Sunday, 31 July 2011

Review: The Syndicate, Minerva

One is constantly learning when going to/reading /writing about theatre, there’s just so much of it to take in! Unknown to me, Eduardo Di Filippo is apparently a giant of Italian theatre but even this, The Syndicate – a version of Il Sindico Del Rione Sanità by Mike Poulton – is receiving its British premiere here, indicating that my ignorance is perhaps a little forgivable. Playing at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, it boasts a healthy cast of 20 headed by Sir Ian McKellen, on a break from filming The Hobbit.

McKellen plays Antonio Barracano, a man smuggled to New York by the local Godfather after murdering a man in his native Naples. After many years accumulating wealth and reputation by working for the mob there, he returns to his hometown as a man of standing amongst the criminal classes who look to him to dispense his own individual brand of justice and one particular case, intervene in a vicious dispute between a son and his father, the son’s murderous urges reminding Don Antonio of his own youthful indiscretion.

Review: Singin’ in the Rain, Chichester Festival Theatre

“Be a clown, be a clown, the whole world loves a clown"

I’m often asked what my favourite genre of theatre is and I usually make vague noises about liking all of it (farce and puppetry aside obviously) but there is no denying that the shows I truly love the most are big old-school musicals stuffed full of show-tunes and tap-dancing: sheer escapism wrapped up in cosy familiarity. I’m not entirely sure where this came from as these weren’t the shows (or films) of my childhood but this is turn has brought its own pleasures as I’ve been able to see shows like Hello, Dolly!, Salad Days and On the Town for the first time in amazing stage productions without knowing what to expect and consequently being blown away. Earlier this year, the Crucible’s Me and My Girl planted a strong marker for musical of the year but having now seen Singin’ in the Rain at the Chichester Festival Theatre, the competition is definitely hotting up.

There are similarities: the open thrust stage here, as in Sheffield, is just perfect for big expansive dance numbers, especially when they are this well-choreographed, and also able to play on an intimacy with the audience that most London theatres would kill for; and Daniel Crossley is in both, he may be in a supporting role here but to my mind, he is one of our best all-rounders, I could watch him dance for days; and they’re both ‘out-of-town’ shows, I’m not sure how much of a difference it really makes, but it is hard to shake the feeling that had they originated in London, they’d be less ensemble-oriented, less fun and more cynically post-modern.

Cast of Singin' in th Rain continued

Friday, 29 July 2011

Review: Betwixt, Trafalgar Studios 2

“Is there a market for adult fairytales?”

It is often said that musicals are not written but rewritten and so it is with Betwixt, a musical written entirely by Ian McFarlane that has been gestating since 2008 with a run at the King’s Head and a West End concert. The show has since been further developed with new songs written for this new production which plays at the Trafalgar Studios 2 featuring a cast that can only be described as eclectic: a host of upcoming young stars are joined by a former Blue Peter presenter in Peter Duncan and the inimitable Ellen Greene, most famous for creating the role of Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors.

The show takes place in both modern day New York and an enchanted kingdom in a parallel dimension: Bailey is a writer suffering from writer’s block in whose flat a mysterious door has appeared, who gets a new flatmate Cooper, a resting actor, who has just found a key the very same day. When they enter, they find themselves in a fantasy world and thrust into taking part in a mission to fulfil a prophecy and help a princess. The programme advises “don’t ask too many questions – just go with it” when it comes to the plot, sage advice indeed as it isn’t always immediately clear what is going on or where we are, but there is an irrepressible amusing madness to proceedings as the pair encounter a host of wacky characters on their odyssey in this twisted fairytale.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Review: There is a War, National Theatre

Tom Basden’s There is a War makes for a more entertaining second half of Double Feature 2, at least for the first few scenes. Occupying the kind of slightly surreal version of reality he has become known for, it is set in a non-specific domain where a civil war is being waged between the Blues and the Greys.

When he is being sharply satirical, Basden is at his best and it shows in the great opening third of the show and the way he skewers the group mentalities that emerge. Whether it is the meaningless bureaucracy of the military, the lengths some people are driven to to avoid certain things, the hypocrisy of the peace protestors, or the sheer ridiculousness of a conflict that no-one is 100% sure about – exactly how different is blue from grey anyway... – yet they all take part in it anyway, he mines a brilliantly dark shaft of humour through the brief appearances of some hilarious characters. Kirsty Bushell’s fantastically-unprepared dance-drama teacher, Trevor Cooper’s Big Dave – advising Richard Hope’s Field Commander Goodman on military strategy, the imprisoned yet chirpy soldier (I think played by Richard Goulding): they all help play up the absurdity of the situation.

Review: Nightwatchman, National Theatre

Forming the first half of Double Feature 2 is this debut play from Prasanna Puwanarajah. Puwanarajah has a lot he wants to get off his plate, several ideas bubbling under and consequently the end of result is that Nightwatchman is both overloaded – thematically its reach incorporates too many weighty issues for the running time – and undernourished – the format precludes any of them being dealt with in a satisfactory manner. Whether its talking about the travails of playing a minority sport like women’s cricket, delving into her own history as growing up ‘different’, in many senses of the word, in Salford, recounting the troubled history of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka or debating matters of identity and nationality in a multicultural world, flashes of insight constantly emerge, hinting at a playwright who does show promise.

But in flitting around such huge topics without really engaging with them beyond the superficial, there’s a sense of frustration that builds. A fair amount of knowledge is presumed of the audience member, my hazy recall of the recent geopolitics in the region didn’t help enough, and the jargon-filled cricket references mainly sailed on by. Worst of all though, is that is makes Abirami a largely unsympathetic protagonist. Every time the surface is scratched and the promise of something interesting to further develop is revealed, Puwanarajah ducks away and the attention diverted elsewhere. Stephanie Street battles gamely to bring life beyond the labels, to flesh out this character beyond being a simple vessel to spout words but she is fighting a losing battle against the material. It is a fine performance though.

Review: Double Feature 2, National Theatre

“We keep it loose, we stay chatty...we do not freak out”

Switching it up a little for the summer is the National Theatre with their Double Feature run: 2 double bills of new writing performed by one ensemble and playing in a new space, the Paintframe. It wasn’t always meant to be thus, the original plan was to put this into the Cottesloe but the huge success of London Road and its subsequent extension meant alternative arrangements had to be found and so the area where sets are painted was co-opted, a rather neat decision as it plays into the experimental feel of the whole experience.

Divided into 2 double bills, I saw Double Feature 2 first, at the first preview, which pairs Prasanna Puwanarajah’s Nightwatchman and Tom Basden’s There Is A War. I ummed and aahed a bit about how to write up these shows and so what will follow is a general overview of the plays and the experience as a whole, and there will be two separate reviews of the actual shows which will be a bit more detailed and so potentially spoilerific.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Review: The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Young Vic

"My world doesn't revolve around your taste in biscuits"

In 2010 I set myself the challenge/allowed myself the luxury of seeing every single show that I wanted, and I can pretty much say that I achieved that. But as the end of year lists started to appear, one play kept popping up that made me think I perhaps ought to have overridden my instincts not to bother with it and taken it in: that play was The Beauty Queen of Leenane and the Young Vic have kindly decided to bring it back, with a three-quarters different cast to be sure, so that I could be dragged along to see it and find out if it was worth it after all. We attended the final preview that took place on 25th July.

Martin McDonagh’s 1996 play is set in deepest rural Ireland, in the mountain of Connemara where the scheming Mag Folan lives with the embittered Maureen, her 40 year old daughter and skivvy. Locked in a twisted familial bond, every single act whether making a cup of Complan or switching on the radio becomes a fierce battle of wills, but when a glimmer of escape for Maureen appears via the arrival of the handsome Pato on the scene, behaviour on all sides in pushed to the shocking extreme.

Cast of Doctor Faustus continued

Monday, 25 July 2011

CD Review: Much Ado About Nothing – Original London Cast Recording

“The rain it raineth every day”

A rather surprising addition to the theatrical CD racks is this official cast recording of the David Tennant/Catherine Tate Much Ado About Nothing that is currently doing great business at the Wyndham’s Theatre. Perhaps the clue is right there, there’s a natural fan-base with an appetite for all they can get their hands on when it comes to Mr Tennant and having employed up-and-coming musical theatre composer Michael Bruce to compose a score to fit in with the 80s-themed production, it is now available to buy and download from all usual outlets.

And what a funny beast it is, taking the 80s brief completely to heart, the 9 songs take Shakespearean poetry and verse and sets them to pastiches of music of the era. It is hard to credit just how much Bruce’s original music plays like an authentic Greatest Hits of the 80s without one actually being able to identify exactly who it is the song reminds you of. Just the once, in Who is Hero?, is he unable to resist the obvious connection and delivers a piece that is perhaps too close a cousin of Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero yet it is still fun with it.

Not-A-Review: Encourage the Others, Young Friends of the Almeida

“In general, a sense of possibility...”

If you’re interested in theatre and aged between 15 and 21 (or 25 if in full time education - potentially involving some non traditional education, like distance learning programs) and live in London, then you could do a lot worse than joining the Young Friend of the Almeida Scheme which offers a world of unique opportunities to learn about, engage with and create theatre, all for the princely sum of £5. This range of activities includes LAB, a year-long project in which young people create a new production specifically for young people, this year is John Donnelly’s new play Encourage the Others which forms the centrepiece of The Young Friends Festival, part of the larger Almeida Festival running throughout July.

The festival pulls together a series of events for young people both as participants and performers inspired the Almeida’s programme over the last year and the production has followed the same logic. Donnelly worked with the group of 14 young actors over a six month period, developing the play as his understanding of what themes had affected them most and what they thought the key issues were, affecting young people in society today. The result is Encourage the Others, a short but powerful piece placing the youth of today in the driving seat as they make their voice heard and assert control – over themselves, over the audience, over society...

I was invited to watch a late rehearsal of the show at the Almeida rehearsal space on Upper Street and even without the creative side of things being in place, it is clear to see that there is a fantastic energy at work. I don’t want to reveal too much about the play as the element of surprise is one of its strongest aspects, but I was hugely impressed that there has been no ‘dumbing-down’ for the kids as it were, John Donnelly has written a complex, thought-provoking piece that challenges the viewer as much as it does the actor, especially in the way that it subverts expectations yet maintains a dry sense of humour.

Under Lu Kemp’s patient direction, the company have been working on this in one form or another since January, there’s a genuine sense of organic chemistry at work here, both in dealing with the rapid-fire dialogue and also in the way they all relate to each other, lines bounce from character to character but the group dynamic remains natural, disturbing at times but always natural. And naming no names, I could see perhaps 4 star performers in a pleasingly strong collection that elevates this from ‘just’ a youth project to a piece of work that has earned its place on the Almeida main stage.

Breathing a real sense of fresh air into a theatre which may have something of a middle-class, middle-aged reputation, Encourage the Others deserves your attention this coming weekend not least for what it promises for the future in terms of acting talent, but as an indication of the work the Almeida is doing behind the scenes to help secure the next generation of theatre-goers.

Running time: 40 minutes (without interval)
Booking 29th - 30th July

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Review: The Gift of Lightning, Waterloo East

“We in Ireland are f*cked, so they tell us”

The Gift of Lightning is young Irish playwright David Gilna’s UK debut, playing at the railway tunnel conversion that is the Waterloo East Theatre. Initially a story of four young Irish adults escaping economic depression by uprooting to Boston, Massachusetts and living a life of drunken hedonism, things take a darker turn when one of them, Sean, is struck by lightning and falls into a coma. As he lies between life and death, his friends unload their deepest secrets and his own sub-conscious wades through his memories and considerable sexual fantasies as he wakes up to see what difference the ‘gift of lightning’ has had on his life.

The construction of the play doesn’t lend itself to this supposed journey of self-discovery. Flitting from work to play and yet more play, Gilna’s writing does little to move beyond the superficial antics of this foursome whether it’s the guys’ attempts to sleep with every girl in Boston or the girls’ exchange of pulling techniques. These are intermittently funny, as the cast of four also play a wide range of funnily-accented supporting characters, broad comic swipes adding to the bawdy sex comedy: there’s little sophistication here but the easy physicality on display and personality channelled into the performances is quite winning.

Review: Mongrel Island, Soho Theatre

“Administrate it to buggery”

Steve Marmion’s opening season as artistic director for the Soho Theatre continues with Mongrel Island, a new play by Ed Harris, which follows on both thematically, in its utterly surreal exploration of the mind and memory and in retaining part of the same company, who played in Anthony Neilson’s Realism which has just finished its run in the main theatre. Harris sets his play in the workplace, an office where a group of people are going about the deathly dull business of a massive data transfer, a job so mind-numbing yet all-compassing that it soon starts to take over their whole lives.

Marie, Only Joe and Elvis toil away under the watchful, twitching eye of boss Honey, but when Marie, a charming turn from Robyn Addison, takes on extra hours in order to try and get a few days off to visit her father, the already odd atmosphere in the office takes a turn for the even more surreal. Harris’ writing is strongest when he is evoking the grim realities of an uninspiring working life, the inane chat to fill the silence, the casual cruelty born simply of the need to entertain, the sexual connections made to alleviate the boredom. Simon Kunz’s vicious Only Joe and Shane Zaza’s Elvis with his head seemingly in the clouds entertaining greatly here, Elvis’ storytelling having a particularly surreal poetic beauty even when talking about giant prawns battling polar bears.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Review: Four Nights in Knaresborough, Southwark Playhouse

“Look at us, the men who murdered Becket by the altar”

Four Nights in Knaresborough takes a rather unique look at events around a significant moment in medieval English history: the assassination of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Paul Webb’s play, presented here by co-producers Rooster and MokitaGrit at the Southwark Playhouse, looks at the four knights of Henry II’s court who carried out the murder of the troublesome Archbishop and follows them as they hole up in a drafty castle in deepest Yorkshire, visiting them four times over the course of a year as they wait, and wait, unsure of just what is going to happen to them.

The promotional material cites a modern day sensibility that has “more in common with Tarantino than Cadfael” but what the play put me most in mind of, particularly in the first half, was Sam Mendes’ film Jarhead in its portrayal of military men driven stir-crazy, frustratingly forced into an extended waiting game rather than doing what it is that they do best. And so we see the knights here dealing with the mundanity of killing time with tales of constipation, horniness, hunger, sword-polishing, even love, and the funniest scene of emergency medieval dentistry I’ll wager you’ll see all year.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Review: The Deep Blue Sea, Chichester Festival Theatre

“Moderation in all things has always been my motto”

Whereas productions celebrating Sondheim’s 80th birthday lasted all the blessed year long, the flurry of Terence Rattigan plays, marking the centenary year of his birth, seems to have died out in London at least. But in Chichester as their season moves into full swing, the first of a number of Rattigan productions starts with The Deep Blue Sea, a preview of which I caught on my first ever trip to the Chichester Festival Theatre.

It’s actually my second The Deep Blue Sea of the year, the first I travelled to the West Yorkshire Playhouse for to see Maxine Peake play the lead role and though several people had said to me that they thought she was too young for the role, as it was the first time I’d seen the play, it didn’t really affect me that much: having seen this production I see how that skewed the whole dynamic of the show. Here, director Philip Franks has stayed closer to the original intent by casting an older actress as Hester, in this case a stunning Amanda Root, which made the tangled nature of the relationships around her make more sense.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Review: Lay Me Down Softly, Tricycle

Set in a travelling roadshow that has put down somewhere deep in rural Ireland in the 60s, Lay Me Down Softly is a Billy Roche play, directed by the playwright too, that in currently playing at the Tricycle Theatre. The main attraction is the boxing ring around which the community of travellers sleepily coalesce, headed by roadshow owner Theo, but when Theo’s long-lost daughter and a professional boxer with something to prove both turn up, the scene is set for major upheaval.

Roche’s play is very good at evoking the familial atmosphere of this closely-knit group and passages of reminiscences are well written, delivered by a most engaging cast. But having created this world, populated it so effectively and then provided the catalyst for drama with the new arrivals, the play doesn’t progress in this way, instead staying at the same lugubrious pace pretty much throughout until its violent finale.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Review: What It Feels Like, New Wimbledon Studio

“You have no higher brain function; you’re in a coma…”

Described as “an experimental drama taking place within the world of a coma”, What It Feels Like is a new play drawing from several performance disciplines to explore a metaphysical world between life and death, where a life lived is re-examined, mistakes re-assessed and one of just two ways out of the coma must be chosen. The show is previewing briefly at the New Wimbledon Theatre before heading up to Edinburgh in August as part of the Festival.

The play starts with a couple, Nick and Sarah, meeting in a lift and clumsily agreeing to go to a party together but reality soon starts to crumble away, words and thoughts get confused, shadowy figures start to invade the space and it soon emerges that they have been involved in a car crash and we’re actually in the realm of Nick’s subconscious as he is trapped in a coma. Guided by a pair of spiritual guides, the comic double-act of Lester and Simpson, he is taken back to various points in his life, specifically relating to his marriage to Sarah which had taken an unhappy turn, to confront the choices he made and to determine what, if any, chance his subconscious mind has of coming out of the coma.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Review: For Once, Hampstead Downstairs

“Perhaps this is what everyone else does, perhaps this is what adults do. I can just act happy.”

The Michael Frayn Space downstairs at the Hampstead Theatre has become something of a hot venue. A space for more experimental fare than one might be accustomed to in Swiss Cottage, it has not been a place where press critics have been invited to, instead encouraging audience feedback as plays are developed there. But in a change of policy, the doors to Pentabus Theatre’s For Once were opened and deservedly so, as it is a beautifully written, powerfully affecting play.

It is playwright Tim Price’s debut work, though he is one to watch with an upcoming play forming part of this year’s Donmar at Trafalgar Studios season and another commission for National Theatre Wales appearing next year. And with this three-hander about a family recovering from the aftermath of a terrible car accident that has sent shockwaves through the isolated rural community in which they live, he demonstrates a real skill for sensitive storytelling, resonating with a genuine understanding of the emotional interplay of people struggling to return to everyday life.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Review: Loyalty, Hampstead Theatre

“The closer you are to the truth, the harder it is talk about it”

Loyalty is the debut play from Sarah Helm, a journalist and author who also happens to be the wife of Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair’s chief of staff. This privileged position made her an intimate witness to the weeks leading up to the 2003 invasion which she opposed and it is that that she has developed into this work - described as ‘a fictionalised memoir’ - of the struggle of a chief of staff Nick to balance the personal and political as he advises a Prime Minister named Tony who is edging closer to invading Iraq with an American President named George whilst ignoring his own conscience and the stridently vocal objections of his wife Laura. But it is fiction remember, at least some of the names are different...

The first half is genuinely excellent. Helm locates it firmly in the Stockwell home of Nick and Laura and we become observers along with Laura and her trusty notepad as Nick is involved with phone calls between the Prime Minister and figures of global importance discussing highly sensitive matters which we overhear. How this refracts back through their daily life is endlessly fascinating: the top secret documents just lying around the house, her frustrations at not being able to write about these things, the tensions caused by her friendship with an ex who just happens to be a journalist, the casualness with which he discusses the PM with their Polish au pair, even the level of security necessary in their home, the level of detailing is just undeniably authentic and convincing. And Maxine Peake as Laura anchors the play with an exceptional performance.

CD Review: Julie Atherton – No Space for Air

“If I opened my heart, there’d be no space for air”

Given that, as regular readers will know, I tend to think of Julie Atherton as something close to the Second Coming, I was a little trepidatious at the prospect of her new CD No Space for Air when it was first announced as an album embracing her rockier side and moving away from the musical theatre repertoire she is best known for. I almost cracked when I heard there was a Linkin Park song on there as I have never knowingly listened to one of their songs in my life! But I stuck with it, trusted in Julie, and was rewarded with a great listen.

For if there is a rock chick inside Atherton, it is a fairly mellow one. The aforementioned Linkin Park song Crawling is a gorgeous string-laden number with gently strummed guitars a little at odds with the angst-ridden lyrics: a very pleasant surprise but I’m happy without ever having to listen to the original. Likewise, Skunk Anansie’s Weak is stripped back to an almost acoustic rendition, piano-led this time but equally raw lyrically, showing a different side but still feeling authentic. Including Tori Amos’ quirky Leather is a nice touch, allowing a little vocal playfulness, but a rendition of Shawn Colvin’s Never Saw Blue Like That is probably the best thing on the album. Performed with such subtle restraint with a simple guitar accompaniment, it is just captivating.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Review: The Uncommercial Traveller, Punchdrunk and Arcola

“You will need a map, a sense of adventure and the most important ingredient, an incurable curiosity”

Though the big name Punchdrunk show at the moment is The Crash of the Elysium, thrilling children both young and old as part of the Manchester International Festival, there is another show which has snuck into London rather under the radar, The Uncommercial Traveller. A real community-based production, a collaboration between the Punchdrunk enrichment programme and the Arcola’s 50+ Theatre group, it was inspired by Dickens’ work of the same name, a collection of literary sketches and reminiscences of his night-time wanderings, delving into the hidden side of Victorian London. 

At just £6 and a 30 minute running time, expectations had been accordingly adjusted, so it actually came of something of a pleasant surprise to find out there was more to the experience after the tickets had been booked. An atmospheric audio journey is provided for you, starting from Hackney Town Hall, which takes 50 minutes to wind through the history-filled streets of East London before ending up at a final location which sends you right into the heart of this Dickensian world where an individual adventure awaits.

Review: Hundreds and Thousands, Soho Theatre

“Don’t you have that furious ache in the middle of you?”

Hundreds and Thousands is a new play by Lou Ramsden which has just now finished its run at the Soho Theatre. Set in the new Upstairs Studio (which we had a first experience of during the run of Charged plays), the play centres on Lorna, whose biological clock is ticking so loudly, she is beginning to lose hope. When she meets Allan at a speed-dating night, she sees a chance to finally secure a husband and family and so she quickly moves into his secluded farmhouse.

Though she’s happy, her brother is much more sceptical and rightly so as it turns out, Allan has a terrible secret locked away in the basement. Most women would run away if they found out that their beloved had a young woman enslaved in their household, kept in chains, but not Lorna. Her desperation to hold onto her man, any man, means that she willingly submits to Allan’s manipulations and buries any misgivings in his explanations of how Tiggy came to be with them and why she is treated this way.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Review: Danger: Memory!, Jermyn Street

“What you can’t chase, you’d better face or it’ll start chasing you”

Danger: Memory! is a double bill of Arthur Miller one-act plays showing at the Jermyn Street Theatre, offering the first chance to see these short works in London for over twenty years. Written in 1987 when he was in his 70s, the two pieces investigate the varying significance of memory and how we can use it to both comfort and protect ourselves.

I Can't Remember Anything is the first play, a two-hander featuring a pair of elderly New England neighbours meeting for dinner as is part of their routine. Routine has become important as Leo, a retired engineer, is beginning to lose some of his mental sharpness, but Leonora’s memory is failing much more dramatically. Played by real-life husband and wife David Burke and Anna Calder-Marshall, there’s a really touching brittleness to the way in which they play off each other, constantly at odds and unable to agree on anything as their vibrant lives as are touched back on with varying degrees of lucidity, fading memory unable to destroy their beautifully easy rapport.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Review: A Woman Killed With Kindness, National Theatre

“Woman, hear thy judgement”

It’s typical really. When Wastwater at the Royal Court played out with hardly any of the (in)famous flair that director Katie Mitchell has become known for, I perversely rather missed it. Now she is back at the National Theatre with a production of Thomas Heywood’s 1603 play A Woman Killed with Kindness, updated to a loose 1920s setting and the kookiness is back. Am I glad? I’m not sure! The show is playing in the Lyttelton as part of the Travelex Season and this was a preview performance on 14th July.

The play is noted for one of the first tragedies to be written in the domestic sphere, looking at the loves and lives of everyday people. The marriage of John Frankford and his wife Anne is threatened by John inviting a man, Wendoll, into their home as a companion and to take all at his disposal: Wendoll thus pursues an affair with Anne much to John’s anger. Across the way, Sir Charles Mountford is heavily in debt and constantly in serious trouble due to his ructions with Sir Francis Acton (Anne’s brother). Acton is enamoured of Mountford’s sister Susan and she finds herself an unwitting pawn in her brother’s increasingly desperate attempts to get off the hook.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Music Review: Björk - Biophilia – Campfield Market Hall

"Ekkert tekur. Ég tekur því. Náttúra!"
Ever the innovator, Björk’s latest project Biophilia has seen her take up a short residency at Campfield Market Hall as part of the Manchester International Festival to play a set of live shows which will be accompanied by educational workshops, documentaries, unprecedented internet presence, newly invented musical instruments and an album release which will feature the world’s first app-album. Biophilia is an attempt to explore the relationship between music, nature and new technology on a grand scale, necessitating something more than just a 10-track cd, and hence requiring a truly unique, genre-confounding revelatory experience.

When I saw Take That a couple of weeks ago, I remarked to my friend as we watched a group of women collapse in rapture as they started to play Pray that gigs are so much better when you have that personal connection to the music. I didn’t have that with Take That despite being lucky enough to be given a ticket, but I do have that with Björk, one of the artists who has truly soundtracked my life, and sure enough I had my moment of rapture as she launched into Hyperballad at the end – I may even have shed a joyous tear or two.

Review: As You Like It, Royal Exchange

“Were it not better...that I did suit me all points like a man"

As You Like It is one of those Shakespeare plays that seems to pop up most regularly at the moment, so much so that its mere mention makes my heart sink a little. I quite like the play but it is not one of my favourites and so had been intending to give the many productions appearing all over the show a miss this year. The best intentions etc etc no willpower blah blah meant that I couldn’t resist popping into the Royal Exchange to take in this modern-dress version.

Chief of my reasons was the casting of Cush Jumbo as Rosalind: she was a highlight in the Pygmalion I saw at the same venue last year and I suspect she is an actress destined for big things. She is excellent here, at her best when disguised as a street-smart Ganymede, peppering her lines with hip-hop slang and becoming terrifyingly convincing as an awkward teenage boy. A terrific performance and definitely one to watch.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Review: The Pride – Studio, Sheffield

Directed by Richard Wilson and starring Artistic Director Daniel Evans, the regional premiere of Alexei Kaye Campbell’s The Pride takes place in the small Studio at Sheffield. The play looks at love and relationships in both modern day-ish 2008 and in 1958, contrasting the two eras to see how attitudes to gay identity and also sexual freedom of all kinds have changed, and how the experiences of an older generation have influenced the decisions we make now. This is done with a trio of characters: Philip, Oliver and Sylvia and a structure that constantly jumps back and forth between the two times and not always in chronological order, so that the two stories become one overarching narrative about the necessity of knowing and loving yourself before you can truly love others.
Dramatically speaking, the 1958 strand is the more intriguing: layers of Rattigan-esque repression make these scenes crackle with the unspoken. Sylvia and Philip are rather unhappily unmarried and when she introduces her colleague Oliver, it becomes clear to us why as the sexual chemistry sparks between them. As Philip struggles to come to terms with his repressed feelings and Sylvia comes to a growing awareness of why he is acting like he is, this story is pursued to its heartbreaking end with all three actors giving stunning performances. Jay Simpson also does sterling work in a number of small roles across both time periods.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Review: The Day We Sang – Opera House, Manchester

“I’ll never have a box of sex tricks, or be made to hum like a Scalextric”

It’s part of the unwritten contract of being a Northerner (by birth at least in my case) that you love Victoria Wood. Her status as national treasure is sometimes debated as her particular style of retro-comedy doesn’t always appeal to everyone and is met by not a little snobbery, but it has never bothered me as I find her genuinely hilarious. I have never come so close to having to leave a theatre because of laughing so much as I did in Acorn Antiques The Musical, me and the gentleman next to me (who I didn’t know) were in hysterics pretty much throughout that show and I still love watching it today. Wood has now written a new show, The Day We Sang, as one of the pieces premiering at the Manchester International Festival and though it didn’t quite reach those same giddy heights, I still loved it.

Wood has taken a real story as her starting point, that of the Manchester Schools Children’s Choir joining forces with the Hallé orchestra to record a highly successful version of Purcell’s Nymphs and Shepherds at the Free Trade Hall in 1929, and whilst we see the kids gearing up to this momentous occasion, she has spun off her own narrative to create the show. Some members of that ensemble gather to make a documentary to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the recording and whilst there’s much amusing snobbery at a reunion where people’s lives have taken vastly different turns, a relationship starts to form between two of them, Tubby and Enid, as they reflect on how disillusioned with life they have become since that early high point.

Monday, 11 July 2011

CD Review: Love Story - Original London Cast Recording

“What can you say about a girl who seemed to run before she walked”

New musicals are sometimes difficult things, audiences don’t always respond straightaway and in the cut-throat world of the West End, there’s little tolerance for something that isn’t an instant hit. Though it was amazingly well received in Chichester, Howard Goodall’s Love Story suffered such a fate in its brief run at the Duchess late last year. There’s not much more to be said about this much-missed show whose run in London was sadly curtailed than to say how grateful I am that they were able to make a cast recording as it really was one of those scores with which I fell in love straight away. My reviews of the show can be read
here and here, I probably would have gone again had it continued to run.

Howard Goodall’s luxurious string and piano music stretches elegantly over the story, little riffs and motifs repeating so that a sense of familiarity is gained with just one listen. Emma Williams is just perfect as the strident Jenny, fiercely independent but unable to resist the entirely charismatic Michael Xavier as Oliver, and together they make such sweet music.

As a pretty much sung-through score, it is hard to separate out songs as it all glides together beautifully, many pieces merging seamlessly into one another: the quirky duet Pasta and the stunning elegiac Nocturnes being notable exceptions. But at a trim 45 minutes it doesn’t really matter and so it makes for a fabulous listening experience, especially on a London commute where you can get through the whole show in a journey! The cast all sound gorgeous together, Goodall’s harmonies are just exquisite, and it makes for a fitting tribute to a show that ought to still be running.

If you can only download one song, make it... Pasta

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Review: The Crash of the Elysium, Punchdrunk at MediaCity Salford

“When I say ‘run’, we run”

Despite being a big Doctor Who fan and having a few days leave booked up in the North-West to visit family and become a godfather to the lovely Samuel Luke, I hadn’t intended to go and see The Crash of the Elysium, immersive theatre company Punchdrunk’s take on the long-running BBC sci-fi phenomenon. It is a family show, designed for kids aged 6-12 and when first announced, unaccompanied adults were no being let in. But more importantly, my first Punchdrunk experience, The Duchess of Malfi last year, was distinctly underwhelming and so there wasn’t quite the must-see aspect to this, even once a set of evening performances for adults were hastily added. A serendipitous alignment of some esteemed company making the trip possessing a spare ticket and me having a free night (plus absolutely no willpower to resist in the end!) combined to get us along to MediaCity near the Lowry complex in Salford for a Saturday night of Time Lord-related antics but with no sofa to hide behind...

Written by Tom MacRae, a scriptwriter from the Doctor Who team, the story starts with the group, 12 or so of us, being invited to look at an exhibition about the mysterious disappearance of the 19th Century steamship the Elysium, but there’s barely time to look at the exhibits before SAS-type troops burst into the room, declaring an alien spaceship has crash-landed and we’re all needed to help the investigation. A brief military training exercise once we’ve all suited up in decontamination suits and protective masks sees us assigned numbers and roles within teams and then the serious business of alien investigation is started.

Review: Dr Dee - Palace Theatre, Manchester

“You know I cannot see, nor scry”

Continuing to stretch his wings, Damon Albarn returned to the Mancehster International Festival, where his Monkey: Journey to the West was quite the success, with another quasi-operatic work, this time based on a mysterious Elizabethan figure - Dr Dee: A Very English Opera. Doctor John Dee was a man of varied talents whose influence was such that it was he who chose the optimum day for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation: he also dabbled in philosophy, astrology and alchemy at a time of great new learning, but personal demons and temptations ultimately led to his downfall.

With a story as rich in potential as this – Dee is reputed to have been the inspirations for both Marlowe’s Faustus and Shakespeare’s Prospero – it then feels surprising that so little attempt has been made to develop a narrative. It was made worse on a personal level by employing someone as good as Bertie Carvel – so very good in Matilda and soon to return as Ms Trunchbull – to play Dee but then leave him with so little to say – I was very much looking forward to another barnstorming performance.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Review: Park Avenue Cat, Arts Theatre

“Is this what you call therapy?”

‘When does a twosome become a threesome?’ Twosome?! Reading the promotional blurb for Park Avenue Cat set alarm bells ringing before the show had even started at the Arts Theatre but I was determined to give this a go as it is starring Josefina Gabrielle. One of the happiest moments of my theatregoing year so far was in her arrival onstage in Me and My Girl as I had completely forgotten she was in the cast and she was just phenomenal, as indeed she had been in Sweet Charity and Hello, Dolly! : this marking the first time I’ve seen her in straight drama. Quite why she chose this, written by Los Angeles-based scribe Frank Strausser who apparently has fingers in films and books as well as theatre, we will never know as it is completely undeserving of her talents.

The show centres on Gabrielle’s character Lily, a forty-something art dealer who has summoned her boyfriend Philip to couples therapy as she is getting frustrated with the lack of progress in their relationship. When he predictably doesn’t turn up, her lover Dorian sneakily takes his place in the session, leaving the therapist struggling to deal with Lily’s emotional crises and the confusion wrought by Dorian’s appearance, especially as he is one of her exes as well. A later session, after catching glimpses of Lily with both her lovers, ramps up the farcical comedy as both men turn up for the session with her and the therapist forces Lily to confront just what it is that she wants.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Review: War Horse, New London Theatre

“Will you just shut up about your blimmin’ horse”

Those of you that know me, or have read a few reviews on here, will know that I have something of an aversion to puppets, specifically puppetry that tries to be realistic in its portrayal – Avenue Q’s fluffy monsters are fine in that respect – but something about the mimicry of ‘real life’ has never been something I have enjoyed watching and indeed freaks me out a little bit. Throw into the mix horses, an animal of which I am not keen, and it is perhaps unsurprising that I have never been to see War Horse. Nor had I ever intended to, but I made the mistake of saying that the only way I would go was if someone bought me a ticket for my birthday...and lo, guess what happened...

Adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book, War Horse has been one of the biggest theatrical success stories of recent years: originally playing at the National Theatre in 2007, then returning for a revival the next year and then transferring into the West End in March 2009 where it has become one of the best selling shows in town, a genuine fixture at the tucked-away New London Theatre where its success shows no signs of abating, especially in the reflected glow of its award-winning sister production on Broadway. Quite why this is, I have to say still eludes me having seen the show, I couldn’t tell you what the magic ingredient is in here that has led to its enduring achievements aside from offering one of the most overly sentimental theatrical experiences possible.

Not-a-Review: Arcadia, LAMDA at Lyric Hammersmith

“It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter”

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia was an unexpected pleasure for me when I first saw it in the summer of 2009 at the Duke of York’s Theatre: I booked not knowing anything about it, easily seduced by the luxury casting, but was blown away by a play of unexpected intelligence and feeling, something of a rarity in the commercial West End. So when it was announced that as part of their final year showcases, LAMDA students were putting on four shows – free of charge – at the Lyric Hammersmith, one of which was Arcadia, the chance to revisit a good play and potentially spot some stars of the future could not be resisted by a [insert correct collective noun for a group of Twitter theatre nerds] of us: I’ve opted to restrict myself to a few remarks rather than an all-out review.

Predictably this production came nowhere near the dizzy heights of the West End production, it was never likely to to be honest, but it did seem a curious choice as a play for showcasing as it didn’t seem like a natural fit for the talent here – too many cases of square pegs being asked to fit round holes especially in trying to portray a wide range of ages from a single cohort. Some of the actors were able to rise above their miscasting to still deliver strong performances but others fell short, unable to convince of the age they were trying to play, mainly through failing to extend their performances right down to the physicality of the characters. Likewise some of the humour of Stoppard’s writing got lost in the delivery and so this Arcadia never really caught fire, never enraptured me to the point where I forgot I was watching a student performance as I have previously done.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Review: Road Show, Menier Chocolate Factory

“There's a long road ahead of us"

Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show arrives at the Menier Chocolate Factory after a number of rewrites since 1999 that have seen the show take on four different titles. The story is based on a real-life one, of early Twentieth Century brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner, who are exhorted by their father on his deathbed to seize every opportunity and that they do, both good and bad. Striking it lucky whilst searching for gold, the profligate pair part ways as Addison objects to the gambling that Wilson has become addicted to – despite it multiplying their fortune – and as Wilson turns his hand to all sorts of schemes like boxing promotion and Hollywood, Addison travels the world to eventually settle in Florida and become an architect. Fate draws them together again though as Wilson can’t help but try to capitalise on his brother’s success once again.

Covering so much history of two different people, which in turn is clearly meant to be representative of how the American Dream could go wrong as well as right, means that there is a very episodic feel to Road Show which precludes any real dramatic tension being built up or genuine emotional investigation into any of the characters. There are some fantastic moments in here: 'The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened' is as tenderly lovely a gay love song as you could hope for; 'Isn’t He Something!' details a mother’s love beautifully and the traverse staging, though a little tight and initially disconcerting, makes intriguing use of the space – though a few less dollar bills in the air might not have gone amiss.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Review: Cymbeline, Tabard Theatre

“Hath Britain all the sun that shines?”

Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s later plays, occupying an uneasy middle ground between tragedy, romance, comedy with a loose smattering of history thrown in for good measure and thus garnering the reputation as one of his problem plays. New London-based theatre company Avanti have taken up the challenge with their 1970s re-imagining though which is currently playing at the Tabard Theatre in West London.

It's essentially a romance, with tragic overtones, focusing on Imogen, a princess of Britain who has secretly married her lowly childhood friend Posthumus, frustrating the plans of her wicked (step)mother. Upon finding out, her father King Cymbeline banishes him from the kingdom, and thus a whole merry load of confusions start. Posthumus is tricked into believing Imogen has been unfaithful and orders her murder, Imogen is forewarned and dispatched to Wales in the guise of a boy, there she meets two random boys who turn out to have a very strong connection to her, more betrayals and murder ensue, there’s a bit of a war, the god Jupiter pops down for a chat and then there's an incredibly neat, yet interminably long ending in which every single plot strand is recapped and then resolved.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Actors Church Covent Garden

“I shall do thee mischief in the wood...
'Ay, in the town, in the temple...'”

Last July’s Romeo and Juliet at the Actors Church in Covent Garden was a real unexpected surprise in a summer that was full of productions of that play, site-specific theatre that genuinely worked with the idiosyncrasies of the venue and able to exploit them to their full advantage. This year Iris Theatre are putting on A Midsummer Night’s Dream as their main production for the summer, an early showing of which I caught this week, to see whether the magic could be recaptured with this, my most favourite of Shakespeare’s plays.

The venue is St Pauls Church, right in the middle of Covent Garden with its own secluded courtyard filled with trees and shrubbery, which lends itself well to the evocation of the Forest of Arden: Dan Winder’s fluid production places a strong connection with nature front and centre so that the fairies are closer to woodland sprites than the ballet-dressed moppets of old, fitting in perfectly to the grassy knolls, wildflower-strewn groves and secluded bowers, the steps of the church creating a more stately locations where needed. The audience follows the action around the grounds, though there’s only perhaps 2 moves in each half and there’s sufficient room for everyone at each place, sitting or standing – something which is not always the case in promenade productions.

Review: Directors Showcase, Orange Tree

"I am your lady..."

Bringing the Orange Tree Theatre’s Spring season to a close in their annual Director’s Showcase, a double bill directed by two young hopefuls from their Trainee Director scheme and an opportunity for aspiring directors to get that valuable first step on the ladder. This they do with the two shows Then The Snow Came and Winter, both utilising some of the cast from the recently finished show Three Farces.

Then The Snow Came, both written and directed by Jimmy Grimes, is a devised piece incorporating verbatim dialogue, improvised sequences, a brief foray into puppetry and a recurring motif of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince into this tale of two homeless men on the less salubrious side of the streets of Richmond. The collaborative nature of the whole show is evident in the grim richness of the sense of authenticity that emanates from all aspects thereof.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Blogged: Blogging as opposed to reviewing

Blogger, critic, reviewer, writer of drivel; all these terms have floated around as people try to deal the ever-evolving world of online theatre criticism and impose some sort of definition on it (and me). I have generally resisted trying to get sucked into the debates – responding only when comments have really resonated personally – but recent weeks have seen two buddies of mine throwing down the gauntlet when it comes to theatre blogging as distinct from theatre reviewing which has got me thinking just a little: lurkmoophy’s letter of resignation as a theatre blogger and Jake Orr’s response – The Stagnation of Theatre Blogging for A Younger Theatre.

Luke’s own précis of his post “Don’t only write reviews. Branch out into commentary, opinion and awesomeness within theatre” is a nicely inspiring mantra and one that I had been musing for a while: there’s about 4 half-finished blog posts on various subjects lurking on my laptop somewhere that never quite made the light of day. Why is that? Well, lack of time is the main reason. In common with most bloggers I know, theatregoing is my hobby and for me, writing about the shows I’ve seen is a choice I made to keep a comprehensive record of it all in lieu of collecting ticket stubs and/or programmes. Clearly, it is has evolved into something more than that now, a behemoth that dominates my life but it is still essentially a pastime, as the reality of 9 to 5 working dominates the day rather than burning issues in theatreland.