Wednesday, 21 December 2016

2016 Theatre: Top 10 Performances

Pulling together a list of my favourite performances in 2016 was tougher than usual since so many of my favourite productions were ensemble pieces.

But no effort is too great for my readers, all three of you, and there were some standout performances from both expected and less expected places this year.

So, in rough order...

Harriet Walter
Shakespeare Trilogy, Donmar Warehouse
Utter legend in being legendary non-surprise but still by far the best performance (performances technically) of the year. The range and depth of Walter’s skill in these three plays was astonishing. A force of nature. (Also her book on playing Shakespeare is ace.)

Helen McCrory
The Deep Blue Sea, National Theatre
Another performance I fully expected to be excellent which was in fact excellent, even more excellent than I’d expected. Providing the fragile heart and surprisingly strong soul of this all round fantastic production, McCrory is just one of the best actresses around in any medium. Seeing her on stage is always a joy.

Elizabeth Marsh
Iron, Theatre By The Lake
The extreme wildcard of this list and a revelation in a very unexpected place (the Lake District). A timely reminder that there is theatrical life beyond London - far, far beyond London in this case - and an absolutely killer central performance, pun intended, in a play I’d like to see again. One of the most raw and vulnerable performances I’ve seen and all the more powerful for it.

James McArdle
Platonov, Young Chekhov, Chichester Festival Theatre/National Theatre
If Chekhov isn’t supposed to be funny then no one told James McArdle. A perfectly pitched, tragi-comic romp of a production that anchored Platonov and gave it depth as well as a genuine sense of uncontrollable fun. Cannot wait to see more of this dude in Angels in America next year.

Danny Sapani
Les Blancs, National Theatre
I liked Sapani the last time I saw him (Jason to Helen McCrory’s Medea at the NT, funnily enough) and I loved him in this. A performance of great dignity and greater anguish, he elevated an already great production into something really special indeed. More of him please.

Lucian Msamati
Amadeus, National Theatre
One of my favourite actors continuing to prove why he gets that billing. An incredibly demanding role, and one that had it been miscast would have killed the production dead before it reached the rehearsal room, handled with the utmost ease, humour and emotional clout. I genuinely love this man a little bit.

Andy Karl
Groundhog Day, Old Vic
That Karl is headlining the Groundhog Day Broadway transfer will come as no surprise to anyone who saw the London run. A riotous joy of cynicism, humour and unsentimental emotion with a killer singing voice and excellent hair who carried this show with apparently no effort.

Ralph Fiennes
Richard III, Almeida 
You can’t go too far wrong when you combine Shakespeare and Ralph Fiennes. Such was the case with his greasy, charismatic and dangerous Richard III. It was also a thrill to see him in a space as intimate as the Almeida. Close up Ralph Fiennes is the best Ralph Fiennes.

Tamsin Greig
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, or iHo, Hampstead Theatre
The emotional heart of this production was undoubtedly Greig’s Empty. The scenes between her and her ailing father were incredibly poignant and, perhaps more remarkably, incredibly real.

Paapa Essiedu
Hamlet, RSC
It’s so refreshing to see Hamlet played by someone who’s actually the right age to play him. Essiedu is a superstar in the making and seeing what I hope will be his big break was a thrill. Great production, greater Hamlet.

Theatre Review: Art

As premises for comedies go, an argument over whether or not someone should give house room to a white painting - white lines on a white canvass - must be one of the more leftfield. That it’s author is French should perhaps come as no surprise.

Welcome to the world of Art, the modern classic black comedy which has been performed around the world in approximately eight billion productions. Ok so that may be a slight exaggeration, but it's fair to say it has been done a lot. With the Old Vic's new production introducing a new cast to the original 1996 West End creative team, is it really still worth anyone's time? Pleasingly, yes it is.

Translated by Christopher Hampton from Yasmina Reza's French original, Art tells the story of three friends, one of whom buys a ridiculously expensive white painting. The reactions of the other two leads to the near disintegration of their friendship. It is a comedy but, like many of the best comedies, there is a viciousness, a seriousness and a darkness at its heart.

Though there have been many Art casts down the years, this one is a welcome addition to the list. Paul Ritter is acerbically great as arch frenemy Marc, his dry one liners delivered with the appropriate amount of affection and malice. Rufus Sewell is a joyously unsympathetic Serge, all faux warmth and righteous indignation (and achingly attractive but that’s by the by). Tim Key is the star though as Yvan, the only character who’s not an utter shit. Key laps up the audience’s sympathy through a combination of everyman affability and understandable neuroses. For those who know the play, his wedding invitation breakdown is an absolute joy and the unquestionable highlight of the production.

The original creative team have certainly aged well too. Notably praiseworthy amongst those is the Old Vic’s Artistic Director Matthew Warchus who directs here and does it with considerable aplomb. The pacing of the production, not something I usually immediately notice unless it’s wrong, is immaculate; pacey but not rushed. And the simple design, unchanged as far as I can tell from the mid-90s original, is still deceptively simple and effective.

Yasmina Reza’s writing is great - punchy, relatable and very funny. There are some fantastic, memorable lines; 'life denying woman' is my new favourite insult for example. In the post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-truth age the play’s focus on how people react to being disagreed with feels very relevant and the emotional punches it draws out of this premise are fantastically vivid. My only small criticism is that it does very obviously sound like a translation, which of course it is, in that some of the dialogue and particularly the monologues sound a bit clunky to a native English ear. But that doesn’t detract from the overall effect though and is really just me nitpicking.

Having never seen another production of Art I can’t say where this sits in the league table. However, judged on its own merits this production is great: very funny, brutal, pacey and a fab night out.

Art plays at the Old Vic until 18th February.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

2016 Theatre: My Top 10 Shows

Never has a year needed theatre more than the clusterfuck that has been 2016.

I mean Jesus Christ what a shower. Where do you even start, or indeed finish, on the list of terrible things that have happened? The election of the world’s most unpresidented man as the most powerful man in the world is surely the highlight but the rest of the list is far too long to even embark on. So let’s not. Let’s go for a happier list.

Perhaps it’s a reaction to 2016, but there are an unusually high number of upbeat musicals in my top 10 this year. There’s also a pleasing amount of heavyweight drama, enough to make me feel culturally superior in a deeply snobbish way.

Here’s the list, in rough order...

Into the Woods
Fiasco/Menier Chocolate Factory
Genuinely unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and quite possibly unlike anything I’ll see again, there is no end to the love I have for this production. And indeed this company. Probably the thing I loved most, quite apart from the extraordinary talent of the cast and their beautiful interpretation of one of Sondheim’s lushest scores, was the joy that oozed from every cast member and every moment of the show. The perfect antidote to 2016.

Shakespeare Trilogy
Donmar Warehouse
Staying with the theme of uniqueness, I have never seen clearer or more revelatory productions of Shakespeare. The setting of the three chosen plays in a women’s prison, framing the stories within the semi-fictional life stories of the prisoners was a masterstroke that clarified the text and key themes so well. One of those productions that can genuinely be described as an experience, and a privilege to have seen.

Show Boat
Sheffield Crucible/West End
No particular prizes for uniqueness here, other than the sheer quality of this utter babe of a production. Looked stunning, sounded stunning, a superlative cast and a knockout score played perfectly. Joyous.

Guys and Dolls
Chichester Festival Theatre/West End
This was the first thing I saw this year and, evidently, has hardly been bettered. Again, a tremendous production of a killer show with a fantastic cast. The choreography gets a special mention too, the presence of Carlos Acosta as a choreographer was certainly not wasted. And Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat was perfect.

The Deep Blue Sea
National Theatre
At the less happy clappy end of the scale but no less enjoyable for that. A dream cast delivering an acting masterclass on a set that could’ve walked straight off a film and a play that I loved a lot. Such a powerful, sad but ultimately affirming production. The pick of a reasonably strong year at the NT too.

Groundhog Day
Old Vic
Fair to say I was sceptical about this one but my goodness what a lovely surprise. The genius of Tim Minchin’s music and another knockout cast won me over totally, along with innovative staging and a general air of irreverent fun. Will surely blow everyone away when it transfers to Broadway next year.

Young Chekhov
Chichester Festival Theatre/National Theatre
Another trilogy, another triumph. Superbly acted across the board with an extra star in the incredible, beautiful set. Who knew the Olivier stage could be a lake? As a non-Chekhovian I really went to see these productions because I felt I should, not because I wanted to. It was an exceptionally nice surprise to enjoy them so much.

National Theatre
An absolute joy of a production, and a fitting love letter to the power and joy of music. Whoever decided to do the whole thing with a live orchestra, the exceptional Southbank Sinfonia, should also get some kind of small award.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, or iHo
Hampstead Theatre
Included not only because I love the title, this was a funny, touching, real production that was deeply affecting and fantastically staged. I never expected to enjoy a play where so many people spent so much time speaking over each other could work so well.

Les Blancs
National Theatre
Yael Farber’s NT directorial debut was a stunner. A depressing stunner, but a stunner nonetheless. Perhaps depressing is the wrong word. Moving is probably what I mean. Another great example of what can be achieved by an innovative design on the Olivier stage too.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Theatre Review: the Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy

It says a lot about the Donmar Warehouse’s Shakespeare Trilogy that it’s been three weeks (shut up, I’ve been busy) since I spent my Saturday huddled in their temporary, chilly, Kings Cross home and yet I can still remember the productions well enough to write a blog post about them.

The main thing that it says of course is that these productions are exceptional and I loved them to bits. Spoiler alert.

But then is it really a spoiler given the first third of this trilogy, Phyllida Lloyd’s prison-set all female Julius Caesar, is now four years old? And the second third, Phyllida Lloyd’s prison-set all female Henry IV, is two years old. In a shocking development, the new final third of the trilogy is Phyllida Lloyd’s prison-set all female The Tempest. All three utilise the same cast, anchored by the mighty Harriet Walter, and the same technique of framing the plays within the stories of the women prisoners who populate the prison setting. Or to put it another way, the actors are playing prisoners playing the Shakespeare characters; the Shakespeare becomes plays within the plays.

This is one of the too-many-to-list things about these productions that make them so powerful. The interplay between the plays, the fictional actresses playing in them and their stories is incredibly effectively executed and used, intruding on the plays at key moments to up the drama and the emotional ante. Particularly in the second two thirds of the Trilogy the prisoners’ stories intermingle with the Shakespeare with incredible power. I don’t want to go into too much detail, because spoilers, but the moments in Henry IV and The Tempest where the prisoners playing Falstaff and Prospero’s respective realities burst through the play are probably the most impactful moments of theatre I’ve seen this year.

Much is understandably made of the fact that the casts for all three plays in the Trilogy are completely female. Certainly some of the ‘I’m just a weak and feeble woman’ nonsense you almost always get in a Shakespeare play is illuminated by having a woman’s mouth speaking it. But the more interesting point the casting makes is how universal the themes in these plays are. Any person can become a Caesarian demagogue and any person can rebel against them. The gender is entirely unimportant. Of course the women’s prison setting also makes the casting a necessity and as such instantly removes any questions from the audience’s mind about the suitability of women playing these parts, if indeed anyone had any. It’s another way that the setting helps to shine a spotlight on plot and character, and clarify the plays. The two hour run times help also in this regard.

The main thing of note about this cast though is that they are without exception mind blowingly good. Harriet Walter is nothing short of a force of nature as Brutus, Henry IV and Prospero respectively. Prospero is probably the highlight, utilising Walter’s incredible capacity for pathos to conjure something uniquely sad and touching (and making the most of some of Shakespeare’s most interesting and beautiful poetry). Her prisoner character is also the most effectively wrought - and the saddest, a political prisoner on a life sentence with no hope of parole. Her meltdown in The Tempest is awful but amazing to witness. Sophie Stanton is a revelation as Falstaff in Henry IV, funny and sad with an excellent line in Donald Trump jokes (I think these may be additions to the original text…) who, again, works equally hard and delivers the scene of the day in the brief appearance of her prisoner character. Jacky Clune (highlight: a dangerous, magnetic Caesar), Jade Anouka (equally good as Marc Antony, Harry Hotspur and Ariel) and Clare Dunne (highlight: a hypnotic Prince Hal) also standout in what is surely the strongest ensemble in London at the moment. Or at almost any moment in fact.

There are many other awesome things about this production that I’m not going to go into - the brutal, discomforting design, the clever use of lighting, video and music, the fact that the venue and the front of house staff are just lovely - because otherwise we’d be here all day.

Suffice it to say that theatre rarely gets any better than this. The Shakespeare Trilogy is a marvel. I wonder if I’ll ever connect as strongly with the big man than I did watching it?

The Shakespeare Trilogy plays at the King’s Cross Theatre until December 17th. It’s day returns only at this point, but 100% worth queuing for if you can.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Theatre Review: Amadeus

Sometimes all it takes is the poster for a show for me to be able to think without a shadow of a doubt 'yes, that is for me'.

As wrong as it may be to judge a book by its cover, my theatrical gut is rarely wrong (let's not talk about The Entertainer). As soon as I saw the poster for the NT's new production of Amadeus I knew I was going to love it. And I was 100% correct to think that.

There were two things that immediately jumped out of me from the poster (come-programme cover) that inspired my certainty. The first, and the most obvious, was the play itself. As everyone and their dog knows at this point, Peter Shaffer's work of beauty tells the story of the intense rivalry of the darling of Viennese court music, Antonio Salieri, and the brash new kid on the block, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It's been an award winning play, an Oscar winning film and is by now such a well known story that even The Simpsons has spoofed it (Magical History Tour - Lisa and Bart perfectly cast as Salieri and Mozart respectively). But I'd never seen it, other than in Simpsons form, and had always wanted to.

I was not disappointed. Not even a little bit. I love this play so much. Shaffer's writing is utterly lush, especially the passages that Salieri has talking about the beauty of music which spoke to a bit of my personality that hasn't been spoken to since I gave up all involvement in performing music over a decade ago. But his writing is also funny and sparky, and his characterisations rich and enlightening. Again, it's Salieri who gets the best deal here and his progression into the bitter and devious man he has become by the end of act two, throwing off all of his tortured appeals to his better nature from earlier points in the play, is thrilling to watch. Especially, of course, if you're watching a great actor portray it.

Which brings me to the second thing on that poster which gave me certainty I would love this production: the presence, as Salieri, of Lucian Msamati. In the past eighteen months or so I've seen Msamati in three things and I'm now at the point where I feel comfortable saying that I LOVE THIS MAN A LOT. Like, I would pay money to watch him read the phone book out loud sort of love. He was great earlier this year in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, he was breath taking last year in the RSC's Othello (making history all over the place as their first black Iago) and he is a minor force of nature in Amadeus.

Salieri is a huge part; barely off stage for a scene, working as both narrator and main character and across two time periods. The energy with which Msamati attacks all of these challenges is as infectious as it is effective, and seemingly effortless. His emotional depth is stunning, his comic timing is spot on and those afore mentioned passages about the beauty of music? Look, I wasn't crying it was just raining on my face. It's a near faultless performance that I would gladly sit through again and again. If Msamati doesn't make an appearance in my rapidly approaching 2016 bets performances post I'll be amazed.

There is so much more to love in this production than what is on the poster though. And one of the biggest things on that list is the presence of a real life, live orchestra and legit opera singers in the cast. Seriously, whoever thought to bring in the excellent Southbank Sinfonia and use them as effectively another character in the play deserves some kind of award. It's a masterstroke. It works so well, and really hammers home the fact that music is just a great thing. The staging is interesting too, tapping into the trend for overt theatricality with its open backed set and exposed backstage area. Given the overt theatricality of this play and its themes, this staging works and doesn't feel forced (though the orchestra packing up and getting their coats on at the end was probably pushing it a bit but then perhaps they're all reliant on Southern Trains to get home so needed to make a quick getaway). The Olivier's revolve is also cleverly used to give the otherwise quite minimalist setting some depth, literally and metaphorically speaking. It's conversion into an orchestra pit was particularly good.

In case you've not noticed, I loved this production and really can't recommend it enough. It's ine of the best things I've seen this year and frankly I feel sorry for people who don't get to see it. Tickets are currently scarce, but another lot is due to go on sale soon. Take advantage or be an idiot.

Amadeus is in the Olivier Theatre at the NT until 2nd February, with further dates to be announced. It gets the NT Live treatment on 2nd Feb too. 

Theatre Review: The Red Barn

Of all the genres I've seen on stage, thriller is probably by far the rarest.

Had I, before the NT's David Hare-penned The Red Barn entered stage left, ever seen one before? I don't think so. Having seen The Red Barn, have I seen one now? Probably, but I'm not 100% sure.

Written by Hare based on the novel La Main by Georges Simenon (he of Maigret fame), The Red Barn tells the story of two couples who get caught in a blizzard. When one person fails to emerge from said blizzard, the remaining three lives become tragically entangled in a mess of emotion and bodily fluids. It does not end well.

It's an odd little play in some ways and, on reflection, the play is the weakest part of the production. Billed as a thriller, which genre it undeniably does slot into, it's also maddeningly predictable. Every plot development is heavily sign posted, occasionally in a fun, 'hey, remember the weird opening scene? It's about to become super relevant' sort of way but more often in a glaringly obvious 'THIS IS GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT' sort of way. Maybe it's just me, but I like my thrillers at least 100% twistier than The Red Barn. I struggle to think of it as a thriller at all to be honest.

Ultimately, it's difficult for the play to sustain the tension that the rest of the production, particularly the staging, is working its socks off to build.

The staging is bloody magnificent though and pretty much worth the price of a ticket on its own. Undoubtedly the most televisual - not cinematic, televisual - production I've ever seen, director Robert Icke and designer Bunny Christie (man, I wish that was my name) deliver an homage to Hitchcock via early series Madmen that is just incredibly compelling. The production is driven by a series of black rectangular blocks that move around to frame each scene, giving the look of watching the action on a massive TV. When a scene needs to expand to show off a hitherto unseen piece of the jigsaw the blocks slide around to accommodate that too. Visually impressive and, I assume, technically daring the effect is both instantly striking and also very memorable.

The production also benefits from a really brave use of darkness and silence, a welcome counterpoint to the constantly evolving set and the reasonably high number of special effects used. The special effects are well used though, and necessary to the plot, particularly the occasional use of strobe lighting. Extensive sections of audio recording become a little bit less interesting for being slightly overused, but are still a clever way to fill the space between scenes.

If the staging is the star of The Red Barn, and it is, then second billing must go to the reliably excellent Mark Strong who is, reliably, excellent as Donald, the lead character and the only one with any real nuance or emotional depth. He drives the plot on exceptionally well and does manage to draw a sense of unpredictability and danger into proceedings. Donald is appropriately named in that he's an unpleasant, insecure and vaguely pathetic character objectively, but in Strong's hands becomes somehow likeable if not altogether sympathetic. The female leads, Elizabeth Debicki and, on the night we were in, understudy Sarah Oliver-Watts, are dependably strong and do the best they can with the material available to them but both of their character are very broadly drawn and pretty much stereotypes; the fragile/manipulative, younger, blonder Other Woman and the faintly unhinged, keeping-up-appearances, WASPy wife respectively.

I'm aware there's a lot of snark in this post but I still, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, would recommend The Red Barn. The design alone is worth your time and any chance to see Mark Strong doing his thing live is one that should be seized with both hands. And it seems plenty of people agree with me, because ticket availability is almost nonexistent. Book now or miss out.

The Red Barn is in the Lyttleton Theatre at the National Theatre until January 17th.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Theatre Review: iHo

Or, to give it it's full name, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, or iHo. Yikes. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the Hampstead Theatre's design and marketing office when that title was revealed. 

A play with a name this nuts is going to be one of two things: fatally pretentious or really, really smart. Thankfully iHo is the latter. But then it's written by Tony Kushner so really what do you expect? 

In some sense a more prosaic story than Kushner's most famous pieces, Angels in America (and, incidentally, putting this in your season a few months before the NT's star studded Angels opens is surely one of the smarter bits of theatrical marketing this year), iHo tells the story of the Marcantonio family reuniting as their father announces that he's going to kill himself. Emotional turmoil ensues.

What I liked best about iHo was unquestionably the writing. Kushner's Marcantonios are one of the most true to life families I've seen on stage, despite the extremity of both the situation of the play and the characters in it. He writes them messy, which sounds like a stupid thing to say but think about how you talk - and especially how you row - with your family and tell me it's neat. There are several scenes in the play when there are at least two different simultaneous conversations going on which, although occasionally difficult to follow, really gives the impression that this family are real and you've just somehow stumbled into their Brooklyn brownstone. 

The play also benefits from Kushner's usual ability to mix humour and pain perfectly, often in the same line never mind the same scene. There's plenty of anger thrown into the mix too, all different types of it. And, this being a Kushner, a healthy dollop of politics. Topically for the lefty idyll that is Hampstead, it takes as its political theme the trade off between principles and real life success and the potentially heartbreaking results whichever wins. Insert your own Labour Party joke here. 

Hampstead productions are always immaculately staged and this one is no exception. A single, relatively simple, three story brownstone set placed on a revolve so we see both inside and outside at various points and a judicious use of props allow the writing and the acting to shine. It's far less showy than the elaborate, moving sets I've seen at Hampstead before but no less effective for that. 

And it's completely right that the acting is given the chance to shine because it's ace. Technical term that. In a stellar but small ensemble it's difficult to pick favourites, but David Calder is great as suicidal patriarch Gus; completely plausible, emotionally rich and with a spot on New York accent that I loved listening to. Tamsin Greig is probably the standout for me though as Gus' favourite child (as she thinks) and the one who bares the brunt of his politically puritanical expectations. The final confrontation between father and daughter is the highlight of the play for me, beautifully emotional, raw, angry and completely believable. 

There's very little not to love in iHo. I rate it utterly and it's by far one of the most interesting things I've seen this year. I highly, highly recommend it. And, though it's completely unfair to think of it as an appetiser for something else as its own merits are so strong, if you are desperately waiting for the NT to finally release its Angels in America tickets this is definitely the thing to help you through. 

iHo plays at the Hampstead Theatre until 26th November. Tickets are understandably limited. Skates: on. 

Friday, 21 October 2016

Theatre Review: The Entertainer

In most plays there is a single moment that manages to somehow capture and summarise the whole show. Whether it’s a line, a visual or a special moment in a performance, it’s the one thing that always resolutely sticks in my memory.

In the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s production of The Entertainer, which I’ve been looking forward to for about eighteen months, it’s a song. Unfortunately, that song is called ‘Why Should I Care?’ and sums up in four words pretty much every feeling I had about this crushing disappointment of a show.

The Entertainer tells the story of faded musical hall star Archie Rice, through both his increasingly depressing on stage performances and his increasingly depressing homelife. Set against the backdrop of the Suez Crisis, it’s also a timely representation of a country in irreparable decline. Hashtag Brexit.

This production does a reasonable job of tying up all three parts, mostly through Christopher Oram’s suitably bleak-but-beautiful design that places a proscenium arch as the backdrop to all of the scenes, including those in the Rice family home. Any attempts to milk the contemporary parallels with Brexit are also mercifully side stepped, with the production content to let its audience make the connection for themselves. And the music hall scenes, complete with dancing girls and live band, are impressively done in an Ed-Balls-on-Strictly-but-with-a-knowing-wink sort of way. I enjoyed the Branagh take on Frankie Howard and would gladly see him do some kind of ironic stand up tour with it.

The family scenes, though, are close to the definition of tedious. Where in this family of terrible, boring people is the blistering anti-hero to root for that playwright John Osborne is supposed to be the master of? Is it supposed to be Archie? His daughter? This production left me with no idea and frankly little motivation to try and work it out. The fact that the entire family is some degree of drunk for most, or in some cases all, of the show also didn’t help for me. Drunk people are boring unless you’re one of them. (I had a glass of wine at the interval and enjoyed the second act more - coincidence?)

In the main, the acting is really nothing to write home about but thankfully there is a strong central performance from KenBran to anchor it. He delivers the only real emotional depth in the show, including the sole genuinely poignant moment as Archie disappears into the quiet darkness at the end of the show. His tap dancing is also impressive, as an aside. Even he has been better elsewhere this season though.

It’s really sad to see the Plays at the Garrick season go out with such a whimper rather than the bang it otherwise deserves. Because I’ve really enjoyed the rest of it. Some of it - The Painkiller, The Winter’s Tale, Harlequinade - has been amongst my favourite theatre of the past couple of years and even those that haven’t quite made that list - Red Velvet, Romeo and Juliet - have been eminently enjoyable and great productions.

It’s also been a real thrill to see Kenneth Branagh back on the stage, or at least immediately behind it, and cracking open his address book to deliver some genuinely top drawer casts. And his commitment to keeping ticket prices low - I paid £90 for the entire season, which is just astonishing when you stop and think about it - and capping the fees that agents could charge on them is incredibly admirable. I hope the rest of the West End takes note but suspect that it will not.

But more than anything I hope that the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season two is announced very soon. Like, yesterday preferably.

The Entertainer is part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s Plays at the Garrick season and plays until 12th November.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Theatre Review: Young Chekhov

Saturday was a glorious, sunny day in London; possibly the last real day of summer. Because nothing says summer like angsty Russians, I decided to spend it sat inside watching over seven and a half hours of Chekhov.

Unless you’ve been living under a theatrical rock, you’ll have realised by now that I’m talking about the NT transfer of Chichester Festival Theatre’s Young Chekhov, and a three show day thereof to boot.

I’m not a natural Chekhov fan tbh. I find I have to work quite hard to be engaged in ‘period’ Russian drama, as my achingly slow progress through my current quest to read War and Peace will attest. However Young Chekhov is utterly brilliant, living up to its considerable hype completely. The three plays presented - Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull - show that there’s much more to Chekhov than suicides and people with undecipherable names, though there are plenty of both, and I was really pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed (possibly the wrong word) the whole day.

The first play in the trilogy is, perhaps slightly unfortunately, also the best: Platonov. For me, this was a revelation. Bluntly, I didn’t know that Chekhov did comedy or at least comedy that isn’t just satire. There is satire in Platonov - notably around the corruption and greed of the older generation - but mostly the comedy is much broader, occasionally even slapstick. More importantly though, it’s very, very funny. I had no idea I could love a Chekhov play but, man, I loved Platonov.

Platonov also gives us our first introduction to what is arguably the star of Young Chekhov: the absolutely sky high production values. I don’t like throwing around the P word in reviews, but I think these productions might actually be, technically, perfect. The staging in particular is extraordinary. I’ve seen some amazing things done on/with/to the Olivier’s stage but filling it with water to create a series of lakes and streams under an elevated set is by some measure the most amazing. The staging is particularly dramatically used in Platonov, with the rapid arrival of a railway line in logic defying speed. Director Jonathan Kent and his team of designers must win some/all of the awards.

Another common theme of Young Chekhov’s success that also emerges in Platonov is the strength of the cast; across the three plays surely the best ensemble in London right now by some distance. In Platonov though it’s James McArdle in the title role who runs away with the show; a perfect (there’s that word again) mix of self loathing, sass and lazy charisma who handles the comedy like a pro. If his performance doesn’t make it into my top ten come the end of the year I’ll be very surprised. Nina Sosanya provides another highlight as a fiery, feisty and fierce Anna Petrovna, one of Platonov’s many love interests and a perfect foil for McArdle’s chaotic charm. The whole cast is a riot of energy and fun though and Platonov is a genuinely outstanding production.

Ivanov comes next in the trilogy and, for my money, is by far the weakest of the three plays. It’s very much a play of two halves: a raucous satire on the morals of ‘modern’ Russian society which is written with so little subtlety that I came very close to hating it and the more angsty, pensive drama which the titular character embodies and which I found much more effective, if a little ‘Chekhov by numbers’. A slightly simpler staging, though still with the fantastic water effects, and a much stiller energy pervade here framing a fantastically strong central performance from Geoffrey Streatfeild, one of my absolute faves. Working with a character who is surely one of the least well rounded and least sympathetic in all of theatre, Streatfeild captures Ivanov’s sense of impotent rage and self disgust so well. The scene where he finally explodes at his long suffering wife (Sosanya’s second iteration of Anna Petrovna) is electric. There is strong support from Jonathan Coy as Ivanov’s friend/new love interest’s father and by far the most interesting character in the play, caught between a wife he can’t stand and a society that won’t let him escape her, desperately trying to do the right thing for his daughter and his friend. I will never love Ivanov, the play or the character, but I’m glad that I got to see this production of it. A production this good can really elevate any source material.

And finally, The Seagull. For me, this was the nearest to what I was expecting Young Chekhov to be: angsty but intelligent and with the sort of interesting ideas behind it that I felt were missing in Ivanov. Primarily, this is a play about the old crushing the hopes and prospects of the young - depressingly relevant in Brexit Britain. It’s also a play about people refusing to realise their own mediocrity, insert your own Andrea Leadsom/Michael Gove joke here I suppose. Again, fantastic production values and acting abound with the sublime Anna Chancellor stealing scenes left, right and centre as the manipulative, arch and ultimately quite tragic Arkadina. Geoffrey Streatfeild is also great again, completing his double header of unsympathetic men as the really quite unpleasant but nonetheless compelling Tregorin. And shoutout to Olivia Vinall who clocks up her third romantic lead of the day - someone get that woman some wine! - with her best performance as an achingly sad Nina.

Overall, then, three fantastic productions - one genuinely outstanding - that are all 100% worth your time. Even if you think, like me, that you don’t really like Chekhov these productions are technically good enough to merit seeing them anyway. But hurry up, tickets are almost gold dust at this point. And justifiably so.

Young Chekhov is at the Olivier Theatre at the NT until October 8th.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Theatre Review: Kenny Morgan

Play-ja vu: the feeling you get watching a play that’s very similar to something you’ve seen before.

I wonder if there’s a separate faux French term for the feeling when you’re watching a play the story of which is actually the basis for something you’ve seen before?

Kenny Morgan, currently playing at the Arcola Theatre, tells the true story of the titular character and his ill fated relationship with the playwright Terence Rattigan. More interestingly, maybe, it is the real life inspiration for Rattigan’s masterpiece The Deep Blue Sea. Actually inspiration is probably not quite the right word, because DBS (as I shall henceforth be calling it because laziness) tells Morgan’s story to the letter. With one major plot change and the obvious difference in the gender of the central character, there are precious few difference between the two plays. So it’s not that surprising that, despite playwright Mike Poulton’s protestations to the contrary, a good chunk of Kenny Morgan is a scene-for-scene remake of DBS. Whether you think this is a bad thing or not will depend on your view of DBS; as previously noted I love that play and so seeing it in its ‘true life’ form was fascinating.

For all that the plot is near identical, Kenny Morgan does well to draw out some different thematic points. In contrast to the NT’s huge, glamorous DBS the Arcola uses it’s bijou performance space to create something much grimier. This emphasises Kenny’s ‘fall’ from Rattigan’s glamorous toyboy to slumming it in a bedsit in Camden and brings class as an issue into this piece in a way it isn’t in DBS, opening up another philosophical angle since the exploration of gender is removed. The destructive nature of secrecy and shame (and a lack thereof) is also played up as a major theme in this piece. The way that Rattigan’s secrecy (and shame?) around his gay relationships and Alec Lennox’s - Kenny’s new boyfriend - lack of any discretion and certainly any shame around his variously-orientated affairs conspire to destroy Kenny is a really interesting idea that is beautifully explored.

This is a fantastically classy, evocative production too. The set may be, as previously noted, smaller and less ambitious than the NT’s equivalent but it’s no less effective for that. Sound and lighting are cleverly and sparingly used to emphasise the sparseness and coldness of the flat - and the relationship - that Kenny has found himself in. Director Lucy Bailey paces the production consistently well without rushing it, particularly in the big confrontation scenes. And Poulton’s writing is great, creating not only a faithful homage to Rattigan but also a clipped, formal, bleak and tragic world all of its own.

The production also benefits from a first rate cast, from which Paul Keating and Simon Dutton particularly standout as Kenny and Rattigan respectively. Keating creates a painfully relatable, conflicted Kenny desperate for love and acceptance and finding it, as far as he can see, nowhere. Dutton’s Rattigan is a great contrast, achingly charismatic but just hinting at a secret sadness somewhere behind the public image. George Irving also deserves a mention for a pleasingly unreadable Mr Ritter, the mysteriously struck off doctor character who is given a rather more rounded role in this than his DBS equivalent to great effect. (Also he was Mr Meyer in Holby City and for this I will always love him.)

I really enjoyed Kenny Morgan and would go as far as to say it is worth trekking to fucking Dalston for (to the extent anything ever is). A really interesting piece in its own right, moreso if you’ve seen The Deep Blue Sea as well, and a great production. Also try the orange and polenta cake in their cafe. It’s lush.

Kenny Morgan plays at the Arcola Theatre until 15th October.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Theatre Review: Iron

In a game of word association based on the phrase ‘the Lake District’, ‘taut prison drama’ may not be the obvious response.

How many theatres have this on their doorstep?

It is currently a valid one though, thanks to the excellent Theatre by the Lake in Keswick. A fucking adorable theatre - or theatres actually, since it has a small main auditorium and a teeny tiny studio - which is 100% worth a visit if you’re in the area (for the lemon meringue cake alone, frankly), TBTL is currently staging Iron. Written by Rona Munro, of The James Plays fame, Iron tells the story of Faye, a woman serving a life sentence for murdering her husband, and Josie, her long lost daughter who comes to visit her in prison for the first time in 15 years in an attempt to learn the truth about her mother and her past. What follows is a fantastic few hours of genuinely gripping, surprisingly non-bleak, psychodrama and one of the most exciting pieces of acting I’ve seen all year.

Performed on the traverse in the aforementioned teeny tiny studio, to say Iron is minimally staged would be something of an understatement. Appropriately so, though, given the entire piece is set in a prison. The performance space (approximately the size of a couple of large dining tables) is cleverly used as, variously, Faye’s cell, the prison yard and for most of the action the visiting room. The bare concrete, harsh white lighting and prison bars at both ends of the space are simply done but very effective and the sparse use of props is distressingly realist. The very occasional use of music, such as for Faye’s euphoric dance of joy at the end of act one where it looks like mother and daughter will live (relatively) happily ever after, is an interesting punctuation that works really well. There is nowhere to hide in this space, for audience or actor.

The play itself is great too. Munro has a great ear for dialogue, especially ‘Scottish’ dialogue, and this piece is no exception. It is sparky, quick, earthy and real; dealing with the moments of humour as well as the (much more numerous) moments of drama and anger. The plotting is razor sharp; twisty without losing its grit or its grounding. She has created some fantastic characters too, not just Faye and Josie but the two prison guards who have much less to do but are rounded and interesting characters nonetheless.

This is Faye’s play though, or more accurately Elizabeth Marsh’s who plays her. ‘Plays’ is something of an undersell in this case actually because holy hell this is a performance and a half. I can’t think of a performance I’ve seen all year that was as exciting as this. It’s one of those rare occasions where you watch someone in a part and it feels like they are that part. And it’s magical. Marsh doesn’t shy away from Faye, a huge part who never leaves the stage and has well over half of the lines, and doesn’t shy away from presenting her as a complicated, morally ambiguous, figure. She doesn’t play up for sympathy or try to present her as in any way evil. She’s just human, for all her issues and problems, and this is something that’s not as easy as it sounds to achieve with this part in this play. Marsh owns this production thoroughly. It was a privilege to trespass into her world for a few hours.

She is supported ably by Helen Macfarlane as a naive but nuanced and fiercely protective Josie. Roger Delves-Broughton and Rebecca Carrie round out the cast as the two prison guards that constitute Faye’s social world, the latter of whom has an irritatingly wandering accent that rather takes the sheen off an otherwise good performance.

I loved this show. A lot. It’s as good as almost anything you’ll see in London but because it’s not in London it’s infinitely cheaper and has better cake portion sizes (huge). Should you be in the area, or if you fancy a break to the stunning Lakes, then you must see this.

Iron plays in the Studio at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, in rep until 4th November.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Theatre Review: The Deep Blue Sea

As nice as it is to be surprised, it’s also nice when you think you’re going to love something, you see the something and you actually do love the something.

It’s also probably quite a spoilery way to start a review, but ho hum.

Case in point: the National Theatre’s current orgasm of a production of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea.

Image source.

Telling the story of Hester Collyer and her tangled, messy love life, The Deep Blue Sea is really a classic study in love, loss and longing. It’s a beautiful play full of fucked up people and feels as relevant, fresh and relatable today as the day it was written. I thought I was probably a fan of Rattigan’s work after seeing the fluffy, funny, wry Harlequinade last year and, whilst it’s certainly not fluffy and only occasionally funny and/or wry, The Deep Blue Sea has confirmed it. Just call me a Ratti-fangirl. Or preferably don’t, actually.

Moving on... I was certainly a (Ratti-)fan of this stunner of a production. Director Carrie Cracknell (fully redeeming herself after her pretentious nonsense of a Macbeth earlier this year) delivers a sexy, beautiful, desperate but ultimately hopeful production, dripping with style. It’s paced perfectly with each scene being given the space it needs to breathe without slowing down the action too much. You very much get the feeling that Cracknell knows she’s assembled one of the best casts in London on her stage and is quite content to just sit back and let them do their thing; exactly how it should be.

She is of course correct in her assessment of her cast too. First of all, holy fuck I love Helen McCrory. She’s excellent in literally everything she’s in and here she’s on blazing form as Hester, a perfect mix of clipped Englishness, desperate longing and, ultimately, steely bravery. I rather suspect that Hester Collyer is one of those parts that every theatrical generation has ‘their’ incarnation of and I’m more than happy if McCrory is mine.

As her conflicting love interests, Tom Burke is an excellent lovable, sexy, disaster zone as Freddie whilst Peter Sullivan is understated brilliance as a repressed and quietly desperate Sir William. Sullivan is genuinely outstanding in this part actually and almost - almost - upstages McCrory in what is, in the context of this play, a rather thankless part. I desperately wanted Hester and Sir William to kiss and make up because of his performance. Nick Fletcher also deserves a mention for a humane, inspirational-but-not-sugary Mr Miller. The rest of the small cast, who I’m not going to go through and name (jeez, just Google it), round out an incredibly strong ensemble. Even the people whose role is literally just to walk up and down the stairs in the background of the set are fab.

Speaking of the set, it’s amazing. Designer Tom Scutt has developed a section of an authentic, period three story apartment block and plonked (technical term) it on the Lyttelton stage. If that sounds rather techy and boring then it’s really not; it’s beautiful. It almost looks like a film set more than a theatre one, certainly the sweep of the design is very cinematic. The blue toned lighting and authentically crackly-record soundscape help create a suitably sexy atmosphere. It’s a great looking - and sounding - piece. Some of the best design I’ve seen for a very long time.

This production is a must see, simply. Miss it and regret it. Go and see it and go and see it now.

The Deep Blue Sea plays at the Lyttelton at the NT until September 10th, with very limited ticket availability. It gets the NT Live treatment on September 1st.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Theatre Review: Strife

An annual pilgrimage to the Chichester Festival Theatre is one of the highlights of my summer these days.

Last year it was big glossy musical Mack and Mabel, this year a rather different kettle of theatrical fish: Strife, a gritty Edwardian political morality play.

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Written by The Forsyte Saga’s John Galsworthy, Strife tells the story of a strike at a South Wales tinplate works. The mine’s board, shareholders, Trade Union and many of the workers want the strike to end but this would mean compromise and to both the company’s owner John Anthony and strike leader David Roberts that is worse than failure. Compromise, as it inevitably does, eventually wins out. No one tell Jeremy Corbyn.

There is so much that is contemporary in this play, something which this production is slightly too at pains to stress, but neither the ideas it plays with nor the analysis it offers are particularly exceptional. Neither really are the characters, none of whom are fleshed out beyond their role in the strike. And the attempts at ‘Welsh dialect’ - ie adding the phrase ‘look you’ onto the end of every third sentence - are so ridiculous to my (Welsh native and therefore biased) ear that they made me laugh.

That said, look you, there is some lovely writing on display, mostly given to Roberts and the other workers, and actually this is a much more subtle play than many of its contemporaries - god awful Waste, for example - in that there is relatively little judgement meted out on either side. The added dynamic of men vs Union is also an interesting touch, one which any production of this play could benefit from examining more closely. It’s a much more interesting theme than labour vs capital for my money. I also enjoyed the frequent statements about how the middle class is terrible, something which would feel quietly radical being said in any British theatre but in Chichester is positively revolutionary.

But let’s be honest here, the play itself was approximately 0% of the reason I came to see this production. Approximately 100% of that reason was sat in the director’s chair: Bertie Carvel, making his directorial debut. And though I may disagree with his choice of play, there aren’t many more of his decisions in this production that I would question. Biased as I undoubtedly am, this is a terrifically assured, technically impressive and subtly distinctive piece for any director to have under their belt, debut or otherwise.

There is definitely the beginnings of a Carvel style on show during this production and it’s a very interesting one. This comes across most strongly in the aesthetics. Chief amongst the things that make this production work is the bleak but beautiful design (courtesy of Robert Jones). Vaguely reminiscent of The Hairy Ape in its sparsity and harshness, and also in its use of all of the senses to conjure an atmosphere, there are a number of very memorable, visually arresting scenes. The majority of these rely on one very clever and very multitasking prop: a giant slab of molten metal which is transformed first into the boardroom table for the mine’s owners’ meeting and later into a platform for the men to stand on whilst speaking at their meeting (this latter scene enhanced by liberal use of fake snow). As both an image and a metaphor, set against an all grey and empty performing space, all of these uses work so well. Director, designer and large slab of metal can justly consider themselves the stars of the show. (Though hopefully the latter is not sentient enough to do so.)

This is doubly true since the quality of the acting is frankly a bit patchy. Whilst the actors in lead roles are generally excellent, particularly Ian Hughes and his amazing moustache as a principled-without-caricature Roberts and Tomos Eames as his firey-est critic from amongst the men, a proper scenestealer of a performance actually, the quality in the smaller parts and ensemble isn’t always so high.

Ultimately Strife is a play that was unlikely to ever get me that excited but this production is very definitely worth your time and money, even if you only go for the near faultless visuals and impressive direction. And here’s hoping this is the first of many for actor/director Bertie Carvel too. It certainly deserves to be.

Strife is at the Minerva at Chichester Festival Theatre until 10th September.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Theatre Review: Hamlet

Guilty confessions of a Shakespeare fan: until this year I had never seen Hamlet live.

Even worse, I’d never seen it in any format all the way through in one go. I’ve seen various film versions (including to the surprise of literally no one the epic Branagh version) but never made it all the way through without having to take a ‘holy shit this really is long’ tea break.

My Hamlet live v plates were recently removed courtesy of the RSC’s brilliant current production, starring Paapa Essiedu in the title role.

Image source.

The exciting and noteworthy thing about that casting is that Essiedu is actually the right age to be playing Hamlet who is after all supposed to be a student. Understandably given how huge the part is it’s normally played by someone considerably older and with more experience under their belt, but giving it to a (relative) youngster newbie breathes new life into the whole production. It feels edgier, more current and more dangerous.

It of course helps that Essiedu is spectacularly good in the part. His Hamlet is a sassy, electric, maniac; all quick wit, sharp tongue and twitchiness. There’s not so much as a hint of the stately grandeur that Hamlet is usually afforded (and the same goes for the whole production, not just this central performance), he is played exactly as he should be: an angry, intelligent, vengeful young man. The big soliloquies benefit from this particularly as there’s a real effort from Essiedu to concentrate on their meaning and not their world famous language (quoth my mother, who did Hamlet in school: “I’ve never really understood ‘Alas poor Yorick’ until tonight”). It’s more revelatory than it probably should be.

Essiedu is backed up by a strong ensemble of whom my personal favourites were the ever excellent Cyril Nri as a funny but not pantomime Polonius and Clarence Smith as a pleasingly nasty and dramatic Claudius. As seems to be the pattern with my theatre trips at the moment, I also saw a brace of understudies stepping effortlessly up to the plate in leading roles but as I lost the sheet telling me who they were somewhere on the Chiltern mainline train route I can’t credit them. They were all very good - understudies rock.

Directed by one of my favourites, Simon Godwin, on reliably excellent form, the pace of this production is perfect. The three hours positively fly by - which when you consider the first act is an arse numbing one hour forty five is no mean feat - and putting the interval in the middle of a line is a ballsy move that pays off with an increase in tension and shove of momentum into the second act. Paul Wills design is lively, anarchic and beautiful. I defy you to find a more colourful production of Hamlet, in any medium, anywhere. The use of music is great and the whole production combines with the performances and treatment of the text to give a refreshingly irreverent take on this most classic of plays. It feels genuinely modern, not in a gimmicky way, but in a natural way that gives the real impression that the play could have been written yesterday.

I was a big fan of this production and, if you can get to Stratford Upon Avon between now and Saturday when the production ends its run, would very highly recommend it. It has been filmed for cinemas so watch out for encore screenings too. Genuinely top drawer stuff.

Hamlet plays at the RSC’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon until Saturday 13th August.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Theatre Review: Groundhog Day

The last time composer Tim Minchin and director Matthew Warchus collaborated a beautiful thing was created: Matilda.

Combining that level of genius with the much loved classic film Groundhog Day is a tantalising prospect which has generated a metric fuck tonne of hype.

But also a fair amount of wobble (technical term). The early previews of the new production, currently playing at the Old Vic, have been beset with problems to the result that many have been cancelled. I understand there have been issues with the financial backing for the proposed Broadway transfer. And Tim Minchin has been doing the rounds of the media giving the usually quite telling ‘I’m not sure what people will think of it’ interviews. Not encouraging signs. Had something gone horribly wrong in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania?

No, is the short answer. This production is a joy.

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Telling the story of weatherman Phil Connors who’s forced to repeat the same day over and over again (does anyone not know this?), Groundhog Day doesn’t seem to me to be an obvious story for a musical. Or not a good musical anyway. It seems to lend itself to a lazy shows where a version of the same song just repeats in different styles. Thankfully, this production is anything but lazy. It is incredibly ambitious.

For a start, the show looks absolutely incredible. The staging is astonishingly busy and complex incorporating frequent by-hand set changes, trapdoors (I assume), elements of puppetry and shadow puppetry, a revolve consisting of at least four concentric mini-revolves and a lot of people on stage at almost every moment. It’s not surprising to see why they’ve had so many problems in getting it going during early previews. That said, now that it is going it is phenomenally impressive and the staging itself is undoubtedly one of the stars of the show in its own right. I would love to sit through a dry run of this show just to see how everything works, which is not something you can say of many shows.

The music is fantastic, which goes without saying since Tim Minchin wrote it. It’s grand, it’s funny, it’s touching when it needs to be and the lyrics are inventive and brilliant. My favourite number, the name of which I sadly don’t know, was the one where the procession of quack doctors and priests trying to ‘cure’ Phil Connors of whatever they perceive his illness to be but ultimately admitting that they have no idea what they’re doing and their interventions are pointless. It’s funnier than I’ve managed to make it sound. Also the song about how depressing small town USA is is a beautiful hymn to cynicism which I for one am wholly on board with. And though there is obviously repetition it’s done in such a way that it is largely non-annoying. Plus the music stands up to repeated listens anyway.

Though the, reasonably small, ensemble is fantastic and hard working this is in many ways a one man show. It certainly relies on its leading man extremely heavily which, added to the fact that the iconic Bill Murray of course played the lead in the film, makes for what must be one of the more high pressure jobs in theatreland. Broadway import Andy Karl is the man on whose shoulders this all falls and, thankfully, he is more than up to the job. His is an absolute belter of a performance; genuinely outstanding. Dripping with charisma, he is a joyously enjoyable dickhead who transforms into a touchingly enjoyable Nice Man as the show progresses with a plausibility and emotional range that the show utterly depends on. He makes you invest in the story and root for Connors even when he’s awful. He also has a great voice, which helps in a musical. Meaty supporting characters are few, but Carlyss Peer is a great foil for Karl as his idealistic love interest and another stellar voice.

I loved this show. It’s a huge, ambitious, silly, dirty, funny, joyful riot of a thing that deserves to be a smash hit here and on Broadway and make a huge star of its leading man. Snap up one of the final remaining tickets quickly.

Groundhog Day plays at the Old Vic until September 17th.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Theatre Review: Show Boat

They say the best theatre teaches us things about ourselves that we didn’t know.

Well I learned something about myself whilst watching Show Boat and that is that I cannot hear the song Ol’ Man River sung live without bursting into tears. And not like gentle, ladylike tears; like full on wracking sobs.

There will be no beating about the bush in this review: the Sheffield Crucible’s West End transfer production of Show Boat is genuinely exceptional and you - yes you - need to see it. I’m being unusually direct (meandering jokes and unrelated asides will resume next post) because, for whatever reason, this show doesn’t seem to have found an audience. And that’s an absolute travesty. It genuinely makes me quite angry.

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Directed by the Crucible’s outgoing (and, excitingly, Chichester Festival’s incoming) Artistic Director Daniel Evans, Show Boat is just a huge, glitzy, old Broadway joy of a show. For the uninitiated, it tells the story of the cast of characters who live and work aboard and around a traditional Mississippi floating theatre boat - a Show Boat, if you will. What must have made the show revolutionary in its day is that it deals with both the white and the black characters within that story equally and honestly. It is a show that, for all its old school charm and hokey marketing (and herein one suspects lies the problem in it finding an audience), is depressingly relevant in its portrayal of race relations and black rights. For this reason alone it deserves to be seen.

And then there’s the music. Ol’ Man River is of course the big number (I’m tearing up just writing the title, this is ridiculous), and reprised several times, but there is so much glorious music in this show that it makes my head spin. Can’t Help Lovin Dat Man is another highlight, as are Bill and Life Upon the Wicked Stage. But this show shares with Gypsy a feeling of a Broadway Greatest Hits album. If you know your musicals a bit you’ll recognise so many of the songs, even if you didn’t know they came from this show. They are beautifully arranged, sung and played in this production too. Musically, I this is the best show I’ve seen this year and in the top three of shows I’ve seen ever.

The staging of this production is also outstanding. The set revolves around a life size (ish) three story recreation of the back of the titular boat which retracts when the action moves onto land, as it does in act two, and is otherwise fairly simply dressed. It’s so effective and the lighting in particular is just flat out beautiful. As anyone who’s seen a Crucible musical production before will have come to expect, the choreography (courtesy of Alistair David) is amazing, especially in the big group numbers. The costumes are perfect.

Finally, this superlative production has a superlative cast. Show Boat is sort of an ensemble piece and there is strength in depth on view all over the place here. Gina Beck, owner of one of the best voices in the West End, and Broadway import Chris Peluso are on superb form as the doomed lovers at the centre of the story, even if Peluso’s character must be one of the least likeable ever written for a musical. Danny Collins, more often seen in Matthew Bourne ballets, shows off considerable comedic chops as well as the fantastic moves you’d expect in one of the less serious lead roles. Sandra Marvin is an outstanding Queenie. And, on the night I saw it, superstar understudy Tosh Wanogho-Maud was a stunning Joe, squeezing every inch of feeling out of Ol’ Man River.

So, yeah, I loved this show. I loved everything about it. And you need to see it before it closes early (ridiculous) at the end of August. There are excellent ticket deals around. Use them.

Show Boat plays at the New London Theatre (nicer on the inside than it looks!) until 27th August.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Theatre Review: No Villain

What do early Arthur Miller play No Villain and Conservative party conference have in common?

I’ll tell you. They are two of the only situations in life into which I feel like I could be dropped with no explanation and still instantly know where I was.

Tory conference is, as a sociological experiment, an amazing place. So many suits, so much champagne and so many hyphenated surnames. It’s the most frighteningly homogenous place I’ve ever been (for work, I hasten to add) but there is a sort of reassurance in the fact that it’s basically the same as it has always been and will always be.

(Stick with me here I am going somewhere with this.)

Image source.

No Villain, currently playing in the dinky Studio 2 at the Trafalgar Studios, gave me a similar feeling of reassuring familiarity. A recently discovered piece, No Villain is the first play Miller ever wrote and is, fairly obviously, semi-autobiographical. It is also a prototype for almost every play he wrote subsequently, especially Death of a Salesman. Had I been dropped into that theatre with no explanation, I would certainly known I was watching Miller. I may well have thought that it was Death of a Salesman. Thankfully, here the similarities with Tory conference begin and end.

Because unlike Tory conference, I actually really enjoyed No Villain. Admittedly, if you’ve seen Death of a Salesman you do get a slight sense of deja vu, both from the writing and the characterisation. If you don’t like Death of a Salesman I can see that this would be an issue for you, but I fucking love that beautiful bleak thing so for me it wasn’t at all. And the work is no less powerful for being something slightly less than original. There’s the same sense of middle aged anguish at hard work amounting to failure and of youthful idealism and yearning for change in Villain as in Salesman and in both cases the inevitable collision between the two is heartbreaking and dramatic. I’ve always felt that the emotional heart of Miller’s writing comes from the fact it’s rooted in ordinary, plausible human experience. No Villain is, for my money, the most ordinary and plausible of his stories and for that is all the more powerful. Some of the more lengthy crow-barring in of Marxist theory could quite happily be cut - whoever heard of a new writer delivering a perfect play anyway? - but strip that away and the story at the heart of this piece is incredibly strong.

Some slightly wandering accents aside, this production is helped in its power by a fantastic, small, ensemble cast. There’s really nowhere to hide in Studio 2 - a stage the size of a small kitchen with three rows of seats around three sides - and the cast work with that really well. George Turvey as Ben, the non-intellectual son who nonetheless is won over by the appeal of his intellectual brother’s Communism, is a particular highlight turning in a performance of real emotional conflict. Nesba Crenshaw is also great, and exceptionally watchable, as his highly strung mother. I found David Bromley’s Abe (Villain’s proto-Willy Loman) a little bit more hit and miss, but when he did hit he was excellent and had the perfect air of impotent rage and confusion that this character requires.

Necessarily for such a small space, on the face of it there’s not much to the design of this show but what there is is done very well. I found the simple, quick changes between the play’s two sets - the family home and the family factory - very impressive given the confines in which they had to work. It’s low key amazing what they manage to achieve with a table, a couple of chairs and some curtain rails of ‘fur’ coats.

I really enjoyed No Villain and would recommend it to anyone, especially given the ticket price range and the fact it’s only 80 minutes long. However, if you hate Death of a Salesman there’s nothing for you here (and also you’re dead inside).

No Villain plays at Studio 2 at the Trafalgar Studios until 23rd July. Be quick.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Theatre Review: Into the Woods

It is very rare these days that I go and see something at the theatre that I genuinely haven’t seen before.

That’s not to say that I don’t see some innovative and original stuff, but something altogether different from anything I’ve ever seen before? Very, very rare.

Enter stage left(field), the Fiasco Theatre Company. An American (where else?), actor led company, Fiasco have rocked up to the Menier Chocolate Factory with a transfer of their extraordinary - in every sense - production of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods.

Image source.

And I have just never seen anything like it.

To say this production is stripped back would be something of an understatement. There is no scenery, no orchestra, minimal props and costumes. The eleven-strong cast play multiple parts, provide all the music and sound effects and create the scenery. Most strikingly of all, Sondheim’s rich score is distilled down to its bones, played on a single piano with support from the various instruments the cast play. It sounds so beautiful, completely fresh and utterly magical.

The way that the company work within these confines is remarkable. The use of a handful of props to create so many different characters and story threads is brilliant. The way that ‘special effects’ are created using basically nothing is incredible (the shadow show that creates the death of the giant is particularly beautiful). Each of the multiple parts that each actor plays is wonderfully brought to life with the change of perhaps one item of costume, a change of accent and a smile.

After a while you start to wonder what the fuck other musical productions are doing with all of their sets, costumes and fancy ornamentation. And still not resulting in anything half this wonderful. This production is all about the music and that is such a revelation.

The other thing this production about is pure, sheer joy. You can tell that every single member of Fiasco’s company loves this show and loves performing. The wonder of putting on a show like this in a venue as teeny tiny as the Menier is that the audience is close enough to really be able to appreciate that. Though quite honestly I think you could put this company in Wembley Stadium and their joy would still shine through. And I would argue that at the moment we could all use some more joy. There’s hardly a surfeit of it around.

That said, this version of Into the Woods isn’t the Disney version. It is dark, it is sad and it is tragic. The way the more sombre moods are portrayed through the music is heartbreakingly beautiful.

I would normally now list the performances that I particularly enjoyed but this is a genuine ensemble piece and I particularly enjoyed every single person’s contribution. All eleven cast members are incredible. I refuse to believe that there is a more hardworking or more talented cast anywhere in theatreland. There just can’t be. They act, they sing, they dance, they move props around, they play instruments, they direct the production (well two of them do); I’m surprised they didn’t sell the programmes and ice creams as well. And they enjoy it so fucking much, which really is rather more revolutionary than it should be.

I can’t praise or proselytise about this production enough. There aren’t the words for it. Go and see it yourself and I guarantee you’ll fall as much in love as I have.

Into the Woods plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 17th September.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Theatre Review: Richard III

There are very few things in this world that will convince me that trekking to Islington on a Monday night is a worthwhile endeavour.

Frankly, I resent the Almeida Theatre for living there. But occasionally something in their programming lures me over. And, Monday night in Islington or otherwise, if you can say no to Ralph Fiennes in the title role in Richard III then you’re a stronger and/or more stupid person than I am.

Image source. Also how cool is this image?

Directed by Rupert Goold, owner of the best head of hair in theatre, and played largely in modern dress bar some pleasingly shiny armour this is a brutal and resonant production. It’s framed by short scenes depicting the discovery of Richard’s bones in Leicester a few years ago but, frankly, in this post-Brexit clusterfuck of a Britain that we now live in this is a play that would feel relevant even without this flourish. I liked it though, the contrast between the historical figure of Richard III and Shakespeare’s version is an interesting thought to plant in an audience’s mind whilst watching this play.

To state the blindingly obvious, Ralph Fiennes was the major draw for me of this production (as, one suspects, he was for everyone else in the audience) and, to state the even more blindingly obvious, he is a perfect Richard III. I’ve never seen Fiennes do Shakespeare in real life before and my goodness is it a treat. Get it on your bucket lists kids. He has the ~perfect~ voice for it, something which the tiny, echoey Almeida and some amazing sound design shows off to incredible effect. When he really lets fly in Richard’s angrier moment the echo goes on for what feels like hours and it’s magical. His characterisation of Richard as a rampant misogynist is an interesting take, and another aspect of the play which feels sadly relevant today, that largely pays off and certainly gives him scope to play with some of the language in a way that makes it feel fresh. But for me his Richard is strongest in the ‘lighter’ moments (obviously a relative concept) and the number of laughs he gets is probably the most striking thing about this performance for me. It almost feels like a Ralph Fiennes greatest hits medley: Voldemort meets M. Gustave. Hilarious with a very sharp edge. I dug it.

There is serious strength and depth is Fiennes’ supporting cast. Aislin McGuckin was my personal highlight as an outstanding Queen Elizabeth. Her anguish and piercing screams when she finds out that Richard has murdered her children is a proper, hair-on-end, Moment and her verbal sparring with Richard is like a particularly satisfying tennis match. Susan Engel is a touch of pure, venomous class as Cecily, Duchess of York too. For the boys, Finbar Lynch is a great, properly evil Buckingham (who I think might be my favourite character in R III) and Shakespeare’s Globe legend James Garnon crosses the river to turn in a fantastically smug, fun and tragic Hastings. There’s honestly not a weak link in this cast though, even if I was slightly underwhelmed by Vanessa Redgrave (I’m fully expecting the theatre gods to strike me down for admitting that).

The other star of this production is its design. I’ve already mentioned Adam Cork’s sound design, but his incidental music is also exceptional in a joyfully non-distracting way. Hildegard Bechtler’s set is a brutalist joy, making the most of the Almeida’s exposed brickwork and dark corners and somehow making the fact that Richard’s modern day grave is left exposed for the entire show work too. The way that the skulls of Richard’s victims stack up along the back wall of the stage is also a fun touch, if your sense of fun is as bleak as mine. I increasingly love the Almedia as a space and this production makes really fantastic use of it.

Rupert Goold’s direction also deserves considerable praise. This is a long production but it really doesn’t feel like it; the action is perfectly paced. There are a couple of unnecessary directorly flourishes that don’t pay off - the crowbarring in of a Richard/Elizabeth rape scene being the prime example - but by and large this is a straight-bat, brutal production that is an absolute credit to all involved.

Highly recommended, probably sold out (though there is a day seat lottery), but thankfully getting a cinema broadcast on 21st July.

Richard III plays at the Almeida until 6th August.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Theatre Review: Sunset at the Villa Thalia

It does not bode well for a piece of theatre when the most exciting and memorable thing about it is someone in the audience.

So it was with Sunset at the Villa Thalia, currently playing at the NT’s Dorfman theatre (aka the theatre with the worth sightlines in London). A new play by Alexi Kaye Campbell, of The Pride fame, Sunset is one of those slightly irksome plays in which nothing actually happens. And, in this case, it happens particularly poorly.

Image source.

Now I don’t mind plays that are just people talking about stuff per se, as long as they have something interesting to say about the stuff said people are talking about. And this is the problem with Sunset: it just doesn’t. Its attempts at profound thinking include the observations that sometimes American foreign policy is not always completely altruistic and that a capitalist economy is not always 100% fair. Its views on the Pope’s religion were sadly omitted.

Structurally, the play seems to work very hard to actively expose its lack of depth. After a reasonably fun and breezy first half that I actually quite enjoyed, the second half is where all the ‘serious analysis’ tries to happen. It makes for one of the least subtle, most heavy handed and least engaging hours of theatre I’ve seen this year. The exchanges on American foreign policy (the lead character is a foreign operative for the Us Government) in particular are cringeworthy in their lack of sophistication. It’s like a particularly poorly written Guardian opinion piece made flesh.

The writing is ok, though again the first half is stronger, with some decent jokes and pithy observations. But again the ‘serious’ bits are weak and lightweight. Maybe someone should have upgraded the playwright’s GCSE history of Latin America textbook to an A Level one at least. This flows into the characterisation too, where portraits are very broad brush (bohemian British playwright and leftwing yummy mummy wife vs scheming American and drunk trophy wife) and motivations are almost always left unexplained. This means where character development is attempted, rarely, it really doesn’t make that much sense.

The production does have a redeeming feature, and it’s a considerable one in the shape of the reliably excellent Ben Miles in the lead role. His part - Harvey, the scheming US Government man - is by far the best written and realised and Miles is, reliably, excellent in it. He manages to make Harvey a far more relatable and sympathetic character than he really should be, even managing to pull some of the historio-political nonsense back from the brink. To continue a theme, he is even better in the first half when Harvey is at his most fun and charming. Elizabeth McGovern is fun too as his boozy wife June, the only problem being that I don’t really understand what her character adds to the play - she’s fine when she’s just providing comic relief but attempts to round her out into something fuller are at best of limited success. Simon Godwin’s direction is also, as ever, very good and mercifully pacey. I’m not sure I could’ve stood this production being much longer.

Overall, then, Sunset at the Villa Thalia is one you can afford to miss. Ben Miles being his usual excellent self isn’t enough to justify the price of a ticket, especially given the price point for an unrestricted view in the Dorfman.

And if you were wondering, it was Bertie Carvel in the audience. Regular readers will be unsurprised to learn that I therefore consider the price of my ticket was entirely justified.

Sunet at the Villa Thalia plays in the Dorfman at the NT until 4th August.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Theatre Review: The Threepenny Opera

It’s very, very rare for me to see a piece of theatre and not know whether I liked it.

Occasionally I’ll see something that needs a bit of thinking or something with a production element that is best reflected on, but to be at a real loss as to what I thought even after much mulling time doesn’t usually happen.

But The Threepenny Opera, currently playing at the National, has rather confounded me. After almost a week of considering I’ve concluded, rather anticlimactically, that I thought it was ok. I can’t say I didn’t like it but I certainly can’t say I loved it. And honestly I’m struggling to explain why. Here follows a collection of thoughts that make a spirited attempt nonetheless.

Image source.

I think my main problem with this production is the show itself. It’s a piece of musical comedy-drama in which I liked neither the music nor the comedy-drama. Which is kind of an issue. For me Kurt Weill’s music is at best a poor man's Sweeney Todd (with one exception). I can remember none of it a week later (with one exception), whilst the closing folk song from 2015’s NT Beaux Stratagem is still stubbornly lodged in my head. And whilst Brecht’s original conception of an amoral satire on popular opera may strike some people as bold and subversive I am not one of those people. To me it was just all rather predictable. I can’t honestly imagine a production of this show that would make me love it, or even like it all that much.

There are production-specific things I didn’t like as well, principally that it had all the subversive power of an M&S jumper. I think this must be the most middle class interpretation of subversive I’ve ever seen. It was the theatrical equivalent of a Home Counties yummy mummy thinking she was being awfully larky by using an Aldi bag for life in Waitrose. My understanding of Brecht going into this production, whilst limited, was that the whole point of it was subversion. And without delivering that, Simon Stephens’ new translation of the book and lyrics - which are the main culprit here - all felt rather unnecessary. The attempts to up the subversion with a Family Guy (unfunny episode) sized dose of vulgarity don’t work either. Vulgarity and subversion are not the same and vulgarity is not automatically funny or entertaining.

I wouldn’t normally mention it in a review but the other thing that really pissed me off related to this production, and which has certainly informed my view of it regardless of whether it was in any way linked to anyone involved with it, is the programme. Normally so good at the NT, the essays in this one are devoted to spouting the sort of uber lefty, nonsensical bullshit that would make even the most dedicated Corbynista blush. A particular highlight: ‘is thinking for yourself a Marxist idea?’ It is beyond the scope of this review to address everything that is wrong with that sentence.

But there are things to like in this production, some of which you can like very much. Rory Kinnear takes the lead role of Macheath - or Mack the Knife if you prefer - and makes his debut as a musical theatre actor. His voice is startlingly good; like sort-of-makes-you-hate-him-a-little-bit-for-being-such-an-allrounder good. It almost goes without saying that his performance is top drawer in all other ways too. He’s not an immediately obvious choice to play a murderous badboy but he really works it, in a sort of understated, dry, wryly funny way. Loved the guyliner too.

He has ample support in a talented cast, especially from Rosalie Craig as his less innocent than she seems new wife. Again, it goes without saying that she has a knockout voice and her solo numbers are undoubted highlights of the production, even if the songs aren’t that great. George Ikediashi (aka cabaret star Le Gateau Chocolat) is a glorious scene stealer who delivers a cracker of a Mack the Knife - my “with one exception” to how I don’t like the music - to open the show and descends on the moon to save Macheath’s life to close it. His mischievous performance is possibly the one thing that feels genuinely subversive here too.

Vicki Mortimer’s design is fun and effective. Sets are comprised almost entirely of brown paper on wooden frames, which allows characters to enter and leave around or through them. It gets slightly overused but it is effective. The use of the Olivier’s beautiful old revolve is great throughout too. The costumes and makeup design echo this self-consciously artificial atmosphere. It all adds up to look like a great big Victorian cartoon. I was a fan.

So to sum up, I sort of liked The Threepenny Opera in as far as you can ever like a production of a show you’re not a fan of. Or at least I think I did. I’m still not really sure.

The Threepenny Opera is on in the Olivier Theatre at the National (in rep) until 1st October.