Review: Ulster American, Riverside Studios - lacks subtlety to give it real punch

1. Louisa Harland (Ruth Davenport)  Andy Serkis (Leigh Carver) and Woody Harrelson (Jay Conway) in Second Half Production's Ulster American at Riverside Studios - photo by Johan Persson
Louisa Harland (Ruth Davenport) Andy Serkis (Leigh Carver) and Woody Harrelson (Jay Conway) in Ulster American at Riverside Studios. Photo by Johan Persson

If you've seen David Ireland's Cyprus Avenue, which had a sell-out run at the Royal Court a few years ago, you can tell Ulster American is written by the same hand, but it is nonetheless a very different beast.

Both plays look at sectarianism and identity in Northern Ireland, but Ulster American examines it through the lens of two outsiders: An Irish American actor Jay (Woody Harrelson) and an English theatre director Leigh (Andy Serkis).

The ignorance of the two is highlighted by protestant Northern Irish playwright Ruth (Louisa Harland).

But Ruth's presence also exposes their ignorance on a number of other issues. She adds a feminist lens to the narrative and a vehicle through which to examine attitudes towards equality - and sexual violence towards women.

The play is set in the London home of theatre director Leigh (Andy Serkis), the day before rehearsals begin on Ruth's violent new play set in Northern Ireland.

Jay, a Hollywood star, is playing the lead, and his lack of understanding of the play's subject matter and its historical context is problematic.

Leigh's only concern is keeping him on board, particularly with the promise of a Broadway run. He would rather change the play than lose the star.

But Ruth won't pander to Jay and Leigh's ignorance and prejudices and refuses to change a word of the play.

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Review: The Motive and the Cue, Noel Coward Theatre - sharp, funny and delicious to watch

Mark Gatiss as John Gielgud and Johnny Flynn as Richard Burton in The Motive and the Cue in the West End. © Mark Douet
Mark Gatiss as John Gielgud and Johnny Flynn as Richard Burton in The Motive and the Cue, Noel Coward Theatre 2023. © Mark Douet


There's a scene in Jack Thorne's play The Motive and the Cue when Johnny Flynn is playing Richard Burton, doing an impression of Sir John Gielgud's Hamlet.

Set around the rehearsal for the Gielgud-directed production of Hamlet on Broadway starring Burton, there are plenty of delicious moments like this.

When it opened at the National Theatre in May, The Motive and the Cue garnered stunning reviews and is now enjoying a much-deserved transfer to the Noel Coward Theatre.

And, having seen it at the National, it was an opportunity to reflect on it anew because, as that Burton-Gielgud-Hamlet impression highlights, there are a lot of layers to this play.

To recap the plot, Gielgud (Mark Gatiss) finds his star status waning and directing this production of Hamlet on Broadway is the best offer he's had for a while.

It's an opportunity to reinvigorate his career, working with Burton on an edgy, modern, stripped-back version of the play. The idea is to present it as if in rehearsal, wearing ordinary clothes.

Burton is a big-screen star who is newly married to Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton) and wants to return to his stage roots.

Gielgud represents the past and Burton the future, and it's an unlikely pairing, as the tensions in the rehearsal room illustrate. 

But this is more than a clash of creatives, this is about two men trying to prove themselves. Can a great actor be a great director? Can Burton pull off Hamlet on Broadway?

How, when they are so different, do they find a way to help each other and themselves?

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Review: Rock 'n' Roll, Hampstead Theatre - less talk more feeling, please

Nathaniel Parker & Jacob Fortune-Lloyd_Rock 'n' Roll_credit Manuel Harlan
Nathaniel Parker & Jacob Fortune-Lloyd in Rock 'n' Roll, Hampstead Theatre 2023. Photo Manuel Harlan


Cards on the table, I don't always get on with Tom Stoppard's plays. I love Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead but have yet to find another of his plays that resonates or connects with me. Would Rock 'n' Roll at the Hampstead Theatre be different?

This play is set in Cambridge and Czechoslovakia. It covers 20 or so years in the life of Marxist professor Max (Nathaniel Parker), his wife Eleanor (Nancy Carroll), daughter Esme (young Phoebe Horn, older Nancy Carroll) and post-grad student and rock music fan Jan (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd).

At the start of the play, Jan is returning to Czechoslovakia but has a falling out with Max about Communism. The younger is disillusioned with the Soviet version of communism, which involves restrictions and censorship, while the older remains a stalwart of the party.

Jan's obsession with music and his prized record collection become a symbol of freedom and resistance and something for which he gets into trouble when communist controls tighten in Prague.

Meanwhile, Esme is obsessed with Syd Barrett and claims to have seen him once (he lived in Cambridge). Barrett appears in references throughout the play.

Eleanor is a classical literature tutor, which becomes another cultural thread to be debated.

There are some passing romantic relationships, but the love story here is primarily about communism, music, and culture.

Stoppard's plays are deeply intellectual, often involving extended, densely worded debates. My problem is that the specific scientific/political/historical/cultural period in focus is usually unfamiliar, so I don't have any points of reference.

As such, I find myself distanced from the topics under discussion and hankering after the threads of human story.

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Review: David Tennant and Cush Jumbo in Macbeth, Donmar Warehouse - headphones pros and cons

Macbeth Donmar Warehouse David Tennant Cush Jumbo 2023
David Tennant playing Macbeth was always going to be a hot ticket. (David Tennant playing any character on stage will be a hot ticket.)

Why then stage it at the Donmar Warehouse, which has such a small capacity? Is it because of the headphones?

You see, this production isn't your standard 'actors on stage speaking'. The actors are mic'd up - nothing unusual about that - but the audience hears everything through headphones, including the soundscape and 'other' voices.

That is much easier to set up and deliver in a small theatre, given that everyone has to have working headphones to experience the play.

What it does is put the voices of the actors in your ear. You can hear the shouts and, more importantly, the whispers. It means the actors have a different performance platform.

There is no need for projected 'stage whispers' because you have the natural effect of the actors whispering in your ear. Performances can be smaller while maintaining the intensity.

It also gives the Donmar three performance spaces. There is the raised white, 'stone' like slab, which acts as both stage and table and a glass-walled booth at the back of the stage (Ivo Van Hove/Jan Versweyveld-esque?).

And then there are the disembodied voices you hear in your ear. It transports the witches and their prophecies into Macbeth's (David Tennant) head.

However, hearing the play through headphones, while it delivers an enhanced and unique experience in many ways, is not a wholly satisfying experience, but more of that later.

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Review: One Whole Night, White Bear Theatre - good performances but the play runs out of ideas

ONE WHOLE NIGHT White bear theatre
Tracey Ann Wood as “Marisa” and Charlie Buckland as “Victor” in One Whole Night, White Bear Theatre. Photo: Rebecca Rayne 

Ana-Maria Bamberger's play One Whole Night, White Bear Theatre, could easily be subtitled 'Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown'. It centres on Marisa (Tracey Ann Wood), a stage actress of note whose director boyfriend of 10 years has just dumped her for a young actress they are both working with.

She's not in a good state and is drinking heavily, having heart palpitations and suicidal thoughts, so she calls a doctor. By the time Victor (Charlie Buckland), the doctor, arrives, she's in a state of self-pity and watching herself cry in the mirror.

While Victor is checking over Marisa and administering calming drugs, she recognises him as someone she was at school with. So they end up reminiscing and comparing notes on their lives.

It turns out Victor has work and relationship stresses of his own. 

But this isn't a story of two people at a low ebb coming through together rather, the friendly conversation leads Marisa to believe that Victor is the answer to all her woes and they are meant to be together.

It results in some very awkward moments.

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Review: Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going to Happen, Bush Theatre - funny and richly layered

Samuel Barnett in 'Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen' at Bush Theatre. Photo Credit - The Other Richard-1-0050
Samuel Barnett in 'Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen' at Bush Theatre. Photo: The Other Richard

Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going to Happen at the Bush Theatre is the sad clown paradox.

The Comedian (Samuel Barnett) tries (and succeeds) to make people laugh while simultaneously suffering from anxiety and low self-esteem to the point of sabotaging anything good that happens.

He narrates and comments on his own story but isn't necessarily a reliable narrator. He bursts onto the stage and grabs a mic as if at a gig, and proceeds to deliver and re-deliver lines to see if they land better. It's as if he is testing new material.

How much truth is there in the story he proceeds to tell, or is it embellished or made-up material for his comedy set?

A serial user of apps to find casual sex, he is drawn to an American PhD student with "arms like a Disney prince" who likes to take things slow. Several dates slow.

The Comedian not only tells us about the exchanges between the two but relays his inner monologue. He is sharp, witty and revealing, with a keen eye for human behaviour and scathing judgement. He is also self-indulgent and makes bad decisions despite his better instincts.

 

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Review: Flip!, Soho Theatre - lively, fresh and face-paced

Jadesola Odunjo and Leah St Luce in FLIP!  © Tristram Kenton
Jadesola Odunjo and Leah St Luce in FLIP! © Tristram Kenton

One of the challenges theatre has when it looks at life for Gen Z (and Millenials) is how to represent the digital world on stage. Modern communication is often embedded in texts, Whatsapps and DMs. Commentary is in social media posts and comments.

Racheal Ofori's play Flip! focuses on two friends and wannabe social media influencers, Carleen (Leah St Luce) and Crystal (Jadesola Odunjo), who make funny, sassy videos and are growing a following - but not enough to generate an income. 

In the pursuit of more clicks, they start pushing the boundaries with their content, which results in getting cancelled. They decide to have another go and join the controversial new social video channel Flip!, which promises quick growth and money per play (flip).

You are thrown straight into 'CC's' fast-paced world of fun, funny and catchy videos as they pose and perform for the camera. Jadesola Odunjo and Leah St Luce also play the 'commenters' and other influencers delivering reactions in a dizzying range of different voices.

There is only a slight shift in gear when the friends are talking 'off-camera'. The lines between video performances and the real Carleen and Crystal sometimes blur, but that's the point.

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Review: To Have And To Hold, Hampstead Theatre - funny moments but lacks consistency

Marion Bailey and Alun Armstrong as Flo & Jack Kirk in To Have and To Hold_credit Marc Brenner
Marion Bailey and Alun Armstrong as Flo & Jack Kirk in To Have and To Hold, Hampstead Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

Is Richard Bean's new comedy To Have and To Hold at the Hampstead Theatre as funny as One Man, Two Guv'nors? Comparison, when you've had such a big hit, is inevitable.

This has a very different setting; it's loosely based on his own family and centres on nonagenarians Jack (Alun Armstrong) and Flo (Marion Bailey).

They are getting to the point where living independently in their Humberside village of Wetwang is more tricky. Retired policeman Jack isn't very mobile and no longer drives, and Flo's eyesight and memory aren't great.

The couple rely on 'Rhubarb Eddie' (Adrian Hood) and Pamela (Rachel Dale) for shopping and help around the house and garden. Jack and Flo have been married for 70 years, and while parts of them might not work as well as they used to, they are still sharp enough mentally to bicker and argue constantly.

Grown-up children Rob (Christopher Fulford) and Tina (Hermione Gulliford) have taken time out from their busy lives and jobs to visit and try and sort out their situation.

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Review: Kenneth Branagh's King Lear, Wyndhams Theatre - pacey, fresh and youthful production sometimes loses its heart

Web Doug Colling (Edgar as Poor Tom)  Joseph Kloska (Gloucester)  Kenneth Branagh (Lear)  and Dylan Bader-Corbett (France) for the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company's King Lear at Wyndham's Theatre - photo by Johan Persson
Doug Colling (Edgar as Poor Tom), Joseph Kloska (Gloucester), Kenneth Branagh (Lear) and Dylan Bader-Corbett (France) for the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company's King Lear at Wyndham's Theatre - photo by Johan Persson

I'm calling this production the Wildling King Lear. The costumes, which involved fur and animal skins, lots of belts and tunics, reminded me of the tribe in Game of Thrones.

It's possibly not what Kenneth Branagh was going for in this production in which he stars and directs, or maybe it was because there is something tribal in its tone.

Sharpened staffs are the weapons of choice and an instrument to stamp the ground in an approving or threatening manner. 

The stage is wrapped in a semi-circle of large flat stones. These stones, coupled with a doughnut-shaped disc hanging above the stage, are a palette onto which planets, the moon, clouds and sometimes faces of characters are projected.

It enhances the otherworldly/ancient England feel, which is probably why the doughnut when lit a certain way, reminded me of another fictional reference: The Eye of Sauron in Lord of the Rings.

When we first meet King Lear, staffs are held aloft to make a canopy above his head, and for a moment, he looks up to where they all connect—a symbolic and ironic gesture, knowing what will happen next.

Branagh's production is an extremely pacey 2 hours straight through (King Lear normally clocks in at over 3 hours). It satisfyingly zips through the story with enough to give you the gist. 

You do lose some of the subtle detail and character development in not dwelling, which makes some characters appear overly fickle in their choices.

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Review: Boy Parts, Soho Theatre - a refreshingly unstereotypical female character

Aimée Kelly in Boy Parts at Soho Theatre (c) Joe Twigg Photography web
Aimée Kelly in Boy Parts at Soho Theatre (c) Joe Twigg Photography

When I interviewed director Sara Joyce about Boy Parts, how she talked about the central character in Boy Parts immediately piqued my interest. She describes Irina (Aimée Kelly) as not immediately likeable but that her story is nonetheless compelling. 

This 'pitch-black psychological thriller' is adapted from Eliza Clark's novel by Gillian Greer, Boy Parts tells the story of how photographer Irina has a chance at making it in the art world when a London gallery expresses an interest in her work.

She persuades ordinary men she meets to model for her in increasingly erotic photos. Irina subverts the idea of the male gaze and enjoys her power over the men from behind the lens, getting them to do what she wants and being in control. 

But there is something darker lurking beneath, which is drawn out as the door of opportunity begins to close. She can be charming and intimidating, controlling and unpredictable.

There is something broken and twisted in her. She gets into fights and into situations where her laughter response isn't really about humour.

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