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Posts Tagged ‘Old Vic Theatre’

This play with music places songs by Bob Dylan into a story set in his home town in 1934, seven years before he was born. The title comes from Dylan’s version of Scarborough Fair, but here the north country is Duluth, Minnesota and 1934 was in the middle of the Great Depression. It’s bleak and beautiful.

Nick runs a boarding house, up to his eyeballs in debt. His wife Elizabeth has dementia, his son Gene is an unemployed wannabe writer with a drink problem and his adopted daughter Marianne (a black baby abandoned at the boarding house) is pregnant. All of his guests are down on their luck. Widow Mrs Neilson is waiting for her inheritance, having an affair with Nick while she waits. Mr & Mrs Burke are waiting for money they’re owed; they have an adult son Elias with severe learning difficulties. Bible seller Rev Marlowe and boxer Joe Scott turn up late one night. They might not be who they say they are. Joe takes a shine to Marianne, though Nick has other plans for her. Then there’s the doctor, who acts as our narrator.

It’s great storytelling, as we’ve come to expect from Conor McPherson, and somehow the songs, written 30 to 60 years later, fit the time, place and characters like a glove, though they aren’t sung in character or even by one character; they’re not there to propel the narrative, more for atmosphere. McPherson directs too, and for a playwright he makes a mighty fine director, unusual in my experience! The arrangements and orchestrations by Simon Hale have a period feel and they are are beautiful, breathing new life into the songs. The band wrap around the outstanding vocals, always accompanying, never drowning. The staging, and Rae Smith’s design, reminded me of the musical Once – simple but atmospheric, particularly the photographic panels that come and go.

I’m not sure where to start with the performances; it is such a superb ensemble, benefiting I think for limited musical theatre experience and bad habits! Perhaps I should start with Karl Queensborough, an understudy playing Joe, who really was excellent. Ciaran Hinds has great presence as Nick and towers over diminutive Shirley Henderson as his wife, who is unpredictable and edgy and has the most sensational voice which I’m not sure has ever been heard on stage before. Sam Reid is great too as Gene, delivering I Want You so well a woman in the front stalls said out loud a perhaps unintended ‘wonderful’. Sheila Atim, also in fine voice, is ever so good as Marianne and Stanley Townsend, Bronagh Gallagher and Jack Shalloo give a fine trio of performances as the Burkes. Probably the most experienced musical theatre performer, the great Debbie Kurup, delivers Dylan’s songs beautifully.

Some may call it a musical, some the now derogatory term juke-box musical, for me its a play with music and its it’s own thing, something unique, and I loved it.

 

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I think I might be falling out of love with Tom Stoppard. I didn’t really like his latest play The Hard Problem and I took against Travesties in it’s recent revival at the Menier. I last saw this play six years ago, when it left me with the same feeling as the recent Travesties – ‘look how clever I am’ – but I decided to give it another go as I recall enjoying earlier productions.

The titular characters are of course minor characters in Hamlet and you probably do need to know that play, which is effectively playing concurrently, mostly off-stage, to ‘get’ this one. What we get is these minor Hamlet character’s musings, adventures at sea en route from Denmark to England and interaction with The Player and his troop. Hamlet, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Horatio and Fortinbras all put in appearances.

Today it seems the work of a clever clogs young playwright showing off. It’s undoubtedly intelligent, but that comes with an air of superiority and glibness which for me rather stifles it. Whatever you think of the play, though, David Leveaux’s production is as good as it gets, with a superb impressionistic design from Anna Fleischle.

The chemistry of the titular pair is crucial. The last paring I saw was Jamie Parker and Samuel Barnett, who had worked together for years on The History Boys but didn’t have that chemistry. Daniel Ratcliffe and Joshua Maguire don’t appear to have worked together before, yet they have it in abundance. I admire Radcliffe for how he has managed his post-Potter career and here he takes a role often upstaged by two others without any attempt to use his star status or upstage his colleagues. David Haig as The Player is a larger-than-life ‘Lord of Misrule’ with punk gothic followers,  like some sort of Pied Piper, and he almost steals the show.

Great production. Great performances. Maybe the play has had its day.

 

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Over 150 shows were candidates for my four award-less awards, with Best New Play the difficult category this year, so lets start with that.

BEST NEW PLAY – LOVE – National Theatre

Over a third of the sixty-five candidates were worthy of consideration, which makes 2016 both prolific and high quality in terms of new plays. Hampstead had a particularly good year with Rabbit Hole, Lawrence After Arabia, Labyrinth and the epic iHo all in contention. The Almeida gave us three, with Boy leading the trio that included They Drink It In The Congo and Oil because of its importance and impact. The Globe’s two Kneehigh shows – 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips on the main stage & The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – both delighted. Two more Florian Zeller plays, The Mother and The Truth, followed The Father and proved he’s a real talent to watch. The visit of Isango again, this time with play with songs A Man of Good Hope was a treat.

The Arcola gave us Kenny Morgan, which showed us the inspiration for Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, the Donmar a fascinating One Night in Miami, the Orange Tree hosted the superbly written The Rolling Stone and Dante or Die’s site-specific Handle With Care had an epic sweep in its self storage unit setting. Two comedies shone above all others – James Graham’s Monster Raving Loony and Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, the only West End non-subsidised contender! The Royal Court provided the visceral Yen and The Children, my runner-up, another fine play by Lucy Kirkwood whose Chimerica was my 2013 winner. Of the National’s three, The Flick and Sunset at the Villa Thalia came earlier in the year, but it was LOVE at the end which made me sad and angry but blew me away with more emotional power than any other. Important theatre which I desperately hope many more people will see.

BEST REVIVAL / ADAPTATION of a play – The Young Vic’s YERMA & the National’s LES BLANCS

I’ve added ‘adaptation’ as a few steered a long way from their source, and Les Blancs could be considered a new play, but it’s just new to us.

Though I saw forty-four in this category, less than a quarter made the short-list. The best Shakespeare revival was undoubtedly A Winter’s Tale at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As well as Les Blancs, the National staged excellent revivals of The Deep Blue Sea and Amadeus, the Donmar chipped in with the thoroughly entertaining comedy Welcome Home, Captain Fox and in Kingston The Rose revived Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, probably the best use ever of this difficult space. Beyond that I was struggling, except to choose between the two winners, which I found I couldn’t and shouldn’t do.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – GROUNDHOG DAY – Old Vic Theatre

Has a shortlist ever been so short? Only twenty contenders but only three in contention. The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse was great fun and the NYMT’s Brass visiting Hackney Empire hugely impressive, but it was achieving the seemingly impossible by turning Groundhog Day into a hugely successful musical than won the day, though it was sad to see it head stateside, presumably in pursuit of greater commercial gain, after such a short run. I know it will be back, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about a British theatrical institution and a whole load of British talent being used as a Broadway try-out. 

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – HALF A SIXPENCE – Chichester Festival Theatre / Novello Theatre

Fifty percent more revivals (twenty-nine) than new musicals is a lower proportion than usual, but a winner has never been clearer. 

The Menier gave us a transatlantic transfer of a great Into the Woods and what may prove to be the definitive She Loves Me, but both the Union and Walthamstow’s Rose & Crown provided twice as many quality revivals, with the latter successfully climbing higher peaks with more challenging shows for a small space – Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, Out of This World, Babes in Arms and Howard Goodall’s The Kissing Dance. The Union’s contributions included The Fix and Children of Eden and a trio of cheeky, fun nights with Bad Girls, Moby Dick and Soho Cinders. The Southerland-Tarento partnership provided a brilliant revival of Ragtime and the welcome European premiere, and superb production of, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Allegro (which was also too old for me to categorise as ‘New’). A little gem came and went ever so quickly when the Finborough revived Alan Price’s lovely Andy Capp in it’s Sun-Tue slot on the set of another play. BRING IT BACK! Despite all this fringe and off west end quality, it was the Chichester transfer of an old warhorse with a new book, new songs, thrilling staging, stunning choreography, gorgeous design and terrific ensemble which propelled itself to the top of this category.

That’s it for another year, then. Homelessness, childlessness, timelessness, colonialism and love amongst the working class. There’s a theme there somewhere…..

 

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It’s a while since I’ve been to The Mill at Sunning dinner theatre – their programming of whodunit’s alternating with farce’s isn’t really to my taste – but I couldn’t resist ‘big’ musical High Society in this intimate space, even though it’s less than eighteen months since I saw it in a big space, or perhaps because I had…….

It’s set in the elegant thirties amongst the rich socialites of Long Island. Tracey is about to marry ever-so-dull George, but not before she has an elongated drunken flirt with tabloid photographer spy Mike and has been visited by her ex (and true love) Dexter. Her feisty teenage sister Dinah is determined to reignite her relationship with Dexter and spike the wedding. Her mum is rather pre-occupied with reigniting her relationship with her own ex Seth, a bit of a philanderer, and Uncle Willie chases any woman in sight, but particularly tabloid journalist spy Liz, who’s love for colleague Mike is unrequited. Liz and Mike have been promised the wedding story in exchange for burying the story of Seth’s fling with a dancer. Still with me?

It’s based on the 1939 Hollywood film The Philadelphia Story and started out as a film musical in 1956 before making it to the stage in 1987 in London in a Richard Eyre adaptation (nine years before another stage version on Broadway). The Broadway version had a very successful Ian Talbot production at the Open Air Theatre in 2003, which toured before transferring to the West End, where it only lasted a few months. The latest incarnation was Maria Friedman’s sensational in-the-round production at the Old Vic in 2015. The show’s trump card is Cole Porter’s score-to-die-for with more standards than just about any other show.

Scaled down for a cast of eleven and a three-piece band, it works superbly on this scale. Though it’s occasionally unclear which location we’re in, it’s a simple elegant design by Ryan Light (with great costumes by Natalie Titchener) which enables fast-moving action and scene changes, leaving enough space for director / choreographer Joseph Pitcher’s nifty staging and movement. The musical standards under MD Charlie Ingles are excellent. There isn’t a fault in the casting, with a lovely leading lady in Bethan Nash, a great comic turn from David Delve as Uncle Willie and Kirsty Ingrams’ spirited Dinah.

I love musicals on this scale and this was certainly a treat, and where else can you see a quality musical with a decent two-course meal, coffee and a programme for not much more than £50! On this form, a deserved winner of the 2016 UK Theatre Most Welcoming Theatre Award.

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When I heard they were going to adapt the film as a musical, I was baffled. How? As it turns out, it’s rather brilliant; bettering the film in so many ways. One of those rare occasions where book, music, lyrics, staging, choreography, design and performance come together to create something very special indeed.

In case you don’t know, it’s the story of sarcastic, arrogant TV weatherman Phil Connors, who visits Punxsutawney PA with novice producer Rita and cameraman Larry to film a live report on Groundhog Day, an annual event when his namesake Phil the groundhog emerges from his winter home. If he can see his shadow they’re in for six more weeks bad weather, if he can’t, its an early spring. What I hadn’t known is that Groundhog Day and Punxsutawney actually exist! They get stuck after a blizzard closes all roads, so Connors is forced to spend a second night in his B&B. When he wakes up next morning, it’s Groundhog Day again, and again, ad infinitum. At first he’s confused, then scared. A hedonistic period is followed by a period of depression and finally he realises he can actually use it to do good.

Daniel Rubin has adapted his own screenplay which, with Tim Minchin’s lyrics, becomes one of the funniest musical comedies I’ve ever seen. Minchin’s songs fit like a glove, whether rousing choruses or gentle ballads. Matthew Warchus’ staging is terrific, flowing along, as light as air, with a lot of help from Peter Darling’s choreography, which is more organic movement than dance numbers. Rob Howell’s design flows too, with technology taking second place to settings created by the performers. Everything just works so well together, with a palpable sense of real teamwork. 

Though it’s his UK stage debut, Andy Karl has bags of musical theatre experience, which shows in his command of both the stage and the material in a brilliant performance in absolutely every respect. Carlyss Peer is excellent as Rita in what appears to be her musical theatre debut! The second act bravely starts with a ballad, which Georgina Hagen as Nancy sings beautifully. You probably wouldn’t recognise many of the names or faces in the rest of this superb ensemble of twenty-one, but as the programme notes testify, it’s one of the most experienced and it shows.

It’s a ridiculously short two-month run (half of which was previews) and rumour has it it’s heading for Broadway before the West End, so it may be a while before you can see it (and for me to see it again).

A huge treat.

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Enticed to Pinter again by the cast and director, and leaving the theatre glad I was. Matthew Warchus has done what Jamie Lloyd did with The Hothouse and The Homecoming – less reverence leading to a fresh look at the play. I might actually be in danger of becoming a Pinter fan.

Elder brother Aston, with both a physical and mental handicap, befriends tramp Davies when he is threatened by someone and brings him back to his grubby attic room to stay. When younger brother Mick turns up in Aston’s absence, he intimidates Davies. Mick seems to be in charge of the house, delegating everything to his brother, who offers Davies a job as caretaker, as does Mick a while later. Davies begins to exploit and take advantage of their hospitality, which drives the brothers closer and Davies out. As with all Pinter plays, you’re left to decide what’s really going on here.

I think it’s his most Beckettian play and Warchus has mined it for the black comedy without losing much of the menace. He’s blessed with a stunningly ramshackle claustrophobic design by Rob Howell, with the set brought forward in front of the proscenium to increase the intimacy of this vast theatre, and a superb cast.

It’s wonderful to see Timothy Spall back on stage after all these years and he relishes the part, channelling Only Fools and Horses Uncle Albert in the meeker moments, morphing into a more aggressive, manipulative vagrant as the play progresses. Daniel Mays is cast against type as a restrained, passive Aston and he’s very good. George Maguire is very intimidating, with piercing eyes, strutting around the stage in his tight leather jacket looking superior; another fine performance.

Perhaps it’s Pinter’s death that has liberated or encouraged directors to make fresh interpretations, but I for one welcome them!

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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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