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August 2015

July 2015

Edinburgh fringe preview (review): Dog Play Dead, Theatre503 and TheSpace on the Mile

-1There is a dog, it may be dead and it's a play - see what they did there? Dog Play Dead is a new black comedy by drama school graduate troupe Well Behaved Women.

Set in the posh house of a mafia boss, the dog-sitter has invited her three mates over for a party. However, drinking the posh champagne and making a mess of the living room is the least of their worries. The dog is missing, there is a pool of blood in the kitchen and the mafia boss's not entirely sound of mind daughter has turned up unexpectedly.

The hang-overs are beginning to kick in, as are the arguments about whether Bourbon's are better than Custard Creams (Custard Creams, gotta be) but seriously, what are they going to do about the mess they are in?

Anna Thomas-Jones wrote the play but also takes to the stage as mafia boss daughter PB putting in a nicely sinister deadpan delivery. It works well as a counterpoint to the growing hysteria of the house guests.

This is a fast paced, amusing romp although the tension and excitement could probably grow a bit more steadily. The discussion about how to disguise the empty bottles reminded me a little of an episode of Black Books - that had a macabre atmosphere too but no one does manic drunk quite as superbly as Dylan Moran. 

Dog Play Dead has some funny lines and the plot is at the darker end of the farce scale which suited me. You can catch it at at the Edinburgh Fringe, TheSpace on the Mile: space 1 from Aug 24-29 and the show is 60 minutes long.


Review: Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel in Bakkhai, Almeida Theatre


Picture the scene: A man in a cream dress. Think Dervish - fitted through his slim body with flowing skirt in layers to the ground.

He walks gracefully down a mound at the back of the stage and stops in the middle. Pauses. Clicks his finger in the direction of the ceiling and he is illuminated.

"Long hair, bedroom eyes, cheeks like wine" is how Anne Carson has Pentheus describe him in this, her adaptation of the ancient Greek tragedy.

He speaks. Tells us the story of his birth. Those eyes. A cheeky half smile. A blink-and-you-miss-it quiver of an almost pout. The quiver of an almost pout.

You are seduced. This is Dionysos. This is Ben Whishaw god-like.

Had there been a hill to run to for drinking and carousing as the women of Thebes do to worship him, I would have, and I doubt I would be the only one.

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Review: Mark Gatiss and John Simm in Three Days in the Country, National Theatre


Patrick Marber is all over London's theatre scene this year. We've had a revival of Closer at the Donmar, new play The Red Lion at the National's Dorfman and now his version of Turgenev's comedy A Month in the Country, re-imagined as Three Days in the Country [insert austerity joke here]. 

The three plays can all be linked thematically through their exploration of love, in fact on reflection Closer feels like a contemporary twist on Three Days - but without the humour and the charming characters.

This adaptation keeps the setting as a grand estate in 19th Century rural Russia. Natalya (Amanda Drew) is bored with married life and calls her long time admirer Rakitin (John Simm) to visit. While toying with him she falls in love with her son's handsome young tutor Belyaev (Royce Pierreson). He has also attracted the attention of Natalya's ward Vera (Lily Sacofsky) but his love lies elsewhere.

Vera meanwhile has got the attention of an old, rich neighbour who has never married. The family's doctor Shpigelsky (Mark Gatiss) tries to help him woo her while attempting to arrange a marriage for himself.

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Review: Louise Brealey and Joe Armstrong in Constellations, Trafalgar Studios

CONSTELLATIONS by Nick Payne Joe Armstrong as Roland and Louise Brealey as Marianne © Helen Maybanks

Nick Payne's play Constellations is many things. It is a love story, it's a life story and a death story. It's a story about free-will versus predestination:

"We have all the time we've always had. You'll still have all our time."

Marianne (Louise Brealey) is a cosmologist who believes that all the possible choices we can make in our lives are being played out in parallel. Roland (Joe Armstrong) is a beekeeper and isn't quite so convinced. The two meet at a barbeque and Payne has Marianne and Roland play out several different scenarios to their opening encounter. Marianne is chatty, perhaps flirtatious and Roland responds in different ways sometimes he rebuffs, sometimes he's uncomfortable by the attention, sometimes he responds and so on. A blink of light 'resets' the scene each time.

It is a device that continues throughout the play; a decision made in moment and a path is formed but what of the other paths had Marianne or Roland chosen or reacted differently?  And so we follow Marianne and Roland's relationship or not as the case may be.

And it's a clever device. Of course there is the notion of predestination but also it allows us to see a spectrum of subtleties in Marianne and Roland's personalities and in doing that shows individuality and humanity. Marianne can be confident, confused, insecure, awkward, contrary, controlling and many other things as can Roland. 

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Review: Stephen Merchant in The Mentalists, Wyndhams Theatre

The Mentalists. Stephen Merchant as Ted and Steffan Rhodri as Morrie. Photo by Helen Maybanks (2).jpg
The Mentalists. Stephen Merchant as Ted and Steffan Rhodri as Morrie. Photo by Helen Maybanks

The Mentalists is a revival of an early work by One Man Two Guvnors writer Richard Bean. He won awards for One Man which toured internationally as well as having a stint on Broadway. Skewering the two plays with a reference to One Man on marketing material for The Mentalists does, perhaps, give a slightly false impression as the two are different comedic beasts.

Set in a cheap hotel room in Finsbury Park, Ted (Stephen Merchant) has asked his old friend Morrie (Steffan Rhodri) to make a film for him.

Ted is a frustrated fleet manager from the Midlands who gets affronted by everything from the receptionist not knowing who Oswald Moseley is, to litter dropping and immigration. He's also in trouble, the depth of which gradually unfolds.

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The emotional journey of revisiting War Horse

Joey the star of War Horse at West End Live last year

There are a whole heap of emotions wrapped up in watching War Horse. It's a beautiful, warm, touching and moving play, one which always has a few people sniffing audibly by the end. But it isn't just that for me.

I've seen it three times now, most recently last week which proved a stark reminder of its power and resonance in my life.

The second time I saw it, the opening sequence when Joey is a foal, had me welling up and last week was no different. I cry because it makes me think of my mum. She never saw War Horse but she would have loved it. When I watch that opening scene I see her face and the expression she would have had, had she been watching it too. I wish I'd taken her to see it.

Having revisited the play I was curious about my initial thoughts when I saw it at the National Theatre, so I had a dig around on my old blog and found my early attempt at review writing.

But what hits me, re-reading it, is the last line 'Perhaps I'll take my mum'. About a month after I wrote that she got very sick and was in intensive care for a long time. She eventually recovered enough to move into a nursing home but was never going to manage more than a trip to the shops or church after that.

Putting the personal memories aside War Horse is still a wonderful play made extraordinary by the skill of the puppetry. I may not have had the chance to take my mum but friends I have seen it with have been completely bowled over. You can catch it at the New London Theatre and it is currently booking until February 2016.


Exciting casting news: Bertie Carvel to play Yank in Old Vic The Hairy Ape

Bit of a recent convert to the church of Bertie Carvel. PolyG has long sung his praises but he hasn't really been on my radar. I thought Bakkhai opposite my fav Ben Whishaw would be my first proper chance to see him in action but the TV adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell came along and suddenly my excitement levels about Bakkhai got ramped up (if that was possible).

Then yesterday I got the press release announcing he's playing Yank in the Old Vic production of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape. It's a play that was already on my radar without any cast having seen a superb production at the Southwark Playhouse three years ago.

Now Bertie has been cast it suddenly gets really interesting. Yank is very much a manly man, reminds me a little of Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. He's all muscle and testosterone but it is just a few words that knock him to the ground and challenge him in a way that he never predicted.

From the seating plan on the Old Vic website it looks like they are keeping the round stage format (hurray) which should work really well in making the audience feel like they are in the dark, hot, cramped ship engine room where Yank works.

Excited? Moi?

The Hairy Ape is on from Oct 17 until November 21 and is booking now. Five weeks before the start of the run £10 preview seats will be released for half the auditorium.


Ten best plays of the year so far

There's been a bumper crop of plays already this year and I fear for a very difficult end of year list knowing what is still to come.

I wouldn't say I've loved all these plays, it's not a wholly appropriate word for those that have been difficult to watch, but they have all made a big, big impression.

1. The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios - James McAvoy riding a unicycle wearing nothing by cowboy boots and white pants. What more is there to say.

2. Bull, Young Vic - Bartlett on bullying and an intensely uncomfortable watch.

3. Kill Me Now, Park Theatre - A delicate, warm, funny and un-melodramatic look at subjects few dare to tread.

4.peddling, Arcola Theatre - Harry Melling's self penned one man show channels Beckett and Ridley

5. Measure for Measure, Barbican - A Russian production, in Russian and no one was more surprised than I by just quite how good this was.

6. Product, Arcola - Olivia Poulet makes a desperate pitch in this Hollywood satire.

7. Lonely Soldier Monologues, Cockpit Theatre - Harrowing verbatim tales of sexism in the US military.

8. The Jew of Malta, Swan Theatre, Stratford - Brilliantly gruesome black comedy and riotous fun.

9. Chef, Soho Theatre - Deliciously lyrical and poignant monologue.

10. To Kill A Mockingbird, Barbican - Devastating, funny, warm and utterly huggable play.

Review: Flamboyance, friendship and fear in 1980s New York - As Is, Trafalgar Studios

As Is, Steven Webb & David Poynor,Trafalgar Studios, 1 July - 1 August 2015. Courtesy Scott Rylander-045
As Is, Steven Webb & David Poynor. Photo: Scott Rylander

William Hoffman wrote As Is in the early 1980s when his friends started dying from AIDS. At the same time cancer struck his close family and he became depressed. The play was his coping mechanism but what lifted him from his depression was humour. Laughter was to prove the more powerful tool and As Is is filled with it despite its subject matter.

It tells the story of Rich (Steven Webb), a writer and runner, who has just left his long term boyfriend Saul (David Poyner) for the young and cute Chet (Giles Cooper). Everything is going well and he is thankful for it until he starts feeling ill and is diagnosed with AIDS.

Hoffman drew on real experiences and conversations among friends, the gay community, AIDS victims and their carers and it is this element of realism that is the soul of this piece. Rich isn't always likeable; fear makes him ugly, petulant, angry and full of self pity. He pushes away those trying to support him and rails against those staying away. You wince and yet feel his pain, the injustice and prejudice of society towards him. Indeed 30 years on it is difficult to comprehend that such prejudice existed but the play keenly replicates the pervasive sense of fear of the time.

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