Review: Gabriel, Shakespeare’s Globe

“It may suit the crude palates of ruffians, but there’s more tune in the one derisory ditty my flunkey can play on his fiddle called ‘Lumps of Pudding’ than there is in an entire afternoon of this inflated chronicle of Purcellian shit”

Alongside their much-vaunted productions of Shakespeare’s work, the Globe theatre is a sterling champion of new writing for its theatre as well. The results have arguably been a bit patchy (Globe Mysteries…) but in some cases simply divine (the glorious Anne Boleyn) and so I approached the new first offering of the season – Samuel Adamson’s Gabriel – with cautious optimism. The caution came mainly from hearing that this wasn’t so much as a play as “an entertainment with trumpet”, and I have to say that for me, only the second part of the description was true.

Adamson has written a series of playlets set in late-Restoration period London (1690s) about life and love and sex and music, which are threaded together by a series of musical interludes from the English Concert Orchestra led by trumpeter Alison Balsom who takes us through a selection of Purcell’s music. It’s a strange mixture and one which never really quite finds a satisfying balance – the snippets of drama mainly crude and banal, the rare moments of enlightenment over far too quickly to really give gratification. And the music feels constrained by its setting here, constantly interrupted by the dramatic diversions and of a far superior standard.


One can hear the creative thinking behind this ‘entertainment’, hoping to cast off stuffy stereotypical images of classical music and bringing it to a new audience, but the format precludes genuine engagement with the material on either side – neither the drama nor the music can really flourish with all the chopping and changing. And with the levels of bawdiness at almost unbearable levels – I simply do not understand why people find farting jokes so funny – I found this a most trying afternoon indeed. That said, I did go home and buy Balsom’s album of Purcell and Handel music Sound the Trumpet, so maybe it did the job after all!

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 18th August

Review: The Drowned Man – A Hollywood Fable, Temple Studios

“Keep your masks on and remain silent at all times”
Such is the instruction as you enter the cavernous former Royal Mail sorting office in Paddington which has been transformed by the Punchdrunk team into Temple Studios, the venue for their biggest show to date – The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. If you’ve been to a Punchdrunk show before, then this will come as no surprise to you (the masks are just as uncomfortable for glasses-wearers); if it is your first, then you should be prepared for something completely different (the masks will still be hot and uncomfortable!) 
Co-directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle are genuine pioneers of the style of site-specific immersive theatre that seems almost everyday now, yet their ethos is one which still manages to surprise people. They’re in the business of theatrical experiences rather than regular plays and so one should never approach one of their shows looking for traditional presentations of conventional narrative. Instead, the onus is on the audience to locate their own journey through the world that has been created, and find their own unique adventure.
That’s not to say that it is always successful but rather to locate any critique in the relevant context. The experience of exploring around four large floors without any guarantee of coming across any ‘action’ will naturally not appeal to everyone, but to criticise a lack of story is a misjudgement as that is not what they are trying to achieve here. The Drowned Man may be inspired by Büchner’s Woyzeck but this a fractured, fragmented version of the source material: scenes or segments just appear into view in a random, unannounced fashion, scattered and refracted like pieces of a kaleidoscope and ultimately unified, if at all, only by being part of one’s own journey through the show.

From exploring the near-deserted expanse of basement dressing rooms to seedy sex cinemas, lunar landscapes to trailer parks in forest clearings, sleazy audition chambers to motel rooms stinking of desperation, the sheer variety and exquisite detail of every single nook and cranny of this substantial space is quite something to behold and offers lots of opportunity for (some possibly verboten) playing around as the picture suggests… And the sequences I happened across held some powerfully intriguing moments too – the best for me happening in Studio 5 with the filming of a perky dance routine degenerating into a violently raunchy threesome and a later return trip there also resulting in another effective scene – regular Punchdrunk artist Conor Doyle giving some excellent work here. 

But a sense of adventurous exploration – we were even clambering on our hands and knees at one point – can only take you so far, especially at the times when it seems like nothing is happening nearby. The feeling of frustration can creep in as you cycle round the same area to little effect, especially when it is as sweatily hot as it was the night we were there (the ground floor bar – pictured – offers a much welcomed cooler environment, complete with live music, if you decide to give yourself an interval), and too many of the segments we witnessed reiterated the similar theme of sexual exploitation without suggesting much more besides – one shouldn’t really be left thinking ‘not another polysexual orgy…”. 

And the dynamics of an audience let loose in this way can sometimes be as exasperating as they are often amusing to watch. For all the talk of this being an imaginative journey for the individual, the way in which the herd mentality kicks in is quite remarkable. The minute a small cluster appears, then people start running to join in, convinced there must be something there – the most amusing incident of this resulted in us breaking the Matrix as the mysterious banging on the door turned out to be someone trying to get out of one of the dressing rooms for the performers – and the determination of some people to always be at the front of what is happening is sadly predictable. 

With some tickets coming in at £50, The Drowned Man does feel ambitiously steep and as unique as the experience may be, it might be hard to justify quite so much for this show, its constituent parts may feel a little underwhelming in an instant analysis. But challenging as it is, there really is something genuinely original in its desire to push us as audience members and redefining just what is to be at the theatre. Everyone should experience at least one Punchdrunk show in their life, even if it is just to confirm that it is not the kind of thing that they like and for all its highs, lows and longueurs, it has been a production that I’ve continued to think about even now, days after I went. Sprawling, big, bold, there’s nothing else like it.

Running time: anything up to 3 hours 
Booking until 30th December 
Note: comfortable shoes are a must and check in your bag at the cloakroom, you do not want to be carrying it around with you, especially in the more crowded areas

Review: The Tempest, Shakespeare’s Globe

“The isle is full of noises”

It’s always nice to be surprised by a night at the theatre, especially with a play with which one is rather familiar. And more importantly in the case of The Tempest is the feeling that I have already seen a production of the play that will rank as one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen in Cheek By Jowl’s extraordinary Russian interpretation back in 2011 – Caliban and Miranda’s parting is forever seared on my mind. But The Globe is nothing if not reliable and in casting Roger Allam as Prospero, director Jeremy Herrin knew exactly how to get me along in hope of a genuinely brave new world.

And in some ways it does it. Allam brings a studious humanity to the exiled sorcerer – less anguished magician and more concerned father, making his reading of some of Shakespeare’s most evocative writing almost unbearably moving. His control of the language is just superb, imbuing even the most innocuous of lines with worlds of meaning, so often restrained but flaring magnificently like a bearded Brunnhilde when provoked. He’s wryly amusing too, his insistence on protecting his daughter’s virtue particularly well-observed as a running gag. Continue reading “Review: The Tempest, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Radio Review: The Last Breath / The Diary of a Nobody

“What is it? A drama, a documentary?”

A couple of short radio reviews, as with having to have done a fair bit of travelling over the last weeks, I’ve had ample time to listen to things. First up was a fascinating piece called The Last Breath, which I particularly admired for being something quite challenging, both in subject matter and form, even in the afternoon drama slot on Radio 4. Created by Ben Fearnside with Anita Sullivan and set in a 2018 UK where assisted suicide has been legalised, it chronicles the attempts of a radio producer – Anita – to profile an artist – Ben – who is making a piece of modern art which will be the capture of someone’s dying breath in a jar and displayed for all to see.

Fearnside and Sullivan’s work sits somewhere between documentary and drama – real people and real names are utilised in the telling of what is a fictional story (I couldn’t quite work out why there had to be one fictional character, though it was pleasure to get to hear Nicola Walker’s sonorous voice again) which posed and worked through, if not providing necessarily neat answers, to some powerful questions. The ethics of ending one’s own life, the ethics of representing that in whatever form, the role that art has to play in peoples’ lives, to entertain, to educate, to provoke. I wasn’t mad keen on the use of music as I couldn’t quite see what it added to the show as a whole, but overall I found it a rather strong piece of radio drama. Continue reading “Radio Review: The Last Breath / The Diary of a Nobody”

Review: Don Juan Comes Back From The War, Finborough

“I feel I’ve done something unforgivable. But I don’t know what it is.”

Playwright Ödön von Horváth had the kind of life that one couldn’t make up. A child of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, he settled in Germany in the 1930s and though a fierce critic of the Third Reich, remained there to document the rise of Nazism. After years of violent repression, he finally made it to Paris before the outbreak of war but was killed by a falling branch on the Champs-Élysées as he was on his way to the cinema. Consequently, many of his works were never performed in his lifetime such as Don Juan Comes Back From The War – now presented at the Finborough in a new version by Duncan Macmillan.

Here the famed lothario has been transplanted to a defeated Berlin at the end of the Great War, thoroughly worn out by the war mentally and physically, he returns from the battlefield to resume his life of decadent debauchery. But as he works his way through the hordes of grasping women desperate for a piece of this paragon of masculinity as his reputation would have you believe, his spiritual malaise grows as it becomes apparent that things are not as they were before and though he has tried his best to ignore them, his actions have sometimes terrible consequences. Continue reading “Review: Don Juan Comes Back From The War, Finborough”

Review: The Kitchen, National Theatre

“What is there more?”

The Kitchen was one of Arnold Wesker’s first plays and follows on from the Royal Court’s well-received (if not by me) Chicken Soup with Barley in a year which has been something of a revival for Wesker. Written in 1959 and inspired by his own experiences of working in the catering industry, it is set in 1957 in the basement kitchen of a large London restaurant, the Tivoli. The dynamics of a swirling multi-cultural mass of chefs, waitresses and kitchen porters are exposed as they slowly build to the mad rush of a huge lunchtime service. Playing in the Olivier at the National Theatre, this was a late preview performance.

Director Bijan Sheibani has assembled a cast of 30 who rush about Giles Cadle’s circular kitchen set with increasing fervour as prep turns into service and the banter with all its personal enmities, tribal groupings and rivalries between kitchen staff and dining-room staff becomes increasingly fraught, and of course largely forgotten as the rush passes and the calm of the afternoon allows for a more reflective atmosphere. The less intense evening service provides a final act is no less dramatic though as slow burning stories finally explode. Continue reading “Review: The Kitchen, National Theatre”