Tribe (London Theatre Workshop)

Posted: June 23, 2017 in Theatre

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

My review can currently be seen at: http://www.thereviewshub.com/tribe-london-theatre-workshop/ and will appear here from 26 June.

Performance date: 22 June 2017

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

With the United Kingdom and France both recovering from election campaigns, satirical words on fake news and spin feel particularly apposite, even if those words come from the 17th Century. Molière’s Le Misanthrope, written in rhyming verse, premiered in Paris in 1666, staging the play with alternate performances in French and English, Exchange Theatre’s revival relocates it to a modern television newsroom.

David Furlong directs the production and plays the lead role, the misanthropic Alceste, who advocates honesty over hypocrisy. The play begins with a protracted argument between Alceste and his friend Philinte (Simeon Oakes), who is an instinctive flatterer. When Oronte (Palmyre Ligué) performs a sonnet in a style that could be a forerunner to hip-hop, Philinte lavishes him with praise and Alceste cannot help but tell the truth, setting up a rivalry that runs through the play.

Célimène (Anoushka Ravanshad) is a star of the small screen who sits regally at the news desk with a familiar city skyline behind her. She is a two-timer, with both Alceste and Oronte competing for her affections. Furlong links Molière’s themes of fact versus fiction, truth versus tact to the modern era with film clips of right wing politicians – Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Marine Le Pen – uttering their sound bites.

The media folk are shown to be hard-drinking, coke-snorting gossipers who flap around Célimène’s “court” busily, having arrived at their posts to the accompaniment of Nine to Five. Citandre (James Buttling) and Acaste (Luca Fontaine) are a debauched pair of hacks, something like Molière’s equivalent to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Fanny Dulin doubles as Philiinte’s sweetheart and a celebrity studio guest.

The core idea is good, but its execution is less successful. Impromptu interactions with the audience and a languid pace give a laid back feel to the early stages, but, as things progress, there is a growing suspicion that the production is less understated than under-rehearsed. Sudden bursts of anger feel completely out of place and spells of inactivity between scenes interrupt the play’s flow. An unnecessarily cluttered stage makes things look still more clumsy and, when actors enter an alcove at the back they are barely visible.

Brexit may be imminent, but Exchange Theatre seems determined that the Entente Cordiale will live on in theatrical form. Here, while presenting a rarely seen classic, they expose modern news coverage as being all about polish and style, but, sadly, these ingredients are in short supply in their production itself.

Performance date: 15 June 2017

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I have seen the film and I have seen the musical semi-staged, but this is the first time that I have seen a full staging of Leonard Bernstein’s blissful On the Town. Maybe next time I’ll see it indoors, but I doubt if it could be better than this.

For the second time this year (the third if you count the semi-staged Carousel at the Coliseum), London is being treated to a golden era musical that incorporates modern ballet on a grand scale. Bernstein’s glorious score, a lightweight forerunner to his West Side Story, marries perfectly with the city of New York and includes both unforgettable songs and sweeping orchestral pieces as backing for the dances. Tom Deering’s 15-piece band does the score full justice. Book and lyrics are by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

The thin story recounts the adventures of three sailors on 24 hours shore leave in the Big Apple. Danny Mac (not a professional dancer of course! Really?!) is Gabey, Gene Kelly’s role in the film, who embarks on a quest to find poster girl Ivy (Siena Kelly), while his shipmates Chip (Fred Haig) and Ozzie (Samuel Edwards) pair up with cab driver Hildy (Lizzy Connolly) and palaeontologist Claire (Miriam-Teak Lee). The show becomes a showcase for a new generation of British musical theatre talent, with a remarkable five of the six principals having graduated from Arts Education Schools. A number of more seasoned performers give strong support in cameo roles.

Director and choreographer Drew McOnie gives the production a vibrant energy that never tires from the moment that the sailors run down the gangplank through the audience until it is time for them to return back up it. The dancing is athletic and inventive (in one instance with a very modern twist), the singing is delightful and the fun is non-stop. On a balmy Summer evening in the middle of a park, this is the place to find paradise.

Performance date: 14 June 2017

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Declan Donnellen’s productions of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (Part 1 in 1992 and both parts in 1993) in what is now the Dorfman Theatre are embedded in my memory so deeply and they are so much cherished that I did not want them tarnished and I approached this revival with great trepidation. However, with director Marianne Elliot  at the helm and a stellar cast which includes two Hollywood A-listers, there was no need to worry. One major concern  had been the Lyttelton, because, although this is a work on an epic scale, its detail is intimate and its nature is delicate. Many such works have floundered on this enormous stage in the past, but Elliot has complete command of the space, using Ian MacNeil’s moveable sets to close it down and confine the action to small areas and then open out the entire stage exactly when needed. The design also helps the production to flow and, with an overall running time of seven hours 45 minutes (including intervals), there is not a second to be wasted.

Kushner writes about the ravages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America in the 1980s, but he makes his play a metaphor for a country coming to terms with its diseased soul and striving to purge itself of McCarthyism, homophobia, racism, corruption and hypocrisy. A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is the alternative title given by Kushner and he uses nightmares and hallucinations to expand on his ideas, introducing a dark angel, a vengeful ghost and mischievous ancestral spirits to his three interwoven narrative strands, one of which is based on fact. Part 1 (Millennium Approaches) is shorter by 45 minutes than Part 2 (Perestroika).

Roy M Cohn is the real-life character. He was a ruthless, power-hungry attorney who had been a prosecutor involved in the McCarthy “witch hunt” trials of the early 1950s and, using unscrupulous means, he had secured the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage. A closeted homosexual, he is diagnosed with AIDS at the beginning of the plays. Joseph Pitt is Cohn’s protégé, a Mormon who is ambitious, but held back by his troubled, valium-dependent wife, Harper, and tormented by his own latent homosexuality. Louis Ironson is a Jewish temp in Cohn’s office who shies away from personal responsibility and, after turning his back on his AIDS-stricken partner, Prior Walter, he becomes involved with Joseph.

This makes for some pretty heavy drama, but one of the most striking features of Elliot’s production is the extent to which she finds the comedy in Kushner’s writing and brings it to the fore. The casting of Nathan Lane as Cohn helps her greatly. He is first seen juggling telephone calls in a comic routine that could have come from The Producers and then he makes a journey that takes him from Max Bialystock to King Lear in a performance of thunderous power. Kushner’s loathing for Cohn is clear in the writing, but it is matched by a revulsion that we feel comes from deep within Lane and fills the theatre. Cohn shares no scenes with Prior, but an astonishing performance by Andrew Garfield in that role sustains the tragi-comedy in Lane’s absence. Defiantly effeminate and broken in body, Garfield’s Prior is a hero for our times whose spirit soars, making him ready to take on the world, armed only with the lethal weapon of cutting sarcasm.

James McArdle is also wonderful as the self-pitying Louis. His tangled, woolly liberalism contrasts sharply with the cold clarity of Cohn’s conservatism and highlights what Kushner sees as an obstacle to America’s progress. Russell Tovey’s Joseph is outwardly upstanding and true, but, guided by religious teaching, he is inwardly torn between his love for and duty towards his wife and an attraction to men that he battles to comprehend. Kate Harper stood in as Harper for Denise Gough at this performance of Part 1, both are excellent. Susan Brown appears in several roles, most memorably those of Ethel Rosenberg’s ghost and Joseph’s pious mother who becomes an unexpectedly sympathetic character. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett excels as Belize, the gay black nurse who takes both homophobia and racism in his stride as he minces between the hospital rooms of Cohn, the patient that he reviles, and his friend Prior.

Elliot’s staging is, at times, breathtaking. Her angel (played by Amanda Lawrence) has spectacular wings, controlled by puppeteers, her Antarctica (a fantasy scene) is a vast snowy wasteland. The only criticism of Kushner is his apparent lack of discipline which leads to him getting carried away when pursuing his complex themes. It is difficult to justify the plays’ extravagant length and Part 2 in particular could only gain by losing at least an hour. Nonetheless, in among the near eight hours total, there are four or more hours of absolutely incomparable theatre, scenes that make the nerve ends tingle and possibly more quotable lines than in Hamlet.

Like most masterpieces, Angels in America is flawed, but it is a monumental work which Elliot’s revival has shown to be of enduring significance. Part 2 ends with an ironic twist that is richly satisfying and underlines Kushner’s optimism that the new Millennium would bring a bright new dawn. However, we now know the reality and an ironic link of a darker kind has emerged. Not mentioned in the plays, presumably because,it was thought of little interest when they were written, is the fact that, for five years in the 1970’s, Roy Cohn acted as Attorney for Donald Trump. Thus Kushner’s metaphor has now taken on a further dimension. If HIV/AIDS can be treated but not yet cured, perhaps the same can be said of America’s ills.

Performance dates: 12 and 13 June 2017

Kiss Me (Trafalgar Studios 2)

Posted: June 11, 2017 in Theatre

⭐️⭐️⭐️

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

Most of us know about the death toll from the First World War and the Spanish ‘Flu outbreak that followed it, but Richard Bean’s bitter-sweet romantic comedy, first seen at Hampstead Theatre in 2016, considers what one of the consequences may have been – an urgent need to re-populate the nation, presumably in readiness for the following war.

Stephanie (not her real name) is a 32-year-old war widow whose biological clock is ticking. She feels a duty to produce a baby, but her problem is that there are no men. There were no sperm banks either in the 1920s, so the best advice that her rather unorthodox sounding gynaecologist, Dr Trollope, can give is to conceive by the traditional method and the doctor arranges for the services of Dennis (not his real name) to do what is necessary.

Claire Lams’ prim and proper Stephanie tidies her bedroom fussily as fast-paced piano music plays in the background, a scene reminiscent of a silent movie such as the one with Lilian Gish, showing at a nearby cinema. Dennis (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) arrives in a three-piece suit as if attending a business meeting and sets out Dr Trollope’s parameters that must not be crossed – no real names, no exchanges of personal details, no kissing on the lips. His approach is strictly professional. When he admits coyly that he has fathered 202 children from 711 attempts, he does so in the matter-of-fact manner of a stud owner selling the services of his star stallion.

Bean grasps at the opportunity to poke fun at English reservedness. Stephanie offers tea and custard creams to her guest and is always battling against her Catholic upbringing as she braces herself for the encounter. Lloyd-Hughes gives Dennis the air of a cold corporate executive. It is hard to believe him when he softens and professes his love for Stephanie, but this endorses the point that the inability to express feelings is a national characteristic. Bean has written a Brief Encounter for an earlier war.

Georgia Lowe’s set, Stephanie’s mirrored bedroom, does not really fit the period, but nor does some of the candid dialogue. Anna Ledwich’s production moves between awkwardness and tenderness as the couple circle each other nervously before agreeing on the kiss that takes them well outside Dr Trollope’s parameters. When the going threatens to get heavy, Bean throws in some very funny lines and he peppers the play with sly double entendres. The charm of Kiss Me is limited and 75 minutes is just about right, but it is a gentle little comedy that amuses and touches in equal measure.

Performance date: 9 June 2017

Photograph: Robert Day

La Strada (The Other Palace)

Posted: June 10, 2017 in Theatre

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In a haunting final scene, director Sally Cookson finds exactly the right blend of beauty and sadness that is the essence of Federico Fellini’s 1954 film masterpiece La Strada. However, if the scene proves to be the lingering memory of this disappointing “musical” adaption, it will very much flatter the production as a whole.

I have admired Cookson’s past works in which she has adapted classics for the stage, and her trademarks of fluent movement and impressionism are here, but the paucity of her material lets her down. The adaptation is devised by the company, with Mike Akers credited as “writer in the room” and original music composed by Benji Bower. Yes, there is music, but very little of it and what there is is incidental to the story, rather than integrated into it. Branding this show as “a musical” means taking a great deal of licence.

Set in the post-War era of austerity in Italy, we see young Gelsomina (Audrey Brisson) being sold, effectively into slavery, by her mother to Zampanò, a travelling entertainer with a strong man act, played with menace by Stuart Goodwin (why do so many brutes need to have Northern English accents?). They tag onto a circus and Zampanò forms a rivalry with a cruel, mocking clown (Bart Soroczynski). Katie Sykes’ set design, a couple of telegraph poles on an otherwise empty stage, represents a barren picture of the Italian landscape and there is little of the flavour of a colourful and passionate country to be found. If Cookson chose to replicate Fellini’s black-and-white format, perhaps she made a mistake.

There are bursts of energy, but far more patches where the show drags, badly in need of the life that musical numbers could have injected into it.  The core element, the mutual dependence of the ill-matched travellers, shines through, but only occasionally and a tale that should warm the heart leaves us cold, until near the very end. If Cookson likes the idea of adapting Fellini for musical theatre, maybe she would do better by taking on a long overdue revival of Maury Yeston’s Nine.

Performance date: 8 June 2017

Working (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: June 8, 2017 in Theatre

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

In the eyes of America’s current President, the triple whammy of globalisation, de-industrialisation and illegal immigration has snuffed out working life in large parts of his country. Therefore, there can be nothing more timely than the reminder of the values of work that comes from Stud Terkel’s interviews with US workers, first published in 1974 and augmented by further interviews in 2007/08.

This is not the sort of material that we would expect to be adapted into a musical, but Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, with additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg, have done just that. Song contributors range from veteran James Taylor to the new golden boy of musical theatre, Lin-Manuel Miranda. The show was seen Off-Broadway in 2012 and now gets its European premiere here. Turning the Large space at Southwark Playhouse into a factory floor may not have presented too much of a challenge for designer Jean Chan.

Young and old, blue collar and white collar, management and managed, the show cuts across professions, each segment featuring one of six performers portraying an interviewee, many centring on a song. A fast food delivery boy and a builder’s labourer appear and then a teacher for 40 years (Gillian Bevan) laments Nobody Tells Me How in a song by Susan Birkenhead and Mary Rodgers. A trolley dolly (Siubhan Harrison) serves lukewarm coffee, knowing that her plane is two hours away from a crash landing and a truck driver (Dean Chisnall) hits the road singing Taylor’s Brother Trucker. The excellent songs are sung beautifully, Krysten Cummings, Peter Polycarpou and Liam Tamne being the remaining performers.

A frequent problem with verbatim pieces is that the production can easily mock the words of its subjects, but director Luke Sheppard makes sure that we laugh only with the characters whose simple, natural wit shines through. They are given respect and dignity in a production that is filled with heart and energy. The result is an uplifting celebration of the tiny cogs in a massive wheel and of the human spirit. Choreographed by Fabian Aloise, a singing and dancing chorus of six supports the featured performers and Isaac McCullough’s small band provides backing in the varying musical styles.

Without a linking narrative thread, the show risks seeming fragmented, but the adaptors provide cohesion in neat ways, as when a socialite raising money for charity appears alongside a hooker. Pride in work is a consistent theme, brought out most movingly in Craig Camelia’s The Mason and most amusingly when a waitress likens her work to performing on stage in Schwartz’s It’s An Art. The driving force of characters wanting better for their children also recurs many times. In Micki Grant’s Cleanin’ Women, a mother, the fourth generation of cleaners in her family, commits to a different life for her daughter and, in Schwartz’s Father and Sons, a father glows with pride at his son surpassing him.

In a nod to the modern day rust belt, Polycarpou brings tears to the eyes as he goes through his daily routine following redundancy in Miranda’s A Very Good Day, adding to the mix of pathos and humour that are balanced perfectly throughout the show’s 90 minutes. Working could seem so unlikely a musical that maybe it has no right to work, yet somehow it does beautifully.

Performance date: 7 June 2017