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ANNA

This is the second show in three days which I experienced through headphones – you should definitely try the other one! https://danteordie.com/user-not-found – but they couldn’t be further apart. This one is a cold war thriller created by playwright Ella Hickson and sound magicians Ben & Max Ringham, and the form is they key to its success.

We look through glass into Hans & Anna’s East German apartment. They are hosting a party to celebrate Hans’ promotion, which his co-workers are all attending. Through our headphones we hear Anna (a fine performance from Phoebe Fox) and anything in close proximity – someone else speaking, water running, a cigarette lighting. Everything else is seen but not necessarily heard. The story that unfolds in just 65 minutes has many twists and turns and no-one is who they seem.

The effect of the glass and headphones is to add a layer of intrigue and increase the intensity of concentration; I wasn’t distracted at all throughout it, and I’m very easily distracted! It’s impossible to say more without spoiling it. Vicki Mortimer’s design, with an extraordinary attention to detail, is evocative of the place and the period, with Jon Clark’s lighting playing an important part and Ben & Max Ringham’s sound design absolutely crucial to the piece.

It’s a short evening, but its an original and very clever one, well staged by Natalie Abrahami.

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If you want a musical with showstoppers, dance routines and jazz hands, you’ll be disappointed. Tim Firth’s show is more musical play than musical – quirky, charming and ultimately moving, as warm & cosy as a duvet on a cold winters day. I loved it.

Thirteen-year-old Nicky enters a competition to write about her family – older brother Matt, a seventeen year old goth full of teenage angst, parents Steve and Yvonne, who both seem to be having their own mid-life crisis, grandma May, showing signs of dementia, and aunt Sian, single, carefree, loving life, serial girlfriend. The prize is a family holiday to anywhere in the world, but when she wins she chooses a camping trip!

The holiday proves to be a bit of a disaster, largely because of the weather, though Steve’s handiwork as a bodger is partly to blame. By now, Sian has another boyfriend, Matt’s intense relationship with his girlfriend becomes more on-off, May’s ability to look after herself comes into question and the parents mid-life crises continue. Nicky seems to be the only sane, balanced one, but when the significance of the location to both Steve & Yvonne and May becomes clearer, it brings out the best in the whole family.

There are lovely tunes interwoven with the dialogue, but I wouldn’t call them songs. They do add a lot, though, because feelings and emotions are better conveyed by music. Both book and lyrics (Firth does the lot) are very funny. You really do get to know and love this family of six in a very short time. Richard Kent’s design is a great use of the Minerva space, with a two-story house as a backdrop, but an intimate playing area in front, and in the interval the stage management team work wonders turning it into a muddy wood.

Nicky is the beating heart of the piece and Kirsty Maclaren’s performance is delightful, a totally believable thirteen-year-old. Scott Folan is superb as teenage Matt, often having to change style and behaviour, as teens do. Rachel Lumburg is lovely as the singleton determined to live life to the full, and Sheila Hancock gives us another of her late career character acting gems as May. For the third time in less than a year Clare Burt has captured my heart, with Yvonne hot on the heels of Mrs Harris and Miss Littlewood. This is a rare stage appearance for James Nesbitt who proves what we’re missing in a role which suits his natural charm and likability.

Like last year’s wonderful Flowers for Mrs Harris, this started out in Sheffield. Daniel Evans is at the helm again, creating a feel-good, heart-warming show which deserves a life beyond this second eight-week run, but you’d best get to Chichester just in case.

King Hedley II

August Wilson was one of the greats of 20th century American drama, though he’s not as well known or as produced internationally as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill. His great achievement was a cycle of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, all in Pittsburgh’s Hill District where he was brought up, with characters in some plays being referenced in others, documenting 100 years of the African American experience. We’ve seen all bar one here, though revivals after their UK premiere’s have been rare. Seventeen years after it was first seen at the Tricycle, this ninth play (in period, rather than writing), set in the Reagan’s America in the 80’s, gets a superb revival at the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

King Hedley II is home from prison, where he served seven years. He lives at home with his mum Ruby, with whom he has a fractious relationship, and his wife Tonya. He has a seventeen-year-old daughter whom he hardly ever sees. He’s struggling to navigate life as an ex-con, selling knocked-off fridges with his best friend Mister to raise money to set up a video store. They try to speed up the fund-raising with a bigger crime. He’s keen to have a child with Tonya, but she doesn’t like the world it would be born into. Ruby’s old flame, smooth hustler Elmore, walks back into their lives and ghosts from the past emerge, propelling the play to its tragic conclusion. Peter McKintosh has built two full-size houses, evocative of the poor Hill District neighbourhood, whilst providing an intimate playing area in the back yards of the houses.

I was impressed by newcomer Aaron Pierre in Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe last year, but his performance as King Hedley is on another level altogether; deeply emotional and passionate with an extraordinary charismatic presence. Martina Laird is terrific as Ruby, a nuanced characterisation that conveys the complexity of her relationships with her son and Elmore. This is Lenny Henry’s fifth role since his late career extension into stage acting, and he continues to impress. Elmore brings a lightness to what is one of the darker plays of the cycle, and Henry is well suited to this. Dexter Flanders as Mister and Cherrelle Skeete as Tonya both make excellent contributions, and the cast is completed by a fine performance from Leo Wringer as the eccentric neighbour Stool Pigeon, who hoards newspapers to record history and makes prophetic contributions like a Greek chorus.

It’s a bit too long at 3.5 hours, but Wilson’s dialogue and a set of riveting performances just about keep you in their grip in Nadia Fall’s superb production. It’s such a timeless piece, covering issues just as relevant and urgent today, and Stratford East is a great home for a work like this – an auspicious contribution to kick off the next phase in the life of ‘the people’s theatre’. As I left, I looked up at Joan Littlewood’s statue and she seemed to have a smile of approval on her face!

Sometimes I walk into a theatre with no idea what to expect and I get swept away by the creativity and talent on show, and so it was at Southwark Playhouse on Friday. This musical adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, by Jethro Compton & Darren Clark, is a million miles from the overblown 2008 film, and way better storytelling. Somehow the implausibility of the story of a man who lives his life backwards doesn’t matter as you become captivated by what is now a folk tale set in Cornwall.

From his birth as a 70-year-old, unsurprisingly rejected by his parents, Benjamin tries to find his way in the world. His early life is marred by being too old for anything. As he gets younger, he falls in love with a barmaid, but when he tells her of his plight they part and he goes to war. After the war, he travels the world to understand and resolve his reverse ageing, but fails. When he finds Avoryow again years later, he discovers she’s not the only one he left behind, and they reunite for some happy years and a second child, but tragedy strikes twice, the second time as his wife overtakes him in years and dies, leaving his son to care for him as he continues the inevitable journey backwards.

It’s sub-titled ‘A Celtic Musical’ and the score is a beautifully melodic collection of folk influenced songs that tell much of the story. A highlight for me was the song A Matter of Time, which appeared in both acts telling a different part of the story brilliantly. The five hugely talented performers – Matthew Burns, Rosalind Ford, Joey Hickman, Philippa Hogg & James Marlow – sing beautifully, with soaring harmonies, whilst between them playing keyboards, cello, violin, guitar, drums, trombone and recorder and taking between three and twelve roles each! The staging and design totally suit the material, with a handful of crates, netting and a three highly imaginative puppets for the very old and very young. Writer Compton also directs.

In a welcome first, the programme included a breakdown of costs and funding, which proved what a tight ship they ran putting on this glorious show. A delightful evening which richly deserved the standing ovation in got from a full house. Stop reading and start booking – you’ve only got three weeks.

Small Island

I haven’t read Andrea Levy’s book, but I did see the TV adaptation ten years ago. Now Helen Edmundson has adapted it for the stage where she had her greatest triumph with Coram Boy.

It starts in Jamaica when young Hortense is sent to live with relatives, and we glimpse her childhood with her god-fearing adopted parents and her cousin Michael, who becomes a playmate and close friend. We move to wartime London and meet our other protagonist, cheery cockney Queenie. The rest of the first half moves between Queenie’s story, Jamaicans in London joining the forces and Hortense back in Jamaica, now grown up. I thought this first half was overlong and structurally weak. It lacked cohesion and clarity, though it ended brilliantly as we see people boarding the now infamous Empire Windrush, bound for the UK.

The second half opens as Hortense arrives in London six months after her husband Gilbert, who came on the Windrush, shocked by the conditions in the boarding house Queenie now runs after her husband Bernard’s failure to return from the war and her father-in-law’s death. This shorter second half is absolutely brilliant as we see what these immigrants have to put up with and the trials and tribulations facing Queenie before, when and after Bernard returns. This second half, though, covers less than a year. It’s very uncomfortable listening to the racism of the post-war period.

Small intimate scenes sometimes seem lost on that vast stage, but it’s used to great effect when the whole cast of over 40 populate it and when Jon Driscoll’s brilliant giant projections shrink it. Director Rufus Norris marshals his cast well, with excellent movement by Coral Messam. There’s superb incidental music from Benjamin Kwasi Burrell. It’s a fine ensemble with particularly good performances by Leah Harvey and Aisling Loftus as Hortense and Queenie respectively. If only the first half had been tighter and shorter.

The warmth of the reception was a striking contrast with the period racism on show. We have come a long way, even if the journey’s not over and may never be.

I thought Islington only had one claim to fame in modern history – the meeting between Blair and Brown in Granita Restaurant which laid the foundations for the next sixteen years of British politics. It turns out another meeting twenty-two years later, over dinner in Boris Johnson’s home, may have sealed the fate of the recent referendum. Ironic that it took place in what is probably a remain stronghold.

The first half of Jonathan Maitland’s play seeks to re-enact the dinner where the Johnson’s were joined by the Gove’s and Evgeny Lebedev. His date Liz Hurley didn’t show up, apparently. Boris is yet to decide on Leave or Remain, a complex decision concerning his career more than the fate of his party and country. Everyone else is egging him on to go for Leave, though he is visited by three ghosts, two of which – Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill – favour Leave and Tony Blair Remain. Lebedev is too busy name-dropping, including a cheeky moment where the theory that he intervenes in the Evening Standard theatre awards gets promulgated, to have much of an opinion about such a trivial issue. We get a couple of interviews with Huw Edwards bookending this act. The second act leaps forward to 2029. Boris has a new wife and a knighthood, Gove has a new career and Lebedev is still dropping names with wild abandon. We continue to be visited by the three ghosts. To say much more would spoil it, so I won’t.

The first half pulls more punches, the satire is on the light side, but it’s often very funny, it’s superbly performed and it pandered to my prejudices (though not vicious enough for me!) and there’s a coup d’theatre from designer Louie Whitemore that was particularly dramatic from the front row. Will Barton is outstanding as Boris, relying on speech, mannerisms, hair and disheveled clothing rather than physical similarity. Dugald Bruce-Lockhart captures Gove’s obsequious oiliness brilliantly. Steve Nallon almost steals the show as Maggie, but he’s been playing her since Spitting Image, so he’s had a longer rehearsal period. Tim Wallers gets to switch between a newly beardless Lebedev, Blair and Huw Edwards. Annabel Weir is very good as Gove’s wife Sarah Vine and Churchill (!) and Devina Moon plays both Mrs Johnson’s very well indeed.

It’s light entertainment rather than biting satire, but in the 34th month of the shit-storm it proved to be a therapeutic fun night out. If you go in liking the two main protagonists, it probably won’t change anything. If, like me, you think they are self-serving careerists with no interest in their country, or even their party, who history will look back on as two of the biggest post-war political assholes, you’ll walk out feeling just the same!

Waitress

Late to the party again. Sometimes a show doesn’t catch my imagination and stays on the back burner for a while, and so it was with this. A few gaps in my diary and a ticket offer and there I was having my preconceptions confounded by a show nowhere near my American schmaltzy expectations.

It’s based on the late Adrienne Shelly’s film (which I haven’t seen) and revolves around Jenna, a pie-maker / waitress at Joe’s Diner, in an abusive marriage to bully Earl. Her co-worker Becky is carer to her partner and other co-worker, singleton Dawn, has never even had a date. They move between pie-making and serving whilst Becky manages an affair with another co-worker Cal, Dawn is persuaded to use a dating app and finds her soulmate Ogle and Jenna gets an unwanted pregnancy which leads to an unlikely love affair with her married gynaecologist!

What stops the show becoming sentimental is its quirkiness and the inclusion of issues like abuse, infidelity and sickness, yet it’s still very funny. Sara Bareilles’ excellent score has a great mix of ballads and upbeat numbers, very original for musical theatre I thought. Jessie Nelson’s funny, cheeky book makes it zip along. It’s a real feel-good story.

Katharine McPhee is hugely impressive in the lead role of Jenna, with her sidekicks both superb – Laura Baldwin as Dawn and Marisha Wallace (who wowed my as the alternate Effie in Dreamgirls) as Becky. I’ve enjoyed watching David Hunter progress through the fringe to leading roles and here as Dr Pomatter he shows a real flair for comedy too. The sometimes onstage band sound great and Diane Paulus production is extremely slick.

I’ve gone from not sure I want to go to go again!