Thursday, 30 June 2011

Review: Dream Story, Gate Theatre

“No dream is just a dream”

Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story is perhaps best known as the novella that was filmed by Stanley Kubrick as Eyes Wide Shut and allegedly sounded the death knell for the marriage of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Anna Ledwich has adapted it for the Gate Theatre, also serving as director, turning the story into a “part odyssey, part freak out, part nightmare, part psychological thriller” as we delve deep into the sexual imagination of early 20th century Vienna.

Well-to-do doctor Fridolin and his wife Albertine return from a party in high spirits and start to confess fantasies to one another, of imagined affairs with other people. But something is awry, he rejects her sexual advances and as he is summoned to a house call, he enters into a long dark night following his impulses as he is propositioned by patients’ daughters, visits a prostitute, attends a masked orgy, all populated by a set of characters whose faces seem to recur again and again, suggesting that the dividing line between real life and imagination has been significantly blurred.

Re-review: Richard III, Propeller at Hampstead Theatre

“I like you lads; about your business straight”

It seems only natural that Edward Hall would bring Propeller’s touring double bill of Richard III and The Comedy of Errors to the Hampstead Theatre, he is after all the Artistic Director for both the all-male Shakespeare company and the Swiss Cottage venue, but when the shows were first announced, there was no mention of London in the tour. Keen to have my first Propeller experience, trips were made to Guildford and Sheffield to see the shows and then as sod’s law would have it of course, a short residency in London was announced. Still, I am glad that I got to see the shows earlier, way back in November in the case of Richard III, as it has meant I was able to see them, love them, recommend them to all and sundry as they toured the country and finally get to revisit both shows as I’m pretty sure this is about as good as interpretations of Shakespeare can get.

My review of Richard III back in November in Guildford can be read here and to be honest and somewhat less than humble, reading it back, I think it is one of my best pieces of writing in capturing how exhilarating a production it is and how enthusiastic I felt about it. Very little of my exceedingly positive opinion has changed and taking in a second viewing allowed me to appreciate some of the smaller details that passed me by first time round as there really are so many inventive touches in here, it feels impossible to soak them all in with a single viewing.

Cast of Richard III continued

The 2010 Ian Charleson Awards

First prize
Gwilym Lee
, for Edgar in King Lear (Donmar Warehouse)

Second prize
Zawe Ashton
, for Salome in Salome (Headlong Theatre)

Third prize
Vanessa Kirby
, for Isabella in Women Beware Women (National Theatre), Rosalind in As You Like It (West Yorkshire Playhouse), and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Octagon Theatre)

Pippa Bennett-Warner
, for Cordelia in King Lear (Donmar Warehouse)
Natalie Dormer, for Mitzi in Sweet Nothings (Young Vic)
Susannah Fielding, for Petra in An Enemy of the People (Crucible Theatre, Sheffield)
Melody Grove, for Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest (Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh)
Cush Jumbo, for Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester)
Ferdinand Kingsley, for Rosencrantz in Hamlet (National Theatre)
James McArdle, for Malcolm in Macbeth (Shakespeare's Globe), and Aleksey in A Month in the Country (Chichester Festival Theatre)
Jessica Raine, for Regina in Ghosts (Duchess Theatre)
Catrin Stewart, for Hilde in The Lady from the Sea (Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester)
Joseph Timms, for John of Lancaster in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 (Shakespeare’s Globe)
Charity Wakefield, for Lydio Languish in The Rivals (Southwark Playhouse)
Ashley Zhangazha, for the King of France in King Lear (Donmar Warehouse)

Ian Charleson Awards nominees continued

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Review: The Beggar’s Opera, Open Air Theatre

“You will always be a vulgar slut”

The Beggar’s Opera written by John Gay in 1728 was the first example of the ballad opera, perhaps the forerunner to today’s jukebox musicals in folding in pre-existing tunes to a satirical narrative that poked fun at the ever-popular Italian operas that were all the rage. Gay set his play in amongst the lowlifes of society, our main protagonist Macheath is a highwayman and raging lothario and the slowly twisting plot follows his shenanigans as he gets married to Polly Peachum, despite having gotten Lucy Lockit pregnant, unaware that the parents of both are part of a corrupt justice system that would happily see him hang so that his reputed fortune would come to them. Lucy Bailey directs this production which takes place in the elegant Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park.

The overall impact is somewhat underwhelming though, the score not really proving to be melodically distinct enough, nor the story witty or moving enough to really crackle with life. For 2 hours 40 minutes, there is very little to the plot and much of the running time is taken over by the 69 songs that are sung throughout the show. Though mostly sung well, these rarely progress the action but rather arrest the flow and as the vast majority of them fall neatly into the English folk ballad category, there’s a gnawing sense of repetition that sets in. And even when there is no singing, there’s little vibrancy or energy on stage, movement director Maxine Doyle of Punchdrunk has introduced a rather sluggish pace and Bailey’s direction does not draw out enough of the comedy from the productions or her performers.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Review: The Village Bike, Royal Court

“You think I'm this respectable married teacher person"

Penelope Skinner makes her Royal Court debut upstairs with The Village Bike, having previously been a member of their Young Writers Programme and being the recipient of the 2011 George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright (assumedly given before she co-authored Greenland…). It’s an unsettling portrait of a just-pregnant woman, Becky, recently moved to the country and struggling to come to terms with her new life and the restrictions placed on her both by her condition and her do-gooder husband who has taken to the role of father-to-be with great gusto but rather neglecting the role of husband, leading Becky to deal with her frustrations in ever-reckless ways.

It is a very frank play, dealing with female sexuality in a way which is rarely seen (at least by me) onstage as Becky turns first to her husband’s furtive stash of p*rn films and then to a heady set of illicit liaisons with local bad boy Oliver Hardcastle, from whom she keeps her pregnancy secret, as she lives out her (and his) wildest sexual fantasies in the oppressive atmosphere of the heatwave that affecting just about everyone in the village. For no-one is particularly happy, especially the married people: fertility issues, dealing with continued absences due to work travel, difficulties of parenthood, sexual frustration, all these issues reverberate around the populace of the village, all underscored by the overbearing fear of loneliness that Skinner argues characterises rural living here.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Review: Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare’s Globe

“The reward of sin is death”

The tale of Faust is one which is seemingly never far from our stages in one form or another, whether it is opera, another opera or Icelandic acrobatics. But Christopher Marlowe can lay claim to perhaps being the first to dramatise this story back in Elizabethan times and this production of Doctor Faustus marks the first time it will have been performed at Shakespeare’s Globe.

A strange mixture of dark tragedy and broad comedy, the play looks at the danger of recklessly pursuing the quest for knowledge, power and wealth without due responsibility. Faustus, tired of his life of dusty scholarship, makes a pact with the Devil exchanging his soul after death for 24 years of service from his trusty servant Mephistopheles. Blinded by the material benefits that easy access to the dark arts garners him, the reality of eternal damnation doesn’t hit until far too late.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Blogged: Should bloggers aim for/be held to a set of professional standards/code of conduct

Notes from Open Space session at Improbable's Monthly D&D Satellite: What are we going to do about Theatre Criticism?
Attended by: some lovely people whose names I did not take (sorry)

Discussion started around whether any rules for blogging should or could be created. The quick consensus was that no, they shouldn’t and no, they weren’t really desirable. Key factor is clearly the inability to make anything enforceable so the issue moved somewhat around whether a sense of responsibility is what we are actually after. Much chat about the very nature of blogging being an individual act, the freedom of speech and the right to respond to a piece of art as you see fit (especially as a paying customer, even for a preview), often closer to opinion giving rather than critical discourse: all making it impossible to ‘regulate’ for want of a better word.

Problem comes in trying to apply journalistic concepts too strictly onto bloggers. Asking/making them adhere to official critic rules without giving them any of the benefits subjugates blogging to an ‘inferior journalism’ mindset which isn’t what it is about. Indeed, blogging could be seen to be challenging the print media voice – perhaps giving a voice to the audience member – and offers a unique opportunity to subvert expectations without being wedded to format, word count, structure – embrace the freedom of opportunity, create an interactive community with your readers. For the most part, readers will be able to discern that there is a clear difference between journalism and blogging.

Monday, 20 June 2011

DVD Review: Love’s Labours Lost, Shakespeare's Globe

“He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument”

Working my way through the Globe DVD collection from their 2009 season has been good fun and a nice way to catch up on shows that I did not see and in the case of Love’s Labour’s Lost, a show that I have never actually seen. Dominic Dromgoole’s revival of his 2007 production brought back several original cast members (although sadly not Gemma Arterton who made her stage debut here) to this early Shakespearean comedy.

Not having any knowledge or preconceptions about a play is always a nice state of affairs for me, but by the end I could tell that this was surely going to be one of those of his works that is deemed problematic. The King of Navarre and his court decide to forswear women and pleasure for serious study but the arrival of the Princess of France and her ladies and their mischievous ways challenges their resolve. But not content with four potential couplings, the youthful Shakespeare works in a number of additional sub-plots which seriously pull focus from any main story and combined with an extreme wordiness – it’s often trying too hard to be clever to be genuinely funny – and a kicker of an ending, it does make for a rather odd experience.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Review: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Theatre Royal Haymarket

“There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said ‘no’” 

Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead makes the leap from Chichester to the Theatre Royal Haymarket to continue the Trevor Nunn season there. For its premise, it takes these two minor characters from Hamlet and inverts the perspective of the show so that we see the events of Shakespeare’s play but from their utterly bewildered eyes. As they try to make sense of their lives and what is happening to them and around them, scenes from Hamlet play out and matters of destiny, mortality and the meaning of existence perused and debated.

Tim Curry was forced to withdraw from the Chichester run during rehearsals – Chris Andrew Mellon continuing to act up in his stead – but Nunn’s canniest casting is in reuniting original History Boys Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker in the title roles. The pair exchange huge amounts of great banter, insistently rhythmic at times but differentiated too, as Barnett’s quavering Rosencrantz edges closer to panic whilst feeling his way around the uncertainty that dominates their existence and Parker’s Guildenstern maintains a stiffer resolve.

Review: Where’s My Seat, Bush Theatre

“They kiss reluctantly; they kiss enquiringly; they kiss passionately”

Though the Bush Theatre has gained a huge reputation as one of London’s top fringe theatres, balancing the charm of its intimacy with the severe limitation of the venue perched above a pub in Shepherds Bush has been something of a trial and so the opportunity to relocate to an old library just around the corner was gratefully seized and a new chapter in the Bush’s history commenced. Where’s My Seat offers audiences a preview of what the theatre will become, as it is still under construction and development, as three short plays test-drive the space and feedback from the audience actively sought from compère-for-the-evening Ralf Little.

There’s a real playfulness to Where’s My Seat that is evident from the moment one walks into the old Shepherds Bush Library: the walls are covered with scribbles of what will eventually be there or marked ‘knock through’. The programming also reflects this: 3 playwrights were invited to write short plays, utilising one of three different seating configurations and up to nine of the most random props that had been selected at random from the National Theatre’s archive, but the challenge did not even end there. Three theatrical luminaries were then invited to create a set of challenging stage directions which had to be incorporated into the plays, so outgoing Donmar supremo Michael Grandage, outgoing Bush supremo (and going to replace Grandage) Josie Rourke and Alan Ayckbourn did their best (Ayckbourn displaying something of a lack of humour about his efforts though, providing three pages worth where the others had about 6 each!)

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Review: Mr Happiness and The Water Engine, Old Vic Tunnels

“The mind of man is less perturbed by a mystery he cannot explain than by an explanation he cannot understand”

I’ve had something of a varied history in the Old Vic Tunnels since it opened early last year: exciting immersive experiences and one of the worst productions conceivable – I still can’t look at a watering can the same way... And since opening last year, it continued to develop as a performing space, making varied use of the atmospheric arches, and they have now opened up The Screening Room, a brand-new 125-seater space both programmed and run by a team of volunteers to showcase the ‘new’ and offer training and experience in all aspects of theatre creation. The first show mounted here is a double bill of David Mamet radio plays, Mr Happiness and The Water Engine, presented by Theatre6 and MokitaGrit.

The first, short, piece is a one-man-show, David Burt starring as a radio show host playing at agony uncle, reading out letters and dispensing frank advice to his listeners’ personal problems. Silhouettes on the bookshelves behind him enact some of the scenes which adds an extra layer which isn’t strictly necessary as Burt’s sonorous voice and expressive face are more than plenty to guide us through the tangled concerns with a soft but matter-of-fact humour.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Blogged: Selecting Blogger's Choice for Off Cut Festival 2011

The Off Cut Festival 2011 will see 28 short plays being performed at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios as part of a three week showcase of new and undiscovered talent with the audience able to vote for their favourite play, which will receive development time and a full run next year – much like last year’s winner Sweet Engineering of the Lucid Mind which played at the Hen + Chickens in March. The reading panel selected 32 plays, all of which they would have been happy to have in the festival and of those, 24 were put into four groups to best reflect the diversity of writing style/genre/tone/casting in order to present the most exciting, interesting and varied programme for the audience. And because they are crazy people at Off Cut, they invited a panel of bloggers – yours truly, Scott, Luke, Alison and Havana – to select our favourite four from the remaining eight to make up the final programme.

Thus we were treated to readings of 8 short plays from the Off Cut reading panel plus a little extra assistance, and though there were several moments of helpless giggles at some of the more absurd points, there were also some lovely touching moments which really added to the whole experience and brought a complete life to the scripts that would have been lacking had it been a simple reading exercise. The subjects covered were an interestingly varied range, as were the formats, but the final four that we selected by committee were:

Review: Takeaway, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“What makes an Eddie Woo”

Eddie Woo is stuck working in his dad’s takeaway, having failed his A-Levels yet again, but frequently escapes to his daydreaming world where he is the New (Chinese) Tom Jones. Back in the real world though, he is juggling two girlfriends, a best friend who might be drifting away from him and a full-time job though when a talent show seems to offer a potential way out, it leads to yet more confusion as Eddie is finally forced to decide what it is he really wants from life. Such is the set up for the Theatre Royal Stratford East’s new show Takeaway, music by Leon Ko and book and lyrics by Robert Lee, which makes the claim to be the first ever British-Chinese musical.

There is just so much going on in here that the overwhelming impression is that I suspect Lee and Ko might actually be certifiably insane. The manic way in which the show rockets around its different subject areas and formats is breathtaking and not always in a good way. Talent shows, racism, the pressure of working in family businesses, the Chinese immigrant experience and generation gap, frustrated youth dealing with the lack of opportunities, the questioning of sexuality and much more beside are all thrown into the melting pot alongside a structure which throws in songs in the most arbitrary of manners: as Eddie’s internal monologues, insane fantasy sequences, romantic ballads, storytelling songs, comedy numbers, Tom Jones pastiches. Everything is whirled together and so we ricochet from plot strand to plot strand with dizzying speed, resulting in a show that, however well-intentioned, ends up as something of a mess.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Review: Realism, Soho Theatre

“What good is it going to do you, moping about your flat all day”

New Artistic Director for the Soho Theatre, Steve Marmion, has chosen an ambitious way to start his tenure using one company to perform two plays – one English premiere of an Edinburgh hit and one new commission – both exploring matters of the mind and sanity. The first of these is Anthony Neilson’s Realism, the story of a man who wants to spend his Saturday doing ‘f*** all’, just curled up on his sofa. This he does, but what Neilson explores is that even in the act of physically doing nothing, the mind remains highly active and can take us on a marathon of a journey that can be just as exhausting as actually running one.

So the tiniest action our protagonist carries out: opening the post, putting a load of washing in, making some toast, triggers memories and trains of thoughts, delving into the full gamut of the emotionally bruising recent past, sexual fantasies and as far back as childhood but also spinning off into fantastical moments and imagining his own funeral. The hugely endearing Tim Treloar takes us on his journey with great skill, negotiating the peaks and troughs as his conscious and sub-conscious clash in the most bizarre of ways.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Review: Seagull, Arcola

“I’ll sit through drivel if I have to, providing it’s witty and amusing”

The Arcola has had something of an unofficial Russian season of late, what with Anna Karenina and Uncle Vanya, and so their attention now turns to Chekhov’s classic play Seagull (the definitive article is clearly passé this year what with Government Inspector losing it too) with Runaway Theatre, using a new translation by Charlotte Pyke, John Kerr and Joseph Blatchley, the latter of whom is also the director. Set in 19th century Russia, the story revolves around four artistic types: fading actress Arkadina, young ingénue Nina, successful writer Trigorin and would-be playwright Konstantin and their complicated loves and lives between each other and those around them. When Konstantin puts on a play for the two women in his life, it acts as the precipice for a tragic set of consequences as all strive for emotional happiness and artistic freedom, yet despair and failure are never far away. 

With this new translation that adhered word-for-word to the original text, it was discovered that some cuts and amendments had been made by the Russian censor back in 1896 and these have now been restored. It doesn’t quite mean there’s now Tarantino-levels of swearing and violence, indeed I would reckon even Chekhovian scholars would be hard-pressed to notice all the changes as many of them are relatively minor, but adding layers of subtlety to characters and a touch of clarity to relationships that contribute to the overall feeling of freshness to this interpretation.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Additional cast members for Emperor and Galilean

Review: Emperor and Galilean, National Theatre

“Words and thoughts are just as important as deeds”

Though Ibsen is reputed to have described Emperor and Galilean as his ‘major work’ which took nine years to complete, it has never previously been staged in English and little is known about it given how often his other works are revived. This may well be because it was not actually written for the stage but to be read, consequently the original epic spreads over ten acts and is allegedly over eight hours long. Never one to shirk a challenge though, the National Theatre commissioned a new adaptation by Ben Power which condenses it down to about 3 hours 20 minutes yet still employs over 50 performers to bring this version of Ibsen’s epic to life. This was a preview performance on Monday 13th June.

The play spans 351 to 363AD, following the life of Julian, nephew of the Roman emperor, an intelligent erudite man even from his teenage days which were spent exploring his faith and studying the Bible with his friends. But chafing against the constraints of the imperial household which isn’t altogether sympathetic to his existence, he escapes to a carefree existence in Athens where he is seduced by the exotic lure of the worship of the ancient pagan Gods. His eventual rise to Holy Roman Emperor thus saw him try to abolish Christianity as the state religion and replace it Paganism, returning back to the values of old, but conflating his own personal struggle with faith with the trials of ruling a fading empire is an awful lot for one man to take on. 

Monday, 13 June 2011

Review: Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s Globe

“There was a star danced, and under that I was born"

Much Ado About Nothing fans really are in for a treat this summer with two major productions running on either side of the river. The blockbuster version at the Wyndhams has the starrier casting to be sure but there is real delight to be had Bankside too as the Globe have tempted Eve Best from the world of American television (if only for a limited time) to star alongside Charles Edwards in this more traditional, but perhaps more engaging version of this most romantic of Shakespeare’s comedies. Claudio and Hero’s relationship is at the centre of this play and how Don John’s machinations threaten to thwart their true love, but it is in their friends Benedick and Beatrice’s sparring and refusal to admit their mutual love that really elevates this play into something special and that is what we have here at the Globe.

What is comes down to is the most delightful performance from Eve Best as Beatrice, my first opportunity to see her on stage and one which you should not miss. Unafraid to show the vulnerable, almost desperate side to the character as well as the customary sparky humour that serves as her distancing technique, she envelops every single member of the audience in her confiding embrace and I loved her from the start, even whilst cruelly dashing Don Pedro’s hopes. Charles Edwards’ rather foppish Benedick is a brilliant counterpart too, whose public school mannerisms are hilarious and an almost effective way of keeping his heart from bruising. And together they make a beautifully well-matched couple whose eventual union really gladdens the heart.

Review: The Flying Karamazov Brothers, Vaudeville

“They’re not Russian, they don’t fly and they’re not brothers”

The Flying Karamazov Brothers are four entertainers, dressed in kilts, who have moved into the Vaudeville Theatre for the summer with their cabaret show of juggling, comedy, dancing, comedy dancing and music. The troupe has impressively been going since 1973, and still has one of those original two members performing now – Paul Magid (also writer and director), developing a number of shows and expanding their numbers to enable shows to run simultaneously in different cities. Not usually a fan of juggling-based shows, I have to say my mind was completely opened to new possibilities by Gandini Juggling’s Smashed! last year which demonstrated how interesting and indeed beautiful it could be.

There are moments of thrilling juggling which are breathtaking in their scope, as the four men play with the sounds and rhythms that they create, and weave in and out of each other, exchanging batons at a whirling rate and never pausing for breath during the routines. The best of these comes towards the end with what they call jazz juggling, a free improvisational segment which sees them cutting loose and challenging each other with a more playful air of tricks and flicks that is highly engaging and fun: it was so good, it almost overshadowed the much-trailed juggle of 9 Objects of Terror that followed it at the end of the show.

DVD Review: Romeo & Juliet, Shakespeare’s Globe

“The world is not thy friend”

When does one know that one has seen the definitive interpretation of a particular show? And who gets to decide these things? I’m not quite sure, but watching the Globe’s 2009 production of Romeo & Juliet on DVD, I very much got the feeling that Rupert Goold’s RSC version might just be as good as this play will ever get.

Neither lead performer really captures or engages the heart and convinces of the inevitability of their journey. Adetomiwa Edun and Ellie Kendrick have the teenage precocity but their youthfulness works against articulating a genuine sense of capricious, all-encompassing love: there’s no charisma to their performances and so little is really invested in their plight.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Review: Lord of the Flies, Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park

“Which is better – to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?”

Watching theatre outdoors is always a bit of a challenge in this country and the weather for the last while has been so changeable and unseasonably cold at times that the prospect of going to see Lord of the Flies at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park was not one that filled me with much anticipation. But as may be evident by now, it doesn’t take too much to convince me (3 gin and tonics, if you’re wondering) and thankfully the gods were kind to us with no rain falling, even if it was extremely chilly.

Timothy Sheader’s production of William Golding’s classic novel of a group of schoolboys stranded on a desert island and left to their own devices, is nominally an updating – hints abound in the debris of the crashed-plane set - but in truth, very little concession is made to this. The language, the diction, the performances all speak of Golding’s original post-war era which fitted the rather traditional feel better than any pretence at locating this story firmly in the modern day.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Review: The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd, Finborough

“There’s always a joker in the pack, there’s always a lonely clown”

There ought to be clowns and indeed there were, six urchin-types all done up in Pierrot costumes, an ever-present chorus observing the almost Beckettian power dynamics between the two main characters who are constantly playing and replaying the age old game of life. What might surprise is that this is the set-up for a musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint The Smell of the Crowd with book, music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, perhaps best known for their collaboration on the soundtrack to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Upper class ‘Sir’ is always in change of the game and is constantly changing the rules so that working-class Cockney ‘Cocky’ is always kept down-at-heel: the plays aims for a metaphysical representation of the 1960s British class system, replete with a sprinkling of absurdist touches that try to enliven the grindingly repetitive nature of the game-playing. But the story is accompanied by a musical score which encompasses a number of songs which may be incredibly familiar to you: standards like Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me) and Look At That Face, The Joker – recognisable as the theme tune for hilarious television show Kath and Kim and also from Shirley Bassey’s Greatest Hits (or maybe both...!) and Feelin’ Good, immortalised by Nina Simone’s flawless interpretation.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Review: Schiller’s Luise Miller, Donmar Warehouse

“The stuff of seduction is also the stuff of politics: lies and promises”

Schiller’s Luise Miller is Michael Grandage’s penultimate outing as director at the Donmar Warehouse before Josie Rourke takes on the reins of Artistic Director. A bustling German 18th Century tale of romance, class struggles, tragedy and court politics, the play, Kabale und Liebe (previous translations have been called Intrigue and Love, and Love and Politics) has been given a new treatment here by Mike Poulton, who if Wikipedia is anything to go by (bearing in mind this is my first experience with the play), has reworked quite a bit of the latter part of the play, bringing to mind Dennis Kelly’s liberal approach to The Prince of Homburg at this same venue.

Noble-born Ferdinand, son of the one of the most powerful statesmen in the country, is in love with Luise Miller, the middle-class daughter of a middle-class musician and willing to sacrifice all for love. But the political scheming and power games that govern the world they live in means that their destiny is out of their hands, no matter how honourable their intentions, they are at the mercy of those more powerful who will stoop to nothing to ensure they survive. 

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Review: (Wo)men and me, Blue Elephant

“Tu vois, je suis pas un homme
Je suis le roi de l'illusion
Au fond qu'on me pardonne
Je suis le roi, le roi des cons”

I’m not completely opposed to dance shows, but at the same time I very rarely book for them off my own bat. I prefer to go to shows that other people have picked and (hopefully) get swept along by their enthusiasm. Such it was with (Wo)men and me which also allowed me to tick another of my previously unvisited fringe venues, the Blue Elephant in Camberwell, which is another of my new local theatres. That the last dance show my friend had seen was the somewhat controversial and extremely naked Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde! at Sadler’s Wells should have rung an alarm bell for me, but more of that later.

(Wo)men and me is a double bill by French performance maker and choreographer Tonny A ostensibly exploring androgyny and psychological identity. Or to my untrained eye, it was men dancing in pants, or at least once it got started. The first piece, AR-men, a duet between Nick Smith and Jean Magnard, took a long time to break out of the set-up for the concept. The two men in boxer shorts lay under a giant plastic sheet as a video played, a prison-guard type figure then ordered them to move around and finished by taping their bodies to the floor as another video played which began to stretch the patience. But once the business of actual dancing started, Smith and Magnard slowly breaking free, discovering their bodies and ultimately each other, I rather enjoyed the exploration of masculinity, suggesting a fast track through evolution through to a celebration of gay love.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Review: Titus Andronicus, Baron's Court Theatre

“I say, my lord, that if I were a man, their mother's bedchamber should not be safe"

It may feel like I’ve been to all the theatres in London but there are so many fringe venues spread across the city that there are some that have yet to be blessed by my presence, the Baron’s Court Theatre in the basement of the Curtains Up pub being one of them. And when they announced an all-female production of Titus Andronicus, a Shakespeare play I have yet to see in order to complete the set, by Inside of Out, it seemed the time was ripe to kill two birds with the one stone.

Titus Andronicus has oft been described as one of Shakespeare’s goriest plays and quite frankly the numbers (according to Wikipedia at least) don’t lie: 14 killings (though just the 9 onstage), 6 severed members, between 1 and 3 rapes, 1 live burial and some cannibalism thrown in for good measure. But beyond the barbarity, there is a powerful story too of the corrosive impact of violence on society, of the devastating effect of two opposing sides unwilling to back down and what that does to the individual, the family and even the government. Shakespeare’s Titus is a Roman general who has returned victorious from 10 years of conflict with the Goths with their queen Tamora a prisoner, but a ritual sacrifice avenging the death of his sons sparks off a terrible cycle of revenge with Tamora whose unexpected new position as Empress ensures this is a power game with the highest of stakes, leaving no-one untouched.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Review: Chicken Soup with Barley, Royal Court

“If you don’t care, you’ll die” 

A playwright who hasn't received much attention in years of late, Arnold Wesker finds two of his plays about to receive major revivals in London: Chicken Soup with Barley here at the Royal Court, where it first played in 1958 and The Kitchen will open later this year at the National Theatre. Chicken Soup... follows the disintegration of an East End Jewish family over a twenty year period but simultaneously the collapse of the Communist ideals that they and their friends espouse, starting with the Cable Street Riots in 1936 and revisiting them just after the war has finished and again in 1956 and the beginnings of the Hungarian Revolution. 

At the heart of the play and barely off the stage, Samantha Spiro is never less than sparkling as Sarah, at once the Jewish mother forever making cups of tea and sandwiches for her brood as they rally round her, singing songs, making speeches and dreaming of a bright future, and also this political stalwart fiercely committed to her Socialist ideals even as others peel away from her magnetic influence and the ideal world they dreamed of crumbles away. It is her life that epitomises the Socialist dream and her passionate defence of the way she has lived her life, although coming too late in the play, is a stunning moment which ends the play powerfully. As her feckless husband, Danny Webb gives an equally affecting performance of a man who feels he has failed at life and is constantly reminded of the fact by his nagging wife and then later his children: he way he retreats into himself as illness then kicks in is often just too hard to watch. 

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Review: American Trade, RSC at Hampstead Theatre

“I don’t even know what you are speaking of but I sense it’s dirty, underhanded and plain illegal”

And so to complete the set... Having initially declared that I was fine with not seeing any of the RSC new commissions at the Hampstead Theatre when they were announced, I’ve now seen all three of them, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s American Trade following on from Little Eagles and Silence in what has been, to be completely honest, a rather underwhelming season. Billed as a contemporary Restoration comedy, this is an ultra-modern, breakneck 90 minutes of multi-coloured, multi-racial, multi-sexual shenanigans, which also happens to mark Jamie Lloyd’s RSC directorial debut. This was a preview performance on the evening of Saturday 4th June.

Insofar as the plot is concerned, young New York hustler Pharus is offered a golden chance to escape his increasingly tricky situation when an unexpected offer from his unknown English Great-Aunt Marian to run a new modelling agency as part of her PR firm comes through. So he crosses the ocean and make a good impression but ends up finding he is best at what he knows and so the model agency becomes a cover for a prostitution racket. But his cousin Valentina, heir presumptive to the business, is not happy with the new arrival and the threat he poses, so she sets about trying to uncover his murky past whilst trying to work her PR spin on a children’s film star who has gone seriously off the rails.

Cast of American Trade continued

Review: Lend Me A Tenor, Gielgud

“Anna 1, Anna 2, Anna 3”

For the second time in three days, I deliberately went to a show knowing nothing about it in advance, and I would evidently seem to have used up much of my theatrical karma as for the second time, I was subjected to farce! But ever the contrarian, musical comedy Lend Me A Tenor hit the spot for me with a highly entertaining production where Rumours at the Hen + Chickens did not (although they are completely different beasts in the end). A relatively new musical, written by Peter Sham and Brad Carroll and based on the 1986 play of the same name by Ken Ludwig, the show had a short run in Plymouth last autumn and transfers now to the Gielgud in the West End where it is now previewing following the untimely departure of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Several of the cast members have made the move with the show but in a neat twist of continuity, Joanna Riding has joined the ensemble here meaning she will continue to perform in the same theatre.

Set in 1934, the Cleveland, Ohio Grand Opera Company is struggling to survive and manager Henry Saunders is banking everything on their new production of Otello featuring leading Italian opera star and notorious womaniser Tito Minelli. But when a set of circumstances conspire to leave Tito unable to perform, shy assistant Max – who harbours his own dreams of performing – has to find a last minute replacement to play the title role. Things are not quite so simple though, this is a farce after all, as there’s a jealous Italian wife, conniving co-stars, a trio of ex-wives, a randy daughter, three version of the same costume, oh, and the President is coming to watch.

Cast of Lend Me A Tenor continued

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Review: Three Farces, Orange Tree Theatre

“But that’s the cupboard in which Aunt Dinah keeps her preserves and pickles...”

I have always something of an uneasy relationship with farce: it has never been a form of theatre that I’ve much enjoyed though I have tried repeatedly, A Flea In Her Ear, Once Bitten also at the Orange Tree, and most recently One Man Two Guvnors which has won over many new fans if not myself, something about the determination of audiences to laugh loud and long right from the start turns me off and it is often the case that that divide from those around you is extremely difficult to overcome through the play’s duration. But I am one to suffer nobly for my art and so the journey was made once more to the Orange Tree is Richmond to see not one, not two, but Three Farces by John Maddison Morton.

Director Henry Bell and editor Colin Chambers have pulled together 3 short pieces by Morton, a Victorian playwright who has largely fallen from favour and received little attention despite being well acclaimed by Kenneth Tynan, representing different facets of his writing (he wrote over 125 plays) which borrowed from the strong French tradition of farce but also incorporated an English sensibility which works extremely well and made this a more enjoyable evening at the theatre than I had anticipated. Much of this is due to the wonderfully warm staging which eases us in with a great opening introductory sequence (which quite frankly all theatres should employ) led by Daniel Cheyne’s impish and ukulele-bearing Master of Ceremonies and the frequent acknowledgement of the audience that reminds us of its origins as theatre for the masses in a time of great social change. 

Friday, 3 June 2011

Review: Rumours, Hen + Chickens

“Darling, there’s been an accident...”

Neil Simon’s farcical comedy Rumours has been transplanted from New York to Oxford in this RoAm Productions/Madison Theatre Company co-production which is now playing at the Hen + Chickens theatre pub at Highbury Corner. Occasionally, I like to go into a play completely blind, knowing nothing beforehand in order to be completely surprised. It is rare that I get the chance to be unspoiled about a play but like a bag of Revels, you never know what you’re going to get. Unfortunately here, the show turned out to be a farce which is one of my least favourite genres!

The show is set in the country home of Charley and Vivian on the occasion of their tenth wedding anniversary but as the four couples invited to join them arrive, they are left to their own devices as Charley is stuck upstairs with a gunshot wound to his earlobe and Viv is nowhere to be seen. But as Charley is the Finance Minister and it turns out that the gunshot wound was self-inflicted and intended to kill, the guests gather round to cover up the political scandal that would ensue once the police get involved but soon get caught up in a tangled web of lies, alibis, stories and subterfuges in order to protect reputations all around.

Review: The Poetry is in the Pity, Donmar Warehouse

“No prayers nor bells, nor any voice of mourning save the choirs”

Poetry is one of those art-forms that has kind of passed me by in life: I never really engaged with it nor made the effort to acquaint myself post-education and I can only really quote two bits at you, one random verse of The Lady of Shalott and a large chunk of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est. For the one area of poetry that did make an impact on me when I was younger was the First World War writings of poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Alfred Noyes and Owen which appealed to the history student in me, and reinforced by school trips and family holiday excursion which took in the haunting battlefields and achingly huge fields of memorials in northern France and Belgium, they have long lingered in my mind.

So when the Donmar Warehouse announced their Poetry Week under the aegis of Josephine Hart, Lady Saatchi, a most passionate advocate of widening the audience that poetry reaches, this afternoon The Poetry is in the Pity was the one that stood out for me, especially with its exciting cast of actors who would be reading: in this case, Kenneth Cranham, Rupert Evans, Max Irons and Ruth Wilson. Hart herself has sadly been quite ill and so was unable to attend, Deborah Findlay stepping in and fulfilling the role of narrator, providing context and connections between the programme of poems she has put together, fulfilling her mission of trying to demystify, illuminate and intensify the experience of listening to poetry.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Review: Betrayal, Comedy Theatre

“I don’t think we don’t love each other”

Spread over nine years, 1968 to 1977 to be precise, Betrayal traces the affair between Emma who is cheating on her husband Robert with his best friend Jerry but tells the story in reverse, starting two years after it ended and working its way back to how it all started but exposing the many other betrayals that have plagued the lives of all three protagonists. Harold Pinter’s 1978 play took inspiration from his own extra-marital activities and was seen in London as recently as 2007 at the Donmar but this Ian Rickson-directed production is most notable for marking the return of the luminous Kristin Scott Thomas to the London stage along with co-stars Douglas Henshall and Ben Miles. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I was offered the chance to see this preview from the Dress Circle which was nice (though I was surprised at how little leg-room there was).

Full disclosure here, I love Kristin Scott Thomas I really do: she epitomises elegance for me but I most admire how she has really embraced her bi-lingual position, mixing intriguing French film work in with her English-language performances to develop into a most interesting actress of confounding depth. And here at the Comedy Theatre she displays a delightful girlishness and emotional vulnerability at times which is unlike anything I’ve seen her do: the jealousy in her eyes as Jerry talks of his wife and her fulfilling life is a wonderfully sparky moment. Ben Miles has a fine commanding masculinity about his performance and Douglas Henshall has the most, if not all, of the witty charisma of his jet-setting literary agent. To these ears (which have largely avoided Pinter to be honest) the dialogue sounded impressively natural, as opposed to the poised theatricality exemplified by Deborah Findlay and David Bradley in the recent Moonlight, though I am no unsure what the intended effect here is or indeed if Pinter’s writing in these plays can be so directly compared.

But for a work that is lauded as a modern classic and one of Pinter’s finest works, I found myself quite disappointed with the play. Compared to say Moonlight, it is positively straightforward which I was most thankful for but there’s little to no insight on offer here, indeed it ultimately feels more like an apologia for infidelity and there was just too much left undeveloped. Clearly there’s something of an abstract exercise in a play that is essentially fragments of a story winding back in time, but there were big gaps that left me unsatisfied. Jerry’s wife Judith has no voice despite being as impacted as Robert; the moment that the play ultimately builds up to is severely underwhelming, the first act of betrayal seemingly coming far too easily; but most significantly, there’s no interrogation of why or how Jerry could compromise this precious relationship with his best friend, as he often describes him himself, in such an unforgivable way with nary a blink of an eye.

Jeremy Herbert’s design allows for the fluid movement of the set from location to location but it did create disarmingly huge spaces at times which Rickson didn’t always fill effectively, the Venice balcony being quite weak. But I did like Stephen Warbeck’s moody music which accompanied the scene transitions, the year being projected onto the back wall through a gauze curtain to guide us through the chronology. There’s some fantastically ugly 70s clothing (plus a gorgeous magenta dress) and a very threatening bedspread. And I was really impressed with the structuring of the play, at two significant moments the rewind button is released and we actually play forward for a couple of scenes to really play out the drama and generate some emotional involvement. All in all, I just don’t think Pinter and I get on, Betrayal left me feeling a little ambivalent – I didn’t come out of the theatre feeling like I’d gained anything revelatory about the experience of infidelity. Still, a great opportunity to see one of our most interesting actresses live on stage though.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £4
Booking until 20th August - click for information about Betrayal tickets

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Top 10 plays for May

Just the 28 to choose from this month and a very mixed bag indeed, taking in amongst other things, the theatre event of the summer, 2 long-runners I never thought I'd get round to seeing and a new big musical. Here's my selection for the month of May.
And as for my least favourite play of the month, it will not surpise you one jot that it was One Man Two Guvnors, no matter how lonely it is out here... ;-)

What am I looking forward to...?
There's plenty booked in already, including Kristin Scott Thomas' return to the stage in Betrayal and my first time seeing Alex Kingston in Luise Miller at the Donmar which I'm excited about. Am also intrigued by the prospect of Ibsen's longest play featuring John Heffernan and Andrew Scott in Emperor & Galilean at the National Theatre, a brilliant sounding cast for the Arcola's Seagull and spending the night at the Barbican with Duckie's Lullaby. Oh, and the Propeller boys finally arrive in London, yay!!

Review: Butley, Duchess Theatre

“You’re having a terrible day...but you’re only making it worse”

The best laid plans oft gang aft and having pretty much decided not to bother with the Simon Gray play Butley, opening now at the Duchess Theatre, as I have been trying (and admittedly failing) to try and cut down on the amount of theatre I’m seeing, sure enough an offer I could not refuse popped up (courtesy of @bargaintheatre – a chap well worth a follow on Twitter for his ferreting around for some great deals) and so 10 English pounds for the best available seats in the stalls were spent for this first London review, the play having done a week in Brighton already.

Ben Butley is an academic stuck in an English department in a university at some point in the 1970s and having a frankly horrific first day of term. His wife wants a divorce, he is struggling to write his book on TS Eliot whilst his colleague has got a publishing deal, his students expecting their tutorials are impinging on his time but most significantly of all, his protégé Joseph, with whom he shares his office, his flat and frustratingly vague hints of further intimacy, is seeking his independence both professionally and domestically, about to move in with his lover Reg. In response to this turn of events, he turns up the irascibility and petulance as he flails against a world moving on without him, masking his fear of failure through some thoroughly obnoxious behaviour and a scathing line in rapier-sharp wit.