August to December 2017 Quick Catch-up

Posted: December 30, 2017 in Theatre

I’ve been rather busy travelling and doing things other than writing about theatre this year, but still not too busy to see lots of shows. So here is a catch-up of some of those that I saw in the August-December period but did not get round to reviewing in full:


The Twilight Zone (Almeida Theatre)

Adaptor: Anne Washburn      Director: Richard Jones


When Mr Burns, Anne Washburn’s post-apocalyptic reflection on The Simpsons, appeared at the Almeida in 2014, it divided opinions sharply and I’m afraid that I fell on the side of the nays. History could be repeating itself with this collction of creepy tales adapted by the same writer from the cult television series which reflected the paranoias of 1950s America. This slick production has its moments, but the creative team often seems to forget that, for this sort of stuff to succeed,  it has to be taken seriously and intercutting of the tales works against involving us and thereby spooking us. This leaves a show that is only intermitently engaging and too much a pallid parody of the paranormal.

Peformance date: 20 December 2017


Belleville (Donmar Warehouse)

Writer: Amy Herzog      Director: Michael Longhurst


Amy Herzog’s 2013 play digs beneath the surface of the superficial lives of a seemingly successful 30-ish modern American married couple living in Paris. The play begins as a rather tiresome and unfunny romcom, but the writer, director and two stars, James Norton and Imogen Poots show great skill in guiding us, almost imperceptibly, to much darker places.

Performance date: 15 December 2017




Cell Mates (Hampstead Theatre)

Writer: Simon Gray      Director: Edward Hall


Simon Gray’s 1995 play gained unwanted fame for the sudden departure from the original West End production of one of its stars, Stephen Fry. It is based upon the true story of the 1966 escape from Wormwood Scrubs of convicted spy George Blake, aided by fellow inmate, Dubliner Sean Bourke. Alan Bennett’s plays telling similar stories have examined the nature of treachery and of being English, but Gray is content to give us an “Odd Couple” style bitter-sweet comedy, the cell of the title being a Moscow flat. The ever reliable Geoffrey Streatfeild is engagingly enigmatic as Blake, Irish actor Emmet Byrne does an eye-catching turn as Bourke and the high production values associated with Hampstead make this an entertaining, if undemanding treat.

Performance date: 13 December 2017


Barnum (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Book: Mark Bramble      Music: Cy Coleman      Lyrics: Michael Stewart      Directo: Gordon Greenberg


I’ve seen Barnum twice before (in New York with Jim Dale in the lead and at the London Palladium with Michael Crawford) and I really can’t think why I chose to see it again. It is a show that is all about the trimmings – colour, circus acts, dancing – which help us to overlook the thinnest of books and what is possibly the blandest collection of songs ever to emerge from Broadway. A charismatic performer in the eponymous role also helps to mask the show’s shortcomings. The little Menier is turned into a big top and, unsurprisingly, the trimmings here are top class. However, Marcus Brigstocke, an amiable chap, offers us a PT Barnum – canny showman, impresario and politician – who wanders around, grinning broadly, like a little boy lost. But then Brigstocke himself seems exactly that heading up a musical. Failing to walk a tightrope (three times at this performance) is, on its own, forgivable, but it contributes to an overall impression of incompetence, suggesting that this could be the worst miscasting of 2017.

Performance date: 8 December 2017

Photo: Nobby Clark


Barber Shop Chronicles (National Theatre, Dorfman)

Writer: Inua Ellams      Director: Bijan Sheibani


It was good to catch one of the National’s biggest recent hits which I missed first time round a few months ago. Linking London with cities across Africa through vignettes with the common setting of a barber’s shop, the production has freshness and life-affirming energy, leaving behind the message that there is more that unites communities than divides them.

Performance date: 29 November 2017


Big Fish (The Other Palace)

Book: John August      Music and lyrics: Andrew Lippa      Director: Nigel Harman


Some people will pass this off as sentimental tosh and maybe they will be right. However, quite a few others can take watching It’s a Wonderful Life over and over and this show is for us. Kelsey Grammar is a commanding presence as the dying dad, a big fish only in his small town America pond,  who believes that little people can achieve big things and that dreams and reality can merge into one. As his younger self, Jamie Muscato is superb as are Clare Burt as his wife and Matthew Seadon-Young as his disbelieving son. It is also good to see that songwriter Andrew Lippa is, this year, starting to get the recognition that he deserves in his country of birth.  A small musical and not to everyone’s taste, but it gave me a warm feeling that lingered long after Frasier had left the building.

Performance date: 11 November 2017


The Retreat (Park Theatre)

Writer: Sam Bain      Director: Kathy Burke


Think Only Fools and Horses. Think Rodney escaping to a simple life in a remote retreat run by some obscure sect. Think Del turning up to lure him back to the big smoke. Think all those things and you have pretty well got the flavour of this amiable light comedy – three half-hour sitcom episodes strung together and getting a bit stretched. Of course director Kathy Burke knows a bit about sitcoms and she gets very funny performances from Adam Deacon (as the Del figure) and Samuel Anderson as his gullible younger brother.

Performance date: 9 November 2017


Young Marx (Bridge Theatre)

Writers: Richard Bean and Clive Coleman      Director: Nicholas Hytner


A big welcome to London’s newest theatre – great ambience, comfortable seats, excellent sight lines, fit for purpose facilities – what more can we ask? A great show perhaps? This opening production, which turns the chaotic early life of Karl Marx into a rip-roaring farce, is more hit than miss and Rory Kinnear, Oliver Chris and Nancy Carroll all have great fun with it. However, the play is never quite as funny as the name of Richard Bean (1M2G) may lead us to expect and it becomes more effective when it gets serious in the last quarter. A nice appetiser for, hopefully, meatier dishes to follow here.

Performance date: 8 November 2017


Trestle (Southwark Playhouse)

Writer: Stewart Pringle      Director: Cathal Cleary


It is good to be reminded that people of my own generation do not have to be portrayed as infirm, dying or suffering from dementia. Stewart Pringle’s two-hander, winner of this year’s Papatango award, is warm and perceptive, chronicling weekly encounters between Harry and Denise in a northern village hall; as his meeting ends, hers is about to begin. The play is low-key and humorous, borrowing some of the flavour of Last of the Summer Wine. The suggestion made in some quarters that Trestle would be better suited to radio may be a compliment to the quality of the dialogue, but it is piffle, mainly because it undervalues the excellent contributions of the two actors, Gary Lilburn and Connie Walker.

Performance date: 3 November 2017


Slaves of Solitude (Hampstead Theatre)

Writer: Nicholas Wright      Director: Jonathan Kent


At first sight, the set, a dining room in a Surrey boarding house during World War II, suggests an impending performance of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables and suggestions of Rattigan do not end there. However, this is an adaptation of a little known novel by Patrick Hamilton about an independent woman finding her way though the war years and emerging stronger. Fenella Woolgar is superb.

Performance date: 31 October 2017


The Lady from the Sea (Donmar Warehouse)

Writer: Henrik Ibsen (new version by Elinor Cook)      Director: Kwame Kwei-Armah


It is a long way from the freezing temperatures of Norway to the scorching heat of the Caribbean. but director Kwame Kwei-Armah takes Ibsen’s play on exactly that journey. Familiar Ibsen themes of female suppression and struggles for freedom survive intact and, accepting that this is not the cream of the playwright’s crop, it all works rather well.

Performance date: 23 October 2017


Albion (Almeida Theatre) 

Writer: Mike Bartlett      Director: Rupert Gould


Mike Bartlett re-imagines Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in an English Country Garden and, although the countless state of the nation metaphors get more than a little muddled, the drama at the play’s heart sizzles. Victoria Hamilton leads a superb cast.

Performance date: 19 October 2017


The Lie (Menier Chocolate Factory) 

Writer: Florian Zeller     Translator: Christopher Hampton      Director: Lindsay Posner


The Zeller/Hampton team certainly like squeezing blood out of a stone. Their The Truth was a success here last year, a snappy, diverting piece on marital infidelity. So here we go again with what is as near as makes no difference the same play, but what was amusing first time round is now just tiresome. The likes of Samantha Bond and Alexander Hanson can perform this sort of stuff expertly with their eyes closed, but does anyone really care?

Performance date: 13 October 2017


Knives in Hens (Donmar Warehouse) 

Writer: David Harrower      Director: Yaël Farber


Yaël Farber redeems herself at least partially after the debacle of Salomé at the National with this intriguing little play constructed around themes of literacy and female liberation. The writer lays on the symbolism much too thickly, but the play benefits from being enigmatic and it is short enough for us not to tire of it.

Performance date: 6 October 2017


Prism (Hampstead Theatre)

Writer and director: Terry Johnson


A melancholic look back at the life and career of legendary cinematographer and film director Jack Cardiff, as seen through the prism of dementia in his twilight years. The play is full of warm, gentle humour. The central role fits Robert Lindsay like a glove and Claire Skinner does a mean Katherine Hepburn, doubling as Cardiff’s wife.

Performance date: 4 October 2017


Aladdin (Prince Edward Theatre)

Music: Alan Menken      Lyrics: Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin      Book: Chad Beguelin      Director/Choreographer: Casey Nicholaw


I have never been a great advocate of the “Disneyfication” of musical theatre and this adaptation of the 1992 animated feature does little to change my mind. It is slick, colourful and spectacular, ready to be franchised in near-identical productions all over the world. Having transferred from Broadway, the West End production is now a year into its run and Trevor Dion Nicholas is a brilliant Genie. Otherwise, the songs are only so-so, the show as a whole is completely soulless and, worst of all, Widow Twanky is nowhere to be seen.

Performance date: 29 September 2017


What Shadows (Park Theatre)

Writer: Chris Hannan      Director: Roxana Silbert


Chris Hannan’s play is a powerful reflection on the life of controversial politician Enoch Powell, centring particularly on the infamous 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech. To its credit, the play neither glorifies nor vilifies its central figure, balancing his right to speak freely against an assessment of the hurt inflicted by him. A mesmerising performance by Ian McDiarmid captures the essence of the politician perfectly, showing him to have been a flawed human being who was simply out of step with the times in which he lived.

Performance date: 28 September 2017


Wings (Young Vic)

Writer: Arthur Kopit      Director: Natalie Abrahami


On her last appearance at the Young Vic, Juliet Stevenson was buried up to her neck in sand. Now she flies through the air. Arthur Kopit’s play about an aviation pioneer coming to terms with the effects of a stroke was written for radio and the director’s attempt to give it a visual dimension has the central character on wires hovering above the stage for almost the entire performance. Stevenson shows remarkable agility, prepared to suffer for her art, but, for much of the time, the play itself also goes over our heads.

Performance date: 26 September 2017



Follies (National Theatre, Olivier)

Book: James Goldman      Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim      Director: Dominic Cooke


When Follies was semi-staged at the Royal Albert Hall a couple of years back, it seemed to serve as confirmation that the economic realities of modern theatre make a full-scale revival almost impossible. Surely only the National could find the resources and, with a company of almost forty and a 20-plus piece orchestra, here it is – a dream come true in every sense. Dominic Cooke’s revival does not resolve all issues with James Goldman’s flawed book, just most of them and he reconciles the melancholic themes with Stephen Sondheim’s matchless music and lyrics. There are times when each note seems to shed a tear or skip with joy. Among the ageing ladies returning to the home of their former glories in the golden era of Broadway and facing up to their younger selves and their lost opportunities, Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee and Tracie Bennett stand out, but Follies is essentially an ensemble piece. We should savour this immaculate production, because, like the follies themselves, we may never see its like again.

Performance date: 23 September 2017


Oslo (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Writer: JT Rogers      Director: Bartlett Sher


Sitting in on Israeli/Palestinian peace talks has never featured highly on my bucket list, but JT Rogers’ drama, this year’s Tony Award winner for Best New Play, somehow makes the idea palatable. The key comes from the writer realising that the outcome of any negotiations depends less on the issues being discussed than on the human beings involved. Accordingly, his account of secret discussions held in Oslo in the early 1990s is filled with characters that are richly drawn and superbly played by a fine company. The play is lifted by unexpected humour, so that even the details of the positions held by the two seemingly irreconcilable sides become riveting.  The resulting peace accord may have been short lived, but the message that talks held away from the glare of the media spotlight and without high public expectations can succeed lives on. Can anyone think of any modern day negotiators that could learn from this?

Performance date: 20 September 2017


Against (Almeida Theatre)

Writer: Christopher Shinn       Director: Ian Rickson


The Almeida did not achieve its phenomenal recent run of successes without being prepared to take risks, so perhaps it is inevitable that there will be the occasional near miss. However, such is the good will held in store for the Islington powerhouse that lapses can be quickly forgiven and, really, this one is not all that bad. Ben Wishaw has  the magnetic presence needed to play a modern day Messiah, a computer billionaire with a mission to oppose violence all over the world. Christopher Shinn’s play is packed with interesting ideas, but, sadly, they do not quite connect together.

Performance date: 29 August 2017


Apologia (Trafalgar Studios)

Writer: Alexi Kaye Campbell      Director: Jamie Lloyd


I admired Alexi Kaye Campbell’s early plays, but, following Sunset at the Villa Thalia at the National last year, this is the second to have disappointed me. Stockard Channing plays an acid-tongued American-born matriarch who has, seemingly, spent too much time pursuing her career as a writer and too little time caring for the needs of her two, now adult, sons. As a straightforward account of family dysfunction, the play is entertaining enough, working best in comedy scenes. The problem is that the writer teases us with the prospect of a much deeper and more interesting exploration of cross generational issues and he never fully delivers.

Performance date: 17 August 2017


Girl From the North Country (Old Vic)

Writer and director: Conor McPherson      Music and lyrics: Bob Dylan


Conor McPherson’s play about human hardship during America’s depression era feels like the perfect match for Bob Dylan’s sorrowful songs and this beautifully performed show should have had me knocking on Heaven’s door. Unfortunately, I failed to connect with it to the extent that I wanted and expected and, for that, I can can only blame the Old Vic. Uncomfortable, cramped seats, appalling sight lines and a traditional configuration that distances the audience from the stage all take their toll. Under, the previous Artistic Directorship, an in-the-round configuration was introduced and it yielded what was possibly one of the most successful periods in the theatre’s history. I urge the current regime to consider changes.

Performance date: 16 August 2017


Yerma (Young Vic)

Writer and director: Simon Stone (from Federico Garcia Lorca)


This feels a bit like catching a great film on DVD after missing it in cinemas. Yerma sold out at the Young Vic in 2016 and it returns in a blaze of glory. Simon Stone brings Lorca’s drama of a woman driven to insanity by childlessness bang up to date and Billie Piper tears into the lead role with one of the greatest performances seen in recent years, fully deserving of all the accolades and awards.

Performance date: 4 August 2017


The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13.75 (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Book and lyrics: Jake Brunger      Music and lyrics: Pippa Cleary      Director: Luke Sheppard


Oh how I hated this! It is possible (albeit unlikely) that I would have been amused by Sue Townsend’s creations 45 or so years ago, but this musical adaptation prompts neither mirth nor feelings of nostalgia. Her clichéd view of British working class family life in the early 70s now feels sneering, patronising and offensive. The tone is set to appeal to a young audience, but it is hard to imagine that today’s teenagers would find much to relate to in a world where Facebook was still a distant dream and schoolteachers wielded canes. Songs inspired by the music of the 70s could have helped to justify this adaptation, but all we are offered is the brand of bland, forgettable pop that seems to exist exclusively in the very worst of British musicals. Of those involved, only the kids in the cast can escape blame. Horrible!

Performance date: 1 August 2017


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