Saturday, 21 December 2019

My top ten shows of the year

It’s that time of year again...

But before I launch into my frankly embarrassingly overthought top ten shows of 2019, a small personal announcement. This is probably going to be my last regular blog post. I’d love for there to be some big, exciting, dramatic reason for this but in truth it’s pretty simple: I don’t really have time anymore (no big reason, just life) and, honestly, I’m not enjoying blogging as much as I used to. I still love theatre, I’ll still be going to the theatre and I’ll still be tweeting about theatre - so you won’t be entirely deprived of my thoughts on the subject. They’ll just be considerably more concise. Which I imagine is a relief to all of us. 

Thanks to those of you who have read and supported the blog over the years. I’m not deleting it, and who knows I might pick it up again in the future. But for now, I just want to watch some shows without worrying when and how on earth I’m going to spin 600 words out of them.

Anyway, on with the show(s). It’s been another good year I think with the top five shows on this list in particular being amongst some of the best things I’ve seen in the theatre, ever.

Marianne Elliot and Miranda Cromwell’s incredible production, setting the Loman family as African American, was visionary. The production faultless. A quartet of unbelievable central performances from Wendell Pierce, Sharon D Clarke, Arinze Kene and Martins Imhangbe, and an absolutely definitive production of this play for me.

Matthew Warchus’ decision to gender swap one of the characters in this classic Noel Coward made it feel utterly contemporary and Andrew Scott’s leading performance was note perfect (Scott and Wendell Pierce were in an absolute league of their own in terms of acting this year - they should hack the Olivier statue in half for them). Riotous, sad fun. I’ve rarely laughed so hard in a theatre.

A second year of immersive Shakespeare at The Bridge and a second utter triumph. Nicholas Hytner’s production with Bunny Christie’s mind boggling design was a joy. The updated text worked brilliantly. Oliver Chris delivered some of the most hilariously deadpan asides I have ever seen. The most fun I’ve ever had in a theatre. 

I missed this at The Globe last year but fucking hell was I glad to catch its transfer. Quite simply a brilliant, brilliant play, beautifully performed (especially by the majestic Clare Perkins). And that last speech...

A show that is impossible to review or summarise - you just have to see it. So bold, so inventive, so perfectly done. Ferociously clever. Deeply uncomfortable viewing. A worthy Pulitzer winner and a justified sellout.

The best plays are often not the easiest to watch and Alice Birch’s brilliant, innovative and enraging piece on women in the criminal justice system was certainly a case in point. I laughed, I cried, I wanted to punch something. A gem.

Speaking of difficult pieces, this incredible play about sex offenders was at times almost impossible to watch. But it was also undoubtedly one of the bravest, most intelligent and most moving plays I saw this year. In a pretty decent year for the NT, this was a real shining light - and exactly the sort of high stakes risk I wish they would take more often. Some towering performances, notably from K Todd Freeman, were the cherries on this complicated cake.

Lucy Prebble’s joyously genre defying playing abut the murder of Alexander Litvinenko was in no way what I thought I’d signed up for - and I loved it all the more for that. Reece Shearsmith produced one of my surprise acting wins of the year as Vladimir Putin. A brilliant example of how irreverent form and serious subject matter can work together to produce something truly memorable and impactful.

9. Sweat, Donmar Warehouse (West End)
Another transfer I was thrilled to catch, Lynn Nottage’s masterpiece state of the (American) nation play was a marvel. Gritty, funny, hard hitting and a better explanation of how we got into this mess than any academic or journalistic attempt I’ve read. The ending almost broke me.

10. War Horse, National Theatre
About a million years late to the party, I finally saw War Horse in January. Eleven months later and I’ve almost stopped crying about it. A legendary production for so many very good reasons.

Close But No Cigar
A big clutch of shows just lost out to Joey for a spot on my list, but I wanted to mention them anyway: 
  • Anomaly at the Old Red Lion was the best Weinstein play around
  • In a year of a lot of great Arthur Miller The Old Vic’s inventive staging of the lesser known The American Clock was great
  • Rufus Norris’ National Theatre finally found its stride with the profoundly moving Small Island, wildly innovative Anna, bonkers Peter Gynt and soulful Three Sisters all rocking my theatrical world.

The Wooden Spoon
It wouldn’t be my year end round up if I didn’t slag off an NT show and the interminable and dreary Rutherford and Sons takes the mouldy biscuit this year. When not even the great Roger Allam can save your show then you know you’ve misfired. 

Friday, 20 December 2019

Theatre Review: Fairview

Welcome to my last review of 2019. As a little Christmas gift to you all, it will also be one of my shortest. You’re welcome.

The show I’m reviewing is Fairview, rightful winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for drama and currently enjoying a justifiable sellout run at the Young Vic. And that’s the review really: it’s brilliant, if you can possibly get a ticket - good luck with that - then you should.

Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury, who is clearly an actual living genius, I don’t really want to tell you anything about the play itself. You should go in as blind as possible. You probably know it’s a play about race and about contemporary attitudes to race and that’s really all you need to know. It’s form is non-traditional. It is ferociously clever; brilliant, brilliant writing. Hilarious, spectacularly uncomfortable, deeply complex, devastating, cruel, grimly hopeful. It avoids every single obvious point about race and every single obvious way of making the points it makes instead. It’s thrilling and awful and amazing to watch.

Directed by Nadia Latif, who has an absolute grip on what this play is and what it needs to make it work, the production is as close to alchemy as it’s possible to get. Tom Scutt’s design is perfect (if you’re a fan of Scutt’s work on A Very Expensive Poison up the road at The Old Vic then you’ll enjoy this too). The costumes are astonishing. Sound designer Xana does amazing work. Choreographer Malik Nashad Sharpe’s moves are totally on point. It’s a gem of a production.

A gem of a cast too. Again, saying too much in this regard would be a spoiler but the small cast are fully invested in the play and it shows. They’re all pitch perfect. The highlight is undoubtedly Donna Banya, who is utterly electrifying - the more so as it becomes more obvious what is actually going on in the play. But there’s strong work all round here. Everyone is on top of their game.

Look, I’m aware this is a weird review. Trying to tell you why to see a show whilst saying almost literally nothing about it is beyond my limited powers as a writer. But see it you should. Because my goodness what a show Fairview is. 

Fairview is at The Young Vic until January 23rd. The run is sold out, but returns are available online and in person each day. Queue for them.

I sat in seat A13 - the middle of the front row of the stalls - for this and paid a frankly embarrassing £10. If you have any choice in the matter, and you’re unlikely to, it’s a great seat.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Theatre Review: Three Sisters

As National Theatre marketing strategies aimed precisely at me go, the phrase ‘a new play by Inua Ellams after Chekhov’ was always going to have a success rate of 100%.

Three Sisters, Ellams’ fresh take on the Chekhov play, uproots the titular family from mother Russia to Nigeria during the Biafran Civil War. As someone whose knowledge of the original is based purely on Wikipedia I shouldn’t be trusted at an authority on this, but I believe the plot is largely untouched. It’s the setting, the emphasis and the interpretation that are different.  More importantly - fidelity to the original not being high on my priority list nor something I can accurately judge - it’s the setting, the emphasis and the interpretation that make for a fascinating and engaging piece of theatre.

For me, what makes this Three Sisters so good is that it works on multiple levels: it’s a great story first and foremost, it’s recognisably Chekhovian (if that’s important to you), it’s a brilliant history play about a piece of history that I was 100% ignorant of, it’s a powerful critique of foreign intervention (and non-intervention) in African politics, and it’s a deep and moving play about identity, and identity politics, too. Set in the 1960s and 70s it may be, but the issues it speaks to feel fresh off the page. There’s brilliant and troubling exploration of what makes someone The Other, and when and how someone who was previously not The Other can become so, in particular. Ellams’ writing is always so multifaceted and so beautiful and this is no exception. 

It’s also rather unexpectedly funny and, less unexpectedly, peopled by fantastically vivid, complex and human characters. The way Ellams has sculpted and tweaked Chekhov’s cast is brilliant. His versions feel totally his own, and the plot feels almost totally organic (the exception, for my money, being the final scenes’ predictable adherence to the rule about Chekhov plays and guns on stage). 

Directed by Nadia Fall, there’s no question that the play is a bit of a beast, clocking in at over three hours in length (authentically Chekhovian too I guess). But it doesn’t feel long at all. It positively zips along, even in some of the necessarily exposition heavy early scenes. It looks absolutely stunning too; Katrina Lindsay’s sun soaked, evocative and increasingly portentous set providing a brilliant and technically clever frame for the action. There’s an intriguing and sparse use of music too, courtesy of composer Femi Temowo, which includes great use of ‘chant poetry’ which really roots the play, not just geographically and historically but also firmly within an atmosphere of the past intruding on the present in unpredictable ways.

The large cast involved in bringing this story to life is equally strong. In a piece with so many ‘main’ characters it’s hard to single anyone out - and they all work so well as an ensemble - but for me the wonderful Sarah Niles is a clear highlight as oldest sister Lolo, a performance full of heart and joy and sadness. It’s great to see Ken Nwosu back on the NT’s stages too and his work as Ikemba, an at times not easily sympathetic character, is great. And I always love watching Sule Rimi. His Onyinyechukwu is one of the most interesting, despite not having masses of stage time, and Rimi is fantastic.

Look, there’s no question that Three Sisters represents a serious investment of your time. But it is worth it. This is a great piece, whether you have strong feelings on Chekhov or not, and it’s beautifully done in this production. 

Three Sisters is in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre until 19th February.

I paid for this one and sat in G9, a snip at £15. 

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Theatre Review: [Blank]

Whenever I review a show at the end of its run I inevitably really love it and want everyone I know to see it. Honestly, every time. It's spectacularly annoying.

The latest entrant in my list of show's I want you to see but you probably can't is [Blank] at The Donmar Warehouse. My goodness what a piece this is. And I use the word 'piece', rather than 'play', advisedly - because to the extent you can describe Alice Birch's stunning new work in one word, 'play' is definitely not it. 

The text of [Blank] consists of 100 individual scenes. There's no linear plot, no characters per se (each actress in the cast plays multiple parts and those that are named share the name of the actress playing them). It is up to the director in each production of this piece, Maria Aberg in this initial case, to select which scenes they want to use and put them together. I *love* this. The idea that I could see [Blank] every year for the rest of my life and never actually see the same play and that every director can adapt it to work for her/his cast, audience and location.

It does make it a somewhat difficult thing to pithily summarise though. I guess all I can say is that [Blank] tells the stories of lots of women and their families affected by the criminal justice system, in all sorts of ways, the unifying factor being that all of the effects are bad. Co-produced with the amazing Clean Break, this is very much an 'if you don't leave angry, you weren't paying attention' situation. The scenes that Aberg has selected for her version of [Blank] offer a devastating criticism of every aspect of our broken justice system, but especially the case of women in prison. Birch's writing offers brilliant commentary (without getting all Guardian columnist) on the questionable value of and reasons for locking women up with no other real support. It's better than any of the longread investigations, Secret Barrister articles and BBC4 documentaries that people like me who are already into this sort of stuff will consume in explaining why the justice system just does not work for women. It should be on the national curriculum, or at least a set text for law degree students. A lot of it is heartbreaking, a lot of it is rage inducing, and actually a surprising amount of it is really funny - the awful middle class people dinner party scene in particular made me full body cringe and almost choke because I was laughing so hard (I will never eat labneh again). I won't lie, it is a difficult watch but my god it's a gripping and necessary one too.

Aberg's production is great not just because of her scene selection. It looks perfect for it's themes, designer Rosie Elnile's chipboard and plastic heavy set perfectly capturing the fragility of both the women involved and their situation as well as a system falling apart. Practically, it also allows the action to move quickly between scenes, an important thing when many of the scenes are unrelated. There's great, subtle use of video (from video designer Heta Multanen) and projection too. Jess Bernberg's lighting is wonderfully stark.

The all female cast is a joy, moving between their many and varied nameless parts with ease. The way the piece is structured in this instance allows everyone a chance to play a 'big' part as well as show off some comedy as well as the more dominant very-much-not-comedy. All of them really excel, almost more as a group than individually, though there are some real standout performances in the mix. Thusitha Jayasundera's portrayal of a grieving mother is, like, evening-destroyingly, my-eyes-hurt-from-crying level good. Heartbreaking, but enthralling. Zainab Hasan is excellent as her troubled/late daughter. Jackie Clune is on fine comedy form as one of the most awful middle class women you'll see on stage this year (though that title fully belongs to Jemima Rooper - who's also great - and hr award winning journalist really) and finer non-comedy form as a foster mum struggling to say goodbye to the child of a woman in prison who's grown up with her. And the always marvellous Kate O'Flynn is dazzling as two characters whose scenes explore the hugely diverse issues women who've suffered at the hands of the justice system can have with relationships.

[Blank] is an absolute gem of a piece. So clever, so current and just so fucking well done. The writing is great, the production is great, the cast is great and the message is so, so important. If you can, it's a must see.

[Blank] is at The Donmar Warehouse until November 30th and tickets are only available as returns (soz).

I paid £20 to see this one and sat up in the balcony, which was a great seat. You won't have any choice where you sit should you be able to grab a ticket though, so this information is entirely irrelevant.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Theatre Review: ‘Master Harold’...and the boys

Lucian Msamati is the most underrated British actor around. He is amazing and should be in all the things. Or at least more of the things. (Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.)

The thing that Lucian Msamati is currently in is‘Master Harold’...and the boys at the National Theatre. Written, semi-autobiographically, by Athol Fugard Master Harold (as it shall henceforth be known, because brevity/laziness) tells the story of Willie and Sam, black workers in the Port Elizabeth tea room owned by the family of white teenager Hally (Master Harold). Port Elizabeth being in South Africa and the play being set during Apartheid, you can sort of see immediately that this is going to be a play of complex relationships and conflict.

For me, this is its main weakness. There’s an inevitability about the direction this play is going to go that is established as soon as the single white character joins the two black characters on stage. If you know your Apartheid era politics (and I appreciate that not everyone does and that if you don’t then your reaction to the play will probably be different), you are waiting for the initial slightly awkward bonhomie to break down. You are waiting for the violence that is a constant undertone of the piece (really effectively by the way) to break through. You know it’s coming. I hesitate to use the word predictable, but it sort of is.

That’s not to say it’s not impactful though. It is. Fugard’s writing is brilliant, thoughtful and so precise. You only need to look at the careful punctuation and capitalisation of the title to know that this is a well written, artfully constructed thing. Some of the scenes that are explicitly about the use of language in particular are beautifully done, particularly the one where ‘Hally’ becomes ‘Master Harold’. The racist language, attitudes and postures haven’t lost their capacity to shock either, especially used as casually as they are here. The complexity of the relationships and the characters is strongly portrayed too - not just those that involve race, but also those that involve age, gender and family ties. It is an extremely well realised piece of writing, and if it’s subject matter has become so well known as to lessen its impact in some ways, well, that’s hardly Fugard’s fault.

Director Roy Alexander Weise’s sure footed production knows exactly what it’s doing and how much room to breathe to give the actors (Msamati in particular). It’s very well paced, not afraid of lengthy silences, though I did feel it could have benefitted from a ten minute trim. Rajha Shakiry’s set and Paule Constable’s lighting combine to create something really evocative of the period as well as being technically surprising in the very final scene (no spoilers). There’s a lot of ballroom dancing in this play (Willie is rehearsing for a competition, tutored by Sam) and choreographer Shelley Maxwell - with a little help from the legendary Bill Deamer as ‘ballroom consultant’ which is a job I would like to apply for please - has created some great routines. My #LucianMsamati4Strictly2020 campaign starts here.

Speaking of which, as is so often the case with any production he’s in, Msamati is the highlight of proceedings here for me by some considerable distance. He is such a toweringly good actor and on fantastic form. His Sam is so sympathetic (though by no means a saint) with a dignity that gives way to rage so affectingly. This is a(nother) great performance from him. Hammed Animashaun plays Willie as someone who has grown up under a violent system and perpetuates it in his own way (he beats up his girlfriend/dance partner) but who is also afraid of it and afraid of the consequences of pushing against it. He’s a more relatable character than a woman beater really should be. I’m afraid Anson Boon’s Hally is a distinct weak link for me, too over the top in his physicality - though I can see what he’s trying to do I just felt like he was constantly and unnecessarily signposting to what his character was going to do next - with nowhere near the nuance of Msamati and Animashaun and what I will charitably call a patchy South African accent. Msamati and Animashaun have amazing chemistry that makes up for any issues elsewhere, though. And they make for a charming dance partnership. 

Though I wasn’t 100% sold on Master Harold, there’s no question that it’s a brilliantly written play. And there’s even less question that Lucian Msamati is brilliant in it. Worth your time, especially if Apartheid South Africa isn’t something you know all that much about - it’s better than any history book I’ve ever read to teach that.

‘Master Harold’...and the boys is in the Lyttelton at the NT until December 17th.

I set in J26 in the stalls for this and paid £35. Great value for probably the best seat I’ve ever had in this theatre.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Theatre Review: The Antipodes

When you write about theatre, there’s a couple of types of play that make your heart sink slightly even as you watch them. Ones where your opinions are just ‘it was ok’ are the worst, as you contemplate how on earth you’re going to pad a shoulder shrug into a few hundred words. The other is ones you don’t fully understand or can’t easily explain and you therefore know are going to be an absolute arse to try and write about pithily. 

The Antipodes, the NT’s new play by Pulitzer-winner Annie Baker, is one of the latter. It doesn’t have a plot, beyond some people sitting in a room telling stories at a creative pitch meeting for a project that’s never defined. It’s open to interpretation in a way that makes it a great play to discuss over a glass of wine, but a more difficult one to write about. And some flat out bizarre shit happens and is left entirely unexplained. 

For what it’s worth then, my take is that The Antipodes is a story about stories. About their power, their weaknesses and about their changing role in humanity. Baker’s structure, for the first half of the play at least, is very simple: one character asks a question (what’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you? How did you lose your virginity? What’s your biggest regret?) and the others tell stories in response. We get to know the characters as they do this, but each story call and response also shows something about the nature of stories and why they’re important. It’s really strong and unexpectedly moving stuff that I really enjoyed. It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding if you fully invest your attention. This part of the play also contains a really funny, relatable and excellently observed satire on the modern office too. And actually I would have liked more of this because it really made me laugh a lot. 

Where I found the play more difficult was its second half - and I use ‘half’ rather than ‘act’ intentionally as this two hour beast has no interval (it could have handled one I think). The character who’s been asking the questions leaves, a storm descends that traps everyone else in the room and, for me, at least one shark is jumped. My interpretation on this is that it’s trying to show through the structure of the play what happens to society when stories are removed or not told for some reason. Or, more basically, to illustrate the point that it’s telling stories that keep us human and (vaguely) sane. It’s a really interesting point, but I’m just not sure it’s completely pulled off - if indeed my interpretation is even anything like correct. And certainly for me the second hour of the play dragged. It dragged a lot. I would almost go so far as to argue that the first half of the play on its own is a better piece than the whole thing as it’s written. I struggled with the two hour run time anyway.

Which isn’t to say that the production isn’t strong. Baker herself co-directs with Chloe Lamford, also on double duty as the show’s designer. It’s a strong, determined production that is very sure of itself. Lamford’s design is great fun - I loved the pile of crates of Perrier that form much of the set - and it captures that generic boardroom feeling without being boring. There’s some great, subtle use of movement in the production, and Sasha Milevic Davies’ work here is fab. There’s also some fun moments of illusion courtesy of illusion designer (the best job title) Steve Cuiffo.

The best thing about this production though, I would argue, is its pitch perfect cast. Surely this is one of the best, if not the best, ensembles in London at the moment, both in terms of the individual actors and, especially, the way they work together. That said, it seems slightly perverse to single out any of the individual performers but you know how my reviews work by now so I’m going to. Conleth Hill is front and centre as Sandy (asker of all the questions) and is utterly brilliant and endlessly watchable. I wonder how much of the enjoyment I lost in the play’s less literal second half is because he is hardly in it. Fisayo Akinade is increasingly one of my favourite actors and he’s great here too; funny, engaging and the best story teller, in the old fashioned sense, of the bunch. I also thought Arthur Darvill was on top form, which isn’t something I’ve thought from his stage performances before. He’s an enjoyably unsympathetic shit, composed mostly of corporate buzzwords, here and hits the exact right balance of awful-but-still-believable. 

The Antipodes is certainly not the play for you if you want an easy, purely entertaining night at the theatre. However, if you’re willing to put in the effort and have something to chew over then it very much is for you. It’s a great meditation on the power of stories, even if that meditation could have been significantly shorter, and you’ll struggle to see better acting in London at the moment. 

The Antipodes is in the Dorfman at the National Theatre until November 23rd.

I can’t tell you where I sat for this one exactly (I had significant travel woes and ended up being chucked into the audience at latecomers call - first time for everything - and not in the seat I’d paid for) but I think it was about R48 in the Gallery which costs £40. There’s nothing wrong with this seat, but it’s a lot of money to be a long way from the action.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Theatre Review: Ages of the Moon

The subgenre of plays that fall under the loose heading 'people sit and talk, nothing much actually happens' is one with which I have a difficult relationship. When they're good, they can be profoundly moving and beautiful things. When they're short of good, I tend to find myself trying to sneak a look at my watch every ten minutes or so.

Ages of the Moon by the late American playwright Sam Shepard definitively falls into this category. Two older men sit on a remote porch waiting to watch an eclipse, getting pissed and chatting a mixture of memory and nonsense. Their stories interweave as they each try and insert themselves into the others' past and everything gets steadily hazier. But in terms of action or, strictly speaking, plot, there's little to report.

Now, there's no question that Shepard's writing is good. It's lyrical, it captures that very certain sort of melancholy that's linked to age and memory, it sounds nice on the ear too. It's funny sometimes, though not as often as perhaps it ought to be. The confusion between fact and fiction is a pleasing head scratcher throughout.

But for me there's just something missing. It doesn't feel like there's anything behind this pretty writing; no tension, nothing bubbling away. A few times I thought that a big dramatic reveal was coming but each time nothing came of it. I briefly developed a theory that one of the characters was an imaginary physical manifestation of the other's mental illness, but alas I'm pretty sure I was wrong. By the end of the hour long run time (and I'm really not sure the play could carry itself if it were any longer) I was left pretty underwhelmed.

If this was true of the play, though, it wasn't true of the production. Director Alexander Lass has done about as good a job as I can imagine it's possible to do with this play. His production is well pitched and well paced. Holly Pigott's design is brilliant, so evocative of complete isolation, and Jai Morjaria's lighting is really beautiful. I loved the backlit effect for the eclipse.

The cast is anything but underwhelming too. Christopher Fairbank and Joseph Marcell (aka Moxey from Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Jeffrey the butler from Fresh Prince of Bel Air) are not an obvious pairing but kudos to casting director Ellie Collyer-Bristow for bringing them together. Both are individually great (with fantastic, drawling accents) and together they really sparkle. The chemistry is perfect and they dominate the slightly odd space that is The Vaults-as-straight-theatre. I loved watching them and - again - it's hard to imagine this piece being acted much better than they do here.

To sum up then, whilst Ages of the Moon isn't really a play for me you'd be hard pressed to see a better version of it than this one. And if you're a Sam Shepard fan it's a must.

Ages of the Moon is at The Vaults until 24th November.

My ticket for this one was kindly provided by the production and would normally cost £25. The seating is unreserved, I sat on the front row (and got dripped on at regular intervals).

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Theatre Review: Out Of Sorts

As someone who has to wade through the swamp-slash-binfire that is British politics for a job, and who has thus lived through months of party conferences, conference flu and Brexit weirdness to the exclusion of almost everything else (except running a fucking half marathon - 2:05:52, thanks for asking), I cannot tell you how nice it was to finally get back into a theatre this weekend. It was, like, a physical relief. Something approaching normal service can be resumed.

The theatre in question was Theatre503 - first visit, definitely not the last - to see Danusia Samal’s International Playwriting Award 2018 winner, Out Of Sorts

Out Of Sorts tells the story of Zara, part obedient Muslim daughter, part hard working, hard drinking millennial, comfortable nor happy in either role. It is spectacularly easy to see why this play won the IPA. It’s a gorgeous thing, big hearted and heart breaking. Incredibly human and humane. Tough and comforting.

Samal does that thing that all great playwrights do with their stories: makes something that is at once completely unique to her characters and their experiences, and also completely universal. It doesn’t matter where you were born, how long you’ve lived in the UK or what colour your skin is you will be able to relate to Zara’s struggle to maintain the various personas she’s constructed to get through life. The feeling that your various selves and their related obligations and expectations are pulling you taught like an elastic band that can only stretch so far before it snaps is so perfectly portrayed here. The scene where Zara finally snaps is heart breaking and brilliant, one of the best written scenes I’ve seen all year. There’s also a really beautiful and truthful exploration of the idea of family - the one you get and the one you choose - and the power of that unit too. And, for the woke middle class white people in the audience (me), some uncomfortable home truths about white privilege laid bare amongst the avo and matcha. 

It’s stunningly good writing, in other words. Samal is surely a name to add to watch out for in the future. The not at all distant future, I rather suspect. 

Theatre503 is a great pub theatre space, definitely more of a traditional theatre set up than some pub theatres I’ve been to and the better for it, and Out Of Sorts makes great use of it. Director Tanuja Amarasuriya’s production is extremely sure footed. I loved the way designer Rebecca Wood’s set emphasises both the conflict and the closeness between Zara’s two selves by physically only using one set to portray both. The differences are subtly wrought - shelves full of Kilner jars and Pukka Tea on the ‘millennial’ side, loose onions and bulk buy oil on the other - but cleverly done. The quiet shifts of Ali Hunter’s lighting back this up further. It’s a really impressive production. I’d love to see what the same team would do with, say, The Bush main house or the NT’s Dorfman.

The cast of six are excellent too. Nalan Burgess is Zara, and plays her with immense sadness and complexity. For me, the pick of the bunch is Myriam Acharki as Layla, her steely strong but tender mother. The final scene where the two confront and comfort each other is gorgeous. I also really enjoyed Claudius Peters’ all too brief turn as Zara’s posh, woke, white flatmate’s black boyfriend, Anthony. His scene with Zara, on their shared but also entirely not shared experiences as non-white people in London, is one of the show’s most complex and compelling - and brilliantly acted. 

I really rated Out Of Sorts, as is presumably apparent by this point. It’s a brilliant play done brilliantly in a space that conveniently lives over a great pub. Perfect for a London autumn.

Out Of Sorts is at Theatre503 until November 2nd.

I sat in C3 for this one, though it’s largely irrelevant - Theatre503 is so small that there’s no such thing as a good or bad seat. My ticket was kindly provided by the production. 

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Theatre Review: A Very Expensive Poison

I would love to have been in the room when playwright Lucy Prebble pitched her new show, A Very Expensive Poison, to The Old Vic. ‘Yeah, it’s a big political play about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and what events like that teach us about the truth, justice and politics, but also it has a couple of musical numbers, some puppets and a massive gold penis’. An easy sell this perhaps was not.

Thankfully, though, the OV was buying and it opens Artistic Director Matthew Warchus’ fifth season in charge (and where has that time gone by the way) this week.

The first thing to say about A Very Expensive Poison is that if you’re looking for a taut political thriller or a James Graham-esque satire then you’re going to be disappointed. It is neither of those things, though it includes elements of both. Neither is it a polemic, though it has polemical scenes and speeches. It’s also not a comedy, a musical, a puppet show, immersive or verbatim, though bits of it are all of those things. It’s exact form is hard to pin down succinctly, as I’m very effectively proving, but as an overall package it is highly effective.

It’s approach to its weighty and serious subject matter is bold. Prebble has no interest in making a documentary and so has gone off in entirely her own direction. Thus the play is serious when it wants to be and sad when it wants to be but it’s also funny, silly and occasionally downright bizarre. Which is also true of the story it’s telling, of course. Nothing that happens in this play is an accident. The structure of the play lends itself to this perfectly, the idea being that the characters are telling the audience (and the police) their story directly, physically stepping out of the set and changing accents to narrate their own lives - and deaths. A lot of the play is direct address to the audience, which I suspect will prove a bit Marmite but I thought was really effective. For a play which is ultimately about a search for truth, it’s very powerful to have key characters’ truths delivered directly to the audience with no interlocutors whatsoever. Equally, in a play which is also about the relationship between the truth and power, it’s very impactful to hear the most powerful character on stage, The President, trying to discredit that truth. That he does much of this from a seat in the audience is really clever, doubly so since he sits in the equivalent seat that Stadler and Waldorf occupy in The Muppet Show!

Form and approach aside, Prebble’s actual writing is also fantastic. At it’s most basic, it’s a brilliant telling of a complex and ridiculous story; no huge chunks of exposition, just great narrative drive. It doesn’t shy away at all from the horrid realities of the story either. This is a seriously political, punchy piece. At the same time though, Prebble is evidently clear that it’s also a love story. The Litvinenkos, both Alexander and, especially, Marina, are beautifully written and force the piece on perfectly. It is also properly laugh out loud funny, but never in a way that feels forced or insensitive. The changes of gear between funny and really not funny at all keep the audience on their toes wonderfully, especially given many of the zingiest one liners are given to The President. A lovely illustration of what charisma and comic timing can hide in a politician WHICH DOESN’T FEEL RELEVANT TO THE UK RIGHT NOW AT ALL OBVIOUSLY.

Director John Crowley’s nimble and knowing production is a great match for Prebble’s innovative play. Crowley is clearly all in for every single one of this show’s eccentricities and has marshalled them all into something that feels entirely naturally bonkers rather than desperately trying to be provocative bonkers. Given those elements include various puppets and a giant gold cock (not the chicken type) I find that impressive. Designer Tom Scutt makes it look fantastic, his ‘step in, step out’ box sets gelling perfectly into the structural set up of the piece. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting helps on this front too. The occasional use of UV is a great touch. I can’t claim to remember much of Paddy Cuneen’s music after the event - there’s a lot to process in this one guys - but his songs fit perfectly into proceedings. I didn’t know I needed Peter Polycarpou as a singing, puppet wielding Russian oligarch in my life and yet here we are. 

In some ways, the play is so good and the production so innovative that the actual actors struggle to get that much of a look in. Which isn’t to say they’re bad, far from it, I just don’t think the acting is what most people will leave the theatre talking about. We certainly didn’t. Perhaps the exception to this is the brilliant Reece Shearsmith who is an absolute joy of a piece of casting genius as The President: charismatic, very funny, bitchy AF and of course absolutely terrifying. To be clear, in terms of the plot The President is obviously Vladimir Putin but that’s not how he’s played (or styled, or voiced) which is a great decision. Reece Shearsmith as a caricature Putin probably wouldn’t have been that interesting, whereas this freer drawn version really is. MyAnna Buring is wonderfully touching as Marina Litvinenko too whilst Tom Brooke is a sympathetic but just ever so slightly morally ambiguous Alexander. There’s some great comedy work on display, especially from Lloyd Hutchinson as the more inept of the two inept assassins and the aforementioned Peter Polycarpou as Boris Bereszovsky, song and dance man.

A Very Expensive Poison is one of the boldest, most imaginative and most urgent pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a while. It’s not for everyone, I rather suspect, but if you go in with an open mind and curiosity you will love it. You should at least hang around until the beginning of act two to hear the best joke written about The Old Vic ever performed in The Old Vic...

A Very Expensive Poison is at The Old Vic until 5th October.

I sat in my usual OV seat, Lilian Baylis circle A4, and paid £20. Still one of the best value seats in London theatre.

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Theatre Review: Oklahoma!

Thinking about it, for someone who is as big of a musicals fan as I am I have seen surprisingly little Rogers and Hammerstein. Almost none in fact. Weird.

One exception to this, thanks to the excellent folk at Chichester Festival, is now Oklahoma! (Yes I’m going to be sticking faithfully to the correct punctuation. Yes it is annoying.) As I point out every year, Chichester is known for its musicals. They’re always an absolute joy to watch. Even the ones where I haven’t actually enjoyed the musical (Me and My Girl last year being a classic example) you can never fault the production. I was fully hyped to see their take on something as big and classic and Broadway with a capital B-R-O-A-D-W-A-Y as Oklahoma!

A small piece of heresy to begin with: as a musical, I didn’t actually particularly rate Oklahoma! I expect the theatre police will be here to arrest me shortly, but it’s true. Yes it has some amazing individual songs and yes it is unexpectedly and enjoyably dark but I found the first act in particular dragged through some saggy plotting, most of the characters are a bit blah (technical term) and I’m not really ok with the lazy stereotype on legs that is the character of travelling ‘Persian’ salesman Ali Hakim. On this latter point, this is the one area where I take issue with the production, as director Jeremy Sams could have done something to portray this character differently, dialling down the ‘it was ok in the 1930s’ nonsense whilst still keeping Ali Hakim as the comic relief character. In the context of the rest of the production, with its twenty first century casting and updated, gun toting take on Aunt Eller, I find it weird that this wasn’t done. 

That said, those amazing individual songs man! You cannot really argue with a score that contains Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’ can you? The Farmer and The Cowman has been stuck in my head for almost literally a fortnight. Out Of My Dreams remains one of my favourite musical theatre songs that I had to learn for a singing exam (a surprisingly populous category). And of course the title song is an absolute bop. For all my woke moaning and irritation at some of the last series of Game of Thrones style lazy and convenient plotting, this show is a musical theatre classic for a reason.

Any show with a number of Big Songs is manna from heaven for Team Chichester of course. Every year their musicals excel at production numbers and this year is happily no exception. In fact, and I’m sure I’ve made this observation before too, I would go so far as to argue that the production numbers are the real star in this show. Choreographer Matt Cole’s work is utterly brilliant: modern but unashamedly cowboy and unashamedly Broadway too. The Dream Ballet at the end of act one and the Farmer/Cowman sequence at the beginning of act two in particular are proper hair on the back of the neck raising stuff. The predominantly very young cast perform them brilliantly too. Flicking through the programme it was amazing to see so many people making their professional debuts or with just a couple of credits. Plenty of faces I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of in the future. 

Modern but cowboy and Broadway is actually a pretty good summary of all of this production. Jeremy Sams has got this approach almost exactly right I think. I loved some of the subtle modernising that’s gone on, like having Aunt Eller cleaning her gun instead of churning butter when we first meet her. I loved the diverse cast too. Having two of the three lead characters played by actors of colour is not common in musicals, much less musicals at Chichester, and so is depressingly worthy of note. Having Jud Fry, a character about whose imaged hanging the other leading man sings a whole song, played by an actor of colour in particular gave the production an edge it wouldn’t otherwise have (and makes the Ali Hakim stuff all the more incongruous). The production is witty and pacey and looks great too, thanks to Robert Jones’ adaptable set and Mark Henderson’s atmospheric lighting. David Cullen orchestrations sound incredible too. This is definitely a classic Oklahoma! But it’s also a very modern one. 

The fact that the production numbers and so the ensemble are my stars notwithstanding, it is also worth mentioning the actual stars because they are brilliant. Relative newcomers Hyoie O’Grady and Amara Okereke play Curly and Laurey and are both fabulous. Fresh faced, naive, hopeful, full of longing and with silky smooth vocals to die for. Okereke in particular is also a beautiful dancer. Josie Lawrence is a joy as Aunt Eller, I just wish she had more to do. Emmanuel Kojo has been excellent in everything I’ve ever seen him in (which given his resume includes The Young Vic’s brilliant The Scottsboro Boysand Sheffield Crucible’s glorious Showboatisn’t that surprising) and is a disturbing but sympathetic Jud, making more than the most of an often pretty thankless part. Isaac Gryn is a wonderfully earnest Will Parker and a fabulous dancer. I could go on. Everyone is brilliant. And they all look like they’re having a laugh too, which always helps. 

My heretical opinions on Oklahoma! as a musical aside, this is a really enjoyable and beautifully realised production, maintaining Chichester’s excellent record as a producer of musicals. I wouldn’t be surprised if a West End transfer follows - and if it does it’s highly worth getting tickets. 

Oklahoma! is in the Festival Theatre at Chichester until 7th September.

I sat in G76 - side view, but great view - and paid £18. 

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Theatre Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream

I don't know what the collective noun for multiple productions of the same play on at the same time is  - an overkill? - but there very definitely is one of those for A Midsummer's Night Dream this year. The Globe has one, Regent's Park has one, there's an outdoor touring version, there's a version at York's pop up Shakespeare's Rose theatre and, the one that's actually relevant for our purposes, The Bridge Theatre's immersive promenade version.

Those of you who were paying attention will recall that I was fully obsessed with The Bridge's first immersive Shakespeare - the brilliant, prescient and exciting Julius Caesar - last year. I maintain it's the finest Shakespearean production I've ever seen (and I genuinely can't watch any of the Boris Johnson vs Jeremy Hunt Tory leadership shit show without thinking of David Morrissey's Antony and Ben Whishaw's Brutus, though I'm not sure either would thank me for the comparison). I saw it three times, bought the merch and generally raved about it to all and sundry. For me, then, this MSND had a lot to prove. And it proves it with big sparkly bells on.

MSND reunites the creative team from Caesar, with Nicholas Hytner once again in the director's chair. Never a great purist when it comes to Shakespearean texts, Hytner's approach here is especially bold and I fucking love him for it. His biggest innovation is to swap the parts of Titania and Oberon, so that it's the fairy king who is bewitched and falls in love with Bottom. One of the things I don't usually like about MSND is that the women get a really raw deal and have essentially no agency of their own. They're too busy being bewitched and/or stolen by the men to get much of a look in. In this production the central role that Titania gets to play really changes the emphasis. Suddenly it's a woman doing the bewitching and a woman in control of much of the action. This makes the play feel totally different and instantly far more modern.

The text is updated too. There are plentiful modern jokes and references, none of which feel at all forced. Which they really should in truth. It feels like a lot of these are ad libs that the cast developed themselves, but whether they actually are or not is sort of irrelevant. The key thing is they work - and they're very very funny. Some of them are very silly (the Rude Mechanicals group selfie) some of them are character building (Puck’s chatter with the audience) some of them are pretty meta (Theseus’ commentary on the play within a play). All of them are hilarious. Admittedly I’m no MSND super fan, but this is by far the funniest version I’ve ever seen.

Thanks to the thoroughly modern, immersive staging it’s also the funnest version. Honestly, I have never had more straightforward fun in a theatre than this. The production, with genius Bunny Christie in charge of the design again, is a big, sparkly, magical joy. The immersive aspect is used much more than in Caesar, which is to say if you’re standing expect to clock up a fair few steps. There are more bits of stage that pop up, and drop down, more bits that move around. It’s exquisitely done, technically and aesthetically. Christina Cunningham’s costumes appear to have come from the chicest and most fabulous Pride party (Titania’s wardrobe and Hippolyta’s wedding look, designed by Giles Deacon, are also stunning). Arlene Phillips’ eclectic post-Strictly career hits some kind of a peak with beautiful movement work, both on the stage and hanging above it. Paul Arditti’s sound and Grant Olding’s music are great. And the use of modern music - Beyoncé! Dizzee Rascal! - is inspired. You must stand for this show and you must get fully involved in the ensuing mad party you’ll find yourself in.

Cast-wise, this production is also a gem. Less obviously starry than Caesar, it’s an utter joy to see such a diverse cast perform and with so many young actors getting the chance to shine. As an ensemble they are exceptional, arguably the best cast around in London at the moment. And the best thing about watching them? They are clearly loving this show as much as the audience are. Their enthusiasm for it is contagious.

Gwendoline Christie is the Big Name involved here, and she is excellent as a mischievous Titania and pleasingly unimpressed and unruffled Hippolyta. Her command of the space is really excellent. Oliver Chris’ Theseus and Oberon are even better. Chris has an amazing sense of comedy and can play the most ridiculous scenes with the straightest of faces in a way that is cheek-achingly funny. He is exceptional as the love struck Oberon and his deadpan asides (as Theseus) during the Rude Mechanicals play within a play made me literally weep with joy; never has the phrase ‘it’s immersive’ been more perfectly used. Hammed Animashaun is an adorably inept and big hearted Bottom who is also brilliantly funny. His punchy, modern delivery is great fun. David Moorst is a devilishly naughty, campy, Yorkshire Puck who steals many scenes. That he learned all of his aerialist skills just for this show is amazing.

This production is a gift from the theatrical gods (very specifically Dionysus I think). Not only is it brilliant, modern Shakespeare that pushes at the technical boundaries of what theatre can be it’s also just a fucking great night out and a huge, huge laugh. Come for the Bard, stay for the Beyoncé dance party.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at The Bridge until 31st August.

I paid £25 to stand in the pit for this show. You shouldn't see it any other way.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Theatre Review: Lunatic 19's

In the long, long, loooooooooooooooooooooooooooong list of things that are awful in the world in 2019 I think we can all agree that the treatment of immigrants and refugees in the USA (and more or less everywhere else for that matter) is somewhere near the top. It's certainly one of those issues that I get super angry about. And hell, if you're not angry about it then you don't understand it. Like, they're literally keeping kids in cages.

On the grounds that theatre should reflect on things that are terrible in the world, then, I was pretty excited to see my first play about this general shit show; Lunatic 19's - A Deportational Road Trip at The Finborough Theatre (great pub theatre over a fun pub, even if their house white tastes mildly like paint thinner). First of all, no that apostrophe is not a typo. That's how it's written. Second of all, this is not the hard hitting, punchy commentary that I was hoping for. In fact I think, as a play, it's pretty thin.

Lunatic 19's tells the story of Gracie, an undocumented migrant worker who's just been involved in a serious car crash but is tracked down in the hospital by immigration officer Alec, tasked with deporting her back to Mexico, a country she was last in when she was five. Along the way, prisoner and jailer get emotionally involved and the power structures shift in unexpected (and for me entirely implausible) ways. To be fair to playwright Tegan McLeod, I can see what she was trying to do here. Because this play is undoubtedly a different angle on the immigration topic in some senses and I can see why that's an appealing idea. I can also see the appeal of writing an immigration play where the power is at least temporarily handed back to the (Latina, female) immigrant. However, there are ways of achieving this with a much tighter and more plausible plot than what we have here. Willing suspension of disbelief notwithstanding, too much happens in this play that I just didn't believe. For the sake of not spoilering the play I won't set any of them out here, but I will just pose the question of how easy it really is to remove a neck brace that's screwed into your own skull without, like, dying.

I also found the emotional entanglement of Alec and Gracie a bit of an issue. I completely get what McLeod is getting at (that, actually, there are human stories on both sides of this debate) but I'm not sure that this idea is best expressed as it is here. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The final scenes, which includes a fairly odd and flat (and thankfully short) sex scene, fit into the latter.

That said, I didn't hate Lunatic 19's. It does have a lot to say about its subject matter and it has some really strong moments and strong writing, particularly in the first half. The parts where it is a straightforward 'this system is an inhumane aberration' polemic are very strong. The fact that everything that happens to Gracie happens because she once returned a rental car late is so ridiculous as to be entirely plausible. The horrible, hard to watch details of her deportation are true to life and it's important to see them acted out like this with no flinching. And, reservations above aside, it is good to see that Alec gets to be a proper character and not just a caricature whilst Gracie is a bit of a badass and defiantly (also not a typo) not a victim.

If the play isn't 100% for me, the production is much stronger. Director Jonathan Martin's vision for this piece is crystal clear and delivered really well. Carla Goodman's design is the absolute highlight, especially the way it uses Kevin Treacy's excellent lighting as, basically, all the sets. It's a taught 90 minute affair which keeps up its momentum really well.

The cast of two work really hard and there's certainly no question about their commitment to the piece. Gabriela Garcia is a wonderfully physical Gracie with real attitude. Occasionally it feels a bit like she's doing an impression of Jodie Comer in Killing Eve, but generally she brings something really fun to the part. Devon Anderson has a harder job as Alec, both in terms of generating sympathy and also because his material is less good. But he works it hard and delivers something complex, intense and watchable.

Overall, Lunatic 19's wasn't really for me. I feel like the play probably needed another couple of workshops to be honest, as much as I sympathise with the point it's trying to make. It's a great little production though.

Lunatic 19's is at The Finborough Theatre until 3rd August.

My ticket for this one was kindly provided by the production and would normally cost £18 for an unreserved seat.