Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Theatre Review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Question: what do you get if you cross Bertolt Brecht and Dr Seuss’ The Lorax? Answer: the Donmar’s current production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

If you know your Dr Seuss - and if you don’t then you need to sort that out, stat - you’ll know that the moral and most famous quote from The Lorax goes thusly: “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not”. And although the quote isn’t included in the Donmar’s Resistible Rise - a missed opportunity - that same moral, that ordinary people have to get up and do shit to make things get better, regardless of time and place, is very much writ large in this production.

The second play in the Donmar’s Power season follows in the footsteps of the first, the excellent Limehouse, in that it has a message that it is not ashamed to shout about. Loudly. What is a bit different in this production is that it does the shouting through the staging as well as the text. It’s an interesting approach and one that is largely very successful and always a huge amount of fun.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a largely self explanatory title. It tells the story of Chicago gangster, Arturo Ui, and his use of his criminal gang and activity to worm his way into politics, in this case the politics of the Chicago and Cicero grocery trade. Ui is incredibly charismatic, though not very bright, and relies on a coterie of small time crooks, his adoption by local political types and increasingly serious criminal activity to propel him into power.

Remind you of anyone?

Whilst Brecht’s play was originally written as a thinly veiled satire on Hitler’s rise to power, the Donmar’s new adaptation, by Bruce Norris, is a not at all veiled satire on Donald Trump. There is 0% subtlety in the attack on this new contemporary reference, which might have become tiresome very quickly were it not so funny. Much of this is down to the presence of the actor who has to sell it, Lenny Henry on fantastic form, but also some very clever and unapologetic writing and staging. All of Trump’s current obsessions get an airing - the size of the crowd at a rally, the need to build a wall, vicious attacks on immigrants and even a ‘Make This Country Great Again’ banner. The best scene in this regard is when Ui needs to wrest control of the Cicero grocery racket from a female rival. The staging of the ensuing argument scene evokes the infamous final debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton so well, including a quick slip in of the phrase ‘nasty woman’ to much wry laughter. All of this is done with a certain swagger that is essential to its success. There would be no point in doing this sort of blatant satire half heartedly and this production goes all in to make it work.

As mentioned above, this production is totally aimed at bringing its audience in and forcing them to be active participants in Ui’s rise and/or fall. This starts with the most basic aspect of staging - the stage. There isn’t one, in short. This production takes place in a speakeasy, even the programmes are wrapped in plain brown paper, with the actors milling around the audience, arranged around them in a circle, at all levels. Audience members are frequently used in lieu of actors, which is gimmicky (my hatred for audience participation being well documented elsewhere on this blog) but very entertaining from the safety of the circle. The one exception to this is the very last scene where the audience is challenged to come and sit on the floor of the performance area to show their opposition to Ui. This is a powerful moment and illustrates the wider theme of the production really well with barely a word spoken. There’s also an interesting use of live performance of sections of contemporary music, on the one level a simple way to mask scene changes but also yet another way to remind the audience that time and place are immaterial because there are always men like Ui who need to be stopped.

The cumulative effect of this commitment to message does feel a bit overcooked sometimes, almost inevitably given how many levels it’s operating on. Perhaps a fraction of a percentage more subtlety would be welcome. The production also has a slight pacing issue, in that act one is less engaging and more ‘Basil Exposition’ than an excellent act two. I’m not really sure what director Simon Evans could have done any differently here though; there is a lot of story that needs to be told before the full horror of Ui becomes apparent and it makes sense to get that out of the way and really let the piece explode in the second act, which it undoubtedly does. Maybe a couple of judicious cuts could have been deployed just to make the first act shorter but, again, I’m not sure where my knife would fall. I just feel that the production is so close to getting the balance right that it’s a shame it didn’t quite get there. It detracted only a fraction from my enjoyment though, I am nitpicking a bit here.

Any faults that this production may have do certainly not extend to the cast however. In a relatively small and multi-talented ensemble it’s very difficult to find fault and the energy and sense of fun they all bring is infectious. As mentioned above, Lenny Henry takes the title role and is hugely convincing and charismatic. That he does the comedy fantastically is an utter non-surprise, that he conveys the menace and violence of Ui so well was a surprise (for me at least, this is the first time I’ve seen Henry on stage). He brings a huge presence and physicality to the role that other actors would struggle to match and his occasional Donald Trump impressions are subtle but well executed. He has very strong support across the board but in particular from Giles Terera, a real superstar in the making, as Ui’s righthand man Ernesto Roma who matches Henry’s charisma blow for blow and gets to show off his considerable chops with some quite dark material. Great singing voice too. (Lin Manuel Miranda has done well to sign him up for the West End version of Hamilton.) Justine Mitchell is a great, affecting presence in the relatively small role of Betty Dullfeet, Ui’s Hillary, and her ultimate defeat by him is the saddest of all of those that we see in the play.

This Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is, in short, great fun. Is it occasionally overcooked? Yes. Is it funny and affecting and superbly staged? Also yes. I suppose if you’re bored of political theatre then this may not be for you, but otherwise? Well worth your time. And if you are bored of political theatre then you probably need the kick up the bum that this production delivers. Remember the words of The Lorax.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is at the Donmar Warehouse until 17th June.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Theatre Review: Angels in America

If the point of a review is to offer a critique of the subject at hand, to criticise it, then I’m not sure that this post qualifies.

I’m don’t know what I’d class it as instead, mind. A rave? Some kind of weird written down orgasm? A love letter to Nathan Lane? It could be any and all of these. It certainly contains the latter.

Whatever it is, the subject matter of this post is Angels in America currently being revived, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, in a huge, all star, sold out production at the National Theatre. And I’m struggling to call this post a real review because there’s nothing I want to criticise; this production is perfect theatre, all seven and a half hours of it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen on stage. I feel just so inordinately lucky to have seen it.

Angels in America is, of course, an absolute classic and the writing remains some of the best you will ever hear. Told across two plays, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, Tony Kushner’s epic, in every sense of the word, tale of gay life in New York at the height of the AIDS crisis is both an excoriating critique of conservative, and particularly Reagan-era US, politics as well as a more hopeful message on the inevitability of human progress and improvement.

It’s fantastic to see both plays shown as far as I can tell more or less uncut - certainly there are lengthy passages included here that were cut from probably the best known version of these plays, HBO’s Al Pacino/Meryl Streep starring TV version. Kushner’s writing is incredible throughout and even seemingly tangential passages, such as the Oldest Living Bolshevik scene that opens Perestroika, are a joy to hear. There are passages, too, that are so much more resonant now than they have been at any time since the plays were written. The plays’ concern with the arguments over immigration and its benefits are depressingly relevant again, for example. Most striking, and frightening, though is how much more important the character of Roy Cohn has become again. The real Cohn was a key adviser to one Donald J Trump and listening to the plays’ version speak, even though his words are fictionalised, is a chilling reminder of the attitudes and worldview of the most powerful man in the world.

On the other hand, and perhaps partly in response to this, this production plays up the humour in Kushner’s writing to an unexpected degree. I had no idea how much I was going to laugh over the course of the seven and a half hours nor how much the production was going to be halted by bursts of spontaneous applause for the comedy moments. As much as it was unexpected, though, this was welcome and totally worked in the context of the production; both to increase the impact of and provide some relief from the darkness of other scenes. It was fun to see a knowing wink being paid to some of the casting decisions as well, in particular watching Nathan Lane’s Roy Cohn offering his verdict on La Cages Aux Folles.

Angels in America in general, and Perestroika in particular, can be difficult plays to stage because of their overt theatricality and the presence of a very literal Angel in many key scenes. This production doesn’t hide from this for even a moment, in fact quite the opposite. It seizes the theatricality with both hands and has an enormous amount of fun with it. Much of this must surely be down to the influence of director Marianne Elliott of, amongst other things, War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time fame. Many of the techniques used in these other NT blockbusters are in evidence in Angels, most notably puppetry and the use of black clad acrobats to maneuver the Angel (human puppetry, I suppose). These are used incredibly effectively again here and are consistent with Kushner’s stage direction that the audience should be able to see how these moments are created without the mechanics getting in the way of our willing suspension of disbelief.

The best examples of this are, unsurprisingly, in the Angel sequences which are jaw dropping in their creativity and visually stunning. The Angel herself is given a worn, almost steampunk, aesthetic which extends to her threadbare wings - two giant puppets - and tattered US flag costume, and reflects both her story of God abandoning Heaven and her shabby message of regression perfectly. As actress Amanda Lawrence is lifted, carried and occasionally almost thrown across the stage by her ‘Shadows’, you never completely forget that there are people underneath and around her but you also never for a moment doubt that this is the Angel, a single character with a personality all of her own. I sat and watched many of these scenes with my mouth gaping open like a fish (attractive). Even after seeing the Angel multiple times the impact never lessened.

Despite the bounty of joy available throughout this production, it’s still the acting that really sells it. This is a long and huge production but there are only eight principal actors all playing multiple roles. Each and every one of them is superb and it says much about the outstanding quality of this cast that the peerless Denise Gough is one of the least memorable - in any other production her defiantly sad Harper would run away with the show, but this is not any other production. A number of the cast truly excel: Russell Tovey’s conflicted and earnest Joe is such a touching and subtle performance, Susan Brown’s dual big roles of Hannah and Ethel Rosenberg are both perfectly pitched, especially in Perestroika where she is barely off stage but utterly masterful nonetheless, and the surprise package of James McArdle who blew me away as Louis, completely unrecognisable from his James Plays/Young Chekhov characters and with an American accent so perfect it’s almost impossible to remember that he is in fact very Scottish.

Then there’s Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn. In a production filled with the best acting you can currently see in London he is utterly peerless. It’s not so much that he’s in a different league to everyone else, he’s playing a whole different sport. There were moments in Lane’s performance that were so good that I found myself crying just because I felt so honoured to be watching them, which I realise is such a dickhead stagey thing to say but it’s true. His scenes with Russell Tovey in particular are an utter joy to watch, the confrontation at the end of Millennium Approaches is one of the best pieces of acting I’ve ever seen and, literally, made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I can’t really do justice to how good this performance is in words, save to say that it’s three days later and I still can’t comprehend how lucky I am to have seen it.

Which is the perfect place to leave this review, I think, as it could equally apply to the production as a whole. I’ve never had a theatrical experience like Angels in America before. I laughed a lot, I cried a lot, I gaped in wonder for embarrassing amounts of time. This production is unforgettable and perfect and profound. I am privileged to have seen it.

Angels in America is sold out at the NT, but there are limited tickets available on the day and through the Angels Ballot. It’s also getting the NT Live treatment in July. Do what you need to to see it.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Theatre Review: Woyzeck

Anyone who’s seen the poster art for the Old Vic’s new production of Woyzeck will have noticed that it includes a guide on how to pronounce the play’s name. “That’s probably not a good sign,” said my friend as we arrived at the theatre.

Programme art, sans pronunciation guide.

Woyzeck (Voy-check, if you were wondering) tells the story of the titular soldier, his fight to get on in a society determined to deny him and his descent into madness and inevitable - somewhat predictable - tragedy. It’s a famously tricksy play, left unfinished as a series of non-ordered scenes by original playwright Georg Buchner when he died and variously assembled by contemporary writers to fit their ideas ever since. It’s often presented in an avant garde style, to some degree at least. The Old Vic has tried to do a more ‘normal’, accessible production - as the fact they feel the need to tell us how to say the word on the poster alludes to - but, honestly, I rather wish they hadn’t bothered.

My main issue with this production is the adaptation, which I must say rather surprised me given it’s the work of current playwright du jour, Jack Thorne. It’s not so much that the writing is bad - it’s generally not; it’s punchy and treads the comedy/tragedy line very well - but the fact that narratively I just found the whole thing a bit of a mess. For all the hyping in the programme notes about how accessible this version is supposed to be, I struggled to follow the thread throughout. The first act is somewhat clearer but it seems to be setting up for a payoff that the much less linear second act fails to deliver.

Thematic strands somehow also get lost along the way too despite them, paradoxically, being rammed down the audience’s collective throat. Clearly this is a play about class and age exploitation but this is illustrated by the occasional ‘theme’ sequence, usually involving Woyzeck acting as servant to his Captain, rather than being properly laced into the plot. Ultimately, there was just too much of this production where I couldn’t connect with what was happening on stage because I was too busy trying to work out what the fuck was going on. And often failing. This version feels trapped between the play’s avant garde tradition and an attempt at a more natural modernity. What it delivers as a result is the worst of both worlds - not natural enough to be easily understood, not artistically daring enough to be avant garde.

I feel for John Boyega in this production, marketed as it is so heavily on his appeal. He is clearly a fantastic, charismatic young actor but for my money he’s not yet got the chops to carry off a part as big as Woyzeck. And let’s be real it is a huge part; as demanding as any of the big Shakespeare leads and inevitably placed on the shoulders of a much younger man. There are moments of greatness in his performance - he carries off Woyzeck’s early cheeky chappy-ness to a T and in the final scene he gives us something big, bold and deeply affecting - but there are also moments of not-greatness. It’s this lack of consistency and polish, particularly towards the end of the first half, that undercut the performance as a whole. He clearly will be an actor more than capable of this sort and scale of part, but I didn’t leave the theatre convinced that he is that actor yet. Which, given how much of the play revolves around him, is a not inconsiderable issue. It certainly doesn’t make the narrative easier to follow either.

If Boyega’s performance fails to take off, there are plenty around him that do; the supporting cast here is excellent. Sarah Greene as Woyzeck’s doomed girlfriend is a highlight; spirited but sad, almost as angry at the world as her other half but hiding it behind a quiet strength that he lacks. Ben Batt is also incredibly watchable, and brings some much needed, well sold light relief (and nudity), as Woyzeck’s fellow soldier who is much better at playing the system and has no compunction, happily for us, about doing so. But for me the collective scene is rather stolen by the vastly more experienced Steffan Rhodri, who is never not excellent, and Nancy Carroll as the Captain and his wife. Both manage to make what feel like very slight characters (the evil posh people, essentially) into something considerably more rounded whilst still conveying the thematic point that they are the oppressors. Carroll in particular gives a performance of greater nuance than the script seems to provide. And let’s take a moment to appreciate the ability of Rhodri to be reliably top drawer in any accent (here, it’s clipped RP) and in even the most ridiculous of costumes.

Also working in the show’s favour is the fact that it looks and sounds amazing. Using the Cold War Berlin setting extremely effectively and without ever falling into lazy parody, Tom Scutt’s design is atmospheric and menacing, comprising as it does a series of bare walls (stripped to their insulation) that fly on and off the stage on industrial winches. Lighting is projected in stark spots and strips of pure white, leaving much of the stage dark and adding to the feeling of wrongness. It’s used cleverly as a highlight as well, subtly lighting the large British Royal crest over the proscenium at key points (and I like the way that having this crest and a very traditional set of red velvet curtains across the stage, rare at the Old Vic, emphasise the points about class that are being made in much less subtle ways elsewhere). The almost inevitable use of an electro soundtrack is well done too; again effective without being overdone and piling on the levels of menace.

That this Woyzeck is a frustrating thing is no better illustrated than by the final, tragic scene. This is where the production finally takes off, with Boyega and Greene both bringing their A game and delivering big, brave and uninhibited performances on a bare stage lit only by white strips of light. It is incredibly powerful and deeply moving. If the rest of the show was at this level, or even approaching it, then I would just have written a very different review.

Woyzeck is at the Old Vic until 24th June.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Theatre Review: Occupational Hazards

A couple of years ago, in my day job, I found myself having to chase a junior Defra Minister up a flight of stairs at an event (don’t ask).

This fact stands out in my memory mostly because I was low key amazed at how quickly he had ascended said stairs, physical fitness hardly being a prerequisite for a Ministerial career. A subsequent Google stalk shone some light. He was an ex-military man with what I think you can charitably describe as an obsession with walking (trekking across the mountains of Afghanistan for fun is obsession in my book) and a fascinating career which included a spell as de facto governor of a province of post-war Iraq; Rory Stewart (for it was he) was and is not your average junior Minister.

Stewart’s time in Iraq is the subject of a self-penned booked, Occupational Hazards, which has now been adapted for the stage and is playing at the Hampstead. It tells the story of the failure of British and American forces in the southern Maysan province to ‘win the peace’ as they try and rebuild after the devastation of the most recent Iraq war. Any and all views on that war aside, it’s an absolutely fascinating piece.

On adaptation duties is Stephen Brown who has done a fantastic job with what must be a messy source, in that Stewart’s book isn’t a simple chronologically arranged story. Brown has taken key scenes from the book and whipped them into a timeline of key episodes, judiciously cut the number of characters with many becoming fictionalised accounts of real people and, at the apparent suggestion of director Simon Godwin, used the character of Stewart himself as a narrator, directly addressing the audience throughout as well as acting as a character in the drama. The latter in particular is something of a masterstroke: not only does it take what is essentially a series of standalone scenes and make them feel like a real story by, literally and figuratively, filling in the gaps it also draws the audience in and makes them active observers, complicit in the action. The overall effect is to create a vital and compelling story which is hugely engaging and totally absorbing.

Quite apart from the adaptation, Brown’s script is fantastic in its own right. It’s quick, it’s wry, it’s very funny, dramatic and authentic. It has a voice of its own, as well as communicating Stewart’s. There are some eminently quotable passages - “It’s democracy. Everyone is equally unhappy. That’s how the system works.” - peppered throughout. It really grasps the audience from the first moment to the last. And, crucially, at no point does it become an issue play. Occupational Hazards isn’t about whether the Iraq war was right or wrong or who is to blame that the aftermath was so badly handled, it just tells a fascinating story without implying judgement. Some people won’t, but I love it all the more for that.

Simon Godwin, who regular readers will know is one of my absolute faves, adds considerable directorial nouse to proceedings. Dispensing with the Hampstead’s normal elevated end on stage, Occupational Hazards is presented on a floor level thrust stage. Actors enter and exit using the auditorium doors and some key pieces of dialogue are delivered, at least in part, from the auditorium. The action is quick, scenes are short and the whole piece is full of movement to avoid (about 90% successfully) the issues with blocking and audibility that are inherent in this sort of stage-audience arrangement. The design is sand coloured, made up of sliding walls and screens (a Hampstead trademark) with a clever and sparing use of projection and an evocative soundtrack.  It’s a staging that really works and really, really works when combined with Brown’s whip sharp writing.

It really, really, really works thanks to an extremely strong ensemble, many playing multiple parts. The characters Brown has included are an eclectic bunch who really effectively show off the diversity of views and motivations not just between the British and Americans on the one hand and the Iraqis on the other, but between all of the characters as individuals. The cast work hard to do justice to this plurality and it pays off. Silas Carson as charismatic tribal leader Karim is a highlight, bringing real menace, gravitas and a touching weariness to proceedings. But it’s Henry Lloyd Hughes’ Rory Stewart who is the cream of the crop. Barely off stage at all, after wandering in through the audience and beginning with a ballsy direct address to introduce the story, he works extraordinarily hard and delivers a performance that is charismatic, energetic and detailed. He picks up many of the real life Stewart’s mannerisms and speech patterns without ever veering into impersonation and some of his delivery is really outstanding; a favourite being the beautifully quiet and perfectly timed final syllable in the line, “Like any right thinking person I’m suspicious of Powerpoint”. He really makes Stewart a character for the audience to root for, regardless of whether or not you agree with his actions or his point of view. It’s a superb performance.

If it’s not obvious, I really rated Occupation Hazards. It’s one of the most engaging and interesting pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year (and one with the most tickets still available during the run, unfairly). Regardless of your politics, your views on Iraq or indeed on Stewart himself, it’s one to make the effort to catch.

Occupational Hazards is at the Hampstead Theatre until June 3rd.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Theatre Review: Salome

If I were to draw up a list of my absolute favourite people in theatre, Yaël Farber would 100% be near the top.

I don’t really like the word visionary, and it’s thrown around a lot, but Farber definitely is one. The imagination of her productions is incredible and nobody builds the world around a play like she does. There’s no question that she’s an aesthetic director, in that staging plays a huge part in her world building, but she always chooses to work on plays of significant substance as well.

In her new production, Salomé at the National Theatre, Farber is on double duty as both director and playwright, though in reality even that probably does her influence on this production a disservice; this truly feels like Farber’s baby and Farber’s world in every way. Her new version of Salomé tells the Biblical story of the dancer girl who demanded John the Baptist’s head on a plate but with one major amendment: it places Salomé herself back at the heart of her own narrative. It’s thoroughly depressing how radical this feels. Combined with Farber’s usual aesthetic flair this creates a production of this oldest tale that feels completely modern. And ever so slightly bonkers, which is also pleasing.

The creation of Farber’s Jerusalem (for that’s where we are) begins the instant you enter the theatre with a very distinctive smoky smell and a barren, black stage lit with bright white spotlights. This forms the aesthetic base for the entire production, with the harsh white spots used incredibly effectively as highlight points, directing audience gaze in some unexpected ways. It also adds to an air of voyeurism that is maintained throughout the production, important given Farber’s thematic focus on colonisation of the female body, which is also highlighted by the continued presence of the entire cast on stage more or less all the time.

Music and sound is a huge part of this production, and there is a soundscape of both live and recorded sound that runs constantly throughout the show (the resultant, echoey use of microphones by all the cast is a minor bugbear) courtesy of sound designer Adam Cork. The highlight of this is the presence of two singers in the cast who provide a live soundtrack for Farber’s world - their voices are exquisite and the music they create adds considerable depth to the setting.

This is also a production that’s constantly in motion. The Olivier’s huge stage is used to great effect here with the revolve in near continual use throughout the play, moving cast and setting around in a way that is disconcerting and presents something of the tumult that Salomé and her story cause in her world. The other thing that features frequently, and is often moving, is sand. I’m not sure I altogether understood this as a reference point but as far as I can interpret it suggests a connection to the land, hence why it’s Salomé herself who is often interacting with said sand. Or perhaps the key is in Farber’s script - “the sand erases everything” - and it’s actually a comment on the way that Salomé’s story, her real story, is forgotten. Or perhaps I’m over thinking this and actually the sand is just there because it looks cool. But I doubt that in a Farber production.

As already alluded to, thematically Farber’s Salomé pins its colours very firmly to the mast: colonisation, of the land and of women’s voices, bodies and stories. There is no question that it works these themes very well, if anything it is occasionally overplayed and feels a bit Guardian columnist. The contemporary resonance is obvious and, thankfully, merely alluded to. There are some striking passages of text around the intentions of the coloniser, benign and not (I happened to be reading a book about the Nuremberg trials when I saw this show and was really struck how one passage in particular, Pontius Pilate talking about his hatred of the Jews, could have come straight from the transcripts). The points around the colonisation of women are arguably more interesting though, for me, slightly undermined by the fact that the only character who appears naked in the play, Salomé, is female whilst the male character who is specifically described as being naked, John the Baptist, is clothed. Though her nakedness does sometimes feel empowering - as during the powerful, decidedly unerotic dance of the seven veils sequence, which is great - for a lot of the time it simply feels like the classic Game of Thrones nudity double standard - women must be naked, but men absolutely cannot be. However, I realise this is more a question of interpretation than anything else and, in context, it certainly is not gratuitous.

The aesthetics are undeniably the star of this production which leaves relatively limited space for the cast to make much of an impression. To the extent they do, Paul Chahidi is a beautifully creepy Herod (though I didn’t quite buy his more straightforward ‘overcome with lust’ scenes) and Isabella Nefar is a striking Salomé. The standout though is Olwen Fouéré as Nameless (the older Salomé who serves as the narrator of the story) who gives one of the most unconventionally charismatic performances I’ve seen in a long time. She is utterly compelling - I could watch her for hours.

I was completely captivated by Salomé. It’s a short play (no interval) but is so enchanting and such a complete example of Yaël Farber’s unique brand of world building. It’s a beautiful thing and is absolutely worth your time and money.

Salomé is in the Olivier at the National Theatre until 15th July.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Theatre Review: Consent

Is it possible to connect with a play when all of the characters are utterly hateful?

It may not be the intended takeaway but that was my main thinking point after watching Consent, Nina Raine’s new play currently on in the National’s Dorfman Theatre. It’s fantastically written, superbly acted and immaculately staged. Objectively, it does almost everything right. But I just didn’t connect with it. At all. And I really do wonder how much of that is because I cared 0% what happened to any of the characters.

Consent discusses depressingly pertinent issues to do with rape and women’s agency over their own bodies, something it does cleverly by both directly portraying and then subverting the legal form and language of the opposing arguments in a rape trial as put forward by two barristers who are, at least in theory, friends. With the trial as its initial catalyst, the play expands out to carry on exploring the issues by imposing them onto the clusterfuck home lives of the two barristers and their families. This structure - legal forms and norms used both in and out of context - works extremely well and allows Raine to make her overriding point without Consent ever disappearing into the realms of an issue play (although that is clearly what it is). For example, there’s a great sequence immediately after the actual court scene, where barrister Ed cross-examines a clearly traumatised victim, where Ed and wife Kitty ‘cross-examine’ their barrister friends Jake and Rachel whose marriage is in the process of falling apart using the same mannerisms, choreography and linguistic ticks. It’s subtle, but it totally works in making the point that discussions of consent should and do go far wider than the courtroom.

Raine’s writing is superb in dealing with what is, let’s face it, a pretty grim subject in an entertaining and provocative way. For my money, the humour is the highlight of the writing; punchy, biting, brutal, often black as pitch and with some top class swearing peppered in throughout. A favourite example comes when Ed, who seems to monopolise the best lines despite being the absolute worst, is railing against the man his wife is having an affair with and who believes his flat to be haunted: “opportunist prick, using a poltergeist as a wingman!” Raine is excellent too at putting lines and thoughts into characters’ mouths and minds in a way which subverts audience expectations. For example, and though I take issue with the idea that there is any debate to be had about it, it’s a pleasingly leftfield step to have Rachel taking Ed’s side and Jake taking Kitty’s in the question (it’s really not a question though) of the play’s second rape (that definitely is a rape): Ed’s of Kitty. (Seriously, there was a lot of chatter about this in the various cast and creative pre-opening interviews and how they all wanted the ‘did-he-didn’t-he’ discussions to be had. There is no discussion. He definitely rapes her; as Jake says in the play, it’s textbook marital rape.)

Now, this play is, as previously noted, staged in the Dorfman so you didn’t expect that you’d be aloud to leave without me having a pop about sightlines did you? And, as ever, they are a problem in this awful space. I know I’ve made the joke before, but Max Bialystock’s line from The Producers about “theatre in the square: nobody has a good seat” applies here once again. Like, I don’t mind spending an afternoon staring at the top of Ben Chaplin’s head, because he has excellent hair, but it doesn’t always help you understand what he’s doing as an actor. However, by Dorfman standards this play actually uses the space pretty well. It’s produced in the round (square) with the audience stacked up around the stage to add to the general atmosphere of conflict and adversarialness (clearly not a word but I’m going with it). The staging itself is pretty much nonexistent, with no scenery bar a few lights, minimal props and no soundtrack of any sort except occasional music to mask the change of scene. Combined with Roger Michell’s so-light-touch-as-to-feel-completely-absent direction, it provides the perfect platform for the writing and the acting to shine. To the extent you can see the latter, of course.

The acting is fab across the board, not least in its level of detail and subtlety (which rather reinforces the issues with sightlines). Special praise on that front to Ben Chaplin (more handsome in real life, Apple Tree Yard fans) who not only has excellent hair but, as Ed, also serves up a performance of supreme control and detail - the use of eye contact, hand gesture and body language is superb even without reading the programme note which highlights its importance to someone playing a barrister - whilst making sure that his 100% unsympathetic shit of a character stays completely plausible and never becomes a caricature. His wheedling, almost oddly singsong, delivery is a great piece of characterisation too. The reliably excellent Anna Maxwell Martin is, reliably, excellent as his wife Kitty, as is Adam James as human trashpile Jake, giving a performance that almost made me feel sympathy for him. Almost.

However, ultimately despite all the good things going for this production, I found it just too difficult to care about what happens to a group of six of the most awful human beings ever represented in drama (and one normal person, who commits suicide, which did make me sad). I sat and admired the play, but I never really got into it and, despite all of the above, couldn’t honestly say I liked it. Still, because I enjoy being complex and contrary, I do recommend it.

Consent plays in the Dorfman at the National Theatre until 17th May (though currently only the 11th May performace is not sold out).

Monday, 1 May 2017

Theatre Review: Alice's Adventures Underground

On Thursday evening, I was invited to a blogger event for Les Enfant Terribles' immersive adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, Alice's Adventures Underground, at The Vaults.

Despite accepting immediately, mainly due to the suggestion that there would be free food and booze, I was apprehensive about this one. Being a classic introvert, slightly claustrophobic and generally anxious about literally everything immersive theatre didn't seem like something that would be for me. Too unpredictable, too few points of familiar reference to cling on to, too much audience participation (two of my least favourite words in the English language).

Now, I don't like to admit when I'm wrong, but happily I was so completely wrong about this one. Like, 100% wrong. More than 100% wrong, were it mathematically possible to be so.

I loved Alice's Adventures Underground. It's unlike anything I've ever seen before - and likely will see again. Calling it theatre or a production, though it is undeniably both, seems to do it a disservice. It's an experience in the fullest sense of that word, and one that's very difficult to do justice to with a few photos and a few hundred words. But that's what I'm here for so let's give it a go, shall we?

The badge and the suit card were part of my story for the evening.

The first thing to note with this show is that it's actually more than one show. As each audience moves through the series of rooms that comprise the gigantic set, it's split up (bear this in mind if you're going in a group, you're unlikely to stay together). First by whether you choose to 'eat me' or 'drink me' (I went eat, the little peach jelly sweet you get was yummo) and then, randomly, by suit (I got hearts). Certain audience members also get selected to do particular tasks too, including me - and it says a great deal for this show that I both got totally into my task, helping the Nine of Hearts write a love note for the Two of Hearts and secretly delivering it over the course of the story, but also was so into everything else that was going on that I frequently forgot all about it.

Adding to the variations, the cast basically works in rep within the show. Each cast member is assigned to a team and each team covers four parts, cycling through them so that each actor gets a chance to play each part. That little factoid blew my tiny mind. I cannot fathom how on earth you prepare for that in a show like this. Learning four sets of lines aside, the level of precision of timing involved, the fact that you have to know where you're going through the huge multi-room, multi-storyline set, the proximity of the audience to you at all times etc etc etc - how can you keep that level of information in a human brain and still properly lose yourself in the part you happen to be playing that night? But everyone manages it - the entire cast were great; so charismatic, so talented and so completely into it.

Alice holding court at the afterparty.

The other thing that I must mention here, as they are also cast members in their way, is the amazing use of puppetry throughout the show. In my story, I got to spend a lot of time with the Frog, a fantastically well realised human size and operated puppet (think Timon in the stage version of The Lion King) who melded object and actor so well it started to mess with my head. The butterfly and the Jabberwocky, that the whole audience met in the climactic trial scene, were more traditional puppets but still so effective, the latter in particular. I was just sad that I never got to meet the Cheshire Cat who apparently was equally impressive.

The star of the show for me though is the set. Covering I don't know how many rooms on I don't know how many floors the first thing that's impressive is the sheer scale of the endeavour here. The Vaults is a huge, cavernous space immediately under Waterloo station (it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise what the rumbling noise overheard was...) and every millimetre of it has been transformed for this show by set (and costume) designer Samuel Wyer. Scale aside though, the thing that completely floored me is the level of detail in every room. If this were a book, you'd describe what Wyer achieves as universe building. Layer upon layer of minute detail - from the obvious fun to be had with making your audience feel that they're growing or shrinking right down to ensuring that every letter and book that anyone could possibly see has something meaningful written on it - is built to create a very distinct atmosphere of a faded, dirty, slightly wrong but still wonderful land.

I was really lucky as part of the evening to be able to take some photos of one of the best sets - The Mad Hatter's Tea Party - at an afterparty with some of the cast and creatives.

Tea party place settings.

Afterparty at the Mad Hatter's.

Time, also party of the Tea Party set.

This gives you a sense of what I mean both about the general universe building that runs through the whole show and also the level of detail involved. This scene in the show was one of my favourites as it so totally captured the essence of its part of the story and was, for my money, where set, characters and plot united the most effectively. The fact you get a cup of 'tea' (vodka and something, not sure what, but emphasis on the vodka, regardless) probably helped.

The fantastic theming stretches to every moment of your experience in Wonderland, not just in the show but in the whole building - the Wonderland Bar, designed by Darling and Edge, for example is just as carefully themed and home to amazing cocktails by Smith and Sinclair and yummy comfort food by Saucy Chip. A small caveat here: though I was lucky enough to be able to try them for free, the food and drink are at proper London prices. They are also *so* good and the cocktails are super imaginative, super on theme and super strong (the latter is probably why I got into my task so thoroughly tbh).

The Wonderland Bar.

Entering the space.

Smith and Sinclair cocktails: The Cheshire Cat (L), a colour changing gin and
green teas concoction and Painting the Roses Red (R), rose gold liqueur, lemon,
honey, hibiscus paint and prosecco.

Saucy Chip's Dodo Dolce Vita mac n cheese

I absolutely adored Alice's Adventures Underground. It's so imaginative, so much fun and so completely immersive in every possible way that I can't imagine how anyone could not enjoy it. As I've said though, it's also completely impossible to do justice to in words and pictures - you really have to experience it to understand its power. Suffice it to say it's the best thing I've seen in London this year and I can't imagine how anything else will dethrone it.

Alice's Adventures Underground is at The Vaults until September 23rd.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Theatre Review: Guards at the Taj

I like going to theatres I’ve not been to before. It always feels like a small adventure. And given this particular theatre, the Bush, is in Shepherd’s Bush and thus somewhat out of the way for this West Sussex-ite, in this case it felt like a very literal adventure too. (I got to go on the Overground, for me this is very exciting.)

The Bush has just undergone a multi-million pound redevelopment which they were kind enough to invite me to have a nose around before watching their season opener, Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph.

The new building is, in short, is a fantastic space. The front of house and bar/cafe area is great - airy, welcoming and with a really nice, relaxed vibe that is quite rare for a theatre. It’s also added a 60-seat studio to its 200-seat main house which is a space I’m definitely keen to check out.

A selection of crap photos of the new Bush building.
The middle two are of the toilets which for some reason I really liked!

Guards at the Taj is mostly a play about beauty: what it is, where it comes from, who should own it and how we judge it. It tells the story of two men, Humayun and Babur, guarding the Taj Mahal on the morning that it is unveiled for the first time. The emperor has decreed that noone can look at it as the dawn light hits it for the first time, but Babbur and Humayan do and are cosmically rewarded with the gruesome task of fulfilling the Emperor's demands that nothing so beautiful should ever be built again - by cutting off the hands of all 20,000 men who have worked on it. Karma’s a real bitch.

Beauty appears in several forms here, notably the Taj itself and in nature. The Taj’s beauty, Joseph seems to suggest, is destructive, not only practically for the 20,000 handless men but also to the happiness of Babur and Humayun and their friendship (another sort of beauty in itself). Nature’s beauty, symbolised here by flocks of birds, is redemptive and comes to represent a happy, peaceful time in the character’s lives. The Taj, manmade beauty, can only be seen by the privileged; the birds, natural beauty, can be seen by everyone.

For all that though, this production isn’t overtly aesthetic. Soutra Gilmour’s design is incredibly effective and incredibly simple; a rusty looking elevated platform set diagonally across the back of the equally rusty looking performance space (it’s not a stage in this production, though it may be in future - the new main house is completely adaptive), whilst ominous trenches run out towards the audience, again diagonally. It’s angular, stark and more than a little grim. An inauspicious setting for a play that’s all about beauty.

Beauty is evoked though. A really clever use of sound and lighting, courtesy of George Dennis and Richard Howell respectively, does it on one level. Fantastical bird song and a warm peachy light stand in for nature’s, and memory’s, beauty whilst unforgiving bright white lighting stands in for the Taj Mahal itself - use your imagination, it totally works. But the grimness of the story is also evoked too, notably through an ominous and judicious use of music, clever variation of the volume of sound to the point it occasionally makes the seating in the tiny theatre shake and an interesting use of backlighting to project weird shadows against the bare walls, usually of the two actors themselves.

And then of course there’s all the blood. Honestly, a lot more blood than I was expecting - and clearly more so than some of the audience members sitting in the front row nervously watching it approach their shoes were expecting too! That said, there is much less gore than director Jamie Lloyd (yes, that Jamie Lloyd) could have chosen to have included. For example, and spoiler alert, the moment where Humayun cuts off Babur’s hands is portrayed in this production via blinding white light and a piercing alarm tone. Reading Rajiv Joseph’s original play text, however, the scene is much, much more explicit and icky. It’s an interesting decision, perhaps dictated by the limitations of a small theatre, but I’m not sure it’s the one I would have made. As gross as the scene would be to watch, a play that is so concerned with beauty would only be strengthened, in my view, by showing us a bit more anti-beauty as well.

Beauty is also passionately evoked in Joseph’s text - modern, simple, surprisingly funny, humane and presented without dialect as per the stage directions - which is handled really well by the two young actors, Danny Ashok and Darren Kuppan, who comprise 100% of the cast. Ashok’s Humayun is the stronger performance for my money, though to be fair he is also the stronger character for my money, and is a study in stoic devotion to duty that crumbles and expands beautifully towards the end of the piece. Kuppan’s Babur isn’t weak by any means though, and he handles the emotional meat in the middle of the play, the horror at having cut off 40,000 hands and “killed beauty”, fantastically.

For a play that, plotwise, ends with someone lopping off their best friend’s hands Guards at the Taj ultimately left a very optimistic taste in my mouth. The final scene, a flashback of Humayun’s to the time he and Babur watched the flight of a million brightly coloured birds, drives home the ultimate triumph of natural over manmade beauty; nothing will ever be as beautiful to Humayun as those birds were. Possibly it’s because manmade everything is such a fucking disaster at the moment, or possibly it’s just that I really like birds (I do), but I found that a comforting thought.

Guards at the Taj plays in the main house at the Bush theatre until 20th May.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Theatre Review: Limehouse

Limehouse is, pleasingly, a play that doesn’t mess about.

“The Labour party’s fucked!” bellows a tense David Owen in the first line of Steve Waters’ new play, currently on at the Donmar Warehouse. A huge, knowing, slightly weary laugh erupts from the audience and very much sets the tone for the entire 105 minutes that is to follow. This is a play that knows exactly what it’s about: telling the story of the imagined action which immediately preceded the founding of the SDP and the Gang of Four who brought it about but also drawing out the parallels with the situation the Labour party finds itself in today. And let’s be honest those parallels are obvious, many and depressing.

If there’s anything to complain about in this production it is the very obviousness of these parallels, in that they make it difficult to feel that Waters is saying anything new. Yes Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn are both shit, what of it? Yes the Europe debate is a mess, we’re very well aware of that thank you very much. Even the big question mark that hangs over the very existence of the play - is the Labour party about to split again? - feels over thought at this point. I mean have you read The Guardian recently?!

However, even if he doesn’t add anything new to the debate Waters’ writing is irreverent, interesting and, most importantly, funny enough to make a very entertaining contribution to it nonetheless. Not afraid to be punchy and chuck in a big swear here and there, but equally not afraid of some deeply elegant and lengthy speeches about the importance of values to notions of identity which will resonate with anyone watching this play who possesses a soul, regardless of what colour rosette that soul happens to wear. With one exception - a po-faced and unnecessary coda which labours the point about historical resonance to an irritating degree - Limehouse is an excellent piece of writing.

And it is exquisitely acted. It’s a necessarily tiny cast - Waters’ only addition to the Gang of Four being David Owen’s seemingly quite excellent wife Debbie - but it positively drips class. I think Tom Goodman-Hill’s David Owen is probably my favourite, a study in charm, barely concealed menace and old school British bombast which results in a portrayal that is arguably much more appealing than the real thing. Paul Chahidi’s Bill Rogers is the most sympathetic of the Four, excellently observed and played with an endearing shyness and gentle humanity which is difficult not to warm to. Roger Allam’s Roy Jenkins is very near perfectly observed, yet somehow still manages to be more than an impression despite being a very, very good impression; capturing the middle class sensibilities which would ultimately be part of the SDP’s undoing perfectly. Debra Gillett’s Shirley Williams rounds out the Four and replicates the good sense mixed with passion (and natty waistcoats) that makes the real Shirl such a treasure really well but, again, remains more than just an impression. Nathalie Armin completes the cast as Debbie Owen and exploits the fact that we don’t know her real life counterpart to create an entirely sensible, rational and constructive foil to all the politicians - perhaps a small point of satire in and of itself.

A short play with a teeny tiny cast demands a sharp and contained production which the team assembled for Limehouse absolutely deliver. Polly Findlay’s direction is crisp and pacey; Alex Eales’ design is simple but effective; Jon Clark’s lighting does a lot with relatively little (his use of spotlights in particular is sufficiently good that I actually noticed it). Special credit is deserved also by whoever makes the pasta bake that is eaten as part of the play - it smelled bloody amazing.

I really rated Limehouse and I think anyone with an interest in politics, of whatever colour, should consider this a must see. I’m not sure it has the beyond-politics appeal of This House, but for political geeks, nerds and apparatchiks it’s 100% worth your time and money. Assuming that is you can get anywhere near a ticket - day returns and standing are your best bet if you’ve not got one already.

Limehouse plays at the Donmar Warehouse until April 15th.


Thursday, 9 March 2017

Theatre Review: The Miser

In my day job, I occasionally have days where I am obliged to spend upwards of three hours listening to Ministers and civil servants explain dry pieces of international trade rules to various select committees (seriously, if anyone understands the role of the WTO amber box on agricultural subsidies come talk to me).

This is, frankly, as exciting as it sounds and I usually spend the sessions wishing I was at the theatre. In many ways this review is therefore a cautionary tale of being careful what you wish for...

The Miser is apparently a classic French comedy by Moliere, adapted for a West End revival by Sean Foley (who also directs) and Phil Porter, that tells the story of Harpagon, the titular Miser, and his obsession with protecting his fortune from any and all threat - real and/or imagined. When the love lives of his two children pose a serious threat to his money passion and parsimony collide and hilarity ensues.

Or not.

Because this production is not funny. It's amateurish, sub-pantomime, puerile, cringe inducing fluff. Badly staged, barely acted.

I was, in short, not a fan.

The adaptation, for a start, is genuinely bizarre. The insertion of 'topical' 'jokes' (about austerity, payday loans, zero hours contract and 'le Sports Direct') at random points to serve no purpose becomes exceptionally tiring exceptionally quickly. More irritating still is the even more random insertion of French words and phrases at various points where they have no business ever being for, presumably, attempted comedy effect. Unless you think that French as a concept is inherently funny - in which case you'd be better spending your time reading your Route Nationale, a niche joke which I'm aware gives my age away heavily - there is no possible reason for this. Any subtlety, satire or sophistication that was in Moliere's original text is drowned amongst the cacophony of nonsense, which is a pretty damning indictment of any adaptation for my money. Sean Foley's comedy adaptations (he was, after all, the brains behind excellent French farce adaptation The Painkiller in the Branagh season at The Garrick) are usually reliably strong so all of this is doubly disappointing.

Disappointing too is the manner in which the text, for what it is, is approached. Presumably this, too, is a Sean Foley decision in his role as director and it is as baffling as the adaptation. There is zero sophistication; lines are shouted (SHOUTED!!!!!), speech impediments are used throughout to no particular comedy effect and I lost the will to care whether Lee Mack was genuinely constantly forgetting his lines and improvising or whether this was intended. Either way, in the formal setting of what is supposed to be classic French farce none of it cuts the Dijon (NB: this self consciously poor attempt at a joke is funnier than anything in the actual play).

The (mis)casting of the piece is also a real shame. There are a host of fantastic stand ups in the cast - not least the superb Lee Mack and Andi Osho who I just love - and the rare moments where I felt the corners of my mouth turning up were thanks to them breaking character entirely and reverting to their stand up personas. But this is a play. There should be acting, not stand up comedy. Or at least acting as well as stand up comedy. And there just isn't: there's shouting, mincing, stupid voices and weak slapstick, but really nothing in the way of acting.

The cumulative effect of all of this for me was a bizarre mishmash of a really lazy pantomime and contextless stand up which didn't fit together, didn't fit the piece and just wasn't funny. I can't even honestly say it was so bad it was good; it was just bad. I was, frankly, kind of angry that it was occupying the same stage that mere weeks ago hosted my beloved This House.

However, all criticism and especially comedy criticism is subjective, and there were plenty of people in the theatre laughing their arses off so, who knows, maybe it was just me. (I don't think it was though. After all plenty of people voted for Brexit and Donald Trump. You can't trust plenty of people.)

Should you be so inclined, The Miser plays at The Garrick theatre until 3rd June. Tickets are available from right here.

My ticket for this show was provided free by but all opinions expressed in this review are, as should be glaringly obvious, my own. They also sell tickets to stuff I liked (such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead).

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Theatre Review: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

There's no denying that there's a certain pressure to watching a play by a playwright you don't tend to be a fan of when that playwright is standing three rows behind you. Especially when that playwright is Tom Stoppard. And the play is his fifty (FIFTY!) year old debut masterwork Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. 

Now, it is certainly the case that my Stoppard encounters to date - the ponderous and dull Hapgood and the slightly less dull but no less ponderous The Hard Problem - have not been happy ones. But I wanted so much to love The Old Vic's new production of R&G (as I shall be calling it because laziness) and I felt like I should love it, purely because it's such a classic. And you know what, Reader, I did love it. Huzzah and, indeed, hurrah!

I didn't just love it through sheer force of will either. In truth, and rather surprisingly based on past experience, it was the writing I loved most of all. It is baffling to me that this play is fifty years old. The writing feels so fresh and relevant ('I never believed in England' packing a particular punch in the post-Brexit world). It's also a fantastic example of the exact thing that has pissed me of the most in Stoppard before: the melding of an exploration of Big Ideas and an actual plot works so well in R&G whereas previously I've always found watching Stoppard a bit like being punched in the face with his latest Big Ideas whilst something purporting to be a plot is neglected in the background.

It helps that the Big Ideas that R&G seeks to explore are rather more accessible (and interesting) than those of Hapgood (particle physics) and The Hard Problem (game theory) too: the nature of truth (#fakenews), memory, drama, free will and identity are all given a very effective airing. Sometimes this is done in small ways  - the fact that no one, including the characters, are precisely sure which of R&G is which - sometimes big ways and long speeches. The latter occasionally gets a mite tiresome, particularly at the beginning of act one when you don't yet have a plot to put them in context, but overall it really works. If this is what Stoppard was shooting at with his aforementioned other work then I feel like I suddenly understand those plays a lot more. It's perhaps noteworthy that, according to the programme, whenever he's asked what R&G is about Stoppard still just replies 'two friends on their way to Elsinore'. I doubt this same casualness is applied if he's asked about Hapgood or The Hard Problem. There's probably a lesson - or a GCSE drama essay question - in there somewhere.

This R&G also has an exceptional R&G, as it were. The star booking is, of course, Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, as Rosencrantz - a part in which he is very well cast. He does comedy very well and his downtrodden, slightly stupid, but genuinely likeable R completely works. Technically, his projection still isn't quite right for a venue the size of The Old Vic, but this is a relatively minor quibble and certainly doesn't distract from the enjoyment of the piece.

Joshua McGuire's Guildenstern is the real joy of the two titular characters. Likeable, despite being a bit of a dick; enjoyably superior, despite not actually being that much more intelligent that R when it comes down to it; and carrying the majority of the heavy lifting, text-wise, with ease. He is excellent and this is a fantastically accomplished performance from a relatively young (trans: younger than me) actor.

However, both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are acted under the table by the sublime David Haig as The Player, a joyous romp of a part. Dressed like a poor man's Jack Sparrow and reprising his Inspector Grim from The Thin Blue Line voice (to my utter delight, I loved that show), Haig doesn't so much steal every scene he's in so much as seduce it. It's a genuinely great performance, I challenge you to find one more all-round entertaining anywhere on the London stage,  with ultimately some real depth and a lot of heart. My performances of the year list has a new top billing.

I have finally found a Tom Stoppard play to fall in love with and I question the opinions of anyone who can see this production and not feel the same way. Another solid gold hit for the breathtakingly consistent Matthew Warchus' Old Vic. (What a booking he's turned out to be - Kevin who..?)

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead plays at The Old Vic until 29th April. It's also getting the NT Live treatment - The Old Vic's first - on 20th April.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Theatre Review: The Boys in the Band

The timeliness of my blogging is improving guys: today I’m reviewing a play which closes tomorrow rather than one that’s already closed!

Written in the late 1960s by Mart Crowley, The Boys in the Band tells the story of a group of gay New Yorkers, and a single straight(?) old school friend, meeting up for a birthday party. Drink flows, and amusing banter gets very nasty very quickly. It all ends in tears.

For a play that’s almost 50 years old, The Boys in the Band has aged pretty well. It’s still smart, sharp and vicious(ly funny) enough to be a very entertaining and affecting piece. But it is dated too, notably in the case of some of the comedy. I’m particularly thinking of the character of Emory, a Mr Humphries-esque stereotype of a mincing, sibilant gay man that, as the Are You Being Served? reboot so conclusively proved, doesn’t really cut it as a plausible character anymore. Or a particularly funny character either. I found him exceptionally irritating (though judging by the audience on the night I went I am perhaps in the minority on this). The ‘serious’ bits have aged much better and I found the emotionally brutal second act to be much more effective than the more comedic first.

The fact that this play has two acts though is baffling. With a run time of less than two hours there’s no natural place for an interval to sit and the cramming of one into the middle of an otherwise rather dramatic and punchy (literally and figuratively) scene, robbing it of any momentum, feels rather more like a way of pushing up bar income than anything justified by the action on stage. Were it not for the fact that this production has the best pre-show and interval play list I’ve ever heard it would have been doubly irritating.

Gristling aside, this production is great fun and the fact that it’s as successful as it is can be placed firmly at the feet of its excellent cast. Ian Hallard in particular is sensational as Michael, the party host and lead character in terms of stage time by a mile. The range he displays in this part is extraordinary, from broad comedy to awful cruelty via powerful self loathing. It’s a faultless performance, by far the best I’ve seen this year and likely one of the best I will see for the rest of it too. A few other performances are worthy of mention too: Daniel Boys is something of a ‘straight acting’ revelation, to me at least, as the neurotic Donald, Greg Locket is a welcome injection of humanity as the (relatively) gentle Bernard and John Hopkins, aka my second favourite John-Nettles-era-Midsomer-Murders sidekick, is unrecognisably brilliant as the exceptionally unsympathetic Alan, the token straight(?) - probably the most interesting and complex character of the lot.

You’ll notice that Mark Gatiss doesn’t feature on the above list and someone else is described as the play’s lead which, if you’ve seen any of the marketing for this production, may surprise you. It certainly surprised me. Although his part, Harold, is the catalyst for the action he’s actually not on stage for that long and, frankly, plays a pretty one note (if very funny) character. Gatiss’ performance is very good but he’s not the star here. It irritates me a lot that the marketing suggests he is and, whilst of course I understand why that decision has been taken, in my view it does a pretty egregious disservice to Ian Hallard. It irritates me to the extent that it actually detracted from my enjoyment of the production slightly, which is very rare for a marketing gimmick.

However, The Boys in the Band is still a fun night out. Not perfect, but worth your time nonetheless. As a very early entry in the ‘gay cannon’ (doesn’t that sound fabulous?) it’s a super interesting piece of social history and, if that’s not your bag, Ian Hallard’s performance alone is worth the price of a ticket. Just make sure you arrive early enough to enjoy the epic pre-show music and have a sitting down dance along. Be quick though, the end of the run is as nigh as nigh can be.

The Boys in the Band plays at the Vaudeville Theatre until 18th February.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Theatre review: The Twentieth Century Way

I’m doing that thing again where I review a show that’s closed. Sorry. But stick with me, there’s good stuff in here.

The Twentieth Century Way is a rather glorious euphemism for gay men in the early twentieth century using the advent of zip flies to access anonymous sex in public places. I love this as a phrase.

It’s also a play, by Tom Jacobson, that tells the story of a couple of actors on the make, Warren and Brown, who offer their services to various local police forces posing as gay men themselves to entrap real gay men in these situations, marking their bits with indelible ink and calling police backup to arrest them.

I say that, but it becomes increasingly obvious in the eighty minute run time that this isn’t what the play is about. Or at least not everything it’s about. And this is where the fun lies.

The play switches between the multiple stories of the characters Warren and Brown are playing and the real gay men they are fooling. But it also incorporates the story of Warren and Brown themselves and, getting more meta, the real life actors playing them. You very quickly start to question what is really happening here. Are the (fictional) actors actually taking part in these entrapment schemes? Is it all just, as the very beginning of the play sets it up, an improvisation game between two bored (fictional) actors in an audition waiting room? And what have the real life actors got to do with all of this? Where does their reality fit into the multiple stories they’re telling and the multiple levels of truth, or otherwise, they reveal?

If that all sounds a bit pretentious and complicated then, in truth, that’s because it is. But it’s also really entertaining, engaging and an interesting way to portray the age old debates about the nature of truth and acting that are explored in so many plays in more conventional ways. And of course Warren and Brown’s scheme is based on a true story so the play is also a fascinating piece of social history as well.

Adding to the confusion and excitement of this piece is the fact that it is entirely played by two actors, James Sindall and Fraser Wall, on stage the whole time, making only the most minor changes in their accents, mannerisms and costumes to demark the myriad different characters they both play. Again it’s a piece of theatrical trickery but, again, it works. It is very, very occasionally overdone - with both of the actors being given ‘party piece’ sequences to show off as many characters as quickly as possible in a slightly irritating way - but the two are both really impressive. The subtleties of the physical changes they make whilst still managing to portray recognisably different characters is incredible, as is the sheer range of emotion and characterisation they’re able to create. It feels wrong to single one person out in a two man show, but Wall in particular is fantastic. Both are names to watch out for in the future I suspect.

Admittedly this show, which was playing at the teeny tiny (and utterly adorable) Jermyn Street Theatre, has now closed. But I’d be amazed if it doesn’t reappear in London in some guise again and I do hope it’s this one so more people get a chance to see it. In any guise, it’s certainly worth seeing; in this one, it’s fantastic.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Theatre Review: This House

If there were some kind of master list of things I love in this world, theatre and slightly obscure political geekery would definitely both be on it.

It may not surprise you to learn, then, that a play that tells the story of the internal machinations of the Labour and Conservative whips offices in the 1970s is 100% up my street. At least 100%. More if that were mathematically possible.

Of course the play in question is This House, because even if you’ve somehow stumbled this far without reading the title of the post what other play could that last paragraph possibly be describing? A speedy, but timely, revival of James Graham's 2012 National Theatre production, involving many of the original creative team, This House tells the story of the hot mess that was British politics in the mid to late 70s through the eyes of the men and woman (not a typo) whose job it was to try and keep their respective parties' shows on the road.

For a political saddo like me, there was no way I wasn't going to find this play fascinating. And I did, but I also absolutely loved it which I don't think was as guaranteed (though admittedly fairly likely). What's arguably more interesting is why I loved it: yes the political stuff is super interesting and done really well, but more than that this play is so innovative, so funny and - most surprisingly - so humane that I fell for it utterly.

Let's deal with the political stuff first because, at least from the experience of the non-political friend I went with, this seems to be the thing that's making some people nervous about seeing this play. Based on my highly scientific survey of one person, there seems to be a fear that if you don't understand the ins and outs of Parliamentary procedure - who the fuck does? - or the key political events of the 1970s (and let's be honest there are a lot of those) you won't understand or worse won't enjoy This House. That's not at all the case. The play explains the events you need to know about well. It works subtle explanations of the key bits of Parliamentary ridiculousness into the dialogue. It almost never uses the names of any of the real politicians who feature, referring to them instead by their constituency thus making it much easier to keep track of who's doing what for non-geeks in the audience (whilst providing the geeks with a fun game of spot the MP). It makes a play about arguably one of the least accessible democratic institutions in the world into something completely accessible to anyone, and it does it so subtly. That in itself is worthy of love and praise.

It's more than that though, so much more. As interested as This House is in political history, it's also interested in ideas of identity, loyalty, honour, how far you should go to defend your deepest held beliefs and what happens when all of these things interact and conflict. James Graham's writing across all of these 'big ideas' and the political stuff is superb - funny, touching, straightforward and razor sharp. It connects with the audience in a genuinely exciting way that shows off live theatre at its very best; I lost count of the number of audible gasps from the audience I heard on the night I saw it. He is backed up by fantastic design that turns the stage into a miniature House of Commons, variously accommodating the two whips teams' offices and the House of Commons (and indeed real life auditorium) bar on the floor in the middle of the two sets of benches.

It also helps the play that Graham's lead characters, whilst based on real people, are not household names. He focuses his action particularly around the Labour and Tory Deputy Chief Whips, sensibly as they are the ones who are supposed to do the deals with other parties and with their own backbenchers. It's certainly not a hindrance to my love of This House that this production has the excellent Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker, two of my absolute faves, in these key roles. Rhodri in particular is excellent as Walter Harrison, the hard arse with a heart Labour Deputy whilst Parker is a perfectly patrician foil as Jack Weatherill, his Tory counterpart. The climactic scene where Jack offers to defy his own whip on a vote to bring down the Labour Government to cancel out the vote of a dying Labour MP who Walter is refusing to call down to London to vote for fear the effort would kill him, only for Walter to refuse the offer in the knowledge that Labour will lose the vote, is a beautifully understated study in notions of honour, friendship and humanity. It was the recipient of at least one hugely audible audience gasp, and rightly so. A hardworking ensemble cast plays all the rest of the many characters exceptionally well too. I am jealous of the guy who got to play Norman St John-Stevas, Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine!

Honestly, I cannot recommend this production enough. Political or otherwise there's so much here to love. A genuine must see in a year when perhaps we all do need a lesson in how to laugh at politics again and a timely reminder that politicians are actually human beings (most of them).

This House plays at the Garrick Theatre until February 25th.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Theatre Review: Hedda Gabler

As ways of starting 2017 go, an egotistical sociopath standing over a woman in a nightgown spitting tomato juice in her face seems strangely appropriate.

I don’t know about you, but I woke up on New Year’s Day still finding the world as scary and disorienting a place as I did in 2016. The escapism of theatre is more necessary for me at the moment than I can ever remember it being. Even when said theatre is some bleak ass Ibsen.

Hedda Gabler, currently playing at the NT (whose building feels like a safe haven for the Liberal Metropolitan Elite such as myself), is classic Ibsen. Newly married Hedda hates her life, her husband and all of the inconsequential or downright nasty men and women around her. But she’s trapped, her only potential escape being the two pistols that belonged to her father. If ever a play was a metaphor for the times then this is it.

One of the main draws of this production for many people is the fact that it’s directed by Ivo van Hove, Belgian avant garde director du jour, making his NT debut. I loved van Hove’s A View from the Bridge a couple of years ago A LOT (his basically non-existent staging and design removed all distractions from the bleak and brilliant text and superb cast, making the production all the more powerful) but, from a directorial point of view, his Hedda Gabler feels visually overcooked, almost like someone doing a van Hove impression. Scenes of Hedda throwing flowers around and then stapling them to the walls are incredibly heavy handed and the aforementioned addition of Brack spitting tomato juice over Hedda in various ways during their final confrontation serves only to take drama and malice out of that key scene (Rafe Spall’s performance as Brack is far too strong to need any help here).

That said there is a lot about van Hove’s contribution to the production that I do love: for example his use of music, particularly the heartbeat-style incidental music that plays as background in key scenes, is great, as is the lighting and the clever set with no doors (actors enter and exit through the auditorium doors). It’s also a fantastically well paced production that absolutely whizzed by in two and a half hours. The second act in particular is super quick, rushing towards its increasingly inevitable denouement without ever feeling either rushed or inevitable.

For me, the best thing about this production though is Patrick Marber’s version of the text. Whilst admittedly this isn’t a play I know anywhere near well enough to judge this version against any others, on its own merits Marber gives us a funny, sparky, dark and extremely entertaining take on Ibsen. It’s not at all what I expected, mostly because I laughed so much.  That’s not to say he makes light of the story of the characters, he just handles them in such a way as to draw out the absurdity and black humour of them and their situation that is already in the text.

The excellent cast also helps to draw this out really effectively. Ruth Wilson is the headline booking in the title role and she is an enjoyably sardonic, relatively sympathetic, Hedda who really excels in the black comedy of Marber’s script. If you like her work in The Affair, you’ll like her work in this. The standout star for me though is Rafe Spall as an exceptionally unpleasant and exceptionally charismatic Judge Brack. This oily, clever, laddish Brack is evidently a nasty piece of work from the first moment he bounds into the auditorium but is so fucking cool (and hot) that you’re willing not to care about that for most of the play. It’s a scene stealing joy of a performance.

Hedda Gabler was a great production to start my 2017 theatregoing with and one I’d definitely recommend, especially if you’re more of an Ivo van Hove devotee than I am. And plenty of people seem to agree with me - tickets are incredibly scarce so your best bet of catching this one is its NT Live outing on 9th March.

Hedda Gabler is in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre until 21st March.