Archive for October, 2015

crushed shellsThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Best described as an apocalyptic drama encased inside a coming of age story, Ben Musgrave’s new play is set against the backdrop of the panic that ensues when a mysterious, highly contagious disease strikes South-East England. The disease is referred to only as ”type 37 contamination”, but, as it is transmitted through contact with body fluids, we must assume that the writer is alluding to repercussions from the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa and the Worldwide HIV/AIDS scare of the 1980s. Victims of the disease are being ostracised like lepers, London has been sealed off and the coastal area where the play’s action takes place is building up its defences. Derek (Alex Lawther) is a shy and awkward teenager who finds sanctuary in a secluded spot where the sea is visible when standing on top of a caravan. He writes poetry in peace until the arrival of Lydia (Hannah Britland) from London and a friendship begins to form, interrupted by another teenager, Vincent (Alexander Arnold), who is an assertive and occasionally violent bully. This triangular affair seems rather a cliche, but Musgrave adds a dash of mystery, dropping in hints of something sinister going on beneath the surface and slowly revealing what it is during the course the first act. Lawther’s sensitive performance is superb, giving Derek, who in lesser hands could be just a boring nerd, real depth. Britland also shines, bringing out Lydia’s innocence, confusion and terror. Vincent begins as a stereotypical thug, but he later softens and Arnold handles the transition convincingly. A chilling sub-plot introduces Peter (Simon Lenagan), a zealot representing “The League”, a movement with the aim of defending against the disease and, effectively, persecuting its victims. Musgrave now demonstrates how fear, fuelled by religion and patriotism, can sow the seeds of fascism in the fertile minds of impressionable youngsters. At times sweet and romantic, at other times harsh and even cruel, the play’s fragile structure is held together by Russell Bolam’s slowly paced and thoughtful direction. Ellan Parry’s sets and Richard Godin’s lighting are particularly effective in creating an unsettling air of troubled tranquility. Occasionally Musgrave does not appear completely certain of the messages that he wants to send, particularly in an unsatisfactory conclusion that draws upon symbolism when a grounded vision is most needed. Yet, for all that, some of the imagery is haunting, the performances are top class and the progression of the play always keeps us enthralled.

Performance date: 5 October 2015


Medea**** (Almeida Theatre}

Posted: October 3, 2015 in Theatre

FullSizeRender-88This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Head bowed, her face hidden behind her long black hair, Medea listens to taunts meant to shame and humiliate her. An all-female chorus, gossiping and brandishing their maternal badges by clutching their offspring to their breasts, casts her out from among them, like an unclean leper. Medea’s “crime” is being one half of a broken marriage and there can be no doubt that writer Rachel Cusk sees her torment as caused as much by social pressures imposed on her (and, by implication, on all women) as by any misdeed of her unfaithful husband, Jason. Cusk’s 2012 book Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation gives an honest account of the end of her own second marriage and, in making the title character in her adaptation of Euripides’ play a writer noted for her openness, she is sending out a very clear message that this Medea is personal. It is also modern in language and style, Ian MacNeil’s set of a chic town house restricting the action to confined spaces on two levels, contrasting completely with the palatial feel of Carrie Cracknell’s production at the National Theatre last year. Adding another personal touch, Rupert Goold directs his own wife, Kate Fleetwood in the lead role. She has just spent the Summer sipping Champagne and nibbling caviar in High Society at the Old Vic, making her performance here notable for both her versatility and her virtuosity. This is a fierce Medea. prowling around her home like a caged lioness, looking at revenge against Jason with tunnel vision. Cusk’s explanation that the two children of the marriage represent “two broken promises, two lies. What are they without him (Jason)? Trash!” is made totally believable by Fleetwood and it paves the way for an understanding of the horrors that follow. Jason in this version is not the man of power and ambition of Euripides, rather a very modern figure, an egotistical actor. His near indifference to his children puts into question why Medea could think that she would wound him by taking them from him, but Justin Salinger’s performance elicits sympathy, showing how he needs to escape the shackles of his wife’s possessiveness. The raw exchanges between the irreconcilable couple are impassioned shouting matches, projected with tremendous force by the two performances. Goold’s production is strong on memorable visual images – the chorus dancing like witches around a cauldron as they dismantle the family home, Medea silhouetted against the night sky as she shovels dirt into an open grave. There are strong supporting performances too, most notably from Michele Austin as Medea’s cleaner, stoically accepting the role into which a woman is cast, and by Andy de la Tour as a cynical Creon, analysing coldly the consequences of his daughter having taken Jason from Medea. The climax is muddled, suggesting one thing and then telling us another and, most critically, the writer diverges from Euripides in a way that tampers with the core element in the story. Nonetheless, her conclusion is chilling, serving as a stark reminder of the collateral damage resulting from marital warfare and highlighting the utter futility of seeking revenge. A curious epilogue, rendered by a half man/half woman seems set on diluting the strong gender bias of earlier scenes, but it does not really change the view that the perspective of Cusk’s Medea is, overwhelmingly, the female one. Following an unflinchingly brutal Oresteia and a bizarre, gender-bending Bakkai, the Almeida’s three-play Greek Season comes to an end with this strikingly original Medea. The relevance of ancient classics in the modern world has been demonstrated fully and, overall, the cycle has to be judged as a huge achievement.

Performance date: 2 October 2015


THE-WINDOW-BLANK-PAGES-Show-Image1-e1437145928952This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Frank Marcus shot to fame with his 1964 play The Killing of Sister George, soon to be revived on the London Fringe. Here his own granddaughter Rafaella Marcus directs two of his short plays, written later, and makes subtle suggestions of a link between them. The Window (1969) begins with Carol, the subject of the play that is to be performed later, sitting at the bedroom window of the blind and bedridden Robert (Daniel Simpson). She vanishes and Ken (Paul Adeyefa) arrives, summoned to be Robert’s eyes and to act as a Peeping Tom, reporting on the activities of a girl living opposite with whom he is obsessed. There are many obvious reminders of the Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window, particularly as Rafaella Marcus’ taut production adopts the tone of an edgy thriller. The tension of the interplay between two enigmatic characters is well realised – Robert is ill-tempered and suffering from depression, having survived a suicide attempt; Ken is secretive, possibly gay and physical contact between the two frequently implies homoerotic undertones. However, there is a sense in which Robert’s blindness and Ken’s presence are no more than devices used to create a conversation in which observations about the girl opposite can be articulated. What seems to interest Frank Marcus, as indeed it interested Hitchcock, is how proximity and distance co-exist in the manner in which we all perceive strangers. The writer is exploring the chasm between what we believe (or want) people to be and what they really are. Blank Pages (1972) is a 30-minute monologue in which Carole (Megan Slater) goes through the diary that she gave up on at the age of nineteen-and-a-half. She came to see it as a “woeful chronicle of blunders” and decided that the pages would be better left blank. The very flimsy story concerns Carole’s affair with a Portuguese tennis coach, leading to disgrace in the eyes of her stuffy middle class mother. She is exiled to France, where she becomes an au pair, lusted after by her employer. Slater’s animated performance as the “not all that marvellous” Carole seems just enough to hold this play together, but then we remember the idea planted in our heads at the very beginning. Carole is the polar opposite of the girl talked of in The Window, but, it she could be her, does that not endorse the point that Frank Marcus was making in that play? Well acted and perfectly suited to the Hope’s small space, this is an intriguing pairing of two rarely-performed works.

Performance date: 1 October 2015


showstopperThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

“So good you need to see it twice” reviewers were told by the producers before attending this “make your own” musical. Twice to appreciate the versatility of the performers, twice to believe that every show really is different. More than seven years after Adam Meggido and Dylan Emery created it in a small Islington pub theatre, Showstopper!… has grown to become a big hit at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival and now it has landed where the shows that it is mimicking regard as their home – slap bang in the middle of Shaftesbury Avenue, between Thriller and Les Misérables. The simple format requires audience members to suggest themes, titles and styles for a new musical being commissioned by Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the options then being put to a crude audience vote. The audience can make further suggestions by tweeting in the interval, but the rest is down to the seven performers, including Meggido and Emery who acts as MC, and three musicians under the direction of Duncan Walsh Atkins. Audience prompting could perhaps lead us to a show set in a fairy grotto in Northern Ireland and a plot about fairies earning their wings and furthering the peace process in their Province. “Don’t live a little live a lot-to, come and join us in our grotto” chants the chorus. As for the title, it’s “Puck Off” beating “Fairy Liquid” by a short head. Style? Well think along the lines of a miserable stomp along the wicked Avenue Q in Jersey before being hit with a rock (of ages) by An American idiot. Oh and there is room for a little Gilbert and Sullivan in the mix too. If one audience is in the mood for silliness, the next may opt for biting topical satire, and thus the offices of the Daily Mail narrowly beats the Cereal Killer Cafe to be the musical’s location. However, the latter makes a comeback in an “East End Story” finger-snapping rumble scene to the strains of “Snap, Crackle and Pop”. By the way, the best rhyme for “cereal” is “ethereal”. On this occasion, “The Lying King” is chosen as the title, just beating “Jeremy Corbyn: The Musical” and inspired takes on Dream Girls and Book of Mormon raise the roof (something the company needs to be careful with at this particular theatre). If parts of this second show flirt with being slanderous, there is no script and no repeat performance, so who is going to care? All the performers demonstrate amazing skills and an incredibly wide knowledge of musicals in making up tunes, lyrics and plot lines as they go along and also in reacting instantly to whatever others come up with. It all runs so seamlessly that it is difficult to believe that there is not someone or something behind the scenes pulling the strings, but, if so, the strings are invisible and, as when watching a top magician, the show is best enjoyed by not pondering for too long on how it is all done. On this evidence, Showstopper!… is (and seems likely to be at every performance) a joyful celebration of both the glories and and the glorious absurdities of musical theatre. So good you need to see it (at least) twice.

Performance date: 30 September 2015