Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Theatre Review: Nightfall

What’s the worst sin a piece of theatre can commit? Stunt casting? Exorbitant ticket prices? Prioritising style over substance? The dreaded five minute pause in the second act?

All bad in their own way, but I would argue the absolute worst thing a piece of theatre can be is boring. It’s not something that I can accuse much that I see of being to be honest. I see plenty of stuff that I would argue is bad, but very seldom boring.

Boring is certainly not something I would ever have thought to accuse The Bridge theatre - home, of course, until recently of my beloved Julius Caesar - of being. And yet here we are. Their current production, Nightfall, counts as two and a bit hours of the most bored I have ever been in a theatre.

To misuse a line from Hamlet, the play’s the thing that is 100% of the problem. With all due respect to Barney Norris, whose earlier work everyone seems to agree is brilliant, Nightfall is just a very inconsequential play. To give it its due, it does contain some very nice lines about grief and descriptions of it that feel very apt and very occasionally somewhat profound. But beyond that? The plot is dull and predictable, the characterisation is slight (the mother character, Jenny, is perhaps the least sympathetic on the London stage at the moment and not in an intentional way I suspect) to the extent that what happens to the characters is entirely irrelevant and the whole thing is just a bit meh. It’s very difficult to care about anything happening to the awful, awful characters and their dreary story. It is, ultimately, an almost instantly forgettable piece. It’s not helped, frankly, by being at The Bridge either. This is a small play in a big venue and it just deosn’t feel right. Perhaps in a more intimate setting, the play might connect more. I doubt it, but it might.

It’s a shame the play is so weak because the production is much more The Bridge’s usual high standards, both technically and aesthetically. Rae Smith’s design is undoubtedly the star. The set looks like it’s walked down the South Bank from the Tate Modern, it’s so beautiful, evocative and artfully decaying. The huge oil pipeline that cuts the set in two works as both visual and metaphor; it’s almost more effective at articulating the play’s take on the decline of rural Britain than the play is. I loved the use - and the smell - of real grass and plants too. William Galloway’s video design, used to portray the changing sky behind the set, is equally gorgeous and effective. It combines with some lovely incidental music from Gareth Williams to produce something that looks and sounds far more appealing when the cast and the play aren’t involved. 

The cast of four work hard and give solid, if unspectacular, performances. The highlight is undoubtedly Ophelia Lovibond as spirited, damaged daughter Lou. The rare moments when this play displays some signs of life are almost all down to her. She has a couple of setpiece speeches in particular which are great. Ukweli Roach does some nice work - and has the best written and most sympathetic character to play with - largely in support of her. Claire Skinner is enjoyably evil as the aforementioned Jenny but I never really bought the fact that she was acting as she was because of grief. Partly this is because her motivations aren’t really explained or explored in the script but also because I didn’t quite buy her performance either (which is a shame because generally I think she’s great). 

Overall, this piece is a big disappointment for me and not at all what I’ve come to expect from The Bridge. The theatre was at least a third empty when I saw it - on a Friday night - and it’s hard to say other than that it deserved to be. The saving grace of this though is that there are great tickets available and great upgrades too. I went from back row of the circle to sixth row of the stalls! If you’re planning on seeing Nightfall (and some people love it by the way) I’d advise booking a cheap seat you’ll almost certainly end up sitting somewhere better. And The Bridge is a great theatre to experience anyway, even if you just go for the building and the interval madeleines. 

Nightfall plays at The Bridge until 26th May.

My seat for this show was E42 in the stalls. It wasn’t the seat I paid for, but I did pay - £15. This seat normally sells for £55.

#KeepTheSecrets Approved Theatre Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Has there ever been a theatre production more committed to protecting its audiences from spoilers, and more to the point doing so successfully, than Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? It’s even made it part of its brand with the hashtag for the show being #KeepTheSecrets rather than anything to do with any other aspect of the show or its link with the marketing behemoth that is the boy wizard. You even get an email post-show with a video of a stern J K Rowling warning you against pointing spoilers. I love it.

However, it does make it kind of tricky to review. Especially for me. Like, I’ve met myself on a number of occasions and I know that I cannot be trusted with secrets about things I am enthusiastic about. So please find below a Hamilton style run down of a few thoughts and observations which are unambiguously spoiler free in bulletpoint form for your convenience.
  • This production is both figureatively and literally magical and tbh you just have to see it for yourself. In many ways I wish I had the self control to just stop writing there because that’s really all you need to know. But I don’t so on we go...
  • As an example of the craft of theatre-making it’s sublime. Some of the special effects and illusions, courtesy of Jamie Harrison, are, I have concluded, actual magic. There’s no other explanation for how they’re done. Others are the result of some of the best lighting design I have ever seen, from Neil Austin, and/or a combination of Steven Hoggett’s amazing movement (cape-ography is a thing and he is superb at it) and Katrina Lindsay’s beautiful costumes but are equally impressive. Visually, this play is just astonishing. 
  • Imogen Heap (I’d forgotten all about her, I loved her about ten years ago) has provided a modern, gorgeous score which - brace yourselves for a big statement - I loved every bit as much as John Williams’ classic work for the films. It’s absolutely nothing like them, and yet completely works. There’s some great choreography to go with the music too.
  • J K Rowling’s new story that the plays tells is, in relation to the rest of the HP canon, not the best. If it had been written as a book it would be my least favourite. But plays are meant to be seen and not read and, as a play, it’s perfect; so well constructed and constantly - massively - surprising. It’s no wonder they fear spoilers so much. 
  • The adaptation by Jack Thorne and John Tiffany (who also directs with utter classs) is exceptional. Together with JKR they’ve created something really special.
  • Here’s where things get tricky because I want to talk about the cast but can’t really for fear of spoilers. I’ve never seen a programme for a play that has a spoiler warning with its own cast list before but this one does and for very many good reasons! What I can say though is that the huge ensemble, many doubling or trebling up on major parts, is fantastic. I can safely say that new character Scorpius Malloy is my absolute favourite and that he is show stealingly well play by newcomer Samuel Blenkin.
  • The merch for this show is off the scale. The updating of some of the classic Potter imagery, for example the house crests, is a must own for fans. I’ll be wearing by new look Slytherin logo t shirt with pride this summer.
When this show was announced I was such a sceptic of it, despite being a huge Potter fan. It sounded to me like a cynical cashing in. Harry’s story is over, I thought, why does this show exist but to make money? I was 100% wrong, something I do not often willingly admit. This story, this play and this production is an utter joy from start to finish and a thing of genuine theatrical (and actual?) magic. See it - and see it from the most expensive seat you can afford. It’s worth it.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two are at the Palace Theatre for the foreseeable future. 

My seat for both parts - I did, and would recommend, the two show day - was F14 in the balcony. It cost £85 for both parts. When I go again, I’ll go for a more expensive seat because sightlines from the balcony aren’t as good as I would have liked. 

Monday, 7 May 2018

Theatre Review: Absolute Hell

As play titles to desperately hope not to be prophetic go, Absolute Hell really must be up there.

Written by Rodney Ackland and telling the story of the large (a point I’ll come back to, often) group of misfits, alcoholics, GIs and people just looking for some mediocre food who inhabit the La Vie En Rose club in 1945 London, Absolute Hell is, thankfully, not a prophetic title. God knows I’ve seen some plays at the NT that merit that title (Waste, Common I’m looking in your direction) but this isn’t one of them. Absolute Strangeness would fit. Absolute Example of Something That Would Benefit From A Good Session With A Pair Of Scissors would be even better, though admittedly rather more difficult to fit on a poster.

Because that is, essentially, what Absolute Hell is: an odd, sprawling, slightly rudderless and flabby piece with far too many characters and subplots that go nowhere but which is still actually really quite entertaining. It’s at least twenty minutes too long, which given it’s already forty minutes shorter now than when previews began is kind of baffling. There are twenty - TWENTY - ‘main’ characters, only two of whom are really granted any degree of development and explanation. This combines with the eighteen billion plot lines, I exaggerate but only slightly, to render the overall narrative sometimes super hard to follow and the piece’s key themes hard to draw out except with the benefit of hindsight. It is, however, solidly entertaining and largely absorbing. And actually, with the distance of a few days thought, once you strip away all the crap and superfluous random characters there is at its heart an engaging study of the joys and dangers of escapism and what happens when you finally can’t escape anymore. The idea it hints at that for many of the characters and their real life counterparts, the Second World War was itself the greatest escape they could have hoped for is really interesting and seldom dramatically explored well. I would love to see a more daring version of this play that a really unprecious dramaturg and/or director has had a go at. Severely cut down to just a handful of its central characters and a couple of hours, I think this play could actually be quite brilliant. 

If my imagined new version could exist within Lizzie Clachan’s gorgeous set from this IRL version that would be super. The set is the highlight of an otherwise fairly unremarkable production, but it’s a real beauty. Grim and grimy, oozing faded glamour, squalor, hope and despair from every crack. It also makes fantastic use of the gaping Lyttelton stage and stands up to the demand that the entire cast be on stage for more or less the entire time (not sure this is necessary tbh) whilst still allowing the action at any one moment space to breathe. No mean feat. Jon Clarke’s sympathetic, almost soft focus, lighting is a great back up for this. Director Joe Hill-Gibbons delivers on the visuals and aesthetic, but the script needed taking in hand far more than he seems to have done and the inclusion of the dreaded second act five minute pause earns him an additional demerit (where has the fad for these nonsense things come from and can it please go back there? Either have two proper intervals or don’t). 

Though I’ve complained that there are too many of them, the principal joy of this production comes from the cast. There are some great actors here and everyone delivers what’s asked of them with class and chutzpah. It’s a shame that in so many cases what’s asked of them is so little (the under- and misuse of the excellent Jenny Galloway and Danny Webb is particularly egregious). In the two roles that do have some meat to them, NT casting has really earned their money. Charles Edwards as the tragicomic Hugh is one of the best pieces of casting I’ve seen at the Nash for a while. He’s perfect for the role; funny, vulnerable, heartbreaking, infuriating and someone you just utterly root for. Kate Fleetwood as Christine (the Judi Dench role the last time the NT did this piece) is equally - and entirely expectedly - great. One of the most reliably excellent and assured actresses around, Fleetwood is an acutely well judged mixture of brassy fun and deep, deep sadness which makes for a hugely affecting watch. Amongst the cast of thousands, the ever supremely watchable Jonathan Slinger also stands out as Maurice, a nothing-y part with which he still manages to steal many scenes, as does Martins Imhangbe as the touchingly earnest GI Sam. 

Overall, then, Absolute Hell may not be absolute Hell but neither is it absolute Heaven (I’m sorry). It is absolutely one of the odder pieces I’ve seen at the NT but by no means one of the worst. At the very least, it’s entertaining and its hardworking, top drawer cast does so much to redeem it’s failings. True, there are better things to see in London theatreland at the moment, but Absolute Hell still has something to say that is worthwhile listening to. You just have to work quite hard to hear it.

Absolute Hell is in the Lyttelton at the NT until 16th June. 

My seat for this one was O31 in the stalls for which I paid the pleasingly neat price of £31. 

Friday, 4 May 2018

Theatre Review: The Fall

"Do you really think it's that bad, being that old?" is two things: a line in The Fall, the latest production by the National Youth Theatre, and also a question that in the mouths of the brilliant young people who populate this production something I felt as a personal insult as I sat in the theatre, trying to forget how tired I was and that somehow there is still one more workday this week and generally low level questioning my life choices.

I digress.

The Fall, written by James Fritz, was commissioned by the NYT a couple of years ago. It tells the story of one woman at three stages of her life and in three different interactions with older people, the last, inevitably, being when she herself is the older person. All of these interactions end with the older people dead by, in some way, her (lack of) efforts. A cheery piece. 

Flippancy aside, The Fall is a really interesting piece of work. There's a black humour to it that I found really compelling and, as so often, some well judged levity goes a long way to heighten the drama and darker moments too. The drama is strong, tackling issues of loneliness, the housing crisis (again) and most obviously the relationship between young and old in a society where the perception, fairly or otherwise, is that the old have everything and the young nothing. Big topics, and no easy answers offered, but all really well explored. The structure is intelligent too, telling the story in three separate chunks played by different casts. Each chunk is a self contained narrative in and of itself, and the connection between them is only loosely made. But it works as a whole as well as three separate pieces. Judged on writing alone, I think this is probably one of the better pieces of modern theatre I've seen in a while.

The production is equally, though not quite 100% consistently, strong. To explain the caveat briefly, I could happily have lived without the odd dancing that sits incongruously between each chunk of story - it added nothing except a veneer of pretentiousness which sits so oddly with the rest of this stripped back show. There's good stuff going on elsewhere though: in Matt Harrison's breakneck in a good way direction,  in Christopher Hone's extremely minimal but extremely effective design and especially in Christopher Nairne's gorgeously evocative lighting - some of the effects he generates are really quite incredible given the confines of the space.

As always though the joy of an NYT production is the NYT itself. And of all the NYT companies I've seen this is by some way the strongest. The whole cast (of ten) is great and there's the usual fistfuls of energy and general no-fucks-given-ness that I love NYT productions for. But there is also Serious Acting going on here, punctuation intentional. Niyi Akin and Jesse Bateson are positively dripping charisma as Boy and Girl, the first story's painfully naive characters. In story two, Troy Richards and Sophie Couch are even better as One and Two. Couch is probably the pick of the whole show for me, there's such subtlety and control in what is a really difficult part (no spoilers). In the final story I loved Josie Charles as A (the character names are less annoying in context), who gets the full range of emotions to play with and plays with them really well. Keep an eye on these kids, she said patronisingly. They are definitely going places. 

The Fall is by far the best thing I've yet seen the NYT do - a strong, complex play with a kick ass cast and a (largely) really effective production. Also a lovely venue in the Southwark Playhouse, which I'd not been to before but was really taken with (mostly because they let you take your drink in in an actual glass which is so exciting to me). Recommended, company, production and venue.

The Fall by the National Youth Theatre is at the Southwark Playhouse until 19th May.

My seat was B50, I attended press night and my ticket was kindly provided by the NYT. It would normally cost £20. Which is a bargain.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Theatre Review: Mood Music

Plays about the entertainment industry, broadly defined, are having a bit of a moment. Hot on the heels of the NT’s Network, Chichester’s Quiz (TV) and The Old Vic’s own Fanny and Alexander (theatre) comes their next production: Mood Music (music, obviously).

Mood Music tells the story of a young, new kid on the block (female) musician and an older, successful (male) producer battling over the rights of a hit song they have recorded together. Which of course means by extension it’s about the way women are treated in the music industry, and the wider entertainment industry, and let’s be honest everywhere else. It’s also very funny though so don’t reach for the booze just yet. 

Let’s get something out of the way before launching into the review proper because it’s bugging me: Mood Music is so much like the NT’s production of Nina Raine’s Consent. This is obviously true in some fairly major ways: it shares the same director (Roger Michell), a third of the same cast (Ben Chaplin and Pip Carter) playing broadly comparable characters and the same designer (Hildegard Bechtler). As a result it looks very similar - the selection of microphones hanging over the stage in Mood Music taking the place of the lights in Consent in a particularly striking example - and it feels very similar in its pacing and performance. What is perhaps weirder is that despite having a completely different author, Mood Music is the work of Joe Penhall, and being about, in theory at least, a very different topic - music industry vs justice system - it also sounds very similar. It has the same structure of overlapping conversations and the same punchy style. This isn’t a criticism of either piece really, it’s more of an observation which I’m making purely because it’s probably the thing I’ve been thinking about most since I saw Mood Music. If you’ve seen both it and Consent, I think it’s hard not to notice.

Anyway, that aside I actually really rated Mood Music on its own merits (I also preferred it to Consent, a comparison I will now be parking). Joe Penhall’s writing is great. Horribly, depressingly prescient in its portrayal of the exploitation of (young) women and the way the entertainment industry works it’s also an enjoyably wry, often laugh out loud funny pitch black comedy. I’m not sure it’s quite the biting satire it was perhaps intended to be (though some of that is because real life events have overtaken it in the horror show of #MeToo and associated awfulness) but that didn’t bother me. It’s fantastically entertaining and incredibly watchable, even if through parted fingers at times. The characterisation isn’t amazing, I felt that I was watching archetypes rather than individual characters a lot of the time, but in the context of this piece I actually didn’t mind that too much. I mean, you can laugh as much at the machinations of a lawyer with no personality than you can at one who is a fully realised human being. Well, I can anyway. 

The structure of the play, which I’ve already alluded to, was probably my favourite thing. Without spoiling things too much, the play works as a series of conversations between various combinations the two central characters, their lawyers and their therapists. These conversations overlap so that the story is usually being told from both of the protagonists’ perspectives at the same time. It takes a moment to get your ear in to this, but once you do it works really well and gives a much more rounded version of the story than a more linear structure would have done. It also makes for some fascinating moments watching the actors, who are all on stage at all times to accommodate the structure, who are not involved in the current conversation and what they choose to do. Some seem to try and make themselves disappear, some watch the action as an additional part of the audience and Ben Chaplin largely lounges around as if he owns the place (which he largely does). This is the sort of detailed stuff that I am fucking here for. 

If the play is good fun, the production matches it. Roger Michell’s direction is really top notch: pacy, witty, on top of the action and dialogue at all times. I am at this point even ready to forgive him for Waste which, as regular readers will recognise, is a Big Deal. My only question is whether this piece, with a run time of about 100 minutes, really needs an interval. I’m not convinced it does. Hildegard Bechtler’s design is also fab. So simple, so minimal, but so clever. I loved the lighting especially. I’m not sure, though, how I feel about the conversion of the Old Vic’s auditorium into a thrust stage. It didn’t quite work for me, and sort of felt like someone in the creative team desperately wanted to be in another theatre, or someone in the sales team desperately wanted fewer stalls seats to sell, neither of which are a great look. (I would like to see this piece in a smaller space though, I feel like it would work even better.)

The cast here is great. I’ve mentioned him twice already so it may come as no surprise to learn that Ben Chaplin is my pick of the tiny ensemble (of six). Chaplin is one of those actors who is just endlessly watchable. Dripping with charisma and malice but also hinting at something far more human in his underwritten character, he is a joy in this. I could watch him lolling about in the battered leather chair that is the central prop like some kind of middle aged lion for literally days. I also really enjoyed Pip Carter as his therapist/verbal sparring partner. There is almost nothing to his character, but he gets some great lines and delivers them with perfect timing. After the other show that they were both in that I promised I wouldn’t mention again, it’s so fun to see these two squaring up again. They have great chemistry. Everyone else in the cast delivers too - Seana Kerslake in particular is something of a revelation as the young star, wringing every ounce of strength and vulnerability out of what is actually a very difficult part - and watching them all on stage at the same time is really exciting. 

I really enjoyed Mood Music. It’s great fun, fantastically entertaining and, depressingly, very much a play for our times. It’s really well staged and the cast is a gift. Definitely worth your time. Just maybe don’t see Consent in the same weekend.

Mood Music is at the Old Vic until 16th June.

My seat for Mood Music was L18 in the stalls. I saw a preview and bought my ticket in the PWC £10 Previews promotion. Normally, it would cost £65 (though there are loads of promotions on tickets for this one).