Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Kafka's Monkey

Kathryn Hunter is one of those actresses who has never really crossed my radar despite being feted as one of the finest actors working in the country. I'm aware that she was the first woman to play King Lear, but beyond that nothing much, so I was quite keen to have the opportunity to rectify this by seeing her in the one-woman play Kafka's Monkey

In the Young Vic's studio, she plays Red Peter, a chimp who was captured in the wild and put in a tiny cage; he realises that the only way out is to become "human," and sets about adopting human mannerisms, spitting, smoking and drinking, eventually learning to speak. The play is delivered in the form of a speech given to a mysterious "Academy" and Red Peter recounts his life, weighed down with the absolute conviction that Red Peter doesn't equate his new human life with freedom, and sees that as something he'll never have again.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Continuation of cast of England People Very Nice

England People Very Nice

Having had a whirlwind of publicity whipped up around it through accusations of heavy-handed racism, I was mildly disappointed to not be accosted by any protestors upon entering the auditorium for England People Very Nice, Richard Bean's new play at the National Theatre. I was less surprised to find that I enjoyed the piece very much, and found largely most amusing, and not at all "racist".
The play is set up as being performed by a group of asylum seekers awaiting the results of their appeals for residency, and tells the story of wave after wave of immigration of different ethnic groups into Bethnal Green throughout the last few centuries. So we see the French Huguenots arrive and face resistance to their arrival on a number of levels: on culture, on religion, and more materially on housing and on jobs, but yet also finding time for love. Time passes by and as a new wave of immigrants arrive, this time the Irish, so the French find themselves guilty of the same attitudes that were held against them upon their arrival. The cycle repeats itself with the subsequent arrival of Jews, and finally Bangladeshis. All of this is also witnessed by the native English, three of whom are wittily played in a bar scene which repeats each time, always beginning with the exclamation "F***ing Frogs", "F***ing Micks" et al. The second half takes a darker, much less comic turn, as it focuses on the rise of militant Islamism within this community in modern times, and so the pace drops quite significantly and whilst it doesn't drag, I did miss the speed of the first half.

The first half plays heavily on stereotypes, and if one were being hyper-sensitive then I suppose that this simplistic stereotyping could be considered offensive. But to do so seems to miss the point that I think the play is making, namely that these perceived ideas of 'difference' are deep down just meaningless, and instead of the tacit acceptance of finding them "very nice", there should be no barrier to confronting that which one has issues with, no matter how sensitive society may deem it to be.
As part of the Travelex £10 season, I very much enjoyed seeing something that made me think a little bit differently, and yet still only cost a tenner for seats in the third row of the stalls.


This review marks a momentous occasion as it features the first appearance of Aunty Jean, one of my most faithful theatre companions, despite living nearly 200 miles from me in Wigan. We try to see at least one thing every time she visits whether for pleasure or work, but it has been a while since she has been down so Oliver marked her first 2009 London theatrical trip.

Fortunately it was well worth it, as this show did not disappoint on any level (and many levels it did have!). The sets for this show were truly awe-inspiring: Fagin's underground lair was cleverly constructed; the depth of the alleyway for the street scenes was huge so it gave a great sense of scale to the proceedings, one which has been sadly lacking in many large recent productions, cost-cutting I guess, and the lighting from scene to scene could not have been more different, yet still highly effective. This all combined to give great energy and movement to the show, which scarcely needs it due to the highly familiar and zippy score.

Cast of Oliver! continued

Cast of Oliver! continued

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Duet for One, times two.

Despite already having seen this production when it first opened, you can read my thoughts here, when I was asked if I wanted to see it again with another friend, I did not hesitate to say yes. And I was glad to see that I enjoyed it just as much as the first time, such is the strength of the acting on display. I was pleased to see that the play will be transferring to the Vaudeville Theatre so that many more people will be able to see it, but I do wonder how much will be lost given that it will be transferring from the intimate space of the Almeida to a larger theatre. I have never actually seen a play that has transferred in both of its venues, and I wonder how many people actually have! Anyway, previews for the new run start on May 7th, and I would definitely recommend trying to go if you have not already.

PS: I know I am the only person who reads this, but I do apologise for not having posted for a couple of weeks. I promise to be better at posting regularly!

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (again)

If there was going to be any play or musical that appeared twice on this blog, it had to be Joseph. As clearly explained in my first entry, this is probably my favourite musical (certainly in my top three) and so when I was offered a free ticket to the press night of the relaunch with Gareth Gates in the title role, there was no chance of me resisting!

Gareth Gates has been slotted into the gap left by Lee Mead with seemingly no major changes that I could ascertain. The only real difference that I could see was due to Gates’ relative youth, and also his youthful appearance. He plays the early scenes with Jacob and the brothers as more of an obnoxious brat, which kind of makes sense in terms of driving them to “fratricide” and so in this way his youth worked for him. The other time it was noticeably different was in the reunion scene when Joseph plants the golden cup. As Gareth Gates sings “Benjamin, you nasty youth...”, it was hard to suppress a smile as the actor playing Benjamin looks a good few years older than him. None of the other roles have been recast and whilst they all looked perfect around Lee Mead’s Joseph, I felt they should reconfigure a little to suit Gates’ looks, even if only to put a younger cast member in for Benjamin. These points aside, I have to say I was quite impressed with his overall performance. He delivered on the big numbers, looks halfway decent in his loincloth(!) and interacted well with his castmates.

I was quite pleased to see that the role of the Narrator was being covered by the understudy, Fiona Reyes, my views of Jenna Lee James were made clear in the previous review, so it was interesting to see a different take. Reyes has a much softer voice, which complemented Gates’ equally softer performance in the lead and so whilst they blended quite well together, I wonder how he is holding up against the considerably more gutsy vocals of Ms James. Funnily enough, in the costume change at the interval, Reyes changed into trousers and a sparkly top which appeared to be the same length as the micro-mini-dress that Ms James is fond of.

So all in all, this is a decent reboot and Gareth Gates acquits himself well in his first West End role, but I have to say I wonder if his name alone will be able to sustain this production of Joseph in the West End in the long run.
EDIT 09/03/09: Of course, having written this post, I then found out this weekend that Joseph has indeed posted closing notices for 30th May. Not a huge surprise it must be said!

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Top five plays of January/February

I've decided I'm going to rank the plays I have seen to try and give some order to my thoughts: I'll probably do this on a monthy basis (if I remember).

So drum roll please, and here is my top 5 (to the end of February)

1. La Cage aux Folles
2. Duet for One
3. Plague Over England
4. Joseph (with Lee Mead)
5. Be Near Me

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Dancing at Lughnasa

Still utilising the in-the-round format introduced for the Norman Conquests, the Old Vic now hosts the first revival of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. Telling the story of five unmarried sisters living in rural Ireland, the play is actually narrated from the memories of a seven-year-old Michael, the illegitimate son of the youngest sister, now grown up: a framing device which initially proves very effective. The play looks at the struggles faced by the women to subsist in increasingly uncertain economic times, exacerbated by their unwell brother recently returned from Africa and Michael's father's unexpected visit to their cottage.

The five actresses playing the sisters have a great chemistry, and I longed for more scenes with all five of them simultaneously on the stage, but Simone Kirby as Rosie is given much less stage time than the others. Niamh Cusack came close to stealing the show for me, she effortlessly showed the great strength in her character who assumes the responsibility of keeping spirits high in the household, whether it be through cooking (she displays some great bread-making skills on-stage), through her melodic singing, or just her joie-de-vivre. Her scenes with Michelle Fairley's more matriarchal Kate were spine-tingling as their frustrations at their ever-worsening situation threaten to take over, but they can't allow their feelings to explode as they have the rest of the family to think about. Susan Lynch's middle sister Agnes is another sterling performance: bubbling with repressed feeling for her sister's amour Gerry, and burdened with a terrible sense of responsbility for Rose, Agnes came to symbolise the tragedy of the story for me. And finally, Andrea Corr in her London stage debut as the youngest sister Christina and mother of the narrator Michael, makes a decent attempt. She probably has the hardest role, since whereas she sparkles in the scenes with her sisters, she has the most scenes with her son, who is never present on the stage, and so is often acting fairly mundane lines to empty space which I feel would be a challenge for most actors.

Since I've covered the women, I may as well go the whole hog and do the three men too! Finbar Lynch plays the returned brother suffering from some random illness and amnesia which caused him to lose his faith, and whilst he performed well, I felt the character did not add much to the play, aside from adding another burden to the already torrid household. As the errant Gerry, Jo Stone-Fewings breathed an anarchy into the existence of the sisters which was a joy to behold, as the implication was clearly that he was one of very few men with whom they had any contact. And finally, Peter McDonald as Michael did a fine job as the narrator, with the assistance of some atmospheric music and lighting, setting the scene excellently, and he also had some touching scenes reciting the lines of his seven-year-old self.

The only weakness I felt with the play was the lack of real action in the second half [this bit contains spoilers for the ending of the play so beware]. The first half built up wonderfully and engrossed me totally by the interval, but I felt a little cheated when at the end of the penultimate scene, Michael narrated the fate of each of the main players, thereby almost belittling the importance of the rest of the play. I'm not sure if it was just me and my colleague, but I ended up feeling a little dissatisfied which was a great shame as I thoroughly enjoyed this play and, as with most things I have seen this year, I would totally recommend it to you!

Monday, 2 March 2009

Burnt By The Sun

The latest play to open at the National Theatre is Burnt By The Sun, a story set in Russia, in the days just before Stalin did bad things in the Great Purge, of a revolutionary and his wife and family whose tranquil repose is rocked by the return of a former lover of the wife. The play was based on a film which won the best Foreign Language Oscar and the Grand Prize at Cannes, but I have to admit to not being familiar with it at all.
This play exemplifies for me one of the key strengths of the National Theatre does best: putting together high quality ensemble casts and allowing them to create the necessary atmosphere and feelings in which the play can unfold. Whereas it may feel that not an awful lot actually happens in the first half, I was swept up in the genuine camaraderie of the ensemble, especially in the group scenes around the table and the time simply flew by. Stephanie Jacob deserves a special mention for her comic turn as Mokhova the help, but all the actors really deliver here and set the scene for the events of Act 2.

And Act 2 is when the action really starts with events taking a different turn as the truth about the new visitor and his shared past with the family comes to light. Each of the key players here, Ciarán Hinds, Michelle Dockery and Rory Kinnear, do amazing work as painful realisations are reached and I was particularly impressed with Hinds' command of the stage.

The set is based around a revolving house which provides a great sense of fluidity to the production, especially during the scene changes which merely feel like following the characters walking through the house and so all in all, this was a great night out which I really enjoyed. Following on from Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, I did wonder if there is a bit of a Russian theme going on with this season at the NT, but it doesn't seem so. Nevertheless, recommended!

Cast of Burnt By The Sun continued

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Nominations for 2009 Oliviers - Best Actor/Best Actress

Best Actor

Derek Jacobi in Twelfth Night Wyndham's / Donmar Warehouse
David Bradley in No Man's Land – Duke of York's
Michael Gambon in No Man's Land – Duke of York's
Adam Godley in Rain Man – Apollo

Best Actress

Margaret Tyzack in The Chalk Garden – Donmar Warehouse
Deanna Dunagan in August: Osage County – National Theatre Lyttelton
Lindsay Duncan in That Face – Duke of York's
Penelope Wilton in The Chalk Garden – Donmar Warehouse

Nominations for 2009 Oliviers - Best Actor/Best Actress in a musical

Best Actor in a Musical

Douglas Hodge in La Cage aux Folles – Playhouse
Denis Lawson in La Cage aux Folles – Playhouse
Ryan Molloy in Jersey Boys – Prince Edward
Matt Rawle in Zorro – Garrick

Best Actress in a Musical

Elena Roger in Piaf – Donmar Warehouse / Vaudeville
Sofia Escobar in West Side Story – Sadler's Wells
Kathryn Evans in Sunset Boulevard – Comedy
Ruthie Henshall in Marguerite – Theatre Royal Haymarket
Emma Williams in Zorro – Garrick

Nominations for 2009 Oliviers - Best Performance in a Supporting Role/Best Supporting Role in a Musical

Best Performance in a Supporting Role

Patrick Stewart in Hamlet – Novello
Oliver Ford Davies in Hamlet – Novello
Kevin R. McNally in Ivanov – Wyndham's, Donmar
Paul Ritter in The Norman Conquests – Old Vic

Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical

Lesli Margherita in Zorro – Garrick
Alexander Hanson in Marguerite – Theatre Royal Haymarket
Katherine Kingsley in Piaf – Donmar Warehouse / Vaudeville
Jason Pennycooke in La Cage aux Folles Playhouse
Dave Willetts in Sunset Boulevard – Comedy