Review: All’s Well That Ends Well, National

All’s Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare’s so-called ‘problem plays’, not easily classified as a comedy or a tragedy, but this production a part of the Travelex season at the National Theatre, posed no problems for me. This is a confidently-acted, stunningly-mounted, assured production which really confirms to me that the NT have hit the ground running with this season of plays.

The programme describes the play as ‘Shakespeare Noir’ which is quite an apt description for it. The comedy, and there is lots of it, is often underscored by the darker turns of the plot, and there is little frivolity of the ‘hey nonny no’ type, which can sometimes seem quite glib. The play opens with a girl of little consequence save the knowledge passed down from her physician father, arriving at the court of the King of France and healing him of his ailment. Her reward is to marry the man of her choice, but her chosen nobleman, Bertram, objects to such a lowly match and sets Helena a seemingly impossible challenge to win his heart and subsequently heads off to war in Italy, but Helena is hot on his heels in order to try and fulfil the deal.

As the ill-matched couple, Michelle Terry and George Rainsford give strong acting performances, but both lack a little fluency in their verse-reading which I am sure will come with time (I saw an early preview). This was particularly highlighted given the calibre of the supporting cast around them, featuring veterans such as Clare Higgins, Conleth Hill, Janet Henfrey and Oliver Ford-Davies. Higgins in particular as Bertram’s mother and Helena’s employer, the Countess of Rossillion has great command of the stage and Conleth Hill’s tragicomic Parolles displays some great comic timing. A special mention should also go to Hasina Haque who holds her own superbly against the ‘old hands’ in the denouement of the final scenes: she also impressed in England People Very Nice and is someone to watch for the future.

Visually, it is a feast for the eyes: the first half looks like it’s been taken straight from the pages of the Brothers Grimm and there is some really evocative use of lighting and silhouettes, the live music also adds to this almost fairytale enviroment. Also worth a mention are the nifty scene-changes which really keep the action moving at a sparky pace and never letting the attention flag.

Last but by no means least, there are lots of sparkly shoes in this production: what more coud you ask for?! At £10 a seat and still with some great availability, you would be hard-pressed to to get better value on the stage at the moment.

Review: Madame De Sade, Donmar at Wyndham’s

The third play in the Donmar’s residency at the Wyndham’s Theatre is Madame de Sade, a slightly obscure work by the Japanese playwright Yukio Mishima, which fulfils Michael Grandage’s promise to bring lesser-known works into the West End alongside the classics. Unfortunately, as many reviews have already said, this is not really a play that stands up to the exceptionally high standards already set by this season, despite the efforts of an excellent cast.
The play tells the story of the life of the Marquis de Sade just before the French Revolution in three short acts, moving a few years through time with each act, but tells it through the eyes of six different women who have varying relationships with him, and the Marquis himself does not actually make an appearance. The women are his wife, his mother-in-law, his sister-in-law, a servant in his house and two other ladies and they each represent a single viewpoint which rather limits the opportunities for the actresses to display their talents.

Dame Judi Dench plays the mother of the Madame de Sade, Madame de Montreuil, and looks amazing in the wigs and costumes, and gives as good a performance as she can, given the material. Struggling to understand the motivation of her daughters, she shows her displeasure well, but is not given the opportunity to do much more. Francis Barber’s Comtesse de Saint-Fond, representing lust, was a very funny and vibrant character and injected some much needed verve into her scenes. As a result, one really felt her absence in the final act. Rosamund Pike probably deserves the greatest plaudits though as she has a really difficult job as the titular Madame de Sade, Renee. She has such long and unforgiving monologues and an unflinching devotion to her husband that is a little hard to understand, yet she still managed to wring every possible bit of emotion and interest out of the text. Deborah Findlay as religion, has a great opening scene with Barber, Jenny Galloway has some humourous moments as the long-suffering servant, but Fiona Button as the younger sister has little of interest to do.

The problem is that it just wasn’t that interesting at all. The inflexibility of the characters’ viewpoints mean that the discussions of the Marquis’ behaviour are quite dull, as the debate is thrown to us, the audience, rather than amongst the cast: there appears to be no deviating from the designated opinion of each character and I found this to be quite a strong weakness of the play. Combined with the extreme wordiness of the dense text, it was sometimes hard to maintain adequate concentration levels.

But this did mean that I paid more attention to all the other details which were of the highest quality. Fabulous costumes and hair, interesting sound and light effects during the soliloquies (I thought Rosamund Pike’s echoing final speech was fantastic and almost convinced me I like the whole play!), the projections on the back wall which evoked the subjects being discussed, and even the positioning of the actresses was interesting as they took poses whilst one of them delivered their speeches, creating beautiful tableaux. So it was quite educational to be able to focus on these aspects of the show, but it was a shame it had to be at the expense of any interest in the play.

Review: tick…tick…BOOM!, Duchess

The second musical in the Notes from New York mini-season at the Duchess Theatre is tick…tick…BOOM! Written by Jonathan Larson who also penned Rent, the play is a three-hander, focussing on Jon, a scarcely disguised autobiographical wannabe composer of musicals and his girlfriend Susan, a dancer and room-mate Michael, a former actor who now has a successful City job. Jon is just about to turn 30 and anxious about his lack of success, especially as he is about to premiere his latest musical, a piece called Superbia, and feels under pressure from both his friend and girlfriend to change his path and abandon chasing his dream.

tick…tick…BOOM! was originally produced as a monologue and was only reconceived as a three-hander after Larson’s death. I do not know if this was ever his intention, or wheter it was a decision made by others, but I do believe that this is where the major weakness of this play lies. The secondary characters of Susan and Michael are very sketchily drawn and have very little opportunity to really engage with the audience, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the actors playing these two roles also have to cover all the other minor characters as well.

In the lead role, Paul Keating (right in the picture) is never off the stage in what is quite a demanding role. He was clearly unwell and had a horrific start to his first song, but he did extremely well to rediscover his composure and from midway in, settled into the role, delivering a warm, humerous performance from a character who could easily seem off-puttingly self-obssessed. Leon Lopez (left in the photo) is given very little to do as the friend who has turned his back on his creative side in exchange for a regular job with a good salary, and even his big moment, the revelation of his “illness”, ends up as a bit of a damp squib since we don’t really care for Michael. Finallybut by no means least, Julie Atherton as the long-suffering girlfriend steals the show whenever she is given the opportunity. Her solo number “Come To Your Senses” is the highlight of the evening, and her comic turn as Jon’s agent is nicely pitched, owing a lot as it does to the infamous Estelle from Friends.

Following on from The Last Five Years, it was hard not be disappointed by this. Despite the high performance level and clever usage of minimal staging and lighting, the truth is that I just did not engage with this musical at all or find much that was likeable in it. One does end up wondering if this is a piece that would have received such attention, were it not for Larson’s tragic early death.

Review: The Observer, National

My latest trip to the National Theatre took me to of The Observer which is premiering at the Cottesloe Theatre (although strictly speaking it was a preview). I had not intended to see this play but I was seduced by the offer of cheap tickets, and I was extremely glad that I did since it gave me what I think is the strongest acting performance I have seen so far this year.
Anna Chancellor is quite simply astonishing, she’s on stage for practically the whole thing and is entirely believable as Fiona, the brittle, uptight observer of an election in an unspecified African country (though the parallels are clearly drawn with the recent Zimbabwean election). The play follows the processes around the first democratic elections in this country and how the impartial monitoring committee that Fiona works for interacts with the situation that they find themselves in. With her translator aiding her, Fiona finds herself drawn closer and closer to crossing the boundaries imposed by her position, as she realises the potential influence that she has on the election result. Chancellor plays this awakening, this blossoming so astutely, it is a thing of wonder to watch, and one is just swept up in the journey that Fiona is forced to take.

Cyril Nri is also really good, playing a multitude of different characters with varying impact on the election. One thing that was quite interesting was the usage of the native language in various scenes which meant that one was quite often in the same boat as Fiona, just simply having to ‘observe’ the action. The only slight bum note for me was James Fleet’s Foreign Office representative whose interventions, whilst quite funny, were clearly designed to allow the (very clunky and noisy) set changes to take place behind him, and so I didn’t feel that they were integrated well enough into the play.

It was quite odd seeing a play in the Cottesloe presented in a more traditional way using a raised stage, instead of the space in the middle, I’ve only ever seen things there that use the centre space. Nonetheless, it worked well especially with some really effective drapes/panel-type things that evoked the different locations. With the space being used more traditionally, the seating set-up is different with a raked bank of seats in the middle. My seats were in what was described as the “pit” on the right hand side, and gave a brilliant view, you’re at stage level, whereas the front row is considerably lower than the stage, so I would recommend trying to get those seats.

So all in all, I would recommend this play, if only to see some amazing acting. The play itself is engaging, but Anna Chancellor really lifts it into the stratosphere and I hope that she gains some recognition for this, whether awards or critical acclaim or simply reading this review!

Review: Les Misérables, Queens

As May is my birthday month, and this year brings with it a particular milestone (30!), I decided that I would treat myself to as many shows as I could manage, and I could not imagine not managing to squeeze in at least one of the long-running musicals that form the bedrock of much of London’s theatreland. Having already seen Joseph twice this year, my thoughts turned to Les Misérables, and duly obliged with some half-price tickets. Les Mis is up there with Joseph in terms of having seen many, many productions, I think this was show number 11 for me, and yet I never tire of it.

Based on the Victor Hugo novel by Alain Boublil, and with music by Claude-Michael Schonberg, it follows the lives and loves of a group of characters on the fringes of society in revolutionary France, les misérables or the unfortunates. The number of characters may seem quite bewildering, but their stories incresingly intertwine, and the beauty of the play is that it deftly moves from the personal to the political and back again, thereby keeping the interest fresh and covering so many different aspects of human emotion as we flick from intimate love stories to revolutionaries preparing for battle to personal quests for revenge time and time again.
The musical is entirely set to music which may put some people off, but preconceptions really should be left at the door as this is a classy piece of work. The strength of the music, in particular the abundance of memorable tunes, really evokes the emotions of the all the characters, whether from the personal or the political point of view. Who, for instance, can fail to pity Eponine in On My Own; laugh out loud at the effrontery of the bickering Thénardiers in Master of the House, or be genuinely inspired by the patriotic fervour of Do You Hear the People Sing? and One Day More. Among the performers, I liked Jon Robyns as Marius who I recognised from the original cast of Avenue Q, with Drew Sarich’s Javert and Nancy Sullivan’s Eponine also particularly impressive.

For the most part, sets are simple but no less effective for that, the one exception being the barricade scene; the barricade itself filling the stage, finally turning a full 360 degrees to reveal the terrible and shocking aftermath of the confrontation.
At face value, Les Misérables might seem a dull and depressing subject for a musical, but the clever mix of humour, pathos, love and loyalty weaves a magical aura that stays with you long after the final curtain, and crucially for a musical, also leaves you humming the tunes.

Review: The Last Five Years, Duchess

The Last Five Years is part of a mini-season of musicals being put on the Notes From New York company at the Duchess Theatre, and is a revival from last year’s gala performances at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Julie Atherton, most recently seen returning to Avenue Q, plays Cathy, an aspiring actress, and Paul Spicer is newly-published author Jamie and they play this two-hander about the progression of their couple’s relationship over five years. However, the stories of the two characters are told differently yet concurrently, with Jamie recounting the relationship from beginning to end, and Cathy starting at the end of the relationship and working back to their first meeting. This means that the characters only actually share one duet as their stories intersect at the midpoint which might seem a little odd, but this is a crucial element of the show as it allows the characters to present their differing perceptions of the relationship.

Julie Atherton has the harder job since she has to tell her story in reverse, but she is more than equal to the task, delivering an outstanding performance which proves beyond no doubt that she is one of the strongest talents currently working in the West End. She combines great humour, A Summer in Ohio is a standout, with gut-wrenching heartbreak and has such ease on the stage that I defy anyone to not fall in love with her during this show! Paul Spicer also impressed with his vocal ability, but his character is not quite as likeable. Perhaps this is to do with the format, his story is the conventionally-told one, and so the initial sympathies do gravitate towards the heartbroken Cathy, as Jamie just singing about meeting a girl at this point.

Props and staging are pared down to a minimum which really focuses the attention on the storytelling, with only certain key props being used to indicate the requisite shift in time, and the action whips through in a nifty 90 minutes. It is such a shame that this is such a limited engagement as it is one of the most interesting musicals that I have seen in a while and expertly performed. The season continues with tick…tick…Boom! next week.

Review: F**king Men, King’s Head

Thanks to the folks at, I got free tickets to F**king Men at the King’s Head theatre in Islington, a place I have been to several times and to be honest, usually find quite overpriced. So free tickets meant that I had no problem in trotting along to this play by Joe DiPietro, despite my reservations about both fringe theatre and gay theatre.

Firstly, whilst I do recognise that there is much good work being done in fringe theatres across London, I was quite badly burned on several occasions last year by some terrible experiences, and the main problem that I have is that their tickets are not sufficiently cheap for me to be forgiving. When somewhere like the National Theatre regularly has £10 tickets available, I find asking for £15 or £20 somewhat hard to stomach, especially when one is not assured of the quality.
But to the matter at hand, Fucking Men or rather F**king Men. This comedy chronicles a chain of hook-ups between a group of men, including a college student, a soldier, a long-suffering couple, and a big Hollywood actor. By focusing on the build-up to, and then the fall-out from the encounters, people who are looking for literal demonstrations of the title will be disappointed, but this is definitely to the play’s credit. That’s not to say that there isn’t some pandering to the pink pound with an abundance of pecs and abs on show especially in the first few vignettes, as shown by the photo (included purely for your benefit!)
Stereotypes are always hard to resist in gay theatre, whether it is using them or trying to subvert them, and DiPietro is no exception here. The college kid describes himself as bisexual, the married couple are both playing away separately, yet the porn star is actually a supremely sensitive guy. In the end though, the speed with which the piece rips through each encounter means that no-one really outstays their welcome and the writing is for the most part quite sharp and funny and delivered well by all the actors.
Connecting all the encounters is the conflict between monogamous love versus sexual freedom and exploration and whilst this question is raised constantly, no real answers are given by the play. Thinking about it, there is also a curious tension in the overall message of the play which is that underlying every sexual encounter is the overwhelming desire for love, yet in putting together a play that consists solely of sexual encounters, DiPietro seems to make no allowance for the idea that some men just enjoy the thrill of casual anonymous sex, and are happy with that.

So whilst I congratulate the production on becoming one of the longest running off-West-End plays, I don’t know if I could justify recommending this at £15 a head, especially given the relative lack of comfort of the seats at the King’s Head, and given its rather niche appeal.

63rd Tony Award nominations

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play 
Jeff Daniels – God of Carnage as Alan
Raúl Esparza – Speed-the-Plow as Charlie Fox
James Gandolfini – God of Carnage as Michael
Geoffrey Rush – Exit the King as King Berenger
Thomas Sadoski – reasons to be pretty as Greg

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play
Hope Davis – God of Carnage as Annette
Jane Fonda – 33 Variations as Katherine Brandt
Marcia Gay Harden – God of Carnage as Veronica
Janet McTeer – Mary Stuart as Mary Stuart
Harriet Walter – Mary Stuart as Elizabeth I

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical 
David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, and Kiril Kulish – Billy Elliot the Musical as Billy Elliot
Gavin Creel – Hair as Claude
Brian d’Arcy James – Shrek the Musical as Shrek
Constantine Maroulis – Rock of Ages as Drew
J. Robert Spencer – Next to Normal as Dan Continue reading “63rd Tony Award nominations”

Top five plays of April

Top five plays for the month of April:

1. Parlour Song
2. Time and the Conways
3. His Dark Materials
4. Tusk Tusk
5. Over There

And the top 10 of the year so far:

1. La Cage aux Folles
2. Duet for One
3. Burnt by the Sun

4. Parlour Song
5. Dancing at Lughnasa
6. Time and the Conways

7. His Dark Materials
8. Kafka’s Monkey
9. Tusk Tusk
10. Plague Over England

Review: His Dark Materials Part I & Part II, Lowry

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit straight off that the production of His Dark Materials at the National Theatre ranks as my ultimate top theatrical experience ever. I am a massive fan of the books, and could not believe how well Nicholas Wright translated the three novels into two such wonderful, moving plays. Having travelled to Bath to see the youth production at the Theatre Royal there a couple of years ago, I was easily convinced to see the new Birmingham Repertory touring production at the Lowry Theatre in Salford, especially as it was so close to my parental home. So my mother and father, Aunty Jean and I settled in for the same day double bill, Part I at 2pm and Part II at 7.30pm, a little bum-numbingly daunting I’ll admit, but the only way to get the full impact of this theatrical wonder.

So much happens in the books and so whilst a lot is lost in the condensing of the action, this is largely to the benefit of the plays as the pacing is kept quite high, with many rapid scene changes which means that you really do have to listen carefully or else you could lose the thread quite quickly if you’re hugely familiar with the plot. That said, I was with two people who had not read the books and they had no problem following the action.

The technical masterpiece that was the revolving Olivier stage drum could clearly not be replicated for a touring company, and this actually has quite a liberating effect on this production, the action takes place on quite a bare set with a minimum of props, used very inventively, which really focuses the attention on the acting and on the words. Amy McAllister as Lyra captured the essence of the character perfectly, brimming with youthful indignation but crucially capturing the charm that sllows her to build such strong relationships with the key characters. Nick Barber as Will was also good, although I felt he looked a little too old for the part, he wasn’t quite as convincing as a 12 year old, but was much more convincing as the play went on.

Special mention has to go to the puppeteers, in particular Gerard Casey as Pantalaimon and Ben Thompson as Mrs Coulter’s golden monkey, who portray the daemons, the physical manifestations of the characters’ souls. Their incredible synthesis of animal movement and human interactions create real characters out of the puppets and really add another level to the action on the stage and if there is another scene which makes me cry as much as when Lyra and Pan are separated in the Land of the Dead, I will be very surprised. The polar bears were also well-realised with some well-drilled menace evident from their first appearance.

The only criticisms I had were around the portrayal of the angels Balthamos and Baruch. Played quite camply as comic relief, they got a lot of cheap (homophobic?) laughs and their role seems to have been pruned quite severely. So much so that by the time we’ve rushed to Baruch’s death scene, people are still giggling and the impact of what is a beautifully portrayed, moving death is considerably lost. Another minor point was that I felt Asriel should have been portrayed as less of a power-hungry villain and more avuncular in order that one feels more sympathy for his crusade against the Authority, but I suppose this is more about my interpretation of his character than anything.

So whilst your wallet and your bum may not thank you for the expense and the length, I would highly recommend tracking down this play if it comes near you. It really is one of the best things you could hope to see!