Monday, 18 June 2018

Theatre Review: My Name Is Lucy Barton

Guys, I think I’ve found The One. No, not that The One. A more important The One: the play that was written specifically for me.

My Name Is Lucy Barton, currently playing at The Bridge, is an adaptation by Rona Munro (who I adore) of Elizabth Strout’s book of the same name. It tells part of the story of Lucy Barton, an American country girl who escapes a poor and traumatic childhood to make it as a successsful writer in New York. Lucy has chosen which part of her story to tell us, and it is that of a reunion with her almost estranged mother whilst Lucy recovers from a serious illness. Except it’s more than that, obviously. It’s really the story of what it means to be a child - as in, what it means to have parents - and the complicated mess of feelings inherent in that relationship. Whether we want to recognise them or not.

I loved this play. I cannot adequately tell you how beautiful I thought it was, how humane, how vividly drawn. I haven’t read the book (yet - I went out immediately after the show and bought it*) so I don’t know whether it’s Strout, Munro or, as I suspect, both to thank for this but my god they deserve fulsome thanks. There’s such technical deftness to it too, especially in the way it frequently flips between being laugh out loud funny and cry out loud sad within the space of a single line. It’s just an extraordinary thing. More so when you consider that it’s been adapted as a one woman play which contains at least three distinct character voices. 

Thematically, I found it astonishingly powerful. The depth with which it explores the parent-child relationship is incredible, moving and I rather suspect the sort of thing that many therapists earn a lot of money to discuss with their clients over months of sessions. It’s a profoundly moving piece, for me no more so than when it considers the many more or less inherent ways a child - particularly a child who’s moved away from their parents - has to deal with the guilt of separation. As a child who’s moved away, and an only child to boot, let me tell you: fucking hell it’s on the money. Frankly a bit too on the money. Leaving the theatre, I had to put my headphones in and turn my music up LOUD to shut out my interior monologue. Mild PTSD aside, this piece spoke to me, and made me feel much more deeply, in a way that no show has before. And I can’t shake it. Which is amazing. This is what great theatre is supposed to do. 

To the surprise of literally no one at this point, The Bridge’s production is pure class. Richard Eyre directs and is on the sort of form you expect from someone of his pedigree with his warm, generous and gorgeous production. He casts an eye of huge experience over procedings, steps back and allows the writing and the performance space to breathe. He adds nothing unecessary. There are no frills here, because no frills are required. That said, everything still looks and sounds stunning. Bob Crowley’s stripped back design - a bare thrust stage, just a chair, a hospital bed and a video screen for backdrop - is exactly the right amount of non-existent. Luke Hall’s beautiful video design fills said screen with simple, scene-setting imagery which is all the show needs. And when it doesn’t need them anymore, they are simply turned off. This is supremely confident work from a team who clearly recognise the talent of their writers and performer.

Speaking of whom, I can probably just end this post now by reminding you that the performer in question is Laura Linney. I mean, do you really need me to tell you she was good? She’s not just good, of course. She’s pretty much perfect. She thoroughly embodies all of the various characters that we meet - Lucy Barton, Lucy’s version of her mum, Lucy’s version of her doctor - but especially Lucy herself. It’s a performance of such warmth and heart and depth that I’d argue it’s impossible not to fall in love with it, and with Linney, unless there’s something broken in your soul. It’s a gift of a performance. An utter joy.

As is this whole production. It is, as I’ve already noted, a genuinely great piece of theatre and a genuinely great feat of theatre making. And I just really, really loved it. 

My Name Is Lucy Barton is at The Bridge until Saturday 23rd June, ie this Saturday. Tickets are now unsurprisingly sold out expect for returns and day seats. Get in that queue immediately.

My seat for this one was L54 in Gallery 1 which cost me £35. Worth noting that day seats are just £15. 

*If you wish to do the same, and purchase it from a theatre bookshop, The Bridge has sold out but the NT Bookshop hasn’t.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Theatre Review: An Octoroon

Occasionally, a show comes along that is so brilliantly mad and/or unclassifiable that you know that the resulting blogpost is going to be something of an ordeal, in the nicest possible way, to write.

Like, how do you communicate that you love a show - and crucially why you love it - when you struggle to explain it even in your head? If long form blogging is supposed to be, and I believe it is, the way you would describe a show if you were talking about it down the pub then how do you write the equivalent of tipsily shouting at your friends ‘I love it and I will fight you if you disagree’? Let’s find out together shall we...

An Octoroon, recently produced by Richmond’s lovely Orange Tree Theatre and now thankfully brought into town for a run in the NT’s Dorfman, is a big, brave, boisterous piece by American playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins that explores issues around race and drama. It’s also a weird, occasionally (intentionally?) baffling, never-seen-anything-like-this-before thing that I’m still processing days later. It’s achingly clever, and fabulously bizarre. I loved it, even the bits I don’t really know that I understood.

What BJJ - as he’s known in the character list, because things get meta from the very start - does so cleverly is create a show that speaks so eloquently of the historical challenges (to understate spectacularly) that black Americans faced, links them to those that they still face and - specifically - those faced by a black playwright. I enjoyed immensely the way he takes a well aimed sledgehammer to the idea that some (white) critics and (white) audiences have of ‘the black playwright’, ‘the black play’, ‘the black actor’ and ‘the black character’. The structure of the piece is so clever, the best use of the ‘play within a play’ setup that I’ve ever seen. Essentially, the idea is that we’re watching a modern black playwright’s update of a white playwright’s slavery-era race play, but, he informs us, said modern playwright can’t find white actors willing to be in it (because who wants to play a slaver?) and so he’s decided to play the white parts himself, in whiteface makeup. We then meet the original white playwright - Dion Boucicault, real life author of the original An Octoroon - who fills us in on how he can’t find enough black actors to play the black parts so his (Native American) assistant will be blacking up to play one whilst Boucicault himself will be painting himself red to play a Native American Chief. 

It’s a bold and challenging idea which could be so, so tacky were it not for the skill of BJJ’s writing. There is not a single word in his script that is throwaway or unnecessary. Everything is planned, weighted and reasoned to the extent that it seems 100% not to be. An Octoroon is very funny - it is, at its heart, a satire - but it is also very serious and neither of these things are ever lost sight of. When it gets a bit meta, where things could get very pretentious indeed, it keeps its feet firmly on the ground through the play within a play structure and the use of the characters of BJJ and Boucicault as narrators who puncture any notions of luvviness and OTT theatricality immediately. A great example is in the final scenes of the play where they explain the nature of the ‘sensation scene’ and why all the big effects and melodrama are kind of nonsense that deserve to be dismantled even as the play with a play indulges in them. It’s a great sequence in a great play, much better than my shitty explanation suggests, and I totally fell for it.

It is matched by an equally strong production. Director Ned Bennett delivers something so sure footed, confident and innovative; by far the most innovative thing I’ve seen at the NT I think. Georgia Lowe’s design is sparse but incredibly effective and employs some great theatrical tricks for our authors to play with and explain. Elliot Griggs’ lighting is incredible, especially his counterintuitive and liberal use of darkness (usually complete darkness, even sans emergency exit signs) which is so disorientating and sometimes quite threatening. Strobe and bright red lights are used to similar effect elsewhere. It’s a perfect companion for a play which is equally disorientating at times. Theo Vidgen’s music is great and evocative, especially the choice to use a single live cellist on stage in the production (Kwesu Edman does a great job as said cellist). In a complicated and fast moving, literally, production Ivan Blackstock’s movement direction is also worthy of mention. All of this combines to give the production, much like the play, an atmosphere all of its own. And, amazingly, despite the fact I was sat in an allegedly restricted view seat in the almost always restricted view heavy Dorfman there are no sight line issues!

A small cast of eight, almost all of whom do at least double duty and, I think, all of whom are direct imports from the Orange Tree production, round out an exceptional piece of work. There are many highlights - Vivian Oparah’s thoroughly modern slave Minnie, Kevin Trainor bringing exactly the right amount of ham to his wacky collection of parts (including Boucicault), Cassie Clare’s tap dancing rabbit skills (no, really) - but the show belongs to Ken Nwosu who stars as BJJ and the two white leads of his play. Nwosu is extraordinary, barely offstage and, for much of the second act, playing as one of his characters against the other. It’s a feat of memory, energy and physicality which is pretty much unique. He is so confident, so sympathetic, so charismatic and so flat out talented. It’s one of the performances of my theatrical year, no question. 

Overall, An Octoroon is a joy. An occasionally baffling, always surprising, completely unique joy. Though I now regret even more not experiencing it in the tiny Orange Tree, I’m so glad the NT has given it an extended lifespan because my god does it deserve one. And I will fight you if you disagree.

An Octoroon is in the Dorfman at the NT until 18th July. Tickets are mostly, but not completely, sold out - grab one now if you can.

I sat in seat P62 in the circle for this one and paid £18 for the privilege. This seat claims to be restricted view, but it’s absolutely not. I saw the show whilst it was in previews. 


Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Theatre Review: Translations

It cannot be a coincidence that, as Brexit lurches on from disaster to disaster, there are so many plays around at the moment that tackle issues of identity in general and British identity in particular.

I’ve spoken at some length of my love for Leave Taking which tackles identity through the prism of immigration; there’ll be a post soon about An Octoroon (admittedly not British identity in this one), which tackles it through race and drama; this point deals with Brian Friel’s Translations, which tackles it through language. (I saw all three of these plays in one weekend by the way. It was intense.)

Translations, that classic of the A Level set text, tells a partly fictionalised history of the inhabitants of a small Irish town and their encounters with the English army cartographers who have come over to produce a detailed map of Ireland. Part of this process is the standardisation - Anglicisation - of the existing Gaelic place names. With one of the locals on the English payroll and one of the English soldiers desperately wanting to be a local chaos and complication inevitably ensues. 

So far, so set text. But Friel’s play is much deeper than that. At its considerable heart, it is a complicated and funny love letter to the beauty, importance and downright strangeness of language - and I am here for that. There are some really beautiful scenes and moments, too many to list, but a favourite has to be the beautiful love scene between two characters who don’t speak each other’s languages but can, of course, still communicate their feelings. Language, after all, does not have to be spoken. But the most touching part of this scene is the role that the original Gaelic placenames play. They’re the one thing that both of the characters - a local woman and the aforementioned wannabe-local English soldier, who has been leading the efforts to change the placenames with rapidly decreasing enthusiam - understand the literal meaning of and so they acquire an emotional, romantic meaning all of their own just for this scene. It’s so lovely, and so well written. Though this is predominantly a ‘serious’ play there’s also a sense of mischief about it, especially in the shouting-and-pointing interactions between the decidedly more conservative English officer and the locals, which is a lot of fun and of course sets off the serious moments beautifully. 

Friel also manages to do some clever things with his own authorial language, in that he apparently effortlessly manages to portray when characters are speaking English and when they’re speaking Gaelic, despite the fact they’re all speaking English all the time (apart from the occasional foray into Latin and Greek, naturally). It’s so subtle it hardly seems worth commenting on, until you take a step back and marvel at it from a distance. Less subtle but equally effective are the characters and setting he has created; all of which are so real and vivid you feel like you could reach out and touch them, foibles and mud and drizzle and all. I would’ve liked a fractionally more conclusive ending, but otherwise this is a little beauty of a play. 

The sense of lushness that the text creates pierces the production too, most of all in Rae Smith’s design. The Olivier has scarcely looked more gorgeous than it does as home to Smith’s Irish landscape complete with rolling clouds of wispy smoke that combine with beautiful lighting and (I think) projection to create weather. It’s so atmospheric and evocative and I quite want to live there. There is a final moment, which I won’t spoil, that relies purely on the sudden stripping away of all this and which is done so well that the shock and discomfort it caused in the audience was audible. If I have a criticism of director Ian Rickson’s crisp and quick (not rushed) production it is this final moment though. I’m not it’s strictly necessary; it feels a mite forced. But this is proper nitpicking - you can’t argue with the impact it has nor the dexterity with which it’s done. And a shout out to a person I rarely mention too: Majella Hurley, the dialect coach, for helping build an assembly of pleasingly thick and faultlessly consistent Irish accents. All in all, this is a totally transporting production. 

A small-for-the-Olivier cast rounds out a great evening. This is an NT-classy bunch and there’s really no one to pick fault with. The strongest performances come, for me, from Ciarán Hinds, on magisterial form (when is he not?) as the touchingly complex Hugh, recognising the death of his way of life and the need to move on but clinging to it - and his Latin and Greek - nonetheless. His final speech, which closes the play, is gorgeous. A superbly written and perfectly delivered evocation of identity and memory and loss and betrayal and hope that is, more than anything else, just a joy to hear. Colin Morgan as his ambitious son Owen brings a bucketload of charisma, exuberance and, ultimately, anger which combines to be endlessly watchable. He was something of a revelation for me. He’s a much better actor than I’ve ever given him credit for. Adetomiwa Edun rounds out my top three as the romantic English soldier, George. He’s fun, earnest, gentle and steely and I really missed him after the interval when, gorgeously unusual love scene aside, he really has nothing to do. I would quite happily have watched much more George. Translations II: George’s Revenge?

Lads, brace yourselves for shocking news. Translations is a show I really enjoyed, that’s on in the Olivier! A good show, in the Olivier!! A show with a full house, deservedly so, in the Olivier!!!  It’s been so long I’d forgotten such a thing existed. But this is it. It’s pure class; a timely revival of a great and complex play in a solidly high calibre production that is exactly the sort of thing that I expect the National Theatre to be able to pull off better than anyone. Here they have, and it’s a joy.

Translations is in the Olivier at the NT (in rep) until 11th August. Tickets are scarce.

Speaking of tickets, yes I paid for mine: £36 for A62 in the circle. This is in the Travelex £15 season, but good luck finding a ticket left in that price bracket. 

Monday, 11 June 2018

Theatre Review: Leave Taking

Fans of political satire and/or - how to put this? - utter bollocks, will no doubt look back fondly on that joyous moment in the 2017 General Election campaign where Theresa May, fresh from doing a massive and complete u turn on her social care policy, blithely declared “nothing has changed, nothing has changed”. Glorious in its brazenness and cavalier in its disregard for, well, facts; it was a highlight/lowlight of a campaign full of them.

I was put in mind of that now infamous line whilst watching Leave Taking, Winsome Pinnock’s seminal play on immigration and the black British experience, at The Bush over the weekend. To explain, before I get justifiably angry letters for comparing Winsome Pinnock to Theresa May, it’s the phrase I’m interested in, not the context and not the speaker (well, a little bit the speaker, for reasons I’ll come back to). Nothing has changed, nothing has changed. It could almost be the subtitle of Leave Taking. It could almost be its call to arms.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s actually talk about the play first. It’s brilliant, in short. Not only brilliant, but necessary. It should be taught in schools, all schools, and I would suggest that one of the reasons it isn’t is that Pinnock has the temerity to not be a dead, white man (she is none of those things, for the avoidance of doubt). Leave Taking tells the story of Enid, a Jamaican immigrant to the UK, her daughters, Del and Viv, and her fellow immigrant friend, Brod, as they move through life as a Jamaican family in London. Pinnock has such a gorgeous and unique voice that speaks at once to the specific experiences of the black (Jamaican) British community and humanity in general. Leave Taking itself is many things: very funny, very sad, sometimes difficult, sometimes challenging, often raw and always utterly contemporary. This play was written thirty years ago; it could have been written literally yesterday. Partly that’s because nothing has changed, nothing has changed, but it’s also because the play has so much to say about feelings of outsider-ness and the complex mess of an emotional web that is identity that it becomes almost timeless. Any human being with an ounce of self awareness who sees Leave Taking will identify with it, even if some of the specific cultural references are not relevant to you. Everyone struggles with their identity at one time or another unless you’re some kind of fucking robot. And, when you do, Winsome Pinnock has something to say to you.

The characters are also a complete joy and manage, too, to be both utterly specific to their identity and experiences but utterly relatable to everyone at the same time. Through their voices, and Pinnock’s, what Leave Taking becomes is one of the most eloquent and complex studies of immigration and identity I’ve seen on the stage. And, maddeningly, it’s in its tackling of immigration - and the racism that met it - that I drew Theresa May’s ode to stability to mind. There are heart rending accounts of the racism, overt and subtle, in this play that give it some of its most contemporary moments. The direct parallel to the Windrush scandal - which, of course, is the other sense in which it made me think of our beloved leader - when the elder characters are discussing how they had to pay to get the documents that proved they were British when they’d felt proudly British ever since their immigration is the most obvious example (I actually checked the playtext to see if this scene was a new addition. It’s not. And that’s deeply depressing). But there are plenty more and, for me, the final scene in which matriarch Enid discusses how people just don’t see her, just don’t care, is the most touching and resonant. Because, really, is that untrue today? Has anything changed, anything changed?

Before I get any more rantypants, let’s move on. Because there’s nice, happy stuff to talk about in the brilliance of this production of Leave Taking. The Bush’s AD Madani Younis is in the director’s chair here and he’s on top form. He has such a clear vision of what this play and why it’s important (now) that just sings through every scene. You don’t see that so often these days. Visually, I think The Bush has done better (and I’m concerned for the physical integrity of their water effect) but Rajiv Pattani’s gorgeous lighting is very much an exception. He does some very clever - and effective - things to pull the audience’s focus where it needs to be at key points, something done with particular deftness and skill in the aforementioned final scene. The Bush’s concrete garage vibe (I love it, this is not a criticism) lends itself to innovative lighting so well and Pattani has nailed it here. 

There is also, like, a lot of happiness to be found in the frankly slightly annoyingly brilliant ensemble of actors. There are five characters in Leave Taking - Enid, Del, Viv, Brod and obeah woman Mai - and, with the play staged in the round, the already unforgiving Bush auditorium provides nowhere to hide. Which is fine for these guys, they don’t need it. Adjoa Andoh, as Mai, is my highlight. Having seen her in the grand total of two things (both in the past six months) I have concluded that Andoh is one of those actors I would watch in literally anything. I’m convinced she could read out a phone book and give it emotional depth and complexity. She’s on top, top form here as the wise and weary Mai; a character who only really unveils herself after the interval but you know as soon as Andoh stalks into the space at the top of the show that there will be depth to come. (Also, she spends a lot of the show crouched at the edge of the space in the sort of deep squat holds that the rest of us can only dream of. I want to work out with her.) Seraphina Beh as ‘tearaway’ Del is a complex joy. She gives a strongly nuanced performance of, in some senses, an archetypal British teenager who is so much more than that - and more than anyone but Mai gives her credit for. Providing some much needed light relief, Wil Johnson, is endlessly watchable as Brod. He’s a sort of comedy character but in Johnson’s hands you always laugh with him, not at him, which means when he does get serious or angry the audience 100% go with him. Sarah Niles’ Enid provides the play’s heart, and some soaring set piece speeches, and the way she quietly works the space and the audience make the realisation of how sad she is, and why, really crushing. Rounding out the quintet, Nichelle Terry’s Viv has perhaps less to do than the others but does it equally well. The big moments she does get - particularly her small Act 2 rebellion - are handled faultlessly. They’re a good group, all in all.

As you may have gathered, I was into Leave Taking in quite a major way. It’s such a great play and such a stonking production - and, surely, the most prescient revival ever in the history of theatre. Go and see it, laugh, think, cry and get angry at how surprised you are that this isn’t a new commission.  

Nothing has changed, nothing has changed.

Leave Taking is at The Bush until 30th June. Grab the last remaining tickets whilst they exist.

My seat for this one was D12 in block A and I paid for it. Thanks to The Bush’s super Count Me In scheme (where you pay for a non-specific seat and the box office allocate you into a gap on the day - perfect for solo theatregoers or those who don’t like their friends and family) I only paid £10. Outside of CMI, it would have cost £30.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Theatre Review: Nightfall

What’s the worst sin a piece of theatre can commit? Stunt casting? Exorbitant ticket prices? Prioritising style over substance? The dreaded five minute pause in the second act?

All bad in their own way, but I would argue the absolute worst thing a piece of theatre can be is boring. It’s not something that I can accuse much that I see of being to be honest. I see plenty of stuff that I would argue is bad, but very seldom boring.

Boring is certainly not something I would ever have thought to accuse The Bridge theatre - home, of course, until recently of my beloved Julius Caesar - of being. And yet here we are. Their current production, Nightfall, counts as two and a bit hours of the most bored I have ever been in a theatre.

To misuse a line from Hamlet, the play’s the thing that is 100% of the problem. With all due respect to Barney Norris, whose earlier work everyone seems to agree is brilliant, Nightfall is just a very inconsequential play. To give it its due, it does contain some very nice lines about grief and descriptions of it that feel very apt and very occasionally somewhat profound. But beyond that? The plot is dull and predictable, the characterisation is slight (the mother character, Jenny, is perhaps the least sympathetic on the London stage at the moment and not in an intentional way I suspect) to the extent that what happens to the characters is entirely irrelevant and the whole thing is just a bit meh. It’s very difficult to care about anything happening to the awful, awful characters and their dreary story. It is, ultimately, an almost instantly forgettable piece. It’s not helped, frankly, by being at The Bridge either. This is a small play in a big venue and it just deosn’t feel right. Perhaps in a more intimate setting, the play might connect more. I doubt it, but it might.

It’s a shame the play is so weak because the production is much more The Bridge’s usual high standards, both technically and aesthetically. Rae Smith’s design is undoubtedly the star. The set looks like it’s walked down the South Bank from the Tate Modern, it’s so beautiful, evocative and artfully decaying. The huge oil pipeline that cuts the set in two works as both visual and metaphor; it’s almost more effective at articulating the play’s take on the decline of rural Britain than the play is. I loved the use - and the smell - of real grass and plants too. William Galloway’s video design, used to portray the changing sky behind the set, is equally gorgeous and effective. It combines with some lovely incidental music from Gareth Williams to produce something that looks and sounds far more appealing when the cast and the play aren’t involved. 

The cast of four work hard and give solid, if unspectacular, performances. The highlight is undoubtedly Ophelia Lovibond as spirited, damaged daughter Lou. The rare moments when this play displays some signs of life are almost all down to her. She has a couple of setpiece speeches in particular which are great. Ukweli Roach does some nice work - and has the best written and most sympathetic character to play with - largely in support of her. Claire Skinner is enjoyably evil as the aforementioned Jenny but I never really bought the fact that she was acting as she was because of grief. Partly this is because her motivations aren’t really explained or explored in the script but also because I didn’t quite buy her performance either (which is a shame because generally I think she’s great). 

Overall, this piece is a big disappointment for me and not at all what I’ve come to expect from The Bridge. The theatre was at least a third empty when I saw it - on a Friday night - and it’s hard to say other than that it deserved to be. The saving grace of this though is that there are great tickets available and great upgrades too. I went from back row of the circle to sixth row of the stalls! If you’re planning on seeing Nightfall (and some people love it by the way) I’d advise booking a cheap seat you’ll almost certainly end up sitting somewhere better. And The Bridge is a great theatre to experience anyway, even if you just go for the building and the interval madeleines. 

Nightfall plays at The Bridge until 26th May.

My seat for this show was E42 in the stalls. It wasn’t the seat I paid for, but I did pay - £15. This seat normally sells for £55.

#KeepTheSecrets Approved Theatre Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Has there ever been a theatre production more committed to protecting its audiences from spoilers, and more to the point doing so successfully, than Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? It’s even made it part of its brand with the hashtag for the show being #KeepTheSecrets rather than anything to do with any other aspect of the show or its link with the marketing behemoth that is the boy wizard. You even get an email post-show with a video of a stern J K Rowling warning you against pointing spoilers. I love it.

However, it does make it kind of tricky to review. Especially for me. Like, I’ve met myself on a number of occasions and I know that I cannot be trusted with secrets about things I am enthusiastic about. So please find below a Hamilton style run down of a few thoughts and observations which are unambiguously spoiler free in bulletpoint form for your convenience.
  • This production is both figureatively and literally magical and tbh you just have to see it for yourself. In many ways I wish I had the self control to just stop writing there because that’s really all you need to know. But I don’t so on we go...
  • As an example of the craft of theatre-making it’s sublime. Some of the special effects and illusions, courtesy of Jamie Harrison, are, I have concluded, actual magic. There’s no other explanation for how they’re done. Others are the result of some of the best lighting design I have ever seen, from Neil Austin, and/or a combination of Steven Hoggett’s amazing movement (cape-ography is a thing and he is superb at it) and Katrina Lindsay’s beautiful costumes but are equally impressive. Visually, this play is just astonishing. 
  • Imogen Heap (I’d forgotten all about her, I loved her about ten years ago) has provided a modern, gorgeous score which - brace yourselves for a big statement - I loved every bit as much as John Williams’ classic work for the films. It’s absolutely nothing like them, and yet completely works. There’s some great choreography to go with the music too.
  • J K Rowling’s new story that the plays tells is, in relation to the rest of the HP canon, not the best. If it had been written as a book it would be my least favourite. But plays are meant to be seen and not read and, as a play, it’s perfect; so well constructed and constantly - massively - surprising. It’s no wonder they fear spoilers so much. 
  • The adaptation by Jack Thorne and John Tiffany (who also directs with utter classs) is exceptional. Together with JKR they’ve created something really special.
  • Here’s where things get tricky because I want to talk about the cast but can’t really for fear of spoilers. I’ve never seen a programme for a play that has a spoiler warning with its own cast list before but this one does and for very many good reasons! What I can say though is that the huge ensemble, many doubling or trebling up on major parts, is fantastic. I can safely say that new character Scorpius Malloy is my absolute favourite and that he is show stealingly well play by newcomer Samuel Blenkin.
  • The merch for this show is off the scale. The updating of some of the classic Potter imagery, for example the house crests, is a must own for fans. I’ll be wearing by new look Slytherin logo t shirt with pride this summer.
When this show was announced I was such a sceptic of it, despite being a huge Potter fan. It sounded to me like a cynical cashing in. Harry’s story is over, I thought, why does this show exist but to make money? I was 100% wrong, something I do not often willingly admit. This story, this play and this production is an utter joy from start to finish and a thing of genuine theatrical (and actual?) magic. See it - and see it from the most expensive seat you can afford. It’s worth it.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two are at the Palace Theatre for the foreseeable future. 

My seat for both parts - I did, and would recommend, the two show day - was F14 in the balcony. It cost £85 for both parts. When I go again, I’ll go for a more expensive seat because sightlines from the balcony aren’t as good as I would have liked. 

Monday, 7 May 2018

Theatre Review: Absolute Hell

As play titles to desperately hope not to be prophetic go, Absolute Hell really must be up there.

Written by Rodney Ackland and telling the story of the large (a point I’ll come back to, often) group of misfits, alcoholics, GIs and people just looking for some mediocre food who inhabit the La Vie En Rose club in 1945 London, Absolute Hell is, thankfully, not a prophetic title. God knows I’ve seen some plays at the NT that merit that title (Waste, Common I’m looking in your direction) but this isn’t one of them. Absolute Strangeness would fit. Absolute Example of Something That Would Benefit From A Good Session With A Pair Of Scissors would be even better, though admittedly rather more difficult to fit on a poster.

Because that is, essentially, what Absolute Hell is: an odd, sprawling, slightly rudderless and flabby piece with far too many characters and subplots that go nowhere but which is still actually really quite entertaining. It’s at least twenty minutes too long, which given it’s already forty minutes shorter now than when previews began is kind of baffling. There are twenty - TWENTY - ‘main’ characters, only two of whom are really granted any degree of development and explanation. This combines with the eighteen billion plot lines, I exaggerate but only slightly, to render the overall narrative sometimes super hard to follow and the piece’s key themes hard to draw out except with the benefit of hindsight. It is, however, solidly entertaining and largely absorbing. And actually, with the distance of a few days thought, once you strip away all the crap and superfluous random characters there is at its heart an engaging study of the joys and dangers of escapism and what happens when you finally can’t escape anymore. The idea it hints at that for many of the characters and their real life counterparts, the Second World War was itself the greatest escape they could have hoped for is really interesting and seldom dramatically explored well. I would love to see a more daring version of this play that a really unprecious dramaturg and/or director has had a go at. Severely cut down to just a handful of its central characters and a couple of hours, I think this play could actually be quite brilliant. 

If my imagined new version could exist within Lizzie Clachan’s gorgeous set from this IRL version that would be super. The set is the highlight of an otherwise fairly unremarkable production, but it’s a real beauty. Grim and grimy, oozing faded glamour, squalor, hope and despair from every crack. It also makes fantastic use of the gaping Lyttelton stage and stands up to the demand that the entire cast be on stage for more or less the entire time (not sure this is necessary tbh) whilst still allowing the action at any one moment space to breathe. No mean feat. Jon Clarke’s sympathetic, almost soft focus, lighting is a great back up for this. Director Joe Hill-Gibbons delivers on the visuals and aesthetic, but the script needed taking in hand far more than he seems to have done and the inclusion of the dreaded second act five minute pause earns him an additional demerit (where has the fad for these nonsense things come from and can it please go back there? Either have two proper intervals or don’t). 

Though I’ve complained that there are too many of them, the principal joy of this production comes from the cast. There are some great actors here and everyone delivers what’s asked of them with class and chutzpah. It’s a shame that in so many cases what’s asked of them is so little (the under- and misuse of the excellent Jenny Galloway and Danny Webb is particularly egregious). In the two roles that do have some meat to them, NT casting has really earned their money. Charles Edwards as the tragicomic Hugh is one of the best pieces of casting I’ve seen at the Nash for a while. He’s perfect for the role; funny, vulnerable, heartbreaking, infuriating and someone you just utterly root for. Kate Fleetwood as Christine (the Judi Dench role the last time the NT did this piece) is equally - and entirely expectedly - great. One of the most reliably excellent and assured actresses around, Fleetwood is an acutely well judged mixture of brassy fun and deep, deep sadness which makes for a hugely affecting watch. Amongst the cast of thousands, the ever supremely watchable Jonathan Slinger also stands out as Maurice, a nothing-y part with which he still manages to steal many scenes, as does Martins Imhangbe as the touchingly earnest GI Sam. 

Overall, then, Absolute Hell may not be absolute Hell but neither is it absolute Heaven (I’m sorry). It is absolutely one of the odder pieces I’ve seen at the NT but by no means one of the worst. At the very least, it’s entertaining and its hardworking, top drawer cast does so much to redeem it’s failings. True, there are better things to see in London theatreland at the moment, but Absolute Hell still has something to say that is worthwhile listening to. You just have to work quite hard to hear it.

Absolute Hell is in the Lyttelton at the NT until 16th June. 

My seat for this one was O31 in the stalls for which I paid the pleasingly neat price of £31.