Monthly Archives: June 2013

Miss Julie @ New Diorama, London – January 2012

It is a scenario that surely most of us have encountered at least once; the morning after the night before, a drunken indiscretion that seemed a good idea at the time and was undeniably fun but that in the cold light of day brings only exhaustion, displacement and regret.

Written in 1888, Miss Julie brings such a situation sharply into focus. Arguably the most accessible of August Strindberg’s plays, it is a creature of the naturalist movement, the school of theatre that attempted to create illusions of reality through a range of different dramatic mechanisms.

Strindberg himself was eager to push at the boundaries of this and achieve what he called a ‘greater naturalism’. He maintained true naturalism should involve a psychological ‘battle of brains’ where character replaces plot and the possibilities for exploiting human folly and weakness therefore become endless.

Miss Julie  concentrates on the complexity of the feelings of Julie and Jean, two people from very different worlds, as they interact in the claustrophobic, dizzy here and now. Ensuing over the course of one very hot Midsummer’s night, the play takes the themes of class, love, lust and the battle of the sexes, and rams them together, experimenting with how the four elements can interact and, ultimately, wreak destruction on their exponents.

Formed two years ago, The Faction Theatre company is young, vibrant and known for its ability to breathe fresh new life into old works; this production is no exception, however the company stays simultaneously true to Strindberg’s naturalist vision and intricate stage direction.

Under the superb direction of Mark Leipacher and Rachel Valentine Smith the senses are immediately stirred as members of the company create a surreptitious huddle of whispering voyeurs, placed off-stage yet visible to the audience. The effect is staggering, both visually and audibly. The set is sparse, the absence of props paving the way for superb sound effects, also provided by members of the ensemble. Every shuffle, clink and crack is powerfully immediate, heightening the feeling of immediacy and tension.

The three-strong cast does not disappoint. More clever direction ensures a distinct lack of hierarchy between the two protagonists, despite their gaping social differences, and they joust almost as equals. Leonie Hill is marvellous as the overtly sexual and flirtatious young seductress and at times we can almost forgive Cary Crankson’s smooth-talking Jean for his cold, confusing behaviour and attempts to humiliate and disarm her as she descends into her frenzy of vulnerable regret and exposes herself as little more than a lost child. Kate Sawyer provides excellent support as the stoic, long-suffering Kristin.

Howls Moving Castle @ Southwark Playhouse, London – December 2011

This production at Southwark Playhouse is the first stage adaption of one of Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy novels, however it comes as no surprise that it was also made into a successful animation by Japan’s Studio Ghibli in 2004.

The mystical tale lends itself incredibly well to movie-like treatment and this is clearly the prime focus of creative duo Davy and Kristin McGuire as they bring a Christmas extravaganza with a difference to Southwark’s iconic Vault.

Howl’s Moving Castle is the tale of Sophie, a young and beautiful hat maker with hidden depths, who unwittingly incurs the wrath of the Witch of the Waste and finds herself transported both into premature old age and the castle of the enigmatic and self-obsessed magician Howl, whose reputation for eating out the hearts of pretty young maidens (he is apparently something of a supernatural womaniser) goes before him.

The white cardboard castle set that dominates the stage is innovative and ambitious, acting both as the play’s central character (voiced by Stephen Fry) and the blank canvas for the cinematic digital projections which are nothing short of breath-taking throughout.

As the castle cavorts seamlessly through space and time, its walls provide the backdrop for snow-topped mountains, sun-drenched desert, young Sophie’s hat shop and the mysterious darkness of its own interior. Fyfe Dangerfield’s stirring score compliments the stunning visuals perfectly, yet never overpowers or distracts from the pictorial magic.

Being unfamiliar with the original novel, it is difficult to comment on how well the story translates to the stage, but with only this production to judge, I would conclude not particularly well. The effects, whilst undeniably ground-breaking and technically dazzling, simply distract from weaker aspects of the production and the fact that events unfold too quickly and with little or no explanation.

Probably not an issue for those audience members that are already familiar with the book and film, but frustrating for those that are not. Whilst the performances of the three physically present actors are mainly strong, the taped narration from Stephen Fry is often muffled and difficult to understand as is the background voice of Calcifer, Howl’s live-in fire demon, played by James Wilkes.

Howl is a villain with a heart he wants desperately to deny and Daniel Ings deals marvellously with this inner conflict, however he simply hasn’t time to really explore and develop the character.

Entertaining on a level and visually pleasing, but equal emphasis on sound and direction would ensure a more rounded and consistently magical theatrical experience.

Bell, Book & Candle @ Greenwich Playhouse, London – November 2011

Is the young man you have your heart set on already betrothed, not only to someone else, but to your old college enemy? Well the solution is simple: cast a spell!

This is exactly what Gillian Holroyd, the young witch at the heart of John Van Druton’s delightfully quirky romantic comedy, decides to do. But, as every self-respecting witch knows only too well, magic cannot really conjure true love, and deep water beckons.

The original 1950 production of Bell, Book and Candle was a Broadway hit starring Rex Harrison and was later made into a movie seeing James Stewart take his last romantic lead. The play is also said to have inspired the more recent, much-loved television series, Bewitched.

The action takes place in the festive front room of Gillian’s Greenwich Village (New York, not London!) apartment on and around Christmas Eve, 1950. The scene is one of tranquil and cosy domesticity as the audience take their seats to strains of “Silver Bells”, with cuddly ginger cat and Christmas tree in place.

However, it is almost immediately apparent with the entrance of Zoe Teverson’s glamorous and gentile Gillian that this is the home of no ordinary young woman. As we are introduced to more of her family, we find that hints of Harry Potter were alive and well long before JK Rowling put pen to paper. Finger-clicking lights, summoning charms, a feline familiar and hexes on phone lines are just some of the magical delights on offer in this classic piece.

John C Scheffler’s set design is just right. From the giant luminous tarot cards along the wall to the moon-shaped ashtray, this really is a witch’s lair-cum-bachelorette pad where the spiralling seduction of unsuspecting, hapless tenant Shepherd Henderson ensues.

A robust performance from Stephen Cavanagh ensures the perfect antithesis between the rational, somewhat staid Shep and the wayward characters that close in on him. Teverson’s Gillian is equally convincing, her roguish delight turning slowly to guilty angst as the magnitude of her actions dawns on her. Aunt Queenie is truly entertaining. Wild-eyed, clumsily eccentric and sporting a series of hilarious facial expressions, it is almost impossible to believe that Carole Street was required to stand in at short notice owing to illness.

The play’s sub-plot concerning Gillian’s impish brother Nicky, aging author Sidney (played by John Sears) and the book they work on together is a little wishy-washy, but allows perfectly cast Duncan Macinnes to take his character’s cheeky powers of manipulation to new levels. Springy-haired and elfin, he oozes a compelling and playful energy throughout. Not to forget the ingenious and pivotal cat Pyewacket who, playing himself, makes the role completely his. (Where did they find him?!)

Bell, Book and Candle does not challenge in any way. Rather, its ever-current magical theme will serve brilliantly to provide wholesome and enjoyable family entertainment with a twist in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Waxing Lyrical @ New Diorama Theatre, London – November 2011

Madame Tussaud is a household name all over the world. Visitors flock in their thousands to witness her legacy and study the waxworks that continue to appear as symbols of her creative genius. However, few stop to wonder about her own life and this is what makes this sophisticated one woman show, both written and performed by Judith Paris, so compelling and unusual.

Waxing Lyrical is set in 1837, 13 years before Madame Tussaud’s death and two years after she ended her hectic touring schedule and created her first London base in the Baker Street Bazaar with her two sons. As the play opens, we are met with a vision that will recur throughout; a woman dressed simply in white bonnet and black smock, bent over a wax sculpture, clearly toiling late into the night. It is immediately apparent that this is a woman of unique skill, a perfectionist, quite possibly a workaholic. Most importantly, she exudes an unrelenting passion for her art, a quality which will carry her through life experiences that are sometimes challenging, often harrowing, always intriguing.

The events of Tussaud’s life unfold before us as easily as the molten wax which becomes her life’s blood. Streams of thought and consciousness are beautifully articulated through an authentic foreign accent as the script bounces back and forth in time and the lone character frequently delves into memory. As an audience, we rarely have to concentrate too hard; the production is markedly simple, yet conveys incredible detail and depth. This is due to not only a skilful script but a truly accomplished actor and Paris excels, not only as a writer and a historian, but a performer.

Happenings such as Tussaud’s move to Paris as a young girl, her first-hand experiences of the atrocities of the French Revolution and the loss of a child are brought to vivid life and tinged with emotion that is spine-tinglingly raw. Under the superbly sensitive direction of Gillian Lynne we feel the delight of the wide-eyed child as she learns the extraordinary craft that will eventually propel her to fame and the agony of the young mother as she grieves for her baby. We can almost smell the blood on the guillotine.

All too often one-handers can lack atmosphere and energy. It takes a talented actor to hold an audience’s interest and attention throughout 80 minutes, but Paris achieves this with ease, leaving us needing to know more about the remarkable woman she has chosen to portray.

Peter McCarthy’s elegiac musical composition and arrangement, Clive Derbeyshire’s imaginative sound design and Steve Lowe’s clever lighting complete an informative, atmospheric and truly memorable theatrical experience.

Piaf @ Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre, London – November 2011

Wartime France comes to Walthamstow this month as All Star Productions revives the musical play which traces the life of Edith Piaf at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre.

Piaf’s is an extraordinary and intriguing tale, and Mike Lees’ dark stage design, fringed with its sumptuous red velvet curtain, is beautifully simple. Situated in a pleasantly large space upstairs in this East London pub, the set is as at home with the Little Sparrow’s humble beginnings as it is with the dramatic twists and turns her life takes as she embarks on the rocky road to stardom.

The play starts as it ends, with a visibly ailing Piaf staggering to the microphone and beginning a bold musical rendition, only to be brought to an abrupt halt and forcibly removed, cursing all the way. The ability to condense a life as complex and chequered as this into just two hours is the mark of a clever playwright and the late Pam Gems deserves huge credit; this is a rollercoaster of highs and lows and light and dark moments, skilfully strung together with a series of lovers, husbands and hangers-on who flit in and out of the action, shaping the course of fateful events.

Lisa Baird takes the title role. She is sufficiently bird-like in stature and bears more than a passing facial resemblance to the unlikely diva; however, this was a fascinating and beguiling character of many contrasts and although the portrayal is at times strong, the handling of this multi-faceted and complex woman is somewhat inconsistent.

Whilst Baird’s singing voice is technically excellent, her delivery sometimes lacks the necessary defiance and raw earthiness. Her cockney accent serves well to render a hard bitten piece who has had a difficult start in life, but the frequent chopping and changing from this to hints of received pronunciation which would be more at home on the set of Hollyoaks than the grimy back streets of France is confusing and jars terribly.

Baird does, however, warm up, admirably handling Piaf’s rise to fame with the accompanying petulance, paranoia and inability to be alone and the drug and alcohol addiction which ultimately kill her. “Non, je ne regrette rien” is delivered to a captive audience with renewed, requisite conviction.

The remaining players provide steady support throughout and Aaron Clingham’s tight musical direction and accompaniment is a delight.

Country Life @ Old Red Lion Theatre, London – October 2011

Peter Briffa’s Country Life is the very first play to be produced by Player-Playwrights, London’s oldest writing and acting co-operative, and transfers to the Old Red Lion this week following a successful run at the Camden Fringe.

It is unusual when audience members have to walk across a well-manicured lawn and step over attractive garden foliage to reach their seats and even more unusual when the piece of theatre they have come to witness features such an experienced, distinguished three-strong cast, the combined age of which is at least 200.

The opening scene appears to begin to deliver what the play’s title evokes. Jim and Barbara, both seemingly content in their senior years, have reunited for the first time since school for the funeral of Julia, the mutual friend Jim has recently reconnected with through Facebook.

In the funeral’s wake, they relax in the peaceful, idyllic back garden of Barbara’s bed-ridden mother, enjoying tea and cake, musing over bonfires and dead badgers, reminiscing with fondness about days of yore. The start is, perhaps deliberately, painstakingly slow, but serves to pave the way for the twists, turns and complexities that follow.

Matters start to hot up with the entrance of Barbara’s neighbour. David Forest’s neurotic, nosy former policeman, Kenneth, creates overwhelming feelings of antipathy countered with sharp, dry wit, as he becomes immediately suspicious (and, as we later find, jealous) of Chris Bearne’s charismatic silver fox, Jim, whose refreshing new energy clearly threatens to interfere with Kenneth’s plans to woo Barbara.

Marji Campi creates an interesting contrast with the two men, her character beautifully understated, somewhat complacent. Accusations and bitterly caustic remarks fly whenever she leaves the garden and, as the plot unfolds and secret pasts are uncovered, homosexuality (is he, or isn’t he?), bribery, corruption, sibling rivalry and even murder are thrown into the mix. We are left wondering whether any of these people are actually who they claim to be and moreover, who is duping who?

Briffa’s concept not only serves to gradually smash to pieces all the clichés and common conceptions associated with old age, but explores the ever-expanding landscape of social media with its capacity to shape and change the lives of all kinds of people.

Country Life starts to do what is says on the tin, then turns it upside down and shakes it up. Quietly entertaining, brilliantly original.

Bound @ Southwark Playhouse, London – October 2011

Bound is Jesse Briton’s first project as both writer and director and was premiered to critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2010 by Bear Trap, the young and innovative theatre company he formed with one of the play’s stars, Joe Darke.

Now, Southwark Playhouse’s inimitable, dank vault provides the perfect setting, with most of the action ensuing aboard a trawler as six Devon fishermen brave the turbulent seas on the eventful, traumatic final voyage they never expected to take.

The dramatic reaches and effects of recession are examined as the men find themselves flung together in a confined space under near impossible circumstances and relationships are tested against the backdrop of one man’s competitive desire to avoid financial ruin with little regard for the consequences. The voices of reason and experience clash with both unabashed arrogance and tragic lack of awareness as the characters veer toward their painfully inevitable conclusion.

The six-strong cast is sensational throughout, the actors’ ease with their roles always obvious. Thomas Bennett’s sensitive portrayal of Kerdzic, the bewildered, unknowing Polish agency worker is of particular note as is Joe Darke’s Graham, who handles the gradual transition between strident flamboyance and uncontrollable panic masterfully.

Occasionally, especially in more raucous moments when tempers fly, some of the hilarious dialogue is lost, but this is largely a symptom of the venue’s acoustics which in turn actually lend themselves marvellously to the wistful, note-perfect singing of old sea shanties between scenes.

A compelling and moving piece of theatre which left this reviewer (and, judging by the standing ovation, the majority of the audience) completely spellBound (sorry!) and anticipating the future endeavours of Bear Trap with relish.

‘night, Mother @ Old Red Lion Theatre, London – September 2011

Sadie Shimmin and Pat Starr portray the troubled protagonists in this darkly humorous, hard-hitting production of Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, ‘night, Mother, at Islington’s intimate Old Red Lion.

This two-character play tells the story of Jessie Cates, who is anxious to put everything in order before she kills herself, and her mother Thelma, who wants desperately to prevent her daughter’s violent demise. There is nothing like an impending suicide to prompt an arousing heart-to-heart, and as Jessie busies herself in an attempt to ensure her elderly mother’s needs will be met in her absence, all the possible reasons behind her shocking decision are exposed. What begins as a startlingly matter-of-fact exchange concerning Jessie’s plan rapidly evolves into a stirring debate exploring delicate family issues.

Sadie Shimmin’s Jessie exudes an unabashed, quiet determination which is beautifully countered by Pat Starr’s mounting panic as she flounders about Katharine Heath’s imaginative set. Paul Stacey’s insightful direction ensures the intensity never rises above an uncomfortable level and despite occasionally apparent second-night nerves, the actors achieve a potent chemistry, the effortless ease of their close relationship poignantly tainted by the daughter’s failing mental health and tragic insistence on self-destruction.

This production deals sensitively with difficult issues and can only gather momentum and intensify its already powerful effect as the run progresses.

Thick @ New Diorama Theatre, London – September 2011

Thick is the creation of Rick Bland, a Reduced Shakespeare Company veteran who recently premiered this, his first play, in Edinburgh. Writing, producing and starring in what can only be described as a black comedy, he relays the touching tale of Rudolph, a cerebrally challenged young man whose backward state is a result of his born-again, bigoted, ‘non-alcoholic gin’ supping mother dropping him on his head when he was a baby.

Jumping back and forth to various times in Rudolph’s childhood and adolescence, the play depicts the series of events in the emotional rollercoaster that leads up to Mama’s funeral, revealing the world through Rudolph’s child-like eyes as he interacts with a variety of people.

The acclaim Bland has already enjoyed for this performance comes as no surprise; the character is tenderly created with every facet of his ‘complicated’ nature thoroughly explored. Innocent, lovable and incredibly funny, Rudolph’s emotional depth (real tears!) is staggering. In addition, his capacity for empathy, his inability to dislike or begrudge anybody for anything and his extraordinary talent to spout perfect logic at exactly the right moment are completely believable, making for a truly captivating and imaginative piece of theatre.

The comic timing and equally skilful performances of the rest of the cast ensure there is never a boring moment. Genevieve Adam, Barbara Barnes and Gary Fannin primarily take the roles of Rudolph’s family, but flit seamlessly between these and the smaller parts of more minor characters, working well with Bland to generate an emotive mix of comedy and heart-rending tragedy.

The 90 minutes flew. Coupled with the modern, attractive setting that is the intimate 80-seat New Diorama, this is an evening not to be missed.

Eight Women @ Southwark Playhouse, London – March 2011

It isn’t often you go to the theatre on a Friday night to feel yourself in danger of becoming an accessory to murder. But if this is the effect this UK premiere of Robert Thomas’s Eight Women aims to achieve, it certainly succeeds.

Set in the intimacy of a comfortable living room complete with After Eight mints (nice touch!), this is a real comedy thriller. In a room at the back of the auditorium, the man of the house has been found murdered. As we are introduced to our eight suspects, we find every female stereotype represented; the bored wife, the nervy sister-in-law and the ungrateful mother-in-law, joined by the loyal housekeeper, the naughty French-cum-Welsh maid, the flighty sister and the petulant and dutiful daughters.

As high drama ensues amidst every cliché you would expect from a classic whodunnit – poisoned dogs, a severed phone line and horrendous winter weather preventing escape – the various females’ predicaments, agendas and conflicts with one another in relation to the victim are revealed. Bitch fights erupt and events spiral into farcical chaos with none of the black humour lost in Donald Sturrock’s clever translation. There are some side-splitting one-liners delivered with superb comic timing, all in the absence of the one emotion you might expect; grief. Elgiva Field’s brilliant direction ensures perfect use of the space, the ladies’ constant thundering up and down the centre aisle towards the hidden room guaranteeing audience involvement.

Sasha Waddell’s Regan is little more than a caricature, but this is perhaps the aim; a ball of paranoid neurosis tormented with unrequited love, she careers about the set like Jennifer Saunders on speed, never failing to entertain. Tamara Hinchco gives one of the best portrayals of a comic drunk I have ever witnessed and Clara Andersson is deliciously malevolent as ‘evil’ Aunt Zinka. The real show-stealer, though, is young Sophie Kennedy Clark who shines throughout, exploring every facet of her teenaged character with ease until the play’s end when she becomes the commanding, centre-stage lynchpin, drawing events to a close and orchestrating the inevitable twist…

Eight Women is one of those good old-fashioned hoots we should all be treated to now and again. Catch it whilst you can… and watch your back!