Review: Brass the Musical, Mountview at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre

My second version of Brass the Musical in a week – Mountview students at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre do an impressive job with this moving WWI musical

“War turns everything on its head”

It’s not often that you get the chance to compare and contrast two contemporaneous productions of the same musical but that is exactly what you can do right now with Brass the Musical. Sasha Regan at The Union Theatre opened her version this week (review here) and now a group of Mountview students are having a crack at it at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre. I was particularly tempted to return to the show as the show’s writer Benjamin Till – an alumnus of Mountview himself – is also on directorial duties.

It was fascinating to see the show for the second time in a week as the approaches by each director offered up intriguingly different interpretations. Till clearly benefits from the resources of one of the UK’s leading drama schools and so is able to conscript a band to meet the demands of his brass-heavy score, fill his stage with bodies and get them to execute some pretty nifty choreography (by Simon Hardwick). The contrast is huge with the Union, where studied intimacy is the watchword even though the company is only fractionally smaller.   Continue reading “Review: Brass the Musical, Mountview at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre”

Film Review: Journey’s End (2017)

A beautifully sensitive film adaptation of Journey’s End that spares none of its horror

“Smells like liver without the smooth wet look”

In all of the art that has been created around the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the First World War, it is a shame that this film adaptation of Journey’s End passed by without much fanfare last year. RC Sherriff’s play is a rightfully punishing and pummeling play and Simon Reade’s adaptation loses none of the ferocity and horror of the writing, while adding new layers of disturbing verisimilitude in its staging.

Set in the final months of the First World War in the trenches of northern France, Journey’s End follows C Company as they await orders with an increasing sense of dread. Newly arrived Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) has requested the posting as he naively wants to be reunited with former school colleague and family friend Captain Stanhope. But nothing can prepare him for life on the front line, nor the effects of war on his pal. Continue reading “Film Review: Journey’s End (2017)”

Review: Gilded Butterflies, Hope Theatre

Capturing something of the tragedy of solitary confinement, Gilded Butterflies is an evocative hour at the Hope Theatre

“I don’t always mean what I say”

The walls of the Hope Theatre stripped back to nothing, the dimensions of 2 6ft x 9ft prison cells marked out on the floor, grimly uncomfortable camp beds the only furniture in each. There’s no way that theatre can hope to replicate the conditions of solitary confinement but there’s a harshness to the design of Gilded Butterflies that certainly starts that conversation. 

Created by the company Tormented Casserole and inspired by the experiences of real people on Death Row, Gilded Butterflies follows the incarcerated Maggie as she pins her hopes on an appeal that she believes will set her free. Through conversations with herself, with a prisoner who moves in next door, with her lawyer and finally with her estranged sister, we discover just something of what imprisonment can do to a soul. Continue reading “Review: Gilded Butterflies, Hope Theatre”

Review: The Wolves, Theatre Royal Stratford East

Sarah DeLappe’s play The Wolves proves a striking piece of ensemble work full of incisive teen insight at Theatre Royal Stratford East

“We should be, like, very very thankful for our liberties you know”

You don’t want to instinctively compare The Wolves to Dance Nation but as far as new plays written by American women about teenage girls involved in competitive sport go, the parallels are there. Sarah DeLappe’s debut play receives a visually striking production here from Ellen McDougall, with some superb design work from Rosie Elnile.

The sport here is football, indoor soccer to be precise, and we follow this team over five weeks’ worth of games. But the focus isn’t the games, it is the young women playing them – known only by their shirt numbers, not their names – the characters being formed by this intense group interaction, which ranges from jokey banter to the deeply profound. Continue reading “Review: The Wolves, Theatre Royal Stratford East”

Review: A Pupil, Park Theatre

Strong performances from Lucy Sheen and Flora Spencer-Longhurst make Jesse Briton’s A Pupil an interesting watch at the Park Theatre

“No instrument is more important than the player”

What price genius? We’re often subjected to portrayals of (usually male) creative masterminds that pay little mind to the havoc wrought in the name of their chosen subject. So it is instructive to see the script flipped a bit by Jesse Briton with his new play A Pupil. From its opening moments as former violinist Ye lines up the bottles of pills and whiskey she hopes will end her life, there’s little sugercoating of the weight that talent can bring to bear.

It wasn’t always thus, and it needn’t continue to be. Ye’s involvement in a car crash left her physically incapacitated but she’s slowly mending with the help of landlady Mary. And former colleague Phyllida has lined up a tutoring job for her, helping to prepare the daughter of a Russian oligarch for an audition to the Royal Conservatoire where she teaches. But is talent something that can be nurtured, whether by individuals or by institutions, and is it ever really worth it? Continue reading “Review: A Pupil, Park Theatre”

Review: Brass the Musical, Union Theatre

Brass the Musical at the Union Theatre is a powerfully moving celebration of sacrifices made, of service offered, of music itself – beautifully done

“Just until our lads come back”

There’s a neat symmetry to the life of Brass the Musical thus far. Originally commissioned by the National Youth Music Theatre to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, its professional London premiere now marks the Armistice Centenary. Benjamin Till’s musical, with additional lyrics from Nathan Taylor and Sir Arnold Wesker, thus serves as a powerful tribute to those who served, both at home and on the frontline.

What is particularly gorgeous about Brass is how it is suffused with the joy of music. Its power to bring people together (as in the characterful ‘Forming a Band’), its potential to lift spirits (the marvelous storytelling of ‘Whistle Billy’), its ability to express something deeper beyond just words (the haunting vocalese at the trenches). And as an expression of the musical theatre form, it works beautifully in deepening an already profoundly moving piece of history.  Continue reading “Review: Brass the Musical, Union Theatre”

Review: Romea and Julian, Bread and Roses

A gender-swapped Romea and Julian at the Bread and Roses Theatre lacks the specificity to really make you root for these star cross’d lovers

“Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads.
Take it in what sense thou wilt”

It’s a bold move to open the same show in the same week as the RSC. Erica Whyman’s contemporary Romeo and Juliet is a slick success but Purple Ostrich’s interpretation certainly matches, if not exceeds, it in ambition with its gender-swapped Romea and Julian here at the Bread and Roses tucked away off Clapham High Street.

Directed by Laura Kressly, there’s much to admire in this gender-bending free-wheeling adaptation. An all-female company of three take on all the supporting roles with a fresh and ferocious sense of fun – the performative disinterest of Acushla-Tara Kupe’s mike-wielding Lady Capulet being a real standout, alongside Elham Mayhoub’s Nurse. Continue reading “Review: Romea and Julian, Bread and Roses”

Review: Romeo and Juliet, RSC at the Barbican

A modern and moving take on Romeo and Juliet from the RSC at the Barbican

“I am too young. I pray you, pardon me”

It’s sometimes a little difficult to take seriously how old everyone is meant to be in Romeo and Juliet but Erica Whyman’s modern-day production for the RSC, playing in rep now at the Barbican, never lets you forget. She fills the stage with kids for a cacophonous prologue, Karen Fishwick’s Juliet rightfully feels like a child and in turn, Mariam Haque’s Lady Capulet (“I was your mother much upon these years that you are now a maid”) is a convincing 26, closer to her daughter in age than her husband, but emotionally distant from both. 

It’s a pattern Juliet seizes the first chance to break when she meets Bally Gill’s charismatic Romeo, a young man very much still coming into his own. And you feel that it is the running away that appeals to her just as much as the running away together. For she’s all too aware that there are cycles of violence that the young’uns of this Verona can’t hope to escape – indeed what chance do they have when even all the adults around them carry and use knives to resolve even the smallest slight.  Continue reading “Review: Romeo and Juliet, RSC at the Barbican”

Blogged: shaking up Shakespeare

I have a mixed time with some shaken-up Shakespeares – othellomacbeth at the Lyric Hammersmith; Twelfth Night at the Young Vic; Much Ado About Nothing at the Watford Palace; and Measure for Measure at the Donmar

“Condemn the fault and not the actor of it?”

I’m the first to say that modern adaptations of Shakespeare need to do something different to justify their place in today’s theatre ecology. Lord knows there’s been enough traditional renditions of his work, and still they come, and even if there are always going to be people coming for the first time, there’s also a real need to make his plays speak to contemporary society in a way that is unafraid to challenge his reputation. It is perhaps no surprise that it is female directors and directors of colour who are at the forefront of doing just that and there have been four key examples in London most recently – Jude Christian’s othellomacbeth at the Lyric Hammersmith, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub’s Twelfth Night at the Young Vic, Brigid Larmour’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Watford Palace and Josie Rourke’s Measure for Measure at the Donmar.

And of course, having demanded that this is what directors do, I found myself disappointed at the majority of these, for some of the same reasons and some different ones too. Perhaps the most formally daring is Christian’s othellomacbeth which smashes together the two tragedies to create something which ends up less than the sum of its constituent parts. Its intentions are certainly noble, seeking to highlight the female voices in these plays and give them prominence. But the reality is that in the two substantially reduced treatments here, everything becomes diminished, not least narrative clarity. There’s one cracking idea which connects the two, which you suspect might have inspired the whole production, but ultimately, it is not enough to hang the whole thing on. Continue reading “Blogged: shaking up Shakespeare”

Review: The Greater Game, Waterloo East

At Waterloo East Theatre, The Greater Game is a sobering reminder of the individual stories behind the statistics of our war dead, and a fitting tribute too 

“Play together, sign up together…die together “

John, Jumbo, Peggy, Mac, Spider…the names above the dressing room hooks are a simple but effective reminder that behind wartime statistics are countless lives that have been ended. Whether the hundreds of thousands of total British casualties of World War One, or the forty-two men of the Clapton Orient football team who volunteered en masse for the effort, it can be hard – overwhelming even – to remember that each one was an individual.

It is a thought that is threaded throughout the entirety of Michael Head’s play The Greater Game based on Stephen Jenkins’ book They Took The Lead. It drills down to seven key members of that football squad (now known as Leyton Orient) and deeper yet to the intense friendship between of the lads whose playing field moves from boyhood kickarounds in the North-East, to professional success in East London, to brutal conflict at the Somme. Continue reading “Review: The Greater Game, Waterloo East”