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The first full year of theatre going since 2019 and I saw 129 shows in the 42 weeks I was in the UK (my travels resumed too!). A good indication of its quality was that a third made my long list.

BEST NEW PLAY – PATRIOTS at the Almeida Theatre & MIDDLE at the NT’s Dorfman Theatre

It was a particularly good year for new plays, perhaps because playwrights had more time during lockdown to craft and perfect their work. There were twenty contenders and after much deliberation 7 rose above the rest. Nell Leyshon’s Folk at Hampstead, about the song collecting of Cecil Sharp, proved a real treat, as did Marvellous, the life-affirming inaugural offering @sohoplace about the extraordinary Neil Baldwin. At the National, an adaptation of Sheriden’s restoration comedy The Rivals, Jack Absolute Flies Again, was by far the funniest new play, whilst down the road at the Young Vic The Collaboration was a fascinating examination of an unlikely relationship between two artistsWarhol & Basquiat. Prima Facie was a great play exposing the broken legal system of trials for sexual offences, but it was really all about the sensational star performance from Jodie Comer. It was two plays about relationships – Peter Morgan’s Patriots, about Berezovsky, the kingmaker of both Putin & Abramovitch and David Eldridge’s Middle about the divergence of a couple in mid-life, that stood out most.

BEST REVIVAL – The Crucible & The Corn Is Green at the NT and Handbagged at The Kiln Theatre

I couldn’t choose between the three, and there were six other very good contenders too. I’ve seen quite a few productions of The Crucible, but few had the intensity of the NT’s revival in the Olivier. Next door in the Lyttelton, what made The Corn is Green was the addition of singing by the miners, fully anchoring the play in Wales. I was surprised how much Handbagged, about the relationship between Thatcher and the Queen, resonated twelve years on and how clever and funny it still was.

The six ‘bubbling under’ were the return of Jerusalem after 13 years as good if not better than before, two Shakespeare’s at the NT – Much Ado About Nothing and Othello, Age of Rage – a Greek Tragedy ‘mash up’ from Amsterdam, a timely revival of Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads in Chichester and To Kill A Mockingbird, transferred from Broadway to The West End.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – TAMMY FAYE at The Almeida

Every year is a lean year for new musicals these days, but this new musical had it all – great book, lyrics and music, given an audacious production with as fine a set of performances as you could hope for.

The Band’s Visit, about an Egyptian band lost in Israel, was a joy, understated and full of hope, which could have won in any other year. I loved Newsies too, but more as a dance showcase than a musical. The others on the long list were Mandela at the Young Vic, Local Hero in Chichester, Bonnie & Clyde in the West End and The Lion, though I was late to that party.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – Spring Awakening at The Almeida, Crazy for You in Chichester and Billy Elliott at Curve Leicester.

A leaner than usual year for musical revivals; covid related costs and delays I suspect, but these three matched (Billy) or bettered (Crazy For You and Spring Awakening) all previous productions. Four of the seven contenders were in the regions (the other two being a terrific revival of Gypsy in Buxton and Terry Gilliam’s Into the Woods exiled to Bath). As much as I enjoyed Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club and Oklahoma at the Young Vic, they didn’t match these three.

So that’s it for another year. Here’s to as much, if not more, in 2023.

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It’s a real challenge to do justice to 20-30 years of personal and political history in an evening on stage. Cape Town Opera’s Mandela Trilogy, which visited the Royal Festival Hall six years ago in a semi-staged production, didn’t really pull it off (they attempted a longer period). This does though, in just two hours, by focusing on key moments, and by using music and dance to great effect.

We start when peaceful demonstrations are violently suppressed by the apartheid government, driving campaigners towards a more radical form of protest. This leads to the arrest and imprisonment of Mandela and his colleagues for 27 years, during which the unrest continues and the campaign becomes international, with Oliver Tambo successfully drumming up support and promoting sanctions that prove key to the ultimate demise of apartheid.

It’s also the period when Mandela’s five children are growing up without him. His wife Winnie is imprisoned, which has a profound effect on her, with anger and violence coming to the fore, at odds with her husband’s view that reconciliation is the way forward. The show doesn’t shy away from this. It ends as Mandela is released after 18 of the 27 years, as the ANC succeed in their aims.

The simple setting, shades of brown green and ochre, and excellent costumes are very evocative of both the location and period, as is the choreography. I really liked Greg Dean & Shaun Borowsky’s score, virtually sung through, with particularly rousing choruses that take your breath away. Perhaps because it sets scenes in different locations years apart, the staging feels a bit staccato, but this didn’t really hamper the storytelling.

It’s brilliantly performed and sung by an exceptional cast led by Michael Luwoye as Mandela and Danielle Fiamanya as Winnie, who excel in both acting and singing. Luwoye has great presence, nailing that distinctive voice, and Fiamanya’s vocals are stunning, with her transition from housewife and mother to single-minded, defiant woman superbly handled.

The audience rose to its feet in appreciation of the performances, but it also felt like we rose in tribute to its subject too. Definitely a show to catch.

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I feel privileged to have seen many theatre productions by great directors from around the world, like Canada’s Robert Lepage and the late Yukio Ninagawa from Japan. Ivo van Hove joined my list of favourites some 17 years ago with his production of Arthur Milker’s A View from the Bridge here at the Young Vic, and 12 shows later he’s back with this solo piece adapted from Edouard Louis’ 2018 autobiographical novel.

It follows the relationship between Edouard and his father from childhood to the latter’s industrial accident and subsequent disability. He was an abusive father and husband, a racist and a homophobe, particularly cruel to Edouard as a gay boy. Hans Kesting plays both father and son at all ages, together with cameos as mother and brother, switching with ease. The mental cruelty is a tough watch. Towards the end it goes off on a tangent, ranting against French leaders for the right-wing turns that impacted the poor and disadvantaged such as Edouard’s dad.

van Hove’s regular designer Jan Verswayveld creates some striking visual images in a black room with just a bed, door and windows, particularly in his use of lighting. It’s very much in van Hove’s ‘house style’ which gives it a visceral quality. It’s an extraordinary tour de force from Kesting, an actor with great presence and range. The turn from personal to political towards the end, albeit true to the source, did jar with me though; it felt as if it was bolted on, an addition rather than an integral part of the story. That said, it’s an enthralling if harrowing ninety minutes.

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This transfer from the US has been hailed as a radical interpretation of Rogers & Hammerstein’s first show together, eighty years old next year. I saw the NT’s 1998 production and Chichester’s 2019 revival and even though these brought out the darkness, in comparison it is. It seems to me it was always a play with music rather than a musical as such and that’s certainly what we have here.

Chief amongst the reinventions is new orchestration and instrumentation featuring banjo, mandolin, pedal steel guitar, fiddle and accordion, creating a wholly appropriate Americana sound. It’s scaled down for an eight-piece band (plus actor-musician Arthur Darvill) in an onstage pit, and a cast of twelve. It’s more tense, such as in the wedding scene, funnier (just about any scene featuring lovable but dim Will), and above all sexier. When it’s rousing, notably the title number, it’s very rousing. The auditorium looks great, covered in light wood panelling with one wall a sort of sepia landscape mural and gun racks containing 72 guns on the other walls. The playing area is surrounded by party tables at which audience members sit opposite cast members. There are decorations, and later lights, above.

It has its problems, though. The first half lacks pace, two scenes in complete darkness – encounters between Curly & Jud and between Laurey & Jud – are baffling, Laurey’s dream sequence has been moved to open the second half and she’s replaced by a dancer doing freeform to the shows tunes in the style of Jimi Hendrix (this didn’t really work for me) and I found the new ending, at the wedding, before the trial, problematic. That said, the positive innovations outweigh the negatives.

One of the production’s big strengths is excellent casting. Darvill is a bit of a revelation as Curly, with good vocals and a cowboy swagger. Patrick Vaill is a charismatic, brooding presence as Jud. Anoushhka Lucas is terrific as Laurey, with a beautiful voice which does full justice to her songs. Lisa Sadovy has crossed the Thames from her Olivier Award winning performance in Cabaret to give us a fine Aunt Eller. There’s excellent support in the sub-plots, notably Marisha Wallace as Ado Annie, who first wowed me as an ‘alternate’ lead in Dreamgirls and went on to impress in Waitress & the Hairspray revival, James Davis as Will, Stavros Demetraki as Ali and Rebekah Hinds as Gertie, whose laugh is a solo performance in itself.

Despite my misgivings, I admire them for taking such a fresh look and I enjoyed enough of the reinvention to make the visit more than worthwhile. Musicals purists, like those next to us who left at the interval, might not agree, though. Make your own mind up.

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It’s not often that you leave the theatre feeling privileged to have been in the audience, having witnessed something captivating, stimulating and entertaining. A fascinating story, brilliantly told, evocative design and performances you won’t stop talking about for some time. Something that can only happen live. You may have gathered already that this is a superb evening of theatre.

Andy Warhol’s career is flat-lining, stuck in one style, prices in decline. Jean-Michel Basquiat is the new kid on the block, a street artist who’s become the contemporary art world’s new poster boy. They are thrown together by Bruno Bischofberger, the art dealer they share, to create an exhibition that will hopefully add value to both their careers and become the talking point of the art community.

At the outset, Warhol is less than enthusiastic about the wildness of Basquiat and his work, whilst Basquiat is contemptuous of the decline of Warhol’s work from art to product, copying corporate logos and making silkscreen prints of celebrities. Though the collaboration happened the detail we see is of course somewhat speculative, but it seems both plausible and very real. Warhol is deeply conservative and Basquiat seemingly out of control. Over the three years they work together, the relationship evolves into a strong bond, but this is a multi-layered piece which looks at their respective personalities, backgrounds and inspiration as well as their relationship, but also covers the impact of business on art and how this can promote or derail it, or both. It held me in its grip throughout.

Anna Fleischle’s design takes us right into the warehouse and loft spaces of New York City’s artists, with superb projections by Duncan McLean. Paul Bettany is uncannily like Warhol in appearance and goes on to inhabit the character in a stunning performance. Jeremy Pope, in his UK debut, is mesmerising as Basquiat, a live wire pacing around his studio. There were moments in the second half when the magnetic presence of both resulted in an extraordinary silence. There’s fine support too from Alec Newman as the art dealer and Sophia Barclay as Basquiat’s sometime girlfriend; well, one of them!

Though he’s written 12 or so plays, most in his early career, Anthony McCarten is better known for some superb screenplays in recent years (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody & Two Popes) which has clearly made him a master at characterisation and storytelling. The Young Vic’s AD Kwame Kwei-Armah has marshalled his actors and creative team to produce something very special, one of the best new plays I’ve seen in some time.

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The master chronicler of British politics of the late 20th / early 21st centuries turns his attention to the US in 1968, a year that may have heralded the beginning of the polarisation we’ve been living through for the last five years or so, inspired by the documentary by Morgan Neville & Robert Gordon. An extraordinarily eventful year in which the Vietnam War continued to divide the nation and the world, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, student riots across the globe, civil rights protests the US, the Democratic Convention beleaguered by protest and division and Nixon was elected President, to replace LBJ.

The focus of James Graham’s new play is the adversarial ABC TV debates between William F Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal, which took place prior to and during the 1968 Democratic Convention, but the play is populated with other real life characters from the period, including writer James Baldwin, singers Aretha Franklin, Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte and artist Andy Warhol, with Enoch Powell and Tariq Ali representing the UK! Graham says the debates are verbatim, but everything else is speculation. It’s an extraordinary sweep of events which feels more like a decade than a year, that comes over as historically significant.

Jeremy Herrin marshals his outstanding cast of just ten, some playing up to seven characters, to make this all very real, from TV studios to protests to rallies to more intimate scenes in hotel bedrooms. David Harewood and Charles Edwards are terrific as Buckley and Vidal, sparring on camera and off. John Hodgkinson’s three roles include the contrasting somewhat calm TV interviewer Howard K Smith and the bombastic larger-than-life Mayor Daley of Chicago, both brilliantly done. Tom Godwin manages to characterise people as diverse as Andy Warhol, Bobby Kennedy and Enoch Powell to great success. Similarly, Surus Lowe brings James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte and Martin Luther King to life.

I didn’t engage with the play as much as I have with Graham’s British material, and I did feel it needed tightening up occasionally, but it’s great new writing given a thrilling production and I left the theatre replete, still thinking about these historical events and their contemporary relevance. Another great night at the Young Vic.

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Seeing this again after 25 years made me realise what an astonishing debut it was for Martin McDonagh, then only 26. In the space of just seven years, it was followed by the other two parts of the Leenane trilogy, the first two parts of the Inishmaan trilogy (the third is unproduced but may be about to become a film) and The Pillowman. We then lost him to film, apart from 2015’s brilliant return with Hangmen and 2018’s disastrous one with A Very Very Very Dark Matter. The two Inishmaan’s have had recent successful, high profile West End outings, but this is only the second revival in London of any of the Leenane’s since the Young Vic mounted it in 2010 and its great to see it again.

Spinster Maureen lives with her mother Mag in a remote cottage in County Galway. Their relationship is brittle. Maureen’s two sisters have escaped and she’s left to care for her mother, which she resents. She’s 40 and has missed out on life. Mag expects her to wait on her, but Maureen’s resentment leads to cruelty. When neighbour Pato returns from London, Maureen smells freedom, but Mag sees desertion and they both try to out-manipulate the other. It all ends in tears, of course. Bloody families.

It’s superbly plotted and the tension builds brilliantly to it’s tragic conclusion. It’s very dark but totally believable. There were moments when I had to turn my head. Director Rachel O’Riorden’s production starts slowly but broodingly, then draws you in and grips you. Ingrid Craigie and Orla Fitzgerald are simply brilliant as Mag and Maureen, sparring incessantly, though the mother – daughter bond never completely disappeared. Adam Best and Kwaku Fortune provide excellent support. The design by partnership Good Teeth Theatre is seedy and gothic, providing an atmospheric setting for what unfolds.

I now so want to see A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West again. Someone? Please?

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One of the most thrilling things about this evening is the youthfulness and diversity of the audience, one of the most attentive I’ve sat in too, and the production and performances prove just as thrilling. The Young Vic provided one of my favourite Hamlet’s (ten years ago with Michael Sheen) and now it has produced another, with Cush Jumbo.

Anna Fleische’s design is simple but elegant and does conjure up the battlements of Elsinore with its reflective towers, some of which move to reconfigure the space. Greg Hersov, a director whose work we’ve seen too little of in London (he ran the Royal Exchange in Manchester for 27 years) has made some cuts – notably the removal of the final scene arrival of Fortinbrass to take the crown – but taken no liberties. The verse is particularly well spoken and I found myself more than usually drawn in by Shakespeare’s words.

The attention paid to, and praise of, Cush Jumbo’s Hamlet is fully justified. It’s a youthful, subtle characterisation that displays distain with a simple facial expression and contempt with an casual offhand sign of the crucifix. There are so many other fine performances, though, including Jonathan Livingstone’s loyal Horatio, Jonathan Ajayi’s passionate Laertes and Norah Lopez Holden’s highly charged Ophelia. Taz Skylar & Joana Borja were a great pairing as Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, right from their animated arrival and Leo Wringer made much of the gravedigger in a particularly well staged scene. Joseph Marcell was terrific as Polonius, but I wasn’t sure what Adrian Dunbar was doing with Claudius. I came to the conclusion that it was my fault – I just couldn’t banish the iconic Line of Duty character.

This is an exceptional, very accessible Hamlet, another triumph for this indispensable theatre. Catch it if you can.

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Th creative components of this piece are formidable, and in many respects new to theatre. Based on an obscure 4000-year-old Egyptian story, never (?) or at least rarely dramatised, adapted by Ben Okri, better known as a novelist, designed by Sir David Adjaye, an architect making his first foray into theatre. The staging, though, is in the safe hands of Young Vic AD Kwame Kwei-Armah.

Adjaye’s design for this in-the-round production is a pyramid that unfolds to become a star shaped floor. A bigger inverted pyramid hangs above it, touching it, onto which there are superb projections by Duncan McLean. Lighting by Jackie Shemesh, music by Tunde Jegede & sound by XANA complete the beautiful look and sound of the piece.

At the beginning, the actors play a game to determine who takes the part of protagonist Sinuhe, on a journey through Lybia, Egypt and Syria. Our Sinuhe was Joan Iyiola who, with Ashley Zhangazha, plays 99 other parts, all of which they have to learn, given the decision point at the outset. It took a short while to get into the story, but then it seemed to zip along.

It’s a great tale, well told, and I loved the design aesthetic, but I wasn’t fully satisfied at the end, perhaps because it was a bit insubstantial for a full evening, perhaps because at almost £1 a minute I felt short-changed, or maybe a bit of both. That said, it’s something new, something different, and you can’t really argue that the inputs aren’t expertly crafted.

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This is the fourth Caryl Churchill play I’ve seen in the last twelve months – three revivals (two of which I’d seen before) and one new play(s). I first saw this seventeen years ago at the Royal Court with Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig. Cloning was a hot topic at the time. Eight years later there was a certain frisson seeing a real father and son – Timothy & Sam West – playing it at the Menier, something that was tried again at the Young Vic in 2015 with John & Rex Shrapnel. So this is my third exposure and I’m still confused. That’s Caryl Churchill for you.

It’s set in the home of Salter, where he is visited by someone who turns out to be a clone of his son, who was sent to some sort of home by his father when he was struggling after the suicide of his wife. Salter realises the doctors have created more than one clone and is preoccupied with suing them. His actual son then visits, furious with his father about the cloning. Salter now says he was just trying to have a second chance to bring up a son properly. The first clone returns, knowing the truth, now hating Salter. After another visit from his real son, now very troubled, Salter invites another of the clones, Michael, who proves to be very normal and unfazed by it all.

Polly Findlay’s excellent staging plays out in five scenes over sixty minutes, superbly performed by Colin Morgan as all of the boys and Roger Allam as Salter. In Lizzie Clachan’s clever set we’re in the same room, but from a different perspective in each scene, miraculously transforming in the darkness between them. It’s a much more realistic setting than previous productions, and Morgan is much better at creating different personalities than his predecessors. The nature versus nurture debate is interesting, but I was left wanting to understand more about Salter and the doctor’s motivations, and the extent of and reasons for the cloning.

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