Review: Absolute Hell, National Theatre

A characterful slice of seedy Soho life,  Absolute Hell is anything but at the National Theatre

“You won’t call the police, I’ll call the police”

We’ve all got a history, a bit of a chequered past and Rodney Ackland’s play Absolute Hell is no exception. Premiered in 1952 under the title The Pink Room, it received an enormous critical drubbing which led to a 40 year near-silence from the playwright. But as time passes, trends shift and plays eventually get rewritten, a new version of the drama emerged in the late 1980s to considerably more success.

It is that version that is being revived here by Joe Hill-Gibbins with the kind of luxury casting that National Theatres are made for. And with the world of this slice-of-life play being made up of a vast ensemble of characters, it’s a great fit. Absolute Hell is set in a Soho members club in the period between the end of WWII and the Labour general election win and follows its patrons as they retreat from the social (and physical) upheaval of wartime into a fug of drink, drugs and debauchery. Continue reading “Review: Absolute Hell, National Theatre”

The finalists of The Offies 2018

The finalists of the The Offies 2018 have been announced and as ever, there’s much of interest there, in the choices made and the breadth of Off West End theatre celebrated. Play-wise, I’m delighted at the love for The Revlon Girl and An Octoroon here, nice to see the Bunker’s Eyes Closed Ears Covered rewarded too, plus Will Pinchin’s work in Frankenstein.
 
With the musicals, I’m not down with the love for Promises Promises, an ill-judged revival that added nothing to the conversation (and even less in these #MeToo times) and I’m disappointed that none of the boys of Yank! were recognised. The rest of the Southwark Playhouse’s spectacular year does get the appropriate plaudits though, with Superhero, The Life and Working all getting multiple nominations.
 
And lastly, at times it can seem like all you have to do is sing in your bathroom and you get an Offie nomination 😉 so it is interesting to see how the numbers break down, albeit somewhat vaguely. These 80 or so finalists have apparently been whittled down from over 350 nominations from over 190 shows – there’s clearly just a lot of Offies love to share. Should you wish to join in said sharing at the IRL award ceremony on Sunday 4th March at The Albany, Deptford, you can buy tickets here.

Continue reading “The finalists of The Offies 2018”

Not-really-a-review: Loot, Park

“You’ve been a widower for three days, have you thought about a second marriage?”

I ummed and aahed a bit about what to write about this one – I saw what I think was the final preview of Loot before a few days to retool before opening night on Wednesday and as with any comedy, especially farce, there’s nothing like doing it live to help it bed in. At the same time, I’m not much of a fan of farce (my fault I fear…) and only really booked for two reasons. 1 – it’s on the list. And 2 – Sinéad Matthews, future queen of all our hearts. She really is fantastic and it’s nice to see a shift in gear from her customary electrifying intensity.
So yeah, I thought Michael Fentiman’s production was funny in parts (though nowhere near as funny as most everyone around me) and impressively sharp-edged and dark for a play that is celebrating its 50th anniversary. But the writing, in its targets, does show its age and there’s no attempt to show Loot as anything but a period piece, which may well tickle the fancy of those a generations on from me but ultimately left me feeling cold on occasion. And if the attempts at laughs come thick and fast, well they have to as much of the humour is dated. Sorry, my dear.
Running time: 2 hours 
Booking until 24th September, then moves to the Watermill in Newbury from 28th September to 21st October

Round-up of news and treats and other interesting things

News, news everywhere – Joe Orton’s Loot has had its initial casting revealed in the shape of Calvin Demba and Sam Frenchum pictured up top, and the glorious Sinéad Matthews.





Elliott & Harper Productions have announced their first West End show in the form of Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle, a Simon Stephens play which will take up residency at the Wyndham’s from October. Rather excitingly, it stars Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham.


Testing my resolve to avoid the seats of the Trafalgar Studios, Joseph Millson, Freema Ayeman and Desmond Barrit are joining Stockard Channing in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia.


Game for some Christie? A new production of Witness for the Prosecution sees Lucy Bailey directing it in a courtroom setting inside County Hall on the South Bank.


And last up for today, Vicky Jones’ Touch has a cast that includes Amy Morgan, Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Matthew Aubrey, Edward Bluemel, James Clyde and James Marlowe. 

12 Days of Christmas – Black Mirror 2:1

“She didn’t know it was fake”

On the fourth day of Christmas, Black Mirror gave to me…Hayley Atwell and a Humans protoype
Be Right Back, the first episode of Series 2 of Black Mirror, finds all sorts of interesting pre-echoes in Series 2 of Humans which has just finished airing this month on Channel 4. There, Carrie-Anne Moss’ grieving scientist was looking at ways in which to effectively transfer the consciousness of her comatose daughter into the digital realm and here, Brooker imagines a possibility where the process has been exploited into something one can buy.
Hayley Atwell’s Martha is devastated when her husband Ash, Domhnall Gleeson, is killed in a car crash in the remote area where they live, all the more so when she discovers she is pregnant. Lost in the throes of grief, an acquaintance – a brilliantly gobby Sinéad Matthews – offers to sign her up to something that will help her cope and Martha finds it impossible to resist. For it is an online service that collates the digital footprint of the deceased, their social media profiles and suchlike, to create a virtual replica of the deceased with whom you can ‘communicate’.
Equally heartbreaking and eerie, its an ingenious example of Charlie Brooker’s twisted genius, taking an idea which doesn’t seem so bad, a technological innovation with the power to do good, and shows how human nature will always take it too far. As Martha progresses from instant messaging to actually speaking to ‘Ash’ and then taking it way way further, what seems like it could be a coping mechanism to help with grief can transmute into a terrible dependency, which arrests the grieving process and leaves it crucially unresolved. Fantastic work from Atwell and Gleeson make it beautifully, horrendously, believable too.

Review: Hedda Gabler, National

“I’ve never felt at home”

With Hedda Gabler, the ever prolific Ivo van Hove is making his National Theatre debut, so you can forgive him returning to a production which he has launched twice before – with the exceptional Dutch actress Halina Reijn in Amsterdam and with Elizabeth Marvel in New York. This time however, he’s working with a new version of Ibsen’s play by Patrick Marber and has the equally extraordinary talents of Ruth Wilson leading his company. And as with his revelatory A View From The Bridge, this is a contemporary reworking of a classic that will frustrate some with its froideur but left me gasping at its gut-wrenching rawness.

As ever, van Hove’s spatial intelligence lends itself to a re-appreciation of the theatrical space in which he’s working. He’s invited audiences onstage at the Barbican, and backstage too and here in the Lyttelton, the wings are closed off by Jan Versweyveld’s gallery-like white box and so characters make their entrances and exits through the same doors that we use – Judge Brack even arrives via the rear stalls at one point. And van Hove keeps things off-kilter onstage too, often pushing the action out to the far edges, focusing the eye on unexpected details like the eloquent sweep of Hedda’s back, the tapping foot of a nervy ever-watching Berthe.
Marber’s lightly modernised new version allows for dark flashes of humour but there’s no mistaking how lonely and sad this Hedda is, even more so for being so isolated in this modern-day setting. Finding herself trapped in the world of the idle rich, having decided “it was time to settle”, she soon finds herself appalled at her situation. Initially, Wilson blurs the line between malice and thoughtlessness in the extremes of her behaviour but we’re soon left in no doubt that we’re in the hands of as expert a manipulator as Alice Morgan, albeit with less self-control, hints of fragility and frustration are never far away as she rages against a world she sees as determined to strip her of her power, her individuality, the sanctity of her own body as the repeated notes about children and child-bearing make plain.
And the care with which that world has been (re)constructed makes fresh new dramatic sense. Kyle Soller’s Tesman is refreshingly decent, Kate Duchêne’s Aunt Juliana perfectly obliging, Sinéad Matthews’ Mrs Elvsted possessed of a self-confidence we don’t often see in her interactions with Chuk Iwudi’s Lovborg. Against this normality, Hedda’s self-destructive urges are heightened, agonisingly so in the textured lighting design by Versweyveld and musical accompaniment from Joni Mitchell, and as Rafe Spall’s swaggeringly sexual Brack exerts his sickening power inch by inch, the production culminates in a succession of stunning but horrifying images, all correctly disturbing. As brutal a Hedda as you’ll get.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Jan Versweyveld
Booking until 21st March

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Review: Giving, Hampstead Downstairs

“There seem to be a lot of people out there with a lot of money who don’t quite know what to do with it”
I’m pretty sure that in 30 or so years time, we will be talking about Sinéad Matthews with the hushed reverence accorded to the likes of Dame Judi as she’s surely a shoo-in for a similar ennoblement. And I’ll be telling everyone about the times I got to see her in the intimacy of the Hampstead Theatre’s downstairs space. Last year saw her star in the The Wasp and this year she returns there in Hannah Patterson’s Giving, directed by Bijan Sheibani, giving us another opportunity to see one of the finest actors in the country up close and personal. 
She plays Laura in Patterson’s new play, a journalist tasked with profiling leading British businesswoman Mary Greene for her current affairs magazine. Greene is of interest because she has decided to give away huge amounts of her wealth in a newfound burst of philanthropy. But as Laura investigates further, she finds that there’s a whole industry that’s grown up around giving, organisations who act as brokers between the millionaires and the charities, and its these motives that she decides to interrogate, regardless of the consequences.

It’s a fascinating topic and one which Patterson writes about intelligently, probing into the morality of whether giving is always good, if such gifts can be tainted and whether that matters to the recipient, and the extent to which these intermediary bodies interfere with the process. Matters are complicated by Laura’s personal relations too, and Matthews excels with all three of her co-stars. Whether butting heads with Sylvestra Le Touzel’s brusque Mary or dancing around the niceties of her affair with married boss Jonathan – the ever-charismatic Dominic Rowan – she’s on fire.
The most interesting of her relationships though is with Simon Manyonda’s Michael, Mary’s “charitable giving adviser”, who immediately provokes her personal and professional interest, further complicating the picture as journalistic ethics are concerned. Sheibani keeps Giving on a taut rein throughout and so the production is always pacey and feels very much of the minute. Lucy Sierra’s traverse design is slick (I want a table like that!) and evocatively lit by Joshua Pharo, providing the ideal backdrop for Matthews’ excellent work. You should go along so that you too can say you saw her before she became as celebrated as she deserves.  

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 11th June

Short Film Review #63 – The Roof


“That’s how it is with Peter”
The Young Vic has released the latest instalment in their intermittent YV Shorts series, filmic responses to the shows they’re producing, often attracting some of the more luminary names in their Rolodex. This time, we have The Roof, a comedy in brief by Nigel Williams and directed by Natalie Abrahami. It is neatly conceived and wittily done, though it does feel very much more targeted at theatregoers than the others, full of self-referential in-jokes as it is.
Beginning in the offices of the Young Vic where Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s admin bod passes on the message to David Lan (Artistic Director of the venue, should you not be sure) which gets a little bit lost in translation (with years of admin experience under my belt, this rang particularly true) and results in a mammoth misunderstanding of mixed identities at the very time a noted theatre director is showing up for a book signing, with a phalanx of fans eager for the chance to get close to their hero.

The director is Peter Brook and the fans include the likes of an affected Rory Kinnear, a wonderfully dry Ian McKellen, incoming Hermione (and woman-of-the-year designate) Noma Dumezweni and a breathless Jude Law and Natalie Dormer. And it’s all rather good fun, Sinéad Matthews’ farcical French assistant and Hugh Skinner’s always-adorable nerdiness winning the day for me. Abrahami keeps the tone gently parodic which may mean that the humour won’t travel too far outside a certain clique but that just makes it all the more special for us theatre fans.


See more of my short film reviews here

Review: Evening at the Talk House, National Theatre

“You have to want to care what’s going to happen to these characters”


There’s a sequence towards the end of Evening at the Talk House where a character says things along the lines of ‘I’m so bored’, ‘I’m ready to die’ and ‘please help me get out of here’ and never have truer words been spoken. That last one might have been an internal voice though as the grinding horror of this new Wallace Shawn play rolled inexorably on. In some ways, I have no excuse. The one and only time I’ve seen his work before saw indignities inflicted on none other than Miranda Richardson, left to pretend to be a cat licking Shawn’s bald head, and so I had fair warning of Shawn’s singular style.

But it’s a style that I find utterly baffling. As a thespy crowd meet for a long awaited reunion at their old members club, they reminisce and chat effusively and endlessly about this actor who used to be in that TV show or that actress in this TV show – all made up ones of course – to a point of mind-numbing inanity. And in this version of the world, there’s a dystopian state-sponsored execution programme wiping out enemies of the state (and plenty more besides) which is carried out by out-of-work actors like many of the crew here. They also get served canapés about which they chatter excitedly, which is nice I suppose. 

It’s hard to express how stultifyingly dull the whole shebang is though. Evening at the Talk House is literally nothing but meandering conversation about this strange state of affairs in which precious little of note actually happens. From its opening introductory speech of 10 minutes plus to the attempted theatrical game-playing later on, the writing just shuffles on aimlessly, offering no insight into meaning, motivation or even basic comprehension in this extreme worldview. It is completely swept up in its own insular mindset and makes zero concession for a paying audience that might have wanted to learn more about it.


And it’s not as if there’s an inexperienced team at work here. Ian Rickson directs, the company includes such luminaries as Anna Calder-Marshall and Sinéad Matthews, Simon Shepherd and Josh Hamilton, but to no avail. Worst of all given all of this, it’s not even so-bad-that-it’s-good territory, instead this is the kind of theatre that saps the soul.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes (without interval)

Booking until 30th March 

Review: The Hudsucker Proxy, Nuffield

“I wasn’t expecting all this hoopla…”

It’s not been the easiest of births for The Hudsucker Proxy – an incident in the dress rehearsal left two actors hospitalised, fortunately both have now been discharged and are recuperating at home, and the decision was made to forge ahead with the show, recasting where necessary. The show is certainly an interesting prospect – a co-production between Nuffield and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse in association with Complicite, and the first ever theatrical adaptation of a Coen Brothers film too – and its doors are now finally open in Southampton, ahead of a trip to Liverpool and then an international tour in the near future.

And you can see it succeeding. The show uncovers realms of theatrical influences in the Coen Brothers’ work but also adds in much of its own, to create a dizzying screwball comedy that is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. It would be churlish to give too much away but there are some inspired moments of staging in Simon Dormandy and Toby Sedgwick’s staging, especially concerning the window of the 44th floor office in which much of the drama is set. The physical work here is explicit too, the company relying on their own bodies as much as Dick Bird’s magnificent art deco-inflected set design to create constantly imaginative sequences.

Given the disruption to the schedules, one can perhaps forgive the overall feel of the production not quite flowing as efficiently as it could, the screwball twists need to turn a little tighter to keep the overarching pacing ticking over at a decent lick. But there’s nothing wrong with the performances. Joseph Timms has huge fresh-faced appeal as Norville Barnes, the unassuming mailroom guy suddenly made president of Hudsucker Industries by the manipulative board of directors, the ever-excellent Sinéad Matthews is on fine form as the journalist determined to expose him but uncovering her feelings instead, and Tamzin Griffin brilliantly delineates a series of grotesque cameos with huge relish.


Musicality comes from the versatile Rob Castell, a contrasting youthful energy to Norville comes from Tim Lewis as the hopeful lift attendant and the other replacement, Dormandy himself, has much fun as the avaricious embodiment of corporate America. With hula hoops flying around (and literally off the stage at one point), angels intervening and time itself being stopped, there’s a delightful sense of playfulness to The Hudsucker Proxy that should see it go far. 


Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 30th May, then transferring to Liverpool from 5th June-27th June