Review: The Whisky Taster, Bush Theatre

“Never to live a single day
Without being painfully reminded
That one is not like others…”
The Whisky Taster centres around a pair of young executives at an advertising agency trying to win an account to promote a new brand of vodka. Nicola, a brash Croydonite, is a grafter but her colleague Barney has the condition synaesthesia, where the senses are somehow mixed up so that sufferers end up feeling colours for emotions and words have their own colours, which he utitlises to create winning ads. Under pressure from their boss to land this customer, they decide to employ a whisky taster to add a new depth to their campaign, but he ends up showing them a lot more about life than they were expecting.
The play literally crackles into life with the first meeting between Barney and the whisky taster. As Stahl gives a wonderfully written spiel about each of the whiskys they are tasting, we see a visual representation of the synaesthesia kick in spectacular fashion. James Farncombe’s lighting design snakes around Lucy Osbourne’s cleverly designed set in a scintillating manner reaching heights which are never really matched again. The interactions with the whisky taster are what makes this play special as there’s a genuine connection between this pair which is really interesting to watch. The romantic melodrama thread and the satirical elements on the advertising world didn’t feel quite as unique, although still being well-written, feeling sparky and contemporary and all fitting together nicely.
Samuel Barnett was highly impressive as the lovelorn Barney, externalising a mental condition very effectively and movingly without overdoing it, and the growth from the shy man cowering from his condition to someone willing to embrace all that life has to offer him, from monochrome to technicolour, was well played. His chemistry with Kate O’Flynn’s Nicola was excellent, their overlapping dialogue scenes were flawless, John Stahl’s totemic titular figure was a commanding presence, if a little unimaginatively dressed and there was also excellent support from Simon Merrells as a nightmare boss, desperately down with the kids and a hilarious abuser of management-speak.

So, a fascinating play, fresh and modern with some interesting design concepts that is well worth your time tripping over to West London to see, indeed they’ve just announced an extension of a week to the run to now’s your chance.
Just finally, something I spent a lot of time in Waiting for Godot thinking about was onstage smoking, of which there is a considerable amount also in this play. How do theatres, especially small ones like the Bush cope with the smoke in the auditorium (assumably they switch off the smoke alarms) yet still comply with health & safety regulations? Answers on a postcard please!
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Playtext cost: £3.50

Review: The Early Bird, Finborough

“You don’t just disappear. You don’t just vanish into thin air.”

The Early Bird at the Finborough should probably come with some kind of health warning, this is some seriously disturbing dark stuff. With a missing child at the centre of this play though, one should not really be expecting an easy time of it. Performed by real-life husband and wife Alex Palmer and Catherine Cusack (half-sister to Sinéad, Niamh and Sorcha and more excitingly, played Carmel the psycho nurse from Corrie!) as Jack and Debbie, the couple struggling to deal with the disappearance of their daughter Kimberley one morning on the way to school. We then follow them as they try and recreate the events of that morning but the aftermath reveals the cracks below the surface and things become increasingly, incredibly creepy.

The design by takis is sensational: the actors are enclosed in a clear perspex cube and surrounded by piles of ash, with just a toy chest inside. Lit harshly from fluorescent tubes below, it is clear they are trapped, both physically and emotionally in their horrific experience, but as the seats are arranged around the box in the round, it is clear that we the audience are also trapped, with nowhere to hide from the unfolding action and the unflinching, coruscating stares of the actors.
Leo Butler’s language is dark and modern, making much use of echoing phrases and repeated sections as we discover new and changing meanings as the action progresses, but it must be said that even with just a 70 minute running time, some of the repetition did become a little bit wearing. This is in part due to the opaqueness of the writing. We are constantly having our understanding questioned with some really clever tricks pulling you one way or the other, but the nightmarish, almost hallucinatory, twists and turns means that one is still left questioning at the end of the play. The vagueness leaves one feeling somewhat unfulfilled although makes for very interesting post-show discussion.
Cusack and Palmer both give strong, impassioned performances, filled with anger they both convince, in the quieter moments there’s perhaps less of an emotional connecton between them, and between them and the audience, but this is as much to do with the above-mentioned vagueness: it’s hard to care for someone when you don’t know if they exist or what is really going on. Just finally, there are scenes where they both double up as their daughter, these are amongst the most chilling things I have ever seen. The vocal effect alone was creepy enough, but the physical performances in playing Kimberley, especially by Palmer, is still giving me the chills thinking about it now.
Whilst by no means perfect, this is such an interesting production with much to commend it, and with limited seating inside, I rather suspect it will sell out soon, so book now. But be warned, uncompromising and brutal, this is not theatre for the faint-hearted!

Running time: 70 minutes (with no interval)
Programme cost: £2

Review: Waiting for Godot, Theatre Royal Haymarket

“Let us not waste our time in idle discourse”
Waiting for Godot was one of the huge hits of the theatrical calendar last year, starring as it did the heavyweight talents of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, running for most of the summer at the Theatre Royal Haymarket and has been reinstated there again now Breakfast at Tiffany’s has finished. There’s clearly a business case for bringing this production back as it was so successful and keeping as stellar a name as Ian McKellen to get the bums on seats again, but surely the main draw was seeing the combination of McKellen and Stewart and I do find the recasting decisions a little curious, part of me thinks they should have gone the whole hog in order to create an entirely new production.

That is not to negate the efforts of all involved, Rees’ Vladimir felt more comfortable to watch for me, being an all-round more genial soul and he has developed a great relationship with McKellen’s Estragon which gives a lighter feel to the whole shebang. Matthew Kelly’s Pozzo is a more authoritative, intimidating presence, quite different from Simon Callow’s, with Ronald Pickup continuing the same solid work as before on the end of the rope.

The run-down set is still the same with its crumbling facades and effective shifts of lighting, and I think I actually enjoyed it more this time, Rees feeling much more natural than Patrick Stewart, but I remain to be convinced by the play itself. I wasn’t a fan when I saw it last year, and still found myself struggling to see what made people vote this one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £4

Review: The Hostage, Southwark Playhouse

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

“I was court-martialed in my absence, and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence”
After having one of the hottest tickets in London in January with The Rivals, the Southwark Playhouse had quite an act to follow and it has done so by reviving Brendan Behan’s play The Hostage, the first new production in the UK for 16 years. Opening with a song and dance routine as The Rivals did not really help to stop comparisons instantly being made, we soon moved onto to both a naked man appearing and characters addressing the audience, both of which have been in incredibly plentiful supply this year already.

Behan’s play is incredibly hard to define: it’s set in a brothel in 1960s Dublin where a young British soldier is being kept hostage by the IRA in reprisal for the planned execution of a young IRA member in a Belfast jail. The hostage is forced to share the space with the resident prostitutes both male and female, their customers, and a random selection of crazy individuals, but finds a connection despite everything with a young innocent housekeeper. It’s comic but tragic, it’s farcical but political: as I said, hard to define!

The play is anchored by Stephanie Fayerman as the madam of the house and Gary Lilburn as Pat her partner and former IRA soldier, their relationship holds the show together and their dialogue is the snappiest with a brilliant shared dry humour. All the other characters of the house swirl around either or both of them, in an often bewildering array.

The opening scene is great with all the characters coming together and an impromptu Irish jig and singalong starts. It really sets the scene in this bawdy convivial whorehouse and under Caitlin Shannon’s musical direction, the singing and instrument-playing (I saw a piano, a flute, a drum, a fiddle and a penny-whistle) was all very impressive. The action is then continually interspersed with Irish songs, although I found these musical interludes becoming increasingly intrusive. In the second half in particular, the farcical songs just arrested the action and I struggled to see what songs such as “Don’t muck with the moon’ and ‘I’m here, I’m queer’ really added to the play, dissipating the dramatic tension completely as they did.

Former Riverdancer Christopher Doyle’s inept IRA guard was the funniest character, stealing several scenes effortlessly with some excellent physical comedy. Ben James-Ellis, as the soldier taken hostage, had great clarity in his singing but needs to work on transferring that over to his speaking voice, too many lines were swallowed up in his approximation of a London accent and I’m not sure I was convinced by his naivete: would a soldier really be so clueless as to why he had been kidnapped? Emily Dobbs as Teresa, with whom a very fast relationship is formed was much more convincing as a girl straight out of the convent making a connection with the only other ‘pure’ person in sight.

The staging looks effective, with a wooden staircase and landing at the rear evoking the boarding house feel nicely, but using a small thrust stage with such a large cast, many of whom are onstage at the same time, means that there’s just too much going on in a very confined space, too much dialogue is lost and there’s an awful lot of watching people’s backs, no matter where you’re sat.

In the final analysis, if one treats this as a silly farce then all should be ok. It is certainly entertaining enough and I was never bored, all credit to the performers here. It is as unique a treatment of the Anglo-Irish relationship as you will ever see, but not one that I felt actually had anything to tell us.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2
Note: brief male nudity, smoking and flashing lights

Review: Richard III, Riverside Studios

“Oh thou well skilled in curses, stay awhile
And teach me how to curse mine enemies”
So after a nice break away from London, and seven whole days without a play, 2010’s theatregoing resumed with a trip to
Richard III at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Part of a season of plays entitled Desire and Destruction presented by the Love and Madness company, an ensemble of 10 actors are covering 3 plays around these ever-resonant themes, of which Richard III is the second to start (Fool For Love opened last week).

One of Shakespeare’s most celebrated works, Richard III is the story of the physically deformed Duke of Gloucester, a fiercely ambitious prince of the House of York whose hunger for the throne leads him down a Machiavellian path of endless murder, betrayals and general naughtiness as nothing will stop him from gaining what he so desires, even though it lays so far from him. Shakespeare played fast and loose with history in writing this play and so it lends itself to interpretation quite nicely (this production is presented in modern dress), being much more a study in uncontrolled ambition and the power of ‘spin’ in order to manipulate situations both publicly and privately to one’s own good.

Carl Prekopp does an admirable job, playing him with less of a hunchback and more of a palsy-related disability, but capturing perfectly the conspiratorial tone of the manipulative man on the make and getting the level of cruel comedy just right: I loved the way he constantly slunk around in the shadows, whether on the fringes of his family or the court. His descent into madness and paranoia is perhaps a touch overplayed, his physical performance becoming almost reptilian, but still convincing.

He is ably supported by an excellent cast, all of whom double up with roles, and sometimes more. I was most impressed with Jonathan Warde’s workrate, switching between three roles effortlessly in the first half alone, his taciturn executioner Tyrell was a particular delight and strangely fanciable(!), Simon Yadoo’s oleaginous Buckingham was highly enjoyable to watch and Candida Benson brought a real emotional depth to her Queen Elizabeth, fighting to save her remaining children from Richard’s clutches. Matt Sim’s fur-coated, darkly prophetic Margaret was something of an acquired taste, a bit jarring at first but slowly making more sense and it is unfortunate that Sadie Frost has Lady Anne, who makes the most inexplicable decision to marry the murderer of her husband and her father-in-law, as her only real contribution to the show, an odd character not helped by Frost’s rather emotionless reading, I wanted a bit more variance in her speaking voice, something that may come with time.

The staging is quite simplistic, just a conference table on wheels and some chairs being endlessly reconfigured which worked; the monochromatic palate also looked good, with the only colour being red, whether through the atmopsheric lighting or the tie around Richard’s neck. The climactic battle however was played out in an interesting manner with movement and music being used to great effect visually; this was however completely at the expense of being able to hear the language so some sound balance issues need to be looked at there.
This was an interesting production of Richard III, the role of Richard with all his asides was made for more intimate theatrical spaces and the hard-working ensemble do well to keep one (mostly) engaged throughout the running time. I look forward to seeing how it is complemented by Demi-Monde, the final play in the season, but a final note to Riverside, please, please turn the heating up: three hours in the freezing cold does not a happy audience make.
Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes, with interval (in preview)
Programme cost: £3 (but it covers all 3 of the ‘Death & Destruction’ plays)

Winners of the 2010 What’s On Stage Awards

Rachel Weisz – A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar Warehouse (24.8%)
Alison Steadman – Enjoy at the Gielgud (12.8%)
Fiona Shaw – Mother Courage & Her Children at the NT Olivier (9.4%)
Helen Mirren – Phedre at the NT Lyttelton (21.60%)
Juliet Stevenson – Duet for One at the Almeida & Vaudeville (7.60%)
Lesley Sharp – The Rise & Fall of Little Voice at the Vaudeville (23.80%

Jude Law – Hamlet, Donmar West End at Wyndham’s (40.80%)
David Harewood – The Mountaintop at Theatre 503 & Trafalgar Studios 1 (6.00%)
Dominic West – Life Is a Dream at the Donmar Warehouse (13.60%)
Ken Stott – A View from the Bridge at the Duke of York’s (14.90%)
Mark Rylance – Jerusalem at the Royal Court Downstairs (13.90%)
Samuel West – Enron at the Royal Court Downstairs (10.80%)
Continue reading “Winners of the 2010 What’s On Stage Awards”

The 2009 Clarence Derwent Awards

UK – Best male in a supporting role
Clifford Rose as The Judge in The Chalk Garden

UK – Best female in a supporting role
Phoebe Nicholls as Frances Trebell in Waste and Helen Seville in The Vortex

US – Most promising Male
Aaron Tveit – as Gabriel Goodman in Next to Normal

US – Most promising female
Quincy Tyler Bernstine– as Salima in Ruined

Critics’ Circle Awards 2009: the winners in full

Best New Play
August: Osage County by Tracy Letts

The Peter Hepple Award for Best Musical
Spring Awakening

Best Actor
Mark Rylance in Jerusalem

Best Actress
Rachel Weisz in A Streetcar Named Desire

The John and Wendy Trewin Award for Best Shakespearean Performance
Jude Law in Hamlet

Best Director
Rupert Goold for Enron

Best Designer
Christopher Oram for Red

Most Promising Playwright
Alia Bano for Shades

The Jack Tinker Award for Most Promising Newcomer [other than a playwright]
Tom Sturridge in Punk Rock


Review: Really Old, Like Forty Five, National Theatre

“You’re not that old, you just look it”
Really Old, Like Forty Five is a new play from Tamsin Oglesby which looks at the challenges that an increasing ageing population is having on society. We see a government thinktank come up with strategies to deal with them, and we also witness 3 siblings are dealing with old age and the effect it has on their extended family. This dual perspective is effectively shown by use of a split level stage: the government bods are perched on a balcony on top and we see how their decisions affect the general population in the form of the family who occupy the main lower part of the stage, with its mini-revolve allowing for quick scene changes.
I found it to be highly amusing and also highly moving: it’s wittily written, with funny lines popping up all over the place, we’re often laughing at our own prejudices against old people but then quickly forced to confront them as we see just how far this government is willing to go to provide a ‘final solution’ in witnessing the trials of Alice, Lyn and Robbie with their families. Gawn Grainger as Robbie gamely dresses up in more and more ridiculous ‘street’ outfits as he chases a long-gone youth and Marcia Warren has a wonderful twinkle-eyed charm as the ever chipper Alice, with a beautiful speech about the vagaries of the human memory in response to her sister’s distressing decline and jumbled up recollections of their shared youth.

Elsewhere, Paul Ritter is very funny as the head of the government department dealing with the ‘ageing problem’, saying all the things that we’ve thought but would never dare say out loud in ever-plausible government-speak (including an ingenious solution to crowded pavements which I can actually see being implemented) but never becomes monstrous, we always see the man behind the suit, making his journey in the second half all the more heartbreaking. And Lucy May Barker did well with a somewhat underwritten part as a teenager adopted by Lyn as part of one of the government schemes.

But the evening belongs to Judy Parfitt as Lyn, the rapid onset of her Alzheimer’s throughout the course of the play is enthralling, so difficult to watch at times, especially when watching the pain etched on the face of her daughter, but beautifully played by Parfitt. The lightning switches from flashes of genuine emotion and recollection to irascible outbursts and the comfort of the familiar rambling, however bizarre, have a weighty authenticity about them, marred only by the daughter’s bizarre late request for an explanation about whether her father had had an affair: an odd thing to be concerned about I felt, given how far gone her mother was. But this was the only mis-step in Oglesby’s writing for me, it was otherwise very strong.

Finally, there is a stunning performance from Michela Meazza as Mimi. Meazza is better known as a dancer, being a member of Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company, and I don’t want to give too much away here, but she delivers a physical performance which literally has to be seen to be believed, I loved it.
This was much more of a black comedy than I was expecting: very funny in parts and bleak in others, indeed those who have personal experience of dealing with relatives with Alzheimers may find a painful truth in many scenes here. It is briskly directed by Anna Mackmin, and ultimately I found it very moving. That said, whilst lots of interesting questions are raised here, about how we treat our elderly population, quality of life versus its longevity, learning to age gracefully, dealing with Alzheimers in the family, few answers are actually given to us, much is left for the audience to just think about, not necessarily a bad thing…
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, with an interval (in previews)
Programme costs: £2
Note: in a pleasing affirmation that karma does indeed exist in this world, after being mugged one day, I got upgraded the next. Having booked a restricted view ticket on the side for this show, I was bumped to the centre of the pit just a few rows from the stage! Apparently, the restricted view also currently includes a considerable view of the backstage area given the small revolve and so whilst they investigate options, people are getting upgrades which should be a welcome surprise for a lucky few.