The Sunshine Boys by Neil Simon – Savoy Theatre London – Review

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Richard Griffiths and Danny DeVito – brilliant comic casting

We’ve not had much sunshine in the UK this year, the odd glimpse here and there but ever since the water companies announced a water shortage in April we’ve had non-stop rain. The West End however has a radiant beam of sunshine  shining forth at the moment in Neil Simon’s charming comedy The Sunshine Boys.

Theatre is many things to many people. After a manic week at work for both my wife and I we settled into our chairs at The Savoy Theatre hoping for a pleasant, fun and entertaining evening. The Sunshine Boys was the perfect antidote to a hectic work week. I’d firstly like to say how impressed I was by the front of house staff at The Savoy Theatre, certainly the most helpful and polite of any West End Theatre I’ve been too.

The play is about two vaudeville performers that have fallen out 11 years earlier and are asked to reunite for a TV special. The physical comedy and gags provide many a laugh and the play has a touching melancholy about fame, entertainment and old age.

A comedy performance of perfection from Danny DeVito

Thea Sharrock’s directing allows the humour to shine through and for the masterful acting of Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths to glisten. I attended a masterclass with her earlier this month, and there she talked of the need for actors to trust the author, clearly DeVito and Griffiths trust Neil Simon, watching them was truly mesmerizing. They communicate so much just with a look or a reaction. Although the play is titled about the two “boys” it really is all about Danny DeVito’s character Willie Clark. He’s on stage for the entire play and it really is his play. Watching him was an object lesson in comic acting, but more than that it was simply a joy to watch him perform.

Neil Simon’s script from 1972 is of a slightly slower pace than some modern plays and comedies but I thought it never dragged, some of the jokes might be a bit hackneyed but I think that’s in keeping with the characters. The audience and I laughed along throughout and the recreation of The Sunshine Boys classic doctors sketch that opens Act 2 was harmless fun with some very funny moments and took me back to a time of Morecambe and Wise and the Two Ronnies.

At the end the entire audience (including me) gave Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths a standing ovation. I hardly ever give a standing ovation (in fact I’m not sure the last time I did give one, they happen so rarely!) so I hope that gives you some idea of how impressed I was by their performances. It really is worth going to see this, just to see Danny DeVito’s adroit performance.

A jubilant evening at the theatre, perfect Friday night entertainment and merriment.

STARS : * * * *

Life Ain’t No Musical – The Remix

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I was privileged to see Life Ain’t No Musical by Act Now (the youth initiative of Cardboard Citizens)last year, my thoughts on it are here.

A year later a new cast tackle this musical about the challenges homeless youngsters face, with the same passion and pizzazz as their counterparts last year.

I saw it last night at a special performance in London’s City Hall. From our top floor room we could see the sprawling city. How many out there were going through what the youngsters were portraying as theatre for real tonight I wondered?

This isn’t a gloomy piece though, no it’s brimming full of hope.

As Adrian Jackson (Artistic Director of Cardboard Citizens) pointed out to us at the beginning of the evening, “Art can change the world“, and as Tony McBride (Director of Life Ain’t No Musical) reminded us, “art reflects the world too”.

This is a piece of theatre that reflects and changes the world. I’m honoured to have seen this fresh and vibrant cast perform it.

ps I really think Cardboard Citizens should release the music/script as I’m sure many youth theatres around the country would love to put this piece.

pps Cardboard Citizens relies on donations to allow their transformational theatre to take place, if you can, please go here and give generously.

The Browning Version by Terence Rattigan / South Downs by David Hare – Harold Pinter Theatre London – Review

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The first play I ever read of Terence Rattigan’s was The Browning Version. Several years ago it cropped up in a college module. I remember it vividly, I cried reading it, and immediately re-read it. Following that I’ve become a huge aficionado of Terence Rattigan and his work.

I’ve said it to people personally that I think The Browning Version is one of the 20th Centuries greatest plays. So it is no surprise that I went to see it at the Harold Pinter Theatre. This was the first time I’ve actually seen it live though, would it have the same impact on me that reading it did?

Nicholas Farrell plays Crocker-Harris the schoolmaster the play is about. It is one of the foremost displays of acting I’ve seen. He plays the prickly character perfectly and leads us perfectly to the moment when the emotion and humanity of him come out with the presentation by Taplow of a gift. Yes, it made me cry, I was moved so much.

A moving performance from Nicholas Farrell as Crocker-Harris

Anna Chancellor plays his wife with flare and drew audible disapproval from the audience when she treats her husband abysmally. The woman behind me uttering loudly “what a cow!”

Liam Morton as pupil Taplow was smashing playing the cheeky schoolboy , with just the right amount of tenderness when he presented the gift to Crocker-Harris. Mark Umbers as the adulterous Frank Hunter turned the tables wonderfully on Mrs Crocker-Harris and the scene where Crocker-Harris and he discuss Mrs Crocker-Harris’s infidelity was especially affecting.

The cast and director Angus Jackson, present here a definitive Browning Version. It took me on the intense emotional journey Rattigan has written and will be a theatrical memory I treasure.

As this is a one-act play it was originally paired with another of Rattigan’s plays Harlequinade . Which is a satirical farce about a company putting on Romeo and Juliet and was written for John Gielgud. Trouble is it is VERY dated and never really worked other than the first time when John Gielgud was in it. So there’s been this situation where the great Browning Version  has been paired with the sub standard Harlequinade. For the Rattigan centenary last year the Rattigan Estate asked David Hare to pen a new companion play for The Browning VersionSouth Downs is his response to the request.

For my most recent college assignment I focused on the plays of David Hare and so have read all his work, with the exception of South Downs as I wanted to see it before reading it (and its subject matter was not applicable to the assignment so I could afford to do that). I really admire Hare’s playwrighting and thoughts on theatre. Some of his plays are triumphs others less so, similar to Rattigan in many ways.

An astounding performance from Alex Lawther as Blakemore

South Downs is a fitting companion play. In this play we see the education system from the eyes of a pupil, Blakemore. Alex Lawther plays misfit pupil Blakemore, this was the performance of the night and may well be my performance of the year, he is remarkable. It brought memories flooding back of what school was like for me and how cruel we were to those that didn’t fit in or had interests/ideas different to “the herd” of the rest of us. Blakemore  is a cleverly written character because I felt I could identify with him as well as his other school friends. I’m sure we all had moments during our schooling when we felt different and uncomfortable with who we were.

Is education a tool teaching the masses to simply fit in and conform? Or can it be used to inspire and transform individuals and society? Is something I was left to ponder on during the interval, and many around could be heard to be discussing the merits of various systems of schooling. It’s an emotional and compelling piece of drama.

So we now have The Browning Version paired with its perfect companion play South Downs. I am overjoyed that this has occurred. Brilliant writing with superb performances makes for a memorable theatrical experience.

STARS : * * * * *

Chris Cox – Fatal Distraction – Udderbelly Festival Southbank London – Review

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Chris Cox bills himself as “The Mind Reader That Can’t Read Minds” – it’s LIES, LIES,  LIES, I tell you, YES HE CAN. How he accomplishes such feats is his own closely guarded secret but as the evening progresses the revelations come thick and fast and it seems that no thought is safe from him.

He’s respectfully asked that reviewers don’t spoil the show by giving away what happens and I’ll honour that, partly because I’m a decent chap and all that, but primarily because I want you to all go and see this show when it’s on near you. (if it’s not on near you, get in a car, taxi, plane, train, tandem, whatever and get to it) YES IT’S SUPERB.

I was pleased to finally make my inaugural visit to the UdderBelly at the Southbank, I’ve seen it there the last few years for the Southbank Festival and repeatedly thought “I must get to see something there”, well, I finally have.

The unique Udderbelly Festival tent.

Mind-reading / Mentalist acts can suffer from being far too dark, far to repetitive and far too boring usually. There’s not any of that in this show. His pacing is superb, the whole evening has a joyousness that I’ve not experienced in a magic/mentalism act before.

His self depreciating humour, and amazing effects would make this worthwhile seeing. What makes it into my MUST SEE list, is how he’s compiled a complete package, he frames his evening around a touching premise that gives it a logical and dramatical trajectory most acts fail to achieve. Fatal Distraction is not so much an “act” more a complete 1 act play. We are taken on a journey with Chris and it’s a joy from beginning to the mind-boggling ending.

Chris is also extremely personable, treating his audience with respect and bantering along with us. He knows that the success of this show is on our interaction with him and vice versa and as he buoyantly moves amongst us, he makes the audience  just as much part of the show as him. I’ve seen countless performers fail to get interaction from their audience, not so with Chris, people were clambering to get the jumper wearing ferret (it’s a toy I hasten to add) that he has thrown about the theatre to locate his willing volunteers. Every volunteer is given their own badge, mine was placed immediately on my jacket, style guru that I am.

It’s the freshest, funniest and best mind reading show I’ve seen (and I’ve seen loads) . If you fancy a totally different night out at the theatre where you will be amazed, intrigued, involved and just smile and laugh from start to finish, catch this while it’s on tour. I’m going to catch it again and take some friends as soon as I can. He’s one of the best live entertainers I’ve seen.

STARS : * * * * *

The Witness by Vivienne Franzmann – Royal Court Theatre – Review

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Danny Webb, Pippa Bennett-Warner and David Ajala

An emotional evening tonight at The Royal Court Theatre as we watched the story or Rwanda genocide survivor Alex and her adoptive father Joseph.

Danny Webb plays the father, he’s one of  best actors I’ve seen. He always moves me and creates believable characters of profundity. (I’ve previously seen him in Blasted, and Chicken Soup With Barley ) It was again a joy to watch him tonight as he brought Joseph to life before our eyes. His drunk scene in Act 2 was a highlight for me, I won’t say too much about it as it features a great dramatic surprise.

Into their cosy safe suburban Hampstead existence comes a blast from the past that disrupts and changes everything, emotions run high as the uncomfortable past is dredged up.

The in the round living room set designed by Lizzie Clachan gives a sense of being trapped that Alex has and the security Joseph wants to hold on to.

Vivienne Franzmann has written an emotive piece that grapples with identity (just as Belong did last month in the Theatre Upstairs). It seems to be part of the zeitgeist as we try to gain or hold onto some form of identity in this fast changing 21st century. She also examines the roll of the journalist in the darkest parts of world affairs, are they witnesses? Do they help to change world opinion or are they voyeurs who stand by and watch rather try to stop the evil they see? It’s powerful and moving.

STARS : * * * *

Ps. I mentioned in my last review of a Royal Court production that I was finding the music played in between acts far too loud in the last few plays I’ve seen there. This appears to have been rectified as the music was just right tonight. 🙂

Love, Love, Love by Mike Bartlett – Royal Court Theatre – Review

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Mike Bartlett’s new play takes us through the heady carefree days of 60’s free love to late 80’s “money, money, money, me, me,me”, to the comfortable retirement of the two protagonists Kenneth and Sandra.

This was an enjoyable and funny play. Ben Miles and Victoria Hamilton as Kenneth and Sandra, showed us their evolution from carefree teens to relaxed retirees. It was a bit of a stretch of the imagination to think of them as 19 as they claim in Act 1. The wigs used throughout were excellent, but I do wonder if having different actors in each act may have worked better? I’m also never really convinced when actors claim to be acting stoned on stage, it did veer off into 60’s clichés I felt. However the act did set the scene and I looked forward to seeing where life would take them in Act 2.

Between each act music was played setting the scene for the era we were going into. Again I plead with the Royal Court, please turn your music down!!! I’m not some old codger but the levels they play it at, both upstairs and downstairs in numerous productions are actually uncomfortable, I’d like to be able to talk to people I’ve gone with during the intervals. Perhaps it’s their not so subtle way of driving out their patrons into the bar areas?

George Rainsford, Victioria Hamilton and Claire Foy

Act 2 opened with George Rainsford as Jamie dancing around the 1990 living room the stage had now become to loud music (excusable now as it was part of act) . This brought a smile to my face, as I would have been Jamie’s age in 1990 and I also remember prancing about my families lounge to the Stone Rose’s She Bangs a Drum. Sad but true. This act grappled with Kenneth and Sandra dealing with being hard-working middle class parents of teens. It also brought up the infidelity of each of them and we saw their relationship start to crumble.

Another interval (with loud music – grrrrr) and at this point I was enjoying myself but felt this play was really lacking in pace, I was hoping Act 3 would not let me down.

Tension in the air – Victoria Hamilton, Claire Foy, Ben Miles

Act 3 takes us to the large and sunny living room of a country house (The Royal Court as ever, excels at totally transforming the stage between acts – Lucy Osbourne was the designer) Here we find Kenneth enjoying his retirement (of £65,000 a year) which he feels he deserves. He and Sandra have long since split up, but it appears to be amicable. This act really delighted me. FINALLY I’ve seen on stage an issue that has been totally ignored for the last decade (Alex Sierz in his book Rewriting the Nation observed this issue had been absent in theatres during 2000-2010). What is this “issue”, well it may be “very middle class”, but it’s a key issue for anyone of my generation – The amount of money required to buy a house or even get on the property ladder.

We see Rosie challenge her parents about it, their response is not to help her out, but rather berate her for complaining. She will have to resign herself to the fate many of my generation have, we’ll only own a property when our parents die. This wasn’t an “issue play” though, it came from the strong characters Mike Bartlett portrays, but I was so pleased to see home ownership of 25-40 year olds being raised as something that does provide dramatic conflict between children and their parents.

As Rosie points out to her parents:

“You didn’t change the world, you bought it, privatised it. What did you stand for? Peace? Love? Nothing except being able to do whatever the f*&k you wanted.”

It also had a tragic note in this act. Rosie has “followed her dream”, encouraged by her parents and yet this has not provided happiness to her. This was a sobering revelation and actually an acute observation from Mike Bartlett. As for a great many following your dream does also require sacrifices and there is a price to be paid. Is telling your child to “follow their dreams” responsible parenting?  This is one question Mike Bartlett poses to us.

I like the way by focusing on one couple over the last 40 years we see a range of issues and how decisions made in the past affect the present. It is not some cerebral boring play though, it’s full of humour, strong characters and heart-felt issues. Alas it doesn’t offer any easy answers, but that’s because there aren’t any.

STARS * * * *

Using your phone in a Theatre

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nitwit

There’s been lots of talk in the papers, twitter and blogosphere recently about the use of cameras and phones in theatres over the last few months. Have a look here and here for example.

A friend sent me the funny video below, of a customers voicemail after they got thrown out of a cinema for using their phone.

Most interesting is the fact they think that if it’s on silent it’s ok to use it ? Do they not realise that there is nothing more irritating than the glow of a phone screen in a dark cinema or theatre, why oh why don’t people realise that? Despite the fact in a live theatre it is downright rude to be texting, tweeting or surfing net when people are working on stage. If you want to do that, stay at home, sit on a bus, train or in a cafe and do it to your hearts content. If you’re desperate to Tweet, waiting until the interval is surely not too much to ask?

You may be surprised but I came to see people on stage lit up not the audience!

There’s some strong language in the video, but I like fact the Alamo Drafthouse Theater cinema in Austin Texas are standing by their kick out policy and have a sense of humour by posting this up on YouTube.

Enjoy!