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Posts Tagged ‘Almeida Theatre’

It’s rare to see a middle-class black family on our stages, so this is a breath of fresh air. More than the story of one family, it examines the black British experience.

Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s play takes place in the kitchen-diner of a family of Nigerian heritage, begInning on father Segun’s 60th birthday. He’s a successful psychotherapist and writer. His wife Tiwa has given up her career as a Psychiatrist and now works for a charity. Their daughter Ore is a Doctor and son Bayo a Police Officer, his wife a Labour MP. Arguments rage that bring out their different perspectives. Segun & Tiwa have conservative values, Ore is angry at the failing NHS and the black British experience. Amina feels powerless despite her position, whilst her husband remains committed to prosecuting wrong-doing.

Ore has been caring for someone who dies young of a heart condition, leaving behind his partner and baby son. She is troubled by the case and shares it with her mother. They agree to take Wunmi and her son August into their home, which disrupts the already dysfunctional family as she appears to take control of the household, ultimately causing havoc, taking them to the brink of disintegration. There’s a lot of story and a plethora of issues, perhaps too much to cover in any depth in less than two hours playing time. It’s style also becomes a touch too melodramatic, with some seemingly implausible twists, burying some of the issues.

That said, it’s a very slick production by Monique Touko with a fine set of performances.

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This is only Peter Morgan’s third play, but like the other two it’s brilliant. He’s best known for The Crown, films like The Queen and TV features like The Deal. He’s a master of true life dramas based on facts with varying degrees of speculation. This examination of Russia from 1991 to 2013 is new ground, but still masterly.

The protagonist is Boris Berezovsky, once a brilliant mathematician, a child prodigy, who moved into business and politics as the USSR broke up and Yeltsin became President of Russia. He was one of the oligarchs who cleaned up as Yeltsin proceeded to sell / give away his country’s assets, but more importantly he was the krysha (advocate, godfather) of two men who went on to very much bigger things – Abramovitch and Putin. He’s a business mentor to the former, with a verbal agreement that would give him a significant slice of the profits as his businesses grew. To Putin he’s a kingmaker, as he moved from relative obscurity as Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg to become head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, before Berezovsky persuaded him to become Yeltsin’s Prime Minister, and in no time he succeeds Yeltsin as President.

He was a very clever man who had studied decision-making theory and put it into action. He bought the state TV channel as well as becoming krysha to these two men. His power and success of course relied on their loyalty, but both eventually deserted him, Abramovitch after he’d outlived his usefulness and Putin as part of his plan to clean up corruption, put the oligarchs in their place and cement his position of absolute power, and as we now know get his own slice of the action. The final straw for Putin may have been his humiliation on Berezovsky’s TV channel over the Kursk submarine fiasco.

Berezovsky becomes an exile in the UK, with his security man Litvinenko, getting political asylum from the Blair government. There’s a brilliant theatrical moment when events collide with those in Lucy Prebble’s play A Very Expensive Poison, as Litvinenko goes to meet someone over tea and gets poisoned in the process. Homesick after ten years in the UK, he seeks to return to a quiet life in Russia, but Putin is having none of it. He dies, allegedly committing suicide.

Rupert Goold has a great talent for staging epic stories with great clarity and pace, as he did with Enron, and as he does here. Miriam Buether’s design is like a lap dancing club (not that I’ve been to one, of course) with people sitting at the cross shaped bar / stage and scenes played out upon it. Tom Hollander’s terrific performance as Berezovsky, determined manipulative and strong willed, is a career highlight, but there are excellent performances too from Will Keen as an emotionless Putin and Luke Thallon as a cool, calculating Abramovitch, plus a fine supporting cast of eight, most playing multiple roles. It’s good to see Jamael Westman, who originated the role of Alexander Hamilton in London, playing another Alexander, Litvinenko, here.

This is a fine drama, very timely given Putin is on our screens almost daily, informative, thought provoking and entertaining. I feel another West End transfer coming on.

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Another play we were due to see two years ago, and one I was particularly looking forward to having enjoyed Beth Steel’s first three plays and even more of Anne Marie Duff’s performances, and boy was it worth the wait. An epic covering more than 50 years and 4 generations of the Webster family, together with much of the social history of the country since the mid-sixties.

We start in 1965 on the death of Constance’s father, when her mother comes to live with them. She and her husband Alistair have teenage twins Jack & Agnes and a younger daughter Laura. Alistair is a factory worker and shop steward. Constance is clearly unfulfilled, often in her own world of Bette Davies films and cabaret songs. Jack and Agnes look like following in their parents footsteps, both in terms of occupations and politics. Agnes is as feisty as her mum and Jack as passionate about politics as his dad. Laura seems to have learning difficulties, and its her fate which will hang over them all for decades to come.

We navigate the return of Labour in the 60’s, the winter of discontent, Thatcherism and the miners strike, New Labour and more recent times and events. Only Jack breaks out, with an extraordinary journey from communism to capitalism. As family members die, their neighbour comes to wash and lay them out, until that is no longer the custom; she’s like a narrator / chorus, commenting on changing times. Though it’s a linear story, characters return in ghostly flashbacks and it’s not until the end of the play that the pieces come together like the completion of a jigsaw. Blanche McIntyre’s direction is masterly.

The ensemble is outstanding, led by a superb performance from Anne-Marie Duff as Constance. She was in Sweet Charity at the Donmar before lockdown, so we knew she could hold a tune, and here she contributes a handful of songs in her dream life, but its the story of her family life which captivates. Some of the cast double up very effectively, notably Stuart McQuarrie as Alistair and the older Jack and Carol Macready as Constance’s mother Edith and the older Constance. There’s a lovely cameo from Beatie Edney as the neighbour.

I’ve lived through the whole of this period, a real life contemporary of Jack, and there is an authenticity about the play, with the exception of bad language in the home which you would never hear in the working class homes in my village at that time. It’s sometimes harrowing (there were tears behind us), but it’s a real theatrical feast and I left the theatre feeling deeply satisfied by a great drama superbly staged and performed. Unmissable.

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Another evening which starts in awe of the work of theatre designers, this time the poolside of Matt Saunders’ LA modernist house, which seems to take its inspiration from those 1960’s David Hockney paintings like A Bigger Splash, and splashes were provided to the front rows as characters used the onstage pool!

Playwright Jeremy O . Harris made a very big splash with the Broadway transfer of The Slave Play, which we’ve yet to see here. This was his first play, written a couple of years before, but revised a year after his big hit. His work reminds me of that of fellow American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (we’ve seen Appropriate, An Octoroon and Gloria here) with a sprinkling of Angels in America’s Tony Kushner, because of the way they play with form and often abandon realism.

It’s another play seemingly about art, following hot on the heals of The Collaboration at the Young Vic, about two artists and unlikely bedfellows Andy Warhol & Jean-Michel Basquiat. In this case it’s Franklin, a young American artist, and Andre, an older European collector, who become actual bedfellows after they meet as Franklin is about to get his first show. Basquiat actually features as he’s a big part of Andre’s collection.

As we meet them, their relationship is new. Franklin is in awe of, but uncomfortable about, Andre’s collection, but he is clearly loving the attention and the lifestyle. His friends Max and Bellamy get to visit and enjoy Andre’s hospitality and his dealer / gallerist comes to plan the exhibition. It’s when his religious mother comes that a power battle for the soul of Franklin begins between her and Andre. Zora is a single mother and Franklin her only child. Sugar daddy vs mother, during the wedding between Andre and Franklin. Franklin’s father looms large, but he isn’t an onstage character.

Danya Taymor’s production is hugely audacious. In addition to the extraordinary design, there is a gospel choir (well, a trio), who act as a Greek chorus. Others occasionally bring out a microphone and sing. There are moments of stylised movement. Mobiles ringing and voicemail messages are significant. Sound and lighting make their atmospheric contributions too. The pool, which people emerge from, enter and frolic in, and which acquires it’s own inhabitant in the second half, is very much the focal point of the play,

The performances are uniformly excellent. Ioanna Kimbrook is hilarious as the designer obsessed, instagram fixated friend who gets her own sugar daddy. It’s great to see John McCrea back on stage after his lead in Everyone’s Talking About Jamie and he’s superb as other friend Max, who’s feelings for Franklin are a combination of love, jealousy, resentfulness and contempt. There’s a lovely cameo from Jenny Rainsford as the archetypal pretentious art dealer, who’s more about price & value that aesthetics. Sharlene Whyte is simply terrific as Franklin’s mom Zora, a larger than life god fearing matriarch. Danish actor Claes Bang oozes authenticity as Andre, as obsessed with Franklin as he is his art. Then there’s Tarique Jarrett, a captivating performance with a childlike quality that conveys perfectly what Franklin is experiencing, at such a pace.

I think I was more enamoured with the production and performances than the play, but you have to remember it was written by someone in his mid twenties about to enter drama school. On those terms, it showcases an extraordinarily promising playwright and I for one can’t wait to see where he goes next, though we’ll hopefully get to see The Slave Play first.

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The early 1950’s saw a revolution in theatre, well in Paris at least, with the arrival of Beckett and Ionesco (one Irish and one Romanian), challenging the realism that the art form was locked in. This play, and Becket’s Waiting for Godot, were first produced there in 1952. It reached the UK five years later where it ignited a debate amongst theatre folk, triggered by critic Kenneth Tynan and involving the playwright and theatrical luminaries like Orson Wells. Around the same time our own angry young men heralded a new age of realism with their kitchen sink dramas, led by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.

This was an important part of the post-war history of theatre. Surprising then that this appears to be only the second major London revival. I saw the first, a 1997 co-production between the Royal Court and Complicite directed by Simon McBurney with the late Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan. This proved to be the most unlikely transfer to Broadway, garnering five Tony nominations. Twenty four years on….

The ‘old man’ and ‘old woman’ live on an island. They are preparing to welcome an (invisible) audience to hear the old man’s big speech, though it will be given by the speaker. We learn that London is no more, so we are in some sort of dystopian future. They assemble chairs for the visitors and when they arrive welcome them, making introductions between them. It’s all building up to the big moment, the speech.

Omar Elerian’s translation / adaptation / direction takes a lot of liberties, either with the permission of Ionesco’s estate (Beckett’s would never let him get away with it) or maybe the protected period has lapsed. There’s a backstage audio prologue, the speaker turns up regularly for bits of business and interaction and the speech is replaced by an elongated epilogue, which was the only variation I felt pushed it too far. Otherwise, an obtuse period piece was brought alive for a new audience.

It’s hard to imagine better interpreters than husband and wife team Marcello Magni & Kathryn Hunter whose extraordinary physical theatre and mime skills, as well as the chemistry between them, are used to great effect. Toby Sedgwick provides excellent support in the expanded role of the speaker. Even Cecile Tremolieres & Naomi Kuyok-Cohen’s clever design gets to perform.

It was great to see the play again after a quarter century of theatre-going. The production may travel a long way from Ionesco’s intentions, but it seemed to me to provide a fresh interpretation for an audience seventy years later. London’s longest running play is The Mousetrap, 70 years now. Paris’ longest runner is Ionesco’s earlier absurdist play The Bald Primadonna, 65 years. That somehow defines the differing theatre cultures of the two cities.

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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 Mill at Sonning 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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