Saturday, 19 April 2014

Review: Home, National Theatre

“You don’t know whether to go out and say something…or…or not”

Returning to the Shed after a successful run last year, Nadia Fall’s Home is a compelling piece of verbatim theatre, stitched together by an exciting company – many of whom have returned from the original cast – who guide us through the changing, complex world of Target East, a refuge for young homeless people in London. The centre may be fictional but the issues and incidents raised here are anything but.

The need for security, a place where they can feel protected, is common to all the residents here, some just passing through, others destined to stay a bit longer and the staff committed to their thankless tasks just as long as the funding holds out. Fall deliberately crashes narratives into each other, the chaos of life for many of these people reflected in the way their stories get told, echoes of similar experiences creeping through just as much as the stark differences.

Review: A Spoonful of Sugar, St James

“Everyone was glad
What a time they had
They were so happy they came”

Nostalgia can be a lovely thing to bathe in and when it comes to the music of the Sherman Brothers, there’s an ocean of it. Robert and Richard Sherman can lay claim to being one of the most successful songwriting partnerships ever, taking Hollywood by storm with such iconic soundtracks as Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to name just a few, in a career that has stretched over 60 years, even 90 if one includes their father Al who was a noted songwriter in his own right.

To really make it a family affair, A Spoonful of Sherman is hosted by Robert’s son Robbie who acts as compère throughout, drawing the narrative line from the beginning of the twentieth century right up to the present day as of course, he is a composer himself as well. Sadly, Sherman Junior is probably the weakest link of the evening, the unique insight that he could have brought to bear is largely conspicuous by its absence and he feels ill-suited to the task, one can tell this is not his natural oeuvre.

Saturday afternoon music treats

In this week’s selection, we have Elaine Paige simply giving us life with one of the most amazing routines you will ever see (the arrival of genuine menacing jazz flute at 3.06 is the best bit), a gorgeous snippet from the forthcoming Water Babies musical, a much-needed reminder of why Bernadette Peters is as highly regarded as she is, an excerpt of the launch concert for the Words Shared With Friends album, a (probably illegal) clip from the Broadway version of Damn Yankees which I saw on stage for the first time recently and Jonathan Groff being dreamy. 



Thursday, 17 April 2014

Short Film Review #39

WOW 2014 – A Day In Detention
Not a short film as such, but utterly essential. The Women of the World Festival took place at the Southbank Centre in early March and A Day In Detention was part of that event. A piece of verbatim theatre pulled together by Nell Leyshon and directed by Jessica Swale, it looks at varying experiences of refugee women in the UK asylum system with an unblinking eye and a near-shocking straightforwardness. The harsh reality of what they are forced to go through, after escaping untold horrors in their own country, is appallingly bleak but there’s a beautiful dignity to the way in which their stories are told, both in the way they have been captured and also in the stunning performances of Juliet Stevenson, Bryony Hannah and an unbearably moving Cush Jumbo.

Review: Archimedes’ Principle, Park Theatre

“You're more ready to believe a parent who has never set foot at the pool and the words of a five-year-old girl..."

Archimedes’ principle posits that “any object, wholly or partially immersed in a fluid, is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object” but Catalan playwright Josep Maria Miró i Coromina’s Archimedes’ Principle, receiving a UK premiere at the Park Theatre, explores what happens when the reciprocal force overwhelms the original. At a local swimming baths, an accusation about one of the coaches is made by a child. Parents are already on edge due to a recent incident at a nearby youth centre and in this day and age of unabating coverage of paedophilia cases and the instantly mobilising forces of social media, the situation rapidly deteriorates into bedlam.

But rather than present us with a play about sexual abuse, Miró explores something much more fascinating about the nature of truth and the way that even the most pernicious of accusations can insinuate their way into rational minds. We get the child’s version of events, we get to hear young coach Brandon’s explanation of what happened, but the playwright doesn’t come down on one side or the other. Instead we jump around in time, playing and replaying scenes which take on different meanings once an alternative position has been expressed. Thus we see how the reaction to even just the merest hint of paedophilia is just as dangerous, if not more, than the thing itself.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Review: A Small Family Business, National Theatre

“Everybody else works little fiddles, because that’s what the system is designed for"

Who knows what hold Alan Ayckbourn has over the theatrical establishment but by heavens, it is a strong one. As prolific a playwright as they come, the appetite for his plays is seemingly insatiable with what must be a constant stream of productions – I imagine one would be hard-pressed to find a week where there isn’t at least one of his plays being performed somewhere in the country. But his charms have never really worked on me, it is with a heavy heart that I hear there’s a new Ayckbourn somewhere with a cast I can’t resist (although I did only see one of his plays last year) and this time round, it is all Nigel Lindsay’s fault.

A Small Family Business is a 1987 play that was hailed as a searching examination of how Thatcherite values eroded societal links through the experience of one man realising that the family furniture business he has inherited is rife with corruption. But in 2014 it feels a little neutered, what once might have appeared daring has been nullified by a quarter century of rapacious capitalism and so what is left is the well-trodden farcical shenanigans that Ayckbourn loves so much, accompanied by an attempt at a darker side that sits very awkwardly indeed with the dated comedy.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Review: Birdland, Royal Court

“I literally have enough money to buy anything"

It was Scarlett Johansson wot did it. My over-riding thought as Simon Stephens’ Birdland built to its destructive climax was that the alien for Jonathan Glazer’s recent film Under The Skin had somehow infiltrated affairs. The viscous black liquid that surrounds Ian MacNeil’s set slowly rises to encroach on the ever-twisted world of tortured rockstar Paul, threatening to swallow him in its total embrace, an oblivion the man might truly welcome. But it is just a coincidence, although perhaps rooted in some conceptual similarity, there are no aliens here. Or Hollywood superstars.

Instead, Irish legend-in-the-making Andrew Scott plays a hugely successful musician who is on top of the world and coming to the end of going round the world on a huge tour. Whipped into a constant fervour by the corrosive side of celebrity, his personality has become so warped that he can, and does, demand anything he wants, and by and large gets it. Aside from making him a total f*cktard, especially where his best friend and bandmate’s girlfriend is concerned, it also symptomizes the deeper societal malaise of a corrupted capitalist mindset in all its exploitative ugliness.

CD Review: Words Shared With Friends

"I'm not a man who finds gestures of affection the natural thing to do"

Over the past decade or so, writer and lyricist Robert Gould has worked with a wide range of composers from across the globe and amassed quite the contact list of performer friends, so the progression to recording a collection of his songs feels like a natural one. Words Shared With Friends thus takes in collaborations from the USA to Sweden and Israel, with excerpts from eight different shows and some stand-along songs, and features a roll-call of exciting musical theatre talent including the likes of Laura Pitt-Pulford, Kit Orton, Joe Sterling and Rebecca Trehearn. 

The 16 numbers range from impassioned musical theatre to straight up pop-rock songs and through the diversity, it is the British composers who shine most. Sarah Galbraith and Kit Orton duet gorgeously on ‘I Cannot Lose You’, a newly written song from Orton’s own My Land’s Shore; Joe Sterling breezes through the effortlessly perfect pop of ’Reasons’ from the self-penned Roundabout; and Ben Stott captures the bruised fragility of Ben Messenger’s ‘Here It Comes Again’, a ruefully beautiful ballad of self-reflection and resignation. 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Review: peddling, HighTide

“If you don’t earn hard 
the wheels on the bus might not go - 
round and round…
round and round…”

From watching the young cast of the Harry Potter films, one would be forgiven for not thinking it would be Dudley Dursley who would emerge with the greatest theatrical kudos but it is indeed Harry Melling who made the most interesting choices, been part of some fascinating productions, and now sees his debut as a playwright with peddling. He is of course a member of the Troughton acting dynasty so his success is perhaps not entirely unsurprising but with this one man show, in which he also stars, he ensures that any reputation is most definitely merited.

The world he has created is London at its seediest. Melling’s nameless 19 year-old ‘Boy’ may wear a London 2012 rucksack but it is dirtied and torn, a reflection of his position in life as a part of a gang of pedlar boys, owned and pimped out by the unscrupulous Bossman to sell any old tat door to door in the city. We meet him as he wakes up to the aftermath of a heavy night, trying to reconstruct what has happened and finding that the only way to do that is to delve as deep as he can into his memory, unearthing harsh realities and difficult truths.

Review: Incognito, HighTide

“Imagine how liberating it would be not to remember who you were”

If you saw the mega-hit that was Nick Payne’s Constellations, then the fragmented structure of his new play Incognito will come as little surprise. Here, he has deconstructed three stories loosely connected around the theme of neurology and woven them back together in a searching meditation on the vital importance memory plays in our lives and also in the construction of our very selves and touching on how little we truly understand about it.

Payne riffs off historical events for two of the three strands – the bizarre theft of Albert Einstein’s brain by the man who performed the autopsy on him, and the pioneering experiences of Henry Maison who underwent experimental brain surgery and thus helped shape the future of neuroscience. Along with extended and embellished versions of both stories is the tale of Martha, a present-day clinical neuropsychologist also caught in a moment of mental fragility.

Review: The Big Meal, HighTide

“Don’t you think I should be wearing underwear for this?”

The major stresses and ongoing strife of family life in all its messiness is at the heart of Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal, the sole US input into the main HighTide programme, which has already played a short run at Bath’s Ustinov theatre. Taking the idea that much of importance happens around the dinner table, LeFranc explores 80 years of a couple’s life through five generations of a family in an ambitiously sprawling framework which sees time following an anything-but-linear path, swathes of dialogue overlapping noisily with each other and a ton of food. And through the cacophony, it does manage to become something rather exhilarating.

It’s a dizzying experience though, and Michael Boyd’s direction manages to somehow embrace the audience into this strange world but keep us discombobulated within it. Sam and Nicole are the couple whose initial meeting in a diner is swiftly followed by the ‘ding’ that indicates passage of time and we see that they’re married with kids and so on and so forth, each ‘ding’ changing something which further complicates the ever-growing family and their troubled dynamic, which essentially boils down to life’s a bitch and then you die, during a silent Last Supper montage. Oh and yes, you will end up like your mother. 

Review: The Girl’s Guide to Saving the World, HighTide

“Do you think – deep down – that all men secretly hate women?”

Elinor Cook was the 2013 winner of the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright and so it is a natural fit that her play The Girl’s Guide to Saving the World should premiere at HighTide this year. Billed as “a frank and funny new play about friendship, feminism and what it means to be successful”, it’s a tale of nearly-30-something angst as Jane, Bella and Toby deal with the difficulties of accepting adulthood and what that means for their lives.

For Bella, it is calming down her chaotic sex life, just a little, and figuring out how to become the writer she wants to be rather than an in-house retail magazine scribe; for Jane and Toby, it is first recognising and then reconciling the huge differences in what they want from their partnership; and Jane’s relationship with longstanding best friend Bella is also under threat as their interests diverge even as they work together to tackle cultural representations of women via the medium of a blog.