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March 2012

February 2012

Not an easy watch: the harrowing Purge @Arcolatheatre

PURGESofi Oksanen's Purge isn't an easy play to watch, particularly in the small, intimate studio space at the Arcola. But this harrowing story is nonetheless interesting and compelling.

Set in Estonia and spanning the middle to late period of the 20th century it is personal story of love and survival wrapped up in the history and politics of the time. If you know nothing of this eastern European country's history then it is worth investing in a programme (£1.50) for the whistle-stop timeline to put the story into context.

The play opens with a harrowing film clip of a blindfolded woman being physically and sexually abused by unidentified men. We then jump to the remote country home of elderly woman Aliide (Illona Linthwaite) who finds a dishevelled, battered and inappropriately dressed young woman Zara (Elicia Daly), asleep in her yard. 

Zara, it turns out, is on the run but her past has parallels with Aliide's.

Flipping back and forth in time, the story of the two women's lives unfold, shaped by a horrific period of occupation and oppression, when survival means making the toughest of decisions. In helping Zara, Aliide has to confront her past and choices she made.

This is an emotionally wrought, stark piece, the fear and danger like an ever present extra character.  A compelling piece, at its heart it is a story about the lengths you'll go to for those you love.

There are some great performances and one or two that feel slightly too big for the intimate performance space of the Arcola's studio my only other slight grumble is the late start time (8pm) for a play that is over two and a half hours long (some of us mere mortal audience members have to get up for work the next day).

Enjoyable probably isn't the right word  for Purge but this is a great bit of theatre and I am going to give it 4 stars.

Purge runs at the Arcola's studio space until March 24.

Production photo: Simon Kane 

Theatre related stuff on TV and Radio Feb 27 - Mar 4

Compiled by Poly Gianniba who has a fabulous new blog

Monday February 27

9am on BBC Radio 4: Start The Week, the playwright Helen Edmundson discusses her play The Heresy of Love staged at the RSC, about the life of  the 17th century Mexican nun, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. 

Wednesday February 29

9.00am on BBC Radio 4: Midweek, Libby Purves interviews the Palestinian director Amir Nizar Zuabi, who is directing The Comedy of Errors for the RSC.

7:15pm on BBC Radio 4: Front Row, Mark Lawson talks about the Trinidad-born writer Errol John, as his play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl receives a new production at the National Theatre.

Friday March 2

10pm on BBC Radio 2: BBC Radio 2 Arts Show, actors Patrick Robinson and Jeffery Kissoon talk about starring in Waiting For Godot which is touring the UK, after its premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Also, Simon Annand discusses his major new exhibition of actors he's photographed in the final half an hour before curtain up. The exhibition includes pictures of Cate Blanchett, Daniel Day Lewis, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch among others.

Saturday March 3

7:15pm on BBC Radio 4: Saturday Review features the production of The Leisure Society at the Trafalgar Studios.

8:20pm on BBC2: Second episode of The Story of Musicals as the series is repeated on BBC2.

Sunday March 4

7pm on Sky Arts 1: Repeat of The Making of War Horse.

On iPlayer

Sam West discusses directing Alan Plater's seminal play Close The Coalhouse Door for the Northern Stage (previously Newcastle Playhouse)


Terry Hands talks to the Radio Wales Arts Show about Shakespeare's As You Like It, the latest production from the Clwyd Theatre Cymru


Learning to love Lear with the help of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory

LEARThis is my third Lear and I’m gradually growing fond of this Shakespeare tragedy.

The first time I saw it,  with Ian McKellan in the eponymous role, the King's scheming and bitchy daughters Goneril and Regan were just too abhorrent, I couldn’t wait for them to get their just desserts. And as for Lear himself, he too, I felt, got just what he deserved.

I don't mind an out an out baddie but for the goodies to stay loyal there has to be something to empathise with, you have to believe that what they are doing is right and worthy. This, and perhaps hindsight from watching subsequent productions, brought out the tragedy of the story far more for me than the first version with McKellan.

This quality production from the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company sees John Shrapnel take on the lead, giving him that initial stubborn pride that sets him on the path to destruction but then gradually peeling away the layers of corrupted power to reveal a vulnerable old man.

Goneril (Julia Hills) and Regan (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) while fawning over their father when he initially asks for their declarations of love seem ill-judged rather than calculating. Their darker motives appear gradually as their confidence in their new found power grows into a delicious coldness and increasingly rash decision-making.

Shakespeare's dialogue is delivered by all with great clarity which is always a treat - only in some of the action sequences and during the storm in the second half does some of the dialogue get swallowed up by the surroundings.

Continue reading "Learning to love Lear with the help of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory" »

Tis Pity She's a Whore - channelling Tracey Emin's My Bed

Tis_Pity-67Tracey Emin’s My Bed must surely be the inspiration for the setting of Cheek By Jowl’s Tis Pity She's a Whore?

The company, which I’m rapidly growing quite fond of, sets John Ford’s Jacobean drama in the contemporary bedroom of tragic teenage heroine Annabella (Lydia Wilson). Her red-sheeted bed takes centre stage in front of wall bedecked with posters many with Vampire or gothic themes including those for TV series True Blood and The Vampire Diaries. 

It seems a perfect canvas against which to tell a tale of incest, seduction and passion which results in - this being Jacobean drama after all - poisoning, tongue-ripping and heart-gouging.

Annabella has many suitors but, on his return to the family home her brother Giovanni (the gorgeous Jack Gordon) forgoing the advice of his priest, declares his love for his sister.  The declaration is reciprocated and their relationship quickly consummated.

Giovanni urges Annabella to marry in order to better disguise their relationship and when they discover she is pregnant the matter becomes more pressing. Soranzo her chief suitor is chosen.

Meanwhile recently widowed Hippolita (Suzanne Burden) plots with Vasques (Laurence Spellman) to have Soranzo (Jack Hawkins) poisoned in revenge for the part she believed he play in her husband’s death. 

The aforementioned bed becomes the location not only for acts of passion and seduction but also horrific violence as well as a stage for dances, a refuge and gathering spot to watch a fight. The room's en suite doubles as sinister punishment and torture chamber sometimes what goes on unseen is all the more horrific as it is left to the imagination. 

Continue reading "Tis Pity She's a Whore - channelling Tracey Emin's My Bed" »

In Basildon - review round up

I saw In Basildon on Monday and gave it four stars. It lost a star for the staging which added nothing and for wanting a teeny bit of script pruning to balance the pace but otherwise was extremely enjoyable and very well done.

The professionals saw it on Wednesday and have given it four stars across the board. Interesting that Paul Taylor of the Indy sat in the same camp as me with regards to the staging while Michael Billington liked it. Just goes to show, doesn't it:

Michael Coveney, What's on Stage ****

The simmering family feuds in David Eldridge’s fine new play are threaded through a discussion of the lives they’ve all led in transit from the East End in the Second World War to “overspill” Essex in Romford and now the “plotlands” of Basildon and nearby villages of Laindon and Vange.

It’s not just because I am familiar with these demographic shifts that I enjoy the play so much; Eldridge is on to something that hasn’t been written about much, or at least so well, in our theatre.

Charles Spencer, The Telegraph ****

Cooke directs a gripping, admirably acted production. Linda Bassett and Ruth Sheen chillingly capture the corrosive resentment of the sisters, while Lee Ross (as Bassett’s son) and Debbie Chazen (as his wife) hilariously lay bare an unhappy marriage blighted by infertility and fecklessness.

Paul Taylor, The Independent ****

David Eldridge's In Basildon is a gloriously rich, humorous, agonising and politically provocative play, but it has been staged by the Royal Court's artistic director, Dominic Cooke, in a bafflingly peculiar, not to say, counterproductive way.

Henry Hitchens, Evening Standard ****

Rather than the familiar imagery of Towie or Birds Of A Feather, Eldridge serves up something closer to Chekhov - albeit with a meaty Essex twist. This a play about inheritance and domestic disharmony, at times deeply poignant yet replete with references to West Ham and Walthamstow's defunct dog track.

Michael Billington, The Guardian ****

And this richly observant play is given a near-perfect production by Dominic Cooke who, with designer Ian MacNeil, restructures the Court so that the audience, like the family, is divided in two.


In Basildon - great play, stupidly staged

510x340The first thing to say about the Royal Court's latest offering on its main stage is 'why have they put the stage in the middle of the theatre?' They did something similar for Sucker Punch, a year or so ago, a play set in a boxing club and it worked really well. The ring was in the middle with the audience on two sides so it felt like you were at a boxing match.

A play set in someone's front room doesn't need to be staged in the same way. What it means is that for key speeches, such as the reading of a will, half the audience are watching the back of the character delivering said reading. 

It adds nothing to what is a really good play, a really good play that would also be even better with a bit of script pruning.

The story starts in the living room of the Basildon home of Len (Phil Cornwell) where friends and family have gathered around his deathbed. It brings together Len's best friend Ken (Peter Wight) and warring sisters Maureen (Ruth Sheen) and Doreen (Linda Bassett) as well as nephews, nieces and neighbours.

As Len passes bitter feuds escalate and with the approaching will reading it seems everyone wants something and motives aren't all they seem to be.

This is a play about 'fahm-ily' and looking out for each other, the central irony being that everyone is really looking out for themselves.  David Eldridge's crackling script deftly weaves the sadness of loss with belly laughs. The problems lie in the pacing. It takes a a little while to get into its stride but soon had the audience on tenterhooks with the interval curtain falling on a bombshell.

Continue reading "In Basildon - great play, stupidly staged" »

Theatre related stuff on TV and Radio Feb 21 - 27

Compiled by @polyg

Tuesday February 21

7:15pm on BBC Radio 4: Front Row interviews Charlotte Keatley about her new play Our Father and its production at the Watford Palace Theatre.

Wednesday February 22

7:15pm on BBC Radio 4: Olivia Colman is interviewed at Front Row about her new stage role in the Howard Davies' production of Hay Fever.

Thursday February 23

10pm on BBC Radio 3: Night Waves, Philip Dodd talks to Patrick Stewart about his role as William Shakespeare in Edward Bond's play Bingo. 

Saturday February 25

7:15pm on on BBC Radio 4: Saturday Review talks about the production of The Bomb at the Tricycle

8:20pm on BBC2: The Story of Musicals series start broadcasting at BBC2, after its first broadcast on BBC4

Sunday February 26

6am on Sky Arts 1: a repeat of an old South Bank Show focusing on Michael Gambon and Nic Hytner and their production of Henry IV at the National Theatre.

Special Mention

Not strictly theatre, at least not this week, but a new Sky Arts series celebrates Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. On February 21, Simon Callow, Miriam Margolyes, Douglas Booth, Steve Evets and Thomas Brodie-Sangster bring their favourite Charles Dickens characters to life through a series of monologues.

On iPlayer

Saturday review at BBC Radio 4 talks about The Recruiting Officer at the Donmar


Wigs and onesie's - it's The Way of the World

2769812453If for nothing else but the costumes and wigs, playing the character of Witwoud in The Way of the World, for Samuel Barnett, must be heaps of fun. As well as modern spins on frock coats, ruffled cuffs and a rather fetching striped onesie complete with night cap he also gets to wear a towering restoration-era wig (see trailer below).

Barnett's costumes are just some of a delightful array worn by the cast in what is a hybrid modern/traditional take on the William Congreve's play of bright young things on the make through the institution of marriage.

Don't ask me to give a summary of the plot because I'm not sure I could recount the intricacies (director Lyndsey Turner confesses to getting a lawyer friend to help unravel the family tree and deeds), needless to say there is a lot of plotting and duping but it all ends satisfactorily with the 'not quite goodies' outwitting the 'not quite baddies' and then there is a jolly good dance.

The journey to get to the dance is a fun and clever. Set against a white back drop the characters explode on stage in colours only matched by their sharp wit and charm.

The opening sequence is imaginatively set in a TV studio where Mirabell's (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) daily life is unveiled in the style of a pop video. The resulting video then makes an appearance in the second half as two characters sing along to it, karaoke style. It is a nice touch serving to illustrate the ridiculous nature and an element of disrespect  felt by all the central characters.

Indeed it is a play about how ridiculous those of privilege and wealth have become, so ridiculous in fact that they rely entirely on subterfuge and deceit to get by.

Not a single cast member puts a foot wrong be it gold winkle-picker or platformed stiletto. Special mention should go to Mr Barnett's flamboyant Witwoud, Leo Bill's scarily angry Fainall and the wonderful Deborah Findlay as the vain and gullible Lady Wishfort.

It's getting four stars from me and runs at the Sheffield Crucible until Feb 25 so catch it while you can.


There are a couple of direct connections the obvious one being Mr Barnett who was in Bright Star but Ben Lloyd-Hughes also lists The Hour among his credits



Boy in a Dress in Oval

BoyindressLa JohnJoseph has led what is best described as colourful life so far. Raised a Catholic in Liverpool by a mother who married five times, producing half brothers and sisters along the way, his pretty looks led to him being mistaken for a girl and a homophobic attack at school running to the public loos for refuge.

From a nearly given-up-for-care experience as a young child to prostitution in New York JohnJoseph takes us on the journey of his life so far with the help of Anna Lewenhaupt and Jordan Hunt on the piano. 

He tells his story through series of film clips, recollections, songs and what can best be described as symbolic re-enactments often utilising a large wardrobe at the back of the performance space.

There are some nice devices to illustrate points in the story such as the floor doubling as a huge chalk board as Lewenhaupt, in this instance playing a school friend, writes out the lines JohnJoseph's class were given: "All homophobic acts are deviant and wrong".

And, the graffiti in the public loo's appears under ultra-violet light giving something crude a magical feel, the magic that JohnJoseph felt about the place that was to become his bunking-school hangout.

JohnJoseph is at his best when he is telling his story rather than some of the theatrical moments which just feel forced and a little bit bizarre. For example, there is a rather odd scene at the end when Lewenkaupt dressed only in socks and white Y-fronts paints a paper-dressed, singing, JohnJoseph with blue paint.

Nonetheless there are some lovely poignant scenes such as when he recounts a rare mother-son bonding moment and it serves well as a vehicle to explore sexual orientation and socities attitude.

There are too many songs for my liking but I'm not one for songs in theatre, so don't judge it on that. It's a little long and I'd be tempted to cut it back to a one act rather than two hours and 15 with an interval. But, at its heart is an interesting story that is in the main told in an interesting and amusing way.

I'm going to give it 3 and a half stars.

Boy In A Dress runs at the charming Ovalhouse Theatre until March 3

Production photograph: Ami Nouvel

Is Shakespeare shaping up to be the most exciting theatre of 2012?

I know we are getting extra helpings of Shakespeare, what with it being the cultural Olympiad and all that but it feels like all the plays I'm particularly excited about seeing this year were written by the bard.

First there was the announcement that Jonjo O'Neill is to play a young Richard III at Stratford and I'm also looking forward to seeing what Jonathan Slinger does as Prospero in the RSC's The Tempest. 

Then there is The Globe which has tempted me to part with hard-earned cash at what is my least favourite theatre by putting the fabulous Mark Rylance on its stage playing Richard III and Olivia in Twelfth Night. And then not only adding Samual Barnett and Johnny Flynn to the cast list but now Stephen Fry is to play Malvolio

And before I get to see most of that I have what is bound to be a wonderful treat, Propeller's A Winter's Tale and Henry V at the Hampstead Theatre. Propeller's 2011 offerings of Richard III and Comedy of Errors both ended up in my top 5 plays of the year so there is much anticipation.

I'm always excited about everything I see at the theatre but I can't think of anything else outside these Shakespeare's that have quite the same level of elevated anticipation. If at least two don't make it into my top 10 for 2012 I'll be very surprised.

Here's a promo vid the RSC has made for a trio of plays it's calling the Shipwreck trilogy of which The Tempest forms a part