Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Review of 2010 - what was missed out: July

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

by Martin McDonagh

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a black comedy by Martin McDonagh. In the past I’ve greatly enjoyed his play Pillowman and film In Bruges. Tonight’s play is one of his earlier works. It has a single set and takes place in the Irish mountains.

A forty-year-old single woman is looking after her aged housebound mother. The latter is monstrously demanding and at first our sympathies are with the daughter. As the action progresses we slowly realise the two of them are in a mutually abusive yet dependent relationship.

The daughter’s attempts to find late-flowering love with a visiting neighbour prove to be doomed. There is much black comedy and overturning of expectation. There is even murder and a cruel denouement. Altogether excellent drama, well performed and staged.

Young Vic

Danton’s Death

By Georg Buchner in a version by Howard Brenton

Georg Buchner’s play deals with some events of the French Revolution and the ideological clash between Georges Danton and Robespierre. It is presented in a new version by Howard Brenton which makes for a shorter and – some might argue – more comprehensible evening.

It’s simply staged on two levels – there’s a bare lower area with numerous doors entering on to the performance space. There’s also a balcony above with giant shuttered windows.

The play is discursive, the performance of Toby Stephens as Danton could be seen as irritatingly mannered. The guillotine scene at the play’s climax is effective, though. The debate about how far revolution should go is sort of ok but fails to engage or involve. Overall it was a slightly disappointing production.


Shakespeare The Man From Stratford

By Jonathan Bate

Simon Callow performs a one man show based on Jonathan Bate’s book about Shakespeare. It’s an impressive and crowd-pleasing synthesis of Shakespearean anecdote interspersed with quotations from the plays. The form follows the seven ages of man.

Callow gives a bravura performance: and the show is a combination of entertainment and information. The entertainment is undeniable; the information is academically unexciting but theatrically good. Simply staged this is an effective and enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

Richmond Theatre

Review of 2010 - what was missed out: June

Sucker Punch

by Roy Williams.

Set in the late 1980s Sucker Punch concerns two young black men who turn to boxing as a means of coping with a racist society. It is a complex work that shows ideological divisions within the black community and how both white and black entrepreneurs can exploit these divisions. It also provides a multi-generational perspective – albeit almost exclusively from a male viewpoint – which gives it an added resonance.

The Royal Court is reconfigured for this production. The stage is a boxing ring, with seating at the frontand back; mirrors on each of the sidewalls give an impression of added depth and crowd numbers.

Two school friends, Troy and Leon, are working at a gym run by a former boxer. He is also training a young white hope, who he knows will eventually leave him for better economic prospects. The two friends present different aspects of the black experience and also how the black community regards its successful members.

The central performance of Leon carries the whole play and in Daniel Kaluuya‘s portrayal is full of extraordinary vigour and sensitivity.

Royal Court

Welcome To Thebes

By Moira Buffini

Moira Buffini’s play takes its story from Greek mythology. The action revolves round the troubled city-state of Thebes and it deals with the supernatural interventions of the gods in the already complicated lives of humanity.

In Buffini’s re-telling some of the male protagonists (for example Creon) have been replaced by their female counterparts (Eurydice) and autocracy replaced by democracy. However this is all filtered through the troubled history of post-colonial Africa and the real politick of ‘benign’ aid from an Athens (the so-called cradle of ‘democracy’) that is a metaphor for the 21st century USA.

This multi-layered approach allows Buffini to explore areas such as male vs female politics, imperialism, the levels of democracy in different states in different parts of the world and the complex role of global economic interests when it comes to the trial and punishment of the perpetrators of war crimes.

There is a lot of deep and disturbing material here; but also a lightness of touch, political insight and – perhaps surprisingly - big laughs. The large Olivier space with a single set is well used. Scenes overlap in a chamber style but there are also grand set pieces. For once in this space flashy technology is not used to cover up imaginative gaps in a production. The biggest stage effect involves the arrival of a helicopter. This happens only in sound and air disturbance – the aircraft lands off stage and out of sight.

The play is clearly directed by Richard Eyre and the large cast is uniformly excellent. Leads David Harewood as Theseus and Nikki Amuka Bird as Eurydice are outstanding, while Chuk Iwuji.s opportunistic Prince Tydeus also deserves mention.


Review of 2010 - what was missed out: May


By Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s Salome is produced by Rupert Goold’s company Headlong – but not directed by him. Nevertheless it has the usual show pony tricks I associate with his work. Visually it’s a very striking production. The stage is high above the stalls and features trapdoors mud and water.

In essence Salome is all about beheading John the Baptist, the dance of the 7 veils and women destroying (male controlled) religion. It’s set in a time when there are many competing religions and Christianity is just another crazy sect vying for public recognition. However, there’s something about the Christian prophet incarcerated in Herod’s gaol that sets Salome off.

The play is transgressive on many levels: the fact that Herod has married his dead brother’s wife, that he lusts after his step-daughter Salome as well as – in this production and presumably in deference to Wilde’s sexuality – engaging sexually with his (male) entourage – much to their disgust. Royalty is presented as corrupt and venal, childish and vindictive – a suitable comment on those in power in any age perhaps. There’s a strong cast with Con O’Neil’s Herod and Jaye Griffith’s Herodias outstanding. Zawe Ashton excels as an erotically charged spoilt wild child in the role of Salome.

Richmond Theatre

Review of 2010 - what was missed out: April


by Lucy Prebble

Directed by Rupert Goold, Prebble’s play deals with the infamous collapse of the US energy company Enron at the start of the century. It also explains the curious accounting methods and slack auditing that allowed the firm’s gigantic fraud to take place.

The play’s tone is satiric and there are also musical numbers. The set is high tech but also strangely dark at times. Everything is well drilled and performed and there are entertaining moments.

However, I’m not sure I found it that satisfying. It certainly poked fun but generally lacked the anger that only briefly surfaced towards the end of the play when two ‘ordinary’ people who had lost everything in the fraud confronted one of the main players in the drama. It actually felt at odds with the rest of the play, which was far too jaunty in tone. Indeed Sam West’s final speech as the unrepentant Jeffrey Skilling almost comes across an aspirational endorsement of the free market.

Noel Coward Theatre

The Empire

By D.C. Moore

The Empire is set in Afghanistan in the present day. We look down on a wrecked room in a damaged building. Outside it is very hot. A British soldier, together with a member of the Afghanistan army is guarding a prisoner.

The play deals with the interaction of the three as they try to understand what has just happened, what is happening now and what should be done about it. It is a play about four bearded men and one clean-shaven man. The bearded men are the problem. The backgrounds of each character and his prejudices are skilfully sketched in.

Our opinion of and response to each of the characters changes during the course of the play in the light of what they say or do. For instance, the officer at first seems a clich├ęd fool, but isn’t. The soldier appears decent but is flawed and easily slips into mindless brutality. The prisoner is plausibly sympathetic at first but there is always a nagging doubt about him, which may just be the result of our own prejudice. But in this instance the prisoner eventually reveals himself to be the terrorist the other characters think he is.

The play deals well with the ambiguities of perception and prejudice; how the behaviour of those who are supposed to bring peace and order can slip into disorder and brutality. It also shows how the voice of the ordinary citizen of a disputed country can be overlooked in the heat of conflict. Staged and performed with conviction, the play teases out prejudice and confronts stereotypes in a dramatically satisfying way.

Royal Court Theatre Upstairs


By Alan Bennett

We go to Milton Keynes Theatre – which is a vast hanger of a space. The play is Alan Bennett’s Enjoy. It’s an early work, which tells the story of a strangely dysfunctional family. At times it has echoes of Pinter and, indeed, Joe Orton.

The set is dwarfed by the vast stage and the show lacks a little of intimacy the play actually demands. Despite this the production does manage to be both amusing and entertaining.

Milton Keynes Theatre


By Laura Wade

Laura Wade’s latest play is about an Oxbridge drinking club along the lines of the notorious Bullingdon club, which counts numerous high-ranking Tories among its members. The play is book ended by a Tory ‘godfather’ in a gentleman’s club talking to his godson.

The members of this Riot club meet up for an evening of eating, drinking and – they hope – debauchery at a country pub. They hire a private room for their festivities, and their intention is to destroy it at the end of the evening.

The first half of the play shows us the group’s attitudes, their sense of ritual and history; it sketches in their relationships with each other, their competitiveness and individualism, yet their dependence on peer group approval. So far much like any other group of young people – or in this case young men – in our society. However, Wade compellingly portrays these objectively repellent young men in a rounded way. She conveys their complex mixture of intelligence, stupidity and nauseating sense of entitlement brilliantly – and yet we also see their vulnerabilities. There are numerous moments in the first half where genuine friendship and feeling are destroyed -before they can flourish - by bullying and aggression.

In the second half the ‘fun’ spirals out of control. The Riot club start talking politics and the views they express are charmless and reactionary. Their sexual politics are demonstrated by their treatment of the ‘escort’ one of them has hired to pleasure the group and the way they treat the pub landlord’s daughter who is their waitress. They think everything is for sale and everyone can be bought off.

In the end they beat up the pub’s owner and collude to lay the whole blame on just one of their number. His reward for taking on their collective guilt will be to go on to be recruited into the political establishment.

This is a true ensemble work. There are ten people on stage for most of the evening and the choreography of their movements and interactions is impeccable. There is singing as well – which is both funny and shows how disconnected as a class these people are.

Laura Wade’s previous plays have been good – but Posh is a major achievement: an exceptional dissection of a particular element of the British ruling class. And becomes even more poignant as our nation is now ruled by a caucus of public school educated multi-millionaires who graduated through such dining clubs and who, more pertinently, don’t actually have a mandate for their destruction of civil society.

Royal Court

Women Beware Women

By Thomas Middleton

This production of Women Beware Women is rather disappointing. The action – particularly in the first half – seems dwarfed by the size of the Olivier stage – especially as most of the scenes are small scale and intimate. This seems to be a perennial problem with modern stagings of Jacobean theatre – frequently the material demands intimacy and claustrophobic settings but seems diminished when open out in a larger space.

The essence of the play is an examination of greed and corruption, which, of course, ends in disaster and multiple deaths. The set is a giant revolve – grandiose on one side, small-scale back stairs on the other. The music which director Marianne Elliot had described as jazzy and bluesy in a pre-performance platform talk is in fact more Latin to my ears and rather unmemorable.

There is some good acting however: Harriet Walter as Livia, Samuel Barnett as Leantio and Lauren O’Neill as Bianca. The much-hyped Vanessa Kirby in the role of Isabella is rather poor – her vocal skill is far less impressive than the rest of the cast. Towards the end there is a ‘masque’ scene, which leads up to the deaths of the main characters. While reasonably striking it is over-long. Altogether Women Beware Women is OK but not great.


Sunday, 19 December 2010

Review of 2010 - what was missed out: March


By Phillip Glass

It was in 2007 that I first saw this production of Satyagraha. It’s notable for being directed and designed by Phelim McDermot and Julian Crouch of Improbable Theatre. It’s spectacular to look at and the music is engaging.

The opera deals with Gandhi’s early years in South Africa where he becomes radicalised and embarks on his career as political reformer.

The instrumental interludes are illustrated by magical stage business involving puppets, aerialists, copious amounts of newspaper and sellotape. Looking back at my 2007 notes I find I had reservations about the production. Having seen it again, I can’t really see why: it’s actually great – and I would go and see it again if I could.


Ghost Stories

By Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman

A second visit to see Ghost Stories at the Lyric in Hammersmith.

I enjoy the show much more this time round. It’s easier to see how neatly constructed it is and how it undercuts expectations in the way it moves from comedy to tragedy.

The horrors get darker as it moves along. It remains technically impressive; scene changes are slickly managed and add to the tension. There is skilful use of light and sound and optical illusion.

Even though I knew what was coming, there were still several moments providing satisfying frights and frissons

Lyric Hammersmith

Review of 2010 - what was missed out: February

The 14th Tale

Inua Ellams is a word and graphic artist and this is the story of Ellams himself. Brought up in Nigeria, he moves with his family to London and then, following his father’s job, to Dublin and again back to London.

This is also the story of a boy growing to manhood, the trouble he gets into, which is both compounded by, yet in many ways, not dictated by his immigrant status. The narrative deals with stories of his experiences in Nigeria, Ireland and London.

Ellams’ performance is assured and engaging. He presents the immigrant experience, coupled with the male experience of growing up, in a poetic language that is amusing, poignant and self aware. His use of language is constantly inventive and delightful: for example, his younger self’s double take at the ‘black’ argot of his white school fellow Gary, and resonant phrases such as ‘a hurricane of nuns’ which linger long in the mind.

The 14th Tale is staged in a minimalist fashion and is all the more effective for this. The use of lighting, sound and pauses adds to the dramatic narrative. And it all builds to a satisfying conclusion.


The Power Of Yes

by David Hare.

This is Hare’s take on the collapse of capitalism dome in the style of his verbatim theatre as exemplified by Stuff Happens and The Permanent Way. We have seats in the front row of the circle, which is always a nice place to sit.

It’s performed on a more or less bare stage with some graphics projected above and behind from time to time. The narrative takes us from the ideology of Thatcherism up to the present economic collapse. The conceit is that an author “David Hare’ assisted by a researcher (Amanda Rooper) try to explain capitalism’s crisis by talking to the major players in the economic farce. It works well as Hare doesn’t impose his views on events – his frustration with the mealy mouthed answers he gets doesn’t really erupt until towards the end. The differing strands of capitalist thought are given equal weight and it’s up to us the audience (or rather the tax payers who bail them out) to decide whose view we favour. As an overview of how the world economy got to this state and a sketch of the characters of the major players it is entertainingly informative and induces a feeling of anger – if you share the view that the crisis was caused by greed, hubris and social inadequacy. The idea that society is now nothing more than an economic transaction is shown to be the hollow nonsense it palpably is – not least from the statements of some of those involved in the collapse of capitalism.

The only odd thing in the play is an implicit suggestion that there is a strange sexual tension between the ‘author’ and the researcher whenever they’re on stage together.

Well-performed and staged, the play is more engaging and multi-faceted than the subject matter might suggest.


The Habit of Art

By Alan Bennett

Bennett’s latest play at the Lyttelton is called The Habit of Art and deals with an imaginary meeting between the poet W H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. The action takes the form of a rehearsal - at the NT - of a play about this imagined meeting. So, we get sizeable chunks of the play and the reactions of the cast and crew to it while the author watches and intervenes. The celebrity director is away furthering his career elsewhere, so the rehearsal is led by a stage manager, played by Frances de la Tour.

This structure allows Bennett to comment on the nature of performance, how biography works, the relationship between music and poetry and the lives of gay men in an age when homosexuality was illegal. As it’s Bennett there are many humorous scenes and brilliant lines. While some of the humour may be self-regarding there’s always an acid edge to it that means it doesn’t become complacent.

Richard Griffiths is excellent as the actor playing Auden and Alex Jennings as the one playing Britten.


Review of 2010 - what was missed out: January

The Woman Black

By Stephen Mallatratt

This is a touring production of The Woman In Black and we catch it at Richmond Theatre. It’s based on Susan Hill’s novel of the same name and has been running in the West End for almost 20 years.

Basically it’s a two-hander with a non-speaking ‘lady in black’ who glides around the stage on a few occasions. At first the adaptation seems laboured: the conceit is that the younger solicitor who experienced the ghostly events as a young man enlists the help of an actor so that he can tell this story from his youth to other memories of his family. It introduces the idea of a narrative within a narrative – a frequent device of this time of Victorian supernatural tale – as well as engaging (even if only peripherally) with ideas of performance and how to be effectively convincing in performance.

After the slightly tedious set up for the storytelling we get into the tale itself. It is here that the power of the narrative engages particularly. The young solicitor is sent somewhere geographically imprecise but seems to be far to the north and east of London. He goes to clear up the estate of a recently deceased old client who lives in an isolated house cut off by the tide twice a day just outside a small town. Locals do not talk to him about events at the house but he gets a clear sense of something peculiar having gone on there.

The key incidents of the haunting of the house and the spooking of the young man, together with the unfurling of the mystery surrounding the law firm’s dead client are skilfully related. The staging is simple but works extremely well. Surprise and frisson come from apparently simple devices such as a rocking chair and the disarrangement of a previously tidy room.

It was an entertaining evening’s theatre, well performed by two actors who have both been in the West End production as well.

Richmond Theatre

Dr Marigold and Mr Chops

By Charles Dickens

Simon Callow performed two of Dickens dramatic monologues at the Riverside Studios.

The stories were typically Dickensian being both amusing and sentimentally manipulative. Mr Chops - about a deaf and dumb girl - was especially sentimental, while Dr Marigold - a rumbustuous tale about carny folk and a dwarf - was more amusingly poignant. Simon Callow's performance in both simply but effectively staged tales was excellent.

Riverside Studios