The Comedy About a Bank Robbery at the Criterion Theatre review ****

show_thecomedyaboutabankrobbery

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery

The Criterion Theatre, 15th October 2017

Abandoned by the SO, and with BD now, like MS, deep in academe, LD and I needed entertaining. The solution. A fix of Mischief Theatre. Now it is not the first time we had seen this. The whole family had been to TCAABR before, and we have hoovered up the rest of Mischief’s output with relish.

Why? Because it is very, very funny. We would probably still say The Play That Goes Wrong is the best of the three, and TCAABR works in a very different way, what with its “screwball” feel and American setting, but frankly all three, (assuming Peter Pan Goes Wrong pops up again – maybe courtesy of Auntie Beeb), are must sees. TPTGW is on tour in the UK next year. Do not miss it if it comes anywhere near you.

Comedy in the theatre is tough to pull off. Comedy in the theatre which really makes you laugh is really tough to pull off. Comedy in the theatre which makes a diverse audience laugh is even tougher. TCAABAR takes a surefire plot winner, a bank heist, and, with a combination of unsubtle punnery, farce, slapstick, visual jokes, often spectacularly constructed, and one-liners, the nine strong cast, (the three original MT founders are now in the Broadway runs I think), fair whizz through the action so that the whole thing is done and dusted in a couple of hours. This is an extraordinary physical performance from all concerned as much as anything else.

No plot details here. You will see for yourself if you have any sense. What I will say, and this is where a second viewing, (from stalls vs our original circle perch), really drives it home, is just how flipping clever the whole thing is. Not just in terms of the action, but how this fits together with the set. The proscenium arch stage in the Criterion, which itself is buried underground, is not huge and shifting between the scenes requires precise stagecraft. The eight main characters, and one other actor who takes on all the other roles, also act as a chorus during the transitions which are often accompanied by musical numbers which match the 1958 Minneapolis setting. Adding yet more texture.

My guess is that this is going to run for some time yet but no point in delaying the pleasure. Get the family out for a Christmas treat. It might turn out to be your seasonal highlight.

 

Victory Condition at the Royal Court Theatre review **

victory2bconditrion

Victory Condition

Royal Court Theatre, 12th October 2017

Apparently the writer of Victory Condition, Chris Thorpe, likes to experiment with the dramatic form. I haven’t seen Confirmation, a one man work in which he also took the lead as a white supremacist, which apparently prodded and provoked its audience. It sounds uncomfortable but fascinating. In other works he has stamped on a mobile phone and set Tory party press statements to death metal tracks. Sounds like a top bloke.

However, I wasn’t entirely enamoured with this Victory Condition. A couple, simply titled Man and Woman, return from a holiday in Greece, to their tasteful, if somewhat bijou, metropolitan flat, (an ingenious design from Chloe Lamford which doubles up for B also showing at the RC – B at the Royal Court Theatre review ***). They unpack, they get changed, have a drink, make a snack, play videogames, get a pizza and generally potter about in choreographed cozy domesticity. They don’t speak to each other. Instead they narrate, through two cut-up independent monologues, an entirely different reality.

Man, played by Jonjo O’Neill, with his lilting Northern Irish voice, tells the story of a government sniper, who falls in love with a person he sees from his position, imagines that person (we don’t know their gender) having a dream about an alien invasion, and eventually shoots the person in order to turn them into a martyr, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, equally eloquent as Woman, recounts a narrative about a person who has a brain haemorrhage on the Tube on their way to work. This person seems to be imagining a meeting at work where time stands still. Then then she opens up to all manner of other, seemingly unconnected events around the world, and maybe a trauma from their own childhood which has caused the clock to stop. Her monologue, memorably, imagines just how mundane our own behaviour would be in the event of increasingly catastrophic events that imperil human existence.

Now this summary is based on reading the text. As you can see I am not sure I fully grasped exactly what the two characters were describing. I also note that the dialogue at the end of the play where Man and Woman discuss their own lives back in an ostensibly “real” world was omitted from this production directed by the RC’s own Vicky Featherstone. There was instead just a few seconds at the end, following a flash, where the couple acknowledged each other. Some of the stage directions which describe a cityscape beyond the flat’s interior, which seems to be succumbing to some sort of disaster or attack, also appear to have been omitted. This means that the enigmatic texture of the play was amplified. Put this together with the cut-up nature of the monologues and the message here was difficult to discern.

Nothing wrong with theatrical elusiveness and formal experimentation. Here though it did make me wonder whether the insight justified the effort involved in following the two monologues. Some of the images which flowed from these monologues were undeniably striking, as was the contrast with this routine of “ordinary” life, but ultimately I just couldn’t engage with the two characters up there on the stage. I closed my eyes a few times. Not through boredom but just to see if this would actually work better as an entirely aural experience. It did.

B at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

c2aehelenmurray-b-by-guillermo-calderc2a6n-directed-by-sam-pritchard-royal-court-261-1000x600

B

Royal Court Theatre, 12th October 2017

I wasn’t entirely sure what to see from the plays on offer in this latest season at the Royal Court. I don’t know enough about the writers and the teasers on the website are exactly that, teasers. Seeing too many is an extravagance, but waiting for reviews risks missing out on some outstanding theatre. Sounds like I’ve already ballsed up by missing The Fall if my friend the Captain is to be believed, and she usually is. And now, with this play B and Victory Condition, both of which had their moments, but were not altogether convincing, I am beginning to doubt my picks. Still first world problems. eh.

B was written by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderon and commissioned by the RC. Chile has a history of impassioned political protest, which has spilled over into violence, with several hundred bombings since the constitutional changes in 2005. “Noise” bombs, intended to cause damage to property and highlight apparent injustice, are prevalent. This play, which concerns a plot to plant just such a bomb, therefore lost a little bit in translation here in the genteel surroundings of Sloane Square.

It is set in a room in a flat where Marcela (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) and Alejandra (Danusia Samal) are being comforted by neighbour Carmen (Sarah Niles). Marcela’s boyfriend has apparently been killed by a terrorist bomb. This turns out to be a ruse as Marcela and Alejandra are hatching their own bomb plot. Jose Miguel (played by the ever watchable Paul Kaye) turns up with the bomb. Cue a nervous run through of the plan which is played, successfully, for comic effect. As the night wears on though the motives behind the plot are exposed with Jose Miguel advocating a more violent approach to protest than the two women. The tone shifts, the black comedy evaporates, and we build to three impassioned monologues from each participant questioning why and what and why they are doing. Carmen the neighbour returns and is not quite what she seemed. There is a dramatic finale.

Sounds good on paper right? I agree. It also reads pretty well in the text. The problem is that the tone oscillates and the tension, which should build to breaking point given the material, just never seems to ratchet up. I suspect this is not the fault of the production under the direction of Sam Pritchard and designer Chloe Lamford, but lies in Mr Calderon’s claustrophobic and phlegmatic plot. I am not sure that enough really happens, or that we find out enough about the three conspirators, early enough in the play. Which leaves the three, admittedly fervent, monologues near the end shouldering much of the interesting and unsettling debate between the unfocussed, politically naive but heartfelt protest of today’s youth, with the more organised, direct and ideologically informed revolutionaries of previous generations.

I went with the SO. She can write the sort of sharp, sarcastic, Pinteresque (sorry its the only word for it) dialogue that this started off with in her sleep. She wasn’t best impressed. Mind you if she had stayed for Victory Condition I reckon I would have been in real trouble. Such is the danger of picking theatre in advance. Ho hum,

 

The Real Thing at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****

realthing_web1600x542

The Real Thing

Rose Theatre Kingston, 10th October 2017

Thinking cap donned it’s a short hop to the Rose for the next leg in my Stoppard education. And what a fine lesson this production, (shared with the Theatre Royal Bath and Cambridge Arts Theatre), tuned out to be. Once director Stephen Unwin, (a great friend of the Rose from his tenure up to 2014), and his fine cast got into the swing of things the dexterity of Mr Stoppard’s fabrication was revealed in all its glory.

Fabrication of course being the key word since there is an awful lot of artifice on show here. First performed in 1982 this is a play about life imitating art through the fabric of love, marriage and infidelity. It was instructive to see this production the day after the new Seagull at the Lyric Hammersmith as Chekhov deals with similar themes and is TS’s inspiration. Given TS’s mighty brain I suspect the parallels are not co-incidental. That’s the thing with Stoppard. The more you think about it the more there is to think about. I sometimes wish I had a magical pause button when watching TS plays so I can just stop and soak in all the rich layers.

The action kicks off in the tastefully furnished home of architect Max and Charlotte (a perfect pitched set from designer Jonathan Fensom). Charlotte has just returned from a business jaunt. Max accuses her of adultery. Charlotte flounces out. We see Charlotte again but now she is married to playwright Henry. Turns out the previous scene was the play within a play from the pen of Henry. Called House of Cards. Doh. The real Charlotte is not best pleased with the lines given to the character Charlotte. Then the real Max (yep, you got it, he is called Max) turns up with actor wife Annie. Henry needles Annie about her involvement with cause celebre Brodie, a soldier imprisoned for protesting. Turns out though that this an act as we discover Henry and Annie are having an affair. The affair is subsequently revealed, Annie leaves Max for Henry. Henry tries to capture his feelings for Annie in a script. Act 2 and we move on a couple of years. Annie wants Henry to ghost write Brodie’s play. Henry thinks this work is awful. Annie gets cast in Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Henry visits Charlotte and daughter Debbie, who has some pointed views on monogamy. Annie has an affair with young actor Billy though this may again be a rehearsal. Henry’s jealousy spills over. Brodie pitches up and it turns out he is a dickhead but mimics Henry’s own arrogance. He leaves and we end with news of Max’s new marriage.

The play has a hefty dose of autobiography and it is not difficult to see TS himself in the character of Henry, notably in the monologue about the exactness of prose, which is a classic, and in the questioning of the politics of the left. Henry is a massive intellectual snob and a dreadful pedant. The dissection of the business of acting, and the playful structure of the drama with its echoes and returns, is so elegant it takes your breathe away. But what I found most fascinating here was the exploration of doubt in the context of love and fidelity. Nothing new about that but the way TS keeps probing Henry’s own vulnerabilities is what makes this play special and is what makes it a much more “direct” watch than some of TS’s other smartarse plays. Within this elegant fabrication of words and plot there is are real people bursting with contradictions. You might not like him, and you may find his cerebral (mandatory word in all TS reviews) elitism suffocating, but you can definitely see where Henry is coming from.

Aim high. Don’t mix up the person with his or her art. Don’t abandon the romantic ideal. Beware of politics in art. Think about how people “see” you and how people “see” themselves. These are just a few of the things I got to musing on during and after the performance. I just don’t know how TS manages to pack this much in yet still provide an entertaining, and of course, very funny story.

As you might have surmised this is only going to work if the actor playing Henry is up to the task. Laurence Fox indubitably was. It seems to me there needs to be the right length of pause before Henry delivers his inevitable “last word” in each conversation as his brain runs through the possibilities. Mr Fox seemed to get this and expressed Henry’s faint incomprehension of those around him. Adam Jackson-Smith’s Max was suitably colourless. Rebecca Johnson as Charlotte and, especially, Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Annie were both impressive in the way they captured the women’s brisk efficiency of life and love in the face of Henry’s self-absorption. Santino Smith as Brodie and Kit Young as Billy were spot on with the few lines they had and I will look out for Venice van Someren, who played daughter Debbie, in future productions.

My guess is that even with all of the art that TS serves up to a director it is still possible to make a pig’s ear of this play. Thankfully Stephen Unwin and his colleagues manufactured a silk purse. Another great evening in the company of Mr Stoppard.

 

 

The Seagull at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

cw-15859-medium

The Seagull

Lyric Hammersmith, 9th October 2017

Right where I come from seagulls are a bloody menace. There are times when I feel the same way about Chekhov. You sit there thinking all his people are self-indulgent, lovelorn whingers who just need to lighten up and get a grip. But slowly, or more rapidly if it is class production, the lines pile up, you begin to understand and care about the characters, and the unsettling mix of everyday tragedy and comedy wields its magic. Life probably is a series of frustrations and missed expectations, which can sometimes get out of hand. When an audience collectively connects with one of AC’s characters mid-monologue it is one of theatre’s greatest pleasures. But this “theatre of mood” isn’t always the easiest of drama to pull off so I get why some people approach our Anton with trepidation.

I always think of AC’s four “great” plays as a sort of theme, more accurately themes, and variations. An impoverished landowner, the beautiful, and sometimes ageing woman, maybe an actress, who returns, and is constantly seeking validation, maybe a matriarchal dame, a young idealist/artist head over heels in love, the frustrated sibling stuck in the country, the young innocent woman (one or both parents lost to her) in love with the wrong bloke, a successful artist/writer/academic looking back to his youth, a discontented schoolteacher, maybe cuckolded, a wise doctor, a faithful retainer, soldiers of various rank, various lippy servants. You can mix them all up and they vary in each play, and Three Sisters deviates a fair bit, but these egotistical archetypes of Russian society populate the plays.

We are normally a long way from the city, to the frustration of all and sundry, and money, getting it and keeping it, is a big issue. Always bubbling away in the background is the ossified nature of the Russian society and economy at the time and the fact that this could not continue. The disparities of wealth and opportunity between AC’s characters is acute, remember these are provincial bourgeoisie so not the very richest, and serfs are generally absent or incidental. The life of the mind, and therefore some riffing on the nature of life and art (and specifically the theatre in The Seagull), will usually get worked over by AC. And, of course, love, romantic and familial, permeates the whole.

And that gun, real or metaphorical.

Back to this Seagull. You may have guessed from the above that I don’t like my Chekhov to shift too far from the socio-economic backdrop against which it was written. That doesn’t mean I need naturalistic sets and costumes. Just that the class structure should be articulated and the sense of place palpable. AC was a father of naturalism, and the plays to me are more about theme, character and rhythm than plot or spectacle. In this production, director Sean Holmes and designer Hyemi Shin have opted to shake it up a bit visually which I think de-emphasies the context I describe above,

I also found the performances a little variable in tone which meant that the whole took a bit longer to get going than normal. This is definitely not the fault of Simon Stephens new adaption which I thought was terrific. It just seemed to me that the actors approached the characters in slightly different ways, so that the multiplicity of love triangles was a little veiled at first. However after our poor seagull puts in his appearance things started to coalesce.

Nicholas Gleaves’s Boris started off in slightly diffident fashion but once he got into the monologues lamenting the fate of the writer, and the prison of the creative impulse, he found his stride. Lesley Sharp’s self-obsessed Irina, unsurprisingly was on the money from the off. Brian Vernel’s Konstantin was initially more petulant than idealist, and I wasn’t entirely persuaded by his passion for Nina, but his final scenes were very persuasive. I have seen more guileless Nina’s than Adelayo Adedayo’s, but that made the scenes with Boris more tenable. Paul Higgins’s Hugo and Nicholas Tennant’s Peter were striking but the other “minor” characters seemed a little less vivid than in other productions.

Now I hasten to say that once I had adjusted to the shape of the production it did the business, such that by Acts 3 and 4 I was firmly in the Chekhovian zone. If you fancy a Chekhov fix then this is certainly one to see. I just prefer my Chekhov to be a little more obviously rooted in its time and place, and for all the instruments in Chekhov’s orchestra to be in the same key if that makes sense. The version of The Seagull offered up at the NT last year, as part of the Chichester Young Chekhov trilogy, was certainly in the groove, and I also preferred the one served up at the Open Air Theatre a couple of years ago. Mind you the performance I attended there was interrupted by the noise from a party at the US ambassador’s gaff next door. I could just about forgive the near hour long break in my entertainment but not the fact that the Yanks had chosen Duran Duran to colour theirs. Appalling taste.

BTW. I remember seeing Duran Duran in the early 80s. Backcombed hair and full on make-up. Me that is. Meant I ditched the specs to preserve my illusion of New Romantic glamour. Which then meant I couldn’t see a thing. Which then meant there was nothing to detract from the music. Purgatory.

Second BTW. Has anyone else noticed the preponderance of Lesser and Greater Black Backed Gulls popping up all over London. Herring and Black Headed Gulls are ten a penny but these big b*ggers shouldn’t be here should they? Maybe Hitchcock was on to something in The Birds. Other than fawning over Tippi Hedren of course.

Third BTW. Talking of Hitchcock and Ms Hedren I see there are still a fair few tickets fat the ENO for Nico Muhly’s new opera Marnie based on the Winston Graham book which Hitchcock committed to film. I think this will be a belter. And I hope the new ENO season can pull in the punters and get the haters off their backs.

 

Ninagawa’s Macbeth at the Barbican Theatre review

maxresdefault

Macbeth

Barbican Theatre, 8th October 2017

When I was a young’un, come to make my fortune in the Big Smoke, I was lucky enough to secure free or cut price tickets to productions at the Barbican and NT. But then, as now, I am afraid I was more “Dick” than “W(h)it”-tington, (how laboured was that), as I am pretty sure I passed on the opportunity to see the original version of this famous production of Macbeth at the NT because a) it was/is in Japanese and b) it was Shakespeare, which at that time I would only watch to impress others.

So it was a joy to see that this production, which has gone into the annals of theatrical history, was coming back to London, and that I could therefore atone for the sins of my younger self. The eponymous founder of the company, Yukio Ninagawa, unfortunately passed away last year, but his legacy is alive and kicking with the backing of producers HoriPro, Saitama Arts Foundation and the legendary Thelma Holt CBE.

So a packed house at the Barbican awaited a massive cast of 33, I think, actors with the proverbial bated breath (actually lively chatting but you know what I mean). Now I had expected a visual spectacle. I had expected dramatic, even melodramatic delivery. I had expected a massive soundscape. I had even expected a decent play (it’s Macbeth after all). But what I had not expected was such a surgical (no pun intended) delivery of the story. Nor had I expected such an adept translation, which was true to the key passages in the text and which highlighted the poetry of the repeated motifs and words (though there were a couple of inadvertently funny missteps). Chi, anyone? And I certainly had not expected to be sucked into the emotion of it all. In particular I reckon Keita Oishi’s Macduff was the best I have seen. Vengeance indeed.

Having said all of that it is how this Macbeth, re-imagined in a Samurai Japan, looks which remains the most extraordinary thing about it. The butsudan that frames the action. The ancient women who tearfully observe the action throughout. The cherry blossom, the traditional Japanese symbol of the ephemeral nature of life. The giant red sun which turns cold blue when Macduff finally biffs Macbeth. The bronze warrior statues when Macduff and Malcolm meet in England. The Samurai knights hollering in unison. The Kabuki witches – well played lads. The eight kings. Banquo’s ghost – you know he is coming but even so – OMG. The swooshing sword play. The Ninja assassins despatching Banquo and then, you bastards (!), Lady Macduff and the kids.

Now I do admit that a tiny part of me, call it a couple of per cent, couldn’t shake off the idea that is was a bit over the top. The make-up is caked on. The delivery is full on shouty declamatory. The music, with the Sanctus from Faure’s Requiem and Barber’s Adagio for Strings featuring heavily, doesn’t hold back – out damned minor keys, as it were. Masochika Ichimura as Macbeth and Yuko Tanaka as Lady Macbeth are giants of Japanese stage and screen but are no spring chickens. Yet in the scene ahead of the banquet, as they try to pull themselves together, they looked so vulnerable, and a lump came to my throat. I guess the point is that Ninagawa-san knew that Will S, through all the Jacobean flattery and the lecture on the perils of “vaulting” political ambition, still retained a deal of sympathy for the power-mad couple. The absence of the child is so keenly felt by this ageing pair. Anyway being sniffy about the melodrama, as some proper reviewers were, just seems discourteous to me.

So overall, whilst I wouldn’t want to give up on the stripped back Macbeths played out in Stygian gloom and occasional spotlights, I really, really enjoyed this operatic spectacle. Turns out that feudal Japan and Scotland are not so far apart. Sound and fury signified quite a lot as it happened.

I look forward to seeing another production from this marvellous company. I am an arse for not having seen any of their previous work.

My Name is Rachel Corrie at the Young Vic review ****

mnirc-3-erin-doherty-in-my-name-is-rachel-corrie-at-the-young-vic-photo-by-ellie-kurrtz-700x455

My Name is Rachel Corrie

Young Vic, 6th October 2017

I have raved about actor Erin Doherty in the past. She was the lynchpin in the excellent ensemble for Jack Thorne’s Junkyard (Junkyard at the Rose Theatre review *****), and was unbearably poignant in Katherine Soper’s excellent debut play Wish List. I gather from the reviews that she is the best thing about the possibly misconceived The Divide, Alan Ayckbourn’s new play. I will make my own mind up when it comes to the Old Vic.

Ms Doherty seems to have that rare ability of making an immediate emotional connection to an audience. There are plenty of other qualities that the best stage actors possess and I get that sometimes we may not need, or want, that emotional connection to the actors on stage, depending on the play, but when we do, it is genuinely thrilling and quite rare in my experience.

My Name is Rachel Corrie premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2005, and has popped up around the world ever since. It was written by the generous Alan Rickman together with Katharine Viner, now editor in chief of the Guardian (she is the one who begs you for a contribution if you read the Guardian content online – just pay up if you don’t want the digital world to end up full of crap content provided by idiots like me). It is based on the diaries, journals and e-mails of Rachel Corrie, an activist who was killed in contentious circumstances in the Gaza Strip when protesting the demolition of the home of a Palestinian family.

Ms Corrie was clearly a young woman of immense talent and passion. Her parents, who Ms Doherty sketches with great skill, her education and her location in liberal Washington state (“a place for hippie kids”), combined to create a world view that she determined to explore through action and not just words. Her writings reveal a woman who was anything but dull and worthy, they are shot through with poetry, humour and self-awareness. She was also no political ingenue, as some might have you believe, and constantly questioned her views and the legitimacy and value of her protest. She did have a strong view on the plight of Palestinians, which deepened with engagement after she joined the International Solidarity Movement, and this is fully exposed in the play, which also has little truck with the Israeli view of her death as an “accident”. This firm, but remember still personal stance, is what has led to continued complaints about the content of the play by Israeli advocate organisations.

I found the passages from Ms Corrie’s precocious early life (“everyone must feel safe”), and from the days before her death, most intense, as she seemed to determine how and why her life, and possible death, would have an impact. The last e-mail home sums it all up. The need to get things done, made transparent in her constant list writing, and to get others to listen, pervades Ms Doherty’s energetic performance. The set design from Sophie Thomas is minimal, just a wooden wall, with a handful of props. Ms Doherty even gets to change some of Joe Price’s blunt lighting design. Kieran Lucas’s sound design is equally direct. Wisely then, director Josh Roche, who chose to stage this play as the winner of 2017 JMK Award, leaves his actor alone to find Ms Corrie’s voice. Which she does. Brilliantly.

I don’t know how sympathetic Ms Doherty is to the message of the play, nor do I care. She is an actor. It is her job. But I do think she had real sympathy for her character which informed her impassioned performance. I await her next role (after the aforementioned Divide) with real interest.