Monday, 29 June 2015

Review: Temple, Donmar Warehouse

"Was it ever our choice to be the parish church of high finance?"

I was surprised at the number of people who didn’t come back after the interval of The Red Lion on Friday night as I was enjoying myself but on reflection, you can see that for all its lyricism (or indeed because of it) Patrick Marber’s writing doesn’t really stretch far beyond the world of football in which it is set. A similar narrowness of vision struck me about Steve Waters’ Temple at the Donmar Warehouse too, its exploration of the place of the church in the modern world does just that without substantially delving beyond that into whether the church should have a place in the modern world – it preaches to the choir somewhat.

A fictionalised account of the October 2011 events that saw the Occupy London camp force what not even the Blitz could manage – the closure of St Paul’s Cathedral. Starting at the end of a fortnight of fraught hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing which saw the doors eventually reopen but the canon resign, Waters places us at the heart the behind-the-scenes soul-searching. This he does through Simon Russell Beale’s dean (his boss) who finds himself thrust unwillingly into the spotlight and having to tread a most careful path through a treacherous landscape – can the church be party to a forced eviction, what leadership can such a venerable institution truly offer, do its duties lie with the City or the citizens?

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Review: One Arm, Southwark Playhouse

“The loss of his arm had apparently dulled his senses”

Tennessee Williams’ One Arm started life in the 1940s as a short story, was turned into a screenplay which remained unproduced in the 1960s and now finds itself adapted into a stage play by Moisés Kaufman, receiving its UK premiere directed by Josh Seymour at the Southwark Playhouse. Champion boxer and serving in the American navy, Ollie Olsen life is turned upside down when he loses his arm in a car accident and turning to prostitution, finds himself sucked into a world of increasing darkness and ending up on death row. From his cell, he reflects on his life and the strange contours of its journey.

Kaufman is perhaps best known for The Laramie Project (which Seymour directed in Leicester in 2012) and elements of that patchwork approach remain here, as this play has snippets from the screenplay quoted directly, including scene transitions and settings, upping the metatheatricality around Ollie’s story. But as it progresses, this device loses prominence amongst an increasing sense of Ollie’s fevered dreamworld taking over, allowing Seymour to bring out more of his own theatrical vision as with the incorporation of John Ross’ movement.

TV Review: No Offence, Channel 4

“Calm, methodical, Sunday fucking best”

There’s no two ways about it, Paul Abbott’s latest TV series has been an absolute triumph. Channel 4’s No Offence has kept me properly gripped over the last eight weeks and I’m delighted that a second series has already been commissioned as its enthralling mixture of comedy drama and police procedural has been irresistible from its opening five minutes with all its squashed-head shenanigans through to its thrilling finale which kept us on tenterhooks right til its final minutes.

Whence such success? A perfect storm of inspired casting and pin-sharp writing from Abbott and his team. Joanna Scanlan’s DI Viv Deering reinvigorates the stereotypical police boss to create a career-best character for Scanlan, her fierce loyalty played straight but her dry one-liners making the most of her comic genius. Elaine Cassidy’s DC Dinah Kowalska, the eager young copper on whom the focus settles most often, Alexandra Roach’s earnest but quick-learning DS Joy Freer completing the leads.

Review: The Red Lion, National Theatre

“I was never so loved, nor loved this life so strong”

Patrick Marber’s first new play in over a decade comes after a period of writer’s block, so it is perhaps little surprise that his subject matter in The Red Lion is one that is close to his heart and something with which he is intimately associated. Marber is a director of Lewes FC, currently in the Isthmian League Premier Division, and it is this world of non-league football into which he delves over a considerable 2 hours 20 minutes.

A great play would tease out such sub-themes as the state of modern cross-generational masculinity and what place faith has in such a capitalist world but Marber never really tempers his love for the beautiful game sufficiently to allow this to happen. So instead we get a very good play which lives and breathes football with its nostalgic yearning for the fair play and decency and corruption-free ethos of years gone by (if indeed they ever existed).

Friday, 26 June 2015

Review: Violence and Son, Royal Court

“I’m not like that.
Am I?”

Even now, a week after I saw Gary Owen’s Violence and Son, I still don’t know what to say about it or more importantly, how to say it - it’s a rare thing for a play to stun me into such silence but a magnificent one too. Cai Dyfan’s circular set recalls the similar set-up for Mike Bartlett’s Cock but with its dirty white plastic chairs and drab demeanour, it speaks of something or somewhere more desperate – in this particular case, the isolation of the Welsh valleys but only a fool would say this story and its ramifications, as searchingly highlighted by director Hamish Pirie, are limited to that sole location.

Life is tough enough as a Doctor Who fan but 17-year-old Liam is suffering more than most after his mother’s death has meant to has to move Wales to live with the father who left before he was even born. Rick, whose nickname gives the show its title, claims to have last been sober when he was 14 and rage follows in his every footstep as he thinks nothing of battering everything and everyone around him. And as father and son get to know each other, Owen makes a powerful argument about the appalling toxicity of stereotypical notions of masculinity but also how difficult it is to shake a generational legacy. 

Things come to a head when Liam brings home Jen, a fellow Whovian, and sets about trying to disentangle her from her current relationship with assistance from his dad – the one eager to prove he has a paternal instinct, the other eager to follow. But responsibility and gender relations aren’t a specialist subject in this slice of society, as chillingly explained by Jen and Suze, Rick’s lover, as they recount the sexual harassment they’re subjected to during every single visit down to the local, and the ugly issue of domestic violence soon rears its head in all its messy complexity. 

And it is complex - Owen and Pirie expertly push and pull us from pillar to post, light to dark, acquiescent to appalled as different sides to the story emerge and competing accounts battle for sympathy. Aided by a superb quartet of performances, it is – again – magnificent. Jason Hughes is terrifying and terrifyingly believable as Rick, David Moorst’s spiky, slender Liam is utterly heartbreaking as the boy increasingly willing to do anything for his da, Morfydd Clark’s Jen nails the too-late awareness that all is not what it seems here and Siwan Morris fleshes out the underwritten Suze very well, in all her tragic delusion. 

Turns out I did find something to say after all, who knew. But in all seriousness, I can’t recommend Violence and Son enough – one of the most compelling, thought-provoking plays of the year, whose brutal truths demand wider exposure. 

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval) 
Booking until 11th July 


Review: King John, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!”

One of the terms most overused by reviewers and publicity writers alike is “timely revival” and this production of King John is no different, coinciding with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta as it has processed on a mini-candelit-tour of Temple Church and Holy Sepulchre Church Northampton ahead of this run at the Globe. But Shakespeare dropped the ball here with this play, it is no surprise in the watching that it is one of his lesser-performed works and though James Dacre’s production has its bright spots, it can’t cover all of its inherent weaknesses.

Dacre heavily plays up the religious aspects of the play and whilst you can see the logic for the sacred venues and the atmosphere that the candlelight would have created, it’s less easy to see how it works as well at a sunny matinée in the open air on Bankside. Jonathan Fensom’s design imposes a red cross of a stage into the space and fills it with monks, but religion is only part of the story of John’s travails and weighting the emphasis so heavily here doesn’t seem to make a huge deal of dramatic sense (though I freely admit to not knowing the play at all well).

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Review: The Seagull, Open Air Theatre

“Life in the country is just so bloody boring”

Someone wiser than I pointed out that the only way you could do The Seagull at the Open Air Theatre was to be thoroughly iconoclastic, ruffling those Chekhovian feathers into something brasher, bolder and less contained. And there is no doubting that that is what Torben Betts’ new version and Matthew Dunster’s directorial vision have set out to do here, ramping up the comedic elements (of the first half at least) but sacrificing much of the counterbalancing tragedy that customarily gives the Russian writer’s work its depth. 

There’s some good work here – Janie Dee’s skittish Arkadina is a delight as she vainly tries to cling onto a long-gone girliishness (though impressive barre work!), Lisa Diveney’s Kirsten Stewart-ish Masha is well-realised in all her agonised inaction, and Jon Bausor’s striking design tilts a giant mirror at 45 degrees to the floor to both open up and expose the world of the tortured souls in this country estate. But the prevailing mood is one of something close to glibness, as the frivolity of the updating comes up hard against the traditional period setting. 

Blogged: #StarForADay


The guys at Hotel Direct now have a new theatre hub called Theatre Breaks and they've launched an competition for theatre writers and bloggers to become a #StarForADay by creating a themed day out in London based on a character from a West End show.


After some serious thought, I’ve opted to be Erik, the Phantom himself from Phantom of the Opera


- Since being out and about in broad daylight isn’t really an option for your average Phantom-about-town, I would spend the daytime visiting The London Dungeons as it’s always good to get subterranean and be among familiar faces like my old mate Jack the Ripper.

- You can get hungry mooching about underground though so when it gets to tea-time, I’d head over to a classic French restaurant like Boulestin in St James, where they make old-school food just like Maman used to.

- Then it would be time to go to Her Majesty’s Theatre on Haymarket to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version of certain personal events in Phantom of the Opera. He’s got many of the details wrong but that’s probably for the best…

- And then to wrap up the evening, where else but below ground again! Post-show cocktails will be in order at Cahoots underground bar which is decked out like a London Underground tube station which reminds me of the Métro back in my beloved Paris.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Review: Bend it like Beckham, Phoenix

“Who wants to cook aloo gobi when you can bend a ball like Beckham”

As anyone who has ever been to my parents’ annual Bonfire Night party can attest, a good aloo gobi is nothing to be sniffed at (nor my mum’s lamb saag for that matter) but when you’re a teenager, such things are far from your mind. So it is for Jesminder Bhamra – her older sister has just gotten engaged, her parents are keen for her to keep close to her Punjabi Sikh heritage but all she wants to do is play football in the park. And when she gets spotted by the captain of the local girls’ team, Jess finds herself torn between her family and following her heart’s desire.

Based on Gurinder Chadha’s enormously successful film of the same name, this musical version of Bend It Like Beckham is a ball-bouncing, cross-cultural match-up of a show. Adapted by Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges, the story maintains its vivacious energy as Jess weaves her way through wedding prep and vibrantly staged parties with the extended family whilst tackling the rigours of life with new pal and teammate Jules in the Hounslow Harriers where her footballing prowess is soon spotted by the keen coach Joe, someone else Jules also has her eye on. 

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Review: Sensitive Subjects – The Revlon Girl / Barren, Tristan Bates

“They asked me how I felt. 
How do you answer a question like that?” 

Sensitive Subjects is the title of this double bill of one-act plays which both deal with the traumatic experience of child bereavement in their own ways. Director Maxine Evans and playwright Neil Anthony Docking have deliberately approached the issue this way – The Revlon Girl looks back to the Aberfan disaster of 1966 and looks at how the small mining village community there tried to deal with the loss of over 100 children, and Barren tackles the issue of infertility in a modern day marriage, mourning the children that can never be – and whilst never an easy evening of theatre to watch, it is at times extraordinary.

Just over an hour in length, The Revlon Girl must surely rank as one of the best pieces of new writing in London at the moment. Docking imagines a support group meeting for the bereaved mothers of Aberfan, where 116 children and 28 adults lost their lives when a tip collapsed into the village, where a make-up rep from Revlon has been booked to try and lift their grief-stricken spirits. But there are as many ways to process grief as there are people in the world and this group of four women are no different, from near-catatonic shock to antisocial prickliness, over-compensatory geniality to terse officiousness. 

Monday, 22 June 2015

Review: Luna Gale, Hampstead

“I just want to know that it’s not that I don’t want you to get help, because I do, it’s just that there’s not any help out there”

There’s a moment towards the end of Rebecca Gilman’s 2014 play Luna Gale, directed by Michael Attenborough at the Hampstead, that is just breath-taking. Put-upon social worker Caroline finds herself pressured into praying in her office with a visiting pastor and her religious boss and as the minister lays his hand on her shoulder and offers a deeply seductive account of God’s love, Sharon Small’s deeply conflicted Caroline seems to teeter on the edge of something monumental in an extraordinarily charged moment of drama.

I’d describe it as a shocking moment but that reveals my own prejudices, a distrust of fundamentalist-tinged religion and a sense that such movements prey on easy targets, but in turn that reflects a larger point that Gilman makes in her play. Caroline is dealing with the case of 2 year old Luna Gale, born to teenage meth addicts and though rehousing the child with her grandmother seems the easy option, when she reveals she is deeply religious during a case meeting, Caroline’s instinctive reaction is to roll her eyes and offer a dry remark.

Review: Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Which is the wiser here, Justice or Iniquity?”

You don’t get many Measure for Measures for the pound, in the grand scheme, so Outgoing Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole probably thought he was onto a winner in choosing it to be part of his final summer season and indeed the last play he’ll direct as AD. But these things come in threes and we’ve been blessed with two other major productions – Cheek by Jowl’s Russian-language version shook the rafters of the Barbican earlier this year and Joe Hill-Gibbons promises to do the same at the Young Vic with Romola Garai in the Autumn.

But no matter, we can be assured of diverse interpretations - for the first two at least – and Dromgoole’s version for the Globe does precisely what he does best, unfussily traditional productions blessed with a striking clarity (best evidenced by his superlative 2013 A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Here, we get to see Mariah Gale, one of our finest young Shakespeareans, deliver a stunning account of one of Shakespeare’s more complex female characters in Isabella and we also bear witness to Dominic Rowan ascending to the leading man status (with which he has arguably merely flirted before) as Vincentio.