Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Best New Play – The Lehman Trilogy*, The Inheritance* & Sweat*

I find it impossible to choose between these three extraordinary evenings (well, afternoon and evening in the case of the The Inheritance) but they were in very good company with a dozen other new plays in contention. Also at the NT, Home, I’m Darling* and Nine Night* were great, and also at the Young Vic The Convert* became a late addition in December. At the Bush, both Misty and An Adventure impressed (though I saw the former when it transferred to Trafalgar Studios).The remaining London contenders were The Humans at Hampstead Theatre, Pressure at the Park Theatre, Things I Know To Be True at the Lyric Hammersmith and The Wipers Times at the Arts, though these last two weren’t new to London, just me. The Edinburgh Fringe added two, Class* and Ulster American*, both Irish, both at the Traverse and both heading to London, so look out for them. The eight starred are either still running or coming back in 2019, so be sure to catch them if you haven’t seen them already.

Best New Musical – Hamilton*

It opened right at the end of 2017, but I didn’t see it until January 2018 (and again in December 2018). It certainly lives up to the hype and is unquestionably ground-breaking in the same way West Side Story was sixty years before. It was a good year for new musicals, though 40% of my shortlist were out-of-town, headed by Flowers For Mrs Harris at Chichester, with Pieces of String in Colchester, Miss Littlewood in Stratford and Sting’s The Last Ship mooring briefly in Northampton. Back in London, the Young Vic continued to shine with Fun Home and Twelfth Night and the NT imported Hadestown*. Tina* proved to be in the premiere league of juke-box musicals and SIX* was a breath of fresh air at the Arts. Only four are still running, or coming back.

Best Play Revival – The York Realist and Summer and Smoke*

Another category where I can’t split the top two. The former a gem at the Donmar and the latter shining just as brightly at the Almeida. I didn’t see the Old Vic’s glorious A Christmas Carol* until January, so that was a contender too, along with The Daughter-in-Law* at the Arcola and The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End. Then there were four cracking Shakespeare’s – The Bridge Theatre’s promenade Julius Caesar, the RSC’s Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu visiting Hackney Empire, Ian McKellen’s King Lear transfer from Chichester, and the NT’s Anthony & Cleopatra* with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okenedo. Another four still running / coming back.

Best Musical Revival – Company*

The leanest category this year, with Marianne Elliott’s revival of Sondheim’s Company exceeding expectations; I shall be back at the last night. Chichester brought yet more joy with Me & My Girl and right at the end of the year, the Mill at Sonning came up trumps for the third year running with a great favourite of mine, Guys & Dolls* Finally, The Rink at Southwark Playhouse, the only contender this year from the usually more prolific fringe. Two to catch if you haven’t already.

Theatre of the Year – The Young Vic

Though five of my thirty-seven contenders were at the NT, The Young Vic shone even more brightly with four, all new works. Only four originated in the West End, which further emphasises how crucial the subsidised sector and the regions are. You can still see half of them, but some close soon, so get booking!

Advertisements

The RSC’s latest revival of The Merry Wives of Windsor is TOWIE does panto. I’m normally OK with updating and though there’s stuff to enjoy here its pushed a bit too far to be for me. The reference to Brexit was the last straw.

The Ford’s and Page’s are more Essex than Windsor, dressed appropriately, chavily. For some reason, other characters wear doublet and hose which makes for an incongruous combination. The stage boasts two two-storey houses which revolve to become backdrops but nothing really signposts the various locations; the denouement isn’t in Windsor Great Park, but a town square. There’s a Physical Comedy Director, so that tells you a bit about what you’re in for, though it’s mostly crude slapstick. There’s added references and changed lines and a lot of music from a live band who sounded a bit disconnected and distant playing in the wings.

The chief reason for seeing it is David Troughton’s terrific turn as Falstaff. He towers over everyone else, most of whom seem to be more caricatures than characters. He squeezes every ounce of comedy out of his character, without making him one-dimensional. In addition to the classic moments, like hiding in a basket, here a wheelie bin, there are other sublime additions, like swimming in an imaginary pool at the front of the auditorium.

Though I had reservations, the rest of the audience appeared to have none, so maybe I was ending 2018 as a grumpy old man. See for yourself, but there are only three performances left!

This is the third year The Mill at Sonning have put a big musical on their small stage, striking gold yet again. It’s amazing how quickly traditions can be established and these shows are already firm seasonal favourites; I now can’t imagine a Christmas without them.

I’ve got a very soft spot for this tale of gamblers, showgirls and the Salvation Army on the streets of 50’s New York City, with a brief visit to the playground that was pre-Castro Cuba. My love of it started at Bristol Old Vic in the 70’s, confirmed by three visits to the iconic NT production in 1982, 1990 & 1996, two to the 2005 Donmar West End revival, the 2015 Chichester production both there and in London, a fine production on the fringe Upstairs at the Gatehouse, in GSMD & LAMDA drama schools and at Wandsworth Prison! It always brings me joy.

The strengths of Joseph Pitcher’s production are the outstanding cast, exceptional musical standards and thrillingly staged scenes in Havana and the sewers of New York. In the opening scene it struggles to conjure the street-life of New York City, but it quickly grows and draws you in to the world of lovable rogues, earnest missionaries and seemingly hopeless relationships. Showstoppers like Luck Be a Lady and Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat sit alongside comic gems A Bushel and a Peck and Take Back Your Mink and romantic ballads I’ll Know and I’ve Never Been in Love Before. I loved the curtain call with the entire cast dressed in Salvation Army uniform with tambourines.

Stephane Anelli makes a great commitment-phobic Nathan, desperate for a venue for his game, bullied by Big Jule from Chicago when he gets one. Natalie Hope is outstanding as Adelaide, capturing her indefatigable devotion to Nathan, great at both the comedy and the naivety, with a spot-on accent. Victoria Serra excels at the earnestness, drunken dancing and helpless infatuation of Sarah, singing beautifully. Richard Carson has a commanding presence as expert gambler Sky and genuine passion in his pursuit of Sarah. Four fine leads and an excellent supporting cast.

I’m now looking forward to what they dish up in Sonning next year, and to my next Guys & Dolls, wherever that might be.

The Rest of December

Contemporary Music

I’ve seen Paul McCartney six or seven times in the last 20 years or so, but his Christmas concert at the O2 Arena topped them all. He played 40 songs spanning 60 years in a three hour set. The visuals were up to their usual standard, the band are as tight as any, the atmosphere was euphoric and Ringo came on the play Get Back! For someone like me, for whom this music is the most important part of the soundtrack of my life, it was pure joy.

Opera / Classical Music

ENO’s La Boheme was lovely, with a superb set of singers – even our Rodolfo sub. was new favourite David Butt Philip. I was surprised I hadn’t seen Jonathan Miller’s production, with a superb design by Isabella Bywater, before. For once, I thought an English translation actually added something, as it brought out humour that’s not usually there.

The LSO kicked off the Bernstein centenary at the Barbican almost exactly one year ago with a wonderful concert version of his musical Wonderful Town under Simon Rattle and ended it this month with Candide which had the same sense of fun and was thrillingly played and sung under Marin Alsop. I’m not sure I would have included dialogue, narration and attempts at staging, but I’ll forgive anything for the glory of the music, played better than I’ve ever heard it.

The LSO’s Half Six Fix at the Barbican is a superb initiative. An hour of music from the next day’s concert with onstage introductions and synchronised programme notes in an app, and this month’s Jazz Roots saw Simon Rattle with Katie & Marielle Labeque give a thrilling programme of works by Stravinsky, Golijov and Bernstein. It’s great to see the brass and woodwind sections centre stage and I absolutely loved it.

Art

When you walk into the first room of the Elmgreen & Dragset exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery you gasp, as you appear to have walked into a disused public swimming pool. This new installation is the centrepiece and is followed by a retrospective of earlier works, mostly subversive sculptures, in a fascinating show.

The British Museum’s poorly titled exhibition I Am Ashurbanipal – King of the world, King of Assyria is absolutely stunning. Though it is mostly made up of items from the museum’s own collection, they are extraordinary, seeing them together is special and the storytelling curation is terrific. It was shamefully empty (I suspect the title doesn’t help) whereas Ian Hislop’s search for dissent in I Object, a personal selection from the museum’s collection, although fitfully interesting but way less significant, is packing them in in the same building.

A disappointing visit to the National Portrait Gallery for Gainsborough Family Album and the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. The former isn’t really my thing; I admire the skill but tire of 18th century posed portraits, and the latter didn’t seem to live up to previous years, though there were a handful of gems.

The third historical exhibition gem in two weeks was the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. I learnt so much in two hours, I thought my brain was going to explode. Mostly books and manuscripts, but with a smattering of objects, it brought alive 300 years of English history. How lucky are we to have the Royal Academy, British Museum and British Library making history, geography and culture so thrilling in this way.

One of my mini-tours of private galleries proved very frustrating with Timothy Taylor and Edel Assanti closed during published hours, without any notification of their websites. Thankfully, Blain/Southern had not one, but two terrific exhibitions – Me Somewhere Else, installations and sculpture by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, many involving thread resembling spiders webs, and extraordinary, almost gothic drawings by German artist Jonas Burgert.

My mini-tour of East End private galleries was more successful in that they were open when they said they would be, but neither lived up to the 5* Time Out reviews that sent me there. In Carlos / Ishikawa, there was a three-screen film installation by Korakrit Arunanondchai with, for some unknown reason, lasers coming out of an artificial garden to take a 90 degree journey above the screens. At Modern Art, Bojan Sarcevic placed six commercial freezers which were ‘breeding’ frost because of the gallery’s temperature. Um. Somewhat ironically, the Lothar Hempel exhibition upstairs which I didn’t know about was the best of the three!

Film

I don’t usually go to documentaries in the cinema, but made an exception for Three Identical Strangers, which proved to be fascinating and riveting, unfolding like a thriller.

Mary Poppins Returns was a 90-minute film in a 130-minute package which had some great moments, but too many dull ones. The acting was superb, though.

We seem to be going through a phase of filleting and re-ordering Shakespeare’s plays. The Donmar gave us a shortened Measure for Measure, twice in one evening, with gender swops between them. The National’s Anthony & Cleopatra started as it ended. Now the Almeida’s Richard II has lost an hour and nine characters and also brings forward a later scene. Somewhat ironically, this hyper-radical interpretation returns to Shakespeare’s original title. What comes out the other end is a frantic portrait of a country falling apart; not too difficult to identify with that at the moment. Shakespeare purists probably won’t like it; I found it bold, but not without its faults.

Eight actors play the thirteen characters remaining, in a large metal box, designed by ULTZ with excellent lighting by James Farncombe. in contemporary casual clothes. It’s somewhat manic in style, with fast speech and rapid movement and exaggerated gestures. Buckets of water, blood and soil (amusingly, labelled) get poured over characters and more gauntlets get thrown down in anger and challenge than you’re likely to have seen in your entire Shakespeare playgoing experience. There’s not a lot of subtlety, characterisations are weakened, verse loses beauty and the narrative of the play suffers……but it is a gripping 100 unbroken minutes and you can’t take your eyes off the stage.

The cast, led superbly by Simon Russell Beale as Richard, are uniformly excellent, but I didn’t feel Joe Hill-Gibbins production allowed them to get under the skin of their characters and reveal their psychological depth and motivation. I see Richard II as an introverted, introspective king who didn’t want to be king, uncomfortable with power, as most productions convey, and this didn’t come over here. Though I respect and admire the audacity and creativity, I didn’t find it entirely satisfying. It was a bit like watching the Tory party tearing itself and the country apart, and I’d done that before I got to the theatre that day, and indeed every other day at the moment.

The Cane

Mark Ravenhill’s new play is tackling the issues of power, control and abuse that have become everyday topics since Operation Yew Tree and #metoo, but he’s wisely chosen historical corporal punishment in schools as the vehicle for the debate, something that doesn’t carry the baggage of recent events.

School Deputy Head Edward is in his last week before retirement after 45 years in teaching. He’s under siege at home with his wife Maureen, baying crowds of hundreds outside. His estranged daughter Anna has turned up unexpectedly. We learn that knowledge of his caning of pupils, before it became illegal 30 years ago, has spread and is what’s brought the crowds to his door. The headmaster is due to arrive to discuss his farewell party.

It covers a lot of ground. Anna is a believer in Academy schools, very much a modern educationalist, a contrast with her father’s traditional approach, which makes for an interesting discussion in itself. She appears to have been on the receiving end of abuse as a child, which challenges Edward’s ‘doing his job’ defence. Maureen seems to have turned a blind eye, which may make her complicit. The crowd represents our contemporary mob mentality. Shouldn’t we forget what happened so long ago?

It’s a very interesting and objective debate; I found my sympathies changing more than once. As drama, though, it’s very static. All three performances – Alun Armstrong, Maggie Steed & Nicola Walker – are riveting, but they are too much like talking heads, it feels a bit contrived and its overlong. The one room set, with a ceiling that lowers as Edward becomes trapped, seemed a bit over-engineered to me.

A welcome debate which doesn’t really make an entirely satisfying play.

Chasing Bono

Neil McCormick was at school in Dublin with a boy called Paul Hewson. They both had bands, Neil with his brother Ivan, who played briefly with Hewson’s band and could have been part of it. Hewson started using his nickname Bono, and the rest is history. After abandoning his own musical career, McCormick went on to be a rock journalist, spending the last twenty-two years with the Daily Telegraph, contributing to U2’s biography. This play is based on his memoir, originally entitled I Was Bono’s Doppelgänger, filmed as Killing Bono, now on stage as Chasing Bono.

The adaptation is by comedy royalty Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais, responsible for sitcoms like Porridge, gritty comedy drama Auf Wiedersehen Pet and the screenplay for one of the greatest rock films ever, The Commitments. They were also responsible for the screenplay of Killing Bono, introducing a plot device where McCormick is kidnapped by gangster Danny Machin (a real character in McCormick’s history) so that he can write about him and whitewash his reputation. We move between scenes of imprisonment and flashbacks to their youth. In a lovely touch, McCormick’s own music is resurrected and played live by the actors playing the brothers.

I’ve never seen such as detailed design at Soho Theatre as Max Dorey’s brilliant cottage, with an office above. The performances are excellent, led by Niall McNamee as McCormick and Denis Conway as Machin, with a lovely cameo from Ciaran Dowd as Machin’s sidekick. I found Gordon Anderson’s production charming, but it left me wanting more. At eighty minutes (shorter than the film, with a lot less of the story) it felt insubstantial, perhaps unfinished. The audience that lapped it up seemed full of U2 fans, so I was glad I didn’t wear my ‘Make Bono History’ t-shirt, a satirical comment on the multi-millionaire tax-dodger’s anti-poverty campaign!