It’s 40 years since punk, and the film on which this is based. Johnny Rotten’s now advertising butter and Vivienne Westwood’s a Dame making posh frocks. Toyah Wilcox is the one link between the film and stage adaptation, and she’s been promoted to Queen Elizabeth I. They haven’t kept it in its period, it’s now. It’s as much of a mess as the film (Jarman’s view just 11 years later) but there is something compelling about the theatricality of Chris Goode’s adaptation and I wasn’t bored, but don’t expect an explanation.

It appears to link the two Elizabethan times. Elizabeth I, accompanied by her court astrologer John Dee and Shakespeare’s Ariel is peering in on the present Elizabethan time, populated by a cross-dressing ‘historian’, a lesbian pyromaniac, two brothers who are also lovers and spend most of the evening naked, a performance artist, an exploitative impresario, a budding rap singer and others. It sets out to shock, but ironically doesn’t shock as much today. There’s sex, violence and dancing, but ‘historian’ Amyl Nitrate’s monologues are some of the best bits.

They’ve put temporary (and much more uncomfortable) seating on top of the stalls and on both sides of the stage to create a more in-yer-face environment. Chloe Lamford’s design looks like she’s recycled some of her Royal Court Grimly Handsome work. An appropriately anarchic feel pervades Goode’s production and Toyah as Queen Bess gets to sing her hit I Wanna Be Free at the end. It’s a very brave cast, who seem to rather enjoy being right in the middle of the mess.

Intriguing, sometimes fascinating, occasionally riveting, intermittently funny, but overall I was an uninvolved onlooker / voyeur and rather indifferent to it, and at 2.5 hours, for too long and uncomfortable.


Carmen 1808

Opera directors regularly take liberties with the work of dead composers, but this isn’t Carmen the opera, and Phil Willmott won’t be the first person to rob Bizet’s grave – Oscar Hammerstein did it for his musical Carmen Jones and Matthew Bourne for his dance piece Car Man. What Willmott has done is create a largely new story, set some 12 years before Prosper Merimee’s novella, on which the book for the opera was based, when Napoleon’s army had taken Spain. It’s inspired by a Goya painting, which appears to have dramatically changed his life. In two highly effective coup d’theatre, they create a tableau of this painting and dramatise the effect on Goya, who is the narrator.

There are elements of Merimee’s  story – the cigarette factory and Carmen herself, now a resistance spy  – but not a bullfight in sight. In essence, it’s the story of a fight for independence, though it sometimes can’t make its mind up if it’s Spain or Catalonia, in recognition of recent events. He’s placed Bizet’s tunes into this story, arranged by Teddy Clements, with new lyrics and book by himself. The recycling of the tunes works well.

Justin Williams & Jonny Rust’s design is excellent, as are the costumes of Penn O’Gara and the lighting of Ben Jacobs, and it’s a great use of the Union’s space. There are some thrilling dances choreographed by Adam Haigh, where recordings of Bizet’s orchestral score are used to rousing effect. Otherwise, it was played on piano, with occasional guitar. Rachel Lea-Gray was very good indeed as Carmen, supported by an enthusiastic and passionate cast of sixteen.

I’m not entirely sure what the point is, but there’s much to enjoy here.

Cabaret at LAMDA

Given that it’s such a milestone in musical theatre, I haven’t seen this Kander & Ebb show anywhere near enough times. I first saw it in Sam Mendes extraordinary Donmar production twenty-five years ago, when they turned the theatre into the Kit Kat club, and last saw it in Rufus Norris’ chilling West End revival 12 years ago. This is the 50th anniversary of its London premiere, in the brand new LAMDA theatre. It’s a tough call for a drama school, particularly one like LAMDA, better known for drama than musical theatre. The result is a bit uneven, but worth seeing.

Writing a show about the rise of the Nazi’s revolving around a decadent Berlin nightclub would be brave now let alone fifty years ago and in Joanna Read’s production they’ve made it dark virtually throughout. For some reason, on this occasion, it struck me that apart from the handful of well-known songs, there are a lot of mediocre ones. Philip Engleheart’s design gives the Kit Kat Club an excellent, original aesthetic. The ending is absolutely chilling, but brilliant. It’s better acted than it is sung, but there’s an excellent five-piece band under Jonathan Williams.

It’s tough for drama school students to play a lot older, but here I thought Helena Antoniou and Scott Gordon did well as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. I liked Dylan La Rocque’s take on the MC, just about the right amount of camp. James Trent was an excellent Clifford and Harry McMullen and Milly Roberts impressed as Ernst Ludwig and Fraulien Kost.

Good to see it again.

The Birthday Party

I keep breaking my ‘no more Pinter revivals’ rule, lured by the cast and / or creatives, in this case both, though maybe it’s a subconscious desire to one day understand his plays. This team certainly don’t disappoint, but I’m no further forward on the understanding front.

It’s the play’s 60th anniversary. If you’d told those that attended the eight performances of its premiere production that it would be selling out in the West end today, they’d probably laugh. The audience was in single numbers when it was pulled prematurely. Pinter’s comedy with menace / theatre of the absurd must have baffled then as it still does, with its cocktail of ambiguity, confusion, contradictions and political symbolism. I’m still not convinced even Pinter knew what it was about, or whether it being about anything is the point. Despite the bafflement, it’s still compelling.

Ian Rickson’s staging and the Quay Brothers design are as good as any. Zoe Wanamaker and Peter Wight are perfect as the couple running the seaside boarding house, her rather batty and him a beacon of ordinariness. The part of Stanley, the prime victim, really suits Toby Jones. Goldberg is unlike any other role I’ve seen Stephen Mangham play, so he was a bit of a revelation, doing menacing very well indeed, as does his sidekick Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as McCann. Lulu is a small part but Pearl Mackie acquits herself well.

My plea to producers would be to use creatives and actors I don’t like so that I don’t feel compelled to break my own rules, though rule-breaking can sometimes be rewarding…..

Dry Powder

This play, the UK debut of American playwright Sarah Burgess, is set in the sordid, parasitic world of private equity. The problem for me is that it doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t know already. The PE world is one populated by those who couldn’t give a damn about anyone else and don’t have an ethical bone in their bodies. So what’s new?

Jeff’s working on a deal to bag a luggage company in California. It’s a difficult time for the PE firm, and therefore an important deal, due to negative PR over senior partner Rick’s extravagant engagement party. The luggage company’s negotiator Seth is keen to retain manufacturing and protect jobs, but the PE guys have other plans. Jeff’s colleague Jenny muscles in on the deal, which makes Jeff side with the target (rather implausible, I thought), almost scuppering the deal – but everyone has their price.

It’s performed on an apron stage with a mirrored backdrop and just a perspex table and two chairs for props, everything shades of grey. This made Anna Ledwich’s production a bit static and somewhat perfunctory, though it did zip along. The four performances – Aidan McArdle as Rick, Hayley Atwell as Jenny, Joseph Balderrama as Jeff and Tom Riley as Seth – are all excellent, but I don’t think the material is worthy of their talents.

I’m getting a bit worried about Hampstead Theatre’s selection of new plays.

The York Realist

Peter Gill is better known as a director, and a lot less prolific as a playwright, but he’s written a handful of very good plays, of which this is one of the best. First seen in 2002 at the Royal Court, revived just seven years later at the Riverside Studios, which Gill founded, and now nine years on at the Donmar Warehouse in what might be the best of the three.

Farm labourer George lives with his widowed mother in their tied cottage, with his sister Barbara, husband Arthur and their three children in the nearby council estate. Neighbour Doreen persuades George to get involved in the York Mystery Plays where he meets Assistant Director John, up from London, with whom he develops an unlikely friendship and a clandestine relationship; this is the early sixties. It starts and ends after the relationship, moving back to the visit John makes at the beginning of their relationship, an evening after the show and then to George’s mothers’ funeral. It’s not until the end that we fully understand the intervening years.

The culture clash between city and country, North and South, thespian and farmer are deftly handled and the understated writing is matched by a restrained production and a set of beautiful, authentic performances. Robert Hastie’s staging is finely tuned and hugely sensitive. Peter Mackintosh has designed an evocative, realistic, intimate cottage, with the countryside projected high above. Ben Batt and Jonathan Bailey give wonderful, delicate, nuanced performances. Lesley Nicol is simply lovely as the archetypal working class loving Mother. Lucy Black is a down-to-earth Barbara who may be more knowing than we think, and Matthew Wilson her husband Arthur who isn’t knowing at all; both fine characterisations. Katie West beautifully conveys neighbour Doreen’s yearning for George, and there’s an auspicious stage debut from Brian Fletcher as young Jack. A faultless cast.

This is an impeccable revival which draws you in to the world and lives of the characters and captivates you, proving conclusively that its a fine play indeed. This is why I go to the theatre.

The Captive Queen

I’m very fond of Northern Broadsides earthy theatre, always full of life. This is their founder and Artistic Director Barrie Rutter’s swan-song, bowing out after twenty-five years at the helm of this unique company. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a favourite theatre of mine, and a more intimate space than I’ve seen them in before, and it would be good to report that he’s ending on a high, but sadly this lacks what the company is renowned for – energy and life.

John Dryden’s 350-year-old play, originally called Aureng-zebe, is set in Mughal India, where Indamora, the titular Queen, is lusted after by her protector, his dad and brother and the local Governor. Rutter, who directs as well as acts, sets it in a Northern mill workshop in the recent past, very much in keeping with typical Northern Broadsides style, but it doesn’t really make sense unless the workers are performing the play within a play, which they didn’t appear to be. The big problem, though, is the ‘heroic verse’ which is turgid to a contemporary ear, sounding like Form 4c reciting poetry.

I liked the live onstage music, but when they weren’t playing it was ever so static. I’m afraid I couldn’t engage with it at all and to be honest, I was bored, and didn’t make it back after the interval. A sad farewell to an extraordinary talent and an extraordinary achievement, but huge thanks for some terrific memories.