Thursday, 20 December 2018

The Best Theatre of 2018

It’s mid-December, I’m more mince pie than human and I only know what day it is based on which Christmas lunch I’m going to. This can only mean one thing: it’s time for my annual theatrical year in review post.

Now, normally I do two of these: top ten shows and top ten performances. But since no one ever actually reads the performances version this year I’m combining the two - plus some sundry other awards for which the winners receive precisely nothing 
  into one. Consider it my Christmas present to all of you. You’re welcome.

So, without further ado, and without Rita Ora being here for some reason (looking at you, Evening Standard Awards), let’s get stuck in.

Top ten shows
1. The Jungle
(Young Vic/West End, now at St Ann’s Warehouse in New York)
Not only the best thing I’ve seen this year, but the best thing I’ve seen this lifetime. Everything that theatre should be: relevant, challenging, innovative, human, perception-shifting. My number one regret for 2018 is that I didn’t get to see it more than once.

2. Julius Caesar
(The Bridge)
The only production I’ve ever enjoyed enough to see three times. Revelatory staging, the perfect cast and arguably the best piece of Brexit theatre to date. Completely changed my perception of the play and what Shakespeare can and should be.

3. Company
(West End - still playing)
A revelation from start to finish, Marianne Elliott’s gender swapping production deserves every single accolade it has already received - and then some. A game changer for women in theatre, and indeed women in general, and just a bloody brilliant staging of a bloody brilliant musical.

4. The Inheritance
(Young Vic/West End - still playing)
I loved every minute of each of its seven hours. Funny, incisive and profoundly moving, this belter of a play stays in the mind long after the lights come up. Not an easy watch, but a deeply rewarding one.

5. My Name is Lucy Barton
(The Bridge - returning in 2019)
To be honest, a one woman show starring Laura Linney was never not going to appear on this list. But my god Lucy Barton is an astonishing show. Linney will return later in this blog post, but actually it was the beautiful writing that gets this production on this list. It broke my heart pretty conclusively.

6. Hamilton
(West End - still playing)
I mean, do I need to explain? No, I don’t. Believe the hype.

7. Sylvia
(Old Vic)
I doubt this unfinished, lovable mess of a production will make many ‘professional’ critics’ top tens but I fucking loved it. An absolute riot of a show that deserves a future AND A CAST RECORDING FFS. An incredible piece.

8. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
(West End - still playing)
The most uplifting show I’ve seen in years, featuring a genuinely diverse and utterly kick ass young cast and music so catchy you’ll be singing it for months afterwards. A joy.

9. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
(West End - still playing)
Again, do I really need to explain? Magical theatre, in many senses, and much more moving than I ever expected. A repeat viewing is very much on my 2019 to do list.

10. The Lehman Trilogy
(National Theatre - transferring to the West End in 2019)
The most imaginative show about international finance you’ll ever see. Entertaining, sad, amazingly staged and with probably the best cast in London. It’s another long one, but worth every single second.

(National Theatre - still playing)
It’s my blog and I’ll have two 10s if I want to. I just couldn’t have this list without Hadestown. A brilliant, life affirming, hope generating show with the most amazing music.

Top ten performances
1. Laura Linney (My Name is Lucy Barton)
Laura Linney is an utter legend for a reason. This incredible performance playing multiple characters in a one woman show genuinely broke me a bit. Haunting.

2. Arinzé Kene (Misty, The Bush/West End)
Misty may have narrowly missed out on my top ten shows but Kene’s performance was an absolute knock out. Acting, writing, rapping, singing, emerging from a massive balloon - there was nothing that he couldn’t and didn’t do.

3. Patsy Ferran (Summer and Smoke, Almeida Theatre/West End)
Another show that narrowly missed out on my list, but features an absolute gem of a performance from Ferran. Surely a star making one to boot. She certainly deserves for it to be.

4. Kyle Soller (The Inheritance)
The top highlight in a cast full of highlights, Soller anchors The Inheritance with a performance of huge empathy, depth, complexity and heart.

5. Adjoa Andoh (Julius Caesar/Leave Taking, The Bush)
Cheating slightly, I couldn’t pick which role of Andoh’s I loved her in more. Just a really fucking excellent actress tbh. I didn’t really know her before this year and now I’m a bit obsessed.

6. Rosalie Craig (Company)
Showing absolute zero signs of the weight of expectation on her shoulders, the first ever female Bobbie was so good you forgot the part had ever been played by a man. Perfect casting.

7. Vanessa Redgrave (The Inheritance)
Redgrave is in, like, two scenes in seven hours of The Inheritance but for me she almost stole the whole show with a performance so moving I cry just thinking about it. She’s still got it.

8. Ammar Haj Ahmad (The Jungle)
The Jungle is really an ensemble piece, but a performance as beautiful and humane as this was will always stand out. You’ll struggle to find an actor more invested in their character too.

9. David Morrissey (Julius Caesar)

In truth, I’ve always thought Mark Antony is a bit of a dick but THIS Mark Antony I would follow into battle. Probably the most modern take on a Big Shakespeare Part I’ve seen and certainly one of the most charismatic. At least 75% of the reason I saw this show three times, if I’m honest. Probably more.

10. Ben Miles (The Lehman Trilogy)
It’s so difficult to pick just one actor from the trio of utter class that is The Lehman Trilogy’s cast, but for me Ben Miles’ easy charisma and charm is always a winner. One of those performances you can hardly take your eyes off - even when he’t not doing anything.

A few other awards for which there is no prize
Best Season: has to be Tyhe Bush for their zero fucks given attitude to commissioning.

Best Outside London: 
Bold Girls, Theatre By The Lake

Best Director: Marianne Elliott for Company (obviously)

Best Design: Bunny Christie for, amongst other things, Company and Julius Caesar

Best Choreography: Alistair David for Chichester Festival Theatre’s Me and My Girl

Best Music: Hadestown. I cannot stop listening to it. Seriously, it’s becoming a problem

Best Tour: my beloved This House

Worst Show: a few contenders this year, but David Hare’s dreary 
I’m Not Running at the NT just takes it

Biggest Disappointment: the waste of potential excellence that was the NT’s abomination of a 
Macbeth still makes me angry

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Theatre Review: The Tragedy of King Richard the Second

High on the list of phrases that are likely to make me instantly book tickets to see a show is ‘starring Simon Russell Beale’. If this is preceded somewhere in the advertising blurb by the phrase ‘by William Shakespeare’ then more’s the better. Two of my absolute favourite humans, present and past, the combination seldom fails to deliver.

Currently my favourite partnership is at work in The Tragedy of Kind Richard the Second (or Richard II if you prefer, and as the person typing this I very much do) at The Almeida. A story of a country divided, ruled by weak leaders and people who’s ambition and personality outstrips their ability by several miles, it could not be a more timely choice for a revival. All that’s missing is some leopard print shoes and a twat in double breasted pinstripe.

Richard II isn’t a play I know well, but even I can pick up that this is a very particular version for this production. The timeline is chopped and changed and there is a heavy emphasis on rhyming couplets which I rather suspect is not so in more traditional productions and versions of the text. For me as a stranger to the play I did find bits of it quite hard to follow as a result and though the rhyming gives the piece pace it also makes it feel a bit, well, panto. If you’re an RII fan though, fear not: the classic bits of text (the ones even I recognise) are all present and correct and untampered with. As far as I can tell, anyway.

Some of the quirks of this production become instantly more understandable once you know that Joe Hill-Gibbons is directing. I am, broadly, a fan of Hill-Gibbons’ work. I like that he is unashamedly modern, not afraid to experiment and, most of all, that he always has a clear and distinct vision for his productions. He also isn’t easy to define by one style or show off-y trick. His vision is very much in evidence here and the resulting production, reservations about some of the textual changes aside, is unique, punchy and a lot more fun than I suspect this play usually is.

There are moments when things start to feel ominously like a poor man’s Ivo van Hove (I won’t spoil anything, but keep an eye on the buckets) but actually the overall mood of this production - sparse and threatening, but still irreverent and slightly tongue in cheek - works. It’s helped a lot by a strong, bleak and ballsy design by ULTZ’s which is a great canvass, and a great salesperson (salesthing?), for the rest of the production. It took me a while to make my mind up, but ultimately I did rate the technical bits and pieces of this production a lot. I also rated the fact that it didn’t overplay its topicality card, even if I would have given Richard a pair of leopard print trainers if I’d done the costumes. This is, mercifully, not William Shakespeare’s Brexit: The Play.

One thing I had no doubt about from curtain up to curtain down was the casting decisions made here. First of all, credit to Hill-Gibbons for casting an older Richard against a younger Bolingbroke. Richard II is so often the play where a young up and comer gets to make their Shakespearean name. As accurate to the character as that may be, I really enjoyed the shift in the dynamics of the play that having an older King Richard versus a young upstart rebel Bolingbroke brought about. Quite apart from the resulting actor, it gave the play a type of depth and poignancy that I really hadn’t expected.

That that ‘resulting actor’ is Simon Russell Beale is what really gives this production its wings. SRB is obviously a joy of an actor to watch do anything, but his Shakespeare isn’t just anything. It’s very much something. His performance here is majestic. He nails RII completely, with exactly the right mixture of divine right vanity and human vulnerability. The result is someone surprisingly sympathetic and empathetic too. I sort of wanted him to win in the end. As Bolingbroke, Leo Bill also turns in a strong performance. He brings an unexpected and altogether believable nervousness to the young man who would be king as well as a clarity of both belief and purpose. The scenes where these two battle it out, often physically stalking each other around the stage, are by far the best of the night.

Perhaps this version of Richard II isn’t the best telling of the story - and in truth I don’t the play well enough to say either way, only that it wasn’t as narratively clear as other Shakespeare I’ve seen - but it is certainly a distinct, innovative and raw telling. It’s always entertaining, and the quality of the acting shines through every moment. Worth your time.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second is at The Almeida until February 2nd.

I sat in seat A33 in the circle for this on
e, which is justifiably sold as restricted view - a good third of the back of the stage is invisible even if you lean forward. It cost £10, for a preview showing.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Theatre Review: Hadestown

When you’re watching a musical and find yourself thinking ‘I imagine this is what a musical written by Bruce Springsteen would be like’ you know you’re on to a winner.

And there, in two lines, is the most concise review I’ve ever written. If you stop reading now I won’t blame you. If you’ve got some time to kill though, and since you’re already here, allow me to expand.

Hadestown is the new(ish - it’s been through two productions in North America already) musical at the National Theatre, which is a rare and beautiful thing in itself. Written by singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, it tells the rather well worn story of Orpheus and Eurydice (off of the ol’ Greek mythology) but in an entirely new, contemporary and just really fucking excellent way.

What Mitchell has chosen to do with the story is to turn it into a contemporary morality play and a hymn to the power of music, love, hope (remember that?) and resistance. It made me cry multiple times. It made me laugh. It made me feel slightly less miserable about the state of, well, everything. And let’s face it, that is a significant achievement at the moment given everything is basically on fire. It is a hearty two fingered salute to everyone who thinks that musicals are just fluff. It’s something really quite special.

Mitchell’s writing is beautiful. The show is more or less through sung - something that can very much go one of two ways I find - but here works really well and keeps the action moving along at a whip. The music has a sort of folksy/country/New Orleans jazz-y feel and the songs are just gorgeous. All I’ve Ever Known and Wait For Me are perfect love songs, Way Down Hadestown is maddeningly catchy and must be used for someone’s Charleston on the next season of Strictly, Why We Build the Wall is frighteningly clever, and If It’s True a joyous song of resistance. I found the soundtrack on Apple Music within minutes of leaving the theatre. I’ve listened to it about five times in 24 hours. I have a new obsession.

This production is a joy too. Rachel Chavkin directs with absolute clarity and conviction. She knows completely what this show is and where its power lies and delivers on both to perfection. Rachel Hauck’s set (lots of Rachels on this one, something of which I wholeheartedly approve) is stunning and epic and, like, really clever. She makes brilliant use of the Olivier’s massive stage and, especially, the revolve and drum. David Neumann’s choreography is lean and muscular, more concerned with showing the strength of the performers than looking pretty - which is very definitely a compliment even though I realise it may not sound like one.

An absolute belter of a cast has been assembled to complete the triangle of good things that this production is. It’s a small one, especially for such a huge stage, but perfectly formed. Everyone on that stage has amazing energy, including the musicians who are pleasingly not hidden away in a corner, and just seems really damn happy to be there. I mean they should be, but it’s still lovely to see. There isn’t a weak link amongst them but there are some particularly strong ones: Andre de Shields mischievous Hermes, owner of ALL the swag, Reeve Carney’s rockstar Orpheus, Eva Noblezada’s honey voiced Eurydice, and my absolute favourite, Patrick Page’s achingly cool and charismatic Hades - with the best voice in the whole universe. Not even exaggerating.

Hadestown is a gift of a show, just in time for Christmas. It’s a joy to watch and a joy to listen to. I left the theatre with a spring in my step and that rarest of feelings at the moment: hope. Surely worth the price of a ticket for that alone.

Hadestown is in the Olivier at the NT until 26th January, after which it transfers to Broadway.

I sat in F2 in the circle for this one - no such thing as a bad seat in the Olivier - which cost me £32. Money very well spent.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Theatre Review: Summer and Smoke

There’s a special quality of listening, isn’t there, when a theatre audience is really, properly engaged in a play? It’s like you could literally hear a pin drop. People don’t even think about coughing, or opening sweets or fidgeting with their bags, not for any reasons of theatre etiquette but because even if just for a few minutes coughing and sweets and fidgeting don’t exist. You get it so seldom, and I absolutely love it. 

It’s a very rare production indeed that can sustain this for its full run time. Summer and Smoke, the latest Almeida Theatre West End transfer (currently at the Duke of York’s - decent red wine but nowhere near enough ladies toilets) is the first thing I’ve seen in a while that does. One of the lesser performed Tennessee Williams plays, Summer and 
Smoke is identifiably his nonetheless: the American Deep South, a long suffering heroine, an utter shit of a leading man, a sticky and languid summer, someone getting shot.

What I found interesting about this play, though, is although all of the above is present and correct as expected, it’s not quite the Tennessee Williams I know, or thought I knew. Admittedly I’m no expert, but everything was a little more complicated than in other stuff of his I’ve seen. The plot is familiar, the broad character types too, but there’s nuance here that was a pleasant surprise to me. Or, to summarise in one plot point, the person I thought would get shot was 100% not the person who actually got shot.

I wonder how much of that isn’t actually down to the play and is in fact down to the production and, specifically, director Rebecca Frecknall. Because, to me, this feels like a very feminist take on Tennessee Williams; a Tennessee Williams where the women are in charge even if they’re still fighting against a system that doesn’t allow them to be; a Tennessee Williams that is completely right for 2018. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, I am fucking HERE for that.

Frecknall’s production is gorgeous and minimal. Sultry and sexy. Raw and powerful. Presented sans traditional scenery and with props limited to some chairs and hankies, it is surrounded by pianos with the entire cast (of eight) on stage most of the time. If the piano thing sounds weird, and I appreciate it does, then that’s because it’s difficult to describe and not because it doesn’t work. After a slight period of mental adjustment, they seem completely naturally. They do have a purpose, they are played throughout and Angus MacRae’s music is gorgeous. In Tom Scutt’s completely stripped back design they look gorgeous too, set as they are against nothing more than brick wall and muddy stage. Lee Curran’s sexy, understated lighting sets the whole shebang off to a tee.

If Rebecca Frecknall is the main reason I suspect I rated this production so highly, then she is quickly followed by her leading lady, the never not noteworthy Patsy Ferran. I’ve seen Ferran a number of times now and always thought that she’s really pretty good and certainly extremely watchable. Here, she’s extraordinary. She delicate and strong; funny and tragic; awkward and perfect. She made me laugh and cry approximately exactly the same amount. More prosaically, she has A LOT of dialogue, is basically never off stage and has to manage all of this in a hybrid Deep South-Rhodes Scholar accent, as specifically defined in the play. It’s an absolute gift of a performance, emotionally and technically. The rest of the cast is great too, particularly Matthew Needham as the obligatory awful man doing rage, hurt and tenderness with equal relish, and Anjana Vasan stealing the too few scenes she has (as both of the play’s ‘other women’) with a range that continues to be amazing to me. She’s one of my absolute favourite actresses around.

Summer and Smoke is a real gem of a thing. Tennessee Williams, but not quite as you know him. A production that shows exactly why we need more women directing in London theatre. And some of the best acting you’ll find anywhere. Get your tickets before they go.

Summer and Smoke is at the Duke of York’s theatre until 19th January.

I sat in seat E15 in the Upper Circle for this one and paid £10 for it in the TodayTix presale months and months ago (it would cost £25 if you booked it today). This seat is about three rows off the very back of the theatre but sight lines are unobstructed and legroom (I’m 5’ 7” plus bag) is fine. For what I paid it was great value and even at £25 it’s still pretty decent. 

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Theatre Review: Pinter Four

Like ripping off a dramatic plaster, now that I’ve done one show’s worth of Harold Pinter it’s time to plunge headfirst into another. Pinter Three down, Pinter Four to go.

This time, it’s a much more straightforward double header: two one act plays, Moonlight and Night School. The cast is bigger, there are two very different productions helmed by two very different directors and all is still very much on track in my newfound appreciation of your man Harold. 

Moonlight is up first, directed by Lyndsey Turner. Telling a story of death, regret and unconnectedness, this is much more what I thought Pinter was. The text is dense, complex and funny with flashes of anger. The structure is, for me, a bit confusing: the story is split between straightforward narrative sequences (man on deathbed) and some more esoteric sequences of his children, struggling to face up to his mortality, talking about him in code. Or talking about unrelated people not in code? I’m not sure and I sort of gave up trying to figure it out because, regardless, the narrative bits are so strong. And just like really funny.

Turner’s direction is great; feisty but light touch. She measures up the two halves of the play really well and delivers something balanced and lively with plenty of space to breathe. Soutra Gilmour’s design is fantastic again. A much more enclosed setting - happening as all of the action across both bits of the story does in the same bedroom - but still really evocative. This one is particularly well lit by Jon Clarke too. Nothing bright or flashy, quite the opposite, but all the more effective for it.

Once again, we’re blessed with a top drawer cast led by one of my absolute faves, Robert Glenister (that he is the superior Glenister brother is a hill I’m prepared to die on). He is superb in the central role, on stage all the time, and just endlessly watchable. He has great support from Brid Brennan as his long suffering wife. They have great chemistry whilst providing great contrast. I wish the whole play was them to be honest. That said, there are scene stealing cameos from Peter Polycarpou and Janie Dee to play with as well. The latter in particular is an utter joy.

If Moonlight is what I thought I was signing up for with a day of Pinter, Night School is, like all of Pinter Three, really rather not. This is much more broadly comedic, and structurally much more straightforward, even if the themes of secrets and identity are perhaps much closer to what I was expecting.

Directed with musical flair and rhythm (figurative and literal, I loved the addition of a live drummer to punctuate the action) by Ed Stambollouian, Night School tells the story of a young guy returning home from prison to find his aunts have let his room to a school teacher with a secret. The production is pacy and spiky and quick. The design is, again, fantastic and I laughed a lot, both with and at characters.

The performances here are pure class. Janie Dee and Brid Brennan steal things once again as the aunts, a winning combination of doddery and sly. I missed them a lot when they weren’t on stage - which thankfully was not often. Al Weaver takes the young lead and runs with it, really seizing the opportunity to show what he can do. He’s great fun and incredibly sympathetic as the probably less hapless than everyone thinks wannabe forger. Robert Glenister pops in too, just to remind everyone that he’s excellent in another supremely charismatic turn. This piece feels much more like a team sport than Moonlight, and the team is David Beckham era Man United.

Pinter Four is another strong entry in the Pinter at the Pinter season and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Top drawer cast, top drawer production and yet more surprises for this non-Pinter expert. Highly worth your time.

Pinter Four is part of The Jamie Lloyd Company’s Pinter at the Pinter season at the Harold Pinter theatre (AND I AM NOW SICK OF TYPING THE WORD PINTER) and plays until 8th December

My tickets for this one were once again kindly provided by the production and I sat in the much more appropriate to my station D6 in the Dress Circle. This seat has a properly restricted view (it’s behind a pillar - told you I got the fancy stalls seat by accident) but it’s easy, if not comfortable, enough to lean out into the aisle to make it not have. It would normally cost £15 and for that amount, for a short show with an interval, is reasonable value. 

Theatre Review: Pinter Three

Stagey confession: I have never seen a Harold Pinter play. Ever. I don’t know why particularly. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision. It’s just never happened. Come to think of it, I don’t actually know that much about his writing style even, beyond the eponymous pause.

Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter series, reviving lesser known short plays, monologues and comedy sketches, is probably quite an odd place to start my Pinter education but here we are. Specifically, I’m starting at Pinter Three comprising eleven assorted pieces: short plays Landscape, Night and A Kind of Alaska; sketches Apart From That, That’s All, That’s Your Trouble and Trouble in the Works; and monologues Girls, God’s District, Monologue and Special Offer. Eclectic.

I have to say, as a concept I find this Pinter Pick N Mix kind of weird - there’s no particular single thematic thread tying everything together, no real common motifs - but it does work, largely because it’s all done so bloody well. And I have to say it’s blown most of my Pinter preconceptions away: Pinter Three and its various parts are not what I thought Pinter was at all. It’s so much more humane, so much funnier and so much more concerned with people and their relationships than I expected. It’s an extremely pleasant surprise, to be honest.

Jamie Lloyd’s direction (he is in the chair for everything in Three) is assured and confident, and the piece as a whole is arranged well. The sketches and monologues he’s included here are fairly slight, even though they’re all really well done and funny/touching as required, so to book end them as he has - we open with Landscape and close with A Kind of Alaska, both of which are weighty in their own right - with the bigger dramatic bits is clever. It keeps things moving nicely. Technically, the whole thing is cleverly put together too, with Soutra Gilmour’s revolving, adaptable, multipurpose set allowing for seamless transitions between bits.

The cast assembled to bring this all to life is also a bit of a dream, as it is throughout the Pinter at the Pinter season it must be said: Keith Allen, Tom Edden, Lee Evans, Tamsin Greig and Meera Syal. Greig and Syal are particular highlights, the latter getting to show off a range from mischievous through to grieving and the former doing all of the emotional heavy lifting extraordinarily well. Keith Allen continues to be Keith Allen, delivering the Keith Allen-y parts with aplomb. Evans and Edden bring the majority of the lolz but are also given chances to show off their acting chops which they dutifully exploit. It’s all a bit squad goals, to be honest. I want to hang out with these people.

Now I’m not going to sit here and separately review every single piece because you’ve got better things to do and so have I. But there are some clear highlights. A Kind of Alaska is worth the price of a ticket alone, Greig commanding the stage utterly as a patient waking from a coma to try and reconcile with her current life and family (sister Syal and doctor/brother in law Allen). It’s gorgeously written and beautifully performed. Landscape too, teaming Allen and Greig up again as a husband and wife at odds. Of the sketches and monologues, I loved Girls, Tom Edden showing off his verbal gymnastics, and Monologue, Lee Evans reminding us all that he can legit act as well as pull funny faces. Trouble in the Works is great fun too, Edden and Evans relishing being funny men saying funny words. It’s all good though; a bit random but good.

Overall, I really rated Pinter Three. Whether you know your Pinter or not, I’d wager there’s something new for you here. Funny, touching, and staged and performed with real class. Solidly good stuff.

Pinter Three is part of The Jamie Lloyd Company’s Pinter at the Pinter season, and plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre (obvs) until December

My ticket for this was generously provided by the production. I sat in F16 in the stalls which would normally cost £99.50. Which is obviously ridiculous. (I am 100% certain I was allocated this seat by accident by the way. Check out the epic downgrade I got for Pinter Four later the same day if you don’t believe me.) 

Friday, 9 November 2018

Theatre Review: Lands

I would have loved to have been in the meeting where The Bush Theatre's latest Studio production, Lands,  was agreed.

'So, it's a sort of comedy that involves a cast of two one of whom is obsessed with jigsaws and one who spends most of the piece bouncing on a mini-trampoline. I assume that's cool?'

Evidently it was cool, because The Bush is the most fearless commissioning theatre in London and that is a gold plated fact. Fight me. 

That said, I have some bad news: Lands wasn’t my cup of tea. We'll come on to why in due course but ultimately it was just a bit too out there for this proud square. But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate it. You don’t always have to like something to recognise that it has merit. 

It's a piece - I'm resisting using the word play, because I don't think that's what it is - that makes an audience work. The heavily improvised text - I'm resisting using the word script because I don't think that's what it is - resists all easy interpretation. At various points, I thought it was about the dangers and joys of staying in your comfort zone, the power of friendship, and addiction and the stupid way we as a society treat it. Thanks to the last, slightly heavy handed, scene, I think it was actually about selfishness at the micro and macro level. I'm not sure how well this last minute thematic reveal, if that's indeed what it was, worked. It left me feeling a bit cheated that I'd put in so much work figuring out for myself what the piece was when someone was basically going to shout it at me at the end. I'd prefer a piece that was able to consistently say what it was, throughout, implicitly. Or to not say it at all and leave the audience guessing. 

Bluntly, for me it's also too long. Had this been a really quick, 45 minute job I think I’d have enjoyed it much more. On press night - and given how much is improvised this will vary - it was well over an hour and a half. Both the visual conceits of the trampoline and the jigsaw and the textual conceits of constant repetition and long pauses are interesting and fun up to a point. For me, that point passed way before an hour and a half. That's not to say the text isn't without power, even that last scene speech for all that it somewhat annoyed me. Indeed, I could happily have lived with more text and less bouncing/jigsaw.

One thing you can't fault with this piece is the commitment and energy that the cast and crew throw at it. Leah Brotherhead (jigsaw) and Sophie Steer (trampoline, I'd love to know what her V02 max is at this point) are 100% into this piece, without question, doubt or hesitation. It's a lot of fun and/or a lot of not fun but in a good way to watch them spar and make up. Brotherhead makes someone sat describing jigsaw pieces by desk lamp far more entertaining than they have any right to be. Steer's bouncing skills can't be doubted for a moment. In Jaz Woodcock-Stewart's completely stripped back production, they are undoubtedly the best thing.

I'm not going to pretend that I loved Lands (something at The Bush that I didn't love!) It just wasn’t my cup of tea. That’s not a comment on the production itself though. If you like your theatre more experimental than I do though then it's definitely worth your time. And, as ever, you can't fault The Bush's bravery in commissioning it. 

Lands is in the Studio at The Bush until 1st December.

My ticket for Lands was kindly provided by The Bush and I sat in the middle of the third row (it's unreserved seating). A ticket for this would normally cost £15.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Theatre Review: All We Ever Wanted Was Everything

As starts to a night at the theatre go two, delayed trains, a three minute flat out sprint up a busy main road and falling up some stairs is not an auspicious start. Like, if you can give something a good review after that it’s one that’s truly earned. (I almost cried at the box office lady and my knee is still super sore and Technicolor bruised, thanks for asking.) 

Yet another pat on the back is due for The Bush Theatre, then, who’ve knocked things out of the park once again with their latest main house show. All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, written by Luke Barnes and performed by the excellent folk from Hull’s Middle Child, is a superb piece of gig theatre. Now, I wasn’t sure I knew what gig theatre was until I saw this show and was rather pleased to discover that it is exactly what it says on the tin: part gig, part theatre. A gig with a story, if you like, or a musical with a tonne more oomf and far fewer fucks to give. I like it. This particular one tells the story of Leah and Chris, born on the same day in Hull in 1987, over the course of the next thirty years of their lives; from Thatcher to Brexit to the apocalypse. No really, that’s how the show ends (and frankly given the state of, well, everything at the moment it wouldn’t surprise me if that ending has a basis in fact).

I’m not sure I entirely have the language to describe why I rate this show so highly because it’s so different from anything I’ve seen before. It’s loud and shouty and neon and, just, well, fun in a way that The Theatre is not often. It’s theatre for people who don’t like theatre, but also theatre for people who really like theatre.

Luke Barnes’ writing, part prose part verse, is brilliant: funny, touching, uncomfortable some times, joyously mad other times and always deeply, lovingly human. He has essentially written a rave about disappointment, expectation and what is really important in life. Which shouldn’t really be a thing that works and yet here we are. His structure is clever too, telling thirty years of plot in just 75 minutes by using three distinct acts which are differentiated by the major world events they contain as well as costume and musical style. The latter two are done with tongue firmly in cheek and are great fun. His lyrics, to accompany James Frewer’s energetic, diverse and LOUD music, are also really strong. Also, I love that this play is a proper love letter to Hull and unashamed of it. There should be more ‘ull in London theatre I think. I’m just sad there were no jokes about The Deep.

Director Paul Smith is 100% sure of himself and his cast, justifiably, and his production is superb. He conjures a real mood, something so clearly identifiable you can almost touch it, in a production which is utterly evocative of its setting and time. It helps I suppose that The Bush is basically a small, warm concrete box and from what I remember of my experience of nights out in Hull as a yoof this isn’t far wide of the mark for at least the Hull nightclub set scenes. Designer Bethany Wells and lighting designer Jose Tever do a lot to add to this, with simple but effective work to create Hull down the years in Shepherds Bush.

The cast is an absolute blast: not only phenomenally talented but insanely energetic and, again, just a lot of fun. Marc Graham is off the charts good as the MC, a sort of Brandon Flowers
 off of The Killers but more versatile and with better eyeliner. James Stanyer is hugely touching as Chris, a tangible sense of disappointment and sadness in his every move. Bryony Davies is equally good as Leah, but swap disappointment for anger. Emma Bright and Joshua Meredith are touchingly relatable and deeply sympathetic as Chris’ overbearing mum and Leah’s struggling dad respectively. Alice Beaumont is an enjoyable bitch as awful, but identifiably real, Holly. Every acts beautifully, sings beautifully and plays whatever musical instruments are demanded of them beautifully. Squad goals, basically.

Having gone in not really knowing what to expect, and in some degree of pain, I was just super impressed by All We Ever Wanted Was Everything - and by Middle Child too. This is a cracking show, unlike anything else in London at the moment and also has the best line of dialogue to end a show, and indeed a blog post: “Live your life. I fucking dare you.”

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything is at The Bush until 24th November.

My ticket for this one was kindly provided by The Bush. I sat in A13 in Block C (not a seat I’d recommend, given it’s right behind a pillar), the normal cost of which would vary depending on how you booked your ticket; £10 if you book via The Bush’s excellent Count Me In scheme. 

Friday, 2 November 2018

Theatre Review: Victoria’s Knickers

"Sort of a rom com. There might be some torture." is the sort of plot summary that I am here for. Other things that I am here for include the idea of Queen Victoria wearing Nike Air Max and Prince Albert in a baseball cap. All of these things appeal to me.

I'm back at the National Youth Theatre - if the Air Max didn't give it away - this time ensconced in the Soho Theatre (cool young person central, an excellent marriage of venue and company) for one of their REP Company's new ones, Victoria's Knickers. Stop laughing at the back. Written by NYT alumus Josh Azouz, Victoria's Knickers tells the true-ish story of Ed Jones, a Kilburn lad who breaks into the Palace, meets Victoria and forms something of a relationship with her.

The play-with-songs itself is a sort of absurdist Hamilton (hip hop history musicals are at risk of becoming a bit boring I fear), which weaves the story of Ed and Victoria with the wider tale of what was happening in Britain at the time - specifically the Chartists. It doesn't achieve this blend all that well for my money, it would be far better sticking with the torture rom com. Chris Cookson's music is hit and miss and the plot, whilst intentionally kind of all over the place, just doesn't quite hang together. The best description might be Hamilton meets An Octoroon. It very much has the crazy vibe of the latter, if not the strength of writing to entirely pull it off.

There's may be a very good reason why it has An Octoroon vibes: it has the same director, the excellent Ned Bennett (also ex-NYT) on great form again here. He brings an enormous sense of fun to everything and an admirable, entirely hands off, sense of 'just get on with it really lads'. I love his style, he is king of this sort of madness. Hannah Wolfe's eye catchingly non-existent design - I've not seen so much MDF in one place since Changing Rooms was a thing (I appreciate this joke is 100% NYT non-compliant) - and Jess Bernberg's ballsy, exceptionally bright lighting nicely compliment the action without ever threatening to pull focus from it. The sort of design that you don't really even notice, which I do mean as a compliment.

I sort of don't care about any of this though because, as I've said before, the joy of seeing an NYT production is the NYT itself. I love this company, even as they make me feel so very tired with their hijinx. And I'm pretty sure I would not have enjoyed this play as much as I did were it being performed by a cast with less youthful exuberance (for want of a less patronising phrase) and less 'zero fucks given' swagger. They utterly throw themselves into the madness of the play as if it's entirely normal, for example, to be playing out a human cockfight in street clothes but wearing a chicken mask. It's just great fun to watch them have fun.

If you're looking for ones to watch this cast has many. In the title role Alice Vilanculo is brilliant, strutting around in her Air Max like she owns the place because she does. Jamie Ankrah is an excellent foil for her, as Ed, and is endlessly watchable in his own right. Oseloka Obi almost steals it from both of them as Prince Albert (his No Diggity routine is the stand out moment of the show, hands down) and if he is not playing Aaron Burr at some point in the reasonably foreseeable future then there is really no justice. Simran Hunjun has the pick of the vocals and there's nice work in a relatively small role from Christopher Williams as a Chartist with a gorgeous Welsh lilt (his Spiderman vs Black Panther fight with Prince Albert, yes really, is great fun). 

I'm not going to claim that Victoria's Knickers is the best or most memorable play I've ever seen. But, as ever, the NYT take something a bit meh and make it joyous. A shot of espresso to the heart of even the most cynical theatregoer.

Victoria's Knickers is at the Soho Theatre until 10th November.

My ticket for this was kindly provided by the NYT. I sat in J5, which would normally cost £18.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Theatre Review: I’m Not Running

Political theatre can be my absolute favourite thing. I am interested in politics, I am interested in theatre, what's not to like?

When political theatre is done badly though, it is pretty much the worst thing in the world. I exaggerate slightly, but you take my point.

A particular strand in political theatre at the moment is Labour Party theatre, a sub-genre which I also rather enjoy. Labour psychodrama is, after all, much more unpredictably entertaining than the Tories (there are only so many plays you can write about awful policies, sleaze and men shagging their secretaries). The latest entry in this ever growing canon is I'm Not Running, a new Labour - New Labour? - play by one of the daddies of political theatre, and lefty political theatre in particularly, David Hare. Sounds good right? There's so much material around for him to work with at the moment! Yeah, don't hold your breath.

I've said it before, but the worst thing a play can be for me is boring. And I'm Not Running is hands down the most boring thing I've seen this year - and possibly longer. It's Allelujah, but without the occasional amusing Yorkshire joke. It sings from exactly the same hymn sheet: politicians are bad, the NHS is great, change is bad yadda yadda yadda. It's only addition is the equally groundbreaking observation that the Labour Party is kind of a huge mess. None of this is new, or news, and none of it is interesting. I don't think I spotted one original thought anywhere in the clunkingly dull script.

Because this is the second problem with I'm Not Running: as well as having nothing to say, it says it so badly. Scenes are endless, which deadens any impact the back and forth in time structure might have had. The plotting is an exercise in convenient and implausible coincidences in which very little actually happens. The characters are either terrible people (I would not vote for any party led by either of the two apparent contenders) or blatant plot devices. The weird, slightly removed from reality but not quite enough, setting is confusing. The jokes aren't funny. The pace is glacial. My friend fell asleep in act two - I was so jealous - and woke up to find a character had randomly died. He leaned over to ask me if she'd been bored to death, and really that just about sums it up.

The production is a little better than its text. Neil Armfield's direction needs to do more to move things along and stop the play feeling like one of those never ending phone calls that you can't end. Ralph Myers' self consciously theatrical set is eye catching, though the visual metaphor is a bit heavy handed (POLITICS IS ALL A CONSTRUCT). The speed with which the set revolves to allow scene changes is a bit excruciating too, though the effect is, eventually, quite clever. The use of video projection to cover these bits is well done. The pre-recorded interviews with the various characters, where the off screen interviewers are voiced by actors including Bill Nighy and Indira Varma, are arguably the play's strongest moments.

It's difficult with plays like this to meaningfully critique the acting. After all, actors can only work with what they're given and really no one is well served here. As lead character Pauline, Sian Brooke is, for me, not a strong lead. She lacks a bit of the presence the part needs. Alex Hassell is particularly poorly served by his character (the Evil Politician, Jack Gould) but does better with what he's given, and does at least raise a few laughs. Liza Sadovy is underused and far more compelling as Pauline's mess of a mother (the one character who is actually well written and quite interesting so naturally she only features in one, relatively short, scene). The ray of light is Joshua McGuire as sunny, neurotic press officer Sandy. His performance is so light and charismatic that it becomes a blessed relief amongst the drudgery. I missed him a lot in the scenes he wasn't in.

I'm Not Running is, for my money, the sort of political theatre that gives both politics and theatre a bad name. However, my entirely scientific poll of the four people I know who've seen it does suggest it has an appreciative audience: people who are like really fucking interested in the internal manoeuvrings of the Labour Party. If that's you then fill your boots. Not you? Take those boots, put them on and run away.

I'm Not Running is at the Lyttelton Theatre at the NT until 31st January.

I paid £32 (100% not worth it) to sit in H31 in the circle for this one. 

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Theatre Review: Company

Where were you when you found out Meghan Markle was pregnant? Me, I was on a train - when am I not? - and I found out thanks to the man sitting opposite me's delightful observation that it was a good thing she and Prince Harry had got on with things because "she's knocking on a bit". Logging on to Twitter, never a good idea, the coverage would have made you think that Meghan, at 37, was basically dead. The number of 'how difficult is it to conceive at 37?' articles that crossed my horizons in the next few days was ridiculous.

The pressure on single women in our thirties, of which I am one, to do the marriage and babies thing - or explain in detail, repeatedly, and to literally anyone who might ask, why we're not - is colossal. And of course, for thirtysomething women who do want to do the marriage and babies thing, of which I am definitely not one, the pressures of time and biology are even colossal-er. On the other side of the gender coin, what pressures does a thirtysomething single man face? Struggling to think of any right now. 

All of the above is my way of pointing out why Marianne Elliott's new and updated production of Stephen Sondheim's Company is so utterly necessary. And I use the word necessary very deliberately. As I'm sure you know, unless you've been living under some kind of rock, the big update here is to gender swap the lead role. Hence, the show is now anchored by Bobbie, a 35 year old single woman surrounded by married friends desperate to get her to settle down. Company isn't a show I knew very well before this production, so all I can say about this and the other accompanying gender swaps (including the introduction of a same sex couple) is that I cannot imagine it the other way around. In 2018, who cares about a single 35 year old man? Why should we invest anything in that guy?

Having now properly discovered it, I can safely say that I love this show. I think it may be my favourite Sondheim; so complex, so unashamedly grown up, so funny and demanding the absolute best of its performers and creatives.The music and lyrics are just brilliant. Name me a better (and for me, in this production, more relatable) musical song than Being Alive. I'll wait... George Furth's book is a joy. Funny and sad and, with the twenty first century updates, utterly compellingly relevant. And it's very rare to see a show with so many main characters, all of whom are actually properly developed and rounded.

This production is something truly special too, and not just because of the updates. Director Marianne Elliott is an actual genius and Company is as good as anything else she's ever done, if not better. It's got such life and heart. Her conception of the story as a modern Alice in Wonderland (after all, much of it is happening in Bobbie's head) is wonderful. She completely gets the story she's telling too, as evidenced not just in all the gender swapping but also in the way it's told, the way everyone else treats and talks to Bobbie. Possibly my favourite scene is where a group of married, middle aged men sing about how worried they are about Bobbie in her bedroom whilst an astonishingly attractive cabin crew chap goes down on her. As visual metaphors for being a single woman in your thirties go, they don't come much better.

Bunny Christie's design is, reliably, superb. Everything is done in a series of boxes to separate the various couples, and Bobbie, and to elevate the down the rabbit hole vibe. It looks so cool, especially with Neil Austin's gorgeous neon-accented lighting, and it technically works so well too. Liam Steele's choreography is witty and eye-catching and unmistakably modern. And, for I think the first time ever, I want to shout out to the casting directors. Alastair Coomer and Charlotte Smith have done an amazing job assembling a team of actors who are not just super talented but 100% right for their parts. There are some casting decisions here that made me raise an eyebrow initially (Mel Giedroyc primarily to be honest) but in every case the exactly right person is in the exactly right role.

And Jesus H Christ what a cast this has led to. There is an absolutely insane amount of talent on show on this stage and the entire cast is pretty much faultless. Without question, this is the best cast in London right now by, like, a lot. Rosalie Craig is a sublime Bobbie, exactly the right balance of vulnerability and sass, and with a voice to absolutely die for. Her Being Alive gave me literal goosebumps. Patti LuPone, queen of fucking everything, is exactly as good as you want her to be and then a little bit more, doing enjoyably bitchy and actually just a bitch with equal icon-ness. In a show in which everything is A Moment, Jonathan Bailey delivers the Moment of the night as (gender swapped) Jamie with a mind bendingly good Getting Married Today, my personal highlight of the whole show. Richard Fleeshman is an adorable and surprisingly touching (gender swapped - thank god because as a female part this would have seemed just awful in 2018) Andy. Mel Giedroyc and Gavin Spokes are a lovable but complex joy as Sarah and Harry. I could go on and on and on. Everyone on that stage is amazing.

This production of Company is stunning. More than that, it's important. It's, genuinely, necessary. Theatrically, it feels like a proper moment; event theatre at it's very best. Get your ticket immediately.

Company is at the Gielgud Theatre until 30th March.

I saw this one in preview and paid £25 to sit in G14 in the Grand Circle (which is actually a great seat for the price).

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Theatre Review: A Very Very Very Dark Matter

'Well that was bonkers' is not one of my usual post-show opinions. Variations on good, bad and boring feature often, but bonkers? Not so much. My bonkers quota is sadly unfilled.

Or at least it was. Because having seen The Bridge theatre's latest, Martin McDonagh's A Very Very Very Dark Matter, my bonkers quota is through the roof. Also my batshit mental quota. And my what the fuck did I just see quota.

I'm not even going to attempt to explain the plot, save to say that it largely revolves around the idea that Hans Christian Andersen didn't write any of his stories, keeping a lame 'pygmy' from the Congo in a box in his attic to do all the work for him. You see? And that's the bit that makes sense. Various other strands involve time travel and magical gypsies giving out machine gun accordions. Not making any of that up. At heart, A VVV Dark Matter is a bleak satire on colonialism and race, dressed up as a distinctly adult, and did I mention bonkers, fairy tale. However, I think it's fair to say that the bonkers plot is not the strength of this piece, though as unlikely as it may seem it does just about all hang together. 

For me the strength lies instead in the bleak imagination, weirdness and flights of bizarre fancy that McDonagh conjures in his script. And, most of all, the blackest of black humour he uses. I saw this show in an early preview and it surprises me 0% that a lot of subsequent audiences and critics alike have found it offensive. As it happens I disagree, but there's no question that the language and concepts used here are, to put it extremely mildly, a bit fruity. There is some joyous swearing. Like, the best swearing you'll find in theatre at the moment. There is brilliant, no blushes spared satire of the attitudes towards race that colonialism engendered and indeed those that are still prevalent today (an interpretation that many will not agree with, I suspect). The script revels in its bleakness and is endlessly quotable ('was he Belgian?' 'Well he had dark hair and a huge inferiority complex'). It's not so much close to the knuckle as bypassing the knuckle altogether and going straight for the balls. It is unquestionably not for everyone, but it is equally unquestionably definitely for me. 

The Bridge stages it wonderfully too. Director Matthew Dunster's production is wicked: quick, confident and sure footed. You get the sense he knows that this will be theatrical Marmite and so decides to attack it with everything, possibly including the kitchen sink. I admire his cojones. Everything looks, feels and sounds gloriously spooky thanks to Anna Fleischle's brilliantly bonkers design, combined with Philip Gladwell's grimy lighting and James Maloney's unsettling music. Tom Waits (yes, that Tom Waits) provides a brilliant recorded narration. It's all supremely atmospheric, a grown up haunted house. The Bridge doing what it does best, creatively, whatever you think of the play.

The cast is a dream too, the sort of thing that only someone with McDonagh's artistic heft and eclectic tastes could assemble. American newcomer Johnetta Eula'Mae Ackles is brilliant as Ogechi (the aforementioned 'pygmy'),  all punch and sass and never a victim. Phil Daniels is perfectly cast as a foul mouthed - and utterly scene stealing - Charles Darwin Dickens, aided and abetted by his equally strident wife, played with glee by Elizabeth Berrington. The Andersen-DarwinDickens dining room scenes are the most I've laughed in a theatre for a long ass time, often due to Berrington's deadpan delivery ('you're shitting me' has never sounded so glorious). The star draw here though is the great Jim Broadbent who is on majestic form as Andersen himself. He is dripping with charisma, evilness and stupidity but amazingly good fun. His performance is gleeful and hilarious; and worth the price of a ticket alone. 

You're either going to love A Very Very Very Dark Matter or loathe it. This is not a show you can be neutral about. Either way, it's certainly provocative and I would say that you should see it and judge for yourself rather than relying on the critics (or, you know, me). For what it's worth, I loved it. Go with an open mind and a high offense threshold and I think you will too.

A Very Very Very Dark Matter is at The Bridge until 6th January

I saw this show in preview and sat in seat C41 in level three, having paid £15. I've sat in this row of seats, which is the very very very back row, loads of times now and it represents some of the best value in theatreland for my money. Sightlines are brilliant. 

Monday, 15 October 2018

Theatre Review: Hogarth’s Progress

I like a two show day. They’re efficient, lots of play for one train ticket, even if the risks of a numb arse and some knotty lower back issues are high.

The latest addition to my collection of these is Hogarth’s Progress at the Rose Theatre in Kingston (my first visit: a nice, modern venue, great cafe, slightly weird auditorium, no armrests). Not strictly a double bill in the sense of a play and an immediate sequel, Hogarth’s Progress consists of two plays by Nick Dear: The Art of Success, thirty years old, and a new companion piece, The Taste of the Town, set thirty years later. Both tell the story of William Hogarth, artist and satirist, his wife Jane and a fluctuating cast of friends and enemies. Presented in rep - only one actor gets away with not being in both - it’s an interesting take on a two show day. 

It’s also for me very much a double bill of two halves, so to speak. The Art of Success was not for me. I found it muddled and puerile, trying too hard to shock (and failing). It doesn’t feel like it knows what it wants to be. Is it a history play? A morality play? A satire? A musing on the nature of art? It tries to do all these things and almost inevitably succeeds at doing none of them. I found it quite boring and really not very funny.

The Taste of the Town on the other hand I really enjoyed. It’s a clear headed and focused play about loss, regret and death. It’s much more punchy and far funnier. It’s still sweary and brash but the stronger plot and thematic coherence gives the vulgarity meaning and context. It’s a far, far stronger piece of writing. And I laughed a lot.

What I would say, though, is even though I didn’t enjoy the first play that much it’s still really interesting to see them both together. Not only for the way it fills out the understanding of Hogarth’s story but also, and possibly more so, for the way it allows you an insight into the development of Dear’s writing. I’ve said it already, but this is a really fun take on the double bill.

The production of both shows is strong too. Anthony Banks’ direction is solid and his storytelling is crystal clear (even if I could have stood things being a bit quicker, particularly in the first play). The use of the weirdly cavernous Rose space with it’s huge, slightly industrial, stage is really good and everything looks sort of grimly gorgeous. Andrew D Edwards’ design is really effective, I loved the massive screen that formed 99% of the set and backdrop, and Douglas O’Connell’s projection makes it even better. There’s some lovely use of lighting as scenery from lighting designer James Whiteside too.

The cast is also really strong. As previously mentioned, all but one of them have different parts in the two plays. The one who escapes is Keith Allen, who makes up for having the afternoon off with a fantastically good fun older Hogarth in the second play. As ever, he is essentially playing himself but it totally works here. Amongst the harder working cast member (soz Keith) Mark Umbers gets the pick of the parts with Robert Walpole and David Garrick on his to do list. He plays both of them with great poise and his swaggering Garrick in the second play is a particular highlight. The reliably excellent Ian Hallard is, reliably, excellent (haven’t used that line in a while) as a genuinely disgusting toff in play one and a mischievously bitchy Horace Walpole in play two.

There are some fantastic parts for the actresses in the cast too, still a rarer sentence than it should be. Jasmine Jones is a ray of light (well after a fashion) as the murderous murderess Sarah Sprackling in play one. Susannah Harker and Sylvestra Le Touzel sparkle in play two as an older Jane Hogarth and her formidable mother respectively.

For all that this is an uneven double bill, it does work well. It looks great, the cast are strong and it’s an interesting experiment in the use of a two show day. If you only have time to see one, I would undoubtedly recommend The Taste of the Town - for my money the only one to merit a standalone viewing.

Hogarth’s Progress is at The Rose Kingston 
until 21st October. There are upcoming two show days on both the 20th and the 21st.

My seat for this one was B10 in the stalls for £17.50 (a discount because my friend’s cousin is the producer there, though the discount wasn’t linked to this post in any way).

Friday, 12 October 2018

Theatre Review: Cock

Every writer has their thing, or things in some cases. The random stuff and tiny details that they’re really good at. Like the Pinter Pause but less annoying.

Mike Bartlett has two I think: terrible dinner parties and just god awful men. He is really fucking good at writing both of these things. I do mean this as a compliment, even if it may not sound like one.

Both of these things are in evidence in Cock (stop snickering at the back), an early Bartlett currently being revived for the first time as part of the Chichester Festival Theatre season. Staged in the small Minerva theatre, it tells the story of John a hitherto definitively gay man with a partner he claims to love who also claims to fall in love with a woman. With him unable to decide between the two, a classic Bartlett dinner party from hell is arranged to basically pit them off against each other.

To be frank, this isn’t Bartlett’s best play, characteristic tropes aside. It’s discussion of sexuality and labels (John refuses to label himself as bisexual and is terrified of disowning the ‘gay’ label he’s felt is part of him for so long) is undoubtedly timely, but in a weird way the play suffers for it in that there are more insightful and sensitive pieces, fictional and not, easily available to anyone with access to the internet. The play was originally staged at The Royal Court and it does seem to fulfil my prejudice of what a Royal Court play is: not as clever as it thinks it is. See also: Bartlett’s insistence that his text is performed with no set, no props and no ‘mime’ (so when a character asks someone to pass the wine no one moves, for example) which works I would say 50% of the time, the other 50% just being distracting. (The no mime sex scene works oddly well though - just two people looking at each other, smiling and making happy sounds. It’s weirdly touching.)

There’s also an uncomfortable whiff of casual sexism running through parts of the play. I hated the constant repetition of the idea that one of the main appeals of the female love interest was babies. Like leave her womb out of it dickhead. The jokes about women looking manly (which seems to translate as tall and with big hands) wear quite thin after a while too, especially in a play otherwise so concerned with how arbitrary labels are. The female character generally feels underwritten. Though I don’t think it’s intentional, it feels more careless than anything, it’s still not really ok, for my money.

I also have an issue with the characterisation, one that I have had with Bartlett stuff before, in that every character in this play is some degree of awful. John, the central character, is the absolute worst. Borrowing from the Bartlett TV canon, he is Simon Foster but more manipulative; Duncan from Press but more of a twat. That bad. Which is sort of fine to an extent, except that we’re supposed to believe that two other human beings love him enough to fight over him. And that really stretches my willing suspension of disbelief to its limit.

All of that said though, Cock is an entertaining enough play. After all, no one writes conflict between terrible people better than Mike Bartlett. The action is non-stop. The dialogue is joyfully caustic, punchy and sad when it needs to be. The audience is never not engaged. It is very, very funny. I enjoyed it, even as I was irritated and underwhelmed by it.

A lot of that is down to a characteristically strong Chichester production. Helmed by Chichester newbie Kate Hewitt, the production is pacy and robust. She brings out the naturalism of the play nicely and balances some big performances really well. To be designer of a play which explicitly has no set and no props must be a fairly weird gig, but Georgia Lowe’s MMA ring of a design is a knockout (do they have knockouts in MMA? I don’t know). Guy Hoare’s red and white neon lighting is the perfectly harsh accompaniment. This play is written as a fight, and this production works literally and super effectively with that idea.

The cast of four work their arses off to absolutely sell it too. In a show performed in a small, bare room where all you can do is talk and move a bit, there’s nowhere to hide and the four actors assembled here fully embrace that and chuck themselves in without fear. Luke Thallon is as great a lead as his character, awful John, is terrible a human being. That I sympathised with John at all is 99% down to him. He brings a wonderfully understated physicality to the role, simpering smiles, quivering emotion and all. He is endlessly watchable and properly good when ragey. Matthew Needham is a perfect counterpoint to him as male love interest M (don’t even get me started). He gets the bulk of the comedy and relishes it in a catty, hyperactive but ultimately very lonely performance. They’re a supremely entertaining double act. Rounding out the quartet, Isabella Laughland is a ballsy and beguiling woman love interest (called only W, obviously) and, though his part is largely superfluous to any of the plot, Simon Chandler as M’s father F (seriously) does a lively and pleasingly oily job.

Overall, I was disappointed with Cock (not the first time I’ve said that). It’s by no means classic Mike Bartlett, even if it does have the key features, and doesn’t have as much to say as I expected. That said, it’s still great fun and, for connoisseurs of supreme social awkwardness in particular, a decently entertaining hour and a half. The cast and the production do much to elevate it too.

Cock is in the Minerva at Chichester until 27th October.

I sat in seat A2 and paid £28 for my ticket.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Theatre Review: Antony and Cleopatra

Big, lush, classic Shakespeare isn't something I've seen too much of recently. 

Don't get me wrong, this isn't a value judgement. I'm not one of those people who thinks any 'type' of Shakespeare production is better than any other. I cannot abide modern dress or traditional dress bores or people who spend their entire evenings apparently with a fucking metronome out to check that the pentameter is in fact iambic. 

I just like good Shakespeare, you know? Shakespeare productions that tell the story and have something to say and, bluntly, aren't boring or pretentious nonsense. Something which is actually quite hard to find.

One of the places where it has been notably hard to find of late is the National Theatre. Remember Macbeth? I mean, ugh. However, redemption is at hand. Enter Simon Godwin - one of my absolute favourite directors - accompanied by Ralph Fiennes (!), Sophie Okonedo (!!) and a copy of Antony and Cleopatra (!!!) 

I mean, need I say more? Do I even have to write this post? A top flight director, a classic play and a cast that is an absolute dream. There is so little to go wrong here, and so little does. This is a solid, classy and huge production that ticks pretty much all the boxes. 

Antony and Cleopatra isn't a play I knew before and I wouldn't say it's now become one of my favourites. But it's an exciting one nonetheless; the mixture of politics and personal is super compelling. And of course there are some classic Shakespeare lines to chew on. I confess that I'd forgotten that 'age cannot wither her' was Shakespeare and not an original line from Mamma Mia and I'm not ashamed to admit that.

Simon Godwin's production is absolutely top drawer. It's fair to say there's not much that's massively innovative on display but it doesn't much matter. Because what is on display is so utterly sure footed, classy and beautifully done that you absolutely cannot argue with it. Godwin's direction is bang on. The production never rushes but also never feels the three and a half hours that it is. It's unashamedly big and sweeping but can do small and intimate too. Hildegard Bechtler's design, making full use of the Olivier stage's glorious drum, is a cracker. Pitched somewhere between Keeping Up with the Kardashians and peak 1970s - which is actually the best combination for the central characters if you think about it - I want to live in the set. Evie Gurney's costumes accent it perfectly: so much print and so much draping. Tim Lutkin's lighting is beautiful and stark. Jonathan Goddard and Shelley Maxwell's movement is really clever. It's a perfectly wrought production for the vast Olivier. It uses the stage so well.

As do the actors. There's something thrilling about seeing actors of the calibre of Fiennes and Okonedo on a stage as big - metaphorically and literally - as the Olivier. It sort of goes without saying that they're both great. Fiennes is a classic Shakespearean and his style, which has a certain formality to it, works for the meaty, military parts like Mark Antony. He has a great sense of mischief too, his reaction to his failed suicide attempt is a surprising and joyously unexpected laugh out loud moment. (To be clear, though, David Morrissey is still my Antony.) Okonedo revels in the high camp of Cleopatra and is as majestic and Queenly as required and then some. The chemistry, based to a huge degree on shared mischief, between her and Fiennes is supremely watchable. And she handles a snake with incredible chutzpah (as the only person in the centre of the theatre blogger-animal welfare charity staffer venn diagram though, I have to ask whether a real snake was actually necessary). 

There's much joy to be found away from the central characters too. Tim McMullan is a perfect Enobarbus, wise and wry and, ultimately, rather tragic. McMullan is superb in everything he does (even in Common, which was appalling) and here I reckon he might be the pick of the bunch. Which is going some. Credit too to the younger cast, in particular Fisayo Akinade who does fantastic things with the relatively uninteresting part of Eros. His comic timing is excellent. Gloria Obianyo as Charmian is great too, dripping charisma and sass. She dealt with an errant snake with incredible poise and calmness the night I saw the show (again, a real snake?) 

Reservations about the snake aside, there is really very little to fault in this Antony and Cleopatra. It's lush, epic and a piece of sheer class. Better than that, it's that rare theatrical beast: a god production in the Olivier. Praise be!

Antony and Cleopatra plays in the Olivier at the NT on selected dates until 19th January. Tickets are not plentiful, but it does get the NTLive treatment on the 6th December.

I sat in seat F1 in the stalls for this show, which I saw in preview. I paid £29 and I will fight anyone who tells me that that isn't supreme value for money.