Archive for April, 2014

Debris**** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: April 28, 2014 in Theatre

Attachment-1With a pile of rubble forming the centrepiece of the performance area, this is a dark and intense hour-long two-hander showing life and death amongst the dregs of modern urban society. The characters are a young brother and sister who recount in gruesome detail the deaths of their parents, filling their narratives with vivid descriptions of Dickensian-style grotesques. Dennis Kelly’s writing is rich, almost poetic and the images created are deeply disturbing, yet it is filled with morbid humour and passion, even an eventual sense of optimism. Amidst the debris of ruined lives, new life emerges and new hope. The production is blessed by two staggering performances from Harry McEntire and Leila Mimmack who bring out all the horror and despair of their characters’ blighted lives and instinctively mine the rich seam of humour running through the writing. Two potential stars have risen from these ruins.

Parformance date: 28 April 2014

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov was never one to shrink from rattling cages, as is amply demonstrated in this energetic and original entertainment, devised by Belka Productions. Three of Nabakov’s short stories, written between 1924 and 1930, and set in the decadent Germany of that time have been adapted and interwoven to create 90 minutes of drama, movement and music. The linking theme is transport, with people dashing around on trains and buses, their lives intersecting briefly, colliding with each other, missing each other or ignoring each other. Alexey (Luke Courtier) is a Russian, exiled from his home at the time of the 1917 Revolution, who holds the single dream of being reunited with his wife Lena (Kate Craggs), who is also in Germany and searching for him, even aboard the same train on which he is working as a guard. Konstantin (Joel Gorf) is also a Russian exile, but happy that his work as a travelling salesman takes him away from his wife and enables him to satisfy his lascivious desires; Sonja (Madeleine Knight) has the misfortune to share his compartment, which leads to him abusing and then callously discarding her. Frau Monde (Peter Clements) acts as MC and adopts the guise of the devil in the third story in which Erwin (Edward Cole), a shy voyeur, is offered the chance to have all his sexual fantasies brought to reality as part of a demonic pact. On their own, each of the stories is insubstantial and not entirely satisfying, but, collectively, they paint a fascinating picture of people in turmoil inside a country and continent which are also in turmoil and heading towards catastrophe. Director Simon Eves cleverly uses his company of just six to create an impression of constant hustle and bustle around Agnes Treplin’s set which adapts readily to represent carriages and stations. Only Clements’ camp, cross-dressing MC/devil reminds us of the familiar depictions of German night life in the inter-war years; for the most part, Nabakov shows us a daytime world which is equally corrupted. Alexey, haunted by loneliness, turns to drugs which are easily available and contemplates suicide; Konstantin has lost all sense of morality and feels free to trample over others at will; Erwin will pay any price to get what would otherwise be unattainable. Presented as part of the UK-Russia Year of Culture, this is a vibrant and highly unusual work of theatre, imaginatively conceived and well performed. Notwithstanding the bleakness of its vision, it always holds our interest and offers considerable entertainment.

Performance date: 25 April 2014

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Martine*** (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: April 25, 2014 in Theatre

Martine-Finborough-London-620x330This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Returning from war in Syria to stay with his grandmother in rural France, Julien walks down a country road and catches sight of the lovely Martine, who has found shade from the mid-day sun under a tree. The attraction between them is instant and mutual, but social conventions intervene and unhappiness follows. Seated on three sides of the Finborough’s small stage, the audience is invited to become intimately involved in a haunting story of thwarted love. Jean-Jacques Bernard’s play, written in 1922 and set just before then, was first performed in this translation by John Fowles at the National Theatre in 1985. In Tom Littler’s strangely Anglicised version, the characters are seen as upper middle class toffs and Somerset yokels, distinguishing between town and country folk and between social classes. Perhaps accents are a minor detail, but here they exemplify a lack of subtlety running through much of the production, over-emphasising what is already obvious. The production is at its best when it is underplayed, such as in the tender opening scene, when the couple’s awkward, tactile advances to each other tell all and few words are needed. Hannah Murray captures Martine’s innocence beautifully and then shows her pain as she comes to accept the impossibility of her yearning for Julien and the inevitability of a fate, which will see see her trapped in a loveless marriage to Alfred (Chris Porter). Barnaby Sax is less convincing as Julien, coming across as confident and self-assured, even at times a cad, when perhaps Bernard intended him to be psychologically scarred by war and vulnerable, as much a victim of social pressures as Martine. The reasons for his decision to marry the insecure Jeanne (Leila Crerar) are not well detailed in the play and we are never quite sure whether his abandonment of Martine is a personal choice or one made for him. Orchestrating events and defending society’s established divisions is Julien’s grandmother (Susan Penhaligon), whose stern demeanour and tightly curled silver hair bring to mind a High Court judge giving instructions to a jury. She inhabits sections of the play when the direction feels too heavy-handed and the lack of sympathetic characters, other than Martine herself, begins to eat into the production’s emotional heart. Bernard’s key themes and his central character, a woman imprisoned by social conventions, are somewhat redolent of Ibsen and, notwithstanding the soft amber glow of the lighting and set, this staging has more Scandinavian coldness than French warmth. It is a production that is always competent and worthy, but one that is never quite as moving as it really should be.

Performance date: 24 April 2014

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Dorian Gray** (Riverside Studios)

Posted: April 25, 2014 in Theatre

PX*1472650This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Oscar Wilde’s narcissistic fantasy of eternal youth has entered our collective consciousness to the extent that almost everyone knows the very simple story – handsome young man does a deal with the Devil so that his portrait ages whilst he stays young. However, if simplicity is a virtue in gaining awareness for the story, it proves to be the very opposite in forming the basis for two hours of theatre. Ruby in the Dust Productions have achieved some success in creating musical adaptations of classics such as The Great Gatsby, but, unfortunately, they have hit the rocks this time, largely because the slight story needs far too much stretching out and padding. Linnie Reedman opts for Grand Guignol rather than naturalistic style, but the sombre tone of her script, which shows only flashes of Wildean wit and makes repeated pretentious references to “the depths of man’s soul” and such tosh, hangs heavily like a dark veil over the whole production. The show could have received a considerable boost if it had turned out to be a real musical. Although credit is given to a composer/lyricist, in the event, all we get are a few dirges sung between scenes to give commentaries on events and, sadly, there are no songs integrated into the play either to illuminate Wilde’s themes or to develop the characters. Sung through musicals are quite common, but rarely do we find one that is close to being spoken through and how a few decent songs could have relieved the tedium resulting from much of the dialogue. The story’s homoerotic sub-text is given a prominence of which Wilde would have most likely approved. Jack Fox’s callow and vain Gray is lusted after by his portrait painter (Antony Jardine) and by Lord Henry (Joe Wredden), who turns into a Svengali figure, exerting a malign influence over him. Spurning the love that dares not to speak its name, Gray has an ill-fated dalliance with a promising young actress (Daisy Bevan, a VERY promising young actress) as he descends into the decadence of opium dens, brothels and, still worse, theatres. We never see the portrait at any of its stages of ageing and, whilst Gray’s appearance remains the same, as the story requires, so does that of other characters supposedly growing older with him. Surely visual comparisons showing the ravages of the ageing process could have heightened dramatic effect and accentuated core themes. These seem rather curious oversights in a production which also suffers from staging that is occasionally clumsy, including some hit-and-miss lighting. Being Vanessa Redgrave’s granddaughter, Daisy Bevan, like Jack Fox, belongs to a formidable acting dynasty, something which the production’s publicity makes much of. Indeed, it is endearing performances by them and the rest of the company of seven that provide the brightest moments and the only real reasons for wanting to see what is otherwise a very disappointing show.

Performance date: 22 April 2014

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Other Desert Cities**** (Old Vic)

Posted: April 18, 2014 in Theatre

Extra desert citiesAmerican playwright Jon Robin Baitz’ new play is a fiercely intelligent retrospective on California based Republican Party politics of the 1970/80s and the rebellious generation springing therefrom. Lyman Wyeth (Peter Egan) is a Hollywood actor who has turned to politics late in life and, as we are told in an epilogue, lapsed into dementia after the events of the play; his wife, Polly (Sinead Cusack) is a hard-nosed socialite. So they are not too dissimilar from the Reagans, whose names pop up frequently, Polly’s claim to fame being that she once stood up to Nancy and won. Their daughter Brooke (Martha Plimpton) is a writer who has suffered from severe depression and their son Trip (Daniel Lapaine) is a feckless producer of low brow television shows. Making up the quintet of characters is Silda (Clare Higgins), Polly’s alcoholic sister. They gather at Lyman and Polly’s home in the desert city of Palm Springs to celebrate Christmas 2003, shortly after another Republican President has embarked on the Iraq fiasco, and the catalyst for the drama is the news that Brooke is about to publish a book which rattles the skeletons in the family closet. At first, the play seems to be no more than a left-leaning critique of right wing politics, but the writer is cleverly leading us down that path before delivering a second act knockout punch which reveals his true purpose – to show that, behind the superficial images that public figures always adopt and underneath all their regimented political posturing, exist real people living real lives. The strength of the play is that it does not takes sides in the political arguments, rather it shows the follies of polarised opinions and the collateral damage that can result from them. Under Lindsay Posner’s direction, the acting is quite superb and the company thoroughly deserved its standing ovation at the end. Peter Egan merits special mention, his Lyman being an authoritative but flawed diplomat; there are few dry eyes in the house when he delivers his revelatory speech, almost a confessional. Congratulations too to the Old Vic, now converted very successfully into the round; this production exemplifies the very best of the prominent theme of the Spacey era – strengthening the bonds between UK and US theatre – and it goes a very long way towards fully restoring the theatre’s reputation after the disaster of last Autumn.

Performance date: 17 April 2014

photo-71This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Rooted in the tough neighbourhood of South Boston, Margaret is one of the “good people”. She struggles to make ends meet and looks after a disabled daughter, resorting to constant wisecracks to mask her pain. She is an habitual victim of life’s domino effects, in which minor incidents lead to major ones, with the same inevitable consequences – no job and no dollars to pay the bills. We first meet her as she is again being fired and she then turns to Mike, who she dated as a teenager, not to rekindle the flame, but simply to get help with finding gainful employment. David Lindsay-Abaire’s comedy/drama is an unflinching dissection of the social divisions in modern America and, most likely, modern anywhere in the developed world. Mike has moved away from the lowly neighbourhood, trained to become a doctor and transformed into what the South Bostonians call a “lace curtain”, living in an affluent leafy suburb. Margaret and Mike are now poles apart – different lifestyles, different values, even different ways of looking at a cheeseboard. She plays Bingo in the hope of winning enough to pay off her rent arrears, he tries to preserve a marriage in which the biggest practical worry is whether the red wine is corked. Imelda Staunton is at the very top of her game right now and her Margaret is an inspired and inspirational creation. She is a battling mini-warrior, feisty yet vulnerable, wounded yet never defeated. Moving effortlessly between comedy and drama, as indeed does the play itself, she gives a performance to be looked upon in awe. Lloyd Owen is also convincing as the upwardly mobile Mike, relishing his success, but wary of the roots from which he cannot completely escape. Angel Coulby makes an assertive and sophisticated Kate, Mike’s wife who, as Margaret tactlessly points out, is black. These three combine to deliver a blistering second act showdown which is superbly written. In support, Susan Brown and Lorraine Ashbourne as Margaret’s friends and Matthew Parker as her ex-boss are all excellent. This is a play which, even at it’s most frivolous, has serious undercurrents and, even at it’s most dramatic, can always make room for a joke. It is entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measures. It asks probing questions without offering simplistic solutions; who are the good and the not-so-good people? Maybe good people might be better if they were just a little bad and maybe they could even exist in unexpected places, such as behind lace curtains. Any quibbles? Well perhaps the production has not transferred perfectly from the intimate Hampstead Theatre, which suited it more naturally, to this much larger West End venue. There are times when it is difficult to catch the rapid-fire delivery of lines in the Boston dialect and when the characters seem dwarfed by Hildegard Bechtler’s simply designed sets. However, the evening still belongs to the extraordinary Ms Staunton. It is she who transforms a very good play into an exceptional one.

Performance date: 15 April 2014

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Birdland*** (Royal Court Theatre)

Posted: April 8, 2014 in Theatre

birdlandSo wealth and fame corrupt, right? The message has never been more relevant than today when show business and sports stars earn fortunes and are splashed all over celebrity magazines and television screens, but, from A Star is Born all the way through to this new play by Simon Stephens, the message is fundamentally the same and it is now old hat. Certainly Stephens embellishes his play with very modern touches, the production has brilliant sequences and we see a dazzling star turn from its leading actor, but all this only serves to gloss over the play’s big shortcoming – that it delivers an overwhelming feeling of deja vu. Paul (Andrew Scott) is a rock superstar, coming towards the end of a World tour; we see him first in Moscow, with only Berlin and Paris to go, and then home, if only he had a real home to go to. He is dependent on drugs and alcohol, arrogant, manipulative, petulant and thoughtless. He has lost all sense of reality and alienates everyone around him. The play then follows him along his path of destruction, leaving countless victims in his wake. The playwright’s directions are that “the stage should be spare and abstract rather than mimetic or naturalistic” and so Ian MacNeil’s set is until it undergoes a surprising transformation which ought not to be revealed. Directed by Carrie Cracknell, all the characters apart from Paul and his roadie Johnny (Alex Price) are played by four actors doubling, and very well played too. However, the centrepiece is inevitably Scott whose performance ranges from languid (often under the influence of some substance) to his manic Moriarty; he is on stage for almost the entire 110 minutes and his raw charisma is mesmerising throughout. He elevates a rather ordinary play into something often memorable.

Performance date: 8 April 2014

photo-81Exposing the reality of divisions between the North and South of England and between the social classes of the 21st Century, Torben Betts’ new play is razor sharp, very funny and moving. Emily (Laura Howard) is the sort of woman who should have been strangled at birth; she is nagging and self-centred, continually spouting all the loony left theories that have driven Socialism into disrepute. She decides to move from London to live amongst “real people” in the North, dragging her ineffectual husband Oliver (Darren Strange) and two children in tow. Their new neighbours are Alan (Daniel Copeland), a fat, beer-swilling football obsessive who could bore for England and his blowsy wife Dawn (Samantha Seager). The stage is set for hilarious culture clash comedy as Oliver comes to realise that he does not fit in and that education in a state school that seems like Borstal is not good enough for his kids; he decides that he must assert himself against Emily, firstly in defying her left wing principles by joining both Facebook and the Labour Party in the same week and then by starting the ball rolling for a move back to Highgate. Betts’ writing constantly reminds of Alan Ayckbourn at his peak, being bitingly comedic and acutely observant, but also embracing much darker themes. The economic downturn looms large for these families and, for all their coarseness, we are not allowed to forget that Alan and Dawn are the people who send their sons to Afghanistan. The play’s impact is heightened by a quartet of superb performances, making all the characters totally believable. Playing near the River Thames in Richmond, the production drew howls of laughter, but it would be interesting to see if it would have the same effect in, say, Rochdale. In any event, it deserves a much wider audience.

Performance date: 5 April 2015

Versailles*** (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: April 5, 2014 in Theatre

versaillesIt is often said that the 1919 Treaty of Versailles both ended the First World War and started the Second, but Peter Gill’s new play takes that viewpoint even further by arguing that the short-sighted and self-interested actions of politicians at that time set the course for World political, economic and social developments throughout the remaining four fifths of the Twentieth Century. The play is intelligent, engrossing and beautifully written, but its content is too huge to take in on one visit; it needs to be read through afterwards and herein lies one of the problem with it – it is often more a history lesson than a drama. Acts I and III take place in the drawing room of an affluent upper middle class household in Kent. Act II is set in Paris during the negotiations for the Treaty. The central character is Leonard Rawlinson (a simply superb performance by Gwilym Lee), a young civil servant working for the British Government on the Treaty; he is a gay man and many of his developing ideas are articulated in conversations with his dead lover (Tom Hughes), lost in the War. The central theme of a young man working on an historic document that he believes to be fundamentally flawed and then trying to adjust his own life to conform with his progressive ideals is a great one and, when this theme comes to the fore, the play soars. However, Gill clutters his script with too many subsidiary characters who come and go without registering and too many sub-plots that serve only to detract from the main themes. At over three hours (including two intervals) the play is much too long anyway and several sheets of the script belong in the shredder. Also, the political and social discussion is much too wide and generalised. It is very difficult to see how a man speaking in 1919 could foresee conflicts in South East Asia, religious tensions in the Middles East, the rise of Socialism in Britain, women’s and gay liberation, etc, etc. This is self-indulgent writing by Gill, who is expounding his own views from the perspective of the 21st Century, but undermining the credibility of his main character and blurring the play’s focus. The production has an opulent feel and is impeccably acted by a cast headed by grande dames Francesca Annis and Barbara Flynn as family matriarchs. Notwithstanding all the criticisms, there are moments, particularly in the deeply moving final Act, when it feels as if there is a masterpiece struggling to surface, and those moments will live in the memory long after the play as a whole is forgotten

Performance date: 4 April 2014

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

The 1970s once seemed such a jolly decade with brightly coloured outfits, flared trousers, mop haircuts and Abba. Sadly, the light entertainment industry of that era. particularly television, has appeared in a much murkier light in recent times. This show looks at Saturday morning television of 40-ish years ago from a modern perspective. It replicates the fun, but, rather than wallowing in nostalgia, it reflects on some of the darker undertones. The show’s framework is provided by “Looking Back (together)”, a trashy programme with a self-explanatory title – this week’s subject is Kids’ telly (next week it is the Khmer Rouge) – in which presenter Niall Ashdown (the performers use their own names for their main characters) focusses on a fictional BTV (Birmingham Television) show called “Shushi”, devised by a channel that was in a tiswas over how to challenge a ratings topper fronted by a bearded gentleman who later went on to present “Meal Or No Meal”. Running for several years, “Shushi” was an anarchic, slapstick show which featured segments such a “Kick the Vicar” and “Make Your Own Dog”, with guest appearances by prominent pop stars and Queasy the Cat. It all came to a catastrophic end on 8th March 1979 when, after Phil Collins had finished miming to his latest hit, presenter Petra Massey stripped, smothered her body with baked beans and tried to hang herself, all live on air. We are told that television was never the same afterwards and that nothing ever went out live again. So pies collide with faces, buckets of water are poured over heads, bodies crash to the floor and it is all mildly amusing. Of course, too much repetitive slapstick becomes tiresome just as quickly now as it did in the 1970s, but the success of this show comes with the dimension added by its retrospective view, without which it would be as weightless as one of the many plates of foam flung around during its course. The stars of “Shushi” appear in 2014 as a disillusioned bunch of failures, but we are led to believe that they could hardly be otherwise when their lives have been tainted by a show which was built on foundations made of what now look like bullying and ritual humiliation, ingrained with sexism and racism. Okorie Chukwu, Stephen Harper, Dudley Rees and Ged Simmons make up the numbers of an energetic cast who all strike the right balance between zany comedy and pathos. 40/50-somethings will have watched shows like “Shushi” in their formative years and may now ask whether they are themselves tainted by them. Or perhaps they might congratulate themselves on belonging to a generation that brought in more liberal social views and ask whether these shows helped to highlight the need for changes of attitude. Never Try This At Home is lively entertainment, but it also provides food for thought.

Performance date: 3 April 2014

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