Romance, Romance*** (Landor Theatre)

Posted: October 13, 2015 in Theatre

IMG_4719My review can currently be seen at: and will appear here from 16 October.

Performance date: 12 October 2015

Photograph: Sofi Berenger


Measure for Measure*** (Young Vic)

Posted: October 10, 2015 in Theatre


measure for measure

It is doubtful if so many inflatable sex dolls have ever been seen together before outside an Ann Summers distribution depot. Joe Hill-Gibbins’ unconventional (to say the least) version of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure uses the dolls to suggest a lewd and licentious Vienna, abandoned temporarily by its ruling Duke Vincentio and left in the unreliable hands of Angelo. Apart from the dolls, Hill-Gibbins pulls out all the stops to break with tradition, with scenes shot live using hand-held cameras behind a screen and projected onto it and generous rations of modern urban music. It takes a little time to get used to the gimmicks and not all of them are 100% successful, but there is nothing wrong with striving to make Shakespeare accessible for new audiences and the most significant step in this direction comes with paring down the text to run for under two hours straight through, thereby jettisoning the diversions and sub-plots that can drag this play down and bring on the yawns. Rubin Varla’s playful Vincentio sets the tone of the production and Paul Ready, cast in the mould of a City banker as Angelo, makes a perfect villain. As the wronged Isabella, how wonderful to see Romola Garai on stage, bringing freshness and openness to the character. As the final scene approaches, the gimmicks are abandoned and the clutter is cleared. The production has by now drawn in the audience and achieved the clarity for which it has worked, so all that is needed is a bare stage and excellent actors to bring the nonsense to a satisfying conclusion.

Performance date: 9 October 2015

Valhalla** (Theatre 503)

Posted: October 8, 2015 in Theatre

Valhalla Dress 2

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

The title should not be allowed to deceive. Paul Murphy’s 75-minute play, joint winner of Theatre 503’s Playwriting Award for 2014, does not take place in a gigantic hall, rather in what looks like a white oblong box, filled only by a table, two chairs and a coat stand. The sterility of Katie Lias’ set design seems to become all the more fitting as the drama progresses. The play is a two-hander, the characters being named simply “Man” (Murphy himself) and “Woman” (Carolina Main). Both are doctors, he a researcher and they are in a long-term childless relationship. She is haunted by recent riots, he troubled by involvement in clinical trials for a new drug that could be going badly wrong and they decide to escape to a remote island to the far North of Europe. Murphy structures the play in scenes so short that he could have been aiming it at an audience with Attention Deficit Disorder. There is little warmth in the couple’s relationship, which is tense, often combative and their constant bickering eventually becomes irritating and repetitive. The writer gives us a good insight into what is tearing them apart, but very little feel of what is holding them together. Suggestions of unseen threats create tension. Other characters are spoken of, but are we to believe that they really exist? Is he a target for Animal Rights protesters? Does he have a brain tumour? Does she carry a faulty gene? Is she being candid with him about what happened to her in the riots? Is he telling her the truth about the consequences of the trials? In a way, the play is at its best when it is being enigmatic and this helps to open the door to discussions about the ethics of advances in medical science. It is less successful in connecting the issues that it raises to the personal lives of the characters, but it suggests that perhaps they know too much to make wise judgements in relation to themselves; perhaps, in the modern world, we all know too much. The final scene is the most enigmatic of all and springs the biggest surprise in Jo McInnes’ steady production. Served up with dashes of Norse mythology and the supernatural, Murphy packs in many (perhaps too many) interesting ideas without developing any of them very far. However, emotionally, his play is as icy as its Arctic setting.

Performance date: 7 October 2015


Hangmen***** (Royal Court Theatre)

Posted: October 7, 2015 in Theatre


The return to theatre of Martin “In Bruges” McDonagh, bringing with him the brand of pitch black comedy that has characterised his film work, could hardly be less than one of the events of the year, but it exceeds even those expectations. Notwithstanding all the modern touches in language and style, McDonagh’s spiritual home is with the Ealing comedies of the 40s and 50s, reminders of which crop up repeatedly in the delicious darkness and mouthwatering morbidity of the humour in this hilarious play, an audacious cocktail of fact and fiction. The opening scene sees a grizzly 1963 execution, presided over by hangman Harry Wade (David Morrissey, wearing a smart suit and trademark bow tie) and his bumbling assistant Syd Armfield (Reece Shearsmith). The deed done, a remarkable set transformation takes us on to the pub run by Harry in Oldham, two years later. With capital punishment about to be abolished, the pub’s all-male regulars, each of them a self-confessed alcoholic, continue to follow the “flog ’em and hang ’em” line, cowering in fear of of Harry’s intimidation, as if expecting that he could be about to produce his rope. And then a mysterious, “menacing” Southerner (Johnny Flynn) enters the bar. A detailed description of the mayhem that follows could spoil the fun, but let it just be said that Matthew Dunster’s production takes its time to develop characters during the first act and then lets rip in the second. Morrissey plays Harry completely straight, as a vain and arrogant bully, piqued that his rival Albert Pierrepoint (the real-life executioner) gets all the limelight because his stats have been boosted by the executions of German war criminals, thereby dwarfing Harry’s meagre 233. Shearsmith’s Syd is stuttering and pervy, he and Harry making a grim equivalent to Laurel and Hardy (the other way round). The comedy highlight comes when an indignant Pierrepoint (John Hodgkinson, looking like a mirror image of Morrissey’s Harry) bursts into the bar to start a sort of nooses at dawn duel and, unwittingly, triggers the final execution of his career. Everything is in the worst possible taste, with McDonagh’s razor-sharp dialogue and astute character insights propelling the action. Underlying all the humour is the irony of working class executioners slaying mostly their own kind at the behest of imperious judges. Anna Fleischle’s immaculately detailed sets and Joshua Carr’s lighting add to the pleasure and the supporting performances are first rate. At the end, Harry and Syd, looking like Ollie and Stan, rue the passing of an era. They have done their very best to ensure that the great British tradition of miscarrying justice lives on. Pure genius.

Performance date: 6 October 2015

crushed shellsThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Best described as an apocalyptic drama encased inside a coming of age story, Ben Musgrave’s new play is set against the backdrop of the panic that ensues when a mysterious, highly contagious disease strikes South-East England. The disease is referred to only as ”type 37 contamination”, but, as it is transmitted through contact with body fluids, we must assume that the writer is alluding to repercussions from the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa and the Worldwide HIV/AIDS scare of the 1980s. Victims of the disease are being ostracised like lepers, London has been sealed off and the coastal area where the play’s action takes place is building up its defences. Derek (Alex Lawther) is a shy and awkward teenager who finds sanctuary in a secluded spot where the sea is visible when standing on top of a caravan. He writes poetry in peace until the arrival of Lydia (Hannah Britland) from London and a friendship begins to form, interrupted by another teenager, Vincent (Alexander Arnold), who is an assertive and occasionally violent bully. This triangular affair seems rather a cliche, but Musgrave adds a dash of mystery, dropping in hints of something sinister going on beneath the surface and slowly revealing what it is during the course the first act. Lawther’s sensitive performance is superb, giving Derek, who in lesser hands could be just a boring nerd, real depth. Britland also shines, bringing out Lydia’s innocence, confusion and terror. Vincent begins as a stereotypical thug, but he later softens and Arnold handles the transition convincingly. A chilling sub-plot introduces Peter (Simon Lenagan), a zealot representing “The League”, a movement with the aim of defending against the disease and, effectively, persecuting its victims. Musgrave now demonstrates how fear, fuelled by religion and patriotism, can sow the seeds of fascism in the fertile minds of impressionable youngsters. At times sweet and romantic, at other times harsh and even cruel, the play’s fragile structure is held together by Russell Bolam’s slowly paced and thoughtful direction. Ellan Parry’s sets and Richard Godin’s lighting are particularly effective in creating an unsettling air of troubled tranquility. Occasionally Musgrave does not appear completely certain of the messages that he wants to send, particularly in an unsatisfactory conclusion that draws upon symbolism when a grounded vision is most needed. Yet, for all that, some of the imagery is haunting, the performances are top class and the progression of the play always keeps us enthralled.

Performance date: 5 October 2015


Medea**** (Almeida Theatre}

Posted: October 3, 2015 in Theatre

FullSizeRender-88This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Head bowed, her face hidden behind her long black hair, Medea listens to taunts meant to shame and humiliate her. An all-female chorus, gossiping and brandishing their maternal badges by clutching their offspring to their breasts, casts her out from among them, like an unclean leper. Medea’s “crime” is being one half of a broken marriage and there can be no doubt that writer Rachel Cusk sees her torment as caused as much by social pressures imposed on her (and, by implication, on all women) as by any misdeed of her unfaithful husband, Jason. Cusk’s 2012 book Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation gives an honest account of the end of her own second marriage and, in making the title character in her adaptation of Euripides’ play a writer noted for her openness, she is sending out a very clear message that this Medea is personal. It is also modern in language and style, Ian MacNeil’s set of a chic town house restricting the action to confined spaces on two levels, contrasting completely with the palatial feel of Carrie Cracknell’s production at the National Theatre last year. Adding another personal touch, Rupert Goold directs his own wife, Kate Fleetwood in the lead role. She has just spent the Summer sipping Champagne and nibbling caviar in High Society at the Old Vic, making her performance here notable for both her versatility and her virtuosity. This is a fierce Medea. prowling around her home like a caged lioness, looking at revenge against Jason with tunnel vision. Cusk’s explanation that the two children of the marriage represent “two broken promises, two lies. What are they without him (Jason)? Trash!” is made totally believable by Fleetwood and it paves the way for an understanding of the horrors that follow. Jason in this version is not the man of power and ambition of Euripides, rather a very modern figure, an egotistical actor. His near indifference to his children puts into question why Medea could think that she would wound him by taking them from him, but Justin Salinger’s performance elicits sympathy, showing how he needs to escape the shackles of his wife’s possessiveness. The raw exchanges between the irreconcilable couple are impassioned shouting matches, projected with tremendous force by the two performances. Goold’s production is strong on memorable visual images – the chorus dancing like witches around a cauldron as they dismantle the family home, Medea silhouetted against the night sky as she shovels dirt into an open grave. There are strong supporting performances too, most notably from Michele Austin as Medea’s cleaner, stoically accepting the role into which a woman is cast, and by Andy de la Tour as a cynical Creon, analysing coldly the consequences of his daughter having taken Jason from Medea. The climax is muddled, suggesting one thing and then telling us another and, most critically, the writer diverges from Euripides in a way that tampers with the core element in the story. Nonetheless, her conclusion is chilling, serving as a stark reminder of the collateral damage resulting from marital warfare and highlighting the utter futility of seeking revenge. A curious epilogue, rendered by a half man/half woman seems set on diluting the strong gender bias of earlier scenes, but it does not really change the view that the perspective of Cusk’s Medea is, overwhelmingly, the female one. Following an unflinchingly brutal Oresteia and a bizarre, gender-bending Bakkai, the Almeida’s three-play Greek Season comes to an end with this strikingly original Medea. The relevance of ancient classics in the modern world has been demonstrated fully and, overall, the cycle has to be judged as a huge achievement.

Performance date: 2 October 2015


THE-WINDOW-BLANK-PAGES-Show-Image1-e1437145928952This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Frank Marcus shot to fame with his 1964 play The Killing of Sister George, soon to be revived on the London Fringe. Here his own granddaughter Rafaella Marcus directs two of his short plays, written later, and makes subtle suggestions of a link between them. The Window (1969) begins with Carol, the subject of the play that is to be performed later, sitting at the bedroom window of the blind and bedridden Robert (Daniel Simpson). She vanishes and Ken (Paul Adeyefa) arrives, summoned to be Robert’s eyes and to act as a Peeping Tom, reporting on the activities of a girl living opposite with whom he is obsessed. There are many obvious reminders of the Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window, particularly as Rafaella Marcus’ taut production adopts the tone of an edgy thriller. The tension of the interplay between two enigmatic characters is well realised – Robert is ill-tempered and suffering from depression, having survived a suicide attempt; Ken is secretive, possibly gay and physical contact between the two frequently implies homoerotic undertones. However, there is a sense in which Robert’s blindness and Ken’s presence are no more than devices used to create a conversation in which observations about the girl opposite can be articulated. What seems to interest Frank Marcus, as indeed it interested Hitchcock, is how proximity and distance co-exist in the manner in which we all perceive strangers. The writer is exploring the chasm between what we believe (or want) people to be and what they really are. Blank Pages (1972) is a 30-minute monologue in which Carole (Megan Slater) goes through the diary that she gave up on at the age of nineteen-and-a-half. She came to see it as a “woeful chronicle of blunders” and decided that the pages would be better left blank. The very flimsy story concerns Carole’s affair with a Portuguese tennis coach, leading to disgrace in the eyes of her stuffy middle class mother. She is exiled to France, where she becomes an au pair, lusted after by her employer. Slater’s animated performance as the “not all that marvellous” Carole seems just enough to hold this play together, but then we remember the idea planted in our heads at the very beginning. Carole is the polar opposite of the girl talked of in The Window, but, it she could be her, does that not endorse the point that Frank Marcus was making in that play? Well acted and perfectly suited to the Hope’s small space, this is an intriguing pairing of two rarely-performed works.

Performance date: 1 October 2015