List: Top ten theatre productions for January to June 2014

Lloyd Owen as Mike and Imelda Staunton as Margaret in Good People. Photo Johan Persson

Lloyd Owen as Mike and Imelda Staunton as Margaret in Good People. Photo Johan Persson

In a pattern frequently repeated in my life, I am about six weeks late in posting my top ten list from the first half of the year. I could have easily moved on, but 2014 is shaping into a vintage year, and I wanted to put a mark in the sand before the end of the year top ten becomes a hard and merciless business. In strict alphabetical order, the best – and favourite – productions of the first six months of 2014.

A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic (aka the Revival): it’s hard to describe how brilliant Arthur Miller’s A View from The Bridge was. Directed by Ivo Van Hove with Mark Strong as Eddie Carbone, text, acting and directorial decisions came together in a seamless union. The result was a beating heart at the palm of your hand, exhilarating and horrifying in equal measures. Eddie Carbone describing the smell of coffee will stay with me forever. What do we remember, heh?

Birdland at the Royal Court (aka the Rock descent into hell): Simon Stephens’ Birdland is not perfect. Yet it lodged under my skin more than other – more perfect (and yes, I know I shouldn’t be using a comparative construct) – productions. It had the blackest black and an aching at its bones. You can see home but you can never go back.

Blurred Lines at the Shed, National Theatre (aka the feminist rock concert): in a line of plays constructed like jazz music (pieces coming together and apart at will), Nick Payne’s and Carrie Cracknell’s Blurred Lines was incendiary, prickly and put the cat among the pigeons. And it was fun. Continue reading

Review: Nick Payne in The Art of Dying, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

NIck Payne in The Art of Dying

NIck Payne in The Art of Dying

Let’s pretend this is a review and let’s pretend this is a play in the conventional sense. None of these things are true. Nick Payne wrote a monologue about things that happened to him, are factually true (one assumes), are about death and dying and he performs it himself. The space between performance and non-performance has shrunk to a tiny sliver.

But performance it is, and that’s a good thing. One of the best – and important – things to say about The Art of Dying is I didn’t feel emotionally blackmailed. It’s not a confessional, it’s an expedition. Trying to find a path after you had someone close to you die. Like an intrepid explorer setting off to discover a new world. Except you don’t have the choice of staying home.

Is it moving? Of course. It captures a million tiny gestures that make life bearable and unbearable. Continue reading

Review: Incognito by Nick Payne, at the Bush theatre (presented by nabokov)

Alison O'Donnell and Paul Hickey - photo Bill Knight

Alison O’Donnell and Paul Hickey – photo Bill Knight

Young british playwrights are on fire. Not only in the sense they are pretty damn good (even if Dominic Cavendish disagrees), but also because they can’t stop writing. In April, Mike Bartlett opened two new plays within a fortnight, and now Nick Payne’s Incognito performs at the Bush theatre, a couple of months after his Blurred Lines performed at the Shed and Symphony at the Vaults and before The Art of Dying at the Royal Court in July. People ask me why I go to the theatre so much. Try keeping up with these guys.

Skimming through the synopsis of the play, you will pick up words like neuroscience and Albert Einstein’s brain (in a jar no less). Associated images of laboratories and 19th century travelling shows spring to mind (this expression – “it springs to mind” – is pertinent. This is how the brain works, making connections and creating narratives). The reality of the production is far more intriguing.  Nick Payne returns to the themes of Constellations: the burning desire for meaning, human warmth and comfort, all held together by a decaying and fragile piece of human tissue. What happens when we lose a memory, a word, a feeling? Can they be so important if they are so easily lost?

As with Constellations, structure is key: Continue reading

Review: Symphony by nabokov (with words by Nick Payne, Ella Hickson, Tom Wells) – The Vaults, Waterloo

symphony - nabokov Vaults festivalNew plays by Nick Payne, Ella Hickson, Tom Wells are not to be ignored. New plays by Nick Payne, Ella Hickson, Tom Wells performed together are a major event. New plays by Payne, Hickson, Wells performed together in the middle of a gig? I couldn’t possibly stay away. The set up is unusual and yet simple: we first encounter musicians playing a gig but quickly the songs morph into performed stories and the musicians into actors playing characters. After that, there isn’t much distinction between plays and songs, they are all different points in the same universe.

Similarly, the three plays bleed into each other. Jonesy by Tom Wells recreates the chaotic drive of teenage years, where crashing pressure is only outweighed by optimism and indefatigable energy. (I loved how the adult world in the background was tired and fade, like a shake of the head too small for anyone to notice). Continue reading

Review: Blurred Lines (by Nick Payne and Carrie Cracknell), at the Shed, National Theatre

The company. Photo Simon Kane

The company. Photo Simon Kane

If you read this blog, chances are you already had strong recommendations about Blurred Lines, a play “created by Nick Payne and Carrie Cracknell, devised by the Company with poetry by Michaela Coel”. (This is a direct quote from the National Theatre website, I didn’t want to get it wrong). “Recommendations” puts it somewhat mildly. Among the “feminist” plays currently performing in London, Blurred Lines (taking its title from the Robin Thicke song, yes THAT Robin Thicke song) is the rock n’ roll concert. People love it, scream for it (as the girls next to me did at the curtain call), adore it. And with very good reason.

On a visceral level, Blurred Lines made me think of hailstorms: Continue reading

Review: The Same Deep Water As Me, by Nick Payne, at the Donmar Warehouse

Nigel Lindsay, Daniel Mays and Monica Dolan in The Same Deep Water As Me. Photo Johan Persson

Nigel Lindsay, Daniel Mays and Monica Dolan in The Same Deep Water As Me. Photo Johan Persson

Nick Payne’s Constellations was one of last year’s theatrical highlights: elegant and simple, it took life’s small gestures and launched them into space. It transferred from the 80 seater Royal Court Upstairs to the West End and was nominated for an Olivier award. As his new play starts performances, does he feel the pressure of repeating the success of Constellations?

On the evidence of The Same Deep Water As Me, directed by John Crowley at the Donmar Warehouse, Nick Payne doesn’t seem under pressure at all. On the face of it, it’s a simple story with a simple structure unfolding over several years: its milieu is a solicitor’s firm specialising in personal injury claims. It’s not the kind of profession to brag about and the two solicitors working on the firm bear (and occasionally justify) its unsavoury reputation with a mixture of self delusion and decency.

As with Constellations, dialogue and relationships are impeccable.  Continue reading

Review: Constellations by Nick Payne, at the Duke of York’s

Sally Hawkins as Marianne and Rafe Spall as Roland. Photo Johan Persson

Last night at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, Nick Payne’s Constellations won the award for Best Play and for anyone who saw the production earlier in the year, this was hardly a surprise: Constellations at the Royal Court Upstairs was a jewel of a play in its perfect space: 70 minutes, two actors, a space that barely holds eighty people, a play that takes the microscopic and the immense and shows them in bright, unexpected, intimate shades.

In that sense, transferring Constellations to the West End was a gamble: in two performances the Duke of York’s can fit almost as many people as they saw Constellations in its entire Royal Court run. Scale and perspective have changed, design and light have adjusted but the production has lost none of its power. If you can’t be in the middle of this world as you were at the Royal Court, you can still savour it, enjoy its beauty and dissect it.

Dissection might be the key word for describing Nick Payne’s play. Continue reading

Tis the season to transfer: Curious Incident and This House pack their bags for bigger venues

Luke Treadaway as Christopher. Photo by Manuel Harlan

The National Theatre has had a bumper year in its Cottesloe venue, with both This House and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time being sold out at the back of excellent word of mouth and reviews. (I can confirm all good things you heard are true). That kind of success, especially in a small venue like the Cottesloe, is often followed by news of a transfer to a bigger venue and that seems to be the case for both of the above productions: National Theatre has officially announced This House will transfer to the 1,000-plus seater Olivier from February 2013 and now word is the Curious Incident will transfer to the Apollo at the West End from March 2013. None of these is a surprise: by the time most people hear about a good play performed at the Cottesloe, all tickets are gone. In that sense, the transfers are welcome (and in a personal note, I would definitely like to see both plays again) but there are some reservations. Continue reading

Review: Three plays by Nick Payne, Duncan Macmillan, Penelope Skinner at the Roundabout

Maya Alexander and Andrew Sheridan in One Day When We Were Young. Photo: Elyse Marks

After a few weeks where my theatre consisted of Shakespeare, Ibsen, a revival of an eighties play and a Chekhov that didn’t look like Chekhov, it was great pleasure to go back to new writing. With a packed schedule and within twenty four hours, I saw four plays from four young playwrights (you are getting old when the playwrights start looking younger): first it was This House by James Graham at the National Theatre, and the next day, the Roundabout season, three plays in a single afternoon, produced by Paines Plough and Sheffield Theatres and performed at the Shoreditch Town Hall.

Three playwrights, all under 35, three different visions all performed in the same intimate, almost inescapable, space:

One Day When We Were Young by Nick Payne: My favourite piece of the day, especially the second act, tenderly performed by Andrew Sheridan and Maya Alexander. Nick Payne is currently riding an immense high, with Constellations at the Royal Court being a huge success (and transferring to the West End) and his play “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet” playing in New York. “One Day When We Were Young” is a story of an unlikely and brief love affair that marks two people in different ways for the next sixty years. Payne’s writing probes difficult places of loneliness and heartbreak, and the actors, especially Andrew Sheridan (who has the rare ability of drawing you in so effectively and with so little fanfare that takes you by surprise) make the play justice. Continue reading