Review: X, Royal Court

“You’re asking me all these questions and they’re all,
And it’s not – 

It doesn’t mean anything”
True story – every time someone raves about Pomona, a new fan of Miss Saigon is born. The determination to force a new world order from the unlikely starting spot of the Orange Tree Theatre has meant that Alistair McDowall now has that unfortunate albatross of hype firmly attached to his neck and thus his new play X, opening at the Royal Court, comes burdened – a little unfairly – with the weight of expectation.
And I have to say for me, it’s hard to tell whether they’ll be met or not. Perhaps predictably, X is a curious, slippery beast that wilfully toys with notions of audience satisfaction, in that it really doesn’t care whether you ‘get’ it or not. Set on Pluto, the crew of a small research base have lost contact with Earth and are left waiting. For what exactly, they don’t know. And after two and a half hours or so of Vicky Featherstone’s production, neither do we.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (no matter what certain critics might tell you). After the gruelling but exhilarating emotional challenge of the second act, when McDowall finally drills down to the essence of the audacity and strangeness that characterises the best of his writing, X is a powerful play that has a lot to say in a very particular order, or is that no particular order. For we’re constantly being wrong-footed and not just by the queasy angle of Merle Hensel’s design.
Time is broken, identity is fluid, words and phrases echo and flow from one character to another as something of a puzzle that feels solvable emerges in the first act. But McDowall is playing with us, there is no (easy) solution, X doesn’t mark the spot and it’s not quite satisfying. Return after the interval and it’s like moving from medium to killer level Sudokus, the gradual stripping away of what has so far counted for normality moves past frustrating to become incredibly gripping.
Jessica Raine is a canny choice of everyman to position at the heart of the play and I really enjoyed her work as Gilda, Rudi Dharmalingam and James Harkness impressing too as her colleagues floating in a most peculiar way. And even if it may ultimately prove too inscrutable for some, Lee Curran’s lighting, Nick Powell’s brooding sound and Tal Rosner’s immersive video work all contribute to an impressively tense atmosphere in this space oddity.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 7th May

2015 Offie Award Winners

Offies Awards - Off West End Theatre Awards

Best Female
Linda Bassett for Visitors at The Bush and the Arcola Theatre
Laura Jane Matthewson for Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse 
Shannon Tarbet for The Edge Of Our Bodies at The Gate

Best Supporting Female
Leila Crerar for Martine at Finborough Theatre
Vicki Lee Taylor for Carousel at Arcola Theatre
Thea Jo Wolfe for Singing In The Rain at Upstairs At The Gatehouse

Best Male
Patrick O’Kane for Quietly at Soho Theatre
Harry Lloyd for Notes From Underground at The Print Room, Coronet
Robin Soans For Visitors at the Bush and Arcola Theatre Continue reading “2015 Offie Award Winners”

2015 Offie Award Finalists

Offies Awards - Off West End Theatre Awards

Best Female
Linda Bassett for Visitors at The Bush and the Arcola Theatre
Laura Jane Matthewson for Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse 
Shannon Tarbet for The Edge Of Our Bodies at The Gate

Best Supporting Female
Leila Crerar for Martine at Finborough Theatre
Vicki Lee Taylor for Carousel at Arcola Theatre
Thea Jo Wolfe for Singing In The Rain at Upstairs At The Gatehouse

Best Male
Patrick O’Kane for Quietly at Soho Theatre
Harry Lloyd for Notes From Underground at The Print Room, Coronet
Robin Soans For Visitors at the Bush and Arcola Theatre Continue reading “2015 Offie Award Finalists”

Review: Pomona, Orange Tree Theatre

“This isn’t conversation. It’s just you telling me about your dick”

Paul Miller’s reign at the Orange Tree looked to be an interesting one from the moment he announced his debut season as Artistic Director, mixing the classic revivals for which the Richmond venue has long been known with a more cutting edge approach to its new writing policy, inviting new directors too to open up the theatre to new eyes. But not even he can have anticipated the veritable Twitterstorm of good publicity that flew up among online reviewers when Alistair McDowell’s Pomona opened last month.

Unable to resist going along (and with the distinct possibility of being able to use the above gif not too far from my mind) I was able to fit it into the diary but not ‘til right at the end of the run. Which given how close we are to Christmas, how little free time I have and the level of weariness that has set in after overdoing just how much theatre I managed to see this year, means I’m going to limit myself to the briefest of comments about a play and a production, directed by Ned Bennett, that deserves more thorough thought and investigation.

The various stories of people-trafficking, missing twins, RPG playing, criminal misdoings and much more besides are scattered throughout a fractured timeline which only slowly coalesces with a sinking sense of horror. Georgia Lowe’s pitch-perfect design turns the in-the-round stage into a sunken pit which acts as a springboard (or sewer) for the dark swirlings of the drama and there’s fiercely committed performances from the cast – Sam Swann, Sean Rigby and Nadia Clifford in particular – even if the whole thing isn’t quite the second coming promised by some.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 13th December

The 2013 Manchester Theatre Awards nominations

Best Actor
David Birrell, Sweeney Todd, Royal Exchange
Kenneth Branagh, Macbeth, Manchester International Festival, St Peter’s Church
Nigel Cooke, To Kill A Mockingbird, Royal Exchange
Paul Webster, Sugar Daddies, Oldham Coliseum
Jack Wilkinson, David Copperfield, Oldham Coliseum

Best Actress
Marianne Benedict, Chicago, Oldham Coliseum
Cush Jumbo, A Doll’s House, Royal Exchange
Gillian Kearney, Educating Rita, Library at The Lowry
Alex Kingston, Macbeth, Manchester International Festival, St Peter’s Church
Maxine Peake, Masque Of Anarchy, Manchester International Festival, Albert Hall
Shannon Tarbet, To Kill A Mockingbird, Royal Exchange

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Ray Fearon, Macbeth, Manchester International Festival, St Peter’s Church
Kieran Hill, The Glass Menagerie, Octagon Theatre Bolton
Robin Simpson, David Copperfield, Oldham Coliseum

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Sally Bankes, That Day We Sang, Royal Exchange
Shirley Darroch, Chicago, Oldham Coliseum
Heather Phoenix, Sugar Daddies, Oldham Coliseum
Kelly Price, That Day We Sang, Royal Exchange

Best Actor in a Visiting Production
Paul Michael Glaser, Fiddler On The Roof, The Lowry
Julian Glover, Maurice’s Jubilee, Opera House
Louis Maskell, West Side Story, Palace
Barrie Rutter, Rutherford and Son, The Lowry
Tim Treloar, Birdsong, Oldham Coliseum

Best Actress in a Visiting Production
Michele Dotrice, The Ladykillers, The Lowry
Katie Hall, West Side Story, Palace
Catherine Kinsella, Rutherford and Son, The Lowry
Karen Mann, Fiddler On The Roof, The Lowry
Sian Phillips, People, The Lowry

Best Production
Of Mice and Men, directed by David Thacker, Octagon Theatre Bolton
Macbeth, directed by Rob Ashford, Manchester International Festival, St Peter’s Church
The Accrington Pals, directed by James Dacre, Royal Exchange
The Glass Menagerie, directed by David Thacker, Octagon Theatre Bolton
The Old Woman, directed by Robert Wilson, Manchester International Festival, Palace
To Kill A Mockingbird, directed by Max Webster, Royal Exchange

Best Visiting Production
Birdsong, The Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions Ltd, Oldham Coliseum
The Full Monty, Sheffield Theatres, The Lowry
The Ladykillers, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse / Fiery Angel, The Lowry
The Pirates Of Penzance, Scottish Opera and D’Oyly Carte, Opera House
Twelfth Night, Propeller, The Lowry
War Horse, National Theatre, The Lowry

Best Musical
Chicago, Oldham Coliseum
Fiddler On The Roof, The Lowry
Paradise Moscow, Royal Northern College Of Music
Singin’ In The Rain, Opera House
Sweeney Todd, Royal Exchange
Wicked, Palace

Opera
Festival of Britten (Peter Grimes / A Midsummer Night’s Dream / Death In Venice), Opera North, The Lowry
La Finta Giardiniera, Buxton Festival
L’Elisir d’Amore, Royal Northern College Of Music
La Voix Humaine, Buxton Festival
Otello, Opera North, The Lowry

Dance
Aladdin, Birmingham Royal Ballet, The Lowry
Michael Clark Triple Bill, The Lowry
Rambert, The Lowry
Richard Alston Dance Company, The Lowry
The Chelsea Hotel, Earthfall, The Lowry

Design
La Colombe/La Princesse Jaune, design Lez Brotherston; light John Bishop, Buxton Festival
Macbeth, design Christopher Oram; light Neil Austin; sound Christopher Shutt, Manchester International Festival, St Peter’s Church
Of Mice and Men, design and light Ciaran Bagnall; sound Andy Smith; costume designer Mary Horan, Octagon Theatre Bolton
The Accrington Pals, design Jonathan Fensom; light Charles Balfour; sound Emma Laxton, Royal Exchange
The Old Woman, designer/director Robert Wilson; sound Marco Oilvieri; light A J Weissbard, Manchester International Festival, Palace
The Machine, design Lucy Osborne; light Mark Henderson; sound Ian Dickinson/Autograph; video Andrzej Goulding, Manchester International Festival, Upper Campfield Market

Best Newcomer
Marcus Collins, Hairspray, The Lowry
Laura Elsworthy, The Accrington Pals, Royal Exchange
Nathan Ives-Moiba, Tull, Octagon Theatre Bolton
Freya Sutton, Hairspray, The Lowry
Nathan Wiley, The Glass Menagerie, Octagon Theatre Bolton

Best New Play
Away From Home, by Rob Ward and Martin Jameson, 24:7 Festival
Brilliant Adventures, by Alistair McDowall, Royal Exchange Studio
Cannibals, by Rory Mullarkey, Royal Exchange
Flesh, by Sarah McDonald Hughes, Royal Exchange Studio

Best Studio Production
A Wondrous Place, Royal Exchange Studio
Brilliant Adventures, Royal Exchange Studio
That Is All You Need To Know, The Lowry Studio

Best Fringe Production
Away From Home, Working Progress Theatre, 24:7 Festival
Little Shop of Horrors, Kings Arms
Mary Bell by Mary Bell, Studio Salford
The Best, Lass O’Gowrie
Word:Play, Box Of Tricks, various venues
Withnail and I, Shred Productions, Lass O’Gowrie

Best Studio Performance
Joseph Arkley, Brilliant Adventures, Royal Exchange Studio
David Judge, Pages From My Songbook, Royal Exchange Studio
Robert Lonsdale, Brilliant Adventures, Royal Exchange Studio
Gerry McLaughlin, Mugabeland!, The Lowry Studio

Best Fringe Performance
Rebecca Fenwick, Spoonface Steinberg, The Swan, Dobcross and tour
Stella Grundy, The Rise and Fall Of A Northern Star, Studio Salford
Dickie Patterson, The Best, Lass O’Gowrie
David Slack, Withnail and I, Lass O’Gowrie
Rob Ward, Away From Home, 24:7 Theatre Festival

Best Ensemble
Chicago, Oldham Coliseum
David Copperfield, Oldham Coliseum
Duck!, Z-Arts Manchester
Manchester Sound: The Massacre, Library
Of Mice and Men, Octagon Theatre Bolton

Best Special Entertainment
Dick Whittington, Opera House
Jack and the Beanstalk, Oldham Coliseum
Strictly Confidential, The Lowry
Sutra, The Lowry

Review: Talk Show, Royal Court

“I am sure you can all tell we’re going to have a great show tonight”

‘The show must go on’. Rarely can the oft-glibly offered aphorism have possessed such poignant resonance as at the Royal Court over the past week. Alistair McDowell’s Talk Show should have marked the end of the hugely ambitious weekly rep season, with a company of fourteen actors working their way through six new plays with just a week’s rehearsal for each. But instead, the news that company member Paul Bhattacharjee had gone missing during rehearsals, being followed by the discovery of his body a week later cast the most tragic sheen over the show.

The company opted to continue, initially recasting his (relatively small) role and then dedicating the remainder of the run to him. An incredibly tough decision at the best of times but sitting through the play and realising it touched so deeply on the emotional inarticulacy of generations of men, to the point where suicide becomes a viable option, there’s an almost incomprehensible poignancy about the determination to honour a colleague’s memory.

In many ways, Talk Show felt like the best of the weekly rep plays. McDowall has three generations of the same family living in a cramped house – 20-something graduate Sam is jobless and centres his energies on his nightly internet chat show, usual audience 6; his father Bill is also unemployed and unable to secure even the most menial jobs and so they both live with his father Ron, a gently wise figure who has seen it all before. Into this scenario tumbles Jonah, Bill’s brother who went AWOL after an emotional breakdown and his return merely focuses the desperation of this whole household.

And he does this through some powerfully emotive writing. There’s a huge amount of humour but constantly underlaid with darker notes: Ryan Sampson’s Sam is a near comic genius as the wisecracking host interviewing people like the guy from the fried chicken place down the street yet never feels more than three heartbeats from the deepest sadness, a young man unable to comprehend why he’s not been able to find his place in the world. And Jonjo O’Neill’s Jonah has a unique take on the world that is bleakly hilarious but again, the fiercely burning intensity within reminds us of the kind of pain that can never heal.

Ferdy Roberts’ taciturn Bill epitomises the stoic, suffering silence that characterises so much of the interactions between these men, with a painfully observed understatement. And it is this that strikes home the hardest, the knowledge that even the people we live with and are closest to can hide the deepest feelings in their soul and find it impossible to share the pain, to look for help, to cope. In Talk Show, dramatic license allows for an intervention and the tiniest glimmer of hope; in real life, we’re reminded that things are rarely that easily resolved. 

Caroline Steinbeis’ assured direction maintained a strong focus, allowing for the comic beats to hit as hard as the emotional ones, and the appearance of a six foot python provided some light relief as the inquisitive reptile decided that it was more interested in burrowing inside Lee Armstrong’s shirt than performing on the Sloane Square stage. McDowall’s writing shows much promise and it is not hard to see this particular play gaining some kind of further life whether here or elsewhere and it deserves it, the opportunity to shine on its own merits. For this particular production will live in the memory for tragically wrong reasons – the visible emotion at the curtain call, the horrendous period of uncertainty after Bhattacharjee’s disappearance played out in uncomfortably public view, and the untimely death of a much-treasured actor who had so much more to give.

Running time: 80 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 20th July