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.   

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Theatre Review: Present Laughter

Unbelievably in about twenty years of regular to obsessive theatre going I have never seen a Noel Coward play. Not through any particular ill will towards the legendary playwright. I've just never got round to it somehow. And if you're going to pop such a big theatrical cherry after so long, you may as well do it in spectacular style.

The Old Vic's new production of Coward's Present Laughter fits that bill perfectly. Let's not fuck around here: Matthew Warchus' updated version of this play is an absolute triumph. To rip off one of my favourite Blackadder Goes Forth quotes, it's a twelve story triumph with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, twenty four hour portage and a large sign on the roof saying 'this is a triumph'. I liked it, is what I'm saying.

Present Laughter is essentially a farce. It deals with the perils of fame (that summer 2019 theatrical mini-trend I've mentioned before), specifically extreme fame that comes with an obsessive fandom. It is hilariously funny, both in its writing and in the supremely elegant staging of this production (which I'll come to) in a way that makes your face ache and your soul feel lighter. But at the heart of this light, fluffy, hilarious thing is something far darker which gives it an edge that I enjoyed. Because it's also a play about loneliness, about sexual desire and about the costs that fame exacts - of everyone involved. All good comedy has a dark side, I think, and this play has a really juicy, impeccably timely, one.

The writing, as I've mentioned, is everything I hoped my first Coward would be: catty and campy but truthful and complex too. It's hilarious, until it needs not to be. I could quote it endlessly, but I'll spare you. The characters are all great (which is to say they're all awful) and the gender swap that this production includes, which makes one of the male lead character's love interests same sex, is seamless to the extent that I think you could easily not know there even was one. I don't know that the text has been updated much more than that, but the play feels so modern and relevant. I'd believe you if you told me it was written yesterday.

Away from the script, Matthew Warchus' production excels in every way. Poorly staged farce is amongst the most unwatchable theatre in existence but expertly staged farce like this is an absolute gift. It's directed with pace and exquisite timing. With the gender swap and allowing space for the darkness of this play to intrude liberally, Warchus' bang up to date vision for the play is beautifully realised. Rob Howell's design is an art deco stunner with gorgeous curves and pops of colour everywhere. The whole play is done on one set and it works so well. It's expertly crafted to make the farce work too (by which I mean there are lots of doors and props for people to throw around, all within reach of the main action). Simon Baker's sound is pleasingly boisterous and if there must be a blacked out pause in the action between scenes - the only thing which just grated on my nerves ever so slightly in this show - then the loud selection of absolute bangers selected to provide some musical cover is top drawer. +10 points for swing Britney for a start. Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone's lighting is also really effective. Their evocation of the passage of time in particular is beautifully done.

All that said, I feel like any production, no matter how good, of this play rests on the choice of actor to play the lead role; just slightly beginning to fade leading man Garry Essendine. But this production has Andrew Scott, so that's not a problem. Scott is on sublime form here. His comedy timing is astonishing, his delivery of the frankly insane amount of lines he has never less than perfect, and he can conjure pathos and sympathy out of apparently nothing. He is utterly hilarious and joyously good at the farcey stuff but subtly sad in the darker moments too. His performance is worth the price of a ticket and, to him, surely worth some clutter for the mantelpiece come awards season. I've seen few better this year. Also it's pleasingly meta to have someone who's so caught up in the fandom culture (Sherlock, Fleabag etc) playing this role. I suspect it's not accidental.

This cast has strength in depth too and there's some great work elsewhere on the stage. Sophie Thompson (long the superior Thompson sister for my money) frankly appears to be having far too much fun as Garry's long suffering secretary. She's an absolute hoot every time she's on the stage. Indira Varma is breezily excellent as Garry's estranged wife, and really turns up the emotional heat when required. Luke Thallon is fantastic as Garry's obsessive fan, all happy, innocent psychosis. As the aforementioned gender swapped male love interest, Enzo Cilenti is deliciously creepy, slinking around the stage (and around Garry) like some kind of over stimulated panther. Is a good group, in other words. Squad goals.

I bloody loved Present Laughter, in short. It's such a relevant, modern production of a just very fucking funny play (with an edge) which the whole cast - but Andrew Scott in particular - acts the arse off of. More to the point, I can't remember the last time I laughed so much in a theatre. And really what more can you want given the state of, well, everything at the moment than that?

Present Laughter is at The Old Vic until 10th August.

I sat in A6 in the Lilian Baylis Circle for this one, for which I paid £21. I think I've mentioned before how much I love seats in the front row of the LB - slightly restricted by a safety rail but otherwise brilliant value.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Theatre Review: Peter Gynt

I see we have our summer 2019 London theatre mini-trend: plays about the fickle nature of fame. That this coincides with yet another series of fucking Love Island is a pleasing coincidence. Or is it? Maybe Rufus Norris and David Hare are fans? Imagine if they were! Now I can't get the idea of them having nightly viewing parties out of my head.

Anyhoo, the latest addition to this trend is Peter Gynt, a new adaptation of Ibsen's apparently unstageable Peer Gynt by David Hare. This is normally the point in proceedings where I'd give you a pithy couple of sentence summary of the plot but Peter Gynt is so utterly, joyously bonkers that I can't really do that. But in essence it's about a man who wants to be famous and rich and powerful and, above all, anything other than ordinary. The lengths he goes to to achieve this are ridiculous, but the central idea - that actually our apparently never ending grasping for fame and fortune are also ridiculous - is cleverly worked through and of course depressingly timely.

It feels like a long ass time since I had anything nice to say about David Hare but I will happily admit that I loved his script here. Yes it's a little bit all over the place, yes the plot is at times completely irrelevant and stupid and of fucking course there's some clunkingly heavy handed attempts at political satire but my god it's also so much fun. A David Hare play that's fun - who knew?! And it's not just fun, it's funny. Like really, properly, my face hurts can you please stop funny. I shan't spoil any of the jokes but there's one about the TV show Bodyguard that still makes me giggle to myself a good 10 days after seeing the show. Watch out for it.

This brings me to a wider point that I think makes this play such a success as a piece of writing, which is that the updates and the cultural references totally work. Yes some of them are frivolous and silly but they also make complete sense in the context of this production. They also, of course, enhance the feeling of timeliness around it. This is a really well thought out update in other words. The modern cultural references give us a way into a difficult play but it remains very obvious that they could be replaced with equivalent references for any period and the show would still work.

Director Jonathan Kent's production fully embraces the bonkers and the legendary unstageable-ness of this play in a way which basically makes me want to go to a party at his house because I think it would be super fun. This is a long show (I gather it's down to three hours and twenty minutes now, which is shorter than when I saw it in preview, including two intervals) but Kent's production never sags. Quite the contrary, it positively bounces along on a wave of its own madness. Richard Hudson's design is brilliant: technically clever (all the trap doors and hidey holes in the set are aces) and aesthetically exactly the right level of crazy. His costumes are great too. Dick Straker's video and Mark Henderson's lighting are equally glitzy and effective. And there are songs! Paul Englishby's music isn't 100% effective for me (the more traditional musical theatre 'I want' song that crops up in the later acts is not a welcome addition) but the vaudeville tracks definitely are. I did not know I needed singing cowgirl trolls in my life as much as I apparently do. Some clever illusion work from Chris Fisher is the cherry on top of a deliciously crazy confection - and given the uniqueness of the shape of the Olivier auditorium he does particularly well to create things that work from every angle.

All of these nice words aside, none of them are the main reason I enjoyed Peter Gynt so much. No, the reason for that is much simpler. So simple it can be summed up in two words: James McArdle. In the title role McArdle is absolutely magnificent. He has the timing, swagger and charisma of a stand up comedian which, when combined with the general all round excellent, deeply emotional acting he's shown time and again on various NT stages, is absolutely irresistible. His performance is like crack for your eyes; completely addictive. It's genuinely impossible to take your eyes off him when he's on stage, which thankfully is like 99% of the time. Frankly the whole affair should just be renamed The James McArdle Show and be done with it. He has a fine supporting cast behind him too, especially Ann Louise Ross as his acerbic and long suffering (very funny) mother.

In truth I don't think Peter Gynt/The James McArdle Show will be a production or a play for everyone, but for me it was both. I loved the bonkers, I loved the silly jokes and most of all I loved James McArdle. His performance is more than worth the price of a ticket, regardless of what you think of the rest of the show.

Peter Gynt is in the Olivier theatre at the NT until October 8th, with a break to go to the Edinburgh Festival over the summer.

I sat in J53 in the stalls for this one - a rare foray out of the circle in the Olivier - and paid £36 for the ticket. I saw the production in preview.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Theatre Review: Sweat

One of the most pleasing things that can happen to a theatre fan is a show that you tried and failed to get tickets for at a small venue announces a transfer to a big ass venue. That moment when you finally get your tickets without having to go through endless online ticket queues, day seat lotteries, and/or the seven labours of Hercules is so sweet.

Such was the case for me with Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning play about about the consequences of the decline of industry and the traditional white working class in Reading, Pennsylvania, and indeed everywhere else in the industrialised west. Sweat had run, and extended, at The Donmar Warehouse earlier this year to universal raving and a complete sell out. I couldn’t have had higher expectations when I finally got to see it in its West End transfer, at the big ol’ Gielgud Theatre.

Now, first of all a small regret and sort of criticism. I don’t think the Gielgud is the right home for this show. It’s an intimate piece with a small cast and limited settings and for me, sat way up in the cheap seats, it sometimes felt a bit lost. Certainly it seemed that it was struggling to connect with the fidgety audience around me. Maybe I should’ve spent more and sat in the stalls, but I shouldn’t have needed to. I so wish I’d seen this piece in the Donmar, the sort of venue for which it is one million percent suited.

That said, there’s absolutely no doubting that Sweat, and this production in particular, is an absolute marvel. It’s been said so often that it’s basically cliche now, but Lynn Nottage explains the mess we’re currently in (Trump, Brexit, Gilets Jaunes, Five Star, that twat in Brazil, take your pick) more astutely than any politician, journalist or other apparent expert has ever done. Which is also to say that Sweat is horribly depressing, but you should watch it anyway because it’s important we all understand this shit and no one will explain it to you better than this play. Nottage’s writing is razor sharp: funny, difficult, truthful (the play is based on real life interviews with residents of Reading, Penn), insightful, devastating. Her characters are perfectly human and all sort of sympathetic, sort of awful in the way all real human beings are. Her beautifully constructed plot - I was so sure I knew exactly where it was going and the vicious twist in the last fifteen minutes was brutally brilliant - makes her points very clearly whilst still being entertaining and engrossing. It’s not difficult to see why this play won the Pulitzer and there’s no question that it absolutely deserved to.

Directed by The Bush’s new Artistic Director, Lynette Linton, the production delivers exactly the right package for a play of this quality. Linton’s vision is clear and deftly communicated (and I am so excited for her becoming an ever growing figure on the London theatre scene). Frankie Bradshow’s rusty, decaying, technically adaptable set is great portraying the general mood of the play, one of its key themes (deindustrialisation) and really effectively moving the action around all at the same time. Gino Ricardo Green’s video works super well with it, projecting clips of politicians being generally awful onto this rusting facade. Olivier Fenwick’s lighting is harsh and unforgiving with the pleasing occasional intrusion of some party time neon. George Dennis’ music and sound are subtle but effective. And whoever decided that Childish Gambino’s This Is America should be the end of show song also deserves mention.

The cast, 100% transferred from the Donmar, is also a dream come true. Much has already been said about Martha Plimpton and Clare Perkins in the central roles, all of it good and all of it completely accurate. They’re both just exceptional, giving performances of huge complexity, nuance and depth. I thought Perkins in particular was amazing. Kudos also belongs to some of the men in supporting roles (how nice is that phrase, by the way), especially Wil Johnson as Perkins’ struggling/deadbeat husband and Osy Ikhile as her troubled and troubling son. There’s also lovely stuff from my fave Sule Rimi, vastly underused but fantastic as an overworked social worker type. The whole cast kicks ass though, and it’s lovely to see a decent number of young actors with limited stage experience getting a chance to shine too.

I really can’t recommend Sweat highly enough. It’s not just a great play, and a great production, it’s an actually important one. If we’re ever to drag society out of the primordial soup in which it’s currently dwelling stories like this need to be told, seen and properly understood. And you’ll not find a better telling than this play. See it immediately.

Sweat is at the Gielgud Theatre in the West End until July 20th.

I sat in H14 in the Grand Circle for this one and paid £15, which is amazing value for a great view and reasonable leg room but, as mentioned, was a bit far away from the action for me for this production. Bafflingly, there are plenty of tickets and deals to be had throughout the rest of Sweat’s run - pay for as close to the stage as you can afford. 

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Theatre Review: Hedgehog

I've observed before that my motivations for seeing a particular show can sometimes be very complicated and sometimes very simple.  The inclusion of the line 'and a dead hedgehog' as an apparently key plot point in advertising blurb probably falls into both of those categories. Either way, it was precisely this that made me want to see Hedgehog.

Written by Alexander Knott, Hedgehog tells the story of Manda, a young woman on the verge of adulthood on the cusp of the new millennium; her hopes, her fears, her creeping anxiety and, ultimately, her journey to self acceptance and perspective. And the key thing to know about it right off the bat is that it's a fantastic piece of writing. It's very funny, first of all, and captures the ridiculousness of teenage life brilliantly. It's not always an easy watch though, particularly the scenes where Manda's anxiety starts to consume her. It's touching too, especially in its portrayal of Manda's relationship with her dad. Most of all, though, it's breathtakingly relatable. Regardless of your gender, your geography or your upbringing there will be parts of this play that you recognise and that you feel speak only to you (which of course they don't). It's only very accomplished, perfectly constructed writing that does this, I find. And Hedgehog does it a lot.

It's also an exceptionally intelligent production. The child of Boxless Theatre, who specialise in fusing new writing with physical theatre, the piece is essentially a monologue blended with elements of dance and physical work largely provided by two supporting cast members who play every other character - aka Them. Under Georgia Richardson's direction, this works absolutely seamlessly. It looks gorgeous, it communicates both atmosphere and plot, and it technically totally succeeds, doing everything it needs to without ever pulling focus too far from the writing and the central performance. It's perfectly paced and exactly what both the script and the performers need by way of support.

The performers need very little by way of support, mind, because all three - Manda and Them x2 - are excellent. Zoe Grain as Manda is spectacularly good; like hands down one of the best performances I've seen all year in any theatre. It's hard to imagine this show working anywhere near as well without her energy, comic timing and head of a pin changes of tone. She's remarkable. Ample support comes from the endlessly watchable Emily Costello and Lucy Annable as the Thems. The former is especially good as a heartbroken young boy and a bitchy teenage Plastic (I think they call that range) and the latter with some of the more broadly comic parts. All three, Costello and Annable in particular, are step perfect on the more physical aspects of the show. And all three are an absolute joy to watch. Very much #SquadGoals.

Staged in a room above a (very nice) pub or otherwise, Hedgehog is definitely one of my favourite shows so far this year. The writing is brilliant, the production is brilliant and it is brilliantly performed. I would love it if it were picked up root and branched by someone like The Bush and given a chance to find a bigger audience at a theatre where you can't hear bar chatter through the floor. It certainly deserves that - and a lot more.

Hedgehog is at The Lion and Unicorn until the 22nd June.

My ticket for this one was kindly provided by the production. An unreserved seat would normally cost £12, which is a fucking huge bargain for the quality of the work.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Theatre Review: Rutherford and Son

National Theatre programmes are always great. They have a particularly good line in slightly depressing if very interesting essays, especially where plays written by/about women or people of colour are concerned.

The programme for Rutherford and Son is a great example of this. It’s a play written by a woman, Githa Sowerby, who history has largely forgotten despite her string of early twentieth century commercial and critical hits. Depressing in and of itself, more so because it’s not in any way surprising. By far the best thing about this revival, at the NT in the Lyttelton, is the fact that it exists at all. It’s a pleasing thing to see a revival of a forgotten play written by a woman, especially at the Nash. 

However, the key thing to know about Rutherford and Son isthat it’s very boring. I don’t really know what else to tell you because I sort of lost the will with it at many and varied points. Plot-wise, to the extent there is one (which isn’t the case for a good third of it), it tells the story of the overbearing titular character and his desire to protect his business at all costs - including that of the wellbeing and happiness of his family. The one positive thing I’ll say for it at this point is that a couple of women characters get decent and more interesting (relatively speaking) look ins within this narrative. Thematically, it’s about family, loyalty, the clunking fist of the patriarchy and how to confound it. You’d think those latter points would have endeared it to me - and they are the more creatively explored, no doubt - but the whole mass of play is too dull to let them shine through. 

There are two main things that I think account for how boring I found it: the characters are almost all spectacularly unsympathetic and the pacing is off, which is a fancy way of saying nothing happens for almost an hour by which point you’ve already sat through an endless stream of perfunctory family bickering and portentous introduction of the man Rutherford. The longer second and third act (combined into one, mercifully) is better because some plot finally intrudes and the particularly tedious male characters are to some extent sidelined in favour of the women. But still. Sat in a nice comfy, cosy theatre seat, it’s a hell of a struggle not to doze off.

The production looks great, but has made some decisions that I really question. It’s already lost 25 minutes and an interval in preview, but still director Polly Findlay’s staging feels overlong and structurally odd. The one remaining interval comes very quickly and just as things are promising to start to happen. It kills any momentum dead and makes the second half feel like a real slog. I also wasn’t a huge fan of Kerry Andrew’s music, and the decision to have it sung live seemed frivolous. It doesn’t add much, other than in the second half when it steps in a couple of times to slow things down even further than it feels like they already are.  Lizzie Clachan’s set I really liked though. It makes great use of the Lyttelton stage and is suitably northern and atmospheric (it’s a bit heavy handed, but I loved the use of the rain effect too). Charles Balfour’s lighting accents it beautifully.

If this show is saved at all it’s by some of the acting. Out of politeness, I shan’t slag off the wandering accents - which occasionally wander to being downright incomprehensible - of many of the cast and will focus instead on the two performances that make the production if not in anyway outstanding then at least watchable. Roger Allam is Rutherford and is as reliably fantastic as he always is. He conjures up a character who is genuinely awful and frightening but also funny and charismatic. The big chunk of act one and the smaller chunk of act three that he’s absent for suffer so much - so much - for the lack of him. The ever brilliant Anjana Vasan plays the best and by far the most interesting of the supporting roles and really runs with it. As ever she’s a complete scene stealer and, in the key scene of the play, goes head to head with Allam brilliantly, finally injecting some tension and even excitement into proceedings. It’s a shame that the rest of the play never comes close to matching that scene. 

So, yeah, Rutherford and Son is not my cup of tea. No cup of tea has ever been as boring as this play is for one thing. Not even that crap tea you get on planes. The acting does just about salvage it, or at least stop it from being a complete disaster, but it’s not enough. Save your time and go and see the brilliant Small Island in the Olivier instead.

Rutherford and Son is in the Lyttelton theatre until 3rd August.

I sat in J9 in the circle - the very back row but still a great view - for £34 (not worth it). I saw the play in a late preview. 

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Theatre Review: ANNA

As odd theatrical experiences go, sitting in a deliberately two thirds empty auditorium wearing large headphones, surrounded by other people also wearing large headphones, listening to someone calmly saying ‘left ear, right ear’ in your left and right ear respectively is truly right up there. 

Welcome to the theatrical world of ANNA (their caps, not mine) the latest production in the National Theatre’s small and adaptable Dorfman space. The action in ANNA all takes place on a traditional end on stage, with the addition of a literally soundproof glass wall dividing it from the auditorium. The audience can hear nothing, except through the aforementioned large headphones which link up to a microphone attached to lead actress Phoebe Fox. We can only hear what her character hears - nothing else.

This is such a unique way of staging a show that I confess I was concerned it would just be a gimmick. It is definitively not, not for this show. Because the actual meat of ANNA, if you will, is a spy thriller by playwright Ella Hickson, set in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A time, of course, when spying and listening in on everyone around you was a fact of life. This show comes with a plea for no spoilers, so as for Hickson’s play all I will say is this: it’s a cracking thriller, wonderfully well plotted and written. It’s twisty, turny, creepy, threatening and very clever indeed. I didn’t see a single one of it’s major plot points coming until it arrived. It’s also flat out great entertainment. The headphones and associated technical wizardry would be entirely wasted, and would be completely the gimmick I feared they might be, if it weren’t. It would work as a show without them.

But with them it’s truly elevated. Having a spy thriller where the audience are, in effect, eavesdropping is a fantastic idea and director Nathalie Abraham’s production nails it utterly. Teaming up with sound design geniuses (genii?) Ben and Max Ringham to deliver the technical wizardry, the overall effect isn’t just a remarkably clear soundtrack (for about the first ten minutes I was convinced that every ambient noise on stage was somewhere behind me) it’s also to fully drag the audience into the action. To make us complicit, which becomes more uncomfortable as the play unravels. Vicki Mortimer’s clever set also ensures that we can’t always see everything that’s going on, making sure that the audio is even more important. Jon Clark’s lighting looks great too, especially during a sequence where fireworks (literal) are introduced.

The cast is also excellent and clearly invested in the concept they’re working with, the weirdness of which I can only imagine (though it must be nice not to be able to hear the inevitable audience coughing). It’s difficult to say much here without giving too much of the plot away, but there is lovely work on that stage. Phoebe Fox is brilliant as the titular character giving a performance of huge depth and complexity. Diana Quick joins her in another fantastically well realised turn. Max Bennett has some of the more difficult work to do but is brilliantly charismatic. It says much for the latter two in that brief list that I rated their performances even though I could often only see them. 

ANNA is such a great little show. It’s a curiosity, certainly, and it is worth seeing for the technical bravado alone. But it’s also an absolute belter of a thriller too, something which I don’t think it’s getting enough credit for. And the cherry on the cake? It’s 65 minutes long. I mean come on, what have you got to lose?

ANNA is in the Dorfman at the NT until 15th June.

I sat in the stalls for this one (first time doing so for an end on show in this space and to be honest it wasn’t that great - where are my arm rests?) in C10 which cost £45. More than I would usually pay, worth noting that seating is limited to the third of the theatre directly in front of the stage to make the production work technically (I assume) and so properly cheap seats are very limited, but worth it. 

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Theatre Review: Sad About the Cows

First things first, how good a title for a play is Sad About The Cows? Pretty bloody good I would argue.

It's also a pretty bloody good play, as it happens. Written and performed by Michelle Payne, it tells the story of Rachel (douze points from me for the name, obviously) who seems like a normal, fun young woman until the demons of body image get their pesky claws into her. As an obsession with Ariana Grande and the Victoria's Secret fashion show become an obsession with counting calories and eventually anorexia, the show charts her state of mind and body with - eventually - a happy ending.

It's a fab little piece, really well written: punchy, funny and ultimately quite uplifting. There's a lot in it that so many women will identify with, even if you've not taken things quite to the extreme that Rachel does. There's a great line about the fear of relaxing your discipline with you diet but still keeping hold of a sense of control that I wish I'd written down because it was frighteningly spot on. Ditto the various lines about feeling guilty for more or less everything you do as a woman - eating meat, not always having a reusable bottle, having something approximating a normal looking body.

Structurally it's clever too. The audience is cast as others members of some kind of online forum for people taking weight loss to an extreme which allows for a chatty, conspiratorial atmosphere. It's also kind of discomfiting given what the consequences of our 'support' for Rachel's lifestyle ultimately means. It also personifies her eating disorder as a separate character who we never see. The gradual realisation of who and what 'Anna' is was undoubtedly one of the play's strongest suits for me. 

I also think this play is a great use of the short, one person format. You can't really argue that its subject matter, even the most extreme bits of it, are news or that they aren't discussed in a myriad of forms, dramatic and not, elsewhere. But the joy of the one person format is that this sort of doesn't matter, because you buy into this individual story and only access the wider debate through it. This show never for a moment feels like an article in Women's Health or Grazia, even though its content definitely could be.

In the tiny Tristan Bates Theatre (a new one for me, and it's cute), Payne gives a great performance as actor too. She's super watchable and charismatic and carries a heavy story really beautifully. I genuinely felt like I knew Rachel by the end of the show and that's a testament both to Payne's writing and acting. Natasha Kathi-Chandra's light touch direction, Valentina Turtur's simple set and Ruoxi Jia's lighting (loved all the blue) give her excellent support.

Sad About The Cows is a really engaging piece that women everywhere will definitely recognise and empathise with. Michelle Payne utterly sells it, both as playwright and actor. Also? It starts at 6:15 and is only 45 minutes long which is like absolute heaven for this always tired theatre fan. Highly worth a tiny amount of your time.

Sad About The Cows is at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 25th June.

My ticket for this was kindly provided by the producers. It's unreserved seating and a ticket would normally cost £12.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Theatre Review: Death of a Salesman

A thought experiment I often do in moments of quiet boredom (ie at work) is planning what lines from plays I would genuinely get tattooed somewhere on my body. A new winner has emerged: "I don't want change, I want Swiss cheese."

The fact that I've seen Death of a Salesman before but had never clocked that gem of a line, which is so close to my personal brand it's not even funny, is sort of a microcosm of what makes London's current version, at The Young Vic, so *so* brilliant. Directed by Marianne (actual genius) Elliott and Miranda Cromwell and featuring an African American Loman family, this Salesman is the clearest, most moving and profound vision of this play I've ever seen. It's the best Arthur Miller production I've ever seen. Hell, it's one of the best Anyone productions I've ever seen. I absolutely adored it.

As her stunning gender swapped version of Company showed, Marianne Elliott has a gift for updating the classics. Her and Cromwell's decision to have their Loman family as African American is excellent both for the calibre of actors it has brought to the table (see below) and also in the way it brings a different edge to the story. It does two contrary things simultaneously: makes the story more specific to that community at that time and place in history, elevating different moments and making you look at the story in a fresh light, but also makes it more universal. I'm not sure how that works, but it undoubtedly does. The storytelling and vision of what the story actually says is as crystal clear as any production of anything - and certainly any Miller - I've ever seen. It benefits hugely from being absolutely explicit about which bits of the action are real and which are Willy's memories/delusions/whatever you please to call them which previous productions I've seen have not been - an artistic decision I sort of get but which this production more than proves isn't the only interpretation. It's more explicit about what is actually happening to him too, in that it plays up his mental health struggle and the steps that lead to his ultimate fate really effectively. I'm not sure if any changes or additions have been made to the text - I only spotted one tiny one - but if there have been they are enormously effective and completely seamless. This is brilliantly modern version of this play, but equally one that feels utterly timeless.

It is also an enormously effective and gorgeous production. Anna Fleischle's design is stunning. Eschewing the New York house front set that usually accompanies this play, Fleischle's concrete boxes and platforms with their assortment of floating windows, doors and furniture that are lowered into position as required is groundbreaking, totally effective and bleakly beautiful. Her design works with Aideen Malone's brutally stark lighting to amazing effect and is key to the storytelling of the whole show in that it illustrates so perfectly which bits of action are real and which are not. Femi Temowo's music - yes, this Salesman has music - was a surprise but a lovely one and is sparingly, brilliantly used (helps that you've got such a musically adept cast of course). I can't remember a production that looks and feels so different from its source material and traditional staging since, well, Company. Funny that.

AND THEN THERE'S THE CAST. Sorry, but I'm so excited about this group of exceptional people. I'm about to go into raptures over the central four Lomans, but it's worth saying at the outset that the entire ensemble is wicked. Everyone on that stage brings their A Game and it's a joy to behold. But the Lomans, man. The Lomans.

Wendell Pierce is Willy, giving an absolutely heroic performance that is so touching, slightly frightening and absolutely tragic. He makes Willy's demise seem inevitable but you will it not to be with every fibre of your being. Give him the Olivier now. Sharon D Clarke is Linda and fucking hell she's brilliant. The depth of emotion in her performance is astonishing - happy and sad. The final 'I can't cry' speech is incredible (I certainly did not share Linda's predicament and ugly cried for the entirety of it) and her voice, when she sings, as beautiful and soulful as ever. Give her the Olivier now. Arinze Kene is Biff and is majestic; the perfect angry ball of wounded pride, sadness, guilt and blind rage. He also made me ugly cry. Last but not least, Martins Imhangbe is Hap. I saw Imhangbe in a few things last year and always found his work strong and charismatic. Here, though, he's genuinely great, like not so much in a different league as last year but playing an entirely different sport. He embodies the struggle between what Hap is and what he wants to be so perfectly. Nominate him and Kene as a joint ticket for supporting actor and give them the Olivier now.

Oh how I loved this show. It's the most astonishing, heartbreaking, revelatory thing and if it's not towards the top of my end of year top 10 then I'll be amazed. It's sold out, but rush tickets and returns are available and it's entirely worth your time and patience to try and get one. This is a once in a lifetime production that you miss at your peril.

Death of a Salesman is at The Young Vic  until 13th July.

I sat upstairs in B19, a seat I booked for £20 in the TodayTix presale for this show.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Theatre Review: All My Sons

I don’t know if this is a controversial opinion or not, but does anyone else think that All My Sons is just a slightly less good version of Death of A Salesman? Maybe I’d think it was the other way around if I’d seen Sonsfirst, but I didn’t and so I don’t. Don’t get me wrong, both are great pieces of writing and emotionally devastating. But I also feel like they are essentially also the same play, and that Salesman is the more effective version of it.

Both, of course, are also available for your viewing pleasure within yards of each other on the South Bank in London at the moment. All My Sons is at The Old Vic (Salesman at the Young Vic - review incoming), directed by Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin and with a properly blockbuster cast (of whom more below). It tells the story of the Keller family and their complicated devastation at the loss of one son in the Second World War. 

This being a Miller play, that loss is of course emblematic of the death/unreality of The American Dream and the consequences of money trumps all capitalism. There’s a tortured heroine, an angry son and a tragic older man. Someone commits suicide at the end, obviously. It’s beautifully, angrily written - of course it is, Arthur Miller has his reputation as one of the absolute greats for a reason - but it does feel a little bit like Miller by numbers occasionally. As noted above, the fact that I already know Death of a Salesman far better than All My Sons undoubtedly impacts on my opinion on the latter. And Sons is still an emotionally devastating watch, mind. Even when you have a reasonable idea of what’s coming as soon as the word ‘gun’ is mentioned in the first ten minutes or so of act one. I still cried when that gun was eventually used, and a few other times besides (curse you Sally Field).

A lot of the emotional impact comes from a genuinely great production. A caveat to that first though: it’s impossible to find fault with this production and yet I do feel that it suffers a little by comparison with some of the other Miller around this year, the Young Vic’s groundbreaking Salesman and the sister piece at the Old Vic, The American Clock, both of which are more innovative and memorable (Clock also having the advantage of not being essentially exactly the same play too). 

That said, there is so much to admire in this unapologetically classic and gorgeously realised production. Director Jeremy Herrin is reliably excellent and gives us something beautifully serious, solid and a vision of theatrical polish. Max Jones’ huge set is stunning and a feat of stagecraft in its own right. It’s great to see the full expanse of The Old Vic’s massive stage being used so well and the sense of decay but also expectation he manages to create is spot on for the play (the crunching visual metaphor of the wind ruined tree is also nicely understated). Richard Howell’s lighting is pleasingly bleak and evocatively dazzling and/or dingy as required. Duncan McLean’s video design is very effective and all the more impactful for being sparsely used. 

The main draw of this production though, and its absolute trump card, is its cast which is the stuff of theatrical dreams. The central foursome? Bill Pullman, Sally Field, Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan. Sule Rimi and Oliver Johnstone, two of my favourite British stage actors around at the moment, pop up in supporting roles. It’s remarkable to have them all on the same stage.

Performance of the night for me goes to Colin Morgan whose status as one of our finest stage actors has somewhat crept up on me but jeez I’m so happy about it. He is straight up inspired as angry and complicated son Chris, the source of so much of the play’s fire. He is just endlessly watchable, completely at ease with all of his material (which ranges from happy to ragey to crushed and everything in between) and steals every scene he’s in. Sally Field runs him close in a textbook example of how to do a Miller tragic heroine. She is undoubtedly best in the heaviest moments, her heaving sobs a thing of tender, heartbreaking beauty. Bill Pullman is a great Miller tragic antihero too, particularly in the more explicitly ‘death of the American dream’ moments, even if his vocal projection is occasionally an issue if you’re sitting in the cheap seats (though this weirdly works in his favour as the action gets more tragic and his character starts to disintegrate). Jenna Coleman, somehow only now making her stage debut, not that you’d know it, is lively and feisty and as beautifully watchable and at home on stage as she always is on screen. Rimi and Johnstone are somewhat underused for my money (because I love them both muchly) but both deal with the key scenes that their characters have perfectly. Rimi drips with easy charisma and brings some much needed levity to the table and Johnstone almost the complete opposite, bringing tension and conflict with a believably tragic earnestness.

All My Sons may not be my favourite Arthur Miller play but The Old Vic’s production of it is undeniably brilliant, especially the heavyweight and stunningly good cast. I mean, if you have the opportunity to see Bill Pullman AND Sally Field AND Jenna Coleman AND Colin Morgan on the same stage, why would you ever not take it?

All My Sons is at The Old Vic until 8th June.

I sat in A3 in the Lilian Baylis circle for this one, for £20. This is my ‘usual’ seat in The Old Vic and offers a great - marginally restricted by the safety rail - view for the price.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Theatre Review: Small Island

Here’s a phrase I’ve not had cause to write, say or think for a very long time indeed: I’ve seen a show at the National Theatre directed by its AD, Rufus Norris, which I absolutely loved. Not only that, it was in the Olivier! Something fantastic was in the Olivier! It seems too warm for hell to have frozen over, but I might check just in case.

Small Island is that show. Norris directs Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Andrea Levy’s modern classic novel, telling the story of Jamaican immigrants coming to Britain during and after the Second World War. And my goodness the play itself is a wonderful thing. I was only vaguely aware of Levy’s original novel, which has now shot straight to the top of my to read list, but her story and her storytelling is absolutely stunning. I feel like I’m using this word a lot at the moment - perhaps a reflection of how little of this quality is currently available in real life - but the humanity of it is so beautiful. There’s such heart and life in her characters and their stories that it’s genuinely impossible to not be emotionally invested in them. Even if you feel you have zero experience of immigration (and if you think this is the case, you’re almost certainly wrong by the way) you will identify with the stories that Small Island tells. Because, to badly paraphrase one of the show’s most powerful set piece speeches, essentially the immigrant story is universal: we all want a better life in the end, it’s just that some people travel further for it.

None of this is to say that the show is twee or rose tinted though. It makes clear the reasons for the Jamaican characters wanting to leave home, both positive and negative, and the rumbling social unrest as the independence movement begins to grow there. It makes clear the awfulness of the British Empire’s attitudes to those in its colonies, both in the Caribbean and India. It makes clear the horrid racism that people of colour faced in the UK when they arrived here, war service notwithstanding, and it is unflinching but not sensationalist in its honest portrayal of this. The ease with which the racist language is used is genuinely shocking, or at least it was to me. It makes clear the particularly bad lots of women, of colour and not, at the time and the bonds of a sort of sisterhood that this made space for. It has so much to say about home and family and love, not all of it good or easy or pleasant. At various points it made me silently fuming, deeply embarrassed and painfully hopeful. It is brilliant writing - and brilliant adaptation for the stage too.

It is, of course, also horribly *horribly* timely. I don’t think I need to explain why, save to say that the Empire Windrush does make an appearance. And that the use of the racist language that I found so shocking and embarrassing is something that probably would have been even more so before the Brexit genie was freed from its bottle. I haven’t always agreed with Rufus Norris’ programming since he took the NT helm, especially for the Olivier, but putting this play on at this moment could not be a better decision. 

His production is an absolute triumph too; a timely and necessary reminder of the levels of beauty he is able to reach as a director that have been sorely lacking in the work of his that I’ve seen of late (I’m still pissed about that fugly Macbeth). An epic story like this deserves an epic staging and that is exactly what Norris gives it. The sweep and the scope of it is cinematic, like one of the Old Hollywood blockbusters that one of the play’s heroines (a big yes to having more than one leading, complex, kick ass female characters), Queenie, so enjoys. I have never seen the Olivier’s acres of stage used better I don’t think. This production is that rarest of rare things: one that feels like it actually belongs in the Olivier. 

I can’t say enough good things about Katrina Lindsay’s set design. It’s huge and epic and beautiful and brilliant and every other good word you can think of. Jon Driscoll’s projection design is perfect and so cleverly used. When it combines with Paul Anderson’s stunning (and stunningly effective) lighting to create the effect of members of the cast walking in and out of the projections in shadow it’s one of the production’s most visually arresting features. Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s music, which is basically a score in the cinematic sense of the word, is the cherry on a rich (probably rum soaked) cake that beautifully integrates Caribbean and English influenced sounds whilst always providing the perfect amount of atmosphere. All in all, this production is an absolute masterpiece. And it’s surely no coincidence that I can’t remember the last time I was in such an engaged audience in the Olivier.

Finally, the Olivier-appropriate huge cast is a gift. Everyone in the mostly multiple part playing ensemble is brilliant but the central trio of Leah Harvey (Hortense), Aisling Loftus (Queenie) and Gershwyn Eustache Jr (Gilbert) are a class above. Harvey and Loftus are both feisty, determined and thoroughly inspirational as the two leading ladies, perfectly portraying their desires for their futures and their entirely different but also entirely the same experiences as women in a phallocentric (love that word) society. Loftus in particular has some very difficult scenes - no spoilers - with some serious emotional heavy lifting. She’s magnetic in them. Eustache (can we please take a minute to celebrate the best name in British theatre) is charisma in human form, all swagger and bravado which makes his treatment at the hands of his adopted countrymen and the suffering it causes him all the more painful to watch. I could have happily watched him for the entire three hours plus run time of the play and will definitely be keeping an eye out for whatever he chooses to do next.

Small Island is an absolute joy and an overdue, no reservations at all, win for Rufus Norris at the NT. There’s nothing else to say. Well except this: you must see it, immediately. 

Small Island is in the Olivier at the NT until 10th August.

I sat in E41 in the circle for this one and paid £15 for the privilege. I would recommend sitting up high for this production to fully appreciate the stunning design.