Thursday 27 July 2023

Theatre review: Dr Semmelweis

After his return to Jerusalem was a sell-out, there was little question that another recent Mark Rylance project would make its way to the West End as well: Stephen Brown's Dr Semmelweis, first seen at the Bristol Old Vic, also gives Rylance a co-writing credit as it was apparently his idea to dramatise the story of an obstetrician who saw the importance of hygiene in medicine decades before anyone understood bacteria, and was laughed and bullied out of his profession for it. I'm not sure it's entirely in character for Rylance to side with the latest medical discoveries over, say, fresh air and garlic; then again the play also shows Ignaz Semmelweis as a paranoid conspiracy theorist so it's six of one half a dozen of the other. The play begins in the middle of the story, with Semmelweis losing his mind, but retaining its sharpness in some ways.

Tuesday 25 July 2023

Theatre review: The Crown Jewels

I guess the summer holidays are silly season for more than just the news cycle; either that or with the post-pandemic economy still affecting the UK's stages, there really is no guessing what's going to end up on them next. At the Garrick that means The Crown Jewels, a play by Simon Nye - best known as a TV writer - about the real events of 1671 when a small gang led by Colonel Blood (Aidan McArdle) botched an attempt to steal the Crown Jewels which British monarchs wear at their coronations. To be honest this was a show I was more than a little dubious about, but booked for pretty much because of some of the cast. And at first the broader-than-broad performances of Sean Foley's production made me wonder if I'd make it past the interval. But while I can't say I grew to love it, it definitely helped once I'd made the connection "oh, it's a panto."

Sunday 23 July 2023

Theatre review: The Wind and the Rain

If the Finborough Theatre still exists in 90 years' time (still somehow based in an inaccessible room that people are constantly trying to evict them from, above a pub that's due to have gone bankrupt another 18 times by then,) I imagine they'll be staging 2:22 A Ghost Story, with a blurb marvelling at the fact that it played half the theatres in the West End with a rotating cast of random women with big Instagram followings. That (minus the Instagram part) seems to have been the story of The Wind and the Rain in 1933, with Merton Hodge's semi-autobiographical play about his student days also fitting in a successful Broadway run before vanishing without trace. In other words it's a textbook Finborough rediscovery, and one that, while amiable enough, left me trying to pick apart exactly what could have made it so popular.

Thursday 20 July 2023

Theatre review: A Strange Loop

A Strange Loop comes to the Barbican bearing a Pulitzer, but it's OK - once every few years they give it to something that isn't just the first thing to ham-fistedly tackle whatever the controversial hot topic of the day is. Michael R. Jackson's musical does make a point of the fact that intersectionality is something all the stage producers are looking to capitalise on at the moment, but at least it does it in as knowingly tongue-in-cheek a way as it does most other things. The intersection in question is that between black and queer lives, as seen through Usher (Kyle Ramar Freeman,) an usher at the Broadway production of The Lion King who's trying to write a musical in his spare time. The title has a couple of highbrow origin references but essentially it's about the structure: A musical about a gay black man writing a musical about a gay black man writing a musical about a gay black man.

Monday 17 July 2023

Theatre review: Cuckoo

The opening scene of Cuckoo is funny, but feels like it comes from an already-dated play: Women from three generations sit around a dining table silently, all glued to their mobile phones. They're not quite ignoring each other, as a lot of the messages, jokes and funny videos they're looking at they forward right on to each other and share a laugh. But it's still a disconnected kind of family scene, and when Sarah (Jodie McNee) arrives with the fish and chips, she still struggles to get her mother Doreen (Sue Jenkins,) sister Carmel (Michelle Butterly) and niece Megyn (Emma Harrison) to put their phones down and talk to each other. When they do, the conversation turns to climate change and the teenage Megyn, who’s already been almost silent, has some kind of emotional breakdown and runs upstairs to her grandmother’s bedroom.

Thursday 13 July 2023

Theatre review: Beneatha's Place

Kwame Kwei-Armah premiered Beneatha's Place a decade ago in Baltimore, when he was running a theatre there. Now he's running a theatre here, and directs the play's belated UK premiere at the Young Vic. Cherelle Skeete plays Beneatha, a character from Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin In The Sun, who ends that play contemplating marrying a Nigerian academic and moving with him from Chicago to Lagos. In the first act that's what she's done, and she and Joseph (Zackary Momoh) are moving into a neighbourhood until then populated by white Americans: The departing previous occupants' (Tom Godwin and Nia Gwynne) hamfisted attempts to appear gracious and welcoming are as telling at they are comic. It's 1959, Nigeria is still a British colony but on the brink of independence, and Joseph could potentially be a significant political figure in the discussions of what that independent country could look like.

Wednesday 12 July 2023

Theatre review: Modest

Once again one of the highlights of going to the theatre as often as I do is finding out about people and events you'd think would be better known than they actually are, but have been largely forgotten - either because of an accident of history or, as is often the case and including Ellen Brammar's Modest, because of institutional inequalities. Here the central character is Elizabeth Thompson, a painter who narrowly missed out on becoming the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy. What makes her such a particular outlier is that it would take another 42 years before the first woman (Annie Swynnerton, because I can Google stuff,) would actually join the institution. Paul Smith and Luke Skilbeck's production explores the gender conflicts in the story by putting Elizabeth (Emer Dineen) at the heart of an empowering drag show.

Monday 10 July 2023

Theatre review: Then, Now & Next

With the new Elephant venue already feeling well-established, it feels like ages since I went back to the Borough building that's been Southwark Playhouse's home for the last decade (I can only take so many Macbeths, OK?) But not all the new musicals have been shipped to the new venue, and The Large premieres Then, Now & Next, a first venture into writing for current Phantom Jon Robyns, and fellow musical theatre actor Christopher J Orton (book, music and lyrics.) It is, needless to say, a lockdown project, the two actors having decided to make a more serious attempt at an idea they'd toyed with when they were in Spamalot together. The result is a low-key chamber musical about Alex (Alice Fearn) and the most serious relationships of her twenties and thirties. We meet her with Peter (Peter Hannah,) with whom she has a young son.

Saturday 8 July 2023

Theatre review: As You Like It (RSC / RST)

For my second As You Like It of the year (second of a planned three, which in most years would make it the most ubiquitous Shakespeare play, but Macbeth has got plans guys,) Omar Elerian's RSC debut has a high-concept cast: Two of them are former presidents of Equity. Oh, and almost all of them are over 70. The conceit (quite simply delivered in a speech to the audience at the start, something any number of elaborate artistic visions might want to consider,) is that this isn't so much a production of As You Like It as a memory of one, an imagined 1975 production from which all the cast members with any significant amount of lines have conveniently survived, and have reconvened in a rehearsal room to try and recreate. A quartet of younger actors join them to read in the roles of absent friends, as well as to help get the leads back on their feet after any scenes that require particular exertion.

Thursday 6 July 2023

Theatre review: Crazy For You

Crazy For You isn't a Madonna jukebox musical, but it is a jukebox musical: Although based on the 1930 show Girl Crazy, Ken Ludwig's book ties together a number of George Gershwin (music) and Ira Gershwin's (lyrics) most popular songs from throughout their career. It's played the West End before, and frankly didn't make enough of an impact on me to revisit it now if Susan Stroman's revival, which she originally directed and choreographed in Chichester, didn't star the criminally talented Charlie Stemp. In fact the publicity for this transfer has largely focused on Stemp's growing profile, the comparisons to Gene Kelly and the fact that he's essentially in a league of his own. God help his understudy, basically. But not tonight, as the main cast are present and correct for the most unironically old-fashioned show in town.

Tuesday 4 July 2023

Theatre review: Dear England

I said a few weeks ago that the National had managed a bit of a coup by scheduling probably the two most bankable British playwrights at the moment to premiere new work at the same time in its main houses. And if it was Jack Thorne in the Lyttelton, with a play that's already announced a West End transfer, then it must be James Graham in the Olivier, with a play that's bringing in audiences that don't often come to the theatre, and seems likely to have a future life of its own as a result. Dear England is a play about football, so Rupert Goold is the obvious choice of director - I could say it's because he made his name with a dynamic, physical visual style that suits a sports story but let's face it, it's because when he took over at the Almeida he waxed lyrical about how handy his new office was for Arsenal home games, as much as anything he had to say about the theatre itself.

Monday 3 July 2023

Theatre review: Song From Far Away

The next transfer to Hampstead Theatre, this time to the main house, is Kirk Jameson's production of Song From Far Away from Manchester. This is one of those shows that took me a certain amount of effort to try and see without the context of having seen the original production. Not just because of the particularly memorable artistic choice that led it to inspire the Schlong From Far Away award in my yearly roundups, but also because Simon Stephens' mournful monologue was written specifically for its original director Ivo van Hove and star Eelco Smits. But this does mean there's a whole new dimension of seeing how the script bears up when taken away from the creatives Stephens envisioned it for, and seen with fresh eyes. So in Jameson's production, Ingrid Hu designs a large, luxurious, but still impersonal Amsterdam hotel room for Will Young's Willem to stay in when he returns from New York to the city of his birth.