Archive for September, 2014

snakes the musicalThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Slithering into town after its success at the last two Edinburgh Fringe Festivals, this spoof of musicals and aeroplane disaster movies is now, geographically at least, only a mile away from its dream destination – the London Palladium. These “previews” are being presented by the show’s creator, Thom (Thom Sellwood), with the aim of persuading audiences of theatre angels to invest in his ambitious project – a spectacular musical about snakes attacking a plane in flight. Budgetary constrictions mean that just two performers, Will (Will Guppy) and Marina (Marina Waters) have to play all the roles and that no live reptiles can be used (phew! what a relief). The whole concept may once have seemed absurd, but, at a time when a musical about lavatories is opening on Shaftesbury Avenue, perhaps it might just work. The show takes non-venomous bites at the two genres that it is satirising, offering a mixture of good jokes and catchy tunes. With titles such as “Flying to Our Dreams”, “This is My Chance” and “All Time High”, lovers of musical theatre will recognise the songs almost before the first notes are struck and also recognise the shows to which sly references are being made. Another musical may have featured a barricade, but not in the first class cabin of a plane. There are undercurrents of tensions between the three on stage, who seem to be involved in some unfathomable love triangle. Thom tactlessly tells Marina that the female lead is intended for Sheridan Smith and that she will be relegated to the chorus. Will has better prospects, because, although the hero will be played by a Samuel L Jackson type, he will be cast as a flight attendant; unfortunately, as that character is gay and Will, obviously and most definitely isn’t, he is also piqued. The important thing about this show is that everyone involved with it seems to be having an enormous amount of fun, which means that we, the potential backers, have fun too. A rattling good 70 minutes.

Performance date: 27 September 2014

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Ballyturk_poster_notitleIt’s Irish, it’s absurdist and it’s on at the National, so it must be something to do with Samuel Beckett, right? Well, just a little. Writer/director Enda Walsh’s latest play is 50% comedy, 50% drama and 100% unfathomable, making it very difficult to believe that it comes from the man who wrote the placid and unerringly logical Once. Two men, known simply as 1 (Cillian Murphy) and 2 (Mikel Murfi), occupy the same space, almost the size of an aircraft hangar, but with household fixtures and fittings around the walls. Crucially, the space has no windows or doors. The men may be brothers, or flatmates or whatever, the space may or may not be located in the town of Ballyturk. A promising start sees them undertaking daily rituals to the accompaniment of ABC’s Look of Love in a beautifully choreographed physical comedy routine that is reminiscent of Morcambe & Wise, who, after all did more than anyone to popularise absurdist comedy. Similar routines, performed to similar 1980s hits crop up throughout, interspersed in the first half with periods of nonsensical dialogue, during which the play sags. The pair’s Oirish banter often sounds as if it has been extracted from a particularly feeble episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys and, about half an hour in, enjoying the play becomes an even bigger challenge than understanding it. The set may be hermetic, but the auditorium has doors and there are a few occasions when there is a strong temptation to use them. However, this is a play of two halves, albeit, with an appropriate lack of logic, one without an interval. The arrival of 3 (Stephen Rea) through a magically disappearing wall, sees a change from comedy to sinister, surreal drama. He could be the Grim Reaper or the long-awaited Godot (perhaps Beckett does make a contribution), who knows? He offers up a karaoke version of the Cahn/Styne classic Time After Time and then delivers a speech of intense, grim beauty. The tone has now changed completely and much of what follows, spoken and visual, has a brutally poetic feel that creates a hypnotic effect. Now, the play works because of its absurdity and not in spite of it and it seems that the only thing that might loosen its grip would be an injection of logic. At this performance, many of the National’s typical grey-haired clientele looked bewildered, but even they would have to acknowledge three superb performances. It all goes to show that you don’t need to understand something to enjoy it, or perhaps to not enjoy it.

Performance date: 26 September 2014

Flowers-of-the-ForestThis review was originally written for the Public Reviews:

Middle class dramatists of the mid 20th Century were swept out of favour by the new wave created by John Osborne and others in the late1950s. However, now, with Noel Coward’s works rarely absent from our stages and with Terence Rattigan having been rehabilitated into mainstream theatre for some time, a fresh look at John Van Druten is long overdue. A well-received London production of London Wall set the ball rolling last year and, here, Anthony Biggs’ revival of Van Druten’s 1934 play is given added significance, because its themes tie in with the current commemorations for World War I. The opening scene takes place in 1934 in the London house of Naomi and her husband. It transpires that she is haunted by the wartime death of her fiancé Richard, a poet, and she has found, in her marriage to an older widower, a life of comfort and ease. They are joined by Leonard, an impassioned pacifist and by Naomi’s spinster sister, Mercia, who is scornful of the couple’s lifestyle, having chosen a path of duty after casting aside her own fiancé for being anti-war and therefore, in her view, pro-German. The play then moves to the sisters’ family home, a country vicarage, for scenes set in 1914 and 1916. Praise must be given here to designer Victoria Johnstone for creating not just one, but two detailed and realistic sets in Jermyn Street’s tiny space. Praise also to Sophie Ward who, as Naomi, handles the transitions between sophisticated, icy socialite and lovestruck, innocent young girl effortlessly. Similarly, Debra Penny (Mercia) convinces equally as a bitterly disillusioned middle-aged woman and as her younger self, making the mistakes that were to scar her life. As personified in the characters of Richard (Gabriel Vick), who dies in combat and Leonard (Max Wilson), who is stricken with tuberculosis, likening warfare and disease provides a recurring theme. Looked at from 80 years on, when the writer’s pacifist warnings have still not been heeded, their naiveté may be viewed with some cynicism. However, what is much more interesting is the way in which Van Druten, perhaps very daringly for the 1930s, chips away at the traditional wartime posturing of the British, questioning the values of patriotism, duty and religious teaching. The sisters’ parents, a clergyman and his wife (Patrick Drury and Alwyne Taylor), staunchly defend all these values, but they are always portrayed as old-fashioned and misguided. We return to the London house and to 1934 for a slightly disappointing final scene. Van Druten rightly shuns sentimentality in tying up loose ends, but he brings in an element of the supernatural which lends the play an unwelcome touch of melodrama. At this point, he repeats the same pacifist messages that we have already heard and then pushes them too hard, a flaw which is accentuated in this production when we are given an unnecessary reminder of what was to happen five years later. Otherwise, this is a solid, very well acted and commendable effort.

Performance date: 25 September 2014

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Internet_510x340Enigmas of teh internet seem to be preoccupying playwrights this year. Following Privacy at the Donmar and The Nether at this theatre, Tim Price chips in with a further dissertation  on the darker side of a tool that is supposed to illuminate and enhance all our lives. All three plays wrestle with the problem of how freedom of information and freedom of expression can continue unfettered when those freedoms are shared by bullies, perverts, terrorists and many others who would seek to do us harm. Price’s play, based on fact, tells of two teenage boys – Jake (Kevin Guthrie), an agoraphobe from Shetland and Mustapha (Hamza Jeetooa), a geeky misfit from Southwark – are lured into  a world of hackers and trolls, joining a global group that starts by making mischief and ends committing serious crime. Taking an aversion to Tom Cruise (one of Sargon Yelda’s multiple roles), they launch a cyber attack on the Church of Scientology, follow it with similar attacks on banks and multinational corporations, culminating with the FBI and the CIA. Teh internet empowers them and gives meaning to their inadequate lives, but it also divorces the group from the real world and plays havoc with their collective and individual moral compasses. Watching the first half of Hamish Pirie’s production feels a bit like being a bystander at a school playground. Emoticons, avatars and other brightly coloured, mostly inexplicable characters and objects flash before our eyes in a frenzied display of images which attempt to bring to life the spirit of the virtual world. Not getting all of this is probably down to the generation divide, but the impression left is that the dividing line could be as low as age 15 and a glossary of terms and images provided at the theatre door is not much help to those of us who are slightly older. Somewhere amidst the chaos of this vivid and quite elaborate staging there is a story struggling to break through. The second half is much more sedate, gaining in clarity what it loses in energy, but running almost completely out of steam in its later stages. Jake’s summarising speech directly to the audience is a superb piece of writing, but it is an awkward device which is rendered superfluous when it is followed by a sweet postscript in which four words and two smiles (real ones) say it all.

Performance date: 24 September 2014

As You Like It***** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: September 23, 2014 in Theatre

asyoulikeit11jul2014w260h200This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Featherweight romantic fantasy that it is, As You Like It is the home for some of William Shakespeare’s most lyrical passages and the perfect production of it is one that keeps the broad comedy bubbling whilst contrasting it with a mood of reflective melancholy. Performed in a studio space with little scenery and a cast of just ten performing all the roles, Derek Bond’s production tackles the play with all the enthusiasm and delight of a child unwrapping a Christmas gift and it hits the right notes throughout. Bond sets the play vaguely in the Edwardian era and gives it it both the briskness to skate over the absurdities of the plot and the comic invention to divert attention from its many longueurs. The preliminaries in court are dispatched quickly and the exiled Rosalind heads off, disguised as a man, to the forest of Arden where a confused reunion with her would-be lover, Orlando awaits. As she departs, a huge curtain swishes away and we are in a glade, adorned by an array of musical instruments. Confetti rains down onto the bare stage almost continuously, firstly as white Winter snow falling on top of orange remnants of Autumn and later as the green leaves of Spring. Visually, this is a production that is bewitching in its simplicity. Sally Scott’s Rosalind is enchanting and Harry Livingstone’s Orlando is heroic, but it is Simon Lipkin playing Touchstone who steals scene after scene. As clown, mime artist and eventually ventriloquist (an apprenticeship in Avenue Q has served him well), he is simply brilliant, aided by the inspired casting of a dummy sheep in the role of Audrey, his sweetheart. For two riotously funny sequences in the second half, Touchstone and Audrey hold the stage and, at one point, they abandon the text for a spot of audience participation. Shakespeare purists may wince, but it all works so well within the spirit of the play that it would be churlish for anyone to complain. Lovely original music by Jude Obermuller augments the production’s rustic charm and Emma Bailey’s simple designs are bathed in sumptuous lighting, designed by Charlie Lucas and Sally Ferguson. As Dominic Gerrard’s Scottish Jacques delivers the “All the World’s a stage…” speech, bright lights turn progressively dimmer for each of the seven ages, exemplifying how the spoken words and the visual imagery work in perfect harmony in almost every scene. Coming after so much hilarity, the final scene of explanation and reconciliation really ought to bring further laughter – that of derision, but the changes of tone are handled so confidently that, instead, the scene is genuinely touching and even Audrey brings a small tear to the eye. Accessible to all age groups, this production is a joyful celebration of Shakespeare.

Performance date: 22 September 2014

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Fred and Madge*** (Hope Theatre)

Posted: September 19, 2014 in Theatre

Fred-MadgewebsiteThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Consistent with a mission statement in which it commits “exclusively to new writing”, the Hope Theatre is staging the first ever professional production of this debut play. However, calling it “new” may be stretching a point, as it was actually written 55 years ago. This belated production by Rough Haired Pointer is given added poignancy by the fact that the theatre is situated just a few minutes walk from the Islington bed-sit where the play’s writer, Joe Orton, lived and died with his partner, Kenneth Halliwell. Orton is best known for just three hit plays, the first of which appeared in London five years after this one was written, but his style of black comedy is so distinctive and enduring that the adjective “Ortonesque” has now entered the Oxford English Dictionary. Raised on a Leicester council estate, the writer flourished in the London of the 1950’s and 60s, but was still constrained by the conventions of the drab post-War era and by the persecution of gay men. Fred and Madge are thought to be based upon Orton’s own parents, which would explain why it feels as if this play tells us more about the writer himself than any of his other works. The titular characters, played in effective deadpan style by Jake Curran and Jodyanne Richardson, work respectively pushing a large boulder up a hill repeatedly and sieving water. The play’s theme, the tedium of everyday life, is one that is never easy to depict without sending an audience to sleep and this places an added burden on the dialogue to keep us amused. Fred and Madge ponder on things such as whether they should get bats or locusts as pets, illustrating how Orton’s feel for the banality of ordinary conversation and for absurdism combine. This was an era when comedy was the common antidote to austerity and the anarchic humour of The Goon Show shines through as a clear influence. The structure of a play within a play emerges early on, but then fades away, leaving the piece shapeless and lacking narrative drive. This is a work that is a long way from being fully developed and it seems possible that Orton gave little thought to it being staged, perhaps writing it to vent his own frustrations and to rail against his family. In the later stages, as the characters prepare to leave for India, Orton seems to be telling them to broaden their horizons and face up to a changing world, whilst still realising that working class folk of that era would be ill equipped to do so. For all its failings, and there are many, Fred and Madge reveals to us a writer who saw the theatre as a means for self-expression, a place where he could cast off the straightjacket that normal life forced him to wear. Although there is little of the sexual innuendo which characterised the later plays, liberal amounts of cross dressing give this production a distinctive Ortonesque feel. Christopher Hone’s village hall set and Mary Franklin’s direction, which feigns bumbling amateurism, ensure that the production does not give the play undue respect. In a variety of roles, Andy Brock, Loz Keystone, Geordie Wright and Jordan Mallory-Skinner are all excellent, the latter giving passable impersonations of Roy Orbison and other 1950s crooners in pleasant musical interludes. Fred and Madge is notable more for its interest value than its merit and this production certainly shows us why it has taken more than half a century to bring the play to the professional stage. However, there is more here than just fodder for theatre academics; this talented company has also managed to wring out a fair amount of entertainment, which is quite an achievement.

Performance date: 18 September 2014

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annachancellorOpening during the week after the Last Night of the Proms, Rory Mullarkey’s new black comedy projects a wholly different vision of middle England. Elgar and Holst still provide the backing soundtrack, but, here, demure old ladies who sip tea with bishops have Semtex on their shopping lists and plot with others to bite the hand that feeds them in a violent revolution which will overthrow the established order, Parliament, the press and even the theatre (sob!). At their head is Lady Catherine, a dotty but determined aristocrat (Anna Chancellor is ideal casting) who picks up a young drifter, Leo, in a railways station and designates him as ruler-to-be in a new regime of benign despotism. Together, the unlikely pair embark on a murderous rampage, reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde. As Leo, Calvin Demba finds the perfect blend of innocence and thuggery; the character claims not to need to sleep nor eat and, yet, in one of the play’s best running gags, he eats prodigious amounts of typically English food on stage. Demba must find matinee days particularly uncomfortable. Mullarkey’s writing is often uneven, some scenes falling completely flat and dragging on for much too long. When there is a shortage of wit, he tends to use shock tactics to hold the audience, including unorthodox staging, suggestions of horrific violence and completely gratuitous nudity. Most of this is fine, because, if the purpose of a play like this is not to unsettle an audience, then it has no purpose at all. However, he oversteps the mark when a pivotal scene centres on a decapitation – horribly unfortunate timing and, at this performance, it drew the groans that it deserves. In all, the play resembles a modern day version of a vintage Ealing comedy – mildly subversive and spiked with real nastiness, yet still ever so cosy and quaint. As a result, it ends up as an affectionate endorsement of everything that it purports to challenge.

Performance date: 16 September 2014

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

In a move to encourage up and coming writers, the producers of Andrew Maddock’s excellent pair of monologues The Me Plays invited a group of them to see the show and write short plays in response. The seven plays staged here, after a week’s rehearsal, are the result. The plays, none more than 15 minutes long, some in rhyming verse, draw from Maddock’s insights into the pains, frustrations and humour of young adult life. The first, Burying a Stranger by Thomas Jones and Nikolai Ribnikov is a monologue by a young girl (Emily Aitchenson) recounting the chaotic funeral of her beloved granddad, coping with appalling weather and a drunken mother. This is the only play closely linked to Maddock’s Hi Life, I Win, the others drawing more from Junkie and taking up themes of dating, love, addiction and, above all, the internet. Tom Hartwell’s Privacy sees Facebook made human, lying in bed between a couple and wrecking their relationship. In Shaun Kitchener’s Offer, a young man and woman meet partly to go on a first date and partly to discuss the woman appearing in a porn film. Harriet Madeley’s Match introduces us to a couple who are habitual internet daters, unable to ignore their apps and texts even when in a hospital waiting room visiting an accident victim. In Henry Ashe-Jepson’s Cum & Go, Murray (a splendidly anxious Haydn Whiteside) has secured his first conquest for later in the evening and is bombarded with inappropriate “good luck” texts, including one from his granddad. The Ballad of Tab and Sal by Frankie Meredith, expands on the female characters referred to in Junkie and recounts the same events from their perspective, using similarly clever rhymes. This play in enlivened by two sparkling comic performances from Natalie Lester and Helen Booth. Six of the seven plays are highly amusing and inventive comedies, all proving the maxim that brevity is the soul of wit. However, mixed in amongst them is Saint, a tender and suspenseful love poem, beautifully written by Natalie Collie and performed with complete sincerity by an almost motionless Alice Frankham. All in all, these plays make up a tasty plateful of hors d’oeuvres, sadly on offer for one evening only. As previously noted, Andrew Maddock is a talent to watch and it is good to discover that others are following in his wake.

Performance date: 15 September 2014

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Little Revolution** (Almeida Theatre)

Posted: September 14, 2014 in Theatre

little revolutionThe London riots of August 2011 did not overflow into the territory of gentrified middle class Islington, but they were close enough to cause disquiet and the Almeida always knew that it would be touching a raw nerve by staging this 70 minute account of them. The theatre is to be applauded for putting on a show that is topical (relatively) and relevant, but, sadly, what it seems to have forgotten is that the first requirement for any dramatic production is a play and this under-developed, scrappy piece can hardly be described as such. Alecky Blythe’s verbatim theatre technique (recording interviews with people affected by an event and then using actors to replicate their responses as exactly as possible) achieved great success at the National with London Road, but there her musical collaboration gave the show shape and form, both of which are lacking here. This is a docu-drama which works as neither a documentary nor a drama; the former might have had a commentary to link it together and the latter a narrative thread. The closest we get to either is Blythe herself introducing the show and wandering around with a recorder in her hand. On the positive side, the appearance of seasoned professionals such as Ronni Ancona, Imogen Stubbs and Rufus Wright alongside a “Community Chorus” of around 30 locals works well. Director Joe Hill-Gibbons choreographs them all, using almost non-stop motion by the actors to accentuate a sense of chaos throughout an auditorium which is re-configured to in-the-round.  There are some outstanding vignettes and performances, but they last for about three minutes maximum and there is too little either to hold them together or to make a clear unifying point. As a result, they are likely to prove quickly forgettable, as is this entire production.

Performance date: 12 September 2014

OhtheHumanityNEWframe2This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

“We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone…” said Orson Welles and the same conclusion comes to mind after seeing Will Eno’s quirky exploration of the human condition. Ordinary people, each with their own foibles, strengths and inadequacies are depicted as if small vessels adrift on a vast ocean, looking desperately for a mooring. This 2007 work by the American writer, performed in 2012 at the Edinburgh Festival and then in London, is actually five short plays linked very loosely together. Eno has a skill for taking everyday conversational cliches and platitudes and twisting them slightly so that they are exposed as meaningless. A sports coach (Jonathan Kemp), speaking to the press at the end of a disastrous season, offers the excuse that “habit is the hardest habit to break”; an airline spokesperson (Claire Lichie) explains to grief-stricken relatives after a plane crash “gravity, we trust, was a factor”. The spotlight of public attention has fallen on these characters, but all they want is to retreat into their own worlds, he to write sonnets, she to mourn her own father who simply died in a chair. Two young singles (Esme Patey-Ford and Joseph Stevenson) become isolated in front of cameras, recording videos for a dating agency and rendered inarticulate when asked to talk about themselves. He boasts of being “good at food shopping” and lists amongst his interests “not travelling”. She claims to have been described as “the girl next door”, adding coyly and without irony “by the neighbours”. The first three scenes have the feel of comedy sketches, but there then follows a wistful piece examining lives caught on camera more than a century ago and, finally, in the play’s bleakest section, we see a married couple (Kaye Brown and Keith Hill) completely disengaged from each other. They sit in what one thinks is a car, the other two chairs; they agree that they are going to church, but she looks forward to a christening, whilst he is preparing for a funeral. The pair are bound together, yet their isolation is total. Paul Lichstenstern’s revival offers a lucid interpretation of a play that is often abstract in nature and the performances are uniformly excellent. The set, designed by Andy Edwards, is a cluttered photographic studio in which the actors stand or sit around the periphery, moving to a white centre stage for their own scenes. Haunting piano music which links the scenes gives the entire production a pervading air of melancholy. This is a highly unusual work of theatre, amusing, thought-provoking and rewarding.

Performance date: 4 September 2014

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