Friday 27 December 2013

2013 in review

It is difficult to sum up 2013’s theatre offerings in one phrase. After 2012 was described as a ‘bloodbath’ for London theatre, the 2013 Olivier Awards certainly reflected a thin choice of new musical nominees. Next year’s, however, will be full of choice as 2013 has seen the premiere of The Commitments, Tim Rice’s From Here to Eternity, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Stephen Ward the musical, The Light Princess, American Psycho, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Once, The Book of Mormon and the launch of next year’s I Can’t Sing – The X Factor Musical. It’s fair to say that all of those musicals have seen mixed reviews and some tepid audience receptions, but it’s excellent that there has been an array of new work in both the private and public sectors.

The West End has seen starry revivals of plays by Ayckbourn, Bennett, Brecht, Pinter, Ibsen, Shakespeare, Noel Coward, Peter Nichols, David Hare, Simon Gray and Jez Butterworth which would make it a notable year for classic and modern classic plays. However, new plays such as Peter Morgan’s The Audience, John Logan’s Peter and Alice and Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica will also be well-remembered.

If there was a prize for best producing house this year, it would surely be between the National Theatre for its award-winning production of Othello and unbelievable and memorable celebrations for its 50th anniversary and the Almeida Theatre. The Almeida has earned two West End transfers in Chimerica and Richard Eyre’s production of Ghosts and has also found success in new artistic director Rupert Goold’s production of American Psycho. The National also had a record four of their productions (Curious Incident, Untold Stories, One Man, Two Guvnors and War Horse) in the West End.

2013 has also been a year where artistic directorships have changed with Vicky Featherstone taking over the Royal Court, Gregory Doran having his first full season at the RSC, Rupert Goold replacing Michael Attenborough at the Almeida, Laurie Sansom becoming head of the National Theatre Scotland, Paul Kerryson announcing that he will leave Curve next Christmas and (the most notable of them all) Rufus Norris being announced as Nicholas Hytner’s successor at the National. We have also seen the bulk of Michael Grandage’s starry and successful West End season at the Noel Coward Theatre, but we must not forget the more subtle and perhaps better programmed Trafalgar Transformed Season headed by Jamie Lloyd at the Trafalgar Studios. The season was due to carry on but instead will commence again in the spring.

After much press in the last two years of there not being enough parts for older women, it has been refreshing that there have been stage appearances from Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Zoe Wanamaker, Samantha Bond, Lesley Manville and Sheila Hancock. In fact, Peter Nichols’ Passion Play had six lead characters, four of which were women and five of which were middle-aged.

Regional theatre impressed this year with Piaf and Chicago at Leicester’s Curve, Oliver! at Sheffield’s Crucible, Kenneth Branagh in Macbeth at the MIF and the sell-out RSC production of Richard II with David Tennant. And back in London, it was perhaps a slightly lukewarm year for the Old Vic but they ended it with an acclaimed production of Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool. The Royal Court also ended the year well with NT Scotland’s production of Let The Right One In, the Young Vic had success with The Scottsboro Boys and the Donmar Warehouse staged some successful productions including Coriolanus and the West End-bound The Weir.

As for award seasons this year, the Awards split opinions as ever, there was some controversy over Lia Williams not being nominated beside Kristin Scott Thomas for Old Times, and the judging panel quit at the London Evening Standard Awards, throwing their prestige and authority into dispute. There was also a terrible incident at the Apollo Theatre where part of the ceiling collapsed, thus sparking a debate over the state and safety of older theatres and what exactly the restoration levy is going into.

Overall, artistically, there have been plenty of theatrical successes in 2013.

I didn’t get to see Othello, Chimerica or Ghosts but here are some of my year’s highlights in no particular order:

1.      Quartermaine’s Terms (Wyndham’s) – Richard Eyre’s finely directed revival had an excellent cast led by Rowan Atkinson. Its gentle humour and poignancy struck a chord. As St John would say, it was ‘terrific’!

2.      The Book of Mormon (Prince of Wales) – So it may have got a mixed reception from the critics, but I found the hit Broadway musical to be hilarious and have exhilarating songs. I would pick it as Best New Musical of the year.

3.      Passion Play (Duke of York’s) – Brilliantly directed, great cast, theatrically exciting and very moving. Zoe Wanamaker is one of my favourite actors but the whole cast impressed. Samantha Bond and Oliver Cotton gave superior performances and Owen Teale gave one of the most honest performances I’ve seen this year.

4.      The Audience (Gielgud) – Some scenes may have been forgettable and it was quite self-indulgent, but I enjoyed its theatricality and knockout performances.

5.      Mojo (Harold Pinter) – An excellent revival of Jez Butterworth’s first professional play. Very funny and tense. Daniel Mays and Ben Whishaw gave stand out performances and Ultz’s set of this imagined 1950s’ Soho was very impressive.

6.      Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Apollo) – Its theatrical ingenuity and protagonist’s take on the world was extremely impressive. I recommend everyone to go and see it.

7.      Peter and Alice (Noel Coward) – At the time, I found the play to be not very unique somehow, but its sentiment, fine performances and excellent direction and design have stayed with me. I also applaud the Michael Grandage Season and the great number of cheaper tickets.

A happy and healthy New Year!

Monday 11 November 2013

Twelve Angry Men

Birmingham Rep Theatre, prior to West End run

5th October, 2013

This was only the second performance of Christopher Haydon’s production before a short tour and a run now at the Garrick Theatre, London.

The newly-refurbished Birmingham Repertory Theatre first opened to the tour of Alan Bennett’s newest, excellent play People this Autumn. It now acts as the opening venue for this starry production of Reginald Rose’s 1954 television play, adapted for the stage the following year and then famously into a film starring Henry Fonda in 1957.

Probably most famous as a film, this play is extremely naturalistic. It is closely set in real time and sees 12 New York jurors locked in a room with the task of deciding whether a young man is guilty of murdering his father. Initially, all the evidence points to a guilty vote but in an early vote, the persistent juror no.8 says that he is ‘not guilty’ meaning they all have to reluctantly stay in this stuffy room and unpick the details of the case. Soon, it completely falls apart and one by one, the jurors change their mind.

It was an extremely assured performance from only the second time in front of an audience and will surely have got better before the West End run. However, the opening ten minutes or so could have done with some tightening but the opening of most plays is dedicated to getting to know the characters and situation so the decision for the characters to settle into the room by opening windows and their collar buttons while getting into it is an apt one.

Listening is certainly important in this play but the argument is played out with utter captivation. What is most enjoyable is hearing the argument against the accused fall apart. From seeing a duplicate knife of the supposedly unique murder weapon brought into the room and slammed down onto the table to seeing juror no.8 act out how long it would take an elderly neighbour to get from their bed to the front door to see the murderer run off. Another fascinatingly theatrical moment that gives the audience chills is the discussion of whether saying ‘I’ll kill him’ is always meant as taken. Juror no.3 is adamant that it does until angered by juror no.8 which eventually leads no.3 to say it himself. This marks the end of the act and the pause and blackout leaves us and juror no.3 realising that our words aren’t always justified with actions.

Martin Shaw seemed to be enjoying himself giving a strong performance as the resilient and persuasive juror no.8. But it is Jeff Fahey’s juror no.3 that really stands out as a gutsy stage performance. He is the juror who is the last to change his mind and although it seems a little contrived for him to be so adamant that the boy is guilty because his relationship with his own son isn’t good, Fahey still gives a superbly powerful performance. The magnificent Robert Vaughn was a little unsure of his lines at this early performance but another cast member prompted him followed by nods of agreement by other cast members. How excellently this was handled is testament to what a compelling production this is. The only slight criticism with the casting is that you can hardly tell who anyone is due to the abundance of them on stage!

Michael Pavelka’s unnaturalistic set reminds us that we are in a theatre. The doors, windows, radiators, bathroom and even light switches keep the set detailed but the lack of walls and strong presence of a lighting rig to hold it together reminds me of Pavelka’s set for Propeller’s The Comedy of Errors a few years ago. We could sometimes think we are watching a film, but this design gives the production an element of theatricality. There is also a slight revolve which is effectively used and some nice rain-effects. Before the performance and during the interval, New York street sounds played in the auditorium help place us in the heat of the city.

The ensemble cast work brilliantly together, with Nick Moran and Miles Richardson also standing out. This recommended, compelling drama should do well in the West End and marks another success for producer Nica Burns and a well-deserved one for Bill Kenwright Productions. This is a classy and thought-provoking court room play.

Twelve Angry Men runs at the Garrick Theatre until 1st March, 2014.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Blood Brothers UK Autumn tour 2013

Being in the audience at the last night of Blood Brothers at the Phoenix last year was one of my most memorable evenings in a theatre. However, almost a year after it closed in the West End, the touring production of Blood Brothers returns to its home of Liverpool to packed out standing ovations at each performance. We saw the midweek matinee at the Oxford New Theatre back in September.

‘If you haven’t seen it go… if you have, go again’ is the press quote so often used on the posters for Bill Kenwright’s and Bob Tomson’s production of Willy Russell’s epic musical of class and superstition. This current tour proves that now is certainly the time to see it as it is better than ever. Original narrator Warwick Evans returned to the show back in April (when we saw it twice) after the final fortnight in London last year. He plays this everyman character with a dark side as well as compassion and his voice stands out just as well as it does on the 1988 and 1995 cast recordings. His renditions of Shoes upon the Table and Madman (which I have seen live five times now) are different every time and are simply brilliant. The dulcet tones of Mr. Evans are no less compelling in Summer Sequence, in which Russell explores the elations and misbegotten dreams of growing up. And finally in the closing moments before the ever-powerful and strangely rousing Tell Me It’s Not True, Evans looks down at the bodies, his voice breaking, gives a fist of solidarity and walks away before stopping himself when hearing Mrs. Johnstone’s opening lines of the song. For GCSE students who still believe that the narrator represents the devil, you need to see the utter humanity of Evans’ portrayal which exemplifies what a complex character it is. Not meaning to shadow any other cast member of the show, it is worth seeing for him alone. Let’s hope that they ask him to return to the tour next year as well.

Maureen Nolan, one of the finest Mrs. Johnstones, gives a powerhouse of a performance and shows that her acting range is just as strong as her singing range. I’m glad she can finally play the role in Liverpool! Original Broadway Eddie, Mark Hutchinson, brings out humour and a touching nature of a role normally shadowed by the fast-becoming definitive Mickey, Sean Jones. Olivia Sloyan also does as fine a job as former long-running cast members Jan Graveson and Louise Clayton as the unsung girl in the middle of the pair. Sloyan’s Linda brings warmth as well as humour and devastation. Of the supporting cast members, Graham Martin, Daniel Taylor and Tim Churchill stand out amongst this extremely impressive company.

Since I last saw it in April, the programmes have been nicely uplifted and the band sound extremely strong. I’m not sure if new Musical Supervisor Tom de Keyser has made changes, but the drums in Shoes upon the Table were excellently striking and the guitar staccato in Summer Sequence was nicely touching.

For such a long-runner to be this fresh and popular is testament to the work happening on and off stage and the power of having original cast members return to a production brings this much-loved show back to its roots as well as keeping it moving forward. Maybe it is time the producers rest the News of the World quote from above as there are many other superlatives about this show. And here’s another: if you never see another piece of theatre, then go and see Blood Brothers.

Blood Brothers is touring the UK into 2014.

Friday 27 September 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

Old Vic, London
21st September, 2013, matinee

In an interview with Mark Lawson at the Criterion Theatre, the incredible actor/ director Mark Rylance announced that he planned to do Much Ado About Nothing with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones after seeing them on Broadway in Driving Miss Daisy. After much anticipation and press regarding their age, it opened last week at the Old Vic to mainly terrible reviews, perhaps leaving people wishing that he hadn’t suggested it. However, I say that some of the criticism was unfair and would recommend it for Redgrave’s and many of the supporting cast’s performances.

It is usually the case that Benedick and Beatrice are played by actors in their forties rather than their 70s (Redgrave) and 80s (Earl Jones). But the idea that you are never too old for love is true and at times it really doesn’t matter that these two reluctant and bantering lovers are pensioners. At other times though, it does make Rylance’s production a little senseless. Firstly, you wonder what this 82 year-old Benedick has been doing in the war to prove so helpful to Claudio. Also, when Leonato tells his niece Beatrice (who looks older than him) ‘By my troth, niece, thou wilt never get thee a husband if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue,’ (II.i) you can’t help but be a little surprised that they are still trying to find her one. But other than that, the age ‘matter’ doesn’t really get in the way.

Rylance’s concept works well and it helps to explain the casting: he transports Messina to a WWII English village with American troops visiting. Ultz’s design has said to be dull and not the most aesthetically exciting but it certainly is striking. From the second row of the stalls, you can see up into the well-lit brick fly tower, which further makes the design look more impressive. The design is largely wooden-looking with a giant inset box which some have said carries the look of a Wagamama’s table. I’m not sure if it helps the acoustics and it is pretty hard to analyse but it certainly provides shelter which is useful for scenes set in more private places and also sets up some hiding places. To be honest, it reminds me of what the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse might look like next year and the whole production certainly does have a Shakespeare’s Globe feel about it. The staging is mainly lively and open and the front few rows are lit to help protrude the performance space into the audience space.

I did wonder if the age of Redgrave and Earl Jones would stop the famously funny gulling scenes from being as active as major productions from recent years and I’m afraid they do come across as a little disappointing. Unlike some reviews, I can say that you can see some of Benedick’s and Beatrice’s reactions but for most of the scenes, they are either hiding in or behind a wagon. It does bring a moment of joy, however, when Redgrave leans forward and directly asks an audience member “if this is true?” and by not seeing their reactions, it does allow more focus to go on the other players who are excellent in these scenes.

A moment of delight in this production comes from the Dogberry/ Watchmen scenes. Peter Wight’s English Bobby Dogberry (with a touch of a Northern accent) is very funny and plays well off of Tim Barlow’s elderly Salvation Army officer Verges. His dance moves behind a Bluesy version of ‘Sign No More’ are eye-catchingly hilarious, if not a little milked. The other watchmen are played by children scouts and the scene where they catch Borachio in an apparently dark barn provide a moment of action equal to something you might see at Shakespeare’s Globe in the sense that it’s fun, spirited and induces a lively reaction from the audience. It is interesting that Dogberry doubles with the calm Friar Francis as both are characters who seek peace.

Vanessa Redgrave is on fine form! It was my first time seeing her on stage and I was surprised by how warm, rich and spirited her voice is. Her gesture to the sky on ‘but then there was a star danced, and under that I was born’ is magical and makes you aware that you are in the presence of a great (II.i). An extra layer of interest is added here because Redgrave’s birth was announced on the Old Vic stage after a performance of Hamlet.

James Earl Jones, sadly, lets the production down in my opinion. He has a great voice and his Benedick has charm but there are times when his diction is bad and I felt that his struggles with his lines got in the way of his character. Comparing him to many other (albeit younger) Benedicks, he is often sitting down which halts the pace and energy of the play. I could be wrong but one of his final speeches was got through with repeating bits and I don’t think that he carried on after “and that is my conclusion” even though there are other lines in the script.

An ironic edge is added to Benedick’s ‘the world must be peopled’ which is fine as it does receive a knowing laugh. Quentin Letts criticised the fact that Beatrice’s ‘Kill Claudio!’ got a laugh but that is not an uncommon reaction. Afterall, a laugh does relieve the tension that the severity of the line brings if put into reality.

Many of the supporting cast are excellent. Michael Elwyn (who didn’t have much stage time in The Audience) makes for an excellent Leonato. He spits with anger in the wedding scene as he chases Hero around the stage and carries a particularly powerful performance all the way through. It is a shame that Beth Cooke’s Hero and Lloyd Everitt’s Claudio neither particularly stand out but maybe the former does when being accused in the wedding scene and is being held by Redgrave. Melody Grove’s East London Margaret is extremely impressive as is Ben Kingsley-Adir’s Borachio. Alan David (of Jerusalem fame with Rylance) is excellent as is Danny Lee Wynter’s highly convincing Don John. He wears a scar on his left cheek as if to physically convey a bitterness and perhaps jealousy which reflects the character’s darker side. James Garnon’s masterful Don Pedro also impresses.

There seems to be a major production of Much Ado every couple of years or so, but maybe this ill-reviewed production will make producers wait a little while. I was a little disappointed that there was no symbolism about noting or things being resolved. Although it might seem a little contrived, the eventually-solved Rubik’s Cube at the end of Josie Rourke’s West End production was a neat touch. The Old Vic, its programmes and its front of house staff were as friendly and beautiful as ever.

I suppose it is a good thing that someone can suggest a play and an interesting cast choice and then for it to happen, but maybe in this case it shouldn’t have done (some might say). However, for £14 for the second row of the stalls, I can’t really complain. At times, this production seems a little messy, but Redgrave makes it very special as do many other members of the cast. As long as you’re not paying top dollar for it, I reckon that in some way or other, it is a must see.

Much Ado About Nothing runs at the Old Vic Theatre until 30th November, 2013.

Monday 16 September 2013

Barking in Essex

Wyndham’s Theatre

14th September 2013 matinee – penultimate preview

Finally, after all of the hype and anticipation, we met the Packers. Lee Evans, Sheila Hancock, Keeley Hawes, Karl Johnson and Montserrat Lombard star in a new comedy by late writer Clive Exton which tells the simple yet effective story of Essex crime family the Packers. Algie Packer is soon to be released from prison but his family have spent the £3.5 million that they were supposed to be safekeeping, thus leaving them ready to flee their mansion of a home. But before they have the chance, Algie’s new love Allegra Tennyson has arrived wanting the key to the safe deposit box. With the Packers assuming she is simply after the money they decide to hire their elderly hit man of a neighbour Rocco to deal with her. By the end of act one they find themselves with a corpse, a shot man and a note confirming that Allegra was in fact genuinely Algie’s partner.

The plot has understandably been likened to Only Fools and Horses and does have hilarious moments but sadly does not live up to its billing as a riotous comedy. The only thing that perhaps is riotous about it is the amount of swearing. Although it is funny at times, in my opinion if you find bad language titillating you need to get out more. Act one opens with classical music and the revealing of Simon Higlett’s spectacular set which stinks of wealth and new money. When the word ‘cunt’ is repeated several times in the opening lines, humour is created from the culture clash of it being a word perhaps not expected to be heard. Later on, when Chrissie calls ‘where is that cunt?’ followed by Evans’ deflated reply of ‘I’m here’ it is again funny but does begin to get old. I felt that if the ‘cunts’ and ‘fucks’ were taken out, many of the laughs would be too.

The second act is set in the sort of place where the Packers belong: a poxy flat that is the antithesis to act one’s setting. There’s a brilliant joke in this act where after a great number of suggestions both in the design and in the text that they are in a Peruvian dump worthy of something out of Banged Up Abroad, in actual fact they are more close to home. It’s a joke that perhaps didn’t get the laugh it deserves, maybe because of the many hints of them being somewhere else, hints that strongly show the ignorance of the Packers.

Exton brilliantly shows that with a family who are willing to turn on each other and who have completely lost their moral compass, things can go wrong. For the characters in Barking in Essex, death is the only way of stopping them, and (trying not to reveal too much) once we hear Algie arrive at the flat and the lights go down on a desperate Darnley, there is a suggestion that he will take the same way out. Emmie implores ‘Feelings. Go on feelings’ and mocks morals as being weak and religious but it is Darnley who recognises that ‘you’ve got to have rules’ as a family and that recklessness is simply not enough. Although there is bathos at the end, I felt the script could have been more effective and specific and also wondered if it was not perhaps unique.

The Packers are a family that represent everything that they mock and criticise. ‘She’s filth. Definite filth’ Chrissie Packer accuses of Allegra after demonstrating much worse aspects herself along with Emmie’s criticism of ‘nice language’ because of a few swear words, completely ignorant to her own torrent of expletives. And in the second act she accuses incest on the locals when the Packers themselves are not exactly innocent in that respect.

Exton’s widow Mara writes in the programme that he was fascinated with the English vernacular and I feel he’s captured it extremely well. What he creates feels extremely relevant and reflects what some people are really like today. Evans has said that you can easily replace the Packers with bankers or politicians but by setting the play in Essex perhaps does criticise the shallowness, hypocrisy and greed of anyone (including ordinary people) in today’s society.

The play is excellently-acted all round, particularly from Lee Evans as the layabout Darnley, the only Packer with any redeeming features in that he puts an end (albeit cruelly) to the amoral so-called family. With just a single look he can evoke laughter but as done before in The Dumb Waiter and Endgame also shows his versatility as an actor, particularly in those final moments. Sheila Hancock is hilarious as the mother who can both be callous and motherly. She superbly plays the matriarch of the family but I wondered if the final moments of Emmie’s downfall could be more roundly and deeply played. Keeley Hawes is highly convincing as Darnley’s money-grabbing wife (and sister) whose hunger for fame and a celebrity lifestyle soon leaves her dead – an act which seems quite apt and interesting when seeing talentless, real-life wannabes on the television now. Karl Johnson is impressive as Rocco, who longs for a quiet life rather than the one he lives, but it is hard to ignore the far superior Noises Off that he was in last year.

When the play was announced a year ago I imagined a farce that made the best use of Evans’ skills in physical comedy but although Harry Burton’s production allows for moments of physical humour, it did feel a little crowbarred in.

Some might see this as a very commercial piece of theatre drawing on the recent popularity that TOWIE has brought Essex as well as the star casting bringing in audiences. But any show that brings new audiences into the West End should be applauded. However, many other productions also try to do this but with large numbers of cheaper tickets and day seats. Barking in Essex does neither, but I still do recommend it. Very nearly four stars!

Barking in Essex runs at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 4th January, 2014.

Monday 2 September 2013

Autumn Highlights

The Cripple of Inishmaan, Barnum, Sweet Bird of Youth, A Chorus Line, Relatively Speaking, Strange Interlude and Titanic all closed this weekend thus making room for new productions to open and therefore raise the curtain (apologies) on an Autumn of exciting London theatre. Here are just some of the highlights:

Tonight not only marks a cast change for the National’s hit The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Apollo but also a busy Autumn for the National as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. The occasion will be marked with an evening of special performances from the past 50 years involving Judi Dench, Simon Russell Beale, Rory Kinnear and many other guests as well as being broadcast live on 2nd November on BBC 2. NT Live will help celebrate the anniversary with encore screenings of Hamlet, The Habit of Art and Frankenstein. The Autumn highlights from the Southbank include Marlowe’s Edward II and Tori Amos’ new musical The Light Princess and I imagine that Nicholas Hytner’s successor as Artistic Director will also be chosen in the coming months.

The Michael Grandage Season moves onto its final two productions with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Sheridan Smith as Titania and David Walliams as Bottom followed by Jude Law playing the title role in Henry V. The other highly-anticipated Shakespeare productions of the Autumn come from David Tennant’s Richard II (dir. Gregory Doran) at the RSC and their former home of The Barbican and Mark Rylance’s production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic starring older-than-usual Benedick and Beatrice James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave.

Back to the West End and after all of the hype, it will finally be time to #MeetThePackers with Clive Exton’s new comedy Barking in Essex with Lee Evans, Sheila Hancock, Keeley Hawes and Karl Johnson at the Whyndam’s. From the end of October, Hawes’ husband Matthew Macfadyen joins Stephen Mangan in a new Jeeves and Wooster play Perfect Nonsense at the Duke of York’s and a star-studded revival of Jez Butterworth’s Mojo at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Perhaps a nice surprise is that three new musicals open in the West End this Autumn with the highly-anticipated Jamie Lloyd production of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments opening at the Palace, the surprisingly low-key new Tim Rice musical From Here to Eternity at the Shaftesbury and the new Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical about the Profumo Affair Stephen Ward the Musical at the Aldwych.

The Menier Chocolate Factory have today announced that their Christmas musical will be Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (Or Optimism) based on the novel by Voltaire but there are still some other theatres to announce productions before the end of the year. Namely, the Old Vic has yet to announce their Christmas show and the Trafalgar Transformed season still has to announce their fourth production.

According to the ATG website, The Ladykillers has extended through Christmas and it is looking likely that Reginald Roses’ Twelve Angry Men will transfer from the Birmingham Rep to the Garrick Theatre starring Martin Shaw and Robert Vaughn. After the anticipated transfer of Barnum from Chichester fell through, the Gielgud lies empty apart from a rumour of Strangers on a Train, but speaking of Chichester, their successful production The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui opens at the Duchess this month.

Vicky Featherstone continues her first season at the Royal Court by presenting John Tiffany’s visually exciting and disturbing production of Let the Right One In. Based on a Swedish coming-of-age novel and first produced at the National Theatre of Scotland earlier this year, there is promise for this production to have a longer run. In December, Tom Hiddleston plays the title role in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse which will be screened as part of NT Live next year and the Royal Opera House have their first West End transfer with The Wind in the Willows at the Duchess.

London theatre is nearly always exciting but the coming months promise something for everyone.

Tuesday 30 July 2013

Passion Play

Duke of York’s Theatre
6th July, 2013 matinee

Peter Nichols’ work has recently had a resurgence with a major London revival of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and a West End revival of Privates on Parade at the start of 2013. David Leveaux’s production of Passion Play, considered to be a part of an unofficial trilogy of adultery plays along with Pinter’s Betrayal and Stoppard’s The Real Thing, is superbly powerful and hotly intense.

Modern art restorer James (Owen Teale) and choral singer Eleanor (Zoe Wanamaker) are a happily-married, middle-aged couple until James starts sleeping with the much younger Kate, who has a reputation of stealing older men from their marriages. The plot seems relatively straight forward but Nichols fully explores the benefits, traumas and effects of infidelity. The comfort of the couple’s somewhat stylish life is reflected in Hildegard Betchler’s sophisticated, blank canvas design. In fact, it is even posed that their life could be dull and that an affair brings excitement. The frivolity of sex seems integral, as it is not that James finds Kate more attractive or better in bed than Eleanor but that it is just the fact that she is new that entices him, thus signalling the potential boredom of monogamy.

James’ and Eleanor’s inner thoughts are presented on stage in the form of Jim (the very funny Oliver Cotton) and Nell (the brilliant Samantha Bond). It is interesting how Wanamaker and Bond have the same wigs whereas Cotton’s and Teale’s physical differences perhaps are a nod to the idea that James sees himself as taller and with more hair than in reality. Some may see the device of alter egos as gimmicky but it adds humour and depth through exploring inner and outer selves to the extent that they disagree with themselves in terms of what they say and think. In fact, the device is at its most devastating when we see how different the public and private self can be. When Eleanor finds out about James’ affair via a letter given to her by the bitter Agnes (Sian Thomas), who was cheated on by her late husband by the same femme fatale, Nell is distraught and bemuses ‘my world’s caved in and I’m sitting here’  while Eleanor stays sat in silence, eyes glazed with tears, trying to uphold some sense of pride. Her later anger is seen in some arguably misandric lines when Nell exclaims over the ‘camaraderie of cock. How they all stand together – literally, while women can’t trust each other’. Coming from a male writer, these lines could seem shocking but overall have the effect of fully showing the emotions experienced when being betrayed. Some provocative language could be seen as getting cheap laughs but words such as ‘slag, fuck, bang’ followed by ‘love’ emphasises how love can be seen as a dirty and overused word.

Leveaux’s fast-paced production has scenes punctuated with bursts of loud classical music. The high culture of the couple’s life is undoubtedly a metaphor for something bigger, but what is more interesting is the subtlety of the importance of style and culture in the play. James’ occupation is signalled by him wearing a paintbrush in his trouser pocket but I can’t help but wonder if the joke ‘is that a paintbrush in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?’ was ever said in rehearsal. The music reminds the audience of Eleanor’s job singing in choirs, which at one point is heard on the radio so that James and Kate can check how much time they have left together in bed. James’ job as an art restorer sees him having to paint over mistakes or stains as he does when lying to his wife, but the symbolism is so much more enjoyable by it not being totally obvious.

Eleanor discovers the affair in act one which allows Nichols to carry on digging with its effects in act two. It is also excellent of him to steer away from any gender stereotypes when it’s revealed that Eleanor has not been completely faithful in the past and that if James did have an affair she would have wanted it to be kept ‘dark’. The last moments of act one see Eleanor and James kissing and about to make love as Nell viciously screams ‘I love him’, thus backing up Eleanor’s action as an act that says ‘he’s mine’.

The second act starts with Eleanor accepting that Kate’s just a bit on the side and even taking part in a lesbian kiss after it is revealed that Kate likes Eleanor as well. At this point, Wanamaker’s cross-eyed reaction is hilarious while Nell bluntly wonders her darker, truer thoughts with ‘What, she’s a lesbian now?’ The laidback attitude perhaps seems a surprising plot choice, thus seeming confusing and problematic and therefore pre-empting the suspiciousness and unhappiness to which infidelity ultimately leads.

The subsequent nightmare scene which sees Eleanor seeing flashing cameras and Jim kissing several other women encompasses all of her worries in a simple, satisfyingly theatrical way, with Wanamaker coming so far downstage when snapping out of this dream that it makes the front row concerned. At the performance I attended, a champagne glass fell to the floor and smashed in this sequence, which I thought was appropriately part of it until a pause much later in the act when it was swept up by James made me wonder otherwise. After the nightmare, we see Eleanor and Jim talking to each other more, perhaps to signify how it is James’ true feelings speaking. Unfairly, he blames her ‘paranoia’ on the menopause and recommends she sees a doctor even though she is right to be suspicious. Eleanor, who ponders the ease of what it would be like to be the mistress, doesn’t want to be the other woman and her breakdown and suicide attempt (as portrayed by Nell) suggest the physical effects of heartbreak and emotional distress.

Eleanor officially realises that Kate is still seeing James when Kate lets slip too much information about going away with James. While Eleanor stays reminiscing on her honeymoon in Zurich hiding her true anger and upset, her inner self Nell stands there shaking and crying and smoking a cigarette, which makes for a powerful image. And for all of the arguing that Nell and Jim do, it is the stillness and distance that Eleanor and James demonstrate on the same couch that really conveys how it is those silences that are just as much part of a breakup as the rows. It is without a doubt that Passion Play could potentially be an uncomfortable play to watch.

Further truths are yet to be told when Eleanor says how men see women as ‘without periods, pregnancy. Pornography. Violets without bruises’. It is a striking, hallmark line on the objectification of women but is perhaps not as powerful as James’ line when looking down at an unconscious Nell to say quite truthfully  ‘you may not never hear this, but at that moment I hated you for the first and last time’. Teale’s brilliant timbre with a hint of Welsh makes this line extremely memorable, along with ‘I didn’t want anyone to die for me’ which exemplifies both a self-hatred and self-centredness and shows the damage caused by infidelity.

In the end, Eleanor and James stay together but Nell leaves and it is strongly suggested that Jim still sees Kate thus implying that Eleanor and James have become just shadows absent of any inner truth or commitment to each other – a sad truth that is perhaps resonant with many audience members’ marriages. The last tableau sees a worried Eleanor (who physically hasn’t been the same since the overdose) sit helplessly while Kate is literally ‘fur coat, no knickers’ before dropping it with her back to the audience to let Jim kneel into a near-rapturous pose at the side of her. It prompts the audience to think back to the religious painting that James earlier restores, thus leaving us with a strong image that is theatrical and thought-provoking but without being too apparent or conclusive.

Zoe Wanamaker, one of my favourite actors, is utterly watchable, as is Samantha Bond, Owen Teale and Oliver Cotton. The attractive and brilliant Annabel Scholey plays the teasing younger woman perfectly without overdoing anything and ensuring she’s not just playing a type.

Lastly, it is perhaps amazing how a West End play can be produced with 5-6 principal cast members, four of whom are women and five of them are middle-aged. Considering there has been much recent press about a lack of roles for female actors of a certain age Passion Play should be seen as an achievement.

As an end thought, I am normally dissatisfied with the cost and thinness of ATG theatre programmes, however this one does contain an insightful Mark Lawson article and a frank Peter Nichols interview. I bought a £10 second row day seat for Passion Play in a house which sadly wasn’t sold out.

To conclude, this is an excellent cast in a brilliant production of a thoughtful and funny play. One of the signs of a great production is how certain nuances can makes you keep on delving into the play every time you think of it.

Passion Play plays at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 3rd August, 2013.

Thursday 20 June 2013

Does it have potential? – My thoughts on I Can’t Sing – The X Factor Musical

In late February 2014, one of the West End’s biggest and most prestigious theatres will welcome audiences to the new musical I Can’t Sing, based on ITV’s tabloid-grabbing talent show The X Factor. Written by Harry Hill and with music and lyrics by Steve Brown, I can say that the majority of comments expressed on this new musical have been that of a surprised and derogatory nature. But why? Is it that after the abysmal Viva Forever frequent theatregoers are sensing a repeat embarrassment of a formulaic musical that feeds media-crazed fans? Or could it be that the trash-o-meter is going off the scale just with the thought of the circus frenzy that takes over our televisions for four months of the year moving into esteemed theatreland?

One of the few things we know of I Can’t Sing is that it claims to go behind the scenes to reveal the real antics of The X Factor including the reason why Simon Cowell’s trousers are so high! So it seems to be taking a satirical root. One issue with that idea is that satire is supposed to be fairly current whereas The X Factor has surely peaked by now and most of the people who watch it see it as a guilty pleasure and are savvy to the fact that it is to be taken with a pinch (or perhaps a handful) of salt and that whatever success that comes from it could be down to money-throwing producers and delirious fans just as much as it’s got to do with an act’s talent. Therefore, even if the title ‘I Can’t Sing’ evokes humour through the format being about a lack of musical talent it still doesn’t quite strike as truth-telling enough as it could be. Perhaps it should be called You Know I Can’t Sing But This Isn’t Really About Singing But Is Cheap Entertainment That Increases Ratings, but I can’t imagine that it would catch on!

The other problem with a satirical take on The X Factor is that a question is being raised over who is the real butt of the joke. With The X Factor logo stamped all over it and Simon Cowell’s production company SyCo acting as co-producers, it makes you wonder how satirical I Can’t Sing can be. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many jokes there are about the height of Simon Cowell’s trousers, because when those trousers have pockets stuffed with audience members’ cash, it begs the question of who’s really laughing.

Surely I should be giving a show that hasn’t even started previews yet a chance. A home-grown musical that brings with it the opportunity to entice audience members that don’t often go to the theatre should be welcomed and celebrated. However, if the format is as unoriginal and (dare I say it) low art as some audiences thought Viva Forever was then do we really want it? Are theatre box offices really crying out for TV executives to flood the West End with cruddy, end of the pier, sensationalised musicals? Or is the issue with recurrent theatregoers such as myself? Maybe there is a pompous feeling that the theatre is a club separate to the grubby, spectacular world of TV and that come February there will have to be a sign outside the Palladium asking customers to wipe their feet on the way in. I hope that’s not the case, but an interesting issue nonetheless.

At the moment, the saving grace to I Can’t Sing sounds like it could be Harry Hill. Despite being a household name and having a hit primetime ITV show, his comedy has remained successfully alternative. Therefore we can hope that by moving him from commercial television to commercial theatre he won’t lose any of his likable edginess or cheeky recklessness.

Director Sean Foley has had a hit in the past couple of years with Graham Linehan’s The Ladykillers but also a flop with the West End revival of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw last summer but I still suspect the production is in safe hands with him. Overall, with Kate Prince’s choreography and Es Devlin’s design and no doubt a dedicated cast and company, I Can’t Sing could well be a first class production but it would have to be a huge hit with critics, X Factor audiences and theatre fans for it to do extremely well in my eyes. To conclude, we’ll have to wait until 2014 to see how well it is executed (and there’s definitely a double meaning in that last word).

I Can’t Sing – The X Factor Musical starts preview from 27th February 2014 at the London Palladium and preview tickets are on sale now.

Monday 10 June 2013

Why the Tony Awards were so much better than the Oliviers

The above video shows a scene from Family Guy in which they parody a performance from the Tony Awards in which the ever-increasing number of performers sing ‘If more people join in, the song will get better’. They soon are walking in the aisles and chanting how their close proximity to the audience can trick people into thinking it makes for a better performance.

Watching Neil Patrick Harris’ truly spectacular opening number to this year’s Tony Awards makes me wonder if there was a touch of self-consciousness and self-parody in the routine. I fear that non-theatre lovers will rate the performance as cheesy and self-indulgent without fully appreciating the underlying tone of the performers and audience together embracing the in-jokes and light self-mockery alongside the unapologetic showmanship of it all. The Barnum-like Patrick Harris led the routine which featured Mike Tyson, cast members from quite probably every Broadway musical and an incredible magic trick was a brilliant tribute to the past season.

Cyndi Lauper’s Kinky Boots walked away with an impressive six awards including Best Musical, Best Choreographer and Best Actor in a leading role. Although it beat Matilda the Musical, they should also be proud of their five awards including Best Book, Best Design and Sound Design, Best Actor in a featured role and Special Achievement awards for the four Matildas. However, they didn’t do as well as perhaps expected and certainly didn’t match their record-breaking number of Oliviers.

For plays, the Chekhovian Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang and starring David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver, was awarded Best Play and the 50th anniversary production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf won best revival along with Tracy Letts winning Best Actor. We also learnt that Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy, which sees Tom Hanks (don’t forget to thank him!) making his Broadway debut, is not planning a West End run at the moment, even if it did win awards for Best Actor in a featured role for Courtney B Vance and best lighting design for a play. Other success stories of the night were The Trip to Bountiful, Roger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and Pippin (Best Revival of a musical) including Sister Act’s Patina Miller winning Best Actress in a leading role in a musical for the latter.

The Tony Awards have more categories than the Olivier Awards in some aspects, which makes it fairer for the ‘Featured/ Supporting’ awards. But also where the Olivier Awards seem to go wrong is in its coverage. After all, I think that a Tony and an Olivier are equally prestigious but you wouldn’t think so when watching them. The pride and glamour on show at last night’s ceremony made this year’s Oliviers seem apologetic to be televised as if we had to be grateful for the little airtime that they received. And what about the content? No mash-up or tribute for London theatre. Instead we get the ubiquitous Sheridan Smith singing a song from a Broadway musical that hasn’t been seen in the West End since the early 1960s and which now almost always sounds dated. We may get performances from musicals but not quite to the same quality as some from the Tonys (although judging by the pretty poor offering of new musicals for this year’s London ceremony it might not be a bad idea to save some money in that area).

So, Society Of London Theatre, please take note to last night’s Tony Awards – it needs to be bigger and perhaps a giant replica Olivier will help!

Friday 12 April 2013

Peter and Alice

Noël Coward Theatre

30th March, 2013

This review was written for the theatre blog What's Peen Seen but the reviewer is also a guest-reviewer for us. Here is a longer version of the review:

Skyfall stars Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw reunite in Bond film screenplay writer John Logan’s new play about Alice Liddell Hargreaves and Peter Llewelyn Davies, the muses behind Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Following an imagined conversation the two might have had when meeting each other in the back of a bookshop in 1932, Peter and Alice marks the second play in the Michael Grandage Season.

Judi Dench says early on in the play ‘Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland in one room’ which not only sums up the play but is also telling of how these characters have led their lives being so closely linked to their literary alter-egos. The play is bookended (perhaps quite literally) with a bookshop design representing how their lives have been trapped in fiction, a metaphor brilliantly conveyed in Christopher Oram’s design.

The majority of the play, however, takes place when the bookshop disappears to reveal a toy theatre set where we see Llewelyn Davies and Liddell Hargreaves relive experiences pleasant and traumatic from their youth. I fully believed that Dench became an excited girl again only to fade when realising that she has to grow up, reflecting that marriage seemed like a “resignation to something so vast”. Both of them present the binary forces of longing to go back to childhood and all its simplicity as well as trying to escape from it. An interesting truth that Logan presents is how we long for adulthood when we’re children, but then complain of the brevity of childhood when the notion of growing up dawns upon us. But this isn’t a new idea and one that even reminds me of Matilda the musical.

The ending is truly sad: there is neatness in the way the theatre curtain of the toy theatre closed as the bookshop set came back down, perhaps as if drawing a close on the story of their lives.  There is sadness in Alice’s acknowledgment that no one will remember her in 100 years’ time but they will remember Alice in Wonderland and so the real Alice decides to take comfort in living as her. So even though this is impractical, she dies old and happy. Peter, on the other hand, admits ‘I’ve grown up’ away from Peter Pan. So he accepts reality, but others will always know him as the boy who never grew up as shown in the newspaper headlines ‘Peter Pan joins army, Peter Pan marries, Peter Pan opens publishing firm’. He can’t escape that image projected onto him by others and by JM Barrie and thus dies fairly young by jumping In front of a tube train – a striking end line delivered, perhaps cruelly, perhaps fittingly, by Olly Alexander who plays Peter Pan.

The acting by the whole cast is mesmerising but especially by the two leads. There is a moment when Dench bursts into tears when it’s revealed that her children have died in the war, but the play is made all the more moving by Adam Cook’s sound design which ensures that the cast’s echoes reflect echoes of the past.  

After seeing FindingNeverland at Leicester’s Curve last year, I realise the creators of the musical might have glossed over some of the painful realities that Llewelyn Davies later faced in his life. Growing up, the mundanities and responsibilities of adulthood and the idea of literature as a safe-haven all seem to be themes which are very much à la mode in theatre and all explored even further by Logan.

John Logan’s enjoyable play might be predictable and may not offer us anything new, but Grandage’s smooth direction and the superlative acting of Dench and Whishaw make this a highly-recommended piece of theatre. At the performance I attended, Dench seemed to be struggling with a cough but she excellently kept in character and accepted a drink of water from Whishaw’s cup at one moment, which exemplifies the closeness of these two professionals. To conclude, Peter and Alice is a brilliantly acted play that will put a smile on your face but which is also extremely touching.

Due to the huge amount of £10 seats on offer for this season, I imagine many theatregoers will be plucking for the balcony, which I fully recommend. The view is decent, the leg room is ample, and the seats are comfy and wide – certainly much more so than the Dress Circle for my experience of Gatz last year.

Peter and Alice runs at the Noël Coward Theatre until 1st June, 2013