Review: Uncle Vanya, Harold Pinter Theatre

Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya featuring Toby Jones and Richard Armitage at the Harold Pinter Theatre is so good you can forgive the “wanging on”

“I mean what I mean when I say what I say”

Above everything, the thing that stands out most about Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Chekhov’s evergreen Uncle Vanya is his use of the phrase “wanging on”, twice. It’s such a random thing but it rings out like a bell, both times, more so than any of the usages of contemporary language that pepper the script. Running it a close second though, is just how vital and vibrant Ian Rickson’s production proves.

From stacking his cast with real, proper talent (imagine your bit players being of the ilk of Anna Calder-Marshall, Peter Wight and Dearbhla Molloy) to reuniting with Rosmersholm designer Rae Smith, this is a finely tuned piece of theatre which ultimately, doesn’t do too much that is radical (though the fourth wall breaking-bits are smashing), but rather distils its Chekhovian spirit just so. Or maybe that it’s the first production of the play I’ve seen since turning 40 and its midlife crises suddenly have new resonance…!

Toby Jones excels as the rumpled Vanya, caught in a moment of existential realisation when the rug is pulled from under his rather cushy situation, (barely) looking after the family estate. Downcast without ever being too desperate, his is a deeply empathetic portrayal that connects beautifully with those around him. Aimee Lou Wood’s youthfully lovelorn Sonya, Rosalind Eleazar’s passionate Yelena, Ciarán Hinds’ irascible Serebryakov.

Just as impressive though is Richard Armitage’s Astrov, his environmental concerns eerily prescient in this time of climate crisis, so too his slightly warped romanticism as he clodhops over the romantic allusions of the women around him. Throw in Bruno Poet’s hauntingly effective lighting, shadows creeping up the huge walls of Smith’s decrepit walls with the forest beginning to reclaim its land, and the result is a triumphant tragicomedy.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Johan Persson
Uncle Vanya is booking at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 2nd May

My 10 favourite shows of 2019

I barely saw 250 shows this year, quiet by my standards! And as is the way of these things, here’s a rundown of some of the productions that moved me most…

1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Southwark Playhouse
I haven’t lost it in a theatre as much as this in a good long while. I cry at all sorts but this superlative musical had me trying, and failing, to choke back huge, hacking sobs. And I can still sing some of the songs – it has to come back, surely. “It’s all just a matter of time…”

2. Call Me Fury, Hope Theatre
“This is the history we should be teaching, these are the stories we should be sharing”, this striking and soulful piece gave voice to so many whom history have ignored, and was bloody entertaining with it. 

3. West Side Story, Curve Leicester
A musical I love, in a production that I simply adored. Getting to see two WSSs in one year was a privilege and for me, it was the emotional heart of Nikolai Foster’s production that won out.

4. As You Like It, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch
The second year of the Public Acts programme comes up trumps once again with this gorgeous musical version of the Shakespeare classic, community theatre at its finest.

5. Islander, Southwark Playhouse
The magic of musical theatre distilled into two voices and a loop pedal – a marvellously inventive and endlessly moving. 

6. Amélie the Musical, Watermill Theatre/UK Tour/The Other Palace
As sweet-sharp as a diabolo grenadine, something truly gorgeous emerges from this film adaptation that simply demands you come up with better words than quirky to describe it.

7. & Juliet, Shaftesbury Theatre
Tell me why… About as much fun as you can have in the West End right now, this is a particularly fine example of the jukebox model and I want it that way.

8. Sexy Lamp, VAULT
A standout piece in a standout festival, Katie Arnstein’s brutally honest monologue about navigating the patriarchy may be lightened with songs and sweets but is no less effective for it.

9. Karaoke Play, Bunker Theatre
Deeply confessional and subtly magical, Annie Jenkins’ inter-connected monologues combined to become so much more than the sum of their parts.

10. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, National Theatre
A magical family tale, perfect for kids of all ages. Not even reading the exit poll as I left could ruin the feeling! 

Shows 11-25 under the cut

Continue reading “My 10 favourite shows of 2019”

10 of my top moments of the decade

Ever behind the curve, I present 10 of my top moments in a theatre over the last ten years (plus a few bonus extra ones because whittling down this list was hard, and it will probably be different tomorrow anyway!)

© James Bellorini

Extraordinary Public Acts for a National Theatre

The establishment of the Public Acts programme at the National Theatre offered up something sensational in Pericles, an initiative designed to connect grassroot community organisations with major theatres, resulting in a production that swept over 200 non-professional performers onto the stage of the Olivier to create something that moved me more than 99% of professional productions.  A truly joyous and momentous occasion. 

Honourable mention: this year’s musical take on As You Like It proved just as heart-swellingly beautiful over at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch. Continue reading “10 of my top moments of the decade”

Review: Curtains, Wyndham’s Theatre

A Kander & Ebb premiere in the West End you say? Curtains makes its bow at the Wyndham’s Theatre and I had an arrestingly good time with it

“Shall we all observe a moment of silence…
to match the audience’s response to Jessica’s first number”

There’s no denying that theatre loves shows about theatre and on the Charing Cross Road right now, you’ve got a play within a play at the Garrick right next to a musical about a musical at the Wyndham’s. Curtains ups the ante though by throwing in a murder mystery as well for good measure and the result is a something of a good old-fashioned romp, blessed with that rarest of things, a barely-known Kander & Ebb score. Having only received a few drama school productions (I saw it at Arts Ed

The show dates back to 2006 but had a tricky road to completion as original book writer Peter Stone died before finishing it, Rupert Holmes stepping in to rewrite, and Fred Ebb also passed away a year later, with Kander and Holmes completing the lyrical content. Curtains managed a relatively successful run on Broadway but for whatever reason, it never made the leap across the Atlantic (into the West End at least) until now, as Paul Foster’s touring production steps neatly into a scheduling gap to provide an alternative cup of Christmas cheer. Continue reading “Review: Curtains, Wyndham’s Theatre”

Review: Noises Off, Garrick Theatre

The Lyric Hammersmith’s production of Noises Off transfer in fine style to the Garrick Theatre

“Let there be doors that open when they open and close when they close”

I’ve long had my issues with farce but Noises Off managed to break through my preconceptions to genuinely make me laugh when the Old Vic revived it and then took it into the West End back in 2012. Even so, I have to say I wasn’t much enamoured by the thought of going back to it, hence me not going to the Lyric Hammersmith to catch Jeremy Herrin’s production there and only just now making it to this West End transfer at the Garrick Theatre.

And after the first act, I began to wonder if I hadn’t had the right impulse initially. I’d argue it’s good but not great, leaning into conventional farce as a touring theatre company take their own farce Nothing On across the country while dealing with the repercussions of their tangled inter-relationships. It is after the interval that the play soars though, the second act takes us behind the scenes into a sensationally choreographed piece of riotous fun of the highest order. Continue reading “Review: Noises Off, Garrick Theatre”

2020 What’s On Stage Award nominations

The nominations for the 20th Annual WhatsOnStage Awards have been announced and I have a thought or two #justiceforAnneHathaway

As a publicly nominated affair, the What’s On Stage Awards always throw up an interesting set of nominations, as fanbases engage alongside theatregoers to produce an idiosyncratic reflection on the year. This year though, the nominees for the nine creative categories (Choreography, Costume Design, Direction, Graphic Design, Lighting Design, Musical Direction, Set Design, Sound Design and Video Design) have been decided by an independent panel of industry experts appointed, which has resulted in some pleasing inclusions for the likes of Equus and Small Island

Acting-wise, the focus does land a little heavily on the more famous names (plus ça change) and that Supporting Actress in a Musical category is super-crowded (the Dear Evan Hansen mothers would have been a shoo-in for me there). My only real point of issue comes with the categorisation for the & Juliet players – are you really going to nominate Oliver Tompsett as a lead and then put Cassidy Janson in the supporting category? Did you not see the show, or get any of its message at all?!

Voting for the winners is open now and closes on 27th January 2020, with the winners being revealed at a ceremony on 1st March 2020.

Best Actor in a Play, sponsored by Edwardian Hotels

Tom Hiddleston – Betrayal – Harold Pinter Theatre
Andrew Scott – Present Laughter – The Old Vic
Matt Smith – Lungs – The Old Vic
Wendell Pierce – Death of a Salesman – Young Vic / Piccadilly Theatre
Laurie Kynaston – The Son – Kiln Theatre / Duke of York’s Theatre

Best Actress in a Play, sponsored by Tonic Theatre

Claire Foy – Lungs – The Old Vic
Zawe Ashton – Betrayal – Harold Pinter Theatre
Hayley Atwell – Rosmersholm – Duke of York’s Theatre
Sharon D Clarke – Death of a Salesman – Young Vic / Piccadilly Theatre
Juliet Stevenson – The Doctor – Almeida Theatre Continue reading “2020 What’s On Stage Award nominations”

2019 BroadwayWorld UK Awards – Winners’ list

Best Actor in a New Production of a Musical
Andy Nyman, Fiddler on the Roof, Menier Chocolate Factory
WINNER – David Hunter, Waitress, Adelphi Theatre
David Ricardo-Pearce, Kiss Me, Kate, The Watermill Theatre
Kayi Ushe, Kinky Boots, UK Tour
Tom Bennett, Only Fools and Horses: The Musical, Theatre Royal Haymarket
Tyrone Huntley, The View UpStairs, Soho Theatre

Best Actress in a New Production of a Musical
Amara Okereke, Oklahoma!, Chichester Festival Theatre
Audrey Brisson, Amélie The Musical, UK Tour
Caroline Sheen, 9 to 5 The Musical, Savoy Theatre
Rebecca Trehearn, Kiss Me, Kate, The Watermill Theatre
Samantha Pauly, Evita, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
WINNER – Sheridan Smith, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, London Palladium Continue reading “2019 BroadwayWorld UK Awards – Winners’ list”

Re-review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Palace Theatre

Just the three years between visits to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre and its impact is no less

“So you’re telling me that the whole of history rests on . . . Neville Longbottom? This is pretty wild”

It’s over three years since Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened at the Palace Theatre, in which time it has won pretty much every award going both here and on Broadway and gone through three major cast changes. So I thought it was high time I paid a return visit and hopefully get a better view than last time (when we saw the two-parter from the very back row of the balcony, a veritable steal at £10 a pop).

And I have to say its holding up really rather well, the storytelling feeling less complex than I’d initially feared. All sorts of details about the plot came back to me while watching but there was still gentle surprise aplenty, not least from being able to see so much more detail from the rear stalls. And there’s always the great thrill of anticipation in knowing what’s to come in certain key moments… #keepthesecrets. Continue reading “Re-review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Palace Theatre”

Review: White Christmas 2019, Dominion Theatre

The reliable charms of White Christmas reappear at the Dominion Theatre

“When what’s left of you gets around to what’s left to be gotten, what’s left to be gotten won’t be worth getting, whatever it is you’ve got left.”

White Christmas is a show that keeps returning and consistently attracts casts that I can’t quite resist. I’ve seen it in Manchester, Leeds and in this very theatre five years ago. So NIkolai Foster’s production holds little surprise for me now, insomuch as any production of White Christmas can surprise. Instead the feeling is more of cocoa-warm comfort, a reliability underscored by fun performances from leads Danny Mac, Dan Burton, Danielle Hope and Clare Halse. Read my 4 star review for Official Theatre here. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 4th January

Review: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Trafalgar Studios

A strongly cast production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg proves a fitting tribute to Peter Nichols at the Trafalgar Studios

“I tend to raise my voice when I’m helping people”

Just a quickie as we’re nearly at the end of the run for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, revived at the Trafalgar Studios by Simon Evans. This production might be sold on the star wattage of its leads Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner but for me, its real power comes in the casting of Storme Toolis as the titular Joe Egg, the first disabled actor to be cast in the role. 

Its significant because the character of Joe is disabled herself, requiring constant supervision, the realities of which are starting to show on the marriage between Bri and Sheila. Evans embraces an arch vaudevillean style to let this fighting couple let us know what they’re thinking, to give us insight into the coping mechanisms necessary to give their daughter the best life she can have. Continue reading “Review: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Trafalgar Studios”