Review: Mike Barlett’s An Intervention at Watford Palace theatre (a co-production with Paines Plough)

John Hollingworth and Rachael Stirling. Photo Kevin Cummins

John Hollingworth and Rachael Stirling. Photo Kevin Cummins

You know the friend who drinks too much? Or calls you all the time with their problems ignoring yours? Or doesn’t know when to stop being provocative or silly? Or the friend who always gets into romantic relationships with the wrong people, or doesn’t notice when things have changed? Or says the wrong thing, lapses of cruelty, stupidity and pettiness, that hang in the air like a dark cloud? You either know such a friend or are such a friend, or both.

Mike Bartlett goes from a subject hardly anyone knows about (the intimate lives of the Royal family) to a subject everyone knows about: friendships, complicated and imperfect, meetings that – however protracted – remain unresolved, the moment you should have said something and you didn’t, or the moment you turned your back or closed your eyes and something terrible happened. He captures every day conversations (although I don’t remember the last time I used the word honorificabilitudinitatibus) and examines them with a magnifying glass. The hue turns darker and more grotesque, the tension summed up in a phone call you don’t want to answer.

Rachael Stirling (for once out of period clothes and away from period stories) is stunning. She has the indefatigable energy of a clown: persistently funny and bursting with wit and desperation, her character is as confused about herself as she is lucid about others. She perfectly captures that person who is the most remarkable in the room, but also the most annoying and the saddest. Clarity of vision doesn’t bring happiness. John Hollingworth is equally good: his everyday energy has richness and irresistible openness. Continue reading

Review: James Graham’s Privacy at the Donmar Warehouse

privacy donmar posterIs it a play? Is it a comedy gig? Is it an interactive training session? Or maybe an existential thriller? Dazzling and confident, James Graham’s new play Privacy could very well sit under any of these banners but before you have time to consider a label, it has already moved on. Multitasking underlines most of modern life, why not the theatre? All in one, the tour is fast and furious: data, journalism, Mousetrap, Shakespeare, squeaky dolphin, NSA, Google earth, Tesco club cards, and that’s only scratching the surface. (By the corporate name-dropping, it’s evident the Donmar lawyers had to work overtime on this. So much so, they got to be in the play).

Which is not to say Privacy lacks substance. It all ties to a coherent – if unconventional – narrative where the writer is the protagonist, as much of the story as of his own existential and creative crisis. Continue reading

Review: Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, at the Almeida theatre

Lydia Wilson as Kate Middleton, Oliver Chris as Prince William. Photo Johan Persson

Lydia Wilson as Kate Middleton, Oliver Chris as Prince William. Photo Johan Persson

What’s in a premise? The tag line for Mike Bartlett’s new play King Charles III is “a future history play” and he goes at it no holds barred and makes good on that promise. The Queen is dead, prince Charles becomes Charles III, and then what? What will happen? What can happen? The play draws much of its energy from making that imaginative leap, and Bartlett follows through, jumping from stone to stone, drawing the inevitable conclusions. (The events of the play have a hardwired logic but are unlikely. Bartlett’s trick is to make then look like a parallel universe and not a magic mirror. Maybe his inspiration is The Adventures of Luther Arkwright as much as Shakespeare).  Bartlett plays effortlessly with verse and Shakespearean references and the result is very very clever.

In fact, a tad too clever.  The play can’t resist winking to the audience, as a result the dynamic in the room often turned toxic. Continue reading

Review: Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge (starring Mark Strong), at the Young Vic Theatre

We are in early April and I might as well pack and go home now. Because I won’t see anything like the Young Vic production of A View From The Bridge for the rest of the year. At this point this feels exhilarating and a little bit depressing, but the production is performed until beginning of June, and I will definitely see it again. With this public service announcement out of the way – I will say it once, book a ticket – we will proceed.

Mark Strong (Eddie), Nicola Walker (Beatrice), Phoebe Fox (Catherine) and Luke Norris (Rodolpho). Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Mark Strong (Eddie), Nicola Walker (Beatrice), Phoebe Fox (Catherine) and Luke Norris (Rodolpho). Photo by Jan Versweyveld

People will describe the production as stylised and stripped back, but the result is the opposite of absence. On a bare stage – part courtyard, part shipyard (at the start of the play), part prison with walls not fully erected – emotions expand to fill the space in a pressing, almost unbearable way. The production exists in a place where a whole layer of skin is missing. I was hyperaware of all sensations: the movement of actors on stage appeared intuitive but the images were iconic. The music was heartbeat, full of blood and dread. None of these things were distracting, they opened up the senses for the real event, Arthur Miller’s play, one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century. The raw quality of first and last scenes bookended the production magnificently, with sex and death and desperation hanging in the air.

Mark Strong, twelve years off the stage (and if we wait another twelve years, it will be a crime), is a devastating presence. Continue reading

Review: A Small Family Business by Alan Ayckbourn, National Theatre – Olivier stage

Nigel-Lindsay (Jack) Debra Gillett (Poppy) Stephen Beckett (Cliff) Samuel Taylor (Roy) Niky Wardley (Anita) Gerard Monaco (Rivetti Brother) Amy Marston (Harriet). Photo by Johan Persson

Nigel Lindsay (Jack) Debra Gillett (Poppy) Stephen Beckett (Cliff) Samuel Taylor (Roy) Niky Wardley (Anita) Gerard Monaco (Rivetti Brother) Amy Marston (Harriet). Photo by Johan Persson

A Small Family Business doesn’t feel as one of Alan Ayckbourn’s best plays. It’s not so much it is dated, but a strong plot executed masterfully leaves little space for subtleties in characterisation. While some characters make a strong impression, others lack internal life. As a result, the play comes across as an enjoyable diversion but without the cutting despair we are used to in other Ayckbourn plays. The problem is compounded by the production being staged at the Olivier. The vast space makes the play appear more vague, less intimate than it would have been otherwise.

Having said that, there are many pleasures to be had. The banality of corruption and moral corrosion unfolds with masterful inevitability. (At a time when the papers are – once more – full of the MPs expenses scandal, the argument is hardly dated). Continue reading

Review: Simon Stephens’ Birdland (starring Andrew Scott) at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs

Andrew Scott as Paul. Photo Richard Hubert Smith

Andrew Scott as Paul. Photo Richard Hubert Smith

After watching Simon Stephens’ Birdland, I jotted down a few words as a reminder of my first reaction: death, His Dark Materials, Neil Young, drowning not waving, pink and yellow, you can never go home, anti-vampire, thick black. Reading them, I hope they convey some of the play’s excitement, if not the lucidity and precision and sheer confidence with which this world unfolds.

Paul is losing his mind. It’s not the indulgence or the pampering. It’s the absence of an internal life, extinguished by the constant gaze of others. Paul doesn’t know who he is because all others do. He is the anti-vampire, his reflection everywhere, more real than the real thing. He lies like he tells the truth, and he tells the truth like he lies. Death courts him by the sheer absence of life. He tries to transcend himself, but some time somewhere he crossed a line and he can’t go back.

Paul and Johnny. Johnny and Paul. Johnny escapes the gaze, can go for a walk, fall in love. Johnny still knows home. Their friendship survives everything but them being together. In one scene, they are as close as they will ever be, just before they explode apart. Continue reading

Nominations for Olivier awards 2014, where did all go wrong?

I need to start with an overriding principle: all awards for artistic achievement are inherently flawed. They always represent a compromise and therefore can’t express the joy of personal experience. They are also needed in hundred different practical ways, no point bemoaning their sheer existence or the agenda a specific award represents. The Oliviers focus on mainstream productions, complaining they ignore obscure edgier offerings is pointless. What struck me with the 2014 Oliviers nominations though was how the list was underwhelming, even by the standards of the commercial mainstream agenda.

Let’s count the ways: Continue reading

Review: Dante or Die’s I Do (permutations meet theatre at the Hilton London Docklands Riverside)

Rachel Drazek as the Bride. Photo Ludovic Des Cognets

Rachel Drazek as the Bride. Photo Ludovic Des Cognets

A few years ago I saw a play called Scarborough at the Royal Court Upstairs. The story was set in a hotel and the space was made into a hotel room. In fact there was no seating for the audience: we were sitting wherever we could: at the edge of a sofa or a window seat and the actors were working around us. Not so much around us but through us: we were ducking and diving to get out of their way. Which was all very good practice for Dante Or Die’s I Do, a story playing out in six rooms of a real hotel at the run up to a wedding. The audience, in six separate groups, is led from room to room and witnesses the last fifteen minutes of preparation from all different perspectives.

There is something particularly appealing in being a spectator (or “fly in the wall” as we were encouraged to be) in a familiar yet stressful situation. No leap of faith is needed, we recognise our stories played out. It’s surprising how much of the big day is not about the wedding: everyone has their own story, troubles, interests and preoccupations. Joy and sorrow, the sublime and the ridiculous live side by side, the condensed nature of the experience brings the contrast to the fore.

Set design is another joy: Continue reading

Review: Versailles, by Peter Gill at the Donmar Warehouse

Versailles Donmar Peter GillMid performance of Peter Gill’s new play Versailles, I started thinking of the text and how it must look on the page. It was in one of the numerous, lengthy, cavernous monologues when the actor was pushing forward reams of sentences and words, in the presence of other people (fellow actors and the audience) who were trying to concentrate on their meaning.

This might give the impression of an avant guard play but Versailles is as old fashioned as it gets. The setting is the end of WWI,  in the drawing room of an upper class family that is not as well off as it used to be. Some men have come back from the war, some never will. The treaty of Versailles is being negotiated. From there we move to the back rooms of power and then back to the drawing room. Relationships are sketched but the play hardly ever focuses on them. Instead we get essay after essay, and history lesson after history lesson. Lovers’ last encounters are weighted down by lectures on class, money, self-determination, reparation.  It’s like being cornered by an earnest, not entirely sober, fervent activist at a party: you agree with most of what he/she says and some of it is a bit witty but mostly your eyes glaze over. Continue reading

Review: John Donnelly’s The Pass, at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

Russell Tovey as Jason, Gary Carr as Ade. Photo Manuel Harlan

Russell Tovey as Jason, Gary Carr as Ade. Photo Manuel Harlan

John Donnelly’s The Pass, currently playing at the Royal Court Upstairs, was pushed into the spotlight as the play about a gay footballer. This is a good media hook but it’s selling the play short. Without ignoring attitudes and issues around homosexuality and football, Donnelly delves deeper into his characters to find universal questions: What would you sacrifice for success? How do you form human attachments if the world around you doesn’t allow for weakness, mistakes, human frailty? Can you ever find your way back if you take the wrong turn?

Donnelly approaches these questions with a lightness of touch, where loss is poignant because happiness is within reach and present. This is probably the biggest achievement for play and production: the characters are mischievous, sexy, playful and the play has their youthfulness and banter at its heart. Continue reading