Review: The Tempest, Jermyn Street Theatre

Michael Pennington and Kirsty Bushell shine in a clever take on the The Tempest at the Jermyn Street Theatre

“Thy food shall be fresh-brook mussels”

It is not one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and so I rarely seek it out these days, but the prospect of seeing actors of the calibre of Michael Pennington and Kirsty Bushell in the intimacy of the Jermyn Street Theatre got me along to The Tempest there. It also helped that it was directed by Tom Littler, whose inventive reworking of All’s Well That Ends Well last year was its own little piece of magic. 

Aging Prospero upwards a little has a distinct impact on the tenor of the play. From the opening scene where he wreaks stormy havoc with a touch of malevolence via a toy boat to the air of almost-relieved resignation that comes at the close, there’s a palpable sense of the prospect of vengeance having fired him on in later years yet Pennington balances brutality with benevolence throughout, suggesting perhaps it was closure rather than revenge that was actually his driving force. Continue reading “Review: The Tempest, Jermyn Street Theatre”

Review: Miss Littlewood, Swan Theatre

A hugely fascinating new musical from the RSC, Miss Littlewood impresses at the Swan Theatre – might we see it London before too long?

“I’ve come about the theatre”

The last musical to come out of the RSC is a little know thing that is still kicking around somewhere, Matilda I think it’s called… So Miss Littlewood might have a little expectation carrying on its shoulders, although it is clearly a completely different kettle of fish.

In the Swan Theatre, Sam Kenyon (book, music and lyrics) tells us the story of Joan Littlewood. Or rather, given the format of the show, hands the reins over to Joan to tell her story. Clare Burt stars as an older Littlewood who acts as a narrator, a maestro, as she directs six other performers, all of whom take turns in donning the blue cap to embody this most totemic figure of British theatre.  Continue reading “Review: Miss Littlewood, Swan Theatre”

Review: Sunny Afternoon, Harold Pinter Theatre

 

To the tune of ‘Waterloo Sunset’

“First on in Hampstead, now Harold Pinter, this is a musical
‘Bout how The Kinks did, become a huge band, back catalogue got full
So a show, it got wrote
Joe Penhall’s book and, Ray Davies’ music, tell us their ups and downs

Brothers Ray and Dave and their friends Mick and Pete, oh
They really, really wrote some good music though, lots of it sounds the sameStalls in the theatre, have regular seating, apart from front and rear
Where seats are nailed down, round cabaret tables, chairs that don’t move are weird
But the show, it is strong
Three hours fly by, telling the story, most entertainingly
John Dagleish is good as Ray, George Maguire’s Dave too
But really, really Ed Hall’s cast is all fine, Dominic Tighe is mine

Went with my friend Chris, liked it but I wish, I could have brought my dad
Music is more of, his generation, would have made him feel glad
But I will, see him soon
And maybe I’ll take him, one day to this show, it’s bound to run and run

Sunny Afternoon’s fine.”

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 23rd May
Photo: Kevin Cummins
NB: in all seriousness it is most enjoyable, even for someone who still can only really recognise 4 songs by The Kinks even though this is the second time I’ve seen the show. The accapella rendition of ‘Days’ is a spellbinding moment (pictured below) and I suppose it would have been nice to have had a little more of that musical invention though I’m just being extremely picky now. The soundtrack has been recorded by the cast and is available to buy here, feel free to buy me a copy đŸ˜‰

 
 
 

Review: Sunny Afternoon, Hampstead

“I am so lazy, I don’t want to wander, I stay at home at night”

I am the wrong age for a Kinks musical to make me particularly excited, nor were they really a part of my family’s soundtrack whilst growing up so there was little reason for me to get too excited about Sunny Afternoon at the Hampstead Theatre. Indeed, even my personal alert service notifying me that Dominic Tighe appears in a police uniform (albeit briefly) scarcely raised my attention which is most unlike me. But with the end of the run fast approaching, a rumoured transfer as yet unconfirmed and someone willing to queue, I found myself at the final show.

Where I enjoyed myself mostly. Aiming itself above the jukebox format but still coming across as a luxury version thereof, it is paper-thin stuff, clearly far too in reverence of its still-living protagonists (one imagines Joe Penhall writing the book with Ray Davies hovering over his shoulder). The focus is far too much on Ray rather than the band as a whole or even the excitement of 60s Britain and so one is left waiting for the songs, which are undoubtedly extremely well done. Miriam Buether enjoys the chance to reconfigure the auditorium once again with her design and Ed Hall keeps a pulsing energy about the piece although it would be nice to see a show like this that doesn’t force the jollity quite so much at the end… 

So whilst glad I caught it, my instinct that it was missable was on the nose. And for my money, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is a Cathy Dennis song (and I had the cassingle to prove it).

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 24th May

Review: Strangers on a Train, Gielgud

“My theory is that everyone is a potential murderer”


Despite never having seen or read Strangers on a Train, I seemed to carry a strong idea of what the plot would entail. So of course I was disappointed to find out that the play wasn’t actually about two men deciding to kill each other’s wives on a long journey on the rails and that the action actually left the train carriage pretty early on. Expectations aside, I was also a little surprised at just how cinematic Robert Allan Ackerman’s production was, a veritable film noir brought to life in all its tense monochrome glory.


But for all the gloss that Tim Goodchild’s ever-revolving set and Peter Wilms’ frequent projections bring, there’s a curious lack of effective theatricality to Craig Warner’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel. The fateful initial meeting between Laurence Fox’s Guy and Jack Huston’s Bruno is charged with homoerotic tension as the latter teasingly offers to kill the former’s unloved wife if he will reciprocate by offing his overbearing father. Yet this isn’t something that is played out in the psychodrama that follows, exploring the effects on each man of perpetrating their crimes.


Indeed, we’re offered very little reason to empathise with either of them, neither is presented in a likeable light but neither actor really makes a convincing case that their emotional turmoil is something we ought to engage with. Fox’s stilted Englishness feels uncomfortably awkward throughout and though Huston is better as the free-wheeling Bruno, their story just doesn’t rouse anything beneath the surface. That the show has to rely so greatly on the volume of Avgoustous Psillas’ sound design to get its shocks is symptomatic of its inherent heavy-handedness. 

Supporting roles offer a little light relief – Imogen Stubbs’ vampish mother, Miranda Raison’s glacial femme fatale, Christian Kay’s intrepid PI – but the bloating running time sees diminishing returns as the melodrama increases, especially as the interminable second half crawls to its dénouement. I would warrant that Strangers on a Train has solid enough credentials to ensure that it will be enough of a success but on this evidence, it is hard to suggest that it is that welcome an addition to the West End. 

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 22nd February

Review: Chariots of Fire, Gielgud

“100 metres can feel like a marathon”
For the longest time, I was sure that I didn’t want to see Chariots of Fire, not least because the hoarding for this Hampstead Theatre transfer into the Gielgud finds it necessary to call it Chariots of Fire on stage, as if it could be anything else in a theatre. But Mike Bartlett, who adapted the film, is a writer I like and a change of cast meant Gabriel Vick, an actor whose charms I, erm, appreciate, was able to tempt me there on the final day of the (curtailed) run. The most arresting aspect of Edward Hall’s production is Miriam Buether’s design which snakes a running track around the front stalls and puts audience members on the stage – it makes for constant visual interest and not just for the men in shorts.
As a story set around the Olympics (Paris 1924), when the production was first announced it felt like a bit of a cash-in to the upcoming Games (London 2012) and sure enough, a West End transfer was announced even before it began. And to be honest, I’m not sure that it really stood up as a piece of effective theatre when separated from all the 2012 buzz. I’ve never seen the film so I wonder if this had an impact, but essentially the thrill of having athletically performed athletic races aside, it was rather dull.

The rivalry between two British runners – religious Scot Eric Liddell, played with fervent defiance by Jack Lowden and James McArdle’s first-generation Lithuanian immigrant Harold Abrahams – never really takes off dramatically as it is largely implicit, rather than actualised (the pair are rarely together). The whirl of supporting characters get so little stage time that very few of the fine actors onstage get the opportunity to make an impact and I wasn’t a fan of the way in which the action sequences were blended, or otherwise, with the dramatic scenes, too often the transitions felt painfully obvious. 
Using the famous music, written by Vangelis, also didn’t really work for me. It’s a no-brainer in the end and the oohs and aahs of recognition from the audience around me clearly showed that it was the big money note they’d been waiting for but it felt so unsubtle, so bolted onto the production that it just didn’t connect with the whole. So I should have listened to my instincts in the first place! 

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval) 
Booking until 5th January

Review: Pocket Dream, Propeller at the Underbelly Festival

“Why are you wearing a tutu?”

As part of the Underbelly Festival on the South Bank, Edward Hall’s all-male company Propeller have revisited and shrunk their production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream down into a 1 hour, family-friendly version called Pocket Dream. A company of six bring the customary Propeller rough-and-tumble physicality to the production which is matched by the approach to the text, which has been adapted and condensed by Roger Warren but remains utterly recognisable. Everything has been trimmed down, save the Rude Mechanicals’ play which is mostly all there, only Theseus and Hippolyta have been given the axe and even they make a delightful surprise appearance at the end of the show.

The men were all identically and androgynously dressed in white and a toy box placed centre-stage from which all the accoutrements to create the various characters were produced: pyjamas tops and nightdresses for the lovers, feathery, glittery cloaks, tutus and collars for the fairies and workmen outfits for the Mechanicals. Just two umpires’ chairs on the circular playing space were needed for them to create their magic. And magic it was, with frequently laugh-out-loud funny sections mixed in with poetic moments, demonstrating a deep understanding of how to make Shakespeare really sing and connect with an audience. Their anarchic spirit was still in evidence too with a few moments of meta-theatre sprinkled in too, the above-mentioned quote being the best, blink-and-miss-it instance of that. Continue reading “Review: Pocket Dream, Propeller at the Underbelly Festival”

Review: The Rivals, Richmond Theatre

“There’s a little intricate hussy for you!”

One of my theatrical highlights of the year so far was Celia Imrie in a sparkling production of The Rivals which variously featured audience interaction, recorders, Beyoncé songs and Sam Swainsbury sat on my lap for a while. So, when the Theatre Royal Bath production to be directed by Sir Peter Hall was announced, I was intrigued to see how it would match up. And whilst there is little of the relaxed informality of that Southwark Playhouse version, Hall sticks to what he knows best, gimmick-free, perfectly-cast productions which focus on the writing.

The Rivals is a comedy of manners, set in 18th century Bath amongst the fashionable élite who are there to take the waters and maybe a little gossip and romance on the side. Lydia Languish longs for a romantic elopement such as those of which she has read rather than a conventional marriage and so in order to win her hand, Captain Absolute disguises himself as an impoverished soldier and woos her, despite the disapproval of her guardian, Mrs Malaprop who has her own romantic designs. But Absolute has two rivals for Miss Languish, whose cousin has her own lovelife problems which we observe and the servants are playing their own games resulting in much comedy, chaos and confusion. Continue reading “Review: The Rivals, Richmond Theatre”

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rose Theatre Kingston

“Is there no play to ease the anguish of a torturing hour?”

She’s back!! I’m referring of course to Aunty Jean who popped down for the evening for some dinner and a little theatrical amusement. The play in question was A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring a reunited Peter Hall directing and Judi Dench as Titania, 40 years on since their last collaboration in these two roles. “The wisest aunt” casually regaled me with her (not sad) tales of seeing Peter Hall’s redefining production of this self-same play and McKellen and Dench in Macbeth as we sipped some vile pinot grigio at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, anticipating the treats in store and giggling at the warning of the use of ‘haze’ in the performance.

The conceit is that Dench is actually playing Elizabeth I, as she does in a brief wordless prologue where she opens a performance of a play, who then materialises as Titania in the same dress. It’s an interesting take which works almost entirely due to the warmth radiating from her performance. The scenes when she is bewitched are just delightful, her coos and chuckles with her paramour display all the ecstasy of a lust-fuelled passion simply through the strength of her verse-reading. She also displays some considerable stamina: at one point laying slumbering with her neck in a most awkward position for such a long time, and let us not forget she is 75 now, that I did worry for her joints: I don’t think I could have stayed that still for that long, at least without falling asleep!

Continue reading “Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rose Theatre Kingston”