Tuesday 19 December 2017

Top 10 Theatre of 2017

The two of us have seen a covfefe of theatre we’ve liked this year: three terrific James Graham plays (This House, Ink, Labour of Love) in London; the colourful, parabolic, mischievous Fantastic Mr Fox at Leicester’s Curve; Sarah Frankcom’s Mancunian reimagining of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at the Manchester Royal Exchange; and Sam Yates’ spectral production of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms at the Sheffield Crucible. This is to name but a few.

These lists are fun but flawed. For instance, there were three very different new plays at the Almeida this year that nearly made it onto the Top 10 list: Christopher Shinn’s Against (not everyone disliked it), James Graham’s Ink, and Mike Bartlett’s Albion. All three had their own merits and their own weaknesses but I can’t say that one was definitely ‘better’ than the other. Albion was superbly directed (the rain, music, movement and lighting between scenes were incredible), was mostly very subtle, and had one of the strongest ensemble casts of the year (along with Brandon Jacob-Jenkins’ Gloria at the Hampstead). Against didn’t have the unabashed spirit of Ink or the fine dialogue of Albion. But it did feel like Shinn had his finger on the pulse of contemporary Western society, aided by Ian Rickson’s uncluttered production. And Ink was a typical James Graham romp, skilfully acted and designed, provoking its audience into a wide range of reactions when I saw it in July.

Trying to narrow down the 60-odd shows and put them in an order is difficult, but we’ve tried to choose bearing the text and production in mind and, ultimately, choose theatre that we’ve got the most out of. The top two choices in particular might seem predictable. After the initial wave of euphoric reviews for The Ferryman a backlash then followed, and even Angels in America received some au contraire criticism, but they were the shows which we liked most this year. And although the above plays aren’t on there, we’re pleased we’ve given them a namecheck here. Other honourable mentions go to Network, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and RENT.

10. Sunset Boulevard, Curve Leicester
Curve’s strongest and most ambitious musical endeavour yet, Nikolai Foster’s production treated Lloyd Webber’s romantic, melancholic and decadent score to a full and rich orchestration. Similarly impressive was the evocation of ‘old Hollywood’ in Foster’s stylish embracing of the cardboard facades, glitzy shallows and eternal optimism of LA while plumbing the depths of melodrama and tragedy to bring the story of faded screen star, Norma Desmond, to thrilling life. A headline grabbing Ria Jones gave a tour de force performance in which her Norma was variously youthful and decrepit, sonorous and frail, desperate and ultimately unhinged. This was a real treat for musical theatre fans, and an undoubted highlight in what has been a triumphant year for Curve. It continues to tour in 2018.

9. Barber Shop Chronicles, West Yorkshire Playhouse
There was a baby(!) in the audience and most, if not all, of the cast shook its hand. Need I say more? From Africa to London, Inua Ellams’ play exploded onto the stage with a vibrancy rarely so joyously shared. This co-production with the NT invited us to see how barbershops are places of male bonding, confessions and soul searching. Robustly and intricately structured, deftly directed by Bijan Sheibani and performed by an energetic company, Barber Shop Chronicles was a play that opened up worlds of new perspectives.

8. Beginning, National Theatre
Someone on Twitter described Beginning as the most ‘National Theatre’ sort of play they could imagine. I disagree. It would be easier for someone to say that an ambitious but vague state-of-the-nation play in the Olivier would better ‘typify’ the National’s repertoire. A huge amount of care and precision went into David Eldridge’s new two-hander, directed by Polly Findlay. In seeing a potential relationship evolve at the end of a drunken party, it revelled in the everyday (such as fish finger sandwiches and talking about Strictly) but also didn’t skate around the larger questions about what they wanted from life. There were no pat endings. It also elicited two exceptionally wrought performances from Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton as Laura and Danny. Beginning is a funny, warm, pragmatic and incredibly well-balanced play that seeks a way out of the loneliness of modern life. It transfers to the Ambassadors Theatre in January.

7. Pink Sari Revolution, Curve Leicester
Curve’s growing prominence in the landscape of British producing theatre was once again in full force with Purva Naresh’s searing drama based upon the real life feminist vigilante, the Gulabi Gang, in Uttar Pradesh, India. In a social climate where female and BAME representation in the arts (and all sectors) is a pressing issue, Naresh’s play, and Suba Das’ production, was vital in its themes and incendiary in its impact. Naresh never simplifies or sentimentalises the Gulabi Gang. We see the personal strains, cultural and political hypocrisies and social injustices they experience, reminding us that while battles can be won, there remains a war raging in the breast of every oppressed woman, man and child the world over. Furthermore, in the cantankerous but inimitable Sampat Pal, Naresh has created what, in my opinion, is one of the greatest female roles of recent times, and Syreeta Kumar injected Sampat with all the vibrancy, petulance and determination of a true radical. Sampat is characterised with a complexity usually afforded to great (male) dramatic heroes; she is intensely human in all her strengths and flaws while being the beating heart of a story that is unwaveringly female. Unflinching, deeply moving, yet never patronising, Pink Sari Revolution is exactly the type of play the world needs right now.

Poisonous wit and drunken passions collided in James Macdonald’s superlative production of Albee’s play. Macdonald perhaps didn’t invent a new vernacular for the play like directors such as Ivo Van Hove, Benedict Andrews and Yael Farber have previously done with American 20th century classics, but still brilliantly conveyed the desolation under the illusion of optimistic New England. Adam Cork’s music brought an impending sense of catastrophe to the start of the production and Tom Pye’s sunken living room design provided a bear pit for Imelda Staunton’s and Conleth Hill’s captivating performances. Arguably the best West End production of the year!

5. Follies, National Theatre
2017 has not been a vintage year for the Olivier. However, Dominic Cooke’s revival of Sondheim’s high-concept, time-bending and genre defying musical was the smash hit of the season. Cooke reinstated old songs and assembled a stellar cast of theatre stalwarts including Janie Dee, Imelda Staunton, Tracie Bennett and Philip Quast, and treated audiences to a production that was lustrous, decadent and thought-provoking.  Vicki Mortimer’s triumphant design juxtaposed Broadway glamour in the feathered and jewelled costumes of the chorus girls with the grotesque and crumbling fa├žade of the soon-to-be-demolished theatre. A delicate balance of spectacle and character, Follies was discombobulating in its intense exploration of the spangled warrens of the human psyche.

4. Pygmalion, Headlong
There wasn’t a speck of dust on Sam Pritchard’s production (seen at Leicester’s Curve) complete with video mapping, projections, stark lighting and a contemporary design. Pritchard stripped the play of its reverences but also acknowledged its status (and its musical adaptation’s status) as a classic; Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design accentuated the play’s theme of ownership; and Alex Beckett was obsessive and petulant as Professor Higgins, and superbly delivered the preposterous proposal of adopting Eliza with eye-rolling hilarity. It also featured the best line in all of theatre this year. I can’t remember what the feed line was or who said it but ‘Not fucking [bleeped] likely!’ delivered in RP by someone in a big dress conveyed the sort of irreverence you often dream of hearing in this sort of play. The production made Shaw’s play relevant, fun and vital again.

3. Hamlet, Almeida
Robert Icke’s revolutionary production of Hamlet dumbfounded me into intellectual submission, renouncing analysis (the mainstay of this literature student’s education) and embracing feeling. Icke created a tender family drama that was profoundly moving, intimate and humane. In what could have been a technological gimmick in lesser hands, Icke’s use of live video feed made us privy to the nuanced and minute expressions of the characters. Grief was the impetus behind the drama and Andrew Scott’s sensitive, prosaic and likable Hamlet (something which can’t often be said of the Dane) brought a newfound truthfulness to the soliloquys which made me hear and understand his words like never before. Furthermore, as someone who suffers from depression, Hamlet’s quiet dejection rang all too true, and the toning-down of the ‘antic disposition’ was a welcome alteration, allowing the realities of mental health to bleed through instead. The words ‘ground-breaking’ are bandied about too often, but Icke utterly transformed a play of ubiquity into a drama so fresh and modern that it wouldn’t look out of place on a ‘new releases’ bookshelf and has no doubt uprooted perceptions of Hamlet for generations to come. A landmark production.

2. The Ferryman, Royal Court
There was an instinctive and emotional connection that I felt with The Ferryman. There’s a mythic, beating heart at the centre of it. Yes, it’s a play about Ireland and the Troubles, a play about family, a play about loyalty, but it’s also a play – although grounded in a tangible family setting complete with a baby, a goose and a rabbit – that conjures the sacred and the uncanny. The last few moments are tense as Nick Powell’s pulsing music intensifies and everything in the play comes together. The banshees coming at the end of The Ferryman, like the giants approaching at the end of Jerusalem, is unsettling. I don’t necessarily understand why or what it means, but as Aunt Pat shouted ‘What have you done to this family’ amongst all the action, I felt generations of the Carney family – past, present and future –crumble. Butterworth has often described his writing method as being natural; there’s rarely any talk of a technique. He follows what excites him and what most gives him goose bumps. Breadcrumbs have led Butterworth to another masterpiece. It is less flashy and a more mature piece of work than some of his earlier plays, and featured brilliant performances all round, but especially from Laura Donnelly and Paddy Considine. It continues playing at the Gielgud until May.

1. Angels in America, National Theatre

Forget your Harry Potters (utterly dazzling when we saw it in June) and your Hamiltons (which we shall be seeing in January), the theatrical event of the year – nay, the decade – arrived at the Lyttelton theatre to rapturous reception. In fact, to describe Marianne Elliott’s production of Tony Kushner’s landmark play(s) as an ‘event’ is an understatement. Clocking in at an epic eight hours of theatre (not including breaks!) those who opted to see the double bill were in for a marathon day of play going.  Yet despite the biblical running time, the plays kept audiences enthralled for every fantastical, didactical, gut-busting and tear-jerking second. Brechtian but eschewing all the aspects of Brechtian theatre that deter audiences (yes, I enjoy empathising, thank you very much, and it does not spoil the socio-political message), and featuring all the theatrical wizardry of Elliott’s prior successes with War Horse and Curious Incident (the entrance of the Angel was terrific!) the production matched Kushner’s incredible script with intelligence, heart and a special affection for theatre. Andrew Garfield, James McArdle, Nathan Lane, Russell Tovey, Denise Gough, Susan Brown, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Amanda Lawrence – yes I am name checking them all! – a finer cast you could not find; each a star in their own right and make me mourn the fact that so many awards don’t feature an ensemble accolade, as the thought of separating them in merit is excruciating. This longed-for revival exceeded my already sky-high expectations and was a once-in-a-lifetime experience which I doubt I will see the likes of again. It transfers to New York from March.
Top Left going Clockwise: Cyril Nri in Barber Shop Chronicles (Marc Brenner); the company of Pink Sari Revolution (Pamela Raith); the company of Pygmalion (Manuel Harlan); the company of The Ferryman (Johan Persson).

Monday 18 December 2017

The Twilight Zone

Almeida Theatre, London
16th December, 2017, matinee

“We are a country, not a clown car!”

My first visit to the Almeida was to see Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns. I wondered then if there were Almeida regulars in the audience who hadn’t seen an episode of The Simpsons before. Now it was my turn to play the Almeida regular who hadn’t seen an episode of the 1950s’ TV show The Twilight Zone, the focus of Washburn’s latest play.

Washburn’s play, I guess, takes inspiration from several episodes from Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson’s TV series by interlacing several storylines and settings into a fractured structure. We open in a stop-off diner, near to the site of an apparent UFO sighting, where six bus passengers have mysteriously turned into seven. The play then moves to an apartment block where a young woman invites a girl in for hot chocolate. But she’s not someone who’s simply wandered off from her home and is soon warning the woman of an imminent murder attempt. We also meet a man in a psychiatrist’s office who fears to go to sleep in case he dies. We meet (or perhaps we don’t?) a couple of pilots who have been reportedly killed in action. We are the audience to a girl’s very impressive ventriloquism act. We also go into the room of a girl who has apparently fallen into another dimension (like what happens to Homer in an iconic episode of The Simpsons). The Twilight Zone may be sinister but it is built on recognisable and seemingly tangible (American) worlds:  suburban houses, roadside diners, and apartment blocks. This is all riveting stuff. In some of storylines, particularly the one about the pilots who at one moment convince us they are alive and real and the next make us question their sanity and state of being, the questioning of what’s what is reminiscent of Pinter. But instead of it having an ominous beat, it’s all quite tongue-in-cheek and is framed within the TV world of melodrama (or whatever genre the TV series was). For example, the worried father exclaims ‘I know a physicist!’ after realising his daughter is missing. At other moments, characters deliver monologues to the audience whilst other characters look at them bemused, wondering who they’re talking to. Moments which induced laughter from elsewhere in the audience (probably people recognising in-jokes or their favourite bits from the TV series) are likely to be part of the desired effect but, for me, they made the show seem unsure of its balance. On what level are they pitching it? Does the play aim to be a celebratory tongue-in-cheek pastiche of a beloved cult classic, or to highlight its undercurrents of social and political urgency? Or both? Or neither? Both of which would also be fine.

It’s presented on Paul Steinberg’s design fronted by a TV screen with the CBS network which opens up to reveal a black box set covered in stars. Panels in the walls open up and figures dressed to match the backdrop come on and do the scene changes, allowing a whimsical method for furniture to fly on and off, for spirals to whirl about and Sci-Fi-esque signs to populate the stage. Washburn’s script and the storylines she borrows are atmospheric and sinister on their own. Richard Jones serves it well, allowing the eeriness of isolated settings and strange characters to slowly build. However, during inter-scene moments where he adds his own style, it feels like he unapologetically wants the play to lose some of its gloss. It’s as if the starry backdrop becomes more obviously ply wood and the costumes more noticeably foam. In doing this, Jones simultaneously embraces a playful theatricality and nods to TV fakery of the 1950s, but perhaps this is at the expense of the production sometimes lacking in atmosphere.

Although it did take a while for me to get into it, and I can’t deny that there was a part of me thinking I should’ve gone to watch Glengarry Glen Ross, I’m glad I persevered. The play’s longest scene is also its best in my opinion. Presented as an uninterrupted and complete story, it perhaps appealed to the traditionalist in me. Sirens are blaring and emergency notices are being broadcast over the radio of a possible alien attack. In the basement of a WASP family home, a married couple and their young daughter are preparing their newly built underground shelter. Having gotten word of the bunker, some neighbours come round to try to get into it as well. What ensues is a panicked and heated argument about race, class, society and politics. The scene feels like a 20th century classic play boiled down to a 15 minute one-act. At its peak, it feels like the Washburn and the company are holding a black mirror up to how the world might end: full of hatred and anger and disagreement. And very real fears about nuclear war are not far behind the thought of an alien invasion. But then the sirens fade and the danger subsides and they all go back to being poker buddies and neighbours mowing each other’s lawns and having BBQs together. Such a (in)conclusion is typically teasing of the play.

Although the play’s overall style may be throw-away and flippant, the cast are all committed as a host of characters. John Marquez, Adriana Bertola, Lizzy Connolly and Matthew Needham (as strong here as he was as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing) particularly stand out. They inhabit the characters and their worlds believably but can also step outside of that realism. Connolly goes from playing a travelling dancer in the diner to a singing cat in a nightmare. Marquez goes from playing the tormented, sleep deprived man to the Droopy-esque wily traveller who has a third arm. And there are numerous moments when they break away from character to deliver some subliminal advertising or political messages that have been dropped into the dialogue in a reference to the golden age of Mad Men style advertising techniques.

Like Mr Burns, the audience have to work hard to keep us with Washburn’s formal brilliance. And like Mr Burns, I feel The Twilight Zone is a memorable bit of theatre that I’ll like more as time goes on.

The Twilight Zone plays somewhere between reality and illusion, consciousness and unconsciousness, the concrete and the intangible, somewhere between Angel and Highbury & Islington tube stations, at the Almeida Theatre until 27th January, 2018.

The company of The Twilight Zone at the Almeida. Credit: Marc Brenner

Thursday 14 December 2017

George's Marvellous Medicine

Curve, Leicester
13th December, 2017

The finale of David Wood’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic urges the audience to ‘Don’t try this at home’. A playful smile spread across my face during the poppy song warning of the dangers of chemical abuse, ‘what a great and responsible message’, I thought, while simultaneously remembering that I myself had already broken this most sacred of rules. As a child I spent many a weekend with my brother concocting ‘potions’ from various noxious substances before proclaiming them to be the miracle cure-all elixir of health and longevity. George’s Marvellous Medicine appeals to the wacky inventor in us all; the thrill of experimenting, creating and possibly even making a difference with our hair-brained inventions, and Julia Thomas’ production relishes in imagination, mess and magic.

As always with Dahl stories, beneath the high-jinx and humour lies a dark lesson; while George’s grandma gets her comeuppance the events leave a bitter taste which reminds us that meddling – for good or bad – can be disastrous. Let’s face it, George effectively kills his grandma, that’s a case for manslaughter right there! But it’s this kind of sting in the tale that sets apart Dahl’s work from his contemporaries, and while I wouldn’t necessarily be the first to visit a ‘family’ show, this is the kind of children’s story that adults can also get their teeth into and enjoy the humour in all its grotesqueness.

Thomas’ production successfully modernises the tale. Instead of the withered wind-bag one might expect (being familiar with Dahl’s original) Lisa Howard’s leopard print-clad glam granny is a welcome surprise, creating an edge to the character’s nastiness. She is vain, deluded and selfish, her very modern tastes making her more eccentric aspects (feasting on beetles and slugs, is she really a witch? Or is she just messing with George?) all the more bizarre. Tasha Taylor-Johnson’s music combines catchy fairytale motifs with modern rhythms to create a vibrant atmosphere, heightened by the use of actor-musicians, which is always an intimate and exuberant winner in my book.  

Morgan Large’s design is delightfully mad-cap with its topsy-turvy furniture and weird and wonderful contraptions. It reminded me of Caractacus Potts’ house in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; a menagerie of cogs, gears, whizzing and twirling devices, the perfect playground for a would-be inventor/magician. Some ingenious puppetry brings to life the animals of the Kranky farm in a way that manages to be simultaneously quaint and tongue-in-cheek – a chicken/remote control car hybrid was an unexpected crowd pleaser.

Thomas also struck just the right balance with the audience interaction. There was nothing too imposing or offensive to our British sensibilities (honestly, the thought of audience interaction normally makes me cringe) while being inclusive enough that the youngsters in the audience felt a part of the magic. We were encouraged to remind George of his potion ingredients (one child yelling out for ‘Gin!’ was priceless), and help heat up the potion when his stove broke down. Preston Nyman as George was particularly engaging and made all the kids feel as he were their best friend, the audience was having a ball and the show felt like a proper muck-in of the best sort.

Curve have proven once again that they are a deft hand at Dahl adaptations and George may just be the best one yet. A great alternative to the traditional Christmas Pantomime, Thomas has created a deliciously juvenile concoction of hocus-pocus, tricks and treats, and heartfelt family bonding that appeals to children and adults alike. With Scrooge still playing in the main theatre, Curve has a plethora of festive delights on offer that has ensured the theatre is ending 2017 with a bang.

George’s Marvellous Medicine plays at Curve, Leicester until 20th January 2018 before going on a UK tour. For more dates, please visit http://www.curveonline.co.uk/about-us/curve-on-tour/

L-R Catherine Morris (George's Mum), Preston Nyman (George) and Justin Wilman (George's Dad). Photography Credit: Manuel Harlan