Archive for May, 2017

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It is routine to be asked to switch off mobile phones before a show starts, but, when the request comes personally as an order from a threatening Lenny Henry hovering over your seat, you may be inclined to take particular notice. This is an immersive staging of Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 satire alluding to the rise of Adolph Hitler, adapted and given a modern twist by Bruce Norris. The actors mingle with the audience, audience members participate in the show and the Donmar’s regular seating has been replaced to create a 1930s Chicago night club.

Ostensibly, this is a gangster story, charting the rise of the ruthless eponymous anti-hero to rule over the cauliflower trade of Chicago and make a takeover bid for neighbouring Cicero.  However, the path of the story follows that of the arrival of the Third Reich in the Germany of 1933 and, subtlety not being a tool oft used by Brecht, it is glaringly obvious who Ui is meant to be.  Norris follows Brecht’s lead to make Ui an arrogant, shouting, arm-waving populist modern American politician. Who could that possibly be?

Henry is terrific as Ui, genuinely menacing and, in a sequence in which the mobster is taught deportment by a drunken actor (Tom Edden), he is hilarious. A lollop becomes a strut, the left arm shoots up to a Nazi salute and, then, slowly and deliberately both arms fold in the manner of someone in the news recently whose name still escapes me. Michael Pennington adds gravitas as Dogsborough, the upstanding citizen brought down by Ui and the company fill all the other roles enthusiastically. Director Simon Evans sets out to make Brecht fun and succeeds, finally sledgehammering the subtext home by unveiling a “Make America Great Again” banner. Ah, yes it’s come to me now.

Performance date: 16 May 2017

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Jonathan Larson’s big Broadway success came with Rent in 1996, knowledge of which adds a sense of satisfaction to this 1990 musical autobiography, just as knowledge of Larson’s eventual fate add a sense of poignancy. Expanded from a monologue and first staged in New York in 2001, Tick, Tick…BOOM! centres around Larson’s early life crisis, his 30th birthday, as he sees the clock ticking while he is making very little progress with his mission to drag musical theatre into the 1990s.

Stephen Sondheim once wrote a musical about a New Yorker reaching a landmark birthday and the company he keeps and what we see here feels very much like a miniaturised variation on that show. It is suggested that the great man was to become Larson’s mentor and, to put icing on the cake, this show’s wittiest song is a Sondheim pastiche, all about Sunday (brunch) in the park. Branagh Larson’s studio production is given warmth and energy by Chris Jenkins as Jonathan, Gillian Saker as his girlfriend Susan and Jordan Shaw as his roommate Michael. Unlike Rent, this is not a show to set the world alight, but, as a quietly enjoyable hour and a bit of fringe theatre, there is very little to dislike about it.

Performance date: 18 May 2017

The Treatment (Almeida Theatre)

Posted: May 22, 2017 in Theatre

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The weirdest thing about Martin Crimp’s surreal drama/comedy/thriller is that it all makes a sort of sense. There is a scent of David Lynch in the air at the Almeida, as Lindsey Turner’s sizzlng revival sets out to baffle and illuminate, taking us on a journey in which the blind lead the blind, both metaphorically and literally.

Jennifer and her husband Andrew are “facilitators”, bringing together people with ideas and the people who will turn them into reality. Anne has a story to tell relating to her husband Simon, John (Gary Beadle) and Clifford (Ian Gelder) are writers who can bring ideas to the stage/screen. Life meets art, reality makes inconvenient intrusions on superficial existences, tussles ensue. A bizarre meeting of absurdism and brutalism, Crimp’s play grips through crisp, efficient writing, sharp character detail and a foundation in truth.

Giles Cadle’s stark, minimalist sets establish the tone perfectly. A modern office becomes a swish apartment, a Japanese restaurant, a busy street and a New York subway station. Hordes of non-speaking extras pass by, oblivious to the dramas unfolding and images of motion appear during scene changes, Turner creating impressions of perpetual motion, parallel universes moving along side by side – the logical one and one that is more than slightly out of kilter.

Indira Varma is glib and controlling as Jennifer who holds the reins while Julien Ovenden’s smarmy Andrew is losing a battle with his own suppressed lecherous instincts. Aisling Loftus is passively vulnerable and borderline hysterical as Anne, in turns resisting and succumbing to Matthew Needham’s menacing psychopath Simon. All the performances are judged to perfection in a production that never fails to intrigue. Of course, much added fun comes from discussions over drinks afterward, trying to decide what it is all about. But there is nothing wrong with that as we are still trying to figure out Twin Peaks over 25 years on.

Performance date: 17 May 2017

Blush (Soho Theatre)

Posted: May 19, 2017 in Theatre

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

A circle of bright red carpeting centre stage establishes the themes of Charlotte Josephine’s blistering assault on an era in which the human race is forever finding new ways to embarrass itself. Blush we should at the antics of a society in which, seemingly, all established norms of decent behaviour are cast aside behind the shield of a computer screen.

Josephine’s writing is as angry as the first character that appears, a woman whose 18-year-old sister has had revenge porn images posted on social media. 30,000 viewers have seen the images and the woman longs to gouge out 30,000 pairs of eyes and squelch them under her bare feet. A self-conscious woman, wanting to look like photographic models, finds that she can make herself appear more beautiful in erotic selfies and then she has to endure the torment of them going “vinyl” after the puts them online. A woman is distraught in a supermarket when the “boyfriend” that she has been sexting vanishes into thin air quicker than she can decide whether to buy bio or non-bio washing powder.

The play sees dated gender stereotyping clashing with modern behaviour, but it does not entirely relate stories of male aggressors and female victims. A high-flying web designer explains to an international seminar why social media sites can trigger addictive behaviour and then he falls victim to his own trap following an inappropriate advance to an attractive student. Another man finds that readily available internet porn is making him impotent. The conflicts and contradictions caused by technology advancing too rapidly are shown again when a bemused father objects to the explicit sex education given at school to his 13-year-old daughter, thereby attempting to block measures aimed at protecting her.

Ed Stambollouian’s racing 70-minute production affirms Josephine’s stark vision. The swirl of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Tinder and the rest is made to appear more as a giant spider’s web, entrapping its victims, than a worldwide web. Josephine herself and Daniel Foxsmith attack all the roles with vigour, expressing rage and trepidation through words and expressive movement. The play does not point the finger of blame at governments nor even at the giant corporations. It is a startling wake up call, telling us all that, individually and collectively, we need to recognise the destructive power of a modern monster and come to terms with it,

Performance date: 18 May2017

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

Beginning “In a place no one knows…at the end of the world…”, Karen Blixen’s Babette’s Feast sets off on a “once upon a time” road, establishing itself as a fable/fairy tale at least one move away from reality. We learn that, in this idyllic place, two sisters and their father occupy a yellow house, at which everyone is made to feel welcome.

A few weeks ago, the Print Room staged Out of Blixen, an overview of the Danish writer’s life and works and they follow it with this full adaptation of one of her stories, possibly best known from a 1987 film version with the same title. As an appetiser the wandering Babette narrates the story of one of the sisters, Martine (Whoopie Van Raam) thwarting the amorous advances of a young army officer (Ladi Emeruwa). For the hors d’ouuvre, she tells of the other sister, Philippa (Rachel Winters) meeting a renowned opera singer (Henry Everett) and being tempted to sing opposite him in Don Giovanni.

For the main course, Sheila Atim’s proud and dignified Babette knocks on the door of the older Martine (Diana Quick) and Philippa (Marjorie Yates), their father (Joseph Marcell) having died. She is a refugee from revolution-torn Paris where she had been a chef at a top restaurant. When, after many years of sanctuary with the sisters, good fortune comes her way, she pays for and prepares a magnificent feast for them and other townsfolk to celebrate what would have been the father’s 100th Birthday. Through the spinsters Martine and Philippa and the wasted culinary “artist” Babette, Blixen reflects ruefully on unfulfillment, but she tempers this with mellow tones of contentment in simplicity and homeliness.

Director Bill Buckhurst looks for parallels with modern refugee crises when kindnesses given and repaid emerge as themes and, with only a small company, he uses movement and music to generate a strong sense of community spirit in the devoutly Christian Scandinavian town. When the banquet arrives, there is no feast for the eyes and no appetising aromas to fill the air. It is all improvised and, outstanding among the townsfolk who dig in gleefully is Amanda Boxer’s Kara, downing glass after glass of vintage French “lemonade”.

There are tasty bites aplenty, but adaptor Glyn Maxwell does not move far enough away from Blixen’s original style of narration to allow room for meaningful character development and, as a result, the production overall feels slightly undercooked.

Performance date: 15 May 2017

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

“What’s the point of surviving if you’re not going to live a little?” asks Finlay Bain’s irreverent hour-long post-apocalyptic comedy. This is the philosophy of Rob and Paul, survivors who are holed up in a chaotic flat as the world outside falls apart. Their strategy becomes to party like there is no tomorrow, accepting that there probably isn’t one.

Scotland has been conquered by zombies, the undead who only have to bite the living to conscript them to their ranks. Rob (played by the writer), swinging a baseball bat with the aggression of a modern day William Wallace, regards Paul (Paul Thirkell) as a replacement for the beloved pet dog that his father killed for being gay. Paul is not gay, but, being very camp, he is the closest thing to it. When Paul is interrupted by an intruder while quietly pleasuring himself, the flatmates’ cosy sanctuary is shaken.

The new arrival, sabre-wielding Penelope (Pearl Appleby), has found marauding gangs of survivors and participants in The X Factor more threatening than the zombies. The boys offer their guest the luxuries of a shower and baked beans (both cold), before bringing out the stronger substances. Laddish Rob and straight-laced, fussy Paul approach Penelope in very different ways, sparking much of the comedy in the lead up to a no-holds-barred party. Paul’s slow reaction to a drink spiked by Rob, as a tenor sings Con te partirò, is a gem of physical comedy in the middle of the raucous revelries.

There is an air of the band playing on while the Titanic sinks, but Bain manages to keep sombre themes bubbling under the surface without allowing them to drag the comedy down. He finds humour in dark, unexpected places and director Jordan Murphy’s production fizzes like the lager in cans hoarded by Rob, uncaring that survivors outside are dying of thirst. The actors too find the perfect balance between hilarity and pathos. This is a case of living a little and laughing a lot.

Performance date: 10 May 2017

 

The Pulverised (Arcola Theatre)

Posted: May 6, 2017 in Theatre

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

For years we have been told that global warming poses the biggest threat to our future, but now Alexandra Badea’s play suggests that globalisation could prove a still greater danger. Viewed through the eyes of four employees of multinational corporations in Europe, Asia and Africa, she shows us how individuals can become controlled, dehumanised, disconnected from reality and effectively pulverise.

Badea is a Romanian-born writer living in France and her play has been translated from French by Lucy Phelps. Its director, Andy Sava is a British trained Romanian. The play’s vision is bleak, its characters entering seemingly unstoppable downward spirals from the outset, telling their stories in overlapping monologues, moving like zombies and playing “dead” while others speak.

Based in Lyon, a quality assurance of subcontractors manager (Richard Corgan) travels the world to be greeted by airports, hotels and offices that all look the same. He loses his sense of time and place, talking to his son via Skype on his lap top while ogling a sex worker on his i-pad. A research and development engineer (Kate Miles) in Bucharest, divides her time between being a mother and making presentations to executives who are falling asleep.

A factory worker (Rebecca Boey) in Shanghai makes boxes for export to France, confined in a tight space like a battery hen and facing penalties for taking a toilet break. Slogans such as “if you don’t apply yourself to your job today, you’ll be applying for another job tomorrow” are drilled into her, as humanity comes in a poor second to statistics. A call centre team leader (Solomon Israel) in Dakar puts on his fake Versace suit and gives his team of cold callers French names, even asking them to eat French cuisine and reeling off a list of  replacements for Boeuf Bourguignon when the beef runs out. Globalisation, it seems, steamrollers over national cultures and identities without mercy.

With the narratives vague and linked together only loosely, the play sometimes loses its grip and it feels overlong at 90 minutes. However, Sava’s messages are discomforting and alarming, all the more so as she offers little hope that the course of the globalisation juggernaut can be changed by any of us little people.

Performance date: 5 May 2017

Photo: Dashti Jahfar