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Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

I’ve lost count of the number of four-hander chamber musicals set in New York City featuring twenty or thirty-somethings with complicated relationships. They’re sometimes light on story and often seem like song cycles, with great similarity to one another. This one is Joshua Salzman & Ryan Cunningham’s 2011 follow-up to 2006’s successful I Love You Because. When I saw the UK premiere at the much missed Landor Theatre in 2013, I thought it was a cut above the rest and after this second viewing I felt the same.
Waverly is a wannabe actress with two jobs, one in a law firm and one in a bar. Her boyfriend Darren is a budding playwright. Waverly’s best friend Lisa is a singer, Darren’s ex before she came out, now looking for the right woman to start a new life with in LA. Luke is a playboy, immature and self-obsessed, determined to live life without ties. Through these four characters and their relationships, we explore the conflict between settling down and staying free, the careers we want and the ones we can get.
The strengths of the show are the development of the characters and the quality of the songs and lyrics. Director Robert McWhir, who also directed its UK premiere, as he did that of I Love You Because, has assembled an excellent young cast. Bessy Ewa navigates the roller-coaster ride of Waverley extremely well, Amelia Atherton is in fine voice as Lisa (both are 2020 graduates), Callum Henderson is earnest and charming as Darren and Nathan Shaw captures Luke’s freewheeling lifestyle.
The Garden Theatre has been given its own bar, where much of the action is centred, in David Shields excellent design, with Aaron Clingham on keys and guitarist Ashley Blasse on a platform that’s an integral part of the bar. It’s very well staged and I enjoyed it as much as I did the UK premiere seven years ago.

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Old Vic in Camera showed me the difference between viewing plays live online and viewing recorded streams; the former are more engaging, probably just because you know you’re watching as it happens. This one from Nottingham Playhouse has the addition of a live audience in the theatre, which was a bonus, adding atmosphere.

James Graham’s Rom Com revolves around a couple whose first date is just before lockdown. They are faced with the choice of putting the relationship on ice for the duration of it, or moving in together and forming a bubble, after only one date! Both options are played out in parallel, by split screens online (I’m not sure how in the theatre).

Though it is primarily the story of an unlikely relationship, there’s a fair bit of lockdown reality in there too, but it’s always light, never heavy. Jessica Raine plays teacher Morgan, who hosts the bubble option in her flat, her excitement making her seem more like a teenager. Pearl Mackie plays Ashley, a modern woman running a micro-pub, bubbling with enthusiasm. Both performances on a virtually empty stage carry the narrative well.

Given the depth, quality and detail of Graham’s other work, it did seem like a work-in-progress, but it was an engaging seventy minutes which worked well online.

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I’ve long had a problem with staged monologues; I like to see characters interacting in my plays. I thought I might have melted after all those streamed performances, having enjoyed Sea Wall & Three Kings with Andrew Scott in particular. This 1979 play by Brian Friel consists of four monologues by three characters, but I’m afraid at 2.5 unbroken hours it did’t hold my attention, as it hadn’t on stage.

Frank Hardy is a faith healer who tours Scotland and Wales, and latterly his home country of Ireland. The other characters are his wife Grace and manager Teddy. We hear from them in that order, with Hardy returning to conclude the piece. In addition to their experiences on the road, events like Hardy’s return home after twenty years as his mother dies, the loss of Frank and Grace’s child and Grace’s death are also covered, Friel leaving some questions unanswered. Though the prose is appealingly poetic, the narrative didn’t satisfy me, and it certainly doesn’t sustain its length.

Some great actors have been attracted to these roles over the years. The original London Hardy was Patrick Magee, who was followed by Ken Stott & Stephen Dillane, and now Michael Sheen, who it has to be said is mesmerising. Helen Mirren was London’s first Grace and Sinead Cusack, Geraldine James, Gina McKee, and now Indira Varma, who is excellent, have followed in her footsteps. Ron Cook, Iain McDiarmid and Warren Mitchell (on radio) have all played Teddy, with David Threlfall on top form in this production.

I can’t help making comparisons with Alan Bennet’s recently revived Talking Heads. Their economy and brevity contrasts with this play’s verbosity and they are like colour to Faith Healer’s black & white. Sadly more is less, despite a trio of fine performances.

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As much as I’ve appreciated theatre’s making them available, I’ve been struggling to engage with streams of recorded shows in lockdown, perhaps because I’d already seen many of them in the theatre, so I was curious how I might get on with a live one. Playwright Stephen Beresford (an extraordinary playwriting debut at the NT with Last of the Haussmans, the excellent adaptation of Fanny & Alexander at the Old Vic and the screenplay for the brilliant film Pride) and actor Andrew Scott, whose streaming of Sea Wall was a notable exception, made this a real draw too.

Scott is relayed live from the Old Vic stage, the empty auditorium as his backdrop. He tells the story of his character’s estranged father and the few encounters he’s had with with him. We learn about his sister and later their brother by another wife and the multiple relationships and locations of his father. Its mostly direct to camera and Scott is mesmerising, but there’s also judicious but clever use of split screens and other features. I found it totally captivating, much more than my live open air promenade performance a few days previously. The addition of the sound of audience anticipation before the start and appreciation at the end helped create the almost live experience, with the added benefit of close-up dialogue and action.

A real success; now I can barely wait for Faith Healer, the next one, in a couple of weeks.

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In many ways this is the ideal show for our current predicament. Open air, promenade, keep as much distance as you like. I joined a small group on a corner of Clapham Common, opened the App I’d downloaded and waited to be told what to do next.

What we did do was follow an actor around this corner of the common as her story unfolds through an excellent soundscape played through your headphones / earphones. She is joined by another actor. The location(s) aren’t significant. To say more would be to spoil it.

My problem with the piece is that even the dialogue is recorded, some mimed. most not, so the actors are almost incidental. I felt sorry for Katja Quist and Richard Heap who had to engage with the dozen followers and attempt to convey emotion in this way. It was also hard not to be distracted by the attention of the public, wondering what on earth we were up to.

Site specific, immersive work has given me some of my best and most memorable theatrical experiences, but this isn’t really site specific (it could be anywhere, and indeed is being performed elsewhere) and I didn’t find it immersive. I admire Katy Lipson & Aria Entertainment for finding something to feed theatre-goers in these times, but I’m afraid it left me hungry.

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My third open air theatrical treat in eight days took me to a favourite haunt, the lovely Watermill Theatre near Newbury. I’d seen a show in their garden before, when they did Alan Ayckbourn’s House & Garden in 2017, Garden performed there with House playing simultaneously in the theatre and the cast moving between the two in real time. Nothing in the theatre this time, but ten actor-musicians on a tiny stage, also moving around the garden, gave us an edited semi-staged version of this rarely performed 60-year-old Lerner & Lowe musical which I have only seen once, somewhat ironically at the Open Air Theatre in 2004.

We’ve lost seven named characters, but only two songs, and we’ve gained a narrator. The tale of both the King’s promotion of honour and justice by the creation of the Knights of the Round Table and the love triangle with his wife Guenevere and the French Knight Lancelot are intact, but some characters and some sub-plots have ended up on the cutting room floor, as it were, but this is a concert version, so it’s the music that matters and that’s where it excels. There were some, but not too many, delicious COVID references, one explaining that Arthur & Guenevere are a real life couple.

The three leads are all excellent. Michael Jibson follows his royal role in Hamilton with a very different king, idealistic and earnest, more charismatic. Caroline Sheen is lovely as Guenevere, torn between two men, in fine voice. Marc Antolin’s Lancelot is every bit as narcissistic as you’d expect, yet charming with it, and he makes a spectacular first entrance. Seven others, including MD Tom Self, play all the remaining roles, and all instruments in the now well established Watermill style. Paul Hart’s staging spills out from the stage with jousts and journeys.

The Watermill’s Covid measures were as professional as my other two open air outings, with even more social distance in this lovely space. My cup runneth over.

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This show has been on my radar for most of its three year life; on one occasion I even got to the venue in Edinburgh to find it had sold out. I’ve very much enjoyed similar treatments of Round the Horne, The Missing Hancocks and Men from the Ministry, but this was even more impressive, with two actors playing some 25 roles.

They’ve taken two radio scripts and recreate the recordings at microphones, in costume, with sound affects. The first, When You’ve Got to Go, concerns young Pike’s call up and the second, My Brother and I, a visit from Captain Mainwaring’s brother. Both are from 1975, late in it’s nine year run, and Jimmy Perry & David Croft’s scripts have stood the test of time, all 45 years of it. Not only are they very funny, but they now have a nostalgic charm (well, for someone my age, anyway) and the smile never left my face.

David Benson and Jack Lane give virtuoso performances with uncanny vocal imitations and as this was their first show for some time, they seemed to be enjoying each others performances as well as the joy of performing again, and by the end were very moved, as were the audience. It was a delightful hour, at least for people of a certain age, perhaps more so given the five month theatrical famine.

The venue for this, part of the New Normal Festival, is the courtyard of Le Gothique in the brilliantly named Royal Victoria Patriotic Building, a gothic gem in Wandsworth, is lovely and the Covid measures were all professionally handled. My second return to live theatre in five days was as much fun as the first.

 

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A sound installation that’s so theatrical it deserves a blog!

The Donmar Warehouse Theatre has reopened its doors to sixty people at a time, socially distanced (and on Wednesday, sweltering!), sitting with headphones listening to this monologue adapted by Simon Stephens from Jose Saramago’s book about another sort of epidemic, where people go blind.

We hear that the first victim becomes blind whilst driving and the story rapidly unfolds as others succumb to blindness, fear spreads, people are institutionalised and the world is soon in the grip of this phenomenon. Juliet Stevenson tells the story as the only person who seems to be spared, but who has to feign blindness for her own safety, with great urgency, and the extraordinary sound design by Ben & Max Ringham means you hear her moving around the space, sometimes distant, sometimes whispering into your ear, dropping something, dragging something else. You find yourself looking over your shoulder to the place her voice appears to originate.

Even though it is a sound installation, Lizzie Clachan’s design and Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting contribute a lot to the tension and claustrophobic atmosphere. Neon lights above you drop to eye level and lights illuminate different parts of the space at different times, but much of it is in complete darkness. All of these contributions come together under Water Meierjohann’s direction to bring this story alive with great theatricality.

It won’t cheer you up but it will probably quench your thirst for drama, albeit without a live actor in sight. Huge congratulations to the Donmar for this inventive response to out predicament in the arts.

 

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It’s 21 weeks since I attended a cultural event. Normally it would have been between 60 and 80 in that timespan. I queued, socially distanced of course, for a very short while. My temperature was taken and hand gel dispensed. I was led to a table where, after orderly ordering at the bar, my drink was brought to me. I scanned the QR code and registered for track & trace. Then I was led to my seat in the garden with another splash of sanitiser on the way. It was all done in a very professional, unhurried, slick way, so gold stars to the Garden Theatre at the Eagle Vauxhall for this, and for being the first off the mark on the London fringe.

Fanny and Stella were the alter egos for two men – Ernest Boulton & Frederick William Park – in Victorian London, who flouted the law by performing dressed as women, and staying in drag beyond that. Ernest had a ‘sugar daddy’, a peer no less, who treats him and refers to him as his wife, but Ernest also has a boyfriend in Edinburgh and has a dalliance with the American Consul based there. They finally overstepped the mark and after a period on remand in prison were somehow acquitted, perhaps because Frederick’s father was a judge!

The book and lyrics by Glenn Chandler, the creator of Taggart, one of Britain’s longest running police dramas, are witty and cheeky, littered with double entendres and, with Charles Miller’s chirpy score, create a music hall style which suits both the story and the venue. They’ve worked wonders with a few red curtains and potted plants to create a lovely garden theatre and David Shields design and costumes are a delight. MD Aaron Clingham, with his branded Fanny & Stella facemask, plays the score gamely on piano. Steven Dexter’s direction and Nick Winston’s musical staging are fresh and sprightly. Despite the lightness of the treatment, the serious side of the story isn’t lost.

Jed Berry and Kane Verrall are terrific as as Ernest / Stella and Frederic / Fanny, with excellent audience engagement. Kurt Kansley as Lord Arthur Clinton, Alex Lodge as friend Louis Charles Hurt and Joaquin Pedro Valdes as the American Consul provide great support, with Mark Pearce often stealing the show in a number of small roles, all delivered playfully.

I suppose you could think a theatre lover would fall for just about anything after a 21 week famine, but I can honestly say it was great fun, and an absolute tonic.

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This American cult musical by Joe Iconis & Joe Tracz, based on the 2008 novel by Ned Vizzini, has had an interesting history. It was first produced in a regional theatre in New Jersey in 2015. Though a success, it never went anywhere else and disappeared for three years, though they had made a cast album. The music went viral on social media, which created enough buzz for a successful two-month off-Broadway run and a transfer to Broadway last year for six months and this UK premiere. Soon after it started I was asking myself the question ‘what am I doing here?’; I’m not the audience for this. I still felt that at the end, but there was enough to enjoy to stop me regretting going.

We’ve heard of the term ‘take a chill pill’, well this one is a Japanese micro-computer that makes you cool, and nerdy teenager Jeremy buys one to try and gain social inclusion, and in particular to get Christine, but the price he has to pay is high, risking pre-existing friendships and relationships. The show’s themes are all about teenage angst and everything they have to go through growing up – hence ‘its not for me’. It’s very American and I wondered if anglicising it might have helped, but the rest of the, mostly very young, audience didn’t seem to be bothered. It was too cheesy for my taste, though, and with the exception of a couple of songs, I thought the score was bland and the story a book-by-numbers.

What I did like was the bright, colourful design, with excellent projections by Alex Basco Koch and terrific costumes by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, and a fine ensemble led by Scott Folan as Jeremy and Blake Patrick Anderson as his best friend Michael. The voice of the ‘pill’ in Jeremy’s head, the Squip, comes alive in an excellent characterisation by Stewart Clarke, who gets some particularly good costumes. So don’t let me put you off, it’s not for me. Maybe they should have an upper age limit?!

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