Wings at the Young Vic review ****



Young Vic Theatre, 18th October 2017

Turns out there are a few tickets left for the final week or so of Wings. You could do worse than snapping one up. I cannot pretend it is a masterpiece, but the performance of the wonderful Juliet Stevenson, under the direction of Natalie Abrahami and with the design of Michael Levine, is astonishing.

Ms Stevenson plays Emily Stilson, whose world has been shattered by a stroke which renders time, place, speech, language and thought meaningless. We see her move from a world of utter incomprehension, hers and those around her, through to partial recovery. The rest of the cast play the various members of the medical team and other stroke victims, though they don’t have much to play with in Arthur Kopit’s script. Mrs Stilson had been a stunt pilot who had stepped out on to the wings of planes in the past and it is this motif than informs the play and production. From the opening, and throughout the 70 minutes of the performance, Juliet Stevenson is rigged up to a harness which allows her to fly above and around the stage. She soars, she twists, she turns, she tumbles, she occasionally comes to the ground. It really is the most remarkable physical tour de force, devised by movement director Anna Morrissey and a team from Freedom Flying. At the same time as delivering this bravura feat, Ms Stevenson delivers a notable vocal performance as she captures Mrs Stilson’s fractured Waspish speech and lapses of memory. She certainly more than earns her fee here.

This striking visual conceit certainly captures the dislocation between what is going on internally in Mrs Stilson’s brain and what is visible to the external world. As an academic theatrical document of the impact of a stroke I am hard pressed to see how it might be improved. The audience moves along a path from total disorientation, through to a qualified understanding of what has happened to our leading character. Yet we don’t really get to see the person that lies beneath the condition. We make no real emotional connection to her. This was originally a radio play and I am guessing the stage version normally involves a rather more static lead. That could be quite wearing I fear.

This production however wins out through the spectacular visuals and the stunning craft of Juliet Stevenson. Whenever, and wherever, she is on stage your eye and ear are drawn to her. She was a tactile Gertrude in Robert Icke’s revelatory Hamlet and a stern Elizabeth in the same director’s Mary Stuart, but in this play, and as Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days at this venue a couple of years ago, she is peerless. And fearless.

I had a notion the other day that we Brits, wherever we come from, might be better governed by a matriarchy of our greatest stage actresses. Juliet Stevenson would be Foreign Secretary. Surely an improvement on the clown who currently occupies the seat.

The Cherry Orchard at Milton Court Theatre review ***


The Cherry Orchard

Milton Court Theatre, 17th October 2017

I have remarked before on the attractions of the Guildhall School final year productions. Lovely venue, clear interpretations which eschew directorial licence, and the chance to see some potential future stars of stage and screen.

I must say these students are an extraordinarily attractive bunch. I guess an acting factory isn’t that interested in churning out fat uglies like yours truly. Shame since people are a diverse lot. As our leading British thespians bear witness too. This also highlights the other caveat which I would raise about these productions. Obviously if everyone on stage is in their twenties those tasked with playing the more mature characters are presented with a challenge that the age appropriate characters are spared. I have to say though that overall, the entire cast performed admirably, especially in the second half, though for me the standout performances came from Georgina Beedle as Madame Lyubov Andreievna Ranevskaya and Mhairi Gayer as Anya.

The Chekhovian symphony always takes a little time to build as we embrace the characters, both in terms of their individual psychologies, and what they stand for in pre-Revolution Russian society. Director Christian Burgess let each of the actors find their voices without rushing things, which softened some of the slightly uneven casting. This was Tom Stoppard’s translation. Since Chekhov pervades a great deal of his own work it is no surprise that it hits the spot. Any playwright worth his or her salt will take a shot at adapting Chekhov but some are more sympathetic than others. This production (designed by Polly Sullivan) was as historically specific as it is possible to get – ushankas, birch trees, even a samovar I think. A complete contrast to the current Sherman Theatre interpretation from Gary Owen and Rachel O’Riordan which sounds terrific. I see too that Mike Bartlett is not averse to infusing his latest (great) play Albion with the spirit of the Cherry Orchard, both directly in terms of plot and also through the character of Audrey Walters, (Victoria Hamilton turns in one of the best performances of the year – just see it).

For of course there are always plenty of themes in Chekhov’s plays that resonate with today’s world. That is generally because there is just a lot in Chekhov’s plays full stop. Regret about an imagined past is a powerful driver of society in the present and that applies throughout human written history (I may have made that up but you get the point). These regrets and disappointments are played out through the personal, and always with a wry humour in the background.

Overall then a fine production. Not the best you will ever see, but that is unsurprising. And the two actors I mention above have a bright future ahead of them. Mind you, what do I know.

Every Brilliant Thing at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****


Every Brilliant Thing

Orange Tree Theatre, 17th October 2017

This jolly looking fellow is Jonny Donahoe. He is currently the latest incumbent in the one man show, Every Brilliant Thing, at the Orange Tree Theatre. The play was originally written by Duncan Macmillan (he of People, Places and Things, Lungs, 2071 and a bunch of masterpieces in German) in 2013, and has basically been travelling round the world, to venues big and small, ever since. This is the last leg of the latest incarnation. It was commissioned by Paines Plough, that wonderful institution, dreamt up in a pub four decades ago, which acts as a national theatre for new plays.

EBT tells the story of a seven year old who begins to make lists of things that make life worth living for in response to his mother’s depression. It charts the relationships between the boy as he moves into adulthood, with his Dad, his Mum, who attempts to take her own life, and, eventually, girlfriend. Jonny Donahoe uses the audience to call out items on the list and, for some lucky punters, to play key characters in the narrative. So those who are shy of audience interaction need to hide in the shadows. What this brings though is intimacy and empathy in buckets. Particularly in the cozy surroundings of the Orange Tree.

Now a story like this isn’t going to work without an actor who is up to the task. Mr Donahoe most certainly is. He is a comedian by trade which partly explains why this is so funny. That, and the expertly crafted writing of Duncan Macmillan. I seem to remember that People, Places and Things also had a few laughs scattered throughout. Its subject, addiction, was also an unlikely candidate for mirth. Having said that, when Mr Donahoe needed to ratchet up the pathos, he was just as adept. There is something of the child still about our Jonny which, even as he ages, ideally fits the character, and it is impossible not to bowled along by his enthusiasm, even for a grumpy old git like the Tourist.

A play about how to deal with depression could easily have been too whimsical or too maudlin. It is not. To call it “life-affirming” risks cliche but it gets pretty close. Should this pop up again in your neck of the woods go see it. Then you can add it to your own list of brilliant things.


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


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.


The Wedding Present at Cadogan Hall review ****


The Wedding Present

Cadogan Hall, 14th October 2017

Regular readers of this blog (remember chums, the best clubs are exclusive) will be aware that the Tourist doesn’t really do “gigs”. It is all a bit loud for his aged ears. The number of bands/artists he would pay money to see is severely limited and dwindling in number thanks in part to the Grim Reaper. Many venues are beyond the pale on the grounds of comfort, excessive booziness (the Tourist has taken a vow of abstinence following many happy years of excess) or claustrophobia. Festivals need friends and time, both of which the Tourist seems unable to cultivate.

Here though was a rare, and, as it turned out, wonderful exception. Even the most casual observer of the pop panoply  will know that, to paraphrase the immortal JP, “the boy Gedge has written some of the best songs of the Rock n Roll era”. He has also written some of the best tunes, and created some of the greatest guitar melodies. The latest Wedding Present double album, Going, Going …, is, I admit, maybe not their finest work, but it is still, like the albums The Fall and Wire churn out, light years ahead of anything the youth can create. I pray Gedge has finished yet.

It does begin in a strange vein with four post-rock instrumental tracks, Kittery, Greenland, Marblehead and Sprague, with slower tempi and expansive dynamics. A small choir and a classical ensemble (strings and a trumpet) are used to grand effect. Given that this concert was a run through of the album, said choir and players were up there on stage with the band. The contrast between Dave Gedge’s and Marcus Kain’s driving guitar rhythms, Charlie Layton’s thumping drums and Danielle Wadey’s swirling bass, and the wordless choir and soaring strings, maybe works a bit better on the recording than live but it is still a worthwhile departure. The good news is that from Two Bridges onwards, we get back firmly into classic WP territory, with professional Yorkshireman Gedge muttering the usual maudlin, but somehow still intensely moving, poems on failed relationships and unrequited love over the pumping (less jangling) rhythms we know and love.

Smashing stuff. A few pretentious black and white landscape films to add to the mix, some proper cranking up to 11 of the guitars in parts, and even a couple of encores, Perfect Blue from Take Fountain, and, as the reward for the patient enthusiast, the classic fugal Bewitched from Bizarro. What a racket at the end. Now I have to say of all the varied material from Going, Going …, which looks back to a lot of Gedge’s previous songs, my favourite is Rachel, which is a preposterously catchy, innocent pop masterpiece. I am also partial already to Little Silver, Birdsnest, Bells, Broken Bow and Santa Monica (the final track which culminates with some painful but exquisite chord progressions).

Best of all it was at the Cadogan Hall. One of my favourite venues (though my last visit was to hear some Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and a capella Poem settings – pick the bones out of that contrast). Nice little perch in the balcony. Loud enough but not deafening. Lots of room around me. And what seemed like a nice crowd with just enough distinctive quirkiness and maturity.

Now there was a time kids, in 1990 I think, when the Wedding Present churned out Top 40 hits at breakneck speed. I appreciate that is likely pre-history to you, but if you were to listen to Grandad’s ravings, (me not Gedge though the vintage is comparable), here are 10 you might start with. (Hopefully they are on that Spotify).

  • Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft from George Best
  • What Did You Last Servant Die Of from George Best
  • Shatner from George Best
  • Brassneck from Bizarro
  • Kennedy from Bizarro
  • Take Me from Bizarro
  • Corduroy from Seamonsters
  • Octopussy from Seamonsters
  • Don’t Take Me Home Until I’m Drunk from El Rey
  • You’re Dead from Valentina




Victory Condition at the Royal Court Theatre review **


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 ***



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,