Friday, 31 January 2014

Not-a-review: The Undone Years, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Just a quickie to cover this reading of a new play. The Pitch Your Play initiative run by Masterclass offers the opportunity for young writers aged 17-30 to showcase their new and unpublished work in front of an audience. Simon Cotton has had a busy time of it recently as part of Action to the Word’s A Clockwork Orange but he’s also made room to write The Undone Years, a play which looks at the immediate aftermath of the First World War on British family life.

I’m not going to review, this post is mainly for completeness of my theatre trips, but I did think that it was an interesting approach to looking at the enduring effects of war on the day-to-day living, not only on those who survived the battlefield but those who were left behind. And how whole aspects of life had to be reconfigured in light of the huge shadow of the war – how important can one make one’s individual concerns in light of such loss.

Critics' Circle Awards 2013: the winners in full

Best New Play

Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood

The Peter Hepple Award for Best Musical

The Scottsboro Boys

Best Actor

Lenny Henry in Fences

Best Actress

Lesley Manville in Ghosts

The John and Wendy Trewin Award for Best Shakespearean Performance

Rory Kinnear in Othello

Best Director

Lindsay Turner for Chimerica

Best Designer

Es Devlin for Chimerica

Most Promising Playwright (awarded jointly)

Rory Kinnear for The Herd
Phoebe Waller-Bridge for Fleabag

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

Kate O’Flynn in Port

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Review: The Robbers, New Diorama

“He’s the apple of your eye but if that apple do offend, then pluck it out” 

The final piece of The Faction’s 2014 Rep Season 2014 is a revival of their 2011 successful take on Schiller’s The Robbers, which slots in along Hamlet and Thebes in playing through February at the New Diorama. As Schiller’s first play, it has something of a rawness about it in the way that brings together a surprisingly mature (for the 1780s) debate about state versus revolution, intervention versus anarchy, with the kind of histrionic family drama that at times recalls Shakespeare at his most baffling obtuse.

The play bounces between antagonistic siblings, Franz and Karl von Moor. The devilish Franz has hoodwinked their father into disinheriting the older Franz and so is allowed to grasp for power and money in court, whereas Karl flees to the forest where he becomes the head of a vicious band of robbers who are determined to start the revolution. Interestingly, the two never meet but their actions impact strongly on those around them as class, religion and society are indicted in melodramatic style.

Cast of The Robbers continued

Radio Review: The Oresteia – The Furies / November Dead List

“Was he driven to it by someone's rage?"

Last up in the reinvention of Aeschylus’ Oresteia is Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s take on The Furies, bringing this tale of murder, revenge and justice to an end as the gods opt to end the vicious cycle of blood vengeance by introducing the concept of trial by jury and instituting the first ever homicide trial. 

Niamh Cusack’s perfectly modulated tone makes for an engaging narrator, Lesley Sharp has the intensity and ferocity of a thunderstorm as the vitriolic Clytemnestra, and Maureen Beattie, Polly Hemingway and Carolyn Pickles are intimidatingly malevolent as the Furies, determined to get their revenge on Will Howard's Orestes. His defender comes in the form of Chipo Chung's Athena, who spots the chance to change the way humans sort out their grievances yet still has to battle against the established order. It's an interesting story but something in this production didn't quite gel for me in the way the previous two parts of the trilogy did, possibly due to the use of a narrator, something I'm rarely keen on.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Review: Happy Days, Young Vic

“Perhaps some day the earth will yield and let me go, the pull is so great, yes, crack all round me and let me out"

The second show of the month with this title for me, but a completely different kettle of fish (although one can imagine the screams of existential angst that lie beneath the Fonz’s immaculately pristine quiff). I have no qualms in admitting that Samuel Beckett’s inimitable charms have long eluded me, I’ve never had that light-bulb moment in a theatre with one of his plays and being endlessly told that his work is amazing always has the reverse effect on me.

But I’m always up for the challenge, especially when it means the chance to see Juliet Stevenson on the stage again, and so Natalie Abrahami’s production of Happy Days for the Young Vic made it onto the calendar. I read the play at university but have never seen it onstage so I can’t compare it to any others, although given the strictness with which the Beckett estate guard the performance rights, I wonder how different they can actually be.     

Review: What The Women Did, Southwark Playhouse

“Any of our group would walk out with a German, a Hindu or a Belgian.
'Oh no, not a Belgian'" 

The centenary of the First World War will doubtless be marked in many a way in the nation’s theatre so the Southwark Playhouse have wisely got in early with this triple bill of lesser known plays which focuses on those left behind. What The Women Did features three works which delve into the experiences of not just the mothers, wives and girlfriends, but all the women who got on with the job of making society continue in such horrific circumstances, showing the difficulties faced in day-to-day living.

Gwen John’s Luck of War explores the unfortunate awkwardness, that must have been more common than is ever acknowledged, experienced by Ann Hemingway as her presumed dead husband turns up on the doorstep on crutches. It’s awkward because assuming herself a widow, she has remarried and thus is now a bigamist. Victoria Gee’s brummie bolshiness is of course thrown by the situation, but the short play wraps up a little too tweely to really have an impact. 

Cast of What the Women Did continued

Short Film Review #31

Sometimes, the simplest things are the best, and so it proves with Manjinder Virk’s film Forgive. A two-hander split between two timeframes, an estranged father and son reaching out but at different times, forgiveness paling into insignificance in the face of forgetting. Sacha Dhawan and Abdi Gouhad are both superb as the scars left by the sins of the past bite hard, but not quite hard enough to eradicate all traces of familial love as the unpredictability of the future shakes all certainties. Beautifully restrained film-making at its best.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Review: Blind / Doing the Business, Courtyard

“We’re talking about partnership, not charity”

The issue of sponsorship in the arts is one which is fraught with difficulties in a seemingly unwinnable quandary no matter how big or small – the RSC were hauled over the coals for accepting money from BP in light of their environmental disasters in 2012, Look Left Look Right were castigated by this reviewer for establishing commercial relationships, yet neither scenario really addresses the desperate reality of shrinking revenue streams and funding avenues.

Nor too does this double bill of Doug Lucie plays, the oft-neglected British playwright focusing on what effect commercialisation has on the art itself. First up is a fierce two-hander in 1990’s Doing the Business where a new artistic director of a forward-thinking theatre has a meeting with an old Oxbridge buddy who is now an archetypal yuppie and grant-giver extraordinaire. The problem is the strings that come with the money which are tantamount to complete artistic control.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Review: The Keepers of Infinite Space, Park Theatre

“A property developer, a fighter and a bookshop owner – of those three, it’s the bookshop owner who finds himself stuck in here. That’s Israel for you.”

There’s an interesting tension at the heart of this production of Omar El-Khairy’s The Keepers of Infinite Space and though it is one that is never really satisfactorily resolved, it is still making me think today. El-Khairy’s play is a no-holds-barred indictment of the prison system in Israeli-occupied Palestine, taking root in the shocking statistic that up to 40% of the male population has been detained under military orders at one time or another. But director Zoe Lafferty’s vision seems to locate it in a less specific context, making its issues about incarceration more universal.

This she does by having her actors speaking in (presumably) their natural accents, so one of the prisoners is a Geordie, the governor a malevolent Scot. But though there are aspects of the story that reach beyond the Middle East – the brutality of torture and its effects on the guards that commit it, the way in which the past is often its own sort of jail that imprisons generations in endless cycles of hate – too much of it is inextricably tied to the details of El-Khairy’s narrative, of an innocuous bookseller caught up in crisis by family connections beyond his ken. 

Review: The Body of an American, Gate

“People ask me questions they don’t want the answers to”

Paul is a Canadian photographer, Dan is an aspiring American playwright, and they’re the two main characters of The Body of an American. In real life, Paul Watson is a photojournalist who won awards for a shocking picture of the body of a US soldier being dragged through Mogadishu by Somali insurgents, and Dan O’Brien is a writer who has pulled together fragments of Watson’s biography and pieces of their own burgeoning relationship – as initial respect turns into genuine friendship – into a freewheeling study of how guilt can corrode the soul.

Photojournalism has proven a richly fascinating topic for contemporary writers (Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica, Vivienne Franzmann’s The Witness) and so too it proves here, initially at least. Paul is tormented by the idea that his photo was a desecration of sorts of the dead soldier and craves forgiveness; and Dan suggests, obliquely, that the picture had a huge part to play in the geo-politics of the region and can even be said to have prefigured 9/11. It’s a leap, a huge one, but barely touched upon in this fast-moving, almost free-associating complex piece of writing.

CD Review: Somewhere in the Audience

“You feel the urge, you think you can't help it"

Eric Woolfson may be better known as the creator, songwriter and lyricist of The Alan Parsons Project but as a writer of musical theatre, in the great tradition of David Hasselhoff, he was big in Germany (and other parts of Europe and Asia). He passed away in 2009 but a compilation of music from four of his musicals – Gaudi, Gambler, Poe and Dancing Shadows – has been put together with the hope of resuscitating interest in his work either side of the Atlantic.

Somewhere in the Audience is a curious CD – on first listen, one is smacked over the head with the dated feel of the material. Not necessarily in a bad way but rather that the arrangements are so definitively of their time (the late 80s and 90s) that they distract from everything else. Take a number like Too Late – sung with charisma and verve by Tim Howar, Louise Dearman and James Fox, it has a magnificently stirring drive to its structure but given the arrangement it gets here, it calls to mind a Central European power pop number with a jerky shoulder dance routine. 

CD Review: Matilda Original Broadway Cast Recording

“You mustn’t let a little thing like little stop you” 

The joys of Matilda the musical have been one of the abiding pleasures of my theatregoing this decade - from my first experience in Stratford-upon-Avon to its hugely successful opening in the West End, its rise as one of the strongest new musicals of recent years, and one of the most effective adaptations of a Roald Dahl story, has been undeniable. And a huge part of that journey for me was the release of the soundtrack which convinced me of the merits of Tim Minchin's score and erased any doubts I'd previously had, subsequently becoming one of my most listened-to albums. 

So the news that an Original Broadway Cast recording was being released filled me with a little trepidation as the score has been crystalised so perfectly for me, even to the extent that I don't even feel the need to see the show again as so many of the original UK cast has moved on. But the OBC recording has a number of sweeteners which meant I couldn't resist it. A number of additional tracks are included - the overture introduced for the Americans, extra songs like 'The Chokey' Chant, 'Chalk Writing' and the story songs covering the Escapologist and the Acrobat, and deleted song 'Perhaps a Child' which was cut in the preview period.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Review: Rapture, Blister, Burn, Hampstead Theatre

"You either have a career and wind up lonely and sad, or you have a family and wind up lonely and sad?”

US writer Gina Gionfriddo’s play Becky Shaw was a bracingly funny hit at the Almeida back in 2011 and her latest hit to land on these shows is Rapture, Blister, Burn encouraging its own new debates about modern feminism at the Hampstead Theatre. Taking an intellectual look at competing feminist theories, the politics of pornography and examining just what we mean when we say “women can have it all”, she has created another intelligent comedy which given the audible reaction of one audience member at a key moment, seems set to provoke opinions here.

Catherine is a forthright feminist academic who returns to the small New England college town of her past after her mother suffers a heart attack to teach a summer school. There, she encounters her former room-mate Gwen and they soon set about revisiting old memories. For neither is truly happy – Catherine’s career success has come at the expense of a husband and family, whilst Gwen is dissatisfied with the lack of stimulation that being a wife and mum-of-two has brought, supplanting her own aspirations which are renewed as she attends Catherine’s classes.

Radio Review: The Oresteia – The Libation Bearers / The 40 Year Twitch

“Kill her and be free”

Greek tragedies are never a light affair but The Libation Bearers, the second part of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy is particularly brutal. Following on from the vengeful fury of Clytemnesta slaying her husband Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to the gods, the thirst for revenge switches to her other children Electra and Orestes, the latter of whom returning from exile to kill his mother for murdering his father. He’s got his own permission from the gods so it’s ok and urged on by a viciously determined Electra to conquer his nagging doubts, he sets about steeling himself for such a deed.

Ed Hime’s new version is highly atmospheric and swirls effectively on the edge of the mystical. His Chorus of slave women are voiced by Amanda Lawrence, Carys Eleri and Sheila Reid, their cracked voices recalling Macbeth’s Weird Sisters in urging Will Howard’s solid Orestes towards matricide. Lesley Sharp is strong again as Clytemnesta, haunted by her misdeeds and Electra is given a chilling intensity by Joanne Froggatt – I just find it interesting that there is no attempt to understand her mother’s actions, instead Agamemnon is venerated as the greatest leader ever despite the fact he had her sister killed.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Review: PlayWROUGHT, Arcola

“Is there a drug for that, a pill to take…?”

A rather ambitious but certainly admirable affair, the Arcola’s PlayWROUGHT festival features 12 pieces of new writing over a week, showcasing a wide range of playwrights from the Arcola community in a series of rehearsed readings in the basement studio there. I do like a bit of new writing and readings are always fun when they involve actors that I like, I love getting to see another facet to their work in a more informal setting and so I was more than happy to book for an evening that featured Lucy Ellinson, Michelle Terry and Paul Ready. Imagine how happy I felt when favourite-round-these-parts Elliot Cowan was added to the bill!

Nina-Marie Gardner’s Sherry & Narcotics was an intriguing start to the evening. Grieving for her father, American Mary finds comfort where she can on a trip abroad, settling on an online connection to wistful Irish poet Jake who swiftly invites her to Manchester from the London where she has stopped for the time being. There, they attempt a putative romance but their individual hang-ups add up to one hell of a mess, what with her barely controlled alcoholism and the child he has neglected to mention yet through it all, the impulse to try and find happiness remains strong.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Re-review: The Light Princess, National Theatre

A review of the fourth time I went to see The Light Princess at the National?

What I will say though, is that it was my first time seeing it from the circle and it really did give a different perspective to some of the more expansive scenes in the Wilderness, the illusion of flowing water much more effective. And Althea's floating also felt different from afar, the magnificent facial hair less of a distraction from further away... Just one more trip booked now before it ends :-(

Cast of The Light Princess continued

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Review: Blurred Lines, National Theatre

“I’d be surprised if part of the audience didn’t feel alienated”

A dissection of “what it means to be a woman today”, Blurred Lines is a devised piece currently occupying the Shed, created by Nick Payne and Carrie Cracknell and the result of improvisation and experimentation with the cast of eight women. The show utilises text (effectively), poetry (interestingly) and songs (less than successfully) woven together into a patchwork piece of theatre. Naturally, the end result is somewhat uneven and it was hard not to feel that the almost scattershot approach mutes the overall impact of the work as the attention flashes from moment to moment. 

For me, the strongest sequences were the ones bookending the show, which comes in at a snappy 70 minutes straight through. A roll call of the stereotypical depictions of women in the cultural sphere speaks with the unassailable truth that has undoubtedly dogged the careers of everyone here, reinforcing the narrative about the paucity of decent roles for women. And a blistering final segment challenges a patriarchal actor/director relationship, asking searing questions about what we all may have been conditioned to find acceptable. 

Short Film Review #30

War Hero
Doug Rao came to my attention as part of the Spanish Golden Age ensemble currently at the Arcola and I was intrigued to see he was an acclaimed writer and director as well as an actor. His debut short film War Hero hit the festival circuit in 2007 and it isn’t hard to see how it was considered worthy. A densely packed story set in a military hospital , Rao poses questions about the morality of warfare (particularly in Iraq), its effects on the individuals tasked with carrying out the orders and the collateral damage it inevitably collects.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Review: Putting It Together, St James

“Sooner is better than later but lover, I'll hover, I'll plan”

For a show that proudly describes itself as a musical review, Sondheim compendium Putting It Together sure spends a lot of time faffing about trying to construct an (unspoken) narrative on which to hang the various excerpts from musicals such as Merrily We Roll Along, Company and A Little Night Music. But in all honesty, it is a more successful piece of entertainment once it jettisons such lofty ideas (somewhere early in the second half) and incorporates some of Sondheim’s lesser performed works, not least a number of songs from Dick Tracy.

These may not necessarily be familiar to everyone but Sondheim did win an Oscar for Sooner Or Later and when I was a wee whippersnapper, the soundtrack album as such (Madonna’s I’m Breathless) was one of my favourite cassettes. So it was these moments that shone best for me, particularly Caroline Sheen’s glorious take on More (and also Sooner or Later) and a titanic duet with Janie Dee from Anyone Can Whistle.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Review: fiji land, Southwark Playhouse

“We don’t want to know what’s going on”

Wise people in Skid Row once counselled “don’t feed the plants”, but the threat there was clear in the shape of Audrey 2. But over in the undefined anonymity of fiji land, three men are under orders to do just that – when the siren sounds, they’ve to feed and water the plants under their charge. But they’ve not to question why, they’re not allowed to know each other’s names, and when the orders start to darken in an ominous manner, it foreshadows the deterioration of their own situation.

Even with the best will in the world, one couldn’t really begin to explain what happens in Nick Gill’s play and why, and I think he’d be exactly fine with that. His writing is allusively thick and his approach to convention somewhat offbeat – to criticise fiji land for not having enough narrative development seems to be flying in the face of the playwright’s intentions. But sat in the smaller space of the Southwark Playhouse, it is also a little difficult to adjudge just what those aims are.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

CD Review: Frozen (soundtrack)

“It’s time to see what I can do”

Disney’s Frozen is as close to a stone-cold classic as they’ve produced in many a year, a loose retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen with a delightfully forward-thinking approach to gender roles and adorned with a cracking score by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. This last fact means it is as well-conceived a musical as one could hope for, something confirmed by the Oscar nomination for Best Song received by its lead song 'Let It Go', and the Broadway production that has now been confirmed to be under discussion.

Its theatrical credentials are further confirmed by the voice cast that was assembled for the film, erring to Broadway performers rather than established film stars and creating a wonderful mix that nails the quirky characterisations of the film. So Idina Menzel takes on the fierce Elsa, emotionally intense due to her enforced solitude but breaking free in the most glorious of ways as she finally embraces her powers in the epic number that is 'Let It Go', an instant classic that has me delivering all kinds of armography whenever it plays on the stereo.

'Let It Go' – Idina Menzel

CD Review: Somewhere In My Mind - The Songs of Joe Sterling

“Do we ever really know?"

Joe Sterling’s debut album Somewhere In My Mind has lingered in my iTunes folder for ages now and I’ve never quite got round to listening to it. But thanks to the randomness of the shuffle function and the inspired use of Virgin Pendolino in a rhyme, its presence reasserted itself and I gave the collection a listen. With lyricist Robert Gould, Sterling has written a couple of musicals, one of which – Roundabout – is featured heavily here, and he’s gathered an interesting collection of performers to sing their way through his first songbook.

I say interesting because it eschews many of the familiar names who pop up on this type of album and thus showcases a range of talent who may not necessarily be familiar to you or I. Rosa O’Reilly’s gorgeous pop vocal on the plaintive Ships That Pass In The Night immediately marks her out as someone I want to know more about, Jonathan Williams find a similar purity in early track Gone and Sterling delivers the guitar-led charms of You Could Be The One, They Said with a lovely lightness that is persuasive and not a little attractive.

Review: Happy Days the musical, Churchill Bromley

“Sock hops, soda pops, going to the malt shop”

“Sunday Monday Happy Days…” It is 40 years since ‘50s-set sitcom Happy Days started on US television screens and rose to iconic status, not least because of the creation of one of TV’s most enduring characters in The Fonz. And though it is 30 years since it came off air, a stage musical based on the show is hoping to capitalise on its retro appeal and all-American charms, with a considerable UK tour kicking off here at the Churchill Bromley.

With a book by original creator Garry Marshall and music and lyrics by Paul Williams, the show’s pedigree is beyond question, not least in the presence of Henry Winkler, the Fonz himself as a creative consultant. And in reintroducing the world of Arnold’s diner, the chirpy high-school kids that go there and the mom and pop tolerance of their hi-jinks, the show certainly succeeds in the fold-out resourcefulness of Tom Roger’s set and period-bright costume design.

Cast of Happy Days continued

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Radio Review: The Oresteia - Agamemnon / The Brick

“Things…have consequences”

Our enduring fascination with the Greek tragedies continues with this three-part adaptation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia which sees three writers create contemporary reworkings for radio, starting with Simon Scardifield’s take on Agamemnon. It’s a cracking version, featuring a brilliantly conceived three person Chorus who merge almost seamlessly into the narrative – they pass comment and provide rich detail as per usual, but feeling so much a part of the fabric of this version of Argos makes their storytelling truly integral to the work.

Elsewhere, the story follows the familiar laugh-a-minute path of Aeschylus. After taking a decade to conquer Troy, Agamemnon (Hugo Speer) returns victorious to Argos with a new concubine the prophetess Cassandra (the mellifluous Anamaria Marinca) in tow. But far from happy to see him, his wife Clytemnestra (a calculatedly fierce Lesley Sharp) has long been plotting revenge on him as he sacrificed their eldest daughter Iphigenia on divine orders. It is bloody, brutal stuff and little is spared in this effective retelling. 

Review: The Pass, Royal Court

“Sometimes you feel tired. Or angry. Sometimes you get horny”

Football is a game of two halves, The Pass is a play of two halves and between the words and the images, this review definitely made up of two halves. Set in the high-stakes world of celebrity football, John Donnelly’s play spreads over three scenes set over twelve years, starting with young bucks Jason and Ade on the cusp of making their first team debuts in a Champions League dead rubber in Bulgaria. But in their shared hotel room the night before, it seems like they might be interested in sharing more than just tactics.

But though homosexuality in football may be the headline grabber, especially in these post-Hitzlsperger times, Donnelly is just as interested in exploring the corrosive effects that accompanies the leap into superstardom for the lucky few. As the play jumps forward seven years, and then another five, we see Jason’s career goes stratospheric whilst Ade’s languishes, but professional success comes at personal cost – especially in the strait-laced world of the beautiful game – as we see just how far Jason is willing to go to protect his position.

Friday, 17 January 2014

(P)review: King Lear, National Theatre

“We cry that we are come to this great stage of fools"

One of the hottest tickets of the New Year is undoubtedly Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale tackling King Lear for the National Theatre, a show which has now started previews in the Olivier. I saw it tonight but as press night is a week away next Thursday, I’m opting to preview the show rather than reviewing it per se, offering tasters and teasers about what to expect whilst trying my best to avoid spoilers.

First up, you can read an interview here with Simon Russell Beale about how he got his hair did. I assume more features and things are due this weekend as this was the only one I could find about this production. The show currently comes in at a shade under 3 hours 30 minutes and though my initial reaction was along the lines of
the production rarely lacks for pace with some canny use of the drum revolve by designer Anthony Ward and vivid projections by Jon Driscoll. Just take note of the earlier start times so that you don't end up missing the first scenes and their fierce apparel.

Cast of King Lear continued

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Review: Ciphers, Bush

“The vast majority of the people in your life won’t know what you do”

Justine is found dead and her sister Kerry is determined to find out what happened. But digging into the apparently dull and innocuous life that her sibling led reveals that she was in fact an undercover MI5 agent and in her increasingly desperate pursuit for the truth, it becomes clear that nothing is quite what it seems. Dawn King’s new play Ciphers cleverly looks at both the effect that becoming a member of the secret services can have on a person and the fallout on their loved ones when things go more than just a little pear-shaped.

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Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Review: Little Black Book, Park

“Is it very hard to seduce a woman?”

Fanciful and French, Jean-Claude Carrière’s Little Black Book is a strange little thing indeed, abstract and random in its tracking of a putative relationship between a man notching up his 134th conquest in his book and a woman in search of a M Ferrand. Their romance starts unconventionally (she just walks into his apartment off the street), it continues unconventionally (they both swing from pillar to post on the whole affair) and it is played unconventionally, toying with the fourth wall in an intriguing way.

Kate Fahy’s production is wily and fitfully engaging, almost mischievous in its nature, as both him and her play about in a series of sketches about the frivolous nature of wooing and indeed of romance, their mutual silliness underscored by a deep sadness at the fragility of the heart and the ease with which good intentions can get confused. Over the space of a couple of days, they traverse the full gamut of emotions that most couples take a lifetime to get through, as complex as love itself.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Review: Mamma Mia (and memories), Novello

“If you've got no place to go, if you're feeling down..."

Mamma Mia
has been on my list of shows that I’ve never quite got round to seeing for ages now. I’d decided that I wanted to go in a large group, on a Friday night, after a fair few Hendricks and Fever Trees, but somehow it never quite happened. In the meantime, the show moved to the Novello to make way for those Mormon boys and then an expected Christmas present landed in my lap as a friend, tired of me saying ‘one day I’ll go’, bought me a ticket.

Though it wasn’t at all like I planned – a single ticket for a Monday evening with a bottle of Diet Coke – it actually proved to be a brilliant way to see the show and to restart my theatregoing for 2014. It was the evening after my first day back at work, I was sat front row centre and the huge geniality of a like-minded audience made it as genuinely pleasurable experience as one could expect from such a long-running stalwart of the West End.

Cast of Mamma Mia continued

Review: Drawing the Line, Hampstead via livestreaming

“When blood is spilt, disputes between people, nations, religions become all but impossible to solve”

A complete Brucie bonus to start off the year was the unexpected announcement that Howard Brenton’s new play Drawing the Line – a sell-out success at the Hampstead – would have its final performance live-streamed on t’internet. I hadn’t booked for the show as something had to give over Christmas and New Year and so the chance to catch up with it for free, albeit on the screen of my laptop, was one I was glad to take.

The play is set in the final days of the empire, as the British are beating a hasty retreat from the subcontinent but are determined to partition the land, and its diverse people, into India and Pakistan. The job of, quite literally, drawing the line falls to archetypal Englishman and judge Cyril Radcliffe who is shipped off to somewhere he has never been before, to accomplish what turns out to be a fiendishly complex assignment. 

Cast of Drawing the Line continued

Cast of Mamma Mia continued

Monday, 13 January 2014

Review: Thebes, New Diorama

“Let this blood here be the wash of Thebes’ redemption”

The ancient Greek stories of Thebes have proved some of the most enduring, inspiring theatremakers across the years to relate the tales of power-crazed, war-torn tragedy in their own ways and to their own experiences. Here, Gareth Jandrell ramps up the epic quotient by splicing together works by Aeschylus and Sophocles to create his own new play Thebes which spans the entire misbegotten dynasty, and forms the second play in The Faction’s 2014 rep season at the New Diorama.

So we see Oedipus’ crazed descent as the terrible truths uttered by the Oracle unknowingly shape his destiny as a most tragic king and we then move swiftly into the aftermath of his death, the power vacuum that emerges that his two sons and Creon battle to fill. Which in turn unleashes its own trail of chaos in the form of Oedipus’ vengeful daughter Antigone who will stop at nothing to do what she feels is right. All the while, the city of Thebes pulses in the background - bearing witness, making comment, passing judgement.

Cast of Thebes continued

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Review: The Blackest Black, Hampstead Downstairs

“I’ve become emotionally flatulent”

Now this is what the Hampstead Downstairs is for. As their self-described experimental space which operates outside of the conventional press night circuit, many of the productions that have taken place here haven’t really felt like they were pushing too many boundaries – with their playtexts and production values, a pleasingly high standard has been achieved but perhaps at the cost of just a little daring. But Jeremy Brock’s The Blackest Black, directed by Michael Longhurst, reintroduces that concept to create a piece of theatre that really does dare to be different.

Brock is better known in the worlds of film and television (scripting the likes of Mrs Brown, The Last King of Scotland and co-creating Casualty) but in this play, he looks at the opposition of science and art and whether a relationship can ever thrive between the two. The quantifiable quiet of astronomer Martin’s Arizona-based space observatory is shattered when Abi, a British artist-in-residence is nepotistically appointed above his head. Sparks immediately fly when the pair meet, opposites attract and all that, but her presence heralds a greater disturbance for all concerned.

Review: Don Gil of the Green Breeches, Arcola

“What’s your disguise for?”

The signs were there, I just chose not to see them. The main one being that the author of Don Gil of the Green Breeches or Don Gil de las Calzas Verdes was Tirso de Molina, who also wrote Damned By Despair, otherwise known as one of the biggest car crashes at the National in a goodly while. But I didn’t investigate too much - I allowed myself to be seduced by the notion of an ensemble performing new translations of three neglected plays from the Spanish Golden Age and the murmurings of good reviews from Bath where they opened last year.

But suffice to say that Don Gil did not do it for me. A broad cross-dressing comedy of sledgehammer subtlety, one can identify some similarities with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night which preceded this play by about a decade, but what is more notable is the poor comparison that it makes. The plot twists endlessly and mindlessly through a set of baffling contrivances and clearly cognisant of this, Tirso de Molina has one character or another recap just where we’re at at the beginning of what feels like every scene, there’s nothing but exposition and it is still clear as mud.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Review: Tell Me On A Sunday, St James

“Tell each other to find all we’re looking for, and more”

Despite its enduring success as (arguably) one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s finest works, in collaboration with lyricist Don Black, the great and good never quite seem to believe that the original hour-long pleasures of Tell Me On A Sunday are sufficient on their own. In its first staging, Marti Webb delivered it as one half of Song and Dance; the revival with Denise Van Outen was extended with a suite of new songs which awkwardly tried to update it; and now as Webb makes a return to the show at the St James Theatre, it finds itself lumbered with a first-half West End showcase which never feels like anything more than unnecessary padding. 

And it really is unnecessary – the hour-long show is perfectly encapsulated, whipping through the trials and tribulations of an Englishwoman in New York who is running away from a broken heart in the UK but finds herself unable to escape romantic drama. And Webb owns its every emotional contour – the aching sadness of the title song, the yearning romance of The Last Man In My Life, the anguished dexterity of Let Me Finish. Lloyd-Webber’s song-writing is rarely better than here and Black’s lyrics have a well-honed simplicity which allows for a directness of feeling, especially when given such transcendental grace as here.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Review: Hamlet, New Diorama

“What a piece of work is a man”

The Faction’s annual rep seasons at the New Diorama have gone from strength to strength, winning increasing critical and commercial acclaim, and so in the relatively dry spell of early January openings, they are a welcome highlight. Their 2014 season opens with a fresh take on Shakespeare’s perennial classic Hamlet, directed by Mark Leipacher in an adaptation that takes its time to find its feet and its oeuvre but once it does, it exemplifies much of the best of the Faction’s work, anchored by an excellent lead performance from Jonny McPherson.

Early on, the most arresting feature of this production is the ingenious use of a digital Simon Russell Beale to play the ghost. Leipacher comes up with a novel method of displaying Martin Dewar’s projection work, the ensemble making it somehow float in the air but for all its resourcefulness, it never feels truly integrated into the show, a distance is forced between reality and artifice which undermines the emotional current that ought to pull so strongly. And generally, the first half feels slow to start, competently played to be sure but not quite essential.

Cast of Hamlet continued

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Review: Lost Boy, Finborough

"Kissing is better than acorns"

It seems like Peter Pan had the right idea. For in new musical Lost Boy, those that left Neverland and started to grow up end up variously as gay trapeze artists, opium addicts, Parisian showgirls, miserable bankers, wannabe Jungians and prostitutes. The concept of growing up is at the heart of Phil Willmott’s new show which largely takes place in the dreamworld of Captain George Llewelyn Davies, one of the boys who inspired JM Barrie to write one of the most iconic pieces of children’s fiction but whose shadow is hard to escape. 

A few years on from the writing of Peter Pan, Llewelyn Davies finds himself preparing for battle on the eve of the First World War, emotionally unprepared for military leadership yet societally conditioned with a gung-ho war mentality. And as he closes his eyes for a moment, he dreams of being Peter Pan, all grown up in London with Wendy, Tinker Bell, Tootles and the rest but now they’re no longer in Neverland, the dilemmas they face are those of humdrum normality, that is until war is declared. 

CD Review: You Are Home - The Songs of Anderson and Petty

"It will all be fine, somewhere down the line"

Songbook albums can be difficult beasts – composers can often find themselves caught between trying to compile a thematically coherent collection and demonstrating the breadth of their talent and it can be a difficult balance to find. Transatlantic writing duo Barry Anderson and Mark Petty, the catchily named Anderson & Petty, have erred towards the latter, not only showcasing not only a huge range of musical styles but a roster of performers from both sides of the ocean.

And what does connect the material is a genuine gift for effective songwriting, highlighted by some excellent matching of song and singer: Coleen Sexton’s ‘You Are Home’ brims with supreme confidence, a near-perfectly constructed piece matched with a flawless vocal; Gina Beck’s crystalline soprano on the verge of shattering due to the emotionally devastating ‘Forever Child’; Autumn Hurlbert carrying ‘Superman’ from its hushed beginnings to a wonderfully strident climax.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Review: Wolf Hall/Bring Up The Bodies, Swan Theatre

“He needs to be on the side of the light"

Hilary Mantel became the first woman to win the Booker Price twice when the literary behemoth that was Wolf Hall was followed up by the equally considerable Bring Up The Bodies. And whilst we wait for the third part of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy – The Mirror and the Light – thoughts have turned quickly to adaptation. The BBC will be airing a six-part version by Peter Straughan in the future but the RSC have readied a theatrical interpretation of the novels by Mike Poulton which is now playing in the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The shows can be seen separately, but are clearly designed to fit together (Wolf Hall has as close as the theatre gets to a cliffhanger ending!) and there are opportunities to see them on the same day.

At first glance, they may not seem the most likely choice for staging – set in the court of Henry VIII as he looks for ways of getting rid of his first wife Katherine of Aragon so that he might plant Anne Boleyn in her stead, these are all-too-familiar events. But Mantel’s magic was to tell the story through the eyes and mind of Thomas Cromwell, the wily commoner who worked his way up through the ranks to become one of the most influential man in the realm. Additionally, her magnificent present-tense prose brought Tudor England to life like never before, a rich attention to detail making this universe feel new-minted, as if anything could happen, not just what the history books say.

Cast of Wolf Hall continued

Cast of Bring Up The Bodies

Cast of Bring Up The Bodies continued

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Re-review: Jumpers for Goalposts, Bush

“Do you know why I’m doing this?
‘Cos the lesbians said you were bossy’” 

In a close-run thing, Tom Wells’ Jumpers for Goalposts ended up in second place on my list of favourite shows of 2013, its undeniable warmth and unfettered romance proving a hugely winning combination and one which I’d already been to see three times – twice earlier in 2013 at Watford and once as it started its run at the Bush, the final stop on its tour. The joy it brought me even on that third trip meant that when a potential trip to the final show of the run of this Paines Plough, Watford Palace Theatre and Hull Truck Theatre production was mooted, I could not resist.

And once again, the show filled my heart to bursting with its utter loveliness, making me laugh, cry, shiver and sigh all over again. Review #1 can be read here, re-reviews #2 and #3 here, and that’s about it really. I’m so glad I went to see it one more time, I’m gutted that I can’t see it again and I look forward to the first revival wherever it may take place, I can pretty much guarantee I’ll be making a trip to see it. Thank you to all involved in making such a wonderful piece of theatre that will stay with me forever. 

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 4th January 

Friday, 3 January 2014

Review: Wasted, via YouTube

“We wish we knew the deeper meaning…”

I’m loving how much livestreaming is being embraced by theatrical institutions up and down the land and now Paines Plough are getting in on the act with Kate Tempest’s Wasted, playing at the Roundhouse but available to watch on YouTube for a while longer. The play was Tempest’s first but captures an excellent middle ground between the spoken word for which she has rightly gained much acclaim and a more conventional type of drama. 

Three friends in their mid-20s gather at the memorial of another of their number where they reflect on different notions of waste – the wasted life of their pal, the years spent getting wasted in their (relative) youth. The theme of the disillusionment of young adulthood after the heady days of teenagerdom is a well-trodden one but Tempest gives it a new vibrancy here with the mix of poetry and prose, microphones and unamplified speech, life and death.

Review: Protest Song, National Theatre

“I’m not protesting”

Tim Price has become a writer to watch with a number of interesting recent works (For Once, Salt Root and Roe, and The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning amongst others) and now he graduates to the National Theatre with this monologue by Rhys Ifans taking up residence in (and also outside) the giant red box of The Shed. In Protest Song, Ifans is Danny, a man whose addictions have led to the collapse of his marriage and family life and resulted in him ending up on the streets, a rough sleeper on the steps of St Pauls.

So when Occupy takes over his abode and turn it into the centrepiece of their protest movement, he is naturally disgruntled, believing them to be taking the piss (quite literally in one scene). But the opportunities that it presents – for socialisation, for sustenance, for service – seduces him into thinking change may be afoot, but he fails to take into account society’s ingrained attitudes towards the homeless. It is a genuinely thought-provoking piece of theatre that manages that oh-so-rare thing of actually challenging one’s own perceptions, seeing the inevitable beggars on the way home in a new light.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Re-review: American Psycho, Almeida

“Is everything alright Patrick?”

Third time round for this show, so little to add to my original review and then the subsequent brief re-review. One of my new year’s resolutions is to embrace seeing the shows I love more than once – there’s so much theatre in London and beyond that it has often felt like a crime to view things again rather than going to see something new and though that hasn’t changed, the joy of rewatching things recently has been particularly great. In that spirit, when a random cheap ticket popped up on the Almeida’s website, the prospect of seeing American Psycho again was irresistible. 

Some pieces of theatre impress with the depth of their profundity, whilst others glisten with their immediacy, and American Psycho most definitely fits into the latter category. It’s almost like an extended music video with its 80s pop score, extraordinary visual impact and kinetic choreography (I’m on the lookout for a club in which people actually do that ‘hands in the air’ dancing) and the fast-moving pace of Rupert Goold’s production means its thrills are akin to the rush of a rollercoaster and for me, endlessly reconsumable. 

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £5, and worth the purchase for its great content
Booking until 1st February, run sold out but day tickets and there’s often returns available on the website, checking late at night works

Cast of American Psycho continued

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Leading Man of the Year 2013

Theatre, theatre, hot men, theatre - as the festive season draws to a close, my annual late present to y'all is the Leading Man of the Year post. Without fail, these are the most popular posts that I do (2012, 2011, 2010) so who am I to argue against the will of the people. Happy new year!
The list is not ranked in any way, purely in terms of an assortment of men who have turned my eye one way or another on the stage this year.