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February 2014

Liking the RSC's trailer for Henry IV parts 1 & 2

Henry IV part 1 was the first Shakespeare play I studied at school. It seemed so dull on the page and I never saw it performed which would have inevitably brought it to life and therefore brought a greater appreciation.

Having watched this trailer, I can't wait to see it in Stratford in the Summer. Prior to seeing the trailer I would have put money on Antony Sher stealing the show as Falstaff but now I think he might have competition from Alex Hassall's Prince Hal.


Review: How do you follow up a hit like Coriolanus? Not with Peter Gill's Versailles

Versailles 1300x500

It was always going to be a tough task for Donmar artistic director Josie Rourke to find a play to follow something like Coriolanus which turned out to be both a damn fine production and hysterical fangirl magnet, having Tom Hiddleston as the star.

Peter Gill's new play has the less hysterical, theatre-fan friendly cast but is a political play like Coriolanus. From both parallels can be drawn from modern history and politics but in one you feel like you are being lectured to while in the other you feel engaged and entertained.

Versailles is as long as most Shakespeare plays at 3 hours and has the dreaded two intervals (surely modern stage craft can eliminate the need for two 15-minute scene changes?). But all that could be forgiven if it was, well, more interesting. The subject matter - the debate and implications of how Europe was carved up post World War I - isn't the problem. I've seen plenty of plays on potentially dry subjects that have held me rapt.

The problem is that Gill spends a lot of time on exposition. A lot of time.

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Review: Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts at the Southwark Playhouse

Production photo by Tristram Kenton

The two Tracy Letts-penned films I've seen were distinctive for their bitter sharpness exposing darker, uglier aspects of human nature often viscerally. His new play, Superior Donuts at the Southwark Playhouse is far gentler by comparison; while not shying away from the darker aspects of life it is generally more subtly done.

Arthur (Mitchell Mullen) is the son of Polish immigrants and runs the family doughnut shop in a poor suburb of Chicago. Well I say run it, he seems to be running it into the ground as the Starbucks gentrification of the neighbourhood creeps ever closer. He gives away doughnuts to his regulars: a homeless woman, two local cops and a Russian immigrant - the latter wants to buy Arthur's store.

Arthur's previous assistant has quit, essentially over an argument about politics and is suspected of being behind the vandalism the store has suffered. When 21-year old Franco (Jonathan Livingston) turns up to take over the job he is full of ambition and plans for the shop but Arthur isn't immediately convinced.

At its heart this is an unlikely friendship story. Arthur is depressed and haunted by the past. He dodged the draft during the Vietnam war fleeing to Canada, his ex-wife has just died and he hasn't seen his daughter for years. Franco is the antithesis, full of life and ideas. He's just finished writing his first novel which he started when he was 14 but he too has a past which is starting to catch up with him.

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Review: Symphony at The Vaults

43d3867b-6bc9-482d-8206-3896e11adc12The Old Vic Tunnels are reborn as the The Vault and like the former incarnation it is a multi-space, labyrinthine venue with the rumble of trains overhead adding to the atmosphere.

A favourite venue of mine OVT always felt like I'd been admitted to some secret club hidden beneath Waterloo Station. There were some interesting and imaginative productions and as The Vault, Symphony proved to be a cute little appetiser to what looks like a promising schedule.

It is only an hour long and is three plays, all with music. Yes music. And yes I know I don't like musicals but I'm not adverse to a bit of music in theatre (see my review of Orpheus if you don't believe me).

But back to Symphony. It's written by Tom Wells, Ella Hickson and Nick Payne and performed by four actor/musicians: Remy Beasley, Jack Brown, Iddon Jones and Adam Sopp.

As you enter the studio-sized space an overall wearing band is playing. During the three plays the performers peel off the overalls to reveal costumes before going back to overalls if playing backing musicians and vocalists.

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Review: Lesley Sharp and Kate O'Flynn in A Taste of Honey at the National Theatre

Kate O'Flynn and Lesley Sharp in A Taste of Honey. Photo by Marc Brenner

Saw a mediocre fringe version of Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey a few years ago and ever since I've been waiting for another production.

Helen (Lesley  Sharp) is a flirty, flighty, selfish alcoholic. Running from one boyfriend while on the look out for the next, she drags teenage daughter Jo (Kate O'Flynn) from one set of grubby, cramped digs to the next. Jo is constantly planning her escape: get a job and get a flat of her own and this is primarily her story.

A Taste of Honey was written when Delaney was just 18-years old, is set in 1950s Salford and is essentially about daring to dream.  The spark in Jo's dreary life is when she meets a young black man who is doing his national service. Jo is practical and pragmatic about Jimmie's motives for proposing to her but there is something just a little bit seductive about the attention he gives her. When he departs for six months at sea she is left with more than an engagement ring.

This definitely has the polish of a National Theatre production. Set primarily in one room the staging is nonetheless whizz-bang with the house on revolve and rising up from a low (for the Lyttelton) stage but that is window dressing to the script and performances.

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Review: In Skagway, Arcola

Frankie (Angeline Bell) is a faded actress who had built a career hawking one performance around Northern American States. The opening of the play finds her crippled and speechless after suffering a stroke. She is being cared for by her companion May (Geraldine Alexander) and supported financially by May's daughter T-Belle (Kathy Rose O'Brien) who prospects for a rapidly diminishing supply of gold in Alaskan town Skagway.

Playwright Karen Ardiff uses flashbacks, a voice over of Frankie's thoughts and snippets from conversations between May and T-Belle to tell the story of the trio and why decisions need to be made.

Frankie is self-centred and obsessed with fame sacrificing little herself while those around her seem to sacrifice much to support her. As a protagonist Frankie is wholly unlikeable, even her final act is selfish and as a result sympathies lie with T-Belle who seems to be the only one sensible enough to see through Frankie and try and do something practical about their situation.

As a set up for a play it is a rather unique blend of a theatrical life and the cold harsh day to day reality living in a challenging environment at the turn of the 20th Century. It is reflected in a mixture of scenes that have the colour and a vague flamboyance of old style theatre with a more straightforward drama but I'm not entirely sure it worked.

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Emotional last night performances: David Tennant in Richard II and the cast of Mojo

Mojo production photo by Alastair Muir

It's rare for me to see a play more than once and even rarer to see the last performance, I'm normally in during preview and then that's it. So it is extremely unusual to have seen not one but two last nights in the space of a fortnight.

If money would allow I'd do it more often because there is always something rather special about the last show. Emotions run high (for cast and audience), tolerance to mishaps is reduced and there is a little less care towards props and sets, all of which was brilliantly demonstrated in the very last performances of the RSC's Richard II and Mojo.

For Richard II it was David Tennant's extra emotional delivery of the "Let us sit upon the ground" speech that sticks firmly in my mind. You could tell that he was really enjoying it in a "this is the last chance I've got to say this" kind of way. His queen played by Emma Hamilton was also more teary than usual when she had to say goodbye to her king.

But it was the cast of Mojo who really made for an eventful last night - the tone and nature of the play does make it somewhat easier than a Shakespeare history.

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Review: Abi Morgan's Mistress Contract, Royal Court Theatre


Abi Morgan's new play is based on a book that is in turn based on the recorded conversations of a couple who shared a somewhat unusual relationship arrangement for 30 years.

He and She (Danny Webb and Saskia Reeves) meet as students and then again in their earlier 40s which is where the play begins. Both have failed marriages behind them and start an affair which leads to an assessment of what they each get out of the relationship.

She convinces He to start an experiment with a contract. He provides her with a home and an income while She provides him with 'mistress services',  essentially sex anyway he wanted it. She is a teacher and feminist and He a successful businessman.

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Review: Simon Stephen's Blindsided, Manchester Royal Exchange

Katie West and Andrew Sheridan in Blindsided. Photo by Kevin Cummins

Simon Stephen's writes specifically for the space at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, something I missed in seeing Port at the Lyttleton theatre just over a year ago.

The Royal Exchange, if you haven't been, is theatre in the round - a type of space most directors seem to shy away from Stephens commented on in a Q&A. It makes for an intimate and exciting performance space the actors appearing from different places and as an audience member you feel like you are leaning in to see something secret that is hidden from the outside world.

Like Port, Stephens has a young female protagonist, in this case 17-year old Cathy (Katie West) who has a young baby. She is studying one A-level in history, has a part time job and her mum Susan (Julie Hesmondhalgh) helps her out with 'little Ruthie'.

Then she meets John (Andrew Sheridan) a trainee accountant with a sideline in burglary. He charms and is charmed by Cathy and their relationship moves fast. Susan doesn't trust John and his flattery, call it gut instinct or experience but she sees through him.

But while John's faults and misdemeanors might make suitable fodder for a play itself it is the effect he has on Cathy and that is the surprise, particularly as it isn't what you'd think.

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