Archive for April, 2017

While We’re Here (Bush Theatre)

Posted: April 29, 2017 in Theatre

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

We hear a lot about the problems of the young, a fair bit about those of the elderly, but what about the middle-aged? Barney Norris’s 70-minute play, the inaugural production in the Bush Theatre’s brand new studio space, brings together two lonely people who are old enough to have regrets and young enough to start again, if only they could find a way to break free from the past.

Carol (Tessa Peake-Jones) is a divorced empty nester, still living at her childhood house near Portsmouth, inherited from her parents. Her dull, featureless living room, as seen in James Perkins’ set design, mirrors her life, which revolves around going to work for the local Council, watching television and sleeping. She has taken the safe course, but Eddie (Andrew French) has driven along the rocky road. Raised in foster care and beset by mental health issues, he has drifted from job to job and become rootless.

The pair, lovers 20 years earlier, meet by accident at a bus stop and Carol invites Eddie to stay with her temporarily. Norris and the two actors capture precisely the initial awkwardness of renewing friendships after a long gap; Carol talks incessantly about her office, Eddie babbles on nervously about the otters of Ireland, the Arctic and the Amazon, both flash too many forced smiles at each other and their attempts at jokes show senses of humour that are now completely out of sync. Never mind, when the going gets tough, Carol can always break the tension by brewing a nice cup of tea.

Lines are drawn, as Carol makes it clear that the friendship can never be more than platonic, yet Peake-Jones suggests with great subtlety that this is not how she really wants it. Dictated to by routine and habit, she simply knows no other way, just as she knows no way to break free from any of the shackles that she has placed around herself. Eddie remains somewhat enigmatic, unable to stay grounded and wondering whether it is worth bothering to plan a future. He has exuberant bursts of optimism, but French never lets us forget that a deeply troubled man lies behind them.

Alice Hamilton’s unshowy production is steadily paced, allowing the quality of the writing to shine. Norris, a young writer, captures the essence of mundane lives and of characters much older than himself with great perception. His gentle and melancholic play is low-key, but it tells us to make the most of life while we’re here, a message that all ages can relate to.

Performance date: 28 April 2017

Photo: Mark Douet

Obsession (Barbican Theatre)

Posted: April 28, 2017 in Theatre

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James M Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice has been adapted into two Hollywood films noir of the same name, but it is the 1943 Italian version, Ossessione, the first feature directed by Luchino Visconti that provides the inspiration for Ivo van Hove in this production, an import from Toneelgroep Amsterdam.

van Hove has made his name in London by reimagining plays by the likes of Miller and Ibsen, but here he cuts himself adrift from classic texts and turns to reinventing the work of a fellow director in another medium. When Robert Icke directed the noir thriller The Red Barn in the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, similar in size and shape to the Barbican, he made his production feel cinematic by closing down spaces, but van Hove and his set designer, Jan Versweyveld, go in the opposite direction, acknowledging that this is about turning cinema into theatre. They open out the entire wide space and litter it with a few curious objects – a tin bath, a car engine and a piano accordion that plays itself – but some cinematic features remain – moving images projected onto large screen surrounding the stage and a prominent musical soundtrack that ranges from Giuseppe Verdi to Woody Guthrie. As always with van Hove, there is something to engage the eye and the ear even when the drama itself is flagging.

There is also a plot, which, at times, feels almost incidental. Hanna (Halina Reijn) is trapped in a loveless marriage to an older man, Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) when a rootless drifter, Gino (Jude Law) walks into the cafe/petrol station that they run jointly. There follows adultery, murder and guilt. A gay drifter, Johnny (Robert de Hoog) and a dancer, Anita (Aysha Kala) try to lure Gino away once he has himself started to feel trapped, while a priest and a police inspector (both Chukwudi Iwuji) press for the truth to emerge. Law shows the inner weakness of the outwardly macho Gino and Reijn smoulders as the repressed Hanna, but, between them, they struggle to generate passion on this vast empty stage.

Obsession is a classic crime passionnel drama, but, in terms of meeting the expectations of theatre, the dialogue is little better than perfunctory and the production misses the claustrophobic feeling needed to support a story in which characters feel boxed in. On this occasion, perhaps van Hove’s obsession with creating innovative theatre drowns out key elements needed to bring out the essence of Visconti’s original work convincingly.

Performance date: 27 April 2017

Guards at the Taj (Bush Theatre)

Posted: April 27, 2017 in Theatre

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“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. They produced Michaelangelo, da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock” (The Third Man). In India they produced the Taj Mahal.

American writer Rajiv Joseph’s 80 minute one-act play, first seen Off-Broadway in 2015, is a fresh examination of the links between beauty and beastliness. Humayun and Babur are young friends, charged with standing guard at dawn in front of the near-complete Taj, not allowed to speak nor to look at the glorious monument behind them. They do both. Humayun (Danny Ashok) is a conformist who knows the rules imposed by a totalitarian Emperor and abides by them. He berates the errant Babur (Darren Kupan), a sensitive idealist who dreams of freedom and a life filled with beauty.

The Taj, a breathtaking structure of white marble inlaid with priceless gems, was built as a memorial to the Emperor’s lost love, but a price for its creation was paid in human blood. When the two guards are forced to execute their ruler’s callous and barbaric edicts, their friendship becomes strained and Babur comes to believe that he has “killed beauty”. Joseph realises that events as harrowing as those described can best be dramatised in the form of pitch black comedy and much of the joy of his play comes from his skill in blending tragedy and comedy together. Guards at the Taj is funny, shocking and heartbreaking all at the same time.

It is reasonable to assume that Jamie Lloyd’s production here is very different from that seen in New York. The two guards can be readily identified as modern British Asian men from their speech and their characters and, perhaps surprisingly, Joseph’s dialogue fits this interpretation perfectly. Ashok and Kupan create a chemistry that, in other circumstances, could make them rivals for any double act on the comedy circuit, their laddish banter, dashed with absurdism and surreal dreams. Their characters hope that their efforts at the Taj will be rewarded by an assignment to guard at the Emperor’s harem, where perhaps they will be allowed to look; they dream of a simple life in the forest where they can enjoy all the beauties of nature and leave all the horrors and injustices that they have become involved in behind.

Soutra Gilmour’s barren set design, with a raised battlement for guard duty and ditches filled with water, appears through a dusty mist in Richard Howell’s atmospheric lighting. The setting befits the play’s grizzly narrative, while allowing its irreverent humour to shine. This production marks a triumphant return for the newly refurbished Bush Theatre.

Performance date: 26 April 2017

Consent (National Theatre, Dorfman)

Posted: April 26, 2017 in Theatre

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There seems to be some doubt as to the correct collective noun for lawyers – a disputation? an eloquence? a greed? a huddle? a quarrel? – but Nina Raine’s new play features one of whichever, demonstrating to us all that the law is an ass and making asses of themselves in the process.

Couples Kitty (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Ed (Ben Chaplin), Rachel (Priyanga Burford) and Jake (Adam James) both have marital difficulties. All four are barristers. They congregate, smoke weed, down vodka and examine their own and each other’s cases, probing into current and “historic” misdemeanours, interrogating and cross-examining. Added to the mix is another friend, prosecuting counsel Tim (Pip Carter), a bachelor who has the good sense to cast his eyes towards a different (if only slightly) profession in the shape of Zara (Daisy Haggard), an actor. This is the metropolitan elite of Lewisham, Enfield and Camden in full flow and there is a great deal of humour to be drawn from lawyers unable to distinguish between their own emotional lives and legal processes. Raine finds the comedy in cutting exchanges, but, when it comes to the serious stuff – a rape trial in which the victim is Gayle (Heather Craney) – her play hits rocky ground, starting to feel too contrived and uncertain.

Roger Michell’s production, performed in the round, is classy if a little over-animated. The stage resembles a boxing ring, with a few items of furniture appearing from below, actors confronting each other usually standing in gladiatorial fashion. In contrast, an array of lamps in all shapes and colours and a chandelier hover overhead, making the Dorfman resemble the lighting department of John Lewis. Mirroring these contrasts, the production moves between light comedy and emotionally-wrought drama rather awkwardly and the play’s essential point – that the law and human entanglements are ill-suited to each other – often gets lost. Overall, Consent feels like a series of sparring matches. Punches are landed, but they are soft jabs and the knockout blow that is expected and needed never comes.

Performance date: 25 April 2017

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The first sight of a high pile of rubbish at the centre of a round thrust stage brings memories flooding back from over 30 years ago and the first London production of Cats. Here we have another brand new musical, but no felines and the only junk to be seen is in the show’s set.

The show has  a book and lyrics by Jack Thorne, who demonstrates yet again that he writes for and about youngsters better than anyone else around at the moment. The music is composed by Stephen Warbeck, better known for film scores, and his style? Well, think Suggs and Madness, although it is hard to think of anything else after an early song titled Our Home. It is a show in which familiarity breeds affection, the arc of the story being predictable from scene one, but it is the exuberant telling of it, the filling in of the detail and the fleshing out of the characters that bring joy.

In 1979, a group of special needs kids at a Bristol school get roped in reluctantly by Rick (Callum Callaghan),  a teaching assistant who is seeking his true vocation, to occupy their Winter of discontent by turning a junkyard at their school into a playground. Without calling for help from Nick Knowles, they take to the task and the experience transforms their lives. However corny this outline sounds, Junkyard is underpinned by real anger at young lives potentially going to waste. Thorne and Warbeck, both with Bristol connections, make a passionate plea for a revival of community spirit to unlock hidden talents and let new generations thrive.

The group’s leader is Fiz, played by Erin Doherty with an air of insolent nonchalance that is reminiscent of Catherine Tate’s Lauren character. She could easily have followed her older sister, “dirty” Debbie (Scarlett Brookes), into single motherhood, but she seizes her chance to break out. Nervous and uncertain Talc (a very touching performance by  Enyi Okoronkwo), gains confidence and purpose and street thug Ginger (Josef  Davies) find an entirely unexpected calling. It has to be said that the best that some of the actors playing “kids” can claim is that they were teenagers once, but, having said it, we can move on swiftly because all the performances are beautifully judged.

Directing for his Headlong company, Jeremy Herrin gives the production pace and youthful energy, but it is rather a pity that the cast’s excellent dancing skills are seen only fleetingly. As mentioned before, Chiara Stephenson’s set is rubbish, but its transformations are imaginative and clever lighting, designed by Jack Knowles, adds to its grimy splendour. Over 150 minutes (with interval), the story is stretched a little thin and loses its way slightly in the second half, but Thorne rescues it with with sharp and perceptive dialogue and lyrics. He sets out to inspire us, young and old, and, although his methods are obvious, resistance proves futile.

Performance date: 20 April 2017

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Good French musicals are a rarity in London, apart from one that arrived in 1984 and has remained ever since. This new one composed by Jean-Baptiste Saucray with book and lyrics by Sébastien Lancrenon is so similar to Les Misérables in musical style, construction and melodramatic intensity that it almost feels as if it could have crossed on the same ferry, but no-one is betting on it achieving the same longevity.

The chief difference is that The Braille Legacy is based on fact, telling of the teenage years that Louis Braille spent in a boarding school, the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, and the development of the system that enables the blind to read, which still bears his name today. In Ranjit Bolt’s lucid translation, the storytelling is brisk and efficient; the opening song, Paris, gives us all the background detail that we need, taking us to a bustling city of academics, artists and enlightenment where the blind and others with disabilities are regarded as “freaks”. The Institute looks like an import from Dickensian England, presided over by kindly, progressive  Dr Pignier (Jérôme Pradon) and cruel, regressive Dufau (Ashley Stillburn), the show’s equivalent to Javert in Les Mis.

Director Thom Southerland’s brand of quality is stamped all over the production, with what are becoming trademarks clear to see – a central set on two levels (designer Tim Shortall), flowing and uninterrupted movement (choreographer Lee Proud) and impeccable solo and choral singing that has crystal clarity, every word in every lyric being given due respect. The voices here make sounds every bit as exquisite as in Southerland’s Titanic and Ragtime. The first notes are heard as blindfolds are placed over the eyes of teenagers and children, all dressed in their white Institute uniforms, and a lump comes to the throat that never goes away.

Young Jack Wolfe gives a wonderfully controlled performance as Louis, yearning for the right to read and withstanding ejection from public libraries and beatings from Dufau as he progresses single-mindedly towards his goal. Jason Broderick as Gabriel, Louis’ foe turned friend and Ceili O’Connor as Mme Demézière, the Institute’s  matron, also tug at the heartstrings.

The story has dark undertones with the argument that public finances need to be spent on eliminating blindness, rather than on improving life for the blind, looming large and suggesting similar for other human abnormalities. Some may argue that turning Louis’ life into a musical melodrama trivialises these themes, but, once Southerland waves his magic wand and we hear the glorious singing, such concerns dissipate and we succumb to all the emotional manipulation that follows. Vive La France!

Performance date: 19 April 2017

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For all its wonderful comic set pieces, William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night can be a very difficult play to keep on the boil, as demonstrated by Peter Hall’s uneven 2011 production here in what is now the Dorfman Theatre. Simon Godwin’s answer is to open a box full of tricks – topical gags, visual surprises and casting against type all feature prominently – and throw them in, one by one.

Perhaps the biggest single trick is Soutra Gilmour’s ingenious set, a high pyramid that revolves and opens out to become an elegant glass conservatory, a night club, a church and more. Five musicians roam the stage, mingling with the actors playing in jazz and traditional styles, and making music the food of laughs with a torch song version of the “To be or not to be…” speech.. Wrong play, but who cares? A paddling pool appearing centre stage brings back memories of Zoë Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale taking a dip in almost the same spot during Nicholas Hytner’s 2007 Much Ado About Nothing. There is so much going on here that the comedy lulls in Shakespeare’s play pass almost unnoticed.

Tamara Lawrence’s Viola and Daniel Ezra’s Sebastian are a delightful pair, almost making it credible that they could pass for each other, but, as always in this play, not quite. Tim McMullan’s Sir Toby Belch is a louche drunkard pursued by Daniel Rigby’s camp, pink-suited Sir Andrew Aguecheek and we get a boisterous female Feste from Doon Mackichan. Of the main characters, only the two dullest, Orsino (Oliver Chris) and Olivia (Phoebe Fox) are played conventionally.

In a deft piece of gender bending, Malviolo is not only played by a woman, he becomes one, re-named Malvolia. Tamsin Greig appears in black, with matching long straight hair, her demeanour is stiff and her facial expressions dour. She is a humourless Puritan, venting her wrath and delivering messages with exaggerated hand gestures. Greig is a mistress of comedy and earning two show-stopping ovations in a non-musical is not bad going, but then comes the downfall, the most emphatic anti-bullying statement to be found in theatre, and Malvolia’s humiliation is every bit as harrowing as that of any of the Malvolios who have preceded her.

Godwin’s success comes at some cost as abundant physical comedy and constant mocking of the text rob his production of some of the play’s romance and lyricism. In their place, we get humour that is laced with a darker than usual dash of melancholy. The confusions sorted, the couplings made and the festivities over, Greig, stripped of all dignity, climbs the pyramid, a figure of abject hopelessness, and Godwin stamps his production as being all about this extraordinary and unforgetable Malvolia.

Performance date: 18 April 2017