Friday, 18 May 2018

Fleabag

Curve, Leicester
16th May, 2018

We are bad feminists

When the sitcom of the same name premiered on BBC Three in 2016, it seemed like Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Fleabag were an overnight sensation. But it started out as a one woman show in 2013, written and performed by Waller-Bridge and directed by Vicky Jones (writer of The One). Since then, the show has quite rightly become a bit of a Fringe – and then mainstream – phenomenon. Now, Soho Theatre and DryWrite (the latter of which is ran by Waller-Bridge and Jones) are taking Fleabag on the road again, handing down the performing reins to Maddie Rice. For 60 minutes, Rice brings Fleabag – a sex-driven, angry, grieving mid-twenties woman in the fast lane of London – storming to life. Whilst simply sat on a stool, Rice takes us to an uber-chic but struggling guinea pig café, tube carriages and feminist lectures, contorting herself into her family and friends and openly letting us in on her secrets – everything apart from what happened to her best friend.
 

Rice is as perfect as Waller-Bridge in the TV series, utterly owning this fucked-up character. We become privy to a lot of Fleabag’s anecdotes (from the proud to the embarrassing) about sex stories and the tribulations of modern dating. They take the humour of similar stories perhaps heard in stand-up routines and testosterone-fuelled comedies to another level. But rather than being crude for the sake of it, they allow us to see the depths of Fleabag’s life and for us to ultimately empathise with how she lives, thrives, and crashes and burns.
 

Different from the sitcom, Waller-Bridge’s play shows us even more of Fleabag’s destructive side. Her instinct to destroy is wincingly evoked through Isobel Waller-Bridge’s sound design. And in the end, Waller-Bridge and Rice turn the question to us: is Fleabag alone in being one messed up person living in the thrill of the big city, or are we all just as messed up and simply struggling to articulate it? This is why Fleabag has become a sensation. That, and the fact that Rice does a brilliant impression of a guinea pig reacting to music!

Fleabag plays at Curve, Leicester until 19th May and is on a UK tour.

 
Maddie Rice in Fleabag. Credit: Richard Davenport .


Thursday, 10 May 2018

Love from a Stranger


Curve, Leicester
8th May, 2018

Heavens, No!

“You don’t think we’re silly for not having a telephone, do you?” These famous last words, some might say, along with “Well don’t complain when you have to walk three miles for a pack of cigarettes” establish that the second act’s setting for Love from a Stranger is (in)conveniently isolated. We’re somewhere in the countryside in the love nest of Cecily Harrington (Helen Bradbury) and Bruce Lovell (Sam Frenchum), having run away to the country after a whirlwind romance. But who exactly is Bruce? Indeed, who is Cecily? How do we know who we’ve fallen in love with? Agatha Christie is in vogue at the moment. OK, she’s never really gone out of fashion. She’s the most produced female playwright in the UK and The Mousetrap is London’s longest running play. However, starry and fresh TV adaptations of And Then There Were None, Witness of the Prosecution and Ordeal by Innocence have introduced her works to a new generation and have shown that they can be more than simply chocolate box cosiness. Here, Christie’s and Frank Vosper’s 1936 play is in the assured hands of Lucy Bailey in a production for the Royal & Derngate. Where the play flounders, the production remains enjoyable, stylish, and – surprisingly – manages to avoid the absurd.

If this was one of the recent BBC adaptations, they’d probably get rid of this turgid two act structure. The first act is a loaded jack-in-a-box of exposition. We meet Cecily, bored and longing for some excitement in her life. Having recently won some money, she decides to do something about her settled life on the day (the very same day!) that her fiancé comes home from serving in Sudan. She meets American nomad (although originally from England) Bruce when he comes to rent the flat she’s letting, and is swept over by not so much his charm but his less refined nature. And who can blame her when we finally meet her wet fop of a fiancé as he’s presented in Christie and Vosper’s script. To top it off, they’ve added a Matalan Lady Bracknell (Nicola Sanderson, doing her best with a burdensome first ten minutes) who seems to only be there to make the whole thing into some sort of quintessentially English comedy of manners.

The second act is generally much better. A locked cellar, mysterious empty peroxide bottles, discrepancies between the apparent rent on the house, it has more of the tropes of a delicious thriller. Lucy Bailey keeps the tension high, offering us glimpses of people listening in at the top of the stairs, well-choreographed fight scenes (from Renny Krupinski) and using Richard Hammarton’s music to great effect. Mike Britton’s sliding design is handsome and its gauze walls show off Olivier Fenwick’s lighting design, creating an atmosphere that’s perfect for the genre. The whole set shifts to reveal the front hall (or the kitchen in the next act). This is visually appealing but it also serves a purpose. The set slides across when Cecily first meets Bruce, and later when she perhaps sees him anew. When it returns to its original position, we don’t see it the same way, knowing there’s another part that we cannot see, just as Bruce changes the way Cecily sees the world. Bradbury and Frenchum do a sterling job, investing their characters with passion and danger, vulnerability and nous. Plot holes and crowbarred portraits of femme fatale hysteria aside, this thriller could easily have been murdered if it was in weaker hands.

Love from a Stranger plays at Curve, Leicester until 12th May 2018 and is touring the UK.

Helen Bradbury and Sam Frenchum in Love from a Stranger. Credit: Sheila Burnett.


Monday, 7 May 2018

Seatplan.com



We have been invited to review the website Seatplan.com. Founded in 2011, SeatPlan claims to provide detailed, interactive seating plans to give users a guide to views from seats in major theatres around the UK. In its own words, ‘SeatPlan was born to collate audience members' seat reviews in a clear, easy-to-use format’. I have used SeatPlan a few times, along with Theatremonkey.com, but I thought I’d take another look at it for a couple of theatres I’ve visited recently, namely the Piccadilly and the National Theatre’s Lyttelton.

So, what’s good about it and what do we feel needs work?

The Good:

SeatPlan is quite aesthetically pleasing: it has a clear layout, is uncluttered and is kept updated, listing a theatre’s current, past and upcoming shows. It also allows you to search by show which is handy if you aren’t that familiar with specific theatres. I haven’t tried booking a show through the website so I don’t know what sort of deals they offer and if these are truly best for value, but they seem to have a detailed amount of information on each show, including synopsis, running times and booking dates.

The seat review system itself works on a five point colour coding system. For the Piccadilly, when recently reviewing Strictly Ballroom, reviews for where we were sat in the stalls were accurate and fair. Although only one of our seats was reviewed, there was a good range of seat reviews from throughout the theatre’s three tiers. There is the option to add photos of the view from your seat and there is also the option to quickly flick through photos of seat views rather than having to blindly pick a seat from the seating plan.

Synonyms for seat, anyone?

For users who post their opinions there is the option to list your height, allowing people to judge differences in leg room opinion. This gives the impression that the website wants its patrons to give as accurate review of their comfort and view of the stage as possible. Looking at the plan for the Piccadilly, the colour coding goes from a sea of dark greens to red as you go from the front stalls to the back of the upper circle, suggesting that these reviews do reflect what you’d expect for their value. The ability to read multiple reviews for the same seat is also useful. Generally, there’s good access information including listing the number of steps from foyer to seat, and listing any wheelchair spaces. Overall, I found SeatPlan to be very user friendly.

Needs work:

More information about the theatre and total experience would be good, in particular about regular theatregoers’ bugbears: How many toilets are there? What’s the cost of a glass of wine? What are the interval queues like? Is the theatre facilitated with ‘Ordertorium’ and how good is that service? There is some information on good value seats but there could be more, especially if a venue (or show) offers day seats and what the policy is on these.

One difference between SeatPlan and TheatreMonkey is the tone. The latter has more of a personal tone. It mixes public reviews with a confident voice of experience and recommendation which I quite like. Sometimes reading many different reviews of the same seat on SeatPlan can be tiring. But then again, this is where the colour coding system comes in handy. Something to think over perhaps?

An option to sign up via Twitter could be good. If there is one already, I couldn’t see it.

What could become an issue on SeatPlan is the discrepancy between seat view photos. For the Piccadilly, one audience photo shows a massive amount of overhang from the above circle, whereas a seat nearby doesn’t show any. Elsewhere, in the Lyttelton’s front stalls, there is a red review between two green reviews, which seems odd and potentially undermines the reliability of SeatPlan. Then again, users of the website are probably savvy enough to realise that one bad review of one seat in an otherwise well-reviewed part of the auditorium shouldn’t be given much credibility. Or should it? I suppose it’s down to the user to weigh up the value of the seat. Having sat in that part of the Lyttelton many times, especially for Angels in America, I’m surprised there are so few comments about the poor leg room and lack of arm rests.

On another note, how does SeatPlan cope with theatres like the Almeida where the layout often changes?

Where SeatPlan really lacks is its content on regional theatres. For example, I randomly chose the Aylesbury Waterside Theatre and saw that it has zero seat reviews. But at least that’s listed! Neither the Royal nor the Derngate in Northampton are listed. Leicester’s Curve isn’t listed. Surprisingly, one of the biggest theatres outside of London, the Birmingham Hippodrome, isn’t listed. In fact, looking at the page on Birmingham, The Rep isn’t listed either. The New Alexandra is listed, but it only has 23 reviews from throughout the theatre. It seems a bit depressing, and confirms London-centric biases, that theatres outside the capital look like ghost towns on SeatPlan.com. I suggest that they concentrate on trying to boost its regional output. However, I was impressed that some of the reviews of the New Alexandra were of the current tour of Sting’s The Last Ship. This confirms that it is kept up to date, which inspires me to keep on using SeatPlan in the future.


seatplan.com

Friday, 4 May 2018

The Crucible


Curve, Leicester
3rd May, 2018

There is a prodigious fear of this court in the country

Curve’s commitment to providing communal theatre projects is second to none, with the annual community productions (this year’s Fiddler On The Roof looks set to be the biggest yet, with a cast of over 100!) and their long-standing working relationship with De Montfort University students. It gives the Drama and Performing Arts students the opportunity to make use of the facilities and in-house creatives at one of the UK’s leading regional theatres. It also gives Curve the opportunity to reach out to a new generation of people eager to bring a fresh and eager approach to old texts. This year’s collaboration is arguably the most ambitious yet as the DMU drama students, led by director Siobhan Cannon-Brownlie, take on Arthur Miller’s seminal classic, The Crucible.

A small-town community gradually turns against each other amidst vengefulness, tarnished honour, and fear. Much has been made of the play’s unnerving timelessness – from the McCarthyism that inspired Miller, to harassment accusations and celebrity sex scandals (the recent court case between Cliff Richard and the BBC being a prime example), and even the hype and furore over ‘fake news’. So naturally there’s a great amount of scope for style, satire and hard-hitting home truths – whether that manifests through becoming a period piece, focussing on contemporaneity, or perhaps highlighting aspects of society that have perhaps flown under the radar. Unfortunately, Cannon-Brownlie lacks a clear ‘vision’ with her production. The characters seem to be from the 21st Century, yet a certain ramshackle assortment of costumes – from ultra-modern cropped hoodies, to 60’s housewife pertness and pearls, to clergyman smocks which wouldn’t look out of place in an Edwardian vicarage – elicit a sense of uncertainty. A stronger sense of intent would be welcome and, I feel, having a definitive and identifiable setting would have held this production together better. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they had to crowbar an agenda onto their production, but giving it more specificity would’ve given the actors a little more in which to invest. David Hately’s lighting is simple yet striking. Al Parkinson’s imposing set involves a crucifix formation made from spaces in concrete blocks which is a neat idea to suggest the weight of the repressing forces at play. However, the design constricts the action and pushes the actors too far forward and gives them little room to traverse the stage. This causes what are dynamic scenes to feel a little picture-book tableau in style.

Where the production shines is the performances. The wild coven of vengeful girls demonstrates the terror of pack mentality, while Rebecca Woodford handled her last-minute appointment to the role of Judge Hathorne with great tact and dignity. Eleanor Page gives a mature, subtle, yet emotive performance as the stoic Elizabeth Proctor and Calum Harris conveys the conflict between obligation and morality that I’ve rarely acknowledged before in Danforth. Page and Harris’ court confrontation was the dramatic highlight of the evening. In fact, the court scenes stand out in general and, aided by Tash Taylor Johnson’s pulsating bass score, the tension builds nicely throughout the final act to the sobering conclusion.

While this production may be a little overwhelmed by Miller’s play, it remains a joy to see up and coming young talent at work, and I look forward to future Curve and DMU co-productions.

The Crucible plays at Curve, Leicester, until 5th May 2018.


The cast of The Crucible. Credit: Mark Barnett.


Sunday, 29 April 2018

Strictly Ballroom: The Musical

Piccadilly Theatre
28th April, 2018 – matinee           

‘A life lived in fear is to half-live’

Baz Luhrmann’s first of his ‘Red Curtain’ trilogy has not had a smooth transition to the stage. Australia, Yorkshire, Toronto, and now London’s West End have been the backdrops for numerous versions, try-outs and rewrites. So, for a film so saturated in theatricality, why is Strictly Ballroom a bit of a damp-squib in musical theatre land?
Director/Choreographer Drew McOnie does his best to inject a bit of pizzazz into proceedings, and the dance routines are very entertaining and skilfully performed. Where this production stumbles is in the mish-mash of a book and its weird refusal to be a ‘musical’.

Chief in the show’s mis-steps is the inexplicable decision to create a narrator/balladeer role in the guise of Wally Strand (a sequined and moustachioed Will Young). Rather than guide us through the outlandish world of Australian amateur ballroom competitions with wry humour, I found the character’s constant interjections an irksome distraction – just as I was getting invested in Scott and Fran’s relationship up pops Wally to offer some inane comment.

 If the role was tailor made for Young, then I assume it was an attempt to add a bit of a Cabaret, Emcee type frisson, but the character is neither edgy enough (the closest we got to near-the-knuckle humour was Young flipping the ‘V’ to an audience member trying to film the show), nor integrated into the story enough to be necessary.

The rest of the book is pretty much taken verbatim from the film. Such was the case that I was anticipating each line before it came with around a 98% success rate. Now, this may say more about me than it does the production. As a self-confessed mega fan of the film I had high hopes, and part of me did fangirl when much-loved quotes and moments were realised on stage. Yet this line-for-line recreation has the surreal quality of being akin to a cosplay convention or re-enactment event. I was reminded of the popularity of Rocky Horror screenings where fans act out the action in complete synchronicity with the film.

Musically, the production certainly has its highs. Namely those lifted from the film’s soundtrack. Young’s rendition of ‘Time After Time’ and ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’ are lush highlights in a score that otherwise doesn’t quite know where it stands. Music consultant, Anton Monsted (I assume it is he that is responsible), has raided the dukebox for every 80’s and 90’s song with the word ‘dance’ in the title. ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Dancing With Myself’, ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’… you get the gist. Yet, bizarrely, these numbers get only the briefest of outings. A line or two of one song then we’re harshly cut off and the next begins. Too brief to be medleys, and altogether jarring, the music smacks of a sort of shame, a refusal to be an out-and-out musical.

This is exacerbated by the fact that Young sings everything. I was craving big choruses, ‘I Want’ songs and an all-important ‘Eleven O’Clock’ number. By having Wally sing alone we are robbed of insight and a connection with the characters that solo numbers, duets and ensembles can provide. Furthermore, for what is one of the all-time great film finales, having Scott and Fran’s dramatic and triumphant solo Paso Doble (in the film danced to the ‘rhythm’ of audience applause) danced to unwelcome musical interjections of ‘Freedom’ robs the moment of its intensity. 

So, again, the music removes us from the action. My initial reaction to the show was that it was like watching the film while having a Will Young album playing in the background – both lovely things in their own right (Young’s voice is truly spectacular), but they fail to blend together in theatrical harmony.

Soutra Gilmore’s scaffold-dominant set is incongruously dystopian. This only furthers the impression that McOnie, Monsted and Co. are intent on creating a postmodernist take on what is essentially a piece of highly entertaining fluff. Not all theatre has to be deep and meaningful, but knowing what you are and embracing it should be the first step to success…

I feel I’ve been overly harsh up to now. There are moments of elation in McOnie’s production. The flamenco sections are marvellous and the use of Bizet’s ‘Habanera’ is a great example of musical DJ-ing. As Rico, Fernando Mira makes a big impression with his limited stage-time when he shows Scott how to Paso Doble. Gerard Horan is suitably loathsome as the Trump-esque Barry Fife. And Zizi Strallen and Jonny Labey play it just right as the central duo. Their performances are honest, unjaded and heartfelt, with a believable chemistry that had me rooting for them. McOnie’s choreography for ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’ highlights the couple’s spark as they dance an electrifying rumba without ever touching. Moving together instinctively and with tender abandon, this moment demonstrates how elements of the film can be enhanced and improved on stage.

In summary, stage adaptations of films should be justified by bringing something new to a well-known story, and Strictly Ballroom misses the mark on this point. Fans of the film will enjoy seeing their favourite characters brought to life, and McOnie showcases his talents as the leading choreographer of his generation, but the main effect this production has had for me is to remind me just how much I love the film, and how difficult it is to recreate the nostalgia of childhood favourites in a more cynical and fast-paced age.

Strictly Ballroom is currently booking until 20th October.

Cast of Strictly Ballroom.
Credit: Johan Persson.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

An Officer and a Gentleman



Curve, Leicester
19th April, 2018

An original review of Taylor Hackford’s 1982 movie said that An Officer and a Gentleman ‘relies on the strength of [its] stereotypes to build a conventional but hugely compelling drama’. This new musical adaptation, receiving its world premiere at Curve, makes no apologies for embracing the melodrama of the movie. In doing so, it delivers a polished, unabashed production which confirms Curve and director Nikolai Foster as exceptional producers of commercial new musicals.

For all of its air-punching, feel-good moments (and there are plenty of those!), this is no ordinary jukebox musical. On entering the auditorium, a montage depicts 1980s culture: MTV, adverts for Tab soda and KFC, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Michael Jackson. However, clips of Reagan schmoozing with his old school Hollywood varnish acts as a reminder that it was also a decade of the AIDS crisis, Reaganomics, and a decline in social mobility. This creates a political backdrop for the caravan parks, cheap motels, sleazy bars and paper mills of Pensacola, Florida. It is here where the US naval aviation training facility offers a last chance saloon to its cadets and for the female workers of a nearby factory who see the pilots as their ticket out of a dead end life. Douglas Day Stewart’s (original screenplay) and Sharleen Coper Cohen’s book is sometimes too expositional and draws the characters too boldly but this perhaps only enhances the cult classic melodrama status of it.

Jonny Fines as Zack Mayo, four-time Olivier nominee Emma Williams as Paula, and Jessica Daley as Lynette have a dangerously electrifying presence as the leading trio. We see Fines soften from a James Dean-type rebel to the more emotionally attached figure he is at the end - this is especially conveyed in a reprise of ‘Family Man’. Williams is his perfect match. I got chills when hearing her sing in a similar reaction to when seeing Bernadette Peters last month in Hello, Dolly! in New York. You're left with no doubt that Paula and Lynette would easily get their jets if they applied. Ray Shell also provides good support as Foley, the stiff-backed sergeant-cum-father figure that won Louis Gossett Jr. the Oscar. It’s interesting (and apt for the stage) that his ‘Jody Call’ number is essentially a mini version of A Chorus Line but with naval students.

The score is mostly made up of 1980s hits, from ‘Material Girl’ to ‘The Final Countdown’, all of them gamely performed by the cast and superbly choreographed by Kate Prince. Occasionally, characters’ difficulties feel crow-barred in around lines from songs. Paula and Zack singing ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’, for instance, is very affecting until Zack’s small town friend Sid (Ian McIntosh, the perfect antithesis to Daley’s Lynette) sings the next verse possibly referring to his sexual incompetence. Quibbles aside, Foster gives the audience what they want with the songs, resulting in several of moments of musical ecstasy. One of these comes in the form of the act two karaoke opener ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’, where Ben Cracknell’s bar lighting surges as if they’re going to blow from the amount of energy on stage. Sarah Travis and George Dyer beautifully orchestrate Will Jennings’ ‘Up Where We Belong’, concentrating its melody to leitmotifs that punctuate and underscore the show, leading to the triumphantly uplifting final scene.

An Officer and a Gentleman plays at Curve, Leicester until 21st April and then tours the UK.




Jonny Fines as Zack Mayo and Emma Williams as Paula Pokrifki. Credit: Manuel Harlan


Sunday, 1 April 2018

The York Realist


Crucible, Sheffield
29th March, 2018, matinee

This is where I live. Here.

Robert Hastie once said (in an interview with Matt Trueman) that the director’s role is ‘to provide the clearest conduit between a writer and an actor’. Such an approach, effectively of getting in the way as little as possible, perfectly suits the prosaic dialogue of Peter Gill’s 2001 play The York Realist. Set in 1960s Yorkshire, the play is interested in the developing relationship of farmhand George (Ben Batt) and assistant director from London John (Jonathan Bailey). What gives the play its maturity is its focus on the tangible aspects of character and setting, and its refusal of the facile or formulaic. Hastie matches the play’s gravity with a production that embraces silence and precision without overplaying them. The result is a production where the simplest tucking in of chairs around a table or the silhouette from a landing light can evoke beautiful theatre.

The play is set in George and his mum’s farmhouse, a place of work, home and gathering for George’s sister and her family, as well as family friend Doreen. It mostly occurs in linear time (although this is occasionally disrupted by moments of temporal overlapping so we are teased by the play beginning with a moment from a later scene) which is stretched out in the limited space of Peter McKintosh’s meticulously wrought design. We hear that it changes offstage overtime but otherwise it remains a traditional, rough-around-the-edges, rural farmhouse, complete with a range, wooden beams and stone bricks. Place is important in Gill’s play in an intangible way. John is fascinated so much by the earth, stone and wood of George’s home, which is inseparable from who George is and what he values most, that I at first wondered if it was the novelty of ‘being up north’ with which John had fallen in love. But Gill, Hastie, Batt and Bailey afford the characters much more depth. Bailey’s John (who visits George to persuade him to return to rehearsals for The York Mystery Plays) is polite and often tries to impress. I got the feeling that his breathlessness was as much from the nerves of attraction as it was from the walk up to the house. Batt fully invests in George: he’s the strong farmhand with a matter-of-fact turn of phrase, as well as surprisingly open about his sexuality, saying that ‘it’s never really been a problem for me’. But he’s also bashful and sensitive as well as occasionally reticent when talking about leaving home, even after his mother’s death when there are no responsibilities keeping him there.

The rest of the characters are by no means collateral. Lesley Nicol has great comic timing as George’s mother as well as finding the right balance between showing her love and pragmatism. ‘Didn’t God have a good voice’ she exclaims, filling the silence with her appraisal of the performance of The York Mystery Plays. Katie West is also very good as Doreen, slowly realising that George will never propose to her. There is a complex web of emotions in Gill’s play, such as unrequited love and the rejection of one’s feelings. But, most of all, it’s interested in George’s feelings, especially when he realises that there still lies uncertainties about who he is and where he belongs. In this great play, Gill evokes a very concrete world in which characters wrestle with more elusive questions. Foxes, indeed, may have their dens and birds have their nests, ‘but the son of man/ Has not where his head may rest’.

The York Realist plays at the Sheffield Crucible until 7th April, 2018.

The company of The York Realist. Photo: Johan Persson