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”

Review: Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, Arcola

“Words come out of my mouth like toads”

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is one of Caryl Churchill’s earlier plays, taking up residence now in Studio 1 of Dalston’s Arcola Theatre. Set during the English Civil War, it deals with a period of time when there was huge political upheaval, the conflict between the power of the landowning class and the burgeoning ideals around individual freedom came to a head and questions around liberty and real democracy were posed by the different factions in Cromwell’s New Model Army.

The focus in each half is around a debate, in the first half it is the Putney Debates of 1647 when common soldiers argued passionately for genuine democratic reform in opposition to Oliver Cromwell’s policies of protecting the power of the landowners. In the second, it is a group of common people who have found God through or indeed despite their suffering and starvation. Around these focal points is a collage of stories of how brutal life for the population at large is, as they are constantly kept down-at-heel: the poor are whipped, children abandoned to their death, evangelists preaching of the new heaven on earth for men but not women, all rather bleak. Continue reading “Review: Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, Arcola”

Review: Bent, Tabard

“I love you…what’s wrong with that?”

Andrew Keates’ production of Martin Sherman’s play Bent was a big success at the Landor Theatre earlier in the year and so its transfer to the Tabard Theatre in Chiswick makes sense. Both spaces share an intimacy that feels appropriate to the intense emotion of the play and Keates is clearly attuned to the full range of human experience that lovers Max and Rudy are forced to go through. In 1930s Berlin, the pair flee persecution after witnessing a murder but when the Nazis catch up with them, they’re shipped off to Dachau.

What follows is an exploration of just how viciously homosexuals were treated by the Nazi regime and a testament to the immense spirit shown by those who were unfortunate enough to be oppressed. This lends the Dachau scenes an air of slight unreality, almost of idealism, but it is one that is indubitably well-earned as these men search for the tiniest bit of tenderness, humanity, even love, in the most horrendous of surroundings. The brutality of Freya Groves’ design of barbed wire and swastikas never lets us forget where we are though.

Russell Morton as Max is simply superb, tracing the journey from carefree gay abandon to appalled helplessness , full of love and pain as the gravity of the situation slowly becomes apparent. Steven Butler’s Rudy is deliberately more grating, his giddy youthfulness unable to resist the rough, working class charms of David Flynn’s Horst in the camp, but we’re never in any doubt as to the private pain underneath the brash public persona. Bent is brutal but brilliant, this production serves it as well as any possibly could.

Review: The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, Duchess Theatre

“I find it best that two men find out the worst about each other before living together”

After the Fantasticks finished its run somewhat abruptly, the Duchess Theatre now plays host to The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, a production that has been touring the country and how has a home in the West End for the summer. Jeremy Pauls’s play is a psychological thriller which deals with Sherlock Holmes, delving into the psyche of the man himself and his relationships with the ever-faithful Dr Watson and his nemesis Professor Moriarty.

Peter Egan and Robert Daws, taking over from Phillip Franks who played the role on tour, take us through Holmes and Watson’s first meeting and follow them as their association develops and deepens, providing intriguing insight into characters with which we are so familiar but about whom we actually know very little. The fallout from the infamous events at Reichenbach Falls form the crux of the show as they both deal with the challenges of Holmes’ actions.

Peter Egan’s Sherlock is at times magnificent in his pursuit of logic and cracking mysteries, at times close to being sociopathic in his inability to relate fully to other humans. It is in the examination of his demons, real and imagined, and his fears Holmes Daws’ Watson provides a lovely well-rounded characterisation to a familiar figure who is often side-lined, putting him at the emotional heart of the play, teasing back the protective layers of the great detective and finding that his needs are all too human despite what his facade might suggest.

There’s a lovely chemistry between the two actors as they play off each other, and the growing tenderness and affection between the two, although never articulated out loud, is plain to see. There’s mention of other characters, Irene Adler, Mycroft, Watson’s wife, but the focus is largely on the two gentlemen.
The set is nicely dressed as a dark but warm study, stuffed full of books and artefacts and memorabilia, a real bachelor’s pad. A wrought iron staircase runs up to a gallery which crosses the back, adding an extra level from which additional scenes could be played and shadowy figures loomed.

Surprisingly dark and oft-times humorous, The Secret of Sherlock Holmes made for a fun time at the theatre. Not a particularly challenging play, but engagingly intriguing and a majestic performance from Egan. It could be a little pacier and part of me thought it didn’t really need the interval, but not bad at all.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 11th September

Review: Romeo & Juliet, Mosaica@The Chocolate Factory

“Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast”

At the beginning of the year, I thought it was Macbeth that was the play of the year with three major productions lined up for the first half of the year, but it seems that Romeo & Juliet has actually been the more popular as I trudged up to Wood Green to see what was my fourth set of star-cross’d lovers in 3 months. My step was lightened though by the knowledge that this was a production by MokitaGrit, a production company responsible for one of my musical highlights of the year so far, Once Upon A Time At The Adelphi.

This Romeo & Juliet was billed as an urban retelling, ‘Shakespeare meets Skins’, set in the gang-dominated Verona council estate. Its most striking innovation is to use a group of free-runners, Team Invision, to manage the scene changes, their acrobatics providing a physical urgency and danger to proceedings. The venue is quite a quirky one, the courtyard of a great-looking restaurant Mosaica which is based in a disused chocolate factory in Wood Green, now a cultural hub. Surrounded by high buildings on three sides, this production made the most of its location and used many of the different levels to varying effect. Continue reading “Review: Romeo & Juliet, Mosaica@The Chocolate Factory”

Review: Smashed!, Watch This Space @National Theatre

“How do you like them apples?!”

Originally this was just going to be a note at the bottom of the Danton’s Death review as I saw this before going into the Olivier, but it was just so darned good that I decided to give it a review all of its own as there’s a few more shows over the weekend that you can go and catch, especially since it is totally free.

Smashed! is a new show put together by the Gandini Juggling collective especially for the Watch This Space festival and I honestly cannot recommend it enough. There are no words to describe how beautiful the sight of 9 people juggling a whole load of apples can be, but I’m going to try. It actually had the air of a dance piece, indeed the opening sequence was heavily reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof, with its promenading and knowing looks on the faces of the performers. The intricacy of the routines, often involving several jugglers swopping balls was often breathtaking, the synchronisation a visual treat and the different ways in which the performers interacted was always intriguing. Continue reading “Review: Smashed!, Watch This Space @National Theatre”

Review: Danton’s Death, National Theatre

“I’m sick of this rigmarole”

Danton’s Death, the 1835 play about the French Revolution by Georg Büchner, marks an impressive brace of debuts: Toby Stephens making his first bow on the stage here in the title role and Michael Grandage, Artistic Director of the Donmar, making his directorial debut here on the South Bank. Setting up in the Olivier theatre for the summer, it is part of the Travelex season so there’s been plenty of £10 seats available. This was the first preview that I saw, I acknowledge this freely but stand by everything I say here.

The story is set in 1794, a period between the first and the second terrors during the French Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety has been set up in the name of the revolutionary new order and is summarily executing people whether the accusations against them are true or not. Its creator, Georges Danton, has come to regret his part in the genesis of something responsible for the killings of so many people and has been shocked at the way in which the revolution has been increasingly radicalised. His former friend and colleague Robespierre is at the head of this new faction leading the way and when Danton makes a stand for what he sees as too much, the stage is set for an almighty power struggle between the two political rivals. Continue reading “Review: Danton’s Death, National Theatre”

Review: Lingua Franca, Finborough

“They can have us spooning and forking any time between breakfast and bedtime”

Continuing the 30th anniversary celebrations at the Finborough Theatre is the world premiere of a new play by Peter Nichols, Lingua Franca. The play is set in 1950s Florence, where Flowers gets a job teaching English at Lingua Franca, a shambolic language school housing a ragbag collection of individuals from across the globe, all struggling to come to terms with a new society in a Europe no longer at war, whilst luxuriating in the Florentine cultural bounty all around them. The programme informed me that the lead character Steven Flowers is also in one of his earlier plays, Privates on Parade, it made no difference to me not having seen that but there’s a neat bit of casting in that Ian Gelder who appears here in a different role, played that character in the original RSC production.

At the centre of the story is a love triangle of sorts: once Stephen has become accustomed to his new way of living, he throws himself into a life of gay abandon, whipping his classes up into a raucous frenzy of singalongs and chants as a different way of learning and having already caught the eye and rapt attention of repressed and depressed English Peggy, launches headlong into a passionate, physical affair with German Heidi. As Stephen, Chris New brings a wonderfully warm charm which makes it easy to see why so many women fall for him and plays the darker, crueller streak that comes as he ruthlessly pursues his sexual urges at the expense of all else equally well. Continue reading “Review: Lingua Franca, Finborough”

Review: Classic Moments – Hidden Treasures, Jermyn Street Theatre

“Take me to a world where I can be alive”

Classic Moments – Hidden Treasures is described as a ‘cabaret celebration of some of the lesser known works of Stephen Sondheim’ and forms the latest in a string of celebratory events in the composer’s 80th birthday year. Directed by TIm McArthur originally under the (better) title Secret Sondheim, this show features a five person ensemble and pianist, singing a range of songs both solo and in groups, with hints of choreography and a huge amount of both talent and enthusiasm.

On the one hand, it is highly appropriate that a show like this should take place to celebrate Sondheim’s birthday and highlight some of his lesser-known works; on the other hand, since it is his birthday year, many of these ‘lesser known’ works have actually been running in London recently, Assassins is still on and Anyone Can Whistle played in this very venue. And shows like these often run the danger of leaving you wishing for at least one or two of the more well-known songs. But McArthur and musical director David Harvey have fashioned a fast-paced journey that rips through 28 songs in just over 90 minutes, without any narrative constraints or superimposed plot. Continue reading “Review: Classic Moments – Hidden Treasures, Jermyn Street Theatre”