Weald***+ (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: February 5, 2016 in Theatre
David Crellin (Sam), Dan Parr (Jim). Snuffbox Theatre Company presents Weald by Daniel Foxsmith at the Finborough Theatre. Director: Bryony Shanahan. Lighting: Seth Rook Williams. Photo (c) Alex Brenner, credit mandatory.

Photo (c) Alex Brenner

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

The role of men in a world in which the gender balance has shifted and pressures of life have increased is the underlying theme of Daniel Foxsmith’s new one-act play, taking the perspectives of two generations. The play’s rural setting represents a simpler lifestyle that allows basic priorities to be brought into clearer focus. Jim returns from London to the remote livery yard that he left as a teenager six years earlier. He needs a job from its owner Samuel, but, much more than that, he needs to re- establish the bond that existed between them, as he combats depression and searches for a sense of purpose in his life. He needs to find his “home”. The first third of this two-hander is taken up with cross-generational taunting that sounds tired and over familiar. At this stage, director Bryony Shanahan needs to harness Dan Parr’s high energy as Jim, a very youthful 25-year-old, to give some zest to her production. But first Jim opens out and then Samuel to give the play a fresh momentum and two superb performances carry it along from there, movingly and with ease. Jim is buckling under the challenges of adulthood, seeking refuge in his past life. He feels the strong pulls of continuity and legacy and agonises over whether he should yield to them or resist, seeing Samuel as a substitute father who is, seemingly, a pillar of stability and wisdom. However, David Crellin’s world-weary Samuel is facing his own crises. He has a keen interest in military history, a penchant for quoting Shakespeare, Marlowe and Oliver Cromwell and he reflects on the simple lives of the horses in his care, where the burdens of responsibilities, choices and regrets play no part. On a thrust stage, Christopher Hone’s wooden set gives pride of place to a darts board, a prized symbol of masculinity. The production is lit beautifully by Seth Rook Williams, giving a melancholic feel to moments of tenderness and sharpness to simulated activity with the horses and to dramatic clashes. Gentle and low-key for the most part, the play gains harshness and fire as it reaches its climax, Foxsmith’s writing having become increasingly thoughtful and perceptive. Jim looks to Samuel for guidance, but we are left with a sense that it is just as much he young, moving forwards and making discoveries, who are leading the old.

Performance date: 4 February 2016

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Religious zealots are on the loose in Uganda again, but all similarities with The Book of Mormon end there. Chris Urch’s second play (I reviewed his first, Land of Our Fathers, here in September 2013) is an account of a community turning in on itself in pursuit of an unstoppable witch hunt and, as such, it invites comparisons with Arthur Miller’s masterpiece The Crucible. It is far from shamed by such comparisons, revealing itself to be a work of astonishing assurance, a blistering indictment of bigotry and hypocrisy. Urch concerns himself less with the doomed romance between the young Ugandan man Dembe (Fiston Barek) and the visiting Irish doctor Sam (Julian Moore-Cook) than with explaining a society in which prejudice becomes rooted and with showing how fascist movements grow in the fertile soil of distorted interpretations of a religion. Dembe’s older brother Joe (Sule Rimi) is a new Pastor, made to preach fiery homophobic rhetoric to reinforce his own tenuous position; his torn loyalties and those of his sister Naome (Faith Alabi) are heartbreaking. The touch paper is lit by their self-righteous neighbour (Jo Martin), a linchpin of the church whose own daughter (Faith Omoli) has already been struck dumb following a trauma caused by her zealotry. Urch’s writing is angry and occasionally brutal, as in Joe’s sermon, but also tender and compassionate, most notably when Dembe gives his interpretation of love to his sister. The flirtation between Dembe and Sam is playful, funny and moving – the innocent African who underestimates the power of reprisals that he faces meeting the more worldly European who overlooks the fact that Western liberal attitudes now stand for nothing. Ellen McDougall’s production, which comes from the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, turns the Orange Tree’s in-the-round stage into a caldron – a square platform lies at the centre and copies of The Rolling Stone “newspaper”, emblazoned with the banner headline “Hang ’em High”, lie scattered around to emphasise the extent of the forces conspiring to persecute Dembe and others who do not fit into Uganda’s “God-fearing” society. The acting is exemplary, but Barek, holding centre stage almost throughout, is truly outstanding, love-struck and terror-stuck with equal conviction. This is a production to savour and remember.

Performance date: 3 February 2016

4000 Days** (Park Theatre)

Posted: February 3, 2016 in Theatre

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The common desire to cut out mistakes in our past lives and go back to do things again only better, lies at the heart of Peter Quilter’s new light drama. Michael (Alistair McGowan) is presented with the opportunity to do exactly that when an accident sends him into a coma and, when he awakens, he finds that the last 11 years of his life have been erased from his memory, including the entire duration of his decade-long relationship with Paul (Daniel Weyman). Should the couple reconstruct their relationship? Or should they acknowledge the imperfections of a partnership in which each of them had changed the other and not for the better? There are interesting ideas to explore here and it is possible to see the potential for a very amusing romantic comedy, although a great deal more humour would be needed than is here now. One of the play’s chief problems is the character of Carol, Michael’s chain smoking mother; although played splendidly by Maggie Ollerenshaw, she is the familiar mother-in-law figure and her repeated battles with Paul for Michael’s affections are tiresomely stereotypical. This sub-plot takes up far too much time that could have been used to go deeper into the relationship between the two men and to find amusement from the social changes that have taken place over the last 11 years. As it is, Quilter gives us a soufflé of a play, skimming over the surface of its themes and opting for contrived and unconvincing sentimentality over insight. McGowan has his moments as the frustrated and increasingly camp amnesiac, but Weyman is more endearing as the rejected Paul, constantly apologising for his own dullness. Director Matt Aston’s production is competent if occasionally pedestrian and Rebecca Brower’s hospital room set is austere, but ideally suited to the Park’s thrust stage. In all, this is a warm and mildly entertaining show for a Winter evening, but it is one that may be best enjoyed with the brain in stand-by mode.

Performance date: 2 February 2016

Pink Mist**** (Bush Theatre)

Posted: February 3, 2016 in Theatre

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A feeling of helplessness comes from reading or hearing a modern war poem. It is a feeling that nothing at all has changed in the century since Wilfred Owen. Substitute the arid terrain of Asia for the trenches of Northern Europe and we still have young working class men (women too, but not included here) being lured away from drab lives by the bait of adventure and then maimed or slaughtered at the behest of politicians and generals. Told through narration and movement, this transfer from the Bristol Old Vic follows three soldiers (Phil Dunster, Peter Edwards and Alex Stedman) from enlistment through the era of the Blair wars and on to seemingly inevitable conclusions. Their women (Rebecca Hamilton, Rebecca Killick and Zara Ramm) suffer at home. Writer Owen Sheers’ work has an epic sweep, as if attempting to condense a decade of horrific news stories into under two hours, and there are times when this production buckles under the strain. The volume of material and the structure of the piece work against full development of storylines or characters, but, collectively, these snapshots of doomed lives are projected with overwhelming visceral force. The performances are magnificent and the production on a square open platform, directed with flair and imagination by John Retallack and George Mann, provides the flowing movement to strengthen the power of Sheers’ words. At the end, the audience feels pummelled, drained of emotion and very, very angry at the shocking waste of war.

Performance date: 29 January 2016

Photo: Mark Douet

escaped aloneThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

The calm of an English suburban garden on a Summer afternoon provides the misleading primary setting for Caryl Churchill’s bold and original one-act comedy. All is not what it at first seems and, in a parallel universe, a catastrophic event is threatening all civilisation. An apt alternative title for the play could be “The Four Housewives of the Apocalypse”. When interloper Mrs Jarrett (Linda Bassett) goes through an open gate to enter the garden of Sally (Deborah Findlay), she finds her chatting with her friends Lena (Kika Markham) and Vi (June Watson) and she joins in. All four talk to each other, but listen to almost nothing, isolating themselves alone in their own cocoons. When it comes to capturing the banality of everyday English middle class conversation, Churchill is not quite Alan Bennett, but she hits the mark more often than not and laces her dialogue with dark absurdist touches. However, she alternates scenes of normality with scenes in which Bassett stands alone on a blackened stage, framed by flickering red strips of light, describing a post-apocalyptic world in graphic, horrifying, yet still humorous detail. The stark contrasts are unnerving and the fragility of everything in life that we all take for granted is brought into focus. Churchill positions her play at some point where the real merges with the surreal, where mundanity collides with fantasy and where the inconsequential is interrupted by the profound. Miriam Buether’s sets highlight these contrasts; an idyllic garden with brown fences under a pale blue sky gives way to pitch darkness, accompanied by crackling noises, as when a radio frequency is changing. Lighting, designed by Peter Mumford, also plays a key role in James MacDonald’s considered and finely detailed production. As Mrs Jarrett learns of the inner lives of her three companions, the lights around each in turn dim and the others sit motionless, listening inattentively. Sally fears cats, Lena fears open spaces and Vi fears kitchens, having killed her husband in one. Churchill is showing us the sinister undercurrents, real or imagined, that run beneath a facade of tranquility and she is emphasising the isolation of each of the women. Four of our most accomplished actors bring the characters to life, achieving the perfect balance between comedy and pathos, their joint rendition of Da Doo Ron Ron being one of the production’s most memorable highlights. The creators of all good comedies need to know when the core joke has run its course and Churchill shows her finest judgement in bringing this play to an end, summarily, after a mere 55 minutes. The outcome is a small package filled with entertainment and thought provoking ideas.

Performance date: 28 January 2016

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Guys and Dolls***** (Savoy Theatre)

Posted: January 28, 2016 in Theatre

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There was absolutely no need for me to see Guys and Dolls again. The National Theatre staged it in the 1980s and revived it in the 1990s, the Donmar (at the Piccadilly Theatre) staged it in 2005; I saw all three and I loved all three. Yet, on a cold, wet January evening, there can be no better way to lift the spirits than re-visiting this joyful romantic romp that many argue is the greater comedy musical of them all and one fix per decade isn’t really overdosing on it. Gordon Greenberg’s exuberant production arrives in the West End having begun life in 2014 at the Chichester Festival Theatre, Good old reliable David Haig is a terrific Nathan Detroit, reunited with the divine Sophie Thompson (this couple’s wedding was one of four in a very famous film), who achieves the near-impossible by matching Imelda Staunton’s performance as the lovelorn Miss Adelaide. Jamie Parker scores his third London triumph in a year, stamping his personality all over Sky Masterson and confirming his ranking as probably the best male singer currently working in British musical theatre (if they can’t find a song or two for Harry Potter to sing, what a waste of talent that’s going to be). And Siubhan Harrison oozes charm as Sky’s lucky lady, Sarah Brown. The supporting performances, bringing to life Damon Runyon’s rich array of characters, are also spot-on, particular praise going to Gavin Spokes who, as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, gets an ovation rousing enough to rock the boats on the nearby Thames. The show is described as “a musical fable of Broadway” and the book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows sparkles with wit, while even the most familiar of Frank Loesser’s songs here sound fresh and new. Peter McIntosh’s glittering set and costume designs are eye-popping and the dance routines are as lively and imaginative as any that I have seen in the West End – the Havana club scene is particularly stunning, but, as Carlos Acosta is joint choreographer (with Andrew Wright), that is not so surprising. Too much praise for one show? Probably, but this really is a production that send the audience back out onto the Strand on a cushion of air, looking for superlatives. When the revival for the 2020s comes round, the bar will have been set very high indeed.

Performance date: 25 January 2016

Clickbait*** (Theatre 503)

Posted: January 23, 2016 in Theatre

ClickbaitThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Technologies that allow us to record events, readily and with ease, and social media networks that encourage us to broadcast them to the world have combined to yield many benefits and many opportunities for abuse. Milly Thomas’ dark revenge comedy, here being given its world premiere, shows us how things can go badly wrong. Holidaying in Ibiza, Nicola (Georgia Groome) takes part in a group sex party that is filmed without her knowledge. Faced with the threat of the video being put on social media, she takes control and puts it there herself. The confused emotions that result from her becoming a star of the internet, lead to her ignoring the advice of her cautious older sister Gina (Amy Dunn) and becoming inspired by the fanciful ideas of her younger sister, 15- year-old Chloe, to profit from her celebrity. Bristling with energy and raw nerve, Alice Hewkins’ Chloe is a scene stealer. The unlikeliest of entrepreneurs, she brandishes her youth as an emblem of her command of the modern world (“I know how to use a computer. I’m not 30”). She stands out among Thomas’ largely one-dimensional characters with whom it is very difficult to engage or sympathise. The big business idea is to set up a chain of booths in which the public can film themselves as they partake in intimate activities. Transforming into the three sisters from Hell, wearing identical platinum blond wigs, the ladies try to assure themselves that they are not prostitutes and not sex workers, rather they just work in sex, but the lines become blurred and maybe their new profession is not so far removed from the world’s oldest. Thomas touches on issues relating to female empowerment without developing them very far and it is only in the closing stages that the damage done to Nicola through having been abused becomes clearer and only then is Groome able to give us some insight into her motivation. Less convincing is Nicola’s tiresome on/off relationship with her dreary boyfriend Adam (Barney White). When the sisters’ business begins to unravel, it is due to poor after-sales service, the disgruntled Kat (Emma D’Arcy) putting the skids under them. For all its up-to-date trimmings, there is a sense in which Thomas’ play is not really telling us a lot that is new; sex has always been a saleable commodity, offering big profits for the winners and big penalties for the unwary. The writing is not without wit, but Thomas relies too much on the expectation that salty language and explicit sex talk will be enough to shock an audience into laughing. Holly Race Roughan gives the play a lively production, performed in an open-sided cube with trolls dancing regularly around the outside, gossiping and tweeting at the scandalous goings on. Clickbait is slick, smart and intermittently funny, but it has no heart and, consequently, its power as a commentary on modern dilemmas is much diminished.

Performance date: 22 January 2016

Photo: Oliver King

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