Sunday, 29 May 2011

Review: The Mousetrap, St Martins

“I had my suspicions from the start”

One of the best things about Twitter for me has not just been connecting online with all sorts of new theatrical buddies but actually taking the next step and meeting up with them to share our mutual passion for theatre. So when the ever-fragrant @pcchan1981 suggested a group trip to see Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap for those who had not previously had the pleasure, six of us made our way to the St Martins Theatre for a Saturday matinée.

The statistics accompanying this show are frankly ridiculous: over 23,000 performances over 59 years which makes it the longest running show of any kind in the world, an all-the-more impressive scenario when one considers that it is a murder mystery that relies on the discretion of its viewers to not give away exactly whodunit – indeed, at the curtain call we are exhorted not to reveal the identity(s) of the guilty party(s). But is it a show worthy of its long-running status?

Re-review: Hamlet! The Musical, Richmond

“You can’t make a Ham-e-let without breaking some eggs”

I always tend to write less about shows the second time I see them, but in this particular case there is even less than usual as it was only three days since I saw Hamlet! The Musical. But with no future plans for the show currently confirmed and one of the funniest experiences in a theatre thus year so far, it didn’t take much convincing to make me journey back over to Richmond for second serving of Danish delight.

My original review is here and unsurprisingly there’s no change in my response to the show, other than to say it stood up to a second viewing extremely well even so close to the first time, it still got the laughs (and I was probably that annoying guy who was giggling in advance of the funnier jokes) and generated a huge warmth from the audience once again.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Review: Uncle Vanya, Arcola

“He understands nothing, achieved little, influenced no-one”

Sad to say, I think I will never fall in love with the new Arcola, or rather Studio 1 there. It comes across as such a difficult, inflexible space with (for me at least) frequent acoustic issues and a loss of what made the old Arcola Street location so special. I’m still hopeful that one show or another there will change my mind soon but my experience at this co-production of Uncle Vanya with Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre did not manage it. Part of it was due to the last-minute nature of my attendance: TfL’s inability to keep a tube moving forced me to miss The Four Stages of Cruelty in Studio 2 and so I was lucky to catch anything at all, sneaking into Studio 1 at the last minute but consequently ending up in terrible seats which ultimately coloured my experience.

This is a new version of Chekhov’s play by Helena Kaut-Howson and Jon Strickland, the latter of whom also takes on the title role whose quiet life in the country is disrupted when society darling relatives come to stay. The new arrivals struggle to get accustomed to the new pace of rural life but it is the household around them who are affected the more as the upheaval forces reassessment of loves, lives and expectations. This adaptation wisely plays up the humour to counterpoint the grim bleakness that typifies much of Chekhov’s work and as per usual, there is the staticness of people trapped in their milieu which can be oh so frustrating to watch.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Review: Thriller Live 1000th Performance, Lyric

“Showing how funky strong is your fight, doesn't matter who's wrong or right”

Finding myself the recipient of an invitation to the 1,000th gala performance of Thriller Live at the Lyric Theatre put me in something of a little quandary. I’ve had a mixed experience with the few jukebox musicals that I have seen and this was never a show that had appealed to me, despite being a fan of some of Michael Jackson’s music and thus never something I had considered booking. But, in finding a new friend of a similar sceptical view to my own, we took the plunge to visit this ‘musical celebration featuring the hit songs of Michael and the Jackson 5’.

Not knowing what to expect added a little thrill of anticipation but to be frank, by the time the first half was drawing to a close, things were looking grim and it was the prospect of a quick trip to the bar that was keeping us there. The show is free of any narrative constraints, instead taking the form of a musical tribute concert with a largely chronological tread through Jackson’s back catalogue starting in the Jackson 5 days. But what made it particularly painful was the running commentary that Britt Quentin was saddled with, interspersing the songs, reading like banal excerpts from a Wikipedia entry and rather pointless, very much a case of preaching to the converted. Throw in an audience participation section that was lukewarm, a fair few Jackson 5 songs I’d never heard before and X-Factor style montages and my patience was wearing thin.

Review: The Acid Test, Royal Court

“Growing old is mandatory, growing up is optional”

Entering the Royal Court upstairs for Anya Reiss’ second play The Acid Test is a little delight as Paul Wills’ design of grimy corridors winds round the space to lead us into the small London flat that three girls in their early 20s share. Reiss’ first play Spur of the Moment was lauded with awards so there’s a certain level of expectation here that lies on her young shoulders that is met in most, if not quite all, part.

Reiss’ gift is clearly in characterisation and the creation of believable and effective dialogue. As we’re flung headlong into the world of these flatmates, there is great wit and huge likeability generated from the off as displayed by Phoebe Fox as the slightly dippy but hilarious Ruth with her boyfriend dramas and Vanessa Kirby’s self-possessed Dana who has her own issues balancing her work and sex life. Their other flatmate is Jessica whose arrival back at the flat with her father Jim, who has been kicked out by his wife, precipitates the long night of drinking and soul-searching that makes up this play.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Review: Hamlet! The Musical – Richmond Theatre

“When I think about Denmark and the way things used to be”

It’s Hamlet, but not as you know it. Originally an Edinburgh Festival hit in 2001, returning in 2010 and now developed under the auspices of the Royal and Derngate to a fully fledged hour and three quarters production, Hamlet! The Musical takes a delightfully irreverent look at this Shakespearean classic in an adaptation that is highly inventive, supremely silly and one of the funniest things I have seen this year.

Where it succeeds is in some really sharp writing, there are plenty of genuine laughs in here alongside the broader comedy, and the engagement of a highly enthusiastic and talented cast of familiar faces. Jack Shalloo’s (recently good fun in The Kissing Dance) daft teenager with stars in his eyes makes a very appealing leading man and Mark Inscoe’s (huge amounts of fun in Salad Days) doubling as an Elvis-inspired ghost and a devilish Claudius were both excellent good fun.

Review: Silence, RSC at Hampstead

“It’s me...I don’t know how to be free”

My continued failure to resist booking plays I don’t really fancy but with members of the RSC Ensemble in the, resulted in this trip to the Hampstead Theatre to see Silence, their collaboration with Filter, a company whose work I haven’t really enjoyed in the three shows of theirs that I have seen. And even the assertion that it was the Ensemble members I was keen to see is stretching it a little (although Katy Stephens and Christine Entwisle were both people I wanted to see again) as it was the opportunity of gazing at Jonjo O’Neill and Oliver Dimsdale onstage that finally won me over: as Monica Geller once said, ‘homina homina’.

At its simplest, Silence follows two main narratives as a married couple pursue different paths: Kate travels to Russia to find Alexei, a man with whom she had a passionate affair more than 20 years ago; and her documentary filmmaker husband Michael with a sound technician colleague is investigating a mysterious Met Police unit whom they suspect of committing misdeeds. But this is a far from simple show as we flow seamlessly between both time and place, some scenes overlapping and even being intercut with one another.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Review: The School for Scandal, Barbican

“You can indeed each fear remove, for even scandal dies if you approve”

Commencing before the curtain ‘rises’ with a futuristic-Georgian fashion show, complete with gossiping fashionistas, it is clear from the outset that Deborah Warner’s production of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal is no stately Peter Hall-esque costume piece, but rather something completely different. Employing much of the same visual language employed in her 2009 Mother Courage for the National, the Brechtian feel is very much here in the deconstructed pieces of set lying against walls, stagehands visible onstage and placards announcing the scene changes.

At a time of ever-increasing tabloid gossip, injunctions, superinjunctions and Twitter, Warner is clearly keen to draw direct comparisons between Sheridan’s Georgian London society (who presumably twittered rather than tweeted) and the shallower end of our own contemporary society obsessions with celebrity and consumerism. This is done in the most heavy-handed of ways, so the scandalous intrigue and politics that surrounds the plot of romantic entanglements, debated inheritances, saucy liaisons, unhappy marriages is dressed in designer shopping bags, a thumpingly loud soundtrack and all sorts of modernities.

School for Scandal cast contd

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Music Review: Stuart Matthew Price – All Things In Time

“Am I wishing for too much?”

Stuart Matthew Price, currently to be found in the ensemble of Shrek The Musical, has long carried the (potentially) dubious honour of being named one of the brightest upcoming stars of British musical theatre since wowing people in Parade at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007 and since then has been quietly carving out an interesting career, more often than not choosing to highlight lesser-known musical theatre writing. And so too does he do here on his debut album, featuring a selection of the cream of new musical theatre writing, including himself as he is a composer as well as performer.

Dougal Irvine’s beautifully relaxed 'The Touch of Love' was a surprising highlight for me: I’d usually plump for piano arrangements every time but Irvine’s light touch (ba-dum) works wonders here to make this a great track. And followed by Laurence Mark Wythe’s 'Goodnight Kiss', the album really does come off as a fabulous showcase for interesting writing: both of these songs standing up excellently individually, but also suggesting interesting musicals that might accompany them. Likewise, Stiles & Drewe’s 'Wishing For The Normal', a characterful duet with Caissie Levy, and Grant Olding’s 'Midnight Will Happen Without Us' are other great signs of the health of new British musical writing.

Writers of All Things in Time continued

Review: Many Moons, Theatre503

“I looked into her big big eyes. And found one hundred moons in amongst the blue.”

Set over a hot summer’s day in Stoke Newington, Many Moons is Alice Birch’s debut play showing at the Theatre503 in Battersea. Following four people whose isolated metropolitan existences circle round each other, their stories threatening to collide in the scorching heat of a village fête in Abney Park with potentially devastating effects. Birch is a graduate of new writing schemes at both the National and the Royal Court and with her first full-length production marks herself out as a talent to watch with a highly witty yet poetic play of great maturity and dramatic intrigue.

Edward Franklin’s nervy, nerdy Ollie is a bundle of barely-socialised but still endearing energy as a young man trying to break free from a life of dull Oxford academia and dark matter to try and find something new in London. In the flat next door, Esther Smith’s effervescent Juniper is an irrepressible perma-smiling ball of positivity, newly moved down from the Midlands and unshakeably sure that love and life have great things in store for her. Jonathan Newth’s Robert is preoccupied with caring for his Parkinson’s-suffering wife but he still has deep desires of his own. And in a house across the road, Esther Hall’s heavily-pregnant and unhappily-married Meg is wrestling with her feelings of unfulfilment and channelling her time and energies into dealing with a world of suspicions.

Review: Antigone, Southwark Playhouse

“Tyranny has many ways of prospering, since it can do and say what it will”

Productions of Greek tragedies have now been running for literally thousands of years due to the enduring relevance of much of their content, especially in the corrupting influence of holding power. Using Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1991 translation, Primavera’s production of Sophocles’ Antigone for the Southwark Playhouse places the action squarely in a modern-day Middle East, full of political turmoil and regime changes.

Thebes has suffered years of war and oppression but when a final bloody battle leaves the two brothers battling for the throne dead, the new leader, Kreon makes moves to impose his rule. One brother will be buried with full honours, but the rebel one will be left to rot in the sand, the greatest punishment imaginable. His decision shocks many, in particular the dead brothers’ sister Antigone, whose determination to see the correct funeral rites observed leads to tragic conclusions.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Re-review: Betty Blue Eyes, Novello

“Pig! No pig!”

Not too much to say about revisiting Betty Blue Eyes as most everything I wanted to say was covered in my original review, and although I’m sad to say there was no Liza at this performance, I was joined by someone even better! I really enjoy watching shows I love with people experiencing them for the first time and seeing what they respond to and I was pleased to hear Aunty Jean chuckling away next to me for most of the show. But it was also interesting to see that there were sections I’d forgotten (one of the dangers of having an album sampler rather than the whole show I think) and how my emotional reactions differed: Magic Fingers brought proper tears down my cheek and being somewhat prepared, I was able to look a bit more at the pig without being too freaked out ;-)

Aside from the replacement of the lightsabers with paint brushes in Painting By Heart, I can’t say I noticed any significant changes since the preview I saw. I can’t even really say that I thought the cast looked more comfortable or polished onstage as they were in pretty good shape when I saw them. There’s still the slight feeling that a couple of the roles could be sung by stronger voices, but I would wager that it would rob the show of much of its quirky charm.

One thing I would say, and this was evidenced by the singing and humming on the way out of theatre and the journey back to the tube, is that Stiles & Drewe have actually created a most memorable score here, something that other new musicals have not achieved – and yes I’m looking at you
Shrek. There’s at least five tunes that stick effortlessly in the head and I really do hope that this means that there will be an enduring success for this show as it really does deserve it.

Cast of Betty Blue Eyes continued

Friday, 20 May 2011

Review: Much Ado About Nothing, Wyndhams

“Man is a giddy thing and that is my conclusion”

Marking Josie Rourke’s first major piece of work since the announcement of her appointment as the next Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, this production of
Much Ado About Nothing is perhaps more notable, for those less interested in theatrical musical chairs, for reuniting David Tennant and Catherine Tate, one of my all-time favourite pairings from Doctor Who. It is actually the first time I’ve seen the play, though I adored the Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson film when I was younger, and fans of this play are being spoiled as the Globe are also mounting a production which opens in the coming weeks.

The play has been moved to the heady days of the early 1980s and apparently is set in Gibraltar. I say apparently because the first I heard of it was reading the programme on the way home in which there’s an essay about life there which I assume means it serves as the location. I didn’t see any monkeys or a big rock, but I suppose it allows for the military base to be used as a reason for putting all of Don Pedro’s men in spiffing white naval uniforms ;-) (At least I think they’re naval, military of some description anyway.)

As the warring couple Benedick and Beatrice, Tennant and Tate were really good fun both to watch and to listen to as they sparred and sparked off each other. Their respective gulling scenes are just fantastically played, his perhaps getting the edge for reasons that will become clear when you see it and they are clearly so well connected in terms of their performance that it is just a joy to watch them. Rourke has a keen sense of positioning them which means they are often directly opposed on the stage, even as a scene plays around them and there’s a ton of neat wordless moments, full of emotion as events threaten to thwart their story before it has even begun and even if you think you have an issue with them as a romantic pairing, their relationship is so strong that it is abundantly clear they belong together in one form or another. They are complemented beautifully by a stellar performance from Adam James as a strong Don Pedro, offering comic interventions and emotional support, even though sometime misguided, to all and sundry with a great stage presence and ease of manner.

Looking back, I did find it a little odd that it is Tennant who gets most of the comic devices – the golf buggy and the keyboard coming first to mind, whereas Tate is usually to be found drinking in dungarees. I don’t think I’m wrong in thinking the dice are more heavily loaded towards him and it did generally feel like he was being presented more as the star rather than as half of a partnership (but then I need to reacquaint myself with the play and see if Beatrice is actually written as much as an equal as my hazy memory recalls Thompson being).

Sarah Macrae must be blessing the day she met Josie Rourke: after getting her professional stage debut at the National in Men Should Weep, her second role sees her West End debut as a fairly feisty Hero, a spirited interpretation for the most part though it did feel like she was a little too keen to fall so readily back into Claudio’s arms after the big reveal at the end – Beatrice’s women’s lib lessons evidently not making too much impact! But Rourke clearly is interested in giving new talent a shot as her Claudio, Tom Bateman, is another performer making a professional stage debut and he does extremely well. Perhaps a little over-earnest in showing his later anguish but then one is tempted to forgive a little overcompensation here after following Shakespeare’s difficult honour-driven machinations which require him to believe his (disliked) colleague over his betrothed. Still, they make an appealing couple and I also liked Alex Beckett’s wild-haired Borachio, Elliot Levey’s scowling as Don John – although it is a shame he doesn’t have more to do – and Jonathan Coy’s impassioned Leonato.

We were sat in the centre of the very back row of the balcony and for the cheap seats, I have to say I was very impressed. The Wyndhams is a lovely small theatre anyway so one is not too far away even at the back but the rake is so well-designed that it barely feels like there’s rows of people in front of you, our sightlines were basically unimpeded and free from that annoying things of people in front shifting in their seats and blocking your view. Projection wasn’t a problem and as for the sound, Michael Bruce’s music is interestingly done as it is a heavily 80s inspired soundtrack, to the point where he has written songs that sound just like, but not quite, several well known tunes. It is clever but I’m not 100% sure that I saw the reason for it. Robert Jones’ design is exquisite though, with four pillars mounted and set back on a revolve which dominates the stage and neatly suggests a more technologically advanced Globe: this tribute to that venue is also nodded at with a final jig (of sorts).

The show is remarkably good shape for an early preview, most everyone is secure in their verse-speaking, it is just a case of cranking up the energy levels here and there and introducing a little more distinction into someone of the minor parts, but there was little I could criticise in the final analysis. There were a few many wordless scenes as the stage made its stately progress round and round, the fevered dream sequence unnecessarily pushed Claudio’s depth of despair too far and I’m not sure I would have put the interval where it is, the show breaks with a very strange image which dissipates the intense atmosphere generated, where stopping just one scene before would have a much greater emotional impact.

Where criticism does come in, is for the mean-spirited decision to make the ticket lottery (20 best seats being released each day and a lottery drawn at 10.30am) one ticket per winner, thereby making something that is already a gamble doubly so, as if two of you want to go, one could win and the other not. It is hard not to find this a cynical move on the part of the production company, I’m not sure how I feel about lotteries anyway, but to make it impossible to plan a social evening to the theatre with it feels wrong.

Fans of David Tennant won’t be disappointed here (especially if you dream of seeing him in drag), fans of Catherine Tate might be a little bit by comparison, but altogether they combine to headline a strong production of this play which has much to commend it, not least their unique chemistry is which is played to perfection here, the more general great spirited energy from the whole team and of course, men in uniform. It will be interesting to see how it compares with the Globe’s version especially as I’m not too familiar with the play itself but it is also interesting to see Rourke working on this scale again and try and work out if there are any clues here as what her stewardship of the Donmar might offer.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval) though oddly the programme states 2 hours 15 minutes. It may be in preview but there is no way they will chop 30 minutes off this.
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 3rd September

Cast of Much Ado About Nothing continued

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Review: One Man Two Guvnors, National Theatre

“My honour has been fiddled with”

I’ve spoken before about the unwiseness of booking for shows that you don’t fancy even though they have very appealing casts and that goes double when it is a form of theatre that you know you can’t stand. Yet despite this, I still booked a pair of £12 tickets for One Man, Two Guvnors at the Lyttelton in the vain hope that I might be won over. For as you may or may not know, farce is one of my least favourite styles of theatre, I rarely find it funny, though I have tried, but this is compounded here by the casting of James Corden in the central role, a man whose ubiquity and public persona I find most objectionable. So why on earth did I book? Good question, but it was in the interests of trying to keep my theatrical experiences as broad as possible, the promise of a wonderful sounding supporting cast and the intriguing addition of songs by Grant Olding being introduced into the mix.

Based on the Italian comedy The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni, Richard Bean has relocated the play to 1960s Brighton, thus mixing its commedia dell’arte origins with a British sitcom sensibility and augmented by the ever-present in-house band The Craze who provide musical entertainment before the show starts and during the interval as well as interspersing the action. The plot, for what it’s worth, concerns Francis Henshall, a (assumedly) cheeky chappy who’s down on his luck with no money and a huge appetite. He falls into a job as a minder for a gangster Roscoe Crabbe who is in town to collect £6,000 and then as chance would have it, he gets a second job working for a guy called Stanley Stubbers who is staying in the same hotel. But all is not what it seems: Roscoe is actually his twin sister Rachel in disguise as Roscoe was murdered by her boyfriend and she wants to collect the money to run away with her beloved, who just happens to be Stanley who is in hiding from the police. This being a farce, Francis then has to keep the two from discovering each other though they are staying in the same pub as he wants to keep the two pay packets and thus be able to eat and get his end away.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Continuation of the cast of The Cherry Orchard

Continuation of the cast of The Cherry Orchard

Review: The Cherry Orchard, National Theatre

“Everything that people say is so much fluff and nothing”

The Cherry Orchard was Anton Chekhov’s final play and although the Old Vic saw Sam Mendes’ Bridge Project tackling it a few years back with a version by Tom Stoppard, it was last seen at the National Theatre a decade ago with Vanessa and Corin Redgrave. This production though sees director Howard Davies reuniting with Andrew Upton with whom he worked on Philistines and The White Guard as they continue to explore 20th century Russian theatre writing and also with leading lady Zoë Wanamaker after their wildly successful collaboration on last year’s All My Sons.

Telling of the terminal decline of the Russian ruling classes at the beginning of the twentieth century, Chekhov’s play is presented in a new version by Andrew Upton which provides a straightforward directness to the text, which is at time effective but also intermittently problematic. For me, it was just too modern for its own good, laced through with random words, colloquialisms and phrases that kept jolting me out of the period setting with some really strange choices, the Nina Simone song lyric being a particularly jarring example. When Upton imposes less on the writing, beautiful and powerful moments arise, it would just be nice if they were allowed to flow better.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Music Review: John Barrowman - John Barrowman

“So close to reaching that famous happy end”

I should be careful what I say about this week’s cd, John Barrowman’s self-titled album from 2010, as practically all the women in my family are ma-hoo-sive fans of his and so there could be recriminations. I don’t have quite the same feelings but enjoyed his turn in La Cage aux Folles and am a big fan of Torchwood so am generally favourably inclined towards him. Focusing on musical theatre but with a sprinkling of pop songs too, this is exactly how one would imagine a Barrowman album to sound and in some respect this is both its strength and weakness, appealing to his core audience and offering frustrating hints of what an interesting artistic album he could create.

In a nutshell, my opinion is that I like the first half of most of the songs where both vocal performance and arrangements remain simple and uncluttered, allowing Barrowman’s clear gift for interpretation to shine through. But almost invariably, grandstanding kicks in alongside key changes, long sustained notes and over-processed backing which creates a rather repetitive feel across the whole record. The opening of songs like The Winner Takes It All and You’ll Never Walk Alone are just lovely but midway through lose what is making them special, robbing the subtleties that a little restraint would give, even if just to a couple of the songs. . A Celtic-infused take on Memory from Cats actually emerges as the unexpected place where he curbs the excesses for the most part to interesting effect.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Review: Macbeth, Everyman Liverpool

“What’s done cannot be undone”

The Everyman Theatre in Liverpool will shortly be closing for an extensive three year renovation programme which will see the building being completely rebuilt to reinvigorate the already sterling work that the Everyman and Playhouse theatres have been doing for the last few years. The final show to be mounted here is a production of Macbeth which features the return of one of its prodigal sons in the title role, David Morrissey, a Liverpudlian by birth who trained at the Everyman Youth Theatre in the early 1980s alongside Ian Hart, Mark McGann and Cathy Tyson.

Originally cast alongside him to play Lady Macbeth was Jemma Redgrave but she had to withdraw due to personal reasons (one hopes that she is ok, that family has suffered enough hardship in recent times) just three weeks before the show was due to open, but fortunately Julia Ford (recently seen in Mogadishu) was able to join the cast and ensure this valedictory telling of ‘the Scottish play’ was able to continue.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Review: Shrek The Musical, Theatre Royal Drury Lane

“An Ogre always hides, an Ogre's fate is known, an Ogre always stays in the dark and all alone”

I hadn’t originally intended to go to Shrek The Musical, certainly not this early in the run, never having seen the films and having a somewhat mixed reaction to the lead casting. The Nigels, Lindsay and Harman, intrigued me but Amanda Holden (I’ve never seen Britain’s Got Talent either) and Richard Blackwood did not appeal. But when an offer appeared on the show’s Facebook page, for £40 tickets at the front of the Upper Circle at a ridiculously cheap price of £15, I snapped up a pair as a birthday treat.

A big-budget production of the show had a relatively short run of just over a year on Broadway but a much-revised version went out on tour across North America last year and it is a copy of this scaled-down production that is now previewing in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, directed by Rob Ashford and Jason Moore. It has a book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire (also writer of the harrowing Rabbit Hole – talk about diversity!) and music by Jeanine Tesori, and according to my lovely companion for the evening, it cleaves very closely indeed to the first film in the franchise, right down to the same jokes being repeated. This is a review of an early preview, indeed there's about a month of preview performances, so do bear that in mind as I have. 

Cast of Shrek continued

Cast of Shrek continued

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Review: A Delicate Balance, Almeida

“The one thing sharper than a serpent’s tooth is a sister’s ingratitude”

A Delicate Balance won Edward Albee the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes and director James Macdonald has brought it to the Almeida Theatre as the fourth of his plays to be performed there. Albee is perhaps best known for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and this play shares similarities with that work in its focus on the travails of rich urban socialites, their relationships and what nastiness lurks beneath their genteel facades but A Delicate Balance pulls the focus a little wider to look at an entire dysfunctional household. 

Tobias and Agnes are a couple whose very well-appointed life of cocktails and social clubs suggests a world of comfortable privilege. But from the off, it is evident all is not quite rosy as we discover they sleep in different bedrooms, Agnes’ alcoholic sister Claire is living with them and their daughter Julia is experiencing marital discord, for the fourth time though still in her 30s. Further complicating matters is the arrival of their best friends, Harry and Edna, who arrive unexpectedly, utterly traumatised by an unknown fear at their house, and having decided to move in with them. When Julia arrives back at the family home the next morning, having indeed split up from her fourth husband, to find strangers in her childhood bedroom, the battlelines are drawn as family are pitched against friends and loyalties stretched to their limits.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Review: I Am The Wind, Young Vic

“Is it possible not to want anything”

It is a good time for fans of neglected Scandinavian playwrights who are popular on the continent. The Young Vic’s I Am The Wind by Norwegian Jon Fosse follows the Orange Tree’s venture into the work of the Swedish Lars Norén with Autumn and Winter, but this is a truly international venture as directing this show is celebrated opera, film and theatre director Patrice Chéreau, making his English language début in any venture.

Simon Stephens’ English version works from a literal translation Øystein Ulsberg Brager to create something subtle, something ambiguous as the playwright(s) probe questions of desire and existence on a beautifully moving journey for two men, named simply The One and The Other, as they venture from a protected cove into the open ocean and quite literally into the unknown.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Review: Bette and Joan, Arts Theatre

“I could have punched her in the fucking face”
Bette and Joan is a world premiere of a new play by Anton Burge that takes place over a long day during rehearsals for the 1962 film Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. Long-time rivals, Joan Crawford asked Bette Davis to star with her in this low-budget but high risk venture as they were both experiencing considerable career lows but though ostensibly working together and more alike than either would care to admit, their bitter enmity still spilled out in a number of entertaining ways. The show is set in their separate (natch) dressing rooms, allowing them to deliver their individual monologues, remembrances and anecdotes – often remembered very differently by the two women – and also for a scene in each half where they interact, rehearsing the chair lift scene and bidding each other farewell at the end of the day.

Burge’s play succeeds because it doesn’t just focus on the backstage shenanigans on the famous film, although there’s a fair bit of it in here including the wickedly played weight-belt scene, it also takes a wider view of the experience of women working in the old Hollywood system. Indeed one could extrapolate even further into the experience of all working women as the show examines the impact pursuing their careers had on their marriages, their families and the struggles they faced in a male-dominated industry. This worked particularly well for me as I haven’t actually ever seen Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (I’m a bad gay, I know) and so makes something more universal whilst still playing on the well-known legends.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Review: Little Eagles, RSC at Hampstead

“All these dreams of fire and steel in one little head”

The best of intentions always tend to go awry from time to time and so it is with theatre bookings. I would not normally have considered going to see Little Eagles, as Russian space history is not generally a subject I care that much about, at least not enough to pay money to see. But, as it was one of the new commissions by the RSC and being performed by the Ensemble, whom have grown into a fabulously cohesive unit and therefore pretty much making anything they do a must-see as they come into the final furlong of their time together.

Marking the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned orbit of the earth, Rona Munro’s play follows the development of the Soviet space programme by Sergei Korolyov, a former gulag inmate with the meagrest of resources who managed the incredible even in the face of great political pressure. But it is a slow, long play with little variation of tone or voice; there’s no attempt to question this version of events and even the joy of seeing these actors in fascinatingly different roles did not really mitigate against this.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Review: The Damnation of Faust, ENO at the Coliseum

“I just need you to sign this old piece of paper...”

Continuing their sourcing of directors better known in other artistic fields, ENO now feature the operatic directing debut of renowned actor, screenwriter and filmmaker Terry Gilliam with a new production of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust. Not strictly speaking an opera, but rather a ‘dramatic legend’ as it was originally composed as a concert score, this has allowed Gilliam’s imagination to run wild but working with his surreal vision is designer Hildegard Bechtler in an unlikely combination.

Berlioz’s story is based on Goethe’s original dramatic poem but takes its own route through the story of the lengths a man will go to when tempted by the Devil with promises of youth, knowledge and finally love. The ultimate price paid for Faust’s inability to resist temptation is a most tragic one in this morality tale, which in Gilliam’s major innovation, has been located in Germany, tracing a period from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century and so follows the history and indeed the art of that country. So the backdrop to Faust’s dilemmas are scenes like Bismarck negotiating pre-World War I alliances; bloodied battlefields from the Great War; Brown Shirts drinking in a Weimar bierkeller; Berchtesgaden; Kristallnacht; Auschwitz.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Review: Little Eyolf, Jermyn Street

“Is there something troublesome that gnaws in your house?”

My history with Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen has not been an easy one, I don’t think I have really enjoyed a single production of his work but yet I put myself through it time and time in the hope that something will click and I will finally see what it is that makes others acclaim him as one of the finest ever playwrights. Little Eyolf, playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre, is one of his lesser performed work although an updated (to the 1950s) version of it by Samuel Adamson, the little-loved Mrs Affleck, played at the National Theatre in 2009.

Eyolf is a nine year old boy on crutches, crippled after an accident as a baby. His father Alfred returns from a spiritual retreat to the nearby mountains, with a new determination to abandon his writing in favour of dedicating his life to his son. This new-found devotion drives his wife Rita to insane jealousy as she is already suspicious of his close relationship with his sister Asta. But when the mysterious Ratwife arrives at their house with her offer of cleansing them of ‘bad’ things, a devastating event follows which utterly changes life for everyone.

Review: Pocket Dream, Propeller at the Underbelly Festival

“Why are you wearing a tutu?”

As part of the Underbelly Festival on the South Bank, Edward Hall’s all-male company Propeller have revisited and shrunk their production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream down into a 1 hour, family-friendly version called Pocket Dream. A company of six bring the customary Propeller rough-and-tumble physicality to the production which is matched by the approach to the text, which has been adapted and condensed by Roger Warren but remains utterly recognisable. Everything has been trimmed down, save the Rude Mechanicals’ play which is mostly all there, only Theseus and Hippolyta have been given the axe and even they make a delightful surprise appearance at the end of the show.

The men were all identically and androgynously dressed in white and a toy box placed centre-stage from which all the accoutrements to create the various characters were produced: pyjamas tops and nightdresses for the lovers, feathery, glittery cloaks, tutus and collars for the fairies and workmen outfits for the Mechanicals. Just two umpires’ chairs on the circular playing space were needed for them to create their magic. And magic it was, with frequently laugh-out-loud funny sections mixed in with poetic moments, demonstrating a deep understanding of how to make Shakespeare really sing and connect with an audience. Their anarchic spirit was still in evidence too with a few moments of meta-theatre sprinkled in too, the above-mentioned quote being the best, blink-and-miss-it instance of that.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Review: Kingdom of Earth, The Print Room

“Anything worth having or doing in this world is risky”

Terence Rattigan has received a lot of attention in his centenary year with productions of his shows filling theatres across the land, but it is also the anniversary of Tennessee Williams’ 100th birthday this year which has been generally marked by much more low-key productions of his lesser-known works, including this 1968 work Kingdom of Earth which is presented at the West London venue The Print Room.

Set in the 1960s in an isolated ruined farmhouse in the Mississippi Delta, a sick young man Lot returns to his birthplace with his new wife, showgirl Myrtle. But he arrives to find that there is a huge impending flood about to engulf the region and his estranged half-brother Chicken is living in the house. As Lot retires to the comfort of his mother’s old bedroom and wardrobe and his illness takes a turn for the worse, Chicken seizes the chance to ensure that his legacy and claim to the family property is not affected by the presence of his rival’s new wife. Myrtle is thus caught in the power struggle between these brothers as they battle for ownership, and not just of the house.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Review: Autumn and Winter, Orange Tree Theatre

“What did you do to me?”

Autumn and Winter, at the Orange Tree in Richmond, opens powerfully with a Stockholm family dinner party coming to an end but debates over a range of subjects still coming thick and fast with predictably liberal Swedish upper-middle-class attitudes prevailing, whether about immigration, drug abuse or the economy. But this is no tidy social affair and the conversation returns over and over again back to themselves and their unique family dynamic. This is mostly driven by the behaviour of younger daughter Ann, relentlessly self-analytical and forever complaining about her struggles as a would-be playwright and single mum in the face of the comparative luxury of the rest of her family. 

Lars Norén, little known in this country but one of Sweden’s best playwrights and very popular on the continent, keeps to a naturalistic style here with conversations spilling into each other, dialogue overlapping, people talking over each other whilst Ann behaves likes a spoilt brat and considering this was their first performance, the controlled energy from the cast was rather well calibrated, bouncing off each other well and creating that well-worn sense of long-suffering familial tolerance. But as the play progresses and each character gets their turn to air their long-held grievances and reveal a couple of shocking home truths, matters become a little wearing and, to be honest rather tiresome, as we slowly work our way around the table. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Re-review: Frankenstein, National Theatre

“Why did you make me?”

Perhaps one of the less-successful decisions I have made this year was to revisit Frankenstein at the National Theatre. There was a number of reasons: the opportunity to see Jonny Lee Miller take on the role of the Creature and directly compare and contrast him with Benedict Cumberbatch; it was the final performance of the run; it was actually the third time I had a pair of tickets to see the windy Miller – I’d passed on the other tickets to more receptive friends but given one last chance, I ended up biting the bullet in the spirit of perhaps finding something new in the production.

For I did see it much earlier in the run, you can read the review here, and I found it a most problematic play. And my opinion of it still holds firm after a second viewing, I find it simply astounding how forgiving the official reviews were of this show. For sure, the production values are at times sensational and a welcome shot in the arm for National Theatre stagings which will hopefully inspire more creativity in future productions. But the play itself is so terribly weak that to close one’s eyes to its many problems feels like an absolute crime and try as I might, I could not ignore them and try to focus on having a ‘good time’ as my companion attempted to admonish me.

Cast of Frankenstein continued

Nominations for 2011 Tonys - Best Performance by a Featured Actor/Actress in a Musical

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical

John Larroquette, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Colman Domingo, The Scottsboro Boys
Adam Godley, Anything Goes
Forrest McClendon, The Scottsboro Boys
Rory O'Malley, The Book of Mormon

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical

Nikki M James, The Book of Mormon
Laura Benanti, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Tammy Blanchard, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Victoria Clark, Sister Act
Patti LuPone, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Nominations for 2011 Tonys - Best Performance by a Featured Actor/Actress in a Play

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play

John Benjamin Hickey, The Normal Heart
Mackenzie Crook, Jerusalem
Billy Crudup, Arcadia
Arian Moayed, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Yul Vázquez, The Motherfucker With the Hat

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play

Ellen Barkin, The Normal Heart
Edie Falco, The House of Blue Leaves
Judith Light, Lombardi
Joanna Lumley, La Bête
Elizabeth Rodriguez, The Motherfucker with the Hat

Nominations for 2011 Tonys - Best Performance by a Leading Actor/Actress in a Musical

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical

Norbert Leo Butz, Catch Me If You Can
Josh Gad, The Book of Mormon
Joshua Henry, The Scottsboro Boys
Andrew Rannells, The Book of Mormon
Tony Sheldon, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical

Sutton Foster, Anything Goes
Beth Leavel, Baby It's You!
Patina Miller, Sister Act
Donna Murphy, The People in the Picture

Nominations for 2011 Tonys - Best Performance by a Leading Actor/Actress in a Play

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play

Mark Rylance, Jerusalem
Brian Bedford, The Importance of Being Earnest
Bobby Cannavale, The Motherfucker with the Hat
Joe Mantello, The Normal Heart
Al Pacino, The Merchant of Venice

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play

Frances McDormand, Good People
Nina Arianda, Born Yesterday
Lily Rabe, The Merchant of Venice
Vanessa Redgrave, Driving Miss Daisy
Hannah Yelland, Brief Encounter

Monday, 2 May 2011

Review: All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Make the coming hour o’erflow with joy and pleasure drown the brim”

All’s Well That Ends Well occupies an enigmatic place in the Shakespearean canon, grouped as one of the ‘problem plays’ since it does not fit neatly into one category or another – an enigmatically dark comedy full of ambiguity and curious ethics which means it is not one of the more regularly performed plays, indeed this is the first production to grace the stage of the Globe. Helena is in love with the arrogant Bertram, son of her guardian the Countess of Rousillon, despite him being well out of her league as she is but a commoner. But when she utilises the skills left to her by her deceased physician father to cure to the King of France of a painful fistula and he gratefully offers a reward of her choosing, she seizes the opportunity to have the king allow her to marry the man of her choosing. Bertram does not take too kindly to being coerced thus and reluctantly submits to the betrothal but declares he will never be a true husband until two seemingly impossible conditions are met and leaves France for Italy to become a soldier, hoping to never see Helena again but she is one determined young lady.

Given the contrivances of the Bard’s plot which do not really bear much examination, a choice has to be made about the interpretation of the play to try and surmount the difficulties contained therein. Marianne Elliott coined the phrase Shakespeare noir for her dark Brothers Grimm-inspired fairytale take at the National which vastly played up the ambiguity of characters’ motivations and her final image of the (not-so) happy ending was just inspired. But there’s a much lighter tone employed here by director John Dove, and not just because of the glorious sunshine on this Sunday matinee preview, which brings a sparkling vitality to this play and removes any suggestion of a ‘problem’.

Music Review: John Barr – All I Am

“Maybe I’m brainless, maybe I’m wise”

Having reviewed In Whatever Time We Have last month, I was given a copy of All I Am, one of John Barr’s later albums, his 5th in total, to have a listen to in my quest to broaden the musical theatre cd collection on my iTunes. Barr is a musical theatre and cabaret veteran now so consequently there’s a hugely diverse range of material on show here: musical theatre and cabaret standards rub shoulders with pop songs, soulful ballads, even a self-penned number. Each song also has its own dedication, testifying to just how personal this song collection is. And it is a largely restrained affair, lots of lovely piano arrangements and Barr’s rich voice showcased at its best, the simplicity of songs old and new suiting him down to the ground whether it’s Robin McKelle’s 'Remember', 'Absent Minded Me', a song cut from Funny Girl or the guitar-led 'Earthbound' written by Conner Reeves.

Highlights for me were two of the four duets on here: Scott Alan’s 'The Journey' is sung softly and just beautifully with Alison Jiear who also provides backing vocals on several other songs too, there’s a gorgeous subtlety here that re-emerges though in a completely different way on a re-arranged 'As Time Go By' with David McAlmont that swings by with a fresh energy. But Barr is such a strong balladeer too that he soars on numbers like the title track and 'Heaven Holds The Ones I Love' that could prove mawkish but are sung here with such heartfelt sincerity.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Top 10 plays for April

I did it! I cut down! It took me being out of the country for a week but I managed to only see 22 plays in April... ;-) And here's my pick of the best.

  1. Cheek By Jowl's Tempest
  2. London Road
  3. And The Horse You Rode In On
  4. Electra
  5. Iolanthe
  6. Thrill Me
  7. Lakeboat/Prairie Du Chien
  8. Crawling in the Dark
  9. Pagans
  10. Chekhov in Hell
And least favourite of the month? It has to be Moonlight at the Donmar, a massive disappointment.