Monday, 30 November 2015

Review: The Distance, Orange Tree

“I’ve just had a text from Lewisham council”

I hadn’t intended to revisit Deborah Bruce’s The Distance but a quick re-read of my review from its original production at the Orange Tree last year reminded me how much I enjoyed it (even beyond the thrill of seeing Helen Baxendale on stage for the first time). This new co-production between the Richmond venue and Sheffield Theatres sees director Charlotte Gwinner remount the show with a largely new cast but still a keen sense for the darkly comic edge of the writing.

It remains as freshly sharp in its views on modern parenthood as ever, pointing up the hypocrisy of a society that blithely looks on by if a man leaves his family but is aghast should a mother do the same. And as a shell-shocked Bea returns alone from her adoptive Australia to the bosom of her best friends Kate and Alex , both parents themselves, back in Blighty, everyone's preconceptions, personalities and peccadilloes are challenged.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Review: Little Eyolf, Almeida

“Is it just road-making that’s put you in such a good mood?”

Richard Eyre’s revelatory take on Ibsen’s Ghosts was a deserving multiple Olivier winner last year so it is little surprise to see the Almeida asking him back for more, this time taking on one of his later plays Little Eyolf. And as with Ghosts, the play has been coaxed and condensed into interval-free intensity, the perfect frame for its arresting modernity.

And it is surprising, as though written in 1894, its portrayal of fraught sexual tension in a marriage is as direct and frank a exploration of female sexuality (and sexual desire) as any playwright has come up with since. In the cooling calm of Tim Hatley’s set, Rita Allmers is a wife and mother but finds those roles in conflict as she resents son Eyolf for distracting husband Alfred’s attentions away from her.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Review: Here We Go, National Theatre

"Are those the pearly gates?" 

Almost like buses, you wait for a new Caryl Churchill play and two come along - Escaped Alone will play at the Royal Court in the New Year but up first is Here We Go at the National, directed by Dominic Cooke. Described as "a short play about death", it clocks in at 45 minutes but depending on how you fare with it, it may seem like longer... 

Churchill has split her musings on mortality into a triptych of distinct but related scenarios. The first scene sees the playwright deploy her characteristic linguistic playfulness on a group of mourners at a funeral, their fragmented chit-chat skirting around the larger issues, their individual asides to the audience riffing beautifully on the coda to Six Feet Under's magisterial finale (of all things). 

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Review: Jest End, Waterloo East

“Oh God I cannot stand this cow
But let’s act happy for now”

As with Forbidden Broadway, your enjoyment of Jest End relies heavily on a considerable familiarity with the theatrical landscape that it is poking fun at – the productions, the performers, the producers, the private in-jokes that make it tough to recommend for the uninitiated. Garry Lake’s musical revue premiered in 2007 and through a number of productions, updated each time, has adapted familiar showtunes and used them to parody the frolics and foibles of the West End and beyond.

So ‘Defying Gravity’ from Wicked becomes ‘Rely On Me The Lead’, Matilda’s ‘The Smell of Rebellion’ turns into ‘Jest End of Rebellion’, ‘Memphis Lives In Me’ from Memphis becomes ‘My Fans Believe In Me’ etc etc. And issues like celebrity casting, ticket prices and the business practices of certain West End (and off-West End) impresarios are raked over the coals, but always with a twinkle in the eye even in the satire’s sharpest barbs. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

TV Review: Cuffs Episodes 1-4

“All we can do is hang on”

Rather incredibly, given the number of crime dramas there are, Cuffs is actually the BBC’s first police procedural since 2007’s Holby Blue (according to Wikipedia at least), but a rather good one it is too. Creator Julie Gearey has set the show in Brighton and its environs, the territory of the South Sussex Police service, and the first four episodes (which entertained me on a train journey back from Amsterdam) started Cuffs off so strongly that I wanted to recommend it now whilst you can still catch them all on the iPlayer.

The opening episodes are jam-packed with incident, the first part alone crammed child abduction, stolen JCBs, stabbings and a racist released from prison to give a strong sense of the relentless pace of life in the force but the writing has been particularly strong in demonstrating the peculiar demands of modern policing. Traditional boundaries of respect have been torn down so we see the police punched, spat on, and kicked in the face and also having to deal with rubberneckers filming accident scenes on their phone, and members of the public chancing their arm with harassment claims.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Review: Evening at the Talk House, National Theatre

“You have to want to care what’s going to happen to these characters”

There’s a sequence towards the end of Evening at the Talk House where a character says things along the lines of ‘I’m so bored’, ‘I’m ready to die’ and ‘please help me get out of here’ and never have truer words been spoken. That last one might have been an internal voice though as the grinding horror of this new Wallace Shawn play rolled inexorably on. In some ways, I have no excuse. The one and only time I’ve seen his work before saw indignities inflicted on none other than Miranda Richardson, left to pretend to be a cat licking Shawn’s bald head, and so I had fair warning of Shawn’s singular style.

But it’s a style that I find utterly baffling. As a thespy crowd meet for a long awaited reunion at their old members club, they reminisce and chat effusively and endlessly about this actor who used to be in that TV show or that actress in this TV show – all made up ones of course – to a point of mind-numbing inanity. And in this version of the world, there’s a dystopian state-sponsored execution programme wiping out enemies of the state (and plenty more besides) which is carried out by out-of-work actors like many of the crew here. They also get served canapés about which they chatter excitedly, which is nice I suppose. 

Monday, 23 November 2015

Review: The Homecoming, Trafalgar Studios

“You wouldn't understand my works. You wouldn't have the faintest idea of what they were about. You wouldn't appreciate the points of reference.”

It’s good to know that theatre directors are only human too - anyone in their right mind who watched Channel 4 drama Humans over the summer would have noted Gemma Chan delivering one of the performances of the year in any medium and naturally wanted her in on their projects. She has been working for a while in film, TV and theatre but now she’s now appearing in Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Jamie Lloyd has secured her services on stage in his new production of The Homecoming.

Truth be told though, I needed someone that exciting to tempt me to see it as I don’t much get on with Pinter, I’ve never had that breakthrough moment with any of his works to make me what received wisdom assures me is there. And whilst I wouldn’t go quite so far to say I’m a complete convert, I can honestly say I haven’t ever enjoyed a Pinter production as much as this one. It’s the 50th anniversary of The Homecoming but though firmly anchored in its 1960s milieu, Lloyd imbues the play with a strongly contemporary dramatic feel that is hard to resist.

Review: Glazen Speelgoed, Stadschouwburg Amsterdam

"Ik vind het beangstigend hoe ze zomaar wat leeft"

Marking Sam Gold’s directorial debut outside of his native US, Glazen Speelgoed sees him do wonderful things to Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie with Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the Dutch company proving a perfect match for this striking reinterpretation. Released from the tyranny of the Southern accent (at least, I don’t think their Flemish was accented…) and though placed into a loosely contemporary setting, the production achieves a similar kind of timelessness to van Hove’s A View From The Bridge, the original recast and refreshed, new angles and facets accentuated in the glass. 

Above all, the Wingfields have never felt so real, the family dynamic centred on Laura’s disability and her need for frequent physiotherapy. The ritual of massages and stretches reinforces the bond between mother-daughter-son, the intense feeling between them, but also the drudgery of their lives and the straitened circumstances in which they get by. Amanda’s need for gentlemen callers to propose to her daughter thus becomes a desperate strategy for financial security, the oppressive weight on Tom’s shoulders as the sole wage-earner in the household that much more powerfully felt.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Review: Een Bruid in de Morgen, Toneelschuur Haarlem

"Ik heb nog nooit zoiets merkwaardigs gezien als hoe die twee met elkaar omgaan”

Though considered one of the most important contemporary Belgian writers, Hugo Claus’s renown hasn’t stretched much outside of the Flemish-speaking world. So it is perhaps fitting that I saw Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of his Een Bruid in de Morgen (A Bride in the Morning) at the Toneelschuur theatre in Haarlem in its native language, without the English surtitles that are so usefully provided on Thursdays at their main base in the Dutch capital.

I was well up for the challenge though, not least because the show fell under the auspices of their emerging directors programme TA-2 - nurturing the Ivo van Hoves of the future – and through which I saw Julie Van den Burgh’s extraordinary reinterpretation of Blood Wedding back in 2013. This time round, it is Norwegian Maren E Bjørseth getting the opportunity to work with the ensemble company, taking the show around the Netherlands.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Re-review: Close To You: Bacharach Reimagined, Criterion

"With a dream in your heart you're never alone"

From the moment you enter the Criterion Theatre to see the amazing patchworked carpet effect of Christine Jones and Brett Banakis’ set design with its onstage sofas – some even suspended in mid-air – it’s clear to see that there’s something special about Close To You Bacharach Reimagined. Transferred from a successful summer run at the Menier Chocolate Factory (where it had the slightly different title of What’s It All About?), the show now offers its shimmering warmth and endless charm to get us through the darkening autumn nights.

And that patchwork effect is one that mirrors the nature of the show itself. Conceived by Kyle Riabko and David Lane Seltzer, Close To You offers up fresh reinterpretations of Burt Bacharach’s considerable songbook but rather than a straight set of song after song, the material is woven into a rich tapestry of medleys, repeated refrains, lyrical connections and snatches of melodies – an audacious reimagining but one that is hugely effective as it acts as a reminder of the extraordinary body of work Bacharach has composed with lyricist Hal David among others.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

TV Review: River

“We’re all shattered underneath really, aren’t we”

The second part of Nicola Walker’s cross-channel takeover of crime drama has been BBC1’s River. An altogether different prospect to ITV’s Unforgotten, Abi Morgan’s six-parter is aesthetically closer to the Nordic noir of which TV audiences seem unendingly enamoured but still manages to find its unique niche in a crowded marketplace. The Scandi feel is enhanced by the genuine casting coup of Stellan Skarsgård as DI John River but what marks out River are the people around him.

Chief among these is Walker’s Stevie, DS Stevenson, who we meet straightaway and instantly get a feel for their closeness of their professional relationship as they tackle crime on the streets of London. But what is brilliantly done is the shift from buddy cop show to something altogether darker as [major spoiler alert] we find out at the end of episode 1 that Stevie is dead, murdered recently, and River is in fact imagining her presence at his side, even to the extent of regularly conversing with her.

Re-review: Kinky Boots, Adelphi

“Funk it up till it's ostentatious
Dress it up, it feels contagious”

Now extended through to May next year, the signs for Kinky Boots look cautiously positive though nothing is certain in the cut-throat world of new musicals and on this second viewing, it really does feel like a well-deserved success. Jerry Mitchell’s production is a ray of tightly choreographed, dragged-up sunshine but what I loved about going back was finding that several of the tunes from Cyndi Lauper’s accomplished score have successfully navigated earworm territory to become properly memorable. 

‘Everybody Say Yeah’ and ‘Raise You Up/Just Be’ end the show’s two acts in brilliantly rousing fashion, ‘Sex is in the Heel’ and ‘What A Woman Wants’ give Matt Henry’s Lola ample opportunity to fill the stage with exuberant personality and Amy Lennox continues to pretty much steal the show, not least in ‘The History of Wrong Guys’. And Killian Donnelly effortlessly smooths over some of Charlie’s more dubious character flaws (poor Nicola…) by scorching through hits like ‘Soul of a Man’.