Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Review King Lear (PREVIEW)


King Lear 
by William Shakespeare

Pop Up Britain
http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/

Would the rain hold off? That was the question in TLT's mind as she slalomed her way through the crowd towards the edge of the Globe stage with its pillars swathed in tarpaulin for Shakespeare's play of fractions and factions.

Of course a storm at the appropriate time would be nature's seal of approbation for one of the then Jacobean playwright William Shakespeare's most famous scenes - the storm scene both inciting and reflecting the madness of King Lear in the play first known to be performed in 1606.

Kevin McNally, best known for his role as Joshamee Gibbs in the Pirates Of The Caribbean movie franchise,  takes on the title role in Shakespeare's Globe production directed by Nancy Meckler.

He's a very neat, one could almost call him dapper, Lear with a snowy white manicured beard and designer tattoos.

This Lear dresses in a not-quite-a-military uniform as if he were a corporate man with a penchant for vodka shots who has turned to a fashion choice of freshly laundered and ironed jacket and trousers in shades of khaki brown and beige.

There's a huge KEEP OUT daubed on the nailed up doors of the stage (designer Rosanna Vize) torn down by the motley crew of performers invading the stage with their shabby suitcases and creating a makeshift pop up Britain for this King Lear.

A goods trolley roll container from a warehouse (maybe in the age of the internet it's also warehouse Britain) lies on its side ready for them.

So these squatters zip up their windcheaters, turn their baseball caps, pull their beanies down over their ears. And lay a golden cloak and golden circlet crown on the ground for Lear, King of the Britons.

The daughters of Lear stand on crates, ready for their father to address them while the King's Fool (Loren O'Dair)  is a delicate Pierrot musician with a tear painted on her cheek, playing the violin.

Gloucester (Burt Caesar) is a credulous complacent astrology-believing  senior courtier in an Edwardian red velvet smoking jacket whose good and bad sides are embodied in his sons, all-too-gullible Edgar (Joshua Jameson) and driven, bitter illegitimate Edmund (Ralph Davis). 

The Duke of Kent becomes "Our Lady Of Kent" (Saskia Reeves), a bespectacled sensible woman politican in white jacket, skirt, blouse and court shoes, holding a large black book of accounts or minutes of the Royal court proceedings  or maybe a version of the Domesday Book, a book of land deeds.

She narrowly avoids a throttling when her position is ripped from her after she dares to question Lear's wisdom in giving up his kingdom in favour of his daughters and, more pertinently for a patriarchal monarchy, his sons-in-law.

There's Goneril (Emily Burni), thin and sallow with pursed red lipstick lips, hair scraped back in a bun, a small cape around her bony shoulders.  Regan (Sirine Saba), black hair streaming down her back, is fleshier, more voluptuous in a silky white halter neck, a fur pagan pelt stole and long velvet skirt.

They pile on the flattery.  Cordelia (Anjana Vasan) famously says nothing, a small figure in over sized, virginal white high waisted robe and silver adornments,  all ripped from her by her angry father to reveal a plain slip which could pass equally for a 1960s dress.

This is a solid, vigorous flat cap production with clear verse speaking - ideal for exam students who, despite cuts, want to hear the text. At the same time, it didn't blow TLT or her own automotive courtier away.

The use of  the cage-like warehouse roll goods container for the tearing out of Gloucester's eyes by  Cornwall (Faz Singhateh), the changing of Edgar and the pitting of sister against sister over their deceitful lover Edmund felt rather laboured.

The best things about the production?

Saskia Reeves's sturdily loyal Kent with extra resonance when disguised she answers the question, "How now, what art thou?" with "A man, sir".

 And  Joshua James's loose-limbed scampering Edgar, the only character who via a lunatic vagrant disguise, really gets low down and dirty truly gaining the sympathy of the audience and credibly transforming into a thoughtful statesman by the end.

Otherwise it's altogether too clean and laundered and  a lacklustre mash up of the traditional and the modern in dress and delivery.

This otherwise conventional production of King Lear does extract a fair amount of comedy out of Lear's contradictions and his realisation of his two elder daughters' treachery, but it does feel this is at the expense of power and pathos.

Having said this, there is a gesture towards homelessness in a corporate Britain, with a courageous military soul drained into pointless voilence, and the Kingdom's division did make us think of the union, Brexit and the implications for the island of Ireland.

The rain held off and, while this wasn't top notch for us, this brisk and admirably clear (and maybe televisual?) version of Lear is still an excellent upper range amber light introduction for those coming fresh to the Bard.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Review The Trial Of Le Singe


A show inspired by Napoleonic War monkey business ultimately disappoints Francis Beckett.

The Trial of Le Singe
by Matthew Jameson  

Funky But Clunky Monkey
http://thewaterratsvenue.london/

The Trial of Le Singe, directed and written by Matthew Jameson, is a rough and ready reconstruction of a Napoleonic Wars legend.

A monkey washed up on a beach near Hartlepool in a cage was apparently mistaken by locals for a rascally French spy.  Promising material for what could be a thought-provoking but hilarious show.

Or just a damn good piece of slapstick. But here’s the thing about slapstick.  It has to be funny.  Constantly, achingly funny.  Otherwise, it’s tedious.

Here’s another thing.  Just doing a slapstick sort of thing, like putting a man with hairy legs into a miniskirt and blonde wig and having him mince about a bit ... You know, it isn’t in itself funny, however well it’s done (and in this production, Bertie Cox does it  magnificently.)

It’s made funny by the context and, however absurd, the motivation for it, and if you don’t provide either, you’ll find that no one laughs.

I first learnt this as a boy when I was reduced to helpless mirth watching the patron saint of detrouserment,  Brian Rix  losing his trousers on stage. Why it was funny, I didn't understand at the time. Only later did I realise detrouserment is only funny when a writer constructs a scene around it to make it funny.

Here’s a third thing about slapstick.  It doesn’t suddenly become satire when someone mentions Brexit.

Of course the content of The Trial Of Le Singe  can easily lend itself to some comments about the foolishness of Brexit.

The farce that emerges at The Water Rats contains lots and lots of slapstick and a few good lines – the best I think being: “The one ‘orse in this town were a donkey, and that were shot before I were born.”

The show certainly does boast six very young, very talented, hard-working and enthusiastic actors, five of them being graduates of E15 Acting School.

Lloyd McDonagh makes a wonderfully agile, sympathetic, but definitely simian French monkey. Meanwhile Leah Kirby is the only woman cast member, but  she doesn't play the only woman character, instead making a convincing sad, lonely village idiot.

Matthew Jameson himself is excellent as a gruff and cynical landlord – he seems to be a much better actor and director than writer – and Eddy Larry is a fine town drunk.

William Hastings as the toff is hampered by some unconvincing dialogue and a rather puzzling costume decision which has him wearing a frock coat above a pair of tights.

Good as they are, they struggle to raise laughs in a shipwreck of a show. All of them are reduced by the end to bellowing their lines in the hope of raising a few laughs which, in a tiny venue like The Water Rats, is jarring rather than funny.

Well done to the company The Heretical Historians for realising this local legend is strong material for our times, but it's let down by the execution and, in the end, I can only offer a lower range amber light.

Review Dangling


Dangling
by Abigail Hood

Charlotte's Web
http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/

Dangling tries to cover a lot of issues - missing children,  fathers who are wrongly suspected, those who may have and those who have committed crimes, abusive relationships, the effect on marriages, all interlaced with hints of recent sex abuse news stories.

Charlotte is a London escort girl who may once have been a runaway and has ended up in the hands of a manipulative pimp Matt (Christopher Lane). Her world collides with Greg (Jasper Jacob), a teacher and father of a missing girl and then also Greg's wife, Jane (Tracey Wilkinson).

Seemingly running parallel are the lives in Oldham of Danny (Philip D McQuillan) and his younger sister, Kate (Charlotte Brooke)  with an unstable mother Helen (Maggie Saunders) and a violent jailbird father Ken (Ian Gain).

This new play by Abigail Hood. who also plays Charlotte, attempts additionally to include a psychological filter of 20th century screen culture through Danny's friend Kev (Stephen Boyce) and parent Helen.

Dangling has a strong cast and some powerful moments. However ultimately this is is a play that becomes a prisoner of its own concept and has what feels like a mix of devised drama shoehorned  into a schematic framework.

On hooks from the ceiling dangle objects from the characters' lives and director Kevin Tomlinson uses long grey benches at first effectively to create the different stage spaces on an otherwise minimal set with few land-level props.

Nevertheless the scene changes with different bench combinations, alhtough ingenious, become a little wearisome when this theatre piece reveals itself increasingly to be written mostly as a televisual and not a stage drama

The actors also have to grapple with clumsy shifts in tone. In addtition to soap style drama and melodrama, there are some, admittedly quite subtle, surreal time shift mash ups and the sudden introduction of an element which reminded TLT of a celebrated plot from now defunct soap Brookside with a touch of Tennessee Williams  and Joe Orton  thrown in for good measure.

TLT did wonder whether the lives of blonde Charlotte and dark haired Kate might eventually merge into one as there is the implication of a circular trajectory to the piece, but this never happened, at least not explicitly.

Instead there are  heartfelt moments, with some effective lines probably garnered from research, and every member of the cast is given an opportunity to shine at some point during the play.

However it's a patchwork of issue driven drama about missing and abused children, while certainly all subject  matter deserving examination, and ready-formed characters yoked uneasily together rather than an organically grown plot.
 
There is an intriguing ambivalence in the character of Greg but ultimately this feels like the first draft of possbilities for a TV drama trying to adhere to a stage format  rather than a thought-through stage drama in its own right and it's an amber light.

Review Tales From The Arabian Nights


Tales From The Arabian Nights
Adapted by Farhana Sheikh

Love Is A Many-Storied Thing
http://www.londonbubble.org.uk/

Kings, grand viziers, masters and slaves, courtiers, talking animals, royal executioners, auctioneers, princesses, rich merchants, kitchen boys and beggars all inhabit the compendium of stories known as The Arabian Nights.

London Bubble Theatre and writer Farhana Sheikh also conjure them up in what must be one of London's loveliest settings on a clear summer's evening - Greenwich Park with its slopes and hills filled with greenery and birdsong.

This promenade version of the Middle Eastern, Arabic and Asian tales picks out a scattering of the  stories.

We are led through the "sadness and cruelty of  kings", magical happenings and some individual and communal happy endings before we come to the best known story of vizier's daughter Shahrazade who weaves tales to save her life. 

Director Jonathan Petherbridge and designer Yasuko Hasegawa Fujihara keep the design and the props simple with the costumes mixing 18th century European peasant Sunday best and the wide sashes of oriental dress.

In this version, the Shahrazade story is itself framed within and is  part of the story of King Shariya who discovers the infidelity of a favoured wife and vows revenge on women.

The seven-strong cast, some of whom also play instruments, inhabit a range of characters. Among these, there's the princess (Rose-Marie Christian) who finds herself affianced to a goat (Nicholas Goode who is also the piece's composer),  but then it turns out ...

Aha, it's only proper that we leave a Shahrazade cliffhanger and not give everything away in a review.

Suffice to say Russeni Fisher as Khalifa is pulled this way and that, like his own fisherman's net, with tempting magical offers and reversals.

As well as plucking music out of various stringed instrumens, Laurie Jamieson is the slave who tells a story once a year against a stunning twilight backcloth of the Thames with the glimmering lights of gleaming London skyscrapers.

Joyce Henderson is a celtic talking ape and Simon Startin plays several vainglorious monarchs while Leila Ayad plays the beguiling storyteller Shahrazade herself.

It's a performance that starts with a store of copious goodwill. However the promenade element eventually breaks up any fluidity as we took ourselves from location to location.

While the route, positioning of the various grassy stages and lighting had obviously been thought out, the script and staging feels increasingly scrappy and piecemeal. So that the addition of songs and dance does not have the richness and beauty one would expect.

Much of this is also because it's a two-act show of about three hours which should be much shorter and without an interval, especially as it's also marketed as a children's show.

Even if the natural scenery in Greenwich park is stunning, there also needed to be something more in the design to evoke the exotic atmosphere of the orient.

It may be that Sheikh's play with its mercantile allusions and magic would work better entirely in the light and on the flat.
 
However TLT has to judge from what was presented. The show, although becoming sometimes more and more talky, along with its audience lost energy as it stretched on in the dark.
 
It's the kind of subject matter which raises great expectations of a magical mix of the literate, raucous and the erotic with mercantile and imperial realities catering with supple humour for both adults and children.

There certainly is a magic in the park surroundings but Tales From The Arabian Nights needs a tighter, more coherent framework to make it a truly spellbinding performance and it's a lower range amber light.  

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Review Catastrophists


A new comedy catches the zeitgeist but fails to live up to its initial promise, says Francis Beckett.

Castastrophists
by Jack Stanley 

Apocalypse Soon
I so wanted to like Catastrophists.

The idea is rich with comic possibilities. Husband and wife Harry and Raf, well paid employees and denizens of leafy Barnes, go to their second home in the Cotswolds and invite the neighbours to dinner. 

In this case, it's Peter and Claudia from the field next door, with a carbon-neutral yurt to call home. A couple who live as part of a survivalist commune and also believe the end of the world is nigh

Catastrophists has three good performances and a brilliant one (Elizabeth Donnelly as the monstrous Raf).

Director Cameron Cook with designer Beth Colley have created, in the very small space available to them, a set you can believe is the living room of a second home in the Cotswolds.

The play opens well, with a truly funny and entirely believable argument between Raf and Harry (Alexander Stutt) about whether to serve crisps or flatbread with the guacamole. 

When Claudia (Patsy Blower) arrives, Raf says: “I love your hoodie. It’s so… unapologetic.” In deference to her guests, Raf has dressed in what she calls “hippie chic.”

But after half an hour or so, the script by Jack Stanley loses its way. The more we get to know about the characters, the harder it is to believe in them, until by the end even these four good actors - including Edmund Dehn as Peter - are reduced to bellowing their lines in this tiny venue.  

It is not clear – and there's nothing Ms Donnelly can do to make it clear – why Raf is so desperate for her guests’ approval. Peter and Claudia never quite make sense.  And when Raf has been built up as a rather strong character who knows her own mind, it is not at all clear why the sight of a goat through the window reduces her to a gibbering wreck.

 The White Bear Theatre deserves support. It’s survived the gentrification of its host pub with nothing worse than a move to a tiny but workable theatre upstairs, and it has a coherent new writing policy.

However, this script badly needs someone being cruel to be kind. I have an idea there is rather a good play hidden in there somewhere, but Jack Stanley hasn't written that script, and I can just about muster an amber light for the play that has emerged..

Review Armide


A seventeenth century temptress lures reviewer Peter Barker into a tempestuous evening of operatic delight.

Armide
Music by Jean-Baptiste Lully
Words and Text by Philippe Quinault

The Battlefield Of Love
http://www.arcolatheatre.com/event/armide/

When a Middle-Eastern warrior princess meets a Western soldier, we somehow suspect no good will come of it.

And so it turns out but, perhaps surprisingly, this is the plot of an elegant yet passionate seventeenth century Baroque opera, one of the latest offerings in the Arcola Theatre’s Grimeborn Festival.

Armide, here in an enchanting revival by the enterprising Ensemble OrQuesta and Brazilian director Márcio da Silva, is generally recognized as one of Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lully's masterpieces composd towards the end of his career in 1686.

With librettist and playwright Philippe Quinault, Lully had already developed a pioneering complexity of character development through declamatory recitative and soliloquies.

Armide is an Islamic warrior princess who, possessing irresistible sexual charms for men while remaining immune to love's dart, defeats and captures knights of The Crusade.

Nevertheless love conquers the temptress for the first time when she encounters the Christian knight Renaud, who alone amongst the crusaders, remains unvanquished by her.

Armide, who is also a sorceress, summons up all her powers of enchantment to bind Renaud to her, but her passion is real while he is bound to her by sorcery alone. 

Through Armide's torment, this opera becomes an exquisite Baroque treatise on the nature of  desire with the conflict between vengeance and love framed within the innovative tragédie lyrique form.  

Performomh in French with English surtitles, Rosemary Carlton-Willis makes a captivating Armide with a fierce yet tender performance demonstrating intelligence and vocal range.

As Renaud, Guy Withers brings charming presence, a bright tenor and precise lyrical characterisation.  

Da Silva, as well as directing, displays a fine baritone in the role of La Haine, the demon of Hate invoked by Armide to overcome her feelings of love with vengeance.

As director he also shows resourcefulness on an obviously limited budget. Candlelight, for example, ingeniously reveals an underworld of monsters during the travails and terrifying journey of two knights, Ubalde of baritone John Holland-Avery and the Danish Knight the tenor Hiroshi Kanazawa. 

The set and props are meagre - two  battered chairs, a tarnished candelabra and a throw cast over several stage plinths convey Armide's fantasy world.

Nevertheless, the minimal staging is more than made up by a memorable musical performance. This includes the small six-piece orchestra of harpsichord, archlute, violin, viola, gamba and cello  conducted by Matthew Morgan.

The Arcola production is a rare outing for a thrilling opera which in the seventeenth century proved a crowd pleaser and broke new ground with its psychological portrayal of Armide's dilemma.

Ensemble OrQuesta's version does justice to this fascinating piece with accomplished instrumentals and vocals. With only one performance left, this comes highly recommended and it's a green light for a night of rapture and tragedy.    

Friday, 11 August 2017

Review A Spoonful Of Sherman


A Spoonful Of Sherman
Music & Lyrics by Richard M Sherman & Robert B Sherman
Al Sherman and Robert J Sherman
Book by Robert J Sherman
Conceived by Robert J Sherman & Colin Billing

Worth A Lot More Than Tuppence
https://www.brasseriezedel.com/live-at-zedel

Awww, back in the day when TLT was an motorless tricycle learner driver, she treasured her mini-cache of  LPs (remember those?) amongst which was The Story And Songs From Mary Poppins with an illustrated booklet.
 
So even though she'd never seen the movie and the album (ah, those old fashioned words!) wasn't even the Disney film soundtrack, TLT and her very own like-minded chitty of an automobile can sing along to all the songs such as supercalifragi - califragi ...  califragi- er -lipstick  ... well, you know the one she means.

Now comes along an 85 minute celebration of the Sherman family tune- and wordsmithery, A Spoonful of Sherman. 

The title puns of course on another of the most famous Mary Poppins's songs, A Spoonful Of Sugar, apparently inspired by the polio vaccine sugar lump but ask TLT's seven year old self who wrote it - she probably would say, "Mary Poppins of course!".

No, dear, it was in reality written by the  New-York Sherman Brothers whose fame unusually lies in songs for movie musicals with the stage shows coming only relatively recently after the celluloid fact.

Yet the brothers were only  the fourth musical generation of an emigrant family from Stepantsy near Kiev in the Ukraine which arrived, via by-royal-appointment freelance musician posts in the Austro-Hungarian Emperor's court, in the musical melting pot of 1906 New York.
.
Musical director Christopher Hamilton at the piano with vocalists (with more than a smidgeon of subtle yet spot-on choreography as well directed by Stewart Nicholls) Helena Blackman and Daniel Boys join a fifth generation songwriting Sherman, Robert J, at the Brasserie Zedel's Crazy Coqs cabaret room.

Musically the show begins with granddad Al, born  in the old country, who became a successful Tinpan Alley composer, in an age dominated by music publishers and  song sheet music.

Al was a master of the in-demand upbeat ditties such as Save Your Sorrow (For Tomorrow) with Buddy De Sylva and anthem to sports and dating (surely an American high school surefire hit!), "You Gotta Be A Football Hero", written with lyricists Al "Blueberry Hill" Lewis and Buddy Fields.

At the same time, with fellow songwriters Nat Burton and Arthur Altman, he could also turn his hand to a wistful wartime song There's A Harbour Of Dreamboats.

This song put TLT in mind of another celebrated 1940s' contemporary song - Walter Kent's and, ahhh, that's why!, Nat Burton's White Cliffs Of Dover.

However it's the brothers who certainly as the show puts it, wrote "The Songbook of  Your [TLT's] Childhood" and since, as far as TLT can remember, the booklet had the words and possibly the music on the long playing record, it's no exaggeration!

Not being musical specialists, TLT and her little jalopy had no idea 60s' bubblegum pop classic You're Sixteen was written by the fraternal duo in 1960  - beating Neil Sedaka's Sweet Sixteen by a year, even if The Sound Of Music's Sixteen Going On Seventeen  was a year before.

Indeed putting in context the songs (including lyricists' rhyming dictionaries!) was all part of the fun of this solidly enjoyable show for your own automotive duo. 

For this reason, it was the inclusion of the brothers' grandpoppy's roots in Austro-Hungary (where the waltz king Johann Strauss and all those operettas come from) and the brothers' pop Al Sherman (who also had a hobby later incorporated in another famous song) with Robert J's more recent works such as Music Of The Spheres, which made A Spoonful Of Sherman a full-bodied experience for us. 

Helena Blackman soaring soprano easily encompassed a range of 20th century song styles from perky 1920s to near operetta to the limpid notes and musical hall idiom of Sherman Brothers' songs.

Meanwhile Daniel Boys put his own Eastenders stamp on chimney sweep Bert's songs from Mary Poppins and the doowop jazzy Jungle Book numbers (which TLT originally learned through  Kenny Ball and His Jazzman.on the Morecambe and Wise Show).

Nevertheless it's the beautiful, tender harmonies of Blackman and Boys, especially with Feed The Birds (tuppence a bag!) which will stay with us.

However, a further surprise when Robert J took to the piano and sang the River Song from the 1973 musical adaptation of Tom Sawyer - TLT is certain there was reference to the very first word of James Joyce's epic and very musical novel Finnegans Wake (Robert B - Robert J's Dad, keep up at the back! 😉 - was a literature major!).

It's a practically perfect introduction drawing on a family fistful of songwriting characters, sadly missed and still living.

A family spanning  the change from songsheet publishing to movie technology - in a different way from, say, another Imperial Russian emigrant songwriter, Irving Berlin - with an inextricable golden link to movie mogul Walt Disney and the influence on the soundtracks of numerous films which have followed. So we're saving our sorrow for tomorrow 😀 and it's a green light.   

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Review boom


boom
by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb

From Here To Eternity
https://theatre503.com/

boom by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb is not to be confused with Boum!, French singer Charles Trenet's pulsating song and ode to life and love where biology has taken over marked by a thumping heartbeat.

But this is the surreal enforced household of Jules - who has reinvented his name as a tribute to French science fiction and surrealist novelist Jules Verne -  and his visitor - female Jo (aha, did you really think it might turn out to be Jim for - er - Jemima - ? - to carry our artificially imposed French theme?).

Jules, a marine biologist, under the pretext of an online lonely hearts ad promising "intensely significant coupling" has lured to his student pad cum lab cum bunker,  Jo. She's a world-weary journalism student from England who is careless about whom she couples with, looking to churn out an article for an assignment.

But Jules has found out that, through his study of fish, that the earth's population is about to go boom! in the negative sense of the word and, driven by a biological and intellectual imperative, is set on saving the human race.

There are a few not insurmountable difficulties.

Jules, who calls a fish in tank Dorothy after the Wizard Of Oz heroine, is gay, even if he recognizes the necessity to create a huge family tree out of a little bush sprig.

While Jo, who also suffers from periodic blackouts, definitely does not want to procreate and a bond between the two seems highly unlikely. .

As the comet approaches the earth, it looks like Jules may be running out of options.

But wait, who is that - that mouthy, percussive museum worker with an array of levers and whose drumbeats intermittently frame the action?  That's Barbara who is your unreliable narrator tour guide to the end of the world and new beginnings.

This three-hander was first performed, and well-received by critics, in New York in 2008 the year the lever was pulled, bursting the credit bubble with the crunch.

The deliberate artificiality, the farcical destruction and creation myth obviously hit a nerve when scientist Jules recounts how his mother "couldn't have picked a worse time to go on a tour of unreinforced masonry in California".

However director Katherine Nesbitt seems unsure of how to hide the flaws of this energetic, raw piece.

Nicole Sawyerr as the journalist in training is clear and focussed but never seems to really get a handle on Jo's determination to turn the random into journalism and her lapses into unconsciousness.

Will Merrick gives good value as theorizing Jules, nicely inept as the graduate whose best laid plans go wrong from a combination of his own incompetence and outside circumstances.

Mandi Symonds's green-suited Barbara, regulating the action, making the Wizard of Oz persona her own, gradually becomes more and more part of the story. Even if her inivtation for the audience to take her into its confidence and purchase the institution's "pamphlets" plant increasing seeds of doubt.

However the play is alternately thought-provoking and tedious with the incomprehension and isolation of Jules and Jo becoming grating.

Meanwhile Barbara's downfall and (dubious) resilience feels a long time coming. There's something there but, although some aspects of this tall tale grew on TLT, it felt spread mighty thinly over an eternity of 90 or so minutes. A lower range amber light.

Review Mrs Orwell


Mrs Orwell
by Tony Cox

Gentlemen's Relish
http://www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk/

Post-Second World War. In the Soviet Union citizens were used to everything being in short supply and whispered about the corruption of those in authority who got more than their fair share plus access to foreign goods.

In Britain, paper rationing had just ended in 1949 but other rationing continued. The writer known as George Orwell had become the author of a bestseller Animal Farm, having eventually hit a post war Cold War zeitgeist, and then 1984, a sensation in the western publishing world.

The bio-drama Mrs Orwell begins with the male writer and essayist rather than the eponymous second wife, Sonia Brownell.

She is a 31 year old, glamorous blonde, as luminous and perky as a sunflower and the efficient literary magazine assistant editor to which Orwell was a contributor

Mrs Orwell, as the title and name implies (although George Orwell was a pseudonym), is for good or ill defined by George Orwell.

Orwell of course was a pseudonym (or  "mask" as one character remarks) for novels and especially essays which caught the imagination of a post-war generation - the persona of a plain speaking Englishman with socialist tendencies espousing values of decency.

This play by Tony Cox rather cleverly but far too subtly, in the opinion of TLT, seems to be a dream of Sonia as conjured up by George Orwell (né Eric Blair) and the male gaze.

Cox is light touch on Sonia who was the writer's second wife, marrying him in his hospital bed three months before his sudden death from a haemorrhage, who hasn't always had a good press.

It is also believed, the author partly based the character of Julia in his most famous novel 1984, although the play decides not to explicitly mention this.

Instead  Cressida Bonas has the difficult task on stage of embodying Sonia Brownell through the filter of Julia - becoming a creature of the famous writer's imagination addled by illness prescription drugs and eventually also a Scotch haze. 

In this Bonas, suitably svelte and cut-glass, does exceptionally well, as far as it goes, in spite of it being a tough ask.

But there is a vacuum at the centre of the play. In this, by coincidence, it rather resembles the fictional matriarch of Apologia where a reputation precedes a woman with hardly any supporting evidence..

Nevertheless in the case of the play Mrs Orwell and real-life perceptions of Sonia as a stereotype grasping and unstable widow in charge of the literary estate after her husband's death, this isn't necessarily wholly a criticism.

The personality of the excitable Orwell (or should we say Blair) is far more filled out  matched by a beguiling performance from Peter Hamilton Dyer who embodies the public schoolboy enthusiasm, including a taste for comfort food such as dumplings and Gentleman's Relish, which turns interestingly into something more hard-edged in the second act.

Rose Ede as the nurse has to cope with a stereotyped role but still manages to give a glimpse of underlying scepticism about the various visitors filing in to see the celebrity writer whose work Hollywood was by this time clamouring to put on screen.

She also shares a moment with the writer's new wife where the audience can glimpse the generous, practical side of Sonia's nature.

Publisher Fred Warburg is portrayed by playwright Cox and played by Robert Stocks as a stolid, methodical businessman balancing the interests of Orwell and keeping some secrets for Sonia yet excluding her from the male club.

This part of the play doesn't always add up  (and is somewhat at variance with the real Westminster School, Oxford-educated, First World War army officer publisher) but may again be explained by the prism of Orwell's imagination. Even so, he is given a clunky expositional speech in the second act which rather breaks up the fluidity of the production.

Edmund Digby Jones gives a charismatic if creepy performance as artist Lucian Freud. Yet he's introduced to us first with Orwell which again rather skews the audience's view of Sonia's close relationship with him. We never get to know that she had known Freud from her days as an artist's model.

So Sonia remains an enigma with her radiant photogenic film star good looks. No mention is made of her shared heritage with Eric Blair, both born in colonial India before returning to England. Or her schooldays with future film star Vivian Leigh, although it may explain an otherwise cryptic desire specifically referenced at the end of the play.

Mrs Orwell is neatly directed by Jimmy Walters keeping up the momentum with Jeremy Walmsley's music bridging the scenes. There's a deceptively simple and effective hospital room design by  Rebecca Brower. Nevertheless the corridor windows also transform themselves almost into cinema screens for some of the action.

However there are a few elements which marr the theatrical experience, chiefly the assumption that an audience new to the story will be able to pick up on the name dropping. By the same token, it may be  a play that has been thinned down and some necessary information left out.

Whatever, lack of background sometimes leaves holes in an otherwise skilful  patchwork and out-of-context jusxtapositions do undermine a more complex dramatic and humanly credible analysis.

It needs a little more like the piquant moment when Sonia is dragged by her husband, his publisher and Lucian Freud, who sees the opportunity for a loan, into a business arrangement and when we realise just how vulnerable and how potentially dangerous the situation is for her. An amber/green light.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Review Apologia


Apologia
by Alexi Kaye Campbell

The Last Supper
http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/apologia/trafalgar-studios/

It's a luxurious country kitchen on the birthday of Kristin, an American-born divorced Marxist academic in her sixties. She's awaiting a fellow veteran of radical 1960s' politics and  her two sons, whom she hardly ever sees, with their partners for a celebration dinner

Peter who is in banking arrives punctually with his physiotherapist girlfriend Trudi while Simon, preceded by his TV actress wife, creeps in more surreptitiously.

Kristin was an activist during the anti-Vietnam war marches in Grosvenor Square and the Paris student demos of 1968. A bundle of hurt and recriminations soon emerges triggered by Kristin's just published memoirs, which she claims were written only to chart her professional life, where her two children fail to get a mention. 

This play was originally staged in 2009 on the intimate stage of the Bush Theatre before it moved to its present venue. It may be something is lost in a larger venue. There's nothing wrong with what is there, but this family drama feels frustratingly under-developed.

Frustrating especially because the juxtaposition of banking, evangelical Christianity, television fame, academia and the legacy of 1968 with the personal cost to a woman and her family is an attractive and thought-provoking premise. 

Nevertheless it remained for TLT  a play of five characters in search of a plot.  Jamie Lloyd directs a solid, straightforward production. There is a marvellously detailed widescreen set from Soutra Gilmour with just a glimpse of a corridor through an open door and a Renaissance portrait with a young woman's telling glance.

However while Stockard Channing is fine as blinkered old leftie and mother Kristin, she is a curiously passive character around whom the others circulate and comment.

Laura Carmichael as Christian evangelist Trudi shines brightest of the satellites with a naturalness in  turning often unforgiving lines into thoughtful responses in  this family drama.

Otherwise Joseph Milson doubles as Kristin's sons, Peter and brother Simon, both isolated in their own way by their parents' actions. Freeman Agyeman is the actress, increasingly estranged from Simon, who reveals her own motivations in life as well as art. Desmond Barrit makes the best of a stereotypical wisecracking gay best friend, a veteran also of the 1960s' protesting frontline.

Our googling reveals the term apologia - from the Greek - to be "A formal written defence of one's opinions or conduct", a rhetorical format not to be confused with apology as an expression of regret.

In some ways, TLT felt, this play tries to combine the two with the unrepentent activist having put forth in print a defence of what she calls her professional life and her sons yearning for something more from her - perhaps something less a defence and more an apologetic understanding of what has happened to all of them.

Yet the nitty gritty exploration is not there - the trial, just or unjust, a show trial or a genuine investigation - never comes. We're never quite sure about the nature of Kristin's past actions or her perceived fault in anything but the most general terms.

The characters are there, but the issues seem thinly drawn with digressions, even if we may suspect the play teeters on the verge of asking whether if she were a man and a father instead of a mother, the same reproaches would be there.

The potentially most interesting relationship is that between Kristin and her prospective American daughter-in-law Trudi, who doesn't pretend to be an intellectual and met Kristin's son Peter at a prayer meeting. However this is a drama which may have looked better on the drawing board than on stage. 

Practically each character has his or her own moment of "apologia" but, for us it felt stretched out and it's an amber light.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Review Evita


Evita
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

It Takes Two To Tango
http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/evita/phoenix-theatre/

We're about to shoot holes through our credibility by admitting that we've never seen Evita - not Elaine Paige, not Madonna, not Elena Roger. Yes, we remember the Julie Covington and David Essex recordings and videos and have caught bits of the movie, but that's about it.

But it was a nice surprise to find Evita, based on the life and death of Eva Perón, is a stonking musical with an ingenious rock and Latin-American flavoured Lloyd Webber score and a very clever, succinct book written by Tim Rice at a time when another Perón was making news,

This touring production from the Bill Kenwright stable, directed by Bob Tomason with Kenwright, feels uneven but still, we think, enjoyable. Part of the unevenness though lies in our own preconceptions, shared we are sure by many of our generation,  of which more later.

The 1978 stage musical follows the career of Eva Perón, a rags-to-riches true life story, illegitimate child to radio actress to wife of the President, only to be cut short  by an operatic-arc tragic death at a relatively young age.  Or as Lloyd-Webber, who was of course Jesus Christ Superstar's composer, pithily put it, before he was persuaded to do the musical, another death at 33.

Emma Hatton is a vivacious Evita of the Elaine-Paige-type but the show is definitely hampered in the first act by some bizarre microphone sound levels. 

Even so Oscar Balmaseda's minor celebrity crooner Magaldi, in this version of Evita's story, Eva's meal ticket to city bright light's rises above this with a pleasing clarity, along with Sarah O'Connor as Perón's former mistress with "Another Suitcase In Another Hall".

Happily the sound levels become practically perfect for the second act when the hard-edged  money making, the turning of Evita into an almost Marilyn Monroe superstar and then her sanctification really kick in.  

Hatton and Kevin Stephen-Jones's brylcreamed Perón in song thrillingly argue out political possiblities while the iconic songs, Che's earlier "Oh, What A Circus" and Eva's "Don't Cry For Me Argentia" have their impact.

Yet we felt somewhat frustrated by what seemed like a vigorous and beautifully put together musical but we couldn't quite fathom the reason why at the time.

During and immediately after the show we were totally unfair about Gian Marco Scharetti's Che. We criticised his faintly ridiculous broad-chested military stance. 

But we did wonder about the way he donned his military beret very like a member of the IRA paramillitary rather than a romantic view of Che Guevara and another moment when, on his knees, eyes raised, he seemed almost Christ-like. 

We should have trusted our instincts and taken this che (che in Spanish is a colloquial term, he's a guy, any guy) more at face value. 

Lloyd-Webber and Rice's original character was not Che Guevara but a far more generic Brechtian terrorist/freedom fighter. This also makes sense of the casting of Irishman Colm Wilkinson as the Che on the concept album. 

It also turns Evita into a musical about how myths are formed compared with the reality of powerbroking and about how social reform can go hand in hand with corruption and murder. It's also a musical, it seems to us, about men and women and who controls the narrative and storytelling.

So any version loyal to the creators' original conception has a major problem. The preconceptions of people like TLT. 

The 1978 director Hal Prince, it seems to us, turned Evita into a more cinematically ready musical of a certain type. It made sense again when we learned that, admittedly much later, Cabaret's Liza Minnelli did a screen test for Evita.

Maybe also there was a difference between the US's view of Che Guevara and Europe's which makes Prince's choice to turn the narrator into the icon legitimate in American terms but also made the character less universal. That said, the Alan Parker movie with Antonio Banderas did revert back to the original concept.  

It may be that the differing South American, the mainstream US, the Broadway and Hollywood and the British and European views on Che Guevara all come into play. And it all may have been complicated by differing colonial and then post Cold War views of Argentina.  

We thought we detected clever moments - the cathedral scenes had a tinge of The Sound Of Music, the slightest echo of West Side Story and Sondheim's Assassins in the Buenos Aires scenes and a nod towards My Fair Lady as the aristocratic women of upper class Argentina berate Evita behind her back before the musical becomes its own creature.

It's all very light touch and does work but it's also rather lush, full of bright colours and military uniforms and of course that iconic Che Guevara image. We had to investigate this and interrogate our own assumptions, but we'd love now to find out if a cut-down overtly Brechtian Evita would work. 

Our storytelling in this review, it seems to us, backs up our own conflicted reaction to this production. We may have made some assumptions, but we didn't know the steps of this Evita tango. We hope it is of service to those about to see the musical for the first time and wish we had known all this before we went. 

It's not only a great musical but, we think, a barometer of conflicting interests and the politics of showbusiness in 1978. For this 2017 Evita, it's an amber light. 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Review The Wasp


The Wasp
by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm

Hornet From Hell
http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/

When the internet first took hold, one of the first successes was Friends Reunited - school reunions writ large online. Many of course were delighted to trace those they had known from their schooldays.

On the other hand, for others it was a nightmare scenario ... 

Two married 30 somethings meet up outside a cafe. Carla's character is immediately established - she's a cash-strapped hard-faced blonde (Lisa Gorgin), chain-smoking - and pregnant.

She's joined by a demure, well-spoken, well-off ex-classmate (Selina Giles), with an air of Charlotte Rampling, who has contacted her through Facebook.

They seem to be polar opposites, in the past one a bully, the other a victim, but now the balance of power has changed, they're all growed up with a grown-up proposition in prospect.

This is a drama-thriller that at first shifts the dynamics rather well. It sets up our expectations, often incorporating issues and news stories which have appeared in the media, only to snatch them away.

It also allows the two actors to run the gamut of  their acting repertoire in a positive way. That's its strength and, a few instants excepted when it lagged a bit, the first act is suitably tense and gripping.

It was in the second act, despite director Anna Simpson's best efforts and a pleasing, efficient set design from Mike Leopold, that the moments of lag started to overwhelm the plot and it falls apart.

There are rather too many on-the-nose explanations, including the origin of the play's title which seem torturous to say the least.

In fact, we began to wonder whether we had wandered into some computer mash up of a David Attenborough nature documentary and John Fowles's The Collector with a touch of Stephen King's Misery. 

Or, despite committed performances, we almost expected it would turn out to be some kind of elaborate game knowingly played between two warring friends, trying to outwit each other and we in the audience were the victims of a theatrical "sting" (it wasn't).

The Wasp goes from plot point to plot point and plot to plot, as if it were tasting a whole range of possible stories, a trend we have noticed in a large number of new plays during the past couple of years.

It becomes a curious amalgam of a thriller - welding together a number of themes - more successfully in its first act than in the denouement. The ending was one we had thought of near the beginning but dismissed as one of the snatched-away scenarios.

However, frankly, with all the jumping around from tall tale to tall tale, we stopped caring.

Nevertheless, it's a slick, well-acted  production and if you're not too pernickety about stereotypes and plausibility even in The Wasp's lunatic, smoke and mirrors world, there are worse ways of spending an evening. It's also probably a movie, rather than a theatre, script.   An amber light.

Review Continuity


Continuity
by Gerry Moynihan

Behind The Walls
http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/

Pádraig is a bit of an artiste - he's called upon to perform - to sing - "Once upon a time there was Irish ways and Irish laws" in the pub in the city he calls Derry on St Patrick's Day.

He's also lived through history both literally as a middle aged mechanic from Cold War to 2017 and also keeping alive the flame harking back to Oliver Cromwell's conquest of Ireland through The Troubles.

For he's still a member of what he views as the IRA - the paramilitary Continuity IRA fighting for  32 counties of a united Ireland.

Yet he's living in modern European times as well, having hitched up with a Spanish lover who works as a university administrator, even if the future is now more uncertain.

But he's never believed in the peace process, although at least one close family member has joined the Police Force Of Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile he finds himself in demand for his technical skills and as part of an alternative "legal" set up by men classified as terrorists maiming for life minor drug dealers.

Writer Gerry Moynihan has framed a neat monologue but the evening belongs to Paul Kennedy as the conflicted Pádraig who gradually realises in this 90 minute monologue that he is a man caught between two generations and cannot reconcile the two..

The core of the monologue lays out powerfully and in increments Pádraig's life. There are a few clunky movie references which sound like additional tweaks.

However the ebb and flow of  Pádraig's emotions and  his increasing understanding of others' inner lives  is effectively conveyed, sometimes touchingly and sometimes with disturbing clarity.

While history and organizations seem to have an onward continuity, the grudges and actions are part of a sordid circular internal turmoil.

This is in essence a melodrama where many of the elements may be familiar. Yet there are also some deft touches which put it in both a more global and intimate domestic context, bringing it up to date.

Director Shane Dempsey, with movement direction by Steffany George, insures the solo piece is well-paced with Anna Clock's atmospheric sound effects.

A magnetic, carefully nuanced performance by Paul Kennedy immerses the audience in a world where everyone has only a partial understanding of what is going on and what they are doing, even with a final seemingly defiant act. An amber/green light.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Review Road


Road
by Jim Cartwright

Northern Soul
https://royalcourttheatre.com/

By 1986 the era of the bomb sites left by the Second World War and subsequent demolition was retreating but not forgotten.

This often revealed on city wastelands a cross section of a home in the rented Victorian terraces which still had tenants in the houses next door. Torn wallpaper and homely cupboards up above still visible to children playing down below in the ruins.

The North/South divide had descended and the old industrial revolution industries were either rapidly contracting or had already died a death. The Big Bang and the bank account culture were yet to take over but there were glimpses of the changes they would wreak.

This, it seems to us, is the atmosphere of Jim Cartwright's Road - dilapidation, unemployment where joining the armed forces and almost a war enconomy seemed the only alternatives, a new generation springing up out of the ruins of the old and, yes, an indominitable stereotypical humour and resilence.

Having only read the play and never seen a production, we were excited when Road came up on the schedule of the Royal Court - its original home - directed by John Tiffany to boot.

Road is a mix of communal poetry, soap opera (Coronation Street, Brookside and even Eastenders had all become popular), rage at social circumstances and an exploration of inner psychic space and society. 

We have to say we were a little surprised by a set from Chloe Lamford with a pair of monolithic streetlights towering on each side of the stage and an extremely clean red brick wall with bricked up huge arched windows as the backdrop.

This all seemed more like something out of expressionist Metropolis than a Lancashire town in the 1980s under a Thatcher government.

And instead of us travelling up and down the road with a  febrile Scullery, it's a production made static by the curious choice of a rising and lowering perspex cube giving a feeling of aliens who had just landed on Planet Lancashire.

Up the wide steps at the front of the stage, our guide, Scullery, is a very laid back Lemn Sissay, poet and actor, who takes his time to lean back and watch the action as it plays out before him.

This is not  a pulsating, changing street or a ghetto where people are trapped. It's a far more sterile environment where everybody takes their turn.

You may guess from this TLT found the Lancashire street via Sloane Square particularly lacking in atmosphere. Sometimes this view of a Northern town even felt theme park-like and kitsch rather than a hand-to-mouth existence of a street full of people  regularly cashing the unemployment benefit Giro at the Post Office.

Still, while they have to sometimes fight against some unwieldy design for the intimate scenes, there are good performances. Mark Hadfield as a Hoover-mending resident, leather-skirted Michelle Fairley propping up a passive binge-drinking soldier she's determined will give her a good time and June Watson's understated but pitch perfect turn as a girlish pensioner.  

Written by Jim Cartwright three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Road is a map not so much of a sea change but a new era's tidal wave. It still remains an atmospheric piece of writing with beautiful, visceral use of music.

However we don't feel the overall concept of this production goes with the flow of the poetic text. It just doesn't feel raw red and wounded  enough - as if it were all behind an airless perspex box with the politics and soul sucked out. It's an amber light.

Review Rabbits


Rabbits
by Joe Hampson

Strange Stew
https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/

Rabbits puts itself out as a play about what middle-aged people do behind closed doors. Hmm, well, it's  very much a series of sketches with common characters and - eventually - a theme.

However, while an excellent three-strong cast try their best, it's a crab-like would-be comedy of the absurd which doesn't so much develop as try to manoeuvre clumsily sideways.

And there were times when we thought perhaps we were being inducted into the stage equivalent of the cult of mini movies remade with bunnies.

Working in reverse, we learn the rather anticlimactic and curiously old-fashioned whys and wherefores of what turns out to be a sex comedy near the end when it finally pulls the proverbial long-eared mammal out of the hat.

The play revolves around three characters, one apparently a husband and wife, the other a chameleon man who metamorphosizes into three different characters.

When we say metamorphosize, that's a little misleading as it implies fluidity between the three sections of the play.

The dialogue and jerky twists and turns seems to breed more possible plots than a fluffy bunny breeds offspring, going through approximations of numerous TV and movie premises,

So it starts off with a hitman plot where a sitcom-type husband, rather than wanting to get rid of his wife by violent means, is focussing on the disposal of an unwanted gift.

Maybe the baseball cap with a prominent "LA" on the head of the hapless male spouse is a clue. The actors make it characterful but we found the set up and gags distinctly weak and forced.

The experimentation with structure felt less a choice growing organically out of content, but a means of inserting gags and set ups the writer wanted to include. We did also wonder whether this piece may have started off as a radio play.

We noted the repetitions and differences between the first two parts. We can't say there was "Ahhh, brilliant, I never saw that coming" or "Wow, that was wonderfully trailed but it's still a surprise" before the downbeat third act revelation.

Alex Ferns takes on a trio of characters and the first scene is the strongest where visually he cuts a distinctive figure as the hitman in Alex Berry's bedsit set. David Schaal also brings energy to the perculiar ticks and helplessness of the husband.

Karen Ascoe as the spouse who wears the trousers in the household is the stand out in the cast, but this is probably because her transformations as a character are the most extreme.

As far as we could tell, there is also some attempt to make a difference in acting styles between heightened cartoon fantasy with some deliberately coarse acting and more naturalistic scenes.

Staging wise, a raised platform stage or at least more thought given to sightlines for all the rows may have proved beneficial. The space has raked seats on two sides and, about three rows back, we had our view severely impeded when the action descended onto the floor.

Director Sadie Spencer by necessity forces the pace on a script which feels very stitched together and artificial.

Of course at this point it would be easy for the creatives to argue it is meant to be an artificial environment created by the characters themselves and we could dispute about this ad infinitum ... It's that kind of irritating script and situation.

For us this felt like a play that isn't as insightful, experimental or funny as it thinks it is. Still, bunny casting must be hoping it's part of a trend with fluffy mammals appearing in both The Ferryman and now hopping over to the Park Theatre here. A red/amber light.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Review Coming Clean


A brittle comedy drama revealing the cracks in a seemingly stable relationship provides a funny and wistful evening for Peter Barker.

Coming Clean
by Kevin Elyot

The Love Knot
http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com/

Long-standing gay couple Tony and Greg are celebrating their fifth anniversary in a Kentish Town flat.

Greg is a worldly, acerbic academic, while would-be writer Tony and unattached serial cruiser friend William enjoy partying.

Tony and Greg have an open relationship, tolerant of each other's one-night stands, but the two men still remain serious about and committed to each other 

That's until the arrival into their domestic milieu of buff young "resting" actor Robert whom they hire to clean their flat. Finally Tony begins to realise that he might want something more out of his relationship with Greg.

Coming Clean was first put on in 1982 at the Bush Theatre, the debut play of the late playwright and actor Kevin Elyot .

This was 12 years before the playwright's most successful play My Night With Reg brought him to playwriting prominence..

The earlier play asks, in the era before AIDS but after 1967 decriminalisation of private homosexual acts,  when does an open relationship cross the line into infidelity?

Now this thought-provoking and touching play has been revived at Islington's King's Head.

Jason Nwoga is the college lecturer, Greg, Lee Knight is his partner Tony who finds their relationship severely tested, Tony Lambert the domestic help of the love triangle and Elliot Hadley is comically engaging as William.

The plot, issues and humour of Coming Clean have worn well and it remains a witty and insightful look into the nature of relationships, love, loss and betrayal with believable characters.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher has assembled an excellent cast on the detailed set designed by Amanda Mascarenhas.- a Kentish Town flat of the early 1980s complete with sofa, hi-fi, kitchenette, Lady Di tea caddy and Mozart records.

Elyot, who came from Birmingham and was a former choir boy,  originally called the play Cosy after the Viennese composer's Cosi Fan Tutte.

Spreadbury-Maher's direction is assured and sympathetic. Even though the drama includes darker issues, bitterness and recrimination, the play and performances remain funny, warm and natural and part of a green light production.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Review Just To Get Married


Just To Get Married
by Cicely Hamilton

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Georgiana?
http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/

Poor Georgie has a lot on her plate. If only it were a china service plate of the kind normally given as a present to brides to set them up in their new home.

Instead, with the hopes of her aunt's snobbish but shabby genteel family fixed upon her, she's still hoping, at the ripe old age of 29, that a man will make a bid for her in the marriage marketplace.

Playwright Cicely Hamilton was an actress in the early 20th century and also an active feminist concerned with freeing up the social and economic position of women.

Just to Get Married, first performed in 1911, has at its centre Georgiana Vicary, well-educated but financially and socially dependent on her Aunt Catherine and Uncle Theodore.

Her one fervent wish in life, she believes, is to take herself off the shelf and get married, despite her own misgivings.

Everybody is full of expectations when she seems to attract the attention of Adam Lankaster in possession of a fortune and recently returned from Canada, then still part of the British Empire.

What is to be done? It's a case of will he or won't he, as everyone holds their breath, as to whether the retiring, tongue-tied Mr Lankaster will pop the question bringing credit and social status to Georgie and her aunt's Grayle family.

For despite their patronage of Georgie, the Grayles also have a military son in India running up debts, another Tod, whom they can barely afford to send to Cambridge University,  and a daughter, Bertha, of 16 going on 17, approaching the age - and expense - of coming out as a debutante.

Hamilton herself was single,  the daughter of a colonial officer whose mother disappeared early from her life, possibly committed by her husband to a lunatic asylum.

A single woman's fears about her social and financial status in society, despite the introduction of old age pensions three years earlier, were of course well-founded. However, while these anxieties take centre stage in the play, we found a subtext allying the spinster's fate with the already ailing British Empire just as interesting.

There are literary influences - or are they satiric send ups? - of  Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde  and Bernard Shaw but also a sophisticated structure which, seems to us, to point towards much later playwrights like Emlyn Williams and Terence Rattigan among others.  

Melissa Dunne directs a lucid production, although the play itself has an enormous amount of initial exposition, rather going against modern tastes, until the characterful plot really kicks in.

Philippa Quinn as the tomboyish conflicted Georgie cuts a distinctively tall figure in the Grayle's drawing room.

As the blushing, decent but unintentionally male chauvinist Lankaster, Jonny McPherson manages the deliberate pauses and near-stutters beautifully and gives us a glimpse of the efficient colonial businessman beneath the gauche exterior.

The Grayle family, Nicola Blackman as the ambitious aunt, Lauren Fitzpatrick as her young cousin, a barometer of the clashing interests, Joshua Riley as her self-interested elder brother and Simon Rhodes as the mitigating, seemingly benign, Uncle also evoke the pecuniary and mercenary atmosphere.

Although we must also admit we were unduly distracted by the excessively high, but maybe sartorially accurate, collars of the menfolk from costume designer Lottie Smith!

Stuart Nunn's small role as the footman is also effective. His appearances added to the domination of male action over enforced female passivity in the household.

Designer Katherine Davies Herbst makes excellent use of the space in a well-angled elegantly simple set with neatly positioned mirror over the mantelpiece reflecting the action.

Yet the play only fully comes together for TLT and her own motorised consort when it's set against an imperial and political context.

Hamill came from an insecure background where her mother was perhaps incarcerated against her will and the play's third act (it's a two hour play with one interval) is especially ambiguous pitting possible destitution and its consequences against marriage and colonial wealth.

There's also an uneasiness about Britain's place in the world comparable to Georgie's insecurity as a woman in a world where allies are hard to find in both cases.

This was a time when imperial adventures in the Antarctic had gone sour and the monarchy and the state seemed more dependent on their dominions than vice versa.

While the leadership of the increasingly economic and politically dominant English-speaking America was still prepared to mitigate, the family of countries, the Royal Families of Europe and Russia and the family of Georgie all  seem increasingly unstable.

This makes somewhat more sense and also leaves a prescient question mark over what would otherwise be an expedient and unbelievable status quo ending. It's not a perfect play by any means.

However, it strikes us as a strange but farsighted pre First World War and Russian Revolution piece in a perilous age for women campaigning for their rights and for the state of the world . An amber/green light.    

Review Beast


Peter Barker enjoys an ambitious and energetic production where the workplace becomes a battlefield.

Beast
by Mariko Primarolo

Work Is A Drug
http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/beast

Banners Corporation is marketing a new product, an emotion-manipulating drug  treating soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress, especially after service in wars overseas.

Yet, according to the marketing, it has wider applications, for the liquid appears to calm and to concentrate the mind wonderfully

Invevitably though, there are other less desirable side effects.

This is the intriguing premise of Southwark Playhouse Young Company's latest offering at the South London venue.

Playwright Mariko Primarolo combines this plot with another analysing the competitive nature of modern-day internships.

Banners recruits four interns but only promises to give one of them a permanent job. For many in the Millenials' generation now, this is certainly not an exaggeration but reality.

Beast is performed energetically, directed by Chelsea Walker in a vibrant but unfocussed production.

At its best, it is a wry, sharply-observed and trenchant look at corporate culture and marketing where there is often an inextricable link between the office and bullshit.

In truth, while the problem has become magnified for graduates and others in today's economy, there is an honourable tradition of plays in previous generations making the same kind of points as Primarolo about young people's employment.

For example John Biyrne's examination of apprentices, The Slab Boys, written in the 1970s but hearking back, even if it was an era of full employment, two decades before that.

Despite Beast's initial good, clear idea, the play and production need more crafting as the switching back and forth between individual story lines feels awkward and are hard to follow.

The writer's promise to "enable everyone in the company to showcase their talents", while an admirable intention, leads to a muddled overall dramatic arc. Director Walker could have done with pacing the play in a more nuanced way.

There's plenty of talent on show, particularly Olive Supple-Still as intern Max, and the cast as a whole works well together. There are highlights - notably when the disgruntled workforce mutinies against the management

while the production does sometimes lose its way, there's certainly value in seeing it before the last performance on July 29 and enough in it to make an amber light.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Review Your Ever Loving


A new drama using the letters of a wrongly-convicted man sheds fresh light for Francis Beckett on a disturbing miscarriage of justice.

Your Ever Loving
By Martin Mcnamara

After They Threw Away The Key
http://www.londonirishcentre.org/events/

The voice of  Paul Hill, one of the Guildford Four wrongly convicted of pub bombings carried out by the IRA on 5 October 1974,  speaks loud and clear across the years in this two-hander play based on his letters from prison.

With a confession beaten out of him by the police, he served 15 years in jail for a crime he did not commit.

Journalist-turned-playwright Martin Mcnamara discovered the letters in an archive and has turned them into a thoughtful, compelling piece of theatre.

Your Ever Loving is unmistakeably a radical journalist’s play. It uses, as far as possible, Hill’s own words to condemn the injustice done to him, and to provide an intensely theatrical cry of rage at a society that behaves in that way.

The casual cruelty of underpaid and under-regarded prison officers is a part of Hill’s story and there are too many other former prisoners attesting to it for us to doubt it.

“You’ve got a grandmother called Cushnahan?  She’s dead.”

The former MP Denis MacShane similarly describes the same brutality, insensitivity and just sheer incompetence during his recent and relatively short prison sentence for fiddling his expenses in his book Prison Diaries.

Your Ever Loving is, in short, an hour-long cry of outrage, held together as a piece of theatre by the interesting and sympathetic character of  Hill.

That it works theatrically is a tribute to the strength and economy of Mcnamara’s writing and to Stefan McCusker’s strong, thoughtful, low-key performance as Paul Hill.

Between them, playwright and actor have turned Hill from a mere victim into a human being the audience cares about.

Hill’s daughter was not born when he went to prison. She was 15 when he came out.  “I need to find softness and gentleness. I have a daughter” he says as he is brutalised by the prison system.

The only other actor, James Elmes, copes magnificently with more parts than I could count – prison officers and policemen, former Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, and even, on a couple of occasions, the author.

Director Sarah Chapleo skilfully paces the piece, also adding well-chosen music. The minimalist set has a bare wooden table as its centrepiece and feels a little like a prison waiting room.

Much political theatre, in its frenzy about the politics, forgets to be theatrical and starts to lecture the audience. Your Ever Loving does not make this mistake.

It holds the attention throughout, even though you know the ending.  A green light to rush off and see this fine polemical play, either in London until July 29 at the London Irish Centre or in Edinburgh  at the Underbelly from August 3..

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Review The Marriage Of Kim K


The attractive concept of a reality TV musical and Mozart opera mash-up is marred by technical sound issues, finds Peter Barker.

The Marriage Of Kim K
Music: Stephen Hyde
Words: Leo Mercer

Spouses Settling The Score 
http://www.arcolatheatre.com/ 

The timeless themes of love and relationships underpin this musical riff on reality television's "famous for being famous" Kim Kardashian's brief marriage to a basketball star.

The Marriage of Kim K is a clever attempt to fuse old and new - Kardashian's nuptials with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's and Lorenzo da Ponte's The Marriage of Figaro.

It's a marvellous idea with new compositions from composer Stephen Hyde, who also directs and stars, and lyrics and book from Leo Mercer. A flippant tale of celebrity culture plays alongside the Count and Countess Almaviva in the eighteenth century opera.

We follow the lives of three couples in three different, yet linked, domestic situations characterised by three different musical styles. The couple on a sofa in New York, the celebrity couple in Los Angeles and the Count and Countess in Spain.

The design by Anthony Newton divides the stage into three - the metropolitan apartment of the New York couple, the Kardashian and Humphries media blitz in Los Angeles and the Seville of the original Mozart opera.  

This set enables the action to go to and fro and run in parallel, kicked off by the different priorities of couple lawyer Amelia and composer Stephen - she is hooked by Kim's appearances on TV, he's untouched by celebrity culture and wants to listen to Mozart.

Meanwhile Kim Kardashian (Yasemin Gulumser) and sportsman Kris Humphries (James Edge)  have a tempestuous time in their private lives, publicly expressed on social media. Back in Spain, Count and Countess Almaviva  are similarly having a bit of a barney.

However the major problem of the evening (and it is a very big and unavoidable problem) was an extremely dodgy sound system, the microphoning making unintelligible much of the story and the satire of The Marriage of Kim K.

This was very frustrating, especially as iy appears to be a show full of invention directed by Stephen Hyde who, also merging life and reality, takes the part of composer Stephen with his real-life partner as his wife Amelia who also happens to be called Amelia Gabriel.

The real Stephen also has composed the music, a mixture of classical, pop and electronic,  played by a band of cello, violin, viola, percussion and keyboards.

The Marriage of Kim K is part of the Grimeborn opera season at the Arcola Theatre but the majority of the cast are from musical theatre who don't emerge well from the sound problems.

Emily Burnett as the Countess stands out among the singers. However it is noticeable she and Nathan Bellis as the Count are the strongest performers -  and the only trained  opera singers amongst the cast.

In true opera buffa style, the audience thrills at the wild swings of emotions and a satisfyingly neat and emotionally fulfilling conclusion. There was enough energy to intrigue me at times, but the overwhelming sense was of unfulfilled potential.

Even though it's a good idea and the second act was an improvement on the first, the technical blunders make it a red/amber light. 

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Review The End Of Hope/Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall


Peter Barker relishes two very different one-act plays about romantic relationships, both stylishly directed and performed.    

The End Of Hope
by David Ireland
Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall
by Brad Birch

Coupling
https://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/

An evening at the Orange Tree Theatre sees the revival of a pair of intense two-handers - a comedy by established Belfast playwright and actor David Ireland and a poetic drama from young writer Brad Birch. 

The End Of Hope charts a night of casual sex between Dermot (Rufus Wright), apparently "Ireland's greatest living poet",  and Janet (Elinor Lawless), a supermarket worker with low self-esteem about her looks.

This is set against a Northern Irish backdrop and, yes, there is a Catholic and Protestant element but the focus is on an unlikely romance between a man and a woman with a dark, comedic twist.

Janet hides herself behind a mouse mask, even if she proves eventually to be a ballsy personality  and disclosures about a past relationship reveal a bizarre secret.

Ireland’s script is witty, outrageous, surreal and inventive, providing an entertaining and sometimes shocking hour of theatre on an effective simple set, a bed in the middle of the space, from designer Max Dorey.

Wright and Lawless have terrific chemistry, commanding the audience's attention as an odd couple -  atheist, Protestant, former Catholic, mouse impersonator, married man.

Ireland's play can be tricksy, as well as entertaining, and director Max Elton confidently handles the pacing, laughs and tricky changes of tone from jokiness to threat and back again.  All in all, a play and production meriting a green light.

Brad Birch's play, first seen at the Soho Theatre in 2013, is a far more serious drama, but not without moments of wit.

Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against a Brick Wall has a serious intent, examining the emptiness of modern life. However the playwright's bold ambitions are undermined by a hackneyed scenario.  

We are drawn into the mundane lives and thoughts, through soliloquies, of Him and Her, a young city worker couple (Orlando James and Georgina Campbell) utterly disillusioned with their stale, flat and unprofitable worlds.

This is a play from a young writer about 20-somethings, ruled by the clock, technology, bills and everything else that makes up modern life.

However, for those who remember it, there is a feel of Reginald Perrin territory, admittedly with more swearing and less middle-aged, in the rebellion against their repetitive, corporate-driven life: "This isn't reality, this is the f****ing office".

We are given their diurnal round -- waking, eating, travelling, working, drinking, sleeping played out on another strikingly effective and ingenious Max Dorey set.

Two benches are the only furniture serving as desk, bed, barricade, office. The two rebels grasp the eye-catching splash-of-colour orange props waiting for them on hooks hanging from the ceiling.

Under director Hannah De Ville’s focussed, rhythmic direction , there's enough momentum to allow us to accept the artificiality of the the characters breaking the fourth wall relaying their innermost thoughts. 

However this piece's structure, rather than the direction,  after establishing with energy its questions about modern life, lets the play down. The ending feels downbeat and unsatisfying after the previous pace and exuberance and it's an amber light.

These two plays, with lighting by Stuart Burgess and sound by Richard Bell, form part of a Directors' Festival  showcasing directors on  the Orange Tree Theatre and St Mary's University Theatre Directing MA.

Judging by these productions, it's well worth grabbing one of the £7.50 tickets and seeing any of the plays before the festival ends on Saturday, July 29.

Alongside the pieces I saw, the run includes Albert's Boy by James Graham directed by Kate Campbell, Misterman by Enda Walsh directed by Grace Vaughan and Wasted by Kate Tempest directed by Jamie Woods.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Review I Loved Lucy


A play about a television icon makes Francis Beckett ponder on the cult of celebrity nostalgia infecting current playwriting.  

I Loved Lucy
By Lee Tannen

After The Ball Is Over
https://artstheatrewestend.co.uk/

Younger theatregoers start here. I Love Lucy was a 1950s' American sitcom which was also shown here starring Lucille Ball and her first husband Desi Arnaz.

The series was fast and funny and established Ball as one of the earliest great female comics.  Children used to badger their parents to be allowed to stay up and watch it.  (I speak on this with authority.)

In the late seventies, when Lucille was in her late sixties, she met a young man in his twenties called Lee Tannen, distantly related to her second husband, who had grown up hero-worshipping her.

He was her friend for most of the last ten years of her life, and he has now written this two-hander play about that friendship.

The best thing about the evening is a wonderful performance by Sandra Dickinson who spits out her lines in just the way I imagine Lucille in old age would have done.

Lee is played with great assurance by Matthew Scott, but he is hampered by having very little to work with.

We learn early on that he is a gay, neurotic Jewish New Yorker and an unsuccessful writer. For the rest, his devotion to Lucille has to substitute for character and, directed by Anthony Biggs, Mr Scott does well to make that even remotely convincing, obliged as he is to tell us frequently, in slightly different ways, how wonderful she is.

The story goes like this. Lee meets Lucy, is overawed, but manages to forge a strong friendship with her. She takes him to parties and first nights, but mostly they play backgammon, and talk, and occasionally what they say is quite funny.

At the end of Act One they fall out, and at the start of Act Two they make it up again. And at the end of Act Two (normally reviewers do not reveal the denouement, but in this case I don’t think I will spoil anyone’s enjoyment) she dies.

That’s it, really, except that after she dies the author seems to remember a few things he wanted to say about what a great genius she was that he hasn’t squeezed in earlier, and detains us for another ten minutes or so while he says them.

There seems to be a growing view in London theatre that if your central character is a famous actor, you need only recount what happened and you can call it theatre.

I’ve seen a couple of shows recently that appear to have been written on that premise, and I don’t buy it.

I need a plot to hold my attention or, at least, an overarching theme or some clever and unexpected insights; and if none are present, then I need a lot of very funny lines.

Mr Tannen doesn't offer any of these things. There are a few good lines, but not enough of them, and  they are not good enough.

“What did the doctor say to the midget? I’m afraid you’re going to have to be a little patient” is about as good as it gets, unless you prefer “Lucy loved Oprah when Oprah still had a last name.”

I’ll stretch to an amber light on the basis that it’s always a pleasure to watch top class actors at work.