Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Review: The Comedy of Errors, Open Air Theatre

“For they say every why hath a wherefore”

The second play in this year’s season at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park is Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. An early farce featuring two sets of identical twins separated at birth, they end up in the same town and several cases of mistaken identity then lead to a series of madcap capers and general confusion as everyone begins to question their relationships with others. This production is set in 1940s Casablanca and features amongst many, many other things, live swing music.

There’s so much going on and so many different tricks and whistles that it ultimately feels quite schizophrenic as a production. There are elements of ‘40s screwball comedy, jazz musicals and Carry On films amongst others, but they just didn’t feel well integrated. This was particularly obvious in Egeon’s scenes which were played straight and without fanfare and so felt tonally as if they were from a whole different play: scenes tend to stop and start as whatever new device is employed rather than flow from one to the other.

Cast of The Comedy of Errors continued

Monday, 28 June 2010

Review: Crocodile, Riverside Studios

“I want to let you speak to me”

The fourth play in the Sky Arts Playhouse: Live season, previewing at the Riverside Studios before live transmission on Sky Arts 2 is Crocodile, a new play by Frank McGuinness starring Sinéad Cusack and Pippa Bennett-Warner. A girl has been arrested for committing an unspeakable crime but is refusing to speak. When she gets a visit from a woman who has had legal training in London, the story of what has happened is slowly teased out but in doing so, the woman reveals more about her own motives than she is comfortable with. 

Cusack gives a predictably strong performance as Woman, the would-be defence lawyer working in Africa, overly keen to help piece together the mysteries of what has happened whilst trying to conceal the issues in her own life. Bennett-Warner, recently so very good in Ruined, gives another excellent turn here as Girl, holding tightly onto her secret and struggling to be able to articulate the true scope of what has happened to her. She has a graceful stage presence, able to use silence as well as words to convey her depth of emotion and she was extremely good when the balance of power shifted between the two women, really coming into her own and forcing Cusack's Woman onto the back foot. 

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Review: Avenue Q, Wyndhams

"Ethnic jokes might be uncouth, but you laugh because they're based on truth"

Now in its third home in the West End in its fifth year altogether, Avenue Q is proving to be something of an enduring success which fills my heart with joy. It is a couple of years since I’ve seen it, but when it first came out I just fell completely in love with the show, and particularly with the opening cast, and ended up seeing it about 5 times in the space of two years. A couple of trips to later incarnations of the cast left me a little disappointed, Jon Robyns, Simon Lipkin and Julie Atherton were just the dream team for me, and plus I ran out of people to take to it, so I hadn’t thought I would go again. However, a visit from a dear musical loving Canadian friend and a slight booking snafu for Wicked with lastminute.com meant we ended up at the half price ticket booth at Leicester Square and we plumped for this familiar old friend.

Having seen it so many times and having the soundtrack on my iPod means I know the songs inside out now, but I do maintain that Avenue Q is one of the best new musicals to have been written in the last decade. So many of the songs are classics, instantly catchy and running the emotional gamut from laugh-out-loud funny (so many to choose from but my favourites are probably 'If You Were Gay', 'The Internet Is For Porn' and 'Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist') to tear-in-the-eye touching (the end of 'Fantasies Come True', the beginning of 'It’s A Fine Fine Line'). And they are just so sharp lyrically, full of zippy one-liners and the ring of truth.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Review: As You Like It, Bridge Project at Old Vic

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”

As You Like It is one half of the 2010 Bridge Project season now in residence at the Old Vic, The Tempest being the other. The transatlantic company, directed by Sam Mendes, takes two classic plays in rep around the world for a year, starting in New York at BAM’s Harvey Theatre, these actors have so far been to Hong Kong, Singapore, France, Spain, Germany and Holland with these two Shakespeare works and London is their current leg. 

The play follows Rosalind, daughter of the Duke Senior who has been usurped by his own brother Duke Ferdinand and forced into exile. Rosalind remained in court due to her close friendship with Ferdinand’s daugher and her own cousin Celia, but the situation becomes increasingly unbearable and the two women flee the court disguised as men with the court jester Touchstone. They end up seeking sanctuary in the Forest of Arden where they meet up with a range of the forest’s inhabitants and the pastoral setting encourages a whole range of amorous feeling which may or may not end up in a quadruple wedding (what do you think?!) This is a darker version of the play than most, the comedy has been dialled down somewhat and an air of melancholy pervades which brings an interestingly different dynamic.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Review: Elektra, Young Vic

“There are times when justice is too big a risk”

Anne Carson’s version of Elektra is the latest play to take up residence in the Maria studio upstairs at the Young Vic. Allegedly having written 123 plays, only 7 of Greek playwright Sophocles’ works still remain, yet they remain ever popular: soon to open at the National Theatre, Moira Buffini’s Welcome to Thebes also takes much from his writing. However, this Elektra is doing things a little differently: no press night, no previews, just opening to its audience, oh and all tickets are completely free (though advance booking is strongly recommended!)

Carrie Cracknell’s debut as Associate Director at the Young Vic is a joint effort with Headlong and so it should come as little surprise that it is an inventive fusion of movement, music and text, creating haunting dreamscapes and evocative imagery that really capture the overwhelming aura of grief permeating this play. The whole play is darkly lit with varying shades of gloom and this allows for some eerie dream sequences to be played out with masked dancers at the start, setting the tone for a haunting exploration of grief and what it will drive people to.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Review: Dangerous, Above the Stag

“It is not as if I go round training young boys for any kind of self-gratification...”

Dangerous is an updated all-male adaptation of the book Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos currently running at the Above the Stag theatre pub in London’s Victoria. Moving the action from 18th century France to modern day London and Bournemouth and from the echelons of aristocratic society to a group of gay men, the story remains one of sexual power games, of seduction, betrayal, lust, revenge and malice. Marcus and Alexander are idle rich ex-lovers, now friends and rivals in trying to outdo each other in their schemes to manipulate the men and lovers who hang around them. As the stakes are raised higher and their games become ever more malicious, their battles for power threaten to engulf the innocents involved in their machinations and even themselves.

To be honest, this play had a lot to live up to as both the original book and the film of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation rank in my all-time favourites. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is one of the great epistolary novels, it is written entirely in the form of letters between various characters, and there is a nod to this in the occasional reciting of emails between Marcus and Alexander. The updating generally works on some levels, with references to webcams, iPhones and X-Tube as the effective tools for modern day scandal, but in other places not so well. The key motivating factor, the protection of Valmont’s reputation and the risk of public humiliation, just doesn’t ring true in the modern-day context and the straight swop of French upper-class society to gay London isn’t quite enough, in order to capture the true incestuousness of the scene and to give the fear of gossip the power it needs, the play would have to be more tightly located within somewhere like Soho or Vauxhall.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Review: The Tempest, Bridge Project at Old Vic

"This rough magic I here abjure"

The Bridge Project, a transatlantic company of actors performing two classic plays in rep directed by Sam Mendes, returns to the Old Vic for its second year after playing numerous venues across the world. After a well-received double-bill of The Cherry Orchard and The Winter’s Tale last year, there’s a greater focus on Shakespeare with As You Like It partnering The Tempest.

This is a somewhat low-key interpretation of Shakespeare’s final play. Played in modern dress, it tells of Prospero, usurped as Duke of Milan by his own brother and cast out to sea with his infant daughter Miranda. Shipwrecked on a mysterious island full of magical knowledge, 12 years pass until he is able to confront his enemies aided and abetted by his enslaved island creatures Ariel and Caliban and through a masterful display of control-freakery, manipulate most everyone he deals with into achieving his own aims. 

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Continuation of the cast of Welcome to Thebes

Review: Welcome to Thebes, National Theatre

“If you intend to f*ck with the god of power, then make sure you don’t fall asleep besides him”

Any play that can use the epithet “your mother-f*cking brother” with complete accuracy has to be worth your attention and sure enough, Welcome to Thebes, a new play by Moira Buffini opening in the Olivier auditorium at the National Theatre, is more than equal to the challenge. The play is quite huge in scope, it looks at the role of women in politics, the state of Africa, the aftermath of war, the relationship between Africa and the West, the tragedy of child soldiers and it tells of them through the prism of Greek mythology, but relocated to the modern day and an unspecified (West) African state.

So we have the story of a female president-elect, Eurydice, struggling to exert herself in both her domestic situation in a country reeling from years of civil war, but also in the male-dominated world of international relations as she needs to establish links with global superpower Athens for much needed aid and investment by engaging with its charismatic leader, Theseus. The clearest analogy to make is with Liberia, the only African state to have an elected female leader of state in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who came to power after the concerted efforts of a mass movement of women hungry for peace after years of civil war. And if Thebes equates to Liberia, then Athens becomes the United States, the superpower and apparent bastion of democracy but unwilling to provide assistance without considerable caveats; Theseus being an Obama-like leader with a touch more arrogance.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Review: Through A Glass Darkly, Almeida

“It’s the confusion that terrifies me”

Through a Glass Darkly is a bit of a coup for the Almeida Theatre, a world premiere of this Ingmar Bergman story and directed by long-term friend of the Almeida, Michael Attenborough. It tells of a family, a couple Karin and Martin accompanied by her father and brother, holidaying on a bleak Swedish island once associated with family happiness, now revisited at the behest of Karin. Recently released from an asylum after some sort of psychiatric breakdown, she is trying to recapture the feelings of contentment she remembers from the past, but her father, brother and husband for their own various reasons seem unable to help her realise her ambition and so she decides to take control of her own destiny. 

This is the only one of Bergman’s works that he permitted to be adapted for the stage and I’m pretty sure I read that Andrew Upton was doing the adaptation when this was first announced, but Jenny Worton is credited here. Not knowing the film, I can’t comment on how good an adaptation it is; structurally, it takes place over 24 hours through a series of scenes. There was something a bit too mechanical about the transitions though, not enough of a feel of the links between the scenes for my liking and so it all felt a bit disconnected, a series of tableaux rather than a well-integrated play.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Review: Ghost Story, Riverside Studios

“I don’t want to be an ill person any more”

The second play in the Sky Arts Playhouse: Live project is Ghost Story, written and directed by Mark Ravenhill and featuring an amazing cast of Juliet Stevenson, Lesley Manville and Lyndsey Marshal. Stevenson plays Lisa, a breast cancer sufferer who has come to visit Meryl (Manville), a healer who believes in the curative power of positive thought. Then, as the programme says “as time folds back on itself, Lisa and Meryl cross the line between the healer and the healed and discover that the world is full of ghosts”.

On one level, this is a satire on the doctrine of positive thinking, questioning how real or effective it could possibly be in the fight against terminal illness, posing serious questions but also playing it for laughs, the scene in which Lisa is encouraged to draw what her cancer looks like on the wall of the apartment is brilliant (I thought it looked like an evil frog) and wryly amusing (it then gains a penis, and pubic hair). It is also though a poignant account of people’s battles with illness, how it affects relationship with the self and the loved ones around us. It is particularly moving in the way it depicts the lies and half-truths we have to tell to protect others or even our own egos: all the characters obfuscate the truth at some point or other.

Review: Richard Thompson’s Cabaret of Souls, Royal Festival Hall

“You call this art, I call it drivel”

Opening the Meltdown Festival at the Southbank Centre, was Richard Thompson’s Cabaret of Souls in its European premiere here. Thompson is curating the whole festival but this song cycle was composed for Danny Thompson’s 70th birthday and was played here by Richard on guitar, Danny on bass, a 10 person string section and vocalists who included Harry Shearer of the Simpsons and Judith Owen, his wife.

A twisted version of a reality talent show, with souls in limbo singing for their survival in front of a sardonic judge. I think the songs were meant to represent the seven deadly sins, but it wasn’t hugely clear to me. There was definitely gluttony, a painfully transparent attack on critics which I assume was pride, but the weirdness was that everyone seemed to be being judged by the same harsh standard, no matter what their sin. So a murderer was the same as a woman who had plastic surgery, a rather tenuous analogy one feels.

Review: A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle, Royal Festival Hall

“And let the sun set on the ocean
I will watch it from the shore
Let the sun rise over the redwoods
I'll rise with it till I rise no more”

A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle was a show of profound beauty and amazing music put together as part of the Southbank's Meltdown Festival, curated this year by Richard Thompson, to commemorate the life of Kate who died of cancer earlier this year. She was part of a huge musical dynasty in her native Canada, part of the folk scene with her sister Anna, ex-wife of Loudon Wainwright III, but latterly probably more famous as the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright.

Over three hours, a huge number of people came together to remember a beloved mother, sister, aunt, colleague by teaming up and performing numbers from Kate & Anna’s back catalogue, ably supported by a hugely talented band. People like Nick Cave, Neil Tennant, Emmylou Harris, Teddy Thompson, Lisa Hannigan, Michael Ondaatje all gave their own unique contributions, paying tribute in their own special ways with her family members also chipping in, sister Jane on the piano, niece and nephew doing backing vocals on a huge number of songs and of course Rufus and Martha at the heart of everything.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Review: You, Me and Wii

“It’s like choosing between three turds”

The fifth play in the Now half of Women, Power and Politics season at the Tricycle Theatre

In a council house in a small depressed Leicestershire town, a large family is going about their daily business, Vincent’s skiing on the Wii, Sheila’s feeding her granddaughter McKenzie, and Kerry’s getting on with the ironing. None of them are planning on voting in the election, but when Selina Snow, the local Labour Party candidate rings the doorbell to canvas, she sets about trying to change their minds but as the conversation flows and the revelations come, it looks more like they will change hers.

Full of witty jokes, the Russell Brand/kettle quip was brilliant, the multiple family relations nicely sketched and the tensions of the working life of a constituency MP with London childcare needs were nicely conveyed, the only criticism would be that there was just so much packed in there, that the half hour running time didn’t allow for a full unfurling of the stories. Kerry’s awakening is necessarily fairly abrupt, Vincent’s war trauma is tantalizingly brushed on, the awful truth about Courtney’s pregnancy unexamined, there’s the makings of a full length play in here as all the characters seem to have interesting histories.

Review: Pink

“It never ceases to surprise me that the critics are usually women”

The fourth play of the Now half of Women, Power and Politics season at the Tricycle Theatre

Pink is set in the green room of a television studio as Kim Keen is preparing to launch a new product line. She is a hugely successful businesswoman but when she receives an unexpected visit from an equally powerful woman Bridget, with a completely different agenda, there’s a faceoff between the two and huge decisions to be made, with the clock ticking away the minutes until Kim is live on air.

The clash between these two formidable women was just electric, each with their own prejudices about the other and what they do and how these perceptions inform so much of our interactions with people. Looking back, this was perfectly exemplified in Amy Loughton’s brief cameo as a production assistant going through the questions for Keen’s television appearance with a barely disguised disdain, the reason for which only becomes apparent once we know just what it is that Kim is promoting.

Review: Playing the Game

“You’re going to be the Beyoncé of politics”

Bola Agbaje’s contribution is Playing the Game, following three university housemates as the election for a new Students’ Association fast approaches. Akousa is interested in running but unsure if she is popular enough so her trendy housemates set about raising her profile, giving her makeovers, sexing her up and utilising any means possible to get her name out there. Their motives aren’t necessarily pure though and Akousa is forced to examine how far she is willing to go and how much she is willing to compromise in order to gain power.

Following the mantra that any publicity is good publicity, this was a good look at the ways viral marketing, social media and instant news can be used and abused to get your message across, especially to younger people, but also in the way that these things can be manipulated to present anything any way you choose. Lara Rossi and Claire Cox were very good as the key manipulators Jenny and Charlene pushing, prodding and primping their flatmate as a tool to achieve their ambitions, fully aware of how sex sells and what makes their world go round in the pursuit of their individualistic aims at the expense of the collective good. Amy Loughton was excellent as the young woman slowly coming to the realisation that there are always limits to how far one can go in order to get what one wants but also that personal savviness is an essential characteristic in achieving success.

Review: The Panel

“What do we know about her circumstances?”

The second play in the Now half of Women, Power and Politics season at the Tricycle Theatre

The Panel is the only play in the season which does not feature a woman on stage. It stars all five male members of the ensemble in an interview panel situation, they’ve just spent three days interviewing a woman-only shortlist for a job and need to appoint, but with various deadlines fast approaching and a range of individual agendas at play, it is not a clear-cut decision.

I wasn’t a fan of the gender politics on display here. It felt a little reductive, suggesting no progress in the corporate world, ultimately tarring all men with the same brush and certainly I didn’t feel as if it had anything new to say. It did raise the interesting point though that only one of the women who was interviewed would have made the sift if it hadn’t have been a women-only shortlist, raising the question about the effectiveness of positive discrimination, something Ann Widdecombe’s interjections in the verbatim section focuses on: it has to be on merit, she says.

Review: Acting Leader

“Is the country ready for another Prime Minister called Margaret?”

Play number one of the Now half of Women, Power and Politics season at the Tricycle Theatre

Acting Leader is set in 1994 during the leadership contest for the Labour Party that was provoked by the untimely death of John Smith. Margaret Beckett was thrust into the position of Acting Leader of the Opposition and was persuaded to run for leader, but with the politicking of Blair and Prescott and the birth of New Labour on the horizon, Beckett faced an uphill struggle.

Achingly current with the Labour Party leadership contest now in full swing and yet sixteen years later, little change seems to have occurred. There’s still a female Acting Leader of the Labour Party but she isn’t even standing in the contest and the one female candidate who is there made it by the skin of her teeth after the strategic withdrawal of a rival.

Review: Women, Power and Politics: Now, Tricycle

“Why would anyone go into politics unless it is to speak up for those who can’t speak up for themselves?”

Women, Power and Politics: Now is one half of a larger programme of activities by the Tricycle looking at the role of women in power and politics to try and find an answer to the persistent under-representation of women in the corridors of power in the UK. Taking its example from last year’s The Great Game, a number of playwrights have been commissioned to create short plays from a range of perspectives and stories and performed by a large ensemble of 12. This half looks at things from a modern perspective whereas Then takes a set of historical viewpoints, you should note the two evenings can be enjoyed separately and do not have to be viewed in chronological order.

Directed by Indhu Rubasingham, Now features five short plays, Acting Leader by Joy Wilkinson, The Panel by Zinnie Harris, Playing the Game by Bola Agbaje, Pink by Sam Holcroft and You, Me and Wii by Sue Townsend, fuller reviews of each play can be read by clicking on the links in the titles. There’s a number of common themes that emerge from the evening, in particular the rise of the pursuit of individual gain over the collective good and the prevalence of voter apathy for a range of reasons.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Review: Bloody Wimmin

“There’s only so much non-violence one can take”

Play number four of the Then half of Women, Power and Politics season at the Tricycle Theatre

The only play to feature the entire ensemble is Lucy Kirkwood’s Bloody Wimmin which rounds off the evening for Then. Taking the shocking fact, that many women in their 20s have never heard of Greenham Common or what it stood for as its starting point,  it looks back at the protest camp set up in the name of nuclear disarmament, how it developed and what it came to mean to the women who were there, and then it moves to look at what, if any, impact it has on today's society.

Starting off on Greenham Common itself with a delightful sending-up of the stereotypical view of the protestors, chunky-knit and wellington-boot wearing lesbians smelling of wood-smoke and obsessed with petty squabbles usually about the minutiae of cleaning and cooking rotas and missing ladles. Things take a more serious tone with the arrival of pregnant Helen, played by Claire Cox, and we follow her on her journey as a woman seeking personal liberation and enlightenment away from the daily grind and society’s expectations of her, especially as a mother and an expecting one as well to boot. Her confrontation with husband Bob (Oliver Chris) is genuinely shocking as they play a game of brinkmanship with the emotional missiles they have on each other, papering the cracks of their marriage and so we see Greenham actually as the catalyst for empowering women.

Review: The Lioness

“I am blank between the legs”

Play number three of the Then half of Women, Power and Politics season at the Tricycle Theatre

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s contribution is a character study of Elizabeth I, picking out two encounters from her life to show how she dealt with the pressures of power and the political role she chose for herself, of wife and mother to the nation. The confrontation with the dour John Knox, founder of the Presbyterians and a shocking misogynist, reminding her that being Queen in a man’s world was rife with long-held antipathy to female leaders and whilst his vituperative writings were not aimed specifically at her (but rather her sister), her sense of sisterhood was sufficiently strong to never forgive him. And her relationship with the Earl of Essex, a favourite in her later life despite being the step-son of Dudley who possibly came closest to marrying her. In this continued liaison, there’s more of a sense of her need for companionship with Oliver Chris’ Essex after a hard life of power, his handsome arrogance proving irresistible and thereby making her devastation at his ultimate betrayal despite their familiarity (‘he called me Bess...’) all the more heartbreaking.

In compressing so much time, her whole reign in fact and a very select number of events, although there’s still time for a rousing rendition of the Tilbury call-to-arms speech, “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king...”, I think Lenkiewicz may have over-reached slightly. There just isn’t the time to go into the huge amount of issues that brushed upon here, her uneasy relationship with the legacy of her father, dealing with how her mother died, her angst at what she did to Mary Queen of Scots which end up being dealt with in a perfunctory couple of sentences: the scope of the play is just too big for me to be truly effective.

Review: Handbagged

“’I never said there was no such thing as society’
‘Yes you did, it was in Women’s Own!’”

Play number 2 of the Then half of Women, Power and Politics season at the Tricycle Theatre

Written by Moira Buffini, soon to become the second living female playwright to have a play performed on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre (although by saying that am I undermining what this season is trying to achieve? I know it shouldn’t matter but surely it is significant enough to mention?), Handbagged is an extremely witty look at what the relationship between the Queen of England and Margaret Thatcher might have been like. Thatcher had a weekly audience with Elizabeth II during her Prime Ministership and this could be seen as the most constant professional relationship she had with another woman during that time, but it was not the easiest of times between the two as we see here.

They were tested by a range of major challenges. Like Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, supported by Thatcher but as a Commonwealth country the Queen had an interest as the Head of State there, and the Queen took great exception to not being fully included in the consultations around it. Like Thatcher’s rejection of sanctions against South Africa in order to try and weaken apartheid, something supported by the Queen as she felt it was threatening the stability of the Commonwealth. Like the Sunday Times’ alleged exposé of the rift between the women, leaked (or was it?) by the Queen’s Press Secretary Michael Shea, a waggish Simon Chandler in an excellent cameo here.

Review: The Milliner and the Weaver

“They’ve got eyes in their arses in this street”

Play number one of the Then half of Women, Power and Politics season at the Tricycle Theatre

This play is set in 1914 and looked at the relationship between Henrietta from Belfast and Elspeth from Dublin, worlds apart socially but bound together by their joint participation in the suffragette movement. However, the long-running debate about Home Rule in Ireland threatens to break this unlikely alliance as Elspeth makes an unscheduled visit to Belfast.

It was well acted, Niamh Cusack was good as the downtrodden Henrietta, resigned to the realities of her situation and the need to exercise caution in fighting for social change, after all she needs to go on living where she does no matter how unpopular her actions. And Stella Gonet, resplendent in Victorian costume (which is as close as I’ve ever seen her to her House of Elliott character, which was a thrill in itself!) matched her well with her Elspeth, clearly not used to dealing with people not from her social strata

Review: Women, Power and Politics: Then, Tricycle

“It’s terribly easy to laugh at passion”

Women, Power and Politics: Then is one half of a larger programme of activities by the Tricycle looking at the role of women in power and politics to try and find an answer to the persistent under-representation of women in the corridors of power in the UK. Taking its example from last year’s The Great Game, a number of playwrights have been commissioned to create short plays from a range of perspectives and stories and performed by a large ensemble. This half looks at historical viewpoints and the other deals with modern day issues, you should note the two evenings can be enjoyed separately and do not have to be viewed in chronological order.

Directed by Indhu Rubasingham, Then features four plays The Milliner and the Weaver by Marie Jones, Handbagged by Moira Buffini, The Lioness by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Bloody Wimmin by Lucy Kirkwood, fuller reviews of each play can be read by clicking on the links in the titles. Covering a wide range of subjects like the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher, the women of Greenham Common and the reign of Elizabeth I, there’s clearly a world of difference between the plays and a huge diversity in female experience throughout history, but what is striking is the similarities: in the dogged resistance to any change in the status quo no matter how discriminatory it is to enable women to participate fully in whatever process, in the conflict between the public and private personae that seem to be necessary for women to have if they are to be taken seriously.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Review: Henry IV Part 1, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Herein will I imitate the sun, who doth permit the base contagious clouds” 

You gotta love the English weather: the two outdoor performances I’ve attended this week have been mostly rained on and the two small theatre pub things have been on ridiculously hot evenings turning them into saunas, you just can’t win sometimes! Fortunately, I was seated for this matinee of Henry IV Part One so I was sheltered from the occasionally heavy showers, not so the yardlings though...

It’s all huge amounts of fun: it starts with a mummers masque and ends with an exuberant jig and is full of music and singing throughout which captured the varying moods of this coming of age story perfectly. Prince Hal, son of Henry IV, is struggling to find himself both personally and politically, amid the pressures from three different groups of people: the politically astute King and his courtiers, the witty and shrewd Falstaff and assorted drinking buddies and the rebel camp headed up by the forthright and charismatic Hotspur, each challenging him a different way. There’s a deal of the high politics in there but this production is so alive to the amount of humour in here as well, the Boar’s Head scenes are riotously good raucous fun, watched and dominated by a towering performance by Roger Allam as Sir John Falstaff. Allam negotiates the tightrope of comedy and tragedy expertly, mixing up the philosophising, the dynamic wit, the quicksilver tongue and the earthiness, the realisation he’s only ever a couple of steps away from ruin

Cast of Henry IV Part 1 continued

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The 2009 Ian Charleson Awards

First prizeRuth Negga, for Aricia in Phèdre (National Theatre)[35]

Second prizeMax Bennett, for Claudio in Measure for Measure (Theatre Royal, Plymouth) and Frank in Mrs Warren's Profession (Theatre Royal, Bath)

Third prizeNatalie Dew, for Celia in As You Like It (Curve Theatre)

Special commendations as previous winnersMariah Gale, for Celia in As You Like It (Royal Shakespeare Company)
Rebecca Hall, for Hermione in The Winter’s Tale (Bridge Project at the Old Vic)

CommendationsHedydd Dylan, for Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (Clwyd Theatr Cymru)
Tracy Ifeachor, for Rosalind in As You Like It (Curve Theatre)
Max Irons, for Max Piccolomini in Wallenstein (Chichester Festival Theatre)
Tunji Kasim, for Lucius and Romulus in Julius Caesar (Royal Shakespeare Company)
Vanessa Kirby, for Regina in Ghosts (Octagon Theatre, Bolton)
Keira Knightley, for Jennifer in The Misanthrope (Comedy Theatre)
Jack Laskey, for Orlando in As You Like It (Shakespeare's Globe)
Harry Lloyd, for Oswald in Ghosts (Arcola Theatre)
John MacMillan, for Malcolm in Macbeth (Royal Exchange Theatre), and Rosencrantz in Hamlet (Wyndhams Theatre)
David Ononokpono, for Orlando in As You Like It (Curve Theatre)
Henry Pettigrew, for Marcellus and Second Gravedigger in Hamlet (Wyndhams Theatre)
Prasanna Puwanarajah, for Messenger in Thyestes (Arcola Theatre)
George Rainsford, for Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well (National Theatre)
Sam Swainsbury, for Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Salerio in The Merchant of Venice (Propeller)
Ellie Turner, for Agnes in The School for Wives (Upstairs at the Gatehouse)

Ian Charleson Awards nominees continued

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Review: Like A Fishbone, Bush

“How could there be a meaning there?!”

The timing of an opening of a new show is everything: later this week I’m going to the Tricycle to see Then and Now, their Women and Politics multi-part extravaganza at a time when the new cabinet has fewer women than ever so it feels even more appropriate. Such immediate relevance can be a double-edged sword though as Like A Fishbone, the new play by Anthony Weigh opening at the Bush Theatre about the memorialisation of a school shooting, comes less than a week after the tragic events in West Cumbria and whilst not directly connected, there were moments when it felt really quite close to the bone.

Like A Fishbone takes its title from the Robert Lowell poem ‘For the Union Dead’ referring to the memorial for the war dead in Boston as this play examines what is appropriate when it comes to dealing with the legacy of a tragic event. A leading architect has been commissioned to create a memorial for the victims of a terrible crime, all the children of a village murdered in their schoolhouse, and she is preparing to unveil her work to the public. When a blind woman somehow makes her way into the office where the model of the memorial is being kept ready for delivery, the scene is set for a confrontation between the two as it turns out she is the mother of one of the children who died in the attack. They then challenge each other about what constitutes a fitting monument to the dead, what it means to be a mother and the relative merits of clinging onto faith over the stark acceptance of the brutal truth. It’s heavy-hitting stuff, almost claustrophobic in its one room, real-time setting, but genuinely thrilling.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Not a Review: Painted Lady – The Princess Caraboo Scandal, Finborough

“The biggest stinker is the one with the foulest stench”

Fate can be a funny thing. As anyone who has read this blog for a bit will know, I decided a while back that director and playwright Phil Willmott was going to be my new best friend after Once Upon A Time At The Adelphi melted my heart, but oddly enough that has yet to come to fruition! But being a very hard-working man, opportunities to see his work keep popping up and when a preview of his new musical Painted Lady – The Princess Caraboo Story was announced as part of the Finborough’s Vibrant festival, there was no chance I wasn’t booking my tickets. And sure enough, the man himself was there and after introducing the show, he made his way to his seat WHICH WAS NEXT TO MINE! Good times. Except, due to Chiltern Railways’ inability to notify people just when their engineering works were taking place making me rather late and needing to run to make the curtain and it being a ridiculously hot evening, it was practically like a sauna in the little theatre and so the only thing I could do next to Mr Willmott was sweat, a lot. And I am sorry to him for that. Goddamn fate!

Anyway, the show: Willmott accepted a commission for a brand new musical from the Bristol Old Vic for 2011 and this is the first airing of the material being developed for it, the first draft of an embryo I think someone described it as. After a week’s rehearsal, we were told not to expect too much and to imagine the dance routines in the big numbers, a tricksy way of lowering expectations because as a company of 17 filed onstage, they acted and sang and in some cases threw in a bit of choreography which looked quite practised and comfortable, all very impressive. As with other works-in-progress, this is more an overview though than an actual review.

Review: Romeo and Juliet, Actors Church Covent Garden

"Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night"

So my second Romeo and Juliet in a central London (but off-West-End) venue in a week but whilst this is a modern dress Romeo and Juliet, it wisely leaves alone from much else tinkering. Set in the grounds and gardens, and finally inside, The Actors Church otherwise known as St Pauls Church in Covent Garden, this is a fresh, thoroughly honest and intimate telling of this familiar tale by Iris Theatre which offers a beautifully direct connection to the material. Fierce from the outset, there’s bottling, punching and flick-knives by the dozen, the opening brawl leaves many of the cast spitting (fake) blood and covered in plasters and bandages for the rest of the show: there’s little holding back from the brutality of the violence endemic in this family feud. But likewise, there’s no hiding from the depth of emotion here as well; this production contains a pair of central performances in an utterly convincing portrayal of teenage lust and passion. 

There’s a wonderful use of the nooks and crannies of St Pauls, a surprisingly calm environment enclosed on all sides by tall buildings and the hustle and bustle of Covent Garden. The audience is seated on benches for the longer scenes, but occasionally we wander to different areas to witness a rave in a garden complete with Bonnie Tyler dance routine, or snoop on the lovers in their hammock in a shaded corner, or in a brilliant moment, watch Juliet as she emerges in the window of one of the adjoining houses for the balcony scene. Then as we approach the final scene, we are invited into the church itself and it is a breathtaking moment: lit by hundreds of candles and a striking large blue neon cross, the air laden with incense, the bodies of Juliet and Paris laid on the altar, it is incredibly effective and atmospheric and demonstrates a superbly sensitive understanding of the opportunities provided by this venue.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Review: Romeo & Juliet, Leicester Square Theatre

“I will show myself a tyrant”

This version of Romeo and Juliet moves the action to 1938 when Italy was under Mussolini’s fascist rule. Produced by the Ruby in the Smoke company and taking up residence in the small basement of the Leicester Square Theatre until 11th July, this offers a largely inventive take on the familiar story of the “star-cross’d lovers”. A cast of eight cover the much edited version of events with a reduced number of characters too, there’s a little doubling up but there’s still only 11 characters featured in this production, the main casualties are the parents, only Capulet remains.

The literature around the show talks of the Race Law instituted by Mussolini in 1938, forbidding Italians from marrying Jews, and by making Romeo a son of David, the focus of the show is shifted away from family feuds over to anti-Semitism, Juliet is the daughter of a militant member of the secret police thereby creating the tension that forces the play along. This is a neat reconception, but I’m not 100% sure that it worked or that it was supported by the text: I could see Romeo’s small Jewish necklace as I was near the front, but I rather suspect for some the first indication that he was a Jew would have been towards the end when he put on an overcoat marked with a yellow star.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Review: Miranda Sings and Friends, Leicester Square Theatre

"Haters back off"

One of the things I love about living and theatregoing in London is the sheer range and diversity of opportunity to see things. Sometimes however, there is just too much choice and this month I've been presented with a number of dilemmas, the end result of which was us ending up at Miranda Sings and Friends on Thursday night despite having no clue who or what is was all about.

It is the combined fault of Julie Atherton and Daniel Boys, both of whom are performing cabaret shows to feature their albums, Atherton at the Delfont Rooms and Boys at my beloved Wilton's Music Hall, but one of my birthday presents was tickets to see Swedish pop legend Robyn on the night Daniel Boys is singing and so I booked to see him performing in the reading of Phil Wilmott's new musical at the Finborough so that I'd get my fix. But that happened to be the same night as Atherton's show so in order to get my Julie Atherton fix, I found out she was performing at this Miranda Sings thing and so we booked for that. It's all a bit overly complicated I know, but these are the dilemmas one faces in this city!

Review: Spamalot, New Wimbledon Theatre

“In a thousand years, this will still be controversial”

I’ve never really been a fan of Monty Python and so had never felt the need to go and see Spamalot when it was running in the West End. But when a UK tour was announced, featuring a few interesting cast members, I decided to take the plunge and make my first visit to the New Wimbledon Theatre. 

Described as a new musical loving ripped off from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it is a largely irreverent parody of the Arthurian legend with some self-parodic numbers about musical theatre thrown in for good measure. It features a new book and lyrics from Eric Idle with John Du Prez contributing to the music, but contains a couple of songs from the original film and also possibly the most recognisable song Monty Python ever came up with, Always Look On The Bright Side of Life. But really, it’s not about the plot, or the killer rabbit, or the French people, or the flying cow, or Finland, it’s about the humour and the silliness and the sheer enthusiasm onstage.

Review: The Typist, Riverside Studios

“It’s not a result of excessive masturbation”

The Sky Arts Playhouse: Live project has commissioned five new short plays which will be broadcast live on Sky Arts 2 but we have the opportunity to watch previews of them at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith before they are transmitted: first up is The Typist. Written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who will seemingly be forever known as the first woman to have a play performed on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre and directed by Bijan Sheibani, responsible for one of my favourite things from last year Our Class, there is obviously a very high class field of creatives brought together here by executive producer Sandi Toksvig and there are some corkers coming in the rest of the programme, not least Lesley Manville and Juliet Stevenson in a new Mark Ravenhill piece. 

It tells the story of the relationship between Mary Parks, an artist and photographer who has lost her sight, and Fit, a smart but shy teenage boy who she has employed to transcribe her thoughts and writings. From the moment of his employment, their rapport is obvious despite their differences but as they become more and more honest with each other, Mary tests the relationship to its limits with an extraordinary request. It is a fine piece of writing, a brilliantly rounded portrait of a feisty mature woman and the real issues affecting her. 

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Review: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Young Vic

“I woke up that morning and the only thing I could do was look around for my shoes”

First things first: there’s a credit in the programme for teeth by Fangs FX but I was sorely disappointed not to notice where these came in and this set my mood for the whole show. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is a play by August Wilson which forms part of a cycle of plays looking at the African-American experience in the twentieth century. It appears here in London at the Young Vic until the 3rd July.

Set in 1911, Seth and Bertha run a boarding house in Pittsburgh filled an array of characters who drift in and out, some for days, some for weeks, all dealing with the new post-emancipation world they find themselves in. The gentle atmosphere is rocked with the arrival of Herald Loomis and his daughter Zonia. Herald has spent seven years in slavery to a white planter named Joe Turner and is seeking his wife Martha, who disappeared four years ago from their home in Tennessee. He is a menacing half-mad presence and the other boarders deal with him in various ways as people coming to terms with their own experiences too.

Review: After the Dance, National Theatre

“It’s the bright young people over again, only they never were bright and now they’re not even young”

After the Dance is one of Terence Rattigan’s lesser-performed plays; its less-than-stellar original reception due to its unfortunate timing, opening in 1939 as it did, meant it was a relative commercial failure. Rattigan’s personal antipathy to the piece because of this led to the play being excluded from anthologies of his work and it is only really after his death that it has been considerably re-appraised and now considered one of his masterpieces (according to the National Theatre website anyway!).

A cast of 25, under Thea Sharrock’s direction, tell the story of a group of wealthy London socialites, and their hanger-ons, as they set about the business of partying and just generally having a right rollicking good old time. The year is 1938 though, and these are the people who survived the horrors of the Great War, bright young things of the 20s unwilling to let go of the illusions of their youth even as the world tumbles towards another major conflict. At the centre of pile of empties are the Scott-Fowlers, Joan and David the ultimate party couple who got married for kicks and giggles yet find themselves 12 years later still together. Their Mayfair apartment is populated by their friends only interested in maintaining the partying status quo of gin-soaked debauchery, but some of the younger generation are also present, a nephew is helping David with his fruitless pursuit to be taken seriously as a historian and his meddlesome sweetheart who is intent on rescuing David from himself, regardless of the impact it will have on his marriage.

Cast of After the Dance continued

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Top 10 plays for May

The month of May saw me pass the 100 plays mark for the year already with only the merest hint of fatigue setting in. I suspect my theatre-going may slow down a little if the weather ever decides to recognise that it is now summer, but in any case here's my top ten plays for May.