Wednesday, 15 February 2017

'La Ronde' review or 'Care to go for a spin?'

La Ronde, Schnitzler/Gill
The Bunker, 13th February 2017
Written for Time Out 

Arthur Schnitzler’s saucy play, La Ronde (1897), was so risqué that it was initially performed only to friends. His drama about fate, desire and love was banned by the censors but eventually premiered, sweaty and triumphant, in 1920. Max Gill’s new adaptation plays in the suitably shady underground venue The Bunker. The cast is sparky and energetic as hell but there’s something strangely asexual about what is essentially a play about sex. 
The big twist in Max Gill’s adaptation is a giant wheel of fortune, which hovers brightly above the stage. In between scenes, the wheel is spun and the actors’ roles decided. As the wheel spins, the cast change costume in front of a huge graffiti wall, packed with words such as ‘intense’, ‘steamy’, ‘desire’.  Naked limbs fly about, Jack Weir’s lighting throbs and snatched confessions, taken from Gill’s interviews with real-life Londoners, boom overhead. It’s all pretty charged.
The real scenes, unfortunately, are less of a thrill. Writer and director Gill has maintained Schnitzler’s structure – lovers, themes and props criss-cross throughout – but most of the material is original. A lot of scenes feel a little predictable, the characters overdone. And while there’s a heck of a lot of sex – incest, adultery, internet-dating, sado-masochism – there’s very little steam. Gill is pushing at the idea of sex as performance but perhaps he pushes a little too hard. The scenes rarely feel real.  
A few powerful moments of intimacy emerge. A hug between a doctor (Lauren Samuels, sharp throughout) and lecturer (Alex Vlahos) hits hard and, when a bus driver (Amanda Wilkin – forceful) begs a prostitute to kiss her, her loneliness echoes. The dirtiest word of all, suggests Gill, is love. 

Thursday, 2 February 2017

'The Iron Man' review or 'Are you ready to test your mettle?'

The Iron Man, Ted Hughes
Unicorn Theatre, 31st January 2017
Written for Guardian online 

With shadow puppetry, singing, dancing, stop motion animation and live flames added to Ted Hughes’s oozing, dark narrative, this is an ambitious reworking of the children’s story The Iron Man. It’s like Matthew Robins and his team have effectively thrown theatre at The Iron Man and, while some of it sticks, a lot of it doesn’t. As Hannah, my 13-year-old theatre companion, remarks: “They’ve tried to think so far out of the box, that the box has disappeared.”
In Hughes’s story, the Iron Man – taller than the tallest tree – munches his way through all the metal in a small village. The farmers get so upset that they capture him and chuck him in a pit. A small boy befriends the Iron Man and, when a crazy bat creature threatens to destroy the planet, he is called upon to save the day. The story ends with the creature orbiting the globe, singing a peaceful melody. It’s a seriously strange adventure and requires clean lines and big emotions on stage – but Robins and his wildly talented team have taken the opposite approach. They’ve made matters much, much more complicated.
It’s hard to make out the story amid the restless stage activity. There’s a very long scene at the start when the Iron Man, having fallen off a cliff, tries to piece himself together. The three performers – Justyna Janiszewska, Avye Leventis and Daniel Naddafy – take an age reassembling Robins’s and Tim Hunkin’s giant cardboard box sculpture. Perhaps this scene was meant to translate into some sort of mournful dance but it ends up feeling messy and over-extended.
Lots of scenes are dazzlingly imaginative, but they don’t get us any closer to Hughes’ story. When we meet the boy for the first time, it’s via an ambitious but overly complicated piece of stagecraft. A scrappy wooden puppet is recorded in a tiny set on stage, and the image is then projected on to the back wall. I ask Hannah who she thinks the puppet is and she has no idea. Neither do I. 
All the different styles of theatre begin to work against each other. Robins’ looming landscapes and wistful sketches are stunning, but his sweeping projections never merge with the activity on stage. Hughes’s narrative is rich and threatening, but it’s delivered entirely as a voiceover and feels one step removed from the puppets and performers. There’s even a silly song but, while it’s wittily performed, it’s also wildly out of place. I watch Hannah literally pull back from the show. 
Things heat up in the closing scenes as the Iron Man challenges the “terribly black and terribly fanged” bat creature to a test of strength. An iron sculpture is laid on top of a naked flame and the children in the audience lean in. The bat creature (a puppet-performer hybrid, made out of a sweeping cloak and sculpted wolf-like head) sweeps about the stage in a manic dance, angry lights flashing and music clanging. Finally, the stage lights up with Hughes’s dark purpose, as giant shadows threaten to envelop us all. 

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

'The Great Gatsby' review or 'What a swell party this is.'

The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
The Vault Festival, 27th January 2017
Written for Time Out 

Who wouldn’t want to have a drink with Jay Gatsby? He’s charming and mysterious, and throws one hell of a party. The man is a hoot! But if you’re hoping to get intimate with F Scott Fitzgerald’s romantic hero – to really get stuck into his beautiful enveloping novel – then this immersive pastiche isn’t for you. This is a chance to get pissed with Gatsby and friends, but don’t expect any late night revelations.
Event company The Guild of Misrule have past form with immersive nights and it all feels polished and professional. And Alexander Wright’s show moves fluidly enough, as the cast subtly shepherd us from one play space to the next: a large dance area (Charleston anyone?), a pretty but pricey bar (who’s up for a £160 bottle of champers?) and a few smaller spaces for slightly more intimate encounters.
It’s all quite jolly, but the scenes – largely plucked directly from the novel – make little impact. Nick Carraway (Daniel Dingsdale) crawls over the bar and recites some of Fitzgerald’s most haunting prose, but no one’s really listening. Gatsby (Oliver Tilney, charmer) and Daisy (Amie Burns Walker) finally reunite, but we couldn’t give a fig. Poor Myrtle is killed, Tom spurned and Nick seduced but none of the moments – clipped and context-free – feel meaningful.
There’s none of the desperate heat, heart, longing and loneliness that swirls through Fitzgerald’s novel. A centrepiece of this year’s Vault Festival, the venue has been draped in gold tinsel and enthusiastically spruced up by designer Robert Readman, yet there’s no feeling of crazy, urgent excess. The actors are dressed in gorgeous period costumes but the roaring ’20s never quite roar (not helped by bursts of contemporary music). The most convincing component is the audience: dressed up to the nines, cheeky as hell and gloriously drunk. 

Monday, 23 January 2017

'Us/Them' review or 'Emotional exchange.'

Us/Them, Carly Wijs
National Theatre, 21st January 2017
Written for Exeunt

Us/Them is the story of the Beslan school siege in Russia – a devastating terrorist attack in September 2004, which resulted in the death of 330 hostages, including 186 children – told from the perspective of two young students. It is a delicate two-hander, told largely through movement. It isn’t sensationalist. It isn’t even explicitly emotional, although – ultimately – there’s deep pain and sorrow in here. Above all, this is an extraordinarily thoughtful and compassionate play about the way in which the young process trauma and the different filters that children and adults place over the truth. It is also about how we learn to look away, the older we become.
The show begins with the two actors – Gytha Parmentier (all smiles and eager pep) and Roman Van Houtven (gangly innocence and charm) – crawling around the stage, empty except for a climbing wall along the back. The two are clutching chalk and very carefully drawing the outline of their school on the stage floor, pointing out exits, classrooms, a gymnasium, and hiding spaces as they go. The girl and boy keep bumping into each other, but their focus never wanes. What matters is completing the map. What matters is that they reflect their reality, whatever it might be, as accurately as possible.
Director Carly Wijs’ show shimmers with a strange double emotional reality, which makes it very funny at times – and awfully painful at others. The children do not experience this ‘story’ in the same way that adults might. They have a sort of emotional amnesia (as all children do), which allows them to experience anger, pain, sorrow in a flash – and then move on. It makes them very efficient story-tellers – able to jump easily and quickly from one heightened emotional state to the next. But this emotional forgetfulness begins to have a gruelling effect on the audience, as we’re left to hold onto the emotions, which the children so quickly forget, or simply cannot – at this stage – understand.

It’s the first day of the school term and the two children sing a song: ‘Oh wonderful new future!’ With their chests puffed out and their voices ringing loud and clear, there’s not a hint of irony about the children’s performances – that irony is left to us to absorb and, perhaps, keep concealed. It’s a horrible burden, which only continues to grow – slowly and imperceptibly – throughout the show.
The siege begins and reality is again oddly – but honestly – skewed by the two children caught up in this horror. The day begins to feel like an Action Adventure film. The girl and boy imagine their dads rushing to action, as news of the horror hits the town. They count down the seconds to their inevitable rescue. But the dads don’t arrive. The two dream up possible reasons for this delay – traffic jams or other distractions. But still the fathers do not come. What is most devastating of all, throughout Us/Them, is the moment when the children’s expected narrative, the good endings they have grown up believing in, are sickeningly subverted.
Stef Stessel’s design plays tricks on us, with images that are beautiful and comforting – but also chilling and ugly (it just depends on your perspective). The children grab long threads from inside the climbing holds. They pull the threads back and forth across the stage, until a complex web fills the ‘gymnasium’ in which the children, teachers and parents are now held hostage. That web is the teeming life caught up in the siege, but it is also the town beyond the school walls, the network of families connected to those trapped inside. Sometimes it seems like that web represents the political communities – Putin and his secret service – whose response to the mission is so lethally intertwined with the fate of those hostages. Most literally, of course, those strings stand in for the bombs that have been installed throughout the gym – the bombs that will eventually explode in the raid that ended the siege, along with so many of the hostages’ lives.
Later, following a failed rescue attempt, the climbing holds in the back wall let in sharp shards of light – bullet holes, through which the sun pierces. It looks kind of beautiful, even if it is an image that reeks of death. Look at how we are beginning to sanitize this tragedy; look at how the lighting and music plays tricks on our senses, and begins to soften the edges of this unimaginably awful day.
Gradually, despite the children’s resolute cheer – and their refusal to address anything other than the facts– the reality of the situation begins to catch up with them. It is a physical reality rather than an emotional one. The hostages, denied food and water throughout the siege, begin to suffer. They fall to the ground. They begin to choke. But throughout it all the children faithfully follow the terrorists’ commands, carefully keeping their hands raised and eyes to the ceiling. It’s heart-breaking to watch that misplaced faith writ large – that childlike and deeply mistaken belief that if they follow the rules, it will all be OK.
As the siege stretches out over three impossible days, the children faithfully report the number of hostages – a number which is slowly chipped away at. For the two children, these numbers are simply a sum they must complete. It is left to the adults in the audience to take on the emotional impact of that sum, the real people behind those figures.
Our faith is slowly eroded; our souls steadily and unstoppably cooled.
As the siege finally comes to an end – and a total of 330 hostages are killed in one final and brutal raid – the story is aired on news channels across the world. The two children re-enact these broadcasts for us and, with each re-telling in each country, mournful classical music is layered over the commentary, soft lighting laid on and a poetical sorrow threaded throughout. As adults, then, we too have developed out own sort of emotional amnesia: a refusal to look head-on at these atrocities and accept the truth that ‘they’ might one day be ‘us’.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Albatross 3rd & Main review or 'Can you flap your wings a little harder?'

The Albatross 3rd & Main, Simon David Eden
Park Theatre, 13th January 2017
Written for Time Out

Welcome to Gene Lacy’s General Store. It’s a world of muted brown, with faded plank walls, scruffy memorabilia and pickled beets. Lots of pickled beets. It’s not even Gene Lacy’s store anymore, since he became riddled with debt and had to sell the place to Lullaby. This is the store that time and America forgot. The only thing missing is the tumbleweed.
Unfortunately, that feeling of stagnation never leaves Simon David Eden’s latest play ‘The Albatross 3rd & Main’. This comedy about a trio of down-on-their-luck Americans – who invest their hopes in a dead but priceless golden eagle – is seriously laboured. Eden has his characters explain the play’s central premise not once, but twice. The golden eagle, we are told, is a coveted bird. It is a crucial part of most tribal ceremonies. The only catch is that it’s a federal offence to own one – so the eagle, that great American symbol, is denied to those that need it most.
Do you geddit? If you don’t, I can explain it again. It’s all a bit convoluted and, yet, other than the over-stuffed eagle, there’s little going on here. Spider (Charlie Allen, decked in leather) walks into Gene’s shop with said eagle, which needs stashing. Gene (Hamish Clark, drawn and cynical) wrings his hands a little and Lullaby (Andrew St Clair James), an ex-fighter now soft in the head, mumbles in the corner. When things get particularly ‘tense’, Lullaby recites from 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'. It’s a particularly affected touch from Eden, whose writing is smart but occasionally showy.
David Mamet’s ‘American Buffalo’ – also set in a run-down store and involving three hopeless schemers – is an obvious comparison. But this buffalo lacks bite. Playwright Eden also directs and designs and, though the set is evocative, the direction is sloppy. The dialogue sags and the actors never feel settled. There are some good quips and nice physical gags – but few feathers are ruffled.  

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

'Three Sisters' review or 'I don't quite see the family resemblance.'

Three Sisters, Chehkov/Tracy Letts 
Union Theatre, 5th January 2016
Written for Time Out 

Tracy Letts is not a huge fan of Chekhov. This adaptation of 'Three Sisters' - receiving its UK premiere - is Letts’s attempt to right a few ‘wrongs’. He has gotten rid of the fussier contextual stuff and, supposedly, stripped the play down to an excoriating family drama (think a Russian ‘August: Osage County’). But where there should be passion, fire, and sheer bloody will of character, there is only a tame flicker of emotion. This is a disappointing adaptation, which nods at Chekhov’s three sisters – but doesn’t really seem to know them.
The context has been kept ‘fluid’, which really means it hasn’t changed much at all. Phil Wilmott’s production is still firmly located in 20th century Russia – only Olga, Masha, Irina and their entourage wear contemporary costumes and play with the occasional anachronistic prop. The set is sparse and timeless (no designer is listed) and the swirling activity revolves around a gloomily lit piano and little else. It doesn’t feel like Russia, it doesn’t really feel like anywhere.
None of this would matter a jot if the relationships clanged and clashed – but they don’t. Ivy Corbin’s gothic Masha is suitably sullen, Celine Abrahams’ Olga is weary and steady and Molly Crookes’ sparkly-eyed Irina talks breathlessly of Moscow, as if it’s a lover she longs to return to. They’re fine individual studies but the family portrait doesn’t stick.
Ashley Russell’s Vershinin never quite seduces nor appals; we don’t fall for him and neither does Masha. Steven Rodgers’ Kulygin is perfectly pleasant but that final scene, when Kulygin kills Masha with kindness, is painless. The only relationship that rattles is that between Natasha (Francesca Burgoyne) – who sweeps through the house like a bitter wind - and the sisters’ hapless brother Andrey (Benjamin Chandler). They are the future writ large – and it is a sad and frightening prospect.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Mary Stuart review or 'Is this coin loaded?'

Mary Stuart, Schiller/Icke
Almeida Theatre, 15th December 2016
Written for Exeunt

Here’s a selection of my notes, written whilst watching Robert Icke’s new adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s heady (oh yes, I said it) play Mary Stuart: ‘Gosh, there’s a lot of history’; ‘It’s just one great procrastination!’ and my personal favourite: ‘Why won’t anyone stop talking?’
Listen, there’s no doubt this is an ‘impressive’ production of an ‘important’ play (written in 1800); words like ‘timely’, ‘incisive’ and ‘provocative’ spring to mind. I can’t and won’t deny that Schiller’s study of two Queens and cousins – Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart – locked in a see-sawing game of power tells us a lot about the sheer amount of luck involved in politics, and the way that cowardice runs through history like a toxic river gathering speed and volume. Schiller was hugely indebted to Shakespeare and his script is brilliantly crafted and designed: each beat is measured with exquisite precision and the dialogue carved out with exacting purpose. But. But.
Robert Icke has made some interesting tweaks, too. His canny embellishments add dramatic frisson and contemporary catching points. The key innovation happens at the beginning of the production when the lead actors – Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams – slowly sashay onto Hildegard’s Bechlter’s raised podium stage and watch a coin toss. Lia Williams is asked to make a call – heads (ha!) – and the roles are allocated accordingly (on press night Williams drew Mary Stuart and Juliet Stevenson, Elizabeth). And so history is set in motion with a mere toss of a coin and the fickleness of history, the exquisite delicacy of legacy, flares up around the framework of every scene that follows. But. But.

It’s all a bit ‘showy’, this toss of the coin and I’m not convinced it’s necessary – at least not quite to this extent. Stevenson and Williams had to learn two monumental roles and the press night was consequently – and understandably – postponed. The actors were clearly struggling with such a task. One could still sense the strain of that task on opening night: the occasional stuttered line, the slightly awkward shimmer that encased both performances. On one level, the fragility of both performances spoke of the thin line that separated Elizabeth and Mary Stuart’s destinies; the tiny turns of fate that determined Elizabeth’s successful rein and Mary’s death. One can appreciate those implications on an intellectual level. But. But.
I mourned the greater performances I might’ve seen, the more nuanced and convincing characters I might have known. Director and adaptor Icke has created a defiantly sparse production. Until a rather beautiful closing scene – during which Elizabeth is dressed up in period costume and Mary Stuart is stripped and prepared for her beheading – both Mary and Elizabeth, along with their attendants, are dressed in contemporary clothes. Mary and Elizabeth wear identical costumes: black trousers and a white shirt. So, whilst the play is still of the 1560s, the costumes nod to the modern day. Again, it’s not difficult to understand the canny implications of this shift – and the way these contemporary connotations might help us to reflect on our own precarious structures of power. But. But.
There’s so little sense of ceremony about this production and so few visual indicators of power. Crucially, I found it very hard to believe that Elizabeth was a Queen, or Mary a now-exiled and imprisoned Scottish Queen. I also craved a little visual relief. Bechtler’s stage is persistently gloomy and bare. Occasionally, the stage rotates – and the wheel of fortune turns – but that’s about it for visual pizazz. Laura Marling’s oozing music runs like oil beneath the scenes and adds some much-needed texture to the production. Screens are suspended around the stage but they‘re used very little, other than to mark out the scene changes. It is all very dark and very pared back. Alongside all of this there is endless – carefully measured – talking, as Elizabeth agonises over what to do with an imprisoned Mary. At its heart, this play is essentially a waiting game – a holding off of the inevitable that we all know too well – and that waiting game does get a little bloody trying.
There’s a snag about the principal characters too. Put simply, neither Queen is particularly impressive. That is no reflection on the performances. Stevenson’s Elizabeth radiates with an ice hot dignity that only Stevenson can create, and Williams’ Mary has a sort of earthy strength that blazes from every pore. But Elizabeth and Mary are easily manipulated and hopelessly in thrall to their hearts, and both are undone by their love for the slimy and second-rate Leicester (John Light – suitably slimy and second-rate). As the critical point draws closer and a decision about Mary must be made, Elizabeth drops to the floor in agony. She cries out, ‘I am weak’ and writhes about at the feet of a male attendant. Of course, one might say that such a scene exposes the fragile humanity that lingers beneath such powerful figures in history. And – yet – I struggle to imagine a play about two male leaders playing out in such a way. On a basic level, it is galling that a play about two extraordinarily powerful women is principally a play about weakness and delay.
And so the toss of a coin, and Schiller’s dramatic choices, gradually chip away at the Queens’ power and performers’ impact. It is only when the words dry up in the penultimate scene that Stevenson and Williams begin to exert real influence. Williams stands still as she is stripped down and readied for her execution, and there is a lightness and calm about her that feels incredibly brave and strong. Stevenson stands frozen to the spot, as her face is covered in white powder and her body enshrouded in heavy costume. By the end of this ceremony, Stevenson’s Queen Elizabeth cannot move. Only her eyes – a tiny dot amid that suffocating white – remain exposed. They dart about and sparkle, instinctively searching for an escape from the gilded cage of power.