Review: Treasure Island, National Theatre

“Thanks for all the pies and adventures”

The big family-oriented show at the National Theatre this winter is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (though as it runs in rep right through to April, one hopes Spring will have sprung by then) which has been adapted for the stage by Bryony Lavery. But whilst Polly Findlay’s production has some very definite plus points, not least in an inspired design by Lizzie Clachan which utilises so much of the Olivier’s potential, it doesn’t quite have the full shiver-me-timbers factor to make it an undoubted success.

Clachan frames the theatre’s large revolving drum with a set of lowering curved ribs which suggest all kinds of mystical maritime adventures – the frame of a trusty ship, the ribcage of a giant whale, the quivering trees of a strange island. Deep in the revolve is where the real treasure is though, a warren of cabins that reflect the social hierarchy of the time and later on the maze of tunnels in which the gold can be found. Combined with the sensational starry skyscape up above, Bruno Poet’s lighting looking stunning, this is the National doing what it does so well. Continue reading “Review: Treasure Island, National Theatre”

Review: The Secret Agent, Young Vic

“The stress is on the second syllable”

In some ways, it might be best to come to Theatre O’s version of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent with some fore-knowledge of that classic novel to help guide you through this expressionistic interpretation. But in others, it might be better to know nothing as this adaptation proves sometimes problematic in its marriage of physical theatre with the conventions of narrative storytelling. Devised for the Edinburgh festival ahead of a national tour, and now revised, the show lands at the Young Vic where its delights and frustrations can be sampled over a short run.

The company make their intentions clear from the start, a vaudevillean whirl of stylised Victoriana strikes a bold pose and it isn’t long before there’s audience participation, puppets aplenty and a definite air of parodic comedy. But as the silliness subsides, a clearer sense of Conrad’s story emerges and one is struck by how remarkably prescient his writing from 1907 is to our day and age. His world of insurgent terrorism, dark shadows tearing families apart, is told via the story of Adolf Verloc, a hapless would-be spy given with the onerous task of bombing the Greenwich Observatory.


The main problem with this is that having started off with a light-hearted, almost jovial tone, asking the audience to then take these characters so deadly seriously feels like a big ask and one not necessarily deserved. But as the play winds to its violent climax, it does eventually start to strike a more apposite tone with performances shining through the pandemonium – Helena Lymbery’s Professor a chilling presence, Carolina Valdés’ anguished sister – suggesting the hints of what could have been with a more cohesive approach to the story or the style. 

Running time: 75 minutes (without interval)

Playtext cost: £5

Booking until 21st September, then tours to West Yorkshire Playhouse, Warwick Arts Centre, Northern Stage and Theatre Royal Plymouth

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: This House, National Theatre

“We have traditions, gentlemen’s agreements…things to help us to the best we can”

It’s always nice when karma works out in your favour. A clash in the schedule meant that I had to return my original ticket for This House and as the run was completely sold out, I was doubtful that I’d get to see the show. But as it turned out, standing tickets in the pit had just been released and so for the princely sum of £5, I was able to take in an early preview of James Graham’s new play for the National Theatre.

Set in the halls of Westminster across the incident-ridden 1974-1979 parliament, This House occupies that strange ground of fictionalised reality that so many playwrights seem to love. Graham has taken inspiration from the real events of the time – the hung parliament, economic crises, changes in leadership and a surprisingly high mortality rate among MPs – and created his own version of events. His focus lies with the whips on both sides and it is from their perspective that we see events occur, as they troubleshoot left, right and centre, struggle to control their wayward members and do deal after deal with their opposing counterparts, observing the age-old traditions and principles that serve in place of a constitution. Continue reading “Review: This House, National Theatre”

Review: Faith Hope and Charity, Southwark Playhouse

“I did not come here for a political diatribe”

I have a friend who has a mortal fear of the embarrassment she would suffer if she were to die on the toilet (yeah, I know!) but the manner of playwright Ödön von Horváth’s death is so bizarrely random, killed by a falling tree branch on the way to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the cinema, that I think I’d take it (although I’d want to be on the way to an art-house film rather than The Green Lantern – pretentious to the end ;-)) In which convoluted way leads us to the Southwark Playhouse who are putting on his 1933 play Faith, Hope and Charity. It has been translated by Christopher Hampton who also did the English version for the Almeida’s Judgment Day, my only other von Horváth experience.

The main premise of the story is of how the working class individual can struggle to make ends meet for a lifetime yet still be lost in and crushed by a social system that cares nothing for them. Saleswoman Elisabeth is such a person: fined for selling lingerie without a permit which she can’t afford to buy because she hasn’t got a job, she borrows money to pay the fine and borrows some more to get the permit, but her economy with the truth – after all who would lend money to a petty criminal – gets her into even more trouble as she struggles to keep life and love on track. Continue reading “Review: Faith Hope and Charity, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, Arcola

“Words come out of my mouth like toads”

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is one of Caryl Churchill’s earlier plays, taking up residence now in Studio 1 of Dalston’s Arcola Theatre. Set during the English Civil War, it deals with a period of time when there was huge political upheaval, the conflict between the power of the landowning class and the burgeoning ideals around individual freedom came to a head and questions around liberty and real democracy were posed by the different factions in Cromwell’s New Model Army.

The focus in each half is around a debate, in the first half it is the Putney Debates of 1647 when common soldiers argued passionately for genuine democratic reform in opposition to Oliver Cromwell’s policies of protecting the power of the landowners. In the second, it is a group of common people who have found God through or indeed despite their suffering and starvation. Around these focal points is a collage of stories of how brutal life for the population at large is, as they are constantly kept down-at-heel: the poor are whipped, children abandoned to their death, evangelists preaching of the new heaven on earth for men but not women, all rather bleak. Continue reading “Review: Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, Arcola”