Archive for March, 2017

The Life (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: March 31, 2017 in Theatre

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It would be neat to summarise  Michael Blakemore’s revival of the musical that he directed on Broadway in 1997 with something like “life’s too short”, but, sadly, the biggest problem with this show is that, at around 3 hours, life’s too long by at least half an hour. Tony award nominated, the show has a score by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Ira Gasman and a book by them and David Newman, now revised by Blakemore.

“The life” means prostitution, the setting is the sleazy area around Times Square, New York in the early 1980s, before several mayors came along and sanitised it, paving the way for  the arrival of Disney shows. This is Damon Runyon territory, the underbelly of a great working city, except that none of the characters is loveable and the celebratory joy of Guys and Dolls is entirely absent. There are echoes too of Coleman’s earlier musical about hookers, Sweet Charity, but romantic comedy is ditched in favour of gritty realism. Creating a musical that is as consistently downbeat as this presents many challenges and there is much to commend in Coleman’s bluesy score, but it lacks variety and it desperately needs at least one stand-out number like Big Spender to elevate the show to a higher level. The hookers’ ball that opens the second act promises to be the big set piece to match Rhythm of Life, but it fizzles out limply.

There are two key storylines – Queen (T’shan Williams) and her pimp/boyfriend, drug-abusing ex-serviceman Fleetwood (David Albury) plan an escape back to a life of normality; seemingly innocent Mary (Joanna Woodward) arrives from out of town to make a new life and faces competing bids for her services. At their best, Gasman’s lyrics have sufficient power to wound, but they repeat the same themes over and over, without always connecting to the central narrative strands. The trials and tribulations of characters living “the life” are described vividly, but do we need to be reminded of them 15 times?

When she was Ma Rainey at the National Theatre last year, there were complaints that we did not hear enough of the wondrous vocal tones of Sharon D Clarke MBE. Happily, we get a lot more in her role as the ageing hooker Sonya; her song complaining about being “too old for the oldest profession” is a definite highlight. Clarke is a star already, but Williams matches her stride-for-stride, note-for-note, particularly in two stunning duets, and this evidence suggests that she is also destined to make it big. Cornell S John has a menacing presence as the ruthless pimp Memphis, Albury gives a gutsy performance as Fleetwood and Woodward makes the transition from naive to naughty convincingly.

Tom Jackson Greaves’ lively and colourful choreography has the chorus bumping and grinding to great effect, but it is between the dance routines that the energy of Blakemore’s production often flags and its focus wanders away from the core stories. Some trimming, particularly in the first half could have helped the director to deliver a tighter and more consistently paced show. As it is, there are many memorable moments, but the overall feeling is one of slight disappointment.

Performance date: 30 March 2017

Filthy Business (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: March 29, 2017 in Theatre

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Rightly or wrongly, I would turn my nose up at the idea of reading a “family saga” by the likes of Jeffery Archer, but the theatre version thereof is more or less what is being served up here, complete with ragged plotting, exagerrated characters, wild coincidences and countless implusibilities. However, the great pleasure of Ryan Craig’s Filthy Business comes not from its broad structure, but from the richly textured detail supplied by the writer, director Edward Hall and a fine company of actors.

The filthy business in question is an East London shop selling rubber goods and the story spans more than 20 years from 1968. The founder had been Yetta Solomon (Sara Kestelman), a Jewish refugee from war-torn Europe; now widowed, she presides with equal ferocity over the premises and her feuding family. Her favoured son Leo (Dorian Lough) wants away from Yetta’s grip and her resentful son Nat (Lois Hilyer) wants to take control of the business. Leo’s son Mickey (Callum Woodhouse) has an artistic streak and dreams of becoming a hair stylist before settling on designing rubber cushions and bean bags; Nat’s son Gerard (Jack Bannon) feels as neglected as his father whose side he takes in the rivalries; and, below stairs, like adopted family, Monty (Edmund Derrington) and Rosa (Babirye Bukilwa) display a work ethic that now seems of a long bygone age.

It is Yetta’s determination to go to any lengths to hold everything together at all costs that gives the play its drama and its plentiful comedy. Kestelman’s commanding performance is one to keep a note of for when the time for considering awards nominations comes round again. In attempting to represent all the social changes of the period which he covers, Craig takes on too much and there are times when the play creaks under the weight. but Hall’s superbly judged production brings everything together. The changeable set designed by Ashley Martin-Davis is also outstanding, showing the shop in varying stages and resolving to become Leo’s living room.

If the play leaves behind a single memory, it is how the stage quakes every time that the formidable matriarch Yetta appears on it. This is a character and a performance that will not be forgotten in a hurry.

Performance date: 28 March 2017

Chinglish (Park Theatre)

Posted: March 28, 2017 in Theatre

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

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Another play about China, another word mash title. Lucy Kirkwood’s 2013 hit, Chimerica, examined American perceptions of recent Chinese history and now David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, first seen in New York, jumps forward to the present day and dips into the mucky waters of East-West trade amid the new world order. Both reach the conclusion that a lot gets lost in translation.

Daniel (Gyuri Sarossy), an American businessman whose cv is blemished by a past connection with Enron, tells an audience, as if giving a call to arms, that China is the biggest pool of untapped consumers in history. Daniel, in turn, is advised by Peter (Duncan Harte), an Englishman and long-time resident of China, that the key to doing business in that country is guanxi (gwan-she), meaning close relationships. Peter has good guanxi with government minister Cai (Lobo Chan), having secured a place for his son at a top British university, so Daniel hires him as his consultant to help him unravel the mysteries of Chinese language and culture and to get him his own guanxi which, in the context of this play, becomes a euphemism for corruption.

Cai is sympathetic to Daniel’s company, Ohio Signage, supplying signs for a new arts complex, but his deputy is frosty and it becomes clear that Cai may be vulnerable to backstabbing and bloodletting. As deputy minister XI Yan, Candy Ma cuts a figure of smouldering duplicity, like a double agent in a Bond film who will inevitably be bedded by the hero. From here, it is not too difficult to guess the form of the guanxi that will develop between her and Daniel.

Hwang’s play seems unable to make up its mind whether it is a satirical comedy or a drama of intrigue, with the result that it disappoints on both levels. The comedy relies too heavily on the single running gag of mistranslations and the drama is too simplistic to have much credence. Andrew Keates’ patchy staging is sometimes leaden, needing more fire at key moments, and the director makes few concessions to this theatre’s configuration, which has the audience on three sides. Seats along either wing do not represent the best value on this occasion. Still worse, a fundamental flaw in the production design means that a surtitles screen, upon which most of the mistranslation jokes rely, is not easily visible from all seats.

Plenty of interesting points crop up in Chinglish, but they are presented clumsily and, overall, the play is unconvincing. If all Chinese are really as ruthless and corrupt as seen here and all American business people are really as naive as Daniel, perhaps Hwang is making the best case yet in support of Donald Trump’s protectionist agenda.

Performance date: 37 March 2017

Photo: Richard Davenport

The Frogs (Jermyn Street Theatre)

Posted: March 26, 2017 in Theatre

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Let’s face it, even Shakespeare had a few bad days at the office, so it should come as no surprise that, among the masterpieces of Stephen Sondheim, there lie some green slimy things. Maybe it is a little uncharitable to remind the God of musical theatre of this during the week of his 87th Birthday.

The big surprise is that The Frogs premiered after Sondheim’s sophisticated hit A Little Night Music; a surprise because it has all the feel of a year-end revue by a bunch of Classics undergrads. This could be down to the fact that, in its early form, with a book by Burt Shevelove, the show did the rounds of universities, opening at Yale gymnasium in 1974, with Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver in the chorus. The version seen here has a new book by Nathan Lane, who starred in the first Broadway production in 2004. This is the UK premiere.

Freely adapted from a BC405 Greek comedy by Aristophanes, the story tells how the ranidaphobic God of Drama, Dionysos (Michael Matus) and his chirpy wee Scottish slave, Xanthias (George Rae) set off for Hades on a mission to retrieve George Bernard Shaw, eventually opting for William Shakespeare in preference. The journey is plodding, interrupted when Dionysos is kidnapped by frogs, and the second act, set in Hades, is much like Hell for the audience. Yes, it is all highly camp and hopping crazy and an infusion of topical gags raises more cringes than laughs.

With limited resources, director Grace Wessels does her best to give the show the kiss of life and she gets some lively performances, particularly from Rae, but turning amphibians into princes proves beyond their cumulative efforts. Gregor Donnelly’s set looks like a communal sauna and the cramped space feels like one, a company of nine plus four musicians filling the Jermyn Street stage to overflowing.

On the plus side, no show with songs by Sondheim can be completely worthless. The sparkling lyrics are unmistakably his, but the music has little distinction and the main interest comes from picking up chords that would recur in later shows (there’s a lot of Sweeney here).  It is all as if Sondheim in the early 1970s was out to demonstrate the ridiculous theory that anything could be turned into a musical. It was to take him a few more years to prove that theory true.

Performance date: 25 March 2017

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The name Terence Rattigan and the description “old-fashioned” now go hand-in-hand but countless revivals of the writer’s plays over the last decade or so have proved conclusively that it is worth clearing that particular hurdle to delve deeper into his work. One such revival was Flare Path, directed by Trevor Nunn, who now turns to this play, also written and set during World War II. The return to the London stage of the luminous Eve Best puts the icing on Nunn’s cake

Towards the end of the War, Michael (Edward Bluemel), a month short of his 18th Birthday, arrives home from four years in Canada to find his widowed, lower middle class mother Olivia (Best) shacked up with prominent industrialist and wartime cabinet minister, upper middle class  Sir John Fletcher (Anthony Head), who is separated from his flighty wife (Helen George). Michael, his head filled with progressive left wing ideas, identifies himself with Hamlet and proceeds to drive a wedge between his mother and her beau. Issues surrounding marital breakdown and distressed children are probably more common now than when the play first appeared, but it is the class structure about which Rattigan writes with perception that makes the play feel old-fashioned, while at the same time generating its prime areas of interest,

In Rattigan’s world, wealth and power are distributed unfairly and unevenly. The dice falls differently today, but, otherwise, has so much changed? The differences which we see most starkly are in the roles of men and women, the latter appearing (in ascending class order) as a chambermaid, a toiling housewife and a party hostess. Nunn’s production is acutely aware of gender and class issues, highlighting them with sets and costumes, particularly in a final act which contrasts sharply with what has preceded it. Best’s beautifully nuanced performance shows us all the shackles that hold Olivia down and it feels as if her deliberate vagueness is just part of what is expected of her while playing the role in which life has cast her. This is a comedy, staged to boost morale during the War, and Olivia does not assume the tragic dimensions of Joan in After the Dance or Hester in The Deep Blue Sea, but she fascinates and illustrates yet again Rattigan’s gift for writing oppressed female characters with subtlety and insight.

Bluemel’s Michael, wearing his Oedipus complex like a badge, is thoroughly obnoxious and fully deserves the spanking with which Sir John threatens him and which would have been permissible in those days. Even so, the warmth in the Hamlet/Gertrude relationship comes across strongly. Through Michael, Rattigan foresees Britain’s post-War lurch towards Socialism and to some extent he welcomes it, but he also sees clearly that individual ambition inevitably bursts the bubble of Socialist idealism and predicts that changes will be short-lived. The writer’s prescience gives out a message that may not go down too well with modern day Corbynites. So, yes it is all very old-fashioned, but still relevant and this delicious revival is never less than hugely entertaining.

Performance date: 24 March 2017

Limehouse (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: March 20, 2017 in Theatre

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Perhaps no one ever learns the lessons of history, but Steve Waters’ new play reminds us that history is currently repeating itself, with the politics of the left in the United Kingdom being in a remarkably similar position now to that of 1981 when the so-called Gang of Four broke away from the Labour Party to form the new Social Democratic Party. Labour, having lost the 1979 General Election, had been taken over by left-wing factions and the four centre-lefties plotted a way forward – Dr David Owen had been the youngest Foreign Secretary in history, but was now consigned to the opposition benches along with former minister Bill Rodgers. Another once rising star, Shirley Williams had lost her seat in 1979 and elder statesman Roy Jenkins, who had lost the 1976 Labour leadership election to Jim Callaghan, was returning home after completing a term as President of the European Commission. On 25 January 1981, they became a prototype for the now much reviled metropolitan elite

Waters’ approach is to emulate the style of the favourite playwright of the time when his play is set – Alan Ayckbourn. American-born Debbie Owen (Nathalie Armin) busies herself in her 80s chic kitchen, preparing Sunday brunch from a Delia Smith recipe for her hot-headed Welsh husband David (Tom Goodman-Hill) and their three guests – jocular “neighbour” Bill (Paul Chahidi), matronly “cousin” Shirley (Debra Gillett) and wise “Uncle Woy” (Roger Allam). The three all get lost trying to find the Owen home in Limehouse, a soon-to-be-gentrified area of Docklands, but they arrive one-by-one and the Chateau Lafite Socialists argue, bluster, dither, get a little tipsy and eventually reach a decision that they convince themselves is momentous.

All of these characters have many equivalents in Ayckbourn and “Absurd Person Quadrupular” suggests itself as an alternative title for the play. Being the Donmar, the production values are top class, Polly Findlay directing the comedy with the gentlest of touches. Alex Eales’ kitchen set is a delight and the costumes were designed for him over 36 years ago. The acting is exemplary, with Allam, not over-doing the speech impediment, stealing everything in sight..

In a “what if” epilogue, Armin drops the American accent and laments the twists of fate that led to the SDP being absorbed by the Liberals and fading into near-obscurity. It was to take the Labour Party a further 16 years to again become a party of Government and 18 years more for it to make the same mistakes all over again. As an account of serious historical events, Waters’ play is lightweight, but it is highly enjoyable, its point being to show us that the people who make history are as flawed, fallible and comical as the rest of us. To that end, it succeeds admirably.

Performance date: 17 March 2017

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How can you possibly translate a sprawling four-volume novel into a five-and-a-half hour (in two parts) stage play? The answer of course is that you can’t, but April De Angelis’ adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s massive work, My Brilliant Friend, does a superb job of conveying its essence, while suggesting to us that, if we want to fill in the detail, we should go away and read/re-read the original or wait for a television mini-series.

Telling an intimate story against the epic backdrop of turbulent times, Ferrante emulates a potent formula that has succeeded from, for example, War and Peace to Doctor Zhivago. Here, two childhood friends, Lila (Catherine McCormack) and Lenù (Niamh Cusack) forge a path for themselves that takes them from the slums of Naples in the 1950s through more than half a century of personal traumas, social upheaval, natural disaster and, most significantly, rising feminism. With the Mafia never far away, their friendship survives them both being in love with the same man, the fickle Nino (Toby Wharton), and they find success in very different careers, Lila in business and Lenù as a novelist. If Ferrante takes licence to paint a distorted picture of a world of strong women and worthless men, she earns it.

McCormack and Cusack are both staggeringly good, showing anguish and joy, hope and despair, and the adjective in the play’s title can certainly be applied to them. The differences between the two women are made crystal clear, yet, with great subtlety, they show how they change with time and how their bond in so strong that characteristics of one transfer to the other.  The two actors form part of a company of only twelve, the others sharing numerous lesser roles which are cast often without regard to age or appearance. Inevitably, this creates confusion, but it also has the effect of sharpening the focus on the two central characters. No one would want the actors to assume faked Italian accents, but director Melly Still’s decision to allow them to speak with a variety of strong UK regional and Irish accents seems odd and this proves to be an irritating distraction.

Behind the large thrust stage, Soutra Gilmour’s design, steeply ascending staircases, vaguely resembles the fire escapes of a Neapolitan tenement block, but, elsewhere, there is very little Italian flavour, particularly when we hear a wide selection of British and American pop hits, all of which evoke a sense of time but not of place. Still uses the space with real panache, her production including many imaginative theatrical flourishes and rarely flagging throughout its marathon.

Looking back on the central narrative, one regret is that Lila’s achievements in business do not come across strongly, leaving the impression that the character is more fragile and the friendship less well balanced than is perhaps intended. Otherwise, it is unavoidable that lesser characters and storylines are under-developed and loose ends are left untied, but the key thrust of Ferrante’s writing emerges with clarity in a production that is often thrilling, always engrossing and never dull.

Performance date: 16 March 2016