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 the things I contemplate the most. Putting it this way, a second post about My Night With Reg is compulsory and 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

List: Three boys called Josh (and a boy called Lewis) or the Donmar young actors’ club

The Donmar Warehouse is having a good year. After Versailles (which I didn’t like), they hit a home run of three productions, each of them special in distinct and varied ways. Not only that, but a series of young actors took centre stage, and it’s been a huge pleasure discovering new talent for the ever expanding “Actors to Watch Out for” list. In strict alphabetical order:

Joshua James: Before Fathers and Sons, I hadn’t seen Joshua James since Polly Stenham’s No Quarter and how has he grown! As Arkady, he held the centre of the story with confidence and did this thing my favourite actors do, balancing the ridiculousness and majesty of the human nature in a single breath.

Joshua James in Fathers and Sons. Photo Johan Persson

Joshua James in Fathers and Sons. Photo Johan Persson

Continue reading

Review: The Get Out, conceived by Robin French and Anthony Neilson, at the Royal Court Upstairs

Imogen Doel, Jonjo O'Neill (as James Bond) and Nathaniel Martello-White. Photo Alastair Muir

Imogen Doel, Jonjo O’Neill (as James Bond) and Nathaniel Martello-White. Photo Alastair Muir

It’s been more than two weeks since I saw The Get Out at the Royal Court and considering the production had only three performances and hardly a week of rehearsal, it’s safe to say it took me longer to write the review than it took for the production to come together. No matter. Don’t hold my slowness against it. Because The Get Out punched way above its weight and it deserves a write-up (even if it is by a slow writer like me).

At the Royal Court website, it says this is a “new late-night revue style show conceived by writers Robin French and Anthony Neilson”. Submissions were from Royal Court staff of any capacity, the performance was put together in record time. None of these gives a sense for the actual result, that feels like a leaner, punchier version of Mr Burns. (As much as I love Mr Burns, a leaner version of it is a very attractive proposition.)

Surreal and with pop culture at its heart, The Get Out exists in a world of apocalyptic ruins, even if it’s only the subtext of the narrative. The set is a run down hollowed-out theatre, the actors are dressed in black tie and formal gowns but the clothes are torn and dirty and with a touch of vampire chic. Among the ruins, snapshots of stories play out,  screamingly funny Continue reading

Review: The Picture of John Gray, by C. J. Wilmann, at the Old Red Lion Theatre

From L-R: Bosie (Tom Cox), Ricketts (Oliver Allan), Gray (Patrick Walshe McBride), Shannon (Jordan McCurrach) and Raffalovich (Christopher Tester). Photo Miriam Mahony

From L-R: Bosie (Tom Cox), Ricketts (Oliver Allan), Gray (Patrick Walshe McBride), Shannon (Jordan McCurrach) and Raffalovich (Christopher Tester). Photo Miriam Mahony

Watching C. J. Wilmann’s play The Picture of John Gray, it’s hard not to wonder how much of it is true. Quite a lot, it turns out. John Gray, a poor boy from Bethnal Green, grew up to be a poet, inspired Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (maybe), had an intense relationship with the writer (definitely), had relationships with other men and became a catholic priest in Edinburgh.

The play starts at the Vale – bohemian, at the right side of shabby and surprisingly domesticated – where Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon entertain friends. Oscar Wilde is expected but never turns up, the absent shadow / present ghost of the play. John Gray does turn up, as do Bosie and Andre Raffalovich. What starts as an evening of petty spats among love rivals and fragile egos turns into something much more interesting: the shadow of prosecution and burning desires (whether it’s love, god or beauty) become a heady mix and a worthy battleground for the souls of men. Continue reading

Review: John Webster’s The White Devil, RSC, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Kirsty Bushell as Vittoria and David Sturzaker as Bracciano. Photo Tristram Kenton

Kirsty Bushell as Vittoria and David Sturzaker as Bracciano. Photo Tristram Kenton

For better or worse, I rarely research plays before I see them. Some plays, I know better than others, but when unfamiliar I don’t seek information out. Part of it it’s being otherwise busy, part of it it’s a belief the production will and should deliver in its own terms.

This is a long-winded way of saying I knew nothing of The White Devil as I sat on my seat to see Maria Aberg’s production. I knew it was John Webster, which meant the mysteries of life would be explored through the prism of grizzly deaths. I knew there would be sexual references because it was written on a sign as we were entering the auditorium. I couldn’t help but think “sexual references” felt much too tame for what I had in mind. In the end, this proved correct. My impression of the production was it felt tame and kept the audience at arm’s length. Continue reading

Review: The Duchess of Malfi, by Pell Mell, at the New Diorama Theatre

Lucy Laing as The Duchess, Tom Blyth as Ferdinand, Stephen MacNeice as Bosola

Lucy Laing as The Duchess, Tom Blyth as Ferdinand, Stephen MacNeice as Bosola

John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is a tricky play. The lovers hardly lay eyes on each other. The heroine – SPOILER – dies forty minutes before the end of the play. The sane go mad and the mad go madder. Pell Mell’s production of the play, currently playing at the New Diorama theatre, takes a simple clear approach. This is a maze where almost everyone is implicated in corrupting (and corrupted) power. Some of it works well and some of it less so.

In this version, the Duchess, played by Lucy Laing, seems as manipulating a force as her brothers, and although it’s not unreasonable approach to take, it leaves the production with nowhere to go. The Duchess is often petulant, self-centered and stringent, and the delivery of lines like “the misery of us that are born great!” has the tinge of whining. Later, when imprisoned by her brothers, the hardness thaws and she looks like a high-class call girl on her way down, an effect far more sympathetic than it sounds. Continue reading