Review: Deathtrap, Theatre Royal Brighton

“Always when moon is full, I am in top form”

The floorboards in Sidney Bruhl’s isolated barn conversion may squeak underfoot, but there’s nothing creaky about Adam Penford’s smart revival of Ira Levin’s 1978 play Deathtrap, first seen at Salisbury Playhouse last year and now touring the UK. A play full of twists and turns, with a play-within-in-a-play and added cinematic meta-commentary thrown in for good measure, this production proves there’s still a place for classic crime thrillers in this post-Scandi-noir world.
Bruhl is a playwright struggling to accept that he is past his prime but when Clifford Anderson, a talented young playwright sends him one of only two copies of his brilliant new whodunnit, he spies an opportunity to ape the thrillers on which he built his now-flagging reputation and steal the newcomer’s success for himself, despite his wife’s reservations. But Anderson is as much a student of the genre as Bruhl and so the stage is set for, well, the unexpected.
Penford has mastered the art of suspense here, sending shocks out into the audience right from the very first beat of the play – you won’t forget Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design in a hurry!. He also lulling us into a false sense of security time and time again, for Levin’s crisply plotted spine-tingler remains a thrill as he toys mercilessly with us. Is anyone who they appear to be? Can you keep track of the double, triple, (quadruple?) crosses? Is that crossbow real?!
Paul Bradley’s Sidney is well-judged, scarcely hiding his darker urges beneath a rumpled avuncular exterior and he connects well with an impressive Jessie Wallace as his slowly unravelling wife Myra and an inspired Sam Phillips as the clean-cut Clifford, whose depths are no less fascinating as he strips off his layers. The plum role though is scene-stealer Helga den Torp, a marvellous Beverley Klein, whose psychic visions threaten to unveil what shenanigans have passed.
Morgan Large’s single room design provides the perfect arena for the drama, especially where Sidney’s collection of weaponry is concerned and Duncan MacLean’s video work is neatly inserted into the scene changes, where we’re played excerpts from Gaslight, Dial M for Murder, Witness for the Prosecution and Sleuth, dramas that Clifford mentions he loves and whose significance only grow throughout the play here. A touring thrill, Deathtrap is definitely one to catch if it comes near you.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 16th September, then touring to…
Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury 19 – 23 September 2017
Southend Palace 26 September – 30 September 2017
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford 3 October – 7 October 2017
New Theatre, Cardiff 10 October – 14 October 2017
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham 17 – 21 October 2017
Mercury Theatre, Colchester 31 October – 4 November 2017
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham 7 November – 11 November 2017
Richmond Theatre 14 November – 18 November 2017

Review: Sweet Bird of Youth, Chichester Festival Theatre

“‘I think that hate is a feeling that can only exist where there is no understanding”

There’s something a little depressingly predictable about my inability to resist a neat bit of star casting – Marcia Gay Harden’s long-in-the-making UK theatrical debut being the guilty party here. It’s depressing because Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth is a play I wasn’t much of a fan of the one time I saw it before and the heart wasn’t beating any faster at the prospect of sitting through it once again.
And maybe there’s an element of self-defeating prophecy at work because I was bored rigid by Jonathan Kent’s production here for Chichester Festival Theatre. A quiet audience (never seen the upper seats curtained off like that before) sweltered in the stifling atmosphere but sadly, there was no heat being generated on the stage of Anthony Ward’s distractingly-conceived design.
Harden plays Alexandra del Lago, a fading Hollywood legend whose attempted comeback has ended in ignominy at, has fled the premiere of a movie on which all her hopes were pinned and as one is liable to do, she picks up Chance Wayne, a handsome (younger) gigolo – Sense8’s Brian J Smith – who takes her to the Gulf of Mexico town of his birth. She wants to hide but he wants to fix the mistakes of his past, also vainly chasing a lost youth.
She is excellent, as befits a career that has seen her win Tonys and Oscars, but Chance is an entirely thankless part and Smith struggles to convert any of the surface passion that he shows into any kind of emotional depth. It thus makes the play hard-going over its lengthy running time and Williams’ cast of supporting characters are equally thinly drawn, making this a far from essential play, receiving a decent production but not one I could recommend travelling from London for.
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 24th June

(c) Johan Persson


Review: Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s Globe

“How much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at weeping”
Sometimes I have aspirations of being a serious writer and sometimes, I just want to look at something pretty. And so once it had been established that Simon Bubb was lighting up the stage of the Globe in the touring production of Much Ado About Nothing, #SexyBenedick was born and I quickly got myself into a nearly-sold-out matinée performance to inspect the evidence personally. And it was true, he makes for a most handsome leading man indeed and as it turned out, the play wasn’t half bad either.
I can’t even take credit for the best bit of insight about it. @3rdspearcarrier identified its key success as egalitarianism, this being the first version of the play for a long time that hasn’t been a star vehicle for Beatrice and Benedick and with a cast of eight doubling up and more, the energy of Max Webster’s production emphasises how much of an ensemble show it really is. With the rough and tumble aesthetic of James Cotterill’s easily portable design, there’s something deliciously playful about the whole affair which made it an absolute delight to watch in the early May sunshine.
The play has been trimmed and tucked into a shade over two and a half hours and necessity being the mother of invention, there’s a couple of liberties taken especially where Joy Richardson is concerned as she plays both Margaret and Borachio as well as Friar Francis but by and large, the changes work. Robert Pickavance transforms with ease from Leonato to a playful Ursula, Chris Starkie’s scowling Don John quickly becomes a Scottish Dogberry full of humour and there was much to enjoy in Sam Phillips’ charismatic take on rapscallion Claudio. 
Nevertheless, the stars of Benedick and Beatrice do dance brightly and in the hands of Bubb and Emma Pallant, they’re a gorgeous couple. Funny when eavesdropping – not letting oranges or water get in their way – there’s also a deep emotional intelligence to the way in which they interpret their lines and the shared past that has shaped these two characters so much, so that their eventual reunion is simply beautiful, a powerful moment of genuine truth that is as surprising as it is tear-jerking. 
The customary musicality of these small-scale productions remains another strong suit, song and dance used effectively as the cast take turns on a range of instruments – accordion, guitar, tambourine etc – to provide the party atmosphere where needed, especially in the well-conceived banquet scene. So everyone’s a winner really – if you’re shallow, there’s something nice to look at and as a bonus, there’s a pretty brilliant interpretation breathing new life into a much-loved classic. 
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes (with interval)
Continues at the Globe 14th-19th, then tours to Brighton, Parham, Worthing, Salisbury, Calderstones, Dumfries, Lincoln, Austria, Herstmonceuz Castle, Norwich, Hedingham Castle, Ripon, Denmark and Kilkenny, for now

Review: Elegy, Theatre503

‘Some stories are more powerful than others.’ 

In Douglas Rintoul’s devised monologue Elegy, the above is a piece of advice given to an asylum speaker preparing for an interview with the officials who’ll determine whether he will be allowed sanctuary or forced to return to the regime from which he is fleeing. But far from a cynical look at how the refugee system can be exploited, this is a deeply impassioned cri de coeur about the horrific realities of life for the LGBT community in post-liberation Iraq, an exceptionally powerful and haunting piece of theatre.

Based on a number of interviews from the Human Rights Watch and Stonewall, our narrator is an unnamed gay Iraqi who takes us through his personal history of cautiously optimistic though unrequited first love and the discovery of a careful but active gay community, through to the harsh dawn of a new ultra-conservatism which turned onto even the slightest intimation of homosexual behaviour and his ultimate desperate flight from his homeland.

But as if dazed, traumatised by this horrendous sequence of events, the narrative line is shattered. Sam Phillips’ central character reels from point to point with devastating precision, shards of unconscionable stories and fragments of orange-scented memories unravelling in disordered disbelief at what life has become, unrelenting in its tumultuous drive. He also speaks throughout in the third person, suggesting either a coping mechanism to deal with events on a personal level or a greater universality coming from the composite nature of the source material, speaking for anyone, everyone, who has experienced such vehement intolerance, or perhaps both of these.

Rintoul directs with a careful restraint which keeps the content from being unbearable (just about) to listen to and Dani Bish’s lighting design is a masterclass in what can be achieved with just the subtlest of shifts. The production’s elusive nature may frustrate some, but it is this blurring and intermingling of elements that lends it such an insistent power, exposing the realities of institutionalised homophobia in such regimes and crucially humanising the refugee experience. The decision to leave is one of the most starkly powerful in the play – “I can’t become a refugee, I have a mobile phone…”, a seemingly trite comment but one which reveals the richness of life that so many are forced to leave behind. 

Elegy may not be the most comfortable of shows to watch, but it is assuredly one of the most vital in London right now.   

Running time: 65 minutes (without interval)

Booking until 3rd November
Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Inherit The Wind, Old Vic

“I don’t want to believe that we come from monkeys and apes, but I guess that’s kinda besides the point”
Inherit The Wind is a courtroom drama, based on the true life story of a Tennessee schoolteacher who was threatened with imprisonment for teaching Charles Darwin’s ideas on evolution, in direct contravention of school policy. A highly strung court case then follows, pitching creationists against evolutionists, and bringing two legal titans to a small town in Tennessee to argue the case, the ramifications of which clearly extend beyond that classroom in the Deep South. Its timing seems uncanny: even on the 150th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin of Species, a highly recommended (by me at least) film Creation, about Darwin’s struggles with his own faith as he wrote it, has not been able to find a distributor in the US because it is considered too ‘controversial’ in a country where allegedly barely a third of the population actually believe in evolution.
The scale of this production really is admirably epic: the staging is superb, with the Old Vic’s stage being opened up to a great depth (you could probably fit the stage for Annie Get Your Gun on there 15 times over!), the already healthy cast is ably bolstered by a phalanx of supernumaries, bringing the total company to 50 bodies who bring an authentic air of claustrophobic small-town living to several scenes, most notably the prayer meeting just before the trial. The use of hymns sung by the company during scene changes further reinforces this strong sense of a community joined by the power of their faith.
Such largesse however does need to be matched by strong acting, and in the two leads of David Troughton as the Bible-bashing and frustrated politician Matthew Harrison Brady and Kevin Spacey as the more free-thinking and sharply comic Henry Drummond, Inherit The Wind more than delivers with two powering, barn-storming performances. It is a sheer delight to watch these two go at each other during the trial scene which is worth the ticket price alone, but they both delivered throughout, Troughton’s subtle hints of humanity through the bluster of his people-pleaser just edging it for me. And in a sea of supporting roles, Mark Dexter as the sceptical visiting journalist was a standout for me, with a cracking line about rancid butter that I can’t quite fully recall.
As for the play itself, whilst it contains little in terms of intellectual debate on the key issues (or maybe because of this) it is highly entertaining, and offers a strong argument for tolerance in an ever-more polarised world. My only real criticism would be the use of a real monkey on stage. I felt it added nothing of value to the performance, and it looked desperately unhappy, clutching onto the leash about its neck throughout: I’m not even particularly an animal lover, but this made me sad. That aside, I would highly recommend this show (and then go and see Creation at the cinema).