Archive for January, 2016

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

The calm of an English suburban garden on a Summer afternoon provides the misleading primary setting for Caryl Churchill’s bold and original one-act comedy. All is not what it at first seems and, in a parallel universe, a catastrophic event is threatening all civilisation. An apt alternative title for the play could be “The Four Housewives of the Apocalypse”. When interloper Mrs Jarrett (Linda Bassett) goes through an open gate to enter the garden of Sally (Deborah Findlay), she finds her chatting with her friends Lena (Kika Markham) and Vi (June Watson) and she joins in. All four talk to each other, but listen to almost nothing, isolating themselves alone in their own cocoons. When it comes to capturing the banality of everyday English middle class conversation, Churchill is not quite Alan Bennett, but she hits the mark more often than not and laces her dialogue with dark absurdist touches. However, she alternates scenes of normality with scenes in which Bassett stands alone on a blackened stage, framed by flickering red strips of light, describing a post-apocalyptic world in graphic, horrifying, yet still humorous detail. The stark contrasts are unnerving and the fragility of everything in life that we all take for granted is brought into focus. Churchill positions her play at some point where the real merges with the surreal, where mundanity collides with fantasy and where the inconsequential is interrupted by the profound. Miriam Buether’s sets highlight these contrasts; an idyllic garden with brown fences under a pale blue sky gives way to pitch darkness, accompanied by crackling noises, as when a radio frequency is changing. Lighting, designed by Peter Mumford, also plays a key role in James MacDonald’s considered and finely detailed production. As Mrs Jarrett learns of the inner lives of her three companions, the lights around each in turn dim and the others sit motionless, listening inattentively. Sally fears cats, Lena fears open spaces and Vi fears kitchens, having killed her husband in one. Churchill is showing us the sinister undercurrents, real or imagined, that run beneath a facade of tranquility and she is emphasising the isolation of each of the women. Four of our most accomplished actors bring the characters to life, achieving the perfect balance between comedy and pathos, their joint rendition of Da Doo Ron Ron being one of the production’s most memorable highlights. The creators of all good comedies need to know when the core joke has run its course and Churchill shows her finest judgement in bringing this play to an end, summarily, after a mere 55 minutes. The outcome is a small package filled with entertainment and thought provoking ideas.

Performance date: 28 January 2016

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Guys and Dolls***** (Savoy Theatre)

Posted: January 28, 2016 in Theatre

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There was absolutely no need for me to see Guys and Dolls again. The National Theatre staged it in the 1980s and revived it in the 1990s, the Donmar (at the Piccadilly Theatre) staged it in 2005; I saw all three and I loved all three. Yet, on a cold, wet January evening, there can be no better way to lift the spirits than re-visiting this joyful romantic romp that many argue is the greater comedy musical of them all and one fix per decade isn’t really overdosing on it. Gordon Greenberg’s exuberant production arrives in the West End having begun life in 2014 at the Chichester Festival Theatre, Good old reliable David Haig is a terrific Nathan Detroit, reunited with the divine Sophie Thompson (this couple’s wedding was one of four in a very famous film), who achieves the near-impossible by matching Imelda Staunton’s performance as the lovelorn Miss Adelaide. Jamie Parker scores his third London triumph in a year, stamping his personality all over Sky Masterson and confirming his ranking as probably the best male singer currently working in British musical theatre (if they can’t find a song or two for Harry Potter to sing, what a waste of talent that’s going to be). And Siubhan Harrison oozes charm as Sky’s lucky lady, Sarah Brown. The supporting performances, bringing to life Damon Runyon’s rich array of characters, are also spot-on, particular praise going to Gavin Spokes who, as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, gets an ovation rousing enough to rock the boats on the nearby Thames. The show is described as “a musical fable of Broadway” and the book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows sparkles with wit, while even the most familiar of Frank Loesser’s songs here sound fresh and new. Peter McIntosh’s glittering set and costume designs are eye-popping and the dance routines are as lively and imaginative as any that I have seen in the West End – the Havana club scene is particularly stunning, but, as Carlos Acosta is joint choreographer (with Andrew Wright), that is not so surprising. Too much praise for one show? Probably, but this really is a production that send the audience back out onto the Strand on a cushion of air, looking for superlatives. When the revival for the 2020s comes round, the bar will have been set very high indeed.

Performance date: 25 January 2016

Clickbait*** (Theatre 503)

Posted: January 23, 2016 in Theatre

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

Technologies that allow us to record events, readily and with ease, and social media networks that encourage us to broadcast them to the world have combined to yield many benefits and many opportunities for abuse. Milly Thomas’ dark revenge comedy, here being given its world premiere, shows us how things can go badly wrong. Holidaying in Ibiza, Nicola (Georgia Groome) takes part in a group sex party that is filmed without her knowledge. Faced with the threat of the video being put on social media, she takes control and puts it there herself. The confused emotions that result from her becoming a star of the internet, lead to her ignoring the advice of her cautious older sister Gina (Amy Dunn) and becoming inspired by the fanciful ideas of her younger sister, 15- year-old Chloe, to profit from her celebrity. Bristling with energy and raw nerve, Alice Hewkins’ Chloe is a scene stealer. The unlikeliest of entrepreneurs, she brandishes her youth as an emblem of her command of the modern world (“I know how to use a computer. I’m not 30”). She stands out among Thomas’ largely one-dimensional characters with whom it is very difficult to engage or sympathise. The big business idea is to set up a chain of booths in which the public can film themselves as they partake in intimate activities. Transforming into the three sisters from Hell, wearing identical platinum blond wigs, the ladies try to assure themselves that they are not prostitutes and not sex workers, rather they just work in sex, but the lines become blurred and maybe their new profession is not so far removed from the world’s oldest. Thomas touches on issues relating to female empowerment without developing them very far and it is only in the closing stages that the damage done to Nicola through having been abused becomes clearer and only then is Groome able to give us some insight into her motivation. Less convincing is Nicola’s tiresome on/off relationship with her dreary boyfriend Adam (Barney White). When the sisters’ business begins to unravel, it is due to poor after-sales service, the disgruntled Kat (Emma D’Arcy) putting the skids under them. For all its up-to-date trimmings, there is a sense in which Thomas’ play is not really telling us a lot that is new; sex has always been a saleable commodity, offering big profits for the winners and big penalties for the unwary. The writing is not without wit, but Thomas relies too much on the expectation that salty language and explicit sex talk will be enough to shock an audience into laughing. Holly Race Roughan gives the play a lively production, performed in an open-sided cube with trolls dancing regularly around the outside, gossiping and tweeting at the scandalous goings on. Clickbait is slick, smart and intermittently funny, but it has no heart and, consequently, its power as a commentary on modern dilemmas is much diminished.

Performance date: 22 January 2016

Photo: Oliver King

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The Picture of Dorian Gray. Production images 2014. Courtesy Emily Hyland - 26This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

125 years ago, before the arrival of cosmetic surgeons and Botox, Oscar Wilde’s only novel told of how Dorian Gray preserved his youth and beauty by selling his soul to the Devil. His portrait would grow older, but his body would remain untouched by age. For this Anniversary production, Merlin Holland (Wilde’s grandson) and John O’Connor have created a literate adaptation for the stage, remaining faithful to the story of the novel. Guy Warren-Thomas is a youthful Dorian, handsome, vain and capricious, who sits for portrait painter Basil Hallward (Rupert Mason), an adoring admirer. The painter introduces him to his acquaintance, the louche and sardonic Lord Henry Wotton (John Gorrick), who leads him towards a licentious lifestyle. His flirtation with the young actress Sybil Vane (Helen Keeley) results in tragedy and sets him on a path to self- destruction. Wilde is warning us to be careful what we wish for, showing us the perils of hedonism and living a life that has been stripped of structure and discipline. Conversely, he also takes several swipes at a social order that is too stifling and intolerant of individual expression. The friendship between Dorian and Wotton, as portrayed here, invites comparisons with Wilde’s real life relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, yet the adaptors go only a little way towards exploring the story’s homoerotic subtext, perhaps missing out on opportunities that modern day attitudes would give them. The infatuation that both Wotton and Hallward have for Dorian is never allowed to speak its real name, making this play a version of the story that could well have been written in the same era as the novel. An abundance of typical Wildean wit, particularly in the dialogue of Wotton, makes the first act play something like “The Importance of Being Dorian”, superficial, irreverent in tone and highly entertaining. Peter Craze’s production also brings in comedy of a different style by having Mason, Gorrick and Keeley share all the minor roles, cutting across age and gender. The appearances of these three, sometimes wearing bizarre costumes, brings sniggers that may not always be welcome. So strong is the flavour of comedy that it cannot be shaken off entirely in a much darker second act in which the full consequences of Dorian’s callousness and depravity emerge. Often, this fusion of the amusing with the solemn results in something more akin to Victorian melodrama than to the sobering morality tale that, surely, Wilde intended. There is much talk of Dorian’s “soul”, but Warren-Thomas’ one-note performance and several misjudgements of tone in the production leave us with too few glimpses of the inner man and no real sense of either his ecstasy or his despair. That said, even if we are not able to share in Dorian’s journey, at least we are taken for an enjoyable ride.

Performance date: 20 January 2014

Photo: Emily Hyland

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Big Brother Blitzkrieg (c) Jack Fisher (6)This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Had Adolph Hitler lived, he would now be 126 years old. This is one of several compelling reasons why the idea that he could be a contestant in Big Brother 2016 requires considerable suspension of disbelief. However, the proposition that none of his fellow housemates would have the faintest idea who he was, sadly, rings very true indeed. Written and directed by Hew Rous Eyre and Max Elton, Big Brother Blitzkrieg is, for the most part, a riotous spoof of reality television and it falters only when it tries to take itself too seriously. Often something like Big Brother that is already inherently ridiculous can prove to be beyond parody, but a steady flow of very funny jokes carries this show through 75 minutes, stretching out a basic idea that could have been more naturally suited to a 15 minute sketch. Hitler, played with fervour by Stephen Chance, lands in the House after his application to enter Art School is rejected. He finds himself among a typical selection of housemates, all striving to live up to what is expected of the stereotypes that they have been selected to represent. M-Cat (Kit Loyd) is a teenage rapper, Charlie (Hannah Douglas) is a feminist and Lucy (Jenny Johns) is a snooty Public Relations Consultant. The Führer slots neatly into the fascist regime of Big Brother (voiced by George Smith), although taking orders does not come easily to him. He kindly reassures the flamboyantly gay Felix (Neil Summerville) that the viewers will not find him boring, by telling him “you are the most entertaining sub-human that I have ever met”. However, his persecution of the hapless Rachel (Tracey Ann Wood), trying to manipulate her eviction and getting other housemates to ostracise her, bears even more sinister undertones. Rachel offends Hitler by being dull, ordinary and Jewish. Presumably the writers want to demonstrate how easily history can repeat itself, but history as serious as this is seriously unfunny and a sombre note is introduced, sitting very uncomfortably with the lightweight material that surrounds it. Otherwise, sharp writing and over-the-top performances make this spoof Big Brother, arguably, a lot more entertaining than the real thing. It should see out its scheduled run at the King’s Head without fear of eviction.

Performance date: 15 January 2015

Photo: Jack Fisher

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(l-r) Cornelius Macarthy as AndreThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Seven years after the first black United States President took office, 1965 feels like a lot more than only half a century ago. Paul Minx’s searing comedy/drama, first seen at the Hope Theatre along the road from here in 2014, takes us back to a time when America was a country on the cusp of change as the burgeoning Civil Rights movement was beginning to make its mark. Set in Indiana, the play shows us a dying social order, represented by a white middle class family whose world is crumbling and their two black home helps who are taking tentative steps to break free and find the road to a better life. These characters, like the country that they live in, have reached a crossroads. Jake Price (Michael Brandon) has hit a career crisis, bur pretends that everything is normal. His wife Carol Ann (Imogen Stubbs) has hit the bottle, her life so lacking in purpose that she cannot be bothered to get dressed, but she clutches at a last claim to refinement by insisting “I don’t drink…I imbibe”. Their teenage daughter Ivy (Lydea Perkins) lounges on the patio, perfecting her suntan and filling the void in her life by attempting to seduce Andre, the “coloured” gardener. The play’s title alludes to the struggle of Andre (Cornelius Macarthy) and his intended wife, the house’s maid Grace (Krissi Bohn) to cast off the shackles of the past and move south to Alabama. He seeks reunion with his daughter, taken from him in cruel circumstances, and she, an aspiring writer, wants to play her full part as a Civil Rights activist. The dignity and fortitude of this couple, contrasting with the decadence of their white “masters”, gives the play its most haunting images. The confidence of Minx as a playwright is demonstrated by the ease with which he finds so much comedy in what is essentially a serious emotional drama. This is the right approach, because the frustrated and angry Jake, the drunken Carol Ann and the rebellious Ivy are all characters to be laughed at and pitied rather than despised. After all, they are merely filling roles that the society of their day had cast them into and, by 1965 standards, they would probably have considered themselves liberals. Sara Berger’s production moves seamlessly between the play’s changing tones, extracting five impeccable performances. The action takes place on a thrust stage, giving the audience a proximity to Adrian Linford’s patio set that heightens the play’s dramatic and comic impact. Minx’s work is a striking piece of new writing, telling us the way that things were in order to make us contemplate how racism persists in a much changed world. When Berger’s production reaches a point of optimism for the future, the Roy Orbison track It’s Over is heard playing in the background, prompting us to ask ourselves the question: “is it really?”

Performance date: 15 January 2016

Photo: Truan Munro

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Botallack O'Clock_2 © Zanna Wharfe

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

In the early hours, with an evening’s entertainment over and birdsong still awaited, there can exist a sort of vacuum that will suck in strange thoughts. Eddie Elks’ one-act play covers an imagined 70 minutes of such time in the life of artist Roger Hilton (1911-1975), making his thoughts as abstract as his most famous paintings. Played by Ben Frost, Hilton is both a realist and a fantasist. He has no romantic illusions as to why he has moved his family to the picturesque Cornish coastal village of Botallack – he is there because property is cheap – yet he can quickly turn to playing King Lear with a dancing bear as his Cordelia. He is in his basement studio, with his family asleep in the house above him. Fuelled by detachment and alcohol, his thoughts take on a life of their own. Elks structures a large part of his play around a dreamed up edition of Desert Island Discs on which Hilton is the guest. The radio presenter (voiced by George Haynes) speaks in precise BBC English and takes on a combative persona that is reminiscent of Hal, the demented computer in 2001:A Space Odyssey. Hilton expounds on diverse topics, ranging from his love of Paris to his loathing of Blue Peter, and he explains why he believes that the World is perceived differently through the eyes of an artist. Elks’ writing and Frost’s intense portrayal reveal a creative mind that is out of step with everyday life and frustrated by it. Ken McClymont’s set uses the whole of the Old Red Lion’s space to create a realistic, drab and untidy basement studio, furnished with a single bed, side tables and an old fashioned wardrobe. Christopher Nairne’s lighting illuminates the fantasy sequences, but, for much of the play, Hilton is seen under a single hanging lamp, surrounded by semi-darkness, creating a lonely image familiar to all of us who have ever woken in the middle of the night. Directing the play himself, Elks opts for a leisurely pace. Several minutes pass before the first word is spoken, as Hilton stirs from a drunken stupor and gets his bearings. What follows is full of colourful philosophy that, in total, makes no more sense than the ramblings of a drunk ever do. Nonetheless the writer’s quirky humour and a compelling central performance turn this into an amusing diversion.

Performance date: 14 January 2016

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