Review: The Seagull, Open Air Theatre

“Life in the country is just so bloody boring”

Someone wiser than I pointed out that the only way you could do The Seagull at the Open Air Theatre was to be thoroughly iconoclastic, ruffling those Chekhovian feathers into something brasher, bolder and less contained. And there is no doubting that that is what Torben Betts’ new version and Matthew Dunster’s directorial vision have set out to do here, ramping up the comedic elements (of the first half at least) but sacrificing much of the counterbalancing tragedy that customarily gives the Russian writer’s work its depth. 

There’s some good work here – Janie Dee’s skittish Arkadina is a delight as she vainly tries to cling onto a long-gone girliishness (though impressive barre work!), Lisa Diveney’s Kirsten Stewart-ish Masha is well-realised in all her agonised inaction, and Jon Bausor’s striking design tilts a giant mirror at 45 degrees to the floor to both open up and expose the world of the tortured souls in this country estate. But the prevailing mood is one of something close to glibness, as the frivolity of the updating comes up hard against the traditional period setting.  Continue reading “Review: The Seagull, Open Air Theatre”

Review: Arcadia, Churchill Theatre Bromley

“When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone on the empty shore”

With London audiences pondering The Hard Problem and struggling to find the answer (we’re insufficiently classicly-educated apparently, though the journalist getting the name of the play wrong here is hardly a great start to counter that assertion) fans of Tom Stoppard can also catch his more celebrated play Arcadia in this English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Brighton co-production, directed by the ever-interesting Blanche McIntyre. I hesitate to call it a nationwide tour as it doesn’t appear to heading any further north than Birmingham but it is still a healthy enough trek for this pleasingly complex but affecting play.

As is customary with this playwright, it is a play full of weighty ideas – complex mathematics and chaos theory, entropy and existential truths, and takes place in the same country house drawing room in two time periods simultaneously, 1809 and the present day. Along the length of a fine dining table, the past rubs up against the present as the scientific rigour of the intellect goes head to head with the emotional poetry of the soul as Stoppard ultimately explores what it simply means to be human (and also what stirring rice pudding really represents). It is perhaps easy to get caught up in the density of the detail during the play but it would take the hardest of hearts not to be swept up the heart-breaking swing and sway of the final scene. Continue reading “Review: Arcadia, Churchill Theatre Bromley”

Review: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, St Leonard’s Church

“There’s a concept, Cunningham, called “playing the card you are dealt” – one can either accept that concept, or, one can slowly lose their mind, heart and soul.”

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot premiered in the UK back in 2008 at the Almeida with a colourful and sharp production from Headlong. Producer/director and latterly actor Antony Law’s revival down the road in St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch has removed the colour for an altogether more severe aesthetic and, although there are two sets of cushions on the pews, it is a severity that punishes your posterior as much as anything. The setting of the church has a sombre beauty and occasional acoustic challenges aside, offers a grandeur to this courtroom-set drama with its Alice-in-Wonderland-style oversized judge’s platform but Law rarely exploits the potential of this unique venue and the production suffers a little for it.

Set in Purgatory, the point where souls await their ultimate destination of either heaven or hell, Guirgis puts Judas in the dock and in something of a show trial, a vastly eclectic range of witnesses are called not just to explore the reasons behind his betrayal of Jesus but a wider examination of what it means to be good or to be responsible. So contemporaries like Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas the Elder are interrogated for their culpability whilst luminaries such as Sigmund Freud and Mother Teresa find themselves under the spotlight as their reputations are questioned too. It’s a heady mixture of intellectual argument and showboating pizazz, difficult to pull off and only intermittently successful here. Continue reading “Review: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, St Leonard’s Church”

Review: Four Nights in Knaresborough, Southwark Playhouse

“Look at us, the men who murdered Becket by the altar”

Four Nights in Knaresborough takes a rather unique look at events around a significant moment in medieval English history: the assassination of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Paul Webb’s play, presented here by co-producers Rooster and MokitaGrit at the Southwark Playhouse, looks at the four knights of Henry II’s court who carried out the murder of the troublesome Archbishop and follows them as they hole up in a drafty castle in deepest Yorkshire, visiting them four times over the course of a year as they wait, and wait, unsure of just what is going to happen to them.

The promotional material cites a modern day sensibility that has “more in common with Tarantino than Cadfael” but what the play put me most in mind of, particularly in the first half, was Sam Mendes’ film Jarhead in its portrayal of military men driven stir-crazy, frustratingly forced into an extended waiting game rather than doing what it is that they do best. And so we see the knights here dealing with the mundanity of killing time with tales of constipation, horniness, hunger, sword-polishing, even love, and the funniest scene of emergency medieval dentistry I’ll wager you’ll see all year. Continue reading “Review: Four Nights in Knaresborough, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: This Is How It Goes, King’s Head Theatre

“The truth is just so damn…elusive”

Taking its title from the Aimee Mann song, This Is How It Goes is a Neil LaBute three-hander presented here by Rooster Productions at Islington’s King Head Theatre Pub. In the words of the playwright himself, it’s ‘a story about three people who ultimately take care of their own needs with a breathtaking ruthlessness’ but as with so many of LaBute’s plays, it is much much more as well.

Set in the US in a small Midwestern town, ‘Man’ has returned to his old home town and bumps into an old flame from school, Belinda. As it turns out she is married with children now to Cody the African-American high-school track champion from back then, but they have a room for rental and so ‘Man’ moves in and the three of them set about reminiscing about old times. The story is narrated throughout by ‘Man’, but from the word go he informs us that there is every chance that he is not the most reliable of narrators and what follows is an intriguing study of the nebulous nature of truth as scenes are played out to us from one perspective, then given explanations or qualifications to guide us closer to what is really happening, in some cases the scenes are even played again.


So we see everyone playing with truth in order to achieve what they want and to satisfy their own agendas. But figuring out quite what those agendas are is part of the pleasure of this play, as LaBute constantly pulls the rug on us, forcing the audience to question what we have seen and are thinking. LaBute is also such a pleasingly complex playwright, there’s a series of hints threaded throughout here, allusions to Othello, Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train, all suggesting subtle hints and clues as to how we should be interpreting what we’re witnessing.

There’s his trademark misogynism in here for sure, but there’s more insight when the race card is played. The discomfort around interracial relationships is cleverly played up and the spectre of racism is never far away, but what LaBute is astute enough to do is to show that not all black people are victims, indeed Cody takes advantage of and plays up his status of ‘the only black in the village’. But as our narrator begins to reveal himself as a shocking bigot, we’re also forced to look at ourselves and whether we have used the same language, the same justifications to get away with the unpalatable.

As Man, Tom Greaves is just outstanding, clearly determined to erase the mis-step of Henry V from my mind. From the opening scene, he fills the theatre with his affability and warmth so that we’re willing to go along with the conceit and his witty asides, vindications and rationalisations are perfectly played as we never quite get to find out whether the prejudices that begin to leak out of him are genuine or just part of his jokey character that he’s playing. Gemma Atkinson was a revelation as the quietly graceful Belinda, And last but no means least Okezie Morro did well with Cody, a difficult, rather unlikeable character full of contempt and coiled power.

Rhiannon Newman-Brown’s design makes the most of the limited space at the King’s Head, evoking a wide range of locations with just a few props and Aaron J Dootson’s suggestive lighting, which really comes into its own during Man’s asides to the audience, there’s the necessary clear delineation between his two roles. The only issue I had is what felt like a missed opportunity with the music. What has been chosen was sufficient, but as the special programme note tells us, LaBute was inspired by the music of Aimee Mann when writing this play and it would have been brilliant to use her songs to soundtrack the show (especially as I’m a bit of a fan, but I’m sure there would have been licensing issues etc)

Clever, exciting, thought-provoking, challenging yet ultimately very satisfying. This Is How It Goes gets the balance just right between eliciting dark humour from the tricky subject of race and exposing just how devious and self-serving people can be and whether you agree with his message or not, one has to admire the sheer skill on display here and admit that truly no-one is entirely good or bad. And delivered extremely proficiently by this cracking cast of 20-somethings, this production demonstrates the best of London fringe theatre: highly recommended.

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £2Booking until 3rd October

                                                         Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

Review: Romeo & Juliet, Mosaica@The Chocolate Factory

“Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast”

At the beginning of the year, I thought it was Macbeth that was the play of the year with three major productions lined up for the first half of the year, but it seems that Romeo & Juliet has actually been the more popular as I trudged up to Wood Green to see what was my fourth set of star-cross’d lovers in 3 months. My step was lightened though by the knowledge that this was a production by MokitaGrit, a production company responsible for one of my musical highlights of the year so far, Once Upon A Time At The Adelphi.

This Romeo & Juliet was billed as an urban retelling, ‘Shakespeare meets Skins’, set in the gang-dominated Verona council estate. Its most striking innovation is to use a group of free-runners, Team Invision, to manage the scene changes, their acrobatics providing a physical urgency and danger to proceedings. The venue is quite a quirky one, the courtyard of a great-looking restaurant Mosaica which is based in a disused chocolate factory in Wood Green, now a cultural hub. Surrounded by high buildings on three sides, this production made the most of its location and used many of the different levels to varying effect. Continue reading “Review: Romeo & Juliet, Mosaica@The Chocolate Factory”

Review: Henry V, Southwark Playhouse

“I am glad thou canst speak speak no better english, for if thou couldst, thou wouldst find me such a plain king”
 

Ooh, this whingeing thing is hard to shake… After my exploits at the Adelphi on Monday, I had to take a couple of days downtime from the theatre to recover and reassess the world in the light of love having actually died a death right in front of me. To try and restore my customary mood, a trip was made to Henry V at the Southwark Playhouse. A company of seven actors act out the radically edited play, covering several characters each, using, and I quote “striking physical imagery, innovative movement sequences and direct contact with the audience” to “reimagine [this as] a life-sized board game. What could possibly go wrong?

One is given a pass along with your ticket which allocates one to either the English or the French army: this governs where one sits in the theatre and there’s a little playing along too, as we’re exhorted to rise when the King first arrives and it’s all jolly fun initially. The floor is covered with a large scale map of England and France, and the seating is arranged around all four sides, creating the stage, or game-board in the middle. This is where Shakespeare’s play of fast-maturing Henry V’s attempts to conquer France, culminating in the famous battle of Agincourt, is told by our players in a really quite bizarre fashion. Continue reading “Review: Henry V, Southwark Playhouse”