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

Death of a Salesman review – Piccadilly Theatre

5 star review

So many superlatives have already been used to describe this production of Arthur Miller’s classic, originally a hit at the Young Vic, that it seems almost pointless to seek out any more.

Now in the West End, this version – with the Lomans as an African-American family – is one not to be missed. It is poetic, moving and devastating.

At its heart are four stunning performances. Wendell Pierce enthralls as Willy Loman, the salesman of the title for whom the American Dream has remained out of reach. As his wife Linda Loman, Sharon D Clarke crackles with love, anger and grief, and Sope Dirisu and Natey Jones are outstanding as the Loman sons Biff and Happy.

Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell fill the the production with beautiful and subtle directorial touches such the use of silhouettes and as the way the characters sometimes find themselves repeating actions as if they have been transformed into animated gifs. The songs that permeate the story are beautifully handled.

Anna Fleischle’s impressive set, with its floating furniture and window frames, fills the whole play with hallucinatory unease.

On the night I saw this, a scene between Willy and his sons in Act Two was so emotionally charged that a man near me in the stalls spontaneously began to applaud. His solitary clap, ironically, destroyed the moment. But that’s how astounding the acting is in this production.

As the cast received a standing ovation at the end you could see it in their eyes that they know they are part of something very special indeed.

(This review was written after news broke of the ceiling collapse at the Piccadilly Theatre on 6 November. I was at the performance the previous evening. I wish those injured a speedy recovery and hope the production is able to get back to normal as soon as possible.)

Click here for the latest details on Death of a Salesman at the Piccadilly Theatre

 

 

 

The Man in the White Suit review – Wyndham’s Theatre

3 star review

Based on the 1951 Ealing comedy film, this stage adaptation of The Man in the White Suit stars Stephen Mangan as Sidney Stratton, a Cambridge-educated chemist who, while working at a textile mill, develops a fabric that can’t be stained and never wears out.

While writer and director Sean Foley has come up with an inventive and visually impressive production, it’s been cut from so many stylistic cloths that I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was trying too hard to fit everyone.

Foley throws everything into the fast-moving mix: a skiffle band, pyrotechnics, clever stage tricks, a dance number and impressive scene changes. Unfortunately there just aren’t enough big laughs to sew it all together.

The humour lurches from Chuckle Brothers-style lab explosions and fart jokes to satirical swipes about the cheap clothing industry and the now obligatory gags about Brexit. And there’s a sudden moment of violence that seems oddly out of place.

On the plus side Mangan is, as ever, hugely likeable in the role of Stratton and gives his character just the right blend of geekiness, charm and accident-prone enthusiasm, though a running joke about him being Dutch soon wears thin.

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Kara Tointon in The Man in The White Suit (photo: Nobby Clark)

Kara Tointon plays Daphne Birnley, the smart and witty mill owner’s daughter, with an accent so posh that she sounds like a young Margaret Thatcher.

The pair get all the best scenes, including a hair-raising car journey through the countryside and a dance in act two that allows Tointon to show off her Strictly skills.

It’s a shame that Sue Johnston, as Stratton’s friend Mrs Watson, feels so underused.

Michael Taylor’s beautifully detailed set design steals the show. Even the scene transitions earn applause. One minute we are watching the annoyingly chirpy mill workers sinking pints in The Frinley Arms, the next we are in a busy factory full of bubbling and smoking test tubes or the grand interior of Mr Birnley’s mansion.

The songs, by Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink, work well too in establishing the 1950s setting, with the on-stage band led by the impressive Matthew Durkan.

Stratton turns from hero to hate figure when both the factory bosses and the workers realise that his invention is likely to put them out of work, and there’s a wider message here about consumerism and big industry’s control over supply and demand.

But the show’s desire to cram in so much material ends with it feeling like an ill-fitting suit in need of adjustment.

The Man in the White Suit is at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until 11 January 2020