A Theatrical Event Like No Other

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awww, you can't beat a bit of romance

Well as I said here, it was always going to be the theatrical event of the year. I have to say I really enjoyed the whole event. I thought the service was lovely, the horses/guards/parade afterwards was done as only the British military can, and the kiss and then the fly past was a suitable ending to the public festivities. Although one friend did comment that perhaps that is all that’s left of the RAF following the recent cuts!

I thought the choice of music during the service was lovely and the bride and groom looked resplendent. It’s amazing that they reckon perhaps a quarter of the world watched it. The fact it ran so smoothly is a testament to the hard work of those hundreds/thousands of unsung heroes working behind the scenes.

All eyes will again be on Britain next year as we host another event, the big question is, can we pull of the Olympics with the same style and precision? Only time will tell.

Blithe Spirit – Apollo Theatre, London – Review

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Robert Bathurst, Ruthie Henshall, Alison Steadman and Hermione Norris

Spooky goings on are occurring at The Apollo Theatre, London at the moment, courtesy of a revival of Noel Coward’s classic play Blithe Spirit. Despite this being a Coward classic, this was my first time seeing it.

It’s a play very much of its time, but that adds to its charm and fun. Ruthie Henshall is deliciously impish as the ghost Elvira and revels in the havoc she’s causing, especially when she sprays Hermione Norris with the soda dispenser you can sense the glee, but spraying your co-star each night must be fun!

Hermione Norris is a stylish and perplexed Ruth who captures brilliantly the confusion of her character. Robert Bathurst is perfect casting for the haunted Charles and his torment is played perfectly, as well as his joy in seeing his first wife Elvira again.

Alison Steadman has the chance to steal the show with her character Madame Arcati, which she wisely chooses not to do, rather she plays the character for the laughs that it is superbly written to get and actually brings tenderness to the character, as she’s as equally perplexed at the goings on as the others. Rather than veering off into the melodramatic she reins in this character, which I think is much better. That’s not to say she doesn’t know when to go a bit over the top with the role, but she gives the character a depth I imagine few actresses have.

Jodie Taibi as Edith the Maid, is hilarious, from her opening splits to her final denouement, she proves that even though Coward wrote small parts for some, they’re actually very important. Bo Poraj plays the stiff upper lipped and skeptical Dr Bradman charmingly and Charlotte Thornton as Mrs Bradman is likewise first-class. (my wife also loved this characters trouser suit, which was stunning!)

The plays finale is spooky and stupendous. The whole production is first-rate. This is a very enjoyable play, regarded by those wiser than I as one of Coward’s best. This is a finely assembled cast of top pros and so I don’t think I’m going to see it presented better than this. As mentioned earlier, it would be easy for several of the characters to be over the top and “steal the show”, rather this cast work as a whole to give the piece much needed balance, I think the play is stronger for their restraint. Thea Sharrock is to be commended for directing the play in this way. If you fancy seeing a fun play that’s a “modern” classic, presented by a fine cast of actors, I think you’ll enjoy this.

Hurly Burly Show – Garrick Theatre – Review

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Sometimes you need a bit of fun and escapism. Last night my wife and I went to see The Hurly Burly Show, which stars Burlesque star Miss Polly Rae and her Hurly Burly Girls.

This was our first experience of Burlesque, it’s become a very trendy thing and so we thought we should see what the fuss is all about. I hasten to add it was my wife’s  idea to see this!!! The show is a lascivious, sexy, over the top, tongue in cheek extravaganza. The dancing is superb and the routines are cleverly choreographed and done. The music is first-rate and special mention must go to Spencer Day, who is a wonderful foil to the ladies and his singing and playing certainly gives the show a greater depth than it would have if he was absent.

The innuendo was occasionally a bit crass, but generally it’s all good fun. I especially liked the geisha routine done to Rihanna’s “Umbrella” song, and the Marie Antoinette routine was excellent. Each of the girls get their own turn, Kitty Bang Bang’s fire eating/burlesque/ballet point work, routine was stunning.

Mistress of Ceremonies the Fabulous Miss Polly Rae

Miss Polly Rae is an excellent Mistress of Ceremonies and knows her burlesque. Her singing was very good too, and her number “It’s Not About The Tits” was a funny look at what she sees the art of Burlesque as. The show is 1hr 40 mins (including an interval) and to be honest that’s enough as it does begin to feel a bit like you’ve seen it all before towards the end. It’s been described as a “celebration of the female form” and that’s a fitting description.
She and the girls had a vivacious sense of fun which was infectious to the audience. There were a few times of “audience participation” which were all done with a gentle touch but extremely funny. Alas I was not invited on stage to show the girls a few of my moves, but that’s probably best!

This was an extravagant experience and a fun night out, unlike anything I’ve seen before. Below is a video if you fancy seeing some of the action, but I can assure you seeing it live is much better!

Heroes – Miller Centre Theatre Company, Caterham – Review

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Henri (Peter Whittle), Philippe (Reg Anderson), Gustave (Lawrence Marsh), Stone Dog

I saw Heroes a few years ago when it was touring after its West End success (it’s originally by Gerald Sibleyras but translated into English by Tom Stoppard), at the Theatre Royal Bath. I enjoyed the play so much that I chose it as a play text to study for a college module I was doing at the time. When I saw that it was part of The Miller Centre Theatre’s season this year, I was extremely pleased, as it would give me the opportunity to revisit this charming play.

Peter Whittle, Reg Anderson and Lawrence Marsh, all excel themselves as the three French war veterans. The play has some very tender moments, which they bring out subtly and likewise they know when to play for laughs and they got plenty last night, this is an inherently funny play.

Suzi Whittle’s direction is just right, allowing the focus to remain on the characters and the all important stone dog, which is a key part of the plot. Niall Monaghan’s set is a perfect re-creation of a terrace and you really do feel like you’re watching these three old guys muse on their terrace in France.

When describing the play to people in the past I’ve had to use that awful description, “nice”, but whereas that usually sounds like a cop-out or a bit twee, this really is a “nice” play. It’s witty, heart wrenching at times, but uplifting and inspiring. It powerfully confronts the fact that we are all going to die and perhaps spend our last days amongst new friends, but that we can pull together and make each others last days bearable and perhaps even enjoyable.

It’s on until the 30th April, so even though the weather outside is gorgeously sunny, spend an evening basking in this charming tale.

(ps, photo’s are by Avril Jones)

Theatre = A Way of Life

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I’ve not written a blog post for a few days and I’m feeling a withdrawal symptom! I’m off to see one of my favourite plays Heroes tomorrow, so a review of that will follow on Saturday. Until then, I thought I’d share one of my favourite theatrical quotes;

“For me the theatre is really a religion or way of life. You must decide what you feel the world is about and what you want to say about it, so that everything in the theatre you work in is saying the same thing…A theatre must have a recognisable attitude. It will have one whether you like it or not.” 

George Devine, first artistic director of the English Stage Company


Advice from the Experts

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Josie Rorke, Roy Williams, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, David Eldridge and Libby Purves

Last night I was fortunate to spend an evening listening to Josie Rourke, Roy Williams, David Eldridge and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, talk about what makes a good play?. This was an event hosted by The Times + and was held at the Wilton Music Hall, which is a quirky location that Id never been to before. As an aspiring playwright myself I found this a great opportunity to just sit back and listen to some great advice and the funny stories they told about how they ended up being playwrights.

It was strange to actually see and hear them, as Ive only ever read their work or read articles and seen pictures of them. Josie Rourke offered some real insight into how a literary department at a theatre works and what she looks for in the plays that are submitted to her at The Bush.

I was particularly impressed by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, I knew only vaguely of her work but having now listened to her, Im looking forward to reading her plays and Ill definitely keep my eye out for any work from her in the future too.

The strongest piece of advice I got from it was to simply be true to yourself and to write it.

There was a good answer and question session, with some interesting questions from the audience (one asked by yours truly).

The event was linked with the Bruntwood prize and the closing date for this is June 6th, Ive decided Ill enter it, Ive a couple of plays in rough draft stage and so this will at least focus my attentions and get to at least complete one. Ive no delusions  of grandeur or expectations of winning, it will be achievement enough to have finished a play and submitted it.

London Road – The National Theatre – Review

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Ironically enough, I was in Ipswich this weekend visiting family. So there I am the next night at The National Theatre in London watching a piece of theatre about that very town.

London road has been causing quite a stir since it has been known that Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork had written a “musical” about the 2006 London Road murders. Its sensitive subject matter and the fact that it only occurred 5 years ago make it an especially brave subject for them to tackle.

I’m also genuinely unsure of how to write a review of this piece. I was not sure what to expect and having now seen it, I’m not sure how to describe it to someone. I know I regularly talk about how theatre is an “existential” art form, that you have to “be there”. In the case of London Road, words really won’t do justice to the clever piece of theatre this is.

So is it a musical? Is it an opera? Is it play that uses music? Is it a verbatim theatre piece set to music? Yes to all of them, but I think the last description is the most suitable. Adam Cork has taken the verbatim transcripts that Alecky Blythe collected and collated and set them to music. What Adam Cork has cleverly done is weave the idiosyncratic speech patterns and rhythms as the basis of the score. What you get is a very strange basis for a score, but it actually works. It’s musical theatre but NOT as we know it. I’m very excited to see where this production will take it, musical theatre is in many ways stuck in a rut, but this shows that the genre can adapt and something new can be created with it.

I was sceptical I’ll be honest, but it didn’t feel strained, clichéd or wrong. In many ways it re-iterated the verbatim nature of what was being said.

It’s not all sung, and the straight verbatim scenes are actually a good counterpoint to the music. The score has some genuinely beautiful melodies and arrangements.

The cast are incredible; they number 11 but play 52 parts between them, capturing the subtle nuances and accents of each. There are a core group of characters that make up the Neighbourhood Watch Group and it’s their experiences we follow. I have to admit I found it a fascinating story. It was also challenging to see how the residents of that street dealt with the whole situation. Alecky Blythe doesn’t edit her verbatim transcripts to present a perfect view of the street at all. Far from it, each character has their say, and I was surprised at what some had to say.

They also sing in a way that is unlike any other type of singing I’ve heard.  Adam Cork says in the programme notes, “I wanted to find a way of singing with the quality of speech, which is altogether different from either an operatic or a conventional music-theatre vocal style.” This has certainly been achieved. I found the music and singing almost hypnotic and it really does draw you into the story the characters are telling.

I was also impressed at how this cast really created a sense of a small community, they really did come across as the characters they were portraying, and that there was a bond between them. It’s hard to put into words, but if you see it I think you’ll understand what I mean, the cast embodied the community feel they were showing us.

The idea of a “state of the nation” play is something I’ve studied but honestly felt I’d never really seen, London Road has changed that. It shows a microcosm of British life as it is at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, and how that community dealt with a tragic event. In a town where “nothing really happens”.  It taps into the search of our current society for “community/big society” (whatever that might mean)

I saw the first preview night and thought the cast and musicians gelled well. I did think the song/scene where the court verdict is passed, was a bit difficult to understand as the numerous cast members representing the different media, becoming more and more frenzied felt a bit too frenzied for me. In a piece that requires the cast and musicians to get the rhythm and pacing of the speech/song just right, I am impressed that they were so spot on for their first preview and it is testimony to them that they really have grappled with this piece and are doing it the justice it deserves.

So I have managed to put into words some of my thoughts, I trust they make some sense. As I said at the beginning though, I really think this needs to be seen and experienced to really “get it”, not because it’s some strange esoteric piece, rather there really is nothing else like it (at least that I’m aware of.) Pieces like this is why we have a National Theatre, this has certainly been one of the gems of 2011 so far for me.

Luck of the Irish?? I hope so for this assignment.

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This'll help with my assignment

The end of my current module is a few weeks away, which means one thing – an assignment is looming! This module on Postwar British and Irish Playwriting has been an interesting one. In many ways it’s been a mixed bag really. It’s brought to my attention some real gems – Blue/Orange, Plenty, The Entertainer. Whilst at the same time it’s made me have to read some really awful plays – Stoning Mary and Mercury/Fur especially come to mind.

I’m glad to have chosen this module though, as I was totally ignorant of any Irish playwrights until I did this module and for me they’ve been the real “finds” of this academic year. So it’s not surprising that I’ve chosen to focus on them for my next assignment. I’ve had to choose three Irish plays and the three I’ve chosen are;

The Weir by Conor McPherson. I saw this earlier this year (a review is here) and was blown away by the lyrical script and was delighted to see a modern playwright writing monologues for his characters.

Did You Hear The One About The Irishman? by Christina Reid  is another of my choices. By depicting how personal decisions have societal and political ramifications she shows us the problems ordinary people faced during “the troubles”.

For my third choice I’m currently debating which to use, it’s a toss up between Translations by Brian Friel or The Clearing by Helen Edmundson. These plays both look at Irelands past, yet it shows how the spectre of actions taken hundreds of years ago effect the present day.

So join me in raising a glass of Guinness to these fine playwrights, and to me getting a good grade!

Wastwater by Simon Stephens – Royal Court Theatre – Review

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Wastwater is Simon Stephens latest play and has just opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London. I attended the second preview night yesterday. It’s a play that has no interval and for 1hr and 40 mins took me on an engrossing journey, where I went through a range of thoughts, feelings and emotions. That to me is a hallmark of a good playwright.

Act 1 is a beautiful act, grappling tenderly with the issue of a foster child departing from the foster parent. It’s poignant, witty and moving. It sets the foundations for this play and some of its themes are carefully woven here, although you’re not aware of them until the end. Tom Sturridge as Harry gives a touching portrayal as the foster “child” leaving. Linda Bassestt is superb as the foster mum, asking akward questions and trying not to reveal how upset she is. To say it’s a “lovely” act might make it sound a bit naff, far from it, really it is “lovely”. Well written dialogue, and acted with a genuineness that is rare to see.

The curtain comes down, rain is heard and then “boom” up goes the curtain on a totally different set, I was amazed at the transformation.

Act 2 it becomes clear pretty soon, isn’t going to be such a “lovely” act. Now I’m in a generic corporate hotel room, with a couple who are there for one reason, sex. However the conversation cleverly weaves partly into the previous scene and the sex never happens. Paul Ready as Mark and Jo McInnes as Lisa like their Act 1 colleagues perform with exceptional skill. Jo McInnes is wickedly brilliant. Throughout this act, Simon Stephens keeps us on our toes, and there are a few surprises.

Act 3 links in subtlety with Acts 1 and 2. It’s quite a disturbing and harrowing act, and yet the ending isn’t. I don’t want to say too much about it as I think you really need to see it. Amanda Hale plays her character Sian menacingly and Sian has to be one of the worst bitches I’ve seen on stage for a long time! Angus Wright’s performance as Jonathan is remarkable. As I was not sure of the nature of the transaction that is occurring at the beginning of this act, I wasn’t sure whether to be sympathetic or reviled by him. Angus Wright created a palpable sense of fear which I’ve never experienced on stage before. A brilliant performance!

Simon Stephens writing is excellent, and seeing how he ties these three acts together and confronts us with several issues and ideas at once, with the motif of Heathrow T5 and aeroplanes shows a playwright that knows their craft.

Why is it called Wastwater then? Well the scripts/programmes for sale were entitles Wastwater and T5. The lake Wastwater is referenced and so it does make sense as to why it’s called just Wastwater. If you listen to the podcast with Simon Stephens and Katie Mitchell you’ll hear more about the play and Simon Stephens love for T5!

Katie Mitchell’s direction is authentic for this play. There’s only ever two characters on stage at any one time (well three briefly in Act 3) and she brings out the inherent feeling of being trapped in each scene, contrasting it skillfully with the roaring sounds of the aeroplanes overhead “escaping”.

Although this was a preview performance, it certainly did not show. If the cast are this good on the second night it bodes very well for the rest of the run.

Wastwater in Cumbria

Greenland – National Theatre – Review

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I was planning to see one of the first performances of Greenland however I had to re-arrange my tickets and ended up seeing one of the last few performances of it. I’ve followed the comments and reviews others have made of this play, including chatting to a few others that have seen it too. I was looking forward to forming my own opinions.

I was interested in this piece for several reasons, firstly the subject matter is something that I feel is of great importance. I commend The National for comissioning a piece to contribute to the debate on climate change. I was also interested to see a collaborative piece of writing as this again was something new for me to experience.

Primarily though it was due to having seen and enjoyed Welcome to Thebes last year at The National and seeing that Moira Buffini was one of the writers of this piece I wanted to go and see it on the strength of her contribution. Her contribution was strongly felt as the references to Greek myth and theatre came throughout the play.

I left the theatre and have spent the night pondering on what I saw. Firstly this piece has greatly challenged me. I like to think I’m a fairly environmentally conscious individual, but just as one of the characters in the play keeps succumbing to 21st Century Western Society living, so too have I. We as a species are destroying our planet. It’s a sobering thought that is powerfully brought into razor sharp focus with this piece. As one of the characters wryly observes, “It’s not the end of the world, the world will continue, it’s the end of us, humankind”. I’ve come back home with a renewed vigor to try and be more green and aware than previously. Regular readers of my blog know that one reason I go to the theatre is to be changed. This play certainly gave me much food for thought. I trust that the changes I make will continue.

Quite a few of the criticisms of this piece that I’ve read have accused it of being too “preachy”, I didn’t feel it was. I felt it was making a point, and perhaps rather bluntly at times, but I was kind of expecting that, this is a piece with a point, it makes no bones about it.

Theatrically this is a very interesting piece. There’s clever use of lighting, projection, and staging throughout the piece. The highlight is the polar bear, which is an adroit piece of puppetry. I also like the way the height of the Lyttleton theatre’s proscenium arch stage was used, the physical space of the whole stage was used and gave this piece a much larger feel.

What I did find was that this clearly felt like a collaborative piece. Each of the characters and scenes, seemed quite different and it did almost feel like each of the writers had written their own scenes and then they’d worked out a way of linking them loosely together. It did feel jagged and bitty in places rather than homogenised, as I was expecting the piece to be. I’d be fascinated to hear more about how the writers Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne found the whole experience of writing this piece.

I also felt that this is a piece that would continue to evolve and adapt as it is such a contemporary subject. A mention was made of the Japanese disaster, and so it was good to see that the writers were keen to keep this piece as up to date as possible.

I think this was a successful attempt by The National to stage a piece of contemporary and creative theatre, with a clear socio-political message. I’d be interested to see if the writers collaborate again, I imagine that if they were to, their next piece would build on the strong foundation they’ve created with Greenland.