Review: Joseph K, Gate Theatre

“It’s like a site-specific, interactive-type thing, isn’t it”

Joseph K is a modern retelling of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, where a man is arrested and subsequently persecuted by a faceless Authority despite never finding out what his purported crime is, moving the action to 21st century London. Tom Basden is the comedian and writer who has adapted it here at the Gate Theatre. It takes a look at the absurdities of the depersonalisation of modern life and particularly its dependency on technology, playing on all too recognisable fears about store loyalty card points going missing, mobile phones stop working, what photograph plucked from Facebook would be used as your mugshot and the trials of dealing with disinterested call-centre workers, but really centres on the powerlessness that can be felt when trying, and failing, to deal with a bureaucracy that does not (can not) listen.

Pip Carter is well cast as the initially bullish 30 year old banker whose arrogance when first arrested is slowly eroded as although he is ostensibly allowed to remain free, his life becomes one huge faceless bureaucratic nightmare with no answers and no-one to turn to. His nightmare is all-too-recognisable and Carter plays the strained communications and mounting desperation well as Joseph is forced to question the reality of what is happening to him as things take an increasingly surreal turn, yet remaining a brutal boss to his underling all the while.

Yet despite everything, something just didn’t quite connect to elevate this to great theatre. The tone never quite progressed enough for me, the momentum never really generated to take it to the darker places suggested within. I felt this was mainly to do with the format of the show with its relatively short scenes, prolonged changeovers and, I suspect, a little self-indulgence in the writing process. Basden and regular collaborator Tim Key play a multitude of supporting characters in a dizzying array but the overall effect comes across mainly as playing to their own strengths as rapid-fire comedians and dominating the focus at the expense of our lead character. And along with ‘real’ actress Siân Brooke who fulfils a similar role, what should come across as a spiralling descent into increasingly nightmarish madness, plays more like a sketch show, it was just too disjointed for me to convince fully as drama.

This is not to say that I didn’t find it funny, indeed some sections were hilarious, the dismissive Latin-speaking Bond-villain lawyer was excellent and the pops at radio shows were really well done. The performances were strong across the board, both Brooke and Carter really impressed me, and if nothing it was a scarily plausible premise that never felt so outlandish as to be that incredible. But something was awry in the balance for me, between the darkness and the surrealism and an ending which seemed to go in the face of the way the show was going. So ultimately more of a curiosity for me, than a must-see.

Running time: 90 minutes
Booking until 18th December

Review: The White Guard, National

“Negativity be damned”

Maintaining a strong record of reviving Russian plays (Burnt By The Sun was a highlight of last year for me), Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard takes up residence in the Lyttleton in a version by Andrew Upton (I saw a preview, it opens officially on 23rd April). Stalin was famously a fan of this play but it should be noted that Bulgakov was no Stalinist and was pretty much a dissident, writing as anti-Soviet works as he dared whilst forbidden to leave the country and suffering much from censorship, a theme visited in another of his plays, Molière or the League of Hypocrites seen in London late last year at the Finborough.

The White Guard is a look at the price that is paid by people during wartime: both on the grand political scale, but also on the personal and family lives. Set in the Ukraine in 1918, we follow the Turbin family as they struggle to maintain their lives in a Kiev ravaged by the just-ended First World War, yet flung headlong into the Russian Civil War which ensued immediately after. The Turbin’s apartment is presided over by the luminous Lena, around whom a coterie of assorted characters gravitate, as the tumultuous sequence of events and invaders threaten to irrevocably change to everyone’s way of life. Continue reading “Review: The White Guard, National”

2009 What’s On Stage Award nominations

Katy Stephens – The Histories, RSC at the Roundhouse 
Deanna Dunagan – August: Osage County at the NT Lyttelton 
Lesley Sharp – Harper Regan at NT Cottesloe
Lindsay Duncan – That Face at the Duke of York’s 
Margaret Tyzack – The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse 
Penelope Wilton – The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse 

Kenneth Branagh – Ivanov, Donmar West End at Wyndham’s 
Adam Godley – Rain Man at the Apollo 
Chiwetel Ejiofor – Othello at the Donmar Warehouse
Eddie Redmayne – Now or Later at the Royal Court Downstairs 
Ian McDiarmid – Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Gielgud 
Kevin Spacey & Jeff Goldblum – Speed the Plow at the Old Vic  Continue reading “2009 What’s On Stage Award nominations”

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”

Review: Present Laughter, National Theatre

Present Laughter, the Noël Coward play about a middle aged matinée idol, arrives at the Lyttelton in a new National Theatre production led by Howard Davies. I was quite excited to see it, as I have not seen that much of Coward’s work on the stage at all and had heard wonderful things about Alex Jennings’ performance as Garry Essendine.

The self-centred Garry, an actor, cannot live without the constant affection of those around him whether onstage or off-. He regularly enjoys the amorous attentions of many of his fans but finds himself is trapped in a tug of war between two young women, his estranged wife (with whom he gets on just super now they no longer live together), and a besotted aspiring writer. As Essendine prepares to go to Africa on tour they all throw themselves at him, in their own eccentric ways. Continue reading “Review: Present Laughter, National Theatre”