Review: Reasons to be Happy, Hampstead

“That’s like practically incest”

Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Happy actually takes the form of a sequel of sorts to his earlier work Reasons to be Pretty, seen at the Almeida in 2011. Reflecting that continuity, director Michael Attenborough returns along with Soutra Gilmour as designer, reprising what looks like the same shipping container and rather oddly, just one of the original quartet of actors. Tom Burke is back as lead character Greg but the luminous lights of Siân Brooke, Kieran Bew and Billie Piper are replaced by Lauren O’Neil, Warren Brown and Robyn Addison.

You don’t need to have seen Reasons to be Pretty to see Reasons to be Happy but it certainly helps as the play picks up three years later on as their tangled inter-relationships have reconfigured into a new and different mess. Greg and Steph are no longer together but a spark still remains between them as evidenced by the blazing row that opens the show, as it did in Pretty. But she’s married to someone else and he’s having it off with her best friend Carly, who is the ex-wife of his best friend Kent who is in turn keen on getting back with the mother of his child. Continue reading “Review: Reasons to be Happy, Hampstead”

Review: Autobahn, King’s Head

“It’s all the same, you know? How it looks out there, along the highway.”

This summer has seen at least two song cycles imported into our theatres from the US (I’ve seen See Rock City… and Edges though there may well have been more) but Neil LaBute’s Autobahn extends the concept to straight drama, subtitled as it is as ‘A Short-Play Cycle’. As with the musicals, what this means is that to search for overarching narratives is a fruitless activity as what we’re presented with is a series of disparate parts with only the loosest thematic continuity.

It can help to be forearmed with such knowledge as the experience might otherwise be a little disconcerting. The seven playlets here are linked merely by all taking place in the front seats of a car that is making one kind of journey or another in America, and through the way in which the playwright toys with ideas of language and how people use it. Though given LaBute’s predilection for the darker, seedier side of human nature, we’re often left squirming in the back as unpalatable truths come to light and shocking revelations spill forth.  Continue reading “Review: Autobahn, King’s Head”

Review: The Shape of Things, Arcola

“Art has to be created, no matter the cost”

What price art? How far and fearlessly should one be allowed to pursue artistic ambition? The arguments may recall the more recent debates to try and protect the arts in the never-ending rounds of funding cuts in the name of austerity but they also form the basis of Neil LaBute’s 2001 play The Shape of Things, first seen at the Almeida before making it to Hollywood and revived here by Samuel Miller in the gloom of the Arcola’s basement Studio 2.

It’s a play to see unspoiled if you can, the plot hinging excellently on its grand reveal. Suffice to say that there’s more than meets the eye to this tale of Adam and Eve – this Adam is a scruffily nerdish art gallery, this Eve(lyn) is a modish art student who picks him up in the middle of a protest against a sculpture he’s meant to be watching, and their Garden of Eden the relationship that thus blossoms and sees him transform almost beyond recognition. Continue reading “Review: The Shape of Things, Arcola”

Review: Reasons To Be Pretty, Almeida

“I guess there’s a compliment wedged in there somewhere”

Neil LaBute has developed a reputation for fierce writing, exposing the darker side of human nature with an often uncompromisingly abrasive approach, but his new play at the Almeida – Reasons To Be Pretty – sees him adopt a slightly mellower tone to devastatingly powerful effect. Continuing the exploration of society’s obsession with looks and beauty that occupied earlier plays like The Shape of Things and Fat Pig, LaBute also examines disillusionment in relationships and how that can lead to betrayal.

The play opens with an intensely sharp argument between lovers Steph and Greg: he described her as regular in comparison to a new arrival in the factory where he works with best friend Kent and she found out when her friend Carly told her: she is horrified but he doesn’t see what the big deal is and their confrontations reveal cracks in their relationship. Meanwhile Carly is facing her own trials with husband Kent, expecting their child but worried he might not continue to find her attractive – how appearances are perceived is key for everyone. Continue reading “Review: Reasons To Be Pretty, Almeida”

Review: The Mercy Seat, Pleasance

“This is not me ranting”

 As the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks looms, London theatres are looking to mark the occasion in their own ways: Headlong’s unique immersive approach has brought together 19 writers to create something new, the King’s Head are reviving the opera Manifest Destiny that questions US culpability in the attack and the Pleasance has this revival of Neil LaBute’s 2002 play The Mercy Seat, one of the first theatrical responses which predictably attracted much controversy in its original run.

The timing of brand new company Glow Box Production’s revival would seem to be a natural fit, but the truth is that the events of the 11th September only form a backdrop to LaBute’s play, they act as a trigger to the human drama that plays out but it is far from the central thrust of the work, something which a little distance from the actual event clearly helps with. Instead the focus is on the relationship between Ben and Abby and the choices they make in the face of the opportunity presented to them in the face of tragedy as they escape death by having taken the morning off for a sneaky liaison at her apartment. They’ve been having an affair for the past three years and see in the chaos of a city in turmoil, a chance to sneak off and start a life together but there’s more than a few issues that stand in the way. Continue reading “Review: The Mercy Seat, Pleasance”

Review: In A Forest, Dark and Deep, Vaudeville

“How is it possible we shared the same womb”

Neil LaBute’s latest play In A Forest, Dark and Deep, is receiving its world premiere at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand, showing his willingness to mix things up from London to New York, off-West End to West End – his last new play to show here was at the Almeida in 2009, In A Dark, Dark House. The bigger house here might also be a reflection of the bigger anticipated box office as the two-hander features the return to the London stage for Olivia Williams and a rare foray into theatre for Matthew Fox, now released from the purgatory that was Lost. (This was a preview show that I saw, which coincided with a What’s on Stage outing that some friends were attending.)

This is a twisty thriller in which the erudite Betty has called upon her carpenter brother Bobby to help her shift lots of books left by a student tenant in her lakeside chalet, beautifully designed over two storeys by Soutra Gilmour, despite their tetchy relationship. What unfolds, as a storm blows outside, is a tempestuous portrayal of these two completely different siblings who cannot resist baiting each other even as adults, but our preconceptions are then over-turned as pieces of information come to light which throw a whole new light on just what is going on this cabin.

What brings the show to life is the quality of the performances and the way in which the sibling rivalry is brought to vivid life by Williams and Fox as the twists and turns force constant reassessment of these characters. His Bobby is swaggeringly confident, blue collar through-and-through with his questionable attitudes on women, blacks, gays, anything different and seemingly never a hairs-breadth away from exploding with violence. Yet there’s a forceful persuasiveness to the way in which he adheres to his own code and something quite moving in the way in which he decides what is most important to him.

Williams’ emotionally fraught Betty has the tougher job with a much more elusive character who is never quite what she seems, allowing the actress to really work the manipulations and desperation of this well-to-do college lecturer, undone by…well, I can’t tell you what! But she is fantastic throughout and there’s a delicious reality to the way in which these siblings relate to each other, press each other’s buttons and suggest years of familiarity in both easy exchanges about music and uneasy ones confronting the events of their past.

Ultimately, it didn’t feel like there was quite enough here to really make an exceptional piece of drama, even at this late preview. The trail of revelations is somewhat predictable with disappointingly obvious clues being offered up and there’s not quite enough psychological intensity to take us deep or dark enough into the woods as one might have expected. But powerful performances with this tightly-wound family dynamic and some cracking dialogue make this a solidly 3 star entertaining evening.

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 4th June
Note #1: lots of bad language, flashing lights and the music that plays before the curtain rises is rather loud (and don’t ask the ushers if they can turn it down, they can’t!)
Note #2: I was lucky enough to sneak into the What’s On Stage conducted Q&A after the show, with Williams, Fox and LaBute which was really good fun. Olivia Williams revealed a wickedly dirty sense of humour, Matthew Fox told of how his experience growing up in Oregon meant he could relate somewhat to the characterisation here and Neil LaBute was brutally and beautifully unapologetic, and rightfully so, about the subject matters for his work, pointing out how little of interest there would be in exploring well-adjusted people. It does seem to me that people label LaBute a little too easily as a misogynist, not separating playwright from his work, and in any case, I’d argue that men don’t come off too brightly in this one either.

Review: This Is How It Goes, King’s Head

“The truth is just so damn…elusive”

Taking its title from the Aimee Mann song, This Is How It Goes is a Neil LaBute three-hander presented here by Rooster Productions at Islington’s King Head Theatre Pub. In the words of the playwright himself, it’s ‘a story about three people who ultimately take care of their own needs with a breathtaking ruthlessness’ but as with so many of LaBute’s plays, it is much much more as well.

Set in the US in a small Midwestern town, ‘Man’ has returned to his old home town and bumps into an old flame from school, Belinda. As it turns out she is married with children now to Cody the African-American high-school track champion from back then, but they have a room for rental and so ‘Man’ moves in and the three of them set about reminiscing about old times. The story is narrated throughout by ‘Man’, but from the word go he informs us that there is every chance that he is not the most reliable of narrators and what follows is an intriguing study of the nebulous nature of truth as scenes are played out to us from one perspective, then given explanations or qualifications to guide us closer to what is really happening, in some cases the scenes are even played again.

So we see everyone playing with truth in order to achieve what they want and to satisfy their own agendas. But figuring out quite what those agendas are is part of the pleasure of this play, as LaBute constantly pulls the rug on us, forcing the audience to question what we have seen and are thinking. LaBute is also such a pleasingly complex playwright, there’s a series of hints threaded throughout here, allusions to Othello, Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train, all suggesting subtle hints and clues as to how we should be interpreting what we’re witnessing.

There’s his trademark misogynism in here for sure, but there’s more insight when the race card is played. The discomfort around interracial relationships is cleverly played up and the spectre of racism is never far away, but what LaBute is astute enough to do is to show that not all black people are victims, indeed Cody takes advantage of and plays up his status of ‘the only black in the village’. But as our narrator begins to reveal himself as a shocking bigot, we’re also forced to look at ourselves and whether we have used the same language, the same justifications to get away with the unpalatable.

As Man, Tom Greaves is just outstanding, clearly determined to erase the mis-step of Henry V from my mind. From the opening scene, he fills the theatre with his affability and warmth so that we’re willing to go along with the conceit and his witty asides, vindications and rationalisations are perfectly played as we never quite get to find out whether the prejudices that begin to leak out of him are genuine or just part of his jokey character that he’s playing. Gemma Atkinson was a revelation as the quietly graceful Belinda, And last but no means least Okezie Morro did well with Cody, a difficult, rather unlikeable character full of contempt and coiled power.

Rhiannon Newman-Brown’s design makes the most of the limited space at the King’s Head, evoking a wide range of locations with just a few props and Aaron J Dootson’s suggestive lighting, which really comes into its own during Man’s asides to the audience, there’s the necessary clear delineation between his two roles. The only issue I had is what felt like a missed opportunity with the music. What has been chosen was sufficient, but as the special programme note tells us, LaBute was inspired by the music of Aimee Mann when writing this play and it would have been brilliant to use her songs to soundtrack the show (especially as I’m a bit of a fan, but I’m sure there would have been licensing issues etc)

Clever, exciting, thought-provoking, challenging yet ultimately very satisfying. This Is How It Goes gets the balance just right between eliciting dark humour from the tricky subject of race and exposing just how devious and self-serving people can be and whether you agree with his message or not, one has to admire the sheer skill on display here and admit that truly no-one is entirely good or bad. And delivered extremely proficiently by this cracking cast of 20-somethings, this production demonstrates the best of London fringe theatre: highly recommended.

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £2Booking until 3rd October

                                                         Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

Nominations for the 2009 Drama Desk Awards

Outstanding Play:

Annie Baker, Body Awareness
Gina Gionfriddo, Becky Shaw
Neil LaBute, reasons to be pretty
Lynn Nottage, Ruined
Michael Weller, Fifty Words
Craig Wright, Lady

Outstanding Musical:

9 to 5
Billy Elliot The Musical
Liza’s at the Palace….
Shrek The Musical
The Story of My Life

Outstanding Revival of a Play:

Blithe Spirit
Exit the King
Mary Stuart
The Cripple of Inishmaan
The Norman Conquests
Waiting for Godot

Outstanding Revival of a Musical:

Enter Laughing The Musical
Pal Joey
West Side Story

Outstanding Actor in a Play:

Simon Russell Beale,The Winter’s Tale
Reed Birney, Blasted
Raúl Esparza, Speed-The-Plow
Bill Irwin, Waiting for Godot
Daniel Radcliffe, Equus
Geoffrey Rush, Exit the King
Thomas Sadoski, reasons to be pretty

Outstanding Actress in a Play:

Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Ruined
Jane Fonda, 33 Variations
Marcia Gay Harden, God of Carnage
Elizabeth Marvel, Fifty Words
Jan Maxwell, Scenes From an Execution
Janet McTeer, Mary Stuart

Outstanding Actor in a Musical:

James Barbour, A Tale of Two Cities
Daniel Breaker, Shrek The Musical
Brian d’Arcy James, Shrek The Musical
Josh Grisetti, Enter Laughing The Musical
Sahr Ngaujah, Fela!
Will Swenson, Hair

Outstanding Actress in a Musical:

Stephanie J. Block, 9 to 5
Stockard Channing, Pal Joey
Sutton Foster, Shrek The Musical
Megan Hilty, 9 to 5
Allison Janney, 9 to 5
Karen Murphy, My Vaudeville Man!

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play:

Brian d’Arcy James, Port Authority
Jeremy Davidson, Back Back Back
Peter Friedman, Body Awareness
Ethan Hawke, The Winter’s Tale
Pablo Schreiber, reasons to be pretty (Off-Broadway)
Jeremy Shamos, Animals Out of Paper

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play:

Rebecca Hall, The Cherry Orchard
Zoe Kazan, The Seagull
Angela Lansbury, Blithe Spirit
Andrea Martin, Exit the King
Carey Mulligan, The Seagull
Condola Rashad, Ruined

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical:

Hunter Foster, Happiness
Demond Green, The Toxic Avenger
Gregory Jbara, Billy Elliot The Musical
Marc Kudisch, 9 to 5
Bryce Ryness, Hair
Christopher Sieber, Shrek The Musical

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical:

Farah Alvin, The Marvelous Wonderettes
Christina Bianco, Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab
Haydn Gwynne, Billy Elliot The Musical
Karen Olivo, West Side Story
Nancy Opel, The Toxic Avenger
Martha Plimpton, Pal Joey

Outstanding Director of a Play:

Sarah Benson, Blasted
Michael Blakemore, Blithe Spirit
Garry Hynes, The Cripple of Inishmaan
Terry Kinney, reasons to be pretty
Matthew Warchus, The Norman Conquests
Kate Whoriskey, Ruined

Outstanding Director of a Musical:

Walter Bobbie, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot The Musical
Joe Mantello, 9 to 5
Jason Moore, Shrek The Musical
Diane Paulus, Hair
Stuart Ross, Enter Laughing The Musical

Outstanding Choreography:

Karole Armitage, Hair
Andy Blankenbuehler, 9 to 5
Peter Darling, Billy Elliot The Musical
Bill T. Jones, Fela!
Randy Skinner, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Lynne Taylor-Corbett and Shonn Wiley, My Vaudeville Man!

Outstanding Music:

Neil Bartram,The Story of My Life
Zina Goldrich, Dear Edwina
Elton John, Billy Elliot The Musical
Dolly Parton, 9 to 5
Stephen Sondheim, Road Show
Jeanine Tesori, Shrek The Musical

Outstanding Lyrics:

Neil Bartram, The Story of My Life
Jason Robert Brown, 13
Marcy Heisler, Dear Edwina
David Lindsay-Abaire, Shrek The Musical
Dolly Parton, 9 to 5
Stephen Sondheim, Road Show

Outstanding Book of a Musical:

Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis, This Beautiful City
Joe DiPietro, The Toxic Avenger
Lee Hall, Billy Elliot The Musical
Brian Hill, The Story of My Life
David Lindsay-Abaire, Shrek The Musical
Patricia Resnick, 9 to 5

Outstanding Orchestrations:

Larry Blank, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Bruce Coughlin, 9 to 5
Aaron Johnson and Antibalas, Fela!
Edward B. Kessel, A Tale of Two Cities
Martin Koch, Billy Elliot The Musical
Danny Troob, Shrek The Musical

Outstanding Music in a Play:

Mark Bennett, The Cherry Orchard
Mark Bennett, The Winter’s Tale
Dominic Kanza, Ruined
DJ Rekha, Rafta, Rafta…
Richard Woodbury, Desire Under the Elms
Gary Yershon, The Norman Conquests

Outstanding Set Design of a Play:

Dale Ferguson, Exit the King
Rob Howell, The Norman Conquests
David Korins, Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them
Derek McLane, 33 Variations
Neil Patel, Fifty Words
Walt Spangler, Desire Under the Elms

Outstanding Set Design of a Musical:

Tim Hatley, Shrek The Musical
Anna Louizos, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Thomas Lynch, Happiness
Scott Pask, 9 to 5
Scott Pask, Hair
Basil Twist, Arias With a Twist

Outstanding Costume Design:

Tim Hatley, Shrek The Musical
Rob Howell, The Norman Conquests
William Ivey Long, 9 to 5
Michael McDonald, Hair
Martin Pakledinaz, Blithe Spirit
Carrie Robbins, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas

Outstanding Lighting Design in a Play:

Marcus Doshi, Hamlet (Theatre for a New Audience)
David Hersey, Equus
Ben Kato, Washing Machine
R. Lee Kennedy, Bury the Dead
Paul Pyant, The Winter’s Tale
Hugh Vanstone, Mary Stuart

Outstanding Lighting Design in a Musical:

Kevin Adams, Hair
Jules Fisher and Kenneth Posner, 9 to 5
Rick Fisher, Billy Elliot The Musical
Jason Lyons, Clay
Sinéad McKenna, Improbable Frequency
Richard Pilbrow, A Tale of Two Cities

Outstanding Sound Design:

Acme Sound Partners, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Paul Arditti, Billy Elliot The Musical
Gregory Clarke, Equus
John Gromada, Shipwrecked! An Entertainment The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself)
André J. Pluess, 33 Variations
John H. Shivers, 9 to 5

Outstanding Solo Performance:

Mike Birbiglia, Sleepwalk With Me
Frank Blocker, Southern Gothic Novel
Michael Laurence, Krapp, 39
Lorenzo Pisoni, Humor Abuse
Matt Sax, Clay
Campbell Scott, The Atheist

Unique Theatrical Experience:

Absinthe (2008 Edition)
Arias With a Twist
Celebrity Autobiography: In Their Own Words
Soul of Shaolin

Review: In A Dark Dark House, Almeida

Due to having no internet at my flat, I have fallen behind with my reviewing, which is very poor considering this is only my second one. But I forgive myself, and I am the only person reading this anyway, lol!

This three-hander is by Neil LaBute who has a long-running relationship with the Almeida, and this is the European premiere of In A Dark Dark House. It is quite cleverly structured, in three segments with no interval and so really has a filmic feel to it which is probably a good thing as you wouldn’t have wanted it to be much longer. The play tells the story of two brothers who are still struggling with events from their childhood, and as ever with LaBute’s work, nothing is quite as it seems and the journey to the truth is quite harrowing. David Morrissey and Steven Mackintosh both do fine work, but somehow the parts don’t quite add up to a cohesive whole. The central scene with Kira Sternbach playing a Lolita-like role provides a welcome jolt of adrenaline to proceedings, but I didn’t feel the play dealt sufficiently with the questions it raised especially around the long-lasting impact of abuse . Continue reading “Review: In A Dark Dark House, Almeida”