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.