Sunday, 25 January 2015

Review: Oppenheimer, Swan

"We could make a star on the surface of the Earth"

Michael Billington notes in his Guardian review that John Heffernan’s work in the title role in Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer will “elevate [him] to star-status” but to those of us in the know, he’s long been held in such lofty acclaim. From supporting roles in a wide range of interesting productions to taking the lead in Richard II and Edward II, he has steadily revealed himself as an actor of consummate skill and strength and I make no bones in asserting that he is truly the Dame Judi Dench of his generation.

And as ‘Oppie’, the leader of the Manhattan Project and as such the father of the atomic bomb, he really does live up to the billing. There’s such an easy personability about him that is a perfect introduction to a man who is a brilliant physicist, irresistible to women and surrounded by friends as they rail against 1930s fascism in Spain. But where the dexterity comes is in showing us how the weight of such increasingly terrible responsibility haunted and conflicted him in different ways – professionally, personally, philosophically, psychologically. 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Saturday afternoon music treats

Anna Kendrick - Life Upon The Wicked Stage
With The Last Five Years still not having a release date for UK cinemas, I thought I'd treat us all to a little Kendrick and Jordan action to tide us over. This inspired Showboat/Cabaret mash-up sees a 12 year old Kendrick showing off her already considerable MT chops.


Jeremy Jordan - It's All Coming Back To Me Now
LOVE. HIM!

Friday, 23 January 2015

Some initial points of interest* about The Hard Problem at National Theatre

  • Damien Molony looking cute in a cardigan
  • The line “she was milking the family buffalo at 8” is mentioned. It is a winner.
  • Damien Molony looking strangely alluring in a lady’s shorty robe
  • Olivia Vinall looks to be the new Hattie Morahan, and delivers the leading role here with a delightful mixture of charm and confidence – nice to see her outwith Shakespearean damsel mode for once
  • Damien Molony’s thighs in said robe. *swoons*
  • Stoppard hasn’t reined in his tendency to lay his research bare. Not sure what a hedge fund is? A character conveniently asks the question to allow an explanation… Nor is there a huge deal of sophistication in his plotting, the twists that come seem rather obvious (though this could possibly have been his intention)
  • Damien Molony in his boxers
  • The play does have some meaty, fascinating aspects to it though, pairing up thoughtful forays into God versus science and the mind versus the brain, whilst also delving into the financial markets, research ethics and the vagaries of human behaviour, especially under pressure. Heaven only knows what those who've done their homework will make of it, for me it could do with exploiting the emotional angle more fully.
  • For all his hotness, Damien Molony could really do with enunciating and projecting a little better.
  • And plus ça change at the Dorfman/Cottesloe as in its end-on configuration, Row S clearly stands for severely restricted view - the cheap seats in the gallery on the right hand side (looking at the stage) cut off an area where Hytner frustratingly places actors on a regular basis. Even leaning didn’t really help. And with all the recent renovation work, it’s surprising the NT hasn’t managed to put signs up to Door C or Row S (or indeed placed ushers on that level to help out customers).
  • I continue to love Lucy Robinson, my first ever Lady Macbeth, even when she's forced to swear like she's in a Richard Curtis film.
  • Some gorgeous brainwave and synapse-inspired design work by Bob Crowley and lighting designer Mark Henderson make it visually arresting, though the reliance on the piano soundtrack felt a little clichéd and uninspired. Press go in on Wednesday though it is hard to imagine, that with this being Hytner's directorial swansong as Artistic Director and Stoppard's first new play in nine years, that a certain air of benevolence won't characterise a goodly portion of the critical responses. If you've been already, let me know what you thought of it. 
*Yes, shallowness abounds but hey, it's Friday night.
Show information can be found here
Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 16th April (though new dates to be released in next booking period and returns often pop up)



Review: King Lear, Holy Trinity Church, Guildford

“Hooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooowl”

In something of a coup, Guildford Shakespeare Company’s leading man for their production of King Lear is none other than Brian Blessed. And with his daughter Rosalind playing Goneril too. The play’s opening this week was a little overshadowed by the actor’s collapse during the final preview performance, but with the redoubtable resilience we have come to expect from this totemic figure (and perhaps unfairly so, he is 78 after all), he continued with the show after a 20 minute break. So three days later, it was with a little trepidation that we took our seats in the Holy Trinity Church in Guildford (cushion recommended!).

But we needn’t have worried, Brian Blessed giving his King Lear was exactly how you’d imagine Brian Blessed giving his King Lear would be. For better and for worse. There’s a real thrill in seeing him throw himself so fully into the cantankerous cruelty and wild abandon that characterises Lear’s breakdown - every howl, headshake and handwring is vastly exaggerated and is so unmistakeably him. But this comes at the loss of much subtlety, if not wailing he’s whispering with inbetween, which ultimately becomes a little exhausting whilst remaining trashily enjoyable. I mean look at the poster, what you want is Brian Blessed doing exactly what Brian Blessed does. 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Review: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Playhouse

“The car’s ok but where’s the wheels...?”

The Broadway production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was less than a stellar success so it is little surprise that it is a majorly reworked version of the show that has opened at the Playhouse Theatre four years later. But even after all the reconstruction and renovation that has been done to Jeffrey Lane’s book and David Yazbek’s score, it is hard to feel that director Bartlett Sher has really nailed it here either.

For something based on a Pedro Almodóvar film, there’s a shocking uncertainty of tone, or more accurately a lack of any real sense of tone at all. The story in set in late 80s Madrid but there’s little concession to either this particular decade or country (though there is bafflingly one incongruously Hispanic accent). One could argue that this is a wise decision but the issue lies in that no overarching conceit of any substance has replaced it.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Review: Little Shop of Horrors, Royal Exchange

“That thing went bang, kaboom. And he’s havin’ some fun now”

There are shows I love and then there are shows I LOVE and Little Shop of Horrors most definitely falls into that latter category. I fell for its undeniable charms when I was 11 or 12 I think, when my mum was involved in her school production of it, letting me wander backstage, and the MD, who was also my piano teacher, snuck out a copy of Alan Menken's most tuneful of scores to enliven my lessons for a good few weeks. Combined with the cult classic that is the movie version, I was utterly hooked and have remained so ever since. So I was most delighted to see the Royal Exchange announcing it as their festive fare and with the ever-exciting Derek Bond directing, who in recent years has delivered a bewitching As You Like It, the hugely under-rated Many Moons and Lost in Yonkers, through which I cried pretty much non-stop.

The gloriously rich vocal harmonies of Ibinabo Jack, Ellena Vincent and Joelle Moses as Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette, the girl-group Greek chorus who doo-wop their premonitions of doom, are an ever-present and magnificent hook into the action and never more so than in the stellar one-two that opens the show. ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ is a stone-cold classic theme tune with its shang-a-langs and throaty comma comma commas but ‘Skid Row’ – one of my all-time favourite songs from a musical, I should add – blooms into resplendent life, benefitting from a slightly slowed tempo and some sympatico choreography to really nail the air of quiet desperation that lies at the song’s heart as we're introduced to this classic "boy-meets-girl-feeds-plant-her-boyfriend-gets-famous-kills-boss-sacrifices-girl-and-dies" story. Oh yeah, spoiler alert ;-) 

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Review: Upper Cut, Southwark Playhouse

“I have to be a politician, who ‘happens’ to be black. Not a black man who ‘happens’ to be a politician”

Within the first ten minutes, Juliet Gilkes Romero’s Upper Cut has gone through the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, race riots, and stop and search to name just a few of the hot button topics around race in this country and this is unfortunately symptomatic of a play that is underpinned by a huge amount of research yet also overladen by it. Her tale tracks the divergent careers of two black British politicians over the last 25 years – Michael rising from militant beginnings to the deputy leadership, Karen unable to reconcile her zeal with the strictures of an institutionally racist political system. 

Difficulties come from all sides though. Its structural tricksiness – the story is told in reverse - has no dramatic imperative, politicians shifting position throughout their career is hardly novel and even the contrasting directions of Karen and Michael adds little interest. And the uneven spacing of the scenes – the first five bound from November 2012 to June 1987 whilst the next five crawl through to September 1986 – has a deathly impact on the pace of the play’s later stages.

Saturday afternoon music treats

Cassidy Janson + Sam Hallion – Safe (from Cheri the Musical)
A couple more tracks from the intriguing sounding Cheri the Musical blessed by some top notch performers.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Review: Othello, Lyric Hammersmith

“What, man! 'tis a night of revels"

At the hint of something daring and innovative in a production of one of Shakespeare’s plays, it is all too easy to fall back on the truism that it probably isn’t for purists – heaven knows I was guilty of it just last week. But whereas not all adaptations necessarily work that well, Frantic Assembly’s brutal and breathless reimagining of Othello – arriving at the Lyric Hammersmith after a UK tour - is exactly the type of thing that purists should be made to see as a thrilling example of how powerful and effective an interpretation can be.


And that is what this Othello is in the end. To start counting the characters who’ve been excised, noting which speeches are spoken by someone else or which plot details have been omitted is to utterly miss the point. Adaptors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett have brilliantly managed to take the play apart, capture its essence but then reconstruct it into something familiar but new. Full-length traditional productions (of variable quality) are two-a-penny but oh so rarely is Shakespeare this pulsating and compelling and visceral and modern. 


Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Review: Bat Boy The Musical, Southwark Playhouse

“Don’t talk like a slut, dear”

It seems scarcely credible that Bat Boy The Musical ever opened in a West End house – its scuzzy, B-movie schtick seems custom-designed for the fringe world and it is decently served by Luke Fredericks’ production here, for Morphic Graffiti at the Southwark Playhouse. Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming’s book was inspired by a spoof story in an American tabloid which spoke of a creature that was half-boy and half-bat, and imagines what happens when a local family takes him in under their wing in the insular town of Hope Falls, West Virginia.

Rob Compton’s Bat Boy is first found in the depths of a cave by some trouble-making teenagers who capture him after a brief struggle in which one of their number is injured. Bat Boy has been down there for years – with some pretty nifty gym equipment judging by his abs – but once placed in the care of Sheriff Reynolds and his family, finds himself longing to join society. With the help of the motherly Meredith and moody daughter Shelley, he learns to speak and to modify his blood-thirsty behaviour, but soon finds that not even the most cut-glass BBC accent can defeat small-mindedness at its very worst.

Review: Singin’ in the Rain, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“I’ve a smile on my face”

As unlikely as it may seem, you could easily make the case that some of the best musical theatre happening in London right now is taking place above a pub in Highgate. John and Katie Plews’ Ovation Productions have a sterling record in small-scale smash-hit musicals at the Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre and their festive shows are usually the pick of the bunch. This winter sees them take on the perennial classic Singin’ in the Rain and naturally, it is a gloriously resounding success. And yes, of course there is rain – you gotta go to see how they do it though.

The key to the Plews’ triumph lies in the uncanny ability to both distil and reimagine Broadway classics perfectly for this 120-or-so seat space and often in traverse. That means choreography (from Chris Whittaker) so audacious that audiences applaud mid-song, that means design (by Sarah June Mills) that hits all the key notes – a lamppost to lean on, steps to hop up and down on, seats to tip back – without cluttering the stage, that means musical direction (from Matt Ramplin, leading a band of six) unafraid to just exude Broadway pizzazz as it delivers the superbly evergreen score. 

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Review: Pig Girl, Finborough

“Turn your head and you’ll see me”

Colleen Murphy’s Armstrong’s War remains one of the best new plays I’ve seen in recent years and that it hasn’t returned to these shores since its initial Sunday/Monday run at the Finborough in 2013 is an absolute travesty. In the meantime, we do now have the opportunity to see another of Murphy’s plays – 2012’s Pig Girl – which comes freighted with a different sense of expectation, as its premiere in Edmonton, Alberta was mired in controversy and sparked fervent protests at its perceived cultural appropriation. (An excellent précis can be read here.)

The play was inspired by a horrifically true story of a Canadian pig farmer and serial killer who was convicted of six murders but implicated in dozens more – his preferred victim being sex workers of aboriginal descent, a section of society too easily ignored and neglected, allowing him to literally get away with murder. Murphy depersonalises her story though, elevating it to near-mythical status in order to give a voice to the thousands of women, so many of them nameless, whose lives have been impacted by senseless violence.