Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Southwark Playhouse

The Southwark Playhouse’s Japanese-inspired production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream provided a welcome respite from a chilly Monday night. Performed by a pared-down cast of 7, with everyone doubling up (and in one case tripling up), this made for an intimate retelling of the story. Most interestingly the lovers also played the Rude Mechanicals, a choice I had not seen before, but one which for the most part worked.

With a minimalist set, and dressed in traditional Japanese attire, the transplanting of the action to Japan looks very effective, and it feels like an interesting twist on what is such familiar material: for example, the fairy Mustard-seed becomes Wasabi. Jay Oliver Yip’s Puck had a wonderful physicality and his delivery of the impish lines did not disappoint, and I felt all four of the lovers/Mechanicals delivered strong performances. However, the Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania roles suffered a little bit from heavy Japanese accents to the occasional point of unintelligibility. It was only with the opening scene of Act 2 with Oberon and Puck where it seemed that the accent was being exaggerated and played for comic effect that one felt comfortable enough to laugh at the delivery without seeming patronising.

So despite the faint smell of cabbage in the auditorium, I would recommend this show as extremely good value and a fun night out, and I love the fact that drinks can be taken into the show without having to be decanted into flimsy plastic containers. A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs until February 28th.

Winners of the 2009 What’s On Stage Awards

Katy Stephens – The Histories, RSC at the Roundhouse (20.3%)
Deanna Dunagan – August: Osage County at the NT Lyttelton (15.6%)
Lesley Sharp – Harper Regan at NT Cottesloe (17.1%)
Lindsay Duncan – That Face at the Duke of York’s (18.3%)
Margaret Tyzack – The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse (9.2%)
Penelope Wilton – The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse (19.5%)

Kenneth Branagh – Ivanov, Donmar West End at Wyndham’s (26.4%)
Adam Godley – Rain Man at the Apollo (18.1%)
Chiwetel Ejiofor – Othello at the Donmar Warehouse (16.5%)
Eddie Redmayne – Now or Later at the Royal Court Downstairs (6.9%)
Ian McDiarmid – Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Gielgud (9.2%)
Kevin Spacey & Jeff Goldblum – Speed the Plow at the Old Vic (22.9%)
Continue reading “Winners of the 2009 What’s On Stage Awards”

Review: Be Near Me, Donmar

Thanks to the West End Whingers, I am now hyper-alert to the most random of details and there is much in this production to please them. Some excellent preparation and arranging of roses, some chopping of rhubarb, and onstage eating of lettuce soup, and then some fish stew and bread out of a lovely Le Creuset pot. However, there was no placemat for said pot, and so I did spend a couple of minutes worrying about the mark it would leave on the table.

But only for a couple of minutes, for this is a wonderful production which I found to be thoroughly engrossing. After a double whammy of “things that I hate” from the last couple of productions at the Donmar, namely verse plays and Nordic playwrights, this was the Donmar on top form. Adapted from Andrew O’Hagan’s novel, Be Near Me tells the story of a Oxbridge Catholic priest’s struggle to adapt to moving to a predominantly Protestant Scottish town.

Ian McDiarmid was superb in conveying the dislocated Father David, cloyingly ingratiating in his way into the lives of two teenagers at the expense of his parishioners, colleagues and housekeeper, the last of which played by Blythe Duff with great spirit: her withering comeback to an enquiry about a new hairstyle sent chills up the spine. Richard Madden and Helen Mallon also deserve a mention for delivering performances that capture teenage swagger in a very convincing and sometimes menacing way.

The device of keeping the company onstage throughout the show, providing a quasi-Greek chorus of sectarian songs is highly effective at maintaining the atmosphere in which Father David fails to find a comfortable medium to deal with his issues, and prefigure the ensuing catastrophe. The final scene with McDiarmid’s mellifluous tones and some stunning lighting was worth the ticket price alone, so I would highly recommend this to all.

Review: La Cage Aux Folles, Playhouse

I saw this last Friday, and so was lucky enough to see the penultimate performance with the original cast, and no disrespect to the incoming performers, I am extremely glad for that since it was good to see the production people have been recommending for ages now and this was probably the most fun I have had in the theatre in such a long time.

That may have had something to do with the insane amount of wine me and my friend Julia drank in lieu of eating dinner, but the show really was excellent (from what I remember). The big bouncing balls were good fun; les cagelles were beyond excellent, eye-wateringly so at times during the splits; Douglas Hodge was superb throughout, just the right side of camp buffoonery yet still real enough for Jean-Michele’s misguided decision to have real emotional impact; the cabaret tables were a genius idea, though I imagine a little frightening to sit at.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I realise I will need to see this again to get some of the finer nuances (and fill in the gaps, oops). I hope Graham Norton is equal to the task, and I actually look forward to finding out. And congratulations to the Menier Chocolate Factory on creating a bona fide success.

Review: In A Dark Dark House, Almeida

Due to having no internet at my flat, I have fallen behind with my reviewing, which is very poor considering this is only my second one. But I forgive myself, and I am the only person reading this anyway, lol!
This three-hander is by Neil LaBute who has a long-running relationship with the Almeida, and this is the European premiere of this work. It is quite cleverly structured, in three segments with no interval and so really has a filmic feel to it which is probably a good thing as you wouldn’t have wanted it to be much longer. The play tells the story of two brothers who are still struggling with events from their childhood, and as ever with LaBute’s work, nothing is quite as it seems and the journey to the truth is quite harrowing. David Morrissey and Steven Mackintosh both do fine work, but somehow the parts don’t quite add up to a cohesive whole. The central scene with Kira Sternbach playing a Lolita-like role provides a welcome jolt of adrenaline to proceedings, but I didn’t feel the play dealt sufficiently with the questions it raised especially around the long-lasting impact of abuse .

Full credit however must go to the set designer who works wonders with the limited space on the stage to create a green space which subtly but credibly shifts from the grounds of a mental institution to crazy golf course to the back garden of the final scene. I am always impressed at how the space at the Almeida is utilised, every show looks so remarkably different, it is always exciting to see what they will do next.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Q&A session with the actors at the end of the show, which only made me fall further in love with David Morrissey. He was witty and gracious in answering even the most inane questions, I failed to pluck up the nerve to ask him about whether he had ever missed the windmill with his putt!
Link to tons more information at Almeida website:

Review: Twelfth Night, Donmar at the Wyndham’s

Following on from a sensational Ivanov with Kenneth Branagh, the Donmar Warehouse West End season continues with this prodution of Twelfth Night, featuring Derek Jacobi as the star name in a very strong cast.

After the snowfall that predictably brought London to a standstill, my journey to the Wyndham’s was extremely torturous and unfortunately put me in a foul mood which did not bode well for an evening at the theatre. And whilst this production had much to dispel the howling wind and cold outside, it didn’t quite achieve the dizzy heights the rave reviews had intimated. One of those dark comedies full of gender-bending escapades, Twelfth Night requires a certain suspension of disbelief that was just lacking in me tonight. The comedy is there for sure, with some great laugh out loud moments, but there were too many moments where I just wanted to shout out ‘but WHY?’! I felt there wasn’t enough conviction in Viola’s decision to disguise herself, and I had no real sense of which of the men actually really wanted to meet up with ladies or just remain within their own manly (read homoerotic) company.

All in all, a disappointing night given my expectations, but perhaps with an easier journey to the theatre and a sunnier disposition I might have found this more enjoyable.

Review: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Adelphi

For me, there’s no doubt about what the first theatre post would be about. I have probably seen Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat something like 20 times, played piano for one production, percussion for another, and sung in it twice (both times in the chorus 🙁 ). It occupies such a special place in my heart, and that of most of my families’ too, that I doubt I could ever grow tired of it. That said, the most recent production of this before the latest reboot, came pretty close to ruination, Stephen Gately has a lot to answer for!
Anyhow, that’s all in the past. Lee Mead won the much documented “Any Dream Will Do” BBC talent search and took the lead role in July 2007, and what a job he does! This was the second time I have seen this production and it still surprised me with the energy that is brings to what is such familiar material. Lee Mead really does have the air of a superstar about him and commands the stage with such gravitas, it is hard to drag the eyes away from him, plus he can’t half hold a tune, injecting real emotion into Any Dream Will Do which is no small feat. Jenna Lee James as the Narrator does not please quite as much. She seems to auditioning for a lead in another musical and belts out her numbers with varying degrees of success and little care for her diction, she appears more interested in adlibbing than actually narrating the story.

My only other minor quibble is the introduction of the new song “King of My Heart” sung by Pharoah on his own. The song is nothing remarkable, the Elvis impression begins to wear quite thin, and seems to only really serve as a chance for the cast to change from their Egyptian costumes back into those of the brothers.

Everything else about this production pleased me greatly though. The staging really suits the space, with the children’s choir framing the action on either side, the costumes look amazing (not just the coat!) and the company work really hard, giving great vocals to an often bewildering array of musical styles, nifty dance moves and engaging smiles throughout. I cannot recommend Joseph enough as a great theatrical experience, it may not deal with any weighty contemporary issues or offer challenging musical palettes, but it is pure and simple fun, whether with the family or not, and should always be treated as such.

NB: Lee finishes in the title role on 10th January, Gareth Gates will take over on 9th February and I don’t know who is filling in the gap!

2009 Laurence Olivier Awards nominations

Best New Play 
Black Watch by Gregory Burke – Barbican
August: Osage County by Tracy Letts – National Theatre Lyttelton
That Face by Polly Stenham – Duke of York’s
The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall – National Theatre Cottesloe

Best New Musical
Jersey Boys – Prince Edward
Zorro – Garrick

Best Revival 
The Histories – Roundhouse
The Chalk Garden – Donmar Warehouse
The Norman Conquests – Old Vic Continue reading “2009 Laurence Olivier Awards nominations”

Review: The Wizard Of Oz, Lowry

Casting the lead for their Christmas show The Wizard of Oz with their own ‘Dorothy Idol’ talent search contest, the Lowry have been living quite dangerously. It is all the more daring when playing the role of the Wicked Witch of the West is none other than daughter of Judy Garland herself, Lorna Luft.
16 year old Katie Schofield won the role and in making her professional debut doesn’t do too bad a job, but to be brutally honest, there was little to mark her out as a particularly especial talent. Luft was great fun, camping it up with delight and the use of local children as the Munchkins added a nice touch especially with a cute Toto running around which appealed to the mostly young audience.

The choice to have the actors performing to a pre-recorded backing track, whilst something I do not like, could easily be a reflection of the economic times and the realities of employing orchestras, but it is more problematic in another sense. In terms of it being a Christmas show, it is akin to a pantomime and so the audience were dying to get involved, booing the witch, cheering Dorothy etc, but because the actors are working to strict time constraints, there’s no opportunity to react and engage with the audience. Consequently, Lorna Luft delivered most of her lines inaudibly through boos, unable to wait for them to die down and generally, it served to isolate the performance from its audience, difficult at the best of times and unforgivable at Christmas.
Combined with the use of a CGI wizard and video footage on the back wall, it unfortunately gave the sense of basically just not trying hard enough. There were good performances in there too, don’t get me wrong: Jamie Greer, Ian Casey and Joe Standerline were all good value for money as Dorothy’s genial companions on the yellow brick road and it is all performed with such good spirit that it is hard not to get swept along. But on leaving the auditorium and reflecting on the whole (especially with the ticket prices), it was hard not to feel a little bit cheated out of what should have been a genuinely great theatrical experience.

Review: A Little Night Music, Menier Chocolate Factory

Given the name of this blog, I was more than a little excited when the Menier Chocolate Factory announced their Christmas show as Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music for, in case you do not know, There Ought To Be Clowns is a lyric from the most well-known song from this musical, Send in the Clowns. It is based on Ingrid Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night and with a score almost entirely written in waltz time, it is a coolly Scandinavian intellectual and detached look at romance.

Middle-aged Frederik has married Anna, his 18-year-old neighbour, and she is having difficulty with consummating the marriage. At the same time, Frederik’s son Heinrik is studying to become a minister yet lusts after Anna, who is younger than he is. When one of Heinrik’s old flames, a touring actress, returns to town with a jealous Brigadier-General (inconveniently married to one of Anna’s friends) as her current on-again off-again lover, the set of romantic relationships readjust and realign to potentially better suited pairings over a weekend in the country.

Sondheim’s lyrics are generally very witty and incisive, as one would expect, but it is quite a slow-paced production and somewhat cerebral so that it didn’t really move me emotionally but rather provoked a sense of admiration at the quality on show. Trevor Nunn’s direction allows for a more intimate approach which suits the small stage of the Menier and David Farley’s set uses a set of movable doors to suggest a wide range of locations and an effective evocation of greater space.

Hannah Waddingham feels a little young to be considering herself so far over the hill although it could be an interpretation of her vanity I suppose, but her delivery of Send in the Clowns was simply stunning and practically worth the ticket price alone. Interpretations of this song tend to either fall into the lyrical, which suits actresses without the strongest of voices or more musical, with the focus mainly on the singing, the beauty of casting Waddingham, an actress who really can act but is also an excellent musical theatre singer and so could combine these talents to really breathe a new life and thoughtfulness into this standard.

Maureen Lipman is brilliantly acerbic, Kaisa Hammarlund is delightful as the flirty maid, Alexander Hanson brings a selflessness to the portrayal of his lawyer and Alistair Robins and Kelly Price also impressed in their roles. I wasn’t keen on Jessie Buckley’s young bride, she doesn’t yet have the natural ease needed for a performer but perhaps this will come as the run progresses.

So all in all a strong production which plays to Sondheim’s strengths of intellectual musical discourse but I could have done with a little more emotion to keep me fully invested in the proceedings of all of these characters. But with Hannah Waddingham’s delivery of that wonderful song, tears were brought to the eyes of this clown and so I cannot but recommend this to you.