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Posts Tagged ‘Donmar Warehouse Theatre’

Playwrights often produce minimalist work later in their career – Beckett & Pinter, to name but two – and I sometimes wonder whether its because they’ve learnt to make their point more succinctly, or if it’s a drying up posing as profundity. This Caryl Churchill miniature was first staged nineteen years ago Upstairs at the Royal Court. She’s still writing; last year she gave us four short plays Downstairs at the Royal Court, a satisfying though not exactly profound evening.

There’s no denying the dramatic impact of this 40-minute piece, superbly designed by Lizzie Clachan and deftly directed by Lyndsey Turner. In a series of short scenes we move between a country home and a hat-making business. We know they are some fifteen years apart because Joan is a child in one and an adult in the other. As a child she witnesses strange nighttime goings on outside the home where she is staying with her aunt and uncle. He appears to be involved in torture and death. Adult Joan is a novice milliner, making elaborate hats for parades. In one short, chilling scene we witness a grotesque ‘parade’ of people wearing these hats. Finally, adult Joan is back at the farm reporting on even stranger events happening in this dystopian world. Fear is the word.

It’s brilliantly staged and the performances are excellent, particularly from the actress playing young Joan, but for me the play is too obtuse for it’s own good, and at £1 a minute I left the theatre feeling cheated, both theatrically and financially. I’m afraid the cynic in me favoured the drying up theory tonight. They should have paired it with another Churchill miniature – there are enough of them to choose from – or reduced their usual seat prices to reflect the significantly lower value – as it is, it represents about the same VFM as Londons most expensive shows. Think Hamilton.

It looks like the Bridge Theatre will be pulling the same stunt on me next week when another minimalist Churchill play gets a revival. I’d better wear my ‘I’m A Mug’ t-shirt.

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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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American playwright Mike Lew gives us a version of Shakespeare’s Richard III set in a US High School. Disabled teenager Richard’s campaign to become Class President parallels Richard III’s quest for power, with all of the characters’ names referencing Shakespeare’s. I thought it was very clever and thought-provoking.

Richard Gloucester is a seventeen-year-old who believes his life is predetermined by his disability. His classmates include football captain Eddie Ivy, the current Class President, a magnet for the girls, and Eddie’s ex Anne Margaret, wannabe dancer and choreographer. Clarissa Duke is following her own evangelical path whilst Barbara Buckingham, also disabled, seems to be comfortable with who she is. Richard, Eddie and Clarissa are competing to be this year’s Class President. Richard is getting a helping hand from teacher Elizabeth York, initially trying to keep his candidature under wraps. Eddie is resting on his laurels and his popularity. Clarissa seems unlikely to be anything other than a niche candidate. Richard’s campaign unfolds, and proves to be as machiavellian as Richard III’s.

The play examines attitudes to, and the attitudes of, disabled people. Richard is on the receiving end of vile abuse, but he too is treating people with contempt. The American High School setting may seem a bit alien to a British audience, but the parallels with Shakespeare’s character may be even clearer in this world. Australian actor Daniel Monks invests masses of both physical and emotional energy into the role of Richard; a hugely impressive performance. With Susan Wokoma as the teacher, the only adult, Ruth Madeley as Buckingham, Alice Hewkin as Clarissa, Siena Kelly as Anne Margaret and Callum Adams as Eddie, he is surrounded by excellent performances.

I very much liked new Donmar AD Michael Longhurst’s production, and Chloe Lamford’s school gum setting, which was clever and entertaining, but had me thinking about the issues long after I left the theatre. Definitely one to catch.

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Alice Birch has written 100 scenes about women’s experiences of the criminal justice system and set theatre companies the challenge of choosing 30 in any order to create a play. It’s like a jigsaw which itself challenges the audience, but the subject matter is challenging too. It’s bleak and sometimes harrowing, but it is insightful and thought-provoking.

The scenes vary in length and subject matter, some examining how the women ended up in the system at all, some showing the damage to relationships with mothers and children, some the impact of incarceration. One very long scene seems to turn the tables on those trying to help as their motivation and impact is questioned. It isn’t a linear narrative, some characters return, some don’t, yet it does provide a glimpse into these often seemingly hopeless situations, though its lack of hope brings the bleakness which does become a bit relentless.

Rosie Elnile’s two-tier design facilitates swift movement between scenes. Maria Aberg’s staging is stark and visceral. It would be invidious to single out any of the excellent ensemble of sixteen women. It’s staged as part of Clean Break’s 40th anniversary and it continues their campaigning, raising awareness. I was glad I saw it, though it wasn’t an easy ride.

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American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins continues to impress, with this play the best of the three we’ve seen here. I’m vey fond of family dramas and American playwrights gave us the best in the 20th Century, from Eugene ONeill through Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller to Sam Shepherd. Now Jacobs-Jenkins gives us a contemporary one.

It’s set in an Arkansas plantation home where the head of the Lafayette family has recently died. His children, Toni, Bo and Frank, Bo’s wife Rachel, Frank’s girlfriend River, Toni’s son Rhys and Bo & Rachel’s children Cassidy and Ainsley have come for the auction of the house and sale of its contents. Their dad was a hoarder, so they first have to attempt to declutter and in doing so come across some photos which, if they are their dad’s, mean he wasn’t the man they thought he was.

Bo is a seemingly successful businessman who has apparently been financing his father’s final years, Toni is a single mother who’s been providing more practical support. Frank, now called Franz, is the black sheep, last to leave home and the longest to be dependent on their father, with a history of drink, drugs and worse. No-one knew where he was for many years until now. He’s under the spell of new age River and has ostensibly come to ask for forgiveness. Emotions run high, a whole load of skeletons leave cupboards and secrets and lies run amok. There’s even an air of a ghostly presence.

It’s superbly written and expertly plotted, with crackling dialogue. Ola Ince’s production is edgy and atmospheric, with loud sudden scene breaks that I found heightened the tension, though others jumped and / or were irritated by them. Fly Davis’ faded mansion is superb; the stage management deserve an award for decluttering it in the interval. Anna Watson’s excellent lighting and Donato Wharton’s atmospheric sound design play a key role. The diverse siblings are superbly characterised by Steven Mackintosh, Edward Hogg and especially Monica Dolan with another of her star turns. The rest of the ensemble is outstanding.

A great evening of drama from a playwright who, at only 34, the same age as Tennessee Williams was when A Doll’s House hit Broadway, has already delivered six plays, and based on the three we’ve seen is clearly going to have a monumental career The only remaining questions are – when will we see the other three and what’s next?

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This 1994 David Greig play was first staged during a previous time of turmoil in Europe, soon after the Berlin Wall came down, East European countries freed themselves from the USSR, which then fragmented, and Yugoslavia broke up, with war in the Balkans. I first saw it twelve years ago when Dundee Rep brought their revival to the Barbican, yet it meant so much more to me today.

It’s set in the railway station and nearby bar of a border town. Two refugees, father and daughter Sava and Katia, rest there on their journey. There are no trains and stationmaster Fret is trying to fathom out why his station appears to have been removed from the timetable. His assistant Adele is busy spotting trains as they pass by. Four local men, one Adele’s husband Berlin, discover their factory is the latest for the chop in these troubled times.

Fret and Sava strike up an unlikely friendship through their mutual love of trains and Adele and Katia enter an even closer relationship and leave town together. One of the four men, Morocco, exploits the border position by trading, which border towns are always good for, and another, Billy, decides to leave to try his luck elsewhere. This leaves Berlin and Horse to vent their anger on those who are left.

Though it is rather bleak, it does make good points about the nature of borders, attitudes to migration and refugees and the scapegoating of them by the disenfranchised, all of which are as relevant, if not more relevant, today as they were during that earlier period of change in Europe. Michael Longhurst’s excellent staging and Chloe Lamford’s design culminate in a stunning coup d’theatre and there are fine performances all around.

A play for today written a quarter of a century ago.

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Directors are often afraid of messing with classic musicals and they end up way too reverential, failing to show them through contemporary eyes. Well, you couldn’t accuse Josie Rourke’s revival of Sweet Charity of that. Her 60’s New York is sleazier and edgier, which seems to me a more honest way to portray the life of a dancehall hostess in search of love, something her degrading profession makes it harder to find.

From the minute you take your seat, you realise you’re in the New York of Andy Warhol. The metallic walls and furnishings of a warehouse littered with painted Brillo boxes, Lou Reed playing in the background, uber-cool people dressed all in black, chilling and posing. The Warhol references continue throughout in Robert Jones’ clever design.

We meet Charity Hope Valentine straight away, in the park, where her latest flame steals her handbag and pushes her into the lake, the police rescue her and she heads back to the Fandango Club where her colleagues greet her with sympathy but little surprise; they’ve got used to her endless disappointments with men.

After a brief encounter with Italian film star Vittorio, her next flame is mousy, nerdy accountant Oscar, and it looks like she may have found ‘the one’. Their whirlwind love-at-first-sight romance takes us via evening classes, the Rhythm of Life church and Coney Island, to her farewell party at the club, but this is one musical comedy without a happy ending.

This is Anne-Marie Duff’s first musical. In truth she doesn’t have a strong voice, but she makes up for it with a performance that perfectly combines gullibility, charm and vulnerability, interpreting the songs rather than just singing them, a sort of sung-speech style – think Judi Dench Send in the Clowns – which actually works, and with a real talent for comedy. Arthur Darvill superbly captures the nervous innocence and fear of Oscar.

In a fine supporting cast, Martin Marquez is excellent as Vittorio, as is Debbie Kurup, who could easily be in the lead role, as fellow hostess Helene. The guest ‘priest’ on the night I went was Adrian Lester (a wonderful Bobby in Sondheim’s Company on the same stage 23 years ago), which was a real bonus for me.

There’s no room for the ten-piece band, who have taken over the stalls bar and are heard through speakers in the auditorium. The pace is occasionally slow, but the strength of the production is to bring the lives of these exploited women to the fore with a truth I’ve never seen before, without losing the comedy, somewhat surprisingly perhaps. The pathos of the ending said it all.

Traditionalists might not like it, but I thought it was a fresh and inventive take on a 50-year-old show. Oh, and I want Adrian Lester’s glitter shirt. A bigger size, obviously.

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