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Posts Tagged ‘Almeida Theatre’

I like going to the theatre on New Years Day, the evening is otherwise a bit flat, but maybe a bloody revenge tragedy wasn’t the best choice. It seemed like one minute you’re wishing people a Happy New Year, the next you’re counting the bodies!

The widowed Duchess decides to remarry, to steward Antonio who is below her station, so she tries to keep it secret. Her twin brother Ferdinand and other brother, The Cardinal, find out of course, courtesy of their ‘spy’ Bosolo, and set about having her, the children by her new husband and her companion Cariola murdered, with the help of Bosola and his henchmen. They are both pure evil, Ferdinand driven insane by the events he has instigated. Bosila’s guilt after the murders propels him to turn on the brothers.

John Webster’s 400-year-old play impressed me more in Rebecca Frecknall’s production than it has before. It serves the dialogue particularly well, and is very tense and atmospheric. It’s a very stylised staging, which seems to me to be inspired by Robert Icke’s work in the same theatre. Chloe Lamford’s design has a moving glass gallery centre stage which can be populated, and glass cabinets on either side that contain all of the props. I wasn’t sure about the purpose of the desks on the edges at both sides.

Lydia Wilson is excellent as the Duchess, determined, passionate, full of fight. Bosola is a difficult role, with its emotional twists and turns, but Leo Bill is outstanding. Ferdinand is a tough one too, which Jack Riddiford pulls off with great physicality and emotionality, as does Ieanna Kimbook as Cariola.

It’s very different from Frecknall’s big 2018 hit, Tennessee Williams’ Summer & Smoke, at the same theatre, then transferring, which was one of my favourite revivals that year, but it was a gripping ride and I found myself absorbing every word of Websters rich dialogue.

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One of the most positive things about 2019 was that more new plays and new musicals made my shortlist than revivals of either; new work appears to be thriving, theatre is alive.

BEST NEW PLAY

I struggled to chose one, so I’ve chosen four!

Laura Wade’s pirandellian The Watsons* at the Menier, clever and hilarious, The Doctor* at the Almeida, a tense and thrilling debate about medical ethics, How Not to Drown at the Traverse in Edinburgh, the deeply moving personal experience of one refugee and Jellyfish at the NT Dorfman, a funny and heart-warming love story, against all odds

There were another fifteen I could have chosen, including Downstate, Faith Hope & Charity and Secret River at the NT, The End of History and A Kind of People* at the Royal Court, The Son and Snowflake* at the Kiln, The Hunt at the Almeida, A German Life at the Bridge, After Edward at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Appropriate at the Donmar, A Very Peculiar Poison at the Old Vic and Shook at Southwark Playhouse. Our Lady of Kibeho at Stratford East was a candidate, though I saw it in Northampton. My other out of town contender was The Patient Gloria at the Traverse in Edinburgh. I started the year seeing Sweat at the Donmar, but I sneaked that into the 2018 list!

BEST REVIVAL

Death of a Salesman* at the Young Vic.

This was a decisive win, though my shortlist also included All My Sons and Present Laughter at the Old Vic, Master Harold & the Boys and Rutherford & Son at the NT Lyttleton, the promenade A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge, Noises Off* at the Lyric Hammersmith and Little Baby Jesus at the Orange Tree.

BEST NEW MUSICAL

Shared between Come From Away* in the West End and Amelie* at the Watermill in Newbury, now at The Other Palace, with Dear Evan Hansen*, This Is My Family at the Minerva in Chichester and one-woman show Honest Amy* at the Pleasance in Edinburgh very close indeed.

Honourable mentions to & Juliet* in the West End, Ghost Quartet* at the new Boulevard, The Bridges of Madison County at the Menier, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Fiver at Southwark Playhouse, Operation Mincemeat* at The New Diorama and The Season in Northampton.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

Another that has to be shared, between the Menier’s The Boy Friend* and The Mill at Sonning’s Singin’ in the Rain*

I also enjoyed Sweet Charity* at the Donmar, Blues in the Night at the Kiln, Falsettos at the Other Palace and The Hired Man at the Queens Hornchurch, and out-of-town visits to Assassins and Kiss Me Kate at the Watermill Newbury and Oklahoma in Chichester.

A vintage year, I’d say. It’s worth recording that 60% of my shortlist originated in subsidised theatres, underlining the importance of public funding of quality theatre. 20% took me out of London to places like Chichester, Newbury and Northampton, a vital part of the UK’s theatrical scene. Only two of these 48 shows originated in the West End, and they both came from Broadway. The regions, the fringe and arts funding are all crucial to making and maintaining the UK as the global leader it is.

The starred shows are either still running or transferring, so they can still be seen, though some close this week.

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I’ve enjoyed all of the Mike Bartlett plays I’ve seen, some fifteen of them, including two other adaptations and three before at this theatre, which itself has form with this very play when it successfully produced it in the West End twenty years ago. So all the more surprising to be be so hugely disappointed.

Gorky wrote it in 1910 and set it between the 1905 & 1917 Russian revolutions, though it wasn’t staged for another 25 years or so, in a new version. Perhaps he was representing the end of empire and a transition to a new world, and maybe Bartlett sees some parallels with our current populist revolutions. Why else would you adapt it?

Vassa is the family matriarch, a bit of a monster. Her husband is dying. She runs the business he’s built. Her children have been disappointments. Her brother-in-law can’t wait to get his hands on his share of the business. She berates, bullies and bruises all around her. The first two acts are played as farce and this whole seventy-five minutes did nothing for me, apart from a few laughs. Even the second act’s shocking ending didn’t touch me.

I would have left at this point, the interval, but I’d already invested 70% of the necessary time, so it seemed worth seeing it through. This act could have been directed by a different person. Dad is dead and everyone is seemingly grieving and the dysfunctional family unravels. A stage strewn with flowers, blame, secrets, lies and arguments about inheritance. It was much more stylised, mannered gestures, offstage actors sitting at the sides not entirely neutral. By now I didn’t really care about anyone or anything and was fantasising about the glass of wine awaiting me at home.

The cast work hard, but at the curtain call they seemed relieved another performance was over; I felt sorry for them. Samantha Bond, originally cast as Vassa, pulled out, which may be good sense rather than illness. It seemed to me to be a pointless revival, a rare dud for the Almeida and the first turkey by its adapter. May it rest in peace.

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For a 32-year-old, adapter / director Robert Icke has had an extraordinary career. Fifteen major productions in eight years, of which nine were at the Almeida, four of them transferring to the West End. Until this, I’d seen nine, six of which I loved. His work isn’t always to my taste, but it’s always interesting. This is his last production as Associate of the Almeida and for me he’s ending on a real high.

I don’t know the source of this adaptation, Arthur Schnitzler’s ‘Professor Bernhardt’, but it’s billed as ‘very freely adapted from’ so probably more Icke than Schnitzler. It’s a riveting debate about medical ethics & politics and how modern society responds to such issues. We’re in a medical institute which researches into and treats dementia, but the incident that generates the debate concerns a young girl who’s taken in as an act of mercy. Her death is picked up by interest groups covering faiths, abortion, race and sex, fuelled by the internet, social media and the press, escalating in a matter of days, with most of the debate driven by emotion and special interest.

Casting which is gender and colour blind, and in one case of doubling up, means things are only revealed by what is said rather than what is seen, so identities aren’t always immediately obvious. The first half sees the debate confined to the institution, though events outside are being monitored. In the second half they become public, and the worst aspects of modern society’s obsession with witch hunts and public ‘crucifixions’ come to the fore. The unfolding drama and discussion has you in its grip throughout, with the plainness of the design placing all of the focus on the dialogue as it takes its hold. It could easily be dry, but I found it thoroughly absorbing and emotionally engaging. It would be good to think those who judge without evidence get to see it, but they are probably making ill-informed comments via their smart phones or pursuing a blinkered view based on vested interest.

Juliet Stevenson is onstage throughout, even during the interval, and her performance is an extraordinary tour de force, moving from detached and logical to surprised, defiant, combative, dejected and broken, a real roller coaster ride. There is a fine supporting cast in multiple roles and a drummer high above the stage adding tension through percussion. I left the theatre emotionally drained but exhilarated. I suspect I shall be processing for days. As fine a piece of drama as you could wish for.

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It’s rare to be so emotionally engaged with a play whilst at the same time kept on the edge of your seat as the story unfolds. This quietly devastating piece is rich in drama, staged and performed to perfection.

We’re in a small community in rural Denmark. Lucas has been teaching at the primary school for a term, since the secondary school closed. His wife has left him, heading for the city with their teenage son Marcus. Lucas is well integrated in the local community, though, with strong friendships amongst his neighbours and with the men at his hunting lodge, until an accusation of inappropriate behaviour at the school changes everyone’s attitudes and perceptions and his life begins to fall apart. The positives of this idyllic, liberal, tight community turn very negative very quickly.

The suspense gives it the aesthetic of a thriller, the presumption of guilt means you’re rooting for Lucas, and it becomes an emotional roller-coaster. Rupert Goold’s gripping production, on Es Devlin’s very Scandic set, uses music to great effect, including the impressive vocal talents of Adrian der Gregorian. The small revolving house at the centre becomes classroom, lodge, home, with scenes played inside and outside looking in. I haven’t seen the film by Thomas Vinterberg & Tobias Lindholm, but David Farr’s adaptation doesn’t put a foot wrong.

Tobias Menzies’ restrained central performance as Lucas is a career high for this fine actor. Justin Salinger and Poppy Miller are brilliant as his close friends in a troubled relationship. In a superb supporting ensemble, Danny Kirrane as Gunner and Stuart Campbell as Marcus shine. Then there are two extraordinary child actors and dog Max, as restrained as his master.

A very satisfying evening in the theatre that I haven’t stopped thinking about since I left it.

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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.

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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!

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