Archive for July, 2016

The Soul of Wittgenstein Press Photo 4This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

At first glance, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), an Austrian-born philosopher, would not seem to be an obvious subject for a comedy, albeit one tinged with tragedy. However, this remarkably accomplished new 70-minute play by established Australian playwright Ron Elisha dispels doubts very quickly.

Of Jewish descent and, for three of his childhood years, a classmate of Adolf Hitler, Wittgenstein taught at Cambridge University from 1927 onwards, but, during World War II, he worked as a porter at a London hospital. Elisha gives a fictional account of the academic’s relationship with John Smith, a young terminally ill patient in the hospital at the time of the Blitz.

The play is a variation on the familiar odd couple formula, spiced with enough wit and originality to make it fresh. Wittgenstein teaches the illiterate John to read, introducing him to Tolstoy and Dickens; John reciprocates with lessons in Cockney rhyming slang. Gifted and able-bodied, Wittgenstein suffers from fits of depression, while the stricken John is irrepressibly cheerful.

John condenses Wittgenstein’s 75-page thesis into just eight words as Elisha makes the point that the experiences of living are simple and do not need deep analysis. He shows us icy philosophical theory being moderated by real life and melted gown by human warmth.

Comedy and pathos are blended perfectly in Dave Spencer’s impeccably acted production. Richard Stemp’s Wittgenstein begins with the air of TV’s Frasier, an arrogant intellectual whose pomposity is set to be pinpricked regularly, but then the actor conveys the gradual softening of the character brought about by compassion and friendship. Ben Woodhall’s bedridden John is a joy, uneducated and cheeky, but uncannily perceptive. The pair bounce Elisha’s sharp lines off each other with precision timing.

It can be argued that the ending is slightly misjudged, but, otherwise, the play is consistently sure-footed when tackling tricky themes and this production merits a longer run than the four performances that it is getting here as part of the King’s Head Theatre’s Festival46 new writing season. Rarely can the dry subject of Philosophy have been made so funny and moving.

Performance date: 22 July 2016

Photo: Chris Tribble

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Turf*** (King’s Head Theatre)

Posted: July 25, 2016 in Theatre

Turf-e1469256029247This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Getting a foot on the London housing ladder can be tough, but Eddie scrimped and saved for 6 years and got himself a house and garden rolled into one. So why is he so unhappy?

Margaret Perry’s one-act supernatural comedy is getting its premiere as part of Festival46, the King’s Head Theatre’s new writing season. Eddie (Royce Cronin) surveys his new home with pride and, adding icing to the cake, he gets his girlfriend Anya (Laura Harling) to move in with him. All is bliss until flowers start appearing behind the wallpaper and nettles grow in the kettle. What Anya has not told Eddie is that she had lived in the same house previously with her late mother, a green-fingered micro biologist.

Appearing only to Anya, her mother, Fisher (Karen McCaffrey) explains herself: “I might be a ghost, but I’m still an atheist”, perhaps making her the actual mother-in-law from Hell. Thus Perry adds a neat twist to a common enough comedy threesome. The beleaguered Eddie rages in frustration and looks for an “investigative gardener”, while, unseen to him, mother and daughter enjoy cosy chats watching daytime television and the blithe spirit tends her plants nonchalantly or sunbathes on a lawn in the middle of the living room.

None of this is particularly logical, but Perry shows deft touches in combining surreal comedy with banal everyday situations and conversations. The characters of Eddie and Fisher contrast well, but Anya needs more colour and, having set up her play cleverly, Perry seems less confident in rounding off the storyline. Director Ellen Buckley keeps things bubbling along for a running time of just over an hour and judges the strain of gentle humour that runs throughout perfectly.

Performance date: 22 July 2016

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faith healerCascades of water encase the stage before the performance and during scene changes. Lindsey Turner’s vivid revival of Brian Friel’s 1979 play takes us to very damp places, across the length and breadth of the British Isles, all corners of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England.

The play is the story of three itinerants – the Faith Healer Frank, his lover Grace and their “roadie” resting actor Teddy. It is told from memory in subtle and detailed monologues by the three characters in which differences in versions of events are sometimes more meaningful than similarities. Throughout, Friel’s richly descriptive prose captivates and, when performed by three great actors, it often feels as if we are listening to epic poems on themes of love, yearning and belonging.

Stephen Dillane’s Frank is shabby, but charismatic and blessed with the gift of the Blarney. His career bolstered by reports of remarkable healing powers shown one evening in a tiny Welsh town, he knows himself to be fake, but finds consolation from casting small glimmers of hope onto despairing lives. He is rootless and he sees everything that happens to him as coming about by chance.

As Grace, Gina McKee is a woman who is nothing without the man to whom she is affixed, even though she acknowledges all his flaws. There is no Frank in her scene and her attempts to gloss over the absence and disguise the void are deeply touching. Ron Cook brings comedy to the wise-cracking Londoner Teddy, who can almost admit to being in love with both the other characters. He lightens the tone, but he also underpins the production with a haunting sense of pathos.

Sadly, Friel died in October 2015, but this superb production is a fitting tribute to him.

Performance date: 19 July 2016

stalking the bogeymanWhen the unmentionable problem starts being talked about, perhaps we have set out on the road towards resolving it. In the spirit of this year’s Oscar-winning film, Spotlight, David Holthouse, along with co-writer Markus Potter, here tells his own story of child abuse and its aftermath in a play that is brutally honest and, at times, little short of devastating.

Gerard McCarthy is outstanding as the adult David, a journalist  incapable of dealing with his past and resorting to drug abuse. His dealer, Molly (Amy von Nostrand) herself an abused child, is the only person to whom he can offload his troubles. When coincidence brings him back into proximity with his attacker, the “bogeyman” (Mike Evans), he becomes obsessed with vengeance and plotting a murder in which he could not be implicated.

Cutting back to the time of the assault in 1978, the writers show how macho culture influenced events, with 7-year-old David hero worshipping the all American sport hero, 10 years his senior who was to become the bogeyman. However, it feels as if enactment of the assault scene, with McCarthy playing an excitable then simpering David, is a misjudgement. Perhaps such horrors would have been best left for words to describe.

Unable to tell his parents (Geoffrey Towers and Glynis Barber) what had happened for fear that they would think badly of him, David carries the burden alone through adolescence and into adulthood, until the bogeyman reappears. Markus Potter’s simple production on a thrust stage has the feel of a suspense thriller that never loosens its grip.

Performance date: 16 July 2016

Shangri-La** (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: July 15, 2016 in Theatre

Shangri-La-e1468560401322This review was originally written for The Review Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

In James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, Shangri-La was a fictional valley described as “mystical” and “harmonious”. Amy Ng sets her debut full-length play in a real Shangri-La and then questions whether anything in the world can be considered authentic any more.

Set in 2014 and jumping back a dozen or so years, the play considers the impact of tourism upon a small part of China’s Yunnam Province in the foothills of the Himalayas. The area was re-named after Hilton’s location deliberately to encourage tourism, but now finds that intrusions are ruining traditional ways of life irreparably. Ng suggests that even taking a photograph can pollute a landscape and that an outsider witnessing an ancient rite can demean it for ever.

Ng makes her points through four characters. Bunny (Julia Sandiford) is a talented photographer, pressed into working as a tour guide by Nelson (Kevin Shen). His western education has taught him to spot a business opportunity and he establishes a company specialising in “sustainable travel”. Sylvia (Rosie Thomson), a wealthy New Yorker, represents the new invading force, itching to sip Chinese tea, experience tantric meditation and see the spectacular views. Karma (Andrew Koji) is a local entrepreneur who exploits tourists and produces a good drop of Cabernet Sauvignon on the side, but he soon swaps traditional dress for Italian suits and comes to resemble mafioso in the process.

The play’s chief problems are that none of these characters is fully fleshed out and little human drama arises from their interactions. The only humour to be found comes at the expense of a crass American tourist, which is a pretty easy target. The result is that the characters are little more than voices for the writer’s ideas and director Charlotte Westenra does not find a way to give the play much life.

The writer also alludes to political issues, frequently referring to the Chinese as an occupying power, but this only serves to muddy the waters of her main themes. She tilts the play towards the view that tradition and the natural environment should remain unspoilt and then she does an about-turn by pointing out that “unspoilt” can mean conditions of abject poverty in which children run around covered in excrement. At this point, perhaps she comes round to validating tourism on the grounds that it is a mechanism for spreading wealth more equally,

So, can a way be found for heritage and tourism to co-exist for the benefit of all? The play asks the question but does not offer any answers. As more and more of the world comes to resemble a gigantic theme park, the issues discussed here are of pressing concern not just to Shangri-La. However, Ng’s play is interesting more than it is involving and it gets its messages rather muddled.

Performance date: 14 July 2016

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The Stripper**+ (St James Studio)

Posted: July 13, 2016 in Theatre

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

“I’m interested in her deeply on a superficial level” a lascivious cop confides to the audience on first sight of Dolores, the voluptuous stripper of the title. The line places us instantly in the world of film noir and it is a pity that there are not many more like it in this musical from the songwriting team behind The Rocky Horror Show.

Having first appeared in Australia in 1985, the show pre-dates the similar City of Angels, but the venue here plays a big part in how this revival comes across. St James Studio is configured, as usual, like a night club, with a cocktail bar in the corner and tables placed around the stage. Alex Beetschen’s swinging jazz band adds further to the cabaret feel and, if we had been seeing a solo set featuring the magnificent soulful voice of Gloria Onitiri (Dolores), it would have been close to a five star show. She is completely at home here, but Carter Brown’s book from his pulp fiction novel belongs somewhere else.

Dead bodies, smoke-filled dives, villainous characters and femmes fatale are plentiful in a tale that lies somewhere between an authentic crime thriller and a pastiche of film noir. The location is Pine City, Southern California in 1962. The plot has something to do with a girl jumping or being pushed from a high rise and an ensuing police investigation led by Lieutenant Al Weaver (Sebastien Torkia) that involves the girl’s cousin Dolores, a strip joint, a florist, a seedy dating agency and so on. Unfortunately, the progression of the story is laboured and humourless and several of what decent quips there are fall on stony ground amid the tedium.

Unfathomable plotting goes with this territory, but, here, more confusion is added by too few actors playing too many roles. Hannah Grover, Marc Pickering and Michael Steedon all do tremendous work changing wigs and costumes at record speed and contributing great vocals, but it must be as head-dizzying for them as it is for the audience. Director Benji Sperring, who has an excellent track record with fringe musicals, brings sparkle to the musical routines, but the book is always working against his efforts when the singing stops.

Happily, Richard Hartley’s varied and tuneful score and Richard O’Brien’s sharp (and occasionally filthy) lyrics are excellent. Song styles include cool jazz, blues, rock’n’roll, Latin American and sha-la-la early 60s pop. Torkia, gyrating to Man of Steel, takes the suggestiveness of Elvis several stages further and later woos half the ladies in the audience individually as he croons There’s Many a True Word Said in Bed. Torkia’s strong central presence is key to holding everything together when it looks like falling apart and keeping it going when it threatens to grind to a halt.

Pulp fiction can be fun on the printed page, film noir is terrific on screen, but neither translates too well to the stage in the form seen here. If The Stripper never really gels fully as a musical, it offers the significant compensations of great songs and matching performances – the ingredients of top class cabaret in fact,

Performance date: 12 July 2016

Photo: Tristram Kenton

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ThreeJudysSome bio-dramas set out to explain an enigma, but writer/director Ray Rackham has the opposite problem. So much of Judy Garland’s life is an open book that Rackham needs to fight a constant battle against over-familiarity to tell her story again, but the methods that he uses are remarkably successful in producing a show that flags only occasionally and dazzles frequently.

At first glance, this “musical-play” looks as if it could be just an attempt to string together a dozen of the star’s best known songs. The songs are here, but, in the event, the show is much more than that. Rackham takes three snapshots of Garland’s life: the girl in her early teens (played by Lucy Penrose) in the late 1930s heading towards …Oz; the superstar in 1951 (Belinda Wollaston), headlining at the Palace Theatre, New York even though Hollywood has stopped calling; and the fading icon in 1963 (Helen Sheals), recording her own television series for CBS, desperately trying to pay off her mounting debts.

The last section is given prominence, but it tends to go in circles and, if trimming to the script is needed, it is here. Otherwise, the technique of jumping from one era to another and allowing scenes to overlap works beautifully in giving the production fluidity and vitality. The dialogue is witty and revealing and the musical numbers are placed so astutely that, even if the show is not technically a musical, it often feels as if it is. It looks like a lot of work has gone into patching all this together with such precision.

The three Judys are remarkably consistent with each other, painting a picture of an insecure girl/woman who is in constant need of flattery and reassurance and who becomes increasingly obdurate as she ages. This is not the clichéd figure of an egotistical superstar ogre; Rackham and the three actors make her human, vulnerable and even likeable. Her fearsome mother (Amanda Bailey) will stop at nothing to secure her showbiz success, setting her off on a road that requires pills to go to sleep, pills to wake up, pills to lose weight, etc. Ultimately, pills would prove to be her nemesis. Her third husband, Sid Luft (Harry Anton) becomes a steadying influence, but she grows tired of his constant warnings and resorts to still more pills.

Members of Jordan Li’ Smith’s small band take acting parts as well as accompanying the songs, which are nailed utterly and completely by the three ladies. Penrose and Wollaston duetting on Zing Went the Strings of My Heart and Sheals belting out The Man That Got Away are notable showstoppers, but it is unfair to single any out. There are solos, duets, and, for the climax (guess which song), all three perform together. Rackham’s experience as a musical theatre director comes strongly into play and, with the help of his choreographer, Chris Whitaker and superb lighting design (Jack Weir), he stages the numbers with panache on a thrust stage.

This could so easily have resembled a sad eulogy for a performer who left us too soon, but, instead, it is a celebration of the life of a star that shone brightly through clouds of adversity and we get the bonus of three sensational Judys for the price of one. They are the real pots of gold at the end of this glistening rainbow.

Performance date: 8 July 2016

Photo: Darren Bell