Thursday, 31 March 2016

Review: UKIP! The Musical, Waterloo East

"It's nothing to do with race
There's just no bloody space
The NHS is knackered and 
The trains are a disgrace"

After a successful run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last summer, HellBent Theatre's political satire UKIP! The Musical has set up camp at the Waterloo East Theatre for a week of performances. With book, music and lyrics by Huddersfield writer Cath Day and directed by Jessica Williams, the show is almost as much a cabaret revue as an actual musical but even with a broad range of musical styles being covered in this suite of original songs, Day manages the not inconsiderable feat of formulating a number of incredibly catchy numbers.

The book traces the rise of Nigel Farage from a Tory Party member with a keen sense of betrayal at Maastricht to the champion of Britannia herself at the helm of his own party, and then pushes further into a (thankfully) imagined parallel future as he's ultimately forced to reap what he's sown. The tone is always bitingly light though - his main advisors are the Ghost of Britain Past and the Britain Quite Recent (Churchill and Thatcher) and the Machiavellian figure of Godfrey Bloom, he of Bongo Bongo Land infamy, a mis-step vividly reconceptualised here with tongue firmly in cheek.

Short Film Review #63 - The Roof


"That's how it is with Peter"

The Young Vic has released the latest instalment in their intermittent YV Shorts series, filmic responses to the shows they're producing, often attracting some of the more luminary names in their Rolodex. This time, we have The Roof, a comedy in brief by Nigel Williams and directed by Natalie Abrahami. It is neatly conceived and wittily done, though it does feel very much more targeted at theatregoers than the others, full of self-referential in-jokes as it is.

Beginning in the offices of the Young Vic where Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's admin bod passes on the message to David Lan (Artistic Director of the venue, should you not be sure) which gets a little bit lost in translation (with years of admin experience under my belt, this rang particularly true) and results in a mammoth misunderstanding of mixed identities at the very time a noted theatre director is showing up for a book signing, with a phalanx of fans eager for the chance to get close to their hero.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Review: Les Blancs, National

"Do you think the rape of a continent dissolves in cigarette smoke?"

To think that just a couple of weeks ago, I hadn't ever seen a play by Lorraine Hansberry and now I've seen two - the extraordinary A Raisin in the Sun which has now completed its UK tour and this new production of Les Blancs at the National. The sad reality is that there isn't much more to see now, pancreatic cancer taking her life at just 34, but what a startling legacy this writer left of theatre that delves uncompromisingly into issues of race and identity, that remains as pertinent today as it did the mid-twentieth century when she was writing.

Hansberry didn't get to complete Les Blancs before her death and so this final text was adapted by her sometime husband and collaborator Robert Nemiroff and it is directed here by Yaël Farber, making her National Theatre debut after her highly acclaimed 2014 The Crucible for the Old Vic. And people who saw that production will instantly recognise Farber's modus operandi as this show opens in a highly atmospheric manner - a group of matriarchs, led by musical director Joyce Moholoagae, chanting and singing in Xhosa to leave us in no doubt what continent we're on.

Cast of Les Blancs continued

CD Review: American Psycho (London Cast Recording)

“Let's be clear, there's nothing ironic
About our love of Manolo Blahnik”

So in a slightly odd turn of events, as Rupert Goold's American Psycho opens for previews on Broadway, the London Cast Recording of the Almeida's Winter 2013/14 production is finally released. That London run was well-received by me, so much so that I went back (not just to post the pics of one of its nifty ad campaigns) twice and Duncan Sheik's music was a big part of that, very much appealing to the 80s kid in me.

Sheik's score is bathed in a glossy sheen of electronica, predominantly made up of original songs but also featuring covers of some 80s classics - Human League, Tears for Fears, even Phil Collins in radically reharmonised version of 'In The Air Tonight'. And it's the ideal partner for this adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' novel and surprisingly, it holds up really well, even without the vivid visuals (not least of Matt Smith's abs).

Cast of American Psycho (London Cast Recording) continued

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Review: Right Now (À Présent), Bush

“It's exactly like yours, but the other way around"

As any fule kno, purple underwear had its cultural apotheosis in Back to the Future but there's a scene in Catherine-Anne Toupin's Right Now (À Présent) that threatens to wrest that title from Michael J Fox and anoint the delicious Maureen Beattie in his place. But lingerie aside, there's much more in play in this fascinatingly twisty piece of writing from this Québécois playwright, a transfer from Theatre Royal Bath's Ustinov Studio which has already toyed extensively with our perceptions in The Father and The Mother which have also been exported down the M4 in recent months.

Here, it's Alice who has tumbled down the theatrical rabbit-hole into a world of increasing strangeness. Installed in a swanky new apartment with doctor husband Ben, life ought to be swell but there's clearly something awry - their physical intimacy is severely stilted, a child's toy left on the floor provokes the tensest of exchanges, her sleeping patterns are wrecked and he's working all the hours God sends. All the while, a baby's cries haunt the room... So the arrival of orchid-bearing Juliette from across the hallway, along with son François and husband Gilles and their promises of drinks and dinner parties ought to release the pressure valve - after all everybody needs good neighbours.

Monday, 28 March 2016

CD Review: Bend it like Beckham (Original London Cast Album)

“It's a little bit Punjab
And a little bit UK”

It’s been just about a month since Bend it like Beckham heard the final whistle at the Savoy so I thought I’d cast a reviewer’s eye over the Original London Cast Album which was released last year. I’ve long been a fan of Howard Goodall’s work and this score was no exception, hooking me from the first time I saw to the show to the second and the third with its fusion of his own inimitable British style and the Bhangra influences drawn from Gurinder Chadha’s book, aided in authenticity by co-orchestrator Kuljit Bhamra. 

Recorded live in the theatre (although there's minimal sound from the audience until the very end), it sounds a real treat and it really does give the best of both the worlds it represents. Whether individually as in Sophie-Louise Dann's 'There She Goes' or Rekha Sawhney leading the bridal party in the gorgeous Punjab lament 'Heer', or multiculturally as the majority of the music, it is always highly tuneful and musically interesting, highlighting styles of music that are too rarely seen in the West End.

Cast of Bend it like Beckham (Original London Cast Album) continued

Cast of Bend it like Beckham (Original London Cast Album) continued

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Review: Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

"This bodes some strange eruption to our state"

It shouldn't be newsworthy in this day and age but it is impossible to ignore and important to recognise this does mark the first time that a black actor has played the title role in Hamlet at the RSC in the 50+ years since its founding. The task falls to 25-year-old Paapa Essiedu (last seen at the Royal Court but most memorable from the Finborough's Black Jesus) in Simon Godwin's production, which relocates the play to West Africa.

It is an interpretation full of bold choices - opening at Hamlet's Wittenberg graduation ceremony whose celebratory mood is shattered by his father's funeral cortège scything through the stage - and largely successful, underpinned by Essiedu's assuredly capricious performance of impulsive exuberance. This Hamlet is a lover not a fighter, an artist rather than a soldier, youthfully funny but full of a student's swagger rather than lived-in experience.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Review: The Glass Menagerie, Nottingham Playhouse

“But Mother
'Yes?'
I'm crippled"

You might, not unreasonably, think that I’d had my fill of Glass Menageries, having seen three in the space of a month late last year but Tennessee Williams’ memory play is one I enjoy especially and am usually keen to see. And so it was with Giles Croft's production of The Glass Menagerie for Nottingham Playhouse where he is Artistic Director, this play being the one that inspired him to become a director and now 40 years later, he feels ready to tackle for himself. 

Another key factor in my decision was this theatre's participation in the Ramps on the Moon project, helping to mainstream disability arts and culture through programming and increased opportunities, here taking the form of casting wheelchair user Amy Trigg as Laura, the young woman whose physical fragility is matched by her emotional wellbeing, smothered as she is by overbearing mother Amanda and abandoned by brother guilt-ridden Tom.

TV Review: Line of Duty Series 3 Episode 1

“We’re all in this together. Best way”

The first two series of Line of Duty have been an unqualified success for BBC2 and Jed Mercurio and so this third series has definitely been much anticipated chez Clowns, even if I'm not Daniel Mays' biggest fan, he being trailed as the actor to take on the Lennie James/Keeley Hawes role as the Big Bad for this series. I should warn you now that spoilers will abound in this review of the first episode!

First off, I loved it. Resisting the temptation to feckle too much, Mercurio presents a very smart spin on the familiar world of AC-12 and its attempts to snuff out corruption in the police force. This time round, we're left in no doubt as to whether the cop did it, the taut opening sequence sees May's Sergeant Danny Waldron lead his armed response unit on an op which ends with him shooting the suspect in the head three times execution-style and then coercing his colleagues into a cover-up.

TV Review: Line of Duty Series 2

“We underestimated her”

The first series of Line of Duty was well-received by critics and audiences alike, hence a second series of Jed Mercurio’s police show being commissioned. With the centre of the anti-corruption team AC-12’s investigation DCI Gates having reached a conclusion of sorts, their attentions are turned onto Keeley Hawes’ DI Lindsay Denton, the sole survivor of an ambush on a witness protection scheme that leaves three police officers dead. Suspicions are aroused by some suspect decision-making on her part but it’s soon evident that there’s much more to the case, not least in the tendrils that connect it to the past.

Series 1 was very good but Series 2 seriously raises the bar, firstly by engaging in some Spooks-level business in casting the excellent Jessica Raine and well…spoilers, but secondly in getting from Hawes the performance of a lifetime in a masterpiece of a character. Denton is so multi-faceted that she’d beat a hall of mirrors at its own game and from her manipulative use of HR to her way with noisy neighbours to the shocking abuse she suffers in custody to the machinations of her superiors, the slipperiness of this woman is merciless and magisterial in its execution, its inscrutable nature utterly compelling.

Cast of Line of Duty Series 2 continued

TV review: Line of Duty Series 1

"Do you want me to recrime it sir?"

With Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty about to start its third series on BBC2, I thought I’d go back to the first two series as they have to rank as some of the best police dramas out there. Centred on the world of AC-12, an anti-corruption unit charged with investigating suspected police wrongdoing, we’ve been so far blessed with two extraordinary stories, hanging on superb performances from the people under suspicion – Keeley Hawes (whose series we’ll get to next) and Lennie James.

James plays DCI Tony Gates, a decorated officer with an amazing clear-up rate that seems too good to be true, and so when he comes to the attention of AC-12, initially for something completely unrelated, the wheels are set in motion for a fast-degenerating state of affairs. Money laundering, drug running, cover-ups, and gruesome murders intertwine and intersect with Gates at the heart of it all, but his true connections to events always in question, right until the end.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Review: Reason to be Happy, Hampstead

"That’s like practically incest"

Neil LaBute's Reasons to be Happy actually takes the form of a sequel of sorts to his earlier work Reasons to be Pretty, seen at the Almeida in 2011. Reflecting that continuity, director Michael Attenborough returns along with Soutra Gilmour as designer, reprising what looks like the same shipping container and rather oddly, just one of the original quartet of actors. Tom Burke is back as lead character Greg but the luminous lights of Siân Brooke, Kieran Bew and Billie Piper are replaced by Lauren O'Neil, Warren Brown and Robyn Addison.

You don't need to have seen Reasons to be Pretty to see Reasons to be Happy but it certainly helps as the play picks up three years later on as their tangled inter-relationships have reconfigured into a new and different mess. Greg and Steph are no longer together but a spark still remains between them as evidenced by the blazing row that opens the show, as it did in Pretty. But she's married to someone else and he's having it off with her best friend Carly, who is the ex-wife of his best friend Kent who is in turn keen on getting back with the mother of his child.

Re-review: People, Places and Things, Wyndham's

"I want to live vividly"

There's something rather apposite about the rush to label Denise Gough's performance in People, Places and Things as the greatest since Mark Rylance's in Jerusalem, as as heretical as it may be to say it, I was no real fan of the latter. And whilst there is a huge amount to admire in Gough's epic efforts in a behemoth of a role, my reaction to the play on seeing it a second time was magnify what I felt were its flaws, leaving me bemused at the number of 5 star notices and hyperbole-filled writing.

My original review can be found here and in its new home at the Wyndham's, I felt much the same. Duncan Macmillan's writing lapses towards the painfully poetic far too often when trying to engage with the realities of addiction and it still feels baggy, the group scenes linger past their welcome and the repetitiveness goes too far, a fair bit could be cut and nothing lost. But what do I do know? It fascinates me endlessly when I end up outside the zeitgeist this way and interestingly for me, no-one else's reviews have convinced me of what I'm apparently missing. Still, I'd recommend you go along to make up your mind and to see what should be, by any rights, the ascendance of Denise Gough to a well-deserved star status. 

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 18th June

Cast of People, Places and Things continued

Review: Jackie the Musical, Churchill Bromley

“Jackie – a woman of a certain age”

I don’t remember reading my big sister’s copies of Jackie, nor could I say I’ve ever knowingly listened to a David Cassidy or a David Essex song. So I’m perhaps not directly in the target audience for Jackie the Musical, a 70s jukebox show that takes inspiration from the pages of that weekly magazine for teenage girls. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty to be enjoyed by all but rather that this is a very particular kind of nostalgia. 

Janet Dibley’s Jackie is picking through the pieces of her life – in her 50s, about to be divorced, teenage dropout son – when she comes across a stash of paraphernalia from her girlhood in the attic. Old schoolbooks are soon discarded though when she finds some old copies of Jackie (the magazine) and as this is Jackie (the musical), a younger version of Jackie (the woman) manifests itself in her mind, to act as a kind of spirit guide through this time of emotional turbulence as she dips a toe into the world of online dating, aided by sparky best friend Jill, an excellent Lori Haley Fox. 

Cast of Jackie the Musical continued

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Support new musical theatre writing - The Wicker Husband

"She sang a melody of the hope of the springtime"

It's
 not often that you'll find me championing the cause of puppetry on here but in The Wicker Husband, a new folk musical based on an original short story by Ursula Wills-Jones, we just have such a thing. With book and story by Rhys Jennings and music and lyrics by Darren Clark, The Wicker Husband will be an unconventional musical combining puppetry, folk music and dance to weave the tale of an Ugly Girl and her understanding of the cruel world she lives in. It is the story the Outsider, of self-acceptance in a society that tells us what it is to be "Ugly".

And if that sounds like your cup of tea, then you're in luck. As the guys launched an online crowdfunding campaign for further development of the project and as it stands, have reached well over a third of their target. In the cutthroat world of commercial theatre, especially musical theatre, you have to admire the determination of the creative team, bolstered by director/dramaturg Charlotte Westernra, in finding alternative ways to develop their work. The campaign is scheduled to end on 2nd April and it would be fantastic to see them reach their goals so watch the story-so-far video below and then head over to http://bit.ly/wickerhusband to see the range of incentives to help you make your mind up on how much you want to donate!



Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Re-review: Guys and Dolls, Phoenix

"Follow the fold and stray no more"

In the merry-go-round of theatres and shows and transfers and tours, the success of the West End transfer of Chichester Festival Theatre's Guys and Dolls has seen it divide itself in two - the promised UK tour will go ahead through to the summer but the show remains in the West End as well, skipping from the Savoy to the Phoenix to replace the outgoing Bend it like Beckham

It's my third time at the show. I saw the original run in Chichester and the transfer to the Savoy and hadn't planned to return. But as ever, the lure of the recast leads sucked me in. Siubhan Harrison remains with the company but with Samantha Spiro, Oliver Tompsett and US actor Richard Kind joining the team (plus the excellent Jason Pennycooke), my barely-there resistance melted away.

Cast of Guys and Dolls continued

Monday, 21 March 2016

Review: BU21, Theatre503

"If you can fucking laugh at it, you can beat it you know
Is that true?"

How would you cope in a crisis? But no, really, if the sky came caving in on your world, if terrorist atrocities landed on your doorstep (or back garden), could you even begin to conceive of how you might react and respond. That's what Stuart Slade's BU21 asks of its six characters as they congregate in group therapy sessions for survivors, all dealing with the aftermath of a jumbo jet being shot down in the skies above West London with an anti-aircraft missile.

One woman lost her mother, the news smashing into her world through a photo on Twitter; another saw a man still strapped into his seat crashing into her garden, still alive even if only for a couple of seconds; yet another has been horrifically burned by jet fuel, and so on. Their stories are told through interlinking monologues, details drawing their experiences inevitably closer but even as Slade gives us a searing account of tragedy close to home, he brilliantly skewers the way in which society, and particularly the media, tries to deal with it.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pleasance

“A proper woman, as one shall see in a summer’s day”

It’s all in the name – the Reversed Shakespeare Company have set themselves up with the express intention of exploring and expanding gender roles by flipping the script and giving us Shakespeare’s male characters played as women, by women and vice versa. So instead of your Polonias and Malvolias, their debut production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with Egeus and Hermia as a battling mother and son in the court of their Duchess, Theseus.

It may take a moment of adjustment, not least when Helena bounds onto stage with a luscious red beard, but it sets the scene for an adventurous, interesting take on the play, that really does have a lot to say in its shifted sexual dynamics. How often do we get to see women being this forthright and dominant in their relationship, or men demurring modestly from a quickie in the woods? Or indeed for that matter (especially in light of The Painkiller and indeed the whole of farce as a genre), how rare it is to see women allowed to be this physically funny onstage.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Review: Anna Karenina, Brockley Jack

"What happens if you can't stop?"

Helen Edmundson's adaptation of Anna Karenina really is a clever thing. Taking the huge scale of Tolstoy's Russian epic novel and translating it into something genuinely theatrical, and new, is no mean feat. Last seen in London at the Arcola (where I think I underestimated it a tad), Arrow & Traps Theatre Company have brought it to the intimacy of Brockley Jack's black box studio and it's an impressively mounted production. 

Edmundson's major innovation is to reframe the story as an existential conversation between its two main characters Anna and Levin, whose lives are inextricably interlinked through their family connections (she's his sister-in-law's sister-in-law, I think) but actually only ever intersect once. Thus they relate tales of their experiences while debating faith and freedom, responsibility and love, what it means to really live.

Review: Cyrano de Bergerac, Southwark Playhouse

"Perhaps he’ll find the words to tell me of his love"

Just a quickie for this as due to an earlier cancelled performance, the only show I could fit into the schedule was this penultimate one. An all-female production of anything is enough to pique the interest, never mind something starring the extraordinary Kathryn Hunter, and this had the added benefit of being a story I'd never actually seen before - Cyrano De Bergerac. That said, the best single-sex productions are the ones that derive something unique from playing it that way and that was singularly lacking here. 

Adapted by Glyn Maxwell from Edmond Rostand's 1897 play, Russell Bolam's directorial conceit is to have the tale told by nuns (who play a role later on) to a novice of their order. But Bolam makes no other concession and shows no real willingness to delve with any depth into the notions of gender, love, identity, masculinity etc that seem ripe for the picking. And without the star wattage of Hunter's striking performance, the whole show would likely collapse like a house of cards. The consequence is thus a fatally unbalanced piece of work and worse, a squandered opportunity. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 19th March

Friday, 18 March 2016

Review: Cancel the Sunshine, Hope

“The biggest barrier in my life is me”

There's something mildly ironic about a play about being caught up in the world of depression being staged at a theatre called the Hope. For in Cancel The Sunshine, Maya Thomas' young protagonist is living pretty much without it, the tendrils of mental illness extinguishing the light she yearns to reach for as the damage of the past and the difficulties of the present weigh heavily upon her.

Writer Chantelle Dusette pulls uncompromisingly from her own experience of depression and so the breath-taking intensity of the monologue speaks with an authentic voice, and it is one which is powerful and poetic but pummeling and punishing too. Her main character is determined to present a put-together image to the outside world but inside she's somersaulting, swooping between manic highs and lows, struggling to deal with even the most seemingly innocuous of small details. 

Film Review: The Pass, BFI Flare


"I'm not gay...look at me, I'm a footballer"

It's no mean feat for an LGBT Film Festival to reach its 30th anniversary, but BFI Flare has managed just that and opening its 2016 programme is The Pass, the debut feature film from Ben A. Williams. An adaptation of the John Donnelly play of the same name which played at the Royal Court in 2014, three of the four cast members return to the parts they played on stage - with Arinze Kene subbing in for Gary Carr - and Donnelly remains onboard on screenplay duties (and possibly half-time oranges, who knows!).

Spread over a decade in which footballer Jason rises from academy young buck to full-time Premiership squad member to one of the most famous players in the world, The Pass looks at what such a journey might do to a young man, particularly one who is questioning his sexuality and to those who are left by the wayside. On the eve of a crucial game, Russell Tovey's Jason and team-mate Ade, played by Kene, are going stir-crazy in a Romanian hotel room, both aware of how crucial the next 24 hours will be but unprepared for what the next 24 minutes will unleash as homoerotic horseplay becomes, well, pretty much homosexual.

Review: Something Something Lazarus, King’s Head

“I’m not unwrapping your sex chair”

It’s always interesting to get feedback on my blogging though the emotions that drive people to write tend to be quite forcible… thus the latest missive I received castigated me strongly for not supporting new musical theatre writing in giving Miss Atomic Bomb a less than favourable review. Regardless of the notion that I do usually aim to be constructive in my criticism, I’d argue that challenging the writers with external opinions is supporting them, many a musical has been rewritten and rewritten and so blind praise does little to help, especially when the material is so formally unadventurous.

Which is a long-winded way of saying I love the concept of what Broken Cabaret are doing in Something Something Lazarus even if I didn’t completely love the show itself. Described as “a new (kind of) musical”, writers John Myatt and Simon Arrowsmith are doing no less than shifting paradigms of musical theatre to create something something new. The show opens in a bit of a blur – Vee and Della, employees of the Midnight Sun cabaret, are haphazardly rehearsing for tonight’s new show, owner Daniel is on the edge of a nervous breakdown and his lover Jay is wandering around in his pants. Events take a little while to come to a climax under Dan Phillips’ direction but boy, do they ever.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Review: The Painkiller, Gielgud

“We have a problem with this…”

Kenneth Branagh I’ve got an idea what we can put into the March slot for the season
Branagh Theatre employee Oh yes?
KB Me and Rob Brydon did The Painkiller in Belfast a couple of years ago, we can reprise that
BTe Ok. But isn’t that another play by a dead white man in a season already populated exclusively by dead white men?
KB *checks Google* Nope, Francis Veber is still alive. He’s nearly 80 but still alive.
BTe Riiight. But you know, diversity is kind of important. Does the show at least have a decent spread of roles
KB *proudly announces* There’s part for a woman AND a black guy in it.
BTe Ok. And you’re sure they’re not the two smallest parts, almost token gestures in the end?
KB *awkward silence*
Oh wait, there’s a gay man in it too
BTe Well that’s something
KB Yes. He’ll have audiences rolling in the aisles, reminding them of the good old days of John Inman
BTe *stunned silence*
KB So contemporary audiences will find lots in this you see, the idea that two men might be shagging is just intrinsically funny.
BTe I see Sean Foley has adapted it as well as being the director
KB Oh yes, it really is very modern, right up to date. It has a joke about Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen AND one about Chris De Burgh in it. You’ll be on the floor laughing with the rest of them.
BTe I’m sure. And as for the farce, are you good with comedy
KB I am a theatrical knight, I can do EVERYTHING!
BTe Well, at least we’ve got Rob Brydon, he can…well, he can do Rob Brydon
KB And everyone loves farce. Even Sondheim says so and someone who named his blog after a lyric from such a song should know that.
BTe Maybe he just likes good farce like Noises Off
KB And One Man, Two Guv'nors?
BTe I wouldn't go there...
What about putting something on that isn't by a dead or nearly dead white man?
KB Oh just find something written by a BAME woman that has been successful somewhere else and plug that in, maybe no-one will notice.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 30th April

Review: A Raisin in the Sun, Albany

"Seem like God didn’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams – but He did give us children to make them dreams seem worth while"

When Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun became the first play written by a black woman to be performed on Broadway in 1959, some might have dared dream of a new age of diverse playwrights being represented there. But despite the play’s extraordinary success, the Great White Way remains an unfortunately apposite name – it should have a ‘male’ in there too – and the issues that Hansberry raises, both directly and indirectly, remain pertinent in contemporary America with the #OscarSoWhite furore and the ugliness and popularity of Donald Trump’s rhetoric just two of the most recent examples.

So it is a canny choice of revival for Sheffield-based Eclipse theatre company to tour the UK with, but it’s also a hugely satisfying dramatic one as well. Hansberry taps directly into the African-American experience, using her own family’s battles against segregation, to give us an alternative take on the American Dream, a family’s hopes and dreams refracted through the prisms of poverty, gender, race and above all, the growing sense that the way things are, ain’t necessarily how they gotta be. As one character says “Where are all going and why are we bothering?", well let the Younger family show you.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Review: NotMoses, Arts


"It's fair enough to ask the Our Father what on earth he's been playing at"

Comedies can be difficult to review, what makes other people laugh doesn't always tickle my funnybone - hence my dislike of much farce - and also vice versa, but I have to be honest with you and say that NotMoses made me laugh, a lot. A revisionist Biblical comedy in the vein of The Life of Brian, Gary Sinyor's new comedy is utterly irreverent, eye-wateringly funny and as close to the boundaries of good taste as you can possibly get (and some will undoubtedly find that it strays over them). You can read my 4 star review for Cheap Theatre Tickets here and remember, thou shalt not eat an owl.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Darren Bell
Booking until 14th May


.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

TV Review: Happy Valley Series 2

“Yet another everyday story of country folk”

And so Series 2 of Happy Valley winds to a close and you have to hope that the people who acclaim Scandi-noir as the high point of today's television recognise that this slice of Yorkshire-bleak is just as good, if not better. Sally Wainwright might have thrown some people for a loop by moving (even further) away from straight police procedural to something much more intimate and emotionally complex, placing Sarah Lancashire's utterly magnificent portrayal of Sgt Catherine Cawood at its very heart. (My thoughts on episode 1 are here.)

“Omnipotent and ubiquitous, God I’m good” she wryly notes as a younger colleague drunkenly praises her at the end of a boozy evening and as the multiple strands of this series slowly began to converge, it was her presence that knitted the whole thing together. Wainwright's closer hand on the tiller (directing four of the six episodes, all of which she wrote) allowed for some of the bolder moment to really shine, notably the two-handers that opened so many of the shows, a scorching stillness and quietude that underscored much of the horror of policing the Dales.

Cast of Happy Valley Series 2 continued

Monday, 14 March 2016

Re-review: Mrs Henderson Presents, Noël Coward


"Everyone loves a bit of filth" 

I really enjoyed Mrs Henderson Presents when I saw it last year in Bath, it came 13th out of all the shows I saw in 2015, so I was most delighted to hear that it would be transferring into the West End. It managed the journey with its main cast almost entirely intact, Tracie Bennett, Ian Bartholomew and Emma Williams all there, just Mark Hadfield dipping out to (re)join The Painkiller and replaced by Jamie Foreman, and its opening at the Noël Coward Theatre has been largely very well received. 

And second time around, it pleased me just as much as the first. Terry Johnson's direction of this ineffably British show (as with Andy Capp, playing the spoons is up there with the Union Jack) and from my memory, I don't think that much has significantly changed (though I've seen a lot in the intervening 7 months...). That means that the shonky narrator/compere role is still there, which still wears thin quickly, but it also means that its generosity of spirit and warmth of heart is very much present. 

Cast of Mrs Henderson Presents continued

Cast of Mrs Henderson Presents continued

Review: Miss Atomic Bomb, St James

“That's just the fallout people”

Atomic bombs derive their destructive power from nuclear fission, when atoms split after being bombarded with other particles, and there’s a certain sense of random elements being thrown together in Miss Atomic Bomb, in the hope of reaching some kind of critical mass. Comedy gangsters, tap-dancing routines, comedy bank managers, dead sheep, comedy zucchini, pigs in clothes, comedy transvestites, hoedowns, comedy rabbi costumes, a Strallen and a character with a ridiculous surname because you can get a song out of it. Put them altogether and what do you get? A show that’s either a bomb or a blast.

Full disclosure, I saw a preview and I’m given to believe that a lot of work has happened to the show in the last couple of days, which is only natural for a new musical. For me though, the show feels fundamentally flawed in really not knowing what it wants to be. Writers Adam Long, Gabriel Vick and Alex Jackson-Long throw together satire and slapstick uneasily as a desperate Las Vegas hotel manager arranges the Miss Atomic Bomb beauty pageant to drum up tourist trade as the US military test their atomic arsenal in the Nevada desert.

Cast of Miss Atomic Bomb continued

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Review: Tell Me On A Sunday, Richmond

"Long lost feelings, stir inside me"

Like many a child of the 80s, or so I like to imagine, a cassette of Andrew Lloyd Webber's greatest hits was never too far from the car stereo, and so I've long been familiar with Tell Me On A Sunday and long been a fan thereof. Clearly others feel this way as the enduring popularity of the show means it has never been too far from our stages, with this latest iteration originating at Newbury's Watermill before an extensive UK tour.

Perhaps with this sense of a classic in mind, Paul Foster's production sticks with the original setting of the late 1970s and in Jodie Prenger, finds the ideal performer to convey the multiple romantic trials of this Englishwoman in New York - David Woodhead's simple design evoking the period setting without overemphasising it. Prenger's old-school charms suit the role perfectly, there's something almost perverse in how watchable she is when playing heart-broken but crucially she invests Emma with an indefatigable quality of spirit that never seems to be truly broken.

Review: Correspondence, Old Red Lion

"This isn’t bunking off to Stockport, to play Laser Quest at Grand Central. This is the kind of activity that sets us apart from the dross."

And what activity it is. Clever enough to not really need to revise for his upcoming GCSEs, 16-year-old Ben spends most of his spare time on Xbox Live but when his Syrian friend Jibreel disappears from his contact list, he decides to launch a rescue mission from his Stockport bedroom. But it's not quite as simple as all that, Torn between squabbling divorced parents, Ben's home life has been significantly troubled and as it is 2011, the murmurings of civil unrest abroad herald what would soon be known as the Arab Spring.

Lucinda Burnett's Correspondence thus straddles two immensely weighty subjects. The power and potential of mass protest in a nascent revolution and how we connect to it as global citizens, but also the complexity and cruelty of incipient psychosis and again, the difficulties it poses in connecting with others. Over a running time of just 80 minutes, the play doesn't always manage to engage and interrogate fully the enormity of these issues, relying on a plot contrivance or two too many to convince that they're being explored efficaciously.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Review: Bad Girls the Musical, Union

“You won’t get that out a book on prison procedure
When those suits get caught on the hook, that’s when they need ya”

Bad Girls ran for eight years on ITV, covering the whole gamut of women’s prison storylines from the sublime to the senseless, and now the women of HMP Larkhall live on in Bad Girls the Musical, written by original creators Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus with music and lyrics by Kath Gotts. Taking many of the characters and fashioning its own story from a range of plotlines across the lifetime of the show, Will Keith’s production for the Union makes for an effective translation from screen to stage.

Perhaps naturally, given the size of the17-strong company and the number of introductions that thus need to be made (even for those familiar with the TV show), the main thrust of the story takes a little time to come into focus. The corrupt practices of prison officer Jim Fenner, fond of doling out privileges in return for sexual favours, eventually crystallises the motives of the diverse cast of inmates but there’s also the slow burning relationship between lifer Nikki and reformist governor Helen that adds to a book which may seem slight but is ultimately dramatically satisfying. 

Cast of Bad Girls the Musical continued

Review: Luce, Southwark Playhouse

“There’s a space between truth and deception that isn’t a lie”

Even in the handful of years since JC Lee (who has since gone on to write for television shows Looking, Girls and How To Get Away With Murder) initially wrote Luce in 2012, our worldview when it comes to terrorism has shifted considerably. Atrocities such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the attacks on Paris have focused fear anew about threats from both within and without our borders but it is the former on which Lee alights here. Luce was adopted at age 7 from an unspecified African country and raised by all-American couple Amy and Peter into a high-school hero complete with academic prospects and sporting prowess, so his teacher Harriet Carter is then perturbed to find cracks in the veneer.

An assignment in support of a right-wing terrorist flags her attention (no need for the Prevent strategy in the US…) and a surreptitious search of his locker reveals a stash of illegal fireworks. But conscious of the PR implications of besmirching the name of the school’s star student and problematising the perfect ideal of integration that he represents, she calls in his parents under the radar and begins a series of prevarications and half-measures to dealing with the problem. For despite his circumstances, Luce is still just a teenage boy, dealing with all of the pressures that young men face at such a critical juncture in their lives, and the perils in treating him differently soon become all too real.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Review: The Mother, Tricycle

"Living with my son again is the best thing that could possibly happen to me; apart from your death"

If it ain't broke, why fix it? The extraordinary success of The Father, now back in the West End for a second run ahead of a UK tour, has resulted in the Tricycle inviting another Florian Zeller play over from Bath. And if The Mother doesn't quite scale the same heights of exquisite agony, it houses another storming lead role for another great British actor, Gina McKee following in Kenneth Cranham's esteemed footsteps.

In the bleached white desolation of Mark Bailey's design, wife and mother Anne is being hollowed out by depression. Triggered in the main by her adult son Nicholas' departure from the family home, her sense of empty-nest-syndrome is exacerbated by her severe doubts about her 25 year long marriage to Peter, an upcoming trip to Leicester for a conference masking what she thinks is an affair, her confusion multiplied by her fondness for a bottle, pills or alcohol, either will do.

Review: Look Back in Anger, Derby Theatre

“What kind of man are you?”

Where else to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Look Back in Anger than in the city where it is set, and in the very theatre where the marriage between John Osborne and Pamela Lane came under such strain as to inspire the turbulence of the play that, as conventional wisdom would have it, changed the face of British theatre. Recently, the play has been rarely seen, suffering from the very thing that brought its fame – ever-evolving theatrical tastes – but Sarah Brigham’s production makes it feel startlingly pertinent.

The archetypal angry young man, decidedly working class but university educated Jimmy Porter finds himself raging against every aspect of his life in 1956 Derby. The huge social gulf that marks his marriage to the upper middle class Alison, her haughty friend Helena who’s coming to stay, the cramped flat which they share with pal Cliff and the politics they debate ferociously, the music on the radio that isn’t his beloved jazz… And as his frustrations take on an ever more vicious turn, a love triangle emerges that shatters what fragile peace there is.

Review: Jinny, Derby Theatre

“Nothing ever comes that easy”

As if proof were needed about how much interesting work is being generated outside of London, Derby Theatre’s RETOLD series continues in full force, offering immediate responses to the classic plays in the main programme. So accompanying The Odyssey in 2014 was Caroline Horton’s modern-day Penelope RETOLD, putting Odysseus’ wife at the heart of the action, and partnering their newest production Look Back in Anger is Jane Wainwright’s Jinny, similarly relocated to a contemporary setting and giving us a gender-swapped Jimmy Porter.

Jinny is a 25 year old aspiring singer-songwriter, who has been aspiring for over a decade now. After graduating from university, she returned to Derby but her friends who remained have moved on with their lives and finding opportunities few and far between, she’s trapped in a dead-end retail job and sharing a poky flat with a pregnant pal. And over the course of just under an hour, we hear all about it, all the minutiae of a hard-working working-class life and the realisation that this might indeed be it. With songs on the guitar added.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Review: The Argument, Hampstead

"The crisis is over. Isn't it...?"

The Hampstead Downstairs continues its strong run of programming with The Argument, further developing already existing creative relationships. This is William Boyd's first original play, following his adaptation of 2 Chekhov short stories in Longing which played the main house in 2013, and it is directed by Anna Ledwich, who helmed the Olivier-nominated Four Minutes Twelve Seconds here in 2014.

Though it is a much abused term when it comes to theatre marketing, The Argument really does fall into the category of dark comedy. Pip and Meredith are just back from seeing some popcorn flick at the cinema and a disagreement about the flimsiness of the plot snowballs into a titanic argument about the very nature of their relationship, which then cracks under the strain. In a series of two-handers, Boyd then shows us how the ripples of this quarrel impact on their best friends Tony and Jane and her parents Chloe and Frank, provoking new arguments too.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Review: End of the Rainbow, Churchill Bromley

"I'm Judy Garland, now pay me some respect"

The enduring legacy of Judy Garland may be considered the preserve of gay men of a certain age but but what Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow, a play with songs rather than an all-out musical, reminds us is that hers was a tragedy in which all of our increasingly celebrity-obsessed society is complicit. The play is set in the months leading up to her death in 1969, as desperate to pay off her debtors, her new young fiancé and manager Mickey Deans signed her up for a five week run of cabaret shows at The Talk of the Town though as became clear to see, Garland’s struggles made it a very difficult time.

With the press against her, willing her on to ever more scandalous deeds, friends deserting her as her drug dependencies also pushed away four husbands, and a career that was nosediving as a result of all this drama, Deans was banking on this being the comeback of all comebacks. But Quilter shows us through a number of scenes, that the extremities of her behaviour impossibly strained the relationships in her life, even with her devoted Brighton-based pianist Anthony, her body and mind warped by endless years of being a part of the fame game and unable to deal with being chewed up and spat out by the Hollywood machine.

Review: Motown the Musical, Shaftesbury

"I don't write race music, it's music for everyone"

You may think that there's no-one better to tell your own life story than yourself but if Motown the Musical teaches us anything, it's that an outside ear benefits us all. Founder of the renowned Motown record label, Berry Gordy carried on regardless though and as the author of the self-serving book for this show, based on his autobiography, detracts a little from what is otherwise a fun jukebox musical stuffed with some stonking music from the likes of Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and The Jackson 5, and rather brilliantly performed by a cracking cast. Read my 3 star review for Official Theatre here

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 17th February

Cast of Motown the Musical continued

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Cast of Motown the Musical continued

Review: Don't Smoke in Bed, Finborough

"It feels a little bit like we're asked to be the interracial couple"

Born in their 30s and both professors of "obscure versified English", Jamaican-American Richard and Irish-American Sheryl seem to have it made when they're asked to take part in a series of 'bedroom interviews', the promise of a potential book deal luring them into agreement. Presuming their interracial relationship and their decision to start a family is the reason they've been scouted, they jump right into baring their souls to their webcam-based interviewer but soon discover that they're not quite ready for the answers they're about to reveal.

Aurin Squires' Don't Smoke in Bed is a thrillingly incisive look into what Avenue Q memorably labelled "the sensitive subject of race". Richard and Sheryl pride themselves on not arguing, rather enjoying having "strong conversations", though as they begin to delve into the detail of how their partnership works and crucially, expose the perceptions that each has about the way that racial politics - and indeed class - has or hasn't impacted on their lives, their certainties are crumbled away as brutal honesty corrodes the bonds that had seemed so tight.