City of Angels***** (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: December 21, 2014 in Theatre

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When City of Angels ran at the 1,100+ seat Prince of Wales Theatre, opening and closing in 1993, it seemed moderately entertaining, but it left little lasting impression on me. Seeing it again now at the 200+ seat Donmar, where all its intricate details are brought to vivid life, the earlier production seems like a classic case of right show, wrong venue. The book’s plot lines operate on (at least) three levels, here we get a staging on two levels and, overall, what is revealed is a show which takes the art of musical theatre to a whole new level. Stine (Hadley Fraser) is is a writer of 1940’s Los Angeles-based crime novels, Stone (Tam Mutu) is his fictional detective and Buddy (Peter Polycarpou) is the unscrupulous film producer/director for whom Stine is adapting one of his stories. As we see the writer’s tortuous battle against commercial pressures and the enactment of his evolving story (told partly in flashback), the show becomes both a sharp satire on Hollywood and an affectionate pastiche of film noir. Complicated? Well not exactly Mamma Mia. Cy Coleman’s gorgeous jazz-influenced score is beautifully performed by Gareth Valentine’s 11-player orchestra and both Larry Gelbert’s book and David Zippel’s lyrics are packed with the cynical wit and acerbic one-liners which characterise film noir. Director Josie Rourke’s production has all the, style, wit and invention to match the material – The upper set is Stine’s office with reams of paper piled high across the width of the theatre and the lower set is an adaptable stage used for all the action and choreography; skilful use of projections, scenery and props flying in an out from every direction, all make sure that the pace never slackens and that the eye is feasted as much as the ear. The male leads are superb and the Stine/Stone duet on I’m Nothing Without You is a knockout routine that can only be followed by the interval. However, Rourke has also managed to cream off some of the finest female talent currently working in British musical theatre to play the various femmes fatale – Samantha Barks, Rosalie Craig, Katherine Kelly and Rebecca Trehearn all in one show – Wow! Individually, they all get their turn in the spotlight to seduce and bewitch us and, collectively, they are dazzling. This production is nothing less than a total triumph for the Donmar and for Josie Rourke personally.

Performance date: 20 December 2014

Singin-In-The-Rain-Color-Singin-In-The-Rain-ColorMy review can currently be seen at: and will appear here from 23 December.

Performance date: 19 December 2014

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Tiger Country*** (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: December 18, 2014 in Theatre

tiger countryThe previous production on this stage, Roy Williams’ Wildfire, showed us an idealistic rookie, female officer being plunged into the Metropolitan Police Force. Now we see an idealistic rookie, female doctor being plunged into A&E at a London hospital. The Fire Brigade awaits. This play, written and directed by Nina Raine was first performed here almost four years ago. The rookie, Emily (Ruth Everett), who is told that she “cares too much”, needs to toughen up, whilst a more experienced doctor, Vashti (Indira Varma) is too abrasive and needs to soften up. If there are problems in the NHS as shown here, they are human ones at ground level; under-funding issues are left lurking in the background and political arguments are, mercifully, left out all together. Performed in the round, the blue linoleum stage floor with double swing doors on either side tells us instantly where we are supposed to be and what follows is a series of interlinked storylines – Emily’s teetering relationship with a fellow doctor (Luke Thompson), Vashti’s disputes with her uppity junior (Nick Hendrix) and her concerns over a beloved aunt in intensive care, a cardiologist (Alastair Mackenzie) with a worrying tumour, etc, etc. Raine writes about the hospital personnel and the culture that they generate collectively, pitching her play somewhere between the mundanity of Casualty and the heightened drama of ER; over-familiarity is her biggest problem and the structure – shortish scenes, jumping from one story to another is very much that used in countless television series. If she had really wanted to create a distinctive work for theatre, maybe she could have opted for a more narrowly focused intense drama or a bitingly satirical black comedy, but the only risk that she seems prepared to take is that of being dull and predictable. Nonetheless, Raine writes with pleasing clarity, her production flows briskly and all the performances are endearing. If you can tear yourself away from Holby City and the like, this is a moderately entertaining, if not very different, alternative.

Performance date: 17 December 2014

elephantsChristmas is the time for finding comfort in familiar things, or so Rose Heiney tells us in her new play and there are plenty of familiar things on display here, as we enter a cosy, seasonally decorated living room in affluent middle class suburbia, peopled by a group of pretend-jolly folk who are actually really miserable. Yes, we are in Alan Ayckbourn territory and, for those of us who carefully steer clear of Ayckbourn plays (are there 100 yet?) just to avoid spending an evening in the company of such characters, this is not good news. The hosts are Richard (Richard Lintern) and Sally (Imogen Stubbs) whose son had been killed a year earlier; facing that awkward first Christmas after a bereavement, he mopes around, drinks excessively and spits out nothing but sarcasm, while she fusses nervously, trying to pretend that everything is the same as it always was. The first guests to arrive are Dick (Jonathan Guy Lewis) and Valerie (Helen Atkinson Wood),who resolve not to acknowledge the elephant in the room, but then they have one of their own – a lesbian daughter in Australia who has become pregnant after acquiring donor sperm off the internet. Next comes Lizzy (Antonia Thomas), the dead son’s girlfriend and, finally, Richard and Sally’s daughter, the totally obnoxious Daisy (Bel Powley), fresh from six months in a psychiatric unit. Daisy is the play’s catalyst, determined to blow away all the falsehoods and speak the truth. So is it better to pretend that nothing has changed when in fact everything his changed? Or is openness the best policy? Or do we ever care? Throughout its first half Heiney’s play emulates the creatures in its title and plods. Things look brighter after the interval when the writer introduces a device which promises to bring some life to the party, but this turns out to be no more than a brief diversion up a cul-de-sac, preceding a second half which, in its entirety, goes absolutely nowhere. Neither the characters nor their relationships with each other are properly fleshed out, leaving us with a very simple comedy of gaffes in which the aforementioned sarcasm is plentiful but any higher form of wit is scarce and Tamara Harvey’s leaden production manages to wring out very few laughs. Sadly, the elephant at Hampstead Theatre this Christmas turn out to be a white one.

Performance date: 15 December 2014

XMAS-CAROL-web2This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Alongside turkey and mince pies, Charles Dickens’ tale of a miserly old Christmas hater getting his comeuppance has established itself as a permanent fixture in our seasonal celebrations. The story, also a clarion call for a more caring society, may well be over- familiar, but it can still stand up to re-telling when presented with as much freshness as in Metal Rabbit’s version of Neil Bartlett’s adaptation. Here is a classic example of less being more – small space, no sets, makeshift props, just six actors and bucketfuls of imagination adding up to 80 minutes of theatre magic. Bartlett’s script is faithful to the original without being conventional and it has a timeless flavour, being neither rooted in the Victorian era nor completely modern. A black top hat worn by Scrooge at the beginning and long johns worn by him later are the only suggestions of times past and, for the rest, it is warm Winter jumpers, overcoats and scarves. Alexander McMorran’s Scrooge is not the grotesque villain so often seen. By under-playing the character, the actor makes him someone we may all know, possibly a blinkered workaholic who finds himself alone and unfulfilled. He is surrounded by five carollers singing modified versions of traditional Christmas songs, each stepping forward to play other characters in the story. Cat Gerrard, Elizabeth Grace-Williams, James Mack, Liam Mansfield and Rhiannon Neads form an ensemble that is expressive, enthusiastic and energetic. Director Gus Miller’s production flows, seemingly effortlessly, using movement, vocal sounds and very effective lighting (designed by Matt Leventhall) to bring scenes alive and compensate for the absence of special effects. The ghostly visitations are made more chilling by being played in semi-darkness, with spotlights or hand-held torches and lamps picking out the faces of the characters. It says a great deal for the durability of Dickens’ creation that yet another dramatisation of the story can send a shiver down the spine, put a smile on the face and bring a tear to the eye. This production realises all of that potential, doing so in some considerable style, and only a real you know who could fail to enjoy it.

Performance date: 13 December 2014

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FullSizeRender-66Having just returned from India, I can say with some authority that the National has got this as close to real life as is reasonably possible – the noise, the mayhem, the rubbish piled high in the streets and, putting a cherry on top of the cake, the appearance on stage of a real tuk tuk. Only the roaming animals are missing from a spectacular set which makes full use of what could be the best-equipped stage anywhere; complex scene changes may perhaps excuse two set failures (one stopping the show) at this performance, but, as can only happen at the National, an army of technicians appears in a flash to save the day. So does the play justify the lavish outlay? On this occasion, emphatically yes. Any new play by David Hare is bound to gain attention, but this adaptation of Katherine Boo’s factual account of existence in a modern day Mumbai slum links human drama to epic themes and must rate as his best work for the theatre in many years. The drama centres on the Husain family, Moslems residing in a slum home on the perimeter of Mumbai airport, who have risen above the rest by making money from collecting, sorting and selling rubbish. This is largely due to the efforts of Abdul, a talented but uneducated youngster, and his mother Zehrunisa (Meera Syal). A petty tiff with a neighbour, a one-legged prostitute, sets off a chain of events which drags the family into a seemingly inescapable web spun by self-serving officialdom and multi-layered corruption. The backdrop is the meeting of the third world and the first, where luxuries are within sight but not quite attainable, homes are being demolished to make way for airport expansion and everything is up for grabs using whatever means are available. Gleaming new developments are promoted by smiling faces on posters proclaiming “Beautiful forever”, but little thought is given to the lives going on behind the billboards. The struggles and confusions of transition are demonstrated in another family in which a mother demeans herself to provide her daughter with a “Western” education which includes Virginia Woolf and Congreve in a syllabus of little practical relevance to her own life. Often stark and brutal, all this is brought to vibrant life by an array of fine performances in Rufus Norris’s thrilling and colourful production. In particular, Shane Zaza is outstanding as Abdul, a figure of calm and human dignity who withstands all the ordeals that confront him, seeing that there is a way forward by upholding the core values of honesty and decency. Abdul represents Hare’s hope for the future of India and, if this production is a taster of things to come, the future of the National Theatre after Norris takes over as Director in April 2015 looks very bright too.

Performance date: 12 December 2014

Sikes & NancyThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

In his later years, when Charles Dickens had become an international celebrity, he took to the stage and toured, playing his most famous characters from Oliver Twist with such passion and ferocity that it is thought that the energy expended could have shortened his life. James Swanton, around three decades younger, has adapted Dickens’ script and, performing it himself with great intensity, he shows us how this material could have taken such a toll on its writer. Dressed entirely in black throughout, Swanton begins with Fagin, his rubber face making the character even more grotesque than we have seen him before. Bizarre inflections in the actor’s delivery exaggerate the creepiness of this character and all the others portrayed. The story goes through from Fagin’s discovery of Nancy’s betrayal to her horrific murder by Sikes and, finally, Sikes’ own demise. It is a story of shade and shade, a Gothic horror melodrama enacted against the backdrop of the darkest corners of Victorian London. Gaunt and sallow, Swanton often resembles a young Boris Karloff, his deep and gravelly tones emitting menace with every utterance, except when he raises his voice to a sort of spoken falsetto to play the whimpering Nancy, fearful and doomed.. The only minor criticism of his performance is that he makes Fagin and Sikes, characters who are both sinister but for different reasons, too similar. Matt Leventhall’s lighting is particularly effective in creating visual images to match the vividly descriptive words being spoken. Swanton is frequently seen emerging from smoky darkness, only his face and arms visible, both pale and later splattered with blood. This hour of theatre shows us the stuff from which nightmares are made.

Photo: Edward Quekett

Performance date: 11 December 2014

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