Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Writer: William Shakespeare      Director: Justin Audibert

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Some plays struggle to stand the test of time. In the not so distant past, The Taming of the Shrew could be seen almost constantly, almost everywhere, but now it has been eclipsed by the much tamer Much Ado About Nothing as the Shakespearean romcom of choice. …Shrew may now be better known as the play within a musical in Kiss Me Kate, which distances itself from what modern audiences could regard as the Bard’s most poisonous notions.

The problem is that misogyny is drilled deep into the heart of the tale of how the vigorously macho Petruchio takes the ill-tempered, shrewish Katherina and forcefully tames her into becoming his dutiful and obedient wife. In the age of feminism, it is hard to make the play either palatable or funny, but director Justin Audibert comes up with a possible solution – gender reversal. Presumably, it is seen as okay for a wife to tether and starve her husband into submission, but not the other way round.

In this version, we see a slightly angry wimp, Katherine (Joseph Arkley) being brought to heel by Petruchia (Claire Price), a butch dominatrix. Saddled with a name like “Kate”, perhaps a man has the right to be angry and, cursed by a dreadful, untameable hairstyle, perhaps a lady can be forgiven for needing someone to take it out on. Yes, of course, one of the  main points of this production is to show up gender stereotyping for the nonsense that it is, but Audibert seems to forget that the comedy in Shakespeare’s original was actually  founded on gender stereotyping. By jettisoning it and not replacing it with something that makes sense, the production robs key scenes, such as the marriage proposal and the wedding night, of all their humour.

Audibert’s handsomely mounted production has an unconventional approach, but a very conventional look. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ elegant single set and Hannah Clark’s lavish period costumes belong to 16/17th Century Italy and music from a seven-piece band adds an air of jollity. Happily, the sub-plots and the secondary characters, also gender reversed, work much better than the central story.

The original version has Kate’s sweet natured younger sister, Bianca fending off multiple suitors. Here, his brother, James Cooney’s effeminate fop, Bianco is, for reasons that are not obvious, their target. Leading the pack is Lucentia (Emily Johnstone), aided by her servants, the over-`zealous Trania (Laura Elsworthy) and the over-harassed Blondella (Amy Trigg). They make the chase fun, even though some of the visual comedy occasionally feels over-played.

Most inspired among the re-gendering is the transition of a bunch of dull, anxious male elders into a gathering of clucking hens, who display a variety of walks that are silly enough to make John Cleese feel proud. Amanda Harris’s Baptista, Sophie Stanton’s Gremia and Melody Brown’s Vincentia are all so delightful that we wonder why Shakespeare himself did not create the characters in this way.

Audibert’s reinvention is a curate’s egg, good only in parts. It sets out to examine and redefine gender roles, but too much of it ends up feeling gimmicky rather than revelatory. The question as to whether this play can ever be staged effectively in the 21st Century remains largely unanswered.

Performance date: 7 November 2019

Photo: Ikin Yum

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

Writer: Arthur Miller      Co-directors: Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Young Vic’s revival of Death of a Salesman earlier this year was widely praised for breathing fresh life into a classic, thought by many to be among the greatest plays of the 20th Century. Yet the title does not lie and, for all the production’s touches of brilliance, there is nothing that could have been done to make Arthur Miller’s modern tragedy uplifting. For this reason, it seems like a brave call to install it over the Christmas Season in the Piccadilly Theatre, a venue which normally plays host to crowd pleasing musicals.

Miller’s play was first seen on Broadway in 1949, two years after his All My Sons, also revived in London this year, and there are notable similarities. Both plays begin with families seemingly consisting of a dominant, solid father, a warm, devoted mother and two upstanding grown sons. In both, Miller puts America’s patriarchal society under a microscope, finds the fault lines in the family structures and slowly demolishes them.  Both plays reach the same, seemingly unavoidable conclusion.

Wendell Pierce’s Willy Loman is an American Everyman. He is proud, arrogant, entering his 60s and prone to delusions which suppress his disappointment at a life of failed ambitions and missed opportunities. He is the rock of his family, but we learn that, even as the play begins, he is already utterly broken. From his Brooklyn home, he travels throughout the Eastern United States, achieving diminishing sales for an uncaring boss (Matthew Seadon-Young), who has changed his employment terms to commission only. On the bright side, his 25-year mortgage is close to being paid off and payments on his fridge are due to end, albeit, sadly, just after it has stopped working.

His wife is Linda, played as a long suffering, never complaining homemaker by Sharon D Clarke. She tolerates verbal abuse from her husband and arbitrates in arguments between him and their older son, Biff (an explosive performance from Sopé Dirisu) who has just returned to the city which he hates from working as a farmer in Texas. Biff is the son in whom Willy invests all his hopes for the future, overlooking the extent to which his own fallibilities have undermined those hopes.

The younger son is “Happy”, the nickname reflecting his sunny disposition and Natey Jones makes him a carefree joker, a womaniser who seems unlikely to realise his very limited potential. Willy looks enviously at his successful, benevolent neighbour, Charley (Trevor Cooper) whose son, Bernard (Ian Bonar) has become a lawyer. As the spectre of failure engulfs him, Willy has imagined conversations with his dead brother (Joseph Mydell) and becomes haunted by incidents from his past.

Co-directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, whose previous collaborations include Angels in America at the National Theatre, do not attempt to lighten the pain of what unfolds, but their production accentuates the humour in Miller’s writing and smoothes out the drama’s flow so that the running time feels less than the actual three and a quarter hours (including interval). 

Anna Fleischle’s set designs achieve the overall feel of a Brooklyn family home, lit dimly by Aideen Malone, while incorporating the flexibility to divide the stage into segments, thereby allowing swift scene transitions and overlaps between illusions or flashbacks and reality. An unexpected treat comes with the subtle use of music and, yes, we get to hear Clarke’s magical singing voice. Composer and Musical Director Femi Temowo uses soft jazz and gospel styles to build atmosphere and heighten drama. 

For sure this is no pantomime, but as a showcase for incisive writing and magnificent acting, it is a rich, rewarding experience and the perfect antidote to an excess of festive cheer.

Performance date: 4 November 2019

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

High Fidelity (Turbine Theatre)

Posted: November 3, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: David Lindsay-Abaire      Music: Tom Kitt      Lyrics: Amanda Green      Director: Tom Jackson Greaves

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

A brand new British-based musical is the brave choice for the second production at the brand new Turbine Theatre, located in the shadow of the disused Battersea Power Station. But can the show generate sufficient spark to reignite flames in the area and, perhaps, beyond?

Taken from Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel of the same title, High Fidelity’s story of Rob, an overgrown boy dragging himself kicking and screaming into manhood, has a familiar feel. The show gets off to a cracking start with the company belting out The Last Real Record Store (on Earth); Rob owns the store which targets types (male) who value a rare Sex Pistols vinyl disc over meaningful relationships with types (female) who prefer Celine Dion.

Oliver Ormson’s Rob is more boy than man, possessing enough endearing cheekiness to obscure the character’s mild misogyny. Nonetheless, it is not only the plentiful 1990s cultural references that give David Lindsay-Abaire’s adaptation of the novel a dated feel. A bigger problem for him is the novel’s shortage of plot, which makes the show start to feel stretched when it gets into its second act.

Rob’s geeky sidekicks at the shop in Holloway, North London are the timid Scouser Dick (Carl Au) and Barry (Robbie Durham), who aims to form a band even though he plays no instruments. They all speak in lists of five or ten, but it seems that fidelity comes fairly low on the list of Rob’s qualities with the appearance of five former girlfriends who come back to haunt him at regular intervals throughout the show.

Hornby’s boys are an amusing bunch. He shows less flair in developing his girls, although Shanay Holmes does well to flesh out Laura, the girlfriend who walks out on Rob for the slimy Ian (Robert Tripolino) and Bobble Little is a formidable presence as Liz, confidante to both of the parted lovers. An 11-strong company fills the small stage to the point of overflowing into the audience, the clutter of David Shields’ set design for the record store, limiting their space still further.

The challenge for composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Amanda Green is to come up with original songs that bear comparison with the iconic tracks which are so adored by the show’s main characters. The results are more hit than miss, but they seem to have listened to Rob’s advice on compiling the perfect mix tape by introducing varieties of style among their predominantly rock numbers. She Goes is a heartfelt soul ballad with which Little stops the show and Eleanor Kane, as a club singer, taps into Country music for Ready to Settle. Other highlights include Rob’s dream duets with Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, both played by Joshua Deever.

Tom Jackson Greaves’ high energy production, enlivened by his clever choreography, goes a long way to smoothing out some of the show’s rough edges and glossing over the slightness and predictability of the storyline.  Perhaps this is best looked at as a work in progress and, if so, the show has enough potential to go further after this run.

Performance date: 2 November 2019

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

Writer: Arinzé Kene      Director: Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Arinzé Kene’s storytelling, focussing on North London black communities, seems to grow richer with each new work. His self-performed Misty went all the way to the West End and now his latest begins its journey, looking likely to stir things up in sedate Richmond.

 

In the opening scenes of Little Baby Jesus, the stage resembles a circular playpen, with overgrown toddlers jumping around, gambolling and creating havoc. Three adolescent school kids tell their coming of age stories, learning that “we don’t grow up on our birthdays, it’s at random experiences…” and, in charting a path that leads from harmless teenage rivalry to senseless violence, the writer hits a nerve that is particularly sensitive in our inner cities at the present time.

Rugrat (Khai Shaw) is the class joker and Joanne (Rachel Nwokoro) is a queen of sass. Both wear their school uniforms dishevelled as if emblems of mild rebellion. In contrast,  Kehinde (Anyebe Godwin) is neat and tidy, perhaps aiming to impress the mixed race girlfriend to which he aspires or perhaps hiding timidly in the shadow of a twin sister who can run like a female Usain Bolt. The stories chronicle their everyday lives: a ball kicked over a wall and not retrieved, clashes with pupils from a rival school, a“pilgrimage” up north and so on.

The great joy of the play springs from Kene’s sharp-eyed, witty observations and the lyricism of his descriptive writing. As performed here, the play moves from hysterically funny to tear-jerkingly moving in an instant, with comedy, harsh reality and allegory fitting together seamlessly.

Director Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu’s exhilarating production is synchronised beautifully, but there is a strong sense that he has given the three superb actors licence to stamp their own personalities on their characters. The result feels natural and unforced, Kene’s dialogue tapping into the language of everyday life while still elevating it to a higher plane. The  simplicity of the staging adds clarity to the stories, enhanced by strong lighting effects, designed by Bethany Gupwell. A large bright halo that hovers above the stage seems to confirm the play’s theme that the characters’ fates are in the hands of forces beyond their control.

Unavoidably, racism rears its ugly head in the stories, but Kene does not dwell for long on negatives. His play rides the highs and lows of the years of teenage discovery and arrives assuredly at a life affirming destination.

Performance date: 22 October 2019

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

Fast (Park Theatre)

Posted: October 20, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Kate Barton      Director: Kate Valentine

⭐️⭐️

In the modern era, barely a week goes by without some new dietary fad hitting the headlines. Linda Barton’s 70-minute one act play, which is based on a true story, suggests that things may not have been very different more than 100 years ago.

In 1910, Dr Linda Hazard, author of a book entitled “Fast For the Cure of Disease”, is in charge of the Wilderness Heights sanitarium in Olalla, Washington State. Her pioneering methods, based on the belief that the cure for all ailments lies in diet, have already caused controversy in the Seattle press and an investigative hack, Horace Cayton Jr (Daniel Norford) is still on the case. 

The play begins with the arrival of the English Williamson sisters, Dora (Natasha Cowley) and Claire (Jordon Stevens), seeking help from Dr Hazard. Shouldn’t the name have warned them? Poor Claire is suffering from a “tipped back uterus”, Dora’s condition is less clear. Undeterred, the sisters embark on a daily regime of asparagus soup and enemas, their health moving steadily in the wrong direction, pushed along by the domineering doctor, whose confidence in her methods remains undiminished.

“I will not be put down because of my sex” declares Hazard, touching on feminist themes which the play never fully explores. Indeed, there is more information about this apparently complex woman in Barton’s programme notes than in her play and Kate Valentine’s melodramatic production is far removed from a factual account of her life and work.

The tone of Valentine’s production is set by Caroline Lawrie’s over-the-top performance as Hazard, making her similar to one of the demented scientists that we associate with 1950s B movies, a sort of female Dr Frankenstein. As a result, the melodrama is often laughable, working against any attempts to make us empathise with the central character.

Emily Bestow’s austere split-level set design makes Wilderness Heights look like the health spa from Hell, the sisters being forced to sleep in beds that are at least two feet too short for them. This is consistent with a horror story, but that is not what we should be seeing. If Barton’s aim was to turn the spotlight on a little known figure from the histories of medical research and the feminist movement, she has succeeded only in arousing our curiosity. This misjudged production is starved of real substance.

Performance date: 17 October 2019

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

Baby Reindeer (Bush Theatre)

Posted: October 13, 2019 in Theatre

Writer and performer: Richard Gadd      Director: Jon Brittain

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

As an Edinburgh Comedy Award winner and an accomplished actor, Richard Gadd has been acquiring a degree of celebrity status that could draw unwanted attention from over-enthusiastic fans. However, the terrifying and apparently true story that he has to tell, one of obsession and transgression, has nothing to do with celebrity. It could happen to any of us.

An hour-long monologue, Baby Reindeer made grown-up waves at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It transfers to the Bush with 15 minutes added, done without making the story feel stretched. Gadd tells us of his chance meeting with a lady named Martha. In 2013, he is working in London as a barman and he performs a simple act of kindness towards her. He is in his early 20’s, she is 45, rotund, usually wearing pink or purple clothes a few sizes too small for her and displaying a “fierce” sweat on her forehead.

The encounter sparks a chain of events that amount to stalking, trolling and other forms of pestering of increasing severity over a period of years. Messages by text and voicemail range from needy adulation to explicit menace. Martha obtains Gadd’s home and e-mail addresses, his mobile phone number and she even contacts his family. She turns up at his comedy gigs all over the country and taunts him with a bad review (not from this site) of his show. She hangs out at the bar throughout his shifts, waits around on the street where he lives and gives him the nickname “Baby Reindeer”. Santa would not approve.

Director Jon Brittain ratchets up the tension with a non-stop high energy production and the theatre, set up in the round, is turned into a pressure cooker. Gadd perhaps walks a couple of miles or more during the performance, pacing agitatedly around the stage, speaking loudly in tormented tones. Lighting effects (designer Peter Small) add shock and suspense, four screens display text messages and e-mails and the disembodied voice of Martha on voicemail sends shivers down the spine.

Throughout, the authorities seem powerless either to offer support for the victim or provide help to address the mental health issues of the perpetrator. When Gadd Googles Martha, he finds that she has a string of previous offences, but the Police dismiss his concerns, their reaction amounting to a form of gender bias. Their assumption is that male on female stalking is more serious than the reverse because of a man’s physical strength. Perhaps none of them had seen Fatal Attraction.

Gadd’s play is raised high above the level of a routine thriller by the writer/performer’s candid self-analysis. As each calculated move that he makes misfires badly, his confidence ebbs away and he questions his judgement in all areas of his life. He had been psychologically damaged by sexual abuse earlier in life and he looks back at this as he questions his motivation at every turn. He also analyses his relationship with Teri, his transgender girlfriend, a relationship which cannot escape the attentions of Martha.

Gadd brings out emotions of frustration, pity, fear and despair and transmits them to the audience.. Long before the end, we start looking around, wondering if the lady sitting just along the row could possibly be Martha. And then we tremble.

Performance date: 11 October 2019

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

Music: Jule Styne      Lyrics: Leo Robin      Book: Anita Loos and Joseph Fields      Director: Sasha Regan

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

The 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes took us back to the 1920s, an era when predatory young ladies might have crossed the Atlantic by environmentally friendly means in pursuit of wealthy gentlemen. This stage version, originally seen on Broadway in 1949, seems terribly dated, but a lively revival makes the Union Theatre feel much larger than it is and it still packs quite a punch.

As the blonde Lorelei Lee, Abigayle Honeywill does not look to be unduly daunted by the knowledge that the role is most famously associated with Marilyn Monroe. Her assumed squeaky voice may not help to make her songs easy listening, but she delivers the key number. Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, with genuine panache. Eleanor Lakin also has bucketsful of sass as the brunette Dorothy Shaw, Lorelei’s chaperone for the voyage from New York to Paris.

The plot, if it can be called that, has Lorelei going to France to meet her intended, Gus Esmond (Aaron Bannister-Davies), heir to a button manufacturing fortune. Thinking that Gus will abandon her, Lorelei makes a beeline for Josephus Gage (George Lennan) who claims to be the inventor of the zip. Meanwhile, Henry (Freddie King), the geeky son of another millionaire, drunkard Mrs Spofford (Virge Gilchrist), takes a shine to Dorothy. Also aboard  are the flamboyant showgirl Gloria (Ashlee Young) and Sir Francis Beekman (Tom Murphy) a lecherous English gentleman whose eye for the opposite sex rarely wanders in the direction of his wife, Lady Phyllis (Maria Mosquera).

The book, written by Anita Loos and Joseph Fields, creaks throughout and all but falls apart in the second half. There are times when we wish that these passengers were sailing on the Titanic, but director Sasha Regan gives the show sufficient buoyancy to see it through choppy waters. Set designer Justin Williams opts for an open stage, giving ample room for Zak Nemorin’s choreography, which blends traditional show routines with distinct, imaginative sequences, particularly in scenes set in France.

Jule Styne’s catchy tunes and Leo Robin’s clever lyrics are of their era, but they still come across strongly today, musical director Henry Brennan helping to make them sound fresh. Period costumes (designer Penn O’Gara) are changed at a frantic rate, posing the question as to where they are all stored at this small venue.

The show is all profoundly silly, but quality songs, zestful dance and an exuberant 18-strong company redeem it. In the end, of course the girls get their millionaires and we get a jolly good evening.

Performance date: 8 October 2019

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