Looking back at 2011

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For me 2011, has certainly been my busiest year theatrically. As I sit here with my Xmas Turkish Delight and box of choccy’s, what were my highlights?

  • Finally getting to see Robert Lepage was certainly a memorable occasion. His play The Blue Dragon I referred to as “Theatrical perfection”.

    Robert Lepage as Pierre Lamontagne

  • I saw my first Burlesque  show, which was certainly an eye opener!

    Mistress of Ceremonies

  • London Road at the National Theatre is certainly one of the highlights for me. An amazing piece of theatre.
  • The best new play of this year I think was The Acid Test by Anya Reiss.

Best new play of 2011

  • The best acting I saw this year was in The Seagull at the Arcola, especially Yolanda Kettle as Nina, who gets my “Best Actress Award”. Best Actor goes to Joseph Milson as Ben Stark in Rocket to the Moon at the National.

    Yolanda Kettle, best actress I saw in 2011, in The Seagull at the Arcola.

Joseph Milson, best actor I saw in 2011, in Rocket to the Moon

  • Crazy for You, was definitely the best musical I saw this year.

    The best legs in London!

  • Manon at the Royal Opera House, wins “best ballet” award.

    Manon left me speechless.

  • Best entertainment award would go to Strictly Gershwin. (so good I saw it twice and my wife saw it three times!)

    Dancing from the beautiful Rhapsody in Blue

  • Best theatre book of the year, without a doubt the publication of Volume 2 Samuel Beckett’s letters from 1941 – 1956, I’m still ploughing my way through them, but they’re one of the most rewarding things I’ve read in a long time.

So all in all a very good year theatrically for me.  Thanks to all my readers and I wish you all a very prosperous 2012.

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How The World Began by Catherine Trieschmann – Arcola Theatre London – Review

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Two diametrically opposed worldviews?

Whilst on my way to the theatre yesterday to see this play about science and religious fundamentalism I saw a Pentecostal group shrieking (via a very loud PA system, surely that’s worthy of an ASBO?) how unless you agreed with them you were going to hell, I crossed over the road only to see some muslims handing out leaflets and books. I hastened on, only to be obstructed by another Christian with leaflets. “yikes” says I ducking off the high street before the Hare Krishna’s turned up.

As I settled down in the theatre I was transported to Plainview in Kansas, USA, where New York science teacher Susan is having to deal with the consequences of calling non-scientific views such as creationism “gobbledygook”, in a town where Christian fundamentalism holds sway. The instigator of the trouble is student Micah, whose faith in a literal understanding of the Bible is causing him to feel the teacher has offended god and therefore judgement will befall the town. Well meaning guardian of Micah, Gene tries to be the peace maker, but has his own fundamentalist world view.As Susan realises she and the inhabitants of Plainview, “live in completely different universes”.

Catherine Trieschmann’s play deals sensitively and cleverly with the issues, of faith, science, education and the dangers of fundamentalism. It would have been easy to portray Micah as a stupid kid, but she gives him depth and makes us realise that there are often root causes to fundamentalists holding the views they do. Gene as Micah’s guardian is a wonderful character, a guy just trying to do the best he can for the young man who’s he come to look after tragedy. Science teacher Susan, is also a more sophisticated character than just a stock atheist, with her concerns for her health insurance and wanting to make a difference. Trieschmann offers no real answer beyond the obvious one, that unfortunately the two world views are so different, that little reconciliation is possible. She rightly shows how the religious when challenged don’t resort to dialogue but violence and intimidation. Also how a fundamentalist world view is driven primarily by fear above all else.

There's a storm brewing in Plainview

I come from a fundamentalist background, when I was Micah’s age I’d have said the same as him which is rather sobering. Thankfully I realised the folly of my ways and so this play was of special interest and I can identify with all the characters. I’m sure they’ll be many who’ll think this is an American issue, but there are numerous calls for creation to be taught in UK state schools. It already IS in many of the faith/fundamentalist schools that have proliferated over the last decade in the UK. Let’s also not forget the Church of England often thought of as a bit of a national joke, had leaders say that recent floods in the UK were the result of god’s wrath on the UK’s accommodation of other faiths and lifestyles. Not forgetting the “curse” on the millennium stone in Carlisle that is apparently responsible for the outbreak of foot and mouth and the flood there. The UK can certainly give the US a run for its money with religious fundamentalism.  This video is worth watching if you want to see a bit more about the US and creationism:

That’s why I think this is a timely play. The cast of three, Anna Francolini (Susan), Ciaran McIntyre (Gene) and Perry Millward (Micah), give excellent performances. Anna Francolini allows the audience to see and feel her frustrations, Ciaran McIntyre provides the necessary foil and humour and you have to sympathise with him trying his best to raise Micah. Perry Millward despite his youth is excellent, his role as Micah is a demanding one and he never allows his character to stray into melodrama or become too much of a religious nutter. The play has humorous and touching scenes aswell as more serious and dramatic moments.

Des Kennedy is the recipient of the inaugural Out of Joint Directing Award. His direction allows the claustrophobia of the classroom to spill over into the world views clashing. The classroom serves as the pressure cooker for the views to explode, like the Big Bang. The use of sound and projections during the scene changes were effective and nice touch.

As you can see this is a topic that is of personal interest, and I certainly recommend this play to you should the subjects of education, religion, evolution and creationism be of interest to you. Even if they’re not, this is a dramatic and exciting play that has some great characters and gives an insight to worldviews you may not have encountered.

STARS : * * * *

ps,

for those that are interested I recommend this blog, unreasonable faith.

The Seagull – Arcola Theatre – Review

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When everything comes together in theatre, it’s like a certain magic is being recreated in front of the audience. Most of the theatre I see is good, sometimes exceptional, sometimes it leaves a lot to be desired and occasionally it is something quite magical.

This production of The Seagull falls into the latter category. This is like capturing lightning in a bottle. The play by Chekhov is a classic, and this new translation by Charlotte Pyke, John Kerr and Joseph Blatchley brings it up to date while keeping it rooted in the period it’s set in. I’m no Chekhov scholar but to me it seemed an accurate and fair translations to previous ones I’ve read, without some of the “stuffiness” that seems to be present in some.

Seeing Chekhov in the round was also a new experience, yet it actually made it feel more intense and I was surprised at how it suited being presented this way. The slick changes of the scenes made by the cast and the creative way each one was created really worked.

So what made this so special? the pedigree of the script obviously  helped, the creative staging likewise made this seem fresh and new. However I feel that the lions share for what made this so magical must go to the WHOLE cast and the director Joseph Blatchley. Not a weak link at all in the cast, each bringing their characters to life. I’ve seldom seen such perfect ensemble work (London Road at the National being the only other example that springs immediately to mind).

I was blown away by Yolanda Kettle who played Nina. This was her professional debut and it was phenomenal, to see an actress of such ability at the debut of their career can only mean we’ll be seeing her in much more as her career progresses. Her portrayal of Nina brought tears to my eyes in Act Four and her acting in the previous acts shows a zest of youth and idealism. Certainly an actress to keep our eyes on.

Al Weaver showed  a real depth and gave an excellent portrayal as the tortured and troubled  Konstantin. The aforementioned scene in Act 4 with Nina was so moving and the intensity in his performance throughout was palpable.

Even though it’s a smaller part, I thought Paul Westwood’s portrayal of the money conscious and struggling teacher Medvedenko was superb. His glances and asides to characters added to the desperation and conflict he was going through.

Roger Lloyd Pack showed his experience and skill as ever and was perfectly cast as Dorn, the final lines need someone of Roger Lloyd Packs experience to deliver them. Which he did with a sensitivity and alarm, that provided a superb ending.

Jodie McNee as Masha, was suitably forlorn and depressed, with her mood as black as her mourning costume, she gave a melancholy performance that never veered into melodrama.

The scenes where there were arguments and banter between numerous characters were witty, and exciting, they didn’t feel forced or that the actors were saying “rhubarb”, rather the conversations seemed totally natural and realistic. Even the off stage meal that happens in Act Four made for brilliant background noise.

I’ve been recommending this to friends since seeing it on Friday and I recommended it to a young actor who is still in training today, as seeing Yolanda Kettle will definitely be an inspiration for her and something to aim towards.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve given a few “rave reviews” recently, we’re extremely fortunate to have so much quality theatre on at the present, this production though ranks up there at the top of recent plays I’ve seen in the last few months. The Arcola Theatre building itself is a “work in progress” due to its recent move, but by putting on such exceptional productions as this, it can only go from strength to strength.

Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall – 10th Anniversary Production at Arcola Theatre London – Review

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I read Blue/Orange earlier this year, and immediately loved it, so much so I wrote a blog post about it here. Shortly after I found out the Arcola theatre were putting on a production for its 10th Anniversary and so booked my tickets way back at the beginning of August.

The original play was written for three male characters. This production has changed that to being three women. These were ably played by Ayesha Antoine, Esther Hall and Helen Schlesinger. I felt changing the sex of the characters worked really well and certainly gave a certain “bitchiness” between the two Drs that I don’t think was there in the original.

The subject matter is one that the play itself acknowledges is not talked about much, yet schizophrenia is an issue that affects a great number of people, not just the individuals but also their families and communities. Ayesha Antoine gave a convincing portrayal as the schizophrenic Juliet. The arguments between the Dr and Consultant are as pertinent than ever, there’s no bed for Juliet at the hospital so she should be discharged as she’s “only borderline”. Dr Emily’s pleas that she needs to be properly diagnosed and supported are dismissed by the politically and personally driven Consultant Hilary.

I mentioned in my previous post about Blue/Orange that the dialogue and scripting is brilliant and seeing it performed simply confirmed that. There is also a huge amount of humour that came out beautifully.

The set design is superb, it’s performed in the round, yet we peer through large windows into the consulting room where all the action takes place. A clever use of lighting and sound add to the production and accentuate key parts subtlety.

The Arcola itself is a lovely studio theatre with a cosy cafe area for pre and interval drinks which was nice, it also has an array of kebab shops for a post show nibble, that I refrained from, but Kevin and Vanessa who I went with partook of, and said was very nice!

The Arcola will be closing temporarily at the end of the year, before it moves to an exciting new property just up the road. More details and how to donate to it are here. It’s an inspiring project and I wish them all the best as the theatre goes into its second decade.

There is an abundance of quality plays on at the moment which is a fabulous situation for us to be in, this is definitely worth putting to the top of your list and making the effort to go to.