Monday, 30 June 2014

Review: Great Britain, National Theatre

“That’s what we do, we destroy lives…but it’s on your behalf, because you like to read about it”

It’s not quite Beyoncé releasing her latest album without prior notice but it’s not far off. Richard Bean’s new play for the National was something of an open secret even if its specifics were unknown but still, announcing it with five days’ notice and no previews is a pretty bold move. What Great Britain has going for it though is a right-up-to-the-minute immediacy as Bean responds with speed to the scandals that have engulfed certain sections of the tabloid media in recent times and a court case that may or may not have just reached a verdict…

We’re in a satirical, pseudo-recognisable world – a ratings-hungry red-top (called The Free Press) is owned by a foreign-born media mogul who wants to buy a television station (an Irishman called Paschal O’Leary if you will) and has a fiercely ambitious news editor at its helm (a blonde woman called Paige Britain, she didn’t say she was “vindicated” so I have no idea who she was meant to be…). Manipulating their way to a position of huge influence with both Police and Parliament under their thumb, it seems nothing could go wrong. That is, until a little thing called phone hacking breaks into the national consciousness.

Cast of Great Britain continued

Video cast for Great Britain

Video cast of Great Britain continued

Video cast of Great Britain continued

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Review: Adler & Gibb, Royal Court

“You’ve confused the story
‘I am the story’”

And so once again, theatres lead where critics are not inclined to follow… After the divisiveness of the extraordinary Mr Burns at the Almeida, the Royal Court now turns its hand to something a little different in the form of Tim Crouch’s Adler & Gibb. A(nother) distinctly lukewarm reception from the print critics is hardly surprising but it does feel a shame that there isn’t more of a groundswell of support for the diversity of programming we’re so lucky to have here in London. In a West End where Coward revivals are two a penny and there are actually two Importance of Being Earnests queued up to go into theatres, I for one am grateful that these opportunities are being presented to me. 

A New Jersey art student Louise gives a presentation about Janet Adler, a conceptual artist who retreated from the world with her partner Margaret Gibb and died a mysterious death. Onstage, an older woman is researching and rehearsing a role for a biopic film with a colleague before a location shoot. Around them, two children in headphones are stage-managing the show, incrementally increasing our understanding about just what it is that we’re watching.

Review: Wonderland, Hampstead Theatre

“I’m the son of a son of a son of a collier’s son, the last in a long line”

So this is actually a review of a preview, although it was not intended to be. Beth Steel’s Wonderland was meant to open on Thursday but had to delay it until next week due to “ensure the safety of the cast” which may seem a little dramatic but once you enter the Hampstead Theatre’s main auditorium, it soon becomes clear that this was no idle claim. The theatre has gone into the round again and this time, Ashley Martin Davis’ awe-inspiring design has carved out a 3-storey high pit shaft that operates at three levels. Even the act of walking to your seat (if you’re on the stage) becomes precarious as high-heeled shoes must be removed and if you don’t like heights, I wouldn’t look down…!

In a year that marks the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike, Steel’s play instantly feels well-timed but cleverly, it is not the play you might be expecting. The presence of Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher loom large (how could they not) but the focus lies elsewhere, in the heart of a Nottinghamshire mining community that feels the effects of the strike, and its lingering aftermath, most keenly indeed. We join the play as two lads start their first day down the pit and are initiated into its unique working ways and its all-encompassing camaraderie, right at the moment that the government has decided to take on the miners as part of a schismatic ideological shift in workers’ rights.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Review: Khandan (Family), Royal Court

“Where are they? I can’t be dealing with this Indian timing”

The second Birmingham Rep show to make its bow in London this month (Rachel De-lahay’s Circles being the first), Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Khandan (Family) transferred for a short run at the Royal Court upstairs. Bhatti explores the dynamics of a first-generation Sikh family and their various complex ties to the notion of ‘home’, whether the Punjab to which matriarch Jeeto longs to return after emigrating to Birmingham in 1969 or the England in which her children were born.

Roxana Silbert’s production has much to appreciate in it but not really enough to engage and truly enjoy. The play skates over the domestic travails of all concerned but without ever really digging deep into the characters, they remain little more than ciphers. Rez Kempton’s ambitious Pal clearly loves his wife Liz yet her pain at their childlessness, something which Lauren Crace evokes beautifully, is something he brutally ignores. Oddities like these are scattered throughout, driving the plot at the expense of character credibility.

TV Review: Happy Valley

“Why would he do something like that? We’ve got caravans, we’ve got a games room that caters for people in wheelchairs”

My favourite thing about Happy Valley is actually the association the title has for me and my family – it was the name of the Chinese takeaway opposite my Aunty Jean’s house where we’d often get our Saturday tea. It’s a lovely fond memory that sits rather at odds with the realities of this recent TV series which I finally caught up with and which reunites what looks like becoming one of the best creative partnerships we have in the country – writer Sally Wainwright and actor Sarah Lancashire. Baftas all around I shouldn’t wonder.

The location may be similar to the rather more bucolic Last Tango in Halifax – Happy Valley is set in nearby Hebden Bridge – but we’re in a much grittier world of suburban disillusionment as this police drama takes in kidnap, rape and murder, all underscored by the pervasive influence of a spiralling drugs problem throughout the town. Wainwright being a more sophisticated writer than most though, ensures that her drama takes in the full breadth of the experience, examining the aftermath of the crimes just as much as the deeds themselves.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Cast of Happy Valley continued

Review: The Valley of Astonishment, Young Vic

“How can one forget?”

I’ve often been guilty of saying ‘oh I could listen to her read the telephone book’ about any number of the actresses I love and if you’re a fan of the strange enticing melody of Kathryn Hunter’s voice and fancy listening to her reciting a load of numbers, then you (and me) are in luck. In The Valley of Astonishment she plays Sammy Costas, a woman with synaesthesia – a neurological condition that manifests in sensory confusion – and something of an eidetic memory which proves as much of a blessing as a curse as an attempt to exploit it in a variety show backfires.

And gathered around her are other stories from people with the same condition, snippets from other lives and the ways in which they have invariably learned to cope which are interwoven into the progression of Sammy’s narrative although in all honesty, I felt they added little. Peter Brook’s name inspires a hushed reverence in many but if someone were coming to him for the first time with this production, it is hard to imagine that they would be equally inspired for it is a rather dry treatment of what is an endlessly fascinating subject.

Review: All Creatures Great and Small, Yvonne Arnaud

“It takes the death of an animal to make them see sense”

There’s no doubting that here and now, a television adaptation full of television stars is a safe bet for a theatre tour but whilst one may think better the devil you know, this version of All Creatures Great and Small demonstrates the difficulties in transferring something so beloved onto the stage. Simon Stallworthy based his play on two of James Herriot’s original books – If Only They Could Talk and It Shouldn’t Happen To A Vet - rather than the tv series and though there’s ingenuity in the way it is crafted (without using any livestock on stage…) its flat, episodic nature lacks energy leaving me a deeper shade of blue.

We open with – what else – a cow experiencing difficulties whilst giving birth and inexperienced vet James manages to avert a tragedy with his veterinary skills, ensuring the calf is born with a nice strong heartbeat. From there, we cycle through his arrival in the Yorkshire Dales, being taken under the wing of the idiosyncratic Farnon brothers and meeting 5, 6, 7, 8, any number of gruff farmers whom he has to win over whilst coming to terms with the realities of becoming a practicing vet. And of course it proves to be a summer of love as a chain reaction of events means he meets Helen, his eventual wife-to-be. 

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Review: Carousel, Arcola

“Fresh and alive and gay and young”

It’s kind of hard to avoid the many rave reviews that this Morphic Graffiti revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel has received so it won’t surprise those who know me that I wasn’t quite as blown away by it as were others. I have somehow managed to avoid ever seeing it before and I wonder if that made the difference – a recurring theme seems to be ‘one of the best versions I’ve ever seen’ indicating a deep seated affection for the show (much like Miss Saigon) whereas to fresh ears and eyes, the splendour of the score can’t always paper over the more questionable aspects of the book. 

There’s certainly much to appreciate in Luke Frederick’s production – the reconceptualising of a ‘big’ musical into the boutique space of the Arcola has been excellently done. Lee Proud’s choreography has a great feel for the expressive and exhilarating potential in such intimacy and Andrew Corcoran’s tight band of five create a great musical sound, especially blessed by the unmiked singing which lends a rawness and immediacy that feels entirely appropriate for the venue. I can well imagine it not having sounded quite like this before and therefore exciting those who loved it already.

Review: Songs from the Playground, Union Theatre

“Here’s a little thing I wrote about life”

A little Sunday night treat at the Union was this showcase of new musical theatre writer John Kristian, giving us snippets from a number of his works-in-progress and featuring a cast of performers that pleasingly contained few of the usual suspects. Don’t get me wrong, I love Julie Atherton, I truly do, but it is nice to see someone else get to do the comedy song for once ;-) And there’s a big one here in the form of The Big O with which Catherine Digges had great, knee-trembling fun.

That song came from his revue show Hidden Talents but most of the first act focused on his first musical Vow and an adaptation of the well-known film The Holiday (although it was new to me…). Presented without introduction, it was a solid rather than a spectacular beginning to the evening, a constant flow of context-free new material is hard to fully process though Dan Looney and Bronté Barbé’s awkward teenage party encounter ‘Kiss Me’ was very well done as was Looney’s rapid rattle through ’23 Vows’.

Songs from the Playground cast continued

Short Film Review #42

How To Get Mugged 

At barely 3 minutes long, Cecilia Fage’s How To Get Mugged is a brilliant example of how to do a comic short, focusing hard on getting the concept right and then exploring it without exploiting it. Too often, comedy stretches out a joke far too thinly but there’s no such fear here as two new Hackney residents are accosted by a mugger but react in a far different way to what you might expect. And given that that mugger is played by the luscious Philip McGinley, I know a good few people who would have reacted in yet another way to being accosted by him ;-)

Monday, 23 June 2014

Review: Idomeneus, Gate Theatre

“All could be well. Everything could be difficult.”

There’s a wonderful synchronicity in the arrival of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Idomeneus at the Gate Theatre at the same time that the divisive Mr Burns is in residence at the Almeida, both plays toy wonderfully with ideas of cultural narrative and how stories get passed down through the generations. And it is tempting to think that had this opened first – with its reference point being classicist-friendly Greek tragedy as opposed to the apparently alienating The Simpsons – the response to that latter play might have been a little different with the larger theme already established in the mind.

Who knows though and in some respects, who cares. It really feels like there’s a current vein of theatre that is striking out on its own – it may leave critics scurrying away at intervals or declaring their worst nights ever but by the same token, one might argue that that is how these theatremakers feel whilst sitting through the latest lauded revival of a Noël Coward play (I may or may not have borrowed this idea from someone… ;-)). But at the Almeida, the Royal Court and now the Gate, you can find theatre that really is unafraid to be different – it’s not to say that it is automatically good but even the mere act of stretching what we know as theatre in the UK feels important.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Review: Klook’s Last Stand, Park Theatre

“His smile’s like the sun 
I’m the bullet, he’s the gun” 

Continuing programming that is eclectic to say the least, the Park Theatre continues to bamboozle audiences since opening last year and at the moment, has a couple of productions that are on the good side. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is doing great work in the larger space and Ché Walker’s Klook's Last Stand brings an interesting slice of musical theatre to Finsbury Park, albeit one which is hamstrung by desperately predictable plotting. 

Klook probably sits more in the play with songs category for Anoushka Lucas and Omar Lyefook’s score - performed brilliantly by Rio Kai throughout - is like the lifeblood of the piece, a blues-influenced jamming session that takes in poetry and spoken word as Ako Mitchell and Sheila Atim deliver knockout performances. Mitchell’s Klook is a reinvigorated ex-con and Atim’s younger Vinette a runaway would-be writer and the depiction of their new relationship and its intensity is just excellent. 

Review: Quietly, Soho Theatre

“Everything inside was blown outside”

Something of a shame as this was the final performance of Owen McCafferty’s Quietly at the Soho Theatre and it turned out to be quite the doozy. A £5 ticket deal sweetened the deal and in a neat twist, a game of international football started just as one in the play did (although it was Belgium vs Russia, as opposed to the Northern Ireland v Poland game of the script). In that Belfast bar, Jimmy is shooting the breeze with Polish barman Robert - the playwright capturing excellently a natural flow of dialogue which continues throughout the whole play - ruminating over what trouble there’ll be on the street if the result doesn’t go the right way.

But Jimmy has bigger things on his mind as is clear when another man, Ian, enters and he headbutts him to the ground. Thus the scene is set for the slow unfolding of the tangled history between the pair, on opposite sides of the religious divide but yet connected in the deepest of ways and McCafferty brilliantly uncoils his plot with a great subtlety. The ‘quietly’ of the title should not be underestimated as after that initial outburst of violence, the physical aspect is then quietened as an eerie stillness descends on the pub as a process of truth and reconciliation is attempted to acknowledge the devastating events of the past.

Review: East of Berlin, Southwark Playhouse

“You’ll like this part…”

In a year full of military commemorations, the Southwark Playhouse once again turns its focus onto the aftermath of war but where the extraordinary Johnny Got His Gun asked us to consider ‘what next’ for the soldiers once they stopped fighting, Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s East of Berlin looks at the impact on the next generation, the children of those directly involved in the Second World War.

Specifically, Rudi is the son of an SS doctor at Auschwitz, a Nazi war criminal now in hiding in Paraguay with his family, who have kept Rudi in the dark about his father’s past which he only discovers as a teenager. Upon this revelation, he flees back to Berlin and builds himself an anonymous new life but the weight of the past and the huge questions of guilt and responsibility hang heavily over him, especially once he finds love with an American Jewish woman. 

CD Review: Where The Sky Ends –The Songs of Michael Mott

"So I dare to dream"

Where The Sky Ends is the debut album from US composer and lyricist Michael Mott which makes for one of the better songbook collections that have been released this year. 11 original songs (and a brief interlude) are featured here which have been selected from shows he has written like Faustus and Mob Wife and also from his back catalogue of standalone songs which cover a wide range of styles. And as ever, a fascinating group of performers have been gathered to give voice to this music. 

What shines through in this collection, especially in the first half, is the sheer diversity of Mott’s writing. The chart-friendly pop of Justin Guarini’s ‘Just Like Me’ switches into Zachary Levi’s ‘The Left Side of the Moon’ which could easily pass as a Rat Pack standard; the slinky supperclub vibe of Sierra Boggess’ ‘The Devil’ with its fantastic brass accompaniment flips into the Donna Summer-esque Don’t Stop Dancin’ which recalls nothing so much as the soundtrack to an 80s gay bar!

CD Review: Nice Fighting You: A 30th Anniversary Celebration Live at 54 BELOW

"Years of dreams just can't be wrong" 

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty have enjoyed a prolific writing career stretching over three decades and in celebration of their 30 year working relationship, held a series of concerts at 54 Below which have now been immortalised on their double CD Nice Fighting You: A 30th Anniversary Celebration Live at 54 BELOW. The collection looks back at the past, to shows like Ragtime and Seussical but also keeps an eye on the present – their Rocky the Musical is currently playing on Broadway – and the future with forthcoming show Little Dancer being showcased.

With so much material to choose from both in terms of an extensive back catalogue and multiple concert performances thereof, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ahrens and Flaherty opted for the double CD format which allows them to feature well over 30 of their songs, sung by a great array of talented artists. But it also means that it becomes quite the hefty beast, am album aimed at fans rather than the casual listener, something emphasised by the inclusion of spoken interludes from the writers and singers introducing their songs. 

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Review: Midsummer Mischief B, The Other Place

Asked to respond to the provocation "well behaved women seldom make history", 4 writers have produced 4 plays, Programme B of the RSC's Midsummer Mischief contains the plays I Can Hear You by EV Crowe and This Is Not An Exit by Abi Zakarian and as with Programme A, I am expressing myself through the medium of Rupaul's Drag Race (gifs courtesy of  Fuck Yeah Drag Race) - mischief indeed.

Once again, the seating. It may well leave you like this.

Review: Midsummer Mischief A, The Other Place

In the spirit of the mischief for which it is named, my coverage of the two Midsummer Mischief programmes which mark the reopening of Stratford's The Other Place will be told through the medium of Rupaul's Drag Race gifs (borrowed with love from here). Now don't fuck it up.

Four playwrights have been asked to respond to the provocation "well behaved women seldom make history" and in the first double bill, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Ant and the Cicada and Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again take on the challenge.

Saturday afternoon music treats

Clive Rowe – Route 66

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Review: Dream of Perfect Sleep, Finborough

“What’s more frightening than death? 

On a day when our Prime Minister declared dementia to be “one of [our] greatest enemies of humanity” as a new push for a cure was launched, it seems apt that the Finborough’s latest play Dream of Perfect Sleep should open. For dementia is just one of the issues that Kevin Kautzman has woven into his family drama as two adult children return to the family home for Christmas to a father suffering from a terminal illness and a mother who is no longer compos menti.

Mary and Gene are an elderly couple whose devoted relationship is being severely tested by their failing health. She suffers from vertigo as well as dementia and so only has a tenuous grip on reality, which makes his condition all the more tragic as he’s her primary carer and even his infinite patience is being tested. So they’ve made a decision and they’ve invited their estranged kids – recovering addict Robert and new-ager Melissa - to share it.

TV Review: A Poet in New York

“I am such a disappointment, to everyone it seems. Of course”

Just a quickie for this as it was far too brilliant a piece of television to let slide without comment. Written by Andrew Davies and directed by Aisling Walsh, the focus is the final few months of Dylan Thomas’ life where his alcohol abuse is putting both his health and career at risk during a trip to New York intended to culminate in a meeting with Stravinsky to discuss a collaboration. Whilst staying in a Chelsea hotel, he delves back into his mind’s eye to revisit key moments of his life to desperately try and find something to cling onto. 

Tom Hollander is sensational as the booze-sodden Thomas, tragically crushed by the addiction he can’t kick but yet so movingly eloquent when reciting his poetry, which Davies makes great use of throughout the screenplay, and remembering the relationships with his ailing father, and with wife (Essie Davis) and child in Wales, which stimulated such great art from him. Phoebe Fox matches him though as assistant and lover Liz, along with Ewen Bremmer as his long-suffering agent, their efforts to keep him afloat almost unbearably poignant as he pushes them away.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Review: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Park Theatre

“There is a new face on the frontier”

Westerns have never been my thing so The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was all brand new information for me. Jethro Compton’s production uses Dorothy M Johnson’s original short story as its primary source material rather than the more famous film and purely by virtue of putting a Western on a stage, possesses something unique as it is a genre that has barely been touched, at least in my memory, by any London theatre. And it is also a surprisingly effective treatment that makes it one of the more atmospheric shows of the year.

Compton errs towards something of a cinematic style – Jonny Sims’ music swoops around the theatre, Robert Vaughan’s voice as a narrator guides us through the story, and Sarah Booth’s single set design contains all the action, told as it is largely in flashback. The plot doesn’t hold too much surprise so I’ll say little about it here but the play is best when it focuses on the love triangle between Oliver Lansley’s lawyer Ransome Foster, Niamh Walsh’s illiterate bar owner Hallie and Paul Albertson’s Barricune who rescued Ransome from a tight spot.

Re-review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Theatre Royal Drury Lane

"Beyond this door, surprises in store"

Third time lucky for me and the great glass elevator! The first time I saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the climactic lift effect wasn’t ready, the second time it broke down before it even really started so if nothing else, it was great to finally get to see the sequence as it was intended. My main reason for revisiting the show though was the cast change, with favourites like Josefina Gabrielle and Richard Dempsey joining the company and Alex Jennings stepping into the role of Willy Wonka, replacing Douglas Hodge. 

And rather unexpectedly, I absolutely loved it. It was a show I had previously liked rather than truly enjoyed but it really seems to have settled into its skin now, subtle alterations helping with the pace (although I am sad to see the animated prologue having been removed) and a generally sharper feel to the whole proceeding. For me though, the best aspect was Jennings’ reinterpretation of Wonka, a completely new take on the character that works brilliantly and feeds into the fabric of David Greig’s book, based on Roald Dahl’s writings of course, in a more instinctive and convincing manner.

Cast of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continued

Cast of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continued

Short Film Review #41

Working Lunge
Tania Emery’s Working Lunge may only be short but it is perfectly formed as two men try to out-do each other in order to win a job from Jacqueline Boatswain’s boss. All I will say is that I love anything that uses Daniel Crossley to his full advantage – give it a whirl!

CD Review: Hood: The Scribe of Sherwood

"But tell me about Robin Hood..."

Spiteful Puppet’s reimagining of the world of Sherwood Forest continues with Hood: The Scribe of Sherwood which brings together two 30 minute stories, The Outlaw’s Tale and The Sheriff’s Tale. Both written by Iain Meadows, there’s a real pleasure in immersing oneself in so familiar a story to find that not everything is quite as it seems, what we’ve heard from the legend is not necessarily the way things are, neatly reflecting the overall conceit here of the arrival of troubadouring storyteller Alan-a-dale.

Both stories hang around Alan’s desire to find out more about the shadowy and elusive figure of notorious outlaw Robin De Loxley. In The Outlaw’s Tale he meets Little John and Will Scarlet and as they take shelter from a storm, he urges them to tell him the truth. But the story that John tells is not one that he is expecting, nor us for that matter, and it does a great job of subverting our expectations and yet still managing to be entertaining. Peter Greenall and Damian Cooper as John and Will are highly charismatic, allowing Billy Miller’s Alan to play a straighter role.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Review: Skylight, Wyndhams

“I’m not going to share my mourning with someone from Wimbledon council
‘We’re under Merton now’”

One of the things that is easy to lose sight of as a reviewer is the sense of value for money (or otherwise) that theatre brings. I’m lucky enough to receive some free tickets, in exchange for a review of course, but I also buy a fair few, especially for the bigger shows where there has to be a real consideration about how much one is going to spend on a ticket. A case in point would be the recent Secret Cinema show around The Grand Budapest Hotel – at over £50 a ticket, it was far from cheap but for me, a first-timer with Secret Cinema, it was one of my experiences of the year thus far.

Which is a roundabout way of leading up to saying that we spent £60+ on our tickets for David Hare’s Skylight at the Wyndhams. The payoff was that we secured front row stalls for the privilege and it turned out to be completely worth it. As the vast majority of the play is made up of a two-hander between its two main stars – here Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan, both long time absent from the UK stage – the intimacy that we were able to feel, including an absolute ton of direct eye-contact from Nighy, made it well worth the outlay in terms of the experience, as well as the play itself. 

Review: Enduring Song, Southwark Playhouse

“Potestne fieri utu nus homo dua orda habeat? Ut pacem cupiat sed tumultum petat?

Bear Trap’s production of Jesse Briton’s Enduring Song is filled with youthful exuberance and a wild sense of energy that rushes through the Southwark Playhouse. It’s an energy that works excellently in some cases – the paciness of the scene changes for example – but frustratingly elsewhere as untrammelled enthusiasm overwhelms narrative clarity. There’s just so much shouting and screaming and running around that the whole experience becomes quite wearing.
Briton’s play is set in 1096 at the time when the First Crusade was just about to be launched and in contrasting the experiences of the knights laying siege to the city of Antioch with those of the women left behind and fighting to keep their farm in Avignon working, the historical parallels throughout time ring clear – every army has to choose exactly what it is they are fighting for and also leaves behind loved ones who must struggle on through, not knowing if they’ll ever be reunited.

Review: Clarence Darrow, Old Vic

“I was fascinated by the idea of the law”

No matter how many good ones I see, I can never really muster that much enthusiasm for monologues – I have to be dragged to see them – which consequently means I am often pleasantly surprised as my expectations aren’t too high. And so it came to pass with Kevin Spacey’s tour-de-force in Clarence Darrow, something of a last hurrah on the stage of the Old Vic whose artistic directorship he is leaving after more than a decade.

David W Rintels’ Clarence Darrow rattles through the life and extraordinary career of the legendary lawyer – he of Inherit The Wind where Spacey took on the same character on this same stage – who took on capital punishment and defeated it in case after case as he shook up the US legal system. The play pulls together snippets from some of his great speeches and biggest wins along with more personal anecdotes to paint a portrait of a mighty fine human being.

Cast of Enduring Song continued

Review: Dealer’s Choice, Royal and Derngate

“There’s nothing wrong with failure, as long as it’s on your own terms”

Combining theatre trips with work meetings has proven more difficult in recent months but I was glad to able to make it up to Northampton to see Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice before it closed, not least for the chance to see Cary Crankson who has been one of the highlights of the Faction’s rep seasons for me. And as the tragi-comic Muggsy who can’t help but be gullible, he’s an endearing delight in what was a highly enjoyable production.

The play is a snapshot of British masculinity in crisis – restaurant owner Stephen runs a poker game every Sunday after closing in which his employees and son regularly participate, their varying addictions to gambling having shaped their lives and their relationships to a point where this could be said to be the highlight of their respective weeks. At this particular game though, slow-building pressures threaten to explode as debts are called in.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Not-a-Review: Tom Well's Just Keep Singing

"There’s this choir in Hull, for gay men. It’s called the Hull Gay Men’s Choir"

As part of his plans to take over the world in #WellsFest2014, Tom Wells is now publishing a story in Attitude magazine. Just Keep Singing is being released in monthly instalments and you can read the first part - Come on Eileen - here

Review: Tonight at 8.30 - Dancing, Richmond Theatre

“But if at last we’re able to smile
We’ll prove it was all worth while”

And what would you know, they saved for the best for last. It wasn't just the end of 10 hours in a theatre that made me happy, I really did prefer this final part of Tonight at 8.30.

Family Portrait, Hands Across The Sea and Shadow Play

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes
Booking until 14th June, then touring to Oxford Playhouse, The Lowry, Cambridge Arts, Theatre Royal Brighton and Hall for Cornwall in Truro
Photo: Mark Douet

Review: Tonight at 8.30 - Dinner, Richmond Theatre

“This can’t last. This misery can’t last….Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness or despair”

Seeing the three parts of Tonight at 8.30 on the same day left me shattered so I am ducking out of full reviews for them and just ranking them in order of preference.

Ways and Means, Fumed Oak, and Still Life
Silver medal for Dinner - Still Life (better known as the inspiration for Brief Encounter) is among the highlights of the whole thing but Fumed Oak is one of the weakest with its gender politics too much of its time.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Booking until 14th June, then touring to Oxford Playhouse, The Lowry, Cambridge Arts, Theatre Royal Brighton and Hall for Cornwall in Truro
Photo: Mark Douet

Review: Tonight at 8.30 - Cocktails, Richmond Theatre

“We're not tight and we're not too bright “

Boxset viewing in now de rigueur in the Netflix age so it is only natural that theatre should follow suit. The 3 James plays at the National can be (and will be) viewed on the same day and so too can the three parts of Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8.30, touring the UK after a run at the Nuffield. Blanche McIntyre’s production for ETT can also be seen in three separate chunks but the impact of the triple bill really helps the 9 plays feed off of each other and highlight the strength of the ensemble (and also pull you through the dips in quality that inevitably come with so much writing from one author).

We Were Dancing, The Astonished Heart and Red Peppers
Probably gets the bronze medal as my least favourite of the three parts.

Running time: 2 hours
Booking until 14th June, then touring to Oxford Playhouse, The Lowry, Cambridge Arts, Theatre Royal Brighton and Hall for Cornwall in Truro
Photo: Mark Douet

Saturday afternoon music treats

Gemma Arterton - Everybody Out (from Made in Dagenham the musical)

Tom Hiddleston – Bear Necessities

Friday, 13 June 2014

Absolutely-not-a-review: Missing Dates, Hampstead

Review: Mr Burns, Almeida

“That’s the cartoon show that they watch”

When did theatre get this exciting again? Love it or hate it, and the critical response that has come in today seems to run the full gamut, Anne Washburn’s simply extraordinary play Mr Burns can lay a bold claim to be just unlike anything else on a London stage at the moment. I was pleased to have avoided finding out much about it in advance, even if one particular surprise was spoiled for me on Twitter, coming to something so fresh is a rarity these days but even had I read the play from cover to cover beforehand, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the experience of watching Robert Icke’s breath-takingly audacious production.

In all honesty, it is something that needs to be experienced to truly get it, I haven’t ‘felt’ a new play this much in ages, my reactions ranging from complete and absolute intrigue to slack-jawed amazement to hoots of laughter. Three distinct acts – all 40 minutes long – take us through the aftermath of some unspecified apocalyptic event in North America. Spread over nearly a century, Washburn muses on what the remnants of society’s reaction would be, what might survivors cling onto when hope is all but gone, what coping mechanisms would be developed to either distract from the horrors that have gone before or the uncertainty that lies ahead.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Review: The 21st Century Merchant of Venice, Drayton Arms

“But since I’m a bitch, beware my fangs”

Any production of The Merchant of Venice has to contend with the difficulties inherent in Shakespeare’s play with its virulent anti-Semitism and so adaptors sometimes take radical steps to try and make it more palatable for modern audiences or to at least locate it in a more acceptable dramatic framework. Carol Allen’s adaptation of the piece for McFarland Ray Productions singularly fails on both counts though, a brutally misconceived interpretation which is frequently baffling in its intent and bewildering in its execution.

In this version, Shylock becomes Sara Sherman, Antonio is a closeted practising Muslim, Portia hails from an Indian-born family and Antonio’s various followers are a melting pot of ethnicities and sexualities. So far so multicultural, but it just makes the intolerance shown towards Sara that much more inexplicable and combined with the fact she’s now a woman, the shadow of misogyny hangs horribly over the whole production (the text is liberally sprinkled with references to that ‘bitch’) – quite why this version of Venice is so schizophrenically unforgiving is unclear.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Review: No Barriers with Barriers, Rowans Bowling Alley

“You’re worried about the shoes? Just think about the balls…”

There can’t be too many theatrical experiences that take place in a working bowling alley but over at Rowan’s Bowling Alley in Finsbury Park, that is exactly what you’ll find in No Barriers With Barriers. The real life No Barriers With Barriers bowling club was set up by Peter Faventi and Ray Downing to create the most inclusive environment possible for a bowling team (all ages allowed, and they play with the bumpers up, hence the name!) and their experiences led them to develop something that would combine their two loves of theatre and bowling.

And what a ‘something’ that is. Devised theatre can often feel like a collection of disparate pieces barely held together but here, the central thread of the 54th edition of the Rowans’ Championship Cup provides an engaging framework from start to finish, seeing three teams competing over a full game of 10 frames. And in amongst the bowling, we get to explore some of the stories of the players – their lives, their loves, their backgrounds, their aspirations and as if that wasn’t enough, at any moment we’re subject to a pop quiz on some aspect or other of bowling.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

A night of blog-gin(g)

There aren’t many things I love as much as theatre, but gin is certainly one of them and so the invitation to a soirée that promised gin tasting and cocktail making – on a night when I had nothing booked – was pretty much a gimme. Organised by the delectably dressed Rebecca Felgate from Official Theatre, the evening promised gin and mingling (gingling if you will) with a wide range of theatre bloggers with the intention of trying to start to build something of a community around our shared interest. Of theatre that is, although if anyone wants to start a gin network, I am there.
Our cocktail cabinet for the evening
Split into teams, the gin part of the event was run by a lovely chap from Martin Miller’s gin who let us taste his wares and sniff his pots, of aromatics and flavourings that go in their gin. And then we got to enter a gin-based cocktail making competition which was lots of fun, even if we didn’t manage to win the magnum of gin(!), and where we were significantly out-punned by some brilliantly named drinks - The curious gincident of the blog in the nighttime, Let the right one gin, The ginterval – although I’ll maintain that our strawberry/gin/poppy liqueur combo tasted nicer!
The Strawberry Swing

Monday, 9 June 2014

Review: Lear, Union

“She’s there, and she is yours”

What if King Lear were a woman? One of the most fascinating aspects of Phil WIllmott’s version of Lear for the Union Theatre is the collection of responses, collated here in the programme, he received when posting this question on Facebook. It lays bare much about our theatrical culture and it speaks volumes that it has taken a fringe venue to make the move of making Lear a queen. Here Ursula Mohan steps into this most iconic of Shakespearean roles, in what proves to be a fascinating piece of theatre. 

An ambivalence of tone in the opening section suggests any number of interpretations might be at play in this modern day adaptation – manila folders suggest the division of a business empire rather than a kingdom, the fool’s green scrubs and readiness with a bottle of pills hints at institutionalisation, only the ever-present handbag feels like a determined (if cheeky) nod to regality. And this ambiguity gains real strength in the madness on the heath with its people sleeping rough under cardboard, shopping trollies full of junk being pushed around – the production feels powerful in this non-specific but definitely contemporary milieu.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Review: Desdemona – A Play About A Handkerchief, Park

“I want to be a free woman”

Just a quickie as this was the final night of the run. Paula Vogel’s play requires an innate understanding of Shakespeare’s Othello as it takes a behind-the-scenes look at what might have passed between the three women of the play when the gaze falls away from them. The titular Desdemona, her ladies’ maid Emilia and the working girl Bianca work through home concerns, matters of the heart and of course, that pesky handkerchief that proves so vital in the original play, and it is all rather surprisingly entertaining.

Much of this is due to the expectation shift that comes from the characterisation here. Alice Bailey Johnson’s Desdemona is a spoilt little rich girl, obsessed with sex and so finding Ursula Early’s Bianca the perfect little plaything to facilitate her explorings and suggesting what might have aroused Othello’s suspicions so. And Ingrid Lacey’s Emilia, the wife of the nefarious Iago lest we forget, is a deeply compassionate and put-upon third wheel, which in turn goes some way to explaining her own actions.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Review: Circles, Tricycle

“If you’re just circling and I’m trekking all the way to Bourneville, we can just chill innit”
Split between the top deck of the Number 11 bus and the front room of a regular terrace house, Rachel De-lahay’s Circles comes to the Tricycle after a well-received run at the Birmingham Rep Theatre. Tightly coiled into 70 minutes and two interlocking narratives, it is a fierce shot in the arm that reminds us just how easily people get sucked into cycles of violence and how incredibly difficult it can be to break out of them.

Until recently, the number 11 bus service in Birmingham was the longest in Europe and to do a full circuit at just under two and a half hours was considered a rite of passage. 15 year old Demi uses it as an escape from the drudgery of her home life but a meeting with equally teenaged Malachi – his cocky swagger barely hiding his true marshmallow self – offers something different from the same routine. But for all the sweet romance that seems to build up as a connection of sorts is formed between the pair, is it all as innocuous as it seems?

Re-review: In The Heights, Southwark Playhouse

“Since when are Latin people scared of heat?”

I can't remember the exact moment when I knew I would book to see In The Heights again but it would definitely be somewhere in the first 10 minutes of watching it the first time. There was a certain amount of expectation resting on the shoulders of this production - the show was brand new to me but it was impossible to ignore the excitement of those were previously familiar with it - and so I had a little trepidatious fear that I might be swimming against the tide with this one. But I could not have been more wrong - as my original review will attest - and so I nabbed a pair of tickets for the final week within minutes of getting home!

There isn't really too much more to say about the show than to commend it for maintaining such a magnificent level of energy throughout its run, it feels as fresh and punchy as it did last time and that is no mean feat with such a physically demanding piece as this. There's a wonderfully teasing note on their website which says sign up here to be kept informed of the future of this production and it would be a well-deserved success for all concerned if a transfer was secured. I really hope they find a space suitable though, as whilst many may cry 'it should be in the West End', so much of its unique joy comes from the intimacy of this studio configuration.  

Saturday afternoon music treats

Charlotte Wakefield – Quiet (from Matilda)

Cast of In the Heights continued

Friday, 6 June 2014

Review: All My Sons, Open Air Theatre

“This thing – this thing is not over yet….”

Ivo van Hove’s revelatory approach to Arthur Miller’s work has set the bar almost impossibly high for other directors and so it’s perhaps a little unfortunate that Timothy Sheader is first up with All My Sons, the opening production in this year’s season in the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. It’s not that it’s a bad production, not at all, but rather it just feels a little pedestrian, too traditional to really make the heart beat faster in the way brilliant theatre should, and in the way previous productions have done.

There are elements that work well – the span of the play over a day is perfectly suited to the night that slowly falls over the park, the planes that fly noisily overhead add a piquancy of their own and the well-cast company are excellent. Tom Mannion’s Joe Keller is the patriarch whose collusion in a terrible fraud hangs ominously like a cloud over his family, Charles Aitken and Amy Nuttall are moving as son Chris and his intended (with strings) Ann and Bríd Brennan is fearsomely fantastic as the delusional Kate.

Review: De Profundis, Leicester Square Theatre

“Hang the night with stars so that I may wait abroad in the darkness without stumbling”

It is rather pleasing to see that the winner of a new musical th
eatre prize – inspiringly named the New Musical Project – is something that tests the boundaries of what we conventionally see labelled as musicals and hopefully will inspire others to consider more adventurous work. The winner of the inaugural prize was De Profundis, Paul Dale Vickers’ adaptation of the letter written by Oscar Wilde from his prison cell in Reading jail to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, the man who helped to put him there.

As such, it forms a musical monologue, just shy of an hour as Wilde recounts the state of affairs that has led him here, the hurts inflicted on him by Bosie, Bosie’s father and an unflinchingly moralistic society that has broken up his own family. But he also speaks of the power of love, and with typically philosophical élan, even forgiveness as he explores the more spiritual dimension of the punishment he has been forced to endure. It would certainly help to know a little of the circumstances in advance but this is powerful material regardless.

And Vickers’ interpretation really is inspired. The flowing elegance of much of the music, performed here by MD Michael Riley, reflects the melancholy mood of much of Wilde’s musings and is frequently hauntingly beautiful. Jagged interludes of anger add texture to the score and avoid any too-long passages of self-indulgence but to be honest, Alastair Brookshaw’s performance is so perfectly conceived that one could listen to his heartfelt contributions for a good deal longer into the night.

Stuart Saint’s production wisely avoids trying to impersonate Wilde, so Brookshaw is liberated to simply sing as a man, any man who has loved and lost, indeed there’s little trace of the Wildean wit for which he is so famous now which only adds to the pathos of the whole piece. The minimal staging focuses us entirely on keenly-felt emotion and with writing this good from Vickers, there’s excellent reward in doing time at Leicester Square.

Running time: 55 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 8th June
Photo: Steve Ullathorne

Listen to one of the songs from the show below