“Napoleon Disrobed” at the Arcola Theatre

There’s no need to worry about any tricky starter-for-ten questions on European history here. This adaptation of Simon Leys’ book simply speculates that the French Emperor escaped from his prison on St Helena… then lived out his life selling watermelons. It’s a crazy comedy that’s a lot of fun.

The Told by an Idiot company is transparent about the construction of a theatrical piece. When it comes to emperors and clothes, the deceptively rough and ready treatment works especially well. As sweet as it is clever, Michael Vale’s rocking stage, the basic props and even the audience participation create a sense of good cheer.

The show has a camaraderie that’s carefully fostered by director Kathryn Hunter – you want to laugh along. The expert comic talents of Paul Hunter, who plays Napoleon, are the key: combining slapstick and quick gags, his physicality is remarkable. Alongside, Ayesha Antoine takes many roles, all capably, then excels as Ostrich – the woman who falls in love with the diminutive despot.

The comic timing from Hunter and Antoine is as good as any stand up and, for a while, it feels as if humour will be an overpowering fillip. But this alternative history is an efficient way to look at a man (any man?) with an inflated ego and examine what happens when status and accolades are gone. Since being Napoleon is such a common grandiose delusion, our hero here doesn’t stand a stand a chance of resuming his former life – cue the single best moment of audience participation I’ve seen, when it dawns on Bonaparte that nobody will believe him. It’s a laugh to watch his new humdrum existence, even his frustrations. And, as his love for Ostrich develops, the play becomes surprisingly moving, making this quirky comedy a satisfying show that’s a towering success.

Until 10 March 2018

www.arcolatheatre.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“The Moor” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

If you’re looking for a good little thriller for these long dark nights this new play by Catherine Lucie serves smart chills. It’s the story of Bronagh, a new mother in an unhappy relationship, who lives an isolated existence and suffers a mental breakdown after a drunken night that is connected – possibly – to a disappearance.

It’s a twisty plot, not to be spoiled, but it’s clear from the start, as she struggles with dreams, myths and memories, that Bronagh is not a reliable narrator. How much and how consciously she manipulates recollections remains the tantalising open question. Psychology and a suggestion of the supernatural are all juggled well by director Blythe Stewart, with the aid of Holly Pigott’s superb set of rotating screens, and some nicely creepy aural contributions from Anna Clock.

There’s some physics, too, via a book Bronagh has read that seems, understandably, to have further addled her brain. This is an interesting avenue that needs clearer elaboration to help the audience a bit. The dialogue isn’t flawless (there’s a ‘gee whizz’), and both male roles could have more depth – a policeman investigating the missing person lacks a dangerous edge. The seeds are there and I wonder if some editing has been too ruthless? Meanwhile, Bronagh’s partner is too generic a “bad sort” and too gullible. Both roles are well performed, by Pat Magnanti and Oliver Britten respectively, but the play is short and they could have easily been extended.

In the lead role Jill McAusland does an excellent job with a fascinating character. Is Bronagh “not clever enough” or really a “clever clogs”? She is frightened one moment and calculating the next. Sympathetic and scary is a tough call for a performer but McAusland makes you care about the character a great deal. Lucie mixes mental health and domestic abuse issues to great effect, making this a thought-provoking piece. But above all, it is a great yarn, deserving of all those words that make a thriller: intense, taut, engrossing, exciting and entertaining. This play gets a star for each.

Until 3 March 2018

www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk

Photo by The Other Richard

“Julius Caesar” at the Bridge Theatre

Showing off his new venue’s versatility, director Nicholas Hytner has transformed London’s newest theatre for only its second show. Presenting Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy as a promenade performance, with the pit peopled by theatregoers standing in for the populace, reveals a cavernous space that seems rather empty at first. But as Bunny Christie’s set of rising and falling cubes gets into action we see Hytner’s skill at staging. This crowd control is superbly done, and probably fun if you are in among the action (I paid to sit). But it’s almost too interesting to watch the hard-working ushers moving the crowd around.

In a play that discusses manipulating the masses so openly, there’s a kind of appropriateness to being distracted by the mechanics of the production. There are many instances when it’s clear the show is trying hard to be a spectacle with impressive touches that give it an expensive feel. It’s loud – right from the start when a band opens the show – and Bruno Poet’s lighting design is superb. Scenes of battle include a barricade that appears with stunning speed to divide the space. There’s even a Jeep for a few seconds.

Ben Whishaw
Ben Whishaw

The performances have to fight against a lot here – with mixed results and plenty of shouting. Those who join the mob seem best placed, including Rosie Ede and the show’s lead vocalist Abraham Popoola. But David Calder’s Caesar seems lost; presenting him as a populist politician may make the production feel topical but it stunts his performance, making the role a box ticked rather than a figure to engage with. David Morrissey’s Marc Antony holds the crowd, he is convincing and a suitable heir to his crowd-pleasing mentor. Ben Whishaw delivers his lines with finesse and his performance is in keeping with a theme of sincere activism, but his Brutus is too meek. Cast as an academic who plays with his spectacles, it’s tricky to see his nobility behind his obscurantism. There are also strong performances from two women cast in traditionally male roles: Michelle Fairley and Adjoa Andoh make an impassioned Cassius and a ruthless Casca, respectively.

It is nuance that is lost in Hytner’s production. The action is clear, often exciting, but rather too black and white. And this is a humourless Julius Caesar. Of course, the play isn’t a comedy but there’s usually a cynicism that delivers a dark wit. These characters are all politicians, after all, manipulating one another as well as the mob, but the tone is one of intellectual conviction. Arguably, it’s in keeping with the times to persist in such an earnest tone. What inspires Hynter is a feeling of youthful sincerity – but this doesn’t make the play particularly interesting or entertaining.

Until 15 April 2018

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“NeverLand” at the Vault Festival

This new immersive musical uses the story of Peter Pan and the world of its author J M Barrie for an exploration of childhood and militarism. The psychological outskirts of this famous work of children’s fiction are fertile ground: John Logan’s play Peter and Alice took us forward in time well after the book’s publication, and Hollywood had a go at ploughing the subject with Finding Neverland. Here, though, too much background is taken for granted and the narrative presented is difficult to follow. Focusing on World War I and trauma in Barrie’s life makes for some moving moments but the show, presented by The Guild of Misrule and Theatre Deli, is full of frustrating flaws.

First, the immersive aspect. And an admission of some prejudice on my part – the opinion that many shows with this label benefit little from the technique. Here, real fans of the genre won’t be impressed – the audience is moved around, danced with, made to pass notes, and say a couple of lines but each attempt to include them is poorly employed. Spaces are separated too flimsily – noise travels through curtains – and becomes distracting. There’s a lack of guidance, of direction, that credits a crowd with too much. There may be a good play here but it becomes hard to tell what’s going on.

The actor-musicians run around a little too frantically and declaim rather too sincerely. When playing children, most of the performers allow a clichéd Victoriana to get in their way. And when the show becomes adult (a little swearing and an attempt at sexiness), it does so in a childish manner. All in all, there’s a sense of hyperactive youngsters few would wish to spend time with, while any of the insight Barrie’s fiction has into childhood is difficult to discern. There are also problems with projection – the venue doesn’t help – the notable exception being Dominic Allen as Barrie, who deals well with an interminable monologue towards the end of the show where ideas that presumably justify some of what we have seen are crammed in.

Ostensibly a musical, the chaotic treatment fails the songs by Gavin Whitworth. There’s a mix of styles, I can tell you that much, and some of them are interesting if anachronistic. Lucie Treacher has a fine voice and, had there been a stage for him to perform on, I am sure Tom Figgins has plenty of presence (his own music is worth checking out). But too many of the songs are interrupted by action elsewhere and the performers do not hold the attention of the audience. The score becomes a background soundtrack that’s difficult to assess, and the whole thing is just too much of a mess.

Until 18 March 2018

www.vaultfestival.com

“Ken” at the Bunker Theatre

This tribute piece to the multi-talented Ken Campbell, who died ten years ago, comes from the pen of his old friend the playwright Terry Johnson. Campbell is clearly much missed and this celebratory evening explains why: originality, intelligence and independence made him a presence in the theatre, while a maverick sense of humour made his company appealing.

A skilled impersonator, Jeremy Stockwell takes the title role, and the show is very much for those who will recognise his Ken straight away. But as he strides through the audience, with Tim Shortall’s design recreating late 1970s hippydom, his confidence and enthusiasm are highly entertaining. And there’s a touch of insanity: old-fashioned smut alongside experimental avant-garde makes for an edgy combination that could have been elaborated on. Campbell’s theatre was a long time before ‘safe spaces’, of course, but questioning some of his actions might make the show feel less cliquey. Instead, the atmosphere is convivial-clubby, if you are being harsh. Stockwell knows how to work a crowd, but I am just not sure how you’d feel if Ken’s wasn’t a club you wanted to belong to.

Johnson takes to the stage as himself, showing a modesty and honesty as impressive as his erudition. The finale, recounting Campbell’s funeral, is vividly written. The impact Campbell had on Johnson’s life, imbued with a confessional air and a great deal of humour, is moving and intensely personal. This isn’t your standard biography. Described as a “seeker” with a perpetually open mind, it’s Campbell’s antics, the kind of shows he put on, and the tricks he played that make him memorable. Indeed, some of it is so far-fetched that a writer wouldn’t dare to make it up. And it’s interesting to journey back to a time when theatre was so different: especially in an exciting venue that’s announced such a forward-thinking season for 2018. After all, who doesn’t want to learn about the holder of the world record for the longest ever play, or the man who took it upon himself to rename the RSC? This “Essex estuary incarnation of Pan” gets a fond farewell that is suitably idiosyncratic.

Until 24 February 2018

www.bunkertheatre.com

Photo by Robert Day

“Lady Windermere’s Fan” at the Vaudeville Theatre

The estimable Kathy Burke is an expert in comedy. Wearing her director’s hat for Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play, her feel for laughs is instinctual: she makes the most heavily quoted of aphorisms light and the whole evening fun. In a cast of big guns, national treasure Jennifer Saunders is the star and has the audience laughing at every turn. Despite a small role, Saunders fans won’t be disappointed. A front of cloth song, written for her by Burke, is the funniest three minutes in a theatre that you can imagine.

Saunders is a good enough actress to know she’s not the lead; her role as the Duchess of Berwick is to show the follies of society and, channelling a previous performance in the much underrated Let Them Eat Cake, she is brilliant at this. The leads are Grace Molony as the moral Lady Windermere and the always excellent Samantha Spiro as the mannered Mrs Erlynne – a woman “with a past before her” –  captivating society despite scandal, and adding drama to attempts at reclaiming respectability.

Grace Molony and Samantha Spiro
Grace Molony and Samantha Spiro

This trio of performers alone makes this a show that celebrates women. And there are some strong performances from the men in the play, too: Kevin Bishop plays the rakish Lord Darlington with passion, and Joseph Marcell gives a first-rate comic turn. But Burke reminds us how strong Wilde’s writing for female roles is – how he treated them with a fairness, if not an equality, far beyond his time. The respect extends to smaller roles for women: Natasha Magigi has a lovely cameo. And Burke makes sure even a maid gets a personality here. There’s a struggle with our titular character, the lesson she has to learn – and the protection those close to her insist on ­– are so dated that she is hard to connect to. But, as Lady Windermere herself says, she is “behind the age” – we are supposed to feel unsatisfied with her, and her development is captured adroitly by Molony.

Most impressive is the production’s treatment of the play’s histrionic moments. We cannot be shocked in the way Wilde expected, although it’s easy to see that the drama and comedy would have been more violently contrasted in his day. But, in keeping with this season of his plays, masterminded by Dominic Dromgoole, we can still see Wilde as a radical. Burke has a clear appreciation of how he played with the theatrical melodramas of his age. There’s a brilliant scene with the burning of a plot-turning letter, and the ironies of family history don’t deserve a spoiler. Wilde was having fun with conventions – Burke follows his lead, and fun is what you’ll have too with this clever revival.

Until 7 April 2018

www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” at Wilton’s Music Hall

It’s a delight that this early work from director Emma Rice and writer Daniel Jamieson has been revived and returns to London as part of a tour. Telling the tale of Bella and Marc Chagall, it’s a romance made blissful to watch by its combination of music, movement and imagery. Inspired by Marc’s paintings, flight is used a metaphor for love and applying this to the stage makes the show sky high with beauty, passion and emotion.

The performers are Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood, who play the couple throughout their lives, as well as incidental characters along the way. Joined by multi-talented musicians James Gow and the show’s composer Ian Ross – whose music is integral to the piece – the singing is divine. The movement the piece demands, with choreography from Rice and Etta Murfitt, emphasises the trust actors and lovers have to have in one another and is a marvel: every limb performs, every action is considered.

From the start, Marc and Bella’s love at first sight is captivating. But their marriage is never free of tension. Chagall fell for his role as a genius early, it seems, and Bella suffered. It’s one of many triumphs that this formidable woman gets her side of the story told: it’s 50/50 all the way, with no trace of Bella a victim. Marc published his wife’s writing after her death, and admits that she could have been “hidden” by history. But not under Rice’s watch!

The past and memory are continually evoked as the Chagall story mirrors the momentous events of the Russian Revolution and World War II. The result is a portrayal of Jewish life as sensitive as Chagall’s own work, full of warmth, humour and, of course, the tragedy of anti-Semitism never far away. A scene where our wandering couple unpack their bags as they discuss the Holocaust uses the powerful symbolism of books and shoes in a breathtakingly simple manner.

What really elevates The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is that Rice and Jamieson have created a uniquely theatrical experience that celebrates the power of make-believe. Highlighted by Bella’s own interest in the stage (which includes Marc’s assumption that she can’t work as she is a mother), imagination is the key to their love and the show. The invention that Rice employs is full of touches that have become her trademarks: the use of costume, and simple props that add humour, with cheeky nods to the mechanics of production. All engender a complicity with the audience that makes a crowd soar all the way through this show.

Until 10 February 2018, then on tour

www.kneehigh.co.uk

Photo by Steve Tanner

“Woman Before a Glass” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

At the risk of damning with faint praise, Lanie Robertson’s play is more informative than it is profound. But art collector Peggy Guggenheim is a great subject to learn about. Following a story of modern art, alongside events in an extraordinary life, Robertson’s collation of anecdotes and vignettes is concise and entertaining.

Peggy was one of the ‘poor’ Guggenheims – her family were millionaires, not billionaires. With the realisation that it wasn’t healthy for artists to starve, her patronage, notably during World War II, built up a collection that spotted modern masters. Taking art seriously, while being flippant about sex, she slept with many of the artists along the way. Robertson sensitively balances the anti-Semitism of the age with dark moments in Guggenheim’s personal life, and, under the direction of Austin Pendleton, Judy Rosenblatt gives a convivial performance that shows Peggy as good company. The show is a 90-minute monologue – that’s a long time for one performer – but Rosenblatt makes it seem easy.

It’s a shame the opening conceit of the audience being guests at Peggy’s home isn’t retained; the “Mio palazzo, Sui palazzo” invitation is neat. Subsequent scenes talking to her daughter off stage, or conducting negotiations about her estate over the phone, seem clumsy in comparison. It’s with the more pedestrian moments that Rosenblatt carries the piece, juggling Peggy’s loneliness and uncompromising self-knowledge with a scandalous sense of humour and an attraction to men in “baggy trousers”. There are too few moments of reflection overall but a final pianissimo moment means we leave on a high, achieving insight into an exceptional woman.

Until 3 February 2018

www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

Photo by Robert Workman

“The Claim” at Shoreditch Town Hall

Tim Cowbury’s play tackles the topic of asylum seekers with intelligence and a beguiling sense of humour.

Following one claimant called Serge, the smart stroke is to play with language difficulties. Lumbered with a poor translator, confusion proliferates over Serge’s arrival in the UK and his motivation for staying. Working with often painfully funny material, the talented cast members bring clarity, whether characters are struggling to communicate in English or in French, with a skill that complements the playwright’s games with language.

The bigger theme is that Serge’s story isn’t the one his interviewers want to hear. In a careful twist, his life is “ordinary”. He has a home and a job and arrived in the UK for reasons he simply doesn’t understand. It’s a bold move for a playwright to underplay the drama with the mundane – and you couldn’t call The Claim gripping. Yet Ncuti Gatwa makes our everyday hero a figure who commands respect: when tears come, they are out of a controlled frustration.

Sadly, Cowbury stumbles with his two officials in search of a more dramatic backstory. There’s nothing wrong with the performances from Yusra Warsama and Nick Blakeley – both are thoughtful and creative actors – but Blakeley’s hapless interpreter can barely put a foot right, and the part comes close to old-fashioned Liberal bashing. Warsama’s intriguing role needs more material if Cowbury is to persuade us of the “fixed process” of a system more concerned with narrative than the truth.

Mark Maughan’s direction has a calm confidence befitting the play. The municipal setting of Shoreditch Town Hall helps, too. Characters frequently address the audience, a technique seldom as unnerving as it is intended to be, but the intention to provoke is admirable and the play’s fresh approach is welcome.

Until 26 January, then on UK tour.

theclaimshow.co.uk

Photo by Paul Samuel White

“East” at the King’s Head Theatre

This is a play for the more adventurous. Steven Berkoff’s East returns to its original London venue after 43 years and, courtesy of its clear influence on in-yer-face theatre, feels startlingly contemporary. With meta touches and strong physical performances, including plenty of mime, there’s lots to excite anyone with a keen interest in the stage.

A paean to life in working-class London, Berkoff presents an impressive psychogeography for a quintet of characters. The violence, racism and antisemitism exposed are all unpleasant. But I suspect the sexism here will upset the most. Even when celebrating sexuality and enjoying a crude, ruthless satire, the objectification of women is relentless.

With Berkoff’s reluctance to embrace a traditional narrative, scenes are told and retold from different perspectives. The time of the action slips mischievously between the 1950s and 1970s with some good jokes around this potentially stuffy technique. As for the five characters – personality shifts as much as it develops. Remarkably, none of this is as confusing as it sounds… you just might not like it if you fancy a good story.

An attempt to extend the already quirky time span in the final scene is a slip on the part of director Jessica Lazar – nice try, though. And there are moments when the staging doesn’t take into account the sight lines – disappointing in such a small space. Both criticisms pale when the performances Lazar nurtures from her cast are taken into account.

Debra Penny and Russell Barnett do well in arguably the hardest roles – Berkoff seems toughest on the older generation. With youthful characters, even when unappealing, their energy is exciting: a vitality embraced by Boadicea Ricketts and James Craze, who play a couple in love (or at least lust). The play’s real partnership comes from Craze, as Mike, and his friend Les. A brilliant combination of physicality and comedy marks an astounding professional debut for Jack Condon. Casting directors don’t often get a mention, but Stephen Moore has struck gold here.

Any risk of upset through its confrontational themes or downright rudeness wouldn’t bother Berkoff – the number of expletives tells you that much. And, quite rightly, Lazar doesn’t shy away from any uncomfortable moments. Whether a string of obscenities goes too far is a matter of taste, but sheer repetition makes a couple of scenes tiresome. Overall, though, the play’s appeal rests on its language, which is full of flashes of startling brilliance. Frequently appropriating Shakespeare alongside Cockney rhyming slang creates so much depth and resonance that the “witty verbiage spewing” from every “gutter mouth” has to be heard to be believed.

Until 3 February 2018

www.kingsheadtheatre.com

Photo by Alex Brenner