Review: Ballyturk by Enda Walsh, at the National Theatre, Lyttelton stage

Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi. Photo Patrick Redmond

Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi. Photo Patrick Redmond

Describing Ballyturk is a challenge, a riddle and an emotional rollercoaster disguised as an intellectual exercise: it’s like having an existential crisis and a stroke and a panic attack, all rolled into one but with songs and dancing and talc powder and yellow jumpers and jenga towers of biscuits and fierce words and fiercer silences.  12 seconds lasting a lifetime. 12 seconds of a lifetime, yet too short for any questions to be answered. If time is worthless when it is aplenty, does it worth more when running out? Do we forget before we know what to remember? If the now consumes everything, what is the value of yesterday?

Enda Walsh the creator and Enda Walsh the destroyer sets up a crib sheet of answers before we know the questions, and then tears them apart. Continue reading

Review: Maxine Peake as Hamlet, at the Royal Exchange Manchester

Maxine Peake as Hamlet

Maxine Peake as Hamlet. Photo Jonathan Keenan

It’s the holy grail, Hamlet made fresh and distinct and specific and alive. You read it on every interview and every programme. Except how do you do that? Director Sarah Frankcom and company at the Royal Exchange Manchester found the way to a version of the play that – while it doesn’t do everything the play can do – is fearless, personal and closer to the heart than possibly any other Hamlet I have seen. It shakes the play’s heaviness and with immense confidence creates a world where ideas have an exhilarating quality and a whole layer of skin and grime has been scraped.

Maxine Peake’s Hamlet is a cross between a warrior angel (one of the beautiful lovelorn angels Philip Pullman writes) and the Little Prince. Unselfconsciously wise, relentless in gouging the truth out of everything, occasionally scary, earthy and alien, warm and mischievous and never more himself than when he laughs. While his insanity is not entirely an act, he is unperturbed by it. He knows something beyond the obvious. He is trapped at the beginning of the play, he finds a mission and a way out when he meets the Ghost, and goes home at the end of it. Peake is scorchingly good, above all in her ability to connect and hold the world at the palm of her hand: this Hamlet could raise an army if he wanted, and we are it. Continue reading

Photo of the week: Frances de la Tour as Hamlet (1979)

Frances de la Tour as Hamlet. Photo Donald Cooper

Frances de la Tour as Hamlet. Photo Donald Cooper

Tonight it’s the first performance of Maxine Peake’s Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Manchester, undoubtedly one of the most exciting theatrical propositions of recent months, and definitely the Hamlet I most look forward to.

The last notable female Hamlet produced in the UK was in 1979 at the Half Moon theatre, with Frances de la Tour in the title role. It’s alarming to think that’s 35 years ago, which means no one at my age could be reasonably expected to have seen a woman play the part.

This is what Plays and Players wrote about the Frances de la Tour production:

“In a square room flanked by props and scenery around the walls the audience is ushered to stand or sit wherever they can. It was soon realised once the production had got under way that there was nowhere safe to sit. The steps leading to a raised platform were the way to the castle battlements where the ghost of the late King Hamlet walks and where silver reflectors pick up the eerie light thrown from his shroud. A stage to the left of it becomes the room in Polonius’s house, a corridor in the castle, the stage where the Players enact the murder of the King, the Queen’s apartment and where it dips and rises on a slant, a panel is removed to disclose the grave where Ophelia will lie. At the corner is another part of Polonius’s house and along the wall from that an enormous throne, like a carved seated skeleton of a man.” Continue reading

Review: Wingman by Richard Marsh at the Soho Theatre

Wingman - Richard Marsh - Produced by Tim Johanson Productions - Edinburgh Festival/Soho Theatre Richard Marsh - plays Richard Marsh/Bridgitte Jerome Wright - plays Dad Directed by Justin Audibert

Jerome Wright and Richard Marsh. Photo Robert Workman

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”, Philip Larkin said in his famous poem, and even if it doesn’t apply to everyone to the same degree, it’s an assertion that stood the test of time. Richard Marsh explores that very truth, probably a little less angrily, definitely more humorously and – to keep with the poem theme – with a surprisingly amount of rhyming.

Marsh starts his monologue (and monologue it is, even though another character enters soon) as a lighter version of Nick Payne’s The Art of Dying, and admittedly this is a strange path to take but soon enough, the narration takes a different turn: the enforced reunion of father and son after twenty years takes the form of a road trip and the ghost (of Christmas past, present and future?) that you can’t shake. Father wants to stick around, son thinks he wants to move away. Then new babies and new relationships (in that order) come along and he doesn’t know what to think or what he wants.

The text is often very funny

Continue reading

Review: Titus Andronicus at the Bold Tendencies Peckham multi-storey car park

Christine Entwisle as Tamora and Adam Burton as Titus. Photo Hala Mufieh

Christine Entwisle as Tamora and Adam Burton as Titus. Photo Hala Mufieh

The play is the thing and the location is the play. As you enter the disused car park at the side of the Peckham cinema multiplex (past the dumpsters, down the alley, through a narrow metal door), you are greeted with posters (“Don’t miss this one-of-a-kind immersive experience!”) and signs guiding you to levels seven and eight. Titus Andronicus produced by The Theory of Everything and Restless Buddha makes a firm promise, with the writing – literally – on the wall. Does it deliver? It does when it counts and in its own terms.

Sprawled in the car parking space of level seven, the production – directed by Pia Furtado – is notable for its energy, atmosphere and the marriage of setting and text. Its world – turf wars with a touch of sixties car culture – is immediately recognisable as a place where human life has little value. In that context, the text sits comfortably but not passively. It hurls and jumps as much as the actors do. Words are lithe and the production’s physicality has its own brutal poetry: men crawl and hang from the ceiling, bodies disappear through metal doors, threat drips everywhere. Blinding car lights flood the long strip of concrete and suddenly it’s car races at the edge of a cliff. Continue reading

Quiz: Guess the play from the stage direction

The cover of David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust that contains Starman. The cover of the vinyl edition clearly makes an appearance in play no 2

The cover of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust that contains Starman. The cover of the vinyl edition clearly makes an appearance in play no 2

Last week, the Guardian posted a quiz about stage directions and naturally I thought I could do better. Ten stage directions, guess the play, no multiple choice but a clue. Some times the clues are more fun than the question itself.

1. “He picks up the tortoise and moves it a few inches as though it had strayed, on top of some loose papers, and admonishes it.” Clue: That should be easy enough. Additional help: the play premiered at the National Theatre in 1993.

2. “He puts the stylus on the record: ‘Starman’ by David Bowie”. Clue: it’s the only play in the list currently performing in London. For an additional clue, look at the caption of the photo.

3. “A full bottle of wine is handed to James. He drinks half of it while the others cheer, but has to stop and take a breath. He staggers. Even Rachel stops her clearing-up to watch”. Clue: The play has been turned into a film, released in the UK in September.

4. “He puts on some music. He takes a knife and cuts the fish. He puts the fish in the oven. Pulls a cork, then chops some vegetables.” Clue: if you have seen the play, you will definitely remember this scene. Additional help: the play will premiere in Broadway soon, with a high-profile actor playing the male character. Continue reading

Review: Little Revolution, created by Alecky Blythe, at the Almeida theatre

Little Revolution poster“What do you think about the London riots?” Few questions are as loaded as this. It’s what we think, what we want to think, what we say, what we mean. And then it’s what happened. Because something happened to someone. Alecky Blythe – of London Road acclaim – attempts to unpack meaning and fact by taking the direct approach: verbatim theatre, the words of the people, immediate access to the energy of place and time. Does she succeed? To a degree.

Unsurprisingly, the play exists in intertwined moments: the writer is at the centre of it, facilitator, observer, actor (in every sense of the word: Alecky Blythe plays herself – or rather a writer called Alecky). The play is at its best the closer it stays to the riots and director Joe Hill-Gibbins does a great job capturing those moments with brilliant adrenalised energy and a surprising clarity of thought: the conflict crystallises the argument and the staging – with the auditorium in the round and part of the wall between auditorium and foyer missing – delivers a heart-in-mouth experience. In one scene, two different arguments flare simultaneously, and we are transfixed by the threat of violence. At another time, we find ourselves one block from a burning car, with the sound carrying the action and the crowd overspilling into our space. Much of the action and energy is introduced at the foyer before it is brought into the theatre. I would be quite happy to stay with a drink at the bar for the whole performance to see how it looks on the other side. Continue reading

My Night With Reg at the Donmar: additional thoughts, undiluted worship and an ill-thought crossover with The Pride

Julian Ovenden as John, Geoffrey Streatfeild as Daniel. Photo Johan Persson

Julian Ovenden as John, Geoffrey Streatfeild as Daniel. Photo Johan Persson

This blog has always been intended as a diary, and it’s only fair I write about what’s on my mind the most. Putting it this way, a second post about My Night With Reg is long overdue. To use a phrase John uses, Kevin Elyot’s play knocked me for six and I have spent a good deal of my time thinking about it, not least because I can’t bear to let it go. The ramblings that follow are the result.

Ten ways I love My Night With Reg (SPOILERS ahoy, I talk about the plot. A lot. Also sexual references. So we are clear). You can find my original, spoiler-free, review here:

1) The first time the play takes a sharp turn, and we realise we aren’t at a dinner party but at someone’s funeral, a remarkable – even hopeful – moment goes unnoticed under the weight of the situation (and our 21st century gaze): Daniel is anxious to get back to his dead lover’s mother. Suddenly we have the image of two men living together as a couple, not only in the eyes of their friends but in the eyes of their families (or at least one family). It’s tender and heartbreaking in the context of the funeral and, in the mid eighties, much less the norm than it is now. By comparison, in The Pride, Alexi Kaye Campbell has one (heterosexual) man remembering his uncle dying of AIDS 20 years back, the implication being the uncle’s partner was kept at arm’s length and away from the family circle.

2) The play is poignant in exquisitely delicate ways: At the early hours of the morning after Guy’s funeral, Daniel notices the dressing gown John wears and asks “Isn’t that Guy’s?” to which John replies: “Is it?”. It’s not discussed further but suddenly the intimacy of the fabric on skin carries all of Guy’s unrequited desires.

3) Does Daniel believe John when the latter denies an affair with Reg? I don’t think he does. For one thing John vacillates so long, his denial seems unconvincing. At the back of this, the next scene is extraordinarily moving: the two of them constantly reassess what friendship means and time and again, they come up with the same answer: as Daniel says lightly, casually earlier in the play “I ‘ve never believed a word you ‘ve said, but I still adore you”.

Continue reading

Photo of the week: Eve Best throws a rose to the audience (Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s Globe)

Yesterday, it was the last performance of Antony and Cleopatra at Shakespeare’s Globe and Duncan (Shakespeare aficionado extraordinaire) captured this beautiful photo at the curtain call: Eve Best throws a rose to the audience, while Clive Wood kneels at the background and the rest of the cast looks on.

The composition is perfect and the post performance energy – especially the exuberance of the last performance – is sharply  distilled.

Duncan’s other photos (most of them around Shakespearean performance) are beautiful too, and he writes a mean Shakespearean blog (mean as in excellent, not as in unkind!)

List: Top ten theatre productions for January to June 2014

Lloyd Owen as Mike and Imelda Staunton as Margaret in Good People. Photo Johan Persson

Lloyd Owen as Mike and Imelda Staunton as Margaret in Good People. Photo Johan Persson

In a pattern frequently repeated in my life, I am about six weeks late in posting my top ten list from the first half of the year. I could have easily moved on, but 2014 is shaping into a vintage year, and I wanted to put a mark in the sand before the end of the year top ten becomes a hard and merciless business. In strict alphabetical order, the best – and favourite – productions of the first six months of 2014.

A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic (aka the Revival): it’s hard to describe how brilliant Arthur Miller’s A View from The Bridge was. Directed by Ivo Van Hove with Mark Strong as Eddie Carbone, text, acting and directorial decisions came together in a seamless union. The result was a beating heart at the palm of your hand, exhilarating and horrifying in equal measures. Eddie Carbone describing the smell of coffee will stay with me forever. What do we remember, heh?

Birdland at the Royal Court (aka the Rock descent into hell): Simon Stephens’ Birdland is not perfect. Yet it lodged under my skin more than other – more perfect (and yes, I know I shouldn’t be using a comparative construct) – productions. It had the blackest black and an aching at its bones. You can see home but you can never go back.

Blurred Lines at the Shed, National Theatre (aka the feminist rock concert): in a line of plays constructed like jazz music (pieces coming together and apart at will), Nick Payne’s and Carrie Cracknell’s Blurred Lines was incendiary, prickly and put the cat among the pigeons. And it was fun. Continue reading