Review: Deathtrap, Noël Coward Theatre

“Would you kill someone for a successful play?”

It’s a funny thing the theatre: when Deathtrap was first announced, I had little interest in going to see it. I’m not particularly enamoured (even though I know it is probably heretical) of Simon Russell Beale, I’ve never seen Glee so the name Jonathan Groff meant nothing to me and even when Estelle Parson was announced, replacing Anna Massey, it was another name that meant nothing to me. So, cultural ignoramus that I apparently am, it took some persuasion to get me to go along to the first preview. But given that there is a very good deal on preview tickets (which is still available now), off I trotted to the Noël Coward Theatre.

Deathtrap is a 1978 comedy thriller by Ira Levin about Sidney Bruhl, a has-been playwright who is now reduced to living off his wealthy wife in Connecticut so when he receives a fresh exciting new play, also entitled Deathtrap, from one of his former students, he decides it is good enough to kill for. I really can’t say more than that without ruining it, but safe to say that the plot is full of sinister twists and turns, reversals, double crosses, and possibly even triple crosses. This is a spoiler-free review but if you have no idea about the story then maybe you should read it after you’ve seen it in case I inadvertently give anything away. Continue reading “Review: Deathtrap, Noël Coward Theatre”

Review: Into the Woods, Open Air Theatre

“This was just a moment in the woods…”

The final show in this year’s season at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park is yet another entry into Stephen Sondheim’s anniversary calendar with a production of Into The Woods. And what a well-suited choice as the multi-level set sits in the real trees and bushes around the auditorium, swaying in the wind, leaves beginning to fall and providing the perfect backdrop for the show.

Told by a narrator, here a young boy (Ethan Beer last night), the story mixes together characters from many familiar fairytales all living their stories as we know them, in their various searches for happiness, wealth, fulfilment, all their hearts’ desires and reaches the conclusions we have come to know as the characters secure their happy endings. However, this only takes us to the interval and the second half takes a decidedly darker turn as Sondheim and Lepine investigate what happens after ‘happy ever after’ and the dangers in having your wishes granted. Continue reading “Review: Into the Woods, Open Air Theatre”

Review: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare’s Globe

“I hope, upon familiarity will grow more contempt”

Hoping that the above quote doesn’t ring true, this revival of Christopher Luscombe’s 2008 The Merry Wives of Windsor slips back into Shakespeare’s Globe ahead of a US and UK tour taking in Santa Monica, New York, Milton Keynes, Norwich, Richmond and Bath through to December.

The only of Shakespeare’s plays to take place in his contemporary England, it takes some of the characters familiar from the Henry IV plays, most notably Falstaff and creates a pleasing romp as he chases after the wives of two gentlemen from Windsor but doesn’t reckon on just how cunning the women are. There’s also a young couple straining to be together in the face of parental disapproval, some comedic foreigners, some funny business with a laundry basket and a whole load of farcical fun. It plays here, as nicely explained in the programme, as a bit of a forerunner of the modern tv sitcom and it really does work.

A nice thing about this play is its balanced treatment of women, with 3 strong, funny female characters all of which are played with aplomb. Sue Wallace’s Mistress Quickly is nicely knowing in her manipulation of Falstaff and compassionate in rearranging the love affairs of the youngsters. And Sarah Woodward and Serena Evans as Mistresses Ford and Page respectively are just an absolute delight as the mischievous cohorts with a visibly strong friendship. Andrew Havill’s Basil Fawlty inspired mugging as Ford fits in perfectly with the tone of the piece and as Falstaff, Christopher Benjamin wins our sympathies as well as making us laugh.

The only slight disappointments for me was the sagging of the pace in the first half and Ceri-Lyn Cissone and Gerard McCarthy as the rather bland lovers, typified by their overlong duet. William Belchamber’s fey Slender and Philip Bird’s linguistically-challenged Caius were much funnier and more interesting and there was no hint at all of the former drinking buddy of Prince Hal in McCarthy’s Fenton, meaning he came across as just dull.

As a little aside, I do find it curious programming that this sits alongside the two Henry IV plays this year. With the crossover in characters but not the casting and the fact that this doesn’t really square with the timelines of the history plays, it just sits a little odd in terms of the season as a whole. And with Allam’s Falstaff so fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but compare, however this is but a minor quibble.

It is clear why this production has been revived though: it is superbly acted throughout the ensemble, it is huge amounts of fun and once it gets started it just romps through its proceedings with a vibrancy and energy that should win over audiences no matter where it plays.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 2nd October

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

Review: In The Blood, Finborough

“Five kids and not one of them gotta daddy”

In The Blood by Suzan-Lori Parks was originally scheduled to be the Sunday/Monday play at the Finborough but when Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy was postponed due to the indisposition of one of its actors, In The Blood was promoted to a full run. Parks is a prolific American playwright, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer, but this marks the European premiere of this play, one of two she has written, inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

The story centres on Hester La Negrita, an illiterate mother of five children from different fathers, who lives under a bridge in a rough New York neighbourhood. Her oldest son is teaching her to read and write but she’s struggling even with the letter A and she constantly dreams of getting the ‘leg-up’ she needs to escape her situation. However, we meet a parade of adults in her life who hold her back, her best friend, a social worker, a doctor, a minister and her first lover who all could help her in their own way but who end up just using and exploiting Hester, mainly though her sexuality, leading to tragic conclusions.

Structurally, I found it interesting as there is a mix of the gritty realism of life on the street leavened by the comic possibilities with 5 small children, counterpointed by a series of revelations or confessions from the adult characters proving just how hypocritical the attitudes of the community at large really are. These work especially well in the intimate space of the Finborough, with the unflinching brutal honesty of Parks’ writing impossible to escape.

Natasha Bain does well as Hester, a difficult character to like as she is so naive and trusting in the face of repeated disillusionments but Bain imbues her with a quiet dignity and an undoubted sense that no matter how trying they can sometimes be, she really does love her children. From what I remember of Hawthorne’s book though, I struggled to see too many parallels to Hester Prynne, not something that bothered me greatly but people who book on the strength of the Scarlet Letter connection might be disappointed.

Hester aside, the rest of the cast double up as one of her kids and one of her tormentors to largely very great effect. Vinta Morgan deserves kudos for climbing into an adult sized babygrow, Frances Ashman was particularly impressive as tomboyish Bully and the manipulative Welfare but the whole ensemble should be praised for their versatility and the smoothness of their transitions between the characters.

Joe Schermoly’s design is bleakly simplistic but carefully enhanced by Ben Blaber’s lighting, which is most effective during the ‘confessions’. Altogether, it is a very well-performed, thought-provoking piece of work forcing us to look at how we treat the homeless within society: just don’t go expecting to see a version of The Scarlet Letter.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval, possibly subject to change as this was the final preview)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 4th September
Note: some smoking in second act. The Finborough pub downstairs is closed for renovations so take your own drinks as it does get hot in there.

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

Review: Earthquakes in London, National Theatre

“This room is significantly different because you’re in it”

And boy is it different! The first thing that strikes you as you enter the Cottesloe for Earthquakes in London is not the light jazz elevator music, but the complete reconfiguration of the auditorium inside. An inverted S-shaped catwalk-stage dominates, with bar stools either side for the audience, two raised letterbox stages at either end and a DJ in the corner.

A new play from the pen of Mike Bartlett (he of Cock and also Bull) and a co-production with Rupert Goold’s Headlong company. With a timeline switching around from 1968 to 2525 (though predominantly in the present day), it deals with the threat of climate change and impending planetary collapse by looking at the impact on a family of three sisters each with their own issues and the same estranged father. Continue reading “Review: Earthquakes in London, National Theatre”

Review: Unrelated, Jermyn Street

“You think I can trust women?”

After three weeks on holiday, my theatregoing restarted with a gentle introduction with Unrelated, presented as part of the Summer Shorts Season at the Jermyn Street Theatre, where material is performed and tried out with a view to developing shows for potential full runs. Unrelated is a four-hander by Dan Horrigan, an excoriating attack on middle class attitudes and prejudices and the dangers inherent in personal desires, whether in is stifling them to please others or pursuing them with wild abandon.

The story is told through two pairings, Martin arrives at a classy prostitute’s Jean’s place with a view to becoming one of her regulars but it soon emerges that all is not as it seems and separately, his wife Annie is engaged in a conversation with journalist Rachel as she comes to terms with the actions of her husband: the action flits between the two developing relationships throughout as we come ever closer to the truth about what has happened and who these people really are. Continue reading “Review: Unrelated, Jermyn Street”

Review: Anne Boleyn, Shakespeare’s Globe

“I would lose my life rather than my honesty”

Anne Boleyn marks the first new play in this year’s programme at Shakespeare’s Globe. Written by Howard Brenton, it features Miranda Raison in the title role, continuing a character that she also plays in Shakespeare’s own Henry VIII, also playing in rep. This is a review of the first preview, so please bear that in mind whilst reading my thoughts below.
 
The play covers the life of Anne Boleyn from her time in court as one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting, through her developing relationship with Henry VIII and the ideals of Protestant reform, ideas that ultimately caused her downfall but also sowed the seeds for the huge upheaval that culminated in the Civil War. What Brenton has done though, is to couple this story with the story of James I trying to establish control over a sceptical kingdom and varied religious groupings, centring around his commission of a new translation of the Bible. James is haunted, literally, by Anne’s ghost and her legacy and the two combine to great effect. Continue reading “Review: Anne Boleyn, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Review: Hotel Medea, Trinity Buoy Wharf

“Was it too much do you think, to poison the children?”

Hotel Medea is a collaboration between Brazilian collective Zecora Ura Theatre and London-based the Urban Dolls Project. Incorporating live performance and music, installation art, multimedia and cutting-edge technology, audience participation and interaction, this show retells the Greek myth of Medea in a unique experience lasting from midnight to dawn, making the most of its abandoned Docklands warehouse location and its multicultural ensemble to create something quite unlike anything else.

The experience is split into three main acts (Part 1 can be watched on its own, although quite why you wouldn’t want to see the rest of it I do not know). The first, Zero Hour Market, covers the journey of Jason to Medea’s homeland, somewhere vaguely in South America, to procure the infamous Golden Fleece where he also finds himself a wife. Soundtracked by DJ Dolores throughout, the swirling marketplace was brilliantly conceived, the pre-wedding rituals with chanting and dancing that we all participated in was highly atmospheric , the wedding itself was raucous fun (I got snogged by both Jason and Medea as they hunted for each other in the crowds) and as the music continued to pump and the dancing got wilder, a real communal vibe developed as people began to realise you really do have more fun, the more you throw yourself into these things. Continue reading “Review: Hotel Medea, Trinity Buoy Wharf”

Review: The Prince of Homburg, Donmar Warehouse

“Your face isn’t the most cheerful today”

The Prince of Homburg by Heinrich von Kleist is this year’s summer play at the Donmar Warehouse marking the return of Ian McDiarmid after Be Near Me last year. Presented in a new version here by Dennis Kelly (who I still haven’t quite forgiven yet for The Gods Weep), it was written in 1811 just before the German Romantic playwright committed suicide, and apparently was one of Hitler’s favourite plays. In order to squeeze this in before my holiday, I ended up seeing the second preview which should be acknowledged when reading my comments.

The play follows the titular Prince of Homburg, a shining light in the Prussian Army but possessed of a dreamy waywardness which flies in the face of the strict obedience of the law that typifies Prussian military behaviour and when he defies an order from his father-figure the Elector, matters of courage and honour push them both to a horrifying point of no return. Continue reading “Review: The Prince of Homburg, Donmar Warehouse”

Review: Duchess of Malfi, ENO & Punchdrunk at Great Eastern Quay

“Follow that bassoon”

Much like 3D glasses at the cinema, whoever came up with the idea of close-fitting masks for Punchdrunk’s shows, clearly does not wear glasses. I had a devil of a time hooking them over the mask and into the elastic at the sides and making sure they were secure. It may seem like a little thing but when you’re spending three hours wandering round looking for things to watch, it becomes a little frustrating having to constantly ensure your glasses don’t fall off.

A collaboration between ENO and Punchdrunk, The Duchess of Malfi is an immersive production of John Webster’s story set to a new score by Torsten Rasch. Spread over three floors of a disused office complex in outer East London, it is a typical Punchdrunk production in that the audience is left to find their own story through their own experience as they wander unguided to find impromptu scenes taking place in all sorts of strange environments. Continue reading “Review: Duchess of Malfi, ENO & Punchdrunk at Great Eastern Quay”