Saturday, 28 February 2015

Review: Multitudes, Tricycle

I haven’t taken a taxi since Rotherham”

It's hard to imagine a time, in the near future at least, when multiculturalism in the UK won't be a hot button issue - if nothing else, what would certain elements of the press be pitifully obsessed with instead? So naturally, John Hollingworth's play Multitudes - his first - feels well timed, how could it not - Jihadi John and schoolgirl recruits for Islamic State dominate the front pages, the shockwaves of Charlie Hebdo are still rippling around with inflammatory polls further stirring the pot and the nefarious impact of UKIP on British politics remains impossible to escape,

Trying to make sense of these multiple strands is a job and a half for even the most seasoned of commentators and it's not immediately apparent that Hollingworth is the man for the job as he layers all this and more into his play. But once Indhu Rubasingham's production finds its feet in the swirl of the melting pot and one becomes accustomed to its rhythms, Multitudes' noisy energy makes sense. Hollingworth doesn't set out to give us answers, such as they could possibly exist, but rather gives a portrayal of of the messiness of race debates in British society.

Review: Yarico, London Theatre Workshop

“And so poor Yarico for her love, lost her liberty”

When a show openly acknowledges that it is a work-in-progress, you could be forgiven a certain degree of scepticism but on entering the London Theatre Workshop – perched above a Fulham pub – and seeing the size of their marimba, there can be no doubting the seriousness of the intent behind Yarico. A musical treatment of the opera Inkle and Yarico, itself based on the historical writings of Richard Ligon in A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados, it’s a fascinating look at an interesting time in a difficult piece of history.

For though the slave trade forms the backdrop for the story, the opera came at a time when anti-slavery sentiment was on the rise and this sense of being on the cusp of the abolition era adds an thought-provoking texture to the production. Yarico, a young Amerindian woman with a yen for Shakespeare, has her life turned upside down when English ne’er-do-well Thomas Inkle washes up onshore. The only one able to communicate with him due to her studies, she pleads for his life against her hostile fellow islanders and they soon fall in love – so far so happy.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Review: Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, Aldwych Theatre

“Everything seems to be
Some kind of wonderful"

Where Broadway leads, the West End will surely follow and so it is little surprise that Tony-winning Beautiful - The Carole King Musical found its way over here to the Aldwych Theatre. And I'm pleased to report that the transatlantic passage has gone most smoothly indeed to deliver an absolute treat of a show. When three of its four leading personnel are still very much alive and kicking, it is perhaps no surprise that Douglas McGrath’s book treads a rather respectable path through the first ten years of King’s career. But then she would be the first to say, with typical self-deprecating charm, that her life is hardly the most exciting, her dreams never the loftiest – it just so happens that beneath this veneer of ordinariness lay an absolute treasure trove of extraordinary music. 

And as musical gem follows musical gem – both from the collaborations of King and sometime partner Gerry Goffin, and also from their friends and writing rivals Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann – this feels utterly the point. Life isn’t always chock-a-block with drama, motivations don’t always have to spring from some momentous event, the cult of the tortured artistic soul is far from the be all and end all (Billington seems to siggest being "a shy, well-adjusted woman struggling to reconcile a career with a failing marriage" is something of a crime!) and I'd say that Beautiful is no weaker a biopic for not having such narrative peaks and troughs, reinventing personal history in the name of drama. 

Cast of Beautiful continued

Re-review: The Nether, Duke of York’s

“I’ve read the studies. No one has been able to draw a conclusive correlation between virtual behaviour and behaviour in-world.”

Just a quickie for this revisit to US playwright Jennifer Haley's The Nether, first seen at the Royal Court last summer, which has now transferred to the Duke of York's and as my colleague for the afternoon said afterwards, isn't it great to see plays like this with productions like this in the West End. Weighty subjects like the abdication of responsibility in the digital age and the morality of sexual conduct online when it is ostensibly make-believe or "outside consequence" as one character puts it, and a production that reflects its Sloane Square origins in reuniting almost the entire cast without succumbing to big-name casting.

My original review can be read here and it still stands. Es Devlin's design and Luke Halls' video work look even better in the larger theatre, hugely slick both in the cool technological sweep of its 2050 setting but also in the elegant evocation of its online world, The Hideaway, where the mind is left to run riot as to what people might get up to in there. Amanda Hale and Stanley Townsend maintain their coolly combative partnership as law enforcer and online maestro respectively and there's alternately skin-crawling and heart-breaking work from opposite ends of the age spectrum from David Calder and Zoe Brough/Isabella Pappas/Jaime Adler/Perdita Hibbins* (delete as appropriate).

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 25th April

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Re-review: Miss Saigon, Prince Edward Theatre

“Why God? Why today?" 

I wasn’t the hugest fan of Miss Saigon first time round as my review from then clearly attests but I’m never one to be entirely closed-minded (though it may not often seem that way…) so when the opportunity to take a friend who had not previously been popped up, I made a return visit to the Prince Edward Theatre. The show is still basking in the glow of recently winning 9 What’s On Stage awards and it is clear that it is attracting a younger and atypically passionate crowd (for a West End show at least). 

That passion cuts both ways though as the overexcited group behind us couldn’t hold back from the flash photography and the young woman in front of me was less enthused than the rest of her party and spent most of the show on Facebook. It makes for a different kind of theatre experience when you’re having to do battle with that kind of behaviour but given my continued lack of engagement with the storyline of this particular musical theatre behemoth, it was as much a distraction for me as anything. 

Cast of Miss Saigon continued

Cast of Miss Saigon continued

Cast of Miss Saigon continued

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Preview: Elegy at the VAULT Festival and Brighton's Pink Fringe

"Some stories are more powerful than others"

I'm not normally one for doing preview pieces but for this show, I'm making the exception. Douglas Rintoul's Elegy was one of the best shows I saw in 2012, making my top 25 for the year and inspiring a rather rapturous review. So I was glad to hear that a) it has had a successful time of it since then, winning an RNT Foundation Playwright Award and touring internationally (indeed the show is currently enjoying a critically acclaimed Spanish language run in Madrid) and b) it is returning to the UK for dates here in London and in Brighton.

This one-man-show is brilliant but brutal, a searing insight into the LGBT refugee experience as a gay Iraqi man is forced on the run when the 'liberation' of the post-Saddam regime takes a decidedly more conservative turn, It's the type of subject that one sadly imagines will never not be resonant somewhere somehow and with the rise of Islamic State in the Middle East, certainly now more than ever. Adam Best will be taking on the unnamed role and Rintoul directs in what will be one of the more haunting productions you'll see all year long.

Elegy plays 

VAULT Festival 2015, London 
25 Feb – 1 Mar 2015, 9.30pm 

Pink Fringe, Brighton
4 - 5 March 2015, 7:30pm

And if you can't make any of these dates, then the show is being recorded and will be released as a digital download to coincide with Refugee Week in June.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Review: Closer, Donmar Warehouse

“I love everything about you that hurts”

Obnoxious people doing obnoxious things for well over two hours – safe to say Patrick Marber’s Closer rubbed me up the wrong way something rotten, and scarcely believing that this was the winner of the Olivier for Best New Play in 1997. Characters float from scene to scene with little genuine motivation, no sense of inner life, just this insistence that there’s something meaningful in being unerringly truthful to one’s self when it comes to matters of desire, no matter the consequences.

Some might be tempted to find something contemporary in Marber’s depiction of lustful impulses overriding all, where sex and deceit go hand in hand with the dawning of the age of the internet. But what resonated strongest for me was the outdated manner in which the two female parts, but Alice in particular, are written. Despite Rachel Redford’s best efforts, Alice never breaks through the distasteful male fantasy gaze that posits her as an enigmatic stripper who just wants to be loved by a man (and not just any man…yes, you) – it’s enough to make even the most homosexual of men feel dirty.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Review: Hamlet, Cockpit

“Be all my sins remembered"

Sitting through English Repertory Theatre’s reconceived version of Hamlet, it struck me that the thing is reminded me of the most was an episode of Hollyoaks and I don’t mean that in terms of an outright dis, it really was where the resonance came. The courtroom of Elsinore becomes a private schoolroom in which privileged kids toy with questions of gender and sexuality and deliver overdramatic dramatics, the adult figures have to make do with paper-thin characterisations and there’s an abnormally high death-rate – maybe Shakespeare spent some time in Chester after all…

To fit this vision, Gavin Davis’ adaptation makes some rightfully bold decisions and it throws up some interesting new variations on a familiar theme. The Ghost and Guildenstern are stripped out, with Ophelia, Laertes and Rosencrantz being comparatively beefed up, meaning Hamlet discovers key details about his father’s death from notes being passed around the classroom and Nina Bright’s Ophelia is pleasingly fleshed out to become more of a true compatriot to her lover. And with Rachel Waring’s Hamlet gussied up as a boi, there’s added piquancy to the general ambivalence about their relationship.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Re-reviews: Di and Viv and Rose / Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

“It was a ball, it was a blast
It was a shame it couldn’t last”

A half-term jaunt down to London for Aunty Jean saw us take in a couple of shows I was happy to revisit. I remain as affectionately inclined towards Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as I ever have done, its traditional bonhomie remains as watchable as ever and there’s just something comfortable about the whole affair which remains hard to resist. Even whilst not being Robert Lindsay’s biggest fan (seriously, is he being paid by the pelvic thrust?!) the shimmering star quality of Kat Kingsley and the affable appeal of Alex Gaumond more than compensate. And the bumbling charms of Ben Fox, the third Chief of Police since the show started - job security in Beaumont-Sur-Mer is clearly not strong ;-) - prove the ideal foil for Bonnie Langford’s knowingly charismatic Muriel.

And we also made a more-timely-than-we-realised trip to Amelia Bullmore’s Di and Viv and Rose which posted closing notices pretty much as we left the matinée. It feels a real shame as it is such a sprightly production of a sparkling play which certainly deserved better audiences but for whatever reason, it just didn't connect. I've written more about the show on my three previous visits (link here) but I'd definitely recommend trying to catch it before it closes, not least for some of the most joyous dancing onstage (which forms the perfect counterbalance to My Night With Reg) and Jenna Russell's glorious performance as the hugely-generous-of-spirit Rose. 

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 7th March

Di and Viv and Rose
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 14th March

Cast of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels continued

Cast of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels continued

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Review: Arcadia, Churchill Theatre Bromley

“When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone on the empty shore”

With London audiences pondering The Hard Question and struggling to find the answer (we’re insufficiently classicly-educated apparently, though the journalist getting the name of the play wrong here is hardly a great start to counter that assertion) fans of Tom Stoppard can also catch his more celebrated play Arcadia in this English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Brighton co-production, directed by the ever-interesting Blanche McIntyre. I hesitate to call it a nationwide tour as it doesn’t appear to heading any further north than Birmingham but it is still a healthy enough trek for this pleasingly complex but affecting play.

As is customary with this playwright, it is a play full of weighty ideas – complex mathematics and chaos theory, entropy and existential truths, and takes place in the same country house drawing room in two time periods simultaneously, 1809 and the present day. Along the length of a fine dining table, the past rubs up against the present as the scientific rigour of the intellect goes head to head with the emotional poetry of the soul as Stoppard ultimately explores what it simply means to be human (and also what stirring rice pudding really represents). It is perhaps easy to get caught up in the density of the detail during the play but it would take the hardest of hearts not to be swept up the heart-breaking swing and sway of the final scene.

Review: She Loves Me, Landor

“Still I'm incandescent
Like an adolescent"

There’s always something difficult about seeing a show after the notices have come in, especially when I’m going to be writing about it myself. The interconnectedness of Twitter and the blog means that it is nigh on impossible to ignore the chatter about something especially six days later (press night was on Monday, I went in on the Sunday after) and when La Shenton himself devotes a whole blog to his love for a particular show, you have to think there’s something there. All that said, I really wasn’t a fan of She Loves Me. At all. And I’m struggling to see what people saw in both play and production.

The story may well be familiar to you – Joe Masterhoff’s book is based on the play Parfumerie by Miklos Lazslo and has been variously adapted into The Shop Around The Corner and the rom-com film You’ve Got Mail. Co-workers Amalia and Georg fall in hate at first sight as they struggle to work together when she gets a job at the perfume shop where he’s manager but little do they know that the lonely hearts club to which they both subscribe and through which they’ve each found a letter-writing love, has already brought them together.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Review: A View From The Bridge, Wyndhams

“Eddie Carbone. Eddie Carbone. Eddie Carbone."

What more is there to say about a play that was my undoubted favourite production of 2014 (out of more than 380 lest you forget!) and which did more than I could have possibly imagined to finally introduce the spectacular creative force of Ivo van Hove to a wider audience. Not much as it turns out! The Young Vic’s extraordinarily successful A View From The Bridge has now transferred into the West End, setting up shop in the relative intimacy of the Wyndham’s and remains one of the most highly recommended shows that I could urge you to go and see. 

My original review is here and I stand by everything in it, van Hove’s recasting of Arthur Miller’s classic still burns with its unstoppable, slow-building tragic force and even in this larger space, maintains the same level of punishing emotion. I hadn't intended to revisit in all honesty, having seen the original run twice but the announcement of onstage seating - to replicate something of the feel of Jan Versweyveld's original staging - hooked me back in. When the pricing was finally announced, I balked but the simultaneous release of a new date, complete with tickets for the front row of the balcony (one of the best West End bargains for my money), meant I was helpless to resist. 

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Film Review: The Last Five Years

"I don't know how anybody survives in this life without someone like you"

I’ve actually been sitting on this review since November, when I was lucky enough to attend a screening of New York love story  The Last Five Years at the Prince Charles Cinema thanks to What’s On Stage. We weren’t told to strictly observe an embargo but rather asked to wait before writing about it until the film’s release in the UK. Now it came out in the USA on Friday and as per the below tweet from Jason Robert Brown, the writer of the original show on which the film is based, we could be waiting a wee while before we even get a release date here. Which is a shame, as Richard LaGravenese’s filmic adaptation of this almost entirely sung-through tale deserves a fair crack of the whip, especially as it could have ridden on the over-exposed musical theatre coat-tails of Into the Woods into our cinemas.

Anyhow, the conceit of the story is that novelist Jamie and actress Cathy’s relationship is played out from two perspectives concurrently – at the beginning we see Jamie in the full flush of new romance with the headily seductive ‘Shiksa Goddess’ but Cathy’s first song is the exquisitely bitter pain of ‘Still Hurting’, five years down the line when they’ve split up. Each then gives us their side of the story but moving in opposite directions in time, enhancing the bittersweet beauty of a love that just ought to be. Onstage it means there’s only one point in the show, their marriage at the midpoint, where the two actors co-exist in the same scene but what’s fascinating about the film is that in fleshing out both accounts, they’re both utterly present and interactive throughout the whole thing, and it works.

Saturday afternoon music treats

Cassidy Janson – My Life Story (from Baby Mine)
I don’t think there’s anything Janson couldn’t sing and make beautiful.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Review: Gods and Monsters, Southwark Playhouse

“Masculinity is on the rise”

There’s a variety of warnings to heed before going into see Russell Labey’s Gods and Monsters at the Southwark Playhouse – a first half that is 85 minutes long, there’s strobe lighting and there’s male nudity. And with the last point in mind, forgive a puerile game of wordplay throughout the length of this review - ding dong, we’ve started. The story focuses on the final days of James Whale, director of films like Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (but not Frankenweenie) as he variously battles illness and the distracting presence of his hunky new gardener –will he survive, make a cock-up of the situation or perhaps even both?

Sequestered in the Hollywood Hills, Whale lives with his long-suffering maid Maria where he entertains a steady flow of adoring Tom, Dick and Harrys (or should that be John Thomas and Johnsons) - often young, often gay – in search of gossipy interviews about old Hollywood. But the misbehaving organ that is his disintegrating mind is letting those memories – shown here in elegant flashbacks - peter away and Whale is determined that he will get the last word. It is a quietly paced play in which the whole package doesn’t always quite fit together perfectly but there can be no doubting the absolutely tremendous performance from Ian Gelder as Whale – rarely off-stage and undeniably on the top of his game. 

Review: Jefferson’s Garden, Watford Palace

“We have to ask you to be gender-blind, colour-blind, age-blind, shape-blind, but in all other ways perceptive”

I actually saw a reading of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new play Jefferson’s Garden in 2013 when it formed part of the extracurricular activities surrounding the run of Out of Joint’s Our Country’s Good at the St James and blogged quite extensively about it as it was a play that really struck me as one to look out for. Less than two years down the line, it has now received its first production at the hands of director Brigid Larmour and the Watford Palace Theatre where it runs until 21st February and doesn’t appear to have any life anticipated beyond that.

Which is a shame as I do think it is a fine piece of writing. Wertenbaker’s history play takes place during the American War of Independence but makes a sterling case for how the compromises in the creation of a society then have echoed throughout time to become the issues that still blight the USA today. She also plays with the way in which historical narratives are constructed (theatrical ones too) through the voice of a Chorus who stalk the action, identifying the difficulties of converting the dreams of idealism into the practicalities of the real world.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Review: How To Hold Your Breath, Royal Court

“I thought when it came to it, I would be good at it”

Despite the fact that I really wasn’t a fan of How To Hold Your Breath, I can’t help but be impressed by the way that Vicky Featherstone really has shaken up the Royal Court since taking over as Artistic Director last year. The diversity in programming may mean that there’s no such thing as a safe bet there any more (something to play havoc with those who carefully book everything months in advance) but there’s something thrilling about that unpredictability, and also the variety that it thus lends to people’s theatregoing. 

Turning into more of a lucky dip does mean that you’re not always going to pick a winner and such was the case for me with ZInnie Harris’ new work. A densely written and constructed play, it imagines a Europe swallowed whole by a new financial crisis and leaving the remnants of society to fend for themselves, turned into refugees fighting to cross the border into Istanbul or gain passage on rickety ships bound for Alexandria. With a seductive demon on one shoulder and her pregnant sister on the other, Maxine Peake’s Dana finds herself forced into that such a journey.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Belatedly blogged: The #LDNTheatreBloggers reach Planet Hollywood

"Push pineapple, shake a tree"

Though we do like to protest that we're in this for more than free theatre tickets and free alcohol, the evil genius behind #LDNTheatreBloggers - the ever-sparkly Rebecca Felgate of Official Theatre has honed in on our weakness (meet-up #1 was gin-tasting, meet-ip #2 was espresso martini-making...) and managed the not inconsiderable feat of bringing together 40-odd bloggers from the cultural sphere on a chilly Friday night. And so thanks to the benevolence of Official Theatre and the guys from Seatplan (a crowd-sourced seat-reviewing website that I'd highly recommend you check out), we enjoyed the hospitality (and yummy finger food) (and 2-4-1 cocktail offers) of Planet Hollywood for a whole load of chat, competitions and Matilda singalongs. 

The lovely ladies of Starling Arts told us of their plans to celebrate their impressive 5th anniversary with a concert, West End Wilma was hawking her wares - blue rinse doesn't come cheaply these days ;-) - with her #stagey tote bags which you can buy from her site, The Gizzle Review was celebrated for its online growth, various people won t-shirts, I won a bottle of Prosecco, and all manner of theatrical and arts-based chat was had. It's a great set-up although it can be difficult to make sure that you actually speak to everyone there new and old, the temptation to slip away to the bar and just chat to your pals is always strong but 'tis often the way with networking events.

CD Review and Competition: Beautiful - The Carole King Musical soundtrack

“I know I can't express
This feeling of tenderness"

With beautifully fortuitous timing, the soundtrack to Beautiful: The Carole King Musical won the Grammy for Best Musical Theatre on Sunday night, just as the West End production of this Broadway hit opens for previews at the Aldwych Theatre. And it just so happens that I have a copy of said soundtrack on CD to give away as a competition prize to a lucky winner. 

I've already written a little about my love for Carole King's music in this preview piece and I promised to review this soundtrack soon after - it's only taken me three months to get around to it. It is a slightly odd musical theatre record to listen to in that coming from a biopic, it plays like a cross between a Carole King Greatest Hits and a compilation of hits from the 60s. There's no sense of narrative propelling the score and the tracklisting isn't strictly chronological either - in some ways, it's just a bunch of songs stuck together on one album.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Review: Little Light, Orange Tree

"All of life's tragedies folded up into those briefest of moments where your face will be an abiding memory"

Critics went cock-a-hoop for Alice Birch's Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again at the RSC yesterday but my first experience of her writing came with Many Moons at Theatre503 in 2011 and a fantastic one it was too. Little Light, which forms part of Paul Miller's reinvigorating opening season at the Orange Tree, was actually the first play she ever wrote and directed here by David Mercatali, receives a startling premiere which confirms Birch's status as one to watch.

Little Light starts strongly as a disturbed domestic drama. There are strains evident in Teddy and Alison's relationship from the start, as they prepare for a special meal in their seaside converted barn, tension crackling as the rituals they have always observed end up slightly off-kilter. They're waiting for her sister Clarissa but she arrives heavily pregnant and followed unexpectedly by her bedraggled lover Simon, a further deviation from which the occasion spirals out of control into a vortex of grief-fuelled chaos.

Review: Othello, Rose Bankside

"And what’s he then that says I play the villain?"

Early February and I'm already on my second Othello of the year. Not only that, it's the second one to both modernise it and condense the play down to well under two hours. But where Frantic Assembly moved the action in the violence of northern gang-life, Time Zone Theatre relocate it to the cut and thrust of corporate office politics and director Pamela Schermann goes even further in slimming the cast down to five bodies (plus Bianca's voice Skyping in).

It's a bold reimagining - especially in a venue as soaked in archaeological significance as the Rose, Bankside - but one that pays off. Stripped off pretty much every sub-plot, the story becomes one of cut-throat careerism, the promotion that Iago is passed over for thus a much more recognisable one and represented simply but effectively by the relative plushness of an executive office chair (astute design from Gillian Stevenson) in which people will kill to sit.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Review: Constellations, Samuel J Friedman Theatre

“If only we could understand why it is that we’re here and what it is we’re meant to spend our lives doing”

No word of a lie, the moment I heard that it would be Ruth Wilson joining Jake Gyllenhaal in the Broadway production of Nick Payne’s Constellations was the moment that I decided that I would make my own long-awaited debut appearance in New York. It is a play that both captivated and broke my heart at the Royal Court Upstairs and again in its subsequent West End transfer, so I had no worries about it scaling up to the Samuel J Friedman Theatre – the only concern being that Wilson and Gyllenhaal would match up to the incandescent performances of Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall.

Fortunately they more than meet the challenge, offering up performances that simultaneously echo their predecessors whilst also finding something new, neatly reflecting the multiverse theory that underpins Payne’s writing here. On paper it might seem terribly scientific – “at any given moment, several outcomes can co-exist simultaneously” – but in reality, it is ineffably, unbearably human in the gorgeous contours of Michael Longhurst’s finely tuned production as scenes play and then instantly replay, shifting subtly but crucially each time with the story of Marianne and Roland’s relationship.

Review: A Delicate Balance, John Golden Theatre

“There is a balance to be maintained”

One of the main reasons for finally booking a trip to Broadway was the chance to see Glenn Close make a rare foray back onto the stage in a revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. I saw the play at the Almeida back in 2011 with an exceptional cast and didn’t imagine it could be bettered but something about it clearly attracts the crème de la crème as the ensemble around her in Pam McKinnon’s production is just as thrill-makingly irresistible.

Brits Clare Higgins and Lindsay Duncan join John Lithgow, Bob Balaban, and the delectable Martha Plimpton to form the kind of company to dream of, and deliver this modern classic exquisitely if agonisingly as its WASP certainties are thoroughly dismantled. Albee’s prose has an unwieldy verbosity on the page but in the hands of such consummate professionals, it flows beautifully off the tongue as even the most convoluted of clauses gain conversational clarity.

Review: Cabaret, Studio 54

“Outside it is winter. But in here it's so hot.”

It is 22 years since Sam Mendes debuted his iconic revival of Kander and Ebb’s musical Cabaret with Alan Cumming (re)creating the role of the Emcee and in the hallowed grounds of Studio 54, he is back in that part overseeing a succession of bright young things taking on the equally iconic character of Sally Bowles. Michelle Williams (Dawson’s not Destiny’s) opened up this run and Sienna Miller will step into the shoes next month but it is recent Academy Award nominee Emma Stone was the original choice for this particular revival.

A fascinatingly honest interview reveals the reason why she couldn’t open the show but circumstance prevailed to allow her to join the company and ever so pleasingly, right at the moment that I was in town. And she
is brilliant in the role, it’s no mean feat putting her own spin on a character that has been so effectively previously immortalised but Stone manages it, finding a real sense of a new, fresh, personality for Sally that is more emotional, fragile even, laying bare all the vulnerability of a young woman aching for a place to belong in a world that is turning its back on her, and so many others.

Cast of Cabaret continued

Review: The Elephant Man, Booth Theatre

“I did not think of all these things, because there was no one to bother to think them for"

Of all the shows that I saw on Broadway, I really wouldn’t have picked this one to be the one that transfers to the West End. But to the Theatre Royal Haymarket it doth come after a commercially successful run. And oh the irony, casting someone named Sexiest Man Alive as the noted Victorian ‘freak’ Joseph Merrick, aka The Elephant Man. The selling point of Scott Ellis’ production of Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 is most definitely three time Academy Award acting nominee (seriously, how did that happen?!) Bradley Cooper and in the grand tradition of things that Oscar likes, he’s feigning a disability in what I found to be a somewhat disturbing performance.

The script determines that no make-up or prosthetic should be used, that Merrick’s deformity should be portrayed only through physicality, and whilst that offers up a veritable challenge to any actor wishing to take on the role, it also throws up big questions that this production comes frustratingly close to interrogating in an interesting way. Putting so fêted and objectified an actor on stage and having society’s reactions in the play range from outright horror to morbid fascination feels like the beginnings of an interesting commentary on today’s obsession with celebrity - indeed, were I directing it I’d’ve had Cooper play no disability at all, to really highlight how we respond to those who are ‘different’.

Cast of The Elephant Man continued

Review: It's Only A Play, Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

“My first night in New York and I'm high-fiving Denzel Washington” 

Of everything that I saw or considered seeing in New York, It’s Only A Play possibly best exemplifies the dilemma I faced. Being such an actor junkie, the prospect of Stockard Channing and Nathan Lane and Megan Mullally (the latter two for the first time) was hugely tempting but I could scarcely ignore the fact that they were in a backstage farce. But the lure of the Lane was strong and so I booked myself in, hoping that low expectations would allow me to enjoy it. 

And did I? I can’t really say, even now. I certainly laughed quite a bit, chuckling along with the theatre industry references of which there were masses and marvelling at how many modern touches Terrence McNally had managed to stuff into his updated text (James Franco’s x-rated selfies, Shia LeBeouf’s erratic behaviour and Alec Baldwin’s red-hot temper just a few that I can recall). But the whole thing does still feel curiously old-fashioned and perhaps a little self-satisfied. 

Review: The Real Thing, American Airlines Theatre

“Half as long as Das Kapital and only twice as funny”

Arcadia aside, it does appear I have my Stoppard issues but in the running theme of my Broadway booking, (relative) star casting trumped common sense. In this case, it was Maggie Gyllenhaal and Cynthia Nixon that tempted me (plus Ewan McGregor and Ronan Raftery) along to this most lauded of his plays. And whilst I was glad of the opportunity to see this company, and be suitably impressed by both Gyllenhaal and Nixon, I couldn’t help but feel that I just don’t get the thing about The Real Thing

Seeing it for the second time, the sucker punch of the metatheatrics is necessarily lessened. Knowing the layers of the Russian dolls are just that didn’t really bring anything new for me in my feeling for the play (or the play-within-the-play, or etc etc) and I think Sam Gold’s production is mostly responsible for that with a whole lot of theatrical fussiness that adds bulk but not genuine substance – musical interludes drag, David Zimm’s set distracts with its open blandness, so much of it just feels flat.

Review: The River, Circle in the Square

“You will try to remember. How you felt. You’ll try to be back there. To live it again. But you can’t get back there. You can never go back.”

Cripes. They say you should never go back (so obviously I booked two Royal Court transfers that I’ve already seen for this trip to Broadway) and this one proved to be a case in point. Jez Butterworth’s The River was the talk of the town when it opened at the Royal Court Upstairs back in 2012, mainly because of the ridiculous booking system that meant there were no advance tickets available. And when it opened recently on Broadway, all the chat was similarly diverted from the play at hand by Hugh Jackman’s biceps and a raft of articles about audience (mis)behaviour. 

Which is a shame, as it is a strikingly poetic piece of theatre, intriguingly and obtusely written by Butterworth as an opaque study of masculinity and relationships and mystery and trout-fishing. I enjoyed it considerably in London but was quite happy to give it a miss in NY until I found out Cush Jumbo had been cast in this production, an odd choice perhaps, given the location, but a tempting one for me as I’ve much enjoyed her work. Too tempting as it turned out, as it over-rode the misgivings I had about returning to the show, which were apparent upon the moment I took my seat. 

Review: If/Then, Richard Rodgers Theatre

"I'd lie to say I'm never sometimes always thinking of you" 

I couldn't do New York without taking the opportunity to see Idina Menzel and in lieu of battling the crowds at Times Square, tickets were booked for her starring role in Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's If/Then. Having had the soundtrack for a wee while now, and being a big fan thereof, I pretty much knew what I was letting myself in for, meaning there was none of the apparent confusion that blighted much of the initial critical response which found the show hard to follow. 

Is it confusing? I don't think so. It's tricksy yes, as a twin set of narratives follow two different paths that newly-divorced Elizabeth could take as she moves to New York City to start her life anew. Pushing 40, she feels the clock ticking both personally and professionally and so as Liz it is the former that takes precedent and as Beth, the latter. The same friends and colleagues appear in each strand too, with different experiences so you do have to pay some attention but that's no real hardship. 

Cast of If/Then continued

Review: The Last Ship, Neil Simon Theatre

“And when you become a woman of a certain age
You'll find it's difficult to trust a man” 

The signs for The Last Ship were not good even before I boarded – Sting stepping into a key role to shore up ticket sales over Christmas – and just days after I saw it, the producers decided to cut their losses and it posted closing notices for the end of the month. Indeed, this review comes too late to even persuade a last few people to visit as Saturday saw the final performance. And whilst I’d love to be able to say that it is a huge loss to the Broadway stage, to me it really didn’t feel like the complete package.

First things first - Sting’s score is genuinely excellent, binding together influences like Celtic folk and sea shanties to the more standard driving anthems and heartfelt balladry that one might expect from a big musical. Real emotion and a strong sense of character come flooding out of songs like ‘Autumn Winds’, the title song and ‘If You Ever See Me Talking To A Sailor’ and it is little surprise that the soundtrack made a strong concept album when released in 2013.

Cast of The Last Ship continued

Cast of The Last Ship continued

Barely-a-Review: You Can't Take It With You, Longacre Theatre

“I know they do rather strange things. But they’re gay and they’re fun and I don’t know there’s a kind of nobility about them”

I had a perfectly good time at George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You – surprisingly so, given its old-fashioned comedic nature and the presence of the destroyer of Shakespeare James Earl Jones. Well why did I book, you might well ask. For Rose Byrne I would tell you (the first series of Damages is one of my utmost favourite pieces of television ever) and she was indeed great. Annoyingly though, I was quite under the weather that evening (apologies to anyone who the in the vicinity of my stifled spluttering – yes, I was that guy) but when on Broadway – for the first time too – what do you do? It’s not as if you can reschedule… And there’s nothing worse than being stuck in an audience of people laughing their heads off when you’re not quite feeling the same. It’s not to say I thought this was a bad show, it just wasn’t really my cup of tea.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 22nd February

Cast of You Can't Take It With You continued

Saturday afternoon music treats

Idina Menzel + James Snyder - Here I Go (from If/Then)
One of my favourite songs from If/Then, such an adorable couple.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Review: Anything Goes, New Wimbledon Theatre

“If love affairs you like 
with young bears you like
why nobody will oppose”

Sheffield Theatre’s production of Anything Goes is launching on a simply mammoth tour of the UK – over 30 venues in 10 months – so it’s a pretty good job that it’s a largely excellent production. It’s rather amusing to note the number of reviews that mention that this classic show is over 80 years old yet still point out that the much revised book isn’t anything special at all but merely a framework on which to hang some of the most glorious songs of Cole Porter’s career. Given the average age of the audience, this will not come as a surprise to anyone, but there’s much here in Daniel Evans’ production to commend it to the young’uns too.

Alistair David’s choreography is a real delight, a constant breath of fresh air on which the show floats giddily, whether it’s the leads fooling about as if they’re Fred Astaire, sailors mooning over bathing beauties, or the whole company possessed with a spiritual glee. The eye is of course drawn to the stunning Act 1 finale set to the title track (which will always belong to Kate Capshaw’s bizarrely translated version in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, my first experience thereof) which is a jaw-dropping, shoe-shuffling, tap-dancing dream, cleverly referencing classic moves but also firmly establishing its own identity by keeping Debbie Kurup’s sensational Reno Sweeney front and centre.

Cast of Anything Goes continued

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Review: Joan of Arc, New Diorama

"You can't slaughter what you cannot kill"

In amongst everything else that the Faction do, they're also steadily working their way through Friedrich Schiller's plays with the aim of staging the complete canon of his work. I've seen them take on Mary Stuart, Fiesco and The Robbers in recent years but their 2015 rep season features Joan of Arc, a free adaptation of The Maid of Orleans which was one of his most frequently performed plays during his lifetime. Its fiercely militaristic tone speaks to its popularity back then but the Faction, playing very much to their strengths in this thrilling and thoughtful version, make a sterling case for its pertinence today.

The play tells its own variation on Joan's life - one could hardly argue it is historically inaccurate - which repositions La Pucelle as a defiantly active warrior in the Dauphin's forces as the French Crown struggles against the combined forces of the Duke of Burgundy and Henry VI of England. That she was a peasant girl who received religious visions only added to her allure when her talismanic presence proved decisive in turning the military tide but the natural suspicion of anything different, combined with Joan's internal dilemmas about the validity of her spirituality, allows the seeds to be sown for her downfall (even if it plays out in an unexpected manner).

Re-viewing Bull, and Di and Viv and Rose

"If it hadn't been me, it would have been someone else"

In one of those curious co-incidences, Mark Shenton's blog for The Stage today was about the pleasure of re-viewing shows already seen. For me, it was a two show day and in both cases, it was the third time I had seen them, albeit in different productions. Part of being a theatre addict is the delicious thrill of being able to revisit plays and get something new from them, as well as being reminded of why I enjoyed it so much, and so it proved with Mike Bartlett's Bull and Amelia Bullmore's Di and Viv and Rose.

I first saw Bull in a rehearsed reading at the Finborough back in 2010, when I was still in the process of falling hard for Bartlett's writing, and was then so enthused by the prospect of seeing a full production that we made a trip to Sheffield to see it be wonderfully staged by Clare Lizzimore in the Studio at the Crucible in 2013. (Travelling from London to Sheffield for a show that isn't even an hour long is proof positive, as if it were ever needed, of the strength of my addiction!) And it is that same production that has belatedly arrived at the Young Vic this year.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Review: Happy Ending, Arcola

“To be or not to be. That is not the question. The question is how to be”

What does cancer look like to you? If it is personified as a dancing Spaniard with crab claws for hands, then I might just have the thing for you. Billed as “a musical-comical fantasy about a subject that people don’t talk about”, Happy Ending runs the risk of becoming a show that people won’t dare to talk about due to a series of baffling decisions pertaining to almost every aspect of a production that is challenging to watch. Naturally, a show about cancer is never going to be easy but it is the misjudgements rather than the subject matter that prove most difficult. 

It shouldn’t be like this. The show is based on playwright Anat Gov’s own experience with the disease, which took her life in 2012 and as such, is suffused with acutely observed detail (the overwhelming amount of supplementary medicine, the different coping mechanisms people develop, the mordant humour on the ward) that will be horribly recognisable to many. But in Hilla Bar and director Guy Retallack’s adaptation, something is significantly awry and most crucially, it is with the piped-through musical numbers – which can be counted on the fingers of one hand – by Shlomi Shaban and Michal Solomon.

Review: The Wasp, Hampstead Downstairs

“Looks like we’re both a bit more like each other than we thought”

Maintaining an enviable record of attracting superior acting talent, the Hampstead Downstairs brings Dame-in-the-making Sinéad Matthews back to the stage alongside Myanna Buring in The Wasp, a new two-hander from Morgan Lloyd Malcolm that casts a disturbing light over the legacy of our school days and how we can let them shape us for years into the future. I am convinced that we will be talking about Matthews in 40 years time in the way we talk about Judi Dench and Maggie Smith now so it is always exciting to get to see her work, especially in such intimate surroundings as these.

The Wasp sees her take on the role of Heather, a well-to-do married woman struggling to conceive who makes contact with old school chum Carla, significantly less well-off and expecting her fifth child, after tracking her down on Facebook. Although close as kids, high school saw them drift into different social groups and let bullying tendencies take over, so it isn’t immediately apparent why Heather has made contact after so long. Cheating husbands and surrogate pregnancies seem to be on the table but when a bag full of money and an even stranger proposition spills forth, the first of many twists kicks in.