Review: Tom Brown’s School Days, Union Theatre

A musical adaptation of Tom Brown’s School Days at the Union Theatre has some moments, and performances, to treasure

“Just don’t get caught”

It is now the fifth year that the Phil Willmott Company’s themed series of Essential Classics has taken over the Union Theatre and this year’s season takes on the mantle of V.E. Day, 75 Years On, looking at Britain and WWII through the lens of Noël Coward, musical theatre and this opening production of Tom Brown’s School Days.

Full disclosure, I have to admit to knowing basically nothing about Tom Brown…, Thomas Hughes’ novels and its subsequent adaptations never having figured in my childhood. So the fact that Willmott’s new version moves the action from the 1830s to the 1940s has no impact on my expectations, though it has raised an eyebrow or three from those to whom I’ve mentioned it. Continue reading “Review: Tom Brown’s School Days, Union Theatre”

Round-up of news and treats and other interesting things

 

The race to declare the most exciting show for 2018 has well and truly been declared by Complicite with Grief is the Thing with Feathers, a new production based on the award-winning novel by Max Porter. Directed by Enda Walsh and starring Cillian Murphy, it is a moving story of a widower and his young sons which becomes a profound meditation on love, loss and living.

And if only dates for Galway and Dublin have been announced thus far , a glance at the co-producers – the Barbican, Cork Opera House, Edinburgh International Festival, Oxford Playhouse, St Ann’s Warehouse and Warwick Arts Centre – gives a little hope that we might not have to travel the Irish Sea if we don’t want to (although don’t quote me on that!)

Continue reading “Round-up of news and treats and other interesting things”

Review: Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, Criterion Theatre

“Learning to let go”

Just a quickie for this one-off – a fundraiser for the Make A Difference Trust of this late 1980s song cycle inspired by the AIDS memorial quilt. The original London production of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens actually transferred to the Criterion – where tonight’s show was – from the King’s Head but it’s a little difficult to see how this production with its nearly 50-strong company could ever have been scaled down to fit into that Islington pub theatre. But given how the show is made up of individual songs and monologues, each inspired by a different panel on the quilt representing the life of someone who has died from HIV/AIDS, its inherent flexibility shows how it can take whatever form is needed.

Here, Stephen Whitson’s production takes on a new 21st century version of the book by Bill Russell, the updating of which has mixed results. Contemporary references clang a little awkwardly but there’s more of a problem in that neither the fast-moving world of medical advancements nor the changing nature of the epidemic itself are really reflected – the show is already a period piece in so many ways that it perhaps would be better to leave it that way rather than trying to chase a relevance that would be better served by a completely separate part two. Continue reading “Review: Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, Criterion Theatre”

Review: Lear, Union Theatre

“She’s there, and she is yours”

 
What if King Lear were a woman? One of the most fascinating aspects of Phil WIllmott’s version of Lear for the Union Theatre is the collection of responses, collated here in the programme, he received when posting this question on Facebook. It lays bare much about our theatrical culture and it speaks volumes that it has taken a fringe venue to make the move of making Lear a queen. Here Ursula Mohan steps into this most iconic of Shakespearean roles, in what proves to be a fascinating piece of theatre. 

An ambivalence of tone in the opening section suggests any number of interpretations might be at play in this modern day adaptation – manila folders suggest the division of a business empire rather than a kingdom, the fool’s green scrubs and readiness with a bottle of pills hints at institutionalisation, only the ever-present handbag feels like a determined (if cheeky) nod to regality. And this ambiguity gains real strength in the madness on the heath with its people sleeping rough under cardboard, shopping trollies full of junk being pushed around – the production feels powerful in this non-specific but definitely contemporary milieu. Continue reading “Review: Lear, Union Theatre”

Review: Outward Bound, Finborough Theatre

“It’s made me very particular about my hyphen”

Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers. One of the difficulties of writing about shows is the balancing act between trying to give enough information to give a palpable sense of a production without giving away too much of it to preserve as much of its revelatory nature as possible. Major plot points are frequently given away in reviews, especially of classics (which always strikes me as a little arrogant, this idea that because the reviewer has seen the play 60 times doesn’t mean that the reader necessarily has – I loved the surprises that King Lear held for me when I saw it for the first time last year), but then the act of writing about theatre lends itself to detailed analysis which can’t afford to be coy.

The plot of Sutton Vane’s 1923 play Outward Bound hinges on a major revelation, not so much in a whodunit sense but rather in the direction that the play then takes. It comes fairly early in the show and so when debating this issue, my companion thought it would be ok to mention it in the review, but reading the blurb on the production, the enigma is preserved and I think I prefer it that way round. But I suppose there’s then an element of me having my cake and eating it here – in not wanting to talk about ‘it’, I’ve flagged up its presence something rotten! But anyhoo, to the show in hand. Continue reading “Review: Outward Bound, Finborough Theatre”

Review: The Veil, National Theatre

“What is it about this place that is a conduit for desperate souls”

Conor McPherson’s The Veil is his first original play for 5 years and set in 1822, marks his first foray into period writing although as it is set in a haunted country house in rural Ireland, he isn’t venturing too far from familiar territory. Rae Smith’s one room set, although it is a lavish recreation of the faded grandeur of a crumbling country pile, has great attention to detail with a great staircase going off the left and up to the gods and a large tree out the back of the conservatory and in it, we see the trials of the Lambroke family. Lady Madeleine’s estate is heavily indebted after the death of her husband and an impending economic crisis and so her 17 year old daughter Hannah is being married off to an English marquis. Hannah is a troubled young woman though, who hears voices and when her chaperone Berkeley proposes a séance before heading back to England with his philosopher friend Audelle, the personal demons and family secrets thus revealed threaten devastating effects.

I was someone else’s plus one for the evening for once and wasn’t actually aware it was the first preview until we arrived at the National in good company (though I did know it was early in the run) and so all the usual caveats apply. And they will apply because I didn’t like it all, though as ever, people rarely seem to have complaints when it is a positive review about a preview… McPherson directs his own play in the Lyttelton and I tend to be a little wary when I hear that playwrights are directing their own work, especially with new plays, as I always innately feel that they would benefit from external influences. Whether that is true or not I don’t know, but what I do know is that The Veil was painfully sluggish and not because of the mechanics of working through a first performance but mainly because of the writing and its construction. Continue reading “Review: The Veil, National Theatre”

Review: The Drowsy Chaperone, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“Do you always pray during those seconds before curtain-up?”

The Drowsy Chaperone is receiving its first off-west-end fringe revival after a spectacular failure with its West End run 3 years ago. I’m not entirely sure why it was so unsuccessful featuring Elaine Paige as it did but the misguided marketing campaign had a lot to do with it I’m sure. It is however also quite a niche piece, it should appeal to any fan of musical theatre but beyond that, I’m not sure how much attraction it has. But relocated and retooled to the Upstairs at the Gatehouse pub theatre in Highgate, this production captures all the charm and effervescence of this delightful show and hopefully it will restore some of its reputation here in London.

The show starts in darkness with our narrator explaining that he much prefers to listen to his favourite musicals than actually go to the theatre and he proceeds to put on his favourite record, The Drowsy Chaperone from 1928. This show-within-a-show is about two lovers whose wedding is put in jeopardy on their wedding day – by disaster, by themselves, by the drowsy chaperone who is supposed to be making sure the bride doesn’t see the groom on that fateful day and a whole host of stereotypical Broadway caricatures all with their own agendas. Continue reading “Review: The Drowsy Chaperone, Upstairs at the Gatehouse”