Archive for May, 2013

John Van Druten’s play, here given a splendid revival, looks at a group of women working in the London offices of a law firm in the early 1930s. They are paid a pittance, have zero prospects for advancement and are viewed as ready prey for lecherous bosses. Inevitably the production invites us to consider how things have changed and what, if any, fragments of these attitudes and practices continue today. However, it is not an overtly political or campaigning play, it is simply showing us how it was in the era when it was written and entertaining us at the same time. A strong ensemble cast and smart staging deliver an absorbing ┬ádrama, laced with bright comedy and touching romance. The audience, at least half of them women, were thoroughly entertained and left with smiles on their faces.

photo-110Centring on an American photographer who was present at the Tainanmen Square massacre of 1989, this play charts how China and America have developed from then to the present day and examines the relationship between the two countries. Lucy Kirkwood’s writing is uneven, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, and, at just over three hours, it badly needs pruning. At times the dialogue is sharp and witty, at other times it is bland and awkward. When focussing on the main theme, which illustrates the power and shortcomings of photo-journalism, the play is absorbing, but too many irrelevant narrative strands lessen the overall impact. Notwithstanding these failings, it is still an interesting piece and the production is raised to a higher level by simply superb staging.

Graham Greene’s story of Henry Pulling, a timid, retired banker and his adventures around Europe and South America pursuing his outrageous Aunt Augusta is adapted here with the twist that three actors (Jonathan Hyde, David Bamber and Iain Mitchell) alternate playing Pulling and also play most of the other parts, including the women. They are assisted by Gregory Gudgeon. At first, this is great fun, but, as the story becomes ever more far-fetched, the novelty wears very thin and the production cries out for Maggie Smith to walk on as Augusta (she is now near the right age, having been 40 years too young when she played the part in the disappointing film version). It is set in the 1950’s but has the feel of being much earlier, exhibiting all the values of traditional Englishness. Not outstanding, but, for the most part, pleasant, nostalgic entertainment.

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Set in the near future, the full title of this play is Nothing is the End of the World (Except for the End of the World). A New York High School is preparing for the admission of two new students. Both are androids who have been set the mission to integrate fully with the other students and watching the events unfold is an ever-present reality television crew. This sparkling new comedy is specifically futuristic, but the central theme – merging people who are judged to be different into established social groups – is timeless. Whilst the novelty of the scenario gives rise to much amusement, the play’s great strength is that it presents situations that are current and universally recognisable. The androids’ attempts to get to grips with teenage language and culture result in many hilarious moments, as one faux pas follows another, but the laughs are as much at the expense of the “normal” kids’ behaviour as at the awkwardness of the newcomers. The androids watch in curious bewilderment as their angst-ridden schoolmates display a typical range of the problems that affect youngsters everywhere, at any time. Adding the absurdities of reality television to the mix, the writer has gifted herself with a goldmine of targets for satire, perhaps too many to achieve a 100% hit rate, but she succeeds with several bulls eyes. Playing the androids, Dan Crow and Lisa Caruccio Came are outstanding, sporting vacant smiles that mask inner uncertainties and displaying robotic coldness that gradually gives way to emerging human emotions. The “normal” kids are also brought convincingly to life: Skye Lourie as the student body president confused by her boyfriend’s indifference to her; Christopher Webster as a star at sports who is coming to terms with his sexuality; Sheena May as a daughter of fervent Christians, struggling to reconcile her parents’ beliefs with her own role in the modern world; Natalie Kent as a free spirit, embarrassed to have contracted a sexually transmitted infection; Robin Couch as an aspiring actor, always over-playing to the cameras; and Amanda Hootman as a shy girl empathising with the androids’ desire to integrate into the group. Bekah Bunstetter is a Playwright in Residence at the Finborough and this play, which was originally commissioned by the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan, is here receiving its first fully-staged professional production. It has a vibrant energy, for which credit must go to the young cast and the Director, who is assisted by a Movement Director, Lucy Cullingford. Angus Macrae’s lively music also helps to create a futuristic, yet lightly comic atmosphere. Managing to be relevant, truly original and highly enjoyable, this production marks another feather in the cap of the Finborough, for bringing new work to the stage. Far from being the end of anything, it looks like marking the start of a number of promising careers in the theatre.

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Moira Buffini’s very black comedy takes place in the 50th floor flat occupied by the architect of the block, now blind and dying, his son and two daughters; only one of the four ever ventures outside and the action begins when she brings back a doctor whom she has met at the foot of the building. Slightly surreal and embracing elements of mysticism, the play begins promisingly as a sharp and perceptive satire on modern urban lifestyles. Sadly, it gradually loses focus and purpose, as the underlying messages become muddled, and eventually it stumbles to a conclusion that is contrived and unconvincing. The five strong cast in this cramped production all do well, creating an edgy and unpredictable feel that holds the interest even when the text is failing to do so. They deserve applause; the only thing wrong with the evening is the play.

Set in rural Russia, Maxim Gorky’s 1905 play features a privileged middle class set, preoccupied with their own relationships and oblivious to the swelling revolutionary forces at their door. This is Chekhov, more direct and , therefore, less subtle, yet more welcome because it is not so familiar. However, some aspects of the translation are jarring, particularly the inclusion of very modern expressions, and the direction is uneven, moving uncertainly between comedy and tragedy. The set is lavish for a production that is otherwise too small for the Lyttelton’s huge stage and the climax is quite literally explosive.

After 40+ years in London, a first venture inside the Hippodrome. Peter Stringfellow is long gone and the place is now a miniature Las Vegas style casino with a cabaret lounge and, arguably, the best men’s room in town. Velma Celli is the alter ego of musical theatre performer Ian Stroughair, who, decked in a flowing red wig, conjured up images of John Malkovich playing the lead in a live action re-make of “The Fantastic Mr Fox”. The first half consisted of a fairly predictable choice of numbers – four by Kander & Ebb, two associated with Shirley Bassey – performed with appropriate pzazz. The second half was mostly contemporary pop and Ms Celli gave way more often to other performers who were, to be quite frank, a lot better. Pretty average overall, but average entertainment becomes a lot more palatable when sipping cocktails, so who’s complaining? A fun evening.

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Will Adamsdale came to prominence when he won the Perrier Award for Comedy at the 2004 Edinburgh Festival, but instead of following many of his contemporaries into arena tours, he has chosen the much braver option of exploring the potential for his brand of comedy in fringe theatre. The downtrodden little man, who is perplexed by the trappings of modern life to the point of near defeat, is a familiar persona for stand up comics, giving them a rich vein of targets to which audiences can easily relate. Here, Adamsdale places that persona into an amiable character called Guy, played by himself, who lives in a flat in a converted Victorian property, located in a soon-to-be-trendy gentrified part of old working class London. He is a struggling writer, suffering from writer’s block, and a serial procrastinator. Giving him one last chance to prove himself in a failing relationship, his girlfriend leaves him alone to supervise a knock-through from living room to kitchen and the creation of the dream of all aspirant couples – a breakfast bar. In the early stages, with Adamsdale taking centre stage as narrator/Guy and gags arriving on cue every 20 seconds or so, the script has the rhythm and feel of a stand-up routine and it is unclear why it is not being presented as such. However, as this type of observational comedy is well-worn and many of the jokes are no more than mildly amusing, the stimulus provided by expanding the format to introduce new characters is very welcome. Each of them brings an extra source of comedy that complements Adamsdale well, also providing texture and depth to the material. A few songs, strong on humour but weak on melody, add to the jollity. Events take a surreal turn when the knock-through reveals a Victorian named Elms (Matthew Steer) living inside the wall. As they introduce each other to their respective lifestyles Elms turns out to share many of Guy’s characteristics. He becomes transfixed by texting and daytime television, whilst Guy learns of the delights of collecting cigarette cards and attending music halls. This situation provides the opportunity for culture clash jokes, typical of time travel tales, but none of them particularly novel in nature. Although fantasy elements are included, this is never an absurdist comedy in the truest sense, because the humour is always rooted firmly in everyday reality. Other characters include a builder with a passion for ballet (Chris Branch), a Nigerian “orphan” (Jason Barnett) and a music hall performer (Melanie Wilson). The four supporting cast members all play several roles and they all worked with Adamsdale and co-director Lindsey Turner in devising the show, which is a collaboration between the Royal Court and Fuel. It is performed on an unfurnished set with the rooms marked out as a floor plan and, oddly, a backdrop of cardboard boxes and plastic bins that looks like a stockroom at Poundstretcher. Ultimately, it matters little that this show is styled more as an expanded comedy routine than a play, so long as it is funny, which, for the most part, it turns out to be. It is also intelligent and warm-hearted and the affability, exuberance and comic timing of all the performers make it highly entertaining.

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This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

On 6 December 1989, Marc Lepine walked into a Montreal University, killed 14 women and then killed himself. This 90-minute monologue from Chewed Up Theatre attempts to get inside the mind of a mass murderer and explain what might seem to be inexplicable. The audience is seated men on one side, women on the other; this may start as a minor inconvenience to some, but its purpose becomes clear as the drama reaches its climax. The son of an Algerian Moslem father, who leaves the family during his childhood, and a devoutly Catholic French Canadian mother, Lepine is 5’6″ tall, slightly built and plagued by acne. His life is a series of rejections – by the Canadian Army, by academic institutions, by employers and by women; he blames the Government, authorities and feminists. Finally he is accepted for something – to be the holder of a gun licence. As the story begins to unfold, the initial fear is that Lepine will be depicted as nothing more than a self-pitying loner out to take random revenge on the world. However the writer, Adam Kelly Morton never resorts to simplistic explanations and we see a complex character emerge, one who attributes the blame for each of his rejections carefully and even rationally; he sees “the system” as being at fault and overlooks his own inabilities to conform with it. His warped philosophy is influenced by the two religions of his parents, although he adheres to neither, and he finds cultural inspiration from sources as diverse as the existentialist writings of Albert Camus and the bloody images of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Morton’s words are brought vividly to life by an astonishing performance from relative newcomer Felix Brunger. He has trained in Meisner technique (evolved from “method” acting) and, here, he inhabits his character completely. He chalks words, numbers and diagrams frantically on the walls and floors to reflect the turmoil of a chaotic mind; he stares pleadingly at the audience as if seeking vindication for his thoughts and deeds; he charms and jokes whilst always conveying an inner rage which eventually rises explosively to the surface; and he breaks our hearts when convincing us that all Lepine needs in his life is love, which he has come to believe he can never find. He is assisted by Tom Kitney’s very effective lighting, which underscores variations in tone and mood, and by Matthew Gould’s sharply focussed direction, which sustains interest throughout and diminishes the inevitable limitations of format and venue. Eventually, Lepine sees no option but to leave this world and to take as many others with him as possible, citing specific grievances against the feminist movement to justify his targets. He cannot accept the teachings of the religions of either of his parents on the consequences of suicide, because he is in Hell already. He orders the women who are at the mercy of his rifle to separate from the men and he glares at the female section of the already segregated audience. An icy chill descends across the small auditorium. This is a powerful and totally absorbing piece of work.

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Conor McPherson’s play is set in a rural Irish bar in which four male regulars encounter a female newcomer to the area. For more than an hour, the five stand around telling each other spooky tales, drawing from Irish folk lore; whilst this is happening, the characters are developing, but the play is in desperate need of a stimulus to drive it forward and prevent it from becoming an infallible cure for the worst cases of insomnia. Then, miraculously, the tales become personal and the characters open out, climaxing in a final 30 minutes that is deeply moving, during which fine performances from Brian Cox and Dervla Kirwan begin to look like great ones. Peter McDonald, Ardal O’Hanlon and Risteard Cooper are also excellent, fleshing out their characters perfectly. ┬áThis play is about belonging – to places and to people – and, ultimately it packs quite a punch. It is just a pity that it takes so long to get going.