girlfriendsMy review can currently be seen at: http://www.thepublicreviews.com/girlfriends-union-theatre-london/ and will appear here from 4 November.

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THIS-IS-HOW-WE-DIEChristopher Brett Bailey, the American writer/performer, delvers an endless assault on the ears, some of which penetrates through to the brain. Pale and gaunt with his hair standing erect, he sits at a desk behind a large microphone and reads from sheets of paper, beginning at a manic speed, barely pausing for breath and slowing up only slightly as the show progresses. The style of presentation has the effect of creating a barrier between Brett Bailey and his audience, thereby forcing concentration on the words being spoken; when occasionally, he pauses and makes eye contact with members of the audience, it is with an icy, threatening stare  – appropriate as a lot of his material is very cold indeed The script mixes neo-existantialist philosophy with stories that show influences as diverse as Jack Kerouac and the Addams Family. Brett Bailey’s writing is at its best when filled with very dark, surreal humour, such as in an account of a visit to his girlfriend’s parents, but at its worst when simply offering a quirky view of the meaning of existence. The evening is rounded off with a rock band making a cacophonous noise whilst four spotlights glare and dim on an otherwise dark and bare stage. In all, this is an unorthodox mixture of forms and ideas which, in a weird sort of way, works.

FreeFall_087Vinay Patel sets his play in a soulless wasteland, neither urban nor rural, where transport links scar the landscape and the only signs of humanity are glimpses caught through the windows of passing vehicles. Specifically, this is a high platform on the Dartford Crossing, where Andrea (Molly Roberts) has come to end it all, having decided that she is of more use dead than alive to those close to her. Roland (Maynard Eziashi), a toll booth superintendent, has other ideas; he has spent many shifts watching as distant black dots plunge from on high into the polluted Thames estuary, but, on this occasion, he climbs up to find out more. This is not the first drama to ask the “to be or not to be” question and over-familiarity, particularly in the early stages, is the biggest obstacle in the way of Patel’s play gaining a grip. Once the play settles into a predictable battle of wills between Andrea and Roland to gain the upper hand, it strays into the territory of light comedy, as the banter ranges from old television programmes to brands of supermarket ready meals. This goes on for much too long, but, as it becomes clearer that Roland, in a dead-end job and with a fragmenting family, has problems which mirror Andrea’s, the drama builds to a powerful and distinctive climax.  This production, directed by Bethany Pitts for Polaroid Theatre, is lifted by two exceptionally strong performances, whilst Petra Hjortsberg’s simple stage designs and Ben Jacobs’ atmospheric lighting are effective in suggesting a bleak and hostile environment, in keeping with the writer’s themes.

the_distance_1_-_helen_baxendale_-_orange_tree_theatre_-_photo_by_helen_warner_-_webWe are frequently told that the World would be a better place if it was run by women, but Deborah Bruce suggests differently in her sparkling new comedy, which sees three 40-ish mothers descend into total panic, whilst the only voices of sanity are those of the men and a teenage boy. When Bea suffers a crisis of confidence in her abilities as a mother, she abandons her partner and two young sons in Australia to seek comfort and support from her two closest friends in a South London suburb. The friends are Kate, a domineering control freak and Alex, an alcoholic single mother of three (by three different fathers) who is in a frenzy because one of her sons could be caught up in the 2011 London riots, which are taking place at the same time. Helen Baxendale does well as the dazed and confused Bea, having the thankless task of playing straight woman to the comedy characters all around her. Clare Lawrence-Moody makes Kate an unstoppable force of nature, refusing to take “no” for an answer or even to even hear the word spoken in her insistence that everything will be done her way, whilst Emma Beattie’s Alex tows the line obliviously, consumed by her own problems. The appearance of Alex’s son Liam (Bill Milner) is the comic highlight of Act II; fed up with dispensing Ibuprofen to relieve his mother’s hangovers, he gives the perspective of the offspring and, in trying to impose order, he effectively mirrors Kate. Kate’s long-suffering partner (Daniel Hawksford) and his brother (Oliver Ryan) plead for common sense, but are largely unheard. Charlotte Gwinner’s production, performed in the round, moves briskly and Bruce’s writing contains nothing too heavy, but makes many wry observations about the nature of friendship and warns that parenthood is not something to be taken lightly.

the hunters grimmThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

These are grim times for the Brothers Grimm. They have no more stories to tell and they need our help to scour the streets of Deptford and find new ones. But, to worsen matters, one of them, Wilhelm is suffering from severe depression, making it essential that we find a happy story cheer him up. Teatro Vivo’s theatrical journey, presented in conjunction with the Albany Theatre, is a trek through the streets, shops, bars and back alleys of Deptford, encountering the bizarre and the charming, the pretty and the pretty gruesome, with song, dance and lots of dodgy German accents thrown in along the way. Two parties begin the expedition, taking separate routes and meeting occasionally when two stories connect. Jakob (Mark Stevenson) and Wilhelm (Joel Mellinger), along with their devoted friend Dot (Kas Darley) send us on our way and we soon hear a salutary tale of gambling which leaves us outside the residence of a Mr Paddy Power. We are then ushered to the back of a delicatessen where a wolf (Mellinger again) is sprawled across a sofa, too fat to move; he tells us of his encounter with a young lady in red. Further back, someone’s sister, a not too pretty lady (Sarah Finigan) amputates her big toe in preparation for a shoe fitting and, outside, a rough sleeper named van Winkle is woken from his slumbers as we pass. Yet still no happy stories to tell to Wilhelm. We need a break and head for a bar called The Job Centre, where a lady using a Zimmer frame gives dancing lessons. Then it’s back on the trail and maybe we can help a demented frog (Finigan again and utterly hilarious) to achieve its ambition to be turned back into a prince; sadly, the frog turns out to be into sadomasochism and granting its wish could land us into trouble with the RSPCA. Another unhappy story, but now there is Rapunzel (T’nia Miller) waiting outside Poundland, to offer us a ray of hope. Delightful performances by the five who cover all the roles make this a splendid journey of childish (but not children’s) entertainment which gets better as it progresses. Topical references and quick-witted repartee from them all are a bonus. Of course, clement weather helps too as does the unlikely location of Deptford, quiet in the evenings, but with a few locals around to contribute friendly heckling, particularly as we are walking along the High Street singing a nonsense song in a chorus behind Rapunzel. Inside the Albany, the Brothers eagerly wait for us to report our findings, which hopefully will include that elusive story to lighten Wilhelm’s gloom. And do we all live happily ever after? You bet (well for a couple of hours at least)!

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King Charles IIIThornton Wilder’s 1938 play is performed almost constantly across America, but was rarely seen here until around 18 months ago when it appeared at The King’s Head Theatre, just a few yards away from the Almeida. David Cromer, who has already directed the play in New York with considerable success, now gives us a new version which makes the big statement that, notwithstanding Wilder’s very specific descriptions of place and time, the play speaks just as much to the United Kingdom (and indeed to all regions of it) as to the United States. Of course Wilder’s themes are universal, but Cromer could have assumed that intelligent audiences would figure this out for themselves; instead, he double underlines the point by getting the actors to speak with accents from all parts of these islands, a crass misjudgement which undermines a production with many admirable qualities. Our Town is about families and a community, but, perversely, the characters in this production are not able to gel together as either. Taking the role of Stage Manager (or narrator), Cromer himself brings a strong, nonchalant presence, drawing the audience into the fictional New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners at the beginning of the 20th Century and introducing us to its inhabitants. Act I (daily routines) and Act II (love and marriage) are played with the house lights on, with actors (in modern dress) and audience mingling and some distant action taking place on a balcony. In accordance with Wilder’s instructions, there is no scenery and this production has only wooden tables and chairs as props. The ambience is just about perfect for the play, but the slow pace and subdued performances, presumably meant to emphasise the mundanity of small town life, work better at some times than at others. In Act II, the nervous proposal scene and the awkward conversation between bride’s father and groom are both funny if read directly from the page, but, here, they are so underplayed that they raise barely a grin. However, with the lights now dimmed, the short and deeply moving Act III (death) is judged beautifully, achieving a sense of stillness that brings out all the writer’s underlying themes relating to the universe, and the place of each individual and community within it. Now Cromer wisely allows Wilder’s fine writing to do most of the work and, even when he defies him by briefly introducing scenery, the effect is memorable. Overlooking things for which the director must take responsibility, the ensemble acting from a company of over 20 is generally excellent. After two viewings, the suspicion remains that, somewhere, a production exists that will reveal this play to be a masterpiece, but maybe there is a better chance of finding it in America than in Islington.

gypsy_media_530e01bac4b8fThis is the first time that I have been to the new theatre here and I wonder if there can be anywhere better for staging a big musical. The audience is seated in a crescent around the traverse stage and, most crucially, the orchestra is where it should be, in a pit front of stage and effectively amongst us. Under the direction of Nicholas Skilbeck, they make a truly glorious sound, transporting us right back to the Great White Way in its golden age. The sound alone makes the journey here worthwhile, but, of course, Jules Styne has given the musicians something pretty marvellous to play, with a score that stands alongside the very best. Gypsy first appeared on Broadway in 1959 with Ethel Merman in the lead and, since then, it has been revived there regularly as a vehicle for almost every leading musical theatre actress who is old enough to have grown-up daughters. However, it has not been seen in London’s West End since the legendary 1973 production starring Angela Lansbury. That omission must be about to be rectified.

Arthur Laurents’ book tells of Momma Rose, a domineering mother of two daughters – the younger, June, is pushed from childhood to become the Vaudeville star that Rose herself always dreamed of being and the older, Louise is constantly put down, used to sew costumes and only allowed to appear on stage as the back end of a cow. When June jumps ship and elopes, Rose turns to Louise to fulfil her showbiz dreams, but, instead of making it big on the fading Vaudeville circuit, she finds tainted success in Burlesque, becoming the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, whose real life memoir suggested the show.

In Rose, Imelda Staunton, that diminutive giant of the British stage, has found the role that she was born to play. A string of formidable stars have tackled Rose before, all no doubt bringing their own touches of brilliance, but it would be surprising if any of them managed to capture both the hard edge and the soft centre of the character quite so perfectly. In the first half, she makes Everything’s Coming Up Roses a barnstorming hymn of hope and optimism, but when she reprises it towards the end of the show, she stands alone on the vast, bare stage and, with Rose now made a bystander by the very success that she had dedicated her life to achieving, Staunton exposes every line of the lyrics as a delusion, a mere mask for all Rose’s hollow dreams. At the end of the reprise, she steps forward to take her bows in a supposedly empty auditorium, but, inevitably, the illusion is ruined when the real-life audience, many standing, gives her a thunderous ovation. This is a head-dizzying, heart-pumping, eye-watering piece of pure theatre that will be etched in the memory forever.

All that said, this is not a one-woman show. As the girls’ long-suffering agent, Herbie, Kevin Whately is extremely effective. Perhaps due to his familiarity from television, he brings the key quality of likability which is perfect to set against the hurricane force of Rose and his gravelly voice sees him through two great duets. Lara Pulver was the vamp who pierced the supposedly impenetrable heart of Sherlock on television and she assumes a similar guise here as Gypsy, but only for the show’s last quarter. The joy of her performance is seeing Louise’s transformation from a sweet, shy, neglected girl, eventually adding a new layer of confidence for every layer of clothing that she removes. She sings beautifully too in a performance that, in almost any other show, would be the star attraction.

Coming two year’s after West Side Story, this is the last major hit for which Stephen Sondheim wrote only the lyrics and his collaboration with Styne produces one magical song after another throughout the show. Jonathan Kent’s direction and Stephen Mear’s choreography are packed with so many fine details that it feels as if at least one more viewing will be necessary to take them all in and what a chore that will be!