Monday, 2 March 2015

Review: The 39 Steps, Criterion

“Golly!"

This is actually the first time I've seen The 39 Steps despite its perennial fixture on the theatrical listings, or perhaps it is actually because of it. Like tourist attractions like The London Eye or the Aquarium, it's something I've walked past a hundred times without ever really thinking about it, assuming that I'd go along one day but never quite mustering the enthusiasm to do so until someone else gives you a kick up the bum.

Such kick duly administered, we delved our way into the depths of the Criterion Theatre and settled down for a couple of hours of top-notch entertainment. I'd say it is under-rated but that's not really true as audiences have been flocking to Patrick Barlow's adaptation of Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon's original show since 2006 and it isn't hard to see why. The concept of 4 actors taking on 139 characters with a bare minimum of props is simplicity itself but an absolute treasure to behold.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Review: Songs of Lear, Battersea Arts Centre

“Is my heart too large for you?"

It's Shakespeare but not as you know it... It's been over four years since I saw Polish company Song of the Goat but their haunting interpretation of Macbeth is still etched on my mind and so when they announced a return of their 2012 hit Songs of Lear I was keen to make a date during their short visit to Battersea Arts Centre. Not even a severe case of manflu could keep me away but I should probably apologise for passing on my germs to anyone who ended up with them! 

There's no easy way to describe the work of Song of the Goat that really does them sufficient justice. I could talk about the expressionistic Kandinsky-inspired sketches that King Lear is condensed to create the 10 songs of the show but their enigmatic beauty is so much more than a simple reduction. Likewise, the words 'Corsican polyphonic singing' can't convey the soul-wrenching beauty of what we hear (the merest snippet of which can be heard in the clip below), 

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Review: Multitudes, Tricycle

“I haven’t taken a taxi since Rotherham”

It's hard to imagine a time, in the near future at least, when multiculturalism in the UK won't be a hot button issue - if nothing else, what would certain elements of the press be pitifully obsessed with instead? So naturally, John Hollingworth's play Multitudes - his first - feels well timed, how could it not - Jihadi John and schoolgirl recruits for Islamic State dominate the front pages, the shockwaves of Charlie Hebdo are still rippling around with inflammatory polls further stirring the pot and the nefarious impact of UKIP on British politics remains impossible to escape,

Trying to make sense of these multiple strands is a job and a half for even the most seasoned of commentators and it's not immediately apparent that Hollingworth is the man for the job as he layers all this and more into his play. But once Indhu Rubasingham's production finds its feet in the swirl of the melting pot and one becomes accustomed to its rhythms, Multitudes' noisy energy makes sense. Hollingworth doesn't set out to give us answers, such as they could possibly exist, but rather gives a portrayal of of the messiness of race debates in British society.

Review: Yarico, London Theatre Workshop

“And so poor Yarico for her love, lost her liberty”

When a show openly acknowledges that it is a work-in-progress, you could be forgiven a certain degree of scepticism but on entering the London Theatre Workshop – perched above a Fulham pub – and seeing the size of their marimba, there can be no doubting the seriousness of the intent behind Yarico. A musical treatment of the opera Inkle and Yarico, itself based on the historical writings of Richard Ligon in A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados, it’s a fascinating look at an interesting time in a difficult piece of history.

For though the slave trade forms the backdrop for the story, the opera came at a time when anti-slavery sentiment was on the rise and this sense of being on the cusp of the abolition era adds an thought-provoking texture to the production. Yarico, a young Amerindian woman with a yen for Shakespeare, has her life turned upside down when English ne’er-do-well Thomas Inkle washes up onshore. The only one able to communicate with him due to her studies, she pleads for his life against her hostile fellow islanders and they soon fall in love – so far so happy.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Review: Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, Aldwych Theatre

“Everything seems to be
Some kind of wonderful"

Where Broadway leads, the West End will surely follow and so it is little surprise that Tony-winning Beautiful - The Carole King Musical found its way over here to the Aldwych Theatre. And I'm pleased to report that the transatlantic passage has gone most smoothly indeed to deliver an absolute treat of a show. When three of its four leading personnel are still very much alive and kicking, it is perhaps no surprise that Douglas McGrath’s book treads a rather respectable path through the first ten years of King’s career. But then she would be the first to say, with typical self-deprecating charm, that her life is hardly the most exciting, her dreams never the loftiest – it just so happens that beneath this veneer of ordinariness lay an absolute treasure trove of extraordinary music. 

And as musical gem follows musical gem – both from the collaborations of King and sometime partner Gerry Goffin, and also from their friends and writing rivals Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann – this feels utterly the point. Life isn’t always chock-a-block with drama, motivations don’t always have to spring from some momentous event, the cult of the tortured artistic soul is far from the be all and end all (Billington seems to siggest being "a shy, well-adjusted woman struggling to reconcile a career with a failing marriage" is something of a crime!) and I'd say that Beautiful is no weaker a biopic for not having such narrative peaks and troughs, reinventing personal history in the name of drama. 

Re-review: The Nether, Duke of York’s

“I’ve read the studies. No one has been able to draw a conclusive correlation between virtual behaviour and behaviour in-world.”

Just a quickie for this revisit to US playwright Jennifer Haley's The Nether, first seen at the Royal Court last summer, which has now transferred to the Duke of York's and as my colleague for the afternoon said afterwards, isn't it great to see plays like this with productions like this in the West End. Weighty subjects like the abdication of responsibility in the digital age and the morality of sexual conduct online when it is ostensibly make-believe or "outside consequence" as one character puts it, and a production that reflects its Sloane Square origins in reuniting almost the entire cast without succumbing to big-name casting.

My original review can be read here and it still stands. Es Devlin's design and Luke Halls' video work look even better in the larger theatre, hugely slick both in the cool technological sweep of its 2050 setting but also in the elegant evocation of its online world, The Hideaway, where the mind is left to run riot as to what people might get up to in there. Amanda Hale and Stanley Townsend maintain their coolly combative partnership as law enforcer and online maestro respectively and there's alternately skin-crawling and heart-breaking work from opposite ends of the age spectrum from David Calder and Zoe Brough/Isabella Pappas/Jaime Adler/Perdita Hibbins* (delete as appropriate).

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 25th April

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Re-review: Miss Saigon, Prince Edward Theatre


“Why God? Why today?" 

I wasn’t the hugest fan of Miss Saigon first time round as my review from then clearly attests but I’m never one to be entirely closed-minded (though it may not often seem that way…) so when the opportunity to take a friend who had not previously been popped up, I made a return visit to the Prince Edward Theatre. The show is still basking in the glow of recently winning 9 What’s On Stage awards and it is clear that it is attracting a younger and atypically passionate crowd (for a West End show at least). 

That passion cuts both ways though as the overexcited group behind us couldn’t hold back from the flash photography and the young woman in front of me was less enthused than the rest of her party and spent most of the show on Facebook. It makes for a different kind of theatre experience when you’re having to do battle with that kind of behaviour but given my continued lack of engagement with the storyline of this particular musical theatre behemoth, it was as much a distraction for me as anything. 

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Preview: Elegy at the VAULT Festival and Brighton's Pink Fringe

"Some stories are more powerful than others"

I'm not normally one for doing preview pieces but for this show, I'm making the exception. Douglas Rintoul's Elegy was one of the best shows I saw in 2012, making my top 25 for the year and inspiring a rather rapturous review. So I was glad to hear that a) it has had a successful time of it since then, winning an RNT Foundation Playwright Award and touring internationally (indeed the show is currently enjoying a critically acclaimed Spanish language run in Madrid) and b) it is returning to the UK for dates here in London and in Brighton.

This one-man-show is brilliant but brutal, a searing insight into the LGBT refugee experience as a gay Iraqi man is forced on the run when the 'liberation' of the post-Saddam regime takes a decidedly more conservative turn, It's the type of subject that one sadly imagines will never not be resonant somewhere somehow and with the rise of Islamic State in the Middle East, certainly now more than ever. Adam Best will be taking on the unnamed role and Rintoul directs in what will be one of the more haunting productions you'll see all year long.

Elegy plays 

VAULT Festival 2015, London 
25 Feb – 1 Mar 2015, 9.30pm 

Pink Fringe, Brighton
4 - 5 March 2015, 7:30pm

And if you can't make any of these dates, then the show is being recorded and will be released as a digital download to coincide with Refugee Week in June.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Review: Closer, Donmar Warehouse

“I love everything about you that hurts”

Obnoxious people doing obnoxious things for well over two hours – safe to say Patrick Marber’s Closer rubbed me up the wrong way something rotten, and scarcely believing that this was the winner of the Olivier for Best New Play in 1997. Characters float from scene to scene with little genuine motivation, no sense of inner life, just this insistence that there’s something meaningful in being unerringly truthful to one’s self when it comes to matters of desire, no matter the consequences.

Some might be tempted to find something contemporary in Marber’s depiction of lustful impulses overriding all, where sex and deceit go hand in hand with the dawning of the age of the internet. But what resonated strongest for me was the outdated manner in which the two female parts, but Alice in particular, are written. Despite Rachel Redford’s best efforts, Alice never breaks through the distasteful male fantasy gaze that posits her as an enigmatic stripper who just wants to be loved by a man (and not just any man…yes, you) – it’s enough to make even the most homosexual of men feel dirty.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Review: Hamlet, Cockpit

“Be all my sins remembered"

Sitting through English Repertory Theatre’s reconceived version of Hamlet, it struck me that the thing is reminded me of the most was an episode of Hollyoaks and I don’t mean that in terms of an outright dis, it really was where the resonance came. The courtroom of Elsinore becomes a private schoolroom in which privileged kids toy with questions of gender and sexuality and deliver overdramatic dramatics, the adult figures have to make do with paper-thin characterisations and there’s an abnormally high death-rate – maybe Shakespeare spent some time in Chester after all…

To fit this vision, Gavin Davis’ adaptation makes some rightfully bold decisions and it throws up some interesting new variations on a familiar theme. The Ghost and Guildenstern are stripped out, with Ophelia, Laertes and Rosencrantz being comparatively beefed up, meaning Hamlet discovers key details about his father’s death from notes being passed around the classroom and Nina Bright’s Ophelia is pleasingly fleshed out to become more of a true compatriot to her lover. And with Rachel Waring’s Hamlet gussied up as a boi, there’s added piquancy to the general ambivalence about their relationship.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Re-reviews: Di and Viv and Rose / Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

“It was a ball, it was a blast
It was a shame it couldn’t last”

A half-term jaunt down to London for Aunty Jean saw us take in a couple of shows I was happy to revisit. I remain as affectionately inclined towards Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as I ever have done, its traditional bonhomie remains as watchable as ever and there’s just something comfortable about the whole affair which remains hard to resist. Even whilst not being Robert Lindsay’s biggest fan (seriously, is he being paid by the pelvic thrust?!) the shimmering star quality of Kat Kingsley and the affable appeal of Alex Gaumond more than compensate. And the bumbling charms of Ben Fox, the third Chief of Police since the show started - job security in Beaumont-Sur-Mer is clearly not strong ;-) - prove the ideal foil for Bonnie Langford’s knowingly charismatic Muriel.

And we also made a more-timely-than-we-realised trip to Amelia Bullmore’s Di and Viv and Rose which posted closing notices pretty much as we left the matinée. It feels a real shame as it is such a sprightly production of a sparkling play which certainly deserved better audiences but for whatever reason, it just didn't connect. I've written more about the show on my three previous visits (link here) but I'd definitely recommend trying to catch it before it closes, not least for some of the most joyous dancing onstage (which forms the perfect counterbalance to My Night With Reg) and Jenna Russell's glorious performance as the hugely-generous-of-spirit Rose. 

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 7th March

Di and Viv and Rose
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 14th March

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Review: Arcadia, Churchill Theatre Bromley

“When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone on the empty shore”

With London audiences pondering The Hard Question and struggling to find the answer (we’re insufficiently classicly-educated apparently, though the journalist getting the name of the play wrong here is hardly a great start to counter that assertion) fans of Tom Stoppard can also catch his more celebrated play Arcadia in this English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Brighton co-production, directed by the ever-interesting Blanche McIntyre. I hesitate to call it a nationwide tour as it doesn’t appear to heading any further north than Birmingham but it is still a healthy enough trek for this pleasingly complex but affecting play.

As is customary with this playwright, it is a play full of weighty ideas – complex mathematics and chaos theory, entropy and existential truths, and takes place in the same country house drawing room in two time periods simultaneously, 1809 and the present day. Along the length of a fine dining table, the past rubs up against the present as the scientific rigour of the intellect goes head to head with the emotional poetry of the soul as Stoppard ultimately explores what it simply means to be human (and also what stirring rice pudding really represents). It is perhaps easy to get caught up in the density of the detail during the play but it would take the hardest of hearts not to be swept up the heart-breaking swing and sway of the final scene.