Thursday, 16 February 2017

Nunn's tenure at the National and the perhaps unhelpful binary of new/old work

This is a quick response post on the article published today in The Stage where Trevor Nunn said that the ‘National Theatre has duty to both new work and classics’. His comment is in response to Michael Billington’s article, my thoughts on which can be partly read here.

So, I realise Trevor Nunn’s time as Artistic Director of the National was quite controversial. This is mainly because it is seen that he upped the amount of commercial productions staged, especially musicals, with some not liking that public money helped to fund My Fair Lady which went on to have commercial gains. However, he did achieve a balance between the amount of revivals and new plays he staged between 1997 and 2003. There were just under 50 new works staged at the NT under his time as AD, including Patrick Marber’s Closer, Tanika Gupta’s The Waiting Room and a world premiere of a Tennessee Williams’ play, Not About Nightingales. There were roughly 40 revivals (if anything slightly less than the amount of new work), including A Streetcar Named Desire, No Man’s Land and The Duchess of Malfi. I should note that about nine of these were Shakespeare plays which Billington excludes from his thoughts on revivals. But overall, it is quite a healthy balance.

But Nunn was AD for a shorter time than (I imagine) Norris is hoping to be at the National and so Norris’ longer term plans might be different. What’s more, to reiterate what I said in my last blog post on this, Norris is staging revivals this year including work by Shakespeare, Kushner and Sondheim, and has staged many revivals so far in his tenure. Also, I agree with what one writer said (I forget which), that in a time of potential political turbulence regarding Brexit and Trump, our National Theatre should be leading the way with work that that helps us understand the changing politics – although revivals can do this as well, Hytner’s production of Henry V is often a popular example of that.

My main point though is that this new obsession with the binary of ‘new/ old work’ is a possibly problematic view of how theatre is and should be made. During Nunn’s tenure, he staged about 20 works based on old texts given new versions, such as Ostrovsky’s The Forest (1871) in a new version by Ayckbourn, The Villains’ Opera based on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) and Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan (1940-43) in a new version by Tanika Gupta. Norris has done similar things with Marber’s Three Days in the Country, after Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, Marber’s new version of Hedda Gabler and Suhayla El-Bushra’s The Suicide after Erdman. Billington’s views, in my opinion, come with an underlying belief that the writer is autonomous and highly regarded. This is perhaps an old-fashioned way of looking at theatre making. Rather than the black and white Venn Diagram sort of programming that only sees productions on terms of whether they are old or new, isn’t it better to also remember how they can be based on older texts even if they are reworked to a more contemporary style and practice? I don’t know how planning a season at the National works (but I imagine it’s difficult!) but I imagine a lot of different boxes have to ticked and many quotas met. I’d prefer for the NT to carry on trying to concentrate on whether diversity (and all of the many things which that word encompasses) is being achieved rather than strictly having to ensure that they are balancing the amount of old work and the amount of new work that they are producing.

The National Theatre do have a duty to stage both classics and new work, which I personally think they are achieving, but thinking of their productions in a more fluid way rather than just the black and white terms of ‘is it new or is it old?’ might help how we see and approach theatre-making to move forward.

I have been referring to Daniel Rosenthal’s tome The National Theatre Story for statistics.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Wedding Singer

Curve, Leicester
14th February 2017

Surely it’s no coincidence that the new tour of The Wedding Singer launched on Valentine’s Day. It’s a show about love, engagement, weddings – or lack of weddings! – and it’s hard to beat for a date night with that special someone. Featuring a boppy pop score and cute romance, the musical centres on the ups and downs, loves and losses of the idealistic Robbie Hart (Jon Robyns), the titular ‘wedding singer’. While director/choreographer, Nick Winston’s, production is fun, frothy, and chock-a-block with tongue-in-cheek humour.

Entering the auditorium, the tone is set by classic 80’s movie trailers (The Goonies, Back to the Future) projected onto the stage. For anyone who remembers the 80’s the affectionate ribbing of the fads and fashions is endearing without being cloyingly nostalgic - (un)fortunately, I just missed out on the decade that taste forgot, but my mum assures me the references were spot on!. Jokes about Dallas and cell phones the size of suitcases, to Thriller-esque choreography are but a few knowing nods to our reminiscence. Improving on the 1998 film, the Billy Idol scene is a hoot and escalates to sheer meta-comic joy as an ensemble of well known ‘fake’ celebs join the climactic action.

The 80’s theming even stretches as far as the score, with several songs reminiscent of tracks from Madonna, Bon Jovi type ‘Hair Rock’ bands, and even The Sugarhill Gang in a thoroughly surreal moment involving Ruth Madoc grinding away to a ‘Rapper’s Delight’ style beat (‘Move That Thang’). Overall, there seems to be about equal measures of quality and filler in Matthew Sklar and Tim Herlihy’s score; some numbers don’t always seem to flow easily from the plot, hence scenes occasionally being a little choppy. However, the show is lifted by gems such as the wistful ‘Someday’, and punchy ‘Casualty of Love’, while the song that has undoubtedly seared itself into my brain is a number that has successfully been transposed from screen to stage, ‘Somebody Kill Me’, a hilarious exercise in post-breakup angsty indulgence. Being familiar with the film, and anticipating what’s coming only makes the song funnier.

The cast is littered with fine performances, notably from a scene-stealing Samuel Holmes as keyboardist, George, and an outrageously full-on Tara Verloop as Robbie’s ex, Linda. Nevertheless, this is Jon Robyns’ show. He’s a solid leading man, and has much more room to shine here than the last production I saw him in, Curve’s Legally Blonde. As Robbie, Robyns showcases his quintuple talents – yep, count ’em: he sings, acts, dances, has comic timing down to a tee, and, to top it off, plays the guitar! The acoustic numbers particularly show off his crystal clear vocals (occasionally the ensemble numbers felt a little drowned out by the band, a sound mixing issue, I assume) while Robyns’ natural likability ensures we root for his and waitress, Julia’s (a sweet Cassie Compton) relationship.

While The Wedding Singer is far from ground-breaking, it’s reassuringly feel-good, like putting on a pair of cosy slippers and settling down in front of a rom-com with a glass of wine and chocolates. This new tour should go down well with audiences as a charming piece of escapism during these cold winter nights and is guaranteed to leave you with a smile on your lips and a spring in your step.

The Wedding Singer plays at Curve, Leicester until 18th February, followed by a nationwide tour. For all tour dates visit

Tuesday, 7 February 2017


The Little Theatre, Leicester
6th February 2017

It’s difficult to review Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth without giving away too many spoilers or plot twists (and the twists come thick and fast in Edward Spence’s production which ramps up the tension and sense of escalating hysteria). But it’s fair to say that it’s a play brimming with testosterone-fuelled one-upmanship and manipulation, while also presenting a wry subversion of the thriller genre.

Reclusive crime writer, Andrew Wyke (Kenton Hall), invites his wife’s young lover, Milo (Jaz Cox), to his grand manor house with the intention of making him an offer which could benefit both of them. However, the opportunistic Milo is unaware of the ulterior motives behind Wyke’s apparent generosity. The evening gradually descends into meticulously organised chaos as the men tussle for the upper hand and we, likewise, are continually wrong-footed. I would liken it to being trapped within a Hall of Mirrors; the story and characters continually warp before our eyes and you’re never quite sure what exactly is going on. It is a testament to the direction and masterly performances from Hall and Cox that Shaffer’s script (which in lesser hands could err too much on the side of farce) is handled with a confidence which ensures that each twist hits its mark.

Similar to Shaffer’s blackly comic Murderer, Sleuth plays upon recurrent themes of interest to the playwright, often involving binaries and the shades of grey between them; precision vs. chaos, fact vs. fiction, illusion vs. reality. Thus, an exploration of the motives and categorisations of crime provides an interesting perspective on modern morality and the increasing desire to be entertained – whatever the cost. Wyke’s obsession with games shapes the plot and is cleverly referenced in the set,  from old board games peppering his bookcase, to his suit-of-cards window frames and juvenile dressing-up box. Hall’s superb performance teeters atop a precipice between cold calculation and manic joviality as Wyke’s grip upon ‘the game’ gradually loosens, equally matched by Cox's progression from naive chancer into unnerving hysteria.

Shaffer’s, admittedly rather macabre, interest in crime thrillers is evident in his ability to both create a genuinely intriguing psychological mystery, while simultaneously highlighting the absurdities and well-worn tropes of the genre by cleverly subverting them – the ‘dim local copper’ being one. Moreover, instances of casual sexism and Milo’s comment regarding the use of foreign characters as comedy fodder in crime fiction illuminate the darker, more questionable aspects of what is often termed ‘cosy crime’ in highstreet bookshops, and my experience of Agatha Christie stories certainly supports this particular criticism.

Spence’s taut and highly entertaining production makes the most of an interesting script/concept which allows the small cast to truly shine.

Sleuth runs at The Little Theatre, Leicester until 11th February, 2017.
Photos by Matthew Cawrey (

Friday, 3 February 2017

What's in a Name?

Birmingham Rep
2nd February 2017, matinee

Moroccan buffets, converted lofts, children called Gooseberry and Apollinaire. The trendy lefties have moved into the Rep in this dinner party comedy based on Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patelliére’s French play and film Le Prénom. Set at Elizabeth and Pete’s dinner party to congratulate her brother and his wife’s baby scan, the dinner soon turns sour when Vincent suggests they’re naming the baby Adolphe after a French novel. After being told that he can’t name a baby after Hitler by the mortified Peter and Lizzie, he changes the spelling to the more well-known ‘Adolf’, convinced that his son’s excellence will defy Hitler’s reputation. He later reveals he was joking, but this leads to a series of arguments. As you’d expect with this genre, home truths soon surface and relationships are tested. Beneath all the tajines, fancy plonk and swanky pad, they’re miserable, nursing grudges about turned down PhDs and marital tension. Some plot twists and jokes are predictable but it’s a timely and funny harpooning of the perceived cosmopolitan lifestyle.

The left has perhaps been somewhat underrepresented in the media lately, and it’s interesting to consider where What’s in a Name? fits into that. It ridicules the faux hipster left (perhaps the right wing’s idea of the left) but how far can this play really go to satirise them when it probably simultaneously assuages us, the audience? It may be an easy watch and we soon slip into chuckling at couscous but that isn’t the play’s fault. Indeed, Jeremy Sams’ adroit adaptation (superbly transposed to contemporary London) is interested in stereotypes and how we come across. Of course the characters think that Carl, the camp trombonist who has lived in San Francisco, is gay (despite being one of their closest friends). And of course they adopt a Scottish accent when enacting stinginess. It is Daily Mail reading and Mercedes driving Vincent that says he doesn’t care how he comes across, refusing to read the Guardian to simply make him look superior. Overall, this is an astute class comedy about how every word and outward image is loaded with political meaning.

Dramatically, What’s in a Name? may offer nothing new but its satirising of the middle classes is as funny as an Ayckbourn play or Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage. Sams’ production is finely tuned ensuring that the dinner party platitudes believably descend into farce. Nigel Harman does a solid job as the antagonising Vincent, winding his old friends up with Fuhrer forename proposals, although you have to question the character’s morbid sense of humour. Sarah Hadland and Jamie Glover (the latter being well experience in farce after Noises Off) are also impressive as the married couple stuck in middle class inertia, one not happy with her job and the other not happy with his family life.

Complete with a mini Shard in the background and a (I imagine) rather neat way of getting Nigel Harman from upstairs to the front door in a matter of seconds, Francis O’Connor’s handsome rooftop apartment design has come straight from a home improvement magazine. Fairy lights on the patio, bespoke lifestyle units, and uber chic furniture make up this (*Kirsty Allsopp voice*) ‘cosy’ starter home.

What’s in a Name? deserves a longer run and would easily be at home in the West End as a refreshing alternative to another upcoming revival of Abigail’s Party.

What’s in a Name? runs at Birmingham Rep until 11th February, 2017.

Sarah Hadland, Olivia Poulet, Raymond Coulthard, Jamie Glover and Nigel Harman. Photo by Robert Day

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Tortoise and the Hare: my thoughts on the Hare and Billington articles

Firstly, I am a fan of Hare’s work*. I think that’s important to say as he does get a bit of a kicking sometimes. Then again that criticism isn’t wholly unfounded; I found his recent memoirs, for example, equally fascinating and infuriating. But whilst reading his latest comments about European directors such as Ivo Van Hove that he made in an interview with Jeffrey Sweet – and I’m sure he’s as pleased as punch with this controversy, I mean we’re all going to buy his book now, right? – I found there were a lot of question marks and exclamation marks popping up.


Do European theatre directors camp up classic plays? Is there a definition of camp I’m unaware of? I’ve only seen one Van Hove production (A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic) and it was one of the tensest things I’ve seen on a stage, not camp.

Cut them and prune them: Yeah, so Van Hove’s A View from the Bridge was very short in comparison to other productions but cutting plays down to suit contemporary theatre practises can be a good thing, yeah? Many adaptors, and Hare has done a lot of adapting/ translating, do this so is his problem that it’s a director doing it rather than a writer?

Why would a directing style take over state of the nation plays? Lyn Gardner is quite right in listing plays in which ‘the nation’s soul and psyche’ are captured but have also been presented in different forms and styles.Iphigenia in Splott – performed by one woman – was exhilarating in its poetic and sparse language and also dazzling because of its sharp eye on poverty and local cuts in 21st century Britain.

Furthermore, and more pressingly, is that the only thing we write in this country? State of the nation plays? I’ve written dissertations and essays about playwrights who have written major state of the nation plays but I didn’t think that that’s the only theatre there is, or all the theatre that is worth seeing. I imagine this is something that would be cleared up by reading in full what Hare has to say in the book though, so – once again – looking forward to reading it Jeffrey! And I’m not sure State of the Nation plays are disappearing from the repertoire. Look at DC Moore’s new play Common and Rory Mullarkey’s new play Saint George and the Dragon at the National this year and they both sound like they could be commenting on aspects of Britain and our sense of nationhood.

I know next to nothing about European theatre. Bloggers like ‘Postcards from the Gods’ (wonderful blogger!) actually go to Europe and see plays! Imagine that! Me, on the other hand, I could perhaps draw a sketch of a stereotyped and clichéd idea of what I think European theatre is and it would probably be closer to Hare’s views on it than it is to the actual thing. I agree with Sweet, however, when he says we don’t want a load of Van Hove-lites directing everything in his style. Likewise, I don’t want Van Hove monopolising all classic plays either.

So what’s Hare’s problem? I think it’s partly generational and partly to do with the changing (changed?) role of the writer in 21st century theatre practice. Firstly, remember the NT50 celebrations where actors/writers/directors fawned over the best things they’ve seen at the National? Well one of the things than came up (if I remember correctly) was Peter Stein’s production of Gorky’s Summerfolk, a production which came over from Berlin. Stein’s production rewrote 40% of the text through improvisation in rehearsal collaborating with the company and a dramaturg. Hare himself said (in his NT50 interview) that he apparently welcomed those foreign productions at least because they put a perspective on the British theatre at the time. So why then does he now see European directing styles as an infection to the British theatre? Is it the abundance of them or a particular style or trend that he favours against?

The abundance of Van Hove’s work, particularly at the NT recently, might also be displeasing to Hare. He recently (in his Simon Stephens’ Royal Court podcast) praised the Royal Court for being a writers’ theatre and lamenting that the NT isn’t perhaps as led by its new writers as it seems to be led by its directors. Maybe Hare fears that Van Hove et al treats text with irreverence but then again perhaps Hare treats it with too high a reverence. The role of the writer is of course still valued and (I would like to think) crucial in contemporary theatre but they perhaps don’t hole the same sovereignty that they once did.

Which brings me onto Billington. I think it’s a separate debate even though me writing about both writers in the same blog is helping to conflate matters. Billington is surprised by the lack of inclusion of much classic work (apart from by Shakespeare, Kushner and Sondheim) in the National’s new season, saying ‘From its inception, the National has combined the roles of providing a library of world drama and acting as a stimulus to living playwrights’.The term library, I feel, doesn’t help his argument. I don’t want to go to the theatre to appreciate classic plays, still dusty from being dragged off the bookshelf, but instead to experience and engage with old and new plays in a way that I can see them afresh. But Norris has already staged revivals by Churchill, Wilson, Hansberry, Turgenev (via Marber), Farquhar (with dramaturg work by Marber), Ibsen (once again, via Marber – Billington might as well have written about how there’s too much Marber at the NT), Granville Barker, Chekhov, O’Casey, Kane, Brecht, Rattigan, Shaffer, DH Lawrence, Wertenbaker and probably more.

I go to the theatre for classic plays but, at a time of Trump and Brexit, the new plays that try to make sense of the world are of most interest to me.

* Really, Skylight and The Red Barn were two of the best things I’ve ever seen in a cinema/ theatre, both for different reasons. And the plays I’ve read of his make me want to see them, particularly the NT trilogy and Plenty. And each time I try to persuade my girlfriend that he’s a really interesting and entertaining playwright, he goes and says something antagonistic which understandably puts her off.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Ramin Karimloo and the Broadgrass Band: Lead Me Home tour

Curve, Leicester
15th January 2017

Following his success in shows as diverse as Les Miserables, Love Never Dies, and Murder Ballad, Ramin Karimloo tours his passion project, a unique genre of music he dubs ‘broadgrass’ – show tunes with a bluegrass flavour – before returning to the bright lights of Broadway to star in the premiere of the long-awaited stage adaptation of Anastasia. The evening began with singer/songwriter Rob Richings’ easy going brand of folk-pop, a gentle yet endearing warm up before the headline act. The band themselves, including Jessie Linden (percussion/vocals), Matthew Harvey (guitar/keyboard/vocals), Nick Pini (bass/vocals) and Georgina Leach (violin), have all the musical chemistry expected of bluegrass and country acts; a tremendous success considering the hairpin tightness of those harmonies.

The set included a mix of original songs, such as fan favourite ‘Broken’, written with Karimloo’s Sheytoons collaborator, Hadley Fraser, to covers ranging from folk (‘Wild World’) to musical theatre classics (‘Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’’, ‘Ol’ Man River’, ‘Being Alive’, ‘High Flying Adored’). The five piece band were evidently having a ball; Karimloo’s banter with guitarist (incidentally, also his understudy for Murder Ballad) Matt and ad-libs referring to the incongruity of the Rydell High School gymnasium set upon which they played (Curve’s production of Grease continues to play til 21st January) provided some gentle humour between songs.

Gifted with natural charm Karimloo’s anecdotes complemented the set list and gave us small insights into a life in the theatre. Regarding the inspiration behind his ‘broadgrass’ venture, Karimloo revealed that he would while away the hours spent in make-up for Love Never Dies learning to play the banjo and writing his own music. His skill as a musician and song-writer is impressive, but the undeniable show-stealer is that voice which has made him a star and one of the most in-demand leading men in the West End and Broadway. Rich, soaring, with a consistency of power throughout his vast range, Karimloo effortlessly glides from crystalline falsetto to treacly bass tones, breathing an effervescent lustre into the most well-known of melodies. The fresh, stripped back ‘broadgrass’ arrangements are all lilting guitars, sighing fiddles, and whimsical harmonies, which only heighten the lyrical story-telling clout of the original versions. I discovered songs I didn’t know – their rendition of ‘Sara’ from Murder Ballad, makes me regret having not seen the recent West End production – and new ways of seeing seemingly ubiquitous MT songs – who’d have thought ‘Bring Him Home’ could work so well on the banjo!

A final treat for fans, the encore of ‘Til I Hear You Sing’ brought the evening to a magnificent close – I left the theatre with Karimloo’s voice still reverberating in my ears! Having lovingly created their own distinct sound, a joy for music and collaboration in all its forms shines through the band’s performance. I recommend the Lead Me Home tour for anyone with a love of country or musical theatre; a thoroughly enjoyable evening of passionate music and informal chat, Karimloo and his band are masters of their craft.

For all UK tour dates and venues visit

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Looking Ahead at 2017 Theatre

In March, we’re seeing Robert Icke’s take on Hamlet at the Almeida. The last production we saw by Icke at the Almeida was the expansive, colourful and dystopian Mr Burns. It stars Andrew Scott in the title role and Juliet Stevenson as Gertrude.

Ugly Lies the Bone
After directing Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherfucker with the Hat at the National, Indhu Rubasingham returns to the National with another contemporary American play. Lindsey Ferrentino’s play is about the use of virtual reality therapy to help a recently returned soldier from Afghanistan (Kate Fleetwood) rebuild her life in Florida. The play premiered last year at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, but this is a new production with a design provided by Es Devlin (Hamlet at the Barbican, Chimerica).

The Ferryman
Queuing for a day seat ticket to see Jerusalem in its second West End run galvanised my enthusiasm for theatre. It was one of a few bits of theatre a few years ago that sparked an interest in more frequent theatregoing. After writing two dissertations on Butterworth’s plays since then, I’m looking forward to seeing his new play at the Royal Court in April. It’s directed by Sam Mendes and is already sold out, but a transfer to the West End is already on the cards.

Tickets go on sale in January for Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton. Having changed the face of Broadway and transcended the world of theatre, this is sure to be one of the year’s most yearned for tickets. It previews at the newly refurbished Victoria Palace from November.

Angels in America
The other most anticipated show of the year has to be both parts of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America at the National. Marianne Elliott directs Nathan Lane, Denise Gough, Russell Tovey and Andrew Garfield in Kushner’s epic, partly about the New York AIDS crisis. Later in the year, Elliott launches her own West End season which includes Simon Stephens’ Heisenberg which recently played in New York and a new production of Sondheim’s musical Company with a gender reversed Bobby played by Rosalie Craig.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Daniel Radcliffe returns to the London stage in a 50th anniversary production of Stoppard’s play. I’m currently reading about the Old Vic’s history and its rather insecure start. As the theatre approaches its 200th birthday, artistic director Matthew Warchus is continuing to secure big names and big plays for this year. Later in the year, John Boyega stars in Jack Thorne’s new version of Woyzeck, the excellent Groundhog Day opens on Broadway, and a new play about Bob Dylan premieres in the summer.

The Miser
In March, we’re seeing one of two major London productions based on Moliere’s work. A starry cast of comic actors including Griff Rhys Jones, Matthew Horne, Lee Mack and Katy Wix take on Sean Foley’s production and adaptation of The Miser at the Garrick Theatre. Next door at the Wyndham’s David Tennant and Adrian Scarborough lead the cast for a revival of Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho (reworked from Moliere and revised since its Donmar premiere in 2006).

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
After Edward Albee’s death last year, there are a couple of West End productions of his major plays. Ian Rickson directs Damien Lewis in The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket from March, and in April we’re seeing Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter Theatre. James MacDonald directs what is sure to a hot ticket.

What the Butler Saw
Curve and Theatre Royal, Bath, collaborate on Nikolai Foster’s production of Joe Orton’s farce. In his productions of Grease and The Importance of Being Earnest, Foster injected well-trodden pieces with a newfound vigour. We’re looking forward to his production of this twentieth century classic, which plays Orton’s home city of Leicester from March, starring Rufus Hound.

Julius Caesar
In May, Robert Hastie directs his first major production as artistic director of Sheffield Theatres. Shakespeare’s tale of political dissent and betrayal plays at the Crucible from 18th May to 10th June. In September, he directs the world premiere of Chris Thompson’s Of Kith and Kin, a gripping dark comedy, in a co-production with the Bush Theatre.

The Girls

Opening this month at the Phoenix is Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s musical The Girls, based on Calendar Girls. There can be a lot of snobbery surrounding musical theatre, but even if Barlow isn’t the next Sondheim then there’s no denying that this is commercial producing at its boldest and most intriguing. Its marketing has been drumming up support for months, tweeting the musical’s progress from its development stages to rehearsals. The cast is promising, the design looks enthralling and the songs that have been previewed are strong, as you’d expect from listening to Barlow’s pop music. Furthermore, I love the humour in Firth’s other work (Neville’s Island, Fleet Street Nativity). You can’t predict a hit when it comes to new musicals but everything I’ve seen of this project (produced by David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers) looks very promising.