“The Memory of Water” at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre

Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water was a big hit in the West End and won an Olivier Award in 2000. It is a clever choice for a fringe revival and a new production by Causality Theatre at the Lion and Unicorn provides a valuable chance to see it again. Director Eyal Israel gets to show us what he can do, controlling the performances and pacing the whole production admirably.

As three sisters come together for their mother’s funeral, family tensions gush forth. Sarah Borges as Mary shows a perfect understanding of Stephenson’s dark, dry humour. She tells her sister that they don’t argue, they just bicker, but Katherine Jones’ wonderfully unfolding performance as Teresa shows how wrong she is. The youngest sister, Catherine, is played by Jane Stanton, who arrives on stage as a neurotic whirlwind. Instantly establishing her character, she gives the production huge energy. Catherine’s vulnerability is never doubted but Stanton skilfully hints at a canniness that is truly unbalanced. Catherine’s narcissism brings the sisters together both to fight and have fun.

One of the things none of the sisters can agree on is the past. Their memories are fluid. Their deceased mother haunts them and seems to be getting a bad reputation, so it’s great when we get to hear her side of the story. Hilary Burns appears as a vengeful yet wise ghost. Setting the record straight with Mary she speaks out as she never did in life. Playful as well as caring and very much alive, she points out what her daughters deny but is staring at them from the mirror – what has been inherited from her.

As if all this were not meaty enough, memories meet the present for more drama. Teresa’s husband Frank (Dan Mullane) struggles to keep his exhausting wife under control and find space for his own future. Mary’s long-term partner is married. George Richmond-Scott skilfully manages to show a compassion not intended to convince us. His wife is supposed to be sick but, as the ever wry Mary points out after seeing her at a fete, “People don’t get out of their deathbed for a tombola.” Just one great line from a play as rich in humour as it is in emotion and performed with such sensitivity as to make this a night out to remember.

Until 31 July 2010

www.lionandunicorntheatre.com

Written 16 July 2010 for The London Magazine

“Henry IV Parts 1 and 2” at Shakespeare’s Globe

This year’s terrific Kings and Rogues season at Shakespeare’s Globe gives us the theatre’s first production of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. Under the direction of Dominic Dromgoole, the plays thrive on the clarity and immediacy of the venue. With the cast Dromgoole has assembled the plays receive the complex subtlety they deserve.

First for the king. Suitably careworn from the start, Oliver Cotton’s Henry IV has a fiery temper that encompasses both the passionate young man he once was and the disgruntled father he has become. In plays so concerned with the theme of age, he manages to convey the journey of a life time.

Then there are those who would be kings. Jamie Parker (fittingly, a member of the original History Boys cast) plays Prince Hal with an eye on the time. He has huge fun with the low-life company he keeps but also shows a cold edge that, for all Parker’s charm, is unsettling.

Sam Crane’s Hotspur also plays it for laughs, which makes him less of a foil to the dissolute Prince. His performance has perhaps too much of the puff-chested schoolboy about it to create the required tension as he leads his men into rebellion and bloodshed.

And now to the rogue – Falstaff, that “villainous, abominable misleader of youth”. Like Elizabeth I, we all fall in love with Sir John. Especially this one. Shakespeare gives him a lot to work with, but Roger Allam doesn’t miss a trick – he squeezes every last drop of comedy out of the text and adds some of his own. His Falstaff is urbane, fey and philosophical. He is also crude, reckless and (unusually) sexy. With impeccable timing and joyous physicality he is, oh, such good company.

Allam’s genius is to embrace the theatricality of the character – Falstaff loves being on show and Allam uses the particular intimacy of The Globe to great effect. The character doesn’t just perform in those famous tavern scenes. He also gets turns as wrestler Giant Haystacks in a Pythonesque moment where a superb Mistress Quickly (Barbara Marten) threatens him with a dead fish. And he is a passable Barry White figure, with Jade Williams’ fantastic Doll Tearsheet swooning at his charms. And who could blame her? With Allam in total, joyous control, we are all a little heady from the performance. This Falstaff is faultless.

But Falstaff isn’t irresistible to all. The fun cannot last and in Part 2 we see that the piper, in the form of the recorder-playing Hal, has to be paid. Solemnity sets in as the kingdom in turmoil takes its toll. There are still laughs but they start to sound hollow as the characters succumb to fatigue and stress.

Allam injects an escalating unease. Increasingly sordid and diseased, Falstaff is compelled to continue his charade as a soldier and this is one spotlight he isn’t comfortable in. Estranged from Hal, he is forced into plotting a poor joke against the charmingly doddery Shallow (William Gaunt). He never gets to tell the punchline. Appearing as an exhausted Bacchus, the energy passes to Jamie Parker who returns as a demented Pistol. Behind the euphoria at Hal’s ascendency we sense fear.

Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 are epic plays. The history they write takes in the whole of the country and also the span of man’s life. It is to Dromgoole’s credit that this twin focus is never lost. Lording it over all is the epitome of life itself – Falstaff. In all of his joy and his pain Allam’s rogue is truly magisterial.

Until 9 October 2010

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo by John Haynes

Written 15 July 2010 for The London Magazine

“I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky” at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

This musical, fortunately abbreviated to Ceiling/Sky, follows seven twentysomethings living in LA and how they change in the aftermath of an earthquake. The spectrum of characters’ interests and ethnic backgrounds allows John Adams plenty of scope for musical experimentation. Known as a modern classical composer and feted in the UK for his work at the ENO, Adams is a ferociously intelligent musician. This work flaunts his knowledge of great American musicals as well as creating a contemporary urban soundscape. It is dauntingly ambitious in its reach.

Directors Kerry Michael and Matthew Xia see the strengths of this fascinating piece and seek to address some of its more intimidating tendencies by emphasising its theatricality and casting a group of strong, young actors. The cast bravely tackle a demanding score and excel in revealing the humanity of their characters.

Natasha J Barnes plays an offensive TV reporter whose frosty demeanour convincingly breaks down in the face of crisis. She is pursued by a young lawyer (Colin Ryan), who gives a determined, passionate performance, but she prefers a policeman she is writing about. Stewart Charlesworth is wonderful in this role – full of angst and diffidence. In an extremely awkward arrest scene he apprehends Leon Lopez, a petty criminal in love with an illegal immigrant (Anna Mateo). Both bring out the lyricism in some great songs. The final couple are a lecherous preacher played with amusing grace by Jason Denton and his long-suffering girlfriend performed by Cynthia Erivo, whose stunning voice gives her character an aggressive complexity.

But for all Adams’ skill and the cast’s flair, the star of this show is lyricist June Jordan. I confess my ignorance of this poet and essayist but will be scouring The London Library as soon as I have posted this review. The plot is never explained in Ceiling/Sky – you just go straight into the songs. Remarkably, the writing is so clear that this is never a problem. The text is raw, blithe and affirming. It has an earthy quality that is instantly appealing and it is to the production’s credit that every line is clearly heard. While the composition may be of greatest interest to aficionados of musical theatre, the words speak loudly to all of us. I strongly suggest that you go and hear them.

Until 17 July 2010

www.stratfordeast.com

Photo by Robert Day

Written 8 July 2010 for The London Magazine

“The Comedy of Errors” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

The Comedy of Errors is perfect for Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Shakespeare’s comedy of mistaken identity benefits from being set in London’s most charming venue. It is surprising, then, that this is the first time in 14 years the play has been performed here. Philip Franks’ production is well worth the wait.

Ephesus is transformed into glamorous 1940s Casablanca. As the merchant Egeon roams the town under threat of death, his twin sons and their servants (separated at birth as Shakespearean twins often are) cause havoc as their lives overlap. Daniel Weyman and Daniel Llewelyn-Williams play the twins as matinee idols and do it swooningly well. Joseph Kloska and Josh Cohen as their servants add some delightful comic touches.

During their years of separation the twin living in Ephesus has married. His wife Adriana (Jo Herbert) shows outrage at her husband’s (actually his twin’s) odd behaviour but charms us with her obvious affection for him. After the interval, things really take off as she heads a posse in a slapstick chase to capture him, thinking he has gone mad.

At the risk of sounding blasphemous, Shakespearean comedy can drag a little, and over familiarity with the plot can lead to frustration with characters unable to work out that something is glaringly amiss. Philip Franks keeps the pace fast to avoid the worst of this and has plenty of engaging digressions. With the role of the Courtesan adapted into a nightclub hostess we get some great music – any excuse to hear the fantastic Anna-Jane Casey sing is a good idea. She adds a touch of eccentricity that embodies this colourful, pleasing production and crowns a fine night out.

Until 31 July 2010

www.openairtheatre.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 30 June 2010 for The London Magazine

The Bridge Project at the Old Vic

For the second year running Sam Mendes has achieved something remarkable with his Bridge Project, bringing together artists from both sides of the Atlantic for a world tour that finishes at the Old Vic.

Pairing The Tempest and As You Like It invites rich comparisons, but these are never forced. The stories focus on the trials of love and justice. The Tempest seems more of a romance than we might be used to and As You Like It more complex. In both cases, Mendez has employed an even hand with his able cast so that some often neglected roles shine out.

The more startling interpretation comes with As You Like It. This is a dark affair, set in winter and with the Forest of Arden a frightening place. Edward Bennett as the evil brother Oliver gets the chance to really show us why Orlando leaves for the forest and Michael Thomas (who plays both Dukes) gives Celia and Rosalind a real reason to flee. Later on there’s even a torture scene – certainly not something you’d expect of this play. But As You Like It still retains its charm, mostly because of Juliet Rylance who plays Rosalind as a bubbling yet sophisticated schoolgirl. Her trial of Orlando hits the perfect balance between comedy and sincerity.

Prospero is always the key to The Tempest. Stephen Dillane’s understated performance is intoxicating, his thaumaturgy never doubted. He is the conductor of events, with his famous book placed on a music stand and the other characters  his instruments. If dramatic tension is somewhat sacrificed because of this, a complex performance gives us a very human image. There is a wonderfully caring relationship to watch as he deals with an ethereal Christian Camargo as Arial, and his reunion with Gonzalo (Alvin Epstein) moves. The lovers here are Rylance and Bennett and both excel. Cleverly mirroring each other’s movements, they create some of the most beautiful images on stage.

Careful attention to movement is aided by the action taking place within a circle of sand. The audience is drawn in to Prospero’s realm from the beginning and, with no interval, it is utterly absorbing. Along with wonderful lighting and excellent music from Mark Bennett this production of The Tempest is certainly the most beautiful I have ever watched. While Mendes’ As You Like It may excite because it is such a novel interpretation of the play, it is his journey to Prospero’s island that is unmissable.

Until 21 August 2010

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Joan Marcus

Written 23 June 2010 for The London Magazine

“Salome” at the Hampstead Theatre

The press night for Headlong Theatre’s production of Salome was cleverly planned to coincide with the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist. It served to remind us that Oscar Wilde’s seldom performed play is a religious one. Primarily interesting in that the play shows us a very different side to a writer we all think we know, its director Jamie Lloyd embraces Wilde’s darker side and gives us a sinister, fascinating take on the biblical story.

It is uncomfortable viewing. John’s guards are animalistic in the extreme, with movement directed by Ann Yee, they prowl around the stage, quickly establishing an atmosphere of danger and distrust. They have reason to watch their backs. Not just because they fear the wild prophet, played by Seun Shote with an appropriate physicality, but because the court they work at is simply mad. Dripping with decadence, Con O’Neill’s Herod stumbles and spits his way around the stage, revoltingly pouring wine down his throat and over himself. He grabs any and every available piece of flesh – except for Salome.

Zawe Ashton’s Salome is a fascinating creature. Aware of her power, she toys with all the men on stage and revels in the danger. Occasional ineptness reminds us of her age. Jaye Griffiths is in fine form as her maligned mother Herodias. Appearing like a painted doll, her paranoia is at a constant fever pitch. Lloyd has clearly directed all the cast to mark Wilde’s constant warning to “look upon” others. The gaze communicates and increases desire – it has an uncanny power. Not a glance among the ensemble is wasted. The drama is unbearably tense and somewhat exhausting.

Sacrifices have been made to achieve a breakneck pace. Much of Wilde’s poetry seems lost. His text is flushed with colour yet Soutra Gilmour’s set is a dystopian playground and her costumes army fatigues. The symbolism in the play seems neglected – here everything is brutally direct. But Lloyd isn’t running a Sunday School. If events like these really ever happened they probably did so in an environment this crazed, with people this unbalanced. This production casts new light on the Bible story. That was probably Wilde’s aim in the first place.

Until 17 July 2010

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Helen Warner

Written 23 June 2010 for The London Magazine

“Calamity Jane” Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Thom Southerland is a director with a reputation for putting on big musicals in small spaces. His State Fair, such a hit last year at the Finborough, is to transfer to the Trafalgar Studios in August. Before that he is working Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate with Fain and Webster’s Calamity Jane. And he has another hit on his hands with a production marked by intelligence and wit.

Katherine Eames plays the stagecoach rider Calamity Jane and her search for love with confidence and style. The clever move here is to gently open up the story to focus on Jane’s hometown of Deadpan and the locals of the Golden Garter bar. Conveniently doubling as the community theatre, it has scheduling problems and a habit of hiring the wrong artistes. After a word from Jane, the volatile crowd deals with a mistaken booking in a most civilised fashion – the performers become part of the neighbourhood. It’s not only endearing but makes this a real ensemble piece, where every member of the cast can play a part.

There are plenty of witty performances. Anthony Wise puts in a terrific comic turn as the bar’s owner. Ted McMillan is great as the wrong act, Francis Fryer. Confusion over his name means the hillbillies are expecting women, which results in a great scene in drag. The same mistake hasn’t been made by Southerland. His clever casting of the super Ms Frances Campbell as Rattlesnake transforms the gender of the role and reminds us of what Jane might become if she doesn’t change her tomboy ways.

The mood is set with a song dedicated to Adeline Adams, the performer the gold prospectors really want to appear at the Golden Garter bar. The whole male cast participate in Phyllida Crowley Smith’s inspired choreography as they serenade Adeline’s photograph on a cigarette card. ‘A Woman’s Touch’ has a similar whimsy, with the ladies in the ensemble appearing like the birds in Snow White to transform Jane’s home. All great fun with not a single number wasted. Careful musical direction from Mark Aspinall allows the romance of the piece time as well – the rendition of ‘Secret Love’ is startlingly beautiful.

There is plenty for those with a sentimental streak in this show. It is as heart warming as a musical of its kind should be. But this is also a very smart production and it’s great to be reminded, yet again, how wonderful fringe theatre in London can be. The stagecoach doesn’t stop at Highgate anymore but you should Whip-Crack-Away up there as soon as you can.

Until 3 July 2010

www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com

Written 24 June 2010 for The London Magazine

“Welcome to Thebes” at the National Theatre

We all appreciate how annoying it can be when a phone rings during a performance. At the National Theatre they’ve really had enough of it; the start of its new production, Welcome to Thebes, has gun-toting child soldiers warning us to switch off our mobiles. We then hear the story of how one girl was raped before becoming a mercenary in her war-torn country. This is an uncomfortable mix and it is clumsily done. Unfortunately it sets the tone for the evening. From the very start of this play you might well want to call someone and tell them how bad things are.

Moira Buffini’s play recasts Greek myths to modern day Africa. The inhabitants of Thebes experiment with democracy after a devastating war and look to wealthy Athens to help them out. There can be no objection to reinterpreting myths (indeed there is a prestigious heritage of doing so) but Buffini’s efforts are a worrying failure. The contemporary setting isn’t specific enough to be politically satisfying and the mythical characters seem like lost novelties. Doing justice to the dangerous creativity of Dionysus and contrasting that with the arrogant politics of the Athenians would be enough to aim for without trying to draw unconvincing parallels to current events. To make matters worse, what is universal about myths – their emotive power – seems to have no attention paid to it at all, making the play dull as well as pretentious.

Richard Eyre’s direction makes the production as swift and tense as it can be but he has too much to work against. The cast battle valiantly and produce some good performances. The new government’s cabinet of ministers make up the chorus and the actresses do well to differentiate themselves. The opposition is formed by Pargeia (Rakie Ayola) and Prince Tydeus (Chuk Iwuji) – a fantastic power-mad couple brimming with sex and violence. Thebes’ new boss Eurydice (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and the visiting Theseus (David Harewood) also work well together and convince as very different types of leaders.

Achieving some electric mixtures of personalities on stage is no small achievement given the script and static set that the actors have to work with. The text varies crazily from the stubbornly prosaic, taking in scraps of poetry, to the painfully clunky. Having been welcomed to Thebes, take my advice and look swiftly for the exit.

Until 18 August 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 23 June 2010 for The London Magazine

“Sucker Punch” at the Royal Court

Roy Williams’ new play, Sucker Punch, which sees the Royal Court converted into a boxing ring, will surely excite if you’re a fan of the sport (I’m not), but it’s also worth seeing if pugilism isn’t your game.

Designer Miriam Buether wins the first round with the theatre’s transformation. The action takes place in the centre of the auditorium and everyone gets a ringside seat. That many of them are more uncomfortable than the Court’s usual plush leather offerings only adds to the atmosphere. And even if getting ready to watch a boxing match doesn’t thrill you, seeing double glazing and the Daily Mirror advertised in Sloane Square has a certain curiosity value.

Sucker Punch is entertaining and engaging, and about far more than boxing. It is a simple tale of big themes – love and hate, family and friendship. The boxing club in which the action takes place is an appropriate setting for the struggles of the two young protagonists in this story of betrayal and achievement. Machismo and nationality are themes for which Williams is well known but his handling of forbidden love and professional rivalry are just as interesting.

Set against the backdrop of racist riots in the 1980s there is a great deal of pain and anger in the injustices experienced. There’s also time for some quirky period detail. However, Williams is a perceptive writer and it would be great to hear what he thinks about current events rather than just giving us history.

The adept cast takes the 1980s fashions (supplied so well by Jacky Orton) in its stride, with Sarah Ridgeway’s costume getting more than a few nostalgic laughs. Looking comfortable in it is just part of a great performance as the coach’s daughter, who falls in love with boxing hopeful Leon (Daniel Kaluuya). She sees his friendship with Troy (Anthony Welsh) fall apart before her own budding romance is sacrificed to fame and fortune.

Both leads are superb as they show their natural teenage insecurities compounded by the troubles of the time and the less than inspirational actions of the adults in their lives. With these obstacles, both boys’ achievements are astounding. Their success results in some great staging, the boxing scenes being especially effective thanks to Gareth Fry’s outstanding sound design and spectacular strobe lighting from Peter Mumford. But the effort the fighters take seems wasted as it becomes clear their apparent triumphs are hollow and the price they have paid a high one.

Until 24 July

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Clive Nash

Written 21 June 2010 for The London Magazine

“Through a Glass Darkly” at the Almeida Theatre

Michael Attenborough’s latest production at the Almedia is an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s classic film, Through a Glass Darkly. A family holiday, designed as recuperation for Karin after a mental breakdown, goes horribly wrong as the neuroses of the rest of the clan come to the fore and Karin herself has a dramatic relapse. If you like your drama dark and psychological, then this will not disappoint.

It is, indeed, grim stuff. The location is rendered in abstract muted greys by designer Tom Scutt, and is spot on as a backdrop for some brooding introspection, of which we get plenty. Cast members bare their souls with skill, and at the same time illustrate Bergman’s highly intellectual approach to his characters.

Ruth Wilson, playing Karin, deserves special note in her portrayal of both powerful delusions and moments of painful clarity. A key scene in which she hallucinates is fantastic theatre, aided marvellously with a score by Dan Jones. Dimitri Leonidas makes an impressive professional debut as her angst-ridden teenager brother Max. Karin’s father (Ian McElhinney) gets to show his creative Weltschmerz and her husband (Justin Salinger) worries about Karin’s health. Clearly there is no attempt on anyone’s part to avoid certain Nordic stereotypes.

The exploration of these relationships is cleverly done but somewhat dutifully reported. Bergman, like the character of Karin’s father, seems to have the rather morbid desire to examine mental illness for the sake of art. The production reports his investigations well and the acting is superb but it is all very cold. It is also very quick. In the end, Karin’s collapse is so rapid that her descent into madness is more of a plummet. Any attempt at resolution seems glib and, ultimately, unsatisfying.

Until 31 July 2010

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 18 June 2010 for The London Magazine