The Claim (Shoreditch Town Hall)

Posted: January 18, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Tim Cowbury      Director: Mark Maughan

⭐️⭐️

My review can currently be seen at: http://www.thereviewshub.com/the-claim-shoreditch-town-hall-london/ and will appear here from 21 January.

Performance date: 17 January 2017

Photo: Paul Samuel White

Writer: Anna Deveare Smith      Director: Ola Ince

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

My review can currently be seen at: http://www.thereviewshub.com/twilight-los-angeles-1992-gate-theatre-london/ and will appear here from 19 January.

Performance date: 15 January 2018

Tiny Dynamite (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Posted: January 13, 2018 in Theatre

Tiny Dynamite Production Photos
Time Productions
The Old Red Lion Theatre
Photo Credit: The Other Richard

Writer: Abi Morgan      Director: David Loumgair

⭐️⭐️⭐️

How are we supposed to deal with the randomness of fate in a world where one person can survive being struck by lightning and another can be killed by a flying sandwich? Abi Morgan’s Tiny Dynamite asks this question through two troubled characters. She wrote the play in 2001 and she has since progressed to greater things.

Six-year-old “Runt Boy” is the victim of the lightning strike. He grows up to become Anthony (Niall Bishop), a sufferer from an unspecified mental illness who is taken on holiday annually by career woman Luce (Eva-Jane Willis), a risk assessor. The nature of their attachment takes time to become clear, but they share secrets. They arrive at their remote residence in the United States and are later joined by Madeleine (Tanya Fear), a sandwich delivery lady who could be physically attracted to Anthony or possibly to Luce.

There can be no questioning the quality of Morgan’s writing which, alone, makes the play worth seeing. However, the problem comes with the slow reveal structure which does not allow us to engage fully with the characters until their secrets become known. In the early stages, the play compensates with suspense, but it tries too hard to be mysterious, introducing, for example, a plague of insects and (literally) things that go bump in the night to suggest the supernatural.

Morgan seems so determined that the play should be enigmatic that she leaves herself little room to flesh out the characters. Bishop’s Anthony is nervy and volatile, contrasting with Willis’ steady and controlled Luce, but, beyond that, the writer leaves it until very late to give us any insights into their emotional lives. If we do not know who these two people are, it is very difficult to care for them and a play that should be partly about suppressed passion is left feeling very cold.

There is still much to admire, including Anna Reid’s set design, which makes ingenious use of the confined space. Her raised stage, surrounded by a moat, incorporates a water-filled pool and underfloor compartments to store props. Zoe Spurr’s murky lighting design gives a sinister air, while sudden flashes and creepy sound effects add to tension.

David Loumgair’s tight production generally flows smoothly, accepting that there may be little that he can do to prevent the play stalling on three separate occasions when the characters need to undress for swimming. However, presumably, he has to shoulder the responsibility for the biggest blow to his production’s momentum – the insertion of a seemingly unnecessary interval that extends the running time to around two hours.

This revival of Tiny Dynamite is intriguing, but never completely satisfying. The play’s title promises explosive drama, but, frustratingly, no one remembers to light the touch paper.

Performance date: 12 January 2016

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

East (King’s Head Theatre)

Posted: January 12, 2018 in Theatre

(c) Alex Brenner (info@alexbrenner.co.uk)

Writer: Steven Berkoff      Director: Jessica Lazar

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Returning to the King’s Head where it made its debut in 1975, East, Steven Berkoff’s angry and unsentimental homage to London’s East End, has lost none of its potency. Now, as then, there is a sense that the theatre’s location, in North London bordering on the East, provides the writer with a metaphor for where he wants to place his audience – as outsiders looking closely in.

The passing of more than four decades gives the play an ironic addendum. A working class community that has adjusted to several waves of immigration, lived with organised crime and survived de-industrialisation finally faces extinction at the hands of creeping gentrification. Maybe the writer would lament many aspects of this, but nothing in his play suggests that he would not be happy to see outdated traditions wiped out.

By the 1970s, the local Palais had already been turned into a bowling alley and then into a supermarket, but Berkoff rarely touches upon Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be nostalgia. Instead, his savage and ferociously funny play sets out to expose and ridicule ugly features that he sees as endemic to the East End – violence, petty criminality, misogyny and racism.

Both poetic and abrasive, Berkoff’s writing is pitched at a point where Shakespearean English meets Cockney Rhyming Slang. Indeed some scenes here could well allude to Henry IV Pt1, itself set partly on the fringes of the East End. However, the character of “Dad” (Russell Barnett) is much more Alf Garnett than Falstaff. A television addict who evades paying his licence fee, he rants right wing mantras and recalls fondly the marches of Oswald Mosly’s Fascist Black Shirts. He is the only one of the play’s five characters that does not question the role in which life has cast him.

His wife (Debra Penny) slouches in a dressing gown, utterly defeated by a male dominated society. The couple’s only son, Mike (James Craze) mouths expletives as if by habit or expectation and resorts instinctively to violence when his girl is wooed by the upstart Les (James Condon); but, in a rare sign of atonement in the play, the lads ask “what’s the point?”, make up and become friends. “If you were the only girl in the world….” they sing to Sylv, played by Boadicea Ricketts as both slutty and vulnerable. She completes a quintet of outstanding performances.

Jessica Lazar’s raucous, animated production hardly gives itself time to breathe. Playing an upright “Joanna”, Carol Arnopp contributes a mix of music hall songs and contemporary tunes, serving as a backing track for most of a production in which music is integral. In mimed sequences, such as a hilarious family outing to Southend, the piano generates the feel of a silent movie; and, on a blissful escape to the M1 on a motorbike, Mike and Les begin as Hell’s Angels and morph into Flanagan and Allen singing Underneath the Arches, the modern and the traditional blending together seamlessly.

The content and the style of East could well have jolted audiences in 1975, perhaps not so much now. If Berkoff’s works still remain something of an acquired taste, this is a revival that should encourage many more to acquire it,

Performance date: 11 January 2018

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

Writer: George Bernard Shaw      Director: Paul Miller 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Kicking off 2018 with a 109-year-old play, it is a great feeling to be one of the younger members of an audience again. During Paul Miller’s tenure here, the Orange Tree has embraced cutting edge theatre with considerable success, perhaps causing raised eyebrows among traditional supporters; however, the revival of a classic drawing room comedy such as this is sure to encourage a dusting off of Richmond’s zimmer frames and, as theatre must be for all, there’s nothing wrong with that!

The misalliance in question is between the hard-up aristocratic family headed by Lord Summerhays (Simon Shepherd) and the wealthy middle-class shop owners, the Tarletons, presided over by blustering patriarch (splendid Pip Donaghy) and fussing matriarch (delightful Gabrielle Lloyd, resembling a reincarnated Katie Johnson). Their traditionalist son Johnny (Tom Hanson) fiercely opposes the impending marriage of their independent minded daughter Hypatia (Marli Siu) to Summerhays’ son Bentley (played by Rhys Isaac-Jones as so camp that he would have been risking jail every day in the Edwardian era). For much of the first act, characters talk too much and complain about others talking too much, but this is George Bernard Shaw and too much talking is inevitable. When a two-seater plane crash lands on the Tarleton’s lawn, the play gains wings.

The pilot is penniless toff Joey (Luke Thallon) and his passenger is exotic Polish acrobat Lina Szczepanowska (Lara Rossi). They ruffle feathers, but another intruder, a gun-wielding Marxist (terrifically angry Jordan Mifsúd) makes them fly. What had been a witty but wordy piece now becomes weird and wacky. Shaw’s left wing social and political views all get a full airing, but they are never allowed to weigh down the comedy. Miller’s successful revival of Terence Rattigan’s French Without Tears, here in 2015, showed that the way to energise dated comedy is to cast promising young actors and give them free rein to let rip. He uses the same formula here, with seven of the cast of ten being relative newcomers and the result is sparkling screwball hilarity that should appeal to all ages, including those even younger than myself.

Performance date: 2 January 2018

2017 Theatre Round-up

Posted: December 30, 2017 in Theatre, Uncategorized

2017 has been a vintage year for new plays and spectacular revivals in London. Jez Butterworth delivered a possible masterpiece and James Graham turned prolific with three plays in the West End and another on the way. New musicals were thinner on the ground until very late in the year. The Almeida in Islington continued to showcase challenging work of the highest standard and the National Theatre’s phenomenal run of hit after hit was marred by just two turkeys.

In listing personal favourites, I have considered only shows that opened in 2017 which I saw in 2017. The three most notable omissions are Everybody’s Talking About JamieNetwork and Hamilton, all of which I shall be seeing early in the New Year, so roll on 2018!

FAVOURITE PRODUCTIONS

1. The Ferryman (Royal Court/Gielgud) No exaggeration, Jez Butterworth’s heady cocktail of tragedy, comedy, suspense and romance looks like the early front runner for play of the century.

2. Follies (National Theatre, Olivier) Sondheim on the grandest scale. We may never see its like again.

3. Angels in America (National Theatre, Lyttelton) Drama on the grandest scale (almost 8 hours of it) and unforgettable.

4. Ink (Almeida/Duke of York’s) Topping an incredible year for James Graham, this sets the bar for  fact based theatre at a new high.

5. Hamlet (Almeida/Harold Pinter) Robert Icke’s modern day Hamlet, with Andrew Scott in the title role, is at least as good as any I’ve seen and I’ve seen (far too) many.

6. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (Wyndham’s) Devastating vision of a star burning herself out.

7. Mosquitos (National Theatre, Dorfman) The Olivias Coleman and Williams prove the Big Bang theory as sisters both bound together and torn apart.

8. On the Town (Regents Park Open Air Theatre) Leonard Bernstein’s music, spctacular choreography and a balmy Summer evening. Who could ask for anything more?

9. Oslo (National Theatre, Lyttelton/Harold Pinter) It takes a great play to show the world how negotiations between nations should be handled.

10. Albion (Almeida) Muddled metaphors, but thoroughly engrossing drama.

 

FAVOURITE PERFORMANCES

Male in a play – Andrew Garfield (Angels in America)

Female in a play – Sara Kestelman (Filthy Business at Hampstead Theatre)

Ensemble in a play – The Ferryman

Male in a musical – Let’s leave this one for either Hamilton or Jamie to claim

Female in a musical – Audra Macdonald (Lady Day…)

Ensemble in a musical: – Follies

 

OTHER FAVOURITES

New play: The Ferryman

New musical: Romantics Anonymous (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Director (play): Sam Mendes (The Ferryman)

Director (musical): Emma Rice (Romantics Anonymous)

 

LEAST FAVOURITES

Obviously I have been selecting shows to see more carefully this year, coming up with a very short list of only three stinkers:

1.  Salomé (National Theatre, Olivier) Overblown and underwritten load of Biblical tosh. Audiences may well have felt entitled to ask for writer/director Yaël Farber’s head on a plate.

2.  Common (National Theatre, Olivier) The great mystery is how anyone could have thought it worthwhile to spread this huge pile of early 19th Century farmyard manure all over the Olivier stage.

3.  The Secret diary of Adrian Mole… (Menier Chocolate Factory) I acknowledge freely that not everyone loathed this as much as I did. Nonetheless, after a disappointing year (apart from Love in Idleness), I am starting to worry that the delightful Menier’s crown is slipping.

August to December 2017 Quick Catch-up

Posted: December 30, 2017 in Theatre

I’ve been rather busy travelling and doing things other than writing about theatre this year, but still not too busy to see lots of shows. So here is a catch-up of some of those that I saw in the August-December period but did not get round to reviewing in full:

 

The Twilight Zone (Almeida Theatre)

Adaptor: Anne Washburn      Director: Richard Jones

⭐️⭐️

When Mr Burns, Anne Washburn’s post-apocalyptic reflection on The Simpsons, appeared at the Almeida in 2014, it divided opinions sharply and I’m afraid that I fell on the side of the nays. History could be repeating itself with this collction of creepy tales adapted by the same writer from the cult television series which reflected the paranoias of 1950s America. This slick production has its moments, but the creative team often seems to forget that, for this sort of stuff to succeed,  it has to be taken seriously and intercutting of the tales works against involving us and thereby spooking us. This leaves a show that is only intermitently engaging and too much a pallid parody of the paranormal.

Peformance date: 20 December 2017

 

Belleville (Donmar Warehouse)

Writer: Amy Herzog      Director: Michael Longhurst

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Amy Herzog’s 2013 play digs beneath the surface of the superficial lives of a seemingly successful 30-ish modern American married couple living in Paris. The play begins as a rather tiresome and unfunny romcom, but the writer, director and two stars, James Norton and Imogen Poots show great skill in guiding us, almost imperceptibly, to much darker places.

Performance date: 15 December 2017

 

 

 

Cell Mates (Hampstead Theatre)

Writer: Simon Gray      Director: Edward Hall

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Simon Gray’s 1995 play gained unwanted fame for the sudden departure from the original West End production of one of its stars, Stephen Fry. It is based upon the true story of the 1966 escape from Wormwood Scrubs of convicted spy George Blake, aided by fellow inmate, Dubliner Sean Bourke. Alan Bennett’s plays telling similar stories have examined the nature of treachery and of being English, but Gray is content to give us an “Odd Couple” style bitter-sweet comedy, the cell of the title being a Moscow flat. The ever reliable Geoffrey Streatfeild is engagingly enigmatic as Blake, Irish actor Emmet Byrne does an eye-catching turn as Bourke and the high production values associated with Hampstead make this an entertaining, if undemanding treat.

Performance date: 13 December 2017

 

Barnum (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Book: Mark Bramble      Music: Cy Coleman      Lyrics: Michael Stewart      Directo: Gordon Greenberg

⭐️⭐️

I’ve seen Barnum twice before (in New York with Jim Dale in the lead and at the London Palladium with Michael Crawford) and I really can’t think why I chose to see it again. It is a show that is all about the trimmings – colour, circus acts, dancing – which help us to overlook the thinnest of books and what is possibly the blandest collection of songs ever to emerge from Broadway. A charismatic performer in the eponymous role also helps to mask the show’s shortcomings. The little Menier is turned into a big top and, unsurprisingly, the trimmings here are top class. However, Marcus Brigstocke, an amiable chap, offers us a PT Barnum – canny showman, impresario and politician – who wanders around, grinning broadly, like a little boy lost. But then Brigstocke himself seems exactly that heading up a musical. Failing to walk a tightrope (three times at this performance) is, on its own, forgivable, but it contributes to an overall impression of incompetence, suggesting that this could be the worst miscasting of 2017.

Performance date: 8 December 2017

Photo: Nobby Clark

 

Barber Shop Chronicles (National Theatre, Dorfman)

Writer: Inua Ellams      Director: Bijan Sheibani

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It was good to catch one of the National’s biggest recent hits which I missed first time round a few months ago. Linking London with cities across Africa through vignettes with the common setting of a barber’s shop, the production has freshness and life-affirming energy, leaving behind the message that there is more that unites communities than divides them.

Performance date: 29 November 2017

 

Big Fish (The Other Palace)

Book: John August      Music and lyrics: Andrew Lippa      Director: Nigel Harman

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Some people will pass this off as sentimental tosh and maybe they will be right. However, quite a few others can take watching It’s a Wonderful Life over and over and this show is for us. Kelsey Grammar is a commanding presence as the dying dad, a big fish only in his small town America pond,  who believes that little people can achieve big things and that dreams and reality can merge into one. As his younger self, Jamie Muscato is superb as are Clare Burt as his wife and Matthew Seadon-Young as his disbelieving son. It is also good to see that songwriter Andrew Lippa is, this year, starting to get the recognition that he deserves in his country of birth.  A small musical and not to everyone’s taste, but it gave me a warm feeling that lingered long after Frasier had left the building.

Performance date: 11 November 2017

 

The Retreat (Park Theatre)

Writer: Sam Bain      Director: Kathy Burke

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Think Only Fools and Horses. Think Rodney escaping to a simple life in a remote retreat run by some obscure sect. Think Del turning up to lure him back to the big smoke. Think all those things and you have pretty well got the flavour of this amiable light comedy – three half-hour sitcom episodes strung together and getting a bit stretched. Of course director Kathy Burke knows a bit about sitcoms and she gets very funny performances from Adam Deacon (as the Del figure) and Samuel Anderson as his gullible younger brother.

Performance date: 9 November 2017

 

Young Marx (Bridge Theatre)

Writers: Richard Bean and Clive Coleman      Director: Nicholas Hytner

⭐️⭐️⭐️

A big welcome to London’s newest theatre – great ambience, comfortable seats, excellent sight lines, fit for purpose facilities – what more can we ask? A great show perhaps? This opening production, which turns the chaotic early life of Karl Marx into a rip-roaring farce, is more hit than miss and Rory Kinnear, Oliver Chris and Nancy Carroll all have great fun with it. However, the play is never quite as funny as the name of Richard Bean (1M2G) may lead us to expect and it becomes more effective when it gets serious in the last quarter. A nice appetiser for, hopefully, meatier dishes to follow here.

Performance date: 8 November 2017

 

Trestle (Southwark Playhouse)

Writer: Stewart Pringle      Director: Cathal Cleary

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It is good to be reminded that people of my own generation do not have to be portrayed as infirm, dying or suffering from dementia. Stewart Pringle’s two-hander, winner of this year’s Papatango award, is warm and perceptive, chronicling weekly encounters between Harry and Denise in a northern village hall; as his meeting ends, hers is about to begin. The play is low-key and humorous, borrowing some of the flavour of Last of the Summer Wine. The suggestion made in some quarters that Trestle would be better suited to radio may be a compliment to the quality of the dialogue, but it is piffle, mainly because it undervalues the excellent contributions of the two actors, Gary Lilburn and Connie Walker.

Performance date: 3 November 2017

 

Slaves of Solitude (Hampstead Theatre)

Writer: Nicholas Wright      Director: Jonathan Kent

⭐️⭐️⭐️

At first sight, the set, a dining room in a Surrey boarding house during World War II, suggests an impending performance of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables and suggestions of Rattigan do not end there. However, this is an adaptation of a little known novel by Patrick Hamilton about an independent woman finding her way though the war years and emerging stronger. Fenella Woolgar is superb.

Performance date: 31 October 2017

 

The Lady from the Sea (Donmar Warehouse)

Writer: Henrik Ibsen (new version by Elinor Cook)      Director: Kwame Kwei-Armah

⭐️⭐️⭐️

It is a long way from the freezing temperatures of Norway to the scorching heat of the Caribbean. but director Kwame Kwei-Armah takes Ibsen’s play on exactly that journey. Familiar Ibsen themes of female suppression and struggles for freedom survive intact and, accepting that this is not the cream of the playwright’s crop, it all works rather well.

Performance date: 23 October 2017

 

Albion (Almeida Theatre) 

Writer: Mike Bartlett      Director: Rupert Gould

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️💫 

Mike Bartlett re-imagines Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in an English Country Garden and, although the countless state of the nation metaphors get more than a little muddled, the drama at the play’s heart sizzles. Victoria Hamilton leads a superb cast.

Performance date: 19 October 2017

 

The Lie (Menier Chocolate Factory) 

Writer: Florian Zeller     Translator: Christopher Hampton      Director: Lindsay Posner

⭐️⭐️

The Zeller/Hampton team certainly like squeezing blood out of a stone. Their The Truth was a success here last year, a snappy, diverting piece on marital infidelity. So here we go again with what is as near as makes no difference the same play, but what was amusing first time round is now just tiresome. The likes of Samantha Bond and Alexander Hanson can perform this sort of stuff expertly with their eyes closed, but does anyone really care?

Performance date: 13 October 2017

 

Knives in Hens (Donmar Warehouse) 

Writer: David Harrower      Director: Yaël Farber

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Yaël Farber redeems herself at least partially after the debacle of Salomé at the National with this intriguing little play constructed around themes of literacy and female liberation. The writer lays on the symbolism much too thickly, but the play benefits from being enigmatic and it is short enough for us not to tire of it.

Performance date: 6 October 2017

 

Prism (Hampstead Theatre)

Writer and director: Terry Johnson

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

A melancholic look back at the life and career of legendary cinematographer and film director Jack Cardiff, as seen through the prism of dementia in his twilight years. The play is full of warm, gentle humour. The central role fits Robert Lindsay like a glove and Claire Skinner does a mean Katherine Hepburn, doubling as Cardiff’s wife.

Performance date: 4 October 2017

 

Aladdin (Prince Edward Theatre)

Music: Alan Menken      Lyrics: Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin      Book: Chad Beguelin      Director/Choreographer: Casey Nicholaw

🌟🌟🌟

I have never been a great advocate of the “Disneyfication” of musical theatre and this adaptation of the 1992 animated feature does little to change my mind. It is slick, colourful and spectacular, ready to be franchised in near-identical productions all over the world. Having transferred from Broadway, the West End production is now a year into its run and Trevor Dion Nicholas is a brilliant Genie. Otherwise, the songs are only so-so, the show as a whole is completely soulless and, worst of all, Widow Twanky is nowhere to be seen.

Performance date: 29 September 2017

 

What Shadows (Park Theatre)

Writer: Chris Hannan      Director: Roxana Silbert

🌟🌟🌟🌟

Chris Hannan’s play is a powerful reflection on the life of controversial politician Enoch Powell, centring particularly on the infamous 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech. To its credit, the play neither glorifies nor vilifies its central figure, balancing his right to speak freely against an assessment of the hurt inflicted by him. A mesmerising performance by Ian McDiarmid captures the essence of the politician perfectly, showing him to have been a flawed human being who was simply out of step with the times in which he lived.

Performance date: 28 September 2017

 

Wings (Young Vic)

Writer: Arthur Kopit      Director: Natalie Abrahami

⭐️⭐️

On her last appearance at the Young Vic, Juliet Stevenson was buried up to her neck in sand. Now she flies through the air. Arthur Kopit’s play about an aviation pioneer coming to terms with the effects of a stroke was written for radio and the director’s attempt to give it a visual dimension has the central character on wires hovering above the stage for almost the entire performance. Stevenson shows remarkable agility, prepared to suffer for her art, but, for much of the time, the play itself also goes over our heads.

Performance date: 26 September 2017

 

 

Follies (National Theatre, Olivier)

Book: James Goldman      Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim      Director: Dominic Cooke

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

When Follies was semi-staged at the Royal Albert Hall a couple of years back, it seemed to serve as confirmation that the economic realities of modern theatre make a full-scale revival almost impossible. Surely only the National could find the resources and, with a company of almost forty and a 20-plus piece orchestra, here it is – a dream come true in every sense. Dominic Cooke’s revival does not resolve all issues with James Goldman’s flawed book, just most of them and he reconciles the melancholic themes with Stephen Sondheim’s matchless music and lyrics. There are times when each note seems to shed a tear or skip with joy. Among the ageing ladies returning to the home of their former glories in the golden era of Broadway and facing up to their younger selves and their lost opportunities, Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee and Tracie Bennett stand out, but Follies is essentially an ensemble piece. We should savour this immaculate production, because, like the follies themselves, we may never see its like again.

Performance date: 23 September 2017

 

Oslo (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Writer: JT Rogers      Director: Bartlett Sher

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

Sitting in on Israeli/Palestinian peace talks has never featured highly on my bucket list, but JT Rogers’ drama, this year’s Tony Award winner for Best New Play, somehow makes the idea palatable. The key comes from the writer realising that the outcome of any negotiations depends less on the issues being discussed than on the human beings involved. Accordingly, his account of secret discussions held in Oslo in the early 1990s is filled with characters that are richly drawn and superbly played by a fine company. The play is lifted by unexpected humour, so that even the details of the positions held by the two seemingly irreconcilable sides become riveting.  The resulting peace accord may have been short lived, but the message that talks held away from the glare of the media spotlight and without high public expectations can succeed lives on. Can anyone think of any modern day negotiators that could learn from this?

Performance date: 20 September 2017

 

Against (Almeida Theatre)

Writer: Christopher Shinn       Director: Ian Rickson

⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Almeida did not achieve its phenomenal recent run of successes without being prepared to take risks, so perhaps it is inevitable that there will be the occasional near miss. However, such is the good will held in store for the Islington powerhouse that lapses can be quickly forgiven and, really, this one is not all that bad. Ben Wishaw has  the magnetic presence needed to play a modern day Messiah, a computer billionaire with a mission to oppose violence all over the world. Christopher Shinn’s play is packed with interesting ideas, but, sadly, they do not quite connect together.

Performance date: 29 August 2017

 

Apologia (Trafalgar Studios)

Writer: Alexi Kaye Campbell      Director: Jamie Lloyd

⭐️⭐️⭐️

I admired Alexi Kaye Campbell’s early plays, but, following Sunset at the Villa Thalia at the National last year, this is the second to have disappointed me. Stockard Channing plays an acid-tongued American-born matriarch who has, seemingly, spent too much time pursuing her career as a writer and too little time caring for the needs of her two, now adult, sons. As a straightforward account of family dysfunction, the play is entertaining enough, working best in comedy scenes. The problem is that the writer teases us with the prospect of a much deeper and more interesting exploration of cross generational issues and he never fully delivers.

Performance date: 17 August 2017

 

Girl From the North Country (Old Vic)

Writer and director: Conor McPherson      Music and lyrics: Bob Dylan

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Conor McPherson’s play about human hardship during America’s depression era feels like the perfect match for Bob Dylan’s sorrowful songs and this beautifully performed show should have had me knocking on Heaven’s door. Unfortunately, I failed to connect with it to the extent that I wanted and expected and, for that, I can can only blame the Old Vic. Uncomfortable, cramped seats, appalling sight lines and a traditional configuration that distances the audience from the stage all take their toll. Under, the previous Artistic Directorship, an in-the-round configuration was introduced and it yielded what was possibly one of the most successful periods in the theatre’s history. I urge the current regime to consider changes.

Performance date: 16 August 2017

 

Yerma (Young Vic)

Writer and director: Simon Stone (from Federico Garcia Lorca)

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This feels a bit like catching a great film on DVD after missing it in cinemas. Yerma sold out at the Young Vic in 2016 and it returns in a blaze of glory. Simon Stone brings Lorca’s drama of a woman driven to insanity by childlessness bang up to date and Billie Piper tears into the lead role with one of the greatest performances seen in recent years, fully deserving of all the accolades and awards.

Performance date: 4 August 2017

 

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13.75 (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Book and lyrics: Jake Brunger      Music and lyrics: Pippa Cleary      Director: Luke Sheppard

⭐️

Oh how I hated this! It is possible (albeit unlikely) that I would have been amused by Sue Townsend’s creations 45 or so years ago, but this musical adaptation prompts neither mirth nor feelings of nostalgia. Her clichéd view of British working class family life in the early 70s now feels sneering, patronising and offensive. The tone is set to appeal to a young audience, but it is hard to imagine that today’s teenagers would find much to relate to in a world where Facebook was still a distant dream and schoolteachers wielded canes. Songs inspired by the music of the 70s could have helped to justify this adaptation, but all we are offered is the brand of bland, forgettable pop that seems to exist exclusively in the very worst of British musicals. Of those involved, only the kids in the cast can escape blame. Horrible!

Performance date: 1 August 2017