Monday, 30 March 2015

TV Review: Coalition, Channel 4

"No Lib Dem leader has ever had this kind of exposure and opportunity"

James Graham definitely seems to be having a moment – the noted playwright has been branching out into film and TV and with some serendipitous timing, is showcasing his talent in all three avenues. The Vote will soon be hitting the Donmar, X&Y is in cinemas as we speak, and his television film Coalition aired on Channel 4 last night. I’ve yet to catch X&Y but if Coalition is anything to go by, then there’s absolutely no fear that he is overstretching himself as it was a cracking bit of telly.

One of the reasons it worked so well for me was its basis in more-or-less contemporary events. His play This House was a sterling piece of political theatre but for someone who had no knowledge of the 1970s politicking it portrayed, there was always a sense of catch-up whereas the more august members of the audience could enjoy the nuances of Graham’s skilful writing and observations without the niggle of also trying to work out just what was going on. 

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Review: Anna Karenina, Royal Exchange

“Love is just a better way to hurt each other”

Ellen McDougall’s debut production for the Royal Exchange is actually a trans-Pennine affair as once Anna Karenina wraps up in Manchester, the show will be heading over the hills (stopping at a Betty’s Tea Room en route as must surely be done) to the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, along with Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone with which it plays in rep. It is always pleasing to see this kind of regional collaboration actually coming to fruition as it does provide reassurances that the arts are finding the best ways to work through these financially straitened times.

It helps of course when the work is of this quality. Jo Clifford’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s famed novel is very much unafraid to cut and reconfigure the story into something overtly theatrical as characters break out of the narrative to introduce themselves and provide short cuts through the author’s tangled web of nineteenth century Russian aristocracy. Clifford, and McDougall, also pull in the focus so that the counterpoint of Anna’s fast-burning passion with the dashing Vronsky and Levin’s hard-fought love for Katy becomes the beating heart of the matter.

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Liverpool Everyman

“We will make amends ere long”

After The Faction’s Romeo and Juliet that stretched out beyond the three hour mark, here’s a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is similarly lengthy – I’m really hoping this isn’t the emergence of a trend because it does no good to anyone in all honesty. Notions of textual fidelity are all well and good but they can also lack dramatic focus – the ever-evolving mutability of Shakespeare’s text is one of its key strengths and it is a mark of directorial nous to be able to harness that potential and deliver it onstage (and if it is going to be long, then it needs not to feel long).

But here, for every innovation that Nick Bagnall comes up with for his production at the Everyman in Liverpool – and there are many of them – there’s an overcooked scene that drags unbearably. It makes for an occasionally difficult piece of theatre but one that also has imaginatively exciting moments too. Ashley Martin-Davis’ design also embodies this conflict in its amorphous undefinability, no particular time or place evoked but rather a vaguely futuristic, dark carnival-esque atmosphere for an unfamiliar Athens and a strange forest of scattered white paper that is a great idea but not quite pulled off.

Friday, 27 March 2015

#ThankyouNick - my top 10 (and then some) National Theatre productions of the Hytner era

"Pass it on, boys. That's the game I want you to learn. Pass it on"

Ever one to jump on a bandwagon, here’s my contribution to the #ThankyouNick love-in, as Nick Hytner bids farewell to the National Theatre. Narrowing down my favourite productions at the South Bank venue was hugely difficult given the number of shows I’ve seen there since moving to London just over 10 years ago and also in considering other memorable moments - like the joy of getting to see the likes of Vanessa Redgrave and Juliette Binoche onstage for the first time, the jaw-dropping design feats like Bunny Christie’s tenement block for Men Should Weep and Mark Tildesley’s clanging bell in Frankenstein, the revelatory Shakespearean moments like Clare Higgins’ awesome Gertrude and the extraordinary emotion of the final scene of Dominic Cooke's The Comedy of Errors...

Anyhoo, here’s my top 10 (plus five honourable mentions) in roughly chronological order.

Back in the day when taking a day off work to see two shows was something I’d never thought of, seeing this adaptation of one of my favourite works of literature proved to be a life-changingly amazing experience and hugely moving too, at the end I sobbed in my seat until the Olivier emptied.

Likewise, seeing Rupert Goold direct for the first time without any of the advance knowledge or expectation was just breath-taking - I would love to see those scene changes again. 

One of the most haunting things I have ever seen, even to this day.

That scene change!

Nancy Carroll's back being better than most other actors!

A truly paradigm-shifting musical


So good I gave it a standing ovation without even realising what I was doing.

So good I went back four more times.

If only more shows in the newly refurbished Dorfman were this adventurous, not least in its casting choices.

Honourable mentions

Not a bad haul at all then, and a great trip down memory lane, thinking about plays that had long slipped from my mind for no reason other than my own forgetfulness. There are undoubtedly shows I wish I'd seen - Much Ado About Nothing, Jerry Springer, even The History Boys - all victims of being on at a time when I didn't feel the need to see everything!

So let me know what you think and what would you have on your list. 

Review: Game, Almeida

“They’re adults, they’re not stupid, they knew what this was”

There’s not too much more that can be added to the debate about Mike Bartlett’s Game that hasn’t been said elsewhere, aside from to note that I really rather liked it. Lowered expectations probably helped with this but also there’s also an appreciation for the way in which Bartlett seems to like to work. His concepts tend to either get developed into large-scale epic plays such 13 and Earthquakes in London or crystallised on the micro-level, producing works in miniature like Cock, Bull and Contractions

Game very much falls into this latter category, coming in at under an hour, and on the face of it – as pointed out by many – lacking a huge amount of dramatic heft. Fitting into one of 2015’s earliest theatrical trends, Carly and Ashley have made a deal with the devil in order to secure decent housing for themselves – in return for accommodation and income, they’re targets in a live-action video game as punters pay for the opportunity to fire tranquilising darts at them as they go about their daily business.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Review: The Three Lions, St James

“What’s the difference between a bribe and an incentive?”

With the fallout of FIFA’s decisions of where to have the 2018 and 2022 World Cups still percolating around footballing bureaucrats even now, one could probably find more than enough material for a verbatim play full of high drama – alleged bribery and corruption, the tragedy of migrant working conditions, war-mongering presidents, seismic calendar shifts from summer to winter. William Gaminara’s The Three Lions wisely sidesteps that potential controversy though, by imagining a behind-the-scenes farce involving the trio spearheading the English bid to host the 2018 competition – three blokes by the name of David Cameron, David Beckham and Prince William.

In representing three such well-known figures, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, Séan Browne and Tom Davey have to tread a fine line between impersonation and inhabiting their characters more fully and Gaminara’s script doesn’t always allow for this. Davey’s lanky Prince William becomes an improbable japester as he desperately tries to shake off his inbred stiffness and grammatical pedantry and be one of the lads. And Bruce-Lockhart gets the PM’s blustering and patronising tone just right, matching it with the overcompensatory physical language that belies innate insecurity. But they both get overshadowed by a work of comic genius in Browne’s footballer.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Review: Rules for Living, National Theatre

“Let the bedlam begin”

The final play to premiere in Nicholas Hytner’s final season in charge of the National Theatre is Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living, directed by Marianne Elliott in the Dorfman. Was it a pointed decision to end his reign with a show both written and helmed by a woman, who knows? Either way, it’s always good to see this venue providing such high profile opportunities for the writers it nurtures. Holcroft’s short(ish) Edgar and Annabel played as part of the Double Feature season in 2011 and she was a writer-in-residence here at the NT in 2013, from whence this rather cracking new comedy has emerged.

And boy is it funny, I don’t think I have laughed this thoroughly and consistently at a play in ages. As someone for whom farcical goings-on too often fall flat, I’m often left bemoaning the fact I’m sitting stony-faced in a sea of hilarity (cf. One Man Two Guvnors et al) but for once I was right with them. Holcroft’s set-up has an extended family coming together for Christmas lunch, an event for which Edith has been preparing since January. She’s looking forward to seeing both her sons, Matthew and Adam, and their partners, and they in turn are keen to see their father who has been in the wars recently.

Review: Return to the Forbidden Planet, New Wimbledon

“Two beeps or not two beeps”

Early 2015 is turning out to be something of a nostalgia-fest for me as following the Royal Exchange’s superb revival of Little Shop of Horrors is another of the first shows that I came to love as a child – Return to the Forbidden Planet. I can’t recall exactly how many time my sisters, Aunty Jean and I must have seen this show but every time its tour came near us we were there, reversing polarity and loving it every time. Consequently, I have huge affection for the show, even though it is many years since I last saw it, and so naturally the notion of a 25th anniversary tour was one I could not resist as it came into my orbit at the New Wimbledon.

For those without such prior knowledge, Return to the Forbidden Planet is a schlocky sci-fi B-movie version of The Tempest, complete with a rock’n’roll jukebox soundtrack. Not only that, there’s video narration by Brian May. cod-Shakespearean dialogue and any number of quotations lifted from other plays by the Bard and repurposed to intergalactic effect. So a routine space mission led by Captain Tempest gets diverted to a mysterious rock called D’Illyria (“what planet, friends, is this…”) after getting caught in a meteor storm (“goodness, gracious, great balls of fire…”) where they meet the mad Doctor Prospero, his robot servant Ariel and his innocent daughter Miranda.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Review: Radiant Vermin, Soho Theatre

“I want to do it Ollie. I want more things. Better things.”

The struggles of home ownership seem to be emerging as one of the most popular themes of new plays for early 2015 (Game at the Almeida, Deposit at the Hampstead downstairs) but top of the pile is Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin, a highly hilarious and hugely successful sidestep towards the mainstream but one which sacrifices nothing of the unique worldview that marks him as one of our most thought-provoking playwrights. Almost custom-designed to fit into that much abused term ‘darkly comic’, the play probes mercilessly into the depths of human nature in asking how far would we go in order to get our dream home. 

As it turns out, Jill and Ollie – energetic, enthusiastic, expecting - will go to some lengths indeed, making a deal not quite with the devil but with the fairy godmother-like Miss Dee instead, to accept a free home in a scuzzy area with the hope of renovating it, tipping the locale over into up-and-coming status and spearheading a property boom. So far so Saturday Night Takeaway but as with Ant and Dec, there’s a catch (and it is not just their personalities). The young couple quickly find out that that the speediest way to do up their new house is to harness the “radiance” that comes from killing the vermin around them, namely the homeless people from the neighbouring wasteground. 

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Review: Trainspotting, King’s Head

“Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?”

There’s something hugely exciting about In Your Face Theatre’s immersive take on Trainspotting which makes it clear why it was a hit on the Edinburgh Fringe last year but what it is equally thrilling is the change they have wrought upon the King Head’s theatre. The majority of the seats have gone, what set there is seems to sprawl across the entire space and as you enter the auditorium, you find yourself in the middle of a full-on 90s rave, glowsticks and all.

And this near-anarchic energy is a perfect match for Irvine Welsh’s modern classic, celebrating its 21st anniversary this year, its drug-fuelled hedonism and horror presented here with an uncompromising candour and imaginative directness that is most definitely, well, in your face. Directors Greg Esplin and Adam Spreadbury-Maher pull no punches in immersing folk in any number of bodily fluids with glorious disregard for your standard actor/audience relationship, making for an exhilarating hour.

Review: Harajuku Girls, Finborough

“I don’t know a girl who hasn’t been groped on a train. There’s always someone trying to cop a feel. Might as well get paid for it.”

With quite a few shows closing this weekend, I opted to pay a trip to the penultimate show of Harajuku Girls at the Finborough. Francis Turnly’s play sets up an intriguing premise in the exploration of the world of Japanese cosplay and its role in modern Tokyo society and creatively, it brings the director of last year’s extraordinary I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole back to the stage in Jude Christian. 

After graduating high school, Mari, Keiko and Yumi find themselves cut adrift in the harsh realities of the depressed economy of the real world. Parental and societal expectation is as high as it has ever been but jobs are increasingly hard to come by, tuition fees for further education are sky-high and so dressing up in cosplay outfits offers an escapist route. In the seedier areas of town, it also offers financial opportunity but it’s a struggle to ensure they’re the ones who exploit and are not exploited.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Review: The Red Chair, Canada Water Culture Space


“Once upon a dark time, someplace in the glum north o’ the warld…” 

Grimmer than Grimm, brusquer than Burns, as challenging as Chaucer, there’s something quite extraordinary about Sarah Cameron’s utter possession of the language of The Red Chair, the Clod Ensemble show she has written and co-adapted. Dancing from her mouth in ribbons of musically-inflected Scots brogue, words are imbued with a near-mystic energy that flows through the room and wraps an indescribable feeling around the listeners who have gathered to hear her on this tour which stretches from Brighton to Newcastle. 

As a reviewer, I’m probably not meant to use words like ‘indescribable’ but in all honesty, there’s magic going on here that defies clear rationalisation. A seemingly everyday list of foodstuffs becomes something extraordinary, full of texture, feeling and even taste as Cameron offers such delights as “fridgecake mud cake fudge cake fishcake” with a gently insistent rhythmical pull that is probably akin to hynoptism, but also conveying a deeply held conviction that ensures we never mistake this for randomly selected wordplay.