Review: Richard II, Tobacco Factory

“Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right”

Trekking out to Bristol’s Tobacco Factory to see Richard II may seem like pushing it even for me, but there was good reason to make the journey as playing the title role was winner of the 2010 fosterIAN Best Actor in a Play, John Heffernan. The production is by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, a semi-repertory company now in their 12th season yet this is their first stab at one of the Histories, with The Comedy of Errors following this production.

Forming the first part of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy, it follows the decline of the egotistical Richard II’s reign, charting the tragic fall of a man from divinely-appointed King to mere mortal, contrasted with the rise to power of Bullingbrooke, later Henry IV, who capitalises on Richard’s profligacy and impetuous nature to marshal the nobility into supporting his cause and overthrowing the anointed King for the good of the nation. It is very poetic being almost all in verse and stands alone as a play, a historical tragedy for the most part, although there’s elements of lightness and a rather incongruous comedy scene towards the end and the late introduction of some supporting players who don’t really come into their own until later plays. Continue reading “Review: Richard II, Tobacco Factory”

Review: Godspell, Ye Olde Rose and Crown

“We all need help to feel fine, let’s have some wine!”

Godspell is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and this version by All Star Productions at Ye Olde Rose And Crown Theatre in Walthamstow will be swiftly followed by one at the Union Theatre in Southwark, keen to pay tribute to this rock opera with music by Stephen Schwartz, who later went on to write a little show called Wicked. It is based on the Gospel according to St Matthew, following the last days of Jesus’ life and featuring dramatised versions of well known parables in a vaguely hippy-inspired style with his disciples recast as a group of flower children around him.

This version has been updated to feature quite a few contemporary references but the hippy aesthetic is one that has endured and the timelessness of the stories being told: love thy neighbour, respect those around you, don’t cross over to the other side, means that it is a show which pushes love and tolerance rather than any particular religion which is why I think it remains so popular. That, and the score which contains some great songs, ‘Day By Day’, ‘Prepare Ye…’ and my favourite, ‘By My Side’. It needs a strong performer in the central role of Jesus, and this production was Brian Elrick fulfilling the role, full of righteous anger at those who do not follow his words, a touching compassion for those that do and a powerful voice which carried well through the small space above this pub. Continue reading “Review: Godspell, Ye Olde Rose and Crown”

Re-review: Romeo & Juliet, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

“If love be rough with you, be rough with love”

So having managed to stand through King Lear and partake of a lovely dinner, the evening saw a second visit to Rupert Goold’s highly entertaining Romeo & Juliet. I haven’t got a huge amount to say about this that I didn’t already say in my original review, it really is as fresh and exciting an interpretation of this play that you will ever see, it feels like it could have been written yesterday, so persuasive is the pulsing heart of this production with its innovative immediacy.

I’d actually decided not to see the show again when it came to the Roundhouse in the winter as I thought I didn’t want my happy memories of seeing it at the Courtyard to be affected. But talking to people who did go persuaded me it might be a good thing and I am so glad that I did go again as I felt the production has matured into something richer and stronger. And knowing what the directorial flourishes were meant that I was able to focus more elsewhere, on the subtleties, the little touches that passed me by and enjoying the sheer quality of the performances, especially from the great seats we forked out for, on the front row of the circle facing the stage. Continue reading “Re-review: Romeo & Juliet, Royal Shakespeare Theatre”

Review: King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

“A man may see how this world goes with no eyes”

A double bill of Shakespeare is something that not even I would undertake lightly but as an opportunity to visit the newly opened Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, it was something I couldn’t resist: King Lear in the afternoon for the first time and a revisit of Romeo & Juliet in the evening. Typically, the old maxim about not booking shows to see particular actors came and bit me on the posterior with a depressing predictability, as the main reason for seeing this King Lear was in order to see Kathryn Hunter’s Fool, but as she unexpectedly withdrew from the ensemble at the beginning of the year, the role is now being covered by Sophie Russell.
This was only my second ever Lear, Derek Jacobi’s at the Donmar being the first and whilst I enjoyed seeing that with fresh eyes and not knowing the story, it was nice to watch this one with a little more comprehension of exactly what was going on! Though I was still a little perplexed by the mix of time periods covered in the costumes, the courtiers in classical garb but the outside world seemed to be inspired by the First World War, a mixture that was a little too haphazard for my liking. But overall, it did actually combine to quite epic effect, led by Greg Hicks’ powerful turn as Lear. I got more of a sense of a man going mad from Hicks, as opposed to the fragility, even possible onset of senility, of Jacobi’s interpretation, with his viciousness towards Goneril being particularly shocking in a way I didn’t remember so much. Continue reading “Review: King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Theatre”

Review: In A Forest, Dark and Deep, Vaudeville

“How is it possible we shared the same womb”

Neil LaBute’s latest play In A Forest, Dark and Deep, is receiving its world premiere at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand, showing his willingness to mix things up from London to New York, off-West End to West End – his last new play to show here was at the Almeida in 2009, In A Dark, Dark House. The bigger house here might also be a reflection of the bigger anticipated box office as the two-hander features the return to the London stage for Olivia Williams and a rare foray into theatre for Matthew Fox, now released from the purgatory that was Lost. (This was a preview show that I saw, which coincided with a What’s on Stage outing that some friends were attending.)

This is a twisty thriller in which the erudite Betty has called upon her carpenter brother Bobby to help her shift lots of books left by a student tenant in her lakeside chalet, beautifully designed over two storeys by Soutra Gilmour, despite their tetchy relationship. What unfolds, as a storm blows outside, is a tempestuous portrayal of these two completely different siblings who cannot resist baiting each other even as adults, but our preconceptions are then over-turned as pieces of information come to light which throw a whole new light on just what is going on this cabin.

What brings the show to life is the quality of the performances and the way in which the sibling rivalry is brought to vivid life by Williams and Fox as the twists and turns force constant reassessment of these characters. His Bobby is swaggeringly confident, blue collar through-and-through with his questionable attitudes on women, blacks, gays, anything different and seemingly never a hairs-breadth away from exploding with violence. Yet there’s a forceful persuasiveness to the way in which he adheres to his own code and something quite moving in the way in which he decides what is most important to him.

Williams’ emotionally fraught Betty has the tougher job with a much more elusive character who is never quite what she seems, allowing the actress to really work the manipulations and desperation of this well-to-do college lecturer, undone by…well, I can’t tell you what! But she is fantastic throughout and there’s a delicious reality to the way in which these siblings relate to each other, press each other’s buttons and suggest years of familiarity in both easy exchanges about music and uneasy ones confronting the events of their past.

Ultimately, it didn’t feel like there was quite enough here to really make an exceptional piece of drama, even at this late preview. The trail of revelations is somewhat predictable with disappointingly obvious clues being offered up and there’s not quite enough psychological intensity to take us deep or dark enough into the woods as one might have expected. But powerful performances with this tightly-wound family dynamic and some cracking dialogue make this a solidly 3 star entertaining evening.

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 4th June
Note #1: lots of bad language, flashing lights and the music that plays before the curtain rises is rather loud (and don’t ask the ushers if they can turn it down, they can’t!)
Note #2: I was lucky enough to sneak into the What’s On Stage conducted Q&A after the show, with Williams, Fox and LaBute which was really good fun. Olivia Williams revealed a wickedly dirty sense of humour, Matthew Fox told of how his experience growing up in Oregon meant he could relate somewhat to the characterisation here and Neil LaBute was brutally and beautifully unapologetic, and rightfully so, about the subject matters for his work, pointing out how little of interest there would be in exploring well-adjusted people. It does seem to me that people label LaBute a little too easily as a misogynist, not separating playwright from his work, and in any case, I’d argue that men don’t come off too brightly in this one either.

Review: Journey’s End, Richmond Theatre

“It feels like we’re just generally waiting around for something to happen”

Set towards the end of the First World War in the trenches at St Quentin, Journey’s End is a compelling account of life in an officer’s dugout written by RC Sherriff who drew on his own experience there to create this piece of powerfully timeless drama. Never moving from Jonathan Fensom’s tightly designed set, it focuses particularly on Captain Stanhope who is leading this group of officers in the days before the Germans launched one of their fiercest offensives as they reflect back on what has happened, battle through the grim realities of day-to-day life on the front line and contemplate the conflict that lies ahead.

David Grindley’s production was first seen in the West End in 2004 and is a masterclass in showing that less can be so much more when deployed with the devastating effectiveness that we see here. One of the play’s recurring themes is the corrosive effect of the endless waiting on the minds of soldiers and officers alike, so much so that one almost longs for something to happen, despite knowing that the order to the front line is an almost certain death sentence. So when that finally happens, the way that the audience is left to make their own conclusions about what is going on in the trenches above from the noise of artillery and bombs whilst watching an empty stage, especially when it is the fate of two of the main characters that lies in the balance, it is an almost unbearable moment. Gregory Clarke’s sound design is perfectly throughout, ever-present but rising to uncomfortable levels as the characters we’re coming to know repeatedly go up to face unimaginable peril above ground and the finale, with the final onslaught represented by a deafening wall of sound which literally shakes the theatre, is a moment of stirring horror that really does leave one stunned. Continue reading “Review: Journey’s End, Richmond Theatre”

Review: Mogadishu, Lyric Hammersmith

“Everyone has problems, he just needs a good slap”

Mogadishu is a new play by Vivienne Franzmann which was one of four winners of the Bruntwood Prize, a playwriting competition. It premiered at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, where it received the royal seal of approval from my Mum and Dad and Aunty Jean but it has now transferred to the Lyric Hammersmith.

White liberal teacher Amanda intervenes in a playground fight when she sees known troublemaker Jason bullying a younger pupil at their inner-city London secondary school but finds herself pushed and shoved to the ground in the ensuing fracas. She is anxious not to see him punished though, conscious of the social consequences for uneducated young black men, but when he flips the table and accuses her of physical and racial abuse, the security of Amanda’s world is shattered with her fitness to be a teacher, even a mother, called into question.

Julia Ford plays Amanda with a powerful dignity, well-intentioned to the end no matter what the cost and her scenes with Ian Bartholomew’s acting headteacher Chris, hamstrung by a world of bureaucracy, child protection legislation and the desire to be seen to be ‘doing the right thing’ ring with a depressing honesty. Shannon Tarbet as her daughter, and also a pupil at the same school, stole the show for me with a stunning intensity as she deals with her own issues and rages at the passivity of her mother. Continue reading “Review: Mogadishu, Lyric Hammersmith”

Not-a-Review: Villa, Royal Court

“Somebody spoiled their ballot”

Continuing the International Playwrights season at the Royal Court was the first of two readings of Chilean Guillermo Calderón’s plays, Villa. Based around a table discussion between three women, appointed to a committee to make a decision about what to do with a mansion, the villa of the title, in which unspeakable atrocities were carried out by the (now presumably defunct) ruling regime. Tensions are running high in the community about how best to deal with it or what they are actually trying to do here, commemorate the tragedies, secure the legacy, forget it even happened, with public meetings degenerating into violence as the two proposals were debated: raze it to the ground or build a museum in it.

So Macarena, Carla and Francisca are the three representatives have been selected and put into a room to come up with a decision and Calderon lets their debate run in real time with to great effect. There’s a great set-up in which it is made immediately apparent that at least one of the women has a hidden agenda here and from then on, the power games commence as they each circle the others, trying to ascertain if they are friend or foe, whether they can be relied upon for the casting vote for their preferred option. The most beautiful writing came with the scenes where Carla and Francisca each presented the case for one proposal, with achingly painful clarity that packed a hefty emotional punch, then beautifully undercut by the their final assertion that this isn’t necessarily what they believe in themselves. Continue reading “Not-a-Review: Villa, Royal Court”

Not-a-review: Aida, Royal Opera House

Not really a review because this was the general dress rehearsal of the first revival of David McVicar’s Aida to which the Royal Opera House’s marketing team had very kindly invited me and some other blogger-types. It was a fabulous afternoon, not least because I got to watch the first half from the Director’s Box and the second half from great front stalls seats, neither of which I don’t think I would ever get to sit in normally. The Director’s Box was great fun, a real chance to see and be seen by the rest of the audience and though the viewlines were a little tight on the side of the stage nearest to us, it was brilliant to be able to see straight down into the orchestra pit and see the players cutting loose and misbehaving a little whilst responding to the at-times frantic direction of Fabio Luisi. And the luxury of being able to sit in the stalls for the second half gave a different, wider perspective to the production, able to soak in the real depth of the staging.

This was my first time seeing Aida, a story both epic, in the war between the Ethiopians and the Egyptians, and intimate, in the tragic love triangle that emerges between Ethiopian slave Aida, Amneris the daughter of the King of Egypt and the man they both love, Radames the Captain of the Guard. And the first half is nothing short of epic, full of huge set pieces with innumerable personnel onstage as whether it is priests making dramatic human sacrifices and blood-letting or vast armies arriving onstage. The production incorporates a range of Eastern influences into the mix, but the samurai martial arts work was probably the most visually impressive. Continue reading “Not-a-review: Aida, Royal Opera House”

Review: The December Man/L’homme de Décembre, Finborough

“Ordinary people aren’t expected to be heroes”

There are mini-seasons within seasons now at the Finborough and so the three Sunday/Monday slots of the women playwrights programme, In Their Place, are being used to introduce the work of Canadian writer Colleen Murphy: the first of these is The December Man or L’homme de Décembre. Wanting to commemorate the horrifically tragic events of a massacre at the École Polytechnique in Montréal on December 6, 1989 where a gunman killed fourteen women for being ‘feminists’ but not be guilty of exploiting it, Murphy shifts her focus onto what might have happened to those that survived the attack and the ongoing consequences it has on their lives.

The play centres on the Fournier family: Jean, a man ordered out of the room before the massacre began and his working-class parents, Benoît and Kathleen, who struggle to deal with their son’s survivor guilt and the destructive impact it is having on his psyche and on the family as a whole as well. And to further deflect attention from the event itself, the story is told in reverse chronology, starting with shocking events in March 1992 and working backwards to 1989 to reveal just how we’ve arrived at these final actions.

Powerfully persuasive performances from all three actors means that this is never a dull evening, but choosing this format means that any sense of mystery about why things have happened is resolved by about the third scene and so from then on we know the whole story of what is going to happen, in reverse of course, but even then, there are scenes which seemed to do little but further establish the mood rather than revealing anything. Where the problem really lies is in not delving deep enough into the psychological motivations of the characters to give us at least some clue of why they are driven to such extremes. Keeping the actual events at L’École Polytechnique at arms length promises a universality of experience which is somewhat undone by the unexplained responses here.

Matthew Hendrickson’s grizzled father, weighted down by a lifetime of frustration yet fiercely proud of his son and Linda Broughton’s suffocatingly well-intentioned mother, clinging onto childhood memories of her family, both did excellent work, pulling us in straightaway with the hardest of opening scenes but also playing the lighter side of the family dynamic well too, bursting with pride at their first university-going relation. And Michael Benz also impressed as the introverted Jean, emotionally damaged by his inaction and the subsequent inability to deal with the fallout whilst sequestered in his tightly repressed family unit, although never given the opportunity to really explore why he is so particularly affected, likewise with the later decisions of his parents, we’re never really shown what drives them to such lengths.

One can see why Murphy has made the choices she has, in pulling back the lens to show how the effects of tragedies can ripple out far beyond the initial impact but in making it such a specific response to a specific event, the universality never really rings true. Part of it also comes back to the fact that she can afford to play fast and loose with the connections to the Montréal massacre because of the emotional resonance that association has with a Canadian audience, an analogous example would be a British play circling the Dunblane tragedy which would be sadly meaningless to other nationalities as we all have our own tragedies in this world. That said, it is very well-acted with some really moving moments within, and forms the first part of what I am sure will be an interesting journey through this playwright’s work over the next few months.

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 21st March

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews