Wednesday 23 December 2015


Wyndham’s Theatre
18th December, 2015

After positive reviews at the Royal Court this September, Martin McDonagh’s new play Hangmen, about Britain’s second most famous hangman, has transferred to the West End. It is a beguiling, hilarious comedy questioning audience’s attitudes to violence. There are some spoilers in this review.

In the first scene, we see hangman Harry, two years prior to the abolishment of capital punishment, in a cell about to hang convicted murderer Hennessy. Although Hennessy swears he never knew the victim and has never even been to Norfolk, Harry is duty bound to carry out the court’s sentence. It is in this short opening scene where Harry’s motivations and attitude to hanging are laid out. Despite him and the guards believing that Hennessy is a good lad, he carries out the hanging, assuming that Hennessy’s pleas of innocence are because he is scared. He even distances what he does and what the courts do, portraying himself as their servant, insisting that he carries out the death sentences in the most humane and dignified way possible.

We see Anna Fleischle’s prison cell set as we enter the auditorium. It’s a windowless, high-walled cell, filling the stage and, despite its sparsity, it is very detailed. The eeriness of the small room is complete with flashing strip lights, a bed bolted to the floor, and a small corner shelf with a bible on, the whole thing evoking a sense of morbidity. Despite the illogical nature of the notion of ‘an eye for an eye’ playing on our mind and the idea that Hennessy could be innocent being conveyed in this scene, it is extremely funny. The laughter continues even when the rope is put around Hennessy’s neck but it is completely silenced when the floor opens up and the rope goes taut. Theatrically, there is a strange finality that kind of made me uncomfortable, that this character whose side we were on was ended. The scene ends in an utter coup of a scene change as the entire cell lifts up into the fly tower, evoking the lifting of capital punishment.

We are now two years later in 1965, hanging is generally deemed as unpopular with the nation and has been abolished. We are in Harry’s pub in Oldham ran by him, his wife and his ‘mopey’ daughter. They serve pints (nothing more glamorous) to the locals who are only there to hang on to Harry’s fame as the last hangman in Britain, even if they don’t think much of the drink. A journalist arrives after a quote about the ending of hanging. One of the locals argues that hanging is too good for some people. Harry, on the other hand, insists he will professionally keep his thoughts out of the matter while remaining strangely (and eventually, vocally) proud of his part in his duty. And then newcomer Mooney, portrayed by Johnny Flynn, arrives. Flynn has played outsiders at the Royal Court before, as the supposedly Australia-bound Lee in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem (2009) and as the environmentally-minded Ben in Richard Bean’s The Heretic (2011). Mooney is an enigmatic character. He not only has physical similarities to Hennessy but, when he starts befriending Harry’s daughter, things point to him being the actual murderer. In reality, Mooney and Harry’s incompetent and phallically-minded sidekick (Andy Nyman) have planned to put Harry down a peg or two. Without spoiling too much about where the play goes (and the plot takes many riveting turns), Mooney and his motivations remain ambiguous, thus making him one of the most intriguing characters in the play.

One of the thrilling things about McDonagh’s play is its language. Much of it is reminiscent of Pinter, but McDonagh also subverts this. Mooney, for example, is self-knowingly menacing, arguing that menacing is cool, creepy isn’t. Furthermore, the rhythms and wit of the northern dialect is highly entertaining, but McDonagh is also not afraid of one-liners and more crude humour. Indeed, much has been said about the 1960s’ politically incorrect language in Hangmen. In an interesting programme article, Patrick Lonergan points out that ‘[w]e may be disgusted or enraged by some of the things that Harry says and does’, and we can determine our own opinion of what’s happening on stage. So in Hangmen, then, it seems that we laugh along with characters’ jokes as well as condemn them, just as we may have a push-pull attitude to characters’ morals and attitudes. Indeed, this is a play that the audience can engage with intellectually and enjoyably, and Friday’s night’s audience certainly was engaging with it more than I’ve heard an audience engage with a play for quite a while.

Much of the production’s success, though, is due to the cast that director Matthew Dunster has assembled. David Morrissey’s Harry finds the right balance between a northern modesty and proud local celebrity, and grumpy barman and concerned parent, trying to take pride in his former duty and yet bitterly jealous of the more ‘successful’ (!) Albert Pierrepoint. Simon Rouse, as the elderly Arthur often saying the wrong thing, ensures that the character isn’t just portrayed as some old doddery but as highly believable. Andy Nyman (I remember buying one of his magic tricks when I was younger!) is first class as the pale, incompetent Syd who doesn’t want to be in Harry’s shadow any more. Sally Rodgers and Bronwyn James also stand out in a fine ensemble cast.

I fully recommend McDonagh’s Hangmen; it has so much going on. Go and see it for its ideas, its language, its humour, its plot, its set and its cast.

Hangmen plays at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 5th March, 2016.

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Theatre Highlights 2015

In London theatre this year, there have been new Artistic Directors, a hotly-anticipated Hamlet, and dusted-off Greeks. Here are some of our theatrical highlights from this year.

Assassins, Menier Chocolate Factory (January)
Jamie Lloyd’s outstanding production of one of Sondheim’s lesser-produced musicals started the year off with a bang (pardon the pun). Exploring the dark side of the American Dream and what motivates someone to murder the leader of the free world to nation-shattering effect, Lloyd assembled a top team of creatives - of which Soutra Gilmour’s purgatory-esque fairground design stood out – and a staggeringly good cast featuring the London debut of Broadway star, Aaron Tveit, and a surprisingly effective Catherine Tate in her first musical role. Almost eleven months since seeing Assassins it remains seared into my memory; a musical that had the audience in raucous laughter one minute and goosebump inducing terror the next. A definite highlight of 2015.

Death of a Salesman, RSC (March)
Arthur Miller’s centenary was celebrated this year and Gregory Doran’s classic production of the Miller’s modern American tragedy was a highlight. As the downtrodden Lomans, Antony Sher’s Willy displayed all the everyman qualities and fatal idealism of the tragic hero and Harriet Walter’s wonderfully world-weary yet loyal wife, Linda, gave the production gravitas and the lighting and stage design evoked Willy’s fractured state of mind beautifully. Doran’s production captured the essence of Miller’s play flawlessly, with all the fluid dreaminess and punchy reality that epitomises the tragedy. A worthy celebration of one of Miller’s most loved plays and as Doran has suggested it is to be mirrored with his production of King Lear in late 2016 (also starring Sher), was an intriguing and ambitious programming decision.

Gypsy, Savoy (August)
The West End transfer of the Chichester Festival Theatre’s production rightly enables Imelda Staunton’s mighty performance as the tragically monstrous stage-mother from hell, Mama Rose, to be recognised with all the plaudits she deserves. Staunton gave one of the greatest performances I have ever seen on stage (not to gush too much, but she’s incredible - give the lady a damehood, please!), but that’s not to say the rest of the cast were at all overshadowed. Lara Pulver’s transformation from the timid Louise to the confident and sexy Gypsy Rose Lee was also very impressive. This production was a rare example of the harmonious coming together of music, book, performance and design to create musical theatre perfection. I laughed, I cried, in short I was overwhelmed and the reaction of my fellow audience members suggests they felt the same (never have I seen an audience so readily and unanimously jump to their feet in appreciation!). This production, in my opinion, will go down in musical theatre legend; one for the ages.

Everyman, Olivier Theatre, National Theatre (August)
In April, Rufus Norris started his tenure as the National’s AD with a contemporary production of Everyman in a new version by Carol Ann Duffy. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s mightily believable performance and Norris’ production made it a theatrical highlight of 2015 and an impressive start for Norris. Not only did Duffy’s text pick at the scruples of 21st century consumerism, depicting a world of greed, but Norris’ production was constantly entertaining and made excellent use of the Olivier space.

Pomona, Temporary Theatre, National Theatre (September)
I have to praise the National Theatre for using its Temporary Theatre to champion productions that work best in an intimate, flexible space but would otherwise be kept in theatres on the fringes of London. Alistair McDowall’s play blurs the line between what’s real and what’s not to create an unsettling underworld of prostitution and violence. It’s one of the best new plays of recent years and Paul Miller’s production used space to play on the play’s interest in (virtual) games.

Hangmen, Wyndham’s (December)
Martin McDonagh’s play dealt with big themes regarding capital punishment in a riveting plot and with rich characters. Dark humour, northern wit and cracking one liners made up the rhythm of the language, and the superb cast made the characters even more believable. Simon Rouse, for example, ensured that the elderly Arthur wasn’t just an old doddery. Anna Fleischle’s set was fantastic, not only visually but also representing the lifting of capital punishment. When I saw it, I hadn’t heard an audience engage with a play that much for a while, and it takes a talented playwright and skilful production to make the audience laugh one moment before being silenced the next. For me, it is the most entertaining new play since Jerusalem.

Honorary mentions:

Hamlet – Arguably the most anticipated theatrical event of the year was Lyndsey Turner’s production of Hamlet at the Barbican. Benedict Cumberbatch took to the stage to give us his take on the most famous Dane in the theatrical canon. And he didn’t disappoint, a natural Shakespearean actor he imbued the text with gravitas and an accessible eloquence with ease. Lyndsey Turner’s production allowed the plot to translate easily, however some of Shakespeare’s subtleties and the ambiguities of character were a little swamped by Es Devlin’s grand set which I admit was unfortunately necessitated by vast Barbican stage. So perhaps this was a case of public demand dictating the type of Hamlet produced, the theatre enabled a larger audience to experience the play live, yet it also hampered the play by overshadowing the text. Worth seeing for Cumberbatch’s performance and some neat moments (Ophelia’s exit was beautifully haunting), but not quite living up to the hype.

 The Motherfucker with the Hat  Stephen Adly Guirgis' play proves to be one of the most exciting new plays of the year. There isn’t an ounce of fat on its tale of love and addiction in New York City. Filled with exuberant characters and sharp dialogue, I hope that this play gets a further life.

The Vote James Graham’s play was broadcast live from the Donmar on election night and set in real time. Set during the last hour and a half of voting in a school polling station, Graham’s play, performed by a large starry ensemble, explored the intricacies of our voting system and the massive significance that a tick in a box on a little piece of paper could have. But amongst all that, Graham constructed a fantastic farce. It’s worth a (re)watch if it’s available on 4oD.

Monday 21 December 2015

Guys and Dolls

Savoy theatre
19th December, 2015, matinee

Following on from the successful run of their outstanding production of Gypsy, the Savoy plays host to another of the Chichester Festival Theatre’s slew of world-class musicals. While Guys and Dolls does not quite reach the dazzling heights of Gypsy, this production is slick, classy and thoroughly enjoyable.

Based upon Damon Runyon’s Broadway stories, Loesser, Swerling and Burrows’ musical fable of New York gamblers, Christian missionaries, indecent proposals and commitment issues is grounded within an era of post-war escapist theatre – tonally it reminded me a little of The Pajama Game from around the same period (and another recent-ish CFT West End transfer) – and with subsequent revivals plays upon the nostalgia of Broadway’s golden age. This is echoed in Peter McKintosh’s set comprised of vintage adverts cut and pasted onto the New York skyline, a kind of whimsical, pop culture-led view of a dark period in history, reflecting the rose-tinted plot which places the musical’s motive firmly in the ‘hearty entertainment’ camp as opposed to focussing on thematic portent. While I had a few niggles about the book – the ending especially seems a little rushed, it would have been nice to see a proper reunion between Sky and Sarah for example - Gordon Greenberg’s production is smooth and sophisticated, filled with flashy dance routines, likable characterisations, and some excellent show-stopping numbers.

Andrew Wright’s routines, co-choreographed with Carlos Acosta (yes, really!), are pure Broadway - newsboys pirouette across the stage and the Act 2 ‘Crapshooters Dance’ is witty and knowing. The entire sewer sequence, including the infinitely cool ‘Luck Be a Lady’, segueing into the rapturous ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’ is pure theatrical joy and worth the ticket price alone. Of the cast, Jamie Parker shines (he must be the hardest working actor in theatre right now – and as seen in his latest casting announcement, he’s onto BIG things!), getting to showcase his rich voice in a more showy fashion than his role in Assassins last year allowed. His Sky Masterson has a charisma and easy charm which exemplifies why Parker is in such great demand of late, and his transition into musical theatre proves him to be one of the best, multi-talented actors in the West End right now. Also impressive is David Haig’s assured performance as the marriage-phobic Nathan Detroit; he makes for a rather affable scoundrel, displaying a well-honed chemistry with Sophie Thompson’s long-suffering Adelaide. Thompson’s ability to emote without straying into sentimentality, and her naturally endearing quality ensure that, while toeing the line between comedy and exaggerated caricature, Adelaide is always sympathetic and likable. Completed by Siubhan Harrison’s icy yet spirited Sarah, the production is led by a quad of classy performances, ensuring the audience is invested in the central love stories.

Greenberg’s production is a real treat for fans of musical theatre. I sat with a big grin on my face for the whole afternoon and came out of the auditorium humming my favourite tunes. So when a trip to the theatre is this joyous it’s not hard to see why Guys and Dolls has become such a classic and will continue to be so for a long while to come.

Guys and Dolls plays at the Savoy theatre until 12th March 2016. A national tour will follow – see the official website for dates and venues.

#ReadaPlayaWeek 2015

This year, for the 2nd year running, we have tweeted about a play each week as a reading recommendation. Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every production. And even if no one on Twitter is taking up the #ReadaPlayaWeek scheme regularly, that’s fine, as its purpose is to challenge us and others to read more broadly. One of the great joys of the idea is that it means we can find old and dusty playtexts of lesser known plays in libraries or available on Amazon for a cheap deal. It is true that the weekly choices include plays which are recognisable and more established in the theatrical canon, such as Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. However, there are also plays which we feel we have (re)discovered. Plays such as Che Walker’s Been So Long and Moira Buffini’s Dinner may be fairly well-known plays to some but may not have been by us and other Twitter followers. It has been a pleasure, then, to find and read plays that a year ago we might not have known. To read plays full of interesting, challenging and daring ideas; plays with poetic, surreal and witty language; plays which have the potential to create powerful, colourful and striking images on stage.

This year, out of the 52 plays included in the initiative, we have chosen 26 plays by men and 26 plays by women. This is something with which we will strive to continue in 2016, even if it might be a challenge to find 26 different female playwrights whose play texts are easily accessible.
Without further ado, here are the #ReadaPlayaWeek choices for 2015:

·        Three Days of Rain by Richard Greenberg (1997)
·        Flare Path by Terence Rattigan (1942)
·        The Misanthrope by Martin Crimp (1996) after Moliere (1666)
·        The Dame of Sark by William Douglas Home (1974)
·        Jumpy by April de Angeles (2011)

·        That Face by Polly Stenham (2007)
·        Table Manners by Alan Ayckbourn (1975)
·        Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker (1988)
·        Here by Michael Frayn (1993)

·        Dinner by Moira Buffini (2002)
·        Smack Family Robinson by Richard Bean (2003; revised 2013)
·        Electra by Frank McGuinness (1997) after Sophocles (c.405BC)
·        Rules for Living by Sam Holcroft (2015)

·        Her Naked Skin by Rebecca Lenkiewicz (2008)
·        The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton (2002)
·        ‘Art’ by Yasmina Reza (1994)
·        Shades by Alia Bano (2009)

·        Broken Glass by Arthur Miller (1994)
·        Knives in Hens by David Harrower (1995)
·        The Initiate by Alexandra Wood (2014)
·        Humble Boy by Charlotte Jones (2001)
·        The Sugar Syndrome by Lucy Prebble (2003)

·        Masterpieces by Sarah Daniels (1983)
·        Afore Night Come by David Rudkin (1962)
·        Foxfinder by Dawn King (2011)
·        Mojo by Jez Butterworth (1995)

·        Dealer’s Choice by Patrick Marber (1995)
·        Sing Yer Heart out for the Lads by Roy Williams (2002; revised 2004)
·        Old Money by Sarah Wooley (2012)
·        Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler (2008; revised 2015)
·        Proof by David Auburn (2000)

·        Night Watch by Lucille Fletcher (1972)
·        Cymbeline by William Shakespeare (c.1609)
·        My Mother Said I Never Should by Charlotte Keatley (1987)
·        Venus in Fur by David Ives (2010)

·        Victory by Howard Barker (1983)
·        The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence by Madeleine George (2013)
·        Fur Coat, No Knickers by Mike Harding (1980)
·        Splendour by Abi Morgan (2000)

·        Taking Sides by Ronald Harwood (1995)
·        The Thrill of Love by Amanda Whittington (2013)
·        Skirmishes by Catherine Hayes (1981)
·        The Bald Prima Donna by Eugene Ionesco (1950; 1956 translation by Donald Watson)
·        The Great White Hope by Howard Sackler (1967)

·        And Then Come the Nightjars by Bea Roberts (2015)
·        Murmuring Judges by David Hare (1991)
·        Been So Long by Che Walker (1998)
·        A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

·        Low in the Dark by Marina Carr (1989)
·        The Sport of My Mad Mother by Ann Jellicoe (1958)
·        Ashes and Sand by Judy Upton (1994)
·        A Second of Pleasure by Neil LaBute (2009)

Tuesday 15 December 2015

The Homecoming

Trafalgar Studios 1
12th December, 2015, matinee

Perfectly-pitched performances and a sleek, stylish design bring out the menace in Jamie Lloyd’s stylistic production but may swamp some of the play’s subtleties.

Pinter’s The Homecoming, first staged in 1965, sees an East End household occupied by a male, misogynist family. One of Max’s sons, Teddy, arrives home from a long hiatus introducing the family to his new wife, Ruth. It is a perfect scenario for power play where subtext is key. In The Homecoming, characters do not hold back in their coarse language, which includes Max’s sexist remarks and Joey’s unprincipled sexual scruples. But elsewhere, they do hold back and the unsaid lies beneath the surface of their language. John Simm is particularly impressive at this; his Lenny carries a menacing undertone behind the informal manner in his initial scene with Ruth. At the start of the play, we hear the men’s attitude to women. Max is vile about his dead wife and Lenny is rude about a woman he claimed he wanted to help. It is then no surprise that, when Ruth arrives, they call her a prostitute. But by the end of the play, Ruth has left Teddy and agrees to stay with his relatives where she will prostitute herself for a living. But it is interesting how the very end sees a reversal of her power.

The play marks an interesting change in Pinter’s work. Its naturalistic setting is a nod to the sort of plays he started his career in as an actor, but he subverts it. Characters don’t behave the way you expect them to, they keep their cards close to their chest, and domestic objects such as a glass of water become threatening. Jamie Lloyd’s production strips away the fussiness of a naturalistic set. Soutra Gilmour’s design is sexy and stylish: red lines frame the stage which is made up of minimal furniture, a staircase, and a door that stands prominently upstage. Richard Howell’s strikingly red lighting further gives the production a stylistic feel. Indeed, it is this that seems to have divided audience members. Overall, I enjoyed the lighting and music as it brought out the play’s menace but, unfortunately, it also swamped some of the play’s subtleties. After hearing of the lauded, naturalistic RSC production, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was invested more in Lloyd’s tricksiness carrying the play rather than the text itself. There are several memorable moments though. Some are when Lloyd concentrates on a moment of action, such as Teddy biting on his hand or Lenny trying to muffle the ticking from his clock. The crescendo of noise and tense lighting may not help to provide answers to these moments but serves the elusiveness of the play. Then there are other moments such as Ruth confronting Lenny about the glass of water, saying ‘If you take that cup, I’ll take you’. It is startling in the boldness of her challenge, highlighted all the more in Gemma Chan’s bluntness, which leads up to her guzzling the whole glass of water. Like the lifting of the chair in A View from the Bridge, it is a clear sign that Ruth, so new to this house, is not to be pushed around by Lenny. But the moment, I thought, was lacking in sexual tension.

Furthermore, the use of space was the least interesting out of the few Pinter plays I’ve seen. Ian Rickson’s production of Old Times at the Harold Pinter Theatre (no less) in 2013 cleverly used space to evoke the London flat that Kate and Anna once lived. It was also used to show how characters gained and lost power. The production of Betrayal in which Simm starred in Sheffield in 2012 used a revolve (inspired by David Hockney’s Life on a Glass Table) to evoke the play’s changes in time. Here, it is interesting how Max is seated centre stage for the start of the second act, to be replaced by Ruth at the play’s culmination. Also, at the start of act two, despite it being Max who holds the conversation, it is Ruth who is very much the focus of that chat. Other than that, spatially, there could have been more in my opinion.

It is the performances that make this production raise its game.  Ron Cook’s Max is monstrous and Gemma Chan’s Ruth is confidently intangible. Gary Kemp is brilliant as Teddy and Keith Allen’s camp Sam marvellously shows how he is stuck in Max’s shadow. And the deep-voiced John Macmillan conveys the outside nature of the inept boxer Joey.

There are many memorable parts of Lloyd’s production, aided by the top performances and smoky design which simply yet powerfully evokes the sixties. But somehow, I feel that the play can deliver more.

The Jamie Lloyd Company is doing admirable work in the West End. They are making theatre accessible to more audiences. However, their prices are not the most competitive and the £4.50 programme is informative but doesn’t match their aim to create ‘accessible pricing’.

The Homecoming plays at the Trafalgar Studios until 13th February, 2016.

Friday 27 November 2015

The Winter's Tale

Garrick Theatre (Live cinema screening)
26th November 2015

Opening a year-long season at the Garrick theatre, Kenneth Branagh’s The Winter’s Tale continues the successful trend of live screenings to cinemas worldwide. In an introduction to the screening (and season) Branagh describes the play as a ‘tragic fairytale’, and it is with this interpretation that he succeeds in overcoming the difficulties associated with Shakespeare’s contentiously termed ‘late Romances’, namely the slightly uneven structure and tonal erraticism – the first three acts forming a tight psychological tragedy before shifting to the pastoral romantic comedy of act four.

Taking young Mamillius’ (Pierre Atri) tales of ‘sprites and goblins’ as a starting point, Branagh and co-director Rob Ashford inject a sense of fantastic enchantment suited to the festivities of the opening scene, framing the drama as one of those ‘sad tales best for winter’. The embracing of the fantastical elements of Shakespeare’s play is encouraged by Patrick Doyle’s score, magically conjuring melodious leitmotifs of music-box chimes and foreboding bass lines.

Christopher Oram’s sparing set, along with Jon Driscoll’s projections and Neil Austin’s lighting, combine to particular effectiveness in the closing scenes, transforming Leontes’ (Branagh) Sicilia into a Hans Christian Andersen-esque ice palace. All these factors are brought together in a way which ensures that the final magical twist pays off in a satisfyingly traditional ‘happy-ever-after’ manner. While this may seem to nonchalantly brush aside the more concerning themes of the early acts (jealousy, paranoia, false condemnation, the death of a child) – those becoming a sort of twisted ‘once-upon-a-time’ prologue to the romance of act four – Branagh and Ashford’s direction is assured and the inconsistent tone of the text is muted through the charmed filter of festive wonder.

Amongst the starry ensemble, it is Judi Dench who (rightly so) has drawn the majority of attention and publicity. As the noble voice-of-reason-cum-fairy godmother, Paulina, Dench dominates every moment she is on stage, effortlessly imbuing her dialogue with warmth, humour, scorn and grief in equal measure. Her skilful abilities of affinity and crystallised connection exemplify why she is so cemented as one of the great Shakespearean actors.

In a similar vein, Michael Pennington is sympathetic in his subtle, conversational tone, ensuring the infamous stage direction ‘exit, pursued by a bear’ is more than a piece of trivia. Emphasising Antigonus’ sacrifice, Pennington makes the most of a brief role which, in other hands, could be upstaged by the circumstance of the character’s death. Of the younger cast, particularly impressive are Jessie Buckley’s charmingly earthy Perdita (the chemistry between her and Tom Bateman’s Florizel is completely swoon-worthy) and John Dagleish’s sharp comic turn as the roguish Autolycus. Only Branagh’s tendency to occasionally over-emote as the distraught Leontes, and the lapsing of voice projection into - albeit enthusiastic - shouting in Bateman’s case, hampers a production of mostly solid performances.

It is hard not to be charmed by The Winter’s Tale; despite its flaws, Branagh casts a spell which only the hardest of hearts could resist. Yes, some of the darker themes of Shakespeare’s text are sidestepped, but as a festive pick-me-up The Winter’s Tale is a more than decent kick off for the Branagh season. So, with an encore screening on Christmas Eve, put aside those ‘bah humbug!’ thoughts and get swept away by this unashamedly magical romance.

The Winter’s Tale plays at the Garrick Theatre until 16th January 2016, with encore screenings on 24th December and 5th January at selected cinemas.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Mary Poppins

UK tour, Curve Leicester
16th October, 2015

The new tour of Cameron Mackintosh’s and Disney’s musical Mary Poppins, with new music by Stiles and Drew, is, as a successful musical should be, exhilarating. However, I can understand if someone is cynical about this new tour. Firstly, Curve have raised ticket prices for the show (it is apparently the first time they have had a seat over £50 for a show). There is also a wagon load of merchandise in the foyer, ranging from mugs and programmes to mini handbags and umbrellas, from which they are also selling stuff at the exit as the audience leave the theatre. Furthermore, you may say that Mary Poppins is one of the newest mega musicals. In a section on McTheatre in his book Theatre & Globalisation, Dan Rebellato argues that these big shows can diminish some of the virtues of theatre: ‘its liveness, the uniqueness of each performance, its immediacy, its ability to respond to place and time’ (Rebellato 2009: 41-2). ‘In place of these virtues’, he argues, ‘these shows appear almost entirely unchanged wherever they are’ (Rebellato 2009: 42). Indeed, for this tour, although it is still Richard Eyre’s production (and Matthew Bourne’s), they have got in a tour director, James Powell, to try to recreate the show presumably whilst Eyre is working on Mr Foote’s Other Leg. Powell has previously worked on Mary Poppins, including the last UK tour.

One positive aspect of mega musicals, however, is that reproductions are no longer the ‘pale and shabby imitation of the metropolitan original’ (Rebellato 2009: 41). Indeed, this tour has all of the tricks and effects that made the London production so magical. The house set is smaller than it was in London, instead going for a pop-up book design, but this tour is superb. And even if liveness is compromised, it may give the commercial touring circuit a boost. Regarding the high ticket prices, there is a bit in the show where Mr Banks turns down a bank loan to someone because the idea simply wanted to create money, but had not heart and offered nothing much else in return. Well the prices for this show are in return for a stellar musical which Friday night’s audience (myself included) lapped up.

The musical features a series of set pieces, each one more impressive than the last. These range from Mary emptying her bag to set up the nursery, the collapsing kitchen which puts itself back together again after a stirring A Spoonful of Sugar, Bert’s extraordinary proscenium walk during Step in Time, and finally Mary flying over the audience for the finale. They form a series of magical coups-de-théâtre which adhere to the lyrics of one of Stiles and Drewe’s new songs, Anything Can Happen, referring to the good that Mary Poppins does for the Banks family. Indeed, the power of the imagination is one of the themes of this musical along with, like the PL Travers novel and 1964 film, women’s rights, family duties and tradition. Both The Sherman Brothers’ original music and Stiles and Drewe’s new songs are wonderful and, at times, soaring – although I do wonder if Mary Poppins would say ‘no flies on me’! In particular, Being Mrs Banks, Cherry Tree Lane, Practically Perfect may be new songs but they fit in with the rest of the score so well and are more memorable than some new musical theatre songs. However, I did prefer Temper Temper to its replacement Playing the Game.

Bob Crowey’s colourful and clever design is superlative, and the choreography (whether it’s by Matthew Bourne, Stephen Mear or associate choreographer Geoffrey Garrat) is some of the best I’ve seen. Those big numbers such as Step in Time and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious gave me goose bumps and the park fantasy scene is joyful. Out of the cast, Zizi Strallen is an impressive Mary Poppins and Matt Lee does well as the chirpy Bert driving the show forward (even if I thought that his Australian accent could be heard sometimes). Also, Rebecca Lock, Wendy Ferguson and Grainne Renihan are excellent and Milo Twomey is very pleasing as one of the show’s best characters, Mr Banks.

The tour is still in its early performances at Leicester’s Curve but, overall, I heartily recommend this new tour of Mary Poppins (which could be London bound) as a great family show.


The Barbican, (NT: Live)

15th October 2015 

Few theatrical events in recent years have produced as much publicity and intrigue as the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch in Lyndsey Turner’s blockbuster production of Hamlet, staged at the Barbican and broadcast to the nation via NT: Live. For the past four months the tabloids have been fuelled by stories of embargo breaking, bootleg recording, and the determination of the self-named ‘Cumberbitches’ attempts to get that enviable golden ticket. But away from all the promotional hullabaloo, what’s the production actually like? Does it live up to the hype?
The answer is both ‘yes’, and ‘no’.

Cumberbatch is a fine actor, there is no doubt about that. He imbues the Great Dane with a mature gravity, this is no petulant teenager, but a considerate and likable man that we can unquestionably root for. Special mention must go to his crystal clear delivery of Shakespeare’s often dense language. Cumberbatch conveys the meaning of the verse with dramatic resonance, creating an admirably accessible Hamlet, great for introducing, and – crucially - not alienating, new audiences to The Bard’s most famous play. However, in making Hamlet an unequivocally heroic ‘good-guy’, there is little of the ambiguity which makes for truly a compelling tragic hero.

Dispelling with the eerie original opening, Turner introduces us to a Bowie loving Hamlet in mourning, placing our hero front and centre; and there he remains for the entirety. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is earnest in his gratitude, warmly humorous in his quips, and apologetic in his brief flashes of malice – there was no bite to his suggestion that Ophelia should ‘get thee to a nunnery’, for example. And while the play-acting was entertaining (the toy soldier element worked well in reference to the Fortinbras plot), at no point are we led to seriously question Hamlet’s sanity. This is a hero less flawed and driven to despair by procrastination and misogynistic complexities, rather, he is merely too decent a chap to thoroughly ‘get his revenge on’.

Turner also eschews much of the subtext often applied to the play, even the most obvious of themes – Hamlet’s Oedipal complex – is non-existent, perhaps deemed too seedy for this clean cut model. But it seems, judging by Es Devlin’s immense and visually impressive set – the grand staircase and balcony are put to good use - that most thought went into attempting to fill the vast stage of the Barbican, and subsequently the subtleties of the text have been misplaced. The overwhelming hurricane and resultant rubble enshrouding the stage following Hamlet’s banishment is a fitting symbol for the disintegration of the state on such a big platform, but only just avoids burying the play as a consequence. Despite the generally broad direction, several choices work very well. The decision to stage the soliloquys in slow-motion allows for the intimacy of introspection without breaking the flow of the scene, while also emphasising Hamlet’s feelings of isolation and detachment.

Amongst several stand out performances, Ciarán Hinds’ Claudius is an every man, avoiding the trap of comic book arch villain, breathing life into, and even encouraging a little empathy for the usurping King. Sian Brooke’s twitchy Ophelia is a fragile waif. She is broken from the very start and her vulnerability only makes her inevitable breakdown all the more devastating. Ophelia’s poignant final exit – tiptoeing over the rubble of Denmark, a quietly simple moment, heightened by Jon Hopkins’ beautifully ethereal music – is a high point in the production. Similarly, the piano playing by Ophelia and Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) suitably emphasises the siblings’ bond and provides a neat leitmotif for Ophelia’s mad scene.

Turner stages Shakespeare’s most famous work on a justifiably epic scale – to attempt anything else on such a huge stage would be folly - but subsequently has to paint with such broad strokes that this plot-led staging misses out on the ambiguities and ambivalences of other productions. A fine, well-acted, and incredibly accessible production for new audiences to get to grips with the nuts-and-bolts of Shakespeare, but this Hamlet is more likely to enter the history books due to the popularity of its leading man and resultant publicity, than purely on the merit of the production itself.

Hamlet plays at The Barbican until 31st October 2015.