“Knowledge is nothing without understanding”
I loved chemistry at school, enjoyed biology too but for some reason, my brain could never wrap itself around physics. So when two characters in Terry Johnson’s play Insignificance started discussing the specific nature of the theory of relativity – albeit through the medium of toy trains and helium-filled balloons – I was thrown back to the mild panic of Mr Byrchall’s classroom and the general feel of ‘I just don’t get it!’.
But Insignificance is not a play about physics and the two characters aren’t just any random people. It’s 1954 and though they’re officially named The Actress and The Professor, we can – with reasonable confidence – infer that they’re Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein. And they’re intermittently joined by her husband Joe DiMaggio – The Ball Player – and Joseph McCarthy – The Senator, for a fantasia on the nature of celebrity that is occasionally quite dazzling. Continue reading “Review: Insignificance, Arcola”
“I don’t know if you are illusion”
Hoping for a ten from Len and to avoid the dreaded dis-sah-ter from Craig, Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom arrives for its UK premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Best known in its 1992 film version, it actually began life as a play in the mid-1980s when it became big in Czechoslovakia as well as Luhrmann’s native Australia and perhaps appropriately, it is now Drew McOnie who takes the directorial chair, the choreographer-director’s rising star an ideal fit for a musical all about dance.
And what dance it is. We’re in the world of competitive ballroom dancing and we’re treated to a wide range of routines from rehearsals to all-out performances and much inventive work in-between, especially where mirrors are involved. And in all this freedom of expression, there’s a crystal-clear distillation of the story’s message in the sheer joy of dancing for fun and the power of following an individual path. But the show isn’t just dance, it’s words and music as well and there, it is less sure-footed.
Continue reading “Review: Strictly Ballroom, West Yorkshire Playhouse”
“Benny Hill? Oh, for fuck’s sake…”
I started off Terry Johnson’s production of Dead Funny
concerned that the comedy references on the pre-show curtain – Eric and Ernie, Carry On, Benny Hill – were outwith those to which my tastes naturally incline. Turns out what I should have been on the lookout for was an Alan Ayckbourn play in sheep’s clothing. And if that’s the way your preferences go, as it seems with the majority of the print critics, then this is the play for you.
Dead Funny was written in 1994 but is set two years earlier in the couple of days when both Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd shuffled off this mortal coil. At a time before the death of celebrities, particularly comedians, is marked with the sharing of YouTube clips and gifs of favourite jokes and comic scenes, ‘The Dead Funny Society’ marks the passing of their faves by reenacting their work. That’s all well and good for chairman Richard but his increasingly frustrated wife Eleanor who is desperate for a child.
Thus a play about the legacy of bygone television comedians is spliced with one about marriages in crisis, the link found being people seeking refuge in the celebration of the former as a way of escaping troubles in the latter. Johnson – directing his own play – finds himself in the curious position of working on an entirely period piece. Not in terms of the actual comedy material, nostalgia will always be current to fans, but as far as the specificity of its setting goes, not to mention the questionable gender politics. it’s just thoroughly dated.
Fortunately, it has been cast extremely well. Katherine Parkinson imbues Ellie with real conviction in all her marital angst, the eye-opening first scene gets down to the naked truth of her problems with Rufus Jones’ Richard in bravely full-frontal style. And her position on the outside of the group allows her to scathingly mock their antics – Steve Pemberton, Ralf Little and Emily Berrington all bringing their own quirks and issues to bear, before the whole thing collapses in farce. So you could well find Dead Funny dead funny if it ticks your particular boxes.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Alistair Muir
Booking until 4th February
“We’ll never close…”
I was sad to see Mrs Henderson Presents close prematurely in the West End, having enjoyed it both there and in its first run at the Theatre Royal Bath, but pleased that we at least had a cast recording to remember the show by. I have to say though, that this was one of those occasions where just listening to the musical failed to capture what made it work on stage.
The period charms of George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain’s pastiche-laden score feel rather old-fashioned on record – not simply in the age that they are trying to evoke but in its very nature. Without the visual, it soon becomes clear that there isn’t a huge amount of narrative drive in the songs, they set the mood of the piece well but don’t tell much of a story on their own. Continue reading “Album Review: Mrs Henderson Presents (Original London Cast Recording)”
“Everyone loves a bit of filth”
I really enjoyed Mrs Henderson Presents when I saw it last year in Bath, it came 13th out of all the shows I saw in 2015, so I was most delighted to hear that it would be transferring into the West End. It managed the journey with its main cast almost entirely intact, Tracie Bennett, Ian Bartholomew and Emma Williams all there, just Mark Hadfield dipping out to (re)join The Painkiller and replaced by Jamie Foreman, and its opening at the Noël Coward Theatre has been largely very well received.
And second time around, it pleased me just as much as the first. Terry Johnson’s direction of this ineffably British show (as with Andy Capp, playing the spoons is up there with the Union Jack) and from my memory, I don’t think that much has significantly changed (though I’ve seen a lot in the intervening 7 months…). That means that the shonky narrator/compere role is still there, which still wears thin quickly, but it also means that its generosity of spirit and warmth of heart is very much present. Continue reading “Re-review: Mrs Henderson Presents, Noël Coward”
2016 is nearly upon and for once, I’ve hardly anything booked for the coming year and what I do have tickets for, I’m hardly that inspired by (the Garrick season has been ruined by the awfulness of the rear stalls seats, and I only got Harry Potter and the Cursed Child tickets due to FOMO). Not for the first time, I’m intending to see less theatre next year but I do have my eyes on a good few productions in the West End, fringe and beyond. Continue reading “20 shows to look forward to in 2016”
“Where’s that damn woman?”
That woman is of course Laura Henderson, a rich widow who in 1937 decides to save the Windmill Theatre from closure and together with Jewish entrepreneur Vivian Van Damm, introduces a continuous variety revue called Revudeville. And seeking to keep their nose ahead of their competitors, nudity is added to the bill, a la Moulin Rouge though unprecedented in the UK, but the censorship battles with the Lord Chamberlain’s office pales into insignificance once war breaks out and the theatre becomes a landmark, refusing to close even as London is battered by the Blitz.
Terry Johnson’s book for Mrs Henderson Presents wisely adapts Martin Sherman’s screenplay from the film of the same name to create a more tightly encapsulated world centred on the backstage lives of the theatre folk. It dives straight into the main story from the outset and switches things about just enough to keep anyone familiar with the film on their toes. And George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain’s score dances around the period beautifully, pastiche songs evoking the 30s spirit perfectly with a smattering of vaudevillean fun here and driving musical theatre anthems there, always remaining tuneful. Continue reading “Review: Mrs Henderson Presents, Theatre Royal Bath”
“Remember when we used to trust politicians”
Although outrageous and audacious in its scope, the expenses scandal that rocked the Houses of Parliament in 2009 was also rich in comic detail as the minutiae of what our elected officials deemed acceptable to claim was revealed in the pages of the Daily Telegraph. And it is this that writers Dan Patterson and Colin Swash (with Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You among their credits) have picked up on in their new comedy The Duck House.
Set in May of that year with the Labour Party in disarray, backbencher Robert Houston decides to defect to the Tories in order to maintain the lifestyle he and his family have become used to. But with just one more interview with Tory grandee Sir Norman Cavendish to get through, the expenses scandal breaks and the Houstons set about trying to minimise the damage to their prospects. The depth of their financial fiddling means that this is no easy task though and results in farcical shenanigans that affect them all. Continue reading “Review: The Duck House, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre”
“This is a complete farce”
Terry Johnson’s 1993 play Hysteria garnered all sorts of awards for its original run at the Royal Court and this revival, from the Theatre Royal Bath, features Antony Sher in its leading role, so it is clearly a play that is held in some considerable regard. Set in the leafy Hampstead refuge where Sigmund Freud has sequestered himself as he battles cancer, his seclusion is interrupted by a series of visitors. Jessica, a mysterious young woman arrives, determined to have some of his time and seeking attention by stripping off her clothes, the subsequent arrivals of his elderly doctor Yahuda and then Salvador Dalí – Johnson was inspired by a real life meeting between the pair – leads to much slapstick comedy as Freud tries to hide the naked Jessica. But the real reasons for their visits are more serious and the play evolves into something much more complex.
Structurally though, it poses challenges as the mix of high-concept verbosity and low-rent humour is not always a comfortable one. Jessica’s presence, which sparks off the chain of farcical shenanigans – which, if you find the sight of a man in his underpants generally hilarious, you might like –subsequently becomes the vehicle for the playwright’s delving into the much more cerebral. The ethics of psychotherapy are interrogated as Freud’s own case histories come under the microscope, matters of Jewish identity explored as the Blitz rains down outside and the spectre of the Holocaust looms ever large, but the farce still remains, an uneasy bedfellow in the superstructure of the play. The comedy never advances the action, in fact the reverse is true: the play essentially stops to let these scenes play out, resulting in a first half which is close to 90 minutes. They never feel like a fully incorporated part of the writing. Continue reading “Review: Hysteria, Richmond Theatre”