Review: Damned by Despair, National Theatre

“Look on this and learn. Let that be your punishment”

I don’t think there is another director who frustrates me quite as much as Bijan Sheibani. The devastating simplicity with which he tackled 2009’s Our Class and the elegiac beauty he brought to the Iranian-themed Bernarda Alba earlier this year has delighted, but he’s also responsible for making 70 minutes seem like a pained lifetime in Moonlight and threw everything including his kitchen sink into the multi-authored chaotic carnival ride that was Greenland. So it is hard to know what to expect from his work, but it seems sure to provoke strong emotion in me one way or another. Sadly, his latest foray at the National Theatre – Damned by Despair – errs towards the latter of the above categories. It is still in previews to be sure, but it is hard to imagine that this isn’t a fatally flawed production. 

The play is a religious epic from 1625, written by Spanish monk Tirso de Molina, and delves into sticky questions of spirituality such as is heaven is reserved for those who spend a lifetime believing and can non-believers be redeemed through the accomplishment of good deeds. This is subject matter of a deeply different kind to what our more agnostic tastes are now suited, but the difficulties inherent in translating such ideas to a modern audience are simply magnified by a clumsy new version by Frank McGuinness and some baffling directorial choices from Sheibani which swung from cringeworthy to laughable and almost always misguided – I fear some serious trimming will need to be done if there’s any hope for the production. Continue reading “Review: Damned by Despair, National Theatre”

Review: The Sunshine Boys, Savoy

“If I was there to enjoy it, I’d buy a ticket”

This new production of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys might be considered one of the hottest tickets of the summer, featuring as it does the West End debut of Danny De Vito and the return to the stage of Richard Griffiths. The tale is of Willie Clarke and Al Lewis, a long-suffering former vaudeville comedy act whose relationship over the 40 years of their career deteriorated so badly that they didn’t even to speak to each other off-stage for the final year. But when a television network decides to put on a comedy retrospective more than a decade later and call on Lewis and Clarke to reprise their schtick one more time, it seems that old animosities are still fresh in the mind of some.

I saw the show in preview (and I have to say I find it a little cheeky to have a 3 week preview period for something clearly advertised as a limited 12 week run) and the best thing I could say about it was the amount of room for improvement. Thea Sharrock’s production felt extremely lethargic, especially in the interminable first half, with much more zip and zing needed by all concerned. De Vito’s bitterly retired Clark plods a little too much and needs more connection with his environment, especially with his nephew and hapless agent Ben, a hard-working Adam Levy, who is pushing for the reunion. And when Griffiths finally arrives on the scene, the cantankerousness is palpable but this just isn’t paired with any sense of the history between the characters. Continue reading “Review: The Sunshine Boys, Savoy”

Review: 13, National Theatre

“Over the last year, it feels like it’s all falling apart…in this country…across the world…”

Mike Bartlett can probably lay claim to being one of the most interesting new British playwrights to emerge this century, steadily building his oeuvre of plays that pick at modern life and expose its shortcomings… And as his profile increases, so too have the stature of the commissions, moving from the Royal Court – where I saw his Cock  – to the Cottesloe at the National Theatre with last year’s Earthquakes in London and now graduating to the Olivier – the youngest writer in 10 years to be staged there – with his latest new play 13.

What is it all ‘about’ I hear you say. Well if that question is foremost in your mind then it is likely that you may be disappointed with 13, as it eschews a conventional sense of narrative for the creation of apocalyptic foreboding in a contemporary London that feels all too realistic. For it is a piece of writing that feels incredibly pertinent, full of up-to-the-minute references to public disorder, social media, student riots and the Arab Spring, concerning a society wracked with disturbing dreams and a crippling uncertainty. What Bartlett alights on is the importance of belief, not necessarily in God but having some conviction that things will be ok if we trust our instincts, and the succour that is gained from collecting as a group behind such beliefs. Continue reading “Review: 13, National Theatre”