The Hunt review – Almeida Theatre

3 star review

Halfway through The Hunt one of the characters, a man sharpening a large blade, sings sweetly: “Each town has its witch, each parish its troll…”

The subject of the witch hunt in this play by David Farr, based on Thomas Vinterberg’s 2012 Danish film Jagten, is Lucas (Tobias Menzies), a teacher falsely accused of sexual assault by six-year-old Clara, a girl in his class who is also the daughter of his best friend.

The resulting hysteria has a devastating effect not just on Lucas but on the tightly-knit community in northern Denmark where he lives.

This is a place where the men of the town are bonded by guns, beer drinking and midnight rituals in their hunting lodge in the forest. What could possibly go wrong?

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Photo: Marc Brenner

Es Devlin’s stark set has at its centre a brightly-lit glass shed that can switch from transparent to opaque. At times the masculinity is literally dripping off the walls.

Director Rupert Goold ramps up the atmosphere with the occasional appearance inside of a mythical stag-headed beast accompanied by Adam Cork’s thudding soundtrack.

The overall result is an intense but riveting two hours of Nordic Noir.

Menzies puts in a devastatingly powerful performance as we follow his harrowing journey from trusted school teacher to social pariah and suspected paedophile.

One niggle is why Lucas never denies the accusations early on – to either the school or Clara’s parents. I wanted to shout at the stage: “Just tell them what happened!” It’s an annoying plot device beloved of soap operas. But why here?

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Michele Austin as Hilde (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Other excellent support comes from Michele Austin as the school head Hilde and Poppy Miller and Justin Salinger as Clara’s parents Mikala and Theo. On the opening night Clara was played by Taya Tower, making an impressive stage debut.

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Taya Tower as Clara (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Goold lets things become a bit overwrought towards the end. I had trouble working out what was happening during a frantic scene with the townsfolk crammed in the church.

But this is theatre that leaves you stunned and breathless. Definitely one for those who like their Scandi drama on the dark side.

The Hunt is at the Almeida Theatre until 3 August

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Photo by Marc Brenner

Private Lives review – The Mill at Sonning

3 star review

With Present Laughter about to open at London’s Old Vic, here’s an opportunity to see one of the Noel Coward’s sparkling gems from the previous decade.

According to the programme notes for this production, Coward wrote Private Lives in four days during a bout of flu in Shanghai in 1930. I’m glad to report that the only coughing and spluttering at the Mill at Sonning is likely to be with laughter.

The story begins with two mismatched couples – Elyot and Sibyl Chase and Victor and Amanda Prynne – on their respective honeymoons in the same French hotel.

The big problem is that Elyot (Darrell Brockis) and Amanda (Eva Jane Willis) were previously married to each other and fate has put them in adjacent rooms.

Once the divorced pair set eyes on each other they realise they are still in love and instantly abandon their new partners to escape to Amanda’s flat in Paris (great set design by Michael Holt).

Willis is outstanding as the headstrong and glamorous Amanda. The sexual chemistry between her and Brockis’s caddish Elyot is spot on.

Coward’s insightful lines about marital politics and promiscuity seem timeless, but it does seem strange to hear the ex-partners reminiscing about the first time they hit each other.

Amanda and Elyot’s love-hate relationship is nicely handled in Act Two culminating in an expertly choreographed fight involving a gramophone record, a bunch of flowers and assorted cushions from the chaise longue.

There’s strong support too from the rejected spouses: Lydea Perkins as the “insipid” Sybil and Tom Berkeley as the straight-laced Victor.

Director Tam Williams makes inspired use of the musical talents of Celia Cruwys-Finnigan to create a suitably Gallic atmosphere with a selection of accordion songs that include cleverly reworked versions of Toxic and Tainted Love.

Noel Coward would surely have approved.

Private Lives is at The Mill at Sonning, Oxfordshire, until 3 August

Bitter Wheat review – Garrick Theatre

2 star review

One can only imagine how many lawyers were employed to go through David Mamet’s script for Bitter Wheat.

The American playwright’s much anticipated new work, coming in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, casts John Malkovich as a monstrous Hollywood movie mogul named Barney Fein.

As the programme points out – next to a photo of a Malkovich in character gripping a golden statuette – this is a work of fiction and any resemblance to events or persons, living or dead, “is entirely coincidental”.

Malkovich is undeniably superb as the foul-mouthed Fein, who we first see trashing a writer’s screenplay while he lolls in a chair with one leg looped over the armrest. He’s instantly established as an abusive, manipulative maniac, with a colourful turn of phrase (and a golden table lamp that appears to be fashioned out of an AK-47). “The Writers’ Guild would drink a beaker of my own mucus if I asked them too,” Fein assures the hapless scribe who has threatened to report him.

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Photo: Manuel Harlan

While Malkovich dominates the proceedings, the most interesting character proves to be Doon Mackichan’s Sondra, Fein’s long-serving PA. She’s the one knows everything, and who has helped facilitate his behaviour. Mackichan invests her with the calmness and inner strength of someone who has had to adapt to survive. If only we could have seen more of her story.

Fein is at his most abhorrent in the scene in a hotel room where he creepily attempts to get a young Korean actress Yung Kim Li (Ioanna Kimbrook), to whom he has promised fame and fortune, to watch him shower and masturbate.

Yes, it’s uncomfortable to watch but what’s the play telling us that we don’t know already?

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Photo: Manuel Harlan

After the interval the story falls apart, (spoiler alert) much like Fein’s empire. Mamet, who also directs, lets the menace of the first half give way to the farcical sight of the heavily padded Malkovich rolling on his back unable to get up. A repeated joke about Fein’s mother quickly wears thin. Yung is given little to do and it feels like there could have been so much more to explore with the character of Sondra.

Bitter Wheat’s conclusion feels rushed and leaves a bitter taste. At least there’s no Hollywood ending.

Bitter Wheat is at the Garrick Theatre until 21 September

A Midsummer Night’s Dream review – Bridge Theatre

5 star review

If you go to see this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I can recommend the standing tickets. Yes – your feet might ache a bit, but you come out feeling like you’ve been at a wild party you didn’t want to end.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the beginning: I took my 19 year old son to see this. He’s studying for a degree in Computer Science, and had never seen a Shakespeare. There was an element of risk.

But he’s also a massive Game of Thrones fan, so his reaction to the sight of GoT’s statuesque Gwendoline Christie encased in a glass box as we walked into the pit was worth the ticket price alone.

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It’s an inspired piece of casting. Christie makes an imposing Hippolyta, the captured queen of the Amazons, and a magical Titania, queen of the fairies.

It’s also fun seeing Brienne of Tarth dressed up like a nun.

The early scenes are deliberately drab and make the explosion of music and acrobatics as the action shifts to the forest all the more dramatic. The set is ever-changing, with characters and beds gliding in sideways, or rising from the floor and taking flight.

There are sublime performances throughout. Oliver Chris, as Theseus/Oberon, shares several hilarious scenes with Hammed Animashaun’s unforgettable Bottom – one of them in a bathtub. The audience roared.

Not to be outdone, the “rude mechanicals” (they even have it written on their backs) squeeze plenty of laughs out of their Pyramus and Thisbe play-that-goes-wrong.

I also enjoyed the excellent chemistry – and sense of confusion – between the bewitched lovers in the forest: Isis Hainsworth (Hermia), Tessa Bonham Jones (Helena), Paul Adeyefa (Demetrius) and Kit Young (Lysander).

Director Nicholas Hytner takes delightful liberties with Shakespeare’s text, switching key characters, and making inventive use of the magic love juice.

Which brings me to David Moorst’s Puck. I saw Moorst in one of his earliest roles in Violence and Son at the Royal Court many moons ago. It was obvious then he was something special. Here he is simply extraordinary. It’s impossible to take your eyes off his twitchy, shape-shifting Puck.

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There’s a genuine sense of joy in this production. I’ve never seen an audience laugh so much at a Shakespeare play. To say there’s a party atmosphere is something of an understatement.

My son is already planning to go again.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Bridge Theatre until 31 August