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September 2014

Review James III: The True Mirror, National Theatre

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Sophie Grabol and Jamies Sives in James III: The True Mirror

James III feels the most contemporary and sexy of the three James Play. There is pre-performance entertainment, the cast dancing to folk covers of popular tunes (Lorde's Royals making its second stage appearance this year) so make sure you get to your seat early.

The fun and frolics and flying kilts set the tone of James III's (Jamie Sives) court; he is a King that likes the arts, entertainment, fine wine, women and men, everything except his kingly duties. And that is the tension in this play in a plot that has shades of Shakespeare's Richard II.

James is on a journey to self destruction as he angers the rich noblemen who sit in his court. He is vain, narcissistic, jealous and dismissive. He turns up late to Parliament inappropriately dressed and arranges himself on his thrown like a petulant teenager. He is jealous of his son's youth and is cruel as a result. He also takes it out on his wife Margaret (Sophie Grabol of The Killing fame) whom he he wants all for himself.

But, for all that Jamie Sives gives the King a cheekiness and a sense of fun that make for a lovable if vexing character. When vanity leads him to employing a choir to follow him around and lighten up the dull moments you can't help but laugh and secretly be envious that he's done it (because you would if you could).

Unlike Richard II who believed that divine right would win the day, James seems aware that he is leading himself to his downfall, he's just going to have as much fun as he can en route.

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Review James II: Day of the Innocents, National Theatre

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Mark Rowley and Andrew Rothney in James II, National Theatre

Second in the trio of the James plays by Rona Munro James II: Day of the Innocent is, as the title hints, about youth. Where James I was about an adult King claiming his thrown his son James II is a boy and a pawn in a power struggle between Scotland's landed elite. Whoever has the King in his possession holds most of the power.

The play starts with the boy James (Andrew Rothney) hiding from some witnessed horror only to be found and comforted by another boy. The King falls asleep in his arms and has a nightmare through which the story loops back to the night his father was murdered, a puppet representing the younger Prince. Forced to hide in a chest in order to escape, the Prince is eventually seized, removed from his family and brought up by whichever nobleman manages to hang on to him. Eventually the story comes full circle so that we witness the most recent trauma the young King has run from.

It is an event, coupled with others, that gives him terrible nightmares throughout his teens. It is heartbreaking to watch the young Prince seeking refuge in the chest while those charged with guiding and protecting him look on laughing. Only his mother's former maid and the boy - William Douglas (Mark Rowley) - coming to sooth him when he has the nightmares.

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Review James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock, National Theatre

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James McArdle as James I and Gordon Kennedy as Murdac Steward in James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock. Photo Manuel Harlan

Rona Munro's trio of James' Plays kicks off with the Scottish King James I (James McArdle) a prisoner of Henry V (Jamie Sives). Captured as a child, he's been held for 18 years by the English monarchy, sometimes fighting on their side. It is one such battle against the French and Scots that Henry humiliates James in front of his countrymen.

The play follows James' return to Scotland, after the death of Henry, with an English wife who doesn't love him as he tries to persuade his people he is worthy of his title. Munro's script and Laurie Sanson's direction has created a play superbly balanced between history, humour and humanity.

It is political but doesn't feel stiff. The Scottish court is less formal almost feral, the serving staff are outspoken and the power struggle between the ruling landed elite gives it a tense and dangerous edge. Murder is a tool for career, power and wealth advancement.

King James is the heart of the play. McArdle's King is gentle and pragmatic next to the cockily confident Henry and Scottish noblemen. Henry leaves James an almost impossible task to rule in the face of great prejudice and mistrust with few resources but he has used his time in the English court well learning from Henry's successes and his mistakes.

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Review: Kristin Scott Thomas' impassioned Electra at the Old Vic

2658Kristin Scott Thomas takes James McAvoy's impassion five minute speech I watched last week and raises it to full length play.

It is difficult not to be affected by her performance as Electra, the woman who is forced to live, unmarried and childless with her fathers murderers: her mother and her mother's lover. Through an hour and forty minutes she is haunted, mourns, despairs and rails frustrated against those who don't understand her loyalty and faint hope that her brother Orestes (Jack Lowden) will return and enact revenge.

She embodies the predicament of a woman imprisoned in a patriarchal society who is determined to push her 'captors' to the limit. There is nothing left for her but her rebellion, grief and a little hope.

Lowden prooves himself once again a magnetic stage presence and equally Diana Quick as Clytemestra makes her mark during her short appearance. This is a play in which the performances demand you hang on every word.

There is, however, a 'but' to all this. I enjoyed watching the emotionally charged performances, I was moved by the performances but the play left me wanting. Essentially the ending felt a little anti climatic after all that high emotion. Orestes reveals his plan to fake his own death in order to gain entry to his childhood home, duping Electra for a time too and it all goes rather swimmingly. The bloody revenge is performed off stage in the Greek-style and it all felt a little, well, easy after all that angst.

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Review: Teh Internet is serious business at the Royal Court

Bewildering---Teh-Interne-011There is just a little irony in the fact that a play about the internet is two hours thirty five minutes long (with interval) and Greek tragedy, Elektra, which is also opening this week, is one hour forty straight through.

Not that Tim Price's play Teh Internet Is Serious Business isn't lacking in ideas and imagination; making coding and internet geeks exciting isn't easy and it certainly succeeds in that, the problem is the first and second halves feel out of kilter.

Based on true events, although using dramatic licence Teh Internet is about group of hackers who meet in the chat room 4Chan and wreak havoc on corporate and government websites across the globe.

The first half sets the scene. The two central characters "Topiary" (Kevin Guthrie) and "TFlow" (Jeetooa) are young, bright, talented but one is agoraphobic and the other finds social situations a challenge. The internet world they enter is depicted by a blank gray stage with doors and window-style entrances and exits from all sides and the floor - a physical embodiment of virtual chat room with people popping up from all places.

At the front is a ball pool from where popular internet meme characters appear - socially awkward penguin, paedo bear and a plethora of others I'd never heard of but you get the gist.

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Review: Thongs, feathers and drag queens in Briefs - A Second Coming

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Think Priscilla: Queen of the Desert crossed with Cirque du Soleil and you'll get the idea behind Briefs - A Second Coming (or just watch the trailer from their first show).

This troupe of camp acrobats and drag queens from Australia have put together a fun, frolicking and very grown up cabaret and brought it to tent on the South Bank. Marvel at scantily-clad, glitter-glowing muscular physiques performing breathtaking circus acrobatics mixed with acerbic drag queens and Priscilla-style mime to popular songs.

Briefs is 75 minutes of fun, laughter and lets face it an ogle-fest. I've seen it twice just to fully appreciate the physical talent. Ahem. You've got another week to catch it at London Wonderland as it finishes on Sep 28. The slightly more expensive Wonderland Seats are on the front row, regular priced seats are unallocated and people start queuing before 7pm. It's not raked seating but the stage is quite high.


Review: Mojo - not the Ben Whishaw one, the one at the White Bear

Mojo-posterYes Mojo is back, back on the fringe circuit just over six months since the rather successful and starry West End production closed. I know what your thinking: I was curious. And, there has been a Mojo-sized hole in my theatre viewing since February but a fringe production? That's quite brave, so soon.

If you haven't seen Mojo before you might want head to the White Bear in Kennington (it closes this weekend so hurry), it is after all a great play even if this isn't the best production.

Unfortunately my many trips to see Mr W, Rupert Grint, Colin Morgan et al means it is indelibly inked on my memory. I spent most of the first half of this production trying to superimpose those performances onto the ones I was seeing before me.

Such familiarity meant different delivery and direction just screamed and not in a good way.

I warn you this isn't going to come out well so please no snipey comments mine is just one view and others are available.

The casting was odd. Silver Johnny (Ben Hall) was way too grown up looking and tall to play a 17-year old kid so that kind of destroys that plot line. Skinny (Max Warrick) is supposed to be mimicking Baby in looks and dress but the two were complete opposites. Skinny has short, dark hair slicked back and Baby (Luke Trebilcock) has long, blondish hair and seems to wear just trousers most of the time. Apart from the turn ups it certainly doesn't look like Skinny is copying Baby which kind of destroys that plot line.

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Why James McAvoy needs to tread the boards again soon

PhotoLast night was one of those rare, rare theatre experiences, a one-off event that in just five minutes cemented its place in memory and left the audience silently begging for more.

James McAvoy stepped onto the Trafalgar Studios stage and delivered a speech from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. It was the speech Antony gives at the funeral of Julius Caesar and from the moment he opened his mouth he held the packed out theatre in the palm of his hand.

So impassioned was the performance, pregnant with raw emotion: grief, bitterness and tenderness that the meaning of Shakespeare's words could not have been clearer. So impassioned was the performance that it felt like the entire play had unfolded in front of you, in just a few minutes. Just recalling it brings a flood of emotion.

When Antony requests that the citizens make a ring around the corpse of Caesar, McAvoy dragged some unsuspecting audience members from their front row seats to form a ring, never missing a beat the whole time.

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Review: Maxine Peake is Hamlet at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

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Katie West and Maxine Peake in rehearsals for Hamlet at the Royal Exchange

This production will be remembered not just for Maxine Peake's superb youthful take on the Dane but for being the first Hamlet I've seen to really feel like a family drama.

There are few servants and no Fortinbras and the threat of war so that courtly life and politics feel peripheral. Sarah Francom's production focuses instead on the family politics: a remarriage and an uncle with a hell of a skeleton in the closet.

Peake, with partially shaved hair and androgynous look made Hamlet nervous, youthful and full of petulant energy that worried and exacerbated his parents. Gertrude (Barbara Marten) looked like a mother torn between her new husband and troubled son.

*Warning of production spoilers*

And Peake's Hamlet was certainly troubled. It's the first time in a while I've seen a Hamlet that felt like the Prince was genuinely on the verge of breakdown, barely keeping it together. To this end the To be or not to be speech was moved to much later in the play, just after the closet scene (and the interval) giving it added despair after what was an angry and fear-driven murder.

Having a Polonia (Gillian Bevan) rather than a Polonius was also an inspired choice. Hamlet has murdered a woman, a mother. Then there is the mother/daughter tension between Polonia and Ophelia (Katie West). It's something very different to that between father/daughter.

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Review: Cillian Murphy goes surreal in existential comedy Ballyturk

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Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi in Ballyturk

There is a moment in Ballyturk when Cillian Murphy (1) leaps like a gawky ballerina through a cloud of talcum powder created by Mikel Murphi (2). It kind of sums up the play for me. A moment of silly, joyful abandonment in the pursuit of ridiculous purpose.

It makes sense for that moment. And that is Enda Walsh's existential dromedy currently previewing at the National Theatre. It is a series of deliciously silly and deep moments. Watching is like grasping at a ribbon tail on a kite: you think you've got it but then it slips silkily away.

There is no context, no setting and the characters are numbered. 1 and 2 are in a room with no doors. They choose characters and re-enact stories about the people of 'Ballyturk'. They recall absurd dreams they've had involving a rabbit. Occasionally they eavesdrop on voices beyond the walls and a cuckoo clock measures the time but slowly their routine and their lives unravel and then 3 (Stephen Rea) appears for a spot of tea and biscuit Jenga.

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