Tag Archives: London

An Absolute Scream

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN

Garrick Theatre, London, Saturday 28th October, 2017

 

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Mel Brooks’s seminal comedy film comes to the West End in this musical adaptation that stitches together the best of the movie with some cracking new material.  Brooks has an ear for a good tune and the score, which he wrote along with the lyrics, is chockful of catchy melodies and sophisticated, witty rhymes.  Brooks’s sense of the inappropriate is also undiminished: a chorus of women sing proudly about their tits, a blind man inflicts pain… Aficionados of the film will not be disappointed and newcomers to the material are in for a wild and wacky treat.

Hadley Fraser stars as Frederick Frankenstein (Fronkensteen) combining good looks with manic intensity, like a matinee idol on crack.  The man is hilarious and has a clear musical-theatre tenor that means he can belt above the chorus.  Like the machinery in his grandfather’s laboratory, we can see the cogs working in Frederick’s mind.  Fraser is expertly matched by Ross Noble as the hunchback Igor.  Noble’s rolling eyes, stooped posture and incessant gurning evoke something of the great Marty Feldman who originated the role, while permitting us to see Noble is a superb comic performer in his own right.  And who knew he could sing so well?

Summer Strallen is effortlessly sublime as Inga, stretching her accent as well as her legs, while Dianne Pilkington is an absolute scream as Frederick’s fiancée Elizabeth.  Everyone is at the top of their game.  There is strong support from Patrick Clancy doubling as Inspector Kemp and the blind hermit; Shuler Hensley’s Monster is the gift that keeps on giving in a towering performance; but the revelation of the piece is Lesley Joseph’s Frau Blucher, surely the role she was born to play.

Blucher

She has her knockers but I think Lesley Joseph is great

Highlights?  The show is one big highlight from start to finish.  Putting on the Ritz turns into an all-out production number with the chorus hoofing in Frankenstein boots, brilliantly lit by Ben Cracknell, bringing Hollywood glamour to his palette of old movie spotlights and colour washes.  Beowulf Boritt’s set uses traditional painted backcloths that heighten the theatricality of the piece while hearkening back to the old movie sets.  The atmosphere is perfect.  Director/choreographer Susan Stroman doesn’t miss a trick to bring out every laugh, every campy turn of phrase or reaction, giving us what is quite possibly the funniest musical ever.

The breast jokes betray the show’s 1970s origins but Brooks is right to keep them in – the master of comedy, he knows how to give us a frisson.  There would be something wrong if we approved of everything and this is how Brooks tests us, pushing at our comfort levels, showing us where our boundaries are and, above all, making us laugh out loud and long.

A great big monster hit.

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Hay there! Hadley Fraser and Ross Noble

 

 

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For

AGAINST

Almeida Theatre, London, Saturday 16th September, 2017

 

Luke is a billionaire whose companies are at the forefront of technological development: IT, space travel, you name it.  When he receives a ‘message from God’ he decides to change his ways and become more pro-active in changing the world for the better.  There are shades of Bill Gates’s philanthropy here, along with touches of Elon Musk and, not forgetting cult of Steve Jobs, as Luke visits sites of school shootings among other places, talking to people and trying to help them connect in ways that don’t necessarily involve a screen.

Ben Whishaw, always magnetic, imbues Luke with a quiet but compelling presence, complete with nerdish tics.  He is a messianic figure without the bombast and declamations.  And he is fallible.  His encounters are a learning process for him at least as much as those he meets.  Strong yet vulnerable, outgoing but reserved and isolated, Whishaw is utterly compelling.

Played out in a stylish but sparse setting of polished floorboards, Christopher Shinn’s new play proves thought-provoking and engaging; director Ian Rickson keeps his cast naturalistic on a mostly empty stage, with only scene captions and the odd piece of furniture to say where we are.  The performances are top notch across the board and Shinn’s ideas are for the most part clearly presented for us to consider.  Technological development is in bed with capitalism; things only change because of money, and those changes are not always beneficial: we visit an internet retail giant called ‘Equator’ and it doesn’t take three guesses to work out which notorious company is being satirised here.  One aggrieved truck driver (an intense Gavin Spokes) provides the tense denouement of what is otherwise an interesting outlay of ideas, bringing a dramatic and devastating conclusion.

Among the excellent ensemble supporting Whishaw is Amanda Hale, doubling as Sheila, Luke’s PA, and Kate, his middle-school crush.  Philippe Spall is likeable drug-dealer (!) Chris, while Naomi Wirthner brings dignity in her role as the mother of a school shooter.  Kevin Harvey’s sex-worker-cum-professor is sarkily humorous: poor Luke can’t do right for doing wrong as his every move and statement are pounced on by political correctness.  The play gives us some idea of how Christ himself might be received in this day and age.

Funny, provocative, and intelligent, Against is very much a play for today.  Shinn has captured something of the zeitgeist and the Almeida serves it up in a classy and engaging production that respects the intelligence of the audience.

Ben Whishaw Against

He’s not the Messiah; he’s a very pretty boy. Ben Whishaw as Luke (Photo: Johan Persson)

 

 


Figures of Speech

SPEECH & DEBATE

Trafalgar Studios, London, Saturday 11th March, 2017

 

Stephen Karam’s snappy script is brought to life in this new production by a trio of energised performers.  Set in an American high school, it covers the experiences of three loners who come together to form a debate club when it emerges that they each have a reason to bring about the downfall of the drama teacher…

Solomon is a neurotic mass, an uptight reporter for the school newspaper.  He wants to write an expose to bring the hypocrisy of the mayor (and the drama teacher) into the spotlight.  Dinata is a lonely girl, a wannabe actor who uses theatrics to get by, podcasting and blogging away, always with her eye out for the chance to perform.  Howie is the new kid at school – it is his online chat with the drama teacher that opens the show and gets the ball rolling.

Douglas Booth is in excellent form as Howie, portraying the boy’s fragility rather than his campness.  His barbed lines are exquisitely timed, and there is an appealing vulnerability to his presence.  Patsy Ferran has never been better as Dinata, the driving force behind the debate club, the funniest of the three.  Wise-cracking and sardonic, she is not as hep and cool as she pretends.  Her songs are sweetly funny – and the musical numbers are definite highlights, allowing Ferran to shine.  Booth also proves himself as a physical comedian, while Tony Revolori’s understated moves have their own hilariousness.  Revolori is superb as the tightly wound, crusading Solomon, who has to come to terms with his own contradictions.

The trio is strongly supported by Charlotte Lucas who appears in grown-up roles as a teacher and a reporter, but for the most part it is the dynamics between the three loners that holds our attention.  Director Tom Attenborough keeps the action sharp and the dialogue going off like firecrackers.  Economic use of projections show us the online chats that, along with references to Mike Pence, make the script bang up-to-date.  The play is not finally about the issues up for debate; it’s the time-honoured theme of teenage awkwardness, of being uncomfortable in one’s own skin.  And it’s an absolute delight.  A well-observed, snappily presented comedy that reminds us how modern technology can serve to keep us isolated or get us into trouble.

P.S.  If Douglas Booth feels like sending me pics, I would not mind one bit.

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Was Honest Abe gay? One of the topics up for debate! Douglas Booth as Howie (Photo: Simon Annand)

 


Filthy Looker

THE LIBERTINE

Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, Thursday 13th October, 2016

 

In a prologue, John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, announces “You will not like me.”  It’s a warning and a challenge, but I’m sitting there looking at Dominic Cooper and thinking, Mate, I’m in love with you already.

Cooper oozes charm as the world-weary gadabout, womaniser and wit.  An easily compelling stage presence, he gives us an anti-hero we can’t help but admire.  He knocks around with a great bunch of lads: George Etherege (Mark Hadfield), Charles Sackville (a powdered-faced Richard Teverson) and young hanger-on Billy (Will Merrick), as they satirise their way through life, drinking and whoring and committing acts of vandalism.  They are men in wigs behaving badly.

When Wilmot encounters actress Elizabeth Barry, he experiences love for the first time.  He coaches her to success on the London stage but, as a lover, is an abject failure.  Ophelia Lovibond is the perfect foil for Wilmot’s excesses.  Prim, perky and ambitious, she stands out among these larger-than-life, rambunctious characters.  Also excellent is Jasper Britton as a debauched yet regal Charles II, and there is strong support from Lizzie Roper as down-to-earth stage manager Molly Luscombe, and Nina Toussaint-White as prostitute Jane.  I warm to Alice Bailey Johnson’s long-suffering Elizabeth – we see she is as she is, due to Wilmot’s treatment of her.  Cornelius Booth is good fun as haughty, mannered actor Harry Harris, and Will Barton is a hoot as lugubrious manservant Alcock.

Tim Shortall’s set of shabby brickwork, tarnished gilt and wooden boards evokes the theatre and decay.  Well-worn and tawdry in its faded glamour, it’s a great fit for the sumptuous auditorium of the Theatre Royal – it’s practically an immersive experience and I purchase both an orange and a kiss from an obliging wench.  Director Terry Johnson keeps the cast skipping through Stephen Jeffreys’s erudite script – it’s an easily accessible glimpse of the period.

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, Wilmot’s lifestyle catches up with him and he falls into physical decline.  He renounces the booze and his atheism, exchanging one addiction for another – pious devotion; having lived life like a firework display, he kind of fizzles out like a damp squib.

I kind of wish he’d gone to his grave, railing defiantly against it, like Don Giovanni dragged off to hell.  Perhaps the death bed makes believers of us all…

Nah.

This is a hugely enjoyable production, stylish and funny and sometimes obscene.  Dominic Cooper is in superb form (in every sense), a star turn among a constellation of supporting players.

'The Libertine' Play by Stephen Jeffreys performed at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, UK

Dominic Cooper as The Earl of Rochester, Ophelia Lovibond as Elizabeth Barry ©Alastair Muir 27.09.16


Ted Talks

THE MENTALISTS

Wyndham’s Theatre, London, Saturday 22nd August, 2015

 

This 2002 play from Richard (One Man Two Guvnors) Bean is a two-hander set in a non-descript hotel room. Enter Ted and Morrie and a video camera… Ted has a message he wants to record, regarding himself as some kind of visionary after the discovery of an old book by behaviourist B F Skinner. Morrie, hairdresser and amateur pornographer, is there to operate the technology. The pair have been best friends since childhood, a chalk-and-cheese double act with banter aplenty.

As Ted, Stephen Merchant towers. His background in stand-up serves him well for the delivery of Ted’s tirades and Bean’s one-liners. It’s a relentlessly funny piece with the black humour of a Joe Orton and the menace of a Harold Pinter – the set-up (two men in a room) is very Pinteresque; there is even a moment when one reads stories from a newspaper to the other. There is the constant threat of someone outside the door: Ted’s credit cards keep bouncing – but that’s only the start of his troubles.

As Morrie, Steffan Rhodri gives more of a character study than Merchant. We sense there is more to him behind his anecdotes and his sexual boasts. Events spiral out of control and the friendship between these two damaged men becomes poignant: Ted is fixated on his message, wild-eyed and ranting. Morrie, the calmer of the two, brings a touch of normality to proceedings. Neither character is particularly likeable: Ted has a lot in common with Nigel Farage and Morrie is a manipulative womaniser, but it’s the performers we admire.

The climax is life-changing for both of them, but not in the way Ted wants.

A conventional, old-fashioned play, competently written by Bean and delivered by two performers with immaculate timing. Director Abbey Wright paces the laughs and the sense of impending disaster is well done. The Mentalists won’t change your life but it’s an amusing couple of hours, enjoyable while it lasts.

The-Mentalists-©-Delfont-Mackintosh-Theatres


Wine, Women and Song

BAKKHAI

Almeida Theatre, London, Saturday 22nd March, 2015

 

This new version of Euripides’s tragedy by Anne Carson has more laughs than you might expect. Observations about wine and women being a bad mix, for example, bring bathos to high drama and round out the humanity of the characters – this we can relate to if not their extraordinary circumstances. The staging is simple: distant hills are suggested by mounds, over which the cast clamber and stalk like goats, and the mechanics of the theatre are brought into use without artifice: a lighting rig like a flying saucer hovers above the stage, mist billows from a smoke machine…

Out steps Dionysus, god of (among other things) the theatre; the sublime Ben Whishaw captivates from the off. He is more than human, he tells us, and we believe him. Whishaw’s slight physique and rich voice (I’m trying not to think of Paddington Bear) along with a winning smile and androgynous appearance (like Conchita Wurst on her day off) have both appeal and a suggestion of power kept in check. Sly humour twinkles in his baby blues. He has the god’s duality down pat.

Scenes are punctuated by a chorus of nine women. They are acolytes as well as commentators and their timing is impeccable, in their a capella singing and the beating of their staffs. There is a hypnotic quality to them: Orlando Gough’s compositions have a Greco-Baltic feel to them. I expect they will work themselves into ekstasis as the action approaches its gory climax. But they don’t. Pity.

The splendid Bertie Carvel is calm and business-like as King Pentheus, dispensing orders to random members of the audience, “You go and burn his house down”. He is cool-headed and efficient – until, in a scene that foreshadows Pilate and Jesus, he encounters the hippy from Hell in close quarters, and is persuaded to go and witness for himself scenes of Bacchic ritualised mayhem, dressed as a woman. Carvel is dignified and stately in his female garb, like a greying Jerry Hall. He later appears as Pentheus’s mother, Agave, who is brought to realise what a terrible thing she has done to her own son.

Also excellent is Kevin Harvey in a range of parts: the elderly Cadmus, for example. It is the trio of men in the company who convey all the drama about which the chorus of women will comment. The men are the action, the women are the colour and the flavour.

The violence, as is the convention, takes place off-stage and is then described; our imaginations work better than any special effects – leading to a chilling and powerful denouement of sheer horror, as the god metes out his punishments to all and sundry.

It’s the power of the drama that affects, a couple of millennia down the line, in this stark yet engaging production. Whishaw shines, Carvel and Harvey add weight to Anne Carson’s lively and evocative script. James Macdonald’s direction, (using other-worldly sound design by Paul Arditti, and sudden, sharp lighting changes by Peter Mumford) takes us into a fantasy world where the outlandish events can take place. There are links to us: plastic bags, wheeled suitcases and so on, but it’s the human element that hits home.  You could link it with modern-day parallels about the excesses of religiously-motivated violence but for me it’s the longevity of a play and ancient theatrical conventions that strike at us in primal and esoteric ways that, like proud Pentheus, has me in pieces.

I emerge stunned into the Islington sunshine, having been engaged intellectually and emotionally. The line that sticks with me refers to another gift of Dionysus to mankind: “Wine is the cure for being human.” Now, there’s a religion I can relate to!

Divine!  Ben Whishaw as Dionysus (Photo: Mark Brenner)

Divine! Ben Whishaw as Dionysus (Photo: Mark Brenner)


Life’s buffets

THE AMERICAN PLAN

St James Theatre, London, Tuesday 30th July, 2013

Theatre Royal Bath’s production of Richard Greenberg’s play is enjoying its transfer to the capital – or rather, I should say, the audiences are enjoying it.   This is a cracking production and, try as I might, I cannot find fault with it.  It’s well on course to being my favourite play of the year – quite the accolade, I’m sure you’ll agree!

The plot concerns a mother and daughter who, along with their maid, live across the lake from a resort in the Catskills (It is from this resort that the play takes its title: an ‘American plan’ means the same as ‘full board’ in English money).   They are joined by a young man with whom the daughter is smitten.  Mother has reservations: daughter’s mental stability has led to problems in the past.  Add to this the fact that the young man is not entirely what he pretends, and the scene is set for an engaging drama, along the lines of a Tennessee Williams, albeit transplanted to a more northerly location and handled with a lighter touch.

Diana Quick rules the roost as the mother, Eva, an elegant Jewish momma with a sharp Germanic accent and sharper acuity.  She operates almost entirely in the realm of subtext and invites other characters to do the same.  It’s a very arch, very funny performance and Quick is matched by the rest of this splendid ensemble.  Emily Taaffe is electrifying as Eva’s daughter Lili – at first, the archetypal bored teen, seeking distraction in her imagination but we soon realise there is something else at work here.  Lili’s tall tales lead to problems for handsome Nicky’s relationship with a girl from the resort, and soon he and Lili are ‘involved’.  Luke Allen-Gale is just about perfect as the charismatic and opportunistic Nicky, exuding charm and apparent decency, tackling the tidal changes of Nicky’s fortunes and emotions without losing our goodwill – in fact, such is the quality of every performer, we go along with everything the characters resort to.  As maid Olivia, Dona Croll is quietly long-suffering in a good-humoured way, dignified and with an understated sardonicism that lifts the characterisation out of the stereotype.  Her relationship with Lili has a touch of the Nurse with Juliet; the script has more than a few literary or classical allusions, amid all the coercions and negotiations.

In the second half, a fifth character arrives in the form of Gil (Mark Edel-Hunt); of course Gil is not what he appears and his arrival sets the plot alight and forces Eva to bring all her subtextual skills and manipulations to the fore as she manages the new situation. The intelligence of the writing means the audience is right there with her, reading between the lines and revelling in the delicious irony.

Director David Grindley’s assured handling of the material allows the actors to be subtle, tickling us with feathers rather than sledgehammers of melodrama.  Suitably, Jonathan Fensom’s set and costume designs are also subdued, hinting at place and period in an subtly emblematic manner.

All in all, The American Plan is a feast, an all-you-can-eat theatrical buffet, more than satisfying and very, very tasty.

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Luke Allen-Gale and Emily Taaffe