Bakkhai**** (Almeida Theatre)

Posted: July 30, 2015 in Theatre

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The Almeida Greeks Season could hardly have had a more impressive start than the visceral and starkly modern interpretation of the Oresteia trilogy, soon to get a richly-deserved transfer to the West End. And now for something completely different. Anne Carson’s new version of Euripides’ Bakkhai (or Bacchae) opens with a monologue by Dionysus, son of Zeus, newly arrived on Earth having taken on human form, the form of Ben Wishaw to be precise. Wearing a long dark wig, Wishaw delivers his monologue, breaking intermittently to giggle, in a manner that is mocking, capricious and camp. This is an asexual god, intent on mischief, establishing at the outset that what follows is to be a production awash with unorthodoxy and irreverence. Dionysus inspires the women of Thebes to congregate for the world’s first bacchanalian orgy, fuelled by wine and sex, leaving it to the King, Pentheus, to restore order. The women, ten of them seen on stage, double as Chorus, mostly singing their lines a cappella in perfect unison, alternating between sweet harmonies and strident wailing. The effect is very strange, but stranger is still to come. Dionysus persuades Pentheus that the only way to infiltrate the orgy is to abandon his neatly-pressed modern business suit and dress in women’s clothing. As Bertie Carvell plays Pentheus, what ensues has a feeling of déjà vu, but Greek tragedy performed in the style of Some Like it Hot has to be a first. Later, Carvell reappears in even more hideous drag, playing Pentheus’ mother, perpetrator of the play’s inevitable bloody deed, and, at this point, the balance of James MacDonald’s production between tragedy and comedy is precarious, yet fascinating for being so. On a bare stage, superbly lit, all the solo roles are played with vigour by Wishaw, Carvell and the sturdy Kevin Harvey. Euripides explored the relationships between gods and mortals, rule of law and anarchy, good and evil, but Carson and MacDonald move his play one stage further by challenging us to take in all the forms and illusions of theatre itself, compressed into a 110 minute time frame. The result is a head-dizzying theatrical cocktail that, love it or loathe it, will not be easy to forget.

Performance date: 29 July 2015

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After supposedly suffering from a long spell of writers’ block, Patrick Marber has reappeared in true London bus style with three productions in quick succession. First came the Donmar’s revival of Closer, followed by The Red Lion in the Dorfman and now here is his new version of Ivan Turgenev’s comedy of unrequited love, A Month in the Country. With the rural sojourn cut by around four weeks, perhaps we should feel cheated, but Marber is in top form, delivering a script that is concise, witty and modern. And, with a production that is cast to the hilt, surely nothing could go wrong. Unfortunately it could and Marber the director makes a very good attempt at sabotaging the work of Marber the writer. To start with, Mark Thompson’s set – an array of perspex panels in front of a backdrop of a clouded sky and a square, descending red sun that later becomes a door – is truly dreadful and does nothing to complement the play. And then, Marber seats actors not involved in scenes, in varying numbers, on green chairs around the perimeter of the stage; towards the end, all the actors are so seated, standing in turns to deliver their lines. What Marber is aiming to achieve by making a polished production in one of our premier theatres appear like a first read-through in a rehearsal room is one of the evening’s great mysteries. In earlier stages, at least the actors’ movement around the large, empty stage is uninhibited, even if they have to speak to each other from some considerable distance apart and, in one case, make a references to an absent character being “in the billiard room” when, in fact he is sitting in clear view. Amanda Drew is a majestic Natalya, bored with her neglectful husband (John Light), toying with her long-time suitor (John Simm) and competing with her ward (Lily Sacofsky) for the attentions of her son’s new tutor (Royce Pierreson). It is all delightfully played, never more so than in the second act opener in which the family doctor (Mark Gattis – developing into our finest character actor?) makes a hilarious proposal of marriage to an old lady’s snuff-taking companion (Debra Gillett). It says a great deal for the writing and the acting that, ultimately, they are able to triumph over the peculiarities of a very quirky production.

Performance date: 27 July 2015

Temple**** (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: July 27, 2015 in Theatre

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The encampment of anti-Capitalist demonstrators on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in 2011 presented the Church of England with a fundamental dilemma – should it support a movement that was, prima facie, advocating the values of Christianity or should it act to protect its own property? Steve Waters’ new play gives a fictional account of events at that time, centring on the Cathedral’s Dean, who, having made the decision to close the building to the public, is now planning to re-open it. Tim Hatley’s magnificent set of an ancient office with large windows overlooking a close-up monochrome image of St Paul’s establishes immediately that this will be an impressive production. And then the Dean, in the form of Simon Russell Beale, appears to elevate it to an even higher level. Suppressing all the flamboyance often associated with him, he gives a superb, quietly powerful performance as a man whose duties are divided, part humble administrator, part Man of God. He is surrounded by dissenters; the hot-headed Canon Chancellor (Paul Higgins) has resigned on Twitter and the traditionalist Virger (Anna Calder-Marshall) follows suit on paper. The Bishop of London (Malcolm Sinclair) is an adept politician, equally skilled at both sitting on the fence and passing the buck.  The Dean’s new temporary PA (a beautifully judged comedy performance by Rebecca Humphries) tries to provide support, emphasising her qualifications as the daughter of a rural vicar and an almost graduate in History. Shereen Martin  gives an excellent cameo as an icy lawyer representing the City of London, urging the Dean to put his name to action seeking a Court injunction to remove the protesters. Waters tends to play too long on the singles joke of the fusty Clergy tackling the world of texts, Twitter and the like, but, otherwise he and a fine company under the direction of Howard Davies give us an utterly compelling 90 minutes.

Performance date: 23rd July 2015

American Idiot**** (Arts Theatre)

Posted: July 23, 2015 in Theatre

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“You’ll hate it!” is all I heard from anyone who discovered that I planned to see this stage adaptation of a 2004 album by the American rock band Green Day. Do they think I’m too old for it? Well, having now got my belated introduction to Green Day, I feel obliged to point out that the band merely picked up a baton previously held by Led Zeppelin, Queen, Bon Jovi, etc, etc and ran with it. This sort of stuff was invented by my generation – oh yes, don’t forget The Who too. The music has edge, it has bite and, given a choice between this and the bland pop of Bend it Like Beckham, I’ll go for this any day of the week, green or otherwise. Bringing it to the stage is all about finding a concept that fits the music and the show is given a dystopian feel by Sara Perks’ two-levelled, cave-like set and indeed by the distinctly non-glam Arts Theatre itself. The time is 2001/02 in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and television clips suggest that the 43rd POTUS could, very aptly some would say, be the title character; in fact this turns out to be Johnny, a young, rebellious New Yorker who, like his city and his country at that time, is disorientated and struggling to gain a toe hold in a new reality. The story takes the form of a post-apocalyptic odyssey, giving glimpses of war in Asia and drug-induced nightmares. Aaron Sidwell as Johnny, on stage almost throughout, dominates the show with an electrifying performance; Amelia Lily, first seen as if a princess locked in a tower also does well as the girl Johnny wins and then, like an idiot, loses. Lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong is co-writer (with Michael Meyer) of a book that is sketchy and does little more than link the rock anthems together; in a show that runs for only 105 minutes (without interval), perhaps there could have been room for more character and story development to make it all more memorable. As it is director/choreographer Racky Plews’ production has vitality and imagination in abundance, matching the throbbing intensity of the music. The show is a refreshing change from standard West End fare and, with top-priced tickets costing less than half what theatres just around the corner are charging, it’s a real bargain too.

Performance date: 21 July 2015

sincerely yoursThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

The sea of poppies surrounding the Tower of London last Autumn gave a poignant reminder as to how the nation’s wartime efforts still touch our hearts and images of those poppies are the starting point for this show. Sadly, few of those who lived through World War II as adults are still amongst us, but stories and music from that era form part of all of our lives and, here, we are invited to pack up our troubles in an old kit bag for a couple of hours of wallowing in nostalgia. The show raids the songbooks of the Andrews Sisters, Glenn Miller, Vera Lynn, Gracie Fields and more. Somewhat carelessly, Edith Piaf’s If You Love Me (written in 1954) is slipped in, but it is such a lovely song that we can let that pass. The focus is on an ENSA (Entertainment National Service Association) troupe, putting on shows to entertain service men and women, firstly at home and then in a combat zone in Italy. Jeffrey Raggett’s cheery, cheeky MC holds everything together; dressed in a loud checked suit, he is a comic in the Max Miller mould who fires wisecracks (refreshingly non-pc by modern standards) both on and off stage. Packing around 20 songs into two hours, the show has room only for snapshots of the lives of the performers. Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade gives a more detailed account of entertainers during the War, but this show is mainly about the songs. Sarah O’Connor’s book picks out two stories – a love triangle and a gay romance – and looks at them through specs tinted by 21st Century values. Single motherhood may not have been greeted by quite so much enthusiasm in the 1940s and gay men proclaiming the intention to “be themselves” whilst serving on the front line seems a little unlikely. Nonetheless, she leaves us wanting to know more about how these stories pan out, which cannot be a bad thing. The Landor is decked out in Union Jacks to look like any British Legion hall up and down the country – good venues for this show to move on to perhaps. Director Robert McWhir, choreographer Robbie O’Reilly and musical director Michael Webborn are expert at staging musicals in this small space and they give us a song and dance display that is well up to usual standards. Sometimes it benefits a production to look a bit rough around the edges, perhaps put together hastily and with limited resources. If that is sometimes the case here, the show reflects its subject matter well, but top-class singing and dancing from a 15-strong company and touching featured performances give it plenty of sparkle. It all adds up to a thoroughly entertaining evening.

Performance date: 17 July 2015

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Daniel Collard as Sweeney Todd and Andy Watkins as Constable DrummleThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: www.thepublicreviews.com/

Now here’s a good idea – a new musical take on the legend of Sweeney Todd. Good except that the great Stephen Sondheim got there first and his 1979 version has had three different productions in London in the last year alone. First thoughts are that the creators of this alternative must be supremely confident or perhaps slightly insane. Sondheim based his account of depravity and cannibalism in Victorian London on a play by Christopher Bond in which Sweeney was a vengeful convict returning home after escaping from Australia and Mrs Lovett was an opportunistic pie maker, seeking to profit from his killing spree. Here a much younger Sweeney has no back story and he meets the widowed Mrs Lovett long after she has begun baking her dodgy pies, plucking plump babies from her sister’s orphanage before moving on to bigger things. The strong theme of this show is that the female of the species is much deadlier than the male. Louise Torres-Ryan makes Lovett a formidable lady, ruthlessly exploiting Daniel Collard’s shy barber, Sweeney. She uses all her guile and feminine allure to seduce her man into wielding his sharp razor in exchange for his nightly nooky. Rachael Barnett, Eddie Mann, Sarah Shelton and Andy Watkins provide strong support. This 80 minute show grabs every opportunity for audience participation, creating a celebratory mood, although the grizzly plot offers little cause for celebration. Discarding comparisons with the other version, Jo Turner’s music is actually rather pleasing and well sung, although the songs are spaced out too irregularly through the show. A barbers’ shop quartet routine is inspired and very apt; Russian dance music and an Argentine Tango fit in less comfortably. Another song has no stronger pretext then “let’s all ‘ave a sing-song”, but we have to accept that most of the good lyrics about pie fillings have already been used up. For a long stretch in the middle of the show, Dave Spencer’s dialogue is of the “so bad it’s good” variety, but deadpan delivery often makes it very funny and, as the laughs are plentiful, we ought to assume that they are intentionally so. Lovett and Todd is never going to hit the heights of Sondheim’s masterpiece, but, as a small fringe show, it is cleverly done and jolly, if gruesome, good fun.

Performance date: 16 July 2015

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FullSizeRender-77This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

The recent West End revival of The Ruling Class has reawakened interest in its writer, Peter Barnes, which could perhaps have been the inspiration for this production of a play that first appeared one year later, in 1969. A satire of religious icons and teachings, it is a very weird affair indeed. Similarities with the irreverent humour of Life of Brian, bring the description “Pythonesque” immediately to mind, but the play preceded Monty Python’s first television series by a few months, so maybe it could have been Barnes who influenced the Pythons, or maybe there was just something rather strange in the air in 1969. St Eusebius is a monk living a solitary life in an Egyptian desert cave, wearing just a loin cloth and shackles. We presume that his jailer has to be God who must then bake the bread that forms his daily diet, along with water and seven olives. When St E eats the olives one by one and spits the stones onto the floor, we get an indication, before a word of the play has even been spoken, that director Mary Franklin will not be too inclined to hurry things up. The play is under 90 minutes long and the first 30 of them are taken up by a protracted monologue from St E, ranting (occasionally in Latin) and expounding on the strictures of his God-fearing lifestyle. Jordan Mallory-Skinner attacks this with gusto and, if we are told nothing else, it becomes obvious that this is a highly talented actor in search of a much better role. The arrival on the scene of St Pior (Jake Curran) sets off what has been a common feature in the history of religion – a territorial dispute. St P, also in loin cloth and shackles, claims possession of the cave and much brow-beating (literally), flagellation and unarmed combat ensues. The action sequences are extremely well staged and inject much needed life into an otherwise plodding production. There may be just enough humorous material in this play to make up a 10 minute Monty Python sketch. If there is more, Franklin’s production does not find it and the two actors, forced to play most of it straight, are left looking very exposed. With ventures such as Joe Orton’s “lost” play Fred & Madge and Diary of a Nobody, the young company Rough Haired Pointer has specialised in unearthing obscure works and having great fun with them. Unfortunately, in this case, we have to ask whether Barnes’ play is really worth all the obvious effort that they have put into it.

Performance date: 16 July 2015

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