Review: Iolanthe, Union Theatre

“He’s a fairy down to the waist, but his legs are mortal”

Sasha Regan’s All-Male Iolanthe marks the third Gilbert and Sullivan show to receive the Union Theatre treatment in what is fast becoming an annual tradition of great quality. Last year’s Pirates of Penzance was hugely well-received transferring to both Wilton’s Music Hall and the Rose in Kingston so expectation was high for this lesser-known (by me at least!) show. What is it about? Well, the Lord Chancellor of England is in love with Phyllis, his shepherdess ward who loves Strephon, the half-fairy shepherd whose mother, Iolanthe, was condemned by the Fairy Queen to live at the bottom of a river for marrying a mortal, who is none other than the Lord Chancellor. Thus the House of Lords and the legal profession come in for a bit of a battering as the fairies wreak their mischievous havoc in order to ensure everyone gets their happy ending.

With such a convoluted plotline and a considerable number of characters in the ensemble, I can’t imagine there’s much room for manoeuvre in putting an effective, individual interpretation on the show but Sasha Regan really has done a fabulous job here in choosing a framework which neatly sidesteps a whole world of difficulties but provides its own emotional reference points, complemented beautifully by Stewart Charlesworth’s design . When the fairies first arrived, there was a collective intake of breath as we worked out whether it was OK to laugh or not but after just a couple of beats, as it suddenly becomes evident what the framing device is (look at what the costumes are made from…), everyone relaxed into the genial mood. Yes, the constant references to fairies and mentions of a midnight assignation in St James’ Park caused many a titter from the audience but the tone is always an affectionate one, it is silly but not too silly, it is camp but not too camp, above all it is rip-roaring great fun. Continue reading “Review: Iolanthe, Union Theatre”

Review: The Glass Menagerie, Young Vic

“The window is filled with pieces of coloured glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colours, like bits of shattered rainbow.”

Continuing the Young Vic’s 40th anniversary season, a new revival of Tennessee Williams’ classic The Glass Menagerie arrives in the main house directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins and featuring an exciting cast. One of his earliest plays and consequently one of his most autobiographical, it is set in 1937 in the city of St Louis, Missouri where the Wingfields live close to the poverty line. Mother Amanda dreams of her girlhood in the Deep South and the husband that left her, son Tom dreams of leaving his full factory job and pursuing his dreams and fragile daughter Laura is happy as she is in her own quiet world but as her mother is determined to secure a better future for the children, she pushes Tom to finding a suitable ‘gentleman caller’ for his sister with devastating effects.

Opening with an introduction to the world of memory plays, for this is what The Glass Menagerie is, narrated by an older version of Tom, the action starts with a gorgeous little coup de theatre revealing the Wingfields’ apartment on the corner stage. As Dario Marianell’s music is played live on stage by Eliza McCarthy on the piano and Simon Allen on a range of instruments including music boxes and a table of water glasses which provide a beautifully evocative soundscape: Allen also provides live sound effects which are neatly done, especially on the staircase and James Farncombe’s evocative lighting shines across the stage, the play is atmospherically set somewhere between memory and reality, helped by the levels built into Jeremy Herbert’s set design. Continue reading “Review: The Glass Menagerie, Young Vic”

Review: The Master Builder, Almeida

“I have underwear in my haversack”

I have made no secret of my issues with Ibsen on this blog: he is a playwright whom I have never really ‘got’ and whose enduring popularity at theatre houses baffles me, I struggle to see what relevance much of his work has to audiences today. So when the Almeida announced a production of The Master Builder as their winter show it was with a slightly heavy heart that I booked tickets: I do try to keep my mind open to the chance that one day something might suddenly click, indeed I was in Manchester to see The Lady From The Sea just last week. And funnily enough, if you had to pick two Ibsen plays to see this close together, then it might as well be these two as to my surprise, they feature a recurring character in Hilde Wangel.

With a new translation by Kenneth McLeish, director Travis Preston has created a minimalist, modern-dress production of this cautionary tale of the drive for ambition at all costs. Halvard Solness is a self-made master builder, lacking in training but dominant in his small town world with a towering reputation that he zealously protects. This single-mindedness has had a corrosive effect on those around him though: his employees fear him and his wife is a mere shadow of her former self, the couple having suffered unimaginable tragedy with the death of twin sons and the ramifications of which still reverberate strongly for both of them. Into this world arrives Hilde, a young woman who claims a past connection with Solness and offers an alternative to the emotional paralysis that characterises his life but one which leads up a dangerous path. I must admit to being quite pleased to see a modern-day version of an Ibsen work for once, but having never seen The Master Builder before, you will have read elsewhere for commentary on any changes that have been made. Continue reading “Review: The Master Builder, Almeida”

Review: Cabaret in the House with Tiffany Graves, Lauderdale House

Much of the success of cabaret shows relies on the right combination of performer and selection of material and with this show featuring Reed Sinclair and Tiffany Graves, the Cabaret in the House series at Lauderdale House absolutely hit the jackpot. Tim McArthur’s programming has paired rising stars with more established performers but what is nice is that they are both given ample opportunity to shine, there’s no minor supporting slot here but a full programme from both which really offers value for money, especially when it is of this quality and compered by the delightfully self-deprecating Valerie Cutko.

Canadian Reed Sinclair put together an intriguing set of songs, showcasing a range of musical theatre numbers from his career ranging from Cole Porter numbers to songs from US musicals that didn’t make it to the West End. And whilst the tendency might have been towards the slightly obscure, Sinclair delighted me by featuring not one but two of my randomly favourite songs! Hedwig & The Angry Inch is one of those shows and indeed films that really deserves to be much better known and when it was introduced to me by a friend, ‘Wicked Little Town’ was the song that stuck out for from the first listen and Sinclair’s rendition here was beautifully heartfelt, mixed in with some of ‘Hedwig’s Lament’ too. Continue reading “Review: Cabaret in the House with Tiffany Graves, Lauderdale House”

Re-review: Tribes, Royal Court

One of the highlights of October’s theatregoing for me was Nina Raine’s Tribes at the Royal Court, indeed I wouldn’t be surprised if it figures highly in my year-end chart too as a play which was extremely close to my heart and provoked a considerable emotional reaction in me for which I was ill-prepared. It has however stimulated much discussion and interesting developments for me and so when I was offered the chance to see it again from a most kind benefactor, I decided to revisit the play. I wasn’t too sure at first given just how emotional I got when I first saw it, but I was intrigued by the prospect of reassessing the play with a little perspective. Try as I might though, I struggled once again to separate the personal from the critical but that is the joy, for me at least, of the theatre, those moments when it transcends people just speaking words on the stage and becomes an all-encompassing, life-changing experience that will live with you for a long time.

You can read what I thought of it last time here; this is less of a review and more of a collection of thoughts and reflections. Some people have complained that not enough ‘happens’ in the show, but this for me is one of its strengths. In avoiding attaching the deaf ‘issue’ to a larger storyline as a subsidiary plot-point and placing it at the heart of the play, it allows for an intelligent portrayal of the deaf experience at its simplest and most affecting, in the heart of the family home. It is able to illustrate so much more by focusing on the seemingly mundane as opposed to a hugely dramatic sequence of events and therein lies its power: its depiction of a thoroughly realistic and relatable world is why it affected me and countless others so much. Continue reading “Re-review: Tribes, Royal Court”

Review: Bright Lights Big City, Hoxton Hall

“Now this is what you wanted, all the frolics and the frenzy”

Tucked away in Shoreditch is Hoxton Hall, a Victorian music hall which now serves as a hub for much community arts work in the local area and now brings the London premiere of the musical Bright Lights, Big City. Set in New York in 1984, the story concerns a writer called Jamie whose response to a number of setbacks is to throw himself headlong into a life of debauchery. Struggling to deal with the recent death of his mother and with the reality of his wife leaving him, hard partying and taking drugs leads to him losing his job too and it is only with the persistent efforts of those who love him, can he find his way back to normality.

Performances across the ensemble are strong: Jodie Jacobs (with some seriously amazing crimped hair and who is appearing in her third musical in as many months!) and Rachel Wooding stood out for me, George Maguire’s Tad is a convincing Pied Piper-like figure leading Jamie astray and Rietta Austin’s vocal performance was most impressive. As Jamie himself, Paul Ayres does well vocally with a character who’s rarely offstage but could do with working a little more charm into his naïveté, elevating him slightly out of the everyman role as befits a leading man. Continue reading “Review: Bright Lights Big City, Hoxton Hall”

Review: An Ideal Husband, Vaudeville

“Now that the House of Commons is trying to become useful, it does a great deal of harm “
 

Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, a tale of morality, blackmail and political corruption, arrives at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand for a winter residency, featuring the husband and wife team of Alexander Hanson and Samantha Bond alongside the luminary talents of Elliot Cowan and Rachael Stirling in the lead roles.

On the surface, Wilde’s play is the saga of a rising political star, Sir Robert Chiltern, whose career is threatened by the villainous Mrs Cleveley who is possession of the knowledge of the past indiscretion which led to him securing a small fortune and the undying respect of his virtuous wife. Mrs Cleveley wants his support on a new scheme and is willing to blackmail him to get her way, but when his wife Gertrude finds out the truth, her perfect ‘ideal husband’ is besmirched, she declares she can no longer love him and it is left to their dear friend Lord Arthur Goring. But on closer examination, it is becomes a passionate plea for true love to be willing to forgive everything, something given extra poignancy when one considers that Wilde’s affair with Lord Alfred Douglas would become public and wreck his life within the very year this play was first produced. Continue reading “Review: An Ideal Husband, Vaudeville”

Review: FELA! National Theatre

“It’s not just about Fela, it’s about you”

FELA! is the annoyingly capitalised and punctuated show that enters the world of Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and through a blend of dance, theatre and music, it takes a highly atmospheric journey through a crucial part of his life and it arrives at the National Theatre on the back of a much-lauded run on Broadway. The book is by Jim Lewis and Bill T Jones, the latter of whom is also the choreographer, but it uses the music and lyrics of Kuti’s own Afrobeat style to celebrate his life with some additional lyrics by Jim Lewis and music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean to pull it altogether into this production. This is a review of a preview so all usual caveats apply and ticket prices for this show really are not cheap, booking this performance meant I got a £44 seat for £24.50 and I make no apologies for that.

The show is set in the summer of 1978 in Lagos, the then capital, at the Shrine, Kuti’s personal nightclub and sanctuary against a government whose corrupt and oppressive practices he has fought against both as a lyricist and an activist. Fela is giving one last concert before leaving the country due to the stresses of living under this regime, the opportunities offered to him elsewhere as a musician of increasing renown and as a grieving son, his mother Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti a noted activist herself having been thrown to her death in an attack on their premises six months previously.

It doesn’t so much start as slide into action. The amazing 12 man band (who sound fabulous throughout) are playing from the moment the doors open in the theatre and slowly dancers appear from the wings and the aisles, chatting with audience members, with themselves, throwing shapes and warming up for a good ten minutes before anything actually happens. It is a neat introduction into what becomes a frenetic evening of sensory overload. Continue reading “Review: FELA! National Theatre”

Review: Company, Queens Theatre

“Good things get better, bad get worse. Wait, I think I meant that in reverse”

Last up in the programme of Stephen Sondheim celebration events from the Donmar Warehouse was a concert version of their 1995 production of Company. As with Merrily We Roll Along, last week’s offering, this show features music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by George Furth with astonishingly bright musical direction from Gareth Valentine, but directed this time by Jamie Lloyd.

 The show centres around Bobby, a single man struggling to deal with the realities of adult relationships, and the people around him, his three girlfriends and the five married couples who are his best friends. The show is presented as a set of short vignettes randomly scattered around Bobby’s 35th birthday rather than a linear plot which meant this performance didn’t really come across too well in the concert format especially compared to Merrily… Also, with a much larger cast or rather a greater division of songs amongst the cast, it did mean that there was some considerable variation in the performance level as opposed to the solidity provided by the leads last week. Continue reading “Review: Company, Queens Theatre”

Review: Antony & Cleopatra, Liverpool Playhouse

“The triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet’s fool”

After playing the role herself in 1974 for the RSC, Janet Suzman returns to Antony and Cleopatra but this time as its director and has pulled off one of the canniest casting coups of the year in persuading Kim Cattrall to return to the city of her birth to head up the cast alongside Jeffery Kissoon at the Liverpool Playhouse. The ultimate tale of the trouble caused when the personal and the political are so inextricably entwined as Cleopatra and Mark Antony tumble into a passionate affair regardless of the fact that their infatuation threatens to destroy the world around them.

 Feisty yet graceful, powerful yet passionate, Cattrall’s portrayal is simply superb. A highly intelligent woman, one can see the calculations behind her eyes as she weighs up each decision that will affect her so hugely but she also plays the comedy well and her touching vulnerability when seized by thoughts of love is beautiful: the recollection of their salad days is exceptional. Kissoon’s Antony is clearly a relic of a passing age, moody and tinged with madness from the outset. His battles come from his uncertainty at his place in this world as much as they do from his doomed affair and so he is a more shambolic leader. Continue reading “Review: Antony & Cleopatra, Liverpool Playhouse”