Archive for June, 2017

Ink (Almeida Theatre)

Posted: June 26, 2017 in Theatre


There are some people that we dislike instinctively, as if programmed subliminally by modern living. Take Rupert Murdoch for example, what is there to like? Bearing this in mind, perhaps the most surprising achievement of James Graham’s new play is that it makes Murdoch the credible and even amiable hero of its David versus Goliath story. Graham’s biggest success to date has been This House, which dipped into the murky waters of late 1970s British politics and here he uses the same formula that mixes historical fact with mischievous comedy, as he jumps back a further decade to recount the birth of The Sun newspaper, in the form that we have come to know it, and the first year of its life.

The Sun was launched as a broadsheet in 1964 and, five years later, now owned by IPC (also owners of the  Daily Mirror), it had the smallest circulation in Fleet Street, contrasting with the Mirror which had the largest daily circulation in the world. The play begins just after Murdoch, already owner of the News of the World, had struck a deal with IPC chairman Hugh Cudlipp to buy The Sun on the conditions that its publication would be uninterrupted and it would continue to support the Labour Party (the benefit of hindsight proves to be a useful tool for Graham in shaping the play’s ironic humour). Murdoch, portrayed as an Australian upstart intent on driving a bulldozer through the British establishment and restrictive Trade Union practices, takes the first step of appointing, as editor, former Mirror man Larry Lamb.

Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch is not everything that we expect – no raging tyrant, but a steely, determined businessman who describes himself as someone who likes to live in hotel rooms so that he can make whatever mess he wants, move on and leave others to clear it up. From what we see, he is also happy for it to be someone else who makes the mess for him, adopting a hands-off approach that allows Lamb to take the paper in any direction he chooses, so long as he achieves the seemingly unattainable target of topping the Mirror‘s circulation figures within a year. This version of Murdoch could tie in well with what we have come to know over the years.

As Lamb, Richard Coyle is quietly effective, a decent family man of working class origins who becomes obsessed with meeting Murdoch’s targets and in proving Cudlipp (David Schofield) wrong for thwarting his ambitions to edit the Mirror. He decides that his paper will become a tabloid that will give the people what they want and not what the establishment (represented by Cudlipp) decides to spoon feed them. Page one will be lurid headlines and offers of freebies, page two will feature the subject of greatest interest to Brits –  the weather and page three? The scene in which Lamb persuades Stephanie Rahn (Sophie Chanda) to be at the centre of this revamped page is one of the play’s many gems.

Bunny Christie’s imposing set design – a cross between a bustling, chaotic newsroom and a subterranean Victorian workhouse – is key to Rupert Goold’s irresistibly entertaining production which balances light and dark tones to perfection and gives clarity to the debates that have surrounded journalistic standards for decades following the events that are depicted. A scene in which Lamb recruits cynical hacks –  Tim Steed’s pernickety Deputy Editor and Sophie Stanton’s Geordie Women’s Editor stand out – is staged as if part of a musical, Goold’s mix of styles becoming as varied as the contents of a popular newspaper.

Graham was born in 1982, so he would not have had to suffer Christopher Timothy’s excruciating breakneck television advertisements for The Sun, yet they are here, together with so much other accurate detail that everything seen on stage during the play’s three hours (with interval) feels convincing. Yes, that is a bit long and Graham might have benefited from the services of a sub-editor, but he is a playwright who is elevating the art of theatre docu-drama to a higher level. Anyone coming to this expecting a character assassination of the man whose television news channel assisted in the election of Donald Trump, is likely to leave disappointed. Graham’s play may be toothless in that respect, but, far more importantly, it is, we feel, truthful. Sensationalism displaced by truth – a final irony.

Performance date: 24 June 2017


This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

In the digital age, the need for self-help manuals could be passing. Who needs them when all the required help can be delivered in the form of robots, direct to your living room by means of fibre-optics? Here we have a futuristic rock musical that expands on this very weird theory.

Keith and Nat are a witless couple, stuck in a rut and going nowhere. Mysteriously, they find a magic mike lying next to their retro radio, sing into it and, through the radio, appears Quentin Dentin, an android on a mission to market a life enhancement programme consisting of tests, tutorials and lobotomy pills that target areas of the brain and rot them “like a tooth in Coca Cola”. Who could resist? Quentin, a three-dimensional version of a shopping channel host, is controlled by an unseen voice who incentivises him to get signatures on contracts by promising elevation to gold status, which appears to be a sort of robot Heaven.

Resplendent in an all-white suit and golden shoes, Luke Lane’s irksome Quentin is the television host from Hell. A fixed, beaming non-smile characterises a “replicated life form” that is superficial, supercilious and vainglorious. Oh for the chance to go on stage during scene one and confiscate his batteries. With his two manic robot friends (Freya Tilly and Lottie-Daisy Francis), he finds easy prey in the form of meek Keith (Max Panks), an unpublished novelist, and frustrated Nat (Shauna Riley), an assistant at a pharmacy.

It is not easy to warm to a show whose only protagonists are three robots and the world’s most boring couple and the book by Henry Carpenter and Tom Crowley struggles to hold interest between songs. However, Carpenter’s catchy tunes and smart lyrics give director Adam Lanson and choreographer Caldonia Walton the opportunity to inject life with imaginative staging. A three-piece band, styled as robots, play keyboard, guitar and drums, giving the songs a rock feel. Carpenter himself, playing keys, leads the vocals for a rousing finale, the Beatles-ish All Together Now.

The show is not short of energy and sarcastic humour, but the critical missing ingredient is charm and, without it, a very thin idea feels as if it has been stretched beyond reasonable limits.

Performance date: 23 June 2017

Photo:Lidia Crisafulli

Tribe (London Theatre Workshop)

Posted: June 23, 2017 in Theatre


This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Few traditions originating from Edwardian England can still survive more than a century later without having undergone fundamental change. This new play, set in 2012, by Brandon Force, Matthew McCray and Rowena Russell examines how necessary change, difficult and painful, has been brought about in the Scout movement, founded by Lord Robert Baden-Powell (referred to as “B-P”) in 1908. The play also asks urgent questions about social change (and the need for it) that have significance beyond its immediate concerns.

The writers could easily have set out to ridicule what now seems to many like an archaic movement, but there is little of that. Instead, they deconstruct a deep-rooted culture in order to expose elements that are incongruous to the 21st Century. Robert J Clayton appears at intervals as B-P, explaining core principles of Scouting that derive from a Zulu coming-of-age custom and he is also Scott, a traditionalist who leads a modern Scout group. His second-in-command is health and safety conscious Finn (Marcus Churchill), a reformer.

Christianity was one of the pillars of B-P’s all-male movement, but now other faiths and females must be included. At a weekend camp in woodland, Scott’s four boy group is introduced to new members – tomboyish Julie (Georgia Maskery) and reticent Amira (Shelana Serafina), who is wearing her Moslem headscarf. Colin (David Fenne) is senior among the boys, followed by Henry ( Nick Pearce), Simon (Aaron Phinehas Peters) and Scott’s son Charlie (Ross Virgo). The weekend is about “focus and discipline”, creating a competitive. macho environment which, effectively, legitimises bullying. For Colin, the price for failure in a task has to be paid in the form of self-flagellation.

Scott overrules Finn and sends the group out in darkness in competing pairs. Challenges include acting out scenes from Peter Pan, …Tom Sawyer and Star Wars, illustrating how much-loved cultural influences on young minds are at odds with diversity in modern society. “What would Bear Grylls do?” the panic-stricken youngsters ask repeatedly when facing danger and then, as the tribe begins to disintegrate, the fractures follow the racial, religious and gender fault lines inherent in traditions that are at odds with the modern world.

As director, McCray harnesses the energy of the young actors, who often chant ritually, to create the atmosphere of a cauldron in a half-lit set that resembles a forest clearing. The cast and creative team combine superbly in making a subject that could be thought of only marginal interest so absorbing. A three-fingered salute to them all.

Performance date: 22 June 2017


This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

With the United Kingdom and France both recovering from election campaigns, satirical words on fake news and spin feel particularly apposite, even if those words come from the 17th Century. Molière’s Le Misanthrope, written in rhyming verse, premiered in Paris in 1666, staging the play with alternate performances in French and English, Exchange Theatre’s revival relocates it to a modern television newsroom.

David Furlong directs the production and plays the lead role, the misanthropic Alceste, who advocates honesty over hypocrisy. The play begins with a protracted argument between Alceste and his friend Philinte (Simeon Oakes), who is an instinctive flatterer. When Oronte (Palmyre Ligué) performs a sonnet in a style that could be a forerunner to hip-hop, Philinte lavishes him with praise and Alceste cannot help but tell the truth, setting up a rivalry that runs through the play.

Célimène (Anoushka Ravanshad) is a star of the small screen who sits regally at the news desk with a familiar city skyline behind her. She is a two-timer, with both Alceste and Oronte competing for her affections. Furlong links Molière’s themes of fact versus fiction, truth versus tact to the modern era with film clips of right wing politicians – Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Marine Le Pen – uttering their sound bites.

The media folk are shown to be hard-drinking, coke-snorting gossipers who flap around Célimène’s “court” busily, having arrived at their posts to the accompaniment of Nine to Five. Citandre (James Buttling) and Acaste (Luca Fontaine) are a debauched pair of hacks, something like Molière’s equivalent to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Fanny Dulin doubles as Philiinte’s sweetheart and a celebrity studio guest.

The core idea is good, but its execution is less successful. Impromptu interactions with the audience and a languid pace give a laid back feel to the early stages, but, as things progress, there is a growing suspicion that the production is less understated than under-rehearsed. Sudden bursts of anger feel completely out of place and spells of inactivity between scenes interrupt the play’s flow. An unnecessarily cluttered stage makes things look still more clumsy and, when actors enter an alcove at the back they are barely visible.

Brexit may be imminent, but Exchange Theatre seems determined that the Entente Cordiale will live on in theatrical form. Here, while presenting a rarely seen classic, they expose modern news coverage as being all about polish and style, but, sadly, these ingredients are in short supply in their production itself.

Performance date: 15 June 2017


I have seen the film and I have seen the musical semi-staged, but this is the first time that I have seen a full staging of Leonard Bernstein’s blissful On the Town. Maybe next time I’ll see it indoors, but I doubt if it could be better than this.

For the second time this year (the third if you count the semi-staged Carousel at the Coliseum), London is being treated to a golden era musical that incorporates modern ballet on a grand scale. Bernstein’s glorious score, a lightweight forerunner to his West Side Story, marries perfectly with the city of New York and includes both unforgettable songs and sweeping orchestral pieces as backing for the dances. Tom Deering’s 15-piece band does the score full justice. Book and lyrics are by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

The thin story recounts the adventures of three sailors on 24 hours shore leave in the Big Apple. Danny Mac (not a professional dancer of course! Really?!) is Gabey, Gene Kelly’s role in the film, who embarks on a quest to find poster girl Ivy (Siena Kelly), while his shipmates Chip (Fred Haig) and Ozzie (Samuel Edwards) pair up with cab driver Hildy (Lizzy Connolly) and palaeontologist Claire (Miriam-Teak Lee). The show becomes a showcase for a new generation of British musical theatre talent, with a remarkable five of the six principals having graduated from Arts Education Schools. A number of more seasoned performers give strong support in cameo roles.

Director and choreographer Drew McOnie gives the production a vibrant energy that never tires from the moment that the sailors run down the gangplank through the audience until it is time for them to return back up it. The dancing is athletic and inventive (in one instance with a very modern twist), the singing is delightful and the fun is non-stop. On a balmy Summer evening in the middle of a park, this is the place to find paradise.

Performance date: 14 June 2017


Declan Donnellen’s productions of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (Part 1 in 1992 and both parts in 1993) in what is now the Dorfman Theatre are embedded in my memory so deeply and they are so much cherished that I did not want them tarnished and I approached this revival with great trepidation. However, with director Marianne Elliot  at the helm and a stellar cast which includes two Hollywood A-listers, there was no need to worry. One major concern  had been the Lyttelton, because, although this is a work on an epic scale, its detail is intimate and its nature is delicate. Many such works have floundered on this enormous stage in the past, but Elliot has complete command of the space, using Ian MacNeil’s moveable sets to close it down and confine the action to small areas and then open out the entire stage exactly when needed. The design also helps the production to flow and, with an overall running time of seven hours 45 minutes (including intervals), there is not a second to be wasted.

Kushner writes about the ravages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America in the 1980s, but he makes his play a metaphor for a country coming to terms with its diseased soul and striving to purge itself of McCarthyism, homophobia, racism, corruption and hypocrisy. A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is the alternative title given by Kushner and he uses nightmares and hallucinations to expand on his ideas, introducing a dark angel, a vengeful ghost and mischievous ancestral spirits to his three interwoven narrative strands, one of which is based on fact. Part 1 (Millennium Approaches) is shorter by 45 minutes than Part 2 (Perestroika).

Roy M Cohn is the real-life character. He was a ruthless, power-hungry attorney who had been a prosecutor involved in the McCarthy “witch hunt” trials of the early 1950s and, using unscrupulous means, he had secured the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage. A closeted homosexual, he is diagnosed with AIDS at the beginning of the plays. Joseph Pitt is Cohn’s protégé, a Mormon who is ambitious, but held back by his troubled, valium-dependent wife, Harper, and tormented by his own latent homosexuality. Louis Ironson is a Jewish temp in Cohn’s office who shies away from personal responsibility and, after turning his back on his AIDS-stricken partner, Prior Walter, he becomes involved with Joseph.

This makes for some pretty heavy drama, but one of the most striking features of Elliot’s production is the extent to which she finds the comedy in Kushner’s writing and brings it to the fore. The casting of Nathan Lane as Cohn helps her greatly. He is first seen juggling telephone calls in a comic routine that could have come from The Producers and then he makes a journey that takes him from Max Bialystock to King Lear in a performance of thunderous power. Kushner’s loathing for Cohn is clear in the writing, but it is matched by a revulsion that we feel comes from deep within Lane and fills the theatre. Cohn shares no scenes with Prior, but an astonishing performance by Andrew Garfield in that role sustains the tragi-comedy in Lane’s absence. Defiantly effeminate and broken in body, Garfield’s Prior is a hero for our times whose spirit soars, making him ready to take on the world, armed only with the lethal weapon of cutting sarcasm.

James McArdle is also wonderful as the self-pitying Louis. His tangled, woolly liberalism contrasts sharply with the cold clarity of Cohn’s conservatism and highlights what Kushner sees as an obstacle to America’s progress. Russell Tovey’s Joseph is outwardly upstanding and true, but, guided by religious teaching, he is inwardly torn between his love for and duty towards his wife and an attraction to men that he battles to comprehend. Kate Harper stood in as Harper for Denise Gough at this performance of Part 1, both are excellent. Susan Brown appears in several roles, most memorably those of Ethel Rosenberg’s ghost and Joseph’s pious mother who becomes an unexpectedly sympathetic character. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett excels as Belize, the gay black nurse who takes both homophobia and racism in his stride as he minces between the hospital rooms of Cohn, the patient that he reviles, and his friend Prior.

Elliot’s staging is, at times, breathtaking. Her angel (played by Amanda Lawrence) has spectacular wings, controlled by puppeteers, her Antarctica (a fantasy scene) is a vast snowy wasteland. The only criticism of Kushner is his apparent lack of discipline which leads to him getting carried away when pursuing his complex themes. It is difficult to justify the plays’ extravagant length and Part 2 in particular could only gain by losing at least an hour. Nonetheless, in among the near eight hours total, there are four or more hours of absolutely incomparable theatre, scenes that make the nerve ends tingle and possibly more quotable lines than in Hamlet.

Like most masterpieces, Angels in America is flawed, but it is a monumental work which Elliot’s revival has shown to be of enduring significance. Part 2 ends with an ironic twist that is richly satisfying and underlines Kushner’s optimism that the new Millennium would bring a bright new dawn. However, we now know the reality and an ironic link of a darker kind has emerged. Not mentioned in the plays, presumably because,it was thought of little interest when they were written, is the fact that, for five years in the 1970’s, Roy Cohn acted as Attorney for Donald Trump. Thus Kushner’s metaphor has now taken on a further dimension. If HIV/AIDS can be treated but not yet cured, perhaps the same can be said of America’s ills.

Performance dates: 12 and 13 June 2017

Kiss Me (Trafalgar Studios 2)

Posted: June 11, 2017 in Theatre


This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Most of us know about the death toll from the First World War and the Spanish ‘Flu outbreak that followed it, but Richard Bean’s bitter-sweet romantic comedy, first seen at Hampstead Theatre in 2016, considers what one of the consequences may have been – an urgent need to re-populate the nation, presumably in readiness for the following war.

Stephanie (not her real name) is a 32-year-old war widow whose biological clock is ticking. She feels a duty to produce a baby, but her problem is that there are no men. There were no sperm banks either in the 1920s, so the best advice that her rather unorthodox sounding gynaecologist, Dr Trollope, can give is to conceive by the traditional method and the doctor arranges for the services of Dennis (not his real name) to do what is necessary.

Claire Lams’ prim and proper Stephanie tidies her bedroom fussily as fast-paced piano music plays in the background, a scene reminiscent of a silent movie such as the one with Lilian Gish, showing at a nearby cinema. Dennis (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) arrives in a three-piece suit as if attending a business meeting and sets out Dr Trollope’s parameters that must not be crossed – no real names, no exchanges of personal details, no kissing on the lips. His approach is strictly professional. When he admits coyly that he has fathered 202 children from 711 attempts, he does so in the matter-of-fact manner of a stud owner selling the services of his star stallion.

Bean grasps at the opportunity to poke fun at English reservedness. Stephanie offers tea and custard creams to her guest and is always battling against her Catholic upbringing as she braces herself for the encounter. Lloyd-Hughes gives Dennis the air of a cold corporate executive. It is hard to believe him when he softens and professes his love for Stephanie, but this endorses the point that the inability to express feelings is a national characteristic. Bean has written a Brief Encounter for an earlier war.

Georgia Lowe’s set, Stephanie’s mirrored bedroom, does not really fit the period, but nor does some of the candid dialogue. Anna Ledwich’s production moves between awkwardness and tenderness as the couple circle each other nervously before agreeing on the kiss that takes them well outside Dr Trollope’s parameters. When the going threatens to get heavy, Bean throws in some very funny lines and he peppers the play with sly double entendres. The charm of Kiss Me is limited and 75 minutes is just about right, but it is a gentle little comedy that amuses and touches in equal measure.

Performance date: 9 June 2017

Photograph: Robert Day