Sunday 31 December 2023

2023: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

Oh, hello. It's this again, the bit where I look back at the last twelve months of theatre in and around That London (and by "in and around That London" I obviously mean "just London and very occasionally Stratford-upon-Avon, which isn't particularly near London") and really get to grips with the news, trends, shocks, horrors, highs and lows of one of the world's great cultural hubs. And then I tell you which actor has the nicest bottom. I've got a Drama degree, you know. I always divide this review of the year into different sections, and in recent years I've started giving the chapter headings a bit of a running theme, with half-hearted puns based on the Spider-Man movie titles or last year's biggest non-theatrical obsession, The Traitors. In other words I've made a right rod for my own back when another December comes round and I've got to try and be clever.

Saturday 23 December 2023

Theatre review: The Fair Maid of the West

My first Stratford-upon-Avon trip in six months not to get cancelled due to rail strikes is also my last show of 2023 overall, and what a warm-hearted way to wrap up the year it is. Writer/director Isobel McArthur's The Fair Maid of the West is a (very) loose rewrite of Thomas Heywood's 1631 play, set in the latter days of Elizabeth I's reign when anti-Spanish sentiment was at its peak - you can see what might have attracted McArthur to revisit a time when shifty European types were being blamed for all of England's problems at home. Plymouth barmaid Liz (Amber James) gets framed for murder, and has to accept the help of an over-enthusiastic suitor: The wealthy Spencer's (Philip Labey) family owns a number of taverns, including an abandoned pub in Cornwall she can hide in until he clears her name.

Thursday 21 December 2023

Theatre review: Stranger Things: The First Shadow

Netflix branch out from streaming to producing live theatre, but this new play is a spin-off from their tentpole Stranger Things, so there isn't too much fear that it'll get cancelled during the interval for not getting enough Instagram traction. The TV series is a 1980s nostalgia-tinged sci-fi/fantasy story about teenagers getting caught up in deadly adventures when their small town's reality starts bleeding into an alternate dimension known as The Upside Down. The First Shadow is a prequel that does the same for some of the central adult characters, taking them back to their high school days in the 1950s and making them face the first signs of a supernatural incursion into Hawkins, Indiana. In particular, the play serves as the backstory of the series' Big Bad, Henry Creel. But first there's a pre-credits sequence because yeah, when the credits are as iconic as Stranger Things' they're going to roll on stage as well.

Wednesday 20 December 2023

Theatre review: Macbeth (Donmar Warehouse)

Completing the pair of returning 60th Anniversary Doctor Who stars leading West End shows, David Tennant gets to do his Macbeth at the Donald and Margot Warehouse. And while this is undoubtedly a more successful evening than the one Catherine Tate's lumbered herself with, I also came out of it thinking it could have been scarier. Aside from the star casting of Tennant and Cush Jumbo as Lady Macbeth, the big selling point of Max Webster's production is the use of binaural technology: The sound design that gives the audience, who wear headphones, a 3D audio experience. I've seen a couple of shows that have used it before, which is why I thought this story of witches and murders might be in for a particularly creepy take when you can potentially have spooky noises creep up on people in the seeming safety of their seats.

Monday 18 December 2023

Theatre review: Pandemonium

Having had huge hits on TV and film, Armando Iannucci is taking on the West End next year, but before that he warms up with something a lot more intimate in scale, and very much in his traditional wheelhouse of topical political satire: Pandemonium, which Patrick Marber directs in Soho Theatre's main house, is a retelling of the Boris Johnson years in government, particularly, of course, the Covid pandemic. The main styles it emulates are Jacobean and Restoration satire, with a generous dose of Shakespearean pastiche, although it takes in influences all the way from Mediaeval Mystery plays to Ubu Roi. Taking its cue from Johnson's childhood ambition to be "World King," the central character is called Orbis Rex (Paul Chahidi,) a childlike disruptor figure who opens the show convinced that the gods have anointed him as one of their own.

Sunday 17 December 2023

Dance review: Nutcracker at the Tuff Nutt Jazz Club

As ever, dance is something I juuuust about feel like I can have an opinion on (as opposed to opera which is usually just me frantically shrugging,) although Drew McOnie's version of The Nutcracker already does the Everyone's a Fruit and Nutcase gag so that's half of what I was planning to write already out of the window. Cassie Kinoshi reinterpets Tchaikovsky's music as a jazz score, Soutra Gilmour takes over an old cafe space in the Royal Festival Hall to create a pop-up venue, and McOnie recasts the story of a little girl and her toy soldier into that of a little boy having certain feelings for his Action Man doll. In Nutcracker at the Tuff Nutt Jazz Club, Clive (Sam Salter) struggles to get his father's (Tim Hodges) attention on Christmas Eve, so decorates the tree on his own and plays with the Sugar Plum Fairy that's meant to go on top of it.

Thursday 14 December 2023

Theatre review: The Enfield Haunting

One of the most famous poltergeist cases ever documented, The Enfield Haunting has been the subject of multiple books, movies and TV series, so a stage version - courtesy of writer Paul Unwin and director Angus Jackson - was probably inevitable. Every so often someone attempts to do big jump scares in the theatre, and with the latest spooky juggernaut 2:22 A Ghost Story mainly known for its rotating cast of random leading ladies with big Instagram followings, there's still room for something to provide the actual chills and thrills recently vacated by The Woman In Black. But while there's some interesting elements to this starrily-cast premiere, the screams of audience terror they might have been hoping for don't come. Lee Newby's set certainly looks creepy enough - the innards of the small, cluttered two-storey house where a young family has lived for 5 years.

Wednesday 13 December 2023

Theatre review: Rock'n'Roll

Tom Stoppard time, so lots of people overheard in the interval carefully avoiding giving an opinion in case they're exposed as not understanding it. Rock'n'Roll pits Communist idealism against Cold War reality via two Cambridge academics, whose lives it follows from 1968 to 1989. Max (Nathaniel Parker) is a lecturer and vocal Communist who thinks he's found an enthusiastic protégé in Czech graduate student Jan (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd.) When Russia invades Czechoslovakia to curb its apparent intentions for reform, Jan returns to Prague in the vague impression that he can do something to help, but the authorities - who sent him to England to spy on Max in the first place, and see if he can be turned to an asset - are unimpressed. But Czechoslovakia is still seen as a comparatively open, accessible part of the Eastern Bloc, and the fact that it allows foreign bands to play is a plus to the music-obsessed Jan.

Monday 11 December 2023

Theatre review: The Homecoming

Matthew Dunster's production of The Homecoming at the Young Vic sets Pinter's play firmly in the 1960s when it was written: The all-male family of East End gangsters at its heart are an insular group, buried away listening to jazz; the female interloper is a vision of the swinging sixties, up on all the latest fashions and wanting the best of them. What the power balance is by the end of the play is always enigmatic, but Dunster's apparently clear telling of the story may leave it murkier than ever. Max (Jared Harris) is the widowed patriarch who raised his three sons on his own - it's unlikely he'd ever acknowledge that his probably-gay brother Sam (Nicolas Tennant,) who's lived with them for decades, might have helped at all.

Friday 8 December 2023

Theatre review: The Time Machine

The Park Theatre wouldn't have the clout to get the whole of Mischief Theatre for its main seasonal comedy show, but they have managed one of the core cast members to take the lead. And if the amount of laughs turns out to be roughly proportionate, that's... still a pretty decent hit rate to be honest. In Steven Canny and John Nicholson's The Time Machine Dave Hearn, Amy Revelle and Michael Dylan play characters with their own first names, although Dave's surname here is Wells, because the premise is he's a descendant of H. G. Wells, author of the original science fiction novel. The three are a theatre troupe rehearsing a touring production of The Importance of Being Earnest when Dave discovers that his ancestor's book wasn't fiction, but an account of a journey into the future he had actually made, published as a warning of what would happen if humankind didn't change its ways.

Thursday 7 December 2023

Theatre review: Infinite Life

From the writer who brought you three hours of vacuuming popcorn out of a carpet comes two hours of pensioners sitting on sun loungers talking about their bladders: America's queen of low-key experimental theatre Annie Baker makes another return visit to the Dorfman with Infinite Life - James Macdonald's premiere production for Atlantic Theater Company in New York comes over with US cast intact, as Sofi (Christina Kirk) spends ten days (or thereabouts... her precise memory of her time there can get hazy) at a quasi-mystical fasting retreat in Northern California. People, mostly women, go there for extreme pain, life-threatening diseases or both, and if you believe Yvette (Mia Katigbak) the unseen doctor's combination of starvation diets and juice drinks have had miraculous healing results.

Saturday 2 December 2023

Theatre review: I, Malvolio

One of a series of Tim Crouch monologues for Shakespearean supporting characters, I, Malvolio is the first of them to come to the Swanamaker, and the first one I've seen. Malvolio is the puritanical steward in Twelfth Night, who's tricked into believing his mistress loves him, humiliates himself for her, and is imprisoned as a madman for it. It's an uncomfortably dark subplot of an otherwise popular comedy, and that's the aspect Crouch focuses on as he brings Malvolio back on stage after the play's end, muttering and ranting to himself, quite possibly having been driven mad for real. In a show that's half play half stand-up routine, he starts on time, all the better to berate latecomers, or anyone who's given themselves a seat upgrade or left their phone on. But he's also brought a noose with him, and wants audience participation to help him use it.

Thursday 30 November 2023

Theatre review:
Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York)

While we wait for news of whether my long-running campaign to have Indhu Rubasingham take over the National could actually come to something (she's currently considered the runaway favourite which... is basically a guarantee it won't happen,) the outgoing Artistic Director of the Kiln programmes one of the venue's biggest hits in a while, which extended its run before it even opened: Dougal (Sam Tutty) is a 25-year old Englishman whose father abandoned his mother shortly before he was born; he's never actually met him, but it's not been hard to keep up with what he's been up to because his father went on to become a millionaire. Now it seems Mark has finally remembered his son exists, as Dougal has received an invitation to his wedding in New York, to a much younger woman. He's flown over for two days, and is as excited to finally meet his father at he is to see the city of his favourite films.

Wednesday 29 November 2023

Theatre review: The House of Bernarda Alba

The National Theatre's biggest stages are currently giving a lot of actresses work, although neither of the titular roles are exactly feminist icons: If anything the Grand High Witch is a sweetheart compared to the matriarch of The House of Bernarda Alba. For Rebecca Frecknall's first show at the National, designer Merle Hensel supplies one of the multilevel buildings that fit so well on the Lyttelton stage, and while the script and costumes keep things in the rural 1930s Spain of the original, the pale green institutional set of little rooms piled on top of each other is a bit too on-the-nose, but an effective metaphor for the prison Bernarda (Harriet Walter) has created for herself and her family: Recently widowed for the second time, she declares that she and her five daughters will observe eight years of mourning for her husband, never to leave the grounds of the house without her permission.

Saturday 25 November 2023

Theatre review: She Stoops to Conquer

Tom Littler continues to find his own stamp on the Orange Tree's traditional money-spinning revivals with Restoration Comedy given a 1930s twist: One of the most famous examples of the genre, Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, gets set in a rural pub at Christmas, with Anett Black and Neil Irish's design adding tables and stuffed animal heads, to reflect a story about a posh county house that could easily be mistaken for an inn. It's a conceit that's set up early so that Charles Marlow (Freddie Fox) and George Hastings (Robert Mountford,) lost on their way to meet their prospective spouses, can be tricked into thinking they're taking shelter in a roadside tavern, when in fact they've reached their destination: The home of Mr Hardcastle (David Horovitch,) an old friend of Marlow's father, whose daughter Kate he's been sent to meet and court.

Thursday 23 November 2023

Theatre review: The Witches

One of Roald Dahl's most popular books saw him write about an evil underground cabal he thought were secretly running the world for nefarious purposes, but fortunately on this occasion he was talking about witches. Lucy Kirkwood (book and lyrics) and Dave Malloy (music and lyrics) take on the latest Dahl classic to get the musical theatre treatment. With Lizzie Clachan's staging cutting the front of the Olivier stage off and using designs that could easily fit into a more conventional proscenium arch, the National must be hoping The Witches does for them what Matilda did for the RSC. And, notwithstanding a running time that's pushing its luck with family audiences, they might get their wish. Ten-year-old Luke (Vishal Soni, alternating with Bertie Caplan and Frankie Keita) gets briskly orphaned at the start of the story, with the Norwegian grandmother he's never met before becoming his new guardian.

Tuesday 21 November 2023

Theatre review: Backstairs Billy

The Michael Grandage Company returns to the West End for a light comedy whose more serious intentions never quite cohere: Backstairs Billy by Marcelo Dos Santos (so named because he's currently got dos shows on in London) is based on real people, and capitalises on the ever-popular conceit of imagining what the Royal Family get up to behind closed doors. In this case it's one of the most beloved members throughout the 20th century, popular prequel Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Penelope Wilton may not seem obvious casting, but I've seen her play Bernarda Alba before so I know she can embody evil. One person who bought into her saintly image from a young age was William Tallon (Luke Evans,) a bouffant hairdo with footman attachment, who by 1979 has reached the senior position of Page of the Back Stairs.

Monday 20 November 2023

Theatre review: Mates in Chelsea

The fact that the Royal Court, still probably best known for popularising kitchen sink plays and retaining a reputation as a political powerhouse, is based at the heart of Sloane Square has always been a bit of a contradiction, and one the venue has occasionally played on. The latest variation on the theme is also an attempt to link the location to the scripted reality show Made in Chelsea - "The Poshos," as my sister calls it - and the obliviously privileged characters people are familiar with from TV. Rory Mullarkey's Mates in Chelsea puts modern-day aristocrats in a P.G. Wodehouse-inspired farce in which Tug Bungay (Laurie Kynaston) lives a louche life in his Chelsea flat, looked after by his grumpy Leninist housekeeper Mrs Hanratty (Amy Booth-Steel,) whom he keeps around mainly because a wise-cracking Jeeves type suits the image of himself he likes to project.

Friday 17 November 2023

Theatre review: Ghosts

The Swanamaker's tenth anniversary season opens with the venue's first venture into Ibsen - a classic playwright but still thoroughly modern by the standards of a Jacobean theatre. Thoroughly modern by most standards in fact - it's often commented how ahead of his time Ibsen was, and after the show Ben checked with me if this was a revival or a new play. Ghosts, which Joe Hill-Gibbins adapts and directs, was actually first seen in 1881 - well, seen in any territory that didn't immediately ban it. Oswald (Stuart Thompson) has returned to the remote Norwegian home he didn't actually spend much of his life in, having been sent off to study as an artist abroad - most recently he's been living a Bohemian life in Paris. The occasion is the tenth anniversary of his father's death, and his mother Helene (Hattie Morahan) is opening an orphanage in the name of a man remembered as a great moral force.

Thursday 16 November 2023

Theatre review: Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen

I don't really go to stand-up comedy (as with most things, going to All The Theatre leaves no time or money for that,) but I know a big trend in recent years has been for comedy shows that delve not only into the personal, but into the downright traumatic. Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen is a play written in the style of a stand-up special, rather than an actual stand-up special, but its mix of rapid-fire gags with something a bit darker and more heartfelt probably wouldn't feel too out of place at the Edinburgh Festival (where it was, in fact, first seen before transferring to the Bush.) Marcelo Dos Santos writes the monologue, but it's Samuel Barnett who plays the unnamed gay Comedian, whose sexual preference is "passive aggressive," and who greets us on stage by announcing he's going to kill his boyfriend.

Monday 13 November 2023

Theatre review: Blue Mist

Mohamed-Zain Dada's tragicomic Blue Mist, going into its last week Upstairs at the Royal Court, is a story of young British Muslim men set in a shisha lounge – apparently there’s a lot more of these dotted around London than is immediately apparent, serving as an alternative place to socialise for people who don’t drink so don’t have much interest in pubs. It’s not a subculture I was particularly aware of, but then that’s kind of the point: As something that’s a part of Muslims’ lives but not particularly on the radar of most other people, it’s an easy target for right-wing figures who want to build up a narrative of dodgy underground networks breeding terrorists at worst, segregation at best. Hoping to become a documentary-maker, Jihad (Omar Bynon) sees this both as fertile material, and a chance to reclaim the narrative (as well as help save his beloved Chunkyz Shisha Lounge from being targeted and closed down.)

Thursday 9 November 2023

Theatre review: The Interview

Last year's season of The Crown had an episode dedicated to the Princess of Wales' notorious interview with Martin Bashir, and the dubious techniques by which he secured it, so when the Park Theatre announced its 2023 season would include a new play on the subject I did wonder what more (apart from the hoped-for box office clout anything Lady Di-related still has) Jonathan Maitland's The Interview had to offer. Considerably less, as it turns out. In 1995, following a TV interview with her husband, Diana (Yolanda Kettle) is fielding offers from various interviewers who want her side of the story. Moving to America and doing a tell-all with Oprah Winfrey is an option, but that doesn't seem like something a member of that family would do. Instead she goes for the BBC's reputable journalism, specifically Panorama reporter Bashir (Tibu Fortes,) because her brother thinks she can trust him.

Tuesday 7 November 2023

Theatre review: Lyonesse

Elaine Dailey (Kristin Scott Thomas) was a rising star of TV and film who'd just made a celebrated stage debut when she vanished the day after Press Night, disappearing for decades and becoming almost a figure of legend, with rumours abounding over whether she was alive or dead. Now a figure from her past has died, and she's ready to resurface and tell her story - and she hopes she can be centre stage again when it gets told. In Penelope Skinner's Lyonesse Lily James plays a Mrs Trellis of North London, an executive at a female-led film production company who are looking for a #MeToo project to develop. Her boss Sue (Niky Wardley, who's replaced Doon Mackichan at short notice after she had to leave the show for personal reasons,) has heard that Elaine's story might fit the bill, and sends Kate Trellis to her crumbling Cornish home to secure the rights.

Monday 6 November 2023

Theatre review: Lizzie

Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt's musical Lizzie premiered in 2009, but hasn't had a full UK production before. The Hope Mill's touring production, which lands at Southwark Playhouse Elephant, makes a pretty strong case for why there was no rush. A rock musical about notorious American axe-murderer Lizzie Borden (she was actually acquitted, but that's not really the part anyone remembers, and this version of her story assumes her guilt,) it's a strange, monotonous misfire that puts women centre-stage to reclaim their story (if it didn't long predate SIX it would seem like an obvious rip-off; of course that one has some actual female creatives...) The musical style is a kind of punky rock, although the vocal style is very much traditional American musical theatre, in the sense that any note not belted at the top of the actors' lungs is considered a note wasted.

Thursday 2 November 2023

Theatre review: The Time Traveller's Wife

Audrey Niffenegger's 2003 fantasy romance The Time Traveller's Wife has been so popular it's already been given multiple screen adaptations, in an apparent contest to see how many times you can do a story revolving around a lot of male nudity without ever showing cock. Now it's the, somehow simultaneously inevitable and utterly unlikely, musical theatre adaptation: Lauren Gunderson (book,) Joss Stone & Dave Stewart (music & lyrics) and Kait Kerrigan (additional lyrics) take on the story of a naked man who grooms a young girl over a period of several years, and then his feet fall off. Librarian Henry (David Hunter) meets Clare (Joanna Woodward,) who does papier-mâché professionally, in a library when they're in their twenties, but she already seems to know a lot about him, including his supernatural secret.

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Theatre review: King Lear (Wyndham's)

The received wisdom on Kenneth Branagh is that he's been living out a lifelong Laurence Olivier fixation by playing all the major roles he was most associated with, in performances that increasingly make the late Baron of Brighton seem like a master of gritty naturalism. This has inevitably built up to King Lear, and watching the production - which he also, of course, directs himself in - I have to wonder if this is really the case, or if in fact his role models are the 19th century actor-managers who gave their names to the West End theatres he plays in. Certainly the performances, not only his own but those he gets out of a cast largely made up of recent graduates, are the kind of thing you can imagine a Victorian audience being used to. The evening opens with a projection of the Earth seen from space, perhaps as a clue to where SirKenBran's performance will be visible from.

Monday 30 October 2023

Theatre review: The Confessions

A British / Australian / Luxembourgish co-production, Alexander Zeldin's The Confessions, which he also directs at the Lyttelton, is based on conversations with his mother and her peers, and follows one woman's life from Australia in 1943 - when, as a child, she meets her father for the first time returning from the war and is confused because she thought the portrait of him on the wall was her father - to London in 2021, when she finally tells her son, who's been quizzing her just like the real author, to stop poking around for more details of her life. For the most part Amelda Brown narrates the story as the older Alice, while Eryn Jean Norvill plays her younger self in the scenes, but they occasionally trade places at particularly critical moments; perhaps Alice is so shaken by these events she steps out of her body, and can only confront them with the benefit of time.

Friday 27 October 2023

Theatre review: To Have and to Hold

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: To Have and to Hold was meant to be well into its run by now, but following the cancellation of its preview period this is now a review of the second public performance.

So yes, a shaky start for the divisive Richard Bean's new comedy-drama To Have and to Hold; no official announcement has been made about why its opening was put back, but the show was originally slated to be directed by Richard Wilson, who's now credited as co-director with Terry Johnson. You can see why an octogenarian director might have been a good fit for a story revolving around a couple in their nineties: Jack (Alun Armstrong) and Florence (Marion Bailey) have lived in Wetwang in Yorkshire for 70 years of married life, and both their children have long since moved away. Now, with it becoming apparent that Jack at least is very ill and nearing the end, mystery novelist Rob (Christopher Fulford) and private medicine entrepreneur Tina (Hermione Gulliford) are visiting to convince their parents to sell the house, and move in with Tina's family where they can be looked after.

Thursday 26 October 2023

Theatre review: Owners

I talk about Caryl Churchill being an outlier among playwrights, in that the older and more venerated she becomes, the shorter and more succinct her work gets. Does that mean going back to one of her first-ever plays will find her at her most rambling and unfocused? Well, yes as it turns out, but Owners, which Stella Powell-Jones revives at Jermyn Street, also shows her not only commanding some great dialogue, but also occasions when she seems decades ahead of her time. Right from the comic opening scene in fact, where Clegg (Mark Huckett) closes the doors for the last time on the butcher's shop he inherited from his father and hoped to pass on to his son. But his wife can't have children, and is such a high-flying success that she'll be the one supporting both of them from now on.

Wednesday 25 October 2023

Theatre review: Portia Coughlan

One of those instances where I probably should have trusted my instincts, rather than booking everything at the Almeida to make the most of my membership, I definitely had a feeling Marina Carr's Portia Coughlan might not be my thing. As it turns out the only thing I can find fault with in Carrie Cracknell's production is the choice of play itself - Carr's 1996 tragedy certainly has some things to say about the expectations for women even at the end of the 20th century, but the way it does so is so relentlessly grim it qualifies for this year's occasional theatrical meme of misery porn. It follows the titular Portia (Alison Oliver) on the day of her thirtieth birthday, a day she spends the same way as the previous 15 years: Haunted, metaphorically and perhaps literally, by her twin brother Gabriel, who drowned himself the day after their 15th birthday.

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Theatre review: The Nag's Head

I guess I don't really have anything Hallowe'en-themed this year if Felix Grainger & Gabriel Fogarty-Graveson's The Nag's Head was meant to fulfil that role: This three-hander about a haunted pub proves more spoofy than spooky. Siblings Sarah (Cara Steele,) Connor (Fogarty-Graveson) and Jack (Grainger) have returned to rural Shireshire for their father's funeral, and to take over the titular failing pub he's left them. On the evening after the wake, as they first bicker then reconnect with family inside jokes, a package gets delivered for them, they assume per their father's wishes: A creepy painting of a naked demon in the woods, which they hang behind the bar. As they search for a USP that'll make customers come back, they chance upon a ghost tour of the area. Between the painting and the various unfortunate smells coming from the neglected building, they decide to relaunch the Nag's Head as the most haunted pub in Britain.

Monday 23 October 2023

Theatre review: Clyde's

Lynn Nottage is having a fairly high-profile year in London - we've had The Secret Life of Bees, and hot on the heels of Mlima's Tale at the Kiln, it's back to the Donald and Margot Warehouse where Sweat was staged in 2019. Clyde's takes place in a shared universe with the latter play, as well as sharing a director in Lynette Linton, and while it shows the American playwright to have lost none of her enthusiasm for tackling a heavy subject, it also displays much more of a light touch. The titular establishment is a truck stop diner run by ex-con Clyde (Gbemisola Ikumelo,) who exclusively hires other former inmates who can't find work anywhere else. Although to what extent this is her attempting to help them is a different story, as her managerial style is full supervillain - she likes to keep them terrified of her and remind them that if they don't toe the line and she fires them, nobody else will give them a job.

Saturday 21 October 2023

Theatre review: Meetings

Trinidadian couple Jean and Hugh are living the 1980s dream: Chain-smoking Jean (Martina Laird) has never wanted to be a domestic goddess, instead becoming a successful businesswoman who's just taken on a contract marketing a new American cigarette brand to the island's poor villagers. Hugh (Kevin N Golding) has a plumbing supplies company, and has struck a deal to sell pipes at inflated prices to a government crony. Yes, there might have been the odd topical connection that helped put Mustapha Matura's Meetings on the list of potential revivals for this year's JMK Award. But while Jean doesn't seem to want anything to change, Hugh is on the verge of a midlife crisis prompted by food: With no time or inclination to cook or eat together, the couple have largely depended on restaurants and takeaways.

Thursday 19 October 2023

Theatre review: Jock Night

Not quite a verbatim play but apparently based on interviews with Manchester's LGBTQ+ community (well... Manchester's G community, anyway,) Adam Zane's Jock Night takes place over six months in the bedroom of 45-year-old Ben (David Paisley,) who's been a fixture of the city's gay village for decades and is still very popular on the scene - he's entered his Daddy phase, although he's not particularly happy with people calling him that. He, the acidic Kam (Sam Goodchild) and muscle jock Russ (Matthew Gent) have been fuck-buddies for a while, usually finding others on the apps to join them. On the night we meet them, they're joined by two new faces: At the start of the evening likeable and naïve AJ (Levi Payne) has to duck out early after the cocktail of drugs the older men are used to proves too much for him.

Tuesday 17 October 2023

Theatre review: Sunset Blvd

I often grumble about the work of His Excellency The Rev. Dr Baron Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Lord Webber BA (Hons) MEng, QC, MD, P.I, FSB, but have a soft spot for Sunset Boulevard - one I've never been entirely sure how much to credit to Lloyd Webber (music,) Don Black and Christopher Hampton's (book and lyrics) 1993 musical itself, and how much to my fondness for Billy Wilder's original 1950 film. Well, this should settle some of that at least, as the latest West End revival comes courtesy of director Jamie Lloyd and designer Soutra Gilmour, whose signature style inevitably strips away the usual trappings of faded Hollywood glamour so associated with film and musical alike. But their monochrome style does make for a different kind of link to the age of black and white movies. 

Monday 16 October 2023

Theatre review: The White Factory

Created by Russian Jewish theatremakers who've been targeted because of their opposition to the war in Ukraine, Dmitry Glukhovsky's The White Factory looks back at the Second World War, and a group of people whose story I don't think I've seen foregrounded before: You sometimes hear of the Jewish collaborators who helped the Nazis control and eventually round up their own people, in the hope that they and their families might get favourable treatment. They tend to be offered up as a cautionary tale, as their stories generally ended in the concentration camps like everyone else's, but Glukhovsky offers - if not an unquestioningly sympathetic view - a more nuanced one. The story of Yosef Kaufman (Mark Quartley) is equally charged with a steely survival instinct, and crippling survivor's guilt.

Friday 13 October 2023

Theatre review: Dead Dad Dog

John McKay's short play Dead Dad Dog was a hit in Edinburgh in 1988, leading to a quick London transfer to the Royal Court. Liz Carruthers' revival at the Finborough was meant to be the opener in a double bill, as McKay has written a present-day sequel, but due to cast illness the latter has had to be cancelled, leaving us with just the original, a slight supernatural comedy in which 22-year-old Alec (Angus Miller) is preparing for a big day: An interview for an apprenticeship as a BBC Scotland producer, followed by a hot date. But his preparations are interrupted by the arrival of his father Willie (Liam Brennan,) who died 12 years earlier. The ghost has been sent back from heaven for a short while to spend time with his son - he didn't request the visit and doesn't know why he was granted it. Alec is saddled with a ghost who to all intents and purposes seems alive - everyone can see him, and he'll need feeding.

Thursday 12 October 2023

Theatre review: What It Means

American screenwriter, journalist and novelist Merle Miller became a major figure in the gay rights movement largely - if this adaptation of his most famous essay and subsequent memoir is to be believed - by accident. A decorated World War II veteran who'd been blacklisted by McCarthyites and returned his medals in protest at the Vietnam War, he'd been a fervent but understated kind of radical. When James Corley’s What It Means first joins him, he’s holed up in his rural New York State house on the day of one of the first post-Stonewall gay rights marches in Manhattan: It’s close enough for him to join easily, but he doesn’t think that’s his kind of activism. But in 1970 Harper’s Magazine, of which he’d been editor before getting, he implies, pushed out, publishes a lengthy article about sexuality by a straight writer.

Tuesday 10 October 2023

Theatre review: Octopolis

Seafood enthusiast Marek Horn follows up a play about tuna with a play about an octopus, and the people whose fascination with the molluscs becomes indistinguishable from love. In Octopolis George (Jemma Redgrave) is a scientist grieving her husband and research partner, with whom she developed theories about whether the notoriously solitary cephalopods might have a previously unknown social side. Since her husband's death, she's retreated into her living room with Frances, the octopus in a tank they were studying, and had made some potentially extraordinary discoveries on; she's not entirely unaware that she treats Frances as a way of still feeling connected to him. The house George lives in belongs to a University, and she's been too preoccupied to wonder why they've let her stay there since she stopped her teaching and research.

Monday 9 October 2023

Theatre review: Imposter 22

In Vicky Featherstone's final year at the Royal Court, getting a group who aren't generally represented on stage to unleash chaos in the Downstairs theatre seems to be a recurring theme: Earlier this year it was the underground drag scene that took over the stage, now it's the culmination of a five-year project to have neurodiverse and learning disabled creatives develop and perform a new piece. Created by Kirsty Adams, Cian Binchy, Housni Hassan (DJ), Dayo Koleosho, Stephanie Newman, Lee Phillips and Charlene Salter, written by Molly Davies and directed by Hamish Pirie, Imposter 22 announces itself as a murder mystery. The credited creators (plus Anna Constable, who’s normally Newman’s alternate but tonight read in for an indisposed Adams,) start pretty close to reality, playing a neurodiverse and learning disabled drama group.

Saturday 7 October 2023

Theatre review: Vanya

For the third play Simon Stephens has written specifically for Andrew Scott to perform, they've turned to Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, here retitled Vanya. If that suggests a laser focus on the title character it's actually quite the opposite: Stephens has turned it into something between a monologue and a one-man show, with Scott playing all the roles. I say monologue because there's more speeches being delivered straight to the audience than in the original, but the actor also has to interact with himself a lot: He plays Ivan (the character names have been mostly anglicised - he's only referred to by the eponymous nickname once,) who's been running his late sister Anna's farm most of his life; as well as his niece Sonia, and Michael, the alcoholic doctor she's unrequitedly in love with.

Thursday 5 October 2023

Theatre review: The Changeling

Ricky Dukes is a fun director, but he does seem incredibly keen on filling small stages with huge furniture, then letting his casts loose to try and manoeuvre their way around it: In last year's Doctor Faustus it was a maze of big wooden desks that everyone was banging their shins against; for this year's return to The Little with The Changeling they're trying to squeeze around a boardroom table, with Colette O'Rourke's Beatrice-Joanna at one point getting stuck when her hooped wedding dress swallowed an office chair. I haven’t seen Succession (it’s not on any of my streaming services, I’m not being a hipster about it,) but I assume that like a lot of recent shows that’s the visual reference that Sorcha Corcoran’s design is making.

Wednesday 4 October 2023

Theatre review: Operation Epsilon

I've talked before about how similar, highly specific ideas seem to crop up on different stages around the same time, but this is a whole new level of specificity: Alan Brody's Operation Epsilon is the true story of the German nuclear scientists who were captured by Allied forces near the end of the Second World War, and held at an English country pile so that the British and Americans could ascertain just how close the Nazis had come to developing nuclear weapons. And yes, this is based directly on the men's actual conversations, recorded by the military in secret. If I sound like I'm repeating myself it's because that was also the premise of Katherine Moar's Farm Hall, which I was a big fan of when it premiered about six months ago. I guess you can blame Oppenheimer for everyone deciding the other side of the story would hook audiences.

Monday 2 October 2023

Theatre review: anthropology

After a quiet summer Hampstead Theatre kicks off its new season with anthropology, Lauren Gunderson's play that takes the very topical subject of AI and... well, it's not particularly clear what, if anything, it does with it. Angie (Dakota Blue Richards) has been missing, presumed dead, since she disappeared at college a couple of years ago in a suspected kidnapping. Her sister Merrill (MyAnna Buring, as opposed to YourAnna Buring) is a Something Something Computers, who is processing the loss by creating an algorithm that's been fed all the digital information Angie left behind, and as the play begins she switches it on for the first time, finding that - apart from being a bit nicer than the real thing - the digital version is an uncannily accurate representation that seems to know her sister in ways even her programmer doesn't.

Thursday 28 September 2023

Theatre review: untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play

Arriving on the Young Vic stage in a blaze of chaos to match the flurry of asterisks in its title, Kimber Lee's untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play is an Asian-American actress' equal parts angry, exhausted and exasperated look at the stereotypes around East Asian women that have persisted in Western art for at least a century, and one story in particular that won't go away. And although the version hiding in plain sight in the title is the one that's most notoriously caused controversy (especially on Broadway,) Lee's metatheatrical version of the story takes us back to the original, and walks us through Puccini's tragic opera Madama Butterfly. An ebullient narrator (Rochelle Rose) breathlessly takes us through the tale of Kim (Mei Mac,) a Japanese peasant girl whose mother (Lourdes Faberes) convinces her the way ahead is to seduce and marry an American sailor.

Wednesday 27 September 2023

Theatre review: Pygmalion

Future Dame Patsy Ferran and Bertie Carvel both return to the Old Vic to pair up as Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins in Bernard Shaw's* Pygmalion, in a typically stylised Richard Jones production that reveals the play as a dark comedy. It doesn't need to reveal its social and political concerns - compared to its more famous musical adaptation, Shaw's play lays those bare pretty forcefully itself. Ferran's Eliza is a flower-girl in Covent Garden who tries to sell to middle-class theatregoers on their way home, and when her basket of flowers is knocked to the ground she unleashes her loud cockney accent, strangled vowels and tendency to express her emotions through random wailing noises. This happens to be in front of the first chance meeting between two celebrated linguists with an interest in regional accents and dialects.

Friday 22 September 2023

Theatre review: It's Headed Straight Towards Us

Closing off what's been a very strong week of theatre for me is a fairly starry premiere for the Park Theatre: Adrian Edmondson and Nigel Planer are the writers of disaster comedy It's Headed Straight Towards Us and I did wonder more than once if this was a project that the writers had been working on for a while, perhaps with the original intention of performing it themselves - I could certainly see Edmondson in the role that's ended up going to Rufus Hound. The setting is the luxury trailer of C-list actor Hugh (Samuel West,) never the most celebrated actor of his generation (no knighthood, only an MBE,) but having made a good living for himself in recent years as the butler to a volcano god in a cheesy but wildly successful action movie franchise. The latest installment is being filmed on the side of an actual Icelandic volcano*.

Thursday 21 September 2023

Theatre review: Beautiful Thing

Not that I've been at this for a while or anything, but you can read a review of the 20th anniversary production of Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing on this blog, and now here's the 30th anniversary one, and a fresh look at the play that's in essence one that knows the script's strengths and plays to them. The fresh look is in the casting, which director Anthony Simpson-Pike wanted to allow young gay black kids to see themselves reflected in the characters. The only change I noticed in the script was a quick reference where Sandra asks Jamie if he's being bullied racially. Other than that the story's still as written, and very much in the early Nineties - in fairness I'm not sure how you could try to update jokes about Wincey Willis, let alone the specific point of gay history that inspired Harvey to write this rainbow-tinted play.

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Theatre review: Mlima's Tale

Theatres really make it hard for me to keep my visits under control sometimes: Although no doubt worth seeing, Lynn Nottage's story of the ivory trade through the eyes of an elephant sounded bleak enough that it might be better to give it a miss, but then the casting for Miranda Cromwell's production was announced, and made it harder to say no. In its opening moments, Mlima's Tale gives us a bit of a misdirect that it might actually be what the title promises, as Mlima (Ira Mandela Siobhan,) a 48-year-old bull elephant, begins to give us a potted history of his life, the rainy seasons he's seen, the children he's sired. But these are the final moments of his life before he's brutally killed by poachers - after numerous attempts evidenced by a dozen bullet scars, it's a desperate, amateurish Somali pair who finally take him down.

Monday 18 September 2023

Theatre review: Police Cops: The Musical

A painfully silly musical spoofing 80s pop culture, whose uniformly talented cast includes an impossibly attractive man with comedy facial hair whose clothes keep falling off? Well I can't see what's in it for me. Zachary Hunt, Nathan Parkinson, Tom Roe (book & lyrics) and Ben Adams' (music) Police Cops: The Musical is another in the long line of 1980s tributes/spoofs whose popularity doesn't seem to show any signs of fading, although you'd have to put quite a few of those other shows together to match the sheer relentless stream of gags the company (whose writer-performer trio's company also goes by Police Cops - unusually, no director is credited so presumably they're doing that as well) throw into this spoof of American cop shows and movies, and the action genre more broadly - Lethal Weapon is probably the most obvious comparison, but there's nods to Die Hard, The Karate Kid and even Back to the Future.