Monday, 29 November 2010

The 2010 London Evening Standard Theatre Awards

Best Play

WINNER Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris (Royal Court)
by Mike Bartlett (Royal Court)
Sucker Punch by Roy Williams (Royal Court)

Best Director

WINNER Howard Davies for The White Guard (National's Lyttelton) & All My Sons (Apollo)
Nicholas Hytner
for The Habit of Art (National's Lyttelton) & London Assurance (National's Olivier) & Hamlet (National's Olivier)
Laurie Sansom for Beyond the Horizon and Spring Storm (National's Cottesloe)
Thea Sharrock for After the Dance (National's Lyttelton)

Best Actor

WINNER Rory Kinnear, Measure for Measure (Almeida) & Hamlet (National's Olivier)
Roger Allam
, Henry IV Parts One and Two (Shakespeare's Globe)
David Suchet, All My Sons (Apollo)

Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress

WINNER Nancy Carroll, After the Dance (National's Lyttelton)
Elena Roger,
Passion (Donmar Warehouse)
Sheridan Smith, Legally Blonde (Savoy)
Sophie Thompson, Clybourne Park (Royal Court)

Ned Sherrin Award for Best Musical

WINNER Passion, Donmar Warehouse
Legally Blonde
, Savoy Theatre
Les Misérables (2010), a Cameron Mackintosh production at Barbican Theatre

Best Design

WINNER Miriam Buether for Sucker Punch (Royal Court) & Earthquakes in London (National's Cottesloe)
Bunny Christie
for The White Guard (National's Lyttelton)
Christopher Oram for Passion (Donmar Warehouse) & Red (Donmar Warehouse)

Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright

WINNER Anya Reiss for Spur of the Moment (Royal Court)
DC Moore
for The Empire (Royal Court)
Nick Payne for If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet (Bush) & Wanderlust (Royal Court)

Milton Shulman Award for Outstanding Newcomer

WINNER You Me Bum Bum Train created by Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd (LEB Building, E2)
Melanie Chisholm
for her performance in Blood Brothers (Phoenix Theatre)
Daniel Kaluuya for his performance in Sucker Punch (Royal Court)
Isabella Laughland for her performance in Wanderlust (Royal Court)
Shannon Tarbet for her performance in Spur of the Moment (Royal Court)

Editor's Award

Daniel Kaluuya for his performance in Sucker Punch (Royal Court)

Lebedev Special Award

Sir Michael Gambon for his contribution to theatre

Moscow Art Theatre's Golden Seagull

Sir Peter Hall

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Review: Richard III, Propeller at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

“Thus it is when men are ruled by women”

I have not been lucky enough to catch Propeller, Edward Hall’s all-male Shakespeare company, in my theatregoing thus far and it was only the perseverance of a new friend at Boycotting Trends that convinced me to make the trip (also my first) to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford in order to catch Richard III, the first of their two plays that they will be touring for the next several months in rep with The Comedy of Errors. And boy am I glad that he did, for this reimagining of the history play into a post-modern gothic Victoriana-fest is pretty close to being unmissable.

The story of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, youngest son of his Plantagenet family yet possessed of a burning ambition to be King and utterly ruthless in his bloodthirsty, backstabbing, blackmailing and brutal climb to the throne, is one of Shakespeare’s longest plays but Edward Hall along with Roger Warren has adapted and re-edited the text into something more dramatically compelling than I remember this play ever being, mainly through incorporating an outrageously comic, even vaudevillian approach to the dastardly deeds that are carried out.

Cast of Richard III continued

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Review: Beauty and the Beast, National Theatre

“You’ve never heard a fairytale until you’ve heard one told by a fairy...”

First in an ever-increasing list of the family Christmas show market is Beauty and the Beast, currently in previews at the Cottesloe in the National Theatre. Devised and directed by Katie Mitchell with text work from playwright Lucy Kirkwood, they have reworked the traditional fairy tale into this delightful new confection aimed at girls and boys over the age of eight (and those young at heart too!)

Mitchell’s twist is to have the story presented to us by magical creatures Mr Pink and Cecile with their helper, and it is these interjections that provide much of the laughs and the interesting narrative drive whereas we might be familiar with the tale of Beauty and the Beast, we have no idea where these characters might end up. She has introduced all sorts of lovely touches to engage her audience, my favourites of which were the mind-reading machine which is used on the characters to reveal their true thoughts but is also turned on some audience members too and the shadow puppets used with the lightbox to great effect. The fast-forward and rewind features were neatly done, Gareth Fry’s exaggerated sound effects are great fun, there’s a charming moment as we all look up into the stars: it all serves to capture the attention of her audience and keep it, the children around me all loved it.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Review: The Cradle Will Rock, Arcola

"This is a war to end war, we do it for peace"
The final show to take place in the main theatre at the Arcola’s current premises on Arcola Street in Dalston, The Cradle Will Rock also marks the 10th anniversary of the theatre founded by Artistic Director Mehmet Ergen which will be moving just down the road to the Colourworks building and opening there with a new Rebecca Lenkiewicz play about Joseph Turner in the New Year. With book, music and lyrics by American Mark Blitzstein, the musical is set in a fictional town, Steeltown, USA and concerns the wide rifts between workers and the wealthy at a time when millions were unemployed: in this case it is the union struggles of the interwar period and 1937, though there’s much resonance in the material of the nefarious influence of those in positions of power on the average citizen that echo through to today.
Events take place as a liberty committee made up of the great and good of this particular town are arrested by a confused rookie cop on the very evening that the workers in the steel plant are voting whether to unionise themselves, that committee having set out to stop the vote. But as a series of vignettes play out, we come to see how each of the town’s leaders have fallen under the corrupt influence of the steel magnate Mr Mister with only a previous few people able to withstand the pressure and fight for what they believe is right and fair.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Review: End of the Rainbow, Trafalgar Studios

“But how much should we believe Judy?
‘All of it…otherwise what’s the point.’”

Following a run in Northampton earlier this year, Peter Quilter’s Judy Garland biographical musical drama End of the Rainbow is taking up residence at the Trafalgar Studios theatre, featuring a stellar performance from Tracie Bennett in the lead role. The play centres around the five-week period in 1968 when she undertook a cabaret season at the Talk of the Town in London in order to try and pay off the mountain of debt accumulated during a life of numerous marriages and divorces, repeated comebacks, drug dependency, ill health, suicide attempts and a whole lotta other drama too.

This isn’t so much an impersonation of Judy Garland as an embodiment of her by Tracie Bennett, in what is a truly awe-inspiring performance. And it is testament to the depth of her skill that one isn’t longing for the next song to kick in as the acting scenes are just as strong and engaging as she battles with her constant need for reassurance, her fears of not being loved and ending up alone and the struggle to keep off the pills. This is clearly no hagiography as even though we get to see much of her waspish humour with some cracking one-liners, Garland is also shown at the depth of her desperation, begging to be given some of her ‘grown-up candy’, stumbling and cracking onstage during performances.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Review: Dancing Bears

“You got to show them that you ain’t messin’ around”

I can’t really say too much about this play as I heard so very little of it. Sat where I was by the staircase up to the bar, the ambient noise of chatter and the music playing obscured most of the dialogue for me and in a tightly packed space, there was nowhere I could have moved to without causing considerable disruption. Compared to Dream Pill (for which I was sat on the opposite side of the room) where the level of hubbub helped the piece as it was set in the basement of a similar establishment, I could not see the same logic as we were set in a non-specific outdoor scenario where the noise made no sense to me. Additionally, our seats were awkwardly placed so much of the action with the injured Aaron was lost to us too: so all in all it was a shocker of an experience and really rather unsatisfactory.

Which was a shame as from what I could see of the play, it was interestingly set up. Looking at gang violence both through the perspective of young men, as the performers all initially arrive in hoodies playing boys, one by one they strip off the tops to become young women, sisters, girlfriends, comrades of the boys who ostensibly are sick of the lifestyle thrust upon them by men, only to form their own equally damaging little group, capable of just as much horrific violence. Ony Uhiara managed to stand out amongst the din with a physically intimidating performance as both a boy and girl whose lives are dominated by the idea of their gang as ‘family’ and unable to accept anything but total dedication.

Review: That Almost Unnameable Lust

“You think it’s a mad idea…that prison might give some women just time on their own”

Keeping the same trio of actresses from Part 1, director Caroline Steinbeis gets to work in the main theatre for her second offering which is probably the strongest piece of writing, That Almost Unnameable Lust by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Two lifers are visited in prison by a writer who is trying to carry out research for a book as she discovers that all sorts of women can end up inside. Beatie Edney’s Liz movingly talks of the regular spousal abuse that finally resulted in her putting an end to it, but it is Janet Henfrey’s haunted Katherine that is unmissable. She does not speak, yet through her subconscious tells us of happier times in her youth though the hints of darkness around the edges are never far away and made explicit with her propensity for self-harming.

Steinbeis makes the most of the drama with its interior monologues and swing interludes, presenting an interesting visual experience to partner the excellent script. Rebecca Oldfield also does well as the well-meaning but rather gauche and incredibly naïve writer who has no idea of the reality of life in prison and who receives a harsh education in the truth of their lives especially through Liz’s recounting of the domestic violence that blighted her life. Truly harrowing but totally captivating.

Review: Doris Day

“You make people think women like me, who’ve tried f**king hard, don’t belong in the police force”

An intriguing final piece for Charged 2 from EV Crowe, Doris Day, pits two young police officers with different outlooks on their experience in the force against each other as they clash over the way women are perceived in that institution, acceptable traits of behaviour and the survival strategies they each have in place. In the macho world of the police, they’ve both been the victim of harassment and sexism but choose to deal with it in mightily different ways with considerably different ramifications for each.

Rebecca Scroggs as the more determined of the two to tough it out presents a convincing argument of the benefits of gritting the teeth and taking one for the team as it were, but Crowe’s writing (soon to be seen too at the Royal Court Upstairs in Kin) carefully shows us a range of viewpoints and allows Emma Noakes’ Daisy to defend her different way of policing and her choices to challenge the sexism she has experienced even though it forced her into a transfer to another police force and thus garnered her a bit of reputation. Their debates peel away the fronts they put up to their colleagues and their loved ones, revealing the stresses they’re both under, though in scratching the surface, it did leave one wanting more.

Review: Dream Pill

“You will like working here…”

Part of Charged 1, Rebecca Prichard’s Dream Pill tells the harrowing story of two young Nigerian girls, 9 and 10, who have been somehow locked into the sex-slave industry and kept prisoner both physically and mentally, playing on their spiritual beliefs which have been manipulated against them. It uses the setting of the downstairs restaurant well as the play is set in a cellar beneath some less than salubrious establishment and the faint hubbub of the Soho Theatre bar thus serves an effective purpose.

Danielle Vitalis as the bolshier, more gregarious Bola drives much of the narrative, her plain speaking presenting harsh truths to us with a, but Samantha Pearl as the more timid Tunde gives one of the most affecting performances of the whole six plays, Clearly damaged by her experiences, yet still hungry for affection and approval, she broke my heart with her wide eyes and hushed speech. Director Tessa Walker has them walking throughout the audience, addressing the audience directly and in such an uncompromising manner that one ends up not begrudging the temporary if unconscionable ‘relief’ provided by the dream pills they receive in return for services rendered.

Review: Fatal Light

“Someone’s been round, some prick from Social Services, some f**king man telling me how to be a mother”

Taking place on the main stage for the first part is Chloë Moss’ Fatal Light. Directed by Lucy Morrison, it unfolds backwards from the starting point of a young policewoman struggling to deal with informing a woman Maggie, that her daughter Janine has died in prison. As we proceed, we discover the events and circumstances that have brought us here as Maggie is now forced to care for her granddaughter Aine, with the main thrust around Janine’s struggles to deal with her mental health issues and get some understanding treatment from the authorities.

The succession of short scenes means that there’s not really enough time to develop much dramatic impetus or the themes that are being covered, though the structure is cleverly portrayed: the three of us all twigged at different times that the storytelling was in reverse (depressingly, I was the last to work it out!). But there’s a refreshing humanity to Moss’ characters: Ashley McGuire is astoundingly good throughout, but particularly at showing the awkward humour of Maggie’s attempts to connect with her daughter through new age philosophy cribbed off a herbal tea bag, Ony Uhiara’s cellmate who wants Janine to shut up, but recognises the importance of letting her talk about her daughter and the perceptive young girl who sees the troubled relationship between her mother and grandmother, played beautifully by Isabella Mason. Rebecca Scroggs also impresses as Janine, the woman at the centre of it all whose vast emotions spill from her in ways she just cannot control.

Review: Taken

“Do you know what you done to me?”

In what was the final play of the first day for me, Winsome Pinnock’s Taken looks at how three generations of a family are each affected by the decision to give up a child. Fresh out of rehab and coming to terms with the damage she caused as a drug addict, Della has returned to her mother’s council flat to help care and clean for her as she is struggling to manage on her own. When she is paid a visit by a young woman claiming to be the daughter she gave up, she is forced to confront the painful realities of her decision.

Beatie Edney was very good as Della, the woman barely able to acknowledge that she was so deep in her addiction that she can’t really recognise whether it really is the daughter she gave up. Rebecca Oldfield uses a manipulative edginess well as the could-be daughter and Janet Henfrey is painfully moving as Nane Nola, suffering from some dementia-like affliction but still able to have moments of startling revelatory acuity that pierce to the truth of what really happened. Caroline Steinbeis’ direction controlled the release of information well and used the limited space, packed with boxes, extremely effectively, suggesting the claustrophobia that accompanies facing difficult truths.

Review: Charged, Soho Theatre

“Punish me or pray for me. Lock me up or look away. I’m not going anywhere.”

Charged is a theatrical experience by the Clean Break company at the Soho Theatre which brings six female playwrights together to create six half-hour dramas about women in the criminal justice system and the myriad ways in which they can be affected. Clean Break have been working in the arenas of theatre and education for over thirty years with women affected in all sorts of ways to try and achieve both personal and political change and is the only UK theatre company working with these women.

A company of eleven actresses and three directors are spread over three performance areas in the Soho Theatre building, the main auditorium, the restaurant downstairs and the attic-like studio on the top floor. The six plays have been split into two separate sequences of three plays, Charged 1 and Charged 2 which can be seen independently of each other or together, but even then, the audience is divided into two upon arrival and so experience different journeys through the material. Mini-reviews of each of the plays can be read by clicking on the links in their titles, what follows is more of an overview of the whole experience.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Review: Showstopper! with the West End Whingers, Kings Head Theatre

“I’ve seen all sorts of things in pub theatres...”

Tonight saw a very special version of Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, currently playing Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays at Islington’s King’s Head Theatre, as it featured none other than fairy godfathers and inspiration to theatre bloggers across the nation, the West End Whingers as special guests. As a critics show, it took a slightly different format: whereas normally the audience are encouraged to shout out scenarios, musical styles and plot developments at the beginning and a show is improvised from there by the ensemble, here our invitees had been asked to write a review of a play from their imagination that does not currently exist and so that was the show that was then developed put on by the team, who were blissfully unaware of what was coming their way.

The show was Dametastick!! a tale of two theatrical divas, narcoleptic Andromeda Dench and Philomena Smith with a wooden leg, old drama school chums from the Rah-Dah estranged after marrying the same man, though at different times but now both in the twilight of their careers auditioning for the same part in The Grapes of Froth, a production being put on a pub theatre with pretensions of becoming an opera house and directed by the man who had been married to them both. Highly silly, highly amusing and enlivened even further by the requirements of the plot, including a tap routine whilst eating cream crackers, a grape-treading number that involved yodelling and a coup de théâtre at the finale which was so amazing it couldn’t even be mentioned until the very moment it came to pass. At least those were the things I could remember, the Whingers really packed a lot into their allotted 80 minutes!

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Review: Iolanthe, Union Theatre

“He’s a fairy down to the waist, but his legs are mortal”

Sasha Regan’s All-Male Iolanthe marks the third Gilbert and Sullivan show to receive the Union Theatre treatment in what is fast becoming an annual tradition of great quality. Last year’s Pirates of Penzance was hugely well-received transferring to both Wilton’s Music Hall and the Rose in Kingston so expectation was high for this lesser-known (by me at least!) show. What is it about? Well, the Lord Chancellor of England is in love with Phyllis, his shepherdess ward who loves Strephon, the half-fairy shepherd whose mother, Iolanthe, was condemned by the Fairy Queen to live at the bottom of a river for marrying a mortal, who is none other than the Lord Chancellor. Thus the House of Lords and the legal profession come in for a bit of a battering as the fairies wreak their mischievous havoc in order to ensure everyone gets their happy ending.

With such a convoluted plotline and a considerable number of characters in the ensemble, I can’t imagine there’s much room for manoeuvre in putting an effective, individual interpretation on the show but Sasha Regan really has done a fabulous job here in choosing a framework which neatly sidesteps a whole world of difficulties but provides its own emotional reference points, complemented beautifully by Stewart Charlesworth’s design . When the fairies first arrived, there was a collective intake of breath as we worked out whether it was ok to laugh or not but after just a couple of beats, as it suddenly becomes evident what the framing device is (look at what the costumes are made from...), everyone relaxed into the genial mood. Yes, the constant references to fairies and mentions of a midnight assignation in St James’ Park caused many a titter from the audience but the tone is always an affectionate one, it is silly but not too silly, it is camp but not too camp, above all it is rip-roaring great fun.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Review: The Glass Menagerie, Young Vic

“The window is filled with pieces of coloured glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colours, like bits of shattered rainbow.”

Continuing the Young Vic’s 40th anniversary season, a new revival of Tennessee Williams’ classic The Glass Menagerie arrives in the main house directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins and featuring an exciting cast. One of his earliest plays and consequently one of his most autobiographical, it is set in 1937 in the city of St Louis, Missouri where the Wingfields live close to the poverty line. Mother Amanda dreams of her girlhood in the Deep South and the husband that left her, son Tom dreams of leaving his full factory job and pursuing his dreams and fragile daughter Laura is happy as she is in her own quiet world but as her mother is determined to secure a better future for the children, she pushes Tom to finding a suitable ‘gentleman caller’ for his sister with devastating effects.

Opening with an introduction to the world of memory plays, for this is what The Glass Menagerie is, narrated by an older version of Tom, the action starts with a gorgeous little coup de theatre revealing the Wingfields’ apartment on the corner stage. As Dario Marianell’s music is played live on stage by Eliza McCarthy on the piano and Simon Allen on a range of instruments including music boxes and a table of water glasses which provide a beautifully evocative soundscape: Allen also provides live sound effects which are neatly done, especially on the staircase and James Farncombe’s evocative lighting shines across the stage, the play is atmospherically set somewhere between memory and reality, helped by the levels built into Jeremy Herbert’s set design.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Review: The Master Builder, Almeida

“I have underwear in my haversack”

I have made no secret of my issues with Ibsen on this blog: he is a playwright whom I have never really ‘got’ and whose enduring popularity at theatre houses baffles me, I struggle to see what relevance much of his work has to audiences today. So when the Almeida announced a production of The Master Builder as their winter show it was with a slightly heavy heart that I booked tickets: I do try to keep my mind open to the chance that one day something might suddenly click, indeed I was in Manchester to see The Lady From The Sea just last week. And funnily enough, if you had to pick two Ibsen plays to see this close together, then it might as well be these two as to my surprise, they feature a recurring character in Hilde Wangel.

With a new translation by Kenneth McLeish, director Travis Preston has created a minimalist, modern-dress production of this cautionary tale of the drive for ambition at all costs. Halvard Solness is a self-made master builder, lacking in training but dominant in his small town world with a towering reputation that he zealously protects. This single-mindedness has had a corrosive effect on those around him though: his employees fear him and his wife is a mere shadow of her former self, the couple having suffered unimaginable tragedy with the death of twin sons and the ramifications of which still reverberate strongly for both of them. Into this world arrives Hilde, a young woman who claims a past connection with Solness and offers an alternative to the emotional paralysis that characterises his life but one which leads up a dangerous path. I must admit to being quite pleased to see a modern-day version of an Ibsen work for once, but having never seen The Master Builder before, you will have read elsewhere for commentary on any changes that have been made.

Review: Cabaret in the House with Tiffany Graves, Lauderdale House

Much of the success of cabaret shows relies on the right combination of performer and selection of material and with this show featuring Reed Sinclair and Tiffany Graves, the Cabaret in the House series at Lauderdale House absolutely hit the jackpot. Tim McArthur’s programming has paired rising stars with more established performers but what is nice is that they are both given ample opportunity to shine, there’s no minor supporting slot here but a full programme from both which really offers value for money, especially when it is of this quality and compered by the delightfully self-deprecating Valerie Cutko.

Canadian Reed Sinclair put together an intriguing set of songs, showcasing a range of musical theatre numbers from his career ranging from Cole Porter numbers to songs from US musicals that didn’t make it to the West End. And whilst the tendency might have been towards the slightly obscure, Sinclair delighted me by featuring not one but two of my randomly favourite songs! Hedwig & The Angry Inch is one of those shows and indeed films that really deserves to be much better known and when it was introduced to me by a friend, 'Wicked Little Town' was the song that stuck out for from the first listen and Sinclair’s rendition here was beautifully heartfelt, mixed in with some of Hedwig’s Lament too. And 'What More Can I Say' from William Finn’s musical Falsettos is just a gorgeous simple song, which was sung superbly here, also in a medley with The Games I Play. Accompanied by Alexander Bermange on the piano, we were also treated to a couple of songs from Bermange’s new musical Thirteen Days, based on the Cuban Missile Crisis which included a beautiful duet called 'Anyone But You' and a witty comic number 'The Grandad’s Defence' which very much suited Sinclair’s chirpy humour. And even though it was axed from the show, I would have loved to hear what his take on Cheryl Cole’s 'Fight For This Love' sounded like.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Re-review: Tribes, Royal Court

One of the highlights of October’s theatregoing for me was Nina Raine’s Tribes at the Royal Court, indeed I wouldn’t be surprised if it figures highly in my year-end chart too as a play which was extremely close to my heart and provoked a considerable emotional reaction in me for which I was ill-prepared. It has however stimulated much discussion and interesting developments for me and so when I was offered the chance to see it again from a most kind benefactor, I decided to revisit the play. I wasn’t too sure at first given just how emotional I got when I first saw it, but I was intrigued by the prospect of reassessing the play with a little perspective. Try as I might though, I struggled once again to separate the personal from the critical but that is the joy, for me at least, of the theatre, those moments when it transcends people just speaking words on the stage and becomes an all-encompassing, life-changing experience that will live with you for a long time.

You can read what I thought of it last time here; this is less of a review and more of a collection of thoughts and reflections. Some people have complained that not enough ‘happens’ in the show, but this for me is one of its strengths. In avoiding attaching the deaf ‘issue’ to a larger storyline as a subsidiary plot-point and placing it at the heart of the play, it allows for an intelligent portrayal of the deaf experience at its simplest and most affecting, in the heart of the family home. It is able to illustrate so much more by focusing on the seemingly mundane as opposed to a hugely dramatic sequence of events and therein lies its power: its depiction of a thoroughly realistic and relatable world is why it affected me and countless others so much. 

Friday, 12 November 2010

Review: Bright Lights Big City, Hoxton Hall

“Now this is what you wanted, all the frolics and the frenzy”

Tucked away in Shoreditch is Hoxton Hall, a Victorian music hall which now serves as a hub for much community arts work in the local area and now brings the London premiere of the musical Bright Lights, Big City. Set in New York in 1984, the story concerns a writer called Jamie whose response to a number of setbacks is to throw himself headlong into a life of debauchery. Struggling to deal with the recent death of his mother and with the reality of his wife leaving him, hard partying and taking drugs leads to him losing his job too and it is only with the persistent efforts of those who love him, can he find his way back to normality.

Performances across the ensemble are strong: Jodie Jacobs (with some seriously amazing crimped hair and who is appearing in her third musical in as many months!) and Rachel Wooding stood out for me, George Maguire’s Tad is a convincing Pied Piper-like figure leading Jamie astray and Rietta Austin’s vocal performance was most impressive. As Jamie himself, Paul Ayres does well vocally with a character who’s rarely offstage but could do with working a little more charm into his naïveté, elevating him slightly out of the everyman role as befits a leading man.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Review: An Ideal Husband, Vaudeville

“Now that the House of Commons is trying to become useful, it does a great deal of harm "

Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, a tale of morality, blackmail and political corruption, arrives at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand for a winter residency, featuring the husband and wife team of Alexander Hanson and Samantha Bond alongside the luminary talents of Elliot Cowan and Rachael Stirling in the lead roles.

On the surface, Wilde’s play is the saga of a rising political star, Sir Robert Chiltern, whose career is threatened by the villainous Mrs Cleveley who is possession of the knowledge of the past indiscretion which led to him securing a small fortune and the undying respect of his virtuous wife. Mrs Cleveley wants his support on a new scheme and is willing to blackmail him to get her way, but when his wife Gertrude finds out the truth, her perfect ‘ideal husband’ is besmirched, she declares she can no longer love him and it is left to their dear friend Lord Arthur Goring. But on closer examination, it is becomes a passionate plea for true love to be willing to forgive everything, something given extra poignancy when one considers that Wilde’s affair with Lord Alfred Douglas would become public and wreck his life within the very year this play was first produced.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Review: FELA! National Theatre

“It’s not just about Fela, it’s about you”

FELA! is the annoyingly capitalised and punctuated show that enters the world of Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and through a blend of dance, theatre and music, it takes a highly atmospheric journey through a crucial part of his life and it arrives at the National Theatre on the back of a much-lauded run on Broadway. The book is by Jim Lewis and Bill T Jones, the latter of whom is also the choreographer, but it uses the music and lyrics of Kuti’s own Afrobeat style to celebrate his life with some additional lyrics by Jim Lewis and music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean to pull it altogether into this production. This is a review of a preview so all usual caveats apply and ticket prices for this show really are not cheap, booking this performance meant I got a £44 seat for £24.50 and I make no apologies for that.

The show is set in the summer of 1978 in Lagos, the then capital, at the Shrine, Kuti's personal nightclub and sanctuary against a government whose corrupt and oppressive practices he has fought against both as a lyricist and an activist. Fela is giving one last concert before leaving the country due to the stresses of living under this regime, the opportunities offered to him elsewhere as a musician of increasing renown and as a grieving son, his mother Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti a noted activist herself having been thrown to her death in an attack on their premises six months previously.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Review: Company, Queens Theatre

“Good things get better, bad get worse. Wait, I think I meant that in reverse”

Last up in the programme of Stephen Sondheim celebration events from the Donmar Warehouse was a concert version of their 1995 production of Company. As with Merrily We Roll Along, last week’s offering, this show features music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by George Furth with astonishingly bright musical direction from Gareth Valentine, but directed this time by Jamie Lloyd.

The show centres around Bobby, a single man struggling to deal with the realities of adult relationships, and the people around him, his three girlfriends and the five married couples who are his best friends. The show is presented as a set of short vignettes randomly scattered around Bobby’s 35th birthday rather than a linear plot which meant this performance didn’t really come across too well in the concert format especially compared to Merrily... Also, with a much larger cast or rather a greater division of songs amongst the cast, it did mean that there was some considerable variation in the performance level as opposed to the solidity provided by the leads last week.

I have to admit to not being massively impressed by Adrian Lester as the central Robert, he just didn’t convince for me for whatever reason, though this didn’t seem to affect anyone else as the tears were definitely flowing as he reached the end of Being Alive. Hayden Gwynne impressed as Joanne, Sophie Thompson’s Amy was a whirlwind of overacting but delivered the incredibly verbose Not Getting Married well, but it was Anna Francolini who impressed me the most, not least because she has worked so incredibly hard over the last couple of weeks participating in the two Merrily... shows last week as well as these two and playing eight shows a week in Onassis: the woman deserves a medal!

I lost my programme somewhere on the way out, so I can’t be 100% sure of this but I think there were eight returning cast members from fourteen but I do recall that sadly, these shows were dedicated to the memory of Sheila Gish, the original Joanne, who passed away from cancer in 2005. All in all, Mr Sondheim ought to be rather impressed at the way in which London has celebrated his 80th birthday with huge gusto and a wave of productions all year long. I think I am thoroughly Sondheimed out now though, I was so very underwhelmed by Passion and despite the amazing casts for both these concerts and being truly grateful for the opportunity to hear some wonderful people sing, these events really were for the bona fide Sondheim cognoscenti rather than the casual observer.

Cast of Company continued

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Review: Antony & Cleopatra, Liverpool Playhouse

“The triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet's fool”

After playing the role herself in 1974 for the RSC, Janet Suzman returns to Antony and Cleopatra but this time as its director and has pulled off one of the canniest casting coups of the year in persuading Kim Cattrall to return to the city of her birth to head up the cast alongside Jeffery Kissoon at the Liverpool Playhouse. The ultimate tale of the trouble caused when the personal and the political are so inextricably entwined as Cleopatra and Mark Antony tumble into a passionate affair regardless of the fact that their infatuation threatens to destroy the world around them.

Feisty yet graceful, powerful yet passionate, Cattrall’s portrayal is simply superb. A highly intelligent woman, one can see the calculations behind her eyes as she weighs up each decision that will affect her so hugely but she also plays the comedy well and her touching vulnerability when seized by thoughts of love is beautiful: the recollection of their salad days is exceptional. Kissoon’s Antony is clearly a relic of a passing age, moody and tinged with madness from the outset. His battles come from his uncertainty at his place in this world as much as they do from his doomed affair and so he is a more shambolic leader. Together they don’t quite radiate the sexual chemistry that one might have expected from these historic lovers but I rather liked this interpretation where it is evident that Cleopatra is more in love with the idea of being in love with Antony and how the reality doesn’t always match up to the fantasy. Indeed Cattrall’s performance is never finer than the end, when irrevocably separated from her lover, she chooses oblivion over servitude to Caesar. 

Cast of Antony and Cleopatra continued

Friday, 5 November 2010

Review: The Lady From The Sea, Royal Exchange

“What is it you long for?”

The second part of my double bill at Manchester’s Royal Exchange was the production in the main theatre Ibsen’s The Lady From The Sea. Presented here in a new version by David Eldridge, using a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund, it marks the third time Eldridge has delved into the Nordic playwright’s work, this time working his stuff on one of his lesser-performed works. Just as a quick aside, I can highly recommend the blueberry cheesecake muffin from the bar at the theatre, it was a little piece of heaven!!

Set in a small fjordside Norwegian town, living a passive half life between sea and mountains, Ellida broods over her past love, despite having settled into a comfortable marriage of convenience with Doctor Wangel. Her reluctance to play the role of doting wife and stepmother results in Wangel bending over backwards to try and please her by inviting a man from her past to stay and cheer her up yet a web of misunderstandings and frustrations, that stretches all the way throughout this household, as the pull between domesticity and emotional freedom is explored.

Review: Love Love Love, Royal Exchange Studio

“We love each other but something has gone wrong; we live in Reading, something has gone wrong”

After taking the soon-to-be-renamed-Dorfman Cottesloe at the National Theatre by storm this summer, Mike Bartlett has another new play in theatres, Love Love Love. A co-production between Paines Plough and the Drum Theatre Plymouth, it is currently touring smaller spaces in some of the country's top regional theatres: I saw it in what marked my first visit to The Studio at Manchester's Royal Exchange.

Three acts, set in 1967, 1990 and 2011, take us through a relationship born in the heady world of the baby boomers ready to change the world, to their struggle to deal with the mundane responsibilities of middle-aged family life, through to the oblivious contentment of retirement. Bartlett’s sharp eye is focused here on responsibility, both social and personal, ultimately pitting generations against each other as today’s have-nots place the blame for the state of the world today on their predecessors’ shoulders, as an unfulfilled daughter rails about unfairness against her parents.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Review: Macbeth, Song of the Goat at the Barbican

“It is a tale...full of sound and fury”

Pulling together elements of Corsican chanting, poetry, Korean instrumentation, dance, Japanese-style robes, movement inspired by martial arts training and much manipulation of wooden staffs, Song of the Goat’s hypnotic and mesmerising retelling of Macbeth plays in the Pit at the Barbican after a UK tour which will also see them visit Brighton after this residency. 

It is an immersive experience suffused with a primal energy that takes you to the heart of the show, revealing new layers with a piercing emotional directness. To be sure, it isn’t a straight retelling of the play as it is known, indeed it is more accurate to describe it as something like a rhapsody on a theme of Macbeth: it is probably not one for the purists given the amount of editing and cutting here and the occasional dip into obscurity that results, one needs to approach this almost without prior expectation or knowledge in order to just embrace what they are trying to achieve. 

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Review: Spend Spend Spend! Richmond Theatre

“I was surprised at how much it affected me”

In 1961, Viv Nicholson won the equivalent of the lottery jackpot on the pools with her husband Keith in Castleford. Spend Spend Spend is a musical that tells the story, adapted from Nicholson’s own book, of how it was subsequently all frittered away, how money doesn’t always bring happiness and certainly doesn’t grant immunity from tragedy. The action is narrated from the perspective of the older Viv, reflecting back on her life as she rebuilds her life in South Yorkshire as a hairdresser. Originated at the Watermill, this actor-musician production is directed by Craig Revel Horwood and is reprising a successful UK tour this year.

Steve Brown’s score is solid, cohesive despite picking influences from a range of English music styles; Diego Pitarch’s design is simple, an effective replication of a Yorkshire pub which flexibly turns into a bedroom when needed; Revel Horwood’s choreography is attractive though not particularly adventurous, but this really is a show where the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. There’s a perfect confluence of each element, there’s not a huge amount of dancing for example which makes the routine to the title number an absolute blast and lending it a greater impact. And with its straight-forward direction and the no-nonsense approach to life that Viv and Keith espoused, the shows rockets through the ups and downs of life with remarkable candour in its portrayal of a flawed but aspirational woman.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Review: The Two-Character Play, Jermyn Street

“This still feels like a performance of The Two-Character Play”

So much of Tennessee Williams’ work bears the influence of his relationship with his beloved sister but nowhere is he more nakedly autobiographical than in The Two-Character Play, one of his later, rarely performed works from 1967. Featuring a brother and sister who endlessly re-enact a play about a brother and sister called The Two-Character Play; it is a highly introspective piece of work which is considerably more experimental than fans of his work might be used to, but surreally beautiful and recognisable as Williams.

Clare and Felice are abandoned by their theatre company, stuck in an emptying provincial theatre, yet the play must go on as they struggle to get through the performance, it having particular personal resonance to them. Both physically and emotionally in a no-man’s-land, this pair struggle for resolution yet are terribly scared of it: the portrait of confusion, the slow slide into madness, is all the more moving considering that both Williams and his sister ended up in mental institutions.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Top 10 Plays for October

Eek, there is no other word but eek to describe how I felt when I finally counted up my play total for October, 35! Possibly too much for I am feeling shattered and even a trip up north for four days to see family over the Bonfire Night weekend has suddenly got three plays in it now! Oh well, I'll cut down next year...  ;-)  So on we go with my top ten for October (and I know I've cheated with a joint top place, but it's my blog, I'm allowed! And both those plays really are superb. I've excluded Avenue Q as I've seen it so many times before but it probably would have figured around 4 or 5.)

Review (or more of a love letter): the fourth-to-last Avenue Q, Wyndhams

“Everything in life is only for now”

There’s no show really that best typifies my love for the theatre, and specifically my love for London theatregoing, than Avenue Q. From its arrival at the Noël Coward Theatre in 2006, this was a show I fell head over heels for from the opening song and one that has provided constant pleasure to me ever since. Looking back, I think this counts up as my seventh visit to the show, plus one special Valentine’s Day cabaret show, and like every relationship it has had its ups and downs, but ultimately that’s only made my love for the show stronger and I was really pleased to be able to squeeze in one last visit to the final Friday afternoon show to bid it ‘furwell’.

As if I couldn’t have loved this show more, the grace and humour with which the closing notices were announced just melted my heart. I’ve borrowed images of the set of posters from the Avenue Q Facebook page and posted them here to show you what I mean, I particularly love the ‘Available for Panto from 30 October’ line, it is so typical of the humour of the show and whoever has been in charge of the publicity should be commended for keeping a sense of humour throughout. The YouTube clip at the bottom is also well worth a watch.

Regarding my feelings for the actual show, my review of the last time I saw it in June this year captures it rather well, but should you be so inclined you can read my collected thoughts of previous shows here, here, here, here, and my first time here. As I’ve said before, I really do think it is one of the best new musicals of the last ten years, full stop. Witty, moving, clever, relevant, I could go on for days about the ways in which I love it. I particularly love the way that my reaction to the show has subtly changed as I’ve gotten older: on first viewing, its resonance was all about the career/life perspective, not having been in London long and with no career path in mind, I knew just how Princeton felt (although my song went What Do You Do With A M.A. Hons (SocSci) in Economic & Social History, a slightly less catchy title!) but seeing it now, it is the relationship side of things that rings more true, especially in Kate Monster’s frustration at the friends vs lovers distinction and the ambiguity of its ending with her one-day-at-a-time approach. But it is also funny how so many random lines from the show have entered my vocabulary: ‘I’m not being defensive’ in a shrill voice is a favourite, as is the simple ‘Yaaayyyyy!’ and I cannot hear the words mix tape without breaking into song, it really has had quite the impact on me!