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

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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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Review: Dirty Work (The Late Shift), Battersea Arts Centre

2_Dirty Work (The Late Shift)_Forced Entertianment_please credit Tim Etchells
Dirty Work (The Late Shift) Forced Entertainment. Photo Tim Etchells

The Battersea Arts Centre's performance space is simply dressed: two chairs framed by red stage curtain, draped in a way that has become a symbol of the theatre. Towards the back is a desk, with an old record player and a stack of discs - the sound desk for the duration - operated by Terry O'Connor dressed as if she's playing in an orchestra. Performers Robin Arthur and Cathy Naden are similarly attired - a turquoise silk shirt and burgundy silk dress.

When their performance starts it is incongruous to their attire and the setting: No theatrical flourishes or drama, deadpan, letting the dialogue be the performance. Taking it in turns at a consistent pace it describes a performance of sorts or rather a series of acts and events.

They are linked thematically, rather than through discernible narrative, around death, disaster and failure. From the small, almost insignificant to the tragic and horrific. There are ridiculous deaths, resonant of contenders for a Darwin award that raise laughs and chuckles as do some of the smaller failures, some worthy of a sit-com skit or sketch, some not even that significant.

At the other end of the spectrum is the tragic and gruesome. Nothing is milked, it is delivered in just the same tone, letting the audience picture it, but it nonetheless raises the odd gasp or makes the squeamish squirm.

It illustrates the ordinary and extraordinariness of human life, its fragility, weakness, ridiculousness and theatricality - you can't help thinking: 'All the world's a stage, and all men and women merely players'.

At first it is engaging, gripping even but, and this may actually be a criticism of myself, after a while I found my mind wandering. There was something relentless in the plodding pace, something soporific in the rhythm and the words started losing their purchase and washing over me. Was it me or was it, at 75 minutes just a little too long?

It is a meaty piece of writing and I can't imagine it being performed in a way that is better and has more impact but ultimately it didn't hold my interest for the duration so I'm giving it three stars. It's at BAC until Jul 1.

 


Review: Post war modern women and making babies in Kiss Me, Trafalgar Studios 2

Kiss Me - production images - Ben Lloyd-Hughes and Claire Lams - Photos by Robert Day 10
Kiss Me: Ben Lloyd-Hughes and Claire Lams - Photo by Robert Day

It is 1929 and women out number men, the result of the First World War and Spanish influenza. Where are the men for a lorry driving, war widow like Stephanie (Claire Lams), perceived as past her prime at 32, independent - had to be during the war - and wanting a baby.

Who is there is Dennis (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), a sperm donor but not of the turkey baster sort.

In Stephanie's small room at her lodgings - landlady out the way - their unusual transaction is about to take place. Dennis is stiff backed, stickler for the rules of engagement - no kissing on the mouth - as laid out by the bohemian doctor who sets up the liaisons. He has the air and manner of posh and is well turned out - you could easily see him in uniform. Stephanie is nervous, chatting relentlessly, breaking the rules but she's also funny not afraid to poke fun at their situation, raise an eyebrow at an unwitting double entendre or talk about her sex.

Unexpected consequences arise from this unorthodox transaction and when rules get broken the two have to examine their pasts, their motives and where their lives are going. As the mirrors of Stephanie's room reflect back their appearances, their relationship exposes some truths about themselves.

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Review: Powerful and haunting - The Enchanted, The Bunker Theatre

The Enchanted  The Bunker  - Courtesy of Dina T (1)
The Enchanted The Bunker - Courtesy of Dina T

There is no doubt that Arden (Corey Montague-Sholay) and York (Hunter Bishop) have killed. This isn't a miscarriage of justice death row drama or a did they or didn't they, this is story of two murderers waiting for execution and how they face it while a Lady (Jade Ogugua) makes a last ditch effort to get the death penalty over turned.

Adapted by Joanna and Connie Treves from Rene Denfeld's poetic novel, The Enchanted is narrated by Arden and takes a walk in the shoes of the two convicts and their pasts. Locked in windowless cells a trip to the visitors room is the only glimpse of the outside world they get. They aren't allow any human contact and you don't fully comprehend what that would be like until it is laid bare by Arden.

He weaves his own thoughts, observation and history with York's story, the Lady's conversations with people from his past and the Fallen Priest (Jack Staddon) who is a regular death row visitor. The monologues and dialogues are punctuated with ebbs and flows of movement that serve to illustrate the outside world that is unreachable and alien to the prisoners.

Puppets of the young York and his mother and Arden as a child stalk the background as a harsh reminder of the journey they've been on in their short lives. The actors also write and draw with chalk on the floor and back wall of the stage although I'm not sure this particular device is entirely necessary or effective.

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Review: Threat, forgiveness and the search for truth in Jam, Finborough Theatre

Harry-Melling-Jasmine-Hyde-in-Jam-Photo-credit-MATHEW-FOSTER
Harry Melling and Jasmine Hyde in Jam, Finborough Theatre, photo Mathew Foster

The synopsis of this debut full length play by Matt Parvin reminded me a teeny bit of Blackbird - a confrontation between two adults about an incident that happened when one of them was still a child. In Jam, Bella Saroush (Jasmine Hyde) is a teacher who's got her life back on track - new job, new school, after an incident in a classroom ten years earlier.

That incident involved pupil Kane McCarthy (Harry Melling) whom she finds back in her classroom one evening with a baseball bat in his backpack claiming to seek forgiveness. It isn't just a case of whether Kane is to be believed but also whether the truth of what happened lies in what they both remember.

Over one hour and forty minutes the two verbally spar, teasing the audience with versions of their truth. Harry Melling's Kane has an unpredictability in the way he moves, as well as in his tone and dialogue; it makes him feel dangerous at times and yet he also portrays a vulnerability and hints of remorse that keep you guessing. There are clues in the briefest looks and gestures.

Jasmine Hyde's Miss Saroush is a battle between scepticism, trust and anger. Is her compassion wrapped up in guilt or a genuine sensitivity that ultimately makes her vulnerable and, even after 10 years, easily played?

Kane and Miss Saroush's is a game of own truths or daring to admit the truth, as an audience you have to weed out which is which. Jasmine Hyde and Harry Melling superbly amplify the tension, ambiguity and flaws of their characters and it makes for compelling viewing. I'm giving it four stars and it's at the Finborough Theatre in Earls Court until June 17.

 


Review: An Octoroon, Orange Tree Theatre or this is why I go to the theatre

An Octoroon - Orange Tree Theatre - publicity photo by The Other RichardThe first thing I have to say is 'thanks' to @mildlybitter. I'd not heard of An Octoroon or Branden Jacob-Jenkins but she recommended his play which is having its European premiere at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond and I'm so glad she did.

Jacob-Jenkins has taken Dion Boucicault's 1850s play but made it a play within a play by putting both himself, played by Ken Nwosu, and Boucicault (Kevin Trainor) into the story. But more than that. They talk directly to the audience, argue with each other and also play several of the characters in the original play. It's brilliantly Brechtian, meta and, with a Bre'r-rabbit running around, surreal but I'll come on to all that.

In Boucicault's The Octoroon George (Nwosu) returns home to Louisiana from Paris to find Terrabonne, the plantation he has inherited, is about to be repossessed. Local heiress Dora (Celeste Dodwell) fancies him and a marriage to her could secure the plantation - and the slaves it keeps. But George has fallen for Zoe (Lola Evans) the illegitimate daughter of his uncle from his relationship with a slave who has been brought up as part of the family.

The villain of the piece is wealthy Jacob M'Closky (also played by Nwosu) who wants Zoe for himself despite her having spurned his advances. M'Closky intercepts a cheque which could save Terrabonne and also discovers something about Zoe's legal status which he decides to use to his advantage.

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Review: Babette's Feast, Print Room at the Coronet

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I've not read Karen Blixen's short story from which this play has been adapted by Glyn Maxwell, neither have I seen the 1987 Danish film version so I can't answer the question I was asked 'did it do it justice?'. What I saw certainly had a feast befitting the title which comes towards the end of the play, it opens with a group of people hiding in a basement while war rages overhead.

A stranger in the group, Babette (Sheila Atim) starts telling a story about two sisters who live in a yellow house in a remote Norwegian community - a pious sect, which lives very simply. There are three parts to the story. First is about how Martine (Whoopie Van Raam) is wooed and rejects, on her father's advice, a young military man who is passing through. Then Philippa (Rachel Winters) is wooed by a singer Papin (Henry Everett) who is convinced she is the perfect soprano but, like her sister, she rejects her suitor.

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Review: Chummy, White Bear Theatre - the thriller that doesn't quite thrill.

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Chummy, White Bear. Photo: Headshot Toby

A man in black jeans, black scarf and black hood stalks the darker edges and corners of the stage with just the briefest glimpses of his face. This is Chummy (Calum Speed) a soon to be murderer who calls ex police detective Jackie Straker (Megan Pemberton) asking her to stop him. Straker has her own problems, not least a gin crutch, but Chummy quickly becomes her obsession and curse, threatening her own mental stability.

The play is set primarily in a dingy office from where Straker tries to run a private detective business. The rear wall is a series of blinds which lift to reveal silhouettes - Chummy creepily appears or a potential victim is seen out enjoying herself. It is a clever way of staging what is otherwise a fairly static play - its central plot device is two people talking over the phone after all. And that is part of the problem. The conversation between Chummy and Straker and their subsequent monologues need to be insightful and punchy but the dialogue at times feels odd and weighed down with simile. As a result the plot feels laboured and I'm not sure I learned much more about the mind of a murderer - or the mind of someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

John Foster's play has all the makings of a great psychological thriller and it has its tense moments  - ironically often when there is physical interaction between the characters - but it never quite fulfils its potential. The cast do their best with the script but I couldn't help thinking whether it might work better as a shorter radio play - the running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with an interval.

It's at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington until 10 June and I'm giving it three stars.


Coming soon: My picks from London's fringe theatre

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Pop Up Opera: Il Matrimonio Segreto

Miller revival After a critically acclaimed sell-out run at the Finborough Theatre, Phil Willmott’s new production of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy transfers to the King’s Head Theatre. In this forgotten masterpiece about Jewish registration in Nazi-occupied France, Miller’s play seems closer than ever to today’s world of “Extreme Vetting” and religious persecution. King’s Head Theatre, Islington, 7-25 June, 2.15pm/7pm 85 minutes.

Crime and punishment Death row in America. Men sit in isolated dungeons awaiting execution. An investigator works tirelessly to save them. She will not let men go to their deaths without a fight. The Enchanted highlights issues around capital punishment, child abuse, and the self-perpetuating cycle of violence corrupting the US penitentiary. Bunker Theatre, Borough, 6-17 June, 3/7.30pm, 90 minutes

Comedy adaptation Jekyll and Hyde meets Blackadder via Monty Python, with just a hint of Spike Milligan. Let Them Call It Mischief's comedy is set against the backdrop of Victorian London complete with Cholera and everything. Jekyll and Hyde, Pleasance Theatre, Islington, 22 May – 03 Jun, 5pm/7.30pm.

Fringe opera The Pop Up opera team is taking the rarely-seen opera from the late eighteenth century, Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage) on the road this summer around their usual eclectic mix of venues. It tells the tale of a rich Italian businessman as he attempts to marry off one of his daughters to a mad English toff with disastrous results. Various venues in London and beyond from 18 May to 30 July. For full tour dates: http://popupopera.co.uk/ (If you’ve not seen an opera before or are unsure whether it is for you, then Pop Up Opera is a great introduction.)

Noir thriller Chummy explores the mind of a serial killer in the moments before his first murder. Desperate to control himself, the mysterious psychopath 'Chummy' pleads with private investigator Jackie Straker to stop him killing in a new stage play by BAFTA winner John Foster. White Bear Theatre, Kennington, 23 May - 10 June, 3pm/4pm/7.30pm


Review: Rising stars in Othello, Wilton's Music Hall

Abraham Popoola Othello  Ghazwan Alsafadi Montano and Christopher Bianchi Duke of Venice Gratiano Othello Photo credit The Other Richard
Abraham Popoola Othello Ghazwan Alsafadi Montano and Christopher Bianchi Duke of Venice Gratiano. Photo: The Other Richard

Othello (Abraham Popoola) and Desdemona (Norah Lopez Holden) are getting married in secret. It’s a Muslim ceremony and Desdemona has learned the Arabic vows. Once the ceremony is over Othello swaps his Muslim prayer beads for a crucifix in a symbol of his public vs private self and an inner conflict to come.

His Othello has a presence from the outset. In a brilliantly nuanced performance he is a noble warrior – a leader who has earned respect – and a man bowled over by passion and love and not afraid to show it. Norah Lopez Holden is a young, spirited, fun and witty Desdemona who has captured his heart. There is an ease and playfulness in their relationship which makes the early lines that hint of what is to come land all the harder.

Speeding the lovers on their way to tragedy is Mark Lockyer’s superb Iago. It is a performance that exudes from every eyebrow twitch, gesture and look – even when he has his back to you (it is staged in the round) his body language speaks volumes. And yet this Iago isn’t played as comedy villain, a Machiavellian rubbing his hands together with glee; I’ve seen actors play Iago's lines for laughs, Lockyer plays them straight, any mirth contained in them is entirely on the audience to find.

Norah Lopez Holden Desdemona stf OTHELLO Photo Credit The Other Richard (3)
Norah Lopez Holden Desdemona. Photo Credit The Other Richard

His Iago is reasonable and contained, convincingly earnest, his true feelings burst out of him in private temper, soothed only by plotting. With those he is trying to dupe he comes across as quite ordinary and trustworthy which makes him so effective - and so dangerous.  While Iago can contain his true feelings in public, Othello can't. His public displays of affection towards Desdemona are easily channelled into pride, self doubt and jealousy. As comfortable as he is with his affection for Desdemona it, ironically, is his Achilles heel in his battle for self control.

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