Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The inaugural fosterIAN award nominations

fosterIAN (fos-tîr'ē-ən) - an award given for excellence in the theatre that I have witnessed.

For a long time, one of my life's ambitions has been to get the word 'fosterian' into the lexicon. I always thought it would be an adjective, like Thatcherite or Marxist, but I've now come to realise it is actually a noun, and hence we have the first fosterIAN awards. (Basically, if it's good enough for Lord Olivier, I can have my own awards too!) Nominations can be found below, and results will be announced early in the New Year.

Best Play
Arcadia, Duke of York’s
Cock, Royal Court
Our Class, National Theatre
The Roman Tragedies, Barbican
A Streetcar Named Desire, Donmar Warehouse
When the Rain Stops Falling, Almeida

Best Fringe* Play

Edmond, Wilton’s Music Hall
Frank's Closet, Hoxton Hall
The Last Five Years, Duchess
The Pietà, St John’s Piccadilly
Public Property, Trafalgar Studios
The Spanish Tragedy, Arcola

Best Actor in a Play
Henry Goodman, Duet For One
Hans Kesting , The Roman Tragedies
Jude Law, Hamlet
Dominic Rowan, The Spanish Tragedy
Dan Stevens, Arcadia
David Troughton, Inherit the Wind

Best Actress in a Play
Anna Chancellor, The Observer
Phoebe Nicholls/Lisa Dillon, When The Rain Stops Falling
Chris Nietvelt, The Roman Tragedies
Imelda Staunton, Entertaining Mr Sloane
Juliet Stevenson, Duet For One
Rachel Weisz, A Streetcar Named Desire

Best Supporting Actor in a Play
Mark Dexter, Inherit the Wind
Tom Goodman-Hill, Enron
Ethan Hawke, The Winter's Tale
Barnaby Kay, A Streetcar Named Desire
Simon Paisley-Day, Entertaining Mr Sloane
Andrew Scott, Cock

Best Supporting Actress in a Play
Jessie Cave, Arcadia
Michelle Dockery, Burnt By The Sun
Kate Fleetwood, Life is a Dream
Alexandra Gilbreath, Twelfth Night
Rebecca Hall, The Winter's Tale
Ruth Wilson, A Streetcar Named Desire

Best Musical
La Cage aux Folles
Hello, Dolly!
The Last Five Years
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Sister Act
Sweet Charity

Best Actor in a Musical
Roger Allam, La Cage aux Folles
Aneurin Barnard, Spring Awakening
Simon Burke, La Cage aux Folles
Carl Mullaney, Frank's Closet
Tony Sheldon, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Mark Umbers, Sweet Charity

Best Actress in a Musical
Julie Atherton, The Last Five Years
Melanie Chisholm, Blood Brothers
Donna King, Frank's Closet
Patina Miller, Sister Act
Tamzin Outhwaite, Sweet Charity
Samantha Spiro, Hello, Dolly!

Best Supporting Actor in a Musical
Rowan Atkinson, Oliver!
Clive Carter, Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Daniel Crossley, Hello, Dolly!
John Marquez, Annie Get Your Gun
Jason Pennycooke, La Cage aux Folles
Oliver Thornton, Priscilla Queen of the Desert

Best Supporting Actress in a Musical
Josefina Gabrielle, Hello, Dolly!
Josefina Gabrielle, Sweet Charity
Tiffany Graves, Sweet Charity
Sheila Hancock, Sister Act
The Lovely Debbie McGee, Frank's Closet
Jodie Prenger, Oliver!

Special categories

Best success in the face of adversity
Helen Dallimore, Too Close To The Sun
The cast of Madame de Sade
Miranda Richardson, Grasses of a Thousand Colours

Closest move to damehood
Celia Imrie
Fiona Shaw
Imelda Staunton
Juliet Stevenson

Leading Man of the Year

Perhaps in one fell swoop, I am undoing all the work I have done this year to try and mould myself into a semi-serious theatre critic, but darn it, it is Christmas and I am shallow, so I proudly present to you, my top ten hottest guys I've seen on stage this year! And I know, there's no consistency about whether it's the actor or the character who I found attractive, but it's hot guys, who cares!

NB: I did actually book my tickets to see The Priory before the casting was announced, it was purely fortuitous that all 3 main guys happened to end up on this list, true story!

1. Elliot Cowan
Initially staking his claim for a place on this list with an intensely physical performance as Stanley in the Donmar's A Streetcar Named Desire, Elliot Cowan delivered the knockout punch with a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of Edmond earlier this month. He also directed this production as part of a campaign to keep Wilton's Music Hall open, so not only is he bee-yoo-ti-ful with arms to die for, he also has brains and a social conscience: I know what I would like under my tree this year!

2. Joseph Millson

In a year full of gay plays and plays full of gay characters, Joseph Millson actually managed the rare feat of creating one of the few fully rounded, fully recognisable 'normal' characters who happened to be of the homosexual persuasion on the stage this year. His work in The Priory was excellent, creating a realistic man who was wholly believable in his indignation at being labelled one of 'the gays' yet not allowing anyone else in his kitchen, objecting to being stereotyped as being out clubbing and cruising all the time and then inviting his Gaydar trick along to the party. Also good in Every Boy Deserves Good Favour and Judgment Day this year, Millson loses out on top place for being cast in Andrew Lloyd Webber's new play, thereby forcing me to see Love Never Dies in order to see him next year.

3. Hans Kesting

An unexpected entry for sure: a Dutch actor previously unknown to me, performing six straight hours of Shakespeare in his native tongue from his wheelchair having just broken his leg, but Kesting's portrayal of Mark Antony in The Roman Tragedies was nothing short of stupendous. He exuded a raw magnetism and his chemistry with Chris Nietvelt as his Cleopatra was so electric, so sexually charged, that there was little need for the surtitles: this was acting that transcended language.
4. Andrew Lincoln

Someone initially trading a bit on past televisual glories (Egg from This Life) and a few stalkerish experiences following him round Tesco's at Islington Green, Lincoln's performance in Parlour Song at the Almeida definitely earned him a place on this list. Demonstrating an affable blokish charm throughout that had the audience in the palm of his hand, and left you totally understanding how Amanda Drew's character would slip into an affair with him and wishing that all your neighbours looked that good in a white vest!

5. George Rainsford

One word: abs! (Shame that they are obscured somewhat in the picture, but this was the best I could do!) I'm pretty sure Shakespeare never imagined All's Well That Ends Well being delivered by someone quite so boyband-perfectly-sculpted, but I can say I have never been so grateful for the £10 Travelex seats in Row B at the Olivier Theatre.

6. Oliver Thornton

Just look at the picture! His appearance in Priscilla Queen of the Desert practically redefines camp but has enough pathos in it to make him genuinely endearing, and he goes a long way here to erase the terrible terrible memories of the horror that was Rent Remixed.

7. Nigel Harman
I don't watch Eastenders so never really got the Little Den thing and hadn't previously seem Harman on stage, but the intimate confines of the tiny Trafalgar Studios 2 proved an excellent introduction to this gentleman's work for me. His character in Public Property was amoral, selfish and manipulative but sexy as hell and wickedly funny with it, and let's face it, everyone likes a bad boy now and then.

8. Dan Stevens

You have to admire any man who can wear the hell out of a pair of breeches and in Arcadia, Dan Stevens did some excellent work. I'd have paid a lot more attention in my maths lessons had my tutor looked like this!

9. Rupert Penry-Jones

I was initially über-excited when the cast for The Priory was announced, mostly for the opportunity to see 'Adam-from-Spooks' live on stage. And whilst he was good and tall and manly and lovely, I did have to accept that Mr Penry-Jones was playing a different character, one who was not half as intensely sexy as Adam-from-Spooks, plus he didn't look too hot in a dress, hence this rather disappointing low placing.

10. Alastair MacKenzie

In The Priory, MacKenzie's appearance was a pleasant reminder as to why I was inexplicably such a fan of Monarch of the Glen on a Sunday night. His technology-hungry travel journalist was perhaps a little too keen to get engaged to his most recent shag, and also had the difficulty of spending too much time in the play in a dress (see #9) but his devotion to his iPhone leads me to think he would definitely be no stranger to the guys with iPhone site, if ya know what I mean...!

Review: Hamlet, RSC

"What are thou that usurp'st this time of night"

The recent RSC production of Hamlet, starring David Tennant, has been filmed and was broadcast on BBC2 on Boxing Day afternoon, a curious piece of scheduling but thanks to the beauty of iPlayer, I was able to watch it as my leisure this evening. Rather than filming the play as it was performed on stage, the original cast deliver this modern-dress and modern-day adaption on location which gives it a much more filmic feel, especially with some of the camera tricks used, such as observing the action from the CCTV cameras.

David Tennant really is rather good here. His Hamlet is both wiry and wired, constantly moving and shifting, mimicing those around him with a quick wit but all-the-while suffused with a precipitous edge. The sense of danger is never far from this often bare-footed prince, but in my limited Hamlet experience, I did miss a little of the brooding intensity that Jude Law brought to the role. Equally strong though was Patrick Stewart's coldly calculating Claudius. From his opening scene, there is no doubt that he has Hamlet's cards marked and employs a chilling restraint throughout which was far scarier than any amount of raging. And Oliver Ford Davies' Polonius was also good value for money, flirting between the doddery old dear of the court and the canny politician keeping himself in favour.

As for watching a play like this on screen, for the most part it was fine. I liked the filmic touches, Hamlet oft
en spoke into a camcorder and the aforementioned CCTV shots, and I think I would have liked a bit more of this inventiveness in the filming, as when these tricks weren't employed, the action was rather static and one felt very much as if one were just watching the play. I did however love the opportunity to witness the acting up close. So much is done with facial expressions and one doesn't miss a single thing here, something that cannot be said if you're in Row J of the circle somewhere. So all in all, a great opportunity to see something special, albeit perhaps not on Boxing Day!

Hamlet is now available to watch or download from the
BBC iPlayer for the next seven days.

Cast of Hamlet continued

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Review: Nation

"If you're watching grandmama, look away now"

Sometimes I think there's something to be said for just sitting down at the theatre, especially when it is a family show and just enjoying what's front of you. I'll be the first to admit that I have done very little of that this year but for some reason, and it wasn't even the mulled wine, Nation at the National Theatre warmed my heart in a way I was not expecting.

The fantasy genre is one which is often hard to adapt to the stage, as the books are heavily laden with a rich level of detail, creating new worlds and mythologies, and there inevitably has to some degree of compromise between creating a coherent narrative for the timespan of a play but remaining faithful enough to respect the source material (and please the fans). And if one is being honest, there were elements of Mark Ravenhill's adaptation of Terry Prachett's story of two teenagers thrown together by a giant tsunami leaving one shipwrecked and the other without a home, that didn't bear much scrutiny. But it was so swiftly directed that only the most curmudgeonly of souls would have dwelt on the plotholes.

The underwater scenes were as gorgeous an image as I have seen all year and along with the battle on the boat were impressively mounted. And I reckon this is part of why I enjoyed it so much, the National do so well at creating large theatre on this scale that is often breathtaking and I think this should be commended. It helps when it is supported by a witty script that kept the ever-present threat of human mortality neatly balanced with the comedy. Gary Carr's Mau visibly matures onstage from a frightened boy to a young man increasing daily in wisdom and bravery and is ably matched by Emily Taaffe's aristrocratic young lady who slowly discovers a world beyond petticoats and afternoon tea.

This is by no means a perfect show, the portrayal of the islanders is often clunky and the repetitious music will stay in your head annoyingly, but this show is presented with such verve and energy that I'm sure it will entertain many a family. And take some tissues for a genuinely moving ending, that is highly affecting (once again, I state, I had no mulled wine beforehand!)

Cast of Nation continued

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Review: Twelfth Night, RSC

"If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction"

There's a pleasing circularity to this visit to Twelfth Night for me: one of the first plays I saw this year was the Donmar's West End production of Twelfth Night, a trip marred by horrendous winter storms and travel chaos, so it seems right that one of my last trips to the theatre this year was to the RSC's version of the same play, once again during some insane winter weather. Fortunately, my journey was less traumatic this time, so I was able to make a more reasoned verdict on the play.

As one would expect from the RSC, and from a production that has already done a Stratford run, it is slickly done and all the performers feel and look supremely confident in their roles. Staged in a incense-laden, Turkish-inspired set, it looks amazing and the costumes are rich and opulent (Orsino's red robe is a sight to behold). And this all contributed to me being much more amenable to giving the suspension of disbelief necessary for this play, a matter much helped by some canny casting and dressing of Viola and Sebastian who for once really did look like they could be twins.

Alexandra Gilbreath's Olivia is a delight to watch: full of wit and with a delicious openness to her character, her face doesn't even bother to conceal her emotions, none more so tha
n when confronted with her new husband's doppelgänger: "most wonderful!" she exclaims, alive to the new possibilities. Miltos Yerolemou's Feste is a great Fool, expertly switching between dark and light, clowning for his mistress one moment and revealing hidden truths and motivations the next. He's also excellently musical, delivering some good songs and two genius moments: one a jazz-riffing, washtub-thumping trio and the other a great audience participation entrance into the second half, well worth ensuring you get back in your seat well before the curtain goes up. Elsewhere, Nancy Carroll gave a touchingly honest feel to her Viola/Cesario, making the final reunion scene genuinely emotional and James Fleet's Sir Andrew Aguecourt is a masterly comic performance, bumbling, self-effacing and all-too-human.

I do have to admit though to still having some problems with the play, although they do seem to vary dependin
g on the production! Orsino's 'love' for Viola comes out of nowhere here and I saw little in Jo Stone-Fewings' portrayal that would endear him to anyone, although his court was much less homoerotic than the Donmar's. And I just don't like the Malvolio sub-plot, it sticks out for me as unnecessarily mean and whilst I see that this elevates the play from simply being a straight comedy, I just wish there was another way to do it.

It was nice to see this recognised somewhat in the final scene: as Festes sings his last song, we see each of the main perpetrators of the plot at some undetermined point in the future, n
one of whom have acheived happiness, and then the final image is of Malvolio approaching the Fool, clearly looking to deal with their unfinished business. I liked this recognition that this sub-plot is purely one of petty human revenge, rather than Fate or Time as is often mooted. Richard Wilson's Malvolio was puritanical yet vain, coldly ambitious yet genuinely humble in the face of his deception.

All in all though, I found this to be highly entertaining, despite or perhaps because of my expectations going into the theatre, but there's no doubt that this Twelfth Night is an evening of very high quality.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Review: Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

Seeing a deal on lastminute for restricted view tickets for a tenner, I thought I’d squeeze this revival of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in for a Saturday matinee, but was almost jeopardised by the seats we were allocated: seats AA1&2 in the Grand Circle don’t actually have a restricted view of the stage, because you are actually facing the audience! The seats are about 120 degrees to the stage so you’re basically facing most of the Grand Circle, a great opportunity to fulfil my Glenn Close in Dangerous Liasions fantasy, but not the best for playwatching. To see the stage, you need to twist round and then lean quite far forward, which then forces everyone else in the row to lean too. Fortunately, with a house that was only 75% full, we were able to relocate at the end of the first act, but it is truly outrageous that these seats are up for sale at all.

As for the play itself, it is an updated version relocated into the 1980s according to the show literature, although there were curiously few references to this and I don't think I would have worked it out had I not been informed of it. It's a tale of a wealthy landowning family who are struggling to conceal the cracks caused by repressed homosexuality, inheritance struggles, alcoholism and the shadow of terminal illness, and I suppose the one benefit of shifting the timing of the play enables the fact that the cast are all black to be not considered an issue.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Review: Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

Returning to the Sadler’s Well theatre where it premiered 14
years ago, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake has become a massive success, winning awards on both sides of the ocean and becoming a staple in many a dance house, no mean feat for a production that at the time was considered to be highly controversial. I actually saw this back then as a tender youth, and whilst it may not have made me wanted to become a dancer, it did make me want to be held by a muscular swan!

Taking the revered ballet classic that is Swan Lake, with Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, Bourne refashioned it into a modern dance piece, retaining elements of the original story, about the search for love and what people are willing to do to defend it once found, with a few key changes: adding a considerable amount of humour and most notably, recasting the flock of swans from the usual delicate ballerinas to bare-chested men in feathery breeches, thereby changing the dynamic of the central relationship making it between two men. That said, this remains a truly universal story, the need for a mother’s love and the love of a partner can be recognised and felt by people of any sexuality.

This is the first revival that Matthew Bourne has been wholly involved in so there is a freshness to this production, which should even appeal to those who have seen it in recent years as some changes have been made: to the choreography, the staging, the lighting, subtle changes but important ones. And with 3 men covering the role of the Prince and 2 people covering each of the other main roles, each performance will have its own dynamic, so the company are really working hard at making this unique experience that would even bear repeat viewings during the run.

Having seen him in
Dorian Gray earlier this year, I was particularly pleased to get Richard Winsor playing The Swan / Stranger. This is a dream of a role for a dancer as not only do they get the romantic hero role, but they also get to play the voracious, flirtatious, leather-trouser-clad lothario of the second act, and Winsor delivers both with a fluid grace that is just enchanting to watch. In particular, the way in which he demonstrates the Swan’s love for the Prince is crystal clear, despite only having the medium of his beating wings.

Christopher Marney’s Prince was good and well danced, but I would have preferred a little more subtlety in his performance, his angst-ridden face was a little too forced and brought out one too many times for my liking. Maddy Brennan’s Girlfriend is a great comedic role and she delivered it extremely well, constantly reminding us of the heart of gold underneath the ditzy blonde exterior. And finally The Queen, Nina Goldman is superb as the icy mother whose refusal to show genuine affection to her son is the heartbreaking repeated motif throughout this show, her firm resolve crumbling only when it is too late.

And the swans.
The image of the troupe of bare-chested men has rightly become iconic: dancing together, they are physical, comic, beautiful, threatening but always swan-like, and as they group to make an attack and let out a hiss, they are truly menacing. Conversely, the first time we see them, veiled through a screen as the Prince staggers to a park, and we hear the familiar sound of the theme from Swan Lake clearly for the first time, it is a magical moment that makes the hairs stand on end.

The long-term success of this show has been remarkable: few could have imagined, not least my 15 year old self, that what we were watching back in 1995 would become one of the great dance classics and make a superstar out of Matthew Bourne. This production goes a long way to reminding us why.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Review: Edmond, Wilton's Music Hall

"There is a destiny that shapes our ends...rough-hew them how we may"

Edmond saw a couple of firsts: my first promenade production and my first ever trip to Wilton's Music Hall, the oldest and last surviving grand music hall in the world apparently: it is a venue that has only recently come to my attention with some interesting programming, indeed Fiona Shaw will be performing The Waste Land there next month. Sadly though, the hall is semi-derelict and fighting a losing battle to secure the funds to be able to keep it open and serviceable, a shame as it really is an interesting place.

Marking Elliot Cowan's directorial debut, this site-specific production of Edmond, David Mamet's 1982 play, makes the most of its venue, utilising varying locations within the Wilton's complex. Telling the story of a regular white-collar American chap whose meeting with a fortune-teller, who tells him "you are not where you belong", sets him off on a journey through the seedy underbelly of New York city life, Edmond's behaviour becomes increasingly erratic as less palatable sides of his character rise to the fore, in his search for self-discovery and redemption for his actions.

Following from his turn in A Streetcar Named Desire, Cowan takes on the title role with aplomb (and some lingering hints of his 'interesting' accent from that show) but did extremely well to convince us of the hidden depths in this initially quite bookish-looking man. A selection of additional players did well in their multiple supporting roles and the use of a bluegrass trio, The Bonfire Band, was particularly ingenious as they provided excellent accompaniment, not least during the scene changes.

Cowan's decision to use the promenade format works extremely well on two levels: the play is quite episodic, with 23 short scenes, so it allowed for (mostly) quick scenes changes as we physically followed Edmond on his journey. But it also worked well in opening up Wilton's Music Hall and showing the audience parts of the venue that you would never normally see, but also parts of the main hall itself that you wouldn't necessarily notice during a traditionally staged event. It was a hugely fascinating tour which reminded you of the history of the building and how sad a loss it would be if it were to close. Limited to six shows, and 52 people per show, I feel particularly blessed to have been able to witness this great show, and I also feel Wilton's would do well to use this production, or at least a similar format, in the future to show off its assets in such an interesting manner.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Review: A Daughter's A Daughter

"The problem with the young is not just that they think they're right, but that they know they're right"

A Daughter's A Daughter, one of Agatha Christie's lesser known and rarely performed plays , which was a very late addition to the programme at the Trafalgar Studios, running for just four weeks before The Caretaker takes over. It was written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, who was Christie's alter ego for more romantic material, and is seen here for the first time in over 50 years in only its second ever large-scale staging.

It eschews the familiar thriller territory of Christie's regular work for a more intimate drama, a tale of the relationship between a mother and daughter who allow bitterness, jealousy and resentment to challenge the bonds between them. Returning from 3 years in the army at the end of the Second World War, Sarah Prentice discovers a cuckoo in her family nest, her mother Ann is now engaged to a chap who is equally unfond of the new arrival in the life of his betrothed. In a battle of wills, Sarah's behaviour then forces Ann into making the choice between her daughter and her fiancé: Sarah 'wins' but at a massive price, as we follow the pair for the next few years as they futilely search for happiness and comfort in men and booze whilst not letting go of the resentment and selfishness between them.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Review: The Misanthrope

"Jesus Christ, you wonder why
I want to curl up and just die"

Try as I might, I was hoping not to be too misanthropic about this production of
The Misanthrope, but all the talk of misanthrophy has left me somewhat of a misanthrope myself. It was one of those difficult experiences where it was hard to work out whether I really hadn't enjoyed the play or if it was just the general experience of the most fidgety couple in the world in front of us forcing a constant search for a decent view, the realisation that we'd actually got quite poor seats despite being expensive (£35 for 3rd row of Royal Circle) and the feeling that we were the only sober people at the party, such was the raucous laughter at every other line. Either way, I was perilously close to leaving at the interval, but stuck it out to the end.

Molière's Le Misanthrope has been translated and updated to modern-day here by Martin Crimp and follows Alceste (Damien Lewis) a disenchanted playwright whose resolution to reject society and all its hypocrisy and shallowness, is challenged when he falls in love with Jennifer (Keira Knightley), a fame-hungry American filmstar. A timeless enough story, but one made problematic by the unlikeability of Alceste and Lewis' performance which I found at times to be insufferable. Part of the problem is also in the script though: this is an incredibly self-aware translation, stuffed full of cultural references and one particularly galling joke about people paying £50 to see any old shit on the stage. For me, this just led to a form of mugging on the stage, Lewis might have well have just said 'nudge nudge wink wink!' at times.

It's written in verse with rhyming couplets appearing every so often, which jarred at first but one soon becomes accustomed to it, but I did not like the constant heavy-handed references back to the source which was exacerbated by the performance of much of the second half in French period costume. It's under the auspices of a fancy dress party, but it just felt to me like a copout: if you're going to update Molière, then just do it, there's no need to signpost it this heavily throughout the performance.

Acting-wise, it was nice to see Tara Fitzgerald get something to do with a few meaty scenes, after being somewhat sidelined in
A Doll's House earlier this year, and I rather liked Tim McMullan's critic-turned-wannabe-playwright, desperate for approval. And Keira Knightley was good, with a consistent, passable American accent and an easy feel to her presence on the stage. Indeed there are no weak links in the cast which is commendable, but due to the material, I felt there was precious little opportunity for them to really shine.

This will probably serve as many a talking point over the festive party circuit, so I'm glad I've seen it, and indeed I am keen to see some more of Molière's plays, but I cannot say that I could recommend this to anyone, not at the prices they are asking.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Review: The Night Flyer, Battersea Arts Centre

Coming back to the Battersea Arts Centre after selling out a run in Autumn last year, The Night Flyer is a show created by the Paper Cinema. And created is the right word as the show features pen-and-ink drawn puppets and scenes which are manipulated in front of a camera and the filmed results blown up onto a screen for us all to watch. The action is silent, but accompanied by music giving it a cinematic feel which elevates it beyond your average puppet show.

The story insofar as I could make out revolved around a young man who having just met a girl witnesses her abduction by a Child-Catcher like villain on a train and then sets off in pursuit on his bicycle to try and rescue her. Nic Rawlings’ drawings are beautiful and the way in changing perspective and focus is used is at times breathtaking: the scene where the boy starts to chase the train was particularly effective and all the more impressive considering that you could see how the scene was being created and how hard they were having to work in order to generate the feeling of increasing speed. 

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Review: Molière or The League of Hypocrites

"This man Molière, is he dangerous?
'He is Satan himself'"

I hadn't originally intended to see
Molière or The League of Hypocrites at the Finborough Theatre due to a packed festive schedule but reconsidered after a gap opened up this afternoon and a couple of realisations ocurred to me: having never seen a Molière play before I figured I may as well see one about him before going to see The Misanthrope next week, and also Mikhail Bulgakov wrote The White Guard which arrives at the National Theatre in February, so I thought what the heck and swung on down to SW10.

Explicitly about the French playwright Molière, a huge success in the court of Louis XIV until his plays started to make an enemy of the Church, which devotes its considerable energies to discrediting him by any means possible and ruining him. The play then follows Molière as he struggles to maintain "his integrity under a repressive regime", a point made all the more poignant by the fact that Bulgakov was writing in Stalin's Russia, suffering much the same treatment and risking it all by writing such plays.

Given the limitations of space, what this production achieves in terms of creating completely different atmospheres with the minimum of effort, and some beautifully judged costuming, was nothing short of miraculous: the shift from decadent palace to austere cathedral was particularly effective and Blanche McIntyre's direction should be commended, although the use of Latin in the key final scene was a little alienating for those of us who did not receive a classical education. The acting was mostly strong: Paul Brendan's turns as the court fool and Molière's faithful companion were both effective and Gyuri Sarossy's louche Louis XIV exuded just the right kind of playfulness and arrogance. Elsewhere I found the relative youth of much of the company a bit distracting and resulted in some miscast roles. And as the titluar playwright, I'm afraid I was a little disappointed by Justin Avoth who struggled to mine any of the requisite depths in order to engage us in Molière's fate.

All in all, I found this to be slightly disappointing: not all bad, but in the end, not as strong a play as I was expecting, given the circumstances in which it was produced. Finally, it was an unfortunate matter of timing that with a start at 3pm and a 2 hour running time, I shared both my journey there and back with many, many Chelsea fans: not a pleasant experience and meant I had to wait 30 minutes for a tube home that wasn't jam-packed. Saturday matinées should be booked with care here!

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Review: A Christmas Carol, King's Head

"Is there no festive spirit in that businessman's heart of yours?"

Of all the various productions of
A Christmas Carol that can be found dotted around London this winter, I doubt any are as well suited to their venue as MokitaGrit's production at the King's Head Theatre on Islington's Upper Street. There's something old-fashioned about this cosy theatre pub and it suits this Victorian, gothic-inflected version of Charles Dickens' famous story down to the ground.

Opening with, and then continually narrated by Dickens himself (played by a genial Nigel Lister), trying to convince a publisher and a pub full of locals that he has a story worth telling, a cast of 16 effortlessly sing, play and dance their way through this familiar tale with such inventiveness and vibrancy that you could not feel more festive by the end if you tried. Using every inch of available space, the cast flow around the full scope of the stage and even up and down the aisles with such ease and confidence, bringing the audience with them right into the heart of the action. I loved the arrival of the chain-dragging spirits, though its probably not for the faint of heart, and there was some clever use of puppetry and props throughout which kept the dynamic energy going.

Jonathan Battersby’s Scrooge is nicely curmudgeonly and blessed with some excellent facial expressions (one mustn’t forget that Scrooge actually spends a lot of this story just watching things) and his flight over London with Kilke Van Buren’s Cinderella-like Ghost of Christmas Past is beautifully realised. Adam Stone’s Bob Cratchit, a character that is impossible not to like, is also really well accomplished, his concern for his family movingly played.

What Phil Wilmott has cleverly done is ensure that much of the music is instantly recognisable, as in places he has written new lyrics over familiar Christmas tunes, and elsewhere traditional carols are used which allows the audience easy access into the emotion of the material. And what emotion is evoked: a beautifully moving and truly affecting In The Bleak Midwinter gave me chills and a Silent Night with a candlelit vigil for the dying Tiny Tim was touchingly emotional without being mawkish. But there were lighter moments too: Christmas in Camden Town was a hoot and is surely destined to become a staple song of the season if it gets into the right hands (the Christmas in New York team would be my bet) and the choreography that accompanied The Miser's Dead was well-drilled and visually pleasing.

Everything about this production felt highly professional: the singing was as good as a proper choir with some beautiful harmonising and complex arrangements, impressive musical ability from the numerous instrumental, clever and interesting choreography and to top it all off, strong acting. What makes it even more impressive was the ease with which the cast frequently switched between all of these roles. On a final note, it was pleasing to see a large number of children in the audience for this show, as I really felt it was fringe musical theatre at its best: accomplished, inventive and above all, highly enjoyable.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Review: Potted Potter

"Dumbledore's the greatest sorcerer alive - and he went into teaching?"

Having never previously been to the tiny Studio 2 in the basement of the Trafalgar Studios, I've now been twice in three weeks: after the highly enjoyable Public Property comes now "the unauthorised Harry experience", otherwise known as Potted Potter. A whirlwind trip through all 7 of the Harry Potter books, performed by two CBBC presenters, Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, with a collection of wigs, props and a generous helping of tomfoolery, this was 70 minutes of warm-hearted, unchallenging, silly fun.

It's a family-oriented show and so is strictly PG-rated, but this is probably for the best as it meant the material has worked harder to be funny rather than just smutty and innuendo-laden. And it did feel more like an extended comedy routine at times than a show per se: not that that was a bad thing, just a little unexpected. As with all the best parodies, there was some affectionate mickey-taking along with the story-telling, especially in the constant references to the outside world, but there's no doubting how much fun the two performers were having onstage and that was infectious.

Best bits were the game of Quidditch with audience participation, including two scarily enthusiastic children who were definitely not playing for fun(!), the PowerPoint presentation explaining just who is evil in Book 3 and the final duet which brought tears to my eyes! Sadly for a family show, there was probably only about 10 kids in the audience, but as the holidays approach I hope this will pick up and in any case, this really is a show that works well for all ages.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Review: Cock

"Maybe you're the most complicated sexual being that ever existed"

Staged in the round upstairs at the Royal Court, inside a three tier plywood ring (which unfortunately put both me and my companion in mind of the set of Big Brother's Big Mouth), the provocatively named Cock is a play which is performed without artifice, without props, just remarkably intense acting and the suggestive power of movement. Ben Whishaw plays John, a gay man tumbling out of a long term relationship with an older man, M (Andrew Scott) and finding unexpected solace in the arms of a woman, W (Katherine Parkinson). What follows is a messy struggle as John finds himself conflicted, not just with his fluctuating sexuality but also with issues of identity and the nature of the relationship that he wants to pursue, whether that be with M or W.

As John, Whishaw is good here, frustratingly indecisive but charismatic enough to carry it off and Parkinson shows that her comic skills (as honed in Channel 4's The I.T. Crowd) are truly excellent, but also matched by an unnerving capacity for remaining still yet evoking a whole emotional world around her.
But it is Andrew Scott who should take no notice of Charles Spencer's lazy and borderline homophobic comments and rather focus on other reviews and the audience reaction to what is a brilliant performance as John's boyfriend. Taking complete ownership of the words and inhabiting them so fully, this was a convincing a display of acting as you will ever see, all the more impressive given the how exposing the set-up is. Manipulative, lovestruck, bitingly funny, this is a highly complex character but one who we connected with straightaway, even if we questioned his treatment of his younger lover, but Scott kept him touchingly vulnerable.

If I'm being honest, I found the arrival of a fourth character, the father of the boyfriend, somewhat intrusive and an unnecessary addition to this dysfunctional trifecta. Paul Jesson was good, and the dinner party scene was admittedly extremely funny, but dramatically I felt he served only as a distraction from the central relationships. And I did find it hard at times to credit the devotion displayed to John despite his overt selfishness, but on reflection I see now that this was part of Bartlett's intention: to show that we are all only human when faced with loss and that idealised, romanticised perfect partnerships are but a fiction.

Thought-provoking in content, and indeed in its staging, Cock was a real treat, and a great opportunity to witness some excellent acting, up close and incredibly personal. Transcending the predictable analysis of bisexuality this could have been and the traditional strictures of theatrical performances, this engages, exposes, questions and challenges the audience to think about what relationships should and could look like and how we treat those we profess to love. The Royal Court continues its run of excellent shows and the rest of London's theatres would do well to take note.

The run is now sold out and there are no day seats are available from the theatre, although you can contact the theatre to see about any last minute availability.

Review: Entertaining Mr Sloane

"It's what is called a dilemma boy, you are on the horns of it"
After a discussion over the weekend about people who have not yet been made Dames and damn well ought to be, Imelda Staunton's name came up amongst others (Fiona Shaw and Juliet Stevenson being my other choices), but when I had a check on this blog for the delightful Ms Staunton, I saw no mention of her despite being sure I had seen her earlier this year. Eventually I remembered it was Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Trafalgar Studios, way back in February, but somehow I'd neglected to write up the review. As I want this blog to be a full record of my theatregoing, I'm just going to make a few comments about what I remember of it with the help of some notes I made back then.

The play, written by Joe Orton in 1964, is one of the darkest comedies I think I have ever seen. In brief, a landlady and her brother are both overwhelmed with sexual desire when a charismatic young lodger moves into her house. Caught in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse as his psychopathic tendencies come to the fore, as the balance of power continually shifts around them in this battle for power and possession. As the duelling sister and brother, Imelda Staunton and Simon Paisley Day had a crackling chemistry as their cosy existence is shattered by the sexual tension brought in by the arrival of the eponymous Mr Sloane played by Mathew Horne. In a well-designed letterbox set peeling away at the edges, Staunton was brilliant in a caustically funny, highly revealing(!) performance which veered grotesquely from demanding that Sloane call her Mamma whilst seducing him to the endearing lonely side of her that is frequently exposed.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Review: Mrs Klein

"If you want to be an analyst of any worth, you have to trust your patients with the truth, however harsh. They're strong, they'll take it."

After the highly successful Duet for One which toured and then transferred into the West End, we return once again to the theme of psychoanalysis with this revival of Mrs Klein at the Almeida theatre in Islington.

Struggling to come to terms with the death of her son Hans in a climbing accident, noted controversial psychoanalyst Melanie Klein asks a colleague to cover for her while she goes to the funeral. Paula, recently escaped from the rising anti-Semitic persecution in Germany, is finding it hard to make a living in London and agrees to this, but is interrupted by the arrival of Klein’s daughter Melitta also a psychoanalyst, resentful of her presence and angry with her mother’s domineering behaviour. After Mrs Klein herself returns unexpectedly, Paula gets caught up in the longstanding conflict between mother and daughter which comes to crisis point in the wake of revelations about Hans’s death.

It may have just been the result of a long weekend and a long day in the office, but I found the first half to be crushingly dull. Things did pick up somewhat after the interval but I was never fully engaged with the material, especially with the heavy use of psychiatric jargon which was thrown around with plentiful abandon. Perhaps it had more resonance for people who are more familiar with psychoanalysis but I found it ultimately quite alienating: the continual overanalysing of every emotional or indeed emotionless response left me glancing at the watch more than once. Clearly there's a point here about the capacity of psychoanalysts to actually deal with their own problems, despite the fact that they help others all the time, but sadly it was not one that hooked me in.

The acting wa
s predictably first-rate regardless: I suspect Clare Higgins couldn't be bad if she tried, her portrayal is so subtly measured here and her eventual realisations of the truth of her relations with her children, both of whom she had treated as patients, were especially tragic. Waites' embittered daughter was superbly bitter and as good a job as could be managed with such an astringent character, but I really enjoyed Nicola Walker's performance as her character insinuated herself into the role of surrogate daughter.

In the end though, I think this was probably the weakest play that the Almeida has offered up this year: not just because it was a subject matter that did not particularly engage me, but rather because I felt this was a play that has mistaken verbosity for genuine depth. Clearly this is not the prevailing opinion as the play has been 'returns only' for its entire run, but there you go.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Review: The Priory

"No-one wants to be associated with failure..."

Following on from the mammoth successes of the over-rated Jerusalem and the equally highly praised Enron, The Priory has a lot to live up to in maintaining the Royal Court's current run. A new play by Matthew Wynne, it follows a group of 30-something old friends as they convene on a country house to celebrate New Year's Eve away from the rat race. Brought together by their mutual friend Kate for reasons of her own, secrets are uncovered and tempers flare as the frustrations of modern living are brought into sharp relief and the question of 'what is success' is repeatedly challenged.

Jessica Hynes's Kate is the emotional centre of this work. Sifting through the emotional detritus of a highly traumatic year, her search for some kind of meaning is what drives the play. Whether its seeking refuge in the company of old friends, the solace of an old love or the temptation of a new faith, Kate's attempts to deal with her angst seem doomed to failure, and her loneliness, even when surrounded by others is heartbreaking to watch: I found Hynes to be utterly convincing in this part.

Top 5 Plays of November

Here's my top 5 plays for the month of November

1. The Roman Tragedies
2. Sweet Charity
3. Public Property
4. Life is a Dream
5. Blood Brothers

And the top 20 of the year so far

1. Our Class

2. The Roman Tragedies
3. When The Rain Stops Falling
4. Hello, Dolly!
5. La Cage Aux Folles
6. A Streetcar Named Desire
7. Arcadia
8. A Doll's House
9. Enron

10. Sweet Charity
11. The Pietà
12. Duet For One
13. Hamlet
14. Sister Act
15. The Last Five Years
16. Burnt By The Sun
17. Parlour Song
18. All's Well That Ends Well
19. The Cherry Orchard
20. The Spanish Tragedy