Friday, 31 March 2017

Review The Wipers Times

The little-known tale of a humorous battlefield newssheet written by soldiers for soldiers hooks in Francis Beckett, but then undermines its new angle on life in the trenches with material we've seen before.  

The Wipers Times
by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman

Hot Metal And Cold Steel

I went to see Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s The Wipers Times with high expectations and a lot of goodwill. The remarkable story of a newspaper produced in the trenches amid the horror of the First World War, one which really spoke to the men who fought the war and which survived against the odds, would be pretty well forgotten except by a few historians, if Hislop and Newman hadn’t revived it and persuaded us all to listen to it.

It’s a great story, wonderful theatrical material, and I was promised a barrel of laughs; which seemed a reasonable expectation, because Hislop is a very witty man and Newman is a comedy scriptwriter with a fine record.

And it’s a funny enough show too, with some decent jokes and a couple of nice songs, and it chunters along happily enough so you walk out of the theatre cheerful, but at the same time I can’t help feeling it was a wasted opportunity.

Hislop and Newman had a story no one has done properly, and I am not sure why they chose to spend so much of the evening re-treading old ground, with the result that The Wipers Times derives more material than is quite decent from earlier famous shows – or at least it appears to, which is just as bad.

Both acts include a scene when the men go over the top for the Big Push which has echoes of the famous Blackadder scene of nearly 30 years ago. Of course, it’s hard to write that moment without being accused of deriving it from Blackadder, but in that case why write it at all?  It wasn’t needed for the story the show was telling.

The idea of officers lounging around in safety at base while the men at the front took all the risks was done better in Blackadder and before that Oh What a Lovely War in 1963.  And no one has done it as well as Siegfried Sassoon, who was there:

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.

The best bits are when the authors are telling their own story:  how the military unit find an abandoned printing machine, the sergeant turns out to have been a printer in Civvy Street and knows how to work it, and the two officers then decide to start an irreverent newspaper for the soldiers.

There’s a clever framing device which tells us what the two officers did afterwards.  Neither of them went into journalism, though one of them apparently tried to get a job in Fleet Street and was turned down because of inexperience – the Wipers Times didn’t count.

As the two officers, James Dutton and George Kemp offer fine portrayals of gilded public school youth. But they are outshone by the splendid Dan Tetsell, who combines so well the roles of the sergeant, the general who allowed the paper to continue, and the deputy editor who refused one of the officers a job after the war, that I did not realise they were all played by one actor.

I had the odd quarrel with the generally sure-footed direction from Caroline Leslie.  The trenches seem a lot more comfortable than I think they were, and the two officers never seemed short of whisky, poured from nice decanters.

It was a pleasant evening, but I wanted, and expected, a bit more than just a pleasant evening, so it’s only an amber light.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Review The Life

The Life 
Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Ira Gasman
Book by David Newman, Ira Gasman and Cy Coleman
Book Revisions by Michael Blakemore

The Ho's Opera

When TLT first arrived in New York, the clean-up of Times Square was well underway. As a yellow cab drew up, out stepped a guy, grabbed her suitcase - ready to put it in the cab. And then stayed expecting a tip.

TLT being English, buttoned up and then unused to habitually tipping, he didn't get one. A short, heated exchange ended with TLT's polite, "Thank you but I didn't ask. It was your choice to pick it up!!".

The somewhat bemused cab driver, a witness to TLT emerging unstabbed, unshot, with her traveller's money belt intact, shook his head in disbelief and then drove her to the Dickensian-monikered (and, naturally, budget) Pickwick Arms Hotel. He didn't even ask for a tip as she waited for him to count out the change for her note.

What prompts this memory of a pompously naive English girl on her first day in The Big Apple? Mary (Joanna Woodward) from Duluth, Minnesota in the Cy Coleman 1997 musical The Life, Samsonite in hand, fresh off the Greyhound bus sucked into Times Square sleaze when a guy grabs her suitcase.

Oh it could have been so very different for TLT.  Whatever The Life is, it ain't Heidi unless the 42nd Street panhandlers have a pension fund stashed away in a Swiss bank account.

The pocket-sized Southwark Playhouse stage plays host to a parade of pimps, hookers, gamblers, murderers, protection racketeers, mobsters and blue movie exhibitors on the piece of prime real estate off 42nd Street in nineteen seventy something.

In many ways this is a musical melodrama filled with stereotypes (but what musical isn't?) with a few twists lifted by thrilling performances from a cast who look like extras ready to be booked, charged or caged up  in the backgroud of many a 70s' cop show. And yet, and yet ...

It works. The book - decent hearted streetwalker Queenie (T'shan Williams) hooked up with no-good 'Nam vet boyfriend, cokehead pimp Fleetwood (David Albury) at its heart -  reflects and is driven on by the songs and vice (ouch!) versa.

With the swelling tones of an 11-piece band headed by Tamara Saringer, the angular corner-of-Times -Square set design  by Justin Nardella,  projections from Nina Dunn and compact choreography from Tom Jackson Greaves, this production is both successful on its own terms and shows the potential for a larger space.

The echos of other underworld musicals and styles, Sweet Charity (also from the Coleman repertoire), Guys and Dolls, Les Miz, Brechtian noir, West Side Story, even Mack and Mabel and Billy Joel amongst many others, and the corporatism of Chicago and The Godfather, are legion. But, rather than derivative, these are handled with a responsive, dark, smokey wit.

Mary turns out to have a backstory worthy of a David Mamet or Sam Shepherd searing drama and eventually takes to The Life like a Gypsy-Rose-Lee duck to water.

Stab-in-the-back Jojo (John Addison) has the Janus-face of the Times Square porn "talent scout" and Hollywood hustler in "Use What You Got" which could equally be in a musical version of that Hollywood users' manual "What Makes Sammy Run".

Jo Servi's bartender Lacy has the easy ways of old vaudeville Broadway while chief gangster Memphis (Cornell S John) trumps Jojo and Fleetwood in the power stakes, pulling in Queenie in the slow chains of "My Way Or The Highway". But it's Sharon D Clarke's old pro Sonja who carries off the laurels with a thrilling rendition of "The Oldest Profession" vibrating through the Southwark auditorium.

Maybe the ending is still slightly problematic as it almost dips into trench-coat parody but the power of the snarling face-off between Queenie and her haunted former soldier lover Fleetwood in "We Gotta Go" is a breathtaking musical theatre moment with a resonance beyond the hooker and the army vet.

Wait a moment, we take it back about Heidi tho', at least in terms of Hollywood history ...

It may seem churlish to mention one other thing after thrilling live performances fluently directed and staged by the original Broadway director, Brit stage veteran Michael Blakemore. But at a time when the mainstream movie industry is gagging for new musicals to film, The Life, in our opinion, cries out for an atmospheric movie version.

This fearless theatre production definitely gets the TLT green light. Oh, and if Hollywood  (West or East), Bollywood or Nollywood wants to option TLT's own taxi-cab penny-pinching New York tale with a Happy Ending, she's open to offers. ;)   

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Review Chinglish

A comedy from an American-Chinese playwright strikes a chord with Peter Barker's own memories of living in China.

by David Henry Hwang

A Matter Of Interpretation

In search of new business, American Daniel Cavanaugh (Gyury Sarossy) lands up in a regional Chinese city that no Westerner can place on a map, but one that is larger than Birmingham.

Without knowing a word of the language, his aim is to persuade the Chinese municipal authorities to purchase the signs produced by his struggling family firm.

US playwright David Henry Hwang's timely comedy examines the linguistic and cultural chasm between China and the West.

Back in Ohio, Cavanaugh gives a lecture to a local chamber of commerce, framing the action which leads to a series of flashbacks three years before,  giving the lowdown on the true cost and bewilderment of his experience in China. 

Surfing the web, the businessman, tainted by a past association with corrupt corporation Enron, had seen a trading opportunity and a chance for his own redemption in the botched, often automated, translations on bilingual Chinese/English road signs

He enlists the help of British ex-pat and sinophile Peter Timms (Duncan Harte) who instructs him in the concept of 关系 (guanxi, loosely translated as connections or social networks) and offers to use his own guanxi to procure a deal for him with an arts complex in the Chinese city.

The minister of culture Cai Gouliang (Lobo Chan) loves his opera, his strong liquor and has a series of convoluted side deals on the go; his deputy Xi Yan (Candy Ma)  appears to be a prim nationalist, but has her own very complicated agenda.

The naive American thinks that get-up-and-go is what you need to succeed in China, and the sinophile Englishman who has fallen in love with calligraphy and porcelain would like to be Chinese in his heart.

Yet even every interpreter has his or her own agenda. One thing Cavanaugh learns as his words are lost in translation, and he can in turn tip off the chamber of commerce to, is, "When doing business in China, always bring your own translator."

The stage business in this 2011 play is conducted both in English and Mandarin - with English surtitles.

While the mistranslations are milked for laughs, Chinglish starts from a real situation. This reviewer spent some years in China and, in one instance, even had to work out that a menu's "sweaty mouth chicken" was in fact meant to be "mouth watering". 

Hwang writes at least as much from the viewpoint of someone of Chinese origin as he does from that of a Westerner. He wrings laughs out of multi-layered circumstances, while not holding up either the Chinese or Westerners for ridicule or damnation, or at least no more than they deserve for their minor frailties or deeper needs.

Ma gives a fine performance as Xi Yan, fiercely ambitious but isolated, while Sarossy is a convincing foil as Cavanaugh, blundering naively through the maze that is both the new consumerist and ancient traditional China. Along with Englishman Peter Timms played by Harte, they are types but avoid parody as the complexities of the situation emerge.

The simple and ingenious set by Tim McQuillen Wright, a backwall of Chinese-style wooden lockers, opens up and folds out to create doors, windows, even a hotel bed. There is also an elegance and
thoughfulness to the direction of Andrew Keates, while keeping the laughs coming.

Hwang uses, yet digs beneath,  the stereotypes with this East-West encounter in a play which juxtaposes Western and Asian characters in an insightful and witty manner.  It's a green light for a humane and funny play where everyone ends wiser, even if some have prospered and some have lost. 

Review Escape The Scaffold

Student friendship and rivalry turn to expediency and ruthlessness after graduation, Peter Barker discovers in a passionate new play. 

Escape The Scaffold
By Titas Halder

Haunted House

Flitting backwards and forwards through time, this psychological thriller follows the lives of Aaron (Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge), Marcus (Charlie Reston) and Grace (Rosie Sheehy) from three very different but inextricably-linked flat-share students to a future of skewed lives.

Titas Halder’s witty and dark second play Escape The Scaffold consolidates the promise of his debut piece Run The Beast Down. As with the previous drama, the playwright in Escape The Scaffold explores both individual psyches and a breakdown in society.  

The two men are love rivals yet also at times firm friends. Aaron is the idealist, a student activist, while public school-educated ambitious Marcus is fixated on his career and both struggle for the affections of artist Grace.

At first their future seems filled with potential  but student promise and companionship eventually disintegrate into the need for self preservation within a dystopian state.

The double time scale exposes and leads the audience to trace and understand what the two men and one woman once were and the people they become.

Aaron returns to the student digs of his younger days to find Grace and Marcus now a married couple - and homeowners both of the flat and a sinister cellar. Remaining the idealist, Aaron finds himself a wanted man on the run from the forces of a totalitarian state where he is viewed as a dangerous subversive.

Meanwhile Marcus, once the university student union president, has become more than just part of the establishment. He is a spook willing to undertake torture under orders from the authoritarian regime.
Halder's absorbing script demonstrates a talent to build suspense  with pungent, even lyrical language while threading together two separate periods of time and introducing a seam of dark humour.

Driven by love, ambition, ego, idealism and treachery, each of his protagonists ultimately prove questionable characters. Sheehy gives Grace, forced to choose between the two men,  an initial appeal until her personality hardens and coarsens over the course of time. Reston's Marcus, honed by an exclusive education, manages to combine the appalling with a compelling vitality.

Hannah Price's assured, pacey direction, never lets the momentum flag as the repercussions of the spy state impact on the trio and audience. Nonetheless, amid all this, Halder's own persuasive humour is allowed to  emerge.

The versatile, dilapidated Victorian house set of Mark Bailey also allows the actors themselves to change the set, while alongside lighting by Katy Morison and sound by Chris Bartholomew,  the homely eventually changes into horrific. 

Escape the Scaffold has flair and wit in character and plotting, braiding past and future together, all laced with a sharp twist of horror and deserving a green light.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Review The Kid Stays In The Picture

The Kid Stays In The Picture 
Based On the Life Story Of Robert Evans
Adapted by Simon McBurney and James Yeatman

His Wicked, Wicked Ways

First of all, TLT's sidekick would like to make it clear: the little car is innocent; the little car has never shared a line of coke with TLT; the sound you heard was the exhaust pipe backfiring and the little car has definitely never, ever been in ladies' pants. And if anyone says anything different, they will swiftly receive one phone call - and only one - from the little car's lawyer ...  You have been warned ...

Frankly, TLT was completely unaware of her companion's colourful past and associates between rolling off the conveyor belt and - er - theatre reviewing. But life has some strange bedfellows (and mistresses) as The Kid Stays In The Picture continually strives to assure us.

While words tumble out in Simon McBurney's and James Yeatman's adaptation, it's somehow the images, maybe totally appropriately, that dominate this collage-style stage version of Hollywood producer Robert Evans's autobiography, his heyday, demise and re-emergence from the 1950s onwards. The different film styles also indicate different eras of producer Robert Evans's life.

Several actors on the stage, some of whom clutch microphones as if recording for a post production movie voice over, act out the story.

As far as it goes, the acting is fine but there's little chance for character development as they are more narrators breaking every now and then for a role in Evans's memoir. At the same time the older Evans (Danny Huston) himself is a shadow on the backdrop, becoming as distinctive as a Hitchcock silhouette.

As part of the mythologising, we are given a swift resume of Evans's precocious and promiscuous life as a child actor (Heather Burns) before settling in with Christian Camargo playing the producer at the height of his career with biggish hair and bigger glasses.

In the midst of this we encounter, for want of a less incestuous word, a cast of characters including Henry Kissinger, Ali McGraw, Mia Farrow, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola and Marlon Brando.

Evans started life in New York where his father had a dental practice in Harlem and his mother's wealthier family were successful rag traders. First he was in radio, but his acting career stalled and he also became a salesman for his brother and his business partner's successful ladies clothing business.

That was before he was plucked from relative obscurity by old-guard Hollywood royalty Norma Shearer to star as her husband, the late wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg. Then after winning his next part, he was defended by mogul Daryl Zanuck on the set of The Sun Also Rises, against the hostility of the whole cast and writer Ernest Hemingway, when producer Zanuck confirmed: "The kid stays in the picture!".

Evans himself sure stayed in the pictures. He entered movie producing. His career soared as production head at Paramount Studios and as an independent producer, at its peak Love Story, Rosemary's Baby, The Godfather and Chinatown being in his impressive portfolio.

Anna Fleischle's spare, studio/work room design includes sliding glass screens which take the projections but also act as a glass enclosure for some of the action.

A small white fridge also transforms into a smaller projection screen (video designer Simon Wainwright) while middle-aged Evans sits in a brown leather revolving office chair. Camera dollies  propelled around the stage also provide live feeds.  

Evans's print 1994 autobiography sits somewhere between Errol Flynn's 1959 tome, David Niven's 1970s' bestsellers The Moon's A Balloon and Bring On The Empty Horses and Julia Phillips' 1991 expose You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again. However, for TLT, it never quite delivered the goods.

Maybe because it's basically a grim, serious story which feels frustratingly constrained under a bragging, name dropping main story and a layer of legal advice. This rather alienating sTyle is of course open to parody, and, it has to be said, rather disarmingly Evans seems to have realised this, taking part in a fantastical cartoon version of himself Kid Notorious.

The stage version also feels constrained - but this time by its published source with no chance to expand to fit a more knowledgeable 21st century audience. Still there is at least one juxtaposition which made us think again about the 1969 murder of actress Sharon Tate, movie director Roman Polanski's wife, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger.

However this could just as well have been an accidental culmulative (wrong) impression.   As it is, this is a pretty straightforward, but glaringly partisan, rendition of a life, as already narrated in the book and a well-received documentary.

Nevertheless somewhere amongst all this, there is a strange merging of "real life" incidents and the iconic movies which is more than only interesting. It's totally disturbing and comes near to questioning, at the very least, the mental health and legality of a whole industry.

Where concentrating on the peccadillos and blameworthiness of an individual is almost seen as diverting away from something more fundamentally skewed and rotten. But, despite a link to American politics, this aspect is buried under what feels like a lot of period kitsch and oft-repeated stories inside the comfort zone. 

If you've never read a Hollywood biography or history, the roll call of sex, drugs, gangland and lawyers, contractual shenanigans, marriages and divorces, score settling, devious producers directors and writers looking after their own interests or just seeking to bring others down with them may be a revelation.

But it's what is not said which struck us as having more potential. Playwright Arthur Miller, we seem to remember, once wrote how his father, a women's clothes' manufacturer, rued the day he rejected an investment inn the then up-and-coming Paramount Pictures.

So, we feel, it would have been interesting to put into context Evans' role in the clothing industry and subsequent Hollywood career.

The anecdotes seem oft-recounted to the point of having a puppet-like non spontaneity but surely some of them can now be unravelled to give a little more away? The overlap, for example, between politics and La La Land success. The extent to which competition concentrated in one town can go far out of control. 

But, most of all, in this day and age, if they wanted to reinvigorate the Evans' franchise, we did wonder why it just didn't go straight into a Netflix, Sky or Amazon drama boxed set? Maybe it's something to do with the mooted HBO miniseries on Hollywood kingpin mob lawyer Sidney Korshack which appears to have disappeared without a trace.

Certainly,  this slightly puzzling production suffers, in our opinion, from some of the same problems as the book - it promises more than it delivers. Anyway, it's an amber light for a show which we wished had pushed the boundaries of our knowledge a little more.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Review An American In Paris

An American In Paris
Music and Lyrics by George Gershwin & Ira Gershwin
Book by Craig Lucas
Inspired by the Motion Picture

Damsel In Distress

The cultural exchange and relationship between Paris and New York perhaps reached its apogée before the Second World War when a favourable exchange rate meant that many American writers, artists and artistes found a cheap and artistically amenable home in the French capital.

By 1951, the war was over, a once beleaguered Paris still had her more than her fair share of attractions but the USA and Europe were embarking on a newly configured relationship. At that time,  Ira Gershwin, Vincente Minelli, Alan Jay Lerner and Gene Kelly clubbed together and came up with An American In Paris.

Its innovative dance routines, painterly design, lucid script and a muscular lead any American man could feel ok about identifying with produced (or rather Arthur Freed produced) a sure-fire post Second World War hit.

Now Brit ballet choreographer and director Christopher Wheeldon  has put on stage a balletic version inspired by the film with a new book by playwright Craig Lucas pushing the action back to the days following the liberation of Paris in 1945.

With, naturally,  spectacular dance routines, and exquisite set and costume designs by Bob Crowley, the production values of this musical extravaganza are superb. There are touches of magic, even apart from the dance.

The moment when the character of American composer Adam directs an orchestra on stage and has his mirror image in musical director John Rigby stands on its two feet while being a gloriously inventive transformation of a sequence in the movie. 

In both the movie and the stage show army veteran Jerry Mulligan falls in love with both the City of Lights and a mysterious young woman when he pursues his dream, on the GI bill, to become a painter.

Lucas's new book adds backstory to the young woman and also makes her the centre of a love triangle with Jewish American composer Adam and French would-be American musical theatre star Henri. The book's additions also draw on the lives of the original movie actors - for example stage Henri becomes the heir to a textile business  reflecting the life of the French actor in the film role,

However, whereas the movie kept references to the past war with a light touch, the stage scenario digs into the civil strife which erupted just after the Nazis were routed.

Robert Fairchild, a New York Ballet principal, cuts an energetic figure as Jerry from the first falling under Paris's spell and then the spell of gamine Lise - Leanne Cope from the Royal Ballet. Both have voices which can hold their own in a selection of Gershwin Brothers' songs. Zoe Rainey's American patroness and would-be love interest of Jerry Milo certainly has the voice and tap dance prowess to make her mark.

You can't really go wrong with the Gershwin songbook, although the stage transfer jettisons some  elements in the movie songlist to bring in other songs, often as a smoother entrée for dance routines, The major omissions being Embraceable You, Nice Work If You Can Get it and Love Is Here To Stay.

In comes  I've Got Beginner's Luck, The Man I Love, Liza, Shall We Dance, Fidgety Feet, Who Cares?, For You, For Me, Forever More, But Not For Me and They Can't Take That Away From Me. But comparing songs is like trying to tell the difference between identical Russian dolls. There are always equal delights to emerge.

While the songs remain tender and exuberant, the wavering accents jarred a little with your reviewing pas de deux of TLT and her deux chevaux, where we just willed the singers to drop them. The movie used real French voices. When "Jerry" sounded like "Cheri" in the stage version, we thought we'd wandered into a French literary maze of musical theatre sources!

We did wonder why they hadn't tried a more sophisticated linguistic trick of making the French speak without accents amongst themselves and then switchng to accents when talking in English. Used wisely this could also extract a lot of comedy. 

Anyway, oddly, despite the apparent simplification of the Lerner's original  screenplay,  the movie script of An American In Paris still wins hands down for us. For we feel it's always dangerous to underestimate the savviness of a movie production team which judges correctly the mood of a nation, says what the writers want to say and finds the - er - mot juste.

And after all, movie director Minnelli, with the same producer Arthur Freed, had previously directed Meet Me In St Louis, a seemingly light confection nevertheless containing a visceral sequence of a child full of fear running in striped pyjamas  - in 1944 when noone supposedly knew anything about concentration camps. This was a scene Minnelli fought to have in the movie.

Some of the changes for the stage are interesting but superfluous. Surely the altering of Lise's surname to Dassin is a gesture towards blacklisted American movie director Jules Dassin who went into exile in France with his family? It's not quite as glaring as the Lise/Liza shoo-in but it indicates a certain self-indulgence.

Even so, the magnificent ballet sequences and Gershwin songs with arrangements by Rob Fisher, like Paris itself, can more than survive a bit of accent mangling. As Paris, New York and London prepare for a new configuration of their relationship, it's a joy that some things are here to stay and it's an amber/green for a marriage of music and dance with oodles of joie de vivre.

Review Tamburlaine

by Christopher Marlowe

War Games

If there is one thing that defines Christopher Marlowe's take on Tamburlaine, it is a rumbustious manipulation of the exotic and the violent to titillate audiences.

So it seems very unusual for an East Asian theatre company Yellow Earth to strip the tale of the nomad Mongol conqueror Tamburlaine of its oriental context and place it in something sounding like an English boarding school for the well-to-do, abandoned to its posh, affluent students by its teachers.

In this version Tamburlaine (Lourdes Faberes) becomes a kind of sadistic Flashman left to run riot through the dorms. This does not imply a criticism, it just feels rather disorientating, while adding a visceral post colonial subtext. 

In fact this turned out to be a fascinating evening, albeit with a few longeurs as the catalogue of conquests is played out - the Scythian shepherd comes, is mocked by incumbent rulers who are then promptly conquered.

The cast of six, five women and one man, in an adaptation by director Ng Choon Ping, are mostly clad in tight fitting jodphurs and riding boots as if Mummy and Daddy has paid the extra fee for riding lessons or even as a passing reference to Jilly Cooper's bonkfest Riders with its fetishizing of belts and riding crops.

In fact, this is all a perfectly legitimate interpretation where the focus in the dramaturged text is on a feudal hierarchy upset by the newcomer, who having the means to enter this world, conducts his campaign with a wry serial savagery.

The two blood-and-thunder Marlowe plays about Tamburlaine have been concertinaed into two and a half hours. Tamburlaine starts off the glossy, self-conscious strutting young warrior dressed in slinky black with a silver dagger at his side and ends the weary patriarch with riding crop who has stormed through empires and transgressed religions.

Along the way he entices Theridamas (Amanda Maud) to switch sides, cages Turkish Emperor Bajazeth (Melody Brown) and Empress Sabina (Susan Hingley), slaughters pleading virgins

The action plays out on a bare stage with marbled floor and a back wall of white squares with projections naming characters when it's needed as the actors metamorphosize from one role to another.

There's a glimpse of Edward II in Lee Wan's Persian Emperor with sly costuming in the shape of a black crown with the chin strap of an Asian rice hat (design by Moi Tran). .

Yet there are also times when the staging is a little too subtle and cryptic for its own good. The sudden insertion of  a Billy Holiday jazz number and deliberately fuzzy projections of a singer and saxophonist felt just a little too cryptic.

There is, however, a nice line in sardonic wit in the costuming and addressing of the audience. The call of Zenocrate (Fiona Hampton), who becomes the reluctant consort of  Tamburlaine to save her life, for a girdle is answered with an ingenious prop.

It's a brave venture to put on the epic Tamberlaine in the Arcola's smaller space with six actors and it can be a bit hit and miss. But the stylistic mash up and exceptional Taiko drumming soundscape created by Joji Hirota do make for an evocative, often exciting and unsettling production.  So this Tamburlaine eventually conquered TLT and her chariot who pay homage with an upper range amber light.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Review The Frogs

The Frogs
Based on the play by Aristophanes
adapted by Burt Shevelove and Nathan Lane
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Ribbetin' Stuff

The set by Gregor Donnelly on the bijou stage at the Jermyn Street Theatre boded well. A back wall of riveted burnished copper plates with brown tarpaulin-like rigging cum platform with a promising resemblance to trampolines.

But you know those park signs by manicured lawns admonishing "Do Not Tread On The Grass"? This is a musical which might as well have had a large sign stating, "Do Not Jump"!

For instead of amphibian lift off and innovation, we have a constricted stage and stories which feel unfinished. This is the version seen on Broadway in 2004 with Nathan Lane's post 9/11 and post Middle East military incursion adaptation of the late Burt Shevelove's book

We had to think long and hard about this one.

The Frogs was originally a scabrous comic piece, throwing satirical, anxious barbs at a failing Athenian wartime economy, written by Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes.

Here, the Greek God of drama and wine, Dionysos (Michael Matus), drags his slave Xanthias (George Rae with a passing resemblance via the glasses to a Scots' Harry Potter or George Burns - we couldn't decide which) across the River Styx down to Hades - the Greek version of Hell. The god has resolved to engineer the resurrection of a deceased writer on earth who can combat the complacency of the Athenian populace.

The history  of this musical starts with Shevelove in 1941, a few months before Pearl Harbour bombings brought the United States into the Second World War. Shevelove, the director of Yale University Undergraduate Society, embarked on an ambitious project to mount the straight play in the swimming pool of the Payne-Whitney gymnasium at the Ivy League college. The Yale swimming team was entrusted with the task of bringing the eponymous frogs from page to pool.

Trampolines, swimming pools, whatever. Thirty three later, during the Vietnam War, a revival with five songs added by Stephen Sondheim, Shevelove's collaborator on the similarly ancient classics' sourced A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, fitted the artistic agenda of Yale's drama department.

Meanwhile a technical team tried their darndest to knock the enormous but acoustically-challenged pool into a suitable froggy den and the chorus this time included a young Sigourney Weaver, Meryl Streep and Christopher Durang.

Then over sixty years later than the original adaptation and after Shevelove's death in London, actor and stand-up Nathan Lane decided to take it out of the swimming pool on to the stage in the 2004 production. This included additional songs by Sondheim who had also been a schoolboy Latin and Greek scholar.

This version, despite an interesting set of lesser-known Sondheim songs, still feels it needs a larger more spectacular space to approach in any way the intended tone and mix. A confused book sadly feels  more clod hopping than a graceful leap from 405 BC to 2004 AD.

We also struggled with the writers' duel, transposed already in 1941 by Shevelove from Aeschylus and Euripides to William Shakespeare (in the current production sweet-voiced Nigel Pilkington) and (a clean-shaven more resembling the late Christopher Hitchens!) Bernard Shaw (Martin Dickinson)

Shaw was still alive in 1941 and with GBS's  highly dubious split assessment of Hitler's worth, Shevelove's choice of author might have meant a lot more then than now.

Still, as our magical book of incantations Wikipedia reminds us Shakes vs Shav was already a well-worn trope used by several writers. Eight  years after the non-musical Yale production, shortly before his death, Shaw contributed his own version in the form of a marionette show. Now The Frogs as a puppet show, there's a thought ....!

Director Grace Wessels manages to keep this  shaky vessel from capsizing even if sometimes this musical ship veers a little too near the rocks  and it feels rather crowded on stage with the non trampolines.

Matus makes a quaintly diffident Dionysos, with an unmasked Wizard-of-Oz personality, except when he conducts turf, or rather lion's mane, wars with his slave.

Sliding into sly digs at actors' lives with Virilla the Amazon ((Li-Tong Hsu) taking on a whole new internet meaning, there are points of sparky contact with the audience but these are doused almost as soon as they light up.

Jonathan Wadey has characterful moments with Charon the spaced-out boatman and Aekos, an equally grungy gatekeeper. Meanwhile Chris McGuigan is good value as Dionysos's half brother Herakles.

But The Frogs feels as if it needs far more layered wit and followed-through intellectual rigour. Apparently the original 1941 script is either not extant or inaccessible, but maybe  more excavating of original intent is needed to produce a successful 21st century book re-write.

But hey, this is really supposed to be about Sondheim and his music, isn't it? The five-piece band led by Tim Sutton on piano does a mostly superb job. It has to be said, however, there were some problems with the levels in the second half of the show after an impeccable first act.

Nevertheless, even if the songs themselves are certainly not entirely lacklustre, their place in a muddled book feels rather listless. There are glimpses of something rich and strange at brief moments but we did wonder whether there was also a large bit of padding with discarded offcuts of previous musicals.

Apparently the 1974 production was not a happy experience for Sondheim who, it's reported, found the head of Yale's drama department difficult to work with and we think it shows. In the end, we don't know if this piece can ever be a success without a spectacular setting, if it can succeed at all.

Better, we think, to  find an equivalent of The Frogs rather than try to shoehorn a unique classical text into a Broadway musical format or, in the case of Nathan Lane's revision, a Don Quixote quest.

It's a lower range amber light from our own Mount Olympus for a valiant matchbox attempt to breathe new life into a flawed musical.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Review Normal

by Anthony Neilson

Sanity On Trial

The gruesome tale of serial killer Peter Kürten, The Düsseldorf Ripper, executed in 1931, is surely a gift for any playwright with a mind to mine German language literature.

For the story, as related in a 1930s' sensationalist press and subsequent books including one by the trial psychiatrist, has so many echoes of literary classics. The Struwwelpeter scissorman, the grimmest of Grimm Fairy Tales, Wagner's Lohengrin, Kafka's The Trial as well as contemporary German and Hollywood horror films at a time when the two industries were intimately connected.

Yet Anthony Neilson, in one of his earliest playwriting successes, chose to interrogate the story through more forensic if also fantastical means. Normal is a memory play filtered through the mind of Kürten's defence lawyer, Justus Wehner, who finds himself in an amusement arcade outside Germany with his children many years later with a sideshow dedicated to his erstwhile client.

Normal then becomes  an exploration and critique of the law, the legal profession, psychiatry and the media through a unique trio of characters. In this it parallels Fritz Lang's celebrated 1931 movie M, also inspired by Peter Kürten's crimes, where gangland has as much legitimacy, if not more, than the police.

Wehner (Corey Montague-Sholay) is a lawyer straight out of law school who is given a quasi-masonic leg up by his colleagues. They hand him the prestigious role of defence lawyer for Kürten (Richard Ede) when the trial is the subject of national and international curiosity.

His aim is to prove that self-confessed killer Kürten is not a "normal" murderer in control of all his faculties but a lunatic who has conducted a macabre stabbing, fire raising and murder spree. In this, it seems, he is willing to go outside Germany, enlisting the help of his parents to bring the anti capital punishment Humanitarian League to pressurize the authorities.

However his mission to convert his parents, the public, the jury and even the intractable Kürten to the cause thinly veils the overweening ambition of a swot. His subsequent emotional turmoil may even contribute to making a more monstrous situation as he succumbs to a version of himself which he believes Kürten has moulded.

A three-hander,  it is the real or imagined character of Kürten, juvenile delinquent, petty thief, animal molester and slaughterer, sexual deviant, torturer, killer, trade unionist, husband and apparent respectable member of the community, who dominates.

Ede's dapper, grey-suited Kürten is naturally then at the centre of this universe with, as satellites around him, Montague-Sholay's buttoned up but easily corrupted lawyer and Cathy Walker's Frau Eva Kürten, the wife with a past.

Occasionally there is the danger of the plot becoming lost in over-stylization but for the most part the cast give elegant and visceral performances of great clarity. 

And in the midst of it all there is also the suggestion of other plausible scenarios against the accepted version of the story, even if they seem like throwaway remarks: there may be copycat killings or  Kürten may be part of a group of more than one killer.

As we have indicated, Emma Baggott's fluid yet sturdy production, like Blasted in the same season, opts for a stylized rather than naturalistic portrayal of violence, which mostly chimes well with a Germanic expressionist style.

While the subject matter is straight forward, if macabre, writer Neilson's exploration of post World War One Germany's complexities and a subtext relating the murders to the rise of National Socialism lifts the play over and beyond a mere chiller thriller. The lawyer, we are told somewhat ambigiously, managed to leave his homeland before he had blood on his hands.

A subtle, pulsing soundscape from Giles Thomas and a spare black-walled set from Grace Smart, with a chandelier of scissors hanging from the ceiling, a dining table with a chair at each end and a metal trolley prove a flexible background for the action.

Ciarán Cunningham's ingenious lighting almost becomes another character - flickering and flashing to reflect mental states.  Regimented rows of lights on the table also dig into the psyche.

An illuminated  wall transforms the action into a silent film. A sheet covering a body takes on a translucent quality reminiscent of horror movies like Frankenstein.

In short, an amber/green light for a thoughtful and forcefully-choreographed piece which we would recommend for strong performances as part of an agile, striking production probing troubled times and warped spirits. 

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Review The Miser

The Miser
by Molière
Adapted by Sean Foley and Phil Porter  

The Play What Molière Wrote 

Apparently this is a free adaptation of the original 17th century French classic The Miser. We're tempted to say so free, all the gags are in the public domain - boom, boom!

We're also tempted to say this may turn out to be a Marmite play - oh, if only we were sponsored! - but that would be a terrible, pretentious pun on the ancient Latin source of The Miser. It's called La Marmite in French - boom, boom!

But it would be true to say those in the market for gag-driven sketch comedy panto, kept in Molière's time, may well have an appetite for this version directed by Sean Foley. Even if it has only a few hints about the imprint of the knife edge, which should press on the tender soles of the dramatis personae.

That's not to BELLOW VERY LOUDLY and all at the same pace that, amidst a theatrical rugby scrum of Molière, sub-Mel Brookes-esque, Carry On, panto, Eric and Ernie, Airplane and 1970s' style The Three Musketeers (or is it Cyrano De Bergerac?), there aren't glimpses of  what this production and script could have been.

This is mainly centred on Griff Rhys Jones as Harpagon, an avaricious, paranoid goggle-eyed Dad, a momento mori of the original text, and, eventually, Matthew Horne, pursuing his daughter, as the ardent suitor-in-disguise Valère.

Stand-up and sitcom star, Lee Mack, certainly also has the wit, timing (and projection) of a stage actor, but needs more than the one note part of put-upon Man Friday servant, Maître Jacques as portrayed in this production. That's apart from the notes he strikes on the harpsichord - boom, boom!

No, no, we take it all back - it reminds us most of all of Start The Revolution Without Me. Yes, yes, it may be anachronistic (Moliere pre-dated the French Revolution by over a century) but we're taking our cue from at least one of the gags in the current production of The Miser. And Lord, how we laughed at Americans Donald Sutherland and Gene Wilder back in 1970 when TLT's now pimped up bagnole was still an Austin Morris!

At the Garrick Theatre, the momentum of the plot is all but drowned as it's asset-stripped by le déluge of jokes, ad libs and pseudo ad libs, at a frantic pace. In this "your money or Marianne" gagfest, the "I'll take the money" joke was one of the few panto gags that wasn't milked for laughs, even if it partly sums up the play.

Marianne (Ellie White), by the way, is not an anachronistic reference to the French state but Harpagon's young victim in the marriage stakes. Her true love, his son Cléante (a ribbons and bows Ryan Gage almost in Grayson Perry mode) is foisted on a more lucrative widow, while his daughter Elise (Katy Wix) is offered as the prospective "free of charge" dowerless bride of a pensioner.

That's also not to say the breaking of the fourth wall, theatrical in-jokes, music hall/vaudeville interaction with the audience and songs weren't part of 17th century stage farce.

But even Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman in The Producers and Young Frankenstein have a certain pathos and Molière's satire on archetypal money grabbing and the shackles of the dowry, which can surely be translated into contemporary terms, is blunted by standard austerity and banking stand-up circuit gags.

At the same time, we did crack a smile every now and then, were very taken with Alice Power's handsome 17th Century Parisian courtyard and hallway set and  her styling of Harpagon.

Indeed we don't mind anybody taking a liberté with an out-of-copyright text but the problem is the égalité of a world where an old miser doesn't seem more lunatic than anyone else in the play.

 If you raised anything more than a weak smile at this gag-driven review, this play, adapted by Foley and Phil Porter, may be for you. We award a-pot-of-gold amber light for an energetic mishmash of The Miser as corny as the stash of jokes kept under (alleged) tightwad Ernie Wise's (hey, we're managing almost to end seamlessly with a French word!) toupée - boom, boom!

Review A Dark Night In Dalston

Reviewer Peter Barker recognises the disquiet and desires of  two very different London residents in an appealing new play.

A Dark Night In Dalston
by Stewart Permutt

The Odd Couple

This new play, A Dark Night in Dalston is certainly a visit to a dark place, but the resolution of this touching comedy drama also leaves hope for the future.

The 90-minute offering from writer Stewart Permutt and director Tim Stark is set in contemporary Dalston, traditionally a rough part of London's East End.

Young Jewish accountant Gideon (Joe Coen) finds himself seeking refuge from racist thugs in the social-housing flat of mother and carer Gina (Michelle Collins).

Gideon is well outside his manor, which is Stanmore at the leafy end of the tube's Jubilee Line rather than the concrete monoliths of the capital's inner city.

He’s in the wrong area. But why? For, we learn, despite his religious observance, all is not quite what it seems or should be in Gideon's life.

To compound his immediate troubles, dusk is setting in on Friday evening, the beginning of  the Jewish sabbath. As a devout Jew, he is forbidden at that time from taking public transport or exchanging money and so has no way to get safely  home.

The kindness of a stranger, Gina, gives him sanctuary from his attackers. A former nurse and now a carer for her bed-bound husband,  she's older than Gideon, old enough to be his mother, she says.

She is trapped too; by her husband and by a troubled past leading to her quitting the nursing profession.

This unlikely pair meet, bond, argue, dance beautifully, take solace, find despair and move on throughout this single evening.

For both, the joy and hope of meeting someone new is set against their continuing real-life problems and finding common, if dark, ground. But this is a dark comedy, not a tragedy.

And thank God for that. As it is revealed the depths of despair have led both of them to contemplate the same course of action, the play came unnervingly close to this reviewer's own experience; so true, it seems not to be theatre. But the sincerity and humour of this play turns the unbearable to the bearable.

It is to the writer’s credit that he has created two believable characters, charting a difficult story with an up-to-date resonance. 

Permutt has a history of writing strong and complex female roles. Collins is a joy to watch as Gina, relishing her character and telling her tough tale; she’s working class, clever, compassionate, mixed-up and has been dealt a bad hand in her adult life.

Coen as Gideon is not merely a foil to Gina; he too is convincing in a role that is as real and as sexy as that of Collins.

Stark’s direction keeps the focus on the words in Permutt’s excellent script, while maintaining and stepping up the momentum of the play.

There is also Simon Daw’s ingenious backdrop - a stylised photo of council flats which also manages to double up as old-fashioned living room wallpaper.

This two-hander turns out to be a moving piece about modern Londoners thrown together in unexpected circumstances and a dark East End night merits a bright green TLT light.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Review a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (noun)

a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (noun)
By debbie tucker green

Back To Basics

Three couples inhabit the universe of this 80-minute play, but five people - or is it five proper nouns? For the title of this cryptic play comes from a dictionary definition, apparently, of that otherwise undefinable thing called Love.

We have to admit when we first saw the title we thought of that other treatise on Love - yes, the one where the granddaughter of a Nobel prizewinning physicist wanders around in a nightdress hopelessly devoted to a summer lover.

It turned out we were not so very wrong as all the couples in debbie tucker green's ping pong match of a play wander around in their jim jams and dressing gowns and express the kind of brooding thoughts which may occur in the wee small hours.

The stage and set designed by Merle Hensel in the upstairs theatre of the Royal Court are a turquoise green ledge, wall and floor raised around three sides.

The audience perches on black swivel bar stools divided into regimented lengthways rows inside, allowing a swivelling round as the voices, action (movement director Vicki Manderson), lighting (Lee Curran) and sound (Christopher Shutt) demand.

This has the effect of training the audience to physically follow the action and each other like a shoal of fish. We'd already been instructed to leave our bags in the cloakroom and enter with the bare minimum.

Directed by the playwright, the men and women also have the bare minimum in terms of their monikers: A (Lashana Lynch), B .(Gershyn Eustache Jnr), Man (Gary Beadle). Woman (Meera Syal) and Young Woman (Shvorne Marks).

Drama, the text books often say, is conflict. We're certainly pitched in to a clash between A and B where the words do the grating, while the drawing of chalk lines from what seems to be two overlapping venn diagram circles is silent.

The play itself is a series of stripped-down gendered duologues with only the briefest moments of pleasure for the couples stemming from a baby, a mutuality and a kiss. We don't know anything about their lives except for these private twilight interchanges about their relationships. 

Except watch out, the male and female attributes swap with the second couple and there's a definite feel as the play progresses that we may be within a computer program or chat bot or a space where biology and software crosses over.

There's a lyrical, rhythmic, soundtrack quality to the dialogue, sometimes with a razor's jagged edge and an underlying sense of menace about the changes afoot. There are enough hints to suggest a subtext of an automated future patterned, for good or ill, on male programming - the subject of one of the best but also ominously unfair jibes against the sour, sarcastic drained Woman.

Does the definition of love in the play's title actually exist, we wondered? Is love always about "someone"? We weren't sure. It's the individual voices that came through strongest with the Young Woman moulded by the older lives but with a resigned but quietly angry sense of a poisoned legacy which she cannot yet fully analyse.

We're speaking in general terms because, despite the precision of the acting and sharp corners of the platform ledges and the words, it is a play that rarely names specifics. The playwright does specify in the published script that the characters are black or Asian. Yet the  visuals otherwise indeed sometimes distracted from our concentration on the elastic snap of the dialogue and occasionally we turned our head and eyes, just to listen.

So when the few human spikes of recognition came, they dug deep but we also felt manipulated. It's a play that invites some satisfying taut resistance as the words bounce hard against the walls of the room. It's also secretive and frustrating.

We don't doubt there is the sharp jab of visceral prodding and the configuration of language feels both literary and computerised. But we also felt conditioned into responding and it's an amber light for a disembodied, fascinating and flawed play dictating and yet wistfully cajoling us into obeying its terms and conditions.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Review Blasted

by Sarah Kane

It Couldn't Happen Here

It's an expensive room in a hotel which could be anywhere, but it happens to be Leeds. There's a bed, a clock, a bunch of flowers in a vase, an ashtray, a black chair, an ensuite bathroom. Well, it is a little strange. Everything is black, even the flowers in the vase.

An overweight man occupies the room, smoking himself to death. Except that he is already dying of lung cancer and every cigarette and swig of gin could be a last hurrah or it could be force of a habit that he cannot break. Or a bit of both.

Sporadic stage directions are projected on the wall. Opposite tabloid hack Ian (Nigel Barrett), who spouts wildly racist comments without blinking and apparently leads a double life, is much younger Cate (Verity Barrett). She seems a bit, well, simple, suffers from fits yet remains a sentient, resilient being with an almost jack-in-a-box instinct for survival.

Yet she also seems to know Ian, who strips off before her, from old. And she knows his ex-wife and son as well. And then the premise of the play is truly blasted, entering another dimension including a one-man invasion of the hotel room by a starving, vengeful machine-gun toting soldier (Nima Taleghani).

Sarah Kane's 1995 play Blasted sucks the audience into a vortex of  abuse, violence, rape, buggery, masturbation and cannabilism but of course it's not the list that counts but how they are linked in the play and what it all means. How thin are the walls between Leeds and violence in and outside the city and outside in the world.

The converted ambulance repair depot in Totthenham Hale  has a traverse space on the warehouse floor with a  steep rake of chairs for the audience  on each side. Grace Smart's set design has dotted lines on the floor marking the demarcation lines beween rooms. Chalk shapes enclose words indicating "window", "clock" and so on.

The play itself certainly still has power - as does Shakespeare's King Lear or Titus Andronicus or, as the playwright herself pointed out, some portions of the Bible. Ali Pidsley directs a mostly clear and lucid production with effective and affective lighting by Matthew Vile and sound by Kieran Lucas.

There have been many more conflicts since Bosnia and we're now more likely to read about the almost full gruesome details through official or unofficial channels since the spread of the internet. Police, journalists and state authorities are no longer the sole conduits, selecting details for public consumption.

So it makes sense to have a faintly satirical art installation touch to a world where the walls between have come down and a representation of a baby which also represents a basic human need.
Watching it for the first time (at last), it struck us that it may have been influenced by Before The Rain, a 1994 Macedonian movie, which TLT saw around then.  In terms of its experimentation with time, the stage directions about rain and the invasive violence from Bosnia spreading to London.

For TLT was around and conscious in 1995 - except that Sarah Kane's Blasted never entered her radar. Romans In Britain, yes, after Mary Whitehouse's private prosecution of director Michael Bogdanov, but not Blasted.

That only happened when, some years later, a newsdesk faxed over a news cutting of a death in a hospital and sent TLT to the opening of an inquest at Southwark Coroner's Court. Even then TLT had never read or seen any of her plays. TLT was more disturbed about  the evidence briefly outlined at the opening.

How a  seemingly successful university-educated young woman, surrounded by so many people apparently feeding off her life and work, hoarded prescription pills and finally ended her life in a hospital in a manner more reminiscent of jail block suicides left extraordinarily with the facilities to kill themselves  

So TLT had also missed Jeremy Paxman's sunflower tie and sarky summary on Newsnight alongside a strange interview with a guarded Royal Court Theatre Artistic Director Stephen Daldry and a cheerful Daily Mail critic, the late Jack Tinker who surely knew what he was saying when he called her "a girl"?

Enough - it's important to say the dark humour in Blasted  still comes through and in some ways the whole play which we saw at The Styx comes from a romantic sensibility where the values of the maternal instinct and nurturing still pierce through the violence. Blasted runs until Saturday March 11 at The Styx, as part of a series of 1990s' plays put on by RIFT and it's a amber/green light from TLT. 

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Review You're Human Like The Rest Of Them

Three short plays by a cult late 20th century writer are a welcome introduction to his work, but Peter Barker finds these samples of his craft vary in quality.

You're Human Like The Rest Of Them
Down Red Lane
Not Counting The Savages
by BS Johnson

Bodies And Other Liabilities
Yet he ended his life in 1973 aged just 40, and it is to the Finborough Theatre’s credit that it has brought together three of his short plays for an evening which is uneven but intriguing.
As works of the absurd, the three plays of course have an exaggerated and surreal quality.
Now the Finborough Theatre tackles the same play with the diner (Reginald Edwards) daily abusing his body with a programme of oysters washed down with a Premier Cru Chablis. And it is his belly (played by Alex Griffin-Griffiths) who is the spokesman for the misgivings of his body as it collapses under years of abuse. 
Dark and witty,  the battle between prodigious appetite of the gourmand and the working class belly under siege is the best-written of the trio of plays.

A slightly earlier play in the Johnson canon, the faintly scandalous “Not Counting the Savages”, was originally commissioed as a BBC2 TV drama directed by Mike Newell. A wife and mother (Sarah Berger) returns home from a graveyard and tells her family how, while tending a family headstone, a male flasher ambushed her. She expects support and comfort. 
However her daughter Rosa (Emma Paetz) is self-centred and cold. Her son Jerry (Bertie Taylor-Smith) is a pornographic film maker, who finds her unpleasant experience a source of fun, and perhaps later of artistic inspiration. Her surgeon husband (Brian Deacon) proves totally uninterested in and uncaring about her ordeal, only elsewhere springing into action when his professional skills are required.
The wife should have been a character garnering support from the audience; but on the evidence of this production, Johnson fails to give her any convincing independent existence, except as a strop against which he can sharpen the exaggerated edges of the other characters.

The weakest piece is the final play, the blank verse “You’re Human Like the Rest of Them”. Originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1964, Johnson went on to direct it as a short film three years later.
The three plays are set to run two hours in the programme but in performance come out at a little over an hour. It feels as if “You’re Human Like the Rest of Them” is where the cut came. 
Taylor-Smith is a teacher Haakon who has a sudden revelation of the human body's peculiar structural inadequacy and his own mortality.  Despite mustering the maximum amount of  energy and plausbility, the idea of wakening to an existential reality feels somewhat juvenile and Taylor-Smith is hampered by a shallow and, unfortunately, dull  piece.

Working around the set of the other play currently running at the Finborough Theatre, the design by Rūta Irbīte also feels rather over-fussy with 1950s second-hand furniture scattered around the walls of the two-sided space.  Three-dimensional geometric shapes such as crescents and rectangles function as tables, chairs and other furnishing.  
The audience only has fleeting glimpses of Johnson's talent in these plays directed by Carla Kingham. A fresh outing for Johnson's work is laudable and it certainly serves a purpose for those interested in UK theatre from the 1950s to the 1970s. But this red/amber light production may not win Johnson many new fans.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Review The Diary Of A Teenage Girl

The Diary Of A Teenage Girl
by Marielle Heller
From The Graphic Novel By Phoebe Gloekner

Minnie In Sexland

There's something rather askew about the production of The Diary Of A Teenage Girl currently running at Southwark Playhouse. That's not just because of Andrew Riley's ingenious set and the deliberately comic strip aura.

There's just a damned sight too much sweet in what is at heart a very sour story and while 1970s' tweedom works for a while, we longed finally for the set to fall away and the reality of the back wall to intrude.

The play is adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner's 2002 graphic novel which was turned into a play eight years later by movie director Marielle Heller before directing a well-received movie.

This ostensibly is a San Francisco coming-of-age tale of 15 year old Minnie Goetz (Rona Morison), aspiring to be a cartoonist with a new age single Mom (Rebecca Trehearn). With an ex-step-father Pascal (Mark Carroll), an editor of scientific journals, on the sidelines, Minnie half initiates and half is sucked into a life of underage sex with Monroe (Jamie Wilkes) whose doctrince seems to be bed the Mom, bed the daughter (without Mom's knowledge). 

There's something more to this play than simply the  life of a girl as we think we caught glimpses of something as weighty as the late 20th century history of the comic strip and the McCarthy-like criticism of the comic book and push towards French continental-style censorship in the 1950s' The Seduction Of The Innocent 

However structurally it's rather an awkward piece written as if were a series of comic book frames which doesn't quite come off on stage. As it is, this production, directed by Alexander Parker and Amy Ewbank, relies heavily on the strength of Rona Morison's central performance. Skinny, pale-skinned, auburn-haired, she definitely fits the bill, even if the play itself remains somewhat effortful.

There's rather a disconnect between the audio diary - dictated to a retro cassette player - and the projected cartoons (video designer Nina Dunn, additional drawings and animation Emma Abel), Minnie's ambition in life. It struck us she would have been more likely to have poured everything into her comic strips. Indeed it's rare to see her pick up a pen and draw - all the cartoons including the action within the play seem ready-made for her.

The play also rather bombards us with signposting that THIS IS THE 1970s rather than allowing the story to breathe. The story of Patti Hearst and her Mom's empathy for Patti obviously means something but it feels thrown away.

More uncomfortably, the play itself never quite hits a tone which makes us truly understand Minnie's point of view. In some of its unintended flippancy (and goodness knows there is plenty of intended flippancy) as a pornographic comic book world envelops her and her friend Kimmie (Saskia Strallen), it can seem like salaciousness rather than the viewpoint of the young woman. 

In other words, we felt, without knowing the original comic book or the successful movie, the play is maybe less dramatically successful in bringing to life the complex crossover between the social events and news stories of the time, the rise of pornography and drugs alongside the recording industry and the peculiar and rather askew vision of Cold War psychiatry and psychotherapy.

Still, the cast is excellent, the soundtrack packed with memorable songs from the 1970s  and the pacy direction from Parker and Ewbank keeps the attention.  Even if this TLT upper range amber light play feels as if it needs a more raw social and political dimension than a polished nostalgic evocation.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Review Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead [Preview]

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
by Tom Stoppard

The Lost Boys

Hot on the heels of the video editor's Hamlet, comes a revival of Tom Stoppard's first playwriting success, the 50-year-old tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead.

In 1967  two bit characters in Shakespeare's tragedy were plucked from obscurity, first by a young writer, then by an Observer critic and finally by the literary manager of the National Theatre

"We're just over the moon, it's better than winning the pools, we've been in work for 50 years," says Guildenstern - or is it Rosencrantz ...?*

For those a tad too young to know, the football pools were one of the two ways of winning big money  in 1967, the other being Post Office Premium Bonds.

OK, ok, we're being tongue-in-cheek and metatheatrical as the Old Vic - the original home of the National Theatre between 1963 and 1976 - celebrates half a century of the Danish twosome in Stoppard's play.

This time it's the turn of Joshua McGuire and Daniel Radcliffe to take on the double act with David Haig taking up the mantle as the Player King. (who, by the way, speaks fluent Danish for, some might say, rather Stoppardian absurdist reasons).

Directed by David Leveaux,  Radcliffe is the more passive Rosencrantz, gaining in confidence during the play as the wide-eyed little lost boy who wants to "go home" and showing a knack for comedy timing. Meanwhile McGuire grasps the mettle as the fruity-voiced leader of the pair, Guildenstern, and both are clothed in traditional brown and green jerkins with satchels from their shoulders

But Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are also children let loose from the nursery, set against an unrolled cloudy blue sky, half Simpsons cartoon-like, half Michaelangelo Sistine Chapel sky (set design Anna Fleischle, lighting Howard Harrison). After all, unlike Hamlet we do not see or know their parentage. Yet, the child-like aspect is emphasised by a picture book quality to the costumes, as if the Danish royal Court has steeped itself in the pastels of Le Petit Prince.

King Claudius (Wil Johnson) has a paper crown, Queen Gertrude (Marianne Oldham) has an outsize Elizabethan ruff topping a scarlet dress with hooped skirt halting above the ankles. Polonius (William Chubb has a gold braid and Danish  pastel blue jacket with a fairy-tale blonde Orphelia (Helena Wilson), similarly in pastel blue (costumes Anna Fleischle and Lori Epstein).

Hamlet (Luke Mullins) is a confident, languid first rank public schoolboy, all in black, smoothly outwitting the two attendants mired in trying to work out their place in things as tantalizing snippets of the Shakespeare play emerge and disappear around them.

For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not acting extras but characters who know only their own lines - when they remember them - and are blocked from knowing the whole story. Haig's Player King enters Brechtian style with a cart but accompanied by a pierrot/commedia del arte band with a klezmer feel (composer Colin Buckeridge).

Indeed Haig's scene-stealing Player King, in an unbuttoned red toy soldier scarlet jacket, has a touch of Fagin about him as well as a slightly Pinteresque menace as he draws the curtain across the stage with what looks like Brueghel's painting of Icarus's fall when the sun melts his wings, suffering while life goes on around him.
Any production of Shakespeare's Hamlet has to overcome its status as a play filled with quotes, bringing freshness to the text. So Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern has to compete now against a plethora of parodies where the premise of two characters hanging around, waiting for their cue is hardly novel.

Yet as we have pointed out in our review of the 2011 Trevor Nunn production, for all the theorizing about probability and literary in-jokes, there is heart and drama at the centre of Stoppard's play. The deracinated pair at times almost seem like refugees in their un-knowledge of what is going on around them and their fates dictated by others, both in person and in paperwork.

This is a solid production with a winsome quality of the nursery mixed with the sting of ill chance and looming death. On its 50th anniversary, it seems the dictum of that well-known stand up Karl Marx still stands up: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." It's an amber/green light for a play which has now has entered theatrical history but still keeps its edge, both as farce and tragedy.

*We should say that's an off the record quote from Rosencrantz - or - um - Guildenstern, in case you go to the show and wonder why that line isn't in it. OK, we admit it, it's fake news  - we made that one up ... 😉

Friday, 3 March 2017

Review Hamlet

by William Shakespeare

Theories of Relativity

Yes, it's all about relatives in the eagerly-awaited Hamlet directed by Robert Icke and with Andrew Scott taking on the role of the sweet prince. That's not just because the Danish court is pretty incestuous but because the corruption within is all - well - relative. 

T-shirt-clad Hamlet (Scott) creeps back to Elsinore  with battered suitcase during the wedding party where his Mum Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) and his paternal uncle cum step-father, the childless Claudius (Angus Wright) do a smoochy nuptial dance. 

But if he had not been displaced in natural hierarchy by his father's brother, would Hamlet have joined in the usual court shenanigins? In some ways, he is a curiously unsympathetic, sometimes even sneering  Hamlet, his mother's son but without the coolness of age. 

For there's something also a little off kilter about Gertrude which culminated in us even wondering if she had a nefarious hand in an off-stage death. 

We're in a 21st century Denmark as regards the video technology and a laptop - but otherwise letters on parchment show its business as usual for paper records. 

The rooms are wide screen backed by sliding glass doors with Scandinavian-style furniture. Security guards control CCTV cameras. Gertrude slips from a backless, chiffon Princess Diana-like fashion creation to Jackie O chic (set and costume design Hildegarde Bechtler).

If Hamlet keeps Horatio (a rather lacklustre Elliot Barnes-Worrell) close to him, maybe there is a double agency at work or is there a family tree entanglement? 

Even Polonius's (Peter Wight) lumpen efforts could, with a different turn of events, be underestimated. After all the line between political success and failure is a hair's breadth. He has a son Laertes (Luke Thompson) to rival Hamlet and a possibly ambitious and certainly knowingly seductive daughter in Orphelia (Jessica Brown Findlay).

The 24 hour rolling news - some in Danish - on the screens which are periodically lowered and raised during the performance put us in mind that Royal massacres are not unknown even in our times. And of course very recently there are allegations swirling around the death of another member of a ruling family.

This was a Hamlet which grew on us rather than sweeping us away from the first. Maybe the aim was to introduce Hamlet as a slightly irritating outsider with a propensity to claw the air, speak in soliloquys and, curiously, a Southern Irish accent (admittedly Scott is a Dubliner), setting him apart from even his own parents like a cuckoo in the nest. 

Hamlet's fault,  and appearance to others as confused, seems to be to try and work out in what the rot in Denmark consists. Or maybe not to take a leading role in a court enclosed in a TV studio bubble. Also to assume that childhood pal Rosencrantz (Calum Finlay) and his former flame, the female Guildenstern (Amaka Okafor) are automatically of his party. 

Hamlet is almost in a Truman Show position. Those around him perceive the court's dangerous limbo now Hamlet's father is dead in dubious circumstances and where the son, a possible heir, is in jeopardy. Or in the words of Sir John Harington,  "Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason". In short, Hamlet may in fact be a politician but the wrong sort of politician for the times. 

Does this work? At the start we have to say it did feel rather grating and slow. But we also wonder whether this is once again a production also trying to strike a balance between stage and broadcast where the pregnant pauses might be far more meaningful. In other ways, it's very much an intimate Scandi-noir TV Hamlet with a distinct psychological take, some of which may be taking place in Hamlet's fevered brain.

We also found the Bob Dylan soundtracks a bit - hmmmm. OK, we confess this review has been our own to-like-or-not-to-like Hamlet soliloquy because at some points it is a spy/surveillance drama more akin to the 2010 Rory Kinnear Hamlet directed by Nick Hytner.  At other points, it feels as if we are being sucked into the hesitating Hamlet's addled mental landscape until ultimately the two merge.

This is a Hamlet which disturbs the equilibrium. While the rolling news is almost cliché, there was something very disturbing seeing Norwegian  troops. in modern uniform, in Poland in a newsflash.

The shade of the lunatic asylum - or prison or is it a TV studio? - hangs over Hamlet as much as Orphelia who may have chosen to take refuge in an asylum once her father is wiped out.

Meanwhile it is Hamlet's mother  who takes the action and proves something more than the usual Gertrude but she and Claudius finally seem forced to follow a script not of their own making. There's even something of a video editor's ending with a deliberate continuity gaffe. An upper range amber light for a strange but magnetic sliding doors, button-pushing filmic production.

Review I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard

The British première of a whipsmart, brutal play set in a New York apartment fascinates Francis Beckett with its lacerating dissection of a father-daughter relationship.  

I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard 
by Halley Feiffer

Portrait Of The Artist As A Raving Egotist

A young American actress, excited and hopeful after opening in a new show, comes home with her famous playwright father, and they consume a lot of drink and a lot of drugs; and he takes out the disappointments and resentments of his own life by manipulating a daughter who hero-worships him.

That’s pretty much it, really, but it adds up to an evening in the theatre which leaves you angry and emotionally drained.

The father is a man of his time, and his time is the late fifties and the sixties, so he has all the self-indulgence of that most indulged generation, plus the sort of sexual obsession that seems to grip many American men of a certain age. If he wants to be insulting about another man, he calls him a queer or speculates that his sexual organ may not be large. Dicks and pussies figure large in his discourse.

His cultural references are those of his generation, such as Death of a Salesman, but there is underlying bitterness that he never achieved the same status as the likes of Arthur Miller.  He has told his daughter his stories of triumph and near-triumph many times, but she still listens agog – and he sulks when she remembers the punch line.

He is mean about small things. She needs a cigarette and has run out; he has one alight, but refuses her because there is only one left in his packet. He teases her about her reviews, and cheers her with more drink and more drugs. He tells her “you gotta learn to drink like an adult” as he drinks like a spoilt child.

He says he loves his daughter, and in his own way he does. Would he still love her if she failed to make it as an actress, she wants to know.  Well, yes, but he’d be really disappointed. And “your mother getting ill is the best thing that could have happened to us” – for she might have got in the way.

In short, the man is such a complete shit that, despite Adrian Lukis’s best efforts in the part (and Mr Lukis’s best efforts are very good), I for one could not give a damn what happened to him.

The daughter is another matter. Jill Winternitz gives a stunning performance, believable and heart-rending from start to finish.  She is what her character wants to be – an exceptionally talented actor of star quality. We pray for her character to escape the clutches of her domineering, manipulative father, until she does, and – without giving away the end – it is not what we hoped for.

A fine play, well acted and thoughtfully directed by Jake Smith, is well worth the trek to the Finborough and earns a green light.