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Posts Tagged ‘Trafalgar Studios’

I can hardly believe that it’s 30 years since the onset of AIDS. This was the first play to cover the events and issues of the time. However anchored in the period it was written or represents, if a play is good enough it will survive the test of time to speak to future audiences and so it is with As Is, which Arion Productions have brought from the Finborough to the West End.

The personal story of writer Rich provides the core of the play. He’s a New York City gay man, a writer, who’s partner Saul is a Jewish photographer. He cheats on him with his best friend Lily’s younger brother Chet and soon after is diagnosed with HIV. Saul remains loyal to Rich and cares for him throughout his decline in health. The play is so much more than this personal story though.

All of the issues the disease raised are interwoven in a series of masterly ensemble scenes. The first covers the attitudes, mostly uninformed and ignorant, to the ‘gay plague’ as it was labelled at the time and it shocks you. The gay scene and its rampant promiscuity is represented, we visit a group therapy session and there is a positively hysterical scene involving two men running a helpline. The scenes in the hospices are particularly moving. The play packs a lot into 80 minutes. Given the subject matter, you might be surprised to learn that it’s entertaining and often very funny.

The key to this revival’s success is a faultless cast led by Steven Webb as Rich and David Poynor as Saul. The other six actors (Natalie Burt, Bevan Celestine, Giles Cooper, Dino Fetscher, Jane Lowe and Russell Morton) play multiple roles, more than thirty in total. You’d be hard pressed to find a finer ensemble. Tim McQuillen-Wright’s design, with spot-on period costumes by Philippa Batt, excellent lighting by Neill Brinkworth and atmospheric music by Matthew Strachan, allows speedy movement from scene to scene. Andrew Keates direction in this intimate space has great pace and engages the audience throughout, helped by using the whole space and a small amount of highly effective direct audience contact.

Please don’t think a play on this subject must be earnest and dull because its far from it – it’s as much entertainment as it is storytelling. This West End run includes a whole host of ‘extras’ – post-show talks and Q&A’s, free HIV testing and people can write in remembrance on the theatre walls themselves. In a West End theatre. Brilliant! Though unplanned, I was lucky enough to be there on the evening playwright Martin Sherman no less joined the director and a couple of cast members after the show; a real bonus.

I can’t compare this revival with the original London production I saw all those years ago – my memory isn’t that good! – but it’s a must-see revival of an important play. Above all though, you should go because it’s bloody good theatre!

 

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This is the first major revival of a 45-year-old Peter Barnes play and I can see why director Jamie Lloyd wanted to do it now. It’s a satire on the aristocracy, the political class and the establishment – the ruling class – at a time when we appear to be a divided society once more, ‘them and us’ all over again. The House of Lords creaks on into the 21st century, MP’s are now mostly professional politicians with zero real life experiences, the cabinet is made up of millionaires, most from public schools, including former members of the notorious Bullington Club. From bank bailouts through MP’s expenses, Plebgate, phone hacking, celebrity & priest paedophilia, abuse of police and media power to Rochestergate, the new ‘ruling class’ contempt for ‘the people’ seems to be at an all time low…..and they’re surprised at the rise of parties like UKIP and yesterday’s events in Greece.

The 13th Earl of Gurney’s accidental death by asphyxiation (whilst trying to give himself a high!) means his paranoid schizophrenic son Jack becomes the 14th Earl. His uncle concocts a plan to marry Jack to his mistress so that she can give him a son, thereby enabling them to have him certified and ‘rule’ on behalf of the young 15th Earl. At the same time, Jack’s psychiatrist is trying to cure him and his aunt is trying to seduce him. At first Jack thinks he’s god, then seems to respond to the cure. The certification is unsuccessful and he takes his seat in the House of Lords, but now he secretly thinks, well more than thinks, he’s Jack the Ripper.

It’s all rather anarchic, with lashes of absurdity and surrealism, and they occasionally burst into song (and dance) for no real reason! It’s audacious and brash and the satire is certainly not subtle. It’s a touch too long, but there’s much to enjoy, not least a virtuoso performance from James McAvoy which stretches him once more. He brings the same visceral physicality he brought to Macbeth, adding manic comedy and some song and dance routines! Anthony O’Donnell is excellent as the Earls’ valet who turns out to be the ‘red under the bed’. Paul Leonard is outstanding as the 13th Earl and Mrs Piggot-Jones, a local worthy (with Forbes Masson also great as her side-kick Mrs Treadwell). Joshua McGuire continues to impress, this time as the Earl’s cousin and Tory candidate Dinsdale Gurney.

It’s not a classic, but it is fascinating to see it at last (there is a 1972 film with Peter O’Toole, but I’ve never seen it) and to see the excellent James McAvoy on stage again. The challenge of uncomfortable seating at Trafalgar Studio One was compounded on this occasion by sauna high temperatures, without which I might have enjoyed it even more.

 

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Best New Play(s) – The James Plays

First up its plays, new ones, and when I counted I was surprised to find I’d seen 75 of them, including a pleasing half-dozen at the NT. My long list only brought that down to 31 so I had to be real hard to get to the Top Ten short-list of Versailles at the Donmar, Good People & Wonderland at Hampstead, Wet House at Soho, The Visitors at the Arcola (now at the Bush), 1927’s Golem at the Young Vic and 3 Winters & The James Plays from the National Theatre of Scotland at the NT – a three-play feast which pipped the others at the post.

Best Revival (Play) – shared by Accolade and My Night With Reg

I saw fewer revivals – a mere 44! – but 18 were there at the final cut. The Young Vic had a stonking year with Happy Days, A Streetcar Named Desire & A View From a Bridge, the latter two getting into my top ten with the Old Vic’s The Crucible, the Open Air’s All My Sons (that’s no less than 3 Millers) the NT’s Medea, Fathers & Sons at the Donmar, True West at the Tricycle and the Trafalgar Transformed Richard III. In the end I copped out, unable to choose between My Night with Reg at the Donmar and Accolade at the St James.

Best New Musical – Made in Dagenham

I was a bit taken aback at the total of 25 new musicals, 10 of which got through the first round, including the ill-fated I Can’t Sing, Superman in Walthamstow (coming soon to Leicester Square Theatre) , In the Heights at Southwark and London Theatre Workshop’s Apartment 40C. I struggled to get to one from the six remaining, which included the NT’s Here Lies Love and five I saw twice – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Dogfight at Southwark, Hampstead’s Kinkfest Sunny Afternoon and Dessa Rose at Trafalgar Studio Two – but eventually I settled on a great new British musical Made in Dagenham.

Best Revival (Musical) – Sweeney Todd in Harrington’s Pie Shop, Tooting

An extraordinary year for musical revivals with 38 to choose from and 22 serious contenders including 7 outside London (two of which I short-listed – Hairspray in Leicester and Gypsy in Chichester) and not one but two Sweeney Tood’s! Difficult not to choose Damn Yankees at the Landor, a lovely Love Story at the Union, more Goodall with the NYMT’s The Hired Man at St James Theatre, Blues in the Night at Hackney, Sweeney Todd at the ill-fated Twickenham Theatre and Assassins at the Menier, plus the Arcola’s Carousel which was so good I went twice in its short run. In the end though, expecting and accepting accusations of bias, I have to go for the other Sweeney Todd in Harrington”s Pie Shop here in Tooting – funnier & scarier, beautifully sung & played and in the perfect location, bringing Sondheim to Tooting – in person too!

Best Out of Town – National Theatre Wales’ Mametz

I have to recognise my out-of-town theatregoing, where great theatre happens too, and some things start out (or end up!). The best this year included a superb revival of a recent Broadway / West End show, Hairspray at Leicester Curve, and one on the way in from Chichester, Gypsy, which I will have to see again when it arrives……. but my winner was National Theatre of Wales’ extraordinary Mametz, taking us back to a World War I battle, in the woods near Usk, in this centenary year.

Best Site Specific Theatre – Symphony of a Missing Room (LIFT 2014)

Finally, a site specific theatre award – just because I love them and because it’s my list, so I can invent any categories I like! Two of the foregoing winners – Sweeney Todd and Mametz – fall into this category but are  now ineligible. The two other finalists were I Do, a wedding in the Hilton Docklands, and Symphony of a Missing Room, a blindfolded walk through the Royal Academy buildings as part of LIFT, which piped the other at the post.

With some multiple visits, 2014 saw around 200 visits to the theatre, which no other city in the world could offer. As my theatrical man of the year Stephen Sondheim put it in the musical revival of the year – There’s No Place Like London.

 

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This play was first produced in 1996 (another 18 year revival), the same year Goodness Gracious Me came to our TV screens; both important events for British Asian culture. It’s set 25 years before that, so now we’re looking back 43 years, yet I suspect British families of Pakistani origin are facing the same plus, with the arrival of fundamentalism, even more complex issues; the play still resonates and entertains.

Ayub Khan Din writes about a mixed marriage in Salford. George came from Pakistan in 1936, leaving behind another family he still supports. He has seven children with Ella, six boys and a girl, now all teenagers or young men. George’s attempts to impose Pakistani customs have already driven his eldest away; his kids feel more British than Asian, don’t speak Urdu and have little or no respect for customs like appropriate dress and arranged marriage. It’s played against a backdrop of the then war between East & West Pakistan, which led to the creation of Bangla Desh. The family runs a chippie where they all work at some time. In the first half, we glimpse their normal daily lives, then in the second we get a visit from the parents of two girls destined to marry two of the boys, which becomes a turning point for the family and the play.

It’s a well structured and well written piece with particularly fine characterisations. The culture clash and sibling relationships seem ever so real and it covers a lot of issues in a surprising amount of depth whilst always entertaining. There are both shocking and moving moments so soon after laughter that they are heightened. Even though your sympathies are with Ella and her kids, George proves to be a not entirely unsympathetic character, more a product of his upbringing than inherently bad. Designer Tom Scutt has built a row of terraced houses on the relatively small Trafalgar Studios stage with the home and chippie created by props in the centre of the it; this anchors the play very effectively in both the community and the period. It’s great to see director Sam Yates graduate from terrific work on the fringe (Cornelius and (another) Mixed Marriage at the Finborough and The EI Train at Hoxton Hall) to the West End, and his staging is very assured.

It’s also great to see the playwright in the role he created now that he’s old enough to play it! Linda Bassett (the original Ella) is a hard act to follow, but Jane Horrocks (also great to see her back on stage) makes it her own, a more feisty but still loving wife and mother. The actors playing the six ‘children’ are all excellent; I was particularly impressed by Taj Atwal as Menah, the only daughter and even more feisty than her mum. Sally Banks is terrific as Auntie Annie, never far from Ella, both of them chain-smoking and forever tea-drinking.

A very welcome revival.

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The 70’s were my 20’s and my first decade at work. Looking at the Trafalgar Studio One stage, designed by Soutra Gilmour, before the play started was a deeply nostalgic experience. Electronic typewriters, telex machines and those phones that seemed to be around for decades. By the time the the play starts, though, you can’t take your eyes off the characters crowded in the office for the duration. Many have questioned the setting, modern dictator references and the coup d’at that follows the civil war, but I thought it was all deeply intelligent and made for a riveting experience.

Richard’s relentless removal of everyone in his way en route to the top job would be entirely plausible in a 20th century dictatorship. The hunger for power fuels the manipulation, the lies and the killing without conscience, though rarely at his own hand. The claustrophobic setting adds something to the intensity of the drama. We’ve seen men like this Richard in our lifetime, which makes it very easy to relate to him and even easier to be repelled by him. As the play progresses, and the carnage is scaled up, the pace seems to increase and the blood begins to flow before your eyes.

Martin Freeman may appear a restrained Richard, at least at first, but this seemed to me to be in keeping with the concept – modern dictators all seem cool on the outside. It’s the small things – a chilling laugh, a raised eyebrow, a malicious grin; all often direct to the audience – which make you believe he’ll do absolutely anything to reach his goal. His second half entrance in bright red uniform is completely unsurprising; he’s got it and he’s going to make sure you know it. I thought it was an excellent performance; the closest I remember is Ian McKellern’s more Hitleresque one – this is more generic 20th century dictator.

He’s surrounded by a superb supporting cast. Macbeth’s excellent Banquo, Forbes Masson, channels Ernie Wise as a superbly oily Hastings. Simon Coombs has an entirely original take on loyal henchman Tyrrel. Jo Stone-Fewings is one of the best Buckingham’s I’ve ever seen and Gerald Kyd seemed to make much more of the role of Catesby. Mark Meadows inhabits both Clarence and the Lord Mayor, but you’d be forgiven if you didn’t realise it was the same actor, and you completely believe Paul Leonard feigned loyalty as Stanley. The casting of the women is particularly strong, with the wonderful Maggie Steed a haunting presence almost throughout, Gabrielle Lloyd’s very regal Duchess of York, Gina McKee motherly Queen Elizabeth and Lauren O’Neil is the best stranglee ever!

Much has also been said about the audiences, but mine was amongst the most attentive and quietest I’ve ever experienced. I don’t care what anybody else thinks, I related to this Jamie Lloyd staging of Richard III more than any other and for that reason, it’s a great one – and a superb start to the very welcome return of Trafalgar Transformed.

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The original leads of the 1982 West End premiere of Julian Mitchell’s play have done rather well for themselves. Rupert Everett was the first Bennett, followed by Daniel Day-Lewis and Colin Frith, and Kenneth Branagh was the original Judd! The class of 2014, who seem a lot younger, are excellent (and include an Attenborough!) so it will be interesting to see if history repeats itself.

It’s particularly fascinating seeing one’s reaction to the play in three productions over 32 years. In 1982, Thatcher was challenging the old boy network in her own party and this grammar school / polytechnic / manufacturing industry boy felt like he was peering into some mysterious other world. In 2000, New Labour had caught our imagination and this seemed like distant history. Today, it’s like seeing the formative years of our current rulers, helping you understand where all the hypocrisy and duplicitousness comes from and realising that nothing has actually changed. I found that annoying and profoundly irritating.

It’s a 30’s British public school, breeding ground for leaders and spies. Bennett is openly gay, behaving like a child in a toyshop. Judd is a Marxist revolutionary, all idealism and rebellion. Their bond is that they won’t play the conservative game and conform with the absurd traditions. The rest are chips off the old blocks, clones of their dads, being brainwashed into following in their footsteps. The suicide of a boy caught inflagrante delicto with another and the visit of an old boy, uncle of a present one, are used to stimulate the debate about what these places actually breed.

It is an extremely well written play, superbly staged by Jeremy Herrin within Peter McKintosh’s simple wood-panelled world, and it’s beautifully performed by nine young actors and Julian Wadham as the old boy, who appeared as one of the boys in the original production. Somehow, though, it made me frustrated, hopeless and angry and I couldn’t shake that off.

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Little Bulb’s Orpheus at BAC – the most extraordinary cocktail of concert and storytelling

Paper Cinema’s Odyssey at BAC – more storytelling, with music and charming lo-tech projections

Mischief’s The Play That Went Wrong at Trafalgar Studios – more laughs in 60 minutes than any other show – ever

Cush Jumbo’s Josephine & I at the Bush – two biographies intertwined in a virtuoso performance

ONEOFUS’ Beauty & the Beast at the Young Vic – two biographies intertwined with a gothic fairytale

PIT’s The Universal Machine at the New Diorama – a timely play with music about Alan Turing

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It’s rare something is revived after just five years. I’m glad this has been though as I somehow missed the premiere of Alexi Kaye Campbell’d debut play at its first outing at the Royal Court. Though I suspect it’s not intentional, given recent events in Russia, it turns out to be rather timely.

It’s a very good first play, and he has yet to better it. The stories of two gay relationships, many years apart, are interwoven, contrasting the old days ‘in the closet’ and more enlightened modern times. In one, Philip is having an affair with Oliver, the writer for whom his wife Sylvia is illustrating. Philip’s emotions are a complex bag of guilt, denial and anger. Of course, she knows really. This is set alongside the very modern open relationship of another Philip & Oliver, challenged by Oliver’s promiscuous addiction to sex, with another Sylvia who is Oliver’s friend and confidante.

It has a great deal of psychological and emotional depth and brings an historical perspective to both individual and society attitudes. The switches between periods are smoothly and speedily realised on the same set and the three actors are brilliant at changing to reflect the respective time. This is all helped by an uncluttered design by Soutra Gilmour with just a handful of props in front of a giant mirror wall.

The three central performances are all stunning. Al Weaver is superb as both shy, withdrawn Oliver and ‘out there’ open Oliver. Harry Hadden-Paton is just as effective at the slightly easier transition from repressed Philip to modern Philip, affronted by Oliver’s inability to be faithful. Hayley Atwell is wonderful as both the sad wife and effervescent best friend. Matthew Horn provides three good cameo’s though I thought the first, a ‘rent boy’ dressed as a Nazi, was a bit too much of a caricature amidst all these high quality performances.

Just so that we don’t get too complacent about our new enlightenment, at the second curtain call the cast come on with ‘To Russia, with love’ placards. With this third offering, Jamie Lloyd edges ahead of Michael Grandage in their respective West End seasons. How lucky are we to be able to compare.

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I’d be surprised if you could find a funnier hour in a theatre as this. A welcome transfer for Mischief Theatre from the Old Red Lion in Islington to the West End’s Trafalgar Studio Two (thankfully, at prices not a lot higher), this is an absolute hoot.

We’re with an AmDram company mounting Murder at Haversham Hall. The farce includes technical glitches, fluffed lines, missing & incorrect props, collapsing scenery and the inept cover ups that each requires. When an actor is knocked out, she has to be removed from the stage with the minimun of fuss (!) and replaced by a nervous stage manager. At one point, we end up in a circular sequence as one actor repeats the same line and at another, an actor begins to visibly acknowledge the audience’s response to unintentional events. To get through it all, the company is required to improvise (somewhat appropriately for a company that made its name in improv). 

This is all played with such skill and superb comic timing by seven talented performers, a technician and a set that itself performs. Some of it is so physical, they must be covered in bruises, and I couldn’t believe that they were going to clean up and do it all again 30 mins later!

I haven’t laughed so much in ages and urge you to go.

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If you have a vote in the forthcoming Scottish referendum, you’d better stay away from this most Scottish of Macbeth’s; it’s set in a dystopian near future after we finally screwed everything up and the Scots have gone completely feral. The rest of you had better snap any tickets that are left now because it’s bloody brilliant (often literally)!

Trafalgar Studio One has had a makeover, with a new set of onstage seating with the actor’s main entrance cut through the middle. The space has much more intimacy, intensity and immediacy which certainly suits this in-your-face grubby Macbeth. The setting is like a disused building, the props look like they were picked up from a tip and the ‘costumes’ are filthy – they’ll save a fortune on the dry-cleaning bill. Adam Silverman’s lighting of Soutra Gilmour’s set is outstanding and contributes much to the evening’s success.

It’s not the most coherent Macbeth and verse pedants may not like it. The Scottish accents, traverse staging and occasional masks (witches and assassins only) mean you lose some clarity, but in my view its more than made up for by the staging. It’s an energetic fast-paced thriller which holds nothing back. At times it feels like you’re watching a horror film or the latest Tarantino. I squirmed and gasped and occasionally turned, such was the realism of this most violent of plays. I fear for the health and safety of the cast, James McAvoy in particular, who throw themselves around the stage with abandon and fight like they mean it. At one stage, McAvoy ingests water from a bucket so quickly that he has to catch several breaths before his next line and this ratchets up the tension.

I was riveted from start to finish and you could almost feel the intense concentration of the younger than average audience, which was refreshingly quiet. McAvoy acts with great physicality and utter conviction, at times dangerous. This is a career defining performance, but it’s within a superb ensemble and it’s never starry, not even at the curtain calls. Clare Foy is a very young Lady Macbeth, but it’s a restrained interpretation which I thought was very intelligent. Forbes Masson’s Banquo and Jamie Ballard’s Macduff are intensely passionate; when the latter hears of the fate of his family, it’s truly heartbreaking.

These are hugely impressive Shakespearean debuts from McAvoy & Foy and director Jamie Lloyd. I haven’t seen the play done so well since Rupert Goold’s Stalinesque take with Patrick Stewart and McAvoy is at least a match for Stewart, Sher, Sapani & Pryce, the most memorable of my previous Macbeth’s.

With Jamie Lloyd Productions joining the Michael Grandage Company in the West End, these are exciting times indeed.

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