Archive for October, 2016

travestiesThere are two Tom Stoppards. One works within a disciplined framework – examples being The Real ThingHapgood, and the screenplays – where his writing gives richness and depth to characters and stories. This is the other Stoppard – undisciplined, self-indulgent, intellectual and absurdist. The play dates back to 1974, not long after the success of Jumpers, written in similar style. It centres (roughly) around the recollections of Henry Carr (Tom Hollander), an official with the British Consulate in Zurich in 1917, a time when others finding a Swiss haven in the middle of war-torn Europe included James Joyce (Peter McDonald), Tristan Tzara (Freddie Fox) and Lenin (Forbes Masson), who was, of course, keeping an eye on revolting developments in his homeland.

Familiar Stoppard themes, including espionage, English eccentricity and Eastern European politics, go into the melting pot and director Patrick Marber makes the concoction sizzle, with flair and invention, adding the odd (very odd!} song and dance to the mix. Mockery of other writers abounds, with a performance of modified scenes from Wilde’s The Importance of Being Algernon {or is it the other one?) included. Hollander is magnificent and the entire ensemble (Clare Foster, Amy Morgan, Sarah Quist and Tim Wallers are the others) performs with gusto. They are entitled to congratulate themselves both for conquering the verbal gymnastics and remembering their complex lines. In all the play is witty but uneven, sometimes hilarious, sometimes too clever by half and it all starts to melt away from the memory within five minutes of leaving the theatre.

Performance date: 11 October 2016

straught-to-the-heartThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

There is more than enough good theatre around in London these days to satisfy enthusiasts every evening of the week, so what about popping along to Leicester Square for an additional lunchtime fix? Ken Jarorowski’s trilogy of short plays consisting of seven warm and wise monologues will make the excursion well worthwhile.

The three stories in Pulse are linked by themes of father/child relationships and connect to doctors. Charles (Alistair Brown) was stillborn, but saved by his father, who refused to accept a doctor’s hasty verdict. Now, as an adult, father and son avoid each other, Charles fearing coming out as gay to a manly Royal Marine who preaches in church at weekends. Ron (Daniel Simpson) fears for his young son, who is being bullied at school by the son of a doctor and he teaches him how to be a boxer with unforeseen consequences. Diane (Nadia Shash) has sacrificed her life to care for her father since her mother left the family when she was 11 and now she is told that his degenerating heart condition could mean that the end is near.

One to the Head One to the Heart is the darkest of the three plays. Aaron (Simpson) and Beth (Shash) are an American married couple who, having combatted infertility problems, now have a severely disabled daughter. They each tell their stories – he is a tough guy who has fought his way up to become a college professor; she is a former nurse who has never done anything bad in her life, but senses that this must change. This moving little play is marked by deeply satisfying touches of irony.

The Truth Tellers is lighter, introducing us to Annie (Shash) and Larry (Brown) both single and passing their prime. They go reluctantly to a club one evening and fall upon each other (literally) but they fill their conversation with dishonesties which threaten to undermine their developing mutual attraction. He is a bookkeeper who pretends to be a CEO, she is an office clerk pretending to be a hedge fund manager. Annie has been advised “every nice guy in the world is either gay, taken or weird” and now, as both tell lies to each other and the truth to the audience, she just hopes that Larry is weird.

Director Alex Dmitriev cuts back the staging in a bare studio space to absolute basics – up to three actors standing on stage, with spotlights picking them out when it is their turn to speak. The plays represent exemplary, concise short storytelling and they are performed to perfection. Running at around 65 minutes overall, the plays may not fit perfectly into a lunch hour, but they are well worth a late return to work. And perhaps it would be wise to add on another five minutes to dab away a tear or two.

Performance date: 11 October 2016

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Trident Moon*** (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: October 11, 2016 in Theatre

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

In 1947, a line was drawn on the map to separate predominantly Hindu India from predominantly Muslim Pakistan, as both countries gained independence from the British Empire. Canadian writer Anusree Roy’s new one-act play, getting its world premiere here, explores the plight of six women and three female children caught up in the chaos of the separation.

Alia (Sakuntala Ramanee) leads the mini exodus from Muslim territory in a coal truck. She is widowed and has abducted two Muslim women, with one child, in revenge for misdeeds. Another woman lies in the truck, felled by a bullet and tended by her “retarded” daughter. Two more women, one pregnant, and a girl get on board en-route. Roy paints a stark picture of the sub-continent’s matriarchal society – women hardened by adversity, determined and resourceful, while their men are absent, fighting, scavenging or dead.

In Anna Drifmier’s compact set design, the back of the truck fills the whole of the Finborough’s small traverse stage, making Anna Pool’s taut production as claustrophobic as it is ferocious. Roy structures the play as a series of dramatic set-pieces, often violent, even gruesome, and the cumulative effect of this relentlessly brutal onslaught becomes wearing. In a chilling moment, Alia encounters a 12-year-old mute, crippled girl and asks “have you been raped yet?” in a matter-of-fact tone that implies acceptance of the inevitable. Here, Roy demonstrates how, when cataloguing horrors, less can be more,

The play emulates the rickety truck, proceeding along a bumpy road, but having no certain sense of direction. A little over-plotting does not help it to achieve clarity, but impassioned performances from a strong ensemble drive it along with force. In describing the plight of women and children displaced from their homes by conflict, the writer must surely have had her mind on modern day suffering and, in that respect, the truck’s hazardous journey has still to end at its destination.

Performance date: 10 October 2016

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kissing-the-shotgunThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Christopher Brett Bailey is one of those theatre makers who does not make things easy for his audiences. His show This is How We Die, which toured the UK a couple of years back, pummelled us with weird ideas and anecdotes delivered at breakneck speed and ended with a loud performance by a rock band. Here, how we die again features highly, but the music takes on the prominent role in what could be described as a rock symphony in five movements, the fourth of which is spoken.

“This is a Hell dream” we hear repeatedly as the show begins in near darkness. If so, it is a dream to wake the neighbours.Think AC/DC or Metallica and then treble the volume. We are told that the decibel level reaches the equivalent of an aeroplane taking off and, mercifully, ear plus are provided if needed. Alicia Jane Turner and George Percy are the composer-musicians along with Brett Bailey.

With lighting designed by Lee Curran, the team creates the theatrical equivalent of an abstract painting. asking each individual audience member to make of it what they will, putting a shotgun to our heads and urging us to pull the trigger. The coordination of sound and lighting is highly complex and it has to be said, in fairness to all, that the performance being reviewed suffered from a major technical glitch, resulting in a lengthy unplanned interval. As the creators’ intent is to project a continuous flow of aural and visual images, building cumulatively, the break was unfortunate.

The spoken section begins in total darkness with the disembodied voice of Brett Bailey reciting a magnificently morbid poem that gives further context to the music. We are seated in crouch position on a plane seconds before it crashes, we lie helpless in a hospital bed connected to a network of tubes and we are tormented by a parasite growing inside us. “A suicide note is tattooed on your throat” the echoing voice warns. A Hell dream indeed and, after 70 minutes or so of being face-to-face with our own mortality, we wake to reflect on the horrors of the real world.

Performance date:7 October 2016

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good-canaryIt is not often that directors become box office draws. In films maybe Hitchcock or Spielberg, but in theatre? Well what about John Malkovich? His name certainly seems big enough to get theatregoers scurrying out to Kingston without the attraction of an established writer or big stars. And his direction is good, very good, but the icing on the cake is that the writing and the acting are superb too.

American writer Zach Helm’s play, centring on drug addiction in literary  circles, comes very soon after Duncan MacMillan’s People, Places and Things explored similar themes in the acting profession and there is hardly anything between the two works in terms of quality. Jack (Harry Lloyd) is a novelist who has just hit the big time, but he has a problem wife, Annie (Freya Mavor) who is hopelessly addicted to drugs and, at times, out of control. Jack’s publisher, Charlie (Steve John Shepherd) is eager to cash in on the success, but begs with Jack to keep Annie out of sight. Easier said than done.

Helm’s writing often has touches of David Mamet, sharp, snappy and incisive, but the big difference is that this is a play with real heart. Mavor is little short of sensational as Annie, catching the character’s mood swings with absolute assurance. She buys speed by the bucket load and works off her frenzies with frantic bouts of housework (can I borrow her please?), but she is on a spiral that is only going downwards. Ilan Goodman provides welcome light relief as her drug dealer, so unthreatening that he could be a pizza delivery boy. When Annie turns up at a cocktail party where guests include a vitriolic literary critic (Simon Wilson) pandemonium breaks out.

The cocktail party is one of three key scenes directed with precision by Malkovich, characters shuffling around in varying degrees of discomfort, This follows the housework scene when the projected backdrop takes on the life of a psychedelic cartoon. The third comes after Annie has returned from rehab; she and Jack embrace on the couch, staying silent as their dialogue appears behind them and a piano tinkles in the background. This emphasises that, apart from being a harsh tale of addiction, the play is also the most tender of love stories and Lloyd’s portrayal of Jack’s complete devotion becomes heartbreaking.

Helm is showing us that Annie’s addiction has become part of her destructive personality, part of who she is and that, when she and her drugs are seperated, she will not really exist. A bleak message perhaps, but this play is so compelling that it does not seem so. A deceit in the first act works well at the time, but seems to cheapen the play when thought about afterwards. Otherwise, this is quite an impressive achievement and one of the most enthralling productions seen so far this year.

Performance date: 6 October 2016

this-little-life-of-mine-park-theatre-l-r-kate-batter-izzy-_-james-robinson-jonesy-photo-by-charlie-round-turner-e1475715897910This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Who says that musicals need to have fantastical themes and exotic settings? Michael Yale seems to say not and goes out to prove it with a chamber musical about little lives in mundane places and, more specifically, about infertility.

Even the name Jonesy declares ordinariness, as the character of that name moves into a tiny new London flat somewhere in Zone 2 with his partner Izzy. He likes occasional drinks with his mates, her favourite film is Breakfast at Tiffany’s (“the one about the skinny prozzy with a wet pussy” Jonesy reminds her). They struggle to make ends meet, but have a fun lifestyle, even dabbling in swinging with a friendly couple. But then the urge to expand the family grows stronger and Jonesy’s sperm count lets them down. They try and they try but their failure to conceive drives a wedge between them.

Act I of the show jumps around far too much before settling on a steady course. James Robinson and Kate Batter are both charming in the central roles, but much of their spoken dialogue feels badly stilted, and only the injection of some sharp jokes makes it bearable. However, when it comes to providing the lyrics to fit with the moods and melodies of Charlie Round-Turner’s lovely music, Yale’s writing comes alive to make this a musical that really is all about the songs.

All the minor characters are played by just two actors, both making enormous contributions – Caroline Deverill’s guises include an office slut and Jonesy’s controlling mother; Greg Barnett moves from a singing barista to a gynaecologist among others. They are also the couple in the swinger scene, joining Robinson and Batter in some eye-poppingly raunchy choreography. Comedy numbers, such as this and the lively Just One More, when Jonesy stays on too late in the pub, lighten the mood, but most of the songs are haunting romantic or sorrowful solos and duets.

Robinson accompanies himself on guitar for the simple love ballad Bella Rose and Batter, whose voice has a beautiful clarity, sits alone at a bar table like a torch singer to perform Drinking Alone. Most memorably, as the couple’s relationship hits the rocks, Jonesy leaves the flat, but remains visible through a screen and he duets with Izzy, both singing “…sometimes I confess that I wish I loved you less…” each unheard by the other. This heartbreaking scene sums up in seconds the devastating effect when channels of communication between a devoted couple become lost and it typifies how song is used in the show to express human emotions in ways that spoken words fail to do.

In turns, rude, romantic and real, this is undoubtedly a show that needs more work, but it has loads of potential to grow. The publicity invites us to “be at the birth of a brand new British musical” and it is an invitation well worth accepting.

Performance date: 5 October 2016

Photo: Charlie Round-Turner

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boysbandThis review was originally written for The reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

When Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band opened in New York in 1968, it raised many eyebrows, but, today, the only thing shocking about it is the fact that anyone ever saw it as shocking.

The play centres on a raucous birthday party to which Michael (Ian Hallard) has invited five other gay men in honour of their friend Harold. First to arrive is the neurotic Donald (Daniel Boys), followed by the flamboyant Emory (James Holmes); “you can take her anywhere but out” we are told. Then comes Bernard (Greg Lockett), a black man dubbed “Queen of Spades” and, finally, the insecurely coupled Larry (Ben Mansfield) and Hank (Nathan Nolan). Emory’s $20 birthday gift for Harold is a dimwitted, muscular “cowboy” (Jack Derges)

Preparations are interrupted when Michael gets a phone call from Alan (John Hopkins), a supposedly straight friend from college days, who then turns up to the party uninvited, clashing head-on with other guests. This unconvincing character is written weakly, always feeling like no more than a very obvious device introduced by Crowley to serve as a catalyst for the drama, particularly in a soul-baring game that Michael gets the intoxicated partygoers to play.

We have to wait until seconds before the interval for the arrival of Harold, in the inimitable form of Mark Gatiss. Dressed in a pitch black suit with matching hair, Harold announces himself as “a 42-year-old, ugly, pock-marked Jewish fairy”, thereby illustrating Crowley’s reliance on self-deprecation as a source of humour, Withering put-downs also feature highly, with characters spitting out insults like poisoned darts, using many expressions that would fall foul of political correctness rules in these more enlightened times.The comedy bubbles enjoyably in Adam Penford’s nimble production for as long as it lasts, but then things turn serious.

Written at a time when homophobia and racism were embedded deeply in social attitudes and popular culture, the play starts to feel most dated when it becomes darker. Hallard’s tormented Michael now dominates impressively, but the problem is that concerns affecting the LGBT community now are different from those of 48 years ago. The issues discussed frankly here would have made this an important play when it was first staged, but now those issues seem to belong to the distant past and the play feels slight,

Michael’s swish apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is realised beautifully in Rebecca Brower’s set design, complete with posters of movie goddesses looking down from high on the assembled revellers. Dated though the play is, the set and a tip-top company give this revival a distinct touch of class.

Performance date: 4 October 3016

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