The Tailor-Made Man (White Bear Theatre)

Posted: November 10, 2017 in Theatre

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

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

With current stories of improprieties in the film industry seeming to be as plentiful as gold stars on Hollywood Boulevard, this revival of Claudio Macor’s The Tailor-Made Man could hardly be more timely. The play is based on the true story of William “Billy” Haines, a star of silent movies and 11 talkies, whose career collapsed like a house of cards when studio bosses took a stand against his homosexual lifestyle.

The play was adapted into a musical, generally well received when it ran at London’s Arts Theatre in 2013, but this 25th Anniversary production reverts to the original non-singing version. If the name William Haines prompts the question “William who?” this could be because all his films were consigned to locked vaults for a generation by MGM and even still photographs of him were destroyed.

Arriving in Hollywood in 1922, wise-cracking extrovert Billy quickly becomes a tailor-made man, moulded by his studio in the image of the all-American male. However, Billy’s private life threatens to tarnish the image and, on hearing of the latest Haines indiscretion, Louis B Mayer (a fearsome Dean Harris) growls: “How can I take my daughter to the pictures when I know that William Haines is a fagelah?”

Parts of the story are told talking into a camera by the love of Billy’s life, Jimmie Shields (touchingly played by Tom Berkeley) who is content to hide in the shadows while his partner steals the limelight and to overlook his persistent promiscuity. Fresh-faced and exuberant, Mitchell Hunt’s Billy looks too innocent to be a convincing predator but Bryan Hodgson’s revival leaves no room for doubt as to what is going on. Billy’s actions in exploiting his star power to proposition, grope and seduce young men cause some discomfort when looked at through the prism of modern sensitivities.

For all this, Macor’s aim is never to demonise Billy. Rather he seeks to condemn the hypocritical studio system and, ultimately, to tell an uplifting story of enduring love conquering adversity. When Hollywood eventually expels Billy, he is able to call upon a latent talent for interior design and, along with Jimmie, forge a new career in which he was to achieve considerable success. Hodgson’s slick, well-paced production moves smoothly between satirical comedy and tender romance.

On occasions, Hodgson allows over-acting that may go beyond the need to emulate the style of the silent era, but, more often, strong cameo performances lift the production, particularly in the play’s more leaden scenes. Henry Felix shows resilience as the young screenwriter Victor Darro, who fends off Billy’s unwanted advances and becomes the couple’s loyal friend; Edwin Flay is strikingly sleazy as Howard Strickling, MGM’s PR man who will resort to anything, even setting up marriages of convenience, to promote the right image for the studio’s stars; and Yvonne Lawlor goes deliciously over the top playing leading lady Marion Davies, as does Rachel Knowles in the dual roles of Carole Lombard and Pola Negri.

Mayer makes the prediction that every gay actor in the future will hear the words “remember William Haines” before thinking about coming out of the closet. It is a chilling moment that underscores the modern relevance of a play that sheds further light on the continuing ills of Hollywood.

Performance date: 9 November 2017

Photo: Andreas Lambi

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

With a celebration of the joy of romance and the miracle of chocolate, Emma Rice bows out as Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre, leaving only broad smiles behind her. Based upon the 2010 French/Belgian film Les Émotifs Anonymes, her new musical is a sweet confection that is cornier than Kansas in August, but it appeals to the taste buds perfectly.

Angelique (Carly Bawden) is a gifted chocolate maker, too shy to speak to strangers or to let it be known that she is responsible for her mouthwatering creations. Jean-René (Dominic Marsh) is the owner of a failing chocolate factory, which he inherited from his father and he is similarly afflicted. When they dine together in a French bistro, the waiters (dressed in berets and matelot shirts of course) sing: “have you ever seen anyone quite like this, suffering from social paralysis”. The meal is an embarrassing disaster.

Angelique joins Les Émotifs Anonymes, a sort of Alcoholics Anonymous for the incurably timid, in which participants sit in a crescent and take turns to bare their souls while the others look in the opposite direction. Jean-René avoids public humiliation and opts for listening to self-help tapes and having cosy chats with his dead dad.

For business and emotional reasons, the storyline must surely bring the loveless pair together and Rice’s book offers no surprises. Adapting an original screenplay by Jean-Pierre Améris and Philippe Blasband, her script sometimes falls short on verbal wit, but she more than compensates with tongue-in-cheek staging that overflows with comic invention. She also uses comedy to great effect as an antidote when the sugar level starts to get too high.

There are no outright showstoppers, but Christopher Dimond’s crisply rhyming lyrics are amusing and they are given bounce by Michael Kooman’s tuneful score. The songs, ordinary at first, seem to get better as the show moves along, accompanied by Musical Director Jim Henson’s four-piece band.

Bawden and Marsh, carefully avoiding eye contact at all times, are touchingly awkward, but it is often the ensemble, choreographed by Etta Murfitt that catches the eye and ear. Among them, seasoned performers such as Marc Antolin, Philip Cox, Joanna Riding and Gareth Snook all grab at their chances to delight in strong cameo roles and help to keep the show bubbling when the predictability of its plot could have deadened it.

Lez Brotherston’s ingenious chocolate box set design well suits the soft-centred assortment that it holds. We all know that Angelique and Jean-René will eventually shed their inhibitions to make delicious chocolate together and, when they do, they literally walk on air. This could be the happiest show in London this Christmas.

Performance date: 27 October 2017

Of Kith and Kin (Bush Theatre)

Posted: October 21, 2017 in Theatre

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

The details of Chris Thompson’s new three-act play, first seen at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, may be very modern, but the style of its opening is distinctly old-fashioned. A living room, an expecting married couple and a cantankerous, interfering mother-in-law are staples of domestic comedy, but the modern twist is that couple are gay men and it is a fourth character, their long-time friend, who is about to give birth.

Daniel, played by James Lance as volatile and unstable, is 46 and recalls the days of closeted gay life. He is uneasy in the roles of husband and soon-to-be father, but 32-year-old Oliver (Joshua Silver) is a romantic who sees everything in his current life as natural. Pondering who will be “Dad” and who “Daddy”, they decide that they will both be the former, as their age difference gives unfortunate connotations to the latter.

The surrogate mother, Chetna Pandya’s grounded Priya, seems at first to be totally relaxed about the situation and she parties with the fathers merrily. Then the peace is disturbed by the arrival of Daniel’s battle-axe mother, Lydia (Joanna Bacon). “It’s like she smells dysfunction” Oliver declares later when anticipating her arrival at the door in the middle of a marital tiff, and it is friction between Lydia and her son-in-law that sets sparks flying and brings to an end a first act of palatable, if unsubtle, light comedy.

Act two sees a stark change, as the play becomes a fraught courtroom drama. A baby boy has been born and Priya, who remains silent throughout, is claiming custody. Bacon changes her accent and outfit to become icy, aggressive Carrie, the lawyer who is representing Priya in the hearing presided over by Donna Berlin’s calm and rational Arabelle. Daniel represents the couple and expresses the view that the Court is treating them differently from heterosexuals in a similar situation. If this is the point that Thompson is aiming to demonstrate, the case is not made properly. The Court’s probing seems much as might be expected in any custody hearing.

Robert Hastie’s direction and James Perkins’ simple, functional set designs give the production a solid feel without tackling the play’s central problem – its inconsistencies in tone and plotting. On several occasions, characters make surprising decisions, but Thompson neither explains their actions fully nor explores their motives. Why do Daniel and Oliver both switch tracks in their attitudes to the baby and why does Priya decide to dispute custody? It seems particularly odd that the writer hardly touches upon the mother’s viewpoint at all.

Of Kith and Kin is often entertaining and, particularly in the third act, moving, as it scratches at the surface of dilemmas thrown up by modern lifestyles. However, unanswered questions chip away at the play’s credibility and leave a comedy/drama that is, ultimately, not completely satisfying.

Performance date: 20 October 2017

Photo: Helen Murray

Beginning (National Theatre, Dorfman)

Posted: October 17, 2017 in Theatre

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

David Eldridge’s new play begins at the end – the end of a drunken flat warming party. Hostess Laura (Justine Mitchell) stands at the door, but the last lingering guest, Danny (Sam Troughton), there as a friend of an acquaintance, declines to exit through it. After the play has progressed over 100 minutes of real time, he is still in the flat.

When layers have been peeled away, both Laura and Danny are revealed to be damaged and lonely. She is recently out of a 10-year relationship and has undergone an abortion. He is a divorcee who is separated from his seven-year-old daughter. Both are 40-ish. The only things that they seem to have in common are likings for Strictly… and Scotch eggs. Fervent Corbynite Laura shows pride in her new Crouch End pad and boasts the job title of “MD”. Politically disinterested Danny has a boring job, lives with his Mum in Essex and is dogged by low self-esteem.

The play looks to be on track to developing into a predictable romantic comedy of opposites attracting, but the sharpness of Eldridge’s writing dodges all the obvious pitfalls. The challenge facing this couple is to establish an emotional connection before the physical one takes over. In amusing exchanges, they probe each other, attempting to reconcile differences and synchronise senses of humour, fearful they could be about to make a terrible mistake or face embarrassing rejection. Mitchell and Troughton both understand that, when their characters are revealing themselves slowly, what cannot be spoken is often as important as their dialogue and they turn in spot-on performances of great subtlety and depth.

Fly Davis’ design makes Laura’s flat appear shabby and cheaply-furnished, adorned with fairy lights and party tinsel, but, if the look of director Polly Findlay’s sensitive production is old-fashioned, it is contrasted by many distinctly modern touches in the play. It is the woman, sexually liberated Laura, who makes all the moves, leaving Danny to resist. At one point, he resorts to stuffing empty bottles and uneaten canapés into a bin bag in a nervous attempt to detract from his pursuer’s advances.

Eldridge also sees the irony of a face-to-face first meeting in the age of the internet. Danny, who has dabbled with dating sites, bemoans the fact that he did not meet Laura online, seemingly not knowing how to handle a real-life encounter. Both refer to friends, but only of the Facebook kind, implying that they are becoming strangers to real friendship. When the playwright explores the human need for companionship, his play is at its most poignant and, when he demonstrates the practical obstacles in the way of getting a meaningful relationship going, it is at its most hilarious.

Beginning is warm, funny and, above all, refreshingly honest. Eldridge leaves open the question as to whether Laura and Danny’s relationship will progress beyond stage one, but this production’s biggest strength is that it makes us care and grow to hope that it will.

Performance date: 16 October 2017

Photo: Johan Persson

Ramona Tells Jim (Bush Theatre)

Posted: September 23, 2017 in Theatre

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

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

Sophie Wu sets her debut play on the rugged Scottish coastline, where the cold of Summer and the midges bite with equal force. Teenage love blossoms briefly before being washed up on the rocky shore, only to be revisited and reflected upon 15 years later.

 

Wu’s bitter-sweet comedy, getting its World Premiere here in the Bush Theatre’s new studio space, shows considerable promise. The writer has a sharp ear for the mundane details of everyday conversation and she develops distinctive characters without veering towards stereotypes.

A 17-year-old Scot, Joe Bannister’s geeky, easily put-upon Jim, finds his obsession with crustaceans displaced by a crush for a visitor from “Englandshire”. Ruby Bentall’s dreamy, jolly-hockey-sticks schoolgirl Ramona is a misfit with her own set and equally so in remote Scotland. The couple’s flirtation, under a meteor shower to the accompaniment of Enya’s Orinoco Flow is more awkward than romantic, but its consummation is richly comic.

Fast forward 15 years and Ramona returns to the scene to tell Jim, now a tour guide, something significant relating to their first encounter, but finds that he is now in a relationship with 19-year-old Pocahontas (Amy Lennox). She too is a dreamer, setting her sights on material possessions and getting her controlling claws into Jim, until Ramona’s return gives him the strength to resist.

The play is well served by Mel Hillyard’s simple thrust staging and three strong performances, Bannister and Bentall spanning the years with confidence. However, it is spanning the gap between dreams and reality that provides Wu with her overriding theme. Her characters dream, but their inherent inadequacies make them the architects of their own misfortunes and result in their lack of fulfilment.

Lightly plotted, Wu’s play is sustained over 80 minutes by its quirky humour, founded on the universal truth that the pieces in life’s jigsaw rarely fit together neatly. Her three characters strive valiantly to match up their fantasies with reality, but, like most of us, they do not quite make it happen.

Performance date: 22 September 2017

Loot (Park Theatre)

Posted: August 24, 2017 in Theatre

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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

When Joe Orton’s life was cut short so cruelly in 1967, he left behind only a small body of works. Loot was his second stage hit, following quickly on the heels of Entertaining Mr Sloane and, 52 years after its first appearance, its ability to shock audiences has, inevitably, diminished. However, expectations that its black comedy would have dated are thwarted emphatically here in a revival that is consistently hilarious and reveals the play to be surprisingly relevant to the modern world.

Social conventions and the pillars of British life are Orton’s targets as he ridicules hypocrisy and pomposity, showing little mercy. Marriage, death, the church (particularly Catholicism) and the law all fall victim to the writer’s subversive pen. The plot of Loot could have been inspired by one of the 1950s Ealing comedies, but the play is stripped of all traces of their gentleness and gentility, and wider influences, ranging from the absurdity of Ionesco to the lunacy of The Goon Showbecome detectable.

Orton wrote for radio before finding success in theatre and his style betrays those origins, with almost every line of dialogue leading to a verbal gag. However, the success of this play also relies heavily on visual flourishes, which are plentiful in this production. Most notably, a running joke concerning a corpse brings repeated howls of laughter, allowing Anah Ruddin to steal the show without speaking a word or moving a muscle.

The problem with this type of anarchic comedy is that it can often be difficult to sustain at a high level for long, but Orton keeps it on the boil throughout two acts and Michael Fentiman’s effervescent production rarely flags. Gabriella Slade’s set design, a sombre chapel with dark wooden panelling, is a little out of place when all the play’s action occurs in the home of the McLeavy family, but it works in giving an ironic air of reverence to a play that is entirely irreverent from beginning to end.

Sinéad Matthews is a morbid joy as the seven-time black widow Fay, who always finds justification for her misdemeanours in her Roman Catholic faith. Having nursed the stricken Mrs McLeavy towards her death, perhaps helping her on her way, she turns to her bereaved husband (Ian Redford) and persuades him to propose to her by telling him that two weeks would be a suitable period of mourning. Ne’er-do-well son Hal McLeavy (Sam Frenchum), hampered by an inability to tell lies, has worthy ambitions to establish a brothel and has just joined forces with undertakers’ assistant Dennis (Calvin Demba) to rob a bank. Where else to hide their loot but in Hal’s mother’s coffin?

Dennis, a father of five illegitimate children, casually exchanges kisses with Hal while proposing marriage to Fay, giving the play the sexual ambiguity in which Orton revelled. The police, with whom the playwright himself had brushes, are represented by the dim-witted, corrupt Inspector Truscott, made a coarse bully by Christopher Fulford’s performance.

The word “Ortonesque” has now entered the English language and this fine revival of Loot shows us exactly why. The writer’s distinctive blend of various comedy styles feels uniquely British, even though it is British life that it lampoons so savagely. The play easily stands the test of time and it leaves us regretting that there are so few others like it.

Performance date: 23 August 2017

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

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

Sometimes it feels as if the only thing that can be said in favour of democracy is that it is infinitely preferable to any conceivable alternative. Rob Drummond’s new 90-minute one man show sets out to expose the fallibilities, anomalies and contradictions of majority verdicts by asking the audience to make decisions and then to reflect on the consequences.

There is a buzz in the air on entering the Dorfman Theatre, which is configured in the round. Above the circular stage, projections show the activity inside a beehive and Jemima Robinson’s set design is awash with honeycomb shapes.

The sound of the swarm lingers in the ears long after Drummond has begun to tell his story, a train of events triggered by his decision not to vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum. He takes a journey to beyond the northernmost railway station in the (still) United Kingdom in pursuit of a slightly nutty left wing beekeeper who is waging war on Scotland’s answer to the Ku Klux Klan.

The audience is given electronic keypads and, at several points, Drummond asks for votes, which he claims can alter the course of the show. To get things moving, he asks very basic questions and, at this performance, he ascertained that the majorities in his audience were white, female and liberal; only 8% supported Brexit. More surprisingly, a majority supported the admission of latecomers to the auditorium, giving Drummond the opportunity to embarrass them on stage. The audience opposed having an interval, thereby casting aside the needs of the incontinent.

The most serious question being asked by Drummond and illustrated in his story, is to what extent can a liberal person tolerate opposing views when such views are (in that person’s opinion) clearly and incontrovertibly wrong. On most evenings, it is likely that audiences will claim to be liberal and also claim to oppose the use of violence as a means to achieving any end. Are these two positions always compatible? News coming from Charlottesville, Virginia on the day of this show’s opening underlines the urgency of the writer’s concerns.

Directed by David Overend, Drummond prowls around the stage, drawing in the audience. Sometimes he looks genuinely hurt and perplexed when verdicts do not concur with what are, perhaps, his own views. At other times, he shrugs and accepts the inevitable. At intervals, he stops and the stage darkens, leaving a single spotlight on him, and he sets a series of moral conundrums which gets us to ask ourselves why, faced with slightly different situations, we might take life and death decisions that could be seen as inconsistent with each other.

The Majority is an amusing diversion that succeeds in its objective to be thought-provoking, even if many of the thoughts that it provokes may prove to be no more than fleeting. Skillfully, Drummond keeps the show buzzing and all that it needs is just a little more sting.

Performance date: 14 August 2017

Photo: Ellie Kurttz