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Posts Tagged ‘Almeida Theatre’

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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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.

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Robert Icke, the master of reinvention, is at it again. After Greek Tragedy, Shakespeare, Chekov and Schiller, it’s now Ibsen. Good to report that at the other end, out comes a play that feels contemporary, faithful to Ibsen’s story, with overt parallels with the playwright’s own life. I haven’t liked all of his reinventions, but I did like this one.

The Woods family business is destroyed by senior employee Francis Ekdal, who goes to prison as a result. Charles Woods, though, financially supports Ekdal’s son James and his wife Gina & daughter Helga, and even Francis Ekdal on his release. When estranged son Gregory Woods, a very good friend of James, returns he decides to reveal Gina’s secret, which begins a series of events which ends in tragedy. Gregory’s intentions may have been good, but the consequences far from it, as the world of the Ekdal family collapses.

We’ve lost five characters, mostly ‘staff’ who wouldn’t fit the modern setting. The Werle’s have become the Woods, and some forenames have been changed. The most radical change is the addition of narration and commentary about truth, lies and Ibsen’s life, by characters who they pick up a microphone to talk direct to the audience. We start with a bare stage, which acquires some furniture and props as we go along, but it remains minimalist, though there is a bit of a design coup d’theatre at the end.

Though puzzling at the outset, it does draw you in and becomes much more dramatic than vanilla Ibsen, helped by a superb set of performances from a fine cast. Clever stuff.

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American Clare Barron’s play is, well, very American. Ostensibly about the competitive dancing circuit for young teens, it’s more about growing up, searching for individual identity. I struggled to engage with it

I liked the start, where dance teacher Pat is laying out the route to the nationals, via Philadelphia and Akron Ohio to the giddy heights of Tampa, Florida. He tells them he’s created a routine about Ghandi, then discovers they’ve never heard of him. The dance competition journey is funny, capturing the obsession and competitiveness of such things in the American psyche; think pageants.

It took me a while to realise the cast of all shapes, sizes, races and ages were all playing 13-year-olds. They take it in turns to step out and tell their growing up story, their hopes and dreams, in scenes which are more serious and darker, filled with preoccupations of menstruation and masturbation. I suspect this will mean more to those who were once thirteen-year-old girls! It’s structure is a bit like A Chorus Line, though with tales of teenage angst rather than self-obsession and insecurity.

It’s good to see Brendan Cowell back (or maybe he hasn’t left) though the part is nowhere near as challenging as Yerma or Galileo. The seven ‘girls’ are all excellent, with Miranda Foster doubling-up brilliantly to play dance moms. Irfan Shamji was very good as the solitary boy dancer in this troop. I thought Samal Blak’s mirrored dance studio set, mirrors revolving to become competition stages and dressing rooms, was excellent.

I admired it rather than enjoyed it, no doubt because it was so far away from my life in so many ways.

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£¥€$

Flemish theatre company Ontroerend Goed and I have nine years history. We’ve been speed dating (my ‘date’ writing to me weeks later) and in therapy. They’ve observed, interviewed and humiliated me, and gave me a recording of it on DVD. They staged a teenage riot in a cube and hectored me on sexism and misogyny. Somehow I missed this one at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, so the eve of this year’s visit to Edinburgh, I’m participating in a gambling game. You have to admit they are inventive and original, and you can’t say I don’t match it by being adventurous!

The stage and seats have been removed from the Almeida Theatre, which now has ten gaming tables in a wide circle, with an indicator board and administrators at the centre. You are sent to a table and when it’s full you’re told you are a country and each of you a bank within it. Based on the amount of real cash you deposit, you are given funds to invest and the initial period is fairly straightforward investments in sectors of the economy, your returns determined by the roll of your dice. You hand back a fifth of your returns in tax.

As the game progresses, new ways to invest emerge, higher risks and higher returns. Countries are rated based on performance. They can issue bonds which are soon traded internationally. Shorting and bank mergers become possible, as does borrowing. Then some countries get into trouble and it really hots up.

It’s execution is extremely slick, with the actors running each table and as administrators having to make very quick calculations and communicate results speedily in order to run the simulation. It’s fiendishly clever, very sociable, educational, entertaining, but ultimately scary, as you realise what a complex and precarious financial world we are all now compulsory participants of.

Even by this inventive company’s standards, this is great interactive theatre. Of course, I was the least successful investor at my table / in my country, but I did triple my money, though the IOU I took home with my original deposit won’t buy any more theatre tickets.

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This theatrical debate about our patriarchal society is bang up-to-date. Ella Hickson’s play is original, challenging, audacious and sometimes uncomfortable. I found it hugely stimulating and I’m still processing it.

It revolves around a writer and her interactions with the director of her play and her partner. In a Pirandellian way, it mugs you into thinking a scene is something it isn’t, giving it an unpredictability that proves gripping in itself. Starting in a theatre after a show, an audience member and a theatre producer discuss the play that’s just been performed. From here, we move off and on stage in a way it’s impossible to describe without spoiling it. The issues are debated in six scenes over two unbroken hours and I was enthralled.

Blanche McIntyre’s staging and Anna Fleische’s design also continually surprise too; you can’t take your eyes off the scene changes as well. Romola Garai’s passion for the subject comes over in her brilliantly passionate performance as the writer, but there are great performances too from Michael Gould as the director and Sam West & Lara Rossi in more than one role each, which would also be a spoiler to describe.

Theatre can be very powerful in debating current issues and so it proves here. It’s difficult to describe, not always easy to watch, but essential to see.

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