula Lane) heart is broken when, instead of proposing like she expects, Valentine Brown (Aron Julius) announces he's joined the army. As well as the emotional blow there's a financial one, as she's recently lost half of her fortune and needed the support of a good marriage - unbeknownst to Valentine, it was his advice that led to the bad investment.

Thursday, 13 April 2023

Theatre review: Life is a Dream (La Vida es Sueño)

Cheek by Jowl make a welcome return to touring and to the Barbican, and add yet another international company to the ever-growing collection - in fairness the Russian ensemble probably aren't feeling welcome in too many places at the moment. Instead we have the first Spanish-language show from the company, and a Spanish Golden Age classic in Pedro Calderón de la Barca's Life is a Dream. We're in Poland (you can tell it's authentically Poland from the way all the characters have Spanish names,) for a kind of aggressively evil fairytale crossed with The Man in the Iron Mask: King Basilio's (Ernesto Arias) wife died in childbirth; rather than put that down to a tragic but common occurence in the 17th century, he labeled the baby a murderer, and consulting his horoscopes decided that his son Segismundo was going to grow up angry, violent and unpredictable.

Tuesday, 11 April 2023

Theatre review: Sea Creatures

One of the more baffling and dreamlike plays I've seen in a while, Cordelia Lynn's Sea Creatures seems to have a solid enough setting: A holiday home on an unnamed part of the British coast, where a noted academic brings her family every summer. Shirley (Geraldine Alexander) was the youngest woman ever to be awarded a professorship at her university, but she hasn't published anything for a decade and has become vague and distracted - she's sometimes described as not being able to tell the difference between animate and inanimate objects. Her partner Sarah (Thusitha Jayasundera) is an artist; no matter what the subject of her art is meant to be, she always ends up with a painting of a lobster. Shirley's eldest daughter George (Pearl Chanda) is heavily pregnant but not happy about it, and responds angrily to anyone who points it out, while youngest daughter Toni (Grace Saif) is a childlike 22-year-old.

Saturday, 8 April 2023

Theatre review: BLACK SUPERHERO

A rescheduled trip to a show I was meant to see a couple of weeks ago: Actor Danny Lee Wynter was also starring in his playwrighting debut BLACK SUPERHERO, but had to drop out mid-run for personal reasons, leading to a week of cancelled performances. Lewis Brown, who's performing with script in hand but rarely needing to consult it at this point, has replaced him as David, a black, gay actor whose career isn't exactly going the way he planned: He lives with his younger sister Syd (Rochenda Sandall) and works with her as the entertainment at children's parties. His avoidance of drink and drugs, and references to his therapy sessions, hint at some past trauma that's holding him back, but he blames his career problems firmly on not being attractive or masculine enough: His very buff friend Raheem (Eloka Ivo) is also black and gay, but he's doing well enough to be accepted on a celebrity-only dating app.

Thursday, 6 April 2023

Theatre review: A Little Life

I think it's the first 2023 show to self-identify as "the theatrical event of the year" - certainly A Little Life has become a hot topic, whether because of selling out so conclusively it's already added a second West End run, or the discussion of whether it represents the apex of misery porn, or just because people like celebrity cock (something this blog has never had any strong opinions about, obviously.) Then there's the fact that it's had a decidedly marmite response from the critics - my personal experience with Ivo van Hove has been very love/hate as well so this really could have gone any number of ways. van Hove and Koen Tachelet adapt Hanya Yanagihara's 2015 novel about Jude (James Norton,) one of a quartet of university friends who stay close throughout their lives. He's well-liked but it's openly acknowledged among his friendship group that he's so private they don't know the most basic things about him.

Tuesday, 4 April 2023

Theatre review: Berlusconi

When I sent my list of upcoming theatre trips to the friends who usually accompany me, Phill said he didn't even need to look past the title of Berlusconi, the musical, to say yes. Ian and Jim both said they also wouldn't have needed to read the blurb to make a decision, but... for a different reason. Yes, this is one of those shows that really could have gone one of two ways, and Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan's musical about the disgraced former Prime Minister of Italy grabs every opportunity to choose the wrong one. Silvio Berlusconi (Sebastien Torkia) was a cruise-ship singer turned building magnate, turned media mogul, turned politician. The latter seems to have largely been an attempt to get political immunity from prosecution from innumerable cases of financial crime and corruption in his companies, but still resulted in three non-consecutive terms as PM.

Monday, 3 April 2023

Theatre review: Further than the Furthest Thing

The directing bursaries that have been a feature at the Young Vic for a while have been moving on to bigger places in the last couple of years: The JMK award has moved from the Clare to the Orange Tree, while the Genesis Fellowship has made a shorter trip, through the bar to the main house. For the latter, Jennifer Tang directs Further than the Furthest Thing, Zinnie Harris' breakout 1999 play inspired by the Tristan da Cunha islands halfway between South America and Africa, and a volcanic eruption that led to the main island being evacuated in 1961. Harris' island isn't named, and has a quasi-mythical nature that means it's probably best not to take the connection too literally. What it does share with Tristan is its tiny population and extreme remoteness - it's visited only once a year by a British ship bringing supplies to supplement the limited crops that can be grown there.

Saturday, 1 April 2023

Theatre review: Julius Caesar (RSC / RST & tour)

Continuing both the year's major Shakespearean theme of plays that only survive because of the First Folio, and my personal one of traipsing around the country to see Shakespeare plays I don't particularly like, the RSC's 2023 season moves onto Julius Caesar. Like Romeo and Juliet, this is one of the plays I find starts well enough then resolutely loses steam in its second half, and my favourite productions tend to be those that play without an interval, allowing the tension of the early conspiracy scenes to keep the more muddled later battle scenes going. The script is also pretty ambiguous about the validity of the conspiracy and the accusations against Caesar, allowing directors to explore a variety of possibilities in different productions. Atri Banerjee's production in the RST and on tour does have an interval; and while it certainly has a visual identity, what it's actually using it to say about the story is much less obvious.

Thursday, 30 March 2023

Theatre review: The Way Old Friends Do

In programming that seems targeted at the gaiety but seems to have mainly attracted parties of women whose body composition is 60% Prosecco, the Park's main stage hosts Ian Hallard's latest, less kinky look at gay midlife crises. In The Way Old Friends Do, set between 2015 and 2020 with the occasional throwaway reference to topical events from those years, Peter (Hallard) has a surprise blast from the past when his Grindr date turns out to be Edward (James Bradshaw,) the best friend from school he hasn't spoken to in decades. A hookup's not on the cards but they do reconnect, and when Peter's friend Sally (Donna Berlin) mentions an ABBA tribute act has dropped out of an upcoming performance at the theatre where she works, Edward suggests they take over. Peter is a lifelong ABBA fan who can step into Agnetha's platform shoes, while Edward has always wanted to be Frida.

Wednesday, 29 March 2023

Theatre review: Accidental Death of an Anarchist

The Italian satirist Dario Fo is considered one of the great playwrights of the twentieth century, but his work is very rarely seen in London. The new version of Fo and Franca Rame's most famous work, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, both makes it seem incredible that their names aren't better-known, and at the same time provides an explanation for why they're rarely on our stages: Making their stuff work as well as it does here is a Herculean feat that could easily go very wrong. The latest transfer to suggest Robert Hastie's Sheffield Theatres is the venue to watch at the moment, Tom Basden's adaptation takes the 1970 play about police brutality and gives it a painfully up-to-date relocation to the present-day Metropolitan Police, with barely a real-life scandal or damning statistic left unmentioned. Daniel Rigby plays The Maniac, a compulsive liar who takes the quote "All the world's a stage" literally - he believes he's got a permanent audience.

Saturday, 25 March 2023

Theatre review: Guys & Dolls

After successes with Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Nicholas Hytner applies the Bridge Theatre's signature promenade staging to a musical for the first time. As classic Broadway musicals go, Frank Loesser (music & lyrics,) Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows' Guys & Dolls seems to be permanently ripe for revival - its last West End run was in 2015/16. Weaving together two of Damon Runyon's "Runyonland" short stories of petty crooks and gamblers in 1930s' New York, its central event is a floating craps game organised by Nathan Detroit (Daniel Mays.) With gambling illegal, a new venue has to be found every time to keep the police guessing, and the only spot available for tomorrow night's game will cost him $1000 up front.

Thursday, 23 March 2023

Theatre review: Farm Hall

When looking at the ethics of science, there's no more fertile ground for writers to explore than the atomic bomb. In her impressive playwrighting debut, Katherine Moar explores the issue through six scientists who've already lost the nuclear arms race - they just don't know it yet. Based on a real event and secretly recorded conversations, Farm Hall takes place during the last days of the Second World War, after Hitler's fall and the revelation of the true horrors Germany had perpetrated. The six German men are under house arrest in an English country pile, filling their time playing chess, mending a broken piano, and staging a reading of Blithe Spirit, whose recent success in the middle of the Blitz baffles them. They are Hitler's surviving nuclear physicists who hadn't already defected by VE Day, and nobody seems sure what to do with them, or even if they'll be allowed to survive their comfortable prison.

Tuesday, 21 March 2023

Theatre review:
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

I've not really enjoyed Complicité's work much so their latest, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, was an easy one to skip; until Kathryn Hunter was announced as the lead, making it a much more exciting proposition. Unfortunately Hunter has been taken ill, with Amanda Hadingue taking over the lead role of Janina for tonight's performance, which leaves me back where I started, with a Complicité show and no real selling point. And as it turns out, Simon McBurney and the company's adaptation of Olga Tokarczuk's eco-thriller is almost entirely narrated by its leading lady, so while Hadingue delivers a strong and likeable performance, having her perform the three-hour show with three teleprompters feeding her her lines is no substitute for Hunter's unique talents.

Sunday, 19 March 2023

Theatre review: The Tempest (Shakespeare's Globe /
Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank)

Hey, you know what's a great way to stop me from spending an entire review of The Tempest ranting about how awful Prospero is? Edit the text so you cut out... more or less everything he does. Yes, for a second year the Globe has added a public performance schedule to the Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank production - essentially a scaled-down version of a play on the curriculum, designed for school parties. Pleasingly, Diane Page's production follows the others I've seen both live and online, in that apart from cutting the script down to a little over 90 minutes, and some particularly shiny and gaudy designs from Moi Tran, this doesn't feel like a "kids'" version and doesn't patronise the audience for a second. The short running time also meant I could stand through it without hospitalising myself, and get to be in the thick of it as groundlings with my goddaughter Evie.

Thursday, 16 March 2023

Theatre review: The Great British Bake Off Musical

Would you believe, my friend Ian says that sometimes he chooses what shows to come to with me because I've booked some camp old nonsense. The nerve! Anyway here's The Great British Bake Off Musical, a stage tribute to the international TV phenomenon best known for contestants who become instant best friends, technical challenges where the entire recipe reads "make a Latvian Backwards Cake," and a commitment to smutty double entendres that means nobody can make a blancmange without an accidentally-on-purpose pegging reference. The character names in Jake Brunger & Pippa Cleary's musical are made up, but the judges in particular make no disguise of who they're based on: Phil Hollinghurst (John Owen-Jones) is a silver-haired Scouse baker known for his blue eyes, bad jokes and dishing out handshakes as if they have inherent value. Pam Lee (Haydn Gwynne) is a Dame fond of statement necklaces, colourful glasses and desserts that are 90% booze.

Tuesday, 14 March 2023

Theatre review: Medea

Back to @sohoplace, the theatre with a name so current it's been proudly wearing its new Central Perk T-shirt out in public, where Sophie Okonedo takes on Medea, and a procession of male antagonists all played by Ben Daniels. Dominic Cooke's production has a modern design by Vicki Mortimer, but the 1946 adaptation by Robinson Jeffers is a pretty faithful one to Euripides' original, both in story and style. And while I don't necessarily have a problem with the very loose adaptations of Greek tragedy that have been popular lately, it's interesting to see a production that sticks to basics but still feels fresh. When the Argonauts reached their destination in Colchis, local princess Medea fell for their leader Jason, and helped him steal the Golden Fleece from her father. In their subsequent travels she continued to help him out of scrapes - I'd say "by any means necessary," but that implies disembowelling a relative was a last resort, whereas for Medea it's usually Plan A.

Friday, 10 March 2023

Theatre review: Brilliant Jerks

Capping a really strong week at the theatre for me, Joseph Charlton's Brilliant Jerks at Southwark Playhouse Borough follows three people who work at very different levels for a ride-hailing app, from the founder to a long-standing driver. The hook may be a look behind the scenes of NOT UBER but Charlton's play is more concerned with a toxic tech-bro culture that affects everyone from the top down and could apply to any number of huge corporations or ambitious start-ups. Tyler (Shubham Saraf) co-founded the company with his friend when they ended up stranded in Paris after a tech conference, unable to find a cab. He looks back at how this grew into an app that expanded to hundreds of cities worldwide, in parallel with the story of his relationship with the woman he thought was the love of his life. But with the company's success, the senior developers start behaving increasingly out of control, culminating in a seedy night in a Seoul karaoke bar/brothel.

Thursday, 9 March 2023

Theatre review: Standing at the Sky's Edge

Thanks to its original run at Sheffield Theatres, Richard Hawley (music & lyrics) and Chris Bush's (book) Standing at the Sky's Edge had barely started playing at the National Theatre when it became the most-nominated musical at this year's Olivier Awards. Both venues it's played feel appropriate: Sheffield is the city its sprawling cast of characters call home; and now one of the most famous brutalist buildings in the country is a fitting place to house another surprisingly beloved concrete structure. In fact, when Ben Stones' design puts several floors of a Park Hill Estate tower block on the Olivier stage, it blends right into its surroundings. The band gets pride of place in a first-floor flat for a musical history of one specific home, where in three overlapping timelines, three generations of residents move in - starting with steelworker Harry (Robert Lonsdale) and his wife Rose (Rachael Wooding) in 1960, when the building is brand new.

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

Theatre review: Trouble in Butetown

If you wanted to prove that multiculturalism is, rather than a recent fad being imposed on Britain, a major part of its history and a source of pride compared to other countries, playwright Diana Nneka Atuona suggests there are worse places to look than Tiger Bay (as the area's most famous daughter is Shirley Bassey, it's hard to argue with.) The Welsh port's status as a gateway to the world has seen sailors from around the world settle down with locals since the 19th century, and when we meet widow Gwyneth (Sarah Parish) in the 1940s her home is a microcosm of this diversity: She and mixed-race daughters Connie (Rita Bernard-Shaw) and Georgie (Ellie-Mae Siame, alternating with Rosie Ekenna) have been running the house as an unlicensed guesthouse. Their current guests are fiercely protective local Patsy (Ifan Huw Dafydd,) Norman (Zephryn Taitte) who's just missed his ship because of a hangover, and Dullah (Zaqi Ismail,) who's in love with Peggy (Bethan Mary-James) but can't afford to marry her, and may have to agree to an arranged marriage the next time he sails out.

Monday, 6 March 2023

Theatre review: Shirley Valentine

With theatre still in recovery, a guaranteed hit (it extended its run before even opening) without huge cast and set requirements is something producers could do with, so a one-woman show for the hugely beloved Future Dame Sheridan Smith would fit the bill. Add to that a title as familiar as Willy Russell's Shirley Valentine and Matthew Dunster's new West End production seems a no-brainer. Still, I did wonder, with Russell's heyday being a very specific time in the 1980s (this, Educating Rita and Blood Brothers came out within a few years of each other) if the story would feel dated. I'm not sure why, since I remember Meera Syal doing well with the show a few years ago, and in any case Smith and Dunster prove the adage true, that the more specific something is, the more universal it becomes.

Friday, 3 March 2023

Theatre review: The Winter's Tale
(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse & Shakespeare's Globe)

Leontes (Sergo Vares) is the king of Sicilia, whose life of privilege, happy marriage and lifelong friendship with Bohemian king Polixenes (John Lightbody) all come crashing down when he has a sudden burst of insanity. For no reason he becomes convinced his wife Hermione (Bea Segura) is having an affair with Polixenes, and that the baby she's carrying is his. His violent outbursts lead, directly or indirectly, to the death of his young son and only heir, the apparent death of Hermione, and a number of trusted servants and aides fleeing Sicilia in fear of their lives. In particular Antigonus (Colm Gormley) ends up in Bohemia with the newborn daughter Leontes has declared a bastard, and it's this fourth-act change of scenery that has inspired Sean Holmes to make The Winter's Tale the first production to take place in both of Shakespeare's Globe's theatres: Taking the entire audience from the indoor Swanamaker to the outdoor Globe and back again.

Thursday, 2 March 2023

Theatre review: Romeo and Julie

It's 2023 but shows that I originally had tickets to see in 2020 are still making their belated returns. Callum Scott Howells had already been slated to appear in Gary Owen's Romeo and Julie then, but in the intervening time his appearance in It's A Sin and subsequent status as The Gay Internet's Official Fantasy Boyfriend of 2021 means he brings some added star power now the show finally premieres. It was worth the wait to get the show on with Howells in place: He plays Romeo (pronounced Romeo, but usually referred to as Romy,) an 18-year-old single dad who can't even rely on his alcoholic mum Barb (Catrin Aaron) for help babysitting his daughter. Like Owen's previous plays this takes place in the impoverished Cardiff suburb of Splott, but presumably on its edges: Julie (Rosie Sheehy) only lives a couple of streets away, but has led a much easier life so far.

Tuesday, 28 February 2023

Theatre review: Akedah

Named after a Biblical term from Abraham's fakeout sacrifice of Isaac, Michael John O’Neill's Akedah follows two sisters who grew up in a turbulent household - their father was abusive, their mother a prostitute who abandoned her youngest daughter in a crackhouse and was never seen again. Gill (Amy Molloy,) the oldest, was 15 at the time and tried to look after her much younger sister for a while, but after their father died Kelly was taken into care, and the sisters rarely communicated after that. One night Gill gets a cryptic phone call from her sister asking her to come to her, and she manages to track down Kelly (Ruby Campbell,) now 18, living at a Pentecostal megachurch on the Northern Irish coast, where she's been since leaving her foster home two years earlier. Gill thinks she's there to rescue her sister from being groomed, but the truth may be more personal.

Monday, 27 February 2023

Theatre review: The Walworth Farce

After many delays Southwark Playhouse finally opens its new, permanent main house, a few minutes' walk away from its other venue on the other side of Elephant and Castle. Southwark Playhouse Elephant has staged a couple of community shows as a warm-up, but its first professional production is an overt reference to its new location: Enda Walsh's The Walworth Farce takes place around the corner, in a 15th-floor council flat some years before the recent redevelopments that include the current building. Dinny (Dan Skinner) lives there with his two adult sons, and as the play begins Sean (Emmet Byrne) returns from his daily trip to Tesco, just in time for them to begin a performance: They will act out the day Dinny had to leave Ireland, fleeing to the flat that used to be his brother's before the events of that day.

Thursday, 23 February 2023

Theatre review: Women, Beware the Devil

James VI & I's legacy for Britain included a paranoid obsession with witchcraft which would long outlast his own reign; his son's mainly boiled down to a bloody Civil War, the temporary overthrow of the monarchy itself, and Charles I suddenly finding himself shorter by one head. Both of these dark elements of 17th century history feature in Lulu Raczka's new play at the Almeida, although Rupert Goold's slick production never quite gets to the bottom of why Women, Beware the Devil is doing any of this. In rural England in 1640, Agnes (Alison Oliver) has been accused of witchcraft, and accusation would usually be enough to get her hanged. The local lady of the Manor, Elizabeth (Lydia Leonard,) offers her protection and a job as a maid, but there's a catch: She wants Agnes to use the demonic powers she swears she doesn't have to help secure a wife for her brother: If Edward doesn't have a legitimate male heir before he dies, Elizabeth could lose her ancestral home.

Tuesday, 21 February 2023

Theatre review: Phaedra

Australian writer-director Simon Stone's calling card appears to be classical adaptations that keep the original title but very little else; at least his take on Phaedra, after a couple of hours that are unrecognisable even as radical adaptation of the original myth, end up in a place that deals with the same kind of actions and consequences. The play is credited as being "after Euripides, Seneca and Racine." I haven't seen the Seneca version because nobody stages Seneca, but there's certainly no initial link to the story told in the other two. Helen (Janet McTeer) is a high-profile opposition MP, her husband Hugo (Paul Chahidi) a diplomat who grew up in Britain after his parents fled the Iranian Revolution. As a family they don't seem too big on boundaries, and if Helen is going to develop a fixation on a younger man, the initial candidate seems to be her son-in-law Eric (John Macmillan,) with whom she has an awkwardly flirtatious relationship.

Friday, 17 February 2023

Theatre review: Sylvia

Sometimes theatre rewrites history; for instance, the official line on Kate Prince (book & lyrics,) Priya Parmar (book), Josh Cohen & DJ Walde's (music) Sylvia is that it got a short work-in-progress run in 2018, whereas the way I remember things it was sold as part of the regular season, and only had its entire run reclassified as previews when it lost its leading lady early on. In any case, when I saw it the first time I thought there was a lot about it that was promising, but that it certainly still needed a lot of work before you could call it finished. Four and a half years later enough of that work's been done for Prince's production to return to the Old Vic for its official premiere, largely with a new cast but keeping a couple of its original stars, most importantly the powerhouse Beverley Knight as the title character's mother, legendary suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.

Thursday, 16 February 2023

Theatre review: Graceland

Upstairs at the Royal Court, Ava Wong Davies' Graceland offers up a monologue about a relationship that slowly, almost imperceptibly turns abusive; perhaps too slowly and imperceptibly to fully bring the story to life. Sabrina Wu plays Nina (although neither her name nor that of her boyfriend are mentioned until very late in the play,) who addresses her speech to the man she met at a barbecue at her friends' house, and had an instant spark with: She doesn't believe in love at first sight, but can't think of a better way of describing it. She's the daughter of Chinese immigrants who doesn't want to take over their restaurant, and has ended up in an office job with a handsy boss and no real career ambitions. He's a poet, which needless to say means he's actually a trust fund baby who doesn't need a day job to pay the bills.

Tuesday, 14 February 2023

Theatre review: Macbeth / Partners of Greatness
The Faction / Wilton's Music Hall & Tour

The Faction are another established Fringe company whose work I've been following for many years - predating this blog, so I'm kind of going on memory to say I think I first encountered them with an all-male Macbeth. Director Mark Leipacher's new take on the Scottish Play goes for gender parity, although that's mainly because it uses only two actors: Macbeth / Partners of Greatness cuts down the cast to just the titular character and his wife, telling the story entirely from their perspective. The latter has been renamed Bellona, after the line early on calling Macbeth "Bellona's bridegroom," so perhaps the idea is to posit her as the more bloodthirsty of the pair, as a literal Roman war deity. Either that or it's a reference to Lidl's own-brand version of Kinder Bueno, given some of the things that happen later on in the show I'm not sure we can discount anything entirely.