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August 2010

Worth a Visit(s)?

Visits Curious one this. First the tiny Delicatessen Theatre is in an unloved building tucked away around the back of Oxford Street and the atmospheric performance space, with its peeling parquet floor is accessed by an external fire escape.

All good for a bit of gritty drama like Jon Fosse's Visits described as "dark" with a tag line: "Mother has a new man, Daughter has a secret, Brother has a knife".

Sadly like the unmanned, darkened bar which left the gathering audience bereft of refreshments, the play's tagline proved just as much of a tease.

Set in a flat with uncomfortably looking furniture made from random parts in that way that is just so fringe theatre, it all kicks off with the mother trying to find out what is wrong with her daughter, a depressed, withdrawn, school drop-out, with no friends who sleeps all day.

So there is a secret there but what is it? Well something happened between the daughter and mother's new man or so daughter tells brother. But that incident as described doesn't adequately explain her despondent, borderline agoraphobic behaviour and nothing in the play actually does.

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Caught in the Deathtrap

02493_show_portrait With a title like Deathtrap and a set that is a weapon-lovers wet dream, murder is a sort of given at some point in the evening.

Simon Russell Beale takes the lead of this Ira Levin comedy thriller as middle-aged playwright Sidney Bruhl struggling to re-find the creative genius that once earnt him his crust and made him famous: "Nothing recedes like success". 

Then he meets young aspiring playwright, Clifford who's written a brilliant and potentially lucrative play (Glee's Jonathan Groff and yes I am the only one on the planet who's never a single episode or even heard of him).

I can say no more because the programme asks not to reveal any of the plot. What I can say is that in Russell Beale's hands the play crackles with whip snaps of witty one-liners and digs at the world of theatre. The production is also at times suitably thrilling giving it the ingredients to be described aptly as, well, as a comedy thriller I guess.

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The best plays of the year so far

This year is turning out to be a bumper year for theatre. Not only have I thrown my net wider, taking in more fringe theatre as well as my usual favs of the NT, Donmar and Royal Court but I've already clocked up more than 40 plays - smashing last years total.

So I thought it would be a good opportunity to look back at what I've seen already and try and pick out what might be in my top five plays of the year. Then using the wonderful www.upthewestend.com I'll add in their aggregated review score, if it exists, to see how general opinion compares. Play links are to my own reviews.

It's been tricky narrowing it down as there has been some fab theatre already this year but these nine will definitely be contender for my top five at the end of the year (in order I saw them):

1. Red, Donmar Warehouse - Two-hander with Alfred Molina proving a real stage presence as artist Mark Rothko and Eddie Redmayne his able assistant. If nothing else this earns it's spot for the famous priming a canvas scene which just took my breath away (and that of the actors because of the effort involved). Painting on stage: love it.

2. The Pride, Lucille Lortel, NY - OK so this is always going to be up there because of a certain Ben Whishaw and it prompted my first trip to New York but it was also a really moving and clever play, interweaving two sets of characters in two time periods but with a common thread.

3. London Assurance, National Theatre - Fiona Shaw, Simon Russell Beale, characters with names like Lady Gay Spanker and posh people behaving stupidly in a 19th century set comedy - how could it fail?

UTWE rating: Hot with and editor rating of 4.1/5

4. Private Lives, Vaudeville Theatre - Kim Cattrall impressed in this Noel Coward comedy with great chemistry between her and fellow lead sexy spy no. 1 Matthew McFadyen. Bonus points for Kim Cattrall accidentally spitting a mouthful of half eaten roll into the lap of someone on the front row.

UTWE rating: Hot, 3.9/5

5. The Man, Finborough Theatre - My first outing to this tiny pub theatre in West London was a true stand out. Virtually a one-hander performed (at this particular show) by History Boy Samuel Barnett, its narrative was unique with every performance as the central character Ben randomly collects receipts from the audience recounting a piece of the story related to the receipt. Simple, superb and unique.

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All My Sons, Apollo Theatre

All-my-sons-006 Arthur Miller is the master of presenting the happy family then slowly stripping away the veneer to reveal something far less than perfect.

In All My Sons that happy family is the Kellers: Kate (Zoe Wanamaker) factory owning husband Joe (David Suchet) and working-for-Dad son Chris (Stephen Campbell Moore) whom all live in their nice house with porch and garden and neighbours that pop by. But this is Miller.

The play starts with a storm in which a tree - a memorial to second son Larry who is missing, presumed dead, in the war - is blown down and the calm that follows the next day is inevitably temporary. Chris has invited Ann (Jemima Rooper), Larry's former girlfriend to stay as he intends to propose but is worried what his mother will think. Kate clings on to the hope that Larry is still alive.

But Ann brings with her more than a stirring of the memories of Larry as old wounds of a conflict between the two families are opened. Ann's father was in business with Joe but is in prison for selling defective airplane parts to the air force during the war which resulted in 21 pilots dying.

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In The Blood at the Finborough

Intheblood When a homeless mother takes a cop's baton off her child and tucks it into her waistband, you know it is going to end badly but, as this new play from Pulitzer Prize winner and nominee Suzan-Lori Parks progresses, there are so many potential bad ends to consider the threat is palpable.

Set under a road bridge in New York, illiterate Hester has five children by five different fathers. Living hand to mouth Hester is a woman who has been exploited and badly let down, she clings to her children as the only good in her life and her raison d'etre, despite the strain on her physical and material resources.

You learn nothing of Hester's own childhood and ultimately what finally tipped her onto the street other but in a series of monologues by people she knows you get a picture of life once full of hope and promise that has slowly been stripped away by circumstance.

Hester tries to help herself while those around them do the same. The difference is that for those around her, helping themselves usually involves exploiting or abusing Hester.

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Fiona Shaw talks theatre

I love the five minute interview series on the BBC website (shame you can't embed them) and this one I particularly like as its with one of my favourite theatre actresses, Fiona Shaw.

Loved her in Mother Courage and All Her Children and the brilliant, brilliant London Assurance with Simon Russell Beale. (I'm also a bit of a Harry Potter fan, so I can't help but think of her as sour-faced Aunt Petunia).

In the interview she talks  a bit about her childhood in Ireland but then moves on to working in the theatre, the trust between actors and how comedy differs to straight drama.

I'm next seeing her in the Ibsen play John Gabriel Borkman over in Dublin at the Abbey Theatre where she will star opposite Alan Rickman. Yes I know Alan Rickman, how excited am I?


Did Danton die a Death?

Danton_16 Any play that has a working guillotine on the stage is always going to score points with Rev Stan (and if they have blood all the better). But I get ahead of myself. Danton's Death is as the presence of Mme G suggests about the French Revolution, a period of history in which my knowledge is at best sketchy.

The story picks up after the monarchy has been overthrown and Danton (a long-haired Toby Stephens), one of the leaders, is kicking back and enjoying the newly won liberty. He believes enough blood has been spilled and it is mans duty to enjoy the life given to them. Danton's living life to the full mainly involves wine, women and, well, he doesn't actually sing but there is definitely a lot of wine and women.

One of his fellow leaders of the revolution, Robespierre (Elliot Levey), is the antithesis of Danton. He feels their liberty is still threatened by the affluent classes and its foreign sympathisers. He also feels that the decadence and immoral behaviour of Danton and his friends is an affront to that newly won liberty and modesty should prevail in all things.

And so the stage is set for a political show down as the two men of words and their followers battle for their ideologies. Robespierre as a member of the Committee of Public Safety has Danton arrested and sets about trying to get him convicted and sent to the guillotine.

Danton, woken from the lethargy of his extended post-battle reveries, fights to save his head. ***Plot spoilers*** But, despite putting forward a good case, it isn't a fair fight. Robespierre, 'the incorruptible' as he is dubbed, has used all his influenced to nobble the jury and proclaim emergency statues that basically make Danton and his cronies' defence treason.

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Spur of the Moment, Jerwood Upstairs

RylCt-Spur-1495-1_1683317c The thing with being a so-called 'young talent' is that age inevitably catches up with you and there are always younger talents waiting to jump in your shoes.

Polly Stenham, who's play That Face was written at 19, first performed at the Royal Court before transferring to the West End when she was just 21  is having her heals nipped by 17-year-old Anya Reiss whose talents have been fostered by the Royal Court's Young Writers programme.

Reiss's play Spur of the Moment about school-girl crushes on student lodgers and warring parents is enjoying a sold out run at the Royal Court's Jerwood Upstairs and gives her the title of the youngest playwright to have a play performed in London.

When Stenham's That Face debuted, Charles Spencer in The Telegraph described it as one of the most astonishing debuts he'd ever seen. Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph gave Spur similar accolades starting his review simply with "My jaw drops."

And I know what he means. The play is incredibly accomplished and well observed by - and I don't mean this to sound patronising but it does - by one so young.

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Theatre bloggers share their thoughts on Eartquakes in London

Since seeing the play last week and writing not too favourable a review I've been curious to read what others thought of this extravagant but ultimately bloated new play of Mike Bartlett's at the National Theatre.

Well press night can't have quite happened yet but fellow theatre bloggers have been tapping away and here are some of their views:

The good:

RemoteGoat gave it five stars commenting: "After lots of laughing throughout the evening, the ending is genuinely moving, though not mawkish. It was one of those few times when you leave a theatre, not simply having been entertained for a couple of hours, but feeling on a different emotional level."

SansTaste thought Earthquakes makes it worthwhile sitting through countless mediocre and unmemorable plays and like RemoteGoat thought it all "just worked".

The not so good:

The West End Whingers gave it three glasses of red commenting: "Yes, it’s ambitious, but there’s too much distracting window-dressing, some scenes just don’t work and you find it difficult to care much about the characters amid all the convoluted shenanigans."

Webcowgirl too had similar thoughts: "The fantastic staging is something I will remember for a long time; but the play itself, I’m afraid, will not, and for the talented cast and the teasing hints of an amazing storyline that was squashed flat in order to get a point across it’s all a damnable shame."

I'm really looking forward to Michael Billington and Charles Spencer's take. My money is on one three star review and one two star review.


Going out on a high: After the Dance

Atdhero-The-London-Magazine-After-The-Dance-at-the-National-Theatre-15b3a514-6493-4397-9e40-90d8ac46a3b6 It's been a marathon theatre week - four plays is maybe a little too many in six days - but it finished in style on Saturday with After the Dance at the National's Lyttelton Theatre.

I'm a bit of sucker for watching posh people of yesteryear behaving 'pratishly' as @sjc_home4tea so accurately described them. But Terence Rattigan's 'forgotten' play doesn't just play for laughs it also has emotional depth.

Set between the wars, David Scott-Fowler (Benedict Cumberbatch) is of the class that can afford not to work and spends his days drinking and entertaining. He and his group of shallow and superficial 'friends' seem to live for a hedonistic party about which they can gossip endlessly.

David is half-heartedly writing a book assisted by his cousin Peter (John Heffernan). Peter's girlfriend Helen (Faye Castelow) however, has fallen in love with David, and he with her, and she is determined to 'save' him from the life he living, fearing that he may already have cirrhosis of the liver.

"Why do you all talk of nothing but the old days and the old parties and the things you all used to do and say?"

Rattigan's play is an amusing and moving delight in the hands of director Thea Sharrock and her extremely able cast. Notable nods go to the brilliantly funny Adrian Scarborough as eternal house guest and sponger John Reid and Nancy Carroll as jilted wife Joan Scott-Fowler who, in one scene, gave one of the snottiest, most heart-wrenching performances I've seen since Juliet Stevenson in the film Truly Madly Deeply.

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