Archive for June, 2015

A Third*** (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: June 30, 2015 in Theatre

a-third-mainThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

In a liberal-thinking and increasingly secular modern world, it is common to challenge traditional values and push boundaries. So, in a marriage, could monogamy perhaps become “monogom-ish”? Chicago-based writer Laura Jacqmin poses this question in her 100-minute one-act play, which gets its World Premier here. Living in an unnamed American city, Paul and Allison (Jeremy Legat and Asha Reid) have been married for six years and are seemingly contented with their lifestyle and devoted to each other. However, they decide that they can become even happier if they spice up their sex life together with the introduction of a “third”. Allison meets Jay (Will Alexander) and conducts something like a job interview, her nervousness contrasting with his laconic assuredness; he tells her that he has done it all before. After, the couple’s first liaison with Jay, Paul recruits another “third”, a wary lesbian, Mariella (Lucy Roslyn). Jacqmin begins her play with the recruitment of Jay, without having introduced us to Paul and Allison or having explained the thought processes that led them to taking this step. As a result, we are slow to understand the couple and, more critically, slow to warm to them when they begin to “feel feelings” as their learning curve steepens. The traditional rules of monogamy having been discarded, a new set of rules is devised and adhered to strictly by all four characters, but they are in uncharted territory and none of them can foresee how they will react emotionally to their entanglements. Jacqmin’s messages seem to be that relationships cannot be conducted like business transactions and that the tried and tested old rules may not be quite so bad after all. The use of a set that has been created for another play, running at the Finborough in repertoire, is not helpful to this production. The audience is seated all around a large lounge/dining room which looks more Chelsea, London than Chelsea, New York, although real traffic noise from outside goes some way to compensating for that shortcoming. Intermingling actors and an audience that needs to be shuffled around frequently is distracting as often as it is effective; it works well where scenes are set in crowded places, but it also works against the play at key moments of intimacy. Josh Roche’s low-key and leisurely production brings out the uncertainties besetting all four characters, but long silences occasionally slow things up a little too much. Jacqmin gives us a frank exploration of complex and interesting ideas, but, in this production, her play does not quite have the depth or the cutting edge that it really needs to make a strong impact.

Performance date: 29 June 2015

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It seems to have become a new law of theatre that any British film earning the tag “uplifting” has to be turned into a stage musical, paying little regard to the suitability of its subject. So here we go again, this time with a show about football. Being cynical, the success of the 2002 film on which this is based may have owed more to the star power in its title than to anything on-screen (Keira Knightly was an unknown at the time), but a decent sized hit it was and Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha now adapt their own screenplay, with Chadha again directing. Their book gives us a show of two halves, both of which have essentially the same narrative arc – will she (Jess) honour her responsibilities to her family or will she dash off to play for her team in a vital football match? Jess is a second generation Indian immigrant who has started to become absorbed into British culture, whilst her parents are traditionalists clinging onto their own family customs. So, even if the core story is very simple, there is plenty of meat here – culture clash, generation gap, girl power, even a gay character thrown in for good measure – and, if nothing else, the show must be welcomed for stimulating diversity both on the stage and in the audience. But does it work as a musical? Well, it could be argued that it only works as a musical, because many of the scenes between songs are so lifeless that watching them feels like trudging through a swamp. Howard Goodall has a fair track record and he gives the show a bouncy score, vastly superior to that which torpedoed the recent flop film-to-musical Made in Dagenham. That said, Goodall’s music is not much better then average Eurovision Song Contest fare, catchy Brit-pop that is only memorable in the sense that it becomes jumbled in the head for days afterwards, difficult to distinguish one song from another. The exceptions are two terrific Bollywood-style numbers which bring the show to instant life. Charles Hart’s lyrics contain more simple rhymes than should be allowed on the grounds of decency, but they serve the tunes well. Natalie Dew is a real find as Jess, combining cuteness and toughness, and Lauren Samuels gives strong support as her footballing mate Jules. Tony Jayawardhena and Natasha Jayetileke play Jess’s parents for comedy whilst preserving the characters’ dignity, Jamie Campbell Bower is an eager team coach and Sophie-Louise Dann (a survivor from Made in Dagenham) provides some of the show’s funniest moments as Jules’ slightly slutty Mum. The orchestra is placed on a balcony at the rear of Miriam Buether’s not-too-inspiring set in which six revolving panels effect scene changes and a lit-up house appears to represent Jess’s family home during the course of traditional Indian festivities. The big success of the show is the choreography and staging of the musical numbers, for which Aletta Collins takes credit. From a Southall street market to an Indian wedding to a football pitch, the show becomes a feast of energy and colour once the dancing starts, climaxing in a final half-hour of irresistible exuberance. This musical may not win many trophies, but it does more than enough for it to dodge a straight red card.

Performance date: 22 June 2015

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Not content with providing London’s Savoy Theatre with two musicals in straight succession, Chichester could be pitching unashamedly for the hat trick with a show that is set partly in that very theatre. “Things are looking up” chirps Billie Dore (Sally Ann Triplett) performing the closing number of show-within-a-show Kitty in the City on the Savoy stage, before setting off for a weekend in a castle in Gloucestershire, along with the show’s writer George Bevan (Richard Fleeshman). This is a hybrid musical with songs by George and Ira Gershwin transplanted onto a PG Wodehouse story, set in the 1920s, about a couple of Americans enjoying jolly frolics with the English aristocracy. 90 years ago, this sort of thing may have typified musical theatre, but, nowadays, the story looks pretty feeble. The book by Jeremy Sams and Robert Hudson moves towards the very brink of pantomime and then, in a preposterous finale, walks several steps beyond it. This places a heavy burden on the songs and on director/choreographer Rob Ashford’s staging and, thankfully, both prove to be more than up to the challenge. Of course, the presence of names such as Isla blair, Desmond Barrit and Nicholas Farrell in supporting roles gave a pretty strong clue beforehand that the show would be well above the ordinary and they all shine, as do Fleeshman and Summer Strallen as the romantic leads and Richard Dempsey as a goofy toff, whilst Triplett is as much the star of the real show as of the one within it. The Gershwin songs fuse with the book, if not exactly seamlessly, then pretty well. Nice Work If You Can Get ItLove Walked In and A Foggy Day in London Town are probably the best known amongst them, but the real joy comes from hearing and seeing, fully staged, great songs that are much less familiar, all accompanied by Alan Williams’ orchestra, hidden somewhere above the stage. Christopher Cram’s designs give a fairy tale look to a production which bubbles along nicely up to the interval and then comes to life spectacularly from the start of a second half that would, on its own, make a journey to the south coast worthwhile, even from the Outer Hebrides or beyond. It starts with I Can’t Be Bothered Now, a rousing chorus routine led by Triplett. David Roberts and Chloe Hart, as cook and undercook, get the show’s loudest ovation for French Pastry Walk, which incorporates an Argentine Tango good enough to make even Craig Revel Horwood drool and, to round off a blissful half hour or so, the chorus returns to dazzle us with Fidgety Feet, a sparkling tap dance routine. They set the bar high for Anna Jane Casey, who will be showing us how to tap our troubles away on this same stage in just a few weeks’ time. In Chichester, things are definitely looking up.

Performance date: 20 June 2015

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Patrick Marber’s examination of the state of modern football could hardly be more timely. Several rungs down the ladder from corrupt FIFA officials, the clash between the traditional values of the beautiful game and modern day commercialism can be seen at its starkest. Marber’s three-act, three-hander takes place in the home team changing room of a non-league semi-professional club somewhere in the London area, a club that had been formed in 1892 by a group of enthusiastic players in a room above the Red Lion pub. Inspired by love for the game and loyalty to his club is the kit man (Peter Wight), a player and briefly an unsuccessful manager 20 years and more earlier, whose life went on the skids until he got his present job, doing which he regards as “a privilege”. The current manager (Daniel Mays) is a wide boy, broke and with an eye only on taking a bung; when a promising young player (Calvin Demba) joins the club, the manager’s top priority is to get him under contract so that he can get a cut from a huge transfer fee, but he clashes with the kit man who just wants to nurture him to play for his team. The biggest strength of Ian Rickson’s straightforward one-set production is the compelling performances. Wight is overweight, world-weary, playing extra time and almost defeated; Mays suggests a desperate sleaze bag for whom corruption is a way of life; and Demba develops further the cocky youngster persona with which he showed such promise in The Wolf at the Door at the Royal Court recently. All of these characters are, in their own ways, losers and Marber chooses not to show us examples of the game’s winners, of which there are many; the playwright is not quite the British David Mamet, but his dialogue is sharp and realistic. If the play disappoints slightly, it is only because it is a little too low-key, not igniting often enough; also, it leaves a feeling that its scope could have been more expansive and its approach more incisive. Nonetheless, it gives us a good couple of hours of quality drama.

Performance date: 19 June 2015

Chef*** (Soho Theatre)

Posted: June 18, 2015 in Theatre

320x320.fitandcropThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Food offers up a metaphor for everything in life as viewed by Sabrina Mahfouz in her one- woman play. The chain which sees it move from source to kitchen, its careful preparation and its final consumption are all shown to correspond with twists and turns of fate. The central character, known simply as “Chef” and played here by Jade Anouka, is obsessed with food. She would only accept an invitation to a meal on the condition that she could take her own gravy. We see her firstly in the kitchen of a restaurant, gently mocking chic dining trends and later in a prison preparing meals for her fellow inmates. Her journey is charted in a non-linear narrative and each “chapter” is headed by an appetising dish. For her, food is a constant love in a life filled with hatred and violence, a provider of joy and fulfilment and a route for escaping pain. A gangster boyfriend and a suicidal prison friend feature in Chef’s story, but the overriding presence in her life is that of her bullying, abusive father, absent as a salmon farmer for much of the time, but returning when he is sick and needy. Chef speaks of him with revulsion – “even the fish thought he was a ****, didn’t want to be around him…” – but it is he who provides her with the moral dilemma that would change the course of her life. Mahfouz’s writing is vividly descriptive, sometimes brutal, yet seasoned with humour and irony. The story simmers nicely before coming to the boil in the later stages once the play’s central theme has been revealed. At this point, the playwright tackles difficult issues with considerable sensitivity and insight. Dressed in all white with a chequered headband. Anouka’s animated, often excitable Chef always has the audience rooting for her and makes her passion for food clear for all to see. Anouka looks slightly uncomfortable when affecting street slang in the light opening section, but her performance becomes heartfelt when the scale of the ill fortune and injustice inflicted on her character becomes apparent. The ingredients here are well-mixed and Chef emerges as a 50-minute course of theatre that is tasty and satisfying.

Performance date: 17 June 2015

Photo: Richard Davenport

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FullSizeRender-71How thoughtful – a show that awards some of its own stars. 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play shows us the messed-up lives of a group of New Yorkers and includes enough raucous comedy to make the recently seen Bad Jews seem placid plus enough ripe language to make The Book of Mormon seem like a vicar’s tea party. Jackie (Ricardo Chavira) is on parole and in rehab, returning to live with his girlfriend since childhood, volatile and crack-addicted Veronica (Flor De Liz Perez). Their relationship begins to fall apart when Jackie discovers that the gentleman of the play’s title has left his headgear and several telling odours in their apartment. Jackie’s rehab sponsor is the self-absorbed and duplicitous Ralph (Alec Newman), who lives comfortably with his neurotic wife Victoria (Nathalie Armin). The entanglements of this four suggest a polarised city where an uneducated, drug/alcohol dependent underclass contrasts with pseudo intellectuals who consume health foods, practice yoga and learn to speak French. We are asked to compare the differences and to recognise the similarities. A series of clashes spark rich comedy, spurred by razor-sharp dialogue and top-notch performances. The icing on the cake is provided by Yul Vazquez as Julio, Jackie’s gay cousin, his droll, mannered delivery being never less than hilarious. Whether there is very much substance behind the laughs is questionable and the play as a whole feels as if it comes to less than the sum total of its many excellent parts. Director Indhu Rubasingham’s production flags only occasionally, when relentless belligerence become monotonous, but a climactic fight scene must rank as one of the least convincing in recent memory. Robert Jones’ sets consist of three nicely detailed apartments, with sections sliding in from all directions at changes and fire escape ladders hovering in mid-air throughout. Maybe this is all too much and, with only around half the width of the Lyttelton stage being used at any one time, it is possible that this is a play that could have been seen to better effect in the smaller Dorfman, with minimal sets. The staging feels not quite right, but then this play that dares not speak its full name may always have been just too American, too New York to ever settle comfortably in this theatre or indeed in this city.

Performance date: 16 June 2015

One Arm**** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: June 14, 2015 in Theatre

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The discovery of an unperformed script by Tennessee Williams is the theatrical equivalent to finding a Van Gogh in the attic and, for that reason alone, this production is richly intriguing. One Arm, which tells of Ollie, a young Boxing champion who loses a limb in a car accident and then descends into a life of degradation, first appeared as a short story in 1948 when, as it dealt explicitly with prostitution, homosexuality and pornography, dramatisation for stage or screen would have been unthinkable. However, 20 years later, Midnight Cowboy had won the Best Picture Oscar and Williams attempted, sadly in vain, to get his screenplay made into a film. Being a narrative driven piece, Williams probably saw it as more suitable for cinema than theatre and it is a brave move by Moises Kaufman to bring it to the stage. In opening his play with a clear statement that what is to follow was intended to be a film, Kaufman is perhaps acknowledging its unsuitability for theatre, but he does a good job in overcoming the difficulties and director Josh Seymour gives the play a thoroughly modern production – studio space, thrust stage and minimal furnishings with full-length mirrors the only permanent feature. All the Williams trademark images of beauty, brutality and eroticism are in the mix, but here he deals openly with themes that could only be alluded to in his major works, leaving us to wonder what he might have written had he lived in another era. The story is told in flashback with Ollie in a cell on Death Row, recalling how he got there and making the discovery that he meant more as a human being to the “tricks” that he encountered than any of them ever meant to him or he ever meant to himself. Williams’ vision of the values of self respect and respect for humanity is at the play’s heart and Ollie’s belated attempts at reparation become profoundly moving. The biggest flaw is Williams’ failure to make Ollie more sympathetic and thereby explain why he is held in high regard, but the young actor Tom Varey makes valiant efforts to conquer these shortcomings, giving a commanding performance. Peter Hannah, Joe Jameson, Georgia Kerr and James Tucker are also excellent, sharing all the other roles. The initial attraction to this production is its curiosity value, but One Arm is engrossing and haunting and what emerges is a significant work in its own right.

Performance date: 13 June 2015