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.