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.