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Posts Tagged ‘Swan Theatre Stratford’

Cervantes was a contemporary of Shakespeare, starting as a playwright (without much success), making his name as a novelist with this, perhaps the first novel as such, certainly the first blockbuster. It’s been adapted many times as play, musical, opera, ballet and film and this is the 2016 stage adaptation for the RSC by James Fenton which has finally transferred to London with the same two leads.

It starts with Rufus Hound’s warm-up act talking directly to the audience, something he does very well, helped on the night I went by jokes at the expense of a sexual health worker in the front row and a woman who had recently been to Antwerp and The Hague! It takes a while before we meet the pompous, idealistic fantasist of the title, but it’s an enjoyably playful start which sets the tone of the evening.

From here it’s a succession of stops on the journey of Don Quixote as he seeks to return to the days of chivalry, of the Knights Errand, with his companion Sancho Panza, each a little story in itself. The novel is episodic, so its no surprise that its stage adaptation is just the same, which makes it more of an entertainment than a play, though quality entertainment as this the RSC after all. There’s much music, with nice songs by Fenton and Grant Olding, and the stage is designed to look just like The Swan.

I was as impressed by Rufus Hound in the musicals Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Wind in the Willows as I am here. He’s an expert at the comedy and is very likeable and engaging. David Threlfall makes an earnest Quixote and looks terrific. There’s an other-worldly quality to his interpretation and when the character is humiliated by some he meets, notably a Duke & Duchess, there’s a pathos which genuinely moves the audience. They make a superb double-act and are supported by a fine ensemble of sixteen.

I recently called the RSC’s Merry Wives TOWIE does panto, and this is a bit panto too, but Cervantes’ stories lend themselves more to the form than Shakespeare’s play does. Go expecting fun seasonal entertainment rather than a classic on stage and you’ll probably go home satisfied.

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Best New Play – The Lehman Trilogy*, The Inheritance* & Sweat*

I find it impossible to choose between these three extraordinary evenings (well, afternoon and evening in the case of the The Inheritance) but they were in very good company with a dozen other new plays in contention. Also at the NT, Home, I’m Darling* and Nine Night* were great, and also at the Young Vic The Convert* became a late addition in December. At the Bush, both Misty and An Adventure impressed (though I saw the former when it transferred to Trafalgar Studios).The remaining London contenders were The Humans at Hampstead Theatre, Pressure at the Park Theatre, Things I Know To Be True at the Lyric Hammersmith and The Wipers Times at the Arts, though these last two weren’t new to London, just me. The Edinburgh Fringe added two, Class* and Ulster American*, both Irish, both at the Traverse and both heading to London, so look out for them. The eight starred are either still running or coming back in 2019, so be sure to catch them if you haven’t seen them already.

Best New Musical – Hamilton*

It opened right at the end of 2017, but I didn’t see it until January 2018 (and again in December 2018). It certainly lives up to the hype and is unquestionably ground-breaking in the same way West Side Story was sixty years before. It was a good year for new musicals, though 40% of my shortlist were out-of-town, headed by Flowers For Mrs Harris at Chichester, with Pieces of String in Colchester, Miss Littlewood in Stratford and Sting’s The Last Ship mooring briefly in Northampton. Back in London, the Young Vic continued to shine with Fun Home and Twelfth Night and the NT imported Hadestown*. Tina* proved to be in the premiere league of juke-box musicals and SIX* was a breath of fresh air at the Arts. Only four are still running, or coming back.

Best Play Revival – The York Realist and Summer and Smoke*

Another category where I can’t split the top two. The former a gem at the Donmar and the latter shining just as brightly at the Almeida. I didn’t see the Old Vic’s glorious A Christmas Carol* until January, so that was a contender too, along with The Daughter-in-Law* at the Arcola and The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End. Then there were four cracking Shakespeare’s – The Bridge Theatre’s promenade Julius Caesar, the RSC’s Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu visiting Hackney Empire, Ian McKellen’s King Lear transfer from Chichester, and the NT’s Anthony & Cleopatra* with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okenedo. Another four still running / coming back.

Best Musical Revival – Company*

The leanest category this year, with Marianne Elliott’s revival of Sondheim’s Company exceeding expectations; I shall be back at the last night. Chichester brought yet more joy with Me & My Girl and right at the end of the year, the Mill at Sonning came up trumps for the third year running with a great favourite of mine, Guys & Dolls* Finally, The Rink at Southwark Playhouse, the only contender this year from the usually more prolific fringe. Two to catch if you haven’t already.

Theatre of the Year – The Young Vic

Though five of my thirty-seven contenders were at the NT, The Young Vic shone even more brightly with four, all new works. Only four originated in the West End, which further emphasises how crucial the subsidised sector and the regions are. You can still see half of them, but some close soon, so get booking!

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Within minutes of it starting, I knew travelling to Stratford (upon Avon) to see this was a good idea. I’m a big fan of Joan Littlewood, even though I never saw any of her work. When my Tardis arrives, one of my first journeys will be back to the late 50’s / early 60’s to visit her Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal in Stratford (East London). She revolutionised British theatre as much as people like Peter’s Brook and Hall, but isn’t recognised as much, though she does now have a statue outside Stratford East.

Writer Sam Kenyon uses seven Joan’s to tell her story, with the wonderful Clare Burt as Joan the narrator, encouraging and instructing the others to pass the baton, her trademark cap, to the next as she ages. It briefly covers her arrival in the world, school, an early trip to Paris and RADA, before political theatre in the North West, where she meets and marries future folk royalty Ewan MacColl (then Jimmie Miller). The whole of the second half covers the Theatre Workshop period in Stratford East, using the development of productions like A Taste of Honey, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be and Oh What A Lovely War to propel the story forward.

It’s warts and all, so though it’s a homage, it shows the negative too. Along the way we meet Victor Spinetti, Barbara Windsor, Shelagh Delaney, Lionel Bart, Hal Prince (that collaboration was new to me!), Murray Melvin (whose insight Kenyon benefited from, and who was in the audience at this performance) and John Gielgud playing Macbeth! All of these are played by the ensemble regardless of age, sex or race. Her reciprocal love of Gerry Raffles shines through.

Designer Tom Piper has put a gold proscenium arch and red velvet curtains at the back of the apron stage, much like Stratford East, above which there’s a strip of screen on which projections signpost places and productions, with the band in the gallery above that. There’s an anarchic, playful quality to Erica Whyman’s production which seems entirely in keeping with the story. It feels like it’s being created as we watch, in the same way Joan’s shows were developed. It isn’t perfect, but for the first production of someone’s second musical, it’s impressive.

In addition to Clare Burt as Joan and Solomon Israel as Gerry Raffles, an ensemble of ten play the other five Joan’s and more than thirty other roles. Sophie Nomvete and Emily Johnstone give great turns as Avis Bunnage and Barbara Windsor respectively. They also play two of the Joan’s, receiving / passing the baton (cap) from / to Aretha Ayeh, Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and Dawn Hope, all excellent. I felt for Tam Williams, playing Murray Melvin with the man himself just feet away; he also gets give us Gielgud’s Macbeth!

Well worth the trip to Stratford, hopefully to have a life beyond The Swan.

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The Best Theatre of 2017

Time to reflect on, and celebrate, the shows I saw in 2017 – 200 of them, mostly in London, but also in Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff, Brighton, Chichester, Newbury and Reading.

BEST NEW PLAY – THE FERRYMAN

We appear to be in a golden age of new writing, with 21 of the 83 I saw contenders. Most of our finest living playwrights delivered outstanding work this year, topped by James Graham’s three treats – Ink, Labour of Love and Quiz. The Almeida, which gave us Ink, also gave us Mike Bartlett’s Albion. The National had its best year for some time, topped by David Eldridge’s West End bound Beginning, as well as Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network, Nina Raine’s Consent, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitos and J T Rogers’ Oslo, already in the West End. The Young Vic continued to challenge and impress with David Greig’s updating of 2500-year-old Greek play The Suppliant Womenand the immersive, urgent and important Jungle by Joe’s Murphy & Robertson. Richard Bean’s Young Marxopened the new Bridge Theatre with a funny take on 19th century history. On a smaller scale, I very much enjoyed Wish List at the Royal Court Upstairs, Chinglish at the Park Theatre, Late Companyat the Finborough, Nassim at the Bush and Jess & Joe at the Traverse during the Edinburgh fringe. Though they weren’t new this year, I finally got to see Harry Potter & the Cursed Child I & II and they more than lived up to the hype. At the Brighton Festival, Richard Nelson’s Gabriels trilogycaptivated and in Stratford Imperium thrilled, but it was impossible to topple Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN from it’s rightful place as BEST NEW PLAY.

BEST REVIVAL – ANGELS IN AMERICA / WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

Much fewer in this category, but then again I saw only 53 revivals. The National’s revival of Angels in America was everything I hoped it would be and shares BEST REVIVAL with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Almeida’s Hamlet was the best Shakespearean revival, with Macbeth in Welsh in Caerphilly Castle, my home town, runner up. Though it’s not my genre, the marriage of play and venue made Witness for the Prosecution a highlight, with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Apologia the only other West End contributions in this category. On the fringe, the Finborough discovered another gem, Just to Get Married, and put on a fine revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. In the end, though, the big hitters hit big and ANGELS IN AMERICA & WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF shone brightest.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS

Well, I’d better start by saying I’m not seeing Hamilton until the end of the month! I had thirty-two to choose from here. The West End had screen-to-stage shows Dreamgirlsand School of Rock, which I saw in 2017 even though they opened the year before, and both surprised me in how much I enjoyed them. Two more, Girls and Young Frankenstein, proved even more welcome, then at the end of the year Everybody’s Talking About Jamie joined them ‘up West’, then a superb late entry by The Grinning Man. The West End bound Strictly Ballroom wowed me in Leeds as it had in Melbourne in 2015 and Adrian Mole at the Menier improved on it’s Leicester outing, becoming a delightful treat. Tiger Bay took me to in Cardiff and, despite its flaws, thrilled me. The Royal Academy of Music produced an excellent musical adaptation of Loves Labours Lost at Hackney Empire, but it was the Walthamstow powerhouse Ye Olde Rose & Crown that blew me away with the Welsh Les Mis, My Lands Shore, until ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe stole my heart and the BEST NEW MUSICAL category.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC / FOLLIES

Thirty-two in this category too. The year started with a fine revival of Rent before Sharon D Clarke stole The Life at Southwark Playhouse and Caroline, or Change in Chichester (heading for Hampstead) in quick succession. Southwark shone again with Working, Walthamstow with Metropolis and the Union with Privates on Parade. At the Open Air, On the Town was a real treat, despite the cold and wet conditions, and Tommyat Stratford with a fully inclusive company was wonderful. NYMT’s Sunday in the Park With George and GSMD’s Crazy for You proved that the future is in safe hands. The year ended In style with a lovely My Fair Lady at the Mill in Sonning, but in the end it was two difficult Sondheim’s five days apart – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Watermill in Newbury and FOLLIES at the National – that made me truly appreciate these shows by my musical theatre hero and share BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

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With this third play (in the order I’m seeing them), the RSC’s Romans season comes alive. In my view, that’s down to a period staging, an excellent design and a set of fine performances. Not a mobile phone in sight! My luck with this play continues.

For someone who’s only directed a handful of Shakespeare plays, I thought Iqbal Khan’s staging was masterly. He gets so much right – the passionate relationship at it’s core, the ruthless ambition of Octavius, the dignity of the Egyptian women and the essence of the conflicts. After being critical of Robert Innes Hopkins designs for Coriolanus and Titus Andronicus, here he delivers a beautiful, classical setting with wonderful costumes. There’s even a superb score by favourite Laura Mvula.

I’ve seen some great pairings in the titular roles – Anthony Hopkins & Judi Dench, Alan Rickman & Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart & Harriet Walter, Paul Sheeley & Mark Rylance (!) – and Anthony Byrne & Josette Simon are a match for any of them; intelligent, passionate, nuanced performances. They have a fine supporting cast, many of whom have been in the other plays. In particular, Andrew Woodall is exceptional as Enobarbus and Ben Allen’s characterisation of Octavius is outstanding.

In one of those connections I’m fond of, this play begins shortly after the end of the Imperium plays (which I saw nine days before in Stratford), and though there’s 400 years between their authorship, it almost feels like a sequel.

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Cicero gets nine lines in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; here he gets a play in two parts, each of three acts, with a playing time of six hours. The RSC have given us a number of two-part epics in recent years. from Nicholas Nickleby through Canterbury Tales to Wolf Hall. Mike Poulton was responsible for the adaptation of the last two of these, as he is for this adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy, a big slice of fascinating Roman history littered with contemporary parallels, and it’s brilliant.

Cicero may be the most significant Roman you don’t know much about. That’s because he was an orator and lawyer rather than an Emperor or military figure, but was considered the father of the republic and the go-to man for legal advice and rhetorical coaching, becoming a philosopher in later life. His life was extraordinarily well documented by his slave-turned-confidente & biographer Tiro. Though his papers were lost, they were known to Plutarch, who was the source for Shakespeare’s play, so Harris’ books and these plays have a solid foundation in fact, based on Plutarch.

When it starts, Rome is a republic, with democracy of a sort, two consuls elected annually by a senate made up of the great and the good of Rome, most rich patricians, but some self-made plebeians like Cicero. Cicero is a Consul and protector of the republic, but Julius Caesar is due back in triumph intent on turning Cicero’s precious republic into a dictatorship. Cicero is sent into exile, but is allowed to return before Caesar’s assassination, in which he doesn’t really play a part, though he does approve of the return of the republic, or so he thinks.

Next up is Mark Anthony, whose wife Fulvia is ‘the power behind the throne’ and he seems permanently pissed. Cicero is their biggest critic but he fails to take the Senate with him in his plan to deal with Mark Anthony, and ends up in exile once more, while Mark Anthony & Fulvia continue their life of excess and corruption. Cicero is approached by Julius Caesar’s chosen heir Octavian, who he takes a shine to and decides to help, but he too is more than meets the eye. and when he forms an alliance with Mark Anthony, Cicero is violently dispatched. Octavian will go on to become Augustus, the next dictator.

Like his other adaptations, this is rich in story and narrative and is a real theatrical feast. It’s a slow burn at first, but by the third act of the first part you’re in its grip, until its subject’s head is on a pole! In Anthony Ward’s design, the Swan has stairs behind, a pit below and a giant globe above, which provide a brilliantly flexible but evocative setting. Paul Engishby’s music, heavy on brass, is particularly good at accompanying the triumphant entries into Rome. This is the sort of production director Greg Doran does so well – lucid, well paced and often thrilling.

Cicero is a huge part and Richard McCabe is magnificent, a career high I’d say. I loved Joseph Kloska as diffident but loyal Tiro, whose journey takes him from slave to assistant to confidente to advisor and biographer. Peter de Jersey has great presence as Julius Caesar and Joe Dixon shines as both Catiline and Mark Anthony, two power hungry chancers, as does Oliver Johnstone as Cicero’s protege Rufus and Octavian and Eloise Secker as Clodia and Fulvia. A terrific ensemble of seventeen actors play all of the remaining roles.

It was a difficult trip to Stratford, where I almost got stranded in the snow, but it was a real theatrical banquet and I don’t regret the travails one bit. This is the sort of theatre you remember for years.

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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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