‘I love me’: The Ugly One @ Park Theatre

Written in German by Marius von Mayenburg, The Ugly One received its UK premiere in 2007 at the Royal Court. Buckland Theatre Company and the Park Theatre now present a new production in the Park’s smaller 90 space. This play is directed by the 2016 winner of the prestigious JMK Award for young directors, Roy Alexander Weise.

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Lette works in plugs. His life seems normal – he is happily married, and doing well in his firm. But then he is told that he may not present a new product at a convention because his face is ‘unacceptable’. It turns out that Lette’s visage is unspeakably ugly, and no one ever told him. His wife confesses to only ever looking at his left eye. Horrified, Lette decides to undergo plastic surgery. In a bizarre turn of events, the intensive operation transforms Lette into the most beautiful man in the world, altering his career, his relationships and the lives of those around him forever.

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This high-octane production features a talented and collaborative ensemble cast. However, each actor gives an individually praiseworthy performance. Charlie Dorfman, though his reactions at being called horrifically ugly by his wife and boss do not at first seem realistic, develops into a captivating Lette. Indra Ové is a relentless bundle of energy; her exaggerated portrayals of Lette’s wife Fanny, and later, an older exec Lette strikes up an affair with (confusingly also called Fanny), seem to sizzle.

Authoritative and no-nonsense T’Nia Miller is boss Scheffler, and hilariously unprofessional plastic surgeon, you guessed it, Scheffler. Arian Nik, a recent Mountview graduate makes his professional stage debut in this show. Excellently portraying Karlmann, the plug firm’s assistant who aspires to a higher position, Nik also plays another character called Karlmann, the exec’s vain gay son (a stereotypical and nevertheless amusing personage) who has a disturbingly adulterous relationship with his mother and is himself besotted with the new and beautiful Lette.

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There is no doubt that this show makes for an enjoyable evening. The acting, so deliberate and big as to be farcical, has the audience in stitches. Though many of the jokes rely on repetition, Maja Zade’s translation of the comedy works very well. Nevertheless, most of the humour is down to Weise’s direction, aided by movement director Jennifer Jackson.

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Nothing about this play is naturalistic – the acting is over-the-top, the production is near-expressionistic. However, all this is well-constructed and the overall effect is convincing. The scene changes, though not always smooth, are cleverly orchestrated – the last line from one scene becomes the first of another, with the actors deftly stepping out of each other’s way. The slightly raised stage is placed in the middle of the black box Park90 space, with two rows of seats on each side. It is less an intimate experience – the play is too unrelatable for that – than one in which the audience is very close to the action.

The actors occasionally address a line to the audience, or sit amongst them to watch the main action on stage. The stage itself is fascinating, used most effectively as a kind of multi-purpose table. As the main playing space is the floor around the stage, which is lower than the seats, the audience is mostly on eye-level with the actors, an unusually involving experience.  This show is obviously a team effort – the creative team seem to be as good an ensemble as the actors.

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One of the most striking things about this play is the use of fruit. Perhaps in allusion to the on-going health food fad, fruit stands in for Lette’s body during the fated operation. Aided by a microphone for amplification and some surgical instruments, the actors perform a well-choreographed sequence in which the slurping of water, the slicing of an apple, the squeezing of an orange and more make gruesomely realistic sound effects, sending the audience into uncomfortable fits of squirms and giggles.

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This play does not explore its themes – from ideas about acceptable appearance and self-portrayal to the career-driven nature of our society – as deeply or as subtly as it could have. This is largely due to its overtly satirical style. However, this is just as well – this production, rather than making you quietly chuckle, grabs you and shakes the laughs out of you. Eventually, Lette’s vanity spirals into a dark and refreshingly un-funny last scene, breaking the pattern of the rest of the show. At a crisp 90 minutes, it’s over before you’ve got the full measure of the story’s implications. Though it doesn’t plunge you into contemplation during the performance – you’re much too busy watching the spectacle – it gives you plenty to think about as you leave the theatre.

The Ugly One is playing at the Park Theatre’s PARK90 space until 24 June 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

‘All you have to do is dream’: Dreamgirls @ Savoy Theatre

When my friend won a £15 front row lottery seat to a Dreamgirls matinee but couldn’t go, I jumped at the chance. I confess I had never even seen the film, but I knew Amber Riley from Glee and was, of course, familiar with the show-stopping number ‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’.

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Of course, I ended up with one of the days Riley was scheduled to be off. This was in no way a detriment to my experience. The role of Effie White was played by Karen Mav, who only graduated from LIPA in 2015. Mav gave a wonderful performance, with all the energy only an understudy can bring to a performance. The trio of Dreamgirls had wonderful chemistry. My favourite might have been Asmeret Ghebremichael’s ditsy Lorrell, with a pingy-ness to her voice that suited her character and was perfect for her big number, ‘Ain’t No Party’. As for the men, Adam J. Bernard was excellently, almost uncomfortably high-octane as Jimmy ‘Thunder’ Early, and Tyrone Huntley was sweet and likeable as Effie’s younger brother C.C. However, the rest of the men seemed more to be performing a role than inhabiting a character, something I find to be musicals’ eternal problem.

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The best part about seeing this show for me was sitting in the front row. As an all-too-regular theatre-goer and a student, I can’t remember the last time I was in such a goof seat! Sitting almost directly behind musical supervisor and conductor Nick Finlow was a unique experience. He was incredibly involved with the other musicians – seated below him in a covered area and communicating with him via screens and mics – and the actors onstage, conducting, playing and bobbing along to the music with relentless energy. The cheeky smile he gave me once or twice only made it better.

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All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this show. The familiar narrative and characters did nothing to intrigue or surprise, but the cast’s dedication, the powerful singing, the wonderful band and the colourful, glitzy design thrilled and delighted the audience, which gave the cast and crew a well-deserved standing ovation.

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Dreamgirls is booking at the Savoy Theatre until February 2018. For more information and tickets, click here.

Review: Madame Rubinstein @ Park Theatre

The life of Helena Rubinstein, one of the make-up industry’s first giants and a Jewish immigrant from Poland, and the story of her rivalry with Elizabeth Arden, seemed like a fascinating and unusual subject for a play. Thus, I was looking forward to Madame Rubinstein at the Park Theatre. My only experience of Miriam Margoyles so far was watching her play firm but kindly herbology teacher Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films – and if I hadn’t known the formidable presence with slicked-back black hair and bright red dress was that person, I would not have recognised her.

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And indeed, Margoyles is this play’s strongest asset. Her performance in the title role is acerbic, funny and very watchable. Equally, the teasing, friendly but nasty back-and-forth between her and Arden has great chemistry. The production as a whole however, is not carried by this. It’s a slow play, narratively but not thematically bulky, with over-long scene changes. It was the middle of the afternoon (I saw a matinee), and I hadn’t had a huge amount of sleep the night before, but I found myself nodding off during the first half. The second half is definitely better – the jokes, while not clever enough for my Stoppard-loving tastes, come thick and fast, and it feels like the action has speeded up a bit. Overall though, the play loses much by skating over many interesting themes – anti-Semitism, homophobia and the rise of the feminist movement are all there and could have made for a much meatier production if they had been explored in depth.

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Sitting up on the balcony all the way to the right in the Park Theatre’s 2000 space, I unfortunately couldn’t see the actors’ faces a lot of the time. As the play has such contrived-feeling staging, one might have hoped that all the possible sight-lines would have been thought of. Though I enjoyed myself more than I did at the last Park Theatre production I attended – the cringe-inducing Chinglish – I again felt that the women onstage delivered much better performances than the men and that the play chosen did not really merit the production.

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Madame Rubinstein is playing at the Park Theatre until 27 May 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

‘I (don’t) want to be loved’: The Treatment @ Almeida Theatre

Anne is selling herself to the movie industry – her life, that is. Jen and Andrew (I kept wondering why there were two characters were named Anne and Andrew), keen New York movie producers, are lapping up her bizarre tale of being regularly tied up and gagged by her husband when he left the house. Jen (a brilliant Indira Varma) is hilariously businesslike, and completely unsympathetic, about Anne’s tale. Her relentlessness lends brightness, if not warmth, to every scene. Her husband Andrew (a cool and composed Julian Ovenden) is a more enigmatic character. The way they calmly accept Anne’s disturbing and unusual past is the first thing that discomfits the audience.

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What follows is an absurd tale featuring a wonderful cast of characters including a failing playwright, a blind taxi driver and Anne’s Stanley Kowalski-esque husband Simon. The theme of blindness is present throughout the play, and though many have called it a satire on the movie industry, I feel its message goes deeper than that. I was fascinated, but left the theatre wondering what it all meant. And that can sometimes be a good thing.

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Writer Martin Crimp’s gripping dialogue, framed by an utterly stylish, very Almeida-y production, with an excellent performance by Aisling Loftus in the central role, made for a great evening. If only the scene changes hadn’t necessitated constant interruptions to the story by the lowering of a black curtain, it would have been perfect.

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The Treatment is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 10 June 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

Other plays I’ve seen lately

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Don Juan in Soho @ Wyndham’s Theatre – April 14th

It baffles me that this play has been getting 5 star reviews. Though David Tennant is a great actor, and many, if not most, people will go to see Don Juan for him, this is not the vehicle I would have wished for him. And that is because I found the story so implausible and boring. No doubt most of the audience will be familiar with the general gist of the tale of Don Juan, or Don Giovanni. However, the transition to modern-day Soho did not work. Sure, it was funny, but it seemed a bit pointless. Even the tale’s vulgarity is no longer shocking. David Tennant and Adrian Scarborough as his butler did not disappoint in their performances, but this slightly gimmicky production with its meagre plot did.

Don Juan in Soho is playing Wyndham’s Theatre until 10 June 2017. For more information and tickets, click here

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Whisper House @ The Other Palace – April 14th

Sadly, this show left me cold. A fan of Duncan Sheik’s Tony Award-winning hit Spring Awakening, with its energy and many great numbers, I was expecting to enjoy Whisper House. Instead, I found the plot dated and unable to support a musical, while the music was repetitive and without imagination. I feel like Spring Awakening has a much better foundation – it’s based on Frank Wedekind’s classic turn-of-the-century play Frühlingserwachen. Whisper House, on the other hand, lacks a good story. I didn’t understand why the two ghosts who sing almost all the songs (Niamh Perry and Simon Bailey in two admittedly good performances) were there. Andrew Riley’s initially intriguing whirlpool-like, lighthouse-inspired set ended up looking cramped and impractical. Though it held my attention enough to watch it all the way through after having seen a disappointing Don Juan in Soho earlier that day, Whisper House failed to achieve what I believe new musicals must aspire to do – be memorable.

Whisper House is playing the Other Palace until 27 May 2017. For more information and tickets, click here

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All The Things I Lied About @ Soho Theatre – April 25th

Katie Bonna’s one-woman show is ostensibly a TED talk – which TED hasn’t actually asked her to give yet. What initially appears to be a comedy show – Bonna’s charmingly, sometimes painfully, awkward vulnerability elicits many laughs – soon turns into a much more meaningful and serious, but no less vulnerable, conversation with the audience. Bonna explores the concept of ‘gaslighting’ – emotionally manipulating someone into doubting their own sanity – and relates it to both her family history and (who knew) Donald Trump. A few heartbreaking moments and many laughs and water pistols later, the audience leaves with much food for thought – about relationships, about the lies we tell ourselves and others, about the future of out ‘post-truth’ world. A well-executed evening.

All The Things I Lied About is playing the Soho Theatre until 6 May 2017. For more information and tickets, click here

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Edward Albee’s The Goat or Who Is Sylvia @ Theatre Royal Haymarket – April 27th

This play didn’t grab my attention as much as I expected it too – other people have obviously enjoyed it or been shocked by it. Neither particularly applies to me. Though I was initially fascinated by the story of Martin, a successful architect who breaks his marriage apart by falling in love with a goat named Sylvia, I wasn’t as gripped as I might have been. Most have praised Sophie Okonedo’s performance as the incredulous and broken wife Stevie, but my favourite was relative newcomer Archie Madewke as Billy, Martin’s auspiciously named gay son. In fact, I think I liked the play a lot more than the performances or production, which just didn’t do it for me – I couldn’t really say why, other than that I found the music intrusive and unnecessary and the middle chunk of dialogue between Martin and Stevie repetitive and exhausting to listen to. A fan of cleverness in writing (I’ll take a Tom Stoppard any day), I enjoyed the many little grammar jokes and the clever use of the concept of the goat – the word ‘tragedy’ comes from tragōidia, or goat-song, and the line ‘Who is Sylvia?’ is taken from a Shakespeare poem.

The Goat or Who Is Sylvia is playing the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 24 June 2017. For more information and tickets, click here

‘The crack in the tea-cup opens a lane to the land of the dead’: Nuclear War @ The Royal Court

Watching Nuclear War felt like being inside a poem rather than a story. The play attempts to capture one woman’s attempt to move on from the death of a loved one. It does this through an abstract fusion of theatre, dance and sound. It feels like an experiment which is fascinating but doesn’t always work.

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The audience is invited to sit on mismatched chairs all around the edges of the room. A low light glows from a lamp in the middle. With soft folk music playing and the actors humming along as they sit dotted about the carpeted floor nursing teacups, one feels rather like one is in a tent or sitting around a campfire, all cozy and warm. However, this is the last bit of real comfort and security the audience will get for the next 45 minutes.

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Though there is not really any a narrative to this play, it is ostensibly a woman’s journey through dealing with the death a loved one. This grieving character, played here by Scottish actress Maureen Beattie, is depressed and listless at home, then overwhelmed by stimuli and associated emotions and memories once she leaves the house. ‘One little second, two little seconds, three little seconds..’, she repeats several times. At the end, ‘four little seconds’ is added. Thus, she has moved on. At least, that’s what I think I understood. I don’t have a problem with not understanding things when I’m seeing a play, as long as the confusion can hold my attention. Too often during this piece, I found my mind wandering because I didn’t know what to think of what was going on in front of me.

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Simon Stephens wrote this play without assigning the text to any specific characters – the cast and director had to decide who would speak which lines. As one stage direction reads – ‘all of these words may be spoke by the performers but none need to be’.

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This show is all about versatility, about using things in many different ways. The black-clad ensemble (Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Gerrome Miller, Beatrice Scirocchi, Andrew Sheridan) are well-choreographed and can be very menacing. At times, they prowl like animals, and quite terrifyingly too, at others, they assume the roles of people on an Underground train. An amp, a few dressers and more become tables, platforms, shops, a cafe, a train..

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Elizabeth Bernholz’s soundscape is very powerful. At one point, the thumping pulse overwhelms you so much that it makes you feel like you’re inside someone’s beating heart. Words are amplified and thoughts run together as the music overpowers you and you are drawn deeper into the protagonist’s mind. The lighting too, designed by Lee Curran, is incredibly atmospheric.

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I cannot see any reason to name this play ‘Nuclear War’ other than to get people’s attention. As Simon Stephens is a pretty well-known playwright, this seems superfluous. Vague references to scientific phenomena like the laws of thermodynamics and and the nature of time are made in whispers, but the play isn’t in any way about the all too contemporary theme of nuclear warfare. Rather, it is about the fear of ageing, of not being able to stop the obliterating force of time. An interesting topic, but not explored in a coherent-enough way to create a truly meaningful evening.

Nuclear War is playing the Royal Court until 6 May 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

‘Make the real shapes’: The Philanthropist @ Trafalgar Studios

In Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist, quiet, anagram-loving (this review’s title is an anagram of ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Shakespeare’) philology professor Philip invites other academics to a party in his Oxbridge college-style home. A series of arguments and sexual entanglements ensue. This revival at the Trafalgar Studios, directed by Simon Callow, stars a host of famous television actors, including Matt Berry, Charlotte Ritchie and Tom Rosenthal.

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My first thought was that Libby Watson’s rather pristine set looked a lot like a doll’s house – an old-fashioned professor’s study and sitting room, all in white, except for the many colourful books and rugs. In fact, it was probably as shiny and new as it looked – I thought I could detect a faint smell of paint. The perspective is exaggerated – the house grows a lot narrower towards the back than it should – and the front corner of the room just forward into the auditorium, effectively creating two fourth walls while also inviting the audience in.

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Then, I turned to the programme. Reading in it that this play is regarded as a sort of parallel to Molière’s The Misanthrope filled me with trepidation, not having enjoyed the Wyndham’s modernised production of Molière’s Don Juan very much. However, The Philanthropist is merely a response to Molière, not an adaptation. Philip is unassuming, self-deprecating, accommodating and generally nice – and everyone seems to hate him for it. They cannot understand his character, taking his kindness for insults and misreading his docility as concealed menace. Ever-forgiving, he is the antithesis to Molère’s candid and criticising Misanthrope. As his friends ignore him, his fiancée leaves him, and much more occurs, one can’t help feeling sorry for him.

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The cast is undoubtedly talented. Tom Rosenthal’s Donald was perfectly irritating yet endearing. He was obviously enjoying the role – initially, he seemed on the brink of laughing at his own jokes! Donald is the character who first introduces the pseudo-Stoppard humour that characterises the rest of the show. There is a bit more farce and a bit less clever-clever in this play than would be in a Stoppard, but the parallels are obvious. Charlotte Ritchie’s brightness was very engaging in her role as Philip’s fiancée Celia, Simon Bird fully inhabited the awkward, ill-fated protagonist, and Matt Berry was just being Matt Berry. However, it is clear that the cast are primarily television actors – the frisson and depth that could have come from more seasoned stage actors’ performances isn’t there. Simon Callow has decided to work with a cast of young actors, ones that fit the characters’ playing ages of late twenties – this play is usually staged with a much older cast. Their youth works well – still, the play a bit static, and the dialogue is sometimes lacking in energy and therefore not as sharp as it should be.

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I found myself wondering which of the seven deadly sins each of the seven characters is meant to represent. I got as far as deciding on the promiscuous Araminta as lust, the unashamedly egotistic Braham as greed, the cynical Celia as wrath, and Donald, who gives a whole monologue about ‘perfecting the art of idleness’, would be sloth. Then, my experiment started to fall apart, but it did reveal the rather one-dimensional nature of most of the characters.

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This is one of those production that knows when it’s being obvious and over-the-top, but doesn’t care because it’s making everyone laugh. It’s aware of its genre – the ubiquitous British one-room comedy about a bunch of vaguely intellectual people – and it throws that laughingly in your face, right down to Donald’s brightly patterned socks. Many of play’s jokes stem from its self-awareness – at one point, Braham alludes to having attended a production of The Misanthrope at La Comedie Française. ‘Classical French theatre’, he proclaims – ‘terrible camp old rubbish!’

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Though The Philanthropist has strong links to The Misanthrope, I felt it had a lot of Oscar Wilde in it, specifically relating to The Importance of Being Earnest. Successful writer Braham especially, who enters the room as in a rather magnificent purple suit, had many aphoristic, anachronistic Wildean lines. Also, the scene of confrontation between Celia and Araminta, which takes place after Celia discovers that Araminta has slept with Philip, reminded me of the catty afternoon tea scene between Cecily and Gwendolen. Lily Cole has such an overly prim and posh voice that I could almost hear a sarcastic ‘Dear Gwendolen’ dripping icily off her tongue. Furthermore, in a later dialogue between Donald and Philip, Donald’s laziness and flippant witticisms were strongly reminiscent of Algernon Montcrief. If they were intended, these allusions worked well. I also enjoyed a lot of the theatrical gags used. Saying any more would spoil it, but the beginning and end of the play tie together very nicely through the use of a ‘quaint theatrical device’. Also, the scene changes are underscored by tinkling baroque music and the occasional bit of opera used for dramatic effect. A particularly funny moment for Philip arrives in the form of him very aggressively preparing a bowl of cornflakes (Algernon’s muffins?).

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I was very surprised to find out that the try-out production of this play was staged at the Royal Court. This kind of thing would be very hard to find at the Royal Court today. It’s too typical – British intellectuals drinking wine and saying things that you usually have to be either well-read or sexually active to find funny. However, there is something very comforting about this kind of drawing room comedy, and the youth of this production’s cast lends freshness. The audience seemed to like it, but it won’t be remembered as one of the year’s great plays. It just doesn’t really pack any sort of punch. There are some good lines in this play (mainly insults thrown at Philip) – from Celia telling him, ‘you just sit there like a pudding, wobbling gently’ and calling him a ‘triumph of emotional incompetence’ to him saying of himself, ‘my trouble is, I am a man of no convictions – or at least I think I am..’

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The Philanthropist is playing the Trafalgar Studios 1 until 22 July 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

Review: Consent @ National Theatre

On the surface, Consent is about people taking sides in a rape case. However, it ends up being about something else – whether that means it’s about more or not, I’m not sure.

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Edward and Tim are friends and barristers on a rape case, albeit on opposite sides. Edward and his wife Kitty are still overwhelmed by the recent birth of their baby. Rachel and Jake (also barristers) are in a marriage that is slowly falling apart. They’re all, unsuccessfully, trying to set up actor friend Zara with Tim. All the couples are pretty well-off – after all, at least one person in each relationship is a barrister. Gayle, the single working class character, is the woman who was raped. She is disappointingly stereotypical character, but the play doesn’t end up being about her. At the beginning, one might think playwright Nina Raine is setting up a comment on the lack of empathy with which Gayle is treated during the trial process. In fact, the rape case is merely there to bring to light the tensions and damages within the main couples’ relationships. They continue to disintegrate throughout the play, with a potential case of marital rape revealed at the end.

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I find it so easy to emote to fictional characters that it’s refreshing for me to really not like all the characters on stage. They’re just quite unpleasant – it’s hard, as a starving student, or in fact as a Londoner in general, to warm to people who say things like ‘of course I have disposable income, I rent in zone 4’. I found myself thinking – ‘All they do is drink wine and feel like they’re better than others!’ Of course, it doesn’t follow that I didn’t like the actors – a good ensemble, with palpable tension. Anna Maxwell Martin as always-on edge Kitty was my favourite. Pip Carter, whom I’d previously seen as schoolteacher Medvedenko in the Young Chekhov series’ Seagull, is a skilled actor whom I enjoyed as the enigmatic Tim.

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I was sat in the front row looking up – an unusual perspective for me. Due to the traverse staging, it was inevitable that one would miss a lot of facial expressions, but I felt the Dorfman Theatre had been used quite well, creating an almost Globe-like atmosphere, with people looking up at and down on the action from all around. I wondered about the thought behind the tens of different lamps that set designer Hildegard Bechtler had hung, department store display-like, above the stage. They threw a soft yellow light, twinkling on an off at random during scene changes to gentle classical music. The production’s lighting design didn’t really make use of the Dorfman’s extensive lighting rigs, relying solely on the set’s lamps instead. Scene changes were also facilitated by cut-out parts of the stage which moved up and down so quickly and seamlessly, revealing a sofa sometimes, chairs another, that I was often worried that the actors were going to fall in!

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Consent is a play about three couples, and how the rape of one woman changes their relationships for ever. It tells an important story, though perhaps doesn’t go as deep as it could. With expertly crafted dialogue and a satisfying neatness, it renders one gripped and empathetic even one grates against the characters’ unlikeability.

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Consent is playing at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre until 17 May 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

‘You think your family has issues? Try spending a night with the McAllisters!’: Grief – A Comedy! @ Tutu’s

The stage of Tutu’s, on the 4th floor of the Macadam Building just off the Strand, overlooking the Thames, is set – chairs and tables are arranged to resemble the living spaces of an ordinary house. The show is a new comedy put on by King’s English Literary Society. An evening of family mayhem – an extended family gathering to mourn a recently deceased father – is about to begin.

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Joe Fraser, a 3rd year English and Film student at King’s College London, spent a year writing this play on and off. He was interested in trying to make the switch between drama and comedy as seamless as possible. He says he wanted to create a play with a cast of characters that were equally important and on a similar moral standing.

He has achieved this goal, creating a story told by equally strong characters which contains many unexpected moments, from the reappearance of an old university boyfriend to an impromptu 80s dance routine.

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The comedy’s self-awareness lends some particularly funny moments. One character speaks of something ‘giving [him] grief’, and in another moment the following unfolds: ‘We need to hide him!’ – ‘Where, the set is minimal?’

The audience’s enjoyment was doubtless down not just to the writing but also to some of the best performances. Sara Masud and Sam Flood delight as a highly sexually active (to the chagrin of their offspring) older couple. Jessica Little as the always-on edge Amber breaks out of her shell with some lovely French singing. Everyone talks over each other, exhibiting varying degrees of stress and taking the tension of a large family gathering to an extreme.

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Grief: A Comedy! is a success, using the actors’ strengths to its advantage, indicating many changes of location through clever lighting cues and making the audience laugh through both verbal and physical comedy.

Grief: A Comedy! played at Tutu’s on 3rd and 4th March.

‘More things in heaven and earth’: Hamlet @ the Almeida Theatre

Where to begin.. This production was just so good. A Hamlet with a highly capable lead, great supporting actors, a clear vision, a soundscape of Bob Dylan covers, a modernisation in set and costume that worked, and a delivery of Shakespeare so clear it rendered an audience of teenagers captivated and, during the applause, on their feet – what more could one want from a new production of one of the Bard’s most-produced plays?

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Andrew Scott was a wonderful Hamlet, funny yet devastating. His mercurial temperament (just a little reminiscent of his Moriarty) made his performance captivating, and I think everyone felt his pain in grieving for his father. He was surprisingly cheeky, occasionally giving the audience an eye-roll, a raised eyebrow or a pointed stare to indicate his mirthful disbelief at the behaviour of other characters, usually Ed Wight’s terrifically bumbling Polonius. This style of breaking the fourth wall could have gone horribly wrong, but it didn’t – instead, it set everyone giggling. His soliloquies too were delivered unashamedly into the auditorium, displaying an astonishing ability to be vulnerable. An obvious but hilarious critique of stereotypical Shakespearean actors came in the form of his speech to the players about how to perform their show. The performance that players then delivered, almost entirely in mime, was so touching that it brought tears to my eyes.

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Scott was accompanied by a highly talented supporting cast. Porcellainic Juliet Stevenson (I feel I’ve stolen that description from somewhere, but it really is the perfect adjective) was a strong and beautiful Gertrude – none of that ‘frailty thy name is woman’ nonsense. Her confrontation with Hamlet after his murder of Polonius was highly charged and gripping to watch. Having seen Angus Wright as O’Brien in the Almeida production of 1984 at the Playhouse Theatre, his portrayal of King Claudius seemed all the more menacing. The scene in which Hamlet contemplates killing him while he is at prayer was unusually staged – Hamlet and Claudius were onstage together, seeing and yet not seeing each other. Chillingly, Claudius looked directly at Hamlet as he taunted, ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.’ Jessica Brown Findlay surprised me. Perhaps it is an avid theatre-goer’s prejudice against actors I’ve only seen on the telly, but I wasn’t expecting anything amazing from her Ophelia. Of course, I was proved wrong. Her Ophelia was endearingly youthful at first, but especially compelling to watch in her later madness. Her initial interactions with Hamlet, Laertes and Polonius were entertaining, well-thought out and believable. I only wished that her transition into insanity had been better constructed – there was no indication to the audience that she would come back haggered and strapped to a wheelchair after the interval.

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Hamlet was enriched by my having seen Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead at the Old Vic not long ago (read my review here). Those two characters, highly important but often overlooked, gained great depth for me because I had just seen a whole play about them. I was intrigued to see that director Robert Icke decided to intimate that Guildernstern, played by actress Amaka Okafor, is Hamlet’s ex-girlfriend, now in a relationship with jealous Rosencrantz. This creates a sort of love-triangle between Hamlet and the pair, a constellation no doubt inspired by Guildenstern’s line, ‘My lord, you once did love me’. Productions of Hamlet are often adapted based on new readings of specific lines, but I had not yet heard of such attention being payed to those particular words.

Hamlet-bodyIt wasn’t just in close reading of lines that this production displayed great attention to detail. For example, the TV news reports that served to introduce King Hamlet’s death were captioned in Danish. Also, most of the characters were wearing a watch during the play, but took it off and handed it to the ghost when they died at the end. Scott made direct reference to this, fingering his watch as he spoke the famous words, ‘the time is out of joint’. I wondered why Hamlet, dressed all in black for the first two parts, came back dressed in off-white after the second interval. No doubt much thought was put into this decision, but I couldn’t quite decipher the meaning.

Jessica-Brown-Findlay-Ophelia-and-Luke-Thompson-Laertes_credit-Manuel-HarlanHildegard Bechtler’s excellent set greatly enhanced the play. Many screens were intelligently made use of in this show. They shifted between displaying TV news, surveillance footage and live camera transmittance. A few panes of sliding glass divide the stage in two, downstage and upstage. This clever glass, when charged with an electric current, is opaque – when the current ceases, it becomes immediately clear (or it might be the other way around; I don’t remember). This device allowed for seamless transitions between scenes – something would be happening downstage, for example, and then, suddenly, another room would be revealed behind it, upstage. The main playing area resembled a sort of official lobby. The direction echoed this idea – everyone was always passing through; no one ever really lingered or settled there. It’s always great to see a set and performances that are mutually informed and work harmoniously.

Juliet-Stevenson-Gertrude-Luke-Thompson-Laertes-and-Daniel-Rabin-Reynaldo_credit-Manuel-HarlanI saw Hamlet twice at the Almeida – for free, thanks to the wonderful Hamlet For Free festival for under 25s that took place from April 10th to 13th. I am seriously considering going back to see it after the imminent West End transfer. The friend I brought with me was initially sceptical – about the many screens, about the lead actor.. I was less sceptical, having enjoyed the Almeida’s last contemporary stagings and always having had a soft spot for Scott. However, both of us left utterly blown away and very happy that we’d experienced such a great piece of theatre.

Hamlet 4Hamlet played at the Almeida Theatre until April 15th. It will be playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre from June 9th. For more information and tickets, click here.