Review: His Dark Materials, Theatre Royal Bath Young People’s Theatre

Established as probably my favourite theatrical experience ever when it played the National Theatre, when I heard that the Young People’s Theatre company at the Theatre Royal Bath were putting on a production thanks to the Guardian’s Guide, tickets were booked to take in the day’s entertainment. The translation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy into two plays is one of the most sympathetic adaptations of literature to theatre I can remember and they are amongst my favourite books, yet the way in which they’ve been edited really works, slicing out the more obtuse threads of the final novel and focusing on the harrowing journey that the young protagonists have to make.

Even without the magnificent set that utilised the drum of the Olivier Theatre to its full extent, this is an ambitious project for any theatre to take on, never mind a youth group but they have risen to the challenge pulling together a cast of over 150 10-18 year olds with more than 300 costumes and 100 puppets created especially for this production. The story takes us on a thrilling journey with Lyra and Will, 12 year old kids who live in parallel worlds who are thrown together by destiny on a huge quest which takes them from the hallowed halls of Oxford to the frozen wastes of the North to the darkest of all places as they both search for something precious to their hearts, facing a range of challenges: rebellious angels, soul-eating spectres, child-catching Gobblers and the armoured bears and witch-clans of the Arctic. Continue reading “Review: His Dark Materials, Theatre Royal Bath Young People’s Theatre”

Review: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Almeida

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is a play by American Stephen Adly Guirgis, receiving its UK premiere here at the Almeida in a co-production with Headlong, who are run by Rupert Goold who is the director. The play centres on a trial testing the guilt of Judas, ostensibly set in Purgatory which looks and sounds a lot like a downtown seedy part of New York today. An array of witnesses from all points in history and the Bible are summoned to argue the toss, but as they’ve all been reincarnated as foul-mouthed typical New Yorkers, they are stripped of the protective aura that history and reputation has accorded them and we see everything from a whole new perspective.

It is certainly a different way of looking at things but it has been so well written and I feel the key to its success is in its no-holds-barred approach to telling it like it is whilst maintaining a sense of decorum. Adly Guirgis is often irreverent but also respectful with it, making it all the funnier when Mother Teresa is hauled all over the coals for opposing Vatican reforms that condemned anti-Semitism and Sigmund Freud’s testimony is discredited due to his raging cocaine addiction. Continue reading “Review: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Almeida”

Review: Small Change, Donmar Warehouse

Partly based on his own experiences as a boy in Cardiff, Small Change is one of Peter Gill’s earlier plays, revived here at the Donmar Warehouse. It covers the efforts of two boys in 1950s Cardiff to remove themselves from their mothers’ apron strings, but also with the complex relationship between the two, struggling to grasp their true feelings for each other in a world where homosexuality is incomprehensible and illegal. But as it is a memory play, we also see the characters later in life and the action flits around the timeline showing how the past and present are inextricably linked and indeed their impact on the future.
The extremely simple staging, just four chairs at random angles, a floating shelf on a brick wall at the back and an unadorned red raked stage means that the focus is squarely on the prose which is heavily poetical. But whilst there is no doubting the quality of the acting onstage and the obvious emotion invested in the depiction of unresolved homosexual yearning and the drudgery of housewifery, it rarely fully captivated the attention as it is just so very lyrical and Gill’s writing often veers to the elliptical and obtuse.

This is partly due to the structure: the play constantly shifts around in time with repeated lines and recurring motifs echoing around but instead of being moving, I found myself getting increasingly irritated with the repetition. And there seemed something a little artificial about the evocation of working class language, a romanticism which was a little too rose-tinted for my liking.
The acting is predictably strong, led by the incomparable Sue Johnston with her stoic and strong Mrs Harte contrasted with Lindsey Coulson’s much more nervous and despairing Mrs Driscoll, struggling under the weight of a large family and brutal husband. Matt Ryan and Luke Evans had a lovely chemistry as the two boys who never quite managed to chase the dream of love between the two, each following their own paths. On the one hand it was nice not to see full-blown ‘pretending to be children’ acting from these two but equally, the subtlety with which it was played meant that it was never abundantly clear just when we were in the storyline.
Dull and uninvolving feels too harsh a description for this production given the strength of the acting, but I would struggle to recommend this to people as it ended up being quite a difficult play to like.

Review: God of Carnage, Gielgud

Yasmin Reza’s new play, God of Carnage presented here in a translation by Christopher Hampton, mines her familiar territory of social hypocrisy in skillfully dissecting the mutual disdain of two middle class couples. And as a four-hander, it has pulled together a truly heavyweight cast that is most impressive.

Michel and his terribly socially aware wife Véronique, are hosting an uncomfortable little tea party for another couple, Alain and Annette. The connection between the two couples is the assault by the visitors’ 11-year-old son Ferdinand who, following a verbal insult, took a bamboo stick to the hosts’ slightly younger Bruno removing two teeth. There’s a few cagey attempts to resolve the situation peacefully but as the meeting goes on, serious tensions emerge, hackles are raised and the behaviour of all concerned degenerates into the simply outrageous. Continue reading “Review: God of Carnage, Gielgud”

Review: The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other, National Theatre

Featuring 450 characters played by 27 actors with not a word spoken during its 100 minutes running time, The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other is certainly an eyebrow-raiser and an experience, but is it really theatre? I’m still not sure. A Peter Handke play, although presented here by Meredith Oakes in a new translation which has caused a fair bit of mirth considering there’s no talking, so perhaps a new ‘interpretation’ might have been a better way of describing it?

In terms of what happens, well a lot passes by on stage but equally nothing actually happens. People walk, run, skip, jump, limp across the stage in various guises, some dressed as recognisable figures, most just regularly clad, and tiny little stories are played out during their journeys from one side of the stage to other. Life, death, tragedy, sex and lots of comedy are on display here and it is fitfully awe-inspiringly good, especially when there’s the stronger narrative arc that engages the attention, like the terrorist attack towards the end. Continue reading “Review: The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other, National Theatre”

Review: The Homecoming, Almeida

Pinter seems to be all the rage at the moment: Islington’s Almeida Theatre is now getting in on the act with a revival of his 1964 play The Homecoming.

Set in an all male household in North London, the play explores the reaction of a family to the homecoming of the eldest son and his wife. This household has been male-dominated for a long time and the arrival of a woman sparks a set of power plays in which not everyone is quite as they seem. The casting of Jenny Jules as the new wife also contributes a racial dimension to the dynamic, an added frisson into this powderkeg of a scenario. Continue reading “Review: The Homecoming, Almeida”

Review: Present Laughter, National Theatre

Present Laughter, the Noël Coward play about a middle aged matinée idol, arrives at the Lyttelton in a new National Theatre production led by Howard Davies. I was quite excited to see it, as I have not seen that much of Coward’s work on the stage at all and had heard wonderful things about Alex Jennings’ performance as Garry Essendine.

The self-centred Garry, an actor, cannot live without the constant affection of those around him whether onstage or off-. He regularly enjoys the amorous attentions of many of his fans but finds himself is trapped in a tug of war between two young women, his estranged wife (with whom he gets on just super now they no longer live together), and a besotted aspiring writer. As Essendine prepares to go to Africa on tour they all throw themselves at him, in their own eccentric ways. Continue reading “Review: Present Laughter, National Theatre”

Review: Rent Remixed, Duke of York’s

Many a musical has received a facelift, but none quite so dramatic or misguided as Rent Remixed, setting up shop at the Duke of York’s. William Baker (director) and Steve Anderson (musical arranger) are perhaps better known as part of the creative team behind Kylie Minogue but are responsible here for reinterpreting Jonathan Larson’s much loved Rent for a younger generation.

The original itself is a rough reworking of La Bohème, celebrating the lives of a group of sexually ambiguous, bohemian New Yorkers, eking out a living on the breadline and devastated by the arrival of HIV and AIDS. And whilst this is ostensibly the same show, the process of ‘remixing’ has ended up with curious results. Continue reading “Review: Rent Remixed, Duke of York’s”

Review: Christmas in New York, Lyric

Continuing my obsession with all things Avenue Q or at least vaguely connected, we trotted off to the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue to Christmas in New York, a show of Christmas music ranging from traditional carols to thoroughly modern musical theatre numbers. The Q connection comes from Julie Atherton who alongside Paul Spicer is a founder member of Notes from New York, the company behind this annual show whose remit is to promote contemporary musical theatre composers.

It was a highly enjoyable evening in which the talent onstage was clear with a range of West End stars, singing a mix of solos, duets and group numbers accompanied by a large choir giving huge glorious voice to several of the songs. Spicer and Atherton fronted up the ensemble but they far from hogged the limelight as many others, like Emma Williams, Melanie La Barrie and Oliver Tompsett, got their turn too.

The only downside was our unfamiliarity with much of the material: it was akin to going to see a gig by someone you really like who just sings songs from a new album that you don’t know. Amongst the traditional carols and the Sondheim, Berlin and Rodgers number were intertwined with new composers like Michael Bruce, Charles Miller, Grant Olding and Ann Hampton Callaway whose material kind of passed me by a little without knowing more about it. There must have been over 30 songs performed in the big theatre and I would have preferred the stronger connection that might have developed in a more intimate venue.

The musical version of Twas the Night Before Christmas was great fun though and it was a highly entertaining night altogether. A great demonstration of fresh new talent working on the stage and a nice alternative to the endlessly repeated usual Christmas tunes.

Review: Cloud Nine, Almeida

Every year, my sisters and I are treated to a Christmas show by our Aunty Jean and with the scheduling difficulties and train timetables (they all live in the North-West), our choice ended up being Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine at the Almeida, a somewhat different choice to our usual fare, but one which proved to be enjoyable nonetheless.

The first act is set in a nineteenth century British colony somewhere in Africa where all manner of subversive behaviour threatens the traditional Victorian moral code, which with its male colonisation of women is hardly a bed of roses for everyone. Then the second half shifts to Clapham Common and the sexually liberated 1970s, but we retain the same characters, 25 years down their personal timelines. So the contrast in their behaviour is huge and a range of sexual and gender politics issues explored. Continue reading “Review: Cloud Nine, Almeida”