The Robbers @ New Diorama Theatre, London – February 2014

The Faction’s ever-ambitious endeavours to unearth and breathe youthful interpretation into little-known classics continue with this remount of Schiller’s The Robbers, currently playing in rep with Hamlet and Thebes at the New Diorama.

Written by Schiller at the tender age of twenty-one and translated from 18th century German into modern day speak by director Mark Leipacher and actor/writer Daniel Millar, this is an exciting contemporary take on a debut that brought its playwright overnight success. Leipacher’s dark, “Tarantinoesque” production makes no attempt to hide, and in fact makes every effort to underline, that this is the work of a very young man.

Revolving around the grizzly conflict between two aristocractic brothers, Karl and Franz Moor, the plot twists, turns and weaves together the challenging themes of sibling rivalry, paternity, family rifts, manipulation, forgiveness and gang culture. This new translation does not lose any of Schiller’s emotional language and the depiction of his vision of copious violence is both fast-paced and imaginative. Boys and their dangerous toys dominate the proceedings, rampaging at times into invigorating theatrical climaxes which are clearly designed to shock.

Sometimes there is a little too much loud shooting for comfort, but the various sequences of criminal warfare showcase perfectly the Faction’s talent for working an ensemble and make for some excellent choreography and lighting effects. Especially memorable are the red filters. The use of chalk at the back of the stage is also a very nice touch, pervading the minimalist backdrop, providing an ever-fixed reminder of the demonic thoughts of gang members and harking back to the traditional blackboard as a means of communication.

I have to admit I found it difficult to empathise with any of this play’s characters, but this is not to say that there was not some great acting. Cary Crankson is as smooth and charismatic as ever as Spiegelberg, arguably one of the true villains of the piece as he attempts to overthrow and outdo the leader of the gang. Andrew Chevalier’s Franz, arguably the other true villain, although a little hammy at times, manages convincing, vile contempt for his father and absent brother and depicts both physical and emotional deformity admirably throughout.

The Robbers runs at the New Diorama until 22nd February.

What The Women Did @ Southwark Playhouse, London – January 2014

This remounting of What The Women Did, ‘Two’s Company’’s triple bill of plays about the First World War, marks several special anniversaries: the centenary of the Great War itself, ten years since the first production of the piece at Southwark Playhouse in 2004 and twenty years since the theatre itself opened.

The title of the trilogy and the way it has been billed are possibly both a little misleading in that they suggest a series of works that concern the plights of strong women who are left at home to keep families and lives together whilst husbands go to war, no questions asked. I was expecting a large dose of some possibly quite dull ‘keep the home fires burning’ gumpf, conveying quite literally ‘what the women did’. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Each play is as focused on the continuing, usually overwhelming, impact on women of men, whether they are absent through war or whether they have never been there in the first place. Whilst war is of course the common backdrop, at times it almost becomes a side issue. These plays are full of confusion and emotional turmoil, so much at times, that the war is forgotten. The very recognizable dilemmas and longings being portrayed on stage are often symptoms simply of being female and alone.

In Luck of War, a war widow recently remarried and pregnant has the difficult task of welcoming home her maimed first husband, presumed dead. Handmaidens of Death presents a gaggle of female munitions workers whose prime purpose in life appears to be to find a male soul mate. What is striking about this particular play is that despite the very obvious class divide, the women are exactly the same; strongly united through the predicament of war and in their plights for love and companionship. JM Barrie’s The Old Lady Shows Her Medals is a poignant account of the rivalry between four amusing charladies as they compete to have the bravest son at the front. Only one of them doesn’t have a son at all and is drawn into a complex web of manipulation. It seems JM Barrie’s preoccupation with the ‘son’ figure found its way into his drama, as well as his famous prose.

All three pieces are pacy and slick with some intelligent direction from Tricia Thorns. One particular highlight is the German soldiers who return to proposition the girls in Handmaidens of Death. Their disembodied voices are perfect and the dancing embers of their cigarettes in the darkness and the flashes of gore as they are briefly revealed are incredibly profound images. Alex Marker’s fluid design is also interesting and inspired, moulding itself perfectly to the three different settings.

The whole company provide consistently good acting, but particularly worthy of mention are Matthew Cottle, who gives a particularly insightful portrayal of the awkwardly placed Amos in Luck of War and Victoria Gee, who merges gormlessness and guilt perfectly in the same play. The Old Lady Shows Her Medals also spawns two fine performances in the shape of protagonists Mrs Dowey (Susan Wooldridge) and Kenneth Dowey, her pretend son (Simon Darwen). Both are utterly convincing as they play out the lies and deception and Darwen, perfect as the strapping Scotsman, is particularly adept at conveying uncomfortable, pathos-inducing exploitation. His sporran is too high, though; this, I have on good authority 🙂

What The Women Did runs at Southwark Playhouse until 15th February.

Hamlet @ New Diorama Theatre, London – January 2014

Hamlet3So, here we find ourselves in another January with another Faction repertory season in full swing. ‘Under the Stars’ has the privilege of reviewing all three of this year’s shows at the fabulous New Diorama Theatre, and what better way to start on a cold winter’s night than with the Bard’s longest tragedy.

Mark Leipacher’s production of Hamlet is dark and intense, confident and eerie. As is so often the Faction’s way, there is no real set to speak of and the dress is modern and unspectacular, the production relying on the skill of the actors and Leipacher’s ever-slick direction to make its impact.

Leipacher’s inventive spark seems to go from strength to strength and there is no shortage of his customary innovative tricks and theatrical devices, the best of which is the projection of a brooding Simon Russell Beale as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who, for the main part, appears on a makeshift collage balanced by the ensemble. This works really well, with Beale’s incredible delivery meshing with the immediacy of the recorded voice to create a startling effect. Another interesting highlight is the use of human heads to depict skulls during the graveyard scene. Said human heads are thankfully still attached to ensemble members and it all makes for an interesting touch.

Despite a few botched lines here and there, performances are strong across the board. Jonny McPherson’s Hamlet is brooding and technically excellent, switching masterfully between introspection and comedy as the character’s tragic flaw of procrastination and all of its consequences are played out before our eyes. The soliloquies are particularly impressive with McPherson moving in close to the audience and addressing them directly. Every time he does this, it is as though Shakespeare wrote this play with exactly the whites-of-eyes type of intimacy the New Diorama provides in mind. Other performances of note are Kate Sawyer’s excellent portrayal of a Gertrude who displays the gamut of emotion from smug victory to tragic realisation perfectly and Cary Crankson’s chilled dude of a Laertes whose exchanges with his sister verge on the sinister. Hamlet runs in rep at the New Diorama Theatre with Thebes and The Robbers until 22 February.

Photo by Charlie Ward.

Macbeth @ Little Angel Theatre, London – October 2013

Most people, particularly Shakespeare enthusiasts, would probably balk at the idea of one of the Bard’s bloodiest tragedies being performed by puppets. However, this beautiful and compelling adaption of the Scottish Play, currently playing at Islington’s delightful Little Angel Theatre, dissolves any doubts and misconceptions one might have within the first five minutes.

Directed and adapted by the Little Angel’s own Artistic Director, Peter Glanville, this production is part of the Suspense Festival, a series of plays taking place across 12 venues, presenting puppetry for adults. The play runs for 90 minutes with no interval, but makes up for what is cut out in abundance, with its imagination, inventiveness and sheer originality.

Every character is portrayed by some kind of bird, showcasing Shakespeare’s tremendous use of imagery and highlighting and playing on the metaphors of a text that is littered with references to fowl. The murderous Macbeth himself is played by a mean-looking wooden cockerel and his wife a chicken, whilst King Duncan and other members of the monarchy become gentle and majestic swans. The talented puppeteers are three women (Claire Harvey, Lori Hopkins and Lowri James) dressed in black with whitened faces and sunken eyes, who could pass for the ‘three weird sisters’ themselves, but who actually operate the puppets with such skill and dexterity that their presence is both eerily haunting and, occasionally, momentarily forgotten.

The use of puppets instead of humans, of course, means that the director can defy limitation and do things that are not usually possible on stage, and Glanville takes full advantage of this. Far from detracting from the play’s horrific subject matter and disturbing events, and combined with Peter O’Rourke’s terrific set and David Duffy’s atmospheric lighting design, the puppets fashion an exciting new dimension, accentuating the awfulness and creating undeniable creepiness. That the beaks never move to the recorded dialogue only serves to compliment an already weird, but remarkably successful effect. Shakespeare’s world becomes one in which witches soar and swoop menacingly, innocent chicks get murdered in their nest and pecking cocks fight ferociously to the death.

Whilst the key events of the original script are put across clearly and convincingly and the recorded dialogue is meticulously audible throughout, a good prior knowledge of the play is essential to glean a full understanding of what is happening. The recording means that the script comes across with new clarity and immediacy, every word crystal clear and loaded with meaning. Nathanial Parker’s Macbeth is beautifully commanding and crisp, his Lady Macbeth ingeniously interpreted by Helen McCrory who brings a sexy femininity to the character and new meaning to ‘foul (fowl) is fair…’.

All in all, this Macbeth is a challenge and a half which the company pulls off with commendable gusto and which will undoubtedly create a new legion of adult puppetry fans. I’d love to see their take on Hamlet….

 

Jekyll & Hyde @ Southwark Playhouse, London – September 2013

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is an 1886 novella, allegedly written and rewritten in one evening whilst its author, famous Edinburgh son Robert Louis Stevenson, was high on drugs or fever or both. Essentially the study of the dual personality or schizophrenia, as it has come to be known, the story has been much depicted and adapted over the years in plays, musicals and films and has been undoubtedly influential in the growth of understanding of the subconscious mind.

Apparently if you think you know the story, though, think again. This is how this new and radical adaption by playwright Jonathan Holloway and collaborative theatre company, Flipping the Bird, appears to want to challenge its audience. Fresh from a successful run in Edinburgh, this hour-long piece finds the perfect new home in the Southwark Playhouse’s new ‘Little’ space where Joanna Scotcher’s scant yet eerily effective set brings dirty Victorian London vividly back to life.

As if Stevenson’s story is not outlandish and horrific enough, this production turns it on its head, whilst keeping the original themes at its core. The tale is restructured into the revelation of the contents of a memoir which is being sold on the black market. As the deal is discussed by dodgy characters St. John and Worsfield, the manuscript’s story is brought to life in front of them. White-faced and suitably dead behind the eyes, both Elliott Rennie and Joel Phillimore deliver performances which are superbly melodramatic and provide musical accompaniment on cello, accordion and ukulele. This narrative device is inspired and works brilliantly, but sadly is where the magic ends.

In Holloway’s adaption, Dr Jekyll (Cristina Catalina) becomes a ‘European’ woman and the investigative lawyer, Utterson (Michael Edwards), her unfortunate lover. A dazzlingly talented scientist, this Jekyll feels trapped by Victorian conventions, constraints and attitudes towards women. Frustratingly ahead of her time, she reacts by using her brilliant brain to turn herself into something brutally rebellious and grotesque, committing heinous crimes against society and humiliating and abusing her man with tactics designed to shock.

The idea is brave and interesting, especially considering the production was originally staged on Stevenson’s home turf, but the violent feminist overtones, in a modern society where women are achieving more than ever, feel hackneyed and outdated. The members of the five-strong cast work well together and there are some outstanding performances, but one hour is simply not long enough for them to create any real depth or for the audience to make any kind of emotional connection with their characters. In addition, the piece relies far too much on a detailed knowledge of the original in that even someone very familiar with Stevenson’s work would struggle at times to grasp what is going on.

Where Holloway’s Jekyll is essentially too big for the era she inhabits, she ironically mirrors the overall effect of this piece which, whilst clearly setting out to achieve something original and awe-inspiring, shoots itself in the foot and ultimately fails by trying to cram too much experimental weirdness and radical reshaping into too short a space of time.

An Evening with Dave Willetts @ The Crazy Coqs – September 2013

WillettsDave2-1For more than 25 years, Dave Willetts has been a leading musical theatre star and critically acclaimed for his performances in some of the world’s most popular shows. He was the first actor in the world to play the leading roles in both Les Misérables (London and Australia) and The Phantom of the Opera (London and Manchester) and over the years has taken numerous other roles in shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar (Jesus), Sweeney Todd (Sweeney), Sunday in the Park with George (George), Ragtime (Father), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Adam Pontipee), South Pacific (Emile de Becque), Sunset Boulevard (Max Von Mayerling – for which he received an Olivier nomination), 42nd Street (Julian Marsh), Aspects of Love (George Dillingham) and Legally Blonde (Professor Callaghan). Dave has also recorded five solo albums and undertaken numerous concert tours of the UK.

What many may not realise is that accounts of the events leading up to all of the above successes combine to make a fantastic story documenting a rise to fame that most aspiring performers can only dream of. Last week, Dave brought this series of fascinating anecdotes, his pianist, Barry Todd, and a varied collection of songs, to The Crazy Coqs, an intimate cabaret venue in the heart of Piccadilly.

Although there were possibly not too many surprises in the two-act programme for those familiar with Dave’s work, it made for a great introduction for those new to him and a thoughtfully presented couple of hours which transported the audience back to various important milestones in the singer’s professional and personal life. An upbeat medley of Jolson classics conjured memories of Dave’s childhood and family times around the piano and a lovely version of ‘Lullaby in Ragtime’ from The Five Pennies was performed in tribute to Dave’s two daughters, Leanne and Kerry, harking back to his early days of parenting. Old concert favourite, ‘Mr Cellophane’, gave Dave the chance to showcase his acting skills and sense of humour, whilst ‘I Guess it Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ (Dave’s very first audition piece) and ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams’ (grandson Rafferty’s favourite song), performed on guitar and ukulele respectively, unveiled further dimensions to Dave’s tremendous versatility.

Whilst Dave was working at an engineering firm in the Midlands back in the early 1980s, he was invited to see some friends in a production of Call Me Madam, which sparked his interest and subsequent involvement in amateur theatre. He later came to the attention of Bob Hamlyn, artistic director of the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, when he played Charlie Gordon in the Charles Strouse musical, Flowers for Algernon. Hamlyn later cast him as “third flunky from the left” in Strouse’s Annie. This anecdote led to a spine-tingling performance of ‘Tomorrow’ which showcased perfectly Dave’s inimitable ability to interpret a song and underline the meaning of each and every lyric.

It was when Dave went to audition for the original London production of Les Misérables that things really started to happen for him, and he performed a rapturous version of ‘Luck Be a Lady’ to commemorate the event. That audition resulted in director Trevor Nunn casting Dave in the ensemble, and within a year he was understudying Jean Valjean, eventually taking over the role. In 1987, when Michael Crawford departed London for the US premiere of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, Dave succeeded him at Her Majesty’s Theatre. These momentous achievements were marked at the close of the first half, with Dave presenting spectacular medleys of songs from each show.

The second half of the evening continued the autobiographical theme, particular highlights being a rousing interpretation of ‘Ti Amo’, a dramatic ballad from J’Accuse…! The Passions of Emile Zola, one of Dave’s current projects, and a medley of Neil Diamond classics, which had the audience singing and clapping along. The show closed with more audience participation: ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and, finally, La Cage Aux Folles classics ‘The Best of Times is Now’, and ‘I Am What I Am.’

Dave Willetts is relaxed, personable and engaging on stage, his performances laced with undeniable ‘pizzazz’, his liquid vocals encompassing the exact amount of light and shade. Combined with the sheer class and comfort of ‘The Crazy Coqs’ this made for a terrific few evenings’ entertainment which one can only hope will be repeated in the not-too-distant future.

The Spring Tide @ The Old Red Lion, London – September 2013

lanThe Old Red Lion Theatre’s quest to showcase the work of innovative and exciting new writers continues with this world premiere of Carol Vine’s The Spring Tide.

The play is essentially a study of one woman’s fight with her true self, which results in her allowing convention and what she perceives to be a more socially acceptable way to live, to win. Coupled with the inevitable emotional havoc this wreaks, both on herself and the people in her life, this makes for an ambitious and poignant piece.

The tackling of gay issues in the theatre is by no means new, but I think it is fair to say that stories of women battling their sexuality, getting married and having children, then ‘coming out’ in later life, are more rarely seen. The young versions of Suzy (Lorena Vila) and Lan (Nellie NcQuinn) meet and fall in love whilst still at school and the scenes between them bring out the more innocent side of a same-sex relationship that is both readily embraced by its teenaged participants and which sizzles with possibility. Both young actresses give bold and promising performances and their interaction is tender and thoroughly believable throughout.

There are, however, a few elements which have the potential to jar and baffle the audience as the play jumps back and forth in time and the girls re-unite as adults. Now 45, Suzy (Melanie Ramsay) has turned her back on her relationship with Lan and married Matthew Ashforde’s hapless Tim.

The couple’s troubled teenaged son, Lewis, is the archetypal exponent of a dysfunctional marriage, and whilst Pierro Niel Mee’s performance occasionally verges on caricature, he brings an undeniable vitality and much-needed humour to the piece. The adult Lan’s Manchester accent is confusing (her younger counterpart has a strong Irish lilt) and the reasoning behind her return to Suzy’s life is never really explained, but Anita Parry’s confident performance is impressive throughout.

Whilst on some levels this production is very much a work in progress, its originality and moving subject matter show real potential for something special.

Photograph: Lorena Vila as Suzy, Nellie McQuinn as Lan, by Jack Weir.

Tutto Bene, Mama? @ The Print Room, London – July 2013

tuttobene02The Print Room is a relatively new and intimate performing arts venue in Notting Hill which aims to deliver work that is ‘ambitious, adventurous and original’. As audience members are led in pairs by theatre staff through a tranquil garden into the pitch black auditorium to witness this new adaption of Gloria Mina’s Tutto Bene, Mama? by April de Angelis, visibility really is zero and ‘ambitious’ is certainly a word that springs to mind.

 

As the plot unfolds, it becomes abundantly clear why Mina chose to set the piece in darkness.

At its unpleasant centre is the death of a young, single mother whose corpse proceeds to decay and attract swarms of flies as her young son looks on and, simply assuming she is ‘sleeping’, goes about his daily lifein the apartment.

This would clearly pose rather a challenge to present in the traditional way. In addition, the part of the Boy would arguably be far too large and difficult an undertaking for a child to take on, so his voice is supplied by young adult actress Georgia Groome. Her skill is such that it takes a good while to work out that the voice piercing through the darkness is neither male nor that of a child, though once reality dawns it is somewhat distracting.

There’s also the niggling feeling that surely any child with half a brain would panic and call 999 at the sight of his mother unconscious on the floor. His reaction is completely unbelievable and this is the plot’s major flaw.

Is darkness an effective theatrical mechanism or merely a quirky cop out? Whilst it’s true that not being able to see anything forces one to engage in a different way, heightening the other senses and forcing the brain to try and fill in the gaps, unfortunately the sound and smell effects used in this production are somewhat disembodied, quite unrealistic, and do not have a cohesive effect.

Where the piece does succeed is that the experience is distinctly uncomfortable, and there is an overwhelming sense of relief when the action draws to a close. Not typically the aim of theatre perhaps, but this is an ambitious, brave and interesting undertaking nevertheless.

Photo by Ellie Kurttz

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.