Friday, 24 April 2015

Review: Dead Royal, Ovalhouse

“If you’ve not had a 4-part miniseries made about you, you’ve not lived”

Imagining a meeting between the woman who nearly brought down the monarchy and the woman credited with saving it, Chris Ioan Roberts’ Dead Royal sees him take on both the roles of an 82-year-old Wallis Simpson and a 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer in a fiercely funny hour of high-camp high comedy. The plot, insofar as the piece technically needs something to hang on, sees the ageing Duchess of Windsor determined to warn Diana off her impending nuptials, whilst the younger woman is after a significant pearl necklace that Wallis kept with her after the abdication crisis subsided.

But Dead Royal is less about story and much more about storytelling as Roberts does a magnificent job of inhabiting the twisted characterisations he has created. Swimming in a sea of pink Charbonnel et Walker chocolate boxes and surrounded by (unseen) servants who can never make her happy, this Wallis is a witheringly caustic delight, any fragility offset by a long-held bitterness that feeds her like a toxic energy, trying unsuccessfully to fend off the loneliness that her situation has placed her in, her barbed observations cutting deep even as she feigns a long-wearied self-deprecation.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Review: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

“There’s an end of outward preaching now. An end of perfection. There may be a time.”

Between this and Rules for Living, that’s two consecutive openings at the National Theatre that have been written and directed by women. Coincidence that it comes at a moment of regime change, who knows? Those more inclined to actual research might possibly tell you it’s more common you’d think but I doubt it. In any case, it’s pleasing to see Caryl Churchill getting a major production of one of her lesser-performed works at the hands of the talented Lyndsey Turner, who will soon be turning her hand to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet.

And it is an ambitious mark she has made here with Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, exploding the original six-strong casting of the show to a company of nearly twenty actors, supported by a community company of forty-odd supernumeraries. She needs the bodies too, to fit around an audacious design feat from Es Devlin which is best experienced with fresh eyes if possible, so no spoilers here. It is an inspired choice though, that both sets the scene perfectly for this world of political debate but also deconstructs meaningfully as the full scope of that debate becomes increasingly clear. 

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Review: Carmen Disruption, Almeida

“I saw everything.
But I didn’t really see a thing”

It is little surprise that the synopsis for Simon Stephens’ new play mentions it takes place in a fractured world, that is pretty much a given for his writing. What proved more surprising for me was how much I connected to Carmen Disruption, this idiosyncratic reinterpretation of Bizet’s opera resonating strongly throughout Lizzie Clachan’s brilliantly distressed design which conspires to lend the Almeida an unmistakeable air of faded grandeur. Just with the barely breathing body of a vanquished bull in the middle of the stage, natch.

This particular fractured world is a nameless European city in which Stephens interlaces five monologues, roughly analogous to the characters we know from Bizet but as if refracted through the shattered lens of an old pair of opera glasses. So Jack Farthing’s Carmen becomes a dangerously sexy rent boy, John Light takes Escamillo from the bull ring to the bear pit as an arrogant trader, this Don José fights through traffic rather than armies in Noma Dumezweni’s achingly moving cabbie, and Micaela’s tragedy remains intact in Katie West’s emotionally raw student.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Review: Measure for Measure / Мера за меру, Cheek By Jowl at the Barbican

“We have strict statutes and most biting laws"

Cheek By Jowl’s Russian-language take on The Tempest is seared on my memory as a most vivid interpretation of the play that I can’t imagine being bettered – any other version of Miranda and Caliban’s relationship just feels wrong now. So the news that their collaborators from Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre were returning once again to the Barbican at the end of a major tour of another of Shakespeare’s plays, Measure for Measure. And once again, Declan Donellan and Nick Ormerod’s reimagining makes an indelible stamp that ensuing productions at the Globe and Young Vic will have to work hard to live up to.

Starting off very much in the abstract as the 13-strong company move as an amorphous single body in and out of the shadows of Ormerod’s container-strewn set, murkily lit by Sergey Skornetskiy. But as the cast make circuit after circuit, subtle differences in their movements set the scene of this particular Vienna, a world where authoritarian rule dominates harshly, and in which individual freedoms are challenged. As its ruler, Alexander Arsentyev’s Duke appears paralysed by a crisis of faith and so surrenders the pressures of ruling to his bureaucratic deputy Angelo, a fervent Andrei Kuzichev, but as this is Shakespeare, he disguises himself as a friar and hangs out nearby to observe the outcome.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Review: Who Cares, Royal Court

“Is our emotional attachment to the NHS gonna stop it changing in the way that it needs to, to continue to thrive and survive?”

The product of eighteen months of interviews with people working in and around the National Health Service, Michael Wynne’s verbatim play Who Cares is an impassioned but clear-sighted cri de coeur for this venerable British institution but one free from too much rose-tinted sentimentality, as it performs an uncompromising health check on that which is meant to check our own health. And the prognosis? The NHS may possibly be screwed but theatre’s in great shape. 

Starting off in the rehearsal rooms next to the theatre and eventually ending up in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Who Cares is a promenade production that weaves its way inside and out, up stairs and down, backstage and on, as the audience – split into small groups - take in a multitude of vignettes of the interviewees’ experiences, presented in imaginative and inventive ways by the show’s three directors, Debbie Hannan, Lucy Morrison and Hamish Pirie, plus designer Andrew D Edwards, Natasha Chivers’ lighting and Daniel Krass’ sound.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

CD Review: John Owen-Jones - Rise

“Raise your hopeful voice”

There should be a study into the tragic condition that afflicts so many musical theatre performers when a camera comes into view – the outstretched hand has struck down as talented a star as Imelda Staunton and John Owen-Jones has been similarly affected as evidenced by the cover of his new CD Rise. The tracklisting of this album, his third, does show some signs of trying to break free from this #stagey curse though, and with some surprising results.

None more so than the opening track, a rendition of the Eurovision Song Contest-winning song ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ (does the small print specify that this song has to be sung with a beard?!) that somehow manages to bring more drama than Conchita Wurst and go all out on the Bond theme theatrics, whilst still bringing so much feeling to the lyrics. The interesting arrangement is echoed later on in an inspired take on ‘Motherless Children’ which unexpectedly reinvigorates this spiritual.

Review: Deluge, Hampstead Downstairs

“The world's gone all strange"

For better or for worse, the aspect of Fiona Doyle’s new play Deluge that lingers most in the mind is Moi Tran’s design. Continuing a trend of adventurous transformations of the downstairs space at the Hampstead, she has flooded the stage calf-deep – appropriately so for a drama so preoccupied with adverse weather conditions – with platforms at either end and a table and chairs perched on a box placed in the middle of the water. A striking choice but not one without its trials as soon became clear once the audience had taken their place in the traverse seating.

For there’s a fair amount of stomping about from one end to the other, especially in the earlier stages of the play, and consequently splashing galore, given how intimate this theatre is. A little advance warning might have been appreciated - given a couple of the disgruntled faces I suspect a stern letter of complaint or two might well be on the way! - but more significant than any amount of damp patches on your handbag is how distracting the noisy reality of wading through the water proves to be throughout the play.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Review: Plastic Figurines, New Diorama

“I love him
I love him so much but
Sometimes I..."

One day, Jamie Samuel will appear in a play that doesn’t make me cry, but today is not that day. Along with co-star Remmie Milner in Ella Carmen Greenhill’s play Plastic Figurines, he exerted as persistent and powerful a hold on my tear ducts as he did in the glorious Jumpers for Goalposts as this quietly devastating piece of new writing unfolds its fractured narrative with all the bruised authenticity and honesty of the most intimate diary.

That feeling is appropriate too as though the play is fictional, it is inspired by elements of Greenhill’s own life as you can feel that in every jab and joke of the complicated sibling relationship here, and in the sensitive, nuanced depiction of autism on which the plot hinges. After their mother is diagnosed with terminal leukaemia, Rose has to leave university life in Edinburgh to return to the family home to look after teenage brother Mikey.

Review: The Pirates of Penzance, Richmond Theatre

“We can’t make piracy pay”

Gilbert and Sullivan’s titular buccaneers may struggle with a lack of a ruthless edge but Sasha Regan’s sharp eye means that piracy definitely pays as her all-male interpretation of The Pirates of Penzance enters a fifth year of swashbuckling success. From its initial run at the Union Theatre in 2009 and subsequent transfer to Wilton’s Music Hall, it has toured Australia, played the Hackney Empire and now returns for a UK tour which runs through to the end of June.

And getting to gaily tread the measure one more time was indeed an especial pleasure once again. In the august surroundings of Richmond’s Victorian theatre, the set design may look a little spare but once the stage is filled with heaving bodies – whether preening with piratical glee, gambolling in corsets or patrolling a policeman’s lot, or indeed all three at the same time, the musical spectacle of these eighteen lads, plus pianist, is quite something to behold.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Review: Gypsy, Savoy

“Ready or not, here comes Mama…”

These days, it’s more of a surprise when the big musicals from Chichester Festival Theatre don’t transfer into London (cf Barnum). And though it took them a wee while to confirm that Jule Styne’s Gypsy would be making a similar leap, after receiving the kind of extraordinary reviews (including from yours truly) that would most likely canonise Imelda Staunton right here and now, there was never really any doubt that this Rose would get her turn again, 40 years after the show was last seen in the West End.

With such a build-up and expectations sky high, Jonathan Kent’s production has a lot to live up to – and you can sense perversely-minded naysayers dying to have their turn – but dare I say it, I think the show has gotten even better. A key aspect to this is that Anthony Ward’s multi-faceted and multi-piece set design fits much better into the Savoy’s proscenium arch, its machinations felt just a little too exposed on Chichester’s thrust though the pay-off is that Nicholas Skilbeck’s supple-sounding orchestra now has to be tucked away. 

Review: Rumpy Pumpy, Landor

“Boobs, tubes, jellies and lubes 
All do the trick if the problem's a prick” 

You can head over to Official Theatre to read my 2 star review of new musical Rumpy Pumpy which is playing at the Landor Theatre, a show I thought needed “a firm hand to redraft and reshape” in order to meet the full potential of the interesting source material. More show information can also be found here

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval) 
Booking until 19th April

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Review: The Twits, Royal Court

“It means, Mrs Twit, we're going to have some fun" 

Truth be told, I wasn’t really a fan of The Twits when I was a kid – the tales of worm spaghetti grossed my sensitive little soul out and I was much more at home reading about the delirious pleasure of the mixing of George’s Marvellous Medicine. So the news of the latest Roald Dahl adaptation to hit a London stage wasn’t one that necessarily filled me with the greatest of glee, especially since this version of The Twits is coming to the Royal Court via a “mischievous adaptation” courtesy of Enda Walsh, a playwright with whom I’ve had mixed experiences, and director John Tiffany.

And predictably, it is a curious confection that they’ve cooked up alongside the plate of wormy spaghetti which sent shivers down my spine once again. Aimed at “brave 8 year olds and their families”, it makes little concession to being a traditional family show and mines a rather dark and twisted approach – one suspects Mr Dahl might well have approved – but one which didn’t always seem to connect with the youngsters in the audience at this final preview before press night. The first half in particular saw mostly fitful adult laughter in a tale that is rather stark in its cruelty and political leanings.