Review: Network, National Theatre

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore”

 

 With Network, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film, Ivo van Hove re-asserts his place as one of the premier theatremakers working, anywhere. A satire that managed to predict just how powerful a tool populist anger can be when leveraged effectively, it is transformed into the immersive bustle of a TV studio, that of UBS Evening News where old hack Howard Beale – a transcendent performance by Bryan Cranston – has been handed his notice. Though initially appearing to accept it with good grace, he causes an almighty media stir when he declares, on air, that he’s going to kill himself, triggering a most unlikely rebirth as a truth-spilling ‘prophet’.
 
And as ever, van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld challenge our notions of theatrical space and how it is used. An onstage restaurant puts (some) audience members right in the thick of the action, the fourth wall gets well and truly shattered, and the use of live video and big screens forces us into the role of active observers – as Beale goes live on air, do you watch Cranston himself, do you watch him onscreen, do you watch the team observing him from the producers’ box…the multiplicity of perspectives reminds us how easy it is to manipulate media, how there can always be other sides to the story.

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Re-review: Follies, National Theatre

“Darling, shall we dance?”
Not too much more to say about Follies that I didn’t cover last time, suffice to say it’s just such a luxuriously fantastic show and I think I could watch it over and over! The head-dresses! Everything Janie Dee does! The orchestra! How no-one seems to be falling down that staircase! The staging! The shade of mint green in Loveland! The Staunton’s icy bitterness in ‘Losing My Mind’! The amount that Josephine Barstow has now made me cry, twice! The Quast! Just get booking now, while you still can.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 3rd January, best availability from 6th November

Follies will be broadcast by NT Live to cinemas in the UK and internationally on Thursday 16 November.

Review: Follies, National Theatre

“All things beautiful must die”

Well this is what we have a National Theatre for. For Vicki Mortimer’s set design that both stretches towards the heights of the Olivier and lingers some 30 years back in the past; for the extraordinary detail and feathered delights of the costumes; for the lush sound of an orchestra of 21 under Nigel Lilley’s musical direction; for a production that revels in the exuberance and experience of its cast of 37. And all for what? For a musical that, despite its iconic status in the theatre bubble, is more than likely to raise a ‘huh?’ from the general public (at least from the sampling in my office!).
Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Goldman’s (book) Follies is a show that has a long history of being tinkered with and more often than not, is as likely to be found in a concert presentation (as in its last London appearance at the Royal Albert Hall) as it is fully staged. Which only makes Dominic Cooke’s production here all the more attractive, not just for aficionados but for the casual theatregoer too. Using the original book with just a smattering of small changes, this is musical theatre close to its most luxurious, and a bittersweetly life-affirming thrill to watch.
Follies is set in the decrepit surroundings of the Weismann Theatre in 1971. Scheduled to be demolished the very next day, a party is being held for the performers who once graced its stages but as present company reunite and reminisce over champagne, ghosts of the past haunt their every move. And what Cooke does is to remind us that we’re all surrounded by memories, the might-have-beens and the shoulda-coulda-wouldas, it’s how we deal with them that differentiates us. And for long-suffering couples Buddy and Sally, Phyllis and Ben, it’s almost too much. 
The doubling device is achingly beautiful and threaded so assuredly into the production it seems a no-brainer. So as the 11 showgirls being celebrated make their entrance in ‘Beautiful Girls’ in the present day, we also see their past selves mirroring their movements, making their own arrivals in their own time. The glorious tap routines and kickline of ‘Who’s That Woman’ sees 7 of them hoofing it magnificently with their respective young’uns. And in the case of Josephine Barstow’s Heidi, there’s emotional interaction, a duet (with Alison Langer) on a simply exquisite ‘One More Kiss’, a gorgeous making of peace with the past.
For our central quartet though, things are much more tangled. Past and present frequently collide as Sally’s long-held passion for Ben bursts free with shattering consequences for all concerned, cutting through any notions of faded showbiz grandeur. Imelda Staunton invests her contained ‘Losing My Mind’ with so much psychological damage it breaks the heart, Philip Quast’s Ben is no less shattering as his swaggering Ben steadily loses his composure, and Janie Dee (getting to show off how great a dancer she is) is dry as a bone throughout and cold as ice in a brilliantly furious ‘Could I Leave You?’.
I could go on listing the things I loved – Tracie Bennett’s stunning reinterpretation of ‘I’m Still Here’, Di Botcher’s adorable take on ‘Broadway Baby’, Fred Haig, Adam Rhys-Charles, Zizi Strallen and Alex Young as the younger quartet…but I’ll stop and encourage you to get booking while you still can. There are still some slight weaknesses inherent in Follies itself – its sprawling dramatis personae some of whom we barely meet, the leap of faith you have to take as the show ruptures into its final third – but played without an interval as it is here by Cooke, you can’t help but be carried along a gorgeous wave of marabou, melancholy and musical theatre at its best. 
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Johan Persson
Booking until 3rd January, best availability from 6th November
Follies will be broadcast by NT Live to cinemas in the UK and internationally on Thursday 16 November.

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Review: Queer Theatre – Bent, National

#4 in the National Theatre’s Queer Theatre season of rehearsed readings
“I love you… What’s wrong with that?”
Perhaps one of the better known of these plays but still a new one to me, I really wasn’t prepared for the emotional trauma of Martin Sherman’s Bent whether I was hungover to fuck or not. Harrowing is barely the word to describe this dramatisation of the way in which the Nazis persecuted gay men in Germany before and during World War II and with this reading, directed by Stephen Daldry, taking place on Pride weekend, its impact was all the more emotional. 
Russell Tovey (continuing his graduation into a properly fine actor) and George Mackay took on the lovers Max and Rudy, their coming together in the hedonism of Weimar Berlin shattered by the dawning of the Night of the Long Knives, the realisation of just how insidious the Third Reich is, and the astonishing lengths that people will go to in order to protect themselves at the expense of all they hold dear.
The second act shift to the concentration camp at Dachau provides an unexpected ray of something that could be called sunshine in the face of such adversity but obviously that turns traumatic too, especially in the hands of Paapa Essiedu here. Sterling support came from Simon Russell Beale, Giles Terera, a rare stage appearance for Pip Torrens…and the brilliance of Sherman’s writing sang through as clearly as it would have done in a full fledged production, the visuals more than made up for by the commitment of a director and cast determined to ensure that the play’s message of the endurance of the human spirit is as true today as it ever was, more so even.


Cast for the 1979 Royal Court production directed by Robert Chetwyn
Jeremy Arnold
Peter Cellier
John Francis
Richard Gale
Ken Shorter
Haydn Wood
Tom Bell
Ian McKellen
Andy Roberts
Gregory Martyn
Jeff Rawle
Roger Dean
Simon Shepherd

Round-up of news and treats and other interesting things – Pride special!

2017 marks 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 was an Act of Parliament that decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men.

50 years later the lives of queer people are perceived to be very different – equal age of consent, equality law and equal marriage are all heralded as progressive markers in LGBTQIA* equality but has the UK become a queer friendly nation or are homophobic prejudices just as prevalent?

Belonging is a public debate with poncy performance chaired by Scottee. Together with a committee of prominent queers he will explore where queer people sit in our society. A boozy, loose-tongued version of Question Time with less middle aged, middle class white men. Come and mouth off on the eve of London Pride.


CONTRIBUTORS
Phyll Opoku-Gyimah
Lady Phyll is the co-founder and director of UK Black Pride, head of political campaigns and equality at PCS Union and a QTIPOC Activist. http://ukblackpride.org.uk/

Shon Faye

Shon Faye is a sexual and theological schemer, according to one biography. She is a journalist, writer, artist and comedienne based in Bristol. She is a contributor to Dazed and Novara Media on LGBT issues and trans feminism, has written for the Guardian, the Independent and VICE and appeared on BBC Newsnight and BBC Three. She currently has a film on exhibition at the Queer British Art exhibition at the Tate.

Chardine Taylor Stone

Chardine is an award winning cultural producer, feminist, writer & activist, as well as the founder of Black Girls Picnic, a trans-inclusive, global movement in collective self care to celebrate all the beauty that is Black Womanhood. https://chardinetaylorstone.com/

Travis Alabanza

Travis Alabanza is a performance artist, theatre maker, poet and writer that works and survives in London. Their multidisciplinary practice uses a combination of poetry, theatre, sounscapes, projection and bodyfocussed performance art to scream about their survival as a Black, trans, gender-non-conforming person in the UK. http://travisalabanza.co.uk/ 
Plus other guests TBC


Zeal is the first ever improv festival to officially run as part of Pride In London! Zeal: The Pride Improv Festival is a week-long event taking part in venues across the city from 1-7 July offering a diverse mix of improvised entertainment to celebrate the LGBTQIA community.

Featuring improvised games, comedy, theatre, musicals, drag acts, stand-up and cabaret from both queer improvisers and those who support the community, the festival showcases a mix of established acts, fresh young talent and brand new teams, formed especially for this year’s event! There will also be opportunities for the audience to get up on stage and give it a go in friendly and supportive jam sessions, as well as chances to learn the basics of improv and improve existing skills through the Zeal workshops.

Taking place in collaboration with seven improv schools across London, the festival is an opportunity to see bold, exciting and unique shows that will never be seen again! These acts are made up on the spot and every show and every night will be completely different!

Acts include Music Box, who perform an entire improvised musical based on words from the audience, regular Proud Cabaret host Luke Meredith, and improv duo Breaking & Entering, as well as brand new drag king act The Bareback Kings, improvised songs and conversation from Phil Lunn Is… A Cabaret Singer, and The Lemonade Brigade, an all-gay improv team assembled especially for the festival!



And casting is now complete for the National’s #QueerTheatre season.

Bent by Martin Sherman, directed by Stephen Daldry, Sunday 9 July, 2.30pm

  • George Mackay, 
  • Simon Russell Beale, 
  • Giles Terera, 
  • Pip Torrens, 
  • Paapa Essiedu, 
  • John Pfumojena
  • Adrian Grove. 
(More to be announced soon)




Certain Young Men written and directed by Peter Gill, Sat 8 July, 7.30pm

  • Jonathan Bailey (Andrew), 
  • Ben Batt (Tony), 
  • Oliver Chris (David), 
  • Billy Howle (Michael),
  • Lorne MacFadyen (Stewart), 
  • Stephen Rashbrook (stage direction), 
  • Brian Vernel (Terry) 
  • Toby Wharton (Christopher).
Neaptide by Sarah Daniels, directed by Sarah Frankcom, Thursday 6 July, 7.30pm

  • Ronke Adekoluejo (Val)
  • Adjoa Andoh (Beatrice)
  • Simon Armstrong (Sid & Cyril)
  • Thomas Arnold (Colin & Roger)
  • Maureen Beattie (Joyce)
  • Morfydd Clark (Poppy & Terri)
  • Karla Crome (Diane)
  • Helena Lymbery (Anette & Marion)
  • Sarah Niles (Linda) 
  • Jessica Raine (Claire).
Wig Out! written and directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Friday 7 July, 7.30pm

  • Tarell Alvin-McCraney (Rey Rey)
  • Arun Blair-Mangat (directions)
  • Tunji Kasim (Eric)
  • Alexia Khadime (Fate)
  • Kadiff Kirwan (Ms Nina)
  • Abiona Omonua (Faith)
  • Jonjo O’Neill(Serena)
  • Tom Rhys-Harries (Loki)
  • Ukweli Roach (Lucian) 
  • Cat Simmons (Fay) 
  • Craig Stein (Venus).
The Drag by Mae West, directed by Polly Stenham, Monday 10 July, 7.30pm

  • Fisayo Akinade
  • Arun Blair-Mangat
  • Niamh Cusack
  • Richard Dempsey
  • Sacha Dhawan
  • Tom Edden
  • Adetomiwa Edun
  • Jodie McNee
  • Cyril Nri
  • Sule Rimi 
  • Adrian Scarborough. 
(More to be announced soon)

Re-review: Medea, National Theatre

“I choose to take back my life.
My life.”

Booking a return trip to anything Helen McCrory is starring in is something of a reflex action now but I was more pleased than usual to be able to revisit Medea as conversations with numerous of my friends who were not fans had left me questioning whether I had maybe over-rated the show on first viewing. And it was equally nice to find out that I had not. I can see why elements of Carrie Cracknell’s production might have been polarising but for me, the synergy between the different disciplines is alchemical.

From jerky dancing to Goldfrappian swells of music, luxury cameos through to an actor magisterially making her mark on an oft-played role to dominate the vast auditorium of the Olivier, it’s a Medea for our time and so it was entirely correct that this performance should be part of the NTLive programme and be broadcast to cinemas across the world. Spine-chillingly remarkable stuff and that’s all I really have to say!

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 4th September

Review: Medea, National Theatre

“Terrible things breed in broken hearts”

Euripides’ Medea has long been considered one of the greatest roles for a woman to play so it is a little surprising (or perhaps not) that it hasn’t been performed at the National Theatre before. But the winds of change blow even on the South Bank so it makes great sense that one of our finest living actresses, Helen McCrory, should take on the part in a production by Carrie Cracknell, herself responsible for making some of that change with recent shows like A Doll’s House and Blurred Lines

Ben Power’s new version relocates the betrayed Medea in a blasted contemporary setting (another ingeniously cracking design from Tom Scutt, evocatively lit by Lucy Carter) where she and her two children anxiously await news of the husband and father who has abandoned them for a newly politically expedient marriage. Trapped in a foreign land, having severely burned her bridges with her homeland, we watch helplessly along with a hefty Greek Chorus as grief inexorably transmutes into anger. 

Cracknell has collaborated most interestingly cross-discipline in her production. The electro-organic score by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp pulses and builds through the production most effectively, moments of choral singing portend ominously like storm clouds. These swells of music also hold the Chorus in their sway physically, Lucy Guerin’s choreography being used in a couple of striking visual sequences whose jerky movements seem set to divide audiences. I rather liked the theatrical effect it provided, suggesting perhaps a touch of divine or at least mystical manipulation.


The 13-strong Chorus, replete with dancers such as Yuyu Ra, Clemmie Sveaas and Naomi Tadevossian as well as more familiar faces (to me) like Lorna Brown and Jane Wymark, speaks of something of the luxury casting here, like bringing in the lusciously bearded Dominic Rowan for what is little more than a cameo as Athenian king Aegeus. Martin Turner’s Kreon and Toby Wharton as a sympathetic attendant register strongly in their scenes though Danny Sapani’s gruffly distant Jason might do a little more to fully breathe as a character. And Michaela Coel’s searchingly compassionate nurse is a triumph, continuing a superb year for her. 


For all else pales alongside McCrory’s excoriating presence as Medea, her rage and fury never far from the surface yet clearly much more dangerous when calm and still. Unafraid, even desperate, to use whatever she can to escape her fate, cold wheels of calculation are ever-turning in her mind, guiding her every action so that it’s never entirely clear when she is being genuine, indeed the all-encompassing nature of her shell-shocked self as McCrory plays it, means she might not even know herself.


In a week when the gender (im)balance of the cabinet reshuffle has focused on so many of the wrong things, it is clear why Medea has endured as an undeniable classic. The presence of women in the political sphere was, and still is, a challenge to so many and Cracknell’s astutely updated production reminds us that though we have come some way, there is still much further to go – won’t somebody think of the children… 


Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)

Booking until 4th September

Review: Blue Remembered Hills, Richmond Theatre

“That is the land of lost content”

You’d be forgiven for going with Beatrix if someone started talking about a story about children written by someone called Potter. But Blue Remembered Hills is the work of Dennis Potter, an altogether different proposition and indeed, Squirrel Nutkin would fear for his life even more than usual if he were present in this Forest of Dean setting. For this is no idyllic treatise on the joys of childhood but rather an acutely observed portrait of how brutal a time it can be and how difficult it is to cling to innocence.

Potter’s innovation here is to have his cast of seven 7-year-old characters played by adult actors. Spending a hot summer’s day in 1943 running up and down the grassy bank, playing at mummies and daddies or being aeroplanes, barely a care in the world one would think. But from the opening scene, any hint of a rose tinted glow is stripped away as the playwright lays bare a stark vision of society in all its viciousness, complexity and relentlessness – the group continually jostling for position to avoid the ignominy of being the last to be picked.


The way in which childhood games turn on a dime and become life or death situations; the fastest of friends becoming the bitterest of rivals in the blink of an eye; the shadow of wartime rationing making a battle over a simple apple into something visceral and vital. And that it is adults playing all of this reinforces the persuasive idea of how much of the people we become is formed in these early days and also how their games mirror the actions of society at large. The freewheeling patterns the children trace on the hillside evoke military aircraft ducking and weaving as much as a swooping flock of carefree birds.


On Ruari Murchison’s simple but highly evocative set, director Psyche Stott encourages a wonderful physicality from her company, a fearless energy that is filled with joy – it genuinely looks great fun to be running up and down that slope – but one which lets the creeping darkness build most effectively, the inexorable slide towards something ominous gradually ratcheting up the tension. At just under an hour, Blue Remembered Hills packs in an enormous amount of thought-provoking substance, reminding us that though we may like to think childhood was just fun and games, it is full of spite and brutality, as well as a measure of blithe tenderness. Soaring, exciting, challenging stuff.

Running time: 55 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 22nd June, then goes to Derby

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Danger: Memory!, Jermyn Street

“What you can’t chase, you’d better face or it’ll start chasing you”

Danger: Memory! is a double bill of Arthur Miller one-act plays showing at the Jermyn Street Theatre, offering the first chance to see these short works in London for over twenty years. Written in 1987 when he was in his 70s, the two pieces investigate the varying significance of memory and how we can use it to both comfort and protect ourselves.

I Can’t Remember Anything is the first play, a two-hander featuring a pair of elderly New England neighbours meeting for dinner as is part of their routine. Routine has become important as Leo, a retired engineer, is beginning to lose some of his mental sharpness, but Leonora’s memory is failing much more dramatically. Played by real-life husband and wife David Burke and Anna Calder-Marshall, there’s a really touching brittleness to the way in which they play off each other, constantly at odds and unable to agree on anything as their vibrant lives as are touched back on with varying degrees of lucidity, fading memory unable to destroy their beautifully easy rapport.

The second play Clara I found to be less entertaining. A story sparked by the murder of a young woman in a less than salubrious part of New York where the investigating detective is pumping the victim’s father for details of her private life which he apparently can’t remember. It emerges that her boyfriend was in fact Puerto Rican and so his amnesia is more self-protective than genuine as it goes against his liberal principles – which are detailed from way back through his life – to identify him. Though acted well by Rolf Saxon as the father and Roger Sloman as the combative detective, with support from Laura Pyper as the daughter who is featured in key flashbacks, it never quite achieves the moral authority it aims for, its construction too visibly apparent.

Ed Viney’s production of these two shorts pulls out some interesting performances around a subject matter of something that is inescapable for all of us: the tricks that memory increasingly plays on us as the years go by and the huge power it holds. I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed with Anna Finch’s design which didn’t really match up to the other uses of the space that I’ve seen at the Jermyn Street Theatre recently and truth be told this isn’t exactly classic Miller writing, but Danger: Memory! is engaging and there’s something here of interest to more than just Arthur Miller completists.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2.50
Booking until 23rd July