Archive for January, 2014

Adapted from a novel by the Japanese writer Abe Kobo, Micha Colombo’s play tells of an amateur entomologist who, in pursuit if his research into sand insects, becomes lured into a dune-dwelling community and entrapped to live as the partner of the title character. The logistics of this bizarre community’s existence do not stand up to close scrutiny, but, letting that pass, this is a story loaded with Orwellian political and social metaphors. It plays like a long (at least 30 minutes too long) episode of The Prisoner in which outrage at imprisonment is followed by thwarted escape attempts and then gradual acceptance. The predictability of the plot, plodding pace and dreary, humourless dialogue mean that this production possibly induces more yawns per minute than anything seen in London in recent times. Sandy coloured curtains and sandy tinted lighting provide a set that looks tacky, maybe appropriately so. Felix O’Brien plays the entomologist as a bumbling geek, Roslyn Paterson is the woman who has long since given up resistance and Niall Kerrigan is a villager who represents their rather benevolent captors. Sadly absent is any sexual chemistry between the central pair and, when the woman appears heavily pregnant towards the end of the play, the only possible explanation seems to be immaculate conception. Yet, despite all this fairly damming criticism, there remains something about the production that is quite endearing. Partly this is due to a trio of likeable actors who all seem to believe in what they are doing, accepting that at least one of the performances could have been mis-judged. Partly it is due to an affinity with quirky theatre which, even if it misfires, at least tries to do something different.

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

The Irish War of Independence, fought between 1919 and 1921, led to the formation of an independent Ireland and fundamental change for the Irish people, but the stories of English residents in the country at that time have been little told. Ann Henning Jocelyn’s new drama centres on the descendants of English aristocratic landowners, displaced by the War and examines the social and religious divisions continuing in Ireland up to the present day.  Christopher Faulds’ impressionist design of a lakeside Irish fishing lodge looks curious at first sight, but it works rather well when warmly lit. The lodge is the refuge that the family found in Connemara after the burning of their ancestral Tipperary home and it is the setting for the entire play. Played in nine shortish scenes, the story spans the period from 1989 to 2013 and shows how succeeding generations of the family struggle to preserve their own identity whilst integrating into an Irish Catholic community which remains passively hostile towards Protestants of English descent. Lady Eliza is the family’s last survivor of the War and she recounts, in the play’s best written passages, the horrors that she witnessed. Her mission is to ensure that her granddaughter, Titania, is able to appreciate her heritage and pass her knowledge on to her own children. These are Chekhovian characters, except seen after their revolution rather than before. Elaine Montgomerie makes a stately Lady Eliza, movingly reflecting on her childhood traumas. Alex Gilbert has the difficult task of portraying Titania both as a frumpy, rebellious teenager and then as a sophisticated career woman and wife. She is not entirely convincing as either and it does not serve the play well that her character remains so thoroughly unlikeable throughout. The intervening generation is represented by Lady Eliza’s daughter Meg and her husband Andrew, parents of Titania. Much of the play consists of one of these characters informing the other of events from the distant or recent past of which both must be already aware. The information is being recited solely for the benefit of the audience, which contributes to making some of their dialogue sound very stilted, thereby bringing occasional ripples of laughter to an evening which contains little intended humour. It is unfortunate that so much of this story is told rather than enacted and that several potentially interesting characters are only talked about and never seen. Meg and Andrew hold the stage for large chunks of the play, but, as their function is made to be primarily that of narrators, their characters remain under-developed. Despite the valiant efforts of Maev Alexander and Cornelius Garrett to bring them to life, they remain a desperately uninteresting couple and it becomes very difficult to empathise with them. Often the play seems to wander some distance from its central themes of heritage and progression and when, in the final scene, it reconnects strongly with them, it produces an ending which feels contrived, almost as if it had been tagged on as an afterthought. In many ways the links which Only Our Own makes between historical events and the modern world are fascinating, but the play and this production of it do not do full justice to the writer’s core ideas.

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This is probably the closest that I, or several others of similar age in the audience, will ever get to attending a “rave”. Originating from Argentina and going the rounds for a decade or so now, this show is a non-stop assault on the senses, with vibrant colour, breathtaking visual spectacle and deafening techno music. The promenading audience fills the space beneath the Roundhouse dome, whilst the action takes place around, amongst and, most often, above us. A man runs at breakneck speed on a conveyer belt, bursting though walls; human spiders crawl around a giant web; swimming pools, descend upon us to a level which enables us to touch their translucent bottoms and gaze directly into the eyes of the swimmers. At one point the arena is encircled by what looks like aluminium foil, the space is darkened and then illuminated by strobe lighting, blurred by emissions from smoke machines, and then drizzle is showered over us (as if London needs more rain right now). It is like a film packed with special effects, say Inception, except that there is no CGI, this is all live action, real flesh and tomato ketchup. Technically, the show is dazzling, the continuity is faultless and the 80 minutes literally flies by, leaving us with nothing to do except to go along for the ride. It is only afterwards that it dawns that it is all rather pointless, the evening being devoid of anything to engage the intellect or stimulate the brain. Maybe one day the creators of this show will collaborate with theatre makers who have a wider vision and are able to put this style of imaginative spectacle into a more meaningful context. That would definitely be something to look forward to.

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Staging a lively mix of well chosen revivals and interesting new work, the small theatre above the Old Red Lion pub is establishing a reputation as one of London’s brightest fringe venues. The trend continues with the World Premiere of this family drama by the American writer Gregory Beam. The location is Massachusetts and the setting is the kitchen of a home in which the father of the family has recently committed suicide. The impending funeral brings back together two step sisters. Abra has never moved far from the local area and Samara, an alcoholic, is returning from California. The family’s parents were immigrants to the United States and Moslem. The story is told in a series of confrontations between the two women, gradually revealing to the audience the history of their relationship. Whilst at the beginning Abra appears staid and sensible and Samara a reckless free spirit, perceptions of them change radically as the play progresses. The kitchen set, designed by Katie Bellman, is meticulously detailed down to the tiled floor and defines the apparent ordinariness of a working family’s life. It’s authenticity is matched by the writing and performances. Beam’s dialogue is carefully nuanced to bring out his characters’ inner feelings and laced with subtle humour. Dilek Rose (as Abra) and Lou Broadbent (as Samara) both give searing performances as two damaged and vulnerable women at loggerheads with each other, yet inextricably bound together. In flashback sequences, Rose doubles as her character’s mother and Allon Sylvain plays the father. He and James Corscadden (as Samara’s brother) make brief but effective appearances. Beam’s play embraces many, perhaps too many, sub-themes – mental health, taking responsibility for elderly relatives, culture clashes and more; as a result it occasionally gets sidetracked when we really want it to keep its focus on the two protagonists. It then builds to a slightly melodramatic climax which does not sit too well with the realistic drama that has preceded it. Nonetheless, as a study of a dysfunctional family, the play is, on the whole, sensitive and thoughtful, showing how such a family can both inflict wounds on its members and heal them. This is a small production that punches well above its weight.

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photo-82Seeing VCRs and Sony Walkmans paraded as treasured possessions in Rupert Goold’s musical version of Brett Easton Ellis’s modern classic tale of 1980s New York reminds us how fleeting such fads can be. A quarter of a century later, they are replaced by smart phones, streaming, social media, etc, but nothing that really matters seems to have changed at all and none of the lessons seem to have been learned.  The lyrics of one of the songs protests that the story is not an allegory, but it is exactly that, satirising city lifestyles and weaving in existentialist themes. The main characters’ working lives are driven by greed, status and materialism; their social lives are fuelled by lust, drugs and alcohol. The first half of the show devotes itself to demonstrating the emptiness of all this and, although it is generally entertaining, it eventually runs out of different ways to hammer home the same point. However, the central character, Patrick Bateman, has long been obsessed with grizzly serial murderers and, once he begins to emulate his heroes, things really get moving. The first half ends with the first splattering of blood and what follows after the interval is infinitely better. Robert Aguirre-Sacasa’s book serves the story, but lacks consistent wit. Similarly, Duncan Sheik’s pop/rock score and lyrics are functional but unmemorable, their shortcomings being highlighted by half a dozen 80s classics which are imported. Therefore, this show needs outstanding staging and performances to lift it above the ordinary and it gets both. The minimalist set design allows for freedom of movement and rapidly changing projections, whilst two revolves help to provide slick progress throughout. The show’s best scene is a dazzling song and dance routine in which Bateman goes on a murderous rampage, slaughtering the entire chorus line. As Bateman, Matt Smith is star casting, obviously, but he is absolutely terrific, showing an awesome stage presence and he can almost sing. He manages to convince equally  as a cold, ruthless killer and as a lost and lonely man who has never been able to make anyone happy, not even himself. He believes that he is not really alive, but shows that he is struggling to become so when reaching out to his loyal and besotted PA (beautifully played by Cassandra Compton). This relationship is genuinely touching and it gives the show its emotional heart. All the other performances are top class and it matters little that there are few real singers. This show is packed with original ideas, it plays around with conventions of musical theatre and kicks out many of the tired cliches. Refreshingly different.

Theatre Review of 2013

Posted: January 1, 2014 in Theatre

As of midnight on 31 December, my visits to live performance plays and shows in 2013 total a record 179, not quite averaging one every other day, but pretty close. The total includes 67 on behalf of The Public Reviews and 23 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but does not include classical concerts and opera. It was a year of high quality theatre, but, setting an average of one truly great show a month, my Top 12 list for 2013, in alphabetical order, is:

Bracken Moor (Tricycle)

Ghosts (Almeida)

Let the Right One In (Royal Court)

Old Times (Harold Pinter)

Othello (National)

Peter and Alice (Noel Coward)

Sweet Bird of Youth (Old Vic)

The Audience (Gielgud)

The Color Purple (Menier)

The Pride (Trafalgar Studios)

The Scottsboro Boys (Young Vic)

Titanic (Southwark Playhouse)

Lines between “West End” and “Fringe” can get blurred, but my favourite theatres continue be those that are not quite one nor the other: The National, apart from Nicholas Hytner’s brilliant Othello, had a rather disappointing year, showing how much the now closed Cottesloe had become its powerhouse; after a pedestrian start to Josie Rourke’s tenure, The Donmar Warehouse seems to be picking up momentum again and The Almeida, with Headlong’s Rupert Goold now in charge, is on a roll of hits. The Royal Court continues to nurture new writing and The Menier Chocolate Factory stages comedies and musicals of outstanding quality. Find of the year has been St James Theatre, an excellent venue with a knack for seeking out first rate productions. Commendations also for The Young Vic and the re-housed Southwark Playhouse.

Looking at productions that were undoubtedly “Fringe”, my favourite six were: Grounded (Edinburgh)Halbwelt Kultur (Jermyn Street), Jumpers for Goalposts (Bush)Quietly (Edinburgh)Skin Tight (Park) and The Herd (Bush).

Inevitably, the year included a few absolute stinkers; my dirty half dozen are: Much Ado About Nothing (Old Vic)Our Town (King’s Head), Port (National)Socrates and His Clouds (Jermyn Street)Steptoe and Son (Lyric Hammersmith) and WAG: The Musical (Charing Cross).

Turning to performances, my choices are: best in a play – Rory Kinnear (Othello) and Lesley Manville (Ghosts); worst in a play – James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave (both Much Ado About Nothing); best in a musical – Killian Donnelly (The Commitments) and Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple); worst in a musical – Tim Flavin and Lizzie Cundy (both WAG! The Musical).

Roll on 2014.