Archive for July, 2017

Gloria (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: July 19, 2017 in Theatre

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is on a roll in London this year. His An Octoroon caused quite a stir at the Orange Tree recently and now this caustic satire of work place life does much the same here. The primary setting is the New York offices of a literary magazine, a haven of calamitous disharmony where all the staff go round in separate orbits, almost oblivious of each other until they intersect and feel the friction. It is a tale on disconnection, although not much of the actual tale can be told for fear of spoilers; sealed pages in the programme endorse the message and, indeed, this is a play best enjoyed without too much foreknowledge.

Dean (Colin Morgan), an unsuccessful writer, arrives late with a hangover to be interrogated by office busybody Ani (Ellie Kendrick). Kendra (Kae Alexander) then arrives very very late and snaps at everyone around before departing on the first of her many daily trips to Starbucks. Conscientious head fact checker Lorin (Bo Poraj) raises his voice to complain about the noise from constant rowing and temporary graduate placement Miles (Bayo Gbadamosi) watches on incredulously, but hears little over the music from his headphones. Making up the numbers is the quiet misfit Gloria (Sian Clifford).

Lizzie Clachan’s realistic, detailed set designs help to make the play feel relevant and director Michael Longhurst’s production scores by allowing the performances to shine through. Alexander’s super bitch Kedra is memorably horrible – the workmate from Hell, but the company all pick up on the nuances in Jacobs-Jenkins’ writing, making their characters much more than just the words that they speak. As the play progresses, the writer introduces a secondary target for his satire – the obsession of publishers and, by inference readers, for the inane personal stories of nonentities. This duality of purpose perhaps blunts the play’s cutting edge and prevents it from holding completely together, but, otherwise, this is an entertaining production that has a lot of meaningful things to say.

Performance date: 10 July 2017

The God of Hell (Theatre N16)

Posted: July 14, 2017 in Theatre

⭐️⭐️⭐️

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

Sam Shepard calls Wisconsin “America’s dirty land” and the action in his hour-long play revolves around the consequences of a plutonium leak, but this absurdist allegory has little to do with ecology and a lot to do with pollution of modern American minds.

On their Wisconsin dairy farm, Frank (Craig Edgley) who “lives for his heifers” and his wife Emma (Helen Foster), who was born there, rarely goes out and rarely receives visitors, brave the cold and get on with their uneventful lives. However, their peace is shattered by the arrival of Frank’s old friend Haynes (Ryan Prescott), who takes up refuge in their cellar, goes into a fit when anyone says “rocky boots” and generates sparks when he is touched. He is radioactive and on the run from a sinister force otherwise known as “The Government”.

Shepard does not waste time with scene-setting preambles, Haynes is already downstairs when the play begins and his pursuer is soon to walk through the door. Abigail Screen’s cartoonish set design for the claustrophobic farmhouse kitchen, gives a surreal feel to Rocky Rodriguez Jr’s edgy, sometimes manic production, as Shepard paints an increasingly bizarre picture of a dystopian present. Haynes’ pursuer is the menacing Welch (Thomas Throe), a cross between an evangelist preacher and a malevolent Uncle Sam, who is quick to impose American values on the farm owners. He berates Emma when noticing that the flagpole outside is missing its flag and decorates her kitchen with Stars and Stripes emblems which, handily, he carries in his briefcase.

Much of the satire is crude and obvious, but, once Rodriguez Jr’s production has gained confidence, it is fun and nicely played. Foster’s Emma is sweet and homely, moving towards hysterical as her normality crumbles. Edgley’s dependable Frank leaves to tend for his heifers and returns, somehow brainwashed off stage, as a Welch acolyte. Prescott’s Haynes is only inches short of a total breakdown and Throe’s Welch is not a man that anyone would want to meet in a dark alley.

When Welch rants patriotically about a country now filled with lies, deceit and manipulations of the truth, his words have a topical ring, but this play was written in 2004. Shepard’s political agenda is clear; he is throwing a spotlight on the gullibility of a middle America deluged with right wing propaganda. His messages may have startled audiences when the play first appeared, but they are even more chilling and real today.

Performance date: 13 July 2017

Bent (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Posted: July 10, 2017 in Theatre

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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

On the weekend when the 50th Anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales is being celebrated, this rehearsed reading of Martin Sherman’s landmark play Bent, acts as a sobering reminder of the horrors to which victimisation can lead.

Stephen Daldry, then a young student, saw the play on its initial London run at the Royal Court Theatre in 1979 and the strong impact that it made on him has drawn him to direct the staging here, allowed only a few hours rehearsal over three days. Sherman’s play is a harrowing account of the Nazi persecution of gay men in pre-World War II Germany. The story is shocking and difficult to comprehend in modern Britain, but Daldry’s revival is pertinent in pointing to policies of authoritarian regimes across the world today, perhaps most specifically in Africa.

Sharing an apartment in the licentious Berlin of 1934, Max (Russell Tovey) and Rudy (George Mackay) bicker, struggle to make ends meet and enjoy clubbing, drugs and casual promiscuity. The lively domestic comedy of the play’s opening scene assumes a chill air when, in a throwaway remark, Max speaks derisively of his Jewish landlord; Max and Rudy are aware that the Third Reich has arrived, but not that it is about to knock at their own door.

In the two years that follow, the couple flees to Hamburg, Stuttgart and Cologne, where Max’s uncle (Simon Russell Beale) offers to help him with a changed identity and a passage to Amsterdam. However, Max, who had held back shows of affection towards his partner, refuses to leave without him. Tovey plays Max as outwardly hedonistic and selfish, but he brings out his inner turmoil, contrasting beautifully with Mackay’s sensitive, outgoing Rudy. Their destination is not to be Amsterdam, but a detention camp at Dachau.

The second act takes place entirely at Dachau, where detainees are forced to move heavy rocks from one pile to another and then back again, pressed by guards who treat their lives as cheap. Detainees are categorised, a yellow star identifying a Jew and, lowest of the low, a pink triangle for a homosexual. Forever prepared to do deals and make compromises, Max manages to wear a yellow star, but he befriends Horst, played with touching dignity by Paapa Essiedu, who wears his pink triangle with pride. Sherman’s calls for gay people to be honest and open may have had more urgency in 1979, but they still hit with force today.

Performed in the Lyttelton Theatre on the set currently in use for Angels in America, this reading cannot offer the visual impact of a full staging, but much compensation comes from superb performances that bring out all the complex emotions. Sherman’s writing is unflinching. When there is sentimentality, it is subtle, never overpowering and the bleak inevitability of the play’s narrative is outshone by its fierce championing of the unbreakable human spirit.

Performance date: 9 July 2017

Hamlet (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Posted: July 2, 2017 in Theatre

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

In many years of theatregoing, I have seen Hamlet portrayed as intellectual, warrior, lunatic, cheeky chappy, gay, to name but a few. I have seen him in period costume, modern dress, a straitjacket and naked, but I cannot recall ever seeing him played as superbly as by Andrew Scott in Robert Icke’s stunning production, here transferring from the Almeida Theatre. Following the “Sherlock” Hamlet, seen in Lindsey Turner’s overblown, numbingly ordinary production at the Barbican in 2015, this “Moriarty” Hamlet is a revelation, controlled but amiable, with only occasional glimpses of Scott’s excitable, manic television creation.

Icke strips the play of excess baggage, leaving barely any superfluous insights into Hamlet’s psychology. The Prince does not imagine his father’s ghost, he sees and hears it; so the play has paranormal elements, get over it! The setting is completely modern, a luxury apartment of the privileged elite, with security guards and various helpers fussing around. Television screens show news reports of the Danish Royal Family, prying into their lives and assessing political developments. When Hamlet needs to defend himself, the weapon of choice is not a dagger but a gun.

Most modern of all is the language. Shakespeare is spoken without the exaggerated actorly tones of, say, Olivier, but as if it is everyday English and, if the beauty of the Bard’s writing is diminished, the clarity and meaning of his words are enhanced. At this performance, how wonderful to hear a diverse audience reacting spontaneously to Shakespeare, because they can really understand what is being said. For the famous soliloquies, Scott steps forward to the front of the stage and enters into quiet conversations with the audience, not debating with himself but asking advice; is it worth his bothering to slog on through his endless depression or should he put a stop to it all there and then?

Scott’s Hamlet typifies young men who are uncertain about how to face up to the many challenges that lie ahead and are daunted by them. He is witty, educated and charismatic, but tormented by the ruthless ambition of Angus Wright’s authoritative Claudius and by the cold duplicity of his mother, Juliet Stevenson’s sophisticated Gertrude. Peter Wight’s nosy, bumbling Polonius is an irritant and a figure of fun to him, but his daughter, Jessica Brown Findlay’s frail, girlish Ophelia is an object of desire, unattainable for reasons that he cannot quite figure out.

Hamlet is a play of many contradictions and it seems unlikely that any interpretation of it could ever fall perfectly into place, without leaving some loose pieces. By focussing on the play’s essentials, Icke’s version feels perfect for about three-quarters of the running time, but loses some of its sharpness in the melodramatic final scenes, particularly after an oddly placed late second interval. That said, this remains as gripping and lucid a production as any that I can remember.

Performance date: 29 June 2017

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Producer Sonia Friedman claims that her Harry Potter… extravaganza generated so great a demand for tickets on the first day of sale that it could have run for 2,000 years. If the time travel machines used by Harry and others in the show go into mass production, this information could be useful, but, even if not, what it tells us is that here we have something that pretty well defines “critic proof”. From a commercial viewpoint, there was no need for it to be even moderately good, let alone as astonishingly good as it actually is, but creator JK Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany all have their lofty reputations to defend and there is never the slightest hint of laziness at any stage. The show is now into its second cast, but it is hard to imagine that the first could have been any better.

Rowling has a gift for merging common adolescent angst from the real world and the fantasy of her parallel universe. The former gives emotional power and depth to her enthralling storytelling. Thorne taps into her vision perfectly and all the familiar ingredients are here in spades, possibly captured more vividly than on screen. Theatre can generate magic that leaves CGI standing and Tiffany (with the help of Jamie Harrison) conjures a box of tricks that make the eyes pop – transformations, flying objects and a library scene in part 1 that defies belief. This is not a musical, but Imogen Heap’s background music adds immensely to the drama and spectacle and movement devised by Steven Hoggett brings excitement and energy to many scenes.

Harry (Jamie Glover) is now 40, living a quiet life with wife Ginny (Emma Lowndes), but his scar is starting to hurt and the owls are flying. The couple has three children, of which rebellious 14-year-old Albus Severus (Theo Ancient) is proving to be the most troublesome. He is a rubbish wizard, hates Hogwarts and even the Sorting Hat spots the difference from Harry by placing him in Slytherin House. To make things seemingly worse, he befriends the boy that no one else likes, Scorpius Malfoy (Samuel Blenkin), son of the sinister Draco (James Howard). Wrong as it may be to single out any individual, it has to be said that young Blenkin is absolutely brilliant, possessing an instinctive feel for comedy, and it is his antics as Scorpius that gets the loudest laughs and cheers throughout.

Rakie Ayola as Hermione and Thomas Aldridge as Ron, give perfect adult versions of their characters’ childhood selves. They are now married, with daughter Rose (Helen Aluko), a schoolmate for Albus and Scorpius, making up the triumphant triumvirate for a new generation. Beyond this I am not allowed to go for fear of evil spells as a penalty for giving plot spoilers, but, with time travel being involved, many familiar characters re-appear.  What else is there to say? Well, Tiffany, Thorne, Christine Jones (sets), Katrina Lindsay (costumes), Neil Austin (lighting) and Gareth Fry (sound) already have their Olivier Awards, so nothing needs to be added there. One sad closing thought: as I rarely go to shows for a second time, it seems highly unlikely that I shall ever see inside the Palace Theatre again.

Performance date: 28 June 2017

Mumburger (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Posted: July 1, 2017 in Theatre

⭐️⭐️

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

Tragedy strikes far away and near. In their East London home, Hugh and Tiffany see television news channels leading with reports of many dead in a roller coaster accident in China, but it is the secondary story of a car crash on the M25 that grabs their attention, because the sole fatality was wife to one and mother to the other.

The personal and intimate nature of grieving is the subject of Sarah Kosar’s 80-minute one act play. It is about the need to cling on to a departed loved one, the need to absorb them so that they stay a part of those who mourn their loss. Father and daughter both grieve, but in different ways, Hugh watches Father of the Bride, his wife’s favourite film, while Tiffany recites touching elegies. Hugh wants time to rest and reflect, but his hyper-active daughter berates him for not having begun to make funeral arrangements within hours of the death.

Mum had been a campaigning vegan, bullying her family into observing her own lifestyle. Both crave to indulge their carnivorous instincts, but it comes as a shock to them when a bag of fast food arrives, with a note from Mum telling them that she has left them a “digestive memorial” in the form of burgers made from her own flesh. Should they eat them? Would ketchup, mustard or leftover vegan cheese make them tastier?

Kasar introduces absurdism, but, if there is comedy in her writing, Tommo Fowler’s sombre production rarely finds it and we are left with what could be described as a surreal lament. A greyish curtain hangs across the entire stage in Charlotte Henery’s set design, giving the feel of a tasteful funeral parlour, as no one seems to realise that, in theatre, black humour becomes death far better than respectful mourning. As a consolation, the cooking of burgers with a blow torch whets our appetites, provided we can overlook what they are supposed to be made of.

Rosie Wyatt’s Tiffany is bossy, confrontational and shrill, insisting that the burgers must be eaten even when she is choking on them. Andrew Frame’s morose, lethargic Hugh, walking around in a dressing gown for all but the final scene, has little chance of standing up to her. Neither character elicits sympathy for their loss, ensuring that a play that fails to make us laugh also hardly moves us.

Clearly Kosar is a promising writer, brave enough to challenge audiences to face up to unpalatable truths. However, on this occasion, her play proves to be as indigestible as the mumburgers in her story.

Performance date: 30 June 2017

Photo: Lidia Crisafulli