“House of Games” at the Almeida Theatre

David Mamet often writes about professionals, including estate agents, and in the entertaining House of Games it’s the turn of therapists and conmen. Tense and comic in turn, Richard Bean’s version of Mamet’s 1987 film, holds your attention over its 90 minutes, but it fails to really convince.

Nancy Carroll plays Dr Margaret Ford and manages to create a strong stage presence despite problems with the role. Harvard-educated Margaret decides to write a book on conmen but without any preliminary research. Clinical to the point of caricature, she jokes about being Amish, yet runs into an affair with Michael Landes’ charismatic card shark like a doting schoolgirl.

Of course we know that Margaret is going to be tricked. Even if the con is predictable it is fun to watch, mostly because of the team of charming shyster’s she encounters. Trevor Cooper manages to be funny while offensive and John Marquez dim yet appealing.

Despite the casts skills at comedy, director Lindsay Posner injects several moments of suspense, many connected with Margaret’s one time patient Billy. Played superbly by Al Weaver, Billy gets the laughs and then becomes frightening. Combined with Django Bates impressive score there are some highly atmospheric moments.

All the conmen identify themselves as skilled actors. It’s a third profession we are supposed to be thinking about, yet this tempting subtext isn’t pursued sufficiently. Margaret moves from writing science to fiction – so she starts pretending for a living too. Her agent applauds this but it seems a wasted coda and an unsatisfying end that leaves you feeling a little conned.

Until 6 November 2010

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 17 September 2010 for The London Magazine

“Deathtrap” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Deathtrap – A Comedy Thriller, is a stylish affair. The smoking gun sign outside the Noel Coward theatre; the set by Rob Howell that looks great in a storm; and there is even the opportunity to praise graphic designer, Adam Wiltshire, for his clever artwork. On top of that, the whole thing is quality entertainment, living up to its claim to be both comedy and thriller.

You’ll laugh, and you’ll jump out of your seat. At some points you may very well squeal. Granted, not a dignified reaction – but tremendous fun. Borne along by Matthew Warchus’ subtle direction, this is an evening to enjoy.

But there will be no squealing about the plot here. It’s only fair to respect the programme’s request – to keep the storyline a secret and not spoil the fun for future audiences. Without dropping any spoilers, a once successful thriller writer, observing that “nothing recedes like success”, is driven to drastic action. Ira Levin’s cleverly crafted play is as much about the theatre as the action in it, but is no less thrilling for that.

Hugely successful on Broadway, Deathtrap’s main draw for British audiences is Simon Russell Beale. Happily, his co-stars are also superb; Claire Skinner sports a jolly American accent and Jonathan Groff makes an impressive West End debut. Estelle Parsons has a great comic turn as a psychic who has moved next door (an uncomfortable neighbour for someone planning a murder).

But it’s Russell Beale who steals the show. A great classical actor with comedy credentials confirmed at the National Theatre’s London Assurance, getting this many laughs while sculpting waves of tension, is impressive even with such a great script. It is proof that there is nothing the man cannot do.

Until 22 January 2011

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Written 15 September 2010 for The London Magazine

“Bedlam” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Nell Leyshon, the first woman ever to write a play for The Globe, has chosen her subject well. A story set in Bedlam, drawn from research into the Bethlem Hospital, the first and foremost home for the insane. To give us a break from the bard, the action takes place in the 18th century, where the gin flows freely and visitors pay to view the unfortunate residents of the asylum. As an audience we both replicate this morbid tourism and double as the inmates ourselves. The idea is typical of Leyshon’s clever and careful use of the space. While her play could be madder at times, she has a shrewd eye and ear for what works well at The Globe.

Director Jessica Swale also knows how to use The Globe’s distinctive intimacy. Her talented ensemble is given reign to have great fun. Pity those poor Groundlings (the standing audience members) as they have chamber pots poured over them and are dragged on to the stage. You have been warned.

There’s a lot of laughs here and, if mixing humour and mental illness can be tricky, rest assured it is tastefully done. Jason Baughan is the man in charge – having inherited his post he is proud to come from a long line of Mad Doctors. Sam Crane is a poet, trying hard to be pale and interesting and full of machinations. They both make delicious villains. A pleasing amount of fantasy is used to resolve the neat storyline and deliver poetic justice. Predictable maybe, but satisfying.

Where Bedlam really takes off is with its music. Leyshon researched contemporary sources and, with Olly Fox’s composition and Mark Bousie’s musical direction, has added to her play enormously. Sentimental songs are used with restraint and some hilariously bawdy numbers beg an encore. James Lailey is cast as a ‘Bedlamite’, an inmate released to earn his living busking, and given a moving story with contemporary resonance. Alongside him Ella Smith’s Phyllis is the roaming wife of a Bedlam warder, selling gin on the street as if she were a procuress. Smith gives great value for money, delivering an irristible performance. When the rest of the cast join in the singing, Bedlam becomes very special indeed. Treat yourself to a listen, enjoy some uproar, and don’t forget the gin.

Until 1 October 2010

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo by Keith Pattison

Written 10 September 2010 for The London Magazine

“Clybourne Park” at the Royal Court

Property is a London obsession, so American writer Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park – the story of a neighbourhood told through the development of one house – has the potential to strike a chord with the audience at the Royal Court.

The house in question is not, like so many in literature, a repository of values. Rather it is blank canvas that, in two different times, characters project their ideas onto. Act one is set in the 1950s with the house about to be sold to the area’s first black residents – cue debate.

Unfortunately, Norris’ vision of the 50s doesn’t ring true. Director Dominic Cooke fails to reign in the sense of parody and the cast (with the exception of Lorna Brown and Lucian Msamati) lose themselves in it. There are some beautiful asides, often taking place just inside the front door, but the forced politeness we are supposed to laugh at is unconvincing.

Act two moves to safer ground, and better things, in the present day. The house is about to be pulled down and two yuppies plan to build a new home on the site. The same actors appear for a community meeting (a more satisfying scenario for discussion) concerning what is now considered the black heritage of the area. Norris’ observation and dialogue is sharp, dark and entertaining, his wit rapacious and cruel.

The performances take off with Martin Freeman justly confident in his comic ability, Sophie Thompson and Sarah Goldberg positively shinning, and Brown and Msamati again wonderful. There are some awkward moments as a series of tasteless old jokes are recited, less to entertain than to test reactions in a contrived manner, but generally this comedy of (bad) manners works superbly well.

A subplot concerning a tragedy in the house becomes lost, making the concerns of the present day characters seem trivial, and the danger is that we start to lose interest in them. The connections between eras, potentially so rich, are not given enough space. Norris’ play, which has been well received in America, needs further development. As it stands, Clydbourne Park should never have been given planning permission.

Until 2 October 2010

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Written 3 September 2010 for The London Magazine

“How to be an other woman” at the Gate Theatre

How to be an other woman, at the Gate Theatre Notting Hill, is director Natalie Abrahami’s sassy adaptation of Lorrie Moore’s book. Taking the form of a self-help text, four talented actresses perform all the roles in a story of adultery. With its 80s soundtrack, witty lines and theatrical inventiveness, this short production is the most fun you could have in an hour – without having an affair.

Samal Blak’s marvellous design has the ensemble presented as fantasising shop assistants. Abrahami directs (using Aline David’s choreography) a seamless dance of emotions and laughter. Each actress takes turns at the role of Charlene, a young woman obsessed with possessions and Emma Bovary. From the thrill of her new role as a mistress, to the inevitable heartbreak that results, the performances are all fantastic. Both Cath Whitefield and Ony Uhiara are hilarious when they play the married man Charlene falls for, Faye Castelow has some wonderful moments as her friend at work, and Samantha Pearl does especially well in making us feel for Charlene when the truth of the affair dawns on her.

Because, of course, having an affair isn’t fun at all. Charlene’s paranoia about the woman who is her rival is darkly comic but becomes bitter. Wives are compared to cockroaches who ‘travel in packs’. Increasingly isolated, Charlene realises she has moved from being an other women to another woman – a person she no longer recognises in the mirror.

Thankfully, since we have come to like her so much, unlike Madame Bovary, Charlene can ‘reclaim’ herself, lie a little about being fine, and move on. I guarantee you will leave the theatre wanting to hear more of her adventures.

Until 2 October 2010

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Simon Kane

Written 2 September 2010 for The London Magazine

“The Maddening Rain” at the Old Red Lion, Islington

When readers of The London Magazine go to the theatre in Islington, they go to The Almeida. I am just the same and quite devoted to the place. But a new play, The Maddening Rain, makes me recommend travelling down Upper Street to the Old Red Lion pub theatre for a very special fringe production.

Nicholas Pierpan’s tale of a working-class boy who becomes a City trader is so firmly rooted in the streets of London that it is instantly believable. We are swept along on a journey of success, then failure, in an exhilarating manner. Pierpan doesn’t just know his geography – he knows how to write, with imagery that is instant yet lingering and poetry of the everyday that is accessible and effective.

In this well-constructed, hour-long monologue, London is presented as alienating but full of exciting opportunities. The mix of sociology and psychology is heady, but in safe hands with director Matthew Dunster who paces the show expertly. Light and sound add atmosphere without detracting attention and Dunster maintains an intimacy that, along with Alison McDowall’s clever set, takes us behind the scenes of the City.

It’s an adventure that gets quite a telling – Felix Scott’s performance is riveting. Underneath a look as bland as any other commuter, out comes a sharp eye with a comic glint. Insights into the ‘dead time’ of work and the ‘herd’ he has to put up with endear, but Scott is accomplished enough to hold us back. His ability as a mimic becomes chilling as he transforms into the role of his boss, then frightening as the play reaches its tragic conclusion.

Scott’s character fixates on the privilege he sees all around him. It’s true that Londoners are spoilt. We never have to go a long way for anything, take seeing a great play for example – just go down the road from the Almeida.

Until 18 September 2010

www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk

Photo by Jenny Grand

Written 1 September 2010 for The London Magazine

“Oikos” at the Jellyfish Theatre

The Oikos Project sees a new temporary theatre, The Jellyfish, erected in Union Street, Southwark. Exciting enough – but this creature really has to be seen to be believed. Under the auspices of The Architecture Foundation, Berlin-based team Kobberling and Kaltwasser have used only reclaimed and recycled materials. As the pop-up phenomena becomes more commercialised, this project takes a stand – it was built by local volunteers and school children. Just gazing at this surreal, strangely beautiful thing is an unmissable experience, learning about the ideas behind it a humbling one.

oikos-project-credit-Brian-Benson
The Oikos Theatre photographed by Brian Benson

The building itself seems destined to overshadow whatever play it stages. And that’s a shame, since Oikos the play (the first of two productions scheduled) has plenty to offer. Appropriately it concerns climate change. Neil d’Souza convincingly portrays a successful city trader who, having escaped natural disaster as a child in India, now sees his home in Chiswick flooded and his personal life awash with problems. Dido Miles puts in a great performance as his wife, adrift in her new surroundings and claiming their wealth hasn’t made them happy. Their daughter, played by Amy Dawson, also has issues. Spoilt rotten, she seems trapped in an extended adolescence that is suitably irritating.

Director Topher Campbell and writer Simon Wu have problems that are not of their own making. Climate change quite rightly concerns us all but, with similar issues being addressed down the road at the National Theatre, comparisons are inevitable. These are not necessarily to this play’s detriment. Oikos is tightly constructed, with fascinating mystic undertones and the idea that our lives need a new kind of balance is intelligently presented. The problem is one of audience fatigue.

Serious environmental threats cannot be doubted – both play and project succeed in their aim of making us think. Yet, at the risk of sounding trivial, it should be remembered that theatre can also be a celebration. Given the achievement of building this wonderful new space, a testament to creativity in itself, the play’s dark warning seems at odds with the project’s optimism.

Until 18 September 2010

Photo by Robert Workman

Written 31 August 2010 for The London Magazine

“Into the Woods” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Into the Woods is Sondheim’s masterpiece. A musical score full of invention yet accessible, lyrics that are at once moving and hilarious, and both perfectly accompanying James Lapine’s wonderful book. Interweaving fairy stories, questioning what these tales are really about and then, after the interval, returning to the characters to find out what happens after the happily ever after; it’s one of the cleverest things you’ll ever see and one of the most rewarding.

Director Timothy Sheader gives the show a production it deserves. His new spin is to cast the narrator as a child. This adds little, but where Sheader excels is to bring out the musical’s qualities. This is particularly well executed in the way he brings out the dark side of the fairy stories we tell children – the woods are a sinister place and we fear for the babies in them.

With Soutra Gilmour’s wonderful set and some startling choreography from Liam Steel, the dynamism of the piece is given full scope. The mix of stories is hectic and a controlled chaos appropriately challenges suspension of disbelief.

The characters’ knowledge of the artificial world they are a part of, along with the lessons they learn and impart, is relished by the cast. There are some wonderful performances here. Beverly Rudd is great as the greedy Red Ridinghood, managing a tune while she stuffs buns in her mouth. Michael Xavier and Simon Thomas play the Princes with a nod to Russell Brand and get the most out of their duets.

There are three great leading ladies. Hannah Waddingham is on excellent form as the witch and Jenna Russell is as superb as ever as the Baker’s wife. Helen Dallimore’s sweet voice serves well in the role of Cinderella, whose proclamation, “I wish”, starts the whole glorious evening.

It seems obvious to stage Into the Woods at Regents Park. There must have been a collective, “ah, yes”, when it was announced, yet it is to Sheaders’s credit that it is done so well. It is great to hear the wind in the leaves accompany Sondheim’s score and see the characters retreating into the trees at the end of the evening. The only problem with this production is the short run. Given the number of wonderful touches, and surprise voice over, it would be great to see it transfer or return to the park next year. That’s my wish anyway.

Until 11 September 2010

www.openairtheatre.com

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 17 August 2010 for The London Magazine

“Earthquakes in London” at the National Theatre

Of the several excellent productions this summer from the Headlong Theatre Company, none has created quite the buzz of Earthquakes in London at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe auditorium.

Headlong’s star director Rupert Goold takes charge. While Broadway gave his production of Enron a drubbing, London loves Goold – and rightly so. A director of great style, his bag of theatrical tricks belies a precise hand adept at delivering unforgettable shows. Goold brings all his invention and courage to Earthquakes in London. He has to – Mike Bartlett’s play could easily have seemed unstageable.

Creating a time-travelling story of environmental apocalypse, Bartlett flirts with the past and future, but his play is really about the present – a condemning vision of our apathy and arrogance. Unashamedly political, if occasionally obtuse, the passion displayed is admirable. Akin to the National’s production of Rattigan’s After the Dance, the question that frustrates and angers is how society can carry on the party in the face of catastrophe.

Bartlett’s uncanny gift for characterisation shows his skill as a writer. While the wry observations on modern life are sometimes predictable, they can seldom be argued with and if the scope of his ambition doesn’t always pay off, his emotional insight creates a recognisable world of believable people.

Lia Williams is brilliant as Sarah, a newly appointed Lib Dem minister struggling with the conflict between her ideals and power. Lia has brought up her sisters: Jasmine (Jessica Raine) has ended up as a “natural disaster”, angry as only a post baby boomer can be, while heavily pregnant Freya (Anna Madeley) is given a haunting depiction that matches this harrowing role.

A massive cast live their lives around these women. Even their husbands, both men in crisis and played wonderfully by Tom Goodman-Hill and Geoffrey Streatfield fail to connect with them. Their father Robert (Bill Patterson) is a prophet whose vision of the future removes him from his family and provides this bleak play’s most exigent moments. Always surprising, Earthquakes in London is an epic with the most unusual hero as Bryony Hannah excels in two roles that show her enviable versatility.

But the stars of the show are designer Miriam Buether and the technical team at the National Theatre. Transforming the Cottesloe to an unprecedented extent makes the night exciting from the start. Performing amongst the crowd and in two pillbox stages at either end allows the breakneck speed required. It provides memorable tableaux and builds up connections that add further to an already rich work. The evening is often overwhelming, but it is never confusing. This is compulsive viewing that will run amok in the mind for a long time to come.

Until 22 September 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 5 August 2010 for The London Magazine

“Cyrano de Bergerac” at the White Bear Theatre

Gwilym Lloyd makes a dynamic Cyrano in this new production at the White Bear Theatre. His accomplished performance takes the audience on the emotional journey his life-long love Roxane makes – only quicker – we see past his prodigious proboscis to his charms well before she does. From a figure of fun and violence, we come to view Cyrano as ‘philosopher, duellist, wit and lover’. Lloyd achieves all this and, with such a firm foundation, director Simon Evans’ production does not fail.

Cyrano’s loyalty to his friends is one of many enduring qualities. They voice our concerns that his talents might be wasted for quixotic reasons, and also detail the depth of his virtues. Cyrano’s stoicism in the face of his, er, face is deeply philosophical. Chief amongst his retainers is Le Bret, whose down-to-earth delivery shows actor David Mildon’s appreciation of this fresh and engaging translation by Ranjit Bolt. Similarly, Ben Higgins makes his professional debut with a charming performance as Ragueneau, who is supported and inspired by Cyrano.

Evans skilfully uses the whole company in some playful moments of bandying wit that establish a camaraderie that pays off during darker moments. Cyrano’s proxy love affair has serious consequences, but there is plenty of fun along the way, including a scene-stealing performance from Samuel Donnelly as the dastardly De Guiche, who is also besotted by Roxane. And it is easy to see why everyone is mad about the girl – Iris Roberts gives a delightful performance as the playful yet sincere word buff. Philip Scott-Wallace (in another professional debut to be proud of) plays the handsome cadet Christian whose looks win her heart, with just the right amount of confusion to maintain sympathy for himself as well as Cyrano.

With a light touch, Simon Evans has brought out the complexities as well as joys of Rostand’s classic tale. It seems appropriate that even at Cyrano’s death there is laughter as well as tears and that neither seems out of place.

Until 4 September 2010

www.whitebeartheatre.co.uk

Written 5 August 2010 for The London Magazine