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.

 

Victoria's Knickers, Soho Theatre, Dean Street, London W1.

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I love when the National Youth Theatre Rep Company’s West End season comes around. This year their shows are on at the Soho Theatre throughout November. Victoria’s Knickers is the second production of the season. Consensual began a week ago and you can still catch a performance of that if you are quick, I saw it last week and you can read what I thought of it here: Consensual.

One of the things I really enjoy about the National Youth Theatre shows is that you often have absolutely no idea what kind of thing you are going to see until the curtain goes up. This particular show is a historical romp set in the early nineteenth century delivered in modern language with musical interludes and current world references. It is, very loosely, based on a real historical incident when a teenage boy repeatedly broke into Buckingham Palace. He was feted by the papers at the time, he was interviewed by Charles Dickens and it was even reported that on one occasion he was caught with a pair of Victoria’s Knickers.

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The story is delivered in a musical madcap romcom style, with a touch of 18th century political drama. The genre of the play changes from minute to minute and the musical styles vary from hip-hop, through Disney to Ed Sheeran and Adele. The plot line is full of holes, the story is ridiculous, the set is practically non-existent and it all adds up to a fantastic evenings entertainment, that the audience loved.

This show could not work without brilliant writing and direction. Josh Azouz on this showing is a very talented writer with a sharp eye for inventive situational comedy.  There are some great individual one line jokes in the script too. When Victoria tells Ed that she loves Albert, he replies conversationally “Of course you do, he’s your cousin”. Director, Ned Bennett does a brilliant job in drawing attention to the preposterous, and finding the humour in the clashes of cultures between all the different genres of theatre on show in this production. The set consists of unadorned MDF at the back, what looks like brown paper at the sides, and dozens of old random cardboard boxes that arrive on stage for most of the second half of the play.

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Alice Vilanculo is amazing as the soon to be Queen Victoria with a very 21st century sensibility, she makes you care for her situation while still having you laugh at it. Jamie Ankrah is excellent as Ed, 19th Century pauper, dreamer…. teenage lover. Aiden Chang has a fantastic role as Sasha, a soldier/torturer disguised as a lady of the court, he attacks the part with gusto and steals almost every scene in which he appears. Oseloka Obi is great as the rapping prince Albert, the acting throughout the company is brilliant and the show is littered with great cameos.

Victoria’s Knickers is difficult to describe and there are so many levels on which it should not work. However it is funny, inventive, musically clever and likeable. This is another success for the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain and for a writer and actors with big careers ahead of them.

Pinter 1, Pinter at the Pinter season, Pinter Theatre, London WC1

 
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Pinter at the Pinter is a season of all of Harold Pinter’s one act plays in 7 different programmes over a period of 6 months. I saw Pinter 2 first. Pinter 2, Pinter at the Pinter Season, Pinter Theatre, London WC1

Pinter 1 is a collection of 9 short plays, sketches and poems, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s. The are generally political, often about authoritarianism, occasionally funny but broadly bleak and dark. The sketches “Press Conference”, “The Pres and an Officer” and the poem “American Football” are dark comedy but still light relief among the rest of the fare on offer here. “The Pres and an Officer” was discovered late last year, almost 10 years after his death. It seems to be so precisely what we would expect Pinter to say about Donald Trump that, if it is truly a Pinter piece, it is eerily prescient.

It is a measure of grimness of the writing that the next lightest piece is a poem called “Death”. This is lyrical, sad and it is beautifully delivered by Maggie Steed. “Precisely” is a comedy sketch about a nuclear holocaust. “The New World Order” a sketch about torture. “Mountain Language” is a moving short piece about the suppression of a language by an authoritarian state. The acting is phenomenal. Jonjo O’Neill is excellent as various political bullies in the pieces named above.

“One for the Road” is a piece about authoritarian interrogation. A man, wife, and their 7 year old son are interrogated in separate rooms by a tyrannical bully, played by Antony Sher. The violence is implied, as it all happens in the rooms we are not watching at the time, however it is actually more palpable because of this. A truly magnificent piece of writing, it was surely instrumental in his receiving of the Nobel Prize for literature, but in no way is it an easy watch. Paapa Essiedu and Kate O’Flynn are both amazing as the husband and wife.

They also play the husband and wife in “Ashes to Ashes”.  This is a later play, more abstract in narrative, though still dark in tone, experimental in the shifting of subject matter. It could be about the loss of a child, about the holocaust, about an abusive marriage or even about a murder. It hints at these, changes focus and moves on…  It is an interesting and brave piece, written by an ambitious author, confident of his ability.

All the pieces bar the last are directed by Jamie Lloyd and have a cold, metal, prison-cell like setting which suit the mood of the pieces. “Ashes to Ashes” is directed by Lia Williams, this is set in a living room and changes in lighting match the flow of the dialogue. It is ingenious how she makes the set feel more intimate without making it feel more warm.

Pinter 1 is a hard watch, I can’t imagine how tough it must be to act each day. It is dark and bleak with implied violence, both mental and physical. It may be emotionally draining, but the writing is strong, the themes are universal and the acting is tremendous. To say that I enjoyed it would not be entirely accurate, but I am really pleased to have seen it and if it were to return in at some point in the future, I would certainly gather together my mental strength and go to see it again. Warning! This collection is stimulating and disturbing and is definitely one to avoid on date night.

 
 
 
 

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.

Pinter 2, Pinter at the Pinter Season, Pinter Theatre, London WC1

 
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In December 2018 it will be 10 years since the death of Harold Pinter. In celebration of his legacy, the Jamie Lloyd Company is producing a season of all 19 of his one act plays at the Pinter Theatre. There will be 7 different programmes each containing either 2, 3 or 4 of his pieces. The cast list for the season has to be seen to be believed, stellar is no over-estimate of their quality.
Pinter 2 contains two plays, The Lovers and The Collection, both comedies and both written in the early 1960s. The Lovers has John MacMillan, Hayley Squires and Russell Tovey. The Collection has these three and David Suchet. The Lovers is a one room play set over a couple of days in the living room of a married couple. The dialogue is, in true Pinter fashion, bright and stilted. The set and conversation are pastiche early TV sitcom. This works really well, it makes the subject matter funnier, darker and pinpoints it in time perfectly. John MacMillan and Hayley Squires are the husband and wife, Richard and Sarah. Their comic timing is impeccable. The piece lasts about 50 minutes, it starts off light an funny. The story is inventive and the writing witty. In short, this is classic Pinter done well.
The Collection is a four hander, this time about 2 couples, set in 2 living rooms. This one is more sinister, right from the start. It is still very funny though. David Suchet and Russell Tovey, play Harry and Bill, the other couple are Stella and James, played by Hayley Squires and John MacMillan. Although there is nothing explicit anywhere in this play, it must have been quite shocking when it was first performed in 1961, and I can imagine that the censor would have taken an interest in how it was produced. It is beautifully written, in that, there is nothing overt in the manner of their relationships, however we are in no doubt as to what is going on. For it to work this well, the actors have to be well attuned to the writing. All four of them are wonderful. David Suchet gives an acting masterclass in this play, he knows perfectly when to be larger than life and when to rein it in. Russell Tovey too, gave a nicely nuanced performance delivering funny double-entendres with an ominous undertone.
The set is simple and clever, spot lit areas move us from one scene to another. Jamie Lloyd directs both plays sympathetically, he allows the writing and acting to shine. This play is also just about an hour long. I am beginning to think this might be Pinter’s perfect length. This pair of plays are pure joy to watch and now I am left with the quandary of how to get hold of tickets for the other 6 in the season.

Hogarth's Progress Part 2, The Taste of the Town, Rose Theatre, Kingston

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Nick Dear’s second part of Hogarth’s Progress is set thirty years on from part 1 which is reviewed here: Hogarth’s Progress Part 1, The Art of Success, Rose Theatre, Kingston. This second play is also a fictional story based around real events in the life of William Hogarth.  By this time he has enjoyed success, and he is serjeant painter to King George III. He has taken a house in the countryside, in Chiswick.

This story also takes place on a drunken day, although by now William Hogarth is something of a reformed character and one has the impression that days such as these are less frequent than in the past. Although the day itself is a fictional day, the characters in the play are real, and the people and events that they discuss are fact. Hogarth is worried that, although he is relatively rich and famous, his art is not given the gravitas it deserves. The play then, although it is a light comedy in style, has an underlying discussion about what exactly it is that constitutes success. It is a cleverly written piece and it works well on both levels.

The dialogue is crisp and funny. The characters have depth, we see their flaws and like them nevertheless. Mark Umbers is very good as David Garrick, the multi faced actor. He is smooth, accomplished and very aware that the whole world is a stage. The role of Horace Walpole is beautifully written and it is beautifully played Ian Hallard. His lines are witty, barbed, and perfectly delivered. He rips Hogarth to shreds so sweetly that the artist leaves his house almost believing that he has made a new best friend.

The acting throughout is superb. Sylvestra Le Touzel is wonderful as Lady Thornhill, arch and harsh, but knowing where her best interests lie. Jasmine Jones shines again, this time as Bridget. It is interesting to see the cast playing different parts in each play and I enjoyed the links between the two shows, although each is an independent narrative and works without any knowledge of the other.

Both of these shows are interesting and both are worth seeing. If you can only see one, the first is frenetic and explicit, the second is calmer and sharper but each one is funny in its own way, so it depends on how you like your comedy. If I had to choose, I think I would probably pick the second, simply for the wonderful characters Walpole and Garrick.

 

Hogarth's Progress Part 1, The Art of Success, Rose Theatre, Kingston

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The Art of Success was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1986. it was written by Nick Dear, he has now written a companion piece, set 30 years later and they are being presented as a double bill at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, under the title “Hogarth’s Progress”. The first play depicts Hogarth’s life at the time just before the copyright act came into force when he had just done “A Harlot’s Progress” and before he started “A Rake’s Progress”. The second will depict him in later life. They are meant to complement each other and still work as stand alone plays.

Set in London in the 1730s, “The Art of Success” is a ribald and raucous story, telling of the partying antics of many of the renowned people of the day. These include Hogarth himself, the satirist Henry Fielding, Prime Minister Robert Walpole, brothel keeper Elizabeth Needham and even George II’s wife Queen Caroline. Many scenes are salacious and slanderous, reflecting the satirical plays of the time that led to the passing of the Theatrical Licensing Act. Hogarth was instrumental in causing the engraving copyright act to be passed and there is a subtext to this play about the ownership of art and about how art develops in times of social change, which chimes with the present day challenges for art in the different forms of social media.

Having said all that, the main thrust of the play is a bawdy farce about an epic night on the town and is meant to be enjoyed as just that. In this respect it works well.  It has funny jokes, although it occasionally veers into Carry-on territory. It is merciless in lampooning the aristocracy and it has enjoyable characters. The cast is spectacular, every performance is good.  Jasmine Jones is excellent as Sarah Sprackling, she manages to get a great balance between comedy and pathos. Jack Derges as Henry Fielding is both funny and loathsome. Bryan Dick does a fantastic job of holding it all together as runs about the town in various stages of disrepair.

The set is ingenious, I liked how contemporary it manged to be while still displaying the 18th Century. I cannot imagine that they had the ability to use the effects on display here when it was first produced 32 years ago, and I enjoyed the little nods to modern technology in the direction. “The Art of Success” is a play that you continue to appreciate after you have left the theatre and I am looking forward to seeing part 2 “The Taste of the Town” when it opens next week.

 

Allelujah!, Bridge Theatre, London SE1

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Alan Bennett has consistently been one of England’s best playwrights over the course of the past fifty years. His last couple of plays have been well written and funny, but were a little too cosy to be among my personal favourites of his work. Having said that, everything he writes is at least very good and nicely droll.

Allelujah! is set in the geriatric ward of a hospital that is at risk of closure, and for most of the first act we are lulled into a gentle musical comedy about the hardships and indignities of growing old. However, towards the end of the act, things take an unexpected and darker direction and we realise that, during the first third of the play, the scene was being set for a biting political satire. Alan Bennett is cross, and this irritation has led to some of his best writing in years.

This is a play about how poorly we treat the aged in our society and it examines the reasons why this is the case, while entertaining us with smart one liners and whimsical song and dance routines. Nicholas Hynter directs the play, he is a long time collaborator with Bennett and he complements him well. The cast is big and there are many good performances. I particularly liked Sacha Dhawan as Valentine, diffident at first, but bristling with restrained anger by the end. Samuel Barnett is good too, he has an unlikable character to play, yet he manages to have us understand his motivation.

The play has so many scene changes that it might have been written for television. The ingenious set design prevents us feeling that the stage is in a constant state of flux. Arlene Phillips is the choreographer and she has a fine line to tread between keeping the routines tight and having us remember that these people are too old and unwell to be released from hospital – she does a fine job.

The real star of the show is the writing. I love Alan Bennett’s balance, he always presents both sides of an argument. Even when he is presenting a personal point of view, I admire his fairness in giving the other side a voice. He does this particularly well here, he writes some characters with quite unsavoury personality traits in this play, yet they are unapologetic and we understand that they feel justified in their actions, even if we cannot condone them ourselves.

I hope that I haven’t made the play seem too dark and political, because it is a truly funny and entertaining show, made all the better by the fact that it makes you think about the way the old and infirm are treated in our society. I think this is possibly my favourite Alan Bennett play yet.

 
 

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!

 
 
 

Pity at the Royal Court Theatre, July and August

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https://checkout.timeout.com/london/pity-at-royal-court-theatre-56938?cid=~affiliate~tastemaker~Nick
Time Out offered me this special deal on tickets to see Pity at the Royal Court. They asked me to share the deal on my blog, as an experiment to see whether anyone clicked on the deal or if anyone takes up the offer.
The play looks quite interesting and the offer seems good, so I have agreed to do it as a one off experiment. I am away on holiday in July, so I’m going close to the end of the run in August. I bought the £12 tickets because the Royal Court is small and the view is good from every seat.
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I hope you don’t mind this different type of post and I promise that this is a single time only, I am not suddenly going to be a site that bombards you with deals and special offers.