Theatre/Opera/Dance reviews and news

Theatre

African Gothic @ The Arcola

African Gothic is certainly not a theatrical work aimed at the faint hearted and those that favour mawkish escapism on the boards in London’s West End. This is a play designed to provoke you, disgust you, leave you with some quite evocative images burnt into your retinas and to violently stimulate your amygdala. If disturbing and challenging theatre is your shtick, then this is the play for you.

This multi award winning play was originally penned in 1985 by South African playwright Reza de Wet and this particular production was brought to the stage by a fascinating new theatre company entitled the Barebones Project, which comprises of a group of experiences actors, artists and musicians. Their objective brings forth echoes of Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre in that they want to create a stripped down and provocative theatrical experience that explores ‘the barriers that interfere with an actor’s ability to be present in his/ her fullness of being; our anxieties, artifice and emotional duplicity.’

This is the company’s first production and the subject matter is at times incredibly harrowing and, as an audience member, you are truly provoked and thoughts of the play linger around for days after- they did for me anyway!

African Gothic is set during the apartheid in South Africa and tells the story of the childlike and feral Frikkie and Sussie, a brother and sister who live in a barren wasteland, ostracised from any kind of human contact. The two central characters have an incestuous relationship, content in their own bubble of squalor and degradation.  The other inhabitant of their shack is the servant, a taciturn and yet imperious presence, played by Naomi Wirthner.

The play centres on a visitor who delivers Frikkie and Sussie a message from a, recently deceased, family member. He is appalled by the conditions he is met with and the eccentricities of the brother and sister.

The Arcola was a perfect setting for this play as the audience are sat close enough to smell the stale sweat that lingers in the air and feel the ominous sense of foreboding that permeates the performance. The histrionic and disturbed Sussie is played terrifyingly well by Jane Gwilliams as she explicitly communicates the acts of a woman who is at times animalistic and sexually unrestrained and yet, to humorous affect, attempts at times to be vaguely civilised to impress her guest by speaking in a posh English accent.  Gary Wright’s Frikkie is the strongest performance though as his emotional complexities are given space to be explored.  There is a sense of decency within him although he is unfortunately bound by the misfortune of the circumstances of his life’s disturbing machinations.

The play is pertinent in lieu of the recent riots that have spread across England in its exploration of the mishandling of youth. In Frikkie and Sussie, you have two characters brought up unabashed, untamed and raw. They have defined their own brand of morality and have created their own world for which anyone who threatens it, will be punished in the most abominable way imaginable.

A  terrific play but certainly not to everyone’s tastes.

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The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets @ The Holt Festival, Norfolk

I met this production with a degree of innocence and a sense of stepping into the unknown. I conducted a modicum of research on 1927 and was met with a plethora of positive reviews concerning their first, award winning production, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

This is only their second production since the company’s inception in ’05 and their brand of theatre has been met with comparisons to the early work of Tim Burton; entwining cabaret, silent movie, animation and music hall in to a maelstrom of mordant, sardonic performance. This production far exceeded my expectations, and more than lived up to its comparisons to Burton’s work.

The play is a beautifully crafted tale set within a dark dystopia and focuses on its melancholic, malcontent inhabitants in an environment characterised by misery, disease and crime. The actors embody a series of characters, aided by animation that brings this dark desolate world to the stage. The performers flawlessly interact with the animation to hilarious effect and this dark fairytale left me desiring more.

The tale focuses on the rebellious Zelda, the daughter of a junk shop owner who is surprised by her daughter’s attitude because when she was her age, she was only concerned with ‘contracting herpes’. Zelda wants what the seemingly more privileged have and instigates a rebellion, leading an army of children to take over the more affluent parts of town. This leads to a reaction from the mayor of the town to take direct action against the so-called riff-raff by insidiously luring them with sweets that ultimately pacify their ebullient behaviour, thus depriving them of their innocence and condoning them to a life of misery, characterised by their surroundings.

It is the central character of the Caretaker, who I feel stole the performance. Visually, he reminded me of Edward Scissorhands (minus the scissors); pale faced, forlorn and desperate to escape the ominous surroundings but destined to remain in place which ultimately defined him. His delivery was note perfect and he brought laughter every time he was on stage.

If you have the opportunity to see this wonderful performance then make every effort to obtain a ticket. My sole quibble was the performance was not long enough!


Emperor and Galilean review

The English premiere of what Ibsen considered to be his greatest triumph is not an easy piece to digest. This, his longest play which, like Peer Gynt, was written to be read rather than staged, indeed requires from its audience a theatrical endurance of epic proportions. Emperor and Galilean, like a marathon, feels worthy upon completion. Originally intended to be nine hours, Ben Power judiciously trimmed this gargantuan piece of two parts of five acts down to four acts which together come in just under four hours with a cast of 50.

It is astounding that this ambitious work of Ibsen’s, despite being penned in 1873, has never been performed in the United Kingdom considering his relative success on the capital’s west-end boards, with A Doll’s House, Peer Gynt, and Ghosts being particular favorites. The last Ibsen production I saw in London was Ralph Fiennes starring in Brand at the Royal Haymarket in 2003.

The tale the fourth-century AD Roman emperor Julian the Apostate (Andrew Scott), the last of the pagan emperor’s epic rise and tumultuous downfall, is the principle focus of the play. Laid before us is one man’s tortuous search for a philosophical truth and religious identity. Julian, through his tutor Maximus (Ian McDiarmid), questions free will and destiny, politics and religion, the body and spirit. The juxtaposition of human conceits and folly to that of our great endeavors and aspirations in this one work is scintillating. In true Ibsen form, the text provides a wealth of literature, biblical, and historical references that stay with the viewer long after the curtain goes down.

Andrew Scott is truly beginning to make a name for himself. He was recently seen briefly in the BBC’s Sherlock and at the Old Vic in Noel Coward’s Design for Living. Each time I see him onstage, I am ever more convinced of his talent  and impeccable timing. He somehow succinctly conveys the warring need for power and intellectual stimulation in this rather weak minded man. His performance was inspiring. O’Reilly’s character, similar to her performance earlier this year at The Comedy Theatre’s Birdsong, lacked substance. McDiarmid played the manipulative advisor Maximus frighteningly well.

It is due to the great capacities and capabilities that the National’s Olivier provides that this piece truly comes to dazzling light in this theatrical cathedral. Jonathan Kent’s staging effectively segments this monolith of a revolving stage. The death scene Helena (Genevieve O’Reilly), the multiple three levels created on the stage, and the ethereal lighting was breathtaking. In fact, it was the subsequent lack of levels and staging that somewhat disappointed in the second act. The military march through Babylon lacked resonance and Julian’s final death, after such great feats of staging, felt somewhat flat in this dessert between East and West.

There are a number of faults to be pointed out (Evian water bottle, confusing props, some fumbling with lines), but as the night I saw was a very early preview, I assume most of these will be smoothed. The contemporary screen projections with airplanes, the use of fluorescent colours on some of the costumes, and the camouflage on the soldiers all seemed at war with the epic tale being told. Somehow the details did not quite align in harmony. But so great was the tale, so impressive Scott’s performance that all minor criticisms seem of little import in the face of such a monumental production.

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk


Betrayal review

Harold Pinter’s Betrayal was premiered way back in 1978 at the Lyttleton and the play is just as strong today as it was back then and will not lose any of its punch if it is played out for audiences in 30 years’ time. This is because the central theme of infidelity is something that will always be a pertinent subject and it is becoming all the more ubiquitous in our highly sexualised age.

Harold Pinter understands this very well because this play was inspired by an affair he had during the 60’s with BBC Television presenter Joan Bakewell

Ian Rickson’s production at the Comedy theatre centres around a love affair between Jerry (Douglas Henshall) and his best friend’s wife, Emma (Kristen Scott-Thomas). It opens on a meeting between the two philandering characters in a pub. You learn that their affair has since come to its climax and we are witnessing something of a reunion. The play then gradually moves back in time, allowing for insight into the secrets, deceptions and exertions of passionate love that ultimately lead to the events of the first scene.

Through Pinter’s ingenious reverse chronology of the narrative, dramatic irony is used to powerful effect which, coupled with Pinter’s economical use of dialogue and the subtleties that resonate through each multi-layered interaction, makes for a beautifully pitched piece of theatre, although this production is certainly not perfect.

The cast play the disingenuous and reticent characters very well, convincing in their utter disregard for one another’s feelings. I felt tenderness between Jerry and Emma, the breaks in the dialogue communicating a much greater and purer intent, contradicted of course by their rather insensitive behaviour towards their respective friend and partner. These were two characters that had lives to lose, bound into a commitment through what they believed to be love, forced into secret meetings because their everyday lives were not satisfying enough; their love though not strong enough to break the confines of their prospective marriages.

The mise- en scene was also nicely communicated with a bed being present almost throughout the entire production- a constant reminder of the scene of the betrayal.

I did however struggle with Douglas Henshall’s arrogant and at times dis likeable Jerry. This is clearly a man in the throes of love and passion but that was not truly communicated. I felt there could have been an incandescence to his character that was sadly lacking. Both Scott-Thomas and Ben Miles were strong as the couple emotionally wrenched apart by their selfish actions.

Ultimately this robust production left me satisfied although I feel with a text so rich, so nuanced and so beautifully complex, I wanted more from the performances that felt, at times, a little sterile.


One Man, Two Guvnors review


Richard Bean has successfully transferred Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte comedy to the National Theatre Olivier’s stage.  The play is moved seamlessly from Venice in the 1740s to Brighton in the 1960’s.

The evermore chaotic plot circles around Goldoni’s Truffaldino, Bean’s newly christened Francis Henshall (James Corden) the joker in the tale, who finds himself to be working for two “guvnors”. The first is Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Rooper), disguised as her dead twin who was in fact killed by her boyfriend. The other govner is indeed, and most unfortunately for Henshall, Rachel’s boyfriend, snooty public school boy Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris). Neither is aware of the other’s presence in Brighton and a great deal of the comedy arises from Henshall’s elaborate attempts to keep each guvnor in the dark and himself fed.

What makes this rather traditional, predictable comedy shine is the seamless combination of verbal and physical humour. The text is full of one-liners and running gags. Of particular note is the dinner scene. Triffaldino / Henshall runs back and forth in an ever greater frenzy between his two employers all the while trying to eat as much of the food as possible himself. In between totters the octogenarian waiter (Tom Edden) whose performance of instability is brilliant.

Corden is back at the National with director Hytner for the first time since 2004 when he shone in The History Boys. Despite harbouring some doubts regarding Corden, he gave an impressive performance that even included audience involvement. On the preview night, when asking (probably rhetorically) where he should take Dolly (Suzi Toase) on a first date, someone in the second row shouted “Somewhere with tablecloths” to which Corden sharply replied, “Hang around after the show and we’ll use your shirt”.

While Corden is the undoubtedly the paper chewing, hunger motivated, attention seeking focus of the plot, he is surrounded by strong performances. Chris plays the twit Stanley’s public school arrogance to clichéd perfection. Daniel Rigby’s would-be actor is spot on. Suzi Toase plays the redheaded secretary right on the edge between a hard headed woman and a lady in love. Her comedic timing is impeccable.

What really brings this joyful performance to life is the musical interludes led by composer Grant Olding. Walking into a theatre filled by swinging sets the scene for fun. The following solos by the principal members of cast gives a feeling that everyone is here to have a good time and helps the nearly three hour show fly by.

Mark Thompson’s set design feels like the scene of a Brighton post card come to life. The numerous scene changes keep the story fresh and alive.

This is not something new. Many of these gags were already done in Noises Off. It is not an outstanding, exemplary production, however it is great fun and you will leave with a smile on your face and feel you have indeed enjoyed an entertaining evening at the theatre.

Following its run at the National, One Man, Two Guvnors will go on tour, visiting Theatre Royal, Plymouth (October 4 – 8); The Lowry, Salford (October 11 – 15); New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham (October 18 – 22); and King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (October 25 – 29).


Moonlight review at the Donmar Warehouse

I feel rather fortuitous, given that I stumbled upon an advert for Harold Pinter’s Moonlight at the Donmar a full two months before the performance was to commence. With that knowledge in mind, I swiftly snapped up a pair of tickets with the only drawback being that I had to suspend my anticipation for what seemed like aeons before I had the opportunity to see it on stage- woe is me!

The performance did not let me down as I was compelled, emotionally roused and drawn to constantly search for my own interpretation within Pinter’s typically tacit and nuanced play. The intimate Donmar was the ideal venue for this tragic tale of the embittered Andy, lying on his death bed with his long-suffering wife, Bel, meditating on his past, speaking lucidly and with caustic reverie of his past indiscretions. The two other main characters are their sons, Jake and Fred, who live in a dingy bedsit, both bedraggled and offer no sympathy and very little mention of their dying father, choosing rather to indulge in intellectual wordplay- a clear indication that Andy was perhaps not exactly a model father. Andy and Bel’s deceased daughter also makes a couple of fleeting appearances, to bridge the gap between life and death.

The performances across the entire cast were excellent, with particular reference to David Bradley’s Andy. Bradley has the face of a man who has suffered, worn away by the pitfalls of life and rendered in to a scathing, scabrous malcontent. This play was a meditation of the final moments of death, when you have nowt to do but to think of the most significant memories that have defined you over the years, when all you can do is reminisce and try and celebrate what you have achieved. There is no celebration of life through Andy however as he questions why his sons have not visited him which is never explicitly answered, though through certain allusions to the past you can safely deduct that his rather bitter behaviour has contributed to his loneliness in death. Bel, played by Deborah Findlay, acting as the voice of calm and reason, is a brilliant counterpoint for Max; dry in her delivery but with an undercurrent of warmth that becomes clearer as the play reaches its climax.

It is not difficult to admire the genius of Pinter, his superior command of the language, lines of dialogue which are eloquent and forever poetic and this play showcased his talents in spades. The set was perfectly structured, with the two settings placed next to one another that allowed for swift interchanges between the two scenes; and, owing to the intimacy of the venue and the standard of performances across the cast, it at times felt as if this was not a work of fiction but a tragic slice of real life.


Tender Napalm review

Just last week Lyn Gardner, the Guardian’s famed and feared theatre critic asked “why today’s critics no longer write about acting, or at least not with any of the zest and descriptive power of their predecessors….The lack of attention paid to acting is a loss.”

Upon viewing, Tender Napalm seemed the perfect piece upon which to exorcise this critique of the critics. Witnessing Vinette Robinson and Jack Gordon’s approach these high-context characters felt as if there were needless excesses and a lack of the essentials. Is love really based on winning verbal duels? Their performances failed to move me towards anywhere meaningful other than the door.

This world premiere of Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm at the Southwark Playhouse marks the first new play in three years from the award-winning playwright. This uninterrupted 80 minute piece begins with Man and Woman entering in a flurry of high energy motion and then settling into chairs at opposite ends of the stage. “Your mouth … it’s such a wet thing. I could squeeze a bullet between those lips.” There they both physically and metaphorically remain, at opposite ends of the spectrum, springing back and forth between sexual confrontation and a distant aloofness all via a seemingly never ending linguistic duel.

In the game of competing egos, both Man and Woman use super-heroes from comics, sci-fi ideas, ancient legends and fairy tales as places in which to explore the language of love and to contest rival interpretations of past events. The monologue heavy dialogue follows the basic principle of improvisation – never refuse an idea or image – and so take each other’s suggestions, however interruptive. Images of snakes, serpents, unicorns, monkeys, kings, queens and blood proliferate. There are suggestions of a violent world beyond our immediate experience, Ridley’s script is in constant flux as it examines the multiplicity of this thing we call love. Delving into these minds, I was struck instead by the lack of inventiveness. If this is indeed a dream world, then why not make us dream dizzying heights and catastrophic lows, rather than this flat line comic strip. They rarely venture into this fantasy world together as lover’s so often do, but instead remain in continual combat.

Gordon’s Man while dynamic, lacks emotional depth, his extensive physical work feels messy – riding a unicorn with the same movements upon which he directs a space ship. Robinson’s Woman lacks basic female qualities that could have shifted this piece into a realm of real depth. She maintains the same caustic lack of sympathy of any hint of warmth that she displayed as the Sergeant in the BBC’s recent Sherlock Holmes. Robinson’s eagerness to coldly contradict Gordon’s fiery, fist pumping Man without any tangible or remorse render her character one-dimensional.

Does an exploration of sexual love really need to involve pushing bullets and grenades into one’s orifices? It appears a rather self-destructive relationship that Ridley has created. This couple’s lack of compassion led me to stop caring. Rather dance around the issue, why not get to the heart of the matter. What good is story telling if it fails to move, to inspire, to educate, to enrapture the audience? I very much saw the Napalm, but where was any sincere Tenderness? Despite the lack of a conclusion, I left the theatre, glad that the production itself had concluded.