Saturday, 30 June 2012

Review: The Tempest, RSC at the Roundhouse

"Do not torment me, prithee"

Last up in the RSC's Shipwreck Trilogy, in the What country friends is this? season was The Tempest. In some ways I wish I'd seen this closer to The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night (which I saw on consecutive days in June) as the thrill of watching an ensemble across multiple plays is magnified much more that way. As it was, my enthusiasm for The Tempest - never one of my favourite Shakespeares and now totally ruined by the fact that I've now seen what will probably the best version ever -  had waned slightly as I returned to the Roundhouse.

The reality was neither as bad as I had feared nor as good as I might have hoped. David Farr's production (I wish they'd gotten in a third director to really mix things up) has its moments of  inspiration and interest, but these are scattered throughout rather than invigorating the whole show and so my abiding feeling was of unevenness. For the great visual impact of Prospero having the islanders dress in identikit suits, little is done to enliven the immense amount of speechifying that the character does, Jonathan Slinger's performance having a strangely unnerving impact more than anything.

Cast of The Tempest continued

Friday, 29 June 2012

Review: The Only True History of Lizzie Finn, Southwark Playhouse

"They must be her winter knickers..."

Perhaps better known as a novelist (A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture have both been Booker-nominated), Sebastian Barry’s 1995 play The Only True History of Lizzie Finn receives its UK premiere here at the Southwark Playhouse in a production by award-winning director Blanche McIntyre. Having carved a niche for herself as the most celebrated dancer in Weston-Super-Mare, Lizzie Finn finds herself swept off her feet by an Irish soldier returning from the Boer War. Despite their completely different backgrounds, they return to their homeland anticipating married bliss but at a time when changes in the land laws are causing huge societal changes in Ireland, life is far from easy. 

The play is not without its challenges. Made up of sequences of short scenes, sometimes just a few lines long, the rhythm of the production is something that takes getting used to: James Perkins’ design of wide steps, whilst effectively evoking the seafront, doesn’t seem particularly well-suited to the format. But in the rather impressionistic approach by McIntyre, moments of visual grace emerge from these scenes, like embers spiralling out of the fire, flashing brightly and disappearing into the dark. I particularly loved the doubling of actors at the Castlemaine’s dinner party to create a witty echoing of an earlier scene. 

Review: The Starry Messenger, Duke of York’s

“Ian, your input is much appreciated”
There’s something deliciously indulgent about rehearsed readings, especially those connected with the Royal Court that I’ve been able to attend. Frequently held during the working day and peopled with fascinating casts, they offer a different, more relaxed take on theatre but one which can be equally interesting. This time round, the Royal Court have put together a programme called Playwrights’ Playwrights, inviting writers who have worked at the Sloane Square venue to direct some of their favourite plays in rehearsed (albeit only for a day) readings at their adopted West End home, the Duke of York’s. First up was Nick Payne, who chose Kenneth Lonergan’s The Starry Messenger, a play which hasn’t been seen in the UK before.
Centred on the rather gloomy astronomy lecturer Mark and the way his life suddenly changes after a chance encounter with a young mother after one of his classes, Lonergan’s play looks at a quietly normal group of people and how the ripples of the ensuing affair affects all their lives. Mark’s marriage to Angela has stagnated, his son barely talks to him, his colleagues are succeeding professionally where he is not, but meeting Angela changes something fundamental in him. She has her own trials, a single mother balancing work with training to become a nurse, but also finds the potential for some answers to the larger questions in her life in her connection with Ben. Lonergan has a beautiful way with the minutiae of everyday life, teasing out beautiful comedy from the simplest of conversations and interactions but never hiding the sadness that lies at the heart of so many of these characters. Consequently, I pretty much loved this play.  

Interview: Blanche McIntyre

Something of a departure for me, my first ever interview, originally written for The Public Reviews. McIntyre is a director I've admired for a couple of years now and so I was quite keen to take us this opportunity when it presented itself.

Waiting for Blanche McIntyre to emerge from the Whitechapel rehearsal room where The Only True History of Lizzie Finn is having its first run-through, I glance over my notes and a little incongruity makes me smile. Her presence as a director to watch was firmly announced when she won the 2011 Critics’ Circle Most Promising Newcomer award for her work at the Finborough, yet she’s been directing since 2000. When we meet, she agrees that recognition was perhaps a long time coming but that she was extremely well served by a long, long apprenticeship which was the best possible preparation for her career.

A further examination of her CV demonstrates a tendency for working in more intimate theatres - the Finborough, the Union, Southwark Playhouse, the Cock Tavern; even her West End debut was in the intimate Studio 2 at Trafalgar Studios. I ask what draws her to these dark, intimate places. “There’s a grubby reason and a soulful reason,” she says. “The reality is that it costs a lot less, and when I was starting out, I was doing it all myself so it made it that much more affordable. But I also love the idea of the audience sitting right in there, in the action – it’s a great artistic challenge for the actors and there’s a real reward in how much more connected the audience feel.”

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Review: Fear, Bush Theatre

“There’s a difference to what you say and what you really mean”
I’ve spoken before about the frustration that sometimes pops up when a designer has run wild with their imagination but apparently forgotten to take into account the fact that an audience should be able to see what is going on (The Changeling), but I’d never thought about what it must feel like for an actor to work in unconventional surroundings until I saw Fear at the Bush Theatre. takis’ set makes much use of clear plastic panels, indeed the rear wall of the playing area has three of these which provides aesthetic interest, but prove rather tricky to negotiate in the blackouts between scenes, as Rupert Evans found out to  his cost when he face-planted right into one of them at the end of a moving scene. Unfortunately this was the most interesting thing about the production for me.
Fear is Dominic Savage’s debut play, and my heart sank a little bit when I read that he was directing his own work, as the introduction of another creative presence is often invaluable to the development of a piece. That said, there are moments of raw power that emerge from this story of what happens when two very different sides of London clash, especially in the decision to have its main protagonist, rude boi Kieran, directly addressing the audience, sizing them up as his next potential victims for a spot of street robbery with his devoted lackey Jason. And as we get hints of the domestic strife that drives Kieran’s vicious anger, we also meet city banker Gerald whose personal and professional lives are most definitely on the up.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Review: Kiss Me, Kate, Chichester Festival Theatre

"But when the thermometer goes right up, and the weather is sizzling hot..."

So confident in their run of successful summer musicals is Chichester Festival Theatre that the transfer for Kiss Me, Kate (it will play at co-producers London's Old Vic from 20th November to 2nd March) was announced before it had even opened at its native theatre. But with experienced hands Trevor Nunn directing and Stephen Mears choreographing, Cole Porter's ever-spry music and a cast headed up by leading light of the British musical theatre scene Hannah Waddingham, it was a reasonably safe bet.

And unsurprisingly, it is one that has paid off. The show follows a theatre company putting on a musical version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, where the feisty relationship between Petruchio and Katherine is echoed by the conflict between director and leading man Fred and his ex-wife Lilli who is playing opposite him. As the offstage drama threatens to overwhelm the onstage, some shenanigans from another member of the company in a gambling room throws matters further into disarray. 

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Re-review: Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee, ENO at the Coliseum

“This is the language of heaven”

It wasn’t intention to revisit Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee now it has arrived at the ENO’s home at the Coliseum, but as I haven’t learned to respond to any offer along the lines of “I have a spare ticket…” in anything but the affirmative, that was where I ended up tonight. I actually caught this show last year when it premiered as part of the Manchester International Festival (review can be read here) and though my feelings were decidedly mixed, they were generally positive, especially given that the work was still raw and fresh, only having recently come out of workshopping. A year down the line, changes have been made to the show, but I have to admit that my feelings were still largely quite ambivalent.

Based on the historically significant, if neglected, figure of Elizabethan Dr John Dee, Albarn and director Rufus Norris have created something of a spectacle, but even after the refinements that have been made, it remains something of a perplexing piece. Dee’s biography reads as a thing of great fascination, a key advisor to Elizabeth I, he was a man whose extraordinary breadth of knowledge took in astrology, alchemy, philosophy, mathematics and much more besides but when this unquenchable thirst lead him to increasingly dabble in the occult, he sowed the seeds of his own downfall. But you would be hard-pressed to gather much of this from the events onstage.

Cast of Kiss Me Kate continued

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Review: Little Women in concert, Playhouse

“Little women grow"
Little Women is one of those enduring classic stories that has continued to resonate with people whether through its published form or on the screen with several fairly well-received televisual and film adaptations. It hasn’t quite managed to make the same leap theatrically though, numerous stage treatments have tried and there’s at least two musical versions – one of which played at the LOST Theatre just last year – to which can be added one more, this time by Steven Luke Walker. Walker chose to showcase his adaptation through the medium of the Sunday evening concert, taking advantage both of the empty Playhouse Theatre and the free nights of many a West End performer to put on something of an all-star show.
Louisa May Alcott’s tale of the lives and loves of four New England sisters may be set during the American Civil War, but there’s a homespun simplicity to their overlapping stories which remain firmly in the personal sphere. Walker’s music has perhaps a more contemporary feel than one might have expected but it attempts to evoke the right spirit across a number of genres. In some cases, he has hit the nail on the head with twinkling gems like First Impressions, Helena Blackman delivering comedy perfectly, and the soaring duet between Sarah Lark and Nikki Davis-Jones, both in gorgeous form. Elsewhere though, other songs felt like they needed to be much more tightly focused, Walker indulging in a few too many purely decorative vocal riffs and frequently allowing songs to drag on a little too long. Overall though, I found Walker’s music rather agreeable and most aptly for a show about sisterhood, he is most adept at writing beautifully for multiple voices.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Review: Birthday, Royal Court

"It's not the same for a man..."

It is a rare treat these days to be able to go into a show not knowing a huge amount about it and so it was with Birthday, just opening for previews now at the Royal Court. The reveal of the central premise was a great surprise and to be honest, if you don't know it yet and are going to see it soon (although I imagine once it opens it will become impossible to avoid) I'd recommend leaving yourself unspoiled (and then of course coming back to read this later, hehe.)

Set in a modern-day maternity hospital, Ed and Lisa are having their second child, but in this world there are considerably more options open to them and given the difficult circumstances surrounding the birth of Charlie, they have opted for one of these. Thus playwright Joe Penhall takes us on a 90 minute journey through a somewhat alternative view of childbirth, and how men and women deal with it differently, to sometimes comic and sometimes perplexing effect. 

Review: The Witness, Royal Court

"You are going to see things that are going to hurt you"

Vivienne Franzmann's first, Bruntwood-winning, play Mogadishu was a deserved success last year and so her follow-up work for the Royal Court, The Witness, was something I was most definitely looking forward to. And as one enters the upstairs theatre with one of the cleverest and most ingenious in-the-round designs I've seen (has anyone done that before?) from Lizzie Clachan, anticipation was certainly high.

Joseph is a war photographer who is now living a quieter life in Hampstead, still processing the grief of becoming a widower and waiting for the return of his adoptive daughter Alex from her first year at Cambridge. He rescued her from the scene of a war crime in Rwanda and changed her life dramatically, but her time away has raised serious questions of identity for her and so her father decides to reveal a secret he has been keeping for a while...

Friday, 22 June 2012

Review: The Fix, Union Theatre

"Is it possible to be drunk and have a hangover at the same time"

Staged and directed at the Union Theatre by Michael Strassen, whose award-winning production of Assassins played here in 2010, the plot of The Fix follows the Chandlers, a Kennedy-esque dynasty of political players. When presidential hopeful Senator Reed Chandler pops his clogs in flagrante with a lady other than his wife, the family's attention turns to Cal, his layabout playboy son. Mother Violet, a gin-sozzled matriarch, and uncle Grahame, a crippled gay Machiavelli, groom him to take up the family mantle but Cal is a reluctant politico, seeking refuge in drugs and extra-marital affairs. And as the stakes get higher the further into government he rises, the more dangerous it gets for those skeletons in the closet.  

Composed by Dana P Rowe and with book and lyrics from John Dempsey, the 1997 show unfortunately occupies an uneasy middle ground between trying to tell the story above, yet simultaneously make satirical digs at the political classes, and I am not sure that it does either particularly well. It is therefore to their credit that the lead players, under Strassen's careful direction, manage to tease as much out of their characters as they do. 

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Review: Utopia, Soho Theatre

“We know that there’s another way…we just not sure where it is”

What is Utopia? Defining the hopes and dreams of a perfect world has occupied writers for hundreds of years and in this co-production between Newcastle’s Live Theatre and the Soho Theatre, contemporary writers have also been asked to explore their own takes on the concept, blueprints for future happiness, which have been woven altogether by Steve Marmion and Max Roberts in this ambitious, if unwieldy production.

In a strange grey room, six pierrots work their way through the different blueprints, working through the various scenarios to see if any of them actually do lead to the promised land. Some are funny and satirical as in the warlord discovering the power of Facebook or the old-school stand-up whose jokes fall flat in a world of perfect harmony. And some are more serious, as the authors probe the idea of utopian ideals arising out of  less-than-perfect situations, acts of self-sacrifice and tender kindness coming out of the blue.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Review: The Last of the Haussmans

“’Mixed family’ this one says. Something of an understatement”
Sometimes you get to end of a show and just think ‘this is why I come to the theatre’. To be accurate it was my companion for the evening who said it but I was thinking the same thing (honest!) as the company for The Last of the Haussmans took their extremely well-deserved bows. In something of a coup for writer Stephen Beresford, his first play has been given a home in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre and with the kind of superlative cast that most dream of: Julie Walters, Rory Kinnear and, in the most exciting development for yours truly, Helen McCrory. Fortunately, the play lives up to the billing and for me, it was one of the most exhilarating pieces of new writing I have seen for quite some time.  
When ageing hippy Judy is diagnosed with cancer, her children return to their Devon homestead to be with her, but this is no sweet family reunion. Recently dumped Libby is embittered about the world, a trait passed onto her stroppy daughter Summer, and seemingly more interested in the prospects of her inheritance and her gay, former junkie brother Nick’s unanchored lifestyle shows no real signs of abating either. Over a few months, the three generations of Haussmans prowl around each other, dissecting the legacy left behind for them in a life full of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll and giving us a delicious insight into how the 60s didn’t quite swing the right way for everyone.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Review: The Prophet, Gate Theatre

"Who will win in a free and fair election?"

Vinegar, Pepsi and onions. The things one learns at the theatre are many and varied but having seen The Prophet at the Gate Theatre, I now know three ways to counteract the effects of tear gas. With the fresh turmoil of the Egyptian presidential election and a military -enforced constitutional crisis, Hassan Abdulrazzak's new play arrives with impeccable timing. Set in the middle of the Arab Spring in a Cairo bubbling with possibility of significant change and all the danger it brought with it, he uses this as a backdrop to explore the lives of people living in the middle of it.

Hisham and Layla have been married for seven years but things are going stale. He's struggling with writer's block but having his head turned by interest from glamourous Western literary agents; she's an engineer, fending off her amorous boss even as she feels utterly neglected in the marital bed. Initially, the incipient revolution seems like an unwanted distraction from their comfortable liberal lives but as it awakens Layla's nascent political activism and Hashim's imagination flips into fevered overdrive, their own well-buried secrets threaten as seismic a change as the overthrow of the Mubarak regime.     

Monday, 18 June 2012

Revew: Yes Prime Minister, Trafalgar Studios

"Do we have to deal with this tonight?"

When it was first announced that Yes Prime Minister would be returning to the London stage, the question 'who hasn't seen it yet?!' was not unreasonably raised. (The answer, of course, was me, presumably amongst others.) Since opening in Chichester in 2010, it has played the West End twice and toured the UK twice but in shaky economic times, exacerbated by the unknown quantity of how the Olympics will actually affect audiences, the Trafalgar Studios have plumped for a return for this safe banker, which is currently booking til the 12th January 2013.

And safe it is. An update of the classic TV programme by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, the pair crafted a contemporaneous version of their story which captures the main themes of ministerial ineptitude and the enduring survival and influence of the Civil Service. PM Jim Hacker is sequestered at Chequers in the midst of a conference and surrounded by gloomy news. When a chink of light appears in the form of a lucrative oil deal, hopes are raised but the offer comes with an enormous string attached and Hacker and his team are forced to balance ethics and morals with the potential deal of a lifetime.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Review: Democracy, Old Vic

“That’s why I love mushrooms – you pick them, pickle them and eat them”

There’s apparently no predicting the way in which theatrical transfers work (apart from if we’re talking about Chichester musicals…). I can’t imagine the logistics involved in securing the necessary financial support, keeping the cast onboard and finding the ideal venue but perhaps more significantly, I’ve no concept of how the conversations begin. In some cases it seems a no-brainer, as in the aforementioned big-hitting Chichester musicals and indeed plays; in others, it seems easily misjudged, cf Written on the Heart;  and then there’s the others, in which a perfect confluence of factors enable a well-received production to make the relocation.

It is probably the latter of these options in the case of Democracy, one of the three Michael Frayn plays that made up Sheffield Theatre’s celebration of his work earlier this year (Copenhagen and Benefactors were the others), which has now transferred to the Old Vic. On the face of it, it may not be the most appealing of prospects, a play based on real-life events in West German politics in the 1970s but what emerges is a sweeping spy thriller full of political intrigue and historical significance, which is all the more compelling for being true.  

DVD Review: The Jury (Series 2)

“He did do it, didn’t he?“

One of the side-effects of seeing so much theatre is that there is less time available to imbibe other forms of culture and for me, it has meant that I watch hardly any television these days. I rely on the iPlayer (although too much of what I download ends up lingering unwatched and then expiring) and other catch-up TV services, or else I add the DVD to my ever-growing pile of things to watch on a rare quiet day. Which means it frequently takes me ages to catch up, even with things that I am most looking forward to, one of which was the second series of Peter Morgan’s The Jury which played on ITV last year.

To be honest, calling it a second series is something of a misnomer as it bears no real connection to the first one from 2002, aside from being a show about a jury, which is something of a shame as that show remains one of the televisual highlights of my life. It was one of the shows that introduced me to love of my life Helen McCrory and also featured a smoking hot pre-Hollywood Gerard Butler, but also played out as a rather satisfying combination of character study and legal drama. This time round, the case in question was a retrial of a triple murder, but the focus is as much on the lives of the twelve people eventually selected as jurors. I’m not quite sure why Morgan decided to revisit the format, as in the end it was to somewhat lesser effect for me.

Review: Publish and Be Damn’d – The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson / Philip and Sydney, Radio 4

“What next, dear reader?”

Every time I think I won’t bother listening to any more radio productions, something irresistible pops up and so it was last week when the first part of Publish and Be Damn’d – The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson was on Radio 4, with Nancy Carroll in the leading role and Charles Edwards and Anna Francolini among the supporting cast. A real life memoir of a scandalous courtesan from the early 19th century, Wilson’s was probably one of the first tell-all books which laid bare the shenanigans and proclivities of much of the ruling patriarchal elite and proved to be a bestselling hit with a public who lapped up its details voraciously.

Adapted most effectively here by Ellen Dryden, Carroll takes on the role of Wilson as both narrator and agent within the stories she tells which means we get huge amounts of her mellifluously beautiful voice and acres of gorgeous characterisation as Harriette negotiates the step from lover to lover, adroitly managing the simultaneous social climb but not always able to keep her emotions from being bruised. She’s also an excellently charismatic narrator, her matter-of-fact-ness about her lack of writing experience deliciously conversational.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Review: Spinach, King’s Head

"I don’t remember how I got here”
Written by Janine Waters and composed by Simon Waters, Spinach defines itself as a sung play. Just 80 minutes long, its every word is sung to music though predominantly in recitative style, reflecting the ebb and flow of everyday speech, rather than through a set of songs as in a traditional musical. This Waters Edge production premiered in Manchester’s Royal Exchange Studio last year and has brought with it one of its original cast members as it starts up a run at the King’s Head Theatre Pub in Islington.
The show begins with Tom and Kate waking up tied together in the cellar of a house, unable to recollect how they got there and seemingly unaware of who the other person is as they slowly realise that they have been drugged. As they ask questions of each other and as flashes of memory come back to them, the pair start to piece together clues about what has happened to them and why, uncovering a tale which twists and turns in the quirkiest of manners.

Not-a-Review: Summer and Smoke, Southwark Playhouse

"The girl who said ‘No’, she doesn't exist anymore, she died last summer – suffocated in smoke from something on fire inside her."

Yet another rarely performed Tennessee Williams play has made its way onto the London fringe, in this case it is a short run of Summer and Smoke at the Southwark Playhouse. But it was in the Vault rather than the main house and directed by Rebecca Fricknell with little appreciation for the acoustics of this particularly unforgiving space (which as a deaf person I have previously found to be rather challenging) and so after suffering with not being able to hear much of what was going on or indeed figure out what was happening, I bailed at the interval. If you want to know what it was like, read this review instead.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 30th June

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Review: Twelfth Night, RSC at the Roundhouse

“I am as well in my wits, fool, as thou art”
What country friends is this? indeed. A nifty line switch and a striking coup-de-théâtre gets the RSC’s Twelfth Night off to a wonderful start as Emily Taaffe’s sodden, anguished Viola emerges from the shipwreck she believes has taken her brother’s life and left her washed up in Illyria. Disguising herself as Cesario, a man, she joins the retinue of the Duke Orsino but finds herself swept up in the love games between him and the grieving countess Olivia, whose eye is taken by the new arrival on the scene. Part of the company’s Shakespeare’s Shipwreck Trilogy, the Roundhouse plays host to the repertory season for just under a month before returning to Stratford-upon-Avon for the rest of the month. 
David Farr’s production transfers the majority of the action in Olivia’s household to a Greek hotel (which she presumably owns) which proves a mostly effective and ingenious relocation. Malvolio becomes the hotel manager, Feste the old school variety turn, a reception desk stands in for the box-tree and the swimming pool and revolving doors provide constant amusement. Jon Bausor’s beautifully designed set is actually a triumph, an artfully exploded hotel suite on the sweeping expanse of timber atop a water tank, complete with working lift shaft which comes into its own in the scenes of Malvolio’s torment.

Cast of Twelfth Night continued

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Review: The Comedy of Errors, RSC at the Roundhouse

“I will go lose myself and wander up and down to view the city”
The endless whirl of festivals continues apace with the return of the RSC to its adopted London home at the Roundhouse. As part of the World Shakespeare Festival, which in turn is part of the London 2012 Festival, the RSC’s Shipwreck Trilogy brings together one company and two directors over three plays which are bound together through their similarities, entitled What Country Friends Is This?. First up is Palestinian director Amir Nizar Zuabi’s take on The Comedy of Errors, a fresh and frenetic romp through the play which, whilst it may lack some poetry, has been invested with a great energy.
Ruled over by a maniacal gun-toting Duke, it is instantly clear that this Ephesus is a dangerous place in which the threat of death is ever-present and a genuine reality. Onto a grim looking quayside, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse are deposited as illegal immigrants in the elusive search for their twin brothers from whom they were separated in a shipwreck. Unbeknownst to them, they’ve alighted in the right place but almost immediately they are mistaken for their Ephesan brothers and brings into motion a hectic tale of misunderstandings and madcap capers.

Cast of The Comedy of Errors continued

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Review: The Physicists, Donmar Warehouse

“Questions? Observations? Misgivings?"

Forming the final entry in her debut season as Donmar AD, The Physicists continues Josie Rourke’s realignment of the Donmar’s artistic policy. And as with Making Noise Quietly, it is into previously unknown areas for me as this play was written in 1962 by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt (although Rourke commissioned a new version here from Jack Thorne), someone I’ve never previously heard of. Wikipedia informs me he was a proponent of epic theatre but what it translates to here is a tragi-comedy with a farcical first half, which darkens to a more serious second which reflects its Cold War origins.

It starts off like the punchline to a joke: three nuclear physicists are in a mental asylum. Herbert Georg Beutler, who believes he is Sir Isaac Newton, Ernst Heinrich Ernesti who is convinced he is Albert Einstein and Johann Wilhelm Möbius who has regular visitations from King Solomon. It emerges that the first two have murdered their nurses and that Möbius seems set to follow suit, but as the reasons for their actions slowly become apparent, it is clear that something greater is at stake here.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Review: Love Love Love, Royal Court

"We never intended to be in this domestic situation"

Though it matters to few people, I'm never quite sure when to label something a re-review or not when I've previously seen the show albeit in a different incarnation. I first saw Mike Bartlett's Love Love Love in November 2010 when Paines Plough took it on a small UK tour and I made the trip to Manchester to take in my first experience of the studio space at the Royal Exchange to be blown away by the show, which came 4th out of 270-odd plays for me that year. It toured again last year, though I was so fond of the original cast that I decided not to see it again and even when the Royal Court announced that it would play in the main house, I resisted for the longest time until I was offered a ticket for the final performance by a friend who offered me gin.

My original review can be read here and I'm not going to rehash what's in there as the play remained substantially the same (plus the run has now finished), so I will confine myself to just a few remarks (for once) about the differences in productions, which have also come from conversations with others. The most significant change was in the casting of the two leads Kenneth and Sandra: I saw John Heffernan and Daniela Denby-Ashe who were probably closest in age to the first act and so the progression of their ageing across the three acts felt most natural. Here, Ben Miles and Victoria Hamilton are most at home in the middle act, which means they had to act down quite considerably in the first act which I found to be really rather distracting. The flipside to that of course was a greater authority later on, especially from the superlative Hamilton.

Review: The Hairy Ape, Southwark Playhouse

"Dat's de stuff! Let her have it! All togedder now! Sling it into her! Let her ride! Shoot de piece now! Call de toin on her! Drive her into it! Feel her move! Watch her smoke!"

I loved Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie at the Donmar last year and thought his Long Day's Journey Into Night was truly exceptional when I caught it earlier this year, so the prospect of one of his lesser known works - The Hairy Ape - at the ever-inventive Southwark Playhouse was one that intrigued and so I let myself be talked into catching it just before it closed. It is definitely closer to the former of the above-mentioned plays in its primal expressionism, tales of the sea and the search for belonging.

In the engine room of a transatlantic liner, Yank is the king of his world, leading his team of workers as they shovel away. His certainties are stripped away when a young upper class lady makes her way below-deck, leaving shocked and horrified at what she sees but opening Yank's eyes to life beyond what he knows. His reaction is to try to find out what disgusts her but he soon discovers that she represents a whole world that doesn't or won't accept him.

O'Neill's scene structure is quite choppy and so director Kate Budgen has adopted a physically compelling aesthetic with stylised movement and repeated actions working up and down Jean Chan's transverse set which is bisected in the middle to create a cross. So the play frequently looks good and in Bill Ward's powerfully drawn lead role, it pulses with a raw energy as Yank's journey becomes increasingly fuelled by more desperate emotions. I have to admit to having frequent problems with understanding what he was saying though, O'Neill's dialect was frequently close to impenetrable (especially when I couldn't lip-read which was often, given the nature of the staging).

It was made worse by the fact that no-one else in the cast was using the same inflection and were mostly very clearly-spoken. Most people took on multiple roles but I did particularly like Patrick Myles, Gary Lilburn and Mark Weinman and found Emma King an intriguing presence. And overall, it was an intriguing piece too, a welcome opportunity to delve further into the work of a playwright who hasn't necessarily been that well-represented in London over the past few years.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 9th June

Friday, 8 June 2012

Review: Henry V, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Must I bite?”
Marking the final entry in the Globe to Globe festival is the UK with this production of Henry V which reunites Jamie Parker with the role of Prince Hal that he played in 2010’s Henry IV Part I and II. The boy has now become king and the play covers his attempt to reconquer the English gains in France, most notably at the battle of Agincourt, and his growth into a leader who can inspire men to follow their duty to their country. Parker clearly has a close affinity to this character and it was a clever move to wait a couple of years before taking on this particular part as he is able to bring even more clear-spoken gravitas, colour and detail to this very human king.
Around him though, is a production by Dominic Dromgoole which errs very strongly towards the broadest crowd-pleasing comedy it can manage. Bríd Brennan’s beautifully versed Chorus and Olivia Ross’ poised Princess Katherine impressed as did the multi-part antics of Chris Starkie and Beruce Khan (additionally stepping in as understudy for an indisposed Matthew Flynn). But too often, the overreliance on the comic tone just fell flat for me. The Pistol, Bardolph et al antics were as bawdy as they have ever been, which ended up undermining their darker side (is the treatment of the French soldier really a subject of comedy?) and the tragedy of their fates (Boy is particularly hard done by).

Cast of Henry V continued

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Review: Sister Act the Musical, New Wimbledon

“When I was still a school girl, standing just about yay high,I saw the face of Jesus in a coconut cream pie."

I have to admit to being a little sceptical when I first heard that Sister Act the musical would be touring the UK. Its run in the West End was relatively well-received (not least by me, twice) but the show itself lacked a certain something to match up to the star quality of its cast, so I was pleased to hear both that this touring production was a reworked version and some excellent word-of-mouth in advance of its arrival at the New Wimbledon.

And it was good word indeed as I really enjoyed the show third time around. An adaptation of the film of the same name in which Delores van Cartier, a nightclub singer, has to enter a witness protection programme which places her in a threatened Philadelphia convent much to her chagrin. But disguised as Sister Mary Clarence and appointed to the head of the dodgy choir which she soon whips into shape, she effects remarkable change on those around her which in turn raises their profile, jeopardising the whole undercover operation and everyone’s safety on the very day the Pope is coming to hear them sing.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Review: Volcano, Richmond Theatre

“The most beautiful thing about having people to stay is when they leave.”

There's always a danger, when delving into the realms of rarely-produced works by playwrights in the hope of unearthing of a gem, of forgetting that there are often good reasons why some plays gather dust on a shelf even whilst others are regularly revived. It is currently Noël Coward's turn to have his back catalogue exhumed, in the form of this touring production of the 1956 play Volcano but though it is an addition to Coward's oeuvre that might be appreciated by completists, it can hardly be said to be a salutary contribution to his legacy.  

The warning signs are there: the play was never performed in Coward's lifetime (programme notes suggest it would have been too frank for the censors but the play didn't even get that far as it was turned down flat by his producer) despite being written nearly 20 years before his death and came at a time when he had just become a tax exile, having moved to Jamaica amidst a cluster of colonial celebrity chums whose intrigues could well have inspired the events of seen here.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Open Air Theatre

"Out of this wood do not desire to go"

As the first of Shakespeare's works that I ever read and studied, I will always have a great affection for A Midsummer Night's Dream and to this day, it has endured as probably my favourite of his plays. Something about its otherworldly (dream-like...) free-spiritedness really appeals to me, meaning there's little of the suspension of disbelief often necessary to make the contrivances of his other comedies work, and it is a play robust enough to take many an interpretation, whether raucuous reinventions by Filter or Propeller, last year's clever open air take by Iris Theatre or more classically inspired ones like the Rose Kingston's Judi Dench-starring version from 2010. It is now the turn of Regent's Park Open Air Theatre to revisit the show (though this was my first experience of it here) with a startlingly modern interpretation as it plays in rep with Ragtime, with which it shares much of its cast, over the summer.

First things first, this was a preview, the second I believe and due to the rain on Saturday, actually the first full run-through. Things begin with some pre-show business bustling about the trailer park set, reminiscent of the Dale Farm site with travellers squaring up to each other and to the encroaching building contractors, it sets the scene well but goes on a wee bit too long for too little effect in all honesty. But once the play proper starts with its arresting, punchy modernity, Matthew Dunster's exceptionally well-balanced production clicks smoothly into gear, folding in classical references to this fresh new take and delving into some extremely dark places alongside the oft-times hilarious humour.  

Cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream continued

Cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream continued

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Jubilee Weekend

If you were to ask me, I wouldn't really consider myself that much of a monarchist. Yet every time I mentioned this to anyone as they asked me what my plans for the Jubilee Weekend were, they laughed in my face and said I am one of the biggest they know! I suppose the truth lies somewhere in-between the two: normally I don't have much of an opinion on the Royal Family aside from thinking they are pretty much fine as they are, but what I do have a problem with is strident republicanism and so I will not hesitate to jump in and defend them when people start calling for them to be abolished. If you don't care for the Royals then that is fine, but I don't see why everyone else has to do without to fit your viewpoint.

In any case, I will be at Birmingham Pride for most of the long weekend, so won't be participating in any Jubilee fun, so here is my contribution - reviews of three Royal-related DVDs. Enjoy!

DVD Review: The Queen

"Duty first, self second"

I hadn't watched the film of The Queen since seeing it at the cinema back when it was released in 2006 and I have to say I quite enjoyed watching it again. Watching it at a time when admiration for the monarch is rather high given the celebration of her 50 years of service, it is a little hard to credit the way in which public opinion swung so viciously against her and the Royal Family in the aftermath of the death of Diana Princess of Wales and the hugely unexpected outpouring of public grief. Peter Morgan depicts a fictional account of the events that followed, though with so much still fresh in the mind, and documentary footage included in Stephen Frear's film, there's a sometimes uneasy mix of truth and fiction.

Central to the film is of course Helen Mirren's Oscar-winning turn as the monarch, completely caught unawares by the shift in public mood and unable to seek refuge in the comfort of age-old protocol as the hands-on government of Tony Blair demands a different way of reacting than she has ever been used to before. Mirren is undoubtedly excellent, steering clear of outright impersonation and finding a vein of dry wit which makes the quieter moments of the film some of the best. She is aided by Michael Sheen returning to the role of Tony Blair, which he really has now made his own, as the PM who seizes the moment to lead the country and is determined to take the monarchy with him, kicking and screaming into a new era.

The film is perhaps weaker when it is reaching for moments of gravitas yet stops short of actually putting words into the Queen's mouth. Thus we end up with a great line in inscrutable looks but little real sense of a person beneath the crown or any sense of the true human cost either of this particular crisis or her entire way of life. So a certain sense of emotional distance persists throughout the film, but in the end this is probably for the best as any attempt to flesh out the Queen herself would have come across as crass, barely credible and surely beyond the rescue of even as accomplished an actress as Mirren.,

The film is also brimming with theatrical spots: the blessed Helen McCrory gives us her Cherie, James Cromwellhis Prince Philip, Alex Jennings his Prince Charles and Mark Bazeley his Alastair Campbell in three of my favourites. Roger Allam, Robin Soans, Tim McMullan and Gray O'Brien pop up in various guises around the palace. So a film that has largely endured well and at such an apposite time to revisit it, it went down rather well. I'm not sure if it has attained the classic status that means I would rush to see it again any time soon but if like me you haven't seen it since it was released in the cinema, I'd say it is worth the time.

DVD Review: Wallis and Edward

"You're 'never' off duty"

Taking the well known story of the Abdication Crisis, Wallis and Edward - an ITV TV movie from 2005 - professes to be the first to tell it from the point of view of Mrs Simpson. It's potentially an interesting approach but one which emerges to be riddled with difficulties in the telling here. Picking up the story from the point at which the affair started with Edward as the Prince of Wales and Wallis still married to her second husband, it progresses through the 1930s as their affair became more involved and problematic as he acceded to the throne in the knowledge that royal protocol would never allow the relationship to continue.

The problem is that it never really becomes an involving love story. Not all relationships that start from adulterous beginnings are doomed, but they do need to work rather harder to convince of their legitimacy (for want of a better term) and that doesn't really happen here. Joely Richardson's Wallis is extremely brittle and Stephen Campbell Moore's Edward the epitome of clipped English royalty but in Sarah Williams' writing, there never really emerged a love story that I could get behind and so it became a rather dull watch.

DVD Review: The Queen's Sister

"You will not menace the House of Windsor"

Lucy Cohu has the dubious pleasure of being one of the few women I would probably turn for,  she radiates an old-school glamour and sensuality that I find near-irresistable and I've loved the few stage performances of hers I have been able to catch (Speaking in Tongues, Broken Glass and A Delicate Balance). So I was quite happy to take in the Channel 4 television movie The Queen's Sister, in which she took the lead role of Princess Margaret, in the name of the Jubilee Weekend ;-)

It's a semi-fictionalised account of her life by Craig Warner (although knowing so little of the reality, I couldn't have told you what was real and what wasn't) which focuses on her struggles against the establishment as she followed a life of largely wanton hedonism and leaving a trail of paramours behind her. Whether her previously married lover whom she was forbidden from wedding, the long-suffering husband prone to infidelity, the young pop singer who offers a faint hope of redemption, her relentless partying, fondness of always having a drink in her hand and general spoiltness consistently makes life difficult for herself.

Cast of The Queen's Sister continued