Review: Cloud Nine, Almeida

Every year, my sisters and I are treated to a Christmas show by our Aunty Jean and with the scheduling difficulties and train timetables (they all live in the North-West), our choice ended up being Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine at the Almeida, a somewhat different choice to our usual fare, but one which proved to be enjoyable nonetheless.

The first act is set in a nineteenth century British colony somewhere in Africa where all manner of subversive behaviour threatens the traditional Victorian moral code, which with its male colonisation of women is hardly a bed of roses for everyone. Then the second half shifts to Clapham Common and the sexually liberated 1970s, but we retain the same characters, 25 years down their personal timelines. So the contrast in their behaviour is huge and a range of sexual and gender politics issues explored.

Written in 1979, it is hard not to feel that some of it is quite dated, especially around its exploration of gay and lesbian issues and feminism as well, but the humour, most of it directed against men, felt quite bright and sparky and the sheer theatricality of the whole piece means it has a kind of timeless feel to it.

The finely tuned ensemble sink their teeth into the challenges presented with gusto, and perhaps unsurprisingly it is the ones who get to play the kids who seem to have the most fun: Nicola Walker’s sailor-outfitted Edward is a fey delight and James Fleet is hysterical as infant Cathy in the 1970s section. Tobias Menzies was good value for money transferring his arrogance well from his explorer to his controlling husband and Sophie Stanton also impressed with all her parts.

So a highly enjoyable look at how British attitudes have changed over 100 years but also a cautionary tale on pursuing sexual liberation blindly, and invested with the right level of ironic humour to keep the levity in there. A different kind of Christmas treat!

Review: Shadowlands, Wyndhams

To be honest, I had to be somewhat dragged to see this show. I remember the film Shadowlands being out at the cinema and along with The Remains of the Day (also featuring Anthony Hopkins) neither one appealed to my teenaged self and that mentality remained with me even as this adaptation of William Nicholson’s play arrived at the Wyndhams Theatre. And boy am I glad that I allowed myself to be persuaded. I absolutely loved it and ended up crying bucketloads for almost the entire second half!

For the few who don’t know the plot, it concerns classic English novelist CS Lewis and his late-developing romance with American poet Joy Gresham, its an unexpected relationship for both of them, starting as a correspondence and then blooms into marriage. However Lewis’ Christian faith is severely tested when Joy is diagnosed with terminal cancer and everything he believed in is turned on its head.

As the central couple, Charles Dance and Janie Dee are simply resplendent, utterly convincing in the portrayal of their relationship. Dee captures the strength of character of this feisty woman which hides a certain loneliness that she ultimately fills and Dance is just mesmerising with a quietly powerful and striking turn as a man who every certainty in life is changed, firstly for the better and then for the worse with a heartbreaking intensity. The play also has fun in showing the repressed nature of so many men of the era, especially in the cloistered lives of Oxford dons, typified by John Standing’s gruff professor and Richard Durden’s buttoned-up brother of Lewis.

So an unexpected delight and one of the most moving things I’ve seen all year: highly recommended.

Review: Avenue Q, Noël Coward

I suppose I’m getting close to groupie status now, but what can I say, I really love this show! Again, not a huge amount to report in how the show remains a completely guilt-free feel-good pleasure and still as funny as ever, look in the archive for more in-depth writing. It was, however, pleasing to see that whilst Clare Foster was covering for Julie Atherton, I really didn’t mind too much and ended up being quite impressed by her performance. The debutants in the cast didn’t fare quite as well for me.

Making her professional stage debut in the role of Christmas Eve, Jennifer Tanarez is having something of a baptism of fire and she does look a little overwhelmed. Her nerves were far too apparent, resulting in her missing too many comedic notes but as her accent is completely garbled and unfocused, she fails to capture the lyrical dexterity and emotion needed to really deliver The More You Ruv Someone effectively and that song is the key to Christmas Eve.

The only other significant change this time is Delroy Atkinson taking over as Gary Coleman, with mixed results. The comedic potential is there but he looks too uncomfortable at the moment (somewhat ironic as he is one of the few who doesn’t have a puppet to handle) and had real projection issues which he will need to work on.

So still a recommended night out for sure with friends and the more tolerant members of your family 😉

Note: it wasn’t the midnight matinee that I saw but this poster has made me chuckle every time I’ve gone past it on the tube.

Review: Awake and Sing!, Almeida

Directed by Michael Attenborough who is clearly looking to throw the light on lesser known playwrights here in the UK, Clifford Odets is regarded as a modern great and as important as Eugene O’Neill in the development of modern drama yet remains relatively unknown here.
Set in the Depression era and following the fortunes of a Jewish family living in the Bronx, it centres around the huge matriarchal figure of Bessie, played by no other than Rizzo herself, Stockard Channing. She keeps her family close around her but they are a motley crew: her husband is a depressed failure, her father is a revolutionary dreamer, her son is disillusioned with life and her daughter has got herself knocked up. In economically incredibly difficult times, Bessie has to make tough decisions to secure the future she desires for everyone, even if it means over-riding their own wishes and desires.

I know serious theatregoers would never admit to this, but as the first opportunity I’ve had to see her live on the stage, I had been extremely excited to Ms Channing, having admired much of her interesting film work over the recent years, and of course The West Wing. And she did not disappoint with a passionate performance of huge depth, pulling us with her even as she makes Nigel Lindsay as a smitten neighbour and Jodie Whittaker’s unruly daughter are also excellent, but this is Channing’s show, carefully showing us that it is the circumstances that forces her to do unpalatable things, rather than her true nature.
It was particular fun to see Zoë Wanamaker in the audience, watching Channing in the role that she played recently on Broadway, but I did not have the balls to ask her what she thought of the performance compared to her production!
So a great night out, a wonderful chance to see an actress I might never have otherwise gotten to see perform and an interesting look at a playwright unfamiliar to me. His combination of the larger public and political issues whilst never losing sight of the personal and domestic sphere, the prism through which his writing is given true heart and meaning, marks him as someone who really ought to be better known in the UK.

Review: The Enchantment, National Theatre

Does context make a difference? Not knowing anything about Victoria Benedictsson, the Swedish writer of The Enchantment, would leave you thinking that this is just another tale of Nordic emotional angst, the doom and gloom we know from the likes of Strindberg and Ibsen. But there’s much more to it than that: Benedictsson herself had a scandalous affair with a critic which ended badly in him rejecting her both sexually and artistically and she consequently committed suicide just months after completing this play in 1888. Her story then formed the inspiration for both aforementioned writers: the seeds of both Miss Julie and Hedda Gabler could be said to arise from here.

The Enchantment is probably best described as semi-autobigraphical, clearly heavily informed by her own experiences but not a strict representation thereof. Caddish sculptor Gustave Alland captures the heart and mind of Louise Strandberg whilst she is recuperating in her brother’s Parisian art studio. She tries to forget him by fleeing back to her native Sweden and a life of domestic drudgery, but temptation is strong and she returns to surrender to an utterly unsuitable affair that cannot end happily.

This is without doubt Nancy Carroll’s show. As Louise, she is rarely offstage and though posited as ‘just a normal woman’ without any true vocation or artistic talent despite the company she keeps, her luminous beauty and heart-catching fragility of emotion makes her attractiveness completely believable. Zubin Varla’s cool froideur as the charismatic though emotionally crippled Gustave makes a great match for her and their scenes together, though at times extremely wordy, crackle with electricity.

But there’s a great cast around this pair too that brings to life the world around them: Louise’s friend Erna, herself a former lover of Gustave, is able to find her own release through her own art, growing into a strong woman as impressively depicted by Niamh Cusack; Hugh Skinner’s as the brother, Judith Coke’s imperious Mrs Knutson, Patrick Drury’s forlorn fiancé, all convince with emotionally true performances.

Paul Miller’s direction puts this period piece into the round in the Cottesloe, a great decision which releases it from fusty recreations of gilt-edged furniture and heavy velvet furnishings and focuses in on the intimacy of these painfully real human interactions. Atmospheric lighting from Bruno Poet and gorgeous live music led by David Shrubsole create the perfect environment for this tragic tale which I found to me most affecting.

Review: Les Misérables, Queens Theatre

No matter how many times I see this show, it never fails to move me: I just love it. It is like Teflon and I will not hear anything bad said about it: a great position for a wannabe reviewer I’m sure but hey, it’s my blog! On its revolving drum set, Les Misérables tells a story of romance and revenge set against the backdrop of the French revolution, two men pursue a vendetta over decades whilst revolutionaries fall in love and die in battle. And boy is it dark, one sometimes forgets just how dark it gets with death never far from any of the characters, making it compulsive viewing.
As a musical, I think it is one of the most rousing that there is. The ensemble numbers are just huge, and there’s so many of them that I get goosebumps virtually every 10 minutes. Do You Hear The People Sing, Red & Black, Look Down and possibly the best song in a musical ever, One Day More, all of them winners. And then there’s the solos, so many of them unfortunately famous as talent audition staples, but in their right context I Dreamed A Dream and On My Own are beautifully moving and Bring Him Home, when performed well as it is here, is a thing of falsetto wonder.

Vocally, Cassie Compton was stunning as Eponine, really making the most of her ensemble parts as well as the solos, On My Own is of course excellent but even her small but vital contributions to One Day More were brilliant. Melanie La Barrie as a pouting, bawdy Mme Thénardier is a comic delight but I was a little underwhelmed by Watson and Baruwa as Marius and Enjolras, not sure what it was but they weren’t convincing me.
But this is Valjean’s show as John Owen-Jones simply owns it with a vocally superb performance and massive stage presence which is all the more remarkable considering how many times he must have played this part by now. Playing off him as Javert is Hans Peter Janssens who more than holds his own with his stern looks and voice, perfect for his rigid approach to applying the law.
I don’t imagine that any review of Les Misérables would change peoples’ minds about seeing this show. It is such a part of the everyday consciousness that you’ll know by now whether you like it or not, and whether you’d spend money to see it. For my own part, I think it continues to satisfy with its evergreen moments of broad comedy, heartbreaking tragedy and life-affirming fidelity.

Review: Little Shop of Horrors, Ambassadors

Starting off at the Menier Chocolate Factory and transferring to the West End at the Duke of York’s, Little Shop of Horrors now has its third home in London at the Ambassadors and I have finally gotten round to seeing it. And boy am I glad that I did.

It is a very sweetly composed story, straddling that not-so-well-trodden boundary between sci-fi and romance. Seymour, a down-on-his-luck orphan just scraping by in grim urban Skid Row, finds a special plant which happens to appear during a solar eclipse and suddenly everything in his life starts to improve. The flower shop where he works becomes more successful, he sees a way to rescue the girl he loves from afar from a violent relationship, but as always, there’s a downside to all of this and in this case, it is that the plant is a living, carnivorous one with a particular yen for human blood.

As I said, I didn’t get round to seeing this show in its previous venues since I wasn’t sure that it would be as good as I wanted it to be in my head as I do know the story rather well, having been involved in a high school production and I really do love the film (of the musical, that is). But fortunately, I was not disappointed by this production at all as the strong voices of Katie Kerr, Melitsa Nicola and Jenny Fitzpatrick as the doo-wop girl chorus kicked in with the title song and their energy lifted us through the show with great verve.

Above all it is a funny show, mixing in real comedy in both the book and the lyrics with genuine pathos in the grim surroundings and domestic violence in Skid Row, with a great energy, a surprising ending and crucially for any musical, excellent songs from Alan Menken. They cover the aforementioned doo-wop of the girl group chorus and Motown, bluesy romps, rock’n’roll numbers and simple heartfelt ballads.

Sheridan Smith captured the genuine humanity behind Audrey, elevating her from a caricature to a real woman with feelings and a heart she’s so careful to protect. Her singing voice is lovely too and often heart-breakingly sincere, especially in her dreams of a better life. Paul Keating’s Seymour is nicely earnest, playing the transformation from nerd to whiz-kid well and Alistair McGowan’s dentist is well performed too, getting the sadistic laughs in but not overpoweringly so and I love the fact he’s not too showy to cover lots of little roles in the second act too.

So a fun night out, although possibly not quite up to the standard of my old high school production, hehe!!

Review: The Hothouse, National Theatre

Pinter is one of those playwrights who I know I ought to like but I’ve never really got it with his plays, never had that light-bulb moment that made me see what others do in him. So quite why I let myself get talked into going to The Hothouse, a play he wrote in 1958 but didn’t get produced until 1980, I do not really know.

It is set in an undetermined institution, somewhere between mental institution and convalescent home I think, which is run by a staff who have more problems than those at Holby City and Casualty combined. When the governor decides to try and solve some of the problems when Christmas Day sees one inmate dying and another giving birth, it sets in chain a set of events that reveals how rotten each member of the staff is, no-one ends up being free from blame and an increasingly sinister tone leads to a bitter ending.

We never see the inmates of the Hothouse, but we do hear the groans and screams, so the focus is on the twisted relations of the staff: the dark ambition of Finbar Lynch’s Gibbs, the keenness of Leo Bill’s unwitting Lamb and Lia Williams’ enigmatic and seductive Miss Cutts amongst others. The twisted take on the way archaic institutions are run is intermittently amusing but I didn’t laugh anywhere near as much as most everyone else. And once again, the familiar Pinter-esque touches just left me cold: as far as I’m concerned repetition is just repetition no matter who writes it.

And as the play ground its way through an interminable second half, one could feel the goodwill for the show ebbing away from a large proportion of the audience. In some respects, as a piece of Pinter’s early writing, it could be explained away as a developmental thing, a young playwright exploring his craft, but that almost feels like a tacit acknowledgement that it isn’t good enough to be mounted. And perhaps I’m biased by no really liking Pinter, but I couldn’t help but feeling that using such a platform as the National Theatre to investigate the minor back catalogue obscurities of a major playwright feels like a waste of a chance to offer such an opportunity to a piece of new writing.

Review: Saint Joan, National Theatre

With Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw took the well-known story of Joan of Arc, a young peasant girl eventually sainted, who led the French army to victory against the English during the Hundred Years War and was repaid for her trouble by being declared a witch and burnt at the stake since she believed that she was being guided by the voice of God in her head, and created an all-too-human story filling in the gaps in the history with tales of conflicting institutions, personality clashes and a keen sense of humour of what her life must have been like.

The play is remarkably even-handed in that it presents all sides of the argument and never really comes down on the side of either Joan or her oppressors. There are no goodies and baddies here, just a girl who believes God is speaking to her and the machinery of Church and State who will do anything to ensure their power remains stable: Shaw’s message is that uncontrolled individualism threatens the established order and is rarely tolerated.

As Joan, Anne-Marie Duff is really rather fabulous. Crop-haired and elfin-like, she balances the conviction of her belief that she is divinely inspired with the fragility of a girl clearly out of her depth, naïve in some ways yet shrewd in others, at times self-assured and yet vulnerable and is utterly convincing on all counts: Duff never lets us forget that it is a girl we are watching, not a saint. Supporting her is a raft of fine men, each delivering powerful performances as in each of their own ways, they abandon Joan. Oliver Ford Davies’ authoritative Inquisitor, calm and dispassionate even in the face of delivering a sentence of burning; Paul Ready, petulant and ultimately vicious as the Dauphin; Angus Wright as the slippery Warwick, anxious to ensure that the state is not affected by anything and willing to deal with anyone to guarantee it.

I haven’t seen much physical theatre at all so I was quite impressed by how inventive the approach to staging this was. The tilted, rotating stage with chairs lining each side meant that everything that happened was being witnessed by everyone, giving it a really organic ensemble feel rather than the sense that this was a one-woman show. The recreation of the battle involved beating on metal walls which gave an unexpected visceral pulse and the piling up of the chairs to make the pyre on which Joan met her demise made for great symbolism. The evocative original music and costumes inspired by both modern-day military wear and medieval outfits only served to further enhance the experience.

Saint Joan was an absolute pleasure to watch: refreshingly different, highly atmospheric and ultimately very moving. It is impeccably acted with a sterling central turn from Anne-Marie Duff and a considerably talented ensemble. Great stuff.

Review: The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder, National Theatre

The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder is a new play by Matt Charman, playing at the National Theatre and looking at whether polygamy is a valid or possible lifestyle choice in the middle of suburbia. Set in a regular house in Lewisham, Pinder and his wife Esther have not been able to have children, so he divorced her and married Fay who delivered a son, Vincent. However Esther didn’t move out and realising he was onto something here, Pinder repeats the trick twice more, filling his house with wives and children. But this alternative lifestyle has its downsides and two new arrivals threaten to upset the delicate balancing act.
Whilst an unbelievable concept, especially given Lamb’s average Joe looks and demeanour, Charman does well at spinning the web that holds them altogether. Sorcha Cusack’s childless earth mother who rather enjoys having a flock to tend over; Clare Holman’s Fay who masks her unease by drinking and sleeping around whilst fretting over her gangly awkward son (Adam Gillen, who is bizarrely brilliant); Martina Laird’s Lydia who was essentially just after a sperm donor. Enter Carla Henry’s Rowena, a heavily pregnant and emotionally and physically battered teenager who is welcomed into the strange state of affairs. This all kind of works and is surprisingly well executed.

The problem comes when the main thrust of the play begins: the addition of a fifth wife, Tessa Peake-Jones’ Irene, Pinder’s office manager who stirs things up something chronic and then when Jason, one of Fay’s one-night-stands, turns out to be a council worker who is responsible for ok-ing their house extension, things get messy. Too messy in fact, because it is not apparent what Charman’s message really is here. Jason’s objections take the form of moral outrage and clearly represent what society thinks of such a polyamorous set-up but then with the tumult of the unravelling of the domestic bliss, Pinder reveals himself to be the worst kind of egotist and a thoroughly unlikeable chap.
This confusion is a shame as the premise is fairly engaging and the original set-up fairly convincing. But the introduction of caricatures like Irene and Jason lessen the impact and in the final analysis we end up none the wiser as to the author’s thoughts on monogamy vs polygamy, leaving the audience ultimately quite frustrated. Credit should go to Ti Green’s design though, stretching the length of the Cottesloe from house to garden to caravan, it is a highly effective use of space.