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October 2018

Review: A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Bridge Theatre - does Martin McDonagh's new play measure up?

A Very Very Very Dark Matter is a fairytale of human ugliness and evil but it is also a toy that isn't working properly.

IMG_4103Martin McDonagh's new play is a (very) dark fairytale with colonial undertones.

Who else's imagination could put Hans Christian Anderson (Jim Broadbent), a one-legged black pigmy woman called Marjory (Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles) and two bloody, time-travelling Belgian twins in the same story?

The question is whether it works.

McDonagh's Anderson is the antithesis of what you'd expect the writer of fairy-tales to be like but there may be a very good explanation for that.

Dark secret

He is self-centred, vain and politically incorrect, to put it mildly, and has a dark secret in the form of Marjory, whom he keeps locked up in a glass-sided box in his puppet-strewn attic.

Marjory is from the Congo, clever, sharp and capable, having survived the massacre of her people engineered by Belgian King Leopold II.

But she has more problems to deal with than merely being a prisoner, she is also a person of interest for the murderous twins.

Awkward laughter and guilty giggles

The dialogue is liberally sprinkled with swear words as well as the sort of lines that have you laughing awkwardly - or guiltily giggling as I did a couple of times.

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Review: RSC's Macbeth, Barbican Theatre - there's a water cooler but are there water cooler moments?

Is it ironic that the most powerful scene in the play comes in a rare moment of silence and stillness, a scene when the Macbeths are nowhere to be seen?

Macbeth production photos_ 2018_2018_Photo by Richard Davenport _c_ RSC_245921
Niamh Cusack and Christopher Ecclestone in Macbeth. Photo by Richard Davenport © RSC

Watching RSC's latest production of Macbeth I began to wonder if the production designer is a fan of Ivo Van Hove given the number of reminders I had of Kings of War and Roman Tragedies.

And then there was the water-cooler to wonder about and what that signified but I'll come back to that.

First the Van Hove 'references'; think digital timers, notching up murders and actors in glass-walled rooms performing with the help of microphones - the sound was a little muddy.

Even the set styling, what little furniture there was, had a hint of European mixed with dull 1960's office reception (cheap chairs and pot plants).

Manic Macbeths

Onto this backdrop is injected two manic Macbeths, three primly-dressed, sweet-smiling girls and gore-soaked murder victims.

Christopher Eccleston's Macbeth immediately strikes as a loud, manly, muscular military leader.

When he has his moment of doubt about his wife's plans it is the barest of wobbles and displayed almost as a physical reaction.

Powerful insults

When Lady Macbeth (Niamh Cusack) accuses him of being unmanly the words are powerful insults that easily goad him into action after which murder comes with a desperate ease but for the bloody corpses that haunt him.

Lady Macbeth has matching energy. When she reads her husbands account of the weird sisters' prophecy she is almost beside herself with excitement. 

The descent into madness comes as little surprise as if they were already teetering on the edge.

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3 London theatre stories that caught my attention this week - and an actor encounter

SWEAT Donmar Warehouse Picture Spencer Platt  Getty Images1. Exciting casting announcement at the Donmar 

One of my favourite films growing up in the 80s was The Goonies so imagine my excitement when learning that Martha 'Stef' Plimpton is going to be starring in the Donmar Warehouse's production of Sweat (previews from Dec 7).

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play was written after playwright Lynn Nottage starting spending time in Reading, Pennsylvania - one the poorest cities in America.

2. Trevor Nunn returns to the Jermyn Street Theatre

The Jermyn Street Theatre announced its Spring/Summer 2019 season which sees the return of Trevor Nunn who is directing Agnes Colander, Harley Granville Barker’s play exploring love, sexual attraction and independence.

The play was written in 1900 but was only discovered at the British Library 100 years later and is described as a 'hidden gem'.

It's a revival of a production that ran at the Ustinov Studio at Theatre Royal, Bath earlier this year. Jermyn Street Theatre 12 Feb - 16 Mar.



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Review: Stories, National Theatre - Nina Raine's desperate for a baby drama fails to deliver

Strip out the comic vignettes and the play is left feeling flimsy

IMG_1292One of my favourite plays recently was Hear Me Howl at the Old Red Lion about a woman, approaching 30, under pressure to have a baby when it really wasn't something she wanted to do.

It was refreshing to look at the woman/mother debate from a different angle.

Nina Raine's new play Stories is back to familiar territory: A woman desperately wants a kid.

Unlike Yerma (Billie Piper was cracking in the Young Vic production two years ago) it's not a physical problem, more of a partner problem.

Anna (Claudie Blakley) is 39 and in a long-term relationship with a younger man Joe (Brian Vernel) but on the eve of their IVF treatment he gets cold feet about being a father.

Desire for baby not questioned

Such is her desire for a baby she decides to use a sperm donor but it is a desire that isn't really questioned or examined.

Only once is Anna asked directly why she wants to have a baby - it's a feeling she 'can't explain' - and it isn't debated.

Ideas of legacy/not wanting to die alone are, slightly clunkily, referred to by the recurring appearance of a young girl and flashbacks to Anna's old landlady.

What alternatives?

There is no mention of alternatives such as adoption.

The focus on the pros and cons of using an anonymous sperm donor vs a named donor feels more like a comic device than something to explore in depth.

Continue reading "Review: Stories, National Theatre - Nina Raine's desperate for a baby drama fails to deliver" »

The shameless Ben Whishaw birthday post - my favourite stage performances

Shh, it's a rainy Sunday afternoon... it's Ben Whishaw's birthday so in 'celebration' here are the stage performances of his that are my favourites.

Ben Whishaw Hamlet programmeHamlet, Old Vic

Ok so technically I didn't see him perform it live but I have seen the V&A video recording a couple of times.

His Hamlet made so much sense. He was young, clever, inexperienced, fragile and at times immature and petulant.

Basically, he was a young adult thrown into an extraordinary situation and ill-equipped to cope. 

And he snot cried.

The full review is here which also includes links to related interviews and other tidbits.

Baby in Mojo, Comedy Theatre - now the Harold Pinter

Don't ask how many times I saw this, it was a lot.

It was a move away from the sensitive souls he's very adept at playing, something more akin to Sidney in the film Layer Cake. 

And I liked that, I like to see his versatility, his wilder performance side.

While underneath the surface there is a tragedy to Baby, he presents as someone wildly unpredictable and is dangerous as a result.

He also did a brilliant dance which was a mix of impish, wild abandon and menace.

Read my first thoughts plus links to more detailed reviews.

Continue reading "The shameless Ben Whishaw birthday post - my favourite stage performances" »

3 London theatre stories that caught my attention this week - and some belated actor spots

Twilight-zone-ctt-480wx280h-15389888801. The Twilight Zone to get a West End run

I described the Almeida's Twilight Zone as 'sinister and silly fun' when I saw it in December last year and now it's getting a stint in the West End. It will run from 4 March to 1 June at the Ambassadors Theatre and even if you haven't seen the TV series (I hadn't) it's worth seeing if you want something a little surreal, silly and occasionally thought-provoking.

2. Joe McGann and Josie Lawrence star in US play

The Print Room in Notting Hill will host the first UK production of American literary icon Don DeLillo’s Love-Lies-Bleeding, starring Joe McGann Josie Lawrence.  Described as a perceptive and witty story, it's about a family trying to take death into their own hands and I admit that it had me at 'jet-black humour'. It runs from 9 November to 8 December, find details on the Print Room website.


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My theatre highlight of the week: A much desired Dublin transfer

TW_D_17_CILLIAN_MURPHY_SHOT_01_0431©TimWalker_webI nearly booked to see Cillian Murphy in Grief Is The Thing With Feathers when it was playing at the O'Reilly Theatre in Dublin earlier this year. 

Jumping on a plane to see a play isn't unprecedented, I've been to see Ben Whishaw in New York - twice* - but in the end, I couldn't get a ticket.

So I'm ecstatic it is going on tour and has a run at the Barbican in London next year (it moves on to St Ann's Warehouse in New York afterwards). 

I've long enjoyed Cillian Murphy's eclectic screen work from the outlandish characters to the subtle, terrifying to the tragic but it was seeing him in a solo performance tearing up the huge Lyttelton stage at the National Theatre in Misterman in 2012 which really cemented my admiration. 

I saw him two years later in existential comedy Ballyturk which was brilliantly absurd and joyful:

Imagine if Dali, with a little help from Camus, had produced an episode of Father Ted.

Grief Is A Thing With Feathers sees him working with Enda Walsh again and centres on a widower and his son. 

Next year is shaping up to be a very exciting year for theatre.

For details of the Barbican and St Ann's run head to the Complicité website.

* First time was The Pride at the Lucille Lutelle in 2010 and then again in The Crucible at the Walter Kerr in 2016




Review: Summit, Shoreditch Town Hall - a disappointing view from the top

Repeated phrases become vacuous in their repetition suggesting that the political narrative has similarly become empty.

Fuel Theatre's Summit in rehearsal

Ten minutes into Summit and I'm irritated.

It's not the woman loudly crunching on her supper next to me although that is annoying, rather the fact that on stage the same point is being made over and over again.

'Fast forward' my brain screams as the setting for the story is described with pleasant customer service smiles for the umpteenth time.

Standing in front of a music stand with a copy of the script, the pages of which are turned with great drama, three performers outline the structure of the play and ask us to imagine three scenarios in the past, present and future.

Repetition but to what effect?

All revolve around an important summit where the lights inexplicably went out. Just to emphasise the point the lights of the auditorium are turned out.

Several times.

Repetition is Summit's main performance tool, sometimes the same piece of narrative is delivered in three different languages by the performers: Alesha Chaunte, Nadia Anim and Jamie Rea - the latter performs with exceptional expression in sign language.

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Review: Bullet Hole, Park Theatre - a brave exposé of the physical and psychological impact of FGM

Bullet Hole is brave in its exposure of FGM and the culture around it and it feels like a starting point for a wider narrative. 

A play about female genital mutilation is never going to be an easy watch but I particularly was drawn to Bullet Hole to better understand the culture and tradition that supports it, particularly in a 21st-century Western context.

(L-R) Gloria Williams (Cleo) and Doreene Blackstock (Eve). Photo credit - Lara Genovese for Naiad Photography    (1)
(L-R) Gloria Williams (Cleo) and Doreene Blackstock (Eve) in Bullet Hole, Park Theatre.Photo: Lara Genovese for Naiad Photography

Gloria Williams' play is set in London and focuses on three women.

Aunt Winnie (Anni Domingo) is an African matriarch who follows and instigates the traditional practices; Eve (Doreene Blackstock) is a British African woman who has been cut but sits on the fence about its rights and wrongs and Cleo (Gloria Williams) is a young British African woman who has been cut and stitched is regularly assaulted by her husband and wants  a reversal.

Traumatised and broken

Cleo is sent to live with Aunt Winnie, where Eve finds her traumatised and broken. She becomes a sort of buffer between Cleo and Aunt Winnie having a foot in both camps.

Through their conversations, we learn of the physical and mental impact of FGM.

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Interview: Producer Katy Danbury on what spooky fun awaits at this year's London Horror Festival

In its 8th ghoulish and gory year, the London Horror Festival opens on 7 Oct at the Old Red Lion Theatre and I sat down with producer Katy Danbury to get the low down on what to expect.

A5 Final PosterWhat can we expect from the London Horror Festival?

First and foremost, enjoyment. The festival gives you a chance to escape from and purge yourself of the real-life horrors happening outside of the theatre.

You are united with your fellow audience members in an intimate space and together you enter an imaginary world where you can shiver, scream, laugh or spew (please don’t!) out your fears.

I like to think that the festival acts as a gateway for those who don’t often (or never) go to the theatre but want a spooky, fun Halloween experience.

Grand Guignol was popular in the early 20th Century but horror isn’t a genre that is often seen on stage these days, why do you think that is? 

To be honest, it is a tricky genre to perform well. People don’t want to see the actor clumsily place the blood capsule in their mouth or accidentally expose the vomit hose or see the string that’s pulling the floating chair.

You break the illusion, you break the suspense and it all unravels quickly from there as the audience lose interest.

Sadly, I have seen large-scale productions on the West End stage get it very wrong – this can do a lot of damage to the reputation of the genre within the theatre world.

Continue reading "Interview: Producer Katy Danbury on what spooky fun awaits at this year's London Horror Festival" »