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.


Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest


Theatre Royal, Nottingham (prior to Vaudeville)
16th May, 2015, matinee

In a 2013 poll made by the English Touring Theatre, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest was voted one the nation’s favourite plays. It’s easy to see why in Adrian Noble’s well-realised production, starring David Suchet as Lady Bracknell, which has opened on tour before transferring to the Vaudeville.

The plot of mistaken identities and two deceptive bachelors may be frivolous but is deliciously funny. And although Noble doesn’t offer anything new like Lucy Bailey did last year, he solidly allows for the relevance of Wilde’s aphorisms and satirising of the superficial Victorian upper classes to ring through. ‘We live, I regret, in an age of surfaces’ can refer to today as much as it does to Victorian pomposity.

David Suchet may be testing a different set of acting muscles for the role of Lady Bracknell compared to his roles in All My Sons and Long Day’s Journey into Night but his performance is nuanced and convincing. With his lips pursed and handbag balanced on his wrist, he parades the stage swishing his dress as he walks and articulating like a military general. Interestingly, he places the emphasis of that famous line on the word ‘cloakroom’ rather than ‘handbag’, a suggestion that cloakrooms would have been more scandalous owing to their reputation for cottaging. It’s a detail that is a testament to Noble’s production being one which embraces the play’s high comedy but doesn’t forget its social background. However, the word ‘handbag’ was also well-delivered, if not as stern as other actors’ delivery. Suchet’s comic performance is matched by the rest of the cast which includes Imogen Doel’s feisty Cecily and Philip Cumbus’ Algernon, leaning over the furniture to show his amorous nature.  In fact, Doel’s performance especially remains memorable weeks after I saw it. Finally, Michele Dotrice is extremely enjoyable to watch, the audience lapping up her performance just as much as in The Ladykillers.

The Importance of Being Earnest is playing at the Vaudeville Theatre until 7th November.

Monday, 29 June 2015

#ReadaPlayaWeek

#ReadaPlayaWeek
Having started in 2014, #ReadaPlayaWeek consists of the suggestion of a play every Friday on Twitter. Of course, plays are meant to be seen not read, primarily, but for those who cannot always make it to the theatre #ReadaPlayaWeek offers a wide range of plays. Each week, some context and performance information is given about the play as well as opinions of them. This year, the aim has been to present more contemporary plays and a balance of plays written by female and male playwrights.
We’re half way through the year, and thus far there have been 13 plays by men and 13 plays by women. In the next half of the year, we hope to keep that balance up and present more plays from abroad. Feel free to make any suggestions.  Here are the suggestions so far for #ReadaPlayaWeek 2015:
January
·         Three Days of Rain by Richard Greenberg (1997).
·         Flare Path by Terence Rattigan (1942).
·         The Misanthrope by Martin Crimp (1966), after Moliere (1666).
·         The Dame of Sark by William Douglas Home (1974).
February
·         Jumpy by April de Angeles (2011).
·         That Face by Polly Stenham (2007).
·         Table Manners by Alan Ayckbourn (1975).
·         Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker (1988).
·         Here by Michael Frayn (1993).
March
·         Dinner by Moira Buffini (2002).
·         Smack Family Robinson by Richard Bean (2003, revised 2013).
·         Electra by Sophocles (C.405BC) in a version by Frank McGuinness (1997).
·         Rules for Living by Sam Holcroft (2015).
April
·         Her Naked Skin by Rebecca Lenkiewicz (2008).
·         The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton (2002).
·         ‘Art’ by Yasmina Reza (1994).
·         Shades by Alia Bano (2009).
May
·         Broken Glass by Arthur Miller (1994).
·         Knives in Hens by David Harrower (1995).
·         The Initiate by Alexandra Wood (2014).
·         Humble Boy by Charlotte Jones (2001).
·         The Sugar Syndrome by Lucy Prebble (2003).
June
·         Masterpieces by Sarah Daniels (1983).
·         Afore Night Come by David Rudkin (1962).
·         Foxfinder by Dawn King (2011).

·         Mojo by Jez Butterworth (1995).

Monday, 30 March 2015

Death of a Salesman



Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
28th March, 2015*
*Please note that this was a preview performance

Following the success of the Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge and the Old Vic’s The Crucible last year, Gregory Doran marks Arthur Miller’s centenary with his staging of, arguably, the playwright’s most celebrated play. This absorbing production plays with space and time, paying tribute to Miller’s original, fastidious directorial notes.

Salesman is remarkable for Miller’s strict stage directions, specifically the use of space in locating time and reality which is central to the understanding of Willy Loman’s tragedy. The trajectory through Willy’s idealised past and disillusioned present is fluid and greatly facilitated by Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design and Tim Mitchell’s lighting. The contrast between the romanticised past and the suffocating present of the up-built city is spatially conveyed by vast billboard style apartment blocks, dwarfing the Loman’s tiny wooden house. The set changes giving an added sense of the bustling city as the running crew, dressed as city-dwellers, swiftly move pieces around amidst a heady steam issuing from subway grates. Constructed from translucent materials, the set works alongside subtle lighting changes in which the once solid presence of the surrounding tower blocks are transformed by a sun-dappled hue, almost disappearing as Willy transgresses, moving downstage into the free space accompanied by the symbolic pastoral flute leitmotif – the live music contributing a vibrancy that recordings cannot reproduce. Interactions and dialogue run seamlessly into one another just as the boundaries of the playing space are discarded during Willy’s transgressions. Distinctions between time and space are simultaneously hazy and clear; blurring the lines between time and space, a contradiction which highlights the melancholy and ultimately maddening contradictory and illusive nature of memory.

The performances are generally good; Harriet Walter as the loving, put-upon Linda, and Alex Hassell’s lost and conflicted Biff are among the standouts. Antony Sher gives an all encompassing performance as Willy, fluctuating between humour and pathos with ease, the measured rhythm of his speech allowing every syllable to be heard and considered. This is a play where no line or moment is superfluous, despite the apparent superfluity of the modern American salesman. The scenes within the Loman house are particularly absorbing in their intimacy, creating a feeling of being in the room with the characters, no mean feat in a large theatre. Moments where direction, performance, lighting and music all work beautifully together create points of lucidity, particularly towards the end of the play and the build up to the climax, proving that a decades old play, performed countless times over the years, still has the ability to move audiences.

Miller’s Salesman seems to be ingrained in the minds of many not only as a pinnacle of the modern tragic genre, but as a piece of contemporary American social commentary and, consequently, Doran’s production plays out exactly as one would expect, and want, such a classic to do so. Doran takes no risks with the material, save a slight shift in staging which the RST thrust stage needs must accommodate. The placing of Miller’s text at heart, being performed well by a reliable cast, is a very solid and respectable way to celebrate one hundred years of one of the great American dramatists.

Death of a Salesman plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 2nd May, 2015.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ - The Musical




Curve, Leicester

6th March, 2015. Please note that this performance was a Public Dress Rehearsal.

I must admit I was dubious when it was first announced last year that a new musical based on Sue Townsend’s much loved novel was to be produced at Leicester’s Curve theatre. The structure of the novel seemed as if it would be less than easy to translate to the stage and the prospect of the more hormonal (ahem) aspects of the story possibly being diluted for a family audience gave pause for thought. However, I need not have worried, because Adrian Mole, it turns out, makes for a rather sweet and touchingly humorous musical.

Jake Brunger’s book recalls the spirit of the late Townsend’s novel as Adrian and Pandora come to life in all their adolescent glory . The nature of the source material dictates that the show takes an episodic form, charting a year through the diary entries and observances of young Adrian. The story of first love, family upset, and the minutiae of suburban life is heartfelt in its identifiable simplicity, with humour deriving from everyday oddities and empathetic, if caricatured, characters. The memory of the novel pervades the production – something drawn upon in Tom Rogers’ innovative set, Adrian’s scribbled writings ever present in the textbook style houses and proscenium fashioned after torn out diary entries.

Pippa Cleary’s music lends itself well to the British musical cannon with its tuneful melodies that never stray into the brashness of the more showy American compositions, perfect for an intimate show about British idiosyncrasies. Tickling lyrics also make the most of Townsend’s writing – a memorable example being the song ‘My Lost Love’, Adrian’s rhyming of ‘Pandora, I adore ya, I implore ya…’ referencing the novel before progressing into something more complex as various characters fill the stage, pouring their hearts out to different melodies, melding into one. The song makes for a striking moment, as does Adrian’s mum, Pauline (Kirsty Hoiles) having a heart-to-heart with her son about her failing marriage in ‘Perfect Mother’. At the opposite end of the spectrum, act two delivers some fine comedy scenes in Adrian’s hospital nightmare ‘If You’d Lived’ and the hysterical nativity scene, the latter being a true highlight and gaining a rapturous response from the audience.

The show is rounded out by a hard-working cast of six adults and four young actors (of which there are three rotating teams), often doubling in roles. Hoiles is a standout as Pauline, balancing humour with pathos, yet the show ultimately, and inevitably, belongs to Adrian – at this performance played by Sebastian Croft. He leads the show with charismatic skill, portraying both Adrian’s irritating pretentiousness and na├»ve sweetness equally well. He makes for a likeable lead while being believable as an endearingly flawed, yet optimistic, teenager.

Cleary, Brunger and director Luke Sheppard have created an intimate and appealingly British musical comedy which pays tribute to one of Leicestershire’s most celebrated writers and its premier at Curve feels like the perfect celebration of the midlands county.


The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ - The Musical plays at Leicester’s Curve until 4th April 2015


Monday, 9 March 2015

Our Country's Good rehearsal blog 1

[Ahead of Nikolai Foster’s first production at Leicester’s Curve as Artistic Director, one of the assistant directors/ stage managers gives an insight into rehearsals for Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play Our Country’s Good]


‘It’s a theatrical custom, the company is formally introduced to each other’
(Our Country’s Good: Act One, Scene Eleven)

The first week of rehearsals for Our Country’s Good began in the studio at Curve. Although not all rehearsals will take place in here and the room currently looks different to what it will look like for the performances, it gave the cast a feel for the size of the space. After initial introductions were made, the company sat down for a readthrough of the script, giving the opportunity to hear Wertenbaker’s words read aloud for the first time and in the voices that will inhabit each character. After each scene, Nikolai and the cast discussed the text, getting to grips with unfamiliar terminology and bringing in points picked up from prior research. For instance, we talked about the famous actors of the 18th century such as Garrick and Kemble who are mentioned in one scene and how knowing more about them informs the cast’s interpretation of their characters. The day ended with the cast being measured for their costumes.

Over the next two days, the company started to put the play on its feet, starting with making a ship for the first scene. The production is going for a stripped back feel, which this scene epitomises. In a simple, yet very theatrical and poetic way, Nikolai and the cast have begun to explore ways to evoke the barbarity and longing that exist amongst the fleet of English convicts.  It looks to be a powerful opening tableau. Another scene which was focused on was Scene 3 where the officers are shooting birds whilst discussing the convicts. As this production will be staged in the round, the company are discovering the power of diagonals, and so it has been especially interesting to see how characters make their entrances and where they look up to shoot. The cast were also encouraged to be specific with the play’s use of Wertenbaker’s language and how punctuation helps to give a stronger sense of narrative and informs character motivation. Furthermore, in looking at the officers’ physicality and how they might carry their guns, the actors have started to build a level of detail which will help solidify the world of the play.

Although we have just begun the rehearsal process, we have started to thoroughly explore the play which will further our ability to tell its story well. The cast now has a week off to individually work through their scripts and are looking forward to returning to rehearsals to continue working through this exciting play which acts as an affirmation of theatre and its value in society.


Our Country’s Good, directed by Nikolai Foster, plays at Curve, Leicester 16th-18th April, 2015. It is a co-production with De Montfort University students.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Assassins





24th January, 2015, matinee

Menier Chocolate Factory

Assassins has been top of my 'to-see Sondheim' list for a while now and this production really does not disappoint. On stepping into the auditorium through the garish clown entrance the atmosphere is all-encompassingly creepy and Jamie Parker's banjo playing sets an eerily melancholy tone.

Rejecting the limitations of classic plot structured musicals, Assassins works as an overview of Western political failings and a sharp criticism of the American Dream through a series of interconnected vignettes. Faultless staging and direction from Jamie Lloyd, choreography by Chris Bailey, and committed performances from the whole ensemble means that the slight issues one might have with the – admittedly scattergun - structure of the piece are silenced. Sympathy, humour, tragedy and horror are all produced simultaneously to dizzying effect, and by the closing reprise of ‘Everybody’s Got The Right’ the tension is overwhelming as the assassins set their sights (and weapons) on the audience.

The purgatorial setting of an abandoned fairground heightens the sense of displacement and loss while also representing the assassins within the realm of the misfit communities of classic American travelling carnivals. Soutra Gilmour’s design and Neil Austin’s lighting captures the razzmatazz of the fair - a canopy of tangled lights and bright flashing ‘hit’ and ‘miss’ signs - which secretes the seedy corruption of both the killers and the systems they wish to annihilate. This concept leads to a thrilling climax as Lee Harvey Oswald takes aim and with an earth-shattering eruption the auditorium is illuminated and a cascade of red confetti smothers the stage representing the blood of the nation and a sense of the death of America itself.

Sondheim's score cleverly adopts and satirises classic American music genres from the wistful harmonies of the barbershop quartet to cheesy 70’s pop ballads to an ingenious piece of self-referential intertextuality in the use of Sondheim and Bernstein’s ‘America’ from West Side Story. My only slight issue concerns the presence of ‘Something Just Broke’ – an additional number incorporated into the 1992 London premier, and remaining controversial within fan communities – I somewhat agree that the presence of the song, focussing on American citizens and their reactions in the aftermath of the assassination of JFK, detracts from the focus of the show – the assassins themselves – and dampens any uneasy feelings of sympathy the audience feels for the disenfranchised group.

The entire cast works together brilliantly, vital in what is a truly ensemble piece. Catherine Tate is well cast as dippy frustrated housewife Sara Jane Moore, making the most of the comedic moments and proving capable in her few songs. Also particularly impressive are Simon Lipkin as the versatile Proprietor, holding the show together impeccably, Aaron Tviet, exuding charisma as John Wilkes Booth, and Jamie Parker in dual roles, skilfully transforming from his country bumpkin take on the Balladeer to the desperate frustration of Lee Harvey Oswald. Mike McShane also has ample opportunity to shine as Samuel Byck, relishing the juiciest monologues of John Weidman’s book.

The Menier has succeeded in staging a near-faultless production of one of Sondheim’s more divisive pieces; the powerful visuals linger, and the critique of American, and by extension Western, politics and culture and the seemingly inevitable disillusionment that many citizens experience ensures that audiences are invited to meditate further on these themes long after the curtain call.


Assassins plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 7th March 2015