Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rose Theatre Kingston

“Is there no play to ease the anguish of a torturing hour?”

She’s back!! I’m referring of course to Aunty Jean who popped down for the evening for some dinner and a little theatrical amusement. The play in question was A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring a reunited Peter Hall directing and Judi Dench as Titania, 40 years on since their last collaboration in these two roles. “The wisest aunt” casually regaled me with her (not sad) tales of seeing Peter Hall’s redefining production of this self-same play and McKellen and Dench in Macbeth as we sipped some vile pinot grigio at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, anticipating the treats in store and giggling at the warning of the use of ‘haze’ in the performance.

The conceit is that Dench is actually playing Elizabeth I, as she does in a brief wordless prologue where she opens a performance of a play, who then materialises as Titania in the same dress. It’s an interesting take which works almost entirely due to the warmth radiating from her performance. The scenes when she is bewitched are just delightful, her coos and chuckles with her paramour display all the ecstasy of a lust-fuelled passion simply through the strength of her verse-reading. She also displays some considerable stamina: at one point laying slumbering with her neck in a most awkward position for such a long time, and let us not forget she is 75 now, that I did worry for her joints: I don’t think I could have stayed that still for that long, at least without falling asleep!

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Review: Serenading Louie, Donmar Warehouse

“I don’t think I was in love with him then, but I’m in love with him then…now”

Serenading Louie by American writer Lanford Wilson is the latest play to hit the Donmar Warehouse. Set in 1970s Chicago, it’s a tale of two college friends who are now in their 30s, struggling to maintain their dreams in the face of marriages and jobs that haven’t necessarily lived up to their expectations.

As one would expect from the Donmar, the acting is first-rate. I particularly loved Geraldine Somerville’s sparky Mary, possessed of the best lines in the show (careful if you attend a dinner party with her!) the most poignant of all being the one at the top of the review, the delivery of which is almost worth the entry price alone. And Jason O’Mara as her husband Alex was a minefield of emotion just bubbling under in a tightly restrained performance which also impressed. Jason Butler Harner and Charlotte Emerson have less interesting (and more annoying) parts but both did well. Continue reading “Review: Serenading Louie, Donmar Warehouse”

Review: Heldenplatz, Arcola

“There are more Nazis in Vienna now than in ’38”

Continuing the mini German-language season at the Arcola, Heldenplatz is an uncompromising difficult play which has had a troubled existence, especially in playwright Thomas Bernhard’s native Austria. Named for the square in Vienna where Adolf Hitler declared the Anschluβ that annexed Austria to Nazi Germany and marked the beginning of the territorial aggrandisement that led to World War II, this is an excoriating look at the Austrian national character and just how prevalent right-wing sensibilities were in 1938 and persist even in the modern day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this outraged many Austrians who felt Bernhard was sullying the reputation of their nation, confronting as it does some uncomfortable truths.

The play is set in 1988 and the Schuster family and household are reeling from the death of its patriarch. As they prepare for the funeral, and then join for one final meal in his apartment afterwards, these Jewish intellectuals who fled the country once, they have found that little has changed for them: pervasive hatred and anti-Semitic prejudice still abound and they struggle to find their place in a society shorn of illusion. Continue reading “Review: Heldenplatz, Arcola”

Review: Ghosts, Duchess Theatre

“You do not question the received wisdom”

Ghosts, or Ghostsssss as it seems to be called in this production (this was an early preview), marks the directorial debut of Iain Glen, who also stars here alongside Lesley Sharp. Shocking beyond belief when originally performed in the nineteenth century as one of the first plays to mention syphilis (the ghost of the title) and a damning indictment of Victorian morality: today it has lost this scandalous aspect so the focus necessarily becomes more on the devastating effect of keeping damaging secrets and how the sins of the father are revisited on his son.

The play centres around Mrs Alving (Lesley Sharp), a embittered widow whose husband was a notorious philanderer yet Victorian wisdom and the advice of her spiritual advisor Pastor Manders (Iain Glen) dictated that she stay by his side regardless, despite society knowing full well what he was like. The return of her son Osvald (Harry Treadaway) who she sent to Paris to escape the corruption of his father marks the possibility of a new beginning but it seems history is doomed to repeat itself as those ghosts keep on whispering. Continue reading “Review: Ghosts, Duchess Theatre”

Review: A Man of No Importance, Arts Theatre

“We had a grand time believing we were bloody wonderful”

After a well-received run at the Union Theatre in Southwark, A Man of No Importance has transferred to the West End to the Arts Theatre with a limited run of just 3 weeks. Based on a film from 1995 starring Albert Finney, a cast of 17 and a band of 6 create an utterly charming, warm-hearted piece of musical theatre that will transport you right away from the freezing outside to a very happy place.

We’re taken to the world of Alfie Byrne, a bus conductor in 1960s Dublin who lives with his sister, has a passion for amateur dramatics, in particular the works of Oscar Wilde, and is hiding a burning desire for his work colleague, Robbie the driver on his bus. His decision to put on a performance of the controversial ‘Salome’ causes ripples in this Catholic, working-class community that multiply and force Alfie onto a journey of discovery, both of the self and of his relationship to those around him. Continue reading “Review: A Man of No Importance, Arts Theatre”

Review: The Boy Friend, Shaw Theatre

“We want to have, we plot to have, for it’s so dreary not to have that certain thing called ‘The Boyfriend'”

If you are quick, you might be able to catch the second show of this production of The Boy Friend at the Shaw Theatre in St Pancras by the Tring Park School for the Performing Arts. Written by Sandy Wilson in the 1950s, this enduring classic, a light-hearted pastiche of 1920s shows, is constantly being revived by professionals and amateurs alike, last appearing significantly in London at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park in 2007.

Set in a finishing school on the French riviera, it’s a classic girl-meets-boy story, with secretary Polly falling for errand boy Tony, despite being incognito in their lowly positions and are both actually filthy rich. Their story is placed in the midst of lots of charleston-dancing young ladies and their intendeds, a bunch of madly flirtatious adults, and it’s all jolly japes, flapper dresses and a set of very tuneful songs. Continue reading “Review: The Boy Friend, Shaw Theatre”

Review: Knives in Hens, Arcola

“Pull them sleeves up, Miller”

Rather amusingly, Hackney Council’s newsletter refers to this play as Hens with Knives, a completely different Orwellian prospect, one wonders, and a possible new commission for someone! Knives in Hens as this play is more commonly known, was my first experience in the studio space at the rear of the Arcola, and an interesting one it is too.

The first play written by David Harrower, who had success with his most recent play Blackbird, this is a look at the role of language in intellectual awakening. An uneducated young woman, trapped by marriage in a closed and superstitious community, develops an intense relationship with the village outcast, a miller. He reads and writes and so is distrusted by the villagers, but offers the woman a route to her own intellectual and sexual awakening, away from the life to which she is accustomed.

Jodie McNee’s Woman is nicely portrayed, sensitively showing the potential aroused in her by the new connection in her life: her increasing ability to name things, setting herself free and open to what she might become is a nice judged journey. As the agent of change in her life, Phil Cheadle’s handsome miller is laden with enigmatic temptation and Nathaniel Martello-White (recently impressive in Innocence at the same theatre) as her unyielding husband was also good. Continue reading “Review: Knives in Hens, Arcola”

Review: The Whisky Taster, Bush Theatre

“Never to live a single day
Without being painfully reminded
That one is not like others…”

The Whisky Taster centres around a pair of young executives at an advertising agency trying to win an account to promote a new brand of vodka. Nicola, a brash Croydonite, is a grafter but her colleague Barney has the condition synaesthesia, where the senses are somehow mixed up so that sufferers end up feeling colours for emotions and words have their own colours, which he utitlises to create winning ads. Under pressure from their boss to land this customer, they decide to employ a whisky taster to add a new depth to their campaign, but he ends up showing them a lot more about life than they were expecting.

The play literally crackles into life with the first meeting between Barney and the whisky taster. As Stahl gives a wonderfully written spiel about each of the whiskys they are tasting, we see a visual representation of the synaesthesia kick in spectacular fashion. James Farncombe’s lighting design snakes around Lucy Osbourne’s cleverly designed set in a scintillating manner reaching heights which are never really matched again. The interactions with the whisky taster are what makes this play special as there’s a genuine connection between this pair which is really interesting to watch. The romantic melodrama thread and the satirical elements on the advertising world didn’t feel quite as unique, although still being well-written, feeling sparky and contemporary and all fitting together nicely. Continue reading “Review: The Whisky Taster, Bush Theatre”

Review: The Early Bird, Finborough

“You don’t just disappear. You don’t just vanish into thin air.”

The Early Bird at the Finborough should probably come with some kind of health warning, this is some seriously disturbing dark stuff. With a missing child at the centre of this play though, one should not really be expecting an easy time of it. Performed by real-life husband and wife Alex Palmer and Catherine Cusack (half-sister to Sinéad, Niamh and Sorcha and more excitingly, played Carmel the psycho nurse from Corrie!) as Jack and Debbie, the couple struggling to deal with the disappearance of their daughter Kimberley one morning on the way to school. We then follow them as they try and recreate the events of that morning but the aftermath reveals the cracks below the surface and things become increasingly, incredibly creepy.

The design by takis is sensational: the actors are enclosed in a clear perspex cube and surrounded by piles of ash, with just a toy chest inside. Lit harshly from fluorescent tubes below, it is clear they are trapped, both physically and emotionally in their horrific experience, but as the seats are arranged around the box in the round, it is clear that we the audience are also trapped, with nowhere to hide from the unfolding action and the unflinching, coruscating stares of the actors. Continue reading “Review: The Early Bird, Finborough”