Review: Cans by Stuart Slade, at Theatre 503

Graham O'Mara as Len, Jennifer Clement as Jen. Photo Tani Van Amse

Graham O’Mara as Len, Jennifer Clement as Jen. Photo Tani Van Amse

Stuart Slade’s Cans, currently playing at Theatre 503, is both intriguing in its theme and tender in its approach. It focuses on a subject matter that, in its details relates to recent collective preoccupations (I won’t say more for fear of spoilers), but in its core is old and universal and inexhaustible: Do we ever know the people we love? And how do you renegotiate love in the context of grief and the absence of the other person?

It’s also framed in the lovely and rich relationship between uncle and niece, and we don’t have enough of those in theatre (Uncle Vanya alone can’t carry it and Claudius will never win Uncle of the Month). Uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces is special fertile ground, free, unpredictable and a little bit naughty, full of trust but devoid of unnecessary tension.

Stuart Slade and director Dan Pick take these ingredients, and work up something robust and tender: they delicately construct revelations throughout the play, at the same time as they keep it true and real, which in this case means messy and a bit dark and inappropriately funny. Continue reading

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: 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: Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun, National Theatre, Lyttelton stage

Emma Lowndes as Liza and Paul Higgins as Boris. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Emma Lowndes as Liza and Paul Higgins as Boris. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

In conversations about seminal productions of recent years, specifically seminal productions I have missed, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, performed at the National Theatre in 2010, often comes up. A russian classic, adapted by Andrew Upton, directed by Howard Davies, designed by Bunny Christie and with Paul Higgins and Justine Mitchell in the cast, made a huge impression to anyone who saw it. The current production of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun, with many of the same people involved, inevitably carries high expectations. And they are not squandered.

Early 20th century Russia, the middle classes play and live in the protected bubble of self-delusion and good intentions while a new world is tearing down the gates. Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfeild) has a god-like insight into the future of science and cosmos but human interactions escape him (and he escapes them). His wife Yelena (Justine Mitchell), an intelligent earthy woman, desperately tries to connect her husband to herself and to the world, and her continuous failure wounds her deeply. His friend Boris (Paul Higgins) despises illusions and has clarity of vision, but his inability to act and affect change increasingly drains him of hope, with only his love for Liza giving him focus. Protasov’s sister Liza (Emma Lowndes), a vulnerable woman who feels the world as a stab, clings to, spars with and rebuffs Boris in equal measures. Other friends, lovers, work associates and servants swarm around the family, the focus of the community for generations and the eye of the hurricane to come.

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Review: The Doctor’s Dilemma at the National Theatre

Genevieve O’Reilly (Jennifer Dubedat) and Tom Burke ( Dubedat). Photo Johan Persson

I went to The Doctor’s Dilemma without expectations. I knew nothing about the George Bernard Shaw play (although, unsurprising, it had doctors in it). Even without expectations, in the first twenty minutes or so, the play and production seemed set to disappoint.

Fortunately, I am pleased to report that the initial bad omens were not fulfilled and the evening turned in a very engaging, playful, darkly comic theatrical experience. This is a comedy (maybe) about death and love, where tragic things are funny and funny things are sad.  Not knowing anything about the play proves a huge advantage as the shifting of perceptions is a huge pleasure. A recurring theme is knowledge and deception, but characters and audience end up with very few certainties and answers.

The character of Dubedat needs an actor with huge charisma, and Tom Burke rises to the challenge splendidly. As Dubedat, he is playful without being shallow, mysterious yet transparent, and inappropriately profound. He also pulls, as far as I am concerned at least, a magnificent double bluff that left me feeling a tiny bit guilty. Continue reading

The Hamlet Challenge Entry no 3: Curb Your Enthusiasm

Larry David as Max Bialystock in the fictional production of The Producers

Entry no 3 in the Hamlet challenge comes from an unlikely place if there is such a thing: the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. In the episode Opening Night, Larry David goes to New York to start performances as Max Bialystock in the musical The Producers. In the first scene of the Producers, Max Bialystock has just opened Funny Boy!, a musical version of Hamlet, the show is panned by the critics and it is closing just as it has opened. Max Bialystock laments his past glories as a legendary Broadway producer.

The real deal: David Tennant and Penny Downie in Hamlet, RSC 2008. Photograph Ellie Kurtz


The entry might not be profound, but its meta implications are delicious: a real person (in a fictional version of himself) plays a part in a real play (if not a real production) whose plot involves a fictional musical version of Hamlet. Which is a real play. The question remains (and it’s not “To be or not to be”): Is Larry David’s performance real or fictional? And although Funny Boy! is not a real musical, Hamlet the musical exists.

For the first entry and explanation to the Hamlet challenge visit the Hamlet Challenge Entry No 1:  Tis Pity She’s a Whore by Cheek by Jowl.

The Hamlet Challenge Entry No 2: Copenhagen at Sheffield theatres

Before going to Sheffied this past Thursday, I knew very little about Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen. Something about nuclear physics and the bomb. I quite like not knowing anything about a play, all part of discovering everything in the moment.

Geoffrey Streatfeild as Heisenberg in Copenhagen Photo by Manuel Harlan

In the end, Copenhagen proved a superb play in a superb production. The play itself reminded me of Arcadia, with its visceral approach of ideas, science, morality & mortality. I think that Arcadia might be the best play ever written, so anything that comes close is a masterpiece.

You can call the production challenging, but that might miss the point. It was challenging, both because it presents something important and profound, but also because of the challenge of hanging on in a fabulous emotional and intellectual ride. Like skiing down a slope, a motif of the play itself. Continue reading

The Hamlet Challenge Entry No 1: Tis Pity She’s a Whore by Cheek By Jowl

On Monday, I was at the Barbican to see Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a production by Cheek By Jowl. To my shame, I hadn’t seen a Cheek by Jowl production before, but on this evidence, I will be coming back. Punchy (in every sense of the word), sexy, gruesome, it was as much about words, as it was about visual beauty and bodily fluids.

In the second scene, when Grimaldi and Vasques have a bare knuckles, Fight Club style, fight, someone yells at some point “A hit. A very palpable hit“. The line, that doesn’t exist in the text, is a refernce to Hamlet, uttered by Osric at the start of the final – let’s see how many people we can kill in less than ten minutes – sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes. Continue reading