Archive for December, 2015

Macbeth*** (Young Vic)

Posted: December 6, 2015 in Theatre

macbethThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Superstition tells us never to speak the name of this play by William Shakespeare inside a theatre, a rule that could well be extended to warn against ever performing it in The Cut, London SE1. Memories of the infamous 1980 production starring Peter O’Toole at the Old Vic live long. Although no-one could accuse this revival just across the road of being inept, it is still only partially successful. Urban dance routines, pounding music and flickering lights stylise the play’s violence and accentuate its supernatural elements. Incidents typical of modern conflicts are suggested clearly, but the overall effect is a strange detachment of deeds from words which dampens the fiery passions at the play’s heart. Jamie Lloyd’s 2013 London production was mud- splattered and red blooded and, in comparison, this version is pristine and anaemic. The production, directed by Carrie Cracknell and choreographer Lucy Guerin, is performed in modern dress and has no hint of being set in Scotland. Lizzie Clachan’s stage design has the look of an empty underground car park. An exaggerated perspective gives the impression of the grey concrete walls extending back like a long corridor into oblivion. Harsh lighting (designer Neil Austin) casts long and threatening shadows. Visually, much of this is stunning. However, the appearance, combined with Guerin’s choreographed movement, represents stylising at the expense of substance. Scenes such as the slaughter of MacDuff’s family lose much of their horrific impact when enacted as dances. In this play, Shakespeare was chiefly concerned with the corrosive nature of unbridled ambition and the hollowness of ill-gained victory, themes which struggle to shine through here in the haze of imagery. Even when surrounded by mayhem, John Hefferman is a striking Macbeth, blinded by ambition and pushed along by his ruthless wife as he murders his way to the Scottish throne. He shows all the doubts brought about by his tenuous grip on power and all the torment of facing up to his inner demons. His clear and measured delivery confirms his potential to become one of the great Shakespeareans. Anna Maxwell Martin makes Lady Macbeth resemble a social climbing cocktail party hostess urging her husband to fork out for a grander house rather than coaxing him into committing regicide. The production does not serve this pivotal character well, preferring to show her being laid to rest in her grave over and over again rather than to explore her motives and her anguish. Cutting the play to just two hours, without an interval, the production moves with a strong sense of urgency. Cracknell and Guerin deserve credit for their bold if eccentric approach, but their end product is in many ways disappointing. Happily, Hefferman’s performance does not feature among the disappointments.

Performance date: 4 December 2015



Linda**** (Royal Court Theatre)

Posted: December 4, 2015 in Theatre


Penelope Skinner does not go in for subtlety in her new play, there is no lyricism in her writing, rather she treats the audience as if a punchbag, ramming home point after point and getting audible gasps in response. The play is a commentary on the world 45 years on from The Female Eunuch, seen through the eyes of Linda, a woman who has it all – successful career, happy marriage, grown children – and then, at the age of 55, finds it all starting to unravel. Her brand of feminism is expressed through her job of marketing anti-ageing cosmetics, fighting against a culture in which women slowly become invisible as they grow older; she has a clear vision of what modern society expects of women and, more specifically, what modern women expect of women and what she expects of herself. The playwright offers no strong male perspective – Linda’s schoolteacher husband Neil (Dominic Mafham) is presented as insipid, her boss Dave (Ian Redford) is a perfunctory character. Skinner’s play is all about the women: Linda herself, her two daughters and Amy (Amy Beth Hayes), the younger woman who threatens to usurp her in her career. The older daughter Alice (Karla Crome), now in her mid-20s, still hides her female form in a skunk costume following a cyber bullying attack in her schooldays, the younger one is an aspiring actor choosing between Hamlet or Lear for her audition piece because Shakespeare did not write interesting roles for women (really?!).  Michael Longhurst’s production is crisp and lucid and Es Devlin’s towering, multi-levelled, revolving set, alternating between home and workplace, has the perfect look of glossy modernity. As Linda, Noma Dumezweni is shaping a titanic performance, but she is not quite there yet because she stepped into the role very late and, at this performance (after press night) she still needed to refer to her script, This distraction meant that she was not 100% in character in some scenes and not engaging fully with other actors, but the good news is that she will get better and the production will get better with her. The play’s weakest point is the character, more caricature, of Amy. She is not ,as we may have expected, a worthy adversary to Linda, perhaps herself 30 years younger, but a shallow bitch who had, coincidentally, been Alice’s chief tormentor at school. Is Skinner trying to warn us that the vanguard of feminism, as represented by Linda, is in danger of being succeeded by a reversion to what preceded it? Post-curtain analysis and discussion may well reveal some of Skinner’s arguments to be confusing and even contradictory, but that hardly matters. The real point is that this bold, provocative and supremely theatrical production gets us thinking.

Performance date: 2 December 2015

Branagh_Theatre_The_Winters_TaleLike going out at the interval of King Lear and returning to see the final act of Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare’s split personality play defies expectations and conventions. Sicilian King Leontes, consumed by unfounded jealousy at his Queen Hermione’s supposed infidelity, embarks on a path that takes him to the very brink of self destruction, whereupon he finds redemption and reconciliation. The play contrives a mythical world in which logic has yet to be invented and, if it succeeds in casting its spell, it is mainly because of the genius of the Bard’s writing, but an impeccable production that provides all the delicate touches required helps greatly. This sumptuous revival, directed by Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh, does the job perfectly. Christopher Oram’s set and costume designs are not over-elaborate, but they evoke a distinct feel of a chilly Victorian Christmas, melting into a sunny Spring, understanding that this is a production in which nothing needs to distract too much from the text and the acting. Branagh finds Leontes’ demented fury and his whimpering contrition well within his range, Miranda Raison is a bewitching Hermione, Tom Bateman and Jessie Buckley are enchanting as the young lovers Florizel and Perdita and formidable support from the likes of Michael Pennington, John Shrapnell, Hadley Fraser and John Dalgleish ensures a depth of quality unlikely to be surpassed anywhere. This is a delicious cake but it has a very rich icing – the warm performance of Judi Dench in the prominent role of Paulina, custodian of the banished Hermione and go-between with Leontes. If this is to be her final West End appearance, it will have been in a production well worthy of her.

Performance date: 2 December 2015

desperate measuresThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

The saying goes that anyone who remembers the Swinging Sixties could not have actually been there. It is a fair bet that most if not all of the youthful cast and creatives involved in this throwback to the era of Profumo, Keeler and the Krays missed being there by several decades. The show is a musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, in which the Duke Vincentio passes the reins of power over a licentious Vienna temporarily to Angelo, whose errant rule leads to an injustice that the novice nun Isabella is left to fight. The Bard’s message that power cannot be exercised without wisdom carries through to Robin Kingsland and Chris Barton’s re-working, which sticks to the core plot of the original fairly closely. “Oh What Times We Live In” chants the chorus as an array of peers, politicians, churchmen, prostitutes and gangsters parade before us. It is London circa 1963 and Prime Minister Dukes (Sam Elwin) takes a hiatus, handing over to moral crusader Simon Di Angelo (someone must have been there in the 60s to come up with the joke in that name). Pop star Milo Feather (Jojo Macari) falls foul of new puritanical laws by fathering a child outside wedlock and faces the gallows unless his sister Isabel can save him. Some would argue that even Shakespeare found difficulties in juggling the comedy and drama in his “problem” play. Kingsland and Barton face the additional challenges of tying the story to a specific time in recent history and turning it into it a musical. They struggle to make all the elements connect together and it takes some time for the show to get into its stride, but the first half ends on a high with the powerful duet, A Single Night. There are some long gaps between songs when it feels as if we are watching a modern language version of Shakespeare’s play and, ironically, it is these scenes that are performed with the greatest confidence. Many of the songs, played with the accompaniment of a three-piece band, lack distinctiveness and opportunities to replicate the musical styles of the 1960s are, sadly, missed. Overall, the level of the performances is inconsistent, but the three principals are a delight. James Wilson is both cynical and compassionate as the tabloid journalist Charlie Lucre and Charlie Merriman tears into the role of the hypocritical zealot Di Angelo. As Isabel, Ellie Nunn has a captivating stage presence and a sweet singing voice, perhaps signalling the emergence of another formidable theatrical dynasty. There can be no denying that this production is rough around the edges – writing, acting and singing all need more work particularly in a stuttering first half, and even the curtain call is a mess. However, notwithstanding all of that, much of the show is highly entertaining and enough promising young talent comes shining through to make it well worth a look.

Performance date: 1 december 2015


A plump teenage girl of mixed race, harassed by battling parents and bullied at school, creates an alter ego that is white and has flowing blond hair and a Kate Moss figure. She gets groomed on the internet by a sleazy DJ who lures her into a virtual world of  weirdos, monsters and a grinning cat. The first 20 minutes of the National’s new “family” show is played without a hint of irony and is so off message that it can only be assumed that the creators are joking, as is usually the case when the writer is Moira Buffini.  This musical take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is bang up to date and, after its very unsettling start, it follows the predictable course of hammering home messages about personal esteem, self-empowerment, etc. Rufus Norris’s production is awash with computer graphics, but, even when magnified to fill the Olivier stage, they look pretty old hat and it is the traditional values of costumes, props and choreography that work best, as in a splendid tea party that brings the first half to a close. Buffini supplies book and lyrics, Damon Albarn the 1990s pop-style score, most of which is pretty catchy, even if it sometimes seems as if the composer is trying to find 57 different varieties of Park Life. The sameness of the songs makes them all something of a blur (sorry), but the absence of the one killer number that all great musicals need could prove to be the show’s biggest problem. Lois Chimimba is an endearing real Alice, Carly Bawden is bubbly as her avatar equivalent, Golda Rosheuvel and Paul Hilton score highly as Mom and Dad (he doubling as the Mad Hatter). Buffini’s  book goes a little off-course when the villainous head mistress (Anna Francolini in Miss Hannigan mode) steals the Alice avatar and turns her into the Red Queen. This plot line is always strained, highlighting the problems of a book that is patchy, with Albarn’s score not being quite strong enough to lift it when it flags. Yes, much of the show is packed full of invention, colour and spectacle and there is not a great deal to dislike about it. However, I rather wish that I had been able to actually like it just a bit more.

Performance date: 30 November 2015