Archive for March, 2016

The Painkiller*** (Garrick Theatre)

Posted: March 18, 2016 in Theatre

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The burning question here is whether a revered actor-knight can leave his Shakespearean gravitas in the dressing room and drop his trousers alongside a comic like Rob Brydon. It is difficult to envisage “Larry” doing it, but Kenneth Branagh passes the test with flying colours. On the other hand, there is no real test for Brydon who only needs to slip into his normal stage persona to become Swindonian Dudley, suicidal following the loss of his wife  (Claudie Blakley) to her psychiatrist (Alex MacQueen). Dudley arrives to end it all in a boutique hotel in London to find himself in the room next to Ralph (Branagh), a hit man on a mission to end it all for someone else. Alice Powers’ set for the two rooms is beautifully detailed and includes enough doors, cupboards and windows to accommodate all the mayhem that ensues. Yes, Francis Veber’s play (adapted by Sean Foley who also directs) is an old-fashioned farce in which the fun comes in bursts of physical comedy that are spread liberally through the 85 minute running time. There are no underlying serious themes to grapple with here, this being nothing more than a load of complete nonsense, best enjoyed with the brain in stand-by mode. The problem, as with most farces of this kind, is that everything is so cut adrift from reality that there is nothing for the audience to cling to when the madness subsides, as, inevitably, it has to. The script provides the actors with very little verbal wit, leading them to fill voids with over-playing; Brydon in particular sometimes shouts as if he is performing his stand-up act in the Millennium Stadium without a microphone. That said, Foley’s production skates over many cracks by moving at a frantic pace and the physical comedy set pieces are choreographed to perfection. Mark Hadfield as the droll hotel porter and Marcus Fraser as the policeman who takes all the knocks add a great deal to the fun. The play itself seems pretty feeble; inspired slapstick and top class performances only numb the pain, without completely killing it.

Performance date: 16 March 2016

Luce**** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: March 15, 2016 in Theatre

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With Edward Snowden still in enforced exile, arguments rage on about the point at which the right to privacy clashes with the need for security. TC Lee’s tightly written and compelling play makes an enlightening contribution to these debates. When a teacher becomes suspicious of a brilliant 17-year-old high school student, she invades his privacy by opening his locker and then notifying his adopted parents of the surprising contents. 10 years earlier the student, Luce (meaning light), had been an orphan caught up in an African war, rescued and brought to America by Peter and Amy, who refuse to believe ill of him. However, Luce now reflects that the sound of his name could be taken to mean “not attached to anything else”. Is he merely an innocent attracting the teacher’s suspicions because he is an outsider, or is he a liar with malevolent intent? It is a big ask of Martins Imhangbe as Luce to keep both possibilities credible for most of the play, making us root for him and doubt him at the same time. He pulls it off admirably and Natasha Gordon also makes the teacher an enigmatic character; sharp and full of self-importance, we want her to be proved a bigot, but fear that she could be right. Mel Giedroyc is a minor revelation as Amy, her natural warmth being perfect for this loyal Mum, but she adds the steel of a fighter and her convincing American accent is the icing on the cake (sorry!). Simon Dormandy’s spare production remains intensely focussed throughout and, even if the play offers few answers to the moral questions that it poses, its 90 minutes give plentiful food for thought.

Performance date: 15 March 2016

Miss-Atomic-Bomb-will-be-co-directed-by-Adam-Long-and-Bill-Deamer-NO-CREDIT-700x455.”What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” they say, so why did the people behind this turkey ignore that golden rule? The book by Adam Long, Alex Jackson-Long and Gabriel Vick for this new musical has the feel of one of those abysmal Elvis Presley movies of the mid-60s in which the star would have been cast as Joey, the conscientiously objecting army deserter (here played by Dean John-Wilson). The team’s songs are about at the same level. The setting is Las Vegas in the early 1950’s, the US army is conducting nuclear tests in the Nevada desert and tourists are flocking in to take a look at the glowing sky, as if they are seeing the Northern Lights. Joey’s brother (Simon Lipkin) is manager of a failing Mob owned hotel and, to rescue it and save his own skin, he hatches the idea of staging the beauty contest of the title. Candy (Florence Andrews), a sheep farmer and her friend Myrna (Catherine Tate), a fashion designer, become involved to raise the cash to pay off debts and flee to far-off Californ-ya (isn’t it the adjacent State?). Andrews’ voice has a nice Country and Western twang that makes some of the songs sound better than they actually are and there are a couple of decent dance routines (Bill Deamer is choreographer, co-directing with Adam Long), but otherwise, the show is corny, dated, it looks cheap and, worst of all, it is frequently boring. The inimitable Miss Tate cannot help but be funny, yet even she struggles and Daniel Boys is also wasted, attacking the role of Mr Potts, an over-diligent debt collector, as if auditioning to play Javert in Les Mis. So there are a fair number of established musical theatre performers caught up in this debacle and most of them may soon be trying to remove the embarrassment from their CVs. Will someone please nuke this show!

Performance date: 12 March 2016

welcome...I confess to being unfamiliar with Le Voyageur Sans Lugage, a 1936 work by French playwright Jean Anouilh, but here we have it, in a new version by Anthony Weigh, moved in time and place to 1959 on Long Island, New York. The stroke of genius in this production is to present the play in the style of a screwball comedy from the Golden Age of Hollywood, incorporating influences as diverse as Oscar Wilde, Billy Wilder and the Coen Brothers. It all works brilliantly, playing out as something like a slightly more bitter take on The Philadelphia Story with touches of Martin Guerre. It seems a fair bet that director Blanche McIntyre had her company watching American film comedies from the 40s and 50s to perfect their timing and delivery and maybe to mould their performances on stars from that period. A lot of fun comes from guessing which star is suggested by each performance, For example “Gene” (Rory Keenan), the amnesiac war veteran returning to what might be his family after an absence of 15 years could easily be Cary Grant and Mrs Fox (Sian Thomas) his acid-tongued, snobbish would-be mother could only be Bette Davis. Family and supposedly lost son are brought together by the social climbing DuPont-Duforts (George Burns and Gracie Allen?), a warring couple, she (Katherine Kingsley) having previously re-homed dogs and he (Danny Web) being a wife-loathing curmudgeon who just wants someone to take out his garbage. “Gene” begins to question whether he really likes his new/old family very much and, when he unearths some of the misdemeanours of the man that he is supposed to be, he decides that he does not like him at all. The young Mr Fox’s past includes an affair with the drunken Valerie (Fenella Woolgar), his sister-in-law (too lower class for Katherine Hepburn, too sophisticated for Marilyn Monroe, so let’s settle for Grace Kelly). To make matters even more chaotic, 22 other families then come forward to claim “Gene” as their own. So is he or is he not a Fox? This hilarious play culminates in a blissful denouement that sends us all out of the Donmar wearing broad grins of satisfaction.

Performance date: 11 March 2016

Something Something Lazarus (c) Jamie Scott-Smith (10)This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

The saying goes that, even as the world outside falls apart, the show must go on. However, in John Myatt’s 80 minute musical satire of late night cabaret, it is the show that falls apart and the performers whose lives are in tatters, reflecting the lyrics of the mournful songs that they routinely sing. Pain, misery, heartache, death and despair are some of the constituents that feed this form of cabaret, a sub-culture with which we not so nocturnal creatures have only passing familiarity. Hence, it may be charitable to think that there are in-jokes in Myatt’s lyrics that fly over our heads, because, otherwise, incisive wit seems sadly missing. Simon Arrowsmith’s score makes easy listening, but the songs are much less than hilarious. The show could have been staged as a revue or song cycle, but it does have a plot of sorts. Daniel, owner of the gay club where the action takes place, receives a gift of an antique chair from his ex-boyfriend together with the news that he is planning to get married in eight days. Daniel declares his ex to be the only love of his life, goes into a tail spin and callously casts aside his current lover, the 20-year-old barman Jay. Dan Phillip’s production is a curate’s egg with good and bad parts matching each other almost evenly. It ranges from the near-inspired to the downright amateurish and it does not feel well-suited to the King’s Head’s thrust stage. At some points, characters huddle in corners, at others they engage with each other awkwardly from distance and, throughout, bright spotlights half blind many sections of the audience. The production’s inconsistencies carry through to the individual performances, but they all give at least some pleasure. Daisy Amphlett as musician Della seems too normal and nice to be working in a dive like this, but Valerie Cutko is deliciously catty as the torch singer Vee. Ralph Bogard’s neurotic, self-obsessed Daniel has the look of a Demis Roussos resurrected in a dressing gown and sounds a bit like him too. The surprise package is Daniel Cech-Lucas as Daniel’s rejected toy boy. After making an entrance resplendent in his underpants, he fades to the sidelines, gets deservedly strangled and then rises like the title character to grab a microphone and steal the whole show. His bravura solo routine re-energises a production that had been sinking rapidly. This is a show that refuses to be insulted. It could be described fairly as a chaotic mess, but it is likely that its creators intended it to be exactly that and much of the entertainment in it derives from its shambolic nature. Like late night cabaret itself, Something Something Lazarus is probably best enjoyed with a stiff drink in hand.

Performance date: 10 March 2016

Photo: Jamie Scott-Smith

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Correspondence (c) Richard Lakos (1)This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Think back five years. William and Katherine were getting wed, Katy Perry was dominating the pop charts and ripples from the Arab Spring were starting to reach Syria. Lucinda Burnett’s 80 minute one act play was first written at around that time and it now reaches the stage, refined with touches of hindsight. Ben (Joe Attewell) is a troubled teenager in Stockport, the son of divorced parents, victim of bullying and an aspiring journalist writing articles for his school newspaper, Jibreel (Ali Ariaie) is Syrian, wary of an oppressive regime, conscious of the growing insurgency, but fearful of the consequences for himself and his family. The two boys meet on the internet, competing in games on their X-Boxes. Burnett sows the seeds for a fascinating drama in a touching opening scene, with Dan and Jibreel, both played beautifully, enjoying their game and partaking in carefree banter on popular culture as seen from very different perspectives. However, the game of Modern Warfare is about to be encroached upon by actual modern warfare, virtual reality is to be replaced by cruel reality. The writer’s vision of innocent youthful friendship crossing international borders and breaking down cultural barriers resonates strongly and promises much for the scenes to follow. Essentially, this play needs only two characters and it begins to go wrong when others are introduced. Dan’s parents (Joanna Croll and Mark Extance) appear in long drawn out scenes of tedious bickering and, much worse, Dan’s tormenter at school, the irksome, shrill-voiced Harriet (Jill McAusland) turns up to bully him relentlessly. This character is poorly written and overplayed, becoming little more than a comic caricature that sits uncomfortably in a drama dealing with serious issues. Accepting that Burnett needs to establish factors contributing to Dan’s deteriorating mental health, she does not need to dwell on them for so long that they detract from the story that she is telling and prevent her from developing the central characters fully. There are faint suggestions of parallels being drawn between the boys’ relationship and interventions by Western nations in the Syrian catastrophe, but, again, such themes remain underdeveloped. Bethany Wells’ set, a visual representation of the internet, adapts well to suit the needs of the action and director Blythe Stewart uses it imaginatively, although she is not able to inject life into the play’s sticky patches. This is a drama that begins full of promise, goes nowhere for long stretches and ends just when the central story should be getting into its stride. It is the thought that the play is so full of interesting ideas that makes the end result so disappointing.

Performance date: 10 March 2016

Photo: Richard Lakos

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The Mother***** (Tricycle Theatre)

Posted: March 13, 2016 in Theatre

FullSizeRender-91The whiteness of Mark Bailey’s minimally furnished set dazzles at first. Here is a place that feels soulless and drained of life. It is the home of empty nesters pushing 50, the children are gone, the father is free to seek pastures new and the mother is bereft, her useful life over and facing a future of memories, loneliness and despair. This is the second play by French writer Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton, to be seen at the Tricycle in recent months, following The Father (now in the West End), and similarities between the ways in which the writer depicts the central characters’ mental confusion are striking. Scenes are repeated from different perspectives, furniture appears and disappears between scenes, dashes of colour are added and taken away. The effect is that the audience becomes as disorientated as Anne, the mother, never quite able to distinguish between the real and the imagined. Is Peter (Richard Clothier) a devoted husband drawn away reluctantly to a seminar in Leicester or is he a philanderer stalling plans to end the marriage? Does Nicholas (William Postlethwaite), the son, really return home in the middle of the night or is this just wishful thinking on Anne’s part? Is the seductive Jodie (Frances McNamee), everything Anne aspires to still be, Nicholas’ girlfriend or Peter’s mistress? Zeller’s style is, in some ways, Pinteresque, but it is also distinctive and director Laurence Boswell tunes into it perfectly. However, the key to this production’s success is a magnificent performance by Gina McKee in the title role, at times quietly accepting her fate, but then fighting desperately to win back the beloved son who is her sole reason for existing. This is a powerful and disturbing piece of theatre.

Performance date: 9 March 2016