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February 2015

Review: Do you have to be shocked by Mike Bartlett's Game at the Almeida to appreciate it?

Game_MAIN_260x356*warning* I've tried and probably failed to write this without spoilers so sorry...

The Almeida has been transformed for Mike Bartlett's new play Game. We were ushered into what looked a bit like a large bird watching hide with blinds obscuring the view.

There were three screens mounted high up which were difficult to see if you were sat on the front row but more of that later. Everyone is given a headset and there is a sound and volume test before the 'Game' begins. As the screens rise you realise you are an observer, sitting behind one way glass.

Its premise is that a young couple are given a swish new home, one they could never afford but with certain conditions attached. The play is a social and political commentary on the current housing crisis and whether reality TV is desensitising us. The problem is that the idea of violence and cruelty for entertainment purposes has been done before and with far greater teeth - The Hunger Games, is just one example.

I know some people have found Game shocking but I was underwhelmed. That may be Bartlett's point, that we are already well on the way to being desensitised and it is something I have thought about a lot since I saw the play. However, I come back to the same point: it feels like a topic that has been explored in interesting ways already.

For a start the whole Big Brother concept feels passé. The TV show has been around for 16 years and has spawned a whole genre of reality concepts such as I'm a Celebrity.

Look, also at the Japanese TV game shows, that involve inflicting discomfort and humiliation on participants. Ironically, clips from those shows used to appear regularly on our own point-and-laugh TV compilation shows so that we could laugh at the Japanese TV audiences laughing at the TV.

So do I believe that popular entertainment will push further into morally dubious territories? Yes, of course I do but I didn't need Game to tell me that.

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Review: Greg Wise in the funny and poignant Kill Me Now, Park Theatre

Kill Me Now at Park Theatre. Greg Wise (Jake) and Oliver Gomm (Joey). Photo credit - Alex Brenner.  (2)
Greg Wise and Oliver Gomm in Kill Me Now at the Park Theatre. Photo by Alex Brenner

Sex, the disabled and the right to die; Brad Fraser's new play is certainly not shy in the topics that it tackles.

Set in America and drawn from real experiences in the playwright's life it tells the story of a Jake (Greg Wise) and his severely physically disabled son Joey (Oliver Gomm).

Joey is in a wheelchair. He cannot wash, dress or use the toilet without help. He is reaching puberty. He plays video games, smokes pot and surfs porn online and is aware that sexual relations for himself are unlikely. His disability also means he is unable to take care of his own physical needs.

Jake knows this too and hates to see how unfair life is for his son. He takes refuge from the strains of looking after Joey in his once a week visits to Robyn (Anna Wilson-Jones) a married, former student of his.

But when Joey asks to move out into an apartment with his friend Rowdy (Jack McMullen) events take an unexpected turn resulting in a reassessment of care in the family.

There are many things I like about this play. Fraser doesn't present a 'woe is me' tale rather a family just getting on with what life has dealt them in the best way they can. He also doesn't tip-toe around the topics. There is a frankness in the conversations that is born partly out of Joey's teenage bluntness and Jake's years of being his son's carer. It is nicely observed and its black humour tells you things about yourself.

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Review: Gods and Monsters (and men in the buff), Southwark Playhouse


Ian Gelder and Will Austin in Gods and Monsters, Southwark Playhouse. Production photo by Annabel Vere

It was noticeable that the audience for Gods and Monsters at Southwark Playhouse yesterday afternoon was predominantly male. In fact, I could count on both my hands the number of women present, which made for a blissfully non-existent queue for the ladies at the interval.

Gods and Monsters is about James Whale, the London theatre turned Hollywood film director who was most well known for directing Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein in the 1930s. He was, unusually for the time, openly gay. The play also carries warnings of nudity. I like to think it isn't the latter that is drawing in the crowds but this production has garnered a certain reputation since it opened (see photo).

The play sees Whale (Ian Gelder) in his later years, in his California home, recovering from the effects of a stroke. He is in pain and his memory and word recall can come and go but his medication make him sluggish so he tries not to take it. He is encouraged to paint again, something he did when he was younger but, with mischievous charm, uses it as an excuse to get young men to disrobe. 

With flash backs to his youth and early relationships at University and then as an officer in the First World War, we get a picture of man who was rose from a humble background on the back of his artistic talent and cleverness. A man who loved men.

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Review: The short Hamlet, Cockpit Theatre

B02J4072-3It's curious that when I've seen a Shakespeare play not so much trimmed as hacked back to a short running time, at some point I will be thinking 'well I don't know why they left that bit in'. I suppose it's a case of once you start cutting, where do you stop? And so it is with English Repertory Theatre's 90 minute Hamlet at the Cockpit Theatre. Well, actually they inserted an interval so the total running time is longer than that.

They've modernised the setting putting Hamlet, Rosencrantz, Ophelia and Laertes in a classroom taught by Horatio. These are naughty teens messing around while the teacher's back is turned and passing notes - that's how Hamlet find out about his Uncle killing his father.  They play with a skeleton in the corner which you know will come into its own for the grave yard scene.

It is youthful and energetic and there is some imaginative juxtaposition of characters in order to speed up the play. Ophelia becomes complicit with Hamlet in that she is there when he tells Horatio about his father's ghost, for example.

But the problem is the idea doesn't quite carry through and there are some odd staging decisions. Horatio mutters through a lesson while Claudius and Gertrude discuss Hamlet in the corner which was distracting when you are sat close to Horatio and on the opposite side of the stage to Claudius and Gertrude. Later the 'grown ups' talk from a balcony while the 'kids' talk below drowning each other out so you end up listening to neither.

Adding in the interval seems a bit odd when it is so short and it breaks the pace so that when we come back for the second half there are what seem like relatively long and static speeches between Polonius, Claudius, Gertrude and then Laertes. It felt slow after all the running around and the shortened speeches of the first half. Having trimmed everything to brevity up to this point why milk these speeches in particular? If you aren't familiar with Hamlet you may have already got lost somewhere around the players anyway.

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Review: Love, lies and lust in Closer at the Donmar Warehouse


When I saw the film version of Patrick Marber's love quadrangle play in 2004 I wasn't blown away. It struck me as story that might best be told on stage when the drama is presented close up and in a more concentrated form. And I was right, it is better as a play but I still have problems with it.

Its plot revolves around the love, lies and lust of four people. Dan (a nicely bearded Oliver Chris) is an obituary writer who falls for a stripper (Rachel Redford) but then meets divorcee Alice (Nancy Carroll), a photographer and falls in love with her. Meanwhile Dan inadvertently sets up Alice with Larry (Rufus Sewell), a dermatologist which a penchant for strip clubs and prostitutes. And so the merry-go-round of love, lust and relationships begins.

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Review: Harriet Walter and Guy Paul in Boa, Trafalgar Studios

Harriet Walter and Guy Paul in Boa. Production photo by Helen Murray

While James McAvoy is singing, dancing and believing he is god on the Trafalgar's main stage, Harriet Walter and her husband Guy Paul are telling a more sedate yet emotionally tense story in the studio space next door.

Boa, written by Clara Brennan who penned the fabulous Spine, tells the story of a couple who have been married for 30 years. Flitting back and forth in time we learn how they met and the trials and tribulations of their relationship through career pressures and moves to a different country. Boa (Walter) is a dancer, drunk and depressive. Louis is a Pulitzer prize winning war journalist with an appetite for danger and a dose of post traumatic shock.

The play opens with Louis visiting Boa in her dressing room after what appears to be a separation.

Their chosen professions mean they aren't an ordinary couple with everyday lives but the love, frustrations and strains within their marriage are like any other relationship. They are a fun couple to spend time with, there is obviously a deep affection between them and a relaxed and witty banter when things are going well. When tensions mount the accusations start and emotional daggers are drawn.

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Vault festival review: The Dog and the Elephant

Jack Johns in The Dog and the Elephant

There is something extra special about going to see something at the Vaults beneath the railway lines behind Waterloo Station. Moodily lit, with trains rumbling overhead this maze of performance spaces connected by cafe and break out areas feels like a secret creative club with the graffiti artists of Leake Street guarding the entrance.

A one man show like The Dog and the Elephant suits the space perfectly. Set in the seedy underworld of Victorian bare knuckle fighting you could imagine the vaults being used for such illicit sport.

Matt Grinter's play follows the story of Bendigo 'dog' Barlow a boy who stammers and stutters, involuntary releasing expletives and soon finds communication is best done with his fists. His mother is having an affair with a priest and his father doesn't seem to care.

He is drawn into a gypsy community where his skills with his fists prove useful. There is money to be made fighting and settling scores for people. He constructs himself a life forming bonds of sorts with some of the gypsies but the strongest bonds are with animals.

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Review: Maxine Peake in How to Hold Your Breath, Royal Court


Zinnie Harris' new play at the Royal Court has a plot but it isn't really about that. The plot is a frame for something far reaching, almost epic and certainly at times baffling.

It starts with what looks like two lovers in bed: Dana (Maxine Peake) and Jarron (Michael Schaeffer) but when Jarron offers to pay Dana for the sex it sets in motion a story that feels part Greek tragedy and part Camus novel.

Dana is affronted by the offer and refuses the money. Jarron hates to have a debt and vows that within two weeks she will beg him for the money. Dana then embarks on weekend away with her sister Jasmine (Christine Bottomley) across Europe with the aim of eventually ending up in Alexandria where she has to give a presentation. She also secretly wants to find Jarron to whom she is strangely drawn.

During their trip there is an economic collapse and Europe descends into chaos.

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Production photos: To Kill A Mockingbird, Regent's Park Theatre touring production

Just been sent these images by Johan Persson for the touring production of Regent's Park Theatre's To Kill A Mockingbird. In the summer it takes up residency at the Barbican  in London for a month where Robert Sean Leonard will take over as Atticus Linch. It is one of my all time favourite books and I can't wait to see it in June.