Sunday, 31 May 2009

The Pietà

Sometimes, though increasingly rarely for me these days, a visit to the theatre can completely take you by surprise by totally exceeding any expectations you might have, if indeed you have any at all. I was taken to The Pietà by a good friend, and I agreed purely on the strength of it being Frances Barber doing something in a church, St Johns in Piccadilly to be precise, and by jove am I glad I did.

Named for the famous statue by Michaelangelo of the Virgin Mary cradling her son's broken body, this piece takes that theme of motherly anguish and relocates it to the gun-crime-ridden streets of modern-day Manchester. It is a dramatic monologue of a mother who witnesses her son's violent death, but the role of the mother is shared by Frances Barber who recites text, a soprano vocalist Claire O'Brien and a cor anglaisist Jessica Mogridge who each take turns in portraying the mother, sometimes alone, sometimes together.

The whole thing is set to music by a string orchestra, so it kind of straddles the music/theatre divide, and resultantly very difficult to describe. However, what is not difficult is to rave about it. The Pietà is an incredibly moving piece, full of anguish and emotion but never being mawkish or self-indulgent, and it was further enhanced by the setting in a church. Barber's eloquent readings frequently made the hairs stand on end, as did the singing, and though I am no expert, the cor anglais playing was equally poignant.

Written and composed by Shane Cullinan, this truly was a unique experience, and such a coup to have as seasoned a performer as Frances Barber participating so fully in it. It only ran for two performances this month, but has been performed before so keep your eyes peeled, you will thank me!

Friday, 29 May 2009

A Doll's House

Keeping up their impeccable record of attracting star names to their productions, the Donmar Warehouse have assembled a very impressive ensemble to perform Zinnie Harris' reworking of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. Leading the cast as Nora is Gillian Anderson in one of her rare appearances on the London stage and she is ably supported by Christopher Eccleston, Tara Fitzgerald and Toby Stephens. So a feast of acting talent on show, which is always a great start!

However, I am a self-professed Ibsen hater, though I am always willing to give it a try, and I was particularly interested in this production as Zinnie Harris has made some substantial changes to the original. Most notably, the action has been resituated to England in 1909 and the profession of Nora's husband has been changed from banking to politics. So the story remains about Nora's slow realisation of how unhappy she is, exacerbated by the threat of blackmail, and her struggle to escape this domestic prison in the face of every single social convention. What the rewrite does is make the context much wider: instead of it just being a domestic battlefield, Nora also has to deal with the arena of political reputations through her blackmailer's actions. For the most part, I think the rewrite is successful, but then I was never that familiar with the original, and so had no real basis on which to make the comparison on which nearly every other major review of this play is based.

Gillian Anderson is simply electrifying in the main role of Nora. Rarely off the stage, she is initially awesomely sexy as the coquettish wife, using her physicality to dominate her husband; as events spiral out of her control, she conveys the terror and desperation well, culminating in an amazing tarantella dance sequence and her final graduation to the actualisation of self-possession as the final act closes is skilfully done, remaining convincing throughout. Tara Fitzgerald gives very able support as Nora's friend, Christine, but is not really given that much to do. Toby Stephens does superbly well in portraying the rather unsympathetic husband, subtly suggesting there may be a little more to him than the self-righteous pomp he displays in the pulsating final act. And Christopher Eccleston is very convincing, simultaneously aggressive and tortured, bringing a real sense of menace.

As ever with the Donmar, the production values were extremely good, the set looks beautiful, the curved bookshelf as the backdrop in particular is very effective, and the costumes look good, especially th
e stunning purple dress in act 2. One note of a little concern for me however was the sound quality. I was sat on the front row of the circle on the side and was very surprised about how much 'back of the head' watching there was. I'm deaf, so lip-read a lot and normally the positioning of the actors at the Donmar is quite sympathetic, but with this play I struggled a bit with the clarity, often the one actor with their back to us was also blocking another actor from view. But this cast only a little shadow over the evening.

This is an impeccably acted, highly watchable production, though possibly not one for Ibsen purists. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it has been a play that I have thought about since seeing it too. Tickets have sold out for the run, but day tickets and standing places are available every day.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

When The Rain Stops Falling

Having its European premiere at Islington's Almeida theatre, When The Rain Stops Falling comes from the pen of Andrew Bovell, the writer of Lantana, one of my all-time favourite films (which incidentally) was adapted from his own play, Speaking In Tongues. And when I heard some of the Australian actors with whom he was worked would also be appearing, my level of excitement shot sky-high and has been there since early November last year when I bought my tickets!

Safe to say, it lived up to my expectations and then some. By no means an easy light-hearted piece, rather it is complex, smetimes languorous, but ultimately extremely rewarding. It is just hauntingly beautiful: the echoing prose, the music, the imagery and some incredible acting combine to just devastating and moving effect, indeed I think I had tears running down my face for about three-quarters of the play.

The scope of the play is epic: it covers four generations of a family and numerous locations spread over both London and Australia and "it interweaves a series of connected stories, as seven people confront the mysteries of their past in order to understand their future, revealing how patterns of betrayal, love and abandonment are passed on." That description is taken from the Almeida website, lazy I know but I could not find a more succinct way to put it without spoiling what happens. I think it is safe to say that the central driving story is around a young man whose struggles to explain and understand the mysterious disappearance of his father lead him (and the audience) on a voyage of discovery both in the past and the present, and we also see the impact of all of this on the future generations as well.

Flicking through time and space (though not in a Doctor Who kind of way ;-) does give an initial sense of disconnectedness with the only common factors seemingly being certain recurring motifs such as fish soup and the repetition of banal phrases about the weather, but then slowly the varying storylines intertwine more and more and as we progress, we begin to realise just how connected all the events are, and how strongly the actions of the past can reverberate through future generations.

It seems unfair to single out any of the actors, since the whole ensemble is quite simply superb (but if you had to push me, Lisa Dillon, Phoebe Nicholls and Leah Purcell were outstanding. And Naomi Bentley. And Simon Burke), and even the rain that intermittently falls onto the set is highly effective. At just over two hours with no interval, some people may baulk, but personally I did not mind as it kept the atmosphere electric for me, and in the end, it really is no longer than a film at the cinema.

I've actually found this review really hard to write, as I have not wanted to say too much about the play itself so as not to spoil any of it. But I hope I have manage to convey a little of just how astounding I found this play. For me, it is hands down the best thing I have seen on stage this year, and have already booked my tickets to se it a second time.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Continuation of cast for All's Well That Ends Well

All's Well That Ends Well

All's Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare's so-called 'problem plays', not easily classified as a comedy or a tragedy, but this production a part of the Travelex season at the National Theatre, posed no problems for me. This is a confidently-acted, stunningly-mounted, assured production which really confirms to me that the NT have hit the ground running with this season of plays.

The programme describes the play as 'Shakespeare Noir' which is quite an apt description for it. The comedy, and there is lots of it, is often underscored by the darker turns of the plot, and there is little frivolity of the 'hey nonny no' type, which can sometimes seem quite glib. The play opens with a girl of little consequence save the knowledge passed down from her physician father, arriving at the court of the King of France and healing him of his ailment. Her reward is to marry the man of her choice, but her chosen n
obleman, Bertram, objects to such a lowly match and sets Helena a seemingly impossible challenge to win his heart and subsequently heads off to war in Italy, but Helena is hot on his heels in order to try and fulfil the deal.
As the ill-matched couple, Michelle Terry and George Rainsford give strong acting performances, but both lack a little fluency in their verse-reading which I am sure will come with time (I saw an early preview). This was particularly highlighted given the calibre of the supporting cast around them, featuring veterans such as Clare Higgins, Conleth Hill, Janet Henfrey and Oliver Ford-Davies. Higgins in particular as Bertram's mother and Helena's employer, the Countess of Rossillion has great command of the stage and Conleth Hill's tragicomic Parolles displays some great comic timing. A special mention should also go to Hasina Haque who holds her own superbly against the 'old hands' in the denouement of the final scenes: she also impressed in England People Very Nice and is someone to watch for the future.

Visually, it is a feast for the eyes: the first half looks like it's been taken straight from the pages of the Brothers Grimm and there is some really evocative use of lighting and silhouettes, the live music also adds to this almost fairytale enviroment. Also worth a mention are the nifty scene-changes which really keep the action moving at a sparky pace and never letting the attention flag.

Last but by no means least, there are lots of sparkly shoes in this production: what more coud you ask for?! At £10 a seat and still with some great availability, you would be hard-pressed to to get better value on the stage at the moment.

Cast of All's Well That Ends Well

Friday, 15 May 2009

Madame De Sade

The third play in the Donmar's residency at the Wyndham's Theatre is Madame de Sade, a slightly obscure work by the Japanese playwright Yukio Mishima, which fulfils Michael Grandage's promise to bring lesser-known works into the West End alongside the classics. Unfortunately, as many reviews have already said, this is not really a play that stands up to the exceptionally high standards already set by this season, despite the efforts of an excellent cast.

The play tells the story of the life of the Marquis de Sade just before the French Revolution in three short acts, moving a few years through time with each act, but tells it through the eyes of six different women who have varying relationships with him, and the Marquis himself does not actually make an appearance. The women are his wife, his mother-in-law, his sister-in-law, a servant in his house and two other ladies and they each represent a single viewpoint which rather limits the opportunities for the actresses to display their talents.

Dame Judi Dench plays the mother of the Madame de Sade, Madame de Montreuil, and looks amazing in the wigs and costumes, and gives as good a performance as she can, given the material. Struggling to understand the motivation of her daughters, she shows her displeasure well, but is not given the opportunity to do much more. Francis Barber's Comtesse de Saint-Fond, representing lust, was a very funny and vibrant character and injected some much needed verve into her scenes. As a result, one really felt her absence in the final act. Rosamund Pike probably deserves the greatest plaudits though as she has a really difficult job as the titular Madame de Sade, Renee. She has such long and unforgiving monologues and an unflinching devotion to her husband that is a little hard to understand, yet she still managed to wring every possible bit of emotion and interest out of the text. Deborah Findlay as religion, has a great opening scene with Barber, Jenny Galloway has some humourous moments as the long-suffering servant, but Fiona Button as the younger sister has little of interest to do.

The problem is that it just wasn't that interesting at all. The inflexibility of the characters' viewpoints mean that the discussions of the Marquis' behaviour are quite dull, as the debate is thrown to us, the audience, rather than amongst the cast: there appears to be no deviating from the designated opinion of each character and I found this to be quite a strong weakness of the play. Combined with the extreme wordiness of the dense text, it was sometimes hard to maintain adequate concentration levels.

But this did mean that I paid more attention to all the other details which were of the highest quality. Fabulous costumes and hair, interesting sound and light effects during the soliloquies (I thought Rosamund Pike's echoing final speech was fantastic and almost convinced me I like the whole play!), the projections on the back wall which evoked the subjects being discussed, and even the positioning of the actresses was interesting as they took poses whilst one of them delivered their speeches, creating beautiful tableaux. So it was quite educational to be able to focus on these aspects of the show, but it was a shame it had to be at the expense of any interest in the play.


The second musical in the Notes from New York mini-season at the Duchess Theatre is tick...tick...BOOM! Written by Jonathan Larson who also penned Rent, the play is a three-hander, focussing on Jon, a scarcely disguised autobiographical wannabe composer of musicals and his girlfriend Susan, a dancer and room-mate Michael, a former actor who now has a successful City job. Jon is just about to turn 30 and anxious about his lack of success, especially as he is about to premiere his latest musical, a piece called Superbia, and feels under pressure from both his friend and girlfriend to change his path and abandon chasing his dream.

tick...tick...BOOM! was originally produced as a monologue and was only reconceived as a three-hander after Larson's death. I do not know if this was ever his intention, or wheter it was a decision made by others, but I do believe that this is where the major weakness of this play lies. The secondary characters of Susan and Michael are very sketchily drawn and have very little opportunity to really engage with the audience, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the actors playing these two roles also have to cover all the other minor characters as well.

In the lead role, Paul Keating (right in the picture) is never off the stage in what is quite a demanding role. He was clearly unwell and had a horrific start to his first song, but he did extremely well to rediscover his composure and from midway in, settled into the role, delivering a warm, humerous performance from a character who could easily seem off-puttingly self-obssessed. Leon Lopez (left in the photo) is given very little to do as the friend who has turned his back on his creative side in exchange for a regular job with a good salary, and even his big moment, the revelation of his "illness", ends up as a bit of a damp squib since we don't really care for Michael. Finallybut by no means least, Julie Atherton as the long-suffering girlfriend steals the show whenever she is given the opportunity. Her solo number "Come To Your Senses" is the highlight of the evening, and her comic turn as Jon's agent is nicely pitched, owing a lot as it does to the infamous Estelle from Friends.

Following on from The Last Five Years, it was hard not be disappointed by this. Despite the high performance level and clever usage of minimal staging and lighting, the truth is that I just did not engage with this musical at all or find much that was likeable in it. One does end up wondering if this is a piece that would have received such attention, were it not for Larson's tragic early death.

The Observer

My latest trip to the National Theatre took me to of The Observer which is premiering at the Cottesloe Theatre (although strictly speaking it was a preview). I had not intended to see this play but I was seduced by the offer of cheap tickets, and I was extremely glad that I did since it gave me what I think is the strongest acting performance I have seen so far this year.

Anna Chancellor is quite simply astonishing, she's on stage for practically the whole thing and is entirely believable as Fiona, the brittle, uptight observer of an election in an unspecified African country (though the parallels are clearly drawn with the recent Zimbabwean election). The play follows the processes around the first democratic elections in this country and how the impartial monitoring committee that Fiona works for interacts with the situation that they find themselves in. With her translator aiding her, Fiona finds herself drawn closer and closer to crossing the boundaries imposed by her position, as she realises the potential influence that she has on the election result. Chancellor plays this awakening, this blossoming so astutely, it is a thing of wonder to watch, and one is just swept up in the journey that Fiona is forced to take.

Cyril Nri is also really good, playing a multitude of different characters with varying impact on the election. One thing that was quite interesting was the usage of the native language in various scenes which meant that one was quite often in the same boat as Fiona, just simply having to 'observe' the action. The only slight bum note for me was James Fleet's Foreign Office representative whose interventions, whilst quite funny, were clearly designed to allow the (very clunky and noisy) set changes to take place behind him, and so I didn't feel that they were integrated well enough into the play.

It was quite odd seeing a play in the Cottesloe presented in a more traditional way using a raised stage, instead of the space in the middle, I've only ever seen things there that use the centre space. Nonetheless, it worked well especially with some really effective drapes/panel-type things that evoked the different locations. With the space being used more traditionally, the seating set-up is different with a raked bank of seats in the middle. My seats were in what was described as the "pit" on the right hand side, and gave a brilliant view, you're at stage level, whereas the front row is considerably lower than the stage, so I would recommend trying to get those seats.

So all in all, I would recommend this play, if only to see some amazing acting. The play itself is engaging, but Anna Chancellor really lifts it into the stratosphere and I hope that she gains some recognition for this, whether awards or critical acclaim or simply reading this review!

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Les Misérables

As May is my birthday month, and this year brings with it a particular milestone (30!), I decided that I would treat myself to as many shows as I could manage, and I could not imagine not managing to squeeze in at least one of the long-running musicals that form the bedrock of much of London's theatreland. Having already seen Joseph twice this year, my thoughts turned to Les Misérables, and duly obliged with some half-price tickets. Les Mis is up there with Joseph in terms of having seen many, many productions, I think this was show number 11 for me, and yet I never tire of it.

Based on the Victor Hugo novel by Alain Boublil, and with music by Claude-Michael Schonberg, it follows the lives and loves of a group of characters on the fringes of society in revolutionary France, les misérables or the unfortunates. The number of characters may seem quite bewildering, but their stories incresingly intertwine, and the beauty of the play is that it deftly moves from the personal to the political and back again, thereby keeping the interest fresh and covering so many different aspects of human emotion as we flick from intimate love stories to revolutionaries preparing for battle to personal quests for revenge time and time again.

The musical is entirely set to music which may put some people off, but preconceptions really should be left at the door as this is a classy piece of work. The strength of the music, in particular the abundance of memorable tunes, really evokes the emotions of the all the characters, whether from the personal or the political point of view. Who, for instance, can fail to pity Eponine in On My Own; laugh out loud at the effrontery of the bickering Thénardiers in Master of the House, or be genuinely inspired by the patriotic fervour of Do You Hear the People Sing? and One Day More. Among the performers, I liked Jon Robyns as Marius who I recognised from the original cast of Avenue Q, with Drew Sarich's Javert and Nancy Sullivan's Eponine also particularly impressive.

For the most part, sets are simple but no less effective for that, the one exception being the barricade scene; the barricade itself filling the stage, finally turning a full 360 degrees to reveal the terrible and shocking aftermath of the confrontation.
At face value, Les Misérables might seem a dull and depressing subject for a musical, but the clever mix of humour, pathos, love and loyalty weaves a magical aura that stays with you long after the final curtain, and crucially for a musical, also leaves you humming the tunes.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

The Last Five Years

The Last Five Years is part of a mini-season of musicals being put on the Notes From New York company at the Duchess Theatre, and is a revival from last year's gala performances at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Julie Atherton, most recently seen returning to Avenue Q, plays Cathy, an aspiring actress, and Paul Spicer is newly-published author Jamie and they play this two-hander about the progression of their couple’s relationship over five years. However, the stories of the two characters are told differently yet concurrently, with Jamie recounting the relationship from beginning to end, and Cathy starting at the end of the relationship and working back to their first meeting. This means that the characters only actually share one duet as their stories intersect at the midpoint which might seem a little odd, but this is a crucial element of the show as it allows the characters to present their differing perceptions of the relationship.

Julie Atherton has the harder job since she has to tell her story in reverse, but she is more than equal to the task, delivering an outstanding performance which proves beyond no doubt that she is one of the strongest talents currently working in the West End. She combines great humour, A Summer in Ohio is a standout, with gut-wrenching heartbreak and has such ease on the stage that I defy anyone to not fall in love with her during this show! Paul Spicer also impressed with his vocal ability, but his character is not quite as likeable. Perhaps this is to do with the format, his story is the conventionally-told one, and so the initial sympathies do gravitate towards the heartbroken Cathy, as Jamie just singing about meeting a girl at this point.

Props and staging are pared down to a minimum which really focuses the attention on the storytelling, with only certain key props being used to indicate the requisite shift in time, and the action whips through in a nifty 90 minutes. It is such a shame that this is such a limited engagement as it is one of the most interesting musicals that I have seen in a while and expertly performed. The season continues with tick...tick...Boom! next week.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

F**king Men

Thanks to the folks at, I got free tickets to F**king Men at the King's Head theatre in Islington, a place I have been to several times and to be honest, usually find quite overpriced. So free tickets meant that I had no problem in trotting along to this play by Joe DiPietro, despite my reservations about both fringe theatre and gay theatre.

Firstly, whilst I do recognise that there is much good work being done in fringe theatres across London, I was quite badly burned on several occasions last year by some terrible experiences, and the main problem that I have is that their tickets are not sufficiently cheap for me to be forgiving. When somewhere like the National Theatre regularly has £10 tickets available, I find asking for £15 or £20 somewhat hard to stomach, especially when one is not assured of the quality.

But to the matter at hand, Fucking Men or rather F**king Men. This comedy chronicles a chain of hook-ups between a group of men, including a college student, a soldier, a long-suffering couple, and a big Hollywood actor. By focusing on the build-up to, and then the fall-out from the encounters, people who are looking for literal demonstrations of the title will be disappointed, but this is definitely to the play's credit. That's not to say that there isn't some pandering to the pink pound with an abundance of pecs and abs on show especially in the first few vignettes, as shown by the photo (included purely for your benefit!)

Stereotypes are always hard to resist in gay theatre, whether it is using them or trying to subvert them, and DiPietro is no exception here. The college kid describes himself as bisexual, the married couple are both playing away separately, yet the porn star is actually a supremely sensitive guy. In the end though, the speed with which the piece rips through each encounter means that no-one really outstays their welcome and the writing is for the most part quite sharp and funny and delivered well by all the actors.

Connecting all the encounters is the conflict between monogamous love versus sexual freedom and exploration and whilst this question is raised constantly, no real answers are given by the play. Thinking about it, there is also a curious tension in the overall message of the play which is that underlying every sexual encounter is the overwhelming desire for love, yet in putting together a play that consists solely of sexual encounters, DiPietro seems to make no allowance for the idea that some men just enjoy the thrill of casual anonymous sex, and are happy with that.

So whilst I congratulate the production on becoming one of the longest running off-West-End plays, I don't know if I could justify recommending this at £15 a head, especially given the relative lack of comfort of the seats at the King's Head, and given its rather niche appeal.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Top five plays of April

Top five plays for the month of April:

1. Parlour Song
2. Time and the Conways
3. His Dark Materials
4. Tusk Tusk
5. Over There

And the top 10 of the year so far:

1. La Cage aux Folles
2. Duet for One
3. Burnt by the Sun

4. Parlour Song
5. Dancing at Lughnasa
6. Time and the Conways

7. His Dark Materials
8. Kafka's Monkey
9. Tusk Tusk
10. Plague Over England