Monday, 30 April 2012

Review: Barefoot in the Park, Richmond Theatre

“Take care of him, make him feel important, then you’ll have a wonderful marriage – like two out of every ten couples”

The big noise around Neil Simon in London at the moment may be around the revival of The Sunshine Boys which is about to open at the Savoy, but there’s also the chance to catch another of his plays, Barefoot in the Park, as it tours around the country starring Maureen Lipman and also featuring a rare foray into the director’s chair for her.

The 1963 play is simply but effectively conceived: a couple of young newlyweds move into their not-quite-ready Manhattan apartment after a short honeymoon, but find that the glow of the honeymoon period doesn’t always last quite so long as they face the realities of living with another person. On hand to offer advice to Corrie and Paul as they navigate their way through the shifts in their relationships over a handful of scenes are Corrie’s mother Mrs Banks and their spirited upstairs neighbour, the Hungarian Victor Velasco, who start to form their own connection as the booziest of dinners leads to unexpected events.

Review: Radio Dramas – Bad Memories and That’s Mine, This is Yours

"According to the meta-data on the files…”
From the first moments of the prologue, it is clear why Julian Simpson’s haunted house radio play Bad Memories won awards for its sound design. Recorded at Stanmer House in Brighton, David Chilton has created an amazingly well-textured soundscape which responds perfectly to the challenges of Simpson’s writing. To solve the mystery of the disappearance of an architect’s family whose bodies turn up in their cellar several years later yet with extremely perplexing forensic discoveries, the investigating officer turns to a tech wizard to see if a digital voice recorder found with them can reveal any clues.
And who else would you turn to in such a time but ‘Ruth from Spooks’?! Technically speaking it is Nicola Walker, playing a character called Rachel Weir, but it must be said that there’s not too much distance between the two. But as a huge fan of Spooks, and of Walker’s, I had no problem whatsoever with this. And as she works through the short clips of recordings that she is able to rescue, along with Rupert Graves’ detective, a disturbing tale of paranormal investigators, haunted children and scary little-girl-ghosts (always the worst kind!) begins to emerge.
I loved the way that the bang-up-to-date tech-savvy police procedural was combined with the traditional haunted house story, the fragments of the latter being pieced together increasingly disbelievingly by the former and resulting in something of considerable dramatic strength. Walker’s dry humour worked well with Graves’ more business-like manner, and in the recordings Anthony Calf’s father and Steven Mackintosh’s insightful investigator were effective. But the star really was the sound design, perfectly attuned to the mood and rich in detail that frequently had me jumping in my seat. Great stuff.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Review: All Good Men / Thermidor, Finborough

“That’s the way the cookie crumbles when the shit hits the fan”
Trevor Griffiths’ All Good Men was originally a 1974 BBC Play for Today and though adapted for the stage the next year, has rarely been seen in the UK since then. Ever keen to sniff out hidden classics, the Finborough have revived it in their Sunday/Monday slot, paired with another short play by Griffiths – 1971’s Thermidor – rather neatly at a time when the morals of politicians are back in the headlines (but then, when are they never…)
All Good Men centres on the political career of Edward Waite, a lifelong stalwart of the Labour party who rose from being a miner through union stewardship to holding positions in government, as a sharp young documentary maker prepares to make a television programme all about him, in advance of him accepting a peerage. But when Edward is taken ill, the arrival of his son and daughter proves less of a comfort and more of a challenge as the family albums and archives reveal a past that is not all that it seems and a family torn between idealism and political reality.

Review: His Greatness, Finborough

“I don’t write about my life”
A programme note informs us that His Greatness is not a play about Tennessee Williams. Instead, Canadian writer Daniel MacIvor has chosen to write a tale inspired by him, based on ‘a potentially true story’ from the twilight of his career. In a hotel room in Vancouver, ‘the playwright’ (never named...) is still clinging onto the lustre of his former glories and desperate to recapture the dream with his latest premiere. But even his ever loyal assistant is beginning to flag and the arrival of a rent boy into the claustrophobic hotel room over a trying 24 hour period forces a reassessment on the part of all three men.
Jean-Marc Puissant’s traverse design does an excellent job of transforming the Finborough’s space into a slightly drab hotel room, double bed at one end and desk at the other, from where bon mots are bounced and verbal volleys are launched, languid seductions attempted and frustrated dreams ground down to dust. MacIvor’s writing is sharp and funny as the three men play the power games they can to come out on top but as the play progresses, the tone becomes more reflective, increasingly bitter as the realities of chasing fading stars become painfully apparent. Ché Walker’s intense production manages this inexorable shift extremely well, mainly thanks to an outstanding cast.  

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Review: Making Noise Quietly, Donmar Warehouse

“You must risk. Risk being wrong"

The term ‘elliptical triptych’ strikes fear into my heart – memories of Wastwater still make me shudder – but I hadn’t quite made the connection that this was the area where Robert Holman’s Making Noise Quietly lay until the likes of David Eldridge and Simon Stephens recently started proclaiming his major, if unsung, influence on their work. And as the second entry in Josie Rourke’s debut season at the Donmar Warehouse, there’s something of a statement of intent in her programming of this revival this trio of small plays directed by Peter Gill.

Quite what that statement is though, I am unsure. Everything about this production from the three stories presented here and the connection between the three, through Paul Wills’ minimalist green set, to the acting, is understated to the point where barely a ripple of consequence seemed apparent to me. The first tale was my favourite and not just because both guys ended up naked, honest P-O-V…;-) – a 1944 countryside encounter between a fey young writer and a strapping conscientious objector becomes charged with curiosity and sexuality as the former flirts outrageously with the latter and both men lay themselves bare with a moving level of introspection. Both men are perfectly cast here, Matthew Tennyson could have walked out of 1940s central casting and Jordan Dawes’ open handsomeness fits perfectly as this pair create a wonderful sense of chemistry.

Review: The Conquest of the South Pole, Arcola

"I’d rather touch greasy chips than greasy chaps” 

When it comes to European drama, I’ve tried my best with the slim pickings available to us here in London and I have quite often been pleasantly surprised: I Am The Wind and Big and Small being the examples that pop into the mind, as theatre that just operates on a completely different level to what I’m used to and given a treatment that somehow connected with me. But there have been shows that failed to break through the enigma – Black Battles with Dogs being the most recent example – and I’m sad to say that Manfred Karge’s The Conquest of the South Pole fell firmly into this category, leaving me completely nonplussed as to what it is that it is trying to say or do. 

Stephen Unwin directed this show back in 1988 and for this, its first revival in London since then, he has returned to the piece for which he obviously has great affection to present in the main studio at the Arcola. But you know you’re in trouble when the most fascinating thing happening is three Hackney kids gate-crashing the theatre via an unlocked side-door and the subsequent silent efforts to get them to leave. Ultimately, I found this much more engrossing than the story of this group of unemployed young men who decide escape the grimness of their lives by re-enacting Amundsen’s voyage to the South Pole in a cramped attic using a washing line and some sheets to evoke the Antarctic tundra. 

Friday, 27 April 2012

Review: Here, Rose Kingston

"How does it seem? Fine? Right, let's get the sandwiches out."
Michael Frayn’s star is shining very brightly at the moment in the theatre. The Old Vic’s production of Noises Off has transferred into the West End and the Sheffield Theatres held a three-show retrospective of his work, of which one, Democracy, will be transferring to the Old Vic in the summer. And now the Rose Theatre Kingston has gotten in on the game with a new production of one of his lesser known works Here. Originally written in 1993, it underwhelmed the critics at the Donmar Warehouse, but a reworked version gained popularity on the continent and ever the industrialist, Frayn has tinkered with it again and it is this rewrite that is being premiered here in Kingston-upon-Thames.
Young couple Phil and Cath move into a studio flat but the start of their new shared life together is marked by chronic uncertainty as they tie themselves in knots over every single little decision like where to put the bed, where to put the pot-plant, what to do with the manky old chair gifted to them by the landlady. They pore over the significance of each thing, each question asked of the other, and then challenge the answers in circular discussions full of double-speak and debate. It becomes clear that Frayn is interested in how we construct lives and relationships together, the terms on which we negotiate and the compromises we settle on.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Review: Belong, Royal Court

“And what is the Nigerian dream?”

An original commission by British/African theatre company Tiata Fahodzi, the Royal Court upstairs now plays host to Bola Agbaje’s Belong. In this play that moves between London and Nigeria, Agbaje takes on an ambitious amount of subject matter: the diverse political cultures of the two countries, the differing experiences of first- and second-generation Black British people, whether notions of cultural identity can transcend nationality and race, the corruption endemic in so much of Nigerian bureaucracy, all in a swift 90 minutes, with new Artistic Director of the Tricycle Indhu Rubasingham taking on directorial duties. 

Disillusioned at his defeat in a general election campaign in Croydon, Kayode has retreated under the duvet to his sofa, much to the chagrin of his wife Rita. Craving some respite and motherly comfort, he books a trip back to Nigeria, the place of his birth, where he finds his place in the familial home usurped by Kunle, a bright young boy that Mama has taken under her wing and who is being groomed for great political things. But politics in Nigeria is a whole different kettle of egusi soup and as Kayode sees how Kunle’s bold statements have to go hand-in-hand with placating the crooked Chief Olowolaye, he sees the opportunity for a second bite at achieving political success. 

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Review: Written on the Heart, Duchess

I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts”
In perhaps one of the more surprising transfer moves of recent months, the RSC have brought last year’s production of David Edgar’s new play Written on the Heart into the West End to take up residency in the Duchess Theatre. I say surprising because it is a good while since the show ran in Stratford and though it received relatively good notices, they hardly set the world alight. But to town it has come and to be honest with you although it is nice to see a wealth of plays occupying West End houses, I can’t see it lasting very long in the cut-throat theatrical ecology.  
Edgar’s play is an almightily verbose work about the creation of the King James Bible. We start with James I’s decision to commission an authorised English Bible nearing its end in 1610 in the midst of endless committees debating the translation of every word. We then move around in time to see William Tynedale reaping the grim consequences of creating his own version in the reign of Henry VIII and also dip into the reign of Elizabeth I during the decatholicisation of many churches, where a young clergyman sees Tyndale’s work for the first time. As we then return to 1610, we see that that young man, Lancelot Andrewes, is now spearheading the Authorised version and recognise the debt that he owes to Tyndale.

Review: Wonderful Town, Milton Keynes Theatre

"Here we live, here we love, this is the place for self-expression"

Providing a much needed, strong reminder that large-scale musical revivals can come from north of the Watford Gap as well as below, Wonderful Town marked a major collaboration between Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, The Hallé Orchestra and The Lowry on this Leonard Bernstein show, which I have to admit to never having heard of before. As many a musical that has gone before and come after it, it is gossamer-light in plot but this is more than made up for with a richly evocative score, some nifty design and best of all, sparkling choreography from Andrew Wright who is now consistently making the case to be considered one of the best choreographers working in the country. 

Connie Fisher and Lucy Van Gasse play Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, sisters from Ohio who are determined to escape their boring lives and move to New York City. Of course, on arriving in the Big Apple, following their dream ain't quite as easy as it seems but in their quest for success, romance and a free meal or two, they meet and charm a wide range of colourful new friends and neighbours who help them through their trials. And matching the creative and production expertise on hand, director Braham Murray assembled a cracking ensemble which included particular favourites around these parts (albeit for different reasons) Michael Xavier and Tiffany Graves. 

Cast of Wonderful Town continued

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Review: The Great Gatsby, Wilton’s Music Hall

“’Whenever you feel like criticising anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had’.”

Fans of The Great Gatsby are being spoilt for choice this year as the passing of the rights of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel into the public domain has led to a number of adaptations hitting the London stage. First up is an immersive adaptation at Wilton’s Music Hall (the 8 hour extravaganza Gatz arrives in June and a musical version plays at the King’s Head in August) and it’s proved to be a canny move as the entire run has sold out before it even opened, apparent testimony to the popularity of the book but I hope there is a swell of affection for Wilton’s at play too as they continue to raise funds for their vitally important reconstruction works.

The palpably atmospheric history of the building lends itself to theatrical exploitation and Peter Joucla’s production makes the most of this from the off. Characters mill about the bar and foyer area and play out little scenes which locate us firmly in prohibition-era New York and escort us into the main theatre which has been bedecked simply but effectively in a sweeping, vaguely Art-Deco inspired design by Lucy Wilkinson. A barbershop chorus starts singing jazz tunes of the era and we’re off in this tale of the enigmatic Gatsby, whose hard-worn pursuit of the woman he loves is slowly poisoned by the decadence of the society around them both. NB This was the final preview performance. Oh, and I haven’t read the book. Yet.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Re-review: South Downs/The Browning Version, Harold Pinter Theatre

“I may have been a brilliant scholar, but I was woefully ignorant of the facts of life.”

Given that last year was the first time I had made the trip to Chichester and took in the vast majority of their 2011 Festival, it is perhaps a little ironic that of the five plays I saw there, a third one has now opened in London. But I have no problems revisiting quality theatre and the double bill of South Downs and The Browning Version is certainly that. As part of the Rattigan centenary celebrations at CFT, David Hare was invited to write a response to The Browning Version and the two public school-set plays were mounted together in the intimacy of the Minerva Theatre to great effect. It has now transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre (surely forever destined to be known as ‘formerly the Comedy…’) where I caught the last preview with my Aunty Jean who was down for the night.

And it was a great decision. I enjoyed Jeremy Herrin’s South Downs again, but to my mind it is The Browning Version, directed by Angus Jackson, that has become richer, deeper and thus even more heartbreaking and by any rights, ought to become one of the hottest tickets in town. My original review of the plays can be read here and the cast has transferred almost in its entirety (I think just one boy has been replaced for the West End run) so I won’t say too much more here aside from a few further reflections. Particularly, I don’t think I gave enough credit to Alex Lawther’s Blakemore and Liam Morton’s Taplow first time round, who both made their professional debut at the Minerva and who both produce empathetically balanced schoolboys with nuanced mixes of eagerness, thoughtlessness and naïveté, boyhood crushes and unaffected good-naturedness.    

Review: Afternoon Dramas - Lilo and My One and Only

Time is slipping away from me somewhat and so I’m going to cheat a little by lumping together reviews of Radio 4 Afternoon Plays into one post which might hide the fact they’re more mini-reviews than anything. I do like to diarise everything theatrical, such being the addictive nature of maintaining this blog, and so I wanted to tip the nod to these plays, Lilo by Katie Hims but particularly Dawn King’s most excellent My One and Only.

I first became aware of King with her darkly atmospheric play Foxfinder at the Finborough last year which I rather enjoyed, so was looking forward to My One and Only even before the announcement of the frankly fantabulous Katherine Parkinson as Layla, one of the lead roles in this tale about stalkerish obsessive love and the modern technological age facilitates that all too easily. A modern advancement of the epistolary form, this play is made up purely of phone calls yet King manages to build up character and mood in the most effective of manners as the tale twists and turns with jaw-dropping revelations and heart-stopping tension.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Review: Babes in Arms, Union

"I love the theatre, but I never come late”

In some ways, this tale of the exploitation of unpaid interns working in a theatre could be considered a timely revival looking at the ethics of the industry. But though that is the pretext of Babes in Arms, it is a much more whimsical piece than that - a 1937 Broadway musical from Rodgers and Hart, frothily light in plot but musically superlative in places, brimming with standards like The Lady is a Tramp, Johnny One Note and My Funny Valentine.

This production uses a revised book from 1959 by George Oppenheimer in which a team of bright young apprentices toil away at a struggling theatre, falling in and out of love with each other at the drop of a hat and secretly rehearsing a musical revue which they hope to put on. It’s undoubtedly a candy-floss ball of a plot but cheerfully and entertainingly staged in David Ball’s production with Sam Cable’s sharp 3-man band and splendidly enlivened by the interjections of Lizzi Gee’s suitcase-wielding and delightfully tap-heavy choreography.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Review: Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, Southwark Playhouse

"Laugh, you bastard, laugh. Don’t cry – they’ve won then."

In the world of up-and-coming directors, Blanche McIntyre has rightly been gaining a lot of plaudits for her work at the Finborough and beyond, but to my mind Jessica Swale is right up there with her. With her Red Handed Theatre Company, she's been building up a diverse body of work, whether turning her hand to reinvigorating classics like The Rivals and The Belle's Stratagem with a sparkling fresh modernity, or lending a clear-sighted intensity to modern plays such as Palace of the End, which genuinely has to rank as one of the best productions I have seen in recent years. Her latest production for the Southwark Playhouse fits into the second of these categories as it is a revival of Frank McGuinness' 1992 hostage drama Someone Who'll Watch Over Me.

The set-up is simple, an intense three-hander which follows the experiences of an American and an Irishman being held hostage in Lebanon, and then later an Englishman, as they while away the hours and days trying to keep their spirits up yet dogged by the horrendous uncertainty of how close they are to death. Mainly they do this through humour and  flights of fancy of the imagination - re-enacting Virginia Wade playing at Wimbledon, picking their Desert Island Discs, introducing each other to their favourite drinks from the cocktail bar, impersonating rabbits, the Queen and telling some cracking jokes. But this enforced bonhomie can only distract them from the reality of the situation for so long and fractiousness frequently raises its head alongside the despair they're all trying to hide.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Review: Autobiographer, Artsadmin

“Surely it doesn’t matter, someone will know”

As we take our seats in the dark cocoon-like space inside Toynbee Studios, we become aware of four women in similar dresses already seated. They simultaneously play Flora, the subject of Melanie Wilson’s performance poem Autobiographer, at different stages in her life which has slowly become ravaged by dementia. Layers of stories and memories , thoughts and feelings are built up as the voice of the piece glides between the performers, constantly reaching for something tangible in this disorientating chaos.

What emerges in this fractured world of memory are fragments, as if from a once-beautiful now-broken piece of pottery. On their own, their charm is obscure, elusive; as the pieces come together and the women speak in twos and threes, and then finally as we experience all six – for we eventually encounter six iterations of Flora’s persona – there’s a greater sense of what was, and what can never be again.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Review: Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, National Theatre

“I see a change in this Trinidad”

Moon on a Rainbow Shawl is a 1953 play by Trinidadian playwright Errol John which has rather fallen into neglect, due to a rough time with contemporary producers who wanted it changed. But Michael Buffong has unearthed it in its original state for the National Theatre and given the Cottesloe an intimate Caribbean-infused flavour in this rather gentle production which I found to be rather enjoyable.

We find ourselves in a run-down part of Port of Spain where a group of neighbours are introduced to us along with the travails of their lives, disrupted somewhat by the raucous  troops returning from the Second World War, as some concentrate on getting through the daily grind and others dream of escape. Two main characters exemplify these differing approaches: Martina Laird’s empathetic Sophia, a stalwart matriarch figure rooted in this homestead and whose heart beats for everyone , and Danny Sapani’s Ephraim who is determined to carve out a better life for himself in England, even as family responsibilities loom large.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Review: Misterman, National Theatre

“Do you know what I’d do if I didn't have my senses?”

There’s something to be said for a set design that can take your breath away at a theatre that one has visited many, many times, and Jamie Vartan has achieved it here with his cavernous transformation of the Lyttelton’s stage for Enda Walsh’s Misterman. It’s an effect to take in for yourselves as the safety curtain descends, so I won’t ‘spoil’ it, but it really is excellently done. And given that Walsh has written a one-man show, for friend and previous collaborator Cillian Murphy, it is a brave move but one that largely pays off as Murphy produces a performance that more than fills the space.

Thomas Magill is a disturbed young man from the small Irish town of Inishfree who is seeking sanctuary in an isolated warehouse for reasons unknown. Hyped up on vast amounts of Fanta and Jammie Dodgers that literally fall from the sky, he’s a would-be preacher who sees angels, a tortured soul who can’t deal with real life, a storyteller who takes us through the assorted characters of the local villagers whose morality, or lack thereof, he is determined to correct, as it emerges he’s telling us about the events of a particular single day.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Review: Don Giovanni, Heaven

“I showed you a life outside of the closet”

Kylie once told us ‘you’ll never get to heaven if you’re scared of getting high’ which in all honesty is less an effective way to open a review than to finally shoehorn one of my favourite pop lyrics onto this blog. The tenuous link is that this gender-switching reimagining of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni is occupying the rather unlikely surroundings of legendary gay nightspot Heaven, situated under the arches at Charing Cross on Sunday and Monday nights for the next couple of weeks.

Though one of the most popular operas in the world, it is safe to say that you probably haven’t seen a Don Giovanni like this one in Dominic Gray’s marvellous production. Relocated to the heady nightclub scene of London in 1987, this Don is more interested in tenors than sopranos and so David Collier’s book flips the gender of the majority of the characters, mixes in all kinds of sexualities in a heady brew, yet still emerges with a coherent, clear narrative for this recast story. What really makes this work spark though is Ranjit Bolt’s rejuvenated libretto.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Review: Gilead, Radio 3

“A man’s behaviour is usually consistent with his nature”

A 2004 novel by Marilynne Robinson, Gilead was adapted for radio by Mike Kenny in 2010 and it was purely by chance that I stumbled across it on the radio section of the BBC iPlayer before it dropped off – it was on on a Sunday rather bizarrely – but it was most serendipitous that I did as it had a lovely cast including Roger Allam, Elizabeth McGovern and *chorus of angels* Elliot Cowan.

The play recounts memories from Reverend John Ames and his early family life as he is aware he may not have much time left due to a dodgy heart. Having remarried and had a son late in life who is still only seven, Ames decides that the best (and only) legacy he can leave his child is this touchingly honest account of his life and in particular, his troubled relationship with his best friend’s son, Jack Boughton.

Review: Black Battles with Dogs, Southwark Playhouse

“It’s all so senseless”
Set in a white-run construction site in an unidentified African country, Bernard-Marie Koltès' Black Battles With Dogs is the latest show to move into the second space at the Southwark Playhouse. The throaty ululations of unseen native security guards (unconfirmed reports indicate the yodelling Floyd Collins may still be trapped in the Vault – after all, did we actually see his body...) calling out to each other to keep awake over a long, long night which sees Alboury, a local man, demanding the return of the body of his brother who died that day, apparently in the compound.

The weary Horn is coming to the end of his shift working for this company, he’s physically scarred and emotionally drawn, tired, grumpy and sick of this existence. But it turns out his junior colleague nervy, prejudiced Cal is the one who shot a man and disposed of him nearby and Horn is thrust into the middle of the situation to smooth it out. Matters are further complicated by the arrival of Parisienne Leonie, eminently unsuited to the area but with her eye on marrying Horn for his money. Thus the scene is set, but little really plays out from it in the end.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Review: Big and Small, Sydney Theatre Company at the Barbican

“Lotte doesn’t know what Lotte is talking about”

Anticipation can be a killer, but from the moment last year that the Barbican announced Cate Blanchett would be part of their contributions to the London 2012 Festival, I’d been über-excited to see one of my favourite film actors onstage for the first time, so much so that I spent rather a fair amount on my ticket in order to get as close as I could in the Barbican’s large theatre. Blanchett and husband Andrew Upton have spent the last three years as Artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company and it is one of their productions, co-commissioned by the Barbican and other partners, that is now stopping in London as part of an international tour.

The vehicle chosen is perhaps a bit of a surprise, given that the likes of Uncle Vanya and A Streetcar Named Desire preceded it, but it proves to be an inspired choice. Gross und Klein is a 1978 play by (West) German playwright Botho Strauss and Martin Crimp was commissioned to create a new English adaptation simply entitled Big and Small. And as the play focuses on the epic journey of Lotte as she struggles to make sense of her place in the world, we are treated to an immense performance from Blanchett as she rarely leaves the stage for the 150 minute duration.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Review: The Grand Duke, Finborough

“I’m a light-hearted girl, but I don’t chaff bogies”

Though Gilbert and Sullivan’s works enjoy enduring popularity across the country, the arbiters of taste seem to have dictated that there is little place for them in London’s theatres. So what we do get are fringe works – often highly inventive as in Sasha Regan’s all-male productions for the Union Theatre – and curiosities, as the Finborough unearths a rarely performed work from the pair, The Grand Duke, as part of their Celebrating British Music Theatre series.

Their final collaborative work, The Grand Duke or The Statutory Duel has languished on the shelves as its comparatively poor reception doomed it to an early closure and a lifetime of obscurity beckoned as the popular perception is that this show is proof positive of their degenerating creative partnership. In some ways, the argument can be made as the dialogue is creaky, the score is oft-times derivative and the hugely convoluted plot is sprawlingly bonkers. But then this is G+S that we’re talking about and to pull at the thread of either the lack of musical variety or straightforwardness of the plot is to call into question their whole oeuvre.

Cast of The Grand Duke continued

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Review: Carmen, King’s Head

“Come on Carmen, this is a joke”

OperaUpClose scored a huge success with their Olivier-award-winning production of La Bohème and since then have continued with their mandate of creating a more intimate, accessible style of opera to try and entice new and more diverse audiences. Their latest production at the King’s Head sees them turn to Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen, which has been uprooted from Spain and relocated in a modern-day North London in a world of gang-related crime. Rodula Gaitanou and Ben Cooper have penned an abbreviated new English libretto and Elspeth Wilkes’ musical direction pares the score down to piano and guitar but in the search for brevity, accessibility and relevance, far too much has been lost.

This Carmen lives in a cluttered bedsit with a group of seemingly-bohemian types who run an Oliver-style pickpocketing racket. She forms an instant connection with security guard José (who breaks up the initial singing in the pub) but when boyfriend Escamillo breaks out of jail and hatches a criminal masterplan, she is torn between the two men, between the chance of going straight or continuing a life of crime. But even with the truncated running time, the story struggles to come through. There’s little clarity in the new book, a woeful lack of characterisation to make us care about either man or Carmen for that matter and a series of question marks that plague the production, like the complete lack of explanation given for the Spanish-influenced music – having ex-con Escamillo singing ‘Toréador’ over and over is just simply bizarre.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

DVD Review: Appropriate Adult

“I'm not your friend Fred”

Not strictly a DVD review as I watched this on Netflix, finally getting round to using it having signed up a while back, and part of an impromptu Monica Dolan weekend – having seen her on stage for the first time with a magnificent turn in ChaletLines and watching a DVD of her in She Stoops To Conquer. Her role as Rose West is actually quite small across the two hour-long (ish) episodes but given how ferociously foul-mouthed and genuinely terrifying it is, this is probably a good thing.

The focus is on Fred West and Janet Leach, the trainee social worker drafted in to be the ‘appropriate adult’ whilst he is being questioned at a Gloucestershire police station on suspicion of the murder of his daughter. Her presence was requested to ensure that there could be no suggestion that West did not understand anything being asked of him, but we see a strange relationship building up between the pair even as increasingly horrific details about the number and nature of the crimes committed by the Wests came to light.

DVD Review: She Stoops to Conquer, Out of Joint/NT

"My chief aim is to take my gentleman off his guard"

This DVD of the 2003 Out of Joint/National Theatre co-production of She Stoops to Conquer has lingered in my to-watch pile for a wee while now, as the memory of the current Jamie Lloyd production at theNational has remained strong. I got round to watching it, primarily due to the thrill of finally getting to see Monica Dolan on stage in Chalet Lines at the Bush Theatre, but truth be told I should have waited, a lot longer. 

Filmed at the Theatre Royal Bath, Max Stafford-Clark’s production is far from unwatchable and is really quite good at times. But it it just felt quite tamely traditional for the most part – entirely by comparison it must be said – and misguided in the few attempts at updating it did try. Things get off to a sticky start as Jason Watkins’ manservant is lumbered with an awkward prologue which tries, and fails, to work in modern-day references effectively. Fortunately this was the only really obvious tinkering and once the play proper had started, the actors were mainly left to get about their business.

Review: Chalet Lines, Bush Theatre

“Ya wanna look out there, folk lappin’ about in the pool, holdin’ hands, not a care in this world, just row upon row of chalet lines, little boxes full up with little lives, little bits of love”

With Josie Rourke decamping to the Donmar Warehouse, the role of Artistic Director at the powerhouse of new writing that is the Bush Theatre went to Madani Younis, whose first season there has just started with this production of Lee Mattinson’s bleakly funny Chalet Lines which he also directs. Set over a 50 year period in Chalet Number 12 at Butlins Skegness, we trace the family history of four generations of the Walker women as the troubled relationship between mother and daughter seems doomed to repeat itself time and time again.

We start in the modern day with an abortive attempt at celebrating Nana Barbara’s 70
th birthday. Oldest daughter Loretta has brought along her two girls, Abigail and Jolene, to the cabin where they’ve always holidayed but things aren’t really going to plan for anyone. Relationships are horribly strained across the board and made worse by the absence of someone important and Mattinson takes us back in time to 1996 and then again to 1961 to explore the reasons for this and the deep-seated behaviour that has caused so much rancour. FYI, this was a preview.

Review: A Walk On Part, Soho Theatre

“It’s fashionable to believe that all politicians are useless”

On paper, the theatricalisation of a set of political diaries from a former Labour backbencher featuring a veritable multitude of characters from the corridors of power ought not to have worked. But the 13 years covered by A Walk On Part document the journey of New Labour from fresh-faced idealists to brow-beaten petty squabblers and our chronicler, Chris Mullin, is an insightful, frank and often brutally honest narrator who offers an illuminating view from the insider perspective of life as a working politician.

A fiercely independent mind, Mullin served as the MP for Sunderland South and skirted around the edges of power in a number of junior ministerial positions, even occupying the post of Africa minister at one point, despite being a vocal objector to the war in Iraq. But being so frequently ‘off-message’ with the powers-that-be meant his journey in Westminster was one of ups and downs. We get a taste of life too as a constituency MP in an area of the country decimated by the decline of the manufacturing industry and haunted by the endless queues of asylum-seeker cases as well as snapshots of his personal life and the impact of his career on his family.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Review: Kafka the Musical, Radio 3

“What you call the truth is just an illusion”

David Tennant won the ‘Best Actor’ award at the inaugural BBC Audio Drama Awards for his leading role in Kafka the Musical so when it popped up on the iPlayer after a repeat playing on Radio 3, I thought I’d give it a shot, especially as it also featured Jessica Raine. Murray Gold is perhaps better known as a composer, having worked on shows like Doctor Who, Shameless and Queer as Folk. He is also a playwright though, and an ambitious one too as evidenced by his, well, Kafkaesque doodlings here.

Starting from the premise that Franz Kafka is woken one day by his father to be told that a musical based on his own life is being put on and he is to star in it. Its a paid job so he takes it on but it soon turns out to be most nightmarish as the lines between real life and fiction become increasingly blurred, people from his own life appear as characters in the play – sometimes at the same time – and elements of his own work also feed into the whole thing in a big whirl of dream-like confusion where everyone seems to know more than Kafka himself.

Review: Long Day’s Journey into Night, Apollo

“None of us can help the things life has done to us. They're done before you realize it, and once they're done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you'd like to be, and you've lost your true self forever.”

In seven days time, I will have seen Cate Blanchett onstage at the Barbican and this is something that I am inordinately excited about and I’ll probably nominate her for a Best Actress fosterIAN for just simply being Cate Blanchett no matter how the show is. But in watching Eugene O'Neill's Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which has arrived at the Apollo theatre after a short UK tour, I was witness to my first cast-iron certainty for a nomination this year. Indeed, I might go as far to say that Laurie Metcalf’s extraordinary performance as Mary Tyrone is one of the greatest feats of acting I think I’ve ever seen.

The play is a portrait of a deeply troubled and traumatised Irish-American family, its four acts taking place over the length of a single day, during which lifetimes of regrets, recriminations and rancour are revealed and rehashed. Mary has just returned from a stay at the sanatorium to deal with her morphine addiction yet remains in a delicate state; her husband James is an actor whose potential has wasted away and who zealously guards the money he has earned. He has placed his hopes and dreams in his two sons but is frustrated by their lack of ambition, something underpinned by a familial tendency to alcohol abuse, and blame swirls increasingly dangerously around the drawing room.

Review: The Legend of Captain Crow’s Teeth, Unicorn

“All stories are based on some kind of truth”

The Legend of Captain Crow’s Teeth haunts the campsite where nine-year-old Will and his four brothers have spent many a family holiday. And at the Unicorn Theatre near London Bridge, Matthew Lenton has devised a family-friendly, if not just a little spooky, adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s novel of the same name which provides a welcome opportunity for a family trip during the Easter holidays.

Will’s holiday is largely spent negotiating his pesky younger brothers and their Haribo-hiding ways and trailing in awe of his older brother Marty who is awfully fond of a ghost story, especially around the glowing rocks known locally as Captain Crow’s Teeth. But the tale of the angry pirate ghost searching for the 9 year old cabin boy who killed him 300 years ago lingers long in Will’s mind and as he happens to be 9 as well, he’s more than a little anxious.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Review: Uncle Vanya, Minerva

“I could have been a Dostoevsky"

Opening the season for Chichester’s 2012 Festival, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary no less, is Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Roger Allam stars in Jeremy Herrin’s production in the Minerva studio, which utilises a translation by Michael Frayn but given that it is barely a week since I saw and adored The Print Room’s production of the same play, the bar was raised really quite high for this one. But setting productions up against each other achieves little and though my preferences ended up in West London rather than West Sussex, one can appreciate that perhaps they are attuned to different audiences.

Chekhov’s tale of a man who has spent most of his working life as the steward of his late sister’s Russian country estate but is thrown into inconsolable desolation at the realisation that he may well have wasted his life in servitude. The gloomy atmosphere pervades to encompass all the residents of the house and matters are exacerbated with the arrival of ex-brother-in-law Serebryakov, with his glamorous, much younger wife Yelena. His plans and her presence rouses the beginnings of some response but lifetimes of inaction and repression prove hard to shake off for all concerned. 

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Review: Mercury Fur, Old Red Lion

“Sarcasm will get you shot”

Philip Ridley’s ‘moment’ in London continues with this Greenhouse Theatre Company production of Mercury Fur, which follows the Arcola’s Pitchfork Disney and the Southwark Playhouse’s current Shivered and forthcoming return of Tender Napalm. This desolate tale of a society, not so different from our own, on the edge of collapse is often brutally, crushingly dark as a group of young adults make an existence for themselves in any way they can, even in the most horrifying of ways.

Tucked away in a derelict council flat, brothers Elliot and Darren are setting up for a party organised by the ruthless Spinx to fulfil the request of the ‘Party Guest’. But as it becomes clear what kind of event has been arranged and what terrible desires are being sated, the relentless drive to the disturbing climax takes an appalling twist. But even in the midst of this dystopian, drug-fuelled nightmare, Ridley offers us glimmers of hope: buds of love, friendship, tenderness poke their way through the charred remnants of this world but have to fight incredibly hard. 

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Re-review: Noises Off, Old Vic

“Once it gets in your nostrils, the smell of it never leaves”

One of the most unexpected things that happened to me in a theatre last year was me tumbling utterly for the charms of Noises Off. As detailed in my review from then, I’m really not a fan of farce but Michael Frayn’s play is so much more than what I’ve come to associate with the genre. Intelligently written in its deconstruction of it but still imbued with an affectionate warmth that shines through as this touring theatre company of misfits struggle across the country with a stuttering show which increasingly disintegrates as their shenanigans threaten to derail the whole shebang.

The show has transferred from its sell-out run at the Old Vic to the Novello Theatre where it will play til the end of June, and rather impressively it has managed to hang on to a large proportion of its cast. So one can still experience the glorious turns from Celia Imrie, Janie Dee, Karl Johnson et al and if anything, their performances have become richer in their perfectly timed interactions and comic desperation. The two new arrivals - Alice Bailey Johnson and Lucy Briggs-Owen – have slotted in extremely well. Bailey Johnson’s wailing ASM is good in a rather limited role but Brigg-Owen is excellent as the blank-eyed Brooke whose limitations are exposed as often as her contact lenses fall out.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Review: Abigail’s Party, Menier Chocolate Factory

“We’ve got whiskey, gin, vodka, whatever you like”

Whisper it quietly, but I’ve never actually seen Abigail’s Party. I came to Mike Leigh rather late and carrying so much cultural baggage and expectation with it, it’s never been a film I’ve felt a particular inclination to take in. So when the Menier Chocolate Factory announced it was producing a revival of the play, it didn’t really register on my radar of things that I needed to see. But excellent word-of-mouth and general expressions of shock that I’d never seen it before encouraged me to book a ticket when a chance visit to the theatre’s website offered up a return for sale.

Jill Halfpenny takes on Beverly, the role iconically made famous by Alison Steadman (I know that much at least) and though it is her outrageous ‘fantasticness’ that forms a large part of the play and the excruciating comedy it contains, it remains thoroughly a Mike Leigh piece at heart. So painful marital discord abounds and if the prevailing tone is comedic, it is piercingly dark and cutting. For someone watching it for the first time, I didn’t find it half as funny as nearly everyone around me.

Review: Mary Rose, Riverside Studios

“I like your spirit...”

Ghost stories are notoriously to get right on stage: the scarcity of genuinely chilling writing is often over-compensated for by productions stuffed with cheap scare tactics and thus it is a genre that I have tended to avoid. But the prospect of a classic ghost story written in 1920 by JM Barrie (with whom I share a birthday) tempted me sufficiently to book for Mary Rose at the Riverside Studios.

And on the surface, it is a conventional ghost story. We open in a creepy and creaky drawing room where a soldier returning to his childhood home from the First World War battlefields find it abandoned and laden with stories of ghosts that haunt its corridors and rooms. Through a series of flashbacks, we discover the tale of the Morland family whose daughter, the titular Mary Rose, disappears on a holiday to a remote Hebridean island only to reemerge some three weeks later as if nothing had happened. Her childlike demeanour persists into married young motherhood, but the lure of the island remains strong and on a return trip, she disappears once more, this time not returning for more than 20 years.