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August 2015

Review: People, Places and Things, National Theatre


Emma (Denise Gough) is an actress for whom drugs and alcohol have become a bit of a problem and so she goes to rehab. Her aim is to get the 'piece of paper' that says she isn't a risk to employers implying that she's had her arm twisted; certainly her attitude towards rehab doesn't imply someone on a genuine mission to clean up their life.

As she goes through the programme she resists, rants and rails against the world and its problems but you are never sure whether it is the real her, how much she is deflecting. Confiding in fellow resident Mark (Nathaniel Martello-White) she admits she only feels alive when she is performing.

The road to recovery is hard and there is a sense of going round and round in circles. Just as you feel Emma might be making positive steps she retreats back. There are some nice theatrical devices such as multiple 'Emmas' appearing out of her bed when she's hallucinating during detox but it isn't always enough to distract from what is essentially a painstaking and frustrating process.

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Bakkhai Q&A with Bertie Carvel, Ben Whishaw, Almeida Theatre

There was a Q&A after last Tuesday's performance of Bakkhai at the Almeida, freshly showered after their characters rather grubby ending in the play Bertie Carvel and Ben Whishaw were joined by three of the chorus - Elinor Lawless, Aruhan Galieva, Kaisa Hammarlund - and the session was chaired by assistant director Jessica Edwards. And these are some of the highlights (not quite verbatim, my note-taking isn't that fast and some of the questions I couldn't hear as there were no mic's so have guessed from the answers):

Q What was it like performing a play that is 2,500 years old?

BC - It's not really that different from performing a new play...except that you have to trust that it has some kind of integrity. The tricky thing is not to not mess with it but to mess with it in the right way. With an ancient play, there is a danger of being bullied into thinking that it's lasted 2,500 years because it's somehow perfect and that the mysteries it has are because you aren't clever enough to understand them. But it is like a modern play in that respect, you have to trust that it is like archaeology, peel it back layer by layer and it gives up its mysteries and you might discover something no one has discovered before.

Q. How was the chorus devised?

Described as a difficult and complicated process. Director James McDonald had pebbles with their initials on and assigned them lines. They would then record their spoken lines and then the rest of the chorus would have to learn it verbatim so that each line had ownership. The myriad of accents and style, it was hoped, would make it sound more interesting less "monotonous and boring". The timing came with experience and gelling as a group, they just got to know each other's styles and characteristics but it took a long time.

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#CamdenFringe review: @TheThelmas Ladylogue, Tristan Bates Theatre

Ladylogue 3 (c) Philip Scutt
Sarah Cowan performs Zero by Serena Haywood. Photo Philip Scutt

What does a murderer, an agoraphobic, a competitive mum and an ex-Facebook user have in common? They are four of the six characters at the centre of a series short plays written by and performed by women under the banner Ladylogue.

It is a wonderful showcase of talent each play is very different in style and tone. Taken together they are a brilliant mix of laughs, shocks and drama leaving with you plenty to think about. There are definitely some names among them, both writers and performers to look out for in the future:

Ghost by Lucy Foster explores how bereavement can impact on confidence and sense of self. Performed by Kim Burnett the protagonist is getting ready for a job interview that, if she can only keep it together, might be a small step towards a new start.

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Second thoughts: Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet, Barbican Theatre

Definitely warmed to Benedict Cumberbatch's Prince Hamlet on second viewing. First time around he felt a little out of joint with the rest of the cast but with a few more performances completed (and those pesky video incidents in the past), the company and production is starting to gel nicely.

The biggest change to be made since the early previews is moving 'To be or not to be.." from the opening speech to the middle of his feigned madness episode. I liked it at the beginning but it does work really well in its new slot giving Hamlet a moment of brooding introspection amid his rather eccentric behaviour - more madcap that mad I would say.

Now the play starts with Hamlet's exercise of quiet reflection interrupted by the return of Horatio (Leo Bill). It immediately establishes him as a person who has friends, someone who is liked. When the scene then moves to his mother's wedding reception he shares a moment with Ophelia adding another to the list of his fans.

BC's Hamlet feels slightly volatile but self-aware and trying to keep it in check. He is definitely a Hamlet with flaws: his ego surfaces occasionally, he can be petulant and contemptuous - he's very human in that respect. He isn't wholly likeable but he carried my emotion more readily this time partly because his inner struggles were more visible. It makes the question of his madness more ambiguous. Is he genuinely losing his marbles but having moments of lucidness? There is a moment when he seems to see his own death and becomes resigned to it.

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My 10 favourite things about the Iliad Live reading at the British Museum and Almeida

Iliad cast & creative
Iliad cast & creative - click for bigger image

On Friday #IliadLive was trending on Twitter, a remarkable feat considering it was essentially a 16-hour live reading of an Ancient Greek epic poem - not the sort of thing you normally expect social media to get excited about. Even more remarkable that among the cast of more than 60, while sparkling with theatre stars - the sort of actors that get us theatre nerds very excited - only a handful have the broader TV screen fame of the sort that usually gets Twitter excited.

The readathon started at 9 am at the British Museum and was live-streamed for those that couldn't make it. Benches had been set up on a first-come, first-served basis and were full most of the time. There were people sat on the floor nearby, some had come prepared with picnics and always a throng of people at the back - some bemused foreign tourists.

As the museum was closing those among the audience lucky enough to snap up tickets for the remainder of the story at the Almeida were ushered onto a Routemaster bus or into cycle rickshaws where the reading continued during the journey.

I reckon I caught eight or nine hours, a combination of live streaming and watching it live at the British Museum and at the Almeida. Some far sturdier than me did the whole thing braving night buses to get home after the final lines were read, shortly before 1 am. (I salute you @RhianBWatts).

Anyway here are 10 of my favourite things from Iliad Live, what are yours?

1. Simon Russell Beale set the bar high with the very first reading cementing why he is a national treasure when it comes to live performance (and possibly the only stage actor who'd get up to perform at 9 am).

2. At the British Museum, there was no waiting in the privacy of the wings to come on, the actors are stood to one side script in hand for all to see and study which is fairly unusual. Sometimes you could see the nerves in their body language. John Simm borrowed a pen from an AD to make last-minute notes on his script and Oliver Chris just leaned casually chatting and smiling like it was a walk in the park.

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Review: The Briefs boys with their feathers, thongs and stilettos are back, London Wonderground

Briefs, London Wonderground. Photo John Marshall

Australian burlesque, acrobatic drag troupe Briefs exploded in a cloud of feathers and sequined thongs into my life last year. I had so much fun the first time I saw them I grabbed another friend and went to see them a second time.

This year they are back on the South Bank in the intimate Spielgeltent at London Wonderground for a longer run bringing their own brand of Aussie humour and adult entertainment.

There is breathtaking acrobatics, burlesque, magic tricks, drag skits, yo-yo skills and speed Rubik's cube solving - all performed in a suitable degree of undress and with a good smattering of ridiculously high heels. These boys certainly aren't shy in displaying their talents and afterwards if you hear the Minions cry of 'banana' it will make you think of something very different to the yellow cartoon rascals.

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Review: F*cking Men at the King's Head Theatre (edited)

F-cking Men, King's Head Theatre, (c) Andreas Grieger (4)
F*cking Men, King's Head Theatre. Photo: Andreas Grieger

This is a year for sweary play titles in London. We've already had The Motherf*cker With The Hat at the National and now we have F*cking Men at the King's Head Theatre.

Both titles are appropriate for their respective plays, the latter couldn't be more aptly described. It is an adaptation by Joe DiPietro of Arthur Schnitzler's controversial play which is most commonly known as La Ronde.

There are ten scenes of conversations between two characters before and after they have sex. One half of the pairing moves on into the next scene for another liaison and so it goes full circle until the first character reappears. DiPietro's version is set in the 21st century rather than late 1800s with gay relationships and sex life under the spotlight rather than heterosexual.

Given the title and subject matter it would be easy to hide cheap titillation under the veil of culture and yes there is a certain amount of nudity and sexually explicit scenes but that would dismiss the deeper human context of the play. F*cking Men is a psycho analysis of gay relationships and the role that sex plays in those relationships.

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First thoughts on Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet, Barbican Theatre

First visit to see Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet this week and these are very much first thoughts on a big production that will no doubt evolve and gel over the coming weeks.

It is certainly a memorable production in many ways but I do have a few reservations. *spoilers follow*

Director Lyndsey Turner has done some interesting things with the text, moving some of the speeches and switching some of the dialogue. This is most notable in the opening scene. Normally you have the ghost appearing to the watch, instead we see Hamlet alone, listening to Nat King Cole on an old record player (great use of Nature Boy).

He's sorting through crates of belongings. There's an old toy boat and clothes. He takes a jacket and smells it in that way you do when you are nostalgically drinking in the memory sparked by an aroma. It reminds him of someone - his father presumably from the style of the jacket. And when he speaks it is 'To Be or Not To Be."

Now @polyg didn't like this, felt it took the speech out of context with no opportunity to warm up to it. I disagree. It was an impassioned, tear-filled eyes, rendering that set up Cumberbatch's Hamlet as very much the thinker, an over thinker, a melancholic who is lost in grief and isolation in his own home.

Nature Boy, the boat and later when he plays at toy soldiers in his 'antic disposition' all seem to suggest a yearning for his childhood, a time presumably when he was happy.

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Exciting Ben Whishaw theatre news

So while I was watching Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet last night there was a little theatre announcement concerning Ben Whishaw (thanks @andyT for alerting me).

Next year he's heading back to Broadway to play John Procter in The Crucible opposite Sophie Okonedo and Saoirse Ronan and Ciaran Hinds (who was on the stage with Mr Cumberbatch last night, playing his villainous uncle Claudius).

Obviously any Ben Whishaw casting announcement and in particular stage work is very exciting but this reaches new levels because it's to be directed by Ivo van Hove. He pretty much tops the list of my run-to directors at the moment after seeing the amazing A View From the Bridge last year and Antigone earlier this year. (@polyg and I are already booked into to see his Shakespeare history-play epic at the Barbican next year). I'd even go so far as saying he's the most exciting director around at the moment.

Then there is the play. It's Arthur Miller and it's a great play. John Procter is a meaty role. He is caught up in a witch hunt, the only voice of common sense among a sea of irrational hysteria and he pays for it dearly. Richard Armitage did a superb job in an Old Vic production last year.

I headed over to New York to see Mr W tread the boards last time he was on Broadway and I think it's pretty certain I'll be heading over the Atlantic again next Spring.


Review: Bears in Space or King Joffrey plays with teddies at the Soho Theatre

Bears in Space at the Soho Theatre until Aug 22

While Game of Thrones TV series fans the world over debate whether Jon Snow is really dead there is one resurrection that has definitely happened. Yes, evil King Joffrey is back or rather the actor who played him: Jack Gleeson. 

He was reported as saying he was hanging up his acting shoes post his TV character's dramatic poisoning but last year, together with a group of friends under the name Collapsing Horse, took a show - Bears in Space - to Edinburgh.

He must have enjoyed treading the boards with his hand up a teddy puppet's bottom because the show has come to London and is in residence at the Soho Theatre for a few weeks. It is an event that hasn't gone unnoticed by GoT fans as the gaggle of clip-board clutching autograph hunters outside the theatre will attest.

But there are plenty of reasons to see Bears in Space other than getting the chance to look the evil Joffrey in the eye. It is very silly and full of chuckles and laughs as the four performers - Aaron Heffernan, Eoghan Quinn and Cameron Macaulay joining Gleeson - recount the story of 'Bears. That are in space'.

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