Archive for April, 2016

Schism**** (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: April 30, 2016 in Theatre

schism-mainThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

How many times are we told that, however bad things get for us, there is always someone worse off? That thought could be going through Harrison’s head when, in the middle of a suicide attempt, his home is broken into and the intruder turns out to be a 14-year-old girl in a wheelchair, suffering from cerebral palsy. This encounter between an able-bodied defeatist and a physically handicapped striver is the starting point for Athena Stevens’ 80-minute play, receiving its World Premiere here. The writer is herself a cerebral palsy sufferer and she also takes on the role of Katherine, the intruder, playing her as a strong-willed young lady who knows that the road to achieving her goals in life is littered with obstacles, of which her disability is just one. The setting is Chicago over an 18 year period that takes in Clinton, Bush, Obama and the emergence of Trump. Time is established by a lightweight radio presenter commenting on world events between scenes. In 1998, Katherine is a student at the school where Harrison teaches Maths; she is bright but left in the slow stream because of her disability. She is drawn to him following an act of kindness towards her that he does not even remember. Tim Beckmann’s Harrison has a forlorn look, but helping Katherine provides him with a fresh sense of purpose. At the age of 33, he has given up on his ambitions to become an architect and allowed his marriage to fail without putting up a fight. His willingness to turn back when faced with challenges means that he is settling for a life of mediocrity. something that would be unthinkable to Katherine. The teacher’s assertion that “…in life there is a gap between expectation and reality” is rejected by the pupil absolutely. Katherine’s determination to surmount obstacles is mirrored by Stevens’ refusal to settle for easy options in her writing. She could have courted sympathy for Katherine by making her a great deal more likeable. She could have let the play take its seemingly natural course towards becoming a cosy romantic comedy. She does neither and the result is a remarkable final third that is both candid and brave. If the play has a weakness, it is that Stevens does not explore the emotional connection between Harrison and Katherine more thoroughly and a resulting lack of warmth occasionally makes the dialogue come across like part of a lifestyle lecture rather than a drama. However, she never shirks from tackling harsh realities when giving stark reminders of Katherine’s vulnerability, not only as a handicapped person, but as a woman in a male-dominated world. Teacher/student role reversal stories are not unfamiliar, but this one is marked out as different by its refreshing honesty and Alex Sims’ steady production is at its strongest when making the audience uncomfortable. The play never looks for the feel good factor, but, by promoting a “bottle half full” philosophy, its writer is offering inspiration not only to the disabled, but to us all.

Performance date: 19 April 2016

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Theatre re present Blind Mans Song as part of The Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2015 Photo Credit: Richard Davenport. richard@rwdavenport.co.uk. 07545642134

Photo Credit: Richard Davenport.

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

To the blind, everything visual exists only in the form of imagination. Expanding on this theme, Theatre Re has created this one-hour piece of dream-like physical theatre to take us into the mind of a sight impaired person, but audiences able to see the performance are invited to relate it to elements that may occur and recur in their own dreams. Conceived and directed by Guillaume Pigé, the work consists of mime, modern dance and music. There are no words. Pigé himself and Selma Roth, their heads covered in white cloth, perform on a semi-lit stage, bare except for a bed and an upright piano, both of which are moved around. We are drawn into a cocoon of darkness and solitude that can only be infiltrated by sound. Racing and swirling, gliding in slow motion, crashing suddenly to the ground, the performers pursue the unreachable and reach out for the untouchable. Pigé’s character, looking vaguely like a 19th Century Parisian artist, vents frustration that what he “sees” in his blindness is never actually there and what occurs in his imagination can never become real. Lacking a clearly discernible continuous narrative thread, the piece gains cohesion from Alex Judd’s pulsating original score. Judd himself is on stage throughout, playing keyboard and strings and occasionally becoming part of the performance. Sounds from everyday life are blended into the music to create, in turns, harsh, repetitive rhythms, confused cacophonies of noise and soft, soothing melodies. Blind Man’s Song is a challenging work that will be interpreted differently as individual viewers relate it to their own dreams and fantasies. Its universal appeal lies in the mysterious beauty of the imagery and the haunting quality of the music.

Performance date: 28 April 2016

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Boy*** (Almeida Theatre)

Posted: April 30, 2016 in Theatre

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It is often said that life is a conveyer belt that we crawl onto at one end and get thrown off at the other, but how would we get back on if we were to tumble off part way? Extending this analogy, the Almeida has been turned into something like an airport baggage reclaim hall (or a giant sushi bar?) with the belt on continuous revolve. Poor, bewildered 17-year-old Liam moves on and off as London life goes on unstoppably all around him, not quite sure what he is meant to be doing there. Writer Leo Butler tells us very little about Liam; he has dropped out from school, has a half sister, so presumably comes from a broken home, but knowing little about him could emphasise Butler’s key point – would anyone encountering him ever take time to ask? He is so insignificant that even the police cannot be bothered to prosecute him for a petty offence. His GP’s only interest is to fill out a check list and a Job Centre worker shows relief that he can put off dealing with him until he is 18. Frankie Fox is mightily impressive as Liam, prowling the streets in his hoody, remaining defiantly cocky in the face of adversity and taking every rejection on the chin. A lot of credit for the success of Sacha Wares’ production must go to him and to the stage managers who make sure that all the bus shelters, traffic cones, tube ticket gates, supermarket checkouts, etc are in the right place on the belt at the right time. Credit too to the Almeida itself for finding room for an imaginative work of contemporary relevance in the middle of a programme including Ibsen, Chekhov and Shakespeare, Ultimately, Butler’s single-minded focus on ordinary everyday life robs the play of some dramatic impact, but it only runs for under 80 minutes, as long as it often takes for bags to arrive at Heathrow, Boy is a far more rewarding experience than that and it will have done its job if, the next time we spot a Liam on the street (as Londoners inevitably will), we just take notice of his presence.

Performance date: 27 April 2016

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

The Garden State has little need to import weed killer. Tromaville, New Jersey (pop 15,000) is, we are told, the toxic chemical capital of the world and this spoof rock musical looks set to put it right on the map. The show’s origin pre-dates modern pollution concerns, going back to a 1954 B movie. This musical version, a collaboration between dramatist Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi’s David Bryan, first appeared in New Jersey in 2008, transferring to off-Broadway a year later. But is London ready for another musical about nuclear contamination so soon after Miss Atomic Bomb? The answer is emphatically “yes”, because this one hits its targets bang on. Poking fun at itself relentlessly and turning its low-budget shortcomings into assets, this is the near-perfect tongue-in-cheek fringe show and it should be going the rounds for years to come. Melvyn Ferd III (Mark Anderson) is a teenage nerd, besotted with librarian Sarah (Hannah Grover) who finds him ugly even though she is blind. “When your face is so decayed, it’s hard to get laid” he sings. Rejected by Sarah, Melvyn pursues his other goal – to take on Tromaville’s evil Mayor (Lizzii Hills) and rid the town of all its other contaminated substances. In response, the Mayor’s heavies dump him into a vat of green slime and he emerges as the mutant superhero of the show’s title. Sarah falls for his new muscular frame and, unaware of his real identity, she believes him to be French and gives him the name “Toxie”. Anderson and Grover are both splendid, but, it is often the supporting players that steal the show. Hills doubles up as Melvyn’s mother and is thrown the challenge of a duet between Mayor and Ma in which the two hurl insults at each other. Hills turns this number (subtly titled Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore) into an hilarious showstopper. Equally astonishing are Ashley Samuels (“Black Dude”) and Marc Pickering (“White Dude”), who seem to play at least half the population of Tromaville. The fun here is guessing who they could turn up as next and wondering how they can achieve the countless quick costume changes, Benji Sperring’s constantly inventive100mph production never flags and, if anything, it gains in strength as it progresses. A torrent of quick-fire gags and a steady flow of Bryan’s very Bon Jovi-ish rock anthems prove more than enough to detract from the absurdities of the plot. Musical Director Alex Beetschen’s five piece band makes a rousing sound and the designs of Mike Lees (set and costumes) and Nic Farman (lighting) complement the music and story with images of a contaminated, smoke-filled urban wasteland. The Toxic Avenger is woefully short on ideas for cleaning up the planet or reversing global warming. Simply, it offers two in-toxic-ating hours of superhero superfun and, as such, it is pretty hard to beat.

Performance date: 26 April 2016

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Show Boat**** (New London Theatre)

Posted: April 26, 2016 in Theatre

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This is my third cruise down the Mississippi on Jerome Kern’s Show Boat, but only my second time inside the New London Theatre, the first being around 35 years ago, early in the run of Cats. That show and War Horse have put the venue out of commission for other work for the best part of three decades, but the first thing that struck me on entering was how much the West End needs it. Relatively modern, comfortable, plenty of leg room, excellent sight lines and a large thrust stage that the audience embraces. More than a little like Chichester in fact, which is good news for Daniel Evans, new artistic director there, who can hope to transfer musicals with minimal modifications. Evans directed this revival of the 1927 perennial at his old home, the Crucible Sheffield, also similar, and he surrounds the stage with a jetty towards which the glittering boat (designer Lez Brotherston) sails. The production is awash with colour and wonderful music and, bucking the modern trend for actors “who can sell a song” but little more, the singing is just superb. Michael Xavier has left since Sheffield, but Chris Peluso is no mean replacement, joining a top notch company that includes Emanuel Kojo, Malcolm Sinclair, Lucy Briers, Rebecca Trehearn, Gina Beck, Alex Young and Danny Collins. The show is a patchwork of comedy drama and romance and the music is a patchwork of styles – Vaudeville (After the Ball) Franz Lehár light operas (Only Make Believe) and Southern Blues (Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man). It is fascinating to listen to these elements coming together in the process of evolution that led to what we now call “Broadway”. Of course, pride of place goes to Kojo’s stirring rendition of Ol’ Man River, but, although Evans has the ensemble “tote dat barge, lif’ dat bale” all around the jetty, he can only go as far in highlighting racism and social injustice as the show allows him, which is not very far at all by modern standards. The quality of Kern’s music and the lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II stand the test of time, but Hammerstein’s book irritates more with every viewing. Working with a central plot line similar the that of his Carousel, which came around two decades later, he does not overcome the problem set by his source material – Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel – and too much is crammed into a disappointing second half, with the result that what should have been  a moving climax fizzles away in a ripple of giggles. In the end, Show Boat comes to less than the sum of its magnificent parts, but it is a landmark of 20th Century theatre and every lover of musicals needs the chance to see it, if only once.

Performance date: 21 April 2016

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Looked at cynically, Annie Baker’s extraordinary Pulitzer Prize winning play could be taken as a demonstration of how to cram one hour’s worth of dialogue into three hours of stage time. If Samuel Beckett had set about writing Cinema Paradiso, the outcome could have been something like this glimpse into the lives of three lost souls doing menial jobs in an art house “movie theater” somewhere in Massachusetts. They sweep up popcorn between screenings, play games of movie star Six Degrees of Separation, flirt clumsily with each other and debate whether Pulp Fiction is a better film than Avatar (can there really be any doubt about that?!). Baker tells us a little about her characters’ worlds outside, but very little, leaving us with the impression that they are trapped here, statuesque amid rows of empty seats, just as Beckett characters could be trapped up to their necks in a pile of sand. Sam Gold’s production, as instructed by the play’s text, is filled with short and long pauses and, at several points, the stage is left empty in the middle of scenes while characters disappear upstairs to the projection room. The silences make the production feel more stylised than natural, but the effect is mesmerising and the characters become embedded in our heads as real. Jaygann Ayeh, a British actor, plays Avery, a 20-year old cinephile, suffering from depression. He is new to the job, taking tentative steps into work a year after a failed suicide attempt. His stooped demeanour, his look of bewilderment and the sad tone of his voice suggest that he has accepted defeat, but, in fact, he is only waiting for the spur that will ignite his life and unleash his potential. This is a truly wonderful, haunting performance. Matthew Maher (Sam) and Louisa Krause (Rose) have transferred with the play from New York and they inhabit their roles with perfect ease. Both characters are established in their jobs and induct Avery into the tricks of the trade, but both are drifting aimlessly, struggling to find some meaning to existence. The play is a minor celebration of the humdrum and also it is an elegy for the passing of an era, the replacement of celluloid film with digital being seen as a metaphor for the lowering of moral standards in friendship and in life. Avery clings to his high standards and Baker offers a glimmer of hope for him. Anyone going to this production can expect to see empty seats after the interval. They can also expect to laugh a lot, cry a little and, yes, to yawn, but for those with the wisdom to stick with it, the rewards are enormous.

Performance date: 20 April 2016

My Mother Said I Never Should-2This review was originally written for The reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

A century of enfranchisement and emancipation has altered the role of women in our society irreversibly. Charlotte Keatley’s family drama, written in the late 1980s, surveys nine decades and four generations of women to examine how the challenges of balancing work, marriage and motherhood have been affected by change. The production company Tiny Fires is giving the play its first London production for over 25 years. Doris, born in 1900 to an unmarried mother, is instilled with a sense of dutiful subservience and self-sacrifice. Her only daughter, Margaret inherits some of those values but is freer to build a career of her own, Margaret’s daughter, Jackie, takes liberation a stage further, but, after an unplanned pregnancy in 1969, she hands her baby daughter, Rosie, to her mother to bring up as her own. Set mainly in Manchester, the play begins with the four actors as schoolgirls tripping around a playground, innocently planning to kill their mothers. It is a trick start to a drama in which the bonds between mother and daughter provide a central theme. Keatley tells the first part of her story in non-linear form, giving a feeling of timelessness and agelessness that works perfectly in establishing her characters and the historical backdrop to their lives. The women often talk about their men, but none of them appears in the play. A bare bones outline of the plot suggests something similar to a soap opera, much of it predictable, but the risk of the drama becoming risibly sentimental is avoided deftly through well-crafted writing and even the most obvious contrivances are made believable by a quartet of superb performances,. Maureen Lipman can rarely have been more moving than she is here as Doris. At various points a playful schoolgirl, a young woman overjoyed at her engagement, an apron-clad wartime housewife and an octogenarian matriarch, she makes Doris more than just a victim of her times. This is a woman with the strength of character to fight for succeeding generations to do progressively better and to overcome resentment at the lack of opportunities for her to make more of her own life. There is an outer frostiness to the resolute Doris’s relationship with Caroline Faber’s stoical Margaret, but the actors bring out the inner warmth between them. A wartime childhood and post-War austerity have given Margaret a work ethic that spurs her to take on both a full-time job and motherhood, but, with career opportunities for women now opening up, she feels pressures on her marriage that would have been unthinkable to her mother’s generation. Katie Brayben, Olivier Award winner last year for her performance as Carole King in Beautiful…, is equally impressive as Jackie, moving from rebellious wild child of the Swinging Sixties to affluent yuppy of the Thatcher years. The pain of her separation from Serena Manteghi’s bubbly and optimistic Rosie is so real that it can almost be touched. Paul Robinson’s sensitive production loses momentum only occasionally but, at well over 150 minutes (with interval) it is perhaps a tad too long. Signe Beckmann’s set design has television sets from different eras banked up and showing news footage to establish the year of a scene. Otherwise, only improvised furniture and props are used and Johanna Town’s very effective lighting indicates changes of location and mood. Notwithstanding the epic sweep of its themes, it is often in the small details that the play excels. When Rosie gets more pleasure from conquering her great grandmother’s Solitaire board than from music coming through her immovable headphones, Keatley is showing us continuity across generations and signalling that, in a whirlwind of constant change, so much stays the same.

Performance date: 19 April 2016

Photo: Alex Harvey-Brown

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