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.

2009 What’s On Stage Award nominations

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

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

Review: Waste, Almeida Theatre

Waste, a play by Harley Granville Barker, is another one of those plays that was banned when first written, in this case in 1907. Directed by actor Samuel West at the Almeida theatre, this version uses the revised 1926 text to great effect with as strong an ensemble you will find in London this autumn.
The story follows Henry Trebell an independent MP with a lifelong dream of wanting to disestablish the Church of England and build colleges on the land and has formed part of a Tory push to get the bill passed as law with their anticipated arrival in government. However, his personal life is in disarray as a casual affair with a married woman who ends up pregnant comes to light and threatens to ruin everything that he holds dear.

The way in which the hypocrisy of the political classes is exposed means that much of this play, although set in the 20s, rings true today. The politicking and skullduggery that goes on as the politicians try to manage the fallout from the scandal and turn it as much their advantage as possible is fascinating and there’s a pleasure to be gained from eavesdropping on such a conversation that would never normally come to light. But the play also deals with private lives and the harrowing truths that hold Trebell and his spinster in their hollow emotional shells
As one has come to expect from the Almeida, the cast is sensational right down the list. Will Keen’s tragic Trebell conveys the real sense of ‘waste’ in a life that has consistently placed duty over emotion with a fiercely internalised performance; Phoebe Nicholl is sensational as the constantly forgiving yet equally emotionally repressed sister; Nancy Carroll’s performance as the discarded lover is stunning but frequently difficult to watch with the rawness of the emotion on display and Hugh Ross, Richard Cordery and Peter Eyre all provide wonderfully odious variations on a theme of smarmy politicians.
Yet despite how well-acted it was, it was hard to define how I actually felt about it for a long time. It is one of those occasions where I think I admired it more than loved it as it did prove hard-going. Clearly it is emotionally punishing, but I did find it physically tough as I just wanted it to get on with it at times. This was possibly because I wasn’t feeling 100% but I did feel that Granville Barker tries to cover too much in here and Sam West’s directing could have dealt with it: there were moments that could have been cut, dialogue tightened up and the same result achieved. That said it is very good, if a little bum-numbing and be prepared to work hard!

Review: Ivanov, Wyndhams

I have long struggled with Chekhov, I’ve never really seen the attraction or seen a production that made me understand why he is so well regarded as a dramatist. So when the Donmar Warehouse announced a hugely star-studded season of plays to be performed in the West End, at the Wyndhams Theatre, my heart sank a little bit to see that the first play was Ivanov, by none other than Anton Chekhov. But in a new version by Tom Stoppard, directed by Michael Grandage and featuring the return to the London stage of Kenneth Branagh, this emerged as a production that might actually have convinced me that people are onto something here!

The key to my enjoyment here was all about the humour that is threaded throughout the evening so that the dour tragedy that is something of a trademark is leavened with something else and introduces a wider palette of emotion so that the ‘tragedy’ becomes well, more tragic for being contrasted with something else on offer. So Ivanov, seeking escape from his TB-ridden wife whom he no longer loves, rocks up at the neighbours’ house on a regular basis despite owing them money and a daughter there who has designs on him. When discovered together, society turns it disapproving eye on him but it turns out there’s a far harsher critic in Ivanov himself.

Branagh is simply superb as the title character, capturing so much of the ridiculousness of what he is like and what is going on but also acknowledging how serious the predicament is. The ensemble around Branagh is stuffed full of brilliantly observed performances: Gina McKee is heartbreaking as Anna, the woman who has sacrificed huge amounts to be with the man she loves despite his shortcomings, Andrea Riseborough’s Sasha traces a highly affecting journey from innocence to a much more worldly-wise viewpoint and there’s an excellent company of maudlin drunks and odd sorts played by the likes of Malcolm Sinclair, Kevin R McNally and Lorcan Cranitch.

It looks and sounds beautiful, very much the Donmar sensibility just amped up to fill the expanded space and it very much works here. And combined with a stunning central performance from Branagh with a top-notch ensemble around him, this was a highly revelatory evening for me: I liked a Chekhov play!

Review: Her Naked Skin, National Theatre

Much of the talk about Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play Her Naked Skin has focused on the rather shameful fact that it is the first play by a female writer to be staged on the main Olivier stage at the National Theatre. Which whilst true and a definite achievement in itself, should not detract from the fact that this is a really rather sensationally good play.
Set in the Suffragette Movement in London in 1913 with excitement in the air as victory can be tasted, but times have never been more frenzied or dangerous as militant tendencies are at their strongest and many women are experiencing jail time on a regular basis. Lenkiewicz pitches the continuance of this struggle against the more personal story of Lady Celia Cain, bored in life and with her traditional marriage and family, who launches into a passionate lesbian love affair with a much younger, much more lower-class seamstress whom she shares a cell with and soon much more. As the affair hots up, so too does the political climate as emancipation comes closer to becoming a reality.
It is so effective on so many levels: the horrors faced by the women in prison, included a most brutal instance of force-feeding that is seared on the memory; the struggle against the establishment that they faced in trying to get their message across, resorting even to violence; the changing political climate with even men publicly calling for women to be given the vote. On top of all of that though is the class struggles that nevertheless persisted and one wonders if it would have been the lesbianism or the social mismatch that would have caused the most scandal in Celia’s social circle. It is a heady mix but one which captivates.
Lesley Manville is perfect as the upper class Celia, ruthless in her pursuit of what she wants both on the personal and political scale and so very brittly effective. Jemima Rooper’s piece of rough Eve plays off her well, habitually out of her depth with her love who is more experienced in love, in life, in everything. Susan Engel is a frequent scene-stealer as an acidly funny blue stocking Florence Boorman, more intelligent than probably anyone else around and utterly devoted to the cause. Adam Rawlins does extremely well as the husband put aside by Celia with a sympathetic portrayal showing that it wasn’t just women who were the victims, there were men and children affected by their actions too.
It is effectively staged with Rob Howell’s design, the cells being the most striking image, played off with the dullness of the potato peeling they have to do and the sheer horror of the force-feeding scene which is truly harrowing and difficult to watch. The projection of film and images of real suffragettes like Emily Wilding Davison adds a real poignancy to the production and serves as a reminder that whilst these are fictional characters, their struggle was all too painfully real.
Her Naked Skin offers up a highly revelatory dramatisation of the suffrage era, showing the courage and passion of those involved, the relentless merry-go-round of militant campaigning and subsequent imprisonments and the sheer determination of a group of women who could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel and would not give up until the prize was theirs.