Admissions review – Trafalgar Studios (and touring)

My next stop is a visit to Admissions at Trafalgar Studios before it heads off on tour.

(As a Doctor Who fan, it’s a treat to see Alex Kingston on stage in the same week as Jenna Coleman in All My Sons.)

Joshua Harmon’s play packs a lot about race, diversity, privilege and white liberal angst into a fairly shouty 100 minutes.

Kingston plays Sherri, the head of admissions at a private boarding school in the US, who is proud of the advances she has made in improving diversity among the student intake.

In the opening scene, she passionately explains to her colleague Roberta (Margot Leicester) why the school prospectus needs to reflect the real world.

But Sherri’s progressive credentials are put to the test when her son Charlie (Ben Edelman) has his university place at Yale deferred while his mixed race friend Perry gets in.

This leads to an epic rant from Charlie in front of his shocked parents about “box ticking”. It’s a pivotal speech that earns Edelman a round of applause for his efforts (and a much-deserved drink of water).

Director Daniel Aukin keeps the story engaging – even when it’s forcing the audience to ask themselves difficult questions – and makes great use of the static kitchen set.

IMG_2567
Photo: Johan Persson

The strong cast of five is completed by Andrew Woodall as Sherri’s headteacher husband Bill and Sarah Hadland (Miranda’s Stevie) as her friend Ginnie, who also happens to be Perry’s mother.

If you like your comedy with an uncomfortable edge, seek admission here.

Admissions is at Trafalgar Studios until 25 May and then touring to Richmond Theatre (27 May – 1 June), Cambridge Arts Theatre (3-8 June), Malvern Theatres (10-15 June) and The Lowry, Salford (17-22 June).

All My Sons review – The Old Vic

My teenage son informed me that his favourite band Twenty One Pilots took their name from this Arthur Miller play.

Sure enough, watching it at the Old Vic this week, towards the end of act one, there’s a line that makes my ears prick up: “He murdered twenty-one pilots.”

The airmen in question died due to some dodgy engine parts which came from the factory of Joe Keller, the businessman whose sins catch up with him during the course of Miller’s post-war drama.

Jeremy Herrin’s classy revival boasts not just a starry cast list but also one of the most impressively realistic sets I’ve seen in a long while. Designer Max Jones lovingly brings to life the Keller house, with its unroofed porch, and garden fringed by trees, as per Miller’s detailed stage instructions.

The headline US talent comes in the form of Bill Pullman and Sally Field as Keller and his wife Kate.

Pullman’s laid-back Keller speaks in a drawl that’s sometimes hard to understand, but he perfectly portrays a man hollowed out by tragedy and has a great chemistry with Field. She’s excellent in the role of a mother in denial about the death of her son Larry – to the extent that she finds comfort in horoscopes – while showing off her manipulative side with lines like “You gained a little weight, didn’t you darling?”

That particular put-down is aimed at Ann Deever, Larry’s former fiancée, who has been invited to stay by Chris, the Kellers’ other son, so he can propose to her. She’s also the daughter of Joe’s ex-business partner who went to jail over the engine scandal. None of this is going to end well.

Ann is played by Jenna Coleman (Doctor Who, Victoria) and Chris by Colin Morgan (Merlin) – both of whom shine in their roles representing the younger post-war generation.

Herrin lets the tension build slowly in the first half, before delivering two devastating final acts after the interval. Not even some rogue mobile phone bleeps could ruin the atmosphere.

And before anyone writes in. Yes, I know Twenty One Pilots are technically a duo, not a band.

All My Sons is at The Old Vic until 8 June

Night of the Living Dead review – Pleasance Theatre

The spirit of George A Romero’s 1968 cult horror film is alive in more ways than one in this splatterific stage version.

First off, there are no zombies. It’s “ghouls” or “the undead” – keeping things true to Romero’s original vision.

But what’s really impressive about this show is the astonishing monochrome set and costume design by Diego Pitarch.

It’s like you’re watching a black and white film. Inspired.

Most of the story takes place inside a dimly-lit abandoned farmhouse, complete with a rickety staircase, a boarded-up window (“Don’t stand in front of the window!”) and double doors which offer frequent glimpses of hungry cadavers outside

The show’s USP is to seat 20 members of the audience – in boiler suits and shower caps – in a “splatter zone” centre stage. It may be fun to be up there, but from the auditorium I found it a distraction. It often obscured what was going on.

There are jump-scares aplenty (big applause for the sound and light design), but don’t expect this to give you nightmares. As director Benji Sperring points out in his programme notes, this is a cultural rarity: a comedy horror.

The tongue is firmly in cheek. Or rather, poking through the cheek.

IMG_2527
Photo: Claire Bilyard

Sperring works his excellent six-strong cast hard to squeeze out as many laughs as possible.

I particularly liked Marc Pickering as Harry, with his comedic strut, and Jennifer Harding in the dual roles of Helen and Judy.

The second act’s insistence on exploring multiple alternative endings wears a bit thin, but the big musical finale – when the red stuff really starts to fly – more than makes up for it.

George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead LIVE! is at the Pleasance Theatre, Islington, until 8 June.

Three Sisters review – Almeida Theatre

When the world doesn’t seem be working out the way you expect, you can’t beat a bit of Chekhov to put things in perspective.

Anyone of a like mind should consider heading to north London for this delightful new version of Three Sisters by Cordelia Lynn.

The original story of the Prozorov siblings, stuck in a provincial Russian town dreaming of a life in Moscow, is very much intact, but the language – with added swearing and even a TS Eliot quote – sparkles and zings for a 21st century audience.

Director Rebecca Frecknall places her characters carefully around (and sometimes just off) the stage as if pieces in some magnificent chess game.

This play reunites Frecknall with Patsy Ferran, who recently won the best actress Olivier award for their previous project Summer and Smoke.

That play, which also won for best revival, ended up in the West End after starting out at the Almeida. I’d be surprised if Three Sisters didn’t follow the same trajectory.

Ferran is as magnetic as ever as Olga, the eldest of the sisters. It’s a shame she doesn’t get more stage time.

She’s joined by Pearl Chanda as the wonderfully moody Masha, while Ria Zmitrowicz is excellent as the youngest, Irina, who we see start out so full of youth and promise only to see it crushed out of her as the acts progress.

In one of the play’s best scenes, Chanda heartbreakingly portrays Masha’s despair at the departure of Vershinin (Peter McDonald), the married soldier she loves, while her foolish husband Kulygin (Elliott Levey) goofs about in complete denial.

The set is simple but effective. I like to think that the single piano on stage was one of the many that appeared in Summer and Smoke.

My first experience of Chekhov was seeing Three Sisters at the Barbican in the late 1980s with Harriet Walter as Masha. I fell in love then with the dramatist’s unhappy, frustrated world.

This version is every bit as good. It blew my Chekhovian socks off. Forget Moscow. We must go to Islington.

Three Sisters is at the Almeida Theatre until 1 June

Pah-La review – Royal Court

An odd thing about this play: it gave me nightmares. That’s never happened before in all my decades of going to the theatre.

I have a vague recollection of feeling trapped in a place under threat, which makes sense when you consider the events that take place in Abhishek Majumdar’s new play.

Based on real stories during the unrest in the Tibetan capital Lhasa in 2008, the story focuses on two characters.

The first is a sparky young Buddhist nun called Deshar (Millicent Wong) who, when we first meet her, has just elbowed a Chinese soldier in the face and stolen his uniform, as well as one of his teeth.

The second is Chinese Commander Deng (Daniel York Loh), who has arrived to enforce a programme of “re-education”.

Events at the nunnery take a destructive turn, and Deshar carries out a shocking act of defiance.

*Spoiler alert*

IMG_2524
Photo:: Helen Murray

 

Her self-immolation is superbly handled. The audience sat in stunned silence as the lights went up for the interval.

Pah-La – Tibetan for “father” – explores many themes: violence, non-violence, father-daughter relationships, and an individual’s relationship with the state.

In the stronger first act, director Debbie Hannan builds a strong sense of atmosphere, particularly in the nunnery scenes where a giant Buddha statue glows in candlelight.

The second act, however, starts to sag under the weight of too many ideological speeches. The interrogation scenes involving a horribly burned Deshar aren’t an easy watch. They may well have contributed to my nightmare.

But Pah-La explores unfamiliar places and ideas that make it feel a fresh and exciting piece of theatre.

Pah-La is at the Royal Court until 27 April