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Writer Jack Thorne has covered a very wide range of subjects in his stage and TV work, including adaptations of other’s material. This one is inspired by his own family history and I liked it a lot, but it could be that it resonates more with my generation.

It takes place at three points in time, each ten years apart, in the shabby chic home of David & Sal near Newbury. On each occasion their three children are either living there or visiting, and a meal is being prepared or delivered. They are idealistic lefties, old labour, regularly protesting or supporting causes. They’ve tried hard to pass on their values to their children whilst at the same time encouraging independent thought.

In 1997, just after the general election which elected New Labour, daughter Polly is home from Cambridge where she’s studying law, son Carl brings home his posh new girlfriend Harriet and wayward teen Tom is late home from school where’s he’s been in a drug related detention. The focus of this act is Carl & girlfriend Harriet’s bombshell. In 2007, Carl, who is now part of his father-in-law’s hotel business, comes with Harriet but without their children. Polly has sold her soul to corporate law and Tom is even more troubled. They’ve been called home to discuss their inheritance, but Tom becomes the centre of attention when his troubled soul erupts. In 2017, they’re there for a funeral, Polly now an associate partner in her law firm, Carl & Harriet’s marriage in trouble and Tom still trying to find his way in the world.

In between acts, the intervening years are signalled by changes of props, items and the calendar, with highly effective dance and movement staged by Steven Hoggett. The play tells the story of one family’s journey from the point at which the children leave the nest, whilst at the same time charting the concurrent political and social changes and in particular the differences in values and attitudes between the generations. The dialogue sparkles and the characters are well drawn. It all felt very authentic to me, perhaps because I’m of the same generation as David & Sal.

Leslie Sharp’s Sal and Kate Flynn’s Polly are occasionally overplayed. David Morrissey was more restrained and ultimately moving as David. I really liked Sam Swainsbury and Zoe Boyle as Carl and Harriett and Laurie Davidson was particularly good at conveys the three very different Tom’s. John Tiffany’s finely tuned direction and Grace Smart’s superb design bring the story alive.

Thorne yet again proves both his talent and his range, one of the most exciting of this extraordinary new generation of playwrights.

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I’d got it into my head it was going to be just another A Christmas Carol, so the theatrical magic of the Old Vic’s production caught me by surprise. Matthew Warchus’ staging is very special indeed.

The theatre has been reconfigured again, this time ‘in-the-round’ with banks of seats onstage, the front stalls turned sideways, eight entrances to what is a surprisingly small playing area the length of the stalls, and lots of lamps hanging above. When you add terrific period costumes, Rob Howell’s design brilliantly evokes Victorian London. The addition of Christmas carols accompanied by folky instrumentation, with the inspired use of hand bells, completes the magic.

Jack Thorne’s adaptation is very bleak at first, with Rhys Ifans’ Scrooge as dark as the material. After the ghosts of Christmas’ past, present and future have had their say, his redemption is more joyful and uplifting as a result. It’s hard to imagine a better Scrooge than Ifans, his scenes with Tiny Tim as loving as his earlier treatment of family and friends had been vile. His transition from grumpy to warm is beautifully handled. He doesn’t even have to comb his hair! The morality of Charles Dickens’ story is stronger than its ever been, and in this version often very moving.

When Scrooge is organising Christmas dinner for the families of his nephew and former employee Bob Cratchit, the arrival of the food is a thing of great wonder, the snow inside the theatre is as heavy as it would be outside, and when Silent Night is played by hand bells the silence was extraordinary. As the snow melts, your heart melts, and you leave the theatre with a warm glow.

My Christmas started seven weeks earlier with the Hackney panto. This was its biggest treat. I now declare it officially over.

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I’m sure no-one is interested in my view, fifteen months after the show opened, but I shall record it nonetheless. What could have been cashing in on, or spinning out, a franchise is nothing like it. Though it is clearly a license to print money, its also some of the best storytelling and stagecraft I’ve ever seen. From page to screen to stage, Harry Potter proves to be the most enduring phenomenon.

Let’s start with the writing. J K Rowling, director John Tiffany and playwright Jack Thorne’s story begins nineteen years later, when school friends Harry, Hermione and Ron are married and parents themselves. This is an inspired idea, though it is the same as the epilogues of both the final book and final film, so Rowling may already have had the idea, if not the form. It enables us to return to Hogwarts with the next generation and to see the development of the generation we’ve grown up with, with flashbacks to their time in school, and even further. It’s densely plotted but completely lucid. Brilliant storytelling, just like the books.

Tiffany’s staging is fast-paced, with beautiful movement by regular collaborator Steven Hoggett, and it flows like a dream. Jamie Harrison’s special effects are some of the best I’ve ever seen on stage; to say more about them would be a spoiler. Christine Jones’ design manages to make us believe we’re in Kings Cross Station or Hogwarts’ Great Hall, but also smaller spaces like offices and libraries, even under the stairs at the Dursley’s. It’s brilliantly lit by Neil Austin, crucial to many of the illusions, and Imogen Heap provides a suitably atmospheric soundtrack.

This is the second cast, but they all seemed top notch to me, with Jamie Glover even looking like Jamie Parker! The trio of friends have grown up as you would expect – serious Harry (Glover), earnest Hermione (Rakie Ayola) and joker Ron (Thomas Aldridge) – all excellent, but I particularly liked Aldridge’s characterisation of Ron. In the next generation, Samuel Blenkin is terrific as young Scorpius Malfoy, son of Draco and a Hogwarts contemporary of Harry’s son Albus (Theo Ancient – very good). In what must be the biggest ever company for a West End play (38!), David Annen and Elizabeth Hill make excellent contributions in their multiple roles, Annabel Baldwin shines in her transformation and April Hughes gives a lovely cameo as Moaning Myrtle.

Late I may be, but terrific to report that it’s such a welcome and high quality addition to the London stage, about to become an export success too.

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When the prodigiously talented Georg Buchner died aged 23, leaving behind this unfinished play, little did he know that in the following 180 years it would get more than thirty stage adaptations as well as three musicals, two operas, and a ballet. I find the attraction a bit of a puzzle. This latest one by another prodigious talent, Jack Thorne, is set in Berlin towards the end of the cold war and Woyzeck is a young British squaddie. The story is reasonably faithful to the original, and it’s given a stunning production by Joe Murphy.

Woyzeck was an orphan who spent much of his early life in foster care. Things start going wrong before the play begins when he joins the army and is posted to Northern Ireland, where amongst other things he goes AWOL, but he falls in love there with catholic girl Marie who, with their child, joins him in the next posting in Germany. Here he teams up with rather cocky fellow soldier Andrews and is befriended by Captain Thompson, whose interest in him may not be as innocent as it seems. Woyzeck, Marie and their child have to live in town in a seedy flat as they are unmarried. They are broke and amongst their money making schemes, they allow Andrews to use the flat for his assignations with the Captain’s wife and Woyzeck participates in dubious drug trials. With everything life has thrown at him, Woyzeck is on an irreversible downwards mental health spiral which inevitably ends in tragedy.

Tom Scutt’s design features twenty-five thick Berlin wall like panels which fly or slide onto the stage, creating different configurations, stunningly lit by Neil Austin, with an atmospheric soundtrack by Isobel Waller-Bridge and Gareth Fry. It’s a uniformly superb cast. I’m used to seeing Nancy Carroll in much safer roles; here she’s brilliantly racy and sexy. I was hugely impressed by Ben Batt as Andrews, Sarah Greene is terrific as Marie and Steffan Rhodri is excellent as the Captain, but its John Boyega’s show and he rises to the challenge, and more.

It’s not an easy ride, but it is an impressive achievement. 

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A musical about an adventure playground in a suburb of Bristol in the 70’s doesn’t sound that promising, but its written by master playwright Jack Thorne, the man behind the Harry Potter plays, and directed by a directorial master, Jeremy Herrin. Stephen Warbeck’s score is so unconventional, I’d prefer to call it a musical play – think London Road, but not sung dialogue – and it’s anarchic and playful, with a great big heart. I loved it.

It’s based on Thorne’s dad’s real life experience in the Bristol adventure play movement. Rick, who we’d today call a teaching assistant, tries to recruit young teens to build an adventure playground in a troubled part of town. He works in the local secondary school, he visits parents and he tries to engage the kids. It takes a long while, but he makes it and six kids work with him creating something wild and fun. Even the head teacher approves (it’s on school land formerly earmarked for a maths block). It gets burnt down by vandals, so they rebuild it and take turns guarding it, until one of them is attacked and their world comes tumbling down.

The score is made up of short songs and snatches, played by just three musicians, but they do help tell the story. The set is, well, an adventure playground. The characterisations are terrific, with theee adults playing adults, including Calum Callaghan as gentle, empathetic Rick and six adults playing the kids, with feisty, cheeky Fiz at the centre, played superbly by Erin Doherty (who also impressed in a very different role in Wish List at the Royal Court recently). Fiz’s sister Debbie isn’t involved with the playground; she’s been following in her mother’s footsteps sleeping around, and is now pregnant by one of them, with two of the playground boys candidates! Seyi Omooba follows her auspicious professional debut in Ragtime with another very different but equally impressive performance as tomboy Tilly. Josef Davies is great as the skinhead who isn’t as hard as he looks, as is Enyi Okoronkwo as timid Talc with a crush on Fiz.

Sometimes the accents and kidspeak means words are missed, and there’s a lot of bad language, but that adds to the realism and authenticity. I thought it was original, edgy and captivating. Only one more week to catch it in Kingston.

 

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I missed last year and curtailed the year before, so this is my first full week in Edinburgh for three years, which may be why I enjoyed it so much. It seemed like a vintage year, with an extraordinarily high 70% hit rate of great shows and only two bummers out of 26.

The seemingly insatiable supply of monologues continued, with seven of the 13 plays falling into this category. Despite my ambivalence, even dislike, of them, there were some real crackers, led by Sherman Cymru’s Iphigenia in Splott, an extraordinary take on Greek Tragedy with a stunning performance by Sophie Melville. Canadian genius Robert Lepage was back with another of his imaginative, innovative solo shows, this time 887 blended memories of his youth with material about memory itself. Comedian Mark Steel‘s show was, like Mark Thomas’ wonderful Bravo Figaro a few years back, a biographical story – in this case how he found out about his real parents. It was moving, poignant and very very funny. The fourth 5-star show was another flight of imagination, this time The Anomotion Show with percussionist Evelyn Glennie playing in the 17th century courtyard of George Heriot School whilst the live painting of Maria Rud was projected onto its walls. Brilliant. The final day produced not one but two gems, starting with Duncan McMillan’s extraordinarily engaging and captivating one-man play about depression, Every Brilliant Thing, brilliantly performed by Jonny Donahue, which I’ve been trying to catch for some time. Our one and only opera ended the trip with the most inventive and original Die Zauberflote from Komische Oper Berlin in collaboration with our own theatre genius’ 1927. Animation, performance and music in complete harmony.

The Traverse continued its trailblazing, hosting the National Theatre of Scotland’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, a rude and hugely funny play with music that followed convent school girls on a school outing (bender) to a singing competition in Edinburgh, with six very talented young actresses and a female band, directed and designed by women! and Vanishing Point’s outstanding, creative take on dementia, Tomorrow. They also hosted young Belgian company Ontroerend Goed’s latest unsettling piece, A Game of You, where I was observed, interviewed and imitated before observing myself, and leaving with a DVD of my experience! Their other two shows fared less well, with Christians, a debate about hell, hard for a non-believer to engage with (though superbly staged and performed, with a 24-piece choir) and another monologue, Crash, which was clever but didn’t captivate like some of the others.

Musical high’s included Lennon: Through A Glass Onion, which showcased his songs – sung and played by a duo – interspersed with quotes from the man himself, Antonio Forcione (again!) with his brilliant Brazilian percussionist Adriano Adewale, hugely enthusiastic five-piece accapella group Simply Soweto and Hackney Colliery Band, who weren’t at all what I was expecting (a brass band!) but whose rhythmic jazz funk was infectious late-night fun. Musical Theatre featured, with enterprising amateur productions of The Addams Family and Sunshine on Leith, neither of which have yet had London outings though both deserve them.

More solo turns, with Jim Cartwright’s Raz, about preparing for, and going out on, a night out, performed brilliantly by the playwright’s son James, contrasting with stand-up comedian Mark Watson‘s highly strung but hysterical Work In Progress. Then there was 10x10x10 where ten comedians did ten monologues written by ten other comedians – except  there were only six, as they split it into two shows, and I can’t tell you who wrote or performed them, except Jo Caulfield who did one. Not bad, though. The big disappointment was Tony’s Last Tape, where an interesting life was made deadly dull.

Other Welsh contributions included Ghost Dance, a highly creative piece of physical theatre but with a confusing narrative comparing a native American plight with a Welsh one. There was innovative use of a smart phone app for English dialogue and subtitles and more polystyrene than you’ve ever seen in one place. Not a lot to say about a rather amateur take on (part of) the folk tale The Mabinogion, except to say I blame Judith!

The Missing Hancock’s featured two lost scripts staged as if they were being recorded for radio, with occasional ad libs, by an exceptional cast. I’d enjoyed them on the radio and I enjoyed them live too. Favourite playwright Jack Thorne’s sexually explicit, harrowing but brilliant play The Solid Life of Sugar Water was another theatrical highlight with two fine performances and, unusually on the fringe outside the Traverse, a great design. Finally, a novel immersive staging of a rare Tennessee Williams play, Confessional, where you are in a seaside bar with the dysfunctional characters partaking of a beer or two with them. Not a great play, but inventively staged.

The usual diversity with higher quality this year. No doubt some will appear elsewhere, so now you know what to catch.

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At last, a play for our time at the Royal Court. Jack Thorne has produced a thoughtful and objective piece about ‘the cuts’ which blends the political with the personal.

Mark is the Deputy Leader of a Labour council faced with slashing services following a huge cut in its government grant which, like all councils, represents most of its funding. The Leader Hilary is more resigned to the task, but he’s torn. Despite this they start the process and come face to face with the realities of closing Day Care centres and reduced street lighting in high risk areas. Influenced by his colleague and girlfriend, who herself is influenced by her Old Labour father, Mark eventually turns and leads their refusal to set a budget. Predictably, the government takes over the process and they are faced with implementing what others have decided for them. This is interwoven with Mark’s personal story, with visits from his precocious, highly intelligent son Jake and the development of his relationship with Julie.

At first I found it lacked anger and bite, but as it progressed I realised that wasn’t the point. It presents us with a difficult, indeed impossible situation – cut, or we’ll do it for you. To comply you have to abandon your principles, but to rebel could be worse. Though they seem to have cut 15 mins in preview, I did find the first half too slow and the second half much better paced. I wondered whether a combination of judicious cuts, faster pacing and no interval might not make it a better play. It starts and ends on, and in front of, the town hall stage, which recedes to reveal a huge hall in which all of the scenes are played out. Tom Scutt’s design works less well in the more intimate ones, but does bring a realism to the piece. Director John Tiffany includes some of his trademark quirky movement, which seems a bit incongruous on this occasion.

There’s a terrific performance from Tommy Knight as Jake and the final scene between him and Tom Georgeson’s old Labour George is one of the play’s best. When we hear from a client of the Day Centre facing closure, its heart-breaking. Stella Gonet as Hilary seemed at times as if she was still in Handbagged playing Thatcher; this characterisation of a Labour council leader didn’t feel right to me. It was good to see Sharon Duncan-Brewster again and she handles the combination of public servant, daughter and lover very effectively.

In its present state, its a good play that could be a great one, like Thorne’s earlier piece 2nd May 1997, the birth of the New Labour government, but its good to be leaving the Royal Court happier than I have of late.

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