My top ten theatre shows of 2018 … and top ten to look forward to

Right even by the standards of the drivel that the Tourist usually posts on this site this is an utter waste of your and my time. Weeks too late, built on flaky foundations of understanding and appreciation and precious little use to anyone. Except maybe me that is, as an aide memoire. You can find my thoughts on these shows elsewhere on this site, if you can be arsed.

I have also appended a list of the top ten plays, so far announced, that I am looking forward to seeing this year in a desperate attempt to beef up the content. Some marginal utility in that maybe. Or maybe not.

BTW you can, and should, see The Lehman Trilogy at the Piccadilly Theatre from May through August. You can, and really should, see Caroline, or Change at the Playhouse Theatre right now. The good people of Edinburgh can see Touching the Void and it will go to Hong Kong, Perth and Inverness before coming back to Bristol. I bet it pops up in London. And, if you are in NYC, and haven’t yet seen Network, jump to it.

  1. Network – National Theatre
  2. John – National Theatre
  3. The Wild Duck – Almeida Theatre
  4. The Lieutenant of Inishmore – Noel Coward Theatre
  5. The Writer – Almeida Theatre
  6. The Lehman Trilogy – National Theatre
  7. Touching the Void – Bristol Old Vic
  8. Julius Caesar – Bridge Theatre
  9. Death of a Salesman – Manchester Royal Exchange
  10. Caroline, or Change – Playhouse Theatre

Near misses? Girls and Boys at the Royal Court, Cheek By Jowl’s Pericles, The Phlebotomist (now coming back to the main stage at Hampstead – do not miss), Nine Night (at Trafalgar Studios from February), Quiz, Love and Information at Sheffield’s Crucible Studio, Copenhagen at Chichester, Henry V from Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, The Jungle (support the two Joes in their plan to put this in front of the Home Secretary !!) and The Madness Of George III at Nottingham Playhouse.

What about this year? Take your pick from these if you trust my judgement. Which would be a surprise. No particular order BTW. There’s a few big tickets missing from this (When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, All About Eve, Betrayal, All My Sons). Like I said it’s what I am most looking forward to.

  1. Sweat – Donmar Warehouse. Too late to get in now except for returns but this may well pop up elsewhere.
  2. Mother Courage and Her Children – Manchester Royal Exchange. Julie Hesmondhalgh as Brecht’s survivor.
  3. A Skull in Connemara – Oldham Coliseum. For my fix of McDonagh.
  4. Cyprus Avenue – Royal Court. Finally I will get to see this.
  5. Medea – Barbican Theatre. Internationaal Theater Amsterdam bring Simon Stone’s Euripides to London with best female actor in the world Marieke Heebink.
  6. Berberian Sound Studio – Donmar Warehouse. How the hell are they going to make this work?
  7. Top Girls – National Theatre. Caryl Churchill. Enough said.
  8. Three Sisters – Almeida Theatre. Best of the Chekhov offerings.
  9. Death of a Salesman – Young Vic. Miller, Elliott, Pierce, Clarke, Kene. Best play of 2019?
  10. Blood Wedding – Young Vic. Lorca given the Farber treatment.

Oh and Antipodes, Annie Baker’s latest. Obviously.

A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre review ****

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A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter

Bridge Theatre, 13th October 2018

OK then. All of you fans of densely-plotted, cerebral, potty-mouthed, fairy-tale, political, splatter, revenge, comedy fantasies. Your ship has come in.

I have a strong feeling that Martin McDonagh’s new play at the Bridge will, in years to come, form the basis for many a Theatre and Drama Studies students’ dissertation. Let’s just say he doesn’t hold back here. All of his tics, tropes and obsessions are on show: moral instability, savage humour, verbal aggression, twisted irony, brutal violence, calculated abuse, punishment, justice and revenge, inversions, post-modernist borrowings, self-reverence, complex allusion, high and low art juxtapositions, exaggerations, call-backs, call-forwards and protean plot twists.

In a word: meta.

Once again he is pushing the audience, deliberately transgressive, a kind of theatrical meta-regression to keep us on our toes, but this time, unlike the best of his work, it doesn’t quite hang together on first viewing. The rhythm of the language is less immediately persuasive, less precise, (even allowing for a few timing issues at this early performance). It cannot be missed mind you, and it may be that the production will tighten up through the run, but overall I found it a little less convincing than Hangmen or The Lieutenant of Inishmore, or Three Billboards … or In Bruges. In these the intricate plotting and more naturalistic settings make for a more satisfying whole. On the other hand AVVVDM might turn out to have more intellectual depth: I am simply not clever enough to take it all in on one viewing. Probably closest to Seven Psychopaths for you students of MM, a film even he described as maybe a bit too meta, but one which I think gets better on repeated viewing.

AVVVDM is drawn from Mr McDonagh’s 1995 play The Pillowman, which was first performed in 2003 at the NT and also starred Jim Broadbent, (who plays Hans Christian Anderson in AVVVDM), as cop Tupolski, alongside David Tennant, Nigel Lindsay and Adam Godley. In this play a writer, living in an unspecified totalitarian theocracy, is accused of murders which mimic the plots of his own fairy tales. It is a bit Gothic, it captures the power of literature, there’s some Kafka going on, the ethical dilemma is fascinating if a little forced, of course there is violent imagery and of course there is humour.Like all of McDonagh’s plays The Pillowman’s morality is slippery, though not really ambiguous; it is normally pretty clear what he is saying, just that its compass is oscillating so rapidly between perspectives of right and wrong that we in turn start to lose our bearings.

Once again it he world of “fairy tales” that forms the starting point for AVVVDM. In fact the “plot” looks to be drawn from The Shakespeare Room, which Michal, Katurian’s damaged brother, references in The Pillowman. In this story it turns out that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a pygmy woman he kept in a box. MM has described in the past, reiterated in the programme here, how he made up fairy tales in his teens for his older brother John. One of these formed the basis for another of Katurian’s stories in The Pillowman, The Tale of the Town on the River, which tells how the Pied Piper “saved” one of the children by chopping off his toes. And so fairy tales get darker and darker with the telling.

AVVVDM kicks off with Hans Christian Andersen giving a contrived recital of The Little Mermaid. Now it turns out that the real HCA was an awkward character, abused at school, with unrequited longings for men and women but likely celibate. One of the objects of his affections, Edvard Collin (Lee Knight), is in the crowd in this opening scene. And, incongruously, also there, well there in HCA’s mind, cue the scary music, are a couple of blood encrusted, walking and talking, corpses, Barry (Graeme Hawley) and Dirk (Ryan Pope), sporting fine moustaches. Well this is a fairy tale after all. Cut to the attic of HCA’s townhouse where, surprise, surprise, we discover that he has a secret, namely a Congolese pygmy, Marjory, in a box, who is writing his stories.

All this is accompanied by a gravelly narration from none other than Tom Waits. From here MM weaves together the genocide in the Congo Free State in the late C19 with the real life friendship of Charles Dickens (Phil Daniels) and HCA, which unravelled when HCA overstayed his welcome on a visit in 1857. I’ll stop there. Let’s just say the plot plays fast and loose with fact, fiction and time.

I guess MM’s main thrust is to contrast the near unbelievable horror of King Leopold II’s direct, private rule of the Congo from 1885 to 1908, where maybe ten million died, and which scarred the country through Belgian colonial rule, and post independence, with the pygmy population suffering most, (as it still does today), with the maudlin tales of innocence and virtue standing fast against corrupting forces of both HCA and Dickens. It is hard to avoid the stories told by the latter, they permeate Western culture: the barbarous reality of the former though, a couple of decades later, and far worse than anything imagined in fiction, is still barely known by many, including me until now.

The fact that MM tells this story in the form of a comedy, in an expletive-ridden contemporary vernacular, is only to be expected from MM. Casting Jim Broadbent and Phil Daniels, who are, by virtue of career and demeanour, are distinctively Dickensian, is surely no accident. After all a new MM script will pretty much guarantee any actor from his roster of favourites will sign up, sight unseen. Both went all out for laughs, many of which were at the broad end of the subtlety scale. Emily Berrington, as she so often does, near steals the scenes she is in as the earthy Mrs Catherine Dickens. I loved the sweary kids as well. Paul Bradley, as the inexplicit Press Man, also turned in his customarily fine performance.

However the play would not be possible without the formidable Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory, (and later Ogechi, you’ll see). From the moment she emerged from the box, suspended from the ceiling in Anna Fleischle’s amazing set, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. This was BUD, and KCK’s, first exposure to the wonderful and frightening world of Martin McDonagh. The SO was converted at Hangmen. When we emerged, not a little bewildered, after the 90 minutes, we debated the play long into the night. OK then maybe not long into the night, but certainly as long as it took to have a drink, some rarebit (highly recommended) and some madeleines, in the excellent Bridge foyer. Anyway BUD, being the analytical sort of chap he is, couldn’t get over the fact that the play could only exist with Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in the role. Surely it must have been written for her?

I agree. But not for the obvious reasons of appearance. Simply because she is an outstanding actor. Sardonic, bitter, vengeful, powerful yet also vulnerable, compassionate and forlorn. Don’t get me wrong she delivers plenty of killer (literally) comic lines but she also carries the entire weight of the emotional and political substance of the play on her shoulders. This is her professional debut. Extraordinary.

Now director Matthew Dunster, and Anna Fleischle, have previous with Martin McDonagh, having brought the Royal Court production of Hangmen into being. (Mr Dunster also has form with HCA, directing the Pet Shop Boys’ ballet adaptation of his story The Most Incredible Thing. Messrs Tennant and Lowe know a thing or two about stagecraft challenges but they are not a patch on MM).

Even so I suspect director and designer, and the rest of the creative team, James Maloney (music), Philip Gladwell (lighting), George Dennis (sound), Chris Fisher (illusions), Finn Ross (video) and Susanna Peretz (wigs and prosthetics), must have rolled their collective eyes at their first meeting. How were they going to make this leap of mischievous imagination from page to stage? Impressively, as it turns out.

So you see the thing with MM is there is just so much there. So many echoes yet uniquely his own voice. Scorsese, Malick, Pinter, Tarantino, Synge, Le Fanu, Mamet, Beckett, Borges, punk. Insert your own thoughts here. I for one really what to believe he likes The Fall.

A master story-teller. With maybe, in this case, not quite a master story. It might annoy you. It might frustrate you. It might provoke you. It might overwhelm you with “WTF” moments. It should make you laugh, (assuming you know a little of what you are letting yourself in for). It will certainly make you think. And you definitely won’t forget it in a hurry.

Allelujah at the Bridge Theatre review ****

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Allelujah

Bridge Theatre, 12th September 2018

Yet again by the time the Tourist gets round to seeing a major London premiere and, worst still given his feckless nature, comments on it, it is as good as over. Mind you the good news is that, as far as I can see, Allelujah was an unqualified success for the Bridge Theatre, playing to full(ish) houses which can only be a good thing. Nick Hytner, the Bridge AD and director here, and Alan Bennett go back a long way. If there was one thing guaranteed to get bums on those plush, comfy(ish) Bridge seats then this was it. Hopefully more people get to see just how marvellous this new theatre is and will return for whatever comes next. If they have any sense at all they will sign up for A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter, the new Martin McDonagh play, which opens here in a couple of weeks.

Now I am not sure there is, maybe bar Queen Liz II, a person more qualified to take on the National Treasure mantle than Alan Bennett. You know pretty much exactly what you are going to get when Mr Bennett puts pen to paper. If you love his wry, quizzical artistic voice, then you were never going to be disappointed by this. And plainly there is a pretty wide demographic who do love that voice. But that voice does come with some drawbacks, a few of which were on show in Allelujah. He can be, dare I say it, just that teeniest bit lazy when it comes to getting a laugh. (Mind you any image of louche behaviour in Yorkshire towns is pretty funny I guess). His characters have aged with him and he can veer towards the stereotypical. Overt nostalgia and sentimentality can seep into the text. He doesn’t really go in for plot, preferring to stitch together episodes to tell his story. All in all then sometimes Alan Bennett can be a bit too Alan Bennett.

Yet slowly and surely, underneath all that Bennettism, he makes his points here such that, by the end of Allelujah, I, and I suspect much of the audience, was both moved and angered by the plight of its subject, the NHS, here becoming a metaphor for the breakdown of community and State by decades of neo-liberalism and “market solutions”. The Bethlehem is an august Yorkshire hospital, meeting its “targets” but threatened by closure simply because it is too small and negates the fatuous “economies of scale” that Government demands. The surprisingly hands-on Chair of its trust, Salter, a robust performance from Peter Forbes, isn’t going down without a fight however, recruiting a documentary team (Sam Bond and Nadine Higgin) to the cause. The action is centred on the geriatric ward, highlighting that many of the patients here have nowhere else to go, from an august cast of twelve, dare I say, mature actors including the likes of Julia Foster, Gwen Taylor and Simon Williams. (I bet rehearsals for Alleluhah were a hoot). They sing, they dance, they reminisce, they moan, they have inappropriate conversations.

One of their number, Joe (a cantankerous Jeff Rawle, an AB regular), is paid a visit by his gay son, Colin, (Samuel Barnett), who just happens to be the slimey management consultant who is behind the closure plan. We also see a pair of grasping relatives, the Earnshaws, (Rosie Ede and Duncan Wisbey), who blame the hospital for robbing them of the inheritance, (note to AB, check out taper relief), feckless work experience teen Andy (David Moorst) and various put-upon staff (Manish Gandhi, Richie Hart, Nicola Hughes and Gary Wood).

The crux of AB’s didactic though is revealed by a pair of excellent performances from Sacha Dhawan as Dr Valentine and by the peerless Deborah Findlay as Sister Gilchrist. She has an alarming system to ensure efficiency on her wards. Yet when she delivers her valedictory “farewell” speech there is real poignancy. Deborah Findlay really is a special actor who never seems to miss a step in the roles she takes on nor in the performances she gives. This is no exception.

Yet if you really want to be reminded of just how biting AB can still be when he wants to then look no further than the closing lines, delivered direct to audience from Sacha Dhawan’s student visa immigrant doctor. AB, by his own admission a “blend of backward-looking radicalism and conservative socialism”, is angry about the country we have become, and the risks we face, and, wisely, uses its most beloved institution, to vent his spleen. Don’t worry this is no in-yer-face political diatribe, it is AB through and through, and he doesn’t preach, but there is a cumulative rage which takes it well beyond 2012’s People or the autobiographical plays.

Nick Hytner is obviously an expert at presenting AB’s material and creating action out of pure text and here he is immeasurably helped by Bob Crowley’s versatile staging and the choreography of Arlene Philips and her assistant Richard Roe. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a soundtrack album emerging from the play: if you wanted to keep the old folk happy with a “knees up” at Christmas this fits the bill kids.

Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art is currently on tout with Matthew Kelly as Auden and David Yelland as Britten and we have Mark Gatiss to look forward to in The Madness of George III at Nottingham Playhouse (to be broadcast on NT Live). I don’t think it will be too long before Allelujah gets another outing. It will be interesting to see just in what direction this country travels between now and then.

 

The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Noel Coward Theatre review *****

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The Lieutenant of Inishmore

Noel Coward Theatre, 31st August 2018

My regular reader, (hello), will need no reminding, (OK maybe they will), that I am a massive fan of Mr Martin McDonagh. Hangmen is the best new play I have seen in the last 3 years, indeed one of the best ever, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, amongst the best films. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri film review *****). I am massively excited about his new play, A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter, which will open at the Bridge Theatre in October, with Jim Broadbent in the lead as Hans Christian Anderson and Phil Daniels alongside him as Dickens. It sound like it will plough the same dark furrow as 2003’s Pillowman, (which Mr Broadbent originally starred in), where a writer, living in an unspecified totalitarian theocracy, is accused of murders which mimic the plots of his own fairy tales. It is meta, a bit Gothic, it captures the power of literature, there’s some Kafka going on, the ethical dilemma is fascinating if a little forced, of course there is violent imagery and of course there is humour.

Like all of McDonagh’s plays The Pillowman’s morality is slippery, though not really ambiguous; it is normally pretty clear what he is saying, just that its compass is oscillating so rapidly between perspectives of right and wrong that we in turn start to  lose our bearings. That is what makes them thrilling. I would be pretty sure that violence is going to be a theme in the new play, as well as the nature of “story-telling”, based on the intriguing Bridge blurb.

Prior to The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore was the last produced of Mr McDonagh’s “Irish” plays, and the second in the Aran Islands trilogy, (named after the three islands in Galway Bay), and was originally produced in 2001 by the RSC. (The final play in the trilogy, The Banshees of Inisheer, is as yet unpublished). Michael Grandage, the director here, revived the first in the trilogy, The Cripple of Inishmaan, to great acclaim, in 2013, at this very theatre, with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead. It is, you guessed it, a black comedy, this time about the impact on the community, and specifically bookish loner Billy, of a Hollywood film crew on neighbouring Inishmore in 1934. The documentary, like the play, was a sort of pastiche on the “remote” west of Ireland, and there are strong echoes of JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. McDonagh, with his rapid plot reversals, with his fictions and lies, and with that always slippery morality, again sets out to confuse and offend. Here his target is the whole notion of Irish identity, the creation myths if you will. Set it up, then knock it down, shift it on, that’s the method he employs and that’s why his plays and films are so bloody marvellous.

The ink had been dry for three years or so on the Good Friday agreement when The Lieutenant of Inishmore first appeared on stage. However it was actually written in 1994, and is set in 1993, the year of the Harrods, Warrington, Bishopgate and Shankhill Road bombings. Yet by the end of that year British PM John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds were able to sign the Joint Declaration of Peace, the beginning of the end of the Troubles. Now some halfwit Brexiteers public school jape puts this all at risk, amongst so many other things. Remember it is now near 600 days since the power sharing assembly which forms the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed and the threat of a return to direct rule looms without any agreement. Meanwhile the Northern Ireland Secretary freely admits she knew nothing about politics in the country ahead of being appointed. Anyway, calm down Tourist. Back to the culture.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore, in common with many other of Mr McDonagh’s works, uses extreme violence to show that violence is no solution to argument or injustice, whether personal or political. “A violent play that is whole-heartedly anti-violence” as its author described it. Mad Padraic is a terrorist who is so brutal that he has been booted out of the IRA and even the INLA. We first encounter him torturing a suspected drug dealer until interrupted by the news from back home in Inishmore that his cat Wee Thomas is ill. Let’s just say havoc ensues thereafter. The play is a satire on Irish terrorism, for sure, on political violence more generally, and especially on the kind of beliefs, and the fanatical rhetoric and sanctimonious moral superiority underpinning them, that justify mindless butchery by the believers.

It is brutal, callous but also very funny. The idea of a revenge comedy is hardly new: I think this is the best way to interpret Titus Andronicus and its forebears for example (Titus Andronicus at the Barbican Theatre review ****). Or the films of Quentin Tarantino. To squeeze this many laughs out of the situation though, whilst clearly conveying your message, takes extraordinary writing skill.

It also needs a skilful cast to strike the right tone and pace. Now I don’t think it will come as much of a surprise when I tell you that I was probably one of the few members of the audience who wasn’t there to gaze upon the undoubted charms of Aidan Turner as Padraic. Indeed, following a late substitution. the SO stood down to be replaced by LD. The LD has not yet been meaningfully exposed to the genius of Mr McDonagh, unlike the rest of the family, nor frankly is she a fan (yet) of that Poldark. But she can see the fella is gorgeous, I assured here it would make her laugh and the political context was right up her academic street. She thought it was brilliant. And that remember from a youth who is very suspicious of both Dad and the “theatre”.

She was right. This is a brilliant production. And that is due in no small part to the charisma of Aidan Turner. Mr Turner’s stage career has been hijacked by the TV roles and this is effectively his first major role outside of Dublin. He is very, very good, toning down Padraic’s sadism and dialling up his childish sentimentality, so I hope we don’t have to wait too long for his next outing. This is not just about him however. Denis Conway as Padraic’s father Donny, Chris Walley in his stage debut as the hapless Davey and Charlie Murphy as Davey’s sister, and budding “freedom-fighter” and Padriac’s soulmate, Mairead, are all mightily impressive. The set from Michael Grandage’s regular collaborator Christopher Oram is revealed to be an exact replica of the family cottage in every detail even as it is splattered with lashings of blood.

 

 

 

Nightfall at the Bridge Theatre review ***

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Nightfall

The Bridge Theatre, 10th May 2018

If you haven’t been yet the Bridge Theatre offers up London’s best large scale flexible space. And very nice toilets. You’ve probably know that if you have any interest in things theatrical. You will also have probably have read that the space, and specifically the stage itself, here “thrust” into the audience, is the biggest handicap, as well as attraction, for this production of Barney Norris’s new play.

For mercurial designer Rae Smith, after the grim dystopian disappointment of the NT Macbeth, has conjured up a belter here along with lighting designer Chris Davey. A farmhouse cottage, its unkempt back garden, a massive, rusty oil pipe which runs behind it and a stunning realisation of the twilight sky, the backdrop for both acts. It looks amazing. Unfortunately the play itself, and its four characters, struggle to match its majesty. This is a play, as the criterati have unanimously observed, that would work better on a smaller stage. Not just because the subject, a dysfunctional family, is intimate, but also because the production, under the direction of Laurie Sansom, (he of the James Plays), is necessarily static.

That is not to say this isn’t an interesting drama, especially after the disclosures at the end of the first act. It just takes a bit of time to get going. We are on familiar territory. The inverse of the rural idyll. The trap that is the contemporary farm. I have raved before about director Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling, one of the best films of last year. which turns this setting into a visually and dramatically compelling narrative (The Levelling film review *****. The idea of Simon Longman’s Gundog at the Royal Court was powerful even if the play itself couldn’t support its weight (Gundog at the Royal Court Theatre review ***). Barney Norris himself has explored relationships in the rural setting of his native Hampshire before I gather, though I haven’t seen any of this work.

Jenny’s (Claire Skinner) husband has died leaving her the struggling farm. She is still grieving and prone to a sip or two of pinot grigio. Daughter Lou (Ophelia Lovibond) works at a local estate agent/developer but dreams of escape. Son Ryan (Sion Daniel Young, so good in Gary Owen’s Killology) has taken on the labouring. We first encounter Ryan with his friend Pete (Ukweli Roach) illegally tapping into the pipe, a ruse to rescue the farm. Pete has a bit of history with crime we learn and had a relationship with Lou, though she is now wary of him.

I understand why Barney Norris takes his time to flesh out his characters before advancing the plot but the wait does drag a little and, curiously, we don’t really get to appreciate why they have ended up tied to this place and each other. There are tensions, though again wisely, there are also still clear bonds between the four of them. As the secrets come out, as you knew then would, the pressure ratchets up. It doesn’t end well. Chekhov’s fingerprints are all over this.

Claire Skinner (a wonder in Terry Johnson’s underrated Prism at the Hampstead) does a grand job of showing Jenny’s slow disintegration and her desperation to keep the kids close at hand. Ukweli Roach and Ophelia Lovibond flesh out the relationship between Lou and Pete, alternately tender and matter-of-fact, and Sion Daniel Young shows us how immature Ryan tries to dodge reality.

It is worth staying with it, for there is truth in these characters, and it is easy to see what attracted Nicholas Hytner in wanting to stage it. I could also see, and hear, why people might be attracted to Barney Norris’s novels, where description and insight presumably augment any overly elegiac plotting. Writing about the everyday for the stage is hard, (the novel or film always works better), but Mr Norris knows how to. Just maybe not for this stage. Mind you I see that £15 will get you a seat up close in the pit for the last week or so and that is well worth it.

 

 

 

Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre *****

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Julius Caesar

Bridge Theatre, 28th February 2018

I had really, really been looking forward to this. Julius Caesar is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. Contemporary relevance of course, but Shakespeare always has relevance. My appetite whetted by the excellent RSC production I saw at the Barbican last month, (Julius Caesar at the Barbican Theatre review ****) and by Phyllida Lloyd’s heady all-female interpretation at the Donmar Kings Cross in 2016. Nicholas Hytner in the director’s chair and Ben Whishaw, David Morrissey, Michelle Fairley and David Calder in the four lead roles.

So a little bit of snow wasn’t going to stop me getting there, and dragging the SO along with me. It didn’t disappoint. Best play I have seen so far this year, along with John at the NT: admittedly we are only a couple of months in, with the NT Macbeth having just opened and, I haven’t yet seen Network at the NT. Still this is a cracker. There are plenty of tickets left in the run, though the cheaper seats have largely gone, (it is hard to believe there is a bad seat anywhere in the Bridge), but it is well worth 50 quid or, if you are a fit young’un snap up a promenade ticket and be part of the action.

The transformation into a promenade space from the straight on staging of Young Marx shows just how marvellous the Bridge space is. The promenaders are shepherded around the pit by stewards, a metaphor for the manipulation of the populus as effective as it is obvious. Bunny Christie’s production design is equally blunt but effective, with a series of plinths rising from the floor as and when scenes change. A massive shout out to production manager Kate West, company stage manager Hetti Curtis and the rest of the team at work for this performance and behind the scenes. To make this intricate production succeed, whilst actually enhancing its dynamism, takes real skill. Watch and see, especially, the floor transformed into a battlefield for the final scenes. The stage management team were rewarded with well deserved applause at the end. Bravo.

Even before Caesar (David Calder) appears in front of the crowd with Mark Anthony (David Morrissey) in tow, we have a treat in storm with a some pumped up rock’n’roll for Lupercal courtesy of a street band made up of Abraham Popoola, Fred Fergus, Zachary Hunt and Kit Young. I already have a high regard for Mr Popoola, having seen his vigorous Tobacco Factory Othello alongside Norah Lopez Holden’s Desdemona and Mark Lockyer’s Iago at Wilton’s Music Hall. (Othello at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****). Turns out he can sing a bit too and he puts in a stint as a plotter in the form of a taciturn Trebonius. Fred Fergus doubles up as a slow-witted Lucius and gets a right kicking as Cinna, in that simple but so effective mistaken identity scene. Kit Young is a crafty Octavius.

David Calder’s Caesar ticks all the right boxes: proud, conceited, vainglorious. Here is a man used to getting his own way. His eventual dismissal of Calpurnia’s (an under-utilised Wendy Kweh) qualms about his visit to the Senate is insouciant but still reveals a hint of underlying unease. Our conspirators are a thoughtful bunch. Michelle Fairley as Cassius is neither bluntly straightforward in her entreaties to Brutus not bitter in her abhorrence of Caesar and what he is turning into. Instead she is logical, using force of argument to persuade Brutus to lead the coup. Books, glasses, a desk and Ben Whishaw’s innate demeanour make him a contemplative, but still determined, Brutus. You can easily see why his belief in his own rectitude might come across as priggish arrogance to the crowd. He seems to be going through the motions in his justification speech. Mind you I can see why he might underestimate David Morrissey’s Mark Antony. He comes across as a duplicitous chancer, making up as he goes along. I don’t recall being as struck by his mendaciousness before in the scene with Octavius at the beginning of the battle when he brusquely withdraws the pay-out to the people in Caesar’s will.

I reckon a woman playing Cassius, (and indeed women playing other of the conspirators), will, and should, become the norm. It creates a shift in the dynamic between Cassius and Brutus which can be profitably mined, both in the early conspiracy scenes and in the bust-up and reconciliation ahead of the battle. I am not sure whether the distance I sensed between Brutus and Portia, (Leaphia Darko who I hope to see in a much bigger role), was intended but it created an interesting ingredient. Every Casca should be as pointedly sardonic as the scene-stealing Adjoa Andoh. I know Ms Andoh has had an illustrious stage career but I couldn’t help thinking, for example, how much better the recent RSC production of Antony and Cleopatra would have been with her in the driving seat. The rest of the cast, Mark Penfold as Lepidus, Ligarius and the Soothsayer, Nick Sampson as Cinna, Leila Farzad as the reluctant Decius Brutus, Hannah Stokely as Mellellus Cimber, Sid Sagar and Rose Ede were all on top form.

Nick Hytner directed the first Shakespeare productions that ever made any sense to me; his RSC productions of King Lear and The Tempest with the incomparable John Wood. This was when I first “got Shakespeare”.. He is the master of modern dress, “contemporary” Shakespeare. Early on at the NT he created a Henry V with Adrian Lester which was the antithesis of jingoistic. All the surveillance stuff in Hamlet that Robert Icke loaded up on at the Almeida. Look no further than Hytner’s 2010 version with a bookish Rory Kinnear as the Dane. His Othello at the NT with, surprise, surprise, Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, is possibly the best Shakespeare production I have ever seen. His Timon of Athens with Simon Russell Beale kicked into a cocked hat any notion that this is a difficult, unbalanced play.

His visual language is so complete that, even if you don’t catch every line. (let’s face it that is going to happen with Will S, one reason why you can never see too many productions), you still comprehend pretty much everything in front of you. He takes a view for sure, but always in the service of the universal themes that the plays wrestle with. Every single detail is thought through. For anyone who thinks Shakespeare is not for them, Mr Hytner will change your mind.. It helps that his key collaborators in this production, Bruno Poet (lighting), Christine Cunningham (costume), Nick Powell (music), Kate Waters (fight) and, especially here, Paul Arditti (sound) are so expert in bringing his vision to life.

The Trumpian allusions are not overplayed. No need to. We can see the attraction of Caesar to the crowd, but we also see why the conspirators are so alarmed by his lazy demagoguery. The vacuum that is created after the assassination, a visual twist here, is palpable, as the patronising elitist Brutus and the pragmatic Cassius haven’t thought through what happens next. Sounds familiar eh. Which leaves a yawning gap for the opportunist Mark Antony to unleash those war dogs. The failure of the “liberal’ response to populism hangs heavy in the air.

Finally here is my plea to Mr Hytner. Whilst I absolutely get that Messrs Shakespeare, Bean, Bennett, Hodge and McDonagh are, incontrovertibly, the best of writing collaborators, and I see he has the scoop on Nina Raine’s new play, please can you have another crack at Ben Jonson or Marlowe. Maybe you can make sense out of Bartholomew Fair and pull the punters in. There’s a challenge.

P.S. I note that another play that deals with the had-wringing liberal response to populism, albeit in a very, very different way, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Winter Solstice, still has a few more legs of its tour left, Plymouth, Edinburgh and Scarborough. Highly recommended.

My pick of London theatre – on now and booking ahead

national-theatre-pyrotechnics

Right let me cut to the chase. Here is my latest attempt to distil the best of what is on now and what is coming up in the world of London theatre. There is a bunch of new stuff notably at the National Theatre, the Barbican, the Donmar Warehouse, the Hampstead Theatre and in the West End which has been announced since my last round-up which should be investigated. Happy theatre going.

Top 10 – all on now

1. The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre. I know most of you theatre lovers will have already seen it but if you haven’t you must. The Ferryman at the Royal Court Theatre review *****

2. Oslo at the Harold Pinter Theatre. This shouldn’t work – a straight narrative of the negotiations that led to the Oslo Accord between Israel and the PLO – but it does and is bloody magnificent. Oslo at the National Theatre review *****

3. Follies at the National. I hate musicals. This is different though. Made me want to cry and punch the air. Pretty much sold out but if it transfers snap it up or watch the cinema transmission next week. Follies at the National Theatre review *****

4. The End of Hope at the Soho Theatre. Go see this this weekend if you have nothing else to do. I saw this at the Orange Tree. A two hander which set in Northern Ireland by David Ireland and directed by a student amazingly. Just 60 mins and cheap as chips. It is hilarious and cutting. Highly recommended. Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre review

5. Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre. The Bridge’s first offering. Not perfect but still v. funny and the new Bridge Theatre is wonderful. Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre review ****

6. Albion at the Almeida Theatre. Mike Bartlett’s (he who wrote the lines that have you shouting at the telly when Dr Foster is on) latest offering. A state of the nation thing. I loved it. Looks like it is sold out so you should have paid attention when I recommended it months ago. Albion at the Almeida Theatre review ****

7. Beginning at the National Theatre. Two hander on the excruciating pain of dating. Terrific. A few tickets left for the last week. Beginning at the National Theatre review ****

8. Minefield at the Royal Court. Only a couple of dates this weekend. Six veterans from the Falklands War act out their experiences. Really engrossing and moving.

9. Heather at the Bush Theatre. Tiny venue. Gold star from me if you see this. Amazingly clever play about a children’s author who is not what she seems. Only an hour.

10. The Comedy About a Bank Robbery at the Criterion Theatre. I went with LD to see this for the second time recently. Terrible West End venue and full of tourists (no offence intended) but it is still the funniest thing on the London stage so an Xmas treat if you haven’t been. The Comedy About a Bank Robbery at the Criterion Theatre review ****

Top 12 – booking ahead

1. A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre. I WILL WRITE THIS IN CAPITALS. YOU MUST BOOK THIS. This has just been announced. A new play from Martin McDonagh about Hans Christian Anderson (don’t laugh). McDongah’s last play was Hangmen which me and the SO think is the best play we have seen in the last 3 years. He wrote the classic film In Bruges. It will be caustically funny and gripping. I know it is next year but don’t blame me if you miss out as this won’t transfer since the Bridge is already a commercial theatre.

2. Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre. I know. Bloody Shakespeare. But the cast here is to die for. Plenty of tickets.

3. Macbeth at the National. Rory Kinnear and Anne_Marie Duff, our two finest stage actors of their generation, as the Lord and Lady. Will be unmissable. Booking opens next week.

4. John at the National. New Annie Baker play. This will likely sell out in hours as she has a cult following. Booking opens next week. Make sure to look at the “coming soon” part of the National as there is lots of good stuff.

5. Network at the National. High expectations but should be justified. Bryan Cranston as the TV anchor who has a meltdown. Looks like it is pretty much sold out so again should have listened a few months ago.

6. The Encounter at the Barbican. Bear with me on this. It is amazing. Simon McBurney (who is a genius) brings to life a book about a bloke getting lost in the Amazon. They give you fancy headphones and then he takes you on the journey. Booking opens tomorrow.

7. Pericles at the Barbican. From Cheek by Jowl a theatre company I love. A rare(ish) outing for a late(ish) Shakespeare. In French with surtitles so if you are a French speaker this is your time to shine. Booking opens tomorrow

8. The Twilight Zone at the Almeida. Don’t know if this is going to work but it’s the Almeida so I will give them the benefit of the doubt. Based on the 60s sci-fi TV series !! Plenty of tickets.

9. Belleville at the Donmar Warehouse. US transfer. Main draw is that James Norton in the lead who my ladies fancy something rotten. Looks like it may have sold out. Sorry. Elsewhere in the Donmar season is Congreve’s restoration comedy Way of the World which has Linda Bassett in the lead who is a genius actor (only a few tickets left cos us luvvies snap them up) and The York Realist a gay love story set in the 60s. Like the Almeida and the Royal Court the Donmar doesn’t generally do duds.

10. Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre. Mamet’s shouty modern classic with a stellar cast and Sam Yates given the director’s chair.

11. The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Pinter’s guest house to avoid with a fascinating cast and Ian Rickson directing.

12. Gundog at the Royal Court Theatre. I pretty much book anything that looks even vaguely interesting at the Royal Court, Orange Tree, Arcola and Young Vic. This is a guaranteed way to see stunning theatre at bargain prices. (though the RC prices have crept up) I can’t tell you why Gundog is on this list. I just have a feeling.