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May 2016

Possibly my favourite Hamlet... so far... thanks to the RSC and Paapa Essiedu (Royal Shakespeare Theatre)

Hamlet production photos_ March 2016_2016_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_187338
Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet for the RSC 2016. Photo (c) Manuel Harlan

I've seen Hamlet more times than any other play. I think my most recent trip to see Paapa Essiedu as the prince - directed by Simon Godwin for the RSC in Stratford - was my 15th different production.

In a good Hamlet I'll see something I haven't seen before or it will make me think about the play in a slightly different way. I've seen some really, really good productions but there is usually one or two characters or something else that hasn't quite worked for me. Ophelia is often a problem, she's a difficult character to make convincing. But I think this RSC version has come very close to getting it all right.

Production spoilers warning

First of all, the key characters felt rounded, fully formed and fleshed out, understandable and convincing - from Hamlet to Horatio. Simon Godwin has set the play in modern day Africa and stuck to that setting and culture throughout but crucially without any awkward contrivance. When Hamlet and Laertes fight armed with two sticks, the poisoned blade is concealed within one of them. It works brilliantly.

But I'm jumping ahead to the end of the play. Paapa Essiedu is a young Hamlet which is always more agreeable and Simon Godwin opens with his graduation. He's with his friends, happy and no doubt feeling on top of the world and a world away from Elsinore where we see him next sombrely following his father's glass coffin. He is visibly upset when we see him in the throne room with his mother and newly crowned uncle  - Ben Whishaw was similarly snotty and teary - and you feel his grief, shock and bewilderment about the turn of events.

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Review: In which Stan goes to see the Threepenny Opera, National Theatre (it's not a musical or is it?)

Threepenny-opera-1280x720_0'It's not a musical, it's a play with songs.' Fast forward to the interval of the National Theatre's Threepenny Opera and Poly admits 'it's got more songs than I remember'. They did start to grate on this non-musical theatre fan and I'd have happily fast forwarded through handful of them. That said the production design, costumes and satirical tone still made for an enjoyable evening.

I have nothing to compare this to so I can't judge the adaptation by Simon Stephens or its faithfulness to the original (I understand director Rufus Norris has been playing around with very different endings). I also can't judge the way the songs are performed etc. - it's all brand new to me.

The setting is a grungy, crime-riddled East London on the eve of the King's coronation - which King I don't think really matters. The stage is stripped back with oddments of set the styling and costumes are grimy Victorian music hall/circus with a teaspoon of Madame Jojos and Moulin Rouge added. Protagonist Captain Macheath (a lovely, eye-liner wearing Rory Kinnear) wears a sharp suit lose enough to keep a large and menacing looking knife in his inside pocket. But there is no stage blood, wounds are all done with thick red wool in keeping with the music hall theme. It's the language that is often the most vicious.

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Review: John Osborne's A Subject of Scandal and Concern, Finborough Theatre

A Subject of Scandal and Concern 2016, Finborough Theatre, Courtesy of Samuel Taylor_12
Jamie Muscato in A Subject of Scandal and Concern 2016, Finborough Theatre. Photo: Samuel Taylor

John Osborne originally wrote A Subject of Scandal and Concern in 1960 as a TV drama starring Richard Burton. It was then performed on stage but this is the first revival for more than 40 years.

It's based on the true story of George Holyoake who scrapes a living for his family as a teacher and occasionally lectures despite a stammer. After giving a talk in Cheltenham he is asked why, in talking about man's responsibility to man, he didn't mention man's responsibility to god.

He suggests that the poor can't afford to be religious and that perhaps the clergy should give half their wages away to help those struggling to make ends meet. It is 1842 and his comments are taken as blasphemous and eventually he is arrested. George Holyoake became the last man to stand trial for blasphemy.

His trial becomes a choice between conforming or standing by his beliefs and an examination of freedom of speech. It also becomes a tussle with his conscious as his wife and sick child slip further into poverty while he is in jail.

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Review: The funny and moving This Is Living, Trafalgar Studios 2

Production Image - This is Living - Michael Socha and Tamla Kari (courtesy Alex Harvey-Brown) (2)
This is Living, Michael Socha and Tamla Kari. Photo by Alex Harvey-Brown

There was a particular moment during This is Living when that button was pressed, the one where you feel a wave of emotion bubble up and you have to blink rapidly. It was when recently widowed Mike (Michael Socha) talks to his dead mother about how she would get on with his wife Alice (Tamla Kari) when she joined her in the afterlife.

That said, given that Liam Borrett's play is about a young relationship shattered by death there are a lot more laughs than you might expect. Mike starts off trying to convince Alice that she is actually dead, something she is having difficulty coming to terms with.

From there the narrative switches back and forth in the blink of a lighting change (cool/warm) from the ghostly conversation to how they met, their subsequent relationship and the circumstances around her death. The watery stage - barely half an inch of water on black plastic sheeting - and Alice's bedraggled look give a hint.

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My second Doctor Faustus of 2016, this time the RSC's take and some comparisons with Jamie Lloyd's version

Doctor Faustus production photos_ February 2016_2016_Photo by Helen Maybanks _c_ RSC_183572
Sandy Grierson as Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC

Mephistopheles sits perched on his haunches, on a box like an bird or some cloven-hoofed half beast of the underworld. Soot blackened feet, white suit, no shirt he watches with just the merest hint of bemused satisfaction.

Hell is all around us he says mildly at one point but Dr Faustus's inability to grasp that is a constant source of gentle amusement shown by the slight curl of the corner of his mouth and merriment behind the eyes.

Mephistopheles, in this instance, is played by Sandy Grierson (last saw him playing Ariel brilliantly in The Tempest), Dr Faustus is played by Oliver Ryan. It's important to distinguish because it isn't always that way around. The two actors arrived on stage identically dressed and decide which role they will take by simultaneously lighting matches and seeing which finishes burning first.

It is a nice device and perhaps on the London leg of the run I'll see Sandy Grierson playing the manic, edge of madness  Faustus or at least that is how Oliver Ryan plays him. During those moments when Faustus might regret his decision to sell his soul to Lucifer, his spells of indecision are almost desperate, frenzied but then this is a man who doesn't enjoy getting what he asks for that much. The extent of his fall into sin and depravity is laid bare in his scene with a girlish looking Helen of Troy. It's an uncomfortable moment.

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Review: Mental illness, ethics and ethnicity in Blue/Orange, Young Vic

326x326BOThe last time I had to venture back stage, through an extension of the set, to get to my seat at the Young Vic was when Michael Sheen played Hamlet. This time it is for Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange - is it a coincidence that both are set in institutions? Tables and chairs are askew and abandoned from a earlier story to which we weren't party. The only other clues are segments of oranges, peeled and left, perhaps thrown, perhaps dropped.

Christopher (Daniel Kaluuya) is a day away from release from a mental hospital. He thinks his father is Idi Amin and oranges are blue. He's ready to go home but his doctor Bruce Flaherty (Luke Norris) doesn't think he is. He suspects, rather than suffering from delusions and paranoia he is actually schizophrenic and isn't ready to cope on his own. He wants more time to properly diagnose Christopher. He asks his supervisor Dr Robert Smith (David Haig) for his opinion but Smith just wants a bed free.

This three-hander is a tense and darkly funny piece. Flaherty is young, scrupulous and idealistic. Smith is concerned only with promotion, status and maintaining the status quo. Battle lines are drawn with Christopher in the middle.

It is a play about mental health and how we treat those suffering but it is also about ethics and ethnicity, idealism versus reality. Smith is fiercely ambitious doing anything to protect his career path while Smith is unflinchingly righteous in his pursuit of doing his job.

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Tom Hiddleston's next Shakespeare role: some speculation and wishful thinking

Ntlive_template-large_0Catching up with BBC Radio 4's Front Row podcast this week there was an interview with Tom Hiddleston in which he was asked about whether, having already played the likes of Coriolanus, Prince Hal and Henry V whether there were any other Shakespeare characters he'd like to take on.

His answer was:

"I do have my eyes on'll find out very soon, I think."

Now if that doesn't give us an excuse for excitement and speculation then I don't know what would. We can't assume stage, although that it what I'm keeping my fingers crossed for but who will he play?

He can tick off history and Roman tragedy from the canon. Obviously there is a Hamlet sized hole in his CV but is theatreland ready for another big starry Hamlet hot on the heels of Benedict Cumberbatch and with Andrew Scott is playing the Dane early next year at the Almeida? It's an obvious choice - a bit obvious and predictable - but my second thought was a comedy: I could see him playing Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

I've subsequently done a bit of Googling and found this interview with Kenneth Branagh from 2014 in which he hints that he'd love to direct Tom in Much Ado. Ken's theatre production company currently has a residency at the Garrick, so there is that.

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Re-review: Has Kit Harington's performance blossomed in Dr Faustus, Duke of York's Theatre?

Jenna Russell and Kit Harington in Doctor Faustus. Running at the Duke of York's Theatre London until 25 June 2016  CREDIT Marc Brenner
Jenna Russell and Kit Harington in Doctor Faustus. Photo: Marc Brenner

When I saw it during preview, I had very mixed views about director Jamie Lloyd's Dr Faustus, starring reborn Game of Thones hunk Kit Harington. It was very much in 'suck it and see' mode - I described it as "trying very, very hard" - so I was curious how it would bed in. The £15 Monday ticket sale gave me the opportunity to have a second look and re-evaluate.

The production didn't get great press reviews but I still don't think it really matters in terms of the audience pull - Kit is one of the stars of the world's most popular TV show after all and there is still a crowd at the stage door afterwards.

At the curtain call the first time, Kit looked wary and relieved and Jenna Russell was obviously watching out for him. On Monday he looked relaxed and happy and so he should, the show is better, albeit still with some flaws.

The biggest differences are the pace and performances. First time around it set off at a gallop and never slowed, losing the nuances of the story and performance amid a cacophony of mud, music, magic, blood, vomit and dance. Only the strongest performances - Jenna Russell, Forbes Mason and Colin Teevan - stood out. Kit just melted into the background, at least when he was fully clothed he did.

The production has calmed down a notch. Now rather than Faustus throwing a can of drink over himself and sticking pencils up his nose before he even speaks his first lines, the opening is more simply done moving from watching TV to delivering the soliloquy. There is more light and shade in the pace and in the performances and as a result I noticed Kit more. He felt more like the lead rather than part of the ensemble.

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Review: Why I prefer Alistair McDowall's Pomona to X (Royal Court)

X-118I was three quarters of the way through the first half of Alistair McDowall's new play X at the Royal Court and it was pressing the right buttons to give me nightmares.

It's set inside one room on a space station on Pluto where the crew are awaiting a spacecraft to pick them up and take them back to earth. Only it is late and all the lines of communication with earth have gone silent. As the crew wait for news with varying degrees of patience and panic one of them says they have seen something outside. It's an alien thing you see (don't laugh). I had to sleep with the light on after watching the film Signs. And it doesn't help that outside the one window at the back of the set it is dark. I'm thinking: if something appears at that window I might freak out.

Then something happens that seems to normalise the situation. Sort of. This is Alistair McDowall after all. It's difficult to explain without giving too much away but it's like someone took a pin to a balloon and pop, the tension is gone. And it never gets it back.

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That was April in London (and New York) theatre-land - the bloody (dog) star-spangled month

TamaskanApril was a bloody month and it was a (doggy) star spangled month...

* Haven't seen a dog on stage since Little Eyolf at the Almeida last year but this month there were two occasions for pause so the audience could go 'ah'. First up was at the Almeida again, this time a dog was walked on the stage during Boy then in The Crucible at the Walter Kerr there was a wolf. Actually it was rare dog breed called a Tamaskan (pictured) which looks spookily like a wolf. The Tamaskan gets the performance award for wandering around the stage (helped by strategically placed treats) pausing to look out into the audience before trotting off.

* Talking of The Crucible, as you may have guessed my theatre obsession took me state-side. It was my second trip to New York to check up on Ben Whishaw and it is reassuring to know he can still touch his knees with his nose at the curtain call. Used the Today Tix app to get some really good seats for a relative bargain to see Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels in the disturbing and devastatingly good Blackbird.

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