Monday, 29 June 2015

Review: Temple, Donmar Warehouse

"Was it ever our choice to be the parish church of high finance?"

I was surprised at the number of people who didn’t come back after the interval of The Red Lion on Friday night as I was enjoying myself but on reflection, you can see that for all its lyricism (or indeed because of it) Patrick Marber’s writing doesn’t really stretch far beyond the world of football in which it is set. A similar narrowness of vision struck me about Steve Waters’ Temple at the Donmar Warehouse too, its exploration of the place of the church in the modern world does just that without substantially delving beyond that into whether the church should have a place in the modern world – it preaches to the choir somewhat.

A fictionalised account of the October 2011 events that saw the Occupy London camp force what not even the Blitz could manage – the closure of St Paul’s Cathedral. Starting at the end of a fortnight of fraught hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing which saw the doors eventually reopen but the canon resign, Waters places us at the heart the behind-the-scenes soul-searching. This he does through Simon Russell Beale’s dean (his boss) who finds himself thrust unwillingly into the spotlight and having to tread a most careful path through a treacherous landscape – can the church be party to a forced eviction, what leadership can such a venerable institution truly offer, do its duties lie with the City or the citizens?

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Review: One Arm, Southwark Playhouse

“The loss of his arm had apparently dulled his senses”

Tennessee Williams’ One Arm started life in the 1940s as a short story, was turned into a screenplay which remained unproduced in the 1960s and now finds itself adapted into a stage play by Moisés Kaufman, receiving its UK premiere directed by Josh Seymour at the Southwark Playhouse. Champion boxer and serving in the American navy, Ollie Olsen life is turned upside down when he loses his arm in a car accident and turning to prostitution, finds himself sucked into a world of increasing darkness and ending up on death row. From his cell, he reflects on his life and the strange contours of its journey.

Kaufman is perhaps best known for The Laramie Project (which Seymour directed in Leicester in 2012) and elements of that patchwork approach remain here, as this play has snippets from the screenplay quoted directly, including scene transitions and settings, upping the metatheatricality around Ollie’s story. But as it progresses, this device loses prominence amongst an increasing sense of Ollie’s fevered dreamworld taking over, allowing Seymour to bring out more of his own theatrical vision as with the incorporation of John Ross’ movement.

TV Review: No Offence, Channel 4

“Calm, methodical, Sunday fucking best”

There’s no two ways about it, Paul Abbott’s latest TV series has been an absolute triumph. Channel 4’s No Offence has kept me properly gripped over the last eight weeks and I’m delighted that a second series has already been commissioned as its enthralling mixture of comedy drama and police procedural has been irresistible from its opening five minutes with all its squashed-head shenanigans through to its thrilling finale which kept us on tenterhooks right til its final minutes.

Whence such success? A perfect storm of inspired casting and pin-sharp writing from Abbott and his team. Joanna Scanlan’s DI Viv Deering reinvigorates the stereotypical police boss to create a career-best character for Scanlan, her fierce loyalty played straight but her dry one-liners making the most of her comic genius. Elaine Cassidy’s DC Dinah Kowalska, the eager young copper on whom the focus settles most often, Alexandra Roach’s earnest but quick-learning DS Joy Freer completing the leads.

Cast of No Offence continued


Review: The Red Lion, National Theatre

“I was never so loved, nor loved this life so strong”

Patrick Marber’s first new play in over a decade comes after a period of writer’s block, so it is perhaps little surprise that his subject matter in The Red Lion is one that is close to his heart and something with which he is intimately associated. Marber is a director of Lewes FC, currently in the Isthmian League Premier Division, and it is this world of non-league football into which he delves over a considerable 2 hours 20 minutes.

A great play would tease out such sub-themes as the state of modern cross-generational masculinity and what place faith has in such a capitalist world but Marber never really tempers his love for the beautiful game sufficiently to allow this to happen. So instead we get a very good play which lives and breathes football with its nostalgic yearning for the fair play and decency and corruption-free ethos of years gone by (if indeed they ever existed).

Friday, 26 June 2015

Review: Violence and Son, Royal Court

“I’m not like that.
Am I?”

Even now, a week after I saw Gary Owen’s Violence and Son, I still don’t know what to say about it or more importantly, how to say it - it’s a rare thing for a play to stun me into such silence but a magnificent one too. Cai Dyfan’s circular set recalls the similar set-up for Mike Bartlett’s Cock but with its dirty white plastic chairs and drab demeanour, it speaks of something or somewhere more desperate – in this particular case, the isolation of the Welsh valleys but only a fool would say this story and its ramifications, as searchingly highlighted by director Hamish Pirie, are limited to that sole location.

Life is tough enough as a Doctor Who fan but 17-year-old Liam is suffering more than most after his mother’s death has meant to has to move Wales to live with the father who left before he was even born. Rick, whose nickname gives the show its title, claims to have last been sober when he was 14 and rage follows in his every footstep as he thinks nothing of battering everything and everyone around him. And as father and son get to know each other, Owen makes a powerful argument about the appalling toxicity of stereotypical notions of masculinity but also how difficult it is to shake a generational legacy. 

Things come to a head when Liam brings home Jen, a fellow Whovian, and sets about trying to disentangle her from her current relationship with assistance from his dad – the one eager to prove he has a paternal instinct, the other eager to follow. But responsibility and gender relations aren’t a specialist subject in this slice of society, as chillingly explained by Jen and Suze, Rick’s lover, as they recount the sexual harassment they’re subjected to during every single visit down to the local, and the ugly issue of domestic violence soon rears its head in all its messy complexity. 

And it is complex - Owen and Pirie expertly push and pull us from pillar to post, light to dark, acquiescent to appalled as different sides to the story emerge and competing accounts battle for sympathy. Aided by a superb quartet of performances, it is – again – magnificent. Jason Hughes is terrifying and terrifyingly believable as Rick, David Moorst’s spiky, slender Liam is utterly heartbreaking as the boy increasingly willing to do anything for his da, Morfydd Clark’s Jen nails the too-late awareness that all is not what it seems here and Siwan Morris fleshes out the underwritten Suze very well, in all her tragic delusion. 

Turns out I did find something to say after all, who knew. But in all seriousness, I can’t recommend Violence and Son enough – one of the most compelling, thought-provoking plays of the year, whose brutal truths demand wider exposure. 

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval) 
Booking until 11th July 


Review: King John, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!”

One of the terms most overused by reviewers and publicity writers alike is “timely revival” and this production of King John is no different, coinciding with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta as it has processed on a mini-candelit-tour of Temple Church and Holy Sepulchre Church Northampton ahead of this run at the Globe. But Shakespeare dropped the ball here with this play, it is no surprise in the watching that it is one of his lesser-performed works and though James Dacre’s production has its bright spots, it can’t cover all of its inherent weaknesses.

Dacre heavily plays up the religious aspects of the play and whilst you can see the logic for the sacred venues and the atmosphere that the candlelight would have created, it’s less easy to see how it works as well at a sunny matinée in the open air on Bankside. Jonathan Fensom’s design imposes a red cross of a stage into the space and fills it with monks, but religion is only part of the story of John’s travails and weighting the emphasis so heavily here doesn’t seem to make a huge deal of dramatic sense (though I freely admit to not knowing the play at all well).

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Review: The Seagull, Open Air Theatre

“Life in the country is just so bloody boring”

Someone wiser than I pointed out that the only way you could do The Seagull at the Open Air Theatre was to be thoroughly iconoclastic, ruffling those Chekhovian feathers into something brasher, bolder and less contained. And there is no doubting that that is what Torben Betts’ new version and Matthew Dunster’s directorial vision have set out to do here, ramping up the comedic elements (of the first half at least) but sacrificing much of the counterbalancing tragedy that customarily gives the Russian writer’s work its depth. 

There’s some good work here – Janie Dee’s skittish Arkadina is a delight as she vainly tries to cling onto a long-gone girliishness (though impressive barre work!), Lisa Diveney’s Kirsten Stewart-ish Masha is well-realised in all her agonised inaction, and Jon Bausor’s striking design tilts a giant mirror at 45 degrees to the floor to both open up and expose the world of the tortured souls in this country estate. But the prevailing mood is one of something close to glibness, as the frivolity of the updating comes up hard against the traditional period setting. 

Blogged: #StarForADay


The guys at Hotel Direct now have a new theatre hub called Theatre Breaks and they've launched an competition for theatre writers and bloggers to become a #StarForADay by creating a themed day out in London based on a character from a West End show.


After some serious thought, I’ve opted to be Erik, the Phantom himself from Phantom of the Opera


- Since being out and about in broad daylight isn’t really an option for your average Phantom-about-town, I would spend the daytime visiting The London Dungeons as it’s always good to get subterranean and be among familiar faces like my old mate Jack the Ripper.

- You can get hungry mooching about underground though so when it gets to tea-time, I’d head over to a classic French restaurant like Boulestin in St James, where they make old-school food just like Maman used to.

- Then it would be time to go to Her Majesty’s Theatre on Haymarket to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version of certain personal events in Phantom of the Opera. He’s got many of the details wrong but that’s probably for the best…

- And then to wrap up the evening, where else but below ground again! Post-show cocktails will be in order at Cahoots underground bar which is decked out like a London Underground tube station which reminds me of the Métro back in my beloved Paris.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Review: Bend it like Beckham, Phoenix

“Who wants to cook aloo gobi when you can bend a ball like Beckham”

As anyone who has ever been to my parents’ annual Bonfire Night party can attest, a good aloo gobi is nothing to be sniffed at (nor my mum’s lamb saag for that matter) but when you’re a teenager, such things are far from your mind. So it is for Jesminder Bhamra – her older sister has just gotten engaged, her parents are keen for her to keep close to her Punjabi Sikh heritage but all she wants to do is play football in the park. And when she gets spotted by the captain of the local girls’ team, Jess finds herself torn between her family and following her heart’s desire.

Based on Gurinder Chadha’s enormously successful film of the same name, this musical version of Bend It Like Beckham is a ball-bouncing, cross-cultural match-up of a show. Adapted by Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges, the story maintains its vivacious energy as Jess weaves her way through wedding prep and vibrantly staged parties with the extended family whilst tackling the rigours of life with new pal and teammate Jules in the Hounslow Harriers where her footballing prowess is soon spotted by the keen coach Joe, someone else Jules also has her eye on. 

Cast of Bend it like Beckham continued

Cast of Bend it like Beckham

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Review: Sensitive Subjects – The Revlon Girl / Barren, Tristan Bates

“They asked me how I felt. 
How do you answer a question like that?” 

Sensitive Subjects is the title of this double bill of one-act plays which both deal with the traumatic experience of child bereavement in their own ways. Director Maxine Evans and playwright Neil Anthony Docking have deliberately approached the issue this way – The Revlon Girl looks back to the Aberfan disaster of 1966 and looks at how the small mining village community there tried to deal with the loss of over 100 children, and Barren tackles the issue of infertility in a modern day marriage, mourning the children that can never be – and whilst never an easy evening of theatre to watch, it is at times extraordinary.

Just over an hour in length, The Revlon Girl must surely rank as one of the best pieces of new writing in London at the moment. Docking imagines a support group meeting for the bereaved mothers of Aberfan, where 116 children and 28 adults lost their lives when a tip collapsed into the village, where a make-up rep from Revlon has been booked to try and lift their grief-stricken spirits. But there are as many ways to process grief as there are people in the world and this group of four women are no different, from near-catatonic shock to antisocial prickliness, over-compensatory geniality to terse officiousness. 

Monday, 22 June 2015

Review: Luna Gale, Hampstead

“I just want to know that it’s not that I don’t want you to get help, because I do, it’s just that there’s not any help out there”

There’s a moment towards the end of Rebecca Gilman’s 2014 play Luna Gale, directed by Michael Attenborough at the Hampstead, that is just breath-taking. Put-upon social worker Caroline finds herself pressured into praying in her office with a visiting pastor and her religious boss and as the minister lays his hand on her shoulder and offers a deeply seductive account of God’s love, Sharon Small’s deeply conflicted Caroline seems to teeter on the edge of something monumental in an extraordinarily charged moment of drama.

I’d describe it as a shocking moment but that reveals my own prejudices, a distrust of fundamentalist-tinged religion and a sense that such movements prey on easy targets, but in turn that reflects a larger point that Gilman makes in her play. Caroline is dealing with the case of 2 year old Luna Gale, born to teenage meth addicts and though rehousing the child with her grandmother seems the easy option, when she reveals she is deeply religious during a case meeting, Caroline’s instinctive reaction is to roll her eyes and offer a dry remark.

Review: Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Which is the wiser here, Justice or Iniquity?”

You don’t get many Measure for Measures for the pound, in the grand scheme, so Outgoing Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole probably thought he was onto a winner in choosing it to be part of his final summer season and indeed the last play he’ll direct as AD. But these things come in threes and we’ve been blessed with two other major productions – Cheek by Jowl’s Russian-language version shook the rafters of the Barbican earlier this year and Joe Hill-Gibbons promises to do the same at the Young Vic with Romola Garai in the Autumn.

But no matter, we can be assured of diverse interpretations - for the first two at least – and Dromgoole’s version for the Globe does precisely what he does best, unfussily traditional productions blessed with a striking clarity (best evidenced by his superlative 2013 A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Here, we get to see Mariah Gale, one of our finest young Shakespeareans, deliver a stunning account of one of Shakespeare’s more complex female characters in Isabella and we also bear witness to Dominic Rowan ascending to the leading man status (with which he has arguably merely flirted before) as Vincentio.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Review: Iphigenia in Tauris, Rose Bankside

"Noble men would do well to heed women's words"

Iphigenia is dead, long live Iphigenia. At the Almeida's Oresteia, audiences are privy to the a rare dramatisation of the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter according to Aeschylus via Robert Icke but south of the river at the Rose Bankside, we find an alternative Iphigenia who escaped that fate with some divine intervention according to Euripides via Goethe (and also translator Roy Pascal). It makes for a fascinating chance to witness just part of the plurality of responses to Greek tragedies and explore something of their enduring popularity.

Roy Pascal's translation of Goethe's Iphigenie auf Tauris was originally written for the BBC in 1954 but remains a muscular piece of striking poetry, densely packed but piercingly urgent when it needs to be, it is frequently arresting not just in its feminist leanings but also in its yearnings for a peaceful solution to conflict. The role of the Chorus is removed, the gods are relegated to background players, the story thus becomes altogether more humane - a sister's sacrifice, a brother's pain, the capacity for love and forgiveness that we all possess. 

Review: Hidden, Royal Court

“Where are you from?
No, where you from?
Where are you really from?”

Live Lunch is an intermittent series at the Royal Court which acts as a showcase for writers both new and established to delve into under-explored areas of drama. In this instance, a group of playwrights were commissioned to create short plays with British East Asian experiences at the heart of their stories and the result is Hidden, six dramas “exploding myths, questioning types and discovering hidden narratives” of a section of the population who are chronically under-represented in British cultural life. Directed by Lucy Morrison, a company of eight actors gave two lunchtime readings of the programme.

There’s something rather awe-inspiring about the rehearsed reading format. With barely three hours of rehearsal for each piece and scripts in hand, there’s a rawness to the performance level which enhances it somewhat, the occasional stumble over words giving some of the texts a believably natural feel. And seeing the speed with which the actors traverse grand emotions as they flick from play to play is truly admirable, Lourdes Faberes particularly impressing in casting off a tear-soaked character to move swiftly to the studied enigma of the next.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Review: Kings of War, Stadschouwburg Amsterdam

"En, denk je dat je veilig bent? De veiligheid van een rillend lam door wolven omringd?"

It’s instructive to look at how we (the British) look at Shakespeare compared to them (the Europeans), especially with rival treatments of the first tetralogy on the horizon. Whereas Trevor Nunn’s answer to the perceived issues of the Henry VI plays is to return to John Barton and Peter Hall’s adaptation from the 60s which adapted them, alongside Richard III, but still into three full-length plays. And then we have Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Kings of War, in which Ivo van Hove adds Henry V into the mix, and still manages to be done in an evening (albeit 4 and a half hours later…!)

We’ll see how The Wars of the Roses pans out when it hits the Rose, Kingston in the autumn but Kings of War is alive and kicking at the Stadschouwburg in Amsterdam now and for sheer innovative thinking and intelligent reworking, it’s hard to see how returning to the RSC of the 60s will compare in any sense of the word. Liberated from any notion of textual fidelity or theatrical tradition (in terms of how Shakespeare ‘ought’ to be done, I mean), van Hove and his company infuse something genuinely new into the drama, a fierce modernity resulting from this unruly approach.

Cast of Kings of War continued

Review: Sunspots, Hampstead Downstairs

“Am I supposed to take abuse from people who don’t know how to fasten a herring?”

I hadn’t clocked I’d seen one of David Lewis’ plays before – Seven Year Twitch at the Orange Tree back in 2013 – and to be honest, if I had, I might not have gone to see his latest one. His writing is very much in the style of television sitcoms that I don’t watch and so whilst they have a definite appeal for some, his plays don’t instinctively rock my world. And so it was with this trip to the Hampstead’s downstairs theatre to see Sunspots.

Described as an offbeat romantic comedy (with the emphasis on ‘off’), there’s actually as much of a family drama here too as adult siblings are reunited in the family home after their father’s death. Recently out Joe has come back from California, Clare only ever moved a short distance away whilst the youngest, Tom, had already moved back due to crises of employment and passing the time watching attractive neighbour Lola through his dad’s telescope.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Review: Chef, Soho Theatre

"I cook here, create here,
make here be a much of life as I can
because outside of this
I'm not safe
I don't know the way"

Sabrina Mahfouz's Chef may have taken its sweet time to open in London after its award-winning run as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014 but it has been well worth the wait, not least in being able to see Jade Anouka first return to the Donmar to be an integral part of their female Shakespeare ensemble (her Hotspur was a hot spot in an already-incandescently good production). And now it opens at the Soho Theatre as part of their Soho Solo season.

Just for Laughs Theatricals' production, skilfully directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward, is a one-woman show that took its inspiration from workshops with ex-offenders and an interview with the Michelin-starred Ollie Dabbous. Chef's protagonist has had a rollercoaster ride of a life thus far - from salmon farms in the Shetland Islands to getting sucked into inner city gang life, from running her own top-class restaurant to heading the kitchen brigade in the prison where she has been jailed.

Downloadable dramas - Lampedusa and Elegy

“We live with unspeakable losses, and most of us move on"

A bit of a treat for you, with audio adaptations of two recent hard-hitting plays available to download.

Marking Refugee Week and the end of a four year journey for this play, Douglas Rintoul's Elegy can be downloaded both high and lower quality from this very webpage and there's a digital programme and the text available for you as well to make a comprehensive little package. This Transport Theatre production is a devastating piece of documentary theatre, charting the horrendous experiences of gay Iraqi refugees as they were forced to flee their homeland. I saw it back in 2012 and it has stayed with me ever since, I definitely recommend giving this a listen. 

And as something of an accidental companion piece, Lampedusa blew me away at the Soho Theatre back in April this year, hitting a shocking vein of synchronicity as news of boatloads of refugees dying in the Mediterranean suddenly dominated the front pages. HighTide's production of Anders Lustgarten's play will be returning to the Soho at the end of the month but you can listen to an adaptation of it now on the Guardian website or download it as an mp3 and partake of it at your leisure. Again, it is often brutal but remains a powerful piece of theatre that speaks so much to our current time.

Photo: Jonny Birch

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Review: The Motherf**ker in the Hat, National Theatre

"Look let's just go there, to the pie place, and we'll have, like, some pie, and we'll just, like, talk, or not even talk, we'll just eat pie first and be. And after that, we'll talk."

On the National Theatre’s website and nearby publicity, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ show is labelled The Motherf**ker with the Hat; inside the theatre, the accepted verbal version is The Mother with the Hat; I hear rumours that TfL have insisted on The Mother****** with the Hat for their posters (though I’ve yet to see one); and on Twitter, the official hashtag manages the neatly encapsulated #MoFoHat. But dammit, I’ve got to get it out just once at least, the title of this play is The Motherfucker with the Hat. And if that offends you, then seriously don’t book a ticket cos it’s just the tip of the iceberg, know whadda mean!

Premiered on Broadway in 2011 with a cast featuring Chris Rock and Bobby Cannavale, it’s a vibrant slice of Nuyorican life on the rough side and lays its card on the table in its opening seconds. Reformed drug dealer Jackie has just been released from Riker’s Island determined to turn over a new leaf but his beloved “Beautiful Boriqua Taino Mamacita Fuck Me Long Time Princess Fuckin’ Beauty Queen” Veronica is still using and just as they’re about to get on down under the covers, he spots another gentleman’s hat on the table and all hell breaks loose, drawing in Jackie’s cousin Julio, his sponsor Ralph and Ralph’s long-suffering wife Victoria. 

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Review: hang, Royal Court

“You wouldn't have the course for it. You would have the paperwork for it...you wouldn't have the words, the stomach, the imagination for it"

A woman – a mother, a wife, but definitely not a victim. Hell no. Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s enigmatically named Three is a quiet presence at first in debbie tucker green’s self-directed hang. Ushered through the institutionally bland corridors of Jon Bausor’s raised set by two nameless employees (well, they’re called One and Two) of a faceless corporation, she’s there to exact the price of an event past. But as the requisite layers of bureaucracy are peeled back for her decision to be authorised, the cold fury and righteous indignation that has fuelled her for the past couple of years erupts with calculated precision in a stunning performance.

We’re in a near-future environment not too different from our own – surveillance has increased and more and more services have been out-sourced, including the punishment system. tucker green initially gives little away but the writing uncoils in unexpected but engaging ways, information slowly drip-dripping from the half-finished sentences like sweat from a politician’s brow on election night. And the rhythm it establishes is astonishing, making detailed use of active silences to speak volumes about the relationships between the characters, the interplay between Jean-Baptiste and Claire Rushbrook’s officer is particularly deliciously charged.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Review: Oresteia, Almeida

“There isn’t one true version. There isn’t. There isn’t one story — a line of truth that stretches start to end.”

I saw Robert Icke’s extraordinary new version of Oresteia on the same day that I watched episode 9 of series 5 of Game of Thrones [here be spoilers] and gods alive, that was a brutal day of dead children. It was also a day of some sensational acting - Stephen Dillane and Tara Fitzgerald both doing excellent work in the North, and Angus Wright and Lia Williams in blistering form in North London in the first show of the Almeida’s Greeks season which on this evidence, looks set to be a thrilling highlight of the year.

Described as an adaptation by Icke of Aeschylus’ trilogy of plays detailing the fall of the House of Atreus, the reality feels more all-encompassing, a transfiguration of the drama(s) into something genuinely new that really examines the nature of Greek tragedies in light of contemporary theatre. Appropriately, Ivo van Hove was in the audience having spoken on a panel discussion earlier in the day, and it was clear to see that Icke is in part paying homage to the Belgian with influences both specific and more general clear to see in the direction here.

CD Review: Anika Larsen – Sing You To Sleep

“I could offer you a warm embrace"

Currently on maternity leave from Beautiful – The Carole King Story for which she was nominated for a Tony, Anika Larsen’s debut CD is a lovely thing indeed. Described as a collection of “lullabies and other songs I loved singing to the children I cared for”, it’s an album designed to be listened to from start to finish (switch off that shuffle!) as the mood softens and the tempo slows – a nifty tip from a seasoned babysitter which is “better than Benadryl”.

On Broadway, Larsen’s credits have included Rent, Avenue Q and both Xanadu and Zanna Don’t but this is no lazy retread of musical theatre standards. Instead, a diverse collection of pop and easy listening is transformed into something special in MD David Cook’s thoughtful arrangements. It means it’s a more musically intelligent collection than you might initially think and sometimes challenging – ‘Somewhere Out There’, a tribute to lyricist Cynthia Weil who Larsen plays in Beautiful, becomes a noodling free jazz-fest which never quite settles.

Review: A Damsel in Distress, Chichester Festival Theatre



“I'm a poached cake without a piece of toast
Yorkshire pudding without a beef to roast”

It’s no secret at all that I love a good old-fashioned musical but it is hard to feel that we need more of them in the world. PG Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress started life as a novel in 1919, has been adapted on both stage (with Ian Hay) and screen, where it was augmented by a suite of songs by George and Ira Gershwin, and now finds itself as a piece of musical theatre with a new book by Jeremy Sams and Robert Hudson and vibrantly directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford. 

With a cast that contains Richard Dempsey, Isla Blair, Nicholas Farrell, Sally Ann Triplett, plus the requisite Strallen (Summer, in this case), there’s little about which to complain. Yet I find myself grumbling a little, the bar at Chichester has been set so extraordinarily high with their recent successes, that even a very good production can seem a little lacklustre by comparison. And with so many great ‘traditional’ musicals of this form in the canon, do we really need new ones to be constructed? 

Cast of A Damsel in Distress continued


Review: The Rehearsal, Minerva

“Life has a way of sorting things out and leaving them in some sort of order”

Chichester Festival Theatre has a long-standing tradition of staging works by the French writer Jean Anouilh, which is continued by this production of his 1950 play The Rehearsal, but it is not terribly difficult to see why he has fallen out of favour with the vast majority of British theatres. Jeremy Sams, directing his own translation here, has pulled together a lusciously talented cast and a sumptuous set and costume design by William Dudley for the Minerva, but it is all sadly just window-dressing, albeit of a very high quality.

The play is set in 1950s France, in a chateau inhabited by the fabulously wealthy and the fatuously bored. To pass the time, they’re putting on a show – Marivaux’s The Double Inconstancy to be precise – but art is bleeding into life and vice versa. The feckless Count, the instigator of the whole affair, pressgangs their young governess into joining their company and soon finds his head turned by her fresh charms. This is to the consternation of his wife the Countess, who seeks solace in the arms of her own lover, and also of his official mistress Hortensia who sees her shakier position undermined. 

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Review: Time Run, London Fields

“I promise it will be quite the adventure”

As a kid, there were few things I wanted as much as to go on The Krypton Factor (that assault course aside), it seemed the height of sophistication and Gordon Burns was a bundle of avuncular joy. Along with the pesky kids of Knightmare and the more grown-up charms of The Crystal Maze, the early 90s were awash with these challenge-based game shows, so it is little surprise that a range of escape-the-room immersive theatre experiences are available across London.

The first (and it won’t be the last) of these that I have been to - Time Run - is located in an unassuming building just off of London Fields and is designed for groups of 3-5 players, so you can pick your own team. The set-up involves time-travelling scientist Luna Fox who is in dire need of help to save the very fabric of time itself (or something) and requires our assistance in locating a precious artefact. Over the space of an hour, your team will have to…well, I can’t give it away…exercise a whole lot of problem-solving skills, shall we say.

DVD Review: U Be Dead (2009)

“We’ve been getting phone calls, text messages, emails…can’t trace where or who from”

Another drama about online shenanigans, as should be evident from the titular ‘U’, U Be Dead is an ITV television movie from 2009 and written by Gwyneth Hughes. Jan and Debra are in the midst of preparing for a lavish wedding but when they start to receive threatening messages and anonymous phone calls as part of a systematic campaign of harassment, their lives are thrown into complete turmoil. 

It’s all a bit schlocky to be completely honest (but then it is ITV) though there are some strong performances that shine through. Tara Fitzgerald unravels spectacularly as Debra, the target of the most vitriolic aspects of the stalking and clearly far too good for David Morrissey’s rather taciturn psychiatrist/speedboat racer, whose head is easily turned by pert new arrival Bethan played by Lucy Griffith, even in the midst of the crisis.

Cast of U Be Dead continued


DVD Review: uwantme2killhim (2013)


“Everyone is being followed”

A rather successful foray into the world of internet chatrooms, somewhat akin to Enda Walsh’s Chatroom, Mike Walsh’s uwantme2killhim invites descriptors such as darkly compelling and timely as it follows two teenagers sucked into a morass of online deception. Directed by Andrew Douglas, it takes a fairly traditional approach to representing digital communication – they speak as they type, which let’s face it, a lot of us do anyway – but the complications thrown up by their actions are thoroughly modern.

Based loosely on a true story, the film opens with Joanne Froggatt’s fervent Detective Inspector trying to work out why Mark has stabbed John, a schoolmate supposed to be his friend. We then loop back to the beginnings of Mark’s venturing into chatrooms and in particular with his friendship with Rachel, who turns out to John’s older sister. She’s in a witness protection program and has a violent boyfriend but Mark has fallen head over heels and will do anything for her. And ultimately he does do anything for her.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Review: Image of an Unknown Young Woman, Gate

“Is there a cause that I’d die for?”

Taking aim at anyone who tweeted #JesuisCharlie (and plenty more besides), Elinor Cook’s Image of an Unknown Young Woman continues the Gate Theatre’s long-running investigations into how the modern world sees and deals with revolution. The nation torn apart by civil war here is unspecified, just A N Other country with a repressive regime but when footage of a young woman in a yellow dress being shot by police at a demo gets uploaded to the internet, the video quickly goes viral, inciting a new social media phenomenon, and is adopted as the latest cause du jour by all and sundry.

Twitterstorms flare up about the correct level of anguish to show, sales of yellow dresses on ASOS increase, aid charities start pumping the wealthy for donations and the BBC send over a news crew. But as well as exploring how we, a Western audience (quite literally) respond, Cook also delves into the effects on the people still there like the young couple who uploaded the clip and the woman searching for her mother who may have gotten swept up in the mob. Ricocheting between the emotionally explosive and the physically threatening, between ‘us’ and ‘them’, unsettling truths come to light.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Review: The Two Noble Kinsmen, White Bear

“They cannot both enjoy you”

Shakespeare completists should rejoice as Instant Classics are mounting the first major production of The Two Noble Kinsmen in London for over 15 years. Missing from the First Folio and co-credited to the Bard and John Fletcher, it often finds itself omitted from cycles such as the Globe’s Globe to Globe season back in 2012 but Wikipedia assures me it is kosher and given the chronology, it is more than likely that this tragicomedy was indeed Shakespeare’s final work. 

It is often the case that lesser-performed works by playwrights collect dust for a reason and in the case of The Two Noble Kinsmen, it isn’t too hard to see why. Director David Cottis has trimmed it down to a sleek couple of hours and plays it in non-specific modern dress but it remains at its heart something of an oddity, an issue that this production can’t really address, even as it identifies a rich seam of bawdy humour and a brutal sense of sexual frustration.

Film Review: London Road

“Everybody’s very very nervous”

The theatrical production of London Road was a major success for the National Theatre, the opening run first extending in the Cottesloe and then being rewarded with a later transfer to the much larger Olivier – I was first blownaway by its originality and then later comforted by its message in the aftermath of the 2011 riots. So the news that director Rufus Norris was making a film adaptation was received with apprehensive anticipation, could this strikingly experimental piece of theatre possibly work on screen.

Writer Alecky Blythe uses a technique whereby she records interviews with people which are then edited into a play but spoken verbatim by the actors, complete with all the ums and aahs and repetitions of natural speech. And in 2006, she went to Ipswich to interview a community rocked by a series of murders, of five women in total, all sex workers, and set about telling a story not of salacious deaths but of a community learning to cleave together in trying times. Oh, and it’s all set to the most innovative of musical scores by Adam Cork, elevating ordinary speech into something quite extraordinary. 

Cast of London Road continued

Cast of London Road continued

Cast of London Road continued

Cast of London Road continued

Cast of London Road continued

Cast of London Road continued

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Review: Heartbreak Hotel, The Jetty

“Please do not disturb”

I’ve been to a couple of plays in hotels already this year but I haven’t gotten to go through the wardrobe in any of them until Heartbreak Hotel, the latest attempt to develop an immersive theatricality in Greenwich which has ranged from the sublime Hotel Medea to the shocking Venice Preserv'd. Par for the course, The Jetty comes equipped with all the accoutrements to make it a destination venue – rooftop bar, pulled pork stands, riverside views and pumping music, but tasty as the barbeque is (I recommend the squid) it’s the theatre we’re concerned with. 

Zoe Wellman and Sam Curtis-Lindsay’s production follows the conceit of multiple stories happening in multiple hotel rooms at the same time, all connected loosely by a similar theme. The audience gets split into groups and traces a path through the hotel which takes us from sado-masochistic relationships, fanboys, self-help sessions... Over the course of an hour, we take on all different kinds of heartbreak as we traverse the corridors and secret passages of this once-grand British seaside establishment with an increasing sense of weirdness taking over the over-arching narrative. 

Review: Teddy, Southwark Playhouse

“Ready Teddy”

Not quite a musical, more a play with songs; and not quite a play, more free verse. The Southwark Playhouse’s Teddy may defy simple categorisation but it is easy to say that it is one of the more adventurous shows opening in London this week and consequently one of the more exciting. Not only that, get to the theatre 15 minutes early and there’s a pre-show gig from in-house band Johnny Valentine and The Broken Hearts – it’s all kicking off down the Elephant and Castle.

Tristan Bernays’ tale ducks and dives through the Saturday night experiences of Teddy and Josie, teenagers in a 1950s London still bearing the scars of a decade before but one in which an exciting, if dangerous, new scene is emerging. Coming out of a time of real austerity – 14 years on rations – the subculture of Teddy boys and girls spoke of rebellion, liberation and the determination to shake up the social order, all soundtracked by the newly revolutionary music of rock’n’roll.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Review: Now This Is Not The End, Arcola

“Everybody told us to forget about it. Now we’re all dying and everybody wants us to remember”

Eva’s memory is failing, daughter Susan recorded some of her recollections of her youth in Berlin but the cassette has gone missing and her daughter Rosie couldn’t care less, having adopted Berlin as her new home, withdrawing from the very family connection that her mother is trying to preserve. Skittering between London and Berlin and over the course of more than a decade, Rose Lewenstein’s Now This Is Not The End is a slight but serious piece of drama that eloquently explores how we’re moulded by our families, no matter how much emotional or physical distance we try to put between us.

Katie Lewis’ production is strongest when these three women are interacting, demonstrating that even though they’re trying the opposite, they’re carrying so much of their family legacy down from one generation to the next. Brigit Forsyth’s Eva subtly suggesting that her aloofness isn’t just a symptom of the early stages of her condition, Wendy Nottingham’s brittle Susan trying and failing not to repeat the lessons of the past, and Jasmine Blackborow’ spiky Rosie rather achingly looking for a sense of her own identity in a world with no easy answers.

CD Review: Scott Alan - What I Wanna Be When I Grow Up

“Not quite ready to grieve”

I looked at Scott Alan’s live album last week and this week it is the turn of 2010’s What I Wanna Be When I Grow Up. His third album, it follows the similar path of collating songs around a common theme but still showcasing a wide range of musical influences from Alan, and showing off the extent of his address book in calling in some of Broadway’s brightest lights to help him out. It’s a nice collection but one which never really kicks fully into gear for me. 

The relaxed radio-friendly emotion of Laura Osnes’ ‘Easy’ and ‘Warm’ by Zak Resnick & Morgan James and the chirpy, almost girl-group pop of Nikki Renee Daniels’ ‘Love, Love, Love’ show Alan’s undoubted skill with a well-honed melody and capturing contemporary pop sensibilities. His favoured style of writing is clearly stonking empowerment anthems of which there are plenty here – ‘Watch Me Soar’ by Willemijn Verkaik and ‘I Wish’ by Diana DeGarmo probably rank as the two strongest.
  

Thursday, 4 June 2015

(P)review: Bend it like Beckham, Phoenix

“Who wants to cook aloo gobi when you can bend a ball like Beckham”

The musical of Gurinder Chadha's Bend it like Beckham, with music by Howard Goodall and lyrics by Charles Hart, has quite a long preview period - no surprise for a brand new piece of musical theatre - but having been along, I thought I'd jot down some of my thoughts as opposed to writing it up fully - somewhere between a preview and a review to give you a taster of the show. I'd also recommend having a look for tickets now because there are some great bargains to be had in the stalls, seats as cheap as £15 for row E and a barely restricted view.

Balls - for a show about the beautiful game, none of the various ways in which footballs are actually used really quite worked for me. 

Enjoyment - though it may be a bit of a cliché, the cast look like they're having an absolute ball on stage, and their enthusiasm is infectious, especially in the full company numbers, 
Natalie Dew - from the ballpit at Teh Internet is Serious Business to headlining a West End show in less than a year, it's a heady rise for Dew but her gorgeous openness makes her a highly engaging lead.
Dann (Sophie-Louise) - Dagenham's loss is Southall's gain: Dann is easily at home with the show's broadest comic character but still brings forth genuine humour and real emotion in her solo song, which probably the show's prettiest melody. 

Illuminations - there's much to love in Miriam Buether's brightly modern set but it is at its best when it lights up the stage
Time - at 2 hours 50 minutes, I'd say the show is probably a bit too long at the moment so it will be interesting to see if it gets trimmed any more before press night.

Lauren Samuels - another actor I enjoy seeing on stage and again is working a lovely line in earnest determination as Jules, Jess' friend and mentor on the squad
Indian music - the Anglo-Indian blend of the score works well throughout but something special happens when Rekha Sawhney sits down to sing a pre-wedding song, a gorgeous mother's lament that is a spell-binding moment.
Kalidas (Preeya) - it's a shame that Jess' sister Pinky doesn't have a bigger part in the plot as Kalidas is an electric presence whether acting, singing or dancing, an absolute joy to watch
Ealing - where the show is set and a play to which I have never been.

Billy Elliot - more than once I was reminded of this show. When it recalls 'Solidarity', it does so beautifully; but when it reminds you of the Swan Lake montage, it feels like a misjudged moment tbh.
East Africa - I have to confess I was not aware that there was a significant Indian population in East Africa (in the show, Jess' parents moved to London from Nairobi) and reading about their experiences here was certainly eye-opening and made me want to discover more.
Choreography - Aletta Collins' remit here is extraordinarily wide-ranging, covering Indian family parties and weddings to football fields and changing rooms, and it is coming along most impressively. 
Katrina Lindsay - the costume work is lusciously realised by Lindsay, I want that exact same outfit for my engagement party dance routine... ;-)
Howard Goodall - I've long been a big fan of Goodall's music and I'm loving his work here in collaboration with Kuljit Bhamra, the score is recognisably his, full of swirling pre-echoes, recurring motfis and reprises so that by the time the finale comes round, you can hum at least three different sections of it!
Age gap - a curious element of the plot is the putative love story between college student Jess and her coach Joe, the ethics of which are challenged by not a single person.
Mainstream - I really hope that Bend It Like Beckham can breakthrough like the film version did as there's much to enjoy here and indeed celebrate with its cross-cultural, independent spirit. 


Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Cast of Bend it like Beckham continued


Cast of Bend it like Beckham continued


Review: The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s Globe

“I will not hear thee speak; I’ll have my bond”

Following the exceptional Rupert Goold/RSC adaptation which played the Almeida over Christmas, it seemed a brave decision for the Globe to also lead their 2015 season with The Merchant of Venice but Jonathan Munby’s production proves to be just as revelatory, albeit in a completely different way. With Jonathan Pryce making his debut here at this venue, accompanied by his daughter Phoebe no less, it is no surprise that his beautifully realised Shylock is at the heart of the show here but it is also good to see Jessica (played by Pryce junior, natch) also take her turn in the spotlight.

In some ways, this echoes the Al Pacino version, showing us how Jessica is cruelly caught in the middle – torn between duty to her father and her Jewish faith, and the delight that a genuine love match with Ben Lamb’s Christian Lorenzo brings to her life. This conflict is fiercely felt – she argues ferociously in Yiddish with her father but there’s no doubting the haunting anguish of the production’s end, her Hebrew lament powerfully affecting as Shylock faces yet another disgrace as we’re reminded that – even if she has shunned him – it is still a familial bond being sundered here.

Cast of The Merchant of Venice continued


Monday, 1 June 2015

Review: The Clockmaker’s Daughter, Landor

“They try to figure out what makes her tick”

Described as a musical faerytale, Michael Webborn and Daniel Finn’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter aims to create the feeling of a story from the Brothers Grimm but in actual fact, has come up with an astonishingly assured piece of original musical theatre. Set in the fictional Irish town of Spindlewood, the story delves into the myth behind the statue of a young girl in the town square - a tale of grieving inventor Abraham and of Constance, a girl not like the others, and how she touches the lives of the townspeople around her despite their pettiness and prejudices. 

David Shields’ remarkable design work is some of the best the Landor has ever seen, an all-encompassing vision that properly transforms the theatre and transports the audience to a different, magical, place. Cleverly conceived and carefully constructed, its various pieces work…well…like clockwork. And this ambition is matched in the scope of the writing and the score, combining the epic with the intimate, the emotional with the entertaining, the folkloric with the universal in what emerges as a deeply moving tale.

Cast of The Clockmaker's Daughter continued

Review: The Elephant Man, Theatre Royal Haymarket


“Things just come out of my mouth which are true"

Truth be told, I wasn’t intending to go back to The Elephant Man. It was probably my least favourite of the plays I saw on Broadway at New Year (so of course it would be the one to transfer lock, stock and barrel to London) but I won a pair of tickets through my efforts on the Seatplan website and able to take a friend, I decided it was worth the revisit at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. The irony of Americans bringing us a version of Victorian London from the Great White Way aside, little has changed about my opinion in that it really isn’t that grand at all.

That’s not to detract from the now Tony-nominated efforts of Bradley Cooper, who plays the physical condition of Joseph Merrick without make-up or prosthetics but purely through the contortions of his face and body. An early scene where Merrick’s physical attributes are described and Cooper layers them onto his body one by one is expertly done but as the play progresses, it remains an effortful performance that never achieves, or allows for, emotional truth, so focused is the actor on the physicality.

Cast of The Elephant Man continued