Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Short Film Review #40

Diarchy
I was lucky enough to catch Louis Garrel on stage in Paris recently and exploring his film work has been something of a pleasure, he’s an intriguing actor who I definitely haven’t seen enough of. Diarchy (or Diarchia) is a 2010 short by Ferdinando Cito Filomarino. Garrel and Riccardo Scamarcio play Luc and Giano, two friends whose complex relationship is tested when they take shelter in Luc’s family villa during a storm. Their competitiveness comes to fore, along with a delicious hint of homoeroticism, and the whole thing is beautifully shot by Filomarino. 

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Nominations for 2014 Tonys - Best Performance by a Featured Actor/Actress in a Musical

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical

James Monroe Iglehart, Aladdin
Danny Burstein, Cabaret
Nick Cordero, Bullets Over Broadway
Joshua Henry, Violet
Jarrod Spector, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical


Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical

Lena Hall, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Linda Emond, Cabaret
Anika Larsen, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Adriane Lenox, After Midnight
Lauren Worsham, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder


Nominations for 2014 Tonys - Best Performance by a Featured Actor/Actress in a Play

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play

Mark Rylance, Twelfth Night
Reed Birney, Casa Valentina
Paul Chahidi, Twelfth Night
Stephen Fry, Twelfth Night
Brian J Smith, The Glass Menagerie


Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play

Sophie Okonedo, A Raisin in the Sun
Sarah Greene, The Cripple of Inishmaan
Celia Keenan-Bolger, The Glass Menagerie
Anika Noni Rose, A Raisin in the Sun
Mare Winningham, Casa Valentina


Nominations for 2014 Tonys - Best Performance by a Leading Actor/Actress in a Musical

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical

Neil Patrick Harris, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Ramin Karimloo, Les Misérables
Andy Karl, Rocky the Musical
Jefferson Mays, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Bryce Pinkham, Monty Navarro



Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical

Jessie Mueller, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Mary Bridget Davies, A Night with Janis Joplin
Sutton Foster, Violet
Idina Menzel, If/Then
Kelli O'Hara, The Bridges of Madison County


Nominations for 2014 Tonys - Best Performance by a Leading Actor/Actress in a Play

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play

Bryan Cranston, All the Way
Samuel Barnett, Twelfth Night
Chris O'Dowd, Of Mice and Men
Mark Rylance, Richard III
Tony Shalhoub, Act One


Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play

Audra McDonald, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill
Tyne Daly, Mothers and Sons
Cherry Jones, The Glass Menagerie
Estelle Parsons, The Velocity of Autumn
Latanya Richardson-Jackson, A Raisin in the Sun


Sunday, 27 April 2014

Review: Duet for One, Octagon

“I think it is important for you to discover your true feelings about your position at the moment”

If we’re making lists about our favourite plays, I would have to say that Tom Kempinski’s Duet for One would be guaranteed a place in the top ten, if not higher. The Almeida’s 2009 production was exemplary and the touring version from 2012 proved it was no one hit wonder for me so the announcement of Bolton’s Octagon Theatre mounting the show in rep with another Kempinski play – Separation – was too much to resist.

The play is loosely based on Jacqueline Du Pré’s battle with the multiple sclerosis that ended her career as a brilliant cellist and takes the form of a series of therapy sessions between Stephanie Abrahams, a haughty violinist who also has MS and her therapist Dr Feldmann. Kempinski tenderly explores the horrors of the psychological as well as the physical effects of such a debilitating condition, asking of us all what we would do if rendered unable to do what we loved the most.

Review: Separation, Octagon

“I should be locked up and in a way I am”

Tom Kempinski is probably best known for the masterful Duet for One so the choice to perform another of his plays Separation in a mini rep season is an inspired one from director Elizabeth Newman and making Bolton’s Octagon Theatre an interesting place to visit this Spring. Seeing the plays together (there are days when both plays are performed on the same day which I’d recommend) points up interesting similarities, especially as both are intense two-handers around the issue of disability, though this is definitely the little brother of the pair.

Based in part on Kempinski’s own experiences, Separation charts the relationship between a disabled American actress and an agoraphobic English playwright. New Yorker Sarah Wise hasn’t worked for seven years because of a debilitating condition that leaves her walking on crutches at best and playwright Joe Green can barely face the thought of leaving his living room, something which has stunted his creative juices. When she calls him for the rights to perform one of his plays though, a transatlantic connection forms which slowly develops into something life-changing.

CD Review: It's Just The Beginning - The Songs of Charles Miller and Kevin Hammonds

"I'm a girl of few words
And I don't make a fuss 
But there's something I'd like to discuss" 

As with too many good musical theatre writers, transatlantic partnership Charles Miller and Kevin Hammonds may not be the best known, but their work deserves a wider recognition as evidenced on their CD It's Just The Beginning - The Songs of Charles Miller and Kevin Hammonds. British musician Miller and New York lyricist Hammonds have something of an old-fashioned soul, their songs very much part of the long tradition of musical theatre rather than a genre-busting radical new approach and as such, represent an interesting future alongside the Jason Robert Browns of the world. 

To musical theatre CD aficionados, some of this music won't be unfamiliar. When Midnight Strikes was performed at the Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre last year and is well represented here (the emotive 'Never Learned To Type' is probably the highlight, the divine Caroline O'Connor wistfully breaking our hearts with a beautiful vocal. And Julie Atherton's debut album A Girl of Few Words showcased 12 of their songs, two of which are reprised here - the wonderfully striking title track and the powerful duet 'Someone Find Me' with good pal Paul Spicer. 

CD Review: It's Just The Beginning - The Songs of Charles Miller and Kevin Hammonds – cast continued


Saturday, 26 April 2014

Review: Blues in the Night, Hackney Empire

"Oh his jelly roll is so nice and hot
Never fails to hit the spot"

According to the publicity, the New York Post called Blues in the Night “a dark-toned honey of a show” which I guess sounds better, and less potentially contentious, in an American accent. The show at hand was conceived by Sheldon Epps in 1980 and is Blues in the Night, a revue which weaves together music by the likes of Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Ida Cox and many more with the sheerest of narrative threads. It makes for an often thrilling evening but one which I found curiously uneven. 

The set-up for the show sees three female characters – The Lady, The Woman, The Girl – bemoan the troubles in their love lives which all centre on the same guy – The Man. Moving around the Chicago hotel in which they all reside, the gift of these tremendous songs is used to tease open their relationships and the many stages of love they experience with The Man, whilst he also gets to chime in about his experiences, mainly with songs like Duke Ellington and Mack David’s I’m Just A Lucky So-and-So.

Review: Translations, Rose Kingston

“What the hell, it’s only a name. It’s the same isn’t it. Well, isn’t it?”

In something of an anniversary year for them, English Touring Theatre are having themselves quite the 21st birthday. Howard Brenton's Eternal Love has been revived to great effect, Blanche McIntyre's take on Noël Coward looks set to be an exciting highlight of the summer and their production of Brian Friel's Translations, co-produced with the Rose Kingston and Sheffield Theatres, turned out to be an absolute cracker in a month that has already seen a lot of great theatre that is sure to figure heavily on all our year-end lists.

Set in 1833 in a Gaelic-speaking hedge school in Donegal, the lives of those in this quiet rural teaching establishment are set for massive upheaval with the arrival of a British Army platoon who have the job of redrawing territorial boundaries and translating all of the local Gaelic place names into English. Ageing school master Hugh's two sons embody the conflict - the one having stayed on to become an apprentice at the school, the other becoming an interpreter in Dublin and only returning to turn his home from Baile Beag to Ballybeg. 

Saturday afternoon music treats

Lauren Samuels and Tom Milner – The Last Page - another snippet from the forthcoming Water Babies musical

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Review: The Silver Tassie, National Theatre

“There’s no more to be said
For when we are dead
We may understand it all”

Commemorating the start of the First World War has turned into something of a full-time business for the nation’s theatres but in reviving the rarely-seen 1927 Sean O’Casey anti-war piece The Silver Tassie, the National Theatre has hit on something special. The play is structurally extraordinary in the difference of its four acts – a vaudevillian take on an Irish household transforms memorably into the visceral horror of a battlefield haunted by music hall songs, after the interval a hospital-set comedy eventually turns into stark realism, as the shattering effects of war on society are laid bare. Howard Davies’ epic production forges through blood and noise to find a most painful truth.

The cumulative effect may challenge some and is certainly disorientating at times but it also has a form of progression that feels natural, like feeling a way through what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Opening in the Dublin tenement home of the Heegans, the play riffs on Irish stereotypes through the clownish figures of Sylvester and Simon and the neighbourhood archetypes they teasingly mock but soon allows young gun Harry Heegan to take centre stage, boasting the trophy – the Silver Tassie – he and his teammates have won playing soccer, just before they head off to join the British war effort. 

Cast of The Silver Tassie continued

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Review: An Intervention, Watford Palace

“I didn’t - 
I never - 
You would.
‘I would’.’”

Is it ok for one country to intercede in the affairs of another, even with the most liberal of intentions? If your best friend starts dating someone who you think is eminently unsuitable, is the best thing to do to tell them? A Paines Plough co-production, Mike Bartlett’s new play (and boy is he cranking them out) conflates these two questions to look at the varied nature of friendship and how it changes in response to politics, pressures and the passing of time. 

An Intervention is a two-hander, the characters simply named A and B, reflecting the universality of the issues at hand. Here, A is played with real gusto by Rachael Stirling, vibrantly passionate in the things she believes in (the anti-war movement for one) and the right to keep a full drink in her hand. John Hollingworth’s B on the other hand, is much more reserved, pragmatic in his outlook and it is he whose relationship (with the unseen Hannah) changes so much. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

DVD Review: One Chance


“Kind of like the opera of my life”

Next up in the list of films I didn’t think I’d ever watch was Paul Potts’ biopic One Chance. For those not in the know or at least have little knowledge of Britain’s Got Talent, he emerged as the winner of the first series, his backstory as an unremarkable mobile telephone salesman with bad teeth the perfect foil for a rich operatic tenor. And as it turns out, his life was a catalogue of misfortunes, bullying and bad health holding back his dream of becoming a singer – perfect material to make into a film one might think.

Not on this evidence. David Frankel’s film is hamstrung from the outset by the fatal miscasting of James Corden in the leading role. Potts, or at least the version that is presented here, is a shy, retiring type full of crippling vulnerabilities and crucially enlivened through the gift of music but Corden conveys little, if any of this through his performance. He’s not helped by having to mime along to Potts’ own voice but there’s something more fundamentally wrong here, Corden’s cursory attempts at impersonation horribly superficial.

DVD Review: Diana

"He doesn't treat me like a princess”

There was a frisson of excitement in putting on the DVD of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana in the knowledge that we were about to watch something that many had declared ‘so bad it is good’, but even I couldn’t have expected just how true that sentiment would turn out in what has to be one of the most hilariously misjudged films of recent years. One now understands a little better why multi-Oscar nominee Naomi Watts, who takes on the eponymous role, had difficulties on the press tour for the film (though not necessarily why she took on the part in the first place).

Written by Stephen Jeffreys and based on an unofficial biography by Kate Snells, it follows the late Princess of Wales in the last two years of her life and claims that an affair with British-Pakistani surgeon Hasnat Khan blossomed into the real love of her life. But rather than try to tell a story with fleshed-out characters, the film is wedded to a misguided sense of loyalty to Diana, using actual newspaper headlines and speeches as hooks, presumably as a way of trying to stay true to her legacy but falling back on cheesy montages and execrable dialogue for the vast majority of the time as any two-bit biopic has to.


DVD Review: Sunshine on Leith

"If I get drunk, well I know I'm gonna be, I'm gonna be the man who gets drunk next to you”

The idea of a Proclaimers jukebox musical is not one that appealed when I first heard of it and it was hardly on my list of films to see when Stephen Greenhorn’s musical was made into a film by Dexter Fletcher last year. But one of the lead actors George MacKay caught my attention in The Cement Garden a couple of months ago and reading in the programme that he had won awards for his performance, I decided to give it a whirl. 

And as is often the case when expectations are low, I ended up absolutely adoring it. It may be jukebox in form but I’d wager most people – myself included – would be hard pressed to name more than two songs by the bespectacled brothers (who make a neat early cameo) and so there’s a real freshness to the score, a vibrancy that is essentially Scottish but ultimately universal in its celebration of the quirkiness of life and the emotions that govern us all. 

CD Review: Weird and Wonderful

“You seemed uplifted but a little upset”

Alexander S Bermange is a composer and lyricist who has been working away for over a decade without ever really breaking through into the mainstream here in the UK. He had a show – The Route to Happiness - at the new musical theatre writing festival at the Landor last year but he has generally had more success in Germany though his contact list is top rate, as the roll call on his most recent CD Act One certainly attests.

Predating that collection though is 2004’s Weird and Wonderful which again boasts a fine collection of interesting performers – Anna Francolini, John Barr, and Richard Dempsey to name but a few – perhaps not as starry as some, but catnip to a theatre nerd like me. The focus here is on Bermange’s comic writing which gives a weird balance to the CD over its 19 tracks which can get a little bit wearing. 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Review: Home, National Theatre

“You don’t know whether to go out and say something…or…or not”

Returning to the Shed after a successful run last year, Nadia Fall’s Home is a compelling piece of verbatim theatre, stitched together by an exciting company – many of whom have returned from the original cast – who guide us through the changing, complex world of Target East, a refuge for young homeless people in London. The centre may be fictional but the issues and incidents raised here are anything but.

The need for security, a place where they can feel protected, is common to all the residents here, some just passing through, others destined to stay a bit longer and the staff committed to their thankless tasks just as long as the funding holds out. Fall deliberately crashes narratives into each other, the chaos of life for many of these people reflected in the way their stories get told, echoes of similar experiences creeping through just as much as the stark differences.

Review: A Spoonful of Sherman, St James

“Everyone was glad
What a time they had 
They were so happy they came” 

Nostalgia can be a lovely thing to bathe in and when it comes to the music of the Sherman Brothers, there’s an ocean of it. Robert and Richard Sherman can lay claim to being one of the most successful songwriting partnerships ever, taking Hollywood by storm with such iconic soundtracks as Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to name just a few, in a career that has stretched over 60 years, even 90 if one includes their father Al who was a noted songwriter in his own right.

To really make it a family affair, A Spoonful of Sherman is hosted by Robert’s son Robbie who acts as compère throughout, drawing the narrative line from the beginning of the twentieth century right up to the present day as of course, he is a composer himself as well. Sadly, Sherman Junior is probably the weakest link of the evening, the unique insight that he could have brought to bear is largely conspicuous by its absence and he feels ill-suited to the task, one can tell this is not his natural oeuvre.

Saturday afternoon music treats

In this week’s selection, we have Elaine Paige simply giving us life with one of the most amazing routines you will ever see (the arrival of genuine menacing jazz flute at 3.06 is the best bit), a gorgeous snippet from the forthcoming Water Babies musical, a much-needed reminder of why Bernadette Peters is as highly regarded as she is, an excerpt of the launch concert for the Words Shared With Friends album, a (probably illegal) clip from the Broadway version of Damn Yankees which I saw on stage for the first time recently and Jonathan Groff being dreamy. 



Friday, 18 April 2014

Not-a-Review: In the Vale of Health - Japes Too, Hampstead Downstairs

"I don't mind sharing him with you"

And so back to the downstairs theatre at the Hampstead for round two of Simon Gray's In the Vale of Health. For me, this is Japes Too - there apparently being no set order in which to see these four plays - after Michael last week, and though I wish I had something to say about Japes Too, I can't say that I do at this point - it is probably safer to leave it until I've seen at least one more.    

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Short Film Review #39

WOW 2014 – A Day In Detention
Not a short film as such, but utterly essential. The Women of the World Festival took place at the Southbank Centre in early March and A Day In Detention was part of that event. A piece of verbatim theatre pulled together by Nell Leyshon and directed by Jessica Swale, it looks at varying experiences of refugee women in the UK asylum system with an unblinking eye and a near-shocking straightforwardness. The harsh reality of what they are forced to go through, after escaping untold horrors in their own country, is appallingly bleak but there’s a beautiful dignity to the way in which their stories are told, both in the way they have been captured and also in the stunning performances of Juliet Stevenson, Bryony Hannah and an unbearably moving Cush Jumbo.

Review: Archimedes’ Principle, Park Theatre

“You're more ready to believe a parent who has never set foot at the pool and the words of a five-year-old girl..."

Archimedes’ principle posits that “any object, wholly or partially immersed in a fluid, is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object” but Catalan playwright Josep Maria Miró i Coromina’s Archimedes’ Principle, receiving a UK premiere at the Park Theatre, explores what happens when the reciprocal force overwhelms the original. At a local swimming baths, an accusation about one of the coaches is made by a child. Parents are already on edge due to a recent incident at a nearby youth centre and in this day and age of unabating coverage of paedophilia cases and the instantly mobilising forces of social media, the situation rapidly deteriorates into bedlam.

But rather than present us with a play about sexual abuse, Miró explores something much more fascinating about the nature of truth and the way that even the most pernicious of accusations can insinuate their way into rational minds. We get the child’s version of events, we get to hear young coach Brandon’s explanation of what happened, but the playwright doesn’t come down on one side or the other. Instead we jump around in time, playing and replaying scenes which take on different meanings once an alternative position has been expressed. Thus we see how the reaction to even just the merest hint of paedophilia is just as dangerous, if not more, than the thing itself.

Review: Worst Wedding Ever, Salisbury Playhouse

“There was no happier man on the planet than me, the day I learned they’d split The Hobbit into three separate films”

In what is quite the coup for Salisbury Playhouse, Chris Chibnall’s new play Worst Wedding Ever is premiering there, a product of AD Gareth Machin’s determination to promote new writing from local sources. A resident of Dorset, Chibnall held the much of the nation’s collective attention last year in the brilliant Broadchurch which starred the beautiful Dorset coastline alongside its whodunit, and whilst this very much ploughs a different furrow, it proved to be quite engaging.

A comedy through and through, about a young couple keen to have a quiet wedding on the cheap but failing to take into account the determination of their families and in particular her mother, to get involved as much as possible. What makes it work though is the way which Chibnall manages to stretch the remit of comedy here to cover both the outrageously farcical and the touchingly human – there’s a huge emotionality at play here which means the comedy is often most moving.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Review: A Small Family Business, National Theatre

“Everybody else works little fiddles, because that’s what the system is designed for"

Who knows what hold Alan Ayckbourn has over the theatrical establishment but by heavens, it is a strong one. As prolific a playwright as they come, the appetite for his plays is seemingly insatiable with what must be a constant stream of productions – I imagine one would be hard-pressed to find a week where there isn’t at least one of his plays being performed somewhere in the country. But his charms have never really worked on me, it is with a heavy heart that I hear there’s a new Ayckbourn somewhere with a cast I can’t resist (although I did only see one of his plays last year) and this time round, it is all Nigel Lindsay’s fault.

A Small Family Business is a 1987 play that was hailed as a searching examination of how Thatcherite values eroded societal links through the experience of one man realising that the family furniture business he has inherited is rife with corruption. But in 2014 it feels a little neutered, what once might have appeared daring has been nullified by a quarter century of rapacious capitalism and so what is left is the well-trodden farcical shenanigans that Ayckbourn loves so much, accompanied by an attempt at a darker side that sits very awkwardly indeed with the dated comedy.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Review: Birdland, Royal Court

“I literally have enough money to buy anything"

It was Scarlett Johansson wot did it. My over-riding thought as Simon Stephens’ Birdland built to its destructive climax was that the alien for Jonathan Glazer’s recent film Under The Skin had somehow infiltrated affairs. The viscous black liquid that surrounds Ian MacNeil’s set slowly rises to encroach on the ever-twisted world of tortured rockstar Paul, threatening to swallow him in its total embrace, an oblivion the man might truly welcome. But it is just a coincidence, although perhaps rooted in some conceptual similarity, there are no aliens here. Or Hollywood superstars.

Instead, Irish legend-in-the-making Andrew Scott plays a hugely successful musician who is on top of the world and coming to the end of going round the world on a huge tour. Whipped into a constant fervour by the corrosive side of celebrity, his personality has become so warped that he can, and does, demand anything he wants, and by and large gets it. Aside from making him a total f*cktard, especially where his best friend and bandmate’s girlfriend is concerned, it also symptomizes the deeper societal malaise of a corrupted capitalist mindset in all its exploitative ugliness.

CD Review: Words Shared With Friends

"I'm not a man who finds gestures of affection the natural thing to do"

Over the past decade or so, writer and lyricist Robert Gould has worked with a wide range of composers from across the globe and amassed quite the contact list of performer friends, so the progression to recording a collection of his songs feels like a natural one. Words Shared With Friends thus takes in collaborations from the USA to Sweden and Israel, with excerpts from eight different shows and some stand-along songs, and features a roll-call of exciting musical theatre talent including the likes of Laura Pitt-Pulford, Kit Orton, Joe Sterling and Rebecca Trehearn. 

The 16 numbers range from impassioned musical theatre to straight up pop-rock songs and through the diversity, it is the British composers who shine most. Sarah Galbraith and Kit Orton duet gorgeously on ‘I Cannot Lose You’, a newly written song from Orton’s own My Land’s Shore; Joe Sterling breezes through the effortlessly perfect pop of ’Reasons’ from the self-penned Roundabout; and Ben Stott captures the bruised fragility of Ben Messenger’s ‘Here It Comes Again’, a ruefully beautiful ballad of self-reflection and resignation. 

The Americans are well represented too. The breathless romance of Ty Kroll’s ‘The Rainbow Room’ is expertly conveyed by Sarah Galbraith and Dean Heller’s ‘Where Did The Summer Go?’ is gorgeously rendered by Rebecca Trehearn, probably the standout performer on the whole disc with her two exquisite contributions (Christopher J Orton’s ‘Perfect’ being the other). Not everything works quite so well though – Jordan Lee Davies indulges himself a little too much on the opening ‘If I Close My Eyes’, his performance serving his vocal capabilities rather than the material and lyrically, ‘The Blanket of my Love’ never quite recovers from its title despite Pitt-Pulford’s best efforts with duet partner and composer Jonathan Eiø. 

But these are just little niggles in what an accomplished collection and one of the best musical theatre albums of the year so far. In contrast to the singularity of a composer’s vision, it is the collaborative spirit on display here that really shines through. tied together by the silver threads from Gould’s lyrical pen. Whether composers or performers, the breadth of talent showcased here can’t help but put a smile on one’s face and raise hopes for a rich future for new musical theatre writing. 

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Words Shared With Friends CD cast continued



Sunday, 13 April 2014

Review: peddling, HighTide

“If you don’t earn hard 
the wheels on the bus might not go - 
round and round…
round and round…”

From watching the young cast of the Harry Potter films, one would be forgiven for not thinking it would be Dudley Dursley who would emerge with the greatest theatrical kudos but it is indeed Harry Melling who made the most interesting choices, been part of some fascinating productions, and now sees his debut as a playwright with peddling. He is of course a member of the Troughton acting dynasty so his success is perhaps not entirely unsurprising but with this one man show, in which he also stars, he ensures that any reputation is most definitely merited.

The world he has created is London at its seediest. Melling’s nameless 19 year-old ‘Boy’ may wear a London 2012 rucksack but it is dirtied and torn, a reflection of his position in life as a part of a gang of pedlar boys, owned and pimped out by the unscrupulous Bossman to sell any old tat door to door in the city. We meet him as he wakes up to the aftermath of a heavy night, trying to reconstruct what has happened and finding that the only way to do that is to delve as deep as he can into his memory, unearthing harsh realities and difficult truths.

Review: Incognito, HighTide

“Imagine how liberating it would be not to remember who you were”

If you saw the mega-hit that was Nick Payne’s Constellations, then the fragmented structure of his new play Incognito will come as little surprise. Here, he has deconstructed three stories loosely connected around the theme of neurology and woven them back together in a searching meditation on the vital importance memory plays in our lives and also in the construction of our very selves and touching on how little we truly understand about it.

Payne riffs off historical events for two of the three strands – the bizarre theft of Albert Einstein’s brain by the man who performed the autopsy on him, and the pioneering experiences of Henry Maison who underwent experimental brain surgery and thus helped shape the future of neuroscience. Along with extended and embellished versions of both stories is the tale of Martha, a present-day clinical neuropsychologist also caught in a moment of mental fragility.

Review: The Big Meal, HighTide

“Don’t you think I should be wearing underwear for this?”

The major stresses and ongoing strife of family life in all its messiness is at the heart of Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal, the sole US input into the main HighTide programme, which has already played a short run at Bath’s Ustinov theatre. Taking the idea that much of importance happens around the dinner table, LeFranc explores 80 years of a couple’s life through five generations of a family in an ambitiously sprawling framework which sees time following an anything-but-linear path, swathes of dialogue overlapping noisily with each other and a ton of food. And through the cacophony, it does manage to become something rather exhilarating.

It’s a dizzying experience though, and Michael Boyd’s direction manages to somehow embrace the audience into this strange world but keep us discombobulated within it. Sam and Nicole are the couple whose initial meeting in a diner is swiftly followed by the ‘ding’ that indicates passage of time and we see that they’re married with kids and so on and so forth, each ‘ding’ changing something which further complicates the ever-growing family and their troubled dynamic, which essentially boils down to life’s a bitch and then you die, during a silent Last Supper montage. Oh and yes, you will end up like your mother. 

Review: The Girl’s Guide to Saving the World, HighTide

“Do you think – deep down – that all men secretly hate women?”

Elinor Cook was the 2013 winner of the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright and so it is a natural fit that her play The Girl’s Guide to Saving the World should premiere at HighTide this year. Billed as “a frank and funny new play about friendship, feminism and what it means to be successful”, it’s a tale of nearly-30-something angst as Jane, Bella and Toby deal with the difficulties of accepting adulthood and what that means for their lives.

For Bella, it is calming down her chaotic sex life, just a little, and figuring out how to become the writer she wants to be rather than an in-house retail magazine scribe; for Jane and Toby, it is first recognising and then reconciling the huge differences in what they want from their partnership; and Jane’s relationship with longstanding best friend Bella is also under threat as their interests diverge even as they work together to tackle cultural representations of women via the medium of a blog.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

12 reasons to go and see Privacy at the Donmar Warehouse

"Ladies and gentlemen, please leave your mobile phones...on"

James Graham's new play Privacy has just opened at the Donmar Warehouse and I cannot stress how much your viewing pleasure will be increased if you go into the theatre knowing as little as possible about it. So instead of reviewing it, I've taken inspiration from Buzzfeed and opted to go down the route of a list of 12 reasons to go and see it, within which is a gentle homage to the show 

Review: Into the Woods, Théâtre de Châtelet

“Once upon a time…”

Yup, the addiction’s real. Whether collecting Nectar points obsessively to get enough for free Eurostar trips or looking at theatre programmes in Paris, Amsterdam and beyond, the limits I had imposed on myself have been well and truly shattered and amongst other traditions, I now appear to making an annual pilgrimage to Théâtre de Châtelet’s Sondheim production – 2014 seeing Into the Woods making its bow in front of a Parisian crowd after the joys of Sunday... last year.

Lee Blakeley’s production is sumptuously done – a 30 piece orchestra brings Sondheim’s score vibrantly to life under David Charles Abell’s baton, and selecting a cast that is as much as operatic as it is musical theatre lends a certain sense of class, of intelligent musicality that is highly enjoyable. It may miss the playfulness that the Open Air Theatre’s recent production had in spades but the quality here feels on a different level, not in securing Fanny Ardant's voice for the giant. 

Friday, 11 April 2014

Review: A View from the Bridge, Young Vic

"Most of the time we settle for half and I like it better"

And so one of the theatre industry’s best kept secrets is blown wide open – Ivo van Hove is one of the most exciting directors in the world at the moment. I have been near-evangelical about his Dutch-spoken work for a while now (2 of his productions have been shows of the year for me) – booking six hours of Shakespeare here, four hours of Ingmar Bergman there, even going to Amsterdam to see his work with the Toneelgroep Amsterdam company he has so gloriously led for 14 years. So it is a bit of a coup for the Young Vic to secure him for this production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge which sees him work with British actors for the first time.


From the slow rise of its beautiful opening to the excoriating tragedy of a final montage that will live long in the memory, this production simply confirms van Hove as a man whose theatrical vision is just extraordinary. Here, he takes an already magisterial play, strips it of all theatrical fripperies and pretensions, and distils it into a blisteringly acute psychodrama that is just devastatingly precise in its forensic detail. The experience of watching it in akin to taking a deep breath and then being unable to exhale until the very end, its interval-less momentum carrying the audience right through its two hours and it is hard to see how this will be beaten by any other piece of theatre this year.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Review: King Charles III, Almeida

“Like I saw on television when 
I was a younger man, I’m Charles no more 
The human being, but transformed into 
A Spitting Image puppet” 

Fans of Mike Bartlett, and quite frankly if you like theatre then you ought to be one, will be used to the way in which his writing swings from the epic to the intimate, from sprawling ‘big issue’ plays like Earthquakes in London and 13 to the charged intensity of Contractions, Cock and Bull with crackers like Love Love Love inbetween. So it is good news indeed that he is delivering from the both ends of the pendulum this month – Paines Plough have two-hander An Intervention up at the Watford Palace about to open next week and Rupert Goold’s Almeida has the ambitious and adventurous King Charles III.

And it is no exaggeration to use those words. King Charles III takes the form of a future history play, using Shakespearean language and conventions to tell a story of a constitutional crisis that take place in the aftermath of the death of Queen Elizabeth II. It shouldn’t work, and it shouldn’t work this well, but it really does, with an extraordinary confidence of vision. The great unwashed become “the man who travels day by day upon the Clapham omnibus”, x-rated text messages are described as “a token of my love”, the ceremonial role of the Royals thus “a monarchy reduced to smiling dolls, like waitresses in diners themed” – the use of language is a constant delight. 

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Review: In the Vale of Health – Michael, Hampstead Downstairs

“I’ve never had a bad review, at least not in the theatre”

A cycle of four interlinked Simon Gray plays might have seemed a curious enterprise for the Hampstead Theatre but it is one that has paid rich dividends before even a curtain had been raised. The run in the downstairs space sold so well that a transfer upstairs to the main house was quickly announced for In the Vale of Health, four plays which feature the same characters in the same situation but making different decisions – Japes, Japes Too, Michael and Missing Dates.

The play that started it all off is Japes but in the mad rush to get the highly bargainous multi-deal that worked out at a fiver a show, all thoughts of scheduling went out of the window and so I’ll be seeing Japes third and the show that started off my experience was Michael, the one that Gray wrote third in the sequence of exploring the potential worlds of these characters. We were told that the plays could be watched in any order though I can’t help but wonder if seeing Japes first might not have been a better idea. 

Review: Damn Yankees, Brockley Jack


"Take off your coat, don't you know you can't win" 

Though the North Americans may call their baseball championship the World Series, it is safe to say that the charms of this particular sport don’t necessarily span the globe and have never really travelled across the ocean (how could it, in the face of rounders). Which might go some way to explaining why Damn Yankees has never managed quite the same level of success as other 1950s musical comedies in theatres here, not least The Pajama Game, also with songs by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, which is about to transfer into the West End after opening in Chichester last year. 

That said, the story is less about flyball pitchers, squeeze plays and home runs and more about obsessions (sporting or otherwise) and the lengths to which people will go to chase dreams. Indeed, it stands as a modern reinterpretation of the Faust legend as couch potato Joe accepts a devilish deal from the mysterious Mr Applegate to become the young and successful baseball player he once dreamed of being, raising eyebrows across town, from his hard-done-by wife Meg to intrepid reporter Gloria.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Review: The Beautiful Game, Union


“I’m an atheist and an internationalist – I don’t believe in God or country”


Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton’s The Beautiful Game managed a run of just under a year at the turn of the millennium. It was then rewritten and retitled The Boys in the Photograph for a 2009 North American premiere in Canada, and it is that version which now makes its London fringe debut at the Union Theatre, but under the original title of The Beautiful Game. Got it? The endless tinkering of musicals is nothing new – ‘Our Kind of Love’, the best known song in the original was filleted out and repurposed as the title song for Love Never Dies – but the clumsiness with which the ending has been redone here is ridiculously clunky.




Which is a shame, as there is much good work here in Lotte Wakeham’s production. David Shields’ simple design makes clever use of benches and Tim Jackson’s choreography finds a remarkably effective middle ground between soccer and soft shuffle in bringing the football sequences to vibrant life on the limited traverse stage. An appealingly fresh-faced cast, spearheaded by an excellent Niamh Perry, deliver performances of spirited energy and graceful enthusiasm. And musically, MD Benjamin Holder introduces an interesting range of textures to enhance the score and alleviate some of its repetitive longueurs.


Monday, 7 April 2014

Review: Thérèse Raquin, Finborough

“Blood and nerves…blood and nerves”

Rather oddly, I’ve already seen the first half of Craig Adams and Nona Shepphard’s powerful new musical Thérèse Raquin. It was featured as part of the Vibrant play readings festival in 2012 with the promise that the rest of the show would follow swiftly and sure enough, the full production has now materialised in the intimacy of this West London venue (supplemented once again with a drinking venue beneath).

Musically, it is a beautifully rich and pleasingly intricate piece. Adams’ score has near-operatic quality, a denseness of recitative that conjures up worlds of feeling more effectively than traditional song-writing could ever do. It can be challenging at times, especially on first listen, but there’s something exciting about the scope of ambition here, a determination to tread a singular path that bodes well for British musical theatre writing.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Review: Two Into One, Menier Chocolate Factory

“There’s far too much sex in this hotel and I’m not having any of it”

The things I do for Josefina Gabrielle… Whilst I am more than happy to revisit the Chocolate Factory once Gabrielle joins up in the major cast change soon, I had to be dragged to the Menier Chocolate Factory to see her in Ray Cooney’s Two Into One, my natural aversion to farce meaning I was more than happy to give it a miss. But a cheap deal on tickets plus the promise of gin saw me head out on a Sunday and have the slightly depressing inevitability of my preconceptions being proven right.

If we’re to believe scions of our national press, this is “a classic farce” and if we don’t like (or the genre as a whole), we’re “sourpusses…more to be pitied than censured”. Which says it all really. If you’re of a certain generation, as much of this audience was, and brought on a certain style of humour, then Ray Cooney will be right up your street. And a thirty year old political farce which makes no concession for the time past since it was written will more than likely have you chortling down the aisles.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Review: The Kitchen Sink, LAMDA

“I got us some chocolate body paint…we ended up having it on toast”

Just a quickie(ish) for this as a dicky tummy meant I had to leave at the interval but I wanted to make mention of the cast in case any of them end up super-famous. Tom Wells has quickly rocketed up the list of must-see playwrights in recent years, something kickstarted largely by the 2011 success of The Kitchen Sink (although Me As A Penguin was the first time I dipped in the Wells), and so it is little surprise to see drama schools like LAMDA getting in on the act. This production of The Kitchen Sink forms part of their showcase this year and in lieu of new Wells work, a trip down the Talgarth Road was organised.

And whilst I wish I could say I liked it, the first half never really managed to grab me. Stephen Unwin’s production here lacked the vital spark that brought Tamara Harvey’s for the Bush to such vivid life, plodding along a little too much rather than surfing the ripples and waves of everyday living. The subtleties of Wells’ writing and his inimitable voice of extraordinary ordinariness failed to really shine through here – although his observational gifts means there’s many a one-liner that lives in the memory, ripped jeans, couscous, Dolly Parton’s nipples…nothing is safe but crucially, everything feels authentic.

Review: Bomber’s Moon, Park Theatre

“That’s the one thing about getting to this f*cking age, you can get away with anything”

It’s a rare occasion that I can get to the theatre without knowing anything much about the play I’m seeing but somehow, I managed it with Bomber’s Moon which has just opened at the Park Theatre. I knew it had James Bolam and Steve John Shepherd (who will always be Jo from This Life for me, especially as I don’t watch Eastenders) and it involved the Second World War somehow, and that was enough for me. And I’m glad I resisted the temptation to find out more as the element of revelation added hugely to my enjoyment of a beautifully written piece of theatre.

The opening quarter of an hour or so is just hilarious. Cantankerous former RAF gunner Jimmy is raging against the dimming of the light (“If I were a shop, I’d have ‘last few days’ written all over me”) and his new care assistant David is having a grim first day at work (“I tried to spoon porridge in her mouth but she was dead”). Slowly but surely though, a touching relationship develops between the two men which helps to deal with their respective but substantial demons. It is simply done but hugely effective, I was gripped from the off and wiping tears away by the end. 

Radio Review: The Boy At The Back / Chiwawa / Silk: The Clerks’ Room, Jake

"Literature doesn't teach us anything"

Juan Mayorga’s The Boy At The Back turned out to be one of my favourite radio dramas that I’ve listened to this year so far. A canny choice for producer/director Nicolas Jackson as Mayorga is one of Spain’s most highly renowned contemporary writers (which makes me a little sad that this is the first I’ve heard of him) and this play proved to be a most effective psychological drama as a precocious pupil and deluded teacher play out a dangerously voyeuristic pas-de-deux that threatens many people around them.

By comparison, Melissa Murray’s Chiwawa might have felt a little bit tame, but its tale of a self-important author trolling around on the internet, leaving anonymous reviews slagging off his rival’s work and bigging up his own, has a deliciously biting contemporary feel. Michael Bertenshaw’s writer is lots of pompous fun but the real joy comes from Fenella Woolgar as his manipulative wife and current RSC darling Pippa Nixon as the PA she forces to shoulder the blame for the mishaps, with unpredictable consequences.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Re-review: Once the musical, Phoenix

“It’s a complicated thing, this…love”

One of the more pleasing success stories of the West End has been the endurance of Once the musical. Tucked away in the Phoenix Theatre where the huge Crossrail works have limited its footfall somewhat, I feared its subtle charms might get washed away by its brasher neighbours but it is now about to celebrate a year’s worth of performances and is booking through to July 2015. With Arthur Darvill stepping into the shoes of ‘Guy’, a role he has played on Broadway, it seemed as good a time as any to revisit the show which made it into my top 20 shows of the year.

Whereas The Weir explores rural Irish life through the intimacy of an old man’s pub where everyone knows everyone and their business, Once takes place in the comparative bright lights of Dublin, a bar likely somewhere off of Grafton Street with a greater diversity of people. Bankers rub shoulders with burger flippers, gay men alongside Czech immigrants, and all are united by the gift of quietly stirring music and the sharing of stories. From the pre-show onstage bar with its jamming session to the yearning emotion of the climax, this is as gorgeously mellow as a West End musical gets.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Review: I Can't Sing, Palladium

"It's a no, it's a yes, it's a no from me"

One of the most profitable television franchises in the UK, a much-loved comedian writing the book, a £6 million budget…there’s clearly considerable heft behind the latest musical to establish itself in the London Palladium. But the marriage of Harry Hill’s bizarre comic sensibility, Steve Brown’s bright if hollow score and the ITV juggernaut that is the X-Factor makes for uneasy bedfellows, Sean Foley’s garish production eschewing any kind of subtlety for the broadest kind of populist swoop.

It’s a show that constantly wants to have its cake and eat it. Faux-Dermot presenter Liam O’Deary gets a laugh by exasperating at one point “I don’t know why you might be charged” when the phone lines have closed, presumably the response “because they continue to make money for the production company” was mixed in previews. The TV show’s heavy reliance on tear-jerking backstories is a running gag yet nothing dispels the myth that that is the way to get noticed on a talent show. Likewise the qualifications of the panel to be judges of a popular music contest are skewered yet they remain feted as a special brand of celebrity.

Cast of I Can't Sing continued



Cast of I Can't Sing continued



Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Review: Pests, Royal Court

“Alkie, nutnutjob dad, piss, shit, punch, junkie mum, no shoes, lice, black eye, care, fucked, excluded, bullied, foster home, gnaw, prison, gnaw, prison, gnaw, prison”

One of the first things that strikes you about Vivienne Franzmann’s new play Pests is the extraordinary use of language. Much like Eugene O’Neill in plays like Anna Christie, it is written in densely packed dialect – in this case a modern street slang – which looks near-impenetrable on the page but in the hands of such extraordinary performers like Sinéad Matthews (who delivers the line quoted above), it has the currency of real life, an authenticity that speaks from the battered, neglected heart.

Matthews plays Pink, a drug addict who welcomes her heavily pregnant sister Rolly, Ellie Kendrick, into her squat on her release from prison. Whilst inside Rolly has gotten clean and is determined to take advantage of a job opportunity on an ex-offenders scheme in a hotel but Pink just wants to get the party started again, trying to obliterate the painful memories of the care system that treated her much worse than her little sister. And as they pull in different directions, their inextricably complex relationship binds them ever closer.