66 posts categorized "Off West End" Feed

Review: Tom Hughes is on death row in Ticking, Trafalgar Studios

Niamh Cusack and Tom Hughes in Ticking, Trafalgar Studios. Photo by Bronwen Sharp

My second execution-themed play of the week (Measure for Measure was the first) was a tense and emotional affair.

It's set in a far eastern prison where Simon (Tom Hughes) is visited by his parents (Niamh Cusack and Anthony Head) on the evening of his execution. He's waiting to hear whether he has had a last minute reprieve from the firing squad.

Trafalgar Studios bijou theatre 2 is simply set up as prison waiting room. Institutional, grubby, there is a wooden bench and a chair and a guard always on view. A small hole in a frosted glass and barred window gives Simon a view of the gathered press and crowds outside the prison.

Simon swings from terrified, to resigned, to resentful and it is into this heady mix of heightened emotions he has what could be his last conversation with his mum and dad. Something is eating at him; something has eaten into his relationship with his dad, something that might just get vomited up at this crucial hour. Facing death his life, and that of his parents, come under the spotlight.

Tom Hughes's Simon is at times a brattish, spoilt, entitled, stretching your levels of sympathy. He can be cruel and cutting but also funny, vulnerable and ultimately tragic.

It is Niamh Cusack who really pulls at your heart strings, the mother being ripped to emotional bits and desperately trying, and sometimes failing, to keep it together. The small performance space and proximity to the actors intensifies the emotions as the clock ticks towards Simon's fate. You feel like you are locked in the prison with him.

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Review: Tipping the Velvet, Lyric Hammersmith

Ttv_showpageSarah Waters' best selling novel of a lesbian love affair set in the musical halls of late Victorian London has been adapted for the stage by Laura Wade. Its setting naturally lends itself for the theatre, the production, directed by Lyndsey Turner, has milked the music hall-variety act theme adding in numerous flares and flourishes.

There is a live band (who double up as extra's on stage) and a compere/narrator (David Cardy) in top hat and tails who knocks a gavel to end a scene or pause the action to give a commentary. It's primarily a device to allow time for scene changes.

The heroine of the story (and production) is Nan (Sally Messham) who falls in love with male impersonator Kitty (Laura Rogers) and follows her on a journey through London's vibrant and less salubrious districts; magic tricks, puppetry and acrobatics are all weaved into the story. It is a spectacle and some of it works brilliantly but not all of it.

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Review: Strindberg's The Father at Trafalgar Studios 2

Emily Dobbs and Alex Ferns in The Father, Trafalgar Studios. Photo: Tristram Kenton

When August Strindberg wrote The Father he was going through marital problems and boy do they show in this tug of love play about two parents fighting over their daughter's education. There's a bit more to it than that, of course, but that is what kicks things off.

Captain (Eastenders' Alex Ferns) is a military officer and scientist and lives in a house with his wife Laura (Emily Dobbs), daughter Bertha (Millie Thew) and nanny (June Watson) together with an unseen nurse and mother-in-law.

He wants to send Bertha to live with a family in town for her education and also to get her away from the influence of the women in the house who have differing religious beliefs. Captain himself is an atheist.

Demonstrating his rights as a father, and the lack of those for Laura as his wife and a mother, he tells her that Bertha is going to be sent away.

Laura uses the only things available to her, her wile and cunning to prevent the plans. She plants seeds of doubt in the Captain's mind about Bertha's paternity and begins to spread rumours about his mental health. Strindberg himself was to suffer from some sort of mental breakdown resulting in hospitalisation just a few years after writing The Father.

So this isn't just a battle about parents who disagree but a battle between the sexes in a misogynistic society and a battle for sanity. Getting Captain sectioned is a cunning move, as he points out to his wife, she needs him alive in order to maintain her lifestyle. (Interesting that this has been programmed at the same time as The Ruling Class on the main stage which is also about getting someone sectioned.)

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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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Review: Accolade, St James Theatre in a contemporary context and a rising star

Alexander Hanson and Abigail Cruttenden in Accolade, St James Theatre

Accolade is a brilliantly written and performed play but I couldn't decide whether it was of its time or transcends its 1950's setting.

It shocked sensitive middle class audiences at the time it was first staged not only for the infidelity plotline but the manner of that infidelity. Sitting watching it 60 years later it feels shocking for what I think is a very different reason.

Written by Emlyn Williams, it follows the story of avant garde novelist and family man Will Trenting (Alexander Hanson) who is about to be knighted in the New Year honours. Will leads a double life and his publisher is worried that the press will find out.

He likes to escape from the social constraints of his middle class life to spend time in pubs in less salubrious parts of London and throwing orgiastic parties. The social and sexual freedom not only liberates him but also inspires his plots and some of his characters in his award winning novels. Its a necessary relief valve which enables him to carry on living among the higher ranks of society.

Playing the artistic temperament or literary equivalent to a method actor off against something more acceptable to a conservative society is not the only way in which Williams was wrong-footing his audience at the time.  He also gives Will an understanding and accepting wife  in the form of Rona (Abigail Cruttenden) who confesses to having always been attracted to his wilder, impulsive side. And, his friends from his other life husband and wife Harold (Jay Taylor) and Phyllis (Olivia Darnley) seem like all round good eggs who just happen to go swinging on the weekends. It's all very matter of fact for them.

You can see how all this would have caused a sharp intake of breath. In 2014 it takes a lot more than all of this to shock. Perhaps Rona's acceptance and understanding is a little surprising but then had it been otherwise it would have made this a very different play.

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Review: Culture shift in 1970s Salford - East is East, Trafalgar Studios

East is East PROD-227It is purely coincidental, I am sure, that the last time I saw Jane Horrocks on stage there was some clever use of doors within the set and so it is with East is East in which she stars as Ella Khan.

The Khan family home in a Salford, a redbrick terrace, is represented outside in; a sofa, TV and dinner table are set within external redbrick walls complete with rough wooden back yard gates and coal cellar.

Rather than peer through the glass in the door to see who is coming, the Khan brood look through a crack in planks. The coal cellar doubles as a living room cupboard in which to hide incriminating art college equipment and a hiding spot for the youngest of the kids, the parker coat wearing Sajit. With a quick switch of sofa for shop counter the space doubles as their father's chip shop where all the family help out.

Written in 1997 by Ayub Khan-Din, who also plays head of the family George Khan, it is set in 1971 but its themes of cultural identity seem just as relevant today.

George travelled to the UK from Pakistan in 1939, married Ella and has seven children. He is determined to bring them up in the Pakistani way, where children are supposed to be respectful and obedient regardless.

It is an ideal that doesn't sit comfortably with all the Khan children born into white, western culture. The eldest son has already run away from a proposed arranged marriage with George refusing to acknowledge him for the slight on his authority. Tensions are mounting in the house as he is planning to marry off another two of his sons.

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Review: Another Country, as seen from above at the Trafalgar Studios

ImagesSee the problem with looking down on the stage from up in the gods when the play is set in a 1930s, English public school, is that it is difficult to tell who's who. They all have the same short back and sides haircuts and are wearing pretty much the same set of clothes.

The two main characters of Julian Mitchell's play, about what would make a public schoolboy spy against his country, were distinguishable for having wavy strawberry blond hair - Judd (Will Attenborough) and straight, floppy blond hair - Bennett (Rob Callender). The rest of their school boy compatriots were more difficult to distinguish with out a full view of the face which you don't see much of from on high.

It was a problem and it wasn't. I still enjoyed the play, very much but I did feel like I missed out on some of the plot and nuances purely for not being able to easily identify who was talking to whom. Another Country does take a little while to get into it's stride but is rewarding once it does.

Judd is against the hierarchy and regime of the school: prefects, fags and corporal punishment. He would rather spend his time reading socialist tomes and swotting for his Cambridge entrance exams than playing sports. He is passionate and unyielding when it comes to his communist views and opts out of mainstream school activities whenever possible. As a result, he is seen as a bit strange but is generally tolerated.

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Review: The gobsmackingly good Ghosts at Trafalgar Studios

Lesley Manville and Jack Lowden in Ghosts

Had a ticket for Ghosts when it was at the Almeida but transport problems meant I didn't make it to the theatre in time, so it was a sign from the theatre gods when some front row seats appeared in the ATG  Boxing Day ticket sale.

And, it was certainly worth the price of the second ticket. Ghosts is an emotional train wreck of a play that had me not so much holding my breath but holding in my emotions to the point where I felt almost overwhelmed at the release of the curtain call.

Richard Eyre, who also directs, has pared down the original Ibsen play to 90 minutes and while intimate in its timeline and plot it covers big and powerful themes such as class, patriarchy, moral hypocrisy and even euthanasia.

The Ghosts of the title are an idea protagonist Helene (Lesley Manville) refers to in that you can never truly overcome the trials and tribulations of the past, they inevitably circle back to haunt you.

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My ten favourite plays of 2013

This has been tough, really tough, it's been a really great year for theatre and not just because Mr Whishaw has graced us with his presence in not one but two plays, although you might be surprised by one of the omissions...

These aren't in a particular order:

  1. Mojo, Harold Pinter Theatre - Jez Butterworth + Stan fav's Ben Whishaw and Colin Morgan with a sprinkling of curiosity about Rupert Grint how could it fail? A refreshing change from the bulk of the safe West End offer. I've seen it five times, so far, just in case anyone was wondering.
  2. The Weir, Donmar Warehouse - beautiful, simple and atmospheric storytelling. The bijou Donmar was perfect for this.
  3. Orpheus, Battersea Arts Centre - a delightful and surprising evening of imaginative story-telling and entertainment. Probably the closest I'll get to a musical. Its back next year and so will I be.
  4. As You Like It, Royal Shakespeare Theatre - The chemistry between the leads and the fun and frolicks made this feel like you were at a party. Oh and the wrestling scene was a feast for the eyes too. Ahem.
  5. Cripple of Inishmaan, Noel Coward Theatre - This was a heady mix of deliciously dark humour and heartfelt emotion. Laughing one minute and crying the next.
  6. Sea Wall, The Shed - Andrew Scott had me hanging on every word and in just 30 minutes reduced me to bits. Probably one of the most affecting pieces of theatre I've seen and you can see it online if you don't believe me (link at bottom of review).
  7. Edward II, Olivier Theatre - It wasn't for everyone but it was for me. This high energy, bold and contemporary production blew me away.
  8. Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Barbican Theatre - David Tennant and a fantastic supporting cast have done it again. Loved the interpretation of Richard in this the genius being to turn sympathy from firmly with Bolingbroke to Richard by the end. An unlikeable Richard I very much liked.
  9. Let The Right One In, Royal Court - A fantastically atmospheric and inventive piece of theatre that did justice to a much loved film.
  10. Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse - Third Shakespeare in my top 10 and another high energy and inventive production that brings a very political play to life. The shower scene also gets extra marks *grins*.

I'd have loved to have squeezed Peter and Alice in there and also Sweet Bird of Youth, Jeeves and Wooster and Fortune's Fool but unfortunately there could only be 10. The bar has been set high for 2014.

Related posts:

My top five fringe plays of the year

My top five Shakespeare plays and top five off-West End


Theatre 2013 lists: Five Best Shakespeare and off-West End plays

Continuing with my build up to the top 10 of the year here are my favourite Shakespeares and favourite off-West End* plays of 2013.

First the Shakespeares. It's been a really, really good year for the Bard's plays but there are only 10 spaces in my best of list so here are my top five that didn't quite make it:

And now the best of off-West End list, again lots that nearly made it into my top ten:

* Off-West End to me are the medium sized theatres most of which aren't in the core West End

My overall top 10 will be published tomorrow, my top five fringe list can be found here