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Posts Tagged ‘Boulevard Theatre’

Playwright Lucy Prebble has given us some excellent plays, most notably ENRON, her second, but isn’t very prolific – she’s only written three plays in the 16 years since this debut, but then again she’s also successful in TV, notably with HBO’s current hit Succession. Her fourth play, A Very Expensive Poison, premiered just four months ago and her third, The Effect, will be revived at the Boulevard Theatre in March, so we’re having a bit of a Prebble Fest. I missed this one first time round, so I was delighted the Orange Tree have revived it.

The play revolves around 17-year-old Dani who lives with her somewhat neurotic mother. Dani’s father works away and plays away too, something they are both fully aware of. She suffers with an eating disorder and has recently returned from a residential clinic which she resents being forced to go to. She frequents internet chat rooms, where she meets two very different people – lonely 22-year-old Lewis, seeking a relationship, and thirty-something paedophile Tim, looking for boys. She meets up with Lewis, and they strike up some sort of relationship. By posing as an 11-year-old boy, she also meets up with Tim and they strike up an even odder relationship, where she becomes a friend and confidante. The two worlds collide when Lewis visits Tim and then her home, and her relationship with her mother is exorcised.

These very sensitive issues are handled really well, in the writing, staging and performances. All of the characters are treated sympathetically, even Tim, delicately played by John Hollingworth. Ali Barouti navigates Lewis’ journey from desperation to obsession beautifully. Alexandra Gilbreath handles the complexity of mother Jan with great skill. Jessica Rhodes’ performance as the very mercurial Dani, onstage virtually throughout, is superb, even more impressive when you realise it’s her professional debut.

Oscar Toeman’s excellent revival benefits from the intimacy of this theatre, but the sunken playing area brings sightline issues, as it did with Pamona at the same venue. This was my only gripe with what was otherwise a thoroughly satisfying evening of theatre.

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Throughout this play I was wondering why it felt different from any other one-act two-character piece I’d seen before. Reading the writer Cormac McCarthy’s biography in the programme on the way home, I saw it described as ‘a novel in dramatic form’ and then it made complete sense. Though there’s an apartment setting and the two characters interact, it did feel more like reading a novel, and the writer is indeed a novelist.

The characters are called White and Black, though their race didn’t seem particularly significant to me. We’re in Black’s NYC apartment. He’s brought White home after rescuing him from a suicide attempt. He believes god sent him to do this. White doesn’t remember seeing him there before his aborted jump. We learn more about Black than we do about White – his murky past, being born again and his faith. All we really learn about White is that he’s a professor, he’s alone and he’s deeply pessimistic about the world in which we live. Black is trying to keep White there because he fears another attempt, and believes it’s his calling to prevent this.

I was a bit puzzled by the fact that the play seems to be named after a long-distance Amtrak train (I’ve been on it!) but it goes nowhere near NYC and the suicide attempt appears to have been on the subway anyway. It’s a very wordy piece that’s relatively undramatic, though the performances of Gary Beadle and Jasper Britton are superb. Not being someone of faith and being a generally positive person, I’m afraid I found both Black’s blind faith and White’s nihilism difficult to stomach. Worth a visit for the performances alone, though, and good to see this new venue is as suitable for intimate theatre as it was for a chamber musical.

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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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Great to report that London’s newest theatre opens with a big hit, a song cycle by Dave Malloy, whose Preludes we saw recently at Southwark Playhouse, performed to perfection by a cast of four, which could have been written especially for this space.

It consists of interwoven stories that between them cover a contemporary subway murder, a quirky fairy tale, Scheherazade & jazz musician Thelonius Monk and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher! It’s like a jigsaw and I learned early on that trying to follow the narrative and complete the jigsaw got in the way of enjoying the music, so I immersed myself in the very eclectic selection of songs of many styles and shades, as songs

It’s in the round and you encircle a pile of musical instruments, all of which are played by the cast, and lots of props, some of which perform themselves. Bill Buckhurst’s staging carefully creates and changes moods with some lovely touches of audience engagement that included additional percussion and the consumption of whisky, with an inspired ending. Simon Kenny’s design is full of fascinating detail, and David Gregory’s sound is absolutely superb.

The four performers engage with each other and the audience, with moments when they sing or play out songs together, but most alone. They play a vast array of instruments and the vocals are simply gorgeous. It’s hard to imagine a better quartet than Zubin Varla, Carly Bawden, Maimauna Memon & Niccolo Curradi; they are all on fine form.

I loved the intimacy, flexibility and elegance of the space and it seemed to me to be the perfect opening show. Don’t miss it.

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American writer / composer Dave Malloy is rather prolific – sixteen shows in the last sixteen years – though I think this is the first we’ve seen here in London; not even his multiple Tony award winning Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 has crossed the Atlantic yet. This original and inventive work is subtitled A Musical Fantasia Set In The Hypnotised Mind Of Sergei Rachmaninoff, which seems like a good opener for a review!

It takes place towards the end of the three year period of depression which followed the negative reaction to Rachmaninoff’s first symphony in 1897, when he was just 24. He’s visited hypnotherapist Dahl throughout and the show uses these sessions as a starting point for tangential leaps into scenes with his wife Natalya, opera singer friend Chaliapin and a host of famous Russians including Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Glazunov and Czar Nicholas II.

I liked the idea of having two Rachmaninoff’s, one sitting at the piano playing his music and the other wild and boyish, a bit like Mozart in Amadeus, flitting between scenes expressing what’s inside his head; inner and outer characters. There are original songs, Rachmaninov pieces and hybrids. Even though it’s set in 1900, there are modern references and language which I didn’t think worked particularly well. I did like the idea of having the two keyboard players onstage, Billy Bullivant and MD Jordan Li-Smith, who sounded great.

It’s a rather surreal cocktail which by the interval hadn’t convinced me. The first half closing song, Natalya, and the second half opener, Loop, lifted it, and from then on it was a lot better, and it is a unique piece. Though I have reservations about the material, particularly its structure and unevenness, I have none about Alex Sutton’s excellent production. The design team have done a particularly fine job – Rebecca Brower’s set & costumes, Christopher Nairne’s lighting and Andrew Johnson’s sound – and Ste Clough’s choreography is great.

Tom Noyes as Rachmaninoff the pianist makes a sensational professional debut, playing brilliantly throughout, and singing beautifully in the closing number. Keith Ramsey is terrific as Rach, athletic and manic, on stage for most of the show. They have superb support from Rebecca Caine as Dahl, Georgia Louise as Natalya, Norton James as Chaliapan and Steven Serlin as The Master, the Russian famous five.

It’s whetted my appetite to see more of Malloy’s work, which won’t take long as, like the proverbial bus, another one comes along next month when Ghost Quartet opens the new Boulevard Theatre.

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