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Posts Tagged ‘Donmar Warehouse Theatre’

The Donmar’s last production, Henry V, a play about one sovereign nation invading another based on a dubious historical premise, opened as a sovereign nation invaded another based on a dubious historical premise. It’s current production is Jackie Sibblies Dury’s play, ostensibly about the 19th century Jamaican nurse famous for her nursing during the Crimean War, against the Russians. Timeliness indeed.

I say ostensibly as it’s not a biography of Seacole, but uses her as a symbolic representation of how black nurses, or rather black people in general, have been used for centuries. As the character of her mother says in the final part ‘they need us, but they don’t want us’. I think the reason for the plural Mary’s is that in addition to THE Mary Seacole, who we encounter in Jamaica as well as the US, England & Crimea, we also meet what appear to be contemporary carers, her ‘descendants’, and the attitudes of those they serve.

Based on this, and her play Fairview which we saw here in 2019 (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2019/12/06/fairview), I think she’s too fond of shock & surprise, and too focused on structure & form over content, to be a great storyteller. That said, this is a lot less heavy-handed than Fairview, thereby more successful in making it’s point, in my view. The six actors, most of which play multiple roles, serve the play well, including a fine leading performance from Kayla Meikle.

It seems to me that it falls between two stools, a biography of Mary Seacole and a statement on black lives matter, but neither has quite enough substance.

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The Donmar will not have known their new production of Henry V, a play about a sovereign nation invading another sovereign nation over some obscure historical claims, would open as a nation invaded another over obscure historical claims. Life imitates art.

This is a very contemporary take on the play, cast regardless of sex, with most actors playing multiple roles. After the prologue there appears to be an additional scene of revelry with Falstaff et al prior to the announcement of Henry VI’s demise, making it a more seamless follow-up to the previous (chronologically) history play, but not what Shakespeare wrote. There’s also a lot more narration than I think Shakespeare wrote. In fact, they take rather a lot of liberties with the verse, not least putting the desire for naturalistic dialogue above respect for it. Perhaps the most radical thing is the French speaking in French, with English surtitles, plus a smattering of other tongues, including Welsh. While I’m on that subject (subjectivity alert!), the stereotyping of the Welsh is clumsy and tiresome – you’ll hear ‘look you’ more times in three hours at the Donmar than in a year living in Wales.

There are things to like, mostly visual, including battle scenes, Fly Davies’ design and the use of sacred music, sung live by some of the cast. Kit Harington makes a decent job of the Henry he’s tasked with characterising, though it won’t go down as a great interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s meatier roles. While I’m on the subject of Shakespeare, who wrote the play by the way, they are way too preoccupied looking for contemporary relevance and modern resonance to bother with something as basic as serving the play, hence my title of this review. I usually enjoy modern, contemporary productions of Shakespeare, but here director Max Webster pushed it too far and lost so much in the process. Still, they’ll continue reviving the play long after his production is forgotten, so I guess The Bard gets the last laugh.

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Given it’s iconic status in musical theatre, I’m surprised this is only the fourth major London revival since I moved here forty years ago. Sam Mendes also turned his theatre, the Donmar Warehouse, into the Kit Kat Club for his 1993 production, albeit less dramatically. This transferred to Broadway, where it ran for six or seven years, returning less that ten years later for another year. Rufus Norris’ 2006 revival was a radical production on a conventional stage. Now Rebecca Frecknall’s is a complete reinvention within an elaborate reconfiguration of the Playhouse Theatre. There was so much to take in, which might be why I’m still struggling to write about it four days later.

It must have felt extraordinarily ground-breaking when it was first staged on Broadway 55 years ago; it felt pretty much the same now – a musical set in 30’s Berlin during the rise of the Nazi Party featuring prostitution, drugs and homosexuality, the Kit Kat Club at the heart of all the decadence. It starts when you enter, walking through the bowels of the theatre to emerge in what used to be the foyer where the ‘prologue cast’ were performing. Then you enter the auditorium, where the club vibe continues, with the audience on two sides of a round playing area which revolves and rises, and the band above in the two boxes that once housed audience members. It’s actually a small playing area, though Frecknall and choreographer Julia Cheng use it brilliantly, switching from the club to all other locations with few props very speedily.

In addition to Tom Scutt’s physical design, his Kit Kat Club costumes have a distinct aesthetic too, a sort of surreal punk fantasy, never more so than with Eddie Redmayne’s Emcee, which he invests with an extraordinary physicality and a manic stare. One of the striking things about this production is how all of the roles come to the fore; it isn’t just Sally & the Emcee’s show, the audience waiting for their next entrance. This cast rise to that challenge superbly. Lisa Sadovy is terrific as landlady Fraulein Schneider, her relationship with Elliot Levey’s excellent Herr Schultz growing, exuding warmth, before it crashes so sadly. Omari Douglas continues to impress with a very subtle and sensitive Clifford, struggling with his sexuality. It’s great to see Anna-Jane Casey back where she belongs investing prostitute Fraulein Kost with such exuberance. Then there’s Jessie Buckley, conquering yet another peak in a short career that has demonstrated extraordinary range. Her Sally Bowles balances confidence and vulnerability perfectly.

It’s an unsettling, dark show and this production is often chilling. Perhaps because of the recent passing of Stephen Sondheim, the parallels between him and Kander & Ebb struck me. They both tackled subjects unusual to musical theatre before, and each show was completely different. Cabaret will go down in history as a show which made a great contribution to the evolution of the form in the last half of the 20th Century and this production will be remembered for proving the point that great shows evolve and change, reflecting the period they are performed in and the talent that creates and performs them. I’m so glad I was there to experience this one.

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This black comedy is a stage adaptation of a much garlanded 2014 Swedish film by Ruben Ostlund. The American 2020 remake, Downhill, was a lot less successful it seems, and the stage version by Tim Price may illuminate why. I haven’t seen either film.

Tomas, Ebba, their teenage daughter Vera and young son Harry take a skiing holiday in the French Alps. On their first full day, whilst having lunch at a cafe at the top of the slopes, a controlled avalanche looks as if it is getting out of control and Tomas’ reaction has a profound effect on his family. That evening Ebba relates the tale to a guest she has befriended and the following day to Tomas’ friend and colleague Mats, who has by now arrived with his young girlfriend Jenny, during a drunken evening. In doing so, she embarrasses and humiliates Tomas. Things escalate as Tomas & Ebba’s relationship appears to disintegrate, affecting their children and contaminating Mats and Jenny’s relationship in the process. Whilst all this is going on, others party and the staff go about their business, but everyone knows there’s something up.

It’s often very funny, but also often uncomfortable. It makes us consider how we deal with different perceptions of the same event and our own and others’ flaws, and what happens when the acceptable / unacceptable line is crossed. The problem for me was the uneven pace, particularly in the multiple short scenes of the first 30 or 40 minutes. We were entertained during the scene changes by skiing, choreography and skiing choreography (!), but it still hampers the dramatic flow. The meatier scenes, like the drunken evening and Tomas and Ebba’s confrontation are excellent, though.

It isn’t easy to set a play in the Alps, but Jon Bausor’s design gives us ski slopes, restaurants & bars, bedrooms and an elevator on his brightly lit set. The four central characters are well played by Rory Kinnear, Lyndsey Marshal, Sule Rimi and Siena King, and there’s a fine supporting cast in Michael Longhurst’s production. As much as I enjoyed the evening, though, I couldn’t help wondering if it was really worth adapting for the stage.

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This early Alan Bennett play, 48 years old now, is rarely seen. I can only recall one London revival, by Sam Mendes at the Donmar twenty-five years ago, which I missed because the performance I’d booked was cancelled and I couldn’t make another, so it’s been a long wait, not just the eighteen month lockdown one.

It’s his most farcical play, which seems to me to be a send up of the form, without slamming doors, but with the trouser dropping. It’s more Joe Orton than Brian Rix, both of which pre-date it. It also has more than a touch of absurdism, and is partly in verse. A very odd concoction which I’m not sure has stood the test of time.

Dr Arthur Wicksteed is a GP with a roving eye. His son Dennis is desperate to lose his virginity and his sister Constance wants false breasts to bag her a better man than the Canon, her fiancee. His wife’s ex flame is Sir Percy Shorter, the President of the BMA, who’s here in their home town of Hove for a conference. Lady Rumpers and her daughter Felicity, back from their colonial adventures, turn up, though it’s a long time before you realise why. Add in the false breast salesman / fitter, a suicidal patient and the Wicksteed’s housekeeper Mrs Swabb, our ‘narrator’ – a brilliant performance from Ria Jones – shake & stir and you have a surreal take on the classic British farce of that time.

It’s all very well plotted and littered with good jokes. There’s a coffin centre stage, the purpose of which remains unclear, otherwise there are no props, so it zips along. The costumes are pitch perfect 70’s, and of course the soundtrack is to die for. Underneath all this there may be some messages, but if there are they get lost in the form. You can’t fault the performers, who make the best of every line and every situation, but it didn’t really work for me.

It’s a curiosity, and as a big Bennett fan I’m glad I went to see what he was up to in early career, but it’s easy to see why its taken 25 years to reappear on a London stage again.

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It’s an intriguing title for a play, and Cordelia Lynn’s piece proves to be just as intriguing on stage. What seems at first to be a love story proves to be way more, speculating on where we might be going, and connecting it to where we once were. I found it gripping and fascinating.

The love story we follow is a couple at a UK university, both post-graduates, him a poet and left-wing activist and her a physicist content to stay in her laboratory. They discover a degree of shared Polish heritage, though hers is also Jewish. Their grandparents come from the same town on the Polish / Ukrainian border. It’s not the most straightforward relationship, partly self-induced, but also impacted by university politics, which themselves reflect our society today. We eventually jump forward to the near future for some prophesy about how our current intolerance might unfold, before an unexpected move back in time in the first of two coup d’theatre, suggesting that history can repeat itself, albeit transformed.

The first, much longer, part is an intense two-hander on a bare stage, with Tom Mothersdale playing the highly charged man and Abigail Weinstock the much cooler woman (an impressive debut), in a fast-paced series of mostly short scenes. Their relationship twists and turns with anger and violence as well as love and affection. To describe the second part would constitute a spoiler, so I won’t. Some seem to have found it contrived and unnecessary; I found it a valid linking of the past, present and possible future, and without it the play’s key premise would not be made.

In addition to the fine central performances, Elayce Ismail’s finely detailed direction stood out too, as did the designs of Basia Binkowska. High quality work which makes great use of the Donmar space, for the intimacy of the relationship as well as the epic epilogue. I seem to be going against the grain here in welcoming such talented writing, performing and creative inputs onto a major London stage. I felt it was a great way to celebrate the Donmar’s return.

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A sound installation that’s so theatrical it deserves a blog!

The Donmar Warehouse Theatre has reopened its doors to sixty people at a time, socially distanced (and on Wednesday, sweltering!), sitting with headphones listening to this monologue adapted by Simon Stephens from Jose Saramago’s book about another sort of epidemic, where people go blind.

We hear that the first victim becomes blind whilst driving and the story rapidly unfolds as others succumb to blindness, fear spreads, people are institutionalised and the world is soon in the grip of this phenomenon. Juliet Stevenson tells the story as the only person who seems to be spared, but who has to feign blindness for her own safety, with great urgency, and the extraordinary sound design by Ben & Max Ringham means you hear her moving around the space, sometimes distant, sometimes whispering into your ear, dropping something, dragging something else. You find yourself looking over your shoulder to the place her voice appears to originate.

Even though it is a sound installation, Lizzie Clachan’s design and Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting contribute a lot to the tension and claustrophobic atmosphere. Neon lights above you drop to eye level and lights illuminate different parts of the space at different times, but much of it is in complete darkness. All of these contributions come together under Water Meierjohann’s direction to bring this story alive with great theatricality.

It won’t cheer you up but it will probably quench your thirst for drama, albeit without a live actor in sight. Huge congratulations to the Donmar for this inventive response to out predicament in the arts.

 

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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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