Thursday, 31 March 2016

Review Bug

By Tracy Letts

Swatting It 

Strange and horrible things happen in  fictional motels:  Stabbings in showers in Psycho, paedophilia in Lolita, Thelma and Louise running from  the law before a final cliff-hanger,  a helpless female saved from mobsters by a Brit secret service agent in the novel The Spy Who Loved Me, drugs and murder in Touch of Evil. 

To this litany of weirdness and characters, playwright Tracy Letts added Agnes and Peter in Bug. Pothead Agnes (Kate Fleetwood)  is holed up in an Oaklahoma motel room with only a crack pipe for company, avoiding her ex-con ex-husband Jerry (Alec Newman). 

That's save for  the occasional visit of lesbian friend RC (Daisy Lewis). RC brings along gentle giant (shades of Steinbeck another motel afficianado) Peter (James Norton), seemingly a Gulf War veteran who introduces himself fetchingly saying, "I'm not an axe murderer", only that he "makes people nervous" because he "picks up on things".

He's certainly no Jack Torrance in The Shining , but gradually Peter starts to drop the odd line drawing Agnes, already susceptible to National Enquirer type stories,  into a world view veering from the comically conspiratorial to the fatally self-destructive. 

And those things he picks up on? They turn out to have a corporeal manifestation - a supposed insect infestation where the remedy proves worse than living with those pesky microscopic critters.

Bug, mixing Hitchcock with Kafka with Hollywood and comic book scifi horror, a hefty dollop of the X-Files and even a nightmare possibly from an Ian McEwan novel,  premiered in London in 1996.

Yet in the end, the power of Bug the play lies not in state conspiracy, but how far over the edge the isolated and disappointed - and drug-addled - can be pushed and nudged into pushing themselves.

Still, lines thrown in at times - "Women aren't my bag" and "I'm playing devil's advocate" throw into question the delusion and self-knowledge of the couple. If - in a play written before mass internet usage - the media, literature, film, the news, even the psychology of acting and the creation of "character" are the instigators or results of tragedy.

With the audience as voyeurs on every side and looming plaster beams - there's a Psycho bathroom in one corner, the seedy motel room door and window at the other - it's an evening of proximities.

The changing light (lighting designer Richard Howell) outside is just discernible through the cheap curtains as Agnes crosses to the mini bar in the third corner wedged between members of the audience. Indeed viewed from above the bedroom set may even resemble a bug's compound eye.;)

There are subtle sound effects from Edward Lewis from the first chirping cricket (it's not a spoiler to say that this jiminy cricket gets the chop)  to the real or imaginary helicopters circling overhead near the end.

The Charing Cross Road venue proves perfect for this visceral grunge production directed by Simon Evans (oh, did we mention James Norton was in it?:)), both as a former art school and as the dilapidated grafitti-strewn home of Found 111. Whether the play would have the same impact on a formal proscenium stage is debatable.

Kate Fleetwood's Agnes and James Norton's Peter crash and burn, gnawing into themselves, within touching distance and it's the physical nearness which resonates, Daisy Lewis's RC and Alec Newman's Jerry frame the action of the junkie couple with strong performances. While Carl Prekopp's role of Dr Sweet  seems not so much underwritten as deliberately jarring.

With a nightmarish comic book quality, TLT and her own little bug(gy) laughed,  cringed and gasped spontaneously in the right places. Be prepared for blood, gore, dentistry beyond Marathon Man, alongside extreme population pest control and you'll have an enjoyable shlock horror rollercoaster evening. A green light.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Review Right Now

Right Now
by Catherine-Anne Toupin
Translated by Chris Campbell
Noises Off 

And when you survive that, some playwright not content with leaving you on the bookshelf, gives you a twenty first century makeover as a bourgeois stay-at-home hallucinating, silk dressing-gown-clad  housewife.

Originally entitled A Présent,  this 2008 French-Canadian dark farce has now received an English translation from Chris Campbell as Right Now, possibly giving it a  political slant.

Doctor's wife Alice (Lindsey Campbell, last seen by TLT in The Harvest with the same director) spends her life currently sleeping and dreaming fitfully on the couch in an apartment she and her husband have themselves apparently given a chic makeover despite only being tenants.  

Life seems to follow mechanically the same pattern: Hubby Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) goes to work at the hospital while Alice either dozes off or, far more worryingly, is plagued by the sound of an offstage crying baby.

Until  a sudden knock at the double doors draws the couple into the surreal erotic world of vampish Juliette (Maureen Beattie), apparently newly returned from travels with suavely lustful author-come- medical researcher husband Gilles (Guy Williams) and oddball grown-up son, still-living-with-the-parents, François (Dyfan Dwyfor, also in The Harvest) across the hall.  

Fluidly directed by Michael Boyd, the production benefits from a simple but evocatively coloured set from Madeleine Girling, psychologically visceral lighting from Oliver Fenwick and the hint of ballet mécanique in piano interludes from David Paul Jones.

With French names retained for all except the doctor, it's a studied "what if" 80-minute without interval piece. Maybe in addition to literary and surrealist painting references, there's a cinematic touch of Gaslight,  So Long At The Fair  and Belle De Jour, made somewhat predictable by signposting near the beginning of the play the exchange at the end.

But for all that, the predestination, gallery of grotesques and mirroring gives an energy to the performances and the play, despite some sagging in the second half,  before the finale marked by perfect symmetry. An amber light for a piece where everything slots into place.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Review People, Places & Things

People, Places & Things
by Duncan MacMillan

An Actor's Life For Me?

Watching Duncan MacMillan's graphic novel of a play, People, Places & Things, a poem read long ago rose up from the deeper recesses of TLT's mind. Where the poet performed a feat of naming a long list of poets with perfect rhyme and scansion, ending with something to the effect: "One thing I know, we are too many..."

A hit of last year directed by Headlong's Jeremy Herrin, now transferred to the West End from the National Theatre, People, Places & Things ostensibly follows one of the too many - via the world view of a young drink and drug-fuelled actress - while riffing on art, literature, education, religion, acting, competition and substance abuse in the age of mass production.

After an on-stage debacle in an Anton Chekhov play, our actress enters rehab expediently to gain a prized certificate, presumably for insurance purposes, showing she is clean and allowing her to work again.

The evangelical twelve steps towards sobriety, which we see through her eyes, reflects her own life trajectory in the cracked mirrors of her mind.  Even to the point of starting out as the reluctant new girl in  reception, group therapy doubling as rehearsal room and culminating in a rehab graduation ceremony paralleling a world where acting is now a university degree.

On stage for the full two hours and 20 minutes, the lead role is an undoubted despair-to-euphoria tour-de-force for Denise Gough in designer Bunny Christie's white-tiled set. Additionally Andrezej Goulding's melting projections, sound by Tom Gibbons and Polly Bennett's choreography take us inside a drug-addled soul.

There's plenty to mull over, some pithy humour, polished performances from the rest of the cast including Barbara Marten in triple role as doctor/therapist/Mum and, although somewhat mitigated by repetition, many visceral effects.

Such repetition gave TLT the feeling the play could have been shorter, giving her time to wonder during its course why money never seemed to be a problem.  Maybe it all might have worked better for her in another medium, on film or even as a TV boxed set with the actress falling into aggressive reverie and progressing in the midst of a recognisable outside world.

A plethora of literary references scatter the piece, ranging from Mary McCarthy's The Group  to Zamyatin's We  (a known source for 1984 which writer MacMillan has successfully co-adapted for the stage)  with the work of sculptor and painter Jim Dine  and his exhibition called People, Places, Things seemingly another influence.

Once you catch on to the concept, it strikes us that the story peters out and the play becomes the victim of the very ideas it examines dramatically, emotionally and intellectually. Again a section with police officers and blood stained outcome becomes rather lost and might have had more impact, giving more of a narrative thread, on film. As would the studied monologues of the parents (played by Kevin McMonagle and Barbara Marten) in a home with literally strings attached.  

The opening, complete with playwright's typewriter, has our troubled thespian playing Nina in Chekhov's The Seagull (she later adopts the name of Emma - had the play's writer read the post script to our review of the same play?!). 

But it only underlined for us how Chekhov wrote the role of beleaguered actress as someone who lives in the real world. As well as serving as writer's creation, symbol, riff on theatre, victim and avenging angel for the audience.

As we approach the final lines of this little riff of a critique, yours truly and her fully insured sidekick have been racking their own collective brains, desperately googling to find the title and poet of the work mentioned in the first paragraph. But we've run out of time, so if you know the poem I mean, you know where to find the comments' column below ... :) Meanwhile, for People Places Things an amber light for a thought-provoking if overlong theatrical experience.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Review The Painkiller

The Painkiller
by Francis Veber adapted by Sean Foley

A Shot In The Arm

An assassin hired to take out a gangster trial witness  in one hotel room and a man deserted by his wife about to take his own life  in the next - this could be the dramatic premise of a film noir beloved of French cinema.

But throw in a camp hotel porter, a snobbish wife and psychiatrist lover complete with hypodermic needle, a policeman in the cupboard and throw a character out of the window - and what do you have, but French farce?

Originally written in 1969 by Francis Veber, the stage farce Le Contrat (The Contract) by 1973 became hit film L'Emmerdeur (A Pain In The Arse), then remade in English as Billy Wilder's last film, Buddy Buddy, before the writer himself revamped it in a new stage and film version in 2005 and 2008 respectively.

It's the last version to which director Sean Foley seems to have given an English setting and mildly updated for The Painkiller, first seen at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in 2011, and now part of the season run by Kenneth Branagh and his theatre company.

Branagh himself takes the role of the hitman who finds adjoining hotel rooms the equivalent of a pair of handcuffs as his fate is bound up with that of local newspaper photographer Dudley (Rob Brydon).

And just as film noir can be taken down by French farce, the life of the suave assassin (whose name, we eventually learn, is Ralph) can be thrown into disarray and overwhelmed by the failed suicide and cuckold provincial in the neighbouring room.

While French farce is by its nature a self-conscious exercise - who else but the French would expend so much intellectual exertion and exact mathematics on coming up with a credible way for powerful men to lose their trousers? - TLT and her own manacled automobile were not wholly convinced by this anglicized piece.

Branagh makes an elegant, precise Ralph, a thoroughbred stallion brought down by a pack horse, as he lurches physically and mentally from one cover up to another, from one dose of ketamine to a dose of amphetamines ...

And Brydon's Dudley as the little guy is a suitable catalyst for chaos as the Maison des Lits turns into Chienlit, ably supported by Claudie Blakley as his adulterous and social-climbing wife Michelle, Alex MacQueen as her domineering syringe-happy psychiatrist lover, Mark Hadfield as the camp hotel porter and Marcus Fraser as the plain clothes policeman drawn into the hotel fray.

However with its mane shorn of its colonial past, part-militarised police force and aristocratic pretensions within a republic, we wondered whether the farce had lost some of its logic, political bite and, yes, excruciating but cathartic pain in this British adaptation.

And at  the moment it doesn't seem to have entirely found yet its frenetic farce rhythm and needs some speedier playing. But with this fixable reservation, at 90 minutes without a break with some elegant visuals and a cast of fine actors, it still held the attention throughout. An amber light from TLT.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Review Miss Atomic Bomb

Miss Atomic Bomb
by Adam Long, Gabriel Vick and Alex Jackson-Long

Having A Blast

It's a great strange story for a musical - or a play or a movie. During the 1950s' Cold War, Las Vegas and the state of Nevada turned atomic bomb testing into a commercial golden goose

Before the public knew the dangers of radiation fallout, tourists flocked not only to gamble but also to grandstand the nuclear mushroom clouds. And the burghers of Las Vegas invented a beauty pageant< Miss Atomic, roping in radiant (geddit?!) Las Vegas showgirls photographed in a fetching range of A-bomb inspired swimwear

A strong story - and TLT and her atomically charged little motor thought they could detect a  visceral and more complex history lurking beneath the muddled but slickly-performed piece that is Miss Atomic Bomb.

The story of this new musical from Adam Long (also co-director), composer Gabriel Vick and Alex Jackson-Long is roughly (very rough) this (deep breath):

Farm girl Candy (a hillbilly country and western  Florence Andrews, Dolly Parton with a touch of Doris Day) from Utah but a Californian wannabe, threatened with losing her trailer home to bank administrator Mr Potts (Daniel Boys in suited and booted evil form) after her grandmomma's death, is persuaded by small-town sophisticate chain-smoking best friend fashion designer Myrna (Catherine Tate) to compete for Miss Atomic Bomb prize money to clear the mortgage.

Meanwhile  Joey Lubowitz (soon-to-be Aladdin Dean John-Wilson), conscripted during the Korean War draft, goes AWOL and deserts the army in the desert (no, that's not a line from a song but a TLT excruciating pun!), running away to Las Vegas. Where his brother Lou (Simon Lipkin making the most of his role) runs a hotel but is threatened by Brooklyn mobsters. 

And a  mad professor (Stephane Anelli in fine animation adversary fettle) with his own secrets  is also paperclipped on to the plot. 

Between the foreclosure on the trailer and the crowning of the new Miss Atomic Bomb, there's a series of skits and turns involving the army, the showgirls - and a Hasidic rabbi disguise. Because Lou meant to order in a rabbit costume for Easter but instead ... Yeah, one joke which maybe should have been passed over ... 

Adam Long is, according to Wikipedia, a founding member of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, and it does feel like a homage gallop through various musicals, plays, styles and issues instead of trusting to the strength of the real story and growing the themes from that tale. 

So, to take a more obscure example, we thought we got a hint of the first musical version of a Bernard Shaw play, The Chocolate Soldier, adapted from Arms And The Man, but the fleeing soldier is given a different label of ... well, we won't spoil the gag but a vegetable without rhyme or reason is involved.

In a small fringe venue or at the Edinburgh Festival,, this cartoonish revue could have been a hit but marketed as a bankable fully fledged musical, it doesn't feel at ease. Still it's never boring. There's serviceable hoofing (choreography by co-director Bill Deamer) and a few of the songs have wit in both form and content.

And, above all, there's a classy cast of performers who give their all with nuclear gusto. 

The projections from Jack Henry James transform the production with desert vistas. A harder edged and more intriguing story does occasionally peep through as when the showgirls come pageant contestants plaster on the smiles and belt out "vote for me".   

So with a green for the performances and red/amber for the story, it just about scrapes through into a glowing radioactive amber light.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Review German Skerries

German Skerries
by Robert Holman

On The Rocks

It's often not what's said  but what's left unsaid in Alice Hamilton's cryptic but satisfying production of Robert Holman's 1970s' play German Skerries.

The play's title refers to  rocks in the middle of Teesmouth, Second World War crash site of a German Luftwaffe plane, which act as a geographical, historical and spiritual dividing point where past, present and future intersect.

On a grassy knoll a young worker Jack (George Evans)  from a local ICI plant and an elderly primary school teacher Martin (Howard Ward, the constable in Downton Abbey), curiously old-fashioned but shaping the lives of new generations, come together bonded by a common love of bird watching.

Yet other forces of the late twentieth century  are also bringing change,  risk and dangerous consequences with an impact on the lives of the two men, Jack's young wife Carol  (Katie Moore) and Michael (Henry Everett), ship's pilot and diver friend of the schoolteacher.

And in a sense the audience become twitchers, transported far from their homes to the windswept North Sea shores, to gain rare glimpses into the lives of others. 

First performed four years after the UK joined the EEC, originally the Coal and Steel Community, the new nationalized steelworks loom as large as the rocks.

Yet somewhere behind the cooling towers and fluting birds lies a hinterland of past and present art, as well as industry.  

There is something of  Philip Larkin's poem Church Going in the rhythm of the play, Martin's bike and cycle clips

The sounds of birds and tide merge like the tuning up of an orchestra in George Dennis's delicate but robust soundscape giving the piece a radiophonic feel. James Perkins' wood and gently sloping grass design and the lighting of Simon Gethin Thomas catch both time shifts and psychic space. 

German Skerries with its open ended televisual qualities also reminded TLT of the 1970s film Kes  and some contemporary TV plays

A green light for a  rough hewn yet fragile tapestry of a play with its almost heraldic cormorants and oystercatchers.