Archive for November, 2013

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

Striking an almost perfect balance between optimism and pessimism, Forced Entertainment’s latest offering takes a crystal ball to look into the future of mankind. Covering government, religion, social structures, lifestyles, relationships, the environment and many more diverse topics, it plummets the depths of despair and then, at an instant, scales the heights of happiness. The show is performed by a man and a woman. drawn from a pool of five and different at each performance. Their appearance is made nondescript, their delivery is monotone and matter of fact and they stand on a platform within an arc of multi-coloured light bulbs. They speak in certainties – for example the World WILL end or we WILL all live happily ever after – never mentioning possibilities or probabilities. After each statement by one of the pair, the other interjects with the word “or” (the most used word in the show) and describes the exact opposite scenario. Much of the forecasting is a natural progression from current lifestyles: there will be global warming or there will be perpetual snow; population growth will mean that no-one will have personal space any more or disasters will leave just five people on Earth, each on different continents. This makes us ponder over the modern world and how we are both enhancing the lives of future generations and destroying them. It is thought-provoking, but not much more so than the News on any day of the week. At times, the predictions fly off into very amusing fantasies. However, they incorporate too many ideas that resemble strands from well-known futuristic fiction – The Hunger Games, Never Let Me Go and so on – so that they come to seem neither as inventive nor as original as they at first appear. This show lasts for 80 minutes. Or, because we are told that human life expectancy will be reduced to just one hour, make that 60 for future performances. Tomorrow’s Parties is a profound examination of what the future holds. Or it is boring and pointless nonsense. Or it is a combination of the two. Let’s settle for the last option.

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This review was written at the invitation of OFFICIAL THEATRE – http://www.officialtheatre.com

photo-84There are many things that London’s West End is not so hot at, such as taking risks with new works or being at the vanguard of vibrant modern theatre. However, when it comes to staging a good old-fashioned drama such as this, there is nowhere in the World to beat it. So familiar is Sidney Lumet’s classic 1957 film, that it is difficult to approach this production with a fresh eye; yet, surprisingly, fore-knowledge of the plot does not impair enjoyment, as it enables us to focus more attention on the characters and the meticulous writing by Reginald Rose. Being set almost entirely in one room, the film played rather like a theatre piece, so it is not surprising that it was preceded by a television and stage play.

The setting is a Chicago jury room where the 12 men of the title are deciding the fate of a young black man charged with murder. Juror 8 (Martin Shaw) feels that the defence lawyer has been inadequate and refuses to accept that guilt is proved beyond reasonable doubt, thereby instigating what is in effect a re-trial within the confines of the room. Juror 3 (Jeff Fahey) is his chief protagonist. The jurors, all male, all white, vary widely in age and social backgrounds and they all bring their own personal viewpoints and prejudices into the room. This is 1950s America and some of the views expressed are shocking today, but the play’s heart is clearly in tune with modern sensitivities.

Under the direction of Christopher Haydon, the ensemble acting is faultless and each one of the many dramatic high points in the play is perfectly pitched. Michael Pavelka’s set is also a magnificent recreation of an old style American government building and, very cleverly, the jury table is on a slow revolve throughout. Everything about this production has the mark of real class. And for film fans, there is the rare chance to see the last survivor of The Magnificent Seven (Robert Vaughn) in the flesh. A real treat.

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

Building on the premise that men and women are irresistibly drawn together yet eternally incompatible, this hour-long compilation of nine comedy sketches looks at the battle of the sexes with a charmingly cynical eye. It has already been performed in 13 countries and is making its UK debut with this short tour of London fringe venues. Writer Rich Orloff is a New Yorker and his writing is full of the angst-ridden humour associated mainly with that city. When the girl in this show puts down her partner with “I’m my own best friend and my own best lover too”, the influence of Woody Allen leaps out. In fact, Orloff’s dialogue is so distinctively New York that it often seems incongruous to hear it spoken by a New Zealand woman and a Welshman, as it is here. It takes a while to get used to this and, at the beginning, the humour feels too forced, but it comes to matter less once the show gets into full swing. The two performers, Nadya Shaw Bennett and James John Bryant, are instantly likeable and their youthful enthusiasm is infectious. In the links between the sketches, they interact with the audience and ad lib with confidence. A bizarre opening sketch sees Nadya (they use their own first names throughout) dating a neanderthal (literally), but, thereafter, the situations are more conventional. She views men as wanting one thing, believing that “they wear condoms over their hearts”. He views women as controlling and always giving mixed messages – “ three positive adjectives from a woman means it’s over”. Much of the humour draws from these stereotypical depictions of the sexes, but, occasionally, the stereotypes are turned neatly on their heads, as in an encounter between James and a hooker. In one sketch, we hear moans of ecstasy from the couple only for the lights to go up and reveal them arm-wrestling, demonstrating the proximity of love to war which is the core theme of the show. Taking us on a winding route from blind date to marriage proposal and culminating in a wedding that incorporates a divorce, this show is lightweight fun that should resonate with anyone who has ever tried to navigate the choppy waters of a relationship.

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

When heading out to the wild, wild west of London, where the M4 is the fastest road out of town (sometimes), why not mosey into the Tabard saloon to take in a performance of, yes, a western? Leaving aside a few musicals, westerns on stage are virtually unknown these days, so, on grounds of rarity alone, this production should be welcomed into town. Greg Freeman’s play is a comic allegory about ownership and greed. Dogstar is a drifter who turns up with nothing, not even enough money to pay for a glass of bottled water in the saloon. Its owner, Clay, is the local big wig who also owns everything else and everyone else around. The town ain’t big enough for both of them. Ben Warwick has a brooding presence and weathered look as the enigmatic Dogstar and he is the only character to sound even vaguely American. Rhys King plays Clay as a spiv more like a nasty Arthur Daley than a figure from the old west. Jaymes Sygrove gives an amusing performance as Jed, a dim-witted barman and the alluring Laura Pradelska as Violet makes it seem very unlikely that her character is the town’s only virgin. On his way into town, the anti-capitalist Dogstar protected Violet’s virtue by killing seven of the dastardly Lehman brothers (most of the jokes are less obvious) and the quartet now waits nervously in the saloon for the arrival of the remaining Lehmans seeking their revenge. The play is all undemanding fun, cleverly written with short, snappy lines that give it the feel of a long (rather too long at 85 minutes?) comedy sketch. Many of the jokes are very inventive and their droll delivery by a strong cast makes them even funnier. Director and designer Ken McClymont keeps things moving at a brisk pace on his saloon bar set, which makes good use of the limited space. There is enough originality and good humour here to brighten a dark November evening and allow us to saddle up and hit the trail home in a happy mood.

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The Scottsboro Boys***** (Young Vic)

Posted: November 13, 2013 in Theatre

photo-79If you want to see a great musical, go to Southwark. For the third time in just a few months, a major Broadway show makes its London debut in a relatively small venue in the borough, a few miles from the West End which might have been its home in past times. The subject is a notorious miscarriage of justice which took place in Alabama in the 1930s when nine young black men were sentenced to death on trumped up charges of raping two white women. Ostensibly, not much cheer here, but, in an extraordinary juxtaposition of theatrical styles, it is performed as a minstrel show and played for laughs for almost its entirety. The cast of 13 includes one white man (Julian Glover as several interlocutors) and one woman (Dawn Hope as a witness to events whose purpose remains unclear until the very last moment), but all other parts are played by black men, including white law officers and the boys’ female accusers. Possibly this blurring of reality helps to make a very unpleasant story more palatable, but the downside is that it sometimes becomes difficult for us to be moved by the tragedy that is unfolding when we are too busy laughing. Sadly, this is one of the last shows we will see from the Kander and Ebb team, as Fred Ebb died in 2004 whilst still working on this and other shows. The team’s work lacks the subtlety of Sondheim or the lovely melodies of Rodgers but their trademark of blending razzle-dazzle tunes with deeply cynical lyrics is unique and in plentiful evidence here, just as in their biggest triumphs “Cabaret” and “Chicago”. There is no better example of this than a rousing tap dance routine performed to a song about the glories of the electric chair. Overall, the songs here are a mixed bag, a few are ordinary, but several are beauties. The performances are uniformly superb. Kyle Scatliffe has the prominent role amongst the boys, but it seems unfair to single him or anyone else out. Susan Stroman directs with great imagination and her choreography is often stunning. This is not a flawless show, there are dull patches when the story goes nowhere and the contrasting elements are sometimes conflicting ones. However, it all comes together in a truly breathtaking chorus finale which leads to a brilliant coup de theatre in which the historical perspective of the events depicted is put into clear focus. Maybe the show is not perfect, but the glorious ending leaves us thinking that it is.

Performance date: 13 November 2013

Dating from 1992, Philip Ridley’s very black comedy satirises a society obsessed with staying young, but it gets under the skin in ways very different from Botox. Cougar (Joshua Blake) is a sort of Dorian Gray figure and we meet him on the day that he is celebrating his 19th Birthday for the 11th time. He sits under a sun lamp, forages for unwelcome grey hairs and stares endlessly into a mirror. He adds new dimensions to narcissism, uses people ruthlessly for his own ends and is mercilessly cruel to his long-time partner (Ian Houghton); his big weakness is that he cannot bear any allusion to his true age and becomes extremely menacing if anyone approaches the subject. The guest of honour at the Birthday party is to be a 15-year old boy who is, a little like meat being thrown to a hungry lion, the current target for Cougar’s lust. Things start to go badly wrong when the boy turns up with his pregnant girlfriend. As the girlfriend, Nancy Sullivan gives a brilliant comic turn, making the character so irritating that every member of the audience may have wanted to throttle her. This is a well-acted production and the small space of the Old Red Lion is perfectly suited to the setting of a shabby flat above a disused fur factory. The writing is taut and edgy, always holding the attention and conjuring up several vivid and very unpleasant images that it will take a while to rid from the mind.

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

Inspired by Sophocles’ tragedy Ajax, written in the 5th Century BC, and developed using interviews with armed forces personnel, Timberlake Wertenbaker sets her new play amongst British forces fighting in a modern day Asian desert war zone. Lt Col Ajax has been passed over for promotion to Brigadier in favour of his hated rival Odysseus and, engulfed by rage, he goes out into the night to slaughter sheep, goats, dogs and a cow, imagining each one to be Odysseus. He makes his first entrance drenched in blood, dragging a mutilated carcass in his wake. Ajax is a legendary hero and a charismatic leader of his unit who commands unquestioning loyalty, but, like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, he is spiralling out of control, turning into a renegade. As played by Joe Dixon, he is a giant figure, exuding authority that is, at the same time, visceral and calculated. Nothing could break him except injustice. Ajax’s actions and his motives pose questions of morality and legality that underlie news headlines even as this play is being performed. He is war weary to the point that “dust seeps into the mind, blood spatters the retina” and he is now engaged in a war in which objectives are ill-defined, enemies cannot be clearly identified and chains of command are muddled. The soldiers under him recognise his mental illness, but acknowledge that their army is incapable of responding to it. This is strong stuff, played out in the central part of the play, with great intensity. However, Wertenbaker’s decision to retain the characters’ Greek names impairs authenticity and appearances by the Goddess Athena (Gemma Chan) are diversions that serve only to stall the drama. The playwright’s point is that warfare is timeless and continuous – Troy, Flanders, Basra, Helmand, etc – but this is stated in the text and it did not need to be further emphasised. This play and the anti-war messages contained in it could have been much more potent if she had simply taken and updated just the core story and severed all other links to Sophocles’ original play. Amongst the supporting players, Frances Ashman is particularly affecting as Tecmessa, a lower ranking soldier and mother of Ajax’s illegitimate son. Adam Riches, better known as a stand-up comedian, plays Odysseus, a character that, as written, is rather dull. Riches does not make him more interesting or offer any insight into the qualities that made the army hierarchy prefer him to Ajax. For the most part, the writing is sharp and engrossing. In typical Wertenbaker style, it is also infused with mischievous humour. Ajax retreats to his tent not to sleep but to avoid being filmed for You Tube. A preening American General (John Schwab) orders that the man who killed the goats be handed over to the men with goatees and, taking pride in his pun, proclaims “God, I’m so powerful and so smart”. David Mercatali’s direction ensures a brisk pace and draws the audience, seated on 3 sides of a sand pit, into the heart of a drama that should provoke much thought and discussion. Maybe the overall impact of the production feels less than the sum of its strongest parts, but, in its best moments, it lands some powerful punches.

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