"why don't you go fuck a play" Boy George, by Twitter 18.7.2012

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Stagey Play For Stagey People

production photo by Johan Persson

How splendidly the Donmar adapts to every new production: from the blinding pennants of the Spelling Bee school gym to the stark guns-and-gantries of the all-female Julius Caesar and now an authentically lamp-black pickled Victorian music hall with soaring columns, creaking boards and a whiff of oranges and cheap scent in the pit.

Rose Trelawny is the darling of the ‘Wells’ theatre troupe but leaves to marry a young posh bloke.  Although she finds his family stifling and eventually bolts, on her return she’s lost her ability to act. The situation is saved by a young writer in the company who’s invented a new and more naturalistic style of play which suits Rose’s new manners.

It's a vehicle for author Arthur Wing Pinero's campaign to change the nature of theatre, seeking to reflect real people in credible situations, here by ridiculing the bombastic and overdone performances of the time. Ironic, really, when you think how his farces like Dandy Dick and The Magistrate still depend on strident acting.

It’s a doubly Londony show, too: set in 1865 when Sadler’s Wells - long before it became the terpsichorean temple of the Waitrose-going classes - was the satellite TV channel of its day churning out lurid melodramas for a lowbrow audience, and the director is Islington-reared, Central St Martin’s-trained film maker Joe Wright who turned Keira Knightley into Anna Karenina.

In the same way we couldn’t wait for that train to arrive, and although both the ideas and the plot are interesting and amusing, Trelawny is a very slow burner and takes too long to develop. Patrick Marber’s script additions blend seamlessly with Pinero’s original and the cast double both the acting troupe and the frightful society family, none better than Ron Cook as the stern Vice Chancellor and a theatrical landlady who’s a close cousin of Old Mother Riley.

Playing Rose, Amy Morgan trills prettily and simpers in a white frock as readily as Amanda Seyfried in Les Miserables but the best of the casting is in the smaller roles: the wonderful Maggie Steed as a fading actress and disabled dowager, Daniel Mays as a posturing ham actor of the oldest possible school.  Finest of all is Daniel Kaluuya voicing Pinero’s own opinions on theatre and the development of the new realism as the hesitant playwright Tom Wrench: excellent characterization and subtlety in a play where most others are deliberately cartoon figures.

This review written for Londonist.com and published 28 February 2013

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

THE VORTEX by Noel Coward
Rose Theatre, Kingston
* * * * 

David Dawson, Kerry Fox, The Vortex © Simon Annand

Coward's scraped-savings visit to New York in 1921 taught him two things which would serve him for a lifetime: that Broadway plays were performed at a much snappier pace than English comedies, and that if you were young and pretty and could play the piano, someone rich would invite you to a party. He was entertained frequently by the eccentric and flamboyant American actress Laurette Taylor and her diffident writer husband J. Hartley Manners and repaid them by picturing their characters in two early plays. In Hay Fever, it's affectionate and light-hearted, in The Vortex, it's cruel, and Stephen Unwin's vibrant but contradictory revival splendidly highlights the spite. 

read the rest of the review on www.onestoparts.com here

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

No More, Mr Nice Guy ...

SOME GIRLS at Theatro Technis
* *

Some Girl(s) - yes, that's how it's titled - is not Neil LaBute's best work. Less funny than Fat Pig, less edgy than In The Company of Men, it's best known as a production vehicle for ex-sitcom stars to entertain their TV audiences in the comfort of a theatre. In London David (Friends) Schwimmer and on Broadway Eric (Will & Grace) McCormack played the central character referred to as 'Man', a wired, awkward, nervously energetic writer on the verge of commitment to marriage who - in four separate-but-near-identical hotel rooms across the States - meets a series of ex-girlfriends.

Ostensibly, he's out to make peace with them and settle some old emotional debts - they each seem to have a valid reason to be angry with him - but it's equally clear he, and they, have 'issues' to work out. Unfortunately in Tower Theatre's amateur production, shorn of any 'him off the telly' celebrity interest in a principal actor, it just doesn't come off the page and it's hard to engage with either the writer on the stage, or the writer of the play.

'Man' - although I'm fairly sure it was 'Guy' on Broadway - is a neurotic who's had one espresso too many, popping on the balls of his feet, twisting his hands in mid-air to make a point, forever touching his face or his forehead or his hair, verbally and physically contorting to rationalise his past transgressions and present himself as a 'nice guy'. Laurence Ward captures this accurately, but it still makes you want to punch him.

LaBute has his hero engage the women's emotions or sexuality, and occasionally make genuinely reparative offers of reconciliation for his past behaviour, but the character fails as a credible Everyman because he's so monothematically an 'average white guy' locked in a cage of whiny self-justification.

Tower Theatre is an ambitious amateur company, producing twenty or more shows in a year, and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the casting or the directing; everyone knows their lines, it has good pace, the women are nicely differentiated, the set's substantial enough and the stage management work hard to make each successive hotel room distinct from the others, but on this play their efforts are largely wasted.

This review written for www.remotegoat.co.uk and published on 13 February 2013

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Venus Rises in East 17

Ye Olde Rose and Crown, Walthamstow

* * * * *

‘Up a steep and very narrow stairway, to a voice like a metronome …’ – yes, I know that’s from A Chorus Line, but it crosses my mind every time I go to the Rose and Crown – although the dark at the top of the stairs has had a makeover with shiny new loos and there’s a fresh air of confidence alongside the Toilet Duck.

At last the R&C has come of age, and this production of One Touch of Venus ranks with the best the venue has housed.  A featherweight plot, in which an art gallery statue comes to life and falls in love with a geeky loser, but enlivened first by tintack-sharp lyrics by poet and humorist Ogden Nash and crisp one-liners by S. J. Perelman, then topped off with music by Kurt Weill.  But this is not Weill in his Weimar/Brechtian mode, as by 1943 he'd emigrated from Germany and studied jazz and musical theatre with Ira Gershwin and Oscar Hammerstein, so it’s tuneful, bright and massively enjoyable, designed to lift the spirits during wartime. 

It’s less a revival than a rediscovery, since Venus is rarely performed and the brilliance of this version is to play it crisp and straight, avoiding the camp which often undermines fringe productions by less intelligent directors, with impeccable diction and accents to capture those complex lines, and with some exceptionally strong and engaging voices.

In the leading role Marlene Dietrich once turned down because it was too risqué, Kendra McMillan’s Venus is perfect casting: tall and classically curvaceous she balances seductiveness with wit and her singing voice is warm and inviting, you can see why David Jay-Douglas as the gauche barber character falls instantly in love with her.  He too is nothing short of excellent, channelling Jerry Lewis as an endearingly hapless schmuck, with an elegant baritone.  Their duets are both beautifully realised, and beautifully realistic.

Standouts among a terrific ensemble include Danielle Morris enjoying the dialogue of hardboiled secretary Molly, and James Wolstenholme as the crafty art gallery director. Lauren Osborn as jilted girlfriend Gloria is a touch too cartoonish, but the rest of the cameos and characterisations are fine.

It’s good.  Very good.  Just well-sung, well-acted, well-dressed and well-lit.  If only all fringe shows could be this competent. 

Such an obscure musical, and one without any popular ‘standards’ among the songs, is hard to revive and the cast and production team have elevated this one brilliantly.  All credit to director and girl-to-watch Lydia Milman Schmidt.

originally written for www.remotegoat.co.uk

Saturday, 5 January 2013

A Shaw Thing

"Shaw shorts for those without the buttocks for Major Barbara"

“Oh, that Bernadette Shaw!” shrieks Simon Russell-Beale’s drag queen character in Privates on Parade, “What a chatterbox! Nags away from arsehole to breakfast-time but never sees what's staring her in the face.”

If you’re also in the camp that thinks George Bernard Shaw was endlessly verbose, you’re in for a treat at Wilmington Theatre’s neatly boxed production of three short, sharp and funny playlets at the Old Red Lion.

It’s as though the old boy gave up worthy polemical drama and started to write for ‘Smack the Pony’ as these extended sketches tackle marital fidelity, uppity women, wife swapping and the contrasting moralities of London and ‘the country’ from a perspective you simply wouldn’t expect of a dramatist born in the 1850’s.

In ‘Village Wooing’ a shop assistant wins a competition and takes a world cruise on which she meets a travel writer – but he’s so focused on his own writing that he’s not observant enough to experience anything ‘in the moment’.  Shaw could as easily be spoofing the Facebook and Twitter era where tourists frame the world through the postings they put online

In ‘Overruled’ itself, two adulterous couples bicker with each other and eventually agree how to swap partners: it’s rammed with epigrammatic banter and you’ll wonder whether Noel Coward read it before writing Private Lives, the speech rhythms are so similar.

Polina Kalinina’s directing is pacy and admirably well-focused, the company of six actors are universally fine: Lucy Hough especially so as the shop assistant and architect of her own future in ‘Village Wooing’ and Leo Wyndham delivering two excellently differentiated variations on foot-shuffling awkwardness as callow young romantics.

Emma Bailey‘s set is elegant and clean, washing the backgrounds in cool blue-grey and cream, with very good furniture and props, and the ladies’ costumes are beautiful – perhaps a touch too revealing for an Edwardian cruise ship although the gents in the audience didn't seem to mind and with the temperature in the auditorium, I'd gladly have stripped down to my pants.

originally written for Londonist, published 4 January 2013

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The 2012 FOXIES

We’re not a big fan of awards. Especially not the sort voted for anonymously rather than juried – so often it boils down to which tyro producer has the most Facebook mates who’ll vote for his play without having seen it, or which West End shows starring TV names most fourteen-year-old girls-who-phone-in have heard of.  So in the tradition of endorsing the inaccurate prejudices of internet trolls, here are the 2012 FOXIES.


A surprisingly tough category which ought to have been dominated by SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN where seven tons of water are sloshed and recycled nightly, although we sat close enough to scent the chlorinated detergence whose constant rinsing might account for the over-brightness of the smile La Strallen never took off her face even in the sad or serious bits.  The next contender would be MYDIDAE where Phoebe Waller-Bridge douched naked upstairs at the Soho Theatre in what every review called “a fully-plumbed bathroom”.  There were also some well-plumbed depths in the scripting and overall it felt gimmicky so this year’s winner is TWELFTH NIGHT (which we saw) and by extension the other ‘Shipwreck Plays’ in the RSC’s summer lodging at the Roundhouse. The actors are obliged to crawl under the stage and enter via a huge glazed water tank, like freshly landed fish.  Freshly landed fish is a sweeter smell than many West End offerings, so a worthy win.


Hotly contested even though there are only two nominees: OUR BOYS certainly scored on the ‘hotness’ front with a moistly pantied queue at the stage door most nights for a glimpse of Lawrence Fox or Arthur Darvill or a strangely beefed Neville Longbottom from Harry Potter, an actor who is probably destined never to be known by any other sobriquet. But the acting was as semi-stiff as some of the ‘gentlemen who moisturise’ in the audience and we preferred Sandi Toksvig’s tighter two-hander at the shiny new St James’s theatre – a Journey’s End for the Helmand generation - and so the winner is BULLY BOY.


There was a time when such activity was confined to fringe venues in Brixton or Dalston, sometimes even on stage, but not only are we talking about a nose-to-nose contest between our second premier opera house and a top off-West-End railway arch, we’re also escalating this award to Best Onstage Coke Snorting By An Eponymous Heroine In A Musical With Two Christian Names In The Title.  

It’s tempting to give the award instantly to Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi if only for the pleasure of hearing Stephen Fry stumble over the pronunciation at the ceremony in the Dorchester (oh, weren’t you invited – so sorry, maybe next year) since her vocal and physical performance as Bess in Cape Town Opera’s PORGY AND BESS were equally incandescent, but ‘happy dust’ has been mentioned in previous productions and so for originality in both snorting and characterization we’re going for Laura Pitt-Pulford’s gloriously-sung creative take on Mabel Normand in MACK AND MABEL at Southwark Playhouse.  Being from Warwickshire, she’ll be cheaper to fly in than Maswanganyi.


We are not to be bought.  Certainly not by what’s usually on offer at West End press nights – a glass of tepid chardonnay and nary a twiglet in sight.  Unless you count Premier PR’s wholesale flooding of the Stalls with plastic flutes of champagne and free programmes for the opening of CHARIOTS OF FIRE, a strong runner-up for generosity if not for intimacy although we did manage to rub up against a number of Olympicans including Sally Gunnell, firm body and what felt like a rayon frock (surely not), and pre-Tom-Daley everyone’s favourite speedo wetter Mark Foster with whom we wandered out into the night for a photo-op in a Soho alley.  But for actually creating an enjoyable atmosphere in a whole theatre from cellar to rafters, and for its ingenious Hendricks Gin and Tonic Fountain in the foyer with attendants dressed as juniper-flavoured water nymphs, it’s Wilton’s Music Hall’s production of THE GREAT GATSBY that takes the crown.


This might have been a second ‘Singing in the Rain’ award since despire the wonderful setting and display of gameness, even the charms of LIZA MINELLI were harder to appreciate in the relentless downpour that attended her open-air concert at Hampton Court.  Every time we see Liza we think “this could be the last gig” and at one point it looked like pneumonia might carry her off actually during ‘Maybe This Time’ but she, and we, survived. So looking around for a successor to Megan Mullally for the most self-indulgent and under-rehearsed performance of the year, it was an easy win for the display of gameyness in IDINA MENZEL’s over-ambitious and under-directed whole week of concerts at the Apollo.  Lazily-scripted, slackly performed, shoeless and in a dress she had to keep tugging up over her tits this was a production of such ill-conceived inanity it could only appeal to the most hardline of her fans, some of whom actually provided 20 minutes’ of the show in a sort of karaoke session which must have been a thousand times more fun to take part in than for the rest of the audience to watch. 


We’re not in favour of telly casting, but conversely seem drawn to see ex-veterans of Coronation Street strutting the legitimate boards.  Sometimes it’s because we think they were ‘wasted’ in soap and could do better work, at other times it’s because they seem so closely cast to type in the television programme they’d never be capable of anything else.  So, unfortunately, seemed the case with VICKY ENTWISTLE (Janice Battersby) partnered with CRAIG GAZEY (daft Graham) in the ATG tour of FUNNY PECULIAR which would pick up our worst play of the year award if we gave one, so relentlessly sexist, homophobic and racist it shouldn’t really be performed any more. We adored SARAH LANCASHIRE in BETTY BLUE EYES and seriously admired TRACY BRABIN’s work in MEAT at Theatre 503: we think she could like Lesley Sharp make the transition from soap to Ibsen, but they are both long-gone from Corrie and so the runner up is undoubtedly the surprise and delight that is the rediscovery of WENDI PETERS (Cilla Battersby Brown) as a musical theatre talent in THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD at the Landor.  Truly a potential Mrs Lovett if anyone can ever prise the cleaver from Imelda’s cold dead hands. 

But our winner, hailed by all the print critics too, is KATHERINE KELLY (Becky Macdonald) for SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER at the National, vaulting the railway viaduct in a single bound to become a legitimate leading lady.  Let’s hope she doesn’t piss it all up the wall in MR SELFRIDGE on TV.


The obvious choice is VIVA FOREVER, whose tuneless, thoughtless, clumsy production had a £3 million advance a month before opening and proved itself critic-proof.  It may yet break even, but it establishes ‘stadium shows’ as a different category from musical theatre and we may yet have to breed a new strain of critics to hate them enough.   So in our efforts to leave no avenue unexplored we made a pilgrimage to Leicester (wisely this time not staying overnight) for FINDING NEVERLAND.  Regardless of its total disregard for historical truth or honesty to the biography of J M Barrie, it was a lush staging with some excellent singing from Julian Ovenden, Rosalie Craig and Clare Moore. With a pirate ship AND a fully-operational vintage car, it was more Chitty and more Bang-Bang than you could shake a stick at, as, for Harvey Weinstein’s ELEVEN MILLION DOLLARS it bloody should have been. 

Like the car, it’s stalled and going nowhere, and may never-never find a London theatre to land.  But for the moment, it can console itself with its 2012 Foxy award.