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.