Sunday, 29 August 2010

Clybourne Park - The Royal Court - 27 Aug 2010

There's a very funny sequence in the second half of Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park where the character start telling very non-PC jokes to each other. The audience is delighted and uncomfortable at the parade of offensive terms. In a play that deals not just with race and real state but also with terror of appearing racist and the pressure we put on ourselves to seem as unprejudiced as possible it is a moment of great release and impact. Clybourne Park is political theatre more preocupied with asking a variety of questions rather than supplying answers (that is fine by me, I prefer this sort).

The play concerns the story of a house - the first house is set in the 1950s, where the house is sold out for a far cheaper price than it should (and the audience will come to find out why) and the idea of a black family moving in upsets the comfortable, conservative, white community. After the intermission we are in the present day, witnessing the efforts of a young couple who have bought the house and plans to remodel it, while the neighbours are concerned with preserving the historical heritage of the building.

Clybourne Park really has it all to please the Royal Court audience, and most of the non-usuals too: the humour, the political bite, a gorgeous art direction, Dominic Cooke working his magic behind scenes, family secrets, a theatrical meshing of different periods, a flawless cast (impressive Martin Freeman and Sarah Goldberg, and how nice to see Sam Spruell on stage again, a revelation to me in Trafalgar's The Caretaker) and some nice writing (mainly in the second half).

But what the play likes is an edge. I found the first part a bit weak - the family drama was predictable and we never got a clear sense of the characters as real people on one hand and on the other it wasn't satiric enough to be a proper satire. The set by Robert Innes Hopkins is very detailed and believable but what goes on inside is a bit stuffy for my taste. The second half flows so much easily and there's a wonderful ghost moment when both periods mix in a very theatrical twist (that's good, theatre is supossed to be theatrical). Plays where different periods are represented on stage to illustrate a subject or to dig up secret histories seem to work very well - while I was seeing Clybourne Park I was constantly reminded of the best of this examples, the magnificent Three Days Of Rain. Here there were bits that felt heavy-handed (the predictable reappearing of the chest) and the general feeling of the play telling us that we are all a bit racist, really, didn't sit well with me but I liked the interesting questions that it posed. And the jokes were funny.

It never got to be the brilliant theatre event that it could have been, for me, but Clybourne Park is a very enjoyable, entertaining and pretty thoughtful play. The cast is lowkey and very sharp and though Sophie Thompson is getting a lot of press for her role(s) - she had the flashiest parts, after all - the whole cast is perfect, specially in the second part.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

REVIEW: In An Instant, Theatre503, 23 August 2010

 Live a life less ordinary.

Do you have 12 pounds?

Okay, well, if you have them get yourself south of the river to Theatre503 (upstairs at the Latchmere pub) and buy a ticket for In An Instant. It's an evening of new writing - 8 short plays focused on the idea of an unexpected moment that changes your life forever.

You wait for the house to open, sit on the comfortable and well-worn leather couches, sip on your drink and look at all that trendy and beautiful people around you (Is that Samuel Barnett I spot? Yes, it is). Then you go inside the theatre itself and it's tiny - but that's alright, you should be used to that, you love pub theatres, don't you? They are great, they bring back all the rawness of real theatre. But yes, the room is small, so go sit in the first row; don't be afraid of first rows, if you are used to getting day tickets in West End theatres you know of the rewards of first-row theatre-ing. The set is bare: black, two chairs. There will not be much in the way of props or costume during the night but that's fine, listen to the words, look at the actors' faces, that's all you need.

Then it starts.

It starts with HOW I CAME TO BE, written by Adam Barnard and directed Jules Tipton. It's a boy-meets-girl story of sorts. It's not the most original or exciting idea in the world and it sounds like something you might have seen in some writing workshop or a new writing night or something in the Tristan Bates Theatre. But Adam Barnard writes with such charm and wittiness and Nick Gadd and Katie Hayes ar such convincing players that yes, you are charmed. Things are looking good in the room.

Then comes DEBBIE (Who couldn't catch a cold if she tried) by James Graham, directed by Mel Hillyard. Nothing could have prepared you for the sheer genius of this monologue. Maybe it's a pity that it's so early in the evening because it's the best piece of the play, with the one written by Matthew Dunster. It's hilarious and touching and captures the subtle absurdity of teenage despair without looking down on its protagonist. This is a story about a girl who wants to get hit by lightning. Don't worry, she'll tell you why and you'll understand it all. Rebecca Oldfield is simply astonishing as the titular Debbie. You fall in love a bit. Maybe she reminds you of the first time you saw Jessica Raine in theatre, or Pippa Nixon. She makes Debbie quirky and sympathetic and real. This is what happens when pitch-perfect acting meets great writing, and the way James Graham writes here is... Well, it wasn't such a bad idea, coming down to South London on a Monday evening. This monologue reminds you why you love theatre: because it can be this extraordinary.

You are not expecting much AMBIENT NOISE, written by Kenneth Emson and directed by Mel Hillyard again. Maybe because DEBBIE was so perfect that you are expecting a let down. It starts very funny - in fact Richard Maxted is so hilarious that you wonder why he is not in everything. But then you focus on the language, the rhythm of the lines. And hey, wow, that Kenneth Emson sure can write. It's a Morning After story and it turns from funny and well-observed to weird and then sort of touching. You are not sure you get the point of the story completely. It doesn't matter. Richard Maxted and Antonia Kinlay are gorgeous. You are beginning to suspect that every single actor taking part in this play is nothing but extraordinary. In fact Richard Maxted is not only funny but he can give surprising depth to its performance.

QUIZ NIGHT feels perhaps like the most underwritten of the eight plays you see tonight. Written and directed by John Sheerman. It's entertaining and you are entertained despite some bits where the writing doesn't fly as well as it could, and some cheap humour. Nick Gadd, Martin Allanson and Chris Brandon play a trio of friends going to their regular quiz night at the pub, but then there's a twist. The effort to mix genres here is appreciated. You go to the interval quite happy.

When you come back to the little black room it's turn for Matthew Dunster's piece. Matthew Dunster is possibly the most talented writer in UK right now - didn't you go to You Can See The Hills at the Young Vic? Arguably the most powerful play of the last five or six years. You are a bit anxious about this one; Dunster is so good that of course you have certain expectations. You needn't worry: POP! is as brilliant as anything you might have expected. Directed again by Mel Hillyard and performed by Jonathan McGuinness and Rebecca Oldfield. Of course you know Jonathan McGuinness, you've seen him in rehearsed readings here and there, the Soho Theatre, and at the Actors Centre (in fact, you think you remember him in an evening of new writing in which Matthew Dunster also took part). He is always relieable and impressive. True genius. In the same way people like Justin Salinger are geniuses: as in "actors who don't get as much press attention as their obvious talents deserve". McGuinness is indeed impressive (and magnificently low-key) as Rupert, posh City guy hooked on heroin trying to score a hit after work and the only one who can help him is young Jenny, addict and lowlife. The chemistry between the actors works perfectly and you can hardly believe that Rebecca Oldfield can be Jenny as well as Debbie from the earlier piece. POP! takes on a familiar subject for theatre, and it's gritty and it could have easily been clichéd but Dunster is too good for that. You have the feeling this is the kind of play all those gritty plays about drugs wish they could be.

The next piece SNAP, written by Emma Jowett and directed by Jules Tipton, is a dark tale as well (and maybe putting it together with POP! makes sense). It is also a great piece of storytelling - you watch it unfold on the edge of your seat, tense the whole time. It is engaging theatre and to say anything more would be spoiling it. This needs to be said, though: Antonia Kinlay is amazing in it. You begin to suspect you are overusing the world amazing tonight but these plays really deserve it.

Amy Abrahams captures the give-and-take of male friendship very well in HAPINESS IS A CHOICE, directed by John Sheerman. The piece itself might not be extraordinary but the writing and the performances by Martin Allanson and Richard Maxted make it very easy to connect with the characters. The story of James, who changes his behavious suddenly and it pisses his flatmate Dan. Nicely observed.

The last short of the night is EYES FULL OF PORNOGRAPHY by Michael Ross, again under John Sheerman's direction and featuring Chris Brandon and Cameron Slater. Unfortunately this is the weakest play of the group. You don't go with a bitter taste in your mouth because they whole thing has been so rewarding but this piece isn't for you. It's funny at times and the actors do it well but once it's past the plot twist it doesn't have much to offer. It offers cliché but doesn't dissect it succesfully so the characters feel a bit constrained. You get the feeling someone else could have done great work with the idea but as it is the piece remains a bit underwhelming. Nevermind, you don't care. It's all well.

In An Instant comes to London from good Latitude reviews. As you leave the Latchmere pub and wonder which bus will take you north of the Thames from here you mentally thank Theatre503 and Eyebrow Productions for putting this play together. This is what theatre should be about, at its very core. Something fresh, committed with new language, performed by actors full of talent and passion. Even if it's in a tiny room with no set.

And you almost didn't want to come.

So, once again, I ask you: Can you spare 12 quid?

Friday, 20 August 2010

Deathtrap official trailer.

Oh, hi, Claire Skinner, you brilliant thing, can't wait to see you.

I swang by the box office yesterday and they told me they were going to do day tickets (first row) for 25 quid.

Check out the official website.

Friday, 6 August 2010

REVIEW: After the Dance, National Theatre, 4 August

A harsher truth.

Some characters are really hard to empathise with. And Benedict Cumberbatch does a fine, almost surgical job with the lead man of After the Dance. But one suspects that the audience is not meant to care for David but rather watch Terence Rattigan's study of his appalling behaviour as if an insenct under the microscope. The writing is tight but cold and ultimately a bit dull. But one has to admire the dullness as well. Because these people can be very dull in their little tragic lives. (Benedict Cumberbatch is a specialist in repressed douchebags - he can move on now.)

David is appalling, indeed, but not so much out of malice; his shortcoming are, in the end, tragic, and the audience's shortcoming is to expect anything else of the play. David cheats on his wife and we know he didn't resist temptation too much; the girl he falls for is judged cruelly by both characters and audience, who resents the confidence and arrogance of youth (Faye Castelow is perfect in embodying both the spirit of the period and her age). The friend seeing the play besides me really hated her; I didn't, I found easy to forgive her, because she really did what she did for love (or so she thought). David's wife, Joan (brilliant Nancy Carroll, fondly remembered from the underrated Waste at the Almeida) lives all her life in a lie because she is afraid of losing David, but she'd probably have a better chance of keeping him if she had been honest. So much waste, such a tragic missed chance. A play about a lost generation. Adrian Scarborough plays the drunken friend with a keen eye and a big heart, offering commentary to the disastrous relationships, and in the end he achieves some kind of hope of redemption (via moving to grim Manchester).

Rattigan can be brilliant at times but the play lacked dramatic tension and momentum, which okay, I ended up believing it was all on purpose, very modern, or maybe I wanted to like this play so much (Mr.Cumberbatch!) that I liked it against its weaknesses. It was not bland, it was tight, but on the same subject of a lost generation I ended up wishing I was seeing Time and the Conways again (After the Dance was better directed, but then again I really dislike Rupert Goold and everything he does).

Also: Can John Heffernan be my Pip Carter when Pip Carter is not around? (On second thought: Pip Carter, why are you not around? I want you to be on the stage all the time.)

Saturday, 12 June 2010

REVIEW: Ingredient X, Royal Court, 9 June 2010

Anatomy of addiction

There's something about this play that lacks some punch, some theatrical edge that stops it from being a truly good piece. But truth be told in the hands of a lesser dramatist Ingredient X would have turned out an insufferable turkey. The situation is not promising: Three friends (and the boyfriend of one of them) meet up for a fun night in watching the finale of that year's Factor X and of their conversation the general theme of the work comes to light: addiction and how it has left a mark on these women's lives. Katie (Indira Varma) and Rosanna (Lesley Sharp) have suffered from being involved with men addicted to drugs, and even Katie's new partner Frank (James Lance) is a recovering addict himself. The third friend Deanne (Lisa Palfrey) is an alcoholic who refuses to admit she has a problem.

There are some good things going for the play: the very theatrical restraint of it all happening in a night, the car-crash fascination of seeing Deanne control by her addiction, the four perfomances are excellent, and there's some clever dialogue. But there are few surprises, and few memorable moments itself. Indira Varma charms her way through th therapy-babble language of Katie admirably, and James Lance paints a surprisingly understated portrait of a man who is really trying to make his new life work - his last scene, alone, cleaning up after the party, is genuinely touching.

And one can only agree with the point Nick Grosso is trying to make: that alcohol is as much if not more of a curse to Britain as illegal drugs are. He writes flawed, sympathetic human beings and there's much value in that. There's also a lot of value in writing for women of this age - not long ago Lesley Sharp complained in her masterclass at the Haymarket how difficult it is to find lead characters and challenging roles for women of her generation. Grosso has a clever eye for dialogue and offers no easy solution for the characters. Like Frank, they all have to make it day by day, learning from their mistakes. Ingredient X is also a play about mistakes and appalling decisions and how people try to blame those on every one by themselves. It's a nice twist that the character of Indira Varma, who uses all that psycho jargon to explain how addiction is an illness, is also the most resolute of them all to prove that our decisions are always our own, and we have to take responsibility for our issues.

But unfortunately none of this is enough to make the play great. Maybe I'm just burnt out on realism like this: realism itself is not an artistic value and we take at face value that something is good because it's true to life. A play is good because it is good, not because it looks like real life. I can do without all the kitchen-sink, Mike Leigh, social realism stuff the British arts have always been so full of. Ingredient X left me with a big sense of "So what?"; while it wasn't a bad play, and the actors made it worth the money, I didn't feel challenged or illuminated in any way. Real theatre should never leave you untouched.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Chichester Festival: Bingo - 20 May 2010

Severe. Austere. Strict.

Edward Bond is a good reader of Shakespeare. Nowhere more evident than in the heterodox and brilliant The Sea (seen in an unforgettable production at the Haymarket with Harry Lloyd as the lead). As a biographer, here in Bingo (subtitled Scenes of Money and Death) he is unusual. Here he strips of William Shakespeare of his prominent feature: his love of words. Bond's Shakespeare is curiously inarticulate, silent at crucial times, his voice is low. As if he had grown wearing of always fighting for (and with) words. This is a weary Shakespeare but not a poor-health one; he is not fragile, he retreats by choice. Patrick Stewart's performance is full of restraint and alienness - confirms Stewart as one of the most exciting and risky actors nowadays, nevermind his experience and fame. He was in synch with the (sombre) tone of the production perfectly.

Like Howard Barker, Edward Bond is admirably stubborn. He has no use for the conventional worries of entertaining the audience in a predictable way, or offering an easy way out. It is almost taxing, seeing this Bingo of his. The narrative is barely there: glimpses of the last months of Shakespeare's life, barely a plot at all. The hero is no such thing: he sees injustices but he is too coward to do anything about it, too preocupied with his own status and comfort, when he regrets not helping out, it's too late, redemption is too feeble, his death is mediocre and petty. It is a grim business and you have to work hard through it. Bond is always demanding with his audiences. But there is much of worth to be found here. The sense of alienation, usual in Bond, works. It's not meant to be a period piece but you get the feeling that these are real people of their times, the clothes are worn just like the faces. The production works for the play and its ideas, it's austere but rich, the settling, the lights, everything, as a production is top-notch. The cast is solid for the most part, with the always reliable Jason Watkins, and hey how nice to see Alex Price, the best thing that ever happened to BBC's Merlin - he is one to watch, full of energy and anger and focus.

Chichester is worth a visit: Edward Bond is, Patrick Stewart is, and if not, there's always the Arundel Tomb and the gorgeous breakfasts at The Buttery.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

REVIEW: Private Lives, Vaudeville Theatre, 19 March 2010

Neither with you nor without you.

Of course there are an awful lot of "Oh Dear"s involved. And an awful lot of "Awful"s and "Positively"s and "Precisely"s and all sorts of adverbs that tell us that we are, unmistakenly, in a 1920s-1930s comedy of high society and misunderstandings. There's also quite a repeated use of the word "Cad" (to describe Matthew Macfadyen's character) which makes the audience cringe and feel nostalgic at the same time.

It's a thoroughly predictable affair, the way ex-husband and wife Elyot and Amanda meet each other after years while on their respective honeymoons with their respective, adequately dull and pathetic, new partners. One gets out the theatre with a terrible urge to pop in one's DVD copy of The Philadelphia Story. That's usually the case with Noel Coward, isn't it? - Not that I know, as this was my first Noel Coward production.

But underneath all that wit and charm and misunderstanding and inspired one-liners (my favourite American sitcom, Frasier, owes so much to Coward, after all) one appreciates the touch of darkness, the violence and, above all, the frank depiction of sex and sexual desire the play offers. Richard Eyre's production is incredibly charming and aptly superficial; there are many interesting things about these characters but they are never explored, except by chance and perhaps by the actors accidentally scratching beneath the surface. No matter how much I enjoyed the performance I was a bit underwhelmed by the shallowness of the whole business; and by the audience incapacity to follow theatre etiquette. I wondered: Have this people never been to a play before? There was clapping during the performance, and talking and general rudeness.

(As a side note, yes, I agree with the elderly woman in the first row with us: 49 pounds IS A SCAM for what can only be described as "restricted view" seats. We paid them because we have been waiting to see Matthew Macfadyen for ages, but it is a scandal. For some mysterious reason the Vaudeville's usual policy of having Day Tickets didn't apply to this play, possibly because of the limited run. So yes, we were utterly robbed.)

As for the acting, the ensemble worked very well. It was a strong cast and the performance had no cracks on its armour. Kim Catrall didn't jar but she wasn't impressive either - she had easily the most likeable character of the four and did well with it, even if a couple of times she didn't ring as true as she should: her confusion and conflicted emotions upon finding herself attracted to Elyot again lacked the honesty of Macfadyen's reactions, for one. Her Amanda is charming and sympathetic, but there's the nagging feeling she could have done so much more with the part. Predictably (at least for us, because we rate him so) Matthew Macfadyen delivered the best performance; more aware that he is actually in a tragedy within a comedy, his Elyot is appalling, short-tempered and sexist, but his claims at flippancy are only skin-deep. There was a moment when he declares "I'm depressed" to Amanda's husband and sits on stage like a beaten dog, and what at first drew laughs from the audience in a moment of true theatrical magic turned into a moment of genuine emotion, as Macfadyen allowed Elyot a bit of self-reflection and loneliness. And on top of all that, he is amazingly funny. His perfomance was unusual, his Elyot nervous and exquisitely camp at times - one almost wishes Macfadyen to reprise Colin Firth's role in Relative Values, also by Coward. Simon Paisley Day and Lisa Dillon are both excellent as Amanda's and Elyot's mismatched new partners and as clichéd as their roles might be they never forget to add that touch of subtle humanity to their characters. The four actors have perfect comic timing and the humour of the play relies so much on the physical, refreshing when considered how verbal Coward's wit is.

All in all, the play might not haunt our memory as a life-changing experience, but it sure was a good night out.

Other reviews:
The Guardian.
There Ought To Be Clowns.
West End Whingers.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

MUSIC: Rufus Wainwright @ Sadler's Wells - 13 April 2010

Cracking jokes about Wagner and Alistair Crowe and being appropriately arrogant and self-deprecating about his own debut as opera writer Rufus Wainwright presented his new upcoming record - All Days Are Night: Songs For Lulu - in London last night, in a concert as uncompromising and awe-inspiring as ever.

The new album is equally inspired by Shakespeare's sonnets and by Louise Brooks' rendition of Lulu, directed by Pabst. It is a musically-sparse, heartwrenching record, with Wainwright at the piano without any orchestra, unlike his previous, grand album Release The Stars. The new songs took up the first half of his performance at Sadler's Wells, sung in order and without breaks, in costume, surrounded by bits of the set for Prima Donna, all very theatrical. Of the dozen of times I have seen Wainwright in concert (yes, long-time fan here) I don't think I've ever heard his voice sound so well - sharp and healthy and powerful. He gets better and better each year. Despite his frequent false-starts and fuck-ups (more in the second half of the show) he is also a very compelling pianist. Even if the evening lacked his guitar-based classics ("California" or "Gay Messiah" I missed the most) it was a memorable chance to see a piano-only concert from Wainwright.

The new songs are spectacular and highlights included the rendering of Shakespeare's "A Woman's Face" and the ode of an old high school crush, "Zebulon". It's still too new an album to review it properly - by the time I see Wainwright at Oxford next month, or in the Kenwood House concert series in July, I will be more able to go past the "Oh My God! New Rufus Wainwright music!" stage that comes with each new released material. The new stuff is more direct but no less poetic; it shows Wainwright's determination of stepping out his comfort zone every time he seems successful with a formula. After flying as high as he could with the baroque and full of light Release The Stars it seems like Wainwright goes back to the basic, to see if his songs can work at their minimal expression. Only the true artist is so restless.

The second half of the show was more informal: Rufus Wainwright, out of coustume, and speaking to the audience, joking and moaning and laughing (& sharing one genuine moment of emotion as he talked about her late mother, the folk singer Kate McGarrigle). The playlist was compelling, oddly nostalgic in ways (he played "Millbrook", "Foolish Love") and even surprising. The real highlight of the night (apart from Wainwright covering one of his mother's songs) was "Dinner at Eight", chosen by the fans to be performed through the artist's official website.

Monday, 22 March 2010

bits & odds

- Yes, you all saw it. The Oliviers (see, for example, Webcowgirl's account here) were last night and The Mountaintop is the success story of the year. If anything, it makes for some interesting debate: the Guardian asks if this will be a boost to the black theatre in UK.

- On the other hand, Ruth Wilson looked very pretty. That's almost enough to calm my fury at my favourite plays of the year not being even nominated. At least there was a win for Cock so I'm counting it as an Andrew Scott win.

- National Theatre pictures of their production The White Guard, starring among others our favourite Pip Carter.

- Speaking of the National Theatre and how it continues to love me personally, one of my favourite actors in the whole world, Benedict Cumberbatch, has been cast in the upcoming production of Terence Rattigan's After the Dance, directed by Thea Sharrock. In other Benedict Cumberbatch news, there was a nice article in The Guardian this week about Steven Moffatt's Sherlock that's worth a read. (thanks to the wonderful Sherlocking site for the heads up)

- The Sheffield Telegraph has a new video in its website with a backstage tour of everybody's (well, at least mine) favourite theatre, the Crucible and the improvements made in its £15.3 million redevelopment.

- Article on the Times about the Royal Court's production of Posh, by Laura Wade, starting next April Downstairs, with a cast including the very talented Leo Bill and the promising Tom Mison.

- The Classical Serial at BBC Radio 4 is being extremely brilliant with its adaptation of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, starring Richard Armitage and Zoe Waites. Not to be missed.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Review: Ghosts, Duchess Theatre, 20 March 2010

I think Ibsen is an acquired taste: I came upon this revelation during my trip to Sheffield to see An Enemy of the People at the gorgeous new Crucible. I mean, the first time I encountered Ibsen (at college) I didn't like it very much. And even when I saw new versions by authors I like (Lucy Kirkwood's Hedda) or excellent productions (the Donmar's A Doll's House) I remained lukewarm.

Then last year I attended a small rehearsed reading of Ghosts at the Young Vic, version via Frank McGuiness, directed by Ian Glenn and with Lesley Sharp and my favourite Tom Brooke as mother and son. It was a powerful piece of theatre, despite it being a reading (although many of my favourite theatrical experiences have come by the way of readings) and started turning my head around about Ibsen. I guess it will always remain my favourite work from him and even if the scandal that the mentioning of syphillis caused in Ibsen's era might sound alien to modern audience Ghosts is every bit as much a poignant, taxing and moving play as when it was written.

So why is it that the power of that rehearsed reading doesn't translate as well to a finished production? Even though I didn't dislike this play as much, I can understand the sense of bafflement from one of my favourite theatre bloggers about the piece. I still think the early notices are unfair but there is something severly lacking here. It's not the actors - Lesley Sharp is as fabulous and refreshing as ever, she gives an unhindered Mrs.Alving and that performance only is worth the money of the ticket. Glenn's Manders is as spineless in comparsion as he should be, on the verge of pathetic but sympathetic just for that. Harry Treadaway does a comendable job in a hard, vital role - but I'm afraid that I spent most of the play remembering Harry Lloyd's take on the character in the Arcola production last year. Lloyd's Oswald will be hard to forget in years to come, I'm afraid, but still Treadaway seems like a great hope for the future, we must remember his stage debut was only last year, and he did brilliantly, in Mark Ravenhill's Over There. I was also cheered by the presence of Jessica Raine as Regina: I feel as if I had seen this girl grow up, after her great performances in Harper Regan and Gethsemane at the National.

Maybe it was the elaborated set and costumes; although I appreciated the airy and well-lit stage, a change from the usual dark and somber productions. Maybe the play worked better in the reading because of its rawness, with minimal props and some light effects. Maybe it's that I believe this play should be performed without interval. Maybe it was the early notices affecting the whole mood. Whatever the case, I didn't find it as poignant. The audience, icy, might have contributed. I left the theatre (after spotting Dominic Cooke some seats behind me, by the way) oddly unsatisfied.

Other reviews:
The Telegraph.
There Ought To Be Clowns.
The Londonist.
The Independent.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Review: Six Degrees of Separation, Old Vic, 10 March 2010

photo by Martin Pope

I rather like how the brilliant Aleks Sierz calls this play "insubstantial" in his review because what I felt when I came out of the Old Vic theatre after this matinee was absolute numbness. I had wasted my time with this - fortunately not my money, as the tickets were free.

The story of con-man Paul and his upper class victims in their hollow lives of money and conventions won the Olivier award in 1993 and as I read this fact in the shiny but pricey programme I wondered if 1992 had been a particularly bad year in the British theatre or if the Oliviers have always as nonesensical as in recent years. Maybe I am being injustifiably cruel: Six Degrees of Separation is not a bad play. It is not, in my opinion, a good play either.

Everything about the play just sounded bland and unsubtle. It had the makings of a great play but ultimately no punch to it. And this was not because of the production - although it is a very forgetteable one - but because of the writing. Neither the plot or the themes seemed to grab my attention and the characters were not engaging, hard as they tried. Only Lesley Manville and her natural brilliance, made me sympatize a bit with her Ouisa but at the same time it made me wonder about what a waste her performance was, wishing I was back at National seeing Her Naked Skin. Everybody else was bland, and the only funny and truthful moments came when the teenage sons and daughters of the lead characters were on stage, hilariously grumpy and clichéd to the point where one can't help but fondness for the kids. Paul had some interest as a character, if only a more charming actor than Obi Abili had played him. One can imagine that in the play's debut at the Royal Court things were a lot different, they had Adrian Lester then. Like Phil from the Whingers I found these people and the play oddly irritating.

In short, a morning wasted but at least I hadn't paid for it so I came out shrugging rather than in a bitter fit.

Other reviews:
The Telegraph.
The Times.
West End Whingers.
The Stage.
The Guardian.
Interval Drinks.
The Independent.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

An Enemy Of The People, Sheffield Crucible, 11 Feb 2010

Where theatre moves you.

Art should move you. Intimately. Violently. Sometimes, even, physically. Like in this case: theatre made me take a train to a city I didn't know to a theatre I had never been to. It's part of the fun. I treasure those journeys - sometimes lonely, hard, miserable journeys - I've made just to see a good piece of theatre. Or a particular actor. Those trips to Straford-upon-Avon because of the RSC. That very memorable journey to the unknown aka Stafford and its castle to see Joseph Millson's Hamlet. Oh yes now that you mention Hamlet... My visit to the newly rebuilt, born-again Sheffield Crucible (now under the guidance of AD Daniel Evans, wonderful actor and great speaker during the latest Royal Court anniversary celebrations) served a double purpose: I went to see Lucy Cohu in the role of Katrine - the wife of the lead Dr.Stockmann, played by Anthony Sher - because last year's Speaking in Tongues still burns in my memory as my favourite piece of theatre and Cohu was an essential factor in that, becoming part of the "Actors I would go anywhere to see perform" list that I have. On the other hand I wanted to familiarize myself with the city and with the theatre because since the annoucement of John Simm future involment taking on the role of Hamlet in a Crucible production next autumn I have been curious (and excited) about this building, this place and its dynamic - and because I suspect, come September, I'll be making a lot of trips to Sheffield, so I'd better start learning train timetables and streets layouts. Theatre moves me. Literally.

On the other hand I have come to the conclusion that Ibsen is an acquired taste, at least in my case. I had always been afraid to admit it but I found Ibsen's plays a bit... well, a bit boring, actually. Maybe it had to do with the fact that my final essays for drama classes at college had to be about Chekov, Beckett and Ibsen and after reading Ibsen's plays I found them completely unexciting compared to the other two authors. "Not for me" I decided. But then slowly, things started to change. Lucy Kirkwood's version of Hedda Gabler wasn't exactly a succees but it made re-examine my prejudices. And then came the rehearsed reading of Ghosts at the Old Vic with Lesley Sharp, Ian Glenn and Tom Brooke that was actually sublime by the end. And the Donmar's A Doll's House in an energetic version by Zinnie Harris and perfect performances from Chris Eccleston, Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens and Anton Lesser. Then Ghosts again at the Arcola with a magnificent Harry Lloyd. I started to think "Well maybe Ibsen is for me".

Maybe I should have started with An Enemy of the People. It tells a very political story about a man doing the right thing even if that costs him everything that is dear to him - I have a soft spot for those stories (specially in film, from Mr.Smith Goes To Washington to Good Night And Good Luck) and here Ibsen delivers a classic one. Dr. Stockmann (Anthony Sher) is a well-known and well-loved citizen of a small town in Norway. Together with his brother Peter, the Mayor of the town, he is helping develop the new baths of the village, expected to bring tourism and prosperity. But just as the dream of this wonderful enterprise seems close to coming true Dr.Stockmann discovers that the local tannery is contaminating the waters of the town and that the new baths could be very dangerous for the health of those using them. He expects that this discovery will have a great impact on the city - the bath will have to close and a long time will be needed until the waters are safe and healthy again. But much to his bafflemente the authorities (including and specially his brother) try to silence his discovery. What's more, the townspeople refuse to believe Stockmann and give up their dream of prosperity. They treat him like a lunatic who's lying to them, they start harassing him and his family, even his friends turn on him, until Stockmann denounces that the individual is wiser than the multitude and the strong man stands alone against a brainless community.

There are two important themes going on here: first, the individual against the masses. An Enemy of the People was written by Ibsen as a response of the general public's rejection of his previous play, the polemic Ghosts. As such it's a play with a very clear agenda. Amazingly enough this does not hurt the quality of the play, as it happens in many occasions when an author tackles a very particular political subject he feels passional about. An Enemy of the People is not preachy, it's fantastic theatre that makes you feel what Ibsen wanted you to: anger at the sense of injustice, and impotence. Here the good man, the hero, is treated by the people of his own town like a villain, like a theatre. At the same time Ibsen tells the story of the sacrifices Stockmann has to make to defend his beliefs. Not just to his status but the comfort of his family. Stories of martyrs, or those who refuse to be, in the name of what they believe to be the right, just choice have always fascinated me: theatre has seen many great version of this dilemma, from Life of Galileo to The Winslow Boy to Every Good Boy Deserves A Favour. It's easy to believe yourself uncompromising but what's the price you pay?

Great, engaging play, then. Christopher Hampton's version full of energy and a good deal of comedy. And the theatre? Well, to put it simply the Crucible is beautiful. Classy, easy to walk through, and the staff are helpful. I was hoping to buy a proper programme but they didn't have (I wondered, panicked, will they have them for Hamlet?). There was a delightful art exhibition with paintings and drawings by Anthony Sher, very enjoyable. And the stage? The stage was breathtaking. The seats on a semi-circle around it, every seat has amazing view. Designer Ben Stone made used of its possibilities with a simple, open and gorgeous set. Ibsen is usually all dark and confined spaces but this production let the play breathe and it was a clever move. It wasn't afraid of being epic (this play is epic, let's face it). This was a stage made for the epic and the intimate at the same time.

As for the performances, Daniel Evans has reunited a very solid cast - though I'll be straight here and admit I wasn't very impressed by Anthony Sher. This was the first time I ever saw him in theatre and I wasn't starstruck as I guessed I'd be, given his good reputation. He was good but at times a bit tiring, his acting too grand. It added a nice ambiguity to the character (if Stockmann believes himself to be so much bigger-than-life it's easy to imagine how he throws himself so happily at the possibility of being a moral hero, martyrdom and all) but in the end it made it harder to connect with Stockmann. Another kind of actor - perhaps more low-key - would have transformed this great production into something complately unforgettable. What was really unforgettable was Lucy Cohu's performance as Stockmann's wife - it was strange at first, after all those times I saw her in Speaking in Tongues - to see her embody another character. Cohu excells at being quietly powerful here, and she handles the complexity of Katrine (she knows she should fight for the good cause of her husband but at times her earthly desire for a comfortable life gets the better of her, but in the end she comes through) admirably. Against Sher's vitality she might seem subdued but there is a strength to her performance that makes the character completely believable. The rest of the cast - with John Shrapnel as Stockmann's brother - is very reliable if not actually brilliant, and under Daniel Evans' flawless direction they work together and mesh perfectly.

Theatre moves you, if it's worth anything at all. Sometimes it takes you to really great places, like the Sheffield Crucible.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Review: The Priory, Royal Court, 5 January 2010

It's nice when theatre surprises you like this.

I was regarding my assitance to a performance of The Priory at the Royal Court as something of a chore. On one hand, it was unavoidable, because Joseph Millson was in it and I always make a point of not missing any of his performances (even if that means travelling great lengths). On the other hand if it weren't for Mr.Millson's involvement in it The Priory is the kind of play I would normally avoid on a first glance: it sounded like a silly comedy and it had Rupert Penry-Jones in the cast.

So in the end I decided to get some standing tickets with really REALLY restricted view for the price of 10 pence.

And to my surprise, well, it was a pretty funny play. The setting is familiar (a group of friends decide to spend New Year's together in a country house and a series of complications and misunderstandings follow) and the situations and characters clichéd but it had a solid cast (even mediocre Penry-Jones was quite decent and not as annoying as usual) and it got genuine laughs from me, more to do with the actors' delivery than with the wit of the writing but still. A good way to spend a morning.

And of course amidst all this sitcom-esque, familiar but effective hilariousness it was Joseph Millson who stole the show as he often does (like Andrew Scott he is the kind of actor who should not be allowed to interact with other humans, because he puts the rest to shame) in a role that could have been easily disgraceful: Daniel, the gay friend this kind of farce usually has, would have been a cardboard of a character but Millson gives him unusual depth. Kudos to Charlotte Riley as well, playing energetic and irritating Laura, a stranger come into this circle of friends. And Jessica Hynes, whose character is the heart and spine of the play, she is sympathetic but sharp. It is her onstage chemistry with Millson that results in the best moments of the play, it is when these two characters connect that this entertaining but innocuous comedy achieves moments of actual and honest theatre magic. I was not expecting that.

It was nice to be proven wrong.

Other reviews:
The Guardian.
The Independent.
The Times.
The Stage.
Sans Taste.
West End Whingers.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Review: The Caretaker, Trafalgar Studios, 15 January 2010

Despite his horrible career choices (bad movies and questionable musicals) there's no doubt Jonathan Pryce is one of the most talented actors one can ever hope to see. His performance last year in the Donmar's Dimetos was one of the most remarkable theatrical experiences of my life. And this Caretaker might not be as touching as that but it is still an intense pleasure of a night at the theatre.

The marriage between Pinter's always sharp and eternally fresh writing and Pryce's talent is a winning combination. Pryce's Davies, the tramp that finds himself inmersed in a confuse powerplay between two brothers as he just tries to land a place to sleep in, dominates the scene with more energy than one would have imagined. His principal drive is mistrust, almost paranoia but the audience begins to share his suspicions as Peter McDonald's Aston and Sam Spruell's Mick turn out to be more than meets eye in this attractive production, transferred to the Trafalgar after its success.

The production itself is a bit flat at times - I'd like more darkness, a lot more of surrealism - but it is greatly effective and I could tell the audience was having a great time, which often is a tricky thing with Pinter, so wonderfully weird he is. And the actors were superbly directed. In such a tight and tense three-handler it is vital to have everybody working at top game. Peter McDonald had already caught my eye alongside Pryce in the West End revival of Glengarry Glen Ross and here he proves to be a relieable actors with a great stage presence- his Aston is very alien and detached, he feels hollowed out and when the reveal of his past in the mental hospital comes around it all clicks into place. He can seem helpless and edgy at the same time. At first I had my doubts about Spruell and his thuggish Mick but by the end of the play I was won over; his is a complex and clever performance, he gives the character pathos and charisma without losing the sense of threat. Both actors should be very happy of not only keeping their ground against a formidable Pryce but also completing him, and achieving that often elusive animal: a united, coherent cast.

Other reviews:
The Guardian.
The Independent.
The Telegraph.
The Times.