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Flemish theatre company Ontroerend Goed and I have nine years history. We’ve been speed dating (my ‘date’ writing to me weeks later) and in therapy. They’ve observed, interviewed and humiliated me, and gave me a recording of it on DVD. They staged a teenage riot in a cube and hectored me on sexism and misogyny. Somehow I missed this one at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, so the eve of this year’s visit to Edinburgh, I’m participating in a gambling game. You have to admit they are inventive and original, and you can’t say I don’t match it by being adventurous!

The stage and seats have been removed from the Almeida Theatre, which now has ten gaming tables in a wide circle, with an indicator board and administrators at the centre. You are sent to a table and when it’s full you’re told you are a country and each of you a bank within it. Based on the amount of real cash you deposit, you are given funds to invest and the initial period is fairly straightforward investments in sectors of the economy, your returns determined by the roll of your dice. You hand back a fifth of your returns in tax.

As the game progresses, new ways to invest emerge, higher risks and higher returns. Countries are rated based on performance. They can issue bonds which are soon traded internationally. Shorting and bank mergers become possible, as does borrowing. Then some countries get into trouble and it really hots up.

It’s execution is extremely slick, with the actors running each table and as administrators having to make very quick calculations and communicate results speedily in order to run the simulation. It’s fiendishly clever, very sociable, educational, entertaining, but ultimately scary, as you realise what a complex and precarious financial world we are all now compulsory participants of.

Even by this inventive company’s standards, this is great interactive theatre. Of course, I was the least successful investor at my table / in my country, but I did triple my money, though the IOU I took home with my original deposit won’t buy any more theatre tickets.

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I’ve had a soft spot for this Howard Ashman / Alan Menken musical since I saw the original London production 35 years ago. It was successfully revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory 12 years ago, heading off on tour afterwards. Now it’s the latest in the Open Air Theatre’s summer musicals, the 31st I think, reinvented by director Maria Aberg and designer Tom Scutt.

Based on Roger Corman’s iconic 1960 b-movie, the musical was an instant hit off-Broadway, on Broadway and in the West End, where it ran for two years. When it was itself made into a film, the budget was 1000 times that of the original (which gave Jack Nicholson his screen debut). You wouldn’t think it was a natural for the leafy green Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, but it works. Scutt has built a B&W cartoon New York City, with a riot of colour provided by the characters and the plants of Mushnik’s shop where geeky Seymour breeds Audrey II and is in love with Audrey (I), his fellow shop assistant, who has a sadistic dentist as a boyfriend.

Audrey II becomes a sensation, leading to radio & TV interviews for Seymour and lots of new customers for the shop, but Seymour has been feeding the plant with his own blood and can hardly keep up. He ends up feeding it whole people, starting with Audrey’s boyfriend Orin, as the fame leads to magazine features, TV’s first gardening programme and a plant cutting franchise which sees plants take over America. Audrey II is normally voiced by an offstage actor / singer, but Aberg’s big idea is to bring her alive and onstage in the form of American drag queen Vicky Vox and a handful of assistants, and though a good idea, I didn’t think it really worked. Towards the end, they turned up the excess dial and it became pure fantasy with a stage full of colourful SciFi plants raising the non-existent roof in the finale of Don’t Feed the Plants. With what seemed like an additional song turning it into a bit of a rock concert, the cast invading the auditorium and green pods flying around, the audience went wild and you just had to give in.

It’s very well cast, with Marc Antolin shining as Seymour. I don’t associate Jemima Rooper and Forbes Mason with musical theatre, but they both did a great job as Audrey and Mr Mushnik. Busted’s Matt Willis was excellent as Orin the sadistic dentist, plus four great cameos as TV exec, (female) magazine editor, agent and business guru. Ms Vox was outrageous and cheeky; I’m not sure what the parents of the kids in the audience made of it. The show is famous for it’s chorus of three black girl singers (Crystal, Chiffon and Ronnette – get it), an idea Tony Kushner and Jane Tesori stole for Caroline, or Change twenty years later, and Seyi Omoomba, Renee Lamb and Christina Modestou were all great.

I’ve got mixed views really. Part of me missed the nostalgic, b-movie aesthetic and part of me admired the reinvention, but I’m glad I went nonetheless.

Bring It On

I never thought I’d see myself at a musical about cheerleading, which in my view vies with synchronised swimming as the most pointless ‘sport’. Fortunately, though it has pounds and pounds of cheese, it doesn’t take itself seriously, has it’s tongue in its cheek and it’s heart in the right place, and has a very good score. Above all though it’s a fireball of youthful energy and enthusiasm. I’m a regular at NYT, NYMT and the London colleges, so how come the British Theatre Academy haven’t been on my radar until now?

Campbell is re-assigned to Jackson, a school on the wrong side of the tracks, just after being elected Captain of Truman’s cheerleading squad. Jackson doesn’t have one any more, but it does have a dance crew, which she persuades to become a cheerleading squad. They get through regional heats to make it to the national final, but relationships are challenged along the way. Jeff (Avenue Q) Whitty’s book is, well, witty, as are the lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda & Amanda Green, and there are some great songs by Hamilton’s Miranda and Tom Kitt (Broadway’s Next to Normal & High Fidelity).

Ewan Jones’ direction and choreography are thrillingly athletic, with a smattering of gymnastics, filling the Southwark Playhouse space to the brim. Designer Tom Paris doesn’t have room for an elaborate design so he’s rightly concentrated on costumes, a whole load of them, which cleverly differentiate between the two schools, as the musical styles sometimes do too. Chris Ma’s five-piece band attack the score with great gusto. Above all, though, it’s a stage full of enthusiastic, energetic young talent that takes your breath away. Lots of excellent acting, plenty of slick moves and some fine vocals.

BYA are now well and truly on my radar.

Home, I’m Darling

This is one of those occasions where writing, design, performances and staging all come together to create something special. Laura Wade’s play may prove to be the year’s best new play. Whilst I find the superlatives thesaurus, you may wish to stop here if you haven’t read any other reviews and you’ve booked to see it; what follows won’t spoil it, but might just take the edge off it.

Judy and Johnny are obsessed with the 50’s, their friends Fran and Marcus share their interest, but less obsessively. All we know about Johnny is that he’s an estate agent who didn’t go to university. Judy was brought up by her feminist mother in a Sussex commune, went to university and became an accountant. Voluntary redundancy gives her the opportunity to give up work and plunge them fully into a 50’s lifestyle, becoming a housewife, aspiring domestic goddess.

Their reserves are disappearing as Johnny’s commission is declining. One less income, and all that retro furniture and clothes which don’t come cheap. Still, they seem completely wrapped up in their fantasy, until Johnny’s failure to get a promotion triggers a series of events involving his new very driven boss Alex, who’s bemused by their lifestyle, and Judy’s mum Sylvia, who disapproves of the patriarchal accoutrements it brings with it. There’s a clever sub-plot involving problems Marcus is having at work.

What I like about Wade’s play is the many layers she achieves, exploring attitudes and behaviour then and now, as Judy and Johnny change as their fantasy progresses, and how that is seen by those left in the here and now. Things are not always what they appear to be, so it often surprises you. We’ve travelled a long way from the 50’s but in many ways not far enough, as juxtaposing the two periods, even one as a fantasy, proves. It’s like a conversation between then and now. Director Tamara Harvey’s production draws you in; even the activity of the scene changes prove captivating.

Anna Fleischle’s extraordinarily detailed design is stunning, as obsessive as the obsession that drives Judy & Johnny. The period music makes for a superb soundtrack. Katherine Parkinson is terrific as Judy, never leaving the home, so on stage the whole time. Richard Harrington gives a nuanced portrayal as Johnny, revealing insecurities and doubts as well as his devotion to Judy. Kathryn Drysdale and Barnaby Kay are excellent as Fran and Marcus, sometimes contributing nifty period dance routines between scenes. Sian Thomas shines as the mum whose values Judy seems to be rebelling against, as does Sara Gregory as Johnny’s boss, oblivious to his attraction to her.

An unmissable night in the theatre that reminds you why you go.

Aristocrats

Irish playwright Brian Friel wrote something like 30 plays and adaptations in 45 years from the early 60’s. A handful have been revived fairly regularly, becoming classics. This is the second London revival of the summer, following the highly successful Translations at the NT. Sadly this rather Chekhovian play, written just one year earlier in 1979, is a lot less successful.

Though the story is the same, this isn’t the play I remember seeing at Hampstead Theatre in 1988 or the NT in 2005, and I’m struggling to understand why. Here the Irish ‘big house’ is represented by a faded backdrop and a model around which the action takes place in a shallow pit, with actors waiting at the back until they take part. I found Es Devlin’s design and Lyndsey Turner’s staging a bit puzzling.

The family is gathered for youngest daughter Claire’s wedding to a much older man, who we never meet. Casimir has come from Hamburg where he now lives with his wife and two boys. Alice and her husband Eamon are over from London. Judith runs the home, looking after their father, Uncle George and Claire, though she’d clearly like to be somewhere else with Willie. American historian Tom is visiting as part of the research into his latest project.

Nothing much happens in the first two acts, which is my main problem with it. Claire plays Chopin, encouraged by Casimir, sexually ambiguous, who tells implausible stories. Eamon and Alice, who seems to be the subject of abuse, spar. Willie makes himself useful; fixing intercom speakers so they can hear father’s confused ramblings downstairs. By the interval, I was frankly rather bored.

They make up for it in the final act, where their father’s funeral has usurped the wedding, which is to be delayed for three months. They try and resolve what is to happen to the house, and to Uncle George. Eamon and Alice are to return to London, taking the uncle with them. Casimir is heading back to his family in Germany. Judith wants rid of the liability the house has become so that she can at last live her own life. In a fine cast, David Dawson shines as Casimir, banishing the memory of Niall Buggy and Andrew Scott, who played the role before him.

This time around, I found it dull, uneven and poorly paced, a bit like my bete noire Chekhov!

This final play in Classic Spring’s Oscar Wilde season seems to be dividing people on the basis of how broad the comedy is played, and the frisson between Algernon and Jack. I was happy with the former, but the latter did puzzle me, with the kissing seeming incongruous (especially with Lane, Algernon’s servant).

Wilde’s most famous and popular comedy was the fourth and last of his social satires, charting the relationships between Jack and Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen and Jack’s ward Cecily and Algernon, Gwendolen’s cousin, ending with the big reveal that Jack is more than Algernon’s friend and Gwendolen’s intended. Though these four are the main protagonists, when productions are announced, most are interested in who’s playing Lady Bracknell, in this case Sophie Thompson, who exceeded my expectations.

Designer Madeleine Girling’s palette of greens create a beautiful London flat and country house and garden, all adorned by hardly any furniture. Gabriella Slade’s period costumes are excellent. It builds in pace and interest to an excellent third act, though the story somehow felt even more contrived than usual. I assume director Michael Fentiman’s added frisson and kisses are meant to reference Wilde’s sexuality, but within the otherwise period comedy, they just jarred.

I thought relative newcomers Fehinti Balogun and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd had great chemistry and brought a youthful playfulness to Algernon and Jack respectively, and Pippa Nixon and Fiona Button both sparkled and shone as Gwendolen and Cecily. Sophie Thompson resisted her normal urge to overact and her Lady Bracknell was all the better for it, and Stella Gonet gave a fine performance as Miss Prism, particularly when her past emerges. Good casting has been a feature and a strength of this Wilde season.

I’ve enjoyed seeing all four over a relatively short period, in four very different productions. The plotting creaks a bit these days, but the dialogue still crackles.

Exit The King

We don’t see many Theatre of the Absurd plays these days (well, apart from Beckett, if you include him), and its an important part of the history of modern theatre, so it’s good to catch this one. Ionesco only wrote something like nine full-length plays, and four of them feature the character Berenger, three as some sort of everyman, but here as King Berenger, in the last 98 minutes if his life.

He’s lived for 483 years, but his kingdom is shrinking and crumbling and his health deteriorating. His household consists of two Queens, doctor, guard and servant. They encourage him to accept his fate, but he’s determined to hang on to life and power, which is how we spend the 98 minutes. Queen Marguerite (Indira Varma, lots of majestic presence and authority) is the realistic, stern one. Queen Marie (Amy Morgan, delightfully coquettish), his favourite, French, is much more flaky and emotional. The Doctor (the excellent Adrian Scarborough) is a somewhat offhand doom merchant. The very put-upon servant is forever clearing up (Debra Gillet, lovely) and the Guard (a rare appearance from Derek Griffiths) acts as a sort of MC, most of the time from his elevated position in the Throne Room.

Anthony Ward’s cartoonish design cleverly reduces the stage size by a back wall, and projects the action forward into the stalls with a carpeted platform. I don’t know if or how Patrick Marber’s adaptation differs (he also directs, again). It’s impossible to say what it is about because it’s not clear what it’s about, except coming to terms with death. You just need to go along for the ride, enjoy the fine acting, especially Rhys Ifans’ towering performance as The King, and add to your education in 20th century drama. Ionesco plays don’t come along that often (I’ve only seen two others), and it’s good to see this one at last. Just don’t ask me to explain it!