Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Re-Review: Crazy For You, Novello

“Who could ask for anything more?!”

After a highly accomplished run at the Open Air Theatre, Crazy For You has transferred into the West End to take up residence in the Novello Theatre, taking advantage of the premature closing of Betty Blue Eyes. I saw it in Regents Park – review can be read here – and was easily seduced by its combination of Stephen Mears’ pulsating choreography and lively renditions of selections from the Gershwins’ considerable catalogue of songs. The show has been transplanted indoors pretty much in its entirety and continues to be a whole heap of uncomplicated entertainment.

I previously described the story as ‘pure hokum’ and little has changed in that respect but it really doesn’t matter in the end, because this really is a show that is all about the singing and dancing. It doesn’t so much reinvent this set of classic Gershwin songs, they are too well known for that, but it does present them in a fresh new setting which feels incredibly natural and well-fitted. Sometimes with jukebox shows there can be the feeling of songs being shoe-horned into the narrative but because this show wears its story quite lightly, that is rarely the case here. Instead, there’s a cheery skip through some of the best songs ever written that is guaranteed to lift the heart.

Cast of Crazy for You continued

Cast of Crazy for You continued

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The 2011 London Evening Standard Theatre Awards

Best Play

WINNER The Heretic by Richard Bean (Royal Court)WINNER One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean (National's Lyttelton)
Becky Shaw
by Gina Gionfriddo (Almeida)
Tribes by Nina Raine (Royal Court)

Best Director

WINNER Mike Leigh for Grief (National's Cottesloe)
Rob Ashford
for Anna Christie (Donmar)
Dominic Cooke for Chicken Soup with Barley (Royal Court)
Edward Hall for Richard III & The Comedy of Errors (Propeller at Hampstead)

Best Actor

WINNER Benedict Cumberbatch, Frankenstein (National's Olivier)WINNER Jonny Lee Miller, Frankenstein (National's Olivier)
Bertie Carvel
, Matilda the Musical (RSC Stratford & Cambridge Theatre)
Charles Edwards, Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare's Globe)

Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress

WINNER Sheridan Smith, Flare Path (Theatre Royal Haymarket)
Samantha Spiro
, Chicken Soup with Barley (Royal Court)
Kristin Scott Thomas, Betrayal (Comedy)

Ned Sherrin Award for Best Musical

WINNER Matilda the Musical, RSC Stratford & Cambridge Theatre
Betty Blue Eyes
, Novello Theatre
London Road, National's Cottesloe

Best Design

WINNER Adam Cork, sound designer of Anna Christie & King Lear (Donmar)
Bunny Christie
, Men Should Weep (National's Lyttelton)
Lizzie Clachan, Wastwater (Royal Court)
Mark Tildesley, Frankenstein (National's Olivier)

Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright

WINNER Penelope Skinner, The Village Bike (Royal Court)
EV Crowe
, Kin (Royal Court)
Vivienne Franzmann, Mogadishu (Lyric Hammersmith)

Milton Shulman Award for Outstanding Newcomer

WINNER Kyle Soller for his performances in The Glass Menagerie (Young Vic) & The Government Inspector (Young Vic) & The Faith Machine (Royal Court)
Phoebe Fox
for her performances in As You Like It (Rose Kingston) & The Acid Test (Royal Court) & There Is A War (National's Paintframe)
Malachi Kirby for his performance in Mogadishu (Lyric, Hammersmith)
David Wilson Barnes for his performance in Becky Shaw (Almeida)

Editor's Award

Michael Grandage for making the Donmar Warehouse a star

Beyond Theatre Award

Pet Shop Boys and Javier de Frutos for The Most Incredible Thing (Sadler's Wells)

Lebedev Special Award

Kristin Scott Thomas for her contribution to theatre

Moscow Art Theatre's Golden Seagull

Tom Stoppard for his contribution to Russian theatre and the international stage

DVD Review: Calendar Girls

"I can't knit or make plum jam, but I can make a bloody victoria sponge...Of course I didn't make this one, I got it from Marks and Spencer"

I managed to resist the temptation to go and see the stage version of Calendar Girls, the prospect of it never really appealed and though it has now started appearing with regularity on the touring circuit, I still haven't worked enough desire to make the effort. When the film appeared on the television though in a post-turkey leftovers dinner haze, I couldn't find the remote and so ended up watching it. I seem to remember quite liking it in the cinema, but something obviously didn't settle too well in my memory as I'd never revisited on DVD or TV, never mind on stage, despite its epic cast of dames to be.

For much like with The King's Speech, the feel-good factor that comes from the first viewing just evaporated and what was left was, to me at least, a rather thin film, of limited characterisation and what little there is feels laboured and contrived. A problem I guess that results from trying to dramatise a real life story, but one which felt rather exposed when rewatching the film.

Cast of Calendar Girls continued

Review: Goodbye Barcelona, Arcola

“We’ll fight the repercussions with weapons from the Russians”

Inspired by a collection of interviews with British International Brigadiers, the men and women who travelled to Spain to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, Goodbye Barcelona is a new musical that has taken up residence in the Arcola Theatre’s main studio. Spread over two years, it follows Jewish mother and son, Rebecca and Sammy, both left breathless by the Cable Street Riots in the East End of London and leaving Sammy inspired to go and join the fight for democracy against General Franco’s army-led coup. But once he’s gone, his mother decides to follow him and so volunteers as a nurse, hoping to track him down.

But Judith Johnson’s book is not content with this alone as the story and builds in not one but two romances, as mother and son both succumb to Iberian inamoratas. So the historical context of this unique civil war with people fighting to defend ideologies rather than national identities has to do battle with a pair of love stories and as a result, the material sometimes feels stretched too thinly in trying to do them all justice. The narrative strands swirl around but we move between them too quickly and too often, meaning that characters don’t have enough time to develop and the fascinating insights that have been teased out from the research left largely unexplored.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

DVD Review: The Rivals , Bristol Old Vic

“Female punctuation forbids me to say more”

Not a huge amount of travelling for me this weekend but I’ve still got a big pile of DVDs to work my way through and so this Sunday evening, I sat down to this filmed version, by Heritage Theatre, of RB Sheridan’s The Rivals from the 2004 Bristol Old Vic production. It’s a rather popular play, we’ve seen a wickedly anarchic and amusing Celia Imrie-starring version at the Southwark Playhouse and a more traditional but impeccably acted version from Peter Hall in London in the last couple of years, so I was intrigued to see what this Rachel Kavanaugh-directed interpretation brought to the table.

It is an unfussy, uncluttered production - Peter MacKintosh’s evocative design making great use of perspective – which feels incredibly inclusive, even through the medium of film. Kavanaugh has her actors including the audience as an extra participant in all conversations so it feels we are constantly being confided in and party to all the gossip. It also helps that it is very well filmed, the quality is sharp and clear, there’s little unnecessary camera trickery or shots panning out to the audience, instead it focuses on a simple but strong representation of the action on stage, with key close-ups in all the right places: probably one of the best filmed theatre DVDs I’ve watched in that respect.

Review: Cock, Radio 3

”You want your boyfriend’s help with the woman you’re sleeping with”

I don’t listen to the radio much at all, but when Twitter notified me of the broadcasting of Mike Bartlett’s play Cock on Radio 3, with the original cast intact, I decided to make an exception. It was a play that I very much enjoyed when I saw it at the Royal Court Upstairs back in December 2009 and Bartlett has emerged as one of my favourite new writers, especially when he is focusing on the sharp intimate edges of human relationships.

Cock focuses on John’s difficulties when he realises how fluid his sexuality is. During a rough patch with his boyfriend, he has a random hook-up with a woman he has seen before on his daily commute and his eyes are opened to a whole world of new possibilities. But as he decides what, and who, he wants, the pressure from the others to make a choice increases.

CD Review: Self Taught; Still Learning – The Music of Chris Passey

“How would you feel if you were me?”

Self Taught; Still Learning – The Music of Chris Passey is a collection of songs by new West Midlands composer Passey that enters the ever-growing list of albums showcasing new musical theatre writing sung by a range of West End stars. Many of these songs are taken from a concept musical called Bridges but others were written especially for the album and for the singers who agreed to perform. And in a nice touch, the profits from this CD are being split between the two charities MS Society and Cancer Research.

Which makes it a little sad to say that this is not an album that I particularly loved, something about it just didn’t click with me and despite a few listens, it isn’t a collection that feels destined to get repeat plays in this household. Things get off to a shaky start anyway with an intro by “YouTube’s Miranda Sings” – of whose schtick I’m not a fan and feeling a little at odds as a way to introduce this album and her performance of a song at the end feels rather misjudged even if it is just a bonus track- it is one joke stretched thinly and I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to listen to more than 15 seconds of it.

Review: The Kitchen Sink, Bush Theatre

“It’s about bloody, making a little change. Letting some tiny changes happen without the world ending.”

One of the things I love most about theatre is that it can be equally effective when being intimate and small-scale as when it is epic and showstoppingly huge. Tom Wells’ new play for the relocated Bush Theatre – The Kitchen Sink – falls into the first category and is all the more powerful for it. In fact, I would wager that it is probably one of the best pieces of new writing to appear on the London stage this year.

Set in the Yorkshire seaside town of Withernsea, Wells’ play focuses on a family of four for whom life isn’t quite going exactly the right way. Dad Martin is a milkman but the milk float is falling to pieces and the demand just isn’t there like it used to be; Billy is an art student hoping to get a place at a London art college but simultaneously terrified at the prospect, and his sister Sophie is training to be a jiu-jitsu teacher but is having issues with her teacher. In the middle of them all is mum Kath, a dinner lady with an irrepressible perkiness that is determined to keep her husband and kids going through their respective crises, but there’s something wrong with her sink that threatens to test even her patience.

Review: Inadmissible Evidence, Donmar Warehouse

“Asking a working writer what he feels about critics is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs”

Inadmissible Evidence focuses in almost exclusively on Bill Maitland, a lawyer whose life is falling apart. Everyone important to him seems to be abandoning him, work colleagues, the numerous secretaries he’s sleeping with, his angsty daughter, and he exists in a bubble of self-obsessed torture and suffering – nicely realised in Soutra Gilmour’s office set that highlights his isolation – and presumably on the way to some sort of nervous breakdown. Douglas Hodge is thus never off the stage in a marathon of a performance that rarely lets up: he’s desperate to be the life of the party yet prey to numerous neuroses; unable to really connect with anyone yet constantly talking and raging at them; in this world it is all about him and so the play becomes all about him too.

Such focus on Maitland means that the rest of the ensemble have to work extremely hard to make any sort of meaningful impact in the production, Osborne’s writing not helping them a great deal. Daniel Ryan fares best as colleague Hudson, Serena Evans triples up effectively as a series of clients and Al Weaver makes a quietly moving study of his married man arrested for cottaging. But Esther Hall is completely wasted as final mistress Liz, given the merest opportunity to shine as she does extremely well here and Karen Gillan did not seem quite equal to the task as the secretary who has just had enough, coming across as flat and unresponsive, especially up against Hodge.

Self Taught cast continued

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Cast of The Comedy of Errors continued

Review: The Comedy of Errors, National Theatre

“How ill agrees it with your gravity to counterfeit thus grossly with your slave”

Ephesus is London, Syracuse is somewhere in the West Indies (I think) and we’re in the modern day: Dominic Cooke’s production of The Comedy of Errors moves into the Olivier at the National Theatre for an epically long run of a thoroughly updated version of this play. One of Shakespeare’s earliest works, it’s a classic tale of mistaken identities as two sets of twins separated at birth by a shipwreck rocket around the same city causing absolute mayhem as wives, merchants and policemen get tangled in a confused mess over the course of a manic day. We took in a late preview of this show which opens officially on Tuesday 29th.

Though it is Lenny Henry’s face on the poster, this is Claudie Blakley and Michelle Terry’s show. As Adriana and Luciana, here a pair of loaded Essex girls, they ooze buckets of attitude as they sit through manicures and massages whilst bemoaning their menfolk and spend the vast majority of the play in some seriously impressive towering heels, even managing to run round the stage in them several times. Blakely’s comic timing is nigh on perfect as she rages through Ephesus/London but also plays a depth to this woman, all too aware of her husband’s philandering and her final contemplative gaze at her husband is a mightily powerful moment. Terry is transformed with straightened blonde locks and a delightfully brash manner which milks every conceivable laugh from her lines: together they are just dynamite.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Review: Pippin, Menier Chocolate Factory

“Please reward our pluck and save this duck"

With the standard ticket price of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s new production of Pippin coming in at £33.50 – and the memories of last year’s turkey still fresh – I decided that I wouldn’t be taking another risk on a show I didn’t know. But when a £10 deal popped up online, I couldn’t resist and though it meant that it was a preview I saw and thus am writing about now, that is not the kind of saving I can ignore. The show has music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz – he of Wicked and Godspell (but we won’t talk about The Baker’s Wife) and book by Roger O Hirson and was originally directed by Bob Fosse on Broadway. That run lasted for five years and consequently the show has become something of an am-dram staple in the US albeit in an emasculated version (so Wikipedia tells me).

Perhaps with this in mind, director Mitch Sebastian has been extremely bold with his concept here: employing Chet Walker to recreate Fosse’s original choreography looks back to the history of the show but Sebastian has incorporated those routines into his own choreographical work and Timothy Bird’s production design for Knifedge points to a much more futuristic mindset. The Young Vic’s inability to let audiences just enter normally into a production there has spread across Southwark and so the walk into the theatre here takes us through a gloomy bedsit, computer games and magazines strewn across the floor and sci-fi film posters covering the walls, and we walk pass a young man staring blankly into a computer screen and playing with a lighter. Once inside, the auditorium is set up rather traditionally and the set initially looks rather unassuming but the reasons for that soon become apparent.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Re-review: Matilda, the Musical - Cambridge Theatre

“Never again will I doubt it when my mummy says I’m a miracle!”

More so than with straight plays, I find musicals tend to benefit from re-views (as opposed to reviews!). There’s just more to take in with book, music and lyrics all demanding the attention, especially if they’re richly detailed, staging and choreography offering much inventive potential and by no means least, a wide range of performances, which altogether offers a lot to soak in on a single viewing. Returning to a show also offers the opportunity to reassess one’s initial reactions to it, and so it was with the RSC’s Matilda, the Musical which has now made its long-awaited transfer from Stratford to the West End.

I saw the show at the beginning of the year, fairly late in the run, so had been unable to avoid the effusive praise coming from all angles and the sense of anticipation that came along with it. So predictably, whilst loving the show, there was a nagging sense of a slight disappointment too, which mainly stemmed from it not matching up with my childhood memories of the book and how I thought the show would go. It was still a strong 4 star show for me though, just not quite the saviour of musicals it was being acclaimed as, and so though I was pleased it gained the transfer it deserved, I felt little need to revisit the show.

Cast of Matilda continued

Cast of Matilda continued

Review: The Playboy of the Western World, Old Vic

“A daring fellow is the jewel of the world”

Daring indeed for Robert Sheehan, known to some, if not me, for his part in Misfits, chose to make his professional stage debut at the Old Vic in this revival of The Playboy of the Western World. A 1907 play by Irish writer JM Synge which caused riots with its opening performance which seems rather hard to fathom now, but its Set on the West Coast of Ireland in the early 1900s, Christy Mahon is a mysterious stranger who arrives in a County Mayo pub and declares that he has killed his father. But the locals love the drama and the story-telling wit that he brings into their life and rather than condemning him, elevate him with hero-worship and he attracts the romantic attentions of many of a woman, including engaged barmaid Pegeen.

I have to say I was thoroughly underwhelmed by Sheehan’s Christy, lacking the real verve and charisma needed to convince as the absolute charmer he’s meant to be, a really odd piece of casting in that I just couldn’t see what it was that he was meant to be bringing to the show, it certainly wasn’t the gift of the gab. Ruth Negga fared better as Pegeen but also didn’t really possess the kind of mastery of the text that would have pulled me into this world a bit more. But then I don’t think it would have won me over in any case as this is a very broad, Oirish world in John Crowley’s production, with many performances from supporting characters on a knife edge of just too much.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Review: Reasons To Be Pretty, Almeida

“I guess there’s a compliment wedged in there somewhere”

Neil LaBute has developed a reputation for fierce writing, exposing the darker side of human nature with an often uncompromisingly abrasive approach, but his new play at the Almeida – Reasons To Be Pretty – sees him adopt a slightly mellower tone to devastatingly powerful effect. Continuing the exploration of society’s obsession with looks and beauty that occupied earlier plays like The Shape of Things and Fat Pig, LaBute also examines disillusionment in relationships and how that can lead to betrayal.

The play opens with an intensely sharp argument between lovers Steph and Greg: he described her as regular in comparison to a new arrival in the factory where he works with best friend Kent and she found out when her friend Carly told her: she is horrified but he doesn’t see what the big deal is and their confrontations reveal cracks in their relationship. Meanwhile Carly is facing her own trials with husband Kent, expecting their child but worried he might not continue to find her attractive – how appearances are perceived is key for everyone. 

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Review: Judgement Day, The Print Room

“Critics! Do I work to amuse them? Can they judge me as equals? – when they are themselves without my gift.”

Part of the The Print Room’s artistic mandate has been to unearth little-known works by major playwrights to bring them new life and after Alan Ayckbourn and Tennessee Williams, it is Henrik Ibsen’s turn. Here, his final play When We Dead Awaken has been adapted by Mike Poulton into a new version named Judgement Day and in James Dacre’s production, features some luxury casting in both Michael Pennington and Penny Downie working hard in this intimate theatre. 

As with much of his later work, Ibsen casts an excoriating self-reflecting view on the life and longevity of the artist. Arnold Rubek is an ageing sculptor, hugely successful with his early work yet now lacking inspiration with both his work which has become perfunctorily commercial and in his personal life, his young wife Maia cares nothing for art and their’s appears to be a mutually antagonistic relationship. However, the arrival of his long-lost muse Irena and the animalistic Baron Ulfheim offers challenges and possibly renewed hope for both of them.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

DVD Review: Lost in Austen

“Is that agreeable?
‘Oh yes, ooh yes’”

To the few regular readers of this blog, it will be no surprise that I am missing Elliot Cowan’s presence on the stage. He’s currently filming a TV series of Sinbad and so in order to get my fix (plus while away a train journey or two), I decided to revisit the TV show in which he made his first major impact on me, Lost in Austen. Man-crush aside, this show also fed my girl-crush on Jemima Rooper – someone I’ve liked for ages – and started a new girl-crush on Gemma Arterton – I’m pretty sure this was the first time I saw her in anything and so has to rank as one of my favourite pieces of TV entertainment in recent years. It was a four-part drama on ITV in 2008 written by Guy Andrew and is basically a fantasy version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Amanda Price – Rooper - is a modern-day city girl who is obsessed with the book and through a portal that mysteriously appears in her bathroom, finds herself swapping places with Elizabeth Bennett and living the story that she knows far too well. But as any Doctor Who fan will tell you, you can’t go round meddling in alternative timestreams and though the set-up is entirely familiar to Amanda, the very fact of her presence in Lizzie’s stead kicks off a chain of events that knocks all the dominoes off-kilter, her manipulations never quite going right with nothing playing out like she thought it would: not least with her own tumbling head-over-heels for this version of Mr Darcy, which considering it is Elliot Cowan, that is no surprise at all.

Cast of Lost in Austen continued

CD Review: Betty Blue Eyes Official London Cast Recording

“He has magic fingers”

Before it came to an untimely end, the cast of Betty Blue Eyes were able to put down their vocals for an official live cast recording which provides something of a legacy for this Stiles + Drewe show. I went to see the show two times - reviews here and here – and loved it on each occasion as a fine exponent of a truly British new musical, but I have to admit I didn’t race to buy the soundtrack when it was first released. Part of it was due to the free taster CD that was released with the Evening Standard one Friday afternoon which meant I already had just under half the songs and though I enjoyed listening to it a couple of times, it was not one to which I returned.

Though I found it to be musically a very strong show, for some reason it doesn’t quite come across as well on the recording. Whether it was the lack of accompanying visuals to up the ante or the fact that I’d seen the show quite recently, the joy I got from watching the show didn’t quite translate into the listening experience I thought it would be. In its entirety, I found it to be so retro-infused and nostalgic as to almost be too much to listen to in one go, it doesn’t quite hit the same spot although there are moments of individual brilliance in some of the songs.

Cast of Betty Blue Eyes continued

Review: Beautiful Thing, Royal Exchange

“God, coz I bunk off games does it mean I’m gay?”

Jonathan Harvey’s 1993 play Beautiful Thing caused something of a furore when it first opened at the Bush Theatre and watching it now, it is hard to imagine that this sweetly romantic tale of an emerging teenage gay relationship could have managed that. But 18 years is a long time, especially when it comes to attitudes towards homosexuality, culturally this was a pre-Queer as Folk time but more significantly the age of consent for gay men was still 21 (though it was being debated at the time). So despite its unassuming nature, it could well be argued that this play does occupy a landmark place in the development of gay drama.

The play presents three young people, Jamie, Ste and Leah, who are all struggling to ‘fit in’ with their family, their friends, their peers and the world at large. Even the adult characters have their own struggles on this Thamesmead housing estate as poverty looms large but even in these unlikeliest of circumstances, an unexpected flame flickers between Jamie and Ste which is slowly nurtured into something rather beautiful in Sarah Frankcom’s production for the Royal Exchange.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Review: How The World Began, Arcola

“I must have said something that sounded like gobbledygook”

When Catherine Trieschmann’s play How The World Began premiered in the US last month, it carried the advisory note "isn’t for theatregoers who might feel uncomfortable with views on evolution." There might not quite be the same level of debate between creationists and Darwinists in this country, at least not in such a visual way, but what is striking about Trieschmann’s writing is how little of that debate she is actually interested in here, despite using it as her starting point.

Susan Pierce is an unmarried, pregnant, fully-paid-up liberal escaping a sticky personal situation in New York by training to become a science teacher on the job in a random placement far away. Where she ends up is Plainview, Kansas, a small town rebuilding itself after a deadly tornado, but her desire for a new start in a new place does not extend to adapting to the different mindset there and her uncompromising views of the teaching of science and a carelessness in dealing with the beliefs of others sets up a fierce clash between her and Micah, a student who takes offence at her dismissive comments, and his protective guardian.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Review: Salt, Root and Roe, Donmar Warehouse at Trafalgar Studios 2

“Oh don’t start the Welsh"

One of the pleasures that comes from working one’s way through the raft of theatregoing opportunities that present themselves here is the chance of spotting emerging talent and being able to follow their early days, not just with actors but with playwrights too. Laura Stevens is one such writer I’m tipping for success and another is Tim Price whose new play Salt, Root and Roe is the opening work in this year’s Donmar Trafalgar Studios season. His first play For Once was a highlight of new writing in the summer downstairs at the Hampstead and so my expectations here were high.

The three play Donmar at Trafalgar season is designed to showcase their Resident Assistant Directors scheme and with Salt, Root and Roe, it is Hamish Pirie’s turn to bring some of the Donmar aesthetic to the intimate Studio 2. The play is set in the West Wales childhood home of Menna, a phobic woman who returns home when she receives a disturbing letter from her aunt Iola declaring her intention to end her life. Iola has a tumour and is suffering from dementia and her twin sister Anest – Menna’s mother – is determined to accompany her and the younger woman is caught between the desire to intervene and the recognition that the bond between twins is often inexplicably deep.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Review: Burlesque, Jermyn Street

“What are you going to do, tap dance me to death?”

Burlesque is a new musical with book and lyrics written by Adam Meggido and Roy Smiles and music by Meggido as well. Adam Meggido might well be a recognisable face as he is part of the Showstopper! ensemble, a team that improvise a new musical from scratch every night, but he finally decided to write one down and over several years, Burlesque has developed into its current format at the Jermyn Street Theatre where it now has its world premiere. Set in 1952 America, it looks at how the culture of fear encouraged by McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch-hunts impacted on the lives of a set of performers in a burlesque show.

At the heart of the story is Johnny Reno, a comic trying to keep his head down after being black-listed due to his father’s connections and his unwillingness to co-operate with the FBI. His girlfriend, one of the dancers, has just announced she’s pregnant, his comedy partner Rags is hitting the bottle way too hard and the lusty theatre owner Freddie is struggling to find financial backers whilst being distracted by one of his new recruits. With the pressure on him increasing on all sides in an increasingly paranoid society, Johnny is forced to decide what, and who, is most important to him.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Not-a-review: Juno and the Paycock, National Theatre

“Never tired o’ lookin’ for a rest”

When the National Theatre open their booking periods, there is normally a mad scramble to pick up the cheap £12 tickets and so my default position has generally been to take a punt on most, if not every show that comes up, without really considering how much I actually want to see the plays. Increasingly though, I am coming to realise that the rush for a bargain really shouldn’t override my instincts about whether I will enjoy a play or not: it may seem like common sense to most people but to a theatre addict, this is a big step. Which is all leading up to me telling you that I left Juno and the Paycock at the interval.

The play in question was lauded as one of the best 100 plays of the last century and an Irish classic – this is a co-production with the Abbey Theatre, Ireland where it premiered last month (this was the final preview here) – with Howard Davies directing and a cast including Sinéad Cusack and Ciarán Hinds, so one would have assumed it was something of a safe bet. But if I’m honest, the prospect of this play never really stirred any excitement in me and the way the first two acts played out left me completely cold and so I made the very rare (for me) decision to make a quick exit.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

DVD Review: The Merchant of Venice

“If you tickle us, do we not laugh”

I remember loving this 2004 film of The Merchant of Venice hugely when it came out at the cinema, not least for the dreamy Joseph Fiennes but also for the fact that it seemed to make sense of a play which I’d never seen on stage yet always heard how problematic it apparently was. Having not seen it since then, I was quite happy to pick it up as a fab bargain along with some other goodies in a charity shop and in rewatching it, I was reminded of how pleasingly strong a piece of work it is.

The relationship between Antonio and Bassanio is thoroughly played up, from the off Jeremy Irons’ Antonio gazes wistfully and openly out the window at the arriving Bassanio and their relationship is given significant heft by Joseph Fiennes’ highly flirtatious manner. His request for yet more money is accompanied by a knowing trip to recline on the bed between them, his eyes inviting Antonio to join him and whilst the connection between them is never made explicit – the one kiss doesn’t count – it feels extremely real and makes Antonio’s willingness to sacrifice himself all the more believable. And Fiennes’ attractiveness to all and sundry is played on later with Al Weaver’s Stephano getting breathlessly excited about Bassanio’s arrival at his mistress’s home.

DVD Review: Oklahoma!, National Theatre

“I heared a lot of stories an' I reckon they're true”

A nip into Wigan whilst up at my parents’ for Bonfire Night paid great dividends with the My Fair Lady soundtrack and this DVD popping up in the same charity shop. I was particularly excited for Oklahoma! as it has Josefina Gabrielle in a lead role: becoming aware of her in recent years, I have only seen her in supporting roles and loved her immensely in almost every one. It also has Hugh Jackman whom I saw a snippet of in Hey Mr Producer! just a couple of weeks ago, which introduced me briefly to the concept of him as a musical theatre star, something that’s still a bit odd. My favourite bit of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first musical though is how it confirms that everyone thinks they’re a great dancer when on drugs!

Trevor Nunn’s 1998 production for the National Theatre takes an impressively gritty approach to the show which undercuts the popular notion that musicals are all cheery jazz hands and nothing more. Yes there is splendid choreography from Susan Stroman which sparkles with a marvellous joie de vivre but it comes in scenes when people are coming together for a good time, market day or the big ball, and they are captured beautifully here. But alongside this, is no attempt to hide how tough day-to-day life is for these people and the violence that underscores much of life on the ranches and farms.

CD Review: My Fair Lady Original 2001 London Cast

“An average man am I, of no eccentric whim”

Unless you can’t buying all sorts of theatrical related goodies in charity shops, I have few eccentric whims myself, and one such shop in Wigan surrendered a veritable treasure trove of goodies, including the soundtrack to the National Theatre’s production of My Fair Lady. I wasn’t living in the country at the time, nor obsessed with theatre for that matter, but I was still aware of the travails of erstwhile leading lady Martine McCutcheon, who managed incredibly to still win an Olivier Award despite managing fewer performances that her understudy in the original NT run. 

Lerner and Loewe’s classic is another of those shows that I’ve never actually seen on stage myself, and so I have to admit that this CD didn’t really catch my attention whilst listening to it, not that it wasn’t good but rather that I felt disengaged from it. Without having seen this production either at the NT or the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to where it transferred, there was nothing to relate it back to which is often the joy of official cast recordings of classic shows. Instead, one becomes a little too aware of the differences without the context in which they were made.

Review: Britannicus, Wilton’s Music Hall

“She loves my brother – I'll have to console myself with his pain”

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new translation of Racine’s Britannicus updates the action to the modern day even though the story remains centred on a day in the life of Roman Emperor Nero. His power-hungry mother Agrippina manipulated things so that the succession passed to her favourite son Nero rather than rightful heir Britannicus after the death of Emperor Claudius, but her lust for power has passed down the bloodline. Rome shudders as Nero establishes himself politically, leaving Agrippina feeling increasingly marginalised, made worse by setting his gaze on his brother’s lover Junia.

Wilton’s Music Hall is such an atmospheric and idiosyncratic venue that I always want productions there to utilise it to its best potential so I have to admit to being a little disappointed by Chloe Lamford’s design which feels too modern and out of place. But Irina Brown’s direction makes inventive use of the space and also does make sense of the updating, Siân Thomas’ Agrippina channelling Thatcher vibes throughout as a woman battling in a male-dominated arena and the political intrigue that dominates everyone’s life whether they want it or not is immediately recognisable, no-one knows who to trust in this world of slippery political double-speak.

Review: The Firewatchers, Old Red Lion

“I have absolutely every intention of doing my bit”

The Firewatchers, a new play by young playwright Laura Stevens, offers a neat counterpoint to the jingoistic male-dominated Three Days in May, by presenting an altogether different experience of the Second World War, from the perspective of two very different women stationed for the night on an East London factory rooftop in 1942. Eastender Jean works in a munitions factory whilst Catharine is a wealthy society wife but they find themselves sharing a long night shift as firewatchers, on the alert for fires started by German incendiary devices. 

But though the two women come to realise they might have more in common than they realise, Stevens does not make the mistake of drawing too close a parallel. Wartime saw great change beginning to ripple through society in terms of both class and gender divides but it was by no means instant. What Stevens adroitly draws our attention to, by cleverly placing this well after the Blitz had nominally finished, is just how differently the impact of war played out on women of different class as we find out how each woman has come to end up on this rooftop.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Review: Grief, National Theatre

“I don’t want some lovely pink lemonade, I want a sherry”

Mike Leigh's new play for the National Theatre was finally entitled Grief after going under 'A New Play' for what felt like the longest time and sees him reunited with frequent collaborator Lesley Manville. I was quite looking forward to it as my first 'new' Leigh stage experience, the revival of Ecstasy having whetted my appetite quite considerably. Manville plays Dorothy, widowed in the war and frozen in the past, who lives with her stroppy teenage daughter Victoria and also her older brother Edwin, a complete creature of habit who is coming to the end of 45 years working at the same insurance firm. A set of visitors offer a little relief to this suffocating routine in Alison Chitty’s drab suburban living room set, Edwin’s brusque doctor friend and Dorothy’s old colleagues who love a good natter but it is the cleaner who gets more of a view into the quietly toxic atmosphere of this household which gradually gets worse.

It is acted well, extremely well in most places. Marion Bailey and David Horovitch are striking in the vividness of their characterisations as two of the visitors; Ruby Bentall’s sullen teenager captures the tragedy of wasted potential, stymied by her surroundings and unable to break free; Sam Kelly’s retiree is a powerfully effective study in near-paralysis and Lesley Manville is utterly superb as a woman who seems unable to move on from the past, yet not even really gaining succour from singing old songs with her brother any more.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Review: Henry V, Propeller at Yvonne Arnaud

“May I with right and conscience make this claim”

After the phenomenal success of their pairing of Richard III and The Comedy of Errors which toured considerably this year, all-male Shakespeare company Propeller are riding on something of a high. The company has evolved once again with some departures, some new faces and several stalwarts remaining in situ to take on Henry V (which will be accompanied by The Winter’s Tale from next year) which will tour the UK and the world once again, even heading over to Australia and New Zealand in March.

A history play that has war at the very heart of it, Henry V perhaps lends itself more easily than most to updating, the enduring nature of conflict meaning that resonance is sadly never too far away. Propeller, with Michael Pavelka’s design, have adopted a modern feel – costumes point towards early-twentieth century - but one that generally feels more timeless rather than particularly anchored to any specific period with scaffolding units and crates forming a flexible set. The company bring their customary level of reinvigoration to the play, breathing a new physical life into the work and letting their imagination take it to new places.

Cast of Henry V continued

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Review: The Lion in Winter, Theatre Royal Haymarket

“You will take what Daddy gives you”

I have to start this review off with an apology to my Medieval History A-Level teacher Mrs Grist. Despite having spent two years studying the subject, and writing an extended essay on the Capetian King Philip Augustus (who appears as a young man in this play), precious little of the detail has remained in my head. Fortunately James Goldman’s The Lion In Winter, Trevor Nunn’s latest entry in his Theatre Royal Haymarket season, has a rather loose basis in history, coming from the Philippa Gregory-type school of soapy melodrama rather striving for historical accuracy, and so the vagueness of my recollections was just fine as this ends up being more of an Ayckbourn-style domestic conflict piece – Season’s Greetings but with a cast of historical royals instead.

Things get off to a rather shaky start with a huge amount of backstory text scrolling up the screen, which is surrounded by the cheapest-looking holly border straight out of a clip-art folder. It is a rather unwieldy way to convey a ton of information which if significant, ought to be clear anyway from strong playwriting. But in a nutshell, the play is set at Christmastime 1183 in the château of Chinon, Anjou in Western France where Henry II of England has kept his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, prisoner for a decade after she led a rebellion against him. Accompanying the warring couple are their three sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John, who are all competing for their father’s favour in order to be named his successor and their guest, King Philip II of France, whose half-sister Alais just happens to be Richard’s fiancée and Henry’s mistress. And for two and a half hour, they all jockey for position with each other, trying to work out who will end up on top.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Review: The Changeling, Southwark Playhouse

“Thou art all deformed”

The programme for the Southwark Playhouse’s latest main house production, The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, starts off with an honest explanation of the difficulties in staging such a dialogue-heavy work so full of asides and freely admits it is taking a risk in the approach they have adopted, which is to use voiceovers. Such candour is perhaps bravely admirable but in this case, it is a risk that does not pay off as The Production Works’ reimagining of the classic sadly falls short in a number of areas.

Beatrice-Joanna is engaged to Alonzo, hotly in love with Alsemero and stalked by her disfigured servant De Flores and such is the strength of her burning desire and the desire she provokes in others that in order to pursue the second she engages the third to get rid of the first. This production focuses on this twisted love triangle and completely does away with the comic subplot, thus bringing in the show at an interval-less 90 minutes but making the tone of the play unremittingly dark.

Monday, 7 November 2011

DVD Review: Othello, Shakespeare’s Globe

“And what's he then that says I play the villain?
When this advice is free I give and honest”

My first Othello was just last month with the Crucible’s extraordinary production which was rather breath-takingly good, so I was a little trepidatious about putting on this DVD on the Globe’s take on the play from 2007. Wilson Milam directed this rather traditional production but I was still rather keen to see an alternative version, especially once I’d found out that it contained John Stahl and Sam Crane in its ensemble.

Given how strong the four central characters were in Sheffield, I was quite surprised, and pleased, at how good I (mostly) found the four actors here to be, offering different but equally effective takes on the roles and demonstrating the malleability of Shakespeare’s text when in the right hands. Eamonn Walker’s Othello is a strident beast, most definitely a warrior though with hints of vulnerability which Zoë Tapper’s astoundingly accomplished Desdemona is clearly attracted to and thoroughly won over by. He perhaps could have worked in a little more charisma into his performance and his verse speaking didn’t always feel quite so natural, but this was mainly in comparison to Tapper whose luminosity shone through onstage, through every move she made and word she spoke, truly breaking the heart as the betrayals kick in. It feels a crime that she hasn’t done more stage work. 

Sunday, 6 November 2011

CD Review: Laura Michelle Kelly – The Storm Inside

“Is this the place I’ve been dreaming of”

I can’t remember exactly how it came to be playing but I remember very clearly when and where I was the first time I heard Laura Michelle Kelly’s version of Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know, a rare moment where I stopped everything I was doing to soak in a moment of musical magic. I’ve never seen her onstage and as this was back in the day of normal amounts of theatregoing, I bought her CD The Storm Inside unaware of her theatrical credentials.

And you wouldn’t know them from her song choices either. The Storm Inside is by no means a musical theatre album but rather a collection of songs – half covers, half originals (3 from her own pen) – marking out a separate musical identity, a little bit indie-pop, a little bit light jazz and a fair bit swirling balladry. Lush instrumentations set the tone for much of the album, There Was A Time winds its fascinating way to a delicate conclusion, Paul Weller’s You Do Something To Me becomes velvety and really rather sexy though the Cardigans’ Communication gets an epic transformation which is a little too X-Factor, the acoustic version (also available) is much better. Nick Drake’s Riverman also receives an unexpected makeover to become a prettier and more hopeful number, purists may baulk but it really does work.

DVD Review: Tamara Drewe

“You’re just a sex object, no-one would have you”

I did a lot of travelling this weekend so I got to catch up on a fair bit of DVD watching on the train: some were directly theatre-related and others not, but the cast of Tamara Drewe was so thesp-heavy I couldn’t resist jotting down a few thoughts about this film. Any film that opens with a shirtless Luke Evans and having his role as a sex object acknowledged within the first 15 minutes is surely onto a good thing and combined with Roger Allam’s deliciously fruity turn of phrase, the film made a bright start which endeared me greatly.

The film, directed by Stephen Frears, has a screenplay by Moira Buffini derived from Posy Simmond’s graphic novel-style drawings and is set in the sleepy village of Ewedown where everyone knows each other’s business and can’t help but poke their nose in. When Tamara, an appealing turn from Gemma Arterton, returns after her mother’s death to sell up the old family house, she thinks that she’ll be heading straight back to her adopted London lifestyle, but a new affair with rock star Ben, Dominic Cooper in fine form, keeps her a little longer and allowing old feelings and passions to stir in several men of the village, making life most complicated for all.

Cast of Tamara Drewe continued

Friday, 4 November 2011

Review: Bang Bang Bang, Royal Court

“There’s always going to be an Amala, or the little boy or the fourteen-year-old or the thirty-five-year-old or the elderly lady or the dying man...”

Though Stella Feehily’s Bang Bang Bang is set in the same part of the world as Lynn Nottage’s Ruined – the Democratic Republic of Congo – the focus of this play is less on the state of affairs in the civil war-torn country but rather delving behind the scenes of the charities, journalists and NGOs out there in Africa, looking at how it affects the lives of the humanitarian workers who go out there. Feehily did huge amounts of meticulous research for this play, interviewing a wide range of stakeholders from the international aid business.

As often happens in such cases, there is the slight sense that Feehily has tried to cram in as much of what she has uncovered into the play as issue follows issue and the shocking scene that opens the show is explained through flashbacks and its aftermath subsequently probed. Experienced Sadhbh and newbie Mathilde set out on a harrowing mission to investigate tales of war crimes and end up in differing situations: Sadhbh, already testing the boundaries of her relationship by returning here as her boyfriend back in London shell-shocked from his own experiences as an aid worker wants her to give it up, accepts an invitation to tea with the warlord himself and finds an opposing account of events, and Mathilde finds herself a distraction in the form of photographer Vin, but both women are never far from danger and their choices have massive implications in their perilous circumstances.

Cast of Sweeney Todd continued

Blogged: the return of You Me Bum Bum Train

Sound the klaxon, blow the whistle, You Me Bum Bum Train is coming back! It ranked as my second favourite thing that I saw in the entirety of last year and I could not be happier to be able to experience what Kate Bond, Morgan Lloyd and their tireless team have in store for us this time around. It is quite difficult to explain just what You Me Bum Bum Train is without giving it away, and a massive part of the pleasure is the complete unexpectedness of what it is that lies in store for you. Though it may seem a little scary, and believe me just before I went in last year I was genuinely freaked out and very close to backing out, but I persevered and boy am I glad that I did as I got to do things I never dreamed I would ever do, and will most likely never get the chance again!

What I can say is that rather than being a traditional show, You Me Bum Bum Train is ‘a participatory theatrical experience’: you enter on a solo adventure that takes surreal twist and turns that will introduce you to a world like no other where you will get opportunities like no other. It may sound a little intimidating, especially for the more reticent, but it is done with such a huge amount of sensitivity and such an amazingly supportive atmosphere that you never feel exposed or embarrassed, but rather encouraged to have the best time you can possibly have. So put any doubts whatsoever to the side, embrace the unknown and take the plunge as you will only kick yourself if you don’t! But move quickly, tickets sold out for last year’s run in nano-seconds – making it the fastest ever selling show at the Barbican.

So the details: