Friday, 27 March 2015

#ThankyouNick - my top 10 (and then some) National Theatre productions of the Hytner era

"Pass it on, boys. That's the game I want you to learn. Pass it on"

Ever one to jump on a bandwagon, here’s my contribution to the #ThankyouNick love-in, as Nick Hytner bids farewell to the National Theatre. Narrowing down my favourite productions at the South Bank venue was hugely difficult given the number of shows I’ve seen there since moving to London just over 10 years ago and also in considering other memorable moments - like the joy of getting to see the likes of Vanessa Redgrave and Juliette Binoche onstage for the first time, the jaw-dropping design feats like Bunny Christie’s tenement block for Men Should Weep and Mark Tildesley’s clanging bell in Frankenstein, the revelatory Shakespearean moments like Clare Higgins’ awesome Gertrude and the extraordinary emotion of the final scene of Dominic Cooke's The Comedy of Errors...

Anyhoo, here’s my top 10 (plus five honourable mentions) in roughly chronological order.

Back in the day when taking a day off work to see two shows was something I’d never thought of, seeing this adaptation of one of my favourite works of literature proved to be a life-changingly amazing experience and hugely moving too, at the end I sobbed in my seat until the Olivier emptied.

Likewise, seeing Rupert Goold direct for the first time without any of the advance knowledge or expectation was just breath-taking - I would love to see those scene changes again. 

One of the most haunting things I have ever seen, even to this day.

That scene change!

Nancy Carroll's back being better than most other actors!

A truly paradigm-shifting musical


So good I gave it a standing ovation without even realising what I was doing.

So good I went back four more times.

If only more shows in the newly refurbished Dorfman were this adventurous, not least in its casting choices.

Honourable mentions

Not a bad haul at all then, and a great trip down memory lane, thinking about plays that had long slipped from my mind for no reason other than my own forgetfulness. There are undoubtedly shows I wish I'd seen - Much Ado About Nothing, Jerry Springer, even The History Boys - all victims of being on at a time when I didn't feel the need to see everything!

So let me know what you think and what would you have on your list. 

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Review: The Three Lions, St James

“What’s the difference between a bribe and an incentive?”

With the fallout of FIFA’s decisions of where to have the 2018 and 2022 World Cups still percolating around footballing bureaucrats even now, one could probably find more than enough material for a verbatim play full of high drama – alleged bribery and corruption, the tragedy of migrant working conditions, war-mongering presidents, seismic calendar shifts from summer to winter. William Gaminara’s The Three Lions wisely sidesteps that potential controversy though, by imagining a behind-the-scenes farce involving the trio spearheading the English bid to host the 2018 competition – three blokes by the name of David Cameron, David Beckham and Prince William.

In representing three such well-known figures, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, Séan Browne and Tom Davey have to tread a fine line between impersonation and inhabiting their characters more fully and Gaminara’s script doesn’t always allow for this. Davey’s lanky Prince William becomes an improbable japester as he desperately tries to shake off his inbred stiffness and grammatical pedantry and be one of the lads. And Bruce-Lockhart gets the PM’s blustering and patronising tone just right, matching it with the overcompensatory physical language that belies innate insecurity. But they both get overshadowed by a work of comic genius in Browne’s footballer.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Review: Rules for Living, National Theatre

“Let the bedlam begin”

The final play to premiere in Nicholas Hytner’s final season in charge of the National Theatre is Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living, directed by Marianne Elliott in the Dorfman. Was it a pointed decision to end his reign with a show both written and helmed by a woman, who knows? Either way, it’s always good to see this venue providing such high profile opportunities for the writers it nurtures. Holcroft’s short(ish) Edgar and Annabel played as part of the Double Feature season in 2011 and she was a writer-in-residence here at the NT in 2013, from whence this rather cracking new comedy has emerged.

And boy is it funny, I don’t think I have laughed this thoroughly and consistently at a play in ages. As someone for whom farcical goings-on too often fall flat, I’m often left bemoaning the fact I’m sitting stony-faced in a sea of hilarity (cf. One Man Two Guvnors et al) but for once I was right with them. Holcroft’s set-up has an extended family coming together for Christmas lunch, an event for which Edith has been preparing since January. She’s looking forward to seeing both her sons, Matthew and Adam, and their partners, and they in turn are keen to see their father who has been in the wars recently.

Review: Return to the Forbidden Planet, New Wimbledon

“Two beeps or not two beeps”

Early 2015 is turning out to be something of a nostalgia-fest for me as following the Royal Exchange’s superb revival of Little Shop of Horrors is another of the first shows that I came to love as a child – Return to the Forbidden Planet. I can’t recall exactly how many time my sisters, Aunty Jean and I must have seen this show but every time its tour came near us we were there, reversing polarity and loving it every time. Consequently, I have huge affection for the show, even though it is many years since I last saw it, and so naturally the notion of a 25th anniversary tour was one I could not resist as it came into my orbit at the New Wimbledon.

For those without such prior knowledge, Return to the Forbidden Planet is a schlocky sci-fi B-movie version of The Tempest, complete with a rock’n’roll jukebox soundtrack. Not only that, there’s video narration by Brian May. cod-Shakespearean dialogue and any number of quotations lifted from other plays by the Bard and repurposed to intergalactic effect. So a routine space mission led by Captain Tempest gets diverted to a mysterious rock called D’Illyria (“what planet, friends, is this…”) after getting caught in a meteor storm (“goodness, gracious, great balls of fire…”) where they meet the mad Doctor Prospero, his robot servant Ariel and his innocent daughter Miranda.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Review: Radiant Vermin, Soho Theatre

“I want to do it Ollie. I want more things. Better things.”

The struggles of home ownership seem to be emerging as one of the most popular themes of new plays for early 2015 (Game at the Almeida, Deposit at the Hampstead downstairs) but top of the pile is Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin, a highly hilarious and hugely successful sidestep towards the mainstream but one which sacrifices nothing of the unique worldview that marks him as one of our most thought-provoking playwrights. Almost custom-designed to fit into that much abused term ‘darkly comic’, the play probes mercilessly into the depths of human nature in asking how far would we go in order to get our dream home. 

As it turns out, Jill and Ollie – energetic, enthusiastic, expecting - will go to some lengths indeed, making a deal not quite with the devil but with the fairy godmother-like Miss Dee instead, to accept a free home in a scuzzy area with the hope of renovating it, tipping the locale over into up-and-coming status and spearheading a property boom. So far so Saturday Night Takeaway but as with Ant and Dec, there’s a catch (and it is not just their personalities). The young couple quickly find out that that the speediest way to do up their new house is to harness the “radiance” that comes from killing the vermin around them, namely the homeless people from the neighbouring wasteground. 

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Review: Trainspotting, King’s Head

“Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?”

There’s something hugely exciting about In Your Face Theatre’s immersive take on Trainspotting which makes it clear why it was a hit on the Edinburgh Fringe last year but what it is equally thrilling is the change they have wrought upon the King Head’s theatre. The majority of the seats have gone, what set there is seems to sprawl across the entire space and as you enter the auditorium, you find yourself in the middle of a full-on 90s rave, glowsticks and all.

And this near-anarchic energy is a perfect match for Irvine Welsh’s modern classic, celebrating its 21st anniversary this year, its drug-fuelled hedonism and horror presented here with an uncompromising candour and imaginative directness that is most definitely, well, in your face. Directors Greg Esplin and Adam Spreadbury-Maher pull no punches in immersing folk in any number of bodily fluids with glorious disregard for your standard actor/audience relationship, making for an exhilarating hour.

Review: Harajuku Girls, Finborough

“I don’t know a girl who hasn’t been groped on a train. There’s always someone trying to cop a feel. Might as well get paid for it.”

With quite a few shows closing this weekend, I opted to pay a trip to the penultimate show of Harajuku Girls at the Finborough. Francis Turnly’s play sets up an intriguing premise in the exploration of the world of Japanese cosplay and its role in modern Tokyo society and creatively, it brings the director of last year’s extraordinary I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole back to the stage in Jude Christian. 

After graduating high school, Mari, Keiko and Yumi find themselves cut adrift in the harsh realities of the depressed economy of the real world. Parental and societal expectation is as high as it has ever been but jobs are increasingly hard to come by, tuition fees for further education are sky-high and so dressing up in cosplay outfits offers an escapist route. In the seedier areas of town, it also offers financial opportunity but it’s a struggle to ensure they’re the ones who exploit and are not exploited.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Review: The Red Chair, Canada Water Culture Space


“Once upon a dark time, someplace in the glum north o’ the warld…” 

Grimmer than Grimm, brusquer than Burns, as challenging as Chaucer, there’s something quite extraordinary about Sarah Cameron’s utter possession of the language of The Red Chair, the Clod Ensemble show she has written and co-adapted. Dancing from her mouth in ribbons of musically-inflected Scots brogue, words are imbued with a near-mystic energy that flows through the room and wraps an indescribable feeling around the listeners who have gathered to hear her on this tour which stretches from Brighton to Newcastle. 

As a reviewer, I’m probably not meant to use words like ‘indescribable’ but in all honesty, there’s magic going on here that defies clear rationalisation. A seemingly everyday list of foodstuffs becomes something extraordinary, full of texture, feeling and even taste as Cameron offers such delights as “fridgecake mud cake fudge cake fishcake” with a gently insistent rhythmical pull that is probably akin to hynoptism, but also conveying a deeply held conviction that ensures we never mistake this for randomly selected wordplay. 

Review: Boy in Darkness, Blue Elephant

“Tinged with sweetness and menace..."

Tucked away in the black box of the Blue Elephant, itself tucked away in the Oval/Camberwell borders is the nightmarish fantastical world of Boy in Darkness. Conjured from the solo storytelling prowess of Gareth Murphy, who also adapted the piece from Mervyn Peake’s novella, it’s an alluringly spellbinding piece of physical theatre that receives a thoughtful production here from John Walton and one which ought to fire even the most jaded of imaginations. It is worth noting too the special relationship between this venue and Peake’s work, this being the third that they have staged in recent years.

Boy in Darkness’ protagonist is a 14 year old teenager straining against the boundaries of his life but once he escapes them, he finds himself tumbling into a surreal and strange new world populated with mysterious characters that demands huge resourcefulness. Not just from Boy, but from Murphy too as he creates and distinguishes each new persona with real skill – the chilling bleating and obsequious attention of the Goat and the preening arrogance of the Hyena really stood out for me – the elegance and economy of movement almost hypnotic to watch. 

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Review: Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ The Musical, Curve

Reviewed by Ian Foster Aged 35 ¾ 

“I’m a Mole and not a mouse”

Pre-show
7pm
Just seen the director Luke Sheppard, urgh he’s way too much younger than me.

7.10pm
Just seen the writers Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger, they’re practically children too. Apparently they all met at uni - they may be winning now but I reckon I did more pub crawls than them though.

7.18pm
I LOVE that the programme is attached to the book itself so for just £5, you get both. You get the feeling Sue Townsend would definitely have approved. (And she did approve of the show, being an active part of the creative process until the sad news of her death last year.) 

7.27pm
There's four kids sharing the role of Adrian, and three for the other three major kids' roles. Tonight we've got
Adrian - Joel Fossard-Jones 
Barry - Harrison Slater 
Nigel - Samuel Small 
Pandora - Imogen Gurney 
I bet they're ridiculously talented. I hate young people. Why didn't my parents put me on the stage as a child, I could have been Wigan's answer to Bonnie Langford.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Review: How I Learned To Drive, Southwark Playhouse

“I lay on my back in the dark and thought about you, Uncle Peck…”

I’ve always liked Olivia Poulet as an actor but after seeing her starring turn as Li’l Bit in Paula Vogel’s How I Learned To Drive, I’m really rating her now as one not to ignore. It helps that Vogel’s play is supremely well-written, skilfully questioning preconceptions about sexually abusive relationships and their ghastly dynamic through a playful format which manages to layer in humour and pathos to prevent it from being a truly dark night of the soul.

It doesn’t mean that this is by any means an easy watch. We see Poulet’s 40-year-old Li’l Bit narrate the experiences of her childhood both as a young girl and as a teenager in a backwoods Maryland town with a great sense of a natural-born raconteur. It’s hard not to be seduced by the stories that roll from her tongue but we soon come to taste the sour beneath the whiskey-heavy breath as the complexity of her relationship with her Uncle Peck slowly comes to light.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Review: Lardo, Old Red Lion

“You’ll need a better leotard, that’s for sure”

There’s something genius about the way Finn Caldwell’s production of Lardo co-opts its audience into becoming willing and whooping wrestling spectators. Whether Haystacks is something Giant to you or something to find a needle in, there’s such a compelling warmth to the way in which we’re swept up into the atmosphere that you’ll find it impossible not to be chanting LAR-DO, LAR-DO, LAR-DO… Mike Stone’s play takes us into the realm of ‘Tartan Wrestling Madness’ where the likes of Wee Man and Whiplash Mary entertain Glasgow audiences hungry for a ruckus, and whose ranks aspiring wrestler Lardo is desperate to join.

What Daniel Buckley’s inspired Lardo lacks in trimness, he more than makes up for in enthusiasm and unsurprisingly it isn’t long before he seizes his opportunity to get the celebrity he’s long dreamed of. But girlfriend Kelly (a gently persuasive Laura Darrall) has just found out she’s pregnant, rugged boss Stairs – a former wrestler himself – has dreams of upping the ante where the violence is concerned (Nick Karimi giving an outrageously charismatic performance), even whilst dogged health and safety officer Cassie (Rebecca Pownall) is determined to make him follow the rules. Stone has each of his characters test their limits and astutely asks us how far is too far in the name of entertainment.