Friday, 5 February 2016

Review: Weald, Finborough

“The earth sings when he touches it”

The slow decline of the English rural economy and the way of life that accompanies it has proved a fruitful one for playwrights and it is a subject to which Daniel Foxsmith has turned, drawing on his own brief experiences in a livery yard, for his third play Weald for Snuff Box Theatre. And hand in hand with this changing world come questions about our place within it, once clearly defined gender roles now more fluid, Foxsmith suggesting that modern masculinity is in crisis for both young and old in this intriguing two-hander directed by Bryony Shanahan. 

Now in his 50s, grizzled and weatherbeaten, Sam has worked the yard as long as he can remember but life seems to be passing him by – his wife has left him and he’s sold off the farmhouse to make ends meet. And it’s a life to which Jim, a 25-year-old full of cocky swagger, has returned, after flying the coop six years ago for life in London. There’s much history between the pair, not least in the manner of Jim’s parting and as he wangles his way back into his old job, secrets old and new start to spill forth like imaginary animal feed into a bucket. 

Review: Red Velvet, Garrick

"...now begrimed and black as mine own face"

For all the excitement of Kenneth Branagh's announcement of his year long residency at the Garrick, the programme was lacking a certain diversity. So it's pleasing to see that the Tricycle Theatre's production of Red Velvet has been slotted in for a month, featuring a barnstorming lead performance from Adrian Lester and a fascinating insight into a piece of sorely neglected theatrical history.


Thursday, 4 February 2016

Review: Rabbit Hole, Hampstead

“People want things to make sense”

Anchored by a barnstorming central turn from Imelda Staunton (as if there were any other kind), David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People was a huge success for the Hampstead Theatre, so they’ve returned to this American playwright with his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Rabbit Hole. The suburban comforts of Becca and Howie Corbett’s family life are wrecked when their four-year-old Danny is killed in a road accident outside their home. Tragedy swallows them whole and grief tears them apart, the divergence in their individual journeys threatening what’s left of their family. 

The 2006 Broadway run got multiple Tony nominations and won for lead Cynthia Nixon and in 2011, the superb film adaptation garnered an Academy Award nomination for Nicole Kidman, so the stakes could be considered high for Outnumbered star Claire Skinner here. Edward Hall’s production never quite launches into the stratosphere though; whereas Good People depicted an authentic-feeling US working class life, Rabbit Hole’s middle class milieu doesn't convince, too stagily British for its own good.

Review: The Winter’s Tale, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

“Thou metst with things dying,
I with things new-born”

It’s easy to feel a little jaded when it comes to Shakespeare, the same plays coming round with regularity and not always inspiring such great theatre. So I’m delighted to report that Michael Longhurst’s production of The Winter’s Tale for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is probably the best version of the play I’ve ever seen. The Kenneth Branagh Company’s The Winter’s Tale was a staid disappointment for me, previously the Crucible had let me down too but in the candlelit atmosphere on Bankside, something truly magical is happening.

It’s a tricky play to get right in its split of two very different worlds but where Longhurst really succeeds is in suggesting that Sicilia and Bohemia perhaps aren’t too separate at all. Modern designers often highlight the dichotomy between the chilly stateliness of Leonte’s Sicilia with the freewheeling japery of Polixenes’ Bohemia but in the simplicity of Richard Kent’s design, they’re both very much on the same sliding scale - psychological darkness pervading the light in both worlds, the promise of redemption ultimately illuminating one and the other too.

Guest review: The Girls, Lowry

There's not many people I'd let have a guest review on here but Robert Foster, aka my father, is certainly one of them. I was (pleasantly) surprised when he (and my mum and Aunty Jean) declared that they had really enjoyed The Girls in Manchester and so I thought it would be fun to contrast our reactions - here's my own review from Leeds and read on for his.

"Look in the eye of your dear fucker uppers"

There cannot be many of you out there who do not know the real-life story of the Calendar Girls. It made national news at the time; the film has been around for more than a decade; and the stage play followed not long behind. Now, author Tim Firth has joined forces with Gary Barlow of Take That (a popular beat combo, m’lud) in a musical version, which mysteriously has shed the ‘Calendar’ and is just called The Girls. For those recently returned from Mars, the story is set in a small Yorkshire town where Annie loses her husband, John, to cancer. Her best friend, Chris, and other Women’s Institute friends rally round to find a way to pay tribute to the man they all loved and decide on a nude calendar. The profits will buy a new settee for the Relatives Room at the hospital where John was treated.

Could this story stand yet another retelling? Well, my answer is a resounding if slightly surprised yes. Firth and Barlow have created a richly entertaining evening, at times gentle, sad and moving whilst being overwhelmingly joyous and funny.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Review: The Meeting, Hampstead Downstairs

“It’s all a question of perception”

Opening up 2016 downstairs at Hampstead, Andrew Payne’s The Meeting starts off brightly as a sharp office-set comedy where a crucial deal looks set to be torpedoed when one of the key parties has to be escorted from the premises after suffering an emotional breakdown. Denis Lawson’s production has fun with corporate behaviour and its nameless threats (“there’s been murmurs on the 10th floor”) but is perhaps a little less sure-footed when it then tackles sexism in the boardroom.

Cleverly, for all the talk of concepts and options, entry level kits and secondary licensing, we never find out exactly what it is the beleaguered Stratton and youthfully belligerent Cole do. For The Meeting is more about the way they behave – with each other, with Frank from upstairs, with the various unseen women in their lives, and with Ellen, who is stepping in for the indisposed Jack and disrupting the old boys’ network on which they had been relying for an easy time of it.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Shakespeare Solos - Part 1

"But I do think it is their husbands’ faults if wives do fall"

There's going to be a lot of Shakespearean content coming our way in the next couple of months as we approach the 400th anniversary of his death and the Guardian have got in early with the first part of their Shakespeare Solos. Six leading actors performing favourite monologues from the Bard, directed by Dan Susman, it's all rather luxurious, especially when we get the delights of Eileen Atkins in beautifully conversational mode as Othello's Emilia, Adrian Lester returning to Hamlet and Roger Allam whetting the appetite for a King Lear which will surely be one of the wonders of the modern world once it happens.

And if a couple of the choices here smack a little of sneaky advertising, then so what. Better to have opportunities for people to book and see more if they are so inspired by these clips. Atkins is reprising her solo show at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and Ayesha Dharker (here as Titania) will open in the RSC's mammoth tour of A Midsummer Night's Dream later this month. It might not be Hamlet but Adrian Lester can be seen being differently Shakespearean in Red Velvet and most tenuously of all though still thoroughly theatrical, David Morrissey (a hypnotic Richard III) can be seen for another month in Hangmen.

Review: i know all the secrets in my world, West Herts College

"Dad...?"

When one suffers from a traumatic loss, there can be no words to get you through the day. Which is acknowledged by Natalie Ibu's i know all the secrets in my world as barely a word is spoken between the two main characters. And equally true is the fact that life has to go on for those left behind, no matter how hard it may seem, which is what Ibu shows us in this story of a father and son struggling to deal with the loss of a wife and mother.

The strength of their relationship, in all its playful beauty, is played out in a gorgeous prologue around the breakfast table, Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster's movement perfectly choreographed. But then darkness falls and their world is broken, literally so as Alyson Cummins' cramped apartment set cracks open and from then on, Solomon Israel's father is left to deal with an all-encompassing grief that is smothering him and his young son, played with athletic grace by Samuel Nicholas.

Friday, 29 January 2016

A new audiobook adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses

"It's beyond my control"

Just a quick note to say that an original audio adaptation of the love letters of Les Liaisons Dangereuses has been released by Audible UK. Christopher Hampton's own adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel is currently running in a well-received production by Josie Rourke at the Donmar Warehouse (here's my review), and this audio recording has been designed to complement that show. Directed and edited for audio by Zoé Ford, and translated by Jack Sain, this selection of letters featured within the original book sheds new intimate light onto the complex web of relationships in the play and best of all, it is free and downloadable from audible.co.uk/Donmar!

Review: BPolar, VAULT Festival

“This is no way to treat a king”

A fascinating one this, an adaptation of Gogol’s Diary of A Madman by the Israeli “Ayit” Ensemble (made up of actors from and around the Negev and Beer Sheva) which is performed wordlessly, employing instead a range of movement techniques, live video art and projections, a pulsing contemporary soundtrack and theatrical trickery to produce a dizzying non-stop hour of theatre.

BPolar follows the life of a minor civil servant, from his troubled upbringing with a violent father to a misguided obsession with his manager’s daughter, to a descent into the turmoil of the bipolar disorder that haunts him. And Yoav Michaeli’s production proves a canny way of depicting mental illness by creating an immersive experience that is near-overwhelming in its scope.

Review: PLAY, VAULT Festival

“I don’t even know what a colossus of the creative industries is”

PLAY is a new writing initiative that aims to inspire collaborative working by bringing together writers and directors and giving them two weeks to come up with a short play. And here at the VAULT Festival, there’s two sets of four plays, or PLAYs, bringing together a rather exciting set of creatives to produce some spankingly fresh theatre. The second set takes place mid-February but I’d urge you to book for this one now (you’ve got until Sunday) as I reckon it’s the best tenner you can spend this week, with some seriously impressive work going on here.

Play 9, written by Chloe Todd Fordham and directed by Polina Kalinina, felt like a bit of a riff on Shallow Grave, three university pals skirting around an uncomfortable truth about their (unseen) flatmate. Starting off with a well-choreographed sequence of fighting over a remote, Fordham’s writing quickly slipped into its structure of three differing accounts of what happened, slightly complementary, slightly contradictory, full of detail fleshing out the complex relationships herein, slowly but surely moving the place of real revelation. A couple of right-up-to-the-minute references perhaps overplayed their hand but I did mostly enjoy the shifty evasion of this guilty trio. 

Review: Gentle Tim, VAULT Festival

“I wanted to be with the animals”

There’s plenty of men looking for bears under the railway arches of Southwark for those of that particular persuasion but in Gentle Tim, it’s most definitely the more ursine types in play. Over The Limit’s inaugural London production, directed by Sinead O’Callaghan, takes its inspiration from the life of Timothy Treadwell, immortalised in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man but given a new treatment here by Joseph Cullen, who also plays Tim himself.

Treadwell was an American environmentalist, best known for spending 13 consecutive summers in Alaska with nothing but a video camera and the population of grizzly bears there for company. Cullen asks the question whether he was a genuinely well-intentioned documentary-maker or a fantasist suffering delusions of grandeur in the isolated Alaskan wilderness. Blending physical theatre, a score of cinematic scale and dramatic monologue, Gentle Tim looks anew at this fascinating figure.