Monday, 27 April 2009


Panic is the latest work from Improbable. They are a theatre group who have been responsible for a number of highly entertaining and ground-breaking works over the past decade or so – Shockheaded Peter, The Hanging Man, Theatre of Blood, Wolves in the Walls as well as a production of Phillip Glass’s Satyagraha at ENO. Currently they are in The Pit at the Barbican Arts Centre.

Panic is about the goat god Pan mainly and consists of a number of short-ish scenes. Some are more obviously Pan related than others. Phelim McDermott – one of Improbable’s founding fathers - is Pan. And there are also three nymphs. In addition, there is live music, sound and a number of filmic projections. As well as this there is imaginative use of brown paper, and rather a lot of paper carrier bags filled with self-help books.

The show starts with the cast breaking the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience and introducing themselves. Then we’re away into the woods and nature in the raw; the Pan story starts on its rambling way.

McDermott parades in his underpants and later straps on a giant wicker penis. He penetrates a dining chair to much hilarity. There are stunning projections on to the brown paper scenery – haunting images of nymphs from previous eras.

In another scene there is aerial work from Matilda Leyser over a recumbent Phelim McDermott that suggests Henry Fuseli’s 18th century painting The Nightmare. But in this instance – and from the audience’s perspective – the view is a mirror image of the picture – possibly because what we now see is a woman demon astride a supine man.

Another visually inventive section is called ‘Panography’ – it is a sort of masturbatory fantasy, with a life-size shadow theatre Pan and the silhouettes of tiny dancing women.

This is followed by an amusing section where Phelim McDermott reads out the titles of large numbers of self-help books. Their titles are self-evidently ridiculous and meaningless, and the scene’s power lies in the fact that it goes on stating the obvious and labouring the point for rather too long –just like a self-help book in fact.

A further striking image is of a large photo of many faces that grows smaller and smaller and ends up as a tears in the eye of a giant photo of Buffalo Bill. It is a powerful – indeed moving - image, but its ultimate meaning or contribution to the Pan theme is not clear.

The cast are energetic and engaging, the production skilful, inventive not to say magical at times; and altogether, this is an intermittently fantastic piece of work demonstrating the infinite possibilities of theatre. However, overall it leaves the feeling of being somewhat less than the sum of its considerable parts.

Pit Theatre, Barbican until 16th May

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The Overcoat

Inspired by the Russian writer Gogol’s short story of the same name, The Overcoat is performed by physical theatre company Gecko.

The clue to their interpretation is in ‘inspired by’ and so the play’s narrative doesn’t match to closely that of the short story. Neither did it especially coincide with my own view of how the story might be brought to 21st century life. In a programme note the director and actor Amit Lahav says he’s dealing with the inner life of the protagonist rather than the detail of the original story. He therefore introduces a romance into the narrative, so that it all becomes – as the publicity tag line has it – ‘get the coat get the girl, change the world’. The original was more prosaic – essentially it was get the coat, get warm in Tsarist St. Petersburg – and was (in my view) more politically intriguing.

However, this take on the story has its own strengths. The central character lives in sordid lodgings. His parents watch him from a portrait on the wall. He has sexual fantasies. His landlady seduces him. Meanwhile he works at meaningless tasks as part of a cog in an office machine.

When there is dialogue in the play it is in the language of its multinational cast – Italian, Chinese, Hungarian, French. What this does is place the onus of communication on body language and tone of voice. It is effective –but, of course, the words could be sonorous banality rather than poetry.

The ‘hero’ eventually gets the coat – but is it at the cost of his soul? Has he made a pact with the devil? Did he really get the girl or was that his fervid dream? The narrative thread is ambiguous.

What is not ambiguous is the talent of the performers. They give a strikingly powerful and committed demonstration of what physical theatre can achieve. There are a number of startling moments and striking tableaux. There are thrills and danger – intriguing lighting. Some of the cast have previously worked with the David Glass ensemble – and this influence is apparent and adds to The Overcoat’s power.

The music – a mix of original composition and existing work – is eclectic in a World/Eastern European fusion style. It does in fact work well.

The night I saw it, the theatre was not full – but the audience response was justifiably enthusiastic.

It finished at The Lyric Hammersmith last Saturday, but can be seen at Theatre Royal, Plymouth from 23 - 25 April.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Madame de Sade

The third play in Donmar West End’s current season at Wyndhams Theatre is Madame de Sade by Yukio Mishima. It is translated from the Japanese by Donald Keene and directed by Michael Grandage. It stars Judi Dench as the Marquis de Sade’s mother-in-law - but the best performances come from Frances Barber and Rosamund Pike.

The story spans 18 years before the French revolution and looks at de Sade and his influence from the perspective of several women who represent differing points of view about his behaviour. His wife – the character played by Rosamund Pike - remains loyal to both him and what he does throughout. It is only at the end of the play – when, having been released from prison, he returns to her family home – that she rejects him. Perhaps the reality of an aged dissolute being is less attractive than the intellectual concept of what he could be and the behaviour he stands for.

There is little action but much discussion in the play – or rather there is less discussion than there is a series of monologues. The views of the religious and sybaritic (the Comptesse de Saint-Fond; played superbly by Frances Barber) are presented, as are the views of the innocent, complicit and manipulative. Sadein practices are described rather than seen – somewhat in style of Greek tragedy.

The proletariat – in the guise of the servant Charlotte – is always in the background; until the denouement, that is, when we get an idea that the guillotine may beckon for some. Charlotte is a character of few words, but eloquent body language, and is brought to life convincingly in Jenny Galloway’s performance.

There are three acts, played without an interval, and a single set, which is an 18th century room. It is superbly lit throughout, showing different seasons of the year and providing an animated backdrop for – not only the action before us – but also the actions and emotions and events that are being described. In many ways the set and lighting are perhaps the true stars of the show.

This is a production that requires concentration and involvement. Neither its physical beauty (great though it is) nor the fine performances of all the actors (as good as they are) is enough to sustain an audience’s interest for the hour and forty-five minutes Madame de Sade lasts.

Plays until 23rd May

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Entertaining Mr Sloane

The vertiginous Trafalgar Studios tends to go in for celebrity casting. This version of Joe Orton’s 1960s black comedy Entertaining Mr Sloane features Matthew Horne, star of the TV shows Gavin and Stacey, and Horne and Corden, as the eponymous Sloane. He is also currently in the news for collapsing on stage during a performance of this very show.

The production – directed by Nick Bagnall – is firmly set in its historic period –the 1960s. It seems both of its time and yet speaks to the early 21st century too. For example, Sloane is a self-justifying parasite, whose emphasis is on self and pleasure. But the play is also about role-playing, power struggles and self-deceit.

In many ways it overlaps with the world of Harold Pinter, but is more overtly humorous and camp. In fact, it’s probably a missing link between Pinter and the comedy writers responsible for Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, Galton and Simpson. It is this blurring of dramatic and comic boundaries that provides the successes and disappointments of the production.

Imelda Staunton is spectacularly good as Kath, Sloane’s landlady. Her performance is completely lacking in vanity – she provides a remarkable portrayal of the character. However, Matthew Horne disappoints as Sloane –his performance doesn’t suggest the ebb and flow of the power struggle between his character and those of Kath’s brother Ed or her father Kemp; he felt neither dangerous nor particularly sexy.

The stage at Trafalgar Studios is steeply raked and Imelda Staunton is very short – so there is visual fun to be had with the contrast between her height and the tall spindly actors who play her brother (Simon Paisley Day) and father (Richard Bremmer).

Altogether though, this is an interesting and worthwhile revival of Orton’s play. During the current absence of Matthew Horne, Entertaining Mr Sloane is worth seeing for Imelda Staunton’s performance alone.

Closes 13th April

Friday, 3 April 2009

Dido Queen of Carthage

Written while he was an undergraduate, this is Christopher Marlowe’s first play. It does indeed come across as a young man’s play – at times dramatically overblown and bombastic, rambling and inconsistent. But, under James MacDonald’s direction it, nevertheless, provides a spirited and entertaining evening in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe auditorium – a space similar in size to that in which it was originally performed..

The core of the story concerns the love affair between Aeneas and Dido, the Queen of Carthage. Aeneas has escaped from Troy after its destruction by the Greeks, only to be shipwrecked on the shores of Carthage –modern day Tunisia.

Dido is a Queen who is the object of many suitors’ attentions. Their pictures adorn her palace. She chooses none of them – perhaps a not so veiled reference to the behaviour of Marlowe’s own Queen, Elizabeth. Dido’s latest suitor is Iarbas who she both keeps at arms length yet encourages.

The arrival of Aeneas and his men seems to present no danger to the status quo. Dido is generous in offering to help the shipwrecked travellers, and Aeneas glad to receive it. Aeneas tells his story and that of the sack of Troy in graphic and overlong detail. It is an account that does not especially impress Dido, her court or her current suitor. However, the gods have different ideas and meddle in human affairs for their own entertainment.

In fact the play opens with the god Jupiter – on a raised platform - dandling Ganymede on his knee. Jupiter is sleazy and far from godlike; Ganymede lives up to the Elizabethan meaning of his name - a male prostitute. This scene – as might be expected from a playwright who is both blasphemer and atheist - sets the tone and creates the atmosphere for the rest of the drama.

The other gods in the play are similarly inappropriate and sadly comic. Venus – who instigates Dido’s infatuation with Aeneas – is also inappropriate and amusing. She is, however, finely portrayed by Siobhan Redmond. Among a strong ensemble cast, other notable performances come from Sian Brooke as Dido’s sister Anna and Obi Abili as Iarbas. The latter is good at conveying his almost petulant exasperation at the loss of Dido’s interest and affection to Aeneas after the spiteful intervention of the gods.

However, the performance of the evening comes from Anastasia Hille as Dido. She is convincing not only as a generous Queen who rescues the shipwrecked travellers – and would possibly marry Iarbas – but also as the lovelorn woman desperate for Aeneas’ affection. She was even - finally - believable as someone tipped over into suicidal madness when Aeneas deserts her.

The music, performed live and written by Orlando Gough is nicely entertaining and seamlessly integrated into the action.

This well acted and staged performance is a little over long at three hours (including interval) but is illuminated by the clarity and inventiveness of James MacDonald’s direction and Anastasia Hille’s performance in the title role.

In repertory at the Cottesloe Theatre until 2nd June

This review was written for The Morning Star

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Tempest

Having opened in Stratford this RSC Tempest is now touring the UK. Directed by Janice Honeyman, it is a co-production with South Africa’s Baxter Theatre Centre.

Usually The Tempest is regarded as Shakespeare, the great storyteller’s farewell to the stage. In this version the magic and story-telling power remains, as does the motif of forgiveness and reconciliation for the past usurpation of legitimate political power. However, in this production, the magic and spirits that Prospero accesses are African. The forgiveness asked for at the end is that of the coloniser from the colonised.

The whole thing has an extraordinary vigour. There are live musicians, giant puppets and dancers. They take the part of the island’s spirits, both advancing and commenting on the action. Throughout the production is clear and entertaining; there is much humour to be found in the text. Miranda isn’t too wishy-washy (Tinarie Van Wyk Loots), and Aerial (Atandwa Kani) is athletic, full of grace and a longing to be free.

Anthony Sher is a bombastic yet ultimately sympathetic and kindly Prospero, while John Kani a justifiably angry Caliban.

The ending of the play – the part where Prospero appeals for release and forgiveness - is not addressed to the audience as is customary – but to Caliban; in essence it is an apology for colonialism – and it is a very powerful and deeply moving moment.

Now touring: Grand Theatre, Leeds (until 4th April), Theatre Royal, Bath (7th-11th April), Theatre Royal, Nottingham (14th-18th April) and Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield (21st-25th April)

Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy

Marionettes are not the same as puppets, and Ronnie Burkett is far removed from any acts with either puppets or marionettes that you may have seen before (and – much as I like it - this includes The Tiger Lillies' scabrous version of Punch and Judy).

This is the story of cruise ship entertainer, the eponymous Billy Twinkle, at the end of his career. In his field of entertainment he employs the marionette – not the puppet. But, bored and disillusioned, he insults his audience, who are not giving him sufficient attention or respect. The implication is that he has become stale and repetitive as a performer As a consequence he is fired from his job which leads him to reminisce about how he came to this line of work and how his life and career subsequently unfolded.

Using the devices of flashback coupled with quotations and allusions to Shakespeare –particularly The Tempest – Burkett relates how he came into this world of string pulling. We learn who mentored him, how he became a leading practitioner of his art and how he has grown tired of what he does. Most importantly, he is confronted by a representative of the next generation of his art. This in turn demands he think about his role and responsibility in passing on his gifts and knowledge – if, indeed he wants to.

The whole show makes us consider who is pulling the strings and why, it examines relationships, significant moments in a life and even the nature of performance.

Burkett is an extraordinary performer. He is a character in the play as well as the person manipulating all the other characters – which adds yet another layer of meaning to the story he is telling. He performs all of the voices of the many different characters. There are even marionettes that are manipulating their own marionettes. It is technically amazing; it is hilarious and yet deeply moving. How is it that these characters made of wood and string can be so real, engaging and sympathetic and yet still deeply stir our emotions? That they do is a tribute to Ronnie Burkett’s talent and ingenuity as performer, writer and manipulator of marionettes.

It’s on at The Lowry in Salford Quays, Greater Manchester from Fri 3 Apr 2009 - Wed 8 Apr 2009