Saturday 21 December 2019

My top ten shows of the year

It’s that time of year again...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 20 December 2019

Theatre Review: Fairview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 19 December 2019

Theatre Review: Three Sisters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Theatre Review: [Blank]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 9 November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 8 November 2019

Theatre Review: The Antipodes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 24 October 2019

Theatre Review: Ages of the Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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