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.