Archive for December, 2015

2015 Theatre Round-up

Posted: December 31, 2015 in Theatre

This year I have seen a round 200 productions, 70 of them reviewed for The Reviews Hub (previously The Public Reviews). My year may not be the same as everyone else’s – for example I saw Imelda’s Gypsy for the first time in 2014, so it is left out of my “best of” contenders, whilst I still have Sheridan Smith’s Funny Girl to look forward to.

BEST PRODUCTIONS (alphabetical order)

Assassins (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Hangmen (Royal Court Theatre and Wyndham’s Theatre from January)

High Society (Old Vic)

Husbands and Sons (National Theatre)

Kinky Boots (Adelphi Theatre)

Man and Superman (National Theatre)

Mrs Henderson Presents (Theatre Royal Bath and Noel Coward Theatre from January)

Oresteia (Almeida Theatre and Trafalgar Studios)

People, Places and Things (National Theatre)

Photograph 51  (Noel Coward Theatre)

To Kill a Mockingbird (Barbican Theatre)

The Winter’s Tale (Garrick Theatre)

Honourable mentions: As You Like It (National Theatre)Bakkhai (Almeida Theatre)Carmen Disruption (Almeida Theatre), Jane Eyre (National Theatre)Medea (Almeida Theatre)Rules for Living (National Theatre)Temple (Donmar Warehouse), The Homecoming (Trafalgar Studios),

BEST FRINGE PRODUCTIONS (alphabetical order)

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Traverse Theatre Edinburgh)

French Without Tears (Orange Tree Theatre)

Grand Hotel (Southwark Playhouse)

Lela & Co (Royal Court)

No Villain (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour (Traverse Theatre Edinburgh)

Swallow (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh)

Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Harrington’s Pie Shop)

The Clockmaker’s Daughter (Landor Theatre)

The Grand Tour (Finborough Theatre)

The Royale (Bush Theatre)

The Sum of Us (Above the Stag)

Honourable mentions: And Then Came the Nightjars (Theatre 503), As Is (Trafalgar Studios)Hatched ‘n’ Dispatched (Park Theatre), In the Dead of Night (Landor Theatre), Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs (Southwark Playhouse)Radiant Vermin (Soho Theatre)Wink (Theatre 503)Xanadu (Southwark Playhouse)

BEST PERFORMANCES

Male in a play: Ralph Fiennes (Man and Superman). Honourable mentions: Simon Russell Beale (Temple and Mr Foote’s Other Leg) and James McAvoy (The Ruling Class)

Female in a play: Lia Williams (Oresteia). Honourable mentions: Kate Fleetwood (Medea)Denise Gough (People, Places and Things) and Nicole Kidman (Photograph 51).

Ensemble in a play: Husbands and Sons

Male in a musical: Tie between Killian Donnelly and Matt Henry (Kinky Boots). Honourable mention: Jamie Parker (Assassins and High Society).

Female in a musical: Emma Williams (Mrs Henderson Presents). Honourable mentions: Natalie Dew (Bend it Like Beckham) and Kate Fleetwood (High Society).

Ensemble in a musical: High Society

OTHER BESTS

New (to the UK) play: Hangmen by Martin McDonagh

New (to the UK) musical: Mrs Henderson Presents

Director (play): Marianne Elliot (Rules for Living  and Husbands and Sons)

Director (musical): Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots)

LAST AND VERY MUCH LEAST…

The year’s worst: A New Play for the General Election (Finborough Theatre), Bewitchment (Landor Theatre), d(ARE)/There Be Lions (Print Room), Dracula (Lion and Unicorn Theatre), Evening at the Talk House (National Theatre)How to Hold Your Breath (Royal Court Theatre), Muscovado (Theatre 503)Noonday Demons (King’s Head Theatre)Pardon/In Cuffs (Traverse Theatre Edinburgh)The Titanic Orchestra (Pleasance Theatre Edinburgh), Valhalla (Theatre 503)Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Playhouse Theatre)

nutcracker iceThis review was originally written for The reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

In a wet December during which temperatures have seldom dropped below 10 degrees, there is a certain irony in having to step inside the Royal Albert Hall to be reminded of what Winters look and felt like traditionally. Snowflakes fall from the domed roof, landing on an ice rink that covers half of the arena space and a snowy Christmas card image is projected onto a large back screen. Performances of Tchaikovsky’s ballet in the familiar format abound at this time of year, but this slippery twist given to it by the Imperial Ice Stars needs to justify itself by enhancing the experience and taking it in new directions. The first big plus is being able to hear the wonderful music played in this great concert hall by the London Concert Orchestra, conducted by Tim A Duncan. Many of the themes in this piece have been reduced to instantly recognisable catchy tunes used in tv adverts and the like, but here all the subtleties in the thrilling score can be heard clearly and appreciated fully. The first half of the production disappoints slightly in that it resembles little more than a fast-moving ballet and does not fully explore the possibilities that skating offers. Inevitably, skaters find it more difficult than dancers to keep time with the music. However the second half takes wing, in many cases quite literally, with skaters being thrown through the air and even performing acrobatics from a trapeze. The finale is an exhilarating, head-dizzying extravaganza of movement and colour. Mariia Vygalova as Maria, Vladislav Lysoi as the Nutcracker Prince and Anastasiia Ivanova as the Sugar Plum Fairy lead a large company that skates with grace, remarkable athleticism and precision, choreographed by artistic director Tony Mercer. Elena Predvodeteleva’s imaginative costumes make a huge contribution to the colourful spectacle, with small armies of cats and evil mice adding to the fun. There can be few happier ways of getting the whole family out of the warm and into the cold this holiday season.

Performance date: 29 December 2015

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goodnThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

The National Theatre achieved phenomenal worldwide success with its adaptation of War Horse, a children’s novel set against the backdrop of war. This production, originating from Chichester Festival Theatre, is on a smaller scale, but it uses a similar formula. It tells a story that is, in turns, both gentle and cruel and it even incorporates some wonderful puppetry. David Wood’s play is an adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s 1981 novel centring on the evacuation of children from London to rural Dorset at the beginning of the second World War. Robert Innes Hopkins’ picture postcard set of the idyllic countryside, painted in warm pastel shades, transforms into a dark and threatening vision of London’s air raid shelters and homes during the Blitz. Thus Magorian’s story, showing how evacuation could have been a happy experience for children, rather than a period of unbroken trauma, is supported visually. William Beech is a damaged child, abused physically and mentally by a religious zealot mother who disapproves of touching. At the outbreak of war, he is billeted on Tom Oakley, a crusty and dispirited widower, and his faithful dog Sammy (puppeteer Elisa De Grey goes almost unnoticed). From an awkward and uncertain beginning, William and Tom form a bond and, through each other, both find a form of redemption. The play is at its most beguiling in the country scenes, creating a nostalgic air of wartime English eccentricity reminiscent of Dad’s Army. William shows a sense of wonder at seeing his first squirrel and discovering the meaning of the word “picnic”. There are displays of a community spirit that would have been alien to an urban setting even in peacetime, such as when an am-dram group stages Wind in the Willows and Peter Pan. These are acts of defiance to “keep the home fires burning” even as disastrous news filters in from outside their cocoon David Troughton’s solid and dependable Tom, well-meaning if cantankerous, provides credibility to the story even when it steps into unlikely territory. In contrast, Melle Stewart is a fearsome Mrs Beech, giving her scenes a Dickensian flavour as she explodes to press her warped version of Christianity. Many children seeing this performance may not want to go near a church for a very long time. The roles of William and his best friend, the extrovert Zach, are each being alternated by three child actors. Wood and director Angus Jackson do not entirely escape a feeling of contrived sentimentality and the strings tugging at our emotions are often too visible. Nonetheless, the mix of skilful storytelling and theatre magic proves hard to resist and it would be a cold heart indeed that remains unmoved.

Performance date: 17 December 2015

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Bewitchment* (Landor Theatre)

Posted: December 21, 2015 in Theatre

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My love for the Landor is well documented, so it goes without saying that what follows is written with a heavy heart and it will be brief. Under artistic director Robert McWhir, the little Clapham pub theatre has worked miracles with musicals, stretching out into areas that other comparable venues do not even dream of. But this time they have stretched themselves too far – a show performed on a synthetic surface described as “black ice”. The plot has got something to do with a princess under a curse that makes her skate around in circles looking quite nasty. Three handsome princes set off in pursuit and it would be much easier to explain plays by Pinter or Beckett than to detail the rest of it. The skating is abysmal, the singing is, well, patchy and the dialogue is littered with smutty double entendres. The songs are a mixed collection that don’t gel, but it is surprising when the princes burst into Agony (from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods), showing us the heights that fairy tale musical theatre can reach. But, as the Landor gave us the wonderful The Clockmaker’s Daughter only a few months ago, such a demonstration is hardly necessary. The show is devised and choreographed by Nicky Scott and directed by McWhir, but I will allow the performers to remain unnamed. To put things into perspective, I have seen two shows worse than this in 2015, but only two. All that it left is to make the New Year wish that the Landor gets back on track in 2016 and brings us new delights that will consign this debacle to distant memory.

Performance date: 15 December 2015

as you like itIt is a curious feat by the National Theatre to have mounted two productions running concurrently in the Olivier when one of them highlights exactly what is wrong with the other. wonder.land is awash with the most up-to-date computer graphics, but they seem old hat and show us a land in which there is very little wonder. This revival of one of William Shakespeare’s silliest plays is performed in modern dress on a set made up of dreary office furniture and it is pure magic. One coup de théâtre is so eye-poppingly brilliant (I won’t spoil it) that it will surely be talked about for years and it all happens right there on stage. There is magic too of course in Shakespeare’s lyrical passages and in the performances. Rosalie Craig is a charming and very feminine Rosalind and Joe Bannister is a plucky, youthful Orlando. Particularly good also are Patsy Ferran’s schoolgirlish Celia, Mark Benton’s jovial Touchstone and Paul Chahidi’s sardonic Jaques. However, the big star of Polly Findlay’s production is Lizzie Clachan’s forest set, beautifully lit by Jon Clark. This is Shakespeare as you love it.

Performance date: 15 December 2015

The Dazzle*** (Found111)

Posted: December 21, 2015 in Theatre

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It is going to take a big star name to draw big audiences to the top floor of a disused something or other, next to Foyles in Charing Cross Road. The name is Andrew Scott, an actor with a wide range who seems to be specialising lately in characters who are bonkers, a trend that continues here. Can we guess in what direction he will take his Hamlet at the Almeida next year? To be fair, the whole set-up here is bonkers, the play being performed in what looks like a used furniture depositary, with the audience having to pick out the chair that appears least uncomfortable and least likely to collapse through age. In Richard Greenberg’s play set in the early 20th Century, Scott is Langley Collyer, a child protege pianist who has never grown up. He lives in a shambolic New York apartment, surrounded by junk, with his brother and minder Homer (David Dawson, every bit as eye-catchng as Scott) and is lined up to marry rich socialite Milly (Joanna Vanderham, also superb). The play is a surreal comedy that is at times very funny and ultimately very moving as we are shown three lost individuals who are reaching out for a firmer grip on existence. However, at well over two hours (with interval), it is too long and does not really go anywhere. In Simon Evans’ production, the actors dazzle, but the play sort of fizzles.

Performance date: 14 December 2015

No Villain**** (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Posted: December 11, 2015 in Theatre

No VillainThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

It is said that the first work of all writers is, to some extent, autobiographical. Arthur Miller was the son of a Jewish New York women’s clothing manufacturer who lost everything in the Great Depression. Therefore, it should come as no great surprise that his debut play is set in 1936 and centred on a Jewish family, owners of a New York women’s clothing manufacturing business that is facing bankruptcy. What really surprises is that the play is only now getting its World Premiere. Themes that recurred throughout Miller’s career are prominent here and his sympathies towards the left of American politics are unmistakeable. At the play’s heart is a family that yearns for new generations to make further strides towards achieving the American dream, yet instinctively draws them back into its own fold. Personal ambitions and social conscience come into conflict. Cross-generational duty and guilt are seen to influence individuals’ actions. Perhaps Esther, the mother in this play, blinded by her unflinching devotion to the family, reappears as the grieving mother in All My Sons. Can Abe, the father facing up to his own failure, be the prototype for Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman? David Bromley and Nesba Crenshaw are moving as Abe and Esther, struggling in contrasting ways to hold the family together. A teenage daughter features little, but two older sons provide the focus for a clash of values. George Turvey’s Ben is solid and rational, unable to escape the family business, but realising that it needs to change with the times. Adam Harley’s Arnold is an idealist and aspiring writer, presumably based on Miller himself. He returns home from college on the West Coast with his head full of Marxist theories. When a choice has to be made between allowing the family business to go under and breaking a strike to save it, Ben shares his brother’s political views, but chooses the business. Arnold cannot bring himself to follow him. The play is not flawless. For example, the characters of the daughter (Helen Coles), grandfather (Kenneth Jay) and warehouse labourer (Anton Cross) need to be better fleshed out in order to support developments in the drama, However, it is remarkably well shaped for a first effort, painting a picture of the family during a short period of trauma, rather than building to a single dramatic climax. Sean Turner’s production, played in an intimate space in one act, is crafted lovingly in every detail and is riveting throughout its 90 minutes running time. Overcoming the problems of a play that requires four scene changes, Max Dorey’s simple living room design transforms quickly into a clothing warehouse. The reason why Miller’s early work has taken so long to reach the stage remains a mystery, but any argument that it is dated should be given little credence. At a time when the writer’s vision for America contrasts so sharply with that of, say, Donald Trump, the play could hardly ever have been more topical. .

Performance date: 10 December 2015

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