Saturday, 3 October 2015

Review: The Wars of the Roses, Rose Kingston (Nunns-splaining and overview)

“Sight may distinguish of colours, but suddenly to nominate them all, it is impossible"

First things first for this is too important an issue to be brushed under the carpet, too vital a conversation to not too have because a press release has been summarily issued, the “historical verisimilitude” justification for Trevor Nunn’s decision to cast an all-white company for his Wars of the Roses play cycle is just pure bunkum. At one point in Henry VI, a Norwegian man and a British woman appear on a balcony playing French characters but it’s ok because we’re in a theatre, they’re acting, the natural suspension of disbelief kicks in. 

Similarly later on, the four sons of Richard of York appear, three played by adults and one by a boy. Historians might point out that the son played by the boy was the second oldest of York’s surviving issue but again it’s not really that important in the grand scheme of things, theatrical license is granted and it allows for more poignant drama given his ultimate fate. So the historical accuracy argument clearly has little merit, lest we need reminding that Shakespeare is fiction, and the notion that the audience couldn’t connect family trees unless everyone is the same colour is frankly insulting.

Review: Richard III, The Wars of the Roses at the Rose Kingston

“Every tale condemns me for a villain”

Undoubtedly the best known of the constituent plays of The Wars of the Roses, Richard III appears in a slightly shortened version to wrap up nearly nine hours of theatre. And as such it is solid rather than spectacular, not hugely notable in its own right but slotting perfectly into place as the final piece of this epic trilogy. The culmination of over half a century of internecine conflict, several lifetimes of ruthless ambition and no little amount of pitiless bloodletting, the end is brutal but welcomed. 

Robert Sheehan’s Richard dances darkly across the stage, quick as you like in vicious word and bloody deed, and gives forth enough charisma to suggest he could hold many in thrall. Aided by the Mandelson-like spin from Alexander Hanson’s Buckingham and any number of factotums willing to carry out dastardly requests, he is able to effectively play on the sense of a ruined society that has been built over the preceding two plays. 

Review: Edward IV, The Wars of the Roses at the Rose Kingston

“Work thou the way – and thou shalt execute”

Edward IV was my favourite of the three The Wars of the Roses plays, comprising the latter half of 2 Henry VI and an abridged 3 Henry VI. I might be biased towards it as the middle child of the trilogy but it encapsulates much of what is impressive about the whole enterprise. Its heart lies in two of the crucial grand narratives – the epic sweep of Margaret of Anjou’s rise and fall and the arrival on the scene of Richard of Gloucester as he begins the long con that’ll take him so far – and I actually found there to be an exciting sense of pace about the whole play, right up to its cheeky cliff-hangerish ending. 

With civil war raging across the country and death and destruction and betrayal and battles round every corner, Henry VI decides to retreat into pacifism leaving Margaret to assume the mantle of leader as her vendetta against Richard of York becomes increasingly vicious as supremacy swings between the two houses. Clad in chainmail, Joely Richardson radiates a malevolent determination that is well-matched by Alexander Hanson’s fervently committed duke, their tussling over the Iron Throne (well this one is stone…) complicated by multiple machinations from supporters constantly defecting from one side to the other. 

Review: Henry VI, The Wars of the Roses at the Rose Kingston

“Between the red rose and the white 
A thousand souls to death and deadly night”

Of the three plays of The Wars of the Roses, Henry VI was my least favourite. Taking all of I Henry VI and about half of 2 Henry VI, Trevor Nunn’s production takes an awful long time to really get going, largely hamstrung by one of Shakespeare’s weaker plots. Henry V has died, Henry VI isn’t proving to be much cop and so trouble starts brewing in the rival camps that emerges, the Houses of Lancaster and York. But they brew slowly and for a long time as there’s all sorts of business to deal with in France, including Joan of Arc.

And that business just isn’t that entertaining here, despite Imogen Daines’ committed work as the Maid of Orléans. The importance of the loss of French territory is never keenly felt and though the build-up to the collapse of English political order instinctively registers more significantly, it never feels more than a prelude as we know there is so much more to come (about seven hours). For me, Alex Waldmann’s petulant Henry VI was a disappointment, leaving no real mark on the role amidst a bunch of angry bearded white men shouting a lot.

Review: Medea, Almeida

“I don’t think you realise how extraordinary your anger is”

So Rupert Goold closes his #AlmeidaGreeks season by directing Kate Fleetwood, who just happens to be his wife, in the title role of Medea. And as with Oresteia and Bakkhai, a new version has been commissioned from an unconventional source, this time novelist Rachel Cusk. So we leave ancient Greece for modern-day London, Medea becomes a writer whose actor-husband Jason has left her for a model and the chorus becomes a garrulous gaggle of pashmina-wielding yummy mummies as concerned with the calories in croissants as the parenting of their peer.

Cusk frames her play essentially as a series of conversations by which Medea finds herself pummelled, in search of a self she hid for 15 years of marriage and is struggling to relocate post-divorce and where Fleetwood excels is in showing the range and depth of her despair. Lacerated into silence by Amanda Boxer’s caustic nurse, lambasted by children who won’t leave her alone (Louis Sayers and Guillermo Bedward both excellent at this performance), left behind by Justin Salinger’s Jason with whom she argues thrillingly viciously, the intensity is immense and Fleetwood sustains it throughout.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Review: La Musica, Young Vic

“We should talk because we haven't anything else to do”

It came as little surprise, after leaving La Musica at the Young Vic, to discover Jeff James has worked with Ivo van Hove as Assistant Director on A View From The Bridge and Antigone. van Hove’s influence is thrillingly palpable on this two-hander as it has clearly encouraged James to explore the representation of space and how it can be broken free from a traditionally naturalistic (perhaps British) style to something more expressionistic, European even.

That he achieves in two strikingly different ways in this adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ play, translated by Barbara Bray, which is itself split into two. For the first part, the actors (Sam Troughton and Emily Barclay) are sat high to the right on a platform in the corner of the Maria studio in front of two cameras, their backs to the audience, two large screens dominating the space we look at. And in intense, extreme close-up, this divorcing couple lay bare the tatters of their relationship.

Review: The Smallest Show on Earth, Mercury

“Forget this gateau, this means war”

When is a new musical a new musical, especially when it has music by Irving Berlin? The Smallest Show on Earth manages it by adapting the 1957 film of the same name and then sprinkling it with a selection of Berlin hits, both well-known and the not-so-much, to create something really rather adorable. Writers Thom Southerland and Paul Alexander have tailored this raw material beautifully, dovetailing the gently bittersweet humour of the British film with the instinctive melodiousness of Berlin’s songwriting into a heart-warmingly lovely new musical comedy. 

Struggling screenwriter Matthew Spenser and his new wife Jean are agog when they discovered a long-lost relative has bequeathed them the Bijou cinema but aghast when they discover it is a total flea-pit. In order to get a decent offer from the rivals at the Grand cinema across the way, they pretend to be doing it up to make it a going concern but as they restore and repaint and get to know the eccentric locals that work there, the couple soon find that the picturehouse offers more opportunities than just old movies and oddballs.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Review: Crush the Musical, Richmond Theatre

“Just crack on and I’m sure you’ll come up with a corker!”

Superficially, Crush the Musical might seem just a little bit batshit crazy, from the pen of the creator of Bad Girls (and Bad Girls the Musical) how could it be otherwise. But as Maureen Chadwick and composer Kath Gotts’ girls’ school romp unwinds its merry way across the stage, its subversive leanings come to the fore as it emerges as a rare example of straight-up and sweetly played lesbian camp, wrapped up in the trappings of an old-fashioned musical comedy.

Set in the early 60s in the liberal surroundings of Dame Dorothea Dosserdale School for Girls where free spirits are celebrated and fostered, the sixth-formers are hugely excited for life beyond their forthcoming exams. But the arrival of a strict new headmistress, the formidable Miss Bleacher, introduces an air of tyranny, determined to root out the unnatural practices that have been going on in the Art Room, and the changing rooms as a budding schoolgirl romance has taken hold.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Review: Pure Imagination: The Songs of Leslie Bricusse, St James

“Don't know whether it's mornin' or night;
Only know it's soundin' right"

The numbers around composer Leslie Bricusse stack up most impressively indeed – over 1,000 songs written over a period of more than 60 years, including the book, music or lyrics for 40+ musical films and plays, winning 2 Academy Awards and being nominated for a further 8. So one can certainly indulge him in a moment of reflection in Pure Imagination: The Songs of Leslie Bricusse, a career retrospective that merely skims the surface of that mighty back catalogue with 50 numbers but giving a glorious sense of the formidable and unerring quality of his undoubted talent.

Devised by Bricusse along with director Christopher Renshaw and producer Danielle Tarento, the show eschews any kind of formal narrative, instead collecting songs into loose groupings which give the ideal opportunity to show off the vast breadth of material and leave even the most knowledgeable saying ‘I didn’t know he wrote that one as well’. So the theme to The Pink Panther rubs shoulders with Doctor Dolittle’s ‘Talk To The Animals’ and Willy Wonka’s ‘Oompa-Loompa Doompadee-Doo’, and a sing-song around the old joanna features such classics as ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’ and ‘The Good Old Bad Old Days’. 

Monday, 28 September 2015

Review: Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern, Watford Palace

“If she’s innocent, we’re simply sending her to God early”

The most powerful image of Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern comes courtesy of the centrepiece of James Button’s design, a timber structure illuminated as a church cross on one side and extending as a noose-bearing gallows on the other. It encapsulates the central thesis of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play - that twisted symbiosis between the Church and the witch-hunts that scarred society for so long - with an eloquence that characterises much of Ria Parry’s production, which is about to embark on a considerable UK tour.

An Out of Joint, Watford Palace Theatre and Arcola Theatre co-production, in association with Eastern Angles, Lenkiewicz based her drama on real-life events in a Hertfordshire village, an all-too-recognisable tale of society seized by collective fervour. It’s been several decades since any witch hunts but when tragedy falls on the village of Walkern, suspicion quickly falls upon the local cunning woman Jane Walkern and her herbal remedies amid whispers of the return of witchcraft, stoked by new priest Samuel Crane who is determined, quite literally, to get his woman.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Review: The Sweethearts, Finborough

“You're anyone who's ever been a member of Sugababes"

Enrique Iglesias said that he could be your hero, Mariah Carey reckons there’s a hero inside of you, Bonnie Tyler’s just holding out but Sarah Page is more interested in asking questions about what makes a hero in this day and age and just how fallible they are. This she does in unexpected ways in The Sweethearts, a play first seen at the Finborough as part of their new writing festival Vibrant last year, and now receiving a full run directed by Daniel Burgess.

Set in the boiling heat of Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, a tent that is usually used as an office has been converted into sleeping quarters in advance of the visit of girl group The Sweethearts, out doing their bit for the troops and naturally being filmed by a TV crew for the publicity. But when the base comes under heavy fire, the pop stars are trapped with the soldiers assigned to look after them and their differences make an already volatile situation that much more explosive.

Review: Eventide, Arcola

“It’s hard to get things right while they happen to you"

With his second play Eventide, one gets a sense of what the Barney Norris-verse is about. As with the aching splendour of last year’s Visitors, we’re in rural England and focusing on the smaller details of the big picture, the individual lives that make up a society that is struggling to keep pace with the changing world. An elegant three-hander played out over two key encounters a year apart, Alice Hamilton’s production is full of subtleties and subtly powerful acting that does real justice to Norris’ emerging voice as a playwright of real note.

In the pub garden of an establishment in deepest Hampshire, three lonely souls share their sorrows, specifically in one case as it is the day of a funeral but also more generally as the rural economy on which they all depend has become increasingly depressed, the world of farming very much no longer what it used to be. Pub landlord John is throwing in the towel and selling to a chain, church organist Liz is losing money foot over pedal as local gigs are so thin on the ground and Mark, whose best friend’s funeral it is, can’t go because a rare job offer – as painful as it is – has come up.