Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Top 10 plays for July

Well, what a month: I hit the 150 plays for the year so far mark, had three major immersive experiences which really opened my eyes, was blown away by some juggling, underwhelmed by some Sondheim and in a turn-up for the books, had major disappointments from the National, the Donmar and Punchdrunk.

I'm going on a well-deserved holiday now for three weeks so I leave you with my top ten shows for July an will see you in mid-August. Feel free to recommend shows that I miss in the meantime!

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Review: Anne Boleyn, Shakespeare's Globe

“I would lose my life rather than my honesty”

Anne Boleyn marks the first new play in this year’s programme at Shakespeare’s Globe. Written by Howard Brenton, it features Miranda Raison in the title role, continuing a character that she also plays in Shakespeare’s own Henry VIII, also playing in rep. This is a review of the first preview, so please bear that in mind whilst reading my thoughts below.

The play covers the life of Anne Boleyn from her time in court as one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting, through her developing relationship with Henry VIII and the ideals of Protestant reform, ideas that ultimately caused her downfall but also sowed the seeds for the huge upheaval that culminated in the Civil War. What Brenton has done though, is to couple this story with the story of James I trying to establish control over a sceptical kingdom and varied religious groupings, centring around his commission of a new translation of the Bible. James is haunted, literally, by Anne’s ghost and her legacy and the two combine to great effect.

Review: Hotel Medea, Trinity Buoy Wharf

“Was it too much do you think, to poison the children?”

Hotel Medea is a collaboration between Brazilian collective Zecora Ura Theatre and London-based the Urban Dolls Project. Incorporating live performance and music, installation art, multimedia and cutting-edge technology, audience participation and interaction, this show retells the Greek myth of Medea in a unique experience lasting from midnight to dawn, making the most of its abandoned Docklands warehouse location and its multicultural ensemble to create something quite unlike anything else.

The experience is split into three main acts (Part 1 can be watched on its own, although quite why you wouldn’t want to see the rest of it I do not know). The first, Zero Hour Market, covers the journey of Jason to Medea’s homeland, somewhere vaguely in South America, to procure the infamous Golden Fleece where he also finds himself a wife. Soundtracked by DJ Dolores throughout, the swirling marketplace was brilliantly conceived, the pre-wedding rituals with chanting and dancing that we all participated in was highly atmospheric , the wedding itself was raucous fun (I got snogged by both Jason and Medea as they hunted for each other in the crowds) and as the music continued to pump and the dancing got wilder, a real communal vibe developed as people began to realise you really do have more fun, the more you throw yourself into these things.

Cast of Anne Boleyn continued

Friday, 23 July 2010

Review: The Prince of Homburg, Donmar Warehouse

“Your face isn’t the most cheerful today”

The Prince of Homburg by Heinrich von Kleist is this year’s summer play at the Donmar Warehouse marking the return of Ian McDiarmid after Be Near Me last year. Presented in a new version here by Dennis Kelly (who I still haven’t quite forgiven yet for The Gods Weep), it was written in 1811 just before the German Romantic playwright committed suicide, and apparently was one of Hitler’s favourite plays. In order to squeeze this in before my holiday, I ended up seeing the second preview which should be acknowledged when reading my comments.

The play follows the titular Prince of Homburg, a shining light in the Prussian Army but possessed of a dreamy waywardness which flies in the face of the strict obedience of the law that typifies Prussian military behaviour and when he defies an order from his father-figure the Elector, matters of courage and honour push them both to a horrifying point of no return.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Review: Duchess of Malfi, ENO & Punchdrunk at Great Eastern Quay

“Follow that bassoon”

Much like 3D glasses at the cinema, whoever came up with the idea of close-fitting masks for Punchdrunk’s shows, clearly does not wear glasses. I had a devil of a time hooking them over the mask and into the elastic at the sides and making sure they were secure. It may seem like a little thing but when you’re spending three hours wandering round looking for things to watch, it becomes a little frustrating having to constantly ensure your glasses don’t fall off.

A collaboration between ENO and Punchdrunk, the
Duchess of Malfi is an immersive production of John Webster’s story set to a new score by Torsten Rasch. Spread over three floors of a disused office complex in outer East London, it is a typical Punchdrunk production in that the audience is left to find their own story through their own experience as they wander unguided to find impromptu scenes taking place in all sorts of strange environments.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Review: Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, Arcola

"Words come out of my mouth like toads"

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is one of Caryl Churchill’s earlier plays, taking up residence now in Studio 1 of Dalston’s Arcola Theatre. Set during the English Civil War, it deals with a period of time when there was huge political upheaval, the conflict between the power of the landowning class and the burgeoning ideals around individual freedom came to a head and questions around liberty and real democracy were posed by the different factions in Cromwell’s New Model Army. 

The focus in each half is around a debate, in the first half it is the Putney Debates of 1647 when common soldiers argued passionately for genuine democratic reform in opposition to Oliver Cromwell’s policies of protecting the power of the landowners. In the second, it is a group of common people who have found God through or indeed despite their suffering and starvation. Around these focal points is a collage of stories of how brutal life for the population at large is, as they are constantly kept down-at-heel: the poor are whipped, children abandoned to their death, evangelists preaching of the new heaven on earth for men but not women, all rather bleak.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Review: The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, Duchess Theatre

“I find it best that two men find out the worst about each other before living together”

After the Fantasticks finished its run somewhat abruptly, the Duchess Theatre now plays host to The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, a production that has been touring the country and how has a home in the West End for the summer. Jeremy Pauls’s play is a psychological thriller which deals with Sherlock Holmes, delving into the psyche of the man himself and his relationships with the ever-faithful Dr Watson and his nemesis Professor Moriarty.

Peter Egan and Robert Daws, taking over from Phillip Franks who played the role on tour, take us through Holmes and Watson’s first meeting and follow them as their association develops and deepens, providing intriguing insight into characters with which we are so familiar but about whom we actually know very little. The fallout from the infamous events at Reichenbach Falls form the crux of the show as they both deal with the challenges of Holmes’ actions.

Review: Bent, Tabard

“I love you…what’s wrong with that?”

Andrew Keates’ production of Martin Sherman’s play Bent was a big success at the Landor Theatre earlier in the year and so its transfer to the Tabard Theatre in Chiswick makes sense. Both spaces share an intimacy that feels appropriate to the intense emotion of the play and Keates is clearly attuned to the full range of human experience that lovers Max and Rudy are forced to go through. In 1930s Berlin, the pair flee persecution after witnessing a murder but when the Nazis catch up with them, they’re shipped off to Dachau.

What follows is an exploration of just how viciously homosexuals were treated by the Nazi regime and a testament to the immense spirit shown by those who were unfortunate enough to be oppressed. This lends the Dachau scenes an air of slight unreality, almost of idealism, but it is one that is indubitably well-earned as these men search for the tiniest bit of tenderness, humanity, even love, in the most horrendous of surroundings. The brutality of Freya Groves’ design of barbed wire and swastikas never lets us forget where we are though.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Review: Romeo & Juliet, Mosaica@The Chocolate Factory

“Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast”

At the beginning of the year, I thought it was Macbeth that was the play of the year with three major productions lined up for the first half of the year, but it seems that Romeo & Juliet has actually been the more popular as I trudged up to Wood Green to see what was my fourth set of star-cross’d lovers in 3 months. My step was lightened though by the knowledge that this was a production by MokitaGrit, a production company responsible for one of my musical highlights of the year so far, Once Upon A Time At The Adelphi.

This Romeo & Juliet was billed as an urban retelling, ‘Shakespeare meets Skins’, set in the gang-dominated Verona council estate. Its most striking innovation is to use a group of free-runners, Team Invision, to manage the scene changes, their acrobatics providing a physical urgency and danger to proceedings. The venue is quite a quirky one, the courtyard of a great-looking restaurant Mosaica which is based in a disused chocolate factory in Wood Green, now a cultural hub. Surrounded by high buildings on three sides, this production made the most of its location and used many of the different levels to varying effect.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Review: Smashed!, Watch This Space @National Theatre

“How do you like them apples?!”

Originally this was just going to be a note at the bottom of the Danton’s Death review as I saw this before going into the Olivier, but it was just so darned good that I decided to give it a review all of its own as there’s a few more shows over the weekend that you can go and catch, especially since it is totally free.

Smashed! is a new show put together by the Gandini Juggling collective especially for the Watch This Space festival and I honestly cannot recommend it enough. There are no words to describe how beautiful the sight of 9 people juggling a whole load of apples can be, but I’m going to try. It actually had the air of a dance piece, indeed the opening sequence was heavily reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof, with its promenading and knowing looks on the faces of the performers. The intricacy of the routines, often involving several jugglers swopping balls was often breathtaking, the synchronisation a visual treat and the different ways in which the performers interacted was always intriguing.

Review: Danton’s Death, National Theatre

“I’m sick of this rigmarole”

Danton’s Death, the 1835 play about the French Revolution by Georg Büchner, marks an impressive brace of debuts: Toby Stephens making his first bow on the stage here in the title role and Michael Grandage, Artistic Director of the Donmar, making his directorial debut here on the South Bank. Setting up in the Olivier theatre for the summer, it is part of the Travelex season so there’s been plenty of £10 seats available. This was the first preview that I saw, I acknowledge this freely but stand by everything I say here.

The story is set in 1794, a period between the first and the second terrors during the French Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety has been set up in the name of the revolutionary new order and is summarily executing people whether the accusations against them are true or not. Its creator, Georges Danton, has come to regret his part in the genesis of something responsible for the killings of so many people and has been shocked at the way in which the revolution has been increasingly radicalised. His former friend and colleague Robespierreis at the head of this new faction leading the way and when Danton makes a stand for what he sees as too much, the stage is set for an almighty power struggle between the two political rivals.

Cast of Danton's Death contd


Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Review: Lingua Franca, Finborough

“They can have us spooning and forking any time between breakfast and bedtime”

Continuing the 30th anniversary celebrations at the Finborough Theatre is the world premiere of oa new play by Peter Nichols, Lingua Franca. The play is set in 1950s Florence, where Flowers gets a job teaching English at Lingua Franca, a shambolic language school housing a ragbag collection of individuals from across the globe, all struggling to come to terms with a new society in a Europe no longer at war, whilst luxuriating in the Florentine cultural bounty all around them. The programme informed me that the lead character Steven Flowers is also in one of his earlier plays, Privates on Parade, it made no difference to me not having seen that but there’s a neat bit of casting in that Ian Gelder who appears here in a different role, played that character in the original RSC production.

At the centre of the story is a love triangle of sorts: once Stephen has become accustomed to his new way of living, he throws himself into a life of gay abandon, whipping his classes up into a raucous frenzy of singalongs and chants as a different way of learning and having already caught the eye and rapt attention of repressed and depressed English Peggy, launches headlong into a passionate, physical affair with German Heidi. As Stephen, Chris New brings a wonderfully warm charm which makes it easy to see why so many women fall for him and plays the darker, crueller streak that comes as he ruthlessly pursues his sexual urges at the expense of all else equally well. Charlotte Randle’s Peggy is highly strung from the word go and whilst a strong performance, her false bonhomie masking a world of pain and tiredness of rations, I felt she could stand to dial it down a little to start with, it was a little too shouty from the outset in the small space of the Finborough and left little range for her to go to. And whilst Heidi is a fascinating character, as a child she was part of the Hitler Youth, she’s not really given enough emotional range and so Natalie Walter has to work hard to make us care for her.

Review: Classic Moments - Hidden Treasures, Jermyn Street Theatre

“Take me to a world where I can be alive”

Classic Moments – Hidden Treasures is described as a ‘cabaret celebration of some of the lesser known works of Stephen Sondheim’ and forms the latest in a string of celebratory events in the composer’s 80th birthday year. Directed by TIm McArthur originally under the (better) title Secret Sondheim, this show features a five person ensemble and pianist, singing a range of songs both solo and in groups, with hints of choreography and a huge amount of both talent and enthusiasm.

On the one hand, it is highly appropriate that a show like this should take place to celebrate Sondheim’s birthday and highlight some of his lesser-known works; on the other hand, since it is his birthday year, many of these ‘lesser known’ works have actually been running in London recently, Assassins is still on and Anyone Can Whistle played in this very venue. And shows like these often run the danger of leaving you wishing for at least one or two of the more well-known songs. But McArthur and musical director David Harvey have fashioned a fast-paced journey that rips through 28 songs in just over 90 minutes, without any narrative constraints or superimposed plot.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Review: Aftermath, Old Vic Tunnels

“At my interrogations, we just sit like you and I are sitting right now"

Aftermath is a piece of documentary theatre, presented as part of the LIFT theatre festival in the Old Vic Tunnels below Waterloo station. It is based on a series of interviews conducted with 37 Iraqi citizens whose lives were profoundly affected by the war in their country and have been forced to find refuge in Jordan. Names and details have been changed to protect identities but ninety-five percent of the text is apparently just verbatim.

Actor/Directors Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen conducted the interviews in Jordan to find out for themselves what the stories of the Iraqis were and have woven them together to create a coherent, dramatic piece of theatre, presented here by nine actors covering all the parts. It starts by covering life pre-invasion, the struggles under Saddam Hussein’s reign and the life that people built for themselves, in some cases regardless of faith as in the interdenominational society that developed in Fallujah. 

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Review: La Bête, Comedy Theatre

“I have listened to you speechify for what feels like a century in hell”

Written in 1991 by American David Hirson, La Bête is set in the French court of Languedoc in the seventeenth century and is a pastiche of plays by the likes of Molière, going so far as being written entirely in verse. The rather staid and self-satisfied Elomire is the leader of a troupe of actors in favour with the Princess, but when she orders him to include the brash and vulgar Valere the stage is set for an almighty debate on artistic integrity versus commercialism and the role of patronage in the arts. 

It has been cast to the hilt, Mark Rylance following on from his well-received (if not by yours truly) turn in Jerusalem plays the boorish Valere, David Hyde Pierce making his West End debut as the prim Elomire and Joanna Lumley making a rare stage appearance as the Princess. And such is the confidence behind this production that a Broadway run has already been booked to run straight after the West End run finishes. Such confidence is interesting given that the original Broadway run flopped quite badly, something that me and my companion both well understand, for a variety of reasons.

Review: Wolfboy, Trafalgar Studios 2

“I can’t bear to put things in my mouth”

Wolfboy is a musical adapted from a play by Brad Fraser. The adaptation by Russell Labey and Leon Parris played at the Edinburgh Festival last year but now takes up residence in the Trafalgar Studios 2 for a month with a slightly different cast. 17 year old Bernie has been committed to a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt but shows little inclination for dealing with his issues which may or may not involve his older brother Christian his only remaining family, rather striking up a friendship with the inmate next door, David, who thinks he is a werewolf.

Generally speaking, this was a show where the sum of its parts sadly did not add up to anything greater, this was most obvious in the supporting performances. There was a bright showing from Emma Rigby as a dryly comedic nurse providing some much needed laughs and Daniel Boys was predictably vocally strong, but their characters didn’t feel fully integrated into the show: Rigby doesn’t sing a single song and Boys’ is often left singing to a doctor whom we never see.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Review: You Me Bum Bum Train, Barbican at LEB Building

You Me Bum Bum Train is something quite special and quite different. An exhilarating participatory Created by artists Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd in Brighton in 2004, the show/installation/experience has taken on different forms and different locations, developing each time. This particular incarnation has been supported by the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust award which they won last year and having been commissioned by the Barbican, they’ve set up shop at the old London Electricity Board building in Bethnal Green. 

Having looked at a few of the reviews now that I’ve had my experience, it is a little disappointing to see how many of them start “I’ve been sworn to secrecy about what happened to me, but I can tell I did do this and it involved that...”, so much of the pleasure comes from having absolutely no idea whatsoever lies in store and so I’d avoid reading anything at all about the show beforehand to let the experience hit you full on and unspoiled. The only thing I will say is that I did at least two things which I never thought I’d ever get to do, not quite lifelong ambitions but I’m tickled pink that I have done them nonetheless.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Review: Nevermore, Barbican

“All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream”

Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe is a show by Canadian company Catalyst Theatre and is playing a short residency in the Barbican’s main theatre as part of their bite festival and the London International Festival of Theatre. Using a mixture of physical theatre and songs, it follows Poe’s life from his troubled childhood to the unexplained circumstances around his death, mixed into the narrative are hallucinatory dream sequences as we see the events of his life as if told in the manner of one of own stories.

There’s a whole raft of comparisons that one could make to try and describe the world created by Catalyst on the stage here; the Jan Pieńkowski books of my childhood, Tim Burton, the Lemony Snicket film, Dr Seuss, these should give you an inkling of the type of thing we’re talking about here as otherwise I’m not sure I could do it justice. Bretta Gerecke’s design draws on all of these, using a wall of gauzy black lace screens to move between reality and the imagination, and creates a world full of exaggerated, grotesque images and characters, enhanced by some very effective lighting and shadow-play.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Review: Henry IV Part 2, Shakespeare's Globe

“Presume not that I am the thing I was”

As we approach the mid-point in the Globe’s calendar for the Kings and Rogues season, Henry IV Part 2 is the latest play to open on Bankside, booking right through until October. Following directly on from the events of Henry IV Part 1, it follows the same characters as the increasingly frail King worries about whether his son Prince Hal is ready to assume the kingship, having fallen back into his wayward ways, Falstaff and his motley crew continue to live life to the full but the shadow of their mortality loom long on the horizon and though rebellion has been quashed, there are still murmurings of discontent. 

This is indeed a more reflective play and nowhere is this better personified than in Jamie Parker’s Hal. He looks and sounds older, more mature, having grown into the role of a statesman able to forgive those that crossed him in the past and become the son his father has long sought after by outgrowing the feckless compatriots of his younger days as shown in the crushing final scene.

Cast of Henry IV Part II continued

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Review: I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“Feelings invade me and leave me in shock”

Part of the Blaze festival and renewing the co-producing relationship between Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Barbican, I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky is playing at the East London theatre for a full fortnight. Composed by John Adams and libretto by June Jordan, the title of the play is taken from a quote by a survivor of the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, a suburb of Los Angeles. The entirely sung-through musical play follows seven young Americans from different ethnicities and backgrounds, struggling to deal with the challenges urban life is throwing them, especially around race, sexuality and immigration. 

Former gang leader Dewain is arrested for stealing two bottles of beer in a rush to meet his girlfriend, Consuelo, an illegal El Salvadorean immigrant, by rookie policeman Mike. The incident is caught on tape by Tiffany, an ambitious tv reporter and then used by Vietnamese-American lawyer Rick to plead for Dewain’s innocence. Consuelo is also being counselled on family planning issues by Leila, but she is having to deal with the attentions of local preacher David. Then, the earthquake hits and all the characters have to deal with the repercussions, emotional and physical, on their lives as priorities are significantly reassessed.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Review: Assassins, Union Theatre

“Something bewildering occurred”

Assassins is the latest revival paying tribute to composer Stephen Sondheim in his 80th year, in a steady flow of productions which looks set to continue throughout the year with Into the Woods and Passion at the Open Air Theatre and the Donmar respectively. Playing in Southwark’s Union Theatre, this play looks at 9 people, all connected by their attempts to kill a President of the United States of America, some successful, some unsuccessful, as they re-enact their crimes in a timeless smoky limbo where they can interact with each other and we see their own twisted take on the American dream as they look for meaning in what they tried to do. 

I was surprised to find that I just didn’t get it. Indeed I found it quite hard work: musically I did not find it particularly tuneful (only 'Unworthy Of Your Love' has a melody that you could remember 15 minutes after the show had ended) and consequently rather uninvolving. And in its subject matter and structure, it assumes quite an intimate knowledge of American political history, with its array of mostly (to me at least)unfamiliar characters, all out of their historical context to make things even easier.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Review: Live at Wilton’s Gala Launch, Wilton’s Music Hall

“Fate beckoned her...into a rather queer, unfamiliar atmosphere”

Entering the atmospheric entrance space of Wilton’s Music Hall for the gala launch of their Live at Wilton’s cabaret shows, my heart sank upon seeing the sign that said “due to unforeseen circumstance Hannah Waddingham is unable to perform tonight”. I’d booked mainly to see her again and having seen her at the Open Air Theatre on Tuesday watching The Comedy of Errors, I was rather disappointed but when the rest of the line-up includes Gwyneth Herbert, David McAlmont and Siân Phillips and you can call on Marc Almond for back up, you know you’re in for a good night anyway.

Live at Wilton’s is an attempt to secure the future of cabaret in London, somewhat timely with Pizza on the Park closing and Wilton’s Music Hall is laying claim to actually being the birthplace of cabaret in 1858, some 23 years before Le Chat Noir. It was an eclectic bill for sure, mixing the traditional with the ultra-modern, musical theatre with jazz, proper old-school music hall singalongs with the downright quirky. But it’s a programme that fits with Wilton’s Music Hall’s vision for its future, bringing together a vast array of talent to perform within its history-filled walls and covering all sorts of musical bases with a strong vein of storytelling running through them. And this evening displayed how it can suit so many styles of music perfectly; McAlmont’s vocal improvisations and Herbert’s ukulele-driven final number both making the most of the venue’s acoustics without microphones and being all-the-more effective for it.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Top 10 plays for June

Without a shadow of a doubt, my number one trip this month was to A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle and it will probably rank as the most exhilarating thing I will see all year but it was not strictly theatrical so I am not including it in my top tem plays for June which you will find below.

Review: The Road To Mecca, Arcola

“You are more radiant than all your little candles”

Set in 1970s South Africa, The Road To Mecca is part of an Athol Fugard mini-season at the Arcola Theatre, the UK premiere of Coming Home taking place in the smaller Studio 2 there. Miss Helen lives alone in an isolated village in the Karoo desert of South Africa. She has discovered herself as an artist since the death of her husband and her house and garden is now filled with works of arts and statues and glitter and candles as she tries to keep the darkness at bay. 

Her pursuit of her craft has left her isolated from the community and the local church, thus her circle of friends has resultantly dwindled and we meet two of the most significant during the play as they try and persuade her that they know what is best for them. Marius is the local pastor who believes that she’d be better off in an old people’s home. And there’s Elsa, a young teacher but an old friend, who now lives in Cape Town who has made the 12 hour drive to see her friend because she is seriously concerned for her welfare.