Thursday, 24 January 2019

Theatre Review: Pinter 5

Sometimes there are all kinds of profound reasons why you want to see a show. Sometimes you just want to sit in the warm with a big glass of red wine and stare at Rupert Graves for a couple of hours. Both of these are equally valid.

No prizes for guessing that it was very much the second reason that found me back at the Harold Pinter Theatre for Pinter 5 last night. Pinter 5, that is, that plays once more before closing. So let’s make this snappy shall we?

Pinter 5 is directed by Patrick Marber and made up of three pieces: short play The Room, comedy sketch Victoria Station and Family Voices another, shorter, play.

For me, The Room was by far the least enjoyable. It is exactly what I always thought Pinter was, and exactly why I’d never been to any of his work before this season: pretentious, bleak, slow, impenetrable, paus-y. I can’t even tell you what the plot was because I don’t know. Something about how we don’t communicate maybe? Genuinely not sure. It is, though, immaculately acted - a theme of the night - by the reliably excellent Jane Horrocks and a extremely powerful, if underused, Rupert Graves. Shout out too to fight director Kate Waters for her truly brutal sequence. Not for me, but not unwatchable.

The Room is the entirety of the first act of the production. After the interval things perk up considerably. Victoria Station is admittedly rather slight but it’s fantastically done. A very funny piece of writing that looks great - such a clever use of Soutra Gilmour’s otherwise domestic revolving set and Richard Howell’s lighting - and is performed brilliantly. It’s a two hander, pitting an effortlessly brilliant Graves (like honestly, it looked to me like I was expending more energy sitting in the audience than he was on the stage) against a joyously exasperated Colin McFarlane. It’s a hugely entertaining - and, thanks to Graves, surprisingly affecting - little thing that I really enjoyed.

Family Voices switches the tone back to black but is a gorgeously sad piece of writing (with an actual, comprehensible set up). It features the performance of the evening from Luke Thallon who effectively plays six characters, by my count, with distinct personalities, voices and mannerisms. Five of these are essentially comedy parts, the sixth - and main - is the big meaty emotional one, and he’s great at them all. It’s a fantastically compelling piece of work, backed up by a tremendously sad and bitter Horrocks and an all too brief, though brilliantly charismatic, cameo from Graves.

Overall, I enjoyed 
Pinter 5. The quality of work after the interval more than made up for the tedium of the first piece, and it’s never less than brilliantly acted. Worth a look, if you happen to be free on Saturday afternoon.

There’s one more performance of Pinter 5, at The Harold Pinter Theatre, on Saturday 26th January at 2:30. There are tickets.

I sat in seat T1 in the stalls for this (good view, good legroom, annoyingly close to a door onto the street so take your Pinter with a side of central London street noise) which cost £28 via TodayTix.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Theatre Review: Violet

'Kaisa Hammarlund stars in a musical by Jeanine Tesori' is one of the latest entries on my list of phrases that will definitely get me to buy theatre tickets. I mean come on guys, the last time it happened was Fun Home. And that was an absolute triumph for both of these exceptionally talented women.

Whilst Fun Home was something I'd heard of and immediately wanted to see regardless of cast, venue, ticket price or anything else, the newest collaboration between the two is something I'd not heard of at all: the musical Violet.

The plot of Violet - girl with severe facial scarring goes on a cross-USA bus trip to be healed by a TV evangelist, meets a boy and discovers that she never needing healing in the first place - is hardly going to win any awards on its own. The way that it is told in this show, however, elevates it to something really quite lovely, with huge emotional impact and a surprising timeliness. Brian Crawley's book and lyrics are sweet and tender, yes, but they're also never uncomplicated or trite. There's an unflinching honesty to them too, which allows him to capture feelings of being an outsider and being 'ugly'. The pressure of female beauty standards (regardless of any scars you may or may not have) is never far away and Crawley succeeds in both showing how ridiculous they are and how deeply felt they are too, and what the impacts of that can be. Mercifully, he also rings some darkish humour from this line of thought (I loved the line that went something like 'Ingrid Bergman has made a career out of good cheekbones').

Jeanine Tesori's music is a gorgeous hotchpotch of styles of the American south: country, bluegrass, blues, soul and gospel. The score really reflects the literal journey that Violet goes on as well as the idea that the people she meets along the way (love interests Monty and Flick, the latter being black) are introducing newness and change into Violet's life. It's a really clever and successful piece of musical storytelling.

On top of which there are some just absolutely great songs. My favourite is All to Pieces which for me represents the best example of music, lyrics and story coming together as Violet takes Flick and Monty through the individual bits of her body she'd like to change. It's funny at first, but quickly becomes more sinister. Never has the phrase 'love me to pieces' seemed so malignant.

Violet is a co-production between Charing Cross and Japan's Umeda Arts Theatre, directed by Shuntaro Fujita. Fujita has a very clear and confident idea of what this story can be in today's climate and directs with a real sense of care for both the characters and the show. For me, the most impactful artistic decision he takes here is not to show Violet's scar - there is no trick makeup or facial prosthesis to be found on his set. Although it took me a minute to adjust to this, ultimately I felt it gave the story a hundred times the resonance than it would otherwise have had. It plays up and draws out the idea of the ludicrous weight of beauty standards that the book and lyrics also examine. A simple step (and good god I hope it was intentional and not just that someone forgot to put them on the actors in the performance I saw!) but an effective one.

Morgan Large's set - and, I gather, reworking of the performance space in the theatre) is also very effective, bringing the audience in and making great use of a revolve to really show off the cast. Howard Hudson's lighting is great too, with an interestingly frequent and ballsy use of darkness as well as light. It's a good looking thing, this show.

Finally there's the cast, who are excellent to a man, woman and child. I've already mentioned that Kaisa Hammarlund having another go at Jeanine Tesori was the main reason I booked to see this show and she did not disappoint. She's perfectly cast in the titular role: brave, honest, funny and heartbreakingly vulnerable with a voice that owns every note. Easily worth the price of a ticket alone. Jay Marsh, as love interest Flick, is fantastic too. He absolutely nails the cocky swagger of a soldier and the conflict inherent in being a young black man in the American south in the late 1960s, without ever over cooking it. He also has a kickass, achingly soulful voice. In some of the smaller roles, each with a massive solo though, Anjelica Allen and Simbi Akande absolutely shine. These girls can SING. There's morally ambiguous charisma and fun from Kenneth Avery-Clark as the Preacher too (and I love that the show stops short of simplistically making him a villain or anything close to it).

For a show which I didn't know at all and had no expectations of, I was really taken with Violet. It's a sweet but uncompromising show, immaculately performed and cleverly staged, that hits you in all of the feels. It will also make you feel happy, and who  doesn't need that in January?

Violet is at the Charing Cross Theatre until 6th April.

I sat in D10 in the stalls for this show, of which I saw the penultimate preview, and paid £20 via an offer from WhatsOnStage. The seat would normally cost £35.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Theatre Review: Anomaly

One of the (many) things that happened in the wake of Harvey Weinstein being exposed as a massive scumbag, to put it rather mildly, that I found puzzling was the fact that it almost instantly destroyed his wife's fashion business, Marchesa. 

Once an absolute powerhouse of the red carpet and associated thin rich women industry, anyone who was pictured wearing a Marchesa gown was now apparently condoning everything Weinstein had done. Now don't get me wrong, I'm as anti that human stain accumulating any more money as anyone else. But it just seemed odd to me that punishing the career of a woman who happened to have the considerable misfortune to be married to him was completely fine and normal. 

And the furore over Marchesa did give me pause to think, each time another horrific man in a position of power was exposed, what was going to happen to the family he was leaving in his wake?

Apparently this was not as original a thought as I liked to think it was. Because Anomaly, WildChild Productions’ new triple hander at The Old Red Lion Theatre, tackles exactly this question. When a fictional movie mogul falls spectacularly from grace, what happens to the three famous daughters he leaves behind? All have built their lives, for better or worse, around his name and his presence. What will happen to them now that his name is a curse and his presence nonexistent?

It surely goes without saying that this play is a tough watch, I mean the subject matter - privilege, celebrity culture, everyday sexism - is hardly laugh a minute. But it's also gripping, necessary and just a straight up great piece of writing. Liv Warden's script is fantastic, fizzing with energy, ideas and freshness. Her focus on her female characters is laser sharp - men intrude into her space only to remind us that the patriarchy is awful. And the three characters are remarkably diverse and well developed for a play that lasts only just over an hour. 

Philosophically I am so here for a play that tells this sort of story with female voices, all of whom are different and none of whom are just victims. The small, subtle ways that Warden shows that every facet of these innocent women’s lives being open to intense and insane judgement versus the apparent l’aissez faire treatment of their father’s many misdeeds (to a point) is so well done. It’s often utterly depressing in many ways to watch, because it rings so true, but the writing is always so good that you sort of don’t mind. 

There is also humour built in too, predominantly of the pitch black variety that I particularly enjoy. Borrowing very much, I think, from the Mel Brooks school of 'laugh at your enemies, it'll drive them nuts', much of the humour is derived from the nonsense of modern celebrity culture and its treatment of women. It's very much a laugh at, rather than laugh with, sort of thing; Peep Show-esque in its discomfort at times. Nevertheless, it cuts through the darkness and gives the piece a mischievousness that totally works.

The production is top class, remarkably effective for a pub production. Director Adam Small really sets the piece loose in a minimal but clever set (can pub theatre sets be anything else if they're going to actually work?) by Charlotte Dennis. The structure of the play is almost a set of interlocking monologues and lighting designer Holly Ellis brings this together beautifully. The use of recorded voice overs for unseen characters, which could be annoying if misjudged, is well done too. 

Finally, the three women assembled to bring Anomaly to life are just brilliant and all deserve to go on to exceptionally good things. Alice Handoll has the most fun part (well, after a fashion) as troubled Polly and delivers impish charm that makes her eventual Big Reveals (no spoilers) and dramatic change in tone all the more arresting. Natasha Cowley as Daddy's business heir apparent Piper gives us the perfect balance of steel and heartbreak, her commitment to her family and sacrifices for her/their career totally relatable. Katherine Samuelson rounds out the trio as Penny, the actress with shades of Kardashian, and makes her character more sympathetic, complex and strong than that summation could ever suggest. They're a hell of a team, these three. Squad goals.

Anomaly is a really exciting play. For all that it's hard to watch and challenging to process, it is immensely rewarding and a great hour of theatre all round. It's also an amazing showcase of young, female talent doing stuff on their own terms. And I think we can all agree that's A Good Thing.

Anomaly is at The Old Red Lion Theatre (WHICH HAS A RESIDENT DOG and how did I not know this?) until 2nd February.

My ticket for Anomaly was kindly provided by the production. An unreserved seat would normally cost £17. 

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Theatre Review: War Horse

Somehow, despite the fact it's been around for about a billion years, it's taken me until 2019 to finally see War Horse on stage. Weird right? It's done the National Theatre, it's done the West End, it's done Broadway, it's done countless other countries around the world and tours around the UK but I've always missed it. 

In the time that I've been busily not seeing it, the show has become iconic. The book on which it's based has been made into a Hollywood blockbuster (which I did see). Everyone knows roughly what the Joey puppet looks like. He's probably one of the British stage's most instantly recognisable stars. 

All of which made me head into the Lyttleton theatre at the NT, to see one of the last London performances before Joey hopped in his horse box to head back out on tour, with a general expectation that I would enjoy the show, and be amazed by the puppets, but otherwise not be blown away by it. I was wrong on that count: I was completely blown away by it. Nothing had prepared me for how powerful this show is.

What makes blogging about War Horse a bit weird, though, is that I imagine most of you reading this already know every single reason why I was blown away by it. Because unlike me you probably didn't wait since the show's premiere in the Jurassic age to see it. I'm not sure, at this stage, what there is left to say about why War Horse is the phenomenon that it rightly is. 

But I do want to say something, however brief and repetitive it may be. Deal with it.

Mercifully for you lot, there are only three points I really want to make. The first is that Michael Morpurgo's brilliant book provides one of  the most poignant, arresting and humane stories told in any medium, ever. But it works particularly well in the theatre, I think, because it allows the audience to fill in so much with their own imaginations. The bigger dramatic sweep that theatre allows for fits it very well. Also, it's just a bloody good story and a completely unique way of telling a very well told one (that of the First World War).Through taking the human perspective away and making Joey the horse the centre of everything, it instantly removes all human notions of what that war was about allowing the stupidity and brutality of the way it was fought to come to the fore. This makes it even more touching. By which I mean you will cry. And, if you're me, you will cry - and I do mean cry; ugly, shoulder heaving cry - for approximately 80% of the show. I'm not sure I trust anyone who can sit through this show and not cry to be honest. Like, are you dead inside or what?

The second point I want to make is the one that needs making least of all, which is that the puppetry, courtesy of the Handspring Puppet Company, in War Horse is literally insane. It's no wonder Joey has become such an icon - it's utterly unbelievable how much of a 'real' horse he is. You forget more or less instantly that he is in fact three men in a frame, he is so lifelike (another thing that makes the story all the more face moistening). It's the detail that does it; the way he can flick his ears and rustle his tail. Shout out also to the goose puppet, who provides some much needed light relief with his implausibly credible and sassy antics.

Finally, this production is just absolute genius. Marianne Elliott was the original director - how much do I love that woman - and what she has devised is brilliant. Much of the credit belongs to designer Rae Smith whose sparse, beautiful set and innovative use of stage dressing give sthe show a thrilling immediacy. The sum total is a production that feels real and immersive: you utterly believe not only that those three men in a frame are a horse but that those two spirally strands of wire are no man's land. Some of the scenes terrified me to the point of barely being able to watch them (this is a family show and I am 32 years old). The two cavalry charges and, especially, the bit where Joey is trapped in the barbed wire will never leave my memory. They are phenomenally technically accomplished, brilliant storytelling and also Original Watership Down levels of traumatising. 

Even if it's taken me far too long, I'm so glad I finally managed to see War Horse. It's precisely as good as everyone says it is, if not better, and the best possible way to have started my theatrical 2019. 

War Horse has now completed the run at the National Theatre that I saw, but the production is back on tour and you can find details at

I saw War Horse at the NT and sat in D19 in the circle, which cost £45 (more than I would usually spend, but the trip was my Christmas present to my parents and, regardless, was worth every penny).