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Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

It’s like a ball of energy has landed on the Old Vic stage. This is a powerhouse of a show which exceeded my expectations and brought me and the rest of the audience to our feet cheering. Who’d have thought 100-year-old history could have so much impact.

Sylvia is of course Sylvia Pankhurst, sister of suffragette leader Emmeline. After initially working together as suffragettes, together with sisters Christabel & Adela, Sylvia forms a breakaway socialist group in East London and their paths diverge. Sylvia is a friend of Keir Hardie, leader of the fledgling Labour Party, and takes a more radical stance on the same issues as her sisters.

The show covers the whole campaign period, showing the different reasons for opposition to suffrage as well as the divisions within the movement. It’s as much about class as sex, with some of the opposition voices afraid that giving the vote to women will mean doing the same for working class men. The story zips along, in private and public, in parliament and on the streets, covering much ground. With more than a nod to Hamilton, the score by Josh Cohen & DJ Walde is contemporary, hip hop and soul, and it works brilliantly.

Most of it is in black & white, but when Keir Hardie appears we get a flash of socialist red, a lot more of it when we’re with Sylvia’s breakaway group. The costumes reflect the period. Ben Stone has created a terrific look. Sometimes I worry that creative tension will suffer if someone takes multiple roles. Here, Kate Prince excels as director and choreographer but she’s also responsible for the book and lyrics and I do wonder if the show would have benefitted from some additional musical theatre experience with these.

As far as performances go, Beverley Knight is the big draw here, and she is indeed excellent, but Sharon Rose in the titular role gives a real star performance. In a superb supporting cast, it’s great to see Alex Gaumond back on stage as Keir Hardy and Jade Hackett’s terrific cameo as Lady Jennie Churchill.

A very welcome new British musical.

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This is one of Shakespeare’s oddest plays. Ostensibly about jealousy and it’s consequences, it veers into fantasy, taking us to two very different locations, Sicily and Bohemia. It must be the only play ever written featuring a sheep-sheering contest, though no actual sheep appear!

They’ve performed the same play / production in both theatres separately before, but for the first time both the candlelit playhouse and the outdoor theatre are used for the same performance, one for each location, in Sean Holmes’ production. An inspired idea, even if you have to spend an hour outdoors on a cold winter night! Well, it is called A Winter’s Tale.

All seems fine in the court of Leontes in Sicily. His wife Hermione is pregnant with their second child and his best friend Polixenes is on an extended visit from Bohemia. Then he gets it into his head that his wife and his best friend have been having an affair and Polixenes has fathered the baby. His jealousy becomes all consuming. Polixenes departs to avoid murder by Leontes, who exiles the newborn child. Leontes tries Hermoine, but despite ‘evidence’ from the oracle refuses to accept her innocence. His young son dies of distress at his mother’s treatment by his father, and Hermoine soon dies herself.

In Bohemia, a shepherd and his son find the baby, taken there and left by Antigonus at Hermoine’s request. They name her Perdita, and their family bring her up as their own. Jump forward sixteen years and Polixenes’ son Florizel has fallen for Perdita, much to his father’s disappointment as a shepherd’s daughter is well below his station. They all meet at the sheep-shearing contest / festival, where they find out her true heritage and head for Sicily where they find Leontes deep in remorse. A statue of Hermoine is unveiled and comes alive, thus reuniting the family. See what I mean by odd?!

The madness which underpins Leontes’ jealousy has greater emphasis in this production. The play is famous for its stage direction ‘exit pursued by a bear’ which here has two appearances, the latter milked with an elongated exit. The shepherds festival veers a long way from Shakespeare, but with Ed Gaughan’s comic masterclass as Autolycus it’s impossible to resist. The final scene did have a particular poignancy lit by just a handful of candles.

With the trip between theatres, it does lengthen the play, particularly challenging on wooden benches partly outdoors, but I enjoyed much of the evening. Samuel Creasey continues to impress, here as the shepherd’s son, and Nadine Higgin made much of the role of Paulina. Grace Smart’s dining room design for first part was lovely. The Bohemia set was a bit ramshackle, but when lit brightly came into its own.

Productions of this play don’t come around often, and this one is well worth a visit.

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I’ve only seen this rarely produced Shakespeare revenge tragedy a few times, the first time c.35 years ago and the last c.15 years ago, so I felt ready to see it again, particularly at the lovely candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The space looked as gorgeous as ever and the opening song set a blackly comic tone brilliantly, but sadly it was all downhill from there.

Titus returns from war victorious, lauded by the people, but declines the invitation to become the next Emperor. The prisoners he brought back from the war include Tamora, queen of the Goths, her lover Aaron the Moor and her three sons. When they are liberated by the new Emperor, now married to Tamora, they vow revenge, murder two of Titus’ sons and rape and maim his daughter Lavinia. His revenge on them is to kill them, inviting their mother Tamora and the Emperor, now her husband, to dinner for a rather unique pie.

Despite the fact the play features murders, rape, maiming and cannibalism, this is a bloodless, bodyless affair. Nine women in silk pyjamas, in different pastel shades, all with hair worn back with a pigtail take the stage. They play all of the roles. Each barbaric act is marked symbolically by the despatch of a candle. It’s not that I’m particularly bloodthirsty, but this emotionless take just doesn’t bring out the horror of the events unfolding. The comedy becomes more silly than black.

I struggle to understand the thinking behind this interpretation. I considered leaving at the interval, but decided to see it through and it did get more passionate, but never warranted the description of revenge tragedy. I couldn’t stop memories of a definitive production thirty-five years ago at the Swan Theatre in Stratford with Brian Cox as a manic Titus in chef’s whites flooding my brain, and I couldn’t engage with this production at all.

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I’m very fond of Bill Bryson’s travelogues, and this one was probably my favourite. Perhaps it takes someone who isn’t from here to capture the idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, quirkiness and charm of this sceptred isle. It was written some twenty-five years ago, just before his return to the US for eight years, and partly reliving his first visit some twenty years earlier. It takes us from Dover to John o’ Groats, but not in a straight line. I’d completely forgotten there had been a TV adaptation, and the question going through my mind as we entered the theatre was ‘How on earth can you stage it?’

It starts with Bryson as a young boy back in Des Moines Iowa, with a prologue that includes the opening line of the biography of his youth, The Thunderbolt Kid, my favourite opening line of any book. We soon jump forward twenty years or so to Calais where he is about to leave behind his journey through mainland Europe for his first visit to these shores, starting of course in Dover. The stage version of this first journey ends soon after it starts when he meets his future wife whilst working in a psychiatric hospital in Virginia Water. Here we jump forward to Yorkshire where he settles and children are born, missing out their brief return to Des Moines for two years, and other English homes.

Twenty or so years later, as a swan-song to Britain when the family relocated to New England for a while, he repeats the trip, and that is the meat of this show, a whistle-stop tour through many locations in England, Wales & Scotland, meeting a multitude of characters along the way, often nostalgic for the earlier trip and somewhat hostile to the changes a mere two decades have brought.

Mark Hadfield plays Bryson, a huge part, onstage the whole time, and is supported by six fine actors playing some ninety roles no less. Paul Hart’s production zips along, locations created by designer Katie Lias with simple carry-on sets and props and evocative projections by George Reeve onto the theatre’s back wall. The Watermill, a converted mill in the English countryside, is the perfect venue for this story.

I think the structure of the first half of Tim Whitnall’s adaptation would benefit from more clarity regarding the chronology, but the show does perfectly capture Bryson’s humour and love of his adopted country and makes the journey from page to stage successfully.

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It’s not often you go to the theatre and come out having seen something so far removed from what you expected. I was prepared for a modern adaptation of Seneca’s take on Euripides with a nod to Racine, but what I got was a shocking modern drama with a very tenuous link to its sources, yet its brilliant, thrilling stuff, if a bit over-engineered.

It’s set in a glass box that revolves. The actors are miked, speaking naturalistically, fast, overlapping, which makes it a challenge to absorb all of the dialogue. We start in the home of Helen and Hugo and their teenage son Declan. She’s a shadow minister, he’s a diplomat. It’s a very modern family where frankness and ripe language are the norm. Their older daughter Isolde and her husband Eric come for dinner. Everyone loves Eric. They’ve been struggling to have a child and are now investigating adoption.

We learn that Helen travelled to Morocco more than thirty years ago, a hedonistic trip where she had an affair with a married man who died in a car crash whilst she was there, his young son Sofiane witnessing his father’s death. The adult Sofiane, now around forty, unexpectedly, and seemingly inexplicably, arrives during dinner. He’s welcomed by all, but as the story progresses their lives are irrevocably turned upside down.

It’s impossible to reveal more without spoiling it, suffice to say it elicits gasps from the audience on a number of occasions, though there are plenty of laughs too, as the tale takes some very unexpected twists and turns. Director Simon Stone, best known here for Yerma at the Young Vic (also in a glass box but more intimate in a traverse setting in a smaller theatre) makes life difficult for himself with some very complex and long set changes, which slows the pace and lengthens it to 2h45m, though I understand this has been reduced by 35 minutes since the first preview. There’s a lot of time looking at a black screen, albeit with voiceovers and music.

We see too little of Janet McTeer on stage here since she’s settled in the US; it’s been seven years, but well worth the wait. Hers is a terrific performance as the somewhat self-centred Helen, around which everything revolves. The always reliable Paul Chahidi excels as the tolerant much put upon husband and father Hugo. French-Moroccan actor Assaad Bouab’s charismatic, magnetic presence ensures Sofiane is the centre of attention whenever he’s on stage. Notwithstanding the issues with the scene changes, Chloe Lamford’s designs are really striking.

Despite its faults, it’s a compelling and enthralling modern drama and I loved it.

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I’m not sure I’ll ever tire of this Michael Frayn play. It’s just over forty years since I saw it first and four years since I saw it last, with three other productions in between; the gaps are getting shorter. On the first occasion, I left the Savoy Theatre by a back door, lost and disorientated, a case of life imitates art. The first act of Michael Frayn’s farce within the play, Nothing On, is played three times, but once backstage and twice onstage, and over a period of ten weeks.

We start at the technical / dress rehearsal on the eve of the first performance in Weston-super-Mare when the play is nowhere near ready after just two weeks of rehearsal. The director interjects from the auditorium and the cast try and remember the intricacies of doors and props, the most actorly amongst them still looking for their character’s motivation. There are personal relationships between some, though mostly secret.

Then we’re part way through the tour in Ashton-under-Lyne, by which time the director has moved on to Richard III in Aberystwyth, relationships are strained and tempers frayed but the show must go on. Now we see the same act from backstage whilst the performance takes place on the other side of the set, so we see the entrances and exits with the dialogue a sound backdrop. The director pays a visit, unhelpfully as it turns out.

In the final week in Stockton-on-Tees we’re watching the first act again. It’s got to the point where the feuding makes it necessary to improvise much of the show, with outright war between some cast members, and the director makes another unhelpful visit. They only just make it through, though through what is more to the point.

I’ve long admired Joseph Millson, but here he shines, with extraordinary physical comedy skills and superb comic timing. It’s lovely to see national treasure Felicity Kendall deep in the chaos as veteran actress Dotty / housekeeper Mrs Clackett. Jonathan Coy’s pensive moments trying to understand his character and aspects of the action are a joy. Tracey Ann-Oberman, in her final week, is a benevolent omnipresence, trying to keep everyone happy.

I felt the first act was a touch slow this time, but the second and third found me weeping with laughter again. A New Year tonic.

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I’m fast becoming a regular at Birmingham Rep; this is my third day-trip from London in 15 months, though on this occasion it wasn’t the primary reason – that was Grayson Perry’s Art Club third series exhibition. So I added this to justify the trip and was a bit taken aback at how big a show it turned out to be. With Avalon as co-producers, destined for touring and transfer I suspect.

I was an avid follower of the original ITV series which ran for 12 years in the 80’s and 90’s, but when it returned almost 25 years later it was on BritBox and I wasn’t inclined to subscribe, though I’ve seen a fair few clips on YouTube. Even though there is as much if not more to satirise, it didn’t seem to resonate as much. Perhaps in the age of social media we get more satire, more edgy, more quickly.

Well, you couldn’t accuse this of not being edgy! The premise is that King Charles wants to save Britain and recruits a handful of celebrities led by Tom Cruise to do so. Cruise is joined by Ru Paul, Greta Thunberg, Meghan, Tyson Fury, Idris Elba and Angela Rayner. Along the way we meet the senior royals, a trio of recent and current PM’s and a handful of cabinet ministers, five current and former world leaders, some more celebrities, and the ghosts of The Queen and Margaret Thatcher – more than forty in all, performed by just 12 puppeteers (with some very quick changes) and voiced by another 12 artists.

The premise is a a bit daft, but it doesn’t really matter as the show’s great strength is the extremely funny script created by Al Murray & Matt Forde with director Sean Foley. Some of the original series’ caricatures have lingered in the memory, like the grey John Major’s love of peas! Some here, like Rishi Sunak as a public school Head Boy, work just as well, but not all do. Ian McKellen (the puppet not the man!) is very good as a master of ceremonies and with Tom Cruise, Charles III and Putin & Xi carries the show.

It’s a huge proscenium set with boxes on either side onto which they project film footage of other characters like newsreader Huw Edwards. The Palace scenes are particularly well served by this, with a great Downing Street backdrop for the government sketches. The production values really are good. Like other stage shows which use puppets – War Horse, The Life of Pi – the presence of the puppeteer doesn’t really get in the way, and there are some clever ways on display here of integrating the puppeteer’s body with the puppet.

I would have liked to have been nearer (this was a last minute matinee booking in a packed theatre) to get more detail, and it was an early preview, so a bit rough at the edges, but it’s great fun and at the present time good to see satire on stage!

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Rob Madge had appeared in leading West End roles in Mary Poppins, Oliver, Les Miserables and Matilda whilst still a child, but his love of performing goes way back further, with performances in the home as well as Stagecoach lessons. His most iconic home-made show was a Disney parade of characters for his grandma, with his parents as supporting cast and stage management, but it was a bit of a shambles.

Aged 24 he decided to restage it inside a biographical show. It started out at the Turbine Theatre in 2021, went to the Edinburgh fringe in 2022 and is just starting its second West End outing. Much of his childhood was filmed by his devoted father, so the story is interspersed with actual footage. Young Rob is extraordinarily precocious, hilarious, but also a control freak, and you can’t help falling in love with his wonderfully supportive family.

The lovely home life is contrasted with more of a struggle outside the home, with other children’s intolerance and bullying, but the combination of talent, defiance, determination and support is powerful and one of the great delights of the show is how heart-warming and life-affirming it is. There were very moving moments, but they combine with the humour to create something that is an absolute joy.

Pippa Cleary has written some lovely original songs, Ryan Dawson Laight’s design, with a video screen as it’s backdrop, is a homespun delight and Luke Sheppard’s staging has a lightness of touch in keeping with the story. It’s only just over an hour, but it’s a glorious hour. Don’t miss it.

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I have to confess some hesitation in deciding to go to see this musical as I thought it might be a vanity project, a showcase for former Star Trek actor, octogenarian George Takai. Well, look at the title. Though its inspired by his family’s experience, he’s not in a lead role, yet the final curtain call is left for him, greeted by a standing ovation that has more to do with his past, so the hesitation is well founded, but it’s good to report the show is very good.

It’s based on what families like Takai’s had to go through in the Second World War as Japanese Americans, interned and mistreated because of their heritage. The same happened elsewhere of course, including the UK with Germans and Italians. The story takes us right through from the outbreak of war to allied victory, mostly through the eyes of one family, the son choosing to demonstrate his loyalty by enlisting, the daughter choosing the alternative path, the father’s loyalties with her. Takai plays the calming presence of the grandfather.

The tensions between the factions are very interesting. Soldier Sam and his fellow enlistees identify with the country in which they are born and are (eventually) allowed to fight for it, albeit in what seem like suicide missions. Those that burn their draft papers feel that fighting would betray their families, whose treatment they consider unacceptable. The representative of the Japanese Americans is seen as weak, more concerned with pleasing Washington than defending their interests. It’s musical theatre, of course, so there are a couple of love stories, a risky adventure and a tragedy for good measure.

The lead performances are outstanding. Telly Leung as Sam is equally talented as an actor and singer. Aynrand Ferrer brings a steely passion to the role of his sister Kei, again with great vocals. Megan Gardiner as the internment camp nurse and Sam’s love interest is lovely. In smaller roles Patrick Munday as Kei’s love interest and Masashi Fujimoto as the father shine. The small band play Jay Kuo’s score, which is full of lovely tunes, if a touch formulaic and a bit too sentimental, very well. It’s superbly sung by a talented cast largely of Asian origin. The traverse staging works well, though the action in the side balconies can’t be seen by a significant chunk of the audience.

There’s an authenticity to the staging and design which serves it well and I left the theatre with my expectations exceeded.

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One of the great things about the Royal Court’s £12 Mondays is that it encourages you to take a risk, as I did here. Eight performers from London’s underground club scene invade the Court to show us their talent and tell us their stories. It’s a wild and unpredictable journey.

It starts with lengthy introductions before they embark on a very funny parody of a typical Court play, with a surprising target. The change from play set to club is staged, with both the performers and stage staff transforming the space before your eyes. Then the seven very diverse acts (one who wasn’t present was represented by a cardboard cut-out!) present us with cabaret, burlesque and lip-synching. It ends more darkly as Chiyo, the final act, tells us their personal story.

It’s in-yer-face, provocative, challenging, loud, brash, rude and anarchic, but it also covers a lot of serious ground. I hadn’t hitherto understood how, in the eyes of some, drag has been hijacked by the mainstream, with Ru Paul’s Drag Race one of the culprits, and though I was aware of the abuse hurled at those who are different and those in the trans community in particular, this piece really brings this home to you.

Travis Alabanza’s piece is ground-breaking, thought-provoking and entertaining in equal measure. Risk’s don’t always pay off, but this one did.

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