Friday, 29 January 2016

Theatre Review: Hapgood

It probably tells you all you need to know about my opinion of the Hampstead Theatre’s production of Hapgood that I'm writing this post less than a week after seeing it and am genuinely struggling to remember much about it.

I mean, if you’re short on time you can stop reading now really. I don’t know about you, but ‘almost completely forgettable’ is not one of the things I’m looking for in a production.

Image source.

Hapgood is a Tom Stoppard play which is ostensibly a whodunnit spy thriller where the British secret service finds a Russian mole in its ranks and works to expose him. Except because it’s a Tom Stoppard play it’s not about that really, it’s actually about particle physics. Obviously.

And here’s the major issue for me. If I’m watching a play where the main narrative device is a spy thriller, then I want a good spy thriller. This is not a good spy thriller. Instead, it’s a setup for many lengthy speeches about particle physics and associated philosophy. I hate it when Stoppard does his ‘I'm interested in this idea so you must hear about it, repeatedly, at length’ thing (see also: The Hard Problem and the fucking prisoner's’ dilemma). Partly because Stoppard and I don’t find the same ideas interesting, partly because I find it makes for very stop-start drama which is always just frustrating. In the case of Hapgood, about a minute into the first lengthy speech (about whether light is a wave or a beam or something similar that I didn't understand) I found myself mentally ranking my favourite Nakd wholefood bars*. The ultimate consequence of the many lengthy speeches was that I pretty much failed to engage with the plot or characters in any meaningful way. Which is kind of a big deal.

Unusually, at least for things I see, this production was also hampered by some distinctly average acting. I had a particular problem with Lisa Dillon in the title role, who I just didn't buy either as spymaster or, particularly, as slightly embarrassing mother of a small boy (though, to be fair, she was much better when pretending to be Hapgood’s wayward, fictional, twin sister). Miscast or just having a bad night, who knows. Few of her castmates faired much better, so at least she had some company.

The redeeming feature of this production is the always excellent Tim McMullen as Hapgood’s boss Blair, who is outstanding as the stuffy, laconic, polished Big Boss. He manages to wring a lot of comedy out of his part as well as the required amount of gravitas and casual malice when necessary. He also manages a quite extraordinarily consistent and unforced Posh accent. I missed him every second that he was off stage. He is, essentially, Ralph Fiennes' version of M in the Bond films, but better and more entertaining. Alec Newman as Russian double agent/Hapgood’s babydaddy Kerner is also pretty good, encumbered as he is by the bulk of the lengthy speeches. His Russian accent was largely bang on and surprisingly non-annoying.

The production also looks very stylish - all clean lines and Cold War grey. The use of doors and walls that recess into the side of the stage to portion off the action is unfussy, ingenious and highly effective. So too is the multiple video screen backdrop, used in lieu of any traditional scenery. I particularly enjoyed the transition from a leisure centre swimming pool to London Zoo because lions are always awesome.

Overall, very much not one for me and I can’t honestly recommend it. Which is a good thing really because its run has now ended.

This post was rather pointless really. Sorry about that.

*1 gingerbread, 2 bakewell tart, 3 orange cocoa

Monday, 25 January 2016

Theatre Review: Cymbeline

It’s funny the way Shakespeare plays go in and out of fashion.

A few years ago you couldn't move for productions of Othello. Then it was Macbeth. Right now it’s Cymbeline; soon to be seen outdoors at The Globe (in a reworked version) and at the RSC and currently playing indoors at the The Globe in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Image source.

Cymbeline tells the story of the titular legendary King of the Britons and his daughter Innogen/Imogen (this production uses the former so that’s what I'm using too, I'm not getting into that debate). More accurately, it tells Innogen’s story in which Cymbeline is a peripheral character; the title is a total red herring. I'm not going to try and explain the plot in any detail because I’d be here for days - it’s a bit of a beast. The main plot device is very familiar though: a loyal husband is driven to near-madness by his wife’s wrongly perceived infidelity.

I have to admit my expectations weren't high for this play - I tend to think that if I've not heard of a piece of Shakespeare then there’s probably a very good reason for that (because it’s all about me) - but I was exceptionally pleasantly surprised. A rarely performed (except at the moment) tragicomedy, Cymbeline is a fantastically engaging and affecting piece with some great characters and memorable verse. For me, it’s more effective as a comedy than a tragedy and as such it’s a surprisingly playful piece written, it seems to me, with a knowing wink in the direction of its convoluted plot and pantomime villains. It’s no Othello, but neither is it trying to be. It’s quite refreshing.

It helps that this production is ace - spry, wry and exceptionally clear. Director Sam Yates whips the action along with tongue appropriately in or out of cheek throughout. The plot, which would be difficult to follow if handled with less skill, is always front, centre and correctly paced. The verse is spoken with a uniformity of clarity that contributes to that too. And there’s no question that best use is made of the stunning Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and the full range of its period features (no spoilers, but the use of the upper trap door in particular is fantastically dramatic). The fight scenes are great too, despite the obvious limitations of the teeny tiny SWP. I think this is by some way the most authentically - and satisfyingly - Shakespearean Shakespeare I've ever seen.

The cast is also fantastic. First of all, can we all just note how cool it is that the King and Queen are played by Geoffrey the butler from The Fresh Prince (Joseph Marcel, who is excellent) and Mrs Doyle from Father Ted (Pauline McLynn, very funny but a bit too pantomime for my taste)? Good. It’s the younger cast members who own the show though, especially relative newcomer Emily Barber who is really exceptional as a righteous, funny Innogen. One to watch right there. Other highlights include Jonjo O’Neill, who is earnest without being boring as Posthumus, particularly affecting as the death seeking nihilist that the character descends into, and Eugene O’Hare (who deserves MAJOR PROPS for performing, on crutches, despite a broken foot) as an enjoyably slimy, villainous Iachimo whose ultimate redemption is very well handled - credible, touching, completely free of syrup. The whole cast is fantastic though - it’s a genuinely top drawer (and pleasingly diverse) ensemble. And crammed full of hotties with regional accents too, which is a thing that I for one wish to encourage.

Overall then, highly recommended. Ignore any preconceptions you might have about little known Shakespeare, go along and enjoy. Oh, and if you can have dinner in The Swan beforehand. Their pre-theatre menu is excellent. Look out for the treacle tart.

Cymbeline plays in rep at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe until April 21st.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Theatre Review: Macbeth

By the pricking of my thumbs, something pretentious this way comes…

I've come to the conclusion that when the creative team behind the Young Vic’s Macbeth were coming up with their concept for the show they went to see the Almeida’s Bakkhai. ‘This is a great idea,’ they clearly thought. ‘Take a classic text, cast two fantastic actors in the lead roles and then bury their excellent performances under a tonne of technically impressive but extraneous bullshit that adds nothing!’ Whereas Bakkhai had its endless songs about nets, though, Macbeth has something far worse: modern dance.

Image source.

Now look. I don’t object to modern dance, or any kind of dance, in principle. Quite the opposite. What I do object to is it being crowbarred into a production to which it adds nothing. There’s no attempt in this production to use the dance to tell the story, which would've been interesting, and only the most basic attempt to use it to add to character development. Instead, you have lengthy dance routines just forced into, or in between, scenes of dialogue which serve only to interrupt the action and break the flow of the story.

And, whilst most of them are at least aesthetically pleasing (and all are done really well by the small cast), some of them are straight up ridiculous. The most bizarre example is the transformation of Macduff’s soon-to-be-murdered son into two dancers with sheets draped over their heads, skipping. You could actually feel the audience thinking ‘what the fuck?’ and in many cases hear them quietly giggling. For such an emotive scene, with fairly large implications for the rest of the story, it’s a genuinely unfathomable, typically unnecessary, stylistic flourish.

The other thing that pissed me off the most with the production is some of the liberties taken with the text. Whilst I wholeheartedly and vigorously applaud the decision to cut the ever tedious, never funny porter scene, some of the other changes are just plain odd. The most jarring example is having the ghost of Banquo return in the final scenes to deliver big chunks of dialogue. I think I understand what we’re meant to think about this (that it’s further evidence of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s respective declines into madness) but it just doesn't work in practice. Especially when a lot of this dialogue is delivered in the style of a grime MC. I also take issue with some of the updates to certain words (which in a lot of cases make sense) but leaving others unscathed. I'm 100% certain that there are more confusing words in the text than ‘hilt’ (which becomes ‘handle’) for example.

The cumulative effect of the unnecessary dancing, text fuckery and some not-as-clever-as-it-thinks-it-is design is a production where the creative vision takes primacy over the play itself. Which, for me, breaks rule one of theatre. The play should always be king.

It’s a shame because, exactly as with Bakkhai, strip away the nonsense and there’s some top class acting struggling for attention underneath. The reliably fantastic John Herffernan is, reliably, fantastic in the title role. His verse speaking is clear and straightforward whilst his characterisation of Macbeth is pleasingly nihilistic, brutal and understated. He is excellently supported by Anna Maxwell Martin as a ferociously unsympathetic, properly villainous Lady Macbeth. Her verse speaking is, with a couple of rushed lines excepted, also very clear and very modern in a non-arsey way. Both performances are incredibly powerful; I would happily watch them again in a better production. Credit also to Prasanna Puwanarajah who is a strong, ballsy and altogether cooler than usual Banquo, even if he does have far too many lines.

It’s the performances that redeem this production in the end, but it’s still not one I’d enthusiastically urge you to see. Worth a look if you’re a Heffer-fan with deep pockets and nothing better to do this week, or enjoy unnecessary modern dance (or skipping ghosts). Otherwise save your money.

Macbeth is at the Young Vic until Saturday (23rd January).

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Theatre Review: Guys and Dolls

It’s generally - and correctly - accepted that Guys and Dolls is one of the best musicals, if not the best musical, ever written.

It’s been around the block so many times and with so many distinguished actors, directors and producers in its various creative teams (I last saw the Michael Grandage directed version in the mid naughties) that it’s always exciting when it comes back into town.

And there’s a particularly exciting new version in town right now. Produced by Chichester Festival Theatre - which is exciting enough on its own; it’s difficult to think of a more consistently excellent producer of musicals in British theatre (or indeed anywhere else) at the moment - this version has a killer cast, a superstar choreographer and the unenviable task of living up to CFT’s last West End transfer, the super smash that was Gypsy.

Image source.

If anyone involved is feeling the weight of Gypsy on their shoulders then it doesn't show. And nor should it, because Guys and Dolls is a triumph in its own right.

Telling the story of the various travails of two professional gamblers and their love interests, the score of Guys and Dolls is a particularly beautiful embarrassment of riches. Some of the best known and best loved songs in the musical theatre repertoire have their home in this show, including the quite literally show stopping Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat which, honestly, if you don’t love then you’re an idiot. It’s hard to go too far wrong with a musical production when this is your raw material and this production certainly doesn't - everything about the music, from the vocals to the orchestration, is immaculate.

Speaking of immaculate, let’s talk choreography. The dance numbers in this production are simply stunning. This is due in no small part I'm sure to the presence of one Carlos Acosta in the creative team as co-choreographer (with Andrew Wright). Yes, *that* Carlos Acosta. And his influence is clear to see in the beautiful, sweeping, ballet-tinged numbers. The Luck Be A Lady sequence is a particular highlight; stunning, physically demanding (three cheers for the ensemble who deal with it magnificently) choreography teamed with innovative lighting and one of the best songs in musical history. It’s impossible not to be swept away. Unless you’re, like, dead inside or something.

The cast, too, is top drawer. David Haig is a great choice for Nathan Detroit; witty, warm, slightly inept and with a surprisingly (I don’t know why I find it surprising) pleasing singing voice. Sophie Thompson (the superior of the Thompson sisters for my money) captures the underlying sadness of Miss Adelaide whilst losing none of the humour in the character. Jamie Parker and Siubhan Harrison are pleasingly slick and naive respectively and make for a plausible, touching and funny couple. Harrison in particular has an absolutely stunning voice too. Gavin Spokes is the lucky man who gets to play Nicely Nicely Johnson (AKA the best part) and thus belt out Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat, which he does with fantastic energy, suitable swagger and fewer encores than he’s probably entitled to.

I'm trying very hard to find something to complain about with this production but, honestly, there’s nothing. I love this show and I adore this production and, really, you should just go and see it. It’s funny, technically excellent and utterly joyous. And let’s face it, the way 2016 is going so far we could all use a bit of extra joy in our lives.

Guys and Dolls is at the Savoy until 12th March, after which the production (though presumably not all of the cast thanks to a certain Cursed Child…) will tour.