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. 

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Theatre Review: An Adventure

Of all the Artistic Directors jumping on the theatre leadership job merry go round that London seems to be going through at the moment, the only one I can honestly muster strong feelings about is Madani Younis leaving The Bush.

I’m a relative newcomer to The Bush and haven’t known it under anyone else’s stewardship but everything about it’s vibe under Younis is something I love. Not least it’s extraordinarily inclusive, often quite brave programming - the best in London as far as I’m concerned. As well as the diversity of voices The Bush allows to be heard, I particularly love the fact that it gives new and newish writers a platform.

Vinay Patel probably falls into the newish category. I mean his debut play may only have been staged four years ago but he’s also won an RTS award and been nominated for a bunch of Baftas (for Murdered By My Father - which is great and you should watch btw) in the meantime. Oh, and he’s writing for the new series Doctor Who. So yeah. There’s that. 

An Adventure perhaps has some things in common with the current good Doctor. Set over the course of 60 years plus, An Adventure tells the story of Rasik and Jyoti from their meeting and early romance as youngsters in Ahmedabad to their lives as immigrants in London, via an encounter with the Mau Mau rebellion in Nairobi, and back again (time travel sans Tardis). It’s a great piece of writing for me on two levels. First of all, it tells a story of which I was pretty shamefully ignorant: that of the immigrant experience of first generation Asians (both to Britain and elsewhere). It’s fantastic to see that story on the stage, fullstop. And, as I suspect is the intention, it makes a fantastic companion piece to The Bush’s production of Leave Taking. That would’ve been a hell of a two show day. 

On a deeper level though it serves as a timely reminder of the universality of some aspects of the human condition: the importance of family, the desire to find somewhere where you truly belong even if you have to fight for it, the fear of aging and of a life wasted, the difficulties of love, the fight for freedom, the depressing inevitability of discrimination. It’s a surprisingly political play, no bad thing, and a funny one too both in a laugh out loud and laugh awkwardly sort of way. The characterisation is great, the small cast of characters all richly drawn and sympathetic even as their views oppose and diverge. For my money, at two hours forty five (plus intervals) it is a trifle too long, though to what extent this view is influenced by the fact that The Bush’s seats don’t have armrests I can’t honestly say (I love armrests, it makes me sad that so many theatres don’t feel the same way).

Perhaps the best thing about An Adventure, and the thing that made me look forward to Patel’s foray into the Who-niverse, is the strength of Jyoti as the central character. This is very much her play, and the focus on the female character of the couple when this is so often not the case in real life (as the play explicitly acknowledges) is touching and dramatically deft. Jyoti is an absolutely kick ass character, spunky and proactive and clever and funny. She is political - and how rare to see a play where a female character is allowed to be. She just sparkles on the page and the stage. The latter is certainly down in no small part to the actress who plays her, Anjana Vasan. She’s absolutely excellent, a huge highlight of the production and genuinely luminous (not a concept I’ve really understood when applied to an actor before but with her I 100% get it). 

She has fantastic support from her Rasik, Shubham Saraf. Rasik is an utterly adorable naif as the play begins but becomes something much more complicated and rounded as it progresses. Saraf brings out every facet with charm and determination. A deeply watchable and moving performance. The play is at its weakest in the third, present day, act purely because Saraf and Vasan no longer play Rasik and Jyoti. No disrespect intended to the older cast members, but they just don’t quite have the chemistry and sparkle of these two. 

The production looks and sounds lush - the incidental music alone is worthy of several paragraphs of love - but I really want to particularly praise the direction here, because it’s by Madani Younis and I want to make the most of him. Despite the resultant back pain, I loved his relaxed, expansive almost louche vibe. He has every faith in this play, as well he should, and the story and this just shines through. It’s a real joy. The Bush really will miss him so much. 

An Adventure is a really lovely thing. Great writing, beautifully performed, artfully directed and an excuse to bop around to Brimful of Asha in the interval. Who needs more?

An Adventure is at The Bush until 20th October. 

My seat for this was C1 in block B and I paid a measly £10 for it thanks to The Bush’s Count Me In scheme. 

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Theatre Not Review: Sylvia

Reader, I have a dilemma.

I want to review The Old Vic’s latest show, hip hop/soul/funk Suffragette musical Sylvia, for you. But there’s a problem. As I’m sure most readers of a blog like mine will know, this production has not had an easy start in life  The performance I was originally going to see was cancelled due to the illness of its leading lady (still not returned). The one that I did see instead (shout out to the OV box office who were absolute superstars with the rebooking) was therefore not a finished article. And this isn’t my judgement by the way. It’s the judgement of The Old Vic, whose front of house staff were handing out notes before the show apologising that it was “considerably longer and in a more raw state than the creative team at The Old Vic would ever have planned.” Any blogger with even an ounce of integrity wouldn’t review a performance thus billed.

On the other hand, for all the very evident issues and the fact it ran to a bum numbing three and a quarter hours, I LOVED THIS SHOW SO MUCH AND I HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS ABOUT IT THAT I NEED TO DISCUSS. 

Or, to put it more sanely: despite everything, Sylvia is one of the best shows I’ve seen this year. So therefore what follows isn’t a review, not really (I’m not going to tell you what the very evident issues were, for a start). It’s just some thoughts, gut reaction, rendered into something slightly more user friendly than a Twitter thread. It’s the return of the bullet points y’all. 
  • One of the reason The OV give for the show not being quite where they’d like it to be is that it’s evolved from a dance show into a full blooded musical and Jesus H Christ thank god it has. The music, written by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde with punchy as fuck lyrics by Director/Choreographer/BAMF Kate Prince, is an absolute blast. A riotous blend of hip hop, soul, funk, grime, dance hall and myriad other things, it is just soul lifting to hear. There are some air punchingly good samples - I almost rushed the stage when a prime ministerial entrance was heralded by a few bars of Dizzee Rascal’s Fix Up Look Sharp. I demand a cast album and I demand it now.
  • Kate Prince and Priya Parmar’s book is also kick ass. The story they’ve chosen to tell, of Sylvia Pankhurst rather than the Suffragettes in general, is a clever choice. It’s not a story that I suspect most people know and it’s incredibly interesting and relevant in terms of the focus it puts not just on women’s rights but on poorer women’s rights. Intersectional Feminism: The Musical. 
  • The Pankhurst family were much more of a hot mess than I realised. Just saying.
  • Prince’s choreography is brilliant. It’s like watching the best rave you’ve ever seen (and, I rather suspect, in a different theatre it would be an actual rave - I would chop off a limb to see this at The Bush).
  • Ben Stone’s punchy but simple design with Natasha Chivers’ full on party lighting is a sight to behold.
  • This cast is everything. I don’t think I’ve seen a group of performers so committed to having fun with a piece on the stage ever. And they just seem to love each other. You can feel them willing each other to do well. I found this inordinately moving. It’s such a team effort and I absolutely loved it for that. 
  • Individuals? Well there’s no one in the business/world with a better voice than Beverley Knight and she is majestic here in a pretty unsympathetic part (which surprised me a bit). Delroy Atkinson’s Winston Churchill is the best Winston Churchill. Jade Hackett basically steals the whole damn show and I have never loved Winston Churchill’s mum more. And huge props to new leading lady Maria Omakinwa who absolutely kills as Sylvia herself in probably the most difficult circumstances a leading lady could face. She’ll go on to gigantic things I have no doubt.
  • I’ve never seen a curtain call like Sylvia’s at The Old Vic (or many other places for that matter). It’s just like five minutes of absolute joy, both from the cast on stage basically having a small party and from the audience who promptly went nuts as soon as the lights went down on the final line. Old Vic audiences are not, in my experience, renowned for their going nuts abilities. This show has really got something.
  • There must be a future for this show beyond its ridiculously short OV run. There just must be. If (when) there’s an extension or a transfer I will see it as many times as my bank balance will permit.
  • If you can, see Sylvia and Misty (currently at The Trafalgar Studios) as a two show day for a small and hopeful glimpse of what British theatre can be when everyone decides to br brave.
  • Seriously though: cast album. Cast album now
Sylvia is at The Old Vic until 22nd September (!!) Grab the last remaining tickets whilst you can.

I paid £10 for a seat in the top circle for this show. However, because my ticket had to be reallocated I ended up sitting in D4 in the dress circle, which would usually cost £28. 

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Theatre Review: Dust

One of the laws of theatre is that the fringe shows that I really want to see but miss and the shows that get a second/bigger/West End run never, ever overlap. Ever. To the extent that I've begun to wonder whether my good opinion jinxes them in some way. 

Thankfully, and for once, I have an exception to this rule. Dust, written and performed by the insanely talented Milly Thomas, is a show I remember hearing about at the Edinburgh Fringe a couple of years ago (I have yet to do an Fringe so didn't see it). It then transferred to the Soho Theatre, where I missed it for various (presumably work related) reasons which now escape me. So when it reappeared once again at the Trafalgar Studios I finally got my shit together and mooched along. And, at the risk of slipping into horribly hackneyed writing, I am exceptionally glad I did. 

Dust is not an easy play; in fact it is more of a trigger warning made flesh. Based on Thomas' experiences of depression, it tells the story of Alice, who's recently take her own life and whose post-body form - call it what you will - now gets to watch the impact her death has on those around her. She also lets us in on some of the formative moments that led her to that decision. Cheery stuff! 

And yet it actually is quite funny. Pitch blackly funny, uncomfortably funny, but also occasionally just funny. There's an honesty and a complete lack of artifice to Thomas' writing that she deploys equally effectively to the funny and the definitely not funny parts of the play. On the lighter side, she dismantles modern life, families, dating and sex beautifully. Equally, the rawness of the writing gives the more emotional scenes real weight - whether that takes the form of the tenderness of a desperate parent or the rage and desperation of someone considering the vodka and pills in front of them. 

As that last sentence implies, there are multiple characters in Dust, all played by Thomas. Structurally this is a really insightful thing to do as it gives the audience a further way in to Alice's world. Even though all the other characters are seen through her eyes, their actions, reactions and relationships give us another angle to understand her situation. From my experience of depression, it is a super lonely disease and having these other characters on stage helps to emphasise that as well as make the play and the character of Alice more accessible. If you’ve ever had a friend or family member struggle with depression, they are also very easy to identify with.

Thomas brings them all alive with such energy and verve as well. She's a cracking actress and her performance (performances?) is superb. There's a fantastic physicality about her, I love the way she can change character completely with just a change of posture and vocal inflection, and a real sense of openness too. Just like her writing, there's nothing artificial or cultivated in her acting. It's real and raw and powerful.

She is backed up by a fantastic creative team. I love the space of the Trafalgar Studios 2 - so tiny and atmospheric and adaptable - and this production uses it brilliantly. Wonderfully directed with huge belief by Sara Joyce, beautifully, simply designed by Anna Reid and with some of the most effective lighting I've seen in a studio space (or anywhere else for that matter) from Jack Weir, it's a thing of immense class and confidence. Hugely effective and hugely affecting.

Dust was very much worth the wait for me. It's a supremely powerful piece, undoubtedly not an easy watch but a necessary one nonetheless. Here's hoping it inspires more open and honest conversations around mental health, and suicide in particular. It very much should do.

Dust is at the Trafalgar Studios 2 until 13th October.

I sat in C14 and my seat was kindly provided by the production. It would normally cost £28.