Review: Plaques and Tangles, Royal Court

“It’ll be bad for other people”

Like a Rubik’s Cube forever going wrong, Megan’s memory – ravaged by early onset Alzheimer’s – keeps shifting and reforming itself in endless configurations that don’t quite work. And so in Nicola Wilson’s Plaques and Tangles, we see her at different ages, skittering from 21 to 47, juddering between 32 and 27, her very sense of self fractured by a cruelly progressive disease which in her darkest moments, leaves her unaware if she is even awake or hallucinating in the traverse cocoon of Andrew D Edwards’ set design.

This is made more poignantly powerful by the fact that she has a family, two kids and a husband who suffer alongside her but more often isolated from her as the wife and mother they love becomes harder to find. And with the disease having a high genetic propensity, Wilson’s play probes into the messy ethics of early diagnosis – we first meet Megan on the day she discovers she has a 50-50 chance of developing it – which just happens to be on her hen night – but becomes ambivalent once given the chance to find out for sure. Continue reading “Review: Plaques and Tangles, Royal Court”

Review: All My Sons, Open Air Theatre

“This thing – this thing is not over yet….”

Ivo van Hove’s revelatory approach to Arthur Miller’s work has set the bar almost impossibly high for other directors and so it’s perhaps a little unfortunate that Timothy Sheader is first up with All My Sons, the opening production in this year’s season in the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. It’s not that it’s a bad production, not at all, but rather it just feels a little pedestrian, too traditional to really make the heart beat faster in the way brilliant theatre should, and in the way previous productions have done.

There are elements that work well – the span of the play over a day is perfectly suited to the night that slowly falls over the park, the planes that fly noisily overhead add a piquancy of their own and the well-cast company are excellent. Tom Mannion’s Joe Keller is the patriarch whose collusion in a terrible fraud hangs ominously like a cloud over his family, Charles Aitken and Amy Nuttall are moving as son Chris and his intended (with strings) Ann and Bríd Brennan is fearsomely fantastic as the delusional Kate. Continue reading “Review: All My Sons, Open Air Theatre”

Review: Sweet Bird of Youth, Old Vic

“A lot of folks say they like what I did but they don’t like the way I did it”

There’s much to admire about the Old Vic’s lavish production of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, but ultimately I found little to really love as its three hours meander their way through its uneventful beginnings to a far-from-revelatory conclusion. Its big selling point is the return of Kim Cattrall to our stage, playing fading Hollywood star Alexandra Del Lago who is in hiding in a Florida hotel after a disastrous movie premiere which was designed to be a grand comeback. Helping her over her trauma is a handsome gigolo named Chance who fancies himself as an actor but finding himself in his hometown, has to deal with the demons of his past.

The play feels scuppered from the start by the lengthy two-hander which dominates the opening. Cattrall is excellent, if a little too luminous to really convince as a past-it star, as Del Lago rails against the movie system that has made her who she is and can yet still spit her out at the merest hint of failure. The problem lies with the character of Chance, Williams’ predilection for martyrish tendencies not backed up with anywhere near enough depth of character to make us care for someone intended to be a tragic hero. Seth Numrich does well in layering in as much nuance as he can but never really convinces as far as the chemistry between the pair goes, a near-fatal mis-step for me and one from which the play never recovered.

Continue reading “Review: Sweet Bird of Youth, Old Vic”

Review: Desolate Heaven, Theatre503

“Girls can do anythin’ so…”

If you see two more accomplished or affecting debut performances this year than those of Carla Langley and Evelyn Lockley at the Theatre503, then you will be very lucky indeed. Along with the more seasoned Bríd Brennan, they star in Desolate Heaven, a new play from Irish composer and playwright Ailís Ní Ríain and a piece of new writing that dances variously between grimly realistic road-trip, lesbian coming-of-age story and cautionary fairytale.   

Langley’s Orlaith and Lockley’s Sive are both teenage girls and bound together by their similar responsibilities in acting as a carer for one parent in the absence of the other. Orlaith has developed a brittle exterior of forthright bluster in the face of her father’s mental illness but in dealing with her paralysed mother, Sive has become altogether more introverted. But despite the innate difference in their characters, they bond over the idea of fleeing the oppressive reality of their lives and seize the first chance that comes their way, unprepared for the consequences they’re ultimately forced to face. 

Ní Ríain’s writing has a densely poetic quality which suits the mood of the piece – James Perkins’ pitch-perfect set helping too – as it wends its surrealist way through the trials and tribulations of the girls’ adventure, portraying the emotional closeness that grows between the pair as they test out the boundaries of their sexuality but also the suffocating intensity that comes from swapping one inordinately close relationship for another. Both actresses are utterly compelling, a raw freshness making their chemistry believable and the naïveté of their characters almost forgivable.


The tendency towards the opaque is constant though as references to WB Yeats are intermittently woven throughout the text to unexplained effect. And the girls encounter three mysterious figures – all played by the excellent Bríd Brennan – with a flair for storytelling on their journey who act almost as fairy godmothers but again, their presence has an elusive quality that may frustrate. But there’s no mistaking the intoxicating power that comes from watching the headlong youthful rush and the  despair that seeps in as their heaven crumbles into the desolation of the title. Challenging but worthwhile.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)

Playtext cost: £3.50

Booking until 2nd March


Originally written for The Public Reviews 

Review: Henry V, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Must I bite?”

Marking the final entry in the Globe to Globe festival is the UK with this production of Henry V which reunites Jamie Parker with the role of Prince Hal that he played in 2010’s Henry IV Part I and II. The boy has now become king and the play covers his attempt to reconquer the English gains in France, most notably at the battle of Agincourt, and his growth into a leader who can inspire men to follow their duty to their country. Parker clearly has a close affinity to this character and it was a clever move to wait a couple of years before taking on this particular part as he is able to bring even more clear-spoken gravitas, colour and detail to this very human king.

Around him though, is a production by Dominic Dromgoole which errs very strongly towards the broadest crowd-pleasing comedy it can manage. Bríd Brennan’s beautifully versed Chorus and Olivia Ross’ poised Princess Katherine impressed as did the multi-part antics of Chris Starkie and Beruce Khan (additionally stepping in as understudy for an indisposed Matthew Flynn). But too often, the overreliance on the comic tone just fell flat for me. The Pistol, Bardolph et al antics were as bawdy as they have ever been, which ended up undermining their darker side (is the treatment of the French soldier really a subject of comedy?) and the tragedy of their fates (Boy is particularly hard done by). Continue reading “Review: Henry V, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Review: The Veil, National Theatre

“What is it about this place that is a conduit for desperate souls”

Conor McPherson’s The Veil is his first original play for 5 years and set in 1822, marks his first foray into period writing although as it is set in a haunted country house in rural Ireland, he isn’t venturing too far from familiar territory. Rae Smith’s one room set, although it is a lavish recreation of the faded grandeur of a crumbling country pile, has great attention to detail with a great staircase going off the left and up to the gods and a large tree out the back of the conservatory and in it, we see the trials of the Lambroke family. Lady Madeleine’s estate is heavily indebted after the death of her husband and an impending economic crisis and so her 17 year old daughter Hannah is being married off to an English marquis. Hannah is a troubled young woman though, who hears voices and when her chaperone Berkeley proposes a séance before heading back to England with his philosopher friend Audelle, the personal demons and family secrets thus revealed threaten devastating effects.

I was someone else’s plus one for the evening for once and wasn’t actually aware it was the first preview until we arrived at the National in good company (though I did know it was early in the run) and so all the usual caveats apply. And they will apply because I didn’t like it all, though as ever, people rarely seem to have complaints when it is a positive review about a preview… McPherson directs his own play in the Lyttelton and I tend to be a little wary when I hear that playwrights are directing their own work, especially with new plays, as I always innately feel that they would benefit from external influences. Whether that is true or not I don’t know, but what I do know is that The Veil was painfully sluggish and not because of the mechanics of working through a first performance but mainly because of the writing and its construction. Continue reading “Review: The Veil, National Theatre”

Review: Pillars of the Community, National Theatre

From where preconceptions come I am not entirely sure, but I’ve never been a fan of Ibsen’s plays even when they come as highly recommended as this production of Pillars of the Community at the National Theatre. The play marks the centenary of Ibsen’s death and is apparently one of his lesser performed works, something that doesn’t always inspire the greatest of confidences.

The play centres around Karsten Bernick, an avaricious and deceitful man who has climbed the greasy pole to become something of a bigwig in his small Norwegian town and managed to create an allure of benevolence and good standing in the community. But skeletons in the closet have a way of re-emerging and when two members of his extended family, who know all of his dirty secrets, return from America, Bernick is challenged to discover just how far he is willing to go to protect his reputation and continue to ignore his conscience. Continue reading “Review: Pillars of the Community, National Theatre”

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”