Review: Safe Sex / On Tidy Endings at the Tristan Bates theatre

CJ de Mooi and Cole Michaels. Photo Jamie Scott-Smith

CJ de Mooi and Cole Michaels. Photo Jamie Scott-Smith

Everyone has a story about Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Mine is about being at a friend’s house and watching Body Double on video again and again. In our adolescent minds, this was the height of sexual – and technological – sophistication. So very eighties.

On Tidy Endings, the second play in the Harvey Fierstein double bill presented at the Tristan Bates theatre, starts with Relax. A child enters with a Rubik’s cube in his hand. The tone is set. We can only be in the eighties. Which is not to say the play’s themes are dated. Along with Safe Sex, the other play performed the same night, it explores grief and the paralysing need to find new ways when everything has changed: with someone or without, with a new family or not. It’s also about AIDS. Because it’s rare to find another moment that splits the world to “before” and “after”.

For all the thematic weight, both plays suffer from undramatic structure. Continue reading

Review: Archimedes’ Principle at the Park Theatre

archimedes principle park theatreAlthough Archimedes’ Principle is a play by catalan writer Josep Maria Miró i Coromina (translation by Dustin Langan), it’s very much set in a world where the Jimmy Saville revelations loom large. Parenting fear, children getting a glimpse of an adult world they don’t understand, monsters that don’t lark in the dark but feed on trust, gestures of warmth and comfort or is it something else? It’s a heady mix of emotions ready to ignite and multiply at the slightest provocation.

Two swimming instructors – and the manager of the swimming pool they work at – have a perfectly ordinary morning. Lessons and water and kids doing what kids do. At midday, a few random words set off a chain reaction. By the end of the day, their lives are in disarray. The play captures the ordinariness of the day, and the heartbeat of a moment when things change course, and the domino effect that follows. Its unusual structure – when time folds onto itself – allows for the story to play as a mystery. The production, directed with assurance and clarity by Marta Noguera-Cuevas, is beautiful in illuminating the moments. I particularly loved the water sounds echoing from the pool, giving the place an eery quality. Continue reading

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

Joshua Mcguire and (in the background) Jonathan Coy, Paul Chahidi, Gunnar Cauthery. Photo Johan Persson

Joshua Mcguire and (in the background) Jonathan Coy, Paul Chahidi, Gunnar Cauthery. Photo Johan Persson

Is 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