The Trial*** (Young Vic)

Posted: July 1, 2015 in Theatre

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There has been no shortage of dramatisations of Franz Kafka’s The Trial and I remember taking on the role of the accused Joseph K in an immersive version, trudging around the streets of Shoreditch and Hoxton a couple of years back. The premise of Kafka’s tirade against authoritarianism is simple enough – an ordinary man finds himself accused of he knows not what and is thrown into an unfathomable judiciary system in which there are no answers to any questions and no exit doors save the ultimate one. Nick Gill’s new adaptation, directed by Richard Jones, pulls out all the stops to create a surreal nightmare; it is staged on a conveyer belt, running the entire length of a performance space decorated primarily in orange and purple; on either side, the audience is banked, appearing to be behind desks, perhaps a jury or a panel of interrogators or a constantly watching police force. This is a conveyer belt with no cuddly toys, just a relentless flow of merely functional furniture – singe beds, desks, chairs filing cabinets – with JK walking against the direction of its movement just to stay on board. It stops for scenes of absurdist comedy, featuring a succession of grotesques who look as if they have wandered in off the set of a Coen Brothers movie and our hero gets progressively more entangled in a web from which there is no escape. Grappling with the bleakness and psychological complexity of Kafka’s original is challenging enough, but Gill throws in modern references which make the piece still more head-dizzying and then questions the very concept of presumed innocence with a chilling post script as the audience leaves the theatre. Rory Kinnear is about as convincing a modern Everyman as the theatre can offer and he is at the top of his game here, on the belt non-stop for the full two hours. Kate O’Flynn is wonderful as all the young women in JK’s life and Hugh Skinner (yes, Will from W1A), also shines, doubling as JK’s sharply-dressed fellow bank worker and a dog. Yet, for all the quality of the performances, Gill/Jones are too preoccupied with the surreal to give the audience a firm foothold in the real world, past or present; thus we are never able to share in JK’s outrage, sense of injustice and terror, only to see them. The imagery in this production is memorable, the play’s complex themes are stimulating intellectually, but overall, the entire experience is emotionally empty.

Performance date: 30 June 2015

A Third*** (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: June 30, 2015 in Theatre

a-third-mainMy review can currently be seen at: http://www.thepublicreviews.com/a-third-finborough-theatre-london/ and will appear here from 3 July.

Performance date: 29 June 2015

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It seems to have become a new law of theatre that any British film earning the tag “uplifting” has to be turned into a stage musical, paying little regard to the suitability of its subject. So here we go again, this time with a show about football. Being cynical, the success of the 2002 film on which this is based may have owed more to the star power in its title than to anything on-screen (Keira Knightly was an unknown at the time), but a decent sized hit it was and Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha now adapt their own screenplay, with Chadha again directing. Their book gives us a show of two halves, both of which have essentially the same narrative arc – will she (Jess) honour her responsibilities to her family or will she dash off to play for her team in a vital football match? Jess is a second generation Indian immigrant who has started to become absorbed into British culture, whilst her parents are traditionalists clinging onto their own family customs. So, even if the core story is very simple, there is plenty of meat here – culture clash, generation gap, girl power, even a gay character thrown in for good measure – and, if nothing else, the show must be welcomed for stimulating diversity both on the stage and in the audience. But does it work as a musical? Well, it could be argued that it only works as a musical, because many of the scenes between songs are so lifeless that watching them feels like trudging through a swamp. Howard Goodall has a fair track record and he gives the show a bouncy score, vastly superior to that which torpedoed the recent flop film-to-musical Made in Dagenham. That said, Goodall’s music is not much better then average Eurovision Song Contest fare, catchy Brit-pop that is only memorable in the sense that it becomes jumbled in the head for days afterwards, difficult to distinguish one song from another. The exceptions are two terrific Bollywood-style numbers which bring the show to instant life. Charles Hart’s lyrics contain more simple rhymes than should be allowed on the grounds of decency, but they serve the tunes well. Natalie Dew is a real find as Jess, combining cuteness and toughness, and Lauren Samuels gives strong support as her footballing mate Jules. Tony Jayawardhena and Natasha Jayetileke play Jess’s parents for comedy whilst preserving the characters’ dignity, Jamie Campbell Bower is an eager team coach and Sophie-Louise Dann (a survivor from Made in Dagenham) provides some of the show’s funniest moments as Jules’ slightly slutty Mum. The orchestra is placed on a balcony at the rear of Miriam Buether’s not-too-inspiring set in which six revolving panels effect scene changes and a lit-up house appears to represent Jess’s family home during the course of traditional Indian festivities. The big success of the show is the choreography and staging of the musical numbers, for which Aletta Collins takes credit. From a Southall street market to an Indian wedding to a football pitch, the show becomes a feast of energy and colour once the dancing starts, climaxing in a final half-hour of irresistible exuberance. This musical may not win many trophies, but it does more than enough for it to dodge a straight red card.

Performance date: 22 June 2015

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Not content with providing London’s Savoy Theatre with two musicals in straight succession, Chichester could be pitching unashamedly for the hat trick with a show that is set partly in that very theatre. “Things are looking up” chirps Billie Dore (Sally Ann Triplett) performing the closing number of show-within-a-show Kitty in the City on the Savoy stage, before setting off for a weekend in a castle in Gloucestershire, along with the show’s writer George Bevan (Richard Fleeshman). This is a hybrid musical with songs by George and Ira Gershwin transplanted onto a PG Wodehouse story, set in the 1920s, about a couple of Americans enjoying jolly frolics with the English aristocracy. 90 years ago, this sort of thing may have typified musical theatre, but, nowadays, the story looks pretty feeble. The book by Jeremy Sams and Robert Hudson moves towards the very brink of pantomime and then, in a preposterous finale, walks several steps beyond it. This places a heavy burden on the songs and on director/choreographer Rob Ashford’s staging and, thankfully, both prove to be more than up to the challenge. Of course, the presence of names such as Isla blair, Desmond Barrit and Nicholas Farrell in supporting roles gave a pretty strong clue beforehand that the show would be well above the ordinary and they all shine, as do Fleeshman and Summer Strallen as the romantic leads and Richard Dempsey as a goofy toff, whilst Triplett is as much the star of the real show as of the one within it. The Gershwin songs fuse with the book, if not exactly seamlessly, then pretty well. Nice Work If You Can Get ItLove Walked In and A Foggy Day in London Town are probably the best known amongst them, but the real joy comes from hearing and seeing, fully staged, great songs that are much less familiar, all accompanied by Alan Williams’ orchestra, hidden somewhere above the stage. Christopher Cram’s designs give a fairy tale look to a production which bubbles along nicely up to the interval and then comes to life spectacularly from the start of a second half that would, on its own, make a journey to the south coast worthwhile, even from the Outer Hebrides or beyond. It starts with I Can’t Be Bothered Now, a rousing chorus routine led by Triplett. David Roberts and Chloe Hart, as cook and undercook, get the show’s loudest ovation for French Pastry Walk, which incorporates an Argentine Tango good enough to make even Craig Revel Horwood drool and, to round off a blissful half hour or so, the chorus returns to dazzle us with Fidgety Feet, a sparkling tap dance routine. They set the bar high for Anna Jane Casey, who will be showing us how to tap our troubles away on this same stage in just a few weeks’ time. In Chichester, things are definitely looking up.

Performance date: 20 June 2015

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Patrick Marber’s examination of the state of modern football could hardly be more timely. Several rungs down the ladder from corrupt FIFA officials, the clash between the traditional values of the beautiful game and modern day commercialism can be seen at its starkest. Marber’s three-act, three-hander takes place in the home team changing room of a non-league semi-professional club somewhere in the London area, a club that had been formed in 1892 by a group of enthusiastic players in a room above the Red Lion pub. Inspired by love for the game and loyalty to his club is the kit man (Peter Wight), a player and briefly an unsuccessful manager 20 years and more earlier, whose life went on the skids until he got his present job, doing which he regards as “a privilege”. The current manager (Daniel Mays) is a wide boy, broke and with an eye only on taking a bung; when a promising young player (Calvin Demba) joins the club, the manager’s top priority is to get him under contract so that he can get a cut from a huge transfer fee, but he clashes with the kit man who just wants to nurture him to play for his team. The biggest strength of Ian Rickson’s straightforward one-set production is the compelling performances. Wight is overweight, world-weary, playing extra time and almost defeated; Mays suggests a desperate sleaze bag for whom corruption is a way of life; and Demba develops further the cocky youngster persona with which he showed such promise in The Wolf at the Door at the Royal Court recently. All of these characters are, in their own ways, losers and Marber chooses not to show us examples of the game’s winners, of which there are many; the playwright is not quite the British David Mamet, but his dialogue is sharp and realistic. If the play disappoints slightly, it is only because it is a little too low-key, not igniting often enough; also, it leaves a feeling that its scope could have been more expansive and its approach more incisive. Nonetheless, it gives us a good couple of hours of quality drama.

Performance date: 19 June 2015

Chef*** (Soho Theatre)

Posted: June 18, 2015 in Theatre

320x320.fitandcropThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Food offers up a metaphor for everything in life as viewed by Sabrina Mahfouz in her one- woman play. The chain which sees it move from source to kitchen, its careful preparation and its final consumption are all shown to correspond with twists and turns of fate. The central character, known simply as “Chef” and played here by Jade Anouka, is obsessed with food. She would only accept an invitation to a meal on the condition that she could take her own gravy. We see her firstly in the kitchen of a restaurant, gently mocking chic dining trends and later in a prison preparing meals for her fellow inmates. Her journey is charted in a non-linear narrative and each “chapter” is headed by an appetising dish. For her, food is a constant love in a life filled with hatred and violence, a provider of joy and fulfilment and a route for escaping pain. A gangster boyfriend and a suicidal prison friend feature in Chef’s story, but the overriding presence in her life is that of her bullying, abusive father, absent as a salmon farmer for much of the time, but returning when he is sick and needy. Chef speaks of him with revulsion – “even the fish thought he was a ****, didn’t want to be around him…” – but it is he who provides her with the moral dilemma that would change the course of her life. Mahfouz’s writing is vividly descriptive, sometimes brutal, yet seasoned with humour and irony. The story simmers nicely before coming to the boil in the later stages once the play’s central theme has been revealed. At this point, the playwright tackles difficult issues with considerable sensitivity and insight. Dressed in all white with a chequered headband. Anouka’s animated, often excitable Chef always has the audience rooting for her and makes her passion for food clear for all to see. Anouka looks slightly uncomfortable when affecting street slang in the light opening section, but her performance becomes heartfelt when the scale of the ill fortune and injustice inflicted on her character becomes apparent. The ingredients here are well-mixed and Chef emerges as a 50-minute course of theatre that is tasty and satisfying.

Performance date: 17 June 2015

Photo: Richard Davenport

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FullSizeRender-71How thoughtful – a show that awards some of its own stars. 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play shows us the messed-up lives of a group of New Yorkers and includes enough raucous comedy to make the recently seen Bad Jews seem placid plus enough ripe language to make The Book of Mormon seem like a vicar’s tea party. Jackie (Ricardo Chavira) is on parole and in rehab, returning to live with his girlfriend since childhood, volatile and crack-addicted Veronica (Flor De Liz Perez). Their relationship begins to fall apart when Jackie discovers that the gentleman of the play’s title has left his headgear and several telling odours in their apartment. Jackie’s rehab sponsor is the self-absorbed and duplicitous Ralph (Alec Newman), who lives comfortably with his neurotic wife Victoria (Nathalie Armin). The entanglements of this four suggest a polarised city where an uneducated, drug/alcohol dependent underclass contrasts with pseudo intellectuals who consume health foods, practice yoga and learn to speak French. We are asked to compare the differences and to recognise the similarities. A series of clashes spark rich comedy, spurred by razor-sharp dialogue and top-notch performances. The icing on the cake is provided by Yul Vazquez as Julio, Jackie’s gay cousin, his droll, mannered delivery being never less than hilarious. Whether there is very much substance behind the laughs is questionable and the play as a whole feels as if it comes to less than the sum total of its many excellent parts. Director Indhu Rubasingham’s production flags only occasionally, when relentless belligerence become monotonous, but a climactic fight scene must rank as one of the least convincing in recent memory. Robert Jones’ sets consist of three nicely detailed apartments, with sections sliding in from all directions at changes and fire escape ladders hovering in mid-air throughout. Maybe this is all too much and, with only around half the width of the Lyttelton stage being used at any one time, it is possible that this is a play that could have been seen to better effect in the smaller Dorfman, with minimal sets. The staging feels not quite right, but then this play that dares not speak its full name may always have been just too American, too New York to ever settle comfortably in this theatre or indeed in this city.

Performance date: 16 June 2015