Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Review: The Wizard Of Oz, Lowry

Casting the lead for their Christmas show The Wizard of Oz with their own ‘Dorothy Idol’ talent search contest, the Lowry have been living quite dangerously. It is all the more daring when playing the role of the Wicked Witch of the West is none other than daughter of Judy Garland herself, Lorna Luft.

16 year old Katie Schofield won the role and in making her professional debut doesn’t do too bad a job, but to be brutally honest, there was little to mark her out as a particularly especial talent. Luft was great fun, camping it up with delight and the use of local children as the Munchkins added a nice touch especially with a cute Toto running around which appealed to the mostly young audience.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Review: A Little Night Music, Menier Chocolate Factory

Given the name of this blog, I was more than a little excited when the Menier Chocolate Factory announced their Christmas show as Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music for, in case you do not know, There Ought To Be Clowns is a lyric from the most well-known song from this musical, Send in the Clowns. It is based on Ingrid Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night and with a score almost entirely written in waltz time, it is a coolly Scandinavian intellectual and detached look at romance.


Middle-aged Frederik has married Anna, his 18-year-old neighbour, and she is having difficulty with consummating the marriage. At the same time, Frederik's son Heinrik is studying to become a minister yet lusts after Anna, who is younger than he is. When one of Heinrik's old flames, a touring actress, returns to town with a jealous Brigadier-General (inconveniently married to one of Anna's friends) as her current on-again off-again lover, the set of romantic relationships readjust and realign to potentially better suited pairings over a weekend in the country.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Review: Waste, Almeida Theatre

Waste, a play by Harley Granville Barker, is another one of those plays that was banned when first written, in this case in 1907. Directed by actor Samuel West at the Almeida theatre, this version uses the revised 1926 text to great effect with as strong an ensemble you will find in London this autumn. 

The story follows Henry Trebell an independent MP with a lifelong dream of wanting to disestablish the Church of England and build colleges on the land and has formed part of a Tory push to get the bill passed as law with their anticipated arrival in government. However, his personal life is in disarray as a casual affair with a married woman who ends up pregnant comes to light and threatens to ruin everything that he holds dear.

Cast of Waste continued

Friday, 26 September 2008

Review: Ivanov, Wyndhams

I have long struggled with Chekhov, I’ve never really seen the attraction or seen a production that made me understand why he is so well regarded as a dramatist. So when the Donmar Warehouse announced a hugely star-studded season of plays to be performed in the West End, at the Wyndhams Theatre, my heart sank a little bit to see that the first play was Ivanov, by none other than Anton Chekhov. But in a new version by Tom Stoppard, directed by Michael Grandage and featuring the return to the London stage of Kenneth Branagh, this emerged as a production that might actually have convinced me that people are onto something here!

The key to my enjoyment here was all about the humour that is threaded throughout the evening so that the dour tragedy that is something of a trademark is leavened with something else and introduces a wider palette of emotion so that the ‘tragedy’ becomes well, more tragic for being contrasted with something else on offer. So Ivanov, seeking escape from his TB-ridden wife whom he no longer loves, rocks up at the neighbours’ house on a regular basis despite owing them money and a daughter there who has designs on him. When discovered together, society turns it disapproving eye on him but it turns out there’s a far harsher critic in Ivanov himself.

Branagh is simply superb as the title character, capturing so much of the ridiculousness of what he is like and what is going on but also acknowledging how serious the predicament is. The ensemble around Branagh is stuffed full of brilliantly observed performances: Gina McKee is heartbreaking as Anna, the woman who has sacrificed huge amounts to be with the man she loves despite his shortcomings, Andrea Riseborough’s Sasha traces a highly affecting journey from innocence to a much more worldly-wise viewpoint and there’s an excellent company of maudlin drunks and odd sorts played by the likes of Malcolm Sinclair, Kevin R McNally and Lorcan Cranitch.

It looks and sounds beautiful, very much the Donmar sensibility just amped up to fill the expanded space and it very much works here. And combined with a stunning central performance from Branagh with a top-notch ensemble around him, this was a highly revelatory evening for me: I liked a Chekhov play!






Thursday, 25 September 2008

Cast of Ivanov continued




Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Review: Her Naked Skin, National Theatre

Much of the talk about Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play Her Naked Skin has focused on the rather shameful fact that it is the first play by a female writer to be staged on the main Olivier stage at the National Theatre. Which whilst true and a definite achievement in itself, should not detract from the fact that this is a really rather sensationally good play.

Set in the Suffragette Movement in London in 1913 with excitement in the air as victory can be tasted, but times have never been more frenzied or dangerous as militant tendencies are at their strongest and many women are experiencing jail time on a regular basis. Lenkiewicz pitches the continuance of this struggle against the more personal story of Lady Celia Cain, bored in life and with her traditional marriage and family, who launches into a passionate lesbian love affair with a much younger, much more lower-class seamstress whom she shares a cell with and soon much more. As the affair hots up, so too does the political climate as emancipation comes closer to becoming a reality.

It is so effective on so many levels: the horrors faced by the women in prison, included a most brutal instance of force-feeding that is seared on the memory; the struggle against the establishment that they faced in trying to get their message across, resorting even to violence; the changing political climate with even men publicly calling for women to be given the vote. On top of all of that though is the class struggles that nevertheless persisted and one wonders if it would have been the lesbianism or the social mismatch that would have caused the most scandal in Celia’s social circle. It is a heady mix but one which captivates.

Lesley Manville is perfect as the upper class Celia, ruthless in her pursuit of what she wants both on the personal and political scale and so very brittly effective. Jemima Rooper’s piece of rough Eve plays off her well, habitually out of her depth with her love who is more experienced in love, in life, in everything. Susan Engel is a frequent scene-stealer as an acidly funny blue stocking Florence Boorman, more intelligent than probably anyone else around and utterly devoted to the cause. Adam Rawlins does extremely well as the husband put aside by Celia with a sympathetic portrayal showing that it wasn’t just women who were the victims, there were men and children affected by their actions too.

It is effectively staged with Rob Howell’s design, the cells being the most striking image, played off with the dullness of the potato peeling they have to do and the sheer horror of the force-feeding scene which is truly harrowing and difficult to watch. The projection of film and images of real suffragettes like Emily Wilding Davison adds a real poignancy to the production and serves as a reminder that whilst these are fictional characters, their struggle was all too painfully real.

Her Naked Skin offers up a highly revelatory dramatisation of the suffrage era, showing the courage and passion of those involved, the relentless merry-go-round of militant campaigning and subsequent imprisonments and the sheer determination of a group of women who could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel and would not give up until the prize was theirs.

Cast of Her Naked Skin continued

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Review: in-i, National Theatre

in-i marks a remarkable collaboration between dancer/choreographer Akram Khan and actress Juliette Binoche in which they dared each other to push personal and professional boundaries and create a work of art stretching over both their disciplines. The result is in-I, an 70 minute piece of intriguing dance theatre.

It purports to take us through the 14 different words that the Greeks have for love, but for me it felt like one could trace the turbulence of one relationship throughout. Taking us on a journey through this relationship, heavily influenced by his religious upbringing, her fears of domestic violence, as the couple come together, clash, separate, reunite and over again as they both struggle to deal with their innate fierceness.

The third collaborator Anish Kapoor’s set design is really interesting: a wall that moves slowly but is lit by a beautiful array of colours, reflecting the changing moods of the dance. It also serves as a backdrop to the various vignettes that are played out, like the opening scene set in a cinema.

There’s no denying that there are limitations to this exercise: Binoche has trained intensively for six months but does not have the full range and fluidity to be a true companion to Khan when they dance together, likewise Binoche’s immense stage presence sometimes threatens to overwhelm him during the acting sequences. But that is if one approaches this with a fully critical mindset: there are some beautiful moments here as well when the production plays to the strengths from each of its participants. Khan’s storytelling and Binoche’s vulnerability inthe cinema scene with Binoche as a teenager fantasising about an older man, represented by a whirling Khan is magnificent and I loved the imagery of pinned back onto the wall later on.

For seasoned fans of dance, I imagine this might be a bit of a disappointment as this isn’t the most highly technical of dance pieces. But to me it feels like so much more. It is so rare to see an artist at the top of her game in her own field putting herself through such a challenge in pursuing another, and in front of live audiences too. It is a risky experiment, but one I found to be highly fascinating, plus the opportunity to see Juliette Binoche on stage for the first time was one I could never have turned down even if she was just sitting there!



Thursday, 28 August 2008

Review: The Lion King, Lyceum

It took a long time for me to be convinced that going to see The Lion King at the Lyceum was worth it despite it being one of the longest-running shows in the West End and having finally made it there, I’m really not sure that it was worth it for me. Elton John’s music and Tim Rice’s lyrics work with Roger Allers and Irene Meechi’s book which takes the familiar plot and adds in several new scenes with a couple of notable changes (i.e. Rafiki becomes a female character) but the story is essentially the same: young lion Simba is robbed of his father and his throne by his wicked uncle Scar and only by learning about friendship and family and growing up and facing challenges, can he hope to return and claim what is his by birth.

It is often difficult to watch shows that are based on well-loved films, especially when you’re the one that loves the film in question, and so predictably it turned out here that I was disappointed. There is an odd tension between replicating familiar scenarios, as in the glorious opening scene which is stirringly rendered here and making its own mark on the material, Scar is re-envisioned as a camp villain stripping away any of the evil or menace that is associated with his character.



Saturday, 23 August 2008

Review: Piaf, Donmar Warehouse

I’m not one for standing ovations really, a show has to be beyond superb and really move me before I get on my feet, so imagine my surprise as I found myself standing and cheering before Elena Roger had even finished her final note of Je Ne Regrette Rien! This is a truly amazing production of a show that I would bet the house on winning at least one Best Actress award for Ms Roger by the end of the year. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Piaf.

A reworking of Pam Gems’ 1978 play which sketches the tragic and tragically short life of French street singer Edith Piaf, it doesn’t actually feature too much by the way of biographical detail as it places the songs for which she is so rightly famous full square and centre. And this is why it is such a success.

Roger just embodies the songs, she lives them in front of us and so whilst this tiny Argentinean bears little physical resemblance to Piaf, it matters not a jot as the pure emotion invested in her performance keeps one rapt with attention. Even if you don’t speak French, you understand exactly what she is singing about at any given moment. The brevity of the show (90 minutes) means it is just an emotional rollercoaster which takes you from from her humble beginning to her early successes and then from tragedy to tragedy, doomed love affair to plane crashes, car crashes, emotional crashes. And Roger is onstage for almost every second of it, a truly stunning performance.

The rest of the ensemble cover the whirlwind of people around her, lovers and friends, Luke Evans and Leon Lopez bring a nice manliness to the stage ;-), Katherine Kingsley plays a statuesque Marlene Dietrich with a slinky brusqueness and Lorraine Bruce brings a nice comic touch to her sweary prostitute friend.

But there’s no doubting this is Elena Roger’s show. I regretted not giving her a standing ovation in Evita but I made no similar mistake this time: do anything to get a ticket!!

Friday, 4 July 2008

Review: Avenue Q with Daniel Boys, Noël Coward

As you may be able to intuit from its regular appearance here, I have become more than a little obsessed with Avenue Q over the past couple of years as it fast became one of my favourite musicals and probably the best new musical I’ve seen full stop. I’ve taken many people, friends and family alike, to see it to near universal acclaim and the soundtrack is often on my iPod, although it has particularly been the London cast that has won my heart.

Change always encroaches though and a major overhaul of the cast meant that this visit, the first for a while, was filled with a little trepidation at how these changes would affect the show that has become so dear to me.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Review: The Revenger's Tragedy, National Theatre

The Revenger’s Tragedy is a Jacobean revenge play of dubious authorship but these day, attributed to Thomas Middleton. It is set in a decadent Italian court full of moral decay but in Melly Still’s new production here at the Olivier auditorium in the National Theatre, it has taken on a whole new lease of life.

The story is full of backstabbing intrigue and intricate plotting which required a lot of attention. Vindice is our hero of sorts, but he is determined to be revenged on the Duke, as whilst he’s seemingly a fine upstanding type, actually raped and pillaged the fiancée of Vindice a few years back. His home life is a little eventful too, his Duchess is a narcissistic, sexually voracious, hedonist who is lusting after her husband’s bastard son; and their other sons are a motley crew of bad’uns. One of them, the handsome Lussurioso, has decided to buy a lovely young woman from her mother, but she turns out to be the sister of Vindice. Thus, the scene is set for a strange mix of tragedy and comedy as we hurtle to the oh so very bloody climax.

Cast of The Revenger's Tragedy continued

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Review: The Year of Magical Thinking, National Theatre

Based on the memoir of the same name by Joan Didion, recounting a year in the life of the author after the sudden death of her husband and during which her daughter was also taken seriously ill and eventually died, The Year of Magical Thinking is a searching examination of grief and the mourning process


It is painful and at times oddly emotionless: this is mainly due to the analytical nature of the writing. This is no self-indulgent exercise in wallowing but rather a detached examination of the effects of grief. Only occasionally do glimpses of the grieving widow escape, and they are all the more effective for their rarity.



Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Review: Rosmersholm, Almeida

Rosmersholm is one of Ibsen’s lesser performed plays and is presented at the Almeida Theatre in a new version here by Mike Poulton. It is also notable for marking the return to the stage of the wonderful Helen McCrory, an Islington local, and one of my favourite actresses.

Rosmer, a former pastor, is oppressed by a whole series of factors: his conservative ancestry, guilt over his wife's suicide and loss of religious faith. But, aided by his companion, Rebecca West, he believes he can set out on a new path of missionary idealism. This, however, turns out to be a fantasy as he is not strong in his new path, society turns against him and his new democratic ideals, his closeness to West makes them become a subject of scandal, and as Rebecca has her own demons too, sets them on a path where the weight of the past threatens everything.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Review: random, Royal Court

debbie tucker green’s one-woman show random is a 50 minute tale of an everyday black family whose lives are torn apart by a random act with tragic consequences. Performed by Nadine Marshall on the Royal Court’s main stage, she holds the attention effortlessly with a stunning performance of great intensity. 

Marshall takes us through all the family members, Brother, Sister, Mum and Dad, in a witty opening sequence full of domestic idiosyncracies, finding much humour in the mundane and fleshing out all four characters well before tragedy hits and the ugly spectre of knife crime rears its head. From here, Sister comes to the fore as the voice of grief, stricken with emotion at the brutality of the crime the injustice of the world that keeps on turning despite their loss.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Review: His Dark Materials, Theatre Royal Bath Young People’s Theatre

Established as probably my favourite theatrical experience ever when it played the National Theatre, when I heard that the Young People’s Theatre company at the Theatre Royal Bath were putting on a production thanks to the Guardian’s Guide, tickets were booked to take in the day’s entertainment. The translation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy into two plays is one of the most sympathetic adaptations of literature to theatre I can remember and they are amongst my favourite books, yet the way in which they’ve been edited really works, slicing out the more obtuse threads of the final novel and focusing on the harrowing journey that the young protagonists have to make.



Even without the magnificent set that utilised the drum of the Olivier Theatre to its full extent, this is an ambitious project for any theatre to take on, never mind a youth group but they have risen to the challenge pulling together a cast of over 150 10-18 year olds with more than 300 costumes and 100 puppets created especially for this production. The story takes us on a thrilling journey with Lyra and Will, 12 year old kids who live in parallel worlds who are thrown together by destiny on a huge quest which takes them from the hallowed halls of Oxford to the frozen wastes of the North to the darkest of all places as they both search for something precious to their hearts, facing a range of challenges: rebellious angels, soul-eating spectres, child-catching Gobblers and the armoured bears and witch-clans of the Arctic.


Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Review: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Almeida

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is a play by American Stephen Adly Guirgis, receiving its UK premiere here at the Almeida in a co-production with Headlong, who are run by Rupert Goold who is the director. The play centres on a trial testing the guilt of Judas, ostensibly set in Purgatory which looks and sounds a lot like a downtown seedy part of New York today. An array of witnesses from all points in history and the Bible are summoned to argue the toss, but as they’ve all been reincarnated as foul-mouthed typical New Yorkers, they are stripped of the protective aura that history and reputation has accorded them and we see everything from a whole new perspective.

It is certainly a different way of looking at things but it has been so well written and I feel the key to its success is in its no-holds-barred approach to telling it like it is whilst maintaining a sense of decorum. Adly Guirgis is often irreverent but also respectful with it, making it all the funnier when Mother Teresa is hauled all over the coals for opposing Vatican reforms that condemned anti-Semitism and Sigmund Freud’s testimony is discredited due to his raging cocaine addiction.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Review: Small Change, Donmar Warehouse

Partly based on his own experiences as a boy in Cardiff, Small Change is one of Peter Gill’s earlier plays, revived here at the Donmar Warehouse. It covers the efforts of two boys in 1950s Cardiff to remove themselves from their mothers’ apron strings, but also with the complex relationship between the two, struggling to grasp their true feelings for each other in a world where homosexuality is incomprehensible and illegal. But as it is a memory play, we also see the characters later in life and the action flits around the timeline showing how the past and present are inextricably linked and indeed their impact on the future.

The extremely simple staging, just four chairs at random angles, a floating shelf on a brick wall at the back and an unadorned red raked stage means that the focus is squarely on the prose which is heavily poetical. But whilst there is no doubting the quality of the acting onstage and the obvious emotion invested in the depiction of unresolved homosexual yearning and the drudgery of housewifery, it rarely fully captivated the attention as it is just so very lyrical and Gill’s writing often veers to the elliptical and obtuse.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Review: God of Carnage, Gielgud

Yasmin Reza’s new play, God of Carnage presented here in a translation by Christopher Hampton, mines her familiar territory of social hypocrisy in skillfully dissecting the mutual disdain of two middle class couples. And as a four-hander, it has pulled together a truly heavyweight cast that is most impressive.

Michel and his terribly socially aware wife Véronique, are hosting an uncomfortable little tea party for another couple, Alain and Annette. The connection between the two couples is the assault by the visitors' 11-year-old son Ferdinand who, following a verbal insult, took a bamboo stick to the hosts' slightly younger Bruno removing two teeth. There’s a few cagey attempts to resolve the situation peacefully but as the meeting goes on, serious tensions emerge, hackles are raised and the behaviour of all concerned degenerates into the simply outrageous.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Review: The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other, National Theatre

Featuring 450 characters played by 27 actors with not a word spoken during its 100 minutes running time, The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other is certainly an eyebrow-raiser and an experience, but is it really theatre? I’m still not sure. A Peter Handke play, although presented here by Meredith Oakes in a new translation which has caused a fair bit of mirth considering there’s no talking, so perhaps a new 'interpretation' might have been a better way of describing it?

In terms of what happens, well a lot passes by on stage but equally nothing actually happens. People walk, run, skip, jump, limp across the stage in various guises, some dressed as recognisable figures, most just regularly clad, and tiny little stories are played out during their journeys from one side of the stage to other. Life, death, tragedy, sex and lots of comedy are on display here and it is fitfully awe-inspiringly good, especially when there’s the stronger narrative arc that engages the attention, like the terrorist attack towards the end.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Review: The Homecoming, Almeida

Pinter seems to be all the rage at the moment: Islington’s Almeida Theatre is now getting in on the act with a revival of his 1964 play The Homecoming.

Set in an all male household in North London, the play explores the reaction of a family to the homecoming of the eldest son and his wife. This household has been male-dominated for a long time and the arrival of a woman sparks a set of power plays in which not everyone is quite as they seem. The casting of Jenny Jules as the new wife also contributes a racial dimension to the dynamic, an added frisson into this powderkeg of a scenario.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Review: Present Laughter, National Theatre

Present Laughter, the Noël Coward play about a middle aged matinée idol, arrives at the Lyttelton in a new National Theatre production led by Howard Davies. I was quite excited to see it, as I have not seen that much of Coward’s work on the stage at all and had heard wonderful things about Alex Jennings’ performance as Garry Essendine.

The self-centred Garry, an actor, cannot live without the constant affection of those around him whether onstage or off-. He regularly enjoys the amorous attentions of many of his fans but finds himself is trapped in a tug of war between two young women, his estranged wife (with whom he gets on just super now they no longer live together), and a besotted aspiring writer. As Essendine prepares to go to Africa on tour they all throw themselves at him, in their own eccentric ways.