Sunday, 22 October 2017

Theatre Review: Young Marx

There’s something deeply comforting about the fact that it is now once again possible to go to a theatre on the south side of the Thames that offers £15 tickets and is run by Nicholas Hytner. The rest of the world may be going to shit, but in at least this one tiny respect things are exactly as they should be.

If there’s a pang of sadness that said theatre isn’t the National, it really doesn’t last long once you get inside Hytner’s new venture, The Bridge Theatre. From the beautiful - and functional - front of house, to the completely lovely staff to the huge, well stocked bar to the fact that you can order fresh baked madeleines to eat, warm, in the interval (this is the best idea in the history of theatre), The Bridge is not only a safe space for those who still pine for the Hytner-at-the-National era it’s also just a bloody lovely venue. A gem for London’s theatre scene. 

Once inside the auditorium, which is very similar to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in design with comfy seats, legroom and great sight lines, things - at the moment at least - only get better. Hytner’s first commission for his new baby is Young Marx, a comedy that reunites the team behind the excellent Great Britain, Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, for a romp through the early life of Karl Marx. As a political refugee, Marx lived with his family in digs in Soho for a time pre-Das Kapital and it is this period of boozing, duelling and problematic family life that the play concerns itself with.

It is a great piece of writing, in short. It’s extremely funny in both a knowing chuckle and proper laugh out loud sort of way, drawing its comedy both from politics and, more often, simply from human life. It’s a play that seeks to demystify Marx (and Friedrich Engels) and it does so really well, delivering a very human story of two ordinary men and the competing pressures of their ordinary lives with their extraordinary ideas. It doesn’t set out to be a documentary; though everything that happens in the play is true, some license has been taken with locations and characters to prioritise a coherent and strong narrative. It also delivers some pleasingly darker moments, particularly in the second half, include a genuinely touching funeral scene. The balance between these moments and the comedy is perfectly drawn. It is a rich, fulfilling and entertaining play. Nick Hytner has not lost his eye for a good newbie.

The production is fantastic too. Hytner is in the director’s chair (and I breathe another happy sigh at writing that phrase) and gives us a show that is pacy, energetic and yet feels enjoyably like it’s always slightly verging on chaos. How I’ve missed that man! Mark Thompson’s design is fab; structurally impressive, in that it involves a very large piece of set (a house/shop/British Museum reading room, delete as appropriate) that must turn all the way around on a revolve and open and close to deliver each piece of scenery, and completely visually effective too. The smoking chimneys of the London skyline were almost Disney-esque in their attention to detail. The use - and selection - of music is joyously incongruous to the period and really effective. Composer Grant Olding (of, amongst other things, Jekyll and Hyde ballet fame) has done good here. The production is a gritty, dirty, dangerous treat.

Young Marx reunites Hytner with Rory Kinnear (fun fact: the first show I ever saw at the National was Hytner’s Othello with Kinnear as Iago and I still think about that show sometimes when I’m sad to make me smile) who is, it almost goes without saying, fantastic in the lead role. He does comedy so, so well, particularly the domestic stuff, and his considerable acting chops (sounds dirty, but you know what I mean) shine in the darker moments. He makes Marx a deeply human, deeply sympathetic, figure. He has extremely strong support across the board in an excellent cast, particularly Nancy Carroll as Marx’s wife who is luminously empathetic and Oliver Chris as a charismatic Engels, a perfect companion for Marx who pleasingly complicates the family life vs intellectual life balance that the play explores by being both more pro-family and pro-Marxism than Marx. And look out for Duncan Wisbey’s hilarious ‘Bearded Man in Library’ who almost steals the whole show with his fantastic, David Attenborough voiced, Charles Darwin.

Young Marx is a great production: funny, thoughtful, interesting, beautifully staged and superbly acted. Moreover, The Bridge Theatre is an exciting new venue in London’s theatre scene that I cannot wait to go back to. Go for the plays, stay for the madeleines. 

Young Marx is at The Bridge Theatre until 31st December. 

Theatre Review: Labour of Love

There’s something excellent about St Martin’s Lane at the moment: its two theatres, within yards of each other, are both occupied by James Graham political history plays. I love that fact so much.

At the Trafalgar Square end is my beloved Ink; further up (near the big Pret and the Five Guys because London) is his newbie; Labour of Love. As the name rather suggests this new kid on the block uses the story of one MP, his agent and local party to tell the story of the travails of the Labour Party down the years; its apparently unceasing civil war between people who want to win elections and actually change things and people for whom ideological purity is the sole aim of politics from. Perhaps you can guess from that summation which side of the debate I have greater sympathy with. 

Now, this is a James Graham political play so it almost goes without saying that I enjoyed it and would urge you to see it. Especially as it’s produced by Michael Grandage and there are therefore stacks of £10 tickets available. However, I have to admit I was slightly disappointed by Labour of Love. Judged by Graham’s own standards - which of course include what is for my money the best play about British politics ever written in This House - it’s just a bit thin.

Don’t get me wrong, the writing is still excellent. It is, as Graham always is, pacy and believeable and witty and very, very funny. There are amazing one liners: “we’re up and down like Ken Clarke’s fucking cholesterol”, “it’s Tory party politics, posh squirrels fighting in a bag”, “who knew Jeremy Corbyn was actually Clement Attlee?” And Graham still has the best understanding of British politics of anyone writing on it at the moment, including most of the apparently expert journalists. I found his portrayal of the day to day life on the campaign trail away from Westminster particularly effective in this case. As someone who’s been an election agent for a losing candidate in the past the opening scenes were frankly a bit too real. Structurally it’s clever too, telling half of the story going backwards (from Corbyn to Kinnock) in the first half and the filling in the gaps going forwards (from Kinnock to Corbyn) in the second. Compared to almost any other play around in London at the moment, it’s a fantastic piece of work.

Compared to the Graham back catalogue, though? Not so much. For a start, and I realise approximately 0.01% of you will care about this, there are some uncharacteristic factual errors. For example, theaforementioned opening scenes, where soon to be ex-MP David Lyons and his agent are discussing what went wrong, we’re told that his result is going to a recount. But how, if his agent isn’t there? It would be her who would ask for the recount. This is the sort of thing that Graham always gets 100% right so it’s irritating that it’s wrong here. More fundamentally than my pedantry, unlike Ink or This House, Labour of Love doesn’t feel like it has anything new to add to the debate it takes as its subject. It feels like a summation of everything else that’s written about the Labour Party by every political journalist in Britain, it doesn’t really have a new perspective of its own. The fact that the war between the factions is taking it away from the ordinary members who want to help people, which seems to be its main conclusion, is hardly ground breaking. That’s not to say Graham doesn’t get it when it comes to his topic, he totally does, he just doesn’t have anything to move the debate on from where it already is. 

There is some seriously thin characterisation going on here too. Graham’s plays always tend to have a couple of lead characters who get a bit more of a backstory than everyone else but here that is particularly stark. The supporting characters hardly get a look in and are little more than archetypes - the Old Labour bruiser, the genuine community politician who everyone looks down on. The one I seriously took issue with is David’s wife Elizabeth, a sort of repugnant piss take of Cherie Blair but with the snobbery dial turned up to 1000%, who is an almost pantomime figure. She is the weakest character I’ve seen in a Graham play by some distance. The structure too, for all that I like it, doesn’t quite pay off as it makes the second act almost entirely predictable. 

The production, though, is very strong. As you would hope given it reunites Graham with Headlong, ie the same combination that delivered This House. Jeremy Herrin’s direction is pacy and vibrant as ever. Lee Newby’s set - a series of the same Labour Party office down the decades placed on a double sided revolve for ease of scene changes - is authentic and intelligent; a believable Labour MP’s office. I loved the use of video to help portray the passage of time and the projection of video onto a screen across the stage to mask the scene changes. I don’t usually get too excited about wigs and costumes, but Richard Mawbey’s are excellent here and really effective at displaying the passage of time in a believable way. The use of incidental music is similarly effective, though I missed the traditional James Graham play proper musical number. 

Given my comments about some of the characterisation it’s no surprise that I wasn’t particularly satisfied by some of the acting. That’s not so much to do with the actors themselves though, just the (lack of) material they had to work with. However the two leads, Martin Freeman as David and Tamsin Greig as Jean, could hardly be better. Admittedly David is a very Martin Freeman part (I do wonder if it was written for him), but he is great in it and perfectly embodies the frustrations of a Labour moderate. And he is of course very, very funny. It’s Greig - a late replacement for Sarah Lancashire, who had to withdraw - who steals the show for me though. She’s uproariously funny without ever becoming unbelievable. In the play’s quieter, more emotional moments, she’s beautifully tender. That anyone else was ever considered for this role, let alone cast, is genuinely baffling to me. She’s the best thing about the whole production for me.

To say something is a disappointing James Graham play is rather like saying something is a disappointing Bruce Springsteen album or a disappointing Stephen Sondheim musical: not great by their own standards but still better than almost all of their competition. Labour of Love is, ultimately, a fun, entertaining and well written night out. It may not be the best James Graham play on its street, but it’s still pretty damn good.

Labour of Love is at the Noel Coward until 2nd December. 

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Theatre Review: St George and the Dragon

Something that is becoming increasingly clear from Rufus Norris’ tenure at the National Theatre is that he really likes folksy historical plays and he really thinks that they work well on the venue’s cavernous Olivier stage. A second thing that is becoming increasingly clear is that London’s theatregoers do not share his view.

Salome (which admittedly stretches my definition of folksy but still fits the general theme), the disastrous Common and now St George and the Dragon have all occupied the Olivier in the past few months, all to a shrug of the shoulders from audiences and varying degrees of empty auditoriums. St George and the Dragon (I saw it on a Saturday night, the Olivier was at least a third empty) is certainly not the worst of these three, but it’s frustrating to sit through in light of the response that its predecessors have had nonetheless. The NT is the flagship for publicly subsidised theatre. You can’t help but feel it should be doing better things to make the case for its subsidy.

I’ve got slightly ahead of myself here; let’s get back to St George and the Dragon. Telling the story of England through an allegory on the legend of St George, this new play by Rory Mullarkey is a meditation on Englishness. It’s semi-successful at this, but there’s still a lack of clarity as to what the play is really supposed to be doing. Pitching St George into three time zones, his own, the industrial revolution and today, is it supposed to be a fish out of water comedy? If so I wish it had really gone for it, because when it does take this as its aim (particularly in act two) it’s very effective and very funny. But it doesn’t really go for it. I wonder if it’s intended to be a morality play, the criticism of elites down the years is certainly apparent and the attack on modern apathy is well intentioned. But if so it doesn’t really work as that either since, ultimately, there is no moral, something it’s intensely rose-tinted view of the past doesn’t help. Much of the play feels more like it was intended to be a history lesson for year nines or perhaps a tribute to the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, neither of which are something I’m particularly excited by. It’s also disappointing that it chooses not to tackle some of the more controversial aspects of the St George myth and English identity at all. There’s an interesting play to be made from the multicultural ‘real’ life of St George vs the way St George, and his banner in particular, has been appropriated by English nationalists, but this is not that play.

The ending of the play is also a bit of a mess and a particularly frustrating moment. If I was being unkind, I would suggest that the playwright didn’t know how to end his play and so decided to just randomly kill a bunch of characters. That’s what it feels like. Structurally, it’s clever though. The pitching through time is an effective device, as is the idea that the three time zones are consecutive years to maintain a single narrative line and cast of characters. The allegory of the dragon becomes rather tired and predictable, and frankly a bit panto, but it’s a good device in production terms.

And the production is strong. Rae Smith’s design is really effective. It looks like a storybook, all drawn plywood buildings and clever illustrated map projections, and works well with the allegorical construct of the play. Practically, it also makes scene - and period - changes easy and quick too, at least from an audience point of view. The use of the revolve is great. The stage on top of the revolve is laid at an angle so that, when it turns, it opens up a new space at the front of the stage that’s ready made to become a house (or bin store) as the story demands. The extension of the set vertically up the back of the stage is great too and adds extra depth to the design as well as some cool places for characters to hide. Some of the special effects, in particular the first (literal) dragon, are a bit Blue Peter but overall it’s an effective staging.

In a play with questionable development for the majority of its characters, the cast still does well. Indeed it’s the charismatic cast and the design that save this production and make it entertaining, if not hugely exciting, to watch. John Heffernan is on good, energetic and suitably mischievous form in the titular part - and with an excellent wig - and he’s backed up strongly by Gawn Grainger as the show’s most human and engaging character, and Richard Goulding who brings depths to proceedings as the flawed, rounded, real-feeling person that George - and others - just can’t accept.

Overall, St George and the Dragon is an entertaining enough watch, it’s just nothing to get in any way excited about. God knows it’s not Common, but neither is it anywhere near being Follies. It’s worth a look as a fun primer on English history, but it’s difficult to praise it more highly than that. Mr Norris really must try harder.

St George and the Dragon is in the Olivier at the National Theatre until 2nd December.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Theatre Review: 42nd Street

Musicals, it’s fair to say, are often not overburdened with plot.

It’s not unreasonable; after all the clue is in the name and the main point of a musical is its music. That’s why they work so well at dealing with utterly implausible topics - a roller skating musical about trains anyone? - but it can also be what kills them. The balance between using your book just to get you from song to song and actually having some kind of narrative to drive forward is a fine one to strike.

42nd Street - the most quintessential of Broadway, chorine done good, musicals - does not strike that balance. At all. It is, I think, the thinnest writing and the most non-existent characterisation available to a London audience at the moment. The plot, such as it is, exists purely to maneuver awkwardly between musical numbers (which is kind of fine though, a point I'll come back to). It is more or less impossible to explain why any of the characters do anything since there is zero character development. Some of the characters are entirely superfluous.

More of an issue for me is the way this piece treats its female characters. Charitably, you could describe this as sexist. Uncharitably, misogynistic. (Seriously, check out the lyrics to the hateful Young and Beautiful.) That this blatant sexism is played entirely straight, without even the hint of a knowing wink, is kind of gross, frankly. There's also a nasty stream of ageism - both against the old and the young female characters - in the mix too. For all the sequins, it's not a nice show.

However, there are a lot of sequins. Like, LOADS of sequins. And the glorious production of this decidedly inglorious show actually makes it worth seeing. Visually, it's stunning: the costumes, the scenery, the lighting is all beautiful, evocative and spectacular. And, for all that I’ve slagged off the writing, it does contain some absolutely belting songs. You will have the title number in your head for days, be warned. The star of the show, though, is the choreography and the dancing which is quite frankly peerless. Much of it should be physically impossible. You need to be dead inside (figuratively and possibly literally) not to be astounded by the spectacle of this show. Indeed, if spectacle rather than drama is the prism through which you judge it, it's an utter triumph.

In a show that relies so much on its dancing, it's no surprise that the human star here, in terms of performance, is the superhuman chorus. The energy they bring is astonishing in that fantastic, toothy, Broadway way. Leading lady (and, let's be clear, that is what she is despite the fact she doesn't get the last bow in the ovation, something which made me leave the theatre absolutely seething) Clare Halse is sublime. She is a proper, old fashioned triple threat who dances like a dream, sings like a dream and acts most of the cast off the stage (especially Sheena Easton who, fab voice aside, does not do herself any favours in this show). She is a superstar in the making, if there's any justice.

Overall then, this production is triumphant spectacle encasing a mediocre, at best, piece of drama. It is worth seeing on that basis and to see the divine Clare Halse do her stuff.

42nd Street is at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Theatre Review: Our Great Tchaikovsky

In a list of ‘things I didn’t know I needed in my life’ a version of The 1812 Overture for solo piano (like, the full orchestra version just played entirely by one piano) would rank pretty highly.

But, dear reader, need it I did. For it is hilariously silly. And a marked improvement on the original, I would argue.

It’s also a feat of piano playing that has to be seen and heard to be fully believed and unquestionably the highlight of Hershey Felder’s Our Great Tchaikovsky, which opened last night at The Other Palace. Anyone familiar with Felder’s intriguing and unique ouvre (which doesn’t include me) will recognise the premise of OGT: the composer’s life story told through a blend of traditional one man theatre and his own music. Part play, part classical concert. A slightly tricky sell, but a valuable one. The idea, I think, is that by setting the music in the context in which it was written adds to an audience’s understanding of both composer and output. And this works. It’s a fascinating insight in a ubiquitous composer and certainly shines new light onto many of his most famous pieces.

It goes without saying almost that Tchaikovsky’s life is kind of a trainwreck. I mean, he’s a composer so... I didn’t know, though, that the main reason for the trainwreck - the emotional points failure, if you will - was that he was a deeply closeted homosexual. Felder picks this up and runs with it as the main narrative thread of the show in a way that is largely effective, affecting and narratively very strong. Focusing on the relationships in his life in this way gives the show real narrative strength and coherence and also makes the sleection of music seem much more organic. However, the attempt to make the contemporary parallels felt a bit forced. As well meaning and morally justified as it was, for example, I did find the inclusion right in the middle of the show of an out of character section of exposition explaining the current state of gay rights in Russia a bit weirdly placed. Had it been an epilogue I suspect I would have felt rather differently.

The other main thread of the piece is the nature of criticism: where we look for it, whose opinions we value and why we care. I actually found this a more interesting idea to explore and could happily have listened to more of it. The nature of art, and how it’s funded and enabled, gets a hearing too, though I felt this was a rich vein of potential that culd have been tapped more, especially for its contemporary resonance.

Minor plot and structure quibbles aside, the main thing of note here - as it inevitably is in any one man show - is the performer and Hershey Felder is really quite something. It’s very difficult to describe what Felder is in traditional terms. He is certainly a solid actor, he sings beauifully and he plays the piano with fantastic skill but somehow that doesn’t quite capture it. I almost want to say that he’s a cabaret star, because the feeling of all round entertainment is arguably closest captured by that term and it feels like it gives a better sense of what he does. His performance is enormously charismatic and full of genuine virtuosity. I’m sure there are classical pianists who play Tchaikovsky better than him and classical actors who could act Tchaikovsky better than him, but to do both at the same time? Whilst playing the entire orchestration of The 1812? Can’t think of anyone. It’s a real Performance and worth the price of a ticket (which, at The Other Palace, is really not that much) alone. You’re not going to see anything like it from anyone else.

Production-wise, I feel that Felder could have been somewhat better served. The set seemed busy and overthought, I wonder whether just having him and his piano on an empty stage wouldn’t be more effective. The auditorium didn’t quite feel the right size, though whether too big or too small I kept changing my mind. The use of projected scenery though is fantastic; effective, eye catching and really beautifully done. The choice of music is canny too - I know I’m boring on about it, but the 1812 section is joyous (‘every note devoid of love but lots of loud noises’) - and the balance between music and action is well judged. It’s ten minutes or so too long, but how much of that is an issue and how much first night nerves is impossible for me to say.

Overall? I would recommend Our Great Tchaikovsky. It’s a really interesting piece with an utterly unique central performance from an utterly unique performer. There’s nothing on the London stage like it (nothing that dares to be quite so unashamedly odd) and, even if for that reason alone, is worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time.

Our Great Tchaikovsky is at The Other Palace until October 22nd.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Theatre Review: Oslo

I find plays that are able to educate me about a topic at the same time as being enjoyable and engaging theatre are two things: 1) rare and 2) impressive.

The ins and outs of the Middle East peace process is certainly one of the things that I, somewhat shamefully, could use some education on. I had heard, for example, of the Oslo Agreement, and was vaguely aware of what it was, but I had no idea how extraordinary the process to get to it had been nor how important it is to the wider context of relations in that part of the world.

I don't think, though, it matters how informed about Middle Eastern politics you are when it comes to the merits of the National Theatre's production of Oslo, J T Rogers' all conquering play about the titular agreement's negotiations, conducted to varying degrees of international secrecy by a team of Norwegian diplomats and NGO staff. Whatever your previous knowledge - and this play certainly doesn't presuppose any - it is a gripping, thrilling, unexpectedly funny and even more unexpectedly hopeful piece.

Rogers' writing is brilliant: quick, witty and utterly free of judgement (not dissimilar to James Graham actually which is more than fine with me). One of the extraordinary tricks of this play - and this production - is that it includes an enormous amount of exposition and context without ever feeling dull or flabby. In the writing, this is achieved by the really effective use of a narrator who introduces key characters and explains, with some help from the set, the historical context of what is going on. The narrator is one of the characters in the drama who simply breaks the fourth wall briefly when needed. It works so well, never slowing down the action and helping to make the play accessible to a non-expert audience. The fact that that narrator is 99% of the time a FEMALE CHARACTER (caps necessary) is depressingly close to a revolutionary approach. I mean, a woman getting to drive the narrative in a political play! Amazing! My only notable quibble with the writing is that, having driven the story all the way through, it's her husband that gets the final word and that final word is a judgement on the process that the rest of the play seems to have worked hard to avoid. The continued ambiguity would have been more effective, in my view.

Perhaps the most extraordinary trick in the writing of Oslo, though, is that it remains a gripping and hopeful play despite the fact that everyone in the audience knows, or can at least Google, what ultimately happens next. I love the fact that, this aside, it also makes no attempt to shy away from what happens next either. It's a deeply intelligent and sensitive approach. I love this play the more for it.

This production, a transfer, it should be said, from New York's Lincoln Centre, is also a triumph. Director Bartlett Sher's vision is outstanding and the fact he makes this play, which at three hours is something of a beast, feel short and sprightly is a marvel. The design is stunning and amongst the most effective I've seen in theatre, possibly ever. The use of projection in particular is quiet genius; using a white set to show film of what's happening in the outside world (getting rid of some of that pesky exposition) as well as to project scenery onto. The lighting is great, especially the way the scenes which are being narrated are lit to effectively split the stage in two: the narrator's bit and the action. It is a truly gorgeous looking and gorgeously functional thing.

The small cast, all new to the NT's production, is terrific. Lydia Leonard as Mona Juul, central character and narrator, is superb and deals with all of her various narrative functions perfectly. She is utterly believable, fiery and inspiring (and, from what I can work out, loves the real life 'version' of her chararcter as much as I do). Toby Stephens, as husband Terje, is a great foil for her. He is arguably the more complex of the two, in that he is clearly a bit of a dick as well as being a good guy, and puts across the perfect balance of drive, charm and humour. The latter he particularly excels at. Kudos also to Peter Polycarpou as a mischeievous, passionate and above all human Ahmed Querie, a man who doubtless some people would class as a terrorist to this day.

Oslo has had plenty of hype in its relatively short life and, pleasingly, it is one of those rare cases where the hype is entirely justifiable. It deserves all of the awards and accolades it's won (so far) and similar recognition for this production would not be unfair. See it.

Oslo is in the Lyttelton at the NT until 23rd September, after which it transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Theatre Review: Nassim

Audible sobbing from multiple people in a theatre audience is a slightly disquieting phenomenom, even when you're contributing to it. It's also extremely moving.

Back at The Bush Theatre's Nassim Plays season for a second night this week, after Wednesday's touching, complex but raucous White Rabbit Red Rabbit, it also really wasn't what I was expecting. The set up for tonight's instalment, Nassim, also obviously by Iranian-born playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, is exactly the same: script in a sealed envelope, actor (in this instance Denise Gough) rocks up totally unprepared and performs said script to an equally oblivious audience. 

Here the similarities between WRRR and Nassim end however. Again, I don't want to say too much because, even more so this time, I don't want to give anything away. Playing with ideas of the unexpected is so key to Soleimanpour's work that it really does defy an easy review. Some spoiler free things I loved about Nassim, though, were it's more complex form, using video, music and a smartphone and, joyously, the appearance of the playwright himself. It gives nothing away to say that Nassim is an autobiographical piece and it's so incredibly poignant to have Nassim himself sat mute on the stage as someone else speaks his words, tells his story and expresses his feelings in a language that isn't his own (most of the time).

The themes explored here are extraordinarily deep and profound: the power (for good or ill) of language, loneliness, belonging and family. The heartbreaking idea of being a stranger in your homeland and feeling alone in a city of millions. The writing is simple but stunning and the emotional buttons that Nassim pushes are raw, universal and, as the sobbing will attest, deeply powerful. It is a hugely, almost uncomfortably, intimate thing to watch the actor involved discovering these buttons in real time. It is a stunningly good, completely unique and utterly beautiful play and it's produced so well by The Bush.

Somewhat shockingly, the one tiny quibble I had with the show I saw was the performer. I love Denise Gough, she's brilliant, but I didn't always feel she was as unconditionally present in the show as she could have been. Or to put it a less wanky way, I could have done with less of her commentary on the writing and less questioning of what was about to happen and more performing the writing and finding out what was about to happen. When she was performing the writing, though, she was superb. Particularly in the 'set piece', for want of a far better phrase, moments. She captured the emotion of these parts perfectly.

Nassim is a show that will stay with me for a very long time. And if I ever stop crying when I think about it I'll let you know. Huge congratulations to The Bush for reviving it, and indeed the other plays in the season. For one tiny theatre to give me an evening of cavorting Dominic West and an experience as profoundly moving as Nassim in the same week is pretty extraordinary.

The Nassim Plays finish at The Bush Theatre tomorrow, including one more chance to see Nassim (with Hari Dillon).

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Theatre Review: White Rabbit Red Rabbit

As someone who's got through two degrees and works in a job where getting asked difficult/awkward/stupid questions is par for the course, the notion of winging it is not unfamiliar.

And in truth, as much as my organisational skills are my only superpower, I quite like making stuff up as I go along. This is one of the (admitedly less important) reasons why I am not an actor. My abject lack of any dramatic talent being perhaps another.

I feel, possibly quite wrongly, that playwright Nassim Soleimanpour might have some sympathy with this view. Soleimanpour's calling card is the idea of the play where the actor sees the script for the first time as he starts to act it in front of an audience. Winging it: the drama school edition. The lovely little Bush Theatre is currently doing a season of his work, The Nassim Plays, with a cast to die for and I'm seeing/have seen two of them. The first is White Rabbit Red Rabbit with Dominic West as the performer.

It's very difficult to review this show without giving away too much about what happens and I really, really don't want to do that. #KeepTheSecrets, to hijack another show's hashtag. What I will say is that Soleimanpour's writing is extraordinarily clever and his exploration of notions of freedom, mortality and the nature of theatre and writing itself are profound. Soleimanpour is Iranian and, having refused National Service, was refused a passport (at the time of writing this play anyway) and I found the passage about the power of writing in making him free, in some form, extremely powerful. And the line about life being the longest form of suicide strikes a powerful chord.

The form of the show - part serious monologue, part stand up, part audience participation variety hour - is something that actor and audience really have to give themselves over to and, in truth, I found that quite challenging. I've never been to the theatre and been made to feel inadequate as an audience member before, but WRRR has some very interesting quetions to ask about the nature of observation and what an audience is actually for. I enjoyed the boldness with which this was posed, even as it made me squirm slightly in my seat.

It is also extremely demanding for the actor and I can only imagine how stilted and awful this show would be were they not prepared to throw themselves into it with no holds barred. Dominic West seems a rather leftfield (or perhaps un-leftfield) choice for this sort of show, but he totally nailed it. He was excellent in the serious moments and enjoyably goofy in the funnier bits. Plus a voice like his is made for Soleimanpour's rich, dense text. And the physical demands made of the performer were well met, a point I wish I could expand on but Secrets. Suffice to say I always thought he was a majestic creature and now I have proof.

There is something deeply profound, provocative and moving at the heart of White Rabbit Red Rabbit that will stay with me for a long time. I think it will genuinely change the way I look at theatre as a form and at what it means to be an audience member for a long time to come. Or maybe only until I see the second of the Nassim Plays series in a couple of days. I guess we'll see.

The Nassim Plays are at the Bush Theatre until 16th September, including White Rabbit Red Rabbit playing both matinee and evening shows on the 16th (with Scottee and Meera Syal respectively).

Friday, 8 September 2017

Theatre Review: Zigger Zagger

With a list of notable alumni longer than both of my arms combined, catching a show by the National Youth Theatre has long been on my to do list.

Well, it's taken a while but I've finally managed to tick it off thanks to making the trek  - and from my natural habitat in West Sussex commuter land it is a fucking trek - out to Wilton's Music Hall to catch their latest production, a timely revival of one of their original commissions, Zigger Zagger.

Peter Terson’s play, which tells the story of Harry Philton as he struggles to navigate his way from moody teenager to fully fledged adult whilst desperately searching for a place to belong, is knocking on for fifty years old but has aged really well. Its themes of belonging, identity and, more specifically, the importance of strong male role models in creating decent grown up men still resonate. It could really have been written yesterday. Despite the fact it’s not really my sort of thing - I’m seldom a fan of this sort of coming of age story, mostly I think because I was born middle aged and have remained that way ever since - and I found it considerably too long and a bit preachy, it is a very sensible, and sensitive, piece for the NYT to be reviving at the moment. It is by no means a bad play - and would be better without its occasional dubious musical numbers which add nothing beyond oddly placed breaks in the action - it’s just not for me. And anyway, the play wasn’t really what I was interested in in this case.

The production values on display here are really strong. James Button's design is set over a three tier split level stage which works exceptionally well to accommodate a cast of fifty in what is by no means the biggest stage space in London. I loved the graffiti-ed wall that divided the back of the main stage from the baying gallery of football fans above - a neat fix for making sure the fans and the football were omnipresent, a sort of Greek chorus of shouty teenagers, but never encumbering the action as well as allowing plenty of access to the main stage for actual plot development. 'Freeze frame type' scenes are also used throughout the production to great effect; highlighting the role of various central characters and getting blocks of exposition out of the way whilst allowing the action to continue almost uninterrupted. These are fantastically well lit too. As regular readers will know I enjoy a good spotlight and they're used really well here.

The main reason I wanted to see this production, though, was the cast. Having never seen the NYT before I wanted to see what they could do and, man, they did not disappoint. The energy, fearlessness and sense of fun they bring - on and offstage - was an utterly uncynical joy. The roudy, dangerous, chaotic crowd scenes are infectiously energetic and just great fun to watch. The standard of the ensemble generally was really impressive and there are some real faces to watch in their midst.

Teddy Robson as the titular, though not lead, character in particular is outstanding. A complete scene stealer, oozing dangerous charisma, he is perfectly cast and, frankly, appears to be having far too much fun in his role. It's incredibly easy to imagine him going on to a very successful career; I'd be amazed if this is anything other than the first of many times I see him act. Josh Barrow is a likeable, sympathetic Harry who works hard to bring out his conflicted but profound goodness. As his saviour (or not, depending on your point of view of the play's ending) brother in law, Ebe Bamgboye is a really well judged counterpoint to Robson's Zigger Zagger; caring, sensible, predictable but someone you root for.

As my formal introduction to the NYT, Zigger Zagger was great fun. The sheer energy that this company has is the thing that will stay with me. Even my black heart couldn't fail to be moved by it and, given I'd been at yet another Brexit-related conference all day, the fact that this great young cast consistently made me smile for almost two hours is a genuinely impressive achievement!

Catch it while you can, Zigger Zagger plays at Wilton's Music Hall until 9th September.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Theatre Review: Follies

One of the more pleasing realisations in recent theatrical history is that a surefire way to make a musical excellent is the combination of Imelda Staunton and Stephen Sondheim.

Exhibit A: Sweeney Todd. Exhibit B: Gypsy. And now Exhibit C: the National Theatre’s new production of Follies. Which, for my money, is the pick of the bunch.

Follies tells the story of a reunion of ex-showgirls, impresarios and various hangers on as the theatre in which they all spent their youths is demolished. It focuses in on two tragicomically mismatched couples - Sally and Buddy, Phyllis and Ben - whose ‘showgirl and admirer’ relationships are showing the strains of time, if indeed you could ever truly call them unstrained.

However, the plot is largely and brilliantly irrelevant to what Follies is about. It’s much more about emotions: disillusionment, what might have been and the danger of becoming obsessed with that idea at the expense of what actually is. The way that this is portrayed in the show is through, essentially, double casting all but a couple of the roles: every character appears in both their present and ‘young’ form on the stage at the same time, with the ‘young’ version mainly acting as a shadow. As a way of explaining what’s going on without bucketloads of exposition, it thoroughly works. It’s clever, effective and generally feels very Sondheim.

Speaking of whom, it goes without saying that Stephen Sondheim is a genius (if you don’t agree I insist you leave immediately) and Follies is simply one of his finest shows. Not just because its form is so intriguing, it’s also musically one of his strongest and most varied. It is filled with big (and typically Sondheimy) character numbers as you would perhaps expect but there are also several lovingly mocking pastiches of numbers from the vaudeville era, a bit of music hall and even some opera thrown in for good measure. And several songs that cross these categories, because if you’re as good as Stephen Sondheim then why not? All of it is glorious; rich, complex and melodic with punchy, funny and/or gutwrenchingly sad lyrics. Losing My Mind is justifiably the most well known piece from Follies and remains one of the most beautiful, thoughtful and saddest songs ever written.

James Goldman's book is the perfect wrapping to Sondheim's perfect music too. As with the song lyrics, the writing pulls no punches, whether that means being hilarious or heartbreaking. Or something in between, as with the ending which, without giving anything away, is neither happy nor sad but is real, honest and complicated. Rather like life.

In short, then, Follies is a brilliant, brilliant show. And this glorious production does it full justice and then some. It's one of the best musical productions I've ever seen and easily one of the best things I've ever seen at the NT.

A large part of this is due to the fact that, in the cavernous Olivier, it is one of the few things I've seen that really feels like it was designed for the space rather than just ending up there by chance. It treats the huge stage as a help and fully recognises the potential it offers to be big and bold. Everything in designer Vicki Mortimer's vision is huge and fabulous: the costumes (over half a million Swarovski crystals!), the sets, the decision to place the orchestra on stage behind a see through divider (I loved this), the use of the revolve. Director Dominic Cooke makes some similarly big and bold choices: running without an interval (2 hours 15 minutes ish - perfectly paced and every second enjoyable), the huge ensemble cast, using a full orchestra. His production is masterful. Choreographer Bill Deamer delivers dreamy, beautiful, glamorous and evocative numbers that are a joy to watch.


Honestly, this cast is in ultimate bucket list cast territory. First of all, there’s the phenomenal ensemble who sing, dance and generally dazzle their way through a complex and ambitious show. They’re fab, especially in the big set pieces. They back up a central quartet who are mind bendingly great. Let’s start with Imelda Staunton, because she is legendary, who is even better than you expect her to be (which at this point is pretty fucking good). Her Sally is a perfectly naive, quietly strong and deeply touching performance and her Losing My Mind is iconic - I heard people around me whisper ‘wow’ and ‘oh my god’ after the final note. Janie Dee’s Phyllis is equally-but-differently good; fun, sassy, glamorous, complicated, the sort of person I wish I was. Her performance is a knockout and a very strong challenge for the crown of ‘best in show’ (and, one would assume, therefore the Best Actress in a Musical Olivier). Philip Quast is a perfectly suave, sickly and sad Ben and his voice is like melting chocolate. I’ve wanted to see Quast live for so many years (since the Les Mis concert performance which I had on video, because I am very old, and watched so often it wore out) and he’s even better than I hoped. And Peter Forbes is a joy as Buddy, funny, sad and dripping with pathos. It is difficult to overstate how good these four are, both individually and as a group. It’s the stuff that theatrical dreams are made of.

In sum then, Follies is a superb show and this is a superb production. I loved it utterly and you must, must, must catch it if you can. It’s so good, I’m even prepared to forgive the NT for the halloumi salad incident and that is truly saying something.

Follies is in the Olivier at the NT until 3rd January (with good ticket availability for the latter part of the run) and gets the NT Live treatment on 16th November.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Theatre Review: Fiddler on the Roof

As a big and unashamed fan of a good old fashioned musical, when it was announced that then-Artistic Director of the Sheffield Crucible, Daniel Evans, was moving south to take up the same post at Chichester Festival Theatre I was incredibly excited.

Both are famous as home of excellent musicals: Sheffield gave us the sublime Show Boat and a My Fair Lady (starring Dominic West in a piece of inspired casting) so good that I still think about it today despite the fact it was about a billion years ago now; Chichester has recently produced such gems as Guys and Dolls, Gypsy and the glorious and unlikely Michael Ball starring Sweeney Todd.

My hopes for Evans’ first musical at Chichester were therefore sky high. When it was announced that that musical would be Fiddler on the Roof they got even higher. And, sitting down to finally watch the show, from the first bars of the first song I knew that they were going to be 100% fulfilled. At least.

I’m not going to insult anyone’s intelligence by taking any time to explain the plot of Fiddler - if you don’t know it, then a) how? and b) Wikipedia. It is regarded as an absolute classic of the modern musical for a number of very good reasons: the music is incredible - the number of out and out classics in its tracklist is astonishing - and so evocative of a time, place and culture; the story it tells is by turns gripping, joyful and heartbreaking; the cast of characters is deeply drawn, fully rounded and utterly human. Chichester’s production plays up all of these strengths, particularly the music with an orchestration that is rich, lush and impeccably sung and played. By the first ‘-tion’ of opening number Tradition (and really how many better opening numbers are there?) I was completely sold.

This really is an example of Chichester’s main stage musical, indeed anyone’s any-stage musical, at its finest in all aspects. Alistair David’s choreography is just amazing, and danced perfectly, and the big group numbers in particular are a joy to watch. Daniel Evans takes the reins as director himself and completely delivers. Fiddler is a show with very wonky act lengths - the first is very long, the second very short - but in Evans’ hands the first act doesn’t drag for an instant and the second act never feels remotely hurried. Some of his artistic choices are really effective too, particularly the way that the music is foregrounded by bringing the titular fiddler onto the stage, and indeed the ‘roof’ of the stage, regularly. The production also looks great. Lex Brotherstone’s design is relatively simple to look at, but makes great use of Chichester’s thrust stage and revolve. When he does take the gloves off, in a knowingly OTT dream sequence which has the kitchen sink thrown at it in terms of staging and physical effects, it’s equally effective. Maybe don’t wear a jumper for this bit if you’re sitting in the front row is all I’ll say.

Productions of Fiddler, no matter how good elsewhere, are made or broken by their starring role, the iconic Tevye, though. Chichester’s is Iranian comic Omid Djalili which, on paper, is perhaps an odd choice. But - to borrow a phrase - musicals aren’t staged on paper and Djalili is absolutely brilliant, to the extent that I now can’t ever imagine anyone else playing the part. His Tevye is, naturally, very funny but also conveys huge gravitas and wisdom. When the show turns from a sort of comedy of manners in the first act into something much, much darker in the second he also delivers such heartbreaking pathos that you just can’t help but root for his little family even more. Tevye is a complicated character, much more than the If I Were a Rich Man cliches of pop culture will allow for, and I imagine quite a difficult one to play but Djalili gets it spot on. Hands down a performance of the year.

As is Tracy-Ann Oberman as his long suffering wife Golde. Golde really comes into her own in the second act of Fiddler, she doesn’t get to be a ‘comedy’ character in the first in quite the same way that Tevye does, and certainly for my money Oberman really steals the show after the interval. I know I use this word a lot in my reviews, but her performance is genuinely heartbreaking. I utterly melted for her and lost count of the number of times I ended up in tears - proper, ugly tears - because of her performance. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, just leave the mascara at home.

There is strong support for these two central performances across the board in a pleasingly huge and properly old school ensemble who are, bluntly, great. As I’ve already mentioned the big set piece numbers are a complete joy and that’s so much thanks to the work and the talent of every single member of the cast.

So, Chichester’s musical magic strikes again. I really can’t praise this show enough and it must, surely, be eyeing a West End transfer. It certainly deserves one, and more people deserve the chance to see this gem of a show. As it is it’s basically sold out for the last few shows of its Chichester run making this post largely pointless, soz. You need, yes need, to know how much I love this show though. Get praying for that transfer...

Fiddler on the Roof plays at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 2nd September.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Theatre Review: Girl from the North Country

I don’t like Bob Dylan and I make no apologies for this fact.

So there.

What I do like however is musicals. I like them a lot. And I also like theatres that sell off seats they want to fill for their press night for £5.

The confluence of these two things led to me seeing ‘Bob Dylan musical’ Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Note that use of inverted commas, it’s important. Girl tells the story of a shitty guesthouse in 1930s America, inhabited by owner Nick Laine, his eclectic family (wife with dementia, alcoholic son, adopted black daughter) and a motley assortment of misfits and down and outs who count as his guests. The story weaves a book by writer-director Conor McPherson with Dylan’s extensive back catalogue but this is definitely and defiantly not a traditional musical nor, heaven forbid, a jukebox musical. I enjoyed it far, far more than I was ever expecting mainly as a result of this.

I bloody love this programme design. 

I suppose what Girl can most accurately described as is a play with songs. But actually it’s more complex than that. The use of music is really interesting. Occasionally it is integrated into the action and used to move on the plot, as in a traditional musical, but by and large it’s something entirely separate that essentially presses pause on the action and uses the song to comment on it. This is achieved by having actors sing, at standing microphones, directly to the audience rather than to each other. It takes a little getting used to but it does work and the idea of using music as a commentary on the spoken dialogue and plot development is something genuinely new (to me anyway). That it’s done with such utter confidence and deliberateness, and by a cast in superb voice, totally sells it.

I also love that it messes around with genre and style; apparently soul and gospel Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan I can get behind. The selection of music is a surprise too, big songs that I did not expect to hear get an airing alongside songs that I have literally never heard of (which admittedly is not difficult given my Dylan knowledge). The entire back catalogue has been mined by the sounds of thing and it’s much to the show’s advantage.

Music is used to do some really effective things with characterisation. The best example of this is with the lead character of Nick whose acute loneliness and sadness is portrayed through the fact that he doesn’t sing a single note at any point. At all. In a show to which music is so integral, to have a lead character who is completely excluded from it is such an interesting idea and works so well. I felt that I learned as much about Nick from the way he’s used, or not, as a dramatic instrument as I did from his dialogue.

The plotting and writing is arguably where this play does fall down a bit. There are too many characters for one thing and some of their stories are frustratingly untold. Sometimes the plot itself feels a bit of a let down, the cop out ending in particular. And I couldn’t get on board with the use of a narrator character, even in the form of the great Ron Cook, just describing some of the key moments. I wanted to actually see them. However, the speed at which the plot and the characters unravel is slow and beautiful, it allows the drama and the music to breathe, with the occasional dramatic sucker punch to make sure everyone is still awake. In a production whose design is so evocative of its time and place, the themes around uncertainty and inequality raised by the Depression era setting are dealt with well and subtly.

Speaking of the design, it’s strong, working very hard to be authentically of its time and place without looking too folksy or like it was lifted from a theme park. It evokes ‘Dylan-ness’ too in a way I can’t fully explain except to say that the setting the production creates feels like somewhere the man and his music could live. (I can’t go into too much detail on the design as I couldn’t see all of it - a timely reminder that the cheap seats in the Old Vic have genuinely terrible sightlines.) The onstage band are fantastic and create a huge sound despite being only a handful of people. Their musicianship is worth the price of a ticket alone, frankly.

It’s been a good year so far for ensemble acting and Girl continues this with aplomb. In fact it makes more use of ensemble work than I’ve seen for a long time, particularly in the singing, which given how well it’s done is great to watch. Ciaran Hinds stars as Nick and is exactly the strong, surly and sad lead that the play needs. I’ve always wanted to see him on stage and he didn’t disappoint here one iota. Also worth noting is the superb Debbie Kurup as Nick’s wannabe mistress who has a kickass voice and a lonely desperation that is so affecting. Sheila Atim and Arinze Kene are great as Nick’s daughter and her partner, both giving performances of real heart and mystery. The whole cast is fantastic throughout and compensate for any weaknesses of plot and writing with excellent performances and top drawer singing.

Ultimately, I don’t know if Girl from the North Country is a great Bob Dylan show. And I don’t care. What it is is a fantastic, interesting, weird and enchanting show - musical, play, play with songs, whatever you want to call it. Highly recommended, Dylan fan or no.

Girl from the North Country plays at the Old Vic until October 7th.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Theatre Review: Common

It all started to go wrong with a salad.

Specifically, the ‘seasonal salad with halloumi’ at the National Theatre’s Kitchen restaurant which, essentially, was a big bowl of cold asparagus, courgette and broccoli with the most pathetic amount of halloumi plonked on top. And a shit tonne of coriander for some reason. This alleged salad made me angry, as an inadequate amount of halloumi in my meal is wont to do. It was bland, it was boring and the lack of halloumi made it impossible for me to understand.

Which made it the perfect accompaniment to the play I was at the NT to see: the bland, boring and utterly incomprehensible Common. It was, in fact, Common in salad form.

Common, which has already been universally panned but I’m a fan of kicking productions that deserve it whether they’re down or not, purports to tell some kind of story about the Acts of Enclosure and the effect of this on a small rural community and its motley assortment inhabitants, human and corvine. However, how anyone can tell what story it’s telling is beyond me. Common is perhaps the worst written play I have ever seen. It is certainly the most bizarrely impenetrable. I don’t really know how to describe how inexplicable the syntax and structure of the script is. It almost feels like someone has taken the script of a perfectly adequate if rather boring play, cut it up so that each word is on a separate piece of paper and then stuck it all back together whilst wearing a blindfold. Either that or it was written by someone with the grasp of the English language of Yoda from Star Wars, if Yoda’s first language was Esperanto.

You think I’m exaggerating, but I’m really not. This play is nigh on impossible to follow at a level any deeper than the basic plot. I have no idea of the motivations of any of the characters. I have only the sketchiest understanding of their histories or who they are. I can just about explain to you what happens in the play but I can’t tell you why. I’d love to know the thought process behind this writing, because it feels to me like the sort of pretentiousness for pretentiousness’ sake that makes me even angrier than a salad with inadequate halloumi. The impact of this is terminal: no matter how good the production around this play is, it will always be a disaster. If you can’t write a play that your audience has a hope of understanding then what’s the point?

What I was able to glean of the plot and the characters didn’t do much to improve my opinion of Common. If you think a play about the Acts of Enclosure sounds dull that’s because, guess what, it is. The attempts to enliven it with alleged cliffhangers of the sort that end Act One fail because said cliffhanger is so cheap and dishonest that it is allowed to hang for all of a second before being resolved in the most unimaginative way. The characters all seem terribly unpleasant, or annoying, and I cared about what happened to literally none of them except when occasionally some of them died and I was happy because it meant that the play must surely be slightly nearer the end. Not even the animatronic crow elicited my sympathy, mostly because it was embarrassingly unrealistic.

That any production of this play is by definition irredeemable is a fact, but that’s not to say that this production doesn’t have a good go at disproving it. It has a great cast, god knows how, who do their best with the material at their disposal: Anne-Marie Duff is a charismatic lead, Tim McMullan (always great) an enjoyable foil for her whilst Cush Jumbo and John Dagleish bring some much needed warmth and heart. But it’s irrelevant given the script they have to work with.

The production values are high too. The design is fantastically atmospheric; the music is great, the use of unusual instruments and sounds making for an engaging live soundtrack and my favourite thing about the whole production, the lighting and use of shadow is ballsy and striking and the projection, especially when used to show weather, is really strong. It’s  too long (despite having had over half an hour shaved off it since it opened, I can’t even imagine the tedium of sitting through the original) but there’s otherwise not much to technically fault here. Except the stinker of a play.

It’s baffling to me that anyone at the NT thought that staging this play was a good idea. Staging it in the huge and cavernous Olivier seems particularly stupid (especially when the blockbuster Angels in America has sold out its entire run in the smaller Lyttelton at the same time). When I went, on a Friday evening, the Olivier was emptier than I’ve ever seen it with less than half of the seats filled. The money the NT must be losing here is, frankly, deserved. Perhaps that’s why they clearly can’t afford enough halloumi for their salads.

Common plays in the Olivier at the NT until August 5th. There are plenty of tickets available.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Theatre Review: Albert's Boy

If I were to compile a list of theatrical phrases that are likely to get me excited, ‘rarely performed, early James Graham play with £7.50 tickets’ would feature somewhere near the top.

Enter stage left The Orange Tree Theatre and their Directors’ Festival, a fab idea which allows student directors (from the OTT and St Mary’s University MA in Theatre Directing) the opportunity to direct a short play from an established writer using a professional cast, in a professional theatre with all tickets at £7.50. Quite apart from the selection of plays, I love this. When the selection of plays includes an early James Graham, I love this a lot.

The play in question is Albert’s Boy, a play Graham wrote aged 22 that hasn’t been seen in London since its 2005 premiere, which imagines a meeting between Albert Einstein and family friend, Peter Bucky, recently returned to the US after being released from a POW camp during the Korean War. It’s not as polished as his more recent work (of which I am an obsessive devotee, if you’ve somehow not realised that by now), and at 80 minutes long lacks the space to explore its ideas in as much detail, but it is very much in the same mould: a funny, nuanced, fair minded meditation on a Big Issue. Unsurprisingly, I was a fan.

The Big Issue in question this time is around the existence, or otherwise, of good and evil and the difference between intention and results. Einstein’s role in the creation of the atomic bomb provides the ‘in’ to this huge theme, which is a really interesting angle to take anyway given how overlooked this aspect of his work is. Einstein, the rational minded scientist, is portrayed as suffering from acute, maddening guilt at the dropping of bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the ensuing loss of life. Peter, with his direct experience of war and its horrors, takes the opposing view: that the loss of life was acceptable because it ended the war early and so saved even more lives and, besides, the non-war consequences of Einstein’s atomic research (for example in medicine) are amazing. This is hardly an unheard debate, but the fact of the identities of the two characters makes it far more interesting and resonant than it might otherwise be. The clash between Einstein’s ‘theoretical’ guilt and Peter’s real life experience is an idea returned to several times really effectively as well and adds something to the nuclear debate which is, in my view, almost as interesting in and of itself; Einstein has never been to war so how can he possibly understand it but on the other hand Peter has never been the man behind a weapon that can kill hundreds of thousands of people so how can he possibly understand that?

The play also has a lot to say that has a hugely depressing contemporary resonance. This is not just the obvious point about nuclear proliferation but something more interesting about the nature and use of terror as a weapon in war. The word ‘terrorism’ is never used, but the implication is clear and well drawn out.

On a lighter note, the play is very funny and, joyously, much of the humour is deeply geeky. There is a lot of playing with the popular idea of Einstein the mad scientist and the associated pop culture tropes which works really well, the characterisation of Einstein is really interesting and unexpected  throughout, but the physics jokes are even better. A favourite is this exchange: “[Peter] your unified field theory it’s, eh..? [Einstein] Coming together.” If you don’t find this funny then you’re a defective human being.

For all my proselytising about the play, the whole point of this production is of course the direction. Kate Campbell takes the reins here and does so with fantastic poise and assurance. The pacing of this production is almost perfect (I could have lived with some shorter scene changes towards the end of the piece, if that were practically possible) and the creative decisions are all fab. In a theatre as small as the Orange Tree and a play which is literally a two hander there is nowhere to hide for a director and, in Campbell’s case, no need to either. If you didn’t know, I would defy you to spot that there isn’t a more seasoned director at the helm.

The production looks and sounds amazing too. The sound and lighting design is strong, if uncomplicated, throughout but explodes - pun intended - in the final scene when it’s called on to portray an atomic bomb going off. Given the resources and the space available, the end results are pretty spectacular. Simple, but spectacular. I also had mad love for the occasional cheeky inclusion of Atomic by Blondie as incidental music.

The acting is strong as well with Campbell’s and her two actors’ understanding of their characters really interesting and rounded. Robert Gill’s Einstein portrays the heavy emotionality demanded by the text incredibly well and excels in the lighter moments. Andrew Langtree’s Peter is marginally my highlight, conveying the anger and pain of his wartime experiences under a cover of conviviality in a painfully plausible way.

I’ve yet to meet a production of a James Graham play that I don’t get on with and Albert’s Boy is certainly no exception. It’s a really interesting piece, nuanced and cheeky, in a cracking little production from a director who is surely a name to keep an eye out for in the future. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to see the best British playwright around at the moment for £7.50, aka the price of a small glass of warm white wine in most theatres. Plus the Orange Tree’s Directors’ Festival is the sort of initiative that theatre fans should just get behind. I’ll certainly be looking out for it next year.

The Orange Tree Theatre’s Directors’ Festival runs until the 29th July, with Albert’s Boy playing on the 27th and 28th.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Theatre Review: Twilight Song

It’s always a risk seeing a second play by a playwright who has written one piece that you’ve seen and absolutely love. Sometimes that risk pays off (Tony Kushner’s iHo, James Graham’s Ink), sometimes it doesn’t.

Twilight Song is the final thing that Kevin Elyot, whose other work includes the sublime My Night With Reg, wrote before his death a few years ago, being staged for the first time at the Park Theatre. It tells the story of one family’s life at three separate points in time, the present day and the early and late sixties, and how the intrusion of one stranger completely upsets their timeline. It’s an entertaining enough piece but, and I think you can guess where this is going, it’s not My Night With Reg. And whilst it may be unfair to compare the two, it’s extremely difficult not to. Twilight Song does not come out of this comparison well.

I love how weird this chalk board drawing of the programme cover is!

What Twilight Song does share with Reg is Elyot’s warm, funny, heartfelt writing. The initial present day scene in particular is very funny, though when the play’s plotting uncurls and you realise who the two characters actually are it becomes something very different (this realisation is by far the best bit of the play’s messing about with chronology because it is left unsaid). It also contains some very wry and depressingly relevant political lines, about the need for competence and solid economics, which the production does well not to overplay.

However, the actual story and characterisation is disappointing. The plot becomes far too predictable far too quickly, something not helped by the fact that this production presents it so unsubtly. Whilst trying to remain spoiler free, there is a blink and you’ll miss it line in the first 1960s scene which unlocks the whole play by revealing the relationship between the characters in the ‘flashbacks’ and the present day. This is enough explanation on its own. That the script then calls for this to be made clearer and clearer and clearer in every subsequent scene is unnecessary. It robs the piece, and this production in particular, of the dramatic impact it could have had if it were more subtle and trusted the audience more to reach the conclusions on its own. They are not that difficult to reach after all, even if you base them solely on the fact that two of the actors play multiple parts across the timeline. That’s a fairly huge clue as to what’s going on by itself. That the big reveal is confirmed, repeatedly, so early in the piece is also problematic. It’s difficult to fully invest in the action or the characters when you find out so early exactly what is going on. I feel like ambiguity in the script and in the staging would have been the key to making this play work. This is something that is notably absent.

The characterisation is also surprisingly slight (and not just in comparison with Reg, in comparison with any effective modern writing). There’s very little that helps us understand why the characters are acting as they are or what their backstories really are. I couldn’t help notice that this was particularly true for the play’s one female character, about whom we learn very little other than that she had a father whose views on women’s education and career choices were unenlightened. I’m not sure that this explains in any way satisfactorily why she ends up acting as she does.

All of this presents the small cast with a bit of an issue before they even step onto the stage. However, most of them do their best with what they are given. Adam Garcia is an interesting piece of casting for his two parts, Skinner and the gardener, and is very strong in the former at least. He has great stage presence and captures the nasty charisma of Skinner perfectly, really effectively foreshadowing what we’re about to learn. He doesn’t have a huge amount to do as the gardener and what he does do is completely overshadowed by his attempt at a cockney accent about which I will say nothing out of kindness. Paul Higgins is the other actor on double duty, as Barry and Basil, and is also notably more effective as one than the other. Barry is too laboured for my tastes but Basil is much stronger and conveys his quiet misery really well. Bryony Hannah’s Isabella is the weakest of the three leads for me, but this is a difficult part which gets little help from the writing so it feels unfair to criticise her too much. There is much stronger stuff from Philip Bretherton and Hugh Ross in the two smaller roles, Harry and Charles, who end up carrying the drama and convey the agony of the situation their characters face perfectly. They were the characters I really connected with and would have liked to have seen much more of, frankly.

My issues with the way it presents the plot notwithstanding, this production is technically very solid. The design is simple and the subtle changes made to the one set to show what time we’re in for each scene are very effective (the passage of time is less effectively portrayed elsewhere). The lighting is really well done; considered and careful without a single unnecessary bulb. The pacing of the production is about right too, though I could have done without some of the longer and more indulgent scene changes.

Ultimately, it was always going to be difficult for Twilight Song to compare to the love I have for My Night With Reg and it doesn’t. There’s too much unsubtlety in the writing, which is emphasised by the production, and not enough depth to the characters. However, that’s not to say it’s bad. Ultimately, it’s an entertaining piece of theatre and a solid production. If you go with those expectations then you’ll likely be significantly less disappointed than I was.

And, as an aside, the adorable Park Theatre is definitely worth trekking out to Finsbury Park to visit. It’s a cracking little venue.

Twilight Song plays at the Park Theatre until 12th August.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Theatre Review: Ink

Sometimes the heavens align in theatreland and you find yourself watching a production written by your favourite playwright, starring your favourite actor, directed by one of your favourite directors and staged in one of your favourite venues, and it makes everything right with the world.

Ink is a play about the birth of The Sun newspaper under the considerable personalities of its founding editor, Larry Lamb, and its owner and proprietor, Rupert Murdoch (perhaps you’ve heard of him). A juicy enough prospect in itself. When you throw the fact that it’s written by James Graham, stars Bertie Carvel as Murdoch, is directed by Rupert Goold and staged at the Almeida into the mix it becomes positively orgasmic. Pass me a cigarette because I’m done.

There shall be no beating about the bush here. I fucking loved this play and this production of it is about as good as it gets.

Ink is the second of five James Graham plays I will see this year, following on from This House which regular readers will recall I had some Strong Feelings about, and it’s increased my enthusiasm for his work no end. It is whip smart, very funny and pleasingly non-judgemental. There’s a real enthusiasm for the topic and a level of humanity in Graham’s writing and characterisation that is so refreshing - especially given the people and the institution involved here, about which it’s difficult not to have an opinion.

The whole approach to Ink is so fresh and exciting. It presumes no prior knowledge, it offers no moral judgement, it is in no way an issue play. It simply tells the story brilliantly and asks some vital questions about the role of the press in a modern society; it is for the audience to provide their own answers. The parallels here with the mode of storytelling that Lamb and Murdoch set out in the play’s opening scene are presumably not accidental. It is also a relief that contemporary references are not overdone, as must have been the temptation, so that when they are used they are much more impactful.

It is, in short and like This House, an absolutely fantastic play. It would be worth seeing even in a crap production. That the Almeida’s production is anything but crap is an added joy.

‘Anything but crap’ is a bit of an understatement too. This is a production every bit as good as its play. Rupert Goold’s direction is pacey, fluent and honest (though if I do have a criticism of this production overall it’s that it could stand to be ten minutes shorter). Bunny Chrstie’s set, a muddle multi-storey mess of a newspaper office, is evocative and functionally brilliant, bringing a sense of anarchy and excitement to proceedings. The lighting is great, especially the use of my old favourite, the bright white spot, as a highlight at key points. The choreography and music, sparingly used, is incredibly effective and is becoming one of my favourite features of James Graham shows.

The characterisation is one of the areas where Ink is most different from This House. Whilst the latter was a big ensemble thing, Ink is pretty much a two man show. The ensemble in Ink is certainly less crucial than their Westminster equivalents though they are excellent, the women in particular - Sophie Stanton as Joyce Hopkirk brings real heart to the table whilst Pearl Chanda is spunky and strong as Stephanie Rahn. (That Graham writes fantastic parts for women is yet another reason to love him.)

Richard Coyle takes the biggest role in terms of stage time, though I would argue not the lead role, as Larry Lamb and uses every minute extremely well. His Lamb is complicated, conflicted, slimey and ultimately sympathetic. He is particularly good at portraying the pressure that Lamb is under from all quarters, especially as the action ramps up towards the end of act two. And he leaves enough shades of grey in his performance to allow the audience to ask interesting questions of his motivations, chiefly why is he really so obsessed with beating The Mirror’s circulation figures? It’s a brilliant, nuanced piece of acting which does a lot to shake up the perception of a man who, one suspects, an Almeida audience is not predisposed to like.

Speaking of which, playing Rupert Murdoch to an Islington audience - or any audience for that matter - and presenting them with someone they don’t hate is surely deserving of some kind of special award. Certainly it takes a special performance from a special actor. From my previously expressed sentiments, it should come as no surprise that I rank Bertie Carvel squarely within that category. His Murdoch is a genuinely fantastic performance: physically unrecognisable, perfectly accented and utterly surprising in its characterisation of the man as socially awkward and kind of shy but utterly and completely driven. He’s not physically on stage that often (to my chagrin) but he is on stage at all times. That takes some doing. As ever, there’s a joyously old fashioned physicality to what he does which is as fascinating to watch as it is effective. He doesn’t so much walk the stage as stalk it, slightly hunched over, suggesting a barely suppressed rage that is allowed to burst through only once and so feels even more dangerous the rest of the time as a result. He achieves something completely remarkable, ultimately: not only do you forget that you’re watching him as an actor, you also forget that you know who Rupert Murdoch is as a person. It’s fantastic and a thrill to watch. Why he isn’t everyone’s favourite actor is a fact that continues to baffle me.

Ink is a fantastic production of a fantastic play. It’s relevant, timely, achingly well written, without an iota of judgement or preachiness. It is superbly staged and home to some of the best, most fascinating acting you will see. And, perhaps most importantly, it is further proof that my Bertie Carvel obsession is justified (and also growing).

Ink is at the Almeida until 5th August (day tickets and returns only at this point, deservedly). Rumours of a West End transfer for the autumn abound.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Theatre Review: Committee

As premises for a musical go, recreating a Parliamentary select committee hearing into charity governance using the verbatim transcripts as a book must be up there with singing trains on roller skates in the weirdness stakes.

It’s also a premise for which I am the perfect audience member: I love musical theatre and I am contractually obliged to be passionately interested in both charity governance and select committees by virtue of my job. I’ve written so many submissions for select committees and prepared so many briefings for staff who are going to appear as witnesses in oral evidence sessions that I feel like, for once, I actually know what I’m talking about in this review.

I suppose I should also put on the record at this stage that I actually think select committees are great. They’re where the best work, or at least most of the best work, that Parliament does is done and where the Government is most effectively held to account. They’re really, genuinely important in British Parliamentary democracy and, whilst of course there are exceptions, are populated by MPs who really care about the topics they discuss. Their Chairs can be egomaniacs and behave like overgrown schoolchildren but they are also some of the most forensic and persistent questioners of the Government that Parliament has. Yes, they enjoy being on the Today programme but most of them are far more interested in actually changing Government policy.

I’m very aware that this view colours my opinion of Committee, the third play in the Donmar Warehouse’s Power season and the verbatim select committee musical in question. Committee takes as its subject one of the more dramatic committee sessions of late, the oral evidence session where Kids Company bosses Alan Yentob and Camilla Batmanghelidjh gave evidence on the staggering amount of money their recently collapsed charity had been given by successive governments despite the equally staggering incompetence with which it was being run.

It’s difficult to be neutral on the Kids Company saga, and I’m not going to tell you my own view explicitly though I think you might be able to figure it out, but the one thing that it’s difficult to disagree with is the fact that so many kids were dependent on a charity not the state for some pretty fundamental help is extraordinary. From the point of view of those kids, the collapse of the charity was clearly a tragedy. This is the big issue that any theatrical work on Kids Company should engage with, where something new could be added to the debate. Committee, in choosing to focus specifically on this one evidence session, doesn’t engage with this. Or any of the other big issues that a broader look at the Kids Company story would have allowed it to play with. It’s difficult to know, really, what the point of it is. By constraining itself so rigidly to its form it robs itself of the opportunity to say anything profound or new and also to be particularly entertaining or dramatic. I mean, I love select committees but not even I would claim they’re top entertainment!

The idea of drawing out the theatricality of Parliament is also not new and has been done far, far better elsewhere already; it’s very difficult to imagine a piece of theatre about due process that is better, more entertaining or more insightful than This House for a start. The introduction of music, in a recitative style, is an interesting addition but it doesn’t really add that much. There’s nothing wrong with the music, the lush score is great (especially as it’s played only by a chamber group) and the lyrics, all drawn either from the session’s transcripts or associated website material, are cleverly done, but neither is it memorable or integral. I also had a technical niggle with the sound mixing, in that the instrumental sometimes completely drowned out the vocal, but that’s by the by.

Equally, there’s nothing wrong with the writing of the spoken scenes either, at least in the sense that the bits of transcript they choose to use are the best bits. However, I do take considerable issue with the characterisation in the writing which seems to suggest, straight out of a contemporary Guardian opinion piece, that the collapse of Kids Company is everyone’s fault but the saintly Batmanghelidjh’s. Which is, to be blunt, wrong. In particular, I found the portrayal of the MPs and the committee itself incredibly, infuriatingly cynical. The way they are portrayed merely as self serving, shallow, ideologically driven and only really interested in conducting a show trial is grossly unfair. To suggest that Bernard Jenkin (the committee’s chair and not someone with whom I have a natural affinity, to put it mildly) only embarked on this particular inquiry to bag himself the coveted 8:10 slot on Today is just nonsense. It’s testament to the amount that this irritated me that I actually walked out of Committee with more respect - and even sympathy - for Jenkin. I’m not sure that this is what the creative team was intending. It certainly made me feel weird.

The redeeming feature of Committee is its cast, who are excellent to a person. The MP characters are perfectly observed (you wonder how many hours were spent watching videos of their ‘characters’ speaking and how boring this must have been) down to the minutest physical tic and vocal inflection, yet still avoid becoming flat imitations. Alexander Hanson’s Bernard Jenkin is, for someone who’s sat in a committee he’s chairing watching someone you’ve briefed as the witness, almost unnervingly accurate. Sandra Marvin and Omar Ebrahim are in great voice and equally well observed as Batmanghelidjh and Yentob respectively; the former gets all the meatiest solos and nails them as well as having the most extraordinarily expressive eyes, the latter is probably my pick of the voices and joyously skewers the mixture of earnestness, obliviousness and name dropping that characterised Yentob’s conduct throughout this sorry episode to a tee. Yentob is perhaps the most effective bit of writing in the entire piece actually and the only one through whom a serious issue - what is the link between Government, charity and ‘celebrity’ and what should it be? - is an anyway interestingly addressed.

Committee is such an odd piece, strangely irrelevant and without insight or dramatic depth, that you’d think I’d want to disparage the Donmar for staging it. I don’t. I actually think it was a brave commission and a laudable attempt to do something different. It’s exactly the sort of thing, in short, that a theatre like the Donmar should be doing. It’s just a shame that on this occasion the bravery hasn’t paid off. A disappointing end to an otherwise first rate season.

Committee is at the Donmar Warehouse until 12th August.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Theatre Review: The Ferryman

The Gielgud is one of those Theatres of a Certain Age.

You know the type I mean. Pretty, but functionally questionable. Minimal ladies loos. Extortionate ice cream. Seats with economy class flight-level comfort, unless you're in Band A. Certainly not optimal for watching something three hours plus.

It's not the sort of theatre I would necessarily have chosen to see The Ferryman in, in other words. A play that seems to have entered modern theatrical legend on account of two things, its length and - thankfully - its quality. Or to paraphrase The Guardian Guide, bum numbing but worth it.

There is no question that, at three hours ten (including an interval and a weird and superfluous five minute 'pause'), this is a long piece. But, hey, some of us have seen all seven and a half hours of Angels in America in one day. Three hours ten is fuck all.

The Ferryman shares something else with Angels too: it's complete brilliance. There is no question that every single star in The Ferryman's epic haul of five star reviews is justified. More than justified. Inadequate to do this stunner of a show anything like justice.

The Ferryman has excellent pedigree. Written by Jez Butterworth and directed by Sam Mendes, it's a transfer from The Royal Court that tells the story, ostensibly, of the Carney family in Troubles-era Northern Ireland. Part pitch black kitchen sink comedy, complete with racist elderly aunt, part Othello-esque heartbreaking tragedy, the writing is - and I hesitate to use the word but I think it's merited here - genius.

Because what Butterworth has conjured up here is incredible. Not only is the writing incredibly rich, creating a world of characters, places, histories and situations that make you feel you know the Carneys and, indeed, that you've known them for a long time (clever use of historical touchpoints certainly helps here), it is bitterly funny. The rounded cast of characters and humour mask something much darker though. There is a danger fizzing through this play that is elusive at first - you know shit is going to go down but you don't really know how. And you don't find out how until the final scene which, though I won't spoil it, is utterly extraordinary for pulling off the bizarre duality of being both completely inevitable and completely, devastatingly unexpected at the same time.

This is the real genius of The Ferryman. You never know really what you're watching and every time you think you've cracked it - BAM - the plot changes tack. Even basic plot points, such as who's who in the family, aren't as they first seem. To pull this off whilst maintaining a coherent, plausible and well paced story is just exquisite plotting.

Thematically too this is a great piece. Butterworth deals with a lot of big themes, each of which alone could create something interesting, and somehow melds them all together into something truly wonderful. Loyalty and family is an obvious starting point. Who or what should you be loyal to? Who or what is your family? Assuming you know that how do you protect them? And what do you protect; their past, present or future? Loss also gets attention. What does loss mean? Can someone who's still there be lost? Can someone who's not there not be lost? Can you lose something that was never yours in the first place? And running through all of this is the past. Can you move on from it? Escape it? How? Is your past somehow genetic, bound to repeat down the generations? The Ferryman plays with all of these ideas but refreshingly never offers judgement on any of them. It would be a gift of a play to study; think of the essays you could write!

If the writing is the star of this show, then the cast runs it a close second. The Ferryman is a real ensemble piece and perhaps the biggest joy of the acting here is seeing a genuinely great, unselfish, perfectly balanced ensemble working as one. That said, it would be remiss not to make a few observations about the individuals involved, principally how in the sweet fuck is this Paddy Considine's stage debut?! I mean this in two, equally complimentary, ways: 1) how on earth has an actor of his calibre never been tempted onto the stage before, and 2) how on earth can an actor on debut deliver a performance as nuanced, controlled and quietly dangerous as the one he delivers, as family patriarch Quinn Carney, here? He is amazing, electrifying to watch and commands the stage totally. I hope theatrical casting agents elsewhere are taking notes!

Other performances that merit a quick mention are Laura Donnelly, a study in sadness and heart as Caitlin Carney; John Hodgkinson who works I suspect much harder than appearances would suggest to make Tom Kettle, the least effective character for my money, into someone believable and touching (the proposal scene guys!); and Rob Malone and Tom Glyn-Carney, as Oisin and Shane respectively, who bring the real spark and danger to proceedings. Everyone is well served by Sam Mendes' light touch, natural direction and a stunningly detailed and atmospheric set (though were the real animals really necessary guys? No, that's right, they weren't).

It is, at this point in time, deeply boring to say that The Ferryman is extraordinary theatre but it really truly is. Sublime acting, pitch perfect direction, great set and some of the best writing you will ever see. Believe the hype and shell out for a ticket immediately. Even the queue for the ladies' is worth it.

The Ferryman is at the Gielgud Theatre until 7th October.