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December 2014

Theatre review 2014: My favourite Shakespeare/Jacobean productions or the two Hamlets and two Henrys

Anyone who's met me over the last few weeks will have heard my rant about 'best of lists' being released before the end of the year and here I am doing it myself but in my defence, I have seen all the Shakespeare and Jacobean drama I'm going to see for the year so there isn't a danger of a last minute entry (my last play of the year is actually tomorrow night).

Have seen far more plays in Stratford this year than previously which has bolstered the RSC's appearance in the list. Wanted to make it my top five but there are two Hamlets and two Henry IV's I had to get in (well three Henry's technically) so it's six.

In no particular order:

1. Roaring Girl, Swan Theatre  First time I've seen this play by Dekker and Middleton and came out wanting to be Lisa Dillon who plays the protagonist Moll. Brilliant end of performance dance sequence too.

2. Hamlet, Riverside Studios   Both Hamlets I saw this year make an appearance in my list and Hiraeth's prison set Hamlet at Riverside Studios was the first. It wasn't perfect but it had an energy and physicality...and an angry young Hamlet in Adam Lawrence that made it stand out. It also had some of best stage fighting I've seen this year too.

3. Hamlet, Manchester Royal Exchange Maxine Peake was my second Hamlet and brought a brilliantly youthful portrayal of the prince in a production that made Hamlet into more of a family drama, than a political one. I loved the children's performance of the play within the play and the production also gets points for not acknowledging that a woman was playing a man's role.

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Review: Bonding, bravery and bleeding in Fear In A Handful of Dust, COG ARTSpace

Simon Morris and Henry Buck in Fear in a Handful of Dust at COG ARTSpace

A small, dark room above a pub in north London has been transformed into a First World War trench on a French battlefield.

Two rows of seats flank a narrow dirt stage with either end closed off with wooden pallets and corrugated iron. Amid the bullets, bombs and fires raging outside the trench together with the periods of eerie quiet it feels at times claustrophobic and safe.

The play opens with Simon (Jack Morris), an Englishman raised in India, cowering at one end so terrified of the battle raging around him that when Buck (Henry Regan), 'cannon fodder' from Ireland, plops down into the trench he pulls a gun on him thinking him the enemy.

Coming from two very different backgrounds there is a lot more to conquer than fear of the grave situation they find themselves in. Trapped and alone with an enemy sniper waiting for them to raise their head over edge of the trench they bicker and bond and bleed.

Fear in Handful of Dust is a tale both about surviving in terrifying conditions but also about two men learning that bravery has different faces and that they aren't quite as different as appearances, backgrounds and first impressions might suggest. It is a poignant, moving and warm tale of human bonding in very trying circumstances and its staging makes it an almost immersive experience.

There is hope in the humanity amid the horror. For a stripped back, un-glossed First World War tale you can't go wrong. Fear in a Handful of Dust is on at the COG ARTSpace until January 9 and is about an hour and 15 minutes long without an interval.

Review: Reasons to love Shakespeare in Love but not love Noel Coward Theatre's day seat policy

Lucy Briggs-Owen and Tom Bateman as Viola and Will In Shakespeare in Love. Photo by Johan Persson

Almost let this one go. Enjoyed the film but couldn't muster enough excitement to part with a substantial wedge when it opened in the Summer. Thank heavens then for @PolyG and her eagerness to see it and time to day seat*.

For those unfamiliar with the story its about a fictional romance between William Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps. Viola's father wants to marry her off to a Lord but she loves the theatre and harbours a desire to tread the boards, an activity barred from her and all women for being unseemly. Meanwhile Will is struggling to write Romeo and Juliet and running out of time to produce the script for which he has already received an advance.

Tom Stoppard's fingerprints were all over the screenplay and Lee Hall's adaptation to stage is the icing on the cake. He has a strong track record for adapting from screen to stage and back again (Billy Elliot and War Horse to name two) and as a result it works brilliantly as a play, better than the film in fact.

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Why you should go to see a public understudy performance

Public understudy performances (PUP's) are a rare treat. Most understudy runs are for invited friends and family only but the RSC opens their doors to the public in Stratford and now in London too, while in residence at the Barbican with Henry IV.

For those on a tight budget they are of course a cheap way of seeing an excellent production, all tickets are £10 and you get the same show just with a slightly different cast.

And although the lead actors have been substituted it doesn't necessarily mean you'll miss out on seeing them. At the understudy run for Henry IV part 1 last week, Jasper Britton who plays the King ended up understudying himself as his understudy was injured. No irony there but OK, so that is the exception, but we did get to see Alex Hassell who normally plays Prince Hal and Paola Dionisotti who normally plays Mistress Quickly who snuck into the crowd of customers during the tavern scene.

Of course if you haven't seen the production with the regular cast you may not notice them but if you have it adds a frisson of excitement, to see Prince and understudy Prince acting together - Sam Marks in this instance.

There is a lot of doubling up for the smaller parts so you also get to see some very fast changes and actors seamlessly switching roles. You may well see an actor leaving the stage as one character only to reappear moments later wearing a different hat and coat as another.

During Henry one actor even swapped hats as he was walking from one side of the stage to the other. It was subtly done so that if you weren't looking closely you'd probably not even notice. It's all part of the fun.

You could almost feel the audiences sit up when they realised that in the Glendower scene Leigh Quinn was going to be playing both Lady Mortimer and Hotspur's wife. How would it be handled? With some adjustments to blocking and a bit of imagination it worked beautifully.

It is all stuff you will only ever see in an understudy run and with many family and friends in the audience it is a performance propelled by good luck and wishes. Go and see one if you haven't before, if nothing else you'll get to enjoy some subtle differences in performances and interpretation from the main production.

Henry IV part 2 PUP is on January 8.


Review: Frolicking fun it's the RSC's The Shoemaker's Holiday, Swan Theatre


L-R Joel MacCormack, David Troughton and Josh O'Connor in the RSC's The Shoemaker's Holiday

The Shoemaker's Holiday is the second comedy I've seen this week that has a slightly bitter edge. Thomas Dekker's play has a far more gentle bite than George Bernard Shaw's The Widowers Houses as Dekker had to be careful to veil his political comments but beneath the fun and frolics it is there if look closely enough.


Two pairs of lovers form the heart of the story. Rowland Lacy (Josh O'Connor) is the nephew of an Earl who has fallen for Rose (Thomasin Rand), the daughter of the Mayor of London but their relatives disapprove and he is sent away to fight in French wars.

Determined to woo his lady he sends his cousin to France in his place and disguises himself as a Dutch shoemaker, a craft he has learnt after falling on hard times. He gains employment at master shoemaker Simon Eyre's workshop (David Troughton).

Meanwhile one of Eyre's journeymen, Ralph (Daniel Boyd) is conscripted into the army leaving his young wife Jane (Hedydd Dylan) to fend for herself and fend off suitors when she knows not whether he is alive or dead.

The camaraderie and loyalty of the shoemakers knits the stories together with that of the rise in fortune and political power of the eccentric Eyre.

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Review: Bernard Shaw's timeless Widowers' Houses, Orange Tree Theatre

There was something immediately familiar about the set for the Orange Tree Theatre's production of Bernard Shaw's Widowers' Houses. The stage and circle balconies are decorated with sections of Charles Booth's London Map of Poverty from the 1870's, a map in which Booth undertook a survey and colour coded London's streets based on the level of wealth of the inhabitants. I'd only the day before discovered the map on a visit to the Museum of London.

In hindsight it sets the tone of the play in a way that the opening sequence does not. Harry Trench (Alex Waldmann), a newly qualified doctor, is on holiday with his friend Cokane (Stefan Adegbola) and has fallen for the daughter of a gentleman. Cokane is desperately trying to persuade his friend to observe correct form in order to win the hand of Blanche (Rebecca Collingwood) but Harry doesn't really subscribe to stuffy social etiquette.

What changes this from a comedy of manners is a prop-gun of a line in which Cokane asks Harry if he knows how Blanche's father Satorius (Patrick Drury) came by his money. Satorius is a self-made man, one of the growing group of nouveau riche.The map gives a clue to what turns into a biting, sometimes satirical look at social inequality and exploitation of the poor. It wasn't what I was expecting but all the better for that and is, depressingly, as appropriate today as it was then.

And it isn't as simple Satorious' merely being a bad landlord, Shaw shows how even those with a semblance of a social conscience can be unwittingly complicit.

It would be interesting to know how Shaw's gentle digs at the privileged classes through descriptions of what is and isn't ladylike and gentlemanlike behaviour went down at the time. The irony certainly isn't lost on the contemporary audience.

Widowers Houses is funny but it has a satisfying edge that elevates it. The cast is superb although I did think Collingwood was a little too psycho-bitch for the setting and would have preferred a tamer capricious or fickleness for Blanche in order to maintain the sensitive Harry's interest in her.

If humour like a hard centred chocolate is your thing then then Widowers' Houses is for you. It runs at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond until January 31 and is 2 hours long including an interval.


Festive season review: This is Not A Christmas Play, Top Secret Comedy Club

Jordan Kouame and Matthew Leigh in This is Not a Christmas Play. Photos by Sofi Berenger

David (Matthew Leigh) is cooking dinner for his ex-girlfriend whom he hopes will come but he can't get rid of his layabout, unemployed flat mate Tim (Jordan Kouame). However, this is the least of David's worries as the two are about to be targeted by a couple of burglars who are the master of disguise. Or not as the case may be.

This Is Not A Christmas Play is described as an answer to a commercial Christmas and is apparently set during the festive season although you have to concentrate to notice the references - David is cooking turkey (for two?) and Die Hard is on the telly.

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Festive season review: Dickens with a Difference double bill, Trafalgar Studios 2

Linda Marlowe as Miss Haversham

Its cold and dark outside so draw your chair closer while two of Dickens' most iconic baddies unfurl their stories in a double bill at Trafalgar Studios 2.

In Miss Haversham's Expectations Linda Marlowe is Pip's tormentor, the woman jilted on her wedding day and forever frozen in time her only goal to seek revenge on men. Dickens' Great Expectations is seen through Miss Haversham's eyes mixing the novel's plot with her own narrative and some context about what was going on in Dickens' life at the time.

Dickens loved to perform and he loved younger women turning his back on his wife and the mother of his children to pursue affairs of the heart with women at the nubile end of the spectrum.

Marlowe's Haversham is at times wild and ranting and at others controlled and calculating. She performs magic tricks, a pass-time beloved of Dickens, and attempts to possess her adopted daughter Estella so she can feel young again.

She is a sorceress duping and manipulating, riddled with bitterness and jealousy and yet there is a wit and humourous side to her character that makes her strangely likeable and all the more tragic.

Di Sherlock's script, she also directs, brilliantly captures the language and tone of Dickens' novel with some modern prose mixed in although I'd have like a little more commitment to the latter throughout. Marlowe's performance is feisty and captivating drawing you in to Miss Haversham's world. It left me wanting to re-read Great Expectations.

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Festive season review: Strictly for grown ups - Booty and the Biatch, Lost Theatre

Wp5ea1b307_06Get your baubles out, give the bird a good stuffing and dribble cream on the pudding; its smutty panto time and Excess All Areas are happy to oblige with their annual show now relocated to the Lost Theatre in Stockwell.

You don't need to worry about the plot, the cast don't. It's part parody of theatre-land, part parody of pantos with a sprinkling of satire and a big dose of silliness and smut.

The baddie is Nigel Garage a leder-hosen wearing (and not much else), French-hating, dog worrier played by Matt Overfield. Biatch (Jamie Anderson) is an acerbic drag queen with a tea pot as a servant (Paul L Martin), a teapot with a chip on her shoulder. And Booty (Holly Aisbitt) wears a costume suspiciously similar to that she wore for Alice in Poundland a couple of years ago and has a derriere that would put Kim Kardashian's in the shade.

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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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