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.