Friday, 30 March 2018

Theatre Review: Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

In the first quarter of 2018, I reckon I’ve willingly and spontaneously participated in more standing ovations than I have in the entire rest of my theatre going life.

I still find them a weird phenomenon. They’re not naturally British, are they? Too showy. And why is clapping better because you’re standing up anyway? IDK. But stand I have, with considerable unease obviously, loads so far this year.

The latest in my series of awkward standing is Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the incredible musical retelling of the even more incredible real life story of a 16 year old drag queen going to his school prom in a dress. Given the introduction I’ve just given it, it goes without saying that I bloody loved this show and so has pretty much every other critic, blogger and normal human who has seen it as far as I can tell. Which is as it should be. I’m not sure I’d trust anyone who saw this show and didn’t love it.

Jamie is written by Dan Gillespie Sells (him off of The Feeling) and Tom MacRae - based on a BBC3 documentary about the real life Jamie - and they’ve created something really special. This is such an uplifting show that I 100% recommend as a way to restore your faith in humanity, and honestly who doesn’t need that at the moment? The music is great: catchy and memorable (the title song has finally shifted My Shot from Hamilton from my head!), using cleverly varied styles of music for different characters whilst still hanging together as a coherent whole. The music and book together strike exactly the right balance between happy and sad. The tougher scenes - be they of homophobia and other assorted prejudice or the internal struggles of various characters - are genuinely tough, and occasionally unpleasant, to watch. Reality is never shied away from. None of the characters are sugar coated. In fact the characterisation is great, particularly of Jamie and his mum, who are very much and very rightly the lead characters, but also of the supporting characters and even those who you would broadly class as the bad guys (resident school bigot Dean is actually one of the best developed characters of the lot for my money). None of them are one dimensional. As a Yorkshire expat, I also loved how much the writers embrace the Sheffield setting and use Yorkshire dialect. It made me feel at home, even if some of the Sheffield-centric jokes don’t quite travel (I laughed). It’s difficult to imagine a stronger and more defiant fuck you to the ‘the British musical is dead’ brigade than this gem of a show. 

The production is fab as well. Director Jonathan Butterell has delivered some solid gold theatrical magic in this show, which is so finely judged and finely paced it’s almost irritating. Anna Fleischle’s design is so bloody functional and efficient (properties of which I am a huge fan) but also looks wicked and is really effective. I loved the school set in particular and the hiding of the band within the backdrop. Kate Prince has done wonders with the choreography. It’s completely modern but also feels completely classically musical theatre too. And it has so much personality. There are a couple of sight line issues (from where I was sat), owing to the size of the stage I think, but overall this is a cracker of a production to match its cracker of a show.

And then there’s the cast. First of all, can we talk about how diverse they are? Different ages, different levels of professional experience (so many West End debuts are being made, which is always amazing to see but especially in a show of this quality), different races, different religions (a mainstream musical with two girls wearing hijabs shouldn’t be worthy of comment and yet), different body types, fabulous drag queens, the list could go on - and to a man and woman each of them outstanding. It’s incredibly heartening, depressingly worthy of comment, and a real credit to British theatre to see this cast knocking it out of the park on a West End stage. 

The show belongs to its title character though, really. John McCrae is force of nature. I’ve never (or at least exceptionally rarely) seen an actor who owns the stage and the audience as thoroughly as he does, nor an audience react to an actor the way they react to him. He shows astonishing emotional depth, has an incredible voice, moves like Beyoncé and does all of this in gravity defying heels. He’s already been acknowledged as a superstar and rightly so. If he doesn’t win the Olivier then I will riot (quietly). That said, he is run very close for the show by the sublime Josie Walker as his mum. She is phenomenal, probably the best female musical performance I’ve ever seen - and I’ve seen St Imelda a fair few times. She is so fundamentally lovable, so heartbreakingly sad and so utterly kick ass (if you’re a fan, think Carol in The Walking Dead but more northern and packing less heat). Her big solo number is literally show stopping. I also loved Mina Anwar as Ray, providing some perfectly timed comedy and northern soul as Ray. And shout out to the three actors playing the ‘villains’ in the show - I saw Luke Baker (school bully Dean), Rebecca McKinnis (understudy Miss Hedge) and Spencer Stafford (understudy Jamie’s dad) - who have the least fun parts to work with but still produce believeable, redeemable characters. Big love for fab understudies.

This show is just a ray of sunshine in a world that can seem pretty bleak at the moment. It’s genuinely life affirming stuff, a salutary lesson in what diversity really looks like (on stage and in real life) and a cracking advert for British theatre and British musicals. An utter, utter joy.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is at the Apollo Theatre.

My seat was C19 in the stalls (second row, there’s no row A). It was £65 and, sadly, I paid for it. 

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Theatre Review: Cathy

Homelessness is one of those issues, isn’t it? You know what I mean. Something that feels so big and complicated and overwhelmingly awful that it can be tempting to put it in the too difficult pile and think about something else.

It’s also one of those issues that’s really not going away. I mean, have you been to like any major UK city, or even not major UK town, recently and not been horrified by the number of people sleeping on the streets (which has doubled since 2010)? And that’s only the immediately visible part of the problem, before hostels, temporary accommodation, shelters and those stuck in the cycle of deceptively cheerily named sofa surfing is factored in. According to Crisis over 59,000 households (not people, households) were accepted as homeless in England last year. If that doesn’t make you angry then you’re either a garbage human being or you don’t understand the problem.

If the latter, then you 100% need to see Cardboard Citizens’ production of Cathy, currently playing at the Soho Theatre. Cathy updates the classic Ken Loach film Cathy Come Home, the inspiration for the majority of the UK’s homelessness laws (which, as a result, are actually quite progressive - in theory). It’s an absolutely bang on exploration of contemporary homelessness that anyone who wants to understand the problem more should see. It’s also a very good play, which helps.

Ali Taylor is the writer tasked with bringing Loach’s work into the 2010s and he’s done a great job. It is clearly impeccably well researched, making for a chillingly believable and almost depressingly everyday story, but more than that it’s full of humanity, anger, sadness, warmth and love. The characterisation is great - it’s full of recognisable (and recognisably distinct, which is important given two of the cast of four play multiple parts) and rounded people and the two lead roles, Cathy and daughter Danielle, are complex and real. It has a lot to say about the intersectionality of issues that affect someone’s chances of being homeless. Class and gender are clearly tackled, but I found the inclusion of nationality and race probably the most interesting. If I have a criticism it’s that the play’s presentation of people in authority positions is a bit too black and white for my taste. This is especially true of the local council staff characters who are pretty flat and complete jobsworths which, in my experience (in my day job I work a lot with council staff, including sometimes on issues to do with homelessness), isn’t entirely fair. Personal experience aside though, I also think it would have been dramatically and politically more interesting to look closer at the impossible situation that local government budget cuts are putting council staff in. No matter how much they care, and in my experience most of them care a lot, they simply have no money to help people in so many cases and I’d have liked to see this idea - which to be fair is alluded to - brought in more explicitly. 

The production is enjoyably low tech. Yes there is video projection but it’s used only to cover set changes, which are done by hand by the cast every time. Lucy Sierra’s DIY set is great - who knew a selection of chairs and a bunch of oversize Jenga blocks could be so adaptive? The Jenga tower which provides so much of the set and is ever present is a great metaphorical touch too; the way it looms over the action at all times a great reminder of how quickly anyone can find themselves in Cathy’s situation. I also really liked the inclusion of verbatim (I assume) interview recordings of real people (I assume) talking about their experiences of homelessness, played with the video over set changes. They were really effective and a great reminder of how real this problem is. 

The cast is great too. First of all, Cardboard Citizens as a concept is amazing and I love them - I’d heard of but not seen the company before and wasn’t really aware of what they did. Now that I am, I’m definitely a fan. I love how unashamedly activist they are too, it’s great to see a company that engages with politics literally as well as through their work. The company Citz have put forward for Cathy, all four of them, is insanely hard working. Cathy Owen is an excellent Cathy (must make getting into character easier!), especially in the quieter moments. Her face conveys a crazy amount of emotion and poignancy. As daughter Danielle, Hayley Wareham brings real complexity and depth; a great mix of typical teenage nonsense and genuine heartbreak. Alex Jones as literally every man in the play is everywhere all the time and somehow still manages to make his (almost universally awful) characters distinct and human. My pick, though, is Amy Loughton as all the other female characters. She gets some of the play’s best writing - especially on race and immigration as a Polish toilet attendant and on empathy as a Welsh bus driver - and totally sells it. I loved watching her and missed her when she wasn’t on stage (which is not often given how many characters she plays).

Cathy is an incredibly powerful, poignant and effecting piece of theatre. It’s an issue play that thoroughly gets and engages with its issue, and isn’t afraid to ask that its audience does the same. And Cardboard Citizens are great too - I’m so glad I finally got a chance to get to know them. 

Cathy is at the Soho Theatre until 14th April, then tours. Check out to learn more about Cardboard Citizens’ current work on homelessness. 

My seat was H5. I attended press night and my ticket was kindly provided by the company. It would normally cost £16. 

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Theatre Review: Kiss of the Spider Woman

It’s possible I’ve made this observation before, but the Menier Chocolate Factory is one of my favourite theatres in London.

The space is so cool - I love brutalism and concrete so even if it were empty I’d love it - and so adaptable; the programming is so interesting and so consistently well delivered; the restaurant and wine selection - IMPORTANT - is great (and their large wine glass measure is basically a half pint which also helps).

I’ve so far managed to avoid seeing a straight play there though, having up until now only seen a hattrick of musicals. And when I tell you that the latest thing I’ve seen there is Kiss of the Spider Woman you might think that trend was continuing. You’d be wrong, soz.

Based on the classic story by Manuel Puig, in a new dramatic (ie not musical) adaptation by Jose Rivera and Allan Baker, Kiss of the Spider Women (henceforth KOTSW), tells the story of Molina and Valentin, two prisoners in Peronist Argentina. Molina is locked up for his sexuality, Valentin for his politics and they are very much camp chalk and alpha cheese. What follows is a sort of serious Odd Couple, taking in meditations on fantasy, loneliness, oppression and friendship.

Rivera and Baker’s writing has an admirable stab at all of these big old topics and delivers something that is touching, funny and, surprisingly to me at least, enjoyably catty. The humour in what is otherwise a fairly bleak play is really well done and effectively used, both to punctuate and to amplify the otherwise all consuming grimness. There are some great one liners - I would like Molina’s observation that “If I’m not the leading lady I don’t want to be in the play” on a t shirt immediately please. The writing, and indeed the whole production, is at its best during the moments of sheer escapism and fantasy in which Molina describes his favourite films to Valentin. These are beautifully and evocatively written. It’s entirely possible to lose yourself in them.

There was something missing for me though and I’m not honestly sure what it was. If I were to try and describe it, I think momentum is probably the best word. Particularly in the early part of the play, the writing does seem to meander a bit and takes a mite too long to establish where it’s going. Some of the political pronouncements, also largely front loaded in the text, are a bit heavy handed too; a bit David Hare on an off day. It’s by no means a bad piece of writing, at times it’s a really really good one, but I never found it entirely compelling overall.

However, any issue I had with some of the writing was completely overshadowed by how beautifully this production is staged. The use of the space is unbelievable, in that it seems entirely impossible that this is the same theatre that housed Barnum or Into the Woods or Assassins. The transformation is incredible; the American tourists sat next to me were briefly but genuinely concerned that the theatre was structurally unsound because it had been roughed up so convincingly (I promise that’s true).

Jon Bausor’s design is the absolute star of the show, gorgeously bleak. Paul Anderson’s lighting is stark but sympathetic. Philip Pinsky’s music and soundscape is so effective, it’s amazing how much sound can make the same space feel incredibly claustrophobic and utterly free so well. The real gem here, though, is Andrzej Goulding’s incredible projections which are not only technically impressive and visually stunning, they’re genuinely memorable in a way that so much theatre design isn’t. They’re also fully integrated into the production in a way which is so rarely the case when projection is used. Director Laurie Sansom deserves kudos for managing all of this in a way which isn’t overwhelming and keeps the show feeling like a coherent whole. His pacing is good too - and gets better as the show goes on.

KOTSW has three characters - Molina, Valentin and a prison guard - but really it’s Molina’s show and so this production belongs to Samuel Barnett. He’s on top form; wry, sprightly and full of both sassy fun and heartfelt sadness. In particular, his storytelling in the fantasy sections is gorgeous and his scenes with the prison guard where his conflicting motivations (no spoilers) are laid bare are really effectively done. You miss him when he’s not the centre of the action, which fortunately is not that often. As Valentin, Declan Bennett has a tougher time. It’s a less good part, with fewer and less good lines, and he has a hard job keeping up with the sparkling Barnett. The physicality he brings to the role, though, is excellent. The occasional fits he’s required to have are genuinely uncomfortable (and sometimes frightening) to watch. He really effectively, silently, communicates an only just controlled violence and rage which the part definitely requires.

KOTSW isn’t my favourite thing that I’ve ever seen at the Menier, it doesn’t quite have the same all around wow factor of other things I’ve seen there. But for all that it’s still an extremely competent production and the incredible design is 100% worth seeing in the flesh. Well, in the concrete. And if you’re a Samuel Barnett fan, this one’s definitely for you.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 5th May.

My seat was A4. It cost £32.50 and I paid for it. I saw a preview.

Theatre Review: Misty

Honestly, at this point I'm a bit bored of writing reviews that rave about stuff at The Bush Theatre. Like, can't they just do something bad,  or at least indifferent, for a change? They're like that annoying over achieving kid at school who finishes top of the year but is somehow completely chill about it (me, except I don't remember being especially chill about it).

I digress. Their current production is Misty, a play/gig/monologue/poem/balloon extravaganza written by and starring the brilliant Arinzé Kene. It tells two stories simultaneously: that of Kene's creation of the show and, within it (play within a play klaxon) that of Luke, a young black man who has an unfortunate encounter on a nightbus which changes his life. And, annoyingly or otherwise, it's really bloody good.

Let's talk about that structure first of all because it's a bit of a mind fuck. A lot of the 'real' portion of the show is a debate around whether what Kene has written is a typical, "depressing shit", "urban jungle safari", ‘black play’ (sorry, that's a lot of punctuation), designed to help white, middle class people feel like - or pretend - that they understand or care about the experiences of black people. After all, he's written a piece of theatre and who goes to the theatre but middle class white people? And I'll tell you something, as a middle class white person, this was a pretty uncomfortable line of thinking. There were a couple of moments where I physically shrunk into my seat with embarrassment. But Kene doesn't leave this idea unquestioned (thankfully). He forcefully embraces and demands the right to tell his story, in his language, in a theatre. After all, middle class white people get to write about their experiences unquestioned and unremarked upon all the time. Why shouldn't young black men? The dynamics at play between these two ideas are complex, sparky and angry. They make for a compelling and confusing watch.

The play within this is equally thematically rich. Kene imagines London as a living being, made up of blood cells and viruses. But who are the blood cells and who are the viruses? In his judgement, the virus is gentrification and the way it forces traditional communities, for want of a better phrase, out of their homes and replaces them with Starbucks or nice places to have brunch. He makes his argument here all the more compelling by initially presenting it the other way round - that the nice middle class (white) people and their definition of progress are the blood cells -  an argument he demolishes quite beautifully. I loved the line "you create me but now you hate me", which is a more forceful and effective summing up of income inequality than I've heard anywhere else. 

The writing, themes apart, is just really bloody good: punchy, angry, evocative and with a great line in dark, deadpan, sarcastic humour. I would also argue it has a strong case for the best opening line in London at the moment: "A lot of crazy shit happens on the nightbus". I was pretty much sold by that sentence.

Kene the performer is as sensational as Kene the writer. The energy - physical, mental and creative - he brings to the performance is incredible. He's exactly the sort of quadruple threat that this utterly unique show demands: he's a great actor, has an amazing singing voice (that falsetto though!), can rap with a Jay Z-esque swagger and has the physicality to successfully extricate himself into a wetsuit at speed and out of an inflated then deflated balloon. No, really. I could watch him for days. 

A word of praise too for the design of this production which is, there's no other word for it, sexy. Sexy as hell. The brutalist vision of London it conjures up (via, essentially, one wall and one screen) is stunning and Jackie Shemesh's lighting design is just amazing. The use of shadows is incredible. I would very much like my life to be lit like this. Daniel Denton's video design is also great, effectively used and weirdly beautiful. Omar Elarian;s direction feels basically non-existent and really lets the piece breathe, which is what something like this desperately needs to work. 

Misty is yet another fearless commission from The Bush which has totally paid off and Arinzé Kene is an absolute superstar. I may not have found Misty a comfortable watch, but then that's the whole point. To quote my absolute favourite line from the whole piece: "If audiences don't want to be challenged they shouldn't come to the theatre." Long may the Bush, and Kene, keep challenging.

Misty plays at The Bush Theatre until 21st April.

My seat was C10, front and (slightly off) centre. I attended press night and my ticket was kindly provided by The Bush. It would normally cost £20. 

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Theatre Review: The Inheritance

Here’s a phrase I don’t use lightly: I’ve seen a new work that’s the best piece of writing I’ve ever seen.

Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, currently playing at the Young Vic, is that work. And, really, ohmigod it’s a thing of utter beauty. There will be no pussyfooting around in this post: The Inheritance is an astonishing piece, one of the best things I’ve ever seen. Across two parts - seven hours! - the writing is incredible, the acting is incredible, the production is incredible. Do yourself a favour: stop reading this post right now, go and buy tickets, and then maybe come back and finish the post if you fancy.

The Inheritance tells the story of a group of gay men navigating their lives, their history and their community. It’s set in present day New York (City and State), with flashbacks and some flashforwards. Although all but one of the characters are gay men and Aids does loom very large over the plot, I don’t think either part, or the play as a whole, can be categorised as a ‘gay play’ or an ‘Aids play’ - if such things even exist (I’m not convinced). It’s a universal human play. If you can’t identify with the characters in it then there is something fundamentally wrong with your soul.

As previously mentioned, the writing in The Inheritance (I’m going to refer to it as one play throughout this post, it’s one story even if split over two parts) is genuinely the best I’ve ever seen. I know that’s a big statement but it’s true. And here’s another: I think this is a better piece of writing than Angels in America. Yes, I went there. It’s so truthful, so heartbreaking (my god, I’ve never cried in the theatre like I cried watching this) and so funny. The balance between the tragedy and the comedy is perfect; they both highlight each other and make the tragedy bearable - this could be a very bleak piece indeed. Structurally, it’s also beautiful. Without giving too much away, the idea is that it’s told by a sort of writers’ group who form both narrators of and characters in the story. The upshot is that the story is told in a mixture of third person narration and first person dialogue which is so bloody clever. E M Forster - the play is loosely inspired by Howard’s End - also makes an appearance as an additional narrator and kind-of-writing tutor, which sounds kind-of-wanky but totally works. It is a glorious celebration of storytelling - particularly the oral tradition - and the importance of shared history. The characterisation is superb. Even the more minor characters are fully formed and completely credible. I could go on at extreme length. Honestly, the writing is just astonishing.

It’s matched by a beautiful and effective production. The mighty Stephen Daldry is in the director’s chair and has given us a sublime seven hours of theatre. There are some utterly magical moments here. Spoiler free zone, but the end of Part I is jaw - and tear - dropping; the bit in Part II that I’ve started referring to as That Vanessa Redgrave Scene likewise (if you’ve seen the show, you’ll know exactly which two bits I’m thinking of I have no doubt). Bob Crowley’s design is stunningly simple and effective, a sort of bare Ikea coffee table of a stage used to its full potential (this is a compliment, I realise it may not sound like one). Continuing the subtle but gorgeous theme, Jon Clarke’s lighting is beautiful. There’s some great use of spotlights in particular. Paul Englishby’s music is arguably a bit treacly sometimes, but I really liked it.

It is matched by some extraordinary acting from what must surely be the best ensemble in town at the moment. In the lead, Eric, Kyle Soller is phenomenal; strong and sad and inspiring. He also cries really well, I creepily noticed. Samuel H Levine does terrific double duty as a hauntingly tragic Leo and a likeable but complex Adam. There is one scene where these two characters meet and the way he portrays who is speaking each line is so subtle and brilliant. I also enjoyed his momentary corpsing (which I’ve never seen live) when someone in the front row with a majestic laugh caught his ear. Andrew Burnap’s Toby gets all the best, most fabulous lines but also some of the most horrific. He’s brilliant at the comedy, which makes his tragedy all the more effective. Paul Hilton, also on double duty as Morgan (aka E M Forster) and Walter is the heart of Part I and does the most extraordinary twenty (?) minute monologue towards the end. John Benjamin Hickey has perhaps the least naturally sympathetic part - a Republican! - but works magic on it and brings out heartbreaking hidden depths.

And then there’s Vanessa Redgrave who delivers one of the most poignant performances I’ve ever seen. Her American accent is a bit wandering, physically she is clearly struggling a bit and an occasional line gets fluffed but, my god, she can still turn in something of utter theatrical magic. Her main scene (That Vanessa Redgrave Scene) is unbelievably well acted and incredibly powerful - I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house, literally. It’s utterly tragic and completely redemptive. It’s incredible; completely bloody incredible.

I don’t think I have the language to fully do The Inheritance justice. I hope how much I loved it has come across anyway. I won’t forget this piece in a very long time. It was an utter privilege to see, all seven hours of it. The sort of show that makes theatre seem more relevant and vital than ever. Buy tickets immediately.

The Inheritance is at the Young Vic until 19th May.

My seat was M9, upstairs at the side. It cost £10 for each play, £20 in total, and I paid for it.  

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Theatre Review: Caroline, Or Change

The phrase ‘Tony Kushner musical’ is definitely one that will get my attention. Expand that phrase to ‘Tony Kushner musical, transferring from Chichester, starring Sharon D Clarke’ and I’m basically sat outside the theatre weeks before tickets go on sale waiting to give them my money.

Caroline, Or Change is the aforementioned ace sounding musical. It’s transferred, after a critically knock out run in the Minerva at Chichester, to the Hampstead Theatre (a venue I normally highly rate). It tells the story of Caroline, a black maid in a white Jewish Louisiana family’s home, and how the change in the pockets of the small boy she helps look after fundamentally disturb her life. 

Now then. Everything I’m going to say in the rest of this post is predicated on one fact: from where I was sat - the back row of the circle, not the cheapest seat in the house - I couldn’t hear the performers properly, or sometimes at all, over the orchestra. I don’t know why this was (poor acoustics? crap mics? bad sound design? the fact that the band is raised in this production to be level with the circle?) or whose fault or whether it was something that just affected that one performance. But it was a serious problem. So many of the lyrics were just undecipherable over the band which in any musical would be a problem, in one that is through-composed it fundamentally stops you from following what’s going on.

This makes reviewing the show a bit problematic. My experience of it is so clearly impacted by that technical issue, but that’s not the fault of the cast or the writers. But how else can I review it other than based on my experience?

There obviously is no other way, so what follows here is as fair a review as I can write based on what I saw and heard (or didn’t hear).

It’s fair to say that this is not my favourite Tony Kushner piece. Which is obviously by no means to say it’s bad - rather like James Graham, even the worst Tony Kushner is better than the best of many other writers. Thematically, it’s interesting and complex. The interplay between the Jewish and black characters and their perceptions and experience of the civil rights movement is particularly well done. I also enjoyed the skewering of middle class white privilege and the thoughtful portrayal of very different women being crushed by domestic change and pressure even as they sail through more significant personal and political events. It does feel a mite too clever for its own good though - from what I could make out of them, the contrasting songs about JFK and his legacy served no particularly useful purpose - and occasionally feels like something akin to a Tony Kushner paint by numbers exercise. I never quite got the feeling that the plot hung together particularly well either, though this is one area where I’m more or less certain that not being able to hear so many of the lyrics was the problem.

Jeanine Tesori’s music is similarly complex and I enjoyed the playful inclusion of so many styles and occasional borrowing of other existing melodies. I can’t say I found any of it particularly memorable (possibly this is because, having seen Hamilton so recently, there’s no room in my brain for anything but My Shot) but Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw is great fun, Mr Stopnick and Emmie the definite high point of the show’s politics and Lot’s Wife a proper showstopper (especially in the hands of the majestic Sharon D Clarke).

Sound issues aside, the production is extremely competent as well. Fly Davis’ design is technically clever and visually fun. Michael Longhurst’s direction is pacy and natural. Ann Yee’s choreography is a real highlight, effective, good looking and characterful. The Hampstead stage works surprisingly well and the sightlines (in the interest of balance) are properly thought through. 

The cast is kick ass. The reliably excellent Sharon D Clarke is, reliably, excellent as Caroline. She is such a good actress and her voice is so silky and beautiful. She’s on great form here; sadness and heart and fear personified. Working with significantly less sympathetic material as the uptight Gellmans, Lauren Ward and Alastair Brookshaw are also strong. They make their characters if not entirely sympathetic then at least people you can understand. The real stand out for me though was Abiona Omonua as the headstrong, rebel Emmie; a charismatic, agile and energetic presence who you really miss when she’s not on stage. The quality of the cast made the sound issues all the more frustrating.

Look, I’ve tried really hard but at the end of the day it’s so hard for me to overlook - and forgive - those bloody sound issues. It’s so fundamental to any production, but especially a musical, that the sound is done right, otherwise what’s the point? Maybe if I’d been sat in a different (more expensive?) seat or gone on a different night I’d be raving about this show. But I didn’t and so I’m not.

Caroline, Or Change is at the Hampstead until 21st April.

My seat was Q3 in the circle. It cost £27 and I paid for it. I saw the final preview.
*You’ll be seeing this statement - where I sat, how much the ticket costs for this production, whether I paid or had a free press ticket and if I saw a particular performance (eg a preview or press night) - at the bottom of all of my reviews from now on, because I think critics - even hobby ones - need to be honest about this stuff. h/t @WestEndProducer*

Monday, 12 March 2018

Theatre Review (sort of): Hamilton

I finally saw Hamilton this weekend and, yes, it is amazing and wonderful and I am fully and instantly obsessed.

However, I’m also aware that the world needs another Hamilton review about as much as it needs another Donald Trump tweet right now. And I don’t really want to spend my pressure lunch hour expounding at length about things that everyone already knows. So what I thought I’d do, with your indulgence, is give you just a few observations on why the show is great - and in particular why the current London production is great. Look, it’s in bullet points and everything…

  • The show is a masterpiece. The music, and what it’s done to and for the musical form, is extraordinary. Believe the hype. All of it. 
  • Lin Manuel Miranda is a genius. This is indisputable fact at this point. 
  • Theatre wankery alert: there were like a lot of moments in this show where I found I was crying just because it was so good (this has only ever happened to me on one other occasion: Nathan Lane in Angels in America).
  • I wish someone had warned me how emotionally absorbing this show is, particularly in Act 2. It’s Quiet Uptown nearly killed me. Had I been more prepared I would at least have worn waterproof mascara. Not doing so was a major error.
  • The British cast is amazing. Further details below, but as a single entity they make me so hopeful for the future of British (musical) theatre.
  • There are two Hamiltons. I saw Ash Hunter and he is a superstar in the making. Or, more likely, a superstar made. 
  • The trio of supporting actors who have been Olivier Award nominated - Jason Pennycooke (Lafayette/Jefferson), Michael Jibson (King George III) and Cleve September (John Laurens/Philip Hamilton) - are all wicked awesome. Pennycooke in particular is having a frankly suspicious amount of fun. I loved watching him.
  • Rachelle Ann Go, as Eliza Hamilton, has the most beautiful voice. Also, Eliza Hamilton was far more kickass than I realised.
  • Understudies! There are many and they’re exceptional. I saw Miriam-Teak Lee on for Angelica Schuyler and Sifiso Mazibuko on for Burr and I wouldn’t have believed they were understudies had I not read the board in the foyer. Understudies are criminally underrated as a group anyway but these guys are off the hook.      
  • I’m a sucker for merch in any and all circumstances. There is so much merch here and it is so cool. I was in heaven. I am now significantly poorer.
  • Cameron Mackintosh’s refurbishment of the Victoria Palace Theatre is gorgeous and actually fit for purpose in the twenty first century. The seats are comfy, the sightlines are good, there are plenty of bars and plenty of space. I didn’t even have to queue for the ladies!!
  • I will see this show again, but I’m really sad that I’ll never get to see it for the first time again. It was truly special.

Hamilton is playing at the Victoria Palace Theatre, presumably for the rest of time.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Theatre Review: Fanny and Alexander

The Old Vic has a good track record of adapting not-theatre stuff into theatre. Bob Dylan songs, Dr Seuss, gothic horror novels, classic Hollywood films; this theatre has seemed to be at its strongest in the recent past when doing some of its own brand of recycling (The Lorax would be proud).

Currently it’s having a crack at Ingmar Bergman, the Godfather of Scandi Noir whose centenary year it is. Fanny and Alexander is the piece they’ve chosen to play with and it’s a wise choice. The story of a theatrical family whose lavish, bohemian life is thrown into austere, frightening chaos when a Bishop marries into the family this is, in many ways, a piece made for the stage as much as the screen.

In an interesting introduction to an otherwise underwhelming programme (what have you done to your programmes, Old Vic?) Artistic Director Matthew Warchus describes Fanny and Alexander as an adult fairytale which is very fitting. As that moniker implies, it does make for a slightly odd beast in terms of plot and theme, as all the best fairytales are; part love letter to the power of the theatre, part family comedy, part psychological thriller, with some magic and a bit of a ghost story chucked in for good measure. 

As a love letter to the theatre and a family comedy it works completely. Some of the magic is magical too. But is it an effective thriller? I’m not sure. It can ramp up the tension for sure, but for me never quite reaches the heights (or depths) of darkness and fear that it needs to. 

Much of the credit for what works - and little of the criticism for what doesn’t - belongs to Stephen Beresford’s adaptation. It’s funny and warm and cutting and creepy. The bits on why the theatre is great were, perhaps inevitably, my favourite. They also felt extraordinarily pertinent without the meerest hint of an actual contemporary reference. The comedy is perfectly judged, expertly constructed and just very funny. There are some cracking and quotable lines (though whether these are Beresford or Bergman I confess I don’t know): “We are all born to play our part; some of us do it sloppily, some of us with tremendous style”, “There is no shame in deriving pleasure from this little world”. And those are just the ones I attempted to scribble down, possibly incorrectly, in the dark. There’s no question that this is an extremely well written piece of theatre.

It also looks and sounds amazing. Tom Pye’s design is effective and cleverly evocative. I especially loved the ‘box’ set which served as both the Bishop’s terrible palace and the Ekdahl family’s happy, loving summer home - the way that this set was used, alongside some gorgeous lighting, to transform between the awful and the lovely with the slightest of swap in props and move of a spotlight was really well done (the way the Bishop is so frequently backlit to cast a long shadow and/or silhouetted is probably the scariest thing about him too). The use of Alex Baranowski’s music and Tom Gibbons’ sound design is great, especially when it’s really cranking up the tension. Max Webster’s direction is, mercifully, sprightly. The three and a half hour (two intervals) run time never seems to drag for an instant.

For all this, in the darker moments the production never quite gets to where it needs. It feels like, for all the excellent stuff that’s going on, it holds something back and never allows itself to go truly horrific. I sort of understand the thought process here I think: it would be very easy for some of these scenes (and by ‘these scenes’ I essentially mean every scene with the Bishop after the first interval) to drift into treacly melodrama or Hammer Horror camp so let’s try and do something more subtle. Thing is, for me, it’s too subtle. Too controlled. This is evident in some of the production choices and more evident still in Kevin Doyle’s performance of the role, which doesn’t really work for me. He’s compelling and charismatic but not scary. Irritating, a cartoon villain. His Bishop feels a bit like someone who just needs a good slap rather than a truly frightening and powerful character. This isn’t an outright criticism of his performance either, it’s difficult to see how else the character could have been conceived within the bounds this production sets on its darker moments.

Elsewhere, the acting is superb; and no more so than Queen of the Show Penelope Wilton. She is masterful - waspish, sassy, extremely funny but also full of heart. It’s a big joyful hug of a performance and sheer class. Similarly, Michael Pennington’s gloriously old school performance, full of depth and pathos, is lovely to watch. You really miss these two when they’re not on stage. Jonathan Slinger - increasingly one of my favourite actors - provides some much needed comic relief and scene stealing as a loveableish philanderer, delivering two of the most enjoyable set piece speeches of the show. And, in a show where the titular characters are both children, the quality of the child actors is really something, particularly as these are difficult and often physically and emotionally unpleasant parts. Guillermo Bedward’s Alexander - the more difficult, but also more fun, of the two parts by some measure - is particularly impressive. I get the feeling he enjoys all the swearing a lot (boy after my own heart).

Fanny and Alexander is a slightly weird but hugely enjoyable show. It’s a beautiful hymn to the power of theatre, if not a particularly scary thriller, and Penelope Wilton is worth the price of a ticket more or less on her own. Worth your time, all three and a half hours of it.

Fanny and Alexander is at the Old Vic until 14th April.