Archive for September, 2015

Kinky Boots****+ (Adelphi Theatre)

Posted: September 16, 2015 in Theatre

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You have to admire the courage of the management at the Adelphi in replacing a flop musical adapted from a low-budget film and set mainly in a British factory with a musical adapted from a low-budget film and set mainly in a British factory. Well, on second thoughts, it would have been a no-brainer for them. Apart from a weak score and some misjudgements in the book, Made in Dagenham was not all that bad, so it is interesting to ponder on the reasons why that show closed early and this one will pack them in for years (yes, even in the unpredictable world of musical theatre, some things are certain). Essentially, the difference is the Broadway ingredient, or, in other words, the WOW! factor. I reviewed the Broadway production and do not propose to go over the same ground again. I liked the show a lot in New York, but, here, I like it a lot more. The set and costumes have been imported more or less intact and the director/choreographer (Jerry Mitchell) is the same, so where has it improved? Maybe the show has come “home” and a British company is more comfortable with the characters; certainly Cyndi Lauper’s songs sound much better on re-hearing; maybe catching the show at the beginning of its run, there is more energy and zeal; or perhaps it is all down to Killian Donnelly, outstanding in a new West End musical for the third year running. Matt Henry is terrific as Lola, the flamboyant drag queen, developing further the character created originally by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Amy Lennox is adorable as the lovestruck factory girl Lauren. However Donnelly grabs the thankless role of boring, stick-in-the-mud Charlie and stamps his personality all over it; to be honest, not all of Lauper’s songs suit his soulful style, but when it comes to the appropriately titled Soul of a Man, he lets rip, steps completely out of character and brings the house down. The show falls some way short of perfection, it is over-simplistic, often trite and a few scenes are awkward in whatever way they are played. However, it warms the heart, dazzles us with spectacular choreography and sends us out onto the Strand humming the tunes and wearing broad smiles on our faces. Kinky Boots, you raise me up yet again.

Performance date: 14 September 2015

Photograph 51**** (Noël Coward Theatre)

Posted: September 14, 2015 in Theatre

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An imposing set, representing the ruins of a classical style building, dwarfs the characters on stage, seemingly making a statement that great scientific discoveries rank alongside architectural monuments in the history of mankind. The grandeur of Christopher Oram’s design characterises Michael Grandage’s production of Anna Ziegler’s play, an account of the race to identify the structure of DNA in the early 1950s. The key figure is Rosalind Franklin, a gifted scientist whose contribution was under-valued in her own time, but who became much more appreciated after her death. The play’s central argument is that Franklin suffered from being a woman in a male-dominated environment, sneered at by her father for entering a man’s profession, demeaned by her colleagues and even barred from eating in the all-male dining room at her place of work. Ziegler presents her case not only by offering a convincing account of Franklin’s brilliance and dedication, but also by diminishing the stature of her male counterparts and Grandage’s production widens this gender gap still further. Stephen Campbell Moore makes Maurice Wilkins, her equal as a scientist at King’s College, seem bumbling and inept and their frequent clashes come across as an uneven match. Joshua Silver plays their research assistant as a self-deprecating twit and the team’s rivals at Cambridge (Edward Bennett and Will Attenborough) look more like buffoons than boffins, even though they are actually the Nobel prize winners Francis Crick and James Watson. Among the males in the play, only the American researcher (Patrick Kennedy), partly mentored by Franklin, is afforded any real respect. This exercising of theatrical licence by writer and director works well in creating entertaining drama, but it does so at the expense of credibility. It is when Ziegler turns her focus away from science and towards the inner Franklin that her play becomes really absorbing and it seems that Grandage decided that the most effective way to suggest Franklin’s suppressed femininity would be to take a glamorous film star and hide her behind a dowdy exterior. If so, there is no Hollywood star more glamorous than Nicole Kidman and it is the perfection of this casting choice that makes the production special. Dressed drably, with an unfashionable hairstyle, Kidman here is closer to theatrical bromide than the viagra of her last London stage appearance and an understated performance, recycling her impeccable Virginia Woolf English accent, makes her an authentic, clinical lady scientist. But then, in a revelatory scene, Franklin expresses to herself and the audience what she dreams of, not as a scientist but as a woman, and a radiant smile lights up Kidman’s face, creating an image that will be amongst the most enduring memories from 2015 theatre. Ziegler is showing us how the vagaries of living real lives contrast with the certainties of science, which makes more sense to us non-scientists than everything else in her fascinating play .

Performance date: 9 September 2015

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As a master of ceremonies in a gold lamé suit ushers us in, it is as if we are entering a circus side tent, maybe for a freak show. Sitting on a small stage in front of a red velvet curtain is an innocent-looking girl dressed as a ballerina and a lit-up sign informs us that her name is Lela. Cordelia Lynn’s 90-minute play is described as “a monologue”, which may not be technically correct, but it is performed mainly in the style of one. Lela begins by talking of her childhood, growing up in a mountain village as the youngest of three daughters, with a strict but loving father. The location and time are not specified, but clues imply South-Eastern Europe during the upheavals of the 1990s. Lela marries in her mid-teens and moves to a neighbouring country that becomes engulfed in conflict. The set and Lela’s costume have already primed us to expect something fantastical and everything that now follows is laced with incongruities and contradictions – Lela’s childlike image belies the adult horrors of her story; her accent suggests Northern England and not some war torn far off land; male voices interrupt her, giving different versions of events. It is as if Lela is not to be believed or trusted, she herself is of so little significance that she can be overlooked, ignored. Her married life begins in a comfortable apartment, but this world then shrinks to confinement in a small room and finally to just a mattress on the floor. She becomes a prisoner, a profit-making asset in her husband’s “business”, used and abused like a piece of meat to partake in unspeakable acts at a time when all semblances of decency are swept away by the turbulence of the war outside. She gives birth to a daughter and struggles to care for her while still entertaining her husband’s clients. Katie West’s Lela tells the story without forced emotion as if she is resigned to her ordeals, accepting the damage inflicted on her and finding contentment from the certainty that, whatever the future holds, it cannot be worse than the past. In a further contradiction, it is from the understated nature of this performance that the production gains much of its power. David Mumeni appears briefly as the husband and in four other roles, ranging from men who are barbaric to sympathetic. With long spells played in near or total darkness, the subtleties in Jude Christian’s direction blend perfectly with the starkness in Lynn’s writing to create an overall effect that is shattering. At the end, we seek consolation from knowing that the play is a fiction, only to find, almost inevitably, that it is based on a true story. Maybe now, someone will listen to and believe Lela.

Performance date: 12 September 2015

FullSizeRender-83This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Warm, cosy and old-fashioned, David Stevens’ 1990 comedy plays like a cross between an early episode of Neighbours and an American family sitcom from the same era. The great surprise is that it is only now getting its UK premiere. After a long run off-Broadway, the play was turned into an award-winning 1994 Australian film starring the then little known Russell Crowe. These successes could have owed much to the factors that worked for Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing in the UK – a depiction of gay characters in a wholly positive light at a time when, influenced by the AIDS crisis, negativity in theatre and cinema was the norm. The play’s novelty value has now gone, but it is replaced by a dash of nostalgia that adds to this new production’s appeal. Harry has been a widower for more than a decade and he shares his house, somewhere in Southern Australia, with 24-year-old Jeff, whom he calls “as much a friend as a son”. Jeff is openly gay, but Harry stresses that he plays football and has never favoured pink. Essentially, the story is a father/son version of a bromance. Stephen Connery-Brown’s Harry is a cheery, mischievous rogue with a gift for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. When Jeff brings home his new boyfriend, Greg (Rory Hawkins), Harry walks in at an unfortunate moment to introduce himself and then, as Jeff gets out of earshot, he grabs the opportunity to give Greg fatherly advice on safe sex. He does not understand the gay world but accepts it and takes consolation from the knowledge that his own mother found happiness in a 40-year lesbian relationship. All he wants for Jeff is that he finds similar happiness. Australian actor Tim McFarland has a natural, relaxed manner that is perfect for Jeff. The character, perky but self-deprecating and lacking in confidence, describes himself as “dull”. He longs for a stable relationship, but procrastinates over making the first move and always loses out. The key ingredient in making this production so enjoyable is the chemistry that has developed between Connery-Brown and McFarland. They play off each other with perfect timing and lead us to believe that a genuine unbreakable bond exists between father and son. Several times during the play, the action freezes and either Harry or Jeff turns to the audience to share a confidence or relate an anecdote. Handled beautifully, this device gives depth to the characters and adds texture to the play. Stevens does not turn a blind eye to disapproval outside the partnership, as seen in the hostile reaction of Harry’s date, Joyce (Annabel Pemberton) upon receiving the news of Jeff’s sexuality. However, Gene David Kirk’s direction gives the play a lightness that enables it to skate safely over sensitive issues. Designer David Shields gives us a living room set, with comfortable furniture that looks right for the early 1990s and then converts it into a park for a poignant final scene in which the play goes in a new and unexpected direction. Stevens’ funny and heartwarming comedy here gets a top class production, making it worth the long wait to see it.

Performance date: 11 September 2015

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Only Forever** (Hope Theatre)

Posted: September 11, 2015 in Theatre

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

A play that questions how far a father would go to protect his family from the ravages of warfare ought to be packed with topical resonances. Would he lead them across dangerous seas and continents to seek refuge? Or would it be preferable for him to inter them in a deep bunker and wait for the bombs and the gunfire to go away? The latter option is chosen by George, the father in this debut play by Spanish-born writer Abrahan Arsis. The time and the conflict that is taking place are non-specific. The action begins several years after George, his wife and three children have entered the bunker and, by now, they are running out of food and water. Confinement together is taking its toll on the family members too, with tensions between them running high. Edward Pinner’s George is a tyrant with a tenuous grip on power. His wife Margaret (Christine Rose) is increasingly defiant, challenging his orders with the feminist cry: “the men do as they please and the women live to serve them”. His 16-year old daughter Victoria (Jennie Eggleton) despises him and his younger son Charles (Lewys Taylor) tows the line, albeit grudgingly. An older son, Robert is unseen, having apparently escaped to the world above at the beginning of the play. The Hope’s small space allows the audience, on three sides, to merge with the set and to share in the feeling of claustrophobia that engulfs the characters. However Poppy Rowley’s production generates little tension and no sense of impending peril. Power for the bunker is generated by Charles pedalling an exercise bike to charge a battery and this explains the harsh fluorescent lighting, but its brightness affects the ambience and counters any hints of something sinister taking place. Arsis’s writing is humourless and prone to repetition, making the play, even at only 75 minutes, feel too long. At the beginning, there seems potential for a serious reflection on the effects of war on innocent families, but the play turns quickly into an unbelievable and occasionally tawdry melodrama, centred only on petty bickering and dark family secrets. The chief redeeming feature of Rowley’s production is the valiant efforts of the four actors to make it all credible. Otherwise, this is a play that could end up being buried even deeper than the characters in it.

Performance date: 10 September 2015

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

Joint winner of the inaugural Theatre 503 playwriting award, Bea Roberts’ 75-minute one- act play here gets the professional production that formed part of its prize. The play is a two-hander that takes snapshots from the lives of its protagonists over a 12 year period and charts their maturing friendship. It is also an elegy to ways of rural life that are changing rapidly or disappearing. Designer Max Dorey’s set, the interior of a wood and stone barn, is impressively realistic and fog blowing in adds to the cold, wintery feel. The starting point is the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Michael (David Fielder) is an ageing Devon cattle farmer who dotes on his stock and names his cows after female royalty. Jeff (Nigel Hastings) is a townie around 20 years younger, the farm vet who becomes torn between his responsibilities to Michael and to the Whitehall mandarins who are ordering the cattle to be slaughtered. Opening scenes are filled with anger as Jeff struggles to keep Michael in check, but then, countering expectations for the drama to build, Roberts winds it down to become a gentle and melancholic “odd couple” comedy. Her writing is marked by an awareness of the patterns of everyday conversation and to the small details in life that bind two people together. When Jeff goes through a marital breakdown and hits the bottle, it is the turn of Michael, a widower, to become the steadying influence, emphasising the two men’s growing mutual dependence. The bonding of the characters is made believable by two superb performances in which subtle gestures and glances illuminate the tenderness in the writing. Paul Robinson’s production is vivid and sensitive to the play’s changes in tone. Both the men seen here are hardened by life’s knocks and accepting of the natural order. Both cling to companionship as their consolation and both are prepared to hear the call of a nocturnal bird that, according to local superstition, augurs death – the nightjar.

Performance date: 9 September 2015

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Song From Far Away*** (Young Vic)

Posted: September 8, 2015 in Theatre

SongFromFarAway_326x326Monologues are normally all about writing and performance; rarely can one have been so marked out as this by its visual impact. But then director Ivo van Hove and his set/lighting designer Jan Versweyveld do not seem to do “normal”. Returning to the scene of their triumph last year with Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, the Belgian pair tackle Simon Stephen’ 80-minute reflection on grieving and solitude. The set is a New York apartment, split into a small entrance hall and a main living space, with two square rugs spread on the floor. Save for a single chair, a standing lamp and a noisy air-conditioning unit, the apartment is bare; long shadows cast by the lamp and by light coming through a door frame create striking images, set against two large windows through which falling snow can be seen on a freezing January night. It is to this vision of isolation that Willem returns after attending the funeral of his younger brother Pauli in Amsterdam. Willem, a Wall Street trader, having no-one with whom to share his grief, has written a series of letters to Pauli which he reads out to him, pretending that he is sitting on the hallway chair. The extent of Willem’s loss, being expressed verbally for the first time, and also his aching loneliness are brought out beautifully in Stephens’ descriptive prose. Having gone back to his home city to be met by a disapproving family and a former lover who has moved on, Willem now returns to this desolate place to let his true emotions outpour. As Willem, Dutch actor Eelco Smits contrasts long spells of monotone delivery with outbursts of anger and tears. He performs more than half the play completely naked, conveying his openness and vulnerability and also plays on guitar and sings mournful songs composed by Mark Eitzel. In all, the production is impressive, but, in making it so cold and distant, van Hove puts up a barrier to audience involvement that robs the piece of some of its emotional impact.

Performance date: 7 September 2015