Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Review: Cuttin' It, Young Vic

"We have done it for so long. It is who we are. It has to happen"

A play about FGM - female genital mutilation - could never be easy to watch, it should never be easy to watch. But the genius of Charlene James' Cuttin' It - initially written for radio and now expanded with direction from Gbolahan Obisesan - is that it makes it essential to watch, theatrical but still truthful, fierce and yet fearless, if you're more shell-shocked at the end of a play this year, I'd be surprised.

Told in the form of overlapping monologues from fifteen-year-old Somali-born teenagers Muna and Iqra, Cuttin' It tells of two very different young women. Muna has been in the UK since she was three, Iqra arrived as a refugee when she was ten and though they now attend the same school, there's worlds between them. But they have something in common, FGM, and in the space of just over an hour, we see just how much.

Monday, 30 May 2016

TV Review: Russell T Davies' A Midsummer Night's Dream

"What visions have I seen"

When the RSC announced their production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, surtitling it 'A Play for the Nation' as it tours the UK, working with amateur theatre groups across the land, they probably weren't expecting it to be a play for the nation because somebody would be putting on another production of it every couple of weeks. Or maybe they were, it is one of Shakespeare's more popular plays - indeed it is among my favourites as the first I ever read - and so why wouldn't Filter bring it back to the Lyric Hammersmith, the Reversed Shakespeare Company put their own spin on it, Emma Rice open her tenure at the Globe with it, and the Southwark Playhouse open their own version of it with Go People early next week...

For those outside of the London theatre bubble though, the opportunity to see a televised version of the play, adapted by Russell T Davies' gay agenda and directed by David Kerr, won't have felt like overkill. And there was much to commend in a reimagining of the play which dabbled in just a fair few changes for the most part and then decided to rip up the rulebook in a jubilant final ten minutes that will doubtless seize the headlines and rile the purists among us but regardless, managed to remain unerringly faithful to exactly how you would imagine Davies' Dream might play out (Flute/soldier fanfic please!).

Cast of Russell T Davies' A Midsummer Night's Dream continued

Review: Y Gwyll / Hinterland Series 2

"Time to come back, the past is the past"

Our appetite for dark crime dramas is seemingly insatiable but it is helped by the quality of programming that is now being sourced from a wide range of countries. One such drama that is closer to home than most is the Welsh-language police procedural Y Gwyll, which is also broadcast in a bilingual English and Welsh format as Hinterland. The 5 part second series of feature-length episodes has just been released on DVD by Nordic Noir and Beyond.

Labelled as part of the Celtic Noir movement, it is interesting to try and locate Hinterland in the televisual landscape and it does fall naturally somewhere in the North Sea - the influence of the all-conquering Scandi-crimewave is certainly there, as are hints of something more homegrown - as reductive as comparisons are, I'd say this is a cross between the Icelandic Trapped and bleak West Yorkshire of Happy Valley

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Film Review: Lucky Stiff (2015)

"A view won't be a view without you in my way"

Filmed a couple of years ago, the movie adaptation of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's musical farce Lucky Stiff has now been released for you to enjoy at leisure across a raft of digital platforms, courtesy of Signature Entertainment. I've seen the show twice onstage now (most recently at the Drayton Arms) and neither time did it really win me over, the limitations of fringe productions doing the show little favour. But strangely enough, it is this cinematic version that seems to work the best, suiting its idiosyncratic charms down to the ground.

The piece is a featherlight piece of French fancy, based on the Michael Butterworth novel The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, as an East Grinstead shoe salesman seizes on the chance to live a little when he's the beneficiary of an unexpected inheritance from his late, rich, barely-known uncle. He's got to go to Monte Carlo to fulfil the strangely detailed terms and conditions though and there he find an assorted cast of misfits who also have an eye on the cool $6m - and thus the farcical goings-on begin.

Pictures of Jekyll and Hyde, Old Vic

Truth be told, I don't review much dance because I don't feel qualified to comment on it. And because I don't feel qualified to comment on it, I don't see much dance...and so the vicious cycle continues. I was able to get a ticket to the last night of Drew McOnie's re-imagining of Jekyll and Hyde though, it having been recommended to me by several people, but knowing that I wouldn't be writing about it, I might have had a couple of sherbets pre-show. So aside from saying that I really enjoyed it, I won't be commenting any more to say that Manuel Harlan took these lovely pics.

Cast of Jekyll and Hyde continued

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Review: After Independence, Arcola

"Why must your wound be healed by wounding me?"

The Papatango Theatre Company have long been at the forefront of new writing with their annual prize competition always one to look out for and now they're expanding their territory, premiering a new piece from their first Resident Playwright here at the Arcola. Edinburgh-born May Sumbwanyambe's family hails from right across Southern Africa and it is there, specifically, Zimbabwe, to which he has turned for After Independence.

Set at the end of the last century when a majority black government first came to power in Harare, the play circles the contentious issue of land grabs, as white farmers and landowners have their property redistributed - sometimes forcefully - to the black population. But though their claims look to the future, they deny the past of a population who consider themselves just as African, and thus the horns of a terrible dilemma present themselves.

Review: Folk, Watford Palace

"Sing me something holy, something wholly inappropriate"

One day, Tom Wells will start writing about something other than misfits in the East Riding of Yorkshire but until he does, we're still being blessed with minor-key gems like Folk (after Jumpers for Goalposts, The Kitchen Sink, and Me, As A Penguin), reaching the end of its tour here in this co-production between Birmingham Repertory Theatre , Hull Truck Theatre and Watford Palace Theatre.

From the front room of her Withernsea home, Irish nun Winnie has been subtly changing the world for those around her. Her sweary, spoon-playing ways have long been complemented by Stephen, a mournful musical middle-aged man who counts her as his only friend and when the teenage Kayleigh comes crashing into their lives, it is music that proves the force that slowly bonds them together.

Review: We Wait In Joyful Hope, Theatre503

"My God’s out there. That’s why I go out in that van. Each night I sit behind the wheel and, believe me, I pray. But with the engine running and the headlights on"

Brian Mullin's first play as part of the 503Five Writer-in-Residence scheme is We Wait In Joyful Hope, directly inspired by his aunt, a nun who helped to found a successful NY women's shelter. Thus the central character here is a nun who helped to found a women's shelter, in New Jersey though, where it has been helping people for over 30 years. They say write about what you know but in this case, it does feel occasionally that Mullin could have done with a bit of distance to really make the drama work.

For Sister Bernie D'Amato is an absolutely cracking character, played with intelligent and varied depth by Maggie McCarthy, but the play around her doesn't quite match up. D'Amato is battling the spectre of gentrification as property buyers are wrecking the community, the patriarchy of the church hierarchy against whom she's always had to fight and her own failing health too. But in among all this, Mullin rarely ventures out to deal with any of these larger themes on which he touches, there's little that's truly dramatic.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Review: The Threepenny Opera, National

"There will be no moralising tonight"

Whatever you think a national theatre should be for, I bloody love that Rufus Norris seems to determined to keep diversity near the top of the billing. Whilst it is curious that he's only committed to ensuring gender equality in terms of the directors and living writers the National Theatre uses by 2021 (I'm sure there's a reason it takes 5 years), there's also change happening now in this new production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera.

The first actors we see and hear are George Ikediashi and Jamie Beddard. So what you might say? But they are respectively a cabaret artist better known as Le Gateau Chocolat and a wheelchair-using director, writer, actor, consultant, trainer and workshop leader who has worked across the arts, educational and social sectors (his website). And you begin to see one of the ways how Norris is opening up this venue in an important and hopefully lasting manner.

Cast of The Threepenny Opera continued

Review: Sea Life, Hope

"Not talking about it is not the same as coping with it"

In a land with as unreliable a climate as ours, it's no wonder that there's something unmistakably weird about English seaside towns outside the height of summer. Would-be sunbathers hunkered down on the beach behind windbreaks, families munching picnics in the car because its raining, hordes of sulky teenagers stalking amusement arcades with little amusement to be found besides the penny pusher, seagulls terrorising tourists with their chip-stealing ways - oh I DO like to be beside the seaside!

Lucy Catherine's new play Sea Life pulls aside that veil of stick-of-rock-scented nostalgia though, to probe deeply into what life might be like for those who actually live in these coastal communities, whilst still investing her story with the kind of brilliantly mordant humour that recalls the likes of The League of Gentlemen. Three siblings are eking out an existence in the town where their family has lived for decades, a community that is seriously under threat from coastal erosion with even the cemetery now at the mercy of the crumbling cliffs.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Review: Romeo and Juliet, Garrick

"More inconstant than the wind..."

KenBran's residency at the Garrick continues with an all-star Romeo and Juliet, reuniting Richard Madden and Lily James from his Cinderella, and there's finally a bit of interesting casting with Derek Jacobi as Mercutio. That said, it's somewhat typical that this season's one headline concession to diversity has been to put an old white man in a young white man's part. Here's my 3 star review for Cheap Theatre Tickets.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 13th August

Cast of Romeo and Juliet continued

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Review: Flowers for Mrs Harris, Crucible

"There is more to life than you ever knew, than you ever dreamed,"

Sheffield feels the right place for Flowers for Mrs Harris to come into bloom, its delicately understated charm and musicality making this a world away from the brash, cut-throat commercialism of West End musicals. That's not to say I wouldn't love to see this show come down to the capital, for it does deserve such wider attention, but rather to celebrate the creation and nurturing of musical theatre from all parts of the country, a recognition of a theatrical ecology that thrives far beyond the M25.

Daniel Evans' artistic directorship of Sheffield Theatres, which ends with this production, has been a key part of that over the last few years and it is pleasing to see that his presence in the overall picture will continue as he departs for Chichester Festival Theatre. As for now, we get a gorgeous piece of unmistakably British musical theatre that is as heart-warming and tear-jerking as they come, a tenderly sentimental exploration of far-fetched dreams and earthily real friendships.

Short Film Review #64

"Hope and memories go together"

A hotch-potch of video clips for your pleasure!

The Lion King gets a new ex-rugby playing Kiwi Simba.

Review: Human Animals, Royal Court

"I'm taking my cat's Prozac"

The pigeons are revolting, the foxes are running riot, those damn cockroaches just won't die - so far so realistic in Stef Smith's debut play for the Royal Court. But Human Animals take its thesis three steps further to a place where animal nature has become dangerously unpredictable and taken human nature along with it. And as environmental crisis threatens to turn into ecological apocalypse, it becomes increasingly difficult to see where the real problem lies.

Smith explores this world through the interconnected lives of six characters, their interactions played out in a series of duologues that sees them all spiral out differently but still downwardly. Ashley Zhangazha's Jamie tries to find meaning in eco-activism, giving the cause a hand; Lisa McGrillis' Lisa, his partner, finds economic advancement but at personal cost; Sargon Yelda's bureaucrat Si seems more interested in flirting with men in bars (like Ian Gelder's suave John) than making his blithe assurances that all is ok seem truly convincing.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Review: An Evening with Matthew Strachan & Guests, St James Studio

"You'll enjoy the thrill because you can"

There's an event at the St James Studio in a couple of weeks called Sunday at the Musicals which has over 20 female singers coming together to celebrate the world of musical theatre, showing off what can be achieved in the freedom of the one-night cabaret form. Which just goes to point up the relative disappointment of a night called An Evening with Matthew Strachan & Guests which just managed the two, with one song a piece.

Strachan is a composer of considerable credits (as per Wikipedia) but has the ignominy, or perhaps renown, of being best known for writing the theme tune to TV show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. And as we discover throughout the couple of hours of his show, there's much more to his back catalogue, with time spent in Nashville writing for others providing an anecdote or two to accompany the material.

TV Review: The Hollow Crown - The Wars of the Roses: 3. Richard III

"The king's name is a tower of strength"

The Hollow Crown reaches its climax with a solid and occasionally very strong Richard III which once again shimmers with quality and hints of artistic innovation. And for all the lauding of Benedict Cumberbatch's starring role, it is pleasing to see Dominic Cooke and Ben Power give Sophie Okonedo's excoriating Margaret of Anjou her due as one of the real pleasures of running these plays together is to trace her complete arc (for she's the only character to appear in them all) and root her enmity - alongside that of so many others - in something most palpable.

Cooke's direction also benefits from loosening its representational restraints, Richard III's monologues and asides make this a different type of play and Cooke responds with a series of interesting choices (though the surfeit of nervy finger-tapping was a touch too much for me) making great use of both gloomy interiors and hauntingly effective exteriors. Playing so many scenes in woodlands was an inspired decision as it leant a real eeriness to proceedings, whether Margaret or Richard bursting from the bushes to disrupt the private mourning of Elizabeth or Anne.

Cast of The Hollow Crown - The Wars of the Roses: 3. Richard III continued

Cast of The Hollow Crown - The Wars of the Roses: 3. Richard III continued

The Complete Walk, from the comfort of your sofa #2

"I would you were as I would have you be"

Our journey along the Complete Walk, at our own speed and from the comfort of our own home, continues apace. Here's my thoughts on the first suite of films and now there's four more for your delectation.

Twelfth Night comes to us from Parham House, West Sussex, with the glorious Olivia Williams and Susannah Fielding playing Olivia and Viola/Cesario. And directed by Jessica Swale, it's deliciously exciting and erotic as the former is utterly thunderstruck by the latter, both actors hitting the mark perfectly and suggesting that this would be a production for the ages were it ever to happen in full. It is spliced with Tim Carroll's 2012 production which saw Mark Rylance reprise his Olivia, a performance of which, in all honesty, I was no real fan back then and remain so now.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Review: Refugees Welcome, Southwark Playhouse

“We're privileged to welcome you here"

Something a bit different for a Sunday but definitely worthwhile, Refugees Welcome saw a curated collection of performances exploring the themes of displacement, exodus and the humanitarian disaster of the refugee crisis through the medium of theatre, comedy and poetry. Organised by David Mercatali in support of Calais Action and all their advocacy work as well as aid support for displaced people in camps and hotspots across Europe, it proved a powerful programme of thought-provoking work.

For me, it was most fascinating to how consider how theatre in particular responds to contemporary crises, the speed of response somewhat limited by form, the nature of response dictated by swift-changing news agendas. So the excerpt from Anders Lustgarten's 2015 play Lampedusa, performed by Louise Mai Newberry and the playwright, felt horribly like last year's news because we're not being still confronted with the images of overcrowded boats crossing the Med. But the snippet of Tess Berry-Hart's Cargo, soon to be seen at the Arcola, reminded us that this is not a problem that is going away, and that (certain) theatres are not shying away from.

Cast of Refugees Welcome continued

Review: Giving, Hampstead Downstairs

"There seem to be a lot of people out there with a lot of money who don’t quite know what to do with it"

I'm pretty sure that in 30 or so years time, we will be talking about Sinéad Matthews with the hushed reverence accorded to the likes of Dame Judi as she's surely a shoo-in for a similar ennoblement. And I'll be telling everyone about the times I got to see her in the intimacy of the Hampstead Theatre's downstairs space. Last year saw her star in the The Wasp and this year she returns there in Hannah Patterson's Giving, directed by Bijan Sheibani, giving us another opportunity to see one of the finest actors in the country up close and personal. 

She plays Laura in Patterson's new play, a journalist tasked with profiling leading British businesswoman Mary Greene for her current affairs magazine. Greene is of interest because she has decided to give away huge amounts of her wealth in a newfound burst of philanthropy. But as Laura investigates further, she finds that there's a whole industry that's grown up around giving, organisations who act as brokers between the millionaires and the charities, and its these motives that she decides to interrogate, regardless of the consequences.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Review: The Quentin Dentin Show, Above the Arts

"Absolute profound happiness in 60 minutes or less"

It's a big claim for a little show to make but The Quentin Dentin Show gets pretty close in its own unique way. And what a way it is - a bit Rocky Horror, a bit Dale-Winton-presented-Saturday-evening-gameshow, a bit 2am-at-the-Joiners'-Arms, and yet entirely its own thing. Sliding into the late evening slot at the Above the Arts Theatre, it's that random but tasty slice of musical theatre that you didn't know you needed at the end of the night.

I can describe the plot - frustrated pharmacist Nat and would-be writer Keith have hit a stumbling block in their relationship, as evidenced by a bowl of bland pasta, but are offered the chance of couples therapy (of sorts) when Keith conjures up a supernatural therapist from inside his radio - but that's only half the story of Caldonia Walton's production, which magics up the kind of carefree energy that makes you see why it was a hit in Edinburgh.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Review: This Is Living, Trafalgar Studios

"I know it's hard but you're hurting me"

One of the rarest things to find in the theatre, for me at least, is people I actually want to spend time with. On stage, of course. But Alice and Michael, the couple at the heart of Liam Borrett's debut play This is Living, are just that - adorable, engaging, quirky, funny, utterly and thoroughly human. There were times where I could have listened to them talk for hours, whether the awkward bumbling of their first encounter or their flirtatious banter or the precious moments of genuine soulmate connection, I can't remember the last time I just wanted to kick back and listen like this.

Which is exactly what Borrett wants, as he pulls the rug out from underneath the relationship by killing Alice off. Spoilers I hear you cry but don't worry, that's how the play opens, with Michael having to tell his partner that she died 12 hours ago. From there, we get a beautifully restrained and moving exploration of love and loss as we flick between present and past and back again, sometimes in the space of a howled emotion or a single sentence, the unimaginable pain of losing a loved one both exacerbated and made more tolerable by clinging onto the memories of a life lived.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Review: Blue/Orange, Young Vic

"They see what they want to see, not what they really see"

I seem to be surrounded by people who saw and loved the original production of Blue/Orange, with its extremely tasty cast of Bill Nighy, Andrew Lincoln and Chiwetal Ejiofor, and who love to tell me about it! It was however before my time (here in London at least) and so my first, and only, previous experience of the show was with Tiata Fahdozi's all-female version at the old Arcola, with a less starry but no less interesting cast of Helen Schlesinger, Esther Hall and Ayesha Antoine.

I mention this because it is interesting to me the ways in which people's journeys with plays are shaped by these interactions, especially when they have been lauded as modern classics. Of the eight, only two are going back to this new production at the Young Vic (it doesn't seem to be inspiring repeat visits), and the one who has been already didn't like it. And critics' responses thus far stretch from Aleks Sierz reconfirming its status as a contemporary classic to Matt Trueman declaring that it hasn't aged well.

Re-review: Radiant Vermin, Soho Theatre

"Enough is never enough..."

Just a quickie for this return of a show that ranked 6th out of the 304 that I saw last year, Philip Ridley's Radiant Vermin. Metal Rabbit and Supporting Wall's production remains an absolute corker as it dissects the contemporary property market and all the societal baggage that goes with it in the most inimitable of ways. This revival returns to the Soho Theatre ahead of a trip to New York but finds itself in the upstairs space rather than the main house, which is a bit of a shame as it doesn't work quite as effectively here, though 'tis only a minor quibble.

My original review can be read here and much remains true about David Mercatali's excellent production. There's added piquancy now in the casting of Scarlett Alice Johnson (a replacement for Gemma Whelan who sadly had to withdraw) as she's the IRL partner of Sean Michael Verey and so their chemistry is fascinating to behold as their couple submit to the machinations of Debra Baker's 'helper'. Definitely recommended whether you caught it last year or no.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 28th May, then transfers to 59E59 Theatres, New York

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Complete Walk, from the comfort of your sofa

"I wasted time, and now doth time waste me!

Well I didn't really waste time, I just prioritised. Over the many ways in which Shakespeare's 400th death anniversary was celebrated and fitting in something of a social life, the Globe's Complete Walk - specially commissioned bitesize films of each of his 37 plays - just felt like a step too far, plus there was always the assumption (or should that be presumption) that the films would resurface in a more accessible way. And so it seems to be coming to pass, with three of them now available on the BBC's iPlayer.

My favourite of these three was Antony & Cleopatra Starting with a plethora of snippets from both Rome and Egypt from Jonathan Munby's 2014 production starring Eve Best and Clive Wood, leading up to a stunning adaptation of Cleopatra and Iras' final moments filmed at the Red Pyramid at Dahshur in Egypt. Beautifully shot with real restraint from Mark Rosenblatt and gorgeously spoken by Eleanor Matsuura and Katy Stephens respectively, the superb musical accompaniment written and performed by Norwegian violinist Bjarte Eike with his baroque ensemble Barokksolistene combine to spine-tingling effect.

Review: The Great American Trailer Park Musical, Waterloo East


The less than salubrious surroundings of the North Florida trailer park Armadillo Acres (few armadillos and even fewer acres) might seem like the ideal location for a madcap musical and in some ways, you’d be right. And The Great American Trailer Park Musical certainly lives up to the madcap and the musical in this knowingly camp production by Kirk Jameson - it’s just the ‘great’ that feels somewhat in doubt.

There’s no questioning the quality of the production and its brilliant casting decisions. Tempting the likes of illustrious veteran Rosie Ashe to the fringe is no mean feat and the powerhouse pipes of the severely under-rated Sabrina Aloueche is all the more impressive in the intimate (if poorly raked) Waterloo East Theatre. In fact, the whole company sing very well, their assured vocals matched by James Taylor’s musical direction. 

Monday, 16 May 2016

Review: A Secret Life, Theatre503 at Wandsworth Arts Fringe

"Do you know what goes on in my head? Do I know what goes on in yours? Maybe it's not what either of us expect..."

What an unexpectedly, tenderly beautiful thing this turned out to be. Too often, words like 'immersive' and 'innovative' are thrown out too easily by theatre marketing teams so my intrigued hopes were adjusted accordingly by the potential of this piece of 'digital promenade' theatre as part of the Wandsworth Arts Fringe. But what playwright Tamara Micner and Baseless Fabric Theatre have done here shines with a subtle but sparkling freshness as it actually delivers what it promised.

A Secret Life arose from a series of interviews with people aged 65+ in the Merton and Wandsworth area about their recollections of being a teenager. These memories and experiences were edited and reshaped into a single narrative of a couple called Audrey and Fred, and then played through headphones on apps (created by NetStronghold) on our smartphones as groups of around 15 people follow Audrey on a walk through Battersea Park and its environs.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Review: I'm Not Jesus Christ, Theatre N16 at Wandsworth Arts Fringe

"I'm the Schumacher of storytelling"

There aren't too many opportunities to see a bit of Romanian theatre in London so from the start, Papercut Theatre's production of Maria Manolescu's I'm Not Jesus Christ is fascinating. Part of a bit of ambitious programming at this year's Wandsworth Arts Fringe festival, it is playing at the Theatre N16, currently residing at the Bedford pub in Balham

Developed and translated during the International Residency at the Royal Court in 2007, I'm Not Jesus Christ is based on an unlikely but real life story. Michael Schumacher super-fan and 11-year-old Mihai decides to celebrate his upcoming birthday by getting a prostitute, an encounter that goes disastrously wrong when his mother Maria comes home early. 

TV Review: Mum, Episode 1

"Sorry if this isn't the sort of thing to say at a funeral"

In terms of the Venn diagram of my favourite things, you really could not get more precise than putting Lesley Manville on screen and then following that up with a shot of Sam Swainsbury in his boxer shorts. No, I'm not recounting a dream, this is the actual opening sequence of the first episode of new BBC2 sitcom Mum, directed by Richard Laxton (who worked with Manville most recently in River) - safe to say I'm hooked.

Written by Stefan Golaszewski, probably best known for Him and Her, Mum looks set to be a gently observational comedy rather than a straight-up sitcom. This first episode focused on Manville's Cathy preparing for the day of her husband's funeral, dealing with the influx of visitors to her house including her son's new girlfriend, her brother and his snobbish wife, her ageing in-laws and an old family friend.

Not-a-Review: Bug, Found111

TV Review: The Hollow Crown - The Wars of the Roses: 1. Henry VI Part 2

“I was a woeful looker-on”

On a night when the real drama was unfolding in Stockholm's Globen arena and the main internecine conflict was between the juries of music professionals and the public vote as revealed by the new counting mechanism, the BBC's decision to schedule The Hollow Crown against the Eurovision Song Contest didn't work for me. Last week's Henry VI Part 1 was a great reintroduction into these quality adaptations as it started the new series but the follow-up doesn't quite match the same level.

Part of the issue lies in the seemingly accepted wisdom that the Henry VI plays are problems that need solving - I've still not managed to see a conventional production of the trilogy to use as a benchmark - and so the plays are often abandoned to the mercies of the vision of writers and directors. Such is the case with The Wars of the Roses: 1. Henry VI Part 2, chopped down and frantically paced, there's a whole lot of fury but just not enough feeling (though if you're a fan of battlefields and decapitated heads, you might fare better than I did).

Cast of The Hollow Crown - The Wars of the Roses: 1. Henry VI Part 2 continued

Cast of The Hollow Crown - The Wars of the Roses: 1. Henry VI Part 2 continued

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Review: Strawberry Starburst, Blue Elephant

"I close my eyes and think back to the days when I used to stuff my face with mum’s spaghetti bolognese and I loved it, tomato juice dripping all down my chin."

In a week when I've celebrated my 29th birthday (for the 8th year running, I might add), it's perhaps appropriate that the title of Strawberry Starburst went right over my head. Here's me picturing something fruitily poetic when in actual fact, Starburst are what the Opal Fruits of my youth ("made to make your mouth water" - slogan courtesy of Murray Walker, trivia fans) are now called (it's obviously too long since I've been in a sweet shop!).

My inability to remember things I surely knew aside, Bram Davidovich's one-woman play is actually an altogether more serious prospect. Shez is a young woman who has a healthy attitude towards food - including a liking for those sweets - and life in general, but finds herself increasingly buffeted by domestic and societal pressures that warp the relationships around her, including her own with her own body, with devastating consequences.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Review: DiaoChan - The Rise of the Courtesan, Above the Arts

"Was woman not created equal to man?"

DiaoChan - The Rise of the Courtesan offers a rare opportunity for London audiences to delve into Chinese classic theatre, with Ross Ericson's free adaptation coming from part of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, acclaimed as one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature and among the oldest novels in the world. So it aims to be an epic piece of storytelling but this Red Dragonfly/Grist To The Mill production, also directed by Ericson, actually works best in its more human, intimate moments.

As the Han Dynasty comes to a violent end, ambitious general DongZhuo seizes power in 189AD by installing a mere boy on the imperial throne and rules by default as chancellor, protected by his adopted son, the great warrior LüBu. Among the few who oppose him is the government minister WangYun but it takes the enterprising nous of a singing girl in his household named Diaochan to come up with a plot to defeat their enemies and simultaneously secure her rising position in society, breaking out of the usual limited historical roles for women of courtesan and concubine.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Review: Devilish, Landor

"Now is not the time for half naked men"

When a show describes itself as "Pinocchio meets The Picture of Dorian Gray – with jazz hands!", it is giving you fair warning of how odd it is going to be, and so it is with this brand new musical Devilish. Receiving its world premiere at the Landor, Devilish is a curious mixture of a show that never quite settles in what it wants to be - a straight up musical comedy, a satire on reality TV culture, a poignant love story, it pulls in elements of all of these yet pulls punches in the delivery.

Our leading man isn't the first buff guy to be found half-naked on the streets of Clapham with a pair of angel wings but he might be the first to actually have fallen from Heaven. First taken in by the lovely Ruth (into whose greenhouse he crash-landed) and named Angel by her daffy best friend Maddie, the kerfuffle his arrival causes is capitalised on by Nick, the rapacious reality TV producer for whom the girls work, who splashes Angel's shirtless splendour all over our screens.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

CD Review: MS. A Song Cycle

"I wish you didn't have to be in pain"

Multiple Sclerosis affects over 100,000 people in the UK alone. 

One of the accusations often levelled by detractors of musical theatre is that it is fanciful, frivolous stuff, unable of taking subjects seriously. And whilst the form undoubtedly can have its lighter moments, I'd challenge anyone to listen to this new song cycle inspired by women living with multiple sclerosis and remain unmoved. MS. A Song Cycle is the brainchild of lyricist Rory Sherman, who has worked with SimG Productions, musical supervisor Ellie Verkerk and 14 different teams of composers and performers to create a delicately but undeniably powerful collection of stories, that gain in that power from being sung so beautifully as they are here.

More than two to three times more women are affected than men

Using the song cycle format means that Sherman can shift the perspective around the many ways in which MS can affect women both directly and indirectly, from mothers and daughters to wives, carers and sufferers. So Paul Boyd's 'Mummy's Not Well' sees a young girl dispatched to live with her aunt after her mother falls ill, Lauren Samuels perfectly cast in this almost John Kander-esque tune; Amy Bowie's 'Perhaps I’m Stronger Than I Think' has Jodie Jacobs' support group leader giving the benefit of her experience; Verity Quade's Commute traces the difficulties that can be found in carrying out even the most mundane of daily tasks, as evocatively explained by Anna Francolini.

14 people are diagnosed with the disease everyday.

It is a deeply compelling collection of stories but also a marvellously, and thoughtfully, varied journey of songwriting. Wryly comic numbers rub shoulders with sadder, more reflective songs and throughout the tone is never self-pitying but rather utterly compassionate in its sensitive telling of how awful a condition MS is. The excellent 'What's That, Jim?' sees a rare Drewe-less appearance from George Stiles as Caroline Quentin channels something of Victoria Wood's beautifully bittersweet domestic observations, and Janie Dee's 'Alone In The Dark', written by Eamonn O’Dwyer, and Laura Pitt-Pulford's 'Cerulean Skies' by Sarah Travis are both soaringly beautiful ballads. 

Most people are diagnosed in their 20s/30s

For me, the highlights of the album come with Josefina Gabrielle's 'My Son's Secret', Sherman unfurling a rather amusing tale of a mother's discovery of alternative treatments to Tamar Broadbent's driving music. And in a most pleasing turn up for the books, Julie Atherton (who might have seemed a natural choice for that song, given her wicked way with a comic song) gets the chance to sing with a pure and devastating simplicity in Erin Murray Quinlan's heartbreaking 'How Can I Tell You?', the cream of a very talented crop, coming together to shine much needed light and hopefully increased awareness about MS>

Available in physical format from www.SimGProductions.com now (and available digitally later in the year). 

Complete song list
'The Frayed Chords Of My Life' sung by Lillie Flynn
Music by George Maguire, Lyrics by Rory Sherman

'Cadenza' sung by Alexia Khadime
Music by Brian Lowdermilk, Lyrics by Rory Sherman

'How Can I Tell You?' sung by Julie Atherton
Music by Erin Murray Quinlan, Lyrics by Rory Sherman & Erin Murray Quinlan

'Mummy’s Not Well' sung by Lauren Samuels
Music by Paul Boyd, Lyrics by Rory Sherman

'Commute' sung by Anna Francolini
Music by Verity Quade, Lyrics by Rory Sherman & Verity Quade

'What’s That, Jim?' sung by Caroline Quentin
Music by George Stiles, Lyrics by Rory Sherman

'Perhaps I’m Stronger Than I Think' sung by Jodie Jacobs
Music by Amy Bowie, Lyrics by Rory Sherman

'Somewhere Hot' sung by Siubhan Harrison
Music by Luke Di Somma, Lyrics by Rory Sherman

'My Son’s Secret' sung by Josefina Gabrielle
Music by Tamar Broadbent, Lyrics by Rory Sherman & Tamar Broadbent

'A Few Thousand People' sung by Preeya Kalidas
Music by Robbie White, Lyrics by Rory Sherman

'Tortoise & Hare' sung by Caroline Sheen
Music by Gianni Onori, Lyrics by Rory Sherman

'Cerulean Skies' sung by Laura Pitt-Pulford
Music by Sarah Travis, Lyrics by Rory Sherman

'Alone In The Dark' sung by Janie Dee
Music by Eamonn O’Dwyer, Lyrics by Rory Sherman & Eamonn O’Dwyer

'Mondays' sung by Rosemary Ashe
Music & Lyrics by Robert J. Sherman & Rory Sherman

Cast/writers of MS. A Song Cycle continued

Monday, 9 May 2016

CD Review: Julian Ovenden - Be My Love

"There's no love song finer"

Be My Love is Julian Ovenden's second album after 2012's If You Stay and his first for East West Records. It sees the Downton Abbey and My Night With Reg star and delve into the Great American Songbook and focus on the section covered by the earlier half of the twentieth century. So the 13 tracks run the familiar gamut of Irving Berlin to Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein to Rodgers & Hart, his rich baritone-tenor voice sliding into these classic like smooth toffee.

Recorded in Frank Sinatra's Ocean Way Studios in Los Angeles, the homage paid to the crooner is palpable indeed, both musically and stylistically. Ovenden's fine voice rides the luscious waves of the rich orchestrations here from producer Nick Patrick and his confident performance in songs like 'The Way You Look Tonight' and 'Get Happy' makes a worthy comparison. And its a level of quality and consistency that is maintained across the whole album.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Review: The Local Stigmatic, Old Red Lion

"I think I'm going to get quietly mad"

There's something eerily prescient in Heathcote Williams' play The Local Stigmatic as it talks about people 'following' famous people to get all the news and gossip from their Z-list lives. Prescient, because it was written in 1966, before any of the four founders of Twitter had even been born, never mind co-opted the verb 'to follow', and before the celebrity culture that is so prevalent today had really taken hold.

From their South London bedsit with its poster-filled walls, Graham and Ray are two of the angry young men so beloved by the kitchen sink drama movement of the time. Constantly poring over the pages of the newspaper, they're either getting tips for betting on the dogs, soaking up every last tidbit of celebrity gossip or arguing in the detached, sociopathic manner that makes them a menace to society, a threat that becomes all too real when they bump into a minor actor in the pub. 

Saturday, 7 May 2016

TV Review: The Hollow Crown - The Wars of the Roses: 1. Henry VI Part 1

"I would his troubles were expired"

The Hollow Crown rises again. Four years on from the first suite of striking televisual adaptations of Shakespeare's history plays, the BBC continue their Shakespeare Lives season by completing the set. For theatregoers, it has been a ripe time of it - Trevor Nunn reviving The Wars of the Roses late last year and the excellent Toneelgroep Amsterdam bringing their streamlined version Kings of War to the Barbican just last month - but as you'll see, the common thread is one of adaptation, opportunities to see the three parts of Henry VI as they are remain few and far between.

And so it proves here. Though this is entitled The Hollow Crown - The Wars of the Roses: 1. Henry VI Part 1, Ben Power and Dominic Cooke have compressed the three plays into two parts and it's hard to argue against it really - there's plenty here to sink your teeth into (and get your head around). Emasculated by lord protector the Duke of Gloucester (a solid Hugh Bonneville, displaying as much range as he ever does), Tom Sturridge's Henry VI finds himself an uncertain king, a querulous youth who bends whichever way the wind blows strongest in his court, riven by dynastic rivalry.

Cast of The Hollow Crown-The Wars of the Roses: 1. Henry VI Part 1 continued

Friday, 6 May 2016

Shakespeare Solos - Part 3

"Who in the lusty stealth of nature take
More composition and fierce quality"

It might seem curious timing for the Guardian to release the third and final set of their Shakespeare solos a good couple of weeks after the hullabaloo of #Shakespeare400 but if you look at the television schedules, you do see the attempts not to overload people with content. The second iteration of The Hollow Crown only starts this weekend and Russell T Davies' take on A Midsummer Night's Dream won't be with us until the end of the month.

Still, these final five videos feel a little bereft of inspiration for me, featuring as they do two excerpts from the same play (The Merchant of Venice) and two actresses currently starring in the same play (The Maids). One of those, Zawe Ashton, does give us one of the highlights of the entire series with a beautifully mournful take on Jacques' Seven Ages of Man speech from As You Like It but it's hard not to wish that some of the casting choices had been equally as inventive.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show. But wonder on, till ’truth make all things plain"

Above the stage for Emma Rice’s inaugural production as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe is an illuminated sign that reads “rock the ground”. A quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is the opening show of this season, it also feels like something of a statement of intent, a determination to do things her own which on this evidence, feels guaranteed to ruffle the feathers of a traditionalist or three. 

So lights are being used like never before, sound systems only previously heard at gigs dusted off, and a resolutely idiosyncratic approach to the text employed. At times, it feels like a raucous rough-housing which makes for a different Bankside experience at the very least, and one which I have to say got round to seducing me. I’m sure Rice will have her detractors, as she moves from Kneehigh to the Globe,  but the scope of her ambition here is rather awesome in its boldness.

Cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream continued

Review: The Buskers Opera, Park

"The future’s ripe for those who mix
Their artistry with politics”

John Gay's The Beggar's Opera has already inspired one musical adaptation - Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera, a new production thereof opening later this month at the National - and finds another in Dougal Irvine's The Buskers Opera, receiving its world premiere here at the Park Theatre. And if its timing might be slightly off in that regard, it couldn't be more bang on the money on the London mayoral election day, featuring as it does, corrupt politicians and ruthless media magnates seeking to advance their agenda on an unsuspecting populace.

Set in the strange potential-filled moment that was the 2012 Olympics, Jeremiah Peachum is said mogul with Mayor Lockitt in his pocket, determined to milk it for all it is worth - the only thing standing in their way is half-social justice warrior, half-street busker Macheath, strutting at the head of protest group The Ninety-Nine Percenters. That said, getting one over the fat cats isn't always as satisfying as getting one's leg over and as he plays off his wife Polly against the mayor's daughter Lucy and a few more besides, a thrill-seeking society is encouraged to make judgement.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

TV Review: Penny Dreadful Season 3 Episode 1

“The cycle goes on, the snake eating its own tail”

The focus may be elsewhere with regards to returning cult TV shows this spring but to my mind, there's something more satisfying about the Victorian Gothic psychodrama of John Logan's Penny Dreadful than we've had recently in Westeros. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a turn on the Game of Thrones as much as the next Lannister child but the greater focus and emotional intensity of Penny Dreadful's supernatural solemnity has kept me gripped over the last two seasons (Season 1 review; Season 2 review) and had me keenly anticipating the third, showing on Showtime (USA) and Sky Atlantic (UK).

The catastrophic climax of Season 2 saw our cast of characters fleeing the gaslit darkness of London and scattering across the globe, each ruminating over their lot. Josh Hartnett's Ethan Chandler is extradited back to New Mexico under Douglas Hodge's wonderfully taciturn supervision as Inspector Rusk, Timothy Dalton's Sir Malcolm finds himself in Zanzibar after burying the unfortunately deceased Sembene, Rory Kinnear's John Clare aka Caliban aka The Creature is stuck on an ice-bound ship in the Arctic, and in a London caught in mourning for Alfred Lord Tennyson (the episode is called "The Day Tennyson Died"), Eva Green's Vanessa and Harry Treadaway's Frankenstein are each trapped in their own emotional paralysis.