“The Tempest” at the Barbican

If you ever needed a reason to forgive computer company Intel for its annoyingly catchy ad jingle then its collaboration with the RSC is it. A large team, working with designer Stephen Brimson Lewis, has added ground- breaking effects to Gregory Doran’s production of Shakespeare’s late romance, and the result is a big theatrical event.

It’s a good choice of play to unleash the clever technical trickery on. From the shipwreck that sends Prospero’s enemies into his territory, the island becomes awash with projections. And spirits really do melt into air in the case of Ariel, played by Mark Quartley, as a live motion capture suit is employed on stage for the first time. The resulting imagery is appropriate and surely becomes more and more impressive if you understand how difficult it all is. Even so, the designers might be a tad aggrieved to know that all eyes are really on the live actor. Quartley gives a sensitive performance of remarkable physicality that doesn’t really need assistance.

The tech goes to town with the masque that Prospero conjures, its design based on Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones’ work, so that part of the play that can drag looks great. But again, beyond the spectacle, it’s the basics of the show that really work. A large cast of spirits add immeasurably and this is truly an island “full of noises” with a strong score composed by Paul Englishby that combines a variety of genres.

There’s a glitch in the application, too. The autochthonous Caliban could be the key to the island but he isn’t granted any modern magic. This rationale makes sense but it makes the character out of place, with no link to his inheritance – surely a missed opportunity? It’s a game performance from Joe Dixon, but the monster costume, the only foot Brimson Lewis puts wrong, suggests the aim is to get some laughs – what else can an actor do if he gets given a fish as a prop?

The key ingredient isn’t the intel inside but Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Prospero. Directed as a family drama, the relationship with Jenny Rainsford’s Miranda – an excellent performance – is deeply moving. Similarly, as his treacherous brother, Jonathan Broadbent makes a role often forgotten memorable. A complex relationship with Ariel, suggesting a substitute son, is also explored.

Russell Beale can be magisterial with ease but focuses on Prospero’s neurotic moments. The all-powerful magus sees his plan on a knife-edge, adding excitement to the production. This Prospero has many a mini breakdown, as the tension of plotting gets the better of him – at one point he even screams, and the prospect of changing overwhelms him. Doran was clearly sensitive to the possible drawbacks of a high-tech collaboration. Never losing sight of the fine cast here, his supervision shows a calm hand at the helm.

Until 18 August 2017

www.barbican.org.uk

Photo by Topher McGrillis

“The Drag” at the National Theatre

A series of rehearsed readings over a long weekend, timed to coincide with London Pride, selected five gay-themed works, each a one-off event. I was lucky enough to catch the last: a play by Mae West that was once considered so controversial it landed its famous author in prison.

Horribly dated on one hand and then astonishingly fresh on the other, the play is an odd mix of drawing-room drama – with a doctor and a judge discussing the issue of homosexuality (little realising how it affects their own family) – and scenes within the gay community born from West’s own experience that are an absolute hoot. It seems incredible that West wrote the play and got it on stage, albeit briefly, in 1927.

In the present day, there’s plenty of praise for a talented cast who illustrate the power of West’s dialogue. It’s unfair under the conditions of just two afternoon rehearsals to judge performances here. Yet, Malcolm Sinclair’s skill was astounding, delivering lines hampered by West explaining the very idea of homosexuality to her audience with convincing compassion. Meanwhile the crew of drag queens (there’s fun to be had working out a collective noun here but I am not brave enough to make suggestions) easily showed how strong the comedy is.

An after-show discussion with the director, Polly Stenham, revealed her admiration for West as a feminist and campaigner as well as an artist. Stenham’s enthusiasm for the piece could dispel many a doubt about its traditional structure. I’d love to see what could be done with more time – maybe with the addition of her own writing skills – to a play that deserves to be known by many.

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

“Ink” at the Almeida Theatre

James Graham has made a strong reputation for himself with plays about politics. While similarly concerned with power, his new work has a broader subject matter and relates the genesis and meteoric rise of The Sun newspaper.

Graham’s nose for a good story is as fine-tuned as any journalist’s. The purchase of an ailing broadsheet by Australian outsider Rupert Murdoch, and the hiring of neglected hack Larry Lamb to run it, take on a mythic quality. These are great roles for strong actors: Bertie Carvel is the ruthless, on-the-up tycoon, while Richard Coyle is the editor whose doubts and determination both mount as he chases sales figures.

The triangle between Murdoch, Lamb and the latter’s former mentor and now rival on The Daily Mirror, Hugh Cudlipp, might have been developed further. There’s an excellent performance from David Schofield as the crusading lefty whose paper aims to improve its readers. An idealistic fourth estate is where politics comes to the fore in Ink and, surprisingly, the play’s very few ponderous moments come from this elision.

Director Rupert Goold stages the recruitment of staff at the new paper with a cabaret feel: jolly, anti-establishment, with 1960s cool. And Goold handles the play’s darker territory just as well, with a kidnapping and the launch of The Sun’s infamous topless models: a scenario that leads to strong performances from Sophie Stanton as the paper’s women’s editor, and Pearl Chanda as Stephanie Rahn, the first ‘Page 3’ girl.

Newspapers mark a generational divide – the young really don’t read them. Graham’s skill and research bridge the age gap. I wondered if we needed a scene taking us through the printing process (akin to his excellent précis of parliamentary procedure in This House) but, yes, of course we do! With a touch of nostalgia, reflecting several characters’ romantic notions of Fleet Street, an arcane world of machismo and lots of cigarette smoke is opened. Hindsight raises smiles and big questions about media manipulation.

The result of Graham’s fun groundwork is a delicious surprise – a depiction of Murdoch that shows intelligence and courage. With a little retrofitting, Murdoch is cast as a business disruptor and credited with the idea of user-generated content. Neither role is that convincing but the ideas intrigue. Murdoch’s drive, so perfectly embodied in Carvel’s performance, comes from his wish to challenge and change – recasting an often-demonised figure as a rebel with a cause.

Until 5 August 2017

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Tiresia” at the Etcetera Theatre

Here’s a SPOILER warning – but one that comes with little apology.

That sci-fi and philosophy class favourite – the brain transplant – is the subject matter for Ian Dixon Potter’s new play. Starting off vague, to create tension, makes for an unnecessarily tough beginning. Thankfully, the scenario is common enough to become clear quickly and when the experimental procedure is pinned down, its implications are set out with satisfying clarity.

Putting an old man’s brain into a pretty young girl’s body gives rise to questions of identity, sexual politics, and ethics. There’s a nod to evolution and even aesthetics – Tiresia is an artist. And there’s the fascinating idea that bodily chemistry means memory might exist not only in the mind – so that Tiresia is really a hybrid of two people.

That the exploration of these questions is uneven, given such complexity, is understandable. It is exciting to have so many debates raised. But it’s the philosophy that interests Dixon Potter more than the drama, and since he directs as well as writes there’s nothing to temper this or reign in the oddly dry dialogue.

In the title role, Natasha Killam does well to deliver lines that are burdened by learning. Especially when it comes representing her previous, older, incarnation her character is possessed by too many old-fashioned eccentricities to be credible. I know plenty of erudite older folk who are happy to discuss Schopenhauer, but they never use the expression, “Jack Robinson”. Too much of the dialogue feels like a collection of essay questions.

Any potential for comedy, such as Tiresia’s friend’s grand-daughter taking a fancy to her, gets the shortest shrift. It’s fair enough that the serious subject matter isn’t taken as an excuse for jokes, but seeing unrealised potential to lighten the play becomes frustrating. And pathos, in scenes with Tiresia’s former wife and the mother of girl whose body was donated, isn’t developed either – despite the efforts of Louise Morell who takes both roles.

With so little emotional material on offer we have only the ideas to entertain us. Sure to inspire conversation in the pub afterwards – but about the concepts, rather than play itself.

Until 16 July 2018

www.tickettea.co.uk/tickets-theatre-tiresia

“Macbeth” at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden

Iris Theatre is celebrating its ten year anniversary, at the so-called ‘Actors’ Church’, with a production of Shakespeare’s Scottish play that is ambitious, adventurous and immersive. Director Daniel Winder shows an energetic appetite for the play that is infectious and gets the most out of his talented team.

The production goes all out for the supernatural, with creepy costumes by Anna Sances and a satanic angle that gains potency from being performed in a church. And there’s no shortage of gore either: the Macduff family massacre comes with a PG warning. Having Macbeth attend is a great idea and his frenzied attack a shocker.

David Hywel Baynes, making a welcome return to both the company and the UK, takes the title role and is joined by Iris Theatre stalwart Nick Howard-Brown as Banquo. The two command the various spaces, of church and gardens, that the audience travel around scene by scene.

As well as displaying technical prowess, Hywel Baynes’ interpretation of the murdering monarch is also strong. Joined by Mogali Masuku as his wife – making a professional debut that’s a resounding success – we see Macbeth manipulated, then degenerate into a man drunk and dribbling with blood lust. Masuku’s Lady Macbeth is frightening and sexy (look out for Stephen Boyce’s roving eye when playing Duncan) but then scared by her spouse. It’s an emotional journey from both performers that is well delivered.

There’s good supporting work from the whole cast, but sometimes a danger of distraction in how many roles just six performers tackle. Matt Stubbs is a convincingly virile Macduff and transforms into a hired assassin superbly, and some of the doubling is interesting (Masuku also plays ones of the witches), but focus can be lost with all the changes – the production feels trapped by its small headcount.

The biggest commendation goes to set designer Alice Channon – despite the fact that her ideas cause problems. The outdoor spaces are strictly sectioned off – a bold move with a promenade performance since an audience is seldom as nimble as hoped. The start of too many scenes might be missed. But the idea is great: slowly filing past a tableau of the Macbeths’ bedroom on the way to the interval and the audience rushing into the church for the finale are electric moments.

Taking Hieronymus Bosch as inspiration is a brilliant move – providing an intelligent period aura and surreal chills. The subsequent Bosch-Banquo-banquet makes less sense than it should (more a psychological crisis than a point about Macbeth’s leadership) but it looks stunning. Amorphous sculptures, with a touch of Eva Hesse, contain loud speakers playing composer Filipe Gomes’ impressive contribution to the evening – indicative of designers taking any opportunity to make a mark. There are flaws, yes, but also exciting work.

Until 29 July 2017

www.iristheatre.com

Photo by Nick Rutter

“Attic” at the King’s Head Theatre

Meriel Hinsching’s debut play is a poetic glimpse at troubled love. A young couple meet again after the breakdown of their fraught relationship for a one-night stand that plays with reconciliation and offers flashbacks into their attempts at being friends with benefits. In a scenario carefully stripped of specifics, we learn little of their larger lives. Intensity is the aim – a goal achieved – but even at just 45 minutes the play boxes itself into a corner. Profundity is in the eye of the beholder, I guess, but this self-obsessed pair may grate many a nerve. Nonetheless, Hinsching’s approach is consistent, the text engaging and her voice sincere.

Attic is most effective as a showcase for the new talent on stage. Connor Harris plays Bay. He’s good at looking adoring and confused – which is handy as his onstage lover Leonie run rings around his character. Truth is, Leonie is so much more interesting and a good deal smarter – both qualities that Phoebe Stapleton manages to convey in her performance. You can see why Bay’s obsessed with her, but not the other way around. Leonie’s lust to “not to be numb” raises questions of her stability, producing further good work from Stapleton, and tension that could be developed. It’s a shame so much talk of being impulsive makes the couple come across as contrived.

The play benefits from sympathetic direction from Ed Theakston, who adds some classy touches that bring out its poetic quality, and uses music and lighting effectively. From the firm base of strong performances, Theakston adds the style needed to make grown-up claims for this youthful work.

Next performances 2 and 3 July 2017

www.kingsheadtheatre.com

“42nd Street” at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Bringing one of the most famous movie musicals to the stage, Mark Bramble and Michael Stewart’s adaptation of the 1933 backstage-on-Broadway tale relies on scale to secure success. Taking Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s fantastic collection of songs, they add more hits to the original list. Accompanying the great tunes, Randy Skinner’s Busby Berkeley-style choreography uses an enormous ensemble and every bit of the theatre’s huge stage. Spectacular is the key word.

As one of the many hit songs proclaims, “Who cares if there’s a plot or not?” Following chorus girl Peggy Sawyer’s rise to stardom, after breaking the ankle of her leading lady, doesn’t take much time. Instead 42nd Street is a collection of set pieces. Delivered big, with giant mirrors and staircases included in Douglas W Schmidt’s design. And what costumes – bravo to Roger Kirk. Who knew it was possible to be overwhelmed by sequins? To quote another song – “We’re in the money” – the producers haven’t skimped here.

Bramble is in charge and stamps his mark on the piece, like his potential onstage alter ego – another director – Julian Marsh. Tom Lister takes this role and shouts in capitals throughout, no doubt as instructed, detoxing the character’s old-fashioned pomposity and sexism. Camp is a clever way to deal with how the show has dated. But it isn’t the only possibility: so while An American in Paris give us old-age panache, here we have pastiche. Lots of humour and the over-the-top staging make everything ridiculous – deliberately so – and enormous fun.

Clare Halse
Clare Halse

Yet all the parody kills the characters. The star playing the star (she of the broken ankle) is Sheena Easton, who can belt out a number but fails to transfer personality into her role. Stuart Neal, as the shows tenor, makes all his smiling look like hard work; he is technically brilliant but the character leaves no mark. Thankfully, Clare Halse can’t be faulted as new star Peggy. She has ingénue down to a T and her tap dancing is superb. And Jasna Ivir, playing a matriarchal producer, is the epitome of value for money. Which is exactly what this show is – a West End ticket that’s worth every penny, delivering jaw-dropping, extravagant entertainment.

Booking until 10 February 2018

www.42ndstreetmusical.co.uk

Photo by Brinkhoff & Moegenbur

“The Kite Runner” at the Playhouse Theatre

The 2003 novel, by Khaled Hosseini, upon which this play is based, is a tear-jerking page-turner that’s enjoyed huge sales. This welcome stage adaptation follows its success with a second outing in the West End. Using its narrator Amir’s life – and getting the first plaudit out quick, this is a role David Ahmad excels in – it’s a family story, with plenty of guilt and a little redemption, combined with the recent history of Afghanistan. It’s full of big themes but, while not belittling any of them, remains a good old-fashioned yarn.

Amir’s friendship with his servant and playmate Hassan is efficiently conveyed. Andrei Costin does well with a character who’s little more than a blank slate – it’s Amir’s memories of him – distorted by remorse – that we see. Even in the peaceful Kabul of the 1970s there are troubles – caused by the teenage psychopath Assef (Bhavin Bhatt). Of equal import is Amir’s relationship with his father, satisfyingly explored and with a sterling performance from Emilio Doorgasingh, who reveals the character with charisma.

Taking the lead from Matthew Spangler’s clever adaptation, director Giles Croft works at a cracking pace. The story grips so much that the play feels like escapism, so that grim moments – and there are plenty – shock. Theatrical touches, and music performed by Hanif Kahn, are restrained and never distracting.

Amir emigrates to America, follows his dream to become a writer and gets married. This isn’t quite as interesting and feels rushed. But there’s good work again from Doorgasingh. Just as Amir’s guilt about being a “disappointing son” starts to seem self-indulgent he gets the chance to “be good again”. Family secrets are revealed on a dangerous return trip to Afghanistan. The pace doesn’t pick up as much as it could, but the story is powerful and Hosseini’s use of coincidence gives his narrative a self-consciously epic feel.

The Kite Runner has the heavy weight of exposing terrorism in action – upon Amir’s return, Assef is revealed as a Taliban leader. Care and bravery are taken over many emotive issues and scenes of sexual violence are carefully depicted (the show isn’t comfortable family viewing). Despite some structural flaws, the power of stories and theatre to take us behind news headlines and show a common humanity feels, regrettably, more important than ever. Any desire for a deeper understanding is consoling in itself.

Until 26 August 2017

www.TheKiteRunnerPlay.com

Photo by Irina Chira

“Little Pieces of Gold” at the Southwark Playhouse

This night of new writing produced by Suzette Coon is a great chance for future star spotting. There are nine up-and-coming writers, not forgetting the directors, and 23 actors helping them out. It’s an exciting testament to the creativity and talent of the theatre scene.

Interestingly, the first three pieces all had a connection to the justice system. Abraham Adeyemi’s subject was a post-murder scene, Rachel Archer’s a court-enforced mediation, but the one that stood out was by Tatty Hennessy as it switched from laughs to drama effectively and had a strong performance from Louisa Hollway. And more good comedy with Sid Sagar’s The State We’re In: a multi-racial flat share scenario that raised risqué questions and benefited from a strong quartet of performers, including Leila Damilola as a clueless representative of the Home Office.

After the interval there were three plays centred on young love and college, the funniest being the evening’s finale, Vegan Visiting by Micah Smith, which showcased the talents of its director, Jaclyn Bradley. The most interesting pieces were set in the world of work. Corinne Salisbury’s Girlboss imagined a disciplinary hearing and had an impressive amount to say – well done to director Georgie Staight for handling the thought-provoking content. The boldest writing was Tom Collinson’s Percy –about an older employee facing obsolescence, which benefitted from Mike Hayley’s excellent performance.

 Little Pieces of Gold is an event to add to the calendar. And, given the size, one that’s a little intimidating to write about. It isn’t a competition, thankfully, but searching for stand out is irresistible. My critic’s fingers are crossed for those I’ve highlighted. Apologies to those left out and here’s the sincere hope that they prove me a fool.

www.littlepiecesofgold.co.uk

The HandleBards 5th Year Anniversary

To celebrate five years of taking to their bikes to tour Shakespeare, this young company performed its potted version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Rotherhithe’s Brunel Museum. The spirit of fun adventure runs alongside the serious idea of environmentally sustainable theatre which has won them awards. And if you think cycling around with all your kit to put on plays is bonkers – I am sure that they would, amiably, agree with you.

The production is a bit mad, too. Having only four performers is a short cut to laughs. Cycling bells are the cue for characters changing and, you’ve guessed it, audience members are recruited. It’s all out for jolly japes and the company of friends works with a Boys’ Own spirit. Founder members Callum Brodie and Tom Dixon are especially assured, the former stealing the show as both Puck and Hermia. Calum Hughes-McIntosh and Matthew Seager also have experience with the company and it shows – both doing well with improvisation and crowd control. There’s a technical virtuosity that belies the casual feel here, and it’s an understandable flaw if the chaos is too contrived.

There’s no sign that all the cycling has tired anyone out – 12 countries, on three continents, performing to more than 50,000 people over the years – physicality is shown off at any opportunity. There’s now an all-female troupe on the road as well (I’d love to see how they might change The Chap atmosphere), and As You Like It is touring in, ahem, tandem. Comedy to the fore, and all that open air, is clearly working wonders. And good luck to them.

The HandleBards current tour runs through to September 2017

www.handlebards.com

Photo by Danford Showan