Monday, 25 May 2015

Review: The Beaux’ Stratagem, National Theatre

“A man dare not play the tyrant in London, because there are so many examples to encourage the subject to rebel.”

It may be The Beaux’ Stratagem but it is Mrs Sullen’s play. The most striking thing about Simon Godwin’s production of George Farquhar’s final Restoration comedy is its determinedly proto-feminist stance as Mrs Sullen – an independently wealthy woman now desperately unhappily married – is given surprising agency to express herself in a meaningful way and attempt to extricate herself from her situation. And in Susannah Fielding’s superbly silken performance, she’s exquisitely played as an almost tragicomic figure, endlessly entertaining in the raucous romping around but as Jon Clark’s lighting picks her out at the end of each act, capable of holding the entire Olivier theatre’s hearts in her hands.

The beaux ain’t too bad either. Farquhar’s plot centres on their attempts to marry into money after squandering their fortunes in London. Hoping news of their disgrace hasn’t reached the provinces, they head north and stop off in Lichfield, pretending to be master and servant, where their attentions fall on a rich young heiress and her unhappily married sister-in-law. Samuel Barnett’s Aimwell and Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Archer are a witty pair of fellows indeed, with a cracking line in beautifully cut overcoats too, as their avaricious adventures are soon overturned by amorous attentions as they can’t help but fall head over well-turned heel for their marks.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

CD Review: Kim Criswell – Back To Before

“Where are they now, those women who stared from the mirror?”

I saw Kim Criswell for the first time onstage earlier this month in Carrie and whilst I may not have loved the show, her shimmering soprano and performance was a stand-out for me. It happened to be an evening with a Q&A afterwards too and she came across as an absolute hoot - pint in hand, regaling us all with tales from the past, I instantly wanted to know more about who she was. So where else to turn first but to her 1999 CD Back To Before.

A glimpse at the track-listing doesn’t immediately show a huge sense of adventurousness. Four Lloyd Webber tracks, Oliver! and Les Mis elsewhere, it’s not really the stuff to make you sit up and pay attention. That happens when Criswell opens her mouth – whether fabulously wrestling Evita’s ‘Rainbow High’ into submission or dealing out a bold and brassy ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’, there’s something remarkable about the forceful control of her vocal.

Review: The Hudsucker Proxy, Nuffield

"I wasn’t expecting all this hoopla…”

It's not been the easiest of births for The Hudsucker Proxy - an incident in the dress rehearsal left two actors hospitalised, fortunately both have now been discharged and are recuperating at home, and the decision was made to forge ahead with the show, recasting where necessary. The show is certainly an interesting prospect - a co-production between Nuffield and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse in association with Complicite, and the first ever theatrical adaptation of a Coen Brothers film too - and its doors are now finally open in Southampton, ahead of a trip to Liverpool and then an international tour in the near future.

And you can see it succeeding. The show uncovers realms of theatrical influences in the Coen Brothers’ work but also adds in much of its own, to create a dizzying screwball comedy that is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. It would be churlish to give too much away but there are some inspired moments of staging in Simon Dormandy and Toby Sedgwick’s staging, especially concerning the window of the 44th floor office in which much of the drama is set. The physical work here is explicit too, the company relying on their own bodies as much as Dick Bird’s magnificent art deco-inflected set design to create constantly imaginative sequences.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Review: Constellations, New Victoria

“An indented rule indicates a change in universe"
When a rooftop beekeeper and quantum cosmologist meet-cute at a party, the first few lines of Nick Payne’s play Constellations suggest a rom-com in the making as time restarts and a new possibility plays out, it’s clear that there’s something much more eloquently sophisticated at work here. Premiering at the Royal Court upstairs, Michael Longhurst’s production manages to be both intimate and epic, the story of two people somehow expanding to fill several universes of heartfelt emotion.

When a rooftop beekeeper and quantum cosmologist meet-cute at a party, the first few lines of Nick Payne’s play Constellations suggest a rom-com in the making as time restarts and a new possibility plays out, it’s clear that there’s something much more eloquently sophisticated at work here. Transferring from the Royal Court upstairs to the Duke of York’s in the West End, Michael Longhurst’s production sacrifices nothing in the scaling up to the larger venue and if anything, gains in epic power.

When a rooftop beekeeper and quantum cosmologist meet-cute at a party, the first few lines of Nick Payne’s play Constellations suggest a rom-com in the making as time restarts and a new possibility plays out, it’s clear that there’s something much more eloquently sophisticated at work here. Marking the Broadway debut for all concerned, Michael Longhurst’s production manages the transatlantic transfer seamlessly and one wonders where the show could end up next.

Woking. After successes in the West End and on Broadway, Nick Payne’s play Constellations is now touring the UK, starting off at the New Victoria Theatre in Woking. Which is as good a place as any to see a rooftop beekeeper and quantum cosmologist meet-cute at a party and find themselves exploring the many possibilities that their relationship could take as scenes are played and replayed, shifting their journey together subtly but ineffably into new places. 



Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall. Perfect casting for the effervescent, wise-cracking Marianne and the slightly nerdish but endlessly endearing Roland, their intensity beautifully matched especially in the poignant flashforwards.

Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall. That perfect casting retained for the transfer, their ease with each other and the technical challenges of the script even smoother than before and if the larger venue challenged them at all, there was no evidence of it.

Ruth Wilson and Jake Gyllenhaal. All change for Broadway – Wilson’s immense subtleties (is that an oxymoron?) made an ideal, if less kooky, Marianne and Gyllenhaal gave an interestingly judged performance as Roland, less obviously blokey but no less moving.

Louise Brealey and Joe Armstrong. And to the tour, Brealey really makes her mark with a more brittle, abrasive interpretation that contrasts so effectively with the warmer moments, and Armstrong exudes a hugely likeable affability that you would certainly chase across universes to find and keep.


Can I really put my finger on why I like this play so much? Why I think it is one of the smartest pieces of new writing that I’ve seen in recent years? I’m not sure that I can.
It’s to do with the way it wears its scientific concepts so lightly – I mean I couldn’t tell you anything about quantum physics right now but during the play, it feels like maybe I could.
It’s to do with the all-too-human instinct to wonder what if I’d done that differently, what path might that have led me down.
It’s to do with the expression of such powerfully felt emotion that yet feels intelligently reasoned.
It’s to do with free will.
It’s to do with love.




I cried a little bit. Well quite a bit.

I cried so much I couldn’t speak for about quarter of an hour afterwards.

I cried a lot, but a New Year’s Day hangover probably had something to with my emotional state too.

I cried a surprisingly small amount, almost just the artful single tear in fact.



Tom Scutt’s design is inspired – I don’t tweet him. Atom-based clusters of balloons trail from the corridor into the theatre, hexagonal tiles mark out the physical space the actors occupy, and Lee Curran’s lighting tracks the darkening mood perfectly.  

Tom Scutt’s design is inspired – I don’t tweet him. Some of the finer details are lost in the larger space but the evolving scale of the work is artfully done, capturing something even grander about the emotional contours of the play. This time, it is the sound design by David McSeveney that resonates stronger, delineating each fundamental shift so clearly.  

Tom Scutt’s design is inspired - I tweet him, I don’t meet him. It looks as good as ever but the detail of Curran’s lighting is what captures my attention – the shift in the flashes of colour through to blood red, the antiseptic white of the harsh future scenes, the individual balloons picked out in lights with their own secrets.

Tom Scutt’s design is inspired – I tweet him, I don’t meet him and now I probably never will. Since the show has been end-on, there’s been a key scenic detail that I’ve missed every time. Every time. There aren't enough potential universes to explain this. I need to go again.


Can I put my finger on why I like Constellations so much?
Even on my fourth viewing, there are details that come to me anew.
There are details that have still yet eluded me.
There are scenes that somehow pack a gut-punch as fierce as the first time - why wouldn't language shift that way.
There are replayed scenes that I could continue to watch over and over - notes in hand or not :-)   
And in perfect keeping with the theme of the show, Michael Longhurst has kept the production the same but different, or is it different but the same in a remarkable way. Marianne may wear an almost identical outfit whether it's Hawkins, Wilson or Brealey wearing the shoes but she has exuded such a singular sense each time which has been breathtaking to behold. And partnered by the affable/affectionate/rumpled charms of Spall/Gyllenhaal/Armstrong, they've all been Marianne and Roland but their own Marianne and Roland and brilliantly so.


I loved it.

I loved it.

I loved it.

I loved it.


Running time: 70 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Helen Maybanks
Booking until 17th May, then touring to Liverpool Playhouse, Bristol Old Vic, Nuffield Theatre Southampton, The Lowry Salford, Cambridge Arts, Richmond Theatre and Theatre Royal Brighton

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Review: McQueen, St James

“I came for a dress”

It has barely been five years since fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s death but 2015 has already seen Savage Beauty, a major retrospective of his work, open at the Victoria and Albert Museum and now McQueen, a biographical fantasia by James Phillips which is taking to the catwalk at the St James Theatre. And in keeping with the edgy energy of the runway shows for which he was renowned, this is no straight play but rather a highly theatrical production that tries to capture some of the imaginative artistry that characterised his work.

Model-like dancers strut their stuff on the stage in striking choreography by Christopher Marney, all made up ; fashionistas in exquisite headwear pose nonchalantly around them, a haunting pair of strange twins skip around the fringes and in the middle is Lee, a London lad done good but in serious danger of being overwhelmed by the empire he’s built around him. Into this mix, from the tree in his garden, comes the troubled Dahlia - maybe a girl, maybe a fairytale creature, either way she’s his companion on a night-time odyssey to get her a dress but which also forces them to confront the demons that haunt them both.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Review: Far From The Madding Crowd, Watermill

“I am not morally yours”

Truth be told, after a dodgy time with The Woodlanders in an English Lit elective at uni, I’ve pretty much kept my distance from Thomas Hardy. So it might be a little surprise that I ventured to the wilds of West Berkshire and the Watermill Theatre to see this adaptation of Far From The Madding Crowd but Jessica Swale is the kind of delightful director who is worth travelling for, plus she has a predilection for casting Sam Swainsbury in things which means she is my lobster :-)

This actor-musicianish production is really cleverly staged as Philip Engeheart’s versatile and movable set design evokes an appropriate sense of rural charm with witty and ingenious touches allowing memorable representations of key events such as the harvesting of the wheat and untold business with sheep and lambs (where even this hardened soul had to admire the skill of the puppetry). With Catherine Jayes’ music underscoring much of the action, the pastoral atmosphere feels just right.

Review: Klippies, Southwark Playhouse

“You think because you black you know what it’s like to live in a township?”

In a baking hot schoolyard in a suburb on the edge of Johannesburg, an unlikely alliance gradually builds up between two teenage girls but in a post-apartheid South Africa in its eighteenth year of democracy, the winds of change are blowing strongly across the veld. Thandi comes from a well-to-do Zulu family and has aspirations to be a lawyer, Afrikaner Yolandi is from the rougher side of town and finds herself having to act as a lookout for her brother whilst he strips their teacher’s car for parts. But despite of, or maybe because of, their differences, a bond starts to grow. 

Jessica Siân’s Klippies details the progression of this friendship with a startling clarity that speaks so much of the forthrightness of youth but also of a nation that is changing so quickly in some ways, yet unable to let go of the past in others. Illicit bottles of brandy, homemade tattoos and heady passions characterise their tumble into a wondrous seclusion from the real world but try as they might, the scars of racial politics are hard to escape and the differences in their family situations, though equally troubled, threatens to pull them apart.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Review: Sense of an Ending, Theatre503

“In this world, I cannot be who I was”

Cecilia Carey’s set design for Sense of an Ending at Theatre503 is surely one of the best of the year so far – deceptively simple to behold but wonderfully inventive and empathetic to the story it houses. Multi-coloured panels in a false wall initially suggest the evocative beauty of stained glass but as the play progresses, they are sculpted by Joshua Pharo’s lighting into conduits into the past, compelling reminders of the present and suggestions of the future looming over the characters of Ken Urban’s Rwanda-set play.

All three time periods are important but it is the past that is most significant. It’s 1999 and two Hutu nuns stand accused of aiding and/or abetting a massacre in their church in the 1994 genocide that decimated this African country’s population. An American journalist, haunted by his own demons, arrives at the prison they’re being held at to throw attention on their case but in a nation where the healing process has scarcely begun, notions of truth and reconciliation are hard to come by as conflicting accounts cast doubt on their presumed innocence. 

Sunday, 17 May 2015

TV Review: The Affair, Sky Atlantic

“Why don’t you tell me how it began”

A belated UK premiere for this Golden Globe-winning drama over on Sky Atlantic and a much-welcomed one at that, as this is a cracking piece of television. I caught up with The Affair, created by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, during my New York trip at New Year, its 10 episodes getting me through a day off sick and the downtime in my hotel, and starring Ruth Wilson as it does, it provided a serendipitous counterpart to her stellar turn in Constellations (more of which anon).

The basic premise of the show is the affair between schoolteacher and struggling novelist Noah (Dominic West) and grieving waitress Alison (Wilson) during his family’s summer holiday in the Long Island resort town where she lives and works. As we see, the effects ripple out well into their extended families but the hook is that each episode is divided in two – each protagonist giving their version of the same events, giving their own different perspective on what actually happened.

TV Review: The Vote, Donmar Warehouse via All4

"This after all has been a very careful election"

A fascinating experiment from James Graham and Josie Rourke, The Vote was a “play for theatre and television” which after two weeks of performances at the Donmar Warehouse – for which you had to enter a ballot for tickets – aired live on More4 at the very moment that it was set, the night of the UK general election. I wasn’t one of the lucky few in the ballot and am rarely inclined to dayseat (though I know several people who managed it) so I’ve only just got around to catching up with it on All4 (formerly 4OD) where it is on for another couple of weeks.

I’m glad I did get to see it as it is very funny and pulled together an extraordinary cast, the vast majority of whom spend mere moments onstage. Graham’s play focuses on the trials and tribulations of a South London polling station in the 90 minutes before voting closes and though there’s a farcical plot that holds the play together in the larger sense, the real joy comes in the microstories of the various voters who come in to exercise their democratic right as best they see fit. Drunks losing their polling cards, giddy lesbians brandishing selfie sticks, teenagers asking Siri who to vote for, all amusing slices of life are represented by a stellar cast who seem to be having just as much as the audience.

CD Review: John-Victor – Shoot…Bang!

"Turn your bedroom into a nightclub"

Somewhat ironically, just last week I inferred that it's a much more diverse prospect to collate a lyricist's work, as opposed to to a composer, into a cohesive album whilst reviewing wordsmith Lesley Ross' new CD. But turning to one of Ross' musical collaborators on that disc - John-Victor - I've immediately been proven wrong with Shoot...Bang! This is new musical theatre writing as you've rarely heard it, genuinely original and fiercely contemporary and yes, hugely wide-ranging in its content.

Pulling together excerpts from four of his musicals in various stages of development (some with Perfect Pitch) War and Fleece and Barry the Penguin (a black and white Christmas) written with Lesley Ross, and Carla Cthulu and Chick with Paul Roberts, what instantly strikes you is the immediacy of the music. It's club tunes, it's pop songs, it's radio hits, all fed through with an essential thread of musical theatre but emerging with the kind of freshness that is, well, so refreshing to hear. It is clear to see why pop bands have called him in to help co-write hits for them but the prospect of hearing this music in fully-fleshed out shows in theatres is a hugely exciting prospect for the future.
  

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Review: Flames, Waterloo East

“You’ll live your life in constant fear 
We’ll have to make him disappear” 

Cripes. Flames is described as a “suspense-filled musical thriller” but whether intentional or not, it proved to be one of the funniest things I've seen this year. Its campy, schlocky vibes are like an episode of Sunset Beach happening before your very eyes and yet played with such seriousness, I’m really not sure that that is what they were aiming for at all. Stephen Dolginoff - whose Thrill Me has recently been revived for a UK tour – once again takes on sole duty for book, music and lyrics to explore murderous mystery but I’m not sure these flames have ignited in the way he might have intended, here at the Waterloo East Theatre. 

Stockbroker Edmond died in disgrace a year ago in a fire and fiancée Meredith and best friend Eric are paying their respects at his graveside but they’re haunted by several questions. Did he really commit a terrible crime before dying? If so, where’s the money? Is it ok for Eric to have the hots for his dead best friend’s girl? Why does she take her coat off if it’s a stormy night? And how are those candles meant to be staying alight? Does Eric need his eyes testing? In fact, do they all need their eyes testing – no-one seems to see anyone coming in this cemetery. And just how sharp is that umbrella?