Archive for February, 2014

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

If Agatha Christie and Ivor Novello had ever joined forces and then drawn inspiration from Cape Fear, the result could have been something like this show. Presented as part of the Landor’s From Page to Stage season, showcasing new musical theatre, it is a rollicking spoof of the whodunnit genre, set in 1935 on the remote island of Lost Crow during a spell of appalling weather, which sounds very much like that of February 2014. As British movie star Honey Quenelle (Amelia Adams-Pearce) is preparing for her Birthday party, news is filtering through that the local asylum is short of one lunatic. Conditions are so bad that the delivery from Fortnum’s cannot get through, but not bad enough to prevent the arrival of the guests, all of whom have good reason for wanting rid of the delectable Honey. This is a new show, but not one that attempts to extend the boundaries of musical theatre.! Rather it is one that retreats to the style as well as the setting of almost 80 years ago, with one-dimensional characters, a nonsense storyline, simple lyrics and hummable but quickly forgettable tunes. The costumes and set show excellent attention to period detail, the back wall being plastered with art deco posters for Quenelle’s films. A spoof of a genre that is already tongue-in-cheek can be difficult to pull off; it needs to be kept bubbling constantly and there are times when Olivia Thompson’s script becomes bogged down, relying much too heavily on one-line gags and not keeping the plot moving. Robert McWhir’s production also feels laboured on occasions, particularly during the show’s somewhat predictable first half. Just before the interval comes what could be one of the show’s best ensemble numbers, Just Like in the Movies, but it is rather unfortunate that it coincides with a plot development calling for a power cut and we see it only in half light. After the interval comes a spell when the show seems to have gone completely off the rails, but, happily, this marks a turn in the right direction, leading to a second half of outright barminess, some of which is so funny that no-one cares how ridiculous the denouement is. This success is largely due to a splendid company, all hamming exuberantly. There are two stand out-comic performances. Playing Mabel Gumm (not alluding to Judy Garland surely?), the dim-witted maid, Katie Brennan makes the most of the script’s funniest lines, searching for her lost gerbil and offering up delicacies such as pork cake and parsnip sponge. And then there is Jenny Gayner, who goes completely over the top, stealing the show as party guest Farmonica Fagarretty, a star-struck nervous wreck; her outrageous rendition of Sorry will linger in the memory long after everything else in this evening is forgotten. In all, Before the Night is Through is a mixed bag, a production that would need quite a lot of work to take it to the next level, but the Landor’s current season is all about such shows. It is interesting to have the chance to glimpse possible musical theatre talent of the future and, if we get a jolly evening of undemanding fun in the process, who’s complaining?

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Lowri Evans is a conceptual artist, a presenter of ideas using both images and words. She is a sweet, smiling lady who exudes a charming innocence belying her 31 years. It would be difficult to write anything nasty about her or any of her work for fear that she might read it and start to cry.  And, to be fair, there is absolutely nothing to dislike on display here. Her wry observations about past, future and what lies between them are gentle, sentimental and quite touching. Inspired by her personal relationships and experiences gained from working with dementia sufferers, she uses images drawn on or projected onto screens (sometimes inserting her live self into them), short poems and children’s play things to focus our minds on the quirkiness of life. Each of the segments here would provide anyone with a pleasurable five minutes, meditating in a gallery. However, when strung together flimsily to form an hour-long show in a theatre space, the result is rather like a stand-up routine stripped of the comedy, lacking in real bite, substance or serious insight. As memory is a recurring theme throughout, it is rather ironic that this show, mildly entertaining whilst in progress, is so instantly forgettable; wandering outside afterwards, I could only barely remember what it was that had brought me here. Surely, I had not planned to watch Cricket on an evening in the middle of Winter?

When a mountaineer was asked why he climbed Everest, he replied “because it was there”. Similarly, my explanation for being at this show is that I happened to be in the Soho Theatre as it was about to start. The show is a collection of modern-themed comic songs performed by a masked Irish duo, their DJ and a puppet of Gabriel Byrne. To be fair to them all, they clearly have a devoted following and it is not their fault that this brand of in-your-face comedy is just not my thing. I prefer humour that is laced with at least a little subtlety and wit, rather than that which relies for its laughs on almost every other word uttered beginning with an “f” and being the same word. One consolation was that the audience was made to stand, making this show a lot more comfortable than many others at this venue; indeed many of my fellow audience members relished the opportunity to gather in circles and converse, shouting to make themselves heard over the din coming from the stage. This misspent hour felt like something I could have stumbled across on a drunken late evening at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; happily, that is an experience that I will now never have.

We all reach crossroads in our lives when, like Gwyneth Paltrow boarding a tube train, we make one choice and then are left wondering what might have been if we had made another. This show, co-created and performed by Nathan Penlington draws on such experiences. The starting point is an apparently well-known series of Choose Your Own Adventure books for children by the American writer Edward Packard; in common with almost half the audience, I had never previously heard of them. The books provided readers with choices at regular intervals and the adventures then followed the courses that the readers had chosen. At this show, the audience is provided with key pads to vote, with the filmed documentary taking the courses selected by the majority. Penlington embarks on three (possibly more or less at some shows) missions: to find an unknown diarist with whom he has become obsessed, a lost childhood sweetheart and Mr Packard himself. We are told that there are 1,566 possible stories and over 30 different characters to be discovered. The stories are all true and all the possible outcomes have been pre-filmed. As the conclusions to different shows should rarely be the same, there is little risk of giving out spoilers by saying that, on this occasion, Penlington was left barely alive and near naked, handing out flyers to the departing audience. If the concept has flaws, it is carried by the presenter’s geniality.  Apart from being great fun, the show is given substance through being underpinned by wistful reflections on wrong decisions and lost opportunities. Original and entertaining.

Attachment-1-6After half a century during which, in our own country at least, society has become steadily more tolerant of minorities, the world of professional footballers stands resolutely as one of the last bastions of the old order. As seen in John Donnelly’s new play, it is a macho world which tolerates no deviations from its norms, particularly with regard to intellectualism and homosexuality; the private lives of its inhabitants are effectively as regimented as in a solid 4-4-2 formation and, if any of them begins to even think outside the box, they risk conceding the severest of penalties. The play takes place in three hotel rooms over a period of more than a decade, beginning in Bulgaria on the night before a Champions’ League match. Sharing the room are Ade and Jason, close friends who are also rivals for a first team place; they exchange laddish banter, but eventually come to realise that what exists between them may be more than just friendship. Later we discover that both played in the match, which proved to be pivotal for their careers, Jason going on to become a fabulously wealthy Beckham-style superstar, Ade to run a plumbing business and play at weekends on Hackney Marshes. In many ways Ade (Gary Carr) is the more interesting and certainly more sympathetic character. It would have been nice to get to know him better, but, after a shared first scene, the focus is set firmly on Jason (Russell Tovey) and his painful battle with his own sexuality. So what if top footballers have to suffer for their sport, aren’t they paid enough for it? True, but the play cleverly extends its range outside the enclosed world of football to show the wider impact of the game’s entrenched position. Firstly we meet Lyndsey (Lisa McGrillis), a single mother desperate for cash who agrees to provide a kiss and tell story in a media game of deception and counter deception. And then appears Harry (Nico Mirallegro), a young fan who is shaping his own life using the macho and largely false vision of his idol Jason as a role model, thereby demonstrating how football’s outdated image is damaging society more generally. Tovey, a familiar face in television and theatre, was described recently in The Guardian as exuding “irrepressible down-the-pub blokeishness”; he is is an Essex boy, has an athletic physique and he is an openly gay actor. So he ticks just about every box for playing Jason and he plays him well, except that he is never able to make us sympathise with him. In fairness, the writer gives him little to work on and, in a critical failing, he never allows the character to articulate his true emotions. All we see is Jason as outwardly egocentric and a vile bully, so that, when he is faced with either the Hitzisperger or the Fashanu option, do we really care? When the two footballers are reunited, Ade is partnered with a man whilst Jason is parted from his WAG and two children and living in a hotel waiting to find a new club to end his playing days in the Middle East or America. We are left in no doubt as to which of the two is the luckier. This play needs a little cutting from its first two scenes and is far from perfect, but it is absorbing, significant and has several memorable dramatic high points.

richard-iii-photo-by-adam-triggThis review was originally written for The Public Review: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Following a surprise appearance in a Leicester car park, our most reviled monarch can now be found some way down the A1, taking up residence in a Highgate pub. Zoe Ford’s lean, all-action, very modern production of Richard III takes place on a blackened set, with just a golden throne as its centrepiece. The performance begins with Richard witnessing the ascent to the throne of his brother King Edward IV, drafting on the final scene from another play – Henry VI pt 3 – and thereby delaying this play’s famous opening speech by five minutes. This break with tradition is useful in adding historical context to a plot that can be confusing and in introducing Richard as not just a murdering psychopath, rather a man who is following a family tradition. He does no more than what his predecessors have done by scheming and killing to claim his crown, a prize that will ultimately mean less to him than a horse. David McLaughlin’s agile and athletic Richard shows no physical deformities (even an unbending leg seems to repair itself miraculously after a couple of scenes) and his powerful performance is all the more admirable for that. This is not the pantomime villain that the character can become when overacted; here is a man born the runt of a litter, dogged by feelings of inferiority, yet locked into lifelong competition with his brothers. On his way to the throne, he is cold and calculating and it is only when his ambition and insecurity are juiced up by real power that signs of insanity appear. As demented rage conflicts with rare remorse before his final battle, his inner turmoil is shown through a very clever illusion in which he appears to be throttling himself. There is little regality in this court. The men, dressed in black leather, look like a gang of Hell’s Angels who have parked their bikes outside and dropped in for a pint. The widows and mothers are earthy women, powerless behind the throne, wailing for the losses of their loved ones. Particularly strong is Tabitha Becker-Kahn’s flame-haired Duchess of York (modern reference coincidental?), who appears rather like the Queen of Hearts. The production’s chief weaknesses are those inherent in the play itself – its repetitiveness and its lacks of subtlety and variations in tone. Correspondingly the high points come when Shakespeare’s text is sidelined; several brutal murders are depicted vividly, to the sound only of music; Richard’s wordless seduction of his Queen is almost erotic until it turns into yet another slaughter; and the child Prince Edward romps around in a playful ballet with his executioner, before meeting his end. These and other scenes are enacted with the accompaniment of well-chosen rock tracks which fit well with the narrative and the production design. With just 10 actors playing all the roles, this is scaled-down Shakespeare at its best, exemplified when the Battle of Bosworth Field is reduced to a thrilling one-on-one street brawl between the King and the Earl of Richmond. This “battle” is clear proof of the theory that less can be more and the same must be said of the entire production.

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photo: Adam Trigg

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

The core of all human emotions or just a muscle pumping blood around the body? The differing connotations attached to the word “heart” form the basis for this thoughtful debut play by Canadian writer Matthew Edison, here getting its UK premiere. Cara (Amanda Hale) agonises over the chain of events that led to a car crash in which she lost her partner – was it just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or did an argument between them over an infidelity a decade earlier set off the chain? She consents for his heart to be used in a transplant and then wonders if she will be able to look into the eyes of the recipient and see him living on inside a new body. A “domino heart” is one that is passed between two (or more) recipients, usually because of death during a transplant operation. Here we see two potential recipients. Mort (Lawrence Werber) is a septuagenarian who sums up his positive outlook on life by saying that he is “scared not of dying but of not living”; never married and a man of the church, he is portrayed as inherently good and selfless. In complete contrast, Leo (Rob Cavazos) is a 33-year old advertising executive who dabbles in dodgy financial dealings; born to a poor Mexican mother as a result of rape, he is ruthless and cynical and, to him, the most important heart is the one that keeps money flowing through the system. So, which of these two is worthier of extended life? Should such judgements be influenced by age, moral outlook, background or wealth? The Domino Heart plants these ethical questions into our heads, without lingering on them or offering answers. The play is presented as separate monologues by each of the characters, all three being on stage throughout yet never meeting. The monologues are all, in different ways, touching, but they do not reach the level of dramatic intensity that could have made them heart-rending. Interaction between characters might have heightened the drama and the play seems to be promising a final scene which will bring characters together. Sadly, this scene does not materialise, with the further loss that, ultimately, the disparate themes contained within the writing are never quite unified in a coherent way. Simply staged in an intimate setting, the production is blessed with three impeccable performances and, leaving aside disappointments, the writing is, for the most part, intelligent and absorbing. The Domino Heart introduces us to a playwright with considerable promise.

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