Monday, 15 September 2014

Review: Hamlet, Royal Exchange

“What a piece of work is a man”

The political may be largely subsumed into the personal here but rarely has Hamlet felt so universal. Sarah Frankcom’s stated aim was to create “a Hamlet for now, a Hamlet for Manchester” and in the casting of the towering thespian might of Maxine Peake, it is not hard to feel that she has succeeded. Court scenes are played out around the dinner table, affairs of the state dealt with in business meetings, but all serve to intensify the pained intimacy of a family gone wrong, the suffering of people trapped in a dark world of pain at the heart of which lies this tortured sweet prince. 

Dressed in a dark blue Chairman Mao suit (a neat nod to the politics of a determined contrarian) with hair cropped and shaved, Peake’s androgyne is a mesmeric figure from start to finish. The intelligence that sparkles from that voice, the openness that is commanded from that unflinching stare, it is nigh on impossible not to get swept away in the beauty of the performance. It remains at all times deeply humane too – this is a Hamlet who is really teetering on the brink as we see in the shaking hand that cannot pull the trigger, the vocal tremors throughout, the quivering lip at the news of Yorick, .

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Review: Ballyturk, National Theatre

“It feels like we might be less than we were in a place we don’t know now”

Set in “no time, no place”, with characters merely named 1,2, and 3, and doing marvellous things with yellow jumpers, talc, 7 inch records and a pile of chocolate bourbons and pink wafers, you’ll understand that Ballyturk really is the type of show you need to see to truly understand. Enda Walsh directs his own play fresh from premiering it in Galway this summer and it is a breathless delight, although through the piercing humour, one catches glimpses of an absolute bleakness.

I could talk about Kate Prince’s energetic choreography which calls to mind a hyped-up Morecambe and Wise, or the endless surprises hidden in Jamie Vartan’s design which capitalises on the height and depth of the Lyttelton Theatre, the powerfully evocative compositions from Teho Teardo which combines 80s delights like ABC and Yazoo with moodier self-penned work and the extraordinary textures of Helen Atkinson’s sound design which brings the town of Ballyturk to life.

Saturday afternoon music treats

A rather diverse mix this week

Glenn Close + Jonathan Groff – Oh False One! (from The Pirates of Penzance)


The Magician ft Years and Years - Sunlight


Thursday, 11 September 2014

Review: Reptember – Triple Bill B, New Diorama

“I can highly recommend the apricots” 

And so to complete the set of triple bills at the New Diorama, Programme B of The Faction’s Reptember saw my third trip in quick succession to this most friendly of theatres, tucked away near Warren Street station and possessing some of the loveliest people working there. My mood was further enhanced by this proving to be my favourite of the three shows, demonstrating the greatest variety of style and mood in the solo performances that have made up this rep season. Programme A was also strong and if Programme C wasn’t quite my cup of tea, any issues I felt it had were more than compensated for here. 

First up is Lachlan McCall in The Man With The Flower In His Mouth written by Pirandello and adapted and directed here by Faction AD Mark Leipacher. McCall is the perfect choice from the ensemble for this ruminative piece, his ruffled everyman demeanour suits the gentle rhythm of this late night interaction between his character and a man who’s missed the last train. The role of the other guy is taken by a video camera into which McCall speaks, the image being projected onto the back wall thereby co-opting us all into the reveal of the depths of his melancholy soul. It’s subtle but becomes most moving. 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Review: Reptember – Triple Bill C, New Diorama

“You would like to hear that one wouldn’t you”

A second trip this week to Reptember at the New Diorama saw me take in another of The Faction’s triple bills after a strong start with programme A. For me though, programme C didn’t quite hit the same mark with its collection of solo performances. Whether connected or not, these were all new pieces for me so I wonder if that lack of familiarity played into my mindset. Additionally, it didn’t feel like there was quite as much directorial innovation at play here, previous work from The Faction having raised the bar in terms of expectation.

So with Aeschylus‘ Prometheus in a new version by Will Gore, director Rachel Valentine Smith has Faction AD Mark Leipacher up a stepladder, bound there by the dark deeds and secrets of his past but though it makes for an arresting initial image, the static nature it enforces on the piece leaves it feeling a little flat. Like with Borkmann, adapted by Leipacher from Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, Alexander Guiney’s self-flagellating banker never managed to capture my imagination as he addresses the empty chairs that represents the family he’s let down.

Review: True West, Tricycle

“I love the smell of toast. It makes me feel like anything is possible. Like a beginning”

The list of the NT2000 top 100 plays of the last century has actually proved to be quite useful in ensuring a wider variety in my theatregoing than might otherwise have taken place. With a trusty partner in crime who’s equally determined to tick off the whole list, I’ve seen a few things now that I wouldn’t necessarily have gone to – the notion of a ‘classic’ play isn’t necessarily something that appeals to me in and of itself, I want to be able to make up my own mind thank you very much. But this is a list that knows of what it speaks and this week it sent me to the Tricycle to see Sam Shepard’s 1980 play True West.

And sho’nuff, it’s a stone cold classic. This production premiered at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow last year and whilst it may have taken a while to transfer to London, we should be grateful indeed that it has for Phillip Breen marshals some extraordinary stage work by Eugene O’Hare and Alex Ferns as a pair of dichotomous brothers who represent the split in America itself. The well-put-together Austin is a family man who is an aspiring screenwriter on the cusp of a breakthrough deal in Hollywood, whilst Lee is an altogether more primal spirit, a drifter and a petty thief more at home in the Mojave Desert. When they meet for the first time in five years whilst house-sitting for their ma, sparks inevitably fly.

Short film Review #49

This Way Up from Shoot Productions on Vimeo.
All you really need to know about this is that it has Lucy Ellinson in it. And a cute little tyke. Aw.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Review: Some Girl I Used To Know, Arts

“Give me time to realise my crime”

Sometimes you can step around the difficult bits of a show to appreciate what works, give it the benefit of the doubt if you like, but Denise Van Outen’s one-woman show Some Girl I Used To Know left me so frustrated, annoyed even, that any sense of benevolence has gone right out of the window. Van Outen is a talented performer – I enjoyed her Tell Me On A Sunday though the less said about Rent Remixed the better for everyone concerned – but it is hard to see what she’s really trying to achieve here with this self-penned show (co-written with Terry Ronald) which arrived at the Arts Theatre after a UK tour.

On the one hand, there’s a tiresome, paper-thin monologue about a successful businesswoman who is thrown into a tailspin when a Facebook poke from her first love makes her realise just how unhappy she is in her relationship. And on the other there’s an 80s/early 90s jukebox show which revisits her formative years in Essex. For me though, neither one works satisfactorily. The book focuses on comedy of the lowest crudest denominator (of course she’s a lingerie designer) and none of the three characters are ever allowed to develop to the point where any of them might seem like vaguely realistic people who could ever be in a relationship.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Review: The Return of the Soldier, Jermyn Street Theatre

“War is hell
Why rebel
You can’t change things on your own”

There’s something simply exquisite about The Return of the Soldier, an intimate chamber musical tucked away into the Jermyn Street Theatre that might just be one of the best things I’ve seen this year. Granted, it may contain a checklist of some of my favourite things – the experience of women in wartime, a score for piano and cello, Laura Pitt-Pulford – but they combine into something above and beyond, a powerful meditation on the psychological effects of war on those not at the front, a valuable reminder in a year that commemorates the start of the First World War that the impact of war ripples through all levels of society.

Tim Sanders’ book adapts Rebecca West’s novel from 1918, a piece of literature that emerged directly from the author’s experience during wartime, to give us characters – but particularly women – with rich emotional lives. Captain Christopher Baldry has returned from the frontline with shellshock and instead of falling into the arms of his upper-class wife Kitty, his memory has obliterated her and so it is the earthier charms of early love Margaret that he craves. She’s stuck in an unfulfilling marriage herself so is faced with conflict when asked to help cure his amnesia, knowing full well that to do so will end her nostalgic fling. 

Review: the dreaming, Union Theatre

“Link arms with those dreamers of midsummers past”

Kicking off a season of three Howard Goodall musicals, the dreaming actually marks the professional premiere of a show has been performed many times by youth theatre groups, commissioned as it was by the NYMT and premiered by them in 2001. Based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, book writer Charles Hart relocates the story to a Somerset village in an Edwardian society on the cusp of the Great War but maintains the vast majority of the original tale as Goodall weaves his inimitably English compositional magic around it.

And it is, in the main, an effective updating. The Rude Mechanicals becoming a group of morris dancer-esque mummers is a rural buffoon’s delight and if 'The Banner of Saint George' (in place of Pyramus and Thisbe) could have stood to be half the length, it is still chucklesome. And the starchy manners of the time translates amusingly to the quartet of lovers who run away to the forest and effectively to the parental figures who disapprove so, the silliness of the lovers’ quarrel in the songs 'Jennifer' and 'Midsummer Madness' is perfectly evoked.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Review: The Lion, St James Studio

“He gave the gift of music to his boy”

Less of a theatre show and more of a confessional cabaret, the positive noises growing around Benjamin Scheuer’s The Lion were such that my perennial fear of missing out on something special kicked in and so I grabbed a late cheap deal to see him in the studio space of the St James Theatre in Victoria. And sure enough, it is a perfectly formed gem, a million miles from conventional musical theatre but packing as big a punch as any 11 o’clock number you’ve ever heard.

The Lion is an autobiographical tale of love and loss, family and music, maths exams and cancer, employing a suite of songs that he uses six guitars to play and which demonstrate a substantial gift for story-telling as well as song-writing, the narrative throughline that emerges is extraordinary. It’s also deceptively simple – the opening number of ‘Cookie Tin Banjo’ has a child-like glee but also contains the beginnings of a tumultuous relationship between father and son.

Saturday afternoon ice bucket treats

Ever on the cusp of the zeitgeist... Here's a few of my favourite ice bucket challenges from the past few weeks, purely for the theatrical benefit of course.

Kieran Bew