Review: FELA! National Theatre

“It’s not just about Fela, it’s about you”

FELA! is the annoyingly capitalised and punctuated show that enters the world of Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and through a blend of dance, theatre and music, it takes a highly atmospheric journey through a crucial part of his life and it arrives at the National Theatre on the back of a much-lauded run on Broadway. The book is by Jim Lewis and Bill T Jones, the latter of whom is also the choreographer, but it uses the music and lyrics of Kuti’s own Afrobeat style to celebrate his life with some additional lyrics by Jim Lewis and music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean to pull it altogether into this production. This is a review of a preview so all usual caveats apply and ticket prices for this show really are not cheap, booking this performance meant I got a £44 seat for £24.50 and I make no apologies for that.

The show is set in the summer of 1978 in Lagos, the then capital, at the Shrine, Kuti’s personal nightclub and sanctuary against a government whose corrupt and oppressive practices he has fought against both as a lyricist and an activist. Fela is giving one last concert before leaving the country due to the stresses of living under this regime, the opportunities offered to him elsewhere as a musician of increasing renown and as a grieving son, his mother Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti a noted activist herself having been thrown to her death in an attack on their premises six months previously.

It doesn’t so much start as slide into action. The amazing 12 man band (who sound fabulous throughout) are playing from the moment the doors open in the theatre and slowly dancers appear from the wings and the aisles, chatting with audience members, with themselves, throwing shapes and warming up for a good ten minutes before anything actually happens. It is a neat introduction into what becomes a frenetic evening of sensory overload. Continue reading “Review: FELA! National Theatre”

Review: Company, Queens Theatre

“Good things get better, bad get worse. Wait, I think I meant that in reverse”

Last up in the programme of Stephen Sondheim celebration events from the Donmar Warehouse was a concert version of their 1995 production of Company. As with Merrily We Roll Along, last week’s offering, this show features music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by George Furth with astonishingly bright musical direction from Gareth Valentine, but directed this time by Jamie Lloyd.

 The show centres around Bobby, a single man struggling to deal with the realities of adult relationships, and the people around him, his three girlfriends and the five married couples who are his best friends. The show is presented as a set of short vignettes randomly scattered around Bobby’s 35th birthday rather than a linear plot which meant this performance didn’t really come across too well in the concert format especially compared to Merrily… Also, with a much larger cast or rather a greater division of songs amongst the cast, it did mean that there was some considerable variation in the performance level as opposed to the solidity provided by the leads last week. Continue reading “Review: Company, Queens Theatre”

Review: Antony & Cleopatra, Liverpool Playhouse

“The triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet’s fool”

After playing the role herself in 1974 for the RSC, Janet Suzman returns to Antony and Cleopatra but this time as its director and has pulled off one of the canniest casting coups of the year in persuading Kim Cattrall to return to the city of her birth to head up the cast alongside Jeffery Kissoon at the Liverpool Playhouse. The ultimate tale of the trouble caused when the personal and the political are so inextricably entwined as Cleopatra and Mark Antony tumble into a passionate affair regardless of the fact that their infatuation threatens to destroy the world around them.

 Feisty yet graceful, powerful yet passionate, Cattrall’s portrayal is simply superb. A highly intelligent woman, one can see the calculations behind her eyes as she weighs up each decision that will affect her so hugely but she also plays the comedy well and her touching vulnerability when seized by thoughts of love is beautiful: the recollection of their salad days is exceptional. Kissoon’s Antony is clearly a relic of a passing age, moody and tinged with madness from the outset. His battles come from his uncertainty at his place in this world as much as they do from his doomed affair and so he is a more shambolic leader. Continue reading “Review: Antony & Cleopatra, Liverpool Playhouse”

Review: The Lady From The Sea, Royal Exchange

“What is it you long for?”

The second part of my double bill at Manchester’s Royal Exchange was the production in the main theatre Ibsen’s The Lady From The Sea. Presented here in a new version by David Eldridge, using a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund, it marks the third time Eldridge has delved into the Nordic playwright’s work, this time working his stuff on one of his lesser-performed works. Just as a quick aside, I can highly recommend the blueberry cheesecake muffin from the bar at the theatre, it was a little piece of heaven!!

Set in a small fjordside Norwegian town, living a passive half life between sea and mountains, Ellida broods over her past love, despite having settled into a comfortable marriage of convenience with Doctor Wangel. Her reluctance to play the role of doting wife and stepmother results in Wangel bending over backwards to try and please her by inviting a man from her past to stay and cheer her up yet a web of misunderstandings and frustrations, that stretches all the way throughout this household, as the pull between domesticity and emotional freedom is explored. Continue reading “Review: The Lady From The Sea, Royal Exchange”

Review: Love Love Love, Royal Exchange Studio

“We love each other but something has gone wrong; we live in Reading, something has gone wrong”

After taking the soon-to-be-renamed-Dorfman Cottesloe at the National Theatre by storm this summer, Mike Bartlett has another new play in theatres, Love Love Love. A co-production between Paines Plough and the Drum Theatre Plymouth, it is currently touring smaller spaces in some of the country’s top regional theatres: I saw it in what marked my first visit to The Studio at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.

Three acts, set in 1967, 1990 and 2011, take us through a relationship born in the heady world of the baby boomers ready to change the world, to their struggle to deal with the mundane responsibilities of middle-aged family life, through to the oblivious contentment of retirement. Bartlett’s sharp eye is focused here on responsibility, both social and personal, ultimately pitting generations against each other as today’s have-nots place the blame for the state of the world today on their predecessors’ shoulders, as an unfulfilled daughter rails about unfairness against her parents. Continue reading “Review: Love Love Love, Royal Exchange Studio”

Review: Macbeth, Song of the Goat at the Barbican

“It is a tale…full of sound and fury”

Pulling together elements of Corsican chanting, poetry, Korean instrumentation, dance, Japanese-style robes, movement inspired by martial arts training and much manipulation of wooden staffs, Song of the Goat’s hypnotic and mesmerising retelling of Macbeth plays in the Pit at the Barbican after a UK tour which will also see them visit Brighton after this residency.

It is an immersive experience suffused with a primal energy that takes you to the heart of the show, revealing new layers with a piercing emotional directness. To be sure, it isn’t a straight retelling of the play as it is known, indeed it is more accurate to describe it as something like a rhapsody on a theme of Macbeth: it is probably not one for the purists given the amount of editing and cutting here and the occasional dip into obscurity that results, one needs to approach this almost without prior expectation or knowledge in order to just embrace what they are trying to achieve. Continue reading “Review: Macbeth, Song of the Goat at the Barbican”

Review: Spend Spend Spend! Richmond Theatre

“I was surprised at how much it affected me”

In 1961, Viv Nicholson won the equivalent of the lottery jackpot on the pools with her husband Keith in Castleford. Spend Spend Spend is a musical that tells the story, adapted from Nicholson’s own book, of how it was subsequently all frittered away, how money doesn’t always bring happiness and certainly doesn’t grant immunity from tragedy. The action is narrated from the perspective of the older Viv, reflecting back on her life as she rebuilds her life in South Yorkshire as a hairdresser. Originated at the Watermill, this actor-musician production is directed by Craig Revel Horwood and is reprising a successful UK tour this year.

Steve Brown’s score is solid, cohesive despite picking influences from a range of English music styles; Diego Pitarch’s design is simple, an effective replication of a Yorkshire pub which flexibly turns into a bedroom when needed; Revel Horwood’s choreography is attractive though not particularly adventurous, but this really is a show where the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. There’s a perfect confluence of each element, there’s not a huge amount of dancing for example which makes the routine to the title number an absolute blast and lending it a greater impact. And with its straight-forward direction and the no-nonsense approach to life that Viv and Keith espoused, the shows rockets through the ups and downs of life with remarkable candour in its portrayal of a flawed but aspirational woman. Continue reading “Review: Spend Spend Spend! Richmond Theatre”

The 2010 London Evening Standard Theatre Awards

Best Play
Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris (Royal Court)
Cock
 by Mike Bartlett (Royal Court)
Sucker Punch by Roy Williams (Royal Court)

Best Director
Howard Davies for The White Guard (National’s Lyttelton) & All My Sons (Apollo)
Nicholas Hytner
 for The Habit of Art (National’s Lyttelton) & London Assurance (National’s Olivier) & Hamlet (National’s Olivier)
Laurie Sansom for Beyond the Horizon and Spring Storm (National’s Cottesloe)
Thea Sharrock for After the Dance (National’s Lyttelton) Continue reading “The 2010 London Evening Standard Theatre Awards”

Review: The Two-Character Play, Jermyn Street

“This still feels like a performance of The Two-Character Play”

So much of Tennessee Williams’ work bears the influence of his relationship with his beloved sister but nowhere is he more nakedly autobiographical than in The Two-Character Play, one of his later, rarely performed works from 1967. Featuring a brother and sister who endlessly re-enact a play about a brother and sister called The Two-Character Play; it is a highly introspective piece of work which is considerably more experimental than fans of his work might be used to, but surreally beautiful and recognisable as Williams.

Clare and Felice are abandoned by their theatre company, stuck in an emptying provincial theatre, yet the play must go on as they struggle to get through the performance, it having particular personal resonance to them. Both physically and emotionally in a no-man’s-land, this pair struggle for resolution yet are terribly scared of it: the portrait of confusion, the slow slide into madness, is all the more moving considering that both Williams and his sister ended up in mental institutions. Continue reading “Review: The Two-Character Play, Jermyn Street”

Review (or more of a love letter): the fourth-to-last Avenue Q, Wyndhams

“Everything in life is only for now”

There’s no show really that best typifies my love for the theatre, and specifically my love for London theatregoing, than Avenue Q. From its arrival at the Noël Coward Theatre in 2006, this was a show I fell head over heels for from the opening song and one that has provided constant pleasure to me ever since. Looking back, I think this counts up as my seventh visit to the show, plus one special Valentine’s Day cabaret show, and like every relationship it has had its ups and downs, but ultimately that’s only made my love for the show stronger and I was really pleased to be able to squeeze in one last visit to the final Friday afternoon show to bid it ‘furwell’. 

As if I couldn’t have loved this show more, the grace and humour with which the closing notices were announced just melted my heart. I’ve borrowed images of the set of posters from the Avenue Q Facebook page and posted them here to show you what I mean, I particularly love the ‘Available for Panto from 30 October’ line, it is so typical of the humour of the show and whoever has been in charge of the publicity should be commended for keeping a sense of humour throughout. The YouTube clip at the bottom is also well worth a watch.

Continue reading “Review (or more of a love letter): the fourth-to-last Avenue Q, Wyndhams”