Review: Spine by Clara Brennan, at the Soho theatre

Spine photo Richard Davenport

Rosie Wyatt as Amy. Photo Richard Davenport

Plays talk to each other, I know they do. One evening I saw James Graham’s The Angry Brigade, and the next I saw Clara Brennan’s Spine at the Soho theatre. Spine is, in essence, the angry brigade, if angry is furiously tender and livid and paralysed by answers and galvanised by questions and innocent, oh so innocent you can clearly see till the end of the world.

Spine is a little like Harold and Maude but without the sex. Was there any sex in Harold and Maude? Probably not. OK I might be wrong about Harold and Maude but I am not wrong about this: Spine is brilliant. It punches through. It’s about saying you want a revolution and actually meaning it. It’s like coming up to a closed door, knocking and screaming and kicking it down, and when it opens, it takes your breath away. It’s about people crawling out of books. It’s about the NHS (trust me, it is). It’s about a book thief at the house at the end of the road. It’s about saying “I own my vagina” more loudly and clearly than Vagina Monologues ever did. It’s  about having the courage to be the mischievous warrior angel others see in you. It’s about having courage, full stop. Continue reading

Review: The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov – in a new version by Simon Stephens, at the Young Vic Theatre

Kate Duchene as Lyubov Ranevskaya, Dominic Rowan as Alexander. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

Kate Duchene as Lyubov Ranevskaya, Dominic Rowan as Alexander. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

You wait ages for one Chekhov and two arrive in less than a week. I was disappointed by Uncle Vanya at St James Theatre, which made the anticipation of The Cherry Orchard a tense affair: I don’t like not liking Chekhov. It’s almost hurtful. It doesn’t make sense. The meaning of life comes into question. Fortunately, the Young Vic Cherry Orchard – spiky, unsentimental, insolent, respectful only of a ridiculous tender heart – comes to restore the world as it should be.

The production, directed by Katie Mitchell in a new version by Simon Stephens, crackles with elegant and thrilling contradictions: outwardly it looks traditional, with its straight-laced proscenium arch and naturalistic approach. Yet it creates a feeling of uneasiness, a punky wave of a new world. The modern setting (invoked mostly due to costumes) is established with huge confidence: suits and ties don’t demand the presence of smartphones and Ipads, letters are still sent and news (good news, bad news, terrible news) is still being delivered by messenger. The characters break out into behaviours Chekhov would have never dreamed of which only highlights their inability to break free: their behaviour is often unhinged but that gives them no insight or self-awareness. It’s an act of decompression, like a balloon losing air and spinning out of control, only to end up on the floor, shriveled and defeated.

Continue reading

Review: Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, in a new version by Anya Reiss, at the St James theatre

Uncle Vanya St James theatre posterAnton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is a pretty ordinary tragedy. Wasted lives by default and undue care, squandered opportunities, realisations coming too late. It’s as ordinary as it is immense. Could anything have changed? Can it still? Does it matter? Is it best to lack the willingness or the intellect? These characters are self-aware, but have no energy to do anything about it.

In the new version by Anya Reiss, directed by Russell Bolam, the story is set in modern times and, sad to say, lacks bite. If I included these statements in the same sentence, it’s not because they are intrinsically linked. The modern setting could have worked well, in fact I can see the play reflected all around me. (We ‘d like to think the world is our oyster and we are savvy in making choices and having portfolio lives but truth is, from one rushed day to the next, moments are often lived thoughtlessly).

The production taps into the ridiculousness of the characters but doesn’t allow enough space for their tenderness. Continue reading

Review: Here Lies Love by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, at the Dorfman stage, National theatre

Public theatre cast in New York. Photo Joan Marcus

Public theatre cast in New York. Photo Joan Marcus

A few days ago, watching James III of the James Plays trilogy, I “moaned” that the production doesn’t allow the audience to dance. A few days later, watching (or rather “experiencing”) Here Lies Love at the newly opened Dorfman I got my wish. Given that Here Lies Love is a history play of sorts, it all ties well together.

All kidding and spurious connections aside, the musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim is a unique proposition. The word unique is overused but I think I am on solid ground: it’s a disco musical about Imelda Marcos (poor girl in Philippines becomes first lady, and excess queen, and dictator’s wife) that is staged on the dance floor. This is important: it’s not a play that borrows elements of a night club. It’s a play that belongs to a night club. Continue reading

Review: The James Plays by Rona Munro, Olivier stage (a co-production of the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Great Britain)

James McArdle as James I. Photo Manuel Harlan

James McArdle as James I. Photo Manuel Harlan

Some reviews come difficult and with some, I want to say everything at once. I can’t type fast enough, or think fast enough, like skipping and sliding and tripping across the immense pleasure of seeing the production and wanting to get it out there.

Because this is the thing about The James Plays. You can talk about themes (and Rona Munro leaves no stone unturned) and sweeping vision and the pregnancy of the ideas and the magnificence of the execution but what comes down to is the sheer pleasure and energy and balls of it all. It’s history plays with the audacity to be anything they want to be. What better way to set the ideas free than to sew them into the fabric of the play?

Talking of ideas, it’s obvious – but no less true – that it is about Scotland. It is. Always. Never forget that. But the specificity of the story allows it to be personal to everyone. It is about this country and then it is about every country. It is about loving and fighting what’s closer to you. It’s about men and women, together, separate, alone. It’s about death. Always.  It’s about fathers and sons. It’s about helpless, infuriating love, for a person, for a country. It’s about finding truth in yourself despite having no choices. It’s about sex. Always. And it’s about joy. About one clear day when everything is perfect.

The language has so much strength that, you imagine, with lesser actors, would break everyone in half. Continue reading

Review: Electra (starring Kristin Scott Thomas) at the Old Vic theatre

Electra Old Vic posterIt took me a long time to decide what I wanted to say about the Old Vic production of Sophocles’ Electra, directed by Ian Rickson. My lack of clarity is mostly because I wanted to like it more than I did. It gets many things right, it has integrity, it has a strong character. Still it never caught fire in my imagination.

Sophocles’ Electra is a simple story, at least when it comes to plot. Without giving much away, Electra waits for someone, unlike Godot he arrives. Much of the play it’s people describing what happened, either in the distant or recent past. What happened is important to them, to the point of risking their lives and their future. It’s linked to values and the gods and a changing world. At its best it’s ideas grabbing people by the throat.

Electra is a complicated character and 2500 years since the play was written have added layers of ambiguity. She is strong and determined, unwavering, fanatical. She is also committed to patriarchical values: she takes her father’s side and defends the values he represents. (Agamemnon – although murdered – is far from an innocent victim. He tricked his wife into sacrificing their daughter, then went to war for ten years and expected that his wife would stay behind and wait for him). Were these values unambiguous for audiences two millenia ago? If so, they aren’t any more.

The first time we see Kristin Scott Thomas, her hair is hidden under a scarf, giving her face the appearance of a skull. Continue reading

Review: The Wolf From The Door, by Rory Mullarkey – at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

Sophie Russell, Calvin Demba as Leo, Anna Chancellor as Catherine, Pearce Quigley. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

Sophie Russell, Calvin Demba as Leo, Anna Chancellor as Catherine, Pearce Quigley. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

Cards on the table and without ambiguity, I didn’t like Rory Mullarkey’s The Wolf From the Door. It’s been a while since I disliked a play in such comprehensive manner.  It wasn’t the lack of promise, quite the opposite. It starts with an idea that has meat on its bones: is apathy just a smoke screen? What will it take for middle england to take (decisive, surprising, violent) action? And would anyone notice if we were there already?

Except the play doesn’t go far: it imagines a situation where this would happen. Posh Lady Catherine picks up young drifter Leo on a train station. Any other woman would do it for sex but not her. She wants to anoint him ruler of the land. Everything is ready, the people are waiting. And blood will be spilt. Among the allotments and the supermarket alleys. Not so much Carnation Revolution but Revolution and flower arrangements. Continue reading

James McAvoy does pop up Shakespeare at Trafalgar studios (and smashes it out of the park)

James McAvoy Rehearsed Reading Trafalgar studiosYou have to forgive me for what I am about to do. I don’t do it often and I don’t do it lightly. I have been going to the theatre long enough to know the unknown actor who has three lines will dazzle you and the big name headlining the production might leave you cold (or more likely, crack under the pressure). Then again, some big names are big names for a reason. On my way to Trafalgar studios for the one off event titled “The Moment Before I am Powerful” (a series of Shakespearean monologues riffing on power), I discovered James McAvoy was in the cast. This was excellent news: a baby-faced actor with a mischievous disposition, McAvoy has a knack for reluctant superheroes and Shakespearean generals and junkie cops in meltdown and nerds and gambling addicts. And I loved his Macbeth. To put it mildly and with some restraint, I was excited.

Even so, I was quite unprepared for what happened next: this is a rehearsed reading, actors are relaxed and don’t go about it at full whack (they hardly had any rehearsal after all). Lauren O’Neil did the “Speak the speech, I pray you” from Hamlet, and Deborah Findlay was a sharply moving Volumnia, even more so than I remembered from the full production of Coriolanus last year. Paapa Essiedu materialised from under a desk (was he there the whole time?) to be a playful Mark Antony and Cynthia Erivo was beautiful as his Cleopatra.

And then, James McAvoy did Mark Antony from Julius Caesar, Act III Scene II, all the speeches from “Friends, Romans, countrymen” onwards. Off book. Continue reading

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