Review: The Hired Man, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch

One of my favourite musicals – Howard Goodall’s The Hired Man receives a well-realised new revival courtesy of Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch and Hull Truck Theatre

“I can peel my own orange”

From the Landor to the Mercury to the Union, via the NYMT and all-star Cadogan Hall concerts, there’s no doubting that Howard Goodall’s British folk musical The Hired Man is one of my all-time faves. Musically, it is so beautiful that you can’t really argue against the marketing material claims that it is “the best British musical in 40 years” (though I might demur and say Top 5…).

It is now the turn of Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch and Hull Truck Theatre to revive the show, some 35 years old now, in association with Oldham Coliseum Theatre. And Douglas Rintoul’s fully actor-musician production is brimming with good ideas which serve the material well, teasing out a universality to its message which can sometimes feel hemmed into its Cumbria setting. Continue reading “Review: The Hired Man, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch”

Review: Insignificance, Arcola

“Knowledge is nothing without understanding”

I loved chemistry at school, enjoyed biology too but for some reason, my brain could never wrap itself around physics. So when two characters in Terry Johnson’s play Insignificance started discussing the specific nature of the theory of relativity – albeit through the medium of toy trains and helium-filled balloons – I was thrown back to the mild panic of Mr Byrchall’s classroom and the general feel of ‘I just don’t get it!’.

But Insignificance is not a play about physics and the two characters aren’t just any random people. It’s 1954 and though they’re officially named The Actress and The Professor, we can – with reasonable confidence – infer that they’re Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein. And they’re intermittently joined by her husband Joe DiMaggio – The Ball Player – and Joseph McCarthy – The Senator, for a fantasia on the nature of celebrity that is occasionally quite dazzling. Continue reading “Review: Insignificance, Arcola”

Review: Karagula, Styx

“He had no way of knowing it would get so out of control”

Full disclosure – I saw a preview of Karagula, one which lasted until 11pm and so you may rightly assume that it left me disgruntled. But I’m my own worst enemy sometimes, I’m not the biggest fan of Philip Ridley when he’s erring on the fractured narrative side and I had been warned. But Radiant Vermin was so good, Mercury Fur shines brightly in the memory, and Ridley’s own poetry had left me very well inclined towards him when news of this new production broke.

Mounted by D.E.M. Productions and PIGDOG in a location initially kept secret but now revealed as Styx, a converted ambulance station in Tottenham Hale, Karagula is a wildly ambitious thing, claiming to be one of the largest productions ever mounted Off-West-End. And in some ways, you can see it, the attention to detail in some of the costumes, the sheer sweep of the universes that it covers, the audacity of the satire attempted on dissolute Western behaviour patterns. Continue reading “Review: Karagula, Styx”

Review: A Further Education, Hampstead Downstairs

“We come here to learn things we don’t know”

Right now, there’s more women onstage at Hampstead’s downstairs theatre than there are in the current and next main house shows (The Moderate Soprano and Hapgood, both written and directed by men too) combined – a sorry record indeed for any establishment. Which isn’t the note on which I intended to start this review of A Further Education (which is directed by a woman at least) but it’s something I wanted to say which I think needs to be recognised more widely.

But to the matter at hand. A Further Education is Will Mortimer’s debut professional play and is something of a gentle comedy, its rather warm ideal ideal for these darkening nights. It’s the start of a new year at university and Josh and Lydia’s English Lit tutorial is blown open by the arrival of mature student Charlotte Swift. Seemingly an academic genius wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, her insights even knock the socks off lecturer Chris yet try as they all might to get her to open up, Charlotte’s personal circumstances remain a closed book. Continue reading “Review: A Further Education, Hampstead Downstairs”

Review: West End Recast 2, Phoenix

“I wonder why they didn’t just change their story”

There’s always gotta be a sequel right? After the success of West End Recast earlier this year, director Adam Lenson and musical supervisor Daniel A Weiss have once again gathered a cast of West End talent with nothing better to do on a Sunday night than perform songs they wouldn’t normally get the chance to sing. And once again, they hit the jackpot with West End Recast 2, an extraordinary range of performers and performances that offer a revelatory take on what places musical theatre could go to when a few risks are taken.

Imagine Cynthia Erivo as Bobby in Company, her rendition of ‘Being Alive’ was genuinely sensational (although nothing will ever convince me that a mid-song standing ovation is acceptable) and somehow found something new in this classic that literally raised the roof. So too did Gina Beck utterly own West Side Story’s ‘Maria’, an unexpectedly affecting take that also deserves to be explored more, not least as a fascinating challenge for her vocal range. Cassidy Janson deserves a mention for going green again, though this time as Shrek rather than Elphaba, well for the most part at least… Continue reading “Review: West End Recast 2, Phoenix”

Review: Seminar, Hampstead Theatre

“Am I trying to construct a living breathing cosmos with language or am I just scratching on the wall of a cave?”

Was there ever so suggestive an image as Roger Allam tossing paper into the air? Certainly not within a subset of my Twitter followers for a week or so when the publicity for Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar was released, marking the opening of the autumn season at the newly refurbished Hampstead Theatre (box office is on the left as you go in btw). Though sadly without beard, the prospect of seeing this most beloved of actors is always welcome, especially in as unfamiliar a milieu as modern American drama.

Four aspiring young novelists sign up to a writing group in New York which is led by the revered Leonard, once a celebrated novelist but now an editor and war chronicler, and through a series of classes, we see him ripping his new students to shreds in order to remake them into writers that might, just might, survive in the modern publishing world. Not everyone responds quite so well to this unorthodox approach however and their reactions and interactions mutate accordingly. Continue reading “Review: Seminar, Hampstead Theatre”

Review: Oh What A Lovely War, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“There must be no squeamishness over losses”

In the centenary year of the beginning of the First World War, many a theatre has programmed accordingly but few can lay as effective a tribute as the Theatre Royal Stratford East with their revival of Joan Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War which premiered here a little over 50 years ago. The play came in for some stick from that enlightened soul Michael Gove who denounced its political revisionism (and gave it a healthy dose of publicity to boot) but in the final moments of this emotionally exhausting show, only the most totally deluded of fools would have politics on their mind in the face of such unutterable loss of life, something that continues in battlefields today.

There is no denying that the show wears its politics clearly on its sleeve. Devised by Littlewood and Theatre Workshop in the 1960s, its depiction of the class lines within the armed forces speak firmly of its time, and it is interesting to see how the American efforts are viewed at a time before any “special relationships” had been forged. But truly at its heart is the experience of the ordinary soldier and Lez Brotherston’s design never lets us free of the unflinching barrage of information and imagery – projections simulate what life might have been life, a constantly scrolling panel of statistics keep the human cost at the front of our minds. Continue reading “Review: Oh What A Lovely War, Theatre Royal Stratford East”

Review: Titanic, Southwark Playhouse

“Possibly she won’t go down 
Possibly she’ll stay afloat
Possibly all this could come to an end
On a positive note…”

Between them, producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland have been responsible for some of London’s best small-scale musical revivals of recent years, so it was with interest that their production of the 1997 show Titanic was announced as the Southwark Playhouse’s first musical in its new premises. It won Tony Awards though little critical favour on Broadway, yet timed itself well to ride on the coat-tails of the extraordinary success of James Cameron’s film of the same story which opened some six months later. And as such an enduringly popular tale, Maury Yeston’s music and lyrics and Peter Stone’s book thus have much to battle against to make its own mark.

Based on real passengers and the accounts of survivors, Stone’s book focuses in on a number of couples travelling in different parts of the boat, which means that the emphasis lands heavily on the class divisions onboard. A decent decision one might think but in populating the worlds of first class, second class and third class, all within the first half, the show already feels doomed to sink. There’s just simply too many characters for us to process, never mind genuinely empathise with, and though a hard-working ensemble strive excellently to differentiate their various characters (with some surely sterling backstage help) it does take a while to be entirely sure who is who. Continue reading “Review: Titanic, Southwark Playhouse”

DVD Review: Criminal Justice Series 1

“We’ve got the best criminal justice system in the world and the jury will get it right”

I do love me a good crime/legal procedural on the television (see North Square, The Jury, Murder One, Damages) but I rarely have the time to watch everything I want to these days and the BBC series Criminal Justice is one of the ones that slipped through the cracks. It has sat on my Lovefilm queue for ages and after a conversation about Ben Whishaw with one of his fans, I decided to finally get round to watching both the series on DVD.

Predictably, I loved it. Written by Peter Moffat (who also penned North Square), it is a five episode trek through one person’s journey through the various stages of the criminal justice system. The 2008 first series starred the aforementioned Whishaw as Ben Coulter, an aspiring footballer who finds himself accused of murder after a drink and drug-fuelled night out with a girl who ends up stabbed to death whilst Ben struggles to remember any of the details of what actually happened. And so from interview rooms in the police station to failed bail appeals and prison cells and then the subsequent court case, Ben’s experience at the hands of the system is thrillingly portrayed.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Criminal Justice Series 1”

Review: The Only True History of Lizzie Finn, Southwark Playhouse

“They must be her winter knickers…”

Perhaps better known as a novelist (A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture have both been Booker-nominated), Sebastian Barry’s 1995 play The Only True History of Lizzie Finn receives its UK premiere here at the Southwark Playhouse in a production by award-winning director Blanche McIntyre. Having carved a niche for herself as the most celebrated dancer in Weston-Super-Mare, Lizzie Finn finds herself swept off her feet by an Irish soldier returning from the Boer War. Despite their completely different backgrounds, they return to their homeland anticipating married bliss but at a time when changes in the land laws are causing huge societal changes in Ireland, life is far from easy.    

The play is not without its challenges. Made up of sequences of short scenes, sometimes just a few lines long, the rhythm of the production is something that takes getting used to: James Perkins’ design of wide steps, whilst effectively evoking the seafront, doesn’t seem particularly well-suited to the format. But in the rather impressionistic approach by McIntyre, moments of visual grace emerge from these scenes, like embers spiralling out of the fire, flashing brightly and disappearing into the dark. I particularly loved the doubling of actors at the Castlemaine’s dinner party to create a witty echoing of an earlier scene.   Continue reading “Review: The Only True History of Lizzie Finn, Southwark Playhouse”