Archive for July, 2013

Following “The Weir” at this theatre, Conor McPherson premieres his new work, which he also directs. Like its predecessor this is ostensibly a conversation piece underpinned by quirky Irish humour; however the characters are far more damaged than in “The Weir” and clinging to each other far more desperately. The setting is a grubby, cluttered Dublin bedsit, occupied by Tommy (Ciaran Hinds), a middle-aged man separated from his family, and various visitors. These characters are so impeccably written and acted that they quickly become real and, from there, the play seems almost to progress on auto-pilot. The drama is punctuated by acts of ¬†violence which provide a stark reminder that these people are not just inventions of Irish whimsy, but inhabitants of a very cruel world. The tone is deliberately understated throughout and, when the climax arrives, it carries enormous emotional power not in spite of this understatement but because of it.

Daniel Kitson’s latest one-man show is partly stand-up (well sit-down to be precise) comedy and partly philosophical lecture. ¬†A strange hybrid of Mr Everyman and Oxford Professor, Kitson’s genius lies in his ability to make astute observations that resonate on a personal level with each individual member of an audience that is drawn from all age groups, both genders, all sorts of backgrounds and lifestyles. Many of his observations are hilarious, others are profound; some of the humour is shallow, whilst some of the analysis goes so deep that it cannot be appreciated fully from being heard just once. What matters is the mix and that it all holds together, which this show definitely does. To quibble, the background music is very irritating and over 100 minutes is very long for a one-man show watched from BAC’s very uncomfortable seating. But Kitson is unique, a one-off and it is easy to understand why tickets for his shows are so difficult to come by.

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Hounded by paparazzi, courted by fashion houses, WAGs (wives and girlfriends, usually of highly paid footballers) have become the icons of modern celebrity culture. But for every one of them there are thousands of aspiring WAGs, ladies who are willing to play home or away, in upper or lower divisions, so long as a spread in Hello! or OK! magazines remains in their sights. This new musical features those who have made it and those who have yet to do so. Inevitably the show is about stereotypes – the WAGs themselves, gay men, thick footballers and more – but instead of deconstructing the stereotypes for satire, the script draws all its humour from reinforcing them, bombarding us with feeble jokes and scraping the barrel for double entendres. Worse still, there are serious underlying issues about the sexual inequality in our society which over-rewards men and casts women in demeaning roles, but, unfortunately, these issues are only alluded to and then left unexplored. The writer is Belvedere Pashun, who includes in his interests camping in the lower Himalayas of his native Tibet. Having generated material like this, he might have been better advised to have stayed there or at least to have written under a pseudonym; but perhaps he did not need such advice. The central characters are assistants on the cosmetics counter of a department store who are both in abusive relationships. Jenny (Daisy Wood-Davis) is the plaything of a married footballer and Sharron (Amy Scott) is suffering physical maltreatment from her partner; both actresses give touching performances, side-stepping the cliches as best they can. The are joined by Zoe, a sales rep, who is on the prowl for a new man after the mid-fielder she has been dating has just been relegated from the Premier League. She is played by Lizzie Cundy, herself once a real WAG, now rehabilitated as a television presenter and actress; she would have been a natural as someone who was a seductress 20 years ago, but a few more lessons, even from SuperWAG Victoria Beckham, might have helped to improve her singing performance. Tim Flavin, who plays a waspish store boss, has a formidable record of great performances in hit shows, so, for the sake of musical theatre, it is to be hoped that he recovers quickly from this embarrassment. The lyrics are simple and the unmemorable tunes are in the bouncy pop style. This is not to say that the songs are all terrible; one is very funny and a few of them could have been good enough to have only narrowly missed qualifying to represent the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest in some years of the last decade. Happily there are two redeeming cameo performances. Katie Kerr is excellent as Blow-Jo, an overweight store assistant who is resigned to life with a chippy rather than one who chips goals and who is persuaded to buy a brand of cosmetics because of a recommendation from “Loraine Kelly off the telly” (the rhymes get no better in this show). Even more striking is a brief appearance by Ariadne the Greek WAG, alter ego of comedy performer Alyssa Kyria, who delivers the show’s funniest song, England, and a string of hilarious asides and one-liners; her performance is a class above everything else on display and she leaves us regretting that the whole evening could not have been built around her. As the ridiculous feel-good ending draws near, the company comes together and, treats us to an anthem of supreme unoriginality, chanting (there’s) Always Tomorrow. We must all pray that tomorrow will bring us many musicals much better than this one.

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A collaboration between the National and immersive theatre leaders Punchdrunk, this event took place in a disused Royal Mail sorting office in Paddington, re-named Temple Studios. Taken back in time to the late 1950s/early 1960s, I hid behind a grotesque mask to be plunged into semi darkness and allowed to wander at liberty around the sets, offices and back stage areas of a Hollywood studio; I must have looked like a kid in Hamleys. Spread over four floors, with hidden rooms and passages everywhere, I regularly bumped into performers (the ones without masks) who were enacting, mostly in dance, a torrid story of love, infidelity, jealousy and death, knowing that, for everything I saw and every place I found, there would be a dozen things I missed. So, there seemed little point in trying to follow the story, only in exploring the place and enjoying the performances as they cropped up. The adventure was accompanied throughout by atmospheric film background music and American pop songs from the period. Finally after 3 hours, drained of sweat and nursing a badly bruised shin (failure to get out of the way of a dancer quickly enough), I emerged into the real world in awe at the scale of it all and wondering whether or not to go back for what would be an entirely different experience next time.

It is hard to imagine a more potent anti-war message than that conveyed by the football match played between the Allies and Germans on the front lines on Christmas Day 1914. Here, Alex Gwyther writes and performs a 45-minute monologue which expands on the famous incident and describes various other friendly encounters between opposing forces on the same day during the most horrific war in history. Gwyther is primarily a poet, but this is beautifully written in prose, taking the form of diary entries; it captures all of the poignancy of the events and misses none of the ironies of ordinary people being caught up in a conflict between those who govern them. He is completely convincing as a private soldier, but sometimes the style of the prose does not adapt well to being dramatised, the speech patterns sounding rather unnatural. However, this is just a minor quibble over what is a very impressive and moving piece of work.

At a mountain vacation spot in New York State, a young man with a vague past becomes involved with a younger woman and her domineering and manipulative Jewish mother (a star turn from Diana Quick). This is a story of characters deceiving each other and maybe themselves and of unachievable ideals. Set in the 1960s, parallels are obviously being drawn with American society in general, but the focus of the play is never completely clear; this could be due to there being just too many sub-themes which do not always sit well together, some of them under-developed. The writer’s concerns with the wider resonances also seem to detract from the core human story, leaving the audience feeling detached and emotionally uninvolved. The production is handsomely mounted and always interesting, but, ultimately, it is rather unsatisfying.

This review was original written for The Public Reviews:

On one of the hottest nights of the year, the Park’s pleasantly cool studio theatre provided a welcome contrast to the streets outside. Yet little more than an hour after entering, as bows were being taken, the same space resembled a steamy Turkish bath and there had been no noticeable air conditioning failure. The heat generated by the script and the actors in this intense two-hander might have been sufficient to start a thaw at the South Pole. As a prelude, soft piano music plays and nostalgic photographs appear on a screen, showing a couple enjoying happy times together; at opposite corners of the stage, the actual couple are positioned statuesque, looking away from each other, thereby providing a glimpse of what is to follow. The music stops, the pair dash towards each other, collide and, for several minutes before any word is spoken, they exchange blows, throw each other to the ground and engage in a brutal battle that is interrupted occasionally and briefly by tender kisses and embraces. It is a truly stunning opening, so completely convincing that there are genuine fears for the safety of the participants. When this savage assault by the two people on each other and on the senses of the audience gives way to dialogue, we learn that the pair are Elizabeth and Tom, former lovers reunited to examine what brought them together and what tore them apart. In the sparring that follows, they are at one moment playful, then resentful, amorous, bitter, melancholic, angry; each mood and emotion blends naturally into the next, finding both verbal and physical expression. The story unfolds gradually and, as the layers are peeled away, it culminates in heartbreaking revelations. Playing the couple, Angela Bull and John Schumacher are magnificent, bringing the characters touchingly to life and expending extraordinary amounts of raw energy. The playwright, Gary Henderson, is a New Zealander and, although he locates his story in his home country, his themes are universal. The lyrical qualities in his writing offset the play’s starker aspects beautifully, as does the stage design which evokes a rural setting, bathed in the fading light of late afternoon. It cannot be often in a small production like this that credit needs to be given to a fight director (Dan Styles) and movement director (Clare McKenna), but, along with Jemma Cross, they contribute to making everything brutally realistic, riveting and visually startling. So this gets a strong recommendation to grab a ticket, with the added advice that, whatever the weather outside, it would be best to wear light clothing.

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This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Razor-swishing and foam-buckling, the three plus one Musketeers take the St James stage by storm; these characters have been seen many times before, but never have they combined to defend their king in such perfect harmony. The union of Barbers’ Shop Quartet singing and Alexander Dumas’ quartet of heroes is so natural that it is surprising that no-one seems to have thought of it before. The story begins in the small French village of Pissypooville, where the economy is being ruined because of a jam roly-poly embargo by the dastardly English. The young villager D’Artagnan decides that she (yes, she) will venture to Paris to rescue the situation and achieve her dream of joining the legendary Three Musketeers. Meanwhile, King Louis is attempting to repair Anglo/French relations in a rather intimate way with the Duke of Buckingham and he gifts the Duke with his treasured golden plums. Our four heroes are duly despatched to England (land of “hazards and over-cooked vegetables”) to retrieve the plums before the evil Cardinal Rich Tea can use their absence to discredit and de-throne the King. It is all unashamedly bawdy and camp, bearing only a passing resemblance to the Dumas original. The very likeable and exuberant Quartet are Pete Sorel Cameron (Aramis), Laura Darton (D’Artagnan), Harry Stone (Porthos) and Russell Walker (Athos); they all double up to play the other characters. Their a cappella singing exemplifies “all for one and one for all”, with splendid tones and harmonies, but they also turn out to be very accomplished comedy performers. This is definitely not a case of four singers standing static at centre stage; the whole show is directed (by Sarah Tipple) and choreographed (by Russell Smith) with considerable flair. The original tunes lean towards the ordinary, but the lyrics are excellent and the script is packed with very funny jokes. It is an evening of continuous jollity, interrupted only by the interval, and it deserves a wider audience. So, a note to cost-conscious theatre producers – this is a crowd-pleasing musical that will not require paying an orchestra. There really is something here to please everyone.

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photo-101As Martin McDonagh has now become best known for writing and directing cult crime films, it is particularly interesting to look again at his early bitter-sweet and wistful comedy. It tells of a small Irish community in 1934 and how the arrival of a Hollywood film crew raises hopes and dreams of a better life. McDonagh’s script creates a rich group of characters and is peppered with very amusing lines and eloquent pleas for understanding those with disabilities. Daniel Radcliffe in the title role captures perfectly his character’s resilience, frustration and optimism; this is more than just star casting, he is genuinely good. However, it seems unfair to single him out because this is an ensemble piece in which all the characters are fleshed out beautifully by superb acting. This is the third in Michael Grandage’s star-studded season; it shares the high production values of its two predecessors and maintains the very high standard.

photo-112Spanning the period between the two World Wars, Eugene O’Neill’s epic yet intimate play centres on a lady named Nina and her relationships with three men; they are all obsessed with her and she regards them as husband, lover and substitute father. All of the characters speak both to each other and directly to the audience, giving the play a structure that is at first disconcerting but, as we get used to it, offers greater insight into their complexities and even provides opportunities for humour. After half an hour or so there seemed to be a pressing need for an interval exit; the dialogue sounded impossible for the actors to interpret realistically, the action took place on a very odd set compressed into a quarter of the Lyttelton stage and there was nothing happening that we could become even slightly involved in. At this point it looked like yet another in the line of recent Lyttelton productions that fails to connect with its audience and another example of the wonderful Anne-Marie Duff (as Nina) being the only shining light in a dud, just as she was in the Donmar’s woeful “Berenice”. However, slowly and almost imperceptibly, the production begins to take hold and, once it has gained its grip the rest of the running time of over 3 hours just flies by; the characters become believable, the story intriguing and, in the second half, the stage opens out to reveal some marvellous sets. This is a challenging play that defies accepted norms, extends the boundaries of what is possible in theatre and delves deep into aspects of the human condition. It is never easy for the audience, but superb acting and bold direction contribute to making it a highly rewarding experience.