Thursday, 25 October 2007


At the Lyric in Hammersmith - follow this link to read my review

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Saint Joan

By George Bernard Shaw
Olivier Theatre

George Bernard Shaw’s take on Joan of Arc is a lengthy and wordy piece of drama; and perhaps not one that would appeal to a 21st century audience. In the event the play proved to be a robust survivor whose arguments still carry a force and relevance.

Shaw tells the story of Joan’s re-invigoration of the French army during the 100 years war and her subsequent capture by the British and her trial for heresy.

What is striking is that Shaw gives all sides of the debate a seemingly equal voice and appears to leave it up to the audience to decide which view point they find the most sympathetic or compelling.

The stage is a black revolving and elevating square. It is used to particularly good effect in battle scenes - and the practice of doing battle as movement or dance, accompanied by music is particularly engaging and powerful. It seems far more effective than conventional stage fighting in a production like this.

It is also effective in some of the long drawn out debating scenes as the stage slowly revolves giving us different perspectives on the protagonists and by implication on their arguments. It also allays some of the longeurs a static performance might induce.

The performances of the large cast are universally good, with Anne-Marie Duff outstanding in the title role. Paterson Joseph is a memorable Bishop of Beauvais, while Paul Ready’s whining, comic Dauphin and Angus Wright’s urbane, manipulative and hypocritical Earl of Warwick give excellent support.

The burning of Joan atop a pile of chairs (chairs that had also been used in the battle scenes) is strikingly effective. The epilogue of recanting characters is also amusingly apposite.

Altogether St Joan is superbly staged; the incidental music by Jocelyn Pook does a brilliant job of conveying a sense of the alien yet familiar.

Those going to the Olivier expecting Shaw to be too wordy and possibly too dull for the 21st century would have been proved wrong by Marianne Elliot’s excellent production

Monday, 22 October 2007


By Eugène Ionesco
Translated by Martin Crimp

Ionesco’s classic piece of theatre of the absurd is a satire on conformity and individualism. It can also be seen as an examination of the rise of totalitarianism and liberal society’s response to it. Going even further, it could be considered as a testing of the boundaries of liberal tolerance in face of a brutal destructive threat – a threat that at first seems ridiculous or even comical, but one which becomes worrying and finally threatening.

Given all this there’s an opportunity for Dominic Cooke’s production to not only tie the play to its original historical period but also to make more modern connections: there are, after all, many to made. Surely the purpose of a revival – particularly at a theatre such as The Royal Court – is to see what contemporary meaning and resonance can be drawn from a text.

The disappointment that it fails to do so is heightened by the fact that Martin Crimp’s translation is spikily modern and not especially tied to a French setting. Yet this staging is fairly traditional and the play is indeed set in France.

Despite these reservations, this is an always watchable production that raises laughs of recognition and occasional shocked disbelief. The tone also manages to move from the outlandishly ridiculous and comic towards something more disturbing. By the end things that would have been funny in the first half are no longer so. In fact they have become sinister not to say disturbing.

Benedict Cumberbatch makes for an engaging Berenger while the rest of the ensemble are fine particularly in the group scenes when the rhinoceroses first appear. Lloyd Hutchinson is an entertaining Botard – but quite why he is played as an Eric Morecambe like figure is puzzling.

The set falling apart and thus mirroring the disintegration of society provides a useful visual metaphor. The incidental music is apt, as is the soundscape of thundering rhinoceroses – which from time to time is appositely supplemented by the distant rumble of circle and district line tube trains.

Royal Court until 15th December

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Rough Crossings

Follow this link to read my review

Monday, 1 October 2007

The Ugly One

Follow link to read my review

Sunday, 30 September 2007


by Maxim Gorky
in a new version by Andrew Upton

Set a couple of years before the 1905 Revolution in Russia, this is Gorky’s first play. It combines the then radical and audience alienating style of Naturalism with political analysis and examines the relationships between and actions of a family, their friends and lodgers. It’s territory also occupied by Chekov but this is more overtly political in intent. And over all it is both very funny and dramatically intense.

At first the action concerns Tanya and Pyotr children of Vassily and Akulina. The children’s lives are adrift. They don’t know what to do with themselves, their expectations are always disappointed and they are alienated from their parents. The father Vassily is a bully and a bigot (brought to stupendously vituperative life by an outstanding Phil Davis).

Also part of the household is Nil, who is Vassily’s foster son. He – unlike Vassily’s own children – works for a living and is politically radical. He is in love with the servant Polya.

As well as these two, there are the lodgers Teterev a drunken cynic and Elena who is lively and life enhancing. In addition there is Perchikin Polya’s father a good-hearted drifter.

The action seems inconsequential at times – but it illustrates a society that is trapped in decay and in need of change. The means of change are there to be debated. But there is no consensus about the way forward and the forces of reaction (in the shape of Vasilly in particular) lurk to destructive effect.

In the end Vasilly betrays the political radicals – who include members of his own family. He loses both his children and his lodgers; rejected by all. In a sense this prefigures the way in which the old order in Tsarist Russia will be rejected and forever changed by events in the 20th century.

Directed with élan by Howard Davies, Gorky’s once banned play richly deserves this spirited revival.

Lyttelton Theatre

Friday, 27 July 2007

The Hothouse by Harold Pinter

One of Pinter’s lesser-known works The Hothouse was written in 1957 but not staged until 1980. This might suggest that it is a slight piece not deserving of a revival at the National Theatre. However, in this excellent production its great dramatic and comic worth is made clear.

The action takes place during a drab Christmas day in some sort of institution – but it is not clear if the inmates are ill physically or mentally, the unwilling guinea-pigs in some sinister state experiment or the victims of totalitarian oppression.

The narrative concerns the disintegration of Roote (an excellent Stephen Moore) who is in charge of the institution and the power struggle between his deputies. The two deputies look alike and have similar hairstyles and mannerisms – but one (Gibbs) wears a dark suit while the other (the appropriately named Lush) wears grey. Both are foppish and camp, but also threatening and manipulative.

These three men discuss the death of one inmate and the fact that another has given birth, although no one at this stage appears to know who the father is. The confusion is added to by the fact that inmates do not have names but numbers. A depersonalising device certainly but also drawing a parallel with the holocaust.

There is one woman in The Hothouse, which leads to the question - does Pinter really ‘get’ women? They’re always quite strange is his plays – either submissive before the powerful alpha male or tough and harsh towards those lower down the masculine alphabet.

In The Hothouse Miss Cutts – so called perhaps because she does indeed cut to the nub of things - is no exception. Lia Williams gives a fine highly mannered performance as this inconsistent and ultimately unknowable character. She is both the mistress of Roote and appears to sexually available to Gibbs but not to another character revealingly named Lamb. This latter person is new to the institution He has recently been transferred to it and is not sure what his predecessor did or indeed what his own job consists of.

Much of the story is advanced by monologue – describing what has happened, but with characters going off into surreal leaps of logic and comic tension building repetition. However there is also action - the torture of Lamb for instance, which takes place on a raised platform above the stage. This gives the scene an added edge because of the seeming narrowness of the performing space and the fact it is open to a huge drop. We are anxious both for the character and for the performers many feet above the stalls.

In contrast to Pinter’s other early plays, where names give no obvious clue to character, those in The Hothouse have names that echo restoration comedy, signifying character traits. Roote – because he does with Miss Cutts as well – it turns out - as the female inmate who has given birth on Christmas day, Lush because he drinks, Gibbs because his is glib and Lamb because he is: both meek and a lamb to the slaughter.

In the end the patients rebel. Someone has left a door unlocked and all the staff – with the exception of Gibbs – are killed. This uprising is done entirely in sound: the unidentified cries that have been a random part of the production so far reach a crescendo and a band of red light lights bisects the stage to dramatic effect.

In an epilogue Gibbs explains to his government superior that the person responsible for leaving the door unlocked was Lamb – who thus becomes a scapegoat.

This is a well-performed, immensely funny play. It feels simultaneously part of 1957 yet also modern. There are Pinter’s usual themes of power bullying and silence and it is both political and personal. Altogether a very good revival and a welcome opportunity to see one of Pinter’s less well-known works.

Lyttelton Theatre

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Sizwe Bansi Is Dead

This play is strongly associated with the South African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona who devised it along with Athol Fugard. Indeed the original cast recently revived it to great effect at the Lyttelton Theatre on the south bank.

Peter Brook’s new production provides a welcome opportunity to see another version of the play within the space of a few short months. It is performed in French by francophone African actors. Non-French speakers in the audience are aided by surtitles – so it’s no more complex than watching a sub-titled film.

The play is staged simply: what is in the performing area can almost be considered ‘found’ objects. Among other things there are a couple of flats that double as signs for “Styles the Photographers” and are reversed to hang clothes. The lighting is straightforward too. Yet in this simplicity there is great power. The seemingly discarded becomes a significant environment for the characters and thus mirrors their position in an apartheid society.

What this production also does is demonstrate that the play is not just a historical document from apartheid era South Africa but has relevance for the world today. Its critique applies to any society which oppresses its members.

Habib Dembete and Pitcho Womba Konga inhabit their roles completely. Dembete in particular gives a stellar performance as both Styles and Bantu, showing the intelligence and cunning needed to survive within an oppressive regime. In contrast Konga as the eponymous Sizwe Bansi shows the political and social awakening of a naturally good-natured person. He is a stirring giant representing the rising anger of the previously dispossessed; a people who are coming to realise that they have been systematically exploited and undervalued as human beings. It is a disturbing and powerful moment of theatre and confirms this play’s continuing potency.

The Pit Theatre, Barbican

Tuesday, 29 May 2007


Cheek By Jowl’s Cymbeline is performed in a transformed Barbican Theatre. It is the second Cymbeline of note this year, following Kneehigh’s imaginative and entertaining re-interpretation of this late Shakespeare play at the Lyric in Hammersmith.

Unlike Kneehigh, Cheek by Jowl perform the traditional text but in what appears to be 1940’s style dress. They don’t skate round the paradoxes and inconsistencies of the work – they drive straight through them. But they do it with such panache and conviction that – while the audience may acknowledge the plot’s weak points – it is totally carried along by the strength of their collective performance and sheer narrative drive of the production.

A master stoke in this interpretation is the doubling up of Postumus and Cloten both portrayed by the excellent Tom Hiddleston. He switches between the characters at the change of a coat and the donning of a pair of glasses. Postmus is portrayed as something of an earnest wimp while Cloten is a prancing fool. The latter’s attempts to serenade Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen in the style of say Robbie Williams is a stand out show stopping moment. Hiddleston gives us an egotistical princeling doing a poor impression of a self-conscious and self-satisfied pop star’s less endearing characteristics. It is a masterpiece of multi-layered irony.

Cymbeline himself is a foolish Prince Charles like figure whose second wife towers over him in fine comic style, clutching his head to her chest as she manipulates and patronises him. In addition Jodi McNee gives a stylish performance as Imogen combining intensity and naiveté in equal measure.

The company’s way of leaving characters on stage in scenes they are not involved in – yet are either being talked about or have an emotional impact on - is both satisfying and helps clarify the convoluted narrative.

The staging is simple and sparse. There are few props but those there are are well used. The giant architectural pillars of the Barbican stage (which are normally hidden from audience view) become an essential part of the set as. palace walls or forest trees.

The cast doesn’t fill the stage in an epic sense yet the space around them gives a sense of an epic tale. The distances that are often between performers not only show the emotional but also the physical distances between the characters.

Theatregoers in London are fortunate to have had not one but two lucid, cogent and entirely convincing production of Shakespeare’s problem play this year. And, what is even more remarkable is their total difference from each other.

Barbican Theatre until 23rd June

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Leaves of Glass

Follow link to read review

Friday, 4 May 2007

Absolute Beginners

Absolute Beginners Bringing Colin MacInnes’ novel cult novel to the stage is no easy task, as anyone who’s read it would agree. It is an energetic journey around the west London of 1958, encompassing teenage passion, popular music, politics, race relations and even the power of the media.

However, Roy Williams’ adaptation succeeds admirably and is aided in no small measure by Lizzie Clachan’s inventive and apposite design.

The unnamed narrator of the novel becomes ‘Photo Boy’ in this production because that is what he does – take photos. This 18 year-old is immersed in London life. He’s alienated from most of his family (half-brother and mother) but not his father. The love of his life sleeps around and is about to embark on a marriage of convenience with her gay employer. Photo Boy’s friends are stylish, multi-ethnic and of varying sexualities. It all seems open tolerant vibrant and liberal. But there is a menace at the heart of all this. White fears of immigration are being played on and will explode in the infamous Notting Hill Race Riots of 1958.

The ensemble cast plays a multiplicity of characters with enthusiasm and panache. Sid Mitchell must be singled out for he does the hard work of carrying the play as the central character – the person who narrates the novel. It becomes even clearer on stage that photography is an appropriate profession for he is observing and recording the significant events that are unfolding.

However, in many ways, the true star of the play is the set. It recreates the feel and look of the late 1950s Its innumerable boxes stairs and ladders bring to life the multiple locations of the story, moving the action swiftly from one scene to another in a way that supports the speed of both the dialogue and action.

There is added resonance in this playing at the Lyric in Hammersmith as many of the events described took place only a short distance away from the theatre. It is also emotionally resonant as irrational fear of immigration and intolerance of difference can still be found in British life.

Lyric Hammersmith until 26th May


Aalst attempts to explain the inexplicable. It looks at how the sort of crime that unites everyone in horror and abhorrence can come to be committed. It is also a debate on evil – asking if it is inherent, learned or created by social and environmental factors.

The basis of this short play is the case of a Belgian couple who murdered their two young children in 1999. Among other things it is based on transcripts of their trial as well as interviews and a TV documentary. The project’s originator Pol Heyvaert directs this new version by Duncan McLean.

It is staged starkly. The couple sits facing the audience as a disembodied voice seeks explanations from them. The tone is very flat – which adds to the unsettling nature of the subject matter. The pair have clearly led disadvantaged lives – being abused as children for instance. But they in turn abuse each other and their children. They appear to have no moral sense at all. However, they are always able to justify their actions in some way,at least to themselves, whether it relates to falsely obtaining state benefit or to antisocial behaviour towards their neighbours.

The disembodied voice is apparently that of a judge but – for those without knowledge of the Belgian judicial system – it could be any investigator or psychiatrist. In fact the couple are at one point declared sane - which makes understanding their actions even more difficult.

As the play progresses the same incidents are gone over and over, eliciting further and more illuminating detail. This reveals that the couple is playing the system. At the end this deceit is underlined when the disembodied voice ceases questioning them and there is dialogue between the pair for the first time. Now they are seen to be rehearsing their answers in order to lessen their sentences. They exhibit an apparently fake remorse that will explain their actions and reduce their punishment.

Kate Dickie and David McKay give devastatingly convincing performances as the murderous couple.

Soho Theatre

Monday, 30 April 2007

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Friday, 6 April 2007

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Don’t Look Now

Based on the Daphne du Maurier short story of 1971 Don’t Look Now is perhaps more famous in its film incarnation directed by Nicholas Roeg. However, this new adaptation by Nell Leyshon and directed by Lucy Bailey brings the story to the stage and places the action in what appears to be the late 1950s.

A middle class couple – John and Laura - are on holiday in Venice. The previous year their daughter had died of meningitis and they are still in the process of recovering from the trauma.

There is humour in the piece – mainly at the expense of the buttoned up husband and his attempts to speak Italian – but also when John and Laura invent stories about people they see. This all helps in the establishment of the tone of the relationship between the two of them and how they are travelling from grief towards the normality they had before their child’s death.

They keep encountering a pair of sisters, one of whom is blind and apparently has second sight. She claims to be able see the couple’s dead daughter and warns the husband that he must leave Venice as he is in danger.

The staging of all this is plain and austere. A large part of the action takes place at tables in restaurants and to compensate for the lack of movement the furniture glides from one side of the performing area to the other very slowly. This is effective at first as it gives a sense of the disorientation the couple and particularly the husband feel. It can also be regarded as a visual metaphor for how the sisters are brought into John and Laura’s lives and then drift off again. However, it does get rather irritating after a while. At times it feels as though the pace of the dialogue and action slows down to mirror that of the slow-moving scenery.

There is also another problem: the sex scene in the story is just a couple of lines but was famously realised in Roeg’s film. As a consequence it’s depiction in this staging on a bed slowly traversing the stage is at a huge disadvantage. It has neither the subtle discretion of du Maurier’s original text nor the erotic charge of the film version.

It all ends badly. Laura returns to England to be with their son who is at boarding school and who has been hospitalised because of appendicitis. Husband John is left alone in Venice to follow on later. But, he imagines that he see his wife still in the city with the two sisters, and starts to pursue them. Rather than finding his wife he becomes the latest victim of a serial killer targeting tourists.

Altogether this was a competent but dull production that lacked atmosphere and pace.

Lyric Hammersmith


29th March 2007

The David Glass Ensemble is always worth seeing and this revival of their early 1990s production of Mervyn Peake’s gothic trilogy proves to be no exception. Although their style of physical theatre was unusual and groundbreaking fifteen or so years ago this type of performance is now fairly commonplace.

Peake’s cult trilogy about Titus Groan is a strange gothic history of a young man coming to maturity and rejecting the stifling conformity and ritual that blights his life in the crumbling building that is Gormenghast. As well as Titus the story is peopled by a myriad of eccentric, deviant and grotesque characters.

This adaptation by John Constable relates key events from the mammoth story. They are presented in a style mixing physicality, puppetry, movement and music that successfully recreates Peake’s imaginary world, bringing out the darkness at its heart. The gothic, somewhat blowsy style of production matches Peake’s prose perfectly.

Each of the major characters is realised in a convincing manner and there is a satisfying mixture of humour and darkness. In particular Phillips Pellew’s depiction of the angular Flay creaking around the gargantuan, echoing interior of Gormenghast is pleasingly grotesque. Elisa de Grey and Sally Mortemore make for an entertaining Clarice and Cora and the latter doubles as an imposing and gothic Gertrude Countess of Groan. Eric MacLennan’s Dr Prunesquallor was perhaps a little too much like a character from the TV comedy The League of Gentlemen at times but altogether this was a fine ensemble performance.

At the conclusion of the play, the flooding of the castle and fight to the death between Titus and his arch enemyl Steerpike is achieved with the aid of a giant white sheet and stylised movement: it is suitably climactic.

Although the performance is possibly a bit too large at times for the space it’s in – sometimes a little distance from the action would have been desirable, in order to appreciate the full visual impact of what was on the stage – this is an entertaining and satisfying revival of one of the David Glass Ensemble’s seminal works.

BAC until 15th April

Attempts on her Life

28th March 2007

Katie Mitchell and her ensemble have recreated Martin Crimp’s 1997 play in a brilliant fashion. It’s as if everything they’ve done from A Dream Play, via The Waves and The Seagull has found its culmination in this. The mix of live action, video and music is challenging and engaging. It’s not simply a gimmick - it encourages us to think about the way the world is shown by the media and the condition of the society we live in. It’s both extremely funny as well as moving.

The play boasts no plot or consistent characters. The individual scenes offer different accounts of someone whose name is a variation of ‘Anne’. The ‘attempts’ of the title are not simply ones of assassination, they are also attempts to create, understand and give meaning to character. By bookending the piece with the vacuous babbling of a brainstorming session about the imagined qualities of ‘Anne’ the production offers both a critique and description of our society in the 1990s and now.

The production uses the vastness of the Lyttelton stage to good effect. The performance area is littered with cameras, lights, musical instruments and various scene-setting props. It also shows the difference between film performance and live performance. By simultaneously showing the stage and projected versions of a scene, the audience is asked to think about what it sees in the mass media and the way reality is presented. In addition the technique illustrates how film and video can overlay a sordid reality with a veneer of glamour.

The ensemble work is excellent with the cast switching characters, operating cameras and lights and playing musical instruments as though part of a giant fluid dance. Two of the scenes are turned into songs, adding an even greater edge of excitement to the production. Other scenes that stood out were the spoof of advertisement for a car called the ‘Anny’, a pastiche of Newsnight Review and an oblique reference to seminal 90s tv show ‘The X-Files’

What informed Crimp’s play in the 1990s is still true now. In Katie Mitchell’s production Attempts on her Life has not just been revived – it feels recreated for a new century.

Lyttelton until 10th May

Sunday, 25 March 2007


22nd March 2007

Leaves by a first time writer and George Devine award winner Lucy Caldwell is set in Ulster. It’s a confidently written piece of family drama telling the story of Lori the oldest daughter who goes off to university in mainland Britain but then attempts to commit suicide.

The bulk of the play deals with the fractured family attempting to understand and deal with this trauma as Lori returns home. The family argue among themselves, often goading each other, while the younger girls, Clover and Poppy, struggle to understand what has happened to their older sister.

It’s all rather bleak - what mainly comes across is a sense of incomprehension and thwarted love. As a portrait of a fractured family Leaves is affecting – but we don’t really get to know what caused the fracture; why Lori attempted suicide. There’s surely more going on in her life than is revealed in the play. The reasons behind her attempt don’t seem to be explored. Is it simply the fact of going to university? Or is her rather nebulous idealism – that life must get better – the root cause of the misery presented on stage?

From the mother’s point of view things have got better, compared to her childhood. But for the eldest daughter this is meaningless. She has no understanding of what her mother endured.

The final scene – with the family happily celebrating Lori’s imminent departure for university shows another side of the family. They are cheerful and optimistic – but coming at the end it doesn’t actually help in understanding what has gone before. It might have been more effective if the scene had been played in linear time at the start.

The acting is convincing, especially Fiona Bell’s grief-stricken mother and Conor Lovett’s shell-shocked father - the solitary male in a household of women.

But for all its satisfying staging and performance, and despite being well written the play seems a little incomplete and has an old-fashioned feel overall.

Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

Friday, 23 March 2007

The Tempest

21st March 2007

The RSC Tempest starring Patrick Stewart as Prospero starts with a coup de theatre – the shipwreck. The backdrop is a giant radio set, the dial becomes a window into the ship, while film of rough sea is projected onto the curtain. It’s a very effective shipwreck marred slightly by the fact that much of the dialogue – already distorted as if through a radio – is hard to make out.

The landing on the island is similarly spectacular. A giant curtain with a swirling of snowflakes projected onto it introduces a wintry, windswept isle. Although things slow down as Propero brings us up to speed with the story so far, the almost realistic beginning has lead into the magical setting of rest of the play.

However, the magic in the play, like the setting itself, is ‘rough’ and is reflected in the bleak and harsh set. It is a sharp contrast to what is normally expected of a Mediterranean island. Somehow we have moved to an indeterminate and dark far north, which reflects the mood of Prospero’s isolation. The mound of what appears to be ice in the centre of the stage provides an entrance point for characters to appear and observe. It has something Beckettian about it – almost as if Prospero is the male equivalent of Winnie in Happy Days.

Miranda – an excellent performance from Mariah Gale - is convincing as someone who has seen no other beings apart from her father or Caliban for her whole life. Her wonder and gaucheness at meeting Ferdinand and later the others from the shipwreck are believable, touching and amusing. Her reactions as the play closes lead to the suspicion that her avowal of love for Ferdinand may be transient and that trouble lies ahead.

Prospero is brought fully to life in Patrick Stewart’s portrayal and as always his verse speaking is exemplary. His ‘rough magic’ is perfectly embodied in Julian Bleach’s Ariel. Bleach’s first appearance gives another Beckettian visual frisson as he emerges from a dustbin like a character in Endgame. Later he glides round the stage in the manner of Nosferatu from F.W, Murnau’s silent expressionist film.

Abundant humour is provided by Joseph Alessi’s drunken butler and Craig Gazey’s jester. However some other performances are a little disappointing. John Light’s Caliban is rather dull, while Finbar Lynch’s King of Naples seems offhand especially when expressing grief at his son’s supposed drowning.

The music is effective and geographically ambiguous – highlighting the mystery and magic of the island. It is particularly well illustrated when three goddesses sing a song that is like a musical geographical tour from northern Europe to the Far East.

This is a robust Tempest that provides an entertaining and thought-provoking version of Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage. It has a bleakness of vision, coupled with magic and humour that is highlighted by the visual references to the work of Samuel Beckett.

Novello Theatre

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Sizwe Banzi Is Dead

19th March 2007

Although Siwe Banzi Is Dead was devised by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona 35 years ago as a particular response to apartheid era South Africa, it more than survives the test of time.

It starts with John Kani’s as Styles drawing the audience in with his stories of work on a car production line, the relationships between the black employees and the white employer, and his determination to work on his own account as a photographer. It is a bravura performance, full of energy that dominates the stage. It is also a little unsettling because it is on the verge of black stereotyping, yet this is undercut by what he actually says about the ruling class and life under the apartheid system.

The tone of the play changes even further when Winston Ntshona’s Sizwe Banzi turns up to have his photograph taken. He wants send the picture to his wife and children. Questions of identity, survival under an oppressive regime and – indeed – of humanity are raised. They are dealt with apparent lightness but an underlying forcefulness and cogency. Sizwe Banzi himself does not have the correct papers to allow him to remain in the city and work, but there are ways round this. We are shown the reality of living in an apartheid society, what identity means, and how the poor and dispossessed survive within a system that denies their humanity.

The staging is simple yet hugely effective. We move from photographer’s studio to factory floor to back streets to church in the blink of an eye. All this is accomplished with the minimum of props. One of the extraordinary things about this production was that despite the vast Lyttelton stage the performances of the two actors were so commanding that the audience remained totally engrossed and riveted throughout.

While, Siwe Banzi Is Dead is about the pass laws of apartheid era South Africa it is more than just a powerful historical document. It still resonates with the times we live in – modern parallels are there to be seen.

Lyttelton Theatre until 4th April


15th March 2007

Two economic migrants sit in a railway station where the trains no longer stop. The stationmaster is at first suspicious but later comes to accept them, particularly when he discovers that the older of the two was also once a railwayman. Meanwhile in the town local industries close down and the resentful workers are either unemployed or have to move away. They look for someone to blame and pick the easiest target, the recently arrived strangers at the rail station.

Although set in the Europe of 1994, David Greig’s play could equally well be taking place today. The continent is still experiencing changes which are manifested by the movement of refugees, economic migrants and the death of old industries. The play still has a power to resonate – or rather it should have.

It’s well enough staged. There’s a big screen at the back of the performing space simulating passing trains and at the end a fire as the newly unemployed locals burn down the station and its occupants. The wide stage is used to move swiftly between scenes – or even have them over lapping – but somehow the production remains unconvincing. It all seems rather one-paced.

The acting was variable. However, Robert Paterson’s stationmaster and –particularly – Johannes Flaschberger’s refugee stood out.

There were bursts of dramatic violence and an effective use of fire before the final conflagration. The sub-Brechtian scene naming on the giant screen, and the fact the cast sat at the stage side when not performing, seemed an affectation rather than a convincing part of the whole or use of the alienation technique.

Europe should have had a more powerful revival: unfortunately this production did not catch fire – unlike the railway station.

The Pit until April 10th

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Someone Else’s Shoes

8th March 2007

Drew Pautz’s debut play is described as a free market comedy and is indeed very funny at times. Its first scene – set in the Cistine Chapel - starts with fast overlapping dialogue containing plenty of laughs. However, things slow down as the play progresses. There are fewer laughs and little analysis or critique of globalisation.

The play’s central idea is that everything in the modern world is a commodity. The story involves the rather unlikely collision of a former student, an artist, an anti-globalisation activist and two brothers who run an international footwear company. One of the brothers is dedicated to business, the other is a patron of the arts. The clash – if that’s not too strong a description - is one between exploiters, protesters and exploited.

Pautz gives his characters some depth – they are not mere ciphers. The dedicated capitalist for example is more sympathetic than his potentially sleazy arts-patron brother is. Indeed, the latter, by buying up all the artist’s work, demonstrates a greater commitment to exploitation. He both owns and removes her from the art world she’s keen to inhabit. She and her work become the patron’s playthings.

The artist’s boyfriend, somewhat fortuitously, gets employed by the capitalist brother. The final character is an anti globalisation ‘activist’ who become the former student’s lover and yet she also exploits him in her battle against global capitalism.

However, there is a core of coincidence in the play that leads to a feeling of implausibility. And although there are arguments about globalisation and direct action, nothing much comes out of them. The wants and desires of the individual seem to have replaced those of any social grouping or class – there is no wider political or moral context.

Someone Else’s Shoes is generally well performed with Patrick Drury as Richard – the more conservative brother - particularly engaging. Steven Pacey ‘s art collecting Adam could have been sleazier. Of the women, Emily Bruni’s artist Nadine is both irritating and engaging while Denise Gough’s Mary is an amusing but unsatisfactory voice of protest. Jonjo O’Neill’s Jed is more rounded veering between the sympathetic and irritating. The staging is slick and minimal with settings suggested by just a few props.

The ending seems down beat and offhand. Jed and Nadine apparently re-committing to each other, but failing to acknowledge it – they appear to be getting together again by default. This suggests that to do anything else would either mean committing to or against globalisation – something this comedy doesn’t quite want to do.

Soho Theatre until 7th April

Saturday, 10 March 2007

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

7th March 2007

This masterly and entertaining take on one of Brecht’s greatest works is the third of his plays to be staged in the past year – following on from the National’s Galileo and English Touring Theatre’s Mother Courage. Following a national tour it is now playing at The Cottelsloe Theatre in a version by Frank McGuniness, which was last seen at The Olivier in 1997 performed by Complicite..

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a play within a play – except that the outer core is just a prologue and the only sense in which we leave the play within is when the singer summarises the moral at the end. However, we start with two groups of people – the goatherds and fruit pickers – trying to decide how best to use the valley they live in. The goatherds are the traditional owners of the land, while the fruit pickers want to irrigate it for the benefit of all.

The inner play deals with the problem of who is the ‘real’ mother of an abandoned child rescued from war and brought up by a former servant of the ruling elite. It simultaneously acts as a lesson about how the fruit picker/goatherd conflict should be resolved and also as a demonstration of the administration of justice and exercise of political and social power. Essentially it is a morality play – but not in a sanctimonious sense, as no single character, not even Grusha the saviour of the baby, is sentimentally or superhumanly good.

Directed by Sean Holmes, this production has everything that is to be expected from a staging of Brecht – a strong and versatile ensemble cast with excellent leading performances from Cath Whitefield as Grusha and Nicolas Tennant as Azdac. Although strong, however, their performances never overshadow the rest of the cast – indeed the other cast members are able to show their convincing versatility in a large number of supporting roles. Grusha had a feisty honesty and youth about her, while Azdac is entertainingly dissolute and cunning, yet essentially a sympathetic, not to say morally centred character.

The staging is simple and inventive. Although the way effects are produced is clear to see we are implicitly convinced of their truth. For example, an actor pours water from a jug to mimic the sound of Grusha’s husband having a bath. The husband sits fully clothed in the empty bath, yet we are convinced he is washing himself. In the same way various cast members simulate the crying of the baby through a microphone which – appropriately enough –is connected to a baby amplifier.

There is inventive use of freshly composed music – rather than Paul Dessau’s original – which underscores the fact that Brecht’s work still has something pertinent to say about today and stops the production being an exercise in nostalgia. The music is percussion based, produced on drums, keyboards and glockenspiels together with the cast providing other vocal and percussive effects.

Perhaps the only problem with it all was the performance of the singer – in effect the narrator of the piece - as he felt rather mannered and somewhat at odds with the ensemble. That, though, is a minor point for this is a masterful and hugely enjoyable staging of Brecht’s epic morality play.

Cottesloe Theatre until 14th April

Friday, 9 March 2007


1st March 2007

This was a ‘scratch’ performance of an adaptation by Chris Thorpe of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. The idea is that the audience will feed back on how the work in progress might develop. It should not be judged in the same way as a finished production.

The novel was published in 1962. Stanley Kubrik subsequently and controversially filmed it in 1971. In addition, Burgess himself prepared a stage version, which was revived in 1990 by the RSC.

The story concerns Alex the leader of a teenage gang devoted to violence and music. They are alienated from society, beyond all social and political control. Subsequently Alex’s mind is destroyed by the state as it attempts to brainwash him into conformity. This is subject matter that resonates with the early 21st century concerns about feral children. Modern society fears its offspring and seems to prefer punishment to rehabilitation and re-integration into society.

So, altogether, this is a good a choice novel to bring to the stage. It presents an excellent opportunity to draw parallels with modern Britain and create a piece full of social and political meaning. Indeed, the company (Breaking Cycles) under director Benji Reid advocates ‘Hip Hop Theatre’. Consequently expectations are high from the start but unfortunately disappointed as the evening unfolds. It would be easy to be over-critical and ungenerous about the production – it is, after all, a work in progress.

However, the narrative arc was quite hard to follow. There was little sense of why the audience should sympathise or empathise with gang leader Alex. Sean Cernow brings this character to rather monotonous Liverpudlian life. The rest of his gang has similar accents –which suggests accent is being used as shorthand to indicate that they are working class. However, in the novel, Alex is decidely middle-class. The production needed to make it clear why these changes had been made.

Burgess started his creative life as more of a composer than novelist – and in both novel and film classical music plays a large part. This production had specially composed music that sounded like something Erik Satie might have discarded- an endless faux Gymnopedie, prompting the further question why was there a move from rhythmically strong romantic music to a more expressionistic sound world?

At points it feels as though there is too much exposition: Alex has some very long monologues and nothing much happens during them. If they’re meant to give an insight into Alex’s being, they don’t really succeed.

There was a section where he was being brainwashed. Three cameras focussed closely on his face and their images were projected on the back wall of the theatre. Again this went on for rather too long. The performer couldn’t sustain the intensity of this multiple gaze on his agonised response to what he was enduring.

And having seen Michael Gambon in Eh Joe last summer – in which his features were similarly projected as he responded to outside stimuli – it was impossible not to compare the two performances – unfairly I know. Katie Mitchell has also used this technique more effectively – most notably in The Waves in this same auditorium at the end of last year. The use of video needs careful thought if it is not to simply appear as a gimmick.

Cottesloe Theatre

Monday, 5 March 2007

Peer Gynt

28th February 2007

Peer Gynt is one of Henrik Ibsen’s early works and – unusually for him – written in verse. There is none of the closely observed social dissection of his later plays. Instead we get a broad arc of story telling as Peer Gynt’s life and actions are examined.

The play has a grand sweep that, among other things, takes in folk stories, village life and imperialism. However, despite this grandeur, it is essentially about a man who fails to live his life fully – to commit himself. Instead he ends up failing not only those around him but himself.

This version of Ibsen’s play, directed and adapted by Baltasar Kormakur and performed by the National Theatre of Iceland, is a robustly entertaining account of this difficult to stage work. They bring a sense of physicality teetering on the brink of catastrophe, broad comedy and pathos to the play.

The set is a mixture of white tiles, huge shower curtains and hospital beds. This invokes not only the snowy landscapes of Ibsen’s Norway and the company’s own Iceland, but also the sanatorium from which Peer attempts to review his life. The setting also suggests that the action takes place in Peer’s head as much as in the real world.

Additionally, the use of the shower curtains gives the Pit’s stage flexibility, while also carrying echoes of David Lynch’s epic and icy TV series Twin Peaks – an echo amplified by the use of some of Angelo Badalamenti’s music at one point. Indeed the use of music – ranging from kitsch pop to what sounds like aggressive Nordic metal – adds yet another dimension to the production.

Among a uniformly strong and fine ensemble performance, Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson as Peer and Olafur Darri Olafsson as a particularly fearsome Troll King give especially notable performances.

There is constant motion in the action: things unfolding and being tidied away– like the story itself. At the conclusion there is a shroud covering Peer’s coffin, its blackness a stark contrast to the by now blood spattered white of the set.

The final image is a striking one: the button moulder letting the dust that Peer has now become fall from his hand, as the stage becomes dark.

The Pit Theatre, Barbican
Until 10th March

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

The Dumb Waiter

21st February 2007

Yet another welcome Pinter revival: this time a one act two-hander, first staged in 1960.

Two men Ben and Gus wait in a windowless basement. A dumb waiter in the wall brings notes that request increasingly exotic meals. They send what they have - a chocolate bar, half a pint of milk and so on. It appears that they are hit men waiting for instructions. They talk about football, previous jobs they’ve done together, a gas cooker in the adjacent kitchen and the toilet cistern. Their conversations are strangely disconnected.

There’s plenty of comedy here. In fact this production of The Dumb Waiter, like several of the current crop of Pinter revivals, seems to be emphasising comedy over menace. This emphasis further suggests a connection with the comedy writers Galton and Simpson. There is a moment in The Dumb Waiter when Gus is imagining what food the invisible people upstairs at the other end of the dumb waiter might be eating. This smacks of Tony Hancock in Hancock’s Half-Hour having one of his customary rants about the unfairness of life.

At this point – and with this production, as well as The Caretaker shortly opening at the Tricycle – it might be tempting to speculate about how much Pinter is influenced not by Beckett but by Galton and Simpson. After all, Hancock’s Half-Hour started on radio in 1954.

The set is impressively squalid. There are two stained singles beds either side of the titular Dumb Waiter with doors leading to a hallway on one side and a kitchen on the other. The walls are tiled like an old-fashioned public convenience. The tiles are cracked and displaced; many are missing. There is rubbish under the beds.

The theatre, however, has very steeply raked seating looking down on the performing area. This has the effect of distancing the audience from the stage, giving a feeling of observing the action from afar rather than being closely involved with it.

Lee Evans plays Gus and brings his usual physical style to the part (elements of Norman Wisdom filtered through Michael Crawford’s Frank Spencer character). This has the potential to be a barrier to enjoying the character. However, it is understated and, as the action advances, seems to become less apparent. Jason Isaacs does a good turn as Ben – although Evans perhaps upstages him at times.

The tension could possibly have been ratcheted up a bit more at the end of the play. Altogether, though, another fine revival - not to be missed by admirers of Pinter’s work.

Trafalgar Studio 1

Wednesday, 21 February 2007


17th February 2007

The Lyric Hammersmith’s latest production is artistic director David Farr’s re-telling of the story of Rama and Sita – a love story that is both epic and comic.

This version, however, takes a while to get going and at first its tone seems uncertain. It is not clear what it is trying to achieve (education, entertainment or a combination of the two). Some of the dialogue seems ploddingly literal; describing rather than enhancing what is on the stage. The first jokes, when they finally arrive, are greeted with relief, as they indicate which way the production is going.

The style harks back to Kneehigh theatre, the previous occupants of the Lyric stage. Like them this production mixes low comedy with heightened emotion: except in Ramayana the low comedy isn’t always funny enough and the heightened emotion tends to lack the poetry and that heart tugging quality Kneehigh excel at. Further connection with that company is provided by the presence of Eva Magyar who appeared in both their Bacchae and Tristan & Yseult.

The cast is generally good. Richard Simons gives a fine comic performance as Hanuman the monkey god. He also does an excellent deer impersonation and was – coincidentally - a fine seagull in the Lyric’s Christmas show Watership Down. Eva Magyar as Ravana finally comes into her own during the vigorous battle with Paul Sharma’s Rama – one of the high points of the evening.

There is good physical business – Rama’s crossing of the ocean on bamboo poles for instance or Hanuman flying across an ocean and clambering over seats into the audience in search of Sita. The multi-headed monster Ravana is brilliantly depicted by means of 9 casts of Eva Magyar’s head. More invention of this level would have propelled the production to greater heights.

Indeed, its failure to rise far above the ground is echoed in the use of bamboo in the set. A striking forest of it adorns the stage and is used by the cast for positions of advantage above the action. But they – like the production - never rise more than a few feet above the ground. This feels like a wasted opportunity.

Meanwhile a live musician effectively mixes percussion with pre-recorded sounds on a raised platform at the back of the stage.

Ramayana is actually a bold attempt at staging this epic, but is only partially successful. It boasts some strong performances and striking visual tableaux, but it falls short of really bringing the story to satisfying and vibrant life.

Lyric Hammersmith
Until 10th March

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

The Seagull

14th February 2007

Ian Rickson is the outgoing artistic director of the Royal Court and The Seagull is his farewell production for the theatre.

While appearing to be about nothing much – as Chekhov himself slyly observes during the course of the action – The Seagull deals with art, creativity, acting, ennui and failure to communicate. Each character is to some extent the victim of thwarted ambition: some rail against this to a greater or lesser extent (Konstantin, Masha), while others struggle on with their disappointing lives (Medvedenko, Masha, Sorin).

The awkwardness of the group of people who know each other both too well and too little is brilliantly conveyed in their clumsy conversations and leaden jokes. Long before the comedy of embarrassment – which is the staple of so much of today’s television and stand-up comedy – Chekhov was employing the technique – perhaps more subtly – in late 19th century Russia. And this perhaps helps explain the hostile reaction The Seagull received at its premiere.

In contrast to Katie Mitchell’s controversially received production at the National towards the end of last year, Rickson’s appears more conventionally straightforward. It still, however, gets to the heart of this work and while we may laugh at the characters from time to time we still understand and empathise with their condition.

The humour and pathos of the piece are clear. Every character is suffering from disappointment or an unwillingness to engage with the real. Chekhov presents us with a sick society that it slowly going nowhere – yet its pathway is littered with casualties.

Kristin Scott Thomas’s Arkadina is a monster, yet she has appeal - we can see why she is a feted stage actress and why the people in her life bend to her will – yet her selfishness and egocentricity will cost her her son. Her dismissal of Nina’s acting abilities is breathtakingly callous – yet a cruelly accurate assessment of the girl’s talent.

The rest of this stellar cast gives a strong ensemble performance. Mackenzie Crook as the weedy and possibly talentless Konstantin performs with tortured neediness. All the actors are worthy of mention but special mention is due to Carey Mulligan as a youthful, enthusiastic Nina destroyed by her contact with artistic pretension and Trigorin’s exploitation of her admiration for him. Katherine Parkinson as Masha – bitter, drunk, disappointed – is an excellent comic presence. Pierce Quigley’s teacher is played to perfection as a good man battered by cruel circumstances and manipulative people.

As important as the main action driving the narrative forward is cast’s responses to what we all see. This is where the essence of Chekhov lies. For example, the look Yakov gives Arkadina after piling the stage with her suitcases for a putative departure; she having done nothing to advance the leaving, claims to be exhausted.

The set is shabby and of natural material, yet possesses a semblance of solidity – and so reflects the characters in the drama. The lighting – naturalistic – candles and oil lamps: soft and shady. It’s worth staying in your seat during the interval just to watch the stage for the second act being constructed.

Altogether, this is an excellent production and a fitting conclusion to Ian Rickson’s tenure at the Royal Court.

The Man of Mode

8th February 2007

This modern dress version of Etheridge’s 1676 Restoration satire is hugely enjoyable and provides a telling critique of early 21st century society. George Etheridge was part of a social elite that was devoted to physical pleasure and personal gain. His play mocks this superficiality and the exploitative natures of those involved.

In this updated production, directed by Nicholas Hytner, the social critique remains strong. The parallels between the early 21st century and Restoration England are clear. Wealth, celebrity and shallowness are celebrated in both cultures. The only relationships humans can have with each other are sexual or financial. Posing is more important that substance.

Dorimant, the central character, and said to be based on the Earl of Rochester, is a sexual predator, in need of financial security. He has a mistress (Mrs Loveit), yet pursues another woman (Belinda) and also the wealthy Harriet who could save him financially. Many other characters also embody the complex culture of marriage as the transfer and safeguarding of wealth among a small elite. They too show that they can be as predatory as Dorimant.

Performances are universally good. Tom Hardy – as the buff Dorimant – is both charming yet odious. Rory Kinnear as Sir Fopling Flutter gives a show-stealing performance as a vain and shallow fashion obsessed fool, trailing his entourage of French dancers around the salons of London. Amit Shah as Young Bellair – an almost moral character – is a performer who is on the cusp of stardom. Indeed, by making the Bellair family Asian Hytner helps update the play and give it added resonance.

The staging and set design is impressive. Their evocation of modern life and exclusive clubs is convincing – and the music and movement covering scene changes advances the narrative and is enjoyable in its own right.

The rest of the cast is versatile, giving believable portrayals of a shallow and self-regarding society. The production manages to both entertain and hold up a mirror to our own world. The ending, with Dorimant having just contracted to marry Harriet, yet already in pursuit of a fresh mistress, shows there is no cosy redemption for these predatory members of the social and financial elite.

Olivier Theatre