out-theatre-on-fried-meat-ridge-road-c-gavin-watson-6As the World continues to puzzle over what sort of people could possibly have voted for Donald Trump, American writer Keith Stevenson’s one-act play suggests five possible answers.

In the heart of West Virginia, rooms at the Mohican Arms motel are rented out long term to folk who might otherwise be associated with living in trailers. One such resident is JD (played by the writer), son of an Italian prostitute and a well-connected father; kind-hearted to a fault and a speaker of Latin, he is looking for a roommate. Mitch (Robert Moloney) arrives to fill the vacancy; he is homeless. having been kicked out by his girlfriend, and jobless, after being fired from his position at a company making plastic forks for Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, because he suffers from hyperhidrosis (sweaty hands). Quirky back stories play a big part and typify the strain of humour that runs through this comedy.

Simon Scullion’s set is a perfect realisation of a room, complete with untidy twin beds and a mini-bar, at the type of motel that most of us holidaying in the States would give one glance towards and drive by quickly. The potential roommates are intruded upon by cantankerous landlord Flip (Michael Wade), distraught, meth-smoking Marlene (Melanie Gray) and her drunken, unfaithful boyfriend Tommy (Dan Hildebrand). Naturally, Marlene is an artist and Tommy’s sideline is writing poetry. Anarchy ensues, eventually bringing gun-firing cops to the scene. There is a slight sense of sneering at an uncultured underclass, but well-judged performances make the characters seem real, however outrageous their antics become.

Director Harry Burton’s production has a boisterous energy that feeds off the characters’ unpredictability. If there is any serious point underlying the mayhem, it never becomes clear, but the play squeezes enough decent laughs into its 70 minutes to quell complaints about that.

Performance date: 18 January 2017

Photo: Gavin Watson

Abigail* (The Bunker)

Posted: January 18, 2017 in Theatre

abigailmainHaving seen more than a little theatre, a rule emerges that any play for which the programme lists the characters as “woman” and “man” is to be approached with suspicion, perhaps even more so when the play’s title is the name of a woman. To be fair, a barely audible murmur in Fiona Doyle’s one-hour play indicates that “woman” could be “Abby”, but this information counters what seems to be the writer’s mission to separate drama and context. In principle, there is nothing wrong with a play being enigmatic, but the chief problem with this one is that it tries much too hard to be such and for no clear purpose.

In chronological order, two people meet in Berlin airport. have a quick fling in a hotel, travel together and form a relationship that proves to be mutually destructive. However, Doyle tells the story in non-linear form, asking the audience to care when the foundations of the relationship are crumbling, before explaining what those foundations are. The device of juggling with time or even reversing it has worked brilliantly before when used by, for example, Harold Pinter, giving the audience a different and revelatory perspective on events. Unfortunately, it this case, it seems to achieve very little at all.

Playing around with chronology, making the characters anonymous and (apart from the mention of Berlin) avoiding any sense of place, Doyle perplexes us, but, by removing context, she makes it impossible for us to care. All that is left is an hour in which two people talk a lot about nothing of any great significance on a set made up of white and brown boxes. Only engaging performances by Tia Bannon and Mark Rose save director Joshua Mactaggart’s production from complete disaster.

Performance date: 17 January 2017

promises_keyart_rgbBefore starting to review Promises Promises, I have to state a personal interest. The show is an adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1960 Oscar winning film The Apartment and, although I do not claim it to be the greatest film of all time, it is my own favourite. It gave birth to lifelong loves of cinema and the city of New York which remain undiminished. It is the perfect New Year’s Eve movie and, seeing it again now, the striking thing is that so little has changed in more than half a century. Yes some specific details of office life are different, but the film’s caustic account of it remains as relevant as back in the 60s and, of course, human nature, the dark and romantic sides of it, is as it ever was.

In this musical version, the time is 1962 and Fran Kubilik. an elevator operator in the film, has become a waitress, but Neil Simon’s book is remarkably faithful to the original screenplay by Wilder and IAL Diamond. He adds plenty of his own brand of New York humour while retaining the essential bitter-sweet tone of the source material and there are times when this production is very, very funny, aided by delicious cameos from John Guerraso and Alex Young. In fact it would be fair to say that this is a musical comedy in which the comedy comes out on top.

The songs are provided by composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David, the team responsible for countless classics of the 60s era, but there is a feeling that they knew the way to San Jose better than the way to Broadway. The show includes one of their greatest, A House is Not a Home, Daisy Maywood’s tearful rendition breaking hearts, and also one of their best known, I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, touchingly duetted by Maywood and Gabriel Vick to the simple accompaniment of an acoustic guitar. Otherwise, the songs are disappointingly ordinary, but, more crucially, they often feel like intrusions, hindering the show’s progress when they need to be propelling it.

Bronagh Lagan’s no-frills production suits the thrust stage and Cressida Carré’s choreography is fun, particularly when four overweight, lusty executives form an unlikely chorus line. Paul Robinson is strikingly sleazy as the boss Sheldrake, but it is the two lead performances that elevate this production and make it memorable. Vick takes on the role created by Jack Lemon, CC Baxter the ambitious, put-upon office junior who climbs the career ladder by lending out the key to his apartment to his seniors and their mistresses. He catches the essence of Lemon’s performance but also brings his own distinctive touches. As Fran, the object of both Sheldrake and Baxter’s affections, Maywood bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Shirley MacLaine – the tomboy hairstyle, the cheeky grin, the voice – and, at times it feels as if the only difference is that we never see her in black and white. Together, the pair generate a wonderful comic chemistry and, once they begin to cast their spell, reservations about the show itself quickly melt away.

Performance date: 17 January 2017

halfasixpence_03Cor Blimey, it’s the time of year when the West End is awash with cheap tickets. What else would bring me to a show that I’ve avoided for 50 years on stage and screen and one that (along with Southern Trains) led me to miss the annual trip to Chichester in 2016? Back in the days when Tommy Steele was strutting his stuff in the lead role, I always found it hard to shake off the prejudices that only the Americans can create great musicals and that British attempts to emulate them are a bit of an embarrassment. Although there have been obvious exceptions, this is not a show that I expected to change that ridiculous notion.

Julian Fellowes’ new book is adapted from Kipps, HG Wells’ account of class divisions in Edwardian Eastbourne. The story has a Shavian flavour, but, when a musical’s best-known song is Flash, Bang, Wallop, it is never likely to match up to My Fair Lady. And so it proves, but Rachel Kavanaugh’s sparkling revival offers many compensations. Andrew Wright’s choreography is faultless, Paul Brown’s sets and costumes dazzle and, above everything else, Charlies Stemp’s performance as “Arfur” Kipps is sensational. A cross between Steele and Michael Crawford’s Frank Spencer, he occasionally resembles a stick of striped seaside rock, but he sings and dances into the spotlight as if to the manner born and the West End has an instant new star.

The first of two big production numbers in the second half is Pick Out a Simple Tune and for the most part, composer David Heneker seems to have taken this advise from his lyricists George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (who also add new music). Moderate songs, predictable and clunking plot, so reservations remain, but the euphoria generated in this production, particularly the vibrant second half is still hard to resist.

Performance date: 16 January 2017

BU21**** (Trafalgar Studios 2)

Posted: January 12, 2017 in Theatre

bu21On 22 July 2017, an anti-aircraft missile, fired by a terrorist, brought down a Boeing 747, Flight BU21 from New York, as it was descending towards Heathrow Airport. The highly populated area devastated was Fulham, just across the river from Theatre 503 where Stuart Slade’s darkly comical play, based on the aftermath of these events, was first seen. Six characters, known by the first names of the actors who play them, relate their individual experiences in monologue form; they are the witnesses, the bereaved, the maimed and we seem set for an evening that will be harrowing, reverential and boring until Slade begins to twist and overturn the stories, provoke and challenge the audience and lay bare the hypocrisy and fabrications that have become a familiar part of these all too frequent atrocities.

It takes deft touches to be able to mock such delicate subject matter and they come from Slade’s sharp writing, Dan Pick’s fluid direction and six spot-on performances. Mocker-in-chief is Alex (Alexander Forsyth), a slick, cynical, sarcastic banker who lost his girlfriend and his best friend, both sharing a bed when the plane crashed, but we soon learn that he would have been likely to have played the same game as the deceased pair. Izzy (Isabella Laughland) wonders why, when the plane engine came hurtling down her street, it picked out only one victim – her mother – and Ana (Roxana Lupu) contemplates suicide to escape her horrific injuries until realising that she is too strong to go through with it. Student Floss (Florence Roberts) cannot clear her mind of the face of the ejected passenger who landed in her back garden and died seconds later.

Slade’s feel for black, slightly absurdist comedy and irony is evident throughout. He captures the minutiae of everyday life and makes astute observations. He tells us that London is a city made up of groups who hate each other – north v south, rich v poor, etc – and he questions whether the media that quickly labels the events as “BU21” and “22/7” might have cared more if Fulham had been a poor area. The play also looks at the sinister side of the attack; Clive (Clive Keene), son of a secular Asian family, was nicknamed “Osama Bin Clive” at school and finds himself being gradually drawn to Islam and, from there, towards sympathising with extremists; Graham (Graham O’Mara), is a proud Londoner in whom the attacks spur Islamaphobia, which is moderated when he finds media celebrity as a witness to the devastation.

The play evolves from monologue format when the characters interact in the melting pot of a mental health support group and, confounding our prejudices and expectations Slade shows is that all is not as it first seems or as the media would lead us to believe. A year later, memorial services are attended by the good and the great who gush out their glib platitudes and mask further the reality of what actually happened. This is a stimulating work that defies orthodoxy and is fully deserving of the opportunity that it is getting to reach a wider audience.

Performance date: 11 January 2017

Photo: David Monteith-Hodge

20th-centuryThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Peeling away the layers of Tom Jacobson’s one-act play, here getting its UK Premiere, we find two actors, James Sindall and Fraser Wall, playing two actors, Warren and Brown respectively, playing a variety of characters caught up in intrigue in 1914 Los Angeles. Yes it is confusing and we get only 80 minutes to try and figure it out.

Jacobson’s opening conceit is that Warren and Brown are waiting together to audition for the same part. Warren is older, rugged and confident; Brown is boyish, cocky and has a gift for learning lines of Shakespeare rapidly. Being disciples of Stanislavski, the pair kill time with a spot of improvisation, playing out scenarios in which actors work for the Los Angeles Police Department, getting 15 dollars for every perpetrator of “social vagrancy” (perhaps more widely known here as “cottaging”) that they entrap.

Dealing lightly with sensitive subject matter, Jacobson tells us that “the twentieth century way”, brought about by improved standards of personal hygiene and aided by the invention of the trouser zip, was one of newly-found depravity among closeted gay men. In fact, highly publicised incidents inform us that the LAPD practice of entrapment continued at least until late in the last century, yet, if Jacobson is outraged by this, he does not really express it. References are made to ruined reputations and suicides, but the play’s structure never allows us to see tragic figures, only actors playing them, and any serious dramatic impact is nullified all too quickly.

Written with a fair measure of wit, the play becomes an exploration of the lines between acting and reality in all areas of life. As protagonists, the two men may be Othello and Iago on stage or cop and victim in a public toilet, but, in both cases they are acting their roles. Truth and fiction merge together and become blurred. The actors, now referring to Sindall and Wall, do a terrific job in bouncing Jacobson’s punchy dialogue off each other and director Marylynne Anderson-Cooper keeps the piece moving at a swift pace.

Perhaps we could have hoped for a play that issues a salutary warning to Trump’s America not to revert to habits that have properly been left behind in the last century, but this is not that play. Instead, we get a self-indulgent comedy packed with theatre jokes, something of a soufflé that is consistently amusing, but quickly forgettable.

Performance date: 9 January 2017

trh-2

Saint Joan** (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: January 10, 2017 in Theatre

saint-joanHoward Brenton’s play Lawrence After Arabia, seen at Hampstead Theatre last year, was set during a period in the 1920s when TE Lawrence was a house guest of his friend George Bernard Shaw, who was preoccupied with writing Saint Joan. It is plain to see how Shaw found similarities between the Maid of Orleans, the 15th Century peasant girl who led an army against an occupying power, and Lawrence. It is also plain to see how the playwright linked Joan’s story to events of the early 20th Century. The first half of Shaw’s work, as seen here, plays like a satire of international politics and diplomacy that is timeless, so much so that director Josie Rourke’s approach of bringing the play bang up to date seems almost like overstating the obvious. Television screens show Bloomberg News and BBC2’s Newsnight and the cast (with one obvious exception) is all male, dressed in natty suits as if commodity traders. The exception, in the form of Gemma Arterton, looks rather anachronous in a full-length red gown and, later, battle dress.

Shaw is out to show how the establishment, in this case church, state and crown, inevitably conspires to overpower the outsider, but Rourke’s production is cold, her relentless and unnecessary quest for modernity robbing the play of its essential passion. Arterton is given little chance to delve into the central character, who comes across as little more than a religious crank. Competence abounds throughout, but what this Saint Joan needs is, dare I say, more fire.

Performance date: 6 January 2017