Blithe Spirit review – Duke of York’s Theatre

4 star review

Like that saying about never being more than six feet from a rat in London, there should probably be a theatrical adage that in the West End you are never more than six years from a production of Blithe Spirit.

This latest invocation of Noel Coward’s supernatural comedy stars Jennifer Saunders as the eccentric medium Madame Arcati. (Back in 2014 the role was played by the legendary Angela Lansbury – here’s the interview I did with her at the time).

From the moment she enters, removing her cycling cloak to reveal enormous sweat patches around her armpits, Saunders owns every scene she’s in.  Yet it’s a cleverly nuanced performance that counterbalances the play’s more farcical elements. Despite Arcati’s idiosyncrasies, Saunders never loses sight of the fact that the oddball occultist takes her work extremely seriously.

The story takes place in the living room of Charles and Ruth Condomine’s country pile in Kent. The home’s rural setting is made even more obvious with the sound of mooing as the curtain rises. The upper floor of Anthony Ward’s impressive set is dominated by an immense bookcase that rises up like a cathedral.

Author Charles (Geoffrey Streatfeild) has invited Madame Arcati over to hold a seance so he can secretly gather material for his next novel. However, the medium inadvertently raises the ghost of Charles’s former wife, the beautiful and mischievous Elvira (Emma Naomi), whom only her former husband can see and hear.

The supernatural special effects are kept simple, but the seance scenes conjure a genuinely eerie atmosphere.

As Ruth Condomine, Lisa Dillon is a joy to watch as she quietly seethes with jealousy that Charles is still under the spell of his first wife. She also gets the biggest laugh of the night with a sparkling one-liner in the second act.

Rose Wardlaw deserves a special mention for her energetic and amusing turn as the Condomines’ hyperactive maid, Edith.

In short, Richard Eyre’s lavish production ticks all the boxes you’d want in this Coward classic. And Saunders is ab fab.

Blithe Spirit is at Duke of York’s Theatre until 11 April

 

Shoe Lady review – Royal Court

4 star review

Katherine Parkinson is mesmerising in EV Crowe’s multi-layered, and sometimes baffling, tragicomedy about a woman who loses a shoe on her way to work.

In little over an hour we follow a day in the life of estate agent Viv as she wakes in bed, tends to her young son, stresses about her lopsided curtains, and then descends into increasing levels of frustration and panic as she attempts to cope wearing only one shoe, while her exposed foot is getting bloodier by the minute.

On the surface it all seems rather absurd but Crowe seems to be making a point about the fragility of the middle class comfort zone. The story is, for the most part, told through Viv’s monologue. On the page, her words are poetic and sparse. Under Vicky Featherstone’s direction, Parkinson brings them vividly to life alongside a handful of other speaking characters that include a similarly shoe-less homeless woman Elaine (Kayla Meikle) and, yes, a talking curtain.

Aided by Matthew Herbert’s atmospheric piano score, and an energetic song and dance number, the play’s 65 minutes fly by – and not just because Parkinson is almost always in motion on a travelator.

Shoe Lady is at the Royal Court, London, until 21 March

 

 

Theatre 2020: Pick of the plays

Here are a just a few of the plays The Man in the Grand Circle has his eye on this year.

Among the star names coming to the London stage are Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke (see above photo) in Anya Reiss’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull for the Jamie Lloyd Company at the Playhouse Theatre in March.  Timothee Chalamet and Eileen Atkins appear in 4000 Miles at the Old Vic the following month, while back at the Playhouse Theatre in June is one of my favourite actresses (I’ve been lucky enough to interview her twice), Jessica Chastain, in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

If you can’t wait that long for your Ibsen fix, then check out Stef Smith’s Nora: A Doll’s House – a “radical” retelling of the story at the Young Vic in February.

For Samuel Beckett fans it’s like Christmas all over again in January. Trevor Nunn directs a triple bill at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre (Krapp’s Last Tape, Eh Joe, The Old Tune) with a cast that includes Niall Buggy, Lisa Dwan, James Hayes and David Threlfall, while over at the Old Vic Alan Cumming, Daniel Radcliffe and Jane Horrocks star in Endgame.

February’s offerings include David Mitchell making his West End debut in Ben Elton’s Shakespearean comedy Upstart Crow at the Gielgud Theatre. I’m also intrigued by Hampstead Theatre’s The Haystack, a thriller by Al Blyth about GCHQ and surveillance.

Those who like their thrillers with a supernatural edge might want to check out The House on Cold Hill, starring Debbie McGee, at The Mill at Sonning in April.

On the National Theatre’s programme I like the look of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin, starring Maxine Peake and Ria Zmitrowicz (opening this month). In April, Thea Sharrock directs  Jack Absolute Flies Again, a new play by Richard Bean and Oliver Chris based on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals. And in August Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley are the star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet.

Talking of unmissable Shakespeare, Cush Jumbo takes on Hamlet at the Young Vic in July.

Further afield, my theatrical sweet tooth is tempted by Quality Street, Northern Broadsides’ revival of JM Barrie’s farce by  which opens in February in Halifax’s Viaduct Theatre and then tours. Barrie’s play was so popular at the time that it gave the chocolates their name.

And there I was trying to give up chocolate this month…

If you missed Laura Wade’s The Watsons at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2019, be sure to catch it at the Harold Pinter Theatre where it opens in May. This genius trip into the Jane Austen universe owes a lot to Pirandello, as does the title of this play at the Southwark Playhouse in April: Five Characters in Search of a Good Night’s Sleep.

Finally, to the Royal Court for a play (in June) which has quite possibly best title of the year: Purple Snowflakes and Titty Wanks.

Happy New Year!

 

 

Top 10 theatre shows of 2019

As the curtain falls on 2019, here are the top 10 shows that stood out for me this year, in the order that I saw them.

1. Three Sisters at the Almeida Theatre – this blew my Chekhovian socks off

2. A Belly Full at The Mill at Sonning – a hip-wiggling hit

3. Anna at the National Theatre – an unnerving Cold War thriller for the ears

4. The Lehman Trilogy at the Piccadilly Theatre – epic and intimate, theatre doesn’t get much better than this

5. A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre – like being at a wild party you don’t want to end

6. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium – energy so palpable you could make a coat out of it

7. What’s in a Name at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre – long-buried resentments explode messily like a dropped bowl of cous cous

8. The Watsons at the Menier Chocolate Factory – a fantastic timey-wimey trip into the Jane Austen universe

9. Death of a Salesman at the Piccadilly Theatre – poetic, moving and devastating

10. A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic – an absolute cracker

Other honourable mentions go to:

Equus at Trafalgar Studios

& Juliet at the Shaftesbury Theatre

Posh at the Oxford Playhouse

The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre

Noises Off at the Garrick Theatre

Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Original Death Rabbit at Jermyn Street Theatre

and a special mention for Ian McKellen on Stage at the Harold Pinter Theatre – my final theatrical experience of the year. Possibly the best one of all.

I’ll be back in the New Year with my top picks for 2020.

 

 

A Kind of People review – Royal Court

4 star review

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s new play starts off as an entertaining and positive snapshot of multicultural Britain. School sweethearts Gary and Nicky are throwing a birthday party at their council flat. He’s black, she’s white – and they have their hopes pinned on Gary getting a promotion at work that will give them and their kids a better life.

The party guests include British Pakistani couple Mo and Anjum, Gary’s sister Karen, Gary’s workmate Mark (whose birthday it is) and Gary’s manager Victoria.

The big laughs and joyful atmosphere of the play’s opening scene quickly dissipate as Victoria gets drunk and comes out with a number of remarks that leave the atmosphere chillier than the Prosecco in the fridge.

What follows is a sharply observed examination of race, privilege, class and education in contemporary Britain. Victoria’s behaviour sets in motion a chain of events that open up devastating fault lines between Nicky, Gary and their friends.

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The cast of A Kind of People (photo: Manuel Harlan)

At a brisk 95 minutes it sometimes feels like watching a soap opera, but director Michael Buffong ensures every scene has the power to make the audience squirm or cheer out loud.

Richie Campbell and Claire-Louise Cordwell are outstanding as the central couple Gary and Nicky. Petra Letang’s no-nonsense Karen and Asif Khan’s Mo provide some comic relief, and there’s strong support too from Manjinder Virk as the ambitious Anjum, Thomas Coombes as Mark and Amy Morgan as Victoria.

There’s not much Christmas cheer here, but Bhatti’s emotional drama delivers a punch that you’ll feel for a long time after you’ve left the theatre.

A Kind of People is at the Royal Court until 18 January

 

 

 

 

 

A Christmas Carol review – The Old Vic

5 star review

It’s no surprise that this staging of Dickens’ Christmas classic is back for a third year at the Old Vic.  It clearly has the potential to become as perennial as other festive must-sees like The Snowman and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Directed by Matthew Warchus, writer Jack Thorne’s version of the Scrooge story manages to be both pleasingly traditional while at the same time feel like an exciting reinvention.

With the audience on all sides, Rob Howell’s atmospheric set cuts a path through the stalls, lit from above by myriad lanterns. The costumes, beautiful yet battered, might be described as distressed Dickensian chic.

Paterson Joseph plays Scrooge with the grouch dial turned up to 11. His dismissive description of the carol singers at his front door as “singing creatures” is particularly entertaining. And his handling of the old miser’s (spoiler alert) Christmas morning transformation was so well done I found myself grinning with uncontrollable delight.

Warchus doesn’t hold back on the emotional punches. Expect tears among the laughs, not least during Scrooge’s encounters with his lost love Belle (an excellent Rebecca Trehearn) and Tiny Tim (played variously by Rayhaan Kufuor-Gray, Lara Mehmet, Lenny Rush and Eleanor Stollery).

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Rebecca Trehearn as Belle and Paterson Joesph as Scrooge (photo: Manuel Harlan)

Not an inch of the auditorium is wasted, with some inventive set pieces popping up on every level, and the whole experience is enhanced by Christopher Nightingale’s exquisite score and beautifully sung carols.

This show is an absolute cracker.  If you’re lucky you might even get given a mince pie or a satsuma from one of the cast as you settle in your seat. Merry Christmas, one and all!

A Christmas Carol is at The Old Vic until 18 January 2020

& Juliet review – Shaftesbury Theatre

4 star review

This vivacious new musical arrival in the West End opens with William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway having a marital disagreement over his tragic ending for Romeo and Juliet. Wouldn’t it be better, she argues, if the heroine didn’t kill herself in the final scene? “She’s got her whole life ahead of her, and she’s only had one boyfriend.”

And so begins a hugely entertaining mash-up of Shakespearean drama and the pop music of Max Martin, whose hits include Britney Spears’ Oops! I Did It Again, Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl and Ariane Grande’s Problem.

They’re all here among the 30 or so songs that help propel Juliet’s journey from Verona to Paris and back again, as well as the big themes of female empowerment and being the person you want to be.

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Cassidy Janson as Anne Hathaway (photo: Johan Persson)

As Juliet, Miriam-Teak Lee belts out the hits brilliantly, and shines equally in the quieter, more reflective moments. Cassidy Janson’s Anne Hathaway is a force of nature who gives the show so much of its joie de vivre, and I also enjoyed the comedy pairing of Lance (David Bedella) and Nurse (Melanie La Barrie).

Jukebox musicals often get a lot of stick, but this one, directed by Luke Sheppard, is done so well that you’d have to have taken a big gulp of Juliet’s sleeping potion not to come out smiling.

& Juliet is at the Shaftesbury Theatre until 30 May 2020