Tuesday 30 December 2014

#ReadaPlayaWeek 2014

Since the beginning of 2014, I’ve tweeted about one play a week that I recommend reading. Of course, plays are meant to be seen rather than read, yet if you are either unable to see a particular play, fancy brushing up on the classical canon, or just want to read a playtext, then #ReadaPlayaWeek offers a wide range of scripts. From the challenging and the classical to the popular and the contemporary, from a host of playwrights, both well-known and obscure, from all over the world, here are 2014’s #ReadaPlayaWeek suggestions:

The Caretaker (1960), Harold Pinter
The Night Heron (2002), Jez Butterworth
The Winterling (2006), Jez Butterworth
Separate Tables (1954), Terence Rattigan
A Taste of Honey (1958), Shelagh Delaney

The Shape of Things (2001), Neil LaBute
The Weir (1997), Conor McPherson
random (2008), debbie tucker green
All My Sons (1947), Arthur Miller

Twelfth Night (c.1602), William Shakespeare
Mother Clap’s Molly House (2001), Mark Ravenhill
Plenty (1978), David Hare
England People Very Nice (2009), Richard Bean

The History Boys (2004), Alan Bennett
Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick (1998), Terry Johnson
Awake and Sing! (1935), Clifford Odets
Jerusalem (2009), Jez Butterworth

Old Times (1971), Harold Pinter
Shopping and Fucking (1996), Mark Ravenhill
The Permanent Way (2003), David Hare
Birdland (2014), Simon Stephens
Body Language (1990), Alan Ayckbourn

Noises Off (1982), Michael Frayn
Arcadia (1993), Tom Stoppard
Volpone (1606), Ben Jonson
The Secret Rapture (1988), David Hare

Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), David Mamet
The Trial of Ubu and King Ubu (2012), Simon Stephens, King Ubu after Alfred Jarry (1896)
Chimerica (2013), Lucy Kirkwood
The Unexpected Man (1998), Yasmina Reza
The Seagull (1896), Anton Chekhov

Uncle Vanya (1898), Anton Chekhov
Parlour Song (2008), Jez Butterworth
Dead Funny (1994), Tony Johnson
August, Osage County (2007), Tracy Letts

Beyond Therapy (1981), Christopher Durang
Quartermaine’s Terms (1981), Simon Gray
The Imaginary Invalid (1673), Moliere
Bluebird (1998), Simon Stephens

Stuff Happens (2004), David Hare
The Lady’s Not For Burning (1948), Christopher Fry
Anne Boleyn (2010), Howard Brenton
Blue Heart (1997), Caryl Churchill
The Invisible Man (1991), Ken Hill after HG Wells’ novel

A Dream Play (2005), Caryl Churchill after Strindberg (1907)
The River (2012), Jez Butterworth
The Philadelphia Story (1939), Philip Barry
Christmas (2004), Simon Stephens

Absurd Person Singular (1972), Alan Ayckbourn
Almost, Maine (2004), John Cariani
Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (1989), Keith Waterhouse
Not I (1972), Samuel Beckett
Breath (1969), Samuel Beckett

#ReadaPlayaWeek will continue in 2015.

Monday 29 December 2014

Theatre highlights of 2015

Another exciting cultural year is ahead and even if The Guardian, Telegraph or Time Out have provided a more thorough, if not London centric, list of things to look forward to, here’s mine:

1 Adrian Mole the Musical, Curve, Leicester: After being in workshop stages for a few years, Luke Sheppard’s production of Jake Brunger’s and Pippa Cleary’s musical based on Sue Townsend’s novel opens in Leicester, where the story is set. Townsend sadly passed away in 2014, but her generosity and encouragement have set strong foundations. Earlier this year, I met the creative team who were at Bristol University together; it sounds like it will be a fun show with much promise. And in Nikolai Foster’s first year as Artistic Director, there are many other things to keep an eye on at Curve, including his production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, in association with De Montfort University.

2 The Nether, Duke of York’s, London: If you missed the short run of Jennifer Haley’s play at the Royal Court last Summer, Sonia Friedman is transferring it to the West End, which some may say is a creatively adventurous move. In the same sense that Jerusalem, Chimerica and King Charles III became the must see plays when they transferred to the West End, The Nether has the same potential. It’s an ambitious and topical play that is said to tackle difficult issues.

3 Death of a Salesman, RSC, Stratford-Upon-Avon: The RSC has a cracking season for 2015, including Othello and Volpone, but I’m pleased to say we have young person’s £5 tickets for Arthur Miller’s most popular play in the year of his centenary. There’s much Miller to be seen in 2015, including the World Premiere of The Hook in Northampton, and the West End transfer of the excellent A View from the Bridge, but Gregory Doran’s production starring Antony Sher is expected to be one to be remembered. It’s a fantastic play showing how the failure of the American Dream can affect the ambitions and efforts of a family, presented in an innovative way which displays the simultaneity of life.

4 Old Vic production possibly, but possibly not starring Kevin Spacey: The Old Vic continues its successful in-the-round season with Daniel Kitson’s Tree and Maria Friedman’s production of Cole Porter’s musical High Society, but there’s also a gap in the schedule which could allow for a highly-tipped play to star exiting Artistic Director Spacey. Death of a Salesman (which was suggested) is most likely now off, but there are also guesses of an Ibsen play. But whatever it will be, it will most likely sell fast.

5 Bend It Like Beckham, Phoenix, London: A new British successful musical has been long-awaited, and this also long-awaited Howard Goodall musical is finally going into the West End. After hearing great things about his work on The Hired Man, this could be a hit!

6 The Audience, Apollo, London: Peter Morgan’s 2013 play is being brought back to London with the inspired casting of Kristin Scott Thomas as the Queen. The play was, in parts, forgettable and a bit self-indulgent, but I revelled (from front row centre, no less) in its fine performances and theatricality. With a general election in the middle of the run, there is scope for topical satire and potentially an added character.

7 The Producers, UK tour: Jason Manford leads ‘an all-star cast’ in this revival of the Mel Brooks musical. They are hoping for a West End run in the Autumn but as it is a presumably smaller production than the one at Drury Lane, will it just be as impressive? And although the casting of comedians doesn’t guarantee a funnier evening of theatre, Manford has determination and theatre experience. Some might say that the show’s producers are practising what the producers in the show preach.

8 Harvey, Birmingham Rep and UK tour: Also hoping for a West End transfer is Mary Chase’s play Harvey. This is set to be a strong production even if it hasn’t opened yet: you’re in safe hands with Lindsay Posner (in a good way) and the casting of James Dreyfus sounds excellent.

9 The Importance of Being Earnest, UK tour and a Nimax Theatre, London: The great David Suchet returns to the London stage in 2015 playing Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s delicious comedy. He probably would’ve like to have played Willy Loman after his last two theatre outings in the UK but Adrian Noble’s production will certainly be something to anticipate.

10 Beautiful, Aldwych, London: With Broadway transfers in the works for Kinky Boots and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, this musical based on the life and work of Carole King sounds like a juke-box musical with a kick.

11 Thriller Live, Lyric – joking – , The Vote, Donmar Warehouse, London: The Donmar is  broadcasting a new play by James Graham on Channel 4 (or a partner channel) about the general election. So, if you are unable to get tickets (which is more than likely for the Donmar run), you will be able to watch it on the TV. It’s only doing a short run so, perhaps unlike Great Britain, it might retain its topicality even when it closes.

And the rest:

There’s a yet unannounced Norman Wisdom project that looks set to tour, at least one Nicole Kidman-cast play according to the Daily Mail to look forward to, and an apparently West End-bound Sleepless in Seattle musical. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is going on tour, there’s a new Mike Bartlett play at the Young Vic, a new Simon Stephens play at the Almeida, a new Tom Stoppard play at the National (where Rufus Norris takes over Nicholas Hytner as Artistic Director), and if he has enough time from working on the new James Bond screenplay I’d like to see a new Jez Butterworth play.
There will also be many new Artistic Directors in 2015 including Rufus Norris at the National, Matthew Warchus at the Old Vic and Nikolai Foster taking over Paul Kerryson at Curve.

Happy New Year!

2014 in review

Here is my review of theatre in 2014: A year of American plays, history plays, stellar performances, transitions and the West End once again being nourished by the subsidised sector.

The West End has come up with some top commercial productions in 2014. Sure, there have been lows like Fatal Attraction and mediocrities like Bakersfield Mist, but the highs include Blithe Spirit and Skylight (both of which recouped). Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was a hit with many critics and audience members (I for one loved it so much I saw it twice) but it perhaps didn’t sell as well as expected, unfortunately. Also, Shakespeare in Love is still filling the Noel Coward Theatre and sets to transfer to Broadway along with the prescient and powerfully-acted Skylight. Harry Hill’s I Can’t Sing and Sheffield Theatre’s The Full Monty may have plummeted in the West End by closing early but the return of Miss Saigon soared like a well-maintained helicopter.

Speaking of things soaring, premium ticket prices and admin fees continue to rise, even if several comics have started a backlash against ATG Theatres. And just like the arguments over booking fees, the values of bloggers and theatre criticism is another old debate which has been flared up again this year. Print critics have been dropped (Tim Walker), online critics have been wiled, and a snobbery amongst critics (including bloggers) perhaps has been spotted.

The work and transfers from subsidised theatres that continues to impress. West End outings from the Donmar Warehouse (The Weir, with My Night with Reg and possibly City of Angels in the works), and other successful productions such as Versailles and Fathers and Sons have cemented Josie Rourke’s successful early years as artistic director. Looking at the transfers alone for the Royal Court (AD Vicky Featherstone) with Let the Right One In, The Beckett Trilogy and the upcoming The Nether, it seems that has had a more successful year than some people think. I thought that Birdland was a visually striking production of a very good play and others have championed the whacky ingenious and ambition of Teh Internet is Serious Business but when was the last new play from there that captured a mood with such public applause? But, then again, those are surely not the only signs of a successful of a New Writing theatre. Speaking of new writing, Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, some might say, was the play of the year, with Rona Munro’s The James Plays (NT), Deborah McAndrew’s An August Bank Holiday Lark (Northern Broadsides) and Alistair McDowall’s Pomona (Orange Tree) also standing tall. It has also been a year of reflection with the centenary of the beginning of WWI being part of many theatre’s seasons. A small but notable inclusion has to be an amateur production of RC Sherriff’s Journey’s End at the Little Theatre, Leicester, where the cast respectfully didn’t come on to bow at the end.

The Almeida continued its string of West End transfers (even if it dipped mid-year), dominating the Olivier Awards. And the first play there which wasn’t tipped for a transfer, Mr Burns, managed to split opinion and was one of the most tweeted about new plays of the summer. The Young Vic has had successes aplenty with inventive interpretations of plays by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, a visually stunning Christmas show, a West End transfer of The Scottsboro Boys and a 5 star production of Happy Days (not the musical!) which will return in 2015. The Old Vic turned around its fortunes by turning around its layout and had four plays which were either a critical or popular success. The newly-refurbished Chichester theatres also had a successful turnaround this year with many applauded shows which are or could be having a longer run. Its highlights include Gypsy, Stevie, Guys and Dolls, Pressure and Taken at Midnight. Last year’s Barnum has also been revisited and is now on a successful UK tour.

Fairly new theatres the St James Theatre and Park Theatre have also had West End transfers (with Urinetown and Daytona respectively) and other home grown hits including Torben Betts’ Invincible and David Hare’s The Vertical Hour. From the new to the experienced, and speaking of Hare, his revived Skylight produced two of the finest performances of the year from Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan and his new play Behind the Beautiful Forevers for the National Theatre is said to be revelatory and of huge scope. Sticking with the National, the new Dorfman opened with the adventurous Here Lies Love, the new NT bookshop opened to applause and NT Live continues to flourish.

There was a well-received production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People from Hampstead which filled a gap at the Noel Coward Theatre and a mixed received Mamet play (Speed-the-Plow) starring Lindsay Lohan. More innovative American revivals (from the modern classic canon) were well received, including Miller’s All My Sons, The Crucible and A View from the Bridge and Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. These interpretations highlighted their topicality and helped ensure that they were not seen as museum pieces.

Highlights of the year

I’ve paid my first visits to the National Theatre, The Young Vic, The Royal Court, The Almeida, Les Miserables and the Donmar Warehouse this year, with the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Assassins to come in January.

In no particular order (and with A View from the Bridge and Streetcar Named Desire near the top) here are my highlights:

·         Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Savoy) – A musical comedy that brought a smile to my face from start to finish. Great casting, a colourful design, wonderful direction and choreography, memorable songs and witty lyrics.

·         The Crucible (Old Vic) – Yael Farber’s direction brought modern day witch hunts to mind. A powerful and atmospheric revival.

·         Skylight (NT Live from Wyndham’s) – a hilarious but poignant play with three excellent portrayals and some fine direction. It may have debuted (and was kept set in 1995), but it was just as contemporary as any new play.

·         City of Angels (Donmar Warehouse) – Josie Rourke’s production of Cy Coleman’s Hollywood sendup musical was cleverly designed, well cast and great fun. It has a very funny book, some punchy songs and is a very relevant reminder of the pitfalls of creative expression.

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Let's talk about theatre criticism... in simple sentences.

I talk about theatre. I’m not paid to talk about theatre, I don’t get given comp tickets, and I don’t even consider myself a critic. I’m a paying audience member who has set up a blog as a way to log and share thoughts on shows. I attend as often as I can, time and money allowing. And I’m currently taking time out of writing an essay because of being riled up after reading several articles and tweets about theatre criticism today.

Yes, I’m pale, I’m male, and probably would be regarded as lower-middle class. I don’t live in London and although I thoroughly enjoy a vast array of regional theatre, I do try to get down to London as often as I can. I’m in adherence to Tim Walker’s preferences as I’m young and spotty. I’m also aware that most bloggers (like myself) are not paid apart from a few.

Tim Walker (formerly of The Sunday Telegraph) has lamented in The Guardian today over the apparent demise of professional theatre critics. He then questions whether that exclusive ilk of writers with their expert knowledge of the canon could ever be replaced by the growing community of online bloggers.

Of course they can! Although Walker’s article has a point, I don’t think it’s as insightful as he thinks it is. I also think there’s a difference between bloggers who are paid/ freelance, or given comp tickets, and those who are theatre-goers who want to talk about the theatre that they’ve paid to see. A little difference maybe, but still.

The blogosphere offers a wide range of exciting, differing theatre reviews, contributing to the democratisation of criticism. Hooray! But I believe all conversations about theatre (whether from Billington, Letts, or a theatre-goer's tweet) are worthy of discussion.

Blog reviews have certain advantages. In my case, I’m not constricted by a deadline or an editorial word limit. That allows me to go deeper with my thoughts on a show than perhaps a print review can. I like to go to preview performances or those around press night but often, I simply go whenever I can, even if that’s near to the end of the run. With recent examples, I attended performances of The Crucible (Old Vic) and A Streetcar Named Desire (Young Vic) well into their runs. Yet I still read press and blog (but mainly press) reviews before I went, setting up certain expectations and allowing me to develop discussions in my own reviews. Not that blogs can’t start their own discussions. Take my review for The Audience (Gielgud) for instance, in which I was delighted by the show’s theatricality which I didn't see mentioned in other reviews. Furthermore, there’s nothing wrong with reading press reviews before you write one as, after all, they are consumer guides. And one of the more refreshing reviews of the year, in my opinion, was Matt Trueman’s review for the Beckett Trilogy (Royal Court) in which he responded to critics and his own expectations, asking himself why he didn’t like it.

In what I do, I often find myself feeling apologetic to people with a creative hand in theatre. I’m aware that many playwrights (such as Jez Butterworth) refer to their process as a natural one, as if unpicking their work to find answers out of it is somehow unnatural. In the introduction to Simon Stephens’ Plays: One, he says that he studied History rather than English Lit because he didn’t want to ruin his love of literature. On the contrary, seeing and reading something with a critical eye like Butterworth’s Jerusalem (time and time again)  has enhanced the play for me rather than ruined it, bringing out new meanings each time.
Some bloggers, it seems, often like to go early on in the run. It’s understandable why, as their reviews will act as a consumer guide. But going to see a production for the first time 10 weeks into its 12 week run doesn’t undermine its review. And agreeing with the critics doesn’t either.

Embrace blog reviews, and by all means, embrace print reviews (even Quentin Letts’). There’s room for both to contribute. But blogs do have an advantage for developing discussions started earlier if they choose to go later in the run. Overall, Tim Walker is right when saying there is a decline in print critics. He’s also right to wonder if online reviews will have the same prestige as the reviews of Tynan, Hobson, Nightingale, Billington, and Gardner etc.. But I think Catherine Love has it on the nose when she argues that criticism is not to just to fill column inches or preserving the memory of a show, but is for now: ‘there are loads of brilliant critics out there writing about theatre as if it actually means something’ – no matter where or when the review’s published.

I realise I’ve written nearly 800 words here – if it was as easy to do so as quickly for my essay, I’d be more pleased.