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

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Three Days in the Country

Lyttelton – National Theatre

7th August 2015

Earlier this month theatrical history was made. All three of the National Theatre’s playing spaces were occupied by plays overseen in various ways by Patrick Marber in what is turning out to be something of a renaissance for the playwright (including a revival of Closer at the Donmar Warehouse earlier this year). For two consecutive nights the Olivier stage played host to The Beaux Stratagem, Farquhar’s restoration comedy (Marber contributed in updating the dramaturgy); the Dorfman was occupied by Marber’s new football locker room-set play, The Red Lion; and playing the Lyttelton theatre, his reimagining of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, re-titled Three Days in the Country (which Marber also directs). Quite a feat for a playwright who has been out of the public eye for nigh on a decade, and if Three Days in the Country is anything to go by, his comeback is a very successful one indeed.

Marber adapts Turgenev’s tragi-comedy about love of all types - familial, romantic, platonic, unrequited - with a light touch, glorying in comedic moments both broad and subtle. The comedic approach of Marber’s direction comes to a head in the opening scene of Act two. As Shpigelsky, Mark Gatiss milks every line and gesture for all it’s worth as the inept doctor’s pathetic attempt to propose to the unwitting Lizaveta (Debra Gillett) proves to be an unremitting disaster. The effect is raucously funny.

Despite Marber’s comic skill, he never compromises the underlying tragedy of the piece which is set to simmer beneath the exchanging of witticisms until tensions eventually boil over in the culmination of the second act. Thus, while Gatiss revels in what he does best, and arguably generates the biggest laughs of the evening, most impressive are Amanda Drew and John Simm as the beautiful yet guarded Natalya and family friend Rakitin, the man hopelessly in love with her. Both actors move effortlessly between witty repartee and gut-wrenching honesty, Drew often visibly on the verge of tears and Simm packing a punch during his breakdown (or should that be breakthrough?) and words of wisdom to Belyaev (Royce Pierreson). As the drama progresses, the once superficially breezy characters unravel and are left baring the raw state of their souls, previous pretences extinguished. A particularly striking moment of truth comes as Natalya reveals ‘this marriage. A performance of love. For a willing audience of one small boy’.

Also of note is Lily Sacofsky’s headstrong but naïve Vera, ward of Natalya. Sacofsky treads the line between vulnerability and determination that often defines the young with great skill, surely a name to look out for in the future.

Mark Thompson’s sparse design may initially seem at odds with the textual presence of the house and the preoccupation with wealth, land and property. The impressionistic backdrop of the countryside, along with period costumes and the intermittent bursts of Russian music (beautifully sung by Cherrelle Skeete) are the few indicators of time and place. However, the exposed theatre space allows the play to breathe and the glass wall panels further the sense of the characters’ being laid bare, transcending the superficial. In some instances characters sit to the back and sides watching the action play out through the glass; there is no place to hide.

Overall, while effectively drawing upon Turgenev’s original, there are definite traces of Marber’s own style, perhaps most evident in the nod to Dealer’s Choice in the opening and closing card table scenes. With this production that combines belly laughs with poignant moments, all performed by a highly skilled cast and carefully overseen by Marber, it is clear that the playwright/director is firmly establishing himself back at the centre of the British theatre scene and Three Days in the Country is a real return to form.

Three Days in the Country plays at the Lyttelton - National Theatre until 21st October 2015

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The Mentalists is closing early. Here's a look why, and which Richard Bean plays could work in the West End?

The current West End production of Richard Bean’s The Mentalists is closing early at the Wyndham’s Theatre by almost a month. The ‘star’ cast (Stephen Merchant and Steffan Rhodri), 50 £10 day seats at every performance and success of the playwright have not been able to make this production a hit, instead earning mixed reviews and rumours of audience capacity being in single figures for some performances. Indeed, it was worrying when Merchant was doing the press for the play that he admitted not fully reading the play before agreeing to do it, thus refusing to do the (admittedly unnecessary) naked scenes. It was also noticeable that many of the reviews mentioned the high ticket prices (some around £100) for a play that was effectively played on the landing to the Lyttleton Theatre (the Loft) in the early 2000s in a design to attract new and young audiences.

The play itself is fine. Two best friends Ted and Morrie meet in a North London hotel room with the task of filming a campaign video for Ted’s idea of founding a cult which advertises Utopia. In actual fact it’s probably just based on the idea of ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ and allows for Ted to scam some people of their money. Morrie, meanwhile, is a more down-to-earth character: a hairdresser with an alluring libido and a knack for stories that put him akin to Gavin and Stacey’s Nessa (played by Ruth Jones with Rhodri playing her partner Dave). In the second scene (no acts as such in this play text) it is revealed that Ted has a sinister, murderous (literally) secret which ends with the police surrounding the hotel and kicking the door down.

It may not be as high tempo as One Man, Two Guvnors or Great Britain or England People Very Nice but it is an early Bean that shows his skills at funny dialogue and intriguing characters in insular places.

The play is surely cheap to run: a two-hander with a couple of stage hands to kick the door down surely. There are no scene changes or massive effects required. The costumes were surely cheap even if the actors that inhabit them weren’t. And the play has a playwright with good form, the producers digging up one of his early plays hoping it will make good West End material. It has an experienced stage actor who impressed very much in Posh, and a mildly popular TV actor/ writer/ stand-up making his West End debut. So what went wrong? Maybe it was a mixture of high ticket prices, an unknown play, a cast which perhaps doesn’t quite appeal to either regular theatregoers or fans of The Office, etc. and mixed reactions, both critically and word-of-mouth.

But the producers were right (in my opinion) in giving a Richard Bean play a go thinking it would be a hit. So what other of his plays could do well in the commercial sector? Maybe another one of his early plays? Something more farcical? An adaptation? Something new? Let’s take a look:

Early Works
Toast (1999) was his first professionally-staged play is set in a Northern bread factory in the 1970s. With the factory at threat, so are the workers’ livelihoods. Under the Whaleback (2003) is set in three fishing vessels throughout recent history, from a rocky trip, mid-storm to an inert present-day museum piece. Harvest (2005) is a momentous play charting roughly 90 years of one pig farm and its owners from pre-WW1 to present day. All three share northern meticulously detailed settings, big characters akin to Johnny Rooster Byron and a sense of nostalgia and lamenting over the decline of English, northern, working class industries. Of the three, Toast is perhaps the best choice for a transfer. The Park Theatre’s production starring Matthew Kelly is out on tour next year and so could come in to London. It (as is Under the Whaleback) is a detailed study of male friendships relationships.

If The Big Fellah (2010), The Heretic (2011) and The English Game (2008) are not your cup of tea and you prefer something more farcical, then Smack Family Robinson (2003, revised 2013) and In The Club (2007) might remind you more of One Man, Two Guvnors. Smack Family Robinson is about a crooked family, brought together and thrown apart by love and what they do for a living. There are some very funny bits of irony, uses of societal nostalgia and likeable caricatures. But (perhaps like Mike Exton’s Barking in Essex) the comedy doesn’t really get going as it does in Frayn’s Noises OffIn The Club, however, is a fast-paced farce, with jokes and visual gags aplenty. Its setting of a Strasbourg hotel and cast of incompetent EU politician characters is also highly resonant and speaks to audiences disenfranchised with current politics. But, like many farces, it sometimes goes too far. An ambitious play, nonetheless, though.

From Boucicault to Mamet,  Bean has been involved with many adaptations, the Goldini one (One Man, Two Guvnors after The Servant of Two Masters) being the most successful. Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid is a funny French farce. Miles Malleson’s translation is poetically written but perhaps a bit fussy too. Richard Bean, however, has tightened the play and turned it into The Hypochondriac, which had a successful run at the Almeida in 2005 and in Bath last year. (I would’ve seen that if it transferred over Hay Fever).  Finally, there is The Count of Monte Christo. It was supposed to be on at the National Theatre over Christmas a few years ago (remember?) but was pulled when an early draft was decided to be not quite ready. It was replaced by Pinero’s The Magistrate but was published earlier this year. Perhaps this could get staged somewhere?

Something New

Despite the early closure of The Mentalists, Richard Bean is in demand. He apparently has two plays lined up for Hull in 2017 for city of culture celebrations, a play about snooker for The Crucible, Sheffield, next year, a play lined for Matthew Warchus at the Old Vic and is said to be interested in writing about the recent FIFA scandal. Whether any of these plays could work in the West End is another matter. After all, some said that Great Britain lost its impact once it transferred. But, I for one certainly look forward to future productions of his plays.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Richard III

Curve, Leicester
26th July 2015, matinee

After the recent pomp of the reinternment of the king found unceremoniously buried under a car park in the centre of Leicester there has arisen fresh investment in Richard III, and Curve has unashamedly jumped on the bandwagon with this community production of arguably Shakespeare’s most renowned history play. The posters advertise ‘Leicester’s story continues’, an ambiguous tagline perhaps – especially as director Nikolai Foster relocates the play to contemporary Russia – yet fitting in the sense that, despite the theatre being under new creative direction, Foster follows in his predecessor, Paul Kerryson’s, footsteps in the annual staging of productions which showcase and celebrate the talent of Leicester’s citizens.

The enduring challenge of restaging Shakespeare’s 400 year old text is resolved in Foster’s decision to set the play in Russia, highlighting contemporary institutionalised corruption. While this interpretation may seem unoriginal (there seems to be a current trend in staging Shakespeare within a Russian context, as recently seen in Cheek By Jowl’s brutal Measure for Measure) and Putin’s Russia an easy target, the concept works. Richard’s cronies are icy, unreadable and ruthless, dressed almost exclusively in black, they bear stark contrast to the colourful Woodville yuppies, Rivers, Grey and Vaughan. Foster does not shy away from violence as murders are carried out in the unflinching fashion of mob style professional executions. While the corruption runs deep on a political level, the transformation of Richard’s executioners into desperate, drug-fuelled thugs (played with brilliant twitchiness by Daniel Simpson and Becca Cooper), insist upon the deep set rot befallen an entire nation prey to the games of its hungry aristocracy.

Matthew Wright’s design heightens this sense of rot; a lone chandelier hangs from broken ceiling panels, a halo representing what the noble aristocracy once stood for while simultaneously reflecting the decadent waste the state has fallen into. The traverse stage is sparsely set, bookended by rough concrete facades, faint graffiti reads ‘Richard’ looming large over the stage, and dust-caked shoes encircle the playing space, evidence of the expendability of life, the fallen victims that litter the path to glory. And the victims come thick and fast. The production’s unwavering brutality culminates in the explosive final staging of the Battle of Bosworth. Unleashing pyrotechnics galore, amid the gunfire bombs explode mere inches from the unsuspecting audience (it must be a health and safety nightmare!), igniting the battle with a sense of real urgency and panic, an urgency which is highlighted further in Grant Olding’s score featuring sudden bursts of techno beats, viciously pulsating.

For all the technical whiz bang of Foster’s production, ultimately the success of Shakespeare lies in the language and the actors’ ability in grappling with the sometimes difficult text. For this cast, enthusiasm and vigour more than make up for the occasional lapse in diction. Mark Peachey’s Richard is thrillingly tragic, displaying all the charisma, villainy and dry humour required of the title character. He moves from oddly appealing in his soliloquys, the audience his (un)willing confidantes, to bare faced audacity in his Machiavellian manipulations and betrayals, to pitiable in his conflicted groans following the appearance of the ghosts of his victims. Peachey shines bright amidst the highly capable cast as, once again, Leicester has proven to be a trove of talent.

Curve’s staging of Richard III is a timely celebration of one of Shakespeare’s most tragic and villainous characters and the community which has taken the somewhat ambiguous king to heart of late.

Richard III plays at Curve, Leicester until 9th August 2015.