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Posts Tagged ‘Trafalgar Studios’

Peter Nichols, who sadly died last month, before this revival of his first major play opened, was for me one of the most underrated playwrights of the late 20th Century. His plays covered diverse subjects, his experiments with structure were highly original and he often added music to great effect. His relationships with producers were however problematic, though he did have three plays produced by the RSC and two by the NT, and this seems to have affected the fortunes of later plays and limited the number of revivals of earlier plays. This is only the second West End production of this play since its London premiere 52 years ago.

Nichols drew on his own experience of bringing up a disabled child. Bri and Sheila’s 15-year-old is severely handicapped, both physically and mentally. Bri uses humour to distract from and cope with his plight. Sheila is more matter-of-fact about it. On this particular day, shortly before Christmas, their ability to cope is pushed to, even beyond, the limit. When Bri returns from his day as a teacher, he is faced with caring for Josephine alone so that Sheila can have her break at the local AmDram, something Bri has encouraged. When Sheila returns she brings Freddie and Pam, fellow amateur thespians, who have yet to meet Joe. Bri’s mother also turns up, so we see three other reactions and perspectives on the situation.

In addition to performing in character, they all address the audience directly, and Bri and Sheila act out past visits to doctors. The play starts with the audience as Bri’s pupils, assembled at the end of the school day. It’s often uncomfortable, with black humour acting as a release for the audience, as it does for Bri as a character. It explores the complex web of emotions these parents have lived with for so long and discusses alternatives to their choice of a combination of Joe living at home with outside day care. These issues are covered objectively and non-judgementally, a vey rounded debate.

Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner are both outstanding as Bri and Sheila, with Storme Toolis, an actress of disability, bringing a deeply moving authenticity to the situation. There is fine support from Clarence Smith and Lucy Eaton as Freddie and Pam and a delightful cameo from Patricia Hodge as Bri’s mum. Peter Mcintosh’s house sits on the floor of Trafalgar Studio One, with flashback scenes and direct to audience dialogue in front, revolving to take us into the family living room. Director Simon Evans’ direction is sympathetic to the material, bringing out the timeless quality in it.

We’ve seen Privates on Parade, Passion Play and Lingua Franca relatively recently, but there are other Nichols’ plays desperately waiting for revival, with my top four being Poppy, The National Health, Forget-me-not Lane and Chez Nous. Lets hope this revival of his first spurs others on.

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This Bush Theatre transfer is a real breath of fresh air for the West End. Arinze Kene’s play is an extraordinary concoction of drama, performance poetry, rap and music, staged brilliantly, with a virtuoso performance from the playwright himself. I found it thrilling.

Misty tracks black Londoner Lucas as he navigates the city, starting with an altercation on the night bus, struggling with the changes to, and gentrification of, his city. It also tells the story of the playwright, developing his work with advice and interference from the producer, his agent and friends. Both are interwoven in a series of inventive short scenes, many with music, with the two musicians, the stage manager and a young girl providing brief characterisations of others. It’s structure confounds you as its originality pleases you.

Rajha Shakiry’s simple stylised design relies on Daniel Denton’s terrific projections and shadows to create evocative stage images beautifully lit by Jackie Shemesh. Omar Elerian’s staging is masterly, creative and unpredictable. The music, played live by Shiloh Coke and Adrain McLeod, seems an organic part of the story, and Elena Penoa’s sound made it exciting but fully audible. Arizne Kane has bucketloads of charisma and presence and his performance is stunning. All of the components come together to produce a truly captivating evening, with the audience erupting at the end.

I knew of Kene’s talent as an actor from One Night in Miami and Girl from the North Country, but I had no idea that he had such an original writing voice too. Unmissable.

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It’s nearly eight years since Australian playwright Tommy Murphy’s UK debut with Holding the Man, also at the Trafalgar Studios, in the bigger space (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/05/07/holding-the-man). This one is a welcome transfer from the ever enterprising Kings Head Theatre.

The play tells the story of runaway teenager Shane, from small-town life and bullying brother Ben to Sydney. He’s nervous, naive and vulnerable but manages to get a job and somewhere to live and begins to explore his sexuality. He’s befriended by two older men, one of whom gives him an STD and the other food and fatherly love. When Ben comes to find him, we learn that he is as much victim as bully, feeling responsible for how Shane has turned out.

The piece has more depth than you might expect in 90 minutes playing time. The first part is very funny but it becomes darker and ends charmingly. The writing is great, but so are the three terrific performances. Genuine Aussies Stephen Connery-Brown and Dan Hunter play the older men Peter and Will, with the latter doubling up as brother Ben, but it’s the hugely impressive live wire performance by Roly Botha, who made his professional debut with the Kings Head run of the play in 2016, that blew me away. Adam Spreadbury-Maher directs with great sensitivity to the material.

One to catch in this short run.

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Victor Hugo was fond of outsiders, and the grinning man seems to be the hunchback’s lesser known brother. Written in 1869, it has subsequently been adapted as a film six times and for the stage four times, twice as a musical, like this new one from Bristol Old Vic. He may also be the inspiration for Batman’s nemesis The Joker. Here the tale gets a suitably Gothic telling in a brilliant production by Tom Morris.

Set in 17th century England, young Gwynplaine’s mouth has been mutilated and now has a rather spooky perpetual grin. He rescues an infant girl when her mother is frozen to death and they are taken in by carnival proprietor Ursus, where Gwynplaine uses his misfortune to make his living in freak shows. The infant is named Dea and she’s blind. When she’s in her teens, they fall in love, but Gwynpaine is lured away to the royal court where he is destined to marry into royalty, but instead he returns to the carnival, which proves tragic.

Jon Bausor’s transformation of the problematic Trafalgar Studio I is terrific and his Gothic design and Jean Chan’s costumes combine to make a great look. Finn Caldwell & Toby Olie’s puppetry is highly effective, particularly Ursus’ pet wolf, where an actor seems to be a part of the animal. Tim Phillips & Mark Teitler’s music has a darkness to it and is unlike any other musical theatre score I’ve heard since The Tiger Lillies’ Shockheaded Peter almost 20 years ago. It’s a big book and Carl Grouse has done a fine job creating a much shorter, clear narrative.

Louis Maskell is excellent as Gwynpaine, though we never see his real face, and I loved Sanne Den Besten’s fragile, blind Dea. Their exit at the end took my breathe away. Julian Bleach as Barkilphedro and Sean Kingsley as Ursus are both outstanding and Mark Anderson brings a lighter touch to Dirry-Moir, the royal suitor Gwynpaine deposes.

It’s another breath of fresh air for the West End and I do hope it finds its audience there; on the night I went, they loved it, as did I.

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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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This is the second Alexi Kaye Campbell play to be revived relatively soon after its premiere, eight years ago at the Bush in this case, both at the Trafalgar Studios, both directed by Jamie Lloyd, and I for one am glad they have been as I missed the first outings of both, despite the fact they originated at regular haunts.

Kristin is an American who has been living in the UK most of her adult life. She’s a product of the late sixties – idealist, feminist, liberal, even socialist, who believes everyone should be promoting change and giving back. She divorced her husband when their two sons were young, but took them with her to Italy, pursuing her career as an art historian – until her husband took them from her, something she seems not to have fought, even acquiesced to. The title means a formal defence of one’s opinions or conduct; in this case Kristin is about to be held to account by her sons for not mentioning them in her recent memoir.

It’s her birthday and sons Peter and Simon, their girlfriends and gay friend Hugh are coming to lunch. Peter has taken a contrasting career path as a banker specialising in Africa. He is besotted with his American girlfriend Trudi, a somewhat vacuous evangelical Christian, something Kristin doesn’t really approve of, though she turns out to have more depth than first appears. Simon’s girlfriend, soap star Claire, another career Kristin disapproves of, arrives before and without him. Hugh is her close friend, and her defender. There’s a lot going on here, and I loved the richness of the story and the narrative, and the very well drawn characters.

Soutra Gilmour’s design is conventional (for her) but anchors the play in a British country cottage. Jamie Lloyd gets great performances from his terrific cast, led by Stockard Channing as spiky Kristin, who navigates the complex combination of arrogance, determination and guilt with great skill. Joseph Millson’s challenge is to characterise two very different brothers, which he does very well. Laura Carmichael was a bit of a revelation as Trudi, with what seemed, to these Brit ears, a spot-on American accent. It appears to be Freema Agyeman’s stage debut and impressive it was too. It’s lovely to see Desmond Barit in a role which so suits him and he relishes some cracking lines, milking them for all they’re worth.

This exceeded my expectation by a big margin and now I’ve seen four good Alexi Kaye Campbell plays, he enters my list of must-see playwrights.

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Sometimes revivals of plays can feel like museum pieces, but sometimes they still feel relevant or find a new meaning. So it is with this 38-year-old Sam Shepard piece. First time around there was the US oil crisis, deindustrialisation and stagflation. Now its all those things that have created the disenfranchised and disillusioned American working class who think Donald Trump provides the solution.

Dodge spends his whole life on the sofa, watching TV, drinking alcohol, smoking and taking a vast quantity of medication. His sprightly wife Halie befriends the church minister, well more than befriends it seems. Their sons Tilden & Bradley are a big disappointment and both more than a bit unhinged. Halie worships deceased son Ansel, an all-American boy who has taken on a near mythical status in her eyes; she and the minister are planning a statue. Then there’s the titular buried child…….

When Tilden’s son Vince arrives with his girlfriend Shelly, he doesn’t get the welcome he expects. When he goes out for drink for his granddad, he goes AWOL, leaving his girl with the mad men. When he and his grandma return the following day it all kicks off. The most dysfunctional of families.

You have to pick your way through the metaphors, symbolism and surrealism to find a story of disaffection and the demise of the American dream. The first act is too slow, but then it takes off on its grotesque, absurd ride through the rural mid-West. I found it much darker but more resonant than the last time I saw it in Matthew Warchus’ production at the NT 12 years ago, with another American film actor, M Emmett Walsh, as Dodge. Though Ed Harris and his wife Amy Madigan are the real draw (both excellent) it’s a uniformly excellent cast, including relative newcomer Jeremy Irvine as Vince and an impressive West End debut from Charlotte Hope as Shelley.

I was glad I overcame my reluctance to see it again so soon.

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I only know Jesse Eisenberg for his role as Mark Zuckerberg in the film The Social Network, but a quick look at his Wikipedia profile reveals he has acted in 34 films, 7 TV shows / series and 11 roles on stage. He’s voiced 8 audio books and written 34 short stories & 4 plays, of which this is the third. He’s 32!

He’s written himself a thoroughly unpleasant character in Ben, a highly-strung self-obsessed rich Jewish kid. Ben lives in a New York City flat bought by his dad. He bums around pretending to make arty films. His flatmate Kalyan, the only truly sympathetic character in the play, is an MBA student from Nepal. Kaylan’s girlfriend Reshma hates Ben with a vengeance. Ben’s primary school friends Ted and Sarah come back into his life shortly before their marriage to one another, and Ben realises he’s still in love with Sarah. His misguided and misjudged move on Sarah is spurned, and he unwisely takes it out on his best friend Kalyan.

It’s a well written play, though the first half is a touch long and the ending a bit lame, and it’s exceptionally well performed, but I’m afraid I didn’t like it. I couldn’t relate to or identify with the situation or any of the characters, and it revolves around a thoroughly unpleasant one. Maybe its my nationality or my age, because I was clearly in a minority. It’s sort of Woody Allen on speed.

Eisenberg is outstanding as Ben, as is Kunal Nayyar as Kalyan. Katie Brayben continues to show her range, hugely impressive as Sarah, and there’s an excellent stage debut from Alfie Allen as Ted. Annapurna Sriram completes the cast as an excellent Reshma. Sight Lines were disappointing from my expensive restricted view seat, but otherwise it seemed well staged by Scott Elliott and well designed by Derek McLane.

Impressive writing and performances, but not for me, I’m afraid.

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Jean Genet’s fame is surprising given his limited output (five books and five plays). His plays are rarely revived here and this 1947 play has been given a rather radical makeover by Benedict Andrews & Andrew Upton. It originated at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2013 (with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert as the maids!) but now has two black actresses as the maids, giving it another twist in Jamie Lloyd’s visceral production.

The setting has moved to the US. The time is contemporary. Mistress is a rich woman, perhaps a celebrity (think Kardashian!). Her two black maids are sisters and they have a bizarre ritual where one dresses as Mistress and they act out scenes between her and a maid. The conclusion is meant to be Mistress’ murder, though it never seems to get that far. Mistress’ husband is in prison following a tip-off to the police, which appears to have been made by the maids, though he is released on bail on the day / night of the action.

The relocation to the US with black maids works really well. The problem with the play is that the maids’ ritual takes a whole hour before Mistress arrives home, then we have a 30 minute scene involving all three, then she’s off again and we continue with the maids. At almost two hours with no break it’s way overlong (particularly sitting on seats that are amongst London’s most uncomfortable).

Designer Soutra Gilmour has created a clever structure, like a giant four poster bed made of wood with ornate gold decorations. The trouble is, the four large posts ruin the sightlines and from our top price third row side seats we were often listening to a character who we couldn’t see. Jon Clark’s lighting is just as striking as the design and Ben & Max Ringham’s sound design adds a suitably spooky feel. There are a lot of paper petals!

I was hugely impressed by Uzo Aduba as elder sister Solange, in her UK debut, particularly in the final scene where she was mesmerising. Zawe Ashton is much more physical and frenetic as Claire, perhaps a bit too frenetic, but it’s a virtuoso performance nonetheless. In her last West End outing, Laura Carmichael was heckled (perhaps unintentionally) on opening night by a theatre director Knight. Well, she proves her stage acting prowess here with an excellent performance as Mistress.

I much admired the production and the performances, but it’s not a great play and the length, sightlines and discomfort made it worse. Still, good to see such stuff in the West End .

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I gave up on Pinter some time ago. I put him with my other problem playwrights, Shaw (verbose) and Chekov (watching paint dry). Then this company lured me back to see The Hothouse because of the cast and creative team and I liked it. Now they’ve lured me back to this 50th anniversary production for the same reasons. What dawned on me last night was that it was the overly reverential, earnest, dull, humourless productions that had put me off. I enjoyed this one too. I think I’m beginning to enjoy the ambiguity.

Widowed Max, his two youngest sons Lenny and Joey, and brother Sam live together in a big house. Max was a butcher, Sam now a chauffer, Joey a demolition man and sometime boxer and Lenny some sort of pimp. They are nasty to one another, especially Max to the rest. Older brother Teddy returns home from the US. He’s a philosophy professor, married with two boys. His wife Ruth, who his family never knew about let alone met, accompanies him. They all continue to be nasty to one another, deeply misogynistic and thoroughly unpleasant. It’s the subtext what counts, and that’s where the ambiguity come in.

Soutra Gilmour’s set is derivative of Francis Bacon with a red metal frame and floor, a few items of furniture and a door and stairs which lead upstairs and downstairs. There’s a brooding soundtrack and dramatic lighting. Jamie Lloyd’s production is both menacing and humorous, and strikingly different to vanilla Pinter productions.

Ron Cook is outstanding as Max, a seemingly loveless monster dad, with hints of a paedophile past. Keith Allen camps up Sam, in keeping with the suggestion that he’s gay (at a time when it was still illegal). John Macmillan is brilliantly dumb as Joey. Gary Kemp plays Teddy as a gentle soul who takes the knocks from the family, but is a possessive, even dominant, husband. I was disappointed by the indisposition of John Simm but hugely impressed by his understudy John Hastings as Lenny. Gemma Chan’s TV role as an android in Humans has prepared her well for the ice cool Ruth; another impressive performance.

There were fascinating and insightful questions and comments from audience members at the post-show Q&A which added much value to the evening. After two rewarding Pinter’s, I think Jamie Lloyd may well have changed my mind about him.

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