Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Review: Floyd Collins, Southwark Playhouse

“Even Floyd knew somethin' wasn't right"

I don’t normally read much about shows before I go in especially if they are new to me, as I do like that element of surprise and novelty that is increasingly rare. But had I read that Floyd Collins, just opened at the Southwark Playhouse, was a musical containing a song that Stephen Sondheim wished he had wrote and is routinely described as complex, demanding and jagged, I might have been a little better prepared for it. Tina Landau (book and additional lyrics) and Adam Guettel’s (music and lyrics) musical really is a daring piece of work which challenges and provokes, though in this case ultimately frustrates.

Using the depths of the converted Vault space and a lot of ladders, James Perkins’ design seems ideally suited to recreating 1925 Kentucky and its system of inter-connected caves which our eponymous leading man is famed for exploring. But as he searches for more fame and fortune in new caves, he gets trapped by a rockfall 55 feet under the ground but it is the efforts to try and release him end up and the huge media circus that forms around it that makes up much of the show, exposing the effects on Floyd, his family and those trying to rescue him.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Review: A Song Cycle for Soho, Soho Theatre

"If you're feeling low low, get down to Madame JoJo's"

Featuring the vocal talents of Michael Cantwell, James Gillan, Niamh Perry and Claire Moore, and showcasing the work of musical theatre writers both established but primarily up and coming, A Song Cycle for Soho marks yet another feather in the cap for Mercury Musical Development, Simon Greiff and their sterling support for the genre. MMD has long been an invaluable resource for British musical theatre writers and Simon Greiff through SimG Productions has been tireless in his promotion of younger names and so there is something very apt about their collaboration here.

A Song Cycle for Soho developed out of Andrew Brinded's original book which cast a bit of a sideways glance at Soho, an area of central London that is teeming with debauchery,history, character and a whole lot more besides. 16 set of songwriters were then invited to compose works that captured the multitudinous quirkiness of life in Soho and the result is a collection of songs that cover history, both recent and long ago, and the modern day; comedy, quiet tragedy and the whole gamut of crazy emotions inbetween.

Writers of A Song Cycle for Soho continued

Monday, 27 February 2012

Review: Sondheim’s Company in the cinema

“When a person's personality is personable, he should not sit like a lump"
With the amount of theatre I see, I rarely go to the cinema these days – my Cineworld card collected dust for a quite a few months before I admitted defeat and cancelled it – so when I received an invitation to a press screening of a film, I was amused and intrigued by the novelty of the idea. Of course, it wasn’t that much of a stretch in the end because the film was a recording of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company from last year’s Lincoln Centre (Center?) production in New York featuring Neil Patrick Harris and a cast of luminaries including Patti LuPone (who inspired possibly the greatest YouTube video ever), Martha Plimpton (her from the Goonies all grown up) and Anika Noni Rose (the one from Dreamgirls who wasn’t Beyoncé or who won an Oscar).

I have to admit I was initially a little wary about going to see this: my relationship with Sondheim took a bit of a battering in the deluge of productions that celebrated his anniversary year and it was only really with the utterly fabulous Sheffield Crucible production of Company at the end of last year that the pieces all finally clicked together for me and I could hand on heart for the first time say that I absolutely loved a Sondheim show. But I have gotten much better at managing expectations for shows, especially in relation to other productions of the same, and this was an opportunity to see a whole bunch of performers, whom I like but may never get to see, live on a big screen. And you’ll get the chance when the show screens for one night only on Thursday 15th March at 7pm – the list of cinemas is available here.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Review The Resistance of Mrs Brown, Radio 4

“I never miss an opportuntiy to go unnoticed”

I love me some wartime drama especially when it involves the role of women, tv films like Housewife 49 and plays like The Firewatchers fill my heart with joy, and so the 15 minute drama for this week (formerly the Women’s Hour drama) fell very much into my field of interest, with an added twist of alternate history in the mix. Ed Harris’ The Resistance of Mrs Brown imagines a world where the British were defeated at Dunkirk and a Nazi Military Administration has been set up in London. Joan Brown works as a tea lady for the new powers-that-be and is determined to keep her head down, especially after the death of her husband, but when she advertises for a new lodger, she is contacted by the Resistance who want to use her unique position to help strike a blow against the Nazis.

Amanda Root’s delicate clipped tones make a beautifully unwilling heroine out of Mrs Brown, who is pushed along by the forthright Mrs Crace, a delightfully matter-of-fact Adjoa Andoh and Simon Bubb’s Wode who try their best to cajole her into going along with their plans, and using her as a narrator is an inspired choice by director Jonquil Panting as we’re constantly reminded of her reticient fragility which ends up responding beautifully to the challenges that are presented to her. Whether its her daughter, her boss or the men she serves tea to who come to know her a little, she is pulled one way or another until she finally gains the confidence to stand up for what she truly believes in and consequently makes decisions according to her own conscience.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Review: Hay Fever, Noël Coward

“People really do behave in the most extraordinary manner these days"

A Noël Coward play in the Noël Coward theatre, what could be more apt. Howard Davies’ production of Hay Fever is the first by Coward to play since the Albery Theatre was renamed in his honour, and featuring Jeremy Northam, Kevin R McNally, Olivia Colman and young talent like Freddie Fox and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, plus Lindsay Duncan with whom he did a very well received Private Lives in 2001. So the stars all seemed aligned for a rip-roaring good time but this ended up being the kind of hay fever I wish I could have taken anti-histamines for.

The play follows the outrageous antics of the four members of the Bliss family who each invite someone special to stay for the weekend with the intention of pursuing their private flirtations but end up driving everyone up the wall and coupling off in unexpected directions. But over the three acts, I found there to be precious little energy playing out in Bunny Christie’s rather drab design. Sluggish is the word that sprung to mind, from the (admittedly) set-up heavy first act through to the final act of reconciliation, as the air was of perfunctory run-through rather than finely-calibrated comedic excellence. Even the games of the second act which are rich in comic potential didn’t really catch fire like they ought despite Duncan’s best waspish efforts.

Weekend #5 – Digital Theatre

When the website Digital Theatre first launched, with its mission of capturing theatre productions for posterity, it was with a collection of plays that would probably be best described as low-key although an interesting selection with it: I duly investigated and took advantage of special offers to see The Comedy of Errors and Far From the Madding Crowd. There’s been much debate about the value of filmed theatre performances and I have to say that my initial choices were guided by the availability of shows that I had not seen, I wasn’t much minded to pay to see plays I had already seen onstage.

But over the last year, the folks behind Digital Theatre have very much raised their game in terms of the productions they have been involved in, taking on such high profile successes as the Open Air Theatre’s Into the Woods, the Tennant/Tate Much Ado About Nothing and the incendiary All My Sons. And with the present of a gift certificate for Christmas, I decided to take the opportunity to revisit Much Ado About Nothing and All My Sons, as well as seeing the RSC’s As You Like It for the first time.

Review: All My Sons, Digital Theatre

“I’m interested in what people want”

There’s not really much more to be said about All My Sons that I didn’t cover in my original review of the play. Howard Davies’ production of Arthur Miller’s classic was a deserved huge success in the West End in 2010 and Digital Theatre captured it on film over two nights in September and so one now has the opportunity to rent it online, or download it to watch via their video player.

The fact that the play takes place on the single set lends itself to being captured quite easily on film, there's little theatrical shenanigans employed here to distract from the fireworks of the acting, that is the real focus of this show. David Suchet's oily geniality and Zoë Wanamaker's blind forthrightedness are simply exceptional together as the Kellers play host to family and neighbours and are ultimately left helpless as long-buried truths from the past worm their way to the surface with devastating consequences.

Review: Much Ado About Nothing, Digital Theatre

"Can the world buy such a jewel?"

Well you can now buy a copy of Josie Rourke's Much Ado About Nothing which parlayed the star quality of its leads David Tennant and Catherine Tate into massive box office success but watching it again, I'm not so convinced of its jewel-like propensities. Revisiting this particular show did it no real favours in my mind, exposing its limitations and the lack of subtlety that characterises so much of the production. 

Relocated to a Gibraltar naval base in the 1980s, the brashness of that decade was clearly taken onboard as a key note for the whole thing. But whereas from the back row of the Wyndhams, it seemed to work in filling the theatre, in the up close and personal of the cmera lens, the broadness doesn't work quite as well. Tennant comes off slightly better with a more natural reading of the lines as a cocky Benedick but Tate never really gets under the skin of Beatrice, the emphasis too much on artifically contrived comedy which never allows her to just be. She is always made to work harder by Rourke who perhaps should have trusted her actor a bit more as she really comes into her own from 'kill Claudio...' where she demonstrates her dramatic gift and indicates what might have been of lines like "there was a star danced..." had she been mugging less right before delivering it. 

Cast of Much Ado About Nothing continued

Review: As You Like It, Digital Theatre

“If my uncle, thy banished father, had banished thy uncle, the duke my father...”

Against my better judgement, I bought the RSC’s As You Like It ages ago when a special offer came up for it but it has languished on my hard-drive ever since as I have serious AYLI fatigue and no real desire to watch it again. It is one of those Shakespeares that seems to pop up with unfailing regularity and I’ve grown tired of it to be honest – occasionally a production will surprise with a stunning central performance as did Cush Jumbo at the Royal Exchange but usually I’m left weary by the lack of inventiveness in productions which end up blurring into one another in my mind.

And that’s how I felt in the end about this 2010 Michael Boyd-directed production featuring the Long Ensemble. It is undoubtedly well-performed: Katy Stephens’ bright intelligence is perfectly suited to the determined Rosalind and well matched with Jonjo O’Neill’s passionate Orlando, Richard Katz’s wild-haired Touchstone is well observed and having become accustomed to this group of actors, I liked the smaller parts played by the likes of Christine Entwisle, Dyfan Dwyfor and Charles Aitken.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Review: In Basildon, Royal Court

“There's no new beginnings for families like ours. And there never has been."

One of David Eldridge’s most recent previous plays - The Knot of the Heart for the Almeida – proved to be one of the most divisive I’ve experienced in terms of the response from the critics who lauded it and so many of the bloggers and audience members of my acquaintance who really did not like it at all. So when the new season at the Royal Court was announced featuring a new play by him, I was ok with not booking it as it helped me with my ‘I will cut down on the amount of theatre I see’ mantra. But then they announced the cast and as soon as I saw the names Linda Bassett and Ruth Sheen I knew that I would have to book for In Basildon. Bassett blew me away in the Arcola's undersung The Road To Mecca and Sheen is an actress whose work I have recently revisited and adored in recent MIke Leigh films, and the Leigh connection is furthered with the presence of other regular collaborators Peter Wight and Wendy Nottingham. So I was a mixture of reluctance and eager anticipation as I schlepped off to Sloane Square to catch the final preview.

Dying from prostate cancer, salt-of-the-earth Len has returned to the home he inherited from his parents as friends and family gather round his sickbed. Sister Doreen and best friend Ken lead the group but the atmosphere is shaken by the return of estranged sister Maureen who hasn't spoken to 'Dor' in nearly 20 years. As Len passes away, attention turns to his will as everyone seems to have a claim on something, including Pam from next door, Doreen's son Barry and his wife, and Shelley, Maureen's daughter and Eldridge explores the tensions that emerge from these family loyalties and how they change over time and across the generations. The complexities of sibling relationships are brutally exposed but also overlaid with a frank discussion about class and how it is intrinsically connected to location, their working-class politics shaped by hard-earned experience. Confrontational, conflicted and compelling, Eldridge's writing speaks with the darkest of humour but also the ring of a deep emotional truth. It's just a shame that the Royal Court have decided to play the 'tricksy' card with the staging. 

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Review: Artist Descending A Staircase, Criterion

“Imagination without skill gives us modern art”

Home to the long-running The 39 Steps (which I still haven’t quite gotten round to seeing yet), the Criterion Theatre has been expanding its programming both with late-evening and afternoon events. This Tuesday afternoon saw a performance of Tom Stoppard’s radio play Artist Descending A Staircase by such an attractive cast that it was impossible to resist. The play was performed in front of us to a microphone, although I couldn’t quite figure out whether this was being recorded for real or not, and sound effects created onstage so it was just like watching a radio play being recorded rather than something being acted out and was most amusing with it – not least because we got to see the actors in their civvies and see what their fashion sense is like!

But to the play itself: we open with a scratchy recording of undetermined sounds and soon find ourselves in an attic studio shared by three elderly avant-garde artists with two of them standing over the body of the third at the bottom of the staircase. Beauchamp is the one who made the recording as his art centres on the sounds of everyday life and as he and his colleague Martello hear their dead friend Donner acknowledge the presence of something just before his fall, they each point the finger of suspicion at the other.

In a series of flashbacks both to the recent cantankerous past and way back in their history to the birth of their shared artistic ideal, we see how their relationship has progressed and developed, especially with the arrival of Sophie, a blind woman who caught the affections of all three of them in different ways. Stoppard looks at how our own senses can work against us as well as the fallibility of our own memories which can have huge repercussions for both love and life.

As the older trio, Oliver Cotton, James Fleet and Tim McInnerny had most of the best lines and had great fun with them too as they bitched about the bad habits of the others, groused about their artistic choices and generally grumbled their way through life. Their younger counterparts Henry Lloyd Hughes, James Northcote and Ed Bennett respectively had a slightly more difficult task in convincing us of their earnestness but all did well and were significantly helped in the most unlikely of ways, by Stoppard actually writing with genuine heartfelt emotion for his characters for once and Northcote in particular seizes on this to create a most moving portrayal.

As the sole woman, the ever-marvellous Katherine Parkinson was excellent as Sophie, the recently blind woman whose journey in the play is marked by its own tragedy, and her voice is so expressive and melodious that it is ideally suited to just listen to. Most of the actors helped out with the creation of sound effects for all manner of things and in all manner of ways, but special mention has to go to Spot Stage Manager Alison Mckenzie who did much of the work and Sam Hodges’ direction marshalled all the elements together perfectly. I believe other events are planned for this lunchtime slot so keep your eye out for the future as this was a highly enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes or so.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Review: Second Blast – Present Dangers, Tricycle

“There are over 200 countries in the world and only 8, maybe 9 have nuclear weapons”

The second part of the Tricycle’s The Bomb – a partial history is named Second Blast: Present Dangers and focuses its attention on where the nuclear threat lies now, i.e. in the Middle East and North Korea. Alongside the five plays, there’s more of the verbatim reportage, edited by Richard Norton-Taylor, in this section, effectively deployed to demonstrate the almost ridiculousness of the way in which the debate about Iran and nuclear capability has been framed the US and Israel, and later on to remind us of the official political positions of many of our own leaders in the UK.

Altogether I was a tiny bit disappointed with this half of the day (I’d’ve given it 3.5 stars as opposed to 4 for Part 1) as First Blast: Proliferation had cast its net far and wide to cover five different aspects of the history of the bomb but Second Blast returned time and time again to Iran (3 times in fact) in terms of the present day. Obviously it’s a massive part of where we are in terms of potential instability, but I felt that a more useful eye could have been cast elsewhere as well – in a savage indictment of those countries like Israel and Pakistan who still refuse to sign up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or indeed a more damning look at those countries that have signed yet show no signs of reducing their stockpile.

Review: There Was A Man. There Was No Man

“Ethics are all very well from the safety of Switzerland”

In some ways Colin Teevan’s There Was A Man. There Was No Man ought to have been the most powerfully resonant piece in the second part of the Tricycle’s The Bomb – a partial history given the heightened tension around the Iranian nuclear programme and the ever-present antagonism with Israel.

The official blurb is as follows. ‘While Israel officially has no nuclear arms programme, few doubt it has; Iran claims this gives it the right to develop its own nuclear programme. Who will be the first to blink? When an Israeli and Iranian scientist meet at a conference in Jordan, their meeting has deep repercussions for their nations, their families and themselves.’

Review: Axis

“Hungry as they are, they are proud to be North Korean and not American puppets”

Even within the constraints of a short piece of drama, playwrights often think and write big, but not always to the greatest effect, and so it felt a little bit with Diana Son’s Axis, one of the plays making up the second part of the Tricycle’s The Bomb – a partial history. Starting off in a White House strategy room, two advisers try to come up with a sexy soundbite that will help sell Dubya’s aggressive post 9/11 strategy, we then flip ten years into the future in North Korea where two members of the government discuss what things might be like under their new inexperienced leader Kim Jong-Un.

Both sections have their merits: the idea that something as powerful and definitive as the ‘Axis of Evil’ rhetoric is something that could have been whipped by speech-writers and spin doctors has a horribly persuasive currency but it felt a lost opportunity for the revelation that this policy threw away the considerable diplomatic efforts of the previous administration who had come close to buying out the North Koreans’ nuclear programme in exchange for aid to just be used as a post-script caption. And where the 2012 discussion of the huge uncertainty around their untried new leader does look at the repercussions of this hardening of the position on both sides, especially on worsening the poverty in North Korea, there’s an almost slapstick tone which undermined the seriousness of the subject.

Review: Talk Talk Fight Fight

“We need to find a wrecking ball”

Ryan Craig’s Talk Talk Fight Fight emerged as one of the better pieces of the second part of the Tricycle’s The Bomb – a partial history for me. An intelligent look at life in the negotiations rooms at the United Nations as an EU delegation prepare to try and consult on nuclear non-proliferation with an Iran who are being less than upfront about their nuclear development. Their determination to remain reasonable and diplomatic is then challenged with the arrival of a brash CIA agent with an Iranian nuclear scientist in tow, but whose reliability is questioned in different ways by different people.

Craig captures perfectly the frustrations of bureaucrats and activists having to dance around the obfuscations of the Iranians, deflect the determination of some to make a case for war, and all the time ensure they are observing international law down to the very last clause. Shereen Martin and Daniel Rabin excel here as two workers each passionately devoted to the cause, as does Belinda Lang who was almost unrecognisable as a Baroness Ashton (of UpHolland, the village of my birth doncha know)-like figure who has to skip from meeting to meeting, from nuclear disarmament to trade debates about fish at the drop of a hat.

Review: The Letter of Last Resort

“Onboard a submarine, there’s a safe. Inside that safe there’s another safe. And inside that one is a letter.”

Probably my favourite section in the second part of the Tricycle’s The Bomb – a partial history was David Greig’s The Letter of Last Resort. Simon Chandler’s civil servant is pressuring Belinda Lang’s newly installed Prime Minister to put contingency arrangements in place in case of a (nuclear) catastrophe yet as she decides what course of action is to be taken in response to whatever attack has taken place, she is pulled down into a swirl of contradictory absurdist logic.

Greig’s writing is sharply observed and extremely funny – especially in the revelation of just how the submarine commander will ascertain if Britain has been destroyed – but it also has real heart as this PM comes to terms with the gravity of the decision she has to make. Lang plays this excellently, her determination to not let her position rob her of her humanity slowly worn down by the devil’s advocate of Simon Chandler’s adviser who is always able to offer the bigger picture about what must be done as opposed to what is right.

Review: From Elsewhere: On the Watch...

“A door always leads to somewhere”

The final piece in the second part of the Tricycle’s The Bomb – a partial history returns to Zinnie Harris with From Elsewhere: On the Watch... where she revisits her characters of Frisch and Peierls from the opening From Elsewhere: a message... The scientists who did so much to advance the initial discoveries around nuclear technology have now been reincarnated as weapons inspectors in Iran who are confronted with the reality of what has been wrought with the revelations that came from their laboratory.

It’s a little heavy-handed in places and again doesn’t really possess much dramatic pull, but ultimately there is much that works about it. Daniel Rabin and Rick Warden has genuine chemistry as old friends who know each other inside out; there’s a deep recognition of the futility of much of the process of inspection, and the sense of unity that comes from revisiting this pair makes as neat an ending as one could have hoped for in such a hugely complex area as is covered altogether here.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Review: First Blast - Proliferation, Tricycle

"Gentlemen, let the race begin"

Nicolas Kent's final hurrah at the Tricycle Theatre, which he has patiently nurtured into fine battling form as a theatre really at the cutting edge of hot-topic drama, is this multi-authored two-part epic - The Bomb - a partial history. Inviting nine authors to respond to the debate (or more accurately the lack thereof) around nuclear weapons, Kent has pieced together a stimulating and challenging piece of theatre, divided into two parts, which can be experienced separately on different nights or one after the other on certain days, in a seven-hour marathon, which is how I did it (and probably how I'd recommend to it). 

Part one is labelled First Blast: Proliferation and focuses on the period 1940-1992 as nuclear weapons became a horrendous reality as Japan found out to its cost and then a terrible threat to all as the Cold War descended between the superpowers of the USA and the USSR, and more and more countries sought to gain nuclear capabilities for themselves, threatening imbalances right across the globe. The attempts to control the spread of nuclear weaponry is also dealt with as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty came into being and international pressure exerted to try and bring everyone into the fold.

Review: From Elsewhere: the message...

"One kilo, a bag of could make a bomb with THAT"

Set in a Whitehall antechamber in 1940, the opening play in the first part of the Tricycle's The Bomb - a partial history is Zinnie Harris' From Elsewhere: the message... Scientists Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch have been conducting research in their laboratory in Birmingham looking at the discoveries of other people working in the field of trying achieve effective nuclear fission and hit upon a massive discovery. But as they wait to be admitted to the War Committee to give their revelation which has the potential to utterly change the course of the war, doubts creep in as to whether they, two expat Germanic Jews will be taken seriously.

What emerges is an intermittently fascinating tale that takes us through the early years of nuclear research and the slow realisation of the terrible power that the work that these physicists are carrying out will wield in the wrong hands. The race for knowledge was happening in several places, but it was Peierls' fleeing from Germany where he had been working with the world-leader in atomic research Niel Bohr and subsequently sharing his knowledge with Frisch's own advances that proved the critical moment. This is all described rather entertainingly, interspersed with their nervousness at having such a responsibility on their hands in such an unfriendly environment - as underlined by Simon Chandler's sniffy clerk.

Review: Calculated Risk

"Could it be possible that war becomes so terrible that it outlaws itself?"

Ron Hutchinson's Calculated Risk, the second play in the first half of the Tricycle's The Bomb - a partial history, is an excellent debate on the morality and the reality of adopting a nuclear weapons programme. Set in the second half of 1945, the play focuses on Clement Atlee's dilemma as he came into power as Prime Minister just days before the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a move sanctioned by Churchill's government, and was put under pressure to decide on what Great Britain's nuclear policy would be.

The main part of the piece is a sustained discussion between Attlee and his key advisors: Field Marshal Grierson, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin and scientist William Penney who are each pursuing their own agendas, and following their own instincts, in debating this huge issue. And Hutchinson spells it all out with great clarity, pitting the inevitability of scientific advance against ethics and the notion of free will, the morality of choosing an option that would undoubtedly result in huge civilian loss of life against the political expediency of warning potential enemies of what they might face.

Review: Seven Joys

"No more kimchi for you"

Lee Blessing's Seven Joys was the first introduction of an (initally) light-hearted note into the Tricycle's The Bomb - a partial history. Set in a members' club in Washington DC, the metaphor of exclusive membership to an institution is used extremely effectively to show the impossibility of maintaining exclusivity of something that is hugely desired, especially when that something is nuclear capability.

As loud American Cal revels in his club for one, helped out by faithful butler Harry, the calm atmopshere is shattered by the arrival of the blundering Russian Slava, who brings with him his symbol of eligibility of membership - a glowing egg and his Chinese chef. But as they discuss how they intend to control what it is that they possess, it turns out that their staff have now managed to become 'members' too - China and Britain, along with their friend Marianne, France.

Review: Option

"How can security not be our agenda"

Amit Gupta's Option was my favourite of the plays that made up the first part of the Tricycle's The Bomb - a partial history , and probably the best of the entire collection. It centres on the debates and soul-searching of three Indian nuclear scientists in 1968: Professor Akram representing the past and a link to Gandhi's founding principles, Dr Mishra a member of the government negotiating the extremely tricky waters around the intense pressure to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Prakash an idealistic young man whose scientific passion promises much for the future.

As China tests its own nuclear weapons and bitter enemy Pakistan increases its efforts to secure its own, India found itself torn between looking after the security of its own nation and succumbing to the international pressure to agree to the US/Soviet Union pact that would see them back down from arming. The geopolitics of the history of nuclear whatnot is normally most focused on the key players of the USA and USSR with little consideration for the realities on the ground in countries caught in their own mini-Cold Wars.

Review: Little Russians

"What's the message, that we're nutters?!"

The final play in the first half of the Tricycle’s The Bomb was John Donnelly’s Little Russians, a black comedy about a Ukrainian family looking to make a quick buck selling the decrepit nuclear missile abandoned in their back yard after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Brothers Yuri and Andrei do a deal with wandering Russian soldier Vladimir to use his contacts to sell the weapon on the black market but his eye is caught by their mother Irina who then makes her own arrangement with Vlad. And when the arms dealer finally arrives, they all try to double-cross each other in order to get the best deal but the Russian/American joint force hunting for the missing missile are getting ever closer all the time.

With its outright comedic tone – the Ukrainians are given Irish accents here and there’s more than a hint of Father Ted mentalness – Little Russians felt really quite different to the rest of the works we had seen in responding in this manner. The disintegration of the USSR created unwitting nuclear states in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine who were quick to wield the bargaining card of security against Russia rather than surrendering them for decommissioning and with opportunistic mercenaries on the make in lawless tranches of the country, they posed a serious threat.

Review: Sunset, Radio 3

“No-one is truly innocent”

Even though the word ‘play’ has now been banished from BBC Radio, as renaming everything ‘Drama’ apparently brings it into line with the rest of the BBC’s output (although the reasoning adopts a ridiculously unnecessary position in justifying dropping the word ‘play’ as this article nicely puts it) , I have still been listening to the odd play, sorry drama, when the time has been available. Doug Lucie’s Sunset was one I particularly enjoyed, so I thought I blog it briefly.

I have to admit that my choices for listening are often governed as much by who is involved in the cast as the subject matter of the writing itself: some actors just have voices I could listen to all day and so I jump at the opportunity to hear them where possible. In this case, it was Stella Gonet – whom I’ve adored ever since The House Of Elliot – whose presence was the most appealing, though Leo Bill and Jason Watkins alongside Julian Glover and David Bamber added much to the appeal.

Review: Sasha Regan’s All Male Patience, Union

"There is more innocent fun within me than the casual spectator might allow"

The all-male Gilbert and Sullivan adaptations at the Union Theatre have become something of an annual institution now and though we've been kept waiting a few more months than usual, the next instalment has arrived with Patience or Bunthorne's Bride. Last year's Iolanthe was exceptionally good and I rather enjoyed The Pirates of Penzance the year before so it was safe to say that expectations were rather high for this, but this was a show I knew nothing of beforehand - my love for G+S being mainly limited to the film of Pirates... which I watched over and over again as a child.

Patience is a satirical look at the aesthetic movement (yeah, me neither) which was a fashionable movement of the 1880s that preached devotion to the arts and lofty ideals of love as a duty rather than a pleasure. We follow Reginald and Archibald as they both pursue a milkmaid named Patience, whilst a group of ladies swoon over the aesthetically minded pair of gents and ignore the returning bumptious soldiers to whom they were engaged the previous year. Gentle fun is poked at everyone as attentions shift from man to man and the hapless soldiers are left trying to become aesthetes themselves in order to win back their feckless ladies.

Cast of Patience continued

Friday, 17 February 2012

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Filter at Lyric Hammersmith

“I’m going to do an abstract version”

With the best will in the world, it is hard not to carry opinions with you and this is particularly true in the theatre. In the name of attempting to be open-minded, I have continued to plug away at Ibsen in the hope that one day his work might click with me, but truth be told my heart sinks when productions of his work are mentioned. And despite their sterling reputation and rave reviews, Filter’s work has previously left me a little cold, moving the head rather than the heart, so as I filled in at the last minute for a reviewer who dropped out, there was a little reluctance as I waited for the curtain to rise on their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Filter are a company whose reinterpretations of classic texts, as well as the creation of new work, burst with creativity and great imagination as they explore the theatrical potential offered by a radical approach to sound. But for me, that hasn't always been matched with a similiar attention to story-telling - so Silence, Water and Twelfth Night were not my favourite moments in a theatre. Suffice to say though that in this case, whilst purists may baulk at this treatment of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Filter succeeded in smashing my preconceptions and entertaining me most thoroughly indeed. 

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Review: The Way of the World, Crucible

“I'm in a maze yet, like a dog in a dancing-school”

I doubt I could have named a single Restoration comedy for you even just a few months ago but trends in theatre change as endlessly as in fashion, and I now find myself having seen three already this year. Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre get in on the act with this revival of William Congreve’s The Way of the World (ahead of Chichester who are putting it on as part of this year’s festival) from 1700, following my trips to the Donmar’s The Recruiting Officer (1706) and the National’s She Stoops to Conquer (1773).

Lyndsey Turner’s production here though is the only one of these that has taken major liberties with the play, in this case setting in the modern day where ‘Restoration’ is a new trend that has swept society. At its simplest, the plot follows the young Mirabell who is courting the delicious Millament, yet comes up against her formidable aunt Lady Wishfort who is set against the match and threatens to withhold her fortune, which many others have their eye on and are willing to commit dastardly deeds to get it. But the play is rarely that simple, and with the directorial device at play, I must admit it challenged me just a little (and made me wish I’d read a synopsis beforehand).

Television Review: BBC HD Film Shorts

“Why won’t you listen to me”

A bit of random thing that only came to my attention because of a kind soul on Twitter, this collection of five short films from the last few years presented by the BBC Film Network and BBC HD, offered the opportunity to notch up bonus appearances from Andrew Scott and Rafe Spall, as well as appreciating some up and coming filmmaking talent.

Scott’s film is Silent Things in which he plays Jake, a guy with Asperger’s who strikes up an unlikely camaraderie with a quirky teenager, Georgia Groome’s Amy who challenges him to test his boundaries with mixed results and which in turn also threatens his friendship with Charlotte, also autistic and who resents the closeness that Jake is able to achieve with others. Written by Rob Brown and Edward Jackson, it is small but perfectly formed and elevated by all three performances from its leads, not just Scott. Predictably he is excellent, unshaven and more unkempt than we’re used to seeing him, his is a performance of great subtlety leading us to empathise strongly with Jake’s predicament. Antonia Campbell-Hughes’ Charlotte suffers more severely and so is less able to socialise, her bluntness still sensitively portrayed though and the self-determined drive neatly suggested. Groome is also good and altogether, it made for an engaging short piece.

Modern Life is Rubbish was also amongst my favourites here, Rafe Spall and Rebecca Night starring as a recently split-up couple who are going through the traumatic experience of dividing their music collection and ruminating on their relationship, their potential future friendship and what might have been. It is very well written, Philip Gawthorne picking up on so many of the tiny awkward details like attending the same social events after the split, being brutally honest about the things you didn’t like about the other and the ease with which one can fall back into intimacy without even thinking about it. And well performed too, Spall’s traditional music obsessive railing against greatest hits collections and the very existence of the iPod, his bluffness not quite able to mask his breaking heart as Rebecca Night tries to remain pragmatic as the one who has moved out and so not wanting to spend any more time there than is necessary.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Review: Miss Julie, Faction at New Diorama

“I have to get down but I don’t have the courage to jump”

Miss Julie is the third iteration of the Faction rep season at the New Diorama, though there’s been a bit of a gap for me between seeing this and the brilliant first two - Twelfth Night and Mary Stuart. And I’m not sure if it was the gap, my feelings that night or perhaps the company stretching themselves just a little bit too far, but I did not take to Strindberg’s play half as much as I did the others.

Part of it came from the feeling that this was more of an afterthought than an integral part of the rep season – it seems an odd choice for the company to choose with an ensemble at work as the play is a three-hander at heart. Miss Julia is a Count’s daughter but rather than attend the formal ball being put on by her father, she opts to go to the party being held by the servants where she embarks on a dangerous flirtation with footman Jean.

Review: The Recruiting Officer, Donmar Warehouse

“There’s a pleasure sure, in being mad, which none but mad-men know”

Josie Rourke’s inaugural season as Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse starts off with the Donmar’s first ever Restoration comedy – George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. Written in 1706, it is also well known as the play that is rehearsed by the convicts in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good and Rourke has assembled a truly impressive cast in order to make a splash with her debut. Plotwise, it is mainly about men who go ‘huzzah’ a lot as they try to recruit the young men of Shrewsbury into the army, balanced with two central romances which are negotiating the impact of a big inheritance on female romantic inclinations.

It’s a whole lot of bawdy fun rather than making any serious points about anything if one is brutally honest, but it is totally made by the quality of the cast. Tobias Menzies exudes charisma as the bounding Captain Plume, well partnered by Mackenzie Crook’s Sergeant Kite, and together they brazenly try to wheedle their way into the sense of duty of the male populace and sweep them off to war. Completely amoral but largely quite funny about it, the scene with the faux crystal ball reader is extremely well done, Nicholas Burns’ demonstrating some nifty moves as gentleman Worthy, and many a laugh is garnered. Most of them come though from the friendly(ish) rivalry with Captain Brazen, a rival recruiting officer who is well portrayed as Mark Gatiss nearly steals the show with an outrageously foppish performance: his vocal delivery at one crucial point was just delicious.

Cast of The Recruiting Officer

Monday, 13 February 2012

Radio Review: Dickens in London

“It seems that I would be an uncommerical traveler”

The bi-centenary of Charles Dickens’ birth has been marked in several different ways across a variety of media and Dickens in London, this collection of five short radio plays by Michael Eaton was one which entertained me nicely. Adapted from some of Dickens’ journalistic essays, the plays deal with his changing impressions of London as he grew up, was stimulated by and then grew tired of the great city that inspired so much of his writing. 

We start with A Not-Overly-Particularly-Taken-Care-Of Boy where the boy Charles gets lost on his very first visit with his uncle, then move to Boz, where a young man has secured himself employment as a Parliamentary Reporter for the Morning Chronicle but dreams of writing his own stories. Samuel Barnett is particularly good in these two first stories, his voice is particularly well suited to radio, so full of character and crackled emotion.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

DVD Review: Nicholas Nickleby

“You must bear up against sorrow my dear”

Douglas McGrath’s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby manages the not-unimpressive feat of condensing Dickens’ weighty novel into a two hour film, and whilst much must have been jettisoned (I’ve never read the book so I couldn’t tell you what) it still hangs together as a cohesive story with much to recommend it. McGrath also directs and remains very much faithful to the spirit of Dickens with a straightforward aesthetic that takes a few artistic liberties but whose heart is very much in the right place.

After the death of Nickleby senior, Nickleby junior is thrust into the role of head of the family but with the dastardly deeds of their unscrupulous Uncle Ralph, Nicholas has to work extremely hard and keep his wits about him in order to protect his friends and family from the misfortune around them. Those misfortunes are many and varied but entertainingly portrayed here as there’s a good deal of humour and pathos mixed in with the grimness.

Nicholas Nickleby contd

The cast of Nicholas Nickleby continued.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Review: Lucky Stiff, Landor

“We're down on our knees braving rabies and fleas"

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's Ragtime was one of the highlights of the musical year in London and along with their revival of Howard Goodall's The Hired Man, marked a year with remarkable highs for the Landor Theatre in Clapham. Their small-scale but big-impact productions have proved a welcome boost to the London fringe musical scene, marked by their success in the Offies awards last week, and the Landor are clearly looking to maintain that by reviving Ahrens and Flaherty's first show Lucky Stiff. A frivolous musical farce, based on Michael Butterworth's "The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo", the plot revels in the nonsensical and ridiculous as we caper from a dowdy English shoeshop and an Atlantic City optometrist's office to the glitzy casinos of Monte Carlo with gay abandon.

Harry Witherspoon's existence selling footwear is thrown into chaos when an unexpected bequest from an unknown uncle falls into his lap, but with certain strings attached. In order to get his inheritance, Harry needs to take the embalmed body of his uncle on a trip to Monte Carlo and pass him off as alive, or else the money will go to the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn. Further complicating matters is the uncle's lover Rita, six million dollars worth of diamonds that have gone missing, an over-friendly Italian, cross-dressing maids, a representative of the dogs home with her eyes on the cash and a suspicious-looking Arab, as everyone descends on the South Coast of France in a madcap rush with much confusion ensuing.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Review: Sex with a Stranger, Trafalgar Studios 2

“What are you up to tonight?”

 is always nice when a play can change your mind about a theatre. The Trafalgar Studios 2 has never been one of my favourite venues, its awkward shape and uncomfortable seating have often proved a challenge for directors and so my experiences there have definitely been a mixed bag. But Sex with a Stranger, written by Stefan Golaszewski who also pens Him and Her (not that I watch it), has slotted in extremely well with a cracking cast to tell its story of everyday disillusionment with love, sex and life. Adam and Grace hook up in a club and wind their way back to hers for a one night stand via the kebab shop and we get to see their attempts at halting conversation and forming a fumbling connection which are awkwardly, hilariously portrayed. We then skip back in time a day or so to find that Adam has left a girlfriend Ruth at home, but their relationship is no bed of roses and the stranger of the title could sadly apply to either woman.

no denying that this isn’t the most substantial of works, but interestingly enough where I would happily criticise say Ayckbourn for being insubstantial to my mind, the slightness here was much more tolerable because of the connection that I felt with the writing. So much of it feels relatable and recognisable and thus it rang entirely true with me, especially in its depiction of a failing relationship. It probably wasn’t an avocado that caused it, but I’ve had that passive-aggressive moment in the supermarket; that horrible pull between partner and friends who don’t necessarily get on; that nagging sense that neither of you are on the same page. Golaszewski captures all of this so well in its raw awkwardness and uncomfortableness, which is served excellently for once in the close intimacy of the Trafalgar Studios 2 in Phillip Breen’s production.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Review: The Changeling, Young Vic

“Resolve me this question”

And the question is do designers ever actually sit in the seats that surround the sets that they create. I ask because Ultz’s design for The Changeling, currently playing in the Young Vic’s Maria studio, stretches the seating round all four sides as well as into a set of nooks and crannies and wheelchairs downstairs. This is fine on two sides with the usual red seating but with the others, a single row of seats has been placed behind a heavy thick rampart meaning that visibility of a third of the stage is compromised and only partly rectified by leaning forward. Combined with the dreaded unreserved seating and the sheer arrogance of the audience members who refused to budge up like everyone else did in order to maintain ‘their’ spot and forcing some extraordinary contortions in order to allow many people to pass them, I couldn’t help but feel this was a configuration that had its audience too far back in its mind than is truly acceptable.

This won’t be the case for everyone, a good two thirds of the seats look to be fine though I can’t guaranteed you won’t get Satan’s own audience members next to you, and indeed my companion for the evening wasn’t half as bothered about having to lean as I was. But this is my blog and so I get to bitch about whatever I like! Fortunately the play was good enough to (mostly) overcome my reservations about the space and provide a wittily anarchic, jelly-filled take on Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s revenge tragedy classic, the second take on it in recent months on the South Bank after a less than successful version at the Southwark Playhouse.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Review: The King's Speech, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Guildford

“No emotions. Not in public.”

Despite winning 4 Oscars in 2011, early treatments of David Seidler's The King's Speech envisioned it as a play, and it was at a reading at the Pleasance theatre that film director Tom Hooper's mother spotted its potential and the rest as they say is history. So, it never actually made it into a theatre but striking while the iron is hot, Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre have mounted this premiere production of the show, starring Charles Edwards and Jonathan Hyde, which will undertake a short tour of the country in the coming months.

Seidler drew on his own experience, as a boy with a stammer who was inspired by the success of King George VI in overcoming his own stammer, to pursue telling this story but was only granted permission to access much of the primary research material after the death of the Queen Mother, who did not want the film made in her lifetime. So we follow Bertie, the second son, as he struggles to deal with his stammer at a time when the public profile of the Royal Family was increasing exponentially with the advent of radio. His meeting with unconventional Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue sets him on the difficult journey of trying to conquer his deep-seated issues, all the while dealing with the unfolding scandal of his older brother’s affair with Wallis Simpson and the constitutional crisis it incurs. Oh, and war is approaching too.