Thursday, 31 March 2011

Review: Remembrance Day, Royal Court

“They’re old men...
‘But they’re still Nazis.’”

The second half of the International Playwrights Season at the Royal Court shifts its focus to new Eastern European writing. I attended the first reading last week, of Pavel Pryazkho’s The Harvest, but the main show, playing upstairs, is Latvian-based playwright Aleksey Scherbak’s Remembrance Day, presented here in a translation by Rory Mullarkey. 

On 16th March, veterans of the Latvian Legion of the Waffen SS march through the capital Riga, increasingly being joined by other native Latvians as a celebration of their national independence against Soviet oppression. The complicating factor though, being that in order to fight the Soviets, they had to align themselves with the Nazis. The march therefore is a focal point for tensions as both anti-fascist and fascist movements in the country seek to capitalise on the emotions provoked here to promote their own agendas. Sherbak’s play uses the tensions in a Russian-speaking family to explore this struggle as teenage Anya finds herself becoming more and more radicalised as a political activist whilst her father’s attempt to preach a calmer message of tolerance is misinterpreted and whips up an intense fervour of damaging extremism. 

Review: Sweet Engineering of the Lucid Mind, Hen & Chickens

“Who wants to be normal?”

Winner of the Off Cut Writing Award 2010 as a 15 minute short, Mitch Féral has now expanded his play, Sweet Engineering of the Lucid Mind, into an 80 minute piece which is playing at the Hen & Chickens at Highbury Corner. It is a tragicomic story of a long-married couple, he an astrophysicist with grand plans about the nature of reality and the possibility of time travel, she a history teacher struggling to deal with the early onset dementia of her once-vibrant husband.

Simon Nicholas was strong as the highly intelligent physicist suffering from the slow decline of his mental faculties, and subject to the vagaries of a mind that flits from memory to memory without logic or reason. He captured the quicksilver flashes of mood too, turning almost violent as his frustrations come close to boiling over. But it was Debra Baker as his long-suffering wife who really blew me away with her quietly dignified performance, setting her teeth to the grim reality of full-time caring for a loved one who can’t show gratitude. It is her lucidity that fleshes out the random memories that pop into her husband’s mind, telling the story of their courtship and marriage, the good times of the past which have inevitably turned into the more trying times of the present day, and she really makes one believe the strength of the love between these two people and just why she could never put him into a home.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Review: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Gielgud

“The clock will tick away the hours one by one”

‘A French romance that just happens to be sung’ is the subtitle to Kneehigh’s adaptation of the 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg which has arrived at the Gielgud Theatre, following their hugely successful take on Brief Encounter a couple of years ago. The story is boy meets girl, they fall in love but he gets called to national service in Algeria, but she is...well, I can’t give it all away, but it is a nicely mature look at the ebb and flow of love and romance which rarely runs as smoothly as we would all like.

Perhaps predictably, the show is full of Kneehigh-isms, the tricks and stagecraft for which they have become so well-known, but perhaps with diminishing returns in this instance. We have finger-walking people, freaky puppet children, sailors carrying people around when they want to go somewhere, a man (badly) dragged up as the elderly aunt, a swish-looking video wall: all are professionally done, but hardly any of them feel genuinely part of the fabric of the show, an integral part of the story-telling and so consequently the feeling is often of ‘we know how to do it, so we will’. The video wall is really effective in the way it is employed but it is for the briefest of moments only and I couldn’t help wonder if the focus shouldn’t have been more on keeping the ticket prices down.

Review: Rocket To The Moon, National Theatre

“None of you can give me what I’m looking for”

Set in the waiting room of a dentist’s office in the oppressive heat of a New York City summer, Rocket To The Moon focuses on the midlife crisis of Ben Stark, an unhappily married dentist who encouraged by his father-in-law, a man dealing with his own frustrations in life, to pursue his own dreams. This leads him to have an affair with his new dental assistant, the luminous Cleo Singer, which starts off as a bit of fun but soon turns into something much more profound in the latest show to open at the Lyttelton.

As Stark, the handsome (and finally released from Coney Island) Joseph Millson is excellent, his nervous smile betraying his emotions all-too-easily as he struggles to balance his moral position with his desire to follow his heart and even as he tumbles for Cleo, he still maintains a certain integrity to the character which is most involving. And making her theatrical debut after a well-received television career, I was quite impressed by Keeley Hawes in the rather thankless role of his highly-strung wife. She managed to bring some humanity to this woman Belle suggesting that she is as much a victim as Ben, even if Odets doesn’t allow her character that much development beyond that of the exceedingly demanding, a heartbreaking moment as she closes the door on her husband encapsulating her performance beautifully.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Review: Verdict, Churchill Bromley

“People matter as much as ideas”

Her off Strictly Come Dancing, him out of Drop the Dead Donkey, her out of Monarch of the Glen, him off Doctors and yes him out of Harry Potter all grown up now: Bill Kenwright’s The Agatha Christie Theatre Company’s production of her 1958 play Verdict is jam-packed with recognisable faces, a canny move for a touring show. But the company’s exploration of the full breadth of her playwriting (last year saw Witness for the Prosecution but the previous one saw A Daughter’s A Daughter, a romance written under her Mary Westmacott pseudonym) means that this is not necessarily the most recognisably ‘Agatha Christie’ of her works. A completely original play, Verdict eschews the mystery thriller format and is more of a melodrama. Yes there’s a murder but it is carried out onstage in front of us and Christie is much more interested in exploring the consequences of following the head and not the heart and the impact that purely intellectual reasoning can have on people.

It is set entirely in the Bloomsbury flat of German émigré Professor Karl Hendryk where he lives with wife Anya, suffering from a progressively debilitating disease, and cousin Lisa who helps to care for her. Anya is bitter about having to flee her contented life in Germany due to Karl’s act of kindness to a persecuted friend and depressed about the state of her own health, so questions of suicide are raised when she dies. But his liberal attitudes to those who do him wrong push his friends to the very limit as it turns out all is not what it seems with his wife’s death and adhering so strictly to his moral code threatens those who are closest to him.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Music Review: Caroline O’Connor – What I Did For Love

“Like a clown whose tears cause laughter...”

Caroline O’Connor is an Oldham-born triple-threat - singer, dancer, actress - though she has spent much of her life in Australia and so carries dual nationality these days (she’ll always be a Lancashire lass to me!) She was recently in London with her one-woman show The Showgirl Within but it is her 1998 album What I Did For Love that was pressed into my hand by a friend who recommended I give it a spin.

Exercising her full voice on standards like All That Jazz, America and Don’t Rain On My Parade, her throaty chuckle permeates these songs and gives a real sense of her character and I also enjoyed her There Are Worse Things I Could Do. But mixed in with these well-known songs are things I’d never heard before which always come as a nice surprise when they are as good as the sweetly sung The Night It Had To End from Romance, Romance and Side Show’s Who Will Love Me As I Am.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Review: Sunday Morning at the Centre of the World, Southwark Playhouse

“Here be the people that make the city new”

On entering the Vault at Southwark Playhouse, a man in a grey tracksuit offers you a furry purple blindfold. ‘It’s your choice to wear it...’ he says, how could you refuse?! Sunday Morning at the Centre of the World is the only play that Louis de Bernières has written but it is a play for voices, originally broadcast as it was on Radio 3 and that is where the blindfold comes in. Bad Physics’ production offers the opportunity to experience it as a radio play, listening to the dialogue but with added sensory experiences, live sound effects, smells and sensations or you can choose to watch the cast perform these sensory interventions and experience it without the element of surprise.

The show is an homage to the author‘s life in Earlsfield, South West London and takes direct influence from Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood in its device of an omnipresent narrator inviting us to witness and eavesdrop on the everyday life as he has observed it in Tooting. The cast of eight play a multitude of characters from a wide range of the social spectrum giving a rich slice of the diversity of this community, which like so many communities, is having to deal with changes that have and are continuing to take place. The characterisations sometimes tend towards the broadly stereotypical but only because so many stereotypes are based in truth and the cast never loses sight of the humanity of even the wackier traits of behaviour being portrayed here.

Review: Naked Boys Singing, Charing Cross Theatre

“There’s only one reason you’re here tonight”

The rebranding of the New Players Theatre as the Charing Cross Theatre has to be one of the least effective I have come across in quite some time. The theatre itself, the signage and the website still bear the old name, only the tickets actually say Charing Cross on them which makes for a strange state of affairs. It is now playing late-night home to Naked Boys Singing, which is proving remarkably enduring given that this is the fourth outing for Phil Willmott’s production after previous runs at the King’s Head and the Arts Theatre: what could its appeal be...?!

It’s a musical comedy revue loosely in the style of A Chorus Line, following 7 guys as they audition for and then perform in a show which requires them to be in the nude. Which they do, eventually. But before that, there’s an attempt at trying to add depth to proceedings by filling the back-story of some of the protagonists and philosophising about what it means to really get naked, but given that the height of humour here is men shouting as many different terms for male genitalia as they can, any level of sophistication is pretty much wasted.

Review: I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark On Sundays, Cock Tavern

“I sense this is going to be a sticky run-through”

I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark On Sundays is one of two Tennessee Williams’ plays, previously unperformed, which the Cock Tavern are putting on to mark what would have been his 100th birthday year. I Never Get Dressed... is actually an unpublished work, being written in 1970 immediately after his departure from rehab.

Tye and Jane are two lovers in a bedsit in a sleazy quarter of 1970s New Orleans. He is a stripper, in cahoots with the gangster running the place and driving Jane up the wall with his lazy promiscuous ways. She’s a New Yorker, a former actress trying to make it as a fashion designer but struggling to attract the right interest without having to sell herself. As ever with Williams’, the characters fit into recognizable archetypes: Tye is a strapping brute and indeed the word strapping might have been invented for the bear-ish Lewis Hayes who spends a large proportion of the play in just a flesh-coloured jockstrap; and Jane is a fragile soul, disturbed by the chatter of tourists outside, her decline into poverty, played well by Shelley Lang and they make a destructively persuasive couple. But that is not all.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Review: The Kissing-Dance, Jermyn Street

“I concluded from your airs and manners that you were bred in Tufnell Park"
The Kissing-Dance is a Howard Goodall musical with lyrics and book by Charles Hart which is based on the 18th Century Oliver Goldsmith classic comedy She Stoops To Conquer. Set over one long night in Nonesuch, somewhere in the English countryside on All Fools’ Eve, it’s a story of comic misunderstandings as a London suitor is fooled into believing his prospective father-in-law’s house is an inn by the cheeky Tony Lumpkin, causing his intended to test his honour with her own scheme to foil her mother’s plans for her, whilst other secret affairs are revealed, missing family jewels cause consternation and general mayhem ensues until the sun finally rises again.

Following on from the well-received but prematurely-closed Love Story, The Kissing-Dance reveals a slightly more playful side to Goodall’s composing, embracing an English pastoral influence which allied to the wit of much of Hart’s lyrics, makes this really quite a sprightly affair. There are moments that feel almost like Gilbert & Sullivan, especially in the multi-layered finale to Act 1 with its many counterpointed melodies creating a harmonious delight. It wasn’t always so successful though, the title song feeling a little out of place with the rest of the show and not helped by being sung by the servants oddly, a small thing but still a bump in an otherwise smooth ride.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Review: Betty Blue Eyes, Novello

“Another little victory for little England”

With a book by Ron Cowen + Daniel Lipman, adapted from the story of the film A Private Function by Alan Bennett + Malcolm Mowbray and with a score by George Stiles + Anthony Drewe and marking a rare excursion back into producing from Cameron Mackintosh, Betty Blue Eyes is a new musical at the Novello Theatre with a lot of names credited on the poster! Set in Shepardsford, a Yorkshire town in 1947 at the height of post-war austerity (and previews, which this was, are being sold at austerity prices!), the plot follows Gilbert Chilvers a chiropodist and his frustrated wife Joyce, chafing under the restrictions of the time and who yearns to be accepted into the higher echelon of society where she believes they belong. They are not having much joy until they happen upon a secret plot by the town council to hold a feast for this elite in honour of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s impending marriage at which an illegally kept pig will be the star of the banquet. So, this being a comedy, they steal the pig.

But it is about something more too, over and above the farcical shenanigans with Betty the pig, especially in the more reflective first half. This is a society struggling to come to terms with the enduring impact of the Second World War, the melancholy Magic Fingers in particular looking at the wives left behind, as rationing hits hard, threatening to dampen the spirit of those just trying to carry on living in hard times yet still nurturing their own dreams and ambitions. And this is where Stiles + Drewe’s score comes into its own, suffused with a beautiful warmth: it really is stuffed full of tunes, their comical songs are deliciously witty whilst advancing the story, there’s simple but affecting emotion in the balladry and more than once, I found myself just swaying along with a grin on my face (and not just because Liza Minnelli was just a couple of seats away from us). It all has that kind of nostalgic feel that makes for easy recognition and it is a score I wanted to hear again from the moment the show finished.

Flare Path, has to come to terms with decisions made in wartime and reassessing her personal ambitions in light of the realities of being a married woman. And Sarah Lancashire really pulls it off as the star of the show. Dancing and singing like a dream, her Nobody is one of the show’s highlights and she pulls the show through whilst the first half clicks into place around her. Reece Shearsmith as her slightly dippy husband is a likeable everyman figure but could do with squeezing a little more winning charm into his stage presence as he tends to blend into the ensemble a little too much, he is the leading man after all, but he is lovely to watch. And Ann Emery as Mother Dear who lives with this couple is a scene-stealing genius, bringing the house down with a mere look and incredibly sprightly on her feet at the end of the show hoedown.

Cast of Betty Blue Eyes continued

Not-a-Review: The Harvest, Royal Court

“Apple-picking is really cool”

The Royal Court’s International Playwrights Season turns its gaze to Eastern Europe now, with main show the Latvian Remembrance Day opening this week and two rehearsed readings accompanying it from other former Soviet countries. The first was from Belarus, The Harvest by Pavel Pryazhko and translated here by Sasha Dugdale, a deceptively simple but wickedly funny comedy about four young people picking apples in an orchard.

I’ve enjoyed the previous readings I’ve been to so I would most likely have booked for this one anyway, but as soon as I discovered that the much-lauded (on this blog at least!) John Heffernan was taking part, it was a no-brainer. But it was also pleasing to see the rest of the cast being interesting names too: David Dawson (an alumnus of Posh from downstairs here), and Laura Elphinstone and Emily Taaffe, both of whom I’ve seen and liked but in fairly serious roles, so it was a great pleasure to see everyone breaking loose and playing with the daftness in the comedy of Pryazhko’s writing and all doing really well.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Review: Cause Célèbre, Old Vic

“That damned woman”

Cause Célèbre is perhaps one of the most eagerly awaited events of the Terence Rattigan centenary celebrations, being directed by Thea Sharrock who helmed the multi-Olivier-winning After the Dance at the National Theatre last year. She brings this play, the last to be written by Rattigan in 1976 before his death the next year, to the Old Vic featuring the return to the stage of Anne-Marie Duff, alongside Niamh Cusack and a large supporting cast. This was a preview performance and I attended as part of the What's on Stage group outing.

The play is based on the 1930s real-life story of Alma Rattenbury, a woman nearly 40 accused and put on trial for murdering her elderly husband along with her 18-year old lover. Society was scandalised and enthralled by the trial, not necessarily because of the crime but because of the moral profligacy that was perceived in Alma taking such a young lover, and one who was her servant to boot, and it is the attitudes of society that Rattigan focuses on. He introduces the fictionalised character of Edith Davenport into the narrative, a woman of very traditional values who is the forewoman of the jury hearing Alma’s case, yet who is struggling with her own issues as she is divorcing her feckless husband and dealing her son who has inherited his father’s taste for debauchery (as she sees it), a crucial point being that he is the same age as Alma’s lover, something which clouds her judgement from the start.

Cast of Cause Célèbre continued

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Review: Anna Karenina, Arcola

“If you only knew what I would give to love you freely"

This production of Anna Karenina at the Arcola Theatre is a revival of one from 1992 by Shared Experience, presented here by The Piano Removal Company, a new company formed out of a recently graduating group from the Birmingham School of Acting, whose final show there was this. Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel reworks the story into a conversation between the two central characters of Anna and Levin as they debate freedom versus duty whilst their stories are told in rapidly-played episodes, hers of pursuing an illicit love at the expense of her son and her position in society and his of trying to find meaning in life, even if it means losing the chance to love.

Director Max Webster wears his previous connections to Complicite on his sleeve and the resulting visual aesthetic therefore feels quite familiar: the swift scene changes and multiple role-playing, the exaggerated physicality of much of the movement and moments of striking imagery through simply used props. It works well, creating some elegant scenes of candlelit beauty, spotlit conversations and paper snowfalls as well as working in a wry sense of humour with Vronsky’s omnipresence. But there is just so much of this physical staging with its relentless changes which doesn’t always add value to the production and pad out the running time unnecessarily. 

Monday, 21 March 2011

Review: Michael Bruce – Unwritten Songs album launch, Delfont Room

“Musical theatre’s my passion, my art”

In the Delfont Room at the Prince of Wales Theatre, there is often a Sunday night treat to be found and this week saw the launch of Unwritten Songs, the debut album by Michael Bruce featuring a whole host of West End stars, many of whom were in attendance to perform the songs they sing on the album, including Julie Atherton, Alexia Khadime, Anna-Jane Casey and Mark Evans and some other special guests too, including Caroline Sheen. Bruce is a composer who has had his own West End showcase, musicals playing at Edinburgh, is resident composer at the Bush Theatre and has written the score for shows like the National Theatre’s Men Should Weep and the forthcoming David Tennant/Catherine Tate Much Ado About Nothing, so it is safe to say this is a man who is going places.

His songwriting covers many bases, but he is particularly strong at the comedic songs and his repertoire is already full of choice gifts for the more daring cabaret performer: 'Portrait of a Princess' (formerly titled 'In A Disney Way') was written especially for Julie Atherton and plays perfectly to her inimitable strength at witty story-songs, if for some crazy reason you only buy one song off this album, this would be the one. But there’s also the faux-operatic Continental delivered with a great wry humour by Emily Tierney and the newly written 'The Musical Theatre Song' which borrows the rapid-fire structure of Sondheim’s '(Not) Getting Married Today' as a musical theatre fan breathlessly lists all the shows she loves, delivered almost without fault by Anna-Jane Casey. Bruce clearly enjoys challenging his singers and when they are of this calibre, then why the hell not.

Music Review: Alan Cumming – I Bought A Blue Car Today

“You have to understand the way I am, mein herr”
Supported by a series of shows on both sides of the Atlantic, Alan Cumming’s I Bought A Blue Car Today documents his last 10 years of slowly becoming an American citizen whilst never really losing the impish Scottish charm for which he is so well known from appearances in film, TV and onstage. Under the musical direction of Lance Horne, he rips through a huge range of songwriters and styles whilst showing off a new facet to his many talents and one which pleases for the most part.

He slips between the world of popular music and musical theatre with an impressive ease: a rousing rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s Shine is matched by the stirring take on 'Where I Want To Be' from Chess; and who else could trace a journey from Dory Previn’s Dance and Dance and Smile and Smile to a Mika song via Victoria Wood’s 'Thinking of You'. But the highlight is probably a sleazily sensual riff on 'Mein Herr' from Cabaret that is downright filthy but huge amounts of fun.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Meme: Last 10 things seen at the theatre

Because I am at that place called Procrastination Station and not currently inclined to finish the 5 outstanding reviews, here a little light-hearted bit of fun.

List the last 10 things you saw at the theatre in order:

1. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Gielgud)
2. Ecstasy (Hampstead)
3. 8 Women (Southwark)
4. After Troy (Shaw)
5. Flare Path (Theatre Royal Haymarket)
6. Lidless (Trafalgar Studios 2)
7. The Knot of the Heart (Almeida)
8. Richard II (Tobacco Factory)
9. Godspell (Ye Olde Rose & Crown)
10. Romeo & Juliet (Royal Shakespeare)

Who was the best performer in number one (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg)?
Meow Meow as Maîtresse, the narrator-type figure, one of the main reasons I was so excited for the show and completely worth it, her rendition of Sans Toi is almost worth the ticket price alone. Joanna Riding and Cynthia Erivo also excellent though.

Why did you go to see number two (Ecstasy)?
The fact that it was selling out? Also the chance to see Sinéad Matthews and Siân Brooke onstage again after really enjoying previous performances from them last year.

Can you remember a line/lyric from number three (8 Women) that you liked?
“Mummy, people tend not to commit suicide by sticking a knife in their back”

What would you give number four (After Troy) out of ten?
A 7?

Was there someone hot in number five (Flare Path)?
I can never quite make up my mind about Harry Hadden-Paton but in uniform, yes. See also Joe Armstrong.

What was number six (Lidless) about?
The moral implications of being involved in torture and the impact of suppressing the truth from loved ones, but from a heavily liberal point of view. Also a handy guide on what not to do with a pair of handcuffs.

Who was your favourite actor in number seven (The Knot of the Heart)?
I didn’t really enjoy any of the acting in this to be honest, unless you count wine glass throwing technique, but Kieran Bew did extremely well at clearly defining several small different roles as the various men in the show.

What was your favourite bit in number eight (Richard II)?
Apart from being within touching distance of John Heffernan when he sat in the audience, it would be the scene when he arrived back from Ireland to receive some bad news, slumped against a pillar and practically whispering, you could have heard a pin drop as he proved what a fine actor he is becoming.

Would you see number nine (Godspell) again?
No. Not even for the sexy gay Judas in it.

What was the worst thing about number ten (Romeo & Juliet)?
Cripes. I can’t think of anything apart from the box office woman being unwelcomingly rude.

Which was best?
I’m saying Flare Path for now, but subject to change.

Which was worst?
The Knot of the Heart, without a doubt.

Did any make you cry?
I wept in Flare Path and afterwards. Also shed a tear or 5 in Romeo & Juliet and After Troy.

Did any make you laugh?
I very nearly lost it in The Knot of the Heart but I wasn’t supposed to be laughing... But Sheridan Smith made me laugh lots in Flare Path, 8 Women had lots of silly humour, Umbrellas, Romeo & Juliet and Ecstasy also got a laugh or 3.

Which roles would you like to play in any of them?
None immediately spring to mind, although I wouldn’t mind being one of the charcaters in Umbrellas of Cherbourg who got carried around.

Which one did you have best seats for?
My seats for 8 Women had my name on them! But forked out for front of circle for R&J which was amazing, and even if the play was awful, the £8 marvel that is F12 at the Almeida did not disappoint.

Review: After Troy, Shaw Theatre

“Was there another Troy for her to burn?”

After Troy sees Glyn Maxwell creating a new play out of Euripides’ two tragedies, Hecuba and The Women of Troy, both dealing with the experience of the women left behind in the aftermath of the Trojan War with marauding Greek soldiers an ever-present threat. Hecuba and her daughters are the prisoners of warrior Agamemnon and vile king Mestor and as they struggle to come to terms with the loss of the men in their lives, kings, husbands, father, brothers, sons whilst waiting to be delivered into a life of slavery, there are many horrors still yet to come for Hecuba.

Maxwell is a poet and this is evident in the lyrical density of his verse which is tightly constructed with lots of repetition and synchronised dialogue aiming for an epic feel, but slightly undermined by the modern sensibilities that have been introduced in the desire to create something new, the humour and particularly the heavy use of expletives didn’t always feel appropriate and become quite wearing. But it is not just a lyrical piece, it is heavily influenced by movement, the women often express themselves through the medium of dance which becomes as important a part of their vocabulary as words. This is effective at first but as we come to realise that it is only the women who take part in this ritual dancing, the ‘Ancient’ as it were and it is the men who get to swear, wear modern costumes and be funny, the balance of After Troy never quite finds its equilibrium.

Review: Ecstasy, Hampstead Theatre

“I’ve had me ups and downs but what with one thing and another, it evens itself out in the end doesn’t it”

Ecstasy, at the Hampstead Theatre, marks the first time that Mike Leigh has returned to and directed one of his own plays. It originally played at the old Hampstead in 1979 and was devised by a cast that included Julie Walters, Stephen Rea, Jim Broadbent and Sheila Kelley (mother of Leo Bill, trivia fans!). It was also designed by Alison Chitty who returns here to create a most effective cramped, depressingly chilly bedsit, convincingly 70s in every way and using just a portion of the available space on the stage, but the astonishing performances that spill out from there more than fill the room in this tale of alcoholism and grim despair in the winter of discontent. 

Lead character Jean works at a petrol station, lives in a dingy bedsit in Kilburn and is resigned to a life of anonymous sexual characters with the wrong men, including married violent Roy. School-friend Dawn comes down from Birmingham for a visit, away from her three kids but bringing her Irish labourer husband with her and after Jean has a particularly nasty encounter, they go out for a night on the town. The majority of the play then focuses on the aftermath of this night out, as mutual friend Len, recently divorced, also joins them for a impromptu session back at Jean’s, full of Irish sing-songs, reminisces about their youth, the state of the world they’re living in and of course, a whole lot more drink.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Review: 8 Women, Southwark Playhouse

“Mummy, people tend not to commit suicide by sticking a knife in their back”

8 Women might perhaps be better known in this country for its François Ozon film musical incarnation featuring a frankly incredible cast of French film actresses, but it started life as a comedy murder-mystery play by Robert Thomas written in 1958 and reworked in 1961. Donald Sturrock’s translation here at the Southwark Playhouse is largely faithful to the original text although Anglicising some of the more Gallic references, but moves the location to somewhere in the Home Counties and the time to 1980 from 1960. Oh, and unlike the other Catherine Deneuve musical film adaptation currently playing in town, there’s no songs!

A businessman has been found murdered in his country house bed at Christmas-time and as there’s a major snowstorm outside leaving them housebound, the suspects are the 8 women in the household: his wife, 2 daughters, sister-in-law, mother-in-law, cook, chambermaid and his own sister. But someone is cutting the phone lines, puncturing the tyres of the car and generally sabotaging any efforts to get away so the women have to try to work out which one of them did it whilst each holding onto their own dark secrets and none of them are being totally honest.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Review: Flare Path, Theatre Royal Haymarket

“I always thought our private happiness was more important than outside things”

Flare Path marks the second of 3 Rattigan plays this month for me as his anniversary year really gets into swing with two major London productions opening this month, joining the fringe and regional shows that have already begun to celebrate the work of this most English of writers. It also marks the first production of Trevor Nunn’s artistic directorship at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Written in 1941 it is drawn from Rattigan’s own RAF experience in the Second World War

Set over a 1942 weekend in a hotel occupied by fighter pilots and their visiting wives, near an airbase in Lincolnshire, the story centres on Patricia, an actress who although she has married the affably handsome Flight Lieutenant Teddy after a whirlwind romance, has been tempted back by her former lover, film star Peter Kyle and she intends to tell Teddy of her intent to leave him. But the war waits for no woman and as Teddy serves his country alongside his fellow men and she is left waiting with the other wives, all struggling with the different pressures the war is placing on their own marriages, Patricia’s resolve is weakened and the her dilemma becomes more pressing.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Review: Lidless, Trafalgar Studios 2

“I learned to love what they were doing to me”

Compellingly performed by a five strong cast, Lidless transfers to the Trafalgar Studios 2 after a well-received run in Edinburgh last year. It is a new play by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig examining the legacy of the Guantánamo Bay interrogations and whether one really can move on from the past. Swept up in the extreme atmosphere, US Army interrogator Alice is one of the most effective workers they have, especially when it comes to a particular detainee Bashir. She takes part in a PTSD drug trial which wipes her memory of all she has been complicit in but fifteen years later, as we see she has started a new life as a florist in Texas with her husband and teenage daughter, Bashir who has not forgotten anything that happened, re-emerges with a pressing demand. His appearance shatters the fragile peace in this family as the ramifications of what Alice has repressed reverberate terribly throughout her family.

It is well acted throughout: Penny Layden’s unquestioning soldier relishes the power thrust into her hands by the military and though she has reinvented herself, Layden suggests that the violence in her is never far from the surface; Greer Dale-Foulkes brings an edgy inquisitiveness as a child in a world full of adults obscuring the truth from her and Antony Bunsee is graceful as the dignified but determined victim, relentlessly pursuing what he sees as his due. 

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Review: The Knot of the Heart, Almeida

“If we don’t like it, we can get on a boat to the Isle of Wight”

Following the well-received, sharply funny Becky Shaw into the Almeida is David Eldridge’s new play The Knot of the Heart about middle-class drug addiction: this is a review of a preview performance on Monday 14th March. The play stars Lisa Dillon, for whom the central character was specifically written, as comfortably middle-class Lucy whose recreational drug use leads to her losing her job as a children’s TV presenter and sets her on a downwards spiral into genuine hard addiction as her mother and sister struggle to deal with the impact it has on the family.

On Peter McKintosh’s set of sliding glass panels and doors, dividing up the revolve into ever-shifting living rooms, hospitals, bars in and around Islington, we see how Lucy’s life crumbles around her, reduced to stealing from her sister and forced to move back into her mother’s house, unable to extricate herself from the grip of heroin no matter how grim things get. But what Eldridge is also interested in looking at is how Lucy’s key relationships are affected and defined by her addiction, how parental and sisterly love can actually help to enable it due to differing attitudes to drugs: at one point, the mother actually goes out to buy the heroin for her daughter from a guy at a bakery on Upper Street, after she is raped by a different dodgy dealer, at another she wonders whether she should have stopped Lucy’s teenage dabbling in pot, despite finding it innocuous at the time given her own youthful experiences in the 60s.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Music Review: John Barr – In Whatever Time We Have

“Even clowns need their time to cry”
There have been a few cd reviews posted on here over the last few months but they have all been of albums that I have bought myself and loved, thus inevitably not necessarily the most balanced of views across the spectrum of what’s out there. So friends and colleagues have been lending me the musical theatre cds that they listen to and I’ll be trying to keep up to reviewing at least one per week and we will see how it goes. If you click on the tag ‘music’ at the bottom of the post, that should bring up all the cd reviews until I work out a different way of presenting them on here.

First up is John Barr’s 1998 album In Whatever Time We Have. Barr has become quite an established cabaret singer now as well as stints performing in several of the big long-runners in the West End, though I saw him most recently in Sondheim’s Assassins at the Union (not counting his performance at the Scrapbook Live concert). This is a mostly ballad-heavy album, with some attempts at variety which don’t always come off but this is also something which cuts both ways. His singing style here is so smooth at times that one misses a little of the variety that could be explored here even within the ballads: in particular the lovely Does the Moment Ever Come? from Stiles & Drewe’s Just So has much of its searching questioning tone ironed out which robs it of much of the emotional heft of the song. But hearing songs sung out of the context of the shows from which they’re taken, especially when they are much loved by yourself, means it is difficult to put the versions you know and love out of your mind.

Review: Richard II, Tobacco Factory

“Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right”

Trekking out to Bristol’s Tobacco Factory to see Richard II may seem like pushing it even for me, but there was good reason to make the journey as playing the title role was winner of the 2010 fosterIAN Best Actor in a Play, John Heffernan. The production is by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, a semi-repertory company now in their 12th season yet this is their first stab at one of the Histories, with The Comedy of Errors following this production. 

Forming the first part of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy, it follows the decline of the egotistical Richard II’s reign, charting the tragic fall of a man from divinely-appointed King to mere mortal, contrasted with the rise to power of Bullingbrooke, later Henry IV, who capitalises on Richard’s profligacy and impetuous nature to marshal the nobility into supporting his cause and overthrowing the anointed King for the good of the nation. It is very poetic being almost all in verse and stands alone as a play, a historical tragedy for the most part, although there’s elements of lightness and a rather incongruous comedy scene towards the end and the late introduction of some supporting players who don’t really come into their own until later plays. 

Cast of Richard II continued

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Nominations for 2011 Oliviers - Best Actor/Best Actress

Best Actor

Roger Allam in Henry IV – Shakespeare's Globe
Derek Jacobi in King Lear – Donmar Warehouse
Rory Kinnear in Hamlet – National Theatre Olivier
Mark Rylance in La Bête – Comedy
David Suchet in All My Sons – Apollo

Should win - David Suchet
Will win - David Suchet

Best Actress

Nancy Carroll in After the Dance – National Theatre Lyttelton
Tracie Bennett in End of the Rainbow – Trafalgar Studios
Tamsin Greig in The Little Dog Laughed – Garrick
Sophie Thompson in Clybourne Park – Royal Court

Should win - Nancy Carroll
Will win - Sophie Thompson

Nominations for 2011 Oliviers - Best Actor/Best Actress in a musical

Best Actor in a Musical

David Thaxton in Passion – Donmar Warehouse
Alex Gaumond in Legally Blonde – Savoy
Ramin Karimloo in Love Never Dies – Adelphi
Sahr Ngaujah in Fela – National Theatre Olivier
Michael Xavier in Love Story – Duchess

Should win - Sahr Ngaujah
Will win - Ramin Karimloo

Best Actress in a Musical

Sheridan Smith in Legally Blonde – Savoy
Sierra Boggess in Love Never Dies – Adelphi
Elena Roger in Passion – Donmar Warehouse
Emma Williams in Love Story – Duchess

Should win - Emma Williams
Will win - Sheridan Smith

Nominations for 2011 Oliviers - Best Actor in a Supporting Role/Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Adrian Scarborough in After the Dance – National Theatre Lyttelton
James Laurenson in Hamlet – National Theatre Olivier
Hilton McRae in End of the Rainbow – Trafalgar Studios
Lee Ross in Birdsong – Comedy

Should win - Adrian Scarborough
Will win - Adrian Scarborough

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Michelle Terry in Tribes – Royal Court
Sarah Goldberg in Clybourne Park – Royal Court
Anastasia Hille in The Master Builder – Almeida
Gina McKee in King Lear – Donmar Warehouse
Rachael Stirling in An Ideal Husband – Vaudeville

Should win - Michelle Terry
Will win - Gina McKee

Nominations for 2011 Oliviers - Best Supporting Role in a Musical

Best Supporting Role in a Musical

Jill Halfpenny in Legally Blonde – Savoy
Josefina Gabrielle in Sweet Charity – Theatre Royal Haymarket
Summer Strallen in Love Never Dies – Adelphi
Michael Xavier in Into the Woods – Regent's Park Open Air

Review: Godspell, Ye Olde Rose and Crown

"We all need help to feel fine, let's have some wine!"

Godspell is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and this version by All Star Productions at Ye Olde Rose And Crown Theatre in Walthamstow will be swiftly followed by one at the Union Theatre in Southwark, keen to pay tribute to this rock opera with music by Stephen Schwartz, who later went on to write a little show called Wicked. It is based on the Gospel according to St Matthew, following the last days of Jesus’ life and featuring dramatised versions of well known parables in a vaguely hippy-inspired style with his disciples recast as a group of flower children around him.

This version has been updated to feature quite a few contemporary references but the hippy aesthetic is one that has endured and the timelessness of the stories being told: love thy neighbour, respect those around you, don’t cross over to the other side, means that it is a show which pushes love and tolerance rather than any particular religion which is why I think it remains so popular. That, and the score which contains some great songs, 'Day By Day', 'Prepare Ye...' and my favourite, 'By My Side'. It needs a strong performer in the central role of Jesus, and this production was Brian Elrick fulfilling the role, full of righteous anger at those who do not follow his words, a touching compassion for those that do and a powerful voice which carried well through the small space above this pub.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Re-review: Romeo & Juliet, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

“If love be rough with you, be rough with love”

So having managed to stand through King Lear and partake of a lovely dinner, the evening saw a second visit to Rupert Goold’s highly entertaining Romeo & Juliet. I haven’t got a huge amount to say about this that I didn’t already say in my original review, it really is as fresh and exciting an interpretation of this play that you will ever see, it feels like it could have been written yesterday, so persuasive is the pulsing heart of this production with its innovative immediacy.

I’d actually decided not to see the show again when it came to the Roundhouse in the winter as I thought I didn’t want my happy memories of seeing it at the Courtyard to be affected. But talking to people who did go persuaded me it might be a good thing and I am so glad that I did go again as I felt the production has matured into something richer and stronger. And knowing what the directorial flourishes were meant that I was able to focus more elsewhere, on the subtleties, the little touches that passed me by and enjoying the sheer quality of the performances, especially from the great seats we forked out for, on the front row of the circle facing the stage.

Cast of Romeo and Juliet continued

Review: King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

“A man may see how this world goes with no eyes”

A double bill of Shakespeare is something that not even I would undertake lightly but as an opportunity to visit the newly opened Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, it was something I couldn’t resist: King Lear in the afternoon for the first time and a revisit of Romeo & Juliet in the evening. Typically, the old maxim about not booking shows to see particular actors came and bit me on the posterior with a depressing predictability, as the main reason for seeing this King Lear was in order to see Kathryn Hunter’s Fool, but as she unexpectedly withdrew from the ensemble at the beginning of the year, the role is now being covered by Sophie Russell. 

This was only my second ever Lear, Derek Jacobi’s at the Donmar being the first and whilst I enjoyed seeing that with fresh eyes and not knowing the story, it was nice to watch this one with a little more comprehension of exactly what was going on! Though I was still a little perplexed by the mix of time periods covered in the costumes, the courtiers in classical garb but the outside world seemed to be inspired by the First World War, a mixture that was a little too haphazard for my liking. But overall, it did actually combine to quite epic effect, led by Greg Hicks’ powerful turn as Lear. I got more of a sense of a man going mad from Hicks, as opposed to the fragility, even possible onset of senility, of Jacobi’s interpretation, with his viciousness towards Goneril being particularly shocking in a way I didn’t remember so much.

Cast of King Lear continued

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Review: In A Forest, Dark and Deep, Vaudeville

“How is it possible we shared the same womb”

Neil LaBute’s latest play In A Forest, Dark and Deep, is receiving its world premiere at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand, showing his willingness to mix things up from London to New York, off-West End to West End – his last new play to show here was at the Almeida in 2009, In A Dark, Dark House. The bigger house here might also be a reflection of the bigger anticipated box office as the two-hander features the return to the London stage for Olivia Williams and a rare foray into theatre for Matthew Fox, now released from the purgatory that was Lost. (This was a preview show that I saw, which coincided with a What’s on Stage outing that some friends were attending.)

This is a twisty thriller in which the erudite Betty has called upon her carpenter brother Bobby to help her shift lots of books left by a student tenant in her lakeside chalet, beautifully designed over two storeys by Soutra Gilmour, despite their tetchy relationship. What unfolds, as a storm blows outside, is a tempestuous portrayal of these two completely different siblings who cannot resist baiting each other even as adults, but our preconceptions are then over-turned as pieces of information come to light which throw a whole new light on just what is going on this cabin.

Review: Journey’s End, Richmond Theatre

“It feels like we’re just generally waiting around for something to happen”

Set towards the end of the First World War in the trenches at St Quentin, Journey’s End is a compelling account of life in an officer’s dugout written by RC Sherriff who drew on his own experience there to create this piece of powerfully timeless drama. Never moving from Jonathan Fensom’s tightly designed set, it focuses particularly on Captain Stanhope who is leading this group of officers in the days before the Germans launched one of their fiercest offensives as they reflect back on what has happened, battle through the grim realities of day-to-day life on the front line and contemplate the conflict that lies ahead.

David Grindley’s production was first seen in the West End in 2004 and is a masterclass in showing that less can be so much more when deployed with the devastating effectiveness that we see here. One of the play’s recurring themes is the corrosive effect of the endless waiting on the minds of soldiers and officers alike, so much so that one almost longs for something to happen, despite knowing that the order to the front line is an almost certain death sentence. So when that finally happens, the way that the audience is left to make their own conclusions about what is going on in the trenches above from the noise of artillery and bombs whilst watching an empty stage, especially when it is the fate of two of the main characters that lies in the balance, it is an almost unbearable moment. Gregory Clarke’s sound design is perfectly throughout, ever-present but rising to uncomfortable levels as the characters we’re coming to know repeatedly go up to face unimaginable peril above ground and the finale, with the final onslaught represented by a deafening wall of sound which literally shakes the theatre, is a moment of stirring horror that really does leave one stunned.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Review: Mogadishu, Lyric Hammersmith

“Everyone has problems, he just needs a good slap”

Mogadishu is a new play by Vivienne Franzmann which was one of four winners of the Bruntwood Prize, a playwriting competition. It premiered at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, where it received the royal seal of approval from my Mum and Dad and Aunty Jean but it has now transferred to the Lyric Hammersmith.

White liberal teacher Amanda intervenes in a playground fight when she sees known troublemaker Jason bullying a younger pupil at their inner-city London secondary school but finds herself pushed and shoved to the ground in the ensuing fracas. She is anxious not to see him punished though, conscious of the social consequences for uneducated young black men, but when he flips the table and accuses her of physical and racial abuse, the security of Amanda’s world is shattered with her fitness to be a teacher, even a mother, called into question.

Not-a-Review: Villa, Royal Court

“Somebody spoiled their ballot”

Continuing the International Playwrights season at the Royal Court was the first of two readings of Chilean Guillermo Calderón’s plays, Villa. Based around a table discussion between three women, appointed to a committee to make a decision about what to do with a mansion, the villa of the title, in which unspeakable atrocities were carried out by the (now presumably defunct) ruling regime. Tensions are running high in the community about how best to deal with it or what they are actually trying to do here, commemorate the tragedies, secure the legacy, forget it even happened, with public meetings degenerating into violence as the two proposals were debated: raze it to the ground or build a museum in it.

So Macarena, Carla and Francisca are the three representatives have been selected and put into a room to come up with a decision and Calderon lets their debate run in real time with to great effect. There’s a great set-up in which it is made immediately apparent that at least one of the women has a hidden agenda here and from then on, the power games commence as they each circle the others, trying to ascertain if they are friend or foe, whether they can be relied upon for the casting vote for their preferred option. The most beautiful writing came with the scenes where Carla and Francisca each presented the case for one proposal, with achingly painful clarity that packed a hefty emotional punch, then beautifully undercut by the their final assertion that this isn’t necessarily what they believe in themselves.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Not-a-review: Aida, Royal Opera House

Not really a review because this was the general dress rehearsal of the first revival of David McVicar’s Aida to which the Royal Opera House’s marketing team had very kindly invited me and some other blogger-types. It was a fabulous afternoon, not least because I got to watch the first half from the Director’s Box and the second half from great front stalls seats, neither of which I don’t think I would ever get to sit in normally. The Director’s Box was great fun, a real chance to see and be seen by the rest of the audience and though the viewlines were a little tight on the side of the stage nearest to us, it was brilliant to be able to see straight down into the orchestra pit and see the players cutting loose and misbehaving a little whilst responding to the at-times frantic direction of Fabio Luisi. And the luxury of being able to sit in the stalls for the second half gave a different, wider perspective to the production, able to soak in the real depth of the staging.

This was my first time seeing Aida, a story both epic, in the war between the Ethiopians and the Egyptians, and intimate, in the tragic love triangle that emerges between Ethiopian slave Aida, Amneris the daughter of the King of Egypt and the man they both love, Radames the Captain of the Guard. And the first half is nothing short of epic, full of huge set pieces with innumerable personnel onstage as whether it is priests making dramatic human sacrifices and blood-letting or vast armies arriving onstage. The production incorporates a range of Eastern influences into the mix, but the samurai martial arts work was probably the most visually impressive.