Radio review: Constellations / Elegy / The Meaning of Zong

Less reviews, more notifications that a wonderful radio version of Nick Payne’s Constellations is now available to listen to on Radio 3, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and George Mackay. It’s well worth your time but be warned, it could well lead to expensive splurges to see the four forthcoming West End casts of Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah, Peter Capaldi and Zoë Wanamaker, Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey, and Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd.

Sasha Yevtushenko also directs a production of Elegy as part of this double bill, a play which I don’t remember half as fondly, despite a strong cast at the Donmar Warehouse. Here again, Juliet Stevenson, Deborah Findlay and Marilyn Nnadebe elevate the production to must-listen levels but it just isn’t as gut-wrenchingly affecting a piece of writing in the end.

Last up is Giles Terera’s The Meaning of Zong, the debut play for this talented performer which is now receiving its premiere on radio. It’s an extraordinary dramatisation of a shocking piece of British history that very few of us will know about, one which is vital to add to the discourse that has emerged since last summer and a play that must be put on major stages as soon as we can.

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 8

“You are the chief executive officer of the human race”

It was quite interesting to rewatch Series 8 of Doctor Who, one which I hadn’t revisited at all since it originally aired, as my memories thereof were not at all positive. And whilst disappointments remained – Robin Hood, 2D cartoons, the treeees! – there was also much to enjoy that I’d forgotten about. The smash-and-grab of Time Heist, the simplicity of ghost story Listen, and the ominous darkness of the finale.

I’m still in two minds about Peter Capaldi’s Twelve though, I want to like him so much more than I do, and I think you do get the sense of him feeling his way into his irascible take on the role. Jenna Coleman’s Clara benefits from being released from the yoke of impossibility to move to the forefront of several episodes and if she’s still a little hard to warm to, that finale really is superbly done. And then there’s Michelle Gomez, stealing the whole damn thing magnificently! Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 8”

Review: Waste, National Theatre

“The stateman’s task is the accommodation of stubborn facts to shifting circumstance and in effect to the practical capacities of the average stupid man. Democracy involves admission of that”

It’s always a bit tough to forge one’s own opinion of something already lauded as a masterpiece, the assumption being if you don’t like it then you’re missing something, but this is the second time I’ve seen a solidly good production of Harley Granville Barker’s Waste and it’s the second time that I just haven’t been blown away by it. Seven years ago saw Samuel West tackle it for the Almeida and now it is Roger Michell’s turn in the Lyttelton as Rufus Norris continues his balancing act of reinvigorating the National Theatre without scaring the regulars off.

But spread over a goodly three hours with a pace that could be described as stately at best and glacial at its worst, it’s hard to see Waste converting any newcomers to the joys of theatre. And even with the quality that emanates from the female-centric first scene – Olivia Williams, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Doreen Mantle and Lucy Robinson (forever in my heart as my first Lady Macbeth) doing fine work – the energy is just singularly lacking even as sex, sleaze and suicide pop up on the menu for this slice of the Edwardian political elite.  Continue reading “Review: Waste, National Theatre”

Review: Who Cares, Royal Court

“Is our emotional attachment to the NHS gonna stop it changing in the way that it needs to, to continue to thrive and survive?”

The product of eighteen months of interviews with people working in and around the National Health Service, Michael Wynne’s verbatim play Who Cares is an impassioned but clear-sighted cri de coeur for this venerable British institution but one free from too much rose-tinted sentimentality, as it performs an uncompromising health check on that which is meant to check our own health. And the prognosis? The NHS may possibly be screwed but theatre’s in great shape. 

Starting off in the rehearsal rooms next to the theatre and eventually ending up in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Who Cares is a promenade production that weaves its way inside and out, up stairs and down, backstage and on, as the audience – split into small groups – take in a multitude of vignettes of the interviewees’ experiences, presented in imaginative and inventive ways by the show’s three directors, Debbie Hannan, Lucy Morrison and Hamish Pirie, plus designer Andrew D Edwards, Natasha Chivers’ lighting and Daniel Krass’ sound. Continue reading “Review: Who Cares, Royal Court”

Review: Little Light, Orange Tree Theatre

“All of life’s tragedies folded up into those briefest of moments where your face will be an abiding memory”

Critics went cock-a-hoop for Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again at the RSC yesterday but my first experience of her writing came with Many Moons at Theatre503 in 2011 and a fantastic one it was too. Little Light, which forms part of Paul Miller’s reinvigorating opening season at the Orange Tree, was actually the first play she ever wrote and directed here by David Mercatali, receives a startling premiere which confirms Birch’s status as one to watch.

Little Light starts strongly as a disturbed domestic drama. There are strains evident in Teddy and Alison’s relationship from the start, as they prepare for a special meal in their seaside converted barn, tension crackling as the rituals they have always observed end up slightly off-kilter. They’re waiting for her sister Clarissa but she arrives heavily pregnant and followed unexpectedly by her bedraggled lover Simon, a further deviation from which the occasion spirals out of control into a vortex of grief-fuelled chaos. Continue reading “Review: Little Light, Orange Tree Theatre”

Looking ahead to 2015

I realise I’m just adding (belatedly) to the plethora of 2015 features already published but so many of them trod the boringly familiar ground of forthcoming West End shows (and in the Evening Standard’s case, managed to recommend booking for three shows already sold out from their list of six). So I’ve cast my net a little wider and chosen a few random categories for just some of the shows I’m recommending and looking forward to in 2015.

Continue reading “Looking ahead to 2015”

Review: Incognito, HighTide

“Imagine how liberating it would be not to remember who you were”

If you saw the mega-hit that was Nick Payne’s Constellations, then the fragmented structure of his new play Incognito will come as little surprise. Here, he has deconstructed three stories loosely connected around the theme of neurology and woven them back together in a searching meditation on the vital importance memory plays in our lives and also in the construction of our very selves and touching on how little we truly understand about it.

Payne riffs off historical events for two of the three strands – the bizarre theft of Albert Einstein’s brain by the man who performed the autopsy on him, and the pioneering experiences of Henry Maison who underwent experimental brain surgery and thus helped shape the future of neuroscience. Along with extended and embellished versions of both stories is the tale of Martha, a present-day clinical neuropsychologist also caught in a moment of mental fragility. Continue reading “Review: Incognito, HighTide”

Review: Children of the Sun, National Theatre

“We are tiny, tiny fragments of miniscule cogs in a grand and fabulously random collision”

If it ain’t broke… Adaptor Andrew Upton, director Howard Davies and designer Bunny Christie have had considerable success with previous Russian epics Philistines and The White Guard and so they’ve reunited once again, this time to breathe new life in Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun, which has just started its run in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre. Set in a small town in a Russia on the cusp of revolution (1905 rather than 1917), experimental chemist Protasov and his coterie of middle class hangers-on are waltzing through life oblivious to the turmoil outside the gates of their estate, but their tragedy is as much personal as they turn out to be as blind to the needs and desires of each other as well. 

Gorky’s writing is remarkably perceptive throughout the play. Written in 1905 as a direct response to the huge societal changes around him, he skilfully diagnoses the malaise of the self-absorbed bourgeoisie and lays bare the blinkeredness of their cosseted ignorance and the hopelessness of their grandiose idealism. But he does it with a real deftness of touch, creating richly detailed characters who are rarely so insufferable that one’s heart doesn’t ache at the inevitability of the violent collapse of their entire world. Geoffrey Streatfeild’s erudite academic Protasov fully exemplifies this – a man full of an acute sense of the growing importance of science in the world yet an abject failure at maintaining the relationships in his life. Continue reading “Review: Children of the Sun, National Theatre”

Review: Fred’s Diner, Theatre on the Fly Chichester

Whereas Chichester Festival Theatre should most definitely be applauded for stretching its artistic remit with the construction of the temporary Theatre on the Fly to give it a much-needed shot in the arm of contemporary drama, it could still do with a look at the scheduling. By putting shows on at 8pm, especially ones which run for nearly 2 hours 30 minutes, they’ve instantly nixed any chance of people coming to see it via public transport unless they make it to a matinée performance. As it was, I was headed this way(ish) en route to Brighton Pride and I love me some Cush Jumbo so I was willing to make the effort to see Penelope Skinner’s latest play Fred’s Diner.

Fred’s is a 50s-themed motorway restaurant, a failing slice of Americana in the West Midlands in which acts as a cul-de-sac for troubled souls. On the staff, Heather is an ex-con desperate for the opportunity to prove herself, Chloe’s a bit of a drifter even at 30, work-shy and only really there to pay off her debts and the bills from her late ‘gap-year’ to Thailand, and Melissa dreams of studying law at Oxford. But Melissa is the daughter of Fred, and as the play evolves, we see the horribly tense dynamic that exists between father and daughter and realise how trapped all the women, but particularly Melissa, are beneath their matching uniforms. Continue reading “Review: Fred’s Diner, Theatre on the Fly Chichester”