Archive for December, 2014

2014 Theatre Round-up

Posted: December 30, 2014 in Theatre

BEST PRODUCTIONS

In total, I have reviewed 193 productions during 2014 (64 of these for The Public Reviews), 28 in Edinburgh, six in New York, one each in Stratford-upon-Avon and Chichester and the rest in London. I have listed 12 (one a month average) with 8 runners up; these are shows that I have seen in the United Kingdom between 1st January and 31st December 2014 (i.e. New York is excluded). Inevitably I missed some shows that could easily have been contenders; for example Gillian Anderson’s Streetcar…(ticket mix-up), The National’s James Plays (just too sick of hearing about Scotland by the Autumn to be bothered), and Sondheim’s Assassins (a treat awaiting in the first week of the New Year). In alphabetical order, the productions are:

A View from the Bridge (Young Vic/Wyndhams Theatre from 11 February 2015)

City of Angels (Donmar Warehouse)

Electra (Old Vic)

Good People (Hampstead Theatre/Noel Coward Theatre)

Gypsy (Chichester Festival Theatre/Savoy Theatre from 28 March 2015)

Henry IV Parts I & II (RST Stratford-upon-Avon/Barbican Theatre)

King Charles III (Almeida Theatre/Wyndhams Theatre)

My Night With Reg (Donmar Warehouse/Apollo Theatre from 17 January 2015)

Sunny Afternoon (Hampstead Theatre/Harold Pinter Theatre)

The Crucible (Old Vic)

The Nether (Royal Court/Duke of York Theatre from 30 January 2015)

Wolf Hall/Bring Up The Bodies (RST Stratford-upon-Avon/Aldwych Theatre)

Bringing the number up to 20, honourable mentions go to: A Taste of Honey (National Theatre, Lyttelton) Behind the Beautiful Forevers (National Theatre, Olivier)Clarence Darrow (Old Vic)Coriolanus (Donmar Warehouse)Hope (Royal Court)John (National Theatre, Lyttelton)1984 (Almeida Theatre/Playhouse Theatre) and Other Desert Cities (Old Vic).

Not a single one of the above 20 opened directly in the West End (unless the National and the Old Vic are regarded as such, which is debatable). This further demonstrates how the West End is, year by year, becoming more of a constipated giant, unable to purge itself of immoveable long runners that draw in tourists and coach parties. Both Lloyd-Webber and Mackintosh preferred to use their theatres to revive their own hits from the 80s, rather than to take chances on new shows and, even more depressingly, the wonderfully inventive Scottsboro Boys is soon to be replaced by a revival of a mind-numbing juke box “musical”. Of the small number of brand new productions starting life the West End in 2014, most seemed to be either star vehicles or limp adaptations of hit films, whilst the queue of shows waiting to arrive from Broadway, off-West End and the regions grew longer. For me, the best policy has become to ignore the uncomfortable, outdated West End and focus on off-West End where, generally, productions are fresher, theatres are smaller with more modern amenities and tickets are cheaper. Also, a New Year resolution will be to spend more time exploring the best of regional theatres.

BEST FRINGE PRODUCTIONS

Again, the best 12, in alphabetical order:

As You Like It (Southwark Playhouse)

Away from Home (Jermyn Street Theatre)

Carousel (Arcola)

Damn Yankees (Landor)

Donald Robertson is not a Comedian (Traverse 2, Edinburgh)

In the Heights (Southwark Playhouse)

Invincible (Orange Tree/St James Theatre)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Park Theatre)

The Pass (Royal Court Upstairs)

Therese Raquin (Finborough Theatre/Park Theatre)

Unfaithful (Traverse 1, Edinburgh)

Wot? No Fish!! (Battersea Arts Centre)

Honourable mentions: Cuckooed (Traverse 1, Edinburgh/Tricycle), Fully Committed (Menier Chocolate Factory), Horizontal Collaboration (Traverse 2, Edinburgh), Obama-ology (Finborough Theatre),  The Distance (Orange Tree), The Me Plays (Old Red Lion)The One (Soho Theatre), We Are Proud to Present… (Bush Theatre).

BEST PERFORMANCES

Male in a play: a tie between Richard Armitage (The Crucible) and Mark Strong (A View from the Bridge). Honourable mentions: Peter Egan (Other Desert Cities), Tom Hiddleston (Coriolanus), Ben Miles (Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies)Antony Sher (Henry IV Parts I & II) and Kevin Spacey (Clarence Darrow).

Female in a play: Imelda Staunton (Good People). Honourable mentions: Deborah Findlay (Coriolanus)Kate O’Flynn (A Taste of Honey)Billie Piper (Great Britain), Kristen Scott Thomas (Electra) and Lesley Sharp (A Taste of Honey).

Ensemble in a play: My Night With Reg

Male in a musical: Robert Lindsay (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). Honourable mentions: Rufus Hound (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), Tim Rogers (Carousel) and Michael Xavier (The Pajama Game).

Female in a musical: Imelda Staunton (Gypsy). Honourable mentions: Julie Atherton (Therese Raquin), Lara Pulver (Gypsy) and Scarlett Strallen (Candide).

Ensemble in a musical: City of Angels

OTHER BESTS

New (to the UK) play: The Nether by Jennifer Haley

New (to the UK) musical: In the Heights

Director (play): Ivo van Hove (A View From the Bridge)

Director (musical): Josie Rourke (City of Angels)

LAST AND VERY MUCH LEAST…

My dirty dozen for this year were: Elephants (Hampstead Theatre Downstairs), Flowers of the Field (White Bear Theatre), Keeping Up With the Joans (Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh/Greenwich Theatre), Little Revolution (Almeida), Mr Burns (Almeida), Only Our Own (Arts Theatre), Ring (Battersea Arts Centre), Satan Sings Mostly Sondheim (Jermyn Street Theatre), The Glass Supper (Hampstead Theatre Downstairs), The King Must Lie (White Bear Theatre), Things We Do for Love (Richmond Theatre) and This May Hurt a Bit (St James Theatre).

Apart from that last section, 2014 has been a great year. ROLL ON 2015!

City of Angels***** (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: December 21, 2014 in Theatre

City of Angels Homepage

When City of Angels ran at the 1,100+ seat Prince of Wales Theatre, opening and closing in 1993, it seemed moderately entertaining, but it left little lasting impression on me. Seeing it again now at the 200+ seat Donmar, where all its intricate details are brought to vivid life, the earlier production seems like a classic case of right show, wrong venue. The book’s plot lines operate on (at least) three levels, here we get a staging on two levels and, overall, what is revealed is a show which takes the art of musical theatre to a whole new level. Stine (Hadley Fraser) is is a writer of 1940’s Los Angeles-based crime novels, Stone (Tam Mutu) is his fictional detective and Buddy (Peter Polycarpou) is the unscrupulous film producer/director for whom Stine is adapting one of his stories. As we see the writer’s tortuous battle against commercial pressures and the enactment of his evolving screenplay (written partly in flashback), the show becomes both a sharp satire on Hollywood and an affectionate pastiche of film noir. Complicated? Well not exactly Mamma Mia! Cy Coleman’s gorgeous jazz-influenced score is beautifully performed by Gareth Valentine’s 11-player orchestra and both Larry Gelbert’s book and David Zippel’s lyrics sizzle with the cynical wit and acerbic one-liners which characterise film noir. Director Josie Rourke’s production has all the style, wit and invention to match the material – The upper set is Stine’s office with reams of paper piled high across the width of the theatre and the lower set is an adaptable stage used for all the action and choreography; skilful use of projections, scenery and props flying in an out from every direction, all make sure that the pace never slackens and that the eye is feasted as much as the ear. The male leads are superb and the Stine/Stone duet on You’re Nothing Without Me is a knockout routine that can only be followed by the interval. However, Rourke has also managed to cream off some of the finest female talent currently working in British musical theatre to play the various femmes fatale – Samantha Barks, Rosalie Craig, Katherine Kelly and Rebecca Trehearn all in one show – Wow! Individually, they all get their turn in the spotlight to seduce and bewitch us and, collectively, they are dazzling. This production is nothing less than a total triumph for the Donmar and for Josie Rourke personally.

Performance date: 20 December 2014

Singin-In-The-Rain-Color-Singin-In-The-Rain-ColorThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Stage productions of this classic 1951 MGM musical seem to come round almost as regularly as rainy Summers, yet all of them must have to face up to the same conundrum – how can you top something when a definitive version is already out there and nearly everyone has seen it? The usual approach is to stage it at a big theatre as a song and dance spectacular, featuring a torrential downpour for the big number. Director Robert Plews goes in the opposite direction in this 100 or so seat pub theatre, using a company of just 12 and a six-piece orchestra. The setting is Hollywood in 1927 at the dawn of the talkies. Silent movie star Don Lockwood is happy to make the transition, but his squeaky-voiced on-screen partner Lina Lamont is completely unsuited, leaving the door open for rising starlet Kathy Selden, with whom Don quickly becomes smitten. A big problem for any production of this show must be the clunky first half hour which has little music and only serves to establish the plot. This problem is made more difficult for Plews because of the theatre’s configuration – an oblong stage with the audience seated on either side. This results in the characters often seeming remote from each other, whilst awkward scene changes interrupt the show’s rhythm and flow. However, once the dance routines get going, the configuration works in the production’s favour, enhancing the excitement generated when dancers and audience are within touching distance. The romance between Don (Simon Adkins) and Kathy (Frankie Jenna) is a tepid affair, with familiar but rather trite songs injecting little life into proceedings. The weight of the comedy falls onto the shoulders of Thea Jo Wolfe, delightfully coarse as Lina, and Paul Harwood as Don’s breezy sidekick Cosmo. Midway through the first half, it is Harwood who kick starts the show with his pratfalling rendition of Make ‘Em Laugh and, when he and Adkins put on their tap shoes for Moses Supposes, the audience is at last getting what it has come to see. Adkins closes the first half performing the iconic title song sequence, pulling it off with considerable panache. He, Jenna and Harwood excel, singing and dancing their way through Good Morning and the other highlight of the second half is a glorious company tap dance routine to Broadway Melody in which Chris Whittaker’s imaginative choreography makes full use of the restricted space. To be honest, the screenplay/book for Singin’ in the Rain was never that hot anyway and, if Plews’ production works best with song and, even more, dance, he has probably got his priorities right. A colourful array of umbrellas closes the show as the company reprises the title song, ensuring that the tune which everyone came in humming is also the one ringing in the ears on leaving. A good fun evening.

Performance date: 19 December 2014

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Tiger Country*** (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: December 18, 2014 in Theatre

tiger countryThe previous production on this stage, Roy Williams’ Wildfire, showed us an idealistic rookie, female officer being plunged into the Metropolitan Police Force. Now we see an idealistic rookie, female doctor being plunged into A&E at a London hospital. The Fire Brigade awaits. This play, written and directed by Nina Raine was first performed here almost four years ago. The rookie, Emily (Ruth Everett), who is told that she “cares too much”, needs to toughen up, whilst a more experienced doctor, Vashti (Indira Varma) is too abrasive and needs to soften up. If there are problems in the NHS as shown here, they are human ones at ground level; under-funding issues are left lurking in the background and political arguments are, mercifully, left out all together. Performed in the round, the blue linoleum stage floor with double swing doors on either side tells us instantly where we are supposed to be and what follows is a series of interlinked storylines – Emily’s teetering relationship with a fellow doctor (Luke Thompson), Vashti’s disputes with her uppity junior (Nick Hendrix) and her concerns over a beloved aunt in intensive care, a cardiologist (Alastair Mackenzie) with a worrying tumour, etc, etc. Raine writes about the hospital personnel and the culture that they generate collectively, pitching her play somewhere between the mundanity of Casualty and the heightened drama of ER; over-familiarity is her biggest problem and the structure – shortish scenes, jumping from one story to another is very much that used in countless television series. If she had really wanted to create a distinctive work for theatre, maybe she could have opted for a more narrowly focused intense drama or a bitingly satirical black comedy, but the only risk that she seems prepared to take is that of being dull and predictable. Nonetheless, Raine writes with pleasing clarity, her production flows briskly and all the performances are endearing. If you can tear yourself away from Holby City and the like, this is a moderately entertaining, if not very different, alternative.

Performance date: 17 December 2014

elephantsChristmas is the time for finding comfort in familiar things, or so Rose Heiney tells us in her new play and there are plenty of familiar things on display here, as we enter a cosy, seasonally decorated living room in affluent middle class suburbia, peopled by a group of pretend-jolly folk who are actually really miserable. Yes, we are in Alan Ayckbourn territory and, for those of us who carefully steer clear of Ayckbourn plays (are there 100 yet?) just to avoid spending an evening in the company of such characters, this is not good news. The hosts are Richard (Richard Lintern) and Sally (Imogen Stubbs) whose son had been killed a year earlier; facing that awkward first Christmas after a bereavement, he mopes around, drinks excessively and spits out nothing but sarcasm, while she fusses nervously, trying to pretend that everything is the same as it always was. The first guests to arrive are Dick (Jonathan Guy Lewis) and Valerie (Helen Atkinson Wood),who resolve not to acknowledge the elephant in the room, but then they have one of their own – a lesbian daughter in Australia who has become pregnant after acquiring donor sperm off the internet. Next comes Lizzy (Antonia Thomas), the dead son’s girlfriend and, finally, Richard and Sally’s daughter, the totally obnoxious Daisy (Bel Powley), fresh from six months in a psychiatric unit. Daisy is the play’s catalyst, determined to blow away all the falsehoods and speak the truth. So is it better to pretend that nothing has changed when in fact everything his changed? Or is openness the best policy? Or do we ever care? Throughout its first half Heiney’s play emulates the creatures in its title and plods. Things look brighter after the interval when the writer introduces a device which promises to bring some life to the party, but this turns out to be no more than a brief diversion up a cul-de-sac, preceding a second half which, in its entirety, goes absolutely nowhere. Neither the characters nor their relationships with each other are properly fleshed out, leaving us with a very simple comedy of gaffes in which the aforementioned sarcasm is plentiful but any higher form of wit is scarce and Tamara Harvey’s leaden production manages to wring out very few laughs. Sadly, the elephant at Hampstead Theatre this Christmas turns out to be a white one.

Performance date: 15 December 2014

XMAS-CAROL-web2This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Alongside turkey and mince pies, Charles Dickens’ tale of a miserly old Christmas hater getting his comeuppance has established itself as a permanent fixture in our seasonal celebrations. The story, also a clarion call for a more caring society, may well be over- familiar, but it can still stand up to re-telling when presented with as much freshness as in Metal Rabbit’s version of Neil Bartlett’s adaptation. Here is a classic example of less being more – small space, no sets, makeshift props, just six actors and bucketfuls of imagination adding up to 80 minutes of theatre magic. Bartlett’s script is faithful to the original without being conventional and it has a timeless flavour, being neither rooted in the Victorian era nor completely modern. A black top hat worn by Scrooge at the beginning and long johns worn by him later are the only suggestions of times past and, for the rest, it is warm Winter jumpers, overcoats and scarves. Alexander McMorran’s Scrooge is not the grotesque villain so often seen. By under-playing the character, the actor makes him someone we may all know, possibly a blinkered workaholic who finds himself alone and unfulfilled. He is surrounded by five carollers singing modified versions of traditional Christmas songs, each stepping forward to play other characters in the story. Cat Gerrard, Elizabeth Grace-Williams, James Mack, Liam Mansfield and Rhiannon Neads form an ensemble that is expressive, enthusiastic and energetic. Director Gus Miller’s production flows, seemingly effortlessly, using movement, vocal sounds and very effective lighting (designed by Matt Leventhall) to bring scenes alive and compensate for the absence of special effects. The ghostly visitations are made more chilling by being played in semi-darkness, with spotlights or hand-held torches and lamps picking out the faces of the characters. It says a great deal for the durability of Dickens’ creation that yet another dramatisation of the story can send a shiver down the spine, put a smile on the face and bring a tear to the eye. This production realises all of that potential, doing so in some considerable style, and only a real you know who could fail to enjoy it.

Performance date: 13 December 2014

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FullSizeRender-66Having just returned from India, I can say with some authority that the National has got this as close to real life as is reasonably possible – the noise, the mayhem, the rubbish piled high in the streets and, putting a cherry on top of the cake, the appearance on stage of a real tuk tuk. Only the roaming animals are missing from a spectacular set which makes full use of what could be the best-equipped stage anywhere; complex scene changes may perhaps excuse two set failures (one stopping the show) at this performance, but, as can only happen at the National, an army of technicians appears in a flash to save the day. So does the play justify the lavish outlay? On this occasion, emphatically yes. Any new play by David Hare is bound to gain attention, but this adaptation of Katherine Boo’s factual account of existence in a modern day Mumbai slum links human drama to epic themes and must rate as his best work for the theatre in many years. The drama centres on the Husain family, Moslems residing in a slum home on the perimeter of Mumbai airport, who have risen above the rest by making money from collecting, sorting and selling rubbish. This is largely due to the efforts of Abdul, a talented but uneducated youngster, and his mother Zehrunisa (Meera Syal). A petty tiff with a neighbour, a one-legged prostitute, sets off a chain of events which drags the family into a seemingly inescapable web spun by self-serving officialdom and multi-layered corruption. The backdrop is the meeting of the third world and the first, where luxuries are within sight but not quite attainable, homes are being demolished to make way for airport expansion and everything is up for grabs using whatever means are available. Gleaming new developments are promoted by smiling faces on posters proclaiming “Beautiful forever”, but little thought is given to the lives going on behind the billboards. The struggles and confusions of transition are demonstrated in another family in which a mother demeans herself to provide her daughter with a “Western” education which includes Virginia Woolf and Congreve in a syllabus of little practical relevance to her own life. Often stark and brutal, all this is brought to vibrant life by an array of fine performances in Rufus Norris’s thrilling and colourful production. In particular, Shane Zaza is outstanding as Abdul, a figure of calm and human dignity who withstands all the ordeals that confront him, seeing that there is a way forward by upholding the core values of honesty and decency. Abdul represents Hare’s hope for the future of India and, if this production is a taster of things to come, the future of the National Theatre after Norris takes over as Director in April 2015 looks very bright too.

Performance date: 12 December 2014