Archive for September, 2015

dinner with saddam

Drawing inspiration from the knowledge that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein really did have a habit of dropping in on his subjects unexpectedly, Anthony Horowitz has concocted this curious mix of broad farce, international politics and lavatory jokes. The setting is a Baghdad bracing itself for bombs in 2003, faced with shortages of power, water and food. The ill-prepared hosts to the President are the family of Ahmed (Sanjeev Bhaskar) and Samira (Shobu Kapoor). Their daughter (Rebecca Grant) is facing an arranged marriage to the odious Jammal (Nathan Amzi), but prefers an out of work actor (Ilan Goodman), who is in the family house posing as a plumber and who is the doppelgänger of Saddam’s security chief (also Goodman of course). In a nutshell, that is the play’s first 55 minutes, the time that it takes for the house guest to arrive. It seems likely that there has been some trimming to the script since the play received a less than rapturous reception after last week’s press night, but still the opening scene, resembling a half-hour family sit-com drawn out to twice the length, is dreadfully laboured. It is padded with weak and obvious jokes and it fails to build up any tension in anticipation of the event that the title tells us is coming. The actors do their best, but, as is always they case with unfunny comedy, they tend to overplay in order to force laughs. Things improve with the arrival of Saddam (Steven Berkoff, gleefully sadistic), as all around him tremble in fear for their lives, but opportunities for biting black humour are passed over in favour of simple comedy and set-piece jokes that are signalled miles ahead. Horowitz also slots in some political observations that, although possibly astute, do not sit well with the context in which they are placed. In the second act, the big compensation in Lindsay Posner’s uninspired production is the performances, Bhaskar and Goodman proving particularly adept at farce and Berkoff ranting as only Berkoff can, The play provides a few good chuckles, but this should not be cited to defend it against the charge of being an overlong mess.

Performance date: 29 September 2015

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

Following hot on the heels of Shakespeare in Love and Mr Foote’s Other Leg, Jessica Swale’s new play continues London theatre’s current preoccupation with itself, telling the story of the young woman who rose from the gutters to the stage and then to the bedchamber of King Charles II. In the late 17th Century, after a period of Puritan rule, the monarchy had been restored to the nation and the theatre had been restored to its people. A new phenomenon was emerging with “actoresses” playing female characters, displacing male actors in frocks such as the disgruntled Edward Kynaston (Greg Haiste). Today we complain that a public school education seems necessary to succeed as an actor, but, at that time, it was a very low profession, so up steps Nell, a “strumpet” used to selling oranges and other more personal goods on the streets. When Nell emerges from the audience that is standing around the stage, we have a perfect marriage between a play and the venue that is hosting it, becoming more so when the delightful Gugu Mbatha-Raw claims the production as her own. Her Nell has a feisty spirit and a natural openness capable of bursting the bubbles of both theatrical pretentiousness and royal pomposity. Nell catches the eye of leading actor Charles Hart (Jay Taylor) and becomes at home on the stage immediately. She is quickly telling aspiring playwright John Dryden (Graham Butler) how to write, he being fearful of turning out plays that “have a beginning and an end and a big pause in the middle”. Swale’s play has a beginning and an end and something like a big party in the middle. David Struzaker’s vain but kindly Charles II is an avid theatregoer who becomes Nell’s most fervent admirer. He displays his fondness for his pet dog, named Oliver Cromwell (a credible performance by Monnie, a King Charles Spaniel of course) and he is a populist too, getting huge cheers from the audience by proclaiming “down with austerity”. Swale’s writing is awash with topical references and theatrical in-jokes, but also she deluges us with bawdy humour and cringe-making double entendres. At times it feels as if she had intended this play to be the screenplay for “Carry On Nelly” and Christopher Luscombe’s rumbustious production has all the subtlety of a Christmas pantomime. The comedy is hit-and-miss, but, when it works, it works brilliantly, as in a hilarious scene when Nell’s dresser (Amanda Lawrence) is forced to step into a role and gives possibly the worst performance ever seen. Musical interludes (composer Nigel Hess) and dancing add to the merriment. The chief casualty of all the frivolity is sincerity and the longer the play goes on the more it suffers from its lack of substance. Scenes putting the action into its historical context come belatedly and seem as if added as an afterthought, while the sadness of the family that Nell has left behind does not come through as strongly as it needs to. Most tellingly, we are informed of the deep affection between the King and Nell, but we are not allowed to feel it. It has been said that history is bunk, in which case Swale’s play is full of history. However, if Nell Gwynn as an “actoress” had been able to feed off the laughter that this production generates, certainly she would never have starved.

Performance date: 24 September 2015

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Are tragedy and comedy at the opposite ends of the spectrum in theatre? It would seem so in this play when David Garrick, appearing as a conventional Othello, and his rival Samuel Foote, staging “Othello: The Comedy”, come to blows. Both blacked up for the lead role, their brawl is watched with incredulity by Foote’s Jamaican-born dresser. Yet, the strength of the play lies with the way in which tragedy and comedy appear as bedfellows (quite literally in Act II), working side-by-side, feeding off and strengthening each other. Garrick’s name is carved in theatre history but his fellow 18th Century actor Foote, founder of the Theatre Royal Haymarket, is less well remembered and Ian Kelly’s adaptation of his biography sets out to rectify this. For good measure, Kelly himself appears as Prince George (later King George III). Richard Eyre’s production gets off to a slow start, the jokes are hit and miss, the narrative structure is episodic and, when even Simon Russell Beale (as Foote) dressed in an array of absurd costumes is not particularly funny, something seems wrong. But the aforementioned scene is inspired, elevating the production to a higher level, and there is no looking back thereafter. Following a riding accident, Foote has a leg amputed (a gruesome  scene, but staged brilliantly), his physical health deteriorates, he suffers from depression and becomes mired in scandal. Now, as in a condensed version of King Lear, the clown’s mask is ripped off to reveal a crumbling body and mind and Russell Beale, arguably the greatest stage actor of his generation, gives one of his greatest comic/tragic performances, surpassing his actual Lear at the National last year. He gets some outstanding support – Dirvla Kirwan as Peg Woffington, the Irish leading lady three times the age of Juliet, but still playing her; Joseph Millsom as an earnest and arrogant, but likeable Garrick; Jenny Gallloway as a put-upon stage manager; Micah Balfour as Foote’s quietly loyal dresser. Together, they paint a vivid picture of theatre people in the Georgian era, their dedication, their rivalry and, above all, their camaraderie. Tim Hatley’s compact, quickly transformable sets and his carefully detailed costumes are also admirable. A sell-out run here makes a West End transfer likely; Will the Theatre Royal Haymarket be available?

Performance date: 22 September 2015

Casa Valentina*** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: September 20, 2015 in Theatre

casaAs the American writer Harvey Fierstein is known primarily for gay-themed plays and musicals, the world of heterosexual transvestites would seem, at first glance, to be something of a departure for him. However, relations between the gay and transvestite communities, their common interests, what unites them and, most critically, what divides them lie at the heart of this new play, first performed on Broadway last year. The time is 1962 and the hits of the time (the Four Seasons’ Walk Like a Man brings a touch of irony) play repeatedly. The place is a resort hotel in the Catskills Mountains in upper New York state, a weekend refuge for cross-dressing men who want to leave behind their wives and families to relax and release their inner selves. Rita (Tamsin Carroll) runs the hotel along with her husband George (Edward Wolstenholme), who arrives home from a business meeting, discards his smart suit and transforms into Valentina. Justin Nardella’s set design presents the whole of the Large space here, configured in-the-round, as the common area of a leisure resort, with dressing tables, adorned by plentiful makeup and wig stands, behind the audience on all sides. Dozens of multi-coloured light shades hang from above, but, once the play has begun, most of the decoration is out of view and the performance takes place on a not very exotic, sparsely-furnished parquet floor. The narrative has two strands, the first of which is frivolous – the arrival of nervous newcomer Jonathan/Miranda (Ben Deery), to be fussed over by the motherly Albert/Bessie (Matthew Rixon) and receive a makeover from the entire group. Fierstein feeds the characters with lines that could have come from Coward or Wilde had they still been around, but we know that he is a writer who can be trusted not to demean or extract cheap laughs from the lifestyles of minorities. Somewhere in the middle of Act I, the frivolity ends and the second strand emerges, leading to a wide-ranging debate on the position of transvestites in 60s society, still relevant in different ways today. Should they go public or stay private? Should they unite with the gay community to fight repression of minorities or would their image be improved by complete dissociation therefrom? The advocacy of a campaigner for transvestite rights Isadore/Charlotte, revealed to be a homophobic bigot, gives the play its most disturbing moments; there can be little doubt that Fierstein despises this character, a fact that is doubly underlined in Luke Sheppard’s production by the ferocity of Gareth Snook’s performance, dripping with venom. There is greater sympathy shown for “The Judge”/Amy (Robert Morgan), a septuagenarian still tormented by his double life and finding the lines between transvestism and homosexuality less distinct than the others pretend. The writer presents all sides of all of the arguments with clarity, seeming so intent on doing so that his play becomes overlong and sacrifices some of its sharpness. Once the play has become political, it struggles to return convincingly to the human comedy/drama with which it began and it loses its way in the final stages. Nonetheless, Fierstein’s writing is engaging and stimulating and the acting is uniformly impeccable.

Performance date: 19 September 2015

The White Feather*** (Union Theatre)

Posted: September 19, 2015 in Theatre

The White FeatherThis review was originally written for The Public reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

It is a sign of the growing confidence of British musical theatre that writers feel able to cast off the shackles of the feel good factor and take on serious subjects. This show, here getting its premiere, is an account of some of the horrors and injustices of the first World War and it is not one that we can come out from with smiles on our faces. 16-year-old Harry and his sister Georgina, recently united on the death of their father, are torn apart when the tentacles of war reach out to their home in peaceful rural Suffolk. Harry, a dreamer who is plotting a new life in America, lies about his age to enlist, lured by the prospect of adventure and of seeing Paris (“just like Ipswich only bigger”). In 1914, everyone was duped, believing that the War would be over with and won before Christmas. The owner of the farm on which the siblings live and work, Adam also enlists to become an officer in the same unit as Harry. He leaves behind his covert lover Edward, a conscientious objector who escapes enlistment by feigning a leg injury. The first half jumps about between characters, intercutting scenes in Suffolk with brief snippets from the trenches and never really settling on the story’s main theme, which is, as suggested by the title, cowardice. There are sharp observations on the social structure of the age, but crucial incidents taking place at the front are only reported back to Suffolk and not seen, robbing the show of some of its dramatic potential. In the second half, the focus is again blurred, but now by the diversity of themes brought into play. A century ago, psychological damage caused by warfare was unacknowledged and soldiers who were not mentally fit to fight were deemed unwilling to fight, facing the prospect of summary execution for cowardice. A harrowing story centring on this issue forms the backbone of the show, but a sub-plot suggests that Adam’s suppressed homosexuality impairs his judgement in the combat zone and this brings to the fore another kind of injustice. Abigail Matthews is moving as the steadfast and principled Georgina, unflinching in her devotion to Adam Pettigrew’s naive and impulsive Harry. David Flynn also impresses as the tormented Adam and Zac Hamilton elicits sympathy for the ambivalent Edward. Andrew Keates’ simply-staged production flows smoothly, drawing strong performances from a company of nine. The songs by Ross Clark (with additions by Matthew Strachan) are accompanied by a three-piece band under the direction of Dustin Conrad and they are sung beautifully. The melodies are rich, with the haunting Set Them in Stone standing out, but some of the lyrics are bland and perhaps they could do more to flesh out the characters and advance the story. As an emotionally charged drama, The White Feather falls a little short of making the impact that it strives for, but, that aside, this tender and brittle little show still has plenty to offer.

Performance date: 18 September 2015

Photograph: Scott Rylander

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FullSizeRender-86Theatregoer, she marries him. That hardly surprising revelation could save you around 200 minutes (that’s right, 3 hours and 20 minutes) of your valuable time, but please don’t let it do so, because this is a captivating and, at times, thrilling work. Co-produced by the National and Bristol Old Vic and directed by Sally Cookson, the production is a company-devised adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. Using words, movement and music, but minimal sets and props, to tell the story, it revives a form of theatre rarely seen since the landmark Royal Shakespeare Company version of Nicholas Nickleby at the Aldwych Theatre in 1980. Yet, while the vivid, exaggerated characters and semi-satirical style of Dickens adapted naturally for the stage, Brontë’s mix of mystery and romance is a different and perhaps more difficult proposition. It comes as quite a shock to enter one of the National’s two big theatres and find a set that is not lavish, but Michael Vale’s simple wooden structures of platforms, planks and steps gives the performers ample scope to move around the full expanse of the stage. A band of three musicians is seated on set throughout. Although this is not a musical, music is a key element, the eclectic selection including original compositions (by Benji Bower), traditional 19th Century airs, Noël Coward’s Mad About the Boy and Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy. Melanie Marshall provides glorious vocals and doubles as the mad woman upstairs. Apart from the two leads, four other actors share all roles, including a very lively dog. Felix Hayes is a bearded, rugged, brusque and enigmatic Rochester, much more the man described by Brontë than the handsome hero seen in most adaptations of the novel. Madeleine Worrall plays Jane from the moment she exits the womb through to her own motherhood, capturing beautifully the defiant spirit of a survivor, a resolute and principled girl and young woman. With so many varying elements being brought together, it is inevitable that not every scene works to perfection, but the production triumphs overall because of the imagination and invention that has gone into it and also because the creators succeed in harnessing the most vital element of all – the imagination of the audience.

Performance date: 16 September 2015

Hamlet*** (Barbican Theatre)

Posted: September 16, 2015 in Theatre

FullSizeRender-85Long queues for the ladies’ room before the performance and during the interval tell a story. A heartthrob star is taking the stage to go through the ritual that all leading actors of a certain age feel obliged to undergo, giving us his take on the Prince of Denmark. The largely female audience could include many newcomers to Shakespeare, but, if they have the intelligence to negotiate the maze of the Barbican to get here, they will surely get something more than just an ogle at a star from the experience. Some of the questions they could be asking themselves may include: why doesn’t the Danish crown pass from father to son as in every sane monarchy? Why has everyone in London who has currently got a cough gathered in the same place at the same time? Who the Hell is Polonius? What cataclysmic event reduces the palatial set to rubble during the interval? How am I going to find my way out of this place before midnight tomorrow? These are the questions, but, every five minutes or so, muted gasps of “so that’s where it comes from”, following phrases now in common usage, indicate that discoveries are being made. Of course, anything that introduces new audiences to theatre and to the Bard must be a good thing. Good too, very good, is Benedict Cumberbatch as an animated, excitable, playful Hamlet, but, as an accomplished theatre actor for many years before his Sherlock fame, he was never going to be anything less than that. Lyndsey Turner’s production, set in the mid 20th Century, is conventional, lucid and lavish, offering an impeccable reading of the text. The set (designer Es Devlin) represents the main hall of the Danish Royal Palace, with a grand stairway leading to an upper balcony. It fills the entire, large Barbican stage and, when the company is spread across it, there are difficulties in picking out who is speaking, particularly as some scenes take place while an army of stage hands is clearing a banqueting table or making other changes. Turner could be acknowledging this problem when she chooses to freeze action for the soliloquies and isolate Hamlet with a spotlight. Other characters do not get the same service, which may explain why such distinguished actors as Ciarán Hinds (Claudius), Anastasia Hille (Gertrude) and Jim Norton (Polonius) do not make quite the impact that perhaps they should and why relative newcomers Kobna Holbrook-Smith (Laertes) and Siân Brooke (Ophelia) struggle to achieve the prominence that they merit. Turner’s production is an excellent introduction to Shakespeare, but those of us who have seen this play perhaps 500 or so times before look for new insights, originality and much greater fire than is on offer here. At the curtain call, Cumberbatch makes an eloquent and heartfelt plea on behalf of Syrian refugees and this carries more emotional impact than anything in the preceding three hours.

Performance date: 15 September 2015