Thursday, 31 May 2012

Review: Boys, Soho Theatre

"You want to believe someone will catch you whatever happens, but they won't"

In a hot Edinburgh summer with the binmen on strike and riot police on a knife edge, four young men approach a major milestone. For two of them, it is graduation from university; for the others, it is the end of being able to piggyback on their flatmates' hedonistic student lifestyle; for all of them, it is the unavoidable realisation that they have to face up to the future, however unfriendly it may seem. This is the central premise behind Ella Hickson's newest play Boys, a HighTide/Nuffield/Headlong co-production now playing at the Soho Theatre, which I suppose will strike fear into the hearts of many about to graduate from university themselves.

In the somewhat blinkered world of Benny, Mack, Timp and Cam, the focus remains squarely on partying until the last possible moment with alcohol, drugs and sex and stories of the same to be found in great abundance. But beneath the bravado lies fear, different kinds of fear for each boy and these slowly play out as the reality of the situation finally begins to hit them and the import of the big questions facing them, as the entry into adulthood lies straight ahead, weighs heavily in the air.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Re-review: Posh, Duke of York's


"We've got some of the best sperm in the country in this room"

The Royal Court have adopted the Duke of York's theatre for the next few months and will be feeding it with a steady stream of its recent successes. Jumpy and Constellations are yet to come, but the season starts off, a little oddly perhaps, with a remounting of Laura Wade's Posh which first played in Sloane Square two years ago. Then, we were in the run-up to a general election in which Cameron, Osborne et al were the prospective new boys; now of course, they are in power, albeit in a far-from-cosy coalition and Laura Wade has updated her play to reflect the changes in the political and indeed the economic circumstances in this country and beyond.

In some ways, this feels like a fresh lick of paint which brings Posh bang up to date but in others, it also felt like a somewhat unnecessary updating as it focuses the attention on the play being absolutely 'of the moment' when it is better than that, its over-riding message is one that withstands the period details around it (surely it won't be rewritten every time it is produced...or is this just part of the natural evolution of a new play, in which case this is the first time I think I've experienced it). That message is a rather pernicious one about the enduring influence of the old boys' network in the corridors of power and the way in which our 'finer' educational institutions inculcate this sense of entitlement and the abdication of any real sense of responsibility.


Cast of Posh continued

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Review: Ragtime, Open Air Theatre Regent's Park

"Giving the nation a new syncopation"

Is there a greater opening number to a musical than the self-titled prologue to Ragtime? It surely has to be up there amongst the contenders as Stephen Flaherty’s music bursts open onto the stage at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park in a blaze of syncopated rhythms and choreographic glory with one of those melodies destined to worm its way into your brain for days to come. It could be argued that the show never really reaches the same heights again, but it certainly tries hard.

Director Timothy Sheader’s high concept, supported by Jon Bausor’s eye-catching design, is of a contemporary society in the midst of the collapsed American Dream, looking back to its beginnings at the turn of the previous century in the stories taken from EL Doctorow’s novel and moulded into the book here by Terrence McNally. So in the ruins of an Obama-supporting billboard and the detritus of broken bits of Disney, McDonalds and Budweiser merchandise, the company enact the intertwining tales of 3 groups – African-Americans, WASPs and Latvian immigrants – at a moment in time where it seemed that great change was just on the horizon.

Cast of Ragtime continued



Cast of Ragtime continued



Monday, 28 May 2012

Review: Henry V, Theatre Delicatessen

"Straining upon the start, the game's afoot"

There’s something a little perverse about the most striking moment in Theatre Delicatessen’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V being one of no words, but in the anguished looks of two military medical staff waiting in the bunker as conflict rages noisily above them, there’s a flash of genuinely powerful theatre. The horrors of war are sadly timeless and that is something that Roland Smith’s modernisation, loosely redolent of the 1980s, is intent on demonstrating in this tale of a young King Henry wrestling with the burdens of leading men to war.

The company have adopted an old BBC building on Marylebone High Street as their new home, and after winding our way through its winding corridors, escorted by firm-handed soldiers, we arrive in a gloomy subterranean bunker with seating scattered around (choose wisely, it’s a long play…). And at times, the production works beautifully. The claustrophobia of the setting and the conflicting emotions of patriotism versus fear sometimes calls to mind the excellent Journey’s End; the scene in which the princess and her lady-in-waiting practise their English is excellently re-interpreted as a time-killing device which almost, but not quite, hides their nerves as conflict rages around them; and a deftness of touch which allows the company to effortlessly double and triple up, often from one scene to the next.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Review: Merrie England, Finborough


"No other land could nurse them"

The Finborough's policy of celebrating neglected British musical theatre has unearthed much of interest for fans of the genre, though it is probably safe to say that there have been as many which will remain curiosities as there have bona fide successes worthy of further recognition and reappraisal. It is thereforemost pleasing to discover that their latest rediscovery, the comic opera Merrie England, is a genuine contender for the latter category and a scream of a success.

Written in 1902 by composer Edward German and librettist Basil Hood (a man who apparently died from overwork and undereating...), the show occupies similar territory to Gilbert and Sullivan in its operetta form, considerable lyrical wordplay and complete frivolity when it comes to matters of plot. For what its worth here, the play is set in the court of Queen Elizabeth I as she visits the Mayday celebrations in the village of Windsor, an event which sends the lovelives and rivalries of everyone from monarch to villagers into haywire.


Cast of Merrie England continued

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Review: Antigone, National Theatre



“When things must be, they will be”
Though the prospect of a different kind of Greek tragedy is one that is dominating our headlines at the moment, the ancient Greek kind remain an enduring presence in our theatres. Sophocles’ Antigone is the latest to re-emerge at the National Theatre with director Polly Findlay using Don Taylor’s version of the play, originally done for the BBC in the 1980s. Her production locates this version of Thebes somewhere in the North of England in the late 1970s (at least that’s when I reckoned but others in the group were less sure) in which Jodie Whittaker and Christopher Eccleston take the leading roles.
Thebes has been wracked by civil war and turmoil and in the aftermath of a particularly bloody struggle between the two brothers fighting over the throne, Creon seizes control and becomes king. To stamp his authority on the city, Creon opts to bury one brother but leaves the body of the other more rebellious one to rot outside on the battlefield. This horrifies Antigone, sister to the men and niece to Creon, and despite a royal decree forbidding anyone to touch his body on the pain of death, she sets about doing what she thinks is right.

Cast of Antigone continued

Monday, 21 May 2012

Review: Cantina, Priceless London Wonderground


The South Bank has long been a hub for creative and artistic endeavours of great diversity, whether Watch This Space, the free offerings in front of the National Theatre, the evolution of La Clique into La Soirée, or the comedy-centric programme in the big purple Underbelly. And now we have the newly arrived Priceless London Wonderground, a summer-long festival of cabaret, circus and sideshow centred on the rather wonderful Spielgeltent marquee. Headlining the vast array of shows and running right through til September is Cantina, a steamily bewitching mixture of vaudeville and circus.
The ambience is of old-school faded glamour, snippets of jitterbug and lindyhop intermingle with crooning troubadours and music boxes as a 1930s dressed couple take to a high-wire and all seems relatively straight-forwardly traditional. But Cantina is much more progressive the period might suggest as there’s a wittily subversive take on gender relations here that keep things utterly fresh. So where we are introduced to Henna Kaikula’s audaciously flexible broken doll routine, it is soon countered by David Carberry’s near-naked submission to Chelsea MacGuffin’s stilettoed feet all over his body.    

Sunday, 20 May 2012

DVD Review: Personal Affairs


“It’s always going to be someone else's lipstick”
A completely random discovery, via an excellent bundle of birthday presents, was this BBC3 series from 2009, Personal Affairs. In its easy mixture of comedy and drama of 4 City PAs trying to discover what happened to one of their friends who has disappeared, it was rather enjoyable if hardly ground-breaking over its six episodes. But where it was huge amounts of fun was in the sheer number of theatrical spots it contained which made it a highly entertaining watch for me.
Whether it was Annabel Scholey as Scouse X-Factor wannabe Midge or Ruth Negga’s strident temp Sid amongst the leads, Al Weaver as a plotting boyfriend or a gorgeously bearded Kieran Bew (correctly assessed as the main attraction for me!)  as a potential love interest and Mark Benton and Emily Bruni amongst the bosses, the regular cast held much delight. Combined with a supporting guest cast which featured the likes of Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Mark Bonnar and Annette Badland, the acting was predictably of a high quality which ensured it was always extremely watchable.

Cast of Personal Affairs continued

Cast of Personal Affairs continued

Friday, 18 May 2012

Review: The Thing About Men, Landor


"Who has an affair with someone who isn't good in bed?!"

The Thing About Men is a US musical comedy about the unexpected bromance that develops between Sebastian and Tom when the latter moves into the former's New York apartment. Unexpected, because Sebastian, a would-be bohemian artist, is having an affair with Lucy, who is married to advertising executive Tom but tired of his philandering ways. When Tom finally twigs that his wife has been having some fun as well, he moves out and somehow manoeuvres his way into identifying Sebastian, adopting the name Milo and moving in with him. But his plans for sabotage are derailed when the process of getting to know each other turns into the beginnings of a much-needed male friendship.

Billed as a musical comedy affair, Joe DiPietro's book is based on a German film Men by Doris Dörrie and along with Jimmy Roberts songs', makes for an enjoyable evening in the intimate surroundings of the Landor Theatre. It may be warmly funny rather than laugh-out-loud hilarious and pleasantly tuneful rather than instantly catchy (on first listen at least) and there's a definite randomness to much of the story, but the creative team assembled by director Andrew Keates play very much to the venue's strengths to elevate the production into something more than the sum of its parts. 

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Review: The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, 360 Theatre


"You know, Aslan, I'm a little disappointed in you"

Aiming to be one of the theatrical events of the summer (although it has always seemed more of a Christmassy story to me), Rupert Goold has turned his customary directorial flair to his own adaptation of CS Lewis' quintessential English classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But in choosing to mount this production in the threesixty theatre in the grounds of Kensington Gardens, a rather unforgiving purpose-built circular tent, the show faces an uphill struggle from the start to try and create the sense of theatrical magic and wonder that is needed to transport us through the wardrobe along with the four Pevensie children. NB this was a preview performance.

The show is clearly aiming to be a family-friendly spectacular, the varied inhabitants of Narnia are evoked through a cross between Lion King puppetry and Cirque du Soleil physicality - imaginatively done if that's your sort of thing, though readers of this blog will know it is not mine, at all - but the soulless atmosphere of the space leads to a rather sterile feel which the cast rarely overcome. Even Adam Cork's music fails to get the pulse racing (the website says 'the production is a play but does feature some live music and a pre-recorded fully orchestrated soundtrack' so we're clearly in "play with songs" territory rather than fully fledged "musical") as the rather anodyne songs make little lasting impression and the muddy sound design meant there was precious little lyrical clarity.


Cast of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe continued

Re-review: Abigail's Party, Wyndhams


"Our nation's culture. Not something you can actually read, of course."

There's something mildly amusing about the above quote, which refers to Shakespeare by the way, given the Bardathon currently going on at the Globe and beyond and it is one that I didn't pick up the first time I saw Abigail's Party. I'd never seen it before despite the Alison Steadman version being a cult classic and so the whole show was a revelation to me, especially in how dark it was given I'd assumed it was more of a comedy. That original review from this production's original run at the Menier Chocolate Factory can be read here but it has now made the leap into the West End at the Wyndhams where it will run for the summer after it sold out at the Menier.

I don't really have much more to add about the show second time round, except to say that the Wyndhams is a great fit for it, the sense of intimacy is still there as Beverly's living room occupies a letterbox set on the larger stage and has brought with it all the beautifully observed period details. Performances remain sharp across the board, Natalie Casey really is excellent as the gin-soaked Ange, Andy Nyman oozes unreconstructed machismo as Laurence and Jill Halfpenny sweeps all before her as the acidic Beverly.


Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Review: What The Butler Saw, Vaudeville


"My uterine contractions have been bogus for some time”

The adage about theatre audiences turning to comedies in times of economic hardship is being increasingly borne out in the West End and with the arrival of What the Butler Saw at the Vaudeville, the Strand gains its second 1970s would-be laugh-fest. But as with The Sunshine Boys, my funnybone was far from tickled as this is a world of humour I just do not get. In Alice Power’s efficient, if needlessly quirky in its protuberances, set design, Joe Orton's farce plays out in a psychiatric clinic in which all manner of mayhem is unleashed when a government inspector pays a visit at the same time as a doctor tries to seduce a young woman applying to be his secretary whilst his wife has her own sexual shenanigans to hide.

Orton's intentions were clearly to subvert the farcical form here, to provoke traditional audiences out of their comfortable glow with his deconstruction of sexual and societal values, but this production simply doesn't reflect that intelligence. What we get instead is something that plays as a straight-up farce. And for fans of the genre, there are some moments to enjoy, especially in the hands of Tim McInnerny's sweatily lascivious Dr Prentice and Samantha Bond's nymphomaniacal wife. But the production starts off in such a high-octane gear that there's nowhere left to go but increasingly overboard in the endless chase for cheap laughs.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Review: Brimstone and Treacle, Arcola


“All I want is the England I used to know”

There was something depressingly predictable about the announcement of the Arcola’s new development plans for the summer which will involve moving the one space I think does work in their new premises – Studio 2 – down one level into the basement. So it was with a sad heart that I took my seat for the final production in its current state, a rare revival of Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle which of course played beautifully to the studio’s strengths.

The intimate space becomes the claustrophobic home of the Bates family with parents Tom and Amy struggling to look after their daughter Pattie who was practically paralysed by a hit-and-run accident two years previously and can’t do anything for herself any more. When a devilishly handsome stranger insinuates his way into their household, claiming to have had a close connection with Pattie before she died, he really puts the cat amongst the pigeons and changes their lives irrevocably.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Review: Steel Magnolias, Richmond Theatre


"I do not see plays, because I can nap at home for free"

The prospect of a stage version of Steel Magnolias, populated by a motley crew of British actresses from stage and screen, filled me with equally with dread and anticipation as I am a big fan of the film (one of Julia Roberts' best performances). But curiosity won the day and for my first trip back to the theatre after a trip away, I made my way to Richmond Theatre to be transported to 1980s Louisiana and delve into the trials and tribulations of Truvy, M'Lynn, Shelby and co.

Robert Harling's story was originally a play (sadly inspired by the death of his sister) and though the expanded action of the film may be more familiar, the play's limitation to Helen Goddard's perfectly 80's-hued beauty parlour across four acts is structurally sound and works extremely well. This salon forms a gathering place for six women and over a period of three years, we see the ebb and flow of life and how the mutually supportive atmosphere helps all of them in one way or another as they variously look for and selflessly give strength to one another. 


Sunday, 13 May 2012

Radio Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Radio 3


"My ear is much enamoured of your note"
I’m nothing if not predictable, so despite having been distinctly underwhelmed by the Shakespeare on 3 productions and sworn off the Bard on radio, the replay of this version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Radio 3 was irresistible to me as I just could not resist the spectacular cast assembled.
I’d been warned in advance that Lesley Sharp didn’t sound like herself in this as Titania and it’s true, but the precisely mannered intonation she adopts works really well here and made me long to see her back on stage. Toby Stephens was serviceable as Oberon but I did enjoy Freddie Fox’s impish Puck. And as the troublesome lovers, Joseph Timms and Ferdinand Kingsley, and Emerald O’Hanrahan and Anna Madeley were all nicely characterful.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Out-of-Office



I won’t be posting for a few days so I thought I'd leave you an out-of-office message so you'd know nothing was wrong - I have coping strategies in place to manage six days without theatre (though celebrating my birthday in Florence with friends will certainly help...!).

And as a birthday present to you, my readers, I've selected some of my favourite videos for your viewing pleasure.  

Review: The Sunshine Boys, Savoy


“If I was there to enjoy it, I'd buy a ticket"
This new production of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys might be considered one of the hottest tickets of the summer, featuring as it does the West End debut of Danny De Vito and the return to the stage of Richard Griffiths. The tale is of Willie Clarke and Al Lewis, a long-suffering former vaudeville comedy act whose relationship over the 40 years of their career deteriorated so badly that they didn't even to speak to each other off-stage for the final year. But when a television network decides to put on a comedy retrospective more than a decade later and call on Lewis and Clarke to reprise their schtick one more time, it seems that old animosities are still fresh in the mind of some.
I saw the show in preview (and I have to say I find it a little cheeky to have a 3 week preview period for something clearly advertised as a limited 12 week run) and the best thing I could say about it was the amount of room for improvement. Thea Sharrock's production felt extremely lethargic, especially in the interminable first half, with much more zip and zing needed by all concerned. De Vito's bitterly retired Clark plods a little too much and needs more connection with his environment, especially with his nephew and hapless agent Ben, a hard-working Adam Levy, who is pushing for the reunion. And when Griffiths finally arrives on the scene, the cantankerousness is palpable but this just isn't paired with any sense of the history between the characters.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

DVD Review: Anonymous


"Let me offer you a different story"

Any film that contains someone being dragged to the theatre saying "there won't be puppets will there?" is bound to be a winner with me. And if that film has also courted controversy then my interest is bound to be piqued. But the publicity campaign against Roland Emmerich's Anonymous was so vociferous that it disappeared from cinemas before I got the chance to see it and so I had to wait for it to emerge on DVD. Why so controversial? Emmerich's (better known for loud blockbusters like Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow) film is based on the premise that the 17th Earl of Oxford Edward de Vere was in fact the true author of the works normally attributed to Shakespeare. Thus a great outcry was launched, by the people and scholars for whom this is the biggest deal, and the film largely scuppered. 

Which ultimately is a shame, as I found it to be rather an enjoyable film and somewhat perversely, the authorship question is just one of many strands of story in what turns out to be a historical political thriller, mainly based around the succession to the throne as Elizabeth I's reign has produced no (legitimate) heirs. That one of the key players in her court just happens to be a playwright on the sly, who is forced to use a surrogate by the name of William to get his plays staged, is taken as a given here and it makes for an entertaining 'what if' scenario.

Review: Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare on 3


“What should it be that they so shriek abroad”

After Twelfth Night, the Shakespeare on 3 radio season continues with Romeo and Juliet with the same company, plus a few additions, taking on the Bard’s work again. Whereas there’s a nice sense of continuity about it, it’s an odd choice as there’s another play, The Tempest, to complete the season which uses a different cast. And it is also a slightly difficult choice in the limitations it imposes on the casting, although this may just be a personal thing as it took a long time for me accept the idea of Trystan Gravelle, an actor I really like, as the teenage Romeo.

His voice is so melodiously identifiable that I completely failed at convincing myself I was listening to Romeo rather than Gravelle, and even if you’re not familiar with him, I’m pretty sure he just sounds too old and experienced for the role. Paired with Vanessa Kirby as Juliet, whose voice I struggled to warm to in Twelfth Night, it made for an ignominious beginning despite the evocative sound design of the piece. But something eventually clicked after about an hour, whether it was my preconception finally dying down or the production finding another gear or some combination of both, and from their post-coital glow of tenderness I completely bought into them as a couple.

Review: Twelfth Night, Shakespeare on 3


“Oh had I but followed the arts”

Joining in the veritable orgy of Bard love that is currently going on, the BBC’s Shakespeare Unlocked season has a wide-ranging programme of features, not least three radio productions of his plays by the Drama on 3 team, two of which are cross-cast from the same company which was full of names I like and was keen to hear. First up was Sally Avens’ Twelfth Night, probably most notable for casting David Tennant as Malvolio.

I haven’t ever just listened to a Shakespeare play before, and though I wasn’t doubting the poetry of Shakespeare’s words, I did wonder what effect removing the visual, and Twelfth Night is a very visual play, would have on the whole. Knowing the play fairly well was both a blessing and a curse in some ways – little was ever likely to surprise me and I had no sense of what this would be like for a first-time-listener, but that knowledge also meant I could relax a little rom trying to work out what was going on. And fortunately, a cast of great experience and talent meant that the thrusting of the language front and centre was a largely successful exercise.

Review: The Tempest, Shakespeare on 3


If you now beheld them, your affections would become tender
And so to The Tempest, the third and final radio adaptation (by Jeremy Mortimer here) in the Shakespeare on 3 season, though oddly not cross-cast with the other two so its place in the programme felt a little incongruous. And whether I’d had my fill of Shakespeare on radio or whether its my fatigue with this particular play or whether it just generally wasn’t that distinctive, I found this a bit of a slog.
It wasn’t bad per se, just never particularly engaging for me, and consequently I’ve haven’t much to say about it (for once). The incidental music that plays throughout the show was specially written (and also performed by) The Devil’s Violin Company and adds an interesting additional texture, but when the most interesting thing I can think to say about a Shakespeare production is about the music, then something is wrong.

Cast of Anonymous continued


Friday, 4 May 2012

Review: Step 9 (of 12), Trafalgar Studios 2

“You can’t serve someone a cup of gravy”

What a difference a year makes. Last summer saw Rob Hayes’ play Step 9 (of 12) premiere somewhat off the radar at the New Britannia Theatre (above the better known pub of the same name by Victoria Park), but it has now taken a giant step to receive a new production in the West End’s Trafalgar Studios 2 and snag one of The Inbetweeners for the main role into the bargain. I say this like I know what it means but I have to tell you that I’ve never seen the show and it has languished in my low priority list on Lovefilm for ages now – though I am now given to understand that it is very popular (I don’t think those autograph hunters were there for me…)!

Blake Harrison is that actor, who takes on the role of Keith here, a man recovering from alcohol addiction and working his way through the 12-step programme to serenity and sobriety. As he reaches step 9 - making direct amends to people who’ve been harmed - he invites his long-suffering foster parents Alan and Judith around to his bedsit, but raking over the past on the road to forgiveness – or rather Keith’s interpretation of forgiveness – proves to be a highly provocative and problematic affair.