Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’s reopening offering is minimalist storytelling based on the 2000-year-old tales of Roman poet Ovid. Though I enjoyed it, particularly its playfulness, it wasn’t necessarily a good use of this extraordinary space. It would have worked just as well in any ‘black box’ studio theatre.

They pack a lot of tales into 80 minutes (well, there are over 250 to choose from), some well known, some more obscure, some very short, some more fully formed. All four actors – Steffan Donnelly, Fiona Hampton, Charlie Josephine and Irfan Jamji – do well interpreting the characters with a timelessness which makes many of the stories resonate well, notably those where the attitude to women can be shown up as antediluvian.

They exploit the intimacy of the venue with excellent audience engagement from the start, continuing with characters created from amongst us and even a singalong or two. This is its greatest strength, a disarming and infectious charm and tongue-in-cheek style which is impossible not to be captivated by.

I’m not sure the design – a sort of hardware shop where a few items are plucked from the ‘shelves’ and used – adds much, and the candlelight seemed to be used because they could. Though I enjoyed the evening (well, apart from the unmasked man behind breathing on my neck), it didn’t have that special quality so many others at the SWP have had, but in fairness the rest of the audience seemed to be having a fine old time.

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There are a handful of directors whose work I so admire that I book for anything they do / bring to London, and Yael Farber is one of them. I’ve been lucky enough to see seven productions in the last eight years, from Mies Julie to this – Strindberg, Miller, Lorca, Wilde, David Harrower and the extraordinary Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry, but not Shakespeare, until now. Like other visionary directors such as Robert Lepage and the late Yukio Ninagawa, she has illuminated Shakespeare whilst still faithfully serving the bard in a brilliant production with a towering performance by James McCardle as Macbeth.

It’s a relatively simple design by Soutra Gilmour & Joanna Scotcher that seems both timeless and modern, very dark in tones, in keeping with the tragedy. Tim Lutkins’s lighting is superbly atmospheric and there’s an equally atmospheric, haunting, largely musical, soundscape by Peter Rice & Tom Lane with live onstage cello from Aoife Burke. It’s a very visceral production, with extraordinarily realistic fights (Kate Waters) and gory murders, and it has real psychological depth, showing how obsession with power can turn into regret and violence to remorse. Water flooding the stage creates dramatic images and reflections, but also heightens the tension. The ‘wyrd’ sisters are more like a prophetic Greek chorus, here absolutely key to the unravelling of the story. It occasionally cries out for a bigger stage, but its one of the best Macbeth’s I’ve ever seen.

Farber gets such fantastic performances from all of her cast that it seems invidious to single people out. Saoirse Ronan’s UK stage debut, and only her second stage appearance, is very impressive, showing Lady Macbeth to be the force which propels her husband’s determination for power but hugely regretful by the time the Macduff’s are despatched, with pulsating chemistry with McArdle. Like fellow Glaswegian James McAvoy just eight years ago, he seems born to play Macbeth. He throws himself around the stage, every emotion on display, as he descends into power crazed madness. A career defining performance if ever I saw one.

A thrilling evening, a highlight amongst many fine evenings at the Almeida, a triumph for all involved.

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John Godber’s plays for his then company Hull Truck Theatre were a staple diet of the Edinburgh Fringe for some time from the late 80’s, sometimes two or three a year. For me, it started with Bouncers, the first in a series of four-handlers that were effectively interwoven monologues, continuing with Teechers and Shakers, plus plays that blended comedy with social comment, plays about real people, a slice of humanity on stage. I’ve seen around a dozen of them.

A weekend in Scarborough provide the opportunity to see his new work for The John Godber Company, resident at Theatre Royal Wakefield, and to go to Stephen Joseph Theatre, on my list of regional theatrical powerhouses to be visited – appropriate considering Godber is the UK’s third most performed playwright and the the Stephen Joseph Theatre has premiered all of the plays of the second, Alan Acykbourn (Will remains No.1, of course). This is very much a family affair, with Godber’s wife Jane Thornton and his daughter Martha the other two actors and Elizabeth Godber the stage manager. Godber writes, directs and acts.

It’s set in a Yorkshire seaside town, Sunny Side, where Barney, his wife Tina and daughter Cath run a small hotel. At a quiet time, booking wise, Tina invites her brother Graham and his wife to stay as hotel guests. Graham has long moved on from Sunny Side and the play centres around how some of us leave home and lose sight of, and connection to, where we come from. The contrast between the run down hometown and its upwardly mobile former resident forms the crux of both the comedy and the social message. It’s a multi-layered piece which is both entertaining and thought provoking, and it clearly resonated with the local audience of a real seaside town, and with me, a Welsh miner’s son who left home at eighteen.

The three actors play both those who stayed and those who’ve moved on, as well as other characters like hotel guests. It unfolds in a series of short scenes between the two couples separately, which could have been a bit ‘staccato’ but flowed well, with a soundtrack to die for of well known pop songs of Barney / Graham’s youth. It has great feel-good warmth and I thoroughly enjoyed being reacquainted with this prolific, very talented and populist theatre-maker.

Catch it on tour in Halifax, Oldham, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Hull.

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I knew nothing of the existence of Nazi camps for children of German extraction in pre-war USA. Even now, the thought is chilling. Bess Wohl’s play presents us with one such place, in Yaphank New York, seen through the eyes of two teenagers who meet there, just referred to as Him and Her.

He seems to have been a convert before he even arrived, revelling in his heritage, in admiration of what the National Socialists are doing in Germany. She’s been dragged there, and is much more ambivalent about it all, though she appears to make a journey of discovery and conversion, ending up making the major speech at the closing rally.

We follow their personal relationship as well as the camp journey. They buy into the need to reproduce for the fatherland, he considers going there to work or fight for the homeland, but there are more parochial preoccupations too, involving their fellow campmates and their friends and relatives.

In effect, we are seeing how young people can be drawn in to idealised concepts and causes, despite their incompatibility with the principles of the land of freedom and opportunity that they have been brought up to value. There’s a tension between the two, and a tension between Him and Her.

Though it’s an intimate play for such a big stage, it didn’t get as lost at the Old Vic as I thought it might, perhaps because they play almost exclusively at the front of the stage, before an impressionistic forest, or perhaps because of the power of the characterisations and the performances, or indeed both.

Patsy Ferran and Luke Thallon are both terrific, playing totally believable 16 and 17-year-olds respectively. Ferran has the biggest transformation, but Thallon has more of an emotional roller-coaster ride. For me, these performances are reason alone for seeing the play.

Brave programming for the Old Vic which may not come off commercially, but does so artistically.

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This story is made for musical adaptation, though it’s taken 35 years to do it. Perhaps it needed 21st Century stage technology to pull it off, which it does in style. There are weak links, though, in the initial pacing and the bland pop score, but the spectacle, the staging and the performances make it, and I’m glad I went.

In case you don’t know the story, it’s 1985 and young Marty lives with his unassertive dad, who is bullied at work, depressed alcoholic mom, and his older siblings who are failures. Oh, and his rock band is going nowhere. He visits his unlikely friend Doc Brown, an inventor who claims to have turned a DeLorean car into a time travelling machine, but has to escape quickly when the Libyan terrorists from whom Doc has stolen the plutonium to power his vehicle come after him. Marty’s escape is in the DeLorean, back to 1955, when Doc first developed the idea, before Marty was born. Here he meets his dad, being bullied by the same man as a schoolboy, and his mom, who becomes infatuated with him. His objective becomes to return powered by something other than plutonium and without changing history.

It takes too long to take off, but when it does it’s great fun. The second half is superbly paced with brilliant effects making the end sequence sensational. John Rando’s staging and Chris Bailey’s choreography are very slick and the design by Tim Hatley is outstanding. Both leads – Olly Dobson as Marty and Roger Burt as Doc – have great charm and a tongue-in-cheek delivery, which is key to the sense of fun. The supporting cast includes a terrific turn from Hugh Coles as Marty’s dad, particularly strong in 1955, and Aidan Cutler as Biff makes a great baddie.

Go for the spectacle and the fun and you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

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I loved everything about this play and it’s extraordinary production. Inspired by a recent discovery of cave paintings in Indonesia, it’s part life story, part history lesson, part detective story and a commentary on education and cultural appropriation. It packed a lot into ninety minutes whilst managing to be funny, moving and entertaining.

We start in a primary school in Indonesia where a new young keen Scottish teacher’s creative methods look set to clash with the conservatism of the Head Teacher. He begins to inspire 8-year-old Elise. We meet Elise again when she’s 25, and here we’re offered a number of alternative futures, some inspired by her parents, French mum and Indonesian dad, some by her teacher. One of them is as a paleo-archaeologist seeking to research across boundaries that also include linguistics, which brings about a conflict with her French university professors. Finally we meet her at 43, reconciled with Marie-Claude, her university professor, who seeks to use her, but ends up learning from her.

There are so many threads interwoven in its non-linear narrative. Given it doesn’t have a single writer – it’s a collective – it’s dramaturgically very clear, though I didn’t clock that the characters included Elise’s parents. The staging too is very effective in presenting the structure of the story, with people on and above the stage who descend like climbers. There is much use of projection and you wear headphones throughout, which helps create the atmosphere of locations like caves, but also aids concentration. I was enthralled throughout; it didn’t lose me for a moment.

It’s a collaboration between the UK’s curious directive and Indonesia’s Bombo under the impeccable direction of Jack Lowe. It’s beautifully performed by Amanda Hadinghue, Asha Sylvestre, Lewis Mackinnon, Mohamad Faizal Abdullah, Sarita Gabony and Stephanie Street with an extraordinary performance from Farah Qadir as 8-year-old Elise. The excellent design by Zoe Hurwitz constitutes the eighth performance.

It finishes at the New Diorama this week, but work of this quality must surely have a life beyond this.

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Peter Gill plays are very literary, very poetic, and as such they stand out today. They don’t make ’em like this any more. It struck me on seeing this one again how difficult it must be to both stage and perform, but new company Both Barrels Theatre pull it off.

Set in East Cardiff in the 50’s and the 70’s, it concerns friends and neighbours Gerard and Vincent and their respective mothers, their fathers mentioned but unseen. In the 50’s they all live in a working class neighbourhood, just about making things meet. Neighbourliness is the norm and they are forever popping in next door.

By the 70’s Gerard has left home but is back to see his mam. Vincent has been to sea, married and fathered a child, but hasn’t really left home. Both mams have their problems and insecurities but are devoted to their sons, as are they to their mothers. The boys look back from the 70’s and realise how much their relationship in the 50’s has impacted their lives.

It’s a non-linear narrative and you have to concentrate and keep your wits about you. The many short scenes switch quickly between times and characters and its best to approach it as a whole, rather than look for the literal meaning of dialogue or scenes. That way it rewards you, like looking at a painting rather than reading a book.

Staged in what looks like a Richard Serra sculpture that they reconfigure occasionally, it’s beautifully performed by Andy Rush and Toby Gordon as Gerard and Vincent respectively, Sioned Jones as Gerard’s mam & Tameka Mortimer as Vincent’s mam. George Richmond-Scott’s staging is very much is in harmony with the ‘staccato’ nature of the material.

This was my first visit to the Omnibus Theatre, the nearest to my home, but with work of this quality there’s little doubt I’ll be back.

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I was expecting three separate plays set in the local area, but it’s three stories that flow organically from one to the other, representing three waves of immigration and three sets of newcomers to the area. Irish, West Indian and Ugandan Asian, all blending, making friends and relationships between their cultures. It’s a deeply satisfying, heart-warming experience.

We start with Moira Buffini’s story of two Irish cleaners in a dancehall, one here long enough to have a West Indian husband and teenage child, the other newly arrived, naïve and vulnerable. In Roy Williams’ Life of Riley we meet a mixed race girl, brought up by her single mother, seeking to reconnect with her father, once a renowned reggae musician, stalwart of Trojan Records, herself an aspiring singer.

Finally, in the late 70’s, when punk rules the (air)waves, Suhayla El_bushra introduces us to another newly arrived family, this time Ugandan Asians whose teenage daughter’s best friend is Irish. Anjali (beautifully played by Natasha Jayetileke) works at Grunwick and is forced to break the strike as hers is the only wage after her proud husband’s unexpected redundancy.

We see the cultures they carry with them, or seek to lose – Aoife’s strict Catholicism, Riley’s independent spirit and Deepak’s masculine pride – as we see them become Londoners. The direction, by Susie McKenna and Taio Lawson, serves the stories well, It seems to me to be very timely. A lovely evening.

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This extraordinary play by Paula Vogel is given an even more extraordinary production by Rebecca Taichman. What begins as the story of the life of a controversial early 20th Century play ends up being much more of a history of a culture and a people.

The ‘lost’ play at its centre is God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, written in Warsaw at the beginning of the last century. It had its first reading in 1907 and despite the negative reaction from the godfather of Yiddish literature, gets produced in St Petersburg and across Europe. The controversy comes from the fact its central characters are a lesbian couple and it’s partly set in a brothel.

Fifteen years on from that reading, the play is translated into English and gets produced in New York, though by the time it gets to Broadway it has been cut. Despite this the cast and producer are arrested during a performance and prosecuted for obscenity, though this is eventually overturned. The next time we see the play is in performance in the Lod ghetto in Poland during the Second World War.

That’s one of the clever things about Indecent. In addition to the story of the life of God of Vengeance, it seems to be the story of a people and a culture too, aided here by an onstage Klezmer band and Jewish clothing, traditions & references, which clearly meant more to those in the audience of shared heritage, but placed the play in context nonetheless.

The staging is masterly, from the first coup d’theatre, as the actors are introduced, shaking off the dust, to the final one, where we get to see the most controversial scene of God of Vengeance at last. It would be invidious to single out any one of its exceptional cast of ten actors and musicians; for once the term fine ensemble seems spot on.

Great to be back in the Menier, to see something which is well worth the wait

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I love plays which make connections between people, periods, places and events to present a bigger picture. Winsome Pinnock’s new play places Turner’s painting ‘Slaver’s Throwing Overboard the Dead & Dying – Typhoon Coming On’, more commonly known as ‘The Slave Ship’, at the centre, from which we move back and forth unravelling the connections.

We see black school-kids and their teacher studying the painting in a gallery and an actress researching and filming something inspired by the painting, to the period and events it depicts. Characters like a schoolboy and the actress are deeply affected by what they have viewed. The play’s key point, the impact of these historical events on descendants living today, is made explicitly clear at the end.

Pulling off such an audacious piece of theatre requires clarity in the staging, but I didn’t feel that was the case here. I’m afraid I thought Miranda Cromwell’s production was more confusing than clear, and difficult scenes like a historical ballroom dance and dancing at a contemporary party happening simultaneously don’t get the deft staging they need to work.

Most of the talented cast play two or more roles, which works perfectly well. On the night I went, Paul Bradley was indisposed and Lloyd Hutchinson (not an understudy) played the roles of Turner / Roy, script in hand, remarkably well. The staging in-the-round facilitated speedy changes of scene, with some remarkably speedy changes in costume!

I thought it was well written, making an interesting point that people like me may not have hitherto understood and may need to hear, but its impact was marred by the production, which may have benefitted from a more experienced director.

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