The Understudy*** (Canal Café Theatre)

Posted: February 24, 2017 in Theatre

the-understudy

As we were reminded with the recent West End revival of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, there are many important contributors to theatre who take in the smell of the greasepaint but not the roar of the crowd. American writer Theresa Rebeck’s play celebrates those men and women who carry out the thankless task for which all theatregoers should be thankful, that of being an understudy. They wait in the wings night after night, hoping to step into the spotlight, knowing that, if it ever happens, they will have to face an audience disappointed that an adored star is off with flu.

Rebeck’s play shows us a hierarchical acting profession. At the top is Bruce (not seen), a Broadway and Hollywood star who has the leading role. On the second tier is Jake (Leonard Sillevis), a star of terrible action movies, who is second lead. Bottom of the pile comes Harry (Samuel John), a method actor who takes his art seriously and works as an understudy just to get Equity minimum pay. In the unlikely event of Bruce being off, Jake would step up to take the leading role and Harry would replace Jake.

Beleaguered stage manager Roxanne (Emma Taylor) takes charge of the understudies’ rehearsal in which the two actors’ differing perspectives on their profession puts them at odds. Jake never misses an opportunity to mention that the movie that Harry thinks dire had a $67million opening weekend and Harry makes no secret of the fact that he feels bitter. To make things worse, Jake and Roxanne have a thing going on, but Harry is the ex who jilted her almost at the altar. Coping with technical failures and actors who hide and eat the props, Roxanne leads a catastrophic run-through.

The play within the play is a Broadway production of a newly-found work by Franz Kafka, infused with jokes and a dance routine. Happily, it is easier to get laughs from Rebeck’s writing than from most of Kafka and her exercise in theatre introspection has wit and relevance. Roxanne’s plea that more of the 15 male characters in the play need to be played by women resonates particularly strongly. However the playwright occasionally loses her way and, although Russell Lucas’s in-the-round staging fizzes more often than it falls flat, there are times when the comedy needs to be sharper.

Slight and uneven, The Understudy wears thin over 90 minutes and ultimately underwhelms, but well judged tongue-in-cheek performances lift it and there is always considerable amusement in seeing theatre people mocking those that they know and love best.

Performance date: 23 February 2017

Photo: Simon Annand

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good dog***** (Watford Palace Theatre)

Posted: February 18, 2017 in Theatre

good-dog-anton-cross-watford-palace-theatre-photo-by-wasi-daniju-30This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

A 13-year-old boy looks out from the balcony of his tower block flat and surveys the community below him, making wry and cutting observations a little like the narrator in Under Milk Wood. He sees wrong doing, but vows that he will, himself, stay on the straight and narrow, hoping that his Mum will reward him with a bike at Christmas. Still he sighs “no one ever said being good is easy” and he is proven to be right.

good dog is theatre at its most simple and its most striking. The key contributors are Arinzé Kene, whose animated writing brings unseen characters to vivid life, and the lone actor, Anton Cross, who takes to the stage and owns it completely for well over two hours. Of course, it helps that director Natalie Ibu’s production is tuned to perfection, Amelia Jane Hankin’s set design is stark and uncluttered and Zoe Spurr’s lighting complements changes in tone with complete subtlety.

The boy is bullied at school by “Desmon” and “Massive Martin” and he belongs to an inner City community in which bullying prevails over compassion. A peaceful father and son are harassed by the “smoking” boys, a proud corner shopkeeper is tormented by the “what what” girls, a small dog cowers in fear of the big dog next door and even the bullies are themselves bullied. The boy’s coming of age sees his commitment to goodness challenged repeatedly as his community begins to disintegrate and descend into anarchy.

Cross, hilariously funny at times, then heroic and then heartbreakingly sad, is astonishing, maturing with his character every step of the way. He conveys Kene’s accounts of other characters so effectively that it becomes hard to believe that we have not actually seen them.

Kene balances humour and tragedy with enormous skill, but, when he unites his story with real-life events, his play bites like a Rottweiler. If the argument that the way forward may not always be the good way is morally ambiguous, the play’s central messages, advocating self-empowerment and positivity, are uplifting and encourage a vision of hope emerging from tragedy and despair.

Performance date: 17 February 2017

Photo: Wasi Daniju

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La Ronde*** (Bunker Theatre)

Posted: February 14, 2017 in Theatre

la-rondeThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play Reigen (or La Ronde) keeps reappearing in varying forms, itself like a car on a merry-go-round. David Hare and Peter Morgan are among the writers who have produced versions in recent years and here writer/director Max Gill comes up with yet another take on the classic.

The essence of Schnitzler remains intact with a series of lovers seen in pairs in ten scenes like a tag team. One character disappears at the end of each scene to be replaced by another for the next, with the first character returning at the end. The characters span professions and social classes, but they all have in common a need to make emotional connections which is confounded by an unerring capacity to make only carnal ones. Gill’s adaptation sets the play in modern London and, between scenes, he inserts recorded verbatim testimonies from the city’s residents. However, he does not overcome the key problem with the original piece – that the short scenes are little more than sketches which have no room for depth.

These unromantic couplings are a perfect antidote to the sentiments of St Valentine’s Day, as lust outranks all other human instincts time and again. Frankie Bradshaw’s set design is dominated by a large spinning wheel and a king-size bed that looks as if it has come from the window of The White Shop. The sheets soon become ruffled. The purpose of the wheel is to select randomly which of four actors – Leemore Marrett Jr, Lauren Samuels, Alexander Vlahos and Amanda Wilkin – will play the character new to each scene. We are told that there are more than 3,000 different possible realisations of the play in this production, so women tangle with men, men with men and women with women, just as the world is 120 years on from Schnitzler.

Gill directs with a light touch that ensures consistency whoever plays the roles, but, at this particular performance, a flaw in his concept was exposed. By around scene four, the audience began to realise the it would be possible for one of the four actors to sit on the bench throughout and so it proved (almost), with the loss of a quarter of the company robbing the performance of some impact. The four bring diverse characteristics to the production and it seemed a pity that the writer/director’s essential point, displaying the randomness of human encounters, became diluted.

Unwittingly or otherwise, the production also makes an interesting contribution to ongoing debates in theatre surrounding gender and type casting. Some scenes at this performance left little room for improvement, but others, although acted superbly, misfired and the question hovered as to whether more considered casting could have changed the dynamics of those scenes and improved them. At the end, the niggling thought persists that tomorrow, with different spins of the wheel, the entire show could be perfection. Tonight, probably in common with most other nights, it was a bit hit and miss.

Performance date: 13 February 2017

Photo: Ray Burmiston

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Killing Time*** (Park Theatre)

Posted: February 9, 2017 in Theatre

killingtime_940x420This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

“No husband, no family, no religion” Hester moans as she faces up to dying alone in her small flat. In contrast, the play in which she appears is very much a family affair, being a collaboration between writer and actor Zoe Mills and her mother, composer, cellist and actor Brigit Forsyth. With such a variety of talents, perhaps these ladies are entitled to show off a little.

Hester (Forsyth) is 69 and has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She had played the cello with some of the world’s great orchestras, but is now fearful that her obituaries will refer mainly to a youthful affair with a celebrated musician. In her own words, she has become “a cantankerous old tart”, waiting to take her final bows, but the performance cannot end soon enough for her. Never mind, bottles of the finest Rioja (many of them) provide constant comfort. Sara (Mills) is Hester’s social worker, an ambiguous young woman who could be either a saviour or an angel of death.

Forsyth has stockpiled audience affection during decades in television sitcoms and this asset is applied to good effect to give the very unloveable Hester some warmth. However, the first act of Antony Eden’s production is badly in need of an injection of life. Paul Colwell’s untidy sitting room set on a circular revolving stage has a cosy feel, but the play itself is cold and both the characters take time to become plausible. Strangely in the circumstances, the two performances are also slow to gel together, hampered by dialogue that is inconsequential when it could be sharper and more direct.

Things pick up considerably after the interval, when the writer gets fully to grips with the strain of black humour that is essential to making the play work. The thorny subject of euthanasia is skimmed over lightly as Hester argues for the right to choose to die, but confesses to being incapable of doing the deed on her own. Sara’s breezy optimism is brought out well in Mills’ performance as she encourages Hester to look for positives, but she needs to give the character more darkness to convey her sinister side convincingly.

The mournful sound of the cello (played live by Forsyth and on recordings) is the perfect match for the play’s themes and tone, bringing a mellow overall feel to the production. Extracts from Elgar, Brahms and Forsyth enrich the evening, the latter’s piece HeartTime having inspired the play. A cd included with the programme is a pleasing memento of an amusing little comedy that may not otherwise linger long in the mind.

Performance date: 8 February 2017

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School Play**** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: February 7, 2017 in Theatre

school-play-e1486454621687This review was originally written for The Review Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Hardly a day goes by without news of our failing public services hitting the headlines. The cumulative effects of spending cuts and successive governments playing Ping Pong with methods of operation have led to, for example, the education system being stretched to breaking point and Alex MacKeith’s topical new play is a report from the front line in the battle to cope.

In her office in a South London primary school, Head Teacher Jo (Ann Ogbomo) awaits her school’s SATs results nervously. She knows that success will bring rewards that will enhance her pupils’ educational opportunities and failure will threaten the school’s existence. Her assistant, the brisk and efficient Lara (Fola Evans-Akingbola), organises her schedule of meetings with staff, governors, Ofsted and disgruntled parents, while somewhere in there, she has to find time for the kids. It is little wonder that Jo’s private life is falling apart.

Anna Reid’s detailed set design is a place we all remember – plain, functional furniture, grey filing cabinets and walls splattered untidily with white boards, timetables and notices. At the beginning, the tone of Charlie Parham’s production resembles that of a fly-on-the-wall documentary, but then MacKeith makes a comedy out of a crisis with the arrival of Tom (Oliver Dench), a posh boy educated at Winchester and Oxford, who is working part-time at the school as a freelance tutor, before drifting into the legal profession. Dench milks the laughs skilfully as the bumbling Tom proves to be as inept at teaching as at wooing Lara.

For a time, the play seems unsettled and aimless, but, eventually, MacKeith homes in on his target and hits it with precision. Tom, at first a figure of fun, comes to represent all the well-meaning toffs who meddle in education without ever getting a grip on the consequences of their actions. His model could be the inspirational teacher in Dead Poets’ Society, but, when he develops methods by thinking outside the box, he forgets that this particular box has been sealed tight by the national curriculum and mandatory testing.

In the pivotal scene, Jo confronts Tom and the play now becomes a class act, made more so by Ogbomo’s memorable portrait of passion and dedication. Jo rails against a system that piles ever increasing pressures on her and her colleagues, while penalising society’s least privileged children. In the face of it all, her commitment is unflinching and it is reflected in the optimism of Lara, who is about to begin teacher training in spite of what she sees daily. After early meandering, eventually MacKeith’s play succeeds in both educating and entertaining us.

Performance date: 6 February 2017

Photo: Guy Bell

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Dirty Great Love Story Production Photos Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

Dirty Great Love Story Production Photos
Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

“All love stories are good, but the great ones are dirty” we are told as this bubbly 90-minute comedy nears its conclusion. “Dirty” means “messy” (or sometimes not), as we hear a tale of awkward coupling in the age of over-active smart phones and gentrified cities. The characters involved are called Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna, which just happens to be the names of the play’s writers.

The couple enters as if about to perform a comedy double act and, on a white rectangular platform with just two moveable chairs, Richard (Felix Scott) and Katie (Ayesha Antoine) tell us how they met when a stag party and a hen party collided. He is one of the lads, describing himself as “not good-looking in the classical sense”. She is flirtatious, eats gluten-free croissants and is prone to drinking too much. She has been dumped by her boyfriends, he is unlikely to have been in a relationship that reached such a stage. Each regards the other as “not my type” and a night together in a convenient Travel Lodge does little to change that. To anyone who has ever seen a romantic comedy, nothing that follows is even slightly unpredictable as they meet again at a mutual friend’s wedding (not four of them this time) and a christening, but the play’s strength grows out of it’s simplicity and Pia Furtado’s lively. no frills production is content to cash in on the story’s familiarity.

The writing is full of sharp observational comedy, with the added twist that it is in rhyming verse. The laughs are loudest when the rhymes are at their most forced,  Scott and Antoine showing the comic timing to milk them all. They make an endearing pair, self-effacing and innocent as they fumble their ways through the rough and tumble of modern romance. Yes, every situation described in the play is as old as Adam and Eve, but there is a charming freshness running through the writing and the performances that makes it all feel brand new.

Performance date: 25 January 2017

death-takes-a-holidayMaury Yeston’s musical Phantom of the Opera may have been eclipsed by another version, but it seems that a fondness for romantic melodramas remained in his system, re-emerging with this show which first appeared off-Broadway in 2011. Based upon La Morte in Vacanza, (a play by Alberto Camellia, filmed most recently as Meet Joe Black with Brad Pitt), it tells how Death, perhaps in need of a rest after the Great War, takes a weekend off to experience being human. The metaphysical takes on physical form and becomes very physical with the lovely Grazia, knowing that her life will have to end if she is to stay with him after the end of his holiday. Preposterous plots are a staple of all forms of musical theatre, but, even when disbelief is completely suspended, strands of logic to cling onto are helpful and, here, there are few. The notion that Grazia will escape with her handsome “prince” to die happily ever after is slightly troubling.

The book, by Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone, has few spoken sections, leaving Yeston’s music and lyrics to tell most of the story and opening again the question of where dividing lines are drawn between operas, operettas and musicals. Yeston’s pedigree (Grand HotelTitanicNine) could lead to expectations of a score influenced primarily by Broadway, but, in fact, there is much more of Puccini and Lehár than of, say, Gershwin or Sondheim. The composer is in London for this opening and the thought could have occurred to him that he will never hear his lush and melodic music sung better than it is here by a company that would not be out of place half a mile away on the stage at Covent Garden. Indeed, if they would fit in there, then why not the “musical” itself?

If  any director is going to give a helping hand to a show that could struggle to find an audience, it is Thom Southerland and he delivers a production that looks as ravishing as it sounds. Morgan Large’s set design of a classical villa beside a Northern Italian lake dominates throughout, perfectly lit in blue/grey (lighting designer Matt Daw) with mists arising from the water and Jonathan Lipman’s period (!922) costume designs are stunning. For the ears, Dean Austin’s 12-piece band does full justice to the music. It all looks and sounds absolutely beautiful, but the same can also be said of a perfume commercial and the key test is how the show connects emotionally with the audience.

Unlike much if his previous work in musical theatre, Southerland’s concept here could be described as grand opera on a reduced scale. Drama is often heightened to melodrama, particularly in the lead performances of Chris Peluso (Death) and Zoë Doano (Grazia), both of whom sing wonderfully. It is a big ask for them to keep the distance that the story necessitates while, at the same time, building a tempestuous relationship and, somehow, the romantic chemistry does not completely gel. The result of this, combined with a plot that never feels quite right, is a show that is not as moving as it sets out to be. That said, this is an admirable production and it brings to an end a three-show season of musicals at the Charing Cross Theatre that has been nothing short of a triumph. Fingers crossed that the team of producer Danielle Tarrento and Southerland will be back here soon.

Performance date: 24 January 2017