Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Interview: Lou Ramsden

"I like going to the theatre and feeling my heart beat."

Last week I spoke to Lou Ramsden about her new play Hundreds and Thousands which opened yesterday at Soho Theatre. You can read the full interview on Exeunt

Friday, June 24, 2011

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

The lights rise on two men huddled by a gnarled and leafless tree. But despite this momentary illumination Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain in the dark for much of Tom Stoppard’s 1966 collision of Shakespeare and Beckett.

Transferring to London after a brief run at Chichester Festival Theatre, Trevor Nunn’s production seems a bit too keen to impress upon the audience its GSOH. The wit and wordplay, the verbal waltzing, are ramped up, pushed to the fore, while the play’s more philosophical musings on free will and the quest for meaning can at times feel secondary.

Former History Boys Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker are reunited as Hamlet’s hangers-on; Nunn’s production relies heavily on their chemistry and charisma and they both duly deliver. They have an engaging rapport, playing off and against each other’s strengths; it’s like watching a kind of dance, though each takes turns to lead. Barnett is a little shrill and given to panic, restlessly darting from one side of the stage to the other, but he’s also rather puppyish and endearing, while Parker is marvellously pragmatic, greeting each new upset with the same straight-faced resignation.

They regard Hamlet’s various outbursts and breakdowns with bemusement, and seem both puzzled and intrigued by the young prince’s frequent soliloquising which, in Nunn’s production, is mostly delivered with his back to the audience – apt, as the happenings at Elsinore remain backdrop, to be entertainingly picked over and apart yet only ever viewed from a distance. The only supporting character who interacts with the title pair in any meaningful way is the First Player. Originally intended to be played by Tim Curry, who had to pull out of the production due to ill health, the role is now played by Chris Andrew Mellon, both seedy and camp in his crimson codpiece. With eyebrows permanently arched, there’s a showy pantomime quality to his performance that seems quite fitting though his frequent bursts of villainous cackling are perhaps pushing things too far down this track.

The arrival of the travelling players provides some necessary textural disruption to the, at times wearying, verbal back-and-forth. Their second act dumb-show is the visual highpoint of the production and there’s something particularly potent – and in keeping with the overarching concerns of the play – in their despondency to find they have been performing without an audience.

Simon Higlett’s effective set with its ceiling of wooden slats, shafts of white light spilling through the gaps, manages to evoke the sense of being below deck on a ship – which becomes relevant in the play’s second half – and, more generally, to create a the feeling of the characters being caught in some strange, half-way place, a world between and beneath.

What’s missing is a sense of connection. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (curiously attired in ill-fitting jeans and furry jerkins) are fated to orbit Hamlet’s star forever, to be continually summoned and dispatched. But while their need to glean meaning from their predicament is vocalised repeatedly, it is never really felt. The play too often feels like an exercise in linguistic agility and Nunn seems keen that the audience grasp what a smart, witty thing it is. The laughs come – eventually – and the word play often excites, but there’s little sense of despair, little chance of emotional entanglement with their plight.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mr Happiness and The Water Engine at the Old Vic Tunnels

A red on-air light glows in the corner of the stage. This is apt, as both the David Mamet plays in Theatre 6’s double-bill were originally written for radio; what you hear matters as much as what you see in director Kate McGregor’s inventive production, to the point where the method of staging is in some ways more compelling than the plays themselves.

The first, far shorter piece, Mr Happiness is a monologue delivered by a radio agony uncle. He reads out a number of letters – a boy with a limp worries about asking a girl to the prom, a woman asks how best to handle her burdensome mother - and then doles out suitably homespun advice. It’s an incredibly slight thing, made diverting by David Burt’s rich delivery. Behind him silhouetted figures enact scenes from the letters in an attempt to inject movement into an essentially static piece, but this is a somewhat unnecessary addition as Burt’s voice is textured enough on its own.

McGregor’s production acknowledges the play’s thinness; it’s used as a taster, the newsreel before the man feature. The switch between plays is elegantly handled, a smooth transition. Instead of shoe-horning in an interval, the back wall of the set is wheeled away to reveal the industrial setting of the second play.

The Water Engine is set in 1930s Chicago in the year of the World Fair. Inventor Charles Lang has created an engine that runs on water. Aware of its potential to revolutionise the world, he attempts to get it patented, but immediately becomes the target for a pair of ruthless lawyers willing to stop at nothing to get their hands on his plans. If it sounds formulaic, it is – this is not Mamet’s strongest work - though his characteristically taut dialogue gives it a real sense of urgency.

The two pieces are stylistically linked, with radio advertisements and smooth wireless voices running though the second play. Foley sound effects and live music had to this effect; this is particularly effective when Lang’s invisible engine is fired up, the clunks and clanks, the grinding of gears, the generator hum, all come together to create a sense of the mechanical: the whole set seems to shudder.  The venue itself add to this; the plays are performed in The Screening Room, a new space within the warrens of the Old Vic Tunnels and the sound of trains rumbling into Waterloo Station overhead is echoed by the clatter of footsteps on the raised stage. In several places water drips from the ceiling which is thematically apt if probably not intentional. Though evocative as this all is, the music occasionally starts to become repetitious, with the lone saxophone motif particularly coming to feel overused.

The cast give solid performances, with Jamie Treacher displaying an engaging everyman quality as Lang; at first he bucks against the situation in which he finds himself, desperately seeking a way out, but eventually he seems to resign himself to the way things must end. David Burt, in a neat juxtaposition to his avuncular radio host, returns as the more threatening of the two lawyers, a mobster figure, menacing and icy. There’s something very neat about the way the second play eventually picks up the themes of the first, and their pairing comes to make more sense as the idea of human connection and communication offers Lang a way out, providing a sense of continuation, a light at the end of the Tunnels as it were.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Edinburgh, in short

There are 2543 shows in the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe programme, each with their own potted synopsis. Study them for long enough and the words start to swim...

A wide-eyed orphan on the run. A woman’s husband disappears. An ageing militant with a dark secret. A drunken barber. A vengeful psychotic doll. A foreign country on the brink of civil war. An affair under the influence. A thought provoking vulgar pantomime. An unforgettable filmic journey for one. A darkly seductive aesthetic. A haunting memory play. A brilliant cocktail of songs. An adult fairy tale. A vibrant young cast. A witty and radical reworking. A dance of glances. A 21st century Coen-esque farce. An overnight experience with live DJ. A visionary devised performance. An immersive love story set in the belly of a whale. A night of secrets and seduction in NYC. A lovingly disrespectful homage. A pressure pot of a piece. A genuine Swedish classic. A pudding of prostitution. A dark, dirty chuckle.

What if hell were a reality show? How many times would you dismiss being cursed? Having survived the explosion can they survive each other? Will they give in to the overwhelming deluge? Between the dusk and the dark, what terrors lie? What would you do for a million dollars? Can monkeys give evidence? Ever wanted to howl like a wolf? Ever lost an argument you felt you could have won? Does your curtain flutter on a still night? Why would a mother become a suicide bomber? What happens when she starts tracing a history that isn’t hers? Where does love cross the line?

The shadow of my porn star dad. The global wanderer collides. The world ended two years ago. Interactive zombie entertainment. Bursts of pumping adrenaline. Spectacular puppets that glow in the dark. Rumbustious sari-wearing eunuchs. Gorging pity like a leech. Invisible cabbages. In love with a bear. The wreckage of the financial crisis. The art of the clown. The monstrous course of defeat. The hotel of the future. The wrong sized elephant. Ten years of close encounters. Tainted by a dark secret. Obsession reaches beyond the grave. Where saying sorry is just the start.

Oblivious to her impending fall. Giving in to her schizophrenia. She prefers to be called Venus. Meanwhile society, haunted by inflation, reels towards fascism.

Direct from San Francisco. Based on the popular video game. Inspired by true events. Created intoxicated. Made up on the spot. Show includes partial nudity. Show includes live guitar music. For grown-ups only. Free coffee and croissants.

Innovative object manipulation. Solo live action. Pedal-powered anarchic theatre. Mesmerizingly dark animation. Airborne physicality. Explosive choreography. Amazing street dance. Side-splitting wit. Iranian history. Celtic lyricism. Teenage effervescence. Trouserless bankers. Dangerous closeness. The most pressing issues of our age. True life sex stories from real women. Told entirely through a Facebook wall-to-wall.

Fine art and codpieces. Karaoke and bad science. Alienation and filicide. Homespun contraptions and cabaret songs. Richly blended with percussion. Viewed through a veil of lace.

Descend with us.

Originally posted on Exeunt

Friday, June 10, 2011

American Trade at Hampstead Theatre

This ‘contemporary Restoration comedy’, a commission for the RSC by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is a play full of colour and noise and excess and yet for much of the time it is an oddly flat experience. At its best it has the sass and playfulness of McCraney’s earlier play,Wig Out!, at its worst it’s like a particularly lacklustre episode of Ugly Betty.

Pharus, a New York hustler, first glimpsed sporting hot pink Calvins, has just escaped the attentions of hip-hop mogul Jules when he receives an out of the blue call from his, before now unbeknownst to him, great aunt Marian who, while knocking back a 7am gin, invites him to London come and work for her PR company, Move.

That’s all the excuse Pharus needs to hop on a plane and high-tail it to the UK, but he can’t shake off his old habits, and even manages to mile-high a diplomat’s wife en route to Heathrow. Once installed at Move, he’s charged with recruiting models for the agency but ends up attracting a multicultural assortment of fellow hustlers and hookers, his presence triggering suspicion and jealousy in his jump-suited cousin, Valentina.

McCraney clearly has much affection for London’s multiplicity, for the sexual and cultural collision of the city. There are natty Haitian immigrants, volatile cabbies, towering ‘Prussian’ sex workers and closeted airport jobsworths, not to mention a generous scattering of turquoise posing pouches, PVC shorts and men in killer stilettos. The fondness and amusement elicited by a particular brand of English officiousness is also evident, with Debbie Korley’s Girl Wonder assuming the role of various uptight uniformed types: flight attendant, London Underground announcer and hotel receptionist. (“Do you work everywhere?” Pharus eventually asks her).

Though it apes the wit and artifice of Restoration comedy, it lacks bite and is somewhat one-note in its gaudy excess. The lyricism of the Brother/Sister plays is only occasionally glimpsed and even when it is in evidence the performers don’t always rise to the challenge of mining the most from the rhythms and rapidity of the writing. Tunji Kasim, as Pharus, is the only one who really nails it; he seems comfortable with the language and manages to convey a sense of a man well accustomed to living off his wits beneath a varnish of surface charm. But then as the protagonist, he’s required to play it cool, while everyone else in Jamie Lloyd’s production dials their performance up to eye-rolling levels. This works better in some cases than others; Sheila Reid plays aunt Miriam like a cross between Anna Wintour and Mindy Sterling’s villainous sidekick from the Austin Powers movies but elsewhere people just resort to yelling and mugging.

Soutra Gilmour’s neon night club of a set looks a bit like some someone has set about the stage with a collection of highlighter pens, but this visual insistence – the hot pinks and acid yellows, the glitterball shimmer – seems to be intended to underline something that isn’t actually there in the text. The plot is slender as a stiletto heel, but the narrative arc is tried and tested; bracketed by McCraney as one of his Identity Plays, it seems to be saying that a man can move cities, move countries, but he can’t escape himself. The bitter circularity, that the city will get you in the end – no matter which city it happens to be – is delivered almost as an aside.

As a whole, the production looks like it should be a lot of fun, like it wants to be a lot of fun, but while it intermittently raises a smile, the not inconsiderable energy of the thing quickly dissipates; it’s a lipstick kiss, easily wiped away.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Three Farces at the Orange Tree Theatre

Though both popular and prolific in his day, the work of Victorian playwright John Maddison Morton is now rarely performed; in fact the taste for theatre of the kind he specialised in had already started to decline well within his lifetime. On one level it’s easy to see why: these short plays, often written to bookend other work, are slight things individually but they have a certain charm when grouped together. In many ways they resemble comic sketches more than anything else and Henry Bell’s production makes a good case for Morton as an early precursor of Monty Python.

The three one-act farces in the Orange Tree Theatre’s triple bill have evidently been selected to demonstrate the different facets of Morton’s writing. Each one is introduced by master of ceremonies, Daniel Cheyne; magnificently bewhiskered and armed with a ukulele, he introduces the performers by name at the start of the evening, indulges in gentle banter with the audience throughout and provides a scene-setting musical prologue for each piece.

The first of three plays, Slasher and Clasher, written in 1848, is – by some way – the funniest. A raucous and energetic play, it concerns an inveterate coward who is driven to fight a duel in order to appease his paramour’s uncle, a stern individual, dogged in his insistence that a man who refuses to stand up for himself isn’t a man worth marrying. Clive Francis plays the fearsome Mr Blowhard, while Edward Bennett is hugely endearing as the decent but dim Lt Brown but the piece belongs to David Oakes, as the timorous Slasher, who spends much of the play trying to squirm away from danger but is eventually pushed too far. It all ends with some entertaining swordplay, made all the more impressive by the relative intimacy of the space.

The second play, A Most Unwarrantable Intrusion, is a very different creature, a two-hander with a distinctly absurdist edge. Mr Snoozle, Clive Francis again, is contemplating a lazy day alone without wife or family to bother him, when a loquacious stranger talks his way into his home and refuses to leave. Bennett plays the uninvited guest and is quite unnerving in his persistence, his disinclination to be reasoned with and the casual way in which he helps himself to Snoozle’s possessions; here the sparring between Francis and Bennett is verbal rather than physical and the whole thing ends in an almost postmodern fashion when the performers break off to explain the role of improvisation in plays of this nature.

The last of the three, Grimshaw, Bagshaw and Bradshaw, is the most overtly farcical, full of mistaken identity and multiple exits and entrances, but paradoxically it is the least frantic in pace. Stuart Fox plays a chemist’s shopman, a mid-Victorian everyman (as were many of Morton’s characters), whose lodgings are invaded by a stream of people: neighbours, bailiffs and other assorted undesirables.

Though Morton’s plays are structurally indebted to French farce they are very English in sensibility. There is (in the plays presented here at least) far less of an emphasis on bedroom antics and more of a focus on subjects which the audience could have related to, like the terror of trespass and the invasion of one’s home, the social anxiety about the need to live up to a particular standard of manliness and the fear of creditors (which is apt as Morton himself ended up a Charterhouse pensioner at the end of his life). The plays draw the majority of their humour from a sense of the absurd and there’s a pleasing playfulness with language, slapstick is used sparingly and the audience are frequently acknowledged and involved (though in a warm, inclusive way, not in an alarming One Man, Two Guvnors way).

While it’s arguable that Bell shows his hand too early, staging the most uproarious of the plays first, his production works both as an exercise in theatrical archaeology and as pure entertainment, showing just how much and how little English comedy has changed since Morton’s day.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, June 03, 2011

One Man, Two Guvnors at the National

The woman in the row in front of me appears to be gripped by some kind of near-orgasmic spasm. “Oh my God,” she keeps saying, while fanning her face with her hand. The man sitting to my side is less overtly amused, but I notice his mouth, set so firm at first, has curled itself into a smile and that his shoulders are twitching despite himself. This is a production where the chief currency is laughter and judging by all this barking and hooting, the multifarious music of mirth, it’s hit paydirt.

Richard Bean has transplanted Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters to 1960s Brighton, a bawdy, gaudy world of cardboard cut-out sets and a particularly English strain of smut. Nicholas Hytner’s production is a riotous collage of panto and music hall, the scenes interspersed with musical interludes by sharp-suited skiffle band, The Craze. The cast members occasionally join the band to do a turn on the xylophone or a stint at the microphone; there’s the obligatory bit of cross-dressing and a comedy chase sequence in which the performers ricochet from one side of the set to the other. This is a production at ease with the inherent comedy value of the chest wig; at one point someone even sports a fez.

James Corden plays Francis Henshall, the none-too-bright Harlequin figure who ends up working two jobs. His first master is Jemima Rooper’s Rachel Crabbe, who spends the majority of her time on stage disguised as her dead twin brother Roscoe, the other is Rachel’s lover – and Roscoe’s killer – lanky posh boy Stanley. Unbeknownst to the other, both are trying to extort money from the tight-fisted Charlie the Duck so they can do a bunk to Australia together (Australia comes in for a lot of digs in Bean’s deliciously spiky script) while Francis, caught between them, ties himself in knots as he attempts to run errands for them both while keeping them apart.

Hytner orchestrates the pacing meticulously, balancing moments of (comparative) restraint with those of full-bodied physical comedy. His production works as a bell curve, building to a magnificent middle sequence in which a starving Francis (he has already chewed through an important letter in an effort to ward off his hunger) is forced to serve dinner to both his bosses. To this end he is assisted by Tom Edden’s spectacularly palsied and decrepit waiter, Alfie (think Julie Walters in that skit with the soup, only add a few decades) who is forever being pitched down the stairs.

Bean’s update retains many elements of commedia dell’arte, replete with set social types that are recognisable to a modern audience: the miserly dad, the pompous Latin-spewing lawyer, the swaggering actor. There is also much audience interaction, with Francis nimbly riffing with the front row and occasionally inviting people to join him onstage.

Though the selfish and whining Francis – his character is in fact led by the two masters of groin and belly – is never exactly endearing, Corden’s performance provides a reminder of what a capable comic performer he can be when well directed; he’s quick-witted and responsive as well as energetic, tumbling from armchairs and taking a swing at his own head with a dustbin lid. Hytner meanwhile makes as much use of Corden’s bulk as he does with Oliver Chris’s long-limbed agility as blazer-clad ninny, Stanley. No gesture, however small, is wasted: he strides and thrusts and towers over Jemima Rooper, so that even their embraces have a comic quality; there are times when he appears to be channelling Hugh Laurie in his delivery.

This level of attention to the physical is evident in every performance. Daniel Rigby seems to be forever angling his body towards the audience, as Alan, an actor who speaks only in sonorous declarations with his arms windmilling and his chest permanently puffed, while Edden’s Alfie continues to jitter even when taking his bow. Pleasingly the female characters are also allowed to indulge in the slapstick, with Rooper shuffling around the stage hobbled by her trousers and Susie Toase, as Francis’s Babs Windsor-bosomed would be paramour, Dolly, writhing on the floor in mockery of his earlier tantrum.

After the comedic high-water mark of the middle section, Hytner lets things tail off gradually, tying up all the various plot strands and throwing a few last minute hurdles for Francis’s character before wrapping it all up – naturally – with a song.

Reviewed for Exeunt