Saturday, 31 March 2012

Review: Stories Before Bedtime – April Fools, Criterion

“I lay immobile, like a deadly alligator”

Although a regular home to The 39 Steps, the Criterion Theatre has been expanding its programme of theatrical events with interviews, critic panels and play readings taking place in the afternoon – the last of which I attended earlier this month. They also have a late night event, Stories Before Bedtime, which features readings of short stories from a variety of writers, loosely based around a theme. This was one was entitled ‘April Fools’ and included works from Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh and Tom Basden.

The big draw of the night was Andrew Scott, who delivered a highly energetic and nuanced performance of an excerpt from Martin Amis’ tale of adolescent shenanigans The Rachel Papers. Scott is such an engaging performer that one could imagine him reading anything to great effect, but he really was superb at capturing the gawky awkwardness and tortured travails of teenage sexuality and negotiating that oh so tricky task of talking to girls. With a wry warmth and a knowing humour, he brought huge personality and likeability to our protagonist and definitely made the evening worthwhile.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Review: Uncle Vanya, Print Room

“My life no longer has any shape to it”

It was perhaps a little bit of a surprise when the Print Room announced their latest show to be Chekhov’s classic Uncle Vanya, the relatively new theatre having previously concentrated on lesser-known works by playwrights. But any doubts should be seriously allayed by this intimately atmospheric production which utilises a new version by Mike Poulton to lend a fresh dynamic to this tale of corrosive inaction.

Vanya has spent much of his life attending to the affairs of his former brother-in-law Professor Serebryakov, sequestered in a household of misfits in the Russian countryside. But when the professor turns up with his new much younger wife, Vanya is provoked into a period of gloomy self-reflexiveness as he faces up to how much of his life he has wasted. The new arrivals also cause havoc for other residents of the estate as ultimately everyone is forced to confront what might have been.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Review: The American Clock, Finborough

“There’s never been a society that’s not had a clock running on it”

Venturing into the lesser performed works of a playwright, even one as well-renowned as Arthur Miller, is always a tricky manoeuvre. There’s often a good reason plays collect dust on the shelf and so it takes a keen eye to spot the potential for revival and reassessment in a new production. The Finborough have become one of the premier spots in London for unearthing such gems and are hoping that they have struck gold again with Phil Willmott’s new take on Miller’s 1980 play The American Clock, which hasn’t been seen here since its first (albeit Olivier-award winning) run at the National in 1986.

The play was inspired by Studs Terkel’s oral history Hard Times and also Miller’s own recollections from the 1930s, to tell a wide-ranging tale of how the Great Depression actually played out for the American people. Using an episodic structure to work his way through stories of nearly 40 characters, the focus finally settles mainly on one well-off upper middle class family, the Baums, who are forced to relocate from their Manhattan townhouse to a relative’s spare room in Brooklyn, their struggle to deal with their changing fortunes ultimately sending mother, father and son reeling off in tragically different directions.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Review: Filumena, Almeida

“Wherever I come from, it’s where you come from too”

Eduardo De Filippo’s 1946 play Filumena starts off with the title character on her deathbed, finally having married the man with whom she has lived for the last 27 years. But all is not as it seems: he’s a wealthy businessman but she’s been his mistress, a former prostitute who has inveigled him into nuptial promises after seeing his attention waver elsewhere. And upon the deal being sealed, she makes a miraculous recovery and reveals that she has three sons who need taking care of. As truths spill out from all sides, we see the sacrifices that women are willing to make for their children and the ingenuity they need to play men at their own game.

Michael Attenborough takes on the directorial duties here at the Almeida in this new colloquial version by Tanya Ronder which sits a little at odds with the 1940s Naples setting but it is structurally where the play really feels somewhat curious. The first act plays out well, setting up the story and building up the necessary drama, but then we return after the interval to a very short second act which has jumped 10 months into the future and feels rather disconnected from what has gone before. The tone of the play shifts away from the darkness suggested by the social realism into an easy comic mood which does a disservice to the people working so hard to unearth an emotional depth here.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Review: After Miss Julie, Young Vic

“Don’t confuse my appetite”

It is turning out to be the year of the Julie for me: having already taken in one production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie by the Faction theatre company, I have two others lined up with Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange in a new version by David Eldridge and Juliette Binoche taking on Martin Crimp’s interpretation at the Barbican to look forward to. But second up was Patrick Marber’s take, After Miss Julie, at the Young Vic’s Maria studio. Marber relocates the three-hander to a Britain dealing with the Labour landslide victory of 1945 to startling effect.

In a world that can taste huge social change on the tip of its tongue, housekeeper Christine makes kidneys on toast for her (almost fiancé) chauffeur John as the rest of the staff party upstairs. He cheekily cracks open a bottle of the finest wine from the cellar and they gossip about the antics of the daughter of the house but when the self-same Miss Julie appears at the top of the stairs, Natalie Dormer in fierce flirtatious form, with her eye set on toying with Kieran Bew’s thoroughly masculine John, the scene is set for a torrid night of sex, gender politics and class warfare.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Review: Vera Vera Vera, Royal Court

“I don’t know where you came from or who you belong to, but I do know that no-one wants to claim you, no-one wants you to belong to them”

‘As above, so below’ so the saying goes, but in this case the opposite is true as the Royal Court upstairs follows the Hampstead Theatre downstairs in putting on a play which deals with the death of a young British soldier and its impact on the family left behind. But where Nick Payne’s Lay Down Your Cross focused on the parent-child dynamic, Hayley Squires’ Vera Vera Vera looks at how contemporaries are affected – the siblings and cousins left to mourn their loved ones and reassess their own lives in the light of tragedy. This play continues the Young Writers Festival which started with Goodbye to all That and as she originally trained as an actor, this is Squires’ first full-length play.

She moves forward and back between two scenarios in present-day Kent: a pair of schoolkids make tentative steps to progressing their friendship into something more and three months later, a brother and sister prepare for the funeral of their younger brother, killed in combat in Afghanistan. Tom Piper’s design utilises the same central structure from Goodbye to all That which he also did, but this time around the edges are covered in grass and the Kentish countryside is suggested on the walls. Jo McInnes’ direction also harks back to that first production in keeping the cast visible on the staging area even when not involved in the scenes, but pushes it a little further by having some spiky non-verbal interactions between them during the scene changes – a little thing but most effective. 

Friday, 23 March 2012

Review: The Master and Margarita, Complicite at the Barbican

“It’s just words, it’s just another story”

As I left the Barbican after seeing Complicite’s take on The Master and Margarita, I thought to myself that was simply extraordinary but I have no idea why and tweeted something to that effect. I couldn’t really explain it in any kind of meaningful way and in some ways even if I could, it still wouldn’t do it justice. Adapted from the novel written in secret by Mikhail Bulgakov during Stalin’s repressive regime that has long been considered an unstageable piece of literature, it therefore seems an apt choice for Simon McBurney and the highly imaginative and ambitious Complicite company to take on as their latest challenge.

Visually, it is a completely stunning piece of work with some of the best incorporation of projections I’ve ever seen. Their scale is massive, filling the expanse of the back wall of the Barbican’s main stage, yet there’s an intimacy to them as well as the actors interact with them in clever ways and they continually draw the audience in. McBurney wisely keeps much of the rest of the staging on a minimalist level, utilising an almost balletic physicality of considerable grace and beauty. And the production needs this pared-back simplicity as the story it is telling is a complex, multi-layered one.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Nominations for 2012 Oliviers - Best Actor/Best Actress

Best Actor

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Frankenstein – Olivier, National Theatre
James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors – National Theatre Lyttleton
David Haig in The Madness of George III – Apollo
Douglas Hodge in Inadmissible Evidence – Donmar Warehouse
Jude Law in Anna Christie – Donmar Warehouse

Should win - Jude Law
Will win - James Corden (for my sins)

Best Actress

Ruth Wilson in Anna Christie – Donmar Warehouse
Celia Imrie in Noises Off – Old Vic
Lesley Manville in Grief – Garrick
Kristin Scott Thomas in Betrayal – Harold Pinter
Marcia Warren in The Ladykillers – Gielgud

Should win - Ruth Wilson
Will win - Kristin Scott Thomas

Nominations for 2012 Oliviers - Best Actor/Best Actress in a musical

Best Actor in a Musical

Bertie Carvel in Matilda – Cambridge
Nigel Lindsay in Shrek – Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Reece Shearsmith in Betty Blue Eyes – Novello
Paulo Szot in South Pacific – Barbican

Should win - Bertie Carvel
Will win - Bertie Carvel

Best Actress in a Musical

Cleo Demetriou, Kerry Ingram, Sophia Kiely, Eleanor Worthington Cox in Matilda – Cambridge
Kate Fleetwood in London Road – National Theatre Cottesloe
Sarah Lancashire in Betty Blue Eyes – Novello
Scarlett Strallen in Singin' in the Rain – Palace

Should win - Cleo Demetriou, Kerry Ingram, Sophia Kiely, Eleanor Worthington Cox
Will win - Cleo Demetriou, Kerry Ingram, Sophia Kiely, Eleanor Worthington Cox

Nominations for 2012 Oliviers - Best Supporting Role/Best Supporting Role in a Musical

Best Supporting Role

Sheridan Smith in Flare Path – Haymarket
Mark Addy in Collaborators – National Theatre Cottesloe
Oliver Chris in One Man, Two Guvnors – National Theatre Lyttleton
Johnny Flynn in Jerusalem – Apollo
Bryony Hannah in The Children's Hour – Harold Pinter

Should win - Sheridan Smith
Will win - Johnny Flynn

Best Supporting Role in a Musical

Nigel Harman in Shrek – Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Sharon D. Clarke in Ghost – Piccadilly
Sophie-Louise Dann in Lend Me a Tenor – Gielgud
Paul Kaye in Matilda – Cambridge
Katherine Kingsley in Singin' in the Rain – Palace

Should win - Katherine Kingsley
Will win - Paul Kaye

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Review: The Taming of the Shrew, Richmond Theatre

“That seeming to be most which we indeed least are"

Despite being one of Shakespeare’s more notorious plays, The Taming of the Shrew has enjoyed a long and varied performance history as productions seek to try to present this difficult tale of female subservience in a way that is acceptable to audiences. It has proved trickier though in modern times to square the misogynistic circle and so directors often find themselves upping the innovative ante to unearth interpretations which will prove satisfyingly revelatory. What this often means in practice though is that a high concept is adopted which offers insight into part of the story whilst the rest is left straining to fit in. Lucy Bailey is the latest to try and tame the Shrew here for the RSC in a production which has played a season in Stratford and is now on a short tour of the UK, currently here in Richmond.

The angle that she chooses to focus on is the Induction, the framing device that sets the story in its context – this is all just a performance being put on by a rowdy bunch of friends to delude the drunken fool Christopher Sly. Sly – a bumptious revealing turn from Nick Holder – is kept on stage throughout most of the first half and in some ways, this almost convinces us that what we are watching is but a drunken fantasy. But he is gradually phased out of the show, and so the apparent importance of being reminded that this isn’t real is stripped away and the second half played largely straight as a story that suddenly is to be taken more seriously.

Cast of The Taming of the Shrew continued

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Review: The Duchess of Malfi, Old Vic

"I account this world a tedious theatre, for I do play a part in't 'gainst my will" 

Usual caveats and all that, this was an early preview of The Duchess of Malfi that I caught at the Old Vic, and so bear that in mind throughout. Positive comments on previews never seem to cause any controversy but without giving too much away about the direction this review (of a preview) will take, that is hardly likely to be the issue here. I have to say that for the first time, especially at a big theatre, I really felt like I was watching something in the middle of its creative process, that really was still trying to find its feet. Which I suppose is what some would argue the preview period is about but when ticket prices of up to £45 are being charged, it does feel a bit rich.

Marking Jamie Lloyd’s directorial debut at the Old Vic, this revival of The Duchess of Malfi was largely most anticipated by me for attracting Eve Best back onto the London stage (though Lloyd’s treatment of She Stoops To Conquer also quite whetted the appetite). Her Beatrice in the Globe’s Much Ado About Nothing really was one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances that I’ll remember for years to come, and so though it went against my natural instincts, I forked out for a good stalls seat (Row F) for this in anticipation of theatrical yumminess. What I got though was something else, a half-baked cake of a show with what feels like a set of serious misjudgements and lasted well over three hours. 

Cast of The Duchess of Malfi continued

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Review: The Laramie Project, De Montfort University at the Curve

"What was your response when you heard that had happened to Matthew Shepard"

Is a homophobic murder more significant than a 'straight' one? Whatever the answer, if indeed there is one, the brutal attack and subsequent death of Matthew Shepard in the small Wyoming town of Laramie in 1998 became a hugely significant touchpoint on the issue. The murder and its ensuing aftermath focused attention, both national and international, on the insufficient nature of hate crime legislation – of which there was none in Wyoming – specifically around homophobically motivated attacks and eventually set in motion, changes in US law. To try and make some sense out of the tragedy and to document its impact on the community in which it had happened, Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project travelled there to conduct a series of interviews with residents affected both directly and indirectly by the events and constructed this piece of verbatim theatre from those conversations - The Laramie Project. 

The result is a patchwork quilt of emotion and prejudice, of horror and hope, of devastating emotional impact. As sixty characters are represented here by thirteen actors, the focus ends up being the community of Laramie rather than Shepard himself as everyone is given the chance to air their view. The immediate point of comparison for me was with London Road, another verbatim project that similiarly examined a community's response to a horrific event and didn't shy away from the variety of responses, not all of them quite as palatable as one would hope for. So alongside the heart-wrenching stories of Shepard’s friends and relatives, we get the vitriolic Fred Phelps; the compassionate clergyman whose world-view is altered is contrasted with ranchhands who don’t much agree with what those gay fellas get up to; and the responses of the theatre-makers themselves are also documented in excerpts from their journals as they process what they are hearing and learning. 

Review: Gypsy, Curve

"What did you do it all for Mama?”

Gypsy is one of those shows that I've heard much about, it is extremely highly regarded in the US, but have had little real contact with. Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Tyne Daly have taken on the iconic role of Mama Rose in recent years with very mixed results, but it is many years since anyone tried to bring it to the UK. Director Paul Kerryson has taken on the challenge though at the Curve in Leicester, with British/Australian chanteuse Caroline O'Connor in the lead role and so I took my first ever trip to Leicester to see what all the fuss was about.

The story takes its inspiration from the memoirs of burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee which details the remorseless drive of her pushy stage mother from hell Mama Rose as she lived out her own dreams of being a performer by putting her two daughters onto the stage in a touring vaudeville act. Her relentless drive comes at great cost though, alienating one daughter who runs off, pushing the other into becoming a stripper and losing the man who has stood by her for so long.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Review: Farewell to the Theatre, Hampstead Theatre

“Today the theatre has failed all of us, and we suffer from this failure"

This Farewell to the Theatre is a new play at the Hampstead Theatre by Richard Nelson, about Harley Granville Barker. It should not be confused with Farewell to the Theatre, a play by Harley Granville Barker which finally received a premiere at the Rose Kingston last year. They are different beasts, though both skirt around similiar issues of disillusionment and disenchantment, and the former is set at the time at which the latter was actually written.

Nelson tells the story of a group of British ex-pats in the sleepy Massachusetts town of Williamstown in 1916. The Great War is being waged in Europe but has yet to pull in the US and the concerns of this motley crew are of a much more personal nature. Barker has fallen out of love with both the theatre and his wife and finds himself in a boarding house run by an English widow, Dorothy, who is still in mourning. Her brother Henry is a lecturer at the local university but professional jealousies are hampering his progress; glamourous Beatrice is a married actress conducting an affair with a young student; George is looking for a better job; and Frank, who is a reciter of Dickens, is hiding himself away from a horrible truth.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Review: London: Four Corners One Heart, Theatre 503

“I want to show you London. My London.”

Theatre 503 has long been a supporter of fresh new theatre and they’re maintaining that reputation with their latest show. London: Four Corners One Heart is a collection of “stories inspired by the streets of London and the people who play on them”, all short pieces of new writing from emerging playwrights. The theme is London in all its variety and the four stories each take a corner, a point on the compass to talk about the city they love.

There was much to admire about the whole production, not least the ambitious scope of producers Sky or the Bird, the gusto of the cast and creatives and the supportive atmosphere of an enthusiastic audience. And though I have to be honest and say the quality of the evening was sometimes variable, I found much to appreciate too, especially in the stimulation of young writing talent. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Re-review: Sweeney Todd, Adelphi

“There's no place like London"

Last year was undoubtedly a great one for Chichester Festival Theatre’s musicals – Singin’ in the Rain and Sweeney Todd both figured very highly in end of year lists and both were granted West End transfers after their sell-out runs. But there’s always a danger in revisiting shows one has loved, there’s no guarantee that the magic will be recaptured again especially in larger theatres. So I’ve currently avoided going back to Singin’ in the Rain in its new home in the Palace (though never say never) and hadn’t thought I’d go back to Sweeney Todd which has just started previews at the Adelphi. But when kindly offered a ticket, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to return to the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

My original review can be read here and in many ways, much of what I said still stands. It’s a highly atmospheric, effective production of Sondheim’s classic revenge tale which lives on its luxury lead casting in a transformed Michael Ball as the titular Todd and an incandescent Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett. Staunton truly is epic here, thoroughly attuned to the comedy especially in the one-upmanship of A Little Priest but also movingly desperate as her inclinations remain unfulfilled and she is possibly better here than in Chichester. Michael Ball didn’t quite live up to the memory of his performance, missing some of the necessary malevolence, though he still sings the part well.

Cast of Sweeney Todd continued

Cast of Sweeney Todd continued

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Review: The Glorious Ones, Landor

“Actors can never get enough love”

The Landor Theatre in Clapham scored a major success with the Ahrens and Flaherty musical Ragtime last year and subsequently have begun to explore some of the lesser performed shows from their repertoire. February saw their first piece Lucky Stiff getting an airing and now it is the turn of their most recent collaboration from 2007, The Glorious Ones, in its European premiere.

We follow a theatre group in Renaissance Italy as they ply their trade in commedia dell’Arte, enacting their ‘improvised’ scenes with their stock characters – from whom they are not so distinct any more – and so through these, we find out about their loves and lives as actors on the road. Flaminio Scala founded the troupe and is a master at the broad, bawdy comedy, but finds that tastes are changing as its crudeness is eschewed for a turn towards scripted theatre and younger players challenge his leading man status and struggles to deal with the change.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Review: ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, Cheek by Jowl at the Barbican

“Tis not, I know, my lust, but tis my fate that leads me on”

A quick glance at my Top 25 Plays of 2011 on the right sidebar will show you that Cheek by Jowl’s The Tempest was one of the absolute highlights of my theatregoing year and so by rights, I ought to have been highly excited for the company’s return to the Barbican with ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. But it was the Russian sister company that took on Shakespeare last year and my only other experience with CbJ’s English work was a rather painfully dull take on Macbeth, also at the Barbican, which meant I was a little equivocal about this prospect. Great word-of-mouth persuaded me to take the risk though, booking for late in the run, and it was well-founded as it turned out to be a highly inventive, energetic and deeply sexy evening at the theatre.

It was my first experience of the Jacobean tragedy, a cautionary tale about the problems of wanting to bonk your sister, which has been thoroughly revitalised in this modern-dress version which pulses along with the punchy soundtrack that starts the show along with a rather fun full-cast dance routine. Giovanni comes back from university, full of incestuous thoughts about his sister Annabella who is being pursued by a number of suitors. But as it turns out, she only has eyes for her brother too and though she ends up betrothed to Soranzo, watched by the vengeful Hippolita, the ramifications of their love have a deadly impact as religion, culture, corruption and morality collide.

Review: A Place at the Table, Tristan Bates

“Oh, my opinions are only worth hearing if I’m ‘someone’?”

Simon Block’s A Place at the Table first played London at the Bush Theatre in 2000, but is only receiving its first revival in the capital now with this production by Signal Theatre Company at the Tristan Bates Theatre near Cambridge Circus. Adam is a playwright who is highly excited when a meeting is set up with a television executive to discuss options for his latest play. But what editor Sarah has in mind is a boundary-pushing, and possibly taste-defying, leap which will put the disability of its lead character at the centre of the situation comedy she is proposing. Adam’s own disability factors into his decision-making in unexpected ways as the general insanity of the television industry swirls around him, threatening to swallow him whole.

There’s a great deal of sharp wit contained in here. Block has a riotous way of skewering the pretension of so much of the media-speak that trips off the tongues of the fiercely ambitious TV types as they circle Adam – best exemplified by the amusing redefinition of ‘broad’casting and the gag about the mooted title for a gay charity shop sitcom ‘Charity begins at homo’. But he does tend to rely a bit too much on this as a default mode for the play: a considerable proportion of the dialogue exists at this level which is ultimately quite distracting in its verbosity – yet managing to say precious little – and furthermore in its repetition, it also loses some of its impact as the show progresses.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Review: Copenhagen, Lyceum

“The more I’ve explained, the deeper the uncertainty becomes”

Last year it was the turn of David Hare to get a retrospective season in Sheffield celebrating his work, but 2012 sees the Crucible et al honouring Michael Frayn. The Old Vic's revival of his farce Noises Off has been an immense success in London, but Frayn is also known for his weightier fare and that is what this season is focusing on, featuring productions of Benefactors, Democracy, and Copenhagen - in a remarkably short run that I was lucky to make.

The play is a three-hander that is centred around the 1941 real-life meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr and his wife at their home in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. Both were scientists involved in the field of nuclear physics but the content of their meeting remains a mystery, though the implication is that Heisenberg's development of nuclear weapons for the Nazi regime may have been high on the agenda. Frayn expands and expounds on this in the most esoteric and complex of ways, folding in huge issues of philosophy, morality, history, memory, love and quantum physics.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Review: Lay Down Your Cross, Hampstead Downstairs

“Fancy a pork pie?”

The Hampstead Downstairs has attracted an interesting range of creative talents since opening and with perhaps fortuitous timing, welcomes Nick Payne’s newest play Lay Down Your Cross. Payne is coming off the huge sellout success of Constellations upstairs at the Royal Court, but this is a much different piece of work – more akin to Wanderlust, my other experience with him as a playwright. We’re in Tony’s poky new flat in Luton where he is waiting for the arrival of his daughter Dawn, who has emigrated to Australia, as it is the funeral of his soldier son Adam. As we also meet his scatty ex-wife Grace, who’s all too keen on a box of wine or two, and Adam’s girlfriend Raph who is worrying about delivering the eulogy, Dawn gets to find out some uncomfortable truths about home, and her brother’s death.

Payne excavates this troubled family dynamic extremely well: the emotional distance between them all, Tony’s struggle to shake his ex-wife’s dependence, his bluff demeanour having to hide his disappointment at the choices that his children have made, his lashing out when things get too much, all is excellently portrayed in Andy De La Tour’s persuasive performance. His quiet heartbreak is set well against the blinkered disintegration of Grace, Susan Wooldridge in fine form, but the play suffers a little with the shift into the blame game which comes with Dawn’s relentless pursuit of the truth. Lucy Phelps does well at signifying the righteous liberal anger but Payne absolves her, too easily for my liking, from the familial responsibility from which she has divorced herself and I wanted more resolution in this father/daughter relationship.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Review: Goodbye to All That, Royal Court

“The older you get the more you realise: you don’t grow up. Not really. You just get older.”

Luke Norris is perhaps better known as an actor from plays like Remembrance Day, The Kitchen and The Gods Weep (oh, how they wept) but he has now turned his hand to playwriting as part of the Royal Court’s writing scheme. And with some success, as his first play Goodbye to All That is part of the Young Writers’ Festival there and is playing in the upstairs theatre alongside a programme of readings of other plays by budding playwrights. 

It is then perhaps ironic that the play focuses on older people. David, who has just got his A-level results and is heading off to Leicester, discovers that his grandfather Frank is having an affair and demands that he breaks it off. The relationship is closer than usual as David was raised by his grandparents but we come to see that this 46 year-long marriage has not been a happy one and Frank has actually fallen in love for the first time with Rita. The scene is then seemingly set for an exploration of whether it is “ever too late to start again”.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Review: The Awkward Squad, Arts Theatre

“The downside is, there’s always a big pile of ironing to come back to”

The debate about women’s representation in theatre is one which constantly rears its head – most recently on the Guardian Culture Pro website – so with these thoughts burbling in my mind, it felt quite apt to take in this particular show. The Awkward Squad was written by a woman, stars four women and looks exclusively at the trials faced by three generations of modern women in a North East England community.

Lorna has spent the majority of her life serving others. As the wife of a miner, a mother of two, her life revolved around family but during the miners’ strikes of the 1980s, she became the focal point of organised community action and from then on, continued to fight the good fight for her community’s needs. She’s about to be rewarded by having the community centre named after her as she finally decides to retire and her two daughters Pam and Sandy and granddaughter Sarah have come up for the occasion, but her family bring all sorts of baggage with them and so Lorna is left picking up the pieces once again.

Review: Bingo – scenes of money and death, Young Vic

“I'm stupefied by the suffering I've seen"

I started the year with the best of intentions to try and cut down on the number of shows I’m seeing and specifically to stop going to things I know I won’t like (mainly because of the cast). In this respect Bingo at the Young Vic was a double whammy as it had some of the worst word-of-mouth I’ve ever heard from fellow theatre-goers and I don’t even particularly like Patrick Stewart. But I allowed myself to be suckered into getting £10 tickets for a Wednesday matinee (by someone who then bailed at the last minute!) and safe to say, it was not a good experience.

Edward Bond’s play looks at the final years of Shakespeare’s life as the playwright returns to Stratford-upon-Avon having given up on writing, given up on his daughter and wife whom he loathes and generally given up on life. In the midst of his depressed funk is the enactment of the Enclosures Act which enabled the landed gentry to evict many of the poor and in which Shakespeare is complicit as he allows himself to turn a blind eye – though he is not completely without conscience as he sees the wider impact of these actions on a runaway girl who is brutalised by society. But even this makes it seem more interesting than it actually was as the first half was just criminally dull. I found it extremely hard to stay awake and there were a ton of walkouts.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Review: Purge, Arcola

“Our country doesn’t exist any more”

Despite the riches on offer on the multitude of stages across London, contemporary European theatre is something that is all too rarely seen here. But theatres like East London’s Arcola and companies like Borealis (who mounted 8 Women at the Southwark Playhouse last year) are trying to redress that balance and have most definitely come up trumps with this excoriating piece of drama. Written by Finnish-Estonian Sofi Oksanen and latterly adapted into a hugely successful novel, Purge has an epic scope - weaving together the stories of two women, Aliide and Zara, with the troubled history of post-WWII Estonia and the struggles and compromises made by a people living under occupation.

It is rarely easy viewing, violence is presented matter-of-factly and none of these unpalatable truths are sugar-coated. Zara is a prostitute who has murdered her pimp and is on the run from gangsters, the much older Aliide is living in seclusion out in rural Estonia trying to keep the past at bay and reluctantly offers the younger woman sanctuary. And as they gingerly step around each other and slowly reveal their hidden stories – the focus being on Aliide’s extraordinary history - the ramifications of their decisions become clearer as the realisation of a strange connection comes hand in hand with a real danger knocking at the door. 

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Review: All New People, Duke of York’s

"We're all in pain, Charlie"

Zach Braff’s debut play All New People premiered off-Broadway last year with the new playwright remaining behind the scenes. But for its arrival into the West End, after a short UK tour, the Scrubs star has taken up the lead role as the suicidal Charlie. He’s shut himself away in a New Jersey beach house in the depth of winter to do the deed, but his solitude is interrupted by the arrival of three misfits who set about infuriating him yet ultimately helping to shift his outlook in the subtlest of ways.

Yet the play is anything but subtle. The cutaways to flashbacks to explain why each of the characters has ended up in this particular circumstance offer amusing cameos from a range of stars, but rob scenes of their dramatic impetus; the destruction of a bead-filled piece of African art sets up some painfully contrived pratfalls; the continued recourse to (sometimes highly amusing) one-liners; the clunky shoehorning in of the show’s title in a moment of cod-philosophy in the final moments. The clumsy construction of the play’s components is frequently laid bare and the lack of finesse in the writing all too apparent.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire, Liverpool Playhouse

“You take it for granted that I am in something that I want to get out of”

Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire seems an unlikely choice to put on in a chilly March in Liverpool – the Donmar’s 2009 production took place at the height of summer – but Gemma Bodinetz’s production succeeds utterly in raising the temperature to create a rather stunning account of this classic play which remains taut and gripping throughout. When Blanche DuBois is forced to throw herself on the mercy of her sister Stella in her tiny New Orleans apartment, Blanche is ill-prepared for the clash of class, culture and character that comes from such proximity to Stella’s husband Stanley as he sets about dismantling her delusions of grandeur with chilling cruelty.

The stifling heat of the French Quarter, and the ever-constricting atmosphere are perfectly simulated here in Gideon Davey’s design (plus special credit to Paul Keogan’s lighting) and Bodinetz expertly increases the pressure in ever-increasing increments to an almost unbearable level. There is dark stuff contained in here, I’d forgotten just how dark myself, yet we’re constantly reminded of Williams’ point that the world is full of pain and suffering and most people just get on with it. Yet Blanche has retreated from reality, glass in hand, Stanley’s completely differing take on life set him on a collision course with her and we are spared none of the violence as class warfare degenerates into domestic abuse on a horrific level.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Review: Don Juan Comes Back From The War, Finborough

"I feel I've done something unforgivable. But I don't know what it is."
Playwright Ödön von Horváth had the kind of life that one couldn't make up. A child of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, he settled in Germany in the 1930s and though a fierce critic of the Third Reich, remained there to document the rise of Nazism. After years of violent repression, he finally made it to Paris before the outbreak of war but was killed by a falling branch on the Champs-Élysées as he was on his way to the cinema. Consequently, many of his works were never performed in his lifetime such as Don Juan Comes Back From The War - now presented at the Finborough in a new version by Duncan Macmillan.
Here the famed lothario has been transplanted to a defeated Berlin at the end of the Great War, thoroughly worn out by the war mentally and physically, he returns from the battlefield to resume his life of decadent debauchery. But as he works his way through the hordes of grasping women desperate for a piece of this paragon of masculinity as his reputation would have you believe, his spiritual malaise grows as it becomes apparent that things are not as they were before and though he has tried his best to ignore them, his actions have sometimes terrible consequences.

Review: The Leisure Society, Trafalgar Studios 2

"We're going to break up with our best friend"

Canadian drama doesn't get much of a look in in London so it was interesting to see Québécois playwright François Archambault having his play The Leisure Society mounted at the Trafalgar Studios' downstairs space. The headlines have naturally focused on the theatrical debut of former model Agyness Deyn but thespier types will appreciate the return of Ed Stoppard who illuminated his father's Arcadia so very well a few years back (and yes, as suggested by the poster, he does get his shirt off!).

The play is a scathing look at the self-obsession of the middle classes, focusing on Peter and Mary, an affluent, successful couple with a new baby yet both dealing with a deep ennui, a huge dissatisfaction with the state of their lives. As part of the ‘cleaning up’ of their lives to become ideal parents – they’ve already given up smoking and drinking – they invite best friend Mark round for dinner and to tell him that his newly-single life of debauchery doesn’t fit into their plan and so they are dumping him. But when Mark turns up with his new ‘special friend’ the lithe Paula and several bottles of wine, their plans go somewhat awry as sex, scandal and secrets end up on the menu along with the roast beef. 

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Review: The Lady from the Sea, Rose Kingston

"You're like the sea, always changing"

Recent weeks have seen a couple of instances where theatre has successfully challenged my preconceptions: A Midsummer Night's Dream saw me reassess Filter and David Eldridge surprised me with some fantastic writing that really resonated with me in In Basildon. Ibsen however has been a major stumbling block for me - I've tried my best, taking in several productions of his work but that connection has never emerged, the reason for his continued popularity completely eluding me. So it would be a lie for to me to say that I went to the Rose Kingston's new production of The Lady from the Sea with a completely open mind - I was amenable to having my mind changed but it was with a heavy heart that I went there.

I've seen the play once before - ironically in a version by David Eldridge at the Royal Exchange in Manchester - and it was not a happy experience. Ibsen's story focuses on the nymph-like figure of Ellida, settled uneasily in a marriage of convenience to Dr Wangel as memories of her past continue to have a strong pull on her. Wangel tries to facilitate resolution by inviting a man from her past to stay but he stirs up great emotional swells that threaten to pull Ellida back to her beloved sea.