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March 2016

Review: Fear and fun with Fyodor in Idiots, Soho Theatre

320x320.fitandcropIdiots starts with a bit of audience interaction*. The sort of audience interaction that leaves those on the front row and aisle seats avoiding eye contact and shrinking into their seats while those sat safely in the middle rows smugly laugh on.

I'd like to say that that is the least comfortable moment in this part adaptation** of Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Idiot and part fantasy biopic of the writer's life but it isn't. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of silliness as you'd expect from a dead central character who is living in a flat below Mr Blobby and his Thai wife. However Will Cowell and Jonnie Bayfield's play also has a dark underbelly, from the flashes of Dostoevsky's life to the scenes from The Idiot where they brutally expose what Dostoevsky only hints at in the 19th century novel.

Dostoevsky was concerned with the human state, psychology and extreme behaviour and in some ways Idiots reflects that. The dead writer of the play has his life put under the spotlight by a bureaucrat who exposes the tragedy, vanity and cruelty. It questions whether you can make allowances for bad or immoral behaviour because of  fame and talent.

Meanwhile in The Idiot the gentle intellect of Prince Mishkin is misinterpreted as stupidity and he is pushed aside by a violent bore Rogozhin who tyrannises the object of his affection Nastasya Fillipovna.

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Review: James Norton, Kate Fleetwood and what bugged me about Bug, Found 111

BUG-FINAL-NOTEST-EDIT-e1455646543101Tracy Letts's play Bug has bugged me since I saw it last night. The performances from leads James Norton and Kate Fleetwood were superb and the reason to watch but the play left me feeling a bit 'meh'.

Set in a cheap motel room Agnes (Fleetwood) is hiding out from her violent, ex-con husband when her friend introduces her to Peter (Norton) a quiet and strange guy. They sort of hit it off but mystery surrounds Peter: is he just a loner, is he on the run, is he an axe-murderer (he says he isn't) or is he just a bit weird?

The intrigue surrounding Peter, as their relationship builds, together with Agnes' fear about her husband showing up builds the tension nicely until Peter starts to reveal his true colours. After this everything starts to disintegrate for Peter, Agnes and my engagement with the play. 

It is difficult to write more without spoiling a little bit so don't read on if that bothers you, but it turns out that Peter is a paranoid schizophrenic with a penchant for weird conspiracy theories. Agnes buys into his paranoia because she "doesn't want to lose the one good thing to happen to her".

And here is what bugged me. It doesn't feel like the play is saying anything particularly revelatory about mental illness - drugs make you paranoid perhaps? Peter's illness develops into an increasingly incredulous plot device. I laughed at one point and not in a good way. It is one of those plays where the intrigue that surrounds the opening scenes is let down by the reveal and the consequences.

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Review: Jack O'Connell - black boxers and potting the black in The Nap, Sheffield Crucible

The_Nap1-xlarge_trans++svEi3P8Qkw0HLYn_ZSpox602VQT6XhEWMIwOXdx7beMI'm sat on the front row at the Sheffield Crucible watching Jack O'Connell play snooker. Is this actually happening? I've been a huge Jack O'Connell fan since seeing him in indie films Starred Up* and 71 and have really wanted to see him on stage. So there is that.

Then there is the snooker. Long before theatre (yes there was a time before) the Crucible, in my mind, was the home of the snooker world championships. We were a snooker family, gathering around the TV to watch games and all had our favourite players. It was the time of Steve Davis, Dennis Taylor, Jimmy White and Stephen Henry (my favourite) and I dreamed of watching a game at the Crucible.

These past and present passions have been brought together thanks to Richard Wilson and Richard Bean. Richard Wilson, who is associate director at the Crucible always wanted to do a play about snooker there and Richard Bean agreed to write one. And so, voilá, I'm sitting watching Jack O'Connell play snooker.

He plays Dylan Stokes a young, up-coming player from a rough background who credits snooker with saving his life. His dad (Mark Addy) is an ex con and his mum (Esther Coles) is an alcoholic petty criminal. His career to date has been funded by Waxy Chuff (Louise Gold) a transgender crime boss who happens to be a former lover of his mum's. As his career starts to take off they all want a bit of him and the guardians of the game want a urine sample and to know if he's been asked to throw a game.

Richard Bean's One Man, Two Guvnors had me aching with laughter and The Nap too is stuffed with belly laughs but while One Man was a farce here it is more one liners and there is a thriller element too and not just from the pressure of playing the games. Making Dylan a vegetarian means obvious jokes but where the play really comes into its own is in the Malapropisms and mixing up of common phrases: "He's a child effigy" and "There's no smoke without salmon" are two of my favourites. Richard Bean was a stand up comic and at times the script is almost like a string of quick fire jokes.

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Review: Identity and justice in the powerful Les Blancs, National Theatre

Les_Blancs_1024x5763It is the last days of colonial rule in an unidentified African country. Three hundred years of oppression have led to this. Unrest and violence grows, politics and negotiation are failing: the colonial overlords are determined to hang on. 

Set on a remote, dilapidated mission hospital, a returnee and a visitor step into the growing storm. Tshembe (Danny Sapani) has a new life in England with a European wife and son but has returned to where he grew up for his father's funeral. He's travelled, seen the world and is torn between his African roots, setting his country free from the injustice of colonialism and his new life in the West.

American journalist Charlie Morris (Elliot Cowen) is visiting the mission hospital in order to interview the Reverend who has run it for 40 years. He too sees the injustice of colonial rule, thinks he understands it and thinks he can help. He thinks he is right but this is a play full of people that think they are right and that their actions are justified.

Lorraine Hansberry has filled Les Blancs with interesting characters, each with their own arc which she then expertly weaves into something that becomes much, much bigger and more powerful. Among Tshembe's family is his brother Abioseh (Gary Beadle) who's training to become a priest and is a pacifist who sees merit in what the whites have done to the country. There is Eric (Tunji Kasim)) Tshembe's mixed-race, half-brother who feels the pull of two conflicting cultures and his uncle Peter (Sidney Cole) the seemingly docile and submissive mission servant.

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What is it with long and late finishing plays these days?

Plays that are more than three hours long seem to be popular this year as does starting them at 7.30pm rather then scheduling them a bit earlier.  This is a particular bug bear of mine and the issue arose again today when I checked the running time of Le Blancs at the National Theatre: 3 hours and 15 minutes with a 7.30pm start. So I took to Twitter to vent my frustration and turns out I'm not alone:

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I think theatreland could do with carrying out some customer discovery.

Review: Tom Burke in Reasons To Be Happy, Hampstead Theatre

Tom Burke (Greg) in Reasons to be Happy at Hampstead Theatre. Photos by Manuel Harlan.
Tom Burke (Greg) in Reasons to be Happy at Hampstead Theatre. Photo by Manuel Harlan

There is a shipping container centre stage and in front of it a couple are arguing. The man is Tom Burke. I'm thinking: This is all weirdly familiar, have I seen this before? Turns out I have and I haven't.

It's not unusual for me to sit down in a theatre knowing little about what I'm about to see and Reasons To Be Happy was a case in point. It turns out (Poly filled me in at the interval) that Reasons To Be Happy is the sequel to Reasons To Be Pretty which I saw at the Almeida five years ago starring Tom Burke (and a pregnant Billie Piper).

The story of the intertwined love affairs between four friends - Greg (Tom Burke), Kent (Warren Brown), Steph (Lauren O'Neill) and Carly (Robyn Addison) - has moved on three years. Steph and Greg - the couple arguing at the start - are beginning to wonder if they can rekindle their relationship despite the fact that Steph is married and Greg has started a relationship with Carly.  Carly is a single mum having separated from Kent after he had an affair. It is a play about relationships and doing what makes you happy and it makes a love triangle seem simplistic.

Michael Attenborough, directed Reasons To Be Pretty and also directs this bringing with him the shipping container which opens to reveal different sets  - hence why I had a feeling of deja vu.

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My top three badly behaved theatre audience experiences

484635401_3fb7c1609e_zLast week's story of Laurence Fox's outburst at an audience member made me think 'good on him'. There have been times when my fellow audience members have not behaved brilliantly and if it wasn't for disturbing the actors further I'd have a go myself.

Here are three of the worst I have experienced:

The noisy headphones

Yes, someone sat near me at the Lyttleton was either listening to music through headphones or hadn't turned their mp3 player off. No one could quite work out where the singing and music was coming from audible during the (many) quieter scenes. There were a lot of quizzical looks passing among those of us who could hear the irritating noise. In the end several people complained to the usher at the interval who made an announcement in the general direction of where the noise was coming from and the music was gone during the second half.

The giggling teenagers

Trafalgar Studios 2 is one of those tiny theatres where the actors are often within touching distance. It was a Dickens themed double bill (Dickens With a Difference) and for the second show James Swanton took on all the characters, contorting himself into each in what was a skilled and gripping performance. Unfortunately the two teenage girls sat in the middle of the front row, virtually under his nose, weren't as gripped and decided to giggle, snort and whisper their way through the entire thing. Swanton soldiered on waiting until the curtain call to say: "Thank you all for coming tonight, I've made two of you laugh at least but for everyone else I hope it didn't spoil your enjoyment." I'm still surprised they made it out of the theatre in once piece.

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Review: A journey of ups and downs, Correspondence, Old Red Lion Theatre

Correspondence (c) Richard Lakos (7)
Joe Attewell as Ben in Correspondence, Old Red Lion. Photo by Richard Lakos

Ben (Joe Attewell) is a quiet, curious 16-year-old living in Stockport. His parents are separated and bicker. He doesn't seem to have many friends not unless you count Syrian teen Jibreel (Ali Ariaie) with whom he chats on XBox Live and Harriet (a brilliantly feisty Jill McAusland) who bullies him and calls him 'Shitbiscuit'.

He edits the school newspaper and is interested in what is going on in the world - his contemporaries lack of interest dismays him. He is a typical teenager a mixture of idealism, optimism, confusion and frustration.

Set at a time when the Arab Spring was in its hopeful infancy, Jibreel disappears from XBox live. Ben fears he's been arrested and decides to go on a rescue mission.

And this is where I starting having a problem with Lucinda Burnett's play. Up until this point it's a solid family/teen drama. Joe Attewell is a convincing and endearing teenager and the dialogue between the friends is witty and sometimes laugh out loud funny. But when Ben bunks off school to jet off to Syria - Harriet is a last minute addition to the trip - it felt contrived and stretched credibility.

While Ben is in Syria he has a psychotic episode the aftermath of which reminded me of little of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Once he returns home the play satisfyingly resumes and there are poignant moments as Ben reconnects with his life and with Jibreel.

Revolution in the middle east and mental health are weighty topics to tackle but in an hour and a half it doesn't feel like either are given a proper airing. There are moments that hint at what could have been a more wholly powerful piece - being reminded of the optimistic beginnings of the Arab Spring, for example. But ultimately I only travelled part of the way on Ben's journey. It's getting three and a half stars from me because there were bits of it I really enjoyed.

Correspondence is an hour and a half and runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre until April 2.

Theatre hottie of the month: February 2016 (Broadway edition)

My theatre-going in February didn't yield a real hottie so I opened it up to nominations. I'd like to say they flooded in but in the end I had two: Tobias Menzies in Uncle Vanya at the Almeida (thanks @chrisb715) and Russell Tovey in A View From The Bridge on Broadway (thanks @ahrmi). Guess who I chose? Sorry Tobias. To be fair Russell Tovey does have form, he has been a theatre hottie before.

Photo by Sarah Krulwich/New York Times

PS There is a film version of the play The Pass which got Russell Tovey on the hottie list first time around so keep an eye out for that.

Review: In the mood for The Maids, Trafalgar Studios?

ImageI think I have to confess straight away that I don't think I was quite in the right frame of mind for The Maids. It had been a really hectic, demanding day at work - it's been a hectic and demanding few weeks in fact. I felt frazzled as I sat down in my on stage seat.

Described on the Jamie Lloyd Production company website as a 'full-throttle production' it is performed with a heightened tension and energy throughout, there is no first, second or even third gear.

The Maids is a translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton of Jean Genet's 70-year-old play which was based on real events in 1930's Paris when a maid killed her employer. In this version the action is transferred to America and in casting Zawe Ashton (Claire) and Uzo Aduba (Solange) as the sisters who work as maids it becomes a play not just about class prejudice but also racism.

In the opening scene, Claire is wearing a blond wig and a slip, stomping around the stage like a queen bitch, ordering Solange about who simpers, flatters and pampers.  It becomes quickly obvious that this is a game they play, a role-play that gets repeated but which always ends up with brutal revenge being enacted.

The role-play is slowly revealing and about the only thing that is slow. How much of what is revealed by the maids is real and how much is fantasy is unclear until you realise that their game is actually a rehearsal. If only their mistress (a fantastically un Lady Edith-like Laura Carmichael in knicker-skimming short skirt, shoulder pads and fur gilet) would return.

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