Saturday, 16 November 2019

Touching The Void @ Duke Of York's Theatre

Touching The Void @ Duke Of York's Theatre

How do you put a mountain on the stage? It's a colossal task and an integral part of this adaptation of Joe Simpson's 1988 book (also a documentary film, 2003). The answer is to put the mountain in your mind.

Chairs, tables and other pub paraphernalia are strewn across the stage. The proscenium arch becomes a climbing wall. Snow blows in from the side of the stage. An abstract scaffold quivers ominously above the actors, jagged and harsh. The sound design (Jon Nicholls) is all howls and pulses. And then the perspective suddenly shifts as chairs and actors alike are swept back into the void of the stage. It's your imagination that puts the pieces together, the mountain forming like a terrifying, sublime jigsaw.

So why the pub stuff? Well it's not just the mountain that's in our minds. The entire narrative takes place within the mind of Joe (Josh Williams), a climber who ventures up the never-before-done Siula Grande mountain in the Andes with his fellow mountaineer Simon (Angus Yellowlees). When Joe breaks his leg during the descent and is left dangling, Simon makes the dire decision to cut the rope.

In his catatonic, delirious state, Joe's mind takes him back to his favourite pub where he and Simon are joined by their camp mate Richard (Patrick McNamee) and his sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton). So the play takes place both on the mountainside and the imaginary safety of the Clachaig Inn. It's a clever way for adapter David Greig to present this story on stage, a story that pivots between beautiful and ugly: from imaginary vistas and powerful landscapes, to inconceivable pain both emotional and physical.

Even for anyone already familiar with the plot, the narrative gradually ramps up to high intensity, drawing us in towards its climactic choice that has us questioning what we would do in such a situation. The second half is an incredible story of human endurance and willpower, harrowing, visceral and life-affirming.

There's warmth too amongst all the ice. Williams gives a superb physical performance as Joe, full of anguish, but as Sarah, Hampton embodies big sister energy as she taunts and motivates him on his daring descent. She is our emotional anchor too as we relive the journey through her eyes. As Richard, McNamee provides some welcome comic relief, and a beautiful singing voice.

Touching The Void is an extraordinary real life story, and an extraordinary piece of theatre.

5/5

Watch: Touching The Void runs at the Duke of York's Theatre until 29th February.

Touching The Void @ Duke Of York's Theatre

Touching The Void @ Duke Of York's Theatre
Photos: Michael Wharley

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Reputation @ The Other Palace

Reputation @ The Other Palace

Reputation initially seems timely. In a post #MeToo world of feminism, it's a new musical from Alick Glass that depicts a woman whose work is plagiarised by a man. The young Michelle Grant (Maddy Banks) is tricked into submitting her work to influential film director Freddy Larceny (Jeremy Secomb), who promptly steals the plot. And so, the young woman must regain her work and her dignity.

It's ironic, then, that it's narrated by a man. Larceny's direct addresses to the audience bookend the narrative, returning at key moments to provide further insight. Perhaps this parallel was intentional, as Larceny literally takes over Michelle's story. But it robs the musical of any sort of feminist power.

The cast is dominated by women, yet it's men who control the narrative. There are plenty of cute songs for the chorus girls, but no amount of prissy dance numbers about shopping can give these materialistic women any depth. Michelle herself is a pathetic character who, rather than being a strong career woman taking matters into her own hands, relies on her father and a young male lawyer to bail her out - a lawyer who she promptly falls in love with, obviously. The musical may be set in the 1930s but its politics don't have to be.

It's not helped by Secomb playing Larceny like a pantomime villain. His creepy schtick as an older man manipulating a young woman is uncomfortable to watch - one audience member even booed him out loud.

As a whole, Glass' work is derivative. The narrative has all the hallmarks of a 1930s musical - a meet cute, a soppy love story, a diva jazz singer - and his score is typical and repetitive jazz stuff, reprising numbers and musical phrases. It lacks the grit the plot deserves and the 1930s Hollywood setting is missing the glamorous razzle dazzle you'd expect.

It's all held together by a capable cast. The chorus girls sing some lovely harmonies and Banks especially stands out for her pure, Disney voice. As love interest Archie, Ed Wade joins her with a pleasingly light tenor, despite the saccharine writing.

The cabaret setting of The Other Palace's studio space is under-utilised here. It's the kind of musical that's aiming for grand sets and dance numbers, but the story at its core is too weak.

2/5

Watch: Reputation runs at The Other Palace until 14th November.

Reputation @ The Other Palace
Photo: Donato

Friday, 25 October 2019

Beryl @ The Arcola Theatre

Beryl @ The Arcola Theatre

It's fitting that Beryl is playing at the Arcola theatre in Dalston, not far from Cafe Beryl's that similarly commemorates the cyclist. Yet for many, Beryl Burton is an unknown.

The opening of this play from Maxine Peake, first performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2014, admits and laments this. That's why the play, quite literally, aims to answer the question: who was Beryl Burton?

What ensues is a straightforward biographical depiction of Beryl's life, from childhood to her death in 1996. In that time she won numerous championship medals and held countless records (though sadly no Olympic medals, as women's cycling was only included from 1984 onwards). In addition to her life, the play also gives a potted history of the sport.

Yet what the play makes abundantly clear is the hardship she went through for such success. A woman in a man's world (who went on to exceed men's records), she endured farmwork and slowly rose through the ranks to reach the dizzying championship heights. And all with a lack of finances, done to earn money to look after her family as both mother and competitor. The play isn't overtly political, but it is an inherently feminist narrative.

As you'd expect from Peake, the script is funny. Much of this comes from fourth wall breaking moments where the actors banter and address the audience directly. It adds excitement to an otherwise simple piece of storytelling and the cast of four give buoyant performances as multiple characters both on and off their bikes - thighs of steel doesn't begin to cut it. There are plenty of small directorial touches too from Marieke Audsley, resulting in a polished and openly theatrical production.

It all speeds along at a fast pace that perhaps doesn't go into too much detail, instead focusing on the central protagonist with a smattering of secondary caricatures. But this is low stakes theatre, ideal for the Fringe, that's pleasantly enjoyable.

Above all this is an uplifting and wholesome story of a woman's fiery determination to overcome adversity. Who is Beryl Burton? An inspiration. Now there's a play to truly cement her place in sporting history.

3/5

Watch: Beryl runs at the Arcola Theatre until 16th November.

Beryl @ The Arcola Theatre
Photo: Alex Brenner

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Mites @ The Tristan Bates Theatre

Mites @ The Tristan Bates Theatre

It seems fitting to watch Mites on Mental Health Awareness Day. Written by James Mannion, this is a surreal, absurdist play that delves deep into psychosis in a visceral portrayal.

It starts innocently enough. Ruth (Claire Marie Hall) has been left by her husband and, when a pest control man named Ken (George Howard) arrives, she believes he's actually her husband returned to her. Why pest control? Because her home has been infested with dust mites. Oh and there's also a talking cat named Bartholomew (Richard Henderson).

This is (mostly) a comedy, with a hard-hitting message simmering beneath the surface, just out of our reach. It slowly becomes more and more bizarre, peeling back Inception-like layers as we delve into the psychological mystery, eventually meeting a family of dust mites themselves. Cecilia Trono's dusty set design similarly unveils itself in parallel with the narrative.

It's all very confusing, but also well-paced to draw us in. And that confusion is purposeful - it puts us (literally) inside Ruth's head so that we are just as confused as she is. We too are unsure what is real and what is fantasy, what's the truth and what is simply occurring in her mind.

Eventually the layers build up to a more lucid state. Yet there's an element of misogyny added towards the end which makes for uncomfortable viewing as both Ruth's husband and a psychiatric doctor appear to manipulate her and take advantage of her. This then morphs into a feminist revenge tale that feels tacked on, as if Mannion felt the play needed explaining, when its cleverness lies in its ambiguity.

What makes Mites so compelling though are the committed performances from the cast. As Ruth, Hall is particularly enthralling - her distress is palpable, her mood swings endearing. Despite the craziness around her, she's a character we immediately warm to from start to finish.

3/5

Watch: Mites runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 26th October.

Mites @ The Tristan Bates Theatre
Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

Monday, 7 October 2019

Karaoke Play @ The Bunker Theatre

Karaoke Play @ The Bunker Theatre

What could be more British than karaoke in a pub? That's the setting for this state of the nation play written by Annie Jenkins and produced by pluck. productions.

The four-strong cast deliver four monologues to the sounds of cheap instrumental karaoke songs, each bravely stepping up to tell their story. It's a clever idea, monologue and song in parallel as if revealing the internal thoughts of each character. The stories gradually interlink with internal references and callbacks, slowly weaving a web and drawing us in.

Yet despite some comedic moments, Karaoke Play has an oppressive, dismal tone. Collectively, the stories touch on rape, drugs, terrorism and violence, all told through vulgar and overtly sexual language. This may be a comment on our modern society, but it lacks nuance and feels as if trying too hard to shock.

What's more, the narrative is ultimately circular but lacks drive and urgency, meandering through each story before ramping up to a crescendo of shouting and bad singing (likely on purpose, but still unpleasant). By the end, the play has established an apocalyptic tone that thoroughly depresses, but it's unclear what Jenkins is trying to say beyond this.

There's some strong acting on stage from Philip Honeywell as Darren and Lucy Bromilow as Perri, though their characters remain wholly unlikeable and lack humanity. Perhaps that too is a comment on present day Britain, but Jenkins' play leaves us cold.

2/5

Watch: Karaoke Play runs at the Bunker Theatre until 14th October.

Karaoke Play @ The Bunker Theatre
Photo: Michael Lindall

Monday, 23 September 2019

Midlife Cowboy @ Pleasance Theatre

Midlife Cowboy @ Pleasance Theatre

If country music is about dramatizing the mundane, then Midlife Cowboy is country and western through and through. Written by Radio 4 comedian Tony Hawks, this new musical yee-haws its way to the Pleasance Theatre, but not our hearts.

The narrative is as mundane as they come, concerning a handful of Swindon residents and their local country and western club. It's led by a middle-aged couple whose marriage is facing difficulties, through a lack of children and potential infidelity. And their upcoming gala night performance piles on additional stress as they seek for new members and wrestle with their (lack of) talent during rehearsals. Drama!

It’s like some white middle class fantasy; small scale drama in small town Britain. The drama feels stiff and forced, not aided by a lack of energy in the performances. And Hawks' script has an absence of jokes, with tired innuendo and punchlines that fall flat, despite being explained by the characters in case we didn’t get them the first time. Later, the drama relies on a gay twist that’s played for laughs – what could have been a chance to challenge preconceptions is missed in lazy humour.

There is some fun to be had here with the jaunty tunes and lighthearted plot. The songs may be derivative, but they’re catchy enough and well performed by the five-strong cast alternating between various instruments as well as taking lead vocals. A few too many repetitive ballads tend to drag the pacing, however, and the lack of microphones leaves both singers and musicians exposed. A bit of editing would've tightened up this sagging cowboy.

Though largely in support roles, Georgina Field brings plenty of character and zaniness to the role of Penny, and James Thackeray shows off some strong vocals as Dan. Mainly, though, there’s not enough of a reason to care about these people or their relationships, and it all predictably ties up neatly in the end. As fluffy entertainment – and it’s not trying to be anything more – it’s enjoyable enough. But this cowboy with confidence is too bland to have us line dancing home.

2/5

Watch: Midlife Cowboy runs at the Pleasance Theatre until 6th October.

Photo: Adam Trigg

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Big: The Musical @ The Dominion Theatre

Big: The Musical @ The Dominion Theatre

It's fitting that everything about Big: The Musical has been super-sized: the programme, the venue, the production value. But the show itself - and the star cast - don't live up to the billing.

Based on the 1988 film starring Tom Hanks, the show fits neatly into the current 80s revival trend, from Stranger Things to IT and more. It's wholesome fun, a coming-of-age film blown out of proportion - literally. A young boy wishes to be big, a wish granted by a mysterious carnival game, allowing a kid to live in an adult world and urge us all to embrace our inner child. It's as typically 80s as they come - indeed, why are all parents in 80s culture so irresponsible?

Except this musical is far too shallow and soulless to fully explore any themes, no matter how family-friendly. John Weidman's book has a distinct lack of jokes, and those that are there don't land; David Shire's music - broadway toe-tappers meet 80s synths - is largely forgettable; and Morgan Young's direction is far too static. A few numbers feature Young's choreography, but they too fail to excite.

The set design (Simon Higlett) impresses, with great use of the revolving stage and towering video screens (with design by Ian William Galloway). Yet in the cavernous space of the Dominion, all is lost. The drama is, ironically, small, as are the performances. In the lead role Jay McGuiness (of The Wanted and Strictly fame) has a soft crooning voice and is an athletic dancer, but he's not quite leading man material. As love interest Susan, Kimberley Walsh (of Girls Aloud and Strictly fame) offers shaky vocals and a one dimensional delivery that misses the (minimal) comic potential of the lines. Matthew Kelly and Wendi Peters also feature.

In this world, even the adults act like children, dressed though they are in drab grey office-wear. They're mostly out-acted and out-danced by the cast of actual children - as best friend Billy, Jobe Hart deserves praise. On the whole, though, there's a criminal lack of energy on stage. Not even a defibrillator could jolt some life into this show.

The one scene everyone expects is the floor piano number. And it's cute, with some nice chemistry between McGuiness and Kelly. But it's hardly the show-stopping moment in a musical in dire need of one. An overly long first half leads to a show that drags and lacks dynamic range in its music, singing or narrative.

We watch musicals for their heightened drama and theatrical magic. But here we have a flat reflection of boring adult life. This Big is too big for its boots.

2/5

Watch: Big: The Musical runs at the Dominion Theatre until November 2nd.

Big: The Musical @ The Dominion Theatre

Big: The Musical @ The Dominion Theatre
Photos: Alastair Muir

Friday, 13 September 2019

Amsterdam @ Orange Tree Theatre

Amsterdam @ Orange Tree Theatre

Nowadays Amsterdam is known as a city of liberalism, of a diverse ethnic population, a thriving LGBT community. But the city has a dark history from during WWII - after all, it was the home of Anne Frank.

It's this dichotomy that Maya Arad Yasur's Amsterdam tackles, directed by Matthew Xia - his first production as Artistic Director of Actors Touring Company (co-producing with Theatre Royal Plymouth). The play has two parallel narratives linked together by, of all things, a gas bill - a bill that's gone unpaid from the '40s until now. In that time we witness prejudice and xenophobia across the generations, the legacy of the war.

It's in the storytelling that Amsterdam is unique. Four performers address the audience directly as they narrate the story in short fragments and snippets. Occasionally they'll ring a bell to signal a footnote or translation of non-English words - initially fun but eventually tiresome. The result is a dizzying, virtuosic display of interlocking lines and thoughts.

Yasur includes plenty of dry humour in her writing and isn't afraid to reveal inner thoughts and questions we would never vocalise. Amsterdam is a juxtaposition of shock and entertainment. What's clever too is the lack of dialogue, meaning the central protagonist - an Israeli female Jewish immigrant, typically 'other' - is left without a voice.

Yet for such a human subject matter, it's hard to empathise with the characters. That's due to the idiosyncratic delivery that seems to highlight the play's technical structure more than emotion. The pace is relentless and the fragmented lines are disorientating, making the plot difficult to follow. The narrators argue over tiny details but, despite their clear delivery, the play lacks dynamic range and emotive potency.

Instead, Amsterdam is a web of wordplay that makes us think - a little too much - rather than feel. It resonates, though, not only with the city's own history but that of current day Europe.

3/5

Watch: Amsterdam runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 12th October.

Amsterdam @ Orange Tree Theatre
Photo: Helen Murray

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

World's End @ The Kings Head Theatre


World's End @ The Kings Head Theatre

It’s funny how things can take you back. Films, music, food – they can all be indicative of a certain time and place. In World’s End, the debut play from writer James Corley, it’s the references to a video game that immediately transport me back to 1998 when the latest game in the Zelda series was released, taking me on an epic quest across a mysterious fantasy realm. The play may be set in that year with the political backdrop of the Kosovan war, but it’s the references to this game and the use of its music that set the scene for me more than anything.

Corley draws parallels with the game’s coming-of-age themes and his lead characters – two young men who explore their sexuality as they bond over Nintendo. But life isn’t as simple as saving the princess. Ben (Tom Milligan) is a nervous, fidgeting presence with a stammer, patronised by his overbearing mother Viv (Patricia Potter). Besnik (Mirlind Bega) has an equally overbearing father in Ylli (Nikolaos Brahimllari), who doesn’t agree with his son's Anglicised, homosexual behaviour and is passionately embittered about the war in his home country of Kosovo.

The game’s character travels through time from a child to an adult in order to save the world; equally Ben and Besnik are forced to grow up in a world fraught with adult dangers like war and homophobia. Yet the play takes place entirely in the two family’s flats, a safe haven away from the outside world. Video games offer an extra dimension and become an important element not only in forging relationships, but in providing escapism. Where gaming too often hits the news headlines as it's blamed for violence and gun crimes, Corley’s play offers a positive message – here, gaming is the very antithesis of war.

The Kosovan war is little more than a backdrop to Corley’s main focus: the family drama. As such, Besnik and Ylli feel a little underwritten compared to their British counterparts. But it’s the relationship between Ben and Viv that provides the play’s most tender moments. There’s a great dynamic range between the two actors as their frustrations at one another boil over into arguments, before settling into apologetic compassion, reflecting the very tangible difficulties of two people living together in a one bed flat and the push-pull tension of their inter-locking lives. Both Milligan and Potter are excellent in their respective roles: Milligan likeable as the stuttering Ben who’s not as na├»ve as his mother suspects, Potter devastating in the play’s final moments as she’s torn between her own moral views and allowing her son independence.

There’s no fairytale ending here, no magical Triforce to put the world right again. But sometimes, it takes a little fantasy for us to truly find ourselves.

4/5

Watch: World’s End runs at The Kings Head Theatre until 21st September.


Photo: Bettina Adela

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Fleabag @ Wyndham's Theatre

Fleabag @ Wyndham's Theatre

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag is hilarious. But then, you knew that already.

The chances are you've already watched both series of the TV show based on this very play. Rarely does a show strike such a chord with the zeitgeist, its asides, meme-worthy moments and "hot priest" burned into the public's collective conscience. Fleabag is a phenomenon, catapulting Waller-Bridge into the stratosphere.

This play, then, is a chance to see where it all began. Originally performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013, it was later adapted into the TV series we know and love and arrives in London's West End for a limited run (and its last, with Hollywood knocking at Waller-Bridge's door). It means that you already know what happens here if you've seen the first series: the guinea pig themed cafe, meeting her sister at feminist talks, increasingly extreme sexual encounters, et al.

It's certainly interesting to spot differences, to see how the play was later adapted to the screen. Its story beats and jokes arrive in a different order but they're just as funny despite already knowing the punchlines. And that story still hits hard, with its themes of dealing with our mistakes in life, feelings of loneliness and worthlessness, feminism, the difficulties of (London) life in your 30s.

The way the script weaves these themes together and creeps up on you with both humour and sensitivity is genius. As a one-woman show (just Waller-Bridge, a chair and a spotlight) it's like one long aside to the camera, a window into Fleabag's intriguing life: raw, candid, and brutally honest. And she has a remarkable ability to deliver bathos, building us up before sidelining us with an amusing quip.

Even with its beautiful pacing and cleverly conversational structure, Waller-Bridge doesn't even need to speak to make us laugh. She has one of those malleable faces where a simple eyebrow movement is enough to have the audience in stitches; in full force, her facial expressions, storytelling and idiosyncratic delivery make for a unique experience that'll have you guffawing and questioning your life choices in equal measure.

But then, you knew all of that already, right? To see it live, though, is such a treat.

5/5

Watch: Fleabag runs at the Wyndham's Theatre until 14th September.

Fleabag @ Wyndham's Theatre
Photo: Matt Humphreys