Monday, 1 September 2014

Review: My Night With Reg, Donmar

“If you get him pissed enough, he might let you blow him off behind the yucca”

There’s a definite tinge of sadness about Kevin Elyot’s My Night With Reg even before the play starts as the playwright died this summer aged 62, just as rehearsals for this Donmar Warehouse production – the play’s first major revival – were to start. It is also a deeply melancholy piece of work, elegantly capturing the yearning ache of unrequited love, the pain of remembering those who’ve been loved and lost, and the vast complexity that can arise from simply wanting to be loved.

The play could be pigeon-holed as a gay play, an AIDS play, an 80s period piece, but the beauty of Robert Hastie’s production is that it transcends all these labels, elevating Elyot’s writing to a minor-key classic. That the play focuses on a group of gay friends throughout the 80s living under the (never-mentioned) shadow of HIV/AIDS is never in doubt but the main theme, the driving force behind so much of what – the fear of ending up alone – is utterly, completely universal.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Review: Autobahn, King’s Head

“It’s all the same, you know? How it looks out there, along the highway."

This summer has seen at least two song cycles imported into our theatres from the US (I’ve seen See Rock City… and Edges though there may well have been more) but Neil LaBute’s Autobahn extends the concept to straight drama, subtitled as it is as ‘A Short-Play Cycle’. As with the musicals, what this means is that to search for overarching narratives is a fruitless activity as what we’re presented with is a series of disparate parts with only the loosest thematic continuity.

It can help to be forearmed with such knowledge as the experience might otherwise be a little disconcerting. The seven playlets here are linked merely by all taking place in the front seats of a car that is making one kind of journey or another in America, and through the way in which the playwright toys with ideas of language and how people use it. Though given LaBute’s predilection for the darker, seedier side of human nature, we’re often left squirming in the back as unpalatable truths come to light and shocking revelations spill forth. 

Review: Dessa Rose, Trafalgar Studios 2

“Who does she think she is?”

Based on the novel of the same name by Sherley Anne Williams and premiering off-Broadway in 2005, this is a show that has taken its time to reach our shores. And reflecting the hugely diverse nature of their back catalogue, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Dessa Rose adds another multi-layered account of a key moment in US history (see Ragtime) to their account, in the tale of the diverse but complementary journeys of a young black woman and a young white women in the Deep South.

It’s 1847 and Dessa is reaping the results of her wilful temperament as a love affair with a fellow slave has left her pregnant and behind bars. But try as she might to assert her independence, she has to learn to accept the kindness of others, chief among whom is Ruth, a former Charleston belle whose marriage has gone awry due to her husband’s gambling problem. Alone on the plantation, she welcomes runaway slaves and altogether, through their difficulties, they dare to dream of a brighter future. 

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Review: Forbidden Broadway, Menier Chocolate Factory

“You sing cliché
I’ll sing haiku”

There are, in the main, two types of people in the audience for Forbidden Broadway. There’s your devotees who preach evangelically about this Broadway legend and the previous times it has come to the UK, the ones who laugh in anticipation of the jokes that they probably know already, and then there’s the more regular folk who might find themselves just a little turned off by the smugness of a show that is essentially one big inside joke.

Gerard Alessandri’s original concept, augmented here with additional material from Phillip George, is indubitably a classic – making viciously biting fun of the biggest shows to hit (and miss) our stages such as Once, Les Mis, Book of Mormon etc and this iteration of the show has its West End-specific references too, The Pajama Game and Charlie and Chocolate Factory come in for a hammering here, there is indeed much to laugh at.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

DVD Review: Penny Dreadful

"Do you believe that there is a demi-monde?"

It is hard to credit that the first series of Penny Dreadful managed to encompass something as sublime as Eva Green’s magisterial lead performance as the haunted Vanessa Ives as well as one of the worst accents ever committed to celluloid (or whatever it is these days) in the form of Billie Piper’s Northern Irish brogue which, without due care, could well ignite some Troubles of its own. The transatlantic Showtime/Sky Atlantic co-production aired this summer and was conceived and written by John Logan and with an executive producer credit for Sam Mendes, it is no surprise that it is a quality product, albeit not without its issues.

Penny dreadfuls were a British 19th-century invention, sensationalist fiction with often lurid subject matter, and Logan has drawn on these alongside more well-known tales from the time from authors such as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. So the show is set in 1891 London in a world heavy with the supernatural where noted explorer Sir Malcolm Murray is searching for his kidnapped daughter Mina. He is assisted by a motley crew – Green’s prepossessed Vanessa, Josh Hartnett’s sharp-shooting Ethan, Danny Sapani’s enigmatic Sembene, Harry Treadaway’s tortured Victor – but they soon find that (to borrow a phrase), the night is dark and full of terrors (and unexpected gayness).

DVD Review: Vicious

“I never know when I’m going too far but I’m always so glad when I do.”

It was with no little intrigue that I approached watching the boxset of ITV sitcom Vicious – memories of its run from last year focused on the absolute hammering it got, how it had apparently set representations of gay men back centuries and basically broken television. I have to admit to having no interest in watching it from the moment I’d heard about it but clearly something had mellowed by the time I spotted a bargain in a charity shop and sat down to watch Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a long-partnered, long-bickering couple.

Written and created by Gary Janetti (a veteran of US TV including Will & Grace) and Mark Ravenhill (a UK playwright of no little renown), it is an homage to, or more accurately a riff off, the world of 1970s sitcoms with its single living room set where Freddie and Stuart bitch away at each other all day long. They’re frequently joined on the sofa by barely-tolerated fag hag Violet, a deliciously fruity Frances De La Tour, and their newly arrived eye candy neighbour, the handsome but heterosexual Ash played by Iwan Rheon, and that’s pretty much your set-up from which endless capers abound.

Short Film Review #48

Eclipse Theatre’s 10by10 project was a series of short films “exploding the myth of a homogenised Black British culture”, all directed by Dawn Walton but written by and starring a wide range of some of our most exciting writers and performers. Filmed in 10 different cities across the UK, the hometowns of the playwrights in fact, and each shot in a single day, these make a fascinating insight into a wider cross-section of British society that perhaps is normally seen. Part 2 of 2.


Music in the Bones

Yusra Warsama’s Music in the Bones begins with Wunmi Mosaku’s Somaliwoman Amina running through a Manchester backstreet and quickly moves into flashback mode to tell us why. Mosaku has a beautifully modulated voice which is perfect for the narration here, aching with longing and loss and confusion and compassion. Beautiful. 

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Review: Little Stitches, Theatre503

“They held me down, My mother’s knees in my chest. Keeping me still. As that man sliced right into my soul.”

Four short plays on female genital mutilation (FGM) might be something of a hard sell on paper but in the flesh, this BAREtruth production is as stimulating as it is harrowing in its thought-provoking sweep across the ways in which this practice has encroached into our society and our own complicity in letting it happen. Alex Crampton ingeniously directs a company of five in a way which never preaches yet still asks its questions in a searching enough manner that means one doesn’t get off the hook that easily.

Isley Lynn’s opening Sleight of Hand is the most effective of the pieces in that respect, combining five monologues from different members of society on the periphery of FGM, each suspecting that something isn’t quite right but unsure about what if anything they might be able to do. From teachers to ice-cream vendors, a slyly comic tone seduces us in and then leaves us disarmed as the reality of what these women are forced to endure becomes apparent.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Re-review: The Bodyguard, Adelphi

"I don't really need to look very much further"

As The Bodyguard is soon to close in the West End with a UK tour scheduled for early next year, it seemed as good a choice as any for a Friday night out with the girls and a few bottles of wine. I saw the show when it first opened and recognised it exactly for what it is, uncomplicated blockbuster fun, and so I was happy to revisit. One of the sadder things about the continuation of the run though has been the move to star casting – I didn’t see Beverley Knight so I can’t comment on her performance but the current incumbent of the Rachel Marron role, immortalised by Whitney at the cinema, is X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke, a singer with no theatre experience.

Did it matter? It’s hard to tell in the end – she has the requisite booming voice to deliver the selections from Whitney’s back catalogue that are scattered through the show, although she really cannot resist the misguided inclination to throw in extra licks, riffs and wobbles into every single number, as if to prove a point that no-one is making. And her acting is neither here nor there, falling back on a lot of gesticulation to say what’s she saying and against a male lead part that asks nothing of Tristan Gemmill but to look craggy and an understudy on for sister Nicki (her singing voice strong but whose spoken accent was truly transatlantic, as Welsh as it was American), fitting right in.

Review: Edges, Tabard

“If your photo`s sexy then I might give you a poke”

I approached Pasek and Paul’s song cycle Edges with something of a little trepidation. Swimming against the critical tide somewhat, I was disappointed by their Dogfight and the Union’s production of See Rock City… reiterated the difficulties in nailing the song cycle format but regardless, I made the trip to Turnham Green to the Tabard, a theatre I don’t visit often enough for the UK professional premiere of Edges.

And I have to say I was pleasantly surprised, finding it the most satisfying out of the shows mentioned above. Adam Philpott’s production is simple – four twenty-somethings head out to the beach for the afternoon and just sing about life and love and Facebook and friends, trying to figure out some of the trials of young adulthood and the difficulties in finding your own place in a world that won’t stop to let you catch your breath.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Review: Porgy and Bess, Open Air Theatre

"I'm full of all commotion like an ocean full of rhum"

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (as it appears to be styled here, in case you confuse it with Jedward’s Porgy and Bess) made for a striking component of the Open Air Theatre’s programme this summer. More folk opera than musical, it is perhaps a more challenging choice than usual but none the worse for it, the musical and dramatic spectacle heightened by an impressionistically remarkable design by Katrina Lindsay and director Timothy Sheader’s resourceful production which hammers home its musical strength.

From its tragically inclined leads, Nicola Hughes’ sensational Bess with her substance abuse issues and Rufus Bonds Jr’s impassioned dignity as Porgy, through brilliant support from the likes of Golda Roshuevel’s Serena and Sharon D Clarke’s Mariah, to the polar opposites of Jade Ewen’s impossibly pure Clara to croons the iconic lullaby Summertime and Cedric Neal’s sleazily cocky Sportin’ Life who swaggers through It Ain’t Necessarily So as he ensnares Bess with his wares, the sheer size and quality of this ensemble is truly something to behold.

Saturday afternoon music treats

Samantha Barks, Jon Robyns, Gina Beck and Alistair Barron – Up There