“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

“The Fantasticks” at the Duchess Theatre

The Fantasticks is the simplest of stories, staged minimally to emphasise theatricality and dealing with universals. Archetypal characters and situations are presented with comedy and tragedy painted broadly. If you want to sound clever you can say it uses the oldest performance traditions, with a narrator as chorus and drawing on commedia dell’arte. It is designed to appeal to all and, as the success of its songs by Harvey Schmidt, along with its 50-year run in New York indicates, it does so.

Boy meets girl and they fall in love. Cue glitter. There seems to be an obstacle – their warring fathers. Overcome this and the result is more glitter. A further set of problems to confirm this love is the real thing and you have a finale that includes (you guessed it) glitter. There really is a lot of glitter.

The book and lyrics by Tom Jones are far more knowing than this outline suggests. His reference is as much Pyramus and Thisbe performed by the rude mechanicals as Romeo and Juliet. It is a surprise, therefore, that Amon Miyamoto’s production is so heavy handed when it comes to sentiment. An observation that the production is ‘avant garde’ gets the biggest laugh of the evening, as the black jutting stage and mawkish choreography are jarring. As is the audience participation with those sitting on stage drafted into the action. It may prove some point for the director but it does little for the show.

Unfortunately this overdose of sincerity seems to have made an impression on the younger members of the cast. Luke Brady and Lorna Want have great voices but look as if they are trying too hard. Hadley Fraser shares this problem when he comes to deliver the play’s numerous homely truths as The Narrator but he also gets the chance to show great comic talent when he plays the bandit El Gallo. Clive Rowe and David Burt seem to make getting laughs easy work. They are wonderful together. Likewise Paul Hunter and Edward Petherbridge who are conscripted in a plot to bring the lovers together. From the moment of their wonderful entrance on stage they are laugh-out-loud funny. Petherbridge really is fantastic and is in total control of the audience.

The Fantasticks is a joyous celebration of the power of your imagination. You have to be hard hearted indeed not to love such an appealing show even if it is essential to revel in the incredible and let yourself go. And why not? Sometimes it is great to take things with a pinch of salt. Or maybe a pinch of glitter.

Photo by Dan Tsantilis

Written 11 June 2010 for The London Magazine

“After the Dance” at the National Theatre

The National Theatre’s contribution to the Terence Rattigan centenary celebrations is one of his least known plays, After the Dance. This provides a provocative insight into the Bright Young Things – that post-WWI, Bohemian generation – and in particular what happens to them in later life. Set in 1938, the play’s serious-minded youngsters observe their elders with disdain. This new generation thinks the party should have ended long ago and, with a new war looming, it becomes clear that any dance now is likely to be a macabre one.

The Scott-Fowlers are a wealthy and glamorous couple, still on the party scene and seemingly enjoying themselves. Reaching for the gin with improbable frequency, even more impossibly they retain their wit. They may not be young but they are still bright and a great source of comedy. Benedict Cumberbatch and Nancy Carroll portray this sophistication perfectly – they positively sparkle.

The Scott-Fowlers are joined by their ‘court jester’ John Reid, played by National Theatre stalwart Adrian Scarborough, who (as usual) manages to steal any scene he is in. We also get to meet their friends, including a cameo from Pandora Colin that is worth the price of a ticket alone. Her character’s vague distaste of her Bloomsbury days now that times have moved on is not only hilarious but reveals the dichotomy this group lives with – obsessed with the past, they are also slaves to fashion.

John Heffernan and Faye Castelow
John Heffernan and Faye Castelow

Aloof to it all, David Scott-Fowler’s cousin and young secretary, Peter, is played superbly by the always impressive John Heffernan. While intrigued with the glamorous life he isn’t ashamed of being the “bore” his elders live in fear of being described as. His fiancée Helen also sees that the pretence of being continually interesting is exhausting, but is in love with the older David and young enough to try to change him. Faye Castelow gives this pursuit an almost sinister edge and shows how Helen fails to recognise the depth of character she lectures about is actually already present. Given the chance to show their characters’ deeper side, Cumberbatch and Carroll excel once again.

There is no doubt that this is a revival to cherish. Rattigan’s masterfully crafted script is directed with characteristic clarity by Thea Sharrock. The production values are as high as we might expect from the National Theatre, with a stylish set from Hildegard Bechtler and breathtaking costumes. Any reference to contemporary events and the economic boom of recent history are (perhaps thankfully) avoided. Entertaining and interesting, impeccably performed and produced, this is the perfect period piece.

Until 11 August 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 9 June 2010 for The London Magazine

“Paradise Found” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Coming to the Menier Chocolate Factory’s new musical, Paradise Found, slightly later than the first-night critics, it was hard for this writer to avoid the early reviews. These began with an assault by the bloggers and were followed by the pros, who seemed to enjoy panning the show with only marginally less enthusiasm than their amateur colleagues. Combine the Menier’s recent record (success in the West End and on Broadway) with the cast and creatives imported for this show and it is hard to see what could go wrong. Co-directed by Hal Prince and Susan Stroman and starring a fantastic Broadway cast, could it really be as bad as everyone is saying?

At turns dreadfully, offensively, old fashioned and then novel to the point of eccentricity, Paradise Found is odd and unsettling. However, with a cast this talented, the evening is always entertaining. Set to music of Johann Strauss II (see what I mean about odd) with musical direction by Charles Prince, it often sounds lovely and, with a clever set by Beowulf Boritt, it looks pretty good as well.

There is some great comic talent here. John McMartin is very funny as the Shah of Persia travelling to Austria to revive his libido. And it is a privilege to hear Shuler Hensley and Kate Baldwin as the Baron and the prostitute who fall in love. And then there is Mandy Patinkin, who jokes, sings and pauses for thought as a (strangely Zen) eunuch from the Shah’s court.

Although the story is silly (and it is inspired by real life events) this shouldn’t be a huge problem for musical theatre. Things start to fray when the ratio of deliberately bad jokes outweighs those that get genuine laughs. The show is also strangely disjointed, with an interval located before the end of the first act. In the latter part of the evening the action takes place 15 years on and things become darker in tone. The now destitute Baron is performing in a musical of his own story. This vaudeville version of events that bordered on pastiche might have sounded post-modern and clever. It is actually just a bad idea.

Paradise Found is messy, but it is a bold mess with moments of brilliance. Many of its failings don’t really sink in until later. With Prince and Stroman behind it, the faults may be surprising, but these two are big enough to learn lessons and I suspect this won’t be the last we hear of their show. The Menier is to be commended not only for bringing so much talent to our shore but also for taking risks. This is what has brought it so much success recently, and it must be careful that it doesn’t lose this quality.

Until 26 June 2010

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 7 June 2010 for The London Magazine

“Romeo and Juliet” at the Leicester Square Theatre

The young Ruby In the Dust Theatre company now have a semi-permanent home in the basement auditorium of the Leicester Square Theatre. Having done so well with their production of Dorian Gray they now present a fresh and bold version of Romeo and Juliet.

The action is set in Fascist Italy, with the warring families recast as either Mussolini’s “blackshirts” or Jews. At the risk of sounding mean-spirited, this ambitious concept adds little to the production (apart from the odd Star of David). Some people despair at the slightest change in the Bard’s text, but that isn’t the objection here. Unless you’re a purist, you’ll be happy with the changes made by director Linnie Reedman, especially as the result is a fast-paced and exciting show.

Very much in the spirit of Shakespeare, this is a show with plenty of music. Joe Evans has composed some delightful tunes that sit well next to an eclectic soundtrack. It is a shame that we can’t hear more, as the score adds to both romance and drama.

The cast take on board the show’s adventurous spirit, resulting in a series of virile performances. Dan Moore plays Paris with great stage presence. He rises above the sinister overtones of his black shirt to show why his character is described as having so much promise. Martin Dickenson does well as Tybalt, instantly establishing his strong-arm credentials and excelling in a superb fight scene with Christos Lawton’s dandyish, yet dangerous, Mercutio. A strong, appropriate sensuality marks all three performances and is echoed by Imogen Viden-North in the role of the Nurse. A considerably younger actress than we are used to in this part, she uses her age cleverly and makes the indulgence she shows her ward convincing.

Any production of Romeo and Juliet depends on its leads and here the evening excels. Daniel Finn and Olivia Vinall are young, vital and sexy. They treat their speeches naturally and bring out plenty of nuance. Their love is convincing, as is their fear of the situation they find themselves in. We are sure to see more of these young actors in the future and with this eye for casting are keen to see more Ruby In The Dust productions as well.

Until 11th July 2010

www.leicestersquaretheatre.com

www.rubyinthedusttheatre.com

Photo by Patrick Dodds

Written 7 June 2010 for The London Magazine

“All My Sons” at the Apollo Theatre

Now is a good time to revive Arthur Miller’s 1947 masterpiece All My Sons. The story of a war profiteer whose faulty goods killed U.S. airmen, is so full of moral dilemmas that it is always entertaining and powerful. But currently, as corporate responsibility is in the news and questions of social justice become vital in our increasingly divided society, All My Sons has become more important than ever.

This summer, at the Apollo Theatre, All My Sons gets the production it deserves. William Dudley’s beautiful set wins you over before the action even starts. It is the perfect stage for what at first seems to be a homely drama. In the skilful hands of director Howard Davies, this is developed into a perfect mix of touching domestic tension and complex politics expressed with intellectual vigour.

The dual concern for both family matters and society as a whole is also well expressed by the uniformly brilliant cast. Stephen Campbell Moore plays Chris Keller – having survived the war he is now in the position of taking over the family business. A devoted son and noble man, he wishes to marry his dead brother’s sweetheart – Jemima Rooper gives a superb performance in this role. Desperate for love and sharing high principles the couple are haunted by mistakes and lies that began long ago.

Chris’s parents, Kate and Joe, are presented first as a devoted older couple, so comfortable together that they share mannerisms and know each others thoughts. We come to see they are also linked by the lies they tell each other and the world. Zoë Wanamaker’s fragile Kate is hard as steel underneath. David Suchet as Joe, has the slightly harder job of showing the opposite – a genial father figure who is a mess of nerves deep down. Both actors are impeccable throughout.

Kate and Joe have a “talent for lying” and this is where the performances become truly remarkable. A frightening conviction is revealed when their backs are against the wall. Right up until the end both of them seek to control and manipulate. These are technically wonderful performances but there is even more to it than that. Wanamaker and Suchet’s skills have a purpose, their craft is well applied and functions to bring home Miller’s message. Together, they make this the play you simply must see this summer.

Until 2 October 2010

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 3 June 2010 for The London Magazine

“Limehouse Nights” by the Kandinsky Theatre Company

Limehouse once had a thriving Chinese population and, along with this, a lively reputation as an exotic den of vice. From Dickens to Conan Doyle, the area’s opium dens were a gift to writers seeking to create racist stereotypes of immigrants. The Kandinsky Theatre has taken over the sadly decrepit Limehouse Town Hall to allow us our own intoxicatingly intelligent journey back in time.

Make no mistake that we are tourists. Director and writer James Yeatman opens the play, based on a real-life story, with a group much like ourselves – turn-of-the-century Londoners on a tour and looking for escapism. Limehouse has had lots of gentrification since the time of the play – desirable terraces and modern flats surround Hawksmoor’s St Anne’s – but the Town Hall itself has seen better days. Despite clever efforts by designer Amy Cook, it isn’t well suited as an auditorium. The idea of staging the play there is neat, but the production is a success despite, rather than because of, its location.

Following the death by drug overdose of a musical-hall actress, police inspector Thomas Burke heads for the East End to investigate the source of her supply. There follows an entertaining detective story that includes plenty of wry observation about cultural encounters. The whodunit is presented well, with a series of interviews and statements that allow Alex Marx and Sarah Sweeney to show off their talents as various characters.

The politics is less successful. Tom Ferguson does well to show the Inspector’s excited exchange with his new Chinese friends and even better to show a creepy side when his interest in the exotic turns erotic. However, his supervisor MacReady, is understandably confused about his modern approach to community policing. Ed Hancock plays the role too much for laughs. He gets them but it doesn’t sit well with the rest of the play’s more subtle approach.

The pressure to find a solution to the case becomes about providing a story for the sensation-loving press. As interludes of musical theatre mimed by the cast reinforce, this story doesn’t have to be real so much as entertaining –with prejudices never questioned just confirmed.

Lee Chee Kong and his Irish wife Mita are the couple forced to take the blame. They are utterly believable as a devoted pair and the scenes of their romance and intimacy are the play’s highlights. Their exploitation to fit a bigoted narrative is made tragic by wonderful performances from William Mychael Lee and Kerry-Jayne Wilson. These actors alone make it a Limehouse Night to remember.

www.kandinsky-online.com

Until 11 June 2010

Photo by Dan Patrick

Written 1 June 2010 for The London Magazine

“Canary” at Hampstead Theatre

Jonathan Harvey’s Canary is an epic story of gay rights that stretches over 50 years, from imprisonment and aversion ‘therapy’, through political activism and the fear of AIDS, up to the age of celebrity ‘outings’. Harvey knows his subject matter possibly a little too well – analysis is sometimes less than subtle, with action and issues too condensed. Fortunately, he is an entertaining writer who gives us more than a history lesson. He creates an engaging, ambitious story packed with as much drama and humour as it is with politics.

Harvey adopts the sensible device of recounting the history through the life of one man. We begin as Tom, a senior policeman, is about to be exposed as gay by the press and then travel back through his life to see how his decision to remain in the closet affects those close to him. From his betrayal of the men he loves, his marriage and his rejection of his own gay son, we see the long-term repercussions of his lies.

There is a touch of soap opera here and that isn’t meant to sound derogatory. The characters are skilfully crafted so that their part in the story comes to be about them as individuals – no small feat when political issues are involved. They aren’t just symbols but complicated people living through dramatic events. It is often gripping stuff driven by passion and conviction that this politics still matters.

The play is also superbly acted. The younger members of the cast do well to represent what their older selves would have been like years ago. Appropriately, though, in a play that celebrates the achievements of previous activists, it is the older members of the cast who shine. Philip Voss is breathtaking in the variety of roles he has to play. Moving from a wicked impersonation of Mary Whitehouse to standing by his estranged son’s deathbed in a matter of moments. Paula Wilcox is also fantastic playing his wife Ellie. Driven to distraction by her own guilt as well as her husband’s she retreats into fantasy, travelling through time and space and, in between, putting in a splendid Margaret Thatcher impersonation.

The fantastic elements and shifts in time make Harvey’s play highly theatrical. Director Hettie MacDonald deals well with this – actors fly through the air and demonstrate from the audience seats. There is a lot of fun here only slightly let down by a minimal staging that feels as if it consists solely of sofas. The upholstery (and costumes) set the time of the action as well as they can, but some further help might be useful. If the whole thing takes some following, these shifts in time and reality serve well to emphasise the repercussions of events. Scenes when characters look at, or talk to, their younger selves are amongst the most poignant moments in a play bold and powerful enough to have no shortage of them.

Until 12 June 2010

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Helen Warner

 

Written 23 May 2010 for The London Magazine