The 10 Best Shows to book in London this December.

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  1. Romeo & Juliet. Royal Shakespeare Company at The Barbican. A contemporary version of the Shakespeare classic.
  2. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The Palace Theatre. A really good story and brilliant special effects.
  3. Les Miserables. Queen’s Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue. This predates The London Lark, but it has been running so long because it is very good!don-quixote-lt
  4. Don Quixote. The Garrick Theatre. The Christmas show for people who don’t do panto!
  5. School of Rock. Gillian Lynne Theatre, Drury Lane. Very enjoyable musical, a bit corny but great fun.
  6. Summer and Smoke. Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane. Worth seeing for Patsy Ferran’s performance alone. Wonderful use of music at dramatic moments.
  7. Macbeth. Royal Shakespeare Company at The Barbican. Niamh Cusack and Christopher Ecclestone are fantastic in this.
  8. Follies. The National Theatre. Won the Olivier award for best musical revival last year, returning early next year and booking now. Sondheim in his prime, beautifully done.the-play-that-goes-wrong-5249
  9. The Play that goes Wrong. The Duchess Theatre, Covent Garden. This does exactly what it says on the tin. Very, very fanny! (Ha,Ha!)
  10. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. The Apollo, Shaftsbury Avenue. Great Songs and a lovely uplifting story.

I have restricted the list to those shows that I have seen myself. There are a number of shows that I am sure will be wonderful but that I have not yet seen. Hamilton, which is on at the Victoria Palace appears to be universally loved. I am really looking forward to seeing Company at The Geilgud Theatre. The Inheritance at The Noel Coward Theatre looks like it will be fantastic too.

This list is obviously based on personal taste too. People who love Bat Out Of Hell, seem to really adore it and return regularly, although I have to say that I found the new songs less good than the originals and the story is poor. Some of the special effects are spectacular.

A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter might appeal, if you like your theatre to be a bit more off kilter. It is brim full of weird and unusual ideas, but it is not an easy watch and the realisation is not as polished as Martin McDonagh’s usual fare. You also need to be quick, as it is due to finish in early January.

So, if you are thinking of booking theatre tickets for London anytime this month, there is a show for you somewhere in this list. Enjoy!

 

A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Bridge Theatre, London SE1

Once upon a there was a very talented author. His name was Martin McDonagh. Everybody loved his work and he wrote some wonderfully funny plays and some wonderfully clever scripts for films. However, Mr McDonagh had a terrible secret!
Do you remember Shakespeare’s infinite monkeys at infinite typewriters? Well, Martin had stolen the most talented of Shakespeare’s monkeys. He kept it chained to the typewriter and in reality, it was this monkey, who ghost wrote all of his stuff. It was really the most clever monkey, that had the brightest and funniest ideas, and all that Martin McDonagh had to do was to make sure that he edited them carefully.
Well, one day Mr Shakespeare realised that one of his monkeys was missing. He wasn’t sure which one, because he did have an awful lot of them, but he counted them up and, sure enough, he had infinity minus one! Impossible? Impossible but true! He could not let this happen so he determined to spend eternity looking for his monkey, and sure enough, after 300 years, he found that the missing monkey was living in the office of Martin McDonagh’s house.
Shakespeare decided that he would expose Mr McDonagh’s secret by putting a spell on him, which would impair his editing abilities. This would allow, just one time, the monkey’s writing to be issued straight to the world exactly as it was written, with no oversight at all. Shakespeare turned out to be a very clever magician, the spell worked perfectly and Hey Presto! in 2018 “A Very, Very, Very, Dark Matter” was issued upon the world!
As it happens, this show is not all bad. Granted, you will leave the theatre thinking, “What have I just witnessed?”, but the show is full to the brim with ideas. Some of these are funny and clever, some of them less so. It is a touch of genius using the voice of Tom Waits as narrator, his resonant, off beat tone suits the storyline perfectly.
Phil Daniels is wonderful as a foul mouthed Charles Dickens, but it is shocking to hear his young children using the same words, an interesting juxtaposition, I suppose. Jim Broadbent plays Hans Christian Anderson as an amiable buffoon with deep psychological scars and sadistic overtones. This would be an impossible task for a less talented actor.
Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles makes her debut here in a starring role as Marjory. This is the most troubling part in the play and she carries it off very well, you would never know that it is her first major role. Martin McDonagh is always able to attract the highest quality actors and the depth of talent throughout the cast is the strength of the show.
This play has so much going on that it is impossible to make sense of it all. At points, it seems like a random jumble of weird toys thrown together by a wayward child. It has many different ideas running around, some of which will make you uncomfortable, but one thing you can say about Martin McDonagh is that he never plays it safe. This is probably not going to be the most coherent show you will see this year, but I can guarantee that you will not be bored.

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Macbeth, RSC Barbican Season, Barbican, London EC1

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2018 is turning out to be a Macbeth fest, with 4 major productions in London at various times through the year. Spring brought a Punk style, post apocalyptic version to the National Theatre. Autumn had The National Youth Theatre’s stylish and stylized, gender fluid adaptation. Shakespeare’s Globe has a Macbeth opening just now which will run to 2019, and this, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s interpretation, has been playing in Stratford through the year and will be at the Barbican until January.

Here we have a large cast, big names and high production values. The Barbican has a huge stage which is kept fairly minimal throughout, a digital clock, ticking down the seconds, dominates the set – reminding us of the passing of time. The witches are a stroke of genius, three schoolgirls dressed identically in red dresses and shoes with white wool tights, advancing together across the set and speaking in unison. Slightly reminiscent of the film “Don’t Look Now” but certainly the eeriest Macbeth witches I have ever seen.

This is a Macbeth that emphasises the psychological horror of the story. It is a brutal and murderous play, but priority is given to the effects of the violence rather than the violence itself. Polly Findlay, as director has made a clever and thoughtful direction decision in doing this, because we get to see more deeply into the characters of Macbeth and his wife, without losing any of the malignancy of the tale.

Niamh Cusack proves herself to be one of the finest actors, as Lady Macbeth. She is the instigator of the action, she drives and encourages her husband in his moments of doubt. We are always aware that her ambition is not hers alone, it is for them both together – and when she realises that his ambition has gone past hers, that she cannot stop him and that she has lost him, her descent into despair is palpable.

Christopher Ecclestone is Macbeth, he plays him as a modern day fighter, comfortable in battle fatigues, yet ambitious enough to don a dinner suit to schmooze at parties. His acting is a tour de force, we see him grow in ambition as the play moves on. The first undefended murder hits him hard, but each death gets easier and less affecting, until near the end they all just chalk marks on a blackboard, made by the watching porter.

This is a cold and dark Macbeth, perfect for a winter night, one that will stay with you as you sip your whiskey in the pub on the way home from the theatre. A great production of a chilling play. My favourite Macbeth.
 
 
 

Macbeth, National Youth Theatre, Garrick Theatre, London WC2

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This is the third of the National Youth Theatre’s West End season that I have seen, after Consensual and Victoria’s Knickers, which were on last month at the Soho Theatre. I am pleased to say that Macbeth maintains the high standard set by the first two.

This is a contemporary and stylish version of the play. It was interesting to see Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Duncan, all as women, it was good to see how little it changed the dynamic of the piece. Of course, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are both ambitious, determined characters and this setup underlines that each has their own portion of the guilt to bear. Isabel Adomakoh Young as Lady Macbeth does a fantastic job of displaying her ambition when strengthening her partner’s resolve at the start, and then showing her despair when she feels it has gone too far. Olivia Dowd as Macbeth makes us see  how difficult it is to carry out the first undefended murder and then shows us that each successive one becomes more easy, until by the end she doesn’t care how many lives it costs as long as she keeps her power.

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The witches in this Macbeth are fantastic. They look both dramatic and other worldly. Their movement and utterances are chilling, perhaps the best realisation of the witches I have seen, in a perfect combination of costume and delivery. The direction with regard to the apparitions is masterful too, they appear as though spawned by an archfiend that the witches have conjured up. This is a Macbeth where the effects of the supernatural world are strongly felt.

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Back in Scotland, Jay Mailer is good as Ross, Oseloka Obi is a strong and sturdy Macduff and Jamie Ankrah is great as a soldierly Banquo. This is a very accessible Macbeth, Natasha Nixon as director has been clever in managing to convey the horror of the tale while minimising the blood and the gore. I really enjoyed this stripped down, stylized telling of the Scottish play. Its on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons at the Garrick Theatre until the 7th December.

It has been most enjoyable to see 3 of the NYT West End shows this winter, the standard of acting has been very high and I am looking forward to seeing many of the actors on stage or screen again in the near future. If you are in town when the next year’s season is announced, it is worth looking up – the tickets are such good value for a west end show and the productions are excellent quality.  I have to say that, for me, The National Youth Theatre Rep Company’s West End seasons are a highlight of the theatre year.

Romeo & Juliet, RSC Barbican Season, Barbican, London EC2

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Romeo and Juliet was written roughly 420 years ago, but this production makes it feel as though it was taken from stories that we see on the news today. Director Erica Whyman has made bold decisions and taken calculated risks in order to emphasise the similarities and the differences in society in the intervening time.

This is a Romeo and Juliet that deals with gang culture and knife crime. Romeo, Juliet and their friends are young teens dealing with self image, perception and how they wish to be seen. This production highlights how young they are, Shakespeare wrote Juliet as a fourteen year old and I have never before seen a version where I was so aware of their youth and inexperience. Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio are schoolkids trying to look hard in a world where they and all their peers carry knives.

Karen Fishwick is convincing as Juliet – a feisty teenager, used to getting her own way and not above a fit of defiance when she does not. She is surprised by her depth of feeling for Romeo but trusts it completely. Bally Gill is excellent as a contemporary Romeo. At the start he is mooning over his unrequited love for Rosalind but within a day he is head over heels in love with Juliet, the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. He squeezes comedy out of dramatic text. They make a credible young couple, each feeding off the others love.

The director has made a couple of other interesting decisions too. She has changed the gender of Escalus and Mercutio. Both bring something new to the text, The Prince of Verona being a woman brings new light to the speeches about the posturing of men in order to appear powerful. Mercutio’s change is double edged, she is more aggressive because she has to prove herself in a man’s arena, thereby verifying the effect of the sexism she is trying to dispel. Josh Finan is fantastic as Benvolio, he plays him with a schoolboy crush on Romeo, a contemporary twist that fits the text surprisingly well.

The set is bare except for a metal cube. A very abstract idea, but quite practical. It works as a room, the balcony, a dais for the bed, a wall to hide behind….  Personally, I would have preferred a more specific setting, but it is clever and inventive, and it is always interesting to see new thought provoking designs.

Do not go to see this if you want a historic, late 16th Century, costume drama performed as it would have been when it was written.  Do go if you want to see why this play has endured and why a story written so long ago still has relevance to our society today. I know that this production will not be universally loved but I really enjoyed it. It brings new life to one of Shakespeare’s most well known plays.

 

Antony & Cleopatra, National Theatre, South Bank, London

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Antony & Cleopatra is always a big undertaking. The play is an uneasy mix of love and war, it requires a wide variety of settings, scenes and textures and it is usual that a choice is made to make it either bellicose or romantic. Simon Godwin has made the brave decision to have it both ways. The talent and apparatus that are at his disposal at the Olivier theatre allow him to pull it off triumphantly.

The cast is high quality and on top form. The set and choreography are stars in their own right. Hildegard Bechtler, set designer and Evie Gurney, costume designer do a wonderful job.  I doubt that it would be possible to do the transformations from opulent Alexandria, through Roman war rooms to topside ship decks, with such efficiency on any other stage. It is beautifully done and gives the piece a cinematic quality that it is uncommon to see in the theatre. they have lavished money, care and attention to detail on this production and it has not gone to waste. The costumes are sumptuous, Cleopatra really does dress like a queen.

The huge change in ambience between the military settings and the romantic ones make it easy to see the dichotomy that Antony faces between duty and desire. He begins the play lounging by the pool but it not long before he is army fatigues. Ralph Fiennes plays Antony with a hint of midlife crisis, but when he is with Cleopatra there is never any doubt of his love for her. The chemistry between them is palpable, they are sultry and sensual, the perfect star crossed couple. Sophie Okonedo is every inch the Egyptian Queen, expecting adoration and receiving it; sharp and soft,  petulant and magnanimous, veering between vulnerable and dangerous. She owned the role, it feels like the part she was born to play.

The acting throughout is very good, Tim McMullan is excellent as Enobarbus. Hannah Morrish brings out the role of Octavia well, we see she is poorly used by Caesar as well as Antony, but takes what slight revenge she can. Fisayo Akinade is funny and sad as Eros, Antony’s freed slave.

Antony & Cleopatra is three and a half hours long, however there are a couple of light and funny scenes and director, Simon Godwin, makes good use of these to give relief from the tension and high drama. The ending of this play is often difficult to stage, but here it is done in a very authentic manner. There is a glimmer of compassion to the finale of  this play, that is not often there in Shakespearean tragedy. A word of warning to those who suffer from ophidiophobia – you may wish to get seats a little way back from the stage.

Everything about this show oozes high production values, right down to the programme, which has copious information about the background to the play. This is exactly the type of production that gives the National Theatre its worldwide renown.

Imperium, Gielgud Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, London W1.

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Imperium is an adaptation of Robert Harris’ three books on the life of Cicero, into six plays, each just over one hour long. These have been amalgamated into two plays; Conspirator and Dictator, which are running concurrently with the same cast at the Gielgud Theatre. It is possible, if you choose the correct day, to watch the first play as a matinee and the second one the same evening.

This is a Royal Shakespeare Company production which has transferred from Stratford to the West End. Robert Harris is an acclaimed author of historical novels, renowned for making history accessible. Mike Poulton who adapted these novels has recently brought Hilary Mantel’s,Tudor novels to the stage with great success. These three combine well to make a thoroughly entertaining and interesting biography of one of Rome’s less covered  characters.

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Cicero has been written as the hero here although not without flaws. He is honourable and steadfast to his belief in the Republic of Rome. He has great oratorical skills and is politically adept. He is also vain, aware of his talents, but blind to his faults. Richard McCabe plays the part admirably, with charisma – he is self important and gossipy, but witty and likeable still. The other main part in this play is Tiro, Cicero’s slave, who is writing his biography. Joseph Kloska is fantastic in this role, he is effectively the narrator of the story. He is integral to making Cicero likeable and his affection for his master, while seeing his faults, shines through his performance. Both of them are on stage for almost the entire seven hours of the show. The synergy between these two main characters is lovely and is the column around which the whole production is built.

Nearly everyone else is an antihero and a threat to the Roman Republic. Peter de Jersey is a smooth, smiling Julius Caesar – politically adept, desirous of power for personal gain. Joe Dixon is very good as Cataline, all brawn and little brain, who believes that he deserves to rule Rome and is prepared to bring it down in revenge, if it fails to deliver his wishes. In the second series of plays Oliver Johnstone is good as Octavian Caesar. He is cold, calculating and calm, able to bide his time as he is convinced of his own divinity.

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For me, the one misstep was portraying Pompey as a Donald Trump type figure. In historical terms it is likely that they were far from alike politically, and director Gregory Doran did a nice job of drawing our own comparisons with the present day throughout the rest of the show, without us needing any coercion, so maybe we should have been trusted to do the same here. However that is a small quibble, for a production that has managed to walk the line between accuracy and accessibility.

The set too is good, simple and effective. Senate steps that the cast sit upon while listening. Tesserae of watching eyes at the back of the stage. The walls of the senate are built with Roman bricks. There is a huge revolving, reflective, silver globe suspended over the set, that changes hue with events on stage – perhaps a pun on Urbis et Orbis from the city to the world. Anthony Ward has done well making the audience the forum, to whom the senate are speaking and drawing us in to the action.

Imperium is a lovely reproduction of a small part of ancient history. it is witty, funny and accessible, an enjoyable show whether or not you have an interest in the Roman Republic. Robert Harris famously said of his Cicero trilogy that is “The West Wing with Togas”, well this contemporary adaptation turns it into “House of Cards in Ancient Rome”. Surely a Netflix production cannot be far away – and if it is I will surely be watching!

 
 
 

Kiss Me Kate, Opera North, London Coliseum, London WC2

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Cole Porter’s 1948 musical, Kiss Me Kate is a complex show, some of its numbers are  classic Broadway showtunes, while others have a light opera edge. It has complicated, full company dance routines as well as individual virtuoso displays. It also has a couple of good comedy roles that require great timing and delivery. On top of this, the Coliseum itself, has a big stage that needs a large company to fill. All in all, this is a show, in a venue, which will test every part of the company putting it on, to the fullest degree. I have to say that Opera North have passed this test with honours.

The two operatic leads, Quirijn de Lang and Stephanie Corley, as Fred/Petruchio and Lilli/Kate both have splendid voices, suited to their roles.  Zoe Rainey and Alan Burkitt, as Lois and Billy, carry the more standard musical numbers perfectly. Each of the four of them has at least one great song to show of their respective talent. Lois has possibly the most famous songs in “Always true to you in my fashion” and “Tom, Dick or Harry” but Kate’s “I hate men” and Petruchio’s “Where is the life that I led” are really great songs that show of their vocal abilities. The show’s biggest song, of course, “Too Darn Hot” is sung by the chorus, and the dancers, particularly Aiesha Pease and Stephane Anelli, deliver a truly show stopping performance to this number.

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Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin play the comedy roles of first and second Gunman. They work very well together, their interaction is excellent and they make the most of their comedy duet “Brush up your Shakespeare” – a song more full of puns than I had previously realised. The company as a whole is excellent and you realise that this is going to be a show full of movement and vigour, right from the first song of “Another Op’nin’, Another Show”.

Kiss Me Kate is a big show, and this is a big full-on production of it. The costumes are bright and lavish.  The choreographer has a tough job, with so many people on stage at once, however the dance routines are vivacious and have lovely shape. The set design needs ingenuity too, and is very clever at swapping from front of stage to back of house in seconds.

The director, Jo Davies, has taken the bold decision not to update the show in any obvious way. At times, it felt like you were actually watching a show made in the 1940s, giving the show an interesting post-war period feel. The tap routine, in particular, had a dated, black and white movie quality, which suited the production very nicely. This is a lush and exuberant production of a distinguished show and it fully deserved the love it received from the packed audience at curtain down.

 

Macbeth, National Theatre, Southbank, London

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This is more Mad Mac than Macbeth. This play is so different to what we usually see put on as Macbeth, that it would not have been too much to change the title as well. At least then we would have had a little more idea of what to expect. I was not amazed at the number of people who did not return for the second act, because for many people, this will not have been the show that they came to see. It is certainly not Macbeth as we know it, the set, costumes and music fight to overwhelm one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic plays, but thanks to strong lead performances Macbeth just about wins through.

I admire Rufus Norris’ audacity here, he makes Macbeth into a gory, post apocalyptic, horror show – with zombies. The party is a grimy, drugged-up car park rave, ripped plastic bin bags are the height of home decoration and the future of clothes care clearly doesn’t involve any kind of washing. The world he presents is ugly, violent and harsh.  It begins with a particularly brutal beheading that warns you that this will be a difficult watch at times, and there are other moments in the production that transcend even the gore, slash/ horror genre that was in vogue in 1980s. It has a punk ethic that sets out to shock, and the visceral disgust of the moment when Lady MacDuff is presented with the bodies of her mutilated children in clear plastic bags is something that will not be soon forgotten.

Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear are both good, despite all the eccentric distractions going on around them. The actors here have a hard job, it’s almost as though Rufus Norris has decided that the lines of the play are secondary to the action on stage, so often he has them doing strange things while delivering famous lines. Why is Porter giving this speech clinging on to a pole at the back of the stage, why is Macbeth removing his socks after killing Duncan? Even when Rory Kinnear is alone on stage, he has to contend with avoiding the furniture on a spinning set.  This vision has some wins and some losses, the point in the second act where all the dead characters are lurching around the stage in crazed zombie mode is a big contrast from the performances of Kevin Harvey and Steven Boxer in the first act as Banquo and Duncan. As Macduff, Patrick O’Kane’s reaction to the news of the murder of his family stood out, all the more, for being so restrained in the sea of lunacy surrounding him.

This is not a Macbeth that I would ever have envisioned, and it is not one of my favourite interpretations. I don’t believe that this production was made to be liked, it was made to alarm, astound and to be talked about – and if that is the case, it surely achieves what it set out to do. What is certainly true, is that this Macbeth is one that I will remember and, for that,  I am pleased not to have missed it.

Othello, Ambassadors Theatre, London. National Youth Theatre of Great Britain.

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This is a fantastic production of Othello. The adaptation, by Frantic Assembly, was first performed by the National Youth Theatre in 1996 and this is an updated revival of that show.  The action has been brought into a contemporary setting, a dodgy looking pub where the tension and bravado are palpable and only the tough survive. Othello’s army is a neighbourhood gang. Shakespeare’s language fits in surprisingly well and the themes feel current and accessible.

The opening is a long wordless dance sequence that sets the scene. Its shows us the relationships between the various gang members, and their place in the hierarchy. The choreography is energetic and modern. The, usually awkward, fight scenes are handled with aplomb. The set looks simple but even this is extraordinary and comes into its own in moments of heightened tension.

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Every actor is very good. Megan Burke is a hard-as-nails Emelia, who won’t be talked down when it comes to getting justice for her friend. Rebecca Hesketh-Smith is a sweet but upfront Desdemona. Curtis John Kemlo plays Roderigo as puny and weak, bringing an interesting new perspective to the role. Mohammed Mansaray, as Othello,  is tender in love and harsh in anger.  Jamie Rose steals the show as Iago, playing him as a shifty, cheeky chappie, with sly winks and gestures, letting the audience in on his secrets, while behaving abominably. I see a Bond villain in the making.

 

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Photos courtesy of Helen Murray

 

The director is Simon Pittman, he has done a remarkable job, drawing clear and strong performances from all the characters. The tempo is quick and up to date, but he is not afraid to pause the action to press a point. The closing scene is masterful.

This production is playing selected dates between now and December. The future of British theatre is here and playing at the Ambassadors Theatre.