Review: Hamlet, RSC at Theatre Royal Newcastle

“Brevity is the soul of wit”
 

I can’t say I wasn’t warned… Work has seen me up in the north-east for a few days this month and so coinciding with the RSC’s short residency at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle which sees one of their ensembles putting on the three shows from their bit of the summer season. And I’d been told that their Hamlet was a difficult beast but I wasn’t quite prepared for quite how awful I would find it.

David Farr’s modern(ish) take eschews star casting for the integrity of this ensemble, giving Jonathan Slinger the opportunity to take on this most celebrated of roles, but it is a chance they take so thoroughly by the horns with Slinger’s determination to put his own stamp thereon, it never feels real or organic, just a strained effort to be different. And at 3 hours 40 minutes, it is a lot to bear. Continue reading “Review: Hamlet, RSC at Theatre Royal Newcastle”

Review: Sweeney Todd, West Yorkshire Playhouse

“You shouldn’t harm nobody”

It is always good to hear that major UK theatres are co-producing shows, especially with the trans-Pennine co-operation between the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Royal Exchange on this production of Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I couldn’t help but wonder though how the show will make the leap from Leeds to Manchester, from the vast expanse of the Quarry to the intimacy of being in-the-round. Director James Brining has form though, this adaptation was first mounted at the Dundee Rep (and will undergo an additional transformation next year to fill the Wales Millennium Centre) and as a debut for this newly installed Artistic Director, it does feel like a canny choice.

He relocates Sondheim’s musical to the early Thatcher years, arguing her particular brand of socially transformative politics gave rise to as desperate a despondency as is familiar to us from Dickens. But what moving it out of its original Victorian context to something altogether more modern really achieves is to create an altered, and more chilling, sense of horror. It becomes a scarier psychodrama which is light on laughs and somehow more realistic as a serial killer thriller, although one does have to suspend a little disbelief when it comes to some of the finer points of transportation. Continue reading “Review: Sweeney Todd, West Yorkshire Playhouse”

Review: The Winter’s Tale, Crucible

 “There’s some ill planet reigns”

Sheffield’s autumnal Shakespeares have become something of a yearly institution and a regular fixture in my theatregoing diary. This year sees The Winter’s Tale arrive at the Crucible with something of a less starry cast than in previous years (although Barbara Marten and Claire Price were both strong draws for us) and the return of director Paul Miller to the series, after his Hamlet back in 2010. Sad to say though, this was not for me – the atmosphere hampered by a sadly sparse matinée audience but the production also full of choices that just didn’t appeal.

Shakespeare’s late play relies on the careful balancing of two halves – Sicilia’s dark tragedy and Bohemia’s pastoral vibrancy, the pain of simmering jealousy against the freshness of new love. But though they must complement each other, they need to effectively stand alone as well and Miller struggles with his opening act. The sparseness of Simon Daw’s design places the focus strictly on the interactions of his actors, but his preferred method of placing them at some distance from each other on the large stage estranges them too much, both from each other and from the audience. Continue reading “Review: The Winter’s Tale, Crucible”

Review: All My Sons, Royal Exchange

“This thing – this thing is not over yet”

A towering giant of the American dramatic canon, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons rarely lacks for productions on British stages but it can rarely have been delivered as well as it has in Michael Buffong’s production for his Talawa Theatre Company at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Though written and set in 1947, its story still resonates out across timelines, colour lines and borderlines as the horror of sending soldiers out to combat with sub-standard equipment remains a brutal reality even today. 

Don Warrington’s Joe Keller is a self-made businessman whose proudest achievement has been his gradual progression from humble beginnings to a man of means and thus status. But in order to get where he has, he allowed his business partner to take the rap for a fatal mistake in his factory which led to horrifically tragic consequences and though Joe and his wife have managed a life in denial, a change in their family circumstances forces them to confront the true ramifications of his actions. Continue reading “Review: All My Sons, Royal Exchange”

Review: Fiddler on the Roof, Mayflower

“If I were a rich man, yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum. All day long I’d biddy biddy bum, if I were a wealthy man.”

Oh, to be a fly on the wall when lyricist Sheldon Harnick announced the second line of a song he’d written for Fiddler on the Roof was “yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum”. But along with book writer Joseph Stein and composer Jerry Bock, their efforts translated into one of the most successful Broadway productions ever, with this story of Tevye, a milkman in pre-revolutionary Russia, and his three headstrong daughters making life in the village very difficult by challenging the old order. Craig Revel-Horwood employs his tried-and-tested actor-musician model to invigorate new life into the show (one which is new to me, I’ve never even seen the film) which is just undertaking a huge UK tour, starting at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre (another first for me).

Due to the indisposition of Paul Michael Glaser, we were treated to an understudy performance as Tevye and not even the named understudy Paul Kissaun at that, Eamonn O’Dwyer took on the role and a fine job he did too. Though demonstrably too young for the part, his wry exasperation at the way the world turns and the warm geniality with which he rolls with it made for an assured central presence that kept the show moving with a twinkle-eyed grace. Even with the age mismatch with Karen Mann as his long-suffering wife Golde, there was a palpable chemistry that made their second half duet ‘Do You Love Me?’ a genuinely lovely thing.  Continue reading “Review: Fiddler on the Roof, Mayflower”

Review: The Witches of Eastwick, Watermill

“If I said that I would listen, might that ease the doubt?”

A theatre I hadn’t been to before and a musical I hadn’t heard before – the offer to go and see the Watermill’s adaptation of the 2000 West End show The Witches of Eastwick seemed like a no-brainer. But though I am glad to be able to tick both of those boxes, I have to admit to being rather disappointed with the show and such disillusionment is only magnified when one has made a not inconsiderable effort to go out of town to see a show. As with many of the productions at this venue, it is an actor-musician led revival, directed here by Craig Revel-Horwood and so one is habitually left in awe at the amount of talent being displayed on this cramped stage, I’m just not convinced that this musical is worth it.

Written by John Dempsey and Dana P Rowe from John Updike’s novel of the same name, the story focuses on three New England women unhappy with their lot in life who get swept up into the influence of newcomer Darryl Van Horne, whose demonically charming ways transform all their lives as he seduces them one by one. But though it may be better the devil you know, the changes he wreaks threaten to go too far and it proves no easy task to put this particular genie back into the bottle. Tom Rogers’ set design works wonders in such an intimate space, not least with a well-executed flying scene, too many aspects of the production felt problematic to me.  Continue reading “Review: The Witches of Eastwick, Watermill”

Review: A Little Hotel on the Side, Theatre Royal Bath

I’m the headless hunter of Honfleur, I’m the strangled Sister of Soissons, I’m the noseless Nun of Nantes”

Those who know me will attest to how firmly I tend to hold my preconceptions, but I do try to test them fairly regularly on the off-chance that a certain production might prove me wrong, if not about the whole genre then at least about that particular show. And despite its much-beloved status by the likes of Billington, Spencer et al, farce is one such genre of which I am no particular fan. I am one of the few who found One Man Two Guvnors painful in the extreme but I found myself tumbling easily for the charms of Noises Off, so whilst I might not ever call myself a fan of farce, I do know that it is impossible to lump them all together dismissively.

Which is a most long-winded way to say that I went to the Theatre Royal Bath to see Georges Feydeau and Maurice Désvallières’ A Little Hotel on the Side. Adapted by John Mortimer and directed by Lindsay Posner with an amazingly luxurious cast including the likes of Richard McCabe, Hannah Waddingham and Richard Wilson, it seems incredible that the run is just two weeks long but I would struggle to recommend dropping everything to try and see this. My only previous experience of Feydeau was with the Old Vic’s 2010 A Flea In Her Ear, which decidedly didn’t tickle my funnybone, and this felt far closer to that than to the delirious pleasures of Frayn’s backstage antics. Continue reading “Review: A Little Hotel on the Side, Theatre Royal Bath”

Review: If Only, Minerva

“By the way, David Cameron has met a black man in Plymouth”

A cheeky trip to Chichester meant that I was able to catch David Edgar’s latest play If Only in its final week and whilst it was fun to see a piece of such hyper-contemporary political theatre (Edgar was writing the second act right until the play opened to keep it up-to-date), the real joy was seeing three exciting actors – Martin Hutson, Jamie Glover and Charlotte Lucas – in the spotlight as the main characters. The play starts in the midst of the 2010 election with the result as yet unknown, and the second act takes a jump four years into the future to examine the impact of coalition politics on the nation.

The first half is excellent. Trapped in a Spanish airport by the Icelandic ash cloud, three young politicos are forced into a road trip adventure to make it back in time for the election result. Martin Hutson is a Labour special advisor, Charlotte Lucas is a Lib Dem staffer and Jamie Glover is a Tory MP licking his wounds after the expenses scandal and there’s huge fun as they thrash out the various permutations of a hung parliament and what that would mean for politics in the UK. It’s wordy but funny, Edgar disguises strategising with a little comedy and comes up a plausible, Thick-of-It-style version of what could well have happened involving camels (funnier and cleverer than it sounds).

After the interval, Edgar skips forward to a UK in the grip of the rise of UKIP and a Tory party responding by stealing its position and policies on the far right. The same three characters are reunited and fret about the way in which politics has become dominated by single-issue pressure groups and face a particular dilemma which asks them if it worth sacrificing personal decency for political expediency. It’s less effective and the introduction of a young woman (who connects both halves) played by Eve Posonby struck me as inessential, a way of bringing in a more youthful voice looking to the future that was never really needed. Good production though. 

  

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 25th July

Review: As You Like It, Guildford College of Law

“I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it” 
The elegant surroundings of the gardens of the Guildford College of Law prove an ideal setting for the Guildford Shakespearean Company’s late-Edwardian open air production of As You Like It. Stately buildings, hints of ruins and leafy glades frame this happiest of Shakespearean tales as not even the bitterest of sibling rivalries, jealous hearts and surprisingly convincing cross-dressing can stop the business of everyone falling in love. The play wears its adaptation lightly, always a good sign, and allows for an interesting reading of some characters. Richard Delaney’s Jaques is an almost Wildean figure and the spirited independence of Rosalind and constant companion Celia makes an easy fit with the suffragette movement.
And there’s a wonderfully wry sense of humour about the whole affair, as if the outdoors setting has captured some of the liberating magic of the Forest of Arden itself. Utilising a fair amount of creative license works wonders in bringing laugh-out-loud moments aplenty – magic tricks, in-jokes, audience participation and no small amount of animal noises all contribute to an affectionately raucous take on the pastoral comedy which is hugely effective.

Chief amongst the merry-making is the delicious double-act of Matt Pinches’ Touchstone and Angie Walis’ Audrey, bouncing off each other with some sublimely ridiculous humour especially in a witty wedding scene and there’s lovely cameos from Adam Buchanan’s karate-chop-happy Charles (I’d love to know if he manages to get the chicken in the bin again!) and Simon Nock’s dippy William, easily, hilariously pleased with his rabbit.
But there’s a good deal of heart beating under the skin of this production too. Fiona Sheehan makes Celia such an impassioned and compassionate friend that she rarely fades to the background, even when the play does so itself; Richard Keightley makes Orlando a bookish fellow, something of the Romantic poet about him in the expression of his love; and Rhiannon Sommers makes a tremendous Rosalind, hugely watchable with a confident ease to deal with one of the richest female roles in the canon. 


The glorious turn in the weather means there hasn’t been a better time to spend evenings outside and Guildford Shakespeare Company’s fresh and funny work enables you to catch some top-quality theatre at the same time. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval) 
Booking until 28th July

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: The Machine / The Masque of Anarchy, MIF

“And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain.
Heard again—again—again—“

A sneaky brief return trip to Manchester allowed me to take in two more of the shows in this year’s Manchester International Festival and whilst one was definitely world class, the other didn’t quite match up for me. Starting with the latter, Matt Charman’s play The Machine dramatises the iconic chess series between Garry Kasparov and the IBM computer Deep Blue and delves way back into their respective pasts to see how they came to be – Kasparov driven to grandmaster status by his determined mother, Deep Blue brought into being by an equally fierce creator, the Taiwanese Dr Feng-hsiung Hsu.

In Campfield Market Hall, Josie Rourke’s production of this sprawling play feels very much like a sub-Enron pastiche, borrowing heavily from the visual audacity of that Headlong play but floundering in the far greater space of this stage. The scale means that the play often achieves the level of spectacle but it rarely feels like great theatre. Multiple scenes wind back through history to trace the progress of the entities that would contest this match-up and there’s undoubtedly strong work from Hadley Fraser and Francesca Annis as Kasparov and his fearsome mother, and Kenneth Lee as the prof, helped out by Brian Sills’ grandmaster employed to teach strategy to the computer.  Continue reading “Review: The Machine / The Masque of Anarchy, MIF”