Monday, 31 January 2011

Critics' Circle Awards 2010: the winners in full

Best New Play

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris

The Peter Hepple Award for Best Musical

Matilda, A Musical

Best Actor

David Suchet in All My Sons

Best Actress

Jenny Jules in Ruined

The John and Wendy Trewin Award for Best Shakespearean Performance

Derek Jacobi in King Lear

Best Director

Michael Grandage for King Lear

Best Designer 

Bunny Christie for The White Guard

Most Promising Playwright

Anya Reiss for Spur of the Moment

The Jack Tinker Award for Most Promising Newcomer [other than a playwright]

Daniel Kaluuya in Sucker Punch

Review: Lance Horne – First Things Last, Garrick

“What matters are the things you leave behind
And the echoes love can leave inside your mind
And the lights that last from random acts of kindness
Kind of simple, kind of not”
First Things Last celebrated the release of American musical theatre writer Lance Horne’s debut album at the Garrick Theatre, following two shows in New York earlier this month. The album features a host of highly talented stars from the West End and Broadway, so the concerts have had different line-ups reflecting people’s availability but this concert featured a line-up that read like a who’s who of the cream of British musical theatre and then some. The show was produced by those champions of new musical theatre Speckulation and lived up to expectations as a most stunning showcase for some seriously talented stars and a most engaging writer.

Picking a favourite moment from the event is a bit like my own version of Sophie’s Choice, but I was probably most looking forward to Meow Meow’s performance and she did not fail to deliver. Her song January, a regretful tale of a lost love, is like a 1960s black and white French film brought fully to life, her silkily sultry vocals perfectly matching the Jacques Brel feel of the song and I now could not be more excited for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg if I tried, it is going to be immense!

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Review: The Comedy of Errors, Propeller at Sheffield Lyceum

“Men, all divine, the masters of all these”

It is not often that I start off reviews with a negative comment but it must be said that Ed Hall and his Propeller company are naughty, naughty boys. When they announced their tour of their new productions, London was not among the cities and towns being visited so schedules were looked at, train timetables checked and we duly booked trips to Guildford to see Richard III and to Sheffield to see The Comedy of Errors. They then of course announced a short stop at the Hampstead Theatre which would have cut down on my travelling time somewhat. But, they don’t play there until the end of June and having seen both these shows now, I don’t think I could have coped with the anticipation waiting that long as they are sensationally good.

Ephesus has been re-imagined as a Costa del Sol type resort in Michael Pavelka’s design, full of football-shirt wearing blokes, geezers selling fake watches and flirtatious policemen and the air is filled with music, played live by the company who frequently break out into song, mostly snippets of cheesy 80s tunes which are brilliantly done and never outstay their welcome. Most of the ensemble remain onstage throughout, slipping out of their main role and into this group to provide a raft of sound effects straight out of a cartoon which are ridiculously funny and creating amusing moments in group scenes.

Cast of The Comedy of Errors continued

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Review: Leslie Jordan – My Trip Down The Pink Carpet, Apollo

“I decided that it might be best not to mention that I was a ho-mo-sexual”

Probably most famous, at least for me, for his cracking cameo appearances in Will & Grace as Karen Walker’s arch-nemesis Beverley Leslie, My Trip Down The Pink Carpet is Leslie Jordan’s one-man show which takes stories from his memoir of the same name and creates a highly personal, highly amusing 90 minute journey through his life.

The show mixes in anecdotes from Jordan’s career in Hollywood with tales from his boyhood in small-town Tennessee as a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality in the face of a Southern Baptist upbringing. These stories are most touching, the coping mechanisms developed in order to get through the school day, the remembrance of the trepidation and fear felt before entering his first gay bar painfully recognisable and the shift that happens once that threshold has been crossed feeling like the hugest load being lifted from the shoulders.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Review: The Invisible Man, Menier Chocolate Factory

“There’s something wrong with this...”

The Invisible Man is the Menier Chocolate Factory’s winter offering this year, following on from a healthy run of transfers including Sweet Charity, A Little Night Music and La Cage aux Folles. The main plot is taken from HG Wells’ story of a strange man swathed in bandages who arrives at a small village pub to take a room. It emerges that he is a scientist and a victim of an experiment gone wrong that has rendered him invisible and is seeking peace and quiet in order to come up with a cure. But the nosy villagers drive him mad and he snaps, seeking world domination instead. It has the makings of a chilling sci-fi story but wrapped up in an Edwardian music hall setting as it is here by Ken Hill, with Pierrot-based clown songs creating a vaudevillian mood as the ‘players’ perform the story as above, but full of a broad nudge-nudge-wink-wink bawdiness.

The music hall framing just seemed like an excuse to shoehorn in a song or two, as if the Menier couldn’t quite put on a Christmas show that didn’t feature singing, but it was a laboured device that grated with me every time it reappeared as it served to further diminish the impact of Wells’ story. Tonally, it remained at this broad, slapstick, pratfall-heavy level throughout which I must admit raised the rare chuckle but mostly left me cold. Because there was no attempt to give the storytelling any depth, I just didn’t care about anything even when the characters were the only people preventing society from collapsing entirely (I think) and with no variety in there, it just gets so damn repetitive: there’s only so much people pretending to be punched and bum tweaks that one can take.

And though Paul Kieve’s illusions were proficiently done for a fringe venue, none of them were so spectacular in the end (though I am not sure what would have actually impressed me) and they also suffered from repetition and a lack of variety. John Gordon Sinclair’s voice was the most effective tool that this production had, along with his eerie presence on the stage (his face not revealed until the bitter end) but even the chilling aspects here were negated by an over-reliance on ostensibly spooky music which quickly grew tiresome.

Review: Matilda – A Musical, Courtyard Theatre Stratford

“My mother says I’m a miracle”

For their festive family show over the 2010/11 winter, the RSC went for an adaptation of the Roald Dahl story to create Matilda, A Musical which has been, by all accounts, a runaway success for them. Dennis Kelly was responsible for the book but the production’s masterstroke has been to employ Tim Minchin, whose impish charm is wholly suited to the show, to do the music and lyrics. Directed by Matthew Warchus, the slightly tweaked story follows the prodigiously talented young girl Matilda, as she battles against the cruel indifference of her parents and the fearsome child-hating headmistress of her new school.

The employment of Minchin is a perfect fit, his anarchic wit feels like something Dahl himself would have approved of but pleasingly Minchin has not dumbed down at all in his songwriting, he has simply removed the profanity. His lyrics are absolutely sensational at times: incredibly witty on multiple levels (the kids to the left of me looked over a few times as I dissolved in hysterics at humour that thankfully flew over their heads) and stuffed full of intricate but engaging wordplay which fit the occasion perfectly: the alphabetic progression of School Song being perhaps the best example of a seemingly simple conceit which is just bursting with invention.

Cast of Matilda continued

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Review: Du Goudron et des Plumes, Compagnie MPTA/Mathurin Bolze at the Barbican

Presented in association with the London International Mime Festival, conceived by a circus creator and inspired by Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (according to the website), Compagnie MPTA’s Du Goudron et des Plumes is far from the usual type of show that I would attend. But, the Barbican’s programming, especially under the Bite umbrella, has been so reliable for me in recent years that the plunge was taken and well, it turned out to be a most unexpectedly viscerally exciting evening.

Translating to Tar and Feathers, the show, conceived and directed by Mathurin Bolze, takes place on, under and around an amazing platform which is almost constantly moving, whether swinging from side to side, rising up to the heavens or tipping precariously at an angle. The cast of five artists, including Bolze, find themselves on this platform and have to work together to try and keep some stability in this new uncertain world, as they explore the development of friendship and trust as necessary tools to exist as part of humanity, and what happens when competitiveness gets the better of co-operation.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Review: Greenland, National Theatre

“It’s like we’re conducting a big, massive experiment…”
Pulling together narratives and investigative work from four playwrights, Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne around the ever-current issue of climate change, Greenland is the latest play at the National Theatre to tackle this issue, following on from Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London last year. Based on interviews with scientists, politicians, money-makers and philosophers, woven together by dramaturg Ben Power and directed by Bijan Sheibani, this is a highly ambitious, challenging piece of work and though this was the first preview, it seems that some of these challenges might be a little too much.

Predictably, multiple strands of story run parallel, some explored and revisited more than others as the narrative shifts around, there are occasional intersections but these are perfunctory rather than integral to the stories. Amongst everything, there’s a young woman moved to drop out of university to become a climate change activist; two women in a therapy session (there was division in the group as to whether they were mother/daughter or a lesbian couple, but it really isn’t that important) who are being driven apart by the strident ‘green’ views of one of them; two guys bird-watching in Greenland, one of whom has been doing it for 40 years; a Labour politician struggling to make a difference leading up to and at the Copenhagen Climate Conference. All are trying to make sense of the conflicting viewpoints around the issue and figuring out who to trust and what, if anything, can be done.

Continuation of the cast of Greenland

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Review: The Painter, Arcola

“The fashionables...they just want to know if a painting’s hot...”

As their premiere production in their new premises at the Colourworks in Dalston, the Arcola theatre have commissioned The Painter, a play about the well-known artist JMW Turner which plays on the historical links of the building, a former paint factory actually frequented by Turner. And to write it they returned to Rebecca Lenkiewicz, a playwright whose first play was the first to be staged at the old Arcola. It follows other plays about artists which keep popping up at this theatre, The Line and Reclining Nude with Stockings (the title of which has skewed my hit count something chronic) but it is not always easy to translate the aura around an artist and his work to the stage without a genuinely interesting story and I am not convinced that Lenkiewicz has managed that here.

The Painter covers the middle period of his career and centres around the key relationships with women in his life, his mother who is slowly succumbing to dementia, his fertile lover and the prostitute who becomes his model and confidante. This is contrasted with his steadily growing professional success as a painter despite difficult relationships with his contemporaries and as an intellectual who frequently lectured students at the Royal Academy on his views on art despite being of ‘lower’ birth. But to be honest, there’s no real insight offered here beyond that of the superficial biographical.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Review: Far From The Madding Crowd, ETT via Digital Theatre

“I shall do one thing in this life. That is love you, long for you and keep wanting you 'til I die”

A couple of weeks ago, Digital Theatre ran a January sale promotion which meant that you could get their plays for well under a fiver, which reminded me I had previously downloaded English Touring Theatre’s production of Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd but never quite got round to watching it. I’ve previously reviewed The Comedy Of Errors which was highly enjoyable and so I thought Digital Theatre was worth another try, especially since I'd paid for this one! This particular production was recorded at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud theatre on November 15th 2008

Having inherited her father’s farm, a spirited and feisty young woman - Bathsheba Everdene, finds herself playing mistress in a man’s world as she is determined to do things her way and her impetuous nature sometimes gets the better of her. She is pursued by three would-be lovers: the constant shepherd, Gabriel Oak; the obsessive landowner, William Boldwood and the reckless Sergeant Troy and as this is Hardy, real tragedy is never far round the corner.

As the central Bathsheba, Rebecca O’Mara was really rather good, though I think I probably sympathised with her more as she succumbed to the attentions of a hunk in uniform! Laura Elphinstone provided sterling support as her friend Liddy. And as her suitors, Adam Croasdell made a smoulderingly dashing Sergeant Troy, Stephen Billington brought a great stern quality and pulled off some mightily impressive sideburns as neighbouring farmer William Boldwood but it is Phil Cheadle’s quietly dependable Gabriel Oak who really impresses, bringing a wry humour and subtly suggesting the deep passions that lie beneath his impassive demeanour.

It was quite good fun to watch but I am not 100% convinced of how successful a transfer it was from stage to film. It was evidently well-staged in having some scenes run concurrently on different sides of the stage, sometimes allowing starts and finishes to bleed into each other and also using multiple levels which injected a great deal of pace into the story, making it an unexpectedly strong adaptation. But the way in which it has been filmed, with endless cross-fades and very quick transitions, meant that it was sometimes confusing and one was often left wishing that the wider picture could be seen, embracing the stage as a whole rather than constantly cutting from one side to the other.

I suppose at the heart of this lies the dilemma in filming live theatre, are you trying to recreate the experience of sitting in a theatre and watching the action in front of you or are you trying to create a new piece of art. The filming of David Tennant’s Hamlet was probably the most effective recent version of the latter for me, but this falls somewhere uncomfortably in the middle, managing neither one wholly successfully. The edits at the beginning are proficiently executed but the use of overhead cameras to bring a new perspective added nothing for me and too often I felt the desire to do something ‘interesting’ with the edit actually detracted from the production, I don’t think we got to see the entirety of a single one of the choreographed routines in its simplicity. Even something as basic as the considerable noise coming from the actors clumping around on the wooden set just made it feel like an ill-thought through enterprise.

Perhaps this says more about my own attention span than anything, but I found my mind wandering whilst watching this and being on my laptop, I succumbed to the temptation to do a couple of other things at the same time. So in this respect, it probably wasn’t the most successful of experiences for me. I did actually enjoy the production itself, but its presentation makes it less than essential and in this format, this is a crucial shortcoming. It is worth keeping an eye on the Digital Theatre website though, as there is a range of productions from different theatres on there with more to come in the next few months. There’s also some shows on there that I have actually seen in the theatre but I don’t particularly want to spend money on things I’ve watched, no matter how interesting it might be to make the comparison.

Running time: 2 hours 23 minutes

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Review: Less Than Kind, Jermyn Street

“There’s not a single situation that can’t be resolved with small talk”

Getting in with the celebration of the centenary of Terence Rattigan’s birth (as they did with Sondheim last year), the Jermyn Street Theatre have managed the impressive feat of unearthing a hitherto unperformed play, Less Than Kind, which is therefore receiving its world premiere here. Written in 1944, it suffered the rather ignomious fate of being rewritten and reshaped into a fundamentally different play to please the all-powerful producer/actors who were financing the show. It changed so much as to be given a different name, Love In Idleness, but it seriously damaged Rattigan’s reputation as it revealed the extent to which he kowtowed to the commercial interests of the day at the severe expense of his original artistic vision. But fortunately a copy of the original play survived and that it what is being mounted here, directed by Adrian Brown.

The play is set in London in 1944 and centres around the return of Michael Brown, an idealistic teenager who was evacuated to Canada and is shocked to find on his return, that his mother is now living a life of luxury since she is the mistress of a wealthy businessman who has been co-opted into the War Cabinet to assist with the manufacture of tanks. Whilst abroad, Michael discovered socialism so his mother’s perceived betrayal is both a personal and political insult to him and so he sets about forcing his mother to choose between her son and her lover. Rattigan has stuffed the show with heaps of articulate, witty dialogue and it is a genuine hoot at times, I’m not too sure that the Hamlet references were hugely successfully integrated but the play stands up as a fairly strong piece of comic drama.

Review: Tiger Country, Hampstead Theatre

“I’m losing patience with the patients”

Tiger Country is the third play by Nina Raine, writer of the best play out of all 271 that I saw last year, Tribes (which still gives me goosebumps when I think about it now) so there was nooo expectations lying on this show at all. Actually, it wasn’t too bad as I knew the subject matter here, the modern NHS, was not something that I have any connection to (unlike as in Tribes), but I was still looking forward to seeing another facet to this fast upcoming playwright’s work. Interestingly, Raine also serves as director here at the Hampstead Theatre, this writer/director thing being something which this season at Swiss Cottage has featured heavily (Athol Fugard and Mike Leigh being the other culprits).

Raine’s production reconfigures the space in traverse, allowing for the hustle and bustle of hospital life to be quickly and efficiently portrayed. We see emergencies being rushed in by paramedics, the studied quiet of the operating room, the weariness of the staffroom, private rooms for terminally ill patients, cubicles, wards, offices staffed by a range of medical professionals with varying degrees of enthusiasm, coping with terminal exhaustion and a hierarchy that won’t let go of age-old rivalries between departments. Looking at the personal and professional lives of the medical staff as they deal with the unrelenting pressure to make the right decisions for both their patients and themselves.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Review: Double Falsehood, Union Theatre

“I invite thee, consuming desolation, to this temple”

Well it is not so much desolation that can be consumed at the Union Theatre in Southwark but rather the first professional production of the play Double Falsehood since 1792. It is most notable for being a play that was controversially included in the Arden Complete Works of Shakespeare last year despite its provenance being hotly debated. As it is understood in this Clown’s mind, Double Falsehood is a 1727 adaptation by Lewis Theobald reportedly based on a 1613 play called Cardenio by Shakespeare and John Fletcher (who also collaborated on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen). There's reams of debate and scholarly concerns about this but ultimately, it should not be allowed to detract from what is an interesting production here. 

Set in Andalucía around the court of Duke Angelo, whose youngest son Henrique causes a whole world of trouble when he rapes and abandons servant girl Violante and then decides to pursue and marry Leonora who just happens to be betrothed to his friend Julio. The fall-out from these events sees everyone scattered, themselves and their families left behind distraught, throughout the local countryside and it is left up to the noble older son and heir of Angelo, Roderick, to round everyone up and reunite lovers, parents and children and ensure that justice is served in the Spanish hills. 

Friday, 21 January 2011

Not-a-review: Rough Cuts - Court Shorts, Royal Court

Court Shorts is part of the Royal Court’s Rough Cuts season, where works-in-progress and experimental pieces are performed in front of audiences as part of their development. Three plays were performed as rehearsed readings which were Permafrost by Brad Birch, Buried by Alia Bano and Hard Gravity by DC Jackson. This is just a quick recap of the plays for my reference really, as these aren’t being presented as things to review.

Brad Birch’s Royal Court debut, Permafrost, is a meditation on the grieving process set in a Northern town, charting the growing relationship between widowed Mary and Michael, a factory colleague of the deceased man, as she seeks a solace that he can’t quite provide and edging closer to a more meaningful connection as she seeks to maintain the link between them. James Macdonald directed this, stepping in at the last minute as Sam Taylor Wood had to withdraw due to prior commitments which was a shame as it would have been really interesting to see where she was thinking of taking the piece.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Review: Becky Shaw, Almeida

“Were you waiting for me to walk through the door? This isn’t Jane Austen’s England, Susie, you could’ve walked through it too.”

Bringing a much welcomed shot of sharp comedy to a dull January, Becky Shaw is the first play of 2011 for Islington’s Almeida Theatre. Written by American Gina Gionfriddo and directed by Peter DuBois, also over from the States and who directed this show there too, it really is a breath of fresh air and one of the funniest shows I have seen in ages.

Newlyweds Suzanna and Andrew set up her adoptive brother Max with a new work colleague Becky Shaw in an attempt to break his run of three-month relationships, but their matchmaking has huge consequences as a disastrous first date leads to a series of events that causes everyone to seriously question the relationships they have built up with each other and wonder what the future could, or should, hold for them. The play questions their moral obligations to everyone, strangers and family alike.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Review: small hours, Hampstead Downstairs

“I got two hours last night…”

small hours is a one woman show about post-natal depression conceived as an installation piece in the Michael Frayn Space in the basement of the Hampstead Theatre as part of their Hampstead Downstairs season. Truth be told, this would not normally appeal to me but as it is directed by Katie Mitchell, doyenne of the avant-garde, it felt like a risk worth taking to see what this most innovative of directors had come up with next. It reunites her with Beauty and the Beast counterpart Lucy Kirkwood who wrote this play with Ed Hime, a writer of Skins amongst other things. 

Asked to take our shoes off and told to take seats on the furniture around the edges of the room, there’s chairs, sofas, benches, armchairs to take your pick from, we enter a large living/dining room which has been most effectively realised by designer Alex Eales. We become aware of a woman sat at one end of the room, just in from a visit to a corner shop, and we’re soon drawn into her insomniatic world. It is 3am in the morning, her husband is away with work leaving her with the baby and so we watch her trying to while the hours away, phoning her partner, wrestling with voice recognition systems trying to book a cinema ticket, watching late night shopping channels on the tv. 

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Review: Twelfth Night, National Theatre

“‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before”

To celebrate his 80th birthday, Sir Peter Hall returns to the National Theatre which he directed for 25 years, with a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Cottesloe. It features a rather starry cast including his daughter Rebecca Hall and Simon Callow and given how well done last year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Kingston was, this has been an eagerly anticipated production for me for a fair few months. This is a review of a preview, the penultimate one as it opens on Tuesday, but still a preview nonetheless though I stand by my comments here.

This is just a production that is lacking, lacking in almost every department and there isn’t even a particular aspect that shines above the others that one could excuse weakness elsewhere for. It feels proficient rather than inspired and though performances may improve and the pacing can be tightened up, the whole approach to this production is unspectacular. Worse than that, it is often boring and the first half in particular is currently far too languid and dull as attested by a fair few walk-outs at the interval.

Cast of Twelfth Night continued

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Review: The Boy James, Southwark Playhouse

“I came to realise forever is too long”

Belt Up Theatre played Southwark Playhouse last year and return there once more, this time with their show The Boy James, written by Alexander Wright and inspired by the early life of JM Barrie. Tucked away in a space created in one of the vaults at the rear of the building rather than the main auditorium, we’re guided to a cosy sitting room cum study dressed with faded draped fabrics and umpteen childhood toys and mementos by a young pyjama-clad boy, who with great enthusiasm encourages us to make friends with the people around us and play games like tag and I-Spy.

It is a thoroughly enchanting introduction into this world and perfect at drawing the audience into the child-like wonder with which the story is told. The comfortable cocoon of innocence is broken by the arrival of the adult world in the shape of James, Barrie himself, with his weary experience and also in the shape of another intruder who brings violence and sexual awareness to this world, really pushing home the message about the sadness of losing childhood innocence and the pain that the adult world brings with it.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Review: Siân Phillips - Crossing Borders, Wilton’s Music Hall

“I'm not trying to tempt you, that wouldn't be right;
You shouldn't drink spirits at this time of night.”

My first visit of the year, and there’ll be many more to come I’m sure, to Wilton’s Music Hall was to Crossing Borders, the first of three performances by Siân Phillips’ of a newly developed cabaret show, directed by Brendan O’Hea with musical direction and accomplished accompaniment from the piano by Kevin Amos. I saw Phillips at this same venue at the launch of the Live at Wilton’s cabaret strand last year and enjoyed her short set immensely so was looking forward to this full show.

Crossing Borders is the latest incarnation of Phillips’ cabaret show, though having read a couple of reviews of some of her earlier shows, I’m not sure exactly how different this one is. But it is a mark of just how exemplary she is in this genre as it genuinely feels like the first time she is telling each anecdote. And boy, what stories she has to tell: lifting the lid on Marlene Dietrich’s diva tantrums and the way she worked audiences; poking fun at the dour Welsh sense of humour with Richard Burton and his brother; her rather marvellous-sounding evangelist of a great-aunt and some hilarious backstage stories featuring Beryl Reid and a drunk.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Review: Kaspar, Southwark Playhouse at Arch 6

“I’ve been sentenced to reality”

Kaspar is a play by Peter Handke, put on here in a collaboration between Aya Theatre Company and Dreckly Productions with the support of Southwark Playhouse who are running the bookings. With the additional support of Network Rail, they’ve taken over a disused office complex under one of the railway arches close to Southwark tube station to create a pop-up theatre (complete with bar). Handke is an avant-garde Austrian writer, considered a major contemporary European force, but he is rarely performed in the UK: indeed the only experience I have of his work is the National’s The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other, with its 400+ characters, wordlessly crossing the stage.

This work is based on a true story, of Kasper Hauser who was discovered in a town square, languageless but for a single sentence and subsequently taken under the wing of a series of public figures to teach and civilise him. It turned out he’d been kept prisoner in a room all his life and though responding to the attempts to make him ‘normal’, he continually struggled to retain the inner life he had developed. Handke developed this story into a more abstract play, exploring the notions behind it about the coercive power of language to force people into accepted social constructs and limit the expression of the true individual.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Re-review: Wicked, Apollo Victoria

“I’ll be so happy I could melt”

As with last year, which saw my first ever trip to Wicked, the first thing that I booked from the Get Into London Theatre website when it launched was a return trip to the Apollo Victoria. As Mr Boycotting Trends had never seen it before and was so desirous, I booked and managed to get rather good stalls seats for £35. Ironically, lastminute currently have a similar promotion on which is something of a rarity for this show but it is a great opportunity to get good seats for a not-quite-as-eyewatering price.

So I returned to Oz (although not as in Return To Oz, the film that was responsible for several recurring nightmares I had as a child but seriously, someone should make a show of that) to see the story of Elphaba and Glinda, 2 girls whose destinies to be the witches of Oz are not quite as clear-cut as one might think as an unlikely but deep bond develops between them. Knowing the story this time round meant that the surprise element of the way the show fits into The Wizard of Oz’s mythology was lost but it just meant that I appreciated the main thrust of the story more and admired both the message of tolerance for those who are ‘different’ that it preaches and the frankness with which the messiness and complexity of friendship is portrayed here. And I think this last point is key to its enduring success, there’s something so recognisable in the frustrations both women have with the other that is borne out of true friendship.

Cast of Wicked continued

Cast of Wicked continued

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Review: Oh, To Be In England, Finborough

“I knew the English way was the only way, God help me. You make a bloody great speech - and then you have a stiff drink.”

Oh, To Be In England is a neat addition to the Finborough’s RediscoveriesUK programme as it is a world premiere of a 35 year old play by David Pinner which was adjudged to be unstageable due to its incendiary attacks on political extremism and its links to British pride. Set in Barnes and running through 1974 to 1975, it deals with life in a Britain still suffering from a post-imperial hangover, exacerbated by an economic downturn. In particular it looks at George, a man loses his job in the City but whose social conditioning as a middle-class white Englishman leaves him with nothing but a superiority complex and supremely ill-equipped for the realities of the struggle of life.

Darkly comic in tone, we see George divorced from everything that gave his life meaning and in his relations with his wife and son, the flirty neighbour and his German lodger, trace his retreat into a cocoon of rightwing thinking as his (already strong) xenophobia gets even worse, his politics swing further to the extreme as his economic situation fails to improve and his personal relationships stagnate and shatter. And at this level, as the story of a man, this play was surprisingly effective and engaging in portraying how easily extreme thinking can be fomented in times of hardship. It was less successful in drawing out the parallels with the wider political context due to the relentless verbosity and speechifying which Pinner saddles his characters. The dialogue often feels as if from a lecture, stilting the natural flow of things: instead of saying ‘there’s not many jobs out there’, someone says ‘we’re in an age where jobs are increasingly hard to come by’.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Review: Scrapbook Live, Leicester Square Theatre

“I’ll fill the pages with the scrapbook of our lives” 

Scrapbook Live was a showcase event for songwriters Verity Quade and Rob Archibald who assembled a hefty crew of West End pals to come along and sing on a Sunday night at Leicester Square Theatre. The pair released an album of the same name last year (which can be bought on iTunes and at Dress Circle) and many of the stars on the CD were here to perform those songs, plus other material that Quade and Archibald have written, both standalone songs written for specific events and from musical theatre projects on which they are working. 

Despite having resolved to have a theatre-free weekend, I couldn’t resist popping along, both to support new British musical writing talent (previously unknown to me) and the unique opportunity to see an intriguing ensemble. Whilst there were names here who I knew and was looking forward to, Anna Francolini and Cassidy Janson in particular, there were others who I had seen previously but not necessarily been blown away by, Rebecca Lock and Stuart Matthew Price. There was also the added value of random things like seeing Rosemary Ashe sing for the first time and getting a sneak preview of Emily Tierney before she becomes Glinda in The Wizard of Oz.

Re-review: Love Story, Duchess

“Life is molto bene when your pesto’s mixed with penne”

Coming in as one of my favourite shows of 2010, and in the top 2 musicals I saw all year long, it was no surprise that a return visit to Love Story was booked in order to introduce someone new to the wonders of this show. You can read my (something of a rave) review from my previous visit here: I don’t really have much more to add to it to be honest, other than I really do believe this to be one of the strongest and most beautiful new British musicals of recent years.

I cried more this time round, knowing what to expect and when to expect it usually does that to me, but having seen it before meant that I had much more sympathy for Michael Xavier’s Olly throughout the show. He is a rather bullish and brash character at first glance but Xavier brings much more depth to the character which for me, simply heightened the emotion in the moments when he cracks and sure enough, every single time his handsome face crumpled, my eyes welled up. Emma Williams delivered another sensational performance, even dealing with wayward pasta most professionally, singing all the while.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Review: The Potting Shed, Finborough

“What’s your earliest memory...?”

The first show of 2011 for the Finborough Theatre is The Potting Shed, a Graham Greene play from 1958. A psychological drama about a man, James Callifer, estranged from his dying father and struggling to make sense of gaps in his memory from his teenage years at the family home. For as James delves deeper into his troubled psyche, long buried family secrets threaten to bubble to the surface, beliefs questioned, indeed the very nature of religious faith is brought to bear as James edges ever closer to the truth of what happened in the potting shed from which the play takes its name.

This production ran in the Sunday/Monday slot late last year and has been promoted to a full run, managing to hold onto all but two of the original cast. Part of the 3 month RediscoveriesUK season at the Finborough, dusting off little-performed shows from all over the UK, the programme unearths great little snippets like the fact that this particular play hasn’t been performed in London for 40 years and leading that production was none other than Cliff Richard. Unfortunately that was about as interesting as it got for me, as this was not a play that really engaged me at all.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Review: Me and My Girl, Sheffield Crucible

“We play the Lambeth way, not like you but a bit more gay”

For its festive musical, Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre has taken on the 1937 classic Me and My Girl with music by Noel Gay and book and lyrics by L Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber. Stephen Fry’s revised book from 1985 is used here, with additional contributions to the revisions by Mike Ockrent, these adding a raft of terrible puns and a modern knowingness to what is a brilliant set of songs. The story is pure musical theatre hokum: East End barrow boy Bill Snibson is uncovered as the long-lost heir to an aristocratic fortune but must prove himself to be ‘fit and proper’ before he can inherit as his new-found relatives try to make him behave like a lord and encourage him to ditch his one true love, Sally Smith: will love conquer all? What do you think!

This is director Anna Mackmin’s first musical and her canniest decision has been to employ Stephen Mears as choreographer as he really is one of the best working in the field, as he proves yet again here. Whilst there is nothing quite as delightfully jaw-dropping as the train sequence from Hello, Dolly!, the Act I finale The Lambeth Walk comes preciously close with a brilliantly conceived and superbly executed routine, spilling with energy and invention and whipping up the audience into singing and clapping along with pure joy. The Sun Has Got His Hat On was another stand-out moment but this show is just full of winners and they are matched by a superlative production and some top quality performances.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Review: Bea, Soho Theatre

“I want to be free. And I want you to be free too.”

When Bea, a young woman stricken with an unidentified but horrifically debilitating and incurable condition, has a new carer employed by her over-protective barrister mother, she sets about getting him to help her write the most difficult letter possible, stating her desire to die and asking for the help necessary, from her mother, in order to make that happen. Thus Gordon explores the boundaries of human kindness especially towards loved ones and empathy for those suffering from any range of conditions and diseases that render them helpless. For Bea’s particular condition is never identified (though ME is hinted at), meaning that instead of being a specific debate about assisted killing in relation to a certain disease, this is a more nuanced look at the relationships that exist in Bea’s life, such as they are, and the life that Bea wishes that she could have, were she not trapped in her failing body.

Pippa Nixon is beautiful at illuminating the indefatigable inner self of Bea, wonderfully eloquent in the reasoning behind her choice to end her life, an irrepressible spirit that is hard to resist and made all the more painful by the moving scenes when she was portraying the disease-ravaged reality of Bea’s condition. Paula Wilcox’s mother is beautifully observed: stridently over-protective of her daughter but there was a real honesty to the way in which she portrayed the dilemmas of her character, finding refuge in the legal language of her job but slowly becoming accustomed to the new presence in her household as she recognises how Bea responds to her new carer. And Al Weaver as Ray, said carer and more accurately named Not Gay Ray, is simply outstanding, with several monologues including a frenetic and hilarious run through a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, the touching revelation of the truth behind his choice of profession and excellently demonstrating the depth of the compassion he develops for Bea as she makes requests of him that he struggles to deny.

Review: Get Santa, Royal Court

“All I want for Christmas is to meet my real Dad”

A bit of a random choice for January, but when an offer of £5 tickets for Get Santa! came into the inbox, I couldn’t resist a sneaky trip to the Royal Court, plus I’m still on leave for a week so technically I’m still on my Christmas holiday. Aimed at the 7-11 age range, this non-traditional Christmas show comes from the pen of Anthony Neilson with music by Nick Powell, offering a distinct alternative to pantomime which is recognisably suffused with the spirit of the Royal Court as much as it is with Christmas.

Holly Finnegan has the same Christmas wish every year, to meet her father for the first time, but frustrated with his lack of response, she hatches a plot to, well, get Santa and have him fulfil her demands. For though she is a relatively normal, if stroppy, 10 year old, her stepfather is a dog and her mother and grandmother are a bit batty, but not even she could forsee the wacky turn of events. For she manages to trap Santa’s son Bumblehole instead of the man himself and when the spirit of her father manifests itself in a malevolent Russian teddy bear who hoodwinks her, an absurd groundhog day situation emerges as Holly begins to realise that getting everything you want is not always as good as it sounds. 

Monday, 3 January 2011

Shows I am looking forward to in 2011

My intention is, honestly, to see less theatre this year and try and regain some semblance of a normal life again on the odd evening. But the curse of advance booking and grabbing cheap(er) tickets whilst you can has meant that there’s already an awful lot of theatre booked for 2011. Some have been booked without a huge deal of enthusiasm, but others have a dangerous amount of anticipation attached to them...and so I present to you, the shows I am most excited about seeing this year (so far).

The Roman Tragedies was hands down one of the most exhilarating and refreshing theatrical experiences of 2009 and possibly my life, I’m even headed to Amsterdam in May to see a surtitled production of their Angels in America. So when I heard that the same Dutch theatre company were returning to the Barbican in February, tickets were booked instantly and I am feverishly over-excited for this now!

Winner of the Best Actor award at this year’s fosterIANs, there was no doubt that I would travel (again) to see John Heffernan wherever he played next, and so I’m off to Bristol for my first visit to the Tobacco Factory in February to see him take the lead in Richard II: mark my words, this is a man to watch now and for the future.

Nina Raine was responsible for the number one play that I saw all of last year, and though she is taking on a completely different topic here, the modern NHS, I am very much looking forward to seeing this play which she is also directing. An exciting looking ensemble cast means this should be an excellent start to the year at Hampstead and I have to say, the rest of their programme also makes for a potentially great set of shows.

Last year saw me throwing myself into immersive theatre with gusto, You Me Bum Bum Train, Cart Macabre and staying up all through the night with Hotel Medea. Duckie’s Lullaby has the opposite required effect though as the intention is to lull us to sleep and whilst it may sound insane to pay good money to go to sleep at the Barbican, I for one cannot wait.

I am a sucker for a quality cast and whilst the main attraction of Peter Hall’s Twelfth Night is rightly billed as his daughter Rebecca Hall’s NT debut as Viola, a cast that also contains Simon Callow, Amanda Drew, Simon Paisley Day, Ben Mansfield and Finty Williams among others, has left me salivating.

Richard Bean’s new play for the Royal Court sees the return of the luminous Juliet Stevenson to the London stage, need I say any more?

I loved Propeller’s Richard III and found it a great introduction to their work so I am looking forward to the other production they are touring with, plus another trip to Sheffield.

And a few others: catching up with both Matilda at the RSC and Me and My Girl at Sheffield will help to keep any January blues at bay; so many people have talked up The 25th Annual Puttnam County Spelling Bee at the Donmar that I am now looking forward to it though I am resisting finding anything out about the show beforehand; Thea Sharrock is returning to Terence Rattigan with Cause Célèbre at the Old Vic which should be excellent but the Old Vic’s dodgy form for me in 2010 provokes a little apprehension and though I’m not sure how much I’m looking forward to the show in general, I cannot wait to see the simply lovely Nigel Lindsay as Shrek.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Top 25 shows of 2010

And just to recap, here's the top 25 shows, plays and musicals combined, for 2010.
1. Tribes
2. You Me Bum Bum Train
3. Palace of the End
4. Love Love Love
5. After the Dance
6. Once Upon A Time at the Adephi
7. Love Story
8. Les Misérables
9. All My Sons
10. Nevermore
11. Salad Days
12. Holding the Man
13. Broken Glass
14. The Man
15. The Drowsy Chaperone
16. Legally Blonde The Musical
17. Henry IV Part I&II
18. The Glass Menagerie
19. State Fair
20. Iolanthe
21. The Road to Mecca
22. Clybourne Park
23. Richard III
24. The White Guard
25. Romeo & Juliet (RSC)