Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

This may be the most unlikely Broadway musical, a show about an Egyptian police band who end up in the wrong city in Israel. It’s based on a 2007 Israeli film by Eran Kolirin, adapted by Itamar Moses & David Yazbek as an Off-Broadway musical which made its way to the Great White Way in 2017 and now to the West End five years later.

The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra have been invited to the opening of an Arab Cultural Centre in a town in Israel, but through a mis-pronunciation get a bus from Tel Aviv airport to a different town in back-of-beyond Israel where they are stranded overnight. Both the locals and the band are wary of each other, but the offer of hospitality from restauranteur Dina breaks the ice.

Conductor Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria, a widower, is shown around the town by Dina. Band member Haled accompanies four youngsters to a roller disco and coaches the shy Papi in courting. Another, Simon, gets taken in by Itzik where he is exposed to his troubled relationship with his wife and grieving father-in-law Avrum. Somehow, the initial wariness is replaced by warmth and friendship as these Egyptians touch the lives of their hosts, and vice versa.

Yazbek’s music is a million miles way from the scores of his other shows – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and The Full Monty – with a distinctive Arab / Israeli aesthetic. It feels more like a play with music than a musical, and a very original one at that. Michael Longhurst’s production is sensitive to the material, with a gentleness and charm that captures your heart. It’s beautifully performed by a cast led by Miri Mesika as Dina and Alon Moni Aboutboul as Tewfiq. The onstage orchestra is terrific.

The lasting impression of this lovely show is that humans will connect and befriend each other in any circumstances provided they ignore the political, cultural and religious prejudices that otherwise pervade and poison their daily lives.

A surprising and lovely evening.

Read Full Post »

This modern classic isn’t produced that often, probably because it requires the resources only a big theatre company can marshal, though it was seen in London three times in relatively quick succession between 2010 and 2016, at The Open Air Theatre, The Old Vic & The RSC, all great productions. Though it’s about the 1692 Salem witch trials, Arthur Miller wrote it as an allegory for the McCarthy Un-American Activities Committee, which he defied shortly before, resulting in a conviction for contempt of court. Every time it’s staged it resonates, no more than at the present time.

The trials took place after the last witch was executed in Britain, the country where these puritans came from. They lived in a theocracy where the church was clearly in control. The spark was lit by children, seemingly out for revenge, naming almost all the townswomen as witches. The girls are seen in the forest, in trances, looking as if they are possessed. It escalates rapidly and hysteria develops extraordinary quickly. To escape execution, the accused had to lie, something these people were led to believe would turn god against them. So if they told the truth, they would die, if they told a lie they would be punished by their god.

The reason the play is timeless is that it reflects human nature. Though the consequences are of course different, people have always lived in a world of witch-hunts, these days by social and printed media, which can produce as much hysteria just as quickly. It seems to be human destiny to live with conflict, in politics, religion or other belief, in neighbourhoods, communities, sport. In recent years it’s manifested itself in attitudes to the pandemic, right vs left, brexit vs remain, monarchists vs republicans, woke or anti-woke, as well as more personal attacks on J K Rowling and most recently This Morning presenters. This is a 70-year-old play about an incident 330 years ago that’s bang up to date.

The most striking thing about Lindsay Turner’s brilliant production is the extraordinary contribution Tim Lutkin’s lighting makes, illuminating individuals like I’ve never seen before. The soundscape too adds much atmosphere, and there are curtains of water on three sides before the start and between acts, which look stunning even if I still struggle for their meaning. I was so involved I wanted to audibly denounce the unfairness and tell John Proctor what he should do.

Though it’s invidious to single out actors in such a fine company, I have to say Brendan Cowell’s John Proctor was as fine a characterisation of this role as I’ve ever seen. Erin Doherty inhabits the role of Abigail, a chilling portrayal, and there are passionate performances from Fisayo Akinade as Rev. Hale and Karl Johnson as old-timer Giles Corey. The girls send shivers up your spine.

This is what the National is for. Don’t miss it.

Read Full Post »

The Bush Theatre on form again with this deeply moving two-hander about an unlikely friendship and the plight of gay asylum seekers.

Bilal is a British gay man of Pakistani heritage. He came out to his parents who disapprove but have not cut him off. Zafar is a gay Pakistani asylum seeker whose partner was murdered by his father, who threatened to do the same to him. He’s awaiting a decision on his case. Though they share their heritage and sexual orientation, the similarities end there. Bilal is open and sexually promiscuous, though yearning for a relationship. Zafar has had that, albeit with a man in an arranged marriage, but given where he’s just come from he remains discrete, secret and conservative.

When they first meet their differences are profound, but as the friendship develops they find common ground and mutual warmth. It’s a friendship, not a relationship. When Zafar’s plight becomes desperate, Bilal does everything he can to help his new friend. The play ends by bringing us back to the real world where many other cases like Zafar’s shame our society.

It’s a very well written piece that draws you in and connects you with both the characters and the issues. It’s humour prevents it becoming too earnest, without ever losing sight of the seriousness of the situation, and there isn’t a moment wasted in telling the story. Anthony Simpson-Pike’s staging has great pace and energy but allows the piece to breath, becoming deeply moving as the tale unfolds. It’s beautifully performed by Waleed Akhtar (the playwright) and Esh Alladi.

Another excellent evening of new writing at the Bush.

Read Full Post »

Am I the only one who finds it somewhat ironic that the premiere of this anti-woke play is at the theatre that cancelled Terry Gilliam, resulting in the ‘deprogramming’ of Into the Woods?

Jonathan Spector’s play is set in a very liberal American school, where everyone is keen to please and upset no-one. The task the governors are undertaking when we join them is determining what ethnicity categories should be included in their website’s drop-down box. You quickly get a flavour of the culture of the institution we’re observing, on Rob Howell’s brilliant Day-Glo set.

The big issue that faces them, though, is on the horizon, when an outbreak of mumps pits the anti-vaxxers against those who don’t want to put their children at risk. It becomes very personal as the child of one of them is a victim of the disease. As with most things these days, it escalates very quickly from a debate and disagreement to outright war, in this case one that will lead to a dramatic change in their culture.

Though it’s refreshing to see such arguments aired in a theatre, its uproarious humour risks burying the debate of what are important issues in modern society – polarisation, divisiveness, bandwagons, lack of healthy discussion, comments taken out of context, jumping to conclusions……That said, it delivers as a satirical comedy, with fine performances (but why so many American imports?) though you can’t hear what they are saying in the funniest scene involving a zoom meeting, as they are upstaged by the ‘chat’ exchanges projected above.

Sitting in an audience made up of mature members of society who lapped it up, I couldn’t help wondering what a much younger audience would make of it. Go for the laughs, particularly if you’re tired of the woke new world. I suspect a sequel called ‘bloody health & safety’ would go down just as well.

Read Full Post »

This was one of my first covid cancellations when its run was curtailed after five or six weeks in March 2020, and the last for me to catch up with some 2.5 years later. Not a stage adaptation of Ben Elton’s hit TV comedy series, but a new play based on the same premise and characters, well some of them.

Shakespeare is struggling to find inspiration for a new play. It needs to be a hit after the lukewarm reception given to Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. Ideas come from his London landlady’s daughter Kate, firstly King Lear, then Othello. There’s a sprinkling of references to other plays, like Romeo & Juliet, Twelfth Night and A Winter’s Tale. The humour is in the juxtaposition of the period and contemporary issues like colour blind casting, gender representation and transport woes. so up-to-date I felt there might have been very recent additions. I thought it was a bit slow to take off but when it got going the laughs came quick and fast in a plot where life and plays converge. It’s humour is broad and bawdy, with it’s own charming euphemisms for private parts and sexual acts. I thought it was clever and a lot of fun.

Sean Foley’s speedy staging contains some lovely performances, chief amongst them Gemma Whelan as Shakespeare’s muse Kate, Rob Rouse as his servant bottom and Stewart Wright as larger-than-life 17th Century luvvie Burbage. It appears to be David Mitchel’s professional debut in a play, though he created the character and brings him alive on stage as he did on TV. The economics of live theatre is presumably the reason for fewer characters than on screen and I felt it missed them, most importantly Mrs Shakespeare, brilliantly characterised by Lisa Tarbuck on the small screen.

Good fun.

Read Full Post »

Snail House

Seventy-nine is rather late to be debuting your first original play. Mind you, there have been adaptations and screenplays and this is Richard Eyre, director of some of the greatest theatrical productions of the last fifty years. Perhaps directing this as well as writing it was a mistake, though.

The play takes place before and after a dinner / party to celebrate Neil’s birthday and recent knighthood. The dinner is for 18 family and close friends, to be followed by a party with an additional 42. It’s in a posh school, an uber realistic design by Tim Hatley, and as we begin the caterers are laying tables with Neil, his wife, son and daughter arriving. Neil is an eminent paediatrician, his profile having risen during the pandemic. His son Hugo is a researcher for a government minister, moulding policy. Eighteen-year-old daughter Sarah is a climate activist who has left home to live in a squat, but she comes to the party.

On one level, the play conveys a generational divide typical of those that have proliferated for the last six years, a family split by Brexit, climate change, me too and black lives matter, amongst other things. It also presents a class divide between the family and the three catering staff. It transpires that Neil has history with one of them, Florence, and this provides the focus of the play’s most powerful debate.

Yet, despite its timeliness and topicality, it doesn’t really take off, though there are fine performances all round. I do think the independent view of another director might have sharpened it. It felt like there was a much better play trying to break out. It also didn’t help that there was no atmosphere at the sparsely attended performance last night, which was of course the evening of the state funeral.

Read Full Post »

I feel privileged to have seen many theatre productions by great directors from around the world, like Canada’s Robert Lepage and the late Yukio Ninagawa from Japan. Ivo van Hove joined my list of favourites some 17 years ago with his production of Arthur Milker’s A View from the Bridge here at the Young Vic, and 12 shows later he’s back with this solo piece adapted from Edouard Louis’ 2018 autobiographical novel.

It follows the relationship between Edouard and his father from childhood to the latter’s industrial accident and subsequent disability. He was an abusive father and husband, a racist and a homophobe, particularly cruel to Edouard as a gay boy. Hans Kesting plays both father and son at all ages, together with cameos as mother and brother, switching with ease. The mental cruelty is a tough watch. Towards the end it goes off on a tangent, ranting against French leaders for the right-wing turns that impacted the poor and disadvantaged such as Edouard’s dad.

van Hove’s regular designer Jan Verswayveld creates some striking visual images in a black room with just a bed, door and windows, particularly in his use of lighting. It’s very much in van Hove’s ‘house style’ which gives it a visceral quality. It’s an extraordinary tour de force from Kesting, an actor with great presence and range. The turn from personal to political towards the end, albeit true to the source, did jar with me though; it felt as if it was bolted on, an addition rather than an integral part of the story. That said, it’s an enthralling if harrowing ninety minutes.

Read Full Post »

It’s rare to see a middle-class black family on our stages, so this is a breath of fresh air. More than the story of one family, it examines the black British experience.

Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s play takes place in the kitchen-diner of a family of Nigerian heritage, begInning on father Segun’s 60th birthday. He’s a successful psychotherapist and writer. His wife Tiwa has given up her career as a Psychiatrist and now works for a charity. Their daughter Ore is a Doctor and son Bayo a Police Officer, his wife a Labour MP. Arguments rage that bring out their different perspectives. Segun & Tiwa have conservative values, Ore is angry at the failing NHS and the black British experience. Amina feels powerless despite her position, whilst her husband remains committed to prosecuting wrong-doing.

Ore has been caring for someone who dies young of a heart condition, leaving behind his partner and baby son. She is troubled by the case and shares it with her mother. They agree to take Wunmi and her son August into their home, which disrupts the already dysfunctional family as she appears to take control of the household, ultimately causing havoc, taking them to the brink of disintegration. There’s a lot of story and a plethora of issues, perhaps too much to cover in any depth in less than two hours playing time. It’s style also becomes a touch too melodramatic, with some seemingly implausible twists, burying some of the issues.

That said, it’s a very slick production by Monique Touko with a fine set of performances.

Read Full Post »

I once had an email from the ENO encouraging me to book for ‘Terry Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust’. I’d already booked, so I replied asking for a refund as I thought it was Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust. Such is the power of the director. I was therefore somewhat cautious about seeing a favourite show by my musical theatre hero directed by the same man, though in all fairness it wasn’t billed as Terry Gilliam’s Into the Woods. I needn’t have worried. Though it’s got his aesthetic stamp all over, it serves the show well.

Four fairytales are interwoven under the umbrella of a tale about a childless couple who need to collect four items – Cinderella’s slipper, Rapunzel’s hair, Jack’s cow and Little Red Riding Hood’s cloak – in order to break the curse. You are lulled into a false sense of security in the first half only to be confronted with the giantess’ wrath in the second. It’s very clever, containing some of Sondheim’s best tunes and lyrics, closing with a message cautioning us about what we say to our children.

Gilliam and his co-director Leah Hausman give it a period feel in keeping with Bath’s Georgian Theatre Royal, starting each act with a girl playing with an antique toy theatre. Jon Bausor’s design and Anthony McDonald’s costumes are brilliant, again with a period feel, a nod to panto and references to Monty Python when the giantess appears. What makes the show though is brilliant casting leading to sky high musical standards led by MD Stephen Higgins.

Chief among the stars of the show are Nicola Hughes as The Witch, a properly malevolent presence with stunning vocals, probably the best I’ve ever seen in this role. Rhashan Stone & Alex Young are excellent as the baker and his wife, at the centre of the story, Rhashan (who I’ve never really associated with musical theatre despite seeing him in three musicals) with charm and vulnerability and Alex with her beautiful vocals. Audrey Brisson is a firm favourite of mine and she’s simply excellent as Cinderella. Barney Wilkinson captures the naivety and neediness of Jack and Lautren Conroy makes an impressive stage debut as a feisty Glaswegian Little Red Riding Hood. The rest of the ensemble make outstanding contributions.

Nothing will ever replace that first time in 1990, or the Regents Park Open Air Theatre’s magical production in 2010, but this was still well worth the trip to Bath, after the Old Vic caved in to its staff’s wish to censor. Well, their loss was Bath’s gain. Surely someone will transfer this to London, or is wokeness going to override freedom of expression in our increasingly constrained artistic world.

Read Full Post »

I, Joan

This got off to a bad start for me as the prologue, which put the treatment of the story in context, was largely inaudible (a combination of latecomer noise and weak projection). It did win me over, though, despite the fact the gender politics sometimes got in the way of the otherwise good storytelling.

The play takes us from Joan’s plea to the dauphin to let her lead the war against the English, through to her death, though this is only a period of a couple of years, from age 17 to 19. Implausible as it seems, there is a clear basis in fact, though I suspect a degree of myth has been added to the story in the subsequent 600 years. It’s a great story though, and it’s by and large well told here, in an irreverent, brash and populist way. The feminist perspective fares better than the gender one, perhaps because the latter is more speculative.

It’s hard to stage battle scenes, but turning them into dance sequences didn’t really work for me, and got a bit tiresome on repeat. From the conclusion of Joan’s trial onwards, the gender issues overwhelmed the story and it became preachy. That said, there was much to enjoy in the writing and staging, which were playful and often very funny. Joan’s initial fight for acceptance was handled well, as was her rejection, after success in battle, by the King because of her popularity, and by the Queen and her mother for failing to conform. The very funny trial scene treats the clerical stooges with the contempt they deserve.

Despite the variable projection, Isobel Thom, a 2022 graduate of RWCMD, makes a hugely impressive professional stage debut as Joan. Jolyon Coy is a hoot as the effete and ineffectual dauphin, later King. Adam Gillen is excellent as his confidante Thomas, as are both Janet Etuk & Debbie Korley as the Queen and her mother. The rest of the ensemble of fourteen, most in multiple roles, are very good.

I often take against productions that hijack a play to convey a message, like the Globe’s 2021 Romeo & Juliet, but in this case it’s a new play, and though I would personally have preferred the story without the gender politics, I respect the Globe’s treatment of the subject. Given the story is 170 years older than Shakespeare’s first play, this might be one of the oldest stories (with the exception of Greek tragedy) ever told at The Globe?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »