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

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Das Rheingold @ Arcola Theatre

Das Rheingold @ Arcola Theatre

Wagner's Das Rheingold, the first opera in his Ring Cycle, is an ambitious choice for this year's Grimeborn opera festival at the Arcola Theatre. His works are known for their extravagance: their lush orchestration, eccentric costumes and lavish sets. Yet the festival is an opportunity to see opera in a different light, in small venues with reduced casts and orchestras.

For some intimate operas this approach works, but for Wagner it eschews the composer's predilection for opulence. In this production, directed by Julia Burbach and designed by Bettina John, everything is paired back from the run time (just 100 minutes), to the staging and the orchestra. The result lacks some of the magic you'd expect.

The aim, it seems, is to bring out the human side of this drama - a potentially interesting take. Based heavily on German mythology (somewhat stolen from Norse mythology), it's a tale of gods and giants, maidens and golden treasure. Here that plays out as a contemporary class battle between the rich and poor, about how power corrupts. In a move similar to American Gods, these gods seemingly live among us as relatable people.

Yet with its simple black and white costumes and drab cardboard set, it all feels plain and unfinished, lacking that magical inventiveness you'd expect from such a story. The acting, meanwhile, retains a melodramatic flair more suited to a grand opera house. It's too much for such a small space, which bursts at the seams to contain the drama, the actors pacing constantly. There is no room to breathe.

What is impressive is the balance of the orchestra and the singers, conducted by Peter Selwyn. Though a little tentative and lacking in dynamic impact, the reduced orchestra makes a fine accompaniment to the singers. The vocal standard is mostly strong, though Marianne Vidal stands out as Fricka for her subtlety and control. Seth Carico is also likeable as the dwarf Alberich. But for all the production's melodrama, it lacks the required grandeur and emotive force to keep us engaged.

3/5

Watch: Das Rheingold runs at the Arcola Theatre as part of the Grimeborn Festival until 10th August.

Das Rheingold @ Arcola Theatre

Das Rheingold @ Arcola Theatre
Photos: Lidia Crisafulli

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Midsommar

Midsommar

There are times when, walking out of the cinema, you feel lost and confused. You have more questions than answers. You’re maybe even a little disturbed. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film.

Midsommar is that film. Ari Aster’s latest is a wonder to watch, yet deeply unsettling. I think I liked it.

It is, above all, a masterpiece in mood. Set in northern Sweden (though actually filmed in Budapest), it takes inspiration from the region’s lack of night during the summer. This is a meditative, hallucinatory film with a timeless quality. Where most horror films revel in darkness, here we have perpetual light. It’s strangely disorientating.

The narrative follows a group of American students who visit their friend’s family in Sweden for the summer. It turns out they’re part of an old cult who meet for festivities every 90 years. It begins innocently enough: a pastoral, bucolic vision of life, full of freshly harvested food, singing, dancing and community. It’s idyllic even. But things take a bizarre turn during the various rituals that become increasingly deranged. In the midst of this is Dani (Florence Pugh), suffering from anxiety after her bipolar sister commits suicide and murders her family in the process. All she has left is her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) who’s emotionally distant. Their relationship on the brink of collapse, the trip seems like a make or break opportunity.

The setup and pagan rituals will be familiar to many. What sets Aster’s film apart is his cinematography and use of sound. What’s so unsettling is how things seem so normal, yet there’s something not quite right either, setting the film off-kilter. It’s in the way the camera loops upside down as it follows the students’ car; or a flower slowly and subtly pulsing in a headdress; or framing that slightly obscures the action. It replicates the hallucinatory quality of the film, as trees and grass shimmer either from drug consumption or simply the heat of the constant sun. The music, too, is eerie: harmonious drones that slowly distort with dissonance.

The uneasy atmosphere is then punctuated by moments of graphic violence and/or sex. These are intended to shock, a tactic that seems somewhat cheap within such artful mood-setting. But they also lend the story some dramatic weight – and, in all honesty, the odd moment to chuckle at absurdity.

That’s all very well if there’s a strong narrative underpinning it all. But it’s here where Midsommar begins to slip through Aster’s grip. His film is fuelled by anxieties: grief, death, cheating, emasculation, perhaps even a fear of foreigners. Yet what it all means is left entirely ambiguous. Is this a film about the need for community, that, no matter how deranged and bizarre, we all need a family to belong to? Or is this a straightforward revenge tale about a perverse break-up, a woman finding release from her partner in the most eccentric manner? Or maybe I’ve missed the mark?

Aster’s folk horror is a pensive meditation on a muddle of themes, one that satisfies for its craft more than its narrative and sits just on the right side of pretentious. For some, its ambiguity is a void. For others, the guessing is half the fun.

3/5

Watch: Midsommar is out now.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole: The Musical @ The Ambassadors Theatre


The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole: The Musical @ The Ambassadors Theatre

As a character, Adrian Mole is something of a relic. He might be only 13¾, but he is absolutely a product of his time. His secret diary was written by Sue Townsend and published in 1982, filled with Thatcherite politics and British social satire. Thirty five years later, the novel has now been adapted into a musical. But the question is: is it still relevant?

The themes at the heart of the novel are, of course, universal. It follows a year in the life of Adrian, a precocious teen struggling with the usual trials and tribulations of growing up, his relationship with his parents, finding a girlfriend and measuring his privates (something the books became known for but aren’t mentioned much here). The issue, though, is with the presentation of this story.

The book and lyrics, from Jake Brunger, remain close to the novel. That means it’s full of 80s references, from celebrities like Pebble Mill and Princess Diana, to shops like Woolworths and C&A. Pippa Cleary’s music has an old fashioned charm that feels warm and familiar, if not particularly fresh. No matter how relatable Adrian may be as a character, the musical and its references will likely fly way over the heads of most young people who may visit the show.

If anything, this is a musical for an older generation who read the books growing up and are now looking for a nostalgia fix. It’s a particularly British narrative, with a royal wedding and nativity play on the positive side and old fashioned misogynistic political views on the negative. Even the 80s pop songs played during the interval slather on a thick layer of nostalgia. Equally, though, the focus on young performers, a colourful set (Tom Rogers) that resembles an oversized notepad and opens up like a toy box, and pop choreography (Rebecca Howell) give the show a youthful family-friendly feel that may not click with adults. Instead, this musical falls into an awkward middle ground between young and old that doesn’t fully satisfy either group – the sort of show your grandparents would take you to see for some dated yet wholesome entertainment.

That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable. There’s plenty of charm here, from the young cast of performers (Rufus Kampa as Adrian deserves special mention for leading the show), to the adults amusingly playing children, and the overall cartoonish characterisation. The jokes are plentiful and the direction is generally polished, even if this feels more suited to a touring production than a West End destination. What’s most engaging is the subplot relationship between Adrian’s parents, Pauline (Amy Ellen Richardson) and George (Andrew Langtree). This is the emotional heart of the show, with Richardson in particular giving an emotive vocal performance. Though, as a thirtysomething, perhaps real adult problems are more appealing than reminiscing about a youth spent with a ruler firmly in hand.

3/5

Watch: Adrian Mole: The Musical runs at the Ambassadors Theatre until 28th September.


Adrian Mole: The Musical @ The Ambassadors Theatre

Adrian Mole: The Musical @ The Ambassadors Theatre

Photos: Pamela Raith