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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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I didn’t book for this play as I don’t like boxing. Fortunately, I realised soon enough that it was about much more than boxing. Inspired by the life of black American boxer Jack Johnson in the early 20th century, it’s a gripping, intense drama with five stunning performances in a production that oozes authenticity.

Our fictional boxer Jay is black heavyweight world champion at a time of segregation. He tours the US with his trainer Wynton and white boxing promoter Max, fighting other back boxers, one of which – Fish – becomes his sparring partner. Max sets up the unthinkable – a match with the white world heavyweight champion – though he has to give away virtually all the prize money, whatever the outcome. Jay’s big sister Nina turns up and we learn the origin of his motivation and the frightening potential consequences of the battle. Jay could be about to dramatically change society, but he’s also putting many lives at risk.

This is played out in a boxing ring (without ropes) without a single blow landed but with an intensity that has you on the edge of your seat throughout. Madani Younis’ direction is masterly, with movement that is both elegant and dramatic. James Whiteside’s lighting adding much to the atmosphere. Nicholas Pinnock is extraordinary as Jay, physically imposingly with genuine charisma, with Gershwyn Eustache Jnr brilliant as the younger boxer Fish, like a more naive younger version of Jay. Clint Dyer is wonderful as the loyal, supportive trainer and Ewan Stewart is excellent as Max, whose motivation is more ambiguous. We don’t see Nina for some time, but she becomes pivotal to the story and Frances Ashman’s deeply moving performance is simply superb.

Everything about this evening is crafted to perfection. It’s a play that will certainly be in the year’s ‘Best Of’ lists and one you absolutely must catch. Let’s hope it can be seen by more people by extension, transfer or filming, but don’t wait for that – if there are tickets left, grab them now!

 

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Best New Play(s) – The James Plays

First up its plays, new ones, and when I counted I was surprised to find I’d seen 75 of them, including a pleasing half-dozen at the NT. My long list only brought that down to 31 so I had to be real hard to get to the Top Ten short-list of Versailles at the Donmar, Good People & Wonderland at Hampstead, Wet House at Soho, The Visitors at the Arcola (now at the Bush), 1927’s Golem at the Young Vic and 3 Winters & The James Plays from the National Theatre of Scotland at the NT – a three-play feast which pipped the others at the post.

Best Revival (Play) – shared by Accolade and My Night With Reg

I saw fewer revivals – a mere 44! – but 18 were there at the final cut. The Young Vic had a stonking year with Happy Days, A Streetcar Named Desire & A View From a Bridge, the latter two getting into my top ten with the Old Vic’s The Crucible, the Open Air’s All My Sons (that’s no less than 3 Millers) the NT’s Medea, Fathers & Sons at the Donmar, True West at the Tricycle and the Trafalgar Transformed Richard III. In the end I copped out, unable to choose between My Night with Reg at the Donmar and Accolade at the St James.

Best New Musical – Made in Dagenham

I was a bit taken aback at the total of 25 new musicals, 10 of which got through the first round, including the ill-fated I Can’t Sing, Superman in Walthamstow (coming soon to Leicester Square Theatre) , In the Heights at Southwark and London Theatre Workshop’s Apartment 40C. I struggled to get to one from the six remaining, which included the NT’s Here Lies Love and five I saw twice – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Dogfight at Southwark, Hampstead’s Kinkfest Sunny Afternoon and Dessa Rose at Trafalgar Studio Two – but eventually I settled on a great new British musical Made in Dagenham.

Best Revival (Musical) – Sweeney Todd in Harrington’s Pie Shop, Tooting

An extraordinary year for musical revivals with 38 to choose from and 22 serious contenders including 7 outside London (two of which I short-listed – Hairspray in Leicester and Gypsy in Chichester) and not one but two Sweeney Tood’s! Difficult not to choose Damn Yankees at the Landor, a lovely Love Story at the Union, more Goodall with the NYMT’s The Hired Man at St James Theatre, Blues in the Night at Hackney, Sweeney Todd at the ill-fated Twickenham Theatre and Assassins at the Menier, plus the Arcola’s Carousel which was so good I went twice in its short run. In the end though, expecting and accepting accusations of bias, I have to go for the other Sweeney Todd in Harrington”s Pie Shop here in Tooting – funnier & scarier, beautifully sung & played and in the perfect location, bringing Sondheim to Tooting – in person too!

Best Out of Town – National Theatre Wales’ Mametz

I have to recognise my out-of-town theatregoing, where great theatre happens too, and some things start out (or end up!). The best this year included a superb revival of a recent Broadway / West End show, Hairspray at Leicester Curve, and one on the way in from Chichester, Gypsy, which I will have to see again when it arrives……. but my winner was National Theatre of Wales’ extraordinary Mametz, taking us back to a World War I battle, in the woods near Usk, in this centenary year.

Best Site Specific Theatre – Symphony of a Missing Room (LIFT 2014)

Finally, a site specific theatre award – just because I love them and because it’s my list, so I can invent any categories I like! Two of the foregoing winners – Sweeney Todd and Mametz – fall into this category but are  now ineligible. The two other finalists were I Do, a wedding in the Hilton Docklands, and Symphony of a Missing Room, a blindfolded walk through the Royal Academy buildings as part of LIFT, which piped the other at the post.

With some multiple visits, 2014 saw around 200 visits to the theatre, which no other city in the world could offer. As my theatrical man of the year Stephen Sondheim put it in the musical revival of the year – There’s No Place Like London.

 

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Chris Thompson has written a very timely play about the far right, even more timely post-Clacton (though I suspect they didn’t know this when it was commissioned / written). The subject and issues are ripe for dramatisation.

The Albion is a traditional boozer in Tower Hamlets which has traditional British karaoke (!)  five nights a week. Landlord Paul also happens to be the leader of the EPA, a fictional party rather like the BNP. His sister Poppy is fighting with the British forces in the Middle-East. His sister’s boyfriend Kyle is his EPA deputy and he’s black. His brother Jason is also an EPA activist and he’s gay. Jason has started a relationship with a gay Muslim he met on gaydar. Social worker Christine joins them as a sort of spin doctor, though perhaps with a hidden agenda, when she’s scapegoated and fired over failing to deal with a grooming case (some step relative of Paul’s that wasn’t entirely clear to me) in fear of accusations of racism. It doesn’t take long before he EPA is disintegrating.

The Bush IS the Albion, complete with bar, pool table and karaoke stage (design by James Button). Almost every scene takes place in the pub during a karaoke evening, with characters performing songs, the lyrics of which are often an integral part of the narrative. This is a clever and original idea but it’s overplayed. There’s way too much karaoke, including a fair number of complete songs. It lengthens the play and robs it of depth and subtlety. Frankly, I don’t want to sit in a theatre watching someone sing Delilah poorly to a backing track (sorry, Delroy Atkinson). It covers almost every issue that has led to the growth of, and is now leading to the success of, the far right but it does so too superficially. To compound the issue, the play has an embarrassingly excruciating ending.

I admire the intention, I like the originality of the structure, it’s well staged by Ria Parry and I thought all of the performances were very good, but it’s heavy-handed and it didn’t entirely work for me I’m afraid.

 

 

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