Archive for November, 2016

The Mirror Never Lies* (Cockpit Theatre)

Posted: November 16, 2016 in Theatre

woman-at-dressing-tableThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Based on the novel The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym, first published in 1978, this new 90-minute chamber musical is set among people who “go to auctions and expensive lunches”, beautiful people for whom appearance is everything and ageing is a matter for self denial.

Leonora (Francesca Ellis) is a lost soul, leaving her best years behind her and, as it is the 1960s, unable to turn to Botox for help. She becomes besotted with young James (Ryan Frank) whose Uncle Humphrey (Jon Osbaldeston) is besotted with her. Unfortunately, James has a girlfriend nearer his own age, Phoebe (Jennifer Harraghy who sings beautifully) and, even more unfortunately, he also has an eye for his own gender. Such material could provide the foundations for a very camp musical, but one of this production’s problems is that it is nowhere near camp enough.

Ellis does well, given not too much to work with, and she grabs at her big moment singing the title song at the very end. However, Frank’s James looks as if he is convalescing from a recent charisma by-pass and the fact that he becomes such a magnet for other characters is the show’s big mystery. Crossing the Atlantic, James shares a cabin with Ned, a very butch American Professor of “British” Literature who seduces him with little effort. Spencer O’Brien gives Ned real swagger and attacks his two numbers with the sort of gusto that we expect to see in a musical.

Otherwise, Joe Giuffre’s production is stuttering and flat-footed, cast adrift on a bare stage that is much too big for it. Giuffre/s lyrics are often bland and predictable, while his book needs more wit. Juan Iglesias’ score shows a fondness for strong counter melodies, but there is little to evoke a period feel. The songs, performed with the accompaniment of a five-piece band led by Musical Director Joseph Finlay, sound as if they are less than half way towards where they need to be to lift the show.

The mirror never lies and neither should the reviewer, This production always feels like a workshop for a musical that is not yet ready to be seen by the paying public. Viewed as “in progress”, there are glimmers of hope that cracks in the show can be repaired, but it is going ro take a great deal more time and effort.

Performance date: 15 November 2016


I Call My Brothers**** (Gate Theatre)

Posted: November 15, 2016 in Theatre

i-call-my-brothersThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

A car bomb explodes in a city centre, chaos descends and fingers of suspicion start to be pointed. Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s 80-minute one-act play looks at the aftermath of such an outrage not from the perspective of the terrorists or the dead and injured, but from that of another sort of victim.

The place is Sweden, but it could be anywhere in Europe or North America. Amor (Richard Sumitro) is a student, dark-skinned and a not very devout Muslim. After a night out clubbing, he heads home to sleep it off and wakes the following morning to hear of what has happened. He calls his “brothers” (meaning those sharing his ethnicity) and is warned to keep a low profile. “Walk like a person who isn’t thinking about walking” he is advised. The play follows Amor through a day in which he encounters many challenges, always thinking that he is being watched.

Designer Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey configures the studio space cleverly, with the audience placed along what seems like a long passageway, its wall painted in sterile white. Thus we become embroiled in what Amor sees as a conspiracy of suspicion, the majority set against a small minority. The writer drip feeds information, generating suspense and sometimes making our suspicions feel well founded.

Amor roams the city and, against the advice of his “brothers”, he carries a back pack which contains nothing more threatening than a broken hand drill. He tells his story to the audience and talks with other characters on his mobile phone. Director Tinuke Craig uses the full width of the stage to keep characters apart and emphasise Amor’s sense of isolation. His best friend, Shavi (Jonas Khan) pesters him constantly with trivial news about his new-born daughter, a charity worker presses him to donate, his opinionated cousin and deluded grandmother (both Lanna Jeffrey) call to show their concern. Life goes on as normal when nothing is really normal at all and everyday irritants become greatly exaggerated.

Sumitro holds the stage throughout, treading the fine line between comedy and serious drama with natural skill. Amor is not the type who could hide in plain sight easily, his eccentric sense of humour marking him out. His childhood sweetheart (Nadia Albina) no longer reciprocates his feelings, but his behaviour towards her comes close to stalking and Sumitro plays on the suggestion that there could be something sinister about Amor very effectively.

The writer’s style is cryptic, yet still sharp and spiked with playful humour. When he charts a path along which isolation can turn into alienation, his play assumes its most urgent relevance. We know that terrorism is a modern nightmare that has many dimensions, but this thought-provoking production shines a different light on it.

Performance date: 14 November 2016


an-inspector-calls-at-the-playhouse-theatre-the-cast-of-an-inspector-calls-photo-by-mark-douet-e1478814875217This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

24 years after Stephen Daldry’s legendary production first opened at the National Theatre, An Inspector Calls calls on London’s West End yet again, having played somewhere across the globe for most of the interim period. This year also marks the 70th Anniversary of the first production in the UK of JB Priestley’s play..

The drama bridges two eras in 20th Century British social history, looking at stark divisions in the immediate post-Edwardian period from the perspective of a time when the Second World War had ended and fervour for Socialism was sweeping the country. The fact that its premier was in Moscow rather than London gives a pointer to the playwright’s well-known political leanings and he duly rams home unsubtle messages about social responsibility in a writing style that embraces implausible melodrama and heavy-handed preaching.

In a Northern industrial town, members of the Birling family, wealthy factory owners, sit down to dinner. Their head is pompous, blustering Arthur (Clive Francis}, married to snobbish Sybil (Barbara Marten}. They are the upholders of the old social order, but their daughter, Sheila (Carmela Corbett), while inheriting some of their selfishness, holds more enlightened views. The numbers are made up by Gerald (Matthew Douglas), Sheila’s seemingly upstanding fiancé, and Eric (Hamish Riddle), the youngest Birling, who is already a drunkard.

The family’s tranquility is disturbed when the assiduous Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) calls. He informs them of the suicide that day of a young town girl and proceeds to reveal how each of the five present played a part in her downfall, exposing their guilt and hypocrisy. Their pleas that their responsibilities rest only with self and family fall on deaf ears as the policeman lectures them on their social duty, at one point turning to the audience as if delivering a Sunday sermon.

By 1992, Priestley had already acquired the tag “old-fashioned” and a conventional production of this moribund piece may have done little to change that perception. However, the manner in which Daldry transformed it into what we see revived here is one of the wonders of modern theatre. He starts by turning the play inside out, absolutely literally. The audience is now placed as if on the street outside the Birling house, peering into the dining room, glowing and warm, as ordinary townsfolk go about their business below them on the cold outside.

Ian MacNeil’s set design is astonishing – a huge Gothic mansion placed against a grey cloudy sky, dominating the stage and opening out to reveal it’s opulent interior. It is the centrepiece of the production and the director uses it imaginatively. The opening scene is visible through a window and only semi-audible, turning the focus towards the silent people in the street; In accord with Priestley’s themes, Daldry is telling us that the Birlings’ conversation is inconsequential, it is the wider world that really matters. He also adds startling stage effects and touches of grand opera, Stephen Warbeck’s Wagner-Inspired music heightening the melodrama.

Plot twists in the final scene feel unnecessary and add nothing to what Priestley has already said, suggesting that, as a parable, the play could have been sharper if shorter than the 105 minutes (with no interval) that it runs here. In contrast to the Birling household, Daldry’s production, well acted in this revival, remains sturdy and dependable, but it masks the suspicion that Priestley’s play itself may now be well in need of a long rest,

Performance date: 10 November 2016

Photo: Mark Douet


Trumpageddon*** (King’s Head Theatre)

Posted: November 13, 2016 in Theatre

simon11This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Suddenly it doesn’t feel so funny any more. A party-like atmosphere on the night of the American Presidential Election was generated, most thought, to celebrate the swan song of Simon Jay’s one-man show, the title of which implies a comic collision of one man with his own destiny. Now, as the hangover sets in,we know that that man will become the 45th President of the United States and this word mash-up title can be viewed afresh with a sense of foreboding that it may relate to the real destiny of us all.

A Stars and Stripes banner hangs proudly; red, while and blue balloons are scattered around the floor; and David Bowie’s I’m Afraid of Americans plays loudly to herald Jay;s entrance. He could pass for Boris Johnson, but the combed back hair and the American accent make him recognisable instantly as Donald Trump on the campaign trail. If this is to be a children’s party, the clown has arrived. The bluster, the self-delusion, the wild contradictions and the wandering hands are all here in Jay’s characterisation.

Jay;s challenge is to make his Trump more comical than the real thing and, understandably, he sometimes struggles in that quest. The show’s format is question and answer with the audience, relying on Jay’s own quick-wittedness. There are some excellent scripted gags – telling us that he wants to make America great again, Trump’s assertion that “the Confederacy was a good idea” gives a clue as to when he thinks it was great before – but there is also obvious padding, of which getting an audience member to play the party game Find the Bunny is the most unforgivable example.

Mrs Trump aka “Malaria” makes a brief appearance, beginning her speech with “As a black American woman, I…”. With at least 50% of all Jay’s audiences likely to be women, Trump’s alleged misogyny provides him with a rich seam for jokes and he piles sexist insults on them and similar insults on the disabled, ethnic minorities and the LGBT community. However, common decency, good taste and maybe UK laws constrain him more than seems to be the case with the real Trump and there are times when, mischievously, we want him to really let rip, even if it is at the expense of a few walkouts.

The show is to have one last performance at the King’s Head on 14 November, the audience for which will have had time to ponder on what the future holds. Will the Great Wall of Mexico be visible from the Moon? Will Trump ditch “Malaria” and tie the knot with Putin? On the morning of 9 November 2016, Americans have told the star of their version of The Apprentice “You’re hired!” and anything seems possible, but, hoping that that the next four years will bring more comedy than tragedy, there should be every opportunity for Jay to reinvent his show and take it further

Performance date: 8 November 3016


King Lear*** (Old Vic)

Posted: November 13, 2016 in Theatre

king-lear“…and like a scurvy politician seem to see the things thou dost not…” (King Lear, Act 4 Scene 5). Perhaps the play itself is offering an explanation as to why someone might follow a 25-year political career by taking on one of Shakespeare’s most demanding roles at this venue so steeped in history. Glenda Jackson, among the greatest of a golden generation of British female actors, opted not to compete with Judi, Maggie, Vanessa and the rest for the old lady roles, choosing to play the theatre of Westminster instead, and now she makes her return to the real stage in the most dramatic way possible.

Simon Russell Beale had barely passed his 50th Birthday when he played the 80-year-old King at the National Theatre not long ago, continuing the belief that the role is too onerous for older actors, but here we have a Lear who is actually 80 and, even more remarkable, if Jackson fails to convince, it has little to do with gender and more to do with disbelief that she is really that age. Her suppleness and the clarity of her unmistakeable voice seem little diminished from when I saw her play Cleopatra for the RSC in 1979. Her affinity with Shakespeare and her stage presence remain truly formidable. Director Deborah Warner makes just one concession in not requiring her to carry on Cordelia (Mortydd Clark).

Warner’s production is, to say the least, eccentric. She sets it in what appears to be a rehearsal room with no throne, just a line of blue plastic chairs waiting for the actors to do their read-through. Her overall vision for the play never becomes clear and, without this, many of her bizarre touches feel like pointless gimmicks, She gives us an Edmond (Simon Manyonda) who skips like a schoolgirl while plotting against his half brother and she projects act and scene numbers onto the plain set. Why? In common with other Shakespeare tragedies, King Lear has many implausibilities, not least of them the playwright’s assumption that madness is something that can be switched on and off, but Warner’s approach accentuates those problems rather than counters them.

That said, the risks that Warner takes in casting pay off handsomely. Few would have raised an eyebrow if those fine comedy actors Celia Imrie and Jane Horrocks had been announced to appear as the Ugly Sisters in the Palladium’s Christman panto, but neither would be obvious choices for the sisters here. Of course, they were always going to be up to it, but Imrie’s Goneril, swanking in chic trouser suits, and Horrocks’ Regan, with peroxide hair and leather-clad like a vengeful Hell’s Angel, are a lot more than just that. At first, Harry Melling also seems an odd Edgar, writhing around like a demented, turbo-chaeged gremlin, but, when he switches off the madness and begins to reconcile with Gloucester (Karl Johnson), his blinded father, he gives the character dignity and becomes genuinely moving.

There will be sighs of relief at the Old Vic that this will not rank alongside disasters with Shakespeare in modern times. There is a lot here that is misguided, but nothing that is incompetent and it boasts a central performance that will become legendary. Not a great production of King Lear, but certainly an extraordinary one.

Performance date: 7 November 2016

an-intelligentI still remember Tony Kushner’s Angels in America plays as among the most powerful dramas that I have ever seen in a theatre and I am looking forward to discovering whether I will feel the same way when they are revived by the National Theatre next year. In the meantime, here is a later play (call it “iho” for short) from Kushner, getting its UK premier.

The play is a family saga, set in Brooklyn and bringing in themes of cross-generational guilt and American left wing politics. In the main thread, it feels as if Kushber is determined to deliver the play that Arthur Miller touched upon but never quite got round to completing. Suicidal patriarch, Gus (David Calder), a widower, had been a union leader representing longshoremen in the 1970s and his only daughter, “Empty* (Tamsin Greig) has inherited his socialist beliefs. Her partner, Maeve (Sirine Saba} is expecting a baby fathered by Gus’s younger son, V (Lex Shrapnel) while the older son, “Pill” (Richard Clothier) is in a love tangle, torn between his husband, Paul (Rhashan Stone) and an emotionally fragile rent boy, Eli (Luke Newberry).

The family gathers to dissuade Gus from selling his valuable brownstone house to Empty’s ex-husband, Adam (Daniel Flynn) at a time (2007) when markets are awash with borrowed money and also to prevent an expected second suicide attempt. Gus’s eccentric sister, Clio (a delightfully droll performance from Sara Kestelman) had been standing suicide guard, but has had enough and is about to leave. Sounds complicated? Well, yes, but Kushner takes his time (220 minutes including two intervals) to sort it out with skeletons dropping out of the cupboard, souls being bared and political ideologies colliding.

Michael Boyd’s production is acted superbly. Calder’s Brooklyn accent is all over the place but his performance is commanding in all other respects and Greig matches him in every stride. Tom Piper’s three-level revolving set is an imposing centrepiece but, above all, it is the truthful and lyrical writing that makes the play so enthralling from beginning to end.

Performance date: 4 November 2016

the-red-barn-500x281Not long ago. I criticised a fringe production for pretending to be something that it isn’t – a film instead of a stage play. Acquiring a slightly red face, I am now praising this production for committing exactly the same offence. However, it does it with a great deal more panache, perhaps inevitable given the National’s resources. David Hare’s new play is based upon the noirish novel La Main by Georges Simenon which is set during a freezing Winter in the North-East of the United States.

Two couples making their way back from a party are forced to abandon their car in a blizzard, but one of them, Ray (Nigel Whitmey), fails to make it all the way. Pressed by his manipulative and slightly threatening wife Ingrid (Hope Davis), Donald (Mark Strong) goes out to look for the missing man. Ray’s wife Mona (Elizabeth Debicki) seems strangely unconcerned. So what has happened to Ray and what secret is held by the red barn? No spoilers so no more said.

Hare’s play is a stylish psychological thriller and, as the only thrillers that seem to reach the stage these days have been dredged up from under the Ark, it is refreshingly different. Strong, almost unrecognisable with hair, has to play a man troubled by his lack of charisma, not easy for an actor as charismatic as this, while both Davis and Debickt are as icy as the weather outside. The acting is top class, but director Robert Icke and designer Bunny Christie are the real stars of the production.

Screens that cover the whole stage, opening and closing to reveal and conceal the action, give impressions of zooming in and out and of movement. Icke is able to frame scenes as Alfred Hitchcock may have done for the cinema and heighten suspense. He becomes one of the few directors in recent times to treat the awkward Lyttelton stage as an asset rather than a liability. Will this achievement be matched by Ivo van Hove, arriving here next? It makes for an interesting side contest between the two most recent Olivier award winning directors.

Performance date: 2 November 2016

pacifists-guide-1280x720-nottI feel that I know a lot about Bryony Kimmings. At the 2015 Edinburgh Festival, I loved her show Fake It ’til You Make It, which she performed with her own husband, skipping lightly through his battle with clinical depression. At that time she was in the later stages of pregnancy and this new show was already in preparation, but we now learn that her baby was to be diagnosed with a form of cancer and it is her own story that provides the lynchpin for the show.

Kimmings directs, provides song lyrics and co-writes the book with Brian Lobel. The music is composed by Tom Parkinson. The setting is the waiting room in a hospital oncology unit, made suitably austere in Lucy Osborne’s set. Inflatables, expanding to fill the space provide crude symbolism and an excellent company of a dozen performs the songs. Characters include a mother (representing Kimmings) frantically concerned for her infant, another mother awaiting test results to determine whether a genetic condition has been passed on to her child, a chain-smoking lung cancer sufferer, a young man afraid to reveal his illness to workmates and harassed by his fussing mother and an old lady being persuafef that the only dignified exit for her is to receive palliative care in a hospice. The snippets of drama all ring true and some carry considerable emotional clout.

The show’s claims to worthiness are off-putting and there are times when making unpalatable subjects entertaining feels too much of a strain, but, overall, it works surprisingly well.

Performance date: 28 October 2016

Deny, Deny, Deny** (Park Theatre)

Posted: November 4, 2016 in Theatre

deny_460x375This review was originally written for The Rviews Hub:

Jonathan Maitland is making quite a name for himself as a dramatist unafraid to take on tricky topical subjects. Following his play An Audience With Jimmy Saville, he turns his attentions to cheating in Athletics, asking whether it is worth crossing ethical lines in order to cross winning lines.

We are in the near future, with steroids having been consigned to history after Rio and “gene editing” now on the up. Eve (Juma Sharkah) is a promising young sprinter, ranked 58th in the World, who aims for gold, taking nothing stronger than drinks spiked with fenugreek. She decides to place herself under the wing of Rona (Zoë Waites), trainer of her rival Joyce (Shvorne Marks), and gets sucked into a world where staying within the laws of the sport means staying several steps ahead of the law makers. Eve learns the cheats’ code quickly and the first rule thereof is the one that gives the play its title.

Brendan O’Hea’s production has a documentary feel, complemented by Polly Sullivan’s set design of a rectangilar sports arena with the audience on all four sides. Lighting, designed by Tim Mitchell adds a harsh effect and transforms the arena into a running track. In this setting, O’Hea can do little to prevent much of Maitland’d writing, packed with factual detail and moral arguments, coming across like a Panorama investigation. Human drama is relegated to the sidelines.

Sharkah transforms well from a naive idealist to a cynical cheat, wrecking her unconvincing relationship with boyfriend Tom (Daniel Fraser) in the process. Rather awkwardly, Tom is a sports journalist (“an oxymoron” declares Rona). Maitland creates a venomous villain in the form of the unprincipled Rona and Waites gives her a sharp bite, but even she cannot inject the dramatic tension that many scenes need desperately. The closest we get to it is late in the play with a scene showing an Official Enquiry, but it comes at the expense of credibility.

Maitland’s drama is slow off the blocks and it rarely picks up momentum. At the finishing post. all the play has achieved is to have informed us that cheating is bad for athletes, bad for their sport and bad for the public, but don’t we know that already?

Performance date: 3 November 2016