Archive for March, 2016

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Last year Two’s Company made a big impact at Southwark Playhouse by rediscovering a near-forgotten play, The Cutting of the Cloth, and lavishing it with loving care and attention to detail. The company now comes up with another obscure work – an Ernest Hemingway play (yes a play by him and not an adaptation of a novel) from 1938 and they bring to it exactly the same qualities. The problem is that the play does not deserve them. Why? Well, for starters, the scenes are constructed poorly, key characters are under-developed, minor characters flit in and out making no impression, much of the dialogue feels stilted and little sense of direction or purpose surfaces until the very last scene when it is much too late. There are compensations in Tricia Thorns’ production, chief among them being a terrific performance by Simon Darwen as Philip Rawlings, the American cop embroiled in counter-espionage in Madrid at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. He is laconic and then impassioned, cynical then romantic, coming from the same mould as Humphrey Bogart. Philip is torn between the tempestuous local girl, described as “a Moorish tart”, Anita (Catherine Cusack) and the “useless” American journalist, a platinum blonde femme fatale, Dorothy (Alix Dunmore). Both these actors deserve a great deal more to get their teeth into than Hemingway gives them. Alex Marker’s set is also impressive, primarily adjoining rooms in the seedy H_tel Florida, but accommodating a few short scenes outside too. However, the set reminds us of the play’s most fundamental flaw – that it feels trapped inside a confined space, its story crying out to be told without such limitations as would have been possible in Hemingway’s favoured medium, the novel, or in a film. Philip’s choice is between life as an adventurer fighting for worthy causes, as represented by Anita, or a hedonistic life among the priviledged, as represented by Dorothy.  He veers one way during daytime and the other at night. Eventually, through Philip, Hemingway turns the play into a call to arms for America to jump off the fence and join Russian communists in fighting fascism. Given the benefit of hindsight that 80 years of history affords, this is a notion that seems rather curious, but curiosity value is just about the best thing that Hemingway’s museum piece has to offer.

Performance Date: 29 March 2016

The Maids*** (Trafalgar Studios)

Posted: March 30, 2016 in Theatre

the maids

Jean Genet, a Parisian contemporary of Cocteau, Sartre, Camus, etc during the heydays of existentialism and absurdist theatre, seems an unlikely source for a West End comedy hit, but, in the fearless hands of Jamie Lloyd, here it is. The Maids, written in 1947, is a dark satire on servitude. In this 2013 translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton, the action is moved to the American Deep South and the two maids of the title are black, answering to a white mistress, giving the play strong modern resonances and urgency. The Lloyd ingredient is irreverent, naughty fun. We first meet Claire (Zawe Ashton) and Salange (played superbly at this performance by understudy Chereen Buckley) as they fool around in their employer’s absence, mocking her and trying on her clothes. Slinky, blond-wigged and speaking with a pronounced Southern drawl, Claire reminds of the new Mrs Murdoch, a view endorsed when the real mistress appears – Laura Carmichael. as in Downton Abbey, still the lady from “upstairs”, but a whole lot more sassy. Soutra Gilmour’s box-like set looks something like a children’s play pen, a home to pandemonium that becomes scattered with debris. Lloyd pulls out all the stops to produce the fireworks needed to keep this rather thin one-joke play going for almost two hours non-stop and, miraculously, he succeeds. This show is a long way from perfection, but it is fun and it brings a breath of fresh air to West End theatre.

Performance date: 26 March 2016

Beacons***+ (Park Theatre)

Posted: March 25, 2016 in Theatre

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

“Fresh to you daily” boasts the sign on Julie’s ice cream van as it stands proudly at the top of Beachy Head, looking out to a stormy sea and a flashing lighthouse. The van is the centre point of Tabitha Mortiboy’s new one-act play in which three lonely and very different characters come together to form a makeshift family. Julie (Tessa Peake-Jones) is middle-aged and facing challenges to her business from reduced visitor numbers, an aggressive competitor and coastal erosion; her part-time occupation is talking down from the cliffs potential jumpers. Bernard (Paul Kemp) is of similar age and smitten with Julie, but lacking in the confidence needed to tell her. Skye (Emily Burnett) is new to the area, a bouncy teenager living in a youth hostel with a fondness for gazing across the water and dreaming of becoming a lighthouse keeper. Tom Rogers’ set design places the van on a miniature white cliff, a large patch of lush green grass contrasting with a pale blue late Summer sky. The setting reminds us of half forgotten seaside holidays where brief glimpses of the sun would alternate with long spells sheltering under an umbrella and Mortiboys captures the peculiarly English quaintness of it all in her writing. Much of the early part of the play resembles a coastal version of Last of the Summer Wine. The first hour meanders rather aimlessly, sustained only by quietly amusing and occasionally lyrical dialogue, but with little plot. Bernard moves into a new flat, Skye gets a job in a dog grooming parlour and Julie dabbles in internet dating, but nothing else happens and director Philip Wilson finds little to light up his production. Then Mortiboys makes surprise revelations and what follows is a dramatic and moving final third that is written and played quite beautifully. Beacons is defiantly old-fashioned, but warm-heartedness runs through it like the lettering through a stick of seaside rock, making it a welcome and timely antidote to news of cruel events in the world outside the theatre.

Performance date: 26 March 2016

trh-2

 

reasons to be happyComing to the second play in a trilogy without having seen the first can present problems. Neil LaBute’s quartet of American 20/30-somethings first appeared in Reasons to be Pretty and, in this continuation of their mildly comic games of relationship musical chairs, the first challenge is not how to get to know them, but finding a reason to want to get to know them. Tom Burke’s dithering bookworm Greg is torn between his ex, volatile and selfish Steph (Lauren O’Neil) and Carly (Robyn Addison) who revels in martyrdom in her role as a working single mother, abandoned by her partner, macho and casually violent Kent (Warren Brown). Given the choice between these two irritating women, the play from Greg’s perspective could have been titled “Reason’s to be Gay”. Indeed, it is Greg’s perspective that most engages LaBute, turning him from an indecisive wimp into a man with a clear vision of how to find happiness. The success of Michael Attenborough’s production relies heavily on an engaging star performance by Burke who makes Greg’s transformation seem real. Soutra Gilmour’s set is like a container crate that swivels round and opens out on both sides for quick scene changes. Opening and closing strongly, the production needs more fizz in the middle scenes. Overall, there are plenty of reasons why this play is entertaining, but few reasons for there to be a stampede to find tickets for parts one and three in the series..

Performance date: 23 March 2016

ma_raineys_black_bottom_v2When a show is set in a recording studio, centres on 1920s blues music and boasts the wonderful Sharon D Clarke as the eponymous singer, perhaps we are entitled to expect more than just one song sung right through. Hence there is a sense of disappointment to overcome before reflecting on August Wilson’s fine writing. His 1982 play is a quiet but fierce indictment of racial segregation in America, relating stories of unjust discrimination and showing directly the corrosive effect that it has on those treated as second class human beings. Ma Rainey is a singing star, pampered like royalty by white-owned record companies because she is a marketable commodity. She responds by making unreasonable demands and treating those around, including her own race, as attendants at her court, but outside the studio in the real world, she cannot even hail a cab in the street. She is paid $250 for the session, the four men in her band get $25 each and it is the roles to which these four are consigned which concerns Wilson. They address each other repeatedly as “Nigger” as if to show disrespect and remind them of their place in society, but, more significantly, they show disrespect for themselves as if accepting their subservience. The exception is the young trumpeter Levee (O-T Fagbenle), not yet “broken in”, still prepared to challenge, unlike Cutler (Clint Dyer), Toledo (Lucian Msamati) and Slow Drag (Giles Terera) who seem tired of fighting the system and defeated. The white men – record producer Sturdyvant (Stuart McQuarrie) and Ma Rainey’s manager Irvin (Finbar Lynch) – sit in a a sort of Portakabin, elevated high at the back of the stage above the studio where Ma Rainey rules. Beneath them all, the band rehearses in a basement space that appears at the very front of stage. The set, designed by Ultz, reflects the social structure that is the play’s central theme, but the point that it makes is too obvious and not really necessary. A further problem with the set is that, for key scenes in the basement, actors are placed in unnatural positions lined up across the stage and their movement is restricted. Otherwise, Dominic Cooke’s production captures a feeling of real anger, often doing so more effectively by understating it. For the absence of more music, blame Wilson.

Performance date: 21 March 2016

The Master Builder**** (Old Vic)

Posted: March 20, 2016 in Theatre

themasterbuilderIt is said that the higher they climb, the harder they fall. In Henrik Ibsen’s play, Halvard Solness is an architect who has reached the pinnacle in his community. He is a man who builds towers, yet he is afraid of heights; he is reminded of the day that he climbed a steeple and, once there, encountered God, coming to believe that he had supplanted him. Ralph Fiennes, whose stage presence is at least as commanding as any other living actor, becomes Solness, a man who is authoritative, decisive and arrogant until he opens out to reveal his doubts, and vulnerabilities. He dreads that the young will come knocking on his door, he holds back his talented young apprentice in fear that he will replace him, he is haunted by the deaths a decade earlier of his twin baby sons and defeated in his efforts to win back a wife (Linda Emond) who refuses to stop grieving for them. Fiennes gives us a chilling portrayal of the true nature of power, how it corrupts and the mental decay that eats away behind it. Not driven by any strong narrative, Ibsen’s play tends to become weighed down by excessive symbolism, a problem which David Hare’s literate and lucid translation does not altogether resolve. A conventional reading of the play could interpret Hilde (Sarah Snook) to be a young women who uses her sexual charms to lure a vain and lustful Solness, but Matthew Warchus’ production plays down this element and Hilde appears as a playful, whimsical tomboy, full of  youthful hopes and unrealistic dreams, thereby making her more clearly symbolic of the nemesis that the architect fears, quite literally the young knocking on his door. Rob Howell’s gloom-laden sets – an office, a library and a garden – are imposing, but two major scene changes are, presumably, the reasons for the two intervals which interrupt the production’s flow and diminish its intensity. Richard Eyre has recently achieved great success by condensing Ibsen to under two hours, run straight through and this is a play that cries out for similar treatment. Reservations aside, the great pleasure here is seeing Fiennes at the top of his game. Long may it be before he falls.

Performance date: 18 March 2016

FullSizeRender-93Surveying a grubby Snooker hall, Bobby Spokes (Mark Addy) declares “What a dump, what a f***ing dump, not exactly the Crucible is it?”, thereby temporarily dashing the hope that this could be the best piece of site-specific theatre ever. Bobby is a part-time drug dealer, full-time layabout, father of young Snooker player Dylan (Jack O’Connell), ranked 107 in the World and rising. Richard Bean’s new comedy is a satirical and very timely look at how professional sport and corruption are entwined inextricably, suggesting that this particular sport was even tainted at birth. As with One Man, Two Guvnors, Bean excels in creating working class heroes and small time villains. Dylan is such a hero, his integrity unquestionable, he is (he thinks) incorruptible. The chief villain here is priceless – a one-armed transexual named Waxy Chuff (Louise Gold), a cross between Al Capone and Sheridan’s Mrs Malaprop. As Waxy works to lure Dylan into a betting scam, the young player’s incompetent manager (Ralf Little), drunken mother (Esther Coles) and her Irish beau (Dermot Crowley) become involved and a law enforcement couple (Youssef Kerkour and Rochenda Sendall) try to intervene. The plot is that of a thriller with a few twists and turns, but essentially, the play is an uproarious comedy, full of splendid running gags, ripe characterisations and spot-on performances. Of course, the action culminates in the exact spot where the play is being performed, a treat indeed, but the biggest joy comes from Bean’s incidental dialogue, particularly that between Bobby and Dylan (both actors superb), which is literally laugh-a-line. I don’t believe it, but Richard Wilson directs with a real feel for the characters, allowing the actors to flesh them out fully and giving the play time to breath, as in a lengthy display of real Snooker (by John Astley). There are a couple of quibbles: a dreamlike sequence, showing British army officers inventing Snooker in India, misses the pocket, as does an unconvincing romantic sub-plot. But such small things can be forgiven, because, overall, this is the funniest new comedy since 1M2G, theatre’s equivalent to a 147 break.

Performance date: 17 March 2016