Monday, 18 December 2017

Top Ten Theatre Performances of 2017

So I’ve already told you what my Top Ten shows were this year, now let’s do some detail and talk acting (the sexiest bit of the theatre, let’s be honest).

But first, some ground rules. Well a ground rule: only two performers, one male and one female, from any one production are allowed in this list. This may seem really arbitrary, and it is, but blame Angels in America. You see, thanks to the embarrassment of riches that was the Angels cast when I originally wrote this list down it was essentially just Angels cast. And that’s a bit boring, however justified it may be. So, with apologies to Andrew Garfield, James McArdle and Russell Tovey in particular, I have my rule and I’m sticking to it. 


1. Nathan Lane 
No one else was ever coming close to the top of this list. As I seem to recall writing in my review, it’s not that Lane’s performance in Angels is in a different league to everyone else, he’s playing an entirely different sport. Peerless.

2. Bertie Carvel 
Rupert Murdoch, Ink
A joyously old school, physical, intricately detailed piece of work. The joy of Carvel’s Murdoch is two fold: 1) he makes you forget everything you think you know (or feel) about Rupert Murdoch and 2) he simultaneously makes you forget you’re watching Bertie Carvel. No mean feat. Still my favourite actor. (Also his eyebrows in this production deserve an award all of their own.)

3. Paddy Considine
Quinn Carney, The Ferryman
In an ensemble piece like The Ferryman it’s difficult for a single performer to stand out but Paddy Considine absolutely did with his controlled and naturalistic Quinn. Basically impossible to believe that this was his stage debut.

4. Imelda Staunton
Sally Durant, Follies
I mean, it’s Imelda Staunton in a Sondheim show so you know it’s good. The tender sadness Staunton put into her Sally was so beautiful. Her rendition of Losing My Mind is a standalone highlight of my 2017 theatrical year.

5. Omid Djalili
Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof 
The speed with which Djalili convinced this sceptic that his casting was not only 100% correct but indeed there was literally no one else that could play this part was frankly alarming. His If I Were a Rich Man is now my brain’s go to version.

6. Tracy-Ann Oberman
A first rate Tevye deserves a first rate Golde and Djalili found his in Tracy-Ann Oberman. The second half of Chichester’s production was entirely hers and dear god she broke my heart. Possibly the most I’ve ever cried in the theatre, which is going some. 

7. Cyril Nri
Beautiful, sad, nuanced and completely controlled. Cyril Nri has been great in everything I’ve seen him in but really lit up the stage here. And, yes, I’m still crying about his last scene. 

8. Susan Brown
Hannah Pitt (amongst others), Angels in America
Brown seemed to be everywhere all at once in Angels, but it was her deeply moving performance as Hannah that’s really stuck with me. It takes a very special actress indeed to take a role played by Meryl Streep on screen and improve on it. Brown did exactly that.

9. Ciaran Hinds
The non-singer in a musical could have been a very unsatisfying part but Hinds made it into something incredibly effective and affecting. A haunting study in loneliness and regrets. 

10. Clare Halse
Peggy Sawyer, 42nd Street
I’ve never seen a triple threat like Clare Halse in real life before. I sort of thought they only existed in Hollywood’s collective imagination to be honest. An absolute superstar in the making if there’s even an ounce of justice left in the world.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Top Ten Shows 2017

Hasn’t 2017 been awful?

Like, really, really awful?

Honestly, I can’t think of a year that I’ve been more thankful that theatre is a thing that exists. I’ve never needed its insight, escape and sense of safety more. 

And it’s been a good year for theatre too I think. The return of ensemble acting, the return of politics with both a lower and upper case P, being unable to move without falling over a James Graham play, the peerless Nathan Lane back on a London stage - all of these are things to be welcomed. Unusually, I’ve found picking my top ten really easy because there has been a crop of productions that have been so completely outstanding, even amongst a generally very good year, that they’re just head, shoulders and various other body parts above everything else. Only the tenth spot gave me pause for thought (hard luck to Girl from the North Country which very narrowly missed out). 

So here, from top to bottom, are my top ten. Drum roll etc.

National Theatre
I mean, was it ever going to be anything else? This production was, I think, perfect: incredible design, cast of dreams, two of the best plays ever written, Nathan Fucking Lane. Possibly the best thing I’ve ever seen in the theatre, ever. 

Almeida Theatre/West End
The first James Graham entry on my list (though certainly not the last) feels a bit like it was written and produced specifically for me. Written by my favourite playwright, starring my favourite actor (Bertie Carvel), directed by one of my favourite directors (Rupert Goold) and telling a fascinating, timely and achingly relevant story about the birth of The Sun. Hands down the best piece of new writing this year and an outstanding production, both the Almeida original and its well earned West End transfer. A gem.

Chichester Festival Theatre/National Theatre/West End
It’s that man Graham again. I think This House might actually be my favourite play, fullstop. It’s certainly a work of genius, a play about Parliamentary procedure that is human and relatable and funny and brilliant. This production was cracking too, with the perfectly cast Nathaniel Parker and Steffan Rhodri leading a enormously talented ensemble. 

Royal Court/West End
Just a beautiful play; rarely has three and a half hours gone so quickly. Jez Butterworth’s tale of the Carney clan was stunningly well written and natural, and the huge ensemble cast, led by the outstanding Paddy Considine when I saw it, work it superbly. The ending stays with you long after the curtain falls.

Chichester Festival Theatre
A stonkingly gorgeous production of this justified classic. Stunning choreography, immaculately well cast, perfect orchestration. I cried almost continuously through the second half. Great to see Chichester’s musical tradition thriving under new AD Daniel Evans. I’m still holding out for news of a West End transfer.

National Theatre 
Staunton + Quast + Sondheim = guaranteed joy. A beautiful, sparkly gem of a production that made use of the Olivier theatre’s cavernous stage like nothing I’ve seen before. A justified sell out and a reminder that the NT can really do musicals when it puts its mind to it. 

Chichester Festival Theatre
The third and final James Graham play on the list and one I’m intrigued to see in 2018 in its new - and deserved - West End home. For me, the best thing about Quiz (and that’s a tough thing to choose) is that it cements Graham as that sadly quite rare thing: a playwright who can write plays that are insightful and interesting but also entertaining and fun. A innovative hoot (great word) of a production too.

National Theatre
Inua Ellams writes like no one else I’ve come across before. This play is so much fun and so well observed. The final scene, with one throwaway line that blows the main storyline wide open (and, yes, still makes me cry when I think about it ffs), is perhaps the single most effective scene I’ve seen all year.

Les Enfants Terribles/The Vaults
I was terrified going into this, my first experience of truly immersive theatre, but my god I loved it so much. The level of thought and detail that went into this incredible work (calling it a production does it a disservice) was mind bending. A real experience in every sense of the word and an utter joy.

National Theatre/West End
An entertaining and funny show about the Middle East peace process seems an unlikely concept but Oslo is exactly that. It’s also acutely well observed and hugely insightful. It’s also a political play with a female protagonist which is depressingly worthy of comment. Really well staged with a great cast, one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable - and educational - things I saw all year.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Theatre Review: Barber Shop Chronicles

Sometimes you know as soon as you walk into a theatre that you’re going to enjoy a show.

In the case of the National Theatre’s Barber Shop Chronicles, it was the late nineties rap that started blaring out of the not insubstantial sound system about a minute after I found my seat that sold it to me. This was, from about fifteen minutes before it even started, a production that I was totally into.

Barber Shop Chronicles, written by Inua Ellams, tells the interlocking stories of several barber shops, in London and across Africa, and the groups of black men who populate them. As a white woman this is about as far away from a world that I naturally understand as it’s possible to get but the genius of Ellams’ beautiful writing is that he made me understand it. The universality he draws out of this very specific - very male - world is astonishing. But at no point does universality translate into blandness. Quite the contrary. The writing is vibrant, diverse, funny, sincere and with real emotional clout. The structure and plot are so satisfyingly well thought through. The characters are real and relatable, even those who play relatively minor roles. The range of dialects included works so well - even if some of the resulting dialogue was technically lost on me, I still understood it.

Thematically, this play is incredibly rich and rewarding. As alluded to, language, how it evolves, what it means at different times and to different people, is writ large. The legacy of history at a personal and national level is there too. The universality of the human experience I’ve already mentioned but is explored so cleverly (I shan’t spoil it, but watch out for the recurring-in-various-dialects-exposing-various-forms-of-local-rivalry joke). Ultimately, the most powerful exploration is of the idea of the ‘strong, black male’ and how that is both a) bollocks and b) incredibly damaging to the excellent human beings who fall into its trap. The genius of Ellams’ writing even here is to make this exploration relatable to anyone in any racial and gender demographic (speaking of which, it was also much to this production’s credit that the audience wasn’t exclusively middle aged, middle class, white people for a change). The payoff is that this piece connects so well with its audience. It’s the sort of connection you can viscerally feel as you sit there. It does not happen often and is huge testament to how fantastic Barber Shop Chronicles is as a piece of writing.

It is aided and abetted by a knock out production, the first thing I’ve ever reviewed in the Dorfman where I’m not going to complain about sightlines! Staged in the round/square with the audience inches away from the action (sit in the pit for the most immersive experience), the design is great: simple but effective with a couple of really clever touches. Designer Rae Smith has constructed a whole world of barber shops using only a few props - barbers’ chairs and kit towers - which are moved around by the cast to set up the different locations, emphasised by a giant wire globe suspended over the stage on which the relevant locations light up when we travel there. It works incredibly well. Music director Michael Henry has done fantastic things with the show’s soundtrack: both the incidental music he selects (plus a million points for including No Diggity) and the live sung music, also used to indicate place, are evocative, exciting and cleverly used. The accompanying choreography - especially the sequences with capes - is great too. And, although the production could stand to be ten minutes shorter in my view, Bijan Sheibani’s direction is excellent. The sense of fun and always just restrained chaos he creates is infectious.

Completing the trinity of excellence is a kick ass cast. It’s great to see yet another piece in 2017’s trend for playing up ensemble acting where that decision totally plays off. The whole (smallish) cast of Barber Shop Chronicles is excellent and the play is often at its most exciting when they’re all on stage working together. There are a couple of standouts too. I found Patrice Naiambana’s work across his multiple characters consistently excellent, but as the sad and conflicted Simphiwe struggling with the legacy of Apartheid in the play’s South African thread he is outstanding (and gets some of the best material too). Conquering all before him though is Cyril Nri who is just devastating as Emmanuel in the central London-set plot line. Emmanuel’s plot delivers the play’s biggest gotcha moment (which I won’t spoil, obviously, save to say that it cut through my heart like a knife through butter) and Nri both handles it and builds up to it perfectly. It’s actually only one line that gives everything away but the amount of emotion Nri gets into that one line is incredible. I am literally crying as I write this because even thinking about that line has this effect (honestly, it’s becoming problematic). It’s a quiet, understated, absolute gem of a performance.

Barber Shop Chronicles is amazing, in summary, and I would urge anyone who has eyes, ears and a heart to go and see it. The emotional, thematic and geographic sweep and ambition of this piece is huge and ambitious - and it nails it every time. A real must see.

Barber Shop Chronicles plays in the Dorfman at the National Theatre until January 9th, though there is only ticket availability on January 5th. Quick march to the NT box office!

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Theatre Review: Barnum

I’ve always had a soft spot for the musical Barnum. I discovered it during my weird Michael Crawford obsessed phase in my early teens (you mean you didn’t have one?) when I acquired his - excellent - version on DVD.

I’ve always been slightly wary of seeing the show live, though, feeling slightly that I’ve already seen the ‘definitive’ version, to the extent that such a thing ever exists. When the dinky and fantastically concrete Menier Chocolate Factory announced it as its winter musical I was suitably intrigued to abandon this policy. I mean, how do you fit this ridiculous show and its huge score into what is essentially a very well appointed double garage?

With considerable aplomb, it turns out. Going slightly - gently - down the immersive route, this little joy of a production works wonders. I was (with one qualification) a huge fan.

Musically, Barnum is such an underrated show. Yes, the plot is a bit thin and overlooks, like, a lot about its main character but the songs and the score are cracking. It irks me that it’s not seen as more of a classic when its tracklist contains such beauties as Come Follow the Band, The Colours of My Life, There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute and Join the Circus. If I ever somehow end up on Strictly - when the world finally runs out of celebrities, shortly before the apocalypse - I’d want to charleston to Thank God I’m Old, preferably with AJ as my pro for irony’s sake (high five to the Strictly fans who got that joke). The score sounds stunning in this production too. The orchestration is completely fab and the band really knock it out of the park.

I was slightly concerned that this show being revived now, when the most dangerous proponent of humbug and flimflam the world has ever known is currently sat in the White House watching Fox News, would lead its creative team to try and make it a political satire of some kind. It’s ripe for it in many ways: you have the debate about truth v fakery embodied in its central characters and a large part of the second act is concerned with Barnum running for office. But, mercifully, this isn’t what we get here. Instead, it’s the joy and optimism and energy in the show that’s played up. And it’s infectious and wonderful and like a hug in show form. I defy you not to smile whilst watching this production. It’s exactly what the world needs right now: unashamed fun.

One of the chief joys comes from the production, which works an appropriate amount of magic in the tiny space. I always feel there’s something slightly edgy and unsettling about the Menier - possibly because it is, essentially, a small concrete box - but here, strung with fairy lights and full of performers, it feels exactly the right amount of ‘cheap but fun’. It feels like somewhere PT Barnum belongs. A couple of sightline issues aside (the production is slightly hamstrung by the space’s reliance on supporting pillars) the design and the lighting are amazing. Not as amazing as the movement and choreography though which is spectacular, even more so for the intimacy of the space and resulting closeness between performers and audience. The use of pleasingly low tech visual effects (the elephant is great) and seriously amazing circus skills adds another layer too.

In fact the only thing this production gets wrong is its central piece of casting. I was in no way convinced comedian Marcus Brigstocke was right for Barnum when his casting was announced and, having scene the production, I’m still not. I feel a bit sorry for him really. It’s such a difficult part and he’s clearly miscast but he tries so, so hard to make it work anyway. And I think he does, at times. Specifically, I think he completely carries the sunny optimism, charm and naivety of Barnum when he’s acting. His characterisation is really strong. His comic timing, as you would expect, is perfect. His accent is great and he ad libs fantastically. The issues come when he has to do more than act. He lacks the physical dynamism to fully embody the role and he visibly struggles with the show’s infamous tightrope walk (when I saw the show he made it across at second attempt, straining every sinew to stay on that rope in a way which was incredibly admirable, and my god I’ve never been that tense in a theatre ever in my life). I get that this scene is incredibly difficult - singing, acting and walking a fucking literal tightrope at the same time must be impossible to 99.99% of the population - but if you’re going to be Barnum you have to be able to do it. More problematic is his singing voice, which is weak both technically and in terms of power. He is by far the weakest singer in the cast, an obvious and persistent issue given he’s also the lead. No amount of effort and good intentions can alter that. God knows if it could then Brigstocke would be perfect for the role.

There is better news elsewhere. Laura Pitt-Pulford is spot on, and crystal voiced, as Barnum’s wife, Charity. It’s a joy to see her in such an intimate space. Harry Francis delivers a real show stealer as Tom Thumb and is generally pretty much the dictionary definition of a triple threat.

The real star in this show, though, isn’t an individual. It’s the tireless, versatile and joyful ensemble. Every time they appear en masse something astonishing happens - there’s such talent on display here. Whether it’s tap dancing, circus skills, card tricks, fire breathing or using various members of the cast as human skipping ropes (I assume that has a proper name but I don’t know what it is) everything is executed perfectly, with frankly tiring-to-watch amounts of energy and huge smiles. I loved these guys. If there was an award for best ensemble (and there fucking should be) they would take it hands down.

I really enjoyed Barnum. It’s pure entertainment, fun and spectacle at its best. That slap on the wrist for the casting director notwithstanding, you will leave the theatre with a stupid smile on your face and at least one song spinning round your head. It’s a joyful show and I for one feel like we need more joy in the world right now.

Barnum is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until March 3rd.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Theatre Review: The Complete Greek Tragedies (in one hour)

I’m doing that thing where I review a show you can longer see again. Soz.

For the second Wednesday night in a row, I found myself in a pub theatre. This time it was the rather excellent Rosemary Branch in Hackney - or Islington, or possibly both, I’m not sure - to check out Catharsis Theatre Company’s The Complete Greek Tragedies (in one hour). The title is literal: 31 big, complex stories in (just over) an hour.

Pub theatres are dead glamorous

It’s not difficult to predict the general approach that a production like this will take. There are enough ‘xxx in an hour’ type shows around now to know with some certainty that you’re going to see a madcap comedy of some description. And this is what is presented here. But Catharsis are cleverer than that. They set their production up as almost a play within a play - the setup (and it’s set up well, down to some joyously silly fake programmes) being that you’re going to a 31 hour production of all the tragedies but that one actor, despairing at having been in this same awful production for five years, appeals to the gods for help and is answered by Dionysus, god of drama etc, who duly obliges in forcing them to condense it down to an hour. Thus the idea is that the actors are all improvising and chucking stupid ideas into the mix with no preparation and no alternative but to give them a go. It allows the real life actors more freedom and allows the production to go in more and more ridiculous directions. And of course it’s just very funny.

The production is fantastically unafraid to mock the many and varied pretensions associated with theatre. (It was, for me, the perfect thing to watch after Network. Perhaps Ivo van Hove and team should try and catch Catharsis when they’re next in town.) It tackles this from all angles; traditional theatricality, the idea of ‘accessibility’ and drama school nonsense (“I can’t die, I’ve got an MA in physical theatre”) all have their bubbles thoroughly burst. It uses a lot of parody sequences all of which are fun and some of which are glorious: Medea in Chelsea is perfect but for the nagging suspicion that somewhere an TV executive is lining it up to sit in a double bill with Bromans on ITV2, and there are great takes on The Handmaid’s Tale and The Cellblock Tango off of Chicago. The clever writing is backed up with a clever design. The lighting and sound are really effective and the use of (very) minimal props and costumes fits perfectly with the setup of the production as the most amateur of amateur.

A brave and ballsy cast of three carry the whole thing off really well. Sophie Taylor is the perfect amount of earnest as classicist Cassie, managing to be both unbearable yet still somehow sympathetic (and very funny). Christina Holmbeck as the naive and totally inexperienced Marianna gives the show a bit of humanity and is a stonking Medea (and is also very funny). Iain Gibbons’ Jake is the most broadly comic character and he is, guess what, very funny. His increasingly desperate and ridiculous attempts at ‘accessibility’ are depressingly plausible. And he too is somehow still sympathetic. All together they make for a really effective trio.

The Complete Greek Tragedies (in one hour) is a cracking little show: so fun, so entertaining and so refreshing to see theatre being treated with the irreverence it deserves by some people who clearly completely fucking love it. You can’t see this show anywhere at the moment, but watch out for the next time it’s in town. It’s worth your time.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Theatre Review: Network

When I was doing my mock GCSEs about a billion years ago, I got 96% in the chemistry paper (stick with me, I promise this is going somewhere). Seeing my smug smile, my teacher, the fabulously named Mr Mann, decided to burst my bubble with a pithy “no one likes a smart arse, Williams”.

(Mr Mann was actually a great teacher by the way. He was a serving Territorial Army officer of German descent, with the most incredibly mangled accent, whose teaching methods regularly included armwrestling, wandering around the room picking up stuff off students’ desks with tongs and setting things on fire without warning whenever the mood took him. We had a long running argument about whether manatees were just fat dolphins. But I digress.)

I recall this anecdote now because ‘no one likes a smart arse’ seems a perfect summation of my feelings about Network, the NT’s new Ivo van Hove directed adaptation of the film of the same name. It is such a smart arse of a production; clever, yes, but so fucking self satisfied about it.

Let’s tackle this one head on. I’ve decided I’m done with Ivo van Hove. After his blisteringly good View from the Bridge a few years ago, each subsequent production of his I’ve seen I’ve liked less and I know exactly why. See, van Hove is a director who treads a very fine line between stylish substance and style over substance. View from the Bridge worked because it was firmly the former: it was visually striking and extremely stylized but stripped back in a way that allowed the acting and the text to shine through. Network is firmly the latter: there is so much going on and so little of it for any non-aesthetic reason. It adds nothing to the onstage action, often actively taking away from it. It makes for a deeply frustrating evening. At worst, it’s just pretentious.

My major bugbear is the constant use and boring over reliance on video in the production. This is a play based on a film starring one of the most famous screen actors of his generation. If I wanted to watch it or him on a screen I would have stayed at home. I can’t work out what the video is supposed to add when it's used with the regularity it is here. Some of the visual effects it generates are undoubtedly stunning and it is occasionally used to zoom in on the face of a character not in the main action which allows for an interesting reaction shot but beyond that? If it was used sparingly it would probably be quite effective but it's not. It's used all the time. You almost forget you're actually watching a play at times.

There are other things that irritate me because they're unnecessary too. The onstage restaurant adds literally nothing to the action other than providing some free extras in the restaurant and bar-set scenes (and presumably a bit of extra cash for the NT coffers). The tiny bit of thrust stage is used so literally it's like being punched in the face. The presence of a live band is at best no more effective than a recording and at worst actively distracting. The attempts at audience engagement are so wooden they become painful.

With so much of this stuff you get the feeling that it's included for one reason: because Ivo van Hove thought it was clever. And that's not enough for me. Fairly or not, I left the theatre actually quite angry at having spent two hours (which is too long) indulging him.

I also felt quite angry on behalf of other elements of the production. Because there are some really good things happening here if you can look past all the fluff. The 'I'm mad as hell' scene is actually really well done and gave me goosebumps. The scenes that are fluffless, such as the subplot about two of the TV execs having an affair, are good too. The writing is punchy, topical and quick, if a bit preachy, though the same issues are covered infinitely better by James Graham in both Ink and Quiz. There is no denying that the production looks stunning, especially the polished copper reflective floor which allows for some amazing visuals and fascinating perspectives on the action.  And ultimately, for all my moaning, there is also no denying that the technical virtuosity involved in making this production work in even the most basic sense is phenomenal. If you're interested in how theatre is physically made, it's a fascinating production to watch.

There is some great acting going on amidst the screens too. Bryan Cranston in particular is fantastic; a piece of completely perfect casting if ever there was one. He is totally compelling as Howard, mixing the required blend of cynicism, anger, emotional depth and straight forward charisma to make this character both utterly credible and utterly sympathetic. I wish I’d been allowed to spend more time watching him just on a stage though rather than on a screen. There’s strong support across a necessarily huge cast. I particularly rated Douglas Henshall as Howard's mess of a friend Max. He brings some much needed heart and pathos to proceedings and is fantastic in the production’s rare quiet moments. Tunji Kassim is a revelation (to me) as the Machiavellian network boss Frank Hackett, exploding with rage and machismo. I couldn’t stop watching him whenever he was on the stage and his interplay with both Cranston and Henshall was really exciting to watch.

I am genuinely interested to see what audiences (not professional critics, who I’m 99% sure will obsess over this one) make of Network. I think it will be a pretty Marmite production that will generate strong feelings on all sides. For me, it’s just frustrating. There’s so much good going on here. I just wish it wasn’t dressed up in so much Ivo van Hove-ness. My fleeting affair with Dutch avant garde is, I fear, over.

Network is in the Lyttelton theatre at the NT until 24th March. The entire run is sold out but day tickets, returns and Friday Rush tickets are available.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Theatre Review: Quiz

If you're of a certain age, as I am, the phrase 'is that your final answer?' is one that will immediately transport you backwards in time as quickly as Doc Brown's Delorean: Saturday night, ITV (back in the day where there was only one ITV), Chris Tarrant, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

We were pretty regular watchers of Millionaire in my family, so it's odd that I don't remember the incident which arguably made it most famous: the appearance of Charles Ingram, the so-called Coughing Major who was alleged to have cheated his way to the top prize. I'm not going to explain the story - that's what Wikipedia is for - except to say that Ingram and his accomplices (his wife and another quiz enthusiast) were all convicted of defrauding the show, a conviction that was subsequently upheld on appeal. But this is not an uncontroversial case and many believe that the convictions are wrong, or at least questionable.

Yep, that is an interactive voting pad.

'Many' including playwright James Graham who takes this episode as the subject for his newest play, Quiz. Regular, or even occasional, readers will know that I love James Graham, like, a lot and a new play of his (of which there are so many at the moment - when do you sleep James?!) is always a cause for celebration and immediate ticket purchasing. And, after the mild disappointment of Labour of Love, it was an utter delight to find that Quiz is classic Graham. I love this play almost as much as Ink and This House, my gold standard.

Graham's writing is, as ever, superb. Although perhaps not as successfully funny as some of his other work, it is endlessly clever and thought provoking. The themes help here. Quiz is, at heart, a consideration of the interplay between entertainment, truth and justice - and honestly could that be more relevant as the world 'celebrates' a year of President Trump? This discussion is taken, expertly, in all sorts of directions, from those you would probably expect to see in a play about this story (what impact did the media attention the case got have on the trial and by extension on justice more widely?) to some that are perhaps more unexpected and bigger (how just is life? why does it matter if you're breaking the rules of the game when the game is rigged against you anyway?) This latter idea is particularly cleverly done through the character of Ingram himself: his perceived poshness allows him to avoid jail but it also means that the public at large, egged on by the media, are anxious to see him fall. Even the Millionaire question setters want him, and people like him, to fail. What impact does this have on the jury in his trial?

One key way in which Quiz feels different to other Graham plays for me is that he has a definite point of view on Ingram's case in a way he doesn't, at least not as overtly, in his other work. Whilst there are still no outright heroes and villains here, it seems fairly obvious where Graham's personal sympathies lie. The structure of the play - act one is, essentially, the case for the prosecution, act two the case for the defence with the audience being asked to vote on Ingram's guilt at the end of each act - reinforces this. If it feels manipulative to present the story in this way that's because it is, but I think deliberately so. It emphasises again the way that different facts can be selected, presented and influenced by context and how they are inevitably misrepresented in the eye of a media storm; in other words it neatly uses structure to reinforce the play's key themes. Ultimately, you can agree with Graham's point of view or not (I don't, as it happens) but that doesn't affect the impact or relevance of the themes of the play.

This production, part of the Chichester Festival and staged in the bijou Minerva theatre, is first rate. Robert Jones’ design in particular is outstanding, using two concentric circles of revolve to house an amazingly well lit generic quiz show set which is suitably flexible to double as a minimal house/courtroom/pub/office etc as the plot demands. It is a perfect use of the space in the Minerva and - should this play transfer to London, which it thoroughly deserves to - will be difficult to replicate as effectively anywhere else. Daniel Evans, Chichester’s Artistic Director, directs brilliantly too. This is a fast paced, knockabout production which makes great, sensitive use of audience participation and is technically extremely complex without ever seeming so. Evans has had an outstanding first season at Chichester. Long may he reign there.

The cast, too, is superb. Quiz, like This House, is a proper ensemble piece with all but the two lead actors (playing the Ingrams) cast in multiple parts. Many multiple parts in most cases - some of the quick changes and logistics involved are staggering! The ensemble are fantastic as a group and as individuals but a few do stand out. As Ingram himself, Gavin Spokes is quietly - and at times devastatingly - brilliant. It’s an onion of part; almost a straightforward, and rather stupid, villain in the first act who reveals real depth, humanity and tragedy in the second. Spokes is particularly good at the latter, you really do just want to give him a huge hug by the end of the evening. Keir Charles, on the other hand, is loudly and exuberantly brilliant as all of the many quiz show hosts who are included in the play. Chris Tarrant is his main role, but he also gets Des O'Connor, Jim Bowen, Leslie Crowther (these three in a single scene, including multiple on stage quick changes which is fantastically entertaining and impressive) and Bruce Forsyth. Although he is a great mimic, that’s not all he is; and he can’t afford to be since he is the one who manages the vast majority of the interaction with the audience which must be a terrifyingly unpredictable prospect for an actor! Sarah Woodward is great too as, amongst other things, the defence QC (the play being presented in part as the Ingrams’ literal trial) who manages to manifest the traditional British view of fairness and justice whilst still being enjoyably sassy and never mawkish.

Quiz is an absolute joy of an evening. It’s a great play but, more than that, it’s great entertainment. And I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s what I love about James Graham: he is a playwright who is not afraid to be entertaining, however serious his ultimate topic. He writes for an audience, not for himself, in a way that few other playwrights do. Long may his profligacy continue.

Quiz is in the Minerva at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 9th December. Tickets are limited so get your skates on.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Theatre Review: The Black Eye Club

As unusual theatre propositions go, a black comedy of manners, set in a domestic violence refuge and staged above a somewhat out of the way pub in Clapham is up there for me. Still since all of the good TV seemed to finish last week I needed something to fill my Wednesday night, and so here we are.

The somewhat out of the way pub in Clapham in question is the Bread and Roses whose upstairs theatre is celebrating its third year with The Black Eye Club, a new play by Phil Charles which recently won the theatre’s playwright award. It tells the story of Dave (gay, shy, repressed, alcoholic accountant with a degree and a savings account) and Zoe (straight, loud, working class with a council house) and their meeting at a refuge whilst fleeing their abusive partners. It’s a great premise and this cracking little play delivers on it with panache.

This is a play that is not afraid to wear its politics on its sleeve and shows the damage that austerity is doing to local government budgets really effectively - an area that for all the political plays around at the moment doesn’t seem to be glamourous enough for most playwrights to explore, despite its very real and sometimes devastating effects on so many aspects of life for so many people. It’s not surprising to read in Charles’ biography that he has direct experience of working with local government and the play is immaculately researched with shocking, though depressingly unsurprising, detail (domestic violence refuges are being outsourced to private security firms like G4S because of course they are).

Both the plot and the characters generally feel very real and very rounded though there are moments, especially with Zoe, that feel a tiny bit lazy and stereotyped; an occasional line of dialogue for her which feels a bit like it was rejected from Eastenders. The plot and the characters’ experiences though ring depressingly true and the points about opportunity and education that Charles uses the contrast between Dave and Zoe to make are done really well. Charles works hard to wring humour from the situation too, and largely succeeds in a wry and knowing sort of way. The biggest feather in the cap of the writing though is the twisty turny last fifteen minutes which are shocking, unpredictable and uplifting and go off in a variety of directions that I really didn’t expect. It’s so rare for a play to have a twist that’s genuinely unforeseen and this one has several. It’s really clever.

Given the constraints of the space and the facilities, the production is strong too. The lighting and incidental music are well used, the set works really well and makes intelligent use of its lack of solid walls and the use of the actual performance space as a whole is effective, using a thrust stage and making sensible use of the main entrance door as an extra bit of set. Tessa Hart’s direction is quick and uncontrived and the choreography is fab, vital to make this story work on a very small stage.

The cast of three are also much to the production’s credit. Christopher Sherwood is my pick of the bunch as the damaged, repressed but ultimately inspiring Dave. His quiet diffidence makes for a very believable and tragic performance. Rebecca Pryle is a hugely sympathetic, likeable and credible Zoe who, when final allowed to do some of the dramatic heavy lifting rather than the knockabout comedy towards the end of the play, really pulls it off. Cathryn Sherman takes what could be a bit of a nothing part, as security guard Sharon, and brings some humanity and edge to it (and I really like Charles’ writing for her and the way he uses her to show that even the people in positions of relative privilege and power in the current local government funding mess are still trapped by it).

Overall, The Black Eye Club is a great little thing; thought provoking, enraging, sad, happy and funny all at the same time. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me to see this piece having a future life in bigger - and more purpose built! - venues. I would certainly be interested to see it in one if it did.

The Black Eye Club is at the Bread and Roses Theatre until 18th November.

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.