Archive for June, 2019

The Knot (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Posted: June 22, 2019 in Theatre

Writer and director: Dan Daniel

⭐️⭐️

My review can currently be seen at: http://www.thereviewshub.com/the-knot-old-red-lion-theatre-london and will appear here from 24 June.

Performance date: 20 June 2019

Photo: Dan Daniel

Composer and lyricist: Adam Guettel      Writer: Craig Lucas      Director: Daniel Evans

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Once upon a time, wealthy Americans could stroll through Italian cities, unhampered by hordes of other tourists, and get swept off their feet by the pick of the lusty locals. The Light in the Piazza harks back to the 1950s, when air travel was established and few could afford it, but the surprise is that this musical version made its debut on Broadway as recently as 2005, winning the Tony Award for Best Score in that year. The only previous production in the United Kingdom was at the Curve Theatre, Leicester in 2009.

The 1962 Hollywood adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novel is the sort of film that can crop up on television on a Sunday afternoon and require the use of a small pack of tissues. The plot is filled out with romantic slush, the levels of which might have caused embarrassment to Barbara Cartland, and Adam Guettel’s lush score for this musical rises to the call for unbridled romanticism.

The rich Americans are Margaret Johnson (Renée Fleming) and her daughter, Clara, played by former Disney Channel star Dove Cameron, dressed appropriately to resemble a fairy tale princess. Margaret explains that Clara is “younger than her age”, having been kicked in the head by a horse as a child, while Clara stares dreamily at Florence’s statues of naked men and at the handsome young signori on their motor scooters, perhaps connecting the two.

The first to dismount his Lambretta and pursue Clara is Fabrizio, played by Rob Houchen as a novice Romeo, to great comic effect. While Fabrizio is stealing Clara’s heart, Houchen is stealing large chunks of the show. Alex Jennings is gifted the sort of light comedy role in which he always excels, cast as Fabrizio’s father, who, naturally, has an eye for Margaret.

Daniel Evans directs the first half with the lightest of touches, but his production gets slightly bogged down in the second half, when it feels as if everyone is taking it all too seriously. This is certainly more than a concert performance, but the presence of the Orchestra of Opera North, conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, on stage and visible throughout, suggests that the correct description is “semi-staged”. Robert Jones’ set design has the right Florentine feel, but there are no changes to reflect the numerous locations where the action is raking place.

With this orchestra performing in a grand concert hall and a company led by one of the world’s greatest operatic sopranos (Fleming), the clues were there that this was always going to be a show to hear more than one to see. Guettel’s compositions are a strange hybrid of Broadway and 19th/20th Century Italian opera, but this production tilts the balance towards the latter. When Houchen, resembling a slimmed-down Pavarotti, sings Passeggiata fully in Italian, the links to Puccini become clear. Two duets – Say it Somehow (Cameron and Houchen) and Let’s Walk (Fleming and Jennings) – stand out, but the indisputably lovely score does not have enough of the variety that fans of Broadway musicals tend to expect.

It is often the case with semi-staged shows that the expansion of the music to an epic scale can diminish the impact of other elements. Here, Guettel’s lyrics and Craig Lucas’s book feel no more than adequate to hold the show together and advance the wafer-thin story, while secondary characters, played skilfully by Marie McLaughlin, Celinde Shoemaker, Malcolm Sinclair, Liam Tamne and others, struggle to break through.

Needless to say, Clara and Fabrizio live happily ever after, or at least until after the final bows. No evening spent listening to beautiful music, played impeccably, and hearing the likes of the magnificent Fleming hitting the high notes can be one wasted. This one, packed with nostalgic charm, certainly isn’t, but the experience feels incomplete and so not of today.

Performance date: 18 June 2019

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

Strange Fruit (Bush Theatre)

Posted: June 19, 2019 in Theatre

Writer Caryl Phillips.     Director: Nancy Medina

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

With news of immigration injustices still fresh in the mind and with the National Theatre’s current adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel, Small Island, having thrown fresh light on them, there is a timely feel to Caryl Phillips’ intense new drama. Set in the 1980s, the play examines how the Marshall family, a woman who emigrated to London from the Caribbean as part of the Windrush generation and her two sons, have adapted to their new home two decades later. 

“The most important part of knowing where you’re going is knowing where you’re from” claims the older son, Alvin (Tok Stephen), explaining why he and his brother Errol (Jonathan Ajayi) crave to re-connect with their roots in the West Indies and, further back, Africa. The play, which is about identity and belonging, begins with Alvin absent, having gone to meet relatives left behind, at his grandfather’s funeral, and to try and trace news of his estranged father, an international cricketer who had turned to drink.

In a particularly moving scene, the mother, Vivian (Rakie Ayola), recounts to her neighbour, Vernice (Debra Michaels), the racist rejection that she suffered on her arrival in London and tears of disappointment drip from her every word. For all that, her objective had remained to integrate into London life, raising her sons to have steady jobs and become part of the predominantly white community. University drop-out Alvin sees her as “too busy playing white”, while his rebellious brother is “too busy playing black”.

The smouldering anger of Stephen’s Alvin contrasts with the uncontainable fire of Ajayi’s Errol. The younger brother sees everything in terms of race, supporting West Bromwich Albion because they are the only team at that time to have black players. He is a budding revolutionary who plots direct action and treats his pregnant white girlfriend, Shelley (Tilly Steele) as if she is a target for gaining revenge for black suppression.

Running at well over three hours (including an interval), the play is too long, occasionally losing focus and director Nancy Medina does not inject the pace that some stodgy scenes need. However, the production bursts into life with Alvin’s return home, having found himself as rejected and isolated in the Caribbean as his mother had been when she first arrived in London. Ajayi, Ayola and Stephen are all superb as the conflicting visions of their characters collide.

It says much for Phillips’ writing of key scenes and for the acting of them that the play is able to transcend seeming misjudgements in Medina’s production. The Bush Theatre, an adaptable space, is configured in the round, which proves to be of no obvious benefit, but, far worse, Max Johns’ design incorporates what appears to be an empty paddling pool, an irrelevance which impedes the actors’ movement around the stage. Ironically, Phillips describes the play’s setting, the Marshalls’ living room, in meticulous detail in the printed text. There is a mock-up of it in the theatre foyer, but, sadly, the absence of a sense of place inside the theatre itself proves detrimental to the drama. 

The play demonstrates how seeds sown by one generation can result in a bitter harvest for the next and leads us to question how the consequences of historical racism are still being felt 30 years further on. Strange Fruit is slow to ripen and it starts to go off during its dragged out ending, but juicy scenes in the middle make it memorable and more than worthwhile seeing.

Performance date: 17 June 2019

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

Afterglow (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: June 14, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: S Asher Gelman.     Director: Tom O’Brien

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

With this year’s Olivier-Award winner, Mathew Lopez’ The Inheritance, having followed quickly on the heels of successful revivals of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, London has not, in recent times, been short of dramas that chronicle the lives of gay men in America. The trend continues with Afterglow, a 90-minute play by S Asher Gelman that has already been a hit off-Broadway.

Considered together, these plays reveal a fascinating track that runs from the guilt and uncertainty of the ‘60s, through the AIDS-stricken ‘80s and onto the confidence of the modern day, brought about partly by legal recognition of same sex relationships. Yet each era has brought its own problems and Afterglow puts the focus on an age-old predicament – the tussle between monogamy and promiscuity. An “eternal triangle” lies at the play’s heart, indicating that straight and gay relationships could now be fully aligned.

Josh and Alex are a New York thirty-something married couple, both with successful careers, who are preparing tor parenthood. They have what they describe as an open relationship and the play begins with them having invited the younger Darius to share their bed. “Love is easy, relationships are work” Josh asserts and the play explores how what is meant to be a casual encounter grows and undermines the foundations of seemingly stable lives.

Gelman’s writing fuses heartfelt emotion with acerbic wit and there is hardly a hint of outdated gay stereotyping. The open thrust stage is three-quarters filled by a king-size bed, the components of which part and re-converge for swift scene-changes, perhaps mirroring the shifting relationships in the play. 

At the beginning, there comes a string of scenes that revolve around sexual encounters and, although virtually no one is going to be shocked by them any more, they generate a coldness that defies their steamy nature and detaches the characters from the audience. However, the triumphs of director Tom O’Brien’s pacy production come when, gradually, the trio’s inner selves are revealed.

Sean Hart’s Josh has a restless air. He is an attention-seeker, described as like a puppy dog, and one “owner“ may not be able to give him all the love that he needs. Danny Mahoney’s Alex is steadier, but he is a workaholic who has difficulty in satisfying Josh’s demands and he sees no harm in agreeing to his husband having one-on-one meetings with Darius. Jesse Fox’s Darius begins as a carefree, playful youth who revels in having a wide choice of sex partners, but then comes to tire of being the “other” man and craves to be part of something more meaningful.

When the open relationships become infiltrated by doubts and deceptions, a path is laid along which all three protagonists are to find themselves trapped, albeit for different reasons, and the stark inevitability that one or more of them will get hurt becomes clear. Afterglow is a provocative, soul-baring piece that throws a piercing light on relationships that are very much of today.

Performance date: 11 June 2019

Photo: Darren Bell

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

Garry (White Bear Theatre)

Posted: June 7, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Sophie Treadwell      Director: Graham Watts

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Sophie Treadwell’s most famous play, Machinal, is widely held in high esteem and was revived in London only last year at the Almeida Theatre. Therefore, it is surprising that one of her later works would have to wait 65 years to receive its World Premiere here. Or is it?

Garry is a psychological drama that highlights the angsts of young Americans in the mid-‘50s and condenses them into an intense two hours. The play can be interpreted as subverting the American dream and it is not difficult to understand why audiences of its own era could have struggled to digest it, if given the chance to try. Treadwell addresses taboo topics – homosexuality, prostitution and rape – but her approach is much more head-on than that of her contemporaries, most obviously Tennessee Williams.

Vulnerability and danger are contrasted well in Thomas Martin’s Garry, showing touches of both James Dean and James Cagney. At one point, he is the lost adolescent, deeply damaged in childhood and craving for love and, at the next, he is volatile and unpredictable, as he gets drawn inexorably into violent crime. Having always been a target for predatory gay men, he fights to come to terms with his own latent homosexuality.

His marriage to Wilma (Phebe Alys) is eventually consummated after several months, but, as his sister Peggy (Claire Bowman) astutely points out, Garry needs to commit an act of violence in order to be capable of bringing this about. The marriage is more mother-son and father-daughter than husband-wife, as both Garry and Wilma look to find substitutes for their respective parents. The play is filled with Freudian references, as dead parents also haunt Peggy and Dave (Matthew Wellard), a newspaper reporter who is trying to prise Wilma away from Garry.

The central theme of Machinal – finding an escape route out of the drudgery of life for America’s oppressed underclass (particularly female) – resurfaces here. Peggy is a brassy society hooker, who urges Wilma, a naive country girl from Oklahoma, to follow her lead in preference to working for a pittance and achieving no life at all.

Director Graham Watts’ production is solid, but Treadwell has left him with too many problems to resolve everything satisfactorily. Her narrative arc feels incomplete, with inconsistencies in characterisations and plotting. Some scenes are marred by stilted dialogue, made to sound worse in this production by dodgy American accents. That apart, the actors give it their best shots to make the drama absorbing.

When a work by a notable playwright lies buried for over half a century it would be unreasonable to expect it to turn out to be a masterpiece. Garry is certainly not that, but it is an intriguing curiosity and, for all its flaws, a compelling piece of theatre.

Performance date: 6 June 2019

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

Creators: The Wardrobe Ensemble      Directors: Jesse Jones and Helen Middleton

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Before Afghanistan, Iraq, the banking crisis, austerity and Brexit, there existed hope for a brighter new Millennium for our country. Wardrobe Ensemble’s raucous show is set in a comprehensive school in May 1997, when the Spice Girls, Take That and Oasis filled the airwaves, the United Kingdom won the Eurovision Song Contest and a new Government was elected, led by a politician who had earlier proclaimed: “ask me my three main priorities for Government, and I will tell you: education, education and education”.

Tobias (a beautifully deadpan performance by James Newton) is German, a newly-arrived assistant teacher. His observations as an outsider provide a thread to link the narrative and he comments on the initial euphoria of a school itching to get a bite of the £3 billion promised for education and on a country that is revelling in the limelight of Cool Britannia and still besotted by its beautiful princess. How quickly things were to change.

Directors Jesse Jones and Helen Middleton create pandemonium on stage, which is a fair reflection of this school, which has a crumbling building and text books that are 15 years old. It is located in some place in England which, oddly, seems to have missed out on ethnic diversity. Authoritarian Head of Discipline, Miss Turner (Hanora Kamen) shows little self-discipline in her extra-curricular liaison with fellow teacher Mr McIntyre (Tom Brennan); rookie teacher, Miss Belltop-Doyle (Jesse Meadows) exerts no discipline at all in her classes, which is little wonder when she chooses to address pupils in a Ginger Spice costume.

Mr Pashley (Ben Vardy) puts the life of a confiscated Tamagotchi in peril, while Mr Mills (Tom England) slips into his alter ego of King Arthur and fights on behalf of a pupil in a situation where mild rebellion could turn into social alienation. The rebellious pupil, Emily Greenslade is played as a high-spirited loner by Emily Greenslade. Art imitating life perhaps. There are serious issues here and there, but, mostly, they are carried along on waves of physical energy and good humour,

When Tobias contrasts the optimism for the school in 1997 with how events actually unfolded over the ensuing 20 years, he teaches us that the woes of our education system cannot be resolved solely by injections of cash nor by Government interference. At 75 minutes, this production is shorter than the average double History lesson, but it is almost certainly a whole lot sharper and more fun.

Performance date: 5 June 2019

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