Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Top Ten Theatre Performances of 2015

As 2016 marches ever closer it’s time for another ‘best of 2015’ blog post. Hurrah, I hear nobody shout!

I've done plays, so this time it’s all about the people in them...

Images from here, here and here.

Kevin Spacey - Clarence Darrow
It takes a very special performance to be able to make a play work when your co-stars are literally furniture. Luckily Kevin Spacey delivered one. I'm not sure I've ever seen finer acting than this, anywhere, to be honest. A privilege to have seen.

Bertie Carvel - The Hairy Ape and Bakkhai
2015 was the year I ‘discovered’ Bertie Carvel and I feel that this discovery has enhanced my quality of life (if not my bank balance) greatly. It’s his versatility that I find so fascinating - and hence why I've cheated and included two performances for the price of one here. Whilst I found Bakkhai and its endless songs about nets tedious and forgettable overall, Carvel’s dual role as Agave and Pentheus is/are one/two of the most memorable performance(s) I've seen all year. And his turn as Yank in The Hairy Ape, a part I can’t think a single other current actor would be able to pull off, was just phenomenal - physical, dangerous, sensitive and sad all at the same time. Bonus points for being a genuinely adorable human being at the stage door also.

Imelda Staunton - Gypsy
Ok, the gender balance on this list is not great but quality over quantity, y’know. This was not just the finest performance in a musical I saw this year, it was the finest performance in a musical I’ve ever seen. Obviously Imelda Staunton is amazing in everything, ever, but this was next level stuff even by her standards. And her Rose’s Turn was perfect.

Ralph Fiennes - Man and Superman
I'm very much a fan of the post-Voldemort, comedy actor that Ralph Fiennes is currently embracing of which his performance in Man and Superman was a prime example. Watching his arrogant Jack Tanner rendered utterly helpless by a mere woman over the course of three and a half hours was an exceptionally enjoyable way to spend a Saturday night. And frankly you have to respect the skill of anyone that can deliver three and a half hours of Shaw dialogue multiple times a week without having some kind of breakdown.

Kenneth Branagh - The Winter's Tale and Harlequinade 
That Ken Branagh excels at Shakespeare is hardly a revelatory statement but no less true for that. That Ken Branagh excels at slapstick comedy is perhaps more noteworthy. He's gone and proved both of these things in the opening shows of his new theatre company's inaugural season - the very existence of which he also gets bonus points for. This man remains my hero.

Mark Strong - A View from the Bridge
Thinking about this performance still makes me feel slightly uncomfortable eight months after the fact, surely a fairly major indicator of quality. Full of quiet menace, this performance shone out of a really exceptional ensemble cast. Probably the best accent I've heard this year too.

Geoffrey Streitfeld - The Beaux’ Stratagem
And the award for the person who seemed like they were having most fun in their part goes to… A quite literally all singing, all dancing, joyously silly comedy turn from one of my increasingly favourite actors. There was a lot to do in this part, from high farce to wordplay to lots of skipping, and Streitfeld did it all with equal aplomb.

John Heffernan - Oppenheimer
One of the most consistently excellent actors around at the moment delivered again with a fascinating turn in the titular role of Oppenheimer. In a part covering a lot of emotional ground, Heffernan worked his arse off (technical acting term) to make Oppenheimer a three dimensional, sympathetic character. Rocked the circular sunglasses trend too.

Lucien Msamati - Othello
The first ever black Iago was also one of the best I've ever seen. Dripping menace from every pore as a really hard-edged, bitter Iago, Msamati absolutely owned this production. His performance was so intelligent and the subtle ways that the race card (for want of a better phrase) was played were incredibly effective.

Judi Dench - The Winter's Tale
A performance exactly as good as you would expect Judi Dench in The Winter's Tale to be. Which is really very good indeed. Scene stealer of the year, also.

Honourable mentions also to Assassins, undoubtedly the best ensemble cast of the year, and the RSC’s Henry V, Alex Hassell, who has the misfortune of having delivered my 11th favourite performance of the year for his humane and nervous King.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Top Ten Theatre of 2015

God knows how, but apparently it’s the end of the year. And nothing says happy end of the year better than the obligatory series of ‘Best of…’ blog posts!

Since I only have one interest these days (let’s be honest, I can’t really afford to have any more) I'm just going to squeeze a couple of posts out of my theatre going this year. And here’s the first: my top ten shows of 2015.

A qualifier before I start. I have been so spoiled with the range and quality of shows I've seen this year and this list was actually really difficult to compile and to put in some kind of order (except for the top three which were very clear). So kudos to London theatre for being excellent in 2015. And kudos to me for having such good taste, frankly. Anyway, onwards.

All images from here.

Clarence Darrow (Old Vic)
I'm trying not to talk too much about individual performances in this post (there’s a whole other post coming that’ll be dedicated to that, I'm sure you’ll be excited to hear) but there’s no question that Kevin Spacey made this show such a privilege - and I don’t use that word lightly - to see. I mean, it was a one man show after all. Intelligent, emotional, passionate and beautifully staged, I doubt I’ll ever see much better in the theatre again in my lifetime. Mindbendingly good.

Gypsy (Chichester Festival)
Another amazing central performance, backed up by a pitch perfect supporting cast and the most gloriously old school staging made this the best production of a musical I've ever seen. And what a musical it is. You could do a Now That’s What I Call Musicals album just from this one show - even the overture is iconic. Imelda Staunton’s rendition of Rose’s Turn is my second most memorable theatrical moment of 2015.

The Hairy Ape (Old Vic)
My most memorable theatrical moment of 2015 is the moment that Bertie Carvel’s Yank gets murdered by a gorilla. The back breaking sound effect alone will stay with me for quite some time. Again, it’s difficult to talk about why I loved this show so much without talking about the phenomenal central performance that grounded it - 2015 will go down in my personal history as the Year of Carvel - but incredible brutalist staging, amazing sound design (and not just when bones were being broken) and a fab supporting turn from Steffan Rhodri certainly helped.

The Beaux’ Stratagem (National Theatre)
Hands down my most flat out enjoyable evening at the theatre this year; a fluffy period farce done with such energy and class that it was impossible not to love it. Fantastically acted, joyously written, beautifully staged, near flawlessly directed (Simon Godwin - see also Man and Superman - is one of my favourite ‘discoveries’ of 2015) and my face hurt from laughing so much when I left the theatre. You can’t ask for much more from a comedy.

Assassins (Menier Chocolate Factory)
‘Joyously creepy’ is not a phrase I often use but one that perfectly describes this incredibly evocative staging of the little known - and typically off beat - Sondheim celebration of murdering US Presidents. An outstanding ensemble cast sold it to perfection and the staging and design could hardly have been better or, frankly, more offputting. Bonus points awarded for taking the piss out of society’s endless obsession with the marches of Sousa.

Othello (RSC)
A history making production where the fact that made it a first - that the actors playing Othello and Iago were both black - was less noteworthy than the sheer quality of the production. As it fucking should be. I love this play so much anyway and this was a production of utter class; beautifully staged, immaculately acted, but still with the capacity to be shockingly powerful and contemporary.

Man and Superman (National Theatre)
The final play of Nick Hytner’s tenure at the NT was a perfect swansong: three and a half hours of classy, witty, immaculately acted and beautifully staged Shaw. Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma were both great and that man Simon Godwin’s perfectly paced direction made this dense and verbose text more fun and accessible than it really had any right to be.

The Winter's Tale and Harlequinade/All On Her Own (Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company)
Blatantly cheating here, but fuck you it's my blog post. I'm grouping these together because if you look at them as a repertory programme then there's been nothing close to this quality in London this year. I'm so excited to see the rest of the first season from this company. And if there aren't subsequent seasons to follow then something is deeply wrong with the world.

The Lorax (Old Vic)
A gloriously fun, inventive and visually stunning adaptation of classic Dr Seuss. Only the most hard hearted person could fail to be utterly charmed by this cute eco-fable. The incredible puppetry was the star, especially the Lorax himself, but everything about this show was perfectly pitched for children of any age.

A View from the Bridge (Young Vic)
Whilst I’m not as convinced of the genius of Ivo van Hove as everyone else in the world seems to be, there’s no denying that this production was incredible. A uniformly excellent cast (lead by an unforgettable Mark Strong) made the super minimalist staging their own and the river of blood finale was as beautiful and devastating as anything I've seen this year. If there was such a thing as an award for least surprising Broadway transfer of the year, this would surely win it.

A few honourable mentions for things that didn’t quite make the cut: since I stuck to London shows the beautiful, brilliant Broadway production of An American in Paris was excluded but man did I love this show (where’s the London transfer?), the NT’s Motherfucker with the Hat was as gloriously grown up and funny as its amazing title suggests, and whilst OppenheimerHenry V and Death of a Salesman (all RSC) were narrowly edged off this list I really rated all three - it’s great to see the RSC in such rude health with both bard and non-bard productions.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Theatre Review: Harlequinade / All On Her Own

I'm not sure I've ever been so in love with a theatre company that I've bought a snowglobe to advertise the fact. Thank goodness the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company has come along to remedy that!

All joking and snowglobes aside, I'm just staggered at the quality of this company. Whether on or off stage it’s mindbending and the potential range of work that they can do fantastically as a result is ridiculously vast. Their opening double bill is a pretty audacious - and, spoiler, altogether successful - statement of that fact.

Terrence Rattigan isn't a playwright I know a huge amount, or indeed anything, about and to be honest I’d never heard of either of the plays that KBTC are staging to comprise the second part of their aforementioned double bill: All On Her Own and Harlequinade. Which I suppose actually makes it a triple bill, or at least a double-and-a-bit bill. But I digress.

Image source.

The Rattigan double header opens with All On Her Own which is a slightly odd addition to the bill. It’s an interesting yet bleak twenty minute monologue, where a widow getting slowly pissed as she struggles to cope with her husband’s death questions whether she drove him to suicide, which Zoe Wanamaker acts beautifully. All well and good, but I'm not clear by what logic it sits as a warm up act to the raucous theatrical farce that follows. Presumably the logic of ‘look, we've got Zoe Wanamaker so let’s give her something meaty to do’ which, to be fair, is difficult logic to argue with. There’s nothing wrong with it at all, as with everything KBTC so far it’s immaculately done, it’s just a bit unnecessary. And as you can probably tell by the fact I've reviewed it in a paragraph didn't make a lasting impression on me!

If my praise for All On Her Own is qualified though, my love for Harlequinade is not.

A short (#WarOnIntervals) and silly farce, Harlequinade tells the story of a hapless theatre company touring a production of Romeo and Juliet to the provinces ‘for the public good’ when it transpires that their legendary (and legendarily idiotic) actor/manager leading man is an accidental and longstanding bigamist.

To put it bluntly, this play is fucking funny. It doesn't have a secret agenda and there isn't any hidden depth to it, and that’s completely fine. It just makes you laugh; loudly and consistently. Rattigan’s writing obviously deserves a big ol’ chunk of the credit for this, as does Christopher Oram’s convincingly amateurish design and Rob Ashford’s pleasingly daft choreography (there’s a gloriously poorly done fight sequence, which made me laugh an undignified amount, that deserves particular credit).

But the majority of the humour is derived from the acting. As with The Winter’s Tale there are almost too many notable performances to mention but Hadley Fraser’s excitable halberdier (with an excellent Brummie accent) and Tom Bateman’s constantly-close-to-a-breakdown stage manager are personal favourites. Zoe Wanamaker is an unapologetic scene stealer (in what is essentially a cameo) as the unhinged and ferocious Dame Maude, and her rants at the expense of the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells are catnip to any theatre geek.

This is Ken Branagh’s show though. His Arthur Gosport is a glorious creation; preening, ridiculous, ego-maniacal yet at all times staying on the right side of the credibility line. It’s not a revelation (to me anyway) that Branagh can do comedy very well but the fact that he can do slapstick comedy very well is something new and fabulous. And there is some big slapstick in this too - both his elaborate fainting and his ‘natural’ Romeo death which involves about the same amount of flailing about as what I do to get out of a beanbag chair are belly laugh funny. In many ways the smaller slapstick (is slapstick quantifiable by size? I'm going with it) is even funnier though. Both his much mocked “little jump” onto a bench during the balcony scene and repeated sequences in which he wanders earnestly around the stage moving an obviously fake fancy plant pot about are genuinely hilarious. And the extent to which he’s prepared, implicitly or otherwise, to send himself up is so refreshing. I love him. As you might have noticed.

Here’s a controversial opinion to end with: I liked Harlequinade better than The Winter’s Tale. I'm not saying that it’s a better production or a better play (though I think you can make a strong argument for the latter) but I found it more enjoyable. And what’s more there are actually a smattering of tickets left so if I were to say ‘you should go and see this play as a matter of urgency’ you actually can. Hurrah! Now, go and see this play as a matter of urgency.

Oh and in case you thought I was joking about the snowglobe...

Image source.

Harlequinade and All On Her Own are playing (in rep) as part of the Plays at the Garrick season until January 13th.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Theatre Review: The Winter's Tale

What do you know about Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale?

Go on think about it. I'll wait. 


Ok? Good. If you came up with anything more than 'exit, pursued by a bear' then you're either lying or much, much cleverer than me. Either is possible, frankly. 

Anyhoo, the point I'm labouring here is that The Winter's Tale was not a play I knew at all before seeing the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company production of it. 

Approaching even with the most open of minds there is no question that this is not a great play. I believe the adjective most frequently attached to it is 'problematic' which seems a fair assessment to me. It's a play of two halves really and, to be fair, the first half (the tragedy bit, as jealousy crazed King Leontes causes his family to die in various ways) has a lot going for it - it's basically Diet Othello and that's kind of cool with me. The 'redemptive' second half, and in particular, the big (SPOILERY) reveal that dead Queen Hermione is actually sort of alive in statue form, I have less time for.  My suspension of disbelief is just not willing enough to buy it. 

But whilst the play might not be great this production certainly is. 

First of all, let's just agree that seeing Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench doing Shakespeare, any Shakespeare, is simply an utter joy. To see them doing it together is blissful. They are both on superb form here. Dench is a definitive Paulina; sassy, wise, stealing scenes and delivering whatever Mr S would have called mic drops left, right and centre. And no one but no one speaks Shakespeare as well as KenBran. Even if Leontes is a complete shit for most of this play, Branagh makes him a compelling, human and believable shit who you absolutely want to see more of. It's a real honour to see these two acting together in the flesh (you have to wonder if it will ever happen again). 

The company they're surrounded by is (almost) equally excellent. Whilst there's no weak link to speak of, John Shrapnel's authoritative Camillo, Hadley Fraser's wronged-but-actually-a-bit-of-a-bastard Polixenes and Michael Pennington's (what a legend) tragic Antigonus are personal highlights. Also Tom Bateman (Florizel) and his lovely chest, but that's by the by. 

This production looks so beautiful too. Christopher Oram is on typically perfect form with his beautiful designs (though I was disappointed with the 'pursued by a bear' sequence - perhaps I've been spoiled by The Hairy Ape but I wanted a proper bear not a cop out projection!) and setting the action unapologetically at Christmas gives him a lot to work with. His costumes are equally beautiful, something only enhanced for me by the fact that Leontes' wardrobe is vaguely reminiscent of Harry Potter's Gilderoy Lockhart (seriously, Google this and check out the similarities). Rob Ashford's choreography is joyfully exuberant in all the right places, especially the pastoral scene. 

All of this gives the action an unashamedly cinematic feel which totally works and is enhanced by approximately 100% by (long time Branagh collaborator) Patrick Doyle's beautiful yet unobtrusive music. Were there to be a soundtrack album, I would buy it. 

Overall then this is a total winner and a fantastic start to the KBTC's Plays at the Garrick residency. I would urge you to see it, but it's sold out and the live broadcast has been and gone. Watch out for encore screenings as a matter of urgency. 

The Winter's Tale is playing (in rep) at the Garrick until 16th January. 

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Theatre Review: The Lorax

When I was seven, my parents took me to see my first ever professional theatre production.

It was a touring production of Joseph, with Darren Day (remember him?) in the lead role, in Manchester and as far as I was concerned it was fucking magical (though I like to think I wouldn't have phrased it that way back then). It was a treat because I’d broken one of my arms over the summer holiday and was feeling pretty glum about it, booked as a day out package out of the back of the local newspaper. We sat in the cheap seats (I was obsessed with the red plastic opera glasses you could hire) and I was completely captivated from start to finish. I even ended up being a member of the Darren Day fanclub for a number of years as a result. Yes, such a thing really did exist.

Twenty odd years, hundreds of theatre hours and an amount of money I don’t care to think about later and I still think theatre is magical and captivating, even if my opinions on Darren Day and red plastic opera glasses have moved on.

I mention this not, shockingly, to show off my early love of Darren Day but because I was reminded of it whilst watching the Old Vic’s Christmas family production of the Dr Seuss classic The Lorax. And whilst my seven year old self wouldn't use the phrase ‘fucking magical’ my twenty-nine year old self definitely will: this show is fucking magical.

Image source.

For those who don’t know (idiots), The Lorax is an environmental fable which tells the story of a small beavery creature who looks after his local trees and animals. When ambitious inventor the Once-ler moves in he cuts down the trees to make pointless stuff to sell on for a profit, building a city to support his growing business. Cultures clash, the Lorax turns eco warrior but ultimately there is a happy ending where everyone learns that it’s our job to look after the environment and not get caught up in the relentless quest for pointless stuff.

Technically there is so much to love about this show, not least the fantastic, whimsical design which stays true to Dr Seuss’ trademark visual style to a degree that’s as impressive as it is adorable. Every set, prop and costume is colourful and larger than life but still hangs together perfectly and nothing seems to be fighting with anything else. The truffula trees were a personal favourite - they look exactly like they do in the book and, as a versatile prop, are used incredibly well.

Visually, though, the most impressive aspect of this production are the amazingly lifelike puppets - particularly the Lorax himself who I desperately want to rehome once the show is over. 50% adorable moustachioed ginger beaver, 50% eco-terrorist, the Lorax is operated in the Japanese tradition by three puppeteers including Simon Lipkin who also provides his voice (and who I last saw as the beyond creepy clown proprietor of the disused fair where the Menier's Assassins was set - the contrast is stark to say the least). It’s a fantastic collective performance that makes an adorable puppet into a real, living, breathing character. When the Lorax is sad and broken, after all the trees have been cut down, I was genuinely heartbroken for him. I only remembered some time later that he was essentially a teddy bear and so didn't actually have feelings (despite what the Toy Story films would have us believe). Lipkin provides a great, authentic voice too, including some beautiful singing during the Lorax’ eleven o'clock number.

Speaking of singing, the music for this show, written by Charlie Fink, the former lead singer of Noah and the Whale (remember them?), is memorable and fun, and includes one of the best, most accessible protest songs I've heard in a long time. Combined with energetic, silly dance routines - that the cast throw themselves into with 110% (sorry) enthusiasm, as they do everything else - and you've got, if not quite a great musical, then certainly a great play with songs.

The writing too is fantastic, with playwright David Greig having done an amazing job on beefing up Dr Seuss’ short book into a full play without losing that distinctive, joyous language and voice. The contemporary references he slips in (selfies, Twitter, a not very veiled spoof of Apple) feel natural and the blend between dialogue and songs is as good as you’d find in any musical. It’s apparent that Greig loves Dr Seuss’ world and the cast do too, Lipkin is a highlight as is Simon Paisley Day’s Once-ler (even if he did look unnervingly like a green haired Benedict Cumberbatch).

All of this is completely unimportant though and I'm not really sure why I've wasted my time writing it. Because the best thing about The Lorax is the glorious, uncynical optimism which oozes from every pore of this production. Its positivity is infectious and if you can see this show and fail to walk away thinking you can absolutely change the world then there’s something wrong with you. And even for hardcore anti-children people like me, it’s genuinely heartwarming to see little kids so into a piece of theatre as the ones sitting near me were with this - I can’t imagine a better introduction to how magical theatre can be than this show.

In short then, whatever your age you should go and see this show immediately. Because, remember, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot/Nothing is going to get better. It's not.”

The Lorax is on at the Old Vic until January 16th. Get your skates on.  

Friday, 4 December 2015

Theatre Review - Henry V

Last week I had a genuinely nuts and exhausting week at work and so naturally decided that the best thing to do with my Thursday evening was to spend three hours watching Shakespeare. 

The fact I managed to stay awake through the entirety of the RSC's production of Henry V, currently on at The Barbican, is probably the best review I can give it frankly. 

can’t honestly claim that Henry V (the plot of which I’m not going to explain because, well, really?) is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, though it is one of the ones I like to think I know reasonably well, but it is one of the ones I seem to see fairly regularly. I like it because it’s one of the plays that is most open to interpretation: is it pro-war, is it anti-war, is it (as the RSC’s excellent programme proposes) actually just concerned with going to war, is it something else entirely? Personally, I think a ‘going to war’ play is the best explanation of what Shakespeare was doing. And certainly the label applies well to this production, which has no political agenda beyond, I think, being a love letter to the craft and power of theatre.

Inevitably with this play the type of Henry you have is key to the type of production you’ll have. In this production it’s Alex Hassell, who was so impressive in the RSC’s Death of a Salesman and is even more impressive in this. Hassell is a great Henry and provides one of the more interesting takes on the character I’ve come across. I think in large part this is a consequence of the fact that he’s played the part in the full cycle of plays in which Henry appears. He has grown into the role of King Henry along with the character, and as a result his Henry is a fully realised, rounded and human King riddled with self doubt. He deals with the set piece speeches excellently (I loved the fact that ‘once more unto the breach’ wasn’t delivered as a set piece but as a battle cry literally on the run and ‘we few, we happy few’ was so much more touching in this nervous version) but is frankly even better at the ‘ordinary’ dialogue where he gets to be a human being. In a production which revels in the humour in its text, Hassell also turns out to be a superb, natural comedian. The final scenes, wooing the hesitant Princess in broken Frenglish, are perfectly pitched with a modern sensibility and disregard for the fourth wall which elevates this sequence from over-milked, anticlimactic afterthought to one of the highlights of the piece.

The other standout performance in this production is the mighty Oliver Ford Davies as the Chorus. Notwithstanding the fact that he is an utter ledge anyway, and I’ve always wanted to see him live, he speaks the verse better and clearer than almost anyone else I’ve ever heard. This is a self consciously theatrical show - the five minute call is broadcast into the auditorium as well as backstage, much of the mechanics of the set are left bare, Alex Hassell makes his first entrance out of character and out of costume - and it is the Chorus (in modern dress) who pulls this all together. I suppose when you’ve got an actor the calibre of OFD to play with it’s only natural to give him more space and time with his part than you might otherwise, but the increased emphasis on the Chorus and the intentional theatricality of this piece really works.

Speaking of the verse, which I did some sentences ago, it’s worth mentioning that it is immaculately spoken by everyone in this production. I’m no expert on iambic pentameter, I had to google how to spell it for a start, but I can’t remember the last time I heard Shakespeare spoken with such clarity - of both diction and meaning - and it really is joyous. Combined with stark and minimal staging, and some of the most beautiful lighting I’ve seen in the theatre of late, the result is a deceptively simple production that allows the verse and the acting to sing.

And it’s also worth mentioning that the one instance of literal singing, a haunting Te Deum for the war dead, is one of the most touching moments in this production. Music is used sparingly overall, and there’s certainly none of the battlefield action music that some productions emply, but when it is it’s so effective. The Te Deum was incredibly moving, well sang, and a lovely moment of (highly topical) breathing space in a busy play.

Overall then a big old hit for me. There are plenty of tickets left for the rest of the run so no excuses not to check it out. 

Henry V is part of the RSC's King and Country season at the Barbican and runs on its own until December 30th and in the full cycle (with Richard II and Henry IV parts I and II) from January 12th.


Friday, 20 November 2015

Theatre Review: The Moderate Soprano

You know that thing when you’re up to episode six in your bingewatch of your current TV show of choice and they make a pop culture reference, you know they've made a pop culture reference, but you don’t know what it’s a reference to?

I hate that thing. It annoys me so much. But thanks to the Wikipedia gods that ‘thing’ never progresses to becoming a full blown ‘issue’ (issue is definitely above thing in my hierarchy of annoyance) because you can just pause the show and look the reference up. It’s truly a glorious age to be alive and watching TV.

It becomes a bit more of an issue when it’s not a TV show but a play that’s making the references you don’t understand, though.

Image source.

The Moderate Soprano is David Hare’s new play about the founding of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera. And I suppose on one level it’s my own fault that I hadn't spent some time googling potential opera/classical music jokes before seeing it. But on another, higher, better furnished level I shouldn't have to do homework to fully enjoy a play.

Because there are a lot of opera/classical music (in)jokes in this piece that aren't fully accessible to someone who isn't a huge devotee and, without Wikipedia to help me, this did start to grate after a while. The fact that the rest of the (so white, middle aged and middle class you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Chichester) audience evidently found these jokes very funny made the grating even sharper. I don’t like to be made to feel stupid when I'm (largely) not. And it’s not like it’s impossible to write a play about a niche subject and make it accessible to everyone. I know fuck all about nuclear physics but I still loved Oppenheimer.

It’s a shame really because this is an otherwise enjoyably funny play with an enjoyably funny cast. Roger Allam as the pleasingly eccentric John Christie is, unsurprisingly, particularly good in this regard - his clipped, sharp delivery adding joyous comedic zing to his various rants (the one about ticket prices was my favourite). All of the comedy scenes, injokes notwithstanding, zipped along merrily and though none of them are exactly seared on my memory I certainly remember having a good giggle through a good chunk of the play’s brief - intervals, like armrests, are so last year - run time.

The play is far less convincing when it tries to be a serious drama though and to be frank I found most of the serious and emotional scenes just a bit dull. Although the pace is excellent throughout (Director Jeremy Herrin also worked on the RSC’s Hilary Mantel double bill and it shows) the serious scenes, with one exception, are curiously without emotional punch. The most puzzling example is where Christie’s German conductor and producer are explaining their persecution at the hands of the Nazis which should've been touching and sad but I found flat as a pancake. I often felt a bit that the way that Allam's character is written (or performed? I’m honestly not sure) is the problem - his constant propensity to chippily interrupt long speeches by other characters seemed to consistently derail any attempts at building emotional interest.

A real bright spot in this production, and the absolute saving grace when it comes to the emotional stuff, is Nancy Carroll’s performance as Audrey, Christie’s beloved wife and the moderate soprano of the title. She deals with the comedy and serious stuff with equal aplomb and provides the one genuinely heartfelt moment of the piece, as an ailing, ageing Audrey begs to be let go. I will admit to having a small cry.

The staging here is also really effective, using what looks to my untrained eye to be a particularly huge stage to simultaneously portray Christie’s house in two different time periods as well as incorporating elements of the stage and backstage of an opera house. It’s unfussy but clever and a great use of the space.

Overall, then, The Moderate Soprano is a fun comedy with dramatic aspirations it never fully realises. I liked it and I'm sure anyone who knows a bit more about opera would like it even more.

Also worth mentioning is the Hampstead Theatre itself which, honestly, I probably enjoyed more than the play. It’s is another venue crossed off my ‘to visit’ list this year and another I hope to return to. It’s a fantastic building, with crodoughs in their cafe and the most theatrically disconcerting toilets I've ever used - what more could you want?

Happiness a crodough and red wine.

I went for a wee behind Imelda Staunton. Not a phrase I ever thought I'd use.

The Moderate Soprano plays at the Hampstead Theatre until 28th November.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Theatre Review: The Hairy Ape

Here's a dirty confession for a theatre fan: until recently I'd never seen a Eugene O'Neill play.

I know right? I'm awful.

Fear not though. Thanks to The Old Vic's The Hairy Ape I have now remedied that situation and remedied it in some style.

Image source.

The Hairy Ape tells the story of Yank, a stoker on cruise liners, whose unshakable belief in his own self worth and place in society is destroyed when some rich bitch daughter of a steel millionaire calls him a filthy beast. His attempts to get his revenge on her and her whole social class are repeatedly thwarted until, broken, he seeks solace with a literal ape at the zoo. Hilarity does very much not ensue.

At this point I want to give a bit of a health warning for the rest of this piece: I have absolutely zero chill about this production. It’s amazing, I love it and everyone in the world should see it. So if you’re short on time, stop reading and go book tickets immediately. The other thing I should probably say is that, for the above stated reasons, I saw it twice and this review is my collected thoughts (‘incoherent fangirl ramblings’ might be more accurate) on both performances. 

The major drain on my chill here is Bertie Carvel whose central performance - and this is basically a one man show - as Yank is just phenomenal. The fact that, as discussed in a previous post, I very much have A Thing about Bertie Carvel notwithstanding the combination of brute physicality, violence, bravado and vulnerability he manages to pull off is genuinely astonishing. It’s a pretty boring observation to make at this point of his career, but fuck me is that guy versatile. It’s very hard for my tiny brain to compute that lumbering, angry, seemingly 7 foot tall (how do you act taller? how does that even work?) is deranged, broken Agave is tender, slightly nuts Jonathan Strange etc etc etc. And that’s amazing if you stop and think about it for even the briefest of moments. 

In this performance it’s first of all the physical transformation that’s strikingly impressive. Apart from somehow adding a foot to his height, the power Carvel's Yank has is frightening wherever you're sat. His gait, his stance, his movements are all slightly simian and all convey such pent up anger that you sort of want to leave the theatre because clearly bad shit is going to happen and this guy is going to be at the centre of it. (Also, aesthetically, WOW. Any semblance of my remaining chill was powerfully lost the second his shirt came off.) What’s less obvious but more impressive though is how, behind all of that, there’s an instant and heartbreaking vulnerability. Even though you sort of know where this play is heading, you root for Yank so hard and it’s because Carvel’s performance let’s you into this guy’s head to an extent that I doubt many other actors could manage. The scene where he’s rejected from the trade union he tries to join just broke my heart and the last scene (no spoilers) gave me such a physical reaction that I could feel my heart beating almost out of my chest both times I saw it. I don't remember reacting that way to any other performance before.

With this masterful central performance dominating the stage for basically the whole evening - the one scene that Yank isn’t in felt boring by comparison - there’s not much for the rest of the cast to do but they all do it well. Steffan Rhodri is particularly enjoyable as a nostalgic Irish drunk whose romanticism Yank can’t stand (and also delivers the play’s few funny lines, “I’m never too drunk to sing” being a favourite) and Phil Hill gives an amazingly charismatic performance as the ape, one that gives Andy Serkis and his Hollywood mo-cap magic a run for its money for sure. And the guys who get naked in the shower scene are a very welcome addition. Just saying.

The production looks stunning too, very modern in its black and yellow minimalism. The yellow storage container that serves as almost all the sets in various guises is such a clever, claustrophobic device and, more basically, it just looks quite frightening. One of the few scenes that lets the action out of the box and puts it into Fifth Avenue is also really effective and really fucking creepy, especially when the anonymous, masked posh people start doing an almost musicless, twitchy charleston. And thrusting Yank into the middle of this weirdness only makes it weirder still.

Now, there was a criticism in some of the proper grown up reviews that much of the dialogue, particularly in the first half hour or so, is difficult to make out and I think that is a valid point. Even on second viewing (/hearing) it took me a while to get my ear in and be able to fully understand the thick New York accents everyone uses and indeed are actually written into the play text. But then I have the same problem with people from Newcastle when I’ve had a few drinks and have never found it impairs my ability to enjoy their company. And so it is with this play; much like drinking with a Geordie or watching a Shakespeare you’re unfamiliar with, you may not pick up absolutely every word but neither do you for one moment lose the sense of what’s going on.

So, yeah, in summary see this show, see it now and see it repeatedly. And also go say hey to Bertie Carvel at the stage door because as well as being sickeningly talented he is also sickenkngly lovely, adorable human being. I sort of want to hate him but am physically and psychologically incapable of doing so.

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The Hairy Ape plays at The Old Vic until November 21st. Get your skates on.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Theatre Review: Waste

Christmas is still a few weeks away but the National Theatre has already found itself a nice, fat turkey.

 Shut up, I'm proud of that line.

On paper, Henry Granville Barker’s Waste (an appropriate title on oh so many levels) is very much my sort of play. Famously banned by the censor when it debuted, Waste tells the story of the implosion of the career of talented independent MP Henry Trebell, so obsessed with the Bill he has been tasked with stewarding through Parliament (disestablishment of the Church of England - thrilling stuff) that his affair with a married woman barely troubles him until she dies at the hands of a backstreet abortionist whilst trying to get rid of his child. Politics, scandal, social conscience - so many of my boxes ticked. And yet…

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Waste is unquestionably the worst thing I've ever seen at the National Theatre. To be honest, I'm struggling to think of anything I've seen at any theatre that’s much worse.

Perhaps the worst thing about this mess of a production is that it is deeply, deeply tedious. Things that may have been controversial and sexy when the play was written - lengthy debates about the relationship between Church and State, for example - are very much not anymore and nobody involved seems to have thought about how this would translate. All of the dialogue is so turgid that I think I’d turned off by the end of the second scene. The first members of the audience walked out after about half an hour.

This is not helped by the fact that the plot and the characters are so clichéd and facile that a twelve year old could have been responsible. I'm not sure why the characters are even given names to be honest. They’re so one dimensional that they may as well just be called Idealist Crushed By The Man, Plucky Northern Industrialist, Nasty Establishment Prime Minister, Spinster Sister, Outsider Who Tells It Like It Is and so on. It’d be much easier to remember. The plot plods along to a singularly inevitable conclusion with all the excitement of watching beige paint dry and the lazy attempts at making satirical points (‘he’s an ideas man and we don’t need those in politics hahahahahahahahaha’) might have been edgy a hundred years ago but now have all wit of a particularly dull concrete pillar.

Further pain is heaped on the poor, unsuspecting audience (a good chunk of whom had left in the interval and frankly I wish I’d joined them) by performances that can be charitably described as patchy. Charles Edwards does his best with what he’s given in the lead role, though he’s hardly the most convincing charismatic politician I've ever seen, but beyond that there’s very little to praise. Even the usually excellent Olivia Williams is shrill and annoying as the wronged mistress, though hardly helped by some particularly insipid lines. For reasons best known to someone else, a lot of the cast deliver their lines as if. There is a. Full stop. After every second. Or third. Word. And the actors playing the ‘establishment’ figures employ the sort of ‘politician’ accents and delivery that should just be banned in professional theatre.

A final mention must go to the setting which at best looks half finished and at most actively broken. My particular favourite is the series of mechanical walls that move across the stage to mask the changes of scene, which would be a neat device did they not move so slowly that I genuinely thought they’d broken down completely on a number of occasions. Though to be fair they did provide the one genuine moment of drama of the evening when towards the end of the second act they opened and closed so slowly that you could hear the audience (further depleted by people leaving during the second act) wondering aloud whether the play had finished. And of course the SYMBOLIC WASTE PAPER BASKET (I'm writing it the way I assume it must’ve been written in the stage direction) which should win some kind of special prize for the clunkiest, least subtle metaphor in the history of theatre. When it was revealed that it was still on the stage, just knocked over, during the curtain call I got serious giggles which I suspect was not the intention.

I don’t particularly enjoy slagging off productions to this extent (I'm lying) but there’s really nothing to admire in this production. Don’t waste your time and money on it, unless you’re someone I don’t like in which case I'm sure you’d enjoy it.

If you still want to see Waste for some reason, it plays at the Lyttleton at the NT until March 19th.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Theatre Review: As You Like It

I'm not a big fan of Shakespearean comedy.

With the notable exception of Much Ado About Nothing, I just don’t find it that funny. Maybe it’s unfamiliarity (I only ever read the tragedies at school), maybe I've been unlucky with the productions I've seen or maybe it’s just my sense of humour. I don’t know, they’re just not usually my bag.

But it’s always lovely to have your expectations confounded and the NT’s production of As You Like It does just that.

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The central plot of AYLI is the story of star crossed lovers Rosalind and Orlando who fall in love at first sight but are split when both are forced to flee for their lives into the mysterious Forest of Arden. Complications (and occasional hilarity) ensue but ultimately they are reunited, get married and live happily ever after. Aw.

So far so Disney. But where this production, directed by Polly Findlay, excels is in playing down the syrup - and to an extent the humour - and playing up the naturalism.

This approach isn't unproblematic. For one thing it makes the purely comedic characters, Touchstone in particular, very out of place and consequently largely unfunny, which is a shame as Mark Benton (playing Touchstone) is a great comedy actor who gets robbed of the potential to be a really great Shakespearean clown. It also makes the pre-Forest portion of the play feel oddly disjointed. The action is transported to a technicolour cliché of an office, where random characters wander about for no logical reason, and overlong wrestling matches are staged. It feels like it belongs in another, much less good, production altogether and left me convinced I was going to have a fairly miserable evening.

But the change of setting to the Forest of Arden breathes new life into the production and introduces the real star - the incredible design. The transformation between the two locations is stunning and the undoubted highlight of the show. Rows of office chairs, desks and lamps, connected by previously unseen chains, are dragged upwards so they hang from the ceiling to create the trees of the forest. Cast members dressed all in black climb into the trees where they remain, creating a surprisingly effective soundscape (wind through the trees, animal noises, bird song, raindrops) for the rest of the night. It’s inventive minimalism at its most beautiful - award nominations for designer Lizzie Clachan, please - the only downside of which is that it rather overshadows the action onstage.

Which is a shame as much of said action is really rather good, especially where the delightful Patsy Ferran is involved. Ferran is a near-perfect Celia. Playful and deadpan, she steals every scene she’s in and, importantly, offers a much more convincing articulation of the punchdrunk love that drives this play’s plot than any of the rest of the cast. Rosalie Craig is a decidedly modern Rosalind, particularly good as her male alter ego, and Joe Bannister an effectingly lovelorn Orlando, though both could do with an injection of the sort of joyous, maddening love that Ferran is so good at. Paul Chahidi has a couple of gorgeous moments as Jaques, his ‘all the world’s a stage’ speech is really beautiful (even if some stupid fuck let their phone ring through it the night we were in), though overall he struggles to make much of an impression, or that much sense of his character. And massive kudos are due to the supporting cast who provide, amongst other things, my second favourite moment of the night as they appear en masse as a flock of sheep, on hands and knees wearing white woolly jumpers. It’s as gorgeously silly and irreverent as it sounds.

Despite my misgivings, I really enjoyed this production and found it surprisingly clear for a text that I had never encountered before. It didn't completely convince me of the merits of Shakespeare as a comedy writer, but it’s fun, inventive and just so beautiful. Well worth your time.

As You Like It plays in the Olivier theatre at the NT until 5th March.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Theatre Review: Teddy Ferrara

It’s really difficult to write an engaging review for a play on which your main opinion is ‘that was ok’, as I suspect I'm about to prove.

(Look, bear with me on this one, ok? There’s a nice Sweet Valley High reference coming up that I think you’ll enjoy.)

Anyway, after an enforced hiatus from theatre going cause by that peskiest of things, real life commitments, it was back into the swing of things and off to the Donmar Warehouse - which I love - to see Teddy Ferrera.

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Written by American dramatist Christopher Shinn, Teddy Ferrara tells the story of a group of students at an American university which is shocked by a series of suicides of gay students. But you can largely ignore that. This play places ideas firmly over narrative: belonging, victimhood, the role of technology in social interaction being top of the list. And it desperately wants you to know that. It’s trying so hard to tell you that it practically slaps you in the face with its earnestness, often to the point where you want to slap it back and tell it to sit down because it’s embarrassing itself. Loathe as I am to quote from it, The Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish has it right when he says this play feels like its own post-show discussion rather than the show itself. Or to put it another way, as I overheard the gay couple sat behind us describe it, “it felt like a game of gay bingo”.

I so wish I’d thought of that line because it’s true. Every classic LGBTQ stereotype is present, correct and unsubtle. This would be a much more interesting play if it tried to subvert any of these stereotypes instead of just mentioning Grindr, the internet or Abercrombie and Fitch models every ten minutes. There is no real depth here. At all. The play is trying so hard to be relevant (‘microaggression! Trigger warnings! Dance party!’) and inclusive that it occasionally veers dangerously close to self parody, something which is not helped by the fact that the dialogue tends towards Sweet Valley High (showing my age there) levels of complexity and nuance.

It’s also not helped by a truly leaden ending which isn't really an ending at all. It’s more just that the play stops, leaving several plotlines hanging in the air in a way that suggests the author got bored and gave up. It’s incredibly frustrating and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth for the audience who have given up the last two hours of their evening in the hope of some kind of satisfying resolution. And I'm sure that if the ending had been better I would be more charitably disposed and prepared to overlook all of the stuff I've spent the last three paragraphs complaining about.

All of that said there this is by no means a terrible production and the main redeeming features come in the form of a small but strong ensemble cast. My favourite character was Matthew Marsh’s university President, stumbling his way through the social issues the play crosses off its bingo card with a very relatable mixture of genuine concern, pragmatism and bafflement. The play sets him up as a ridiculous figure indicative of The Man and all of his incumbent evils (he’s even a politician!) but I found him quite sympathetic - and I suspect everyone who has ever been involved in student politics would probably agree with me, even if not out loud. He has all of the play’s limited supply of best lines (I particularly enjoyed this exchange with his long suffering Provost: ‘how long before someone says microaggression? Five minutes?’ ‘just try not to commit any’ ‘that’s impossible’) and provides some sorely needed laughs and energy to the production. In a title role that offers sadly little stage time, Ryan McParland gives a masterclass in character acting as an awkward, struggling misfit. And in the play’s biggest part, Luke Newberry manages to cut through some of the earnestness and give us a genuinely believable and sympathetic figure to root for. It’s all the more frustrating that his story is the one the play’s lack of ending fails to resolve.

Overall, then, a mixed bag of a night out but one that I can 100% guarantee you’ll be able to get tickets for. We went to the tiny 250-odd seat Donmar on a Friday night to see Teddy Ferrara and the place was half empty (more than half after the interval). Neither that fact nor this post are a ringing endorsement of the production, but if you want a not awful, last minute night at the theatre then this is a very good bet.

Teddy Ferrara plays at the Donmar Warehouse until 5th December.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Theatre Review: Bakkhai

This may come as a surprise to you but I am not a cool person.

I know how shocking this revelation is so I’ll give you a moment to recover.

Ok? Good. 

Not being a cool person makes me very suspicious of places like Islington, where I believe that at least one type of cool person tribe lives. Consequently I’d never been to The Almeida theatre before this week.

The Almeida is definitely a cool person’s theatre. Teeny tiny and with the apparently currently cool aversion to armrests (seriously, I'm getting so sick of the War on Armrests that some London theatres seem to be intent on waging. What did the poor armrest ever do to us except make sitting down more comfortable?), The Almeida is currently home to a season of ancient Greek plays, the latest of which is Bakkhai.

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For reasons, well a reason, that shall become apparent I desperately wanted to love Bakkhai. But I just couldn't. Not all of it, anyway.

You see, there’s a really good piece of theatre trapped within this production that just isn't given the chance to escape. And the thing trapping it is the interminable sung Chorus, done in traditional ancient Greek style as a group who speak and sing all of their lines in unison. 

Whilst technically impressive - and there should be no question that getting a reasonably sized group of diverse voiced women to sing in complete unison without a conductor is impressive - there’s just too much Chorus in what is a very short play by modern standards. Like, way too much Chorus. I would say at least 70% too much Chorus. The songs they sing are instantly forgettable (there was one about nets I think? Possibly I'm making that up but I'm running with it for the rest of this post), excessively long and frustratingly impenetrable - a particular shame given how clear this updated version of the classic text is otherwise. There are also far too many songs. They become boring very quickly, to the extent that I realised reasonably early on that I would happily give up Dionysus’ best invention (wine; lovely, lovely wine) forever if it meant that the Chorus would shut the fuck up. The man sitting next to me fell asleep whilst they were singing. Twice. Seems I wasn't the only one who wasn't a fan.

It’s a real shame that the Chorus kill this show so quickly and entirely because there is something quite special going on at the heart of it, and it’s called Bertie Carvel. 

Now look, I fucking LOVE Bertie Carvel, the latest recipient of my obsessive affections (see also: Kenneth Branagh, Michael Ball, Dominic West), and so I recognise that I’m biased. But, man, he is extraordinary in Bakkhai. I use the word extraordinary in both senses: 1) very, very good and 2) very, very weird. Doing double duty as shrewd politician Pentheus (both in and out of drag, and my personal thanks to the costume person who bought the slightly too tight shirt that Pentheus wears initially because WOW) and his unhinged, Dionysus-following mother Agave, he is quietly electrifying whenever he is on stage. His performance is a masterclass in understatement. His Pentheus is so still and controlled, at least at first, that he is instantly much more frightening than anything more bombastic would be. Even the drag sequence (where once again I come face to face with a man who walks in heels better than me) is played quietly and with some incredibly well attuned interaction with the audience. His Agave is heart rending, and again so subtly - and unexpectedly - played. There must be a serious temptation to play Agave, who *spoiler alert* has just brutally murdered Pentheus in a fit of Dionysian madness, as a raging screaming madwoman but this temptation is neatly side stepped in favour of a quiet but consuming grief and despair which is surprisingly beautiful. Almost as beautiful infact as Bertie Carvel’s shoulders which are displayed to great effect in Agave’s silk slip. But that’s by the by. This is great performance (performances?) that is definitely worth the ticket price and, more importantly, sitting through many lengthy songs about nets. And frankly I think any actor who is prepared to go on stage every night and murder himself deserves our support. Imagine the existential crises this must induce. 

For my money Bertie Carvel’s performance is far more interesting than top billed star Ben Whishaw’s, who plays more parts but with less variation. His Dionysus is great, with a creepy sensuality that’s a great foil for straight laced Pentheus and that dissolves to reveal a frightening fury in the final scenes, but his other parts (he also has old seer Tiresias and Pentheus’ slave who reports his death, Basil Exposition in Austin Powers style) are more forgettable. To put it another way, I was still thinking about Pentheus/Agave two days after seeing the show (and not just because of Bertie Carvel’s shoulders and too tight shirt) whereas I don’t think I've given Dionysus a second thought.

I suppose my overall feeling on this production of Bakkhai is that there’s a great play, fantastically acted, trapped within a mediocre musical. If you want a musical about Dionysus, check out Stephen Sondheim’s The Frogs which is all kinds of awesome. It you want to see some top class acting (and shoulders) and don’t mind sitting through some songs about nets, then this Bakkhai is for you. But you’ll have to move quickly as it's almost sold out and finishes next week. Sorry about that.

Bakkhai is on at The Almeida until 19th September.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Theatre Review: Our Country's Good

Timberlake Wertenbaker must be the best name in the world.

I think I like it mostly because it sounds like it could be the name of a particularly difficult technical challenge on Great British Bake Off. Like, a 28 tier meringue construction topped with caramel and spun sugar or something. Which I would totally eat by the way. But I digress.

Wertenbaker’s (it’s even fun to type!) most famous play is Our Country’s Good. Telling the story of a group of transported convicts and the soldiers who are forced to accompany them, Our Country’s Good is a celebration of the importance and redemptive potential of the arts, and of rehabilitative justice more generally. In the current economic and political climate it feels like an extremely timely and relevant piece to be occupying one of the stages of the National Theatre. Plus as a fully paid up member of the bleeding heart liberal club on both crime and arts funding it’s a piece which very much speaks to my confirmation bias.

Central to the plot is a planned performance of George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer (intertextuality and a play within a play - you can tell this is an A Level set text!) put on by a cast of convicts under the direction of ambitious Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark at the suggestion of the new and (relatively speaking) progressive Governor of New South Wales. The Governor sees his role as helping the convicts’ rehabilitation so that one day they will be able to form a functioning community in his territory and believes that encouraging their education is a key part of that. On the other side of the coin is the cruel and authoritarian Major Ross who cares not a jot for any kind of education or rehabilitation of the convicts in his charge; they are there to be punished and control, and the only way to achieve that is through fear, violence and hangings galore.

Whilst Ross and the Governor could arguably be better described as personifications of particular points of view rather than fully developed characters - although both Peter Forbes and Cyril Nri respectively are great with the material they’re given, Forbes especially as a frighteningly brutal Ross - Ralph Clark is more interesting. Clark takes the job of directing the play purely to advance his own career, having been overlooked by the Governor for a long time having failed to carve out a niche for himself amongst the soldiers. He is emotionally closed, deeply (entertainingly) sexually repressed and a fairly unremarkable, shy, priggish soldier. Seeing the changes that working on the play together as a community bring to his company of largely illiterate criminals, though, he starts to change too. He becomes more humane and outspoken, challenging Ross’ brutality and standing up for his play and his cast to anyone who tries to do it down. He also becomes more open, caring about his cast as human beings and, ultimately (predictably), falling in love with one of them.

Jason Hughes, AKA Sergeant Jones off of Midsomer Murders, the best of Tom Barnaby’s sidekicks and anyone who disagrees has bad opinions, is a decent Ralph too. Although his ‘love story’ scenes feel a bit stilted (not entirely his fault, this part of the main plot was for me by far its weakest), he is an excellent increasingly-less-reluctant director, especially in the rehearsal scenes in act one which are undoubtedly the highlight of the play, and his growing empathy and spine in the latter scenes is deeply compelling. He also gets some fantastic lines which he has a lot of fun with, the passionate proclamation that “anyone who can’t pay attention shouldn’t go to the theatre” being a particular highlight for fairly obvious reasons.

Although this story is fairly simple and predictable it still makes for a compelling and coherent piece of drama. The same cannot be said of the subplot about one of the working class officers, Harry Brewer (Paul Kaye adding to his CV of long haired madmen with this very well realised but ultimately pretty pointless entry), and another convict, Duckling, the point of which I fail to really understand (something about freedom, I guess?) I could've quite happily lived with this largely unrelated and not especially fulfilling, until its bitter end, diversion being cut altogether. Maybe the subplot wouldn't have felt so out of place had this production not dispensed with the play’s usual casting principle of having the majority of the actors play both a convict and a soldier to emphasise how trapped both groups were. Giving the production a greater emphasis on the idea of freedom in this way would probably have helped tie the various strands together more neatly, I think.

Niggles aside the production is technically very clever - making excellent yet subtle use of the Olivier’s drum stage - great to look at (I loved the painted backdrop; so beautiful) and benefits from a great atmospheric rootsy/folksy/bluesy soundtrack by Cerys Matthews of Catatonia fame who I fucking LOVE. It’s hard to believe it’s her first foray into writing for the stage and I really hope it’s not her last. The ensemble cast is really strong and the inclusion of bona fide folk musicians to get the most from Matthews’ songs is an act of minor genius.

Despite my reservations, then, I really enjoyed Our Country’s Good and still think it’s an important piece to be staged and seen right now. And I feel like I have another loyalty stamp on my bleeding heart liberal membership card for having seen it. Definitely worth a look.

Our Country’s Good plays in the Olivier theatre at the NT until 17th October.


Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Theatre Review: Mack and Mabel

As previously noted elsewhere on this blog, my love for Michael Ball is difficult to overstate.

He was the first name on My List of Celebrity Obsessions and has held his place there since I discovered the original London cast recording of Les Miserables about sixteen (SIXTEEN!) years ago. I go and see him in any and every show he does. I even saw the achingly blah The Woman in White twice because of him. I am that dedicated.

This summer sees my main man playing the lead in Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of Mack and Mabel. The show tells the true (to an extent) story of the rise and fall of silent film director Mack Sennett and his muse/lover Mabel Normand. It’s quite a sad story without the happy ending or the big finish and, honestly, is not an obvious topic for a musical. Not that that matters of course - unlikelier shows have been written. As, sadly, have better shows. Many, many, better shows.

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Mack and Mabel is not a good musical. The music isn't especially memorable for one thing - by the morning after our trip to see this production I had almost entirely forgotten all but one of the songs. The bigger problem is the book though, which runs out of steam somewhere in the middle of Act 1 so that what we’re left with for the rest of the show is long bouts of exposition, usually in the form of a Mack monologue (Mackalogue?), that try to move the plot along sandwiched in between production numbers that stop it dead. The second act suffers in particular from this and the attempts to build up to a tragic finale are as a result completely neutered. As Paul Hollywood would say, it’s got some issues.

I found the characterisation problematic too - Mack and Mabel are both obvious caricatures and both very hard to like (he’s a shit, she’s annoying). The portrayal of Mabel is pretty depressing too; a trailblazing early pioneer of female film-making in real life, in the show she becomes a lovestruck, talentless airhead with no agency of her own (one man makes her a star, another makes her a drug addict), only a couple of solos and probably a third of the lines that Mack has. There’s an essay about how kick ass the real Mabel was in the programme that is far more interesting than anything she does on stage. It’s a thankless role for an actress, one that wasn't helped in this production on the night I saw it by the fact that its Mabel (Rebecca LaChance), whilst pleasingly spunky, had some pretty obvious tuning issues. Hashtag pitchy.

Luckily, there are a lot of redeeming features that ensure that this production is still a lot of fun. A lot of the credit here has to go to choreographer Stephen Mear (of the current Chichester/West End Gypsy fame) whose routines are as spectacular as they are innovative, particularly in the really big production numbers. Big Time and Bathing Beauties in the first act and Tap Your Troubles Away in the second are particular highlights and the slapstick sequences, the Keystone Cops one especially, whilst not really my cup of tea are really well executed. The excitement that these routines produce makes the two hour run time fly by and dazzle enough to make sure that by the time you realise that the plot is dying on its arse you no longer care because ‘look, more dancing’.

There are some great performances too. Let’s not deny that this show could accurately title itself as ‘Mack and Mabel: The Michael Ball Show’ and, even without any particular depth of character to work with, he is an ace Mack. Slimy, vulnerable, wryly funny and, ultimately, sadly knowing he does his best with the material he has and certainly imbues Mack with more personality than he should have on paper. Vocally it goes without saying he owns the room and there’s always something illicitly thrilling about seeing someone who in my mind is amongst the nicest men in the world playing someone fundamentally dislikable (see also: 2012’s Sweeney Todd with which I am fucking obsessed). Pretty decent American accent too - who knew?

He’s backed up by an impressively versatile ensemble and some great supporting performances, particularly Anna-Jane Casey who’s fantastic fun as Lottie, and utterly owns her Tap Your Troubles Away routine to the extent that I sort of wanted to rush the stage and give her a high five, and Gunnar Cauthery who provides a much needed dose of heart and sincerity as sensitive writer Frank. I also enjoyed Mark Inscoe’s William Desmond Taylor who I think we’re supposed to regard as the villain but is actually one of the more charismatically likeable characters for my money, even if he is a major sleaze.

Overall, then, a really strong production of a really weak show. Worth a look, especially if you’re a Michael Ball fan - and if you’re not a Michael Ball fan then you have bad opinions. The Chichester Festival Theatre is lovely too - modern, roomy, efficient - and is a great bet for catching West End quality shows at non-West End prices (we paid £26 each for an off-centre third row of the stalls, difficult to argue with that).

Mack and Mabel is at the Chichester Festival Theatre until September 5th, after which it tours (and transfers to the West End?).

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Theatre Review: High Society

One of the things I love about the theatre is you never know how you’re going to react to a production.

Regardless of how well you know the show, the cast, the creative team, the theatre or anything else, what happens when the curtain rises always has the potential to completely defy your expectations - good or bad.

Case in point: the Old Vic’s High Society. On paper, this is a production that I should love - Cole Porter, a big old fashioned musical, big band-ish music, set in the 1950s, lots of stuff that ticks my boxes. But, to coin a phrase, shows aren't staged on paper and on the stage, this production didn't quite reach all of my boxes. (That sounds weird. You know what I mean.)

Image source.

It did reach some though and, for me, the undisputed star of this production is Nathan Wright’s dazzling choreography, particularly in the set piece production numbers. The absolute highlight of the show by some margin is the sequence built around ‘Let’s Misbehave’ in which the combination of some of the most energetic choreography I've seen in London, ever, with a dazzling piano duel between the show’s top drawer musical director Theo Jamieson and jazz pianist Joe Stilgoe (huge kudos to whoever made space for him in the production - he’s mindblowingly good in this sequence) and a virtuoso piano-top tap routine from the nauseatingly-talented-yet-somehow-fresh-out-of-drama-school Omari Douglas is amongst the most thrilling ten minutes of a musical I've seen. Worth the price of a ticket alone? Not quite, not at Old Vic prices, but damn close.

The cast, too, is uniformly good. The stand out, again by some margin, is Kate Fleetwood who is a sparkling Tracy Lord, perfectly capturing the many contradictions and layers of what is a very complex character (especially in a show where most of the other characters are more or less one dimensional). She has a gorgeous voice and a natural flair for comedy which elevate some of the key sequences hugely. And she’s a very convincing drunk. Rupert Young - voice as smooth as a very smooth thing - is similarly good as Tracy’s love match Dexter, positively dripping coolness and heart in equal measure. Barbara Flynn draws every ounce of comedy from her pretty unsubstantial role as Tracy’s long suffering mother and Jamie Parker is typically charismatic (though a resoundingly unconvincing drunk) as frustrated writer Mike Connor, hoovering up most of the best one liners and delivering them with an enjoyable swagger. And the ensemble cast of miscellaneous servants/posh people are fantastic, carrying off much of the heavy lifting where the choreography is concerned without putting a foot wrong, literally or figuratively.

For all that, though, I struggled to get particularly excited about the show as a whole. At the most fundamental level I don’t like the plot, or many of the characters, which is obviously a problem that no production would be able to overcome. This production in particular deals with the plot in a slightly uneven way. Directed by musical superstar Maria Friedman - which explains why the musical sequences of the show are so much its strongest suit - the entire first act feels like the set-up for a punchline that the second act doesn't quite deliver on. To put it another way, the first act starts to set up a farce but doesn't actually contain any farce, the second act then drops said promised farce (I really like the word farce) and carries on down a different, more serious, path.

The consequence of this is that I never felt that the plot really got going, something that wasn't helped by the fact there are just too many songs in this show. Right, now I'm aware how batshit mental that sounds as a complaint about a musical. But there were so many musical numbers in this production - which, if my understanding is correct, is a choice made by Arthur Kopit who adapted the film of High Society for the stage and not the way Cole Porter originally wrote it - that even though they were all very well done I just got bored of them. It’s almost like the decision had been taken (whether by Kopit, Porter or someone else doesn't really matter) to just cram in as many Cole Porter songs as possible - I'm amazed that Anything Goes didn't crop up, frankly - and just squish the narrative in around them. I found it intensely frustrating as by the end of the two and a half hours I had had enough of the best part of the show - the music.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I think High Society is a bad show because it demonstrably isn't. I just didn't think it was a great one either, even if it does have some great moments. Worth a look, but not a must see.

Oh, and if you do go get in your seats early as Joe Stilgoe’s pre-show warm up is fab.

High Society is at the Old Vic until 22nd August.