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Posts Tagged ‘Almeida Theatre’

In another life as a theatre investor, I lost my shirt (well, actually a wardrobe full of shirts!) on the original West End production of Steven Slater & Duncan Sheik’s ground-breaking show. It arrived from Broadway just 5 days after its production ended its highly successful and profitable two-year run there, garlanded with eight Tony’s and four Drama Desk awards. It previewed at the Lyric Hammersmith, where it played to packed houses, earning more 5* reviews than I’d ever seen before, but it lasted just two months at the Novello, failing to find an audience, despite the reviews and four Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical. It launched the careers of newcomers including Charlotte Wakefield, Aneurin Barnard and Iwan Rheon, the latter two getting performance Olivier’s of their own. I’ve never really understood its commercial failure; theatre can be a surprising and risky world. So here we are 13 years later with an opportunity to re-evaluate it.

The show is based on Frank Wedekind’s 1890 German expressionist play about adolescence. The teenagers are growing up in a conservative and emotionally repressed world while they are experiencing the angst associated with these years. The issues are, somewhat surprisingly, still relevant today – coming to terms with their sexuality, mental health, suicide and teenage pregnancy – but in a world where they are told babies are delivered by storks, and both parents and teachers are disciplinarians, even bullies. The story, character names and period are unchanged, but feelings are expressed through contemporary music. It’s one of the most audacious ideas in musical theatre, yet somehow it works brilliantly.

When I walked into the auditorium to see ten rows of steps the width of the entire stage, Miriam Buether’s design reminded me of the Open Air Theatre’s semi-staged versions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, but the space is used very differently, and more theatrically, in Rupert Goold’s new staging, with great choreography from Lynne Page. Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes aren’t all identical school uniforms, as I recall in the original, which allows the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the characters to come through. It’s both more intimate and more ‘in your face’ which gives it a lot more emotional impact. Goold also references the activism of today’s teenagers, without it jarring with the rest of the story.

Raw talent was cast first time around, which gave it great energy and edginess, but here more experienced actors seem able to develop the characters, bringing out more visceral qualities which engage you with what they are experiencing. Laurie Kynaston impressed greatly in The Son, now with a brilliant Melchior he extends his range to include musical theatre. I last saw Amara Okereke play the lead in The Boyfriend, which is about as far as you can get from Wendla, but she’s just as thrilling. Stuart Thompson is terrific as the much troubled Moritz, as is Carly-Sophia Davies as the rebellious Ilse. It’s a great ensemble,who shine in chorus numbers. All of the adult ‘authoritarian’ characters are played by just two actors, Mark Lockyer and, on the night I went, an impressive stand-in by Mali O’Donnell.

A fresh new interpretation of an important contribution to the musical theatre genre. I loved seeing it again in this stunning new production.

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I didn’t bother with a ‘Best of’ last year as my theatre-going, apart from a handful of open air shows, came to a standstill after just over two months. 2021 started as badly as 2020 had ended, but I managed to see something like 65 shows in the last half of the year, so it seems worth restoring the tradition.

There were nine new plays worthy of consideration as Best New Play. These include Indecent at the Menier, Deciphering at the New Diorama, Camp Siegfried at the Old Vic and Best of Enemies at the Young Vic. Something that wasn’t strictly speaking a play but was a combination of taste, smell and music, and very theatrical, was Balsam at the Greenwich & Docklands International Festival. Out of town, in the Reading Abbey ruins, The Last Abbot impressed. Three major contenders emerged. The first was Grenfell: Value Engineering at the Tabernacle, continuing the tradition of staging inquiries, verbatim but edited, very powerfully. The remaining two had puppetry and imaginative theatricality in common. Both Life of Pi, transferring to Wyndham’s from Sheffield Theatres, and The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage at The Bridge were adaptations of books, but were thrilling on stage, and both had star performances from Hiran Abeysekera and newcomer Samuel Creasey respectively – I couldn’t choose between them.

The leanest category was New Musical, where there were only a few to choose from. I liked Moulin Rouge for the spectacle, but it was really just spectacle, and I enjoyed Back to the Future too, but it was the sense of tongue-in-cheek fun of What’s New Pussycat? at Birmingham Rep and the sheer energy of Get Up Stand Up at the Lyric Theatre, with a towering performance by Arinze Kene as Bob Marley, that elevated these jukebox musicals above the other two.

More to pick from with play revivals, including excellent productions of Under Milk Wood and East is East at the NT, The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Lyric Hammersmith and two Beckett miniatures – Footfalls & Rockaby – at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre. GDIF’s Belgian visitors staged Blue Remembered Hills brilliantly on wasteland in Thamesmead, and Emma Rice’s Brief Encounter had a great new production at the Watermill near Newbury, but it was Yeal Farber’s Macbeth at the Almeida, as exciting as Shakespeare gets, that shone brightest, along with Hampstead’s revival of Alan Plater’s Peggy For You, with a stunning performance from Tamsin Greig, which ended my theatre-going year.

The musical revivals category was strong too, probably because we needed a dose of fun more than anything else (well, except vaccines!). I revisited productions of Come from Away and Singin’ in the Rain, though they don’t really count as revivals, likewise Hairspray which was a replica of the original, but I enjoyed all three immensely. Regents Park Open Air Theatre brought Carousel to Britain, in more ways than one, and the Watermill continued its musical roll with an excellent Top Hat. It was South Pacific at Chichester and Anything Goes at the Barbican that wowed most, though, the former bringing a more modern sensibility to an old story and the latter giving us Brits an opportunity to see what Broadway has been getting that we’ve been missing in Sutton Foster. If only we could detain her permanently.

In other theatrical and musical forms…..there were dance gems from New Adventures with Midnight Bell at Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Ballet’s Dante Project at Covent Garden, and a beautiful concert performance of Howard Goodall musical of Love Story at Cadogan Hall. There were lots of classical music highlights, but it was the world premiere of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Up for Grabs at the Barbican, accompanying footage of his beloved Arsenal, that packed the hall with football fans and proved to be a refreshing and surreal experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world (and I’m not a football fan, let alone an Arsenal one!). Somewhat ironically, most of my opera-going revolved around Grimeborn and Glyndebourne and it was a scaled down but thrilling Die Walkure at Hackney Empire as part of the former that proved to be the highlight.

Let’s hope its a full year of culture in 2022.

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There are a handful of directors whose work I so admire that I book for anything they do / bring to London, and Yael Farber is one of them. I’ve been lucky enough to see seven productions in the last eight years, from Mies Julie to this – Strindberg, Miller, Lorca, Wilde, David Harrower and the extraordinary Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry, but not Shakespeare, until now. Like other visionary directors such as Robert Lepage and the late Yukio Ninagawa, she has illuminated Shakespeare whilst still faithfully serving the bard in a brilliant production with a towering performance by James McCardle as Macbeth.

It’s a relatively simple design by Soutra Gilmour & Joanna Scotcher that seems both timeless and modern, very dark in tones, in keeping with the tragedy. Tim Lutkins’s lighting is superbly atmospheric and there’s an equally atmospheric, haunting, largely musical, soundscape by Peter Rice & Tom Lane with live onstage cello from Aoife Burke. It’s a very visceral production, with extraordinarily realistic fights (Kate Waters) and gory murders, and it has real psychological depth, showing how obsession with power can turn into regret and violence to remorse. Water flooding the stage creates dramatic images and reflections, but also heightens the tension. The ‘wyrd’ sisters are more like a prophetic Greek chorus, here absolutely key to the unravelling of the story. It occasionally cries out for a bigger stage, but its one of the best Macbeth’s I’ve ever seen.

Farber gets such fantastic performances from all of her cast that it seems invidious to single people out. Saoirse Ronan’s UK stage debut, and only her second stage appearance, is very impressive, showing Lady Macbeth to be the force which propels her husband’s determination for power but hugely regretful by the time the Macduff’s are despatched, with pulsating chemistry with McArdle. Like fellow Glaswegian James McAvoy just eight years ago, he seems born to play Macbeth. He throws himself around the stage, every emotion on display, as he descends into power crazed madness. A career defining performance if ever I saw one.

A thrilling evening, a highlight amongst many fine evenings at the Almeida, a triumph for all involved.

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Of all the countries impacted by the Second World War, I suspect less is known about the Tunisian experience than most others, which makes Josh Azouz’’s play very welcome. It was a short occupation – 6 months – but the Nazi strategy involved dividing the hitherto relatively friendly Muslim majority and Jewish minority in return for the promise of freedom for the Tunisian Muslim majority from the French colonialists, whilst perpetuating outrages on the Jews, as it was elsewhere.

The occupying forces are described by a Nazi character in the play as animals, less disciplined, more unpredictable and viscous. As the play opens one Jew is buried up to his neck with his Muslim friend as his guard. Despite the anti-Semitic example of the French colonists, these men and their wives have hitherto been good friends and in many ways the bigger story is told through the twists and turns of their relationships during the occupation. So we see the geopolitical and military picture through the personal story, the Nazi’s represented by one officer and one aide.

It’s a touch overlong and it needs a bit more pace, and perhaps a bit more of the big picture, but it’s a fascinating story nonetheless, with surprising flashes of absurdity and humour in what is a grim situation. I liked Max Johns’ design of plywood boxes, some of which reveal sets within the set, and it’s uniformly well performed by a small cast of six, probably too small to open up the story. It was good to see Adrian Edmundson make a rare stage appearance as the Nazi officer nicknamed Grandma and he, and the actors playing the two couples – Laura Hanna, Ethan Kai, Pierro Niel-Mee and Yasmin Paige – were all excellent.

It’s better than the reviews and I’m glad I went.

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It’s almost 12 years since I first encountered the work of Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed. That show was called Internal and it took place in a hotel in Edinburgh with a handful of others (somewhat ironically, one of them was the Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre, currently facilitating this presentation). I described it as speed dating followed by group therapy. This new ‘show’ is by necessity online, yet it seems to take me back full circle, with another one-to-one encounter at the heart of it, and the same delayed impact.

When I entered the online meeting room, Gunther from Belgium was there. We were shortly joined by Shug and Jan, also from Belgium, and a short while later Siemke from Norway, drinking a beer and eating what appeared to be twiglets, rather loudly. After an introduction to TM, some sort of global movement, I was face-to-face with my interviewer. The questioning, all about me, was quite intense, and occasionally uncomfortable. It was followed by an analysis by the interviewer. I was still digesting it when I found myself back in a group being presented with the TM manifesto, after which the screen population multiplied before they disappeared and left me alone. Well, until I noticed Siemke was still online, the only other participant I suspect.

You do need openness, curiosity and a sense of adventure to tackle a Ontroerend Goed show. In between Internal and TM, there was the presentation of teenage angst in a cube in Teenage Riot and a feminist polemic in Sirens, both more traditionally staged. Then there was £¥€$, live at the Almeida reconfigured as a sort of casino, a game or financial simulation, and A Game of You, where I was observed, interviewed, recorded and given a DVD of it all to take home and see myself how they saw me. There are few theatre companies as innovative and courageous and yet again I found myself thinking about it long after it ended and, in this case, for way longer than my 35 minutes online.

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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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