Archive for May, 2015

 

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Nick Payne’s quirky, romantic not-quite-a-comedy was a big success at the Royal Court and in the West End in 2012 and more recently, on Broadway. It now looks very much like a modern classic and, in sending this re-cast production out on tour, perhaps the Royal Court is hoping to remind us that it was once capable of producing hits on its own, without collaborating with Headlong. In a nutshell, it is Groundhog Day meets Love Story, borrowing more than a little from Sliding Doors. If that sounds confusing, it is nothing compared to the notion of quantum cosmology, the science with which Payne tries to blind us and which is best left unexplained. Suffice to say that Marianne (Louise Brealey) works inputting data related to that science and the play charts her on/off relationship with a beekeeper, Roland (Joe Armstrong). Here, on/off means both on and off, as the couple play out several alternative versions of every situation which arises, answering the question “what would have happened if….?” at each junction in their lives, until they reach a barrier of fate which leaves few options open. The play begins with a naff chat up line and proceeds in similar vein, with seemingly inconsequential conversations gaining a ring of truth and substance as the story moves on, not always in a linear progression, taking two steps forwards and one step back. The play works so well because of its dizzying effect, rather than despite it, creating an outer-worldly feel which becomes captivating and very touching. Much credit for this goes to director Michael Longhurst’s light touch, Tom Scutt’s set consisting of helium-filled balloons and Lee Curran’s warm and glowing lighting. Another big plus is that, at 70 minutes, the play does not hang around long enough for it to become irritating. Big name stars have played the two roles previously, bringing the stamp of personality that comes from instant recognition. However, if this puts Brealey and Armstrong at a disadvantage, they do well in overcoming it, making a genuinely engaging couple and handling the regular changes in tone with great confidence. Quantum cosmology remains unfathomable, but this play speaks to the heart rather than the brain and, as such, it is a delight.

Performance Date: 14 May 2015

Gypsy***** (Savoy Theatre)

Posted: May 15, 2015 in Theatre

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Okay, I know it’s criminal to go and see something for a second time when there are so many good shows around with too little time to see them all. I plead Guilty! I am not going to repeat everything that I wrote after seeing Jonathan Kent’s faultless production in Chichester (see review posted on this site on 22 October 2014) but, reading that review again now and comparing it with what critics in the national press have written, I feel the need to apologise for having underrated it. It is a tribute to the good taste of London theatregoers that box office records at the Savoy have already been broken; perhaps they fear that the leading performance is so phenomenal that its like will never be seen in this city again. Perhaps they are right. The Savoy is much more compact than the Festival Theatre in Chichester and, with its proscenium arch and art deco fitments, it suits the show’s story perfectly. The choreography loses something on the smaller stage, particularly when Tulsa (Dan Burton) performs All I Need is the Girl, serenading Louise in Gene Kelly style just before eloping with her sister. However, for those small drawbacks, there come massive compensations when the theatre’s intimacy magnifies the intensity of the emotional outpourings towards the end. I continue to rave about Lara Pulver’s performance, her transformation from Louise to Gypsy being pure magic. Peter Davison has now taken over from Kevin Whateley as Herbie, but he brings exactly the same qualities to the role. Nicholas Skilbeck’s orchestra sounds just as good, particularly its wonderful brass section and the standing ovations come in exactly the same places. Yet, for all those wonders, the question most people ask at the end is something like “how on Earth does that lady do that for eight shows a week?” The lady is Imelda Staunton, still playing the lead role of Rose.

Performance date: 13 May 

wilderness_web_imageLeft wing politics are under the microscope again right now, perhaps in different ways from what might have been envisaged when this production started to take shape. The play, the first of only two written by Doris Lessing, explores the shallow roots of British radicalism more than half a century ago and effectively sounds a death knell. In 1958, Myra (Clare Holman) is still repeating the Socialist battle cries of the 1930s, but is short of causes to attach them to, CND taking up most of her time. Her 22-year-old son Tony (Joel MacCormack) returns home from two years of National Service to find Myra and the house a complete mess and yearns for order, stability and sanity. Lessing asks us to view events through Tony’s eyes and she paints a picture of well-meaning, chattering middle class lefties championing political causes which relate to worlds outside their own experiences. Myra’s latest lover Sandy (Josh Taylor) is Tony’s age and, when it is suggested that he should take up a career in politics, he is told to join the Labour Party, not because of any conviction but because he does not have the connections to make it to the top as a Tory. Some of this may resonate in the light of history made in May 2015, but there are very few respects in which Lessing’s writing is prescient; this is a drama belonging to the late 50s, a history lesson which throws light on the present day. The play is sometimes stilted and uneven in tone and there are patches when Paul Miller’s in-the-round production struggles to overcome these problems. John Lightbody, as one of Myra’s many ex-lover’s and Rosie Holden as his feeble, whining new girlfriend seem to play for comedy, going very much against the grain of the play. Susannah Harker redresses the balance with a strong display of dignified vulnerability as Sandy’s mother, also Myra’s best friend. However, the two leading performances are what hold this production together – Holman is a brittle rebel with very little cause, still pressing the case for the left wing, yet wondering what her life has been for if her beliefs come to nothing. Still more outstanding is the mature and sincere performance of MacCormack, commenting sardonically on the lifestyle of the mother to whom he is devoted, whilst seeking nothing more than the security of his family home. Tony represents the contentment and complacency which, by 1958, had already begun to undermine Myra’s style of radicalism. He wants to be left alone, free of political bullying, a sentiment which may be echoed by many at the end of the long 2015 Election campaign.

Performance date: 12 May 2015

everymanIt was a bad mistake see a play that I was always going to find difficult to engage with on the evening after the long night of the General Election. Performed on a blackened Olivier stage, Everyman is a version of a medieval morality tale updated to the modern day by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. The central character, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is called by the Grim Reaper and sent on a journey to account for his selfish and debauched lifestyle before meeting his maker and seeking to pass through the Pearly Gates. Written in rhyming verse, Duffy’s language is modern, stark and often coarse. Looked at as a whole, it become difficult to see the play as anything other than a very long Sunday sermon. The stage presence of the charismatic Ejiofor is, inevitably, the biggest saving grace, but many imaginative visual touches in Rufus Norris’s production – ranging from a Bacchanalian orgy to a tsunami – also keep the interest alive. So, quite a lot to admire here, but, personally, I found little to like.

Performance date: 8 May 2015

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com 

They used to say that those who can do do and those who can’t do teach. Nowadays it seems more a case of anyone unfit for a worthy profession going into politics, with the proviso that such a person must be capable of being moulded to fit the required image. The Lab Collective’s 50-minute piece of interactive theatre does a hatchet job on modern politicians and the fact that it is scheduled to run after the General Election suggests that is intended less to influence how we vote than to make us reflect on what on Earth we have done (yet again). We are asked to use our smart phones to send texts (free) voting on choices that are put before us. Firstly, we must choose one from five candidates (all played by Omar Ibrahim), based solely on first impressions of superficial qualities. At this performance, unsurprisingly, the chosen candidate was bland and shallow, revealing no political leaning, except that a pro-European Union speech gave a faint hint that he did not belong to UKIP. The candidate having been chosen, an image consultant (Matthew Flacks) moves in to knock him into shape and we are offered more choices to decide how we want him to be. Lively exchanges between Ibrahim and Flacks and natural interplay with the audience make the process highly entertaining. The key point, that our own complacency towards politics gives us the politicians we deserve, is well made. When this candidate is asked to outline policy, he does what all politicians do and tub thumps about the National Health Service, coming up with just one constructive idea, which is “to make it better”. He has no firm ideology, spouts meaningless platitudes to tell us what he thinks we want to hear and he conforms to a squeaky clean image, with any indiscretions in his private life being air-brushed away quickly by the PR people. The choices offered in this show and the outcomes of the audience votes demonstrate how we are complicit in creating a circus of spin and delusion which reaches its nadir when Prime Minister’s Question Time resembles more a custard pie fight than a serious debate. Food for thought indeed, but, unfortunately, the chance to rectify things may not now come round for another four years and 51 weeks.

Performance date: 6 May 2015

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Soggy, bland, with a side of lumpy mash and all swimming in tasteless green slime; the worst pie in London? Very possibly. So, that’s the review of the food, what about the show that follows it? This tiny production, devised by Tooting Arts Club caused a minor sensation when performed in the real Harrington’s towards the end of last year and, like many others, I found it impossible to get tickets. Yet somehow, on the very last afternoon of its limited run, a certain Mr S Sondheim managed to overcome that problem and was so smitten with what he saw that, reportedly, he used his influence to secure this transfer to a pop-up replica of the shop in Shaftesbury Avenue, the scene, very aptly, of a gangland murder in 2013.sondheim It is exactly five weeks since I saw this same show performed as a semi-staged opera in the huge Coliseum with a full orchestra and international stars. There were more people on stage that night than there are here seated on wooden benches around oblong tables to see a cast of just eight performing to the backing of a three-piece band. The contrast is stark, but the show is the same and my long-held affection for it is an open secret; so let’s not go there again and concentrate only on this unique production. The advance expectation might have been for a novelty site-specific production of average quality, but what director Bill Buckhurst actually delivers is a show that it rich with imaginative insights and brings out many details that I have never appreciated before in the countless times that I have seen it since it first opened on Broadway in 1979. I can add that the performances here are as good as and, in some cases better than, any I have ever seen in these roles. Jeremy Secomb’s Sweeney is brooding and menacing, Siobhan McCarthy’s Mrs Lovett is conniving and resourceful and Nadim Naaman’s Anthony is hopelessly lovestruck as he stands on a table in one corner of the room to serenade the lovely Johanna (Zoe Doano) on a stairway in the opposite corner. Getting up close and personal with the performers is an added bonus, whether it be chatting with Johanna at the table before the show, having Toby (Joseph Taylor) rub hair restorer into my scalp (it’s too late Toby!) or congratulating Judge Turpin (Duncan Smith) in the bar at the interval on the wonderful  Pretty Women that he had just duetted with Sweeney. I avoided the particularly smarmy Beadle Bamford (Ian Mowat) and I was not conned into giving cash to the Beggar Woman, played by Kiara Jay, who doubles as Signor Pirelli and gives him a soprano voice which seems very fitting. Benjamin Cox makes Stephen Sondheim’s music sound just as good as in the opera house. What a shame that this production cannot run forever, maybe transferred again to somewhere in Fleet Street. I know I should be docking a star for the awful pie, but it’s a 6-star show anyway, so we can call it quits.FullSizeRender-67

 

 

 

 

 

 

Performance date: 5 May 2015

CarrieThe shows that we remember best are the very good ones and the very bad ones; the mediocre ones slip from the memory. I saw Carrie before it took its place in the graveyard of Broadway flops, during its short run in Stratford in 1988 and I cannot recall a thing about it. On the other hand, I am still reeling from the shock of Brian dePalma’s film version, seen several years before that. Maybe this highlights the difficulties involved in making a musical out of something fantastical that can only work if it is taken completely seriously. Unlike the many tongue-in-cheek horror musicals, Stephen King’s parable on the theme of bullying is rooted in the reality of the modern world and demands to be treated in deadly earnest. Gary Lloyd’s new production does not completely sweep away the suspicion that the show’s concept was flawed from the outset, but the gusto shown by the company and the technical skill of the production team diminish it very considerably. Evelyn Hoskins is wonderful in the title role, the 17-year-old girl with telekinetic powers who is bullied viciously at school and smothered by her mother’s religious zealotry at home; slight of frame and stooping, with her face peeping out shyly through her long red hair, she is pitiable, then hopeful and ultimately vengeful. Her unruly classmates (a little over-age as played here, but we can let that pass) pile on the cruelty, except for Sue (Sarah McNicholas) and her boyfriend Tommy (Greg Miller-Burns) who devise a misguided scheme to help her. Leggy blonde Chris (Gabriella Williams) is the would-be Prom Queen who diverts to become Queen of Mean, Carrie’s chief tormentor. Back in the 80s, some elements here could have been likened to Grease, but the brand of American High School musicals is now even more familiar and Michael Gore’s rock-inspired score often struggles in the early stages to raise the show above the ordinary. Furthermore, Lloyd’s choreography has little that is distinctive about it and it begins to look as if we are in for Glee without any glee, until the appearance of Kim Criswell, playing Carrie’s mother Margaret, brings about an extraordinary transformation. She gives her scenes the feel of grand opera, attacking the role with the ferocity that she might have applied to singing Wagner. This is a terrifying portrayal of a crazed woman who is no longer capable of distinguishing right from wrong and it alters the tone of the entire show. The second act is much more consistent and assured, with Gore’s score improving too, played superbly by Mark Crossland’s seven-piece band. The recurring A Night We’ll Never Forget ratchets up the tension leading to the fateful Prom and Criswell’s rendition of the gorgeous “aria” When There’s No-one puts the cherry on top of the cake. Dean Pritchard’s lyrics and Laurence D Cohen’s book work well together throughout in compressing King’s story into key scenes and telling it with clarity. The Large at Southwark Playhouse, back to the three-sided configuration that has been so effective for musicals before, adds to the production’s intensity, which is enhanced further by Tim Oliver’s excellent lighting designs. The mayhem created when Carrie’s powers are unleashed is suggested well, within obvious limitations, but it is slightly disappointing that the same effect is used to climax both acts. Southwark Playhouse may well have a big hit on its hands here, but whether the show could retain its impact if transferred to a conventional theatre in the West End must be questionable. One thing for sure is that, thanks largely to two stupendous leading performances, this is not a production to be forgotten in a hurry.

Performance date: 4 May 2015

Portia CoughlanThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Director Bronagh Lagan turns the small space at the Old Red Lion into a cauldron with her revival of Marina Carr’s harrowing drama, last seen in London at the Royal Court in 1996. Set in a small lakeside town in modern day rural Ireland, the play centres on a family that cannot escape from the its past, bound together by bonds that are malignant and incestuous. Portia has arrived at her 30th Birthday trapped in a loveless marriage to Raphael (Ben Mulhern). She is a neglectful mother who drinks heavily and partakes in casual liaisons with local men (Alan Devally and Conan Sweeny). Yet she is not yearning to escape, not even for a holiday; instead, she is drawn closer to the lake where her twin brother Gabriel had committed suicide 15 years earlier. The haunted look in Susan Stanley’s eyes is the key to her powerful performance as Portia; Gabriel was born clinging to her leg, Portia is told and, increasingly, she is coming to accept that nothing has changed. Strong cameo performances, particular from Veronica Quilligan and Karen Cogan as townswomen, show the stifling impact of the community which surrounds the family and Nik Corrall’s simple design – a table and chairs, with a small representation of the lake in the background – provides a suitably stark and claustrophobic setting for a drama in which affection is an outcast. When Portia dreams of her own suicide and funeral, we are shown the family gathering for her wake, still recriminatory more than remorseful. It is as if Portia believes that the removal of the cancer that is herself will still leave the disease raging and that reunion with her twin, who appears repeatedly in ghostly form, will be the only way in which she can find peace. In fierce performances by Susan Cummins and Anne Kent as Portia’s mother and paternal grandmother, we see the cross generational impact of bitterness and abuse. Her mother had been cold and unsympathetic, but she suffered from her weak husband (Christopher Dunne) having allowed his mother to dominate her household with cruelty. Her grandmother, still domineering, is now wheelchair-bound, foul-mouthed and even more malicious, but she herself had once been the victim of marital violence. These two characters justify Portia’s fears of causing damage to her own children. The lyricism in Carr’s writing and touches of quirky Irish humour do not detract from the core bleakness of her vision, which becomes wearing over the play’s 85-minute running time. Nonetheless, consistently fine acting from an outstanding company makes this a production to savour.

Performance date: 1 May 2015

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The VerbThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Andy Collyer started this show by writing a song to his chlorophytum (spider plant). Now it is a one-hour musical and, bearing in mind that Andrew Lloyd Webber developed all his early hit shows from songs and concept albums, who knows what lies next? The show takes place in a park, Nik Corrall’s set being a patch of grass and a flower bed awash with multi-coloured blooms. With birds tweeting in the background, romance is definitely in the air. The park warden, having ignored the “keep off the grass” sign, arises from his slumbers to transforms into a pianist, as the show’s central character, Simon (Martin Neely) appears. The writer insists that, although his protagonists are gay, this is not an exclusively gay story and, refreshingly, there are no signs of camp stereotypes and nothing here will shock our maiden aunts or frighten the horses. Collyer sets out to explore the universal mysteries of love and friendship, not coming up with clear answers, but who ever did? Simon and others in the story are most notable for their ordinariness, facing dilemmas that are common to almost all of us. Delivering what is mostly a sung monologue (an emotional outpouring to be more exact), Neely’s Simon bares his soul, telling us how, on the rebound from a failed 23-year relationship, he becomes involved with the much younger Ben. Moving between Somerset and Essex, they embark on what proves to be a rollercoaster ride together.They each change with time and the balance in their relationship changes too, with the pressures of modern living also taking their toll. Neely’s performance is remarkably warm and engaging, bringing out every conceivable emotion and throwing in several humorous asides. It often feels as if he is having an intimate 1:1 chat with each single member of the audience. Gareth Bretherton plays lilting piano melodies to back up the singing and, in the later stages, he sings the role of Ben with a passion to match that of Neely. Jonathan O’Boyle’s staging keeps the piece as simple as it needs to be, ensuring that, to use the old cliche, there is not a a dry eye in the house at the end. This is a delightful little show, so a very big thank you to the chlorophytum.

Performance date: 1 May 2015

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facetofacew300h200This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

In the modern World, “face to face” can be taken to mean a conversation on Skype in which two dimensional faces communicate, even though separated by however many miles; it can also relate to friendships formed on social media, where people project images of themselves which often mask the truth. This edgy new play by Heather Jeffery examines forms of connection and disconnection, many of which are new to the 21st Century Rachel (Rebecca Bell) is an artist. Before the play begins, she is crouched on the floor of her studio with her arms wrapped around herself in a defensive posture; grating music, incorporating repetitive ring tones, is playing loudly, suggesting that this is a troubled woman. Hearing the door bell, she runs across the room to put on a knee support and grabs her crutches. She is, in fact, erecting another defensive wall, using a faked injury to justify her reclusiveness and to manipulate others. The new arrival is Greg (Tom Telford), a successful writer who is to sit for a sculpture of himself, needed for publicity purposes. Rachel’s method is to dig beneath the surface and push the boundaries of privacy in order to capture the vulnerability of her subjects. She poses searching questions, provokes angry responses and seeks to examine social media accounts. Of course, the central irony is that it is Rachel herself who is the most secretive and most in need of opening out to others, following traumatic incidents a year earlier. The sitting has been arranged, using Skype, by Ajani (Lindsey Chaplin), who acts as Rachel’s agent from afar, but has she sent Greg on a mission to rescue Rachel from her isolation? Is Ajani’s partner Shaun (Joey Bartram), who seems to be at odds with Greg, really his friend? Have Shaun and Rachel had a past affair? By making these and other situations ambiguous, Jeffery creates undercurrents of suspicion and mistrust, all arising from the characters’ inability to make tangible connections with each other. Some stilted dialogue and occasional overplaying of scenes are irritating at first, but they also add to a sense of characters being ill at ease, thereby fuelling the tension in Niall Phillips’ production, which has the feel of a low-key thriller throughout. Bell captures Rachel’s nervy fragility convincingly and the studio that is her refuge is nicely realised in Ellis Higgins’ simple designs. Jeffery’s 70 minute one-act play builds to a denouement that feels a little contrived and is less than fully satisfying, but the progress towards it is always intriguing.

Performance date: 30 April 2015

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