Review: The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov – in a new version by Simon Stephens, at the Young Vic Theatre

Kate Duchene as Lyubov Ranevskaya, Dominic Rowan as Alexander. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

Kate Duchene as Lyubov Ranevskaya, Dominic Rowan as Alexander. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

You wait ages for one Chekhov and two arrive in less than a week. I was disappointed by Uncle Vanya at St James Theatre, which made the anticipation of The Cherry Orchard a tense affair: I don’t like not liking Chekhov. It’s almost hurtful. It doesn’t make sense. The meaning of life comes into question. Fortunately, the Young Vic Cherry Orchard – spiky, unsentimental, insolent, respectful only of a ridiculous tender heart – comes to restore the world as it should be.

The production, directed by Katie Mitchell in a new version by Simon Stephens, crackles with elegant and thrilling contradictions: outwardly it looks traditional, with its straight-laced proscenium arch and naturalistic approach. Yet it creates a feeling of uneasiness, a punky wave of a new world. The modern setting (invoked mostly due to costumes) is established with huge confidence: suits and ties don’t demand the presence of smartphones and Ipads, letters are still sent and news (good news, bad news, terrible news) is still being delivered by messenger. The characters break out into behaviours Chekhov would have never dreamed of which only highlights their inability to break free: their behaviour is often unhinged but that gives them no insight or self-awareness. It’s an act of decompression, like a balloon losing air and spinning out of control, only to end up on the floor, shriveled and defeated.

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Review: Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, in a new version by Anya Reiss, at the St James theatre

Uncle Vanya St James theatre posterAnton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is a pretty ordinary tragedy. Wasted lives by default and undue care, squandered opportunities, realisations coming too late. It’s as ordinary as it is immense. Could anything have changed? Can it still? Does it matter? Is it best to lack the willingness or the intellect? These characters are self-aware, but have no energy to do anything about it.

In the new version by Anya Reiss, directed by Russell Bolam, the story is set in modern times and, sad to say, lacks bite. If I included these statements in the same sentence, it’s not because they are intrinsically linked. The modern setting could have worked well, in fact I can see the play reflected all around me. (We ‘d like to think the world is our oyster and we are savvy in making choices and having portfolio lives but truth is, from one rushed day to the next, moments are often lived thoughtlessly).

The production taps into the ridiculousness of the characters but doesn’t allow enough space for their tenderness. Continue reading

Review: The James Plays by Rona Munro, Olivier stage (a co-production of the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Great Britain)

James McArdle as James I. Photo Manuel Harlan

James McArdle as James I. Photo Manuel Harlan

Some reviews come difficult and with some, I want to say everything at once. I can’t type fast enough, or think fast enough, like skipping and sliding and tripping across the immense pleasure of seeing the production and wanting to get it out there.

Because this is the thing about The James Plays. You can talk about themes (and Rona Munro leaves no stone unturned) and sweeping vision and the pregnancy of the ideas and the magnificence of the execution but what comes down to is the sheer pleasure and energy and balls of it all. It’s history plays with the audacity to be anything they want to be. What better way to set the ideas free than to sew them into the fabric of the play?

Talking of ideas, it’s obvious – but no less true – that it is about Scotland. It is. Always. Never forget that. But the specificity of the story allows it to be personal to everyone. It is about this country and then it is about every country. It is about loving and fighting what’s closer to you. It’s about men and women, together, separate, alone. It’s about death. Always.  It’s about fathers and sons. It’s about helpless, infuriating love, for a person, for a country. It’s about finding truth in yourself despite having no choices. It’s about sex. Always. And it’s about joy. About one clear day when everything is perfect.

The language has so much strength that, you imagine, with lesser actors, would break everyone in half. Continue reading

Review: Electra (starring Kristin Scott Thomas) at the Old Vic theatre

Electra Old Vic posterIt took me a long time to decide what I wanted to say about the Old Vic production of Sophocles’ Electra, directed by Ian Rickson. My lack of clarity is mostly because I wanted to like it more than I did. It gets many things right, it has integrity, it has a strong character. Still it never caught fire in my imagination.

Sophocles’ Electra is a simple story, at least when it comes to plot. Without giving much away, Electra waits for someone, unlike Godot he arrives. Much of the play it’s people describing what happened, either in the distant or recent past. What happened is important to them, to the point of risking their lives and their future. It’s linked to values and the gods and a changing world. At its best it’s ideas grabbing people by the throat.

Electra is a complicated character and 2500 years since the play was written have added layers of ambiguity. She is strong and determined, unwavering, fanatical. She is also committed to patriarchical values: she takes her father’s side and defends the values he represents. (Agamemnon – although murdered – is far from an innocent victim. He tricked his wife into sacrificing their daughter, then went to war for ten years and expected that his wife would stay behind and wait for him). Were these values unambiguous for audiences two millenia ago? If so, they aren’t any more.

The first time we see Kristin Scott Thomas, her hair is hidden under a scarf, giving her face the appearance of a skull. Continue reading

Review: The Wolf From The Door, by Rory Mullarkey – at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

Sophie Russell, Calvin Demba as Leo, Anna Chancellor as Catherine, Pearce Quigley. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

Sophie Russell, Calvin Demba as Leo, Anna Chancellor as Catherine, Pearce Quigley. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

Cards on the table and without ambiguity, I didn’t like Rory Mullarkey’s The Wolf From the Door. It’s been a while since I disliked a play in such comprehensive manner.  It wasn’t the lack of promise, quite the opposite. It starts with an idea that has meat on its bones: is apathy just a smoke screen? What will it take for middle england to take (decisive, surprising, violent) action? And would anyone notice if we were there already?

Except the play doesn’t go far: it imagines a situation where this would happen. Posh Lady Catherine picks up young drifter Leo on a train station. Any other woman would do it for sex but not her. She wants to anoint him ruler of the land. Everything is ready, the people are waiting. And blood will be spilt. Among the allotments and the supermarket alleys. Not so much Carnation Revolution but Revolution and flower arrangements. Continue reading

Review: Ballyturk by Enda Walsh, at the National Theatre, Lyttelton stage

Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi. Photo Patrick Redmond

Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi. Photo Patrick Redmond

Describing Ballyturk is a challenge, a riddle and an emotional rollercoaster disguised as an intellectual exercise: it’s like having an existential crisis and a stroke and a panic attack, all rolled into one but with songs and dancing and talc powder and yellow jumpers and jenga towers of biscuits and fierce words and fiercer silences.  12 seconds lasting a lifetime. 12 seconds of a lifetime, yet too short for any questions to be answered. If time is worthless when it is aplenty, does it worth more when running out? Do we forget before we know what to remember? If the now consumes everything, what is the value of yesterday?

Enda Walsh the creator and Enda Walsh the destroyer sets up a crib sheet of answers before we know the questions, and then tears them apart. Continue reading

Review: Maxine Peake as Hamlet, at the Royal Exchange Manchester

Maxine Peake as Hamlet

Maxine Peake as Hamlet. Photo Jonathan Keenan

It’s the holy grail, Hamlet made fresh and distinct and specific and alive. You read it on every interview and every programme. Except how do you do that? Director Sarah Frankcom and company at the Royal Exchange Manchester found the way to a version of the play that – while it doesn’t do everything the play can do – is fearless, personal and closer to the heart than possibly any other Hamlet I have seen. It shakes the play’s heaviness and with immense confidence creates a world where ideas have an exhilarating quality and a whole layer of skin and grime has been scraped.

Maxine Peake’s Hamlet is a cross between a warrior angel (one of the beautiful lovelorn angels Philip Pullman writes) and the Little Prince. Unselfconsciously wise, relentless in gouging the truth out of everything, occasionally scary, earthy and alien, warm and mischievous and never more himself than when he laughs. While his insanity is not entirely an act, he is unperturbed by it. He knows something beyond the obvious. He is trapped at the beginning of the play, he finds a mission and a way out when he meets the Ghost, and goes home at the end of it. Peake is scorchingly good, above all in her ability to connect and hold the world at the palm of her hand: this Hamlet could raise an army if he wanted, and we are it. Continue reading

Review: Wingman by Richard Marsh at the Soho Theatre

Wingman - Richard Marsh - Produced by Tim Johanson Productions - Edinburgh Festival/Soho Theatre Richard Marsh - plays Richard Marsh/Bridgitte Jerome Wright - plays Dad Directed by Justin Audibert

Jerome Wright and Richard Marsh. Photo Robert Workman

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”, Philip Larkin said in his famous poem, and even if it doesn’t apply to everyone to the same degree, it’s an assertion that stood the test of time. Richard Marsh explores that very truth, probably a little less angrily, definitely more humorously and – to keep with the poem theme – with a surprisingly amount of rhyming.

Marsh starts his monologue (and monologue it is, even though another character enters soon) as a lighter version of Nick Payne’s The Art of Dying, and admittedly this is a strange path to take but soon enough, the narration takes a different turn: the enforced reunion of father and son after twenty years takes the form of a road trip and the ghost (of Christmas past, present and future?) that you can’t shake. Father wants to stick around, son thinks he wants to move away. Then new babies and new relationships (in that order) come along and he doesn’t know what to think or what he wants.

The text is often very funny

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Review: Titus Andronicus at the Bold Tendencies Peckham multi-storey car park

Christine Entwisle as Tamora and Adam Burton as Titus. Photo Hala Mufieh

Christine Entwisle as Tamora and Adam Burton as Titus. Photo Hala Mufieh

The play is the thing and the location is the play. As you enter the disused car park at the side of the Peckham cinema multiplex (past the dumpsters, down the alley, through a narrow metal door), you are greeted with posters (“Don’t miss this one-of-a-kind immersive experience!”) and signs guiding you to levels seven and eight. Titus Andronicus produced by The Theory of Everything and Restless Buddha makes a firm promise, with the writing – literally – on the wall. Does it deliver? It does when it counts and in its own terms.

Sprawled in the car parking space of level seven, the production – directed by Pia Furtado – is notable for its energy, atmosphere and the marriage of setting and text. Its world – turf wars with a touch of sixties car culture – is immediately recognisable as a place where human life has little value. In that context, the text sits comfortably but not passively. It hurls and jumps as much as the actors do. Words are lithe and the production’s physicality has its own brutal poetry: men crawl and hang from the ceiling, bodies disappear through metal doors, threat drips everywhere. Blinding car lights flood the long strip of concrete and suddenly it’s car races at the edge of a cliff. 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