Archive for June, 2013

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

The most frequently staged play other than those by Shakespeare and one that has been performed somewhere in the United States every day since 1938; these are the impressive and somewhat surprising statistics for a work that, despite being a Pulitzer Prize winner, has rarely been seen on this side of the Atlantic and is by a writer who is now half-forgotten here. This is its official 75th anniversary UK production. Set in the fictional New England town of Grover’s Corners – population under 3,000, a single-track railway and a twice-weekly newspaper – in the early years of the 20th Century, the play is split into three acts, depicting daily life, love and marriage and death. It uses the device, novel in 1938, of a Stage Manager (or narrator) to introduce the townspeople and guide us through the action; he tells us that the history we are taught in schools is of rulers and wars, but that this play will be placed in the cornerstone of a new building so that future generations can learn about ordinary lives at these times. The play’s format and core themes were later emulated in Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas who added richly descriptive and poetic dialogue; there is little evidence of such flourishes in Wilder’s writing, except possibly in the closing meditations. The role of the Stage Manager has previously been filled by such larger-than-life personalities as Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra and Paul Newman. They are almost impossible acts to follow, but Simon Dobson goes in the opposite direction by offering a deliberately low-key and laid back interpretation and, in so doing, he may have robbed the production of one of the play’s key dynamics. In a cast of 14 which, for no obvious reason, has been assembled from 10 different countries, only Zoe Swenson-Graham is American and she gives the most moving performance as the daughter of the Newspaper Editor who marries her childhood sweetheart. None of the others even attempts to sound American. Whilst accepting that badly faked accents can be extremely jarring, the inconsistency of accents in a play with a setting that is absolutely specific, severely undermines authenticity. There are no other outstanding performances and, sadly, a few of the actors are defeated by the burden of serious miscasting. As in the premier production, the play is performed with no set, using just chairs, tables and ladders and the actors mime actions without the use of props. The nature of the material, particularly as it is American, is such that it could easily drift into excessive sentimentality, which a British audience might find unpalatable. Director Tim Sullivan seems wary of this pitfall and de-sweetens the pill wherever possible, but, in the process, he often leaves it rather flavourless. This is the small town America of It’s a Wonderful Life, but lacking the gripping central storyline, the deft touches of Frank Capra and anything nearing the charisma of James Stewart. Students of theatre history could be fascinated by features of the play’s structure and staging which were groundbreaking 75 years ago. However, these features have since become commonplace and many of the rest of us will find the success and durability of Our Town difficult to comprehend. The statistics are irrefutable, but the biggest disappointment with this production is its failure to explain to us any of the reasons for them.

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The flyers describe Gordon Brown as “the greatest failure at being Prime Minister in 200 years”, possibly unkind, but who’s arguing? This monologue is written and directed by Kevin Toolis and performed brilliantly by Ian Grieve who, although never resorting to crude impersonation, bears an uncanny resemblance to the ex-PM. This is a quick-tempered man, often red-faced and raging, who has spent his entire life fighting for the top job and is now coming to terms with the fact that he is just not up to it. He reflects back on his life with disillusionment, realising that his lofty aspirations for the nation had been lost in the grimy reality of modern politics. Some of the best moments come when he vents his loathing for his predecessor and,on this, performer and audience are united. There are many very funny jokes, odd though they sound coming from the mouth of a man who always seemed devoid of any sense of humour. The show is in preparation for Edinburgh and it will need to lose 20 minutes to fit into its slot there; it will benefit greatly from this as there was far too much repetition in the second half and it needs a sharper focus. Who next – Tony Blair? Unlikely as his confessions would take far longer than one evening.

photo-99No-one writes ladies who have passed their prime better than Tennessee Williams and Kim Cattrall is perfect as a faded Hollywood star running away from her failures in this bitter-tasting lament to lost youth. However, it is the young Broadway actor Seth Numrich who steals the show here; he is brilliant as a deluded loser returning in faked triumph to his home town in America’s Deep South, only to be confronted by his past. These two ¬†characters wield whatever power they can muster to manipulate and use each other for their own selfish ends, both having already pushed the self-destruct button. Marianne Elliott’s production is beautiful to look at and superbly acted all round; it drags occasionally in a sometimes static first half, but sizzles throughout the second and creates a memorable overall impression.

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

Set in a Northern Ireland coastal town, this 70 minute one-act play examines themes of romantic love, parent/child love, loss and grief and considers how fragments from the past can shape the future. Its writer and director Dan Sherer adopts techniques to create his work in conjunction with the actors, similar to those used by Mike Leigh, with whom he has previously worked. However, there is little evidence of Leigh’s trademark style of understated drama and gradual character development. The play is produced by Sherer’s Colchester-based Real Circumstance Theatre Company and was originally staged in 2010. Cleo (Tamsin Joanna Kennard) is a 15-year old girl who, having just lost her mother, seeks out Tom (Jot Davies), her father, himself only 32, who had no previous knowledge of her existence. She is accompanied by an older man, John (David Tarkenter) who has assumed the role of her protector. These three characters are drawn together by their inner needs and, although a fourth character, Grace, the dead mother, never appears, her presence is felt throughout. Tom still fails to understand the sudden departure of his teenage love and, with the arrival of Cleo, imagines it is her returning to him. John had been a British soldier in the Ulster conflict and sees in Cleo the face of a girl that he could not save from being brutalised during that time. Cleo mourns the loss of her imperfect mother and seeks a new sense of belonging. The acting has a rawness and intensity that, for the most part, serves the play well and the script contains a lyrical quality that complements its stark themes. However, do we really care for or identify with these characters? From the very beginning, this production is emotionally full-on and it never relents; we are immediately confronted with characters in torment and conflict before having any idea of who they are or what is troubling them and, thereafter, there are few light shades to contrast with the dark, few pauses for reflection and few convincing demonstrations of love or tenderness. More variations in pace and tone could have yielded a much greater overall impact. There can be no doubting the energy and commitment of all involved in this production. They have created a quality drama that explores deep emotions and it will resonate to some degree with most who see it. There are many things to admire in the play, but, with so much going for it, it should have been a lot more involving and a lot more moving.

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

A pantomime in June and a floating one too. Christmas certainly has come early this year. The Battersea Barge is an unlikely dining and cabaret venue, moored along the River Thames, with a cramped dining area on the lower deck sandwiched between a small stage and, most essentially on this occasion, a well-stocked bar. The show is a pastiche of 1920s-set whodunnits, beginning shortly after the death, in a mysterious knitting accident, of the lady of the household. The family gathers for the reading of the will and it is not long before the sister of the deceased, who has a penchant for bursting into George Formby songs, chokes on her own ukelele. Many more victims follow, but the show has an admirably green policy of re-cycling the actors and bringing them back as fresh characters, except that, when no-one can be found to play the butler, an audience member stands in; as he quickly meets his demise, it is not a spoiler to reveal that the butler definitely did not do it. The evening is mostly a non-stop bombardment of risqu√© jokes, double entendres and cross dressing, without an ounce of subtlety in sight. We know what we are in for as soon as we take to the water and, with adequate stocks of fries to nibble and Prosecco to sip, we are happy to go with the flow so long as the river is not too choppy. Paul L Martin seems to have been chiefly responsible for putting all this together and he makes a formidable dame, delivering a range of new malapropisms that Sheridan would have been proud of and leading the audience in a rousing chorus of Yes We Have No Bananas. He is joined by what is described as the cream of London cabaret and could just be that; they are Laurie Hagen, Jamie Anderson, Tricity Vogue, Champagne Charlie and Dusty Limits, who all perform with great gusto and it is they who make the evening worthwhile. Their performances include some excellent singing and dancing, demonstrating that the show could have benefitted from rather more music and less “plot”. The denouement seems interminable, but thankfully, when any of the characters takes the mystery too seriously, another shouts out “get on with it, they (the audience) don’t care about any of this”, which is really the point, we don’t. We just wallow in the broad humour and, for the most part, the only thing inhibiting our laughter is fear that that we could rock the boat just a little too much.

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

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It takes considerable boldness for a modern playwright to set a play in 1937, adhering to the conventions of an era from which so many classics already exist. In this context, how could a voice from the present speak louder than one from the past? And what reason could there be for going back to those times to deal with themes that would be just as relevant in a contemporary setting? At the beginning, there is a heated discussion over a pit closure in which capitalist interests and social justice come into conflict; and then, in the first of many unexpected turns, a chilling ghost story unfolds. The play’s structure resembles that of An Inspector Calls, in which different genres were mixed so effectively and the arguments about social responsibility echo JB Priestley’s sympathies throughout. Here, the odd marriage of socio-political drama and supernatural thriller proves to be equally potent, each genre feeding off the other and gaining strength as the play progresses. Set in an austere mansion above a Yorkshire mining village, a married couple who had been bereaved of their 12-year-old son ten years earlier are visited by another couple from London and their 22-year-old son who had been the best friend of the deceased boy; they have not seen each other since the day before the tragic death. What begins as a happy reunion quickly turns sour as the spectre of horrific events out on Bracken Moor takes over. No further spoilers, but suffice to say that nothing here is predictable and surprises await right up to the final seconds. The production is blessed with several outstanding performances. Daniel Flynn as the bereaved father is bombastic in defending his capitalist values and denying the supernatural, but chastened as the reality of events begins to dawn on him. Helen Schlezenger is deeply moving as his wife, still grieving, still seeking redemption. As the visiting couple, Sarah Woodward is warmly maternal and Simon Shepherd is stoical, exerting his stiff upper lip to proclaim that “a cup of tea smacks of a little sanity”. Joseph Timms plays the son as a young man full of progressive ideals, but still exerting boyish charm. Co-produced by the Tricycle and Shared Experience, this play is getting its World Premiere here. Alexi Kaye Campbell is a writer with great flair and imagination, his dialogue is crisp and infused with dry humour, his handling of the multi-layered narrative is immaculate and his characters are perfectly drawn. Most importantly, he never shrinks from taking risks; there are many many points where this play could have toppled over and become risible melodrama, but, aided by sure-footed and accomplished direction from Polly Teale, he ensures that this never happens. Tom Piper’s designs give the whole production a handsome look, the bleakness of the set almost inviting ghostly occurrences. Returning to the initial question, why would a modern writer set a play in 1937? Certainly, the economic conditions and polarised political opinions of that era provide a perfect backdrop for the play’s serious debates. However, the most likely answer lies in the nature of theatre itself. The setting permits a reversion to a traditional, some may say old-fashioned, style, which heightens the drama and accentuates the underlying themes. Ultimately, it is the sheer theatricality of Bracken Moor which makes it unmissable.

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

In a world where the affluent look for every opportunity to enhance the quality of their busy lives, therapists and personal trainers have become commonplace, so why not employ the services of someone who can relieve the stress caused by bad dreams? Enter the Nightmare Dreamer, a man who can lie beside his patients, experience their nightmares for them and remove them forever. Such is the starting premise for this bizarre and intriguing piece of physical theatre which has been devised for the Tattooed Potato company by director John-Michael MacDonald and his cast of seven actors. With only a very loose narrative thread to hold it together and minimal dialogue, the production relies almost entirely on movement and physical interpretation by the performers. Nightmares involving forbidden fruit, a headless screaming baby, removed intestines, a faceless monster, a long-dead lover and a writhing serpent are brought starkly to life. Playing the Dreamer, Txema Perez is suitably sinister and mysterious, whilst the other six performers and co-devisers play multiple roles, displaying remarkable athleticism, agility and conviction. They are: Gerard Alvarez, Leonor Lemee, Fleur Poad, Louise van der Post, Teo Ghil and James Riccetto; all are to be congratulated. As the performance area is usually bare with very few props, strong reliance is placed on colours to convey moods and themes – soft blue for calm sleep, vivid red for nightmares – and the performers are dressed mainly in black to contrast with the white backdrops. The impact of colours is heightened by superb lighting, designed by Karl Oskar Sordal and the moods are enhanced further by atmospheric music and sound effects by Jon McLeod. This production is far more than just a visual horror show, it also asks relevant and thought-provoking questions, as it delves into the recesses of the mind and explores the dividing lines between nightmares, dreams and reality. One young woman restores works of art by profession and, having had her nightmares taken from her, she draws the analogy of removing layer after layer from a painting to find that there is just blank canvass left; she has realised that the nightmares were part of her being and that, without them, she is no longer herself. And then, in a thrilling sequence in which six people are made to seem like 600, the Dreamer sits on a park bench as passers-by rush all around him, talking on their mobile phones, oblivious of him and of each other; he sees that the real world is the greatest of all nightmares. Imaginative, exciting and intelligent in equal measures, The Nightmare Dreamer is engrossing from the very beginning and does not loosen its grip throughout its 70 minute running time.

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