Reviews

You’ll find theatre, film and book reviews here.

Keep a look out for the occasional “Three Word Review!”

 

Once: April 2013   at the The Phoenix Theatre.

I have to admit I went in to this blind.  I was asked on my way in if I had seen the film. “There’s a film?” I replied. Most people will know that Once is based on the film depicting what Enda Walsh refers to as “one of the most delicate invisible love stories”. Walsh tends to write particularly dark plays, so this is refreshingly sweet for him. That said, it remains grounded in realism and remains believable throughout.

 

This musical is not like other musicals in many ways. It is not happy-clappy, melodramatic or entirely unrealistic. Despite the fact that the cast are also the musicians (a decision that is perfectly fit for this show) and are therefore on stage with instruments all the time, it looks so natural.  There are not big set changes; we are only ever in plausible places, but the main set is a traditional Irish pub. A set change is indicated by the rearranging of tables and chairs, and occasionally the presence of a hoover. It is similar to other musicals in the way that the songs do not move the plot forward. However, the songs are sung because music is at the heart of the story – a girl who finds a guy and gives him the drive to rediscover his talent and passion for writing and performing songs. Because of this, Once gets away with the cast breaking into song for the sake of singing.

 

The music itself, by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, is folksy, haunting and repeatedly gorgeous. There are moments where I am given shivers by the building of the vocals and instruments. This, combined with my sheer awe at the casts’ ability to move, sing and play at the same time is breath-taking. It is very obvious why Once has won so many awards – it is stunning. If Mumford and Sons collaborated with Damien Rice and Foy Vance, I don’t think they could come up with more beautiful folk music.

 

The two main characters are only ever referred to as Girl (Zrinka Cvitesic) and Guy (Declan Bennett), perhaps because they could be anyone. I’d like to say that they drive the show but actually it is the support from the ensemble that really makes this something special. The cast includes RSC actor Aiden Kelly who has appeared in theatre and television from Blasted at the Lyric Hammersmith to The Bill on ITV, Jez Unwin fresh from his performance in the National Theatre’s The Magistrate and Valda Aviks whose credits include Jerry Springer – The Opera at the National Theatre and UK Tour. Watching them, even though the musical is not about them, I get a sense of each of their stories and their motivations for playing, loving and needing music. Even when the ensemble are not in the scenes, they sit at the side of the stage watching the action, supporting simply by being there and by playing their instruments when necessary. When they play and sing together it feels less like I’m watching a musical and more like I’m at an intimate indie gig. And it is intimate.  The theatre is large but doesn’t feel it.  The bar on stage operates as a real bar during the interval, and the audience are invited to buy drinks from it and mingle on stage as if we were in the pub we’ve been watching.

 

At times there is the sense that the cast are trying very hard with the dialogue. It’s funny, and there are elements of Brian Friel’s Translations in some of the language barriers between the Czech Girl and the Irish Guy, but in the first half, it doesn’t feel effortless. Things seem to relax in the second half somewhat, and by the end I’ve stopped noticing because I’m engrossed in their lives. The whole musical has a melancholy tone of longing. The story has an oddly contradictory message; don’t give up on your dreams just because life seems to be in the way, but at the same time sometimes you have to make a choice to leave something behind because of circumstances beyond your control. It left me feeling bittersweet, disappointed and uplifted, sad and hopeful all at the same time.

 

Many people will watch this musical with preconceptions and expectations from their knowledge of the film (which I now know exists), but I hope that they, as I was, are overwhelmed by the simplicity and beauty of what is presented on stage. It works wonderfully as an original, unique musical.

If you are usually the kind of person to disparage and dismiss musicals, think twice before you do that to Once.

 

Boy in a Dress at Battersea Arts Centre, 17th March 2013: Definitely not a drag. 

There is something amusingly endearing about La JohnJoseph.  She (yes, she – that’s not a mistake) attempts to redefine gender and actually refers to herself as both “he” and “she” in the short biography provided.  She speaks in archaic, sweepingly poetic language, she name drops philosophers like they’re A-list celebrities and changes costumes more than Madonna changes her hair style.  None of these are bad things.  They all make Boy in a Dress really likeable.

 

Erin Siobhan Hutching, to me, represented JohnJoseph in the female form.  When Erin spoke, JohnJoseph would mouth along with her, sometimes writing at the same time as if it were a letter or diary entry.  They shared costumes and lines and a song.  These two performers were accompanied by a third; talented musician Ed Jaspers.  Ed played the piano and added the occasional, well placed quip.

 

The set looked entirely unstable and at the same time had the air of something that has been built to be climbed on.  It had that magical contradiction that only a theatre set seems to be able to pull off.  There were obvious footholds and ledges but each time JohnJoseph scampered up and down the sides of the wardrobe in enormous gold sparkly platform shoes, I held my breath in case this time she did fall.  It’s OK.  She didn’t.  But there was a distinct ankle turn on one descent.

 

I know that the cabaret style calls for songs, but actually I think the show was let down by some of the song choices and some of the singing of them.  There were moments of vocal beauty, but there were just as many moments of singing slightly off key.  There were bizarre word pronunciations that made the lyrics unintelligible and a lot of the singing was actually quite average.  She can sing, there’s no denying that, it just felt like some more work was needed on her voice since the show relied so heavily on the songs.  And it really did.  The most interesting thing about this show was the story JohnJoseph is telling.  It’s a fascinating story and I was lapping it up.  The monologues were written in beautiful prose that mimicked poetry.  It was at times, Gatsby-esque.  But every five minutes when things were getting interesting she stopped talking to sing another song!  Fewer songs, chosen more effectively, would have had a greater impact when sung.

 

This contributed to the fact that the show was too long.  There were a few moments of prancing on stage that wandered over from interesting and subversive to self-indulgent and repetitive.  In the last half hour of the 90 minute show, I really felt that there were at least four points where the show could have ended…and then just carried on.  The tricky thing here was that the stories about JohnJoseph’s early life were still fascinating and highly engaging.  The parts set in New York were mostly less interesting, but I could see how they gave a fuller picture of the character standing before us.

 

Perhaps the most poignant moment for me (aside from the actual end when it finally came), was a tableau created by JohnJoseph and Erin while Ed played hauntingly beautiful music on the piano.  JohnJoseph was wearing a dress made out of white paper aeroplanes.  It looked vaguely modelled on the classic Marilyn Monroe white halter neck dress.  Erin had made herself up during the show with huge, pink, false eyelashes and overdrawn, severe black eyebrows and lip liner.  It was the face of Lady Gaga’s and Liza Minelli’s lovechild.  But somehow these elements came together to create the most moving moment of the show.  Erin disappeared inside the wardrobe and JohnJoseph, now covered in blue paint and glitter, climbed up on top of it while singing.  The wardrobe opened and Erin was revealed as the Virgin Mary.  It was absolutely, unquestionably beautiful.  This glittery, singing, fallen angel lying above the drag queen Virgin was nothing short of mesmerising.  If every moment of singing had been like this, the whole show would have flown by.

 

There is so much potential here but I wanted to see more of the character.  What worked was the truthfulness of the stories.  I believe they are true, and even if they are embellished, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that they feel true.  It is a testament to the show that I genuinely enjoyed it because cabaret isn’t on my list of favourite styles.  If it were twenty minutes shorter and generally tighter, this would be an outstanding piece of theatre.  As it stands,Boy in a Dress is bold.  It is a mix of poetry, cabaret, storytelling and song.  What drives this show is truth. There is honesty at its core, and that seeps through every minute of this brave performance.

 

Short Plays by…Steven Hevey.  February 2013

 

We live in a world where speed is key.  Be short, be sharp, be snappy because time is money and there is precious little of both these things.  Our attention spans are shorter than ever thanks to the ever increasing pace of life which is reflected in images we see everywhere.  Short Plays by… might just be at the helm of an initiative that allows theatre to keep pace with the big boys of film and TV.  A downscaling of production value but an up-scaling of talent seems to be the thinking behind Kristopher Milnes’ idea to keep theatre alive in a dying economy saturated with people.

 

The concept: a writer, four short plays (or, I assume, however many is enough to fill an hour), four directors and enough actors to play the parts.  The four plays by Steven Hevey are (in order of appearance): Millennium, Baggage, Coming Up and Every bit of my Love.

The mix of experience behind this show is astounding.  For example, Coming Up  stars Ben Freeman who is currently also playing Fyero, the male lead in Wicked at the Apollo Victoria.  He acts opposite Dylan Llewellyn, for whom this is a theatrical debut.  This is indicative of the entire cast but there isn’t a weak link.  It doesn’t show that for some, this is a new experience.  Everyone is professional, despite the fact that some have had only a week to rehearse.

 

After a slight technical hitch, smoothly negotiated by Milnes himself, Millennium is where we begin.  We watch four teens bring in the new era and we are thrown in at a high energy, vibrant deep end of their party.  They’re brimming with life and all of them are sincere and convincing as teenagers.  It is clear from Hevey’s writing that he does not subscribe to the unthinking teenage lout stereotype.  The same is true in Coming Up, where Chris walks in on his dad wearing his mother’s dressing gown.  It is tinged with elements of farce, but Chris is endowed with intelligence and sensitivity that a fifteen-sixteen year old boy can possess.  He is a modern teenager, equipped to deal with such things as divorce and a father who is finally coming out of the closet.

 

Baggage sees the return of prodigal son Kevin (Steven Kynman) who has been called home in time to see his mother before she dies.  The sibling tensions and high emotions of the situation are realistically portrayed and offset beautifully by the comedy in the writing.  Tim Frost does wonderful justice to that with his timing as the disgruntled Graham.

 

We finish with a full on farce, set behind the scenes of a low budget porn film.  The film script within the script of Every bit of my Love is tongue-in-cheek entertaining.  The characters are wonderfully hammed up and the lines between realities are blurred to the point where I find myself wondering if a naked man is actually going to burst through the door leading to the “film set”.  Christopher Ragland plays the larger than life and self-aggrandising Ian, or rather, to give him his porn star name; Jack Hammer.  The whole thing feels like what I imagine Hollyoaks would be like if it were invaded by the cast of a Carry On film.  It’s bizarre, loveable, trashy and hilarious.

 

I’m not sure if the plays were meant to be linked thematically, but I certainly found myself drawing lines between them.   Each play was strong in its own right and still seemed to flow seamlessly into the next. The writing was engaging throughout, the comic timing prevalent in all four vignettes.  This whole initiative is about the words of a writer, brought to life by actors who simply want to act.  It exists to put new writing on its feet in front of an audience.  There is a love of theatre behind this production; a drive and a desire to put something on for anyone willing to watch.  It shines through in the energy of all four plays and makes this, deservedly, an evening of theatre to be reckoned with.

 

 

Dirty, Flirty Thirty. Jan 2013 by Kat Woods

Tragic, trite trash.

“Inspired by numerous stories, a girls night filled with wine and laughs and a desire to tell the truth about being single in London in your 20s/30s” was the phrase that jumped out at me from the description.  As a single woman in London in my mid-twenties, I couldn’t have felt less represented by this show.  Does being single mean you have to be stupid?  Does being single mean you are, by definition, highly irritating?  Does being single mean something sudden and tragic must have happened in your past to mean you no longer trust men and have stayed single since the terrible event, after which you vowed never to attach yourself to another human being?

 

No.  None of these things are true.  There are intelligent, well adjusted, perfectly pleasant people who also happen to be single just because they haven’t met the right person yet, or because they don’t feel the need to be in a relationship or because they have other priorities they’re putting first.

 

Marie-Claire Rugman plays Sinead; the shrill, moronic woman created by Kat Woods, apparently meant to represent the single woman living in London.  It is difficult to know how to interpret this character.  Is she meant to be taken seriously?  Is she an anti-feminist joke?  Is this a parody or a genuine depiction of what dating is like?  The decision to make it a one woman show is an interesting one because, to me, that says “this could be any woman and represents every woman”.  If that is the case, please shoot me now.  I found much of what Woods has written to be nothing short of offensive.  A woman who says “She’s Liverpudlian – maybe I should do a Beatles number” and “like all girls I want to get married” is not a woman who represents me.  But that’s if I take her seriously.  If I take her with a pinch of salt then we have a failed attempt at comedy, because she certainly wasn’t funny.  There was nothing real or thoughtful about this character, which begs the question – why has she been put on stage?

 

Initially we are in a sexual health clinic, listening to the incessantly dull and annoying ramblings of Sinead’s inner monologue.  Rugman plays all the characters, from the friendly Scouser nurse to the stereotyped Indian doctor, whose accent is so poorly imitated it is borderline racist.  Playing more than one cast member is no easy feat and Rugman simply doesn’t appear to be a strong enough actress to pull it off.  Aside from her shifts in accent, there is no change between her characters – nothing physical to distinguish one from the other.  She certainly puts in a lot of effort, but for the first forty minutes (and the show is only an hour long) she seems to be nervously rushing through her lines, trying to remember them through a frenetic panic.  She eventually gives us a list of the top five ways to date in London.  It’s fairly generic, involving bars, dancing, fitness and the internet.  She settles down a bit for these last twenty minutes but it feels like she’s left it a bit late to get into character.

 

Part of the problem with this show is that the character we are forced to watch for the majority of the hour is completely one dimensional.  It seems like a small gripe, but listening to someone wee into a cup is not entertaining or interesting if their inner monologue is nothing more than the narration of their actions.  The sound effects already convey what is happening – there has to be something more interesting going on in a believable person’s head than “I’m going to the toilet now” in all its glorious basic human function detail.  Similarly, watching a woman vigorously rub her crotch on stage is gratuitous without any interesting speech to give it some kind of meaning.

 

Dirty, Flirty Thirty is by turns predictable, trite and unconvincing.  Rugman is not so much high energy as manically overacting, and Woods would do well to consider giving her character a brain that generates something other than a blithe, bimbo stereotype.  Can a woman really get to thirty and not know the difference between chlamydia and pregnancy?  I certainly hope not.  If so, then the state of affairs for the single woman is even sorrier than this play depicts.

 

Nothing Moves If I Don’t Push It. Jan 2013

 

Are we always meant to understand what we see?  Does it matter if we don’t understand, if what we see before us is clearly the culmination of hours of painstaking effort?  This piece appears to be billed and advertised as a play but has none of the elements that would make it one.

 

I have to be honest here: I’m not sure I understood most of what went on in the hour that Simone Riccio was on stage before me.  I’m willing to admit that part of the problem was what I expected to see.  I read the blurb provided about the production and expected a coherent story.  I’ve seen mime productions before – beautifully crafted, clear stories told without words – and I loved them.  I expected the same thing here but going in with expectations might actually have been my problem.

 

This was really a circus piece.  Simone Riccio is an Italian circus performer, highly trained and highly skilled.  The London International Mime Festival covers circus performances in its remit but I went in unprepared to see something like this.  I was both surprised and confused when Riccio opened his mouth to speak (and he did this quite frequently) because I was under the impression that mime by its definition, was meant to be wordless.  We only really learned anything about the character before us when he used words, so in fact he seemed to be defeating the point of the mime entirely, as there was very little intelligible story told through his movement.

The show started fifteen minutes late and a lot of the first half comprised of Mr Riccio performing a mixture of incredibly difficult and challenging physical feats, involving a pole suspended from the ceiling.  These were impressive at first, but after a few times it became a little tedious.  There didn’t appear to be much story, a distinctive character developed or anything to give meaning to his performance.  He set the acrobatics against the backdrop of a series of projections of landscapes, water running down glass, some kaleidoscopic shapes but rarely did these bear any relevance to the setting of where he was.

 

Simone Riccio is obviously a very talented circus performer but there was very little to hold all the tricks together.  He spent ten minutes of the one hour show demonstrating his ability to juggle.  Admittedly, it’s quite impressive that he can juggle seven balls but after ten minutes even seven balls stops being an achievement and becomes boring to watch.  It felt like a series of unconnected physical magic tricks simply being performed for the sake of receiving applause at the end of each one.  And about half the audience, on cue, delivered.  The other half, however, seemed less impressed and further irritated by the reaction of the applauding audience members lapping it up.  At times, for a minute or so, he had the whole audience in the palm of his hand, but there was certainly a split feeling in the theatre until the last ten minutes.

 

For these final ten minutes, Riccio unveiled what can only be described as a human sized hamster wheel.  The structure, made from metal poles, had been used throughout the show but had been covered with black material.  Once uncovered, Riccio placed himself inside the structure using footholds, and smoothly performed artful acrobatics exercising beautiful balance and poise.  The choice of music accompanying his movement finally felt like it matched up to what he was doing, and the same can be said for the projection behind him.  At last, there was something moving to be seen here.

 

Maybe it doesn’t matter that I didn’t understand most of what I saw before me.  Though I can tell the difference between a good and bad dancer, I don’t speak the language of interpretive dance – to me it looked like he did a lot of throwing himself around for no real reason. I know my enjoyment was greater when it felt like there was something emotive driving the movement.  Maybe that’s what he wanted, maybe it wasn’t, but Riccio achieves this (finally) in the last ten minutes.  I’m just not sure it was worth the wait.

 

Impotent by Matt Reed, Jan 2013

The beginning of Impotent is so subtle we are almost unaware the play has started.  A few of the cast are unobtrusively on stage, the delightful Rebecca Crookshank sashaying on and off stage as the sassy receptionist Kelly.  It feels as if they are waiting for us to notice their presence before they will begin.

 

You may well have already guessed what the play is about from the title.  There is no shying away from the subject matter, as the play is set in an erectile dysfunction clinic.  Things could feel a bit static in Act 1 as the majority of it is performed sitting down but this is expertly avoided.  Each of the patients’ sessions are broken up by an appearance from the exceptionally talented and clearly versatile Jessie May, who plays a variety of women delivering monologues about whichever man is before us.  There are also snapshots of Kelly’s domestic life with her primate-like alpha male boyfriend Tommy, played hilariously by Randal Lyon.  Comic relief isn’t necessary in Impotent but if it were, these scenes would provide it.  Their exchanges are amusingly outrageous and provide a lovely domestic contrast to the medical, professional scenes.   All of this combined with the fact that none of the scenes are more than about 8 minutes long provides a sharp, snappy pace and the structure goes a long way to driving this play forward.

 

The characters range from the sublime (Don Cotter’s hilariously endearing Keith) to the ridiculous (Neil Stuart’s infuriating Gordon).  In between these two we have Saul, the sharply intelligent, angry young man played by Nik Drake, the adorably naïve mummy’s boy Gareth, played by Tom Durant-Pritchard and the effortlessly camp Joseph, brought wonderfully to life by Paul Harnett.  Each of their sessions with the ever patient Dr Lane, played beautifully by Helena Blackman, draws us closer to the climax of the play – the group therapy session that comprises Act 2.  Dr Lane drops in a reminder of this at the end of each of her sessions and it is soon obvious that this is what we will return to after the interval.  Dr Lane could have become nothing more than a tool for exposition but her character is as fully formed as the others.  We find out just enough about her to stop her being two dimensional but not so much that she seems overdone.  Every piece of information is carefully relevant to our understanding of each character.  Every character is written and performed with the truth and insight necessary to make him or her entirely believable.  This authenticity gives a poignant balance to the comedy and prevents the jokes from becoming crass or cruel.

 

Writer Matt Reed has a background in stand-up comedy and it really shows.  His deft turn of phrase and the frankness of the dialogue give the play its comedy.  The fact that these carefully crafted lines are delivered to perfection by the cast is a credit to the collaborative work of Mr Reed and director, Graham Hubbard. The impotency faced by the men in the play is dealt with head on; there is no beating about the bush from Reed.  Their class backgrounds differ as do their ages and priorities but they are united by a sensitive issue.  Every character has been perfectly cast and each member of this cast plays for truth – the laughs come naturally from the audience because of this.  There are a couple of instances of overacting (bordering on pantomimic) but for the most part, every performance is spot on.

 

The audience is skilfully guided through the journeys of the characters and it is clear how we are supposed to feel towards each of them.   By the end of the play not every character has overcome his or her demons. Perhaps there is a touch of the stories reflecting the subject matter as a couple of the gentlemen do not achieve the fulfilment they seek.

 

This is a no fuss, no gimmicks play.  The success of it relies entirely on the strength of the writing, the vision of the direction and the talent of the acting.  It is rare to see a play where there is not a single weak link. The baton is passed seamlessly from the writer through the director to the cast, to ensure a performance of the highest quality is executed.   From start to successful finish this is a highly entertaining piece of theatre.

Top Story at the Old Vic Tunnels

 

Top Story is described in the title as “an apocalyptic comedy”.  Apocalyptic it may be, but comedy it is not.  There are a few ripples of laughter through the audience, but this is more of an attempt at philosophical rambling than a comedy.

 

The play is not the first collaboration between writer Sebastian Michael and director Adam Berzsenyi Bellaagh, and with this in mind I’d have thought it would be a more seamless production.

After a fifteen minute delay to the start, the muzak that has us on hold finally fades out and the play begins.  The large display screen at the back goes some way to combating the vastness of the space that appears to be swallowing light, sound and energy.  The Old Vic Tunnels are difficult to perform in due to their cavernous nature, and the stage space used here was particularly deep.  The neon sign acting as the backdrop presents a countdown to the end of the world, giving us the day of the week and the number (in Roman numerals) of days the Earth has left.  We are shown that it is Friday and there are seven days to go before a meteor hits the world.  These neon flashes become the high points of energy throughout the production, breaking up the drudging pace of the play.

 

The set is made up of sofas on wheeled platforms which makes the occasional rearrangement of the space efficient and slick, but the action in the play feels very disjointed.  We are shown three different settings: the flat of two young men in London, a news broadcasting studio and a parallel realm of angels.  The device of the meteor hitting the world is used to the point of overkill.  It becomes the focal point of the play and the message could be an interesting one – that in the face of impending doom, what do we British humans do?  Nothing.  We do nothing.  We create new rules for pre-existing games, stay indoors and circulate around the end of the world.  The segments in the newsroom are fine for imparting information but they don’t really add much to the play.  The most versatile of the cast (Andy Hawthorne and Richard Matthews) play a variety of guests on the show of Chrissie Craven (Josephine Kime), the “sexiest woman in the world”.  The angels appear to act as a philosophical commentary on the actions of the human realm but they don’t really provide much food for thought.  They wander around the stage to ethereal music looking fairly aimless and then wander off again to sit down on a sofa.

 

The dialogue is often clunky and it is painful to listen to the badly choreographed repetitions and overlapping exchanges.  Particularly awkward to watch are the two main characters, Talfryn (Ed Pinker) and Gus (Lewis Goody) who are sent down an energy sapping spiral by the circular dialogue.  Although they appear to be talented actors, neither of their characters have been given much substance.  Gus is at least moderately likeable and slightly more interesting to watch.  The second half holds a little more emotional weight and gives a more touching angle to their relationship, but it’s hard work to get there.  The total lack of pace or progression induces a stupor-like feel.  Certainly through the first half, I find I am wishing for the end of the world to come just so something will happen.

 

The back of the programme states, somewhat arrogantly, that this is  “a Godot meets Rosencrantz & Guildenstern for the Facebook Generation” but it lacks the finesse and sharp observation needed to make it comparable to any work by Beckett or Stoppard.   There has clearly been an attempt to emulate these great plays, but it feels like more commitment to the style is needed.  Perhaps without the angels or without the news readers it would have been more convincing, but I found myself underwhelmed and unmoved.

 

 

Scarborough: Don’t judge a play by its location.

 

Why do we go to the theatre?  Is it for the spectacle?  Escapism?  Or do we go to hold a mirror up to our society and stare boldly at our reflection, warts and all?  There is an important lesson to learn from this production before we even begin to look at the components that make it such a high standard of theatre.  It is in a black box room at the back of the White Bear pub in Kennington.  The assumption about theatres such as this, outside of the Edinburgh Fringe festival, is that the calibre of productions will be lower but this is simply not the case and Anthony Lau’s production of Scarborough perfectly proves this point.

 

The play begins and for a moment I think my worst fears are confirmed.  It starts on an emotional high, chucking the audience in at the deep end and it is almost too much to bear watching the two characters not quite cut each other off in time and leaving sentences half finished.  Claudia Grant’s bottom lip is quivering and Ben Dilloway’s large frame is taking up an uncomfortable amount of space.  But then we are taken back in time to watch the build-up to this emotional climax and – the relief!  It is good.  It is better than good.  Grant’s wonderful energy as the apparently gormless teenager Beth, who is sharper and smarter than she lets on, combined with her impressively flawless accent is the driving force behind the first half.  The pace is a little slow but her perfect rendition of a frustrated, emotional teenage girl is utterly convincing and does not even hint at cliché.

 

Ben Dilloway delivers an equally convincing performance as Beth’s teacher Aiden.  He whirls through the emotional gamut and each shift is believable from affection for the taboo female before him to the moments he takes charge with a stern use of “Bethany”, her full name.  The characterisations of both Beth and Aiden are thoroughly crafted.  Every gesture and movement fits the person we are asked to buy into and in fact the whole production feels slick and professional.  It takes me a moment to remember that we are at the back of a pub when we emerge for the interval.

 

Act Two begins and the joy I experience as I realise what is happening, approximately three lines in, is a moment of revelation.  I won’t reveal any spoilers because every audience member should have that sweet surprise.  I shift in my seat and settle back to enjoy the equally talented Mark Sutherland as Ben and Joe Claflin as Daz.  There are parallels between the relationships from the first half, but the performances are starkly different.  On top of exploring the potential minefield of complications between teachers and pupils, the play raises issues of the differing priorities between men and women in gay and straight relationships.

 

The second half feels pacier and the plot is negotiated deftly by the two actors.  The characterisation is once again superb and my attention is held by the subtleties in the balance of power between Ben and Daz.  They handle the space skilfully and use it entirely.  The set is so simple but carefully crafted to open out the space to the “L-shaped” audience set up.  There are no lighting tricks and no fancy music or sound effects.  There is nothing to detract from the sheer talent and hard work placed before your eyes.  The intimacy of the space suits the play and it feels like the setting is a choice that has been made rather than a necessity born of a low budget or lack of options.

 

Fiona Evans has used a cunning device in the writing of Scarborough and it is one that presents a directorial nightmare, but Anthony Lau has created a production that seems to soar effortlessly above these potential problems.  It is a credit to his directorial talent that the actors fill the space so effectively and fully.  If I am being pernickety, there are a couple of technical details that detract from the overall standard of the performance – a text tone that doesn’t match up to the phone on stage, for example.  It is incredibly minor but attention should be paid to every detail.  That being said, almost every element of this play oozes talent.   These are actors whose work deserves to be seen.  It may have been written and first put on in 2008 but four years on, this production feels fresh and alive.  If you go to the theatre searching for an evening of thought provoking, unpretentious drama then Scarborough is the play you should be going to see.

 

Cinderella The Anti Panto – 12th December 2012

Blind Tiger Theatre Company

Leicester Square Theatre

Directed by David Shopland

Anti-panto is not something I’ve come across before.  I had no idea what to expect from Blind Tiger Theatre Company but a good guess that there wouldn’t be a single mention of anybody being behind me.  The cast of this production is made up of multitalented actor-musicians who are on stage playing music as we walk in.  The set and make up are Tim Burton-esque.  The play initially seems to be intelligently written, combining poetry and live music to make the story of Cinderella appear a more interestingly woven tale.

 

A lot of effort has been put into this to prove to the audience that this is a clever production.  The show is littered with classical references to ancient versions of Cinderella and philosophers, the rhymes are often complicated and the tone significantly darker than productions you might expect at Christmas.  But what is presented is something that reminds me of A-level standard drama.  White faces with features detailed in black, overacting, an overuse of classical references and far too many occasions of breaking the fourth wall.

 

Andrew Venning plays the narrator and is darkly enigmatic.  As a narrator figure he is excellent and does very well as the middle man between the audience and characters, deftly negotiating the twists and turns of the tale, seemingly losing and regaining control, keeper of information and secrets.  However there were many points at which it felt like we were being told what was going on instead of seeing the action.  The actors are not given enough to play with and at times I feel they are held back.

 

The first half really drags and I found myself looking at my watch after the first twenty minutes wondering how much longer an introduction could take.  The fact is they’re working with the story of Cinderella.  It is highly unlikely that someone in the audience does not know the story and there seems to be a missed opportunity to just have more fun with it.  Taking twenty minutes to introduce characters and set up the story feels somewhat unnecessary.

 

There are positive elements – Claire Sharpe plays the wonderful schizophrenic ugly sister(s).  Her character switches are flawless and her acting abilities shine.  There is a nod in the direction of the panto.  She has a large bustle, reminiscent of the traditional pantomime horse and she plays two characters – an inversion of the two actors playing one horse.  The quick shifts between playing a character and playing an instrument are impressive and the instruments on stage are a nice touch.  The sock puppet crows are highly entertaining.  In fact, they are the most enjoyable characters in the play, providing comic relief, and actually moving the plot along.

 

Cinderella and The Prince, played by Jennifer Johnson and Stephen Papaioannou respectively, are the weakest links of this production.  It is hard to tell whether it is the script, the actors or director at fault here.  Neither character seems particularly developed.  Cinderella in particular is one dimensional.  The majority of her lines revolve around her complaining but with none of the good grace or humanity that makes a truly heart-breaking character watchable or sympathetic.  She has no substance.  Neither of them really play any of the emotions they claim to feel.  The words become empty because they are not backed up with any conviction, making the lines feel recited rather than played.  They both look the part but fail to deliver on actual performance.  Papaioannou redeems himself somewhat with a moving performance as Cinderella’s ailing father who has some scenes that were genuinely touching.

There are some good ideas in this production but they’re hidden by over complication and self-indulgence.  The fourth wall is broken too many times.  It stops being funny and becomes grating.  Meta references, Commedia dell’Arte influenced stock characters and Brechtian alienation techniques run the risk of leaving an audience feeling so removed they actually feel unmoved.  That is what happened here.  The emotional impact that would have lent this production the heart it needs is lost.  There are some talented people working on this but the production is less than the sum of its parts.

 

Constellations, Duke of York Theatre 15th October 2012

Nick Payne

Directed by Michael Longhurst

The first thing you notice upon walking into the Duke of York theatre is the set.   It is unmissable.  It is open, not hidden.  The curtain is up and you are meant to see, to gaze.  What appear to be giant white balloons varying in size hang from wires of different lengths to create an ethereal effect that leaves the audience staring in wonder before the performance has even begun.  These orbs are intriguing and magical – an initial entry into the world of the play, beautifully designed by Tom Scutt.

 

Constellations is a love story of “What if…?”possibilities.  It explores the idea of living in a multiverse.  Whatever happens in one version of events, there is another version happening in a parallel universe at the same time.  Repeat the concept and there are infinite possibilities taking place at once.  The two characters Marianne and Roland, played by Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall play out the same scenarios with different outcomes and we follow these through to their many conclusions.

 

The result is something akin to the writer asking you to choose the version you want to be true.  There isn’t a definite end to the play which is not as problematic as it sounds.  As we follow their relationship, it becomes apparent that some trajectories are true in more than one universe.  Each shift between options is indicated by a flash of strobe lighting and an awkward electronic clang.  If you mixed the films Memento and Sliding Doors and put it on a stage you’d get Constellations.

 

In different hands this could be a recipe for disaster but Payne’s dialogue is acutely observed and sharply witty.  Finding the shifts amongst the repetition becomes the comedy and it is often very funny.  There was only one point at which I thought it had been dragged out too much when Roland reads a letter to Marianne.  It crossed a line between amusingly cringe-inducing and painful to watch.

 

Hawkins plays the endearingly socially awkward Marianne with an effervescent energy.  She is somewhat frenetic in her performance and this lends warmth to Marianne’s sometimes cold intelligence.   Complimenting this energy is Spall’s version of Roland.  He is laid back and dopier than Marianne, a lolloping giant to her nimble elf.  They have wonderful chemistry on stage and there is poignancy to their occasional miscommunications.

 

I expected something spectacular from Constellations.  It is a very well written play.  It is entertaining.  It does explore an interesting idea on stage.  It provides a lovely evening out at the theatre.  But it does not pack the punch I would expect from a play that has been so highly acclaimed.  I was interested in the characters’ stories but not emotionally invested or affected, which was disappointing.  The love story was not particularly original and it was quite predictable despite the multiple possibilities.  I didn’t feel caught up in the romance or various realities of the characters.  The play doesn’t really say anything new and the parts that are meant to be emotional somehow seem trite and fall flat.

 

It is a cleverly put together production of a smartly written play.  The direction and acting are excellent, the set is beautiful, the premise is interesting but it left me predominantly unaffected.

 

2 Comments

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