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This is such a perfect pairing of play and venue. Much of the action of Agatha Christie’s 1953 play takes place in an Old Bailey courtroom and the County Hall chamber is a superb stand-in for the real thing. This is not the sort of play I’m usually drawn to, though I went to The Mousetrap (as it was the only theatre I hadn’t been in) and enjoyed it, and I thoroughly enjoyed this. It may not run as long as the other one, but it has HIT written all over it.

It’s the case of the alleged murder of a rich old woman by a charming young man. The prosecution and defence QC’s are arch enemies who love winning their cases. The key witness is a foreigner (not so politically correct today, but it has post-Brexit resonance)! I hadn’t seen the play or film before, so the expertly written twists were genuinely surprising. What more can I say without spoiling it?

Designer William Dudley has a venue which virtually designs itself, but his extra touches are excellent. Chris Davey’s lighting and especially Mic Pool’s ‘soundscape’ add much to create the unique atmosphere. It’s hard to imagine better casting than the triumvirate of Patrick Godfrey as Judge and David Yelland & Philip Franks as the QC’s, all excellent, and Jack McMullen and Catherine Steadman are terrific as the defendant Leonard Vole and his wife Romaine.

It’s a somewhat old-fashioned evening, but Lucy Bailey’s production oozes quality from every pore and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Oh, and the seats must be the comfiest in theatre-land.

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As I’ve got older, I’ve warmed to Ibsen’s plays. I now realise how much they were ahead of their time and how important they were to the development of modern drama. Elinor Cook’s adaptation moves this one forward in time and relocates it to the Caribbean and it comes up fresh, full of relevance and contemporary resonance.

Ellida, the ‘lady’ of the title, was the lighthouse keeper’s daughter who lost her father and came inland to marry the older, widowed Doctor Wangel. He has two teenage daughters with differing views on the match. Ellida loses a child and becomes unsettled. Wangel sends for her friend (and his daughter Bolette’s ex tutor) Arnholm and an old flame of Ellida returns too. She is torn between returning to the sea with him or staying with Wangel, and Bolette has to decide if she stays or marries Arnholm.

It’s a very modern, even feminist story and the change of time and place suits it well as it adds another dimension without smothering it. Kwame Kwei-Armah’s staging is delicate and nuanced. He gets fine performances from his cast, with particularly enjoyable ones from Jonny Holden as fragile artist Lyngstrand and Ellie Bamber as daughter Hilde, capturing teenage frankness perfectly. Tom Scutt’s impressionistic design, beautifully lit by Lee Curran, is gorgeous.

A lovely evening.

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Yes, it’s a play not a scientific theory. You can always rely on Simon Stephens for something different – he must have the most diverse body of work of any playwright. Here, he uses the concepts of uncertainty and unpredictability to tell the story of the most unlikely relationship between a 42-year-old woman and a 75-year-old man. It’s a very intuitive piece that I wasn’t sure about at first, but it drew me in and I left the theatre with a warm glow!

It’s beautifully set and lit by Bunny Christie and Paule Constable within a box of light, like a James Turrell installation, that changes size, shape and colour from scene to scene. There’s a lovely soundscape too, with music by Nils Fram. In the first scene, London Butcher Alex Priest meets American school receptionist Georgie Burns at a train station. From here, their extraordinary relationship unfolds from a chance encounter, unravelling of the truth, a mutual fascination with some brittleness to a romantic liaison and a full-blown relationship. At first it seems implausible, but somehow becomes believable. I put this down to superb chemistry between two fine actors.

In Marianne Elliott’s delicate, sensitive staging, Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff give the sort of uninhibited performances that deliver the believability of the relationship. Every time it turns a corner, implausibility returns but is then dispelled. Even though it runs less than ninety minutes, it does leave you satisfied.

I would have preferred to see it in a space more suitable, like the Dorfman, Royal Court, Donmar or Almeida, and more accessibly priced for a one-act two-hander, but in other ways it’s good that the West End can support work like this.

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I’ve been a big supporter of Pimlico Opera’s work in prisons. Before this, there was West Side Story, Guys & Dolls and Carmen in Wandsworth, Sugar in Send and Our House in Belmarsh. I’m drawn by the extraordinary contribution they make to rehabilitation, but the quality of the work is extraordinary too. This one, at HMP High Down, was particularly thrilling.

They use the shortened ‘schools edition’ (which I saw in a school a few years back!). There are fourteen professional actors, two officers and eighteen prisoners, with a full orchestra under MD Dan Jackson (something the current partly synthesised West End production can’t boast!). Lest you think the professionals are anything other than premiere league, Javert has performed the role in the West End production and Fantine won an Olivier Award earlier this year!

Having a cast of 34 and a full orchestra makes the choruses thrilling. Robin Bailey’s Javert, Jeff Nicholson’s Valjean and Rebecca Trehearn’s Fantine are as good as any I’ve seen in the West End (Bailey has played it there and Cameron Mackintosh’s people would do well to sign up the other two!). The prisoners are not confined to the chorus, with roles like Marius being taken by some. Amongst the amateurs, PE instructor / officer Mat Baxter made a fine Enjolras and Irish prisoner Pearce Murray a suitably cheeky Thenardier.

You would expect such a production to be a touch ragged at the edges, but this is more than made up for in Nikki Woollaston’s staging by the sheer spirit and energy of it all, giving people the opportunity to get something positive out of a negative period of their lives. Hopeful and uplifting.

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I’ve been banging on about the extraordinary ambition of the All Star Productions team in Walthamstow for a while now, but I really thought they’d lost the plot when I heard they were mounting this infamous West End flop. Wrong again; they’ve turned into a cult fringe hit.

In 1989 it went straight into the cavernous Piccadilly Theatre. I liked it. It was an unusual pairing of American composer Joe Brooks (music) and British playwright Dusty Hughes (book & lyrics). Before becoming a playwright, Hughes had been Time Out’s theatre editor and the Bush Theatre’s joint AD. His plays had been put on at the NT, RSC & Royal Court, but he had no musicals pedigree. Brooks had written America’s biggest selling song in the 70’s, an Academy & Grammy award winner, but hadn’t written a musical. They chose to adapt Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 film.

It occupies that sparsely populated SciFi musical sub-genre. Set in a dystopian future, the overground world of the Elitists of Metropolis is powered by the Workers underground, in a city founded by John Freemen. The workers have a new-found charismatic leader in Maria, who has fallen in love with Freeman’s son Steven. Freeman has her abducted. He’s also hired an inventor to find a robotic alternative to the troublesome and increasingly scarce workers. These two actions come together.

The big surprise for me was how good the score is, with some great tunes and rousing choruses, freshly orchestrated and arranged by MD Aaron Clingham. The vocal quality is sky high, with particularly strong vocals from Rob Herron as Steven. My namesake Gareth James makes a fine baddie (Brian Blessed in the West End!) and there’s a hugely impressive professional debut by Miiya Alexandra as Maria. The excellent ensemble deliver the choruses with passion, expertly choreographed by Ian Pyle. The design team of Justin Williams, Jonny Rust & Joana Dias work wonders with limited resources, creating an inventive set and costumes. The show seems to be a favourite of director Tim McArthur, and it shows.

So by now you know you have three weeks to head to the northern end of the Victoria Line, where the centre of gravity of fringe musicals now clearly resides.

 

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A biographical play about a cinematographer? Jack Cardiff’s career reads like a history of 20th Century cinema, but why a play? It seems to have been suggested by its leading man, Robert Lindsay, and playwright / director Terry Johnson has dramatised it for him.

We’re at the end of Cardiff’s life, at his country home, with his wife Nicola, played by Claire Skinner, his son Mason, Barnaby Kay, and new ‘assistant’ Lucy, played by Rebecca Night. He’s got dementia, so it’s all recollection and reflection, and attempts to write a biography.

In the brilliant opening scene, he tells the history of screen shapes and sizes by opening a garage door. The first act ends as superbly as the second begins when we flash back to the filming of The African Queen in Kenya, where Barnaby Kay transforms into Humphrey Bogart, Rebecca Night into his wife Lauren Bacall and Claire Skinner becomes Katherine Hepburn – all brilliantly, as Kay and Night are again later as Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (not the first time she’s featured in a Johnson play!). Before and after this though it’s all a bit slight, and I came to the conclusion the life was less interesting, name-dropping and possible infidelities aside, and stageable than they at first thought.

That said, there are four fine performances, an excellent design from Tim Shortall and enough to make you pleased you went.

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I only know American playwright Arthur Kopit’s work for musical theatre – books for Nine, High Society and Phantom (the other one!). This 1978 stage play started on the radio and it seems to me that it was way ahead of its time; a complex examination of the effect of a stroke.

Our protagonist is aviator and wing-walker Emily Stilson, who suffers a stroke. We see her struggling to come to terms with her condition, but we’re seeing it from her perspective – the confusion and intense frustration, like being inside a nightmare. In hospital, we witness medical examinations and therapies, most notably for speech, though some of what we see are memories, often jumbled up. It really is an insight into brain damage and in particular aphasia. It’s only 75 minutes long but I’m not sure I could have taken more as it is a bit relentless.

Kopit’s notes and stage directions are very comprehensive, and director Natalie Abrahami seems to have respected these, but at the same time created an inventive staging. There’s a simple moving platform with moving translucent curtains, but most important of all, inspired by her career, is that Juliet Stevenson spends almost the entire play ‘flying’, only occasionally touching the ground. It’s a brave, virtuoso performance by a fine actress. One of the consequences, though, is that everyone else seemed like a mere ‘extra’.

It hasn’t been seen here for over thirty years, and I’m glad I caught it. It is insightful, and it’s superbly staged, but I didn’t find it wholly satisfying and rather depressing. Perhaps it was too close to home.

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