Archive for April, 2015


Watching a David Mamet play often feels like sitting in front of a machine gun that is firing bullets in the form razor-sharp lines directly at you; some of them pass overhead, many tickle the ribs, others inflict pain, but rarely do any go near the heart. This 1977 play is set in a second-hand junk shop, realised perfectly in Paul Wills’ cramped and cluttered design. It is run by Don (John Goodman), who, along with “Teach” (Damien Lewis) and Bob (Tom Sturridge), lives his life on the edges of petty criminality; like the contents of the shop, all three have been cast aside by the American Dream. The plot centres around the retrieval of a rare coin (the Buffalo of the title) that Don has been conned into parting with. Daniel Evans’ production captures the tone and rhythm of Mamet’s dialogue to perfection, quite rightly putting the emphasis on the performances. And what performances! Goodman, an iconic figure in film and television, is able to make it all look effortless; the part fits him like a glove and his inimitable presence fills the theatre. Lewis, taking the role last played in the West End by Al Pacino, appears with bushy sideburns and moustache, dressed in a plum-coloured 1970’s suit, complete with flares; “Teach” is a chancer and a bluffer, but Lewis reveals the inadequacy that lies behind the swagger. Sturridge makes the young junkie Bob a memorably pathetic creature, gaunt, pale and with his head shaved, he literally grovels around as he tries to finance his next fix. It is easy to level the charges that Mamet’s writing is cold and clinical, too caught up in its own smartness, but difficult to make them stick when the writing provides the foundation for three such magnificent performances. Yet still there is a sense that the play never quite goes where we want it to take us, walking a path towards greatness, but stopping frustratingly short of the threshold. As the lights dim at the very end, Evans adds a moment of real warmth and the fact that this feels as surprising as the denouement at the end of a very good thriller gives a clue as to what has been missing from the preceding two hours. This is an impeccable production, but it leaves a sense of regret for those of us who find it hard to connect more fully with the play itself and its writer.

Performance date: 29 April 2015

Follies***** (Royal Albert Hall)

Posted: April 29, 2015 in Music, Theatre


I was privileged to see the 1987 production of Follies, which enjoyed a run of over 18 months at the Shaftesbury Theatre, and I have been longing for it to be revived ever since. If nothing else, this concert staging was a reality check, showing exactly why I have been disappointed for so long and why, faced with the economics of modern commercial theatre, a future revival is very unlikely. What producer will take a risk on a show with almost 20 solo singing roles, a large singing/dancing chorus and a score which requires a full orchestra? This early Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) musical, sandwiched between Company and A Little Night Music, is set in 1971, the year when it was first staged. A derelict New York theatre is about to be converted into a parking lot and the former impresario holds a cocktail party for the stars of his spectacular Follies revue from 30 years earlier – a cue for nostalgia and sentimentality by the bucket load and for a return to the golden era. The principal characters are two couples who re-ignite their tangled past relationships and come face to face with their younger selves. The older versions were played here by Christine Baranski and Alexander Hanson, Ruthie Henshall and Peter Polycarpou. British musical theatre fans are well familiar with the last three, who all did what we know they can superbly, but it was the divine Baranski who stole the show, delivering lines of withering sarcasm as if they were written for her and making us think that there is no other actor anywhere in the World who could ever play this role again. This is a show in which the songs overwhelm the book (written by James Goldman) to such an extent that the book gives up at the interval, thus making the usual criticism of concert stagings – that they diminish the impact of the drama or comedy – pretty irrelevant. This, plus the show’s fragmented nature, means that concert staging may even reveal Sondheim’s masterpiece in a better light. The production, directed by Craig Revel Horwood, made imaginative use of four moveable oblong “doorways” and had, as would be expected, plentiful dancing (choreography by Andrew Wright); if the dancers seemed slightly under-rehearsed, it mattered little because their musical numbers are all about spectacle. Behind them, the City of London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Gareth Valentine. The large company included a variety of well-known names to suit different tastes (or not) and several who it was pleasant to discover are still alive. Performers such as Russell Watson and Anita Dobson have always been outside my personal radar, but the former nailed Beautiful Girls emphatically and the latter, singing and tap-dancing her way through Who’s That Woman with girlish glee, was an absolute knockout. Stefanie Powers donned the guise of a French madam and put her Hart into Ah Paris, Lorna Luft belted out Broadway Baby in a style that would have made her mother proud and Betty Buckley rattled the old Albert Hall’s foundations with the perennial showstopper I’m Still Here. Hanson and Henshall duetted beautifully on the haunting Too Many Mornings and the latter made Losing My Mind even more heartbreaking by reining in her trademark emotional anguish. Eventually, Baranski brought the house down, leading the chorus on The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie and finding time to conduct the orchestra as well as sit in the audience taking selfies. There were many, many more highlights contributing to an unforgettable occasion which, sadly, is not likely to be repeated any time soon.

Performance date: 28 April 2015

a-new-play-for-the-general-election-mainThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Traditionally, the theatre has been a place for escaping to during tedious Election campaigns, but no refuge can be found at the Finborough whilst this play is running. Chris New’s new work (is the word “new” in the title meant to be ambiguous?), devised with the cast, is set on the eve of the 2015 General Election and looks at modern politics through a very distorted lens. Daniel (Jumaane Brown) takes as a hostage “Tom” (Charlie Holloway), believing him to have been involved in the disappearance of his girlfriend Sonya. The hostage’s face can barely be seen, as he is trapped inside a hideous effigy of George Osborne, who, it transpires, he actually is. The early exchanges take the form of an interrogation in which a question is followed by reiteration; example – Daniel: “Where do you live now?”, Tom/George: “Where do I live now?” This pattern is repeated over and over again, serving no obvious purpose other than to get under the skin of the audience and the two actors themselves seem uncomfortable speaking the lines. When Sonya (Emily Houghton) arrives on the scene, she brings in tow another boyfriend, Richard (Tim Pritchett), who insists that her real name is Maggie, suggesting that some genuine political satire may be on the way. Alas Sonya/Maggie turns out to be no more than a hysterical young lady who rants incoherently, pausing regularly to vomit. And so the nonsense goes on. Presumably, New intends his work to be seen as a parable, alluding to a disadvantaged and disorganised electorate, mired in spin and false promises, coming up against a privileged elite who will not be dislodged whatever the outcome of the vote. But that is a guess, because the play is so oblique and so divorced from reality that it becomes difficult to extract any clear messages from it. If New wanted to model this absurdist piece on works by Beckett or Pinter, he has failed miserably. The play has neither the loaded dialogue nor the rippling undercurrents to merit comparisons with those writers. Perhaps he intended it all to be tongue in cheek, but again he fails, with hardly any humour at all rising to the surface. It is quite an achievement by all involved here to have created a 45 minute play that feels as if it is longer than King Lear. So it’s back to the telly; the Election itself has got to be more entertaining than this.

Performance date: 27 April 2015

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received_10205533765199458This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Film noir has just got plus noir. Whilst in Hollywood researching his last show, The Tailor- Made Man, writer/director Claudio Macor began asking himself the question: what would classic films of the 40s and 50s have been like if they could have escaped the straightjacket of the dreaded Hay’s Code, which regulated everything seen on screen? This show results from answers that he came up with. Some would argue that the Hay’s Code did film noir a favour. Perhaps suggestions of the forbidden – gestures, glances, coded conversations – could set the imagination racing and become far more potent than explicit words or graphic images. Happily, Macor does not discard these elements altogether and, aided by Paul Nicholas Dyke’s gloomy sets and Richard Lambert’s atmospheric lighting, he generates a mood and feel that is faithful to the genre. What we see is not exactly in monochrome, but it seems as if it is. The time is late 1945, the setting is the small coastal town of La Roca, somewhere in South America, that is rife with drug traffickers; Nazis are fleeing Europe and almost everyone else is escaping something from the past that is better forgotten. Elvira (Judith Paris), hardened and world-weary, runs the Bar Tangeros, distilling illicit tequila and acting as a mother figure to two prostitutes who work for her – the handsome Massimo (Jordan Alexander) and the seductive Rita (Susannah Allman), who sits with her long blond hair draped over her shoulders in the style of Veronica Lake, declining a glass of water on the grounds that it will give her a hangover. Ross Harper Millar is wonderfully sleazy as Martinez, a small-time drug dealer who lurks around, vermin-like and malodorous, besotted with Elvira; “did your mother give birth to you or did she vomit you up?” she asks him venomously. Elvira in turn is bitter over a past affair with a corrupt town official, Falchi (Ned Wolfgang Kelly). Macor’s script is lit up by the sort of cynical, barbed dialogue which typifies film noir, but he does not overlook another essential ingredient – romance. Rita is wooed by Raoul (Tristan Robin) and Massimo rekindles an affair with Leandro (Matt Mella), son of the local Mr Big; both couples sense that their relationships are ill-fated, being able to survive only within the amoral cocoon that is La Roca, which itself could be doomed. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this show is its stunning use of Latin American dancing, integrated perfectly into the drama. A prime example is the all-male Tango in which Leandro first seduces Massimo, but several ensemble routines also stand out, choreographed superbly by Anthony Whiteman to original music by Paul Boyd. In fact the dances are so good that we want more and they have the effect of making the scenes that follow immediately feel pedestrian. The show’s main problem is that the central narrative, played out mostly offstage, is not strong enough to propel the drama through stodgy patches, particularly in Act II when there is less dance; it always seems secondary to the romantic sub-plots and it produces unsatisfactory endings to all the strands. In the Dead of Night is imaginative, absorbing and, occasionally, thrilling entertainment. Yes, it needs modifications here and there and a bit of tightening up, but there are times when it creates an irresistible magic and it has the potential to become a really terrific show.

Performance date: 25 April 2015

Photograph: PND Photography

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clp 0260 So the old cow that grazes in Bristo Square, Edinburgh every August has made her way down South again for the Spring and early Summer! She still hasn’t found a way to stop noise from the surrounding bars creeping through her thin skin during performances, but, otherwise, a big welcome to her and to the Edinburgh-style programming of short and varied entertainments. A Simple Space is an hour-long acrobatic display created by the Australian ensemble Gravity and Other Myths. Simple? For the watching audience yes, but for the performers far from it. Showing strength, agility, balance and sheer guts, the seven acrobats (six men, one woman) fall, rise, leap, gambol, somersault, spin and contort themselves, hardly stopping to regain their breath for the show’s duration. They pile on top of each other to form columns, pyramids, squares, arches or just piles and a very competitive game of Strip Skipping could well set a new trend. The loser, who also serves as a musician, later goes on to use his own body as a percussion instrument. All this could have been fairly monotonous without dashes of humour, but there are generous helpings of it, all without a single word being spoken – these guys (and gal) know how work an audience and build up tension without resorting to speeches. The result is a show which flows seamlessly and never outstays its welcome. The show runs until 24 May, so a good idea might be to pop into see it after work and then grab a beer outside as the sun sets over the Thames, making sure that the next show’s audience hears you. Simply perfect!

Performance date: 23 April 2015

Photograph: Chris Herzfeld

Dead Royal*** (Ovalhouse)

Posted: April 23, 2015 in Theatre

Dress Rehearsal image - Dead RoyalThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

In the Summer of 1981 the Duchess of Windsor invited to her secluded villa in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris, the 19 year-old Lady Diana Spencer who was about to marry the Prince of Wales. Well maybe she didn’t, but Australian writer/director/performer Chris Ioan Roberts imagines such a meeting and makes it the basis for this 50 minute one man show. Wallis, The Duchess, is intent on dispensing pearls of wisdom, whist Diana has been sent on a mission to retrieve pearls of Queen Alexandra, “stolen” by her hostess years before. Both ladies have come to be regarded as ill-used, tragic heroines and fashion icons, making them ideal subjects for the high camp treatment given by Roberts, who plays both. His Wallis is a faded, embittered Southern belle who sees herself as Scarlett O’Hara, although another Vivien Leigh guise, that of Blanche DuBois, comes more readily to mind. Tara’s Theme plays in the background as Wallis quips that her life story could be entitled “Gone With the Windsors”. She is scornful of the ITV series Edward and Mrs Simpson, but still plays back VHS tapes of episodes and mimes to the lines. Her snobbishness runs to being unable to admit to having a seafood allergy because it could be regarded as “common”, preferring to make herself ill, regularly. The meeting that we all want to see is, of course, impossible with this format. Instead, halfway though the show, Roberts makes a slow change of costume and wig to become Diana, who is still blissfully unaware of what the future holds for her. She too has a link to Gone With the Wind, copping out of reading the paperback that Prince Charles has given her, but finding that her attention span does not run to watching the entire film either. This is a show of rich humour but little depth. With both characters, Roberts finds a good balance between refinement and vulgarity, but, whilst there is a natural pathos in his demeanour, he explores neither the sadness of Wallis nor the vulnerability of Diana. His portrayals are not impersonations, nor do they represent the two women exactly (for example Wallis came from the Baltimore area and not the Deep South); more he is mocking their public images and giving them very little in the way of dignity. The show works best as a vehicle for a string of very funny jokes at the expense of our Royal Family. Roberts’ Wallis delivers the sort of bitchy material that the late Joan Rivers would have been proud of, shooting from the hip at Princess Margaret, the Princes Andrew and Edward and, of course, the Queen Mother (“face like yesterday’s Eton Mess”). His Diana has fewer targets – Charles and, unwittingly, her own limited intellect. Wallis was not to know that the best advice she could have given to Diana would have been never to return to Paris. Roberts takes his show back to Brisbane next, but his return to our shores will be more than welcome.

Performance date: 22 April 2015

Photograph: Patricia Oliveira

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Caryl Churchill’s account of the English Civil War from the perspective of a group of insurgent agricultural workers tells a story which resonates still in the modern world. Her writing always seems acutely aware of this and the use of costumes that are not time specific in Lyndsey Turner’s production underlines the point. Yet, still this is a play that is packed with factual detail and its only driving narrative is that given to it by history. The common people are Saxon and they are spurred on to rise up against their Royalist masters, of Norman descent, because of poverty, brutal repression and the belief in a new Jerusalem beginning in 1650. Once the Royalist rule has ended, something has to replace it and almost a third of the first act is taken up with the Putney Debates of 1647, presided over by Oliver Cromwell (Daniel Flynn), in which protagonists line up across the stage and present their cases. The scene draws from actual records, but it is debate more than drama and it seems interminable. The arguments are elementary – in modern parlance, capitalism versus communism, rule of law versus anarchy – and there is a feeling throughout the play that, when Churchill is not using the actual words spoken, the fluency and colour in her writing masks their simplicity. The second act culminates in another long discussion on the influence which religion has in society. Churchill seems to conclude that Christianity had inspired the insurgents and given them a glimmer of false hope, but it is adept at wriggling free from any blame for failure. Turner’s staging, with sets designed by Es Devlin, is spectacular. Act I takes place on a banquet table covering almost the entire Lyttelton stage, with Royalists gorging themselves around the edges; for Act II, the table becomes farm land and the diners are replaced by Puritan scribes; an enormous overhead mirror reflects events throughout. Symbolism abounds, without adding very much to a play which has speaking roles for close to 30 actors and uses almost as many non-speaking extras (referred to as the “Community Company”). Extravagance indeed, but to what end as this is a work which is nearly all words and hardly any action? Occasionally and very fleetingly, some engaging performances emerge – Ashley McGuire and Alan Williams as resourceful vagrants, Joshua James as an evangelistic “gentleman”, Trystan Gravelle as a cynical fighter – but Churchill fails to flesh out their characters fully or to give them strong storylines and they fade back quickly into the mists of Turner’s bloated production. Churchill’s central point is that, here and throughout history, uprisings may disrupt things temporarily, but, for the lowest echelons of society, the status quo returns quickly. In this case, the names and faces of rulers and landowners change, but the poverty and repression continue and even the Monarchy is restored. Churchill’s history lesson is all good and worthy, but her messages would have been more easily digested if she had been able to wrap them in a gripping drama.

Performance date: 21 April 2015

Scarlet**** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: April 18, 2015 in Theatre

scarlettThis Review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them” says Scarlet, quoting a half remembered adage as she tries to explain to herself how she has arrived at a point of desperation. Scarlet has been the victim of sexual abuse – an intimate video has been shot whilst she was drunk and posted on the internet without her permission. Her life has been changed irrevocably, possibly ruined. Scarlet, the first full-length play by Samuel H Freeman, is a sharply-focussed and provocative examination of the causes and consequences of sexual abuse. Written in the style of a monologue, the play is in fact performed by four actors – Lucy Kilpatrick, Jade Ogugua, Heidi Reed and Asha Reid – all playing Scarlet and all playing other characters in the story. The four bring subtly different traits to the main role, particularly effective when they are arguing different sides in debates going on in Scarlet’s head. The perpetrator of the abuse is Will, a misfit who is laughed at by his friends over an incident involving Scarlet and driven to seek revenge on her. By telling us that Will is a victim of bullying, Freeman is not trying to excuse the inexcusable, rather he is showing us that abuse exists in different forms, consisting of many degrees of physical or mental violence and that one case of abuse can escalate and lead to another. Scarlet is not the victim of a date rape as such, but Freeman is able to make the case that the sexual abuse inflicted upon her is no less extreme for being less physical and he challenges what might be ingrained prejudices. When another woman, Scarlet’s friend Sasha, implies that what happened was her own fault for dressing alluringly, drinking too much and being promiscuous, the playwright is showing that prejudice is not specific to one gender and he is asking each member of the audience to question their own views. At the same time, Freeman also shows that attitudes toward female victims can be very different from those towards men. When Scarlet seeks revenge on her ex-boyfriend after their relationship has broken down in the wake of her misfortune, she posts sexually explicit photographs of him on the internet. Her life had been wrecked, but he shrugs it off, perhaps wallowing in his reinforced macho image. Joe Hufton’s lively and energetic production is staged on a central square platform, with extensions into the audience. For all the seriousness of the issues with which it deals, the play never resembles a dry tome and, blessed with four uniformly excellent performances, it moves effortlessly between humour and suspense. It also sends the audience home discussing the issues that it raises, which must be central to its purpose.

Performance date: 17 April 2015

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carmen disruption

When a performance ends and you are sitting next to a gentleman who declines to lift a hand to applaud, even though he has just witnessed five of the most striking performances likely to be seen in London this year, you pretty well know that the play is going to divide opinions. If the said gentleman had come expecting to see something akin to Coward or Ayckbourn, then he is entitled to feel disappointed, because Simon Stephens’ vision of a dystopian present seems a likely challenger to Mr Burns, seen at the Almeida a year ago, to become champion for polarising views. In the case of Burns, I voted with the nays, although things could have been different had it been cut to the same length as this (90 minutes straight through); on this occasion, I go with the ayes. It is not often that we are asked to walk to our seats across the stage, edging our way around a near-dead bull, but this unnerving entrance gets us to expect the unexpected. The setting is the opera house in an unnamed European city, where Carmen is being performed. Stephens introduces us to five characters, the leading singer and four others, based loosely upon those in Bizet’s opera: Carmen (Jack Farthing) is a narcissistic rent boy, preening in a new designer shirt and planning his next pick-up; Don Jose (Noma Dumezweni) is a sorrowful cab driver, mulling over conversations with the son from whom she has been estranged; Escamillo (John Light) is a panic-stricken commodities dealer, struggling to retain an outer calm whilst filled with terror at the prospect of bankruptcy; and Micaela (Katie West) is a suicidal student, jilted by her boyfriend and getting out of her depth in the world of adult chatrooms. The singer (Sharon Small) has just flown in and is becoming increasingly disorientated, unable to remember the simplest facts about her life without reference to her smart phone, only able to survive thanks to a suitcase packed with prescription drugs. The five are joined on stage by a soprano (Viktoria Vizin), two cellists (Jamie Cameron and Harry Napier) and the aforementioned bull. They go about their business, absorbed in their own thoughts, only fleetingly aware of each other and the rest of humanity; they talk of smell and touch as if these senses had been newly discovered. A traffic accident between the opera house and the river disrupts their day and brings them to the same scene, but they never connect to each other. Stephens’ theme is solitude, developing the view that we are all at our most isolated when in crowded places, in the middle of bustling modern cities. Such a metaphysical concept can only be conveyed successfully if the writing and the direction are in as complete harmony as they are here. Stephens writes intercut mini-monologues in blank verse, stark and vividly descriptive. Michael Longhurst fills his production with haunting imagery that is balletic, operatic, poetic, hallucinatory and more, centring around the symbol of human brutality which lies at the centre of an otherwise bare, half-lit stage throughout. An astute use of music and a surtitles board with a mind of its own add to the effect. Rupert Gould’s Almeida has gone astray a couple of times recently, pursuing its policy of bold programming, but this time it comes up trumps.

Performance date: 16 April 2015

the glass protegeThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Classic black-and-white films are being screened as the audience enters the theatre for this emotional drama, serving as a reminder of the “golden age” of Hollywood. It was an era in which movie stars were treated as merely products by studios that, being concerned only with image, were prepared to control them and promote myths about their private lives which were at odds with reality. Dylan Costello’s play begins in 1949 with the arrival in Hollywood of Patrick Glass (David R Butler), a young British theatre actor. He has been cast to play opposite Jackson (Alexander Hulme), an established star who is rumoured to be gay, but has become adept at playing the deception game. The play, which tells of the development of an off-screen relationship between the two actors, is a revised version of one that was staged in London in 2010 under the title Secret Boulevard. Showing the long-term damage caused by lives being manipulated and lived in secret, the play also leaps forward 40 years to where an elderly Patrick (Paul Lavers) is now reclusive and embittered; “when you live your entire life in the closet, you start to cough up mothballs” he snarls. Instead of adopting a conventional flashback structure, Costello opts to relate a separate story set in 1989, running in parallel with the 1949 one and told in alternating scenes. That story concerns Ava (Sheena May), who arrives from the newly- liberated East Germany, having been “bought” as a bride by Patrick’s son (Stephen Connery-Brown). There is symmetry here in that Ava becomes a property to be used by others, just as Patrick had been during his film career, but the 1989 scenes prove to be much weaker and less convincing than the ones set earlier. Furthermore, the play’s structure impairs the build-up of tension in the 1949 scenes as Patrick and Jackson grow closer and threats to them become stronger. Not only is this build-up interrupted regularly, but the problem is compounded further when, on several occasions, the older Patrick reveals what is about to happen in the following scene. If we come to resent the intrusions of the 1989 story, perhaps that is a tribute to the strength of the core scenes, which are brought to life by sharp writing, taut direction and strong performances. Butler and Hulme develop a very believable chemistry, bringing out their characters’ vulnerability as they move from mutual suspicion to shared affection. Emily Loomes touches as an insecure leading lady with an unsavoury past, Roger Parkins is a ruthless studio boss and Mary Stewart a venomous gossip columnist. Matthew Gould’s production is performed on a traverse stage, dominated, for both stories, by a large, curtained four-poster bed. Overhead, the famed “Hollywood” sign appears for the 1989 scenes, becoming “Hollywoodland” for 1949, the year in which it was changed. The secret lives of many real stars of the 40s and 50s are now widely known, endorsing the truth underlying this fictional drama. Costello’s play is an interesting examination of the human cost of deception and loss of freedom. Incidentally, it also sets the mind thinking about what my lie behind the facade of modern day celebrity culture.

Performance date: 15 April 2015

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