Beat the Devil review – Bridge Theatre

My first indoor theatre experience after lockdown was, perhaps inevitably, this Covid-19 monologue written by David Hare about his own experience of having the virus.

To make this play possible, the Bridge Theatre has had the majority of its seats removed, enabling a masked audience to sit in socially isolated clusters. And it works. It feels safe. One hopes it will prove a viable model for other theatres to follow suit.

Hare’s rage-filled, and often very funny, script is brought to life by Ralph Fiennes on a simple set that consists of little more than a desk and chair. In a blue shirt and jeans, often with his hands on his hips, Fiennes is an engaging and likable narrator for this pandemic diary packed with politics and polemic.

Unsurprisingly, Hare directs much of his anger at the government’s handling of the crisis, and makes some fascinating points about the ministerial use of language; but what struck me most about this play was that it was the first time – despite all the blanket media coverage and survivors’ stories – that I had a genuine sense of what it must be like to have the virus invading your body.

Hare doesn’t skimp on the detail, and Fiennes gets to deliver delicious lines about food tasting like “sewage” and his skin turning the “colour of Bela Lugosi”. There are touching, intimate descriptions too – such as the moment when Hare’s wife Nicole places herself on top of him like a duvet in an attempt to cool his fever.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner, and running for just under an hour, this is a simple, beautifully written piece, that really helped me take stock of the extraordinary events of the last few months.

Unlike the pandemic, I didn’t want it to end.

Beat the Devil is at the Bridge Theatre in London on assorted dates until 31 October

Monologues review – Oxford Castle

It’s been six months since The Man in the Grand Circle has sat in a grand circle, or indeed any kind of theatre seating. Happily, that period of enforced abstinence came to an end tonight in the beautiful, floodlit courtyard of Oxford Castle.

Starting with Richard III’s “Winter of our discontent” and ending with Puck’s epilogue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Monologues offers 16 of Shakespeare’s best-loved speeches in quick succession, presented with few frills but plenty of gusto by actors from Oxford’s BMH Productions and Siege Theatre.

It’s an evening brimming with powerhouse performances – including Kieran Donnelly’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” from Julius Caesar, Craig Finlay and Martha Ibbotson’s “Get thee to a nunnery” scene from Hamlet, and Alex Lushington and Amber-Anne Allen’s sizzling pre-murder pep talk from Macbeth.

I also enjoyed Rachel Wilmshurst’s feminist take on Henry V’s “Once more into the breach” speech, which she performs amid scattered #MeToo placards.

Crucially, each segment left me wanting more – and I’d love to see some of these performances in a complete version of the play. Hopefully that’s all to come.

The whole socially-distanced show was engagingly hosted by Ed Blagrove, who put each scene into context and even managed to include a timely quarantine joke about the Greek islands in his introduction to The Comedy of Errors.

Frankly, I couldn’t have wished for a better reintroduction to live theatre than this.

Monologues is at Oxford Castle & Prison until 5 September

Coriolanus review

Watching theatre on YouTube is obviously no replacement for the real thing, but I’ve found it hard going of late. I miss the experience of live theatre so much.

Just when I was getting to the point of giving these reviews a rest, along comes this Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus from 2013/14, starring Tom Hiddleston in the title role, to put me back on track.

Josie Rourke’s production of Shakespeare’s Roman drama about family, power and politics is, to put it frankly, bloody exhilarating. From the noisy mob protests at the start (“Grain at our own price” is the graffitied message from the plebs) to the devastating final scene, the play never loses its grip.

Hiddleston is brilliant, his eyes sparking with anger (and tears) and he projects a tremendous physical presence throughout. Early on, he’s so smothered with gore that he has to literally wipe the blood out of his eyes so he can see where he’s going.

Away from the muscular fight scenes, even the intimate exchanges between Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia (Deborah Findlay – superb as ever) and wife Virgilia (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) pack a punch.

There are so many strong performances to enjoy, including Mark Gatiss as Coriolanus’s friend and adviser Menenius, and antagonists Brutus (Elliot Levey) and
Sicinia (Helen Schlesinger) – “a pair of strange ones” as Menenius describes them – as well as Hadley Fraser’s fearsome army general Aufidius.

The camerawork perfectly captures the in-your-face intimacy of the Donmar space. And it makes me miss it all the more. Don’t miss this.

Coriolanus is on the National Theatre at Home YouTube channel until 11 June.

Treasure Island review

Patsy Ferran as Jim Hawkins and Arthur Darvill as Long John Silver

Aaaa-haaaaaaahhh! As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m a big fan of Patsy Ferran. So I was delighted when Treasure Island appeared this week on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel, having missed it on the Olivier stage back in 2014.

“Girls need adventures too,” says Alexandra Maher’s Dr Livesey early on in Bryony Lavery’s adaptation which casts Ferran as Jim Hawkins but thankfully stops short of giving us a Long Jane Silver.

Arthur Darvill’s “one legged nightmare” LJS (complete with a metal limb that looks like it was stolen off a Terminator) makes an immensely likable villain, but it’s Ferran’s wide-eyed young adventurer who steals the show. No wonder she won awards for this.

Polly Findlay’s production is simultaneously menacing and funny and almost every line is delivered with a rum-sozzled shout. Lizzie Clachan’s immense multi-levelled set morphs impressively from inn to ship to island quicker than it takes to knock out a sea shanty on a fiddle.

The supporting cast is full of memorable characters such as the terrifyingly tattooed Bill Bones (Aidan Kelly) and Joshua James’ scrawny former cabin boy Ben Gunn, driven mad with solitude and obsessed by cheese.

The verdict? This land lubber loved it: Pieces of 8 out of 10.

Treasure Island is on the National Theatre at Home YouTube channel until 23 April

Jesus Christ Superstar review

As the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar take their bows at the end of the show at London’s O2, Andrew Lloyd Webber strides on stage with a microphone to say what a joy it to see his musical being performed in a proper rock venue.

This 2012 production, streaming on YouTube over the Easter weekend, doesn’t stint on the spectacle, but it does sometime feel like it’s trying too hard to justify its place in such a vast arena. Despite a giant screen showing close-ups, flashing social media messages, and even lashings of blood, I do wonder how engaging it would have felt sitting at the back. At least this version puts the audience right there on stage.

Director Laurence Connor gives the story a present-day twist inspired by the Occupy protest movement, which allows for an impressive opening scene involving riot police and pop-up tents. And the decision to put Jesus on trial by TV with Chris Moyles’s Herod as a red-suited game show host (“TEXT Lord or Fraud”!) works bizarrely well.

While I enjoyed Ben Forster’s emotional portrayal of Jesus, and Mel C as Mary Magdalene, it is Tim Minchin’s dreadlocked Judas who is the real star of the show.  He snarls and smoulders like a proper villain. But what a heavenly voice.

Jesus Christ Superstar can be watched here until 7pm on Easter Sunday. 

One Man, Two Guvnors review

Sadly it looks like there won’t be any live theatre for a few weeks yet, so (like many other frustrated theatre bloggers) I thought I’d write about a few of the plays that are appearing online during the lockdown.

Where better to start than with Richard Bean’s much-garlanded adaptation of The Servant of Two Masters by the C18th Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni.

I was lucky enough to see this National Theatre production twice: with James Corden (2011), and later Owain Arthur (2012), in the lead role of Francis Henshall, a gluttonous minder who ends up juggling jobs for a gangster and a toff in 1963 Brighton.

At the time, I thought this was the funniest thing I’d ever seen in a theatre. Yes, even more mirth-inducing than Noises Off or The Chuckle Brothers’ Doctor What and the Return of the Garlics.

So did it still make me laugh when I streamed the Corden version off YouTube onto my bedroom telly? The answer is yes, but not as much as I expected. It felt half an hour too long, and I longed for the raucous experience of seeing it with a live audience.

That said, Corden’s slapstick performance is sublime, the audience participation sequences are superb and the musical interludes are, er, infectious.

The play also contains what – in my uncultured opinion – is one of the greatest lines ever written for the English stage:

“Love passes through marriage faster than shit through a small dog.”

Richard Bean’s new play Jack Absolute Flies Again (written with Guvnor cast member Oliver Chris) was due to have opened at the National Theatre this month. Let’s hope we get to see it soon.

One Man, Two Guvnors can be watched on YouTube until 9 April

 

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.