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Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Dr Faustus, Duke of York, ★★★★

The main attraction of Jamie Lloyd’s current theatrical event is casting Kit Harington, star of cult series ‘Game of Thrones’, as the troubled and utterly possessed ‘Dr Faustus’. Despite seeing an early preview of this blood showered, ink spitting, anarchic production, its one hell of a show!


Teased and tempted to sell his soul to the devil, the tormented Dr Faustus (Kit Harington), magician and failed academic, somehow manages to earn our deepest sympathy, before choosing his ultimate ending. But his journey to hell, accompanied by an almost unrecognizable Jenna Russell as the demonic servant ‘Mephistophilis’ is both disturbing and entertaining. The appearance of arch-demon ‘Lucifer’ (Forbes Masson) in his underwear, accompanied by a table fork, clearly shows that Jamie Lloyd’s tongue is well and truly in his cheek!


Beneath the ambiguous versions of the original tale (or true story of Dr Johann Georg Faust?), lie many truths; explored and exploited in this modern adaptation by Colin Teevan. Laced with current political references and added curses of modern life, it scarily brings the fire and brimstone battle, right up to date.


Accompanied by an equally horrific (in the best possible sense!) ensemble of sins and mythical ideologies, it really does question why Dr Faustus chooses his own final destiny, as opposed to accepting his saving ‘Grace’ offer by 'Wagner' (Jade Anouka).

Kit Harington’s spellbinding portrayal deserves all the accolades for carrying pretty much all of this complex play on his own shoulders, reduced only to his boxers, for much of the journey.  



Ben and Max Ringham’s amazing and atmospheric soundscape completes this dark tale of morality, that must have scared the hell out of Elizabethan audiences, as is it still does today.

Showboat, New London Theatre, ★★★★★

Sheffield Theatre’s flagship production of Showboat has finally arrived in the New London Theatre, carrying with it a company that sent shivers down my spine.  Set on board the Cotton Blossom showboat, as it sets sail on the Mississippi river in 1887, this heart-wrenching story of racial prejudice and tragic, enduring love, will make you glow with joy.


Originally staged in 1927, the show’s success is the real dramatic and ground breaking story created between the songs; comic and tragic scenes that allow Daniel Evans’ smooth and driving direction, to work wonders, with his talented crew.


Led by ‘Captain Andy Hawks ‘(Malcolm Sinclair) and his soured wife ‘Parthy Ann’ (Lucy Briers) we are introduced to several other dynamic and often comic duos such as their daughter ‘Magnolia’ (Gina Beck) who falls in love with the rogue, ‘Gaylord Ravenal’ (Chris Peluso). They are closely followed by the larger than life and utterly beautiful ‘Queenie’ (Sandra Marvin) and her lazy but lovely ‘Joe’ (Emmanuel Kojo) along with the showbiz hunting ‘Ellie’ (Alex Young) and the tap dancing, floppy haired ‘Frank’ (Danny Collins).


We are teased, right from the start, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s well-known tunes, under the masterful musical direction of Tom Brady, and when they finally come on board, sung to their full glory by this glorious company, you can’t help but love 'em. Emmanuel Kojo’s ‘Ol’ Man River’ and the forever hummable ‘I can’t help lovin’ dat man’ by Rebecca Trehearn and Sandra Marvin are well worth the ticket price on their own. By the interval, I was glowing with warmth and utter admiration for this beautiful journey, and couldn’t wait for the second leg.


The reveal of Lez Brotherton’s showpiece boat earned a well-deserved applause, and Evans uses all hands and decks to display his theatrical artistry. Covering forty years in all, the catwalk of costumes and aged wigs add the fabulous finishing touches to this memorable musical drama, that changed the rules of musical history.

Daniel Evans, …I just can’t help lovin’ dat man’s work too! Chichester, here I come!


Friday, 22 April 2016

The Maids, Trafalgar Studios, ★★★★★

Anyone looking at Jamie Lloyd’s current portfolio of productions would think he might have been possessed by the powers of darkness! After a long and very successful series of Pinter plays, and his current encounter with the demonic Doctor, I was very lucky to finally catch his beautiful production of Genet’s cruel and devilish ‘The Maids’, at the Trafalgar Studios.


Before any words were spoken, Soutra Gilmour’s four poster Pandora’s Box set was teasingly seductive, accompanied by a lively music track which strongly suggested this was not going to be a “bog standard version” (to quote my theatrical neighbour’s preference) of this powerful 1947 play.


As the bedroom was unveiled, showered in flower petals, we were finally introduced to Solange (Uzo Aduba) and Claire (Zawe Ashton), grotesquely disguised as their “bitch”,“shit“ and “c&*t” mistress. In an equally grotesque and intentionally disturbing dialogue, we've uncovered two very damaged, disrespected and dangerous servants, who’s ambition was to commit murder, to gain freedom.  Loosely based on the real life story of the French Papin sisters who murdered their employer’s wife in 1933, this controversial three-hander clearly aims to explain and maybe even apologize for their actions. “We’re shit”, declares the soured swearing Solange, “And shit can’t love shit”, clearly proving that the disturbed sisters have nothing to lose.


Suddenly, the Louis-Quinze-Rococo themed room turns into a boxing ring, as the sisters banter, batters the brutal truths out of their troubled minds. Aduba and Ashton’s electricity, surely sparking nominations, if not winning the Theatrical Awards, for their marathon mission to tell this tragic tale. A tear-jerking tribute to all the domestic servants who've sacrificed their lives for others. Laura Carmichael’s ‘Mistress’ completes this downstairs, game of freedom.


Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton’s deliberately explicit and explosive translation sings beautifully in Jamie Lloyd’s masterful production, clearly confirming his undeniable theatrical powers.

Jeff Wayne's musical version of The War of the Worlds, Dominion Theatre, ★★

Liam Neeson, David Essex, Jimmy Nail… impressive billing, enough to lure anyone to the Dominion Theatre, to witness ‘Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds’. I had no idea what to expect from this production, and so I kept an open mind, and a closed eye to any earlier reviews of the show.


Based on the 1897 classic science fiction novel by H.G.Wells, Jeff Wayne’s 1978 ‘progressive rock’ musical adaptation of the work has been a best seller for many years. Its simply a story of how a spaceship from Mars, crashes to earth, and takes over the world, forcing the desperate citizens to consider building a new world underground. But don’t worry, there’s a happy ending, as the bacteria we humans are now relatively immune to, have the power to kill all the alien forms, and supposedly live happily ever after. There’s also an epilogue, based in NASA, warning us of the possibility of a re-visit in the future.


As the curtain rises, we are introduced to the impressive live orchestra, filling the stage, with the aforementioned 72-year-old Jeff Wayne, as musical director. I instantly recognized his dramatic main theme ‘The Eve of War’, brilliantly blasted out by his string section. But then the problems started…


I knew that I wasn’t going to see Liam Neeson in the flesh, so I had prepared myself for his projected and much publicized ‘3D holography’, which introduced us to the story. One by one, the ensemble entered the apron stage in front of the orchestra, hamming it to the hills, of the impending danger. This clearly was not a musical drama, but an orchestral concert accompanied by a spoken narrative, projected images, a few spectacular fiery effects and a large redundant ensemble whose only purpose was to fill the apron. Having mentally registered that fact, I sat back in my seat, and tried my best to enjoy the show, but I just couldn’t. It all felt like such a mess, and I felt so sorry for the ensemble, led by Essex and Nail, who’s one-song-wonders didn’t even work.



With such a powerful and dramatic story, it’s just a shame that the vast money spent on the ‘show’ had not been invested in a proper staged adaptation.  It all felt dated and deflated, and the real ‘war’ was with the music as it drowned everything on stage, even Neeson’s contributions. Sadly, the music didn’t even warrant this expensive wasted opportunity.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Hand to God, Vaudeville Theatre, ★★★★

With both Tony and Olivier nominations to hand, Robert Askins' ‘Hand to God’ was an appealing choice at the Vaudeville Theatre, on the Strand.


Set in an American Church Hall, mainly used by recently widowed ‘Margery’ (Janie Dee) for her teenage puppet group, its clear from the prologue that things are not as holy as they seem. Her son ‘Jason’ (Harry Melling ) along with his lively sock-puppet ‘Tyrone’ have both been taken over by a demonic destructive presence, which, after a very slow start, turns this trauma into a hilarious dark comedy. 


Trying to sort it all out (but also seduce poor Margery) is ‘Pastor Greg’ (Neil Pearson) and good looking lag ‘Timothy’ (Kevin Mains), both of whom fail miserably at both tasks.  With the imminent arrival of the Sunday Service deadline and no sign of any kind of Biblically themed puppet show to put on, Margery’s world comes crashing down, leaving only dowdy ‘Jessica’ (Jemima Rooper) to try and rescue Jason.


Once we got going, this brilliant company of five, who did feel lost and lonely on the vast Vaudeville stage, happily carried me along. Maybe a smaller, cosier venue would have been better, especially as the sock puppets that played such a prominent part, were so petite.  The concept, albeit totally crazy, worked, and the inclusion of the prologue and epilogue gave the absurdity a much needed deeper meaning. It’s not an easy piece to watch, but well worth it, if only to witness an utterly breathtaking portrayal by Harry Melling of the possessed son.


Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Brink , Orange Tree Theatre ★★★


‘The Brink’ marked my first visit to the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond; it also marked my first visit to the work of fellow Welshman, Brad Birch. The play follows ‘Nick’ (Ciarán Owens), a teacher at a local comprehensive school, who, as the title of the play suggests, is basically on the brink of some kind of nervous breakdown. Throughout the play, we (or he), aren’t too sure what mental illness he’s living with. Is it depression, anxiety, stress or has he just been caught up in the ‘mess’ of a ‘modern’ world? And that’s a major part of my problem with the play. Unlike Nielson’s delirious Dissocia, or James Graham’s problematic Privacy, I was left, literally on the brink, with no resolution or conclusion.



But the ‘brink’ also represents an actual geographical space in the school fields where in Nick’s dreams, lies a hidden secret; some sinister presence that results in quite graphic visions of destruction and death.  The headmaster (Vince Leigh), who confides in Nick, that below the brink lay an unexploded World War Two bomb, confirms his vision. Delirious that his dreams may well be an apocalyptic actuality of the future, it causes major malfunction in all areas of Nick’s life, leaving him on an empty stage of cinders.  Up to this point, I could empathize with him all the way. Were all these crazy encounters with the sinister headmaster reality or just figments of his irrational state of mind? Was there really a ‘bomb’, was there really a school...? 


As a fellow playwright, the one question that has always scared me is ‘what are you trying to say in your play?’. In my younger days, I was always quick to reply with a cocky ‘isn’t that up to the audience to tell me?!’. Now in my forties, after an unexpected and unsuccessful suicide attempt, my earlier work makes sense. I guess that’s why I could empathize so well with poor Nick, who clearly needed psychological support. Not once in the play, was this support offered; not from his workplace or his partner. We were left to ultimately laugh at his demolition and final destruction, which is why I question the message or meaning of the play. If Birch had followed Nielson’s pro forma, with a follow up, second act diagnosis or resolution, then maybe I’d have a higher appreciation of the value of the 80 minutes I’d witnessed. Without it, it did feel unfinished, and almost a comedy cop-out of such an important issue.

As a theatrical piece, it was well received. Clever, quick and comic dialogue fast paced and beautifully choreographed by Carolina Valdés. It’s just a shame that Birch has not yet ventured over the brink, to possibly answer or address some of his brilliant ideas.

Monday, 4 April 2016

How the other half loves, Theatre Royal Haymarket ★★



Alan Ayckbourn - the marmite of melodrama! You know what you’re going to get, so I can only blame myself for not being in the mood for a good-old-fashioned farce of misunderstandings and never ending ‘moider’. I gave this production a chance; impressive cast, great theatre, cheap tickets, but same old scenarios which now feels dated and deflated. It’s a very clever play, a real theatrical gem from the 79 plays he’s written. But I was bored, genuinely confused and almost fell asleep (as my thespian neighbour did!) during the painfully long, milking of the comedy. A very brave effort by this committed company to breathe reality into these comic caricatures, but it all felt too strained and convenient for my liking.