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December 2015

That was my year of theatre-going 2015: Least favourite plays

I'm calling these 'least favourite' rather than 'worst of' because they are plays I didn't like or didn't get on with for various reasons and that doesn't necessarily mean they were bad. It looks like the National Theatre hasn't had a good year but I saw so much there it's probably proportionate. Probably.

So in no particular order:

Hard Problem, National Theatre - Eagerly awaited and subsequently disappointing new Tom Stoppard play, it just wasn't engaging enough.

The Mentalists, Wyndhams - From Richard Bean I was expecting One Man, Two Guvnors belly laughs instead I got mild amusement.

Game, Almeida Theatre - Underwhelmed by Mike Bartlett's exploration of a topic that has been covered better elsewhere.

An Evening At The Talk House, National Theatre - Felt very long for a shortish play which speaks volumes

Waste, National Theatre - Lack of shock value made this a dull political piece

That was my year of theatre-going 2015: Favourite fringe plays

It's been a particularly good year for monologues and silliness is how I'd sum it up the fringe theatre scene in London this year so, in no particular order*, here are my 10 favourites...

Bull, Young Vic - probably the most uncomfortable 55 minutes I've had in the theatre

Kill Me Now, Park Theatre - a refreshingly frank (and funny) play that genuinely tackled a rarely discussed subject

peddling, Arcola Theatre - Harry Melling's debut as a playwright channelled Beckett and Ridley and had his trademark energy in its performance.

Lonely Soldier Monologues, Cockpit Theatre - A verbatim play about women serving in the US army that, in its insight, was genuinely harrowing and shocking.

Product, Arcola Theatre - A brilliantly pitched satire and farce performed by Olivia Poulet.

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Review: Andrew Scott and David Dawson's performances bedazzle in The Dazzle, Found 111

320x320.fitandcropThere are 71 steps up to the performance space in the former St Martin's School of Art on Charing Cross Road. The hubbub of students long since silenced, you climb a narrow staircase that winds around an inactive, caged, lift shaft leading you up and up until you are in room that feels like an attic.

The stage is small and cluttered, surrounded by a jumble of mismatched chairs and so appropriate for Richard Greenberg's New York-set play about two eccentric, hoarding brothers. You sit so close you feel like you've been 'collected' by them.

It is inspired by the story of two real brothers whose decomposing bodies were found in 1947 in their junk-crammed home. Andrew Scott plays Langley the skilled and pedantic musician who's artistic temperament is strangling his career and the brothers' source of income. David Dawson is Homer a 'retired' accountant tasked with looking after Langley by their mother and no less eccentric.

Into their world steps Millie (Joanna Vanderham) a rich woman who is trying to escape her family. Her 'ordinariness', as Langley sees it, is incongruous to the brothers' lack of it but she is also a character of contradictions, a potential saviour and potential victim. 

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That was my year of theatre-going 2015: Favourite curtain call moments

Ches_CurtainCallStill have at least one theatre trip planned before the official end of the year so there could be a late addition to this, but as there are quite a few lists to work through (love a list) thought I'd kick off with my favourite curtain call moments.

The lively one: Cheek by Jowl's Russian actors were bubbling with energy having finished their performance of Measure for Measure at the Barbican. They linked arms and hokey-cokey style ran at the audience. They were obviously chuffed with how things had gone and deservedly so.

Back at ya: It seemed wholly appropriate that at the end of a play about football that the cast of The Red Lion (National Theatre) would, football player-style, applaud the audience as they left the pitch stage. Benedict Cumberbatch did something similar at the end of Hamlet but I'm not sure why. Perhaps he was rewarding us for managing to get a ticket or successfully negotiating the security and ID checks to get into the theatre or simply for good behaviour. Whatever, I can officially say I've been applauded by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Can't get out of character: Got to enjoy John Heffernan on stage in two different plays this year and both curtain calls you could see the moment when he clicks out of character and becomes himself. It is always several seconds into the applause and he always looks delightfully shy and self conscious. First time was Oppenheimer, Vaudeville and the second was Macbeth, Young Vic.

Didn't we do well: Do enjoy it when British reserve is thrown out the window at the curtain call. Denise Gough was so chuffed with how things had gone in People, Places, Things at the National Theatre she did fist pumps. And then there was the lovely moment at the end of the RSC's Othello when Hugh Quarshie fist bumped Lucien Msamati when he joined him on the stage.

Job done: One of the benefits of sitting on the front row is that you very occasionally overhear what the actors say to each other as they leave the stage. Once I heard an actor say to another 'you were rubbish'. This year, at the end of the Beaux Stratagem, National Theatre, when the actors had taken their third or fourth bow, Geoffrey Streatfeild turned to Susannah Fielding and said ‘can we go now’.

Anyone else got a favourite curtain call moment from 2015?

Related posts:

Curtain call moments 2014

Best plays of 2015 so far


Review: Janet McTeer and Dominic West, the Machiavellian seductors in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Donmar Warehouse


The many candles flickering in the chandeliers above the Donmar stage don't hide the faded grandeur of the set. The aristocracy in 18th century France, beautifully and opulently turned out and yet the walls of the salon in which they congregate are peeling and the art is packed away. Given the amoral nature of the protagonists, the Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer) and Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West), it feels like a physical embodiment of moral decline.

Christopher Hampton's play is based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' novel written in the years before the French Revolution and is set in the world of ex-lovers Merteuil and Valmont who use seduction as a weapon to humiliate and degrade others. They do it for revenge, they do it to challenge and amuse each other. They have no remorse.

Merteuil wants Vicomte to seduce young virgin Cecile (Morfydd Clark) in order to spoil her for her future husband who is an ex-lover of Merteuil's on whom she wants to take revenge.  Vicomte thinks the task to easy for his skills and instead sets his sights on married Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy) who is staying with his aunt and has a peerlessly virtuous reputation. Merteuil request written proof of his success with de Tourvel and in return she agrees to sleep with him again. When he realises that de Tourvel has been warned about his own, less than virtuous, reputation by Cecile's mother it is game on.

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Review: John Heffernan is Macbeth at the Young Vic but he isn't dancing

Macbeth, Young Vic. Photo Richard Hubert Smith

The last Macbeth I saw was on the big screen and starred Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. It was a powerful, visual, period piece; muscular, bloody and muddy with the Scottish Highlands rain-lashed sweeping landscapes as its back drop.

Fast forward to the Young Vic's current production, directed by Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin, and it couldn't contrast more. This is contemporary setting for starters. The walls of the stark set narrow towards the back of the stage to form a door sized entry point. A segment about two thirds back slides to one side taking with it members of the cast and bringing on others as if everything is slotting into place or being ordered and filed. There are hidden doors everywhere.

In the opening battle the soldiers are dressed to look like a cross between military personnel and crime scene investigators. Rather than dying on the end of a sword, victims are suffocated with plastic bags before having their throats cut. The bodies, wrapped in plastic and gaffer tape, are piled up to be logged by a clip-board wielding official.

The three witches appear dressed in flesh coloured leotards, faces bare of make up. They twitch,  jerk, tremble and shake in an almost inhuman dance. Are they what is hidden in Macbeth's soul, his darkest thoughts, the naked truth?

It is easy to diagnose Fassbender's Macbeth with what we now know as post traumatic stress but for John Heffernan's murderous Scot there is something slightly more unhinged. Lady Macbeth, a strong, cool and elegant Anna Maxwell Martin, points him firmly in the direction of the path towards his perceived destiny but it is Macbeth who runs careering down it.  And in the background the witches lurk.

There are parties for the King, old and new and more dance, a combination of synchronised pulse and fluidity, it is ordered chaos with Macbeth often in the middle of it. But Macbeth isn't dancing, except perhaps in his mind with an agony of purpose that makes you feel sorry for him. In the quieter moments, where it is his conscience and ambitious desire raging, Heffernan speaks with a clarity and comprehension that makes him equal parts scary and pitiable. What you get a sense of is a haunting desperation, perhaps a cognisance of the destructive path he is on but incapable of turning away from.

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Review: The lost Arthur Miller play - No Villain, Old Red Lion

No Villain, Old Red Lion Theatre, Adam Harley, courtesy of Cameron Harle, 5
No Villain, Old Red Lion Theatre, Adam Harley, courtesy of Cameron Harle

Arthur Miller wrote a play while he was at the University of Michigan in 1936. It's never been performed but director Sean Turner has tracked down a copy in the University's archive and it is now receiving its first public airing at the Old Red Lion.

The play mirrors Miller's own family situation at the time: His father, a wealthy business man, had lost everything during the great depression and the family had fallen on hard times. No Villain opens with the Simon family waiting for the return of son Arty (Adam Harley) from University at their small home in Brooklyn. His mother Esther (Nesba Grenshaw) is anxious that something has happened on the long journey and her concerns are amplified by reports that Arty has become involved in Marxism. Abe, her husband, (David Bromley) tries to placate her as does younger son Ben (George Turvey). Ben has had to sacrifice his education to help his father in his factory. It is one of the many sacrifices the family has had to make.

The tension is only temporarily appeased when Arty finally steps through the door. As with Miller's more familiar, later work there is a clash of ideals. Abe's factory is about to go under for a second time because industrial strikes are stopping orders getting out. Ben shares sympathies with the strikers, recognising the merit in the Marxist philosophy his brother Arty believes in. Where the brothers differ is in whether they will put their beliefs before their family.

Both wrestle with this and for Arty in particular, it is agony. He sees the distress in his mother, how his beliefs are alienating him from his family but they are his beliefs and what make him who he is. Can he turn against his own conscience and his self?

Miller needs nuanced performances. It is easy to pick out the hysteria and heightened emotions and over play them but it is the moments in between which are more telling and the transitions to those moments if not done well can jar. There are some pacing issues with the production - at times it feels sluggish - but the cast do a pretty good job with the material and the tension builds nicely.

No Villain is fascinating to watch and pick out the germs of ideas, the shades of characters that Miller was later to go on an explore more fully. Knock off some of the sharp edges it shows a promising talent, a talent we are now so familiar with. If you want an insight into life for the young Arthur Miller then you can catch No Villain at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Angel until Jan 9 and it is an hour and 20 minutes long.



Review: You For Me For You, Royal Court upstairs

You For Me For You-Royal Court Upstairs-1198
Wendy Kweh and Katie Leung, You For Me For You, Royal Court. Photo Tristram Kenton

Who doesn't harbour a little curiosity for what life is like in North Korea? Mia Chung's play hints rather than shows, feeling sometimes like Alice through the looking glass crossed with Kafka - or maybe that is what it feels like?

Hunger is a feature - there were empathetic stomach rumblings from the woman sat next to me - the play opens with sisters Minhee (Wendy Kweh) and Junhee (Katie Leung) arguing over who should eat the meagre meal that's been prepared. Minhee is ill and therefore Junhee says she should eat it. Junhee works long hours so Minhee says she should have it. Their polite insistence is almost infuriating. It is Junhee who finally relents or rather is tricked by her sister into eating the food. It is symbolic for what later happens when the siblings decide to try and flee their homeland.

Minhee can't quite let go of the ideals of North Korea, that if you work hard enough everything will be OK. She gets left behind, sort of falls down the rabbit hole, where she goes on a mental journey through her tragic life, encountering absurd bureaucracy, musical rice and frog-like soldiers.

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Review: John Simm and Gemma Chan in The Homecoming, Trafalgar Studios

Ron Cook in The Homecoming. Photography by Marc Brenner

Loved Jamie Lloyd's production of Harold Pinter's The Hothouse a couple of years ago. He's teamed up with John Simm for another Pinter, The Homecoming, which is a very different beast to The Hothouse.

Set in the front room of a north London home, Max (Ron Cook) is the head of the household. A long-time widow and retired butcher he's set in his ways and irascible, partly because he's losing his authority over the family. He is vitriolic, punishes with his fists and there are hints of other abuse but middle son Lenny (John Simm) is no longer scared of him and switches between taunting him to affecting an air of indifference which just rattles Max all the more.

Lenny is a pimp and youngest son Joey (John MacMillan) is training to be a boxer. Sam (Keith Allen) is Max's younger brother who has never married and still lives in the family home. He's a chauffeur "the best in the firm", is slightly camp and has little of the hard edge of his brother which therefore makes him an easy target.

Into the psychological and physical battles being waged in the house steps eldest son Teddy (Gary Kemp) and his new wife Ruth (Gemma Chan). Teddy has been living in America where he's a philosophy lecturer. He has never told his family about his wife or their three sons and Ruth rattles the male-dominated household.

Max and Lenny believe women are either wives, mothers or whores but Ruth can't be pigeon-holed in that way. This is her homecoming too, having grown up in the same area and in some ways, she's come home to roost being discontent with her life in America.  She quietly disarms them all, constantly surprising them. Gemma Chan's Ruth is a contradiction of calm fluidity and around her she creates a whirlwind.

The cast of The Homecoming make Pinter's pauses pregnant with subtext. This is a production that is just as much about what is left unsaid as what is and the result is something that is tense, revealing and darkly comic. All doors and stairs of the set lead to the living room and at the start, Max is sat in his chair in the centre of it but it is Ruth that is in his place by the end.

You can catch The Homecoming at the Trafalgar Studios until February 13 and it is about two hours and 15 minutes long.




Review: Double dealing spies in Hapgood, Hampstead Theatre

Lisa Dillon (Hapgood) in Hapgood at Hampstead Theatre. Photos by Alastair Muir.
Lisa Dillon (Hapgood) in Hapgood at Hampstead Theatre. Photos by Alastair Muir

Tom Stoppard likes his science. It's probably why the only play of his I've seen that I've really liked is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (see link below). I don't have anything against science it's just the way he uses it in his plays, I feel it often gets in the way, slows things down. Poly disagrees with me.

In Hapgood, Stoppard's 1980's set spy drama, the science is quantum physics. Russian physicist Kerner (Alec Newman) has been turned double agent by MI6 boss Hapgood (Lisa Dillon). When  his information drop to the Russian's at a swimming pool doesn't go according to plan there is suspicion that either Kerner's loyalty has reversed to his home nation or there is a double agent in the home team.

Kerner likes to explain how he sees things using quantum physics. His explanations are quite lengthy and often complex. This being a spy drama where everyone has poker faces and is under suspicion these, fortunately infrequent, interludes just halt the tension rather than add to it. There is less science in Hapgood than there is in Arcadia and that is a bonus here because, putting the science to one side, as a spy thriller it works well.

The opening scene  is a little disorientating - perhaps deliberately so. Set at the swimming pool a line of changing cubicles is used to pass briefcases between agents with towels being draped on the back of the door as a series of secret signs. Once Hapgood and her team start assessing 'the drop' and what went wrong it isn't immediately obviously what has taken place and who had responsibility for what. Those first impressions of each agent are frequently challenged as Stoppard arouses your suspicion about them all including Hapgood.

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