Archive for April, 2016

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It is almost exactly two years since I saw Lorraine Hansberry’s deeply moving A Raisin in the Sun in New York, but memory of her fine writing has not diminished. I also remember how the character Beneatha, (Hansberry herself?) longed to learn more of her African roots and this is the play that digs to find those roots. Unfinished at the time of Hansberry’s sadly early death in 1965, the play has been adapted by Robert Nemiroff. The setting is a mission in a British colony in Africa during the 1950s when freedom fighters (or terrorists) are struggling to secure independence. Charlie Morris  (Elliot Cowan) is an American journalist, reporting on the conflict and we see events through his eyes as the mission comes under increasing threat. Hansberry’s earlier play reflected the burgeoning American Civil Rights movement through an intimate family drama which gave it power and purpose, but here the political arguments are allowed to submerge the drama to the point that the play often feels like a history lesson. The quality of the writing draws the audience in, but any play that has political debates as its centrepieces is not one that I am likely to warm to easily. There are strong compensations, such as the dignified performance of the great Siân Phillips as the ageing, near-blind wife of the missionary, a kindly grand dame of colonialism. The chief protagonist in favour of independence, but not necessarily the violent means of obtaining it, is Tseshembe (Danny Sapani), returning from a settled life in London to attend his father’s funeral. This is an impassioned performance, but the fury with which he presses Tshembe’s case often feels out of sync with Hansberry’s calmly reasoned words. Most grating is the character of Major Rice, a martinet representing the British security forces, who is written so weakly that there is nothing that Clive Francis can do to prevent him from appearing like a sub-standard Bond villain. After her successes with searing productions of Mies Julie, touring on the fringe, and The Crucible at the Old Vic, it always seemed likely that director Yaël Farber would excel with the Olivier stage to work with and so it proves, her steady-paced, atmospheric production making full use of its expanse on which Soutra Gilmour’s realisation of the mission building revolves. The production has the grandeur that befits the play’s epic themes, but somehow the drama falls short.

Performance date: 14 April 2016

Wendy Hoose*** (Soho Theatre)

Posted: April 15, 2016 in Theatre

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

It would seem that the days of romantic dating are gone. No more candlelit dinners, not even a chat up over a Bacardi and Coke in a bar. Nowadays, just a few short messages on a phone app and it is straight down to business. The problem is that what you don’t see is often what you get. Johnny McKnight’s one-act comedy shows us a modern sexual encounter with a twist (no spoilers here). Jake arrives at Laura’s flat to find her waiting in bed dressed only in an alluring negligee and, after a brief pause to express horror that she keeps red wine in the fridge, he joins her. Both parties seek only physical pleasure, neither expects that they will be together long enough even to share a breakfast. Amy Conachan’s Laura is a confident modern woman, happy to play the game by the same rules as the men. James Young’s Jake is a boastful but slightly awkward Glaswegian who is thrown onto the defensive when events take an unexpected turn. The production is staged with surtitles, sign language and a sarcastic sound commentary. McKnight’s punchy little play has scant regard for any taboos that still linger. It is bawdy, uninhibited and very likely to displease a maiden aunt up from the shires. However, it has another dimension and it shows refreshing honesty when challenging audiences to question their own preconceptions and prejudices with regard to people who are different from the norm. The writer’s point is that, even though political correctness may be woven into everyday life, in the bedroom individuals are exposed and there is nowhere for them to hide their true feelings. The play is amusing throughout, but McKnight relies too heavily on the expectation that sexually explicit dialogue will shock audiences into laughing and irritating repetition of jokes makes it feel as if the play is going round in circles, too long even at just 65 minutes. Yet, in a different way, it also feels too short, like a single scene that needs to be expanded to a full length play in which the characters might become better fleshed out and their inner emotions might be more fully explored. In other words, Wendy Hoose could itself be likened to a one-night stand – fun while it lasts, but not completely satisfying.

Performance date: 14 April 2016

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The Brink background image 1600x915This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Nick is not sleeping well. Every night he is woken by the same nightmare that the school at which he teaches is blown to smithereens and he himself is splattered into a million little pieces. The dreams lead him to the brink of extreme anxiety and then the discovery that unexploded World War II bombs could be buried under the school threatens to push him over the edge. Brad Birch’s new 75-minute one-act play is an apocalyptic comedy building on the notion that, underneath the ordered normality of everyday existence, something could be waiting to explode. When Nick digs himself into a hole trying to discover what lies beneath, he goes on digging. We can readily identify with 28-year-old Nick as he faces up to the challenges of modern urban life: he is frustrated by his job; he is fending off pressure from his partner Chloe to move up the social ladder (“Buying houses…We’re not Tories Chloe”); signs are emerging of the onset of depression. It is this grounding in the real world that gives the play its bite when it moves into more fantastical territory. Heralded on by David Bowie’s Heroes, Ciarán Owens’ Nick is a put-upon comic everyman, skating over all life’s trials and ordeals with a shrug of the shoulder and a casual quip. He resembles the central character in a television sitcom, taking on the world with no real chance of winning. This brilliant central performance holds the entire production together. The level-headed women in Nick’s life are his foils – Chloe, Maths student Jessica (both Shvorne Marks) and fellow teacher Jo (Alice Haig). His nemeses are the pompous and possibly duplicitous headmaster Mr Boyd and Chloe’s sneering, sarcastic boss Martin (Vince Leigh doubling up). As Nick’s nightmare becomes more real, the comedy becomes more surreal, but the play remains every bit as funny. Mel Hillyard’s pacy and uncluttered in-the-round production catches the tone of Birch’s writing perfectly and snappy well-timed delivery of his sharp dialogue, particularly by Owens, brings an abundance of laughs, The Brink is a little gem, the lightness of the comedy on its surface contrasting beautifully with the darkness of its underlying themes. Ironically, the building that now houses the Orange Tree Theatre was once a school. Hopefully there are no hidden bombs, but this play itself makes a big enough bang anyway.

Performance date: 11 April 2016

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Let’s not beat about the bush. I really could not stand Patti Lupone’s performance as Norma Desmond in the original London production of Sunset Boulevard at the Adelphi Theatre in 1993. For reasons that it is difficult to explain, she seemed uncomfortable in the role and the songs seemed ill-suited to her voice (although, to be fair to her, she had the disadvantage of the two biggest having already been branded indelibly by La Streisand). Therefore, I looked enviously across the pond when Glenn Close, then at the peak of her film stardom, was cast for the Broadway production. Now, after a wait of more than 20 years, here is that lady herself, belting out “…I’ve been gone too long” to a packed opera house. Sunset is one of those shows that blurs the lines between musical theatre and opera; being almost entirely sung through, it is de facto an opera, but say that softly for fear of damaging its commercial appeal and say it loudly to give the composer an ego boost. Stephen Sondheim has received the accolade, so now it is the turn of Andrew Lloyd Webber. And why not? The show certainly has the melodrama of grand opera, although I’ll leave it to others to judge whether Lloyd Webber’s score matches up to Verdi or Puccini. The book by Christopher Hampton is an adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film and the lyricist is Don Black (doing quite well in St Martin’s Lane right now). Lonny Price’s production is “semi-staged”, which does the show no real harm – the staging of Craig Revel Horwood’s scaled-down non-starry revival at the (then) Comedy Theatre in 2008 could have been described as less than “semi” but I preferred it to Trevor Nunn’s overblown original. A full orchestra, conducted by Michael Reed is positioned centre stage, with the action taking place in front of and above them. The production, which has an ensemble of 14, is patchy and occasionally lacklustre, but the singing and the sound from the orchestra are superb. Fred Johanson, as Max the Butler and Siobhan Dillon as scriptwriter Betty stand out. In particular, Michael Xavier is superb in the show’s biggest (in terms of stage time) role, that of Joe Gillis, the down-and-out scriptwriter held captive in the mansion of faded silent movie star Norma. Gillis is the part that launched the career of Hugh Jackman and something similar for Xavier would not be undeserved. However, it is impossible to escape the fact that Sunset Boulevard is, above all else, a star vehicle and, when that star appears on stage, criticisms that the show is too gloomy melt away. We all know that Close is one of Hollywood’s greatest ever actors, but did we realise that she is such a great diva? Her descent of the staircase singing With One Look is one of those “am I really seeing and hearing this?” moments and none of the great ladies of opera can ever have filled this building with quite such a sound. Not only that, when the standing ovations come (there were three just for her at this performance), she does not shy away coyly, rather she stands front of stage, arms aloft and milks the applause and cheers for all they are worth. It is a joy and a privilege to behold! Norma Desmond had been a great star and she is played here by a great star, the only difference being that Glenn Close’s light is far from fading.

Performance date: 6 April 2016

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

When Danny meets Roberta late at night in a New York City bar, sparks begin to fly, lighting firstly flames of aggression and then, just possibly, of an unlikely romance. First staged in 1884, American playwright John Patrick Shanley’s 85-minute two-hander shows these strangers (Gareth O’Connor and Megan Lloyd-Jones) in three scenes – the bar, Roberta’s bedroom a little later and the same the following morning. 29-year-old Danny is a compulsive street fighter, resorting to violence as a release for his frustration at the pointlessness of his life in The Bronx, where he has become so cut off that he does not even realise the proximity of the ocean to his neighbourhood. Roberta is two years older, divorced with a teenage son and haunted by her past. She cannot move on until she is punished for what she believes to have been her sins and the harm that she has caused to her family. The early exchanges between these deeply damaged people, both in different ways alienated from society, are packed with fierce aggression, until each them realises that they are opening out to reveal more about themselves to the other than they have ever done to anyone else. In this opening scene, Shanley tears into themes of guilt, forgiveness and redemption with the fervour of a modern day Ibsen. However, even then, he signals that his play may change its course and become tinged with conventional romantic comedy. Sure enough, the tone of the second scene could not be more different. Sparring turns into flirting, the two scenes being bridged very effectively by a sequence of balletic movement (devised by Kete Lines) in which violence and passion alternate. The fact that the play’s credibility is able to survive its undulating moods represents a triumph for the actors, both of whom inhabit their roles magnificently. Courtney Larkin’s sharply focussed production is ideally suited to this studio space and lighting that picks out the actors while blurring most of what surrounds them adds to the claustrophobic feel. Shanley’s drama is engrossing throughout and it only disappoints when failing to deliver on everything that it promises. Looking back to the raw emotions of the bar scene from the perspective of what follows it, the play’s ultimate sweetness comes to seem very much like a cop out.

Performance date: 4 April 2016

Photo: Ben Bardsley-Ball

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

In 1820, the world was shrinking. The opening song of Phil Willmott’s charming new musical, based on a true story, tells us that the future Victorian Empire builders of the Regency period were imagining elephants and giraffes and expecting England to be “host to the exotic, Quixotic wonders ‘cross the seven seas”. What actually arrives does not quite live up to those expectations. As a scene-setter for a musical, Bring on the 1820s, with its witty and wise Coward-like lyric and stirring chorus harmonies, is about as good as it gets. Society of the day, seemingly made up of male upper class twits and twittering women, is, Willmott reminds us, that of a Jane Austen novel and its members treat a young woman washed up on a beach as an exotic creature from some unknown far off land. The young woman is given the name “Princess Caraboo”, assuming her to be royalty, but maybe she is not what she seems. Nikita Johal, petite, doe-eyed and with beaming smile, is the perfect “Princess”, adding dashes of mischief and cunning to her natural charm. Her suitor is Eddie (Christian James), a lad nicknamed “mouse” and labelled by the toffs as “the school runt”, who struggles earnestly to curtail the opportunistic instincts of his “Princess” as she sets out to exploit her good fortune. The show’s conceit is that the rotund, bearded and jocular Sir Charles Worrall (Phil Sealey) is delivering a lecture to the audience on the subject of deception, using the Caraboo story to illustrate his points, with the servants in his household playing all the parts. Strong support comes from Sarah Lawn as the maternal Lady Worrall and Oliver Stanley as Lord Marlborough, who vies with Eddie for Caraboo’s hand. Willmott’s skills for constructing a musical and using songs to tell a story are evident throughout. The show moves effortlessly between the frivolity of Gilbert and Sullivan comic operettas and romantic melodrama in the Phantom mould, with Willmott, and co-composer Mark Collins, providing a suitably varied and rich score. Musical director Freddie Tapner’s three-piece band (strings, woodwind and keyboards) does full justice to the music. With a company of ten, imaginative dance routines, choreographed by Thomas Michael Voss, push the limits of the tiny Finborough, but they give life to the show and add amusing comic touches. Toby Burbidge’s set, dominated by a large gilded mirror, overcomes space constraints by using just a mahogany desk, a Chippendale chair and miniatures of a Georgian house and a sailing ship to create a period feel. It is only in the final quarter, when the plot twists a couple of times too often and tunes become slightly repetitive, that the show perhaps needs a little more work. Its theme is fakery, but, in the world of fringe musicals, Princess Caraboo looks pretty close to being the real deal.

Performance date: 1 April 2016

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the truthWhat other title would you give to a play about deception? Michel (Alexander Hanson) is having an affair with Alice (Frances O’Connor), the wife of his best friend Paul (Robert Portal), while lying unashamedly to his own wife Laurence (Tanya Franks). This is the truth, we see it with our own eyes. But do Paul and Laurence actually know what is going on? If not, how might they react if they were to find out? Would they even care if, as seems likely, they are having an affair with each other? And, most importantly of all, is Michel really a better tennis player than Paul? This short and witty account of the agonies of the Parisian professional classes is, in some ways, reminiscent of Yasmina Reza’s Art – just perfect when accompanied by a good meal and a shared bottle of wine (taken in any order). The big surprise is the fact that the writer is Florian Zeller, the man behind the sombre and disturbing The Father and The Mother, both performed in London to great acclaim in the last year. Christopher Hampton seems to have aquired a job lot of Zeller’s plays, having translated all three. This bubbly piece, directed with the perfect lightness of touch by Lindsay Posner, plays in shortish scenes, each pairing two of the four characters. The only trick missed by Zeller is bringing the two women together, which is a pity as it could have been the play’s best scene. The non-starry cast spin their webs of lies convincingly, but they are professional actors so they would wouldn’t they? The central (and only) joke of characters telling preposterous stories when the audience knows or suspects that they are lying is just about strong enough to keep the the laughs coming for 85 minutes and the central proposition that it is lies that sustain relationships and the truth that destroys them is the most fun of all.

Performance date: 31 March 2016