Monday, 29 February 2016

Review: The Maids, Trafalgar Studios

"You don't know what I am capable of" 

Relocated to a contemporary USA and with two women of colour playing the servants, Jamie Lloyd's version of Jean Genet's The Maids becomes just as much about race as it does about class and incredibly powerfully so. The 'otherness', the 'difference' of which sisters Solange and Claire speak as they twist themselves into increasingly sadomasochistic games thus plays at an additional level and at the point when their socialite employer Madam casually, cruelly, asks Claire "which one are you, you both look the same to me", it lands with an absolute gut-punch. 

Loosely based on the real-life story of sisters Léa and Christine Papin who murdered their employer's wife and daughter in 1933, years of servitude have similarly done for Uzo Aduba's Solange and Zawe Ashton's Claire. Whilst their mistress is out, they play vicious divertissements of dress-up in her couture gowns, roleplaying both her and each other in scenarios that end in violent death. And as eventually becomes apparent in the vibrant and salty language of Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton's translation, what we're actually witnessing is less a game than a rehearsal for the real thing. 

Shakespeare Solos - Part 2

"Are you meditating on virginity?"

The Guardian's Shakespeare Solos series continues apace with its second suite of videos now released on their website and this time they're much more of a mixed bag. There's strong work from a duffle coat-clad David Threlfall as The Tempest's Prospero , mightily bearded and bedraggled but achingly eloquent too with all the heaving sorrow of revels ending. And Samuel West is an excellent Henry V, pacing the South Bank with the Houses of Parliament in full view as he experiences a restless night before launching into war. 

An unexpected delight is Sacha Dhawan taking on the role of a would-be pickup artist in a King's Cross cocktail bar to deliver Parolles' speech about virginity from All's Well That Ends Well. Dhawan is a highly charismatic performer but inhabits this role perfectly, not bad for a Shakespearean screen debut. And there's striking work from Camille O'Sullivan as King John's grief-stricken Constance, director Dan Susman capturing much of the intensity that made her Rape of Lucrece so memorable.

Nominations for 2016 Oliviers - Best Supporting Actor/Best Supporting Actress in a Musical

Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical

David Bedella in In the Heights – King's Cross
Dan Burton in Gypsy – Savoy
Peter Davison in Gypsy – Savoy
Gavin Spokes in Guys and Dolls – Savoy 

Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Musical

Lara Pulver in Gypsy – Savoy
Preeya Kalidas in Bend It Like Beckham – Phoenix
Amy Lennox in Kinky Boots – Adelphi
Emma Williams in Mrs Henderson Presents – Noël Coward

As with the main prize, I think this is Pulver's for the taking but I'd like Kalidas to nick it on the night. And for the guys, Bedella would be a dream win but I think it is Gypsy's night do probably Dan Burton's twinkling toes will win.

Nominations for 2016 Oliviers - Best Supporting Actor/Best Supporting Actress

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Mark Gatiss in Three Days in the Country – National Theatre Lyttelton
Michael Pennington in The Winter's Tale – Garrick
Tom Sturridge in American Buffalo – Wyndham's
David Suchet in The Importance of Being Earnest – Vaudeville

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Judi Dench in The Winter's Tale – Garrick
Michele Dotrice in Nell Gwynn – Apollo
Melody Grove in Farinelli and the King – Duke of York's
Catherine Steadman in Oppenheimer – Vaudeville

A world of hell no for the actor category, I'm embarrassed that Suchet is in here, and only Gatiss stood out for me, so he's my pick. And Dench is undoubtedly a shoo-in but Dotrice is the real scene-stealing delight.

Nominations for 2016 Oliviers - Best Actor/Best Actress in a musical

Best Actor in a Musical

Matt Henry in Kinky Boots – Adelphi
Ian Bartholomew in Mrs Henderson Presents – Noël Coward
Killian Donnelly in Kinky Boots – Adelphi
David Haig in Guys and Dolls – Savoy
Jamie Parker in Guys and Dolls – Savoy

Best Actress in a Musical

Imelda Staunton in Gypsy – Savoy
Tracie Bennett in Mrs Henderson Presents – Noël Coward
Natalie Dew in Bend It Like Beckham – Phoenix
Laura Pitt-Pulford in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – Regent's Park Open Air
Sophie Thompson in Guys and Dolls – Savoy

Dame Imelda will surely sweep all before her but it would be nice to see Natalie Dew sneak in for the much-maligned Bend It..., and I suspect Matt Henry will take the Best Actor crown and I'm entirely OK with that.

Nominations for 2016 Oliviers - Best Actor/Best Actress

Best Actor

Kenneth Cranham in The Father – Wyndham's
Kenneth Branagh in The Winter's Tale – Garrick
Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet – Barbican
Adrian Lester in Red Velvet – Garrick
Mark Rylance in Farinelli and the King – Duke of York's

Best Actress

Denise Gough in People, Places and Things – National Theatre Dorfman
Gemma Arterton in Nell Gwynn – Apollo
Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51 – Noël Coward
Janet McTeer in Les Liaisons Dangereuses – Donmar Warehouse
Lia Williams in Oresteia – Almeida

Disappointingly star-heavy (I mean, it wasn't bad but does anyone really rate Cumberbatch's Hamlet that much, or Kidman's performance for that matter...). Kenneth Cranham and Lia Williams would be my picks here.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Review: Beyond the Fence, Arts

"We are Greenham"

For all the hoopla surrounding the genesis of Beyond the Fence - "a musical conceived by computer and substantially crafted by computer" - one does have to wonder would any of us have noticed had we not been informed in advance. The show is the product of a wide-ranging experiment to use artificial intelligence (including a computer system called Android Lloyd Webber) to crunch actual intelligence (about well over 1,000 musicals) to come up with the ideal book, music and lyrics for a machine-tooled West End hit.

Naturally, it isn't quite as simple as that as the extensive credits (included below for your convenience) demonstrate, the results of all this considerable data analysis actually being shaped or curated into fully fledged musical theatre form by human hands, specifically those of Benjamin Till and Nathan Taylor (they who made their nuptials into Our Gay Wedding: The Musical). Thus Beyond the Fence was born, the response to the statistically-most-likely-to-come-up-with-a-winner scenario "what if a wounded soldier had to learn how to understand a child in order to find true love?"

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Review: Simon Lipkin, Jon Robyns and Giles Terera, Orange Tree

"Thank God we're not in Thriller"

The Orange Tree Theatre continues to ring the changes under Paul Miller's reign with their Orange Tree Extras, a series of varied one night theatre, comedy, music and spoken word events. This week has already seen Barb Jungr sing Nina Simone and Tim Crouch reprise his I, Malvolio but it was the promise of cabaret from original Avenue Q cast members Simon Lipkin, Jon Robyns and Giles Terera that tempted me out to Richmond.

Avenue Q is a show that I loved with all of my heart when it arrived in the West End, making seven trips across the four years of its various cast and theatre changes. And though I have enjoyed the touring versions that have emerged since, there's nothing quite like the original and so the news that Lipkin and Robyns would be bringing along Princeton, Nicky, Rod and Trekie Monster along with them was music to my ears, YAYYY as the Bad Idea Bears might have said!

Friday, 26 February 2016

TV Review: Crashing Series 1, Channel 4

"Everyone fucks everyone, eventually"

I wrote here about the first episode of Crashing, Phoebe Waller-Bridge's sitcom for Channel 4, and though it didn't really float my boat, I did persevere with the rest of the series. Truth be told though, it was just more of the same - I continued to like what I liked about it and similarly, what substantially rubbed me up the wrong way continued to bug me.

Namely, the thoroughly unlikeable nature of Waller-Bridge's self-played lead Lulu, crashing into the lives of old friend Anthony and his fiancée Kate and doing her utmost to fuck up their relationship in order to act on their hitherto unexplored lifelong sexual tension. Not that characters have to be likeable to be good but I found nothing redeemable in Lulu, just a thoroughly obnoxious selfishness that turned me off pretty much the whole show.

Review: Antigone, Hope

"What man would dare disobey?"

It's either brave or foolhardy for a theatre on Upper Street to take on Sophocles after the extraordinary success of the #AlmeidaGreeks season but the Hope Theatre, perched above the Hope and Anchor pub, has always forged its own path, ever since opening as the first Off-West-End venue to ensure a legal wage for everyone working at the theatre. And in Brendan Murray's new adaptation of Antigone, there's an original take indeed on the Ancient Greeks, helmed by the Hope's Artistic Director Matthew Parker.

The story begins as just that, a story. Behind walls of corrugated iron, 5 women shelter from some unspecified war or apocalyse raging outside and to pass the time, they decide to enact a tale from the storybook that one of them possesses. And so unfolds Antigone's struggle against a patriarchal society, Creon's dilemmas about doing the right thing even in the face of divine intervention, Ismene's difficulties in connecting with so fiercely committed a sister... Aided by sonically daring musical interventions for a sung Chorus by Maria Haïk Escudero, it's a powerful setting.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Review: A Midsummer Night;s Dream, Filter at Lyric Hammersmith

"Keith, KEITH, it's just two fellas kissing"

There was a moment towards the end of this performance, as Ferdy Robert's burly roadie of a Puck launched into his epilogue, that perfectly encapsulates just how brilliant Filter are and also what magical power theatre can weave over even the rowdiest teenagers. Roberts began "if we shadows have offended" and was interrupted by loud, almost nervous, laughter. He looked up, gently but unflinchingly at the young woman and her friend until they quietened down, and then continued, addressing them directly at first and then widening out to the auditorium as a whole, our entire attention rapt.

It's no mean feat to keep a theatre full of schoolkids hooked in silence (I attended the final preview), especially when the nature of this production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is so raucous and riotous. It played the Lyric Hammersmith back in 2012 and if it doesn't have quite the same multiple surprise element as before, it is still highly amusing second time round. Co-directors Sean Holmes and Stef O'Driscoll have condensed the play right down with the company and reconstructed it in their own image, at once deeply respectful of Shakespeare yet also utterly anarchic in the way it is presented here.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Review: Cleansed, National

"Felt it.
Here. Inside. Here."

I think I have to admit to liking the idea of Katie Mitchell more than the reality. In the build-up to each appearance her productions makes on these shores, long-form pieces emerge, delving into her practise, and some of the mystery behind why she has become so totemic a figure in European theatre yet still regarded with some suspicion by parts of the British establishment (qv this piece in the Guardian). And I think yeah, she is different but maybe this time I'll get it, maybe this time instead of just being challenged as an audience member, I'll feel connected to her work too.

Safe to say though that Sarah Kane's Cleansed was not the production for this breakthrough to occur. A notable event in marking Kane's debut at the National Theatre and also a long-awaited return for Mitchell to the main programme on the South Bank after years of being frozen out by Hytner's reluctance to let her loose on anything but children's shows, it is naturally a hugely challenging event. Warnings abound of graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence, fainters have been reported at several performances (I reckon at least a couple of those must have been faking it just to get early release though), once again we ain't in Kansas.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Review: Four Play, Theatre503

"So why did you pick him?"

Having got together early on in their uni days, Rafe and Pete are suffering something of a seven year itch. More specifically they’re wondering what it would be like to be with someone else sexually and so they’ve invited their friend Michael around with their own indecent proposal – a night with each of them, separately, to satisfy their curiosity, of which they will then never speak again. Naturally though, the course of sexual experimentation never does run smooth, especially once Michael’s partner Andrew is factored into the equation.

Jake Brunger’s Four Play – first commissioned by the Old Vic New Voices scheme – sees a bit of a leap from his last work, the musical adaptation of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ at Leicester's Curve, but you can still see the connections in the emotional knots that people end up tying themselves into. Rafe and Pete’s intensely committed relationship may contrast with the more open partnership between Michael and Andrew but at the heart of the problems that spiral out of the formers’ proposition, is a similar lack of honesty about what each wants when it comes to sex, love and commitment.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Review: The War of the Worlds, Dominion

“I can't believe people were sat there as if it was any other evening” 

You have to love the creative process that ends with the thought ‘we need Jimmy Nail’, but Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds really isn't like any other show. A quick glimpse at the casts of previous arena tours, of which there have been many, gives a bit of insight as to their mindset – (former) pop stars like Westlife's Brian McFadden, Jason Donovan and Atomic Kitten's Liz McClarnon, reality show offcasts like Rhydian, even the Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson – now a judge on The Voice – has got in on the act. And now The War of the Worlds has landed at the Dominion Theatre and the casting has gotten no less random.

This time, I think someone came across a copy of Now 51 in a charity shop and so we have Daniel Bedingfield and former Sugababe Heidi Range making their West End debuts, alongside original cast member David Essex (whose character is naturally named The Voice of Humanity), Michael Praed and Madalena Alberto who, as per the poster, has the ridiculous snub of being the only one not to get a headshot (though she will be used to billing controversies in this theatre by now). And then there’s Jimmy Nail who at 61 gets Range, 32, as his wife…, it all makes for an oddly compelling though deeply strange affair. 

Cast of The War of the Worlds continued

Review: Poppy + George, Watford Palace

“If this is indeed where you were heading, then it appears with all success you have arrived"

There’s something rather gorgeous at the heart of Poppy + George, a recognition that even passing acquaintances can leave as lasting impressions as the deepest of friendships; a reminder too that even if a play can be over and done with in a couple of hours, its impact can linger far beyond. So it is for the group of people who find each other in Diane Samuels’ new play for the Watford Palace Theatre, with music by Gwyneth Herbert.

Their safe haven is a warehouse deep in the East End in 1919, where Russian Jewish (with a bit of Chinese) tailor Smith plies his trade and entertains his friends nattily dressed chauffeur George Sampson and Great War veteran Tommy Johns who is trying to resurrect his fading music hall career. Into their world comes Poppy Wright, a Northern girl looking for a fresh start from a life in service, though the love she finds turns out not to be quite what she expected.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, National

“This is an empty world without the blues“

The title might be something of a misnomer in that there ain’t a whole lot of Ma Rainey in this play but that shouldn’t detract from the extraordinary power of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, part of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle of plays examining each decade of the twentieth century African American experience. And Dominic Cooke’s production for the National Theatre loses nothing of its urgency, it may have been written in 1984 about 1927 but its incendiary racial politics are sadly just as pertinent in 2016.

 Rainey was one of the first professional singers of the blues and among the first to be recorded but the play opens with the ‘Mother of The Blues’ singular in her absence. Her manager and studio manager, both white, are fretting about her lateness and how financially dependent on her records they are and downstairs in the rehearsal basement, the four black men who make up her band are shooting the breeze as they gear up for some music-making. But as the wait grows longer, patience wears thinner and long-ingrained injustices start to bubble to the fore.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Review: Andy Capp The Musical, Finborough

"I ought to be ashamed of myself"

So sings Andy Capp throughout his eponymous turn in Andy Capp The Musical, a knowing nod to thoroughly misogynistic nature of the character and its unremitting political incorrectness. And it is this that emerges as the strangest thing about making a musical out of him, rather than the fact that it is based on a feather-light comic strip by Reg Smythe that has long blessed the pages of the Daily Mirror. For the show emerges as something really rather charming, even whilst Capp remains thoroughly unreconstructed.

A workshy native of Hartlepool, where he's managed over 30 years without a job, Capp chooses instead to rely on wife Flo's earnings for his considerable beer money, lavishing more attention on his racing pigeons than her. With illustrated stories that are generally just three panels long, Trevor Peacock's book thus has to open out the story to the friends and neighbours around them, counterpointing a flashpoint of marital strife with the forthcoming nuptials of Capp's nephew Elvis and the lovely Raquel. And this it does well.

Review: Hand To God, Vaudeville

“You're so far back in the closet, you're in Narnia”

For someone who really isn’t a fan of puppets, I do see an awful lot of shows with them in. But I should clarify that I’m ok with more muppety types (hence loving Avenue Q and more recently The Lorax) and so I reckoned I’d be safe with the latest Broadway import to hit the West End – Hand To God. But whether its Avenue Q meets The Book of Mormon or Sesame Street meets The Exorcist, depending on which poster you read, its firmly adult nature is in no doubt.

Harry Melling’s Jason is a young man grieving his father. His religious mother, Janie Dee’s Margery, has pressganged him into joining a church group but when he helps out with their puppet show, the consequences for all concerned are most extreme. As the sock puppet companion he creates, Tyrone, quickly becomes a conduit for all of Jason’s repressed teenage emotions, whether lust for Jemima Rooper’s downbeat Jessica or retaliation towards Kevin Mains’ bullying Timothy, the puppet takes on a manic life of its own.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Review: The Spanish Tragedy, Old Red Lion

"Where words fail, violence prevails"

You enter the Old Red Lion for Thomas Kyd's Elizabethan revenge thriller The Spanish Tragedy to find that Dexter Morgan has been on the case. Lizzie Leech's design for the auditorium has it bleached out in antiseptic white, meat hooks hanging front and centre, strips of opaque plastic hanging from the ceiling facilitating the swift despatch of bodies. For there's a goodly deal of despatching that needs to be done by the time this bloodthirsty lot is done.

Dan Hutton's production condenses the text down to 85 minutes (and presumably even less, given "additional material by the company" is also credited) but the frame of the story remains intact, with a nifty bit of gender-swapping to boot. Lorenzo (maybe) loves Balthazar who loves Bel-Imperia who loves Horatio, so Lorenzo has Horatio killed which doesn't sit too well with Hieronimo, his mother who vows revenge. But not Revenge, who is also present in human form along with a ghost called Andrea.

Review: Das Spiel: Are You Part Of The Game?, VAULT Festival

“Spiel, spiel, spiel”

With The X-Files returning to our TV screens, there's never been a better time to want to believe but dear readers, I'm a bit of a sceptic. When it comes to the world of magic and mentalism, something dourly pragmatic wins out and so even when I was offered tickets to Darren Brown's latest show I turned them down - it's all a fix I protested. But let it not be said that I'm entirely closed-minded and so when the info for Das Spiel: Are You Part Of The Game? crossed my path, I opted to take the plunge. It fit neatly into my evenings schedule at the Vault festival and at just an hour, it was a risk I was willing to take.

And I'm glad I did as it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Philipp Oberlohr's mind reading show aims 'at the crossover between magic and theatre' but works essentially as a piece of entertainment down to the undeniable and undimmed charm of the man himself. He plays the role of the disingenuous foreigner perfectly, disarming doubters and deniers with a bashful smile here and a quip about linguistic frailties there, and thus he sets the scene wonderfully for The Game.

Review: Don’t Waste Your Bullets On The Dead, VAULT Festival

“We need stability, not creative parenting”

If there’s one thing theatre loves, it is plays about theatre itself. You can find the likes of Red Velvet and Nell Gwynn in the West End right now but in the more vibrant land of the VAULT Festival, Freddie Machin is presenting his own contemporary take on the issue in Don’t Waste Your Bullets On The Dead. Feisty and fresh, it feels like ideal festival fare, bulging at the seams with exuberant imagination.

Theatre director Ellen BIllington has been struggling to find work and her personal life is suffering too with lovemaking with her partner strictly regimented to ovulation cycles. When a chance encounter with an old colleague and a playwriting competition results in a swift commission and temporary escape to a backwater Massachusetts town, she thinks all she needs to do is let inspiration do its work but life, and art, are rarely that simple.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Review: Uncle Vanya, Almeida

“Here’s Johnny”

How do you follow the earth-shattering success of a show like Oresteia? With difficulty it seems. Having deconstructed and reconstructed the Greeks, Robert Icke turns his hand to Chekhov with Uncle Vanya. But the world is hardly suffering from a lack of Vanyas and it’s hard to escape the feeling that Icke is treading a relatively similar creative path in the way that it treats the classic text. Yes, I’m essentially complaining about too much of a good thing, as it is still a very strong production but Oresteia was so extraordinary, that this inevitably pales by comparison

As is his wont, Icke's Uncle Vanya is presented in a new version by Icke, a new translation aimed at replicating the disrupted rhythms of Chekhov’s Russian speech patterns, a largely successful enterprise. As are the soliloquies that each of the leading players are granted, casting new and interesting light on characters that are familiar (especially Sonya’s Act 4 speech). Jessica Brown Findlay scorches as the unfulfilled Sonya, Vanessa Kirby is exceptional as a passionate Elena, Tobias Menzies’ Michael (Astrov) achingly appealing as the idealist losing the courage of his convictions. 

Friday, 12 February 2016

Review: Nell Gwynn, Apollo

"The girl in this tale isn't quite half as predictable"

Jessica Swale's Nell Gwynn took the Globe by storm last autumn so it was delightful news to hear that it would transfer into the West End. Sadly, it wasn't able to hold onto Gugu Mbatha-Raw as its leading lady (nor the riotously scene-stealing Amanda Lawrence as her lady) but in finding Gemma Arterton to take over the role, Christopher Luscombe has ensured that the production makes the journey seamlessly as she is simply stunning in the role. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Tristram Kenton
Booking until 30th April


Cast of Nell Gwynn continued

Thursday, 11 February 2016

In appreciation of…our elders and betters #2

It's a little while I did the first version of In appreciation of…our elders and betters, part of my infrequent Collection series, but the piles of DVDs were mounting up and the opening of Escaped Alone - starring four absolute stalwarts of the British theatre and written by one too - seemed like as good a time as any to do the second.

I should acknowledge the support, practically the sponsorship, from Boycotting Trends in helping build up my collection of films starring the older generation. And stretching over a good few years of film-making, it is interesting to see how the overly genteel likes of Ladies in Lavender and My House in Umbria have been largely eased out (though not completely, as per My Old Lady) in favour of more nuanced takes on the ageing process.

45 Years, Late Bloomers and Le Week-end all look at the kinks that can emerge even in the longest of relationships, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel expands in a rather lovely way on the work of the original and saving the best for last, Love is Strange and Last Chance Harvey are two differently glorious examples of the confounding nature of life and how love can help us through it.

Review: Road Show, Union

“Carelessness and being free of care,
Aren't they the same?”

Since its inception in 1999, Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show - with book by John Weidman - has undergone considerable rehabilitation, not least three title changes, and so has rarely been seen on this side of the Atlantic. John Doyle transferred his Off-Broadway production to the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2011 for its European premiere but this is the first UK revival since then, director Phil Willmott continuing a mini-residency at the Union after last month’s fine Fear and Misery of the Third Reich

But where the episodic nature of Brecht’s storytelling worked well, Road Show is less successful in stringing together its vignettes of chasing the American Dream into something more affectingly substantial. The show follows the contrasting but always connected lives of brothers Wilson and Addison Meisner (per the programme) as they seek to parlay guts and gumption into something more, taking unsuspecting benefactors, love interests and easy marks along for the ride.

Cast of Road Show continued

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

TV Review: Happy Valley, Series 2 Episode 1

"This is sheep-rustling, north-Halifax style - just the one sheep and three lads off their heads on acid"

One of the televisual highlights of 2014 was Sally Wainwright's Happy Valley, anchored by an astonishing central performance from Sarah Lancashire as pragmatic Yorkshire sergeant Catherine Cawood. So the return of a second series on BBC One is good news indeed, especially given Wainwright's decision to also direct considerably more of the episodes this time round.

It's obvious from the off that she is entirely at the top of her game. Reintroducing the startlingly mordant vein of humour on't'moor, this opening sequence sees Cawood recounting a day's work to her sister, namely sheep-rustling gone unfortunately wrong on a housing estate but leading to an even grimmer discovery, one which links directly back to James Norton's Tommy Lee Royce, the father of her grandson after raping her daughter (who then committed suicide) and Catherine's nemesis from the first series.

Cast of Happy Valley continued

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Review: In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises), Gate

“Somewhere there’s a woman and
somewhere close, a man”

Nina Segal’s debut play In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises) begins with a couple bursting free out of shrink-wrapped confines, plastic film their amniotic sac from which they emerge with their tales of new-born woes. The problem is their new-born though, a baby daughter who just won’t stop crying and over the duration of one long, long night, they have their certainties well and truly rocked by the realisation of exactly what they have taken on as new parents in today’s world.

As Man and Woman recount the story first of how they met, then how they moved in together and soon found themselves expecting, we’re introduced to Segal’s poetic writing style of almost duelling narratives (“A woman and a man meet in a street/ A woman and a man meet in a bar”), a storytelling game to amuse their infant and whose rhetoric is designed to make connections for the audience. For the angst they’re feeling in the nursery is amplified by a sense that the horrors of the world outside are seeping in – baby’s first existential crisis.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Re-review: Time Run, London Fields

"Listen to Babbage"

One of my favourite discoveries last year was the plethora of escape-the-room games in London, sparked off by a trip to Time Run over in London Fields. It was a hugely enjoyable experience and you can read about it - well as much as I could say in a spoiler-free manner - in this review here. So I was delighted to get the opportunity to go back again and see if we could get any closer to completing the range of challenges that are posed for you.

For the uninitiated, Time Run is a game for teams of 3-5 people, lasting an hour, in which you have to solve a quest of historic importance that stretches across time and space - think along the lines of The Crystal Maze and you're not too far off, just with less Richard O'Brien. And it remains an excellently conceptualised piece of entertainment - from its quirky beginnings to the neat introductions to the superbly executed production values.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Review: Weald, Finborough

“The earth sings when he touches it”

The slow decline of the English rural economy and the way of life that accompanies it has proved a fruitful one for playwrights and it is a subject to which Daniel Foxsmith has turned, drawing on his own brief experiences in a livery yard, for his third play Weald for Snuff Box Theatre. And hand in hand with this changing world come questions about our place within it, once clearly defined gender roles now more fluid, Foxsmith suggesting that modern masculinity is in crisis for both young and old in this intriguing two-hander directed by Bryony Shanahan. 

Now in his 50s, grizzled and weatherbeaten, Sam has worked the yard as long as he can remember but life seems to be passing him by – his wife has left him and he’s sold off the farmhouse to make ends meet. And it’s a life to which Jim, a 25-year-old full of cocky swagger, has returned, after flying the coop six years ago for life in London. There’s much history between the pair, not least in the manner of Jim’s parting and as he wangles his way back into his old job, secrets old and new start to spill forth like imaginary animal feed into a bucket. 

Review: Red Velvet, Garrick

" begrimed and black as mine own face"

For all the excitement of Kenneth Branagh's announcement of his year long residency at the Garrick, the programme was lacking a certain diversity. So it's pleasing to see that the Tricycle Theatre's production of Red Velvet has been slotted in for a month, featuring a barnstorming lead performance from Adrian Lester and a fascinating insight into a piece of sorely neglected theatrical history.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Review: Rabbit Hole, Hampstead

“People want things to make sense”

Anchored by a barnstorming central turn from Imelda Staunton (as if there were any other kind), David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People was a huge success for the Hampstead Theatre, so they’ve returned to this American playwright with his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Rabbit Hole. The suburban comforts of Becca and Howie Corbett’s family life are wrecked when their four-year-old Danny is killed in a road accident outside their home. Tragedy swallows them whole and grief tears them apart, the divergence in their individual journeys threatening what’s left of their family. 

The 2006 Broadway run got multiple Tony nominations and won for lead Cynthia Nixon and in 2011, the superb film adaptation garnered an Academy Award nomination for Nicole Kidman, so the stakes could be considered high for Outnumbered star Claire Skinner here. Edward Hall’s production never quite launches into the stratosphere though; whereas Good People depicted an authentic-feeling US working class life, Rabbit Hole’s middle class milieu doesn't convince, too stagily British for its own good.

Review: The Winter’s Tale, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

“Thou metst with things dying,
I with things new-born”

It’s easy to feel a little jaded when it comes to Shakespeare, the same plays coming round with regularity and not always inspiring such great theatre. So I’m delighted to report that Michael Longhurst’s production of The Winter’s Tale for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is probably the best version of the play I’ve ever seen. The Kenneth Branagh Company’s The Winter’s Tale was a staid disappointment for me, previously the Crucible had let me down too but in the candlelit atmosphere on Bankside, something truly magical is happening.

It’s a tricky play to get right in its split of two very different worlds but where Longhurst really succeeds is in suggesting that Sicilia and Bohemia perhaps aren’t too separate at all. Modern designers often highlight the dichotomy between the chilly stateliness of Leonte’s Sicilia with the freewheeling japery of Polixenes’ Bohemia but in the simplicity of Richard Kent’s design, they’re both very much on the same sliding scale - psychological darkness pervading the light in both worlds, the promise of redemption ultimately illuminating one and the other too.

Cast of The Winter's Tale continued

Guest review: The Girls, Lowry

There's not many people I'd let have a guest review on here but Robert Foster, aka my father, is certainly one of them. I was (pleasantly) surprised when he (and my mum and Aunty Jean) declared that they had really enjoyed The Girls in Manchester and so I thought it would be fun to contrast our reactions - here's my own review from Leeds and read on for his.

"Look in the eye of your dear fucker uppers"

There cannot be many of you out there who do not know the real-life story of the Calendar Girls. It made national news at the time; the film has been around for more than a decade; and the stage play followed not long behind. Now, author Tim Firth has joined forces with Gary Barlow of Take That (a popular beat combo, m’lud) in a musical version, which mysteriously has shed the ‘Calendar’ and is just called The Girls. For those recently returned from Mars, the story is set in a small Yorkshire town where Annie loses her husband, John, to cancer. Her best friend, Chris, and other Women’s Institute friends rally round to find a way to pay tribute to the man they all loved and decide on a nude calendar. The profits will buy a new settee for the Relatives Room at the hospital where John was treated.

Could this story stand yet another retelling? Well, my answer is a resounding if slightly surprised yes. Firth and Barlow have created a richly entertaining evening, at times gentle, sad and moving whilst being overwhelmingly joyous and funny.

Cast of The Girls continued

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Review: The Meeting, Hampstead Downstairs

“It’s all a question of perception”

Opening up 2016 downstairs at Hampstead, Andrew Payne’s The Meeting starts off brightly as a sharp office-set comedy where a crucial deal looks set to be torpedoed when one of the key parties has to be escorted from the premises after suffering an emotional breakdown. Denis Lawson’s production has fun with corporate behaviour and its nameless threats (“there’s been murmurs on the 10th floor”) but is perhaps a little less sure-footed when it then tackles sexism in the boardroom.

Cleverly, for all the talk of concepts and options, entry level kits and secondary licensing, we never find out exactly what it is the beleaguered Stratton and youthfully belligerent Cole do. For The Meeting is more about the way they behave – with each other, with Frank from upstairs, with the various unseen women in their lives, and with Ellen, who is stepping in for the indisposed Jack and disrupting the old boys’ network on which they had been relying for an easy time of it.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Shakespeare Solos - Part 1

"But I do think it is their husbands’ faults if wives do fall"

There's going to be a lot of Shakespearean content coming our way in the next couple of months as we approach the 400th anniversary of his death and the Guardian have got in early with the first part of their Shakespeare Solos. Six leading actors performing favourite monologues from the Bard, directed by Dan Susman, it's all rather luxurious, especially when we get the delights of Eileen Atkins in beautifully conversational mode as Othello's Emilia, Adrian Lester returning to Hamlet and Roger Allam whetting the appetite for a King Lear which will surely be one of the wonders of the modern world once it happens.

And if a couple of the choices here smack a little of sneaky advertising, then so what. Better to have opportunities for people to book and see more if they are so inspired by these clips. Atkins is reprising her solo show at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and Ayesha Dharker (here as Titania) will open in the RSC's mammoth tour of A Midsummer Night's Dream later this month. It might not be Hamlet but Adrian Lester can be seen being differently Shakespearean in Red Velvet and most tenuously of all though still thoroughly theatrical, David Morrissey (a hypnotic Richard III) can be seen for another month in Hangmen.

Review: i know all the secrets in my world, West Herts College


When one suffers from a traumatic loss, there can be no words to get you through the day. Which is acknowledged by Natalie Ibu's i know all the secrets in my world as barely a word is spoken between the two main characters. And equally true is the fact that life has to go on for those left behind, no matter how hard it may seem, which is what Ibu shows us in this story of a father and son struggling to deal with the loss of a wife and mother.

The strength of their relationship, in all its playful beauty, is played out in a gorgeous prologue around the breakfast table, Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster's movement perfectly choreographed. But then darkness falls and their world is broken, literally so as Alyson Cummins' cramped apartment set cracks open and from then on, Solomon Israel's father is left to deal with an all-encompassing grief that is smothering him and his young son, played with athletic grace by Samuel Nicholas.