Archive for June, 2018

Writer: William Shakespeare      Director: Blanche McIntyre


It may seem ironic that the Globe should launch its new production of The Winter’s Tale on one of the hottest evenings of the year, but anachronisms are rife in this, Shakespeare’s split personality play.

In temperatures that help the banks of the Thames to pass for Sicily, the tale unfolds. King Leontes suspects his heavily pregnant Queen, Hermione, of infidelity with Polixenes (Oliver Ryan), visiting King of Bohemia, and his uncontrollable jealousy leads him to a path of destruction. The play, believed to be one of Shakespeare’s later works, begins as a tragedy and then, suddenly, it isn’t. There is a sense that the Bard stopped halfway through writing it and told himself that he had done Othello already and needed to move in a different direction, towards reconciliation and forgiveness, in the final two acts.

Finding the range to make the transition from raging tyrant to kindly patriarch, it is the strength of Will Keen’s performance as Leontes that binds Blanche McIntyre’s free-flowing production together. He gives us a study of the loneliness that comes with power, pacing around agitatedly in self-torment.  The large pillars in James Perkins’ palatial stage design give him a place to skulk behind as his irrational fears fester and then they isolate him from the voices of reason in his court once he has embarked on his destructive course. After time has elapsed, Keen reappears, his voice and demeanour now those of a broken man, stripped of all traces of regality and seeking redemption where he once sought revenge.

Priyanga Burford’s Hermione is no whimpering victim. She is unusually forceful, a natural society hostess who suggests that she sees herself as her King’s equal. In this version of the play, Leontes’ jealousy could be caused just as much by her eclipsing him as by the possibility of her betraying him. Sirine Saba makes a fiery, but warm-hearted Paulina, Hermione’s loyal protector.

16 years elapse between the end of Act III and the beginning of Act IV and and the play takes its time to awaken from what could have been a long sleep. McIntyre throws colourful, high-spirited comedy at scenes in rural Bohemia and, aided by excellent work from Annette Badland as the Old Shepherd and Jordan Metcalfe as his/her son, she just about pulls the play through its sticky patch. Not quite a tragedy, not quite a comedy, The Winter’s Tale turns into a sweet romance, when Perdita (Norah Lopez-Holden) the daughter that Leontes has never seen, falls for Florizel (Luke MacGregor), the lost son of Polixenes.

As the play draws to its close, the challenge facing McIntyre is to make the preposterous first plausible and then moving. She shows a delicate touch, sealing a revival which, if not exactly seasonal, is certainly assured.

Performance date: 27 June 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Kiss Me, Kate (London Coliseum)

Posted: June 21, 2018 in Theatre

Music and lyrics: Cole Porter      Book: Bella and Samuel Spewack      Director: Jo Davies


Is it possible that what can no longer be spoken can still be sung? The Taming of the Shrew, once one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, is now rarely seen in our theatres, seemingly swept away on a tide of political correctness. On the other hand, Kiss Me, Kate, Cole Porter’s 1948 musical based upon the same play, remains a perennial favourite, revived in various forms at regular intervals.

The show made its West End debut in 1951 at this same theatre, now the home of English National Opera. Opera North’s revival first appeared in Leeds in 2015 and, after touring the United Kingdom, it now arrives in London for the first time.

The book by Bella and Samuel Spewick is constructed wittily, following a theatre company as it performs a production of …Shrew in Baltimore prior to Broadway. Actor/manager Fred Graham (Quirijn de Lang) and leading lady Lilli Vanessi (Stephanie Corley) are celebrating the first anniversary of their divorce and their real-life clashes are mirrored by the warfare between their characters in the play, Petruchio and Kate. As long as 70 years ago, the writers could have realised that Shakespeare’s proposition that all it takes to tame a difficult woman is a good spanking needed toning down and, by veiling it in mockery, they just about get away with it.

Even so, the eventual acceptance of subservience by both Kate and Liili draws hisses of disapproval from a 2018 audience, notwithstanding the conclusions being made more palatable by  Dutch baritone de Lang’s lack of real authority as either Petruchio or Fred. Similarly, Corley always seem to struggle to make her characters sufficiently shrewish to need too much taming. Shakespeare’s Bianca is played by flirty starlet Lois Lane (a zestful Zoë Rainey) whose less than super man, Bill Calhoun (a jauntily tap dancing Alan Burkitt) accumulates gambling debts between performances as Lucentio.

Most of Porter’s songs are timeless classics, although not all of them connect with the book as well as perhaps they should. The cheesy Wunderbar feels as if it was thrown in as an afterthought and it is a mystery what Too Darn Hot has to do with this show. However, it gives us a darn good second act opener in which Will Tuckett’s choreography shines. Some songs suit operatic voices better than others. Corley sings So In Love perfectly, but her sweet soprano tones drain all the venom out of I Hate Men.

When an opera company takes on a work created for musical theatre, it can be expected that what is gained in musicality may come at the expense of theatricality. Here the Opera North Orchestra, conducted by James Holmes, and the Opera North Chorus recreate the sounds of Broadway gloriously. Given the luxury of a huge company of singers and dancers, director Jo Davies’ production often looks unusually over-crowded, more typical of a Verdi opera than a Porter musical. She finds flashes of comic invention without aver nearing the consistent sparkle of Trevor Nunn’s 2012 revival at Chichester and then the Old Vic. As was the style in the 1940s, long gaps occur between musical numbers and these sections need many more injections of energy than they get here.

Kiss Me, Kate is a show that nearly always gets “stolen” near the end when the two mobsters chasing Bill’s debts tell us Brush Up Your Shakespeare. This version proves to be no exception as John Savournin and Joseph Shovelton nail the number with aplomb. It rounds off a mixed evening which is musically wunderbar, but slightly under the bar in some other respects. 

Performance date: 20 June 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Polly Stenham (after August Strindberg)      Director: Carrie Cracknell


If nothing else, Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s 1888 work Miss Julie has proved itself to be both durable and malleable. For example, in 2003, Patrick Marber moved the location to rural England and the time to 1945 with his After Miss Julie; more recently, Yaël Farber realised a version of the same play in a steamy modern South Africa with her Mies Julie. Now it is the turn of Polly Stenham, transplanting the drama to the North London suburb of Hampstead in the present day.

The play’s simple premise is that a lady of high birth and wealth becomes entangled with a lowly household servant, leading to (borrowing from another Strindberg title) a dance of death. Different societies behave in different ways and, everywhere, codes of morality, class structures and gender balances shift constantly. On the other hand, it is probable that human nature remains largely unchanged. The recurring fascination with the play comes from examining how Strindberg’s dark vision of the self-destructive side of our nature relates to new settings.

A full five minutes pass in Carrie Cracknell’s production before a word is spoken. Julie’s widowed father is away and she is hosting a wild birthday party, with flashing lights and thumping music. “This is 2018” is being screamed at us at unnecessary length. Gyrating revellers are silhouetted in the background and, below stairs in the basement kitchen, chef Jean and his fiancée Kristina (Thalissa Teixeira) are pilfering the booze and nibbles until Julie eventually descends.

The kitchen, spanning the entire width of the Lyttelton stage, could belong to a house that would occupy a large expanse of Hampstead Heath, but the coldness of Tom Scutt’s minimalist design works against the actors’ efforts to generate fire and passion, as does dialogue that is functional more than lyrical and witty only in flippant asides. Choreographed movement and stage effects catch the eye, but, ultimately, they are just as baffling here as in Cracknell’s recent Macbeth at the Young Vic.

Having been lauded for her performance as the young Princess Margaret in The Crown, Vanessa Kirby could be cornering the market for spoiled rich girls who fly in the face of convention. However, leaving aside suggestions of type-casting, her Julie is also touched by vulnerability and despair at the hollowness of her parasitic existence. She knows that she is a free spirit only because her father’s money allows her to be. Eric Kofi Abrefa’s Jean is a lightweight, a shallow opportunist aiming to open his own restaurant, who looks at first to be easy prey for Julie.

“If anyone conquered anything, I had you” claims Julie in post-coital triumph, but It is surprising that Stenham finds little more room for modern feminist themes and she even allows Jean to claim moral superiority. Her main assertion is that, in the modern age, class is determined by money alone. In Strindberg’s time, birth as well as wealth would have been the determining factors and the concept of servitude would have been clear. Now, Jean is a “servant” who is merely using his position as a stepping stone towards his own riches. 

19th Century audiences may have gasped in horror when Julie and Jean consummate their relationship, but, nowadays, the likely reaction will be shrugged shoulders and the comment “so why wouldn’t they?”. The passing of time has taken its toll on the impact of Strindberg’s messages, but we are still left wondering what new points Stenham wants to make in their place.

To work properly, all versions of Miss Julie need to be delivered as short, sharp shocks. At under 80 minutes straight through, Stenham’s version is certainly short, but its focus is often blurred and, apart from a scene which is wholly unsuitable for pet lovers, the shock waves that it sends out feel buffered. It may have dropped the word “Miss” from the original’s title, but, sadly, this production is still a miss anyway.

Performance date: 7 June 2018

Photo: Richard H Smith

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Co-author and writer: Simon Stephens      Co-author and composer: Karl Hyde      Co-author and director: Scott Graham


Masculism has perhaps become unfashionable at a time when, rightly, the movement for gender equality has gained urgent momentum. This new 90-minute piece, presented by Frantic Assembly as part of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), brings the male of the species back into the spotlight, with specific focus on father-son relationships.

The three co-authors put themselves at centre stage. Scott Graham (played by Declan Bennett), Karl Hyde (Mark Arends) and Simon Stephens (Nyasha Hatendi) convene on the pretext of gathering interviews of sons about their fathers in order to create a work of theatre. A potential interviewee, Luke (Craig Stein) turns out to be fatherless and stays around to serve as built-in critic. Seven all-male actors play the interviewees in separate scenes and intercutting with each other and a male voice choir emerges from the audience towards the end

Graham (from Corby), Hyde (from Kidderminster) and Stephens (from Stockport) make Fatherland almost as much about land as about fathers, reflecting on the geographical social mobility of post-World War II generations in England. They all originate from places “on the periphery of somewhere pretty interesting”, but they have moved on, leaving behind immobile fathers and parts of themselves. “What is the first memory of your father?” is always their first question and they hear memories ranging from the humdrum – sons watching Match of the Day and Steven Seagal films with their fathers – to the dramatic – disturbing accounts of final partings.

Accounts of dysfunction and incompatibility abound, with little sign of pride or joy. When Daniel (David Judge) wails aloud “No. We don’t say the word love…” repeatedly, he strikes at the theme that becomes the essence of this poignant work and the inarticulacy that so often blights family life becomes tangible. Hyde’s music (co-composed with Matthew Herbert) lifts scenes from mundanity, particularly in echoing male voice choruses, and imaginative movement brings stories to vivid life. Jon Clark’s superb lighting design merits specific mention.

In his wounding parting shot, Luke cements his position as a potential theatre critic by telling the three co-authors that what they discover is “just stories” and not something truthful. He is exactly right. Fatherland is haunted by disappearing values in a disappearing land, telling stories, but doing so without breaking down stereotypes, nor digging far beneath the surface, nor unearthing any universal truths that would bind the stories together. For all that, the sheer theatricality of the entire experience makes it worth a look and a listen.

Performance date: 31 May 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: