Re-review: La Cage aux Folles, Playhouse

Visit number two for me to La Cage aux Folles at the Playhouse Theatre for a number of reasons. My first trip earlier this year was an absolute hoot but perhaps a little more wine-soaked than was advisable, I wanted to surprise Aunty Jean with a fun night out (as opposed to the previously advertised Aunt Dan & Lemon) and finally I wanted to see Philip Quast and Roger Allam as I had heard great things about their performances. I saw Douglas Hodge and Denis Lawson in the main roles last time, and could not imagine them being bettered, such was the quality of their ‘turns’.

However I am pleased to say that Allam and Quast were equal to the task, and I think I might even actually have preferred these two. The key to this musical is that it is actually the sweetest love story between Albin and Georges and so the relationship between the two has to be spot on and I think this is where they edge it this time. There’s such a great sense of shared romance onstage and the two actors are so comfortable with each other, you can really believe that they have spent a lifetime together.

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Review: Phèdre, National

In surely one of the most anticipated theatrical events of the year, Dame Helen Mirren returns to the stage for the first time in five years, to the Lyttleton at the National Theatre. Phèdre was written by Jean Racine back in the seventeenth century, and this production uses a translation by the late Ted Hughes in his typical free verse style. As it is my second Dame in three weeks, my companion for the evening was once again Aunty Jean, and this review was greatly helped by our post-play discussion over a nice cool G&T.

It is a quintessential Greek tragedy: the queen Phèdre lusts after her stepson, and in the absence of her husband Theseus for several months and the dubious advice of her nurse, eventually succumbs to her desire. Unsurpisingly, the revelation is not well received and then matters are made immeasurably worse by the return of Theseus. In her desperation to conceal her illicit attraction, Phèdre then makes a terrible accusation which sets in motion a chain of disastrous events. Continue reading “Review: Phèdre, National”

63rd Tony Award winners

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

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play
Marcia Gay Harden – God of Carnage as Veronica
Hope Davis – God of Carnage as Annette
Jane Fonda – 33 Variations as Katherine Brandt
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 winners”

Review: The Cherry Orchard, Bridge Project at the Old Vic

The Bridge Project is a rather ambitious venture: an Anglo-American theatre company formed specially for three years and performing 2 plays a year in repertoire, touring across a number of venues over the world. With Sam Mendes as director, it has attracted a very strong group of actors, who have already formed a cracking ensemble, and I had my first experience with them this week in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at the Old Vic, the final stop in this first year of the Project.

The play has a new translation by Tom Stoppard, but given this is the first time I have seen it, I cannot really comment on its merits or otherwise, but the lovely lady sat next to me reassured me it was much more comic than than the last time she had seen it. It tells the story of the return of an aristocratic Russian lady, Ranevskaya, and her family to their hereditary estate since it is being sold off to pay for the mortgage. They are presented with different ways in which the estate could be saved and kept in the family, but the family do nothing and events overtake them as it emerges that their social status no longer affords them the protection that it used to. Continue reading “Review: The Cherry Orchard, Bridge Project at the Old Vic”

Review: Grasses of a Thousand Colours, Royal Court

Hmm, well this was an odd one. As part of the Wallace Shawn season at the Royal Court, this is a premiere of a play which has been 25 years in the writing, and features the playwright himself, alongside Miranda Richardson, Jennifer Tilly and Emily McDonnell in the intimate space upstairs at the Royal Court.

Grasses of a Thousand Colours is the memoirs of a scientist called Ben which covers the three, well four, major love affairs of his life, whilst the world around them collapses due to the negative impact of human meddling with nature. Miranda Richardson is superb as his wife Cerise, full of dreamy seductiveness and feline sensuality, Jennifer Tilly is also excellent as the statuesque New Yorker mistress Robin and Emily McDonnell is quietly strong as the subsequent lover. And the fourth love affair, well that is with Ben’s own penis with which he, and this play, is obsessed.

The main problem for me was with the structure of the play. It is full of interminable, rambling monologues from Ben which simply sap the life from the piece (and the audience), since they become increasingly obtuse and fantastical, as we slip further into this dystopian dream-like fairytale world, dominated by his sexual prowess and a cat called Blanche. The use of video clips at key points adds a slightly surreal note which in the end is pretty much in keeping with the play. Looking back, there does seem to be the material for a decent play in there, but some severe pruning is necessary.

On a practical note, with a running time of just over three hours, cushioned benches are just not sufficient as seating. Even if it had been the most engrossing play, the collective posterior of the paying audience deserves better as these seats are seriously uncomfortable. The only saving grace was that due to the rate of people leaving during the intervals, it was possible to spread out more and more in the later acts!

Essentially, this is just too long and self-indulgent to earn my recommendation, despite the unique opportunity to see talent such as Richardson and Tilly at such close quarters. It is directed by a long-time collaborator of Shawn, Andre Gregory, and one does wonder if someone brought in from outside might not have been more able to wield the knife to make the necessary cuts to make this more palatable. Oddly enough though, it has been rather well reviewed by many of the papers but I have yet to meet a ‘regular’ person who has been as effusive as any of the critics.

Top 5 Plays of May

I am, by nature, quite indecisive, so the whole business of Top 5 Plays is fairly arduous for me, but this past month’s ranking was especially hard since there was just so much amazing theatre on offer. Nevertheless, I present the Top 5 Plays for May (slightly extended to 10 since I couldn’t bear not to feature The Observer which came in at #6)

1. When The Rain Stops Falling
2. The Pietà
3. A Doll’s House
4. The Last Five Years
5. All’s Well That Ends Well
6. The Observer
7. tick…tick…BOOM!
8. Madame De Sade
9. Les Misérables
10. F**king Men

and the Top 10 Plays of the year so far (slightly extended to 15)

1. When The Rain Stops Falling
2. The Pietà
3. La Cage aux Folles
4. A Doll’s House
5. Duet for One
6. The Last Five Years
7. Burnt by the Sun
8. Parlour Song
9. All’s Well That Ends Well
10. The Observer

11. Dancing at Lughnasa
12. Time and the Conways
13. His Dark Materials
14. Kafka’s Monkey
15. Tusk Tusk

Review: The Pietà, St Johns in Piccadilly

Sometimes, though increasingly rarely for me these days, a visit to the theatre can completely take you by surprise by totally exceeding any expectations you might have, if indeed you have any at all. I was taken to The Pietà by a good friend, and I agreed purely on the strength of it being Frances Barber doing something in a church, St Johns in Piccadilly to be precise, and by jove am I glad I did.
Named for the famous statue by Michaelangelo of the Virgin Mary cradling her son’s broken body, this piece takes that theme of motherly anguish and relocates it to the gun-crime-ridden streets of modern-day Manchester. It is a dramatic monologue of a mother who witnesses her son’s violent death, but the role of the mother is shared by Frances Barber who recites text, a soprano vocalist Claire O’Brien and a cor anglaisist Jessica Mogridge who each take turns in portraying the mother, sometimes alone, sometimes together.
The whole thing is set to music by a string orchestra, so it kind of straddles the music/theatre divide, and resultantly very difficult to describe. However, what is not difficult is to rave about it. The Pietà is an incredibly moving piece, full of anguish and emotion but never being mawkish or self-indulgent, and it was further enhanced by the setting in a church. Barber’s eloquent readings frequently made the hairs stand on end, as did the singing, and though I am no expert, the cor anglais playing was equally poignant.

Written and composed by Shane Cullinan, this truly was a unique experience, and such a coup to have as seasoned a performer as Frances Barber participating so fully in it. It only ran for two performances this month, but has been performed before so keep your eyes peeled, you will thank me!

Review: A Doll’s House, Donmar

Keeping up their impeccable record of attracting star names to their productions, the Donmar Warehouse have assembled a very impressive ensemble to perform Zinnie Harris’ reworking of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Leading the cast as Nora is Gillian Anderson in one of her rare appearances on the London stage and she is ably supported by Christopher Eccleston, Tara Fitzgerald and Toby Stephens. So a feast of acting talent on show, which is always a great start!

However, I am a self-professed Ibsen hater, though I am always willing to give it a try, and I was particularly interested in this production as Zinnie Harris has made some substantial changes to the original. Most notably, the action has been resituated to England in 1909 and the profession of Nora’s husband has been changed from banking to politics. So the story remains about Nora’s slow realisation of how unhappy she is, exacerbated by the threat of blackmail, and her struggle to escape this domestic prison in the face of every single social convention. What the rewrite does is make the context much wider: instead of it just being a domestic battlefield, Nora also has to deal with the arena of political reputations through her blackmailer’s actions. For the most part, I think the rewrite is successful, but then I was never that familiar with the original, and so had no real basis on which to make the comparison on which nearly every other major review of this play is based.

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Review: When The Rain Stops Falling, Almeida

Having its European premiere at Islington’s Almeida theatre, When The Rain Stops Falling comes from the pen of Andrew Bovell, the writer of Lantana, one of my all-time favourite films (which incidentally) was adapted from his own play, Speaking In Tongues. And when I heard some of the Australian actors with whom he was worked would also be appearing, my level of excitement shot sky-high and has been there since early November last year when I bought my tickets!

Safe to say, it lived up to my expectations and then some. By no means an easy light-hearted piece, rather it is complex, sometimes languorous, but ultimately extremely rewarding. It is just hauntingly beautiful: the echoing prose, the music, the imagery and some incredible acting combine to just devastating and moving effect, indeed I think I had tears running down my face for about three-quarters of the play. Continue reading “Review: When The Rain Stops Falling, Almeida”

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.