Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Mary Poppins

UK tour, Curve Leicester
16th October, 2015

The new tour of Cameron Mackintosh’s and Disney’s musical Mary Poppins, with new music by Stiles and Drew, is, as a successful musical should be, exhilarating. However, I can understand if someone is cynical about this new tour. Firstly, Curve have raised ticket prices for the show (it is apparently the first time they have had a seat over £50 for a show). There is also a wagon load of merchandise in the foyer, ranging from mugs and programmes to mini handbags and umbrellas, from which they are also selling stuff at the exit as the audience leave the theatre. Furthermore, you may say that Mary Poppins is one of the newest mega musicals. In a section on McTheatre in his book Theatre & Globalisation, Dan Rebellato argues that these big shows can diminish some of the virtues of theatre: ‘its liveness, the uniqueness of each performance, its immediacy, its ability to respond to place and time’ (Rebellato 2009: 41-2). ‘In place of these virtues’, he argues, ‘these shows appear almost entirely unchanged wherever they are’ (Rebellato 2009: 42). Indeed, for this tour, although it is still Richard Eyre’s production (and Matthew Bourne’s), they have got in a tour director, James Powell, to try to recreate the show presumably whilst Eyre is working on Mr Foote’s Other Leg. Powell has previously worked on Mary Poppins, including the last UK tour.

One positive aspect of mega musicals, however, is that reproductions are no longer the ‘pale and shabby imitation of the metropolitan original’ (Rebellato 2009: 41). Indeed, this tour has all of the tricks and effects that made the London production so magical. The house set is smaller than it was in London, instead going for a pop-up book design, but this tour is superb. And even if liveness is compromised, it may give the commercial touring circuit a boost. Regarding the high ticket prices, there is a bit in the show where Mr Banks turns down a bank loan to someone because the idea simply wanted to create money, but had not heart and offered nothing much else in return. Well the prices for this show are in return for a stellar musical which Friday night’s audience (myself included) lapped up.

The musical features a series of set pieces, each one more impressive than the last. These range from Mary emptying her bag to set up the nursery, the collapsing kitchen which puts itself back together again after a stirring A Spoonful of Sugar, Bert’s extraordinary proscenium walk during Step in Time, and finally Mary flying over the audience for the finale. They form a series of magical coups-de-théâtre which adhere to the lyrics of one of Stiles and Drewe’s new songs, Anything Can Happen, referring to the good that Mary Poppins does for the Banks family. Indeed, the power of the imagination is one of the themes of this musical along with, like the PL Travers novel and 1964 film, women’s rights, family duties and tradition. Both The Sherman Brothers’ original music and Stiles and Drewe’s new songs are wonderful and, at times, soaring – although I do wonder if Mary Poppins would say ‘no flies on me’! In particular, Being Mrs Banks, Cherry Tree Lane, Practically Perfect may be new songs but they fit in with the rest of the score so well and are more memorable than some new musical theatre songs. However, I did prefer Temper Temper to its replacement Playing the Game.

Bob Crowey’s colourful and clever design is superlative, and the choreography (whether it’s by Matthew Bourne, Stephen Mear or associate choreographer Geoffrey Garrat) is some of the best I’ve seen. Those big numbers such as Step in Time and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious gave me goose bumps and the park fantasy scene is joyful. Out of the cast, Zizi Strallen is an impressive Mary Poppins and Matt Lee does well as the chirpy Bert driving the show forward (even if I thought that his Australian accent could be heard sometimes). Also, Rebecca Lock, Wendy Ferguson and Grainne Renihan are excellent and Milo Twomey is very pleasing as one of the show’s best characters, Mr Banks.

The tour is still in its early performances at Leicester’s Curve but, overall, I heartily recommend this new tour of Mary Poppins (which could be London bound) as a great family show.


The Barbican, (NT: Live)

15th October 2015 

Few theatrical events in recent years have produced as much publicity and intrigue as the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch in Lyndsey Turner’s blockbuster production of Hamlet, staged at the Barbican and broadcast to the nation via NT: Live. For the past four months the tabloids have been fuelled by stories of embargo breaking, bootleg recording, and the determination of the self-named ‘Cumberbitches’ attempts to get that enviable golden ticket. But away from all the promotional hullabaloo, what’s the production actually like? Does it live up to the hype?
The answer is both ‘yes’, and ‘no’.

Cumberbatch is a fine actor, there is no doubt about that. He imbues the Great Dane with a mature gravity, this is no petulant teenager, but a considerate and likable man that we can unquestionably root for. Special mention must go to his crystal clear delivery of Shakespeare’s often dense language. Cumberbatch conveys the meaning of the verse with dramatic resonance, creating an admirably accessible Hamlet, great for introducing, and – crucially - not alienating, new audiences to The Bard’s most famous play. However, in making Hamlet an unequivocally heroic ‘good-guy’, there is little of the ambiguity which makes for truly a compelling tragic hero.

Dispelling with the eerie original opening, Turner introduces us to a Bowie loving Hamlet in mourning, placing our hero front and centre; and there he remains for the entirety. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is earnest in his gratitude, warmly humorous in his quips, and apologetic in his brief flashes of malice – there was no bite to his suggestion that Ophelia should ‘get thee to a nunnery’, for example. And while the play-acting was entertaining (the toy soldier element worked well in reference to the Fortinbras plot), at no point are we led to seriously question Hamlet’s sanity. This is a hero less flawed and driven to despair by procrastination and misogynistic complexities, rather, he is merely too decent a chap to thoroughly ‘get his revenge on’.

Turner also eschews much of the subtext often applied to the play, even the most obvious of themes – Hamlet’s Oedipal complex – is non-existent, perhaps deemed too seedy for this clean cut model. But it seems, judging by Es Devlin’s immense and visually impressive set – the grand staircase and balcony are put to good use - that most thought went into attempting to fill the vast stage of the Barbican, and subsequently the subtleties of the text have been misplaced. The overwhelming hurricane and resultant rubble enshrouding the stage following Hamlet’s banishment is a fitting symbol for the disintegration of the state on such a big platform, but only just avoids burying the play as a consequence. Despite the generally broad direction, several choices work very well. The decision to stage the soliloquys in slow-motion allows for the intimacy of introspection without breaking the flow of the scene, while also emphasising Hamlet’s feelings of isolation and detachment.

Amongst several stand out performances, Ciarán Hinds’ Claudius is an every man, avoiding the trap of comic book arch villain, breathing life into, and even encouraging a little empathy for the usurping King. Sian Brooke’s twitchy Ophelia is a fragile waif. She is broken from the very start and her vulnerability only makes her inevitable breakdown all the more devastating. Ophelia’s poignant final exit – tiptoeing over the rubble of Denmark, a quietly simple moment, heightened by Jon Hopkins’ beautifully ethereal music – is a high point in the production. Similarly, the piano playing by Ophelia and Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) suitably emphasises the siblings’ bond and provides a neat leitmotif for Ophelia’s mad scene.

Turner stages Shakespeare’s most famous work on a justifiably epic scale – to attempt anything else on such a huge stage would be folly - but subsequently has to paint with such broad strokes that this plot-led staging misses out on the ambiguities and ambivalences of other productions. A fine, well-acted, and incredibly accessible production for new audiences to get to grips with the nuts-and-bolts of Shakespeare, but this Hamlet is more likely to enter the history books due to the popularity of its leading man and resultant publicity, than purely on the merit of the production itself.

Hamlet plays at The Barbican until 31st October 2015.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Our Country's Good

Olivier, National Theatre, London
3rd October, 2015, matinee

Next month, the Chancellor will announce new cuts to the arts. In a recent press release, Artistic Director of the National, Rufus Norris said that the theatre is prepared for various scenarios from their funding being cut by 25% to 40%. A revival, then, of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good is smart programming. First staged at the Royal Court in 1988 in rep with The Recruiting Officer, Wertenbaker’s play was (and remains) so successful as it provided an argument for theatre in an era when its success was judged on its commercial power and ability to make money. The play charts the landing of the first English convicts in Australia and it’s not the first play to explore the subject. Steve Gooch’s Female Transport (1973) focuses on the occasional glimpses of friendship and humanity of the convicts and officers amongst the brutality of the prisoners’ conditions. But Wertenbaker goes further than that, delving into the good that theatre can achieve in society and the rehabilitative powers of art. The excellent as usual programme notes at the National also bring out the state of prison conditions past and present, and how art can be a helpful solution.

Nadia Fall’s production shows what a rich and theatrical play this is, but some of her directorial decisions seem flawed. For a start, Max Stafford-Clark’s original production made use of doubling which Fall doesn’t do, thus making some asides about doubling and using one’s imagination in the theatre not having as strong an effect as they might have been. She has also changed the role of the Aborigine, admittedly making him more present throughout than the text suggests but cutting some of his lines. Instead, his presence gives him the effect of omnipotence, giving those indigenous to Australia a knowing power, a role not unlike the Native American maid in Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County (2007). Something else which is impressive is how Fall, and Peter McIntosh’s colourful design, makes the best use of the Olivier’s vast stage and drum revolve to create a production that is in tune with the play’s theatricality. The revolving stage stops some of the action seeming static and provides a mightily impressive first scene on the ship, really highlighting the epic potential of the text. The revolve also splits in two, allowing one half to be higher than the other, thus creating a raised stage for the rehearsal scenes. Subtler moments are also made such as through Harry Brewer and Duckling creating shadow effects with the help of Neil Austin’s lighting. Cerys Matthews’ music also adds to and enhances the text, playing out over scene changes, although it is notable that she has also used music by Johnny Cash and onstage musician Josienne Clarke. Their work gives the production a folkish sound, the emotion of which works best when characters join in. Overall, this is a production which impresses the senses. But I wondered if this was at the expense of the text.

Part of the problem is that I know the play fairly well, but I wondered, if this was the first time I saw the play, would some of Wertenbaker’s thoughts have lost impact in Fall’s grand but sometimes splashy production? But, alas, maybe that is only a fussy point. After all, the Olivier stage has the advantage of emphasising the wider themes of a play, and there are still some moments of intimacy in this production. The cast, on the whole, deserve a lot of praise. Jason Hughes does a good job tying everything together, fighting for the play to go ahead and enduring an internal struggle of missing his beloved Alicia and falling in love with Mary Brenham. Paul Kaye is hugely convincing in a very difficult role as the drunk Harry, untrusting of his Duckling (an excellent Shalisha James-Davis), who eventually dies. Furthermore, Caoilfhionn Dunne, Jodie McNee and Ashley Bryant make for an engaging comic trio, but also show their characters’ struggles. McNee is particularly strong in the opening scene of act two. Finally, Matthew Cottle also pleases as the quietly pernickety Wisehammer. His character’s love of language makes for one of the most poetic and enjoyable scenes in the play. Fall has gathered a very strong ensemble overall.

This major revival of a modern classic generally ticks all the right boxes and makes for an extremely entertaining few hours in the theatre, but I get the impression it hasn’t reached the level of excitement as its original production. However, Wertenbaker’s play remains a strong and beautiful reminder of the restorative power of theatre. Let’s hope its messages have reached George Osborne.  It's a great play and production but on consideration, this version doesn't quite fulfil the play's potential.

Our Country’s Good plays at the Olivier, National Theatre, until 17 October.

Monday, 28 September 2015


Temporary Theatre, National Theatre, London
26th September 2015, matinee

Play of the decade. Unique. Changes the way that plays are made. These are some of the claims that made me want to see Alistair McDowall’s Pomona, currently on at the National Theatre after a triumphant run at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre last year. The play shook up the theatre’s artistic programme after Sam Walters left his 40 year tenure as AD. I’m not sure it is the best play of the decade – I find that I’m more into punk plays at the moment (Prog or punk article)! However, there is no doubt that Pomona is a mightily strong play, delivered in an impressive production by Ned Bennett.

I’ve been writing a lot about Jez Butterworth lately and so comparisons (for me) were inevitable. But there really was something about Pomona that reminded me of Butterworth: the emergence of the uncanny; the way they both afford their characters such humour; the violence. The tone of the last line even had rings of Parlour Song. I was also reminded of Sarah Daniels’ Masterpieces because of the references to snuff films. But you have to push for these comparisons and that’s because Pomona is nothing quite like other plays.

For a start, Pomona has one of the best opening scenes I’ve seen. But before that, we are welcomed into the theatre by the buzz of machinery, blinking strip lights and the sight of Zeppo sleeping, doing press ups and sparring on the stage. Then, we’re plunged into darkness before lights come up on Zeppo, joined by a girl, Ollie, whose sister has gone missing. We learn that Zeppo owns the city, including the marooned Pomona in the middle of the city, renting places out without getting involved. To not get involved, according to him, is the best option so he doesn’t find out how his city is being used. This first scene paints a bleak picture of contemporary life, McDowall introducing us into his dystopian world. After that we meet the people in and around Pomona. From Fay, who has run away from her partner and is working in a brothel, the workings of which she describes in detail, to Charlie who wants to cover everything in his own jizz. The scene where he tells Moe this fantasy is hilarious and provoked a brilliantly mixed reaction from an elderly couple in the front row: she with a look of disgust, he with a devilish smile! We do eventually find out what is happening underneath Pomona. But is this world one to which we also belong? McDowall cleverly merges the familiar with the unfamiliar, and the real with the fictional. References to Indiana Jones films and games of Dungeons and Dragons intersect scenes of brutal violence, the gritty unpleasantness of working in a brothel, and more silent moments where we hear stories about domestic abuse. Critique on the complications of over-the-phone banking, McDonald’s chicken nuggets and some brilliant ‘down to earth’ acting also keeps the setting grounded so that McDowall’s world is as unnervingly familiar as it disturbingly Other. There’s one part where Giles Thomas’ superb music is assisting the crescendo to an exciting moment in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, when the music stops and Charlie runs off wanting a wee break. It’s a stark reminder that we don’t quite know where McDowall places us.

There isn’t a single scene in the play that doesn’t grip you. Each character is well drawn and beautifully performed by the ensemble. The production and design are stunning. There is one moment where Charlie is being beaten up and the movement and lighting work so well together before Zeppo splatters some blood over the stage from a McDonald’s cup and the grill in the centre starts pushing blood up under Charlie’s body. It’s compelling.

Pomona is a contemporary urban gothic which is funny yet sinister.

Pomona runs at the Temporary Theatre at the National Theatre until 10th October

Sunday, 16 August 2015


Olivier – National Theatre

10th August 2015

March this year saw the induction of the newly appointed artistic director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris; his production of Everyman marks the launch of his regime. Norris, along with poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, presents a lyrical and modern adaptation of the anonymous 15th Century morality play.

Utilising the technical capacities of the Olivier stage, the play begins as Everyman (Chiwetel Ejiofor) plummets in slow-motion from the rafters. A large, curved LED screen is the predominant design feature, radiating bright white light, interspersed with flashes of Everyman’s life. The vast screen works well considering the modernity of the piece, however designer Ian MacNeil’s strung up silver plated mannequins that descend for certain scenes look a little tacked on and the reason for their presence is elusive.

The early party scene is an energetically choreographed (by Javier De Frutos) exhibition of 21st Century hedonism; an orgiastic concoction of booze, narcotics, lust and Donna Summer. Following Everyman’s drug-induced fall he promptly meets with God, in the guise of a put-upon cleaning lady (a droll Kate Duchêne), and Death (Dermot Crowley). Uninvitingly summoned to his reckoning, Ev thence scrambles to assemble the important people in his life to help him out. The scene involving his family is touching and down to earth in contrast with the previous superficial hedonism. Despite Ev’s incantation ‘best son’ (trying to persuade himself more than anything), it is soon evident that he is anything but and the domestic scene highlights the familial duties he has neglected in his preoccupation with all things materialistic.

After facing rejection from his friends, family and his material goods, Everyman comes to the realisation that ultimately, in the face of death and god’s reckoning, he is alone, bereft of worldly possessions, and it is good deeds that matter (represented by heaps of moving waste carrier bags). Whilst Ev does not necessarily find himself to be a wealth of good deed – in fact he berates himself for his selfish lack of such – it is his meeting with Knoweldge (Penny Layden) that allows him to gain a sense of self and personal enlightenment. His embracing of himself, life and death in all their faults and glories is goosebump inducing as the haunting melodies of ‘I Feel Love’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ meld, propelled by the incessant pulse of the drum. Everyman’s final words encompass his progression and are humorously truthful; Death is indeed a ‘cunt’.

While the production is firmly centred in contemporary times, it is underpinned with assured reference to original contexts. The use of traditional instruments evoke the morality play’s medieval roots. Similarly, Duffy’s use of verse is admirable and generally succeeds; only a few times did certain rhymes jar, but that may be due to the delivery more than Duffy’s writing.

Ejiofor delivers a monumental performance as Everyman. In a role that could so easily fall into hamminess, Ejiofor is completely natural and believable, in his hands the rhyming verse never sounds contrived. Sharon D. Clarke also impresses as Mother and gets to show off her immense vocal prowess in the musical numbers; her soaring voice adds a soaring emotion to the drama. Finally, Crowley’s Death is all Irish charm, concealing a biting edge – his final appearance, looming over the audience, ready to pick his next victim, is truly chilling.

Norris’s production is bold, vigorous and cool. He does not shy away from epic spectacle as evidenced in his use of a gigantic fan, representing a tsunami, blowing wads of money throughout the audience - an immersive experience that one would have missed out on if attending the NT Live screening in July. A benefit of modernisation is that it turns the spotlight onto our contemporary world. In an age that is increasingly secular, Everyman poses some big questions and this production is a valiant start to Norris’s tenure as he sets out his stall as an inventive and adventurous director.

Everyman plays at the Olivier – National Theatre until 30th August 2015

Saturday, 15 August 2015


Savoy Theatre

8th August 2015

Following their collaboration for the Chichester Festival Theatre’s 2011, Olivier Award winning production of Sweeney Todd, director Jonathan Kent and leading lady Imelda Staunton once again work magic with Sondheim. Here the composer’s trademark lyrical wordplay perfectly complements Jule Styne’s full bodied score – it is also wonderful to hear a proper (that is, lengthy) overture and entr’acte in the west end, something which seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent years.

From curtain up we are thrown into the transient world of show business and the show-within-a-show framework works well as a rather meta introduction to the musical. The knowing precociousness of ‘Let Me Entertain You’ – brilliantly performed by the cast of children, amongst whom Baby June particularly shines - is swiftly halted as we meet the brash force behind the twee-ness. From her famous opening line, ‘Sing out, Louise!’, heckling her own daughter from the back of the stalls, it is evident that Mama Rose (Imelda Staunton) is the gurning, jazz-hand wielding, nightmarish, mother of all stage mothers. As the defiant ‘Some People’ highlights, Rose will stop at nothing to get ahead, even stealing from her Pop to fund her dreams of glory.

As Rose and her brood of talented tykes trundle on through their never-ending road trip (the rolling location credits to the side of the proscenium are a nice detail) the children soon grow up and grow out of Mama’s tired vaudeville acts. Gemma Sutton and Dan Burton as the grown up June and Tulsa convey all the yearning of child stars stuck in their own past and their inevitable decision to leave the care of Rose is poignantly bittersweet.

While Burton and Peter Davison’s poor doormat of an agent/boyfriend, Herbie offer fine male support, Gypsy is all about the women. Lara Pulver’s transformation from mild and shy Louise, forced to play the rear end of a cow in one of many hilarious set pieces, to the sexy and seductive Gypsy Rose Lee – all in the space of one song! – is a sight to behold. Styne and Sondheim’s use of the reprise of Baby June’s ‘Let Me Entertain You’ here is a masterstroke and sums up the uncomfortable limbo that child performers can be subject to. Also remarkable are Louise Gold, Julie Legrand and Anita Louise Combe’s trio of aging strippers; their ‘You Gotta Get A Gimmick’ is pure camp.

But if Kent’s production belongs to anyone, it is most definitely Staunton. Her Rose is droll, brazen, imposing, and, ultimately, extremely vulnerable. The image of her hunched figure being led off stage makes for a touching final tableau and coming almost directly after her show-stopping ‘Rose’s Turn’ highlights how versatile an actor Staunton is. Above all, she is heart-wrenchingly human, the audience experiences a whole spectrum of emotion along with Rose as Staunton imbues her with a charisma and relatability that creates a light and shade to the character, even in her harshest moments there remain echoes of tenderness.

Anthony Ward’s design feels intimate in the smaller Savoy theatre (especially when compared to Curve’s 2012 production which utilised the theatre’s vast stage), but the set details are beautiful and convey a sense of time and place effectively, especially in the back-stage scenes.

Musicals rarely come as classy or more perfectly formed as Gypsy and Kent’s production absolutely does service to the work of Styne, Sondheim and Laurents and should go down as a classic revival in years to come. While accolades are to be expected, come awards season it will be a huge shock especially if Staunton is not universally recognised for her performance.

Gypsy plays at the Savoy Theatre until 28th November 2015

Friday, 14 August 2015


Almeida Theatre

8th August 2015

Hot on the heels of the announcement of a transfer for the acclaimed Oresteia (playing at the Trafalgar Studios from 22nd August), Bakkhai is the second production featured in the Almeida Greek season, including, amongst others, a star-studded reading of The Iliad, and artistic director Rupert Goold’s production of Medea. Aiming to ‘revive and redefine’ the Ancient Greek canon is a challenging undertaking, and in the case of James Macdonald’s production of Anne Carson’s new version of Euripides’ tragedy this objective is only partly accomplished.

The play presents a clashing of binaries in the confrontation between the cool and conservative King of Thebes, Pentheus (Bertie Carvel) and his cousin Dionysos (Ben Whishaw), God of wine, drama and ecstasy. Dionysos leads a cult of crazed women, the titular Bakkhai (represented by the all-female chorus), the liberal madness inflicted upon them by the god in revenge for Thebes’ resistance to his worship. Yet Dionysos also embodies a multitude of binaries, of which most apparent is his personification of both male and female - Whishaw’s androgynous appearance enhances this – his sexual fluidity creates a magnetism that Pentheus is simultaneously repelled by and drawn to, his uncontrollable desire to witness the Bakkhai eventually leading to his tragic demise.

Dionysos’s contradictory nature and manipulation comes the fore during his final appearance in his bull-like guise, offering a warning to the population of Thebes and establishing his dangerous and powerful worship. The play effectively presents the tensions between chaos and order, madness and sanity, liberty and conservatism and the misfortune that can occur when the balance is uneven.

All the classic Greek elements are present. Amidst the tragedy exists the typical exploration of mother/son dynamics – Carvel comes into his own when portraying the blood thirsty Agave, mother and unsuspecting killer of Pentheus. The main cast of three all impress in multiple roles and Kevin Harvey as the grieving Kadmos ensures he is not overshadowed by the starrier Whishaw and Carvel. Antony McDonald’s simplistic, mud-banked design and the massive sliding light fixture, reminiscent of the sun, is evocative of Greek amphitheatres, allowing the performances to shine in classic story-telling fashion.

However, one traditional aspect of Greek tragedy here seems a little contrived. While sonically beautiful and flawlessly executed, the extended, often repetitive use of the harmonising chants of the chorus occasionally bogs down the text, distancing the audience from the central characters and thus diminishing any sense of empathy or tragic catharsis that could be produced. As critic Matt Trueman has stated, Greek tragedies should force the audience to ‘fucking feel something’, and unfortunately Macdonald misses the mark on that front.

Bakkhai is enjoyable and the performances are worth the visit alone, but overall it seems a production to be admired and clinically analysed rather than exemplifying gutsy provocation or the inducement of emotion that one expects from tragedy.

Bakkhai plays at the Almeida Theatre until 19th September 2015