Review: Trelawny of the Wells, by Arthur Wing Pinero (& Patrick Marber), at the Donmar Warehouse

The Trelawny of the Wells company. Photo Johan Persson

The Trelawny of the Wells company. Photo Johan Persson

Within a few seconds of the performance starting, I knew I was going to love Joe Wright’s production of Trelawny of the Wells. The set, with the simplicity and elegance of a puzzle box, is a pleasure to look at, and the first few moments of the production are so joyously startling that, as a calling card, are hard to beat. If that’s me being uncritical, so be it. Some plays are meant to make you happy and on the evidence of this production, I don’t see why I should resist it.

The story touches on things I love: it’s a play about actors. And eventually a play within a play. In 150 years, few things have changed: actors are still gypsies, a little bit touched, envied, loved, disrespected, outrageous, generous and petty in the same breath and looking for a way out. Rose Trelawny is the brightest most talented star of her company but is giving theatre up for the love of a young man from an aristocratic family. Two worlds are set on a collision course.

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REVIEW: If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep, by Anders Lustgarten, at the Royal Court

if you don't let us dream“Everybody’s got an agenda”, says one of the characters towards the end of Anders Lustgarten’s new play “If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep”. It’s impossible to see the play, remember the line and resist the temptation to mention it in the review. Because Anders Lustgarten clearly has an agenda. Which is to say he has an opinion and a conviction. All fine ingredients for a play. The question remains: Do drama, insight, even provocation, match his conviction? Let’s see.

MAJOR SPOILERS. I won’t be able to make my case without plot spoilers, you have been warned.

The play starts when a government official comes across a great idea: if we monetise social unity and sell it as bonds, the private sector will pick up the cost and create incentives to reduce social unrest. Cue in scenes where bureaucracy and stupidity go hand in hand, money talks, people become numbers on a form. Early on, the play, with short jump cuts and scenes not necessarily related to each other, is reminiscent of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, but without the grace and piercing intellect. Continue reading

Review: Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios (starring James McAvoy)

macbeth trafalgar studios posterShould I start at the beginning or the end? The very good or the not so good? Any way you look at it, Jamie Lloyd’s production of Macbeth at the Trafalgar studios (or Trafalgar Transformed as it’s being rebranded) is a play of two halves: until the interval, I was happy to declare it one of the best productions in recent memory. After the interval, it lost momentum and struggled to regain focus.

Some problems in the second half are due to long absences of the protagonist: his name is above the title and his performance shows he deserves it.  James McAvoy accommodates the soldier, the husband, the friend and the killer with surprising ease. The words dance out of his mouth fresh and unexpected. His Macbeth is clear eyed about moral consequences though unapologetic about his choices. Apparitions, ghosts and bloody daggers hang around him as much as in him. He fights them as much as he welcomes them. It’s a fearless commanding performance of light and shade, and it fuels the production. Continue reading

Review: Bull by Mike Bartlett at Sheffield Studio (a Sheffield Theatres production)

From left: Adam James as Tony, Eleanor Matsuura as Isobel and Sam Troughton as Thomas. Photo Robert Day.

From left: Adam James as Tony, Eleanor Matsuura as Isobel and Sam Troughton as Thomas. Photo Robert Day.

Towards the end of Mike Bartlett’s Bull*, as performed at the Crucible Studio under the direction of Clare Lizzimore, I looked across the stage at members of the audience sitting opposite me: a woman was watching with her mouth open and a horrified expression. A man had his head slightly bowed, like he wished not to see but not able to stop himself. All with good reason: the last ten minutes of the play are as brutal and horrifying as anything I have seen on stage. And all that, without a drop of blood or physical violence.

But let’s get back to the beginning: as the back page of the text points out “Two jobs. Three candidates. This would be a really bad time to have a stain on your shirt”. Or maybe, this would be a bad time to imagine you have a stain on your shirt. Tony, Isobel and Thomas are waiting for a meeting with their boss. One of them will get fired. No decisions made yet but one of them doesn’t stand a chance. There is a horrifying inevitability to the proceedings.

Mike Bartlett’s language is disturbingly familiar. For anyone steeped in office politics, it rings true. Small mind games easily escalate. The text is also loaded with cultural values: efficiency, presentation, class, culling, Darwinian theories. What happens on stage is the concentrated version of every day office life. In small increments, it feels stressful. In this snapshot, it feels unbearable. And the responsibility lies with everyone. Continue reading

Review: The Full Monty, a play by Simon Beaufoy at the Lyceum (a Sheffield Theatres production)

thefullmontyHow do you review a play like The Full Monty? Does it live in the shadow of the much loved film? Does it deliver against fond memories as well as a stand alone piece of theatre? Fortunately, the Sheffield Theatres production, as directed by Daniel Evans, doesn’t present such dilemmas: you will be swept away whether you have seen the film or not.

The production starts with a bang. Almost literally. First scene at the disused factory employs a number of pyrotechnics, and while they don’t set the tone for the rest of the production, they make a statement: films might have the advantage of vast vistas and quick succession of scenes, but it’s hard to match the excitement of slightly dangerous risque things happening live (including the full monty).

Simon Beaufoy, writing the play from his own script, sticks closely to the story he invented for the film. He knows to keep the best lines and best set ups (the scene at the dole queue is every bit as breathtaking and iconic) but he has more room to expand on some themes. Continue reading

Review: The Captain of Kopenick, by Carl Zuckmayer at the National Theatre (Olivier)

captainofKopenickposterI have a peculiar fascination with record keeping. Some of it is professional, some of it is the anarchist in me. If you know how it’s supposed to work, you know all the parts that simply don’t. Life is an adventure, not a shopping list.

A small record keeping error lies at the heart of Carl Zuckmayer’s The Captain of Köpenick. Wilhelm Voigt, opportunistic small time crook in Kaiser’s Germany, doesn’t have official papers to prove he exists. Under different circumstances, he may have been pleased: his success as petty thief relies on flying under the radar. But he is a little bit tired. His personal resilience, among much running and evading, is waning. He wants to leave his mark, and that mark involves being formally recognised as a person, not as an administrative oddity. (As an interesting aside, the Christmas episode of Call the Midwife relied on impeccable public record keeping in Britain of the same period to give closure to one of its most destitute characters. In early 20th century Britain, you formally exist even if you are a baby dying of abject poverty). Continue reading

What does it take to advertise the arts? And does theatre have an image problem?

Ballet as you have never seen it before.

Ballet as you have never seen it before.

I still like print papers. I like to see the article position in a page, the space it takes, the section it appears, the print ads that surround it. It’s not unusual for this ecosystem to throw unexpected partnerships and hidden meanings.  As it happens (and to the surprise of no one), I spend much of my time in the Culture sections of the weekend papers. And inevitably, I pay attention to the ads.

Last weekend I noticed a great new advertising campaign by the English National Ballet. It doesn’t advertise a specific production, but it aims to shake preconceptions about ballet itself (uptight people in tutus). It shows the company at its disheveled decadent best. Open shirts, untied bow ties, beautiful bodies draped over furniture, a hotbed of sensuality. The theatre establishmet should take note: theatre, similarly to ballet, has an image problem. Stuffiness and boredom are often mentioned when the conversation turns to plays, and funding problems won’t be solved until this image changes. Continue reading