Archive for September, 2018

Writer: William Shakespeare      Director: Simon Godwin

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Forsaking togas and tiaras in favour of modern military uniforms and designer outfits, director Simon Godwin gives new life to William Shakespeare’s torrid account of a collision between power, politics and passion in the days of the Roman Empire. The age that it can take to perform the full version of this play may often wither the most enthusiastic of audiences, but, happily, there is no praying for a quick entrance by the asp here.

Anthony & Cleopatra combines the epic and the intimate. The Olivier Theatre is a house that always welcomes the former and challenges the latter and, if anything is missing in Godwin’s revival, it is a strong sense of the emotional hold that the central characters possess over each other. However, without significant cutting (the running time is still three hours and 30 minutes including an interval), this production’s triumph is in keeping us enthralled, at least until the particularly tricky last half hour.

At first, Ralph Fiennes’ Mark Antony has the look of a tired businessman, holidaying in Alexandria at the villa of his mistress, Sophie Okonedo’s tempestuous and capricious Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen. He receives news of his wife’s death while wearing an open beach shirt and swigging from a bottle of beer. He returns dutifully to Rome where he is part of the triumvirate running the Empire, along with Lepidus, played by Nicholas Le Provost as a pacifying but weak general, and Octavius Caesar, made by Tunji Kasim to appear as a quick-tempered, ambitious upstart bureaucrat.

The irony of the Italy of 2,000 years ago being ruled by a loose coalition and fending off the threat of invaders from the Mediterranean is not lost in this modern day version of the play. Meanwhile back in Alexandria, poolside and very drunk, Cleopatra learns of Antony’s politically motivated marriage of convenience to Caesar’s sister Octavia (Hannah Morrish) and all but shoots the messenger, Fisayo Akinade’s splendid Eros. This and a later scene are played for broad comedy and a peace conference between the triumvirate and invader Pompey (Sargon Yelda resembling a narcissistic martinet) descends into a drunken brawl.

It is Godwin’s willingness to jettison conventional staging that gives the play modern relevance and helps it to connect with a 2018 audience. It is an approach that may make the emotional core of the drama elusive, but its dividends are paid in the currency of clarity. Hildegard Bechtler’s wonderfully imaginative, but still functional set designs serve the production perfectly, with the revolving stage being used fully to avoid loss of momentum.

Tim McMullan as Antony’s lieutenant Enobarbus, giving his sardonic commentary on the events, stands out in a strong ensemble. Okonedo is a radiant and wilful Cleopatra, but she reveals the depth of the Queen’s passion for Antony only in her closing scenes. Fiennes is an actor who exudes authority as soon as he walks onto a stage, yet his most memorable scenes here come when Antony’s authority is dissipating as a result of misjudgements partly caused by his obsession with Cleopatra. Fiennes strides around the stage like a fatally wounded lion, agonised by his decline and desperate to recapture the strength that is slipping away from him.

Leaving the National Theatre and glancing across the River Thames, the Palace of Westminster, scene of countless public battles and private scandals, comes into view. If nothing else, Godwin’s impressive revival brings home how little things change over time.

Performance date: 26 September 2018

Photo: Johan Persson

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

The Other Place (Park Theatre)

Posted: September 25, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Sharr White      Director: Claire van Kempen

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

In American writer Sharr White’s 80-minute one-act play, the other place is a weekend retreat. It is also a dark area of the mind in which memories hide, delusions lurk and old mysteries resolve themselves without recourse to reason.

Juliana is 61, a medical practitioner who is now working in marketing for a drugs company. Played by Karen Archer, she is sarcastic and abrasive, speaking to an audience of doctors with confidence and authority. It is only when the outer layers of her persona are peeled away that we realise that her inner world is collapsing and that there is an alternative reality infiltrating interactions that we witness with her husband. We learn that Juliana is suffering from the onset of dementia.

Jonathan Fensom’s set is austere and functional, like a lecture theatre, with only one plain chair on the stage. It signifies the clinical environment that Juliana and her oncologist husband Ian (Neil McCaul) inhabit. It takes careful, methodical writing and superb acting to bring a thaw into these lives and reveal the emotional anguish that both of the characters are suffering. Eliza Collings works hard and to excellent effect in three prominent supporting roles

Juliana is convinced that Ian is having an affair with a work colleague and is preparing for a divorce. She is oblivious to his denials. In the background, there lies an unsolved mystery relating to the disappearance, at the weekend retreat 10 years earlier, of the couple’s young daughter. Juliana reports that she is receiving telephone calls from her and news of their son-in-law and grandchildren, but Ian remains indifferent. The marital disharmony at first seem baffling until we are allowed to delve deeper into the delusions brought about by Juliana’s illness. 

White’s play, getting its UK premiere here, tells its story in non-linear form. Facts emerge in jumbled order, perhaps as they exist in Juliana’s brain, and we are asked to piece them together, discarding segments that do not fit, to complete the jigsaw. It is an intriguing process, but Claire van Kempen’s uncluttered production gives it clarity and the production as a whole offers a fascinating perspective on an all-too-common human condition.

Performance date: 24 September 2018

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

Arabian Nights (Hoxton Hall)

Posted: September 20, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Nessah Muthy      Director: Daniel Winder

⭐️⭐️⭐️

A smell of burning incense fills the air and a faint haze lingers. Hoxton Hall, with its dark walls and ornate decorations, was once a Victorian Music Hall and it is certainly not short on atmosphere for Iris Theatre’s family-friendly telling of fables of the fabulous and fearsome, drawn from a bygone civilisation.

Writer Nessah Muthy frames the tales cleverly even if her dialogue never quite matches the colour and sparkle of the show’s costumes, designed by Maddy Ross-Mason. Sharazad (Sharon Singh) is a slave at the court of the woman-hating tyrant King Shahryar (Pravessh Raga) and protector of her younger sister Dunzayad (Izzy Jones). The King takes a new bride every evening only to have her killed the following morning and, in order to delay what seems to be the inevitable, Sharazad begins to enthral him with her tales.

Daniel Winder’s full-blooded production adapts the space to create intimacy. A thrust stage extends into the stalls, well below the neck-craningly high main stage and draws the audience into the storytelling. The centrepiece of the first half of the show is the story of Ali Baba ((Hemi Yeroham) and the treasure of the thieves’ cave; in the second half, Yeroham turns up again as an aged Sinbad, recalling his voyages, which are depicted using spectacular puppets, designed by Jonny Dixon.

With lashings of imagination, Winder conjures up an eye-catching show out of very little.                Maya Britto and Ikky Elyas join the four named previously to make up the six actors who are rotated skilfully to play all the roles, often behind grotesque masks, and to serve as puppeteers. The Sinbad story in particular has a cartoon-like feel which should appeal to children. The show is given an 8+ rating, but it does not shy away from the barbarism in the stories and many of the monstrous beasts and giant ogres that appear could prove more than a little scary.

Grown-ups may be over-familiar with the stories and, apart from occasional nods to modern feminist themes, Muthy finds little new to say to them. At 150 minutes (including interval), the show is much too long and there is a strong feeling that it includes at least one tale too many. This is a show to take the kids along to and provide a comforting shoulder for them to hide their frightened eyes when the monsters appear.

Performance date: 19 September 2018

Photograph: Ali Wright

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

Foxfinder (Ambassadors Theatre)

Posted: September 15, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Dawn King      Director: Rachel O’Riordan

⭐️⭐️⭐️

It is a bit like old times at the Ambassadors Theatre, the original home of The Mousetrap. Dawn King’s play, first seen at the tiny Finborough Theatre in 2011, is a creepy thriller set in an isolated part of rural England, where any knock on the door carries a threat.

This is one of the West End’s cosiest venues, but the audience can only look into the remote farmhouse set from the outside, rather than sit inside it, as at the Chelsea pub theatre. This matters, because, having established its premise, the play has very little plot and relies on atmosphere and suggested menace to build its tension. Gary McCann’s gloomy, imposing set, beautifully lit by Paul Anderson, does an excellent job to compensate. Stone stairs stretch up to the full height of the stage and a barren landscape forms an eerie backdrop.

The action takes place in a dystopian future when there is urban food rationing and England relies solely on home-grown produce. After a a no-deal Brexit perhaps? Even the weather has taken a turn for the worse and an authoritarian government keeps order and spreads fear by issuing propaganda about the dangers posed by foxes to communities and food production. In 2011, the term “fake news” had not come into common usage, so King’s themes now look rather prescient.

The mysterious death of a young son and a cat gone missing lead to suspicions that there could be foxes on the farm run by Samuel and Judith. This leads to the arrival of a government foxfinder William, a 19-year-old who had been raised in a state institution and who, it transpires, has a liking for self-flagellation. King throws us these interesting tit-bits of information about William, but she does not complete the jigsaw and misses out on opportunities to explore the psychology that underlies her story.

As William, Iwan Rheon strikes a good balance between a figure of authority and a confused boy, not allowing himself to challenge government policy, but increasingly doubting its validity. Paul Nicholls’ Samuel is a grief-stricken dad who turns into a fervent supporter of the anti-fox campaign as if he sees it as a means to release him from his pain. Heida Reed’s Judith is more rational, intent on keeping the farm, but quietly questioning the government line, encouraged by pro-fox neighbour Sarah (Bryony Hannah).

King’s writing is high on overt symbolism, but low on humour and thrills. There is neither enough depth nor warmth to any of the characters, which leads to Rachel O’Riordan’s taut production often feeling more chilly than chilling. As a political parable, the play makes its point, but, as a suspense thriller, it does not really go anywhere. Agatha Christie would never have allowed audiences to leave the Ambassadors before giving them a cracking dénouement.

Performance date: 14 September 2019

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

Misty (Trafalgar Studios)

Posted: September 14, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Arinzé Kene      Director: Omar Elerian

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Arinzé Kene’s 2017 play good dog established the writer as an astute commentator on modern urban tensions, with his narrator positioned on a balcony above a busy street, observing the comings and goings beneath him. Here, the writer gets down and dirty, rummaging around working class London as if to search for its soul. Kene himself plays the pivotal character who is a playwright named Arinzé Kene.

The production is transferring from the Bush Theatre into a West End more used to drawing room comedies and fantasy musicals and, probably, it never seen anything quite like it before. It is not so much that Kene thinks outside the box, more that he refuses to acknowledge that any box exists. It is part play in monologue form and part cabaret, featuring music, poetry, physical comedy and so on. Occasions when the show threatens to descend into anarchy or even grind to a halt simply add to the essential rawness of it all.

A dichotomy forms, showing us Kene the writer with a mission to represent life and Kene the man trying to live it. The former strives to create something real, but detractors accuse him of selling out by writing “a n****r play” or “urban safari drama s**t”. Pitching ideas to agents, he comes up against the remnants of racism that linger on in the liberal arts establishment.

Kene the man meets aggression on a night bus, copes with everyday relationship issues and gets chased by police, the latter story being related to hilarious effect with a brilliantly executed punchline. Omar Elerian’s production moves with the rhythms of Kene’s writing, expanding it with projected city images. Shiloh Coke and Adrian McLeod provide musical backing. 

Passionate and compassionate, vulnerable and aggressive, humorous and sorrowful, Kene’s moods and the tempo of his delivery change in an instant. A part-spoken torch song which builds into a tormented lament, could be followed by an angry diatribe, with Kene, metaphorically and literally, pumping up the balloon until it explodes.

Kene has the leading role, but London itself warrants equal billing. Repeatedly, it is described as a city creature, with transport routes being its veins and arteries, blood cells its people and viruses its attackers. The most significant virus is seen as gentrification or “modern day colonisation” which drives working people from the city and leaves Kene unable to get a simple cup of tea or coffee. His argument is not new, but his fervour and acerbic wit give it fresh strength.

The show is a rag bag of ideas and theatre forms which should never work but somehow does and, at around two hours (including interval) it feels too short, There are no pigeon holes into which Misty would slot, no single words or phrases that can describe it. Kene could be a force for greater understanding or a force for change, but let’s just settle for calling him a force of nature.

Performance date: 13 September 2018

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

Book, music and lyrics: Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe      Director: Andy Fickman

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

When Veronica, the 17-year-old heroine of Heathers The Musical, gets trapped in a cow field, confronted by two threatening thugs, we feel inclined to ask why she does not pick up her mobile ‘phone. But this is 1989 and we quickly realise that curses can also be blessings. At least Veronica’s school life of intolerable peer pressure and savage bullying is not being made infinitely worse by social media.

Technology aside, nothing much in school life seems to have changed in the near 30 years since the release of Heathers, the cult hit film on which this musical is based. At Westerburg High School (“home of the Rottweilers”) in deepest Ohio, good-hearted Veronica is taunted, by the three “popular” girls, all named Heather. She decides at first to ingratiate herself with their clique, but, when a new kid, brooding, damaged Jason “JD” Dean, arrives, he becomes her boyfriend and they combine to adopt a different approach. They poison the principal Heather, making it look like suicide, and embark on a killing spree to take out the other school bullies.

The show, first seen in New York, is an audacious cross between Grease and Arsenic and Old Lace, making the audience root for the killers against the bad guys, their tormentors. As in all the best black comedies, there are long spells which leave little room for raising moral questions. The fact that Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe are credited jointly with the book, music and lyrics signals a unity of purpose in the show’s creation which is confirmed when the elements are seen to knit closely together, the song lyrics propelling the story and the music underpinning it all. Andy Fickman’s inventive, fast-paced direction and Gary Lloyd’s fun-filled choreography complement their work perfectly.

Most of the actors playing the school kids may have only distant memories of being 17, but we must pass over that, because this superb company is bursting with raw energy. Carrie Hope Fletcher is dynamite as Veronica and Jamie Muscato, both romantic and sinister as JD, matches her all the way as he transforms from sociopath into psychopath. The three Heathers (Jodie Steele, T’Shan Williams and Sophie Isaacs) are as malevolent as anything in Macbeth, with their All-American male equivalents (Christopher Chung and Dominic Andersen) imposing a reign of terror and looking splendid in their matching underpants.

David Shields’ split-level set design is simple enough, but his costumes brighten up the show, made even more garish by Ben Cracknell’s lighting. Everything needs to be in the worst possible taste, including the big song and dance sequences, which are built around, for example, the reading of a suicide note and an attempted gang rape. As the show becomes more and more outrageous, it becomes more and more inspired and the interval arrives with the audience yelling for more.

The second half begins in a similarly irreverent vein with a bereaved dad (Jon Boydon) defying homophobic jibes and belting out I Love My Dead Gay Son! in the style of a Baptist preacher, supported by a rousing gospel choir. However, soon after this, the show starts to back-pedal and the bubble around the story’s warped vision bursts, punctured by conventional morality. Now JD becomes recognisable as the type of gun-wielding menace that has, in reality, plagued American communities for decades. Once such thoughts have been allowed to enter our heads, what  had been a delicious black comedy edges towards insensitivity and the still lively musical numbers feel like sugar coating for a cyanide pill.

Loss of nerve in the final quarter is, of course, a flaw inherited from the show’s source material, but this does not need to detract too much from the deadly delight of what has gone before. With several shows scheduled for closure, the West End currently needs a new smash hit musical and this could well be it.

Performance date: 10 September 2018

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

Wasted (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: September 13, 2018 in Theatre

Music: Christopher Ash      Book and lyrics: Carl Miller      Director: Adam Lenson

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

If the gentle sounds of Chopin would fit well with the novels of Jane Austen, what would suit the Brontés? Iron Maiden? The proposition is carried forward in this new musical, telling the story the Bronté siblings and setting it to a pulsating rock score which reflects the harshness of life in Victorian Yorkshire, struggles against poverty and disease and an unforgiving moorland backdrop.

There is already an established link between the Brontés and the rock world and Siobhan Athwal’s appearance playing Emily, with wild dark hair and eccentric movements, makes a reference to it that seems unlikely to be coincidental. 40 Years ago, when Kate Bush was recording Wuthering Heights, a show like this might have been developed as a concept album and, now in 2018, we could have been seeing a concert performance of that album. Perhaps director Adam Lenson had this thought in mind for his staging, the four performers, dressed in drab period costumes, all using hand-held microphones on a wooden platform with the audience on three sides of them and a four-piece band on the fourth.

Natasha Barnes gives a powerhouse performance as the gritty Charlotte, last survivor of the siblings and narrator of the story. “F*** off, I’m writing Jane Eyre” she yells at Anne, signalling her determination to succeed as a writer. Yet even she is forced to marry a lowly curate, the very thing that she would not allow the heroine of her most famous novel to do. Athwal’s Emily is a brooding, tormented genius who insists “no one must know that Emily Bronté writes anything”. Molly Lynch’s Anne is quieter and more sensible, fretting over the impossibility of finding a husband and thereby escaping the family’s parsonage home in the town of Hawarth. Their father, curate Patrick Bronté is not seen in the show.

There is comedy and pathos in Matthew Jacobs Morgan’s portrayal of Branwell, the only brother. A failure as an artist, unable to hold down a job, a drunkard and a womaniser, he has sad delusions of grandeur, likening himself to Napoleon. “Branwell Bronté had sisters; who would have known?” he proclaims, seeming to recognise the irony in the words as soon as he speaks them.

Carl Miller’s book and lyrics are more concerned with establishing and developing characters than with driving forward a strong central narrative and each song becomes the heart of an episode in the story. Christopher Ash’s throbbing hard and soft rock score demands a second hearing (bring on that concept album) and, even if some of the singing is uneven, Joe Bunker’s band does full justice to the music, with himself on keyboards, Kat Bax on bass, , Nathan Gregory on drums and Isabel Torres on guitars.

As was common in the 19th Century, the three women writers all adopted male pseudonyms. Talk of “the tyranny of patriarchal Britain” occurs repeatedly and an overlong ending emphasises the story’s feminist themes, leading into the title song which bemoans lives wasted – Branwell’s obviously, but also, implicitly, those of oppressed and undervalued women everywhere. The songs give the show a thrilling energy and even if this is not yet a fully-formed musical, it is certainly not an evening wasted.

Performance date: 12 September 2018

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