Archive for March, 2014

Urinetown**** (St James Theatre)

Posted: March 15, 2014 in Theatre

THIS REVIEW HAS BEEN DESIGNATED A PUN-FREE ZONE

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: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

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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The Boy Who Cried** (Hope Theatre)

Posted: March 10, 2014 in Theatre

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

A full moon rises, a girl goes missing and a werewolf may be on the loose in London. When Sam, a teenager, is seen by his mother, naked by the river and with a bite mark on his neck, she calls in the authorities to investigate. The trend established in successful films and television series to juxtapose elements of gothic horror onto stories about troubled adolescents seems to be drifting into the theatre. Let the Right One In, seen recently at the Royal Court will soon transfer to London’s West End, indicating that there is a ready-made audience for plays in this sub-genre. However, new writer Matt Osman’s work excludes the romantic themes embraced by most of its predecessors and is given a much smaller production, without special effects. The first half strikes a very uneasy balance between drama and comedy, each of which works against the other. Protection Officer Thompson arrives to interrogate Sam (Jordan Mallory-Skinner) and obtain a confession before the next full moon. As Thompson, Jake Curran is required to be sinister and threatening in one scene and a bumbling clown in the next. Understandably, he struggles. At the same time, the mother (Shelley Lang) often seems more like a character in a farce than a concerned parent. The comedy includes some quite clever jokes, but they fall flat because the context is completely wrong for them.  As a result of gratuitous comic diversions early in the play, the three main characters and the relationships between them are underdeveloped in preparation for a second half in which the balance tilts much more towards meaty drama. All the performances now grow in strength as the focus turns to a battle of wills between Thompson and Sam, the former resorting to torture in order to satisfy his obsession with proving Sam’s guilt. The drama builds to a long, tension-filled final scene which is spoken partly in verse, thereby adding to the overall surreal tone. So, what are the messages that this play is trying to convey? At first it seems as if we are looking at a metaphor for teenage angst, with allusions to mental health problems. Perhaps lycanthropy is a misdiagnosis of depression or schizophrenia and, when Sam talks of being “torn between the need to be alone and the need never to be alone”, these themes seem to underlie the story. However, Osman then changes track and makes his play about an Orwellian authoritarian state oppressing a dissenting individual. Confusion of styles in the main text is matched by confusion of purpose in the sub text. The Boy Who Cried is interesting and different, if not completely successful. However, it is fair to say that, reflecting the name of this new pub theatre, all concerned with the production show considerable promise for the future.

Performance date: 7 March 2014

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Never-Mind-the-Botox2This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Welcome to Evergreen’s, a clinic in deepest Essex where youth and beauty can be restored at the stroke of a scalpel, Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror plays on a loop and floors may be a little dusty because the vacuum cleaner is being used for liposuction procedures. Nick Reed’s new farce at first seems Ortonesque, but the name of the resident surgeon, Dr Longadonga, gives a clue that the humour is likely to be more in the vein of the Carry on films. When Amy (Georgia Darell), a plain Jane, scornfully accompanies her vampish mother Wendy (Lesley Moloney) to the clinic for a face lift, she also bumps into her father (David Skynner), in for a hair transplant, her ex-boyfriend (Matthew Fraser Holland), getting a penis enlargement, and her uncle (Alex Harland), dropping by for his regular Botox booster jabs and piling up Nectar points in the process. Mishaps and mistaken identities ensue, played with forced zaniness and peppered with smart one-line gags.  Dr L (Mike Goodenough) is an obese drunk, who dreams of becoming a vet and the clinic is run by his wife Christina, played by Liza Callinicos, who gives a deliciously funny performance. Wearing a permanent false smile and showing zero tact, her interest in the patients is purely financial and, when one of them makes a complaint, she retorts “I’m too busy to feign interest”. She fawns over a journalist (Ewen Mackintosh) who turns up to write a review of the clinic, making it pretty well certain that the procedure which he undergoes will have a disastrous outcome. This sort of material, with one-dimensional characters and a nonsense plot, often only works in short comedy sketches, becoming tiresome when stretched out for longer. So it comes as a pleasant surprise that Nick Reed keeps it bubbling for almost two hours (with interval). Largely, this is due to splendid comic timing by all the performers who deliver the rapid-fire jokes, some of them very funny, with precision. If this play was to become a meaningful satire on the modern day obsession with looks, its scalpel would need to be sharper and its incisions would need to go a lot deeper. As it is, it probably will not linger in the memory for too long, but it is a lot of fun while it lasts.

Performance date: 5 March 2014

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a taste of honeyThe National is fully entitled to give a rare revival to what is arguably one of the most important British plays of the 20th Century. Written by Shelagh Delaney and first staged in 1958, the play differs from the works of other playwrights breaking through at the same time (Osborne, Wesker) in that it is not used as a platform for airing political ideas, it is purely and simply a human drama with a working class setting. It is astonishing that Delaney wrote it at the age of just 18 and still more so that she had the confidence and the courage to confront the taboos and prejudices of her era – teenage pregnancy, racism, homophobia – head on. We are told that Delaney wrote it to prove that she could do better than Terence Rattigan and, in the sense of how ordinary people can relate to the play, she succeeded; yet, in terms of dramatic structure and characterisation, her debt to Rattigan’s influence is perhaps greater than she would have cared to admit. Of course, the play’s shock value has now dissipated, but what remains in Bijan Sheibani’s production is a very fine drama indeed, still highly relevant in the modern age and filled with warmth, emotion and natural humour. The story concerns Jo, a teenage schoolgirl and her slutty, self-centred mother, Helen, who live in a dingy, damp, Salford flat which can boast stunning views of the local gas works; Helen marries a drunk, whilst Jo becomes pregnant after a reckless fling with a black sailor and then co-habits with a gay student. Kate O’Flynn is marvellous as Jo (presumably based on Delaney herself), rebellious, grounded, optimistic and determined to overcome whatever obstacles life throws in her way; she embodies the spirit of the new Britain that was then emerging. The wonderful Lesley Sharp fits the part of Helen as if she was born to play it, managing to be both comic and tragic at the same time. 1950s style jazz music and dancing during scene changes add brightness and flavour and the problem that the Lyttelton stage poses for intimate dramas is resolved by effectively using only half of it. True, the set is grander than it needs to be, but at least it does not overwhelm the play. Shelagh Delaney died just over two years ago and this production is a fitting tribute to her.

Performance date: 3 March 2014

A-Hard-Rain-Review-Above-the-Stag2-1024x682This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Taking its title from an apocalyptic Bob Dylan song, this new full-length play itself depicts the end of a world – a rotten one of prejudice, deceit and corruption – but, unlike Dylan’s song, it also leads to the hope of a new dawn and a better world. The action centres around a seedy, illicit gay bar in Greenwich Village, just a few blocks from its rival, The Stonewall and the time is 1969 during the weeks leading up to the historic riots. Images of Britain in the Sixties are largely positive, but, in America, it was a decade of traumas, dominated by assassinations of prominent figures and the horrific Vietnam war. This play is set at a time when Britain had already made the crucial legislative breakthrough in establishing gay rights, with America lagging behind, and the characters speak of London as a kind of nirvana. Giving a bravura performance, Michael Edwards plays Ruby, a brazen cross dresser with a strong Southern accent; a Vietnam veteran, he is aggressive yet damaged, part Rambo, part Blanche DuBois, defiant and unapologetic. He is at his best when spitting out bitchy wisecracks and going into battle to further his beliefs, but his ill-fated relationship with Josh (Oliver Lynes), a young, suited Wall Street type, is less convincing. Bartender Angie, played touchingly by Stephanie Wilson, is a single mother who becomes romantically involved with Danny (Rhys Jennings), an earnest but misguided cop; he belongs to a corrupt force which regards the Mafia and “queers” as posing equal threats. The bar is owned by the Mob, as was the Stonewall, and it is run by Frank (Nigel Barber), who takes under his malevolent wing Jimmy (James El-Sharawy giving a particularly confident performance), an abused, cheeky 16-year-old street boy. Linking together several stories involving unorthodox characters who live on the outer margins of society, the play seems rather like an East Coast equivalent to the works of Armistead Maupin. There are times when a stronger central narrative thread could have helped to hold the separate strands together and to propel the play with a greater sense of purpose towards the climactic Stonewall Riots. Nonetheless, the writing of Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper, who were previously best known for creating risqué pantomimes for this venue, is admirable. Leaving aside the presence of a “dame”, nothing here remotely resembles a pantomime; this is real human drama, with fleshed-out characters, natural dialogue and a keen sense of history. Viewed from an era when more liberal views prevail, A Hard Rain gives us a stark reminder of how the suppression of a minority group can nurture crime and ruin lives. Having conjured up this production from limited resources, Above the Stag is entitled to feel very proud of it.

Performance date: 28 February 2014

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