Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Review: Your Nation Loves You, Old Vic Tunnels

“Do you think I want to be down here? It’s cold, and it’s wet, and it’s well, just a bit shit really”

Some might say that there is a time and place for the act of making love to be represented through the medium of modern dance. Personally I don’t think there is any place in this world for it, not least in the cold dark tunnels underneath Waterloo station during an hour and 45 minutes of experimental theatre when you’re standing on your feet throughout. 

Your Nation Loves You is a new play by a (relatively) new company called :DELIRIUM: taking place in the atmospheric Old Vic Tunnels, a fascinating venue for an intriguing looking promenade play. 12 people, selected by the government and confined underground, placed into a network of tunnels with no explanation. As the weeks turn into months, attempts at forming a new community in the face of little hope are tentatively succeeding , but when the supplies they were receiving regularly stop, already bubbling tensions threaten to overspill.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Review: Bedroom Farce, Duke of York's

“My mother used to say, Delia, if ever S-E-X rears its ugly head, close your eyes before you see the rest of it.”

Alan Ayckbourn’s play Bedroom Farce follows three married couples in their bedrooms over a long, long night as a troubled fourth couple, Trevor and Susannah spill forth with their problems and visit each couple sometimes together, sometimes apart, but always causing havoc and making everyone question their own marital stability. It arrives at the Duke of York’s from a run last year at the Rose in Kingston with 5 of the 8 original cast members for a 14 week run.

I realise it has the word ‘farce’ in the title, but is the sight of a man in a coat several sizes too big, or a poorly constructed desk falling apart really so hilarious? The theatre was full of people laughing loudly from the word go at everything put in front of them, but I was not one of them. This play was at its best when the physical comedy stopped and the wit in the writing was allowed to shine through, but these moments were too few and far between for me and even then it was often just too mannered and inoffensive.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Review: The Comedy of Errors, RSC via Digital Theatre

“Are my discourses dull? Barren my wit?”

Digital Theatre specialises in providing recordings of plays, captured as-live and available to watch either online or to download onto your computer. They have established links with some top theatre companies and so is building up an interesting collection of plays for viewing. I became aware of Digital Theatre back at Christmastime, and downloaded my first play (Far From The Madding Crowd). It has however remained on my hard-drive unwatched for a number of reasons. But with the offer to get a free download of the RSC’s The Comedy of Errors through the Times newspaper, I decided to revisit the site and actually get round to watching something.

There’s been a lot of debate about the merits of videoed theatre over live theatre: my personal view is that there’s ample room for both in the world. The recordings are there to supplement the live experience, not replace it, something that seems to be lost on much of the commenters in the press. These kind of initiatives, along with the National Theatre’s cinema showings of some plays, offer a great opportunity to expand the audience for these shows, and whilst the frisson of live performance may be lost, I can guarantee that whoever saw Phèdre at the cinema would have had a much better view of the faces of the actors than I did from the circle of the Lyttleton.

Review: Educating Rita, Menier Chocolate Factory

My original review was a lot more detailed but disappeared somewhere into the internet and I’m meant to be working, so here’s a brief recap.

“Sod them Rita, sod them”

I think I got Willy Russelled out on Saturday. After Shirley in the afternoon with a varied sampling of the blogging cognoscenti, I returned in the evening with a different companion for Educating Rita. And whilst she loved it, I was not a fan. This version has more in common with the radio play which was broadcast on Radio 4 on Boxing Day than the famous film. Laura Dos Santos reprises her role from the radio, but Bill Nighy has been replaced by Larry Lamb. 

Rita, a 29 year-old hairdresser decides she needs an education and enrols at an Open University course where her tutor, Frank, is a disillusioned middle-aged ex-poet with an indiscriminate liking for whiskey. Over the course of a year, they affect each other in a number of ways, as Rita seeks to better herself and Frank tries to battle his own personal demons. In the attractively designed office set, their relationship is charted but something just didn't click for me. I didn’t care much for Larry Lamb’s grizzled Frank (as I’m not a watcher of Eastenders or Gavin & Stacey, I wasn’t aware of him before now) although Laura Dos Santos’ Rita was very funny and warm. 

Review: Shirley Valentine, Menier Chocolate Factory

"Dreams are not often where you expect them to be"

Do two plays make a season? Regardless, the Menier Chocolate Factory have quite a coup in presenting the first London revivals of both Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita, playing in rep for six weeks as part of their Willy Russell season. For Shirley Valentine, Meera Syal takes the title role in this one-hander with aplomb and, in what will surely dominate every review, live onstage making and cooking of chips!

Shirley Valentine is an ordinary Liverpudlian housewife. As she prepares chips and egg for her ungrateful husband, she muses on her life, talking to the wall about such subjects as the state of her marriage, her grown-up children, her past and the ambitions she harboured as a younger woman. These ruminations have been sparked by an intriguing offer she has received from a girlfriend to go with her on holiday to Greece in search of romance and adventure.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Review: The Fever Chart, Trafalgar Studios 2

"If a pigeon named after your uncle dies, it can be quite disconcerting"

The Fever Chart is a curious thing: three short works by Naomi Wallace brought together by the Pilot Theatre company, all covering the ground of conflict and political tensions in the Middle East and the effect it has on everyday people, especially in forcing them to deal with grief. Presented by three actors covering different roles in the smaller of the Trafalgar Studios, these works weren’t originally intended by Wallace to be performed together, and to be frank, it is not immediately clear why they should be.

The three stories are A State of Innocence, a meeting between an Israeli soldier, a Palestinian mother and a Russian/Jewish architect in an abandoned Gaza zoo; Between this Breath and You, an startling encounter between an Israeli nurse and a grieving Palestinian father in a West Jerusalem clinic with an unexpected connection; and The Retreating World, a painful account of an Iraqi conscript, coping with the loss of his best friend and the pigeons he kept in a country devastated by war and the continuing impact of sanctions.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Re-review: Once Upon Another Time at the Adelphi, Union Theatre

I quite often come out of shows knowing exactly which of my acquaintances I will be recommending it to, and Once Upon A Time At The Adelphi was no exception. However, this time I decided to go again as well, such was my enjoyment of the show. You can read my original review here, but I enjoyed it just as much the second time round and still found it just as moving. Performances throughout were just as strong, if anything the choreography was delivered with even more confidence, and it was interesting to watch it from a different seat. Despite the Union being such a small space, it was a completely different viewing experience from the side and I also quite liked the fact that I heard much more of the harmony work going on in the ensemble, without the band being right behind me as it was last time.

One of my minor quibbles when I saw it last was that the main song, “Once in a Lifetime” was repeated too much, but when the band struck up the tune for the first time, I got a lovely warm feeling and found myself mouthing along to the words. To achieve this level of familiarity on just a second viewing I think is really quite an achievement, especially considering how much theatre I’ve seen this month and more generally, how few new musicals actually have striking songs with hummable melodies (I can’t remember any tune from Legally Blonde for example, despite enjoying it).

This show closes on Saturday but I really do hope that it gets a transfer later in the year as I really do think this is one of the best things I've seen so far this year.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Review: Macbeth, Cheek by Jowl at the Barbican

"If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly" 

And first a moan. I’d intentionally booked front row seats for this back in December, so upon arrival I was a little surprised to find that there was another row of seats in front of ours, row AA which is set a little closer to the ground but with nowhere near sufficient a rake to prevent people’s heads being seriously in the way. This extra row was added in to sell extra tickets due to it being a sellout and whilst I’m happy for the Barbican with their success here, I’m most annoyed that it subsequently affected my enjoyment of the evening.

Cheek by Jowl return to London with their interpretation of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s examination of the cost of chasing power and limitless ambition without responsibility, using their trademark inventiveness to create an otherworldly experience. Setting up in the Silk Street Theatre at the Barbican, there is excellent use of the space throughout the play: the opening haze-filled scene seems to take place in a seemingly endless void, later on the rear wall is used most effectively with spotlights and shadows thrown up. So much is left dark or in shadow, the audience is left to let their imagination fill in the gaps. Nick Ormerod’s design (and indeed Declan Donnellan’s direction) aesthetic seems informed by Antony Gormley: scenes often recall the Another Place installation on Crosby beach, as does the main publicity shot, and even the wooden boxes surrounding the stage evoke images of the dance work Sutra. With Judith Greenwood’s atmospheric lighting, the combined effect is quite stunning, especially given the lack of props. Sound is also deployed to incredible effect, most notably in the Weird Sister scenes, with the company repeating the lines in a menacing whisper as the prophecies are delivered, most chilling and effective. Drums bang, cymbals clatter, an eerie violin is scratched, sounds emerge from all over the stage. The world created in which to play is so well done that it is hardly surprising that the storytelling doesn’t quite match up. 

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Review: Finishing The Hat, Sondheim's 80th Birthday Concert, King's Head

"And he showed me things, many beautiful things, that I hadn't thought to explore"
In New York, Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday was marked with an all-star gala featuring such names as Patti LuPone, David Hyde Pierce, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. In London, we got a gig in the back room of a pub in Islington. I am however quoting the show's compere, lest you think I'm being overly critical, and in this case, small was indeed beautiful with a fun evening of mixed delights, celebrating the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim.

Finishing the Hat, at the King's Head, featured a diverse array of West End performers coming together to pay tribute to Sondheim with a birthday concert, cherrypicking their favourite songs from his shows and performing them simply on a stage under Chris Peake's musical direction, accompanied by keyboard, bass and percussion. The show was held together by compere Chris Allen, who provided some linking material whilst one performer shuffled off and the next emerged from the curtain behind, and a powerpoint presentation showed us pictures of the man himself throughout his career and even a hilarious snippet of the Simpsons. Yes, it was all a bit low-rent but this show proudly wore its heart on its sleeve and focused on highlighting the excellence of the compositions being sung, which even divested of their context remain songs of the highest quality.

Highlights for me were Tim Driesen's Franklin Shepard, Inc. coping admirably with the sound effect heavy lyrics and Rebecca Caine's beautifully subtle Losing My Mind. Driesen is someone who I think could have an exciting career ahead of him if he could land the right role here in London, he can next be found in his native Belgium in Notre Dame. Gabriel Vick had great fun belting out some huge notes in Marry Me A Little and Jason Pennycooke's medley of songs from West Side Story (I think he squeezed almost all of them in apart from I Feel Pretty) accompanied solely by percussionist Pete Dawson on the bongos was truly a sight to behold! The variety of performing styles and the quick rotation of performers meant that even if one didn't enjoy say, the overtly cabaret stylings of one singer, or the interpretation of a certain number, we soon moved onto the next and the evening fair flew by.

Being such a huge collaborative effort, the list of performers was always subject to change and so a few names disappeared from the list, Hollyoaks' Gerard McCarthy probably being the most notable, and there had been talk of a music or musical theatre student being given the chance to sing a song during the show, but no mention was made of that. And I would have liked perhaps one more group number at the end, although I realise the logistics of this would probably have been too difficult to surmount.

Still, it was an evening of great fun: relaxed and informal, full of good, varied performances and a few names to watch out for in the future. The efforts of all who participated and organised this show, in the name of charity, were richly rewarded by the rapturous reception, and a genuine sense of having witnessed something special, Patti Pulone or no. All in all, a fitting tribute to the impressive career of Mr Sondheim.

Running time: 2 hours with interval

Here's a tentative attempt at the songlist from the evening.

- Aimie Atkinson - What More Do I Need (from Saturday Night)
- Lucy May Barker - Broadway Baby (from Follies)
- Rebecca Caine - Girls of Summer
- Rebecca Caine - Losing My Mind (from Follies)
- Rebecca Caine & Robyn North - One More Kiss (from Follies)
- John Barr - Anyone Can Whistle (from Anyone Can Whistle)
- Tim Driesen - Franklin Shepard, Inc. (from Merrily We Roll Along)
- Suzannah Brooksbank - Not A Day Goes By (from Merrily We Roll Along)
- Nigel Richards - Good Thing Going (from Merrily We Roll Along)
- Charlotte Grace - Every Day A Little Death (from A Little Night Music)
- Dan Byrne & Lucy Barnett - A Little Priest (from Sweeney Todd)

- Charlotte Grace - a funny Sondheim parody that I did not recognise
- Charlotte Grace - Another Hundred People (from Company)
- Gabriel Vick - Marry Me A Little (from Company)
- Dan Byrne - Have I Got A Girl For You (from Company)
- Charlotte Wakefield - I Know Things Now (from Into the Woods)
- Helena Blackman - So Many People (from Saturday Night)
- Tim Driesen & Charlotte Wakefield - Unworthy of Your Love (from Assassins)
- Nigel Richards - The Ballad of Booth (from Assassins)
- Jodie Beth Meyer - I'll Remember (from Evening Primrose)
- Kieron Jae - Not While I'm Around (from Sweeney Todd)
- Jason Pennycooke - West Side Story medley
- Ensemble - Sunday (from Sunday in the Park with George)

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Review: The White Guard, National Theatre

"Negativity be damned"

Maintaining a strong record of reviving Russian plays (Burnt By The Sun was a highlight of last year for me), Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard takes up residence in the Lyttleton in a version by Andrew Upton (I saw a preview, it opens officially on 23rd April). Stalin was famously a fan of this play but it should be noted that Bulgakov was no Stalinist and was pretty much a dissident, writing as anti-Soviet works as he dared whilst forbidden to leave the country and suffering much from censorship, a theme visited in another of his plays, Molière or the League of Hypocrites seen in London late last year at the Finborough.

The White Guard is a look at the price that is paid by people during wartime: both on the grand political scale, but also on the personal and family lives. Set in the Ukraine in 1918, we follow the Turbin family as they struggle to maintain their lives in a Kiev ravaged by the just-ended First World War, yet flung headlong into the Russian Civil War which ensued immediately after. The Turbin’s apartment is presided over by the luminous Lena, around whom a coterie of assorted characters gravitate, as the tumultuous sequence of events and invaders threaten to irrevocably change to everyone’s way of life.

Continuation of the cast of The White Guard.

  • Continuation of the cast of The White Guard.

Nominations for 2010 Oliviers - Best Actor/Best Actress

Best Actor

Mark Rylance in Jerusalem – Royal Court and Apollo
James Earl Jones in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Novello
Jude Law in Hamlet – Donmar at Wyndham's
James McAvoy in Three Days of Rain – Apollo
Ken Stott in A View from the Bridge – Duke of York's
Samuel West in Enron – Royal Court / Noël Coward

Best Actress

Rachel Weisz in A Streetcar Named Desire – Donmar Warehouse
Gillian Anderson in A Doll's House – Donmar Warehouse
Lorraine Burroughs in The Mountaintop – Trafalgar Studio 1
Imelda Staunton in Entertaining Mr Sloane – Trafalgar Studio 1
Juliet Stevenson in Duet for One – Almeida / Vaudeville

Nominations for 2010 Oliviers - Best Actor/Best Actress in a musical

Best Actor in a Musical

Aneurin Barnard in Spring Awakening – Novello
Rowan Atkinson in Oliver! – Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Bob Golding in Morecambe – Duchess
Alexander Hanson in A Little Night Music – Garrick
Tony Sheldon in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – Palace

Best Actress in a Musical

Samantha Spiro in Hello, Dolly! – Regent's Park Open Air
Melanie Chisholm in Blood Brothers – Phoenix
Patina Miller in Sister Act London Palladium
Hannah Waddingham in A Little Night Music – Garrick
Charlotte Wakefield in Spring Awakening – Novello

Nominations for 2010 Oliviers - Best Actor in a Supporting Role/Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Eddie Redmayne in Red – Donmar Warehouse
Mackenzie Crook in Jerusalem – Royal Court / Apollo
Rory Kinnear in Burnt by the Sun National Theatre Lyttelton
Tim Pigott-Smith in Enron – Royal Court / Noël Coward

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Ruth Wilson in A Streetcar Named Desire – Donmar Warehouse
Hayley Atwell in A View from the Bridge – Duke of York's
Michelle Dockery in Burnt by the Sun – National Theatre Lyttelton
Alexandra Gilbreath in Twelfth Night – Duke of York's
Keira Knightley in The Misanthrope – Comedy
Rachael Stirling in The Priory – Royal Court

Nominations for 2010 Oliviers - Best Supporting Role in a Musical

Best Supporting Role in a Musical

Iwan Rheon in Spring Awakening – Novello
Sheila Hancock in Sister Act – London Palladium
Maureen Lipman in A Little Night Music – Garrick
Kelly Price in A Little Night Music – Garrick

Friday, 19 March 2010

Review: Hannah Waddingham, Live at the Chocolate Factory

"Isn't it rich, isn't it queer"

Hannah Waddingham was a fixture at the Menier Chocolate Factory in their big winter musical, A Little Night Music, the year before last, so it is somewhat fitting that she has returned here to play a run of a week of her cabaret show. Ranging from showtunes to pop with a healthy smattering of jazz, the cosy space of the Menier feels just right hosting this kind of show 

She’s such a natural performer and exudes a refreshing likeability that makes her almost impossible not to resist. Confidently covering all of these genres, this is a highly professional show with a number ofhighlights: 'Send in the Clowns' is naturally a treat, and it’s such a nice change having it sung by a strong vocalist. The only letdown was her not tipping me a wink as she sung the name of my blog, but I suppose I can forgive her that! 

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Review: Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“All this rock’n’roll is just good clean all-American fun”

Previously a long-running staple of the West End, Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story returns to North London for its first fringe production in Highgate’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse. It tracks the meteoric rise of Buddy Holly who managed to become one of the world’s top recording artists and shape the future of rock’n’roll music in just a couple of years before his untimely early death.

This musical puts that music full square in the centre of the show and deservedly so. Part biopic, part tribute concert, we follow Buddy and his Crickets friends on their struggles to record the type of music they wanted, their subsequent rise to fame and what it did to them. Featuring about 20 of Holly’s songs (almost every one a classic) and both acts climax in mini concerts, indeed most of the second act is a replication of the ill-fated final concert at Clear Lake, featuring Richie Valens with 'La Bamba' and Big Poppa singing 'Chantilly Lace' on top of Buddy Holly’s numbers to provide a bit of variety and it is all just an absolute pleasure to watch. 

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Review: Hedda Gabler, Richmond Theatre

“Let's all just cheer up and start enjoying ourselves”

It would appear that the punishment for appearing in Madame de Sade last year is banishment to South-West London: Dame Judi is currently doing time in Kingston and Rosamund Pike has now surfaced in Richmond, in this latest version of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler: should we expect Deborah Findlay to surface in Wimbledon sometime soon? (actually I’d go pretty much anywhere to see her, I think she’s ace!)

But I digress. Ibsen’s tale of the conflict between how a woman feels and behaves and how she is expected by society to feel and behave, is told in the form of the newly married Hedda, resigned to a safe and loveless marriage yet still yearning for a life of passion and willing to manipulate anyone anyhow in order to feel something. And it is told extremely well here with a dark humour that I have never seen before in an Ibsen which made me love it, and an incredibly strong ensemble who have gelled extremely well. The interactions between the characters are quite something to behold, their conversations feel so incredibly real, sparking off each other with ease, and breathing a life and urgency into the text that made a much welcomed, stark contrast to the dour recent Ghosts.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Review: The Gods Weep, RSC at Hampstead Theatre

“I feel like my soul has been bathed in acid”

You know there is a problem when a phrase like the above resonates strongly with you during a play... After a successful take on events post-Macbeth in Dunsinane comes Dennis Kelly’s The Gods Weep which is very heavily inspired by Kurosawa’s film Ran, which was in turn was influenced by King Lear. Admittedly this was a first preview, but at close to four hours long, and full of chaotic fighting, much blood, dead cats and squirrels and an inordinate amount of swearing, this had the amazing effect of making me actually want to watch paint dry instead: it’s not only the gods who will be weeping by the end of this run.

Replacing the feudal kingdoms of Lear/Ran with its modern-day equivalent, a multi-national corporation, the CEO Colm decides that after a lifetime of building an empire through brutal and savage means, it is time to relinquish power to his two subordinates. However in doing so, he unleashes a bloody power struggle between the two rivals with truly devastating consequences and ramifications which force Colm to face up to a lifetime of questionable decisions.
The action progresses through three distinct long sections: shifting from corporate boardroom machinations, to outright civil war, to post-apocalyptic wilderness survival, but the lurches from one to the other are clumsily handled. The idea of boardroom battles escalating and becoming a real war is an intriguing one which has some currency in today’s corporate world, but is obfuscated by silly love stories and an underdeveloped mystical thread involving business astrology and a crazy peach eating lady. The shift from boardroom to battlefield is arresting, featuring an onstage breaking of an arm, but the post-war move into survivalist territory comes far too late, is a tonal shift out of keeping with anything else we’ve seen and was played in something approaching slow motion. Most unfortunately, this final act has the effect of rendering the previous two somewhat inconsequential, which given we’ve spent nearly three hours watching it by this point is beyond my comprehension.

For too long and on too many occasions, it really isn’t clear what is happening, or indeed why: my note book was filled with questions by the end, but I won’t mention them in case you do decide to go and put yourself through this, just prepare to be frequently baffled. I'd no sense of how much time had passed at any point either. The writing is unimaginative, mistaking repeated profanity for actual character, and Colm aside, there's little attempt to delve into the motivation in any of the leads.

And with such perplexingly drawn characters, I had a real sense of frustration at the waste of acting talent on stage. Helen Schlesinger starts off as a fierce businesswoman nearly at the top of her profession yet she’s disappointingly reduced to acting like a lovesick teenager; John Stahl as Castile, Colm’s right-hand-man is given little to do except pop in and out of scenes; Karen Archer has nothing but mystical pronouncements with no depth to her ‘business astrologer’, whatever one of those is. Joanna Horton deserves some kind of award for gamely ploughing through the final torturous survivalist act with conviction, although she may need to work on her tent-erecting skills. And Jeremy Irons is alright, but I cared so little for Colm or what happened to him, that I was unable to really appreciate his acting.

Even the set feels wrong here. A 25 foot tree stands in a raised gravel pit, which people constantly found it hard to traverse; a big boardroom table in front for the first act and a bed on a little raised bit off to the side are the only other things used, it just looks cheap. Elsewhere production values are higher: smart suits help the first scene, the fight scenes are brutally realistic and there's buckets of stage blood used in often gorily effective ways.

An early draft of this play was apparently over 5 hours, so getting it under four hours clearly seemed like an achievement to them, but much much more needs to be cut and tightened up to make it a manageable evening. Perhaps I need to stop going to early previews, but for me though, The Gods Weep is fundamentally flawed, and I suspect beyond rescue.

(Preview) Running time: 3 hours 45 minutes (with 1 interval)
Playtext cost: £3.50
Note: there's repeated loud noises, violence and swearing throughout, so possibly not for the faint of heart

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Review: The Condor and the Maiden, King's Head

"Everyone knows the land belong to him, but I do all the work"

The Condor and the Maiden is a new play by Dermot Murphy which is playing in the afternoons at the King’s Head Theatre at 1pm. Produced by Tricolore, a company dedicated to the promotion of international culture, literature and language, it is a short quirky piece which proved to be a pleasant way to spend an hour in Islington.

Set in a village in Southern Bolivia, Lucía is living below the poverty line with her daughter Clarisa and struggling daily to make ends meet. When duty to her absent husband’s family and a land dispute threatens to leave them homeless and indeed their very existence, she is forced to dig deep in order to defend her and her daughter’s futures.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Review: Anyone Can Whistle, Jermyn Street

“Can’t complain about the time we’re given”

Despite Lauren Bacall telling me to just put your lips together and blow, I have never been able to whistle. Even if I could, my deaf old ears wouldn’t hear it anyway, but having seen Anyone Can Whistle at the Jermyn Street Theatre in Piccadilly, I now realise that it is symptomatic of a life of emotional constipation and sexual frigidity: eek!

For a blog named for a Stephen Sondheim lyric, I have had precious little experience in seeing his work. Tim Burton’s cinematic Sweeney Todd aside, I’ve only actually seen the recent Menier A Little Night Music so I was pleased to see a number of Sondheim works lined up for this year, which just happens to mark his 80th birthday. Later in the year we’ll have Into the Woods at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park and Passion at the Donmar. In a couple of weeks there’s a concert on his actual birthday at the King’s Head, but first up in London is Primavera’s production of Anyone Can Whistle.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Review: A Sentimental Journey, Wilton's Music Hall

“You’re not going into that whole load of hooey are you…”

To anyone who has read this blog for a bit, it will come as no surprise that one of my favourite venues in London is Wilton’s Music Hall: a striking historical wonder in the East End, one of the most atmospheric places in the city and one that is sadly in need of much support and funding. I’ve tried to do my part by attending everything there since I discovered it late last year (Edmond and The Waste Land, both remarkable), and the latest play to be put on there is A Sentimental Journey: The Story of Doris Day.

It does what it says on the tin, tells the story of 1950s sweetheart Doris Day, who can lay claim to being one of the most successful box-office stars of all time, and how behind the carefully cultivated wholesome image lay a life of frustration, unhappiness, debt and a whole load of marital shenanigans. The story is accompanied throughout by many of Day’s famous songs, played fabulously by a quartet on stage under the excellent musical direction of Jo Stewart and sung by all the actors.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Review: You May Go Now - A Marriage Play, Finborough

"You will get off the bus and go to some sort of dining establishment and make eyes. Someone will find you."

You May Go Now – A Marriage Play, written by US playwright Bekah Brunstetter takes up the Sunday/Monday slot at the Finborough theatre for the next three weeks, and is the first time that this play has been performed in Europe. Things open with Dottie teaching her daughter Betty how to be the perfect 1950s housewife, today’s lesson is baking and icing a cake. The kitchen set is carefully dressed with a great eye for period detail but it soon becomes clear that all is most definitely not what it seems under the surface. Betty has been a virtual prisoner, allowed no contact with the outside world, yet Dottie then throws her out into that world on her 18th birthday to find herself a husband. The next scene then flips the scenario on its head as Dottie becomes a modern-day woman, with a depressed husband, struggling to complete a novel: or does she? When Betty returns from the bus stop, and is followed by a mysterious boy called Phillip, it is clear things are about to change.

It is darkly funny, with lots of sparky dialogue especially around the largely unaware Betty, and the story itself is engaging and suspenseful once one has gotten a handle on the wilfully obscure structure. But there were also elements that didn’t work: the hints of child abuse were most disconcerting but then swiftly abandoned and left unexplored. And it was never apparent to me why Dottie was trying to get rid of Betty in the first place, the act that sets up the whole play.

Review: Once Upon A Time At The Adelphi, Union Theatre

“For tonight if we dream, the world will dream along with us”

Phil Wilmott is clearly a master at directing large casts in tiny spaces and combined with Andrew Wright’s amazingly precise choreography, conjures more energy and life in the intimate space of the Union Theatre on a shoestring here with Once Upon A Time at the Adelphi than I saw at any point during that other show that I saw at another Adelphi recently. A Christmas Carol also by Wilmott and also produced by MokitaGrit, filled me with a whole Santa’s sackful of festive cheer and they are obviously doing something right as this show filled me with the joys of spring, even on this bitterly cold March evening.

A huge success with its run in Liverpool, picking up some big awards along the way, this is the London premiere although the programme talks ominously of this being the final chance to see the show. It’s an old-fashioned love story, albeit one set in two different timezones, set against the backdrop of the Adelphi hotel in Liverpool, a venue that capitalised on its location as a major transatlantic port in providing an ideal stopping point for Hollywood stars en route to more glamorous locations. We follow Jo and Neil in the present day as he tries to tempt her into backpacking round Japan with him and Alice and Thompson in the 1920s and 30s with their on-off romance being constantly challenged by events and circumstances seemingly out of their control. 

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Review: A Day at the Racists, Finborough

“People aren’t out and out racist any more, not like they used to be”

It’s been a bit of a political weekend for me, what with Moonfleece and A Day at the Racists, a new play by Anders Lustgarten premiering at the Finborough, both looking at the encroachment of the British National Party in East London and how this rise in fascist politics could have happened. But where as Moonfleece let the politics form a backdrop to a different story, A Day at the Racists is not afraid to show its teeth and really examine what motivates people to considering the BNP as a serious political option.

Set in Dagenham, dyed-in-the-wool Old Labour stalwart Peter is struggling to deal with the disillusionment of his daily life. This is highlighted by his son Mark’s inability to get regular work and to secure a council flat for him and his daughter, whilst Pete perceives that the immigrants in the area are having their needs met first. When a local BNP campaigner’s message, a smartly dressed British Asian woman at that, resonates strongly with him, he falls for the rebranding and the renewed sense of purpose given to him as she employs Pete as her campaign manager. Sucked into this murky world, Pete is forced to face the conflict between his new politics and old, between new relationships and his multicultural old friends and family, all the while dealing with his ultimate sense of betrayal by a country he has worked so hard for.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Review: Moonfleece, Rich Mix

“Don’t heckle a heckler, educate through reasonable debate”

I had certain expectations of Moonfleece, largely influenced by the fact that the BNP had roundly denounced the play even before it had opened at Bethnal Green's Rich Mix, which is virtually a recommendation in itself, and the opening scenes seemed to confirm them with a group of young men, all members of a far-right political party, converging on an abandoned East London tower block and attempting to turf out a mixed-race squatter. But as the tale unfolds, it becomes apparent that this is a tale of secrets and lies, of bonds between families and friends, and the way in which these can be manipulated to support an ideology, however extreme: the politics is in the background rather than the forefront.

The meeting has been called by Curtis, the stepson of a Nick Griffin-like fascist political leader, in the tower block that was his former family home as he is being haunted by the memories and ghost of his older brother. He has asked his ex Sarah to bring a psychic friend Nina in order to conduct a séance to try and get to the bottom of things, but with her arrival comes a diverse group of her friends, including a gay student journalist, and a strident Indian best friend. Curtis is then forced to confront the major emotional crises of his life, namely the deaths of his father and brother and the circumstances that have led to him adhering to his stepfather’s party and its bigoted credo, throwing up the differences in his current friends, also party members, and the more liberal grouping of friends from his old life, surrounding his ex-girlfriend. And then there's the squatters with a gift for storytelling, who has a story of particular significance to Curtis.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Review: Lord Arthur's Bed, King's Head

“Being in drag is just a bit of harmless fun”

Perhaps catering to its audience a little too much, Lord Arthur's Bed arrives at the King's Head theatre pub promising "nudity and scenes of gay sex". Given the intimate space one might expect a few of the beige mac brigade showing up, but there is much more to this play than titillation, indeed there's only one point where these two facets actually coincide very briefly. 

Newly civil-partnered Donald and Jim discover that their apartment has an extraordinary history, and decide to re-enact this story for us. It was previously inhabited by Lord Arthur Clinton and his wife Stella back in 1868: all was not was it seemed though as when Stella and her friend Fanny were arrested at the theatre, they were revealed to actually be Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, they were both cross-dressers. A scandalous trial then ensued which shocked the nation, yet it has not achieved the same infamy as Oscar Wilde’s similar legal exploits which happened 25 years later. Set against this tale, is the relationship of Donald and Jim themselves, and we flick between the two narratives throughout the action.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Continuation of London Assurance cast

Review: London Assurance, National Theatre

“I didn’t imagine I’d ever find the countryside so amusing”

Dion Boucicault's 1844 play, London Assurance, the latest National Theatre production is a rip-roaring, farcical romp of a show that should leave even the most depressed Phantom of the Opera fan with a smile on their face. With a quality all-star ensemble: Simon Russell Beale, Fiona Shaw, Richard Briers, Michelle Terry, Paul Ready, all hamming it up for all they are worth, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Sir Harcourt Courtly, a London socialite travels up to Gloucestershire, determined to procure himself a much younger wife-to-be, heiress Grace Harkaway, yet once there his head is turned by her cousin, Lady Gay Spanker, a forthright horse-riding fox-hunting Amazon of a woman. To further complicate matters, Sir Harcourt’s son Charles is also there, in disguise hiding from his creditors, and has fallen for Grace. Sensing the opportunity for merriment, Charles’ friend Richard Dazzle then colludes with Lady Gay to toy with the bumptious Sir Harcourt and lead him astray.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Review: Sweet Nothings, Young Vic

“Stop moping, stop brooding…”

Sweet Nothings is David Harrower’s take on Arthur Schnitzler’s Liebelei (Tom Stoppard previously created a version called Dalliance in 1986) and is described as a sex tragedy on the Young Vic’s website. Well, there’s no sex but plenty of tragedy, though perhaps not in the way they intended.

Rather predictably, there’s pandemonium with the seating arrangements. They’re still unreserved as usual with the Young Vic, but it is set up in a horseshoe with benches that are reminiscent of a lecture theatre, but they’re extremely narrow so it is hard to pass people once they’ve sat down. And human nature being what it is, means people always fill these rows from the aisle inwards, meaning that it is a very arduous task to get everyone seated and there’s much huffing and puffing as people are asked to move along to allow everyone in the theatre. I know it is a thankless job, but the ushers need to much firmer with people from the outset, otherwise every evening will suffer a delayed start and much grumpiness.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Review: Disconnect, Royal Court

"What you do in your cubicle is of utmost importance to the world economy"

Currently playing upstairs at the Royal Court is Disconnect by Anupama Chandrasekhar. It follows a team of 3 call centre operatives in Chennai, India as they chase debtors in Illinois, USA in the vain hope of meeting their sky-high targets. They take on American identities to try and collect credit card payments from unwilling debtors, but harassed by their new supervisor, himself suffering from a demotion, they are forced to play more by the rules, resulting in poorer performances, in turn forcing severe consequences for the team.

It’s clever, fast-paced, comic and very much of our time. It juxtaposes the role played by the developing world in picking up the pieces of the global recession, of course mainly caused by the Western world, with the continued aspiration for this way of life, despite it being exposed as unsustainable on a constant basis with every call that is made. But it is also an office drama, and its strength lie here in the depictions of the highly-competitive, target-driven environment in which camaraderies are forged and dreams chased.