Thursday, 31 October 2013

Review: The Duck House, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

“Remember when we used to trust politicians”

Although outrageous and audacious in its scope, the expenses scandal that rocked the Houses of Parliament in 2009 was also rich in comic detail as the minutiae of what our elected officials deemed acceptable to claim was revealed in the pages of the Daily Telegraph. And it is this that writers Dan Patterson and Colin Swash (with Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You among their credits) have picked up on in their new comedy The Duck House

Set in May of that year with the Labour Party in disarray, backbencher Robert Houston decides to defect to the Tories in order to maintain the lifestyle he and his family have become used to. But with just one more interview with Tory grandee Sir Norman Cavendish to get through, the expenses scandal breaks and the Houstons set about trying to minimise the damage to their prospects. The depth of their financial fiddling means that this is no easy task though and results in farcical shenanigans that affect them all. 

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Review: As You Like It, RSC at Theatre Royal Newcastle

“I am that he, that poor unfortunate he”

As You Like It is one of those plays that I find hard to get too excited about since I feel like I’ve seen it a hundred times. And Maria Aberg’s production for the RSC came with the additional baggage of over-enthusiastic acclaim from certain quarters that usually leave me sceptical but when in Newcastle the same week as the RSC... As suspected, the Laura Marling soundtrack riled me, its folks stylings seeming somewhat faux for a reason I can’t really articulate without resorting to calling it smug. But in Pippa Nixon, it has a truly excellent Rosalind.

Set in a Glastonbury-inspired Forest of Arden, Nixon is startling as a genuinely androgynous figure once transformed, making the scenes with Alex Waldmann’s Orlando a thrilling experience in its gender-questioning ardour. And she’s a compelling presence throughout whether battling her fierce father or coaching her would-be lover in the school of romance. It all builds into a touching finale of nuptial bliss, which eventually wore down most of my scepticism, but I’m not entirely convinced that the setting works so well elsewhere.

Cast of As You Like It continued


Short Film Review #25

Small Dark Places

The genius of Susie Watson’s Small Dark Places is mainly to make the already unique look of Tom Brooke extraordinarily special as it puts him in a frankly hilarious fancy dress costume. The party is celebrating the wedding anniversary of Tim and Christine Welling but he’s been suffering badly from a debilitating condition which includes memory loss and agoraphobia. The party is an attempt to get back to normality but proves more difficult than that and Tim has to really fight to hold onto what’s real. It’s an excellent piece of story-telling, intermingling fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, past and present, as Tim reaches for the thing just out of his grasp that he knows isn’t right. Brooke is brilliant in the part and Joanna Christie and Zoë Tapper as the women in his life with completely different agendas are also good.


Monday, 28 October 2013

Review: Black Jesus, Finborough

“I decided who would be saved and who would be condemned. I took that responsibility for others and now I take it for myself”

The investigation of war crimes in Africa has already had one intriguing exploration on London’s stages this year in the excellent A Human Being Died That Night at the Hampstead but where that play focused on South Africa, Anders Lustgarten’s Black Jesus looks at contemporary Zimbabwe, the damage that Robert Mugabe’s regime has inflicted, and the possibilities of reaching any kind of resolution when the scars of conflict cut so deep. 

It is set in the near future, where a Truth and Justice Commission has been set up to explore the crimes of the past. Eunice Ncube (the excellent Debbie Korley) is tasked with interviewing Gabriel (Paapa Essiedu, in a rich vein of form at the moment following the Arcola's Outside on the Street) one of the key members of a brutal youth militia movement called the Green Bombers, who crushed untold enemies with violence and remains a thoroughly intimidating figure. 

Review: Love Story, Jack Studio Theatre

“You only reap the harvest that you sow”

Howard Goodall and Stephen Clark’s lush musical take on Erich Segal’s perennial tearjerker Love Story gained critical if not commercial success with its West End run back in 2010, but its beautiful music can now be heard live again with its off-West-End premiere at the Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley. It was always a chamber piece and so it suits the intimacy of this fringe venue well and in Joseph C Walsh’s clever and unmiked production, it provides a welcome reminder of one of the best new British musical scores of recent times.


But though it is musically excellent, the book does contain issues and they are sadly all-too-apparent in this interpretation. The story telescopes the entirety of Jenny Cavilleri and Oliver Barrett IV’s five year relationship, from its spiky college beginnings through marriage beds and [spoiler alert, although not really…] hospital beds to its tragic end, into 90 minutes of fast-flowing narrative and song. But it is so fast, so relentless, that it is difficult to really invest emotionally into the characters as they are written here – the show thus relies on pre-knowledge of the story and from the transcendent strength of the performances (Emma Williams and Michal Xavier both excelling in this respect in the West End).


Sunday, 27 October 2013

TV Review: Muse of Fire



“We found Shakespeare tough at school” 

What a brilliant little film – tucked away on BBC4 but fortunately on the iPlayer for another few days yet, Muse of Fire: A Shakespearean Road Movie is a one hour documentary by actors Giles Terera and Dan Poole exploring the Bard’s reputation for being difficult to understand. This they do by speaking to an astonishing array of people including "ten Oscar nominees, five Oscar winners, one dame, seven knights" along with some of our greatest actors - it’s one of the most impressive roll-calls you’ll see all year (at least until the NT’s 50th bash next week…) - and some regular people too, from estate agents Cambridge to baffled students. 

This extraordinary depth of collaboration is at once the strength and the weakness of the film. We get such a wide range of insights from luminaries such as Ian McKellen, Fiona Shaw, Michael Gambon, Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi but there’s only time for snippets, the glorious Frances Barber is seen briefly at the beginning never to reappear and the list of credits at the end show all sorts who haven’t made the final cut. There’s so much fascinating stuff that must have been left on the cutting room floor that one can’t help but be a little frustrated – can we get a director’s cut?! 

Cast of Muse of Fire continued

Cast of Muse of Fire continued

(P)review: Mojo, Harold Pinter

"I promise not to squeeze your nuts"

So I'm trying the preview thing again, talking about a show that has just opened rather than reviewing it per se, offering more of an overview and little tidbits that will hopefully whet the appetite of people keen to know more about the show, without giving too much away. Press night is 13th November.

Much of theatre marketing has long been about putting bums on seats and so posters for shows up and down the land often feature 'im or 'er off the telly front and centre, hoping that a bit of canny casting will draw in interested audiences. The West End of course has a little more pulling power and so for this first major revival of Jez Butterworth's Mojo, the cast of six includes some high-wattage 'im off that thing, including
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and 
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Saturday, 26 October 2013

Review: From Here To Eternity, Shaftesbury Theatre

“Don’cha like Hawaii?”

From Here to Eternity marks the return of noted lyricist Tim Rice to the London stage with this new adaptation of this World War II story, probably best known in its film incarnation and its iconic shenanigans in the surf. This treatment harks back to the original novel to introduce darker elements to the story yet it has also been transformed into a traditional West End musical, which brings with it a certain style that doesn’t always sit too well together with the material.

Set in the adulterous, misogynistic, homophobic, racist and bullying atmosphere of the G Company barracks in Hawaii in the summer of 1941, Bill Oakes’ book – based on James Jones’ novel of his own experiences – has a strangely disjointed quality as it struggles to weave together its three main strands. First Sergeant Milt Warden is hot for his captain’s lascivious wife; new arrival Private Robert E Lee Prewitt is less concerned about joining the corps’ boxing team and falls in love with call girl Lorene instead; and Private Angelo Maggio spends his time ducking and diving, making a quick buck by fraternising with the island’s gay population.

Cast of From Here to Eternity continued


Cast of From Here to Eternity continued

Re-review: A Doll’s House, Duke of York’s

“I’m afraid they’re going to have to get used to not having me around quite so often any more”

Not a huge amount to say about a return visit to this excellent Ibsen adaptation which I first saw back in July last year – since then, A Doll's House has won multiple awards, mainly for its leading star Hattie Morahan, returned to the Young Vic for a repeat run, moved into the West End for a further extension and announced a transfer to Broadway, not a bad piece of work really. I loved it first time round, against all expectations, and wasn’t intending to revisit but the canny pricing of the transfer meant tickets in the front rows were a bargainous £10 and so I booked for the end of the London run. 

And I enjoyed it more or less just as much as last time. Being able to revisit a show, especially a play, after more than a year is a rare pleasure indeed but it was one that paid dividends as Carrie Cracknell’s production continued to deliver its excellently compelling take on the Helmers’ marriage. Though still set closer to Ibsen’s time than ours, Morahan and Dominic Rowan make Nora and Torvald into living, breathing people with the flaws that we all carry in one way or another and deserving of our empathy, if not necessarily our sympathy, as Nora finds the strength to take on society and pursue her own radical destiny. New York should embrace this production with open arms.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 26th October

Friday, 25 October 2013

Review: Raving, Hampstead Theatre


“He’s such an insensitive git. Loves having a go at you lefties.”


What price a laugh? How far should the boundaries of taste be pushed to achieve comic objectives? And how complicit are we in wanting to find things funny? Simon Paisley Day’s play Raving sets out its unreconstructed stall early on from its first dubious gay jokes to the co-opting of the phrase ‘batty boy’ which garnered a disturbing number of titters from the Hampstead Theatre audience. But putting the tastes of the audience to one side, this actor-turned-playwright hits on the nose across the spectrum – post-natal depression and something perilously close to sexual abuse are used as joke-filled hooks on which to hang his farcical machinations and for a play with pretensions of being a contemporary comedy, it just doesn’t fly.


Paisley Day’s premise is the stuff of a many a sitcom. Three middle class London couples rock up at a cottage for a weekend away in deepest Wales but instead of leaving their troubles behind, chaos erupts on a near-hourly basis. Briony and Keith are having their first break away from son Finn, their first three years of parenthood not having proved easy; über-perfect Ross and Rosy live what appears to be a charmed life, only a constant stream of au pairs causing a minor wrinkle; and last minute additions Charles and Serena are the embodiment of blithe hooray-Henryness, in possession of an anarchically raucous teenage niece who further stirs the pot once a drug and alcohol-fuelled rave is discovered in a neighbouring field.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Review: Blood Wedding, Courtyard Theatre

"There'll be blood again"
 
Lorca’s writing is suffused with the heat and passion of his Spanish homeland and his 1932 play Blood Wedding is one of his most famous and oft-performed works. Aria Entertainment’s production uses Tanya Ronder’s recent translation but director Bronagh Lagan often struggles to combine the lyrical poetry and brutal realities of this play, introducing a too-wide range of elements that crowd the essential simplicity of the story.

The show is at its best when it allows simple but striking images to emerge – Miles Yekinni’s Death – a presence haunting the action from the off – appearing unexpectedly from behind a door; the true desire of the Bride breaking free in the middle of a densely choreographed wedding dance; the erect pride with which the Mother conducts herself at all times. And in these moments , this tragic tale of love and betrayal captures the right level of magic realism. 

DVD Review: Wild Target

“I’m Victor Maynard, I’m 54 years old and I work as a professional killer”

Wild Target was a 2010 Brit-flick, adapted by Lucinda Coxon from the French film Cible Émouvante and directed by Jonathan Lynn, that made little real impact despite a rather fabulous cast. Bill Nighy plays Victor Maynard, a middle-aged man who has followed in the footsteps of his father as an assassin, but has no personal or social life to speak of, just regular visits to his mother, Eileen Atkins in fierce form. But when a job goes wrong, he finds himself trying to defend the very person he’s meant to kill, Emily Blunt’s con-artist Rose with the help of a young would-be apprentice in the shape of Rupert Grint’s Tony. 

It’s mainly frothy silliness. Amusing in parts as the threesome try to avoid being killed by the hapless assassins dispatched to finish off the original contract and round up the loose ends, including Martin Freeman with some lovely dental work…, the bond that grows between them is strongest when it is most ambiguous. There’s hints that the hitherto asexual Maynard may be a closet case, though meeting George Rainsford as a waiter in a gay café (that I would so frequent) sadly leads to nothing; Rose and Tony both come unencumbered by any attachments and so it seems it is anyone’s game.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Review: 1984, Headlong at Richmond Theatre

"You may as well say goodbye”

For a novel written in 1949, it is remarkable how much of George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 has seeped into our consciousness. Not just in the phrases we have adopted – Big Brother, thought crime, Room 101, double speak – but also in the world it depicts, of constant surveillance, of the all-controlling state, of the erosion of individual liberties. From Wikileaks to Edward Snowden, David Miranda’s detention even to Paul Dacre’s indignation, the consequences of going up against the establishment, in whatever form, are never far from the headlines and it is clear that Headlong’s audacious re-interpretation of 1984 is an apposite choice.

Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation takes an unusual starting point – the epilogue-like Appendix which offers a whole new level of complication to the narrative of the novel – and uses it to present a dual layer of storytelling. Winston Smith’s trials at the hands of Big Brother as he rebels against the totalitarian state for whom he works are contextualised by a futuristic scenario in which a book group are reading about the trials of Winston Smith. We slide between the two timeframes – as Winston thinks a thought, the book group discuss it – each inextricably linked with the other as we watch this single man, this tiny act of rebellion, being obliterated.

Short Film Review #24

Call Register
This is the perfect film for anyone who has issues about what mobile telephones have done to our lives. Martin Freeman’s Kevin borrows his best mate’s phone to make a call, James Lance’s Julian, as he wants to set up a date with a girl he’s just met, Neve McIntosh’s Amanda. But Julian’s phone recognises the number and through an series of short phone calls, writer and director Ed Roe details much of the awkwardness around dating, especially when a friend has already been there first, and also adroitly explores the uniquely modern perils that mobiles have brought to the way in which we communicate. There’s much to enjoy here, not least the understated charm of all three actors, and also much that will be painfully familiar to anyone who’s ever called someone up for a date.


Review: Hamlet, RSC at Theatre Royal Newcastle

“Brevity is the soul of wit”

I can’t say I wasn’t warned… Work has seen me up in the north-east for a few days this month and so coinciding with the RSC’s short residency at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle which sees one of their ensembles putting on the three shows from their bit of the summer season. And I’d been told that their Hamlet was a difficult beast but I wasn’t quite prepared for quite how awful I would find it.

David Farr’s modern(ish) take eschews star casting for the integrity of this ensemble, giving Jonathan Slinger the opportunity to take on this most celebrated of roles, but it is a chance they take so thoroughly by the horns with Slinger’s determination to put his own stamp thereon, it never feels real or organic, just a strained effort to be different. And at 3 hours 40 minutes, it is a lot to bear.

There are highlights – Luke Norris makes an appealing Laertes, Robin Soans oozes quality as ever as Polonius and Greg Hicks gives the verse-speaking performance of the evening as Claudius and the Ghost. But too often, Slinger’s rage as Hamlet is an all-smothering presence which suffocates the production and the actors around him. 
Running time: 3 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 26th October

Cast of RSC's Hamlet continued

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Review: The Djinns of Eidgah, Royal Court

“Gar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast”

Interesting art can transcend basic notions of comprehension, cutting deep to a visceral place of goosebumps and adrenalin rushes that crosses linguistic barriers, just listening to this recital of a piece of Sufi poetry moves me in an unexpectedly extraordinary way even after repeated listens. The above quote of another piece also by poet Amir Khusro (If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here) which prefaces Abhishek Majumdar’s complex Kashmir-set play The Djinns of Eidgah which provoked a similar reaction in me upstairs at the Royal Court.

Not that the play isn’t in English, but rather its reach is ambitiously grand and encompasses subjects that I would be a fool to profess any substantial knowledge of. Through the trials of young Kashmiri orphans Ashrafi and Bilal, Majumdar’s writing explores the state of being ‘inbetween’ – whether in the brutal, and ongoing, realities of being torn between India and Pakistan; or in the fable-like hinterland between life and death, explored through the Central Asian oral history tradition of dastaan and the legends of Amir Hamza. Reality and fantasy are intermingled, politics and people dissected, both head and heart engaged to create a melancholic minor masterpiece. 

Monday, 21 October 2013

Review: Titus Andronicus, Arcola

“Look down into this den and see a fearful sight of blood and death”

The 80s appear to be fertile ground for reinterpretations of classics – recent weeks have seen Romeo and Juliet in Camden market and Sweeney Todd above a greasy spoon, utilising the societal upheaval of the time as a backdrop, and so too does Zoé Ford with this unique and exuberant take on Titus Andronicus. Using This Is England as a key reference point, this is a world of viscerally tribal skinheads and goths (standing in for the Goths) and one in which the enraged pursuit of bloody vengeance feels entirely appropriate.

This is a production that is broad, ballsy and extremely bloody. David Vaughan Night’s Titus is all bovver-booted swagger, Maya Thomas’ cogent Lavinia is distressingly tragic and Rosalind Blessed’s vibrant Tamora is a commendably strong presence as the two warring factions trade rape, murder, mutilations, even cannibalism, as the stakes and everyone’s pride remains too high to entertain anything but the most desperate fight to the end. 

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Review: The Organist’s Daughter / Corrinne Come Back and Gone / The Patience of Mr Job

“We’re happy enough – what more can anyone ask from life?”

Three short review for three short radio play this week. My favourite was The Organist’s Daughter by Stephen Wyatt, a genuinely gorgeous piece of drama with a beautiful soundscape and an excellent cast including Simon Russell Beale, Emma Fielding and Naomi Fielding. The story concerns the succession of Lübeck Catherdral’s organist – the incumbent, Dieterich Buxtehude, is in ill health and wishes to retire but the man who follows him must, as tradition dictates, marry his eldest daughter. But Anna Margreta has what people call inner beauty and her rather plain looks leave him despairing, though a series of suitors bring their own surprises with them. Russell Beale is an excellent grouch, Fielding a superbly pragmatic daughter and as the would-be organists, Karl Davies, Joseph Kloska and Matthew Watson are all good fun, the first two wannabes bearing the somewhat familiar names of Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Friedrich Handel…

Lenny Henry’s reinvention as a proper thespian continues apace with his first radio play, Corrinne Come Back and Gone, a powerful tale of a difficult family reunion in Jamaica. Due to the poverty of their lives, Corrinne was forced to leave her children in the Caribbean as she fled to the UK but twenty years later, she receives a letter from her daughter inviting her back though nothing is quite how she imagines it would be nor how she remembered. It’s an emotive subject but one suffused with hard-headed humour as Claire Benedict’s Corrinne sets about attempting to make amends where she can and trying, and failing, to stop interfering to make things better. A slightly too schematically upbeat ending aside, it’s an impressive debut from Henry, helped by a superb cast including Doña Croll, Nadine Marshall and Alex Lanipekun. 

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Review: The World of Extreme Happiness, The Shed

“A boy is a child, a girl is a thing”

Given that around about this time last year, the RSC was copping a lot of flak for casting just three East Asian actors in a production of The Orphan of Zhao, it feels something of a shame that more of a noise isn’t being made about the greater opportunities that this year has seen, in the capital at least. Currently in London, you can see Chimerica and The Fu-Manchu Complex, a second David Henry Hwang production - Golden Child - has just closed after Yellow Face earlier this year and the Hampstead had the evocative #aiww. Along with Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness now at the National Theatre’s Shed, could this be a sign of the changing tide, of greater visibility in our cultural lives as theatres’ reluctance to programme Eastern influences ebbs away? Who knows, I am far from qualified to tell, but it has made for a fascinating enrichening of my theatregoing this year (and by extension, my short-film viewing).

Cowhig’s play feels like a good companion piece to Lucy Kirkwood’s writing, turning the gaze firmly onto contemporary Chinese society and how it deals with being the fuel for the motor of exceptional economic growth. Its protagonist is Katie Leung’s Sunny, dumped in a bucket of pigswill at birth for not being a boy but surviving and once grown to a young adult, she joins the exodus from the countryside in pursuit of the urban dream. But once she arrives, it is emerges as more of a nightmare and Cowhig pulls no punches as she reveals the seedy underside to this version of capitalism – the sheer exploitation of the rural migrants, the appalling working conditions, the high rate of suicide, the indoctrination of the mantra of self-help that keeps an endless flow of willing bodies knocking at the door.

Short Film Review #23

My Dad the Communist
It is tempting to see My Dad the Communist as something of a neat companion piece to Chimerica, featuring a Benedict Wong character responding to the events of Tiananmen Square in a completely different way but in truth, they are separate beasts and the only real thing linking them is the dearth of complex Asian-related stories on our screens and stages (although things do seem to be changing, slowly). This Lab Ky Mo film focuses on a typical British-Chinese family who work in a takeaway (where else?!) – Tony has lived all of his life in the UK yet his father has remained stubbornly, inscrutably Chinese in his behaviour, rarely uttering anything at all or showing any affection to his wife or son.

A car accident involving the older man motivates Tony to look back on his 20 year life and reflect on the rare moments that his dad did speak, realising the huge significance of those events, and the ones where he didn’t, imagining the parental figure he craved. Mo utilises the fantasy flashback several times to great effect, we really get a sense of being caught up in Tony’s reverie and it is really quite moving. Wong is customarily excellent as the taciturn father, Siu Hun Li is also strong as the son trying to do things differently, not least with his own new wife, an expressive performance from Tuyen Do.  



Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Review: Bare, Greenwich


“The boys have gonorrhea, now they burn for you each time they pee” 

Not really being a fan of rock musicals, I didn’t make the journey to the Union Theatre to see Bare earlier this year and I was kind of reluctant to go and see its belated transfer to the Greenwich Theatre. And true to form, it really wasn’t my cup of tea. A cast of bright young things sing well and deliver a great level of performance but the show, written by Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo, feels dated both dramatically and musically, its off-Broadway high-school charms very much eluding me. 

Set in the senior class of a Catholic high school, these 17 year olds race towards graduation whilst battling with issues of sexuality and identity, religion and reality, all the while rehearsing a production of Romeo and Juliet which ham-fistedly reflects the tortured inter-relations between this tangled group. Clunky comedy turns into deficient drama as boy meets closeted boy meets girl, but the nearly entirely sung-through lyrics rarely give such an emotive issue as homosexuality in high schools the sensitivity and complexity it deserves. 

Cast of Bare continued

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Review: The Love Girl and the Innocent, Southwark Playhouse

“Keep working, keep working, keep working, keep working…poor bastards”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Love Girl and the Innocent hasn’t been seen in London for over 30 years and with a cast of over 50 characters, one can see the challenges facing anyone willing to take it on. It’s taken Matthew Dunster nearly 10 years but with Jagged Edge Productions and a multi-tasking cast of 16, he now brings his own adaptation to the Southwark Playhouse in an atmospheric if sprawling production that evokes the horrors and absurdities of life in the gulag.

Based on the playwright’s own experiences in the Soviet labour camps, the play is at its best in capturing the insane swirl of the prisoners as they jostle for position and privilege in the microcosm of Russian society that develops. Most have been sentenced to 10 years hard labour and so are in it for the long haul as they become part of a never-ending production line, but where they end up on it depends on their willingness to collude, corrupt and conspire to make their lives even just a smidgen better as the relentless demand for greater productivity comes from on high.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Review: Roots, Donmar Warehouse

“The whole stinkin' commercial world insults us and we don't care a damn”

Jessica Raine may have captured the nation’s heart as the star of BBC1’s Call The Midwife but those in the know have been watching her onstage for a goodly while, I first saw her back in 2009 in Punk Rock and have been captivated ever since. Roots sees her take the leading role of Beatie in the middle part of Arnold Wesker’s working class trilogy (Chicken Soup with Barley is the first and I’ve yet to see the third, I’m Talking About Jerusalem) and though very much a slow-burner, James Macdonald’s highly naturalistic production steadily builds into something magically affecting. 

It’s 1958 and Norfolk girl Beatie Bryant is back home for a visit, full of love and enthusiasm for both her new abode London and her new beau Ronnie (who is a character in Chicken Soup…). He’s a committed socialist and has filled her head with a brand new world of ideals and inspiration but as she tries to explain and elucidate her new-found truths to her extended family, in anticipation of a big dinner party where Ronnie will be unveiled, she discovers the difficulties in preaching to an audience unwilling to hear. 

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Preview: Stephen Ward The Musical

“I invented a new way of lie, some might call it unconventional,

All that stuffy post-war Englishness, I liked something more consensual”


With such a busy couple of weeks, I’ve only just gotten round to having a listen of the sneak preview of four songs offered at the launch of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s new musical Stephen Ward. I was prompted by an offer to download two of them for free (for a limited time only) but you can also listen to them online and/or watch the videos below. The story is undoubtedly a little niche, exploring the 1963 Profumo scandal from the point of view of Ward who was smack bang in the middle of it, he being the one who introduced MP John Profumo to Christine Keeler and setting in motion events that rocked the government.


As for the music, there’s something rather endearing about Lloyd-Webber’s continued contributions to British musical theatre, he could so easily have decided to retire yet he carries on writing to the beat of his own drum, safe in the knowledge that a devoted fanbase will lap it up. Unsurprisingly, the four songs previewed do not reveal any major change in direction and so it will be interesting to see if the show is able to transcend the attentions of musical theatre devotees and appeal to a wider audience. Joanna Riding’s simple ballad Hopeless When It Comes To You is the pick of the bunch but Alex Hanson, playing Ward himself, runs her close with the sinuous storytelling of Human Sacrifice.

CD Review: Hey Producer!

“I was wond’ring when you gonna notice me”

“Hey Producer!” is a collection of musical theatre and cabaret songs by composer Danny Davies, pulling together selections from cabarets, excerpts from musicals he has written and specially composed songs for this CD. It was released in 2012, and as is the way with these albums, a spectacular array of performers have been assembled to deliver this material. From fresher talents like Julie Atherton and Daniel Boys to the more experienced hands of Peter Polycarpou and Rosie Ashe, the combined effect is of an old-school musical theatre vibe that is rather pleasing.

The CD starts with a classic cabaret number, Atherton’s Hey Producer! in which a budding star pleads for her chance for a big break, offering up any kind of inducement including her body even though “you’re probably gay” – witty and light and one can imagine it going down a storm somewhere like the Crazy Coqs. We then move into a sequence of impassioned old-school balladry – Patrick Smyth’s Falling Rain, Chris Thatcher and Alison Jiear’s One More Night and Polycarpou’s Twice the Man all stir the soul with noble sentiment, rousing emotion and most significantly, cleanly memorable tunes.

Hey Producer CD cast continued

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Review: Routes, Royal Court

“The problem is, citizenship isn’t automatically acquired through naturalisation”

I was initially quite hesitant about booking to see Routes – the murkily complex worlds of immigration and what was the UK Border Agency (UKBA) are all too familiar to me from aspects of my work and so I wasn’t sure that I wanted to see a dramatic interpretation of the painful intricacies of the legal system that so many people are forced to endure. And though Rachel De-lahay’s play, her second for the Royal Court, has a vivid compassion and a burning sense of injustice, it never really dealt sufficiently with its subject matter for my liking, barely scratching at the surface of something so rotten in the state of Great Britain.

She intertwines a number of stories, all to do with immigration and citizenship and how precious the rare flashes of humanity are, that survive in this system. Fiston Barek’s teenage Bashir has spent most of his life in the UK but at the slightest hint of trouble, finds his indefinite leave to remain under threat and a forcible return to Somalia on the cards. His roommate in his hostel is Calvin Demba’s Kola, a troubled youth offender disowned by his parents, one of whom works for the UKBA. And in Nigeria, Peter Bankolé’s Femi is trying to beat the system by buying a fake identity to be able to join his family in the UK.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Review: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, New Wimbledon

"That was some mighty fine dancing"

Seven young men enter a backwoods Oregon town, kidnap a woman each - with the intention of making them their wives - and escort them back to their mountainside home where a subsequent avalanche traps up there for the winter, leaving family and suitors unable to rescue them. Such is the premise, more or less, of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers but being a classic film musical of the 1950s, it is less a hillbilly horror flick and more of a rollicking romp of lumberjacking lotharios and one which now find itself in a tour of UK theatres. 

Director and choreographer extraordinaire Patti Colombo has worked her considerable magic on the show to make it a stunning visual treat, however there’s no escaping the huge improbabilities and weaknesses of the story. Of course, one shouldn’t be taking such a thing at all seriously, but it does impact on the way the show is delivered, whether the actors try to find the inner soul of a character and play it honestly or just go all out with a knowing smile and plenty of pizazz. And I’m not too sure that this production really straddles that line all too well. 

Cast of Seven Brides... continued

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Cast of Sweeney Todd continued



Review: The Winter’s Tale, Crucible

“There's some ill planet reigns"

Sheffield’s autumnal Shakespeares have become something of a yearly institution and a regular fixture in my theatregoing diary. This year sees The Winter’s Tale arrive at the Crucible with something of a less starry cast than in previous years (although Barbara Marten and Claire Price were both strong draws for us) and the return of director Paul Miller to the series, after his Hamlet back in 2010. Sad to say though, this was not for me – the atmosphere hampered by a sadly sparse matinée audience but the production also full of choices that just didn’t appeal.

Shakespeare’s late play relies on the careful balancing of two halves – Sicilia’s dark tragedy and Bohemia’s pastoral vibrancy, the pain of simmering jealousy against the freshness of new love. But though they must complement each other, they need to effectively stand alone as well and Miller struggles with his opening act. The sparseness of Simon Daw’s design places the focus strictly on the interactions of his actors, but his preferred method of placing them at some distance from each other on the large stage estranges them too much, both from each other and from the audience.

Cast of The Winter's Tale continued

Review: All My Sons, Royal Exchange

“This thing - this thing is not over yet"

A towering giant of the American dramatic canon, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons rarely lacks for productions on British stages but it can rarely have been delivered as well as it has in Michael Buffong’s production for his Talawa Theatre Company at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Though written and set in 1947, its story still resonates out across timelines, colour lines and borderlines as the horror of sending soldiers out to combat with sub-standard equipment remains a brutal reality even today. 

Don Warrington’s Joe Keller is a self-made businessman whose proudest achievement has been his gradual progression from humble beginnings to a man of means and thus status. But in order to get where he has, he allowed his business partner to take the rap for a fatal mistake in his factory which led to horrifically tragic consequences and though Joe and his wife have managed a life in denial, a change in their family circumstances forces them to confront the true ramifications of his actions.

Short Film Review #22

Of Mary

Oh how my heart broke. I won’t say too much about Adrian Lester’s film Oh Mary for fear of giving anything away but Kehinde Fadipe and Tom Brooke are just lovely in this achingly beautiful film about how life really can be a bitch sometimes.


Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Review: The Light Princess, National Theatre

“You are, you are…Althea, you are…changing the world for me”

Long awaited and long gestated, Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson’s musical take on The Light Princess arrives at the National in a blaze of theatrical glory that makes it one of the shows of the year. Based on a Scottish fairytale, the teenage heirs of warring kingdoms are both mourning the loss of their mothers but their grief has affected them in different ways. Digby’s soul has become weighed down so heavily he has forgotten how to smile, whilst Althea’s protective mechanism has been to become to airily light that she literally floats above it all. As they rebel against their strict fathers, they each escape to neutral ground only to encounter each other and instant attraction. But emotional articulacy doesn’t come easily and political concerns threaten to tear apart their passion before it even really begins. 

Marianne Elliott’s direction pulls together the various elements of her huge creative team with exceptional skill, never losing sight of the sheer magic that the best theatre can bring and marrying a very modern aesthetic with the sometimes traditional feel - Althea’s movement (I don’t fly, I float!) is achieved through some amazing acrobatic work from a team of four with just a little help from some high tech flying rig. And in Rae Smith’s gorgeous designs, it all just looks superb; every movement catching an acute moment of emotion, whether the deft manipulation of a falcon into flight (Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié finally making puppetry make sense to me) or a girl literally raising the spirits of a boy (Steven Hoggett’s inimitable physical language once again heart-stoppingly good).

Cast of The Light Princess continued

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Review: The Boys from Syracuse, Union Theatre

“Keep your fingers under control"

As a Rodgers and Hart musical from the late 1930s, The Boys from Syracuse is naturally full of songs you didn’t know you knew – Sing for Your Supper, This Can’t Be Love, Falling in Love with Love – but it is also a story that you may very well be familiar with. George Abbott’s book relocates the action to Ancient Greece and refocuses it firmly onto the romantic entanglements therein but the tale is Shakespeare’s story of identical Antipholi and Dromios let loose in Ephesus – it’s a rom-Comedy of Errors, with tunes.

Ben De Wynter’s production plays to the typical strengths of the Union Theatre - pulling together a sizeable ensemble full of youthful freshness, stripping back musical arrangements to their innate simplicity and creating choreography that pushes the intimate boundaries of this fringe venue. And it mostly succeeds in these three as mistaken identities abound with the arrival of Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse into the town of Ephesus, where their long-lost twins are in residence, causing mayhem with friends and family alike.

Cast of Boys from Syracuse continued

Monday, 7 October 2013

Review: Ghosts, Almeida

“I want the kind of love a mother cannot give”

Like the dose of the clap on which it is centred, productions of Ibsen’s Ghosts appear with alarming regularity – indeed Stephen Unwin premiered his own new version for the Rose Kingston and English Touring Theatre just a couple of weeks ago – and for someone who has largely remained immune to Ibsen’s charms, the claims that this is one of the dramatic pinnacles of the theatrical canon have always bemused me somewhat. Unwin’s detailed period production laboured heavily under its respectful approach that ended up almost dull in its restraint but Richard Eyre’s interpretation, which he has adapted and directed himself for the Almeida, is fresh and raw and as appallingly exciting as this play could ever hope to be.

Lesley Manville has rarely been better than as Helene Alving here, a woman caught up in the cocoon of protective lies she has told to protect her son from the knowledge that his father was a philandering ne’er-do-well who carried the pox, to protect her family’s reputation from the moralistic gaze of a fiercely hypocritical society, to protect herself from the inherent misery of the life that society has deemed appropriate for her. The minute that cocoon starts to unravel, so too does Manville, coils of hair break free from her coiffure and tightly bottled emotions start to spill forth. It’s a freedom of sorts with an exhilarating compulsive energy but it spirals out of her control, as she realises she can’t escape anything from the past, it is utterly heartbreaking.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Review: Override, Watford Palace Theatre

“A bit of augmentation does not make you a flipping robot”


Stacey Gregg’s Override is the only one of the plays in Watford Palace’s Ideal World season, designed to question the impact of the rise of technology on humanity, to venture into the realms of what could be loosely described as sci-fi. Mark and Violet live in a near-future world where ‘augmentation’ is the norm to eradicate human disabilities and imperfections but when she discovers she is pregnant, they opt out of this society and move to a rural backwater in order to have a completely natural birth free from interference.

But in a world where this has become commonplace, it isn’t so easy to fully disconnect and when Violet reveals that she underwent a procedure as a child, the couple are forced to confront what it really means to step off the grid. Gregg explores this with pressing and pertinent questions – what does it mean to be normal? can one be augmented and yet still possess a true sense of self? what level of intervention is acceptable, especially in cases of disability? And pleasingly she doesn’t provide easy answers either.


Review: Virgin, Watford Palace Theatre

“We’ll just wait 5 minutes for the email to send”

EV Crowe’s latest play Virgin comes to us under the auspices of Watford Palace’s Ideal World season, exploring the way that the digital revolution has impacted on human relationships, but it crowbars so much into its 80 minutes that the brief ends up feeling a little constrictive. Working mother Emily toils away in local government and is determined that a project to bring high-speed broadband to her rural village will be the springboard to get her out of the admin office. But with a younger, web-savvy generation snapping at her heels, she is forced to confront the limitations of her own bandwidth.

Laura Elphinstone imbues the spiky Emily with a remarkably conflicted complexity – her ambition thwarted by men, her maternal instinct disguised by stress, her warmly hesitant optimism at connecting the village tempered by her treatment of loyal husband Mark, Michael Shelford adorable in a range of chunky knits. And she is contrasted well by Rosie Wyatt as cuckoo-in-the-nest Sally, the consultant who comes to stay in their home whilst helping out on the project and the embodiment of a tech-confident but socially-awkward youth, happier online than IRL.

Review: Perfect Match, Watford Palace Theatre

“Oh it’s online? It’s an online thing? You should’ve said…”

Part of Watford Palace Theatre’s Ideal World Season, Gary Owen’s new play Perfect Match looks at the role that the internet has to play in our relationships – whether forming new ones through cast-iron guaranteed dating services or shaking up long-existing partnerships that may or may not have gone stale. Anna and Joe have been together for nine years and Lorna and Aaron six, but when a computer algorithm declares Anna and Aaron to be perfect soulmates, they meet up for a dirty sojourn in Stevenage, declare the connection is indeed real and decide to ditch their other halves and elope to Gretna Green. 

Kelly Hotten’s Anna is a wonderful combination of sweetness and steel – caringly concerned that no-one is too upset but absolutely determined to get her own way. And Tom Berish is often hilarious as the dumbly delicious Aaron, most amusing in his blokish behaviour. But dumping someone else for your perfect match isn’t quite as easy as all that and the pair, in their vastly different ways have to extricate themselves from the lives of the people with whom they have spent years and Joe and Lorna are not about to make it easy for them. Eva Jane Willis’ professional debut is a vivid delight as the brutally blunt Lorna and Ken Nwosu’s Joe quietly captures the sympathetic centre of the story.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Review: Tory Boyz – National Youth Theatre of Great Britain at the Ambassadors Theatre

“The Tory party is the gayest of them all"

The National Youth Theatre originally commissioned James Graham’s Tory Boyz back in 2008 and given its success, they asked him to update the play so it could form part of their West End repertory season. To describe the Conservative Party’s attitudes towards homosexuality is a near impossibility – whilst the Same Sex Marriage Bill was admirably forced through by Cameron’s administration, the debates around it revealed huge rifts, bemoaning the encroachment of the “aggressive homosexual community” and the spectacular ‘activate the lesbian queen’ debacle – yet it has always been a party with gay members. And it is this dichotomy that Graham explores, how the compatibility of homosexuality and Conservatism has evolved over the years and whether, in this day and age, it does or should matter.

Sam (Simon Lennon) is a Tory researcher working in the busy office of an education minister. He’s out to his colleagues but with one eye on a more frontline political position in the near future, he’s more than content to keep it on the QT, much to the chagrin of his fresh-faced Labour opposite number James (Tom Prior) who is trying to coax him into the relationship that they both crave. The discovery that he is working in the same office that Ted Heath started his own career in inspires Sam to research that man and the rumours that swirled around his sexuality – scenes that we see played out in flashback - and in an additional plot, Sam also visits a secondary school to try and engage a disinterested group in politics with a weekly mock-Parliament set up, something which in turn also threatens to lead him to a stronger self-understanding.

Cast of Tory Boyz continued

Review: Prince of Denmark – National Youth Theatre of Great Britain at the Ambassadors Theatre

“How can we know what we’re capable of”

Premiered in 2010, Prince of Denmark is Michael Lesslie’s prequel to Hamlet and coming out of the National Theatre Connections programme, it has a strong teen focus making it an ideal part of the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain’s season at the Ambassadors Theatre. Set some 10 years or so before the events of Shakespeare’s play, Lesslie focuses on the younger inhabitants of Elsinore and imagines how they might have interacted as teenagers, sowing the seeds for what we know is to come.

It is a slight piece, barely an hour long, and director Anthony Banks has wisely decided to augment it with atmospheric sequences – whether the testosterone fuelled swordplay, including some very nifty foot flicks, or the beautiful harmonies of musical interludes, there’s a sense of teenage ennui being batted away at every turn as life in the royal court trundles on. At the heart of it is Hamlet, the prince who thinks he wants to be treated like a normal man, but with the arrival of brother and sister Laertes and Ophelia comes an increased emotional volatility.

Cast of Prince of Denmarl continued

Review: Romeo and Juliet – National Youth Theatre of Great Britain at the Ambassadors Theatre


"Two households, both alike in dignity, In Camden Town, where we lay our scene”

Who better to tell stories of youthful (over-)exuberance than a group of exuberant youths. The National Youth Theatre of Great Britain’s 2013 Autumn season ‘Coming of Age’ continues with a West End residency of three plays, performed in rep at the Ambassadors Theatre. 

First up is Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet which relocates the play to the vibrant but cut-throat world of Camden market in the mid-1980s. In the shadow of long dole queues and the rise of a violent sub-culture, this tale of teenage “star-cross’d lovers” is recast in a new light and indeed a new sound, accompanied by a ska and New Wave-heavy soundtrack, performed live to form a cinematically aural backdrop where needed. It creates a vividly energetic atmosphere and one which charges the production with a fresh vibrancy.  

Cast of Romeo and Juliet continued

Review: Farragut North, Southwark Playhouse

“The question you gotta ask yourself is do you want friends or whether you want to work for the president?”


Beau Willimon may now be better known for his screen work – he was head writer on the Netflix House of Cards and also penned Oscar-nominated film The Ides of March – but he started in the theatre and that film was actually based on a play, Farragut North. Its contemporary Washington machinations are based on his own experiences working on a failed presidential campaign but as with so many takes on modern politics, the shadow of the real thing looms large.


Stephen Bellamy is a highly ambitious political campaigner, working for a major candidate for the Democrat party’s presidential nomination and at the age of 25, already a seasoned old hand of 10 years’ experience. But in the world of spin, people are more concerned about scoring the advantage rather than doing the decent thing and the trust and loyalty that Stephen cared so little for on the way up the greasy pole, bites back with a vengeance on the way down.