Friday 15 June 2018

Mischief Movie Night

Curve, Leicester
14th June, 2018

"'Tis true!"

A stripped back stage, an ensemble of actors, rapt and ready with an impish twinkle in their eyes, and a lively audience of film fans; the canvas for Mischief Theatre’s latest offering. Anyone that thinks improv is merely the stake of drama students and Occupational Therapy sessions should take note of the skill, wit and apparent effortlessness with which this company bring together (by all other means) disparate elements into a surprisingly coherent night of laughter, comradery and ‘plot twists’.

The concept (in the loosest sense) centres on film buff Oscar (Jonathan Sayer, clearly in his element), who wants to show off his impressive back-catalogue of cinematic marvels. Name any film, any genre, any theme, and he’s got it. After milking the audience for suggestions – ranging from European arthouse to Carry On to *ahem* pornography – we sit back and relax as Oscar gives us a running commentary of the film, complete with rewinds, snippets from the Director’s Cut, and behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast and crew.

On the night we were treated to Mars Actually, a musical romantic-comedy sci-fi extravaganza, featuring sexually potent bilingual dinosaurs that have invaded Mars, a team of scientists squabbling over who got the biggest centre page spread in intergalactic periodical, Uranus, and a tour guide that longs to play in a baroque orchestra, but got expelled for spouting too much exposition. The film was a mad-cap romp through space and time (I never knew how much I needed to see a Shakespeare-quoting dinosaur profess his undying love for a Martian, flute-playing, robot-impersonating tour guide!), and despite the apparent chaos, all came good in the end.

The show is enormous fun, and the cast clearly love what they do. The sense of kinship is refreshing and invigorating as we giggle alongside the actors on stage at the absurdity of what we are asking of them. This is helped enormously by Sayer’s warm and witty rapport with the audience, we feel at ease in his company (audience interaction usually aggravates my social anxiety) and before long the sense of companionship and collaboration radiates from all corners. Alongside Sayer, the rest of the cast are boundless in their inventiveness and talents. From Henry Lewis’ unabashed gusto as misguided villain, Frank Dinosaur, to Joshua Elliott’s and Dave Hearn’s oddly touching interactions as star-crossed lovers-cum-rivals, Carl and Alex, to Charlie Russell’s show-stealing turn as a jeep-leaping brontosaurus – coupled with a live, similarly improvised yet pitch-perfect and parodying score from Yshani Peripanayagam and Jordan Clarke, it was a treat to see the founders of Mischief at their best.

Mischief Theatre are masters of their craft and their background as fringe underdogs that conquered the West End, Broadway (The Play That Goes Wrong recently celebrated its 500th performance on the Great White Way) and even the BBC’s Christmas TV schedules, is an inspiration and a pleasure to behold. May they continue to go from strength to strength. I can’t wait to see what they do next!

Mischief Movie Night plays at Curve, Leicester until 16th June.
For full tour details, please visit

Wednesday 13 June 2018


National Theatre, Lyttelton
9th June, 2018, matinee

You’ve made quite the mess haven’t you?’

Polly Stenham has updated August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie to contemporary London. Why? Well, it would be foolish to think that this new version is modern only because of its language, setting and clothes. Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge achieved in Fleabag, Stenham goes right to the core of a character who is a privileged but lonely and messed up individual – and surprisingly relatable.

Tom Scutt’s design, a mega-basement kitchen of clean white lines, epitomises the filthy rich of today. It’s completely impersonal, impractical and probably barely used by the homeowner. Christopher Shutt’s brilliant white lighting is complete with a border which, on the Lyttelton’s wide stage, creates the effect of a landscape picture of money: a literal framing of this crucible of class, money, sex and power. This is emphasised in Cracknell’s direction when, at the end, Scutt’s whole set moves back. It’s almost like a cinematic zooming out, perhaps to draw attention to the intensity and hermetic nature of Strindberg’s and Stenham’s world. Stenham and Cracknell also take us out of the kitchen and into Julie’s birthday party upstairs, Scutt’s set opening up to reveal even more white.

About half way through one of these early party scenes, there was rather bizarre moment which I presume was a rare lapse in the NT’s stage management efficiency. A trap door opened and the top of a ladder appeared before quickly bobbing down and closing. I later realised that this mistiming was a spoiler to Chris Fisher’s illusion which was perhaps supposed to give the effect of Julie being out of herself. However, by this point the result it had on the production was to only make the party seem more excessive. What difference to the uber-rich does a random trap door at a party make when there are already crashmats, massively oversized speakers and rudimentary slides? For me, it also exposed what I thought was a slightly gimmicky production. Party revellers climbing into the eight or so dishwashers whilst smearing mud around the kitchen seemed neither a meaningful metaphor nor a visual spectacle that fitted in with the rest of the direction. Entertaining, sure, but with no apparent, enlightening purpose (not that it had to have one).

It’s Stenham’s text and a trio of top performances that are the things to write home about. From what I remember of the play from Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie, the play is a messy knot of contradictions, hypocrisies, a push and pull of social politics and passion. That’s not the case with Stenham’s Julie. Before seeing the play I read Tim Bano’s review for The Stage, in which he wasn’t convinced by Jean’s (Eric Kofi Abrefa) shift from social ladder climbing chauffeur to a fantasist wanting to fly to Cape Verde that evening and set up a restaurant with his employer’s daughter. But, for me, the wild change seemed clear. It came right after he slept with Julie and so seemed to be him drunk on a sip of the highlife. She has shown him a glimpse of privilege that turns his mind to money and rash, impulsive escapism. But he also has an ability to get under Julie’s skin – his speech about his first sight of Julie, unconvinced by her romantic desire to look like a Pre-Raphaelite sitting alone in a garden, is especially compelling. The maid character Kristina is inexcusably underwritten but Thalissa Teixeira’s performance is not wanting: her constrained anger, her trust for Jean and her true affection for Julie are superbly conveyed.

Vanessa Kirby gets her teeth into the title character, a thirty-something with complete abandon. It’s not a surprise that such a destructive character comes from the writer of That Face. Julie may come from a successful family but she’s not much of a success: a jobless university dropout with a drug addiction and no true friends. There’s a wince-inducing echo to Fleabag in the killing of a pet, which Julie does without hesitating so much can she not bear to part with it. Such a moment is testament that, in a world where it’s so difficult to take control, it’s easier for Julie to destruct than it is for her to be productive. That’s what it seems that Stenham’s Julie has a fascination in, something which it shares with Fleabag and perhaps Magali Mougel’s Suzy Storck. But is this a diagnosis of the modern world and why did it have to be shown through Strindberg?

Julie plays at the National Theatre until 8th September.

Vanessa Kirby as Julie and Eric Kofi Abrefa as Jean in Julie at the National Theatre
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Tuesday 5 June 2018

Crazy For You

4th June, 2018
Curve, Leicester

'Who could ask for anything more?'

In their latest touring production, Ken Ludwig’s musical comedy, Crazy For You - featuring a lush soundtrack of some of the finest Gershwin hits (‘Embraceable You’, ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’, ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’) - Paul Hart and the Watermill Theatre have enhanced a much-loved classic with flights of fanciful footwork and an electric cast of actor-musicians.

Stage-struck and happy-go-lucky, dancer Bobby Child (Tom Chambers) wants nothing more than to impress Broadway Follies impresario, Bela Zangler (Neil Ditt). But with a demanding mother (Kate Milner-Evans) and even more demanding fiancé (Claire Sweeney), Bobby is forced into ‘real’ work, acting as a debt collector on behalf of the American Bank. This leads him to small-town Nevada, where the only woman in the village is trying to save a run-down theatre at risk of demolition. Subsequent cases of mistaken identities, triumphant underdogs, and – naturally - love ensue.

Along with an oddly abrupt denouement, Ludwig’s book is littered with lazy stereotypes, from Western hicks to ‘golly-gosh’-type Brits – although I enjoyed the ‘hicks’ fondness of acting out famous historic duels – a nice hint towards their future theatrical endeavours. Yes, Crazy For You is charming and genuinely funny in places, yet Ludwig’s book remains mere fluff to divert us in between the showstoppers. Like many a classic broadway show, the plot plays second fiddle to the musical numbers.

I’m a sucker for actor-musicians as it is, but I’ve truly been spoilt by Catherine Jayes’ musical arrangements and collation of multi-threat stars delivering numbers that are a feast for the eyes and ears. As the curtain rises, a voice informs us that everything we will hear over the next two and a half hours is performed live. And it is – tangibly so. Only when treated to skilled musicians playing live onstage did I realise how much automated sound populates the theatre industry (not a bad thing, might I add, merely an observation).

The act 1 finale ‘I Got Rhythm’ is a moment of pure joy where the music, dancing and sheer energy radiating from the stage all comes together in blissful harmony. The dancing is the music – and vice versa. So seamlessly is Nathan M. Wright’s choreography (!the tap routines!) incorporated into the musical arrangements that I almost forgot I was watching a fictional story – it was like being at a carnival parade on a sunny summer’s day. It was one of those instances where feeling overpowers thought – you know those times when you get itchy and restless, but in the best way – I wanted to be up there, singing, dancing, playing along!

If Tom Chambers is a little gurn-tastic, he more than makes up for it with his undeniable dance talent. He is clearly doing what he loves and it’s palpable as he taps, skips and shuffles across the stage. The farcical ‘What Causes That?’ is brilliant fun, with Chambers and Ditt pitch perfect in their mirroring. More than matching Chambers, Charlotte Wakefield’s Polly is likable, gutsy and sincere without being sickly. Their duets are a real highlight, with the extended routine in ‘Shall We Dance?’ a particular standout.

Crazy For You is highly entertaining, heart-warmingly theatrical, and packed with ingenious and witty choreography. While Ludwig’s paper-thin plot is wanting, Gershwin’s music is a treat to hear performed live, and the party atmosphere brought to the floor by Hart, Wright, Jayes and co. is guaranteed to get everyone toe-tapping along.

Crazy For You plays at Curve, Leicester until 9th June.

Cast of Crazy for You. Credit: Richard Davenport.

Monday 4 June 2018

Absolute Hell

National Theatre, Lyttelton
1st May, 2018, matinee

Naked and afraid in the face of her nothingness

Nicholas Dromgoole wrote a brilliant introduction for Rodney Ackland’s play in the text published to celebrate the National Theatre’s production in 1995. There, he charts the play’s difficult history from being booed off the stage and called an insult to the British (under the title of The Pink Room) in 1952, to the status of rediscovered masterpiece in 1988. In this introduction, he quotes Kenneth Tynan’s maxims of a typical West End play in the 1950s:

At no point may the plot or characters make more than superficial contact with reality. Characters earning less than 1000 a year should be restricted to small parts or exaggerated into types so patently farcical that no member of the audience could possibly identify with such esurience. Rhythm in dialogue is achieved by means of either vocatives… or qualifying clauses… and irony is confined to having an irate male character shout “I am perfectly calm!”

I had this in mind when, a week later, I saw Agatha Christie’s Love from a Stranger (touring the UK): cheap epigrams, laboured plots, and mostly middle class characters. There was one point when a character asked the stranger in the play ‘Who are your people?’ and I suddenly thought I was watching a prototype of Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Other than that, as Dromgoole suggests, this 1930s play was mostly there to titillate, amuse and entertain. This is why I think that Ackland’s play is an under-appreciated 20th century classic. A private Soho club over the summer of 1945, frequented by fops, flops and philanderers, is the depiction of Blighty that Ackland gives us. It’s reigned over by Kate Fleetwood’s Christine, a Madame Ranevskaya of the West End, fuelled by the drink, customers and false bonhomie that her club, La Vie en Rose, trades in.

I have been wondering why Rufus Norris has programmed this revival when it was last staged at the NT in 1995 with Judi Dench as Christine. Why not find some other ‘lost’ play? Then again, why not stage it? The National is one of few producing houses that can facilitate such a large cast. The play’s portrayal of homosexuality and interest in complicated feelings and issues invites comparisons to Rattigan, Chekhov and O’Casey, next to which Ackland is still a less familiar name. I was thrilled that a new generation (myself included) could get an opportunity to see the play and experience a plethora of luscious characters that are frightened of their selves as much as they are of the war. It’s a shame, then, that Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production is rather unfocused and has left me with the impression that the play is not as good as I initially thought.

As conservative as this sounds, I think the problem starts with Lizzie Clachan’s set design. By and large, it does evoke the pink tinge of the Le Vie en Rose: classic furniture, large mirrors, frilly lampshades, wood panelling. Along with it being handsomely lit by Jon Clark, it suggests a sense of grandeur now faded and grubby; one bright lamp and a stain will be on show and the game given away. This is all great. But Hill-Gibbins and Clachan open up the design to show the backdrop of this era. In the script, from what I remember, we occasionally see the silhouette of a prostitute walking by the window or hear the tapping of typists in the Labour offices across the road. Here, we have to watch Rachel Dale’s Fifi lapping the set to walk across the front of the stage every five minutes like Grizabella, and a couple of typists stuck at desks at the back of the stage; how do they keep themselves busy for three hours? There’s something else bugging me. I think every show I’ve seen in the Lyttelton since Norris took over has had a set which partly reveals the back and side walls of the stage. I guess that this decision to achieve a stripped back aesthetic comes from a desire to not be so fastidious in creating the sorts of places that are usually put on the Lyttleton stage, whether they’re drawing rooms or country houses or bars. But here, whatever the intended effect of the uneven floors and large space at the back of the stage, the club and its characters became dislocated and therefore I sometimes questioned whether I believed them.

Thankfully, the cast relish these characters, hugely investing in them vitality, passion, hope and fear. To name but a few, Danny Webb brings out the precision of Siegfried as well as a fondness for Elizabeth Collier, stylishly played by Sinéad Matthews, a blonde bombshell lost in the era and later grief-struck; Jenny Galloway has a lot of fun with the bewigged, lisping literary critic R B Monody; Jonathan Slinger believably conveys the abject nastiness of producer Maurice Hussey. It’s rare to see a large cast of characters each with their own potential for detail and depth. Charles Edwards is perfect as the desperate writer Hugh Marriner. I’m not sure if it’s how Ackland has written his lines or Edwards’ compelling performance, but he seems less a character in a play and more completely lost in the character. One instance of spontaneity came when Webb hadn’t quite successfully lit Edwards’ cigarette and the following momentary exchange spoke volumes for Edwards’ performance. But of all these performative characters Kate Fleetwood shines above. Red dress, dark eyes, big hair, and an enormous amount of war paint, her Christine reaches the highest of highs followed by great lows. The cast and Hill-Gibbons do credit to this ensemble of characters.

As the ceiling tiles begin to fall and most of the characters have been undone, I started to wonder how formally old-fashioned, if very well-crafted, the play is. But for all that, I’ve a huge fondness for it, not least for Ackland’s belief in his characters and for the amount of poetry he’s got out of drinking. There are lines such as “When you’re in a crowd of people and all drinking and shouting and nobody listening all at once, you’re as it were drowned in a wave of love and understanding, and for a split second you find your true identity”. But where the air should feel thick with intoxication, it feels somewhat dissipated.

Absolute Hell is playing at the National Theatre until 16th June 2018.
Kate Fleetwood in Absolute Hell. Credit: Johan Persson