Review: Bracken Moor, Tricycle

“I think most of us are walking around in a sort of slumber really”

With a revival of The Pride just announced as the next production in Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar Studios residency, it seemed like a good time to visit Alexi Kaye Campbell’s latest play Bracken Moor at the Tricycle. That said, I have to admit to not being the greatest fan of this ambitious mash-up of political/economic drama and ghost story which is co-produced by Shared Experience and directed by their own Polly Teale. In the midst of the 1930s financial crisis, Yorkshire landowner Harold and his wife Elizabeth are still shell-shocked by the ghastly death of their young son Edgar ten years since and only now are they acquiescing to an extended visit from their old friends Vanessa and Geoffrey. But as they retrace their old friendship, the presence of the visitors’ son Terence awakens something more sinister.

Terence was Edgar’s boyhood best friend and within a few nights, appears to become possessed by Edgar’s restless spirit. This provokes his parents to finally start to deal with their buttoned-up grief but in hugely different ways. Helen Schlesinger’s extraordinarily affecting Elizabeth clings to every possible shred of hope that she could actually be communicating with her lost son and the rawness of her grief is spell-binding. And the much more pragmatic Harold, Antony Byrne in classically old-school English mode, finds himself questioning the decisions he has to make about a dispute over pit closures, his capitalist certainties challenged by this brush with the unknown. Continue reading “Review: Bracken Moor, Tricycle”

Review: Rough Cuts – Bytes, Royal Court

“It’s on the internet…”

Just a quickie for this as the Royal Court’s Rough Cuts season is a space for short plays, experimental readings and works in progress and so I’m just including it here for the completeness of my theatregoing records. It has previously taken place in the upstairs theatre but as this is currently occupied, they have converted the Wilson rehearsal studio – right next to the main building – into a public performance space for this group of four pieces, all based on the theme of our relationship to the internet.

This year’s cohort of writers made this a must-see from the moment it was announced, featuring as it does Alia Bano, DC Moore, Penelope Skinner and Nick Payne, and with an ensemble of six actors including Sarah Woodward and Al Weaver, I was confident of enjoying the performances too. And it was an agreeable evening from start to early finish – such a rarity to be home well before 9pm on a theatre night – and a pleasing indication of the vibrancy and variety in new theatre writing in the UK.  Continue reading “Review: Rough Cuts – Bytes, Royal Court”

TV Review: Loving Miss Hatto

“Young people make promises because they don’t know what life is like”

Housewife, 49 was one of the highlights of my TV viewing last Christmas, quite how I had missed it first time round I do not know and so once I saw that Victoria Wood had penned a new drama, Loving Miss Hatto, I was determined not to leave it quite so long this time round. Based on a story from the New Yorker on the strange but real-life case of classical music fraud around pianist Joyce Hatto, this was a beautifully modulated piece of drama with a light sweetness and just enough of the trademark Wood humour, interwoven with such melancholic depths of human tragedy.
 
Starting in the 1950s, we meet Joyce Hatto as a rehearsal pianist in whom self-described musical impresario William Barrington-Coupe (or Barrie for short) spotted much potential. But as something of a wideboy and of a conman, his dreams of moulding Joyce into a top-rank concert pianist never quite came to fruition, something exacerbated by her stage fright. The story then flicked forward to the 2000s where embittered by the frustrations of life, Joyce is now dying of cancer and unable to play. With the dawn of the digital age and in light of a flurry of interest in Hatto on a messageboard, Barrie hit upon the idea of satisfying the demand for recordings of her work by releasing a series of CDs. Only problem was, there were no recordings and Barrie was passing off other pianists’ work as his wife’s.

Continue reading “TV Review: Loving Miss Hatto”

Review: Love and Information, Royal Court

“What do you mean when you say it has meaning now?” 

One of the things I love most about blogging is the honesty with which it allows one to write. So much ‘official’ theatre reviewing (as in for a publication) is predicated on the basis of a perceived authority, on the acceptance of received truths, which due to space constraints are rarely articulated. But I’m not bound by any that here and so I can say I honestly don’t get what all the fuss is about Simon Russell Beale – I’ve yet to see him myself, in a performance that is worthy of being named one of our greatest ever actors – and likewise, I can say that I’m not sure that I get Caryl Churchill as a playwright. I don’t doubt or challenge her position as one of the UK’s most influential playwrights or her impact on contemporary theatre but rather, in the six plays of hers that I have seen, I haven’t had that kind of epiphany that made me stop in my tracks and say ‘this is amazing theatre’.

I’m constantly educating myself theatrically though and that’s where the informality of a blog – my theatrical education in progress if you will – comes into its own, tracing how my opinions can change (I’ve learned to love Chekhov) or not (I still dislike Ibsen, in the main). Thus I happily took the opportunity to see Love and Information, a new Churchill play at the Royal Court, her first since 2009’s controversy-baiting Seven Jewish Children, not least because it features an ensemble cast of extremely high quality. Continue reading “Review: Love and Information, Royal Court”

Review: Jumpy, Royal Court

“Well it’s been a bumpy ride hasn’t it”

A new play by April De Angelis and directed by Nina Raine, Jumpy has all the makings of another success for the Royal Court and great word of mouth has meant that it is now sold out for the run. It’s a portrait of a fractured family: Hilary is under pressure at work, her husband Mark is becoming increasingly distant and her relationship with her bolshy teenage daughter Tilly is practically non-existent. Despite having just turned 50, life doesn’t seem to be getting any easier and it plays out in a mixture of comedy and moving drama.

Tamsin Greig is brilliant as Hilary, going through something of a midlife crisis as her disillusionment with so much of her life catches up with her, distant memories of protesting at Greenham Common provoked by the antics of her sexually precocious daughter, a terrifyingly convincing turn from Bel Powley, who even at 15 dresses highly provocatively, goes clubbing looking for footballers yet overestimates her capacity to deal with the responsibilities of such behaviour. Dealing with the inevitable ramifications brings Tilly’s boyfriend and his parents in to the picture, another couple fractured in their own way and whose interactions impact just as much on Hilary as they do on Tilly. Continue reading “Review: Jumpy, Royal Court”

Review: The Cherry Orchard, National Theatre

“Everything that people say is so much fluff and nothing”

The Cherry Orchard was Anton Chekhov’s final play and although the Old Vic saw Sam Mendes’ Bridge Project tackling it a few years back with a version by Tom Stoppard, it was last seen at the National Theatre a decade ago with Vanessa and Corin Redgrave. This production though sees director Howard Davies reuniting with Andrew Upton with whom he worked on Philistines and The White Guard as they continue to explore 20th century Russian theatre writing and also with leading lady Zoë Wanamaker after their wildly successful collaboration on last year’s All My Sons.

Telling of the terminal decline of the Russian ruling classes at the beginning of the twentieth century, Chekhov’s play is presented in a new version by Andrew Upton which provides a straightforward directness to the text, which is at time effective but also intermittently problematic. For me, it was just too modern for its own good, laced through with random words, colloquialisms and phrases that kept jolting me out of the period setting with some really strange choices, the Nina Simone song lyric being a particularly jarring example. When Upton imposes less on the writing, beautiful and powerful moments arise, it would just be nice if they were allowed to flow better. Continue reading “Review: The Cherry Orchard, National Theatre”

Review: Snake in the Grass, The Print Room

“We can’t live in a caravan”

Snake in the Grass is the London premiere of this Alan Ayckbourn play which is a rarity in itself as it marks one of his forays away from his more usual comedy. It is described by Ayckbourn himself as ‘a ghost play’, but it is more obviously a psychological thriller, threaded through with recognisable hints of class struggles and flashes of mordant humour. Directed by Lucy Bailey, who with Anda Winters have converted this Notting Hill warehouse into one of London’s newest new fringe venues, The Print Room.

Set in the grounds of a large country house, the play follows two sisters who are reunited after 20 years following the death of their authoritarian father. Annabel escaped her father’s clutches to Tasmania only to find new devils there, whilst Miriam stayed to care for their father but was driven to extreme measures. Finding themselves back together and then visited by a vindictive former nurse of their father’s who was dismissed, they find themselves having to deal both with the haunting ghosts of the past and the psychological threats of the present. Continue reading “Review: Snake in the Grass, The Print Room”

Review: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare’s Globe

“I hope, upon familiarity will grow more contempt”

Hoping that the above quote doesn’t ring true, this revival of Christopher Luscombe’s 2008 The Merry Wives of Windsor slips back into Shakespeare’s Globe ahead of a US and UK tour taking in Santa Monica, New York, Milton Keynes, Norwich, Richmond and Bath through to December.

The only of Shakespeare’s plays to take place in his contemporary England, it takes some of the characters familiar from the Henry IV plays, most notably Falstaff and creates a pleasing romp as he chases after the wives of two gentlemen from Windsor but doesn’t reckon on just how cunning the women are. There’s also a young couple straining to be together in the face of parental disapproval, some comedic foreigners, some funny business with a laundry basket and a whole load of farcical fun. It plays here, as nicely explained in the programme, as a bit of a forerunner of the modern tv sitcom and it really does work.

A nice thing about this play is its balanced treatment of women, with 3 strong, funny female characters all of which are played with aplomb. Sue Wallace’s Mistress Quickly is nicely knowing in her manipulation of Falstaff and compassionate in rearranging the love affairs of the youngsters. And Sarah Woodward and Serena Evans as Mistresses Ford and Page respectively are just an absolute delight as the mischievous cohorts with a visibly strong friendship. Andrew Havill’s Basil Fawlty inspired mugging as Ford fits in perfectly with the tone of the piece and as Falstaff, Christopher Benjamin wins our sympathies as well as making us laugh.

The only slight disappointments for me was the sagging of the pace in the first half and Ceri-Lyn Cissone and Gerard McCarthy as the rather bland lovers, typified by their overlong duet. William Belchamber’s fey Slender and Philip Bird’s linguistically-challenged Caius were much funnier and more interesting and there was no hint at all of the former drinking buddy of Prince Hal in McCarthy’s Fenton, meaning he came across as just dull.

As a little aside, I do find it curious programming that this sits alongside the two Henry IV plays this year. With the crossover in characters but not the casting and the fact that this doesn’t really square with the timelines of the history plays, it just sits a little odd in terms of the season as a whole. And with Allam’s Falstaff so fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but compare, however this is but a minor quibble.

It is clear why this production has been revived though: it is superbly acted throughout the ensemble, it is huge amounts of fun and once it gets started it just romps through its proceedings with a vibrancy and energy that should win over audiences no matter where it plays.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 2nd October
Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

Review: Judgment Day, Almeida

“The train is coming…”

Judgment Day is a play by Austro-Hungarian playwright Ödön von Horváth, which has been translated here at the Almeida theatre by Christoper Hampton. One of the first commissions after Michael Attenborough’s arrival as Artistic Director, Hampton has long been a champion of this writer and this is the first full production of this play in this country. Von Horváth wrote much of his anti-Nazi work in Germany in the 1930s, but opted to remain in the country to study the encroaching rise of Nazism, instead of fleeing like many of his compatriots such as Brecht.

It’s the story of Hudetz, a stationmaster of a small village who, distracted one evening by a popular local girl eager for a kiss, fails to make the necessary signal to a passing train causing a devastating fatal crash. The girl Anna then perjures herself to defend Hudetz as he seeks to escape justice, despite his unhappy wife also witnessing the events. We then see the effects of overwhelming grief on this pair as they struggle to carry on with their lives, exacerbated by the ever-changing moods of the townspeople, whose vicious, bigoted anger seems to be refocused with every new piece of gossip that comes their way. Continue reading “Review: Judgment Day, Almeida”

Review: The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other, National Theatre

Featuring 450 characters played by 27 actors with not a word spoken during its 100 minutes running time, The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other is certainly an eyebrow-raiser and an experience, but is it really theatre? I’m still not sure. A Peter Handke play, although presented here by Meredith Oakes in a new translation which has caused a fair bit of mirth considering there’s no talking, so perhaps a new ‘interpretation’ might have been a better way of describing it?

In terms of what happens, well a lot passes by on stage but equally nothing actually happens. People walk, run, skip, jump, limp across the stage in various guises, some dressed as recognisable figures, most just regularly clad, and tiny little stories are played out during their journeys from one side of the stage to other. Life, death, tragedy, sex and lots of comedy are on display here and it is fitfully awe-inspiringly good, especially when there’s the stronger narrative arc that engages the attention, like the terrorist attack towards the end. Continue reading “Review: The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other, National Theatre”