Thursday, December 13, 2012

Privates on Parade, Noel Coward Theatre

It’s fairly easy to grasp why Michael Grandage wanted to begin his five play season in the West End with Peter Nichols’ 1977 military comedy. It has a brilliant, glittering central presence in the character of Acting Captain Terri Dennis. Simon Russell Beale gets to glide about the stage in armour-plated undergarments and don a series of increasingly elaborate costumes, toting a Carmen Miranda fruit bowl on his head, straddling a chair in stockings and top hat, dabbing on the “day slap” and batting his mascara-black lashes. He’s flamboyant but far from waspish, kind-hearted and soft-eyed, a paternal figure even when sporting an epic Lady Bracknell bosom and a daft Vera Lynn wig.

Nichols’ partly autobiographical play about his days entertaining the troops during the Malayan Emergency – not a war, definitely not a war – depicts what happens when Steven Flowers, an inexperienced young private, joins SADUSEA (the Song and Dance Unit of South East Asia), half of whom are reputed “bum-boys.” Russell Beale’s Terri is the lead queen, brave and unapologetic about who he is, feminising everyone’s names with abandon (Clementina Attlee and so on) and raising an eyebrow at every even mildly suggestive remark. As well as being peppered with double-entendres, the language of Nichols’ play is riddled with off-hand racism – wogs, chinks and the like – and sexism, which though true to the time and the characters, doesn’t sit easy.

That said, the play is an intriguing portrait of the tail-end of empire: corruption and cynicism permeate, the air is thick with gin and mosquitos, and the senior ranks are suitably clueless while those lower down the ladder suffer the consequences. Bonds form between the men that may not have been possible at home, and the sense of camaraderie, closeness and even love that develops within the unit is gently conveyed. An attachment forms between John Marquez’s expletive-spitting Corporal Len Bonny and Harry Hepple’s Lance Corporal Charles Bishop, but tender as it is, it comes quite late in the day and, as such, it doesn’t have the emotional resonance it might.

The action is interspersed with songs, which are charismatically performed and invested with wit and charm by Russell Beale, but they’re essentially there to let Terri don yet another astonishing frock; very often they break up the narrative flow rather than moving things forward. While the standard of playing is decent enough, apart from SRB the only performance that really makes an impression is that of Angus Wright as the zealous and ever so gung-ho, Major Flack, who happily packs the men off to the jungle where danger awaits. He’s got a rich, sonorous voice of which Grandage makes full use, but when these two are off stage the pacing tends to dip and the production feels every minute of its near three hour running time. The first half in particular seems to take an age to play out.

The production looks beautiful – Christopher Oram’s set conveys a sense of decay and dilapidation, a sun-washed, crumbling space – but while the play’s structural bagginess can be read as a comment on the British presence in South East Asia, it becomes frustrating well before the end – what’s lacking is much in the way of Singapore grip. The silent servants who shadow the characters throughout – fetching their drinks, shouldering their abuse, biding their time – are shown in Grandage’s brief pay-off to get the last laugh, but instead of coming across as a final witty twist, there’s something ever so slightly sinister about the way this is framed: it leaves behind it a faintly sour taste.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mydidae, Soho Theatre

Marian and David are a couple who are comfortable in each other’s company. She wonders around their stylish white bathroom in a faded Minnie Mouse T-shirt and a pair of turquoise knickers while flossing her teeth; he takes a long luxuriant piss in her presence. But the bathroom is a place of exposure and vulnerability – a place where people go to cleanse, to purge, to void – and it soon becomes clear that the couple’s seeming ease with one another is only superficial, that something dark and turbulent swims beneath.

Mydidae is a play written to fulfil a particular brief. Jack Thorne was tasked to create a play set entirely in a bathroom by the production company DryWrite, an exercise with shades of Oulipo: liberation through restriction. By narrowing his viewfinder in this way, Thorne has created a two-hander full of unexpected menace that probes and chips at its characters, peeling back layers of skin.

It’s not much of a surprise to discover that these two have lost something precious – Thorne drips that in early – it’s the aftermath of this loss he’s really interested in. Marian and David act out the little routines of domesticity, they fulfil their allotted roles, but there’s a hollow quality to their relationship, an absence. A would-be romantic candle-lit bath – complete with cabernet sauvignon and a shimmering mirage of tea-lights – reeks of cliché; it’s David’s attempt to convince himself that things are still as they were, that they can be again.

Performed on Amy Jane Cook’s fully-plumbed set, complete with working bath, sink and loo, the production has faith in flesh. Its use of nudity is genuinely exposing. Stripped of their clothes and neck-deep in the bathtub, there is nowhere left for Marian and David to hide, from each other’s accusing eyes, from the twisting of their own pain: their hate comes frothing to their surface; love and rage intersect and overspill.

Vicky Jones’ production delivers one brutal, awful jolt; like a shark surfacing, great white teeth bared, it rears up from the deep. Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Keir Charles handle the play’s shifting emotional tone incredibly well, effortlessly moving from the jokey, casual, almost mundane feel of the opening to the much more complex terrain of the play’s mid-section, occasionally pausing in their actions, as if caught off-guard by memory. Their nakedness is beautifully utilised too: the production revelling in the vulnerability of skin, damp and gleaming in the candlelight, the fine line of the spine, the unintentional comedy of the sheepish penis.

Both performances are incredibly measured. Waller-Bridge has a crisp, confident manner that conceals a seam of fragility, but it’s Charles’ unnerving, unblinking stare as he faces her across the bathwater – as he looks at her, into her, through her – that leaves the most lasting impression.

Thorne is adept at creating an undercurrent of unease, an incremental build-up of tension – he’s a master of what John Irving termed the undertoad – and even when Mydidae doesn’t quite ring true psychologically (it’s difficult to believe that this couple’s submarine feelings haven’t surfaced before), it’s still a potent piece of writing. While not quite as devastating as Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall, a play with which it shares some thematic overlap, in its most charged moments it still slices fairly deeply.

Reviewed for Exeunt.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Magistrate, National Theatre

‘Tis a pretty thing, Timothy Sheader’s production of Arthur Wing Pinero’s sort-of farce of 1885: an awful lot of care and effort has clearly gone into design. Katrina Lindsay’s set unfolds like a pop-up book, its intricate fringes part city-scape, part snowflake, and the whole thing looking like an illustration by Phiz or something out of Punch: there are even ink blots spattered across the backdrop. Everything is at angles and diagonals – even bodies, even limbs, the cast tilting at windows and doorways – and everyone is coiffed to look like a living caricature.

But, pretty as it is, there’s something a little off-kilter about the piece and Sheader’s production never quite syncs with the stylised visuals: farce should appear liquid and effortless but the timing is often fractionally off, props are dropped and doors stick, making you all too aware of the mechanics, the creaking and squeaking of cogs and gears.

Nancy Carroll plays Agatha Posket, a widow who has shaved five years off her age in order to make herself more appealing to the upright magistrate, Aeneas (John Lithgow). To pull off this deception she was obliged to reduce the age of her young son accordingly, passing off her nineteen year old Cis as an ‘advanced’ fourteen year old. Trouble is it’s no longer possible to “pacify him with a stick and hoop” and despite his Eton jacket and short trousers he’s partial to a cigarette and a spot of Port of an evening and has all the women in his family’s employ out to pet and pander to him.

When Cis’s godfather, the bluff but decent Colonel Lukyn, threatens to pay them a visit and reveal her little deception, Agatha is forced to intercept him and ends up being caught up in a police raid and forced to appear in her husband’s court the following morning. To further complicate things Aenas – thanks to Cis - is also caught out of his element at the same hotel, obliged to flit to Kilburn in the middle of the night to avoid tangling with the law.

Lithgow is entertaining as Posket – his ordered world unravelling spectacularly over the course of a night – and, when he’s finally allowed off the leash, smudged and dishevelled and generally bested, he eats up his character’s main monologue with glee. But the production is never more alive than when Joshua MacGuire’s Cis is leap-frogging settees and dry-humping his piano mistress; a kind of matryoshka Tom Hollander with Willy Wonka hair, the production noticeably slumps whenever he is off-stage.

The issues with pacing are intensified by a series of between-scene musical interludes, in which a chorus of outsize oompa-loompas in stripy trews and matching Charles Dickens wigs sing about the perils of telling porkies. (“It’s the little lies that get you into trouble.”) But instead of acting as playful Dahl-esque winks, these are over-extended and plodding, hammering home messages that were already fully evident in the text. There are laughs, but they are very thinly spread, minor eruptions of mirth, and there’s an unresolved tonal disconnect between the cartoony design and the manner in which the piece itself plays out, an issue of identity, a gap which is never satisfyingly bridged.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, November 19, 2012

Constellations, Duke of York's Theatre

Nick Payne’s delicate, searching play - the third Royal Court production to transfer to the West End after Posh and Jumpy - has a fractal quality. Its central love story is a splintered thing in which several possible worlds co-exist, with small and not so small details changing from scene to scene as a couple, Roland and Marianne, meet, engage in awkward flirtation, marry and then face up to the awful fact that their time together will be shorter than they had hoped.

Payne’s play is rich with ideas, about love and loss, time and its passing, the illusion of free will, themes which are echoed in the characters’ professions - he is a bee keeper, she is a quantum physicist. But what could have been merely clinical, an intellectual exercise, is made humane and moving by the wit and intelligence of the writing and the warm, nuanced performances of Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins, as two people clinging to one another in the face of an impossible wave. Each iteration of the couple’s relationship, each small scenic shift, is subtly evoked, their timing exquisite.

Designer Tom Scutt canopies the stage with white balloons which light up with each new variation, a synaptic flickering which becomes more intense as Marianne’s mind starts to shut down, a process of aphasic unravelling.

Running at barely over an hour, it’s almost too short to do full justice to its own set-up and there are times when the play’s multiverse structure seems to fight with, rather than enhance, its emotional trajectory. But when it hits home, it hits hard.

Reviewed for The Stage

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Interview: Joe Hill-Gibbins

I recently spoke to the Assistant Artistic Director of the Young Vic about his thrillingly messy production of Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling, which returns to the venue later this month. We discussed, among other things, Jacobean virginity tests, the incorporation of the mechanisms of theatre into the narrative and the thinking behind the production's jelly sex scene.

You can read the full article here.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Hero/Heroine, Etcetera Theatre

One of the most unsettling things about the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons – a place of many unsettling things, with its seven foot skeletons and pickled fingers, its pâté-like slices of cerebellum and its numerous tools of amputation – are the foetuses, the bottled babies. Neatly preserved and labelled to show the stages of development, human and alien all at the same time, things that lived but never lived: it’s this primal image that sits at the centre of Dave Florez’s troubling two-hander.

Florez is a playwright who enjoys a paddle in waters psychologically brackish. His monologue, Hand over Fist, a play about memory, identity, and its painful aching loss was a critical success at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, earning plaudits for both the writing and for Joanna Bending’s arrestingly intense performance as a woman destined to repeat the same meetings, the same conversations, over and over again, who is uninhibited in her sexual cravings and who, in a memorable central sequence, imagines herself glove-puppeted on her husband’s hot hand in a kind of ecstatically physical eruption.

Hero/Heroine, staged as part of the London Horror Festival by New Wave Theatre, is a messier piece, tangled and untidy in interesting ways. Two former lovers meet on Halloween in his grotty flat, with its sea of stains, half-drunk bottles of JD, porn DVDS and dubiously used tissues. That he still wants her in some way is obvious – when she goes to the bathroom, he leaps on her discarded boots with the filthy glee of DeFlores in The Changeling, inhaling her; it is also pretty clear that their relationship terminated in a way that was both unpleasant and abrupt.

The couple goad each other, tease each other; their shared past providing them both with a source of comfort and pain. As they shoot up and indulge in a bit of awkward masochism, clues are dropped about the reasons for their split. There are traces of Irvine Welsh to both the content and overall tone of the piece, but the nastiness is balanced with something raw and human, thanks in part to the performances of Nina Millns and Bradley Taylor, who spark nicely of one another.

Hanna Berrigan’s production builds the tension gradually and avoids the overtly horrific – until the end at least – but the writing does rather overegg things at times. A sequence where the two characters break off to discuss rejection letters and the other little let-downs of life as a writer seems incongruous and the final spiralling into talk of alien gods and the beauty of mutation doesn’t seem seeded early enough. It’s a troubling piece, a disordered love story which nods to body horror, and there are some giddy passages of writing, but there’s also an issue with overall cohesiveness, kinks in the central thread, and the final reveal is slightly fumbled, lessening its impact.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The River, Royal Court Upstairs

An isolated cabin, nestled deep in the woods, the setting for so many fairy tales and horror films, makes an apt backdrop for Jez Butterworth’s much anticipated new play. The River eschews the large canvas approach of Jerusalem for something more intimate and atmospheric, but while it is a wilfully different beast, lacking the thump and rumble of its predecessor, it too is concerned with the process of male myth-making, the stories we tell ourselves and each other.

Dominic West plays an unnamed man who has brought his new girlfriend, played by Miranda Raison, out to his uncle’s cabin to – amongst other things – school her in the art of sea-trout fishing on a moonless night. Bearded, flannel-shirted and rugged, West’s character is Jimmy McNulty with a dash of Gentle Ben; he’s gruff but far from taciturn, a poetic sort, and wonderfully capable in the kitchen to boot; he even manages to make fly fishing sound appealing, like foreplay.

Ultz’s detailed design is a study in brown: a raw-walled, rustic space, all chestnut and chocolate with a convenient stash of candles and a shelf of well-thumbed paperbacks, a gingerbread room where it is forever twilight. Despite the potentially sinister setting, there are no bloody chambers in this cabin – though that beard of West’s does make one wonder – and the only guts we see belong to a sea-trout, spilling like pink udon into a waiting bucket as West prepares it for the oven, but this place does have its fair share of ghosts; there are faint traces of other women, little tokens and leavings, echoes of distant song. Conversations are repeated, like ripples, spreading outwards, and at the centre of the play there is a sense of a man circling and searching for something he cannot find – something lost, perhaps destroyed – a sense of something aching and even, perhaps, malign.

If it’s not too crass a comparison, there were times were I found myself thinking of that episode of Sex and the City where Carrie’s new chap – the anti-Big – takes her to stay in his country cabin and she, of course, teeters around on inappropriate shoes and squeals at every woodland creature that comes within three feet of her. The cabin in both that episode and here feels like a kind of audition, a test, with West’s character enjoying the game, playing his part and waiting to see how the woman in question plays hers. The early stages of a relationship can feel like a kind of theatre, with each participant acutely aware of their words and actions, and Butterworth plays on this idea of memory as something which can be sculpted but which can also haunt someone more effectively than any external force.

The River contains some characteristically beautiful writing, the play replete with shimmering images and recurring motifs, particularly during the scene where West’s character recalls the first fish he ever landed as a boy, a delicate dream of a story, riddled with the kind of intricacy that comes from retelling, an account honed over time. This image of the dying fish, twitching and slippery, echoes throughout the play, as do those of dead birds and women viewed from a distance across water.

Ian Rickson’s measured yet engrossing production is not afraid of silence. It devotes several minutes to a scene of West preparing a meal, gutting a fish and dicing fennel, dinner as ritual, the snick-snick of knife blade on chopping board the only sound we hear. West himself is excellent, as are both Laura Donnelly and Miranda Raison as the women who flow through his life. The lighting is low and golden throughout, intensifying the sense of intimacy and the mood shifts slowly and subtly from one of warmth to something more strained. The production concludes with, not exactly a twist, but a further rippling, one which slightly undermines the delicacy of what has gone before, and Rickson’s final casting decision – difficult to discuss without giving the game away – doesn’t help matters, spelling out visually what was already fairly explicit in the text.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Terror 2012, Soho Theatre

This year’s instalment of The Sticking Place’s annual Terror season – the ninth in total, the second at Soho Theatre – purportedly puts the emphasis on psychological horror, fears and phobias, the things that make our skin creep, our stomachs lurch, and the hairs on the back of our neck stand to attention.

The line-up consists of four short plays, by Robert Farquhar, Alex Jones, Mike McShane and Mark Ravenhill. The latter’s contribution, The Experiment, was previously seen during the 2009 Terror season and has been resurrected here as a last minute replacement for Darren Ormandy’s Horror Show – based on the Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs murders in Ukraine – which has been dropped from the bill due to “issues with bringing the play to fruition.”

The plays are interspersed with cabaret sequences care of Sarah-Louise Young and Desmond O’Connor, and their rapport and engaging nature as hosts is the glue which holds this otherwise patchy collection together, creating some superficial sense of connection between the assembled plays.

Despite the ‘All in the Mind’ sub-header, the production relies on generous gouts of the red stuff to jolt a response out of the audience and there’s little here to really unsettle or unnerve despite a little bit of dabbling with an Ouija board. Of the plays, Robert Farquhar’s No Place Like is a shoulder-shrug of a thing about a man’s desire to erase his cluttered, middle class life along with his shrill blinkered wife, but it’s neither particularly tense nor angry and feels criminally stretched despite its short length. Mike McShane’s The Representative, a satirical skit set in a Los Angeles coffee shop, is more satisfying as a stand-alone piece: a washed up actor meets the ideal agent, a woman immune to the movie industry’s faddish and fickle nature, old Hollywood incarnate. While it builds to an all too easy punch-line, it’s still enjoyable.

Ravenhill’s The Experiment is probably the strongest piece of writing – evoking the full horror of animal experimentation via an intriguingly slip-slidey method of story-telling, like a half-recalled dream, the details dripping slowly forth – but because of its late addition to the bill, it’s performed script-in-hand, and while Oliver Senton’s delivery is decent, this dilutes its potential potency.

The programme also includes, somewhat randomly, a vaguely Louise Bourgeois-esque puppet spider sequence set to Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy – the work of Boris and Sergey creators, Flabbergast – which while visually striking feels as if it’s been stitched in, Frankenstein-style, from a completely different production.

The last play on the bill, Alex Jones’ Fifty Shades of Black, provides a neat commentary on the sudden vogue for S&M – thanks to that book – albeit in its most glossy and sanitised form, all Agent Provacateur undies and artful spanking. While the pay-off is predictable, it includes the most grisly and genuinely nasty moment of the evening, and the play itself – a two-hander which shifts nimbly from comedy to a more disturbing place – at least allows O’Connor and Young room to demonstrate their considerable range as performers.

In fact if it wasn’t for these two, the whole thing would be in danger of collapse. Their easy way with an audience, general quickness and wit compensate for the tonal wobbliness of the format. As a comedy cabaret the production has its moments, but otherwise it’s a timid affair and, despite all that puddling crimson, disappointingly bloodless.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Cabaret, Savoy Theatre

Rufus Norris’ reworking of his 2006 production of Kander and Ebb’s musical – another iteration of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories, alongside John van Druten’s I am Camera – has by all accounts had its split ends trimmed, its errant elbows smacked. Looking at reviews of its original incarnation, it’s clear that there’s far less nudity in this version – and there’s certainly no sign of any nuns in satin knickers. It’s an altogether glossier operation, more safe-for-the-West End, but lacking in teeth. It feels as if it’s been muzzled, neutered.

Will Young’s Emcee is like a wind-up Weimar man-doll, coin-operated,sneering and smirking, plucking at his crotch like a small boy whose just awoken to the new toy between his legs. He’s got the voice for it and he is a strong central presence but he begins shrill and continues upwards; there’s little shade, little sorrow, little sense of things to come.

He’s certainly game, white-faced and wide-eyed, idly stroking his inner thigh or stomping across the stage like a bulbous Mr Creosote during The Money Song, and there are times when this combination of plastic malevolence and high camp are put to good use, particularly during Tomorrow Belongs to Me where he sits atop the set like a sinister Von Trapp child puppeting the dancers below.

When he’s allowed to be still, to downplay – drifting across the stage in a plum coloured robe during the melancholy I Don’t Care Much or appearing as a ghostly watchful background presence – it’s actually very effective. But these moments are few and far between. At least his showman’s gloss and constant facial contortions compensate somewhat for the sucking absence elsewhere in production. The emotional entanglement between Sally Bowles, star attraction at the Kit Kat Club, and Clifford Bradshaw, the sexually questing American would-novelist and Isherwood stand-in, never feels real. There’s little sense of connection between them, sexual or otherwise. This is mainly down to the casting of Bionic ex-Eastender Michelle Ryan as Sally; her voice is both polished and powerful, but lacking in character which seems the inverse of what it should be. (And here it’s hard not to draw a comparison with Rebecca Humphries’ bubbly, vulnerable take on the role in the recent Southwark Playhouse production of I am a Camera – a Sally who while maddening would definitely be someone fun to share a gin or three with). Ryan’s Sally is kind of joyless and kind of lifeless too, a little too clean and pink – while her fingernails may be green, I bet it’s a manicure job – and though Matt Rawle’s Clifford is warmer, he has little to play against.

It’s the tentative and ultimately doomed relationship between Sian Philips’ ageing Fraulein Schneider and Linal Haft’s Herr Schultz that gives the production’s its initial emotional charge and the moment when he blithely decides to stay in Berlin, despite the yellow star of David daubed on his shop window, because he believes all “this will pass” is genuinely upsetting.

It’s left to Javier de Frutos’ choreography to give the production the raw edges that are not evident elsewhere. The dancers’ movements are angular and sometimes ugly, resounding with the slap of skin on skin. Black clad bodies tumble and plunge from a wheeled metal platform during Sally’s opening number and Clifford is given a stylised Clockwork Orange-style kicking by Nazi street thugs. Norris steers the production from the decadent whirl of the early scenes towards something altogether more nightmarish and chilling and the last tableau – as the stage is bathed in shadows, the West End glitter drops away and the dancers cower and huddle, exposed in every sense – is incredibly stark and chilling, one that still has the power to appal, to make the audience gasp and shudder and still their hands.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Fireface, Young Vic

For Kurt adolescence is an inferno, a ticking bomb. For his sister Olga, it’s a mire, sucking at her ankles, paralysing her in a place between childhood and womanhood. Both feel penned in and pressed down and so they retreat into the heat of each other’s arms, each other’s beds. She leads the way, tugging at the drawstring of his tracksuit bottoms, guiding him towards her, but it is his latent energy that proves more volatile.

Written in 1997, Marius von Mayenburg’s play explores the effect this collision has on a middle-class German family. Even before Kurt starts to burn, the family is fragmented. A chill pervades. His mother freely discusses menstruation at the dinner table, or strips off to wash in front of her son. It’s normal, all normal, she tells him as Kurt curls in on himself in repulsion. “Being a mother isn’t enough for you, you want to be a woman as well,” he spits in return.

When Olga, a Lolita in pigtails – with a dash of Violet Elizabeth Bott – starts dating Paul, predominantly for his cool motorcycle, things intensify. The introspective, awkward Kurt turns arsonist, baby bomber. He is fascinated by fire, the idea of a cleansing flame-birth. One misjudged experiment with accelerants leaves him marked, scarred, sporting a fire-face of which he seems privately proud, yet even this fails to cool the burning urge in him, it just alienates him further.

Sam Pritchard, the recipient of this year’s JMK award, conveys this sense of emotional remove through the physical distancing of his cast from one another. When the family sit down to eat, he positions them in a line at the front of the stage, each facing out towards the audience; when the parents are in bed with one another, they are placed at opposite ends of the stage, sitting upright as they flip through the pages of the daily paper. This approach can at times feel too overt, but it is counter-balanced by a sly streak of comedy. Pritchard fully grasps the humour of von Mayenburg’s play and has fun drawing it out, tempering the intensity.

The cast emphasise this sense of distance, though their performances are more naturalistic than, say, the dead eyed teens in Simon Stephens’ Morning; it’s possible to catch a glimpse of warmth, a twitch of regret, in their expressions. In fact Rupert Simonian’s trajectory as Kurt is almost too gentle, he simmers rather than boils; Aimeé-Ffion Edwards’ pouting Olga is more forceful a presence, successfully conveying just how much of being a teenage girl is about attitude, a shell in which to seal yourself.

Amanda Stoodley’s rough, plywood design forms a kind of human shelving unit into which Olga and Kurt can slot themselves. This space is broken down further by lengths of red tape, which Kurt winds around the walls, cordoning off a corner for him and his sister as they stop engaging with the world, forming a crime scene to be.

But as the play becomes more extreme, as events spiral towards a predictably bleak conclusion and the gasoline goes sloshing across the stage, if anything the production loses momentum. It’s stronger when it’s depicting the complex tangle of family life, the teenage siblings caught in each other’s orbits, the parents’ awkwardly attempting to relate to them, their gestures well-intentioned but ultimately futile. David Annen and Helen Schlesinger as their fallible parents, are convincingly confused by the spite and bite of the children, alarmed but reluctant to do anything, ignoring the warnings of Olga’s boyfriend that Kurt should be locked up.

Fireface doesn’t have the satirical punch of von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One; it’s a blunter instrument, the territory over-familiar, and this is reflected in the production, which while always engaging never flames quite as fully as it might.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Tiger Lillies perform Hamlet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

The opening minutes of this collaboration between Copenhagen’s Republique Theatre Company and the redoubtable Tiger Lillies promise so much. Kicking off with a witty reworking of the wonderful Gin in which the word ‘Sin’ has been substituted, the scene is set for a characteristically grotesque exploration of Elsinore’s murky moral universe.

But this initial thrill dissipates quickly. The title is something of a misnomer for one thing, as the Lillies don’t really perform Hamlet. Yes, they have written some songs with a vaguely Hamlety theme but there’s a real failure of integration at work here, the production shunting forwards in a clunky song-text-song-text format, their music interspersed with anaemic breezeblocks of Bard, a pattern made all the more wearying by some patchy performances.

The theremin-voiced Martyn Jacques, who as ever looks as if he’s been sucking on an inky lemon, remains a compelling stage presence, perhaps too compelling in this case as he constantly draws the eye away from Morten Burian’s bland, blonde Dane. Indeed, you soon start to wish Hamlet would stop his swithering so the singing could begin again. This despite the fact that the project seems to have cowed them considerably: the song-writing lacks its usual exuberance, the lyrics veering dangerously close to the generic in places, a feeling which only intensifies as the production drags on.

Jacques’ role is never clearly defined: just who is he supposed to be in this world? What is he supposed to represent? Is he a facet of Hamlet’s psyche, an impish emissary from some other realm, or, more prosaically, just a panda-eyed master of ceremonies? There’s a recurring puppetry motif which is also never fully developed or justified. Characters are suspended by strings or turned into living ventriloquist’s dummies. There are occasional moments when the aerial work is striking, as when a horizontal Hamlet drifts dreamily across the stage or a drowning Ophelia writhes in mid-air before a backdrop of roaring water, but in terms of psychological insight it’s pretty sketchy stuff.

There are other more glaring issues with the production. The international nature of the project results in a new variant on gender-blind casting: accent-deaf casting. So Scandinavian Hamlet is paired with a Slavic Claudius who occasionally appears to be channelling Count von Count (one poisoned goblet, two poisoned goblets, bwa-ha-ha).

Martin Tulinius’ set is a kind of rain-lashed Rachel Whiteread construction by way of Playschool (Claudius and Gertrude can occasionally be spotted frotting through the square window) which descends – very slowly – to the floor in a manner reminiscent of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr, only without the energy or element of surprise. And there’s the rub.

One of the real problems here is that of pacing. The whole thing most closely resembles Hoipolloi’s lamentable attempts to stage Edward Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest, with too many scenes tediously over-stretched. The Tiger Lillies are many things, but rarely are they boring. Here there are instances when a sustaining glass of gin would really have been appreciated (only the curmudgeonly QEH won’t let you take one in) and the whole thing makes you ache to dash home and remind yourself of how good they can be when on form.Hamlet is robust enough for most things, be it dreamthinkspeak turning the text inside out in The Rest is Silence or Michael Sheen’s Cuckoo’s Nest Hamlet at the Young Vic, but here it seems to have been criminally bled of much of its life and heat. This is perhaps best encapsulated by the final duel between Laertes and Hamlet in which the two men stand at opposite ends of the stage and jab and wag their tainted foils at empty air. The failure to connect is palpable.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Busy Body, Southwark Playhouse

The tone is set during the prologue. Having swiftly dispensed with Thomas Baker’s condescending original, in which the audience were urged not to run away just because the play they were about to see was by – gasp – a woman, Jessica Swale’s contemporary replacement rattles through a list of the best British female playwrights, from Aphra Behn onwards, referencing everyone from Fanny Burney to Debbie Tucker Green along the way. It’s a lively, witty beginning and one which encapsulates Swale’s approach to the material: honouring the spirit in which it was written while bringing a more contemporary sensibility into play.

Susanna Centlivre belongs fairly near the beginning of that list, once regarded as the ‘second woman of the English stage’ after Behn, she was the kind of brilliant individual who was determined to make her mark regardless of sex, dressing up as a man in order to attend university lectures and going on to write plays that remained popular well into the nineteenth century. The Busy Body – one of her greatest successes – was written in 1709, putting it far earlier in the period than Swale’s last eighteenth century revival – Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem – but she draws from it the same delicious mix of charm and warmth. And though her track record with plays of this era is already well proven, she really excels herself here. This is a joyous, delightful production, directed with a lightness of a touch and with one eyebrow elegantly arched throughout, though – crucially – with affection rather than cynicism.

The play’s structure is far from unfamiliar: two love-plots intertwine, each reflecting the other. In the first, the pretty young heiress Miranda has to fend off the attentions of her amorous guardian, Sir Francis Gripe, while winning the hand of her admirer, Sir George Airey. In the second strand, Isabinda is all but imprisoned by her over-protective hispanophile mother who is determined to marry her off to a wealthy Spanish merchant, even though she is already well and truly smitten with Sir Francis’s son, Charles. Throughout all this, Charles’ friend Marplot, big of heart but low on smarts, acts as the busy-body of the title and his well -meant meddling threatens to scupper both couples’ plans.

The cast – several of whom have worked with Swale before, either on The Belle’s Stratagem or her earlier production of Sheridan’s The Rivals – all display a similar delicacy. The performances are knowing in tone without being too removed. There are plenty of asides and a degree of audience interaction, but these never fracture the world of the production. Each contrivance of plot is approached with suitable energy and conviction. The comic timing and delivery is brilliantly pitched; faces remain straight even when Alexandra Guelff’s Miranda rebukes Marplot for trying to look at her monkey. Michael Lindall is suitably dashing as Charles, investing his character with considerable emotional weight, especially during the scenes with his brusque and dismissive dad, while also embracing all the business with false moustaches and the scaling of invisible walls. Ella Smith, while clearly also revelling in the silliness of some of the writing, is sparkly and coquettish as Isabinda and Cerith Flinn is endearing as the hapless Marplot.

There’s no Beyonce this time, no one is invited to ‘Put a Ring On It,’ instead there are a series of songs composed by Harriet Oughton, with lyrics by Swale, that once again manage to be incredibly clever and funny without being bruisingly postmodern. These musical interludes give the production its spine, its shape, heightening the comedy and generally making the whole exercise even more blissful.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Judas Kiss, Hampstead Theatre

David Hare’s diptych about the decline and fall of Oscar Wilde hones in on two decisive moments in the man’s life. The first half is set in Wilde’s suite in the Cadogan Hotel on the afternoon on which his libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry has fallen spectacularly apart. The police are on their way to arrest him for sodomy, the press are massing at his door, and his friend, Robbie Ross, is begging Wilde to use the slim window of time they have left to flee to France. But his darling Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, wants him to stay, to stand his ground, and Wilde also believes that he is in some way “trapped by the narrative”, that he has no choice in the matter. He seems almost wilfully determined to be dragged down by the gods, believing the outcome of his story is, like Christ’s, all but inevitable despite Ross’s increasingly desperate pleas that he leave England while he still can.

The play’s second act is set two years later in the Neapolitan fishing village to which Wilde has retreated, diminished in every sense by his time in Reading Gaol, with Bosie – once again – in tow. It’s by some way the more emotionally gripping part of the play. Wilde has got his wish, and is busy pickling in melancholy, disdaining motion of any sort, while Bosie cavorts with the tanned local fishermen. It’s this second half which provides the emotional charge that the play requires and – with the exception of an achingly tender exchange between Ross and Wilde – is largely absent from the first half.

There’s a real poignancy to the way in which Wilde explains his belief that there is nothing delusional about falling in love, how in actual fact it brings the true nature of a person into the light (“Love is not the illusion. Life is.”), while all the time Bosie is planning to abandon him, to retreat into his aristocratic familial cocoon and the financial security which comes with it.

It takes a while for Rupert Everett’s performance as Wilde to warm up. This is partly due to the alien physicality; he’s puffy and neckless, Mr Toad wearing Rufus Wainwright’s hair. Only in the second half does he seem to really settle into the role, reining in his more flamboyant gestures, internalising his pain; there’s a delicious stillness to this later, deflated Wilde. Everett sits primly in the centre of the stage, with his moth-eaten greatcoat spread over his lap, his pallid face shaded by a limp straw hat. Occasionally he lets an eye glide casually over the sculpted, naked body of Galileo, but otherwise he stares flatly ahead.

Freddie Fox’s Bosie, meanwhile, with his wet-lipped schoolboy pout and Mount Etna temper, initially comes across as a tantrum throwing brat, a petulant man-child in a salmon cravat, but Fox manages to generate small moments of tenderness and affection between the pair, moments which make it possible, albeit briefly, to see why Wilde may have been so fixated with this spoiled and selfish young man. Cal Macaninch, as the steadfast Robbie Ross, is perhaps the most touching and restrained of the three; when he admits sadly to Wilde, “I adored you too,” both men know that, true as this was, it was never enough. It’s one of the production’s most heart-breaking moments.

Hare’s 1998 play – much like Everett’s performance – strips away the surface flamboyance, the veneer of myth, to expose the man beneath. It also takes a scalpel to Victorian hypocrisy when it came to matters sexual, something Dale Ferguson’s design underlines, the dishevelled bed featuring centrally in a set which seems to have been sparked by Wilde’s purported deathbed retort that “either the curtains go, or I do.” Here the curtains appear to be eating the set like something out of a 1950s B-movie, spilling from above like a great velvet waterfall, and pooling alarmingly on the floor.

This set-up is echoed visually in the second half: the bed remains the focus, this time swathed in gauzy white cotton upon which Bosie lies in a post-coital tangle while Everett’s Wilde regards him with something akin to resignation, glorying in the beauty of the boy while knowing in his heart that what they have cannot last.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

I Am a Camera, Southwark Playhouse

“Someday all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” But Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin has never been fully fixed; it is developing still, print after print, a continuing chemical process. John van Druten’s play would beget Kander and Ebb’sCabaret and Isherwood himself would refocus his lens and revisit the material in the even more candid Christopher and His Kind, written in 1976 and making explicit that at which he could once only hint.

The recent BBC adaptation of His Kind featured Matt Smith as the author, engaged in sweaty bedroom sessions with the boys of Berlin. Though Isherwood’s sexuality remains clouded in Van Druten’s play, even so it’s difficult not to make a connection with this particular lensing when watching Anthony Lau’s revival of I am a Camera: for Harry Melling’s incarnation of Isherwood has more than a dash of the Doctor about him; he’s a nervy but observant outsider, the odd man out, always slightly removed.

The bond between Melling’s Christopher and Rebecca Humphries’s spirited Sally Bowles is an intense and consuming one. They are wrapped in each other, like children, like siblings, flaring in rage one moment, earnestly proposing marriage the next when the other is in a bind. While Isherwood is tolerant of the many unsuitable men she drags into their world – the coolly overgenerous Clive amongst them, with his promises of exotic travel and his frequent gifts of Champagne – the play is unbalanced in this respect; his love-life remains opaque, while her failings are continually picked over. As Isherwood, Melling has a kind of geeky grace, a pleasing precision of gesture, while Humphries’ Sally conveys a deep streak of pathos and self-knowledge below the feathers and glitter and nail varnish. Though mannered and bratty, she’s a striking presence, even at her most dishevelled and regretful.

The playground heat of their friendship is contrasted with the slow-blooming relationship between Isherwood’s uptight Jewish student Natalia and Fritz, Isherwood’s essentially amiable if slightly predatory hanger-on. Fritz initially pursues Natalia on a whim, his eyes lighting up when he discovers she comes from a wealthy family, but her decency and strength of character wake something up in him and he finds himself falling in love. There’s an interesting process of doubling at work here: as Isherwood’s sexuality remains unspoken, Fritz is also revealed to be concealing his Jewishness, sealing it away so deeply inside himself he struggles to admit it even to Natalia. It’s testament to both Freddie Capper and Sophie Dickson that neither gets gusted off the stage by Melling and Humphries’ altogether larger performances.

Eventually even the pathologically passive Herr Issyvoo can no longer hide from the reality of what’s happening in the city, the storm clouds forming beyond his shabby rented room and the claustrophobia of his relationship with Sally. Reality starts to encroach on both their lives; for Isherwood the growing wave of violence and hate becomes unbearable, while Sally’s fire fades when her mother arrives in town to put an end to her adventuring.

In the last few productions in their current home, Southwark Playhouse has made increasingly creative use of their Vault space and James Turner’s set is no exception. Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house – with its much abused bed and velvet chaise lounge, its faded drapings and decaying paperbacks, that all-important tooth-glass from which to sip one’s gin – feels perfectly at home under the arched stone ceiling, a little bit bohemian and subterranean in more ways than one, cut off from the outside world. The bassist and pianist perched on a dais at the back of the stage conjures up a whiff of the Weimar clubs in which Sally Bowles might have wafted her emerald-tipped fingernails, beckoning at men through a cigarette haze.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Mess

Anorexia is as much about comfort as it is about control - it can envelop like an eiderdown. This new show by Caroline Horton - winner of The Stage award for Best Solo Show in 2010 - doesn't tiptoe around the subject of eating disorders, nor is it overly worthy in tone. Drawing on her own personal experiences, Horton has created something that is moving and insightful but also full of humour and warmth.

The production tells the story of Josephine's illness through a meta-theatrical lens; a knowing awkwardness pervades, there are a lot of sidelong glances and. sometimes the wrong things are said, the line overstepped. The production can perhaps be justifiably accused of an excess of whimsy but this is part of the chosen language of the piece and it works in context.

Josephine's anorexia is represented by a cloud-like duvet and a pink parasol, a soothing place to which one can retreat. Hannah Boyde's Boris is in some ways the emotional core of the play, pleading with her friend to eat, to seek help, sharing in Josephine's small victories, her face beaming while Horton sits above the stage, a remote presence, her chin held aloft in quiet pride and defiance.

Reviewed for The Stage

Edinburgh 2012: One Hour Only

Sabrina Mahfouz’s new two-hander – part of the Old Vic, New Voices season – takes the form of an encounter between AJ and Marley, client and sex worker in an ‘upmarket’ east London brothel. It’s her first day and his first time. They are both nervous and unsure of their roles, of the rules of engagement, the exact nature of the parts they should be playing during their allotted, pre-paid hour.

Her façade cracks first; she drops the cod Polish accent along with her professional mask and this throws him completely off track. He’s resentful at first, affronted; suddenly the dynamic has shifted and they are no longer participants in a process of transaction, but two people from the same part of London with a similar sense of drive and ambitions to make something more of their lives. She, it transpires, is a student of forensic biology, with a textbook tucked under her pillow; he, in turn, hopes to leave behind his job driving taxis to train as a structural engineer. Once they have relaxed a little, she Sherlocks him, dissecting his background from a few scattered clues; he asks why a woman of her evident smarts would choose to do a job like this, with her life, with her body. But her response, that the money’s good and it’s a way of guaranteeing her financial independence, of never having to rely on any one man, never quite rings true.

In the most striking image, Marley stands astride AJ in her cheap nylon robe, making him the corpse in her CSI dream, diagnosing the cause of his death and explaining the likely outcome of the police investigation. Then they switch, and the aspirant engineer makes a bridge of her body, resting her between two chairs, with the bed unused and almost – but never completely – forgotten in the background. In this way they use each other’s bodies to act out their fantasies, but instead of it being an erotic act, it’s one of transportation, lifting them out and way from this seedy and harshly-lit room.

Mahfouz’s previous piece, her solo show, Dry Ice, was set in the world of strip clubs. But while it was a rounded piece of writing, there was this underlying sense that such a way of life would sap you eventually, that over time it would drain the light out of your eyes and leave you hollow. Here she presents what can only be described as a best case scenario: Marley gives the impression of being in control – she’s not been trafficked, she’s not an addict, she’s doing this of her own volition – while AJ treats her with consideration, listening to her dreams and sharing his; the whole encounter it even transpires was not even his idea, but a 21st birthday gift from his mates.

Not every play about the sex trade has to be as devastating as Road Kill; it’s not essential you walk away feeling utterly repulsed by people’s ability to treat other people as meat, as holes to be filled, and it’s plausible that there are times when sex workers end up counselling and consoling their clients, providing services other than those purely physical; all of those things are true and yet the gentleness of tone is problematic. At most Mahfouz suggests that Marley’s reasoning is faulty and that she may come to regret her choice, though the moment where AJ playacts being the victim of strangulation, the cause of death as Marley point out of far more women than men, causes some unsettling ripples. The idea that these two characters might ever stop talking and start fucking is off the table from a fairly early point in the play and this robs the set-up of much in the way of dramatic tension. As amiably played as the piece is – by Nadia Clifford and Faraz Ayub - the end result is curiously timid.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, August 24, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Thread

Joan and Izzy have been friends for decades, waltzing together in a slow and circular dance as the years pass and age takes its toll. Joan marries while Izzy remains single, childless, seemingly content, but the connection between them remains there, as delicate yet unshakeable as a cobweb.

Produced by Nutshell, the company behind last year’s Allotment, this is an ostensibly site-specific work, staged in a harshly lit church function room with trestle tables arrayed around the walls and bunting strung about the place. The audience are led along a damp Edinburgh back alley, down a flight of steps and made to participate in a beetle drive. The first few minutes are a frenzy of dice rolling and silliness, which is at odds with the melancholic tone of what follows.

This is one of several pieces on the Fringe this year about watching the person you love slip slowly and achingly from your grasp. Jules Horne’s play is gently moving rather than wrenching, it doesn’t hit you in the pit of your belly, but it is both touching and elegant in its sketching of the relationship both between the two women and with Joan’s husband, William. He feels that Izzy is too close to Joan and he alternates between resenting her presence and acknowledging her importance in his wife’s life. There are layers of understanding, spoken and unspoken, between all three and it is these that the writing draws out, drifting back and forwards from the past to the present in a lapping, wave-like way. The performers make no attempt to play older than their years. They present these character as they were at the moment which tied them all together, in their bright 1950s dresses, the tangle of their future ahead of them.

Joan’s decline is also subtly handled. She starts to forget things – names, words, the reason she went into a room – while other moments remain fixed in her mind like a photograph. A wheelchair sits at one side of the room, but it is sparingly used and Kate Nelson’s production resists the urge to pile on the pathos. Yet in Clair Dargo’s eyes it is possible to see the awful blossoming realisation that what’s happening to Joan is far more than just everyday forgetfulness. Mary Gapinski and Stephen Docherty are similarly measured in their performances, but it’s Dargo’s fear and frustration that makes the deepest impression.

Despite the choice of venue, this is in many ways a conventional traverse staging; the space is not that imaginatively used, though the limited capacity, the sheer physical proximity to the cast, means you can see every shadow of confusion play across Dargo’s face and every flash of longing in Gapinski’s eyes. The participatory element is also abandoned after the first few minutes and the harshness of the lighting bleaches everything. And just as Horne starts to sheds light on the depth of connection between the three, the piece ends abruptly, like a lid being closed on a music box.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Waiting for Stanley

A woman waits hopefully on a railway platform for her husband to appear. Her wait is a long one. A clock ticks, the station empties and still he doesn’t come. But her face remains hopeful, her optimistic smile holding firm beneath her clown’s nose.

Told mainly through mime, Leela Bunce’s solo show is a poignant evocation of life on the Home Front during the Second World War. Based on interviews with those who lived through it, her approach is one of collage; the show takes the form of a lace of short scenes which together tell of the experiences of the women left behind.

The stagecraft is a joy. A string of cut-out paper children are slowly concertinaed out of view as they are evacuated from their homes. A clothes line full of washing is backlit to reveal a city in flames, bombs raining from the sky. A Pathé newsreel plays out across the backcloth, urging women to join the workforce. There are numerous vintage suitcases strewn around the set and in these become accordions, typewriters, kitchen tables; one of them, when opened, reveals a tiny puppet Stanley writing home and requesting fresh socks. In the most inventive sequence of all, a lump of dough – mixed together from what scant ingredients are still available – is turned first into a wailing baby, before slowly being moulded into the distinctive jowls of Churchill in full oratorical flow.

Bunce (aka Audacity Chutzpah) is a hugely appealing performer, simultaneously graceful and goofy in her movements, with a deliciously expressive face. She has a puppyish quality, ever eager for applause, whether leading the audience in a rousing rendition of ‘Daisy, Daisy’ or riding an invisible motorcycle across a shadow landscape.

In terms of subject matter and the method of presentation there are obvious parallels with Caroline Horton’s utterly captivating You’re Not Like The Other Girls Chrissy – the inventive use of suitcases is an obvious point of comparison – though Bunce’s act is almost entirely wordless. Whereas Chrissy’s personality filled the room, Bunce’s war-wife is more of an everywoman, a vivid and charming on-stage presence and yet never quite a character in her own right.

There’s been some discussion across the course of the festival (here and here) about the compatibility of a certain whimsical Fringe aesthetic with stories drawn from the two world wars, about the mingling of fairy lights and goblin quests with the foul mud of the trenches and the monstrous anger of the guns, and how appropriate that is as artistic response.

But while Bunce’s clowning teeters on the twee at times, it is also in many ways entirely fitting to the subject at hand, capturing something of the resilience of those forced to continue living while the men they love were slaughtered in far off fields. A raised chin, a clown nose and a willingness to keep laughing are as good a shield as any in the face of such devastation.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Appointment with the Wicker Man

The basic premise is golden, unbeatable. A Scottish am-dram society, the Loch Parry Players, are staging a version of the Wicker Man and have been obliged to draft in a professional actor from the mainland to replace their leading man, Roger Morgan, who has gone missing in mysterious circumstances. As meta-theatrical frameworks go, you couldn’t ask for a richer one. It quivers with potential. There are so many ways they could take it. But the creative team behind this update of Robin Hardy’s 1973 folk horror classic never really fulfil that promise.

Clearly intended as a loving homage from a pair of writers, Greg Hemphill and Donald McLeary, who are both self-confessed Wicker Man obsessives, it falls down because the framing narrative, the production-within-the-production, is so broad in tone. There’s an initially amusing juxtaposition between the worlds of amateur and professional theatre, but the Loch Parry players themselves are cut from the roughest cloth: there’s a randy wardrobe mistress, Morag, her camp-as-Christmas, purple Lycra-clad husband, Callum, and the permanently drugged-up technician, Fran. Only Rory, the Glaswegian television actor and stand-in for Officer Howie – played by Sean Biggerstaff (a name ripe for Restoration comedy if there ever was one) – doesn’t eat the scenery and chase it down with a pint of Irn Bru. While the contrast is clearly intentional and works within the framework of the production it doesn’t stop it grating, just as inserting a big Broadway-style number in at the beginning and then commenting on its crassness and inappropriateness doesn’t entirely excuse it.

Some of the references are admittedly delicious. There is a whole section devoted to the moment where Lord Summerisle sends a boy up to Willow’s bedroom to be ‘sacrificed to Aphrodite’ complete with the snail-mating sequence, which was cut from the original theatrical release. May Morrison’s sweet shop, with its phallic candies and pagan jelly tots, is also referenced though much to Rory’s frustration the Loch Parry version is only stocked with out-of-date Curly Wurlies

There are some lovely throw-away lines too: one character gushes about being a huge fan of Nicholas Cage when asked if she’s ever actually seen the film, somebody else mentions The Equalizer. They save the famous seduction sequence to the end. In the film this was a writhing, primal explosion of a scene performed to Paul Giovanni’s sensuous Willow’s Song (most of the film’s original music is recreated here, another small pleasure of the production), with Britt Ekland slapping the adjoining tavern wall with her palms while the virginal Edward Woodward sweated, cowered and all but combusted in his bed. Ekland memorably required a body-double for certain shots; here the scene is replicated with Sally Reid’s Marie wearing a comedy nude suit complete with bean-bag tits and a Mick Hucknall wig affixed to her pubic triangle. So much of the humour comes down to bums and boobs, which is fine in and of itself, but it also means that the epic pile up of revelations about the various characters’ emotional lives that fills the last ten minutes has zero value.

What really riles is the fact that there are a couple of genuinely unnerving moments scattered throughout Vicky Featherstone’s production, a couple of skin-tingling instances where the performers creep around the stage in animal masks and an air of the sinister pervades. But these moments are constantly undercut by its insistence on silliness when conversely the production is at its strongest when it plays things comparatively straight, when it allows its characters to be characters rather than ‘types.’

While you have to admire a production that inserts one of Woodward’s anguished cries to his Christ into its big musical finale, the image that lingers is not of a burning effigy – though all credit to designer Chloe Lamford for creating an impressive Wicker Man/Iron Giant hybrid for the last scenes – but of this glorious gift an idea being so poorly realised, of all that potential going up in smoke.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Elephant Man

You hear him first. The wheezing. The rasping. A salivary sound; like Darth Vader gargling, wet and incessant. It burrows into you – it’s impossible to tune out.

Ushered into the room by a nurse in a high-necked dress, the audience are asked not to let their faces betray their emotions, to mask any terror or disgust they might feel.

A bright white cube stands at the centre of the stage through the translucent skin of which a contorted shadow can be seen, hunched over, head down. Here we have the source of this unnerving respiratory rattle: Joseph Merrick, resident of the London Hospital, a long-term patient of Dr Frederick Treves – and our host.

Benoit Hattet, as is often the case with stage adaptations of Merrick’s life story, plays the part without prosthetics of any kind, using his body to suggest the extent of the man’s deformities. One arm hangs heavy at his side, one leg is awkwardly twisted, and the heel of his bare foot never touches the ground. He’s Verbal Kint with a dove grey suit and a melancholy gentlemanly air, his lip curled, his eraser head cocked to one side, his every utterance requiring considerable effort. It’s an incredible feat of physicality; without entirely pretzeling his body, Hattet conveys the mess of Merrick’s physical condition. There are times when it is almost uncomfortable to watch and his bubbling breath – which he maintains throughout – is particularly difficult to listen to. When he finally uncoils at the end, it’s hard not to feel your own shoulders un-tense in sympathy.

The relationship between Merrick and Isabelle Bouvrain, as his nurse, is a necessarily complex one: she is part carer, part keeper. She invites the audience to watch Merrick, to stare, to drink their fill, but then sets out the terms for their doing so; she is positively maternal at moments, tender and soft-eyed, but more often than not she is stern, a chilly school mistress, correcting his speech and gently chastising him for alarming the ladies in the audience. On one hand she is inattentive – neglecting to hand him his teacup in a way that he can usefully drink from it – but then she readies herself to give him one of his several daily baths, an act of incredible intimacy.

Merrick spent so much of his life on display; having escaped the workhouse by joining a travelling show and inviting the public to gawp for a price, he was then the subject of medical examination and scrutiny, his body forever being prodded and measured and assessed. The Lynchian light box of a set – a sterile, white space, harshly strip-lit and furnished with a spindly metal cot – ensures that Merrick’s status as an exhibit is never in doubt; well over a century after his death at the age of 27, he remains an object of fascination; this play is of course part of that process, and it is not even the only Elephant Man at this year’s Fringe.

While the production contains a good deal of biographical detail (though admittedly nothing that couldn’t be cribbed from Wikipedia) – including the golden moment where Merrick’s dream of being able to visit the theatre at Drury Lane comes true – the writing is in many ways secondary to Hattet’s act of bodily transformation and the way the piece as a whole acts as a meditation on repulsion, attraction, and the delicate interplay between the two: the twin urges to look and to look away.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: After The Rainfall

Every few years some rare collision of meteorological factors will result in a red rain of Saharan dust clogging the exhaust pipes of cars in Wrexham and powdering suburban rooftops in Surrey. In this way particles of African sand, picked up and lifted and caught on the current, can find themselves spread across the world like a global cloak, alighting on the shoulders of those who have never and will never set foot in the desert.

It is these webs of connection, this process of dissemination – by wind, by wire, by digital signal, by the touch of hand or a soft word whispered into an ear – that Curious Directive, the company behind last year’s acclaimed Your Last Breath, are attempting to illustrate here in their striated and intricate production.

A young Egyptian woman in a cherry red head-scarf makes a pilgrimage from Cairo to London, visiting the major European museums en route as a way of staying connected to the brother she lost in Tahir Square. In one of several parallel narrative strands, a British government official in Egypt in the 1950s is on a covert fact-finding mission when his plane goes down in the desert. Hopping through time once more, this time to the 1980s, a young art student makes a piece of sculpture as a way of commemorating a Cumbrian mining accident in which she too lost a brother. Leaping forwards to 2022 an academic outlines the thesis of his new book, relating the viral spread of ideas around the world with the way that ants communicate.

In terms of stagecraft alone, After the Rainfall is a beautiful thing to behold. It is immaculate in its use of movement, shifting between its various distinct worlds and time periods with remarkable ease. No gesture is without purpose, no action superfluous. The performers are whipped and buffeted by desert winds, they are penned in on London tube trains; they balance precariously on chairs as they create their own internal flashback structure, a series of echoes of echoes.

The company fling question after question at the audience: about the aftermath of Empire, about the cultural and emotional significance of ancient artefacts, about the many disparate ways in which people communicate and connect with one another. The piece as a whole is as densely lettered as the Rosetta Stone, which plays a pivotal part in the narrative, while images captured on Facebook and camera phone are another recurring motif. The production seems genuinely excited about the evolution of communication technology, the rapidity with which ideas can be spread, the way a single image can leap across the planet like a spark through arid grass.

There’s an awful lot to unpick here and some of the strands are given more space to breathe – to exhale and expand – than others, meaning that some of the characters remain sketches – elegant and artfully drawn, but sketches all the same. There are times it feels as if there are several separate plays here, layered on top of one another, stacked like so much Edinburgh city silt, one world piled upon the one beneath. But throughout it all, the time-shifts and the occasional thematic overload, Rashida – the Egyptian girl played with great grace by Colette Tchantcho – remains a calm, cool centre amidst the sandstorm.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, August 17, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Camille Claudel

Her fingers curl around the cotton of her skirts as she kicks her heels and stamps her feet. She laughs: a hot, hard sound. She moulds the air with her hands furiously, kneading, shaping, sculpting. Fever-quick and restless, she roams around the room.

Having previously played Frida Kahlo, the French-Brazilian performer Gaël Le Cornec turns her attention to Camille Claudel, who despite being a talented sculptor in her own right, will forever be tied in most minds to Rodin, for whom she was a muse, a model and eventually a lover, and to the fact that Claudel’s emotional energy, her volatility, her inner unchecked burning, led to her being confined to the lunatic asylum at Montfavet by her family, where she was to remain until her death. Even though her physicians eventually came to believe she was fit for release, she was left there to fester for thirty years, only very rarely receiving visitors.

Le Cornec attempts to convey something of the spirit of Claudel rather than just offering up a by-numbers biography. So she stamps and swishes her skirts and roars with laughter, leading the audience in song, conveying the lust and danger of her relationship with her former mentor coupled with her own potent artistic vision, her hunger for recognition on her own terms. This initial flaring, solar and searing, is slowly eroded as her drinking intensifies, her behaviour becomes more erratic and the whispers start, the ugly conspiratorial talk that will eventually see her labelled a hysteric and locked away by her mother and her steely diplomat brother, Paul Claudel. Le Cornec’s actions become more frantic and exaggerated as she deteriorates, sinking into the absinthe bottle and the arms of a succession of inappropriate men, eventually forced to self-administer an abortion, the blood-red bloomers she wears under her skirts taking on an appalling new significance.

While on the one hand the appeal of these exercises in resurrection is obvious – releasing these eclipsed women from their attics, their garrets, and the bone-cold loneliness of the asylum, and making them live and laugh – they’ve also become something of a Fringe genre with their own particular codes, too few of which are subverted here. There’s a danger of simply dropping these women into new but just as restrictive boxes, something this production does not entirely avoid.

Le Cornec’s performance, however, is just knowing enough to transcend some of the clichés inherent in the material: it’s rich and warm and incredibly connected with its audience; she is unafraid to hold your gaze, to laugh at herself. There are times where it’s just possible to scent the Belle Epoch in this drabbest of Pleasance Portakabins, at other times the incessant swishing of skirts makes Le Cornec resemble a child let loose in her mother’s dress-up box.

While the soft-hearted part of me warmed to Le Cornec’s epilogue, her imaging of Claudel finding eternal release in a whirl of parasols and sunshine and tender caresses, this all felt a little too wishful and naïve; I found the rainbow cascade of Claudel’s unread letters, her decades of one-sided correspondence, that provided the more wrenching image, that stirred the blood and left a tang of anger and sadness in the air at the sheer fucking waste of talent and years.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Boris and Sergey's Vaudevillian Adventure

Boris and Sergey are a pair of foot-high face-less leather bunraku-style puppets with dubious morals; a couple of bickering Balkan tricksters, one the bastard-son-of-a-basket-ball, the other a kind of fuzzy-bellied mutant muppet baby, who perform a furious hour-long set on top of a green baize table.

Whereas Blind Summit’s recent exercise in table-top puppetry had an appealing simplicity and a mildly existential air, this show by Flabbergast Theatre is an altogether wilder and more raucous proposition. What begins as a familiar albeit puppet-centric late-night Fringe show, complete with plenty of dick jokes and a participatory puppet poker session, grows more and more ambitious by the minute: there are flashbacks, an action sequence, a Kate Bush number, a brief body swap episode and one of the most dizzyingly inventive endings of any show I’ve seen this year.

For as well as being wickedly funny it’s also an exquisite piece of six person puppetry. Each character takes three people to operate and the performers are required to work in perfect harmony, even matching their breathing to that of their fellow puppeteers. While the audience are always aware of their presence, hovering over their puppet charges like black-clad watchful gods, the two brothers also exist as characters in their own right. They have a brilliantly convincing rapport, affectionate yet volatile, one wearily tolerant of the other’s stupidity.

What makes it even more impressive is the level of improvisation that, by necessity is folded into the act. The company were fortunate on this occasion, picking two guys for the poker sequence who were sober enough to carry out instructions (unlike the woman sitting beside me, whose frequent boisterous whoops and interjection had very little bearing on what was happening on stage) and also delivered their given lines in honeyed Louisiana accents. But it’s fairly clear that the puppeteers are capable of dealing with any heckles and other late night Fringe randomness that might be hurled their way without breaking their flow. While they made it look seamless, it’s clearly a hugely physically demanding task, with one performer per puppet required to crouch on the floor at all times and the lead performers’ sweat raining down onto the green of the table top.

Eventually it all gets a bit meta as the puppets start to spar with their limb-wranglers – Boris learning the hard way that calling the person who controls your arms a cunt is a sure-fire road to puppet paralysis. It would be fair to say the action sequences while inventive are probably overlong and that, as the puppets themselves point out, there’s only one plot point to speak of, but this all pales beside their wonderfully Faustian finish, Drag Me to Hell with a commedia dell’arte flourish, the dark night rising up to claim their souls.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Machines for Living

Brutalism is such a loaded word. Though it derives from the French term for “raw concrete”, it has come to be a byword for the kind of post-war architecture that many perceive as hostile: buildings that bullishly disregard their surroundings, great grey blocky beasts that sully the skyline and trample people beneath their giant feet.

Let Slip’s playful, sidelong, slightly cartoonish show is as much about the erosion of an ideal as anything else. The title is drawn for Le Corbusier’s Towards an Architecture in which he describes his vision of a beautifully ordered world. To him, the ‘house-machine’, the mass-production house, was “healthy (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same way that the working tools and instruments which accompany our existence are beautiful.” At the Barbican’s 2009 Le Corbusier exhibition, a diagram showed his vision of the ideal urban layout as a series of interconnected hubs each radiating towards the other, rather than a clotted central knot – and it was beautiful.

The Lecoq-trained company are interested in how the precision of his vision for ‘healthy’ houses and his passion for primary forms – the cube, the cylinder, the cone – glinting smoothly in the sun, came to be diluted over time. Roger and Wendy, a pair of young, newly married architects begin with a dream, to create ‘homes fit for heroes’, towers of gleaming concrete inside which every living space is uniform and blissfully efficient. But gradually this dream is chipped away. Cheaper materials are used; window size is reduced, again for reasons of cost; despite Wendy’s reservations, Roger strives to create buildings that are taller and denser for reasons of drama rather than social need.

Once the buildings are completed it soon becomes clear that there are problems with maintenance, damp seeps in and the sheen wears off. The inhabitants also have a habit of being wilful and all too human, of failing to lead efficient, tidy lives within their efficient, tidy apartments; Roger’s ‘friendly’ sky-walks become forbidding places. In the heightened language of the production, the idea of ‘community’ is personified as a beaming, puppyish creature who reflects her surroundings, becoming more feral and aggressive as the tower blocks rise around her. It’s a knowing device, but it syncs with the company’s chosen heightened style. The spirit of Le Corbusier is played as a lip-licking Bond villain while the failure of the brutalist project is starkly illustrated by the body of a woman being dragged across the stage, a trussed tiny figure who, we are told, died alone and unnoticed in her shiny futurist flat.

Christina Hardinge’s simple but striking black-and-white design adds to the production’s Fritz Lang meets Austin Powers aesthetic (there’s a fair bit of ‘groovy’ dancing) and while the company eventually end up oversimplifying the argument about these vertical cities and their failings, the force with which they hurl themselves at their complex subject matter and the idiosyncratic but cohesive world they create is undeniably impressive.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, August 13, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: My Robot Heart

The Hugvie, a kind of Japanese robot, is a faceless and sexless monopedal blob which looks alarmingly like a half-chewed jelly baby. Pillow-like and primary-coloured, it has been designed to administer hugs to its owners. When attached to a mobile phone, the robot is able to replicate a caller’s tone through vibration, taking a verbal experience and making it physical. Its little mutant jelly baby arms quiver while its owners caress it, placid as cats. But this is just the tip of things. Research is already underway – according to poet and performer Molly Naylor – to create the robot that can fall in love, or to at least replicate the behaviour of someone in love: artificial intelligence giving rise to artificial emotion.

A prototype model has already been created though this had to be shelved because its behaviour grew erratic. As opening images go this is a potent one: love as emotional malfunction, a case of faulty wiring, a 404 service error of the soul. Love is a chemical process, a computer programme with a fixed end point, Naylor explains, and she is interested in how to sustain a relationship beyond that point Inspired by late- night reading about heart-sore robots and having recently split from a partner at an age when most of her peers were tying the knot, Naylor started to write stories, the results of which form the central part of her show. Robots are sadly noticeable by their absence from this point forwards. While she uses this image as a jumping off point, the waters she lands in are only waist-high.

Naylor interweaves a couple of narrative strands. A woman, Eliza, has a pre-wedding freak out and runs away to consider whether she’s making the right decision. Meanwhile her terminally ill father Harry is having a freak out of his own over the prospect of making a speech at the wedding. Naylor’s stories are accompanied by two-girl group The Middle Ones, who sit pixie-like at the side of the stage, singing sweetly if winsomely. But while some attempt has been made to integrate them into the piece and there’s some amusing banter about their lack of acting ability, their presence is frustratingly underutilised.

Naylor’s material at times has the feel of gentle observational stand-up – what the kind of wardrobe you own says about where you are in your life emotionally., that kind of thing – but the story meanders and drifts and back-steps and never really tells you anything about love or fear. Naylor has grown in confidence as a performer since her last show, Every Time I Get Blown Up I Think of You, which saw her interrogating her response to being caught up in the 7/7 attacks. But both her material and the still fairly static way in which it is presented feel in need of more development. Given all the potential embedded in that first image, the robot obeying its programming by clinging on to the person it thinks it wants, unwilling to ever let go, the stories that follow are decidedly tepid. In this case the robot’s blood runs hotter.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Grit

Cardboard citizens wave cardboard placards of protest on the streets of a cardboard city. A series of ominous cardboard tanks appear and a rebellion is turned to dust. This is one of several memorable images in Tortoise in a Nutshell’s potent puppet theatre show, a series of vignettes about children and armed conflict.

A framing device shows a young woman – a flame-haired puppet in a flannel shirt – sorting through the possessions of her war photographer father. This leads in to a series of snapshots of conflict zones, from Sarajevo to Syria: black and white sketches, like cells from a graphic novel, twisting across the stage, captured and fixed into place. There’s more than a touch of Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz with Bashir to this imagery, the interplay between the stark black lines and the things they depict.

A sequence in which a tiny puppet child plays games in a sandpit, laughing as he makes sand castles with a miniature bucket while all the time the sound of gunfire rings out in the background, is the closest it gets to overt sentiment. Elsewhere the piece is more intricate and original in the stories it tells. A one-time child soldier for the Khmer Rouge is shown making amends for his past by digging up land-mines that he once laid and founding an orphanage. This is all depicted through shadow puppetry, the images appearing on a series of screens: a hand, a boot, a mine concealed in the long grass.

For the most part the three performers are silent and what dialogue we hear is pre-recorded. The combination of these voices and the score is incredibly effective, adding to the evocative nature of the piece. The war photographer speaks to his daughter from various far off places, wishing he could be home with her but feeling the need to stay put and to record the things he sees.

Not everything works: a sequence in which two of the performers play child-like war games, wielding invisible weapons and spurting invisible blood, is perhaps too obvious a response to the subject matter, especially given the subtlety of some of the other material. As with many devised pieces of this kind, there are issues with structural clarity, but in terms of technical accomplishment and imaginative power, it’s an impressive achievement

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Chapel Street

Luke Barnes' punchy, pacey two-hander - part of the Old Vic, New Voices new writing programme - is drenched in booze. It's beer-breathed and sweaty with it, slurring and fuzzy-tongued, as it explores a night of binge-drinking from two separate points of view.

Joe is an amiable twenty-something lad who still lives with his mum and seems accepting of a life of odd jobs and nights on the lash. Kirsty is a teenager, not without ambition, who goes on a bender to celebrate a friend's birthday, scoring some alcohol and hitting the town. The two stories are told as independent, cross-cutting monologues, which only collide towards the end. Both performers give convincing, driven performances, becoming increasingly more inebriated as the play progresses, no easy thing to convey.

Cary Crankson's Joe turns up the chat and Ria Zmitrowicz's Kirsty, motor-mouthed from the start, becomes even more voluble. The growing on-stage chaos of Cheryl Gallagher's production captures the trajectory of their epically messy night -“ microphone stands tumble to the ground, shaving foam spatters the floor and the actors end up skidding in their own spillings. But beneath the excess of their binge, the play has something to say about what it is to be stuck socially and economically, to see your ambitions slowly eroded, to see what hope you had slip slowly away.

Reviewed for The Stage.

Edinburgh 2012: Comedian Dies in the Middle of a Joke

While it would be true to say Ross Sutherland's new show fuses interactive theatre with stand-up comedy, it does much more than that: at times it's like a human feedback loop, an iterative narrative given breath, at others it's more of a Sisyphean party game, an endless session of musical chairs with bad wigs and polyester shirts.

The premise is this: during a gig at London comedy club in the mid-1980s the comedian Joe 'Pop' Pooley met his end. His jokes died and then he did. Sutherland, acting as compere, requests that his audience help him to recreate the last five minutes of Joe's life. Every person is made to play their part. Some get to heckle at chosen moments, while others actually get a chance to play the comedian, reading their lines from an autocue.

At the end of each scene, everyone shifts seats and adopts a new role, the reset button is hit and things begin again. While Joe's lines never change, the audience's responses develop with each repetition. The success of this depends very much on how well people embrace the concept and in the main they take to it. The beauty of the piece lies in the variation and anticipation, the growing awareness that you can shape things - though, of course, as in life, the final outcome is inevitable.

Reviewed for The Stage.