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September 2012

Review: The audience dividing Scenes from an Execution


Fell a little bit in love with Fiona Shaw's character Galactia on Friday night. OK so she's sharp and honest to the point of tactlessness at times but I admired her intelligence, unwavering and brave (some might say foolish) determinism and her freedom of spirit and physical being.

She's not to everyone's taste and neither is the play - two friends left at the interval - but I was rather taken. Galactia is an artist in renaissance Venice commissioned by the Doge (Tim McInnerny) to paint a depiction of the Battle of Lepanto in which the Venetians were victorious against the Turks but at great cost to life on both sides.

What the Doge has in mind is something that shows the glory of victory but Galactia, in the course of researching the battle, wants to present it as it was: a carnage that turned the sea red with spilt blood and gore and left hideous wounds.

Her undeniable artistic talent versus her unconventional life - her lover, the needy Carpeta (Jamie Ballard) is a less talented artist, married and younger  - causes a lot of angst for her benefactor. His position is political and backing the wrong art, so to speak, could be damaging for his career.

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Review: A lot of Love but too much Information in Caryl Churchill's new play

Love and information455Caryl Churchill's new play at the Royal Court, Love and Information, gets the accolade of being the first play to give me a headache. A combination of bright lights, bright white box 'set' and the pace of the 58 vignettes that make up the whole, I think.

There is lots that is not just amazing but astounding about this play. It is, after all, 58 mini plays in one, staged in the aforementioned white box with darkness and a dark screen - you can't see it but you can hear it - shielding the swift scene and actor changes between each.

Every character is different, some scenes have no props others full blown pieces of furniture. As the lights and 'invisible' shutter reveal each new vignette, for the briefest moment it is as if you've happened upon a tableau of ordinary people in an ordinary situation.

When you look at the playtext, which serves as the very good value programme, you get an idea of the task faced by director James Macdonald. Churchill has presented a blank canvas, it is all dialogue but no characters. How each scene is played and by whom - male, female, young, old, gay, straight etc - is all open to interpretation. Macdonald could be forgiven if he felt just a little bit daunted by the task and it's testament to his skill and judgement that there isn't a decision that doesn't feel right.

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Review: Approval for A Chorus of Disapproval?

Achorusofdisapproval24sep2012threeHave experienced Rob Brydon turning a dull corporate awards ceremony into something quite fun and jolly so he certainly has comedic talent. But how does he fare in his first outing on a West End stage? 

He's playing amateur light opera society director Dafydd ap Llewellyn who is putting on a production of The Beggars Opera.

Similar to Michael Frayn's Noises Off - although this isn't as clever - Alan Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval is about the lives and loves of the am dram group and how it might jeopardise their production.

The play opens with the final song from The Beggars Opera and the curtain call. Nothing much is said but it is obvious that not all is amicable among the performers particularly towards the Opera's leading man Guy Jones (Nigel Harman). As the play winds back the clock we see Guy arriving to audition for a minor role all bumbling, shy, awkwardness and so the tale unfolds of Guy's inadvertent rise up through the society's ranks to leading man.

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Review: Roundabout new writing season at Shoreditch Town Hall

IMG_1643My first theatre-a-thon: three new plays in six hours with three friends to share it with - @polyg, @jongilmartin1 and M.

But before I dive into my mini reviews (they are short plays) a brief explanation of the Roundabout Season. It's a collaboration between Paines Plough, Sheffield Theatres and the National Theatre. The venue for the London leg is a temporary theatre in the round constructed in the grand Shoreditch Town Hall - the auditorium reminded me of when I saw Cock at the Royal Court Upstairs.

It's unallocated seating but you choose a coloured button (pictured right) before you go in and are directed to a portion of the auditorium that matches your colour. (Tip: Choose yellow if you want to be closest to the exit/loos). A nifty way of getting the audience to spread out but as no one was collecting buttons I'm wondering how long it will be before they run out.

IMG_1644#1 One Day When We Were Young by Nick Payne, directed by Clare Lizzimore

Story: It's 1942 and young couple Violet (Maia Alexander) and Leonard (Andrew Sheridan) decide to consummate their relationship before Leonard heads off to war. What happens that night shapes the rest of their lives but the consequences are only revealed as we revisit the couple at two later points in their lives.

Impression: It's a lovely idea and had some really nice moments in it. There was a wonderfully portrayed awkwardness to the couples first liaison but the plot seemed a little too mechanical and obvious. And there was a class gap between the lovers that is never explained and as I result I just wasn't convinced about their feelings for one another which is kind of important for what happens later on.

Wasn't my favourite: 3/5

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Review: Dramatic politics in This House, National Theatre

This-House-show-imageThe National Theatre has had more than its fair share of drama this week and I'm not talking about the plays. On Wednesday Simon Russell Beale tripped and broke his finger during a performance of Timon of Athens with his understudy hastily called to fill in for the final scenes.

Then last night, at a preview performance of James Graham's new political drama This House, after being let into the theatre rather late we were informed that Phil Daniels who plays labour whip Bob Mellish was indisposed. The producers could have cancelled, it being a preview after all, but decided instead that the show must go on and an unrehearsed understudy stepped in, script in hand to take the role.

He did a sterling job and, in what was a nice touch, finished his last line throwing his script into a box of belongings his character was moving, as if it was part of the performance.

But what of the rest of the play? Well for someone who knows little about the inner workings of Parliament today let alone in the 1970s pre-television days when this was set, it was fascinating.

Graham has created a fictional story based loosely on some real accounts and anecdotes from those in Parliament at the time. Then, it was unique situation: a hung Parliament followed by a very slim Labour majority which left the latters power precarious at best.

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Review: The Busybody and the but...

ImagesBit of a tricky one this because there was much to enjoy about the revival of this early 18th century comedy by Susanna Centlivre.

Its plot is standard fare: young people being kept from their beaus and/or inheritances by their parents/guardians except to add to the comedy, as the name suggests Busybody has a busybody - Marplot - who is nosey, gets the wrong end of the stick and generally makes things worse by trying to help.

The acting is a little obvious at times from some of the less experienced cast members but there are some genuinely funny moments and it is simply and effectively staged with just a few pieces of stage furnishing being worked very well. And, it will shock those who know of my views of musicals, there are also some nice little musical interludes (I'm not adverse to the odd song in a play I just don't want a whole album's worth).

Jessica Swales, who adapted and directed, adds effective little modern flourishes such as the opening 'number' which is about asking the audience not to run away because the play is written by a woman and goes on to name check a whole gamut of talented women playwrights right up to Anya Reiss.

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List: You know you go to the theatre a lot when...

  1. You are relieved to find out that the play is only 90 minutes long
  2. You know which 'restricted view' seats are actually not very restricted
  3. You know the quick route to the loos to beat the interval queue or in the case of the National, which loos to go to where there is never a queue
  4. Some of the actors you get excited about seeing on stage your non-theatre friends have never heard of
  5. You join discussions on Twitter about the various merits of the different theatres membership schemes.
  6. You share membership schemes with theatre friends to save money.
  7. Getting into town to sit on the cold step of a theatre for two hours or more to secure a day seat doesn't seem mad.
  8. You'll jump on a train for two hours to attend a matinee outside London
  9. You buy tickets for whole seasons in one go and get a little bit stressed
  10. You discuss ticket buying trials and tribulations on Twitter.
  11. Actor/director spotting in the audience becomes an almost regular occurrence and you have at least one story to tell about when you sat next to/behind/in front of someone famous
  12. You recognise the theatre critics.

OK what have I missed, there must be loads more?

Was there something in the water at the Dursley house: Another star turn by Harry Melling in I Am A Camera @swkplay

Camera2It is quickly becoming a joy to see Harry Melling on stage. Aside from Daniel Radcliffe he's probably made the most successful transition from a 'Harry Potter actor' to an accomplished actor in his own right.

I first saw him at the National Theatre in Mother Courage and All Her Children, ironically playing son to his Harry Potter screen mother Fiona Shaw and then he stole his scenes in Women Beware Women, also at the National.

Last year he got his first lead in the wonderful When Did You Last See My Mother at the Trafalgar Studios and I was hooked. So much so that I couldn't miss seeing him play Christopher Isherwood in I Am A Camera at the Southwark Playhouse.

And he didn't let me down. Once again he carries off a role with such confidence and skill it is easy to forget that he is only 23 - there must have been something in the water in the Dursley house.

Set against the back drop of the rise of the Nazi's in 1932, a young Isherwood is living in Berlin, barely earning his keep tutoring the daughter of a rich Jewish family. Forced to take a smaller room at his lodgings by his financial situation he quickly becomes friends with rebellious posh girl Sally Bowles (Rebecca Humphreys) who takes his old room and who survives earning money singing in clubs and eating out on rich men.

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Critics review round up: Hedda Gabler, Judas Kiss, Three Sisters

September has kicked on in fine style with a mixture of traditional (Hedda) and modern (Three Sisters) takes on classics and wonderful Wilde (Judas). The press nights are now over so the critics review are in.

Always curious to see how their opinions compare so here's a round up:

Hedda Gabler, Old Vic

This was my first Hedda and a Brian Friel version of the play so I had nothing to compare it to.  I loved it for the story and the complexity of the protagonist, the acting and the production but not all of the critics agreed and it seems that that Friel's tweaking of the text hasn't suited everyone's taste: 

Paul Taylor, The Independent ***

"Sheridan Smith's high stake Hedda gamble hasn't paid off"

Charles Spencer, The Telegraph ****

"The productions real strength is the top flight cast led by Sheridan Smith in the title role"

Michael Billington, The Guardian ***

"That final moment, as well as Smith's accomplished performance, makes up for some of the production's textual infelicities."

Henry Hitchins, The Standard ****

"Mackmin's interpretation succeeds in feeling both Victorian and urgently modern. More than ever the play comes across as a study of a woman doomed to be a misfit. Smith’s admirable performance is its beating heart."

The Standard also allows readers to rate plays and the audience rating is *****

Michael Coveney, What's on Stage ***

"There’s a swing and facility to the script that might go better with the Irish inflections, but many of the great passages sound new-minted, and there’s a glorious elaboration of Tesman’s paean of praise to his own slippers that prefigures the burst of excitement with which he greets the discovery of the notes for Loevberg’s lost masterpiece."

The What's on Stage audience rating is ****

Rev Stan's rating 4/5 (average with other audience ratings 4.6/5)

Average critics rating 3.4/5

So one for the audiences not the critics then.

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Mud, Nirvana and swearing: Three Sisters, Young Vic style

ThreesistersIt's Ibsen vs Chekhov south of the river in traditional vs modern productions. The Old Vic's version of Hedda Gabler is rooted in the plays origins while the Young Vic has taken one look at that and said 'nah' not this time.

For a start a thrust stage is made from square tables all painted grey which protrude from a mound of earth at the back of the stage. When we are introduced to the three sisters they are all dressed to reflect their personalities rather than the period.

Olga (Mariah Gale) is sat at one of the stage/tables marking school work, dressed conservatively 1940's style. Masha (Vanessa Kirby) is draped on a chair in an elegant, backless 1920's dress languorously smoking and not saying very much. And the youngest, Irina (Gala Gordon), is all excited energy in a frou-frou white dress. It's the day of her 18th birthday and her life is before her.

Their language has been modernised - the play doesn't shy from expletives - and as they talk the stage is continually active with preparation for a luncheon. Friends of the family pop by - Chetbutykin (Michael Feast) a doctor who can't remember anything he learnt at medical school, Baron Tuzenbach (Sam Troughton) who fancies Irina, Masha's husband Kulygin (Adrian Schiller) a dull and hardworking teacher together with various associates from the army encamped in the town all dressed in combat fatigue.

Some arrive walking over the mound of mud, others just climb up onto the stage having entered through the audience. There is little of the formality you'd expect of the period. This is a very much a relaxed affair with snatches of modern tunes including a cast singalong to Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit.

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