Monthly Archives: June 2013

A Doll’s House @ Young Vic Theatre, London – April 2013

Easter 2013 marks the triumphant return to the Young Vic of the production of Ibsen’s realist masterpiece that so pleased the critics in 2012 and earned its leading lady two Best Actress awards. A Doll’s House is, amongst many other things, a dark and intimate study of the complexity of human relationships, exploring the way secrets and lies, when buried for too long, can ultimately wreak destruction and ruin family life.

What is immediately striking about this piece is its magnificent use of space and music. Whilst Ibsen confines the action to one area in the play’s text, Ian MacNeil’s superbly imaginative set design treats us to a myriad of different, well-furnished and homely rooms which revolve to Stuart Earl’s atmospheric and haunting score. These elements work well together to embellish the fallacy of domestic contentment that shrouds Nora’s horrible predicament.

Another highlight is the appearance of the Helmers’ daughter Emmy, in the shape of a real baby girl. Impeccably behaved, she is not only a rare delight to behold on stage, but serves to underline the gravity and poignancy of her mother’s drastic decision at the play’s end, a decision that continues to astonish and perplex audiences and readers.

Hattie Morahan’s Nora is a sheer delight, switching easily from the naïve and playful child her husband, a handsome, suave and suitably irritating Dominic Rowan, perceives her to be, to the haunted, persecuted adult who has made the wrong decision for all the right reasons. The couple’s interaction on stage is utterly compelling and entertaining throughout, ensuring that a relatively long first half flies by.

Strong support is provided by Susannah Wise in the role of the well-meaning Kristine. Nick Fletcher’s Krogstad does not really convey the necessary gravitas, but this rarely distracts from a first-rate evening of drama.

Three Sisters @ New Diorama Theatre, London – January 2013

The Faction’s 2013 repertory season continues with Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a typically dark and despairing play which focuses on the lives, loves and thwarted desires of Olga, Masha and Irina. Chekhov’s familiar themes of unfulfilled hope, desolation and futility are played out in a mythological Russian rural town in the late 1800s, one year after the death of the sisters’ father. One by one, the protagonists unveil vacant, purposeless lives laced with hopeless longing. Irina hates her living situation with a vengeance and longs to return to the bright lights of Moscow; Masha is deeply unhappy in her marriage to a boring school teacher and Olga, although successful in her career, would far rather be settled with a family.

Any company’s decision to tackle Chekhov is a brave one and, on the whole, this production does not disappoint. It is difficult, however, not to compare it with director Mark Leipacher’s bold opening to the season and the piece lacks the edginess and artistic inventiveness of Fiesco. It could be, of course, that Chekhov simply offers less to work with and there are undoubtedly still moments of brilliance. For example, although use of the Faction’s trademark ensemble is more limited in this production, one particular scene in which the large cast sit in a perfectly straight line at a party, becoming awkwardly transfixed with something as unexciting as a spinning top, works brilliantly to highlight the empty lives.

Ranjit Bolt’s modern adaption of the text also works well and, once again, there are some superb performances. Derval Mellett’s Marsha is skillfully portrayed as bored to the point of desperation, whilst Jonny McPherson delivers a sensitive portrayal of Vershinin, her married lover who serves to relieve some of her frustration. Lachlan McCall is consistently believable as Andrei, the sisters’ weak, hapless brother, his wife Natasha (played memorably by Laura Freeman), the archetypal, pushy outsider who worms herself successfully into the family despite being hugely unpopular.

Fiesco @ New Diorama Theatre, London – January 2013

The Faction’s 2013 repertory season has much to live up to, but this first offering, a challenging and adventurous take on Schiller’s obscure Fiesco, not only the UK premiere but the English language premiere, bodes very well. It follows in the footsteps of the company’s award-winning production of The Robbers and award-nominated Mary Stuart, continuing their ambitious plan to stage Schiller’s complete works.

Fiesco is a republican tragedy based on the historical conspiracy of Giovanni Luigi Fieschi against Andrea Doria in Genoa in 1547, tracking the rise and fall of its protagonist as he finds himself at the heart of an attempt to overthrow a tyrant. A soave, wealthy young Count with a decadent lifestyle to match, Fiesco is suddenly surrounded by ardent conspirators who seem to want to herald him. However, each man has his own selfish goal, and Fiesco himself periodically grapples with his conscience as he tries to ascertain his own desires and motives. The action is fast-paced and complex and Schiller provides endless twists and turns, building layer upon layer of conspiracy and corruption.

This production, despite the Faction’s characteristic lack of scenery and props, is bold and colourful, director Mark Leipacher daring and inventive throughout. The disguise of the omnipresent, physically conspicuous Chorus during the first half with use of a variety of rubber masks and the doubling up of actor Gareth Fordred to depict both the aging Duke and his depraved, tyrannical nephew are enlightened, bold devices which work well.

Performances are excellent across the board, but particularly worthy of mention are Richard Delaney, whose Fiesco is consistently believable and engaging, Kate Sawyer who delivers an extravagant and crowd-pleasing portrayal of Julia, the unfortunate object of Fiesco’s feigned love-interest, and Anna-Maria Nabirye, who is beautifully emotionless and mercenary as the tragic hero’s side-kick and spy.

Overruled @ Old Red Lion Theatre, London – January 2013

George Bernard Shaw makes a seldom-seen and very welcome visit to the London Fringe this January with Wilmington Theatre Company’s vibrant production of Overruled, a trio of his lesser-known short comedies. Fast-paced, insightful and littered with guffaw-inducing one-liners, the plays give a delightful insight into the playwright’s wittier, more daring side.

How He Lied to Her Husband, concerning a book of passionate love poetry that falls into the wrong hands with surprising consequences, Overruled, examining the extra-marital relations between two different couples whilst on holiday and Village Wooing, tracing an unlikely relationship starting on a cruise ship and blossoming in a village store, fit very well together, the controversial (if not unspeakable, in Shaw’s day) issues they explore making for a modern and relevant slant. The battle of the sexes, role reversals, adultery, skewed morals and wife-swapping are just some of the themes thrown into focus as the company work competently through each extended sketch.

Polina Kalinina’s direction is intelligent and slick, ensuring perfect pace and mood throughout whilst Emma Bailey’s simple yet sophisticated set design provides the necessary adaptability for the transitions between plays. The whole company provide consistently excellent acting, but particularly worthy of mention are Leo Wyndham, who makes swapping from nervous, naive idealism to arrogant swagger look easy and Lucy Hough who really shines in the final piece as the canny, self-assured young shop assistant who becomes master of her own destiny and exposes the fragility and shortcomings of her male counterpart.

Once Upon a Mattress @ Union Theatre, London – December 2012

This festive season, one of Southwark’s truly delightful hidden gems plays host to Once Upon a Mattress, a 1950s musical adaption of classic fairy tale The Princess and the Pea that claims to reveal a more accurate, untold version of events.

At first, this production appears to lack purpose, losing sight of what it wants to be; is it a bawdy take on an old classic aimed at adults or a wholesome piece of children’s entertainment? Admittedly, Mary Rodgers’s score and Marshall Barer’s lyrics are dated and do not really provide material of a consistently high quality for the cast and creative team to work with, but if this is intended to be a tongue-in-cheek version of a timeless classic then numerous tricks and opportunities to raise laughs are completely missed by various cast members.

Purpose rapidly loses importance, though, as the performance gets into full swing, the fantastic array of talent on stage unfolds and we are treated to some superb acting and polished singing and dancing. The chorus ensemble is particularly strong, drawing all it possibly can from the score with some soaring harmonies and pristine piano accompaniment from musical director, Alex Parker. Kirk Jameson’s direction comes into its inventive own with his decision to intermittently have the ensemble both observe and contribute to the action taking place on stage from the back of the auditorium, whether this be singing or tap dancing.

This is a predominantly youthful cast, with several people certain of bright futures. Ryan Limb’s Minstrel opens the show beautifully and draws the audience in immediately, Stiofan O’Doherty is dashing and believable as Sir Harry, his beautiful singing voice verging on the operatic as he woos his way through a tricky situation, Jenny O’Leary, lovable and compelling, provides the perfect non-traditional heroine in Princess Winifred and her Prince Dauntless, played faultlessly by Mark Anderson is the archetypal, hapless Mummy’s boy. As for the more senior members of the ensemble, Paddy Glynn’s Queen Aggravain is suitably malevolent as she enlists distinguished David Pendlebury’s wizard to devise tests designed to stump her son’s sequence of potential wives. Denis Quilligan, as the mute King Sextimus, displays the most skilful comic timing of the piece throughout several scenes.

An enjoyable evening that provides a pleasant and quirky alternative to the traditional family pantomime in an intimate setting.

The Great Gatsby @ Kings Head Theatre, London – August 2012

This production of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s timeless and iconic novel, The Great Gatsby, by Ruby in the Dust theatre company is, amazingly, the third to grace the London stage this year, but the first musical adaption (although in truth, this is more a ‘play with music’).

Joe Evans’s smoky, jazzy score, Belle Mundi’s superb costume designs and a summer’s evening in London to rival some of Long Island’s finest combine to present an excellent depiction of America’s ‘Roaring Twenties’. Strong performances, and clever direction by Linnie Reedman, help to convey the hope and glamour of the era, shrouding the insecurities, secrets and sadness below the glitzy surfaces of these characters.

As the performance progresses, though, the difficulty of condensing a novel so celebrated and so complicated into a two hour ‘musical’ becomes increasingly apparent. Whilst there are some truly unforgettable tunes, at times the vocals come in under par, with a lack of singing confidence, and some of the ensemble numbers seem like they need a little more polish.

Matilda Sturridge’s Daisy is sultry and beautiful, making an ideal partner for Sean Browne’s handsome and mysterious Gatsby, yet she is a little young for the role and fails to convey the depth and the world-weariness her character should embody. The sexual chemistry between Steven Clarke’s buff and obnoxious Tom and Naomi Bullock’s feisty Myrtle is altogether more believable. It is always a joy to see actors double up as musicians and, hot and gutsy, Bullock does a marvelous job on clarinet and delivers the show’s catchiest number beautifully. Raphael Verrion’s Nick Carraway is also worthy of a mention, king of the ménage-à-trios and convincing sufferer of awkward moments throughout.

An undoubtedly enjoyable evening, just a little too light in places, with too much of the original’s subtlety and nuance lost in translation.

Black Battles with Dogs @ Southwark Playhouse, London – May 2012

Bernard-Marie Koltes was a French playwright who died young. A quick trawl of the internet reveals that he is little known and seldom performed, yet this Southwark Playhouse revival of Black Battles with Dogs appears on the London Fringe at the same time as his later work, In the Solitude of Cotton Fields, currently showing at the Tristan Bates.Set on a soulless French construction site somewhere in the middle of Africa, the play gives a snapshot into the lives of four contrasting characters as they attempt to aclimatize and come to terms with who, what and where they are.

A black site worker has recently died in circumstances that are never really revealed. Behind a blossoming tree, just beyond the barbed wire that separates the site and its white workers from the African village and its black inhabitants, a man claiming to be the deceased’s brother has come to try and claim the body. Chaotic events ensue as characters from different worlds reluctantly and clumsily interact.

The ever-atmospheric, chilly Vault space lends itself perfectly to the setting, with its scaffolding, plastic sheeting and eerie tunnels reaching back into the darkness. There is little need for elaborate sets or props and Chloe Lamford and Katie Bellman’s simple design is ideal. All four actors work well with what they have, creating some truly tense and often bizarre moments, but it seems that much is lost in a translation that is at times ineffective and lumbering.

Paul Hamilton’s Horn is staid and seemingly tired and dissatisfied with life, appearing in perfect contrast to Joseph Arkley’s Cal who, a chauvinistic and arrogant racist, appears to live completely on his nerves.

Rebecca Smith-Williams puts in a convincing performance as Horn’s unlikely fiancée Leonie, who has ironically accompanied him to the compound to ‘learn about Africa’. Inappropriately dressed and completely out of her depth in almost every situation she encounters, she seems to have little idea of where she is as she flails aimlessly and embarrassingly about the stage. It is her eventual and inevitable break down which invokes the only real empathy with a character.

This piece is nothing short of intriguing throughout, but whilst the themes of isolation, loneliness, displacement and ignorance are prominent in the midst of a clear racial divide, there is a feeling that Koltès is never quite sure of what message he is trying to communicate.

Alexander Zeldin’s production is a little too long and drags terribly in places, but in honesty it is difficult to imagine how better anyone could deal with a plot which is disembodied, murky and lacking in direction.

The Revenger’s Tragedy @ Old Red Lion Theatre, London – August 2012

It’s difficult to put one’s finger on what can turn a seemingly inaccessible Jacobean tragedy that focuses on themes which are not altogether happy – decaying moral and political order, bloody revenge and adultery, to name but a few – into a vibrant, almost ‘feel good’ piece.In truth, it’s an exciting combination of factors that combine to ensure Nicholas Thompson’s superbly original production of The Revenger’s Tragedy, currently playing in rep with Henry V at the Old Red Lion, does exactly this.

The play’s action is transported to 1980s Britain which highlights the timelessness of Middleton’s themes and their affinity with modern times perfectly. The six-strong company, some of whom play more than one character, have a natural, effortless chemistry as an ensemble. This, fused with Thompson’s slick, insightful direction and sharp attention to detail against an inspired backdrop of neon light, throbbing synth soundtrack and ‘80s artefacts, makes for a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking experience as the Revenger (Mark Field) embarks on a tempestuous journey to avenge the death of his beloved at the hands of the barbaric Duke (Steve Fortune).

Each cast member has clearly worked hard to ensure that characters are believable and roles are inhabited without inhibition. The switch between different characters is breathtakingly smooth, particularly at the hands of Henry Regan, whose depictions of Hippolito and Ambitioso are so skilful it is hard to believe they are created by the same person. This often means that despite a plot that is challenging and a family tree that is complex and sometimes confusingly tarred with adultery and incest, the unfolding, fast-paced action is never too difficult to follow.

Mark Field creates a brilliant comic contrast between his earthy, brooding Vindice and extravagant, overtly sexual Piato, the latter of whom could easily be mistaken for Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Bruno’s brother. Jack Morris’ lust-ridden Lussurioso seethes with sleaze and is reminiscent of a slippery, amoral estate agent complete with cheap suit and jewellery. His death at the play’s end, however, is horribly painful and difficult to watch, cleverly forcing us to sympathise with a truly repellent character. The collective artistic maturity of Christine Oram and Steve Fortune creates an occasionally much-needed balance on stage and Nicholas Kime delivers a unique and intriguing Castiza, who is the play’s only true exponent of moral resolve and whose background and motivation are thrown open for interpretation.

The Beekeeper @ Waterloo East Theatre, London – May 2012

It is Monowitz, one of Auschwitz’s three main camps during the Second World War, that provides the stark and uncomfortable setting for the The Beekeeper. The play is inspired by a combination of writer Michael Ashton’s own stint in prison, an experience alien to many of us, and his fascination with the common bee, a creature familiar to all of us. The two themes merge to provide an intriguing blend and create the parallel that lies at the heart of the play’s startling originality.

Whilst the horrific events of the mid-20th century’s Holocaust are incredibly well-documented, I am sure I am not alone in being saddened and disgusted whenever I am served a reminder of the sheer humiliation and cruelty one set of human beings became capable of bestowing on another. This is, of course, what The Beekeeper is all about and the play does not fail to hit hard; it’s an intense and thought-provoking 90 minutes.

However, the slant is somewhat different to what we are accustomed to seeing and reading. In the writer’s own words there are no “bodies being fed into furnaces and whips cracking”. Instead, the spotlight is firmly on a single corner of the camp where the prisoner Stressler resides in isolation. Believed to be a conspirator by the other prisoners, he tenderly nurtures a hive of bees which serves not only as a distraction from his miserable, pain-filled existence but as a supply of honey for Nazi officers, in particular one Richard Baer.

Whilst honey and royal jelly provide the first tenuous point of communication between Baer and Stressler, over time a strangely complicated and somewhat sinister relationship forms. It is this unusual version of interaction between perpetrator and victim that interests Ashton and that is brought sharply into focus. As the atrocities of the camp continue outside the four walls of Victoria Spearing’s fittingly claustrophobic set, Stressler and Baer engage in what can only be described as a battle of wills whereby power and fear shift unpredictably back and forth.

Robert Harding’s Baer is a suitably commanding and charismatic presence, towering over his victim and barking his lines in a clipped version of received pronunciation which contrasts sharply with the Jewish man’s brilliantly authentic accent. Whilst the interaction between the two is usually nothing short of gripping, at times there is the feeling that director and producer Adrian McDougall could do more to heighten the inevitable feelings of tension and foreboding on stage. Eliot Giuralarocca puts in a sympathetic, compelling and deeply human performance as Stressler, whose unwavering resoluteness and resilience mirror that of the bees he loves. Chris Westgate as Stressler’s unfortunate, ration-bringing friend, Kolbe, and Spencer Cummins as the archetypal Jew-hating German officer, Sergeant Beck, provide engaging support throughout.

This is important and provocative drama which will continue to tug at the memory and undoubtedly have a long life beyond the London fringe.

A Place at the Table @ Tristan Bates, London – March 2012

Apparently a hit for the Bush theatre back in 2000, A Place at the Table is BAFTA-nominated Simon Block’s biting satire on the TV industry. This revival is presented by Signal Theatre Company under the direction of Robert Wolstenholme.

The themes Block obviously wishes to highlight are immediately apparent. All of the action takes place in the soulless meeting room of a TV production house. Young, disabled playwright, Adam, has written a ‘lethally good’ script and impressed readers with writing that is ‘vehement and compassionate’. However, from the first minute it is his wheelchair rather than his artistic prowess that is the focus as not one person he interacts with manages to see past his disability.

Whilst Sarah, the nicotine-dependent (what a cliché!) script editor Adam has come to meet, possibly appreciates his talent, her motivation is to make a name for herself in a shallow and revenue-driven arena. The battle between artistic and commercial motivation is played out between the two as Sarah struggles to persuade Adam to redirect his efforts into writing a sitcom about a disabled man. Insulted at first, Adam leaves in a rage. Three months later he succumbs to towing the line but returns only to find he is too late; the fickle Sarah, personifying her industry, has moved on to something else and Adam’s potential project has lost its appeal.

It is clear that these characters are supposed to be odious, but surely not to the point that one ceases to care very quickly what happens to them? The reams of boring dialogue about the whys and wherefores of the way the ‘industry’ operates and the differences between a ‘place’ and a ‘seat’ in a script littered with numerous, tedious industry in-jokes, unnecessary swear words and downright jargon, are in danger of overshadowing some good, solid performances; any empathy one might start to feel with the characters’ plights is quickly lost.

Kellie Batchelor puts in a solid performance as queen of bullshit Sarah with her delusions of grandeur and inflated idea of her own influence and importance. Christopher Tester’s Adam is frankly quite dull, however comes into his own when faced with rejection, putting on a believable show of genuine hurt. Eva Tausig is truly entertaining as out-of-place, art history Oxford University recruit Rachel, the ‘trustafarian’ (another cliché) trainee who appears to lack any kind of social intelligence.

This play would possibly be of interest to those who have particular experience of the seemingly unpleasant way the ‘industry’ operates behind the scenes and the monotonous characters that inhabit it. But ultimately it is niche writing for a niche audience and fails to go anywhere much after its main messages are transmitted in the first 15 minutes.