Saturday, 31 October 2015

Review: The State Vs John Hayes, King’s Head

"They would never send John…but they would send me"

More of us have voices in our head than we would care to admit but how many of us truly give them the time of day. Sitting in her cell on Death Row, Elyese Dukie is one such person, accused of the murder of two people but adamant that John Hayes was responsible, and it is Hayes’ face who looks back at her from the mirror and who we first meet in The State Vs John Hayes, now playing at the King’s Head Theatre as part of their new writing festival.

Developed out of extensive research into female killers, this one-woman show is written and performed by Lucy Roslyn and is hauntingly effective. In this Texas prison cell, this complex character ricochets between extremes, between John and Elyese, as we delve into the interior life she won’t reveal to the courts or the psychiatrists, drawing ever closer to horrible truths borne of lifelong exposure to violence and the desperation to conform to societal norms.

Review: As You Like It, National Theatre


“I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad"

For regular theatregoers, it can sometimes feel a bit hard to get excited about the umpteenth production of a play, so much so that I almost didn’t see the winning combination of the much-loved Blanche McIntyre and Michelle Terry until the very end of their run at the Globe this summer. So the news that Polly Findlay was also tackling As You Like It for the National was tempered a little (though it is the first time in 30 years it has played there) but as Rosalind was announced (Rosalie Craig poached from the cast of wonder.land to replace an indisposed Andrea Riseborough), the excitement began to build and the inevitable ticket was purchased and boy am I glad that I did. 

For the transformation of the set into the Forest of Arden is a moment of genuinely breath-taking theatre, Lizzie Clachan pulling the rug from under us and her design to create a most singular vision. And it is one in which enchantment slowly grows with sylvan sound effects created by company members onstage and a choir singing Orlando Gough’s contemporary and complex score (akin if alike to the one he composed for Bakkhai). There’s a lovely conceit in which Alan Williams’ Corins, nominally a shepherd but here more like a forest deity, summons the music every time love is needed to cast its spell, enhancing the magical feel.

Cast of As You Like It

Preview: The Kenneth Branagh Company

The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company officially open their year-long residency next week so here's a cheeky little preview to whet the appetite in advance of the reviews. Mild production spoilers abound...


For his opening gambit, Branagh has opted to open two shows in rep - Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale starring Dame Judi Dench 
and


Cast of Kenneth Branagh Company continued

Friday, 30 October 2015

Review: Joanne, Soho Theatre

“This is the bit of the job I love. Loved. The human-contact bit, the breaking-the-ice bit. The breaking-into-a-smile bit”

Clean Break have often come to the Soho Theatre to showcase their work in London (the Charged season a great example) and so it’s little surprise to see them return with Joanne, five mini-plays weaving around the titular character, a woman struggling with life we never meet but whose presence is fiercely felt. All five monologues are performed by the one actor, the excellent Tanya Moodie, and detail the experience of people working in the system that is failing Joanne.

So Chino Odimba’s Stella sees the social worker made redundant, celebrating at her leaving do rather than thinking of the girl she met on release from prison that morning. Ursula Rani Sarma and Deborah Bruce introduce respectively a police officer and an A&E receptionist who despite their kind-hearted intentions, can’t quite manage to give Joanne the help they know she so desperately needs, their frustrations at an overworked system most palpable.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Review: Dinner With Friends, Park

“The key to civilization is to fight the impulse to just chuck it all”

For so long Michael Spence in Holby City, Hari Dhillon’s ventures onto the stage have been sparse indeed but it’s clear that he has high standards - Pulitzer Prize-winning plays about middle-class dinner parties. 2013 saw him take on Ayad Akthar’s Disgraced (2013 winner) for the Bush and then Broadway and now he stars in Donald Margulies’ Dinner With Friends (2000 winner) for the Park for director Tom Attenborough.

It’s a tale of marriage and mid-life crises – Gabe and Karen are happily, well smugly, married but their satisfied outlook is shaken when the relationship of their friends Tom and Beth crumbles in front of them. Interestingly, Margulies explores what happens to the people in the middle of break-ups, especially when they’re mates with both parties. Beth has got there first, announcing the split at a dinner at Gabe and Karen’s, but Tom soon turns up to get his side across.

Review: The Hairy Ape, Old Vic

“I ain't on oith and I ain't in Heaven, get me? I'm in de middel tryin' to seperate em, takin all de woist punches from bot' of 'em”

Fans of Bertie Carvel have certainly been rewarded with his recent burst of activity – he starred in Bakkhai at the Almeida, had a major role in BBC drama Doctor Foster and now returns to the theatre to lead this revival of Eugene O’Neill’s play The Hairy Ape. The play is described as a classic expressionist masterpiece and whilst that might be overstating things ever so slightly, it does give a useful pointer to the heightened theatricality of the drama and of Richard Jones’ production. My 4 star review for Cheap Theatre Tickets can be read here.

Running time: 95 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 21st November




Cast of The Hairy Ape continued

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Review: Invisible Treasure, Ovalhouse

“Phase 2 – link/erase”

Deposited in a futuristically sparely decorated room (designed by Cécile Trémolières) with people you don’t know, a freaky looking rabbit with glowing eyes for company and no immediate clue as to what is going happening, the opening moments of fanSHEN’s Invisible Treasure at the Ovalhouse are quite disorienting. But as a screen flickers into life, Joshua Pharo and Gillian Tan’s moody lighting starts to shift and short messages begin to appear, the name of the game becomes increasingly apparent. (Due to the nature of the show, I've tried to avoid spoilers below.)

For it is something of a game, a self-described “interactive digital playspace” in which the interactions of the group are key. Through the various computer game-like levels of the activity, we the audience find ourselves tested in the realm of problem-solving but also in the way that we relate to others in the absence of any obvious power structures. Are you a leader or a follower, could you make suggestions or contributions to a group of strangers, can you dance to Beyoncé – and would your answers stay the same when in the actual situation.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Review: Husbands and Sons, National Theatre

"How is a woman to have a husband when all the men belong to their mothers?"

You have to respect the huge ambition behind Husbands and Sons, Marianne Elliott and Ben Power’s adaptation of three DH Lawrence plays which sees each of them run simultaneously in the round in the Dorfman. It manages this by taking the Holroyds from The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, the Gascoignes from The Daughter-in-Law and the Lamberts from A Collier's Friday Night and imagining them living on the same street in the East Midlands village of Eastwood. And spread over three weeks in October 1911, the interlocked, if not intersecting, dramas of their lives play out, dominated by the long shadow of the pit. 

Initially it’s a dizzying affair, as the eye and the ear deals with the three separate domestic establishments. Bunny Christie’s design takes a visual cue from the Lars von Trier film Dogville with the fully furnished houses demarcated by white lines on the floor and labelled by name, doors (and coats, weirdly) are mimed with accompanying sound effects. And with a nod to the fixedness of this arrangement, ticket-holders in the pit swap seats at the interval, getting to sit in the corresponding place on the other side of the auditorium, offering an alternative perspective on the goings-on.

Cast of Husbands and Sons continued

Sunday, 25 October 2015

TV Review: From Darkness, BBC1

"Fat, embittered, heavy-drinking, middle-aged male detective. Do you know how much of a cliché that is"

Part of Anne-Marie Duff’s triple-fronted return to prominence (cf Suffragette and Husbands and Sons), BBC1 drama From Darkness sees her take the lead in the psychological crime drama from Katie Baxendale. Running away from unhappiness, former police constable Claire Church has made a new life for herself on a remote Scottish island with the ruggedly handsome Norrie and his daughter but the revival of a decades-old case inexorably draws her back to the darkness to longs to flee.

Trying to skewer traditional notions of female victimhood in crime dramas, Baxendale curiously opts for a storyline based on the serial killings of prostitutes and never really manages to put enough clear water between From Darkness and others in the genre. And tied up as it is with trying to explore the repercussions of letting fear overwhelm us, the show can’t quite overcome its desire to slot into the fairly conventional strictures of your standard police procedural with all its daft contrivances.

TV Review: Da Vinci’s Demons Series 3, episodes 1 + 2

"This chemistry sounds much too sophisticated for a horde of heathens"

In this world of Netflix and Amazon dramas, the rules of getting your televisual content out there have changed for everyone and following suit, the entirety of the third series of Starz’ Da Vinci’s Demons has been released for people to go for a binge-watch or bite-site chunks as they see fit. I haven’t got a huge amount of time this week so I thought I’d sample the opening two episodes of this final (for now) season of this highly enjoyable historical fantasy romp, not least to get the cliff-hanger ending of Series 2 out of the way.

And perhaps acknowledging the forthcoming ending (although the series was filmed before the cancellation was announced), the tone of the show has darkened, increasingly bloody and brutal as ritual and warcraft take a more vicious turn with the stakes rising for pretty much every concerned. The Turks’ sacking of Naples gives us the best battle the show has done with fearsome consequences for several characters, Riario’s dealings with The Labyrinth become ever more sinister and even Gregg Chillin’s Zoroaster gets a decent plot for once.

Review: Hey, Old Friends, Theatre Royal Drury Lane

“Stop worrying where you're going—move on”

Theatreland does like to make sure every anniversary gets marked somehow and so following on from the celebrations around Les Misérables’ 30th birthday earlier this month is a similar hoohah for Stephen Sondheim’s 85th year on this planet. As is de rigueur for these events, a gala concert has been put on for the occasion with the kind of rollcall you could only normally dream of and naturally, it had the price tag to go along with it.

As with Les Mis (which donated to Save The Children’s Syria Children’s appeal), the show benefitted charitable purposes, specifically The Stephen Sondheim Society and telephone helpline service The Silver Line, harnessing the major fundraising potential of such events. That said, these tickets tend to be so expensive that there’s a nagging feeling that they’re serving a limited audience with few opportunities for regular theatregoers to be a part of them.

Cast of Hey Old Friends continued

Cast of Hey Old Friends continued

Review: Peter Pan – A Musical Adventure in Concert, Adelphi

“There’s something in the air tonight”

Just a quickie for this semi-staged concert version of Stiles + Drewe’s Peter Pan as my afternoon was pretty much ruined by the young family next to me, two toddlers quite literally running amok, uncontrolled by a mother who didn’t care that her children were repeatedly climbing over me. I’m all for theatres being more inclusive and welcoming to young’uns but the other side of that is that you have to prepare your children for the practicalities of sitting down for a couple of hours along with everyone else.

Which is a shame, as this is a rather sweet musical version of JM Barrie’s evergreen story of the boy who never grew up. Even with weird man-boy Ray Quinn in the lead role and the pantomimish Bradley Walsh as Captain Hook, there’s something really quite affecting about the child-like wonder of Stiles + Drewe’s interpretative skill, which still simultaneously offers up a more mature worldview – it’s easy to forget the deep sadness that lies at the heart of the story, Sheila Hancock’s Narrator providing some deeply moving moments.

Cast of Peter Pan continued

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Review: Hello Again, Hope

“The bed was not my own”

Round and round and round we go, Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde has inspired many an adaptation, so much so that the Hope Theatre’s Hello Again can’t even boast of being the only one on Upper Street (F**king Men at the King’s Head newly extending into December). But it is the only musical version there, Michael John LaChiusa crafting the daisy chain of sexual encounters into a song cycle that moves from decade to decade just as much as it does from bed to bed.

The show is made up of 10 two-handers, connected by one character remaining in the next scene, so first we have The Whore and The Soldier, then The Soldier and The Nurse, The Nurse and The College Boy and so on until The Senator and The Whore completes the cycle. But the timeline is played non-chronologically, the characters aren’t necessarily the same person from scene to scene, the only real connection is the multitude of ways in which sex is used and abused in our daily lives, no matter how sexuality is perceived in that particular age.

DVD Review: Da Vinci’s Demons Series 2

“This could be the gateway to extraordinary things”

The second series of Da Vinci’s Demons continues the historical fantasy in all its raucous, vaguely homo-erotic glory and feels like a stronger season for it. Having set up the busy world of Medici-ruled Florence and all its enemies, alongside Leonardo’s ongoing mystical quest at the behest of the Sons of Mithras, the show breathes a little here and has no compunction in scattering its main players on separate storylines, whilst folding in new ones to keep the story-telling ever fresh.

Most notably, Tom Riley’s captivating Leo hops on a ship with his pals and a guy called Amerigo Vespucci (Lee Boardman eventually getting to milk an excellent gag) to chase the Book of Leaves all the way to Peru and the depths of Machu Picchu. These South American scenes are just fantastic, magnificent to look at as our heroes take on the Incan Empire in all its gruesome feathered glory to uncover the mystery around Leo’s mother and the hidden power contained with the book.

Cast of Da Vinci's Demons Series 2 continued

Cast of Da Vinci's Demons Series 2 continued

DVD Review: Da Vinci’s Demons Series 1

“War has always been the handmaiden of progress”

From its opening moments of buttocks and blood (both belonging to an uncredited Hugh Bonneville if that floats your boat), it’s clear that Da Vinci’s Demons is going to have its fun whilst playing fast and loose with the early life of its subject, Florentine polymath Leonardo Da Vinci. Conceived by David S Goyer and a co-production between Starz and BBC Worldwide, it’s a good-natured romp of a drama series much in the mould of Merlin, Atlantis or the lamented Sinbad but perhaps tied a little closer to reality as it dips in and out of the tangled history of the Italian city states. 

And it is its historical connections that serves as a main driver for the technological innovations for which Leonardo is famed and which form the ‘issue of the week’ around which most of the episodes hang. So as Da Vinci climbs into bed with the ruling Medici family, he’s sucked into their political machinations whilst battling rival families in Florence and the ever-present threat of the Catholic Church in Rome. Alongside this sits a more fantastical series-long arc about the mystical Book of Leaves and the Sons of Mithras who believe Da Vinci has only just begun to tap into his true power.

Cast of Da Vinci's Demons continued

Cast of Da Vinci's Demons continued

Cast of Da Vinci's Demons continued

Friday, 23 October 2015

Review: In The Heights, King’s Cross Theatre

“Since when are Latin people scared of heat?”

There's something about a really good musical that makes it a pleasure to go back and revisit and so it is with In The Heights, its fresh contemporary edge hugely exciting to witness and so full of visual and lyrical interest that re-viewing brings up many things that I missed first time round. My 5* review for Cheap Theatre Tickets can be read there and I urge you to book as soon as possible, if only because Victoria Hamilton-Barritt is getting increasingly pregnant (funny how that happens!) and she is unmissable in the role of Daniela (although equally, it will be interesting to see how whoever covers the role performs it once she leaves).

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval) 
Photo: Robert Workman
Booking until 3rd January

Cast of In The Heights continued

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Review: Gaslight, Royal and Derngate

“Suddenly, I’m beginning not to trust my memory at all“

I do like me some Tara Fitzgerald and reckon she’s probably under-rated both in my personal pantheon of favourite actresses and by the industry at large. So I was more than happy to get the train back up to Northampton (after last month’s Brave New World) to see her take the lead in a new revival of Gaslight, despite not having enjoyed the play the one time I previously saw it in Salisbury. And fickle as I am, I enjoyed it much more here, Lucy Bailey’s production rising to the challenges of the somewhat hokey writing.

For I don’t think anyone could truly claim that Patrick Hamilton’s play is particularly well-written or that well-constructed, its almost farcical nature needs careful treatment in this more sceptical day and age but that is exactly what it gets here. Fitzgerald plays Bella Manningham, a Victorian wife convinced that she is losing her mind as did her mother, and with her husband often away on business, the fears that her house is haunted grow near-insurmountable. But are they real or is something more cruelly manipulative afoot?

Review: Mary Poppins, Curve

“Anything can happen if you let it”

It is becoming increasingly clear that a show isn’t a show if a Strallen isn’t involved, even as an usher, and it is now the turn of Zizi to ascend to the role of leading lady, taking the title role in a mammoth UK tour of Mary Poppins which has started at the Curve in Leicester and which is already booking through to this time next year. And it isn’t too hard to see why such confidence has been invested in the future of the show when it is as stupendously good a piece of musical theatre as this.

I never got round to seeing the show in the West End - Julian Fellowes’ book building on P.L. Travers’ original books as well as the Disney film and composing duo Stiles + Drewe adding to the iconic score by the Sherman Brothers – and it’s an age since I saw the film so it really did have all the glorious impact of being a fresh new show for me but even if you did manage to see it, the lure of this fresh new production ought to tempt you along to one of the cities where it is playing to relive the joy.

Cast of Mary Poppins continued

Cast of Mary Poppins continued

Cast of Mary Poppins continued

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire, Curve Studio

“I tell what ought to be the truth“

I’ve only been to the Studio at Leicester’s Curve Theatre a couple of times but I’ve never seen it done up this much like a proper theatre with a balcony and all but such it is for Nikolai Foster’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, his first at the venue where he is now Artistic Director. Tennessee Williams’ classic receives a rather traditional, if youthfully inclined, interpretation here which thus can’t help but pale a little in comparison to Benedict Andrews’ extraordinary reimagining for the Young Vic last year.

The challenges of the space are clear though in the sometimes challenging acoustics of the studio which, combined with an unstinting commitment to heavy accents, poses audibility issues throughout the production. Which is a shame as it really does look good – Michael Taylor’s set design perfectly evokes the faded grandeur and stifling intimacy of the French Quarter and Guy Hoare’s lighting suggests all of its carnivalesque atmosphere with its twinkling fairy lights and sultry red hues.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Review: Plaques and Tangles, Royal Court

“It'll be bad for other people”

Like a Rubik’s Cube forever going wrong, Megan’s memory – ravaged by early onset Alzheimer’s - keeps shifting and reforming itself in endless configurations that don’t quite work. And so in Nicola Wilson’s Plaques and Tangles, we see her at different ages, skittering from 21 to 47, juddering between 32 and 27, her very sense of self fractured by a cruelly progressive disease which in her darkest moments, leaves her unaware if she is even awake or hallucinating in the traverse cocoon of Andrew D Edwards’ set design.

This is made more poignantly powerful by the fact that she has a family, two kids and a husband who suffer alongside her but more often isolated from her as the wife and mother they love becomes harder to find. And with the disease having a high genetic propensity, Wilson’s play probes into the messy ethics of early diagnosis - we first meet Megan on the day she discovers she has a 50-50 chance of developing it – which just happens to be on her hen night - but becomes ambivalent once given the chance to find out for sure.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Review: Lady Chastity’s Reserve, The Four Thieves Pub

“Look for my plum bottom”

Not strictly speaking an escape-the-room adventure but very much in the same arena, Handmade Mysteries’ Lady Chastity’s Reserve is a raucous take on the live team game experience and with a bottle of wine, nay an aphrodisiac, up for grabs, it has the distinction of being the first of this type that our team of regulars actually completed (who knew the incentive of alcohol was all we needed!). 

Located in the depths of The Four Thieves pub in Battersea (and a very nice pub it is too), Lady Chastity’s Reserve is a game for up to 5 players in which a series of puzzles, conundrums and clues have to be solved within the hour in order to liberate the final bottle of the “exclusive wine” for which she was famed. Guided by the idiosyncratic and slightly filthy-minded host Gabriel (who will offer up an assist or two when summoned), it’s all really rather good fun.

Review: Coming Up, Watford Palace

“You don’t know who you are”

The search for identity is one which is relatable for many people but especially to those of a mixed heritage – if some in your family support Man U and others Man City, who do you support; if one parent is Christian and the other a Jew, where does the ball drop; or as in the case of Neil D’Souza’s play for the Watford Palace Theatre Coming Up, if you’re a British-born Indian what loyalties do you have to the homeland of your parents. 

D’Souza’s Alan is a businessman whose call centres are actually based in Mumbai but despite frequent trips there, he hasn’t been visiting the family members who live there due to an estrangement with his father. After his death, Alan finally makes it to see his elderly aunt and cousin – in a marvellously awkward meeting - who give him a memoir his father wrote which allows him to revisit and confront a past with which he is remarkably at odds.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Review: State of Fear. Responsibility to…?, Southwark Playhouse

“Do you think we should...maybe...help”

Time Zone Theatre’s call for budding playwrights to respond to the current UK political climate saw over 200 writers submit work and once 7 successful entrants were chosen, they were staged as an evening at the Southwark Playhouse called State of Fear. Responsibility to…?. New writing, fresh acting talent, emerging directors and hyper-contemporary reference points, it all made for quite the sparky Sunday evening. 

My unpreparedness for the roads of Elephant and Castle being replaced meant I missed the opening two shorts, The Watchers by Jayne Woodhouse and Just Like Me by Rob Johnston. But I was able to take in the other 5 and get a good sense for the over-riding themes of the evening – a burning anger at the ruling elite (in all its forms) and a fierce indictment of societal indifference in response.

Cast/Writers of State of Fear continued

Friday, 16 October 2015

Re-review: Memphis, Shaftesbury

“Have a beer drop a time in the blind man's jar”

Never one to look a gift-horse in the mouth, the offer of a return ticket to Memphis (the show, not the place sadly) was one I was happy to accept and I was glad for it too. The show remains a hugely impressive showcase for its cast and creatives whilst never quite engaging satisfactorily enough with its subject matter (see my original review here) but the overall effect is certainly one that is entertaining and should set the show up for a successful UK tour in 2016 after it finishes in the West End.

The main change has been the arrival of X Factor winner (and stone cold fox - who knew) Matt Cardle in the cast as Huey, replacing Killian Donnelly who has headed over to Kinky Boots. And as a musical theatre debutant, he is very good indeed, slipping into the role of the fast-talking, highly charismatic DJ with great ease, nailing an adorkable charm that is most appealing. It helps that he shares great chemistry with Beverley Knight as rising star Felicia, herself now off to the latest revival of Cats, further cementing her own MT reputation.

Cast of Memphis continued

Cast of Memphis continued

Review: Richard II, Shakespeare’s Globe

“What must the king do now”

A late trip to the Globe to catch Richard II (for which I had a ticket months ago but was waylaid by an exciting game of tennis) at its final Friday matinee. It’s a little funny how this theatre programmes its runs well into Autumn, especially with the vicariousness of British weather, as there was a decided chill in the air even in the afternoon so heaven knows how it feels in the evening. It might be fine for a rip-roaring delight like Nell Gwynn but for the more measured qualities of Richard II, it’s a bit more of a challenge.

Simon Godwin’s production has had quite strong notices and is blessed with the fine Charles Edwards in the title role, but something about it never quite gripped me and so I was a tad more ambivalent than amazed. It’s a singular interpretation of the role, flippant and fabulous to the gold-plated extreme but Edwards’ performance style is so far removed from the rest of the company that it almost feels as if it belongs in another play, the emotional complexity (from everyone really) that marks this venue’s best productions doesn’t quite feel present. 

Cast of Richard II continued

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Review: Close To You: Bacharach Reimagined, Criterion

"Just take me inside your arms and hold me tight"

Now that The 39 Steps has finally come to an end after nearly a decade of successful performances, the Criterion Theatre is up for grabs again and the first show to go in there is the Menier Chocolate Factory's summer hit, the newly retitled Close To You: Bacharach Reimagined. To say I was blown away is no understatement and I couldn't recommend the show more (even with its peskily introduced interval) - my 4.5* review for Offical Theatre can be read here

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 10th January


Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Review: The Glass Menagerie, Nuffield

“I am the narrator of the play, and also a character in it”

The first of what will be three productions of The Glass Menagerie in a month for me is Samuel Hodges’ directorial debut for Southampton’s Nuffield, where he happens to be Artistic Director and CEO. And taking a detailed look at Tennessee Williams’ original script for his most affecting of memory plays, he’s come up with a strikingly original vision for his production, an overtly theatrical rumination on the nature of storytelling and its challenges, particularly when the narrative is so intimately linked to one’s own experiences, as in the strongly autobiographical elements here.

So Danny Lee Wynter’s Tom, our notable narrator, begins the play at a mixing desk in the middle of the auditorium from where he declares he has “tricks in his pocket” and to where he periodically returns to comment on and further conduct and control the telling of his story. At times he grabs a microphone and climbs to the lip of the stage, reciting his lines as his presence is mimed by the others in the scene, at times he’s fully present in the play. And later, he’s a ghostly figure hugging the wall of the theatre – watching on ashamed, appalled, agonised as his actions wreak unintended havoc on his beloved emotionally fragile sister.

Review: Merchant of Vembley, Cockpit

“The ghee that cook your dhal is as clarified as that which cooks our lamb”

Shakespeare via South Asia, why not. Shishir Kurup’s Merchant of Vembley transports Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to North West London but not only that, transposes it into the South Asian community there, pitting a Muslim minority against the Hindi majority so turning the original’s anti-Semitism into an Islamophobia that is far too recognisable in today’s society. Directed by Ajay Chowdhury for Rented Space Theatre Company, the play has been rewritten into a strikingly modern vernacular “complete with profanities, prejudices and pentameter”. 

Jeetendra (Bassanio) is a matinée idol-handsome Bollywood star whose star is fading and he’s identified marriage to heiress Pushpa (Portia) as the way to revive his flagging career. In order to avoid accusations of gold-digging, he approaches his besotted businessman friend Devendra (Antonio) in order to be able to flash the cash in wooing her but a short-term cashflow issue leads Devendra to his lender of last resort, the Muslim Sharuk (Shylock), a father struggling to deal with the wilfully independent streak of his daughter Noorani (Jessica).

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Review: In The Heights, King’s Cross Theatre

“Well you must take the A Train
Even farther than Harlem 
To northern Manhattan and maintain 
Get off at 181st, and take the escalator 
I hope you're writing this 
Down, I'm gonna test ya later” 

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stock could not be higher with his new show Hamilton taking Broadway by storm so it’s an apposite time for this belated transfer of his earlier musical In The Heights, with book written by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Undoubtedly one of the best shows of 2014, Luke Sheppard’s production blew the roof off the Southwark Playhouse and is now poised to do the same at the King’s Cross Theatre with many of the original cast and creatives returning to give us a slice of life from the New York Hispanic community of Washington Heights. 

Nothing has been lost in the move, the whole production just sparks with vivid life. From takis’ effective sidewalk design (now with added movable fire escape) to the pure joy of Drew McOnie’s choreography, the reconfigured staging releases a newer, raw energy that blooms into the space. And with Gabriella Slade’s day-glo bright costumes, the vibrant splashes of Howard Hudson’s lighting and the crispness of Gareth Owen’s sound design, complemented well by Phil Cornwell’s musical direction, Sheppard keeps the show firing excitingly at full throttle throughout.

Cast of In The Heights continued

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Review: Hangmen, Royal Court

“Don’t worry. I may have my quirks but I’m not an animal. Or am I? One for the courts to discuss.”

The term ‘dark comedy’ is much abused but there really is no better descriptor for Hangmen, Martin McDonagh’s long-awaited return to theatrical writing. Set (mostly) within the tobacco-stained walls of a proper boozer in Oldham in the 1960s on the day that Britain has abolished the death penalty, landlord Harry’s (the excellent David Morrissey) past comes back to haunt him in a big way. For he was the last hangman in the country, as evinced by a cracking prologue (that isn’t for the squeamish) that sees him and his assistant Syd go about their business.

The arrival of enigmatic Londoner Mooney (Johnny Flynn never better) is the catalyst for the plot, as Harry’s disaffected daughter becomes easy prey to his professed affections and disappears with him, round about the same time Syd reappears in Harry’s life to say something rum is going on with a serial killer who has a Southern accent. But the real joy is in the motley crew of grizzled regulars who gather in the pub and the cracking dialogue McDonagh gives them as they dance around the morbid curiosity that has called them to this pub rather than any others. 

Review: It’s Like the 60s Never Happened, Royal Court

“We seek out revolution wherever we can find it”

The Royal Court’s The Big Idea strand of work commissions a range of responses to the plays running there and with Hangmen going great guns in the main house before heading over the Wyndham’s for a well-deserved West End transfer, I headed over this Saturday afternoon for It’s Like the 60s Never Happened. Four short plays, each “imagining a world where one of the major 1960s social political or technological innovations never happened”, performed in unexpected locations on the Royal Court site.

I’ve been on a couple of similar theatrical trips here before and there’s something irresistible about getting to see the backstage nooks and crannies which are so inventively used. This time, we got to visit a rehearsal room, a little terraced garden, a stairwell and the office that sits behind those iconic red letters out front and though they may not sound the most inspirational of places, the way in which each of the directors used them really did cultivate the sense of something special.

Re-review: Showstopper, Apollo


"What's it gonna be Paul, what's it gonna be?"

The beauty of improvised musical show The Showstoppers is that you can go as many times as you want as they make it up fresh for every performance. So even though I saw two performances on their press day last week, I was more than happy to go again this Sunday evening, this time to experience the delights of Jim's Soggy Bottom


A tale of love and Russian politics in the Bake-Off tent with numbers in the style of The Boy From Oz, Sweeney Todd, Urinetown and Jesus Christ Superstar among others, it was highly entertaining as always. Ruth Bratt continues to be a hoot but Pippa Evans has been in a real rich vein of form recently to nab MVP for me. Worth a trip if you've not been yet and worth a revisit if you have!

Not-really-a-re-review: Gypsy, Savoy


A third trip to Gypsy?


My reaction on finding out it was being recorded for the BBC and also DVD


My emotional state on leaving the show and being reminded once again how sensational it is from top to bottom,
 


You've got until 28th November, no excuses.

Cast of Gypsy continued

Not-a-review: Future Conditional, Old Vic

Dipping a toe into the waters of Matthew Warchus' debut season at the Old Vic with Future Conditional

Realising that it wasn't for me, at all, really quite quickly.






Cast of Future Conditional continued

Friday, 9 October 2015

Review: Midnight, St James

“If these walls could speak, they’d probably scream”

It’s not every day that you get an invitation to a musical set in Azerbaijan so I was certainly intrigued to hear about Midnight, receiving a workshop presentation by Aloff Theatre and directed by Matthew Gould in the cosy space of the studio at the St James Theatre. With book and lyrics by Timothy Knapman and music and lyrics by Laurence Mark Wythe (probably best known for Tomorrow Morning), the musical is based on the play Citizens of Hell by Azerbaijani writer Elchin (who for a day job just happens to be the Deputy Prime Minister there!).

Set in Baku in 1937 with the Soviet Union in gripped in the midst of Stalin’s Great Terror, every knock on every door brings with it the fear of being disappeared by the NKVD. And this New Year’s Eve is no different as a husband and wife pace about their flat, debating how – or if – to celebrate when friends and neighbours have been tortured and executed. When the knock finally comes, it isn’t necessarily who they’re expecting but the eventual chilling realisation of who their visitor is and the chaos he can unleash is even worse. 

CD Review: The Light Princess (Original Cast Recording)

“No… it can’t be… is it gravity I am feeling?”

It’s been a goodly time coming, just over two years since it opened actually, but the Original Cast Recording of The Light Princess is finally here. Finely crafted by writers Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson with the original cast from the National Theatre production and recorded entirely under studio conditions, this double CD a triumphant achievement. It simultaneously acts as a perfect tribute to a much-loved show (one I saw five times during its too-short run #1#2#3#4#5), it also advances the score, refining its musicality into a more intense yet accessible experience.

Right from the opening bars of the ‘Prologue: Once Upon A Time’, Katherine Rockhill’s piano playing sounds amazing and is rightfully forefronted here as the cornerstone of Amos’ wide-ranging compositions, the lushness of the strings sound pretty special too. And with Rosalie Craig’s astonishing performance as Althea - the light princess herself - liberated from the constraints of this most physically demanding of roles (both for her and for us too, goggling at the inventiveness with which her floating was essayed), her vocal interpretation deepens into something even more affecting, impossible as it may seem to anyone who saw her amazing work onstage. 

Cast of The Light Princess continued

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Review: Measure for Measure, Young Vic

“I have a motion much imports your good”

They say things come in threes and as with Oresteias, so too with Measure for Measures. After Cheek by Jowl’s brutally contemporary Russian interpretation and Dominic Dromgoole’s comic version for the Globe, it is now Joe Hill-Gibbins’ turn to put his inimitable stamp on the play for the Young Vic. And from the industrial techno rave that opens the show to the awkward freeze-frame of the Duke’s happy ending – all done in a smidge under two hours – this is very much a modern take on Shakespeare that is bound to ruffle certain feathers whilst stimulating others.

With the licentiousness of Viennese society being represented by scores of inflatable sex toy dolls, the image of which recur throughout this whole production, and the Duke using live video relays to speak to the city, the modern-day feel is overt but non-specific, the point being we could be in any major city where a conservative regime is free to impose its puritanical fervour. And in this mise-en-scène, curated by dramaturg Zoë Svendsen and artfully framed in Miriam Buether’s box-frame set with hidden rear compartment, the story unfolds.

TV Review: Doctor Foster, BBC1

"It's just once you have the thought..."

I was late to my appointment with Doctor Foster, only getting round to watching episode 1 on Monday but I loved it so much (how could I not when the opening subtitle is "belt buckle being undone" and Bertie Carvel soon strips to his boxers) that I mainlined the next three so that I could watch the finale with the rest of the world. Written by noted playwright Mike Bartlett (King Charles III, Cock, Love Love Love amongst many others), it’s a fierce revenge drama anchored by a cracking performance from Suranne Jones as the titular medic with the errant husband.

From the moment she discovers a long blonde hair on her husband’s scarf, the scene is set for an almighty showdown but Bartlett’s skill is in stretching that moment tantalisingly over the entire series. Secret after secret tumbles out of the closet as she pulls at the thread but almost as destructive as his conduct (and Carvel is brilliantly craven as the slippery Simon) is the behaviour it unleashes in Gemma, her forthright determination cutting swathes through her employment prospects, her friends and neighbours and even her relationship with their 11-year-old son Tom.

Cast of Doctor Foster continued

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Review: The Window / Blank Pages, Hope Theatre

“I expect you to tell me what you can see”

Frank Marcus’ best-known play The Killing of Sister George will soon be revived at the London Theatre Workshop over Fulham way but right now, there’s a chance to see the first UK revival of two of his short plays at the Hope Theatre on Upper Street. And in a serendipitous turn of events, Mingled Yarn’s production is directed by Rafaella Marcus, the playwright’s granddaughter, who selected The Window and Blank Pages to present in this double bill.

In Rūta Irbīte’s elegant, existentially vague timber-framed set, Marcus Senior’s separate but interconnected tales of loneliness play out with a nigglingly insistent sense of claustrophobia, well cultivated by Marcus Junior’s astute direction. Both shorts delve into the lives of people caught in melancholy recollections of the past and how overindulgence thereof can make a prisoner of even the most outgoing of selves.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Review: Showstopper, Apollo

“We even got the dinosaurs in there"



It’s perhaps a sign of the times that an element of variety has crept into theatreland. Where the West End is usually dominated by plays and musicals, we’ve seen the likes of Vegas-style revues like Sinatra and magic shows like Impossible extend its entertainment remit and now we can add improv shows to the list and not only that, improvised musicals. Created by Adam Meggido and Dylan Emery, The Showstoppers have been making up musicals on the spot for eight years now, regulars in Edinburgh and smaller venues like the King’s Head and the Charing Cross Theatre but they’ve now made the significant leap to the Apollo on Shaftesbury Avenue.


Their routine is a simple one – a brand new show at every performance (we were invited to the matinee and the evening show to prove just that) inspired by suggestions from the audience and embroidered into life by 6 performers (from a company of 12) who literally make it up there and then. The first of the day’s shows was Puck Off, a tale of love and wings in an Irish fairy grotto with a jive-talking Puck; the second was The Lyin’ King, set in the jungle that is the Daily Mail’s offices. But in some ways, the details don’t really matter as the show is remade every night from the variety of responses from the stalls and the unexpected swerves that come in their telling. 

Monday, 5 October 2015

Review: Valhalla, Theatre503


“When it comes to pain and fear and love, we are a breed apart”

Hmm, a difficult one this. Due to the very very late withdrawal of Clint Dyer from the show, Theatre503’s Valhalla opened to critics with the playwright Paul Murphy stepping into the role, understandably performing script in hand. But whilst the ‘show must go on’ ethos is admirable, there’s no denying that forging on ahead in this manner does Jo McInnes’ production little favour, fatally unbalancing it for the moment whilst offering frustrating hints of what might have been and what might yet still be once Murphy is able to settle into the part.

It doesn’t help that I found the play, from first-time writer Murphy, difficult. Valhalla did win the 2014 Theatre503 Playwriting Award from over 1600 other submissions but its gnomic, over-saturated nature is challenging. Explorations of eugenics and genetic testing rub shoulders with hints of Nordic folklore and witchcraft as a couple flee riots in the UK for the isolation of a Scandinavian research facility where they’re on the cusp of finding a cure for a global pandemic (what a time to be alive…). But this scientific advancement comes at personal cost, the terms of which the couple thrash out.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

DVD Review: Narcopolis

“The drug is the key”

Written and directed by Justin Trefgarne, British sci-fi flick Narcopolis marks his major directing debut and on a limited budget, especially for this genre, it very much looks the part. Set in a dystopian near-future where drugs are no longer illegal but a black market still flourishes, hard-bitten cop Frank Grieves finds himself drawn into a dark mystery when he’s called onto a job. And as the dead bodies, estranged families, corporate conspiracies and mind-bending narcotics pile up, this complex case proves a tough one for Frank to crack.

With Elliot Cowan in the lead role, it should be little surprise that Narcopolis appealed to me but I do like a good sci-fi film and without a huge amount of money to spend, Trefgarne’s focus has clearly been on richly defined character interaction and it pays off. Amongst others, Cowan’s grizzled former addict has to deal with the boss he accidentally shot in the face (a wry Robert Bathurst), his adoring but neglected son (a sweet Louis Trefgarne) and mysterious woman Eva Gray (Elodie Yung) who holds many of the secrets needed to expose the truth.