Monday, 30 October 2017

Imagine This

Maryam Philpott, a historian, regular blogger  and theatre reviewer. She now joins the TLT team and finds a musical charting one of the Second World War's darkest hours is hampered by a clumsy handling of its themes.

Imagine This
Book by Glenn Berenbeim
Music by Shuki Levy
Lyrics by David Goldsmith

Love Among The Ruins

One of the most terrible and doomed of wartime circumstances, The Warsaw Ghetto, provides the backdrop for the musical Imagine This.

War and theatre have of course a long history together through Julius Caesar to Journey's End and beyond.  Yet theatre has always also provided an outlet for raising the morale of those experiencing the conflict at first hand.

During the First World War, for instance, servicemen started concert parties, putting on a range of entertainments  including all-male revues and the Royal Navy even had dedicated theatre ships pulling alongside warships, allowing men to board and watch a show.

Book writer Glenn Berenbeim with composer Shuki Levy and lyricist David Goldsmith have taken the idea of theatre instilling hope for the civilians caught up in Nazi atrocities.

Daniel Warshowsky, the head of a family and a theatre company, is imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto alongside hundreds and thousands of other Jews driven inside its barbed wire by the Nazis.

In 1942 Daniel is spurred on by justified fears the Nazis have plans to crush them further. He encourages family and friends to put on a clearly allegorical play about the Jews persecuted by the mighty Roman Empire in the desert settlement of Masada.

Initially roused by the idea, the players start to hope for a better future. However their company is disrupted by the sudden arrival of resistance fighter on-the-run Adam.

They give him a starring role to shelter him, but he also forces them to confront stark realities and decide whether to continue with the play and its message of hope or to take another course of action.

Imagine This is a strange compression of two semi-independent stories as the audience watches the cast preparing for the show in the bleak surrounds of the ghetto and then putting on the Roman story as a musical within a musical.

Director Harry Blumenau manages the transitions fairly seamlessly, clearly emphasising the areas where art and life begin to overlap which adds moments of poignancy and purpose to the odd construction.

Yet the ancient story of the Jewish rebels somehow feels more believable and encourages greater audience investment.

Some of the songs here are well-staged including Masada in which the local community vows to defend themselves against the advancing professional army.

Kevan Allen’s choreography uses the rhythmic beating of sticks to suggest a powerful stomping force approaching, while the arrangement of the cast in the Union Theatre's small space gives the impression of greater crowds on both sides.

The rebel story also has a credible love story at its heart. Lauren James Ray is the young Jewish woman who, despite herself, falls in love with Shaun McCourt’s Roman General Silva, the two then togther attempting to prevent further bloodshed.

Their duets Far From Here, Far From Now and I Surrender have a sweet charm, lending genuine feeling to their romance. However, they are also the only characters the audience gets to know well, although Rob Hadden’s Rufus as the Roman Emperor's tribune does make an intriguing villain.

By contrast, the ghetto scenes have much less impact than the Masada musical-within-a-musical and feel much stagier.

As actor-manager Daniel, Nicky Wyschna has considerable presence and sings well. Nevertheless the non-musical acting between the songs is awkward, the scenes lack tension and any real sense of the danger they all face.

Jonny Muir’s Captain Blick skilfully manages to avoid Nazi stereotypes, suggesting a man who enjoys culture and has some feeling for Rebecca, but a collection of supporting characters barely make their mark.

While this is primarily a problem with the show itself (this is a revival following a shortlived première in 2008), it seems a shame the elements of a true story, filled with potential darkness and hopelessness, aren't used more meaningfully.

There are also times when the voices do get lost beneath the volume of the band under the direction of Alex Williams. Nevertheless there are some genuinely engaging moments, particularly when the company performs in unison with striking effect. 

The same harmony, though, eludes the structure and themes of the musical. Imagine This fails to exploit the constant battle between optimism and realism, embodied in the contrasting figures of the actor and the resistance fighter.

War and theatre may be closely linked, but Imagine This never manages to  reconcile its two plots satisfactorily, undermining the signficance of the musical's conclusion, and it's an amber light.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Review Young Marx

Young Marx
by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman

Kapital, My Dear Karl, Kapital!

Hey, it's Young Marx at the new Bridge Theatre, hot on the heels of Young Frankenstein over at The Garrick! The first season at London's latest theatre, a commercial venture but springboarded, some might say, from advantages gained at the publicly funded National Theatre.

This new play by former stand up and writer of One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean and BBC legal correspondent cum playwright Clive Coleman takes seriously Marx's dictum, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce". Even if the shift in tone to tragedy is in reverse order and comes quite late in Young Marx.

Before that huge beard, Prussian-born "the Jew" Karl Heinrich Marx (Rory Kinnear) is living in London in 1850 with his aristocratic wife Jenny Von Westphalen (Nancy Carroll) and their two young children, frail Guido, known as Fawksy, (played on alternate nights by Logan Clark, Rupert Turnbull or Joseph Walker) and feisty piano-playing little Jenny (Dixie Egerickx, Matilda Shapland or Harriet Turnbull). Also with last, but certainly not least, a loyal maidservant (Laura Elphinstone).

Constantly on the breadline, Marx is also constantly one step ahead  - often by hiding in cupboards! - of a Prussian spy (Fode Simbo), London bobbies (Joseph Wilkins as Sergeant Savage), the family's landlord and the bailiffs, pawning his wife's family's silver.

Meawhile he and his friend,wealthy industrialist patron and fellow political philosopher Friedrich Engels (Oliver Chris) form a political and (almost) a musical hall double act.

Hm, TLT prides herself as a reviewer with both a bourgeois and proletarian sense of humour (Yes! All at the same time!). My, how she and her exploited but cooperative automotive sidekick laughed many years ago when they read a cartoon version of Marxist philosophy.

Young Marx tries awfully hard to be funny and there are also plenty of facts and pseudo-facts (as far as  nittypicky TLT is aware, the allegation of an illegitimate child's paternity is unproven and, while Marx is commonly regarded as Jewish, he was a baptized Lutheran).

Obviously the story does insert details which are specific to the Marx household and its economy but over two hours and 20 minutes, we did wonder if other famous people could be inserted and loose and fast "facts" changed with little difficulty.

Young Dickens, for example, dashing like Bill Sykes over the roofs of Mark Thompson's rather fetching three-dimensional revolving set, complete with swirls of smoke from the chimneys. A Tiny Tim in Karl and Jenny's little boy Fawksy and Dickens's lover Nelly Ternan as the bit on the side? Yes, it's a different story (Marx stayed with his wife) combining fact and fiction, but somehow, there is something template-ish about this piece.

Indeed Young Marx struck us as more of a series of sketches, a League of Marxist Gentlemen, very well-acted, given pace by Nicholas Hytner's direction and the music of Grant Olding. But nothing particularly hilarious and side-splitting or insightful.

There was only one point where we really thought there going to be a humorous lift off with satiric bite - the arrival of a whelk stall owner gving a telling dissection of how she is bound in a torturous (read: privatised) economic supply chain. However, like Oliver Twist, we waited for more which never came.         

Still, it's a spacious, airy, pleasant new building on the South Bank and there's an extensive future programme of new writing including the talented Barney Norris's Nightfall and, next, its first foray into the classics with a promenade version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. So plenty to look forward to but needs dictate we give our verdict on Young Marx and it's an amber light. 

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Review Demons

From The Book By Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dramatised by Peter Stürm

The Revolution Will Be Dramatised
Tackling Fyodor Dostoevsky's Demons for a stage production is always going to be a mighty task. Inspired by an 1860s' real-life murder case of student murdered by his fellow nihilist revolutionaries, the novel prophetically warns of the dangers of fanatical ideologies.

Peter Stürm, artistic director of  SplitMoon theatre company, is the latest artiste to grapple with this sprawling satiric work in a patchy production at St Leonard's Church in Shoreditch, London.

On the plus side, there's no lack of ambition in this modern dress production with its parade of carnivalesque grotesques.  There are strong actors in the cast, Jeffrey Kissoon, Samuel Collings, Timothy Allsopp and Valerie Grogan, and some beautiful work on lighting, although the lighting designer is unnamed in the programme

St Leonard's Church is magnificent, a venue fittingly reflecting Doestoevsky's religious preoccupations. It could have been a glorious setting and audience experience for a carefully thought-out production.

Unfortunately, the pluses are outweighed by the minuses in what turns out  to be a gruelling and jumbled three hours for the audience, shepherded from nave of the church to various other rooms, up and down staircases.

The problems start with the church's acoustics - audibility is a major issue, even sitting up close. The sound is better when the action moves to the smaller rooms.

The play's framework, as far as TLT could grasp,  is that of a court case, the story of a botched uprising then told in flashback. What happens between the beginning and the end? It was often hard to grasp and there's something amiss when one needs to consult the programme's description of characters in order to try and work out what is going on.

There is a possiblity of some spectacular staging - the image of a duel on one balcony watched by the audience on the opposite balcony sticks in the mind. However it was impossible to follow a narrative line.

Collings as the manipulative, amoral Stavrogin is undoubtedly charismatic and Kissoon makes an impact as both a bishop and also Stravrogin's intellectual mentor. However, this feels like a tangled production, with only occasional moments of clarity where basic technical problems could have been solved beforehand,

While Dostoevsky is famously wordy, the script could do with some filleting to allow more of both the subtlety and the bold satiric humour to emerge.  This seems like a script  shoehorned into the space rather than tailor-made.

It made TLT wonder whether in another space, more convenient for the audience and actors, this particular production would have worked better. However, as it is, this is a frustrating experience for the audience, sealing a red light. 

Review Witness For The Prosecution

Francis Beckett relishes the legal shenanigans of a classic courtroom drama in a venue haunted by the ghosts of London's political past. 

Witness for the Prosecution
By Agatha Christie

A Hanging Offence

One of crime writer Agatha Christie's most famous plays is being performed in the splendid debating chamber where, from 1922 to 1986, the London County Council and then the Greater London Council met and took decisions for the capital.

It’s an atmospheric venue of the right period for both the 1925 short story and the 1953 popular stage version Witness For The Prosecution.

A young man is charged with the murder of a wealthy spinster and subsequent events display all the Christie bag of tricks: suspense, betrayal, a plot with as many twists and turns as a fairground ride.

The stakes are high, for in 1953 we still hanged people for murder. Agatha Christie, as playwright, does a thoroughly professional job and, without doing anything at all profound, Witness For The Prosecution certainly holds the attention.

The present production has assured and imaginative direction from Lucy Bailey and set designer William Dudley makes sensitive use of what the venue gives him.

A first class cast is headed by David Yelland as Sir Wilfred Robarts QC, counsel for the defence. 

Yelland has this old-style QC just right: vain, stately and instinctively, but not unkindly, snobbish. He calls the accused man by his unadorned surname, expecting the working class man to call him Sir Wilfred. But he's also a lawyer who cares about people and about justice.

Patrick Godfrey makes a wonderful, crackling, elderly judge and Philip Franks a sinister, sneering prosecution barrister. Jack McMullen manages brilliantly to make the twists and turns of the accused man almost believable and Catherine Steadman is superb as his wife.

The cross-examinations may sometimes seem rather ham-fisted with Sir Wilfred a bit slow to see what is before his eyes. But, without them, the author couldn’t have given us the next twist in the plot. The end justifies the means.

Walking into the chamber, you pass walls which have, engraved in them, fading lists of great politicians who once ruled London: famous names of the recent past  - Herbert Morrison, Christopher Chataway, Ashley Bramall, Ken Livingstone. They are a reminder of a time when the building belonged to Londoners.

Once inside, you also get to watch that fine character actor Richard Attlee, who doubles as clerk to Sir Wilfred and a police surgeon and is probably best known as Kenton Archer in The Archers.

By an excruciating irony, he is also the grandson of Clement Attlee, Britain’s post Second World War Labour Prime Minister. Attlee had a healthy respect for local democracy and the denizens of the building that glowers across the Thames at the House of Commons.

He would have been horrified to see the fate that has befallen the building. For in 1986, Margaret Thatcher evicted London's elected representatives and sold the splendid building to a private company. It now houses restaurants, fast food outlets, hotels, that sort of thing.

When Londoners got their government back, it was exiled to a small novelty building, sloping like a plastic replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. So, one really good reason for going to see Witness for the Prosecution is that it’s one of the few chances you’ll get to see how much more dignified London government once was.

You also get to follow Agatha Christie's well-constructed play, still an audience pleaser, with the capacity to spring surprises.

If you’ve seen an earlier stage or screen version, you'll  know what’s coming, but go anyway – this production is as good as it gets.  A green light for a walk through history and a good evening in the theatre.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Review Insignificance

by Terry Johnson

Starry, Starry Night

Who is imagining whom in Terry Johnson's flirtatiously symbolic 1982 piece Insignificance where Hollywood, politics, science and professional sport all collide?

On an evening in 1954 in a New York hotel room, the heavy-drinking Senator (Tom Mannion) is confronting the German-born Professor (Simon Rouse), denigrating him as a "Yid".

However, the politician is shrewd enough in his small-minded way to understand the capital to be had from the celebrity scientist's attendance to promote the profile of the House Of UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings.

And after the senator temporarily leaves, whoosh! In blows the platinum blonde actress (Alice Bailey Johnson). She, in turn, is eventually pursued by her heavy-hitter, in all senses of the word, sportsman husband (Oliver Hemborough).

It is of course rather disingenuous of your starstruck reviewer, who is not even  a front for anybody's organisation or cartel 😉, to leave the characters unnamed.

Except she is following the example of the playwright. For Johnson carefully keeps his toolbox of characters representative, cherry picking and jumbling details of many lives hooked in to the recognizable celebrity images who inhabit the space-time continuum in the play's Manhattan hotel room.

In this 1950s' parallel universe we cannot know if we are confronted by the spitting images of or the "real" Nobel prize winning scientist Albert Einstein,  Hollywood sex bomb Marilyn Monroe and legendary sportsman Joe DiMaggio.

Meanwhile the 1950s' villain-in-chief Senator Joe McCarthy sometimes also has difficulty separating the Hollywood double from the real thing.

Are we to believe it is a biographical episode? Is it a honeytrap using a Hollywood sex symbol to force a chain reaction for the naming of names during the Red Scare?

What is significant and what is insignificant?

Originally premièred at the Royal Court directed by Lee Waters with Judy Davis, Ian McDiarmid, Larry Lamb and William Hootkins, some aspects of Insignificance now feel dated.

The concept of starry icons brought down to earth is no longer a novel one. Bio-plays and films are now all the rage. In our internet age, imagining encounters between famous people in out-of-character circumstances does not feel outrageous.

Still, Johnson's kaleidoscope still does have something to say in our times where the precarious nature of America's celebrity shop window royalty is even more apparent.

However David Mercatali's production seems uncertain and is uneven in quality.   

The first act has some wavering accents and an opaque scientific (literally) Mickey Mouse demonstration which doesn't completely convince. To be fair, though, we are generations on from audiences knowing Walt Disney truly once was the conveyor of popular science to the masses, so maybe some of the double-edgedness is lost.

The cast feels much more at home with the emotional truths of the second act than the caricatural media images of the first.

However one act needs to bat against the other, politically, historically and dramatically, for the play to succeed. In short, the chain reaction doesn't consistently spark here and it's an amber light.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Review Anything That Flies

Anything That Flies
by Judith Burnley

The Past Is Another Country

Anything That Flies is an ambitious little play on the refugee experience, setting its sights on huge topics within a domestic milieu which slips and slides into the fantastical.

German-born Otto Huberman is a curmudgeonly, whiskey-supping Jewish widower, living alone in a North West London flat, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and his grown up child's emigration to Israel.

His life is disrupted by the arrival of a new carer -  unexpectedly a matronly but also softly attractive blonde German hausfrau apparently sent by his daughter to look after him following a stroke.

The play, directed by Alice Hamilton, charts the ups and downs of an enforced relationship between the two and an attempt to come to terms with a past they are unable to reconcile either as separate individuals or in relation to each other.

Oscar both faces and evades his past, the unjust fate meted out to his kin who nevertheless always protected him and helped him board a Noah's Ark to safety.

Behind his bristling belligerance and, in many ways, justified snobbery about his achievements as a cultured inventor and innovator, he is wracked by his own failings as a human being which, in other more normal life circumstances, he might have allowed himself to push entirely aside. 

Lottie, a minor German aristocrat from an estate in the former Eastern Germany, throws herself into making his life more comfortable, while sometimes overlooking more basic, practical needs, also idolizing her childhood English governess who in reality deserted her ward in disturbing circumstances.

In our Brexit age some descendants of Jewish German speaking refugees are considering taking up citizenship of their ancestors' homeland for a variety of motives, but this play in its present form, tackling previous displacement, belonging and attempts at reparation,  feels like a missed opportunity.

TLT thought she could detect some slight hints of complexity and irony in the text. However this production has a tendency to flatten these and the result is the implication of probably unintended conclusions.

At the same time the script does it no favours failing to flag up more patently a cleverer, and very much more human, mix of successful entrepreneur, male chauvinist and guilty survivor.

Otto's repeating, for instance, of an old canard levelled against those who  stayed in Germany comes over as a fact rather than what could be an aggressive survival mechanism on his part in his new homeland.

He outwardly dismisses his family's powerlessness to leave, even before the Second World War's outbreak, not only within the National Socialist regime but in the context of an outside world, including Britain, which often closed its doors to Jewish refugees.

Emily Adamson and Neil Irish's set is a nicely understated but detailed Belsize Park flat.  Clive Merrison as the wily, lascivious, mercurial Otto and Issy Van Randwyck as the carer, Lottie, equally needy for completely different reasons, with her own infatuations and obsessions, both give vivid and vivacious performances.

However they are hampered by an unbalanced dramatic framework, reducing distressing complexity to simplistic stereotype and playing to conventional assumptions about heroes and villains in the Second World War.

There's potential in Judith Burnley's one act drama and the possibility of a distinctive voice emerging. She certainly has a take on refugee technical innovation and its relationship to continental Europe and the former Soviet Union which distinguishes her work from, for example, Stephen Poliakoff.

However, at the moment, her grasp of the entanglements and ramifications is not matched by a playwright's technical, structural skill and it's an amber light.  

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Review Fishskin Trousers

A beguiling tale, drawing on folk myth and 20th century history, alternately intrigues and frustrates reviewer Peter Barker.  

Fishskin Trousers
by Elizabeth Kuti

Catching The Waves

Fishskin Trousers weaves together a trio of monologues from three characters spanning hundreds of years .

Mab (Jessica Carroll) is a medieval serving woman in a castle on the East Anglian coast who develops a fascination for a wild supernatural creature which the local fishermen trap in their nets.

Ben (Brett Brown) is a 1970s' Australian scientist, haunted by his past, working to combat the Soviet threat during  the Cold War. Yet he begins to wonder whether there is a supernatural reason for the strange noises interfering with a radar system.

Hauling the play into the net of our times,  Mog (Eva Traynor) is a teacher from the current century who finds herself having to make a tough decision after a love affair ends unhappily. Yet her tale also unwittingly echoes and is inextricably linked with the past.   

Their voices all emerge from the same location - the real-life Sussex fishing village of Orford and mysterious island of Orford Ness. 

Each character from a different era era shares his or her experience with the audience, psychologically and physically separate from each other, yet intertwined.

Fishskin Trousers weaves together myth, psychology and history to give a sense of the uncanny combined with earthy personal dilemmas. However the dependence on storytelling alone proves a double edged sword.    

This production, a revival of the play's première four years ago when it achieved considerable success with the same director and cast, has an ingenious idea at its heart and poignant moments.

The play seeks to map out the psychic geography of three emotionally lost people's lives, as well as evoking the physical atmosphere swirling around them.

Nevertheless it does feel very static, which also emphasizes the unevenness within the drama, breaking the mystery and the poetic language's spell.

The archaic language with  thick local accent of the servant Mab does rather distract, bordering on parody, although Jessica Carroll's performance is undoubtedly characterful.

There are also strong performances from Brett Brown as researcher Ben and Eva Traynor as tormented schoolteacher Mog. 

The staging is minimal, a boulder enclosed by a circle of shingle with the lone additon of a visual soundwave on the backdrop. The unravelling of the stories do draw the audience in but for me, it felt like a play more suited to radio.

The resolution is neat, ingenious and satisfying with the qualities of a good ghost story. But the monologues sometimes seem unbalanced with, for example, the opening monologue from Mab being very long.

Overall, this felt like a very promising rather than a fully achieved set of monologues and play. It  might also have been interesting to bring in more choreography.

There was much to admire but my interest in the characters waxed and waned like the sound and sea waves and it's an amber light.   

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Review Albion

by Mike Bartlett

Stab In The Book

Successful entrepreneur Audrey Walters gives up a life in metropolitan London, buying back a family home amid the birdsong of  the English countryside, bringing cynical but supportive husband Paul and Cambridge graduate daughter Zara in tow.

She becomes evangelical in her rather desperate mission to revive a once-celebrated garden created in the twilight decades of the British Empire and remembered from her youth in the 1970s.

Albion is a strange, bitter mishmash which strives to be a weighty history and state-of-the nation drama. In fact, for TLT and her own 21st state-of-the-art motorised sidekick, it felt rather dated despite the insertion of a few Brexit references.

Audrey (Victoria Hamilton), having founded an apparently flourishing furnishings business, appears to have had her head turned in a Bovaryesque way by literary romance and a very British deluded concept of family heritage.

She rushes in where many a lesser soul would fear to tread and becomes an unwitting agent of change in the village.

From the title, Albion, an ancient name for Britain also adopted by Romantic poet William Blake, you might expect an exploration of Britishness. However Mike Bartlett's drama deals more in on-the-nose (or should that be nosegay?!) metaphors and token gestures towards its many themes. 

There are plenty of literary references but nothing to copyright home about. It could have been an agile, sly but touching satire. However it becomes a scattergun, lumbering play with contrived conflicts and simplistic viewpoints.

Directed by Rupert Goold most of the characters - and they are explicitly identified with past literature and a rather troubling ultimate identification of the feminine with novelistic insanity without any proper context  - give expositional speeches.

That's all, except for Audrey's bestselling novelist friend Katherine (Helen Schlesinger) whose words, in contrast  need to be treated with caution. As with Audrey's business, the nature of Katherine's talent and her financial set up appear somewhat hazy. However she appears to churn out novels with romantic aplomb without an editor or any such mundane publishing accoutrements.

Zara (the name of a shop! the name of a royal!) has aspirations to be - what else? - a writer. Despite her mother's achievements, Zara (Charlotte Hope) embodies the work and housing problems of graduates eternally on placements, never getting a job, and sleeping on a friend's couch. Ha, another theme ticked off!

Meanwhile the garden with its tall and sturdy English oak, is haunted by the ghosts of two male wartime casualties (shades of another property-based play, Clybourne Park with its Korean veteran ghost), separated by a century.

Nevertheless, for TLT, Albion remained inorganic despite the best efforts of designer Miriam Bluether,  with a turfed traverse stage alongside lighting designer Neil Austin and sound from Gregory Clarke, to give it a cycle-of-the-seasons feel.

In its machine-like churning out of themes - and its length! - it did bear some resemblance to A Day By The Sea, currently on a run in South London - but far more smug.

While something again of a stereotype, the most interesting character and the story with the most promise is that of Krystyna (Edyta Budnik), the go-getting Polish cleaner who has set up her own efficient company.

She obviously has clients outside the boundaries of the rather tiresome house and grounds and there is the question mark over what will happen to her beliefs and business after 2019. 

Albion seems like a play that has been stretched out in all directions to be a big, meandering state-of-the-nation play, rather than growing some potentially interesting relationships into satisfying integrated drama.

The literary metaphors feel very self-consciously, rather than wittily, tacked on, so it becomes a case of spot-the-literary-reference.

The actors do their best with this big, baggy monster of a play but nothing can disguise its overblown nature for TLT and it's a lower-range amber light.    

Review Venus In Fur

Game Of Thrones' star Natalie Dormer impresses Francis Beckett, catches the zeitgeist, but turns out to be less than the sum of its parts.

Venus in Fur
By David Ives 

Of Human Bondage

Sometimes timing dictates what your play is about.

Harvey Weinstein was just another Hollywood film mogul when several years ago David Ives sat down to write Venus in Fur. In his play a theatre director,  who rather despises the actresses he hires or declines to hire, gets his comeuppance.

That, at least, because no play is an island, is what Venus in Fur is about right now and what the zeitgeist demands in late October 2017.

However I suspect that was not the original subject of the play Mr Ives wrote.  I think it had much more to do with sexual fetishes, sado-masochism, and the strange things they do to the brain.

Never mind. It’s the Weinstein affair, and the consequent pleasure of seeing an actress turn the tables on a male director, which will have theatregoers flocking to the Haymarket.

In addition, perhaps attraction will be the not totally unpleasant sight of Game Of Throne's Natalie Dormer’s shapely legs protruding from S&M outfits.

In Ives's two-hander comedy drrama, New York writer and theatre director Thomas (David Oakes) has had a long day failing to cast the main female part for his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 19th century novella.

The word masochism is coined from the author's name. The book is about a woman who makes a man her slave urged on by the man who wants to be enslaved.

Thomas is just packing up to go home when Vanda (Natalie Dormer) walks in, persuades him to hear her read for the part and turns out to know most of the lines.

He is in charge at the start, for he has a wonderful part to bestow on some lucky actress.  But slowly Vanda persuades Thomas to act out in real life the relationship she has read about in his play, to become her slave. What starts as a reading merges into role-play.

It’s a clever, witty play with a lot of blunt but resonant one-liners, like “Working in the theatre is the world’s greatest way to get laid”.

Patrick Marber, for my money Britain’s best contemporary playwright, directs with a sure touch and there is a splendidly detailed realistic set from Rob Howell.

As the director Thomas, David Oakes is extremely competent, but most of the time he’s simply a foil for a stunning virtuoso performance from Natalie Dormer as Vanda, at once a monster and an avenging angel.

So, a thoroughly engaging 90 minutes in the theatre (straight through, no interval). However, in the end, I wanted a bit more.

I didn’t care quite enough what happened to either character. Truth to tell, not quite enough did happen and Thomas’s swift capitulation strained the suspension of disbelief. So it's almost full marks; but in the end only an amber/green light.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Review Young Frankenstein

Young Frankenstein
Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks
Based On The Story And Screenplay by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks

Mel's Show Of Shows (Again 😉)

Young Frankenstein is an odd re-animated creature. Mel Brooks, of course, comes with a guaranteed store of goodwill from his  fans.  So  a lot of the audience will come to Young Frankenstein determined to enjoy it.

Professor Frederick Frankenstein - Les Miserables' veteran Hadley Fraser - is quizzed on his grandfather's experiments by his keen research students.

After singing a eulogy to the organ in the body that he loves best - Yes, "You can bet your ass on the brain!", - and a fond farewell to his fiancée (a splendid Dianne Pilkington), he arrives at his family's Transylvanian family seat.

There he's greeted by Igor - comedian Ross Noble in a career-making performance. He's a family retainer who sounds like a non-bitter remnant of the ups and downs of would-be moguls of old Hollywood, "My grandfather worked for your grandfather!".

And of course there's leggy and busty blonde Inga (yes, Summer Strallen, a Brooksian Swedish blonde who's a Transylvanian lab assistant!). She introduces the American professor to a cleverly animated roll in the hay and the animation of high kicks.

Add to this musical theatre test tube concoction the stern housekeeper (Lesley Joseph) who announces with Beethoven 5th-Symphony-like- bravado "He Vas My Boyfriend!". Oh and of course Grandpa Victor's "How To" book on brain transfer and raising the dead for Frederick to follow and you have a rollicking tale.

It all proceeds wih the precise timing of an 1970s' adult nostalgia-fest pantomine, ideal for the forthcoming Happy Holiday season.  All over the world, judging from this Spanish language Mel Brooks' episode of The Simpsons!

Offensive? More out of context  - compared with the already retro black and white movie, that is.

In 1974, there were still folks alive who knew people who made the original movie and the movie manages to be both a parody and an appreciation of its creators' filmmaking skill.

If  you're under 40 and not an aspiring comedy writer or film student who has swotted up on Mel Brooks, here's the trailer of the movie.

As it is, it's an enjoyable, well-choreographed stage show with the broadbrush highlights of the movie kept, but it does become rather a different creature.

Once one could have chuckled and said how non-PC it all was, even though that already felt retro some years ago.  Now with the son of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow breaking the latest (very serious and, for want of a better word, incestuous) movieland scandal,  it feels like a tough time for bawdy humour and satire. 
Young Frankenstein the musical is slick and laugh-inducing with the involuntary reflex reactions to tried and trusted vaudeville and sketch humour honed on Sid Caesar's TV shows.

TLT still kicks herself for guffawing, for there's something mildly re-heated about it all. But the timing, verbal and physical, is impeccable, as befits the work of a seasoned writer, as well as pianist and drummer - Brooks was taught by Buddy Rich before he turned stand up comedian, gag and sketch writer.

It all slots satisfyingly into place There's the direction and dance routines of Susan Stroman. There's the cartoony design from Beowulf Borritt (he of Microsoft advertisement fame in case you don't believe anyone with a name like that can exist!). Excellent sound design from Gareth Owen and musical director Andrew Hilton leading the nine-piece band make the kitsch songs easy-listening.

There's even a shameless emotional manipulation of our emotions making us feel sorry for Shuler Hensler's monster never quite getting to grips with his Stein - oh, sorry, beer tankard - and  remaining thirsty while others drink. But finally the monster is transformed into a Broadway star ...     

In some ways it's as if Mel Brooks, aged 91, is being buried alive very, very comfortably,  with his stone (that's Stein in German) tombstone reading, "He was (is) a genius!" 

The thing is, he is. A genius, that is. In that he represents the spirit of a time - the Catskills comedians thrust into the brave new (or at times cowardly and cowering) world of  television in the 1950s and 1960s with something of the involuntarily television salaciousness whirling around us now and it's an amber/green light.

Review The Busy World Is Hushed

Peter Barker discovers a place for belief and its challenges in an  intriguing new play from across the Atlantic. 

The Busy World Is Hushed
by Keith Bunin

Father, Son And Holy Ghostwriter

The Busy World is Hushed is a discursive three hander looking at parenthood and sexuality, as well as the significance of holy scripture in the 21st century.

Playwright Keith Bunin sets the play in the New York household of a single mother.

In this case, Hannah's part of a modern Manhattan Episcopalian priesthood and an academic about to embark on a book exploring the possibility and implications of a missing New Testament gospel.

She's hiring Brandt as an assistant, a kind of holy ghostwriter,  but she's also preoccupied with her restless 20-something son, Thomas.

Both mother and son are haunted by the past, the sudden death of her husband when she was pregant with Thomas.

Her son has just returned from one of his habitual long absences in the New England wilderness, immediately hitting it off with Brandt.

Bunin's writing is intelligent and humane, intertwining theological debate with the domestic circumstances and the emotional undercurrents swirling around and motivating the characters. From this simple situation Bunin spins off a plethora of ideas.

Marc Turcich's set design, a study with its chaotically strewn bibles and Anglican works interpreting the holy texts, will be familiar to anyone who has entered a priest's study.

Director Paul Higgins keeps up the momentum throughout the play's 90 minutes by often drawing the characters on the stage into triangles of conflict. 

Kazia Pelka is the believer Hannah who nevertheless maintains a healthy scepticism about the man-made nature of the bible as text, but still cannot fathom her husband's sudden death years before.

Mathew James's Thomas conveys the febrile nature of a young man, also seeking answers about his father, who enters into a relationship with his mother's new employee. 

Meanwhile Mateo Oxley, as Brandt, is the writer who struggles to have any belief, especially with the impact of his father's serious illness. Oxley makes a convincing East Coast patrician, an urbane intellectual, both a lover and grieving son.

The two men's love affair is handled as a naturally occuring circumstance.  However, sometimes a self-conscious effort to introduce conflict feels contrived and the attitudes and actions of the characters are skewed to suit the needs of the plot.

It's not perfect but it's an amber/green light for an absorbing drama in a well-performed production. 

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Review: Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

Freelance writer, editor and journalist Elizabeth Ingrams, now joins the TLT team and is taken with a fragile new love story where opposites attract.  

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle
by Simon Stephens

Physical Attraction

Two strangers, an American woman and an Englishman, meet accidentally on a London train station platform  and embark on an unlikely and unexpected unrelationship. 

There are waves of false starts, lies, confusions and sheer luck for Alex, a tango-teaching South London butcher in his 70s and Georgie, a much younger middle-aged primary school teacher.

Georgie's opening parry so confounds Alex's expectations, after his half a century of celibacy, he agrees to date her.  By the second half of this two-hander, 90 minute play, it is Georgie who has her expectations confounded by Alex.

And so begins a slight but attractive love story, a Brief Encounter for the 21st century filled with expectation on every level,

The drama directed by Marianne Elliott unravels on the no-man’s land white space of designer Bunny Christie’s minimalist set, saturated with the ingenious, pulsing coloured lighting of Paule Constable.

How does Heisenberg come into it? Any expectation this play is about physics and a Nobel Prize winner, deviser of the eponymous theory of uncertainty, should certainly be parked outside the theatre.

And don't sigh and think this has as much to do with the play’s title as the title of the film Beethoven has to do with the German composer (in case you don't know the movie's about a St Bernard dog).

Or that that this might closely mirror one of those discussions on Brexit, in the words of The Clash song, "Should I stay or should I go"? There is something subtle that’s worth waiting for here.

Uncertainties do abound: Georgie’s self-invented identity; the whereabouts of her missing son and her former partner; Alex’s uncertainty over the sale of his failing butcher’s business, and, more crucially, what to make of Georgie.

Thus it is that Heisenberg’s Principle, which can be crudely paraphrased as,  ‘the more we look into something, the less we can predict how it will turn out, or when,’ is woven into the play's fabric.

Stephens has always been a master of dialogue, allowing him to build his plays on the slightest of premises. Here, though, he allows meaning to emerge from between, rather than in, the lines.

The unexpected happens in plenty of inventive, witty and touching ways - Alex's post-coital classical music treat, Georgie's propensity, perfectly timed by Anne-Marie Duff, for screeching unexpectedly which brings the house down.

Is Georgie truly smitten or a calculating, mercenary opportunist preying on an old man? Is Alex a dotard or a wily fox picking up a younger woman for his own future benefit?

The play delicately leaves questions hanging in the air. The feature film-length, one-act play's slender structure immeasurably benefits from the cast, Anne-Marie Duff’s performance as Georgie - a brash, sometimes raucous New Jerseyite - and Kenneth Cranham’s shy-but-cuddly butcher.

Cranham’s strangled-cat vowels only finally emerge into full voice in the second half of the play when Duff's Georgie shows us her tango and the final dance of these two lonely hearts binds several negatives into a positive and a TLT amber/green light.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Review The Phantom Of The Opera

The world  première of a magnificent orchestral silent movie score in a palatial venue gives Peter Barker a thrilling experience,

The Phantom Of The Opera
Roy Budd's score to the 1925 classic silent film

The Sound Of Silence

The French Gothic novel The Phantom of the Opera, first published as a newspaper serial in 1909, has since the late 20th century gained fame in a modern global blockbuster musical adaptation.

However, the first dramatised version to reach a mass audience was over 80 years ago, a classic Hollywood silent horror movie starring Lon Chaney, legendary actor and "man of a thousand faces".

Years later in South London, a young Roy Budd, the son of a grocer, developed a love for silent movies and haboured a dream all his life of scoring the Universal Pictures cult horror film.
Now the 77-strong Docklands Sinfonia, led by conductor Spencer Down, has finally given the piece its world première during a screening at, fittingly, the exquisite opera venue, the London Coliseum.

For Budd was a musical child prodigy who gave his first official concert aged six at the opera house in 1953.

He became a leading jazz musician, a friend of fellow musician and comedian Dudley Moore,  and composed the music, often jazz-inflected, for around forty films, most famously the iconic harpsichord score for British gangster film, Get Carter, starring Michael Caine.

After purchasing an original 35mm print of The Phantom Of The Opera and having it restored for £350,000 over the course of three years, he finally achieved his dream, creating an orchestral score for the movie.

The world première was scheduled for September 1993 but just five weeks beforehand, Budd suffered a fatal brain haemorrhage.

His widow, landed with the bill for the cancelled concert screening, then saw others perform their own scores for the film.

While Budd's was the first of several modern symphonic Phantom Of The Opera scores by various composers, like the phantom it has been a ghostly presence, only released on CD and DVD many years after it was composed and, until now, never performed live publicly.

A melodically lush and romantic score mirrors and adds to a movie, as much a love story as a horror film and a suspenseful thriller.

Budd uses a rich and varied orchestral palette for a lucid accompaniment to the Beauty and the Beast story.

Keeping a precise balance between pathos and horror, the music often reflects the viewpoint of the Phantom, his longing and torment over young soprano Christine (Mary Philbin).

Lon Chaney’s performance as the Phantom, with the unmasking of his monstrous features, still stands the test of time, especially when accompanied by Budd's visceral music.
The notes of an organ, used in various ways throughout the film, evoke the uncanny atmosphere and introduce the sweeping aural panorama of the Phantom theme.

Equally, grace, suspense and humour where appropriate find their way into the music.

There's the exquisitely affecting Lovers' Waltz for Christine and her love Raoul (Norman Kerry), alongside the gorgeously elegant Masked Ball, in a colourised segment, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque Of The Red Death

The composer  seamlessly integrates the themes of each individual, bringing them  together in a full-bodied score for the melodrama. The unfussy orchestration creates a backdrop of sound and musical characterisation that is both atmospheric and majestic.

Settling down after a slightly shaky start, The Docklands Sinfonia delivered a memorable and taut rendition of this piece.

Musically referencing several sources, Budd draws upon, amongst others, Richard Wagner’s opera of a doomed love affair, Tristan und Isolde, as well as the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and JS Bach.

These musical styles suit Budd's own eclectic jazz background, forming a tribute to classical composers, but also transforming into a classical work in its own right.

The logic of the melodramatic story may sometimes leave something to be desired for 21st century tastes. Yet the force of the movie's iconic imagery, with camerawork by Milton Bridenbecker, Virgil Miller, Charles Van Enger, fills the screen and mind: The Phantom's mask; the vulnerable horrific face beneath (skilfully made up by Lon Chaney himself) and  the Phantom's underground lair.

This was a one-off performance, mounted as a result of Roy Budd's widow Sylvia Noel's tireless work over very many years, first to have the music released on CD and in a DVD movie version and, finally, to be given its live première.

Combining a glorious concert of a nuanced score with the screening of a sensational movie classic could work well in other venues. On the strength of this performance in the lavish opera surroundings of the London Coliseum, it is a well-deserved TLT green light.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Review Victory Condition

Victory Condition
by Chris Thorpe

Different Planes,uk

This is the kind of play you'll be either for or against. A sweeping statement, TLT and her four wheeled companion know, but this is a binary play you'll (ok, probably) either love or hate.

But to proceed. A man and woman (we never get to know names) unlock the door of their modern, pretty plush flat (design by Chloe Lamford) and wheel in their brightly coloured, plastic mould suitcases.

They go about unpacking both their luggage and their minds in an apparent stream-of-consciousness.

He (Jonjo O'Neill), it appears, is either an assassin or, influenced by a computer game he starts to play later on, imagines he is one. She (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), more plausibly for the world TLT inhabits, seems to work for an advertising agency.

Their minds range over multiple images and subjects which obviously colonize their minds - his more intent on warfare and spaceships. Her thoughts concentrates more on her personal frailty and the possibility of collapse in a public place and the abuse of a trafficked child.

O'Neill's Northern Irish  accent and Duncan-Brewster's London accent gives some variation - even though there are glimpses of the Ukraine in O'Neill's monologue, the talk of barricades also has resonance for Northern Ireland.

Duncan-Brewster's image of collapsing, on her back and helpless on an underground station platform with a brain haemorrhage, is a potent image. However, the audience is never given the chance to connect with much in the intercut monologues.

The couple (the audience is given enough to work out they are a couple) move around the well-organized flat doing whatever they feel needs doing and consuming whatever takeaway food and images that they want to consume. 
Our expectation was that something would happen to bring a recognizable narrative rather than an attempt  solely to bring thoughts on to the stage - albeit in fully formed words and sentences.

The overall impression was of a dream where you see yourself rather than view the world from inside your own head and you know that it's all wrong. 

There also seem to be enormous assumptions. Our first thought was that they worked as airplane stewards. Looking at the play text, it appears they've come back from a holiday in Greece. And that's part of the problem.

Why put something like Greece, which does have a resonance, in play text stage directions  when it has has no bearing on what the audience members see and hear in the performance?

TLT wouldn't always make this point about the differencce between the printed and performed script but here at least one person involved in the production is assuming that everyone thinks in the same way she or he does.

The same goes for the title of the two internal monologues - Victory Condition. There was no clue in the piece TLT watched as to what this term means - an assumption that everyone in the audience must know gaming terms. However TLT can't pretend that knowing this term now makes the play itself any more comprehensible.

The blurb says Victory Condition is  "An attempt to get to grips with the fact that everything happens at once. And to see if there’s anything we can do about it." Maybe. There's a lot of maybes with this play.

Maybe it's an attempt to make some kind of correlation between infinite psychic space and the non finite nature of computer games. Maybe it's a tease but if so, it's a rather mind-numbing, frustrating and ultimately boring one.

Maybe writer Chris Thorpe will collect all the Victory Ambition reviews and turn them into some sort of play. TLT and her engineered companion or a TLT reviewing colleague would still turn up 😉, but in the meantime it's a red/amber light.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Review A Day By The Sea

A Day By The Sea
by NC Hunter

The Sense Of An Ending

Taken at face value, A Day By The Sea is a languid post Second World War family drama, crafted, apparently, to mimic a Chekhov play. 

A fusty middle aged career diplomat Julian, a bachelor, has left his Paris posting for a short break with his widowed mother and his frail uncle at the family's seaside Dorset home.

In a past era, he and a playmate ranged over the beach and cliffs in a picture book childhood and there's certainly an elegaic feel to director Tricia Thorns' handsome production at Southwark Playhouse designed by Alex Marker.

But surely the piece's Chekhovian vibe is deliberately just a little over the top? For it's a curious piece, even with solid individual performances from a 10-strong cast. Yet as a play, written in the 1950s just before the advent of kitchen sink drama, it almost verges on a coded parody of its own genre.

The stock literary characters meander in stage left and right.

There's the dry stick diplomat Julian (John Sackville) who finds his assured position at home and abroad is in jeopardy. His mother Laura (Susan Tracy), as fit as a fiddle, tending the garden, apparently unembittered at being pushed aside from home ownership in an act of primogeniture arranged by her late husband and the white-haired solicitor (David Gooderson).

Ah, yes, the doddering solicitor whose sinecure seems to involve becoming energised by a tenant's expensive new - er - pigsty.

Ailing uncle David (David Whitworth) remembers real or imagined colonial adventures sitting in his bath chair. A doctor (David Acton), over fond of gin, is kept on to care for the old man but, we are told, is in an 'ambiguous' position.

The welfare of the unwitting medic is, in turn, the unasked-for concern of lovelorn spinster governess (Stephanie Willson). She looks after the children of outcast divorcee (Alix Dunmore) who came to the house as an orphan and now returns as a sophisticate.

So it's a house over-stuffed with literary and movie stereotypes and glimpses of other plots.

They, eventually, decide to take a picnic and the children scavenge for a shell on the oil-free idyllic beach, after Julian hears bad news from the office conveyed by a colleague (Hugh Sachs) and loosens up.

Yet the news, in spite of the play receiving its first performance back in 1953, two years after seismic Anglo-Soviet happenings in the foreign office, is hardly front page stuff.
TLT and her own motorised aide cannot believe that a 1950s London audience, also au fait with the lead actor's involvement in a real life scandal just before the opening night, would not have recognised a certain deliberate desperation and hollowness in the whole scenario of A Day By The Sea

The play itself feels like a workmanlike piece,  where each role is written in such a way that every actor can have his or her "turn" - in this, TLT supposes, it does also reflect a "Chekhovian" style.

Sackville as diplomat Julian and Dunmore (a dead ringer for Emma Thompson) as divorcee Frances are pitch perfect with good support from Stephanie Willson as governess Miss Mathieson, David Acton's private live-in doctor and David Whitworth as the invalid uncle. Susan Tracy grapples well with the slippery part of the mother. 

However this production could have done with a little more speed and vigour as the family's losses finally start to bite in the more hallucinogenic final scenes of what amounts to the fourth act in the old-fashioned structure of the play.

Maybe there should have been a little more left field thinking about how to pace the play for  the 21st century.

Even so, there's nice work in styling the production from costume designer Emily Stuart but the star of the show is truly Alex Marker's exquisite blue sky, warm brick and late summer glow design with its photo album framing.

Was it  TLT's overactive imagination which glimpsed something of the iPad and its "Do Not Disturb" crescent moon in the framing adding a welcome extra dimension to the play? If it were an accidental effect, it still worked well for us!

A Day By The Sea is an interesting piece set in the context of the 1950s. There's a parallel to contemporary British movies  with subtexts of imperial decline, Britain thrown back on having to cultivate its own garden and Soviet and American Cold War politics.

But it's also an insight as to why a new post-Second-World-War generation might have felt it was time to stop the London and civil service establishment occupying theatres and sneaking in home truths - but only for their kind of audience.

TLT began to feel the criticism of writers like ex-army man NC Hunter by critic Kenneth Tynan and the Royal Court generation had a pertinent literary point.

A fellow critic, Bernard Levin, remarked in a 1958 review of another Hunter play in The Spectator, "... for all its dabbling in grave social questions (are the rich really parasites? is it their fault?), [it] is only another of the machine's products.

"Everybody, as is the way with the machine, is made of cardboard, and although the cardboard is tricked out very nicely it remains cardboard ... only the dialogue, which is a cut above the general level of the play, saves the evening ... And the acting, of course."

After sitting through A Day By The Sea, the TLT machine thinks we know what he means and it's an amber light.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Review What Once Was Ours

What Once Was Ours
Writer/Dramaturg Chris Elwell

Peace In Our Time?

The world has become a slippery place for many across the generations.

However young people who have grown up in the 21st century UK and elsewhere have never known anything else.

Globalization seems to have crumbled into a mass of contradictory lobbies, authorities and commercial enterprises seeking to influence hearts and minds. Inevitably, in all this Brexit, Britain's exit from the European Union, looms large.

But in the midst of all this, Callum (Jaz Hutchins) has come searching for a part of himself left behind when his Mum split from his Dad.

He knocks on the door when Katie (Pippa Beckwith), his younger half sister, is home alone, their Dad and his current partner away.

At first she is reluctant, submerged in her own thoughts, although polite enough to come out of herself and  invite him in for a cup of tea.

We, the audience, sit in the black box space of the children's theatre, The Half Moon, right in the middle of the action on blocks as spongy and porous as the uncertain world in which we now all live.

Verity Quinn's ingenious, playful design is as much a character as mixed race Callum and white Katie.  Kettles and tea emerge from an uncapped pillar and the actors move round and gently shift audience members as the two require the blocks and minimal props for action.

It's unusual to see, hear and feel a play where the design is so integral to the experience and part of the Brexit feel without mentioning the B word itself.

Swirling past our ears is a soundscape, designed by Guy Connelly, with young voices taken from Remain and Leave towns in Britain  but also dwelling on jobs, community, isolation, a generation dislocated by technology and the certainties of previous times.

Writer and dramaturge Chris Elwell,  who alongside director Toby Eaden has worked with a quartet of researchers, keeps it archetypal but puts in tiny pinpricks of literature involved in other communal shifts.

Nobody needs to know any literary history. They can just absorb delicate but powerful images contributing to an atmosphere everyone can recognize.

But surely there is just the tiniest gesture towards Thornton Wilder's Our Town? Callum, two years older than Katie and still brought up on the printed word, also spills the lively children's DC Thompson comics he's always kept, The Dandy and The Beano, on the floor,

These were  first published when a mobile phone would have meant a rotary dial telephone on a table with wheels!😉, but they reminded TLT too of Adrian Mitchell's Nostalgia - Now Three Pence Off, a poem about a 20th century generation gap.

At another point Callum takes the lead and the blocks are transformed into an island or a boat without moorings  where brother and sister seem to be sharing an adventure as in one of those now old fashioned children's books so popular before social media tightened its girdle round the world.  

Toby Ealden keeps what seems to be a light touch. The actors know where they have to be for each of the play's movements, even if how they get there changes from performance to performance dependent on the audience.

It's easy to take the fluent work of movement director Amy O'Sullivan for granted in this fluid piece lasting barely an hour. The story may be bordering on the stuff of soap opera but that also means it doesn't shy away from issues. It's fast-moving but also a peaceful framework for divisive issues distilled in mixed up Katie and watchful Callum.

The graceful staging and thoughtful script  make it a soulful, delicate and, yes, communal experience for the audience, whatever their opinions. It's jolly, wistful, stimulating and calming all at the same time and certainly deserves a bright TLT green light.

This is a touring production which continues at the Half Moon Theatre until Wednesday, October 11 before moving to Oxford, Bournemouth, Hartlepool, Sunderland, Banbury, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Woolwich, Finchley and Stratford in London, Farnham in Surrey, Bedford, Sale, Burnley, Barnsley, Louth, Norwich, Grantham, Stamford, Spalding, Lincoln, Doncaster, Bath, Burton, Canterbury and Didcot.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Review Child Of The Divide

Catherine Kelly finds joy and sadness in a play facing up to a traumatic moment in India and Pakistan's history.

Child Of The Divide
by Sudha Bhuchar
based on the story of Bhisham Sahni

Born Of A Fragile Land

Imagine yourself at five years old. Suddenly your parents are fleeing from your home as the country is split in two and a new border created. In the chaos your hand slips from your Dad's grasp and you find yourself alone.  

Child Of The Divide is a family-friendly, heart-rending, poetic tale focussing on little Pali lost during the chaos of forced migration in 1947 Partition when India was divided into majority Hindu India and majority Muslim Pakistan. 

Pali is saved, given a new identity, name, faith and  home by a kindly Muslim couple, only for his young life to be torn apart again when, years later, his birth father finds him. 

This is the story of individual, blameless citizens left to cope with the consequences of imperial retreat, a subject already amply dealt with in  productions such as Drawing The Line and movie The Viceroy House.

Child Of The Divide, adapted by Sudha Bhuchar from a story by Bhisham Sahni, was first produced eleven years ago and is now revived to mark 70 years since Partition.

Karan Gill gives a tender, eloquent central performance as the little boy in Jim Pope's quick moving production in Polk Theatre's comfortable, intimate space. 

A large map backdrop from designer Sue Mayes keeps the physical geography and the man-made red line of the new border between the two nations in constant view and  in the minds of the audience..

The versatile set turns into a variety of locations, whether a hectic train station, a mosque, a river or playground.  Carefully-chosen props - luggage, a bed frame, boxes, bags - evoke the meagre but vital possessions of the refugees. Peter Harrison's lighting with sound by Arun Ghosh set the tone with exquisite precision in each scene, drawing the audience into this topsy turvey world.

Devesh Kishore and Halima Hussain as Pali's adoptive father and birth mother respectively and doubling as two children also divided from their families manage to give clearly defined and poignant performances. However, it  is a complex story, with a seven year span, to fit on an intimate stage with a cast of five adults playing all characters on both sides of the divide and a wide age range. 

Alongside the fast-paced scenes, the doubling up can be challenging for audience trying to keep track and more use of  props and character traits might have helped.

There is some unevenness in the performances with more work needed on projection of dialogue and clarity of exposition. The audience were left sometimes straining just to enjoy the poetic language and understand the discussion of ideas in the play.

Nevertheless there's enough there to indicate the production and cast will resolve these issues once the production is bedded in during its two week run at the Polka and on the following  UK tour.

Otherwise this is a remarkable play bringing home  the experience of displaced millions through one small child.  One of its strongest aspects is in conveying the tug of love of the two mothers, one grieving for an incalculable loss and the other, childless, joyful at finding a longed-for son. whom she protects and cares for against all the odds.

Deep and heavy stuff, you may think, as a play intended audience for seven to 14 year olds. However, by not underestimating its young audience, Child Of The Divide takes on an added resonance for both adults and children.

Offsetting the darker issues and outer and inner conflicts, there are still plenty of lighter, fun scenes of children simply playing together, enjoying a rollicking good game. Stimulating and heartfelt, this courageous, life affirming play fully deserves an amber/green light. 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Review What Shadows

A portrait of a politician notorious for his views on race relations provides Francis Beckett with a telling glimpse of 20th century post colonial Britain.

What Shadows
by Chris Hannan

His Country, Right Or Wrong

One of the watershed moments in community relations in Britain – perhaps the most important one – was a widely publicised speech by a senior Conservative, the MP for Wolverhampton South West, Enoch Powell, in 1968.

He quoted a constituent as saying: “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”

He talked of a white woman going to the shops and being followed by “children, charming, wide-eyed, grinning picaninnies.” He said: “We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents.”

Chris Hannan’s What Shadows is a serious and thoughtful play about Powell himself, the circumstances in which the speech came to be made, and the effect it had.

To the author’s great credit, he does not take the easy and widely accepted route, in which Powell is at worst a monster, at best a man cynically or foolishly unleashing monstrous forces, and Powell’s opponents are, universally, defenders of decency.

The play sets out its stall quickly, opening with a scene years after the Powell speech in which a distinguished black academic goes in search of a white colleague whose career she once helped ruin for expressing sympathy with Powell.

Both are performed here with just the right mix of rage and cynicism by, respectively, Amelia Dankor and Joanne Pearce. They agree to team up and try for an interview with the now very elderly politician.

When we meet Powell, he is picnicking with his wife and their old friends Clem and Marjorie Jones. The story of the friendship and the falling out between the Powells and the Joneses is a true one.

Clem Jones was editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star: a warm human being, but a man who in the end put his principles before both his career and his friendships.

Indeed, playwright Chris Hannan acknowledges the help of Clem Jones’s son Nick, a former BBC industrial and political correspondent and a man known, as his father was, for the sort of integrity that sometimes infuriates editors and politicians.

Nicholas Le Prevost and Paula Wilcox are excellent as the Joneses, an entirely believable couple whose fate we care about. Joanne Pearce plays Powell’s wife (combining it with her role as the white academic) and does it well.

However I was not quite as convinced by Ian McDiarmid’s Powell.

He looks right, and in the first act at least he sounds right. And yet, for me, he wasn’t quite right.  Powell had a markedly deliberate manner and an elaborate stillness.

In contrast, McDiarmid has him moving restlessly all the time, sometimes gabbling a bit, sometimes even seeming a little camp.

Roxana Silbert directs with sensitivity and authority, though, occasionally, she has her actors shouting a little too much and the play gets just a little too wordy  towards the end.

However, despite my rather uncomfortable perch on the Park's vertiginous balcony, this proved to be a gripping evening. It's an amber/green light for a finely-crafted, thought-provoking and important play.

Review The Ladykillers

The Ladykillers
adapted by Graham Linehan
from the motion picture screenplay by William Rose

Five Fellas And A Little Lady

Watching this touring production of The Ladykillers, a stage adaptation of the classic black comedy where a criminal gang divides and falls, TLT and her little getaway car suddenly had a startling thought.

Was this 1955 Ealing comedy part of the inspiration for scenes where the crime boss wacks other members of his gang in Martin Scorsese's Good Fellas?

Certainly there's a certain rhythm and black humour accompanying the macabre demise of the American mobsters that parallels the break up of the Ealing Comedy criminal quintet. And it turns out Martin Scorsese is an admirer of the original movie.

Yet this film noir edge is often rather diminished in Graham Linehan's serviceable but uneven script matched by an up-and-down - in all senses of the word - production  directed by Peter Rowe. 

The stage play, despite some 1950s' news references, becomes a stolid broad farce rather than a resonant mix of sinister Graham Greene welfare state villains with eccentric Edwardian shabby gentility of a bygone imperial age.

Nevertheless there's a pleasing cartoonish quality to the revolving set. A crooked nursery rhyme house meets Hitchcockian Gothic mansion with turret chimneys designed by Richard Foxton which opens out to reveal the unrenovated two-storey home overlooking a railway line.

Posing as a group of amateur musicians searching for rehearsal space, a motley collection of outlaws gather in a room rented by the gang leader Professor Marcus (Steven Elliot) from dotty widow Mrs Wilberforce (Ann Penfold). 

Cue the arrival of the Major, an apparent war hero fallen on hard times, (Graham Seed),  a punch drunk veteran of fixed boxing matches (Damian Williams), a younger pill popping petty criminal  (Sam Lupton) and a sinister foreign assassin (Anthony Dunn).  

They're all stock figures from 1950s' British studio crime and comedy movies who meet an immoveable force in the little white haired landlady who inadvertently causes their downfall. 

The outstanding performances of the evening come from Lupton's hyperactive spiv and Willliams's slow-witted lumbering heavy who gradually wises up. A couple of the villains' role feel underwritten and the production never fully lands despite a much stronger second act. 

Still, TLT did utter the occasional guffaw and her motorised henchman gave the occasional exhaust pipe cackle of laughter as the play eventually gathered momentum. Frustratingly though, much of the rest felt rather laboured in a spluttering production enlivened by moments of energy and it's a flickering amber light.

The Ladykillers continues at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch until Saturday, October 21 when it will transfer to The Salisbury Playhouse from Tuesday, October 31 to Saturday, November 18.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Review The Toxic Avenger

Peter Barker has a monster time as the universe's slimiest and greenest superhero preserves small town values and gets the girl.

The Toxic Avenger
Lyrics and Book Joe Dipietro
Lyrics and Music David Bryan

The Geek Goes Green

The latest musical to open in London's West End is The Toxic Avenger, an enjoyable romp spoofing its way through American musical tropes, told with energy and wit.

The musical, with a book by hit musical Memphis's team of book writer Joe Dipietro and Bonovi's keyboardist David Bryan, is an adaptation of Lloyd Kaufman cult 1980s' superhero comedy movie about New Jersey nerd Melvin determined to seek out the culprits behind the toxic sludge stinking out his home town.

The toxic waste had been brought to Tromaville by the crooked mayor (Natalie Hope) and her cohorts. Melvin (Mark Anderson) finds proof of her complicity, digging out documents from the town's library archives.

He falls for the blind librarian, Sarah (Emma Salvo), an innocent party deliberately appointed by the mayor in order to keep secret a corrupt scheme polluting the area. She rejects  Melvin but fate plays a hand for our hapless protagonist.

Attacked by the Mayor's thugs and dumped in the toxic sludge, Melvin is transformed from weakling citizen to Toxie, badass mutant superhero out for revenge and a town clean up.

Suffice to say, lurid green Toxie gets his girl in the end, but not before plenty of setbacks to overcome and musical numbers written by Bryan and DiPietro.

A skilful  five-piece band  on a mezzazine, led by musical director Alex Beetsche, belt out the rock numbers with precision and gusto matching the confident delivery of Salvo’s Sarah, and Mark Anderson’s Toxie.

Designer Takis's  ingenious set of sewage pipes triples up as the library a hairdressers' premises and  a doctor’s surgery.

This show had its European premiere at Southwark Playhouse last year after earlier runs in New York and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

So it’s not surprising it is now a polished piece with director Benji Sperring back at the helm, although it's hardly subtle.

The show knowingly acknowledges its own silliness, with the cast scripted to ham it up, frequently breaking the fourth wall. It's even good natured and absurd enough to keep some of the jokes at the expense of librarian Sarah  from becoming offensive.

There's plenty of entertainment value, but there are times it becomes repetitive. In the second half, there's very little plot development even if the madcap antics continue.

This is an amusing and knowing evening in the theatre. The show has its flaws, but it's well-designed and energetically directed by Benji Sperring with choreography by Lucie Pankhurst.

Best of all, it delivers plenty of laughs, thoroughly deserving of a TLT amber and, naturally, stroke green 😉 light.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Review B

by Guillermo Calderón

Rebel, Rebel

To B or not B, that is the question at the centre of Chilean playwright's Guillermo Calderón's absurdist comedy drama.

 Two young women anarchists, Marcela (Aimée Ffion-Edwards) and Alejandra (Danusia Samal) rendezvous in a borrowed apartment ready to make a token protest against a nearby financial institutution.

Each, it emerges has a backstory, making their revolt against the state a more serious affair than their seemingly inept steps towards rebellion.

However, while their bickering turns to the ridiculous, the arrival of a ultimately more devilish partner-in-crime (or liberation, depending on your point of view) ultimately pushes the story towards tragedy rather than comedy.

In spite of the duo's disavowal of any kind of hierarchy, the older masked stranger (Paul Kaye) pulls rank, claims their plan needs his approval and orders more extreme action.

In the meantime, ambushed by a nosy neighbour Carmen (Sarah Niles), the women concoct inconsistent stories on the hoof to explain their presence and to keep her away, in vain, from their preparations.

B appears to be a small play straining allegorically to cover large swathes of Chilean, South American and Spanish history, alongside an international perspective.

However, in the end, the play falls between  a number of stools. It states rather too emphatically the differences and connections, benign and malign, between two generations of would-be revolutionaries.

More interestingly, at one point it seems to start to touch on the generation gap and the nature of packaged artistic creation in an increasingly globalized world.

Even so, it lacks the courage of its convictions and becomes what is seeks to criticize -  a dead end world tips over into a dead end drama.

Each character at various times has a monologue to explain their motivations linked by expanded two, three and four-handed scenes.

The action takes place on Chloe Lamford's stone and plywood set, caged in scaffolding, and festooned with black balloons. There's also  a neat trick with t-shirts (albeit there appear to be how-to videos on the internet - don't click on the link if you don't want a spoiler).

However there are moments when Sam Pritchard's production feels as if it has become a little too enamoured by visuals such as the masks, the black balloonsm a red and white striped gift box and other quips.

Taken at face value (B is translated from the Spanish by William Gregory), it remains a play of separate parts, speeches and jokes rather than a rigorous exploration, comic or serious. 

All in all, this is an "almost" play. A would-be political and artistic allegory, "This is supposed to be a party. Good story though."

It's also an terrorist satire where secret code insures nobody calls a spade a spade. A drama where an attempt to use the media short circuits and the only appreciative audience for the aspiring revolutionaries appears to be the prison population.

A comedy where a pen is misused but even then does not fulfil the skewed function to which it's put. The self-appointed terrorist chief literally becomes a talking head speaking at times in the rhythms of Once In A Lifetime and the young women intermittently sound like some anarchist Alias Smith & Jones who never want to kill anyone.

Despite some modern terrorist references, the play does have an old-fashioned vibe - it did send TLT and her motorised comrade scuttling to Google to find out if GK Chesterton, author of The Man Who Was Thursday, an Edwardian thriller about an imploding anarchist cell, is known in Chile and the Spanish speaking world.

It turns out  a conference on him was held in Chile this year. And the writer is popular enough in the Spanish language to merit a landmark copyright ruling in Spain.

If it is an influence, there's nothing wrong with using an early 20th century text as inspiration. However this is a play with an anarchic structure which never quite follows through on its scattergun lines of thought. It's an amber light.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Review Anglian Mist

Journalist and blogger, Matt Salusbury regularly contributes to the Fortean Times and is author of the forthcoming Mystery Animals of the British Isles from CFZ publishing. Now he's lured in by a Cold War thriller, cunningly combining fiction and fact.

Anglian Mist 
by Cordelia Spence and Tim Lane

Listen, Do You Want To Know A Secret?

An obsessive Cambridge academic is giving a talk on the British military's Cold War nuclear and radar project.  Yet when the subject matter turns ever-so-slightly conspiratorial,  a senior citizen heckler in the audience surprises him by challenging his account.

Such a  project really did exist on Orford Ness, a remote spit of shingle, accessible only by ferry, sticking out into the North Sea next to the sleepy Suffolk village of Orford.

Now there's Orford Ness the play or, rather, the thriller Anglian Mist - named for the project and referring to the thick fog which can descend in seconds out of nowhere on a clear day, shrouding the coastline and, once, Cold War shenanigans.

Fresh from an immersive performance at the former Ministry of Defence site, Stuff Of Dreams' theatre company's Anglian Mist is currently on a regional tour until the end of November
Roll back time, it's 1973 and, frankly, the clichéd, formulaic world of espionage with characters addressing the audience directly in monologue seemed at first a bit unpromising.

In the pub after a day's work at the facility, one staff member immediately alerts suspicions with an inordinate interest in birdwatching. A mispronounced name of a local river by one character also caused some muttering amongst we curmudgeonly Suffolk folk. 

But, remember, this is also a world of deception and misdirection.

After the characters and atmosphere are established, an intriguing, entertaining thriller, by writer and director Cordelia Lane and Tim Spence, kicks in, just managing to remain on the side of the credible.

All kudos then also to the cast - Adrienne Grant as Anna Rees, a 1970s' clerical worker on the project and present-day senior citizen, Russell J Turner as engineer Eugene Mallam and Matthew Barnes as the historian Valentine Scarrow.

Yet much of the praise must go to the two researchers listed in the programme, Amy Aldous and Peter Hogarth, as well as the writers.

They all contribute to a well-plotted piece  -  quoting from what appear to be authentic declassified Ministry of Defence documents -. and an exciting fictional  narrative without compromising fact or fiction.

The Suffolk setting becomes a springboard for a tangled intrigue and much deeper and more complex reflections on espionage goings-on at Orford Ness and beyond.

Without putting in any spoilers, I am at liberty to disclose a security breach has put everything in jeopardy, despite an extensive surveillance network - “We’ve tapped almost every phone in Suffolk”.

The action takes us swiftly from Suffolk to Moscow to the Soviet border, via an interrogation scene faintly reminiscent of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes video  from the height of the Cold War.

Equally, and this also reflects a reality, there are many twists and turns about whether the system being developed, better known as Cobra Mist, works or not. 

We in the audience had to do some intellectual hard labour to grasp which era we were in. Nevetheless the time shifts made for a satisfying jigsaw taking in real local landmark The Jolly Sailors' pub where we accompany Anna as she meets for the first time a colleague, long dead in another time shift.

Then it’s  twentieth century Soviet Moscow. A character bridges death and time with a letter read aloud 40 years later.

Anglian Mist's time travelling structure and storytelling is quick moving and deft. In mid-sentence, Adrienne Grant convincingly shifts from the body language of a young Cold War era-woman to a senior citizen of today.

Resisting the temptation to go twentieth century kitsch, Molly Barrett's nicely claustrophobic, stripped down 1970s' set is minimalist but effective, lightly wearing its period setting.

At its centre are illuminated Ministry of Defence maps of the area and the noticeboards of an obsessive researcher, crammed full with documents and photographs.

Meanwhile co-writer Tim Lane, doubling as sound designer, has created a soundscape of intermittent radio static and odd background bleeps throughout, ratcheting up the tension.

Individuals are caught up in crushing circumstances. There's the moral cowardice of some and the plain evil of others who use the political situation as an excuse for their actions.

It works as a thriller but Anglian Mist's Cold War is also very plausible as to why the fictional spies spy and betray,  not least to help them survive in a dog-eat-dog world,

Orford Ness now?. It's a National Trust nature reserve, transformed into one of Suffolk's more bizarre tourist attractions. Sightseers can wander in and out of the "pagodas", former laboratories to test nuclear detonators, However everyone is still kept at a distance from the marshland and the aerials poking out of the main concrete facility. 

Starting off as a seemingly conventional and rather clunky spy thriller, Anglian Mist transforms itself into something much more thoughtful and absorbing.

The appeal for me lies both in its local references  and also an intelligent, wider meditation on the nature of spying. So it's a far from hush, hush TLT amber/green light for Anglian Mist. See here for more details of the tour.