Friday, 31 May 2013

Review: These Shining Lives, Park Theatre

“You’re acting like a guy”

In some ways, These Shining Lives seems like something of an odd choice to open the Park Theatre, a new London theatre in Finsbury Park, as what it seems to do is just add another solid drama to an overcrowded marketplace. That’s not to deny the quality of this piece of theatre but rather a hope that the programming of this venue is able to carve its own niche. Melanie Marnich’s play retreads familiar ground in telling the story of the women working in a 1920s Chicago factory who painted luminous radium paint onto watch dials, licking their brushes as they went, not realising that they are poisoning themselves.

It is certainly acted in a most engaging fashion. Charity Wakefield - not on our stages often enough - is radiant as Kate who becomes the reluctant leader of the cause as it slowly becomes clear what is going on, fragile but capable of bright emotion and fierce determination, well accompanied by the bright Alec Newman as her husband. Nathalie Carrington reveals herself as a luminous performer as the wise-cracking Pearl, Honeysuckle Weeks shines as the seductive Charlotte and Melanie Bond has a certain glow as Frances.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Review: A Doll’s House, Royal Exchange

“I did it out of love, didn’t I?”

Part of the thrill of watching new actors explode onto the scene is the knowledge that in at least a few of the cases, we are watching the Judi Denches, Maggie Smiths and Michael Gambons of our time at the beginnings of their careers. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that Cush Jumbo will be someone we are watching for decades to come and it has been a particular pleasure to watch her work at Manchester’s Royal Exchange progress over the last few years. Her creative relationship with director Greg Hersov has seen successful takes on Pygmalion and As You Like It and reunited once again, they now have a go at A Doll’s House.

Bryony Lavery has slightly retooled Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, sprinkling it lightly with modern touches which perfectly suit Jumbo’s striking presence as Nora, a woman who unblinkingly does what she can to protect her husband and family until finally, she realises that it is herself that she needs to look after the most. It remains a compellingly foresighted piece of writing – 130 years old now – challenging social conventions about marriage, motherhood and the role that money has to play in all of this.

Review: Passion Play, Duke of York’s

“That’s what men want to hear…pornography”

The trio of recent major Peter Nicholls revivals is completed with this West End run of Passion Play. But where Privates on Parade and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg thoroughly charmed me with their insights into his back catalogue, this play felt much less like a vibrant piece of interesting theatre and more of a dated portrayal of marriage and infidelity which, despite its technical innovation, emerges as an awkward example of middle-aged male wish fulfilment (credit to @pcchan1981 for coming up with the phrase!). This is somewhat compounded by the direction of David Leveaux which brings a lascivious, almost voyeuristic sheen that feels way too retrogressive for this day and age.

Which is a shame, as there is much to enjoy here as well, not least in the sumptuous luxury of Zoë Wanamaker and Samantha Bond playing the outer and inner voices of the same character. That woman is Eleanor, who finds her marriage of 25 years to James, Owen Teale and Oliver Cotton taking on the two sides of this man, challenged by the arrival of the seductive and much younger Kate. And through the device of the alter egos, we see how the corrosive onset of infidelity affects this couple both publicly in their interactions but also privately as their innermost thoughts are given voice.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Theatre Royal Drury Lane

“It’s the a-choc-alypse…no, it’s choc-mageddon”

What to do when a golden ticket is actually thrust into one’s hand?! A late invitation to a very early preview of new big budget musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meant a hurried trip to the newly refurbished Theatre Royal Drury Lane to see what has to be one of the most highly anticipated productions of the year with Sam Mendes directing, Peter Darling choreographing and Douglas Hodge taking on the role of Willy Wonka. Given the huge success of fellow Roald Dahl adaptation Matilda, the stakes on this multi-million production are substantial and a month long preview period is testament to how much the team want to test the show before opening night. 

Where Charlie might suffer, unlike Matilda, is in the enduring memory of the iconic film version from 1971. When Hodge appears at the door of his factory, you can sense the sigh of relief as he looks ‘right’, as in definitely inspired by Gene Wilder’s take on the character; when the doors open on the Chocolate room, there’s a slight sense of disappointment which is perhaps inevitable as the logistics of creating a chocolate waterfall and river come up hard against what appears to be a giant curly-wurly (hopefully there’s more to be done here).

Cast of Charlie continued

Monday, 27 May 2013

Review: Seven Year Twitch, Orange Tree Theatre

“Everybody's fucked up – it's just that some are better at hiding it than others”

Fran and Terry are married but as a committed twitcher (or bird-watcher), his attentions are lying more with the yellow-bellied flycatcher and its ilk as he’s preciously close to his 500th bird, leaving her most dissatisfied indeed and increasingly vulnerable to the attentions of her romantically interested boss Ben. It just so happens all three are seeing a psychotherapist, either Charlie or Megan, but even they haven’t got their lives sorted as closeted Megan can’t hide her attraction to his wife Karen – what larks indeed.

David Lewis’ Ayckbournish new play revels in its farcical goings-on as a bunch of screw ups give screwed up advice to another bunch of screw ups, wrapped up in endless pyschobabble, but has little that is truly original to say about the pros and cons of therapy and how it impacts the life of the therapists themselves. Lewis directs his own play but has little sensibility for managing a play in the round, with far too many scenes remaining highly static and thus presenting far too much unmoving back to look at.

Review: The Bear, Ovalhouse

“Let the bear batter you about a bit”

If you go down the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. And if you go down to the Ovalhouse Theatre in South London, you may not get a picnic but you’re sure of a curiously fascinating piece of theatre. The Bear comes from the intriguing mind of Angela Clerkin, based on a short story written by herself and Lee Simpson and in a co-production with Improbable, manages to find the connecting link between film noir murder mystery, tips on how to survive varied bear attacks and assorted musical and dance numbers including a growly blues song and an Irish jig.

It’s a diversely conceived collection of disparate elements yet somehow the throughline is achieved. Clerkin plays herself, or at least a version of herself, a solicitor’s clerk who finds herself swept up into a strange world when she is deployed on a new murder case. When sent to question the accused in his cell below the Old Bailey, he protests his innocence and claims “it wasn’t me, the bear did it”. Unlikely as it seems, Angela soon finds proof that he might actually be telling the truth and as she starts her own covert investigation, uncovers rather more than she could ever have expected.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Review: Yellow Face, Park Theatre

“Nowadays, it's so hard to tell"

London’s newest theatre opened its doors in Finsbury Park last week but the Park Theatre also has a more intimate studio and it is the UK premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face that christens that space. Hwang was the first Asian-American to win a Tony for Best Play and so was a predictable figurehead for the 1990 protests against the casting of Jonathan Pryce in a Eurasian role in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon and it is this that forms the starting point for his play Yellow Face which questions ideas of race and identity and whether any such thing as a multicultural society can really exist when prejudices continue to weigh in from all sides.

Hwang uses his own experiences but also weaves elements of fiction into the play – the version of himself who is the lead character is (barely) renamed DHH - to create something of a fantasia, which allows him to heighten the absurdity of many of these situations whilst simultaneously maintaining the chilling realisation that most of it is not too far from reality. It’s a heady mixture and one which frequently pays off. The trickiness of dealing with the sensitive subject of race is tackled head on and with no little humour - trite aphorisms about tolerance and looking beneath the skin are constantly rehashed and recycled, even borrowing lyrics from an En Vogue song at one point, as the difficulties of verbalising what racial identity really means and just how important it actually is are thrown under the spotlight.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Review: The Kite Runner, Theatre Royal Brighton

“There is a way to be good again" 

The final moments of this rendering of Khaled Hosseini’s epic 2003 novel The Kite Runner are really something special indeed, capturing the quiet ecstasy of redemptive hope with the subtlest of performances and a theatrical elegance that is gently breath-taking. But Giles Croft’s production, first seen in Nottingham and making its way next to Liverpool, takes a long time to get there, hobbled by a pedestrian adaptation by Matthew Spangler which exploits little of the storytelling possibilities within and lacks the excitement to really make it soar into the sky alongside the multi-coloured kites that play such a vital role in this tale of two young Afghan boys, Amir and Hassan, and their unlikely friendship. 

It’s improbable because Hassan is the son of Amir’s father’s servant and belongs to a different ethnic group yet despite their differences, a strong bond exists between the pair, typified by the way they work together in the kite flying competitions that enliven their Kabul childhood. A brutal incident involving Hassan sets in chain a tragic turn of events though and as the heavy tide of history starts to turn, forcing Amir and his father to flee the war that erupts as the incoming Taliban take over Afghanistan, not even decades and continents can prevent the need for Amir to seek redemption.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Review: Disgraced, Bush

“You haven’t read the Quran, but you’ve read a couple of sanctimonious British bullies and you think you know something about Islam?”

Credit where credit is due (but be warned, this bit of praise will involve a spoiler), Nadia Fall’s production of Disgraced at the Bush Theatre contains one of the most brutally effective and well-staged pieces of stage violence I have ever seen and fight director Kate Waters ought to be commended for it. Too often we mock poorly executed scuffles without really taking into account how tricky it can be to make it convincing and here, it is so well done that the image seared itself into my brain, working its way into a dream I had that night! 

But to the play at hand – Ayad Akhtar won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Disgraced and a quick scan of its key scene might suggest he played to his audience just a little. A lapsed Muslim lawyer and his white artist wife have friends over dinner, a black female law colleague whose partner is a Jewish art dealer and over fennel and anchovy salad, they explosively debate religion, politics and cultural stereotypes. But the play is more than just Pulitzer-bait, digging into just how deeply faith and upbringing shape our identities and how we carry them through life no matter how one might try to reinvent oneself. 

Monday, 20 May 2013

DVD Review: First Night

“It’s not about reality, it’s about style…feeling…”

For my birthday, the present of a DVD that contained Julian Ovenden whipping his shirt off in its opening moments and Nigel Lindsay putting the moves on Oliver Dimsdale promised much indeed but having watched it, I’m not so sure that First Night quite lives up to it. A 2010 British rom-com set in a Glyndebourne-like world of country-house opera, it flirts with catastrophe early on with the practically inexplicable decision to cast Sarah Brightman as a conductor whose wooden movements suggests not a musical bone in her body and whose leaden delivery of her lines is often cringe-worthy. But it slowly pulls itself together and in featuring more of the rest of the (much better) cast, it becomes a passable farcical romp which mildly entertains.

Richard E Grant plays Alex, a rich industrialist and frustrated opera singer (yes, another one…), who decides to mount a production of Mozart’s Così fan Tutte at his stately home to prove he is no stuffed shirt. Brightman plays the conductor he has his flirtatious eye on but the company of up and coming singers whom he recruits to sing for their supper seem more interested in getting their ends away as their antics become increasingly highly-sexed with a series of storylines designed to reflect those in the opera they are performing. Christopher Menaul and Jeremy Sams don’t quite get to such sophisticated heights with their script or plotting but the camp extravagance of the performances just about swings it around.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Review: Next Thing You Know, Landor

“I wanna be your omelette”

The Landor continue their place at the vanguard of new musical theatre writing with this UK premiere of Next Thing You Know, a new musical from Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham, perhaps best known for I Love You Because. A tale of 20-something generational angst, it follows four New Yorkers struggling through young adulthood in a world of huge possibility but seemingly limited opportunity, focusing on the frustrations that artists face in trying to pursue their dreams. But despite a solid production from Robert McWhir at this late preview performance, it didn’t really take me as the type of musical theatre that ticks my boxes. 

Anna Michaels’ design splits the small stage of the Landor into the key areas of the show – a bar, a living room, an office – but this does constrain the action somewhat, giving scenes something of a cramped feel as they don’t often have the freedom to breathe into the space. But the problems lie more with the material itself. Cunningham’s book puts too little at stake, asking us to invest in the career choices of fairly non-descript characters without ever really giving us a sense of the vibrancy of their artistic lives. 

Review: The Match Box, Tricycle

“Take a match to their thatch”

Frank McGuinness is definitely a playwright who never likes his audience to sit too comfortably and his latest play The Match Box is as emotionally demanding a piece of theatre as you’ll see in a long time. Sequestered on a remote Irish island, it’s a 100 minute monologue delivered by Sal, a Liverpudlian woman in exile after the violent death of her 12 year old daughter, caught in gangland crossfire as she walked home from school. And through the depths of her unimaginable grief, a tale of revenge and redemption emerges as the boundaries of forgiveness are tested to the extreme.

McGuinness constantly challenges us as we return to questions of what kind of justice, if any, can be exacted in such a situation and whether we could ever be capable of rational thought after such an experience or if such grief can have a transformative effect on us that we allow primal impulses to govern our actions. The debates it raises are compelling and complex and as Sal unravels her own feelings on the matter, its intensity forces us to confront our own morality and decide if things can ever be so black and white.

Review: Public Enemy, Young Vic

“We want people who know what must change and why”

The phrase ‘timely revival’ is one much abused by reviewers and theatre marketers alike but it is genuinely amazing how strongly the resonances of a piece of writing from 1882 chime in today’s world. Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, retitled here as Public Enemy in a terse new version by David Harrower, rails against government corruption, the treatment of whistle-blowers, unscrupulous clothing factory owners and foretells a world of growing ecological and environmental calamity. It is a powerfully compelling tale, cheekily updated to the 1970s here, and one which wriggles uncomfortably beneath the skin.

Stockmann is a principled doctor in a provincial Norwegian town famed for its spa baths but when he discovers that the waters are poisonous and need to be shut down and announces this to the town at large, he is not met with the gratitude and acclaim he expects but rather is ostracised and demonised by the leaders of the town’s society. Chief among these in the mayor but as is often the way in small-town politics, he just happens to be Stockmann’s brother. The battle for public opinion that ensues is then bitterly fought as Stockmann, Ibsen thinly veiling his contempt for the frosty reception of his previous play Ghosts, reacts to becoming the enemy of the people.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Short Film Review #13

Films, films, everywhere.

Bed Trick

The Young Vic have previously come up with a couple of films inspired by the plays they’ve put on – Nora was a spin-off from A Doll’s House and Epithet came from Bingo – and now, although a little bit behind the times, comes Bed Trick, inspired by Joe Hill-Gibbins’ raucous adaptation of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling which was a big success for the venue. Again taking a modern twist on a classic story, Hill-Gibbins has written and directed this short which plays on the idea of the ‘bed trick’, so integral to the plot of theatre of that time, and transplants into a modern home where Sinéad Matthews’ babysitter arrives at a plush home to be greeted by Monica Dolan’s grateful wife who is keen to offload her responsibilities for the evening.

Quite what those responsibilities are is the subject of a little misunderstanding and that is the rather amusing meat of the story, which I won’t reveal, and though the whole thing may come across a wee bit slight in the end, it is undoubtedly entertaining to watch. Dolan and Matthews are both actors I could watch for days on end and neither disappoint, Matthews unleashing her gorgeously throaty giggle on more than one occasion and Dolan bringing her intense gaze with its almost hypnotic quality. It’s decent stuff, hardly essential, but worth the time.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Review: Cuddles, Oval House

“You’re not the only monster in this house“

Many a play purports to send chills down the spine but precious few actually manage the act of setting the hairs on end with moments of genuine chilling revelation. But Cuddles, Joseph Wilde’s first full-length play which has just opened upstairs at the Oval House, managed just that with its pervasive air of dark fantasy gone wrong and one of the most shocking moments one will probably see all year in a theatre. Rebecca Atkinson-Lord’s direction keeps the intensity of this show almost oppressively high, challenging both her actors and her audience, but emerges with a flawed gem of a production that won’t be easily forgotten.

Shut away in her room in a castle, Eve is a 13 year old vampire whose only visitor is the (human) Princess Tabby who dispenses food, whether sandwiches or blood, and affection, cuddles of varying levels. But in the real world, Tabby is Eve’s big sister and a young woman aching for a taste of normal life and as she seeks to satisfy that hunger with a likely young chap named Steve, Eve’s own determination to pursue her desires theatens to disrupt all the carefully constructed systems they have put in place to manage day to day life.

Re-review: Merrily We Roll Along, Harold Pinter

“Me with music and you the words“

Menier Chocolate Factory Christmas musicals have a habit of making the leap into the West End and given the rapturous reception that Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along received last year, it was no surprise to hear that it would make the well-deserved transfer into the Harold Pinter Theatre for a 12 week engagement. My original review of the show can be read here and perhaps not unexpectedly, very little has changed of my feelings about this rather magnificent production. But more surprising was how little I felt it had changed in the considerably larger space of this new theatre. 

It’s a good six months since I saw it so perhaps my memory isn’t too reliable but it really does feel very similar indeed, Soutra Gilmour’s design slots into the theatre in a similar fashion and the staging – although expanded to fill the space – moves around it in the same way. Not that this is a bad thing, but rather that I’m not exactly sure about how it might play from further back or up in the theatre than you’d ever be in the Menier. Where the lack of discernible difference is a definite boon though is in the performance level.

Cast of Merrily We Roll Along continued

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Review: A Human Being Died That Night, Hampstead Downstairs

“White South Africans needed a scapegoat, black South Africans needed a culprit”

There’s a neat little twist to the staging of the latest play to be put on in the downstairs space at the Hampstead Theatre which cocks a snook at audiences rushing to secure the best seat in the house. A Human Being Died That Night starts in the foyer area, which has been dressed up as a conference room, as South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela prepares to give a talk on “The human capacity for evil and the possibility of forgiveness”. She served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a restorative justice body that sought to aid South Africa’s transition into a post-apartheid world by acknowledging the gross human rights violations carried out under that regime’s name, receiving testimony from the victims but also hearing from those who perpetrated the crimes in an attempt to come to terms with it all.

As part of the commission, Gobodo-Madikizela interviewed one of the most notorious figures of the era, Eugene de Kock, and as she describes the first of her visits to Pretoria Central Prison to see him, the play moves into the theatre as we’re transported into the chilling darkness of a prison cell (so it is actually better to sit on the back row of the ‘lecture theatre’ to get the best spot for the majority of the play…). From here, we bear witness to the young Harvard-educated black woman probing into the mind of the seemingly implacable police colonel nicknamed ‘Prime Evil’ as her fascination with him drives her to search for something of an understanding about why he did what he did, in the hope of forging a new, better South Africa.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Review: Travels with my Aunt, Menier Chocolate Factory

"People who like quotations love meaningless generalisations"

There’s a strange disconnect at the heart of Travels with my Aunt which means it never really ignites the comic potential it possesses. Giles Havergal’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1969 novel sees four actors cover a multitude of characters and a globe-trotting range of locations in a free-wheeling narrative which commences with retired bank manager Henry Pulling being reunited with his long-lost Aunt Augusta at his mother’s funeral. But the adventures that follow have a dated feel to them with a distinctly not-quite-post-colonial flavour and the presentational style also has a measured quality which only intermittently embraces the carefree spirit of the story.

There’s fun to be had though, as Henry falls deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole opened by his aunt and they ricochet from the depths of suburbia to Turkey, Paraguay and more and he gradually becomes more accustomed to the new excitements of his life, which had previously been limited to growing dahlias in his back garden. The actors share the roles as well as sharing them out so Greene’s richly evocative writing is constantly changing mouthpiece as all of them take turns in playing Henry, as well as the colourful cast of characters that pop up along the journey.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Review: The Tempest, Shakespeare’s Globe

“The isle is full of noises”

It’s always nice to be surprised by a night at the theatre, especially with a play with which one is rather familiar. And more importantly in the case of The Tempest is the feeling that I have already seen a production of the play that will rank as one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen in Cheek By Jowl’s extraordinary Russian interpretation back in 2011 – Caliban and Miranda’s parting is forever seared on my mind. But The Globe is nothing if not reliable and in casting Roger Allam as Prospero, director Jeremy Herrin knew exactly how to get me along in hope of a genuinely brave new world.

And in some ways it does it. Allam brings a studious humanity to the exiled sorcerer – less anguished magician and more concerned father, making his reading of some of Shakespeare’s most evocative writing almost unbearably moving. His control of the language is just superb, imbuing even the most innocuous of lines with worlds of meaning, so often restrained but flaring magnificently like a bearded Brunnhilde when provoked. He’s wryly amusing too, his insistence on protecting his daughter’s virtue particularly well-observed as a running gag.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Review: The Hothouse, Trafalgar Studios

“I don’t need to have things repeated and repeated and repeated”

One of the best things about having a blog like this is that my thoughts about a show can be retrieved at the click of a button which means my patchy memory isn’t too much of a problem. And it also serves as a record of how I’ve changed (or not, as the case may be) as a writer, as rather amusingly shown by my response to the National Theatre’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse back in 2007 – a minor obscurity indeed! So safe to say I was less than thrilled at the announcement of the second play in Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar Studios residency but his assembly of the kind of cast I couldn’t ignore if I tried, plus someone having a spare ticket, meant I found myself taking a seat on the cramped front row.

Set in an unspecified mental institution or ‘rest home’ on an unseasonably hot Christmas Day, the Hothouse starts off as something of a satire of institutional bureaucracy. The patients, unseen throughout, are all known by numbers rather than names and leading the diverse staff body is forgetful former colonel Roote and his model-of-efficiency assistant Gibbs who are dealing with a couple of situations that have arisen. 6457 has died and 6459 has just given birth and as Gibbs starts his inimitable investigation, it emerges that the culprit(s) is actually on the wrong side of the padded cell door and that the guards are just as imbalanced, if not more so, than the inmates.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Review: Ghost the musical, New Wimbledon

“Sometimes you need to hear it Sam”

Given the fortunes of its replacement at the Piccadilly Theatre, the 15 month West End run of Ghost the musical doesn't seem too bad at all in the end. Based on the famous 1990 film with book by Bruce Joel Rubin and music from Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, the story of psychics, possession and pottery certainly looked impressive in Matthew Warchus’ cinematically flash production but this wasn't always enough to overcome the shortcomings of its adaptation. But it was a show that intrigued and one that I came to like quite a lot (I saw it twice - reviews can be read here and here but the first review of the show on here, from its original Manchester run, comes courtesy of my father!) and so I was certainly intrigued to catch it at the New Wimbledon Theatre as it sets out on a major UK tour.

The main difference comes with the blessed removal of the heinous song and dance routine Ball of Wax. I’m not sure that tap dancing ghosts have any place in the world but they really stood out like a sore thumb in the original show with their misguided appearance coming at an appallingly bad time, right after Sam’s death and shattering any poignancy that might have been built up. Now, we get a much mellower song called You Gotta Let Go (first introduced on Broadway) which serves the same purpose of getting him acquainted with his new status in the afterlife. Other changes are subtler and by and large, the show feels rather akin to its West End predecessor.

Review: The Ghost Hunter, Old Red Lion

“Do you know what they are, ghost stories? They’re a place to put things you’re too scared to look at any more”

Theatre of the Damned’s self-avowed undertaking is to explore horror and suspense on stage, a challenging mission as demonstrated by last year’s The Horror! The Horror! which only fitfully worked for me but one worth pursuing as this expanded version of The Ghost Hunter, written by Stewart Pringle, proves to be a highly proficient foray into the realm of suspense. And taking over the Old Red Lion theatre pub in Angel, it transforms the space most effectively. 

Alice Saville’s design is simplicity itself, but it shouldn’t be under-estimated how effective stripping the walls of the intimate theatre right back to black, with just a strip of frayed pub carpet up centre on which a table and chair sit, pint of Abbot Ale pride of place. And from these well-worn surroundings, Tom Richards’ Victorian-garbed raconteur Richard Barraclough quickly pulls us into the world of York’s twisting narrow streets like the Shambles and regales us with tales of pale abandoned orphans and other spooky goings-on.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Short Film Review #12

Instalment 12 of the Short Film Review - keep those recommendations coming and I promise I will get round to them all eventually, I've a fair few to work through ;-)

Bride of Vernon
A rather playful take on the Frankenstein story, The Bride of Vernon is a stop-motion animation in the mould of Wallace and Gromit which was written, animated and directed by Calvin Dyson and ended up winning the Best UK Short Film Award at the 2012 Manchester International Film Festival. Vernon Van Dyke, the appealingly voiced Dan Clark, is the lonely young scientist who is battling against the repeated failures of his experiment to create himself a bride and even the faithful Fritz (David Schofield as the Igor-style assistant) is rebelling and demanding better pay and conditions due to his recent unionisation.

Things brighten up though with the arrival of Mary Mae, a real life woman who offers a whole new world of possibility to Vernon as they start dating and here, Katherine Parkinson is excellent casting, her richly expressive voice is beautifully suited to the hesitant goodness of this character and they are so sweet together. Of course, things go wrong over dinner with an accidental poisoning and it is up to Vernon to see if he can save Mary Mae by hook or by crook. The film is really well put together, it looks a high quality product and Michael Slevin Uttley’s score fits over it like a glove to make this what seems to be a well-deserving prize winner.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Review: Smallholding, Nuffield

“London and that were just a phase”

Two former junkies break into an abandoned East Northamptonshire farmhouse – such is the opening premise of Chris Dunkley’s new play Smallholding, a co-production between Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre and the HighTide festival. But it soon becomes apparent that this 75 minute two-hander is no stereotypically sunken-cheeked tale of crackheads and crime but rather a brutally frank and insightful exploration of the cruel dynamics of addiction and co-dependency on a young couple trying to make a future for themselves.

Signs look promising at first. Matti Houghton’s well-put-together Jen has a breezy determination to make good on the opportunities offered by her well-intentioned family and fresh out of rehab, Chris New’s edgily wiry Andy is full of positive thinking and enthusiasm for the bio-dynamic farming that is their chosen way forward. The thrill of setting up home together and making a new life soon wears thin though against the privations of rural life and the shadow of temptation that lingers unshakably over their relationship.

Review: A Man of No Importance, Salisbury Playhouse

“A good sinner can get into a lot of mischief in a week”

Much like its central character, the charms of A Man of No Importance are gentle and delicate and these remain the watchwords for Gareth Machin’s actor/musician production of this musical for Salisbury Playhouse. Based on a 1994 film and set in early 1960s Dublin, Alfie Byrne is an unassuming bus conductor whose main passion in life is directing his local am-dram society at St Imelda’s. But even that has stagnated with endless runs of The Importance of Being Earnest leaching his creativity so he makes the decision to stage the much more controversial Salome, also by Oscar Wilde, unaware of the tumultuous course of action it will unleash for all concerned.

For the weight of the Catholic Church’s disapproval is a heavy load to bear and as the production is condemned for its blasphemy after local busybodies go running to the monsignor, a light has been shone under the genteel façade of this community and exposed homosexual longings, extramarital affairs and illegitimate pregnancies. Alfie is at the centre of it all as it is his secret `desire for his handsome younger workmate Robbie that precipitates the most seismic change but even as he feels his whole world changing from underneath him, surprises lie in store all along the way.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Review: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Rose Theatre Kingston

“There’s a limit to what you can do”

Good theatre makes you think, but great theatre makes you dig deep to really contemplate the deeper questions in life and how you might react in a similar situation. Peter Nichols’ 1967 play A Day In The Death of Joe Egg sits firmly in the latter category and in this magnificent production – a joint effort between the Rose Theatre Kingston and the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse and directed by Stephen Unwin – it deals sensitively but firmly with the challenging reality of being parents to a severely disabled child.

Schoolteacher Bri hates his job and dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian – a juxtaposition which is beautifully realised in a highly amusing opening sequence – but his dissatisfaction has much deeper roots. His 10 year old daughter Josephine can’t do anything unaided or communicate with the outside world and the strains on his marriage to Sheila are really starting to show, they get by turning their life into one big comedy routine to numb themselves from the brutal truth of their situation.

Review: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire / The Colour of Milk, Radio 3/4

“I know what you think, but I cannot turn away"

For reasons not entirely clear, Mark Ravenhill is curating a season of three classic plays that he likes for Radio 3, the first of which was Carol Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. It’s an interesting choice as it is a fairly challenging piece of historical drama and as I observed when I saw Polly Findlay’s production for the Arcola back in 2010, it is a highly theatrical one as the company of actors rattle through a large number of short scenes and an equally considerable cast of characters. Consequently, I don’t think it suited the medium of radio as the differentiation between them all didn’t really come across.

And being such a cerebral play, focusing on the tumultuous period in English history during the Civil War when huge social and political change was in the offing and tracing its impact on all levels of society, it needs a deal of clarity for it to be most effective and for me, the announcement of scene titles wasn’t enough. Which was a shame as the cast that Ravenhill gathered for this was brilliant – Amanda Drew and Monica Dolan, Justin Salinger and Paul Rhys, the kind of company I would pay extremely good money to see. You can’t win them all.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Review: The Pajama Game, Minerva

“Just knock three times and whisper low, that you and I were sent by Joe"

Old Broadway classics seem to flourish in the rarefied air of West Sussex and it is hard to shake the feeling that Chichester has done it again with a revival of The Pajama Game. No stranger to big American musicals, director Richard Eyre demonstrates the surest of touches to keep the improbable subject matter – the trials of working life in a pyjama factory – anchored in a world that we always care about and is aided by the kind of score that feels recognisable even if you think you haven’t heard it before. Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ score is full of fantastic old school tunes like Hey There (You with the Stars in your Eyes) and Steam Heat and two of the songs were actually written by Frank Loesser, although uncredited. 

George Abbott and Richard Bissel's book is based on Bissell's novel 7½ cents set in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa Sleep-Tite factory in which new-to-town Superintendent Sid Sorokin finds himself falling head over heels for feisty union rep Babe Williams, whose stubborn initial resistance can't ignore the mutually fiery passion between them. But trouble brews when the workers are denied a justified 7½ cent pay rise and Sid and Babe find themselves on opposing sides of a heated labour debate. 

Cast of The Pajama Game continued