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Posts Tagged ‘Trafalgar Studios’

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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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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