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.


Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Theatre Review: Romeo and Juliet

Call me a heretic, but I'm not a big fan of Romeo and Juliet.

One of the greatest love stories ever told? No. Two annoying rich kids falling in love with the idea of being in love and fucking up everything they touch in the process? Yes.

With the arguable exception of the Baz Luhrmann film version, most productions of this play don’t seem to share my view. It’s always played so straight and earnestly that I slightly want to vomit almost continuously. And, when the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season was announced, the inclusion of this piece was the thing I was least excited about. I was pretty convinced that not even my oft stated and increasingly ardent Branagh obsession could make me love this play.

And indeed it didn't. I still think Romeo and Juliet is over hyped, over sentimental and over cooked. So in some ways it slightly irks me to have to report that, despite all that, I thoroughly enjoyed this production.

Image source.

Mostly this is because - finally - here is a production of Romeo and Juliet which treats the story with the irreverance it deserves. This is the first production of this play I've ever seen which treats the silly teenage 'lovers' as exactly that, playing up the comedy and the ridiculousness in a text which is riper with the potential for laughs than most directors seem to realise. Occasionally it's slightly overdone (I had some issues with Meera Syal's Nurse who once or twice tipped a bit too far into pantomime territory for me) but by and large the tone is subtly struck. Huge kudos to KenBran and his co-director/choreographer Rob Ashford for their quietly revelatory approach.

The best scene of the piece sums up this approach perfectly: the famous balcony scene ('Romeo, Romeo' etc etc) played between a slightly pissed Juliet swigging a bottle of wine and a wryly nervous Romeo, fawning over her every hiccup. It turns the supposedly most romantic scene in the play into mild, but very funny, farce and I absolutely loved it for doing so.

This is also a very sexy production, aesthetically and atmospherically. Christopher Oram's design borrows heavily from a compilation of every Fellini film ever and suitably evokes a dangerous fringe of La Dolce Vita. The 1950s setting definitely works in the production's favour, especially in the underplayed cool of the costumes. I'm 100% in favour of anything that puts Richard Madden in a slim fitting suit and/or a leather jacket.

Speaking of whom, a lot of the print reviews really stuck the rapier, as it were, into Madden's Romeo but for my money he's one of the highlights of the cast. He's particularly strong when there's more comedy for him to play with but is certainly no slouch in the heavier, more dramatic moments either. In a strong ensemble, Ansu Kabia's Tybalt, all dangerous bravado and swagger, and Michael Rouse's violent and threatening Capulet are the scene stealers; the latter in particular providing one of the production's most striking and effecting scenes when he brutally enforces his will on his daughter that she will marry the nonentity that is Count Paris. Derek Jacobi's Mercutio is entertainingly cynical and Lily James' Juliet suitably beautiful (and irritating) but neither, for my money, warrant the hype they've received in the proper reviews.

There are bits of this production that don't work - the distracting sound design, the slightly cringeworthy ball scene, the random insertion of songs and bursts of Italian - but overall it's really great fun. And it made me not hate Romeo and Juliet as a play, which is worthy of note enough on its own, frankly. I would recommend it, even to my most cynical of friends. And I have some very cynical friends.

Romeo and Juliet is part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company's Plays at the Garrick season and is on until 13th August. It has a live cinema broadcast on 7th July.