Archive for 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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L-R-Ben-Lewis-Tara-Hugo-Matt-Wilman-and-Julie-Atherton-in-THÉRÈSE-RAQUIN.-Photo-Credit-Darren-BellTreading the path laid down by Stephen Sondheim with Passion and moving further along it, Nona Shepphard (book and lyrics) and Craig Adams (music) have created a remarkable new work of musical theatre. It is an adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel set in late 19th Century Paris in which the eponymous heroine is trapped in a loveless marriage and embarks on a tempestuous affair with Laurent, her husband’s friend. The show is almost sung-through to the accompaniment only of a single piano and harmonising choruses, the lyrics translating Zola’s prose beautifully and matching the rich, melodic score to perfection. As is often said of Sondheim, the words sing and the music speaks. Laura Cordery’s adaptable set of a small shop and living quarters is an object lesson in how to make maximum use of a tiny space. In the title role, Julie Atherton is a silent prisoner for the first 45 minutes, exuding suppressed passion, but then explodes to life when her lover releases her. As Laurent, Ben Lewis is beefy, brooding and dangerous, whilst Jeremy Legat makes an irksome Camille, Therese’s weak and sickly husband. Also outstanding is Tara Hugo as Camille’s controlling mother. The show’s failing is much the same as that of Passion in that there is too little variation in tone, so that the air of prevalent gloom begins to wear too heavy over the course of two hours and this failing could well impair the show’s popular appeal. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see if it can be developed further, maybe for a larger venue and with a full orchestra. The potential is certainly there.

Performance date: 3 April 2014

two into oneMaybe due to broadening of minds and shifts in the balance of sexual politics, old-fashioned farces are a bit of a rarity these days. Writer Ray Cooney is a veteran of the Brian Rix era at the Whitehall and the 1984 West End run of this play had actors of the calibre of Donald Sinden and Michael Williams in leading roles. So, dated it may be, but not without merit and much of Cooney’s writing provides a masterclass in the mechanics of farce. As usual, the Menier seems to take the view that, if it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing well and they have duly delivered a sparkling production, with a superb set and a cast of seasoned comedy performers whose timing is perfection. The plot concerns Richard Willey (a Tory minister naturally), played by Michael Praed, and his shenanigans in adjacent rooms of a Westminster hotel, involving his wife (Josefina Gabrielle), his mistress (Kelly Adams) and his Parliamentary Private Secretary (Nick Wilton). As is usual with such farces, the evening is a mixture of giggles, guffaws and yawns, but, happily, the latter are in relatively short supply. The icing on the cake is an appearance by Cooney himself (now 81), jigging and even falling over, as the Waiter. Taking his bows, he looks genuinely pleased with the production and so he should be.

Performance date: 2 April 2014