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June 2017

July 2017

Review: A life in and of music - Nina, Young Vic and Traverse, Edinburgh

NinaWeb3PortraitimageJosette Bushell-Mingo is dressed as Nina Simone, a three piece band on stage plays out a rhythm and she describes the build up to her concert at Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. It is vivid and evocative and you can almost feel the excitement of the occasion.

It also makes an interesting framing device - the piece finishes with Josette performing a mini-concert of Nina Simone songs - for a journey into Nina Simone's songs and the context behind the lyrics. But this isn't merely a history lesson, it is also a lesson in how little has changed.

When Josette unpicks the lyrics of key songs giving back the original meaning, she interweaves them with her own story and accounts of recent racist attacks in the US, UK and beyond. When Nina Simone wrote Mississippi Goddam it was a response to racist killings in Mississippi and a 'f*ck you' to white society. The message was clear then and in telling the story in both a historical and modern context it shines a light on how far society has and hasn't come in 50 odd years.

To drive home the point Josette turns a metaphorical gun back on the audience imagining a scenario where it is white people being shot simply because of the colour of their skin. It is a simple but powerful device that makes an important point, several important points. That injustice, inequality and racism are still alive and the revolution Nina Simone sang about and hoped for still has a long way to go.

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Review: Life, the universe and family drama in Mosquitoes, National Theatre

Mosquitoes-v2-1280x720There are five ways the world will end, we are told by a scientist (Paul Hilton), but Luke's (Joseph Quinn) world is ending, not because of particles and black holes but because of that incident, in the bedroom of the only girl that talks to him.

Luke is clever and bright, he comes from an intelligent family. His mum Alice (Olivia Williams) is a brilliant scientist working on the Hadron Collider, his grandmother Karen (Amanda Boxer) was also a scientist and his grandfather won a Nobel prize. His aunt Jenny (Olivia Colman), on the other hand, prefers reading horoscopes and Googling answers to questions. Luke thinks she is stupid and so secretly does Alice and, not so secretly, so does, Karen.

As the Hadron Collider is about to be switched on tragedy throws the family together and it will be more than particles colliding in Geneva.

Mosquitoes mixes art and science examining intellect versus emotion and the extraneous variables that human nature brings to life. It puts family and parenting under the spotlight; Luke and Alice may be clever with computers and physics but they stumble when it comes to relationships. Jenny is led by emotion, making decisions that her family would say lack intellectual rigour, with painful 'told you so' consequences but she shouldn't necessarily be written off, there are stronger bonds and human needs that science can't help with or explain.

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Review: Dancing and dialect in Disco Pigs, Trafalgar Studios 2

Colin Campbell and Evanna Lynch(c) Alex Brenner  no usage without credit  Disco Pigs @ Trafalgar Studios dir John Haidar (_DSC0188)
Colin Campbell and Evanna Lynch in Disco Pigs, Trafalgar Studios. Photo: Alex Brenner.

Pig (Colin Campbell) and Runt's (Evanna Lynch) heads are poking through two slits in a black curtain, recreating their simultaneous births which cemented their friendship.

Their description of the fateful events is ripe, vivid and amusing. It's told in a mixture of Cork dialect (comedian Tommy Tiernan describes it as sounding like a tinker trying to speak French) and words of their own making - you have to listen carefully, a bit like tuning your ear to Shakespeare and I certainly didn't get every word.

Fast forward 17 years to where we find these two tight friends cocooned in their own world of fun and havoc. You get bare brush strokes of what home life is like, it is their friendship which is the fuller portrait. They are isolated, fiercely loyal with their own language be it verbal or physical.

They just want to be left alone to re-enact TV shows or prowl the town taking what they want and lashing out when they don't get it. They are childish, silly, fun-seekers hankering after a fantasy disco but don't be fooled, these are feral teenagers with a nasty bite.

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Review: The naked and messy Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Apollo Theatre #YoungVicCat

Cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof-photo-by-charlie-gray2Hands up all those who remember Tom Hiddleston taking a shower on stage during Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse? Well Tom Hiddleston and that production hasn't got anything on Jack O'Connell and the Young Vic's Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.

The shower is a permanent part of the opulent, minimalist, bedroom set for Tennessee Williams' classic play; thick black carpet, gold walls, black dressing table and chair, black bed with just some fresh flowers on the night stands for colour.

Right at the front of the stage, on the carpet, are six bottles of whisky, a bag of ice and some glasses, towards the back and to one side is the stem of the shower. There is no screen, or shower tray it grows out of the carpet and it becomes something to lean on or sit against as well as a shower. Rather randomly it reminded me of the lamp post in the Chronicles of Narnia - probably because the characters sometimes gather around it.

As the lights come up Brick (Jack O'Connell) is sat naked, under the flow of water (yes it runs straight into the carpet to the delight of the stage manager I'm sure), while his wife Maggie (Sienna Miller) talks incessantly about nothing and everything.

It is Brick's family home and preparations are underway for Big Daddy's (Colm Meaney) 65th birthday party but there is more than just blowing out candles on the cake at stake. Big Daddy is a rich land owner who's just had a cancer scare and there are ambitions and expectations among the wider family which, it quickly becomes clear, has led to rivalries. This isn't the Walton's.

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Review: RSC's gender swap Salome, Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon

Salome-production-photos_-June-2017_2017_Photo-by-Isaac-James-_c_-RSC_220811-e1497002267411This is my first Salome and my first Salome had a man - Matthew Tennyson - playing the titular character. The decision does raise the question of why give over lead female part to a man - it's not like there are a plethora of meaty lead roles for woman. Having not seen a woman play Salome I can't judge what the decision adds or detracts, other than the fact that it immediately pushes the play towards being about a broader spectrum of gender.

It is a sexually charged production that feels like the characters have just stepped away from a Bacchanalian orgy, the residual revelry and lust hanging in the air, the stage lit like an after hours club. A male singer stalks in leather hot pants and bondage-like straps. The male dominated court of King Herod (Matthew Pidgeon) is suited but with ties long discarded and top buttons undone. The soldiers wear white vests showing off their muscular arms even the prophet Iokanaan (Gavin Fowler), when he escapes from his cell beneath the stage, wears nothing but tight underwear.

Matthew Tennyson's Salome, dressed in a body skimming satin slip and high heels is at times feminine and masculine, chaste and flirtatious, victim and vengeful. There is no mistaking the impact s/he has on her step father Herod, there is carnal desire written all over his face when he looks at him/her. It is alarming to watch. Even at his/her most masculine there is a delicacy to Matthew Tennyson's Salome that makes his/her situation feel dangerous. 

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Review: Friendship, politics and power in the RSC's Queen Anne, Theatre Royal Haymarket #RSCQueenAnne

Queen Anne marketing image_ Theatre Royal Haymarket 2017_2017_211146The RSC's production of new play Queen Anne opens with a satirical song about the monarch's many pregnancies, the joke being that her latest was just trapped wind. It is a humorous song with barbs, Anne is portrayed by a man with fake fat belly and voluminous breasts - her reign was said to have seen the birth of political satire, if not an heir to the throne. 

It is one of a handful of satirical songs that pepper the play, reflecting political opinions and gossip, and a growing tool for those trying to manipulate or discredit the monarch, her politicians and advisers. These songs are like the equivalent of an 18th century Spitting Image sketch. There is a disquieting irony to the fact that the same day I was watching the play, our 21st century Parliament was discussing abuse and intimidation in the run up to the last election.

The song feels both cruel and understandable when we meet the Queen (Emma Cunniffe) for the first time. She appears sickly, weak - physically and mentally - evasive on important issues and prone to changing her mind and yet there is something tragic, pitiable and occasionally admirable about her too.

Her personality means she is putty in the hands of her supposed friend Sarah Churchill (Romola Garai) who has wit, intelligence and confidence in abundance. Sarah and her husband John (Chu Omambala) are also skilled at negotiation and manipulation, using the Queen for their own advantage and that of their political allies.

However, Sarah doesn't so much overestimate how much power and influence she has over her friend but just how far she can be pushed. While the Queen is to a large extent a pawn among political factions, in her naivete she is perhaps wiser than the Churchill's give her credit but there is no mistaking the killer blow she ultimately delivers.

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That was June in London Theatre land...

92000-11June felt like a quieter month for announcements - or did I miss a load of stuff, please let me know if I did…

* The Donmar announced its next two plays with Christian Cooke in David Harrower’s Knives in Hens directed by Yael Farber and then Nikki Amuka-Bird is taking the lead in Ibsen’s The Lady From The Sea directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah.

* The Almeida’s fabulous Mary Stuart is transferring to the Duke of York's next year and then goes on tour.

* Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael has been cast alongside Stockard Channing in Alexi Kaye Campbell's Apologia at the Trafalgar Studios. Jamie Lloyd is directing.

* Young One (I’m showing my age, I know) Adrian Edmondson has been cast as Malvolio in the RSC’s Twelfth Night. OK it's on in Stratford rather than London but there will be a live broadcast on February 14.

* Anne Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham (pictured) will star in the UK premiere of Simon Stephen’s play Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle at the Wyndhams which is being directed by Marianne Elliott under the umbrella of her new, post-National Theatre, production company. There's a nice little intro video to the production on the website but don't scoff too loud when the Wyndhams is described as an 'intimate house', I do wonder what planet theatre people are born on sometimes.

Thesp spots

It was a shy month for thesps with only two spots: Simon Stephens and Dorothea Myer-Bennett were both at the Kiss Me press night.


Review: Taking the use of technology on stage to the next level in the RSC's The Tempest, Barbican Theatre

The Tempest production photos_ 2017_ Barbican Theatre_2017_Photo by Topher McGrillis _c_ RSC_222722
The Tempest, Barbican Theatre. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC


The opening storm in the RSC's The Tempest at the Barbican is probably the most spectacular I've seen. The stage is set like the inside carcass of a ship, there is lightning and thunder effects as you'd expect but there are also projections which make the hull look like it is rolling with the waves.

You can't actually hear what any of the actors are saying above the din, which is problematic (if you know the play, then less so) and it sums up neatly this production: high on spectacle and effects but not everything quite works.

Of course it is the motion capture performance of Ariel (Mark Quartley) which is making headlines. On paper having a CGI of a character which is a spirit, that can take on different forms and float is a superb idea. It is a device that is used for particularly scenes, the rest of the time Mark Quartley performs more traditionally, his costume discreetly hiding the gizmos required for the motion capture.

It is quite spectacular to see the CGI Ariel hovering above the stage and encased in a tree when his history is recalled by Prospero (Simon Russell Beale) but the technology isn't quite up to speed and there is a slight delay between the actors movements and what the CGI character does which was a bit distracting and I found myself watching Mark Quartley more than the image. The problem is most acute when Ariel takes on the form of a harpy, he wears a special headset which is supposed to capture the movement of his face as he speaks but the delay is such that it just looks oddly out of sink like a DVD where the movement and sound don't quite match up.

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Review: Not for the squeamish, the RSC's Titus Andronicus, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Titus Andronicus production photos_ 2017_2017_Photo by Helen Maybanks ©RSC_222146
RSC Titus Andronicus production photo 2017. Photo by Helen Maybanks ©RSC

If you don't know anything about Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and you are a bit squeamish then probably best give this a miss. The preview performance I saw last Friday had to be halted as someone was taken ill; at that point Lavinia (Hannah Morrish) was wandering the stage covered in blood from a particular brutal and barbaric attack. This is a gory revenge play with 15 or so deaths of escalating brutality and the RSC doesn't shy away from it.

The play starts off with gangs in hoodies and the police facing off in a sequence that is choreographed like a dance. Titus is essentially a play about different factions at war over who should be Emporer, who should be married to whom and where loyalties lie. When the play proper starts, general Titus Andronicus (David Andronicus) does two things that unwittingly spark the spiralling mayhem. One decision you can back him on, one is distinctly more debatable.

Once the opening hoodie gangs sequence is over the play settles into the style of modern military and politics rather than street gangs which is a bit of a shame. I've seen Titus performed as gangs before and it works but here it feels like a device to add energy to the opening segment of the play which is pretty much the set up for the carnage.

There are still some notes that echo the opening. The sons of Tamora Queen of the Goths (Nia Gwynne) are like laddish thugs who can't believe their luck when their mother marries the Emporer. They enjoy royal life sunbathing by the palace pool and later wear loud designer shirts suggesting they've got the money but not the taste.

The irony of the production is that as the method of killing gets more inventive the more amusing the play becomes. Titus, who seems to be losing his mind, hides out in a Smeg fridge box with holes cut in it and a baby gets passed back and forth between the stage and the audience. It feels like a different play to the politics and plotting of the first half.

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My favourite plays of 2017...so far #midyearreview #theatre

via GIPHY 

2017 is already the year that brought us Andrew Scott's Hamlet, Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman and my introduction to playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins and it's only six months in. There are a further nine plays I couldn't not include in my 'best of so far' list and that was with the bar set very high. I've still got Angels in America, Ben Whishaw in Against, Rory Kinnear in Young Marx and the awarding winning Oslo to come later this year, among many others potential theatre treats - the end of year list is already looking tricky to narrow down.

Anyway, here's what I've enjoyed the most in 2017 so far. Feel free to agree/disagree...

(In no particular order, because that would be too traumatic to do.)

1. Amadeus, National Theatre  This was supposed to be a 2016 play but I gave up my ticket for the early part of the run because of work pressures, good words from @PolyG made me rebook for January and I'm so glad I did. It was a play that unexpectedly floored me. It's returning next year and yes I've got a ticket.

2. Out Their On Fried Meat Ridge Road, White Bear Fringe theatre kicked off in fine style with this brilliantly warm, funny, odd, dark, misfit comedy that was the antidote to everything disturbing that was going on the world at the time. It transferred to Trafalgar Studios 2 and I got to enjoy it all over again.

3. Hamlet, Almeida  I've seen a lot of Hamlet's and there is usually something new in each but Andrew Scott's prince in Robert Icke's production made me look at the play with completely new eyes. Sorry Sherlock but this was a battle that Moriarty definitely won. It's transferred to the West End.

4. An Octoroon, Orange Tree Theatre  Was tipped off about American playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins and this is the first of his plays I've seen. It's a play I could write reams and reams about and reminded me why I love going to the theatre. Gloria, another of his plays is currently on at Hampstead Theatre, it didn't quite make this list but it is still really good.

5. Rotterdam, Arts Theatre  This was in my 'best of' list last year but after a stint off Broadway it's come back to London to the bigger Arts Theatre. It made me laugh, it made me gasp and it made me cry - all that even though I've seen it before and knew exactly what was coming. That's why it's back on the list. It's on until 15 July.

6. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Old Vic  It's possibly the only Tom Stoppard play I really like and this was a great production that was lively, entertaining, profound and melancholic . There was a brilliant rapport between the two leads - Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire - and David Haig as The Player was worth the ticket price alone.

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