Review: The 39 Steps, Criterion Theatre

“Golly!”

This is actually the first time I’ve seen The 39 Steps despite its perennial fixture on the theatrical listings, or perhaps it is actually because of it. Like tourist attractions like The London Eye or the Aquarium, it’s something I’ve walked past a hundred times without ever really thinking about it, assuming that I’d go along one day but never quite mustering the enthusiasm to do so until someone else gives you a kick up the bum.

Such kick duly administered, we delved our way into the depths of the Criterion Theatre and settled down for a couple of hours of top-notch entertainment. I’d say it is under-rated but that’s not really true as audiences have been flocking to Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon’s original show since 2006 and it isn’t hard to see why. The concept of 4 actors taking on 139 characters with a bare minimum of props is simplicity itself but an absolute treasure to behold. Continue reading “Review: The 39 Steps, Criterion Theatre”

Review: Eternal Love, Cambridge Arts Theatre

“If you marry me you’ll never be a candidate for the Vatican”

Originally seen at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2006 and 2007 as In Extremis, Howard Brenton’s newly retitled Eternal Love marks the 21st birthday year of English Touring Theatre and the first instalment in a three-year-long project to tour quality drama across the country. On a personal note, it also saw my first ever visit to Cambridge (too brief for my liking, I look forward to a return) and the Cambridge Arts Theatre (very friendly, I like the fact I found the bar before I found the box office!).

The retitling offers a further clue to its subject matter in a subtitle The Story of Abelard and Heloise but in some ways, this feels a little bit of a misnomer. For though the enduring love story between the medieval theologian Peter Abelard and his fearsomely intelligent student Heloise is a central part of the play, Brenton also focuses on the key philosophical debate of the time, as intense rival Bernard of Clairvaux declares his determination to defeat this heretical foe and maintain the doctrine of absolute faith. Continue reading “Review: Eternal Love, Cambridge Arts Theatre”

Review: The Sound of Music, Open Air Theatre

“But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past there must have been a moment of truth”

Despite never having seen it on the stage before, I hadn’t originally intended to go and see the Open Air Theatre’s production of The Sound of Music. But whilst on holiday, we watched the film on TV en famille whereupon I was reminded of its charms and hearing the good reviews of this production, duly set about booking tickets for an evening when I hoped the sun would shine. And I clearly had some good theatrical karma as a glorious summer’s evening set up what a simply delightful evening of old school musical entertainment.

It may not be the most adventurous of programming choices and Rachel Kavanaugh’s production plays a very straight bat but in many ways, this is why it is so successful. Its straightforward simplicity allows for a direct emotional hit, one which plays off the indubitable familiarity of so much of the material but also the opportunities offered by this open air venue and the freshness of a supremely talented cast. Charlotte Wakefield’s Maria and Michael Xavier’s Captain may initially seem more youthful than one might expect but together they work like a dream, combining with the whole company to create the kind of warmth that would brighten even the soggiest of September evenings (the run has extended by a week due to its success). Continue reading “Review: The Sound of Music, Open Air Theatre”

Review: 1936, Arcola Theatre

“6 million unemployed cannot be gainfully employed in Greco-roman wrestling”

Taking place in an East London which is changing face, due in part to the arrival of the 2012 Olympics Games, 1936 is a well-timed production, running at the Arcola Theatre for most of April. Bookended by scenes set in the Berlin Olympic Stadium in 1948, the play is narrated by real-life journalist William Shirer as we cover events from 1931-1935 leading up to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 as the news about the burgeoning anti-Semitism under the Nazi regime began to spread throughout the world, forcing the American sporting community to make a stand against what they saw as a betrayal of the Olympic ideal.

Following threads both in Hitler’s regime as figures such as Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbels tried to persuade the Fuhrer that the Games were an opportunity to promote Nazi Germany to the world, and in the US sporting administration as more principled people argued for a boycott in the face of bureaucratic resistance. Counterpointing these discussions are the experiences of two athletes, Gretel Bergmann a German Jewish high jumper and Jesse Owens the black American sprinter. Continue reading “Review: 1936, Arcola Theatre”