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Posts Tagged ‘bush theatre’

I’ve been banging on about the extraordinary ambition of the All Star Productions team in Walthamstow for a while now, but I really thought they’d lost the plot when I heard they were mounting this infamous West End flop. Wrong again; they’ve turned into a cult fringe hit.

In 1989 it went straight into the cavernous Piccadilly Theatre. I liked it. It was an unusual pairing of American composer Joe Brooks (music) and British playwright Dusty Hughes (book & lyrics). Before becoming a playwright, Hughes had been Time Out’s theatre editor and the Bush Theatre’s joint AD. His plays had been put on at the NT, RSC & Royal Court, but he had no musicals pedigree. Brooks had written America’s biggest selling song in the 70’s, an Academy & Grammy award winner, but hadn’t written a musical. They chose to adapt Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 film.

It occupies that sparsely populated SciFi musical sub-genre. Set in a dystopian future, the overground world of the Elitists of Metropolis is powered by the Workers underground, in a city founded by John Freemen. The workers have a new-found charismatic leader in Maria, who has fallen in love with Freeman’s son Steven. Freeman has her abducted. He’s also hired an inventor to find a robotic alternative to the troublesome and increasingly scarce workers. These two actions come together.

The big surprise for me was how good the score is, with some great tunes and rousing choruses, freshly orchestrated and arranged by MD Aaron Clingham. The vocal quality is sky high, with particularly strong vocals from Rob Herron as Steven. My namesake Gareth James makes a fine baddie (Brian Blessed in the West End!) and there’s a hugely impressive professional debut by Miiya Alexandra as Maria. The excellent ensemble deliver the choruses with passion, expertly choreographed by Ian Pyle. The design team of Justin Williams, Jonny Rust & Joana Dias work wonders with limited resources, creating an inventive set and costumes. The show seems to be a favourite of director Tim McArthur, and it shows.

So by now you know you have three weeks to head to the northern end of the Victoria Line, where the centre of gravity of fringe musicals now clearly resides.

 

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If you’re interested in theatre, how can you resist an evening where the playwright presents his play to an actor, who has never seen it before, then stays around while the actor performs it, well actually participates in it? The actor changes nightly and I felt privileged to get Hattie Morahan – and Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpoor, of course. The trouble is, how can I possibly write about it…….

The play is fed rather than given to the actor, and its very playful. In just seventy minutes we learn about the playwright, his family and his homeland. We learn some Farsi; Hattie learns rather a lot of Farsi. We learn a bit about the actor. We learn something about ourselves. It’s a masterclass in communication and friendship. It’s funny and moving. It’s clever and surprising. It’s hi-tech and lo-tech. Above all it’s a captivating, heart-warming evening you could only ever have in the theatre.

I can say no more except urge you to catch it if you can.

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Hir is an unofficial, socially-constructed, gender-neutral pronoun, an alternative to he or her. Playwright Taylor Mac is a polymath American artist who challenges conformity and categorisation; someone once described him as Ziggy Stardust meets Tiny Tim. As you can by now imagine, this is a surreal ride.

Isaac returns from three years in the war, as a marine in the mortuary service. He’s had a dishonourable discharge for drug use. While he’s been away, there have been dramatic changes in the family. After years of abusing his wife and children, dad Arnie is ill and now on the receiving end of the abuse. Isaac’s sister is in the process of becoming his brother, encouraged by his mother Paige, who has gone all new age and politically correct and stopped cleaning completely. The house is a tip. Isaac struggles to believe or accept it all and a power struggle with his mother develops.

I’m not entirely sure what the playwright is getting at, but it’s fascinating and expertly staged and performed. Ben Stones’ design has to be seen to be believed. Nadia Fall’s staging continually shocks and surprises. All four performances are outstanding, with favourite Ashley McGuire so extraordinarily matter-of-fact as Paige, contrasting with Arthur Darvill’s highly strung and fragile Isaac.

It wasn’t to everyone’s taste (there were lots failing to return after the interval) but it held and intrigued me, and I’m still processing it.

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This fascinating play by Rajiv Joseph is set in the mid-17th century in Agra, as the Taj Mahal nears completion. Two guards, Humayun and Babur, are posted outside with their backs to the building, forbidden to turn around and see it. They have been friends since army days and they pass the time reminiscing and fantasising. Humayun is earnest and law-abiding; his dad holds a senior position in the Emperor’s court. Babur is more rebellious and cheeky. The play is based on the myth that the Emperor is determined that a more beautiful building is never built and takes drastic action to ensure this is the case.

In the first part, we get to know these two guards as they stand in position engaging in conversation, even though they are supposed to be mute. They talk about the building, a mausoleum for the Emperor’s favourite wife which has taken 20 years to complete, and its architect. They reflect on the Emperor’s life and in particular his harem. They look back fondly to their army days, specifically when they built a tree platform for protection. In the second part, we see the aftermath of the work they had to do at the Emperor’s bidding to ensure nothing as beautiful would ever be built again, one resigned to following orders, the other wracked with guilt. They share thoughts and flights of imagination as they disagree. In the third, they are divided when Humayan is forced to follow his father’s orders.

It’s hard to describe. Though it’s a duologue, it’s mesmerising and completely captivating. In Jamie Lloyd’s gripping production, Soutra Gilmour’s design is complemented by striking lighting from Richard Howell and an atmospheric soundscape by George Dennis, but above all it’s the compelling performances of Danny Ashok and Darren Kuppan which draw you in.

A great way to re-open the Bush Theatre and good to see Jamie Lloyd working on the fringe for the second time this year.

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This play with music about City traders has a cabaret bar setting. The trading firm is big and successful with a client list to die for. Astrid is one of their top traders. She’s forced to take client’s son Harrison but choses to take Priya, a hungry young British girl of Bangladeshi heritage. She pays a (female) prostitute to talk to her, but this becomes much more. 

The boys in the office are merciless with their banter and pranks, but things go too far at a lap dancing club where they consume way too much alcohol and cocaine and they set up Harrison and Priya. Back at work the firm’s top man Arthur has to resolve things. Priya decides to try and use the situation to her advantage, which won’t be good for Astrid, but it’s a boys world so can a girl really win?

There are songs and there’s dancing and playwright Melissa Bubnic doesn’t exactly hold back on the graphic descriptions and language. It wouldn’t win any awards for subtlety, but neither would the world of greed and excess it exposes and satirises. All of the roles, including the men, are played by women. I thought it was a clever idea and Amy Hodge’s production is audacious and they just about pull it off, though two unbroken hours in a stuffy space with uncomfortable seats made it challenging.

The play revolves around Astrid and Kirsty Bushell is outstanding in this role, with a rather good voice and cheeky audience engagement. Ellora Torchia brilliantly conveys the youthful ambition and ruthlessness of Priya, determined to succeed against the cultural and sexual odds. Helen Schlesinger is superb as big boss Arthur, the most masculine of the women in male roles. Chipo Chung and Emily Barber complete an excellent ensemble and Jennifer Whyte accompanies with brio on grand piano. Joanna Scotcher has ingeniously transformed Bush Hall.

Brash, bold and inventive. Much better than some of the reviews would have you believe.

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This Owen Sheers play covers similar ground to his extraordinary work with injured servicemen, The Two Worlds of Charlie F, but on this occasion it follows the fate of three friends and their experiences of war, and the women they leave behind; a girlfriend, a wife and a mother. It uses the same research as Charlie F, but its characters are fictional. It still packs quite a punch.

Taff and Hads follow Arthur’s lead and enlist in the army. They train together in Catterick and are posted together to Afghanistan. The reality of life in a war zone soon hits home and its not long before they come home, on leave or with physical injuries and emotional traumas. We occasionally flash back to their school days; in fact the whole play is looking back to events that have happened rather than happening in the present.

You can tell Sheers is a poet. It’s a very literary affair, partly in verse and largely in monologue rather than dialogue, most from Arthur as the lead character. Storytelling rather than drama. Stylised movement and mime is used to illustrate and sound is used to great effect, occasionally making you jump. 

The second half is tighter than the first, which I felt was a touch overlong. The dominance of the role of Arthur is at the expense of the other characters who I felt were a bit underwritten, particularly the women. The ending was a touch sentimental for me. John Retallack & George Mann’s staging is simple but effective and all of the performances are committed, especially Phil Dunster, who carries the play as Arthur. 

It’s a very powerful examination of the impact of war on real people. With this, Charlie F and NTW’s stunning 1st World War play Mametz, Sheers clearly has great empathy with the victims of conflict and this piece does much to help us understand and sympathise with them, and that alone makes it important and essential theatre. 

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Best New Play – Violence & Son / Iphigenia in Splott

What a bumper year for new plays. I saw more than 80 and almost half of these made it onto the long list. The final cut saw a very diverse bunch competing. At the NT, a brilliant adaptation of Jane Eyre and a stunning ‘mash-up’ of three D H Lawrence plays as Husbands and Sons, a very radical adaptation of Everyman, the somewhat harrowing People Place & Things, the highly original Rules for Living and the expletive-loaded Mother*****r With the Hat. Two ‘minimalist’ Mike Bartlett contributions – Bull at the Young Vic and Game at the Almeida, both original and hugely impressive. The Young Vic also staged Ivo van Hove’s stunning Songs From Far Away. The Royal Court gave us Martin McDonough’s black comedy Hangman, Debbie Tucker Green’s distressing hang and a play about the NHS, Who Cares?, which took place all over the theatre. At The Donmar, Temple was a more conservative but beautifully written piece about the impact of Occupy outside St. Pauls on those inside. The Bush surprised with The Royale, a play about boxing, my least favourite sport, and The Arcola hosted one about rugby, the deeply moving NTW / Out of Joint verbatim collaboration, Crouch Touch Pause Engage as well as the lovely Eventide and Clarion. Jessica Swale graced the Globe with another superb historical play, Nell Gwynn, with the lovely Farinelli & the King next door in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I was much more positive than most about Future Conditional, a topical analysis of our broken education system, which kicked off the new regime at the Old Vic. Elsewhere in the West End only Photograph 51, Taken at Midnight (from Chichester), Oppenheimer (from Stratford) and Bad Jews made the cut. The Park continued to make itself indispensable with The Gathered Leaves and Theatre 503 punched above its weight with Rotterdam, a sensitive and very funny exploration of transgender issues. Southwark Playhouse found one of the best Tennessee Williams’s rarities, One Arm. Earlier in the year, Hampstead gave us the very underrated Luna Gale and topped this with Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg, and even the late Arthur Miller was a candidate with the belated world premiere of his first play No Villain, but it was Gary Owen’s contributions that pipped everyone else at the post – Violence & Son, a striking modern family drama at the Royal Court Upstairs, and Iphigene in Splott, a Greek adaptation (but radical enough to be considered a new play) which packed more punch than most in a year abundant with Greek adaptations, which started in Cardiff and toured via the Edinburgh fringe ending up at the NT’s temporary space.

Best Revival – Les Liasons Dangereuses

I saw half as many revivals as new plays, and only a quarter of them made the long list. The best Shakespeare’s were both at the Young Vic – a shockingly modern Measure for Measure and a dance-drama Macbeth. The best of the Greeks were the Almeida’s Orestia and Stratford East’s Antigone, which out-shone the high profile Barbican-Van Hove-Binoche one. The Donmar pitched in with Patrick Marber’s Closer, embarrassingly better than his NT contributions this year, though the NT did shine with both Our Country’s Good The Beaux Stratagem, with particularly good use of music. The Globe gave us a very quick revival of Heresy of Love and the Open Air Theatre’s adaptation of Peter Pan was a triumph, but it was the long-overdue revival of Christopher Hampton’s masterpiece that ended the year with a theatrical feast.

Best New Musical – Bend It Like Beckham

Of the 50 musicals I saw in London, only 40% qualify as New Musicals and only seven made the final cut. I very much enjoyed wallowing in the nostalgia of both Carole King’s biographical Beautiful and the brilliantly staged Bert Bacharach compilation What’s It All About? (renamed Close to You for the West End). Xanadu was a hoot at Southwark Playhouse, which also hosted the very original Teddy, and the ever reliable Union pitched in with Spitfire Grill and The White Feather, a winner in any other year I suspect. Kinky Boots was great fun, but it was Howard Goodall’s brilliant Bend It Like Beckham, the a feel-good triumph which I’m about to see for the third time, that brought a breath of fresh air and a new audience to the West End.

Best Musical Revival – Grand Hotel

A better hit rate for musical revivals, with half of the 30 I saw in contention. The year started with a stunning revival of City of Angels which benefitted from the intimacy of the Donmar and ended with a very rare revival of Funny Girl which didn’t benefit from the intimacy of the Menier (but was still a highlight, and which I expect to be better at the Savoy, which hosted Gypsy which is also on on the list). It took two attempts to see the Open Air’s thrilling Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but well worth the return on a dry evening. Ye Olde Rose & Crowne in Walthamstow gave us notable revivals of both Face the Music and Bye Bye Birdie and the Landor chipped in with Thoroughly Modern Millie. A rare treat at the Royal Academy was Michel Legrand’s Amour and a unique experience at Belmarsh Young Offenders Institute where Pimlico Opera staged Our House with the residents and Suggs himself. I missed the same show at the Union, but did make three other revivals there – Whistle Down the Wind, Loserville and most especially Spend Spend Spend, my runner up. However, Thom Sutherland’s production of Grand Hotel at Southwark Playhouse was as close to perfection as you can get and made me look again at a show I had hitherto been underwhelmed by, and that’s what makes it the winner.

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