Archive for March, 2014

Almost Near** (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: March 31, 2014 in Theatre

Exploring links between warfare in Afghanistan and domestic tensions at home, Pamela Carter’s new play is muddled and disjointed. Four young soldiers, Jackson, Nicey, Chips and “Princess” are killed in a suicide bomb attack and are seen in their after lives coming to terms with their fates; back in England, a forty-something married couple, Louise and Ed are separating and agonising over their troubled son who has an imaginary friend. The only link between the two stories is that Louise had been having an affair with “Princess” prior to him enlisting. The irony in the acting is that the four dead soldiers are all brought to life by well-judged performances, whilst the couple who are living remain dull and uninteresting. Metaphors and symbolism abound to underline Carter’s message about the ravages and pointlessness of war, which are timeless. However, they are also well-worn and, sadly, she has nothing new to say in a play that, ultimately, makes very little sense.

Performance date: 31 March 2014

The Dead Dogs*** (Print Room)

Posted: March 22, 2014 in Theatre

Jon Fosse, we are told, is the most performed living European playwright in the World, but the Norwegian remains little known in the UK.  This production of a dark and baffling play, first seen in 2004, may do little to change things.  Set near the Fjords. a mother and son live alone and are soon to be visited by her daughter and son-in-law. This family is not so much dysfunctional as disconnected; when together, they stand spread at equal distances from each other across the stage, facing the audience, talking, but not as if to each other and their words are spoken in short, staccato sentences often beginning with “yes”. The elephant in the room is the mental state of the son (Danny Horn) who seems to be in the advanced stages of withdrawal from life, maybe due to autism or depression, having given up his cherished guitar and lost his beloved dog; he lies on a wooden bench or stands gazing out of the window barely communicating with his family or an old friend who also visits. His mother (Valerie Gogan) and all the others bicker at him, repeating the same things over and over, honing in on subjects sensitive to him as if picking at open wounds. The dialogue is grating for us to listen to precisely because that is how the mentally disturbed young man hears it; thus we are given an insight into a mind that is drifting loose from ties to the rest of the World and towards insanity. It is a fascinating concept and beautifully acted by the cast of five. Themes of mental disorders and dead dogs bring to mind another recent play, Curious Incident…, but, whereas that was optimistic and filled with human emotion, this is relentlessly bleak and cold. Fosse’s work is loaded with metaphors and symbolism and it is doubtful if any two interpretations of it will be the same. Nonetheless, it is always intriguing and, as with, say,  Pinter or Beckett, the after-play “what was THAT all about” discussion may turn out to be at least as enjoyable as the play itself.

Performance date: 21 March 2014

Attachment-1-7Fringe theatres may love monologues because they are usually cheap to stage, but they can be one of the most difficult forms of theatre to get right. They rely on a script that tells a story vividly, an actor that can hold an audience enthralled and a perfect fusion of the two. Many who saw Grounded last year may have thought it as good as monologues can get, but here is one to challenge it. It is performed by Rob Ward, the co-writer with Martin Jameson who also directs. Ward plays Kyle, an avid football supporter from a working class background who works as a male escort in an unnamed Northern city (let’s call it Liverpool). In the course of his work, he meets a prominent Premier League footballer and then forms an uneasy relationship with him. The issues surrounding gay participants in professional football and other sports are highly topical and, in the theatre, The Pass, seen recently at the Royal court, highlighted the dilemmas facing the players; this play concerns itself primarily with the collateral damage which a secretly gay footballer may leave in his wake. However, this is not a simple story of an innocent used by a superstar and then cast aside; we see that both characters are victims of conflicts in their lives – the footballer is torn between being true to what nature has made him and the possibility of public humiliation and potential loss of earnings, whilst Kyle treads uncertainly between the lifestyle which he has adopted and a family that only partially accepts who he is. As a result, both have become users of others, one for carnal pleasures, the other for financial gain and it is the expression of Kyle’s growing understanding that there should be more than this to relationships that is the triumph of the play. Ward’s animated performance is little short of phenomenal, progressing from violent football yob and callous exploiter of his clients to a wounded lover, he carries every stage of the play with total conviction. Gripping, truthful, brutal, tender and utterly relevant, rarely has an hour in a theatre passed so quickly.

Performance date: 22 March 2014

The Lion King*** (Lyceum Theatre)

Posted: March 21, 2014 in Theatre

photo-76It’s taken more than 14 years to get around to this, but better late than never. As expected, it is an extravagant triumph of colour and movement, set design and lighting, costumes and puppetry. Of course, in the intervening years, other productions have borrowed from and further advanced the techniques pioneered here, but Julie Taymor’s legendary production still dazzles. Added to this, Elton John’s score, expanded from the original Disney cartoon, is magnificent. If this show serves to introduce new generations to the world of wonder that theatre can create and to open their eyes to its possibilities, then long may it continue to run. It may matter little that the spoken sections are pedestrian or that, as in the cartoon, the story is very slight; it is the spectacle that counts. However, having been around for so long, the show runs like a well-oiled machine and, somewhere along the line, it may have lost some of its heart and soul, as it is not easy to connect with emotionally. There are carbon copy productions playing and touring all around the world, moving theatre closer to the territory occupied by cinema, driven by visual thrills, supported by mass marketing and merchandising; the result is that, in the end, The Lion King, feels like something that would be more at home in Las Vegas or a theme park, supremely accomplished technically, but lacking some of the key ingredients that make up the full experience of theatre.

Performance date: 20 March 2014

photo-77The best chance that any new musical seems to have of making it to the West End stage right now is for it to be adapted from a successful film. The producers of this one were taking no chances at all, because their story of a suave English confidence trickster and his younger American apprentice has already been made into not one but two films – firstly 1n 1964 (entitled Bedtime Story) with David Niven and Marlon Brando, and then in 1988 with Michael Caine and Steve Martin. The setting is the French Riviera in its heyday, a millionaires’ playground which provides rich pickings for the devious pair. As soon as the curtain rises, it is clear that we are in for a real treat for the eye and rarely can a show and the venue in which it is playing have been so well matched; the opulent art deco sets always look as if they are an extension of the Savoy theatre and the luxury hotel above it. Robert Lindsay is perfect as the vain, over-confident trickster, but he is an actor who can play this sort of comedy sleepwalking. The big revelation is Rufus Hound who, as the American, matches Lindsay step for step and they make a memorable comic duo. Katherine Kingsley and Samantha Bond as their glamorous victims and John Marquez as a corrupt police officer are also excellent. Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, the production is slick and lively, rarely flagging. Jeffrey Lane’s book and David Yazbek’s lyrics are witty and inventive, producing several hilarious comedy sequences developed from the two films. The one sour note is Yazbek’s score which offers varied and catchy rhythms but, melodically, never rises above the ordinary. As a result, this show can be described as arguably the funniest comedy to hit town since One Man Two Guvnors, but a top drawer musical? Not quite.

Performance date: 19 March 2014

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Almost 30 minutes pass before the first word is spoken in Anthony Shaffer’s play, which is part thriller, part black comedy. It is almost as if the main part of Norman Bartholemew had been written with Jaques Tati in mind to play it. Exactly what transpires cannot be told, but the opening is an acting (or rather miming) and directorial tour de force, made all the more effective by the close proximity of the audience to the action in this small space. Shaffer’s biggest hit, Sleuth, first appeared in 1970, this play coming five years later and, in between, he collaborated on a film with Alfred Hitchcock. Clear touches of Hitchcock’s macabre sense of humour are evident throughout Murderer, but particularly during the opening scene, with every gruesome deed being enacted with meticulous attention to detail. Hitchcock also shared Shaffer’s love for playing around with dramatic conventions, so the idea of a play in which over a quarter is silent would surely have gained the approval of the Master of Suspense. Sadly, after the first word has been spoken, it is mostly downhill. Norman is an artist who has a fascination for murderers and their techniques. As he also has a loveless marriage and a mistress, little more needs to be said of a plot in which the twists and turns are as see-through as the bathroom wall in Philip Lindley’s nicely detailed 1970s set. Like all plot- driven dramas, when the plot stalls, the play stalls and, on the many occasions when this happens, Shaffer bides time with a great deal of pretentious and not very gripping dialogue. Playing Norman as a vain, capricious and childlike anti-hero, Bradley Clarkson carries most of the evening. He looks none too comfortable in a polo neck sweater and tight fitting flares, but he is great fun to watch as he revives a style of flamboyant acting rarely seen in the last 40 years. Abby Forknall and Zoe Teverson as Norman’s two women are both effective, whilst Andrew Ashford is highly amusing as the obligatory slow-witted uniformed police sergeant, a man who can down two pints of Newcastle Brown Ale in a couple of swigs, but is incapable of spotting what could be a corpse. As he lies in nearby Highgate Cemetery, perhaps Anthony Shaffer will give a smile of satisfaction at Tim Frost’s production which extracts as much entertainment as possible out of his now very dated play. He was a dramatist who excelled in confounding audience expectations and it is fitting that, when most murder thrillers are noted for their final denouements, he has left us with one that is chiefly memorable for its opening.

Performance date: 18 March 2014

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This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

There are many of us who can never walk past a theatre where the hoardings are displaying the name Sondheim. So, in Jermyn Street right now, the advice is to read the small print, which informs us that, notwithstanding its title, this show contains no music by Stephen Sondheim whatsoever. Such a pity. Having been lured in regardless, the first thing we hear is a familiar chord from Comedy Tonight, followed by variant tune and lyrics. The same trick is repeated later with Send in the Clowns and Gee, Officer Krupke, but these numbers are as close as we get to real Sondheim. Satan yearns to perform the songs of the Master, but simply cannot get hold of the rights and so the Devil of musical theatre is pitched against its God. Sporting bright red horns and tail and white hooves, writer/director Adam Long plays Satan, who, we are told, came to earth in 1964 because it was a very good time for musicals. Now 50 and reluctantly accepting that he is too old to play Tony in West Side Story, he is putting together a musical revue and has set his sights on a gig at the London Palladium. Mark Caven plays his long-suffering manager. Placing two wisecracking New Yorkers in a fantasy comedy, the style is reminiscent of very early Woody Allen, but there is little bite or originality to the humour, with the result that the show’s persistent silliness occasionally becomes irritating. It all adds up to an affectionate homage to Broadway and (arguably) its greatest son. Perhaps the Satan character is meant to represent every outsider who is besotted with musical theatre and dreams of breaking into its highest echelons, but the show is too light a confection to bear the weight of underlying themes. It draws strongly on theatrical in- jokes and it all feels more than a little self-indulgent, but there is not too much to really dislike about it and it passes a pleasant if unremarkable 55 minutes.

Performance date: 17 March 2014

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Urinetown**** (St James Theatre)

Posted: March 15, 2014 in Theatre


urinetowmThere have been musicals inspired by stranger things than toilets, but not many. This Broadway hit gazes into a dystopian future when, following water shortages created during the” Stink Years”, toilet usage is strictly controlled by the Urine Good Company (oops, pun already, but it’s in the script), which imposes ever increasing charges for the use of its facilities. Failure to comply means banishment to Urinetown, which we are told is a metaphysical concept (like Chinatown in the film of that name); in other words, it is a euphemism for death. What follows is an uprising by the common people against the UGC, a fable of corporate greed and ecological catastrophe. It is a show of two halves. Having set out its concept in the first scene, the writers seem to have no idea where to take it during a first half that is often trite and predictable and during which Mark Hollmann’s score is memorable only for being so unmemorable. The themes may be modern, but the style is 1950s Broadway; however, at the interval, it feels like a show that would not have survived for half a dozen performances in that era.  After the interval, the transformation is instant with Snuff That Girl and Run, Freedom, Run, two rousing ensemble numbers, both beautifully choreographed and, from then on, the show flies. Everything that was wrong about the first half is right about the second. The book by Greg Kotis and lyrics by him and Hoffman now sparkle, sickly romance is literally dumped from a great height and the entire premise on which the show seems to have been built is turned completely on its head. A company of top ranking musical theatre performers, including Jenna Russell, Jonathan Slinger and Richard Fleeshman provide real class and Jamie Lloyd’s direction ensures that the production has the vibrancy, energy and visual wit to sustain it, even through the weaker earlier scenes. Much credit must also go to Soutra Gilmour’s superb two-levelled set, which uses inner and outer revolves; it is perfectly suited to the steeply-raked auditorium of the St James. The most remarkable achievement of Urinetown is that it manages to be pessimistic, anti-heroic and anti-romantic, yet still to be filled with exuberant joy. Quite a feat.

Performance date: 14 March 2014

As a first step in evaluating this production, it is necessary to set aside any blind reverence for English drama of Shakespeare’s age. The simple fact is that, regardless of when it was written and by whom, The Massacre at Paris is a truly abysmal play, lacking in literary quality, meaningful characterisations, moral purpose and modern relevance. It has not had a professional run in England for over four centuries and the reasons are plain for all to see. Set before the invention of chainsaws, it is close to the Elizabethan equivalent of a snuff movie in which every scene is more or less the same – characters enter, some kill and others get killed, characters exit. Who is killing whom and for what reason remain unclear, as does the overall plot which has something to do with 16th century religious conflicts and struggles for the French throne. In mitigation for the playwright, Christopher Marlowe, it is thought likely that his original text has been as badly mutilated as many of the characters in his play; however, whether this is true or whether he simply had a bad day at the office, surely it would have been more respectful to him to have let this tosh rest for at least another 400 years. Faced with insurmountable obstacles, director James Wallace seems to look to the Springtime for Hitler solution, by making what is already bad even worse, hoping that it will eventually become so bad that is good. Hence, the use of cartoon-like violence with characters spewing confetti, red for blood, white for other bodily fluids. Hence also some some over-the-top performances, most notably from Kristin Milward, who makes the Queen Mother a Cruella de Vil clone and from James Askill, who contributes a camp, sometimes asinine, sometimes porcine King Henry III. Yes there are plenty of laughs, many of them intentional, but laughs should not be what a play like this is about. The performance takes place on a platform above an archaeological dig on the site of the original Rose theatre, where this play was first performed; so indeed there could be merit in staging it as a kind of museum exhibit, but, if this had been the intention, would it not have been preferable to have performed it as it might have been seen in Marlowe’s day, rather than in modern dress and as a black comedy? Happily, it runs for only 90 minutes, so we do not have to wait too long for almost all the cast to shed their red confetti and for the Bourbons to take the biscuit. Terrible pun, terrible play.

Performance date: 13 March 2014

proud1_2846913bThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Jackie Sibblies Drury has said that she had so little confidence that her play would ever be produced that she could not be bothered to find a short, snappy title for it. Her lack of confidence was misplaced. So, does the title tell all? Well not completely, because, at the heart of the play, lies acts of genocide committed by the German colonial occupiers in the 1900s, killing around 80% of Herero people. These events have become buried in the annals of the history of a century so filled with atrocities, perhaps suggesting that even history looks upon this part of the World as less significant than others. The play adopts the odd structure of having actors play actors who are playing characters in a presentation (not a play) that they are putting together about these events. The races of the actors are specified in the script. Ayesha Antoine, a black women, plays an actor/ director and the rest of the cast are a white woman (Kirsty Oswald), two black men (Kingsley Ben-Adir and Isaac Ssebandeke) and two white men (Joseph Arkley and Joshua Hill). At first the fictional actors preen, massage their own egos and go to absurd lengths to get into character. This is all amusing, but it is a diversion and, at this stage, the playwright is running the risk that such levity in her work could have the effect of trivialising genocide itself. However, the play gets much stronger as it progresses. When, working from letters written by German soldiers to their loved ones at home, the actors begin to ask how such seemingly normal men could have been expressing themselves so affectionately, whilst, at the same time, they were casually participating in the extermination of a race of people. Of course Jackie Sibblies Drury wants to draw attention to an overlooked tragedy, but, by midway through this 90-minute play, her wider objectives have become clear. Developing her belief that, in the modern world, racism is viewed as a problem that has now been dealt with and can no longer be discussed, she re-opens the discussion and asks searching questions about attitudes that still prevail. Her actors drift into and out of racial stereotypes, challenging themselves and each other, speaking what some might regard as unthinkable and even telling jokes so vile that, in other circumstances, they could have led to prosecution. Played on an empty stage, with the audience on three sides, Gbolahan Obisesan’s production is lively and fluent. He directs a cast of six who all show the energy and conviction needed to bring this complex piece to life. At first, an outline of Namibia appears on the stage floor, but, gradually during the play, boards are removed to reveal a sand pit in which the climactic scenes are played. Towards the end, lighting turns the sand red, representing both the bloodshed of the past and the images of red desert that we now see in travel brochures, inviting us to spend our holidays in a land where a greatly diminished number of Herero still survive and cling to their heritage and culture. We Are Proud to Present… experiments with dramatic forms and occasionally misses its targets, but, more often, it delivers theatre that is both powerful and provocative.

Performance date: 12 March 2014

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