Sunday, 31 March 2013

Review: Gibraltar, Arcola

"Is that the truth, or you interpretation of it?"

In the midst of the Troubles, the 1988 shooting of three Provisional IRA terrorists outside a petrol station in the rocky outcrop of Gibraltar might have just been one amongst many atrocities but a number of factors conspired to turn it into an even more controversial event. Alastair Brett – a former Sunday Times lawyer who was intimately connected to the media storm that erupted – has co-written Gibraltar with Sian Evans, to relook at the killings and the press coverage that followed to examine the point where journalistic ethics crossed swords with both the British political establishment and the IRA itself to become responsible for, they argue, a huge obfuscation of the truth. But the resulting play, and James Robert Carson’s production of it which currently sits in the smaller of the Arcola’s studios, is as rough as the bare brick of the theatre’s walls. 

An uncertainty about the play’s dramatic purpose is evident from the outset. Based as it is on real events and using the direct testimony from Parliamentary debates, legal offices and official reports from police and magistrates, Gibraltar seems to spring from the verbatim tradition, a feeling reinforced by short scenes and the small company covering a multitude of different roles. But bolted onto this is a contemporaneous, fictionalised retelling of events from the journalistic perspective - the seasoned old hack contrasted with the ambitious eager rookie – trying to demonstrate how their varied attempts to pursue the best story possible and/or uncover the truth play out.

DVD Review: Criminal Justice Series 1

“We’ve got the best criminal justice system in the world and the jury will get it right”

I do love me a good crime/legal procedural on the television (see North Square, The Jury, Murder One, Damages) but I rarely have the time to watch everything I want to these days and the BBC series Criminal Justice is one of the ones that slipped through the cracks. It has sat on my Lovefilm queue for ages and after a conversation about Ben Whishaw with one of his fans, I decided to finally get round to watching both the series on DVD.

Predictably, I loved it. Written by Peter Moffat (who also penned North Square), it is a five episode trek through one person’s journey through the various stages of the criminal justice system. The 2008 first series starred the aforementioned Whishaw as Ben Coulter, an aspiring footballer who finds himself accused of murder after a drink and drug-fuelled night out with a girl who ends up stabbed to death whilst Ben struggles to remember any of the details of what actually happened. And so from interview rooms in the police station to failed bail appeals and prison cells and then the subsequent court case, Ben’s experience at the hands of the system is thrillingly portrayed. 

Cast of Criminal Justice Series 1 continued

DVD Review: Criminal Justice 2

“Fools tell the truth”

Where success lies, so sequels inevitably follow and after the success of Peter Moffat’s Criminal Justice, a second series following a different case through the legal system was commissioned and broadcast in 2009. Maxine Peake starred as Juliet Miller, the central figure of the show, a housewife and mother thoroughly cowed by an intensely and secretly abusive relationship whose entry into the criminal justice system commences when she finally stabs her husband, a neatly counter-intuitive piece of casting in Matthew Macfadyen.

I enjoyed the first Ben Whishaw-starring series a huge amount and found it a fresh take on the crime genre so a re-run of something similar was never going to have quite the same impact. But although it is a different take on the model, it didn’t grip me in quite the same way, lacking that sense of relatability that came from having a young male protagonist. For this is a much more female-centric drama – domestic violence, mother-and-baby units, work/life balance are just some of the issues at hand as Peake’s Juliet reels from the impact of her actions, the suspicion with which she is treated, the stresses leading up to and during the trial. 

Cast of Criminal Justice Series 2 continued

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Review: Darling of the Day, Union

"Not on your nellie"

The fear with shows that are receiving their UK premieres some 45 years after an abbreviated Broadway run is that there is a good reason that they have continued to languish in obscurity. But London’s fringe theatres have a good record in sorting through the duds to unearth some genuine neglected treasures and chief on the musical side, is the Union Theatre. And it is there where director Paul Foster has returned, to put on Jule Styne’s Darling of the Day – which managed just the 31 performances on Broadway, wilting in the winds of change ushered in by its contemporary Hair – and whilst it may not emerge as a hugely revelatory success, it makes for an evening of gentle pleasures.

Set in Edwardian times, the plot circles around Priam Farll, an artist of note who seizes the chance to escape the pressures of fame when his valet Henry Leek dies suddenly and a mistake by a doctor allows him to swap identities. Farll then rejoices in the freedom of living a less complicated life, which includes meeting up with working class Putney widow Alice Challice through the matrimonial agency both were using, and unexpectedly ends up in love and married. But times are tight and when a plot is hatched to bring in some extra money, it arouses the avaricious attentions of art collector Lady Vale and dealer Clive Oxford who threaten to expose the whole affair.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Review: The Low Road, Royal Court

"You do compete for the good opinion of society, do you not?"

*This review is a bit spoilerific so don’t read on if you don’t want aspects of the play, and others, to be revealed to you* 

When people ask me to describe the plot of a play, I almost always end it with “…and then the aliens arrive” because that’s the way my mind works and generally speaking, it’s a safe assumption that the playwright won’t have gone there. So imagine my surprise when they actually arrived in the second act of Salad Days, it was like all my Christmases at once and because of the daffy silliness of the whole shebang, it was able to pull it off. Working in similarly offbeat surprises into straight drama is perhaps a more difficult job though and one which arguably has to work harder to make a success of it.

The scope of Bruce Norris’ new play The Low Road would seem to preclude the need for such an approach. A sprawlingly epic trawl through the growth of our (western) economic system told through the fable-like tale of Jim, an entrepreneurial young man roaming through an 18th century America whose single-minded financial knowledge and ambition prefigures the capitalist mind-set that is so familiar to us today. A post-interval modern-day interlude draws explicit parallels and connections between the actions and attitudes of now and then to reinforce its main thesis about the triumph of individualism. Oh, and there’s an epilogue.

Cast of The Low Road continued

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Nominations for 2013 Oliviers - Best Actor/Best Actress

Best Actor

Luke Treadaway in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – National Theatre Cottesloe / Apollo
James McAvoy in Macbeth – Trafalgar Studios
Mark Rylance in Twelfth Night – Globe / Apollo
Rafe Spall in Constellations – Duke of York's theatre
Rupert Everett in The Judas Kiss – Hampstead / Duke of York's

Should win - Rafe Spall
Will win - Mark Rylance (grr)

Best Actress

Helen Mirren in The Audience – Gielgud
Billie Piper in The Effect – National Theatre Cottesloe
Hattie Morahan in A Doll's House – Young Vic
Kristin Scott Thomas in Old Times – Harold Pinter

Should win - Billie Piper
Will win - Helen Mirren

Nominations for 2013 Oliviers - Best Actor/Best Actress in a musical

Best Actor in a Musical

Michael Ball in Sweeney Todd – Adelphi
Alex Bourne in Kiss Me, Kate – Old Vic
Tom Chambers in Top Hat – Aldwych
Will Young in Cabaret – Savoy

Should win - Michael Ball
Will win - Michael Ball

Best Actress in a Musical

Imelda Staunton in Sweeney Todd – Adelphi
Heather Headley in The Bodyguard – Adelphi
Summer Strallen in Top Hat – Aldwych
Hannah Waddingham in Kiss Me, Kate – Old Vic

Should win - Imelda Staunton
Will win - Imelda Staunton

Nominations for 2013 Oliviers - Best Actor in a Supporting Role/Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Richard McCabe in The Audience – Gielgud
Adrian Scarborough in Hedda Gabler – Old Vic
Kyle Soller in Long Day's Journey into Night – Apollo
Paul Chahidi in Twelfth Night – Globe / Apollo

Should win - Kyle Soller
Will win - Paul Chahidi

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Nicola Walker in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – National Theatre Cottesloe / Apollo
Anastasia Hille in The Effect – National Theatre Cottesloe
Cush Jumbo in Julius Caesar – Donmar Warehouse
Helen McCrory in The Last of the Haussmans – National Theatre Lyttelton
Janie Dee in NSFW – Royal Court

Should win - literally any of them!
Will win - Helen McCrory

Nominations for 2013 Oliviers - Best Supporting Role in a Musical

Best Supporting Role in a Musical

Leigh Zimmerman in A Chorus Line – London Palladium
Adam Garcia in Kiss Me, Kate – Old Vic
Debbie Kurup in The Bodyguard – Adelphi
Siân Phillips in Cabaret – Savoy

Should win - Debbie Kurup
Will win - Adam Garcia

Monday, 25 March 2013

Review: The Hired Man, Mercury

“You take yourself with you, wherever you go”

Sampling the best musical theatre that this country has to offer can prove to be a time-consuming business as it is increasingly the case that some of the best work is being done by theatres outside of London. Sheffield, Chichester and Leicester have all made it onto my theatres that I regularly visit now and after this stellar in-house production of Howard Goodall’s The Hired Man (in a co-production with Leicester’s Curve), it seems that Colchester’s Mercury Theatre might be joining that list.

It helps that the show can lay claim to being one of the best new British musicals of recent decades – Goodall’s sweeping, folk-tinged score marries strikingly with Melvyn Bragg’s book, based on his own novel inspired by the tough life of his grandfather in the Cumbrian hills, and what results is a work of hugely elegiac beauty. Stretching from 1989 through to 1921, The Hired Man covers a definitive period of British history in depicting the often grim realities of life in the more rural areas of the country at a time of great social and economic upheaval. 

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Review: The Book of Mormon, Prince of Wales

“When you're feeling certain feelings that just don't seem right"

This is going to be less of a review than a jumbled thought piece coming out from the marketing campaign for The Book of Mormon which has seen unprecedented levels of saturation across London. The publicity for the show started way back, adverts on buses and in tube stations have been appearing for months now but the week leading up to last Thursday’s press night saw an absolute deluge of coverage which meant it was even harder to escape. Lengthy preview features which all but reviewed the show were printed in newspapers; the #LoveMormon twitter campaign went into overdrive, using many of those tweets as quotes in adverts which, following the gala opening night, included an incredible four page ad just featuring tweets from celebrities.

One might have imagined such levels of hype would be hard to live up to but by all accounts, it has worked as a press release arrived yesterday trumpeting that The Book of Mormon had broken the record for the biggest single day of sales the previous day, taking in an astonishing £2,107,972 and this from a show which had already pretty much sold out until the summer. Of course, one could point to the ticket prices to explain some of the maths – the majority of the tickets are retailing at £74.50 and £127, £39.50 is as far as the cheap seats go (day lottery aside) – but nonetheless, the achievement shouldn’t be underestimated. 

Cast of The Book of Mormon continued

Cast of The Book of Mormon continued

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Short Film Review #9

It’s been a little while since I’ve watched any short films but I had a few link sent to me last week so I thought I’d cast my ever-beady eye over them to see what treasures might be unearthed. As ever, click on the 'film' tag to see more short films.

First up was Babysitting (trailer above, full film watchable here), written by Luchan Toh and Sam Hoare and also directed by the latter, but most attractive for its cast including Romola Garai, Dan Stevens and Imogen Stubbs. And from its opening shots of a bedraggled Garai and a super-glam Stubbs, it is rather a bundle of subversive fun. There’s a bit of a twist to the title that I won’t reveal here but it is one that sends Garai’s Maggie on a bit of a journey, where she bumps into arrogant ex Spencer, Stevens in fine West London toff mode and her priorities are pulled skewiff as old feelings rise to the surface. The pair are well-matched and amusingly styled and if the film as a whole comes across as a little slight, it is highly entertaining.   

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Review: Proof, Menier Chocolate Factory

“Let X equal the quantity of all quantities of X”

Subjects like science and maths have proved interesting partners for a number of recent strong new dramas - Constellations, The Effect, Curious Incident… to name but a few – but this is part of a long tradition and the Menier Chocolate Factory have opted to join in this game with a revival of David Auburn’s 2000 play Proof

Having dropped out of university to care for her father Robert, a mathematical genius who suffered from mental health issues, Catherine finds herself somewhat adrift when he finally passes away. She inherited much of his genius but she fears that she too will be plagued by a similar mental instability and her older sister Claire, long escaped to New York, is keen to support her by taking her away. But when Hal, one of Robert’s Ph.D. students, unearths an amazing discovery, the proof of the title, whilst sorting through the papers in the family home, Catherine finds herself challenged to prove who came up with this piece of brilliance and simultaneously confront exactly what legacy her father has left her. 

Monday, 18 March 2013

Review: Peter and Alice, Noël Coward

“We’re practically our own children’s book department”

Second up for the Michael Grandage season at the Noël Coward Theatre is the only new play out of the programme of five – John Logan’s Peter and Alice. Logan’s stock is riding high both as a screenwriter – a 3-time Academy Award nominee and most recently responsible for Skyfall – and a playwright – his last play Red was well-received on both sides of the Atlantic – and the premise of this play, a meeting between the woman who inspired Alice in Wonderland and the man who gave his name to Peter Pan, is one that certainly showed promise. But after attending this preview performance, it is not abundantly clear that this promise has been fulfilled.

The play sparks off of the real life meeting between Peter Llewelyn Davies and Alice Liddell Hargreaves at the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932, aged 35 and 80 respectively, and imagines a conversation in which they share stories of being so closely involved with 2 key figures of children’s literature. Llewelyn Davies was one of the brood of brothers with whom JM Barrie became very close and wrote Peter Pan for, and Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, wrote Alice in Wonderland after first recounting the story to Liddell Hargreaves on a family boat trip. Thus their places in literary history were sealed and Logan explores not just how their lives consequently rolled out but also touches on their relationships with the writers and the characters they inspired.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Review: Richard Beadle - Songs , St James Studio

“With grace and poise, not hate and noise"

Nestled in the basement of the newly-built St James Theatre in Victoria is a studio with an ambitiously varied programme of events that runs throughout the week but at weekends, it turns into a cabaret space hosting a range of singers from the world of musical theatre and beyond. And this Sunday saw the turn of songwriter and West End musical director Richard Beadle to showcase his work in a concert mainly featuring songs from his album, simply entitled Songs, sung by a host of West End stars. 

The show was split into two halves - the first taking in songs from his musical work-in-progress Today Is My Day and the second, an assortment of other numbers from his songbook and from the albums of other people with whom he has worked – but unifying the whole evening was Beadle’s clear gift for songwriting. His ear for a clean and uncomplicated melody is perfect for the effective telling of story through song and so the simple but powerful emotions behind songs like the traumatic '1967' delivered beautifully by Niamh Perry and the melancholy 'Here We Are', Rachael Wooding revelling in the chance to show a subtler side to her voice, shone through with an impressive lyrical naturalism.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Review: Hello/Goodbye, Hampstead Downstairs

“Shirt on, shirt off, I’m relaxed…”

The oddest thing happened whilst watching the beginning of the second half of Peter Souter’s play Hello/Goodbye downstairs at the Hampstead as huge waves of déjà vu started to kick in. After a few minutes, it finally clicked that I wasn’t going mad and had completely forgotten a play I’d seen but rather that I had actually heard it before as a radio play last year. That’s Mine, This Is Yours was an Afternoon Drama on Radio 4 and though slightly different – and of course with an additional 42 minute first act in front of it – it played out pretty much as I remembered it. Which was a shame as the ending really bugged me.

But first to the beginning. Souter’s debut stage play opens on a hot summer’s day in a flat full of packing boxes as Juliet arrives at the new place she is renting only to find that a mix-up with the estate agents had resulted in Alex already being given the keys and he’s midway through his unpacking. They instantly rub each other the wrong way – he’s somewhere in geek territory being a keen collector of all sorts of ephemera and she’s been living life hard in the fast lane, too hard as it turns out – but both being unattached young singletons, chemistry builds up in this real-time environment and explodes. 

Review: The Living Room, Jermyn Street

“You won’t believe what a bad little sweetheart she could be”

Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, Graham Greene’s first play The Living Room hasn’t been revived in the UK since opening in 1953 so Primavera’s revival for the Jermyn Street Theatre offers a rare chance to experience Greene the playwright. After the death of her mother, 20 year old Rose Pemberton is taken to live with her deeply Catholic elderly uncle and aunts by a 45 year old friend of her long-dead father, a married psychology professor named Michael. An illicit affair has started between the pair which throws them into direct conflict with the traditional views of her new household and the repercussions of the actions of all concerned result in catastrophic consequences.

At the heart of the story is the newly orphaned Rose, an accomplished stage debut from Tuppence Middleton with a lovely blend of cut-glass properness and spirited rebelliousness as she strains against society’s conventions in the single-minded pursuit of her ill-starred affair yet not so devoid of emotion that she disregards her only remaining family completely. Christopher Villiers as the professor feels a little miscast as he never really brings to bear any sense of what it is that might have ensnared Rose’s affections so, but his attempts to rationalise the behaviour around him and justify his own using the psychology he teaches have a pugnacious persuasiveness. 

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Re-review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Apollo

“I like maths, and I like outer space. And I also like being on my own”

One of the most successful plays of 2012 (and indeed my personal fourth-best play of the year) was the National Theatre’s adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time so it was little surprise to hear that it would transfer into the West End, albeit a little belatedly. So from the immersive in-the-round staging of the Cottesloe, it has now graduated to the much larger proscenium of the Apollo but where one might argue it has lost a little something of what made it so intimately special first time round, the transfer expands the physical and visual language of Marianne Elliott’s production to great effect to create something even more theatrical.

Mark Haddon’s novel was inescapable as it rose to cult status and it is impressive that Simon Stephens’ adaptation manages to create something new, albeit entirely recognisable, out of the story. I still remain unconvinced by the touch of meta-business of the characters putting on a play of the story that is largely narrated by Niamh Cusack’s achingly kind Siobhan, but otherwise it is a sensitive and witty re-telling of the tale of Christopher Boone, a teenager who sees the world in an entirely different way to many of us and who is swept up in a personal odyssey spearheaded by his discovery of the body of his neighbour’s dog with a garden fork through him.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Review: The Winslow Boy, Old Vic

“Which of us knows the truth about himself?”

Following the huge success of his centenary year in 2011, it seems safe to say that Terence Rattigan has now been fully rehabilitated back into the theatrical fold, somewhere near the top of the list of twentieth century British dramatists. One of his major plays that did not appear in London that year was The Winslow Boy so it is to that 1946 work that the Old Vic has turned, with Lindsay Posner directing a quality cast including Henry Goodman and Deborah Findlay. 

The Winslow boy himself is Ronnie, a 14 year old cadet at the Royal Naval college at Osborne who is expelled in shame after being accused of the theft of a five shilling postal order. His father, retired banker Arthur, takes up the mantle of defending his son’s honour but the huge legal case that snowballs out from this affair has ramifications far beyond whether Ronnie is actually guilty or not. 

For though the centre of much of the action is the courthouse, the play is set exclusively in the Winslows’ drawing room, stylishly designed by Peter McKintosh and beautifully lit by Tim Mitchell. So the focus turns inwards on how this relentless pursuit of doing the right thing affects the various members of the family, throwing into question exactly what is an acceptable price. From the highly respected lawyer Sir Robert Morton engaged to fight the case to Ronnie’s siblings, the fiercely intelligent suffragette Catherine and the altogether more flighty Dickie, to their long-serving maid Violet, Rattigan investigates the sacrifices they have to make with his measured humanity and utterly elegant grace.

The biggest price is paid by ailing patriarch Arthur whose health, over the near-two-year period of the play, visibly deteriorates even as his resolve remains strong, Henry Goodman giving a highly affecting account of a man hard up against the establishment, fighting for the rights of the individual. And as his wife, Deborah Findlay balances Grace’s capricious nature against a growing concern for the fabric of her family, with her mellifluous voice loaded with just as much emotion as entertainment. But where Posner really succeeds, especially in the cracking first act, is in developing a genuinely convincing family dynamic - the gentle bickering between husband and wife and their dealings with their children is a subtle masterpiece in unfussy but assured theatre.

Charlie Rowe brings the blithe indifference to Ronnie that almost makes a mockery of the efforts around him and Naomi Frederick, highly elegant in Edwardian dress, strikes a commanding presence on the stage as the forthright Catherine, very close to her father and to the trial and all too aware of the personal cost she surrenders. But it was Nick Hendrix’s Dickie, and maybe this is a middle child thing, who came across as the most tragic, endearingly puppyish even as his carefree student days are taken from him and he is dispatched to Reading, the attention of the family never quite landing on him throughout.

Wendy Nottingham makes a vibrant study of the ever-faithful Violet and Peter Sullivan’s authoritative Sir Robert does a marvellous job of imposing the necessary gravitas, especially in a corking interrogation of the young Ronnie. But Rattigan, and this production, never lets us forget the melancholy heart that lies at it all – the inequality of loving someone fiercely yet unrequitedly, the shadow of WWI, even the encroachment of popular media into personal lives. Despite its seemingly traditional exteriors, this is a wonderfully fresh take on Rattigan’s masterly play and ought to be a resounding success for all concerned. 

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £4
Booking until 25th May

Monday, 11 March 2013

Review: Piaf, Curve

“A quoi ça sert, l’amour?”

Pam Gem’s play Piaf is a curious thing. As a piece of biographical drama, it barely scrapes the surface of the troubled life of the famed French chanteuse, using an episodic style to feature key vignettes as we speed through the rollercoaster ups and downs of her rise to iconic status. And inbetween these scenes, we get performances of some of her more famous songs like La Vie En Rose and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. But from these slight beginnings can come some kind of alchemic wonder as demonstrated in the superlative 2008 Donmar Warehouse production which featured Elena Roger in the kind of performance that I will remember for the rest of my life.

So no pressure at all on any subsequent productions…though Paul Kerryson’s revival for Leicester’s Curve theatre – a venue really carving out a niche for itself as one of the hottest spots for musical theatre (even if this is technically a play with songs…) – with Frances Ruffelle in the lead role comes close to capturing some of that magic. Staging the show in the more intimate studio there is an inspired decision, enabling the kind of cosy nightclub feel that is entirely right for this kind of performance. For Ruffelle really does dig deep into the emotion of the character to give an almost shocking rawness to her, a blunt directness that makes no apologies for the selfishness of her actions and which lends an even greater depth to her renditions of the songs. 

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Review: Purple Heart, Gate Theatre

“Why would I need to hurt myself?”

The scabrous humour of Bruce Norris’ last play Clybourne Park was a huge success seeing a West End transfer from the Royal Court and a clean sweep of drama awards on both sides of the Atlantic. He returns to the Royal Court very soon with The Low Road but the Gate Theatre has mounted a revival of his 2002 play Purple Heart. Set in an anonymous Midwestern city, a family struggles to rebuild their lives after the death of Gene, a soldier in the Vietnam War, the impact of such a terrible loss affecting his mother, his wife and his son in different ways.

Norris dissects the complexity of grief on the different members of this family with his customary excoriating insight, challenging what society deems to be the correct emotional responses with the unconventional Carla. Rejecting the conventional tropes of mourning, the generic platitudes and proffered casseroles from oppressively well-meaning neighbours, she lounges in her dressing gown, swigging as much booze as she can. But there’s little escape at home – her son Thor is acting out on his increasingly violent imagination and mother-in-law Grace is relentless with her forced good cheer barely masking a concern or propriety. It is takes the arrival of a stranger at the door, a veteran with his own agenda and a box of doughnuts, to really shake up the broken dynamic of this family.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Not-a-Review: Jefferson’s Garden, St James Theatre

“I wonder how I will make the potatoes understand”

Just a quickie to cover the last of Out of Joint’s rehearsed readings to accompany Our Country’s Good at the St James Theatre which was a world premiere of a new play, Jefferson’s Garden. As a work-in-progress, the convention is not to say too much but I have to say that this will be a play to look out for in the future because I found it an incredibly accomplished piece of work, even at this early stage, and it made for a highly enjoyable afternoon. 

Starting in the midst of the American revolution and stretching from a Quaker farm in Maryland to a politicised Philadelphia to the Virginian gardens of Monticello, Jefferson’s Garden looks at the birth of a nation in all its huge political and social upheaval and examines the price paid by people on all levels, from the statesmen pushing through new laws to the slaves praying for emancipation. 

Review: The Deep Space, Old Red Lion

“People look their most beautiful when they’re about to cry…”

Lancashire-born Lila Whelan’s debut play The Deep Space follows in the steps of last year’s extremely well-received Mercury Fur in identifying the Old Red Lion as an excellent theatre to put on claustrophobically intimate and emotionally intense pieces of drama. And whilst this is ostensibly a subtler affair than Ridley, Whelan has constructed a perceptively layered play which unwinds and uncoils with a measured precision as a conversation between two women in a nondescript interrogation room somewhere in the north of England delves into the depths of genuine psychological horror.

The sharply-suited Caitlin is a New York-based lawyer-type figure meeting with Sam, a mother whose family has died in a house fire but as she slowly teases the story from her reluctant client, terrible secrets come tumbling from the closets of both women. To say much more is to get dangerously close to spoiler territory, but it isn’t saying too much to say that it is upon this crucial relationship that the show hinges and it delivers it well. Whelan takes on the insistently probing Caitlin, impatient but inescapably drawn to the case and convinces of her crumbling composure and as Sam, Abbiegale Duncan nails the sullen demeanour of a young woman dazed from the considerable amount that life has thrown at her.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Review: The Tailor-Made Man, Arts Theatre

“A man amongst men"

Described by Joan Crawford as “the happiest married couple in Hollywood”, new musical The Tailor-Made Man focuses on the 50 year love affair between Hollywood star of the 1920s William Haines and interior designer in the making, Jimmy Shields. Discovered in a talent competition, Haines signed for MGM, who accepted his homosexuality as long as he kept it under wraps. When a liaison with a sailor led to his arrest, MGM boss Louis B (LB) Mayer demanded he marry a woman to save his career and maintain his clean-cut image but Haines, with the support of his lover Shields, walked away from Hollywood and together they set up a hugely successful interior design business.

Amy Rosenthal and Claudio Macor’s book whips through events with a keen sense of pace, the story covers a substantial number of years, and uses a flashback framing device of an older version of Jimmy is interviewed by a keen young reporter who makes him reflect on a life past. There’s an element of drama for sure, but where the show really blossoms is in the evocation of the gossipy environment of Hollywood stars off-duty and the perfectly pitched depiction of a loving gay relationship. Dylan Turner makes a chisel-jawed Haines and Bradley Clarkson is a puppyish Shields but they both show several sides to the lovers, making them complex but likeable individuals who are clearly better together and they have a sincere, beautiful chemistry together. 

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Review: Man 1 Bank 0, Soho Theatre

“You get that cashier’s cheque right now”

The sheer variety of shows available at the Soho Theatre these days means that it is unsurprising that some of them are genre-straddling and thus somewhat hard to define. Patrick Combs’ Man 1, Bank 0 is such a show, somewhere between monologue and stand-up comedy and rather incredibly, entirely based on a true story. With credit card debts mounting up and a dry sense of humour about his bank’s willingness to serve, Combs decided to deposit a random junk mail cheque that came through his letterbox and somehow, the $93,093.35 that it promised was cleared into his account. 

What follows is Combs’ account of how both he and the bank dealt with it: his moral wrangling with what to do with the money and trying to find out the legalities of the issue by tracking down retired legal professors; and the bank’s heavy-handed response in trying to strong-arm the return of the money without admitting any culpability. He takes us on the many highs and lows of the journey, encouraging audience interaction where he can as the adventure keeps on rolling and showing that sometimes it is actually possible to stick it to the man,

Monday, 4 March 2013

Review: Laburnum Grove, Finborough

“I ought to be thankful I’ve got a nice honest, sleepy old thing like you”

Continuing their practice of reviving long neglected classics, JB Priestley’s early comedy Laburnum Grove is the latest work to receive the Finborough treatment, in this case a turn in the limited Sunday/Monday slot. But though their hit rate has been quite successful, this slice of melodramatic suburban life was a rare misfire for me with a solid production unable to disguise a rather aimless story or its meandering intent. 

The Radfern family lives a quietly respectable life in the suburb of Laburnum Grove but patriarch George’s patience is sorely tried when the in-laws, staying with them for the duration, make yet another request for money and his daughter’s prospective fiancé likewise proffers an expectant palm, an unexpected revelation shakes up everyone’s certainties. Well I say shake, it’s more like a ruffle, as the pace and mood of this 1930s piece never really picks up from its initial gentle mood.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Review: Longing, Hampstead Theatre

“Is there no room for love in your philosophy of life?”

One of the reasons Fawlty Towers remains so highly respected is because it managed that rare feat of going out on a high after making just 12 episodes. And though the reasons for the relatively limited dramatic output of Anton Chekhov may be more to do with his untimely demise, the ethos seems to me to remain similar – the handful of plays that he left behind should be celebrated as such. But he was also a prolific writer of short stories and spotting an opportunity to enrich the canon, novelist William Boyd has fashioned a new play – Longing – from two of them, directed by Nina Raine (her of the astounding Tribes) at the Hampstead Theatre.   

Boyd has used one of Chekhov’s longest stories My Life and “taken its core and impacted it on” one of his most obscure, A Visit to Friends and what results is a story of distinctly Chekhovian flavour but one calls to mind numerous of his other plays rather equalling them in their depth and richness. Kolia is invited the summer estate of some old friends but what he thinks will be a relaxing break turns into something much more complex as long-buried emotions come up against current dramas in typically tragicomic fashion. And there’s much to recognise: an ageing woman laments the summer estate she is no longer in possession of, another dares to dream of the love she has sacrificed for a working life, somebody longs to get back to Moscow…these are all highly familiar themes and though they are skilfully woven together by Boyd, there is rarely a sense of dramatic impetus compelling this particular story to be told or ultimately justifying the exercise at large.

Re-review: Privates on Parade, Noël Coward

“We’ll press upon the enemy until he’s in a funk,
And show him its no easy thing resisting British spunk”

Just a quickie to cover this return trip to Privates on Parade, the opening show of Michael Grandage’s 5 show takeover of the Noël Coward Theatre, as I was able to attend the final performance of the run thanks to the day-seating efforts of a friend. I liked the show immensely when I saw it at the end of last year and whilst I could see that it might not be to everyone’s tastes, I was somewhat surprised at the charge of ‘dated’ that some people levelled at the play. Perhaps it’s a conversation that needs to be had with someone who actually felt that way but it feels erroneous to me, not least because it’s not even set (late 1940s) when it was written (1977).

The biggest change of course was due to the untimely and sudden death of Sophiya Haque who played the role of Sylvia. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for the company to continue after such a tragedy and all credit to understudy Davina Perera who rose to the challenge of taking on the role full time mid-run and achieving a seamless transition. Otherwise, I enjoyed the show just as much as I did first time round and having a better sense of the play as a whole, I appreciated the emotional depths of the writing that much more, the comedy has a more astringent edge in the knowledge of what is to come.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Review: Feast, Young Vic

“Your hair is like a water buffalo”

Though one tries to remain open-minded about most things theatrical, the word ‘multi-authored’ tends to make my heart sink. I don’t think I’ve ever really seen an example of the form that really worked for me (though it is possible that I have and I have forgotten) as it takes something extremely special to harness the potential unleashed by numerous writers and to turn it into something satisfying. And with Feast at the Young Vic, the point is proven once again. Part of the World Stages London festival (although feeling like a Johnny-come-lately in that respect), Yunior García Aguilera, Rotimi Babatunde, Marcos Barbosa, Tanya Barfield and Gbolahan Obisesan have all contributed to a production that celebrates the West African Yoruban culture and traces the paths by which it has spread and developed in their respective and native USA, Cuba, Nigeria, Brazil and the UK.

The central conceit of the show is that three sisters, demi-goddesses if you will, on their way to a feast but who encounter a mischievous trickster on their way who scatters them through time and space, reflecting the diasporic spread of Yoruba. But sadly, at a dramatic level, the globe-trotting and centuries-spanning narrative doesn’t really work. The episodic structure gives little time for the scribes to make their varying points and bouncing from Nigerian folklore to the end of the Brazilian slave trade to sexual politics in Cuba to the US civil rights struggle has a curiously flat effect as none have the space to really develop. But true to its name, Feast is made up of many, many parts and director Rufus Norris brings an astoundingly vibrant energy to the production side of things with dance and music and design elevating this into a genuinely spectacular affair.