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.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek 2016

We’ve completed #ReadaPlayaWeek 2016!

There has been a different playwright each week, 26 plays by women and 26 by men.
I first started the initiative three years ago after seeing a suggestion on Twitter to have a sort of theatre book club. In the first year, I was mainly tweeting about plays I was reading for university, things like The Caretaker, A Taste of Honey and about five Jez Butterworth plays. As a young person just starting to get into more regular theatregoing and wanting to pursue writing about it, I often read reviews or books about lauded plays and playwrights that I didn’t know much about. Of course, I had heard of Stoppard and Shaffer and had read several Caryl Churchill plays, for instance, but didn’t really know their work in detail, let alone that of other, lesser-known writers. So I suppose I started #ReadaPlayaWeek as a way to familiarise myself more with the canon to accompany going to the theatre. In its second year, I decided to challenge myself to read more and more widely, and to give an equal split between male and female writers. I succeeded at this, and have continued it into this year.

I’d like to say it’s easy to read a play by a different writer each week and choose 50% male and 50% female playwrights but it’s not. Especially when I don’t buy all of the plays as new. Really, it would be easier if I bulk bought them on Amazon but there’s something fun about the challenge of trying to find plays in libraries and second hand bookshops.

This year’s #ReadaPlayaWeek choices are by no means all male, white, British, establishment playwrights. Indeed, there’s a Hare and a Stoppard and a Shaffer, playwrights so well known that their first names aren’t necessary. But there are also plays by Stephen Adly Guirgis, Stephen Karam, Annie Baker, Tanika Gupta, Winsome Pinnock, Roy Williams, Rachel De-lahay, and so on. There are also four plays from the late 1980s to mid-1990s featured in an anthology of plays by women from the Bush Theatre, and three plays featured from an anthology called ‘Six Plays by Black and Asian Women’.

Several famous playwrights have passed away this year, such as Peter Shaffer, Arnold Wesker, Edward Albee and Dario Fo. Plays (excellent plays if I may add) are all included by them. And if you want to buy some play texts in the New Year sales and want some of the highlights, then I’d particularly recommend Tanika Gupta’s The Empress, Stephen Karam’s The Humans, Annie Baker’s The Flick, Simon Stephens’ Pornography, Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott and David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People amongst others.

From rickety West End melodramas to plays dealing with contemporary issues presented in the most contemporary and cutting edge of forms, we try to take each play on its own merits. There’s little point in comparing Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes to Bola Agbaje’s Gone Too Far! There were things in them both that I found interesting, thematically at least. I loved the scope and scale of The Empress but I also liked the deft handling of the goings on of middle class suburban people in Ayckbourn’s Time and Time Again.

From plays well-known or only recently produced to plays lost in the canon. From newly bought editions of new plays to dusty scripts dug out from the bookshelves of an amateur theatre. As the stage manager in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art puts it: ‘Plays plump, plays paltry, plays preposterous, plays purgatorial, plays radiant, plays rotten’, adding plays forgotten to that list too.

We’re taking a break from #ReadaPlayaWeek next year but will still be reviewing and blogging. Thanks for your support!

Here are the blogs:

·         Here We Go by Caryl Churchill (2015)
·         Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen (1881)
·         Pornography by Simon Stephens (2007)
·         Gone Too Far! by Bola Agbaje (2007)

·         Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire (2011)
·         The Arbor by Andrea Dunbar (1980)
·         Painting a Wall by David Lan (1974)
·         The Heresy of Love by Helen Edmundson (2012)

·         The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis (2011)
·         Three Birds Alighting on a Field by Timberlake Wertenbaker (1991)
·         Pub Quiz is Life by Richard Bean (2009)
·         By the Bog of Cats… by Marina Carr (1998)
·         Closer by Patrick Marber (1997)

·         Silent by Pat Kinevane (2010)
·         Life X3 by Yasmina Reza (2000)
·         Time and Time Again by Alan Ayckbourn (1971)
·         Frozen by Bryony Lavery (1998)

·         The Philanthropist by Christopher Hampton (1970)
·         Christie in Love by Howard Brenton (1969)
·         Play with a Tiger by Doris Lessing (1962)
·         Pastoral by Thomas Eccleshare (2013)

·         Keeping Tom Nice by Lucy Gannon (1988)
·         The Westbridge by Rachel De-lahay (2011)
·         Steaming by Nell Dunn (1981)
·         Iphigenia in Splott by Gary Owen (2015)
·         The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman (1939)

·         The Flick by Annie Baker (2013)
·         AccidentalDeath Of An Anarchist by Dario Fo  (1970)
·         ALife in the Theatre by David Mamet (1977)
·         Bang Bang Bang by Stella Feehily (2011)

·         Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by Tom Stoppard (1977)
·         The Breath of Life by David Hare (2002)
·         Keyboard Skills by Lesley Bruce (1993)
·         One Flea Spare by Naomi Wallace (1994)
·         Stacy by Jack Thorne (2007)

·         Sucker Punch by Roy Williams (2010)
·         The Humans by Stephen Karam (2014)
·         Two Lips Indifferent Red by Tamsin Oglesby (1995)
·         Boys Mean Business by Catherine Johnson (1989)

·         Know Your Rights by Judy Upton (1998)
·         The Empress by Tanika Gupta (1993)
·         The Zoo Story by Edward Albee (1958)
·         Lettice and Lovage by Peter Shaffer (1987)

·         Dr Korczak's Example by David Greig (1998)
·         The Riots by Gillian Slovo (2011)
·         Chicken Soup with Barley by Arnold Wesker (1958)
·         Verdict by Agatha Christie (1958)
·         The Mother by Florian Zeller (2010)

·         Longing by William Boyd (2013)
·         A Hero’s Welcome by Winsome Pinnock (1989)
·         Song for a Sanctuary by Rukhsana Ahmad (1990)

·         Monsoon by Maya Chowdhry (1991)

Friday, 23 December 2016

Top 10 Theatre 2016

From all the bits of theatre we’ve seen this year – from Ralph Fiennes’ cerebral performances in Richard III and The Master Builder to a charmingly playful Don Quixote at the RSC – here’s what we liked best:

10 Land of Our Fathers – streamed online, produced by Theatre 503, Tara Finney Productions and Wales Millennium Centre.

I didn’t get round to seeing this play until a streaming became available recently on the BBC’s website. Chris Urch’s 2013 play is about a group of coal miners trapped underground in 1979, as Thatcher is just coming into power. The concept of characters trapped somewhere may well be familiar, as is the idea of the work play where power relationships are played out. Urch places vivid characters and entertaining scenarios before any political diatribe. It was also hugely interested in masculinity: how men work together and look after each other. As the days go on and the men get hungrier and grubbier, we see that coal mining is more than a job for these men; it’s at the centre of their community and defines who they are. And, interestingly, their loyalty just about holds together down the coal mine at the beginning of the Thatcherite dog eat dog age. You can still watch this fantastic bit of new writing online.

9 The Encounter – livestreamed from the Barbican

A computer and some headphones was all we needed to be transported to the depths of the Amazon rainforest in Complicite’s engrossing marriage of modern technology and classic storytelling. Simon McBurney guided us through photographer Loren McIntyre’s real life experiences, ranging from the corporeal to the hallucinogenic as he explored the remote community of the Javari Valley. McBurney’s extraordinary solo performance seamlessly blended past/present and truth/fiction, his voice work astoundingly complemented by a plethora of sound effects which infiltrated the mind to the extent of total immersion. Aided by a head shaped microphone which produced ‘3D sound’, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as McBurney seemed to be whispering directly into my ear, creating an intimacy I’ve never experienced before in theatre. Broadcast live to the nation for free, this was another example of accessible theatre at its best.

8 The Father – Birmingham Rep

I saw Kenneth Cranham’s performance as André, the father of the title who has Alzheimer’s, after he won the Olivier Award for Best Actor. As has been written about quite a lot by now, what was so clever about Florian Zeller’s play was that its form reflected its themes so that the audience lost its grip on what it thought to be true in the play just as André lost his grip on reality. Miriam Buether’s design was definite and concrete: three walls, a ceiling, furniture, a peep of the lampshade hanging in the hallway, a glance of the kitchen including a pedal bin in the corner. It gave the effect that we could familiarise ourselves with a flat, a solid and trustworthy setting. But later, things disappeared, from the odd ornament to most of the furniture. The apartment didn’t belong to the people we thought it belonged to and wasn’t peopled by the people we thought it was peopled by. What seemed such a naturalistic setting and play to begin with was actually more slippery and tricky than the audience expected. I didn’t review The Father but did write a bit about it when I wrote about Zeller’s The Mother.

7 The Threepenny Opera – Olivier, National Theatre

Rory Kinnear can sing?? Why, yes, he can! Lending his baritone timbre to Rufus Norris’ big summer production at the National Theatre, Kinnear was charismatically wicked as folklore’s most infamous ne’er-do-well, Macheath, in Simon Stephen’s new translation of Brecht and Weill’s opera. While I enjoy realism, I admit to being a bit of a sucker for Brechtian alienation, and the sheer theatrical trickery of Norris’ production hit all the right buttons for me. A labyrinthine city of paper structures and rust-stepped dead ends, afforded the staging a façade of simplicity, yet still produced elements of the spectacular that filled the Olivier stage, which was brilliantly offset by the ludicrousness and irony of Stephens’ script. Brecht on a big scale that didn’t compromise on the (un)ethical Brechtian morality that (love it or hate it) reigns supreme.

6 Kinky Boots – Adelphi

We started off 2016 with this toe-tapping, fist-pumping musical extravaganza, and it really set the bar high for the theatrical year. From Jerry Mitchell’s ingenious conveyor belt choreography, to Amy Lennox’s perfectly pitched comic turn in her showstopper, ‘The History of Wrong Guys’, Kinky Boots is a modern classic; Cyndi Lauper’s music already feels ingrained in pop-culture. Rightly, in our opinion, sweeping the boards during awards season, hopefully the West End has found a new long-runner that merits that status. The ultimate feel-good show with a heart as big as those kinky heels are high!

5 The Red Barn – Lyttelton, National Theatre

David Hare’s new play, an adaptation of Simenon’s novel La Main, was very much about surface appearances. A thriller to begin with, what unravelled was a play about middle class, middle aged monotony, lifted by Robert Icke’s cinematic production and Bunny Christie’s breath-taking design. From snow blizzards and title cards to vast New York apartments and moving though rooms at a house party, The Red Barn was always watchable if not always commendable. But despite my reservations about the play as discussed in my review, I loved succumbing to the clearly defined and evoked world of the play, in this case that of 1960s’ America, or at least one male, middle class view of 1960s’ America.

4 Blue/Orange – Young Vic

I have never felt so emotionally and intellectually involved in a play. Matthew Xia’s revival of Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange grabbed us by the throat and shook us to the core in an unrelenting battle of wits, morals, politics and social outrage. Before the play even began we were immersed in the clinical, sterile world of a secure mental health unit, being led through a precisely reconstructed hospital ward corridor and therapy room (even the smell was replicated with unnerving accuracy!), before entering the reconfigured auditorium of the Young Vic. Jeremy Herbert’s boxing ring design ramped up the tension, referencing the minor victories and defeats suffered by the characters. Xia’s superbly memorable production was rounded off with a trio of acting heavyweights, Daniel Kaluuya, David Haig and Luke Norris, who matched each other brilliantly and breathed vitality and humanity into what could be deemed an ‘issue’ play. Great theatre elicits great reactions, it makes you think, it makes you feel; after Blue/Orange I left the theatre feeling angry, frustrated, sad and thrilled by this most visceral of productions.

3 The Nap – Crucible, Sheffield

Richard Bean’s new play was in many ways typical of his work. The play itself was a pretty standard comedy thriller, well plotted and superbly performed by a star cast including Mark Addy and Jack O’Connell. The laugh-a-minute humour was typically subversive and bawdy but, having seen the comparably mediocre Hand to God at the Vaudeville a few weeks previously, it’s easy to appreciate how skilled Bean is at crafting a joke. What made this such a unique and stand out piece of theatre, however, was its use of space and place. Performed at the home of the snooker world championships, some scenes were set at the Crucible with real frames of snooker played so the theatre audience became the snooker crowd. The experience had the atmosphere of a sporting event: audience members cheered, the referee was prompted to hush them, we really cared about the outcome of snooker prodigy, Dylan’s, match. I’ve become more of a snooker fan since seeing The Nap and if snooker fans who saw this have since gone to the theatre more often, that’s marvellous. Superbly played in a production directed by Richard Wilson, I came out of the Crucible buzzing about this play.

2 People, Places and Things – Wyndham’s

Sitting on the front row of the onstage seats for the West End transfer of Duncan Macmillan’s play will remain a highlight of our theatre going for all-time, thanks to Denise Gough’s career-boosting performance, Jeremy Herrin’s full throttle production, and Macmillan’s multi-faceted play. There was nothing stagey about Gough’s performance. She demanded the audience’s attention as she led a game of cat and mouse about her life: what is her name, is her brother alive, what is her purpose. Acting, for Emma, is not just a job but a way of life. Bunny Christie’s set evoked the sterile coldness of a clinic, allowed multiple Emmas to slip through the walls and floor and become a definite sense of place as the stage changed into her cluttered bedroom. Finally, Macmillan’s complex play had us musing about other writers such as Shakespeare, Chekhov and Mark Ravenhill. I look forward to seeing a future life for this play and many more impressive performances from Gough.

1 Groundhog Day – Old Vic

So good we saw it twice in three days - we just couldn’t pass on the opportunity to witness again, what is, in my opinion, the musical of 2016. Tim Minchin demonstrates once more that magic touch which has delighted audiences worldwide with his previous smash hit, Matilda - his music tuneful, but not predictable, his lyrics witty, yet emotive. Matthew Warchus’s production was an ecstasy of theatrical bliss; scenes fluidly choreographed to a tee; clever tricks that kept us guessing; a set which married multiple turntables-within-turntables and excellent video design with quaint old-school style manual effects (the car chase being a highlight); and direction which pulled at the heart strings while being charmingly free from saccharine mawkishness. Finally, Andy Karl gave the performance of a lifetime as weather man, Phil Connors, a role immortalised by Bill Murray in the film, and had the audience in the palm of his hand from the get-go. Karl took us on a whistle-stop tour of the entire spectrum of human emotion and displayed comic timing that never failed to miss the mark. It’s heartening to know that Groundhog Day will open on Broadway next year, and I hope that it will eventually make its way back over here because it has the capability of being a major success. Oh, and if it doesn’t win anything come awards season I will have a mega sulk!

Thursday, 22 December 2016

The Print Room casting and #ReadaPlayaWeek: Monsoon

It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 52: Maya Chowdhry’s Monsoon (c.1991)

Recently, London’s The Print Room theatre has caused controversy by its all white casting of Howard Barker’s In the Depths of Dead Love which features four Asian (although this is disputed) characters. I don’t want to wade too much into the debate as there are many much more erudite and well-informed thought pieces about it. Besides, I don’t know the play nor much about The Print Room’s other work. What I’m interested in is their responses to the accusations of Yellowface. Indeed, both their initial and recent press statements make the play sound as impenetrable as the Barker plays I do know. Apparently, the play ‘references a setting in Ancient China and the characters' names are Chinese’ but the characters are not Chinese and it’s not a “Chinese” play. ‘It is in fact’, they say, ‘a very “English” play and is derived from thoroughly English mores and simply references the mythic and the ancient’. But this seems problematic as it perpetuates ideas of the ‘other’ and myth being related to the Orient.

The story may be universal, as is implied, but surely it can’t be both ‘placeless’ and have references to a Chinese setting and character names. Thinking of plays recently featured in this #ReadaPlayaWeek series, Winsome Pinnock’s A Hero’s Welcome may sketch a ‘luminous network of early love, muddled aspirations and humdrum betrayal’ (as The Listener reviewed it) but the West Indies setting is also integral to the play, however universal the play’s themes may be. More and more I’m thinking the problem may lie more with Barker’s play than the Print Room’s production itself.

Another play in the anthology ‘Six Plays by Black and Asian Women Writers’ (written about a couple of weeks ago, here) is Chowdhry’s radio play Monsoon – Barker's play also started on the radio. Starting life as a poem, the play weaves poetry, music and short snippets of scenes evoking Jalaarnava’s physical journey to India and Kashmir, and her spiritual journey as she explores a lesbian relationship. The play also cleverly explores the parallel between Jal’s PMT waiting for her period to start, and the heat of the summer before the rain pours and rejuvenates the earth. Jal’s view that the menstrual cycle allows the cycle of life to begin again suggests how sensual, natural imagery is employed in the play. Tablas hint at the monsoon and the building of relationships and a flute is used to signal her inner thoughts as she writes in her diary. Heat and dust, sweat, dried blood, pouring blood, cramps, the gentility of the Kashmir lakes and the growing passion between Jal and Nusrat help make Monsoon very visceral. In some ways (and this might be a feeble link) the opposing feelings and expression of passion in Monsoon reminded me of the raw/cooked binary in The Bacchae. Chowdhry’s play may be rooted in the world of poetry but Monsoon contains the essences of great drama.

Monday, 19 December 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Song for a Sanctuary

It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 51: Rukhsana Ahmad’s Song for a Sanctuary (1990)

Ahmad’s debut play, which features in the anthology Six Plays by Asian and Black Women Writers as written about last week, has been performed by Kali Theatre (which Ahmad help to set up and run), a group dedicated to the work of female South Asian writers. It is about the murder of a mother in a women’s refuge influenced by, but not based on, a real event. In Ahmad’s play men are presented either as abusive, violent husbands or as a drunken client of a prostitute.

Escaped from her husband (Pradeep) with her daughter Savita, Rajinder has trouble settling into the refuge. It is very much a play of culture clashes. It’s difficult for Kamla, one of the refuge workers, to understand why Rajinder is contemplating going back to her husband and why she won’t talk about her ordeal being married to him. For Rajinder, she believes marriage to be a sacred agreement which is perhaps shameful to break. She also knows that leaving her husband means turning her back on her extended family, despite the work she’s done for them, who will stick by Pradeep. However, Rajinder is also resentful of the ways of the other women in the refuge. She prefers to stick to her own ways even if that means annoying the others. Furthermore, she feels she is losing her daughter to Western follies such as commercial ‘tart with a heart’ films, makeup and partying. For Rajinder, the refuge is more like a no man’s land; it’s a brief escape from Pradeep (although not completely) but is not completely a safe place, and certainly not a sanctuary in the sense of a sacred place.

Song for a Sanctuary also offers an interesting contemporary reading on refugees. Kamla is suspicious that Rajinder seems too rich and up herself, questioning her need to be there. It’s clear though from when we first see Rajinder – appalled by the dirtiness of the place – that no one would ideally choose to go to a refuge if there wasn’t the need.

Ahmad’s dialogue shows a huge amount of understanding into her characters and suggests the research she undertook to write the play. Song for a Sanctuary may be an issue led play but, perhaps like the National Theatre/ Birmingham Rep production of Alexander Zeldin’s Love which opened last week, it is character driven.