Archive for June, 2016

it-is-easy-to-be-dead-mainThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Two years into centenary commemorations, are we yet entitled to be feeling Great War fatigue? Certainly, we must never be allowed to forget the suffering and sacrifices of our ancestors, but, after countless books, films, dramas, musicals and even a television sitcom, there are few new ways left to remind us. Therein lies the main problem with Neil McPherson’s play with music – it finds little that is new. The War left a legacy of great poetry. Charles “Charlie” Hamilton Sorley is lesser known than Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brooke, but McPherson makes his work the centrepiece of this play. He was born in Aberdeen in 1895 to an upper middle class family and the poems that we hear tell us of his pre-War Summer in Germany, going through to him becoming an officer in the British army and his horrific experiences on the battlefield, leading finally up to his death in action in October 1915. With wry observations running through his writing, Charlie looks at British and German society and life in the trenches from the perspective of an outsider. Alexander Knox plays him with spirit and recites the poems impeccably. Songs, mostly traditional, provide welcome interludes and they are sung beautifully by young tenor Hugh Benson, accompanied on piano by Elizabeth Rossiter. There are gems in the verse and the music, but the creaking structure that McPherson builds to house them dims their shine. The play begins with Charlie’s parents, William (Tom Marshall) and Janet (Jenny Lee) receiving the feared telegram and then we see them going through their son’s poetry and letters, agonising over whether or not they should allow them to be published. These linking scenes are very dreary indeed. The poetry, laden with sarcasm and ironic wit, shapes Knox’s characterisation. Charlie comes across as aloof and arrogant, lacking warmth, and empathising with him presents a problem. Nonetheless, Knox’s animated and energetic performance at least commands attention. Phil Lindley’s set of the interior of William and Janet’s home makes it difficult to escape the feeling that we are listening to a drawing room recital, but director Max Kay makes commendable efforts to inject drama into the production, particularly with simulated action sequences. The overriding tone is similar to that of a Requiem Mass, solemn and respectful, but dull. After the performance, the lingering question is how it could be possible to have been guided through such senseless carnage and still remain so little moved.

Performance date: 16 June 2016

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Wild***** (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: June 16, 2016 in Theatre

Wild-506x253Mike Bartlett’s new play runs for 95 minutes, about the same length as the average football match. The analogy is relevant because of the number of times that we are advised that, if we leave/switch off a match before the final whistle, we are sure to miss the vital goal(s). After three scenes and with little time left, the play seems to be going round in circles. We are looking at our watches and then, out of the blue [reveal at peril]. In the early exchanges, it feels as if Bartlett has been seeing too much David Mamet, filling the play with smart, snappy dialogue while draining it of heart, drama and purpose. However, it emerges that he is playing a game of four quarters.

The setting is a bland Moscow hotel room to which 28-year-old American Andrew (Jack Farthing), a skinny, bespectacled geek, has fled, having blown the whistle on US state secrets. He is met firstly by a woman (Caoilfhionn Dunne) and then a man (John Mackay) each calling themselves”George” and making contradictory claims to be offering help on behalf of their leader, who cannot be there in person because he is trapped in a London embassy (who could that possibly be?). Surely, we think, a writer of Bartlett’s class must have loftier aims than to simply recycle the Edward Snowden debate as fodder for the Guardian-reading chatterers of Hampstead. And he has. There are only passing references to the rights and wrongs of whistle blowing as the writer slowly delves into the psychology of isolation and asks profound questions about the structures and institutions of the world that we live in. Farthing’s dazed expression reminds of Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, stranded in a strange land, looked on with suspicion and passive hostility, unable to find a way to trust anyone. Dunne’s character is teasingly enigmatic, leaving Andrew and us confused as to whether the woman is helper, interrogator or agent provocateur.

Is anything what it seems or a convenient illusion? Is Andrew and are we looking at the world through clear crystal or staring into a hall of mirrors? For a while, it appears possible that the play could fizzle out in unsatisfactory fashion, but then comes the thunderbolt as Bartlett conspires with director James MacDonald and designer Miriam Buether to turn everything around. There are occasions when a coup de théâtre can fuse together spoken words and visual images so perfectly that an entire play is explained and defined in minutes or even seconds. Stephen Daldry’s legendary production of An Inspector Calls provides an example of this rare phenomenon and here is another. This team takes its time hitting the back of the net, but suddenly, it is 1999 and Man U v Bayern all over again. We leave the theatre enlightened, elated and completely stunned.

Performance date: 15 June 2016

Izabella Urbanowicz as Gertrude in Gertrude at Theatre N16 (c) Roy TanThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

“Frailty, thy name is woman” or, to be more specific, thy name is Gertrude. This tirade in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet was directed at the title character’s mother for having married his uncle within a month of his father’s death, but the Gertrude in Howard Barker’s take on the same story is anything but frail. Barker’s play received its World Premiere at Elsinore Castle in 2002 and it must have shaken the foundations of the ancient building. Grief and revenge were Shakespeare’s key themes, but here we have a dark and savage satire on power, sex and the power of sex. This Queen Gertrude is more raunchy than regal and an opening scene in which she and Claudius murder the King and then join him in bed for a bizarre threesome sets the tone for what is to follow. Barker’s stark dialogue leaves us hanging on every word in anticipation of the next shock and director Chris Hislop’s chillingly explicit production tunes in perfectly to the unsparing yet lyrical writing. The all white traverse stage resembles a catwalk, as modern dance music plays and montages of trendy images flash onto a video screen. The high and mighty of the rotten state of Denmark parade their wares up and down in black and white modern dress, a monochrome monarchy that turns Elsinore into a madhouse. Izabella Urbanowicz’s dirty Gertie is a tour de force. Blinded by urges to gratify her sexual desires and obsessed by her faultless legs, she manipulates the hapless Claudius (Alexander Hulme) and seduces Hamlet’s best friend, the lust-struck Duke of Mecklenburg (David Zachary). Sometimes dressed like a slutty schoolgirl, she could be her son’s little sister, but we are told that she is 34. This suggests that a teenage Hamlet could not possibly have known Yorick well, but, if Barker, aided by Hislop’s casting, often sets narrative logic aside, didn’t Shakespeare too? Jamie Hutchins’ clown-like Hamlet, well past his teens, moralises in confusion, repeatedly protesting “so many things I don’t understand”. He becomes King upon his father’s death (Barker exposing a flaw in Shakespeare’s plotting?), but show’s no grief, no indecision and no vengefulness. Oddly, he is the only character in the play to keep his sexual urges under wraps and, when he and the servant girl Ragusa (LJ Reeves) discover that they have no feelings for each other whatsoever, they decide to marry. This version dispenses with the Polonius family and introduces new characters. Cascan, played by Stephen Oswald as if an intruder from the Scottish play, is Gertrude’s faithful manservant who takes great pride in washing his mistress’s intimate areas. Liza Keast’s outwardly demure Isola is the Queen’s mother-in-law (“a whore in her own time”), who shows little concern for her sons’ fates, but envies and rejoices in Gertrude’s promiscuity. It is no secret that, in Hamlet, they all die and, again here, the bodies pile up (literally), but not necessarily the same ones. Barker seems to take great pleasure in turning Shakespeare’s version of events upside down, but he emulates him by making his own play too long (over two hours with no interval). Even so, this is a blistering, no-holds-barred reimagining of the familiar story that will not be forgotten quickly.

Performance date: 14 June 2016

Photo: Roy Tan

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kenny morgan

KENNY MORGAN

It has long been an open secret that events in Terence Rattigan’s private life bore a resemblance to the plot of what is arguably his greatest play, The Deep Blue Sea, and it is often suggested that the play’s central character, Hester Collyer, would have been male, had the playwright not been constricted by the moral rigours of his era. In this new play, Mike Poulter, tells us  that the man would have been Kenny Morgan, a struggling actor in his late 20s who had deserted Rattigan 10 months earlier to live with another struggling actor.19-year-old Alec Lennox.

In Britain of the late 1940s, a woman cast into the role of dutiful wife may well have faced similar predicaments to those of the covert homosexual lover of a famous man, explaining why the original play resonated so strongly with audiences of its day and since. Hester’s “sin” of adultery and Kenny’s forbidden love are not so different, both would have led to social ostracism, but.the latter could also have carried the penalty of imprisonment.

The structure of Poulter’s play is almost a carbon copy of Rattigan’s. It begins with Kenny being found in his gas-filled Camden Town flat, having botched a suicide attempt (itself a criminal offence at that time). As we later discover, the balance of Kenny’s mind is very disturbed. After escaping from being Rattigan’s little secret, tucked away in an attic flat of his luxury home, he finds himself totally besotted with Alec, a serially unfaithful, heavy drinking bisexual, who is absent for one night, auditioning for Birmingham Rep.

Poulter’s attention to period detail is fascinating, often brought out best in subsidiary characters – Marlene Sidaway’s nosy landlady, George Irving’s struck-off doctor and Matthew Bulgo’s kindly neighbour – but at the play’s heart is a superb gut-wrenching performance from Paul Keating as the mentally tortured Kenny. Simon Dutton often seems too much of a cold fish as Rattigan, writer of some of the most emotionally wrought dramas written in the English language, but he occasionally loosens the upper lip to show a man capable of love, even if the spectre of Oscar Wilde hovers over him as he dreads public humiliation and the wrath of his fearsome mother. Poulter writes Alec as remarkably self aware for one so young, making the character not entirely convincing and Pierro Niel-Mee’s performance also suggests a man older than 19. It is difficult to see why his actress girlfriend, Norma (Lowenna Melrose) can be bothered with him.

Almost equalling Keating as stars of Lucy Bailey’s intense and claustrophobic production are the set and costume designs by Robert Innes Hopkins; the seedy apartment is realised beautifully, blending perfectly into the Arcola itself, light filtering in through small windows and the Northern line rumbling below (if there is a West End transfer, it will have to be to the Garrick). Poulter’s play probably derives too much from Rattigan’s to ever be regarded as great, but it builds to an emotional crescendo in the second act that is enough to make it a considerable achievement in its own right. Now, it is on to the National Theatre’s revival of The Deep Blue Sea……..

Performance date: 11 June 2016

the deep blue seaTHE DEEP BLUE SEA

Hester Collyer, unable to come to terms with the people in her life or the society in which she lives, stands alongside the likes of Hedda Gabler and Blanche DuBois as one of the great tragic heroines of modern drama  This assertion is proved emphatically in Carrie Cracknell’s superbly acted revival of Terence Rattigan;s great play. A woman approaching middle age who has defied social convention to cut herself adrift from a secure marriage and live with a younger, rootless adventurer, she knows her position to be hopeless and chooses between struggling on or ending it all – the devil or….

Helen McCrory, too often cast as a pantomime villainess, is as good as I have ever seen her, giving Hester raw passion, spirited defiance and also, more unusually, a hint of optimism. Peter Sullivan as her tolerant husband and Tom Burke as her feckless lover match her and the smaller roles, written by Rattigan with meticulous attention to detail, are all played lovingly.

Designer Tom Scutt must have wished that he could have been able to create something similar to the set at the Arcola and place it in the Dorfman theatre, but it is not his fault that the pokey Ladbroke Grove flat in which the entire play takes place looks as if it stretches all the way across to Portobello Road. Actually, he does rather well with the acres of space available to him, showing the flat to be part of a bigger building, with tenants going about their business unaware of the possible tragedy unfolding. As always, the Lyttelton works against any play that needs intimacy, but, otherwise, Rattigan’s play and Cracknell’s production of it are both close to flawless.

Performance date: 27 June 2016

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

Who would ever want kids? As infants, they fill the house with noise and then they grow to become uncontrollable delinquents. Gareth Farr begins his play, first seen at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, with these propositions and then tells us how the couple around which it centres want nothing more in the world than to become parents. Jess (Michelle Bonnard) and Dylan (Oliver Lansley), both 34, have been together for five years and the biological clock is ticking, Conventional methods of conceiving have failed and, in increasing desperation, the couple resort to IVF treatment. We get a clear insight into the indignity, discomfort and embarrassment that they endure together and into the disruption to their regular lives. Dylan is seen underachieving in his job as his domestic problems take over his life to become his sole priority. Farr strives not to make any of this too heavy and styles sections of the play like a television sitcom, perhaps “My Family Yet to Be”. After his encounter with unruly kids in a local shop, an agitated Dylan dances around as if barefoot on hot coals, ignoring Jess who has donned an “expensive” nightgown because he must impregnate her at this precise moment. As often happens with sitcoms, everyone seems to be trying too hard to make things funny, but, by building on these foundations, Farr finds it easier to apply a light touch to later scenes that could have become harrowing. Two sketchily drawn secondary characters also seem as if they have come straight out of a sitcom. Kim (Allyson Ava-Brown) is an incontinent new mother who lives in the flat above with her squawking babe in arms and Tony (Tom Walker) is Dylan’s work colleague who seems incapable of acknowledging that a world exists outside the four walls of his office. The play is at its strongest when the comedy subsides. Jess holds conversations with her not yet conceived baby and it is as if she is grieving for the unborn. The resolve of Dylan and then Jess wavers, but the strength of their mutual support is gently moving, shown to particular effect when they waltz together while Tom Odell’s track Grow Old With Me plays in the background. Poignantly, we know that just growing old together is not enough for either of them. The changes of tone and style are handled well by director Tessa Walker in a production that is always sympathetic to Farr’s themes. The set design by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, a modern, purely functional flat furnished in white, cleverly suggests a dwelling that is waiting for the arrival that will clutter it and turn it into a home. There are a few occasions when the play misses the mark awkwardly and, even though the running time is only 100 minutes, Farr still diverts the story unnecessarily up some blind alleys. However, overall, sensitive writing and two compelling performances take us along with Jess and Dylan on their journey and make us root for them to succeed.

Performance date: 8 June 2016

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Yes, Macky’s back in town! Adapted from John Gay’s 18th Century work The Beggar’s Opera, this “musical” by dramatist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill premiered in pre-Nazi Germany and its view of London street life became a vehicle for rather crude messages relating to social injustices of the day. Taking it full circle, Simon Stephens’ new translation brings it home near to Limehouse, Shadwell, Wapping etc, before these areas gave way to unaffordable housing and all that goes with it. Assorted thieves, beggars, pimps and whores troop before us, accompanied by what sounds like a Salvation Army band, most prominent among them the serial womaniser Captain Macheath, aka “Mack the Knife” (Rory Kinnear giving a passable impersonation of Ross Kemp). The first half of this production has a start/stop feel, the company perhaps trying too hard to make unsubtle, dated material amusing and relevant and then having to pause out of sheer exhaustion. The second half flows much better and is never less than entertaining. Haydn Gwynn is gloriously wicked as Celia, married to Nick Holder’s odious Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum; Sharon Small is delightfully slutty as Glaswegian harlot Jenny and Debbie Kurrup’s Lucy pleads the strongest case possible for Macheath’s devotion. However, as Polly Peachum, the East End girl that Macky marries to seduce, Rosalie Craig resembles Mary Poppins flying in from deepest Surrey. Rufus Norris’ staging, although flagging occasionally, is mostly vibrant and Vicki Mortimer’s versatile sets make good use of the Olivier stage, with long stairways reaching upwards in key scenes. Brecht can often be a hard pill to swallow, but here the sugar-coating is thick. Unmemorable, but amusing.

Performance date: 7 June 2016

the_go_between__gallery_image“The past is a foreign country…” begins LP Hartley’s 1953 novel on which this new musical is based and, taking the leading role, Michael Crawford sets out to prove that he is far from ready to be exiled to that country. He is Leo Colston, played in Joseph Losey’s hauntingly beautiful 1971 film version by another Michael, Redgrave, but here the role is much expanded so that Colston is on stage almost throughout, mingling with the characters involved in the events that scarred him 50 years earlier, during three weeks of an idyllic Norfolk Summer when his 13th birthday fell. Fatherless young Leo is visiting the country estate that is home to the upper class family of his schoolfriend and he comes to act as messenger between the boy’s older sister, the beguiling Marian (Gemma Sutton) and her secret lover, the lowly tenant farmer Ted Burgess (Stuart Ward), with tragic consequences. The show is not quite sung through, but exquisite lyrics by Roger Taylor and David Wood blend seamlessly with the spoken words in Wood’s book to tell the story clearly and fluently. Taylor’s classical style score is melodic but understated and the only musical accompaniment comes from Nigel Lilley playing a grand piano on the side of the stage. Simplicity gives the show its power and Roger Haines’ richly imaginative direction incorporates choreographed movement that removes the need for detailed sets. Designer Michael Pavelka seems to have realised that the Apollo itself gives a perfect period feel and his elegant colourless costumes (except for young Leo’s Lincoln green suit) also add greatly to the creation of a ghostly feel of a bygone era. Temptations to commercialise the show with set-piece songs are stubbornly resisted; for example.a big romantic love duet between Marian and Ted seems inevitable, but it never comes. We are allowed to see only what the young Leo has seen, and Wood is always faithful to the essence of Hartley’s novel. Colston  is an unusually solemn role for Crawford, but he handles it well and his plea to his younger self to never grow up is simply heartbreaking. Sutton and Ward are also cast perfectly, Issy Van Randwyck is the house’s fierce matriarch and Stephen Carlile is icily aristocratic as Marian’s betrothed. Aimed at a niche market, this Sondheim-style chamber musical is a gem, not at all the type of show that we expect to see getting its premiere run in the West End. In New York, where little shows that are similar in tone such as Fun Home or Grey Gardens, become lauded, this might be a safe bet for several Tony nominations, but here West End producers seem to have become blinded by the notion that “British musical” can only mean throwing some trashy Europop songs into an ill-suited film plot. So, big congratulations to everyone behind The Go-Between for having the courage to bring to the stage a show that sets out to prove that this country can also make a contribution to the advancement of musical theatre as an art form.

Performance date: 4 June 2016