Archive for February, 2014

photo-78Not to be confused with another show that is going the rounds at the moment, this is Samuel Beckett’s play built on sand and there is no Fonz in sight. Juliet Stephenson up to her waist in sand is perhaps 50% short of what might have improved Truly, Madly, Deeply, but that is unkind because she is a consummate stage actor and, in this monologue (with occasional interruptions), she is terrific. Having only her voice and her facial expressions to work with, she plays Winnie, a woman who fakes jollity and sees every bottle as half full, whilst almost bursting with inner rage.  Her husband (David Beames) is living in a nearby hole and he makes occasional appearances, even speaking a few short lines, but, mostly, this play is about the fortitude of Winnie. Being Beckett, there is no logic, no reason is given why Winnie is stuck in a pile of sand and hardly any mention is made of the fact, we just see it. Maybe Beckett  intends the sand as a metaphor for disability, social disadvantage, or the mundanity of ordinary life, but it matters little because the playwright merely needs to plant such ideas in our heads and then let them free to swim around. The set, an enormous bank of sand, is a wonder to behold and the surreal image of Winnie, a middle-aged, lower middle class woman, protruding from it wearing a pale blue 1960s hat, is one that will live in the memory for a very long time. A rare treat.

the oneThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Resembling a boxing ring without ropes, the set for this biting, one-act adult comedy is a perfect square platform with refreshments (alcoholic) in opposite corners. Vicky Jones’ debut play amounts to a gladiatorial contest between a man an a woman bound together in a long-term relationship, both using all means at their disposal to gain the upper hand, but neither prepared to strike the ultimate blow which would sever their ties. Jo and Harry are an educated, comfortably off, childless couple. At first, their sparring seems juvenile, fuelled only be boredom, but the arrival of Harry’s old flame Kerry (Lu Corfield) acts as a catalyst for the pair to explore the darker side of their relationship. Kerry has walked out on her partner after an incident of abuse which she believes could have been rape and, in a reversal of gender norms, Harry is warm and sympathetic towards her whilst Jo is flippant and dismissive. So, what are the acceptable boundaries in a relationship and what does each partner really want and expect of the other? We watch from our ringside seats as Jo and Harry empty the wine bottles to slug it out and test each other’s limits. Jones’ dialogue crackles in this fast-paced production; her writing is frank and provocative, teasing us with one prospect and then delivering another. Jo is the younger by ten years and, as played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, she wields guile and raw sex appeal as her weapons in the contest. Rufus Wright’s Harry is a bully with a conscience, prepared to use brawn to overcome brain but, always mindful of the consequences. Running for just an hour, this is the ideal play for couples to drop into after work and then debate for days afterwards. Whilst probing into serious issues and asking searching questions of us all, The One retains a lightness of touch which makes it never less than highly entertaining.

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05.1e040.Analog1The last time I saw Daniel Kitson, he sat down for over 90 minutes and talked constantly. On this occasion, he walks around for the same amount of time and speaks not a word.  The starting premise is a garage filled with old junk, including countless tape recorders of all shapes and sizes which are piled up on a table at the very back of the stage. The table is in bright light throughout, but the rest of the stage is barely lit at all. Kitson then proceeds to remove the recorders one by one, match them with their accessories, carry them downstage, connect them to power and amplifiers and play the tapes on each. The recordings are of Kitson’s voice telling the stories of Thomas and Trudie, separated in time by 36 years. The characters live dull, uninteresting lives, but Kitson’s objective is to make the mundane seem significant, using richly descriptive prose and astute observations of the minutiae of everyday living. Embracing themes on the nature of memories and memorabilia, the show is often funny, but more often poignant. Kitson’s strenuous labours, working as a kind of stage technician, themselves give importance to the insignificant and this show’s unusual format, which distances the audience from the characters, produces the very weird effect of bringing us closer to them. As with other Kitson shows, it seems a little too long, but it builds to achieve an emotional power that was unexpected, so much so that I found myself crying for much of the last 20 minutes. An entertainment that is completely unique.

1984-almeidaStarting in Nottingham, Headlong’s adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel has been going the rounds for several months now, picking up almost universal critical praise on its way. Therefore, there is a temptation to emulate the story’s hero, Winston Smith, and defy conventional thought by labelling it complete and utter rubbish, deserving of an immediate place in Room 101. But that would be a lie, because this really is 100 minutes of the most electrifying theatre. In terms of set and costumes, the production remains rooted in 1940s Britain, but adaptors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan have extended Orwell’s dystopian vision to the modern day and a century further into the future. Their biggest challenge must have been to replicate the shock effect that the book had upon readers in the immediate post-War era for modern theatre audiences who know Big Brother as a reality television series, are used to being watched by security cameras as they walk down every street and live in a world where media manipulation dominates all areas of life. Yet shock us they do, partly because of the durability of the original work and partly because of their total mastery of theatrical skills. We are startled by visual images, changing sets, blinding light followed by total darkness, projections of images and films on to a screen above the stage; we face a constant bombardment on our senses, whilst, at the same time, a spare and faithful script is giving a rigorous workout to our brains. Every second of the running time is bleak and discomforting, but also mesmerising. In a strong ensemble, Mark Arends’ Winston is an everyman of unheroic appearance, Hara Yannas’ Julia is alluring and ambiguous and Tim Dutton’s O’Brien is a cold and efficient bureaucrat. A final word of praise to the Almeida for putting many of its rivals to shame by again producing a superb programme that is packed with fascinating information. Top marks all round.

XU*5860596After a recent run of seeing Shakespeare scaled down to be performed above pubs and such places, this marks a return to the traditional – arguably the greatest Shakespearean actor of the age performing on our grandest stage under the guidance of one of the World’s most accomplished stage and cinema directors. So, enjoyable as the smaller productions were, this is most definitely Shakespeare Max. Sam Mendes’ modern dress production is mounted superbly. using every inch of the Olivier’s huge stage and recounting with painful clarity the story of ageing, dementia and inheritance. Simon Russell Beale is nowhere near being an octogenarian. but he manages to look 80 with his stooping demeanour, fidgeting hands and grizzled visage, until he exits through the audience and ruins the illusion by racing up the stairs of the darkened stalls. As he stands beneath a statue of his younger self, towering to more than twice his real height, the ravages of age are captured in a single image. Russell Beale is an actor who is never afraid to have himself made to look ridiculous, which is a vital quality, because there is no character in English drama who cuts a more ridiculous figure than that of Lear for much of this play. However, his Lear is also a man of power and authority, albeit diminished in body and mind. Tom Brooke is an unorthodox but wonderfully moving Edgar and the ever reliable Adrian Scarborough makes the perfect Fool. Of the daughters, Kate Fleetwood is an icy Goneril and Olivia Vinall a sweet and sincere Cordelia. As Regan, Anna Maxwell Martin is ruthless and volatile, playing very much against the image created by her most famous television roles; however, at this performance seen from half way back in the stalls, her diction, intonation and voice projection all seemed weak. Maybe because expectations were set too high, this production feels less than monumental, but, nonetheless, it is extremely impressive.

Based on tapes recorded by a real life American couple over a 30 year period, Abi Morgan’s new play explores the sexual politics surrounding a relationship in which a middle aged woman formally contracts to be the mistress of her long-time lover in return for material rewards. Tackling the issues with a feminist slant, the play is always well-written but so would be a lecture by Germaine Greer and audiences go to a theatre to see a drama not to listen to a thesis. Almost exactly one hour into the play’s 90 minutes, one of the characters shows the first flicker of emotion and, thereafter, the now geriatric pair offer only occasional hints that there might be bonds of affection between them that transcend their cold business arrangement. Saskia Reeves and Danny Webb are fine as the couple, but they could have been better if their performances had not been burdened by forced American accents. As the themes are universal, perhaps Morgan would have done better by abandoning factual accuracy and setting her play in, say, London, thereby helping us to connect with the characters. The accents and a desert set that looks as if its designer raided Kew Gardens for every variety of cactus in existence only serve to distance us further from them. There are plenty of interesting ideas under discussion here, but they do not add up to very good theatre.

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Centring on the intertwined worlds of journalism and politics, Guy de Maupassant’s novel, Bel Ami, told of corruption, greed, immorality and hypocrisy at the highest level of public life. The original setting was France in the 1880s, but crossing the Channel and leaping forward to the 21st Century, it is remarkable how little of the story has needed to be changed and, with the Leveson inquiry and phone-hacking trials still hitting the headlines, it could hardly be more topical. This new musical is performed by students for BA Musical Theatre at the London College of Music, with support coming from now professional alumni. Inevitably, there are a few performances that need a little polishing and the casting is not always perfect, but ample compensation is provided by the performers’ commitment and zeal. There are two alternat- ing casts and, at this performance, the lead role of George Dury was played by Johnny Fitzharris; he attacks the part with supreme confidence, commanding the stage and belting out his big number, Don’t Question Me, as if he really believes he could be the next Michael Ball. He may just be right. The story begins with George, a former soldier in Afghanistan, homeless and begging for small change at Westminster tube station. Through chance, he gets a job with a low brow newspaper and works his way up from junior reporter to celebrity gossip writer and political columnist, eventually using blackmail to enter politics. We start out rooting for him as a downtrodden underdog, but, when it becomes clear that he is ruthless, manipulative, amoral and a serial seducer of women, our attraction to him starts to wane. Having an anti-hero as the leading character in a story is not in itself a bad thing, but the absence of any sympathetic characters for him to play against leaves the show without an emotional heart. The women left in his wake are all users too and they behave equally badly; they sing their ballads of woe, individually and collectively, but the numbers fall flat, because our reaction to them is “you got what you deserved, so who cares?” The score by Alex Loveless is lively and varied, incorporating contemporary pop, a little rap and traditional musical theatre styles. He knows how to mix things up too, as when the show gets a little heavy in the second act, he diverts from the main narrative and throws in Too Much Money, showing MPs frolicking in their Caribbean playground. It is unusual in musicals for a single person to take on all three tasks – book, lyrics and score – and Love- less needs to be congratulated for this, but he may want to contemplate whether a collabo- rator could have helped to make the spoken dialogue sharper and wittier and guided him as to where he might have wielded the axe to songs that work less well than others. Chris Loveless’ direction and Anthony Whiteman’s choreography are fluid and imaginative, performed on an uncluttered stage with minimal props. Most heartening is that their pro- duction shows a clear understanding of what is uniquely possible in the art form of musical theatre. As examples: trial by media is explained in a gem of a routine with two rival groups facing each other – one (phone) tap dancing, the other performing a “liberal shuffle”; earlier a sombre funeral merges into a joyful wedding during a single song, the characters’ emo- tions seen to be equally shallow at each; and the corrosive effects of unethical journalism are demonstrated with the chorus waving their red tops as they sing Read All About it, cre- ating visual images that endorse the cynicism of the lyrics. Bel Ami is not the sort of of story from which we expect a happy outcome, but this produc- tion could well lead to several of them. If the efforts of these talented students have given the show’s creators a clearer vision of the strengths and flaws in their work, they should be able to develop it further and a full scale professional production may beckon.

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