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It’s hard to believe that it’s 17 years since this had its UK premiere at the Donmar. In this terrific production it feels freshly minted, and I can’t help wondering why its taken so long to be revived. We’ve had three other plays by Stephen Adly Guirgis since, most notably 2015’s The Motherf***er With The Hat. which gave the NT’s marketing department an interesting challenge, so its good to look at the first once again.

Set in a New York prison, we meet Lucius, a serial killer waiting for extradition to Florida, where his killing spree started and where the death penalty exists. He has a benevolent guard Charlie in his solitary 23-hour lock up wing. Much younger Angel is awaiting trial for a shooting. He’s moved to the same wing for his own protection after an assault. Charlie leaves and the far from benevolent Valdez is sent to persecute them. The only other character is Angel’s lawyer Mary Jane who visits intermittently to discuss defence strategy and tactics.

The discussions between Lucius and Angel are the heart of the piece as we debate responsibility & accountability and redemption. We learn about the prisoners’ motivations and personal histories in what becomes a psychological sparring match. How much do the actions of the victims justify the crime? How much does a tragic past excuse a crime? It’s played out on a traverse stage with moving glass walls / doors with blinding lighting and deafening drums between scenes to keep up the tension. It shocks, though there are flashes of humour that relieve the tension. and your brain almost hurts as you decide what you think about these people and their actions. I found it riveting.

Oberon K A Adjepong (a very welcome visitor from the US) as Lucius and Ukweli Roach as Angel are mesmerising to watch, with great physicality, spitting out dialogue at frenetic speed. Dervla Kirwan is excellent as the Irish American lawyer Mary Jane who we learn a surprising amount about. Joplin Sibtain is terrific as their nemesis Valdez, prodding and provoking them for fun. Matthew Douglas’ Charlie is such a contrast, and comes back to surprise us towards the end.

Director Kate Hewitt and designed Magda Willi have done an excellent job creating the tension which the play needs. Yet more thrilling stuff at the Young Vic.

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Berberian Sound Studio

I never saw Peter Strickland’s 2012 film, on which this is based, so I come to Tom Scutt & Joel Horwood’s stage adaptation fresh. It concerns the Italian horror genre Giallo, cult films that reached their peak in the 70’s.

Santini, the film-maker at the heart of this particular story, likes to add dialogue and other sound after filming. He doesn’t like the voice of some actors, so he uses another for the dialogue. For his latest film, he’s invited sound man Gilderoy from England, Dorking to be precise, who’s more used to wildlife documentaries, a real fish out of water at these studios where he has a pair of retro sound effects men who use everything from curtain rails to fresh fruit.

Soon after he arrives we see the craft of this type of film-making as they add dialogue and effects live while the film is screened for them; this is a brilliant scene where Sylvia & Carla are speaking the lines in their sound booth and Massimo & Massimo are adding all manner of sounds before our eyes in the most animated fashion. From here we see Gilderoy’s struggle to communicate and adapt, and Sylvia’s discomfort with the film’s content; its ending in particular. Studio manager Francesco tries to keep things together and Santini pays a brief visit. We learn of Gilderoy’s life at home with mother.

It’s an impressive directorial debut from Scutt, who’s design, with Anna Yates, is terrific – immersive, authentic and quirky – and the sound work of Ben & Max Ringham is simply stunning. Tom Brooke is superb as Gilderoy, his very expressive face communicating his feelings without need of words. Tom Espiner (a genuine sound expert) and Hemi Yeroham are a brilliant silent double-act as the Massimo’s and Lara Rossi & Beatrice Scirocchi are both excellent as the voice-over pair. Enzo Cilenti’s Francesco seems like an oasis of sanity alongside these. The authenticity is enhanced by much speech in Italian, without translation, but somehow you manage to get the gist.

I’m not sure it really goes anywhere – its more of a scenario than a story – but I was enthralled by the meticulous stagecraft and the performances, which are reasons alone to see it.

Most 80-year-olds would celebrate such a milestone birthday with a meal, maybe a party, perhaps a holiday. Ian McKellen is celebrating his with a tour of a one-man show to 80 theatres the length and breadth of the UK, for more than 80 shows as they’ve been adding at some places due to the extraordinary demand, many in venues significant in his career, and all to fund projects of the theatres’ choice. From national treasure to hero in 80 steps.

At the Old Vic, a significant venue, they’re using the money to double the number of ladies loos and improve disabled access, and if you needed proof, you have to enter via temporary entrances and use portable loos. It would be enough just to offer support for such an initiative, but in return you get an enthralling evening of biography, anecdotes, and performance that made this vast theatre seem as intimate as a living room, such is the great man’s ability to engage and connect with an audience.

The first half is mostly biographical, from childhood through school and university, to his professional stage career. There are some nods to the big and small screen, indeed we open with the wizard himself, but its mostly stage. He brings things out of his travelling prop box to illustrate his stories. It’s often very funny, always interesting.

The second half is mostly Shakespeare, as he removes the plays from the box and takes them to a table as we shout out titles, stopping to perform scenes and tell tales of his experiences with some of them, acknowledging important people along the way. At one point he movingly names some recently departed colleagues, ending with Albert Finney, who died just ten days earlier, a few miles away, just three years older. There were many moments of rapt silence as we hang on every word of the bard spoken by a master.

As he finished, his eyes swept all three levels of the audience in a great arc, so we all left feeling a personal connection. Few people can communicate and captivate so well.

Shipwreck

Anne Washburn is an original and interesting playwright, but after a third exposure to her work, this juror’s still out on whether she’s a good one.

Jools & Jim have invited five friends to their new remote country home. They’re not experienced in country living and they’re not particularly good hosts, so as the weather deteriorates and the power is cut off, their supplies run out. They don’t run out of conversation, though, as they reflect on life in Trump’s divided America and how they got there. These are the liberal Americans – a wealthy gay couple, New York lawyers Andrew & Yusuf, a struggling straight, somewhat alternative couple, Richard & Laurie, and singleton Allie. The conversation widens to all sorts of apparently related subjects including the Jonestown massacre, racism & colonialism and Lord of the Rings!

We’re occasionally visited by Mark, the adopted black son of white parents who appear to be the former inhabitants of the house, who tells us his story. We also get a meeting between Trump and George W Bush as president, and towards the end a surreal version of that infamous confrontation between Trump and FBI chief Corney. There’s an awful lot of ground covered but at almost 3.5 hours it didn’t sustain its length (there were a conspicuous number of empty seats after the interval). Often thought-provoking and fitfully gripping, it was too much of a ramble, wordy and undramatic, lacking coherence, a download of thoughts and ideas, trying to say so much that more became less.

It’s staged in the round, in a design by Miriam Buether which has a partly revolving stage and a platform against the back wall on which there are projections. There was one row of audience sitting in chairs close to the stage as if at a dinner table, who participated in the surreal scene. There are lovely performances from Justine Mitchell, Fisayo Akinade, Adam James, Elliott Cowan, Tara Fitzgerald, Khalid Abdalla, Raquel Cassidy and Risteard Cooper, but these and Rupert Goold’s production are a lot better than the material.

All About Eve

This is one of the most anticipated West End openings this year. A stage adaptation of the iconic 1950 film of the same name, with Gillian Anderson taking Bette Davies’ role and Lily James playing Eve, and the much sought after director Ivo van Hove at the helm. Could it possibly live up to the hype?

Margot is a successful stage actress, surrounded by an entourage that includes the writer, director and producer of her current play, her best friend Karen and companion / maid Birdie. Eve enters her life, a fan who says she attends every performance, brought from outside the stage door by Karen. In no time at all, she’s working for Margot, becomes indispensable, putting Birdie’s nose out of joint but virtually everyone else under her spell. Soon she’s understudying Margot, getting to perform after some tricks and deception, inviting a critic also under her spell to ensure her career takes off.

Such a theatrical story makes an excellent transfer from screen to stage, and at the same time suits Ivo van Hove’s cinematic house style. All of his usual ingredients are here, with live video footage the most significant. The three walls of the multi-purpose room set rise to reveal the real theatre walls painted silver, enclosed bathroom and kitchen, from which we have scenes projected onto the set’s back wall, props, costumes and photos of the star. It feels like both backstage and film set and works brilliantly. There are some real theatrical coup’s, notably Margot ageing before our eyes as she looks in her dressing room mirror, and the photos turned around as Eve’s career progresses.

Gillian Anderson plays Margot with great subtlety, and looks simply stunning. Lily James navigates her manipulative road well, with restraint but steely determination too. It’s a fantastic supporting cast, including a brilliant performance from Monica Dolan as Karen and Stanley Townsend outstanding as the acerbic critic Addison DeWitt, a manipulative match for Eve. Rashan Stone is excellent as playwright Lloyd Richards, Karen’s husband, as is Julian Ovenden as director Bill Sampson, Margot’s boyfriend. There’s a lovely cameo at the end from Tsion Habte as Phoebe, who completes the circle of a deliciously rounded story.

It’s a while before it takes hold of you, but then it doesn’t let go. It resonates in our celebrity obsessed age as much, if not more, than it must have done 69 years ago. The story, the staging & design and the performances come together to ensure it does live up to the hype. In a life-imitates-art moment, the lovely Canadian lady sitting next to me, an avid Gillian Anderson fan, told me before the start she was seeing in three more times during her eight day stay!

Edward II

It would be difficult to find two productions of this play as far apart as this and Joe Hill-Gibbins staging at the Olivier just over five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/edward-II). The latter was on one of London’s biggest stages, this on one of its smallest. At the National, it was a radical take, with live video footage, here it oozes period. The NT’s thrilled me, but this left me rather cold I’m afraid.

It struck me for the first time how much weaker Marlowe’s dialogue is than Shakespeare’s verse; more accessible but nowhere near as beautiful. He packs in 20 years of history, and this production seems to have lost something like thirty minutes, which compounds the issue by making it feel rushed in a ‘let’s get it over with’ sort of way, with characters going into exile and back seeming a bit ‘here we go again’ tiresome. Like other contemporary staging’s, the true nature of Edward & Gaveston’s relationship is more overt but, given the setting of this production, the passionate kisses and embraces seemed at odds with the play. Above all, the story just didn’t engage, or even thrill, as it should. I felt no emotional involvement at all.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a very suitable theatre, and the space is used well. Jessica Worrall’s period costumes are excellent, and the glistening black & gold backdrop takes you to the 14th century. The music mostly suits it, except the use of the West African Kora, beautiful though it is, which seemed totally out of place, conjuring up exotic foreign places rather than medieval Britain. Some of the touches of humour work, like Edward’s propensity to dish out titles played like a running joke, but sometimes it feels a bit flippant. The double and triple casting, using women in male roles, also works, though you have to suspend disbelief when you see a bishop who looks like he’s still at school.

I’ve rarely been disengaged in this lovely theatre by a play I have hitherto found fascinating. Maybe it hasn’t settled yet, but I’m afraid indifference was my primary reaction.

Counting Sheep

I visited Ukraine nine years ago, nineteen years after the break-up of the Soviet Union. It was obvious then that it was a very divided country, half looking east to Russia and half west to the EU. Who’d have thought it would be like that here six years later! Four years after my visit things came to a head with a revolution centred on Independence Square in Kiev, near to where I’d been staying for the second part of the trip. This extraordinary show recreates that revolution, five years later, under the arches at Waterloo station, named in memory of another battle almost exactly 200 years before.

Like all revolutions, this one starts with a meal, with vodka, obviously. The bonhomie lulls us into a false sense of security, with food, drink, music and dancing. Our narrator, a Canadian with some Ukrainian heritage, tells us how he found himself caught up in the revolution. The narrative is sketchy, but the atmosphere is extraordinary. Projections along two long sides of the space connect us with the real events of 2014. The small cast and audience move around the space building barricades from pallets and tyres, carrying shields, wearing flags.

The traditional music adds much to the creation of something which felt surprisingly authentic and totally engaging. Facts are projected to conclude the story with a return to reality as the cast from Ukraine, Belarus, Canada and the UK introduce themselves, including Mark & Marichka Marczyks, whose real experiences are at the heart of the piece. It’s staged by the founders of the inspirational Belarus Free Theatre, Natalia Kaliada & Nicolai Khalezin. This is thrilling theatre that must be seen and you have until 17th March to do so!