Archive for May, 2017

Killology (Royal Court Theatre)

Posted: May 31, 2017 in Theatre

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

Links between violence and masculinity (or perceptions thereof) are hard to define, but, in a production first seen at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff in March this year, playwright Gary Owen takes a microscope to the deeper zones of the male psyche and comes to conclusions that are enlightening and disturbing.

The play takes two parallel paths, linking them with stories of conflict, revenge and love. One path examines father/son relationships – the rivalries, the bonds, the conflicting urges to protect and defy. The second probes into modern forms of violence, showing how the real and the virtual draw from and feed each other. “There is an instinctive revulsion to taking a human life. And that revulsion can be conquered” the play tells us chillingly.

Alan is a Dad, with roots in the milder 1970s when, he believes, men would have held hands to face darkness together. Now he recoils in horror at what surrounds his son and his protective instincts drag him into a world of almost unimaginable savagery. Seán Gleeson gives him an air of decency as, with self-deprecating honesty, he hopes for his son to become 100 times the man that he is.

Davey is a precocious and defiant youngster, reaching out to an absent father and going from aged eight through his teens by applying simple logic to surmount daunting obstacles. School bullying is not a new problem, but, here, influences from computer games add a frightening dimension to it, Sion Daniel Young’s intelligent performance suggests innocence and wisdom, bravery and fear, defeat and optimism.

Paul is an arrogant 20-something who has already made a fortune from developing the computer game Killology, his success setting up a fractious relationship with a dismissive, wealthy father. Richard Mylan speaks in the flippant manner of stand-up comic, but reveals an emptiness inside Paul that is waiting to be filled. His brainchild comes from the core principle “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” and he remains oblivious to the consequences of this cut to the kill philosophy until he is actually confronted with them.

Director Rachel O’Riordan gives the production the edgy tension of a suspense thriller, setting up unexpected turns in Owen’s plotting to perfection, The writing is laced with ironic humour, but Owen’s accounts of violence are graphic and unsparing and Gary McCann’s grey/black set design creates an air of foreboding.  Only in a short second act does the emphasis turn towards human warmth and compassion.

Performances of remarkable visceral intensity add power and further insight to Owen’s writing. His play covers complex and challenging themes, but his storytelling has crystal clarity, grabbing us by the throat from the very outset and never loosening its grip.

Performance date: 30 May 2017

Photo: Mark Douet

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A musical adaption of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace could be the stuff of nightmares, but, rest assured, this distillation lasts well under three hours. After we are informed repeatedly at the very beginning that “Andrey has gone to war”, the (Napoleonic) war plays little further part and what remains is a not too peaceful account of Natasha’s turbulent love life, Pierre’s seemingly inescapable depression and their finding redemption through each other as a comet appears in the sky to bless them.

Thank goodness for last year’s BBC adaptation, because, without it, I could have found the show’s narrative as unfathomable as the New Yorkers sitting around me who, to a man and woman, uttered “what is this all about?” at the interval. Even though the prologue is about as brilliant an example of character establishment as could be imagined, Dave Malloy’s book and lyrics never fully solve the problem of giving clarity to storylines extracted from a vast work, while, out of necessity, glossing over their context. The solution is not made easier to find when, except for a few words spoken by Pierre near the end, the show is entirely sung through.

Happily, my fault finding is now over. Malloy’s score, Russian and Broadway influenced, is varied and thrillingly modern. It demands to be heard again and again. And director Rachel Chavkin’s production, choreographed by Sam Pinkleton, is eye-popping, bringing about what is possibly the most radical transformation of a theatre for a musical since Starlight Express. Ah, let’s pause to give a nostalgic thought for the days when it was creators of British musical who could think outside the box and come up with shows as original and exciting as this. Lamps twinkle on tables placed between seats and what seems like a thousand more shine down like stars from all parts of the theatre. For spectacle, the show is literally an astronomical hit and it is performed not in front of the audience, but among us, the forlorn Pierre seated at a piano, half visible in a sunken position, a spectator to Natasha’s escapades.

Denée Benton’s delightful Natasha is carefree and foolish, falling for the no good Anatole in the absence of her betrothed, Andrey. Josh Groban’s bearded, bespectacled, corpulent Pierre is a sorrowful figure, ridiculed and tormented by an unfaithful wife, Hélène and lacking a sense of purpose; “Is this how I die” he asks himself in his key song Dust and Ashes and, as expected, Groban stops the show. This guy can sing a bit and act too. Lucas Steele’s Anatole and Amber Gray’s Hélène are over-the-top pantomime villains, making sure that, at least, we know who to hiss, but Brittain Ashford as Natasha’s faithful cousin Sonya brings tears to the eyes.

I would like to be proved wrong, but it is hard to imagine that …the Great Comet… has sufficient commercial appeal to be seen in London in this form and indeed it could struggle on Broadway after it loses its star casting. However, it is a bold and ambitious work that pushes the boundaries of musical theatre and I feel privileged to have seen it.

Performance date: 25 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