Review: Emil and the Detectives at the National Theatre, Olivier stage

“The best stories are about dastardly crimes”, Emil says at the start of the play. And so they are. It might be hard to define crime though. Emil thinks drawing mustaches on a statue will land him in prison, and then he meets Mr Snow and becomes the victim of a real crime. And in 1929 Berlin, it all plays out in the shadow of the biggest crime of all.

Daniel Patten as Emil, Stuart McQuarrie as Mr Snow. Photo by Marc Brenner

Daniel Patten as Emil, Stuart McQuarrie as Mr Snow. Photo by Marc Brenner

Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives, adapted for the stage by Carl Miller and directed by Bijan Sheibani, is the story of a small boy going to the big city and growing up by way of solving a crime, finding friends and standing up to authority. The plot is thin, and it occasionally shows. Modern parallels are heavy-handed and the script doesn’t have the snappiness we are used to from other family offerings on screen and stage.

On the other hand, brilliance frequently shines through. With over 50 children on stage, the result is not always slick but the energy is explosive. Continue reading

Review: Henry V, starring Jude Law, at the Noel Coward theatre

Jude Law as Henry V and company. Photo  Johan Persson

Jude Law as Henry V and company. Photo Johan Persson

It’s been a good year for history plays. From Edward II at the National, to Richard II at the Royal Shakespeare Company to Henry V at the Noel Coward’s, they form a perfect chronological line (even if we leapfrogged over Henry IV), which means I can play silly games: John Heffernan is David Tennant’s great-grandfather and David Tennant is Jude Law’s uncle. It’s not every day you can say that.

Silly games aside, how does Michael Grandage’s production of Henry V fare in comparison? Not too badly it turns out, even if it doesn’t scale the dizzy heights of love I feel for the other two productions. It’s an involving if unambiguous version of the play, and what it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in fluency and immediacy. I would have liked a more searching reading, but the production’s pull and drive is undeniable.

Jude Law commands stage and language (not to mention subjects) easily. His Henry V is not complex or questioning, but his straightforward commitment is winning and his steering speeches are underpinned by a warm and intelligent presence.

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Review: From Morning to Midnight, by Georg Kaiser, at the National Theatre, Lyttelton stage

frommorningtomidnight_poster“Well that was a bit odd” says the hero of Georg Kaiser’s From Morning to Midnight. It is intended as a cutting understatement and it is: what started as an ordinary day (go to work, stamp papers, go home) has turned into something altogether bizarre: our hero (known only as the Clerk) steals money on the mistaken promise of love, goes on the run, seeks spiritual salvation and destroys himself. Oddness is the word of the day in the National Theatre production, directed by Melly Still. Does it amount to more than an oddity? I am not sure. Continue reading

From the archive: Ian McDiarmid talks about Macbeth at the Other Place

We had a few Macbeths this year, most famously James McAvoy’s – which I loved – and Kenneth Branagh’s and the one at the Little Angel theatre – which I missed but might just be the most glorious of them all.

At the other side of the Atlantic, Ethan Hawke and Anne-Marie Duff are opening tonight as M and lady M, the reviews will be here soon enough.

Perfect timing then to hear Ian McDiarmid talk about the legendary 1976 production at the Other Place, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Judi Dench and Ian McKellen. McDiarmid played the Porter and Ross and it is a fascinating account:


(Source: National Theatre podcast,  recording of a platform event from August 2011)

Review: King Lear (starring Frank Langella) at the Minerva theatre, Chichester

King Lear Chichester posterLet’s start with a rhetorical question: Can you have too many King Lears? No matter what the answer, the productions will still come thick and fast. And even if you are tempted to say yes, you soon realise you are wrong. As with all Shakespeare, there is always room for more. The much-anticipated (not least by me) King Lear at the National is only a couple of months away, but first we have the Chichester Festival Theatre production directed by Angus Jackson. Presented at the Minerva theatre (the smaller more intimate space at Chichester), it has its own big name in the title role: Frank Langella is a heavyweight of american theatre and  well acquainted with London stage. The production will transfer to Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York in 2014. In other words, it’s a King Lear that can’t be ignored.

And in many ways, it pays off. It’s clear, concise with strong imagery and drive. Set (by Robert Innes Hopkins) and lighting (by Peter Mumford) are magnificent: much of the light is filtered through asymmetrical columns at the back of the stage, the effect a backlit shadowy fog illuminating tragic souls. Continue reading

Review: Jeeves and Wooster – Perfect Nonsense (aka Jeeves and Wooster the play) at the Duke of York’s

Matthew Macfadyen as Jeeves, Stephen Mangan as Wooster

Matthew Macfadyen as Jeeves, Stephen Mangan as Wooster

“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?'” “The mood will pass, sir.”

Theatrical ambition takes many shapes but producing the perfect unrepetant frivolity could well be the most daunting (and one could argue the most honourable) undertaking. Director Sean Foley and writers Robert and David Goodale don’t shy away from the challenge and they declare their intentions right from the start: adapting P G Woodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters for the stage, they call it “Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense”. And you know what? It may well be. That’s high praise from me.

The plot of the book remains largely intact but the conceit of the production finds Wooster putting a play up himself in order to tell the story. This allows for theatrical playfulness to bubble up to the surface. Expectations are challenged, subtle dynamics unsettled, props and scenery manipulated to reveal, hide and distract from the artifice. This is the second time this year when a production teases the notion of the same person playing two characters while both characters appear in the story at the same time. (The Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar played in the same sandbox earlier in the year).

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Review: Martin Sherman’s Passing By at the Tristan Bates Theatre

James Cartright as Simon and Rik Makarem as Toby. Photo  Scott Rylander

James Cartwright as Simon and Rik Makarem as Toby. Photo Scott Rylander

Martin Sherman’s play Passing By was written close to thirty years ago and in many ways it shows. On the other hand, that might not be a bad thing. Set in the summer of 1972, it tells the story of a random meeting in New York, a brief encounter between Simon and Toby that lasts a few weeks and changes their lives. More passage into adulthood than sexual awakening, the play’s strength (and possibly its weakness) is it features a gay relationship while ignoring social attitudes towards homosexuality. Is that realistic for a story set in the early 70s? Does it matter? At times the story comes across as a fairy tale, but that’s the source of its poignancy: gay relationships need their own prince-meeting-prince mythology. Continue reading