Saturday, 30 April 2011

Review: Electra, Gate Theatre

“Electra, you need to calm down”

This version of Electra by Nick Payne which is currently playing at the Gate Theatre is brand new, but it does bear some resemblance to the production Elektra, which played, for free, at the Young Vic last summer. That version was by Anne Carson was a co-production with Headlong but is now being labelled the workshop production of this one, as it was also directed by Carrie Cracknell and featured the same creative team around her here, indeed one of the actresses involved has travelled too though Cath Whitefield has been promoted from the chorus to the title role.

Based on Sophocles’ Ancient Greek myth, the story centres on Electra, seething with rage at the murder of her father Agamemnon at the hand of her mother Clytemnestra, who in turn was avenging his sacrifice of another of their daughters, Iphigenia, to appease the gods for a prevailing wind. Electra ships off her younger brother to safety but remains with her mother and new lover, silently plotting for the chance to take the ultimate revenge in the memory of her father and praying for a brother she has not seen for ten years.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Review: And The Horse You Rode In On, Told By An Idiot at the Barbican Pit

"Enlightenment by demonstration"

Trotting into the depths of the Barbican Pit, And The Horse You Rode In On is the latest piece by innovative company Told by an Idiot. Conceived by Hayley Carmichael and Paul Hunter and created by the company, the show has the subtitle ‘a sequence of serious follies’, mixing together as it does five different narratives, weaving them together in an unlikely mishmash. These influences range from Hitchcock’s film Sabotage to a Dario Fo hostage story, from Are You Being Served to Bugs Bunny, taking in the Baader-Meinhof Gang and some of Günter Grass’ writing, this latter two pointing most directly (to my eyes at least) to what is being examined here, namely what drives people to commit extreme acts for their beliefs and the relative powerlessness we have to stop them.

Told by an Idiot have been working long enough to allay any suspicions about whether their approach works and it really does, but unlikely as it may seem, the strongest part of the work is the humour: this is deeply, belly-achingly, funny stuff, there was one point where I was near-helpless with laughter. I am loathe to give things away here and words could not do them justice anyway, but Are You Being Served played in German was hysterical, followed by a sequence of scenes that were acted by three actors but voiced-over by two off-stage and riotously funny with it. The story of the Italian circus troupe making a perilous journey across the Alps and then being taken hostage, singing cheerily all-the-while was another triumph with a conclusion which, though ridiculous, made perfect sense.

Review: REDfest, Old Red Lion

“Drama is life with all the dull bits cut out"

REDfest is a new festival hosted at the Old Red Lion Theatre celebrating “the very best in new writing” Over 100 short plays were submitted, and they’ve been whittled down to the best 18 which are being presented here in three groups of six. Audiences have the opportunity to rank the six plays they’ve been in order of preference and the top two from each group will be invited to return for the final week, where they will play again and a winner selected. The victorious playwright will then be invited to write a full length work for the theatre next year.

Group 1 featured a slightly reduced line-up: John Grogan’s Old Street was M.I.A. but the other five more than made up for it with an eclectic mix of new writing dissecting everything from strained relationships, alien abductions and acting classes. Given that these were only short pieces, it was interesting to see the hugely different ways in which the playwrights set about their task and with a varied degree of success. The stronger ones were those that pulled us into their little worlds and gave hints about what might have happened before and hopefully leaving us wanting to find out more, but focusing on telling a strong story at the centre of it all.

Review: Chekhov in Hell, Soho Theatre

“I have just woken up”
What would happen if Russian playwright Anton Chekhov were to wake from a hundred-year-long coma to find himself slap bang in the middle of modern day London? What his keen observational eye make of this radically different society? That’s the question Dan Rebellato poses in his new comedy Chekhov in Hell which plays at the Soho Theatre after a premiere run at the Drum Theatre Plymouth late last year. Taking Hell to be our contemporary world, in particular the metropolitan excesses of London, Chekov is exposed to a series of fashionistas, molecular gastronomists, lap-dancing clubs, Twitter, MTV Cribs, even people-trafficking gangsters in a set of interview-like situations, all the while the police are trying to track him down to reunite him with a long-distance relative.

At the centre of the play, Simon Scardifield (taking over from Simon Gregor and returning to acting after some translation work for the Royal Court with Our Private Life) was excellent as Chekhov, saying really quite little in terms of spoken dialogue but speaking volumes with his sympathetic performance, being so far removed from his time zone yet beginning to deal with his own issues by situating himself in his own comfort zone and lending a considerate listening ear to a vast swathe of this new society. Some of the funniest moments come with his struggle to comprehend the modern English of various sections of society, exposing the meaninglessness of much of what comes out of our mouths.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Review: The Stock Da’Wa, Hampstead Downstairs

“What is the real truth of our lives?”

The Stock Da’Wa by David Eldridge was perhaps a surprising choice for me to go to given how strongly I reacted against his other play in London at the moment, The Knot of the Heart at the Almeida, but I do try to keep an open mind and be willing to have it changed. Plus, the downstairs at Hampstead Theatre season has been an interesting mix, featuring another strong cast here and the directorial return of the marvellous Kathy Burke.

Paul, a young heavily bearded man has returned to the village of Stock where he went to school. He’s reunited with his old English teacher Mr Wilson and Joan, the woman who was his unofficial foster mother, at her house and they are surprised to see him, not least because it is the dead of night but also because his nose and shirt is covered in blood. But this is no ordinary reunion, as we soon find out that it is 20 years since Paul was last here and he has changed a lot, there’s unresolved issues around the death of Joan’s son and everyone’s recollections of the past vary slightly on crucial details and are less rose-tinted than fractious and rancorous. 

Monday, 25 April 2011

Review: Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Globe

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”

The 2011 season at the Globe theatre has eased open in a rather low-key manner with the reading of the King James Bible and this touring production of Hamlet, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, taking a short residency before the first main show, All’s Well That Ends Well, opens on 27th April. This is an extremely pacy, much funnier than usual interpretation of the play which has taken a magpie approach in co-opting lines from the First Quarto into the text which adds to the rough-edged feel which is being aimed for here (I think) and firmly establishing its identity as a unique production, different to any that might have come recently.

Ultimately though, this was something of an underwhelming production. A cast of eight actors, plus two stage managers, whip through the tale of political intrigues and tragic vengeance with high energy and skill but little cumulative effect. Set up against a raft of recent star-heavy versions – Tennant, Law, Simm, Kinnear and their attendant top-notch ensembles (plus the upcoming Sheen) this has a lot to live up to in recent memory of these other Hamlets. But in its presentation of the story, it also crucially puts itself up against the huge wit and innovation of the recent work of companies like Propeller’s touring double bill and Cheek By Jowl’s Tempest that really does just leave this production standing.

Music Review: Alfie Boe - Bring Him Home

Wave goodbye to cares of the day”

Alfie Boe has the dubious honour of being often referred to as Britain’s Favourite Tenor as one of the more successful of the classical crossover artists, but only really appeared on my radar with his contributions to the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Miserables at the O2 where he formed part of the Valjean Quartet that brought the house down with their rendition of Bring Him Home as part of the encore. He will be taking on the role of Jean Valjean properly at the Queen’s Theatre from 23rd June, but he capitalised on that success by releasing this album, also named Bring Him Home, just a couple of months later.

The album is musical theatre heavy, yet Boe wears his operatic stylings heavily and I’m not sure how successful a marriage this really is. Bring Him Home is predictably beautifully sung, but too often the showcasing of the ‘voice’ is at the expense of interpretation. So Pure Imagination is robbed of any delicacy, On The Street Where You Live booms along and the sound is just too muscular and beefy to really do the material justice. Only on Hushabye Mountain from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang does he rein in the power and find a beautiful subtlety to sing the tender lullaby.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Review: Stockholm, Network Theatre

“He likes her intensity.
‘She likes that he likes her intensity; it’s something she’s been working on.’”

The Network Theatre occupies another one of the seemingly endless railway arches in the Waterloo area that have been converted into performance spaces and is currently playing host to 3P Entertainment’s debut production of Bryony Lavery’s 2007 play Stockholm. A two-hander about the potentially destructive power of a passionate relationship, directed here by Bronwen Carr, this marks the first time this show has returned to London since the original run at the Hampstead Theatre.

At first sight, Todd and Kali’s relationship seems picture-perfect. They have a great sex life, a dream apartment, sneaky afternoon trips to the cinema to see Ingmar Bergman films and they just ooze intimacy and chemistry wrapped up in their own world. But such insularity comes at a price and whilst the dark clouds that start to show themselves are initially amusing – Todd’s anxiety manifests itself with a preoccupation with interior design even whilst receiving oral sex from Kali – the way in which her jealousy threatens to spiral out of all control indicates that things are evidently much darker and more serious.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Review: Lakeboat and Prairie Du Chien, Arcola

“They say fuck in direct proportion to how bored they are”

Continuing the rather scattershot programming that is going on at the Arcola since its move closer to Dalston Junction, a David Mamet double bill of two rarely performed short plays, Lakeboat and Prairie Du Chien, from early in his career is playing in the smaller Studio 2, whilst Studio 1 is dark until Uncle Vanya arrives from Coventry.

Lakeboat is set on an ageing cargo ship somewhere out of Chicago on the Great Lakes as English Lit student Dale joins the grizzled, heavy-swearing crew for the summer to replace the missing night chef, tales of whose disappearance are whirling around the ship. On the face of it, there’s perhaps not much to the play, but as a series of male character studies and the different ways in which men talk to each other, with all their braggadocio, masculine swagger, tales of sexual conquest and exertions of power where possible, it is highly illuminating. There’s some moments of great humour, usually concerning the most mundane of subjects, egg sandwiches or Clint Eastwood for example, but there’s also hints of darker places, sexual violence and intense loneliness. Steven Webb as Dale serves as the straight man for all the other characters with a brilliantly light wry touch and though everyone did well in the ensemble, Nigel Cooke’s plaintive Joe and particularly Rory Keenan’s handsomely beardy and fantastically filthy Fred were standouts. 

Saturday, 16 April 2011


If I were one for admitting I am sometimes in the wrong, I would perhaps say that the cutting down on theatre in 2011 hasn't really worked out for me so far...108 shows seen this year. But there will be a few less this month as I'm going away for a week to Krakow so 1) please don't rob my flat and 2) here's a repeat of that meme to tide you over.

List the last 10 things you saw at the theatre in order:
1. Godspell, Union Theatre

2. Precious Little Talent, Trafalgar Studios 2
3. Iolanthe, Wilton’s Music Hall
4. The Coronation of Poppea, King’s Head
5. Moonlight, Donmar
6. The Great British Musical, Criterion
7. London Road, National Theatre
8. Thrill Me (Leopold & Loeb Story), Tristan Bates
9. The Tempest, Barbican
10. Little Shop of Horrors, White Bear

Who was the best performer in number one (Godspell)?

Madalena Alberto was the classiest performer for me, both acting- and singing-wise, in an ensemble which had quite a few good performers.

Why did you go to see number two (Precious Little Talent)?
Ella Hickson has won awards for her writing, but it was mainly the chance to see Ian Gelder working in such an intimate theatre.

Can you remember a line/lyric from number three (Iolanthe) that you liked?
There’s loads of witticisms about liberal/conservative alliances, the necessity of the House of Lords and tongue-in-cheek remarks about being half mortal half fairy, but my favourite line is probably the Fairy Queen’s “I am not insensible to manly beauty”

What would you give number four (The Coronation of Poppea) out of ten?
Somewhere between 6 and 7.

Was there someone hot in number five (Moonlight)?
Indeed there was, Liam Garrigan was a piece of hot stuff and frequently in his y-fronts which was an occasional merciful relief in the extreme longueurs of the show.

What was number six (The Great British Musical) about?
Celebrating musical theatre writing both old and new in this country. And raising money for Perfect Pitch.

Who was your favourite actor in number seven (London Road)?
Kate Fleetwood was the most impressive as she probably works the hardest, but it was Clare Burt who really touched my heart the most.

What was your favourite bit in number eight (Thrill Me)?
The way in which the performers dealt with the malfunctioning lights: singing the line “I can’t see you any more” in the pitch dark was too much for anyone to deal with without laughing and Frasca and Maguire were extremely good-natured about it.

Would you see number nine (The Tempest) again?
I would definitely see it again and had it not been such a short run, I would probably have gone back to the Barbican (indeed a friend booked to see it again practically upon leaving it, he loved it that much).

What was the worst thing about number ten (Little Shop of Horrors)?
Dentist overacting and general oversinging.

Which was best?
The Tempest was a fantastic physical reinterpretation of a much-told story which gave it a real freshness, but London Road seems to invent a whole new genre of theatre with its exhilarating presentation of the voices of real people and an emotional honesty that I didn’t think theatre was capable of.

Which was worst?
Will have to say Moonlight for the not inconsiderable feat of making 80 minutes feel like HOURS.

Did any make you cry?
Unusually for me, no.

Did any make you laugh?
Iolanthe and The Tempest both had greatly humourous moments in them.

Which roles would you like to play in any of them?
A woman playing a whore in Godspell so that I could sing By My Side, one of my favourite songs; or one of Ferdianand or Ariel in The Tempest so that I could be in the log scene... ;-)
Which one did you have best seats for?
Best seating experience was being in the pit for London Road, puts you right in the middle of the performance and subject to some interaction with the actors.

Review: Godspell, Union Theatre

"C’mere Jesus, I got something to show ya”

Godspell occupies a strange place in my personal history in that it is a show whose soundtrack I have known intimately for such a long time, I had it on cassette as a boy, we even sang songs from it in our primary school choir, and yet I had never seen it on stage until earlier this year in a theatre pub production in Walthamstow. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that one, but when the Union Theatre announced a production directed by Michael Strassen, I decided to give it another shot. That the highlight of the previous show was the sexy gay Judas (yes, I know he wasn’t really gay) and that I happened to notice there was another sexy potentially gay Judas in this one who I’ve seen naked recently had nothing to do with it.

It is the 40th anniversary of the show, conceived by John-Michael Tebelak with music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, which is based on parables from the Bible and leading up to the end of Jesus’ life, set to a pop-rock soundtrack. I wouldn’t say it is overtly religious as much of the messages that it portrays are ones with universal meaning of love, compassion for others and the strength of community. As well as directing, Strassen is also responsible for the minimal staging which shears it of the 1970s flower-child feel which the show is often associated with, and in conjunction with Steve Miller’s lighting design, provides an arresting visual aesthetic with its use of stylised posing and shadows, and I loved the motif of the eclipsed sun which prefigured the darkness of the relationship between Jesus and Judas.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Guest Review: Ghost – the Musical, Opera House Manchester

I owe all sorts of things to my parents, not least my love of theatre to which I was introduced from an early age, and though our tastes coincide on many things (Propeller’s Richard III being the most recent example), they vary on others and I was quite surprised when they announced that they were going to see Ghost – the Musical in its premiere run at the Opera House in Manchester. So, I prevailed upon my father to write up his thoughts in advance of my trip to see the show when it moves down to the Piccadilly Theatre in London on 22nd June and so I present to you, unedited, the real Mr Foster ;-)

Sometimes, it pays not to expect too much. That way, you stand a chance of being agreeably surprised, as I was by how much I enjoyed ‘Ghost – the Musical’.

Whoopi Goldberg apart, I was no big fan of ‘Ghost – the Movie’, so I wasn’t anticipating that a musical version sticking very faithfully to the film screenplay would appeal all that much. However, the show is visually spectacular and features some impressive performances by a strong cast. Dave Stewarts’s songs, though not particularly memorable (I didn’t come away humming any of the tunes), are well crafted and listenable. With one clunking exception, of which more below, the weaving of the songs into the storyline is skilfully done.

Cast of Ghost continued

Review: Precious Little Talent, Trafalgar Studios 2

Ella Hickson’s second play Precious Little Talent comes with something of a millstone of huge critical expectation as she has already been lauded one of the major new writing talents in this country, a shorter version of this play being a big success in Edinburgh two years ago. It has been expanded from 50 minutes to just under 90 and is receiving a London showing at the tiny Trafalgar Studios 2 with a cast of three, including the marvellous Ian Gelder who was the main reason I booked to see the show.

The story revolves around George (Gelder), an English academic in his early 60s living in New York and suffering from early onset dementia. His estranged 23 year old daughter Joey comes to visit unexpectedly, unable to get work in England and espying perceived opportunities in Obama’s ‘new’ USA, but with the help of his carer, 19 year old American Sam, he tries to hide the truth of his deterioration from her. But hiding his symptoms is easier said than done and when Sam falls head over heels for Joey though she does not know his real relationship to her father, the truth about the connections between these people and how far apart they really are comes to light.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Re-review: Iolanthe, Wilton’s Music Hall

“I am not insensible to manly beauty”

Sasha Regan’s Iolanthe, as it has been billed, is the latest of the now regular all-male Gilbert & Sullivan productions that the Union Theatre has put on and following the cat-like-tread of Pirates of Penzance last year, this also makes the transfer to the glorious Wilton’s Music Hall, tucked away in East London. It ranked as my 20th best show last year, the 9th best musical and one of its performers, Matthew James Willis made it to second place in the Best Supporting Actor in a Musical category of the fosterIANs so it was no surprise that a return engagement would be made to the show.

My review of the original production can be read here and I won’t recap it as much of what I said then remains as applicable now in how wonderful this show is in capturing a gorgeously innocent feel, free of sneering or post-modern archness which is no mean feat given the number of men dressed up as fairies singing falsetto. There’s a deep sincerity to these interpretations that is maintained here so that whilst there may be other productions that are better sung technically, I doubt there are any which have the same reverential irreverence, in perfectly capturing what G&S is about whilst going about it in a radically different way. This post will concentrate mainly on the differences between the two productions, a compare and contrast exercise if you will, although I won't be focusing on how few shuttlecocks there were here by comparison.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Review: The Coronation of Poppea - London's Little Opera House at King’s Head

"I gave you all my love and this is my reward?"

Monteverdi’s opera The Coronation of Poppea is one of the first that was ever written and this new version by Mark Ravenhill and Alex Silverman marks the continuation of OperaUpClose’s rebranding of the King’s Head pub theatre in Islington as London’s Little Opera House. They were responsible for the Olivier award-winning La Bohème which was judged the best new opera of 2010, for its reinvention and modernising of Verdi’s classic and a similar blast of imagination has been aimed here. 

Ravenhill has translated the work into English, modernised and colloquialised it – the first line, sung, is perhaps predictably ‘what the fuck’ reworking – and trimmed it down considerably to 2 hours 15 minutes. But perhaps the biggest change is with the music which has been re-scored and re-arranged for a jazz ensemble of saxophone, double bass and piano by musical director Alex Silverman and on top of that, Michael Nyman has been drafted in to compose a new aria which has been added into the mix. The opera follows the rise of Poppea, mistress of the Roman emperor Nero, as she fights her way to fulfil her dream of becoming empress, not letting his advisers or either of their spouses to get in the way.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Review: Moonlight, Donmar Warehouse

“You are the proper target for a cat’s derision”

Pinter has never really been one of those playwrights that has held much appeal for me, despite how well regarded he is. The only of his plays that I’ve ever seen is the Almeida’s production of The Homecoming but by and large, I’ve tended to avoid his work. But the Donmar is usually good value for money and always pull together stellar casts and so I duly booked for his 1993 play Moonlight, with Bijan Sheibani making his Donmar directorial debut, sneaking in for a £10 seat at the last preview. Little was I know that time could so slowly as it did here.

A ruminative meditation on a dysfunctional family, Moonlight focuses on the dying Andy and his estranged family: his emotionally distant wife Bel tends at his bedside, his two sons refuse to see him and verbally spar with each in a grubby bedsit and the ghostly presence of his daughter that haunts his house. In their own spheres, they all talk about the things they have lost, or rather talk around them, as it is clear that the breakdown in communication between that has caused the rifts, still persists and they are all unable to surmount it.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Music Review: Kristin Chenoweth - Let Yourself Go

"If you weren't if you hadn't if you didn't and you weren't and you hadn't and you didn't but you have and you were and you went and you did, and so, goodbye!"

I'm continuing to work my way through the pile of musical theatre cds that people have loaned to me, but one to which my eye was quickly drawn was Kristin Chenoweth's debut album Let Yourself Go. I previously reviewed her Christmas album which I absolutely love and despite what some people have said about her, I cannot wait for the day when I finally see her live: hopefully in a concert or show here in London but I'm also willing to travel...

It is a proper old-school variety album, selecting songs from a range of musicals mostly from the first half of the twentieth century, but with And shining above it all in Chenoweth's gorgeous soprano, equally able to deliver the comic verbosity of songs like 'If You Hadn't But You Did' (which I would love to hear Julie Atherton sing) and the vocal flexibility of 'The Girl in 14G' with the aching longing of ballads like 'How Long Has This Been Going On', the elegant restraint of 'I'll Tell The Man On The Street' and the simple vocalise of 'On A Turquoise Cloud'.

Review: The Great British Musical, Criterion

"How could this be the ending of our story?"

The Great British Musical was a showcase event at the Criterion Theatre, put together by the production company Perfect Pitch to celebrate British musical theatre both new and old through the performances of a cracking company of West End stars both established and upcoming. It was compered by Stephen Fry, the evening was led by Paul Herbert’s musical direction and supported by young performers from the MTA.

We were treated to songs from shows that are currently open: George Stiles and Anthony Drewe gave us a mini comedy routine before launching into a medley from Betty Blue Eyes including the title song which worked and Nobody which I wasn’t too sure about (I’m still longing to hear the promised version by Liza); Steven Webb and Jack Shalloo gave us their Long Sunday Afternoon/That Guy from Blood Brothers and Lloyd-Webber was well-represented too, especially by Stuart Matthew Price’s Heaven On Their Minds from Jesus Christ Superstar.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Review: London Road, National Theatre

“It’s given us a common cause...”

London Road, with book and lyrics by Alecky Blythe and music and lyrics by Adam Cork, is a show emerged out of an experimental workshop at the National Theatre, pairing unlikely collaborators to create new pieces of musical theatre. What they focused on was a series of interviews Blythe carried out with the residents of London Road, Ipswich, at the time when police were hunting for a serial killer after five women were found murdered. Why she chose that street was because it was where the murderer lived but her focus was not on him or the victims, but rather the people on the periphery, how the whole thing had affected the other inhabitants and as she revisited them months later, what their response as a community was. The show plays in the Cottesloe and this was a preview performance.

Alecky Blythe is an exponent of verbatim theatre, particularly a technique created by Anna Deavere Smith, whereby she interviews her subjects and then creates theatre by reproducing their words and vocal inflections faithfully, right down to the ums and aahs and you knows, in the performance. Working in the musical form has necessitated a slight departure from the pure verbatim form but also allows for the injection of a little dramatic license in adding emphases and repetition to what could be termed the key phrases of the chorus. Adam Cork’s music fits into the same idea of trying to replicate the speech patterns and feelings and remaining as true to the material as possible, rather than composing a musically coherent score per se, he’s created a series of responses to the text.

Review: Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story, Tristan Bates

“Do you know what would thrill me?”

People often assume that I’ve been to every theatre in London, more than once, and though it may seem like it, there are just so many and new ones opening all the time that not even I can make this boast, yet. The Tristan Bates Theatre, tucked away in a Covent Garden back street near Fopp, is one place I haven’t been before and so my trip to see American musical Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story meant I could knock more off the list. It is based on the 1920s true story of wealthy Chicago teenagers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb and the twisted relationship that existed between them as they searched for the ultimate thrill. Their raft of misdemeanours took a darker turn though as the crimes got more serious in order to make the thrills bigger, culminating in the ‘perfect crime’ – the murder of a young boy in 1924. The story is told in a series of flashbacks as we start in 1958 at the parole board hearing of Leopold.

A two-hander, it relies totally on the quality of its performers and director Guy Retellack has hit gold with his perfectly cast pair here: George Maguire and Jye Frasca who both bring highly nuanced performances to try and throw some light onto this complex and psychologically messy relationship. Maguire’s Loeb is the fan of Nietzsche, utterly convinced he’s above the law and seemingly the one driving the pair’s actions whereas Frasca’s Leopold is more the willing accomplice, desperate and willing to do anything to win the attention and affection of his friend and lover. Both sound outstandingly good in the intimate space and convinced as a couple, albeit one with serious issues, and as the beginnings of an explanation of the psychology that could lead to such crimes being committed. Frasca also did extremely well at playing the older Leopold, using subtle inflections in his voice to suggest the effect of more than 30 years in prison.

Review: The Tempest / Буря, Cheek By Jowl at the Barbican

“The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance”

My first Cheek By Jowl production was Macbeth last year but I have to say I was a little underwhelmed by it to be honest but seeing that their new production to arrive at the Silk Street Theatre at the Barbican was a Russian-language version of The Tempest (and my record with foreign-language Shakespeare at the Barbican has been a resounding success thus far) I was easily tempted back to try this out: be warned, this review contains much detail as I absolutely loved it! This production is by their Russian sister company, the Chekhov International Festival but directed and designed by CbJ’s Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod putting a unique spin on Shakespeare’s tale of art and illusion, magic, betrayal and power as Prospero seeks to avenge the wrongs done to him and restore his daughter to what he sees as her rightful place.

Igor Yasulovich’s Prospero is grizzled, embittered and cantankerous from the off, there’s a real climate of fear on the island as the inhabitants are all-too-aware of their master’s capricious moods as he sees himself very much as the patriarch of this place. Donnellan has drawn on a Russian aesthetic at a time poised somewhere between communism and capitalism. So Trinculo and Stephano’s abuse of Prospero’s dwelling takes place in a high-end boutique exposing their materialistic tendencies and the masque at the wedding is a whirl of Communist worker propaganda and peasant dancing. That this is what Prospero calls to a halt in a moment of meta-theatre in order to deliver his ‘our revels now are ended...’ soliloquy is given an even stronger power as art and politics combine in a flash of stark realisation as the stage manager comes on, the show stops, Yasulovich talks to us as himself, stripping back all the artifice before us.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Review: Little Shop of Horrors, White Bear Theatre

“Seymour sweetheart, tell me darling, what's been going on?"

Much like the plant at the heart of its story, Little Shop of Horrors has become something of a monster success rising from its Off-Broadway beginnings to cult classic to household name, thanks in no small part to Alan Menken’s sparkling score and Howard Ashman’s sharp lyrics and witty book. A spoof of 50s sci-fi films, it follows shy young Seymour, a florist with a huge crush on his colleague Audrey, trapped in an abusive relationship with a laughing-gas-guzzling dentist. When a mysterious plant lands on his doorstep offering him the solution to his problems in return for food, things seem like they might finally start to look up for this downtrodden couple, but Seymour fails to recognise the Faustian dangers of selling his soul as the plant, Audrey II, gets hungrier and hungrier.

It is silly and fun, but the show has endured due to its gigantic heart, one cannot help but root for this couple grasping at their chance of happiness and thwarted by a renegade flesh-eating vegetable, all to the tune of Motown-inspired ditties. This production at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington, South London has taken the unusual step of pulling together two teams of actors who will alternate performances, the key difference being that the three Ronettes who also double up as Audrey II between them are guys the one night, and girls the next meaning there’s different experiences to be had here from one night to the next.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Not-a-review: Pagans, Royal Court

“What’s an agnostic?”

Last up in the set of rehearsed readings for the International Playwrights Season was the play Pagans by Ukrainian Anna Yablonskaya. This reading was overlaid with great sadness when it was revealed that the playwright was killed in the Moscow Domodedovo Airport bombing on 24th January 2011 on her way to collect a prize for the screenplay of this very play. It had been scheduled well before her tragic death and the decision was never in doubt to continue with it as a beautiful tribute to her life and work.

Directed by Simon Godwin and translated from the Russian in which she wrote by Rory Mullarkey, Pagans follows the impact of the return of Natalya Stepanovna, long-estranged from her son Oleg, on his family, in particular his over-worked wife Marina and awkward university-dropout daughter Kristina, and other people in their life. They are all non-believers but she is fervently religious and though they are initially sceptical of her desire to bring Jesus into their lives to save them, they soon find out that the Lord (or is it Natalya) works in mysterious ways. 

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Review: Crawling in the Dark, Almeida

“Waiting for something to happen so you can go and tell everyone what a state my mum is?”

The Almeida Theatre has long been developing links with a younger audience through its Almeida Projects programme and Crawling in the Dark is their seventh play that has been especially commissioned for young people. Writer Natalie Mitchell has created a response inspired by the show currently playing in the theatre, David Eldridge’s The Knot of the Heart and its examination of how personal responsibilities and family relationships are affected by substance abuse, but shifting the focus onto the teenagers in the family. Living on an Islington council estate, Amber and Nathan are reunited with their hard-partying mum Liz after a while staying at their grandparents. It soon becomes clear though that her behaviour masks a much darker secret and the huge weight of caring for their mother and trying to conceal the truth of what she is up to falls on the too young shoulders of these two.

Kellie Bright as Liz struggling to deal with her drug habit whilst caring so very deeply for her kids was heartbreakingly good, a sympathetic portrait of a mother unable to extricate herself from the tangles of addiction. Along with Tahirah Sharif and Michael Lewis, a believable family dynamic was created from the outset, the easy familiarity with each other utterly convincing making their struggle all the more poignant. Sharif as excelled as the older of the siblings, carrying more of the burden but the weight of the responsibilities pushing hard on her and threatening her burgeoning relationship with the compassionate Freddie, played with charm by Tobi Bakare. Michael Lewis’ younger and consequently less able to adjust Nathan was also well-played, acting out in school and hungry for stories of happier times and family memories to cling onto.

Review: Bed and Sofa, Finborough

“We’ll take the bed and you, the sofa”

The second main show in the In Their Place season at the Finborough is the European premiere of Bed and Sofa, a silent movie musical. Based on the 1926 Russian film comedy by Abram Room where a housing crisis in Moscow leads Kolya to invite newly arrived Volodya, an old war comrade, to stay with him and his wife Ludmilla in their small apartment. But Ludmilla’s head is turned by the new arrival and as she decides which, if either, of the men she prefers, the sleeping arrangements i.e. who will take the bed with her and who will take the sofa take surprising turns.

Kaisa Hammarlund’s beautifully expressive Ludmilla was a joy to listen to and watch and Matilda alumnus Alastair Parker’s sexy bearish Kolya with his sometime booming baritone was nicely contrasted with Alastair Brookshaw’s sweeter Volodya as the old comrades competing for her heart. Adopting much of the style of movement of silent films kept things genial and light-hearted and produces the occasional piece of pure magic, the scene in the cinema was both totally convincing and beautifully played.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Review: Wastwater, Royal Court

“There are things which you’ll have done or which you’ll do which live with you for ever and ever”

You know you’re in trouble when a play describes itself as ‘an elliptical triptych’, making a virtue of your own obscureness sets up a challenge from the off and such is the case here with Simon Stephens’ new play Wastwater, directed by Katie Mitchell for the Royal Court (‘wast’ rhyming with cost in case you’re unsure). Three scenes, three locations on the edge of Heathrow Airport, three different couples all on the cusp of life-changing decisions, no interval. (This is a review of the final preview FYI)

Given Katie Mitchell’s penchant for mixing things up, her direction here is relatively straightforward. There’s no infuriating running across the stage, wrapping things up in plastic bags or her video work here, indeed the only notable innovation is a pair of seriously impressive set changes in Lizzie Clachan’s design which creates three strikingly different sets for the three scenes. And they need to be different as the scenes are self-contained, each couple appears just the once as their stories unfold and then Stephens moves us onto the next. 

Monday, 4 April 2011

Music Review: Michael Bruce – Unwritten Songs

“I want this world, I want every moment" 

Musical theatre writing in the UK has no greater champion than the Speckulation guys at the moment and one of the beneficiaries of their nurturing, Michael Bruce, has really taken flight this year with a star-studded debut album being released to showcase his song-writing. Bruce is a composer who has previously had his own West End showcase, musicals playing at Edinburgh, is resident composer at the Bush Theatre and has written the score for shows like the National Theatre’s Men Should Weep and the forthcoming David Tennant/Catherine Tate Much Ado About Nothing. He launched this album last month with a Delfont Room gig showing off his pulling power in getting many of the stars of his album to come and perform on a busy Sunday night.

On Unwritten Songs, Bruce covers a range of bases whilst remaining firmly in the musical theatre/cabaret world. He has a clear talent for comedy songs which are destined to appear and reappear in cabaret repertoires for the foreseeable future. Chief of these is the fabulous Portrait of a Princess, written especially for the incomparable Julie Atherton. Formerly entitled In A Disney Way, it is an extremely wordy, wry and witty look at the unreasonable expectations put on a modern-day Disney princess and if that weren’t enough, Speckulation have come up with their first ever promotional video for this song featuring a whole host of faces including Russell Tovey, Sheridan Smith and Jon Lee which you can watch below.

Music Review: Lance Horne – First Things Last

“Now you’re here, where else would I be?”

I was lucky enough to catch the Lance Horne concert at the Garrick at the end of January at which his album First Things Last was showcased, but as the cd features a mixture of both British and American musical theatre stars, the gig saw lots of stand-ins putting their own (mostly) brilliant spins on the songs. But I love the cd so very much that I always intended to review it separately as well but it has taken me a wee while to get round to it...

Opening with Alan Cumming’s witty American and taking a swift detour in soft rock territory with the rather bland In The Name Of The Father, Horne’s strength as a songwriter is demonstrated in a frankly astonishingly good and incredibly varied run of seven songs which make the purchase of this album pretty much essential. From the mid-tempo story songs like Leap performed with transatlantic charm by the delightful Emma Williams and Julie Atherton’s powerhouse vocals on Every Moment to the wry humour of Haircut with a great turn from Ricki Lake (nicely erasing any memory of Graham Norton’s efforts...!), there’s such strength in depth here.

Unwritten Songs continued

Friday, 1 April 2011

Top 10 plays for March

Well, when I said I would be cutting down on the number of plays I saw this year, obviously what I meant was this 'financial year', so my resolution still stands unbroken and the fact that I managed to squeeze in 38 shows in March is just by the by. Quite a tough one to rank to be honest, but here goes.

And the worst thing I saw? Many people have asked me what I've not liked the most and so whilst I am careful to reiterate that this is simply my opnion and that one man's cure is another man's poison, the play that I enjoyed the least this month was The Knot of the Heart at the Almeida, genuinely difficult to sit through and something that baffles me with its very positive critical response.

Review: The Children’s Hour, Comedy Theatre

“You ought not to say things like that about people, Mary”

After her (somewhat surprisingly) Olivier-nominated turn in The Misanthrope, Keira Knightley has returned to the same West End stage at the Comedy Theatre to further stretch her dramatic wings in a production of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour which also features the London stage debut of Ellen Burstyn, plus Carol Kane, Elizabeth Moss and a host of UK actresses in a rare play full of meaty parts for women. I hadn’t originally intended to see this show, the inflated ticket prices proving a step too far for a desperately uncomfortable theatre, especially in the (now no longer) cheap seats, but the offer from a kind soul to do the queuing for the £15 day seats meant that we ended up on the front row (A2&3) on a rainy Wednesday afternoon to be quite pleasantly surprised.

Set in 1930s New England at a small boarding school run by Karen and Martha, two women who after years of hard work and building up the school, are finally secure enough to begin looking at other things in life, in the case of Karen, marrying her patient fiancé. The only cloud on the horizon is problem child Mary, a massively disruptive influence and constant troublemaker who after yet another punishment is doled out to her, decides to run away to her grandmother’s house. But when an argument between Martha and her dippy aunt turns particularly rancorous with accusations of unnatural feelings towards Karen and is overheard by some of the other schoolgirls who pass on the tidbit to Mary, the malevolent child accuses her teachers of being secret lovers. It’s a charge which the grandmother takes deadly seriously, encouraging all the parents to withdraw their children and thereby threatening the very livelihood of the two women as they battle to clear their name.

Cast of The Children's Hour continued