The Starry Messenger review – Wyndham’s Theatre

The Starry Messenger presents a particular cosmic challenge. How do you make a play interesting when it’s about possibly the most boring man in the Solar System?

What playwright Kenneth Lonergan does is to fill it with characters who are far more engaging – and a lot of laughs.

Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, War Games) makes his West End stage debut as strait-laced astronomy teacher Mark at New York’s Hayden Planetarium in the late 90s.

His lack of dynamism is underlined in the opening scene when his class is interrupted by bursts of laughter from the more entertaining lecture taking place in the next room.

“I think he’s kind of boring,” observes one student after Mark’s slideshow on how the Earth looks from the Moon.

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Elizabeth McGovern as Anne (Photo: Marc Brenner)

At home, Mark and his wife Anne (Elizabeth McGovern) have long, mundane conversations about family arrangements at Christmas while their teenage son shuts himself away in the basement with his electric guitar.

It’s all leading in one direction: Mark’s orbit is about to take him into that uncharted region of space known as The Midlife Crisis.

Here’s where Lonergan throws in his curveball characters. Mark begins an unlikely and awkward affair with single mum and trainee nurse Angela (Rosalind Eleazar – excellent).

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Mark (Matthew Broderick) contemplates earthly relationships with Angela (Rosalind Eleazar) (Photo: Marc Brenner)

But it is Angela’s touching relationship with elderly hospital patient Norman (Jim Norton) that provides the play’s most genuine and interesting human connection. And anyone familiar with Lonergan’s film Manchester by the Sea will know that he’s not averse to a tragic twist.

At over three hours long, The Starry Messenger isn’t in any hurry to deliver its message. But director Sam Yates gives the scenes a gentle rhythm that keep things moving, despite the script being peppered by long, static conversations.

The play’s funniest scene comes towards the end of act one when one of Mark’s students, nicely played by Sid Sagar, delivers an unsolicited feedback session on his “lacklustre” teaching style.

Broderick, who first played this role in New York 10 years ago, puts in a great performance as a man navigating dull middle age while contemplating the shape of distant galaxies.

I’d like to have seen more of McGovern, but her scenes with Broderick work well as she tries to keep their floundering marriage alive.

Lonergan’s play is clearly a love letter to the planetarium that played such an important part of his childhood. It’s also a slow-burning portrait of how life doesn’t always deliver on its early promises, set against the bigger mysteries of the universe.

The Starry Messenger is at Wyndham’s Theatre until 10 August

The Lehman Trilogy review – Piccadilly Theatre

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Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley in The Lehman Trilogy (Photo by Mark Douet)

One senses there is some special alchemy at work in this West End transfer of the National Theatre’s hit production which charts the rise and fall of American banking behemoth Lehman Brothers.

At its very heart – within the sublime set design, the beautiful direction and the poetry of the script – are three astonishing performances.

Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles play every speaking character in this three and a half hour history (with two intervals) of more than 150 years of Western capitalism viewed through the prism of a single family.

Ben Power’s adaptation of Stefano Massini’s Italian original never feels too long. Beale, Godley and Miles speak their lines as if savouring a fine wine.

After a brief opening which recalls the 2008 financial crash the play takes us back to German-Jewish migrant Henry Lehman’s arrival in New York by ship from Bavaria in 1844.

Once in the “magical music box called America” he heads to Alabama where he sets up a modest fabric shop, and dreams of one day having a proper sign over the door.

He is soon joined by brothers Emanuel (Miles) and Mayer (Godley) and they extend the family business into fabrics and suits, seeds and tools and raw cotton.

As the years fly by, taking in the Civil War and the Crash of 1929, the actors take on the roles of Emanuel’s son Philip, Mayer’s son Herbert and a plethora of other characters.

Simon Russell Beale in The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre
Simon Russell Beale in The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre (Photo: Mark Douet)

These role switches are an acting masterclass. Beale suddenly becomes a precocious six year old boy, Godley a selection of potential wives. It’s all done without costume changes. Or perhaps just the flip of a collar. It’s mesmerising to watch.

Es Devlin’s stunning set is a sleek modern office in a revolving glass box, yet the cast convert it into whatever scene they require by rearranging a few filing boxes or writing on the walls in marker pen.

An ever-changing video backdrop (designed by Luke Halls) conjures up Alabama skies, burning cotton plantations and New York skyscrapers.

Ben Miles, Adam  Godley  and Simon Russell Beale inThe Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre
Es Devlin’s revolving glass box set (Photo by Mark Douet)

Director Sam Mendes does a wonderful job of making the drama both epic and yet so intimate. The Wall Street crash scenes are heartbreaking.

Even if banking isn’t your bag, theatre doesn’t get much better than this.

The Lehman Trilogy is at the Piccadilly Theatre until 31 August. There will be an NT Live broadcast to cinemas on 25 July.

Anna review – National Theatre (Dorfman)

As fans of Dark Side of the Moon will attest, some things seem made to be listened to through headphones.

So it is with Ella Hickson’s new play at the National’s intimate Dorfman Theatre.

Visitors arrive to find a pair of Sennheisers draped across the backrest. A soft, yet firm, recorded voice encourages you to put them on the right way round.

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ANNA at the Dorfman Theatre (Photo: Johan Persson)

The stage itself is separated from the audience by a giant sheet of glass, so before the play starts you can enjoy the reflection of yourself looking like a nightclub DJ.

Why the headphones? Well, what makes Anna so unique is its sound design by Ben and Max Ringham.

Tiny sonic moments usually lost on a theatre audience – the flick of a light switch, the strike of a match, an intimate kiss – are delivered to your ears in stunning detail wherever you are seated.

Phoebe Fox gives a brilliantly intense performance as Anna Weber, a woman who lives with her husband Hans (Paul Bazely) in a flat in 1968 East Berlin. Max Bennett is superbly chilling as Christian Neumann, Hans’s new boss.

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Max Bennett as Christian Neumann (Photo: Johan Persson)

“Why is everyone having conversations that no-one is allowed to hear?” Anna asks in a paranoid moment during a party to celebrate Hans’s recent promotion.

That line sums up the brilliance of this play. Everything is heard from the perspective of its titular character, meaning that much of the conversation elsewhere in the flat becomes muted or out of earshot.

Conversely, whispered asides to Anna – and whatever she does behind the privacy of her bedroom door – are heard with astonishing clarity.

The result is an unnerving Cold War thriller for the ears. That said, this is no radio play. Director Natalie Abrahami expertly ensures that the dimly-lit visuals also feed the growing sense of paranoia.

This is an immersive hour of theatre that often had me not daring to breathe. Like Pink Floyd’s classic LP, I’d happily have this on repeat.

Anna is at the Dorfman Theatre until 15 June

Come From Away – Phoenix Theatre

I finally got around to seeing Come From Away this week. What a West End gem. No wonder it won four Olivier Awards, including best new musical.

The subject matter doesn’t seem immediately obvious for a musical. It’s the true story of how the residents of the remote Newfoundland town of Gander welcomed thousands of plane passengers who had been diverted there after 9/11.

On stage it works like a dream. If you’ve got any emotional buttons, expect them to be pushed pretty hard. This joyous 100-minute journey shows how human beings can be decent to each other even at the very worst of times.

The simple, non-flashy staging allows the cast, the songs and the musicianship to sparkle. The standout performances for me were Rachel Tucker as plane pilot Beverley and Clive Carter as Claude the town mayor.

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Rachel Tucker as pilot Beverley (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

I didn’t want this show to end (even though I was having to dry my eyes every few seconds) and seeing such a spontaneous and enthusiastic standing ovation, I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

Come From Away has been extended at the Phoenix Theatre until February 2020.

White Pearl review – Royal Court

As the audience for White Pearl take their seats in the downstairs theatre at the Royal Court, a giant screen in front of the stage shows a set of figures climbing inexorably upwards: 19,465… 19,466… 19,467…

It soon becomes clear this is the number of YouTube hits being racked up by a leaked video that’s causing a PR nightmare for a cosmetics company in Singapore.

The problem? Their advert – for a skin whitening cream – is racist and social media is going into meltdown.

Anchuli Felicia King’s super-smart black comedy packs into 85 expletive-laden minutes a thought-provoking examination of intercultural racism in Asia, corporate powerplay and a beauty industry that preys on women who “hate themselves”.

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Photo: Helen Murray

If there was ever a play machine-tooled for millennials, this is it. The hi tech set – with video design inspired by a mobile phone – fizzes with energy, YouTube comments punctuate each scene, and there are lines that leave you unsure whether to laugh or launch an indignant hashtag.

As King admits in her author’s note, casting this play is “really fucking hard”. The ethnic and cultural backgrounds of the six Asian female characters – all of them employees of cosmetics company Clearday – are integral to the dynamics of the plot.

Farzana Dua Elahe is fantastic as Clearday’s founder Priya Singh who prowls the stage looking for a scapegoat among her team. The cast is excellent overall, with Katie Leung as Sunny Lee and Minhee Yeo as South Korean Soo-Jin Park being particularly memorable.

Kae Alexander as the wise-cracking Built shares some great scenes with the play’s only male character, French “social justice warrior” Marcel (Arty Froushan).

In a world where the issue of race is rarely off the trending charts, here’s a play that deserves to go viral for all the right reasons.

White Pearl is at the Royal Court until 15 June

A Belly Full review – The Mill at Sonning

I’ve seen a lot of productions at The Mill at Sonning over the years, and I’m delighted to say this world premiere has shimmied its way to the top of my list of favourites.

Writers Marcia Kash and Mary Colin Chisholm’s superbly-scripted play has characters that you genuinely care about. All that belly dancing is a bonus.

The story focuses on two women. Marnie (Lesley Harcourt) is a new mum working hard to make her speciality cake business a success while her partner Ravi (Dharmesh Patel) shares parental duties and helps with deliveries.

Photo: Andreas Lambis

Marnie’s nervous friend Jane (Sarah Edwardson), a carer and cleaner, faces a challenging time at home with her agoraphobic partner Brian (Peter Hamilton Dyer) who is obsessed about her safety.

In this female-dominated play, the two male characters are strongly written. And for all the bare tums on display, it’s actually Ravi who flashes the flesh first as he emerges topless from the shower!

Determined to lose her “baby blubber”, Marnie goes to pilates with Jane, but a venue mix-up sees them end up at a belly dancing class led by the exotically-named Shalimar (Jacqueline Roberts).

“She’s about as exotic as a chip butty,” observes Marnie drily.

Photo: Andreas Lambis

Within a few short scenes, A Belly Full establishes a cast of engaging characters and throws in an excellent twist that spins out during the second act.

The enthusiastic belly dancing classmates include Alice Bell as Willow, Sabina Franklyn as Rose and Gilly Tompkins as Tess. Maia Watkins is brilliant as stroppy teenager Aleesha.

A Belly Full started out as a film screenplay. Seeing its potential, The Mill’s artistic director Sally Hughes suggested it should adapted for the stage.

It was a good call. This is a hip-wiggling hit.

A Belly Full is at The Mill at Sonning until 15 June

Man of La Mancha review – London Coliseum

Two months after Only Fools and Horses opened in London, one of the sitcom’s original stars is appearing in a very different kind of musical just a short three-wheeler ride away.

Nicholas Lyndhurst plays the dual roles of the Governor and Innkeeper in this revival of Man of La Mancha, a version of the Don Quixote story which hasn’t been seen in the West End since 1968.

Top of the bill is US sitcom star Kelsey “Frasier” Grammer as Cervantes/Quixote with Peter Polycarpou as Cervantes’ manservant/Sancho Panza.

What a strange musical this, both in structure and tone. Dale Wasserman’s book uses a play-within-a-play device which begins with Cervantes imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition.

When his fellow inmates threaten to burn his manuscript of Don Quixote he asked them to join him in acting out his story as a diversion, using the costumes from his trunk.

The design of the show is possibly the best thing about it. The action takes place in the basement of a bombed-out museum, now being used as a makeshift jail, with chunks of blasted concrete still hanging precariously from a hole in the ceiling. James Noone’s set is deliberately drab until it explodes into life and colour as Don Quixote’s fantastic tale unfolds.

Director Lonny Price’s decision to set the prison scenes in a futuristic fascist state, while keeping the Quixote story firmly in the Spain of the 1600s, is a bold choice that pays dividends in the musical’s darker second act.

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Photo by Manuel Harlan

This includes the abduction and rape of serving girl Aldonza in a well-choreographed dance sequence that is a difficult watch.

Thankfully there’s humour too: I particularly enjoyed the sight of Lyndhurst’s Innkeeper knighting Quixote in his nightshirt and cap.

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Photo by Manuel Harlan

Grammer has a rich voice and belts out the show’s best-known song The Impossible Dream, but the best vocal performance by a long way comes from Danielle de Niese as Aldonza/Dulcinea. (She shares the role with Cassidy Janson).

With its quirks and tonal shifts, Man of La Mancha is a peculiar musical experience, but one I found curiously enjoyable.

Man of La Mancha is at the London Coliseum until 8 June.