Friday, August 28, 2009

Edinburgh: Precious Little Talent

Ella Hickson’s first play, Eight, consisted - as the name suggests - of eight monologues, only four of which were performed on any given night, with the audience selecting the pieces they wanted to see.

The monologues were loosely themed around the shifting economic situation and how young people, accustomed to a world rich in choice and possibility, were being forced to adjust. It contained moments of inspired writing but the format, the lack of interaction between the pieces, ended up a limiting one.

In her second play, Precious Little Talent, Hickson has adopted a more conventional dramatic structure, yet it is one that really pays off. The three-hander begins with Sam, a bright-eyed nineteen year old American, recounting his first encounter with Joey, a rooftop union that led to them both charging through the midnight streets of New York and ending up at Grand Central Station in each other’s arms.

Having recently lost her job, Joey has come to America to visit her father, George, a former academic with a sharp, dismissive manner. He lives alone and it is clear that there has been some drift between father and daughter since the end of his marriage. What Joey does not yet know is that the young man she shared her impulsive evening with, her cinematic swoop through the city, is also her father’s carer – that her dad is diminishing, unravelling, losing his capacity to care for himself.

Precious Little Talent cements what Eight merely hinted at: that Hickson is a writer of some skill. The emotional tone of the play is admirably nuanced. The relationship between father and daughter – affectionate yet volatile, needy yet abrupt – is a complex but recognisable one, and while the play contains moments of acute sadness, there is also much wit in evidence. The cultural gulf between the English and Americans proves a particularly rich source of humour.

Not everything stands up to scrutiny. There are some questions Hickson, intentionally or otherwise, leaves unanswered. Sam’s actual role remains ill-defined: is he a nurse? Is caring for George his main job or something he does while he studies? The sudden budding relationship between Sam and Joey also feels a little too convenient. Yet George’s monologues, his moments alone, are incredibly moving and John McColl is superb as a man coming to grips with a lessening of self he is powerless to halt.

The two younger cast members both do an excellent job with their roles. There’s clearly more depth to Sam then his beaming exterior would initially suggest; he is sensitive to George’s needs and perceptive about Joey’s fears and anxieties. Emma Hiddleston, as the slightly stiff English girl, comes across as proud and self-sufficient yet at the same time she is clearly looking for something solid and secure to cling on to.

As in Eight, Hickson is interested in what it means to arrive at adulthood just as the rules seem to be shifting, as the old roads are swamped in snow and new paths need to be dug. The shadow of a past generation’s aspirations still looms large but this is a new world and Hickson is one of its most astute voices.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Edinburgh: Orphans

Helen and Danny live in a bubble of middle class comfort. They have stylish furniture, attractive clothes and a bottle of something crisp and white sits on the dining table as they embark on a celebratory dinner. But there are thick bars on their windows and the outside world they have struggled to keep at bay is about to seep in.

Their dinner is interrupted by the arrival of Helen’s brother, Liam, his T-shirt covered in another man’s blood.It’s the most satisfyingly startling way to open a play and grabs its audience from the outset.

Liam is understandably agitated and it takes a while for the couple to draw out his story. A lad has been attacked and left bleeding on the street, that’s what he tells them. He tended to him, hugged him – tried to help. Danny wants to call the police but Liam has a criminal record and Helen fears the consequences of getting involved. After all the boy was not someone they knew, not family, and he might even have been involved with a past assault on Danny, so why take the risk?

Dennis Kelly’s tense three-hander paints a bleak picture of a world where fear is the dominant force: fear of the law and the unknown, fear of a poorly defined ‘them’ who given the opportunity will damage and destroy everything the couple have so carefully built for themselves.

Kelly is also an expert at the drip-dripping of information to his audience. He constantly resets Liam’s story, revealing some shocking new piece of information, some new twist in the truth. He seems to enjoy writing himself into corners and then finding plausible ways to escape: Helen’s reasoning for not calling the police or the two men’s decision not to go outside and look for the injured boy are prime examples of this. Kelly slowly brings the audience round to seeing and understanding why the characters react as they do. It’s an incredibly controlled piece of writing in this respect. Perhaps too controlled as some of the vital elements in the telling of the story – like Liam and Helen’s past life of foster homes and the difference in class between Helen and Danny – feel like structural components, necessary to justify certain characters’ actions, rather than natural aspects of the narrative.

His dialogue is also an exercise in control and precision. Each stutter and hesitation matters and carries weight. The characters converse in a broken, halting yet rhythmic manner; sentences go unfinished, questions remain half-formed. Of the three cast members it is Joe Armstrong’s superficially genial yet utterly menacing Liam who best grasps and runs with the play’s particular patterns of speech. He seems perfectly at ease with this stop-start way of speaking whereas the language feels rather more stylised in the mouths of Claire-Louise Cordwell and Jonathan McGuinness. There is sometimes a degree of stiffness to their performance that is absent in Armstrong.

The plot can’t quite shoulder the load of the points Kelly wants to make about fear and the erosion of communities, the setting up of fences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in a way that absolves people of responsibility to one another, but it is a gripping tale that keeps its single thread taut from start to finish. The use of Helen’s unborn child to give some extra emotional resonance to an already tense situation does feel rather excessively manipulative and strikes something of a sour note.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Monday, August 24, 2009

Edinburgh: Crush

Paul Charlton’s Crush tells a fairly familiar story. Anna and Sam are a young-ish married couple, both in their late twenties. Sam’s dreams after university didn’t quite pan out and the publishing business he hoped to set up never materialised. The sheen of the early days of their marriage is fading; they haven’t had much sex recently; their small habits are starting to irritate each other.

What makes Charlton’s play sit up in a meerkat fashion above the pack of basic relationship dramas is the way he astutely pins down the role the internet can play in people’s emotional crises, the outlet it provides for anonymous and supposedly consequence-free behaviour – the acting out of fantasies from the safety of one’s own home.

Except, of course, there are consequences. Real consequences: these actions reach through and beyond the world of the flickering screen of a laptop, touching and infecting people; the bet placed online is as real as one placed at a bookies, the Facebook fantasy can still hurt the woman you love.

Sam becomes obsessed with a young newly qualified teacher who he met briefly in his job as a book salesman. She fills his mind, this young pretty thing, in part because she looks not unlike his wife did a few years ago, or so he tells himself. Later at home, still thinking of her, he befriends her via Facebook and finds this allows him ample opportunity to sit staring at photos of her on the internet.

Anna, already subtly aware that in Sam’s eyes she has let herself go, discovers what he is up to and that damages her self-confidence and self-image further. She starts hitting the gym, taking dieting pills, obsessing over her body and the few extra inches she has gained since her wedding day. Sam is certain that he loves his wife, that he is happy with her, but he can’t shake a nagging sense of dissatisfaction with his lot and the internet provides a window an outlet for his frustrations, a kind of safe half-way space.

The play takes the form of several connected monologues with Sam and Anna taking turns to speak, him at the desk in his study, her at the gym. Both actors really seem to connect with the material. Neil Grainger’s performance as Sam is, for the most part, one of laddish amiability but a wave of utter despair and desperation floods out of him as the play nears its finish. Claire Dargo’s Anna is perky and sweat-sheened, peddling on her exercise bike, but an undercurrent of self-loathing soon becomes evident, a swamping sadness that her life and her marriage have ended up as they have.

Charlton’s writing is incredibly measured; both characters, for all their flaws, are very human and the way that they flit from worry to worry, talking themselves in and out of corners, is totally convincing and real. The final double revelation is slightly contrived and yet it still manages to end things on a suitably emotional note that echoes on as the performers take their bows.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Friday, August 21, 2009

Edinburgh: If That's All There Is

A red stain blooms like a rose on Daniel’s shirtfront. He has just been shot. His wailing wife stands beside him, dressed in bridal white. It is their wedding day – and this, his shooting, is – probably - just a dream, the product of an anxious mind.

Reality and the imagined world walk hand in hand in this new piece by Inspector Sands, the company behind Hysteria. Inspired by the Peggy Lee song from which it takes its title, If That’s All There Is concerns an engaged couple, Daniel and Frances, who are full of fear and anxiety about their impending wedding day and, presumably, their lives together after they emerge from the church in a shower of confetti.

Worried about his fiancee’s behaviour, Daniel – who is the kind of man who makes graphs of his guests’ ages and romantic status in order to decide where to seat them at the reception – consults a psychiatrist on her behalf. To be fair Frances’ behaviour is a little odd. She has taken to sniffing just-chopped onions and forcing herself to cry; at work she devours hunks of white-iced wedding cake, cramming it into her mouth like a starved woman. She has momentary urges to fling small children into rivers or to rub her face into a passing man’s quivering belly fat. Both Daniel and Frances seem like they could use a little help, they are forever teetering on the edge and the smallest knock could send them over. Even the psychiatrist offers them no rock to cling to, for she seems as unsteady as them.

Consistently physically inventive and frequently very funny, the piece offers a neat commentary on the drive for perfection that characterises so many different aspects of society, one’s wedding day being the pinnacle of this: the sense that life will be somehow less satisfying, less fulfilling, just less if you don’t match the bridesmaids’ flowers to the table linen or have the right kind of cake or own some tasteful suede cushions from Heals on your sofa.

Lucinka Eisler and Ben Lewis are well matched as the increasingly flaky and fragile couple, seemingly feeding from one another’s neuroses, while Giulia Innocenti’s comic timing is excellent. Simply by the shedding of her shirt, she switches from a dismissive middle aged shrink to a taciturn work experience girl at the market research company where Frances works. As the latter she reads from an unending ‘lifestyle’ questionnaire, slicing up the human condition into quantifiable chunks ("on a scale of one to ten how do you feel about...")

While there’s a lot to enjoy and appreciate here there’s also the sense that, if you were to strip away the creative presentation and the visual energy of the piece, what’s left would struggle to stand on its own; there's a whole lot of layers of wrapping and ribbon for a gift you already have.

Reviewed for musicOMH.

Edinburgh: The Event

The Event is a play about a play. More than that it’s a play about itself. John Clancy's self-referential monologue picks itself apart as a piece of theatre – it’s as meta as it gets.

A man, dapper and middle-aged, American, stands in the spotlight against a plain black curtain. He explains that what he is doing is reciting memorized words, that this is a performance that he repeats on a daily basis and that every pause and gesture is planned out in advance.

He talks about the role of the audience, listening and watching in the dark, perhaps checking their watches when they hope the performer cannot see them. He talks about the possibility of there being professional observers in the audience and their role in this thing, this happening, this moment of shared time, which he continually refers to as the ‘event.’

He talks about the role of the technician, the power that one can wield through simply dipping and raising the lights, the way the whole mood of a piece can be changed. He talks about the unseen mystery of the stage hands, of the people behind the curtain.

Throughout all this David Calvitto’s performance is superbly controlled and commanding. He makes the audience aware of the fact that the way he modulates his voice, the way he holds himself and the gestures that he uses are pre-arranged, but he remains hughly watchable and natural in his delivery. The piece never feels cold or forced or alienating in its artifice. In the rare moment he stutters or flutters over a line, he leaves the audience wondering whether it was intentional; what if anything is ‘real’ in a situation like this.

This is a self-consciously clever piece of writing and one that continuously turns in circles around itself. When, roughly three-quarters of the way through, Clancy - and, by extension - Calvitto look beyond the event to the world we live in, passing comment on society and the modern need to fill time with stuff, with happenings, with events, the play becomes both less and more than itself; by engaging with life beyond the black curtain, the play opens itself up and is simultaneously reduced by its somewhat proselytizing manner. It becomes something more akin to a lecture and the careful union between audience, performer and writer, falters. In the end the play swings back to its starting point: one man standing in the light in front of watching crowd.

Were it not for Calvitto’s engaging presence and capable performance, The Event would probably end up as a chilly intellectual exercise, a narcissistic dissection that ultimately pushes the audience away, but Calvitto’s balancing act is admirable and the play is never less than captivating

Reviewed for musicOMH.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Edinburgh: Circa

Circa is a simultaneous celebration of both the human body’s strength and its fragility.

The acclaimed seven-member Australian troupe combines circus skills with dance, performing without props on an empty white stage. The audience are able to appreciate each twitch of a limb, each tremor of muscle as the performers come together in mini-duets, colliding and then pushing each other apart or flopping and twisting on the ground like fish on the deck of a boat.

There is no real connecting narrative thread as such, rather the show is a series of sometimes spectacular and sometimes intimate episodes and encounters. Physical power over another is a recurring theme. A woman is tossed in the air like a thing of balsa wood or spun like a skipping rope. In one of the show’s most wince-inducing and unexpected moments, a female performer emerges wearing cherry red spike heels and proceeds to walk across a male performer’s torso.
Slick as the production is, the huge physical effort involved in achieving these things is never disguised, never hidden; instead it has been made part of a fabric of the show. In one sequence, a woman lifts a man onto her shoulders and one can see her face twitch with exertion, her whole body tremble and shake. Later one of the female performers stands on a man’s outstretched forearm and it’s possible to see him brace himself and to grimace with the strain. The capacity for things to fail, to go wrong, is always there, simmering underneath the surface, and when one the male performers hangs suspended from the ceiling by straps, only to suddenly tumble to within centimetres of the floor, the wave of tension and release that ripples through the audience is audible. People gasp with fear and delight.

The potential for the body to betray is also explored. In one superb sequence, played out without music, a female performer contorts herself, her head between her legs and her hands crabbing and scuttling around her, seemingly independently. The architecture of the human form is inevitably brought to the fore, from the male torsos, slender yet with every muscle clearly delineated to the female thighs which, refreshingly, still jiggle, even while hoisting another human being into the air.

If anything is lacking, it’s a greater guiding connection between the different sequences, a unifying thread, and perhaps a shade more humour. But this remains a powerful piece, concerned as much with the emotions it generates in its audience as with the creation of sheer physical spectacle

Reviewed for musicOMH

Edinburgh: Beachy Head

A pair of young film makers discover that they have inadvertently filmed a man’s suicide. Reviewing some of their footage they see a man take of his boots, fling them aside, and hurl himself from Beachy Head. Shocked and also fascinated (“shall we watch it again?” one asks) they decide to track down the man’s young wife and make a film about her response to his death.

Stephen was twenty nine and an aspiring writer of children’s books holding down a mundane job. He was married to Amy and they lived, simply but seemingly contentedly in Brighton. He gave little outward sign of depression or despair and Amy is left feeling baffled and betrayed by the actions of a man she realises she did not know as well as she thought.

Analogue’s new devised piece combines video and other multimedia techniques with a fairly dramatically straightforward account of a young man’s decision to end his life and the repercussions of this act. The production contains several visually striking moments, but the simplest sequences are often the strongest; a brief flashback about the mending of a light fitting is moving in its ordinariness.

Dan Rebellato, Emma Jowett and Lewis Hetherington’s script is considered and intelligent but seems to shy away from truly tapping into the complex knot of emotions, the despair and utter sense of hopelessness, which might drive a young married man to hurl himself from the top of a cliff onto the rocks below. The key narrative hook of the piece ends up shifting away from Stehen's act towards how and when the filmmakers, Joe and Matt, will let Amy know that this footage of her husband’s death exists and how they are planning on using it.

There is some wry humour in the way the way the Joe and Matt fuss about lighting and the lack of a sufficiently hospital-y atmosphere when they are interviewing Dr Sampson, a pathologist whose job it is to autopsy many of those who choose to die at Beachy Head, about the nature of her work. There are also some very well judged moments: Stephen’s long drawn out final phone call to the Samaritans is particularly well handled, but other things smack of manipulation, especially a video sequence that shows Amy’s tears falling on the cards of condolence that people have sent her, causing the ink to bleed.

The characters remain rather opaque, though Emma Jowett is suitably raw as Amy, and the most memorable sections end up being those when Dr Sampson, (a measured performance by Hannah Barker, who also co-directs) talks calmly and professionally about the physical process of dying, the way life leaves the body and the frequency of self-inflicted deaths.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Edinburgh: Blondes

Denise Van Outen has a very versatile voice. She can belt them out Broadway style and she can do honey-throated intimacy with equal ease. Unfortunately, her solo show, Blondes, requires her to do more than just sing, it requires a measure of charm and warmth, which Van Outen simply doesn’t deliver.

Structured as a tribute of sorts to iconic blondes, to Marilyn, Kylie, Madonna and Britney, the show is full of poorly scripted and ineptly delivered quips and misguided brassy banter between Van Outen and various audience members. She perches on one man’s knee and invites another on stage to do press ups. At one point, she waves a toilet brush in the face of someone in the front row, which feels like a rather apt gesture given what follows.

Dressed in a clingy crimson dress and spike heels, she sets out to prove that blondes are not as dumb as people think, but the iconic names she invokes are granted only a token mention. There’s no reverence here – though she confesses a grudging admiration for Dolly Parton – it’s just an excuse to ransack their back catalogues and Borderline, Like a Prayer and Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend all get an airing.

In between songs, she reminisces about her Basildon childhood as photos of her eight-year-old self flash up on a screen. Even these little autobiographical snippets, and her later description of the love she feels for her new husband, are delivered in the same oddly hollow, hard-eyed manner, her face devoid of emotion, her mouth just making words.

The show feels as if it was supposed to be a celebration of Van Outen’s down to earth likeability, but Jackie Clune’s script sabotages any chance of that – it infects everything with an air of unease.

If the director, Clarke Peters (yes, Lester Freamon has a lot to answer for), had let the music do the talking, this could have been passable hour – accompanist Michael Moran is skilled and Van Outen knows how to milk a song for all its worth – but the show in its current state is stilted and joyless and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

It was so strange and awkward in tone that, towards the end, I began to wonder if it might be some kind of exercise in meta-theatricality and that I might be witnessing one of the most subtly subversive things on the Fringe. About five minutes towards the end the lights went out and the sound failed and I thought, ah, this is it, everything is about to twist around and reveal itself. But no it was just a power cut and sound was quickly restored. Van Outen strolled back on stage and did her last few minutes with the same uneasy film still over her face.

Oh, and...and...during the enforced sing-along section there were misplaced apostrophes in the projected lyrics which just tipped things into a whole new sphere of wrong, maybe...

Reviewed for The Stage.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Edinburgh: Hugh Hughes and the Fainting Lady

I still haven’t quite got to grips with the weather up here. It is entirely possible to go into a show when the sun is shining brightly only to emerge an hour later to find a great grey blanket has been spread across the sky. The heat in the venues can also be intense, especially the smaller ones. A woman even fainted during Hugh Hughes’new show, 360, at the Pleasance Courtyard. The show had to be stopped and the woman attended to. Eventually the audience were allowed back in and Hughes was able, tentatively, to pick up where he left off and complete the show and to recreate, at least partially, the atmosphere that was lost.

Hughes, the charmingly childlike alter-ego of Hoi Polloi’s Shon Dale-Jones, is listed in the Comedy section of this year’s fringe programme, rather than under Theatre, and he’s performing solo, without the flip charts and musical accompaniment of his previous shows. It’s just him in front of a big, black curtain telling a story.

With a constant curious smile, he describes how he returned to his hometown after living in London and climbed Snowdon with his friend Gareth. On top of the mountain he forced himself to do a 360, to spin on his heels, to change his perspective on life. Into this story he folds childhood memories of building dams and writing letters to the pretty girl in the classroom. Occasionally he will introduce elements of the fantastic, white horses or Superman, but then he will gallop back to the ‘true’ narrative, though the nature of truth always floats close to the surface with Hughes. Does it matter if these events happened? Does it matter if Gareth, or someone like him, exists at all? Not really; his stories have their own life, they have their own reality, and there in that hot room the story is all.

But this unpredictable and unfortunate incident in a way exposed the limitations of Hughes’ persona. While there’s something ever so appealing about his big-hearted, warm, embracive view of the world and while it would be nice to always be so alive and open to beauty, to everyday magic; it’s a difficult position to maintain. Not everything in life can be met with a calm, curious smile. This, of course wasn’t the most ideal evening to judge his act on, but reality – as he had been pointing out earlier in the set – has a habit of throwing such curve balls.

I have also seen my first naked man bits of the festival, though there will probably be more before August is out. This was during the utterly barking Or(f)unny at C Soco. Part of the Espresso! Teatro Italiano season, this seriously energetic piece of physical theatre features a brother and sister, seemingly parent-less, locked in a room together.

The two performers capture the recklessness and unselfconsciousness of childhood as they fling themselves about the room with seemingly little regard for their physical well being, dancing with abandon, spinning until they were dizzy and hurling themselves to the floor with some force. These moments of mania were interspersed with calmer, more exposing moments, literally in one case, where the brother lay horizontally on a table top staring serenely at the audience with his genitals out in the open and ketchup smeared on his chest. There was something both silly and yet so completely, totally vulnerable about this sight that it was actually rather moving. In terms of the sheer exuberance and physical commitment of the performers, this one is worth seeing.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Edinburgh: Further Adventures

I am clearly not a hardened Edinburgh pro and it shows; people see me coming. Whenever someone stops me in the street to talk to me about their new show, I feel obliged to pause and listen and smile and nod and say, yes, maybe, that sounds interesting, give me a flyer, give me two. As a result it takes a good long while to get anywhere.

In between collecting large amounts of paper I have managed to see some more actual theatre. First up there was Glyn Cannon’s Coffee at the Pleasance Courtyard,a short, smart play about three advertising execs trying to shake from their brains a campaign for the Donkey Coffee Company. Cannon’s writing takes some pleasing detours into the absurd and has a lovely rattling, rhythm. The cast capture the inanity of such ‘creative’ brainstorming perfectly and manage to encapsulate certain recognisable media types without resorting to outright caricature. It’s an amusing, if slight, piece probably not best served by the lunchtime slot – and I think they missed a trick by not handing out cups of coffee to the audience.

A bit later on I saw Janis at the Gilded Balloon, a play about the life of Janis Joplin. Set in the Landmark Motor Hotel where Joplin would OD at the age of 27, it’s a one woman show written by and starring Nicola Haydn as Joplin. The play itself is pretty stiff and conventional; Joplin sits alone and high, recounting her life, recalling her childhood in Port Arthur, Texas and describing her deep need to escape from a world where she never fitted in. Haydn captures her exterior toughness and inner vulnerabilities. It’s a rich, interesting performance that rises some way above the rather run-of-the-mill material. Through Haydn we grasp Joplin’s dogged insistence on living for the now and raising a finger to everything else; her deep belief that each new band, each attempt to get herself clean, will be the one that works for her; and while Haydn can replicate Joplin's trademark cackle, she really inhabits the role rather than just doing a good impersonation.

On a non-theatre note I have been told that the area I am staying in is sometimes referred to as the pubic triangle due to the volume of, er, gentlemen's clubs in the vicinity.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Edinburgh: It begins...

I am in Edinburgh. Definitely, properly in Edinburgh, despite the weather which is actually shit-I-wish I’d-packed-my sun-glasses summery, at least for now.

Since stepping off the slow-going National Express train yesterday afternoon, I have been charmed in a bar by a man with green skin and been given the obligatory complimentary lollipop by over-eager promoters outside the big purple cow. I have acquired many, many flyers and I have also been given several free mojitos. I like this part of the festival a lot.

My first production of the fest was CPT’s Icarus 2.0 at the Pleasance Courtyard. In Matt Ball’s devised piece, a father and his son, Icarus, live in isolation in a cramped flat. The son has been told that he is a clone, a creation of his scientist father, a thing grown in a jar, a product of love and genetic tinkering, and he is required to wear thick gloves and a gas mask whenever he ventures into the outside world to forage for their meagre meals.

The father is training his son up, physically and mentally, for the not too far away time when the boy will sprout wings and take to the sky. He will fly just like his name-sake, he will soar and the Queen will want to shake his hand.

It’s a small, strange and moving show, a bit Little Bulb in style and presentation and a tad unsettling at times. It contains some wonderful moments (the badminton game being one) but as poignant as it is, shot through with grief and misplaced paternal affection, it feels fuzzy and partially formed, like a pickled foetus in a bottle.

And now, as I type, outside my window drums are drumming, bagpipes are piping, firworks are exploding and some Scottish people are having a ‘heated debate’ about, possibly, shoes. Or maybe stews. Miles to go before I sleep…

Monday, August 03, 2009

Excuses and Edinburgh

I have been rather quiet of late due to combination of having to complete some Dull but Necessary Other Work and because I was playing host and tour guide to my young cousin from Bijeljina (and trying not to tut like an elderly aunt whenever he opened up his second packet of cigarettes of the day or used me as a human windbreaker in order to light said cigarettes).

I am also in the process of readying myself for Edinburgh. Any tips on what to see/what to pack/what to expect/suitable reading material will be gratefully received.

My review of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar is now up on Theatermania.