Archive for June, 2015

IMG_5650smallThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Cab drivers sometimes appear to us as if they are glued inside their vehicles, but this revival of Simon Block’s 1995 one-act comedy serves to remind us that they also have social lives. The play takes place in a Table Tennis club, where a drivers’ team is playing a key relegation match and the King’s Head’s thrust staging means that we get a chance to see the cabbies’ faces as well as the backs of their heads. Team captain Eric (Bobby Davro) and Oscar (Alan Drake) are in their 50s and have been swinging their bats for the club for 30 years. Eric regards relegation as unthinkable, but Oscar realises that the game is now for, if not exactly boys, younger men (and indeed women). Tony (Oliver Joel) is 29 and the team’s star player, but he is so beset with personal problems that his contribution to the vital match becomes doubtful. The sense that an era may be coming to an end had been spurred by the sudden mid- match death a week earlier of “Fat Derek”, a teammate. “The breeze as he went down rustled my Evening Standard” recalls Oscar, who now sees a future of Bridge and Bowls. He is a single man and his acute awareness of the advantages and disadvantages of independence comes through strikingly in Drake’s performance. His policy is never to get involved in the problems of the others just because “it’s policy”, but he always manages to do so anyway. Eric fusses around like a mother hen, using the club to grab time for himself, away from his cab and a family that includes a mother with dementia. Tony is torn between settling down with his girlfriend and sowing more wild oats, dalliances with a lady in the back of his cab in the Aldwych (not in broad daylight surely!) making his choice more difficult. Fine performances bring out the comedy and the pathos in these characters. The three actors play well off each other and get the banter of working class Londoners precisely right in Jason Lawson’s fast paced production. Much of Block’s dialogue is very funny, but it is underpinned with essential truths about the need to escape from the pressures of everyday life, if only to be faced with more pressure. Not A Game For Boys is 75 minutes of lightweight fare, but, in this skilful production, it is always entertaining and occasionally moving.

Performance date: 12 June 2015

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HERE-BE-LIONS-WEB-BANNERSMALLThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

It is difficult for most of us to imagine what it must be like to live with severe neurological difficulties, disconnected from the rest of the World. Dancer Sandrine Buring created d(ARE) to express her interpretation of the feelings of patients in a French children’s hospital where she worked alongside theatre maker Stephane Olry, who responded with a text which is presented here as a piece of immersive theatre. d(ARE) is performed by Burring in the Print Room’s studio space. She enters to dance playfully with a large, suspended bell jar which is swinging like a pendulum. When she enters the jar, two spotlights pick out her pale, semi-naked body as she writhes, claws at the glass, peers out and then sleeps. She becomes a stark and unsettling embodiment of isolation and despair. There is no sound accompaniment to the 25 minute dance, save for pitiable noises coming from within the jar. For the performance of Here Be Lions, the audience is ushered into the theatre’s main space, being used for the first time since the Print Room moved into what was the Coronet Cinema. We are asked to sit on deck chairs, laid out in a circle, amidst a thick theatre fog, which persists for the entire performance. This is something like sitting on an English beach in the middle of Winter and, although blankets are provided, it is extremely cold. The intent is to replicate the insular existence of patients at the hospital, but, once initial curiosity has passed, what should be an experience that is emotionally disturbing becomes no more than uncomfortable in a physical sense. There is one change in lighting, but, otherwise, we are asked to spend more than an hour staring at almost nothing. Olry’s writing, as translated by Neil Bartlett, is beautifully literate, but it is merely descriptive, telling no continuous story and developing no distinct characters. Repetition of points, also makes the piece longer than it needs to be. Hayley Carmichael, unseen throughout, interprets the text superbly and Phil Minton provides startling sound effects, but, nonetheless, interest wanes several times during the performance. It is questionable whether the fog yields much that could not have been achieved by dimmed lighting, in which case, maybe the effectiveness of both components of this production could have been heightened by combining them together in the same space without a break. As it is, a worthy project which has many strong qualities, suffers from a shortage of dramatic impact.

Performance date: 10 June 2015

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Teddy*** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: June 9, 2015 in Theatre

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It’s rockin’ and rollin’ down at the Elephant and Castle with this trip back to the days of Teds and Judys, Brylcreem and Brillo, times when Camp was just a brand of coffee. Tristan Bernays’ lively piece, more a long poem than a play, takes place in 1950’s London, still blighted by bomb sites and post-War austerity, but with a new dance and a new style of music drifting across the Atlantic, bringing with it a glimmer of light for youngsters longing to escape to a better life. Teddy and Josie are two such youngsters and they narrate the story of their chaotic night on the town directly to the audience, only occasionally interacting with each other. The star attraction for them is the American singer Johnny Valentine (Will Payne), who is appearing at a local club with his band. Bernays captures the feeling from films of the era like Jailhouse Rock that Rock’n’Roll was somehow a forbidden fruit and that teenagers tempted by it could get into serious trouble. It was as if the establishment was using forms of entertainment to warn rebellious youth to conform or else and, sure enough, our couple drift into crime as the evening starts to go wrong and what begins as an ebullient celebration of a bygone era becomes progressively more downbeat. Joseph Prowen and Jennifer Kirby are absolutely terrific in the lead roles, both cocky Cockneys, jiving their way around a derelict church, the “flicks” and finally the music club. They both master the rhymes and metre of Bernays’ intricate verse superbly. Their tentative steps into the world outside their drab and oppressive homes are a joy to behold – a scene in which they have to stop jiving and dance to a slow number is particularly hilarious. Eleanor Rhode’s direction, with choreography by Tom Jackson Greaves, keeps the piece moving at a bouncy pace, but Bernays’ use of narration, rather than having scenes played out fully, results in several points where the production flags just a little. Dougal Irvine’s original songs are a pastiche of Rock’n’Roll, a musical form which may not have worn particularly well, with even Elvis himself now being better remembered for middle-of-the-road material. Teddy is an interesting and unusual work of theatre, most notable for Prowen and Kirby both of whom must be going places.

Performance date: 8 June 2013

Oresteia***** (Almeida Theatre)

Posted: June 5, 2015 in Theatre

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Beginning the Almeida’s Greek Season in just about as ambitious a way as possible, Robert Icke has created a new version, directed by himself, of Aeschylus’ trilogy from c.458BC. Many Greek tragedies are notable for their brevity and intensity. This runs for a bum-numbing 3 hours 40 minutes, but the intensity is there in spades and “new version” means much more than just a new translation – it is modern in language, characters and relevance. Time is one of the most significant themes and digital clocks can be seen on stage, in the auditorium and even the foyer; they stop to highlight the precise time during the performance when each key incident occurs and they even count down the two interval breaks to get us back to our seats promptly for the resumption. We are reminded repeatedly that the time which each of us spends in the universe over the  entire course of its existence is miniscule. At the beginning and the end, the Chorus reads out a roll call of Gods of all main religions from ancient Greece to the present, as if pointing a finger of guilt at them for all the carnage brought about in the name of religion throughout the ages, up to and including the year 2015. The overriding theme is the link from the Gods to family, going through the military. Agamemnon (Angus Wright) receives a sign from the Gods to commit an act which will lead to victory in a war, but will have devastating consequences for his wife Klytemnestra (Lia Williams) and their family. The trilogy follows their son Orestes (Luke Thompson) through from a happy family childhood to the realisation of his own fate. The Almeida stage is widened to its full expanse and left bare, save for a few furnishings, and clouded screens at the back conceal a bathroom in which key events take place as if in distant nightmares. Such is the power of the raw drama in the first three hours that they feel like one, scenes gripping with the ferocity of the eagle’s talons, referred to in a repeated metaphor. Williams is magnificent, reacting like a wounded tigress to her husband’s foul deeds. Wright and Thompson are also superb, as is Jessica Brown Findlay (an impressive stage debut for the former Downton star), making a relatively brief appearance as Elektra. It is only in the final section that the production loosens its grip as it centres on an overlong trial sequence and its key themes become lost. Now the play questions how it can ever be possible to discern between truth and fantasy when the perceptions of two or more people can be so contradictory; unintentionally, the play actually demonstrates its own point by relating the same events as Sophocles’ play Elektra, but with major differences. When the question of gender inequalities is thrown in late on, the point being made is an important one, but it feels like too much of a diversion from the main track. Nonetheless, this brave production is a substantial achievement and it augurs well for what is to come in the Almeida’s Season.

Performance date: 4 June 2015

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Obvious comparisons can be drawn between the fascination which Victorians had for freak shows and the modern day obsession with Hollywood movie stars. In the 1880s, John Merrick, the title character of Bernard Pomerance’s play, drew the masses to grubby funfair tents to stare disbelievingly at his grotesque deformities and then he moved upwards to become the darling of high society, whose members were equally intrigued, but in a slightly more refined way. Hollywood has turned out few bigger names in the last decade than Bradley Cooper, star of many critically acclaimed and commercially successful films. Huge crowds might gather in Leicester Square to gawp at his appearance for a premiere, but now he can be seen in a more civilised (and probably drier) setting just around the corner by anyone prepared to cough up for a ticket at West End prices and pay £10 for a programme (justify that please!). Defying the suggestion that movie stars are superhuman, Mr Cooper shows that he is in fact made of just flesh, blood and bone and he is actually not at all bad, or rather he is as good as Pomerance’s somewhat creaky play allows him to be. In David Lynch’s 1980 film of this story, John Hurt had to give his performance whilst buried in tons of prosthetics, but, in Pomerance’s stage version, we see Merrick as the human being behind the disfiguration, Cooper distorting his face and body and straining to speak in an affected English upper class accent. He gives Merrick dignity, but Pomerance does not overcome the character’s problem with articulation, not finding a way to express his inner thoughts to the audience. As a result, the surgeon, Frederick Treves becomes the play’s more interesting character, a scientist in the post-Darwin era, struggling to find a moral code to equate with his beliefs. Alessandro Nivola gives a compelling performance as Treves, but this production’s star turn comes from the wonderful Patricia Clarkson as the actress Mrs Kendall who befriends Merrick. This character is the polar opposite of Treves in her certainty that moral conventions are there to be defied and Clarkson, giving her both the classiness of a society lady and the sauciness of a mischievous tart, lights up the stage with her every appearance. London theatre needs to see her again, often. Director Scott Ellis’s production, transferred more or less intact from its Broadway run, is conventional and efficient, the simple set designs by Timothy R Mackabee ensuring that the focus stays where it needs to be – on the actors. However, the play itself still falls well short of classic status.

Performance date: 4 June 2015

The Clockmaker's DaughterThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

It’s time to pop Champagne corks. Here we have a brand new British musical that does not simply recycle old hits and is not adapted from a film, a play or a novel. Michael Webborn and Daniel Finn conceived and developed this show as a totally original piece of musical theatre, the story, words and music being woven together from the very start in a process which now looks set to pay them handsome dividends. The show is a fairy story with hints of Pinocchio (maybe even Frankenstein in its darker moments). Abraham (Lawrence Carmichael), the clockmaker in the small Irish town of Spindlewood, grief-stricken at the loss of his only daughter, makes a clockwork replacement for her, Constance, who takes human form but needs to be wound up to become active. Abraham holds her key. Of course, this all requires considerable suspension of disbelief, but didn’t Wicked? The songs work perfectly in harmony with the book to propel the story. Webborn and Finn’s lush, melodic music has touches of Irish folk and, if influences of previous shows can sometimes be detected, they are only the best shows. Constance is a massive starring role and it gets a massive starring performance from Canadian actor/singer Jennifer Harding. Her quizzical eyes and beaming smile convey astonishment and joy at the world outside her maker’s home, her mechanical movements becoming progressively more human as she grows in confidence. The town’s dressmaker (Jo Wickham) turns into Constance’s adversary and the story’s villain, but her son, Will (an endearing performance by Alan McHale) befriends the girl, leading to a tentative romance. Robert McWhir’s production, choreographed by Robbie O’Reilly, is mysterious, enchanting and, at times, dazzling. A company of 20 fills this small stage as the townsfolk of Spindlewood celebrate New Year, Market Day, a wedding, etc. The chorus singing and dancing is marvellous to hear and behold. David Shields’ set designs of gold-painted pillars and clocks enhance the timeless, magical feel, with moveable blocks quickly adapting from, say, a library to the town’s bridge. As with all good fairy tales, this is also a morality tale and the show has darker themes which come to the fore in Act II, changes in tone always being driven by the music. Abraham can now be seen as a possessive and manipulative father, Constance becomes a social outcast and the people of Spindlewood, earlier a joyful throng, turn into an unruly mob in a powerful transformation scene. Drawing parallels with racism, the story asks what is the difference between clockwork and bones, or between oil and blood. The serious undercurrents give the show depth and texture. British musicals have had a rough time in the last couple of years. Producers who have dropped new works straight onto West End stages, expecting them to make a running start, may want to ponder the advantages of opening in a small venue such as the Landor, thereby giving a show time to settle, breathe and find its audience. The Clockmaker’s Daughter could be adapted easily for a bigger stage, but it is here for just five weeks, an opportunity to get in on the birth of something very special.

Performance date: 1 June 2015

Photo: Poppy Carter

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