Review: A Pupil, Park Theatre

Strong performances from Lucy Sheen and Flora Spencer-Longhurst make Jesse Briton’s A Pupil an interesting watch at the Park Theatre

“No instrument is more important than the player”

What price genius? We’re often subjected to portrayals of (usually male) creative masterminds that pay little mind to the havoc wrought in the name of their chosen subject. So it is instructive to see the script flipped a bit by Jesse Briton with his new play A Pupil. From its opening moments as former violinist Ye lines up the bottles of pills and whiskey she hopes will end her life, there’s little sugercoating of the weight that talent can bring to bear.

It wasn’t always thus, and it needn’t continue to be. Ye’s involvement in a car crash left her physically incapacitated but she’s slowly mending with the help of landlady Mary. And former colleague Phyllida has lined up a tutoring job for her, helping to prepare the daughter of a Russian oligarch for an audition to the Royal Conservatoire where she teaches. But is talent something that can be nurtured, whether by individuals or by institutions, and is it ever really worth it? Continue reading “Review: A Pupil, Park Theatre”

Review: Love’s Labour’s Won (Much Ado About Nothing), Royal Shakespeare Theatre

“I did not think I should live till I were married”

In a brief programme note, Gregory Doran declares he’s “sticking his neck out” to suggest that Much Ado About Nothing may also have been known as Love’s Labour’s Won during Shakespeare’s lifetime and thus makes a novel yet inspired partnership with Love’s Labour’s Lost in an RSC double bill. Whether true or not is by and by in the end (though Shakespearean scholars will doubtless disagree) as Christopher Luscombe’s cross-cast productions combine to great effect as well as standing proud in their own right in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Where Love’s Labour’s Lost was set just before the outbreak of the Great War, Love’s Labour’s Won picks up English society as peace has finally been achieved and the Christmas of 1918 might at last be a merry one and from the outset, it feels like a more fitting interpretation. Beatrice’s independence of mind having been nurtured by the freedom of being able to work; Don John arriving as a soul-weary, battle-scarred PTSD sufferer; the rush of Claudio, Benedick, even Pedro to thoughts of marriage an emotional response to an unimaginably traumatic conflict – there’s a pleasing fit to it all. Continue reading “Review: Love’s Labour’s Won (Much Ado About Nothing), Royal Shakespeare Theatre”

Review: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

“The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You that way: we this way”

Always a fan of a project, the RSC have paired up Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing – which they posit may have been once known as Love’s Labour’s Won – relocated the plays to an England either side of the First World War and let Christopher Luscombe loose at them with a single company, led by Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry. The RSC have hit on a cracker in uniting this pair, reuniting them in fact as they are RADA chums of old, with the wry looks and crackling tension between Berowne and Rosalind clear from the off.

A truly excellent comic actor, Bennett has the wonderful gift of always seeming on the verge of corpsing and for Berowne, it really works. The last to be co-opted into the King of Navarre’s aesthetic scheme of abstinence for him and three buddies, the first to point fingers when incriminating love poems start to appear once ladies arrive on the scene, Bennett shows us that this is a man well aware of the daftness of the enterprise he’s gotten swept up in. But he’s also an actor of much depth as he conveys the genuine sense of surprise that accompanies his own unexpected tumble head over heels and the crushing heartbreak of the play’s end. Continue reading “Review: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Royal Shakespeare Theatre”

Review: Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Foul-spoken coward, that thund’rest with thy tongue, and with thy weapon nothing dar’st perform!”

The Globe must be loving all the attention that Titus Andronicus has gained as Lucy Bailey’s claustrophobically gory production returns and once again brings with it numerous fainters at every show, that in turn providing an easy hook for feature writers to focus on, garnering the kind of free publicity other theatres could only dream of. That people faint fairly regularly at the Globe is by the by, and far be it from me to get in the way of a good story…

And in some ways, that is kind of the point. It isn’t too far of a stretch to suggest that Titus isn’t one of Shakespeare’s strongest works and so directors have to work hard at making it work and much of what Bailey introduces is excellent. William Dudley’s design manages that all-too-rare thing of actually doing something completely different with the Globe’s space, brilliantly evoking hellish blackness throughout, and Django Bates’ score is superbly eerie. Continue reading “Review: Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Review: Once, Phoenix

“Raise your hopeful voice, you have a choice”

Unusually for a West End musical, Once gently pulses rather than powerhouses its way into the affections, beating very much to its own unique rhythm with a sublimely sensitive story of the power of music and the pain of untimely love. From the working bar on stage that welcomes the audience into the auditorium of the Phoenix with a makeshift ceilidh to the presence of quality names like Enda Walsh and John Tiffany, it is immediately clear that this is no ordinary film-to-stage transfer.

Augmented and adapted by Walsh, the book covers the brief but intense journey of a guy and a girl, named Guy and Girl, who connect strongly but find that what they can sing to each other, they cannot say once the music has stopped. He’s a busking vacuum cleaner repairman missing his girlfriend in New York, she’s an unhappily married Czech mother searching for purpose and when she spots his potential, starts up a project to get him to record a demo but their feelings soon threaten to pull them onto the cusp of new possibility.  Continue reading “Review: Once, Phoenix”

Review: The Importance of Being Earnest – a new musical, Riverside Studios

“A handbag…?!”

 
Last year, Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios scored itself quite the sleeper hit of the festive shows with a hugely successful revival of Salad Days which was an absolute delight. This year, Carl Rosa Opera were booked in to bring their production of The Pirates of Penzance to try and recapture some of the same retro vibe but due to circumstances beyond their control, the show had to be cancelled. Stepping into the breach, as unlikely as it may sound, is a musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest starring no less than Gyles Brandreth as Lady Bracknell – something that promised to rather different to the Jane Asher-starring version that recently played at the Rose, Kingston.

Douglas Livingstone’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic retains much of the original, but re-sites the action into the 1920s. This offers a world of opportunity on the music and dance side, but also seems rather apt in terms of the increasing empowerment of women – though necessarily still limited – in dealing with their affairs. And the music from Adam McGuinness and Zia Moranne has a nice simplicity which never tries to do too much or make too much of an impact. For the songs really do serve an integral purpose here, taking advantage of our familiarity with the play to further build on and enrich these characters and scenarios to great effect. Continue reading “Review: The Importance of Being Earnest – a new musical, Riverside Studios”

Review: The Beggar’s Opera, Open Air Theatre

“You will always be a vulgar slut”

The Beggar’s Opera written by John Gay in 1728 was the first example of the ballad opera, perhaps the forerunner to today’s jukebox musicals in folding in pre-existing tunes to a satirical narrative that poked fun at the ever-popular Italian operas that were all the rage. Gay set his play in amongst the lowlifes of society, our main protagonist Macheath is a highwayman and raging lothario and the slowly twisting plot follows his shenanigans as he gets married to Polly Peachum, despite having gotten Lucy Lockit pregnant, unaware that the parents of both are part of a corrupt justice system that would happily see him hang so that his reputed fortune would come to them. Lucy Bailey directs this production which takes place in the elegant Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park.

The overall impact is somewhat underwhelming though, the score not really proving to be melodically distinct enough, nor the story witty or moving enough to really crackle with life. For 2 hours 40 minutes, there is very little to the plot and much of the running time is taken over by the 69 songs that are sung throughout the show. Though mostly sung well, these rarely progress the action but rather arrest the flow and as the vast majority of them fall neatly into the English folk ballad category, there’s a gnawing sense of repetition that sets in. And even when there is no singing, there’s little vibrancy or energy on stage, movement director Maxine Doyle of Punchdrunk has introduced a rather sluggish pace and Bailey’s direction does not draw out enough of the comedy from the productions or her performers. Continue reading “Review: The Beggar’s Opera, Open Air Theatre”

Review: A Christmas Carol, King’s Head

“Is there no festive spirit in that businessman’s heart of yours?”

Of all the various productions of A Christmas Carol that can be found dotted around London this winter, I doubt any are as well suited to their venue as MokitaGrit’s production at the King’s Head Theatre on Islington’s Upper Street. There’s something old-fashioned about this cosy theatre pub and it suits this Victorian, gothic-inflected version of Charles Dickens’ famous story down to the ground.

Opening with, and then continually narrated by Dickens himself (played by a genial Nigel Lister), trying to convince a publisher and a pub full of locals that he has a story worth telling, a cast of 16 effortlessly sing, play and dance their way through this familiar tale with such inventiveness and vibrancy that you could not feel more festive by the end if you tried. Using every inch of available space, the cast flow around the full scope of the stage and even up and down the aisles with such ease and confidence, bringing the audience with them right into the heart of the action. I loved the arrival of the chain-dragging spirits, though its probably not for the faint of heart, and there was some clever use of puppetry and props throughout which kept the dynamic energy going. Continue reading “Review: A Christmas Carol, King’s Head”