Review: The Height of the Storm, Wyndham’s

Such pleasure in watching Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins onstage plus The Height of the Storm at the Wyndham’s Theatre is great for post-show reconstruction of this deconstructed story 

“What would I do without you?
What would become of me without you?”

As Florian Zeller returns to the London stage with his latest play The Height of the Storm, you get something of the sense that British theatre is patting itself on the back saying ‘look, we do do European theatre’. But as with Ivo van Hove’s continued presence here, there’s a risk that familiarity will breed contempt as the risk of employing European theatremakers is mitigated by picking the same ones over and over.

Which is a bit of a long-winded way of saying that, whilst I enjoyed this immensely, I wonder if we’re approaching diminishing returns territory with Zeller. The Father was an extraordinary piece of storytelling in its disorientating structure and The Height of the Storm occupies a similar territory as we join long-married André and Madeleine and their two daughters and try to work out who is alive, who is dead, and just how many mushrooms there are onstage. Continue reading “Review: The Height of the Storm, Wyndham’s”

TV Review: The Crown, Series 1

“To do nothing is the hardest job of all” 

It’s taken a little time to getting round to watching all of The Crown because, in a first for me, I found it impossible to binge-watch the show. Even with Netflix kindly providing offline downloads just at the point where I had a lot of travelling to do, Peter Morgan’s drama was lots of fun to watch but rarely captured the buzzy energy that has accompanied much online programming. Because it many ways it isn’t like much of Netflix’s previous output, it really is an encroachment into BBC Sunday night and as such, I felt it worked best spread out in almost weekly installments.

That’s partly down to the nature of the subject material, we’re not likely to get many surprises in a detailed retelling of the history of the House of Windsor. But it is also due to Morgan’s writing which tends a little to the formulaic, especially in the middle part of the series, which is when my interest was most in danger of waning. The opening two episodes started brightly but once the shock of becoming monarch was over, the rhythm became very much one of someone close to the queen has an issue and she has to weigh personal desires against public duty, the latter always winning out. Continue reading “TV Review: The Crown, Series 1”

TV Review: The Crown Episodes 1 + 2

“The country needs to be led by someone strong”

You’d be hard-pressed not to know that Netflix have a new series called The Crown as a substantial portion of the £100 million plus budget has clearly been spent on blanket marketing coverage. And like a good punter brainwashed by adverts, I’ve watched the first two episodes to get a sense of what it is like.

Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Daldry, its credentials are impeccable and there is a slight sense of stepping on the BBC’s toes here, something alluded to in pre-show publicity that informed us the Beeb were less than willing to share archive footage from Buckingham Palace. But with as considerable and lavishly-spent a budget as this, the comparison isn’t quite fair as the ambitions here are most grand. Continue reading “TV Review: The Crown Episodes 1 + 2”

Review: Torn, Royal Court

“What you don’t know doesn’t harm you”

Not for the first time, Ultz’s design disarms you. You enter the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs to find it done up like a community centre, a circle of functional, grey plastic chairs in the middle of the room, a tea and coffee station off to the side. So begins Nathaniel Martello-White’s new play Torn and as Adelle Leonce’s Angel opens up the family meeting that she has called to work through some particularly pressing issues, you think you’ve got a handle on it.
You haven’t. For though it is stripped back, Torn is a fantastically knotty and complex piece of writing: full of fragmented flashbacks; verbose, overlapping dialogue; actors switching characters, sometimes mid-scene. It’s clear Martello-White has been using his time as a writer on attachment at the Royal Court well, for this is brave and ambitious work, both thoughtfully demanding and thought-provoking, it digs deep into the lengths families will go to to protect their own.
So as Angel steels herself to find out the truth about the abuse she suffered, family member after family member starts to pile in, dragging age-old recriminations and family secrets into the light, preferential treatment questioned and behaviours challenged. And in so far as the truth in concerned, the waters are left murky as the veracity of Angel’s claims is tested and not an easy conclusion to be found as scenes of past and present interact and interlock around the family.
Richard Twyman does well to keep as much clarity as he can but there’s no denying Torn is a challenge – I was left thoroughly engaged, dying to get my hands on the playtext to read and re-read the text; a friend was left a little more bemused. Equally, there’s no doubting how fiercely acted it is – Leonce is a stunning central presence, Indra Ové brilliantly slippery as her mother and Franc Ashman (as her twin), Kirsty Bushell and Lorna Brown all powerfully affecting as various aunts, the intricacies of their competing relationships – and you have to figure them out, nothing is handed to you – an added layer to work through. Bold stuff indeed.
Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Helen Maybanks
Booking until 15th October

Review: I’m With The Band, St James Theatre

“If rock and rolling means perforating your testes, then I’ll stick to just playing guitar thank you very much”

Between recent plays on Wikileaks and Scottish independence at this year’s Edinburgh festival, Welsh playwright Tim Price has shown himself to be utterly unafraid of tackling some of the more pressing topical subjects of our time. The well-received Radicalisation of Bradley Manning has finished for now but I’m With The Band has transferred to the St James Theatre for a two week run. Four piece indie-rock band The Union are riding high on critical and commercial success but a devastating piece of news about their finances leaves them millions in the red and prompts the departure of their lead guitarist Barry. With the original structure broken, the remaining members have to recalibrate and decide what, if any, future remains.

That the key creative relationship in the band is between the Caledonian Barry and the English keyboard player Damien adds piquancy, setting up this allegorical study of what the effects of Scottish independence might be. But he cleverly expands the picture to include Welsh bassist Gruff and Ulsterman Aaron on drums, who has an additional tortured relationship with Irish girlfriend Sinead with whom he shares a house which is divided by a chalk line they never cross, reminding us all that though the focus may be nearly exclusively Anglo-Scottish, there are two more countries involved in the wider question of separation. Continue reading “Review: I’m With The Band, St James Theatre”

Review: Blue Surge, Finborough

“I thought I could pay for something a little extra…”

Opening with a pair of botched raids on a massage parlour suspected of offering additional services, the Finborough’s latest UK premiere – that of Rebecca Gilman’s Blue Surge – bustles with relationships between cops and hookers, discussions about the American class system and exploring whether you can ever truly escape your past. Set in a mid-sized Midwestern city in the recent past, Curt is a hard-working honourable cop, who with his doofus of a partner Doug was responsible for ballsing up the raids and thus potentially jeopardising a promotion. They both find themselves drawn to two of the workers they encountered there though and whilst Doug falls into a relationship with the ditzy Heather, Curt tries to play the knight in shining armour and rescue Sandy, with whom he feels a great affinity, putting both his job and his relationship with fiancée Beth severely at risk.

For Beth is middle-class and choosing to slum it as an artist and Curt finds it impossible to really connect with her as he is from a solidly working-class background , his upbringing close to the poverty line and continuing, he believes, to shape his life even now. Connecting with Sandy, who reveals a similarly broken childhood which has directly resulted in her career choice, he sees a kindred spirit despite the 20 year age gap and a quirky relationship of sorts starts to grow between them. But whilst he wants to rescue her, she doesn’t actually want rescuing and so good-intentioned as he is, Curt’s actions threaten to jeopardise everything.

Blue Surge is largely effective at its portrayal of lonely souls clutching at the possibility of real way out, aided by some excellent acting. James Hillier oozes a raw masculine sexuality as Curt, almost haunted by his decency and unable to believe that things could ever really be different for him, and connecting beautifully with Clare Latham’s Sandy, an Ellen Page-like performance of quirky normality, a matter-of-factness about her situation and what she has to do to get through life. The only real drawback is in the way that Gilman writes here for her characters. She endows them with an occasional sense of erudite self-awareness which whilst being extremely revelatory, simply doesn’t ring true as realistic dialogue: it even comes close to hampering the emotional intensity of the acting at times.

Samantha Coughlan’s Beth is also a victim of this underdeveloped characterisation, seeming more of a vessel for parroting the playwright’s words, but there’s great comic work from a goofy Alexander Guiney and a cracking Kelly Burke as Doug and Heather who manage to find the connection with each other, displaying a lovely emotional growth by the end and suggesting that there is a way through it all. Ché Walker’s production works well in Georgia Lowe’s simply designed set, excerpts of melancholy jazz and Americana enlivening scene changes and though one may question the effectiveness of the writing at times at really locating the emotional heart of the work, there is much else to commend this piece of engaging, and frequently very amusing, theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 27th August
Note: one (hilarious) scene of male nudity

Review: Mr Happiness and The Water Engine, Old Vic Tunnels

“The mind of man is less perturbed by a mystery he cannot explain than by an explanation he cannot understand”

I’ve had something of a varied history in the Old Vic Tunnels since it opened early last year: exciting immersive experiences and one of the worst productions conceivable – I still can’t look at a watering can the same way… And since opening last year, it continued to develop as a performing space, making varied use of the atmospheric arches, and they have now opened up The Screening Room, a brand-new 125-seater space both programmed and run by a team of volunteers to showcase the ‘new’ and offer training and experience in all aspects of theatre creation. The first show mounted here is a double bill of David Mamet radio plays, Mr Happiness and The Water Engine, presented by Theatre6 and MokitaGrit.

The first, short, piece is a one-man-show, David Burt starring as a radio show host playing at agony uncle, reading out letters and dispensing frank advice to his listeners’ personal problems. Silhouettes on the bookshelves behind him enact some of the scenes which adds an extra layer which isn’t strictly necessary as Burt’s sonorous voice and expressive face are more than plenty to guide us through the tangled concerns with a soft but matter-of-fact humour.

As we slide straight into the second play with the help of a beautifully harmonised rendition of the Illinois State song and the whisking away of the shelves to reveal the full depth of the stage, it is clear that The Water Engine is going to be something different. Inventor Charles Lang, played with great earnest by Jamie Treacher, has created an engine which runs on water for fuel. Aware of the need to secure the patent for his invention and dreaming of a better life for himself and his sister, he underestimates just how devious big business and their lawyers can be.

The full ensemble is involved here, not just in playing the many small parts around this main narrative, but also in the creation of the full 1930s bustling soundscape of the show. Musical interludes abound, with sax, banjo, trombone, piano all being utilised and sound effects and amplified voices coming from all around, slamming drawers and rattling phones being the most visible and making explicit the connection here between radio and theatre. The sax playing did get a little Lisa Simpson for me, getting a little bit repetitive for my liking and when the music was underscoring vocal performances, the balance was not always 100% in the echoey chamber, though largely atmospheric.

Burt shone again as one of the devious lawyers, barely concealing the malevolence behind his smile, Timothy Knightley’s journalist and Lee Drage’s appealingly innocent Bernie also impressing, all dealing with ease with Mamet’s customary stylised dialogue. The way in which the connections are drawn between the two pieces, which slowly come into view, is neatly done, this isn’t Mamet’s most sophisticated work to be sure, but there’s a simplicity to the emotion behind the writing that really works.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2.50 (and well worth it for the tons of content within: it puts many a West End programme to shame)
Booking until 9th July