Archive for March, 2017

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What is this? A drama? A documentary? A radio play? A film? A computer game? Not for the first time, the work of Simon McBurney (director and co-writer with James Yeatman) and Compolicite defies categorisation. Here, his multi-media techniques are applied to telling the story of Robert Evans, a New York Jewish kid who rose to become a Hollywood mogul and fell almost as quickly. Music, sound effects, virtual reality and film clips all come into play. Actors speak directly to the audience and stand in front of cameras at the side of the stage, projected onto a big screen where they merge with footage of their real life equivalents. Had it been a film, this is a production that would be lined up for multiple awards for editing and the dizzying whirlwind that McBurney generates gives constant reminders that great art often arises out of chaos and disharmony.

At first a model and then a not very talented film actor who stayed in a picture despite protests from Ernest Hemingway, Evans chanced his arm to become the young boss of Paramount Studios, filling their coffers with the massive hits Rosemary’s Baby and Love Story, before creating cinema history with The Godfather and, as producer, Chinatown. He rubbed shoulders with Hollywood greats and politicians such as Kennedy and Kissinger and married the biggest star of the age, Ali MacGraw, before losing her because of his greater love story – that with his work. There is lots of juicy showbiz tittle-tattle to digest. More importantly, we get cutting insights into the Hollywood mentality that intoxicates everyone that we see, as when Evans persuades Mia Farrow to sacrifice her marriage to Frank Sinatra rather then lose an Oscar winning opportunity.

Eight actors – Thomas Arnold, Heather Burns, Christian Camargo, Max Casella, Clint Dyer, Danny Huston, Ajay Naidu and Madeleine Potter – share and interchange all the roles, their performances supporting a continuing narration as in a documentary film. The actors are not asked to develop characters and the drama does not emerge from interchanges between them, rather from the stories that they are telling. At first, as the eight line up in front of microphones, we ask whether the play, if that is what it is, would work better in audio-only format, but then, one after one, stunning visuals begin to appear and what we experience belongs uniquely and unquestionably to theatre.

There are echoes of Citizen Kane in McBurney’s style as he orchestrates matter-of-fact storytelling so that it generates its own emotional power and, in common with that masterpiece of cinema, his production climaxes with a haunting, revelatory image. Evans sits front of stage, back to the audience, watching himself watching himself acting opposite Ava Gardner in The Sun Also Rises. His is a story of a man who may have flown too close to the Sun, but, although we are told that his life was touched by personal loss, drugs, scandal, failure and financial ruin, we see no catastrophic fall. Evans was eventually eclipsed by new generations in the fickle business of movie making, his star faded and he simply grew old. He is now 86, credited as a co-producer here and still very much in the picture.

Performance date: 14 March 2017

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

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There was once a joke that began: “An Englishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman and an Irishman entered a bar and…”. To continue would now be deemed politically incorrect, but, in this 80-minute show, partly a state of the nation(s) address, the National Theatre takes licence to exhume all the old perceptions and prejudices and make fun of them.

The Brexit vote on 23 June 2016 left the United Kingdom more divided and apprehensive than at any time in the modern era. The National Theatre conducted interviews with ordinary people of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities in the days after the vote and their testimonials, spoken verbatim by actors, form the core of the show, embellished with stirring patriotic verse by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and expanded with words spoken by politicians. Following its run in the Dorfman theatre, the production embarks on a 13-venue tour covering all four nations.

Britannia (Penny Layden) convenes a meeting of representatives from Scotland (Stuart McQuarrie), Wales (Christian Patterson), Northern Ireland (Cavan Clarke), the North-East (Laura Elphinstone), the East Midlands (Seema Bowri) and the South-West (Adam Ewan). They all air their grievances – significant and petty, sentimental and rational, parochial and national – leaving the overriding impression that they sought to lay the blame for everything wrong in their lives on the only target available for them to shoot at – the European Union. Layden represents the politicians, having particular fun with Boris and Nigel.

This is not a post mortem on the referendum outcome, but still it is odd that few of the testimonials represent the views of over 48% of the electorate. The positive case for remaining in the European Union is as absent here as it was during a referendum campaign swamped by negativity on both sides. New divisions came to light after June 2016 and the danger here is that director Rufus Norris and his company could be accused of mocking and deriding the populace and populists as part of a fightback by the metropolitan elite. The lighthearted nature of the performances probably allows the show to dodge that accusation, but only just.

As it should be, we laugh more with the people who were interviewed than at them, the politicians being the exceptions of course. In bursts of national and regional pride, the bearded Welshman impersonates Shirley Bassey, the South-Westerner demonstrates a Morris dance and the Irishman jumps into Riverdance, but the Scotsman shrinks in horror when reminded that his land was the birthplace of the new American President’s mother; cue a chorus of Donald, Where’s Your Troosers? It is all very funny, but trivial in relation to the shows’s underlying themes.

Yes, our country is, as it ever was, a work in progress, but this introspective which gives entertainment precedence over substance does little to point the way forward. The one clear message to be drawn is that, so long as we can still laugh at ourselves, all is not lost.

Performance date: 10 March 2017

Bunny (White Bear Theatre)

Posted: March 10, 2017 in Theatre

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

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Writer Jack Thorne is riding on the crest of a wave right now with Harry Potter… in the running for multiple awards and heading for Broadway, but it is a big leap from a West End extravaganza to a small pub theatre production of a gritty hour-long monologue such as Bunny, first seen in 2010. It is also a long way from Hogwarts to Luton, the setting for this play.

As with the later Let the Right One In, Thorne concerns himself with an adolescent straying into dark territory. Katie is in her last year at school, casually promiscuous, showing tendencies towards kleptomania and playful, but with a spiteful streak. Jumping randomly between inconsequential ramblings and pointed storytelling she describes her family, her boyfriend Abe who, to her parents’ consternation, is black and his two mates from the Vauxhall factory – mysterious Asif and stuttering Jake. She tells us that she prefers surprise to suspense, because “I feel suspense all the time”, a trait that perhaps typifies an age group dogged by insecurity.

Catherine Lamb’s Katie is hyperactive in body and mind, inquisitive but knowing too much at the same time as knowing too little. A petty tiff over a ruined ice cream becomes a matter of honour and revenge as she and the three men enter into a chase across a town that is multicultural but divided along ethnic lines. The location is as confused about its identity as is Katie about hers. Thorne’s colourful writing and Lamb’s lively delivery take us effortlessly with the quartet on its journey.

Lucy Curtis directs a taut production, hinting at hidden danger even when there is none there. Flickering lights and sudden noises keep us on edge and, until we actually arrive, it is never obvious where the journey will end. Dramatically, Thorne’s narrative is low-key and he delivers no hefty punches. Instead, he turns his play into a methodical, probing exploration of the uncertain and dangerous place that exists between childhood and adulthood.

Performance date: 9 March 2017

Photo: Dashti Jahfar

The Monkey (Theatre 503)

Posted: March 9, 2017 in Theatre

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If Quentin Tarantino had ever directed an episode of Only Fools and Horses, the result could have been something like John Stanley’s new 90-minute play The Monkey.  The production is mounted by Synergy Theatre Project as part of their Homecoming season, featuring plays by prisoners and ex-prisoners. If Stanley is drawing from personal experience in his account of drug-abusing petty criminals,  it is to be hoped that he has “exapperated” (malapropisms occur regularly) the psychopathic tendencies of his central character, Tel.

Morgan Watkins’ Tel is volatile and threatening, the character modelling himself on Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs. He is so offended by the gormless “Thick-Al” (George Whitehead), who owes him a monkey (a glossary of Cockney rhyming slang provided with the text comes in handy), that he interrupts his breakfast of a single Jaffa Cake and Coke (the drink) and offers him a makeover to give him the Vincent Van Gogh look. Following another bout of violence, he asks his dim-witted buddy Dal (Daniel Kendrick) whether he still has a chance with his on/off girlfriend Becks (Danielle Flett), having just tried to strangle her and he reflects fondly on the transformative moment in his life when, at the age of eight, he saw Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant. Tel is not a nice man, but liking him is the play’s guilty pleasure and Watkins is towering in the role.

Cleverly, Stanley taps into a vein of British humour that associates itself with “Sarf” London rogues and runs through the Ealing comedies, PorridgeOnly Fools…etc and his dialogue is as sharp as the knife that Tel wields with menace.  The play is about people who are trapped in a spiral of criminality, but Stanley finds no time to expand on their hopelessness or to introduce pathos and the play tails off disappointingly without the touch of irony that it needs. However, the laughs come thick and fast, director Russell Bolam keeping the production bubbling so that we hardly care that the characters and situations have little depth. Good black comedies have been a rarity of late. but, on the the evidence of this ferocious and ferociously funny play, Stanley has the flair to reinvigorate the genre.

Performance date: 8 March 2017

Photo: Simon Annand

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

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We think of EM Forster and we think of stories about the English upper classes at home and abroad in the early part of the 20th Century. Science fiction we regard as the territory of his contemporary, HG Wells, so it comes as a surprise to discover that Neil Duffield’s 85 minute play is an adaptation of a 12,300-word short story by Forster, The Machine Stops, originally published in 1909. Even more surprisingly, Duffield suggests to us that Forster could have inspired the invention of Skype.

Forster imagines a future in which Earth’s human population has been driven underground to live in isolation, discouraged from direct contact with others and from travelling. There is no need for people to go to see things when those things can come to them in their own subterranean cells. It is an Orwellian nightmare in which the Machine, a sort of forerunner to Big Brother, controls everyone’s lives. The story has two protagonists: Yoshti is a lecturer on “the Australian Period”, communicating remotely with the outside world and conforming strictly to the rules of the Machine; her rebellious son Kuno lives on the far side of the planet and is eager to break free from the Machine to explore life on the surface.

Using a prototype of video chatting, Kuno persuades Yoshti to board an air ship and visit him so that he can relay to her the joys of seeing the sun and making direct contact with real life. Essentially, the original novella centres on a conflict of ideologies and Duffield’s difficulty in translating this to the stage comes with generating dramatic tension. The adventurous youthful optimism of Rohan Nedd’s Kuno is endearing, but Ricky Butt’s Yoshti is an icy figure indeed, drained of all signs of maternal affection. This interpretation of the character takes literally the Machine’s rule that parental responsibilities end with giving birth and the absence until near the very end of an emotional connection between mother and son leaves a hole at the heart of this adaptation.

Fortunately, Juliet Foster’s vivid and imaginative production offers more than a little compensation for weaknesses in the drama. Rhys Jarman’s set design resembles a large climbing frame constructed around a small cell for a single occupant. Two performers (Maria Gray and Adam Slynn) clamber acrobatically around the frame and they, aided by Tom Smith’s superb lighting design and eerie music composed by John Foxx and Benge, create striking impressions of the Machine in motion.

The details of the future foreseen by Forster may not have been as specific as shown in this production, but still his prescience is astonishing. Effectively, he predicted an age when our lives would be run by a machine, encompassing instant messaging, telecommunications, virtual reality and commercial air travel, over a century ago and then he went on to ask what would happen if the machine was to malfunction and stop. Chillingly, that is something that remains to be figured out.

Performance date: 7 March 2017

Photo: Ben Bentley

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

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Flower power and hippies may have deserted San Francisco by 1976, but Marielle Heller’s play, adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 graphic novel, tells us that they left behind traditions of free love. Diary of a Teenage Girl is based around the daily tape-recorded ramblings of 15-year-old Minnie as she trips tentatively into the world of adults. dabbling in promiscuity and hallucinatory drugs.

Rona Morison’s Minnie is lively, naive, inquisitive and mischievous. She aspires to being older than her years, living with a divorced mother, Charlotte (Rebecca Trehearn), who tries desperately to be younger than hers. Charlotte’s current boyfriend, Monroe (Jamie Wilkes) is a weak-willed waster and her straight-laced distant step dad, Pascal (Mark Carrol) feigns concern while sleeping with her slutty best friend, Kimmie (Saskia Strallen). And so, Minnie seduces Monroe and things start to get hot.

As coming of age tales go, the play is not particularly remarkable. It is mildly amusing rather than hilarious and it relies very heavily on the likability that Morison gives to Minnie to carry it through some soggy patches. Most telling is the central character’s growing feeling of empowerment. “I’m better than you” she tells Monroe with conviction and her determination to exploit new opportunities opening up for women gives the play meaning and raises it above the level of broad comedy.

Heller sprinkles the “f” word liberally over her dialogue in a work that, by modern standards, tries too hard to be bold. This may be explained by reminders everywhere in this production, directed with pace by Alexander Parker and Amy Ewbank, that we are back in the less enlightened era of flared trousers, sideburns and glam rock. Andrew Riley’s set and costume designs are sharply evocative. An attic bedroom with patterned wallpaper and a huge skylight is Minnie’s base and projected graphics link to the play’s origins, as does Minnie’s likely future profession, a cartoonist. To top everything, David Bowie, T Rex and Neil Sedaka provide the soundtrack.

All this may have considerable nostalgic appeal for fifty somethings, but it will speak less loudly to a modern generation used to mobile phones, Facebook and internet dating. Therein lies the problem that this production fails to overcome. Although the play does not belong to the era in which it is set and some of its themes are timeless, modern relevance becomes obscured by period detail and candid treatment of sexual activities, which may have been daring in the 1970s, now seems merely quaint.

Morison is pure joy, heading a spirited cast, and there is evidence throughout that a great deal of loving care has been put in by all involved in the production. However, the question that lingers is whether this play, which is quite modern but feels badly dated, is really deserving of their efforts.

Performance date: 6 March 2017

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

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The absurdist works of Eugène Ionesco are so unconventional that they could feel out of place on a regular stage in front of an audience seated in rows. Perhaps with this in mind, Marianne Badrichani comes up with the not-so-absurd idea of performing them at an elegant dinner party with the audience becoming diners sitting around a long table, sipping glasses of French wine.

The Romanian-born French writer had his hey days in the middle of the 20th century, but his plays are seen less often today. Adapting extracts from the plays, along with Edith Vernes, Badrichani fuses Ionesco’s writing with a peculiarly English strain of upper class eccentricity and it proves to be a match made in Heaven. We are ushered in by a camp butler (Jorge Lagardia) and a saucy maid (Sharlit Deyzac), both looking as if straight out of a Feydeau farce and our hosts, the Smiths, take their places at opposite ends of the table. Mr Smith (Sean Rees) displays his “typically English” thin moustache, exudes smoke and reads the Daily Mail; his refined and graceful wife (Lucy Russell) argues with him from a considerable distance. The main guests, the Martins (David Mildon and Vernes) are late.

The evening plays like a mash-up of Ionesco’s greatest hits: the family whose members are all named Bobby Watson; the strangers who meet and discover that they are married to each other; the Spanish fire chief (Lagardia) who has a problem with the letter “f”. Each segment seems like a sketch in a revue and perhaps we have seen them all before and know the punchlines well, but this is definitely a case of familiarity breeding contentment. The six actors tune in perfectly to the ridiculousness of their characters and give us an absurdly enjoyable evening.

The surreal nature of the event is heightened in a sequence during which diners are blindfolded and Ionesco himself (Rees) appears in two brief sequences, answering questions (in French) about his works. However, this show is overwhelmingly about comedy and Badrichani’s concept spotlights how absurdism is prominent in British humour, seen in The Goon Show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and so on. The big surprise comes at the end when we remind ourselves that Ionesco was, in fact, French.

Performance date: 4 March 2017

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