Monday, 30 September 2013

Review: The Lyons, Menier Chocolate Factory


“Some people are happy and some people are lonely, mean and sad. You strike me as the second kind”

Families – who’d have ‘em? Not Ben Lyons that’s for sure, as in his upscale New York private hospital room where his terminal cancer has reached crisis point, the cacophony that arises when his wife and two children are around his bed is enough to make anyone reach for the morphine button. Nicky Silver’s Broadway hit The Lyons, transferred here to the Menier Chocolate Factory, is one of the most vicious and spikiest dark comedies you’ll see all year – this isn’t so much a family united in tragedy as further shattered by it.

It’s occasionally cruel, it’s sometimes funny, more often than not it is cruelly funny – audacious in the jabs that these people make towards their ‘nearest and dearest’. Isla Blair’s Rita is sat by the bed planning how to redecorate the living room and the sibling rivalry between Charlotte Randle’s daughter Lisa, in an alcohol-recovery programme with a turbulent relationship history, and Tom Ellis’ son Curtis, shunned by his father due to his sexuality and with his own unique relationship problems, starts from the minute they arrive at the hospital, warring over the size of their respective gifts.

Review: Sweeney Todd, West Yorkshire Playhouse

“You shouldn’t harm nobody” 


It is always good to hear that major UK theatres are co-producing shows, especially with the trans-Pennine co-operation between the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Royal Exchange on this production of Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I couldn’t help but wonder though how the show will make the leap from Leeds to Manchester, from the vast expanse of the Quarry to the intimacy of being in-the-round. Director James Brining has form though, this adaptation was first mounted at the Dundee Rep (and will undergo an additional transformation next year to fill the Wales Millennium Centre) and as a debut for this newly installed Artistic Director, it does feel like a canny choice. 

He relocates Sondheim’s musical to the early Thatcher years, arguing her particular brand of socially transformative politics gave rise to as desperate a despondency as is familiar to us from Dickens. But what moving it out of its original Victorian context to something altogether more modern really achieves is to create an altered, and more chilling, sense of horror. It becomes a scarier psychodrama which is light on laughs and somehow more realistic as a serial killer thriller, although one does have to suspend a little disbelief when it comes to some of the finer points of transportation. 

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Review: The Pride, Trafalgar Studios


“What is the point of this stupid, painful life if not to be honest? If not to stand up for what you are in the core of your being?” 

Taking perhaps a bolder step than one might have expected, Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar Studios residency has revived Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, stepping it up from the Royal Court to the West End to provide a welcome dose of thoughtful drama that should appeal to all. In 1958, closeted estate agent Philip is irresistibly drawn to Oliver, a colleague of his wife Sylvia; in 2008, Philip has just left Oliver due to his addiction to anonymous sex and best friend Sylvia is left to pick up the pieces. Kaye Campbell expertly weaves the two timelines together to explore how much and how little things have changed – attitudes towards homosexuality may have liberalised some but it hasn’t provided an instant passport to happiness, relationships are still as messy and complex as they ever were.

It’s a play I have loved for a long time now and so it is hard for me to be objective about it. The earlier sequences are reminiscent of Rattigan at his best, every line weighted with repressed emotion as the men surrender to their illicit (and illegal) attraction. And the modern day story speaks of the struggles of identity in today’s hyper-sexualised culture, at a Pride festival where the only real battle being fought is to get to the front of a long bar queue and where the main threat to happiness appears to be Grindr. In both worlds too, the presence of Sylvia is infinitely moving – in the 50s she’s just as trapped by society’s rules as her gay husband and as the contemporary best friend, she has to fight just as hard to live her own emotional life due to Oliver’s clingy nature. 

Friday, 27 September 2013

(P)review - The Light Princess, National Theatre

Any thought that I might have attended The Critics' Circle Centenary Conference were immediately quashed when I realised that it was being held on a Friday, hardly conducive to those of us who want to engage with theatre reviewing but also have to hold down a 9-to-5 but maybe that was part of the point… Anyhoo, one of the thornier issues that frequently rears its head is the reviewing of previews and whilst the last thing in the world I want to do is resuscitate that debate, I thought it might be an interesting experiment to do things a little differently. 

There are no hard and fast rules about (theatre) blogging and whilst it remains an innately personal exercise for me, there’s no pretending that it exists in a vacuum, cloistered from outside concerns and a fast-changing world. And it seems to me that that is the lesson that theatre criticism as a whole ought to take – railing that things aren’t like they used to be is all well and good but ignoring evolution is just perversely blinkered. 

So I’ve taken heed of criticisms and comments and thus present to you this (p)review of brand new musical The Light Princess which has just opened at the National Theatre. I want to try and give a flavour of the production, which I saw last night on its second preview, but without reviewing it in the traditional sense. So below you will find a spoiler-free preview of the show, with links to interviews and other features and illustrative clips and snippets. Beware, some of the links will reveal some key aspects of the production but it is clear which they are, and you will have to actively click on them to access them - in my world, spoilers are absolutely fine as long as you have the choice not to read them if you don't wish...  

Cast of The Light Princess continued



Thursday, 26 September 2013

Review: Ghosts, Rose Theatre Kingston

“In other words, you have no idea what you’re condemning”

London has long thrived on its paranormal industry – spooky tours, famous cemeteries, Jack the Ripper and his ilk and now in its theatres, a double helping of Ghosts, albeit of Ibsen’s variety. Richard Eyre will direct his own version for the Almeida which opens next week but sneaking ahead is Stephen Unwin’s adaptation, also self-directed, for the Rose Theatre, Kingston. A co-production with English Touring Theatre, it marks the twentieth anniversary of that company but perhaps more significantly, it will be Unwin’s final production at the Rose where he has served as Artistic Director for six years.

He has a clear affinity for the Norwegian playwright – Ghosts is the second translation Unwin has written and the seventh of his plays that he has directed and upping the authenticity ante, the look of the show has taken direct inspiration from the stage designs of Edvard Munch, who designed a production in Berlin in 1906 and which have never been seen since. And the result is an extremely classy piece of theatre, one which coils up the intensity of its acting for an incendiary final act but sometimes feels like it is taking an age to get there.

Review: Macbeth, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Laugh to scorn the power of men”

Who’d’ve thought 2013 would turn out to be the year of the impressive Malcolm? After Alexander Vlahos’ strongly defined interpretation of a fast-maturing young man for the MIF’s Macbeth in the summer, so now Philip Cumbus makes his own successful stab at the character for the Globe’s take on the Scottish Play, making him an unmistakeable stateman from the off even if he hides it well. The production is most notable for marking the directorial debut of that product-of-a-star-dancing Eve Best and a striking one it is too – whereas Lucy Bailey went all-out Dante back in 2010, Best treats it with a much lighter, even comedic, touch. 

It’s a bold choice and one that is just so different that in the trickier moments, it was hard to tell whether I felt it was genuinely unsuccessful or rather that it was just so unexpected. Generally speaking, the vein of black comedy that was teased out was stronger than the broader strokes that often appear in Globe comedies, but the sound of so much laughter in the play did feel at odds with its increasingly darkening horizons, the creeping sense of horror never really materialises as the tonal balance of the production makes it hard for the actors to shift modes and carry the audience with them.

Cast of Macbeth continued



Wednesday, 25 September 2013

CD Review: Jon Boydon – Three Four

“Here's the moral and the story from the guy who knows”

Firmly ensconced in the role of Tommy DeVito in the London production of Jersey Boys, Jon Boydon released his debut album Three Four last year but though he’s coming from many years spent in the world of musical theatre, this collection of thirteen songs could never be accused of being ‘stagey’. Instead, Boydon delves into the realms of modern rock, rhythm and blues, and the rock and roll that he delivers nightly at the Prince Edward Theatre to create an accomplished and accessible album that will appeal to a much wider audience of people than just those who are fans of rock.

The temptation with albums such as these is for the performer to stamp their mark on the material which can often lead to some dubious interpretations of classic songs but Boydon wisely resists this and demonstrates a crystal-clear sense of his own musicality which means his voice never sounds anything less than completely assured and still maintains a pleasing fidelity to the material. This is never bettered than on a wonderful version of Runaround Sue, making it sound deceptively easy and glorious fun to boot. 

Short Film Review #20

Roar
It’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for. Adam Wimpenny’s film Roar is a slow-burning look at what happens when a customer gives a well-meaning key-cutter the brushoff. Jodie Whittaker’s Eva has just had a dodgy experience picking up her dry cleaning from Tom Burke’s salacious Mick and Tom, Russell Tovey, who works in the same shop follows her to make amends. But she understandably doesn’t want to know and J.S. Hill’s story turns its gaze onto Tom and the loneliness of his life. It’s Christmastime and so his estrangement from his father cuts particularly hard but as his attempts at contact are rebuffed, something breaks inside of him… Wimpenny builds the tension of the film excellently, giving us a sense of how desolate watching others’ festive joy can make a person and finding genuinely chilling moments to make us jump. Not one to watch on your own in the dark.


Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Review: Scenes from a Marriage, St James


“Sometimes it grieves me that I have never loved anyone. I don't think I've ever been loved either. It really distresses me”


Trevor Nunn’s revisit of his production of Scenes from a Marriage for the St James Theatre was due to open last week but untimely and persistent illness for one of its leads, Mark Bazeley, meant that a series of early performances were cancelled and its opening postponed until tonight. And we could all probably do with some of whatever he took to get well as alongside the glorious Olivia Williams, there’s some extraordinary work going on here in this adaptation by Joanna Murray-Smith of Ingmar Bergman’s timeless classic, first seen at Coventry’s Belgrade back in 2008 with Nunn’s then-wife Imgen Stubbs and Iain Glen.


Over fifteen or so ‘scenes’ spanning a decade, we see the portrayal of Johan and Marianne’s marriage from the opening (dubious) highlight of being interviewed for a magazine on their 10th wedding anniversary through the trials of painful losses and abject betrayals into the battlefield of bitter recriminations, the divorce courts and beyond. It probes into the state of marriage with unblinking precision, peeling away the layers of complacency that settle into long-running relationships and revealing the truth about how people really feel about each other, no matter how messy or raw it becomes.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Review: On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, Union

“How it will astound you…”



Alongside the rightly lauded all-male Gilbert and Sullivans, the Union Theatre in Southwark has also carved a niche for itself in mounting productions of lesser-known musicals, delving into the archives much as the Finborough does with British plays, in search of a gem of a discovery, ripe for re-polishing. It’s a brave approach, not least because there is an argument that shows that collect dust on the shelves do so for a reason which in turn means that no matter how strong the production, it’s never quite starting on a full tank.


Which seems a little harsh now I’ve said it, but ultimately reflects much of how I feel about the Union’s output of late. Their productions are great value for money, demonstrate a hard-won understanding of how to use the intimate space of their railway arch, and attract a remarkable calibre of performer. But the shows haven’t made my heart sing, filled me with the inescapable joie de vivre that I crave when I see old-school musical theatre and that’s how I felt about On A Clear Day You Can See Forever.



Sunday, 22 September 2013

Review: Secret Theatre Show 1 and Secret Theatre Show 2, Lyric Hammersmith

“You must think us a right rough bunch of people”

How long can you keep a secret? How long should you keep a secret? As it turns out, critics were tweeting the title of the Lyric Hammersmith’s ‘Secret Theatre Show 2’ as soon as they could get their phones on in the interval, unleashing a flurry of outraged blogs and tweets which argued both sides of the toss – it was either like Christmas being ruined or one of the least important parts of the whole experience. That experience is Secret Theatre, an ambitious 8 month programme launched by the Lyric’s Sean Holmes which has pulled together an ensemble of 20 creatives who will produce 7 shows over the period. But the key is that the titles are kept from us, no programmes are for sale on arrival and so technically you take your place in the auditorium, which is mid-renovation, not knowing what the curtain will rise upon.

A quick scoot around the internet will reveal the titles of Secret Theatre Show 1 and Secret Theatre Show 2 which have now opened but in the spirit of the whole affair – after all as we leave, we are urged “Shhh. Keep the secret…” – this review won’t spill the beans too much. We live in a spoiler-saturated society now when it comes to much of our popular culture and so whilst it may not be to everyone’s taste, the unique thrill of knowing nothing in advance is one to savour. It also leads to the intriguing question of when recognition of what play is being performed will come, indeed if at all for it could be a piece of new writing, experienced theatregoers should be fine but new audiences have the opportunity to possibly experience some of the greatest writing of last century as if it were a brand new play and that is what is genuinely exciting about this enterprise.

Cast of Secret Theatre Show 2



Review: When Midnight Strikes, Upstairs at the Gatehouse


"Making resolutions we'll hold on fast" 

Abigail may have been the one holding the party in the 70s but on Millenium Eve, it is Jennifer West who is the hostess with the mostess as she invites friends and family over for a dinner party in her swanky Manhattan apartment. But unexpected guests throw her seating plan awry, the booze is flowing just a little too liberally and more importantly, she’s found an incriminating note in her husband’s coat pocket – it is clear this will be a New Year’s Eve to remember... Kevin Hammonds and Charles Miller’s musical When Midnight Strikes first played at the Finborough in 2007 and those stalwart defenders of new British musical theatre Aria Entertainments, along with co-producers Penny Rock Productions, have put on its first revival at Highgate’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre pub. 

At a time when the future of the new British musical is bemoaned, it is a wonder that this score isn’t better known. Miller marries a pop sensibility to the rigours of a book musical and has produced something that flows with a vibrancy and urgency through Hammonds’ story, hooking us in with swirling balladry (there’s at least two songs that could become cabaret standards), perky comedic numbers, and a genuine sense of the storytelling power of this form. ‘Shut Up’ is a marvellously frank song which sees various characters voice their inner thoughts about the inanity of making small talk with random fellow partygoers; I Never combines the raucous revelations of a drinking game with candid insights into the emotional lives of those playing,

Review: Divas Unsung, Leicester Square Theatre

"You sure put on a show"

One of the joys of cabaret concerts is the sheer range and diversity of material that they can pick from to best reflect the personalities and voices of performers, or to suit an overarching theme for their programme. Divas Unsung managed to work both these aspects into their Sunday evening gig at the Leicester Square Theatre, shining a light on some lesser known comedy numbers, empowerment anthems and showstoppers from musical theatre shows that have mostly slipped under the radar in the West End or on Broadway.

Of course, aficionados of the genre may score higher recognition points than your regular punter and the active fringe musical scene means some are less obscure than they might have been: Stephen Schwartz’s The Baker’s Wife, Jonathan Larson’s tick…tick…BOOM! and Kander and Ebb’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman have all been seen in London relatively recently, though one would hard-pressed to find noted flops like Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Lestat or Michael Gore’s Carrie anywhere.

CD Review: Collaborations – The Songs of Elliot Davis

"
"Cos I love you, still"

Elliot Davis may be best known to fans of musical theatre as the co-writer of Loserville but his career has stretched over several musicals and other projects which have seen him collaborate with a wide range of songwriters and his CD Collaborations – The Songs of Elliot Davis cherry-picks a collection of thirteen songs from his back catalogue. Excerpts from musicals sit alongside out-and-out pop songs and are performed by a cracking cast of West End favourites, including Julie Atherton, Michael Xavier and Scarlett Strallen, all in aid of Teenager Cancer Trust.

It is undoubtedly an eclectic mix and on first listen, its sheer diversity may seem a little disarming. Two songs written with lyricist Anthony Drewe capture this perfectly – Kirsty Hoiles’ understated rendition of Still is a thing of shimmering beauty yet the bubbly 24 7, performed by the trio of Caroline Sheen, Scarlett Strallen and Melissa Jacques, sounds like it is aiming to become a gay club classic with its relentlessly catchy hook. But the songs definitely bear replaying, lyrical ingenuity mixes with musical dexterity and it is a potent blend. 

Review: The Father / The Broken Word, Radio 3/4

“Love between sexes is war”

Laurie Slade’s adaptation of Strindberg’s The Father was commissioned for Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre last year, but now makes its radio debut as part of Radio 3 season of classics focusing on the changes for women in the late nineteenth century. It is a blistering look at the power struggle in a marriage as two middle-class parents differ hugely on the upbringing of their daughter and clash monumentously in an all-out war to get their own way.

The decks are hardly equally stacked in this version of the battle of the sexes, Strindberg’s own response to Ibsen’s novel take on gender relations in A Doll’s House, as Laura unleashes the limited tools at her disposal to blacken the name of the Captain and cast seeds of doubt about the paternity of Bertha, literally stopping at nothing as the thin line between love and hate drives her to ever more extreme action.

TV Review: What Remains

"Something bad always happens when you go upstairs"

Something is in the water of British crime drama that is making it more interesting than it has been for quite some time. Tony Basgallop’s What Remains, directed by Coky Giedroyc, has thrilled across four weeks on BBC1 making the kind of whodunnit that genuinely had one guessing right till the very end with its carousel of hugely unlikeable personalities remarkably all remaining in the mix for the crime for a very long time. Set in an inner-city townhouse split into flats, it plays on the anonymity of metropolitan life – the fact that we can live next door to people and remain strangers, dissociated from their lives entirely. Such is the fate of Melissa Young, whose decaying body is found in the loft of a building yet whose absence for two years has gone unnoticed. 

She owned the top flat but as soon we get to know the rest of the inhabitants, we soon see why this wasn’t the happiest of houses. A cranky maths teacher lives in the basement with something of a dirty secret, on the ground floor is a recovering alcoholic journalist whose romance with a colleague is under threat from his self-possessed teenage son, above them are lesbian graphic designers gripped in a psychotically abusive relationship and above them are a newly-arrived and heavily pregnant young couple. Throw in a widower detective on the brink of retirement and no life outside of work and the scene is set for cracking four-parter What Remains.

Cast of What Remains continued

Friday, 20 September 2013

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s Globe

“I shall do thee mischief in the wood"

It’s taken me a while to get around to the Globe this year – their Tempest was fine but not particularly inspired and so my enthusiasm for booking for Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream waned. But the thought of missing Michelle Terry was not one I was prepared to countenance and taking a chance on an Indian summer, I booked for a random Friday matinée for the latter, hoping that the rain would hold off. Fortunately it did and with perhaps my lower expectations, I was entirely dazzled by Dominic Dromgoole’s production of what is one of my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, which cast the newly opened Michael Grandage adaptation firmly in the shade.

Pleasingly, especially for someone who knows the play quite well, the production abounds in new textures and fresh insight into characters, relationships and events. I loved the early establishment of the former relationship between Joshua Silver’s Demetrius and Sarah MacRae’s Helena and their definite lingering attraction – I’ve never heard the beginning of “ohhh spite” loaded with such meaning - which makes their conclusion much more dramatically satisfying. Puck as a posh stroppy teenager is an inspired choice with Matthew Tennyson’s angular presence; the way in which Pearce Quigley’s Bottom has to be coaxed into accepting Titania’s advances makes perfect sense; the Rude Mechanicals’ play being unrehearsed chaos is entirely appropriate and of course, downright hilarious. 

Cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream continued



Thursday, 19 September 2013

Review: Storm in a Flower Vase, Arts

“It could be the end of flower arranging, it could be the end of everything”

When I found out that Storm in a Flower Vase was about the woman who invented the recipe for Coronation Chicken, I assumed it was going to be a tragic story of mental illness. After all, what kind of sick and twisted mind would put raisins in a savoury dish. But no, instead it’s about that age-old combination of flowers and lesbians. For some people, Constance Spry will be “a household name”, I know this is true because the flyer for the show says so. If like me you hadn’t heard of her, here’s her Wikipedia page

Anton Burge’s play focuses on her life in the 1930s, when she jacked in her job as a teacher to become a florist and set about revolutionising the world of flower arranging, becoming the preferred choice of high society but also democratising it in a way that had never been done before through the use of everyday materials, like using a pickle jar to prop up a collection of wild flowers and grasses (basically she invented Blue Peter too). And in amongst all her business affairs was a remarkably complex personal – living secretly in sin with men, becoming the patron and more of a noted lesbian artist, this ought to be a fascinating tale of a fascinating person.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Short Film Review #19

The Knickerman
Sonja Phillips’ short film is a bit of a bonkers 1970s fest but hugely entertaining with it. Featuring some of the most epic denim flares you’ll ever see, the women of a sleepy village in Lincolnshire have their life changed when a handsome knicker salesman arrives on the market. Told through the eyes of a little girl who is transfixed by the “miracle” he claims to give women through their knickers, it’s a relaxed film , almost with the feel of an Instagram filter in its 70s glaze and from Jamie Sives’ charismatic lothario to the likes of Saskia Reeves and Annette Badland as the women who make regular visits to his stall, it’s a charmingly lovely piece of storytelling.

Review: The Herd, Bush

“It is not just your life – you are part of a family”

Rory Kinnear’s credits as an actor are unquestionable, having tackled some of the major roles in the Shakespearean canon but though previously untested as a playwright, his debut play comes to us in a lavish production at the Bush Theatre featuring a top-notch cast and the directorial flair of Howard Davies. This certainly casts an immediate sheen of quality over The Herd but one which is perhaps a little generous as it papers over the cracks of what is an uneven piece of writing albeit an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

This particular herd – the Griffiths – are gathering to celebrate the 21st birthday of Andy, a severely disabled man with the mental age of nine months. He is being brought back from his care home for a family party but the atmosphere is already tense before anyone has arrived. His mum Carol exists permanently on the edge of her tether, his older sister Claire is bringing her boyfriend round for the first time even though they’ve been going out for a year, his grandparents are troublemaking laws unto their own and his dad, well his dad hasn’t been on the scene for five years.

Review: Votes for Women/The Magnificent Andrea, Radio 3/4

"No decent woman will be able to say suffrage without blushing for another generation"

Part of a series of radio dramas looking at contemporary responses to the increasing emancipation of women at the turn of the twentieth century, Votes for Women is a 1907 suffragette play by Elizabeth Robins, one of the most forthright actresses of the time who allegedly pulled a gun on George Bernard Shaw when he made a pass at her. Her play looks at women who were equally bold at a time when the movement for women’s suffrage was beginning to stagnate, paralysed by the filibustering efforts of the men in Parliament. Where some were content to continue the same path and attempt to win them over, others were adamant that direct action was the only course of action and Robins neatly explores this schism in the movement.

In Marion Nancarrow’s production, Zoë Tapper plays Vida Levering, one of the activists determined to take things further whose zeal sweeps up those around her, including the youthful heiress Jean Dunbarton, voiced by the delicately effervescent Charity Wakefield, who is newly engaged to Sam West’s Tory MP Geoffrey Stoner, who in turn has his own connection to Vida. This tangled relationship provides the melodramatic meat for the final third of the play and if not quite brilliant, it is certainly engaging. Robins is much more successful at the dramatisation of the crusading spirit and enthusiasm of the time.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Re-review: Wicked, Apollo Victoria


“There's a kind of a sort of: cost
There's a couple of things get: lost” 

Now entering its eighth year at the Apollo Victoria, Wicked remains one of the major go-to shows in London’s West End, beloved of fans and tourists alike. A major UK tour has just started to great reviews in Manchester, demonstrating the wide appeal of this prequel-of-sorts to the events in The Wizard of Oz but with a major cast-change fast approaching, the London production feels like it is missing a little of that emerald sparkle that has made it such an enduring success.

I’ve seen the show twice before (reviews here and here) and so perhaps there’s an element of familiarity breeding contempt but I do have a fondness for Stephen Schwartz’s score and you gotta love a story that puts female friendship so firmly at the centre (many may mock the musical but how many long-running plays are there that do the same…). It was just hard to shake the feeling that maybe some people were a little demob-happy, or even maybe that the production is resting on its laurels a tad. 


Cast of Wicked continued

Cast of Wicked continued

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Review: Fiddler on the Roof, Mayflower

“If I were a rich man, yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum. All day long I'd biddy biddy bum, if I were a wealthy man.”

Oh, to be a fly on the wall when lyricist Sheldon Harnick announced the second line of a song he’d written for Fiddler on the Roof was “yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum”. But along with book writer Joseph Stein and composer Jerry Bock, their efforts translated into one of the most successful Broadway productions ever, with this story of Tevye, a milkman in pre-revolutionary Russia, and his three headstrong daughters making life in the village very difficult by challenging the old order. Craig Revel-Horwood employs his tried-and-tested actor-musician model to invigorate new life into the show (one which is new to me, I’ve never even seen the film) which is just undertaking a huge UK tour, starting at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre (another first for me).

Due to the indisposition of Paul Michael Glaser, we were treated to an understudy performance as Tevye and not even the named understudy Paul Kissaun at that, Eamonn O’Dwyer took on the role and a fine job he did too. Though demonstrably too young for the part, his wry exasperation at the way the world turns and the warm geniality with which he rolls with it made for an assured central presence that kept the show moving with a twinkle-eyed grace. Even with the age mismatch with Karen Mann as his long-suffering wife Golde, there was a palpable chemistry that made their second half duet Do You Love Me? a genuinely lovely thing. 

Cast of Fiddler on the Roof continued

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Review: The Secret Agent, Young Vic

“The stress is on the second syllable”

In some ways, it might be best to come to Theatre O’s version of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent with some fore-knowledge of that classic novel to help guide you through this expressionistic interpretation. But in others, it might be better to know nothing as this adaptation proves sometimes problematic in its marriage of physical theatre with the conventions of narrative storytelling. Devised for the Edinburgh festival ahead of a national tour, and now revised, the show lands at the Young Vic where its delights and frustrations can be sampled over a short run.

The company make their intentions clear from the start, a vaudevillean whirl of stylised Victoriana strikes a bold pose and it isn’t long before there’s audience participation, puppets aplenty and a definite air of parodic comedy. But as the silliness subsides, a clearer sense of Conrad’s story emerges and one is struck by how remarkably prescient his writing from 1907 is to our day and age. His world of insurgent terrorism, dark shadows tearing families apart, is told via the story of Adolf Verloc, a hapless would-be spy given with the onerous task of bombing the Greenwich Observatory.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Noël Coward Theatre

“It seems to be that yet we sleep, we dream"

The Michael Grandage Company move onto their fourth show, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the first of two Shakespeares that will finish the season. And given the emphasis of the star wattage that formed the backbone of its publicity, it’s an interesting choice of play due to its ensemble nature and lack of any real star parts. So we get Sheridan Smith in the dual role of Hippolyta and Titania and David Walliams as Nick Bottom the weaver, alongside a company of others many of whom have appeared in previous MGC shows.

Grandage’s main conceit is to locate the play in 1960s England, making the magical forest into a festival-like world of hippies and free love, allowing an unambiguous focus on sex as the driving force of the play. It’s more like an Athena model version of sex than the untrammeled passion of the real thing though – the four lovers parade about the forest in various states of underwear-clad undress, Titania’s seductive ways lure Bottom into an off-stage bower, the hints of amour between the Rude Mechanicals left tantalisingly unexplored.

Cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream continued

Review: The Witches of Eastwick, Watermill

“If I said that I would listen, might that ease the doubt?”

A theatre I hadn’t been to before and a musical I hadn’t heard before – the offer to go and see the Watermill’s adaptation of the 2000 West End show The Witches of Eastwick seemed like a no-brainer. But though I am glad to be able to tick both of those boxes, I have to admit to being rather disappointed with the show and such disillusionment is only magnified when one has made a not inconsiderable effort to go out of town to see a show. As with many of the productions at this venue, it is an actor-musician led revival, directed here by Craig Revel-Horwood and so one is habitually left in awe at the amount of talent being displayed on this cramped stage, I’m just not convinced that this musical is worth it.

Written by John Dempsey and Dana P Rowe from John Updike’s novel of the same name, the story focuses on three New England women unhappy with their lot in life who get swept up into the influence of newcomer Darryl Van Horne, whose demonically charming ways transform all their lives as he seduces them one by one. But though it may be better the devil you know, the changes he wreaks threaten to go too far and it proves no easy task to put this particular genie back into the bottle. Tom Rogers’ set design works wonders in such an intimate space, not least with a well-executed flying scene, too many aspects of the production felt problematic to me. 

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Review: [title of show], Landor

“We can’t just keep adding in everything that happens to us…”



The very thing that makes [title of show] uniquely entertaining is also the thing that limits it to a niche-shaped bubble which never really takes flight. It’s a fringe-theatregoer’s delight, a meta-theatrical concoction aimed squarely at fans of the genre and so laden with references, in-jokes and geek-outs that it is hard to imagine your everyday audience member getting that much pleasure out of it. Which is why it is very well suited to the Landor, one of London’s hotspots for small-scale musicals yet hardly that well known amongst the wider public and yet even there, didn’t have the full house one might have expected (at least on this night).


The show is, and pay attention, a musical within a musical about writing a musical – Hunter, Jeff, Heidi and Susan are dissatisfied with their mundane lives and so set about putting together something to submit to The New York Musical Theatre Festival but lacking any kind of inspiration, they simply use their struggle to come up with a musical as a subject for a musical. It’s simpler than it sounds and while it is still fresh, the concept is an engaging and highly amusing one which riffs off, parodies, fanboys, satirises and downright copies all kinds of aspects of musical theatre, even adapting its topical references to shows just opened in the West End. 

Short Film Review #18

Deep Down

Christin Cockerton’s film Deep Down is a viciously funny and richly detailed story of the fraught relationship between a daughter and her dying mother. The focus of their struggle of a Parisian couture ballgown from the 1930s and there’s a whole deal of comic business around the older woman’s desire to keep it and the younger woman’s desperation to secure it, but there’s also a darker undertone of frustration that enrichens the film. The trials of caring for a terminally ill parent are never shirked and with the luminescent presence of Helen McCrory, there’s intense depth along with a surprising (and now under-used) gift for comedy. Sylvia Syms is also excellent as the crafty mother, devious until the end.


Review: For Services Rendered / Carnival, Radio 4

"The only thing is to grin and bear it"


Timing is everything and the anti-war message of Somerset Maugham's 1932 play For Services Rendered failed to gain any purchase on contemporary audiences, making it something of a failure. But listening to Lu Kemp's adaptation for Radio 4, it strikes as an extraordinarily prescient piece of work, more so given the eventual declaration and devastation of the Second World War, and it surely due for a substantial theatrical revival. As it is, this version will more than do for now as its tale of how the impact of the First World War lingered perniciously on in the lives of the nation is embodied in the trials of the Ardsley family and their friends.


Leonard and Charlotte Ardsley have four children and though superficially their lives in the Kent countryside are going well, there's much trauma and difficulty just beneath the surface. Only son Sydney was blinded in the war and sister Eva has devoted herself entirely to his care, much to the expense of her own situation and youngest daughter Lois also finds herself unmarried due to the lack of prospects. Ethel is the one that did manage to secure herself a husband but the upheaval of wartime blinded her to his eminent lack of suitability and now in peacetime, she is left to repent at leisure. With so much bubbling away as the social order decays, it isn't long before changes start to force themselves upon this group.


Review: Serious Money, Radio 3

"We will make a profit at the right time in the right place, with an smile on our very acceptable face"'

Just a quickie for this Caryl Churchill adaptation. This most linguistically adept of playwrights is a natural fit for the radio, the focus able to settle on the unique way in which she is able to utilise the written word and in Serious Money, it is her use of rhyming couplets that gains real prominence in this medium. But it is her subject matter that really stands out and makes one wonder why a revival hasn’t been mounted recently. Set just after the Big Bang of 1986, Churchill explores the impact of deregulation on the financial markets, how it gave rise to a culture of dodgy high-stakes insider trading and in this case, set the scene for some particularly rapacious Third World exploitation.

Emma Harding’s adaptation gives brilliant life to this jargon-filled, profanity-fuelled world and whilst it may initially seem like a dizzying whirl of barely definable characters, a method to the madness becomes clear, one’s ear becomes accustomed to the poetic, yet shallow, language they speak, their mouths full of empty promises and worthless proclamations as they pursue the greedy mantra of the 1980s. There’s a murder too, but that hardly seems a major point in the end, we don’t even find out who did it but it matters not a jot.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

DVD Review: Starter for 10

“Sometimes it's not about knowing the right answer”

Starter for 10 may only have been filmed seven or eight years ago but for several of its leads, it feels like a lot longer. For it is a great opportunity to see James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall and Benedict Cumberbatch earlier in their careers and all exhibiting a youthful freshness which has now matured out of their performances. David Nicholls wrote the screenplay from his own novel, about a working class Essex lad to makes it to university in Bristol, the first in his family, and pursues his long-cherished dream of participating in TV quiz show University Challenge. 

McAvoy plays Brian, the naïf at the heart of the story, looking almost impossibly young and appealingly handsome and there’s fun to be had in his awkwardness at settling into uni life, his pursuit of the brittle TV presenter wannabe blonde Alice, played by Alice Eve and his burgeoning friendship with Rebecca Hall’s politically active student Rebecca. Hall is wonderful here, full of quirky charm and wry humour and as the ‘right’ one for Brian, even though he can’t see it, there’s a great pull to their relationship. 

Review: Fishskin Trousers, Finborough

“Half-drowned but still alive”

Haunting medieval folk tales from the East Anglian coast; undecipherable noises on a radar system at the height of the Cold War; the anguished prevarications of a modern day woman with plenty on her mind. Fishskin Trousers, Elizabeth Kuti's new play for West London's Finborough Theatre, combines these three elements into an interwoven story of loss and heartbreak, love and despair, all connected by their location - the village of Orford in Suffolk and the adjacent mysterious island of Orford Ness.

On a stage empty but for three chairs and with an unfussily effective lighting design from Matt Leventhall, it is clear that the focus of Robert Price's production is on the power of storytelling and how it can form connections across time and space. Kuti's three monologues from her three very different characters are segmented into each other, shifting from narrative to narrative, and so teasing out the links that emerge in the subtlest of ways, revelations come gently and so feel natural rather than artificially forced onto the play for expediency.

Review: Fleabag, Soho Theatre


“Happy people don’t do things like that” 

It is easy to see why Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag, written and performed by herself, was such a hit in Edinburgh, winning a Fringe First award for its fearlessly filthy and frank take on female sexual liberation in the 21st century. As it rattles from sharp one-liners to predominantly smutty anecdotes, we see a young woman fully embracing her potent sexuality and apparently loving it, loving it, loving it. 

She seizes the world of opportunity that is open to her on a regular basis - maintaining an on-off relationship with her boyfriend whilst indulging in casual hook-ups of all shapes and sizes and variations as and when the mood takes her. And inbetween, she masturbates relentlessly to internet porn, satiating her addiction any way she can. But though she's happy fulfilling these desires, life around her is beginning to crumble. 

Monday, 9 September 2013

Review: The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, Royal Court

“It is fair to say at that stage Gorge’s judgement became…clouded”

Already reeling from the news that the play was running at 3 hours long despite the 8pm start time, the further blow of a half-hour long opening scene that recalled nothing so much as the central section of the divisive In The Republic of Happiness meant that Dennis Kelly’s The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas had it all to do to win me over. The play marks the official ‘regular’ debut of new AD Vicky Featherstone after Open Court, the wide-ranging writers’ festival that occupied the Royal Court over the summer and rather than being a bold statement of intent of a new and different era, it’s an arguably gentler transition for a theatre already accustomed to the adventurous tail end of Dominic Cooke’s reign cf: Republic, Narrative, The Low Road. The fiddling with the start times does look here to stay though – in this season, the majority of shows upstairs are starting at 7.30pm, and downstairs at 8pm.

And as with much of this kind of theatre, it provokes a Marmitean reaction. Many laughed heartily all night long and lapped it up, I was left cold by its strained theatricality and languorous verbosity. This interview with The Observer reveals that the play was originally written for a theatre in Germany and in retrospect, that makes sense. The story of Gorge stretches over the whole 80 years of his lifetime but is played out in just a handful of lengthy scenes, key encounters that shape his existence as he comes of age in a time of rampart capitalism and is offered the Mephistophelian opportunity to have it all and more. Three grasping golden rules govern his ethos, maxims such as “whenever you want something – take it” but as greedily huge success comes his way, the cocoon of well-designed lies upon which it is built starts to crumble.

Review: Much Ado About Nothing, Old Vic

"He hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age”

There was certainly a raised eyebrow or 3 when it was announced that the leads in Mark Rylance’s take on Much Ado About Nothing for the Old Vic would be Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones. Neither have previously taken on the roles of the warring Beatrice and Benedick and having worked together recently on Driving Miss Daisy (which others liked even if I didn’t), their’s is a pairing with history. But undoubted quality aside, it is a brave move to cast so daringly and with a production that relocates Shakespeare’s play to England in 1944. 
  
Does it work? Making the Aragonese soldiers into a company of GIs has a visual impact that works well and turning Sigh No More into a bluesy harmonica-driven ditty is inspired. But putting Shakespeare's language into the mouths of American soldiers doesn't always work "my Lord..." and without wanting to open too far the can of worms that is the subject of race, I'm not so sure the lack of comment on a 1940s inter-racial marriage, never mind the issues of honour flung about later, really flies. Messina as the home front is neat though, making the Watch a Dad’s Army-style collection of ragbags and kids (including one called Beryl, maybe?). 

Cast of Much Ado About Nothing continued

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Review: Summer Day's Dream, Finborough

“I spent more than half my life, when I ought to have been enjoying myself, arguing and planning and running around like a maniac”

The Finborough continue their run of unearthing any number of "neglected classics" from some of our most illustrious playwrights with a first revival for JB Priestley's 1949 play Summer Day's Dream. Set in a then post-apocalyptic 1975, a nuclear war –World War III? – has devastated Britain and returned it to a simpler way of life. Deep in the South Downs, the Dawlish family epitomise the new England, which strangely looks very much like the old pre-industrial one, but their quiet farming lives are disrupted by three exploitative visitors.


This trio – an American, a Russian and an Indian – represent the new superpowers and initially arrive under benevolent auspices, but as we and the Dawlishes soon come to realise, they are here to strip the land of its valuable minerals. Through them, Priestley explores a surprisingly modern take on global politics and the role of the national versus the international, alongside a more twee paean to the virtues of agrarian life and good olde England, as suggested by the homage of sorts to Shakespeare contained in the title.


Saturday, 7 September 2013

Review: Grounded, Gate Theatre

"A plane with no cockpit, a bird with no eyes"

Watching Lucy Ellinson perform is probably one of the greatest treats UK theatre has to offer us. There's something about her searching directness that makes sitting in the audience of one of her shows a much greater act of participation that most of us are used to. Utterly unafraid at reaching out to every single person in front of her, the surprise of eye contact with you still feels uniquely special and something important is shared even in the seconds of that fleeting moment, even if you're not quite sure exactly what it is. When it breaks, as it must, you feel bereft, craving the next one when it comes, and so it goes, pulling you entirely into the immediacy of her performance.

Perhaps not everyone has this same level of engagement with her, but I find it impossible to imagine that anyone could sit through Grounded and just feel like they had witnessed just another show. Playing at the Gate after a hugely successful Edinburgh run, George Brant's monologue is a searing indictment of drone warfare but also a fascinating exploration of the struggle of balancing the experience of being a soldier in combat with the realities of family life. 

Friday, 6 September 2013

Review: Pope Joan – National Youth Theatre of Great Britain at St James’s Church Piccadilly

“Something is happening, something ungodly”

Thickly pungent clouds of incense, masses of supernumeraries dressed as glowering monks, the plaintive drone of the organ interrupted only by the dramatic peals of the church bells – there could hardly be a more atmospheric venue for the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain to launch their autumn season. And in Louise Brealey’s debut play Pope Joan, the ecclesiastical setting of St James’s Church in Piccadilly gains an especial resonance given that even now, over 1000 years since the apocryphal medieval story took place, the Church still doesn’t know how to deal with women. 

Brealey, perhaps unfairly best known as the wretched Molly in Sherlock, has alighted on the ninth century legend of the only woman ever to have (allegedly) become pope and used it to explore the uneasy interface between gender and religion, the way in which the patriarchy has assumed dominance over society and will do anything to protect, and also the journey of one person’s faith and their struggle to be able to pursue it as their spirit dictates. 

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Short Film Review #17

Mockingbird
Sometimes, just sometimes, one of these films comes from nowhere to just punch in the guts with its downright amazingness yet simultaneously leaving unable to really articulate just why it is so. Joe Tunmer’s Mockingbird is such a film – achingly beautiful, gorgeously shot and infinitely moving. William Houston is extraordinary, Eliza Darby refreshingly appealing and there’s bonus Olivia Williams – what more do you want?!

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Review: Edward II, National Theatre

“I will have Gaveston, and you shall know what danger ’tis to stand against your king”


Now this is what I want my National Theatre to be like – creative, bold, fresh, fearless. There’s no pretending that Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production of Marlowe’s Edward II is flawless perfection, its modern ambition sprawls over the Olivier’s vast stage and up onto the walls as screens either side relay live video footage, but the energy at hand from both cast and creatives is wonderfully galvanising and points defiantly towards the possibilities of the future when Nicholas Hytner finally stands down in a couple of years. Traditionalists may balk, especially in some of the more challenging sections of the first half but for this institution to thrive, it has to be allowed to experiment and expand its remit and that ought to be supported by all. 

Under the cruel yoke of his father, Edward suffered his lover Gaveston to be exiled but on ascending to the throne to become Edward II, he restores him to England and lavishes him with jewels and titles. But their overt hedonism riles up the powerful barons of the realm as they take up the cause of his neglected queen Isabella in an audacious power-grab, setting up the kind of conflict that leaves no-one unscathed. John Heffernan ascends to his first major London lead role with all of the subtlety and aching depth that has long made him a favourite around these parts. His Edward is a capricious fidget, pathetically desperate to please Kyle Soller’s cockily assured Gaveston and their headlong lustful passion is one that you believe he would fight tooth and nail for, yet he also possesses an innate grace under pressure – his abdication speech is profoundly moving, the desperation of his exile near-impossible to watch.