Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

This 1995 play by Jonathan Harvey somehow passed me by when it was first staged at the Donmar, despite the fact he’d been on my radar since the first outing of Beautiful Thing, his most enduring play, a couple of years earlier, so this revival at Above the Stag (which isn’t any more) was a good opportunity to catch up with it.

Liverpudlian brothers Shaun and Marti, ten years apart, had until recently been estranged for seven years, since Shaun, the younger of the two, was sixteen in fact. Until then they had been very close, Marti a surrogate dad. We eventually learn the reason for the estrangement. They both now live in London and the play takes place in the bedsitter Shaun shares with his girlfriend Juliet, currently away at her dad’s funeral in Barbados. Shaun has a mobile hairdressing business and Marti sells stretch covers, reverse stereotypes given Marti is gay. The other characters are English teacher George (girl) downstairs, on the rebound from ex Malcolm, who clearly fancies Shaun, mad-as-a-hatter Clarine / Zoe / Sharon upstairs and Dean / Fifi, Marti’s trans friend whose love is also unrequited.

All of these relationships play out in the one room, superbly designed by David Sheilds, in an intimate traverse staging by Steven Dexter which is at times a touch melodramatic but enthralling nonetheless. Harvey’s characters sometimes veer towards caricatures, but they are well drawn and here very well performed by Tom Whittaker and Hal Geller as the younger and older brothers, Phoebe Vigor and Amy Dunn, upstairs and downstairs respectively, and Myles Devonte as Dean.

This was my first visit to Above the Stag’s plush new under-the-railway space, much better than their two previous homes.


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It’s a long time since I’ve seen anything by the always imaginative Improbable Theatre; they appear to be moonlighting in large opera houses. Lee Simpson represents them here in a collaboration with actors Liza Hammond and Rachael Spence to produce a charming, thought-provoking piece about perceptions of, and attitudes to, disability.

The premise is that they are looking for ideas for their show, so they go onto the streets and ask the public. At first, they speak the ideas they’re given verbatim, repeating recordings they hear through earphones. Then we hear the people themselves as they act out suggested scenes. They contrast how we hail paralympians with how disabled actors are given token bit parts and the deaths caused by changes in the disability benefits system and the cruel, undignified and incompetent testing process that accompanies them.

Liza and Rachael perform with such warmth and humour that they lull you into a false sense of security which give the hard facts real impact. It’s a rare event which is entertaining but at the same time so insightful. Go see.

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I haven’t read Zadie Smith’s 2000 debut novel and I didn’t see the 2002 TV adaptation, so I come to this stage version fresh. It’s also my first visit to the reopened and renamed Kiln Theatre, appropriately located where the novel is set.

The story takes us from 1945, when Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal meet as the war ends and become lifelong friends, to the present day. We follow Archie, his mixed race marriage to Clara, daughter Irie and granddaughter Rosie and Samad and his wife Alsana and identical twin sons Magid & Millat. The twins’ lives take very different parts, one academic, the other radicalisation. There’s fleeting romance between Irie and the twins, with more than a fleeting outcome, and it looks like history might repeat itself with Rosie. There are significant stops in 1975 and through the eighties to 1992, with references to the music, TV and events of the time, like the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I don’t know whether it was Zadie Smith or playwright Stephen Sharkey who had the ideas of Kilburn bag lady Mad Mary as a narrator, and framing the story in flashback with Rosie a dentist, in a coma after an incident. They are both good ideas, though the latter needs more clarity in staging. The addition of songs by Paul Englishby and the excellent movement by Polly Bennett add a playfulness which I very much liked and seemed to suit the sweep of the story. Indhu Rubasingham’s staging has great energy, pace and humour; I particularly liked the walks back in time and there’s an hysterical scene in a hairdressers.  It’s extremely well performed by a uniformly excellent cast.

There’s a limit to how much story you can tell in a couple of hours and adding a significant amount of music reduces it even more, so those who know the book may struggle with the inevitable filleting, and I’m told it has less bite than the novel, but I thought its ambition paid off and it proved to be populist, entertaining fare, a celebration of multi-cultural Kilburn and a welcome part of the reopening season. I’ve been going here for more than 30 years and I very much like the new theatre, though in truth it’s more Islington than Kilburn. I do hope the name change protestors will move on. I wouldn’t have changed it myself, and it could have been handled better, but what matters now is what’s on the stage, and this fits it well, and the future programme is looking very promising indeed.

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One day someone will develop a computer programme that writes a musical. You’ll be able to use it to give you ninety minutes of catchy tunes, rhyming lyrics and a simple story with goodies, baddies and a happy ending. Until then we have this show.

Set in ancient Greece, we move between the home of the gods on Mount Olympia to Hell, where Zeus & Demeter’s daughter takes a one-way ticket, does some good deeds, marries Hades and gets a free pass home for whenever she wants to see mum. Both the tunes and lyrics are bland. The book is embarrassingly poor. The dancing is choreography-by-numbers.

The writers, Marcus Stevens & Oran Eldor, and director Sarah O’Gleby are all American. The British band and young cast, a number in their professional debuts, try their best, though there was a sense on Friday, with a lean audience, their heart wasn’t really in it. How much had those four star reviewers drunk when they encouraged me to go?

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Gig theatre was one of the features of the Edinburgh fringe this year. I went to two, but missed this much lauded show now at the Bush Theatre.

Hull based Middle Child’s story spans thirty years from the birth of Leah and Chris on the same day in 1987, Thatchers Britain, shooting forward ten years to Cool Britannia, when they have both lost one parent, for very different reasons, and it looks possible the remaining parents might get together. Ten years later in Broken Britain they are at work or university, with the parents still alone. We meet them finally in 2017, Brexit Britain, one married with a child and the other turning into a bit of a bitch, under the influence of her former school bully, both struggling in their relationship with their respective parent. Oh, and there’s an asteroid.

The gig bit consists of songs as commentary, their style reflecting the periods, played by composer James Frewer and the cast members at each corner of the playing area, with the audience on four sides. It was well performed, with a particularly charismatic performance from Matt Graham as the MC, but it was let down by poor, muddy sound and a weak, rather pompous ending. Before that it had been an enjoyable 75 minutes, but didn’t quite live up to expectations.

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This WWI set musical was commissioned by National Youth Music Theatre and when I saw the London premiere of their production just over two years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/brass-nymt-at-hackney-empire) it had a cast twice the size, an 18-piece band doing what a solo pianist does here, in a theatre with a capacity twenty times the Union Theatre. Despite that, this very timely professional premiere packs as much, if not more, of an emotional punch.

It moves between Leeds and the Somme as a brass band enlist together and their loved ones at home manufacture the munitions they need. At the front we glimpse the horrors and hopelessness as one dies, an underage recruit is executed for desertion, two men supress their desire for one another and the troops are sent to their death on ‘the big push’ by officers knowing full well what their fate was likely to be. Back home, the girls health deteriorates as their bosses expose them to risk in the munitions factory, and they form their own brass band as a tribute to their men. Relationships are lived through letters.

Benjamin Till’s excellent score is quintessentially British, with folk and choral influences, very melodic. Sasha Regan’s staging has great pace and energy, handling moving moments sensitively, not least the chilling ending to the first half, though I did think some of the soldier’s choreography was a touch quirky. A couple of large tables help to created the trenches and the factory in a simple and uncluttered set. The talented young cast serve the play well; I particularly liked Sam Kipling and Emma Harrold as brother and sister Alf and Eliza, and Samantha Richards feisty Titty, whose brother Morrie is beautifully played by Lawrence Smith, a fine trumpeter too. Henry Brennan does a terrific job playing the whole score on piano.

A lovely, heartfelt musical that again proves British musical theatre is alive and thriving, and a fitting tribute during the centenary of the events and times it represents.

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debbie tucker green is a highly original playwright, and the first scene of this three-part study of modern racism and its historical origins is brilliant, a mother and son discussing how behaviour, posture, body language and facial expressions will be interpreted when he is apprehended. From here, we see what happens when a playwright directs their own work i.e. no-one to challenge her indulgence in overlong scenes which lead to more becoming less.

The first part is a series of scenes, mostly monologues and duologues, where the participants, British and American, all black, share their experiences of racism. It’s brilliant and insightful at the start, but loses you as it goes on and on. The second part is what seems to be a series of discussions between an arrogant, patronising white professor and his black female student about the motivation for gun crimes, and the different interpretation of black and white perpetrators, again interesting but overlong. The third part is a series of video Vox Pop interviews, firstly by white Americans reading out segregation period rules and then white Brits doing the same about slavery, yet again pushed too far.

The playwright is making a direct link between slavery and segregation and contemporary racism, which is perfectly valid, but she fails to acknowledge any progress or offer any hope, and I think there is reason for both. Beautifully performed on a spare stage, the play’s only problem is its structure and length, 2h10m without a break. By lacking objectivity and labouring her points, I felt she weakened her argument, which some judicious editing could have dealt with, hence my point about directing her own work. Who was there to challenge the playwright and help transform the writing from the page to the stage more effectively?

A disappointment from a playwright I have so far admired.

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