Review: The House of Bernarda Alba, National Theatre

I do love me some actresses, and I always get a thrill when I hear the words ‘all-female cast’ so I was very much inclined to book for The House of Bernarda Alba at the National Theatre. A new version by David Hare has been commissioned of Lorca’s classic (I say classic, I’ve never read it…) which bemoaned the way in which women were treated at the time but hinted metaphorically at his own repressed homosexuality and the increasingly oppression that brought about Franco’s rule.

Set in 1930s Spain in a stunningly mounted (by Vicki Mortimer) palace of an Andalusian house, the Alba household is mourning the death of matriarch Bernarda’s husband but the actual feeling is one more akin to liberation as it turns out she relishes the chance to take control of the family, of her five unmarried daughters, and maintain the staunchly Catholic ethos of sexual repression despite the natural urges of her girls. Continue reading “Review: The House of Bernarda Alba, National Theatre”

Review: His Dark Materials Part II, National Theatre

Most of what I wanted to say about His Dark Materials have been made in the earlier review of Part I, but I wanted to separate the reviews out as they are treated as separate plays although I can’t imagine anyone would just see Part I, especially with its cliff-hanger ending, and I know I couldn’t have waited any longer than the couple of hours that we did to see Part II on the same day.

This part is where some of the more obvious changes to the original books are more evident. Much of the third book has been excised, the character of Mary Malone not used here and the amber spyglass becomes less important as a result. But the story still works nonetheless, and the trip to the Land of the Dead has to rank as one of the most beautifully realised pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen, haunting and incredibly moving. Likewise, the ending to the whole story was devastatingly done, leaving me crying for a good 10 minutes after we had left the theatre even though I knew what was coming. Continue reading “Review: His Dark Materials Part II, National Theatre”

Review: His Dark Materials Part I, National Theatre

The National Theatre revived their adaption of His Dark Materials for a second run in answer to my prayers, or so I like to believe, in order to let me see it. The novels by Phillip Pullman are among my all-time favourites and though the idea of translating them to the stage caused me a little trepidation, I was immensely glad of the opportunity of the chance to see the shows.

Adapted with love and precision by Nicholas Wright who has been daring enough to make the judicious cuts necessary to create a workable piece of theatre out of the at-times-sprawling works of literature that form Pullman’s trilogy, the story that is told here is strong and cohesive and told with a sensitive clarity (although I can’t be sure how clear it actually is to anyone who hasn’t read the novels, truth be told). We follow the coming-of-age of two children, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry and their adventure across a set of parallel universes as they search for answers to huge questions they both have, a journey that causes them to cross paths with polar bears, angels, witches, Texan explorers and in one of the most contentious of the strands of Pullman’s work, the organised might of the Church. Continue reading “Review: His Dark Materials Part I, National Theatre”

Review: Don Carlos, Gielgud Theatre

Taking up residency on Shaftesbury Avenue, this production of Don Carlos directed by Michael Grandage was originated at the Crucible in Sheffield last year and received rave reviews. It is one of Schiller’s less performed works apparently, but I have to admit this was the first time I had seen any his plays (or indeed heard of him, eek!) so a new experience for me.

Don Carlos is passionately in love with Elizabeth, the French Princess to whom he was once betrothed. Carlos’ tyrannical father, King Philip II of Spain, decides to marry Elizabeth himself. The young prince’s hatred for his cold and distant parent knows no bounds. He enlists his oldest friend the Marquis of Posa to act as go-between. But Posa decides to convert Carlos and Elizabeth’s youthful passion into a full scale rebellion against King Philip’s oppressive and bloody regime. Continue reading “Review: Don Carlos, Gielgud Theatre”

Review: Chicago, Cambridge Theatre

If you wait long enough, it feels like you could watch anyone you wanted to in Chicago such is the roundabout that is their ever-changing cast, but recently it has become to go-to place for television stars to come and tread the boards. Jill Halfpenny is the latest person to make this journey, but in winning Strictly Come Dancing, has already established her dance credentials and so this show feels like a good fit for her.
She’s in the role of Roxie Hart, an ambitious chorus girl who murders murders her lover, smears her husband’s name and razzle-dazzles her way in court in order to make herself a star. The show mixes great songs, Fosse-inspired dance routines and a whole load of showmanship into an exuberant whole which is now probably one of the longest-running shows in the West End.


Unfortunately, I wasn’t as mad keen on the rest of the show around her which disappointed on a few levels. Anna Montanaro’s Velma Kelly was vocally quite weak and lyrically very unclear, French looked like her was just going through the motions and there was not a lot of cohesion in the chorus, most of them look gorgeous and buff but there were rarely synchronised well. Maybe this is because I had the film in my mind throughout, but ultimately this production did feel a little shabby.

Halfpenny does well as a character who seems so very far from her own (one disadvantage of reality tv over regular acting means that one gets a greater sense of actors as people rather than their acting skills) but pulls it off really rather well. Her American accent was flawless, her dancing strong and she has a great sense of comic timing too, her rendition of We Both Reached for the Gun with Michael French’s Billy French was hysterical. She seems very much at home on the stage, no awkwardness or over-acting and given that she was reason I’d booked to see the show, this made me very happy.

Review: Days of Wine and Roses, Donmar Warehouse

Days of Wine and Roses was a 1958 teleplay written by American JP Miller, but adapted here by Northern Irish writer Owen McCafferty and relocated to 1960s London, in its tale of the troubling effects of alcoholism on a young immigrant couple.


Donal and Mona are a couple who meet for the first time at Belfast Airport in 1962, as they are awaiting a delayed flight that will complete their emigration to London. Donal is a happy-go-lucky bookie’s clerk who likes a cheeky drink, while Mona is a timid civil servant from a strict family background who has never touched a drop until now. Her introduction to alcohol sets her on a headlong passionate journey and they enter a fast relationship which soon develops into marriage and parenthood. They enjoy the good life, liberally oiled with vast quantities of whisky but it soon becomes apparent that they’re losing control of the situation as looking after their son becomes less important than finding another drink. The play then hinges on the divergent paths that Donal and Mona takes as they come to terms, or otherwise, with their alcoholism.


It is excellently acted by Peter McDonald who ends up having to make the most heartbreaking of decisions and Anne-Marie Duff whose spiral of self-destruction leads her to the darkest of places. Together they make such a believable couple with palpable chemistry which makes their ultimate incompatibility all the more heartbreaking, somewhat impressive given the paucity of the material they are given.

Despite the quality of the acting, other aspects of the production felt not quite up to par. The simplicity of the staging and set appeared unimaginative with only the crackling 60s music of a radio punctuating creating the necessary ambience and rather highlighting the insubstantiality of this play: it doesn’t quite seem to justify its existence. So a mixed bag for me, strong acting but a disappointing production.

Review: By The Bog Of Cats, Wyndhams

More seasoned theatregoers will tell you you should never book a play on the strength of its star alone, but when that star is Academy Award winning actress Holly Hunter, star of one of my favourite films The Piano, then I had no hesitation in booking my ticket no matter what the play was. The play in question in By the Bog of Cats, a retelling of Euripides’ Medea by Marina Carr which blends aspects of ancient Greek myth with more modern Irish folklore creating a world of gypsies, witches and ghosts in which this story pays out.

In this adaptation, the Medea figure is represented by Irish tinker Hester Swain, a woman living on a rural Irish bog and facing the fact that everything in her life is slipping away: her man, her child, her home, her heritage. Her younger lover has left her in order to wed a woman who can bring him increased wealth and prestige, and he constantly threatens to part Hester from their child in order to raise the girl in his new, more privileged world. The play opens at dawn on the fateful wedding day, and we watch the lengths Hester goes to as she fights like a hellcat not to lose what belongs to her as horrific secrets from the past reveal themselves. Continue reading “Review: By The Bog Of Cats, Wyndhams”

Review: Gaffer! Southwark Playhouse

Gaffer! at the Southwark Playhouse is the story of George, a star footballer-turned-manager of Northbridge Town, a struggling League Two side whose fortunes look set to change with a takeover from an ex-record producer and a great run in the FA Cup. But change isn’t always for the best and when he is caught in a compromising situation with the new young team hero and the certainties of his world begin to crumble.

As a black comedy, in describing the trials of managing a football team from the lower divisions and the randomness that George has to deal with in its collection of peculiar characters around the ground and in the dressing room, it is extremely funny, as it is when replicating the bizarre touchline antics of football managers. And it is also good at depicting the clash between the thoroughly old-school George who is all about the football and the new chairman with his modernising ways and vision of the club as a money-making machine. Continue reading “Review: Gaffer! Southwark Playhouse”

Review: Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, New London Theatre

Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat is a show that has a special place in my heart: I’ve sung in primary school productions, played the piano for high school productions and seen it countless times so I struggle to see how other people can actually have gotten through life without seeing it at least once! And when I find people in my life who have escaped it thus far, I do try my best to drag them along, the regular changing of its lead star meaning that there’s something new and different for me as well.


Currently wearing the Dreamcoat is former Steps star H, otherwise known as Ian Watkins, who takes the lead role in Bill Kenwright’s production which is currently residing at the New London Theatre. Watkins transfers much of his chirpy pop persona to the stage very well, strong and secure in his singing but managing a commanding leading man presence too, engaging well with the audience but reining in the excesses to ensure we have the requisite emotion too.


There’s enthusiastic support from the ensemble especially Vivienne Carlyle as a clear-voiced narrator, but the company is too small to be really effective as a proper West End musical in a big theatre: there’s noticeable doubling up even within the brothers, there aren’t enough women to balance out the sound, being so familiar with the score I wasn’t keen on the changes that have been made to accommodate this with a loss of many solos and all in all, it just doesn’t feel value for money.

To be frank, the production looks cheap and shoddy, and doesn’t quite make enough of its homespun virtues to be able to get away with it. This is exacerbated by the endless encores, repeated songs and megamixes that make up the finale of the show which goes on well beyond tolerable levels: I don’t think people mind a short show as long as they have been entertained, and padding it out in this way simply highlights the uncertainty of the producers that there is actually enough here to satisfy.

So a big disappointment for me: this feels like a show that is resting on its laurels somewhat and relying on its reputation and the familiarity that so much of the audience will have with so many of the songs. It simply doesn’t make enough effort to reinvigorate the material despite the best efforts of Watkins and the rest of the cast.

Review: All’s Well That Ends Well, Gielgud

Marking Dame Judi Dench’s return to the RSC after many years away, this production of All’s Well That Ends Well, one of Shakespeare lesser performed plays, transferred to London from the Swan in Stratford. It is called a problem play as it is neither fully comedy nor tragedy but a curious mixture of fairytale-like wonder, cold realism and gritty humour. Helena loves the arrogant Bertram, son of the Countess of Rousillon, but the only way she can gain him as a husband is as a reward for curing the King of France of a terrible ailment. He reacts badly to being forced into marriage with someone of lowly birth and so runs away to Italy to join the wars but not before fixing two fiendishly difficult conditions to their marriage, things he believes Helena will never be able to achieve but he does not count on her tenacity.

Even in a relatively minor part, which the Countess is it has to be said, Dench is a mesmerising performer, she manages so much with such economy of performance, the simplest gesture or twitch of the face speaks volumes and as the matriarch of the piece, she oozes a compassion and wisdom that makes a firm bedrock for the production. Gary Waldhorn as the King of France does well though as the most senior male character, rising from his sickbed to become an inspirational leader. Continue reading “Review: All’s Well That Ends Well, Gielgud”