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Posts Tagged ‘Almeida Theatre’

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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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This 1948 Tennessee Williams play immediately followed the much more successful A Streetcar Named Desire, but it took 58 years to get to London, a 2006 transfer from Nottingham to the West End which was pulled early. The director of this revival staged the only other London production, at Southwark Playhouse in 2012, but this is a new one. It’s typical TW fare, set in the deep south at the beginning of the 20th century, a minister’s daughter having a troubled relationship with the son of the doctor next door, who is about to follow in his dad’s footsteps.

The design appears to take its lead from Alma’s musicality, an arc of nine pianos each with a metronome on top. In front, a shallow pit strewn with earth two steps down. Impressionistic rather than realistic, and with music and a soundscape fully utilising the pianos, it’s highly atmospheric and sensuous, totally in keeping with the material.

Alma and John dance around each other, repressed emotions getting in the way of their real feelings. He starts a doomed relationship with a Mexican girl with a dubious but rich dad and much later with the much younger Nellie. Before Alma knows about the latter, she lets her guard down and reveals her true feelings, but its too late.

I was mesmerised by both Patsy Ferran as Alma and Matthew Needham as John, both performances emotionally raw. Ankana Vasan delivers beautifully stylised dance-influenced performances as Rosa and Nellie and Seb Carrington, in an auspicious professional debut, plays some mean piano as well as playing young travelling salesman Archie, who’s in the right place when Alma realises John will never be hers. The doubling-up of roles works OK, except for Forbes Masson as both dads, preacher and doctor, carrying a bible to signify which; I think it would have been better to have two actors here.

Rebecca Frecknall’s staging, Tom Scutt’s design, Lee Curran’s lighting and Angus MacRae’s compositions combine to create something very fresh from timeless material. A must-see.

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The Best Theatre of 2017

Time to reflect on, and celebrate, the shows I saw in 2017 – 200 of them, mostly in London, but also in Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff, Brighton, Chichester, Newbury and Reading.

BEST NEW PLAY – THE FERRYMAN

We appear to be in a golden age of new writing, with 21 of the 83 I saw contenders. Most of our finest living playwrights delivered outstanding work this year, topped by James Graham’s three treats – Ink, Labour of Love and Quiz. The Almeida, which gave us Ink, also gave us Mike Bartlett’s Albion. The National had its best year for some time, topped by David Eldridge’s West End bound Beginning, as well as Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network, Nina Raine’s Consent, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitos and J T Rogers’ Oslo, already in the West End. The Young Vic continued to challenge and impress with David Greig’s updating of 2500-year-old Greek play The Suppliant Womenand the immersive, urgent and important Jungle by Joe’s Murphy & Robertson. Richard Bean’s Young Marxopened the new Bridge Theatre with a funny take on 19th century history. On a smaller scale, I very much enjoyed Wish List at the Royal Court Upstairs, Chinglish at the Park Theatre, Late Companyat the Finborough, Nassim at the Bush and Jess & Joe at the Traverse during the Edinburgh fringe. Though they weren’t new this year, I finally got to see Harry Potter & the Cursed Child I & II and they more than lived up to the hype. At the Brighton Festival, Richard Nelson’s Gabriels trilogycaptivated and in Stratford Imperium thrilled, but it was impossible to topple Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN from it’s rightful place as BEST NEW PLAY.

BEST REVIVAL – ANGELS IN AMERICA / WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

Much fewer in this category, but then again I saw only 53 revivals. The National’s revival of Angels in America was everything I hoped it would be and shares BEST REVIVAL with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Almeida’s Hamlet was the best Shakespearean revival, with Macbeth in Welsh in Caerphilly Castle, my home town, runner up. Though it’s not my genre, the marriage of play and venue made Witness for the Prosecution a highlight, with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Apologia the only other West End contributions in this category. On the fringe, the Finborough discovered another gem, Just to Get Married, and put on a fine revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. In the end, though, the big hitters hit big and ANGELS IN AMERICA & WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF shone brightest.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS

Well, I’d better start by saying I’m not seeing Hamilton until the end of the month! I had thirty-two to choose from here. The West End had screen-to-stage shows Dreamgirlsand School of Rock, which I saw in 2017 even though they opened the year before, and both surprised me in how much I enjoyed them. Two more, Girls and Young Frankenstein, proved even more welcome, then at the end of the year Everybody’s Talking About Jamie joined them ‘up West’, then a superb late entry by The Grinning Man. The West End bound Strictly Ballroom wowed me in Leeds as it had in Melbourne in 2015 and Adrian Mole at the Menier improved on it’s Leicester outing, becoming a delightful treat. Tiger Bay took me to in Cardiff and, despite its flaws, thrilled me. The Royal Academy of Music produced an excellent musical adaptation of Loves Labours Lost at Hackney Empire, but it was the Walthamstow powerhouse Ye Olde Rose & Crown that blew me away with the Welsh Les Mis, My Lands Shore, until ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe stole my heart and the BEST NEW MUSICAL category.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC / FOLLIES

Thirty-two in this category too. The year started with a fine revival of Rent before Sharon D Clarke stole The Life at Southwark Playhouse and Caroline, or Change in Chichester (heading for Hampstead) in quick succession. Southwark shone again with Working, Walthamstow with Metropolis and the Union with Privates on Parade. At the Open Air, On the Town was a real treat, despite the cold and wet conditions, and Tommyat Stratford with a fully inclusive company was wonderful. NYMT’s Sunday in the Park With George and GSMD’s Crazy for You proved that the future is in safe hands. The year ended In style with a lovely My Fair Lady at the Mill in Sonning, but in the end it was two difficult Sondheim’s five days apart – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Watermill in Newbury and FOLLIES at the National – that made me truly appreciate these shows by my musical theatre hero and share BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

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Well, I think its unseasonal seasonal entertainment. It felt like travelling back in time to my childhood, being given the Twilight Zone Annual and flicking through it on Boxing Day, consumed by its tales of mystery (even though it wasn’t actually part if my youth!). I rather liked it.

Anne Washburn has taken stories from eight episodes of the TV show from four series between 1959 and 1964 and created a mash-up. There are tales of aliens landing, people disappearing, space travel and other dimensions. At first the interweaving is a bit irritating, but you soon go with it. It only jarred once for me, in a scene of racism amongst neighbours during an alien invasion scare. Otherwise, it’s all very tongue-in-cheek and there’s a lot to make you smile, some to make you laugh and it somehow feels nostalgic.

It takes place inside a giant TV whose walls are covered in stars. Props enter from everywhere, brought in by cast members in camouflage that matches the walls; a lovely touch. It’s very 60’s in style and monochrome in design – a palette of black, grey and silver with a touch of blue. Paul Steinberg’s design and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes are terrific, there are great illusions from Richard Wiseman & Will Houstoun, superbly atmospheric and authentic TZ music by Sarah Angliss and its quirky in a way only director Richard Jones can do.

Ten actors play forty-two roles plus narrator and there are four supernumeraries, and there are some delightful performances amongst them, pitched somewhere between retro, mystery, comic book and B movie.

It’s not really a play, more a selection box, but I greatly admired it’s execution and thought it was something different and jolly good fun.

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Another day, another allegorical play, but this time a brilliant one, staged and performed to perfection. Mike Bartlett proves himself to be as much the master of the epic as he is the miniature masterpiece.

Audrey is widowed, with a daughter in her early twenties and a new husband, Paul. She lost her son to war in the Middle East. She has a successful retail business, but decides to escape to the country, buying her deceased uncle’s former home Albion, with its huge garden, set on restoring it to its former glory using the plans of its famous garden designer. She’s self-obsessed, self-centred and domineering and she drives away her daughter, best friend and her son’s partner. Only her put-upon husband remains loyal. She also upsets the old retainers, neighbours and villagers along the way.

It’s an allegory of recent history in England’s green and pleasant land (Albion) and has way more depth than that brief description suggests. The Almeida has been reconfigured with the audience wrapped around an oval garden rimmed by a plant border and dominated by a tree; another extraordinary design from Miriam Buether. When the season changes, the border is transformed, itself a coup d’theatre, as is the end of the first half. Though its entertaining and often funny, it is above all deeply thought-provoking.

Audrey is a great part for an actress and Victoria Hamilton is sensationally good, but she’s surrounded by a host of other fine performances, notably Vinette Robinson as the son’s grieving partner Anna, Helen Schlesinger as best friend Katherine and Charlotte Hope as daughter Zara. Christopher Fairbank and Margot Leicester are lovely as the gardener / cleaner husband and wife and there’s an excellent nuanced performance as young neighbour Gabriel from Luke Thrallon.

We are so lucky to have so many good contemporary playwrights. Lets hope we don’t lose Mike Bartlett to TV after his success with Dr Foster. Only days ago I was worrying that some were given high profile stages too soon. Ironically, this would probably work on the Olivier stage where the other allegorical play Saint George & the Dragon doesn’t, but it’s more intimate at the Almeida where it engaged and moved me deeply.

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I’ve had very mixed experiences with the work of American playwright Christopher Shinn, nurtured here by the Royal Court. I loved Then & Now, his last-but-one here at the Court (mind you, it did have a stunning performance by Eddie Redmayne), but felt his last one, Teddy Ferrara, at the Donmar, sank somewhere in mid-Atlantic. Here, there’s a great idea bursting to get out, but it can’t find its way through the snails pace narrative, with a central character who’s a complete arse.

Luke is a young silicone valley billionaire who gets a message from god telling him to follow the violence, so he begins a messianic tour of schools where there have been shootings, campuses where there have been rapes, troubled workplaces and people’s homes. Unsurprisingly, there as many disciples as there are detractors; he’s loved and loathed in equal measure, though the media attention certainly makes an impact. The celebrity circus all becomes too much for him, though, so he returns to his family home until the media gets bored and disappears in search of the next circus. He reconnects with old school flame Kate and eventually gets it together with his assistant Sheila before a rescheduled visit to the Equator Fulfilment Centre, a thinly disguised Amazon, to tell the world his plans for the future.

The first half is achingly slow, though the pace does pick up in the second, but it doesn’t sustain its 2h50m length. Like Teddy Ferrara, its quintessentially American, awash with political correctness, causes of all sorts and celebrity obsession. Although it does come to a conclusion, it doesn’t really go anywhere, and Luke is such an unsympathetic character you just want to shake him and tell him to get a life and do something more productive with his billions.

Ian Rickson’s staging is uncharacteristically dull, as is Ultz non-existent design, and though he does his best with the material, there are a lot of better uses of Ben Wishaw’s extraordinary talent. There’s a fine supporting cast, so its not the Ben Wishaw Show, not that you’d notice from the fan presence. I spent most of the interval deciding if I could be bothered to return. I’m glad I did, as it picked up, though that might have something to do with the large glass of wine I took in with me.

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Playwright Martin Crimp has been very loyal to theatres and they to him. His first seven plays were staged at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre, who appear to have nurtured him. The next nine were at the Royal Court, where he was writer in residence. Another one back at OTT and one at the Young Vic and that’s it. He’s been more promiscuous with his eleven translations / adaptations, including one here at the Almeida. His plays are rarely revived here in London, with the NT’s Attempts On Her Life a notable exception ten years ago. This one was his first Royal Court main stage play in 1993 and I think this might be the first major London revival.

Anne is bullied by her husband Simon, who tapes her mouth, amongst other things. Somehow she gets to tell her story to husband and wife Andrew & Jennifer who are in the business of developing films. They may live in the same big city but Anne’s and Jenifer’s worlds are far apart. They bring on board writer Clifford and big name John and Anne’s story gets changed beyond recognition. Anne has a fling with Andrew and their sex is observed by Clifford, which makes her so mad she returns to Simon and draws him into her plan for revenge. The film gets released, but by now Anne isn’t involved, and its not her story any more. On the night of the premiere Andrew goes looking for her and Jennifer follows. Along the way the play takes a surreal turn when Anne gets a blind cab driver, who turns up again later when Clifford needs a cab! It’s a satire, but it covers a lot of other ground too.

It’s played out in a series of short scenes moving from Andrew & Jennifer’s office to their favourite Japanese restaurant to the street and the subway and eventually to Anne & Simon’s home. Fifteen ‘extras’ populate the office, street, subway and first night party. It’s a pretty bland design, so the extras brought a bit of life to the stage. It is very well performed, with Aisling Loftus and Matthew Needham excellent as Anne & Simon and Indira Varma hitting just the right satirical note as Jennifer. Gary Beadle has hot-footed it over form the Royal Court Upstairs for fine turns as John and a New York cop. The original was directed by Lindsay Posner who has passed the baton to Lyndsey Turner for this revival.

I appear to have wiped the Royal Court production from my memory, so it was good to see it again. It hasn’t dated, though it isn’t a classic, and it may provide an illustration as to why Crimp is rarely revived.

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You can spot a Robert Icke production within moments of it beginning. The use of live and recorded video, an atmospheric soundscape, contemporary songs placed appropriately, striking modern settings. It doesn’t always work for me, but on this occasion everything comes together to make this a brilliant Hamlet. Even the verse sounded like contemporary everyday speech.

We start and end with Danish news footage of the King and Hamlet’s funerals respectively. We’re with security staff watching the ghost in the castle on CCTV. Polonius is wired up when he goes to see Hamlet. When the players give us their play, the royal household join us in the audience where they are being filmed, so we can watch their reactions on screen as well as the play on stage. The same idea is used even more effectively for the fencing match. Ophelia’s burial scene is devastating. It unfolds like the Scandinavian thriller it is. Even the two intervals are perfectly positioned.

Andrew Scott’s soliloquies are restrained and understated, contrasting brilliantly with his rage and anger. It’s a stunning performance with an extraordinary emotional range, but he’s surrounded with a fine set of supporting performances too. Juliet Stevenson is superb as Gertrude, torn between her son and her new husband. Angus Wright is a brilliantly ice cold, defiant Claudius. Peter Wight is excellent as Polonius, with a fine Ophelia from Jessica Brown-Findlay and a passionate Laertes from Luke Thompson. This is a simply terrific cast.

At 3 hours 50 minutes it’s one of my longest Hamlets, but also one of the most gripping I’ve ever seen. The third of my late February four Shakespeare play binge. Probably sold out but look out for a transfer of a cinema relay.

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Over 150 shows were candidates for my four award-less awards, with Best New Play the difficult category this year, so lets start with that.

BEST NEW PLAY – LOVE – National Theatre

Over a third of the sixty-five candidates were worthy of consideration, which makes 2016 both prolific and high quality in terms of new plays. Hampstead had a particularly good year with Rabbit Hole, Lawrence After Arabia, Labyrinth and the epic iHo all in contention. The Almeida gave us three, with Boy leading the trio that included They Drink It In The Congo and Oil because of its importance and impact. The Globe’s two Kneehigh shows – 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips on the main stage & The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – both delighted. Two more Florian Zeller plays, The Mother and The Truth, followed The Father and proved he’s a real talent to watch. The visit of Isango again, this time with play with songs A Man of Good Hope was a treat.

The Arcola gave us Kenny Morgan, which showed us the inspiration for Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, the Donmar a fascinating One Night in Miami, the Orange Tree hosted the superbly written The Rolling Stone and Dante or Die’s site-specific Handle With Care had an epic sweep in its self storage unit setting. Two comedies shone above all others – James Graham’s Monster Raving Loony and Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, the only West End non-subsidised contender! The Royal Court provided the visceral Yen and The Children, my runner-up, another fine play by Lucy Kirkwood whose Chimerica was my 2013 winner. Of the National’s three, The Flick and Sunset at the Villa Thalia came earlier in the year, but it was LOVE at the end which made me sad and angry but blew me away with more emotional power than any other. Important theatre which I desperately hope many more people will see.

BEST REVIVAL / ADAPTATION of a play – The Young Vic’s YERMA & the National’s LES BLANCS

I’ve added ‘adaptation’ as a few steered a long way from their source, and Les Blancs could be considered a new play, but it’s just new to us.

Though I saw forty-four in this category, less than a quarter made the short-list. The best Shakespeare revival was undoubtedly A Winter’s Tale at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As well as Les Blancs, the National staged excellent revivals of The Deep Blue Sea and Amadeus, the Donmar chipped in with the thoroughly entertaining comedy Welcome Home, Captain Fox and in Kingston The Rose revived Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, probably the best use ever of this difficult space. Beyond that I was struggling, except to choose between the two winners, which I found I couldn’t and shouldn’t do.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – GROUNDHOG DAY – Old Vic Theatre

Has a shortlist ever been so short? Only twenty contenders but only three in contention. The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse was great fun and the NYMT’s Brass visiting Hackney Empire hugely impressive, but it was achieving the seemingly impossible by turning Groundhog Day into a hugely successful musical than won the day, though it was sad to see it head stateside, presumably in pursuit of greater commercial gain, after such a short run. I know it will be back, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about a British theatrical institution and a whole load of British talent being used as a Broadway try-out. 

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – HALF A SIXPENCE – Chichester Festival Theatre / Novello Theatre

Fifty percent more revivals (twenty-nine) than new musicals is a lower proportion than usual, but a winner has never been clearer. 

The Menier gave us a transatlantic transfer of a great Into the Woods and what may prove to be the definitive She Loves Me, but both the Union and Walthamstow’s Rose & Crown provided twice as many quality revivals, with the latter successfully climbing higher peaks with more challenging shows for a small space – Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, Out of This World, Babes in Arms and Howard Goodall’s The Kissing Dance. The Union’s contributions included The Fix and Children of Eden and a trio of cheeky, fun nights with Bad Girls, Moby Dick and Soho Cinders. The Southerland-Tarento partnership provided a brilliant revival of Ragtime and the welcome European premiere, and superb production of, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Allegro (which was also too old for me to categorise as ‘New’). A little gem came and went ever so quickly when the Finborough revived Alan Price’s lovely Andy Capp in it’s Sun-Tue slot on the set of another play. BRING IT BACK! Despite all this fringe and off west end quality, it was the Chichester transfer of an old warhorse with a new book, new songs, thrilling staging, stunning choreography, gorgeous design and terrific ensemble which propelled itself to the top of this category.

That’s it for another year, then. Homelessness, childlessness, timelessness, colonialism and love amongst the working class. There’s a theme there somewhere…..

 

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