Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

After a triumphant Richard II, director Andrew Hilton has chosen one of Shakespeare’s gentlest comedies for his next production: there is no touch of melancholy, no edge here, as we are swept through a breathless couple of hours.

There is almost no let-up in Hilton’s rattling production, leaving the audience delighted and occasionally bamboozled as two sets of identical twins get mistaken for each other in every conceivable combination and permutation. This is light-hearted stuff (apart from the myriad beatings heaped on the shoulders of poor Dromio (Richard Neale and Gareth Kennerley)), and provides a cracking evening’s entertainment. Hilton has a gift for coaxing a freshness from his cast, making the language zip and sing – there are lines that sound as though they were written yesterday, and some thoroughly modern intonation. In the skillful hands of Hilton and his fantastic cast, this builds pace and humour without dumbing down or getting caught up in the intricacies of the language.

Neale and Kennerley are expressive and witty Dromios, who end the play on a beautiful moment when they meet, brother to brother, for the first time. Dan Winter and Matthew Thomas were strong as Antipholus of Syracuse and of Ephesus, doubly bearded and waist-coated, doubly cocky but likeable. Dorothea Myer-Bennett is a great Adrianna, playing Antipholus’s long-suffering but loving wife with verve, and treading a nice line between dignity and hysteria. Ffion Jolly as her patient, bookish sister does well with a slim part, and invests Luciana with a steely determination and fine comic timing.

The piece is played for laughs throughout, without much bother about depth of character or balance, which works with such a silly play. Even for Shakespeare, having two sets of identical twins is pushing it, and Hilton et al make the most out of every opportunity for silliness, physical comedy or an extra laugh. This is not a criticism – it is a pretty slightly plot – but merely than observation that, unlike many of the other comedies, this one does not have a dark heart – or at least Hilton has not gone looking for one. It works, because the cast have impeccable timing and the ability to be funny without speaking, but it does make for a fairly breathless production: with so much frenetic energy, there are very few calm or thoughtful moments, meaning that the audience leaves feeling a little steam-rollered by the play.

For such light entertainment, this production never lets up with the comedy and only just stays the right side of hysterical. The cast is good enough to avoid being hammy, but there are moments where the script invites it. Hilton picks his way through with aplomb, and keeps this production on the straight and narrow while maintaining the high-energy brand of humour, wit and verve that the Tobacco Factory is renowned for.

N.B. The morning of the show brought news that the Tobacco Factory was successful in its bid to become an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisations, securing regular funding for the first time. In other good news, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, has announced a new partnership to tour productions to Exeter Northcott. Good news for one of my favourite theatre spaces.

The Comedy of Errors is playing at the Tobacco Factory until 30th April. For information and tickets see the website here.

It is difficult to understand what drew director Peter Wilson to this insipid, lazy and sentimental play, but one has to admire the effort he and the cast have put into making the best of it. However, you can only work with the material at hand, and Tim Firth’s script is mostly excruciating. It manages to be both predictable and un-naturalistic, and the lines that Alan (Gerard Kearns) and Frank (Matthew Kelly) are given to speak leave them with such flat characters that it was difficult to muster the energy to care when they were in mortal peril.

The dialogue is clumsy and over-reliant on the (misguided) belief that having a Yorkshire accent is intrinsically funny. Do we really subscribe to such lazy stereotypes? The premise – that all Northerners are a bit thick and therefore funny – grates hugely, especially when staged in the West End of London. Kelly and Kearns deserve better.

And, to give credit where it’s due, Wilson does his best to elevate the script and to give them a bit more to work with. They try to flesh out under-developed and unsympathetic characters, but the words are lacking in wit, verve or energy – so that we never really care what happens to either of them. When Frank sort-of threatens to jump off the roof, there is no sense that the audience is tense, willing him not to jump. Firth fails to invest him with sufficient depth, and we don’t feel any emotional attachment to him. Likewise, when young Alan appears to be throwing away his dreams for a dead-end job, it is all to easy to shrug and head for the nearest bar.

Morgan Large’s design is great: the space is used cleverly, it is easy to believe that we are witnessing exchanges 60-stories above the ground, and the dilapidation of the building and surrounding Batley are convincing. Tony Simpson’s lighting and Gareth Owen’s sound are well-judged, and complement the drabness of story and setting.

There are some nice moments, but these are mostly down to Wilson’s judgement: the laughs come from well-time pauses, the odd lifted eyebrow, the interaction between Kelly and Kearns, rather than from the script itself. Despite these brief glimpses of humour, though, this comedy commits the biggest sin of all: it just isn’t funny.

Sign of the Times is playing at the Duchess Theatre until 28th May.

New International Encounter’s Tales from a Sea Journey does what it says on the tin: we get a series of simple tales that have some connection to the sea. We see a brave Norwegian Captain escaping the Japanese airforce in the second world war; the tragic tale of Ella who catches her first fish age four and vanishes into the sea age 18 leaving only her boots behind; and the shy, seasick Danish maths teacher en route to Greenland with her hand-written text books. Interspersed with these whimsical tales we have the ‘real’ jounrey that the cast made from France to Guadaloupe in 2009, complete with snapshots and good-natured squabbling about what actually happened.

The tales are all told in at least three languages, with the characters pretty much miming/doing exactly what the narrator says. This could grate in less skilled hands, but Alex Byrne’s direction never lets it become anything less than charmingly witty. There is a lovely moment when the narrator determinedly says “He slapped himself,” and the poor Captain dutifully slaps himself. There’s a pause, then the narrator deadpans “Twice”, before another narrator cuts in “Lots and lots of times”.

This kind of inventive, imaginative theatre requires a contract between actors and audience: we agree to suspend our disbelief and they agree to really make us believe in the ship, the shore, the lives of these sea-people. NIE kept its side of the bargain, investing each character with charm and personality – as well as doubling and switching seamlessly. However, the Junction’s audience were not playing to the same rules: I have rarely sat in such a rude, loud and downright obnoxious audience. This went beyond schoolchildren’s boisterousness and moved into utter disrespect for the delicate magic being conjured onstage and the gentle stories the cast were trying to tell. We had constant chatter at normal speaking volume, rustling crisp packets, cat-calls… I am all for taking school parties to the theatre, but the onus must fall on the teacher to lay down some ground rules, and then on the teacher and the ushers to remove anyone who is disruptive.

The strong cast soldiered on in the face of noise and blatant disinterest. Their obvious camaraderie and good-humour went a long way to save the evening, but one couldn’t help but feel sorry for them as giggles and sniggers cut through the quiet moments. The piece was utterly charming, but the same cannot be said of some of the audience.

New International Encounter – NIE is on tour with Tales from a Sea Journey. See its website for more dates and shows. Visit The Junction’s website for more theatre in Cambridge.

Going to anything at the ROH is a treat – a glittering, sumptuous, over-the-top way to spend an evening.Swan Lake was no exception to the ‘treat’ rule, and when Carlos Acosta is dancing Siegfried and Tamara Rojo is dancing Odette/Odile, you know it’s going to be something extra special. Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s production did not disappoint; it was, quite simply, gorgeous.

From set to costume to dance, the whole show was a controlled riot of glowing colour and whirling limbs, swelling music and impossibly impressive dance. If you’ve never done ballet, it looks effortlessly light, and it charms. If you have, you know it’s excruciatingly difficult, effortful and knackering, which makes the delicacy and skill admirable as well as impressive. Acosta can jump higher, and make it look easier, than any male dancer I have ever seen, and made a commanding and aesthetically pleasing prince. Rojo, who is tiny, made a desperate, elegant Odette and a sexy, calculating and cruel Odile, continually under the spell of Gary Avis’s pantomimically malevolent Von Rothbart.

Acosta and Rojo are a lovely pair, seeming to melt into one and another when they share steps, port de bras and lifts. The choreography is stunning mix of explosive passion (the ‘show-off’ moments for Acosta and Rojo!) and extremely tender, gentle movements which speak volumes. The entire company is impressive, and the generous chorography mixes up the ensembles and corps des ballets frequently, allowing most dancers a moment in the spotlight.

Avis’s Von Rothbart is wonderfully evil, dressed in a feathered, ragged cape, moving in a crouch and exploiting his power to hurt. His seemingly never-ending parade of swan-captives are well-danced, and the choreography is intelligent and varied. With waves and waves of white-clad dancers, the swans are hard to get right – it risks cliché and melodrama. Here, however, it is avoided, and we get the poignancy and the oppression without the simpering or too much arm-waving. Petipa and Ivanov have thought carefully about the shapes their dancers make individually and as a group, to great effect.

Tchaikovsky’s famous music was wonderfully conducted by Boris Gruzin, who seemed to be having a great time down in the pit. He coaxed the orchestra of the ROH into paroxysms of joy and despair, and reminded the audience why the tunes have become so well-known: the sweeping melodies and punchy tempo keep musicians, audience and dancers on their toes.

To the percussive clicks of a keyboard and the electronic beeps and chirps that invade our lives, Protein reflects on the nature of human interaction in a digital age. Sounds promising? Title aside, I thought so too. Unfortunately, the piece has delusions of grandeur but misses its mark.

Let’s start with the title: LOL. Where I come from, “lol” means “laugh out loud”, not “lots of love”, and has become a reflexive punctuation mark in casual conversations, rather than a phrase that has a great deal of meaning. The fact that Protein felt the need to spell out that LOL can mean “lots of love”, “lots of luck”, “laughing out loud”, “lack of laughter”, “lack of love”, “lack of luck”, “life on line”, “love on line” and also, apparently, “losers on line” and “log off loser”, in its promotional material suggests the lack of coherent decision-making that characterises the piece. This dabbling the world of online interactions feels rather half-hearted, while trying to appear committed. What could have been an interesting exploration of how we present ourselves online, and how this affects relationships and potential relationships, was instead a rather stilted and over-worked set of vignettes, with very little connecting purpose.

Perhaps this lack of connectedness was intentional – a look at the fragmentary nature of today’s society – or perhaps the piece just lacked a clear idea of where it was going. Either way, it was often unsatisfying to watch, and eked out a slim idea to 70 mins. The piece was “conceived and directed” by Luca Silvestrini and “devised and performed” by the six dancers; I wonder if this lack of a single choreographer has led to a kind of ‘devise by committee’ approach, and that’s why the piece feels so bitty. The dancers themselves, Patsy Browne-Hope, Omar Gordon, Kip Johnson, Sally Marie, Fernanda Prata and Stuart Waters, are lithe and committed, but never seem comfortable with the demanded audience interaction. It was refreshing to see the six dancers (three men, three women) mix up their partnerships to portray same-sex couples as well as heterosexual ones, but this was not enough to redeem a piece that was shallow but aiming to be deep.

The piece was danced to the sounds of Skype, MSN, etc., to words spoken by the dancers, and to pre-recorded and distorted words and phrases (composed by Andy Pink). Much of the language was lifted straight from lonely hearts ads, or was ostensibly email text from one member of a dating website to another. Again, this could have been an interesting idea, especially if the choreography has concentrated on the emotions, the loneliness and the fear of rejection, rather than on the narrative. Sadly, the overly earnest script quickly descended into trite cliché, wallowing in pseudo-philosophical insights and becoming too shallow to be taken as seriously as it took itself. There were some witty moments in the script, which provided the nicest moments of dance, too, but they were too few and too far between.

The dancers seemed bogged down by the earnestness of the piece, and they struggled to dance naturally while reciting their lines. I fail to see the value in having the lines spoken live – a recording would have left the dancers much freer. The piece also fell into the trap of dancing to the words, with one movement for each syllable and almost miming the story, rather than the dance taking on a life of its own. The pervading feeling was a sense that the company just don’t really get the way online communication works; the characters created by the words and dance feel like stereotypes, where ‘real’ people would have been more interesting.

LOL – Lots of Love by Protein played at The Place. For more shows and information see its website here: www.theplace.org.uk

Unsettling, frustrating, confusing and brilliant, Brian Friel’s Faith Healer offers an ever-shifting perspective on the minutiae and dramas of the lives of the three characters. Through a series of straight-to-audience monologues, Friel undermines expectations and judgements to such an extent that my companions and I left the theatre in silence, still trying to digest what we’d seen and heard.
The Faith Healer, Francis Hardy (Finbar Lynch), tells us his story, which is then brutally undercut by his wife Gracie’s (Kathy Kiera Clarke) version of events. A third tale is offered (Teddy, played by Richard Bremmer) before the healer returns to round off the performance. Friel, and director Simon Godwin, never allow complacency on behalf of the audience – you never know which version of the story hits nearest to the truth, although all are plausible and some characters are more sympathetic than others.
Mike Britton’s design is very much of the “show don’t tell” school of thought – we are given hints and bit of props and set, which evoke Teddy’s shabby living room, Gracie’s cold flat in Paddington, the anonymous pub or church hall where Frank plies his trade. The lighting and sound are beautiful; you almost don’t notice the noise creeping up in volume, until it is threateningly loud, insistent, nerve-wracking. The light softens, in a Tennessee Williams-esque invocation of memory. We are invited to believe that each character believes in the truth of what they’re peddling, and yet to simultaneously distrust their version of events and to make comparisons with what we already ‘know’ happened from other characters. This constant shifting is cleverly done with the sharp script, but is not a comfortable experience as an audience; one ends up feeling rather stupid, rather duped, for being taken in by “the mountebank”, as Gracie’s father calls Frank.
Lynch is terribly charismatic, even an avowed cynic like me was swept away by his softly-spoken words, his gentle brogue and his tales of miracle cures. Lynch was persuasive and articulate, offering a lovely contrast to Clarke’s brittle, twitching Gracie, a woman who had clearly been pushed to the brink of her sanity. Bremmer’s Teddy was so convivial and charming that I could forgive his terrible cockney accent, and his was the stand-out performance for me. Perhaps his version of events was the most believable because his character has the least invested in lying or being evasive, but Bremmer invested Teddy with a grin-and-bear-it kind of pathos that tugged at the heart.
It’s hard to say I enjoyed the play, as watching it was not a comfortable emotional experience. (On a side note, it was not a comfortable physical experience either – after a matinee on the pews in the Tobacco Factory and two hours perched on a stool on the Bristol Old Vic studio, my posterior was not happy with me.) Godwin’s direction drew out a huge range from each actor, made more impressive by the fact that each character monologues with nobody else to act off or react to. To quibble, one could argue that some of the dramatic pauses wandered into the territory of milking them, but the pace was nicely judged, the performances nuanced and absorbing, and the production harrowing and thought-provoking.

I am continually awed by how fresh and vital a good director can make Shakespeare seem, and Andrew Hilton’s Richard II was an excellent example. His cast clearly trust him, and were prepared to give themselves wholeheartedly to a piece which, in less capable hands, can seem dry and irrelevant. As it happens, I have a soft spot for Richard II (the play not the man); I think it’s one of Shakespeare’s most subtle and interestingly ambiguous plays, and one that has depths to plumb. While this does set me up to enjoy a performance of it, it also means that a bad production will incur greater wrath.
However, as I say, the play was in the safe hands of Hilton, who coaxed some exceptional performances from his actors and brought the plain staging alive with intrigue, plots and murders. There can be a stigma around the histories, mainly because without the neat label of ‘comedy’ or ‘tragedy’ it can be hard to know what to expect. To my mind, when the ‘history’ plays are done well they combine the best of both worlds: Richard II has some of the funniest scenes in Shakespeare as well as some of the most desperately sad.
The play stands or falls on its eponymous king, and John Hefferman was a stunning Richard. The character is morally ambiguous, conflicted and complex. Hefferman charted Richard’s transition from king to pauper with subtlety and humour, making his eventual fall from grace and abject humiliation all the more poignant. He is not always the most likeable character, and Hefferman did well to make the petulant king sympathetic, even as you root for the usurping Bullingbrook to seize the crown.
The first half rattles along; this is high-octane stuff. Hilton skillfully keeps it going at a frenetic pace, making the sudden, quiet moments shockingly powerful. These shifts in tempo kept the audience tense, even if historical knowledge means you know how it’s going to end. The second half was generally more measured, and although this allowed Hefferman to demonstrate his range and to dig deep into the heart of Richard, I found the lack of contrasting, more frantic moments lessened the impact that the calmer moments had in the first half.
Matthew Thomas’s Bullingbrook found a nice balance between ambition and fealty, not giving the audience an easy ‘hero’ to get behind: the whole story is geared around a series of conflicted characters who do not fall into neat ‘good’ and ‘evil’ categories. This can make a nice contrast to the broader brushstrokes of the comedies, say, where there is often a single ‘baddie’ to direct antipathy towards. Paul Currier as the god-fearing and loyal Bishop of Carlisle gave a strong performance, and John Cording was brilliant as the Duke of Northumberland, a man torn between duty, reality and family. Ffion Jolly makes the most of the thinly-written part of Queen, endowing her with self-possession, a sense of entitlement and a deep attachment to her husband, in the space of a few lines.
The set is spare, in usual Tobacco Factory style. The bare stage is occasionally graced with a bench, a table, a stool, but beyond that the court, garden, prison are conjured by word and action. The actors work hard in the mostly empty space and it is delightfully easy to imagine the “gorgeous palace”, the quiet garden, the humble cell, as Hilton guides his cast through a play that resounds across the years and speaks to a contemporary audience in a surprisingly clear voice.

There was a curious inevitability about Pilot Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet, even before we learn in the prologue that these star cross’d lovers will take their life. Chloe Lamford’s visually stunning set is covered in an arresting array of flowers. Coupled with spare staging, simple lines and flickering candles, it was clear from the start that this stage would end up a tomb.

A bold concept for directors Marcus Romer and Katie Posner to stake their production on, but ultimately a gamble worth taking. What could easily have become gimmicky, mawkish, distracting, became a neat framing device, never allowing the audience to forget that this would end in tragedy. Mary Rose’s Lady Capulet was a grieving mother before she spoke a line, putting the deaths in universal human terms: we were never allowed to forget that the two hours traffic of the stage would culminate in the end of this lady’s child.

Posner and Romer were lucky in Rachel Spicer’s fantastic, touchingly young Juliet; she was strong enough to wrench real grief from the well-worn story. Her capricious Juliet flitted between emotions but the sheer joy emanating from her when she found Oliver Wilson’s tender Romeo was beautifully bittersweet. Wilson himself had his moments, and did a convincing line in love-lorn, but was a little contrived in his grief, a little overwrought, perhaps. Chris Landon’s impulsive Mercutio, always ready with an innuendo and a cackle, played nicely off Bryn Holding’s earnest, loyal Benvolio, and Landon demonstrated impressive versatility in his prissy Paris, too, giving him an air of never having been denied anything. Louisa Eyo, who played both Nurse and Duke, switched from lewd to stern, from servant to prince with ease, and was impressive in both roles. Her impassive Duke was a commanding presence, and her loving, laughing Nurse was knowing without stooping to the levels of coarseness practised by the young men.

Sandy Nuttgens’s inciental music was particularly striking, offering sound effects and emotive background without overshadowing the sounds on stage. An impressively varied score, and one that underlined the drama at every turn.

Dramaturg Juliet Forster and the cast have obviously had fun with the text, wringing every possible innuendo out of it, and adding some pelvic thrusts where none are strictly necessary for good measure. Romer and Posner have done a great job with the verse, coaxing admirably clear speaking from the whole cast, and making the words sound new. This is not reverent Shakespeare, although there is clearly affection for the language, but Shakespeare played to be understood and enjoyed, even at its saddest. The audience of school children clearly enjoyed the baser humour, and I left with a sense of youth and wit and fun needlessly wasted. Some judicious cuts kept the play near enough to two hours traffic, as opposed to the self-indulgent three that seems the norm, and kept the story zipping along to its sorry conclusion.

I should start with a disclaimer: this production was coloured by the fact that my companion and I were in the middle of a group of schoolchildren who talked at normal conversational volume throughout the first half, and I was homicidal by the interval. If “shh” could kill… but I digress…

So, my homicidal mania aside, we can return to the actual show. Which was, well, OK. But mediocre Shakespeare is not my idea of a good time, and Carl Heap’s production was not great. What I could hear of the first half (and the lack of audibility was as much the fault of the cast as the acoustics or the raucous children) was witty enough, but there was little spark. Heap had decided to play with the lights up, in deference to how plays would have been performed in Shakespeare’s time – in daylight. Now, this is all well and good if you’re, say, The Globe, and can really honour the whole idea. In a proscenium arch theatre with plush velvet seats and a seven-thirty start? Not so much.

And this is where the production frustrated me: I understand what was Heap was trying to do, and doing Shakespeare “properly” can be a laudable aim, but it was the wrong play, the wrong space, and, frankly, the wrong cast. The actors weren’t bad, just clearly uncomfortable playing to a noisy audience that they could see the whole time. It lead to more posturing, grimacing and hamming than brilliant comic acting, but the verse was nicely-spoken, the innuendo made the most of, and there were some nice moments. The contrast, though, between the more informal style and Victorian staging was odd, and made large parts of the play pantomimic. There was a lot of speaking lines to the audience rather than to other characters, which is not a style of which I am fond, and rather too much ad-libbing and audience participation.

There was a lovely sense of the pervasive mischief of the piece, but it often descended into camp posturing, playing up to the audience, and expecting the laughs to come from “Oh look! He’s hiding! Behind a tiny tree! We can see him! Isn’t it funny!”, rather than making an effort with the acting. Having said that, although unsophisticated, the set pieces were funny, I just felt that more could have been done.

Heap clearly loves the language and encourages actors to play with it,which should be encouraged. However, one wonders if he watched any rehearsals from the back of the stalls: Giulia Galastro’s Beatrice was practically inaudible from row P, and threw away some of her character’s best lines. Shakespeare didn’t write such fiesty women very often, so it seems a shame to waste good insults on the first three rows. My companion and I moved up to the circle at the interval, to escape the chattering, and the sound quality was worse, if anything, although my blood pressure certainly went down. Toby Young’s music was a distraction, too – it did not enhance the action or the dialogue – and the sound levels were wrong.

Oskar McCarthy’s Don John was wooden, and equated “evil” with “scowling”. One wonders if this was his fault or Heap’s. Michael Campbell’s Dogberry was also almost incomprehensible – when a character’s humour lies in their mis-speaking it helps to be to able to hear what they are saying. On the plus side, Nick Ricketts’ raffish Benedick was a delight, moving from cocky to sweet, and earning most of the laughs. He was also, blessedly, loud. Tadhgh Barwell O’Connor played a serviceable Claudio, and Simon Haines leant his Leonato an impressive depth. Mairin O’Hagan’s Hero was enjoyably mischievous, and O’Hagan made Hero a lot more interesting than this pious and wronged heroine is sometimes afforded. She and Galastro made a merry pair, and along with Ellie Nunn’s giggly Margaret and Tamara Astor’s winsome Ursula, actually seemed to be enjoying themselves.

There is a danger when a new play gets a West End transfer that it is carried across London on an excess of hyperbole, which it then cannot sustain. The Royal Court, where Clybourne Park started its life, has an excellent reputation for launching gems – most notably with Jerusalem last year. Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park had audiences in raptures and accolades a-plenty for director Dominic Cook. While this production does eventually justify the hype, the first half hour or so was tough-and-go.

The moments that should have been laugh-out-loud funny were merely enough to raise a smile, and Sophie Thompson’s voice (Bev/Kathy) was grating on my nerves. The first half, set in the 1950s, was a little stilted, a little too restrained, without enough biting satire or comic relief. Stuart McQuarrie’s Russ was so reserved that Thompson’s slightly hysterical Bev was even shriller in contrast, and McQuarrie’s human, moving reaction to his son’s suicide was diminished by the sudden escalation from soft to loud, from politeness to swearing. Cook could have done more to develop some more subtlety in what could have been a more interesting character. Robert Innes Hopkins’s set was fantastic – capturing the stifling civility of small-town America in the 50s, with racial tensions bubbling just beneath the surface.

The second half, though, redeemed the first, and took the play to a whole new level. Norris’s script suddenly took off, becoming sharp, pacey and witty. It also found a good balance between seriously funny and uncomfortably funny. He has a nice line in making you laugh, then think, then feel slightly guilty. The cast seemed more at home in their own time period, too, and the disintegration of civil relations was hilarious and horrifying to watch. I remain unconvinced that the sub-plot of a suicidal son was necessary: it bracketed the story neatly, but I felt that it was a little too pat, an unnecessary tying up of ends that weren’t all that loose.

So, Clybourne Park deserves the hype, but is not flawless. I saw the first preview, and hope it will bed in a bit and become more fluid and fluent as the run progresses. The first half is about ten minutes too long, and would benefit greatly from being pacier. The cast are generally a little over-the-top in the first half, their reactions melodramatic and there are not enough emotional shades of grey. The second half, however, was worth the trip alone.