Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Review Roundelay

by Sonja Linden

A Lion Of A Play Tamed


Even if performances of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde proliferate, we have a confession to make. No, we haven't made a threesome with your husband/wife/partner, TLT, the motorised dominatrix and - No, no, no! Our confession is that we have never, ever seen a production of La Ronde before.

So we were looking forward to Roundelay, a waltz of short plays linked by one character jumping from one to the next, from Visible, a theatre company of older actors. For this was inspired in structure by the risqué Viennese classic.

However having done a bit of research and on the strength of this production, we are inclined to agree with Andrew Haydon's 2009 analysis of British versions. They are just rather tame, sow's ears rather than silk purses.

For this seemed like a dutiful rather distinctive adaptation by playwright Sonja Linden. Yes, there is a would-be edgier historical, political and showbusiness subtext. Although  maybe subtext is too strong a word  - gestures towards a subtext being more apt.

We are invited in by the "ringmistress" (Clare Perkins), complete with lion and tiger tamer's whip, to the "circus of life".  Nothing wrong with a cliché as long as it's developed in more surprising twists and turns than in this production. While gestures towards a circus ring include a smidgeon of aerial acrobatics, this ring of seven plays unfortunately does not set the bar so high using predictable soap opera tropes.

Lives revolve around weddings, sexuality, divorces, illness and decline and sudden deaths with the ringmistress commenting on the interlocking tales.Again nothing wrong with that but the stories are curiously old fashioned and lack wit and originality.

While there is one business theme, noone worries about money. The expiration of a visa should feel topical but simply feels like an inserted plot device.

The piece tries hard to achieve a fable-like quality and we did wonder whether it might work better as a musical, of which more later. Still, Perkins as our hostess makes the most that she can out of the on-the-nose dialogue and wrings humour out of the interaction with the audience.   

While the circus antics and pierrot musicanship  (Ru Hamilton) inject a little liveliness into the proceedings, this feels like a play which has its structure ready-made, but doesn't know quite what to do with it.

In fact, the circus theme also feels like out-of-date whimsy, while the pierrot  draws on 1960s' Marcel Marceau's Bip The Clown act and the craze for fey miming that it spawned.

If the circus were in some way integrated into the script during the show, with a meaning for the lives we encounter, it would feel more pointed. But it seems to be an external flourish. The stories could quite happily stand without the stock worldly wisdom of the ringmistress narrator's comments.

The more colourful,  active framework with the pierrot playing a range of instruments - a highlight setting up an emotional heart sorely missed elsewhere - only serves to emphasize the plodding nature of the stories it contains

While we've said the stories are predictable, it seems a tad unfair to give them away if you want to go and see for yourself. Suffice to say, sex, desire, love and dementia are dominant threads (but no hint of the venereal disease which the original La Ronde implied) .

The strongest, most relaxed performance, and probably the most sympathetic role, comes from Annie Firbank as Evelyn the attractive widowed landlady to Francophone African architect trainee Daniel (Elan James).

It did strike us that it felt like a work gagging for some songs to inject some emotional weight. We wondered indeed whether Stephen Sondheim or similar  had ever considered La Ronde for musical theatre. Googling afterwards we found that indeed there is the possibility that A Little Night Music was influenced by La Ronde.

It transpired there was a flop 1969 musical from Jerry Douglas and Hal Jordan which ran for a total of 11 performances but it now turns out a John La Chiusa musical based on La Ronde, Hello Again, is being transformed into a movie.

We certainly had the best will in the world to see a play dedicated to the "third age" succeed and the 10-strong cast gave it their best shot.

In the end, on its own merit regardless of age, this felt like a rather effortful and, despite the addition of aerial acrobatics from Anna Simpson and plenty of red noses on display, flat evening.

The sub-Cabaret framing device needed more development by director Anna Ledwich to bring out the tiger in this work and it's a rather regretful lower-range amber light from TLT

Monday, 27 February 2017

Review The Crucible

The Crucible
by Arthur Miller

No Turning Back

It's surely not too much to call Arthur Miller's The Crucible a collective scream of agony paralleling 17th century witchtrials in Salem with the stranglehold of Cold War 1950s' expediency, tightening its grip on individual lives and families.

 "Excellency, there are orphans wandering from house to house ...", says Reverend Hale (Coronation Street's Charlie Condou) as he entreats the presiding judge Danforth (Jonathan Tafler) to understand the repercussions of the court's politically- and property motivated condemnations imprisoning and executing parents.

When the play was written, many had been swept along by the ideals of communism and thrown their lot in with the cause of the Soviets, who eventually became allies with the US, during the Second World War.

The first performance of the play in 1953 pre-empted the execution in the electric chair of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for Soviet espionage.  They left two small boys with relatives scared off beyond distraction until they were finally adopted outside the family.

The Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch, at the end of the District Line, has now mounted a touring co-production of The Crucible with Selladoor Productions and Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg,

Directed by Douglas Rintoul, this is a production with an intriguing design concept by Anouk Schiltz giving a powerful resonance to a play the relevance of which since it was written  never ceases to diminish when lies have irreversible consequences.

The owners of farmsteads in Salem in the state of Massachussetts find themselves at the centre of accusations of witchcraft and a pact with the devil when a group of young girls led by a calculating Abigail (Lucy Keirl) seek to extricate themselves from fault. As does, for different reasons, the local minister Reverend Parris (Cornelius Clarke). 

The self-sufficient Proctors have had their ups and downs. Yet John (Eoin Slattery) and Elizabeth (Call The Midwife's Victoria Yeates) show a united front in dismissing the allegations.

Especially as they know well two of the girls involved, their past maidservant Abigail and their present wench, Mary (Augustina Seymour). Especially as John appears long ago to have formed his own cartel with fellow farmers Francis Nurse (Paul Beech) and litigious Giles Corey (David Delve).

Instead, the Proctors discover they have unwittingly overreached themselves. Mary has been promoted to court official and she begins a  devastating assertion and instrusion of the court and political administration's authority into the Proctor family's lives and those around them.   

Miller himself could be shrewd at self-promotion and not a little disingenous. However what makes The Crucible a great play is that, while thinly veiled, it is searingly honest about the fallibility, as well as the strength of individuals cornered by a politicized and partisan legal set up.

This push-me-pull-you is crystallized in this production's precise design which speaks to the audience without using words. The over-confidence of John and Elizabeth Procter  at the start of the play  quickly finds itself besieged from all sides and erupts in rows between husband and wife as the pressure increases.

The costuming ranging from muted browns, black and white of the 17th century and the pastels of the 1950s all serve to give a double time aspect to domestic circumstances cracking under the weight of communal accusations and legal harassment.

The tall trees and interior dark brown wood panelling of the first act give way to the skeletal theatrical flaps in the second. These, alongside lighting by Chris Davy and an ingenious TV-style rumbling soundscape by Adrienne Quartly, cleverly and viscerally conjure up an entertainment industry caught up in processes over which it has no jurisdiction or influence.

The expansive performance of Tafler as the ruthlessly wily Judge Danforth, with his over-zealous sidekick Judge Hathorne (Patrick McKenzie), crosses the years and gives added heft to the layered effect.

So there is plenty of meat in this stylish production of The Crucible. At the start of the tour, it is already a gripping production, albeit some of the pacing needs to bed in. However Rintoul's and the ensemble's attention to detail extends to some beautifully-observed smaller roles: Diana Yekinni's pleading yet indignant servant Tituba; David Kirkbridge's wary clerk of the court, Carl Patrick's bespectacled grey-suited predatory neighbouring farmer Thomas Putnam.

It's a production that can have no bigger compliment than the spontaneous collective gasp from the audience, who clearly had never seen the play before, as John Proctor visibly seals his fate. Who can argue with that? It's a green light from TLT and her motorised cohort in devilish reviewing. 

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Review Orbits

The clash between a famous actor and a notorious playwright in a new drama is relevant to today's politics, even if reviewer Francis Beckett disagrees with some of the play's conclusions.  

by Wally Sewell

From Two Different Planets

Wally Sewell’s Orbits is an interesting new play for the post truth era.

Across the top of the set is a sign which says, in thick capitals: THE TRUTH IS CONCRETE.  “But the truth isn’t concrete” says actor Charles Laughton in the play.  “It’s clay. It’s putty.” No, says playwright Bertolt Brecht, it’s concrete.

In an age when politicians’ half-truths have become outright, brazen lies, it’s a point worth making. A thing happened, or it didn’t happen. Barack Obama was either born in the United States of America, as he said; or he wasn’t, as Donald Trump claimed.  He was. That’s the truth.

The play imagines the private talks between the two men while Laughton was rehearsing Brecht’s Galileo in New York in 1947.

The louche, comfortable, gay, English actor begins by hero-worshipping the spare, ascetic German Marxist playwright, and ends up despising him; Brecht starts out despising the portly and rather right wing product of an English public school, and ends up pathetically needing his approval.

Mingled skilfully with this relationship is the relationship between Galileo and his inquisitor.

The play opens with Laughton and Brecht doing some improvisation, to help Laughton get the feel of Galileo and identify Galileo with his own life.  (Pedant’s note: Laughton’s school was the Jesuit-run Stonyhurst, where his schoolmasters would not have made him bend over to be beaten; he would have had to hold out his hand instead. I am rather sorry I know that.)

They are imagining the moment of Galileo’s apostasy, when he abjectly confesses for fear of being tortured. And the play ends with Brecht himself, denying his socialism before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

It’s a clever idea, well executed, and with a serious message for the Trump era, when truth is under siege.

Like any two hander, the play only works if both characters work. Wally Sewell understands the languid, worldly Laughton rather well, and actor Edmund Dehn puts in a commanding performance, helped with a voice that sounds as though he gargles with claret.

The weakness is Brecht, and I do not know if the fault is with Sewell, director Anthony Shrubsall, or actor Peter Saracen. But the sneering, didactic, neurotic, self-righteous hypocrite I saw portrayed last night is not the man who wrote Life of Galileo and Mother Courage and her Children, and who founded the Berlin Ensemble.

The charge of hypocrisy, which this play levels at Brecht, does not stand up, in my opinion.  Though Brecht was critical of Galileo’s climb-down, his decision to say what HUAC wanted to hear – that he was not a socialist – was consistent with his view of Galileo’s behaviour.

Galileo disowned what he knew to be true rather than be tortured.  Why not? He’d have said it under torture anyway – most of us, I suspect, would say anything at all under torture, just to get them to stop. I know I would.

And Brecht told HUAC he was not a socialist, when he was.  Why not? If he’d said anything else they might have stopped him getting his plane home the next day, where he could get on with his life and speak the truth.

It’s a weakness for me. However that does not impede an interesting, thoughtful well-acted evening at the theatre which deserves an amber/green light.

Review Chigger Foot Boys

Peter Barker is impressed by a new Great War play charting how the experience of loyal Jamaican volunteers eventually strengthened the bid to break free from the British Empire

Chigger Foot Boys
by Patricia Crumper

The Domino Effect

When Britain entered the First World War, the British Isles were not the only islands dragged into the conflict.

For Britain still had an Empire, the envy of rival nations including Germany, and war against Britain triggered its own domino effect, drawing in its subjects, including over 15,000 West Indian volunteers, to fight for the mother country.   

Chigger Foot Boys is a timely reminder of the human role played in an inhuman conflict by the people of the West Indies who served in the British Armed forces but faced discrimination from their white colleagues and colonial masters as well as death.

Patricia Crumper's new play starts in a rum bar in Jamaica in 1914 where banter, dominoes and emotions are all played with.

Structured as a series of flashforwards, always returning to the Kingston bar, it tracks and backtracks through the Empire’s conflict: how it affected lives in Jamaica and beyond; how hopes were met and dashed and futures shaped.

Chigger foot boy is  a West Indian derisory term for the itinerant workers of the countryside,  boys too poor to afford shoes whose feet are afflicted by a blood-sucking bug, the chigger.  Mortie (played with wide-eyed honesty by Ike Bennett), a future army recruit, is up from the country for the first time, entering a Kingston rum bar.

Behind the bar is Medora (convincingly feisty Suzette Llewellyn), a strong-minded businesswoman .  She is pursued by handsome and worldly-wise Linton (Stanley J. Browne in an engaging perfomance), who is a career soldier.

They are joined by two middle-class brothers in their late teens and, like Mortie, future volunteers for King and Country. Charming Roy (John Leader), the younger brother and Rhodes-Scholar Norman (Jonathan Chambers), who later took the lead, rising up from the ranks of war veterans, in the fight for Jamaican independence.  .

From here there are highs, and then the predictable deaths -- punctuated by the institutional and personal racism that the chigger foot boys encountered fighting for an Imperial government which considered them only fit for labour battalions and almost entirely excluded them from the officer class. 

Some survived and. inspired by the leaflets of nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, started to make sense of their own lives.  

The future is really in Norman’s hands and Chambers gives a tender and complex performance. Where Medora’s independent spirit and Garvey-inspired radicalism are emotional drivers of the play, it is Norman’s speech towards the end which locates its guts.

“People like us, people who have bought into the illusion that we are better than those around us because the Empire pats us on the head and allows us a little education, we’re just grist to the mill. Cannon fodder. And the closer we are drawn to the maw of the machine, the deeper we look into its heart…".

Chigger Foot Boys is a gripping, vivid production with a strong cast, directed by Irina Brown. Set designer Louis Price uses the theatre's bare brick back wall as backdrop, decorated only with an outline map of Britain and one of Jamaica, both painted with the Union Jack. The turning pages of a calendar signal scene changes. 

The little known tale of the Jamaican contribution to First World War victory, its tragedies and consequences, is a story that deserves exploration.  Turning Chigger Foot Boy from an insult into a term of honour, the Chigger Foot Boys is a dramatically satisfying and thought-provoking green light play,

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Review A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream
by William Shakespeare

The Muddy Space

We have to admit we couldn't resist the rather pretentious theatrical pun as our strapline referring to Peter Brook's seminal book on theatre practice The Empty Space.

Chiefly because the Pelican version TLT possessed back in the day as an eager-beaver sixth former had the Midsummer Night's Dream lovers all in pristine condition without - er - mud.

Yes, director Joe Hill-Gibbins's version (he of the sex doll Measure For Measure)  is set on a muddy post-war battlefield. Or maybe it's a mud wrestling ring. Or then again a churned up building site. This is A Midsummer Night's Dream without a sign of a green shoot but with a huge rehearsal room mirror cleaving to the back wall, reflecting the actors, the action, the audience - and the mud.

So if you're squeamish about the brown stuff splattering dazzling white trousers or pastel-coloured dresses, this may not be the show for you. Otherwise it's certainly a quirky builders' midsummer night's dream with set and some nifty lighting from Johannes Schütz.

Theseus and Oberon (Michael Gould doubling up)  have thinning hair and are both bare-chested showing pale white flesh, one with silk dressing gown, one without. There's even a glimpse of a builders' bum with a skinny Nick Bottom (Leo Bill) who seems to have drawn inspiration from another comedy menial,  Peggy-from-Hi-de-Hi-turned male. Go see and you'll understand what we mean!.

Conquered concubine Hippolyta (Anastasia Hille), a smart City slicker in black trouser suit with red handkerchief in breast pocket, is understandably a tad miffed when handed a pair of stilletos to wear in the mud.  Although she does understand she has to endure this peculiar sinking humiliation to keep in with her prospective husband.

Theseus, Duke of Athens, has won Hippolyta in battle and brought her back home to marry her. The city's artisans club together to put on a show as part of the marriage celebrations. But before these go ahead, the Duke has to enforce a father's absolute authority over his daughter.

He orders feisty Hermia (Jemima Rooper) to marry the man of her father Egeus's (Lloyd Hutchinson) choosing, Demetrius (Oliver Alvin-Wilson), rather than her own true love Lysander. Even if Demetrius has dallied with Hermia's hoodie childhood friend Helena (Anna Madeley) who continues to live in hope of winning his love.

But perhaps it's all a reflection of what's also gone haywire in Faery Land, for the world of mortals reflects the supernatural realm which, invisible, inhabits the self-same clods of earth.

This realm's rulers, Oberon and Titania (Anastasia Hille again, blonde locks shaken down and in a flimsier black skirt),  are at odds and the King determines to punish his spouse. For this he uses the offices of  Puck (Lloyd Hutchinson doubling up this time), more chunky builder's labourer in a nylon wig  than spritely elf.  Add to this a splattering of mud, of course ... and plenty of miscommunication and mixed love potions and let the fun commence!

We know things are going wrong as the mirror gets grimy from handprints, after palms have been pressed in frustration on the glass. And the supernatural and human world become more and more intertwined until it may become impossible to put the wall - or mirror - between them. And of course one fears for those white trousers hitting the floor ...  Still, Peter Quince (Matthew Steer), chief artisan and overly cautious impressario, wisely has wellies  and a backpack - maybe with a change of clothing?.

In the midst of all that mud and two hours without an interval, the verse speaking is pretty good - the story and the meaning of the lines come over well. It becomes a moot point whether we are seeing the humans' or the fairies' dream. But we can't help thinking the sheer magic of the piece is beaten down and pummelled out of existence into the mud.

Our usual test is if a newcomer to the play came to the production, would s/he understand and feel thoroughly stimulated. This feels like a production for those who already know the text - having said this, that group may include plenty of schoolkids including eager beaver sixth formers who might  warm to this mash-mud.. 

But, perhaps strangely, once the production had settled on the mud as its central statement, it somehow didn't seem muddy enough - or at least needing a shower of  mud, mud, glorious mud denouement.

Still, the eternally white sheet used for the rough theatrical performance of Pyramus and Thisbe will  gladden the hearts of those with a phobia of mud stains.

This A Midsummer Night's Dream doesn't have the same verve and wit as Measure For  Measure. However it does possess a certain sweet and sour energy deserving of an upper range amber light as mortals and fairies slug it out and then find their uncaring breach of the boundaries has left their two worlds indelibly confused.

Review The Cherry Orchard

A modern-dress version of Russian classic The Cherry Orchard sparks thoughts on revolution for Peter Barker as part of a provocative season at the Arcola Theatre.

The Cherry Orchard
by Anton Chekhov

This Land Is Your Land

Anton Chekhov’s final play The Cherry Orchard can be seen as an elegy for a lost world and for the British there may once have been a temptation to co-opt it into a post-imperial mindset. Or at least to look on the First World War as a watershed between the unpleasant now and the elegant past.

This 1977 adaptation of the play by playwright Trevor Griffiths, from a translation by Helen Rappaport, resolutely sets itself against a post-imperial reading; but it’s certainly post-something.

First produced at the Nottingham Playhouse, this is now the first time Griffiths’ adaptation has reached a London stage. However, this version did have an outing on television in 1981 in a technically groundbreaking BBC production.

Griffiths maintained he wanted his English version to revolutionize a play "seriously betrayed, almost consciously betrayed, over some 50 years  ...  The English still cling wilfully to the idea that the play is an elegy for the decline of civilization."

So now the Arcola Theatre's artistic director, Mehmet Ergen, who also directs, has positioned Chekhov's final play as the last in a season of plays looking at revolution -- Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths and the New Nigerians by Oladipo Agboluaje making up a trio.

Chekhov in 1904 is no revolutionary although, like many others at the time, he sensed change was coming in his Russia and an overthrow of the old order. But there is no act of violence dispossessing  the Ranevsky household of its renowned cherry orchard and other property. An off-stage property deal shunts them into the sidings.

A successful practitioner of a later revolution Mao Zedong, albeit responsible for the deaths of tens of millions, famously said: “革命不是一个请客吃饭  The revolution is not a dinner party.” But in Chekhov’s hands the social revolution does feel like a dinner party with a covert seismic shift, emphasized in this modern dress production.

The cherry orchard is part of Madame Ranevsky's debt-ridden estate. on the verge of being auctioned off when, further stripped of her wealth by a treacherous lover, she's rescued from Paris.

We follow her emotional and economic journey and  Sian Thomas's Madame Ranevsky, as she slides from the imperious to the disorientated, still manages to keep our sympathy for this deeply flawed character.

Indeed, her powerful  verbal disembowelment of the eternal student Trofimov (an eloquent and convincing Abhin Galeya) makes her grow in stature in our eyes, without ever becoming a frightening monster.  

The household of decay also includes Jack Klaff’s charmingly eccentric but feckless Gayev, her brother, who is even less capable of leading a responsible life than Madame Ranevsky.

Set against the old order is the upwardly mobile entrepreneur Lophakin, Jude Akuwudike, the son of a freed serf who inevitably brings down his old patron as he climbs up.

He dances in joy tinged with bewilderment as fortunes change in his favour. His vision of the cherry orchard hanging with bodies of the dead from the past has a gruesome reality in hindsight, although in 1904 it is not yet revolution, just a changing of the guard. 

Along with the eternal student, there is the eternal serf Firs, who views his class's emancipation as a disaster, captured in Robin Hooper’s doddering performance with his eye set on a past which is more certain because it is history.

Jade Williams gives a restrained but suitably self-denying performance as Varya, Ranevsky's adopted daughter. Equally, Simon Scardifield does a comic turn with glorious timing as the clumsy clerk Yepikhodov. But all are scooped up in unwelcome change.

Yet others look like emerging intact. Jim Bywaters' wonderfully gritty and humorous landowning neighbour Pischick still looks like a winner. And we can guess that Lily Wood’s sexy and thoroughly convincing ingénue Dunyasha will also be on the rise, perhaps alongside Ryan Wichert’s confident manservant Yasha.

Iona McLeish’s spare white set dominated by an unfeasibly tall bookcase is highly adaptable, aided by David Howe's lighting and sound by Neil McKeown, which draw us into the world of ghosts and dreams that is the cherry orchard.

But it is to the future, pregnant with danger and uncertainty, that Ergen would like to direct us. If at one point, Pischick does say, “Something will happen, you see; if not today, then tomorrow.”, it feels like an inclusive moment for all of us.

Change is afoot. Chekhov never saw later revolutions, when a class of people overthrew another by an act of violence. We are now post-imperial, post-Cold War, post-Brexit, post-Trump election and  this thought-provoking  amber/green light production  may well point us towards a post-dinner party world.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Review The Wild Party

The Wild Party
Music and Lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa
Book by Michael John LaChiusa and George C Wolfe

The Ballad of Queenie

Have you had the invite, strictly word-of-mouth of course, to the party Queenie and her boyfriend Burrs' apartment? The Wild Party, the musical was first performed on Broadway in 2000 and now arrives in London to flaunt its wares.

Queenie (Frances Ruffelle) and Burrs (John Owen-Jones) are vaudeville entertainers: she is a chorus girl, he is a clown with a neat line in Al Jolson-like crooning in another act. They have a stormy relationship, but once in a while draw together to have a party for their ne'er-do-well friends and acquaintances.

It may be the time of Prohibition, but the gin flows liberally in the bathtub and there's a host of guests sprawled around to enjoy the hospitality - and the cocaine. Guests include faded diva Delores (Donna McKechnie) and Queenie's rival Kate (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt) with whom she has a love-hate relationship. Dissolute playboy Jackie (Dex  Lee), who swings both ways and sibling dance act Phil and Oscar D'Amano, sexually ambiguous in more ways than one (Gloria Obianyo and Genesis Lynea).
Directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie, the show is divided into five parts - the original Broadway production had vaudevillian placards to emphasize this was a kind of Chorine's Progress. The set, designed by Soutra Gilmour, is a shabby-chic dark red and black speakeasy with an arc of bulbs, as on a dressing room mrror, stretching from the orchestra on the second storey to the floor below.

The musical is based on a racy 1926 poem by Joseph Moncure March,  written in the style of a folk ballad with jazz-like inflections and its own choppy publication history - it only found a publisher two years later and was banned in Boston.

It then fell into obscurity and eventually the public domain. It re-emerged in the 1990s when cartoonist Art Spiegelman created new illustrations and a fresh edition was published.

Frances Ruffelle is a feisty, voracious but vulnerable Queenie in her relationship with the almost Bill Sikes-like John Owen-Jones's Burrs. Yet we did feel that once all the characters are established for the audience there is nowhere for them to go. The poem has a slight predictable plot, playing on sometimes crude stereotypes and low life but makes up in style and possible metaphor what it lacks in  a compelling Beggars' Opera story. However the musical does nothing to remedy the plot deficiencies.

The wildness of the party has a way of outstaying its welcome without advancing the plot. Perhaps it was a mistake to strip the show of the vaudeville/silent film placards. Whatever,  the jazz age-inflected songs tend to merge into one with honourable exceptions such as Welcome To My Party and the embodiment of Queenie and Kate's spikey relationship Best Friend. 

Still, the choreography is thrilling and there are some fine individual performances (the interpretation of the D'Amano Brothers is inspired). It's an amber light for a perfectly solid, if not flawless, beginning at the re-branded The Other Palace.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Review Low Level Panic

Low Level Panic
by Claire McIntyre

The Order Of The Bath

Ah, 1988 ...  when Kraft was cheese and Heinz was beanz and never the twain would meet. A merger was arranged between breakaway Social Democrat and the Liberal Party. Margaret Thatcher was on the throne in office. Topless Page Three girls still boosted sales of The Sun newspapers. Comic Relief launched Red Nose Day on TV. The church was discussing the possibility of female vicars. Kids and adults were gripped by the video game craze.

And Clare McIntyre's curious collage of a play Low Level Panic was first performed at The Royal Court.

The play ostensibly covers  a night and a day in the life of three young women. A comedy drama,  part soap gone radical, probably influenced by Nancy Friday's influential tome My Secret Garden on women's sexual fantasies, and a nexus for a cocktail of 1980s' pressures, personal, political and commercial contradictions. 

In a well-paced and nuanced revival, the entire play is set in the bathroom of an all-female house-share. Rosanna Vize's clever four-cornered design, complete with avocado bath, toilet, free-standing door and vertical neon lit rails rising like outsize towel racks to the ceiling, gives director Chelsea Walker and movement director Ita O'Brien enormous flexibility.

The play's opening coup de théâtre still makes a - ahem - splash. Plumpish and shaggy-permed Jo (Katherine Pearce) and her more intense slim blonde housemate Mary (Sophie Melville) are relaxing in the bathroom. Mary, cigarette in hand, is perched on the toilet cistern at an open window. And Jo is starkers, naturally, as she's soaking in the bath using all the hot water.

Jo is also baring all as regards her fantasies laced with Hollywood-, pop video- and advertising-style luxury where the body, upmarket cars and sexual partners she yearns for are perfect specimens of the human race. All of which falls away when she mounts the scales.

While demure and groomed Celia (Samantha Pearl)  could either be a beautician or have just stepped out of a beauty parlour complete with an array of beauty products. The main strand of the plot follows Mary, the only one whose career we glimpse freeing herself from the shackles of a past sexual assault.

In spite of this, there are a fair amount of laughs - some things never change for women and in house-share bathrooms ;). There's some terrific dialogue between the women and the embarassment of parties rings true. But the monologues, despite the best efforts of sound designer Richard Hamarton and lighting designer Elliot Griggs to create a separate psychic space, do feel clunky.

It's a slick production and it struck us maybe back in 1988, it was a little more raw and makeshift. Still, the issues raised of body image and the use and abuse of women sexually in the global marketplace are still with us.

So there's plenty to reflect on and some very ingenious staging by Walker. Certainly at 80 minutes, it's a play well worth seeing without outstaying its welcome and its an upper range amber light from TLT and her own little luxury limousine. 

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Review New Nigerians

New Nigerians
by Oladipe Agboluaje

Trading Places

An ebullient if uneven satire has landed in Hackney in the shape of New Nigerians, a dissection of political jockeying for power and deal making in Africa's most populous and oil-rich country. 

We enter this world through presidential hopeful Greatness Ogholi (Patrice Naiambana) practising his speech as the sole socialist candidate and reaching beyond the stage, speaking directly to the audience to bolster his electoral support and dream of a united Nigeria standing behind him.

The practicalities are handled by a savvy pot-smoking female colleague Chinasa (Gbemisola Ikumelo) with her own virtual Twitter and familial power base, holding her own in her inimitable way despite the male-dominated set up.

Meanwhile Ogholi finds himself thrashing out a pact with rival party businessman politician Danladi Musa, once a mortal enemy, and union leader Comrade Edobor (both played by Tunde Euba) to gain power. But he always has nationalisation, free healthcare and free education cemented in as cornerstones of his political agenda.

Briskly directed by Rosamunde Hutt, this is a garrulous, atmospheric play and production, almost bursting at the seams, resource-rich with issues, events, ideas and setbacks besetting an emerging economy.

Ironically Nigeria's name was coined by a female journalist, a distant cousin of playwright Bernard Shaw. For behind the gaudy facade and broad humour, Oladipe Agboluaje has written a quasi-Shavian play of ideas, ideals versus expediency.

Ogholi's ideals become a drill in political rhetoric,  "It is time we see our elite for what they are: a parody of our Western counterparts, rentiers and middlemen who sell off all our resources ..." But at the same time, the parody works as a two-way mirror, with echos within the play of a leadership deal allegedly struck over restaurant napkins for 'an electable candidate' in the much smaller country which was once Nigeria's colonial master.

Using our old ally Google, we also find the play is bang up-to-the-date about Nigeria: minimum wage, the foreign currency squeeze after the fall in petroleum prices. As well as on-going issues and trends such as the health travails of the President, Boko Haram, the threat of breakaway states, the division between Islam, Christianity and the atheism of the old radical left, the position of girls and women, the rise of hashtag online politics overtaking even the offline intersection of football and politics.

We do have our own particular issue over Chinasa's supposed enjoyment of a sexual practice converted into a gag but this may be part of a drug haze male delusion. Structurally also the play sometimes seems to lose its way in its effort to cover a lot of ground and run Ogholi's marital problems as a parallel plot, but it is redeemed by the brio of the characters and the vitality of the subject matter.

If the meaning of the term 'new world order' has always been nebulous, surely many imagined after the collapse of the Soviet bloc that the nation state and supra-national organisations would fill the vacuum.

Instead, many would say, the current state of flux is more in tune with Margaret Thatcher's comment, in hindsight double-edged, in the 1980s equivalent of a twitter feed, magazine Woman's Own: 'There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first'.

New Nigerians stays energetically in the African context as a reflection on the state of the world. It's certainly raw and not without its flaws but it's an amber/green light for its vigorous embrace of matters which affect us all.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Review A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange
by Anthony Burgess

The Young Ones

Surely we are now living firmly in a post-Clockwork Orange age? We're certainly now living in the post-Brexit (a made-up word which could have come from the pen of A Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess - or one of Brugess's biggest influences, James Joyce). Beethoven and Schiller's Ode To Joy so prominent in Burgess's 1962 novel and the later film adaptation has taken on another resonance.

Heavens, Salford is even the home of the BBC.

The dystopian tale of 15-year old Alex and his fall from gang leader to crippled patient and political pawn is best known through the infamous Stanley Kubrick movie.  Theatre company Action To The Word currently returns to London with its staging of A Clockwork Orange, using Burgess's own 1987 playscript. First seen eight years' ago on the London Fringe at the Camden Galleries, it became a hit at the Edinburgh Festival before a tour abroad.

We have to say we feel that A Clockwork Orange, the satiric novel and movie, has aged better than Action To The Word's production. This stage version works best when the narrative is clear, with unambiguous and thought-provoking reversals such as when former gang members become the forces of vengeful law and order.  

Nevertheless, this all-male production wears rather wearyingly the influences of its own time, especially an over stylized choreography which makes it somewhat a ballet mécanique going against the grain of Burgess's novel and play.

It also feels like a piece which relies rather heavily on A Clockwork Orange's reputation preceding it. The doubling and tripling up of roles, all clad in geometric black and white with dashes of orange, is definitely confusing for a newcomer to the story.The lack of women and caricatural drag makes it more akin to a Jean Genet piece than  the Burgess work which despite the fantastical element was still rooted in many ways in National Servicethe Angry Young Men set of writers and the Cold War.

For there are obvious echoes of Chinese and Soviet psychiatric brainwashing and social experimentation in the medical "cure" for criminal behaviour, as well as some of the weird psychiatric thinking which did exist in Britain and the USA.  But there's also a hook in post-war literature commonly thought of as grittily realistic such as the borstal-set The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner.

So much of Burgess's original grittiness, wit and the brutality is lost as the production, directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones, becomes a homoerotic ballet of muscular torsos.

Still, anti-hero Alex (Jonno Davies) is more convincing as he weakens in the second half of the one-act 90 minute piece. Simon Cotton's writer F Alexander (whose novel is of course called A Clockwork Orange) and Dr Brodsky also stood out for us.

However overall this production, in the age of internet cut-and-paste and institutionalised knee jerk reactions, when we now can look back at Top Of The Pops and peroxide-blond Jimmy Savile repeats with a knowledge of brutal abuse, feels a bit of a mechanical clockwork orange in itself. An amber light for a production which has the outer skin of a juicy fruit but  has been "cured" on the inside, preserved but dried out.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Review Dubailand

by Carmen Nasr

The Arabian Sites

When Otto Von Bismarck, the Chancellor of the German Empire, led the way in introducing the world's first social insurance for German citizens in the 1880s, it was for practical rather than idealistic reasons.

The measures could ensure a steady supply of healthy citizens for German industry, the armed forces and to compete for a workforce, reducing the debilitating mass emigration of workers to the USA where such measures did not exist.

Carmen Nasr's precise and compelling play Dubailand concentrates on a 21st century tale of economic migration and lack of employment rights: The relationship between exploited Indian migrant workers and the boom Emirate city of Dubai in the present-day global economy.

Two tales intertwine and finally merge: an Indian worker brought over to build the gleaming glass and concrete tower blocks, living in what amounts to slave conditions, unable to send money back to his family; a British PR middle manager living in luxury whose position is jeopardized by the arrival of a UK female friend, an aspiring investigative journalist angling for her big break.

With 18 short, sharp scenes, this carefully written piece, directed by Georgie Staight, unravels the lives of the Indian builder Amar (Adi Chugh) and the British media worker Jamie (Nicholas Banks) against the unreal reality of Dubai. The play has a deceptively simple feel but slyly inserts the more complex duplicitious exchange between India and Dubai states through the elegant ruthlessness of politically-savvy PR executive Deena (Reena Lalbihari),  

The minimalist design by Bex Kemp using neon vertical tubes and perspex boxes is clever. Nevertheless the production falls down in failing to follow one of the stage directions of the published text. By leaving out the portrait hanging on the wall of Dubai's ruler Sheik Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, there is  no sense of the hierarchy within Dubai and how the state distributes contracts and acts as ultimate authority.

We had to google vigorously to discover the control exercised by companies set up by the Dubai ruling family, the Department of Labour permits which construction firms have to obtain for their foreign workers and what seem to be unenforced labour regulations.

Even so, the play itself does makes oblique references to Dubai as a British protectorate, its "marzipan" managerial set-up, the world of loans and credit where ex-pats falling on hard times are as vulnerable as other migrant workers, and hidden or ignored state regulation within a smooth dramatic structure.

It certainly gave us enough information to dig up the facts from the internet and understand how the fates of the various nationals in Dubailand also reflects the role the nations play in the Dubai mosaic.

British-Lebanese playwright Nasr has done a shrewd job in distilling dramatically troubling and sometimes fatal contradictions which affect us all in the brave new world of public-private partnership and state-allowed and promoted credit and loans. In an age of Brexit uncertainty when migrant workers in the UK and Brits in continental Europe also find themselves in a precarious situation, it's an amber/green light for a slick but heartfelt drama.

Review Anyone Can Whistle

Anyone Can Whistle
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Arthur Laurents

You Just Put Your Lips Together And Blow

Taken at its simple level, the plot of 1964 musical Anyone Can Whistle sounds like it could be a lost Preston Sturges satire. An American town has fallen on hard times.

There's a drought, the factory has closed, the mayoress's unpopularity is at an all-time high and the most flourishing business in town is the local lunatic asylum.

In the midst of the economic slump and adverse weather conditions, the mayoress and her cohorts concoct an elaborate scam to turn their town into the American equivalent of Lourdes.

A magical stream of water suddenly spouting from a rock with the aim of attracting tourist pilgrims and revitalising the factory as a "miracle water" bottling factory.

In practice, it became one of Stephen Sondheim's and Arthur Laurents's worst received musicals running for just nine days and seeing it, it's not hard to tell why.

Instead of sticking to the basic story, it feels like a piece where intertextuality has gone - well - mad. Or maybe a musical which, while musically experimental, feels as if it is equally a testing board for the stories of several potential musicals drawing on the successful plays and musicals of previous years.

All it needs are a couple of characters called Steve Sondheim and Artie Laurents squabbling over which story to use and maybe it would turn into a piece called something like - oh we dunno - Work in Progress ...

The Union Theatre production directed by Phil Willmott is efficient without doing anything to  bring clarity to a piece which may be about political and show business confusion but needs something more to sort it out.

Acoustically speaking, Oliver Stanley as the hapless "practising idealist" Hapgood, a new quixotic patient who masquerades as a doctor, seems to find the correct volume in the Union space.

Rachel DeLooze's Nurse Faye Apple, who falls in love with the new medic and determines to expose the fraud, sings Anyone Can Whistle touchingly and brings a sense of energy and fun in her own French disguise in "Come Play Wiz Me". But sometimes words are lost.

We did wonder also whether a race element to the musical was played down. Certainly a bit of research revealed that one of the patients/citizens Martin was originally meant to be played by a black actor (even if we did enjoy Mitchell Lathbury's performance).

But some of Nurse Apple's lyrics as well could take on a different resonance with a black actress in the role as would the kiss with Hapgood. Having said that, Barbara Streisand was originally mooted for the role in the first 1964 production which was eventually taken by Lee Remick.
As regards the intertextuality, on the plus side Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper (Felicity Duncan) parades like Hello Dolly's Dolly Levi gone rogue. But then, uh-oh, there's a look back to Gypsy, the embryo of a St Bernadette story, a touch of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, more than a tad of the whimsy and politics of Finian's Rainbow,  a sudden short lived comparison to the opening of the Suez Canal (?!!!).

Are there also gestures towards Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar? And then  Maurice Maeterlinck's The Bluebird seems to pop up and also Noel Coward's medley of one-act plays Tonight At 8.30.

They line up like coralled citizens and psychiatric patients in Anyone Can Whistle. Then there are the plethora of themes:  a political subtext touching on the US electoral system, the invidious position of those caught up in the change of policy towards the Soviet Union triggered by the Cold War and even a nuts and bolts injunction to "tear up the records" adding to the mix. 

Mind you, Dr Detmold (Richard Foster King) of the Cookie Jar, the mental home for the socially pressured, does say at one point he's writing a story, so maybe the Sondheim/Laurents characters are there piled into one character.

This doesn't make the book any less muddled. As one song goes: "Who is who?/Which is who?/Who is what? Which is who?"

Having said that, the choreography by Holly Hughes, considering the small space, is pretty spectacular combining in minature the balletic vibe of Carousel with the verve of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers - we really can't help joining in the references to other works! And the three-strong band of electric guitar, drums led by Richard Baker on piano feels spot on.

This could well have been the pathway to more successful musicals by Sondheim in other collaborations and also ahead of its time in that politically driven psychological strategies of confusion are now arguably exposed for all to see.  But it is difficult to argue that folks will want to flock to see a plain weird piece of musical theatre.

It has its moments with the songs There Won't Be Trumpets and  Anyone Can Whistle, so it's an amber light for a piece which has proved a hard nut to crack even for Sondheim and Laurents - who was the first production's director - themselves.  Oh and in case you don't recognize the quote in our strapline, we just can't resist giving a link to a strangely apt Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart scene from To Have and To Have Not.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Review Killing Time

Killing Time
by Zöe Mills

Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Hester is  a feisty elderly woman used to getting her own way. A once celebrated concert cellist, her decline has now been sealed by a diagnosis of cancer.

Living alone, she exists mainly on a diet of Rioja wine and pills but remains financially independent and surprisingly hip with a wireless connection allowing former PA George (Robin Herford) to contact her via Skype.

So life, even when facing death, continues. There's episodes of Corrie to watch. Surrounded by packing boxes, she plays the cello on a plastic bath stool and gulps her pills.

That's until Sarah, apparently a trainee social worker, shows up and disrupts Hester's erratic routine of cello playing, wine drinking, prescription pill popping, receiving Skype messages and TV watching.

This is essentially a two-hander starring mother and daughter Brigit Forsyth and Zöe Mills, the latter also the writer of the play. Or maybe two plays - for this feels like two character pieces stitched together: A mystery surrounding Sarah with a 21st century social media fetish and Hester's pugnacious hermit-like existence trapped between her previous international, and sometimes salacious, lifestyle and her current vulnerability.

There's certainly a plot, but despite an obviously deliberate decision to leave it inferred, it's somewhat muffled by the character studies of Hester and Sarah. We thought we could also detect a subtext dealing with changes in television and the National Health Service. Yet all these elements do feel yoked together which somewhat deadens the pace of the script.

The plausibility of a dying woman left almost entirely alone except for a phone call from social services also begs questions. However this is perhaps not beyond the realms of possibility as a recent celebrity death in a luxury apartment block illustrates.

The design of Paul Colwell cleverly inserts packing box shapes in the wall which could equally be dated 1960s' décor and also manages to include a revolve to reflect Hester's mental state. Kostis Mousikos and Alan Walsh's projections encompass George's Skyping, evoke the mood of Sarah's outside life and time travels through Hester's past, alongside mystic offstage cello notes (sound design by Harry Johnson) .

At the same time, it struck us, the projections give a clue that this is again a theatre piece which might not show the seams so much on screen.  On stage this feels like a workmanlike writing debut for Mills. So, it's an amber light for a piece with solid performances directed by Antony Eden with an eye to the play's potential.

Review Thriller Live

The amazing musical talent that is Michael Jackson lives on for Carolin Kopplin as she parties, hand in glove, at the record-breaking tribute show Thriller Live. 

Thriller Live
Original Concept and Book by Adrian Grant
Music and Lyrics by Various Artists

Love Never Felt So Good

Last weekend Thriller Live, the crowd-pleasing celebration of Michael Jackson's life and work of singer, beat a long-held record established by Jesus Christ Superstar to become one of the longest running musicals in the history of London's West End.

The show, which has also toured the world, has now clocked up 3,358 performances at the Lyric Theatre in London's Shaftesbury Avenue, Created by Adrian Grant, it opened eight years ago in the West End, celebrating the career of pop music superstar Michael Jackson, who unexpectedly died in dubious circumstances less than six months later.

What makes this show such a huge success? Thriller Live is certainly not a musical in the traditional sense. There is no story, only the slightest of  narratives pointing out the highlights in Jackson's career. His difficult childhood and his troubled life are not mentioned because this is not what this show is about.

It is pure celebration - Michael Jackson's talent and his back catalogue of memorable music are its subject  - a "song, dance and video spectacular" with the feel of a rock concert.

Beginning with his years as a child performer in family act The Jackson 5, this energetic and slick show follows Jackson's career, focussing on the numerous hits, demonstrating the range and versatility of an outstanding entertainer.

Influenced by James Brown and Jackie Wilson and after a spell with Steeltown Records in the Jackson family home town of Gary, Indiana, the group moved labels to the legendary Motown record company where Michael quickly emerged as the lead singer.

In the 1970s, Jackson began experimenting with disco, pop, rock, funk, and R&B at the start of a varied solo career. Developing his own distinctive style and solo career, including through pioneering pop videos, he is a massive influence on many contemporary musicians.

Among the lead vocalists paying homage to the King of Pop in Thriller Live, Haydon Eshun, puts his own personal stamp on the Jackson oeuvre. A former member of boyband Ultimate KAOS, Eshun has now notched up more than 2,500 performances in Thriller Live after eight years with the show.

Cleo Higgins, best known as the lead singer in  1990 R’n’B combo Cleopatra, also does full justice to such iconic hits as "Man in the Mirror", "Blame It On the Boogie" and "Thriller".

Meanwhile a recent newcomer to the show, Reece Bahia, sings a touching rendition of “She’s Out of My Life” and whips up the excitement with "Beat It".  He first saw the show as a child and his appearance is testament to the enduring appeal of Michael Jackson's legacy on both sides of the footlights.

Designed by Jonathan Park, the set is composed of various stages, lit up by LED panels in an explosion of colours and images.

The relentlessly upbeat concert format, slickly directed and choreographed by Gary Lloyd, keeps up the momentum.  A team of dancers in colourful costumes, courtesy of Shooting Flowers, execute skilful, athletic  routines including Jackson's iconic moonwalk and some stunning acrobatics.

John Maher's outstanding live band, hidden behind the central panels, effortlessly masters the different genres needed for the show including some rousing bass player solos delighting the audience.
Thriller Live has the vibe of a rock concert and would certainly have the audience dancing in the aisles if there were enough space in the compact Lyric Theatre.

It could benefit from a cut or two as the running time of 2 hours 30 minutes feels quite long. Nevertheless it's an amber/green light for a dazzling spectacle and tribute to a superb showman with continual appeal for home-grown and tourist audiences alike.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Review The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin (Preview)

The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin
Book, Music & Lyrics by Kirsten Childs

Enclosed By White Picket Fences

There's a ghost haunting The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin. Not as we thought at first, the double-edged spirit of all-black reviews such as Bubbling Brown Sugar or Ain't Misbehavin' that we saw more years ago than we care to remember.

Even the name of our plucky little (and then older) heroine had a connection to the ghost. The Bubbly Black Girl (we won't be repeating the full title over and over again) is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age musical centred on the ever-optimistic Viveca Stanton as she attempts to follow her dreams.

Viveca is no Little Orphan Annie, even if they may share a particular brand of wearying optimism.  This little black girl with braids and white bows, a sunny disposition and, unwittingly, white ambitions, lives a middle class white picket fence life in 1960s' Los Angeles with her Mommy (Sharon Wattis) and Daddy (Trevor A Toussaint).

Indeed bubbly Viveca has "a twinkle in her eye/a bounce in her step/and a have a nice day smile.../both parents in her home/And not a welfare cheque in sight".

Like many a little girl, she starts aspiring to be a ballet dancer - not an easy task for anyone, never mind a little black girl, even now.  On top of trying to live her life and compete in California, there is the legacy of the 1963 Alabama church bombings. Not only with the deaths of four little black girls but also the lack of convictions for many years.

This joyous cartoon-like musical with a narrative that zips along is jam-packed with songs. pop, funk, R&B, jazz often filtered through a universe of musicals and sketch scenes, powered out by the four-strong band led by musical director Jordan Li-Smith. With all the performers having great voices, the 10-strong cast, directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo, all have their moments to shine.

An early highlight has a round with Viveca and her blonde talking doll (Jessica Pardoe). But even the beloved doll turns out to have her own pertinent secret.  Karis Jack and Sophia MacKay as the young and older Viveca are both vocal power houses,  matching the energy and infectious rhythms of the show

The second act had better volume levels at the preview TLT attended and Mykal Rand's choreography comes into its own. Shelley Williams gives a show stopping satirical performance as the pea-popping granny of a New York boyfriend (Ashley Joseph) whose infidelity seems inbued by genetic nurture more than nature

There's a Chorus Line vibe in "I am a dancer" when the young Viveca and her classmates are at the barre. One girl dreams of being away with her "husband-to-be Paul McCartney" while the lone boy (Jay Marsh) is picked for the lead but also longs to leave. Meanwhile dedicated Viveca has to face the reality of casting for a black girl at an early age.

This is bookended by a second act audition scene which mixes Sweet Charity with South Park as director Bob (Matt Dempsey) sends out mixed messages. Being a woman in the business is hard enough, never mind being a black woman.

It's the ghost of Bob Fosse, from Damn Yankees to Chicago, which looms over the show - who did indeed hire the musical's creator Kirsten Childs for his shows. And one of whose early leading roles was in Pal Joey opposite a Scandinavian actress - Viveca Lindfors.

The funky design by Rosa Maggiora gives an abstract quality to The Bubbly Black Girl with huge neon-lit block letters spelling L and A in the first act fronted by other platform levels. Tim Reid's video designs on three screens evoke Los Angeles and then New York "where all the f***ed up people go" in the second act.  

There's also no doubt this is a strange and complex one in a genre - the musical - which wouldn't exist as it does without black music and performers.  Originally produced in 2000, it varies wildly in tone between a Candide-like innocence, satire and serious social comment.

So it's certainly a psychological slalom. But that's because, it feels to us, it is trying to encompass a world where split personalities are the norm and fact can easily outpace fiction at any time.

Part of this is, we deduce, because Childs chooses to portray life through a sometimes Bell Curve of confused messages from musical theatre and the wider world  It's a clever idea but it also proves to be a confusing framework, which perhaps would work better on screen.

In its sketch-like structure, this show has plenty of highlights, often with stronger music than lyrics. Childs has obviously tried to pack in a number of parallel, at times deliberately grating, worlds, entertainment fashions and trends with flashes of anger, insight and plenty of sincerity. It's an amber light for what feels like a pioneering but difficult and flawed musical which TLT is glad to have seen.    

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Review Run The Beast Down

The latest member of the TLT community is Peter Barker, who worked on local newspapers before stints at ITN, UK and China news agency branches and on free commuter paper Metro. He now reviews a compelling new play as a City slicker fallen on tough times goes native in London's feral landscape.  

Run The Beast Down
by Titas Halder

Brush With The Wild Side

As many a London resident will tell you, foxes are a menace; unwelcome in the city, tearing into rubbish bags, looking for hidden trifles and trotting the sidewalk with a cheek that makes you want to call the hunt -  if only Tony Blair hadn't banned it, damn him!

But it’s the fox within the man that Titas Halder’s new play ‘Run the Beast Down’ pursues at the Finborough Theatre.

Arrive early in the auditorium and the inventive soundscape from on-stage DJ Chris Bartholomew working decks and computers with virtuosity will greet you.

After that, the main man, Charlie, appears in what is otherwise essentially a one-man play  -- played with vulpine good looks and energy by the charismatic Ben Aldridge.

He is truly a creature of these times, probably a sure bet for a successful life with a loving partner, a high-flying job (in the City) and the sought-after London apartment. 

OK, he may also be a TK Maxx kind of guy; clad in cheap black jeans, cheaper black T-shirt and bold-coloured sneakers. But can you tell from the outside what the man is -- what motivates him, what has shaped him, what he is?

And will he beat the pack chasing him, or get cornered?

Our rummaging through Charlie’s rubbish begins with the unexpected woes which descend on him all at once -- he loses his job and has been - sort of -  burgled. At least his girlfriend has left him, taking almost everything, apart from the curtains.

Insomniac Charlie is the filter through which we experience his increasingly bizarre environment and the people around him. Writer Halder demonstrates considerable flair, building the momentum of a fantastical mental and physical journey with a poetic wit. In Aldridge’s Charlie he certainly finds an actor who can rise to the task -- his transformations of mood and movement are seamlessly defined.

The mystery at the heart of the play, the threats, whether real or imagined, and Charlie's metamorphosis are intriguing. Yet, it must be said at the same time, he is just another one of those middle class 20-something London guys you see on the tube whom you'd assume has a good job and comes from a relatively privileged background. So he remains neither quite heroic enough to be admired nor twisted enough to be... well, admired.

But we can pity him and, when he dissolves, there is literally and metaphorically something of everybody about him.

As Charlie unravels, we see him maniacally writing a label for each new scene on the floor of the stage until, finally, there is little space left untouched. The bare plinth set, designed by Anthony Lamble, with a rear wall of thick upright metal tubes and LED lighting,  is ultimately not even covered with words, just a crowded jumble of letters.

Like the set, the lighting from Rob Mill is versatile, unintrusive, without gimmickry. Equally the electronic score orchestrated by Bartholomew and sound by Ben and Max Kingham  complements the pace of the play and makes a significant contribution to the evening.

Director Hannah Price keeps the feral drama tightly focussed, skilfully maintaining the precarious balance of Charlie's flamboyant high-wire act which must reach the end of the line before he really crashes and burns. This 80-minute debut from writer Titas Halder, developed at Canterbury's Marlowe Theatre, emerges polished and sharp in Price's production with Aldridge's gripping  performance all deserving a green light. 

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Review The Glass Menagerie

A  fine revival sheds fresh light  for reviewer Francis Beckett on the fragile mother and daughter relationship in a landmark 20th century American play.

The Glass Menagerie
by Tennessee Williams 

Lost Horizon

Tennessee Williams's classic memory play The Glass Menagerie is, as director John Tiffany says,  "pure heartache and pure craft".

Technically it is a perfect play, minutely observed, occurring in one claustrophobic space. Small things, that are to make a difference at the end, are unobtrusively seeded at the start: the glass animal collection; the charm of the man we are to meet in the second act. The plot hangs together. There are no moments which make you think afterwards "I don't quite believe that".

In 1930s' St Louis, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi, lives former southern belle Amanda, deserted years ago by her drunken husband. Living with her are her two adult children: Tom, who works in a local warehouse and hates it, but cannot leave because the family depends on the small income he earns; and Laura, the disabled and chronically shy daughter.

Amanda knows that the only way to secure her daughter's future in a society which does not value women, especially shy women with ungainly legs, is to make sure she is well married. When Tom finally agrees to invite a workmate home, it seems to Amanda that her prayers have been answered.

She works on the project of getting her daughter married with all the dedication, unselfishness and blind obsessiveness that Jane Austen's Mrs Bennett puts into the same project. In fact, Mrs Bennett, transferred to another century and another continent, would have been very like Amanda. (I mean that as a compliment, as I happen to think Mrs Bennett has been traduced by most people who have written about her, including her creator.)

And it is the actor playing Amanda upon whom this play hinges. If she convinces, so will the play. Cherry Jones convinces in spades. You can see just what drives her; what it has taken to bring up two children by herself in that society, and how it has drained her; why she is what she is; and why she is slowly, but surely, driving her beloved children away. Jones puts in a truly magnificent performance.

She provides several wonderful moments, but two of them stick in my mind. One is when she learns there is to be a gentleman caller whom she can hope her daughter may charm, and she suddenly sees her dismal, cheaply-furnisheed apartment through the eyes she expects him to bring to it. The other is when the gentleman caller arrives, and she cannot stop talking to him - or selling her duaghter's charms as though she is selling soap flakes.

Amanda is based on the playwright's mother and Tom on the playwright himself. Michael Esper puts in a fine performance as Tom, dreams clashing with duty, and Kate O'Flynn is heartbreakingly good as the shy, crippled Laura. The scene where her mother insists she answers the door to the gentleman caller shows us in just a few seconds the ways in which we kill the spirit of those we love the most: both women are slowly stifling each other.

Brian J Smith, the gentleman caller, is also a pure delight: an amusing, popular, handsome, thoroughly decent young man, wishing his fellow human beings nothing but good, knowing in the end, to his utter distress, he has only done harm.

John Tiffany's direction of the four-strong cast is neatly understated, but I was not at all sure about designer Bob Crowley's set. There was a kind of tower which, I think, was supposed to signify higher landings in a high-rise apartment block, but only suggested to me a castle in Fairyland; and there was also a puzzling dumb show.

But this is a small criticism. Tiffany's The Glass Menagerie is a wholly convincing, moving, sensitive production of one of the great plays of the 20th century.I urge you to go and see it. A green light from me.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Review Salomé

by Oscar Wilde

Fatal Attraction

Blood-red cloths, glossy waxed fruit, perfumed air and white skin characterize Theatre Lab's production of Oscar Wilde's 1893 oriental symbolist riff on the biblical story of Salomé with international cast.

The atmospheric surroundings of bijou restored music hall Hoxton Hall provide the perfect dark wood venue for the moonlit decadent birthday banquet in Herod's palace.  The audience is seated on chairs on two sides facing the long banquet table stretching to the high stage.

The young women are either slumped at the table like mechanical dolls waiting to be wound up or as still as statues on a swing seat in an ivy bower dressed like ballerinas out of a Edgar Degas painting. 

Crystal decanters filled with wine, sparkling glasses, peacock feathers and real fruit mixed with wax versions spill over q table draped with a red tablecloth hung with gold braid (set dresser Maira Vazeou)..A silver flute lies waiting to be played.

Transferred from fin de siècle to the 1930s, this production has a Herod (Greek actor Konstantinos Kavakiotis) in white face with black eyeliner, a silent film plutocrat in full jazz age nightclub black dinner dress.

His wife Herodias (Helen Bang from Denmark), a handsome woman in black lace past her youth but relishing the excess, is the palace's very own Gloria Swanson.

The Moon (Annabelle Brown) and Herod's  unattainable step-daughter Salomé (Spanish American actress Denise Moreno), bathed in its light. has already entranced the young Syrian captain (French-accented Benoit Gouttenoire) with tragic consquences.

Virginal Salomé meanwhile has come to lust after the charismatic prophet Iokannan (Matthew Wade) who has earned the wrath of Herod for condemning the court and particuliarly Queen Herodias.

But the combination of wine, power, music and the moonlight moves Herod to alight his gaze on his step-daughter with disruptive results. He begs her to dance for him at any price and she agrees - extracting from him a terrible transgressive price.

Combining dance, flute, glockenspiel, accordion, trumpet and voice, this is a sensual, stylized vibrant production directed with care and fluidity by Anastasia Revi, with music direction by Annabelle Brown who also performs.

Costume designer Valentina Sanna styles the piece with, amongst other garb, calico ballet tutus for the young women and art deco geometric shaped tunics for the Syrian and the Man Of The Palace (Tobias Deacon in an engaging performance). 

Orientalism was probably as close to legitimate pornography as the Victorian sensibility allowed.

However even Salomé did not escape the censure of the Lord Chamberlain, ostensibly for breaching the ban on depicting biblical characters on stage. And its erotic reputation allied with the playwright's sexual notoriety doubtless led to the gullibility of Wilde's biographers in wrongly stating, in all seriousness, the photograph of a female opera singer in Richard Strauss's opera adaptation was "Oscar Wilde in drag".

In our times, Salome has gained an appreciative audience for its hypnotic rhythms and distinctive rhetoric as well as its power and gender  relationships which have resonance in our global, celebrity-obsessed consumer age.

Wisely, Revi breaks the declamatory nature of the piece intermittently with humour as the words are turned to mine their 21st century comic potential. The Man of the Palace resorts to lists in his desperation to avert tragedy and Herod breaks the fourth wall seeking the audience's approbation as he unleashes a drama in which he is an unwilling actor.

With its clever conception and both international and French sensibility (Wilde originally wrote the play in French), this is an intriguing, sensual piece which robustly maintains a delicate balance deserving in our view a green light.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Review The Pitchfork Disney (Preview)

The Pitchfork Disney
by Philip Ridley

The Way We Live Now

Start identifying the characters in Philip Ridley's 1991 shocker The Pitchfork Disney, and it shows how life in the 21st century has caught up with the fractured world of  brother and sister Presley and Haley.

It's a pre-internet play written, or maybe a better word is composed, when the video cassette, not yet digital, camcorder, and video game had come to dominate. 

Yet director Jamie Lloyd's intimate, site-specific production still has the ferocity and grim tenderness to take an audience by the scruff of the neck and finger wag us about grotesque spectacle with violent glee. In the age of YouTube and mobile phone footage it  lasts the course with its moving snapshots.

Parentless Presley and Haley Stray (George Blagden and Hayley Squires) live, apparently, cocooned from the world in a East End grubby family home, dark haired and white skinned like human vampires hiding from the outside.

At 28 years old, they wallow in an infantile existence, craving "chocolate" (hmm, this is probably slang) and "medicine",  bickering and trading stories over who should go out to do the shopping.

These enfants terribles compete in creating - or is it pitching? - stories of extremity and sadism of which imagining themselves sole survivors of a nuclear holocaust is a mild example. Scaring herself with her own stories, Haley is finally tucked up by Presley sucking on a dummy soused with a chemical cosh.

Oh, did we mention that this is a very black comedy - once the audience realised that they were allowed to laugh? ;)  

Presley ventures out, bringing in ethereal blond teenager, Tom Rhys Harries as  Cosmo Disney (the names surely have a significance), a macho-camp pub entertainer clad in sparkling red sequinned jacket with a grotesque variety act and a loadsamoney mentality.

He at first expertly manipulates Presley's emotions. Before he finds his own understanding stretched and moved by Presley but instead of tears leading to empathy brings in a disruptive incarnation of Presley's childkiller fantasies - the brutal, grunting "foreigner",  Pitchfork Cavalier (Seun Shote), part wrestler, part comic strip creation, swathed in black plastic from head to foot.      

Soutra Gilmour's set, arfully-lit by Richard Howell in a traverse immersive space, is spread with faded patterned carpet, keeping the audience sparsely scattered on seating at various heights.

In the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall, it's a visceral church nave-shaped design  with an old cooker, a fridge and a misted window located pertinently.

A variety of yellow lanterns with one red one at what could be the altar end light the twilight zone, alongside table electric lamps inhabiting the floors work together to give a chiaruscuro effect.

The furnishings could be left overs  of the Porters' flat in Look Back In Anger. And the church can change to a street. Or a rock concert catwalk or airplane runway or even an elongated wrestling ring or comic strip.

For all the emphasis on Ridley's art school roots, the obvious hooks in film and music and his pioneering break with the past with "In Yer Face" drama ,  this felt to us like a very literary play.

A reptile piece which may be sloughing its skin but still looks back at visual tropes and literature of times past. Even Haley at what could be the altar end, dummy in mouth, is a peverse echo of the baby Jesus without a Madonna.   

The writing betrays its background in art installation monologues. But this is also part of the play's energy when Presley and Haley as opposed to 18 year old Cosmo and Pitchfork clash into each other when 10 years presents a weird generation gap. 

To be honest it did feel a little long at an hour and a half straight through  - but that was because TLT had her own visceral problems. She had opted for a sharp edged block to sit on which unless you are heavily padded she would advise avoiding!

Nevertheless Lloyd paces the production precisely and extracts distinctive performances with staging which manages to keep Squires as Haley in our eyeline even when  almost comatose for long stretches of time on the lengthwise stage.

This play has now become a period piece, just as much as an Joe Orton play or a David Bowie or Mick Jagger movie.

But this element is also its strength for it reflects back on the start of a fast moving yet nostalgic world which has now become strangely familiar  to us. We give an amber/green light and punters may find it worth their while to examine the accompanying Rebels & Rubble exhibition of Ridley's photographs at the East End venue.