Thursday, 29 September 2011

Review: My City, Almeida

“It can be hard to find an ex-teacher”

Opening with a chance encounter with a former teacher by St Paul’s Cathedral, Stephen Poliakoff’s My City is his first work for the stage in over a decade. But its opening promise of delving into the mysterious hidden depths of a city we think we know so well with the added spice of revisiting mythic childhood teachers outside of the familiar context of the classroom now they are retired is never really fully realised. Poliakoff directs his own work at the Almeida and has secured the return of Tracey Ullman to the stage to play Miss Lambert, the former Headmistress who is found sleeping on a park bench.

Former pupil Richard is the one who finds her and we find out that she has taken to exploring the streets of London at night-time now she is retired and her gift for story-telling that so captivated her pupils remains strong as ever. This in turn prompts a series of renewed contacts which brings in his old school-friend Julie and two more of their teachers. Richard can tell that someone is not quite right with his childhood heroine though and as he seeks to get to the truth of Miss Lambert’s behaviour, he uncovers a world of secrets, lies, disillusionments and memories from all five of them.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Review: The Veil, National Theatre

“What is it about this place that is a conduit for desperate souls”

Conor McPherson’s The Veil is his first original play for 5 years and set in 1822, marks his first foray into period writing although as it is set in a haunted country house in rural Ireland, he isn’t venturing too far from familiar territory. Rae Smith’s one room set, although it is a lavish recreation of the faded grandeur of a crumbling country pile, has great attention to detail with a great staircase going off the left and up to the gods and a large tree out the back of the conservatory and in it, we see the trials of the Lambroke family. Lady Madeleine’s estate is heavily indebted after the death of her husband and an impending economic crisis and so her 17 year old daughter Hannah is being married off to an English marquis. Hannah is a troubled young woman though, who hears voices and when her chaperone Berkeley proposes a séance before heading back to England with his philosopher friend Audelle, the personal demons and family secrets thus revealed threaten devastating effects.

I was someone else’s plus one for the evening for once and wasn’t actually aware it was the first preview until we arrived at the National in good company (though I did know it was early in the run) and so all the usual caveats apply. And they will apply because I didn’t like it all, though as ever, people rarely seem to have complaints when it is a positive review about a preview… McPherson directs his own play in the Lyttelton and I tend to be a little wary when I hear that playwrights are directing their own work, especially with new plays, as I always innately feel that they would benefit from external influences. Whether that is true or not I don’t know, but what I do know is that The Veil was painfully sluggish and not because of the mechanics of working through a first performance but mainly because of the writing and its construction.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Review: Cool Hand Luke, Aldwych

“50 hard boiled eggs…in an hour”

A random fact about me is that I am terrible when it comes to having seen classic movies. It’s a constant source of amusement in pub conversations as people can’t quite believe the list of films I’ve never seen but for whatever reason, I’ve never really been particularly minded to watching them. Consequently I have a pile of unopened DVDs* that people keep giving me as presents or loans that are, honestly, on the list of things I will one day get round to watching.

This convoluted beginning should therefore present you with no surprise when I then say that I have never seen the film of Cool Hand Luke, a stage version of which has now started previewing in the Aldwych Theatre. Adapted for the stage by Emma Reeves, from the original novel by Donn Pearce, the story revolves around Luke Jackson, a WWII vet left unsupported on his return to the US and forced into desperate measures, soon ends up in a Florida prison camp. There, he soon becomes a legend with his fellow chain gang inmates with his nonchalant swagger, his impervious refusal to be broken by the guards and his constant prison escapes.

Cast of Cool Hand Luke continued

Monday, 26 September 2011

Review: South Downs/The Browning Version, Minerva

“You’re 14 and you know what effeminate means, this does not bode well for you Blakemore.”

There have been quite a few revivals of Terence Rattigan shows in theatres across the country to mark his centenary year but leading them all has been Chichester Festival Theatre’s summer season which has paid tribute to the dramatist by both putting on productions of his plays and commissioning new works that have been inspired by his writings. This double bill incorporates both of those by pairing Rattigan’s one-acter The Browning Version with David Hare’s South Downs, newly written as a response to the former.

Both plays take place inside public schools, dealing with issues of insecurity and identity in such institutions and the loneliness that can strike whether through failing to fit in or losing oneself so thoroughly in dry academia. South Downs takes the pupils as a starting point, John Blakemore being a precocious 14 year old on a scholarship who doesn’t fit in with his upper-class contemporaries and whose budding intellectualism and refusal to abide by convention rattles his teachers: a nicely irascible Andrew Woodall and a kindly Nicholas Farrell.

CD Review: Keys – The Music of Scott Alan

“You can hear the birds migrating
Keys – The Music of Scott Alan is the second album of this American composer’s work, the first Dreaming Wide Awake becoming a fast favourite and so I was quite keen to start working my way through his other CDs. This album, which was produced by composer Alan, features orchestrations and arrangements penned by James Abbott, Barbara Anselmi, Sam Davis, Tom Kitt and Jesse Vargas which are heavy on piano and strings which instantly scores brownie points for me as it makes the album sound so much classier from the off and suggests that a timelessness that can never be achieved with an overly synthesised approach.

Through the sky lit autumn dawn"

The calibre of performer Alan can attract is really quite seriously impressive especially considering there’s no real hit show to his name yet, but this is just testament to the quality of the song-writing. One assumes these songs are being written for shows but I suspect part of the reason for his appeal is that they stand alone so very well and so make ideal inclusions for cabarets. Whether it is veterans like Norm Lewis, purring silkily through How Did I End Up Here and Sutton Foster’s gorgeously restrained Always, or the comparative young guns of Caissie Levy with her driving ballad Please Don’t Let Me Go and Hadley Fraser’s impassioned Again, there’s a great sense of natural ease about this recording.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Review: The Tempest, Jericho House at St Giles Cripplegate

“Come unto these yellow sands and then take hands”

Multiple productions of so many of Shakespeare’s works are never far away and in its 400th anniversary year, London has already seen The Tempest tackled at great length by Trevor Nunn and Ralph Fiennes at the Theatre Royal Haymarket and reimagined in the most effective and revelatory of ways by Cheek By Jowl’s Russian company at the Barbican. It is now the turn of Jericho House to make their mark on this play, also under the aegis of the Barbican but playing at the neighbouring church of St Giles Cripplegate. There’s double-casting, gender-swapping, even omission of one character and a clear infusion of Middle Eastern influence into the world of disputed territory and clashing cultures that is created inside St Giles’ – nominally “mid-way between Europe and the East”. This connection has been reinforced by a pre-London tour of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Haifa where the show has played to both Palestinian and Israeli audiences.

Given the truncated running time of 105 minutes straight through and the approach taken to the whole interpretation, this does at times come across as a rather different Tempest. Purists may baulk at Gonzalo’s non-appearance or the gender conversion to Antonia and Stephanie, but I enjoyed the playful aspect that was employed here and the doubling by Nathalie Armin and paired by Stephen Fewell as Sebastian and Trinculo, worked mostly well. Ruth Lass’ strident Ariel was superb, her haunting yelps stalking the invaders and Bil Stuart made for a more ‘human’ Caliban who one feels for in being oppressed but whose role also feels somewhat reduced here. Cox’s Prospero was very well spoken but sometimes felt a little bit too much of a spectator, not fully invested in the events unfolding at his behest, especially concerning his daughter, an inquisitive Rachel Lynes matching well with Gabreen Khan’s Ferdinand.

This production uses a musical score inspired by lutist Robert Johnson, who wrote music for the original performance of The Tempest, which incorporates songs that were known to have been used in the show and other music by Johnson that is suggestive of how the rest of it might have sounded. Composer Jessica Dannheiser’s work here is exceptional, music playing almost throughout the show whether as backdrop or song –MD Emily Baines marshals instruments including lutes and recorders to create a lush soundscape whilst Ruth Lass’ Ariel’s melodies given a distinctly Eastern flavour. And it is here where the juxtaposition of sound and venue plays out beautifully: the striking sounds of Lass’ evocative singing against the atmosphere of this beautiful church creates a little magic, a space where specific religions don’t seem to quite matter so much as the simple feeling of just,well something greater.

There are moments that could do with greater clarity, where even knowledge of the play isn’t quite enough to fully anchor you, but what is gained in Jonathan Holmes’ production is an incalculable sense of atmosphere. Whether it is Lucy Wilkinson’s design with its canopy of nearly a hundred different lights, lamps and lanterns, or the evocative sound effects and glorious music that fills the church, this is a Tempest worth catching.

Running time: 105 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 22nd October
Note: it will probably get fairly chilly inside as the run progresses so take layers. And as it is a church, with no rake, I’d sit at the front or on the platform.

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Review: The Baker’s Wife, Union Theatre

“Cake in the oven, champagne on ice, much as I hate to I may even shave twice”

The Baker’s Wife with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Joseph Stein is a musical that managed to develop something of a cult following despite flopping in the West End in 1989 and never actually having run on Broadway. Director Michael Strassen has now given it a rare outing at the small-scale powerhouse that is the Union Theatre. Based on the Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giano film La Femme Du Boulanger, the show is all about what happens in a rural French community when Geneviève the young wife of the village baker leaves her husband Aimable for a sexy piece of rough. He loses his baking mojo which sufficiently outrages the villagers to put aside their multifarious squabbles to come together and try to reunite the couple.

There is usually a reason that shows are left on the shelf and true to form, The Baker’s Wife pretty shows us why. Schwartz’s score is largely strong with some genuinely sublime moments but the book is stolid, unimaginative and fatally fragmented. Too much time is spent on the villagers around the love triangle but there’s so many of them, all contributing to the larger metaphor of the show, that none get a fair crack of the whip. And consequently, there’s not enough room to really focus on the main protagonists either. Indeed, Geneviève’s story doesn’t come across as particularly sympathetic at all, it is so hurried: it is revealed that she married Aimable on the rebound from being rejected by her married lover but she’s going to put up with him. Having left him shortly after singing this, she then dumps her new paramour after five minutes on the run and a roll in the hay – one can’t help but feel the baker is better off without her! Matters are not helped by an additional horribly overdone metaphor of her cat running away and returning contemporaneously, subtle it is not.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Review: When Did You Last See My Mother, Trafalgar Studios 2

“You can be terribly tactless Ian”

There are two ways this review could go and since I ticked the ‘fanboy going overboard’ box with a mildly amusing drunken encounter (which rebounded on me in the most unexpected way – actors read this thing?!) at the Hampstead Theatre 2 Fridays ago, I shall try to use a more measured approach here. But the uninitiated should know that I do have a slight admiration for the work of Sam Swainsbury… ;-) Anyhoo, to the matter in hand. When Did You Last See My Mother was the first play that Christopher Hampton ever wrote as a teenager in 1964, but despite his reputation has remained rather unknown.

And it is a little hard to believe as whilst it may not be the most sophisticated piece of theatre with an ending which whilst sweet is a little too neat, it contains a masterful piece of character work with main protagonist Ian that is a gift of a role for a talented young actor. Director Blanche McIntyre has chosen wisely in casting Harry Melling, perhaps the one of the kids from of the Harry Potter who has shown the most promise as an actor, on the stage at least, and he delivers an extraordinary performance.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Review: Di and Viv and Rose, Hampstead Downstairs

“We could really live together, what do you think?”

Continuing their practice of showcasing new writing in the Michael Frayn space downstairs now with a generous donation from the Peter Wolff Trust, the Hampstead Theatre’s newest play is Amelia Bullmore’s Di and Viv and Rose. And though these shows are flying under the radar a little with no official press coverage, there has been no stinting on top quality cast and creatives to deliver an absolutely brilliant evening of effervescent fun, sparky comedy and heart-rending emotion. 

Anna Mackmin, she of the delightful Me and My Girl in Sheffield, directs here a trio of top actresses: Nicola Walker (who I once accidentally terrorised in a dry cleaners on the Holloway Road - mistaken identity, breadmakers, it's a long story...sorry Nicola), Tamzin Outhwaite (who gets huge love for brilliantly telling a grumpy audience member where to go at Matilda) and Claudie Blakley (about whom I have no stories but I still love her anyway). Di and Viv and Rose follows three young women as they arrive at university in 1983 and soon end up sharing a house in which deep friendships are formed over the next three years as they go through the ups and downs of student living. We then revisit the friends 15 years later and again another 12 to see how their lives have turned out and how the friendship has changed over time.

Review: Keeler, Richmond Theatre

“She’s that naked girl on that chair right?”

The story of Keeler that is told here purports to be the inside story of the Profumo Affair and is based on Christine Keeler’s own book on the matter with Douglas Thompson, ‘The Truth At Last’. Gill Adams is credited as the playwright, although curiously does not merit a biography in the programme and as it actually turns out, Keeler exercised much control over the writing of the play, approving every single word. Thus what we are left with is a heavily partisan account of someone concerned with redressing the balance of public perception in her favour, hardly the makings of great drama.

We revisit the scandal of the early 1960s from its beginnings in the Soho club where she worked as a titillating dancer and was spotted by the sleazily avuncular eye of Stephen Ward, an osteopath with grand designs on society. It was he who introduced her to the high society party lifestyle that brought with it brief but heady affairs with, amongst others, John Profumo, secretary of state for war, and Eugene Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché. When this came to light in the paranoid Cold War atmosphere, one of the first public scandals of its nature, the ensuing trials, resignations, suicides and infamous photo shoots shocked the nation.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Review: Street Scene, Young Vic

“That’s just the way life is, ain’t it”

Winning the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical even with a short five-show run in 2008, Street Scene now returns to the Young Vic for a slightly longer run on The Cut, the final preview of which I caught, and followed by a tour. This 1947 show occupies a strange ground between musical and opera as composer Kurt Weill incorporates musical influences from all over the place: Broadway show tunes, operatic arias, folk ditties, jazz, blues and a whole lot more besides. And so to do it justice, director John Fulljames has assembled a company of 80 singers, the main cast complemented by a community chorus from the local area.

The book by Elmer Rice, adapted from his own play, is set over a couple of scorchingly hot days in a New York tenement building, occupied by a wide mix of ethnic groupings all dealing with their own crises and looking for a way out to a better life. The slice of life approach means that the eclectic score makes more sense, ricocheting around the diverse inhabitants and the multitude of stories that are touched upon before the action coalesces around the Maurrant family and their particular travails.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Scrapbook cast continued

CD Review: Scrapbook – The Songs of Robert Archibald and Verity Quade

“Don’t want to be dependent on a wink, a smile, or kiss.”

At the beginning of the year I unexpectedly caught a fun cabaret Scrapbook Live, showcasing the work of musical theatre writers Robert Archibald and Verity Quade, which I enjoyed considerably even though I hadn’t heard the CD from which much of the material was taken: Scrapbook – The Songs of Robert Archibald and Verity Quade. Having now downloaded it, I gave it a listen over the last week and in some ways, it is a bit of a double-edged sword having seen the live gig. It gave me that nice sense of recognition with some of the more memorable songs which made it a fascinating listen, but it also reminded me of the energy that accompanied the renditions of the songs and the live accompaniment. I have to say I wasn’t a fan of much of the orchestrations on the CD, it sounds a little bit too processed, too artificial, keyboards instead of pianos but then that’s just what I prefer.

But Archibald and Quade have assembled quite the team of performers to sing their songs and their quality ensures that this collection is never less than listenable. I am often roundly mocked for being predictable in my listening habits but I really can never get enough of elegant female balladry and there’s no exception here: Louise Dearman’s beautiful Sometimes, Anna Francolini’s tender My Daddy’s Girl, Annalene Beechey’s Sorry, there’s an embarrassment of riches! The men get in on the action too with Jon Lee and Stuart Matthew Price both impressing with Something About Her and Falling For You respectively.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Meme: Last 10 things seen at the theatre #3

Thought I'd drop in one of these memes as I'm having a rare little break from the theatre, a whole week off! Normal reviewing service to be resumed from Monday.

List the last 10 things you saw at the theatre in order:

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Review: The Wild Bride, Lyric Hammersmith

“There’s precious little else to do, the Devil supposed, but to sell your soul at the crossroads"

I have to admit to not being entirely won over by Kneehigh. They spoken of with such reverence but the handful of shows of theirs that I have seen haven’t really won me over to their style. I found the archness of The Red Shoes lacking in emotion, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg tried too hard to force too much quirkiness, A Matter of Life and Death just left me baffled! But Emma Rice’s retelling of a Hungarian fairytale, The Handless Maiden, retitled here as The Wild Bride feels like something closer to Kneehigh’s raison d’être, combining light with the dark, humour with the tragedy, and consequently I found it highly enjoyable. 

When a miller accidentally sells his only daughter to the Devil and has to chop her hands off as it turns out she is too pure to be taken, the girl ends up in the harsh world of the forest where hardship is endured, opportunity presents itself but the Devil is always keeping a watchful eye. The company of six - actors, musicians, performers, dancers, artists - tell the story in typical Kneehigh style, embracing a world of influences the most significant of which are the enchanted dark forests of the Brothers Grimm with their mysterious feel and the American South of the Great Depression, with the twang of blues guitar never far away. The end result is something close to magic.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Review: Richard III, Old Vic

"I thank God for my humility"

Something of a rarity for me in visiting the final show of a run, here the final iteration of the three year transatlantic Bridge Project this time taking in just the single show, Richard III. The reason I left it so late was mainly because I hadn’t got a huge amount of will to actually go and see it, Propeller’s anarchic and inventive interpretation being so fresh in my mind especially after revisiting it just as this production opened at the Old Vic, and though my Aunty Jean was most keen to see it, by the time I got round to it, it had predictably sold out. Sod’s law dictates that tickets for a couple of shows in the final week emerged last minute but she couldn’t make it, but I snapped up a £15 bargain in the dress circle to go and see what all the fuss was about.

The big selling point of Sam Mendes’ production was clearly Kevin Spacey in the title role and Spacey rises to the challenge to provide the grandest of performances. So much so that I was initially rather turned off by the overemphatic nature of his opening scenes, it felt akin to being hit by a sledgehammer of acting and left me wondering where on earth he was going to go from this grandstanding. Fortunately, he did calm down a bit to allow the depth of his portrayal to emerge: a malevolent spirit but not one born evil, but twisted that way by life and still able to keep a black humour about him, Spacey excelling with a sardonic rapid-fire delivery. 

Sunday, 11 September 2011

CD Review: Annalene Beechey – Close Your Eyes

“What do you see, you people gazing at me, you see a doll on a music box”

Annalene Beechey is one of those performers whom I have seen a fair bit but never actually on the stage in a show, instead she has been a regular on the cabaret scene, supporting fellow ‘Christine’ Rebecca Caine or showcasing new musical theatre writing in theatres and on boats. So I thought I’d give her album Close Your Eyes a spin to see how it stacked up and it came up good!

What works so well for me is her song selection, she steers clear from too much rehashing of familiar standards and instead chooses to highlight the work of the composers with whom she has built up a connection whether personally or just through their music and it shows. From the newbies like Grant Olding - the gorgeous Hannah’s Dream and Scott Alan - the fragile beauty of Always/Goodnight to the more seasoned hands of Stephens Sondheim and Schwartz –an Into the Woods medley and 'Lion Tamer' from The Magic Show respectively, Beechey’s love of the genre shines through with insightful interpretations that dig deep into these songs and what they mean to her. 

Review: The Belle’s Stratagem, Southwark Playhouse

“In short, ‘tis one universal masquerade but where all assume the same disguise of dress and manners”

When I first heard that director Jessica Swale was doing a new play at the Southwark Playhouse, my heart skipped a little tiny beat as her last work in London, the excoriating Palace of the End, was a truly astounding theatrical experience and one that ranked a mighty third in my list of everything I saw last year (271 shows for the record). That the play she was putting on was The Belle’s Stratagem, a Georgian comedy of manners by Hannah Cowley, gave me momentary pause but then I quickly remembered that Swale had previously mounted The Rivals, by Cowley’s contemporary Sheridan, to great effect in a raucously inventive production back in January last year at this same venue.

I was lucky enough to catch a small production of one of Cowley’s other plays, A Bold Stroke for a Husband earlier this year, and so I was a little more familiar with her history than most. A playwright who became one of the most successful of either gender in her day which is quite extraordinary given how little rights Georgian women had and just how forward-thinking her message of female empowerment was. Despite this, her plays quickly fell out of favour after her death, meaning that even The Belle’s Stratagem, her most successful work, has not been seen in London for over 200 years. 

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Review: No Naughty Bits, Hampstead

“You’re concerned about the logic.
‘I’m concerned that it looks f**king terrible.’”

No Naughty Bits continues the slightly odd trend at the Hampstead Theatre for new plays that are fictionalised versions of real events. Set in December 1975 after Monty Python’s Flying Circus had been broadcast on US television by ABC but in an edited and censored version that cut out the ‘naughty bits’. It follows the legal struggles of Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam as they fly out to New York to battle the network and defend their show, arguing in court for the freedom of artistic expression, against censorship and demonstrating how far apart senses of humour can be. Steve Thompson’s play is fictional, described as a ‘fantasy version’ of what happened though quite what that means, I am not entirely sure. 

Harry Hadden-Paton is the one carrying the weight of the show on his shoulders here as Michael, the driving force behind the defence of their beloved television show even if, or maybe because of, the fact that it is not their best work, John Cleese having left the group and so something of the unique magical mixture gone forever. Hadden-Paton shows us the man before the fame really kicked in, still in disbelief that he’d come as far as he had but not yet successful enough to be able to afford the Christmas presents he wants to get his kids, and he does sterling work throughout, his rather plaintive naïveté in dealing with this new commercial world is most appealing. The main problem though is that too often the writing just isn’t funny enough, especially in the first half. 

Friday, 9 September 2011

Review: Beasts / Las Brutas, Theatre503

“Life is moving away from us, day by day”

One of the advantages of living in London is the sheer diversity of theatrical opportunity that this city offers on a daily basis and the chances to further explore sub-genres highlighted in one theatre : in this case the Latin American mini-season at the Royal Court Upstairs, by visiting another theatre whose programming complements it excellently: here Theatre503’s production of Beasts/Las Brutas by Juan Radrigán. Radrigán is a Chilean playwright and one who remained in his homeland throughout Pinochet’s dictatorship and so his work is suffused with the reality of living under such oppression and in particular the effect it had on those most marginalised in society.

Beasts is receiving its UK premiere here through a new translation by Catherine Boyle and was written in 1981 as a response to the true 1974 story of three sisters found tied together with rope and hanging from a rock in the most remote part of Northern Chile. Radrigán weaves a story working back from their deaths to try and explore how this could have happened. They were coia, part of the sparse indigenous Andean population, and their isolation from the world was nearly total. There’s a deal of humour in the tales that the sisters tell each other of the rumoured new-fangled inventions in the big bad city, like talking boxes, sunshine caught in a small glass and a broom that sweeps with no branches, for theirs is a world in which hot running water hasn’t arrived and electricity is an unimaginable concept.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Review: Rock of Ages, Shaftesbury

“Sometimes you tell the day by the bottle you drink”

If you thought that it would be rather unlikely for me to be going to Rock of Ages, then you would have been correct. It didn’t have the instant appeal to me, not so much in the fact that it is a jukebox musical but rather that the music on which it is based is the kind of the classic 1980s rock of which I wasn’t a fan as a boy at the time nor have I become one now. But one of the joys of maintaining a blog such as this is that occasionally I am offered tickets to shows, thereby getting to see things I wouldn’t normally have considered and so broadening my theatrical horizons, so thank you very much AKA, I am most grateful. So that is how I ended up in the Shaftesbury Theatre on a Wednesday evening, being served beer at my seat, fake lighter in hand. 

The show has been something of a success on Broadway and has been eagerly anticipated by fans of the show here, of whom I know a surprising number, but I knew nothing of the show itself. It centres on Hollywood rock dive The Bourbon Room which is threatened with closure by some German developers who want to ‘clean up’ the city and the effect that will have on the people who work and frequent the bar. The owner calls in a big rock star to play his final gig there before splitting with his band; a city planner wants to secure its unique place in the town’s history, and these all have an impact on the tentative and tortured love story between the barman (and would-be rocker) and the waitress (an aspiring actress).

Cast of Rock of Ages continued

Cast of Rock of Ages continued

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Review: The Madness of George III, Richmond Theatre

“The state of monarch and the state of lunacy share a frontier”

Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III is perhaps better known under its film moniker of The Madness of King George which featured a superlative performance from Nigel Hawthorne who originated the role on stage which was then later immortalised on film and criminally overlooked for an Oscar: a certain Mr Hanks winning instead for Forrest Gump. This Theatre Royal Bath production, starring David Haig as the eponymous monarch, is touring the country for the next couple of months, marking a rare outing for the play.

The year is 1788 and fresh from defeat in the American War of Independence, George III is increasingly afflicted by a mysterious ailment as he slides into mental decline. He is then subjected to the vagaries of 18th century medical practices which were only slowly making advances towards a more modern understanding of the body and mind and whilst undergoing treatment, power struggles rage between opportunistic politicians on both side and more crucially, his fiercely ambitious son and heir who has his eyes on an early assumption of power.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Review: Perchance to Dream, Finborough

“If you run out of words, just burst into song”

The Finborough Theatre in West London has had an excellent record in reviving British musicals as part of their “Celebrating British Music Theatre” series and marking the 60th anniversary of the death of composer Ivor Novello is Perchance to Dream, sliding into the Sunday/Monday slot there for the month of September. It is the first professional London production for 25 years of this show devised, written and composed by Novello himself, the only show for which he wrote the lyrics.

It is an unashamedly romantic musical, centring on the country pile Huntersmoon and the tangled love affairs of its residents as we glide from the Regency era, through Victorian times and to WWII as the ghosts of the past continue to haunt future generations. But it is the glorious music that commands the attention as Novello’s score incorporate such classics as Love Is My Reason, A Woman’s Heart and We’ll Gather Lilacs: classic songwriting close to its best.

Cast of Perchance to Dream continued

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Continuation of the cast of The Kitchen

Continuation of the cast of The Kitchen

Review: Decade, Headlong at St Katharine Dock

“I get that it was…well, it is…a big deal for some people”

The tenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Centre has and will receive a vast range of coverage through all sorts of media, but perhaps one of the most anticipated is Headlong’s new piece of site-specific theatre, Decade. 19 writers, playwrights mostly and Simon Schama, have all contributed their own responses to the events of the 11th September, their brief purely to be a scene set in the last 10 years, and they have been woven together by director Rupert Goold and housed in a warehouse on St Katharine Docks. I hadn’t intended to see this show so soon, wanting to let the experimental stuff settle before making my visit, but I was forced to reshuffle my diary and in order to fit it in before October and still get one of the cheaper tickets, this was my only opportunity.

After passing through a security checkpoint where you are questioned and ticketed (I was mildly disappointed there was no full body search from my guard, Tobias Menzies), we’re then guided through to take our seats in a replica of the dining room of the Windows On The World restaurant, formerly on the top floors of the North Tower. It’s a quirky entrance that sets the anticipation levels high even if the whole process did take a little time to fully accomplish. Seating is around dinner tables with a large raised stage in the middle of the room and is unallocated though ‘waiters’ do take you a table once summoned by the Maître D’. (My top tip would be to try and get on the long bank of seats on the side opposite the bar as close to the middle as you can. Just before the lights went down, I was advised by our Maître D’, in this case it was the delectable Charlotte Randle, that I might want to move from my original seat to this new place as there’s a certain amount which happens on a balcony level but all on one side, and it would have been rather difficult to see from there. So thank you Charlotte!)

List of writers for Decade

For completeness, here's the list of writers for Decade.

Full list of writers
Samuel Adamson, Mike Bartlett, Alecky Blythe, Ben Ellis, Ella Hickson, John Logan, DC Moore, Abi Morgan, Rory Mullarkey, Lynn Nottage, Simon Schama, Beth Steel, Samuel D Hunter, Matthew Lopez, Harrison Rivers, Janine Nabers, Mona Mansour, Christopher Shinn, Alexandra Wood,

Review: Ragtime, Landor

“It was the music of something beginning…”

Earlier this year, it did seem that the Landor had a bit of a curse as a range of issues forced programme changes on more than one occasion, but they do seem to have hit their stride now. I didn’t catch Carousel but it seemed to go down well and that was followed an incomparable production of The Hired Man, probably one of the best shows of the year so far, so there was no pressure resting on the show following at all: Ragtime. Directed by Artistic Director Robert McWhir, Ragtime continues the Landor’s strong trend of delivering top-quality fringe musical theatre with unfeasibly large casts: over 20 people make up this ensemble! I caught a preview on a Sunday afternoon as a ticket for a tenner deal popped up on Twitter (if you’re on Twitter then think about following theatres you like as similar deals are frequently posted up there).

And I am pleased to report that Ragtime comes close to the heights of The Hired Man in creating a stunning piece of emotional drama, enlivened with some perky playfulness and all wrapped in a deliciously beautiful score (and funnily enough set in a similar time period). The opening number is a thing of pure joy, managing to cover the thematic scope of the play and fully introduce the three families around which the story turns. Terrence McNally’s book is based on a novel by E.L. Doctorow set at the turn of the twentieth century in a New York bustling with huge social change.

Cast of The Hired Man continued

CD Review: Daniel Boys – So Close

“Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens”

Daniel Boys’ album So Close is not a bad album per se, it just tends to the inoffensive far too often for my liking. There’s little variation on offer across the whole collection really, but nor does he really seem to challenge himself vocally. Part of this reflects my feelings towards him as a performer, I’m not completely convinced that he has the greatest emotional range: what he does he does very well, perfect for everyman roles like Princeton in Avenue Q but I do feel like he’s been very similar in everything since then. I want to see him break out of the mould and perform, and sing, in a completely different way. 

Thus I couldn’t help but feel that his interpretative skills are not quite enough on show, bringing little to the table on classics like 'Nature Boy', underpowered both vocally and in its odd, crackly arrangement or newer songs like Stiles and Drewe’s 'They Don’t Make Glass Slippers' (although I don’t think I will ever accept anyone but Gareth Gates singing that song!). His comfort zone is clearly in elegant balladry, best typified by 'Better Than I' and 'So Close' from the Disney film Enchanted is another success here. But balladry can also be bland and Boys falls into an easy listening groove too easily, tracks like 'Annie’s Song', 'I Hope You Dance' and 'Always There' merging into a beigeness of generic feeling, well sung to be sure but not inspiring in any way or indicative of Boys as a personality or a performer – I suspect they come across much better in a live setting.. 

Review: The Kitchen, National Theatre

“What is there more?”

The Kitchen was one of Arnold Wesker’s first plays and follows on from the Royal Court’s well-received (if not by me) Chicken Soup with Barley in a year which has been something of a revival for Wesker. Written in 1959 and inspired by his own experiences of working in the catering industry, it is set in 1957 in the basement kitchen of a large London restaurant, the Tivoli. The dynamics of a swirling multi-cultural mass of chefs, waitresses and kitchen porters are exposed as they slowly build to the mad rush of a huge lunchtime service. Playing in the Olivier at the National Theatre, this was a late preview performance.

Director Bijan Sheibani has assembled a cast of 30 who rush about Giles Cadle’s circular kitchen set with increasing fervour as prep turns into service and the banter with all its personal enmities, tribal groupings and rivalries between kitchen staff and dining-room staff becomes increasingly fraught, and of course largely forgotten as the rush passes and the calm of the afternoon allows for a more reflective atmosphere. The less intense evening service provides a final act is no less dramatic though as slow burning stories finally explode.

List of writers for Decade continued

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Review: The Golden Dragon, Arcola

“Please, not the red spanner!”

First things first, Studio 1 at the Arcola is flexible! I have frequently bemoaned the new main room at the Arcola’s new premises for its awkward seating arrangement that provided a restrictive playing space which unfortunately seemed to fly in the face of the playfulness of the old theatre. But for the first time Studio 1 has been reconfigured, into an end-on setting in this case, which hopefully means that the Arcola will continue to explore the new possibilities of their new home. The show that it is currently housing is the ATC production of The Golden Dragon, fresh from a successful run at the Traverse in Edinburgh and subsequently touring the UK.

It is a German play by Roland Schimmelpfennig, translated here by David Tushingham, which defies any easy definition, the website blurb says deconstructed soap opera, I’m thinking more fantastical yet modern fairy tale. Five actors play a whole host of characters and indeed animals, frequently switching gender, ethnicity and age in the smoothest of multiple transitions as the storytelling weaves gently around the heart, only revealing just how powerful and moving it is until its closing scenes by when we’re fully enchanted and in the tight grip of this ensemble.

Cast of The Comedy of Errors continued

Friday, 2 September 2011

Review: The Mercy Seat, Pleasance

“This is not me ranting”

As the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks looms, London theatres are looking to mark the occasion in their own ways: Headlong’s unique immersive approach has brought together 19 writers to create something new, the King’s Head are reviving the opera Manifest Destiny that questions US culpability in the attack and the Pleasance has this revival of Neil LaBute’s 2002 play The Mercy Seat, one of the first theatrical responses which predictably attracted much controversy in its original run.

The timing of brand new company Glow Box Production’s revival would seem to be a natural fit, but the truth is that the events of the 11th September only form a backdrop to LaBute’s play, they act as a trigger to the human drama that plays out but it is far from the central thrust of the work, something which a little distance from the actual event clearly helps with. Instead the focus is on the relationship between Ben and Abby and the choices they make in the face of the opportunity presented to them in the face of tragedy as they escape death by having taken the morning off for a sneaky liaison at her apartment. They’ve been having an affair for the past three years and see in the chaos of a city in turmoil, a chance to sneak off and start a life together but there’s more than a few issues that stand in the way.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Top 10 plays for August

Some would have you believe that there's no theatre in London in August, the decamping en masse to Edinburgh and subsequent almighty splurge of reviews making their case, but there was certainly plenty to be getting on with here! Here's my top 10 for this month.

Review: Korczak, YMT at Rose Kingston

“What should we do when everyone acts less than human? We must act more than human.”

The true life story of Janusz Korczak a Polish Jew who protected some 200 children from some of the worst horrors of the Second World War may not seem a likely subject for a piece of musical theatre but strange as it may seem, it works with a devastating precision. It was written in 1998 for youth theatre groups by Nick Stimson (book and lyrics) who also directs here and Chris Williams (music) but this version is presented here by Youth Music Theatre – the UK’s leading national music theatre company for young people – at the Rose Theatre in Kingston.

In Liz Cooke’s stark, wire-caged design with occasional shots of video, the story moves from the orphanage Korczak set up in the Polish countryside, inspired by those he saw in England, where he attempts to shield the children from the war that is ripping their country apart, to the Warsaw ghetto where they are eventually shipped off to as the Nazis’ Jewish solution took hold. But rather than focus on the sadness and horror, the writers tell the stories of these children, the various ways in which they react to the challenges posed to their everyday lives and getting on with the business of growing up, learning about love, humanity and responsibility even as the shadows grow ever darker.