West End theatre shows on now
Sheila (Claire Skinner) has two kids. One is Joe (Storme Toolis), her severely disabled 15-year-old daughter. The other is Bri (Toby Stephens), the middle-aged schoolteacher and amateur painter she married. Peter Nichols’s semi-autobiographical play about the family shows the offbeat style of humour Bri and, to a lesser extent, Sheila have developed to cope with providing 24-hour care to Joe since the day she was born. It premiered in 1967 and, if anything, the jokes probably sound more shocking now than they did then. It’s noticeable that the audience often respond more with awkward tittering or nervous half-laughs than booming LOLs. In many ways, that’s entirely fitting. Nichols’ work is really about the strangeness of humour. In particular, the way it was used to cover up emotion for a generation of men post-war who were encouraged to preserve the British stiff upper lip at all costs. As the wisecracking father, Stephens makes Bri a goofy man-child with an uncomfortably tense edge, like he’s on the verge of losing it and smashing all the crockery if you don’t howl at his next punch line. Along with covering everything up with a joke, Bri is intensely needy. He vies for his wife’s attention constantly, including creating petty jealousies about her pre-marital sex life and any bloke she now comes into contact with. There’s a lot that’s interesting about ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’. But Simon Evans’s production is oddly unsatisfying. The stakes never feel that high
‘Big the Musical’ is woefully adequate: ticking every box you’d expect for a big-budget stage adaptation of an ’80s screen comedy, but doing so with a can’t-be-arsed listlessness. It passes every basic requirement, but with a C-. It may be ‘Big’, but it is not clever.David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr’s show dates all the way back to 1996 – just eight years after the Tom Hanks movie – when it flopped hard on Broadway, albeit with five Tony nominations to its name. Now, 23 years on, it finally hits the West End for a limited run in a Theatre Royal Plymouth production that’s been bubbling around for a couple of years now.Anyway, you know the basic deal. Josh Baskin is a 12-year-old from the New Jersey suburbs who happens across a haunted arcade machine that asks him for his wish: he wishes to be a grown-up. The next morning he wakes up with the body of a 30-year-old man, freaks his mum out a bit, then rapidly stumbles into an improbably successful job working for a toy company, attracting the affections of his co-worker Susan on the way.The single biggest problem with ‘Big’ is that it has almost no dramatic tension. After becoming an adult, Josh has a wonderful time, everything works out brilliantly for him, and he’s thoroughly untroubled by his situation. Where Tom Hanks persuasively pulled off the trick of seeming like an actual child careening wildly through the horror and wonder of his situation, Jay McGuiness’s Josh looks like an affable teddy bear whose strategy for making
Musicals don’t come much more low-key, wholesome or Canadian than ‘Come from Away’. Writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein cook up the straightforward world of the Newfoundland town of Gander using a very straightforward set of ingredients. The cast wear sensible shoes and lumberjack shirts. They tramp across a wood-decked stage that evokes the huge skies of their tiny island. They sing their way through a set of folk-tinged songs that tell stories of the five days after 9/11, when 38 planes made emergency landings on the island’s huge, disused airstrip. And it’s all totally, soul-feedingly wonderful. ‘Come from Away’ has been a massive sleeper hit across North America, Broadway included, and it’s easy to see why: it mixes down-home authenticity with the desperate intensity that comes in times of crisis. This is a moment where 7,000 temporary arrivals join a community of just 9,000 people. Logistics might not be the sexiest of topics for a musical, but one of the many surprising joys of this show is how gripping it makes things like the struggle to rustle up transport at a time when the local school bus drivers were on strike and had to be coaxed into crossing the picket line. Then there are beds, food, medication and interpreters to be sourced for passengers from across the world: one non-English-speaking couple communicates by cross-referencing Bible verses. Based closely on interviews with real Newfoundlanders, this is a picture of a community that stretches itself to bre
The Royal Ballet's big Autumn triple bill shows off three works by choreographers who've defined the company's history. First up, 'Concerto' is an austere piece by contemporary master Kenneth MacMillan. Then, 'Enigma Variations' is a distinctly British work by Frederick Ashton, staged in period costumes. Finally, Russian legend Pepita's 'Raymonda Act III' offers a one act schooling in ballet tradition.
‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ is a burst of joy in the heart of the West End. This new British musical, transferring from the Sheffield Crucible, is the real deal. Watch out, tired revivals: there’s a new kid in town. Inspired by a 2011 BBC documentary about a teenager who wanted to be a drag queen, the show follows 16-year-old Jamie on his journey to be himself – out of a classroom in a working-class part of Sheffield, away from the bigotry of a deadbeat dad, and into high heels. Director Jonathan Butterell’s production is a high-impact blaze of colour, combining video projections with seamless scene changes and a live band above the stage. It captures the frenetic energy of being a teenager. Every element of this show works beautifully together. The music, by The Feeling frontman Dan Gillespie Sells, is a deft mix of irresistibly catchy, pop-honed foot-tappers – try not to hum ‘And You Don’t Even Know It’, I dare you – and truthful, heart-wrenching numbers. This is Sells’s first foray into writing for musicals, but he’s always excelled at telling stories in song. He is matched by the show’s writer and lyricist Tom MacRae. Apart from notable exceptions like Punchdrunk’s ‘Doctor Who’-themed kids’ show ‘The Crash of Elysium’, he’s largely written for TV, but this works well here. His dialogue is punchy, funny and often lands with a sting. While most of the characters exist to orbit Jamie, they still have their own stories and these are crisply told. As Pritti, Jamie’
Almost 40 years since the original film, 37 since the TV show, and 31 since the theatrical version was first staged, it increasingly looks like ‘Fame’ really might live forever. The stage musical is now back in theatres with a slick, suitably energetic production. It follows the pupils at the High School of Performing Arts in New York, as they’re taught to sing, dance and act their way to stardom – finding their true selves along the way. Nick Winston’s choreography is absolutely on the money: pert, sprightly and a blast to watch. But the story hasn’t exactly got better with age. Loosely woven around three couples, the plot feels virtually non-existent in the first half and descends into mawkishness in the second. The will-they-won’t-they romantic trials of these talented teens – all hard-working, hard-bodied and hard with ambition – nonetheless feels fairly aimless for much of the show. Then there’s a sudden lurch after the hot-headed Carmen (Stephanie Rojas) quits school and follows a sleazy agent to LA – and gets punished for being too impatient for celebrity with a quickly cooked up descent into drug addiction. There are also storylines about a dancer who can’t stop eating, and a young black man from the ’hood who’s unable to read, which have all the subtlety of… well, of a 1980s children’s TV show. But while the earnest theatre majors might spout lessons from Stanislavski and Chekhov dialogue, no-one’s really here for the drama: ‘Fame’ is all about belting tunes and d
Caryl Churchill is by far the greatest playwright working in the English language today. Sometimes that makes reviewing her a bit of a pain. Her latest, ‘Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.’ is a virtuoso quartet of plays that will probably take years to digest fully, in which her almost supernatural powers of language remain entirely undimmed. That said, in a vague, futile attempt to offer up some critical perspective here, it’s probably not the out-and-out masterpiece that her last play for the Royal Court, 2016’s ‘Escaped Alone’ was. But like pretty much everything she does, it is a remarkable work, so maybe let’s just agree that as a starting point and move on. As the title suggests, it comprises four pieces. The first three are short, the last (‘Imp’) is fairly long. All of them are linked by a fascination with myths and stories: be it the prissy Greek gods in ‘Kill’, or the surreal Shakespeare-related anecdotes that Toby Jones’s excruciating uncle character Jimmy keeps coming out with in ‘Imp’. Following ‘Glass’, an unsettling portrait of adolescence that revolves around a doomed girl made out of glass, and ‘Kill’, in which Tom Mothersdale’s amusingly pernickety Gods drones his way though the bloodiness of Greek mythology while disassociating himself from it (‘we can enjoy a war, we don’t exist’), the first half reaches its most incisive and decipherable point with ‘Bluebeard’s Friends’. Set at a sort of endless series of half-implied dinner parties, it follows a quartet
The members of Mischief Theatre could presumably have all retired at 30 on the proceeds of their sleeper smash ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’, the sparky backstage farce that’s been ensconced in the West End for five years.In fact, the core company – who’ve been together for 11 years, since they met at drama school – have noticeably failed to rest on their laurels. When they’ve not been busy breaking America with their first hit, they’ve found the time to produce seasonal variant ‘Peter Pan Goes Wrong’ and stand-alone smash ‘The Comedy About a Bank Robbery’, while Penn & Teller collab ‘Magic Goes Wrong’ will be with us in the new year.They’re a genuinely heartening success story with an impressive work ethic and it’s a real shame that their new play ‘Groan Ups’ is fairly dreadful.The group have absolutely nailed the whole posh-people-getting-flustered-at-stuff-breaking thing, but ‘Groan Ups’ – which follows a group of five friends from primary school to adulthood – feels like their attempt to do a ‘proper’ play, and fairly brutally exposes their weaknesses.In the first half of Kirsty Patrick Ward’s production, the adult performers play children, first aged around six, then around 13 (weirdly they seem to be at the same school for all of this). Now I can confirm that children can be pretty funny, but the dialogue here suggest Mischief are aware what children are but have never met any. An opening sequence in which the class make an inadvertently smutty presentation about their wee
Okay, let’s just get this out of the way. ‘Hamilton’ is stupendously good. Yes, it’s kind of a drag that there’s so much hype around it. But there was a lot of hype around penicillin. And that worked out pretty well. If anything – and I’m truly sorry to say this – Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the US Treasury, is actually better than the hype suggests. That’s because lost in some of the more waffly discourse around its diverse casting and sociological import is the fact that ‘Hamilton’ is, first and foremost, a ferociously enjoyable show. You probably already know that it’s a hip hop musical, something that’s been tried before with limited success. Here it works brilliantly, because Miranda – who wrote everything – understands what mainstream audiences like about hip hop, what mainstream audiences like about musical theatre, and how to craft a brilliant hybrid. Put simply, it’s big emotions and big melodies from the former, and thrilling, funny, technically virtuosic storytelling from the latter. ‘Alexander Hamilton’, the opening tune, exemplifies everything that’s great about the show. It’s got a relentlessly catchy build and momentum, a crackling, edge-of-seat sense of drama, and is absolutely chockablock with information, as the key players stride on to bring us up to speed with the eventful life that Hamilton – the ‘bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman’ – led before he emigrated to America in 1772 as a teenager
Not every aspiring playwright gets their debut performed on the National Theatre’s Lyttelton stage. But actor Simon Woods has. And while I suppose that’s pretty much vindicated by the fact ‘Hansard’ is mostly sold out already – admittedly probably something to do with it starring Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan – it certainly has a certain what I might politely call a ‘first playishness’ to it. The year is 1988, the setting is the large Cotswolds home of Tory MP Robin Hesketh (Jennings) and his – ooer! – left-wing wife Diana (Duncan). He spends a lot of time away on parliamentary – and possibly ‘extra-parliamentary’, wink wink – business. She is angry, bored and drinks a lot. The first hour or so (of under 90 minutes) is basically ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ with the subtlety surgically removed and replaced by laboured ‘80s political references. I found it fairly stressful: Robin and Diana simply tear smiling strips off each other for the whole time, in a reasonably witty but very unrealistic depiction of a marriage that has foundered into exposition-heavy, not-even-that-passive aggression. Though horrible to each other, they are not necessarily horrible people. And Woods’s relatively sympathetic portrait of Robin does have something going for it: how can an essentially decent man vote for something as monstrous as Section 28? It’s an intriguing question about our recent history – even if ‘Hansard’ feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to write a play that reflec
In the unlikely event you were worried a leap to the stage for JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series would result in it becoming aggressively highbrow, self-consciously arty or grindingly bereft of magical high jinks, just chill the hell out, muggle. ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ is an absolute hoot, a joyous, big-hearted, ludicrously incident-packed and magic-heavy romp that has to stand as one of the most unrelentingly entertaining things to hit the West End. Writer Jack Thorne, director John Tiffany and a world-class team have played a blinder; if the two-part, five-hour-plus show is clearly a bit on the long side, it’s forgivable. ‘The Cursed Child’ emphatically exists for fans of Harry Potter, and much of its power derives from the visceral, often highly emotional impact of feeling that you’re in the same room as Rowling’s iconic characters. There’s also a sense that this story of wizards and witches is being treated with the respect its now substantially grown-up fanbase craves. No disrespect to D-Rad and chums, but the leads here are in a different acting league to their film counterparts’: Jamie Parker and Alex Price are superb as battered, damaged, middle-aged versions of old enemies Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy. Sam Clemmett and Anthony Boyle are a fine, puppyish, sympathetic engine to the play as their awkward sons Albus and Scorpius, trying to escape their parents’ shadows. It is a bit of a sausage (wand?) fest in terms of the lead parts, although in the mos
Effectively An Audience With National Treasure Sir Ian McKellen, this solo show is a big, brash, old-fashioned night in which the octogenarian acting legend discusses his life, rattles through his greatest hits, and shows off a lot. True, there are no celebrity guests, but he does bring out Gandalf the Grey’s actual sword Glamdring (well, the actual prop), which is treated like a bigger star than its owner by a swooning audience member invited up to give it a heft. In many ways it’s cheesy as hell… but frankly, that’s what’s so good about it. McKellen marked his eightieth birthday by taking ‘Ian McKellen on Stage’ on an 80-date tour of the UK and Ireland, which he’s now following up with an 80-date West End run. You don’t do that if you’ve fallen out of love with the world, and the entire joyously rambling three hours speaks of a life extremely well lived. Although long established as a stage great, McKellen came late to superstardom, via Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ films. He is not precious about this: he literally starts the show with a run-through of Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog. It’s the very definition of giving the audience what they want. It’s also a smart piece of structuring: it begins things at a clip, and it gets the least humorous material out of the way with first. Because McKellen is a very amusing man, and much as he has some serious things to tell us – about his formative love of theatre, about his regret about spending so much time in th
Keen-eyed readers may notice that this review of the laboriously entitled ‘Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds: The Immersive Experience’ is in fact a re-review: a misunderstanding led to our first writer being invited down before the VR elements of the show were working, so I agreed to write about it again.Anyway. ‘JWMVoTWoTWTIE’ is a VR-augmented immersive theatre show that straddles two iconic properties: HG Wells’s seminal 1897 sci-fi novel ‘The War of the Worlds’, and Wayne’s 1978 prog rock album inspired by it, which has gone on to be an enduringly popular live spectacle complete with puppet Martian war machine and – in some iterations – a holographic Liam Neeson.The album’s spoken word sections offer a divergent telling of Wells’s story, with different characters and a more fragmented plot. Given the task of turning it into a coherent narrative is dotdotdot, a company specialising in tech-enhanced immersive theatre who had a hit last year with their show ‘Somnai’. Their job is to immerse us in Wells’s serious-minded alien invasion story, while incorporating Wayne’s campier embellishments: the characters, the kitschy steampunk art and – of course – the musical anthems.It doesn’t exactly work. But it’s quite good fun. Sent into the experience in small staggered groups, most of the interactions with human actors we encounter are on the comic side, meaning there can be some weird shifts in tone when the show remembers it’s supposed to be scary. At the sta
Duncan Macmillan’s brilliant linguistically experimental two-hander about a couple freaking out over the prospect of having a baby was first seen on the London stage in the tiny pop-up Roundabout Theatre back in 2012. Now, in its first major revival in the capital it goes a little bigger than that: Matthew Warchus’s production will run for a very limited season at the Old Vic, and will star Claire Foy and Matt Smith, in rather different roles to those fans of ‘The Crown’ will be used to.
Magic Mike on stage feels a bit like dating in London in my thirties: all the young, hot people got it on while I sat on the sidelines. But as a voyeur at this expensive strip-meets-cabaret show, there was some serious titillation: pains are taken to remind you that it has very much been made with the female gaze in mind. The romp unfolds in a faux-club built in Leicester Square’s already-slightly-seedy (in a good way) Hippodrome Casino, based upon the Xquisite strip joint from Steven Soderbergh’s surprise 2012 cinematic smash. The movie’s star Channing Tatum – whose IRL undressing escapades originally informed the film’s plot – is behind this theatrical reimagining, with London the second destination of ‘Magic Mike Live’ following a hugely successful run in Vegas. But it’s important to note that co-director Tatum (who, alas, merely lends his voice to the performance) has worked with a gender-balanced team and the sense that this is a safe space for women enshrouds the entire show, despite it being filled with semi-naked men. The plot (in the loosest sense) centres on Michelangelo – Mike to you – a waiter plucked from the crowd and trained in showing a woman a (consensual) good time by our female emcee, played by actor Sophie Linder-Lee. She sounds a bit like Jane Horrocks and makes a lot of jokes about ‘jizz’ and the tightness of her own vagina. Most of the ladies pulled to the stage for some public gyration were mega hot (so hot, it almost felt like they’d been planted
Judy Craymer's bold idea of turning the insanely catchy songs of ABBA into a musical has paid off splendidly, in every sense – box office figures for 'Mamma Mia!' are as eye-watering as its outfits. This is largely because Catherine Johnson had the sense to weave the 1970s into her script, and director Phyllida Lloyd to cast accordingly. Heroine Donna Sheridan lived the free love dream (if only because her boyfriend ran out on her), wound up pregnant and survived to see her daughter, Sophie, reject all her principles in favour of a white wedding and the kind of certainty that comes from knowing which of your mother's three consecutive lovers ought to be walking you down the aisle. If you wanted to, you could see this as a conversation about feminism. But you'll look pretty silly debating patriarchal oppression while on your feet clapping to 'Dancing Queen'. Some of the songs are oddly static, but when the choreography does get going – for instance, when Donna's friend Tanya stylishly quashes a libidinous local puppy in 'Does Your Mother Know?' – it's terrific, and makes great use of props: I wonder if the producers can assure us that no electric drills or hairdryers were harmed in the making of this musical? The current cast appear to have been chosen more for their singing voices than their serious acting ability. But who needs dramatic conviction when you have purest pop to do the convincing for you? Given the songs, a story just about solid enough to stay upright on its
For the price of a ticket to ‘Mamma Mia! The Party’, an immersive Abba-themed dinner experience set in a ropey taverna on an idyllic Greek island, you could fly out to an actual idyllic Greek island and probably find a ropey taverna playing Abba songs.Okay, there are some practical reasons why you probably wouldn’t do that on a school night. And sure, it’s not like these are the only expensive theatre tickets in town. But the fact is most London theatre shows have a bottom price of £15 or thereabouts; ‘Mamma Mia! The Party’ starts ten times higher than that.Of course, dinner theatre is a somewhat different game to theatre theatre. And the fact is that there are plenty of people who can afford it: the London debut of ‘Mamma Mia! The Party’ is a roaring sellout success already. Masterminded by Abba’s Björn Ulvaeus, it’s an established hit back in Stockholm. Which is not really a surprise: people love Abba, and ‘Mamma Mia! The Party’, though not formally affiliated to ‘Mamma Mia!’ (the blockbuster musical), is pretty much the same idea, except with the plot mostly replaced by food. After a prodigious wait to get in, we’re spirited away to an attractive, convivial mock-up of a taverna on the island of Skopelos, where the ‘Mamma Mia!’ movie was filmed. The wittiest touch of the whole production is to make it ‘post’ the film: the walls are bedecked with dodgy mocked-up Polaroids of the cast of the show posing with Meryl Streep et al, and the wafer-thin plot revolves around the pre
For much of its running time, this revival of the great Athol Fugard’s play ‘"Master Harold"... and the Boys’ feels almost disconcertingly gentle. Middle-of-the-road, even. We are used to plays about apartheid-era South Africa being harrowing and bleak, dark reminders of a shameful chapter from the past. For an hour or more, Fugard’s 1982 hit – set in a Port Elizabeth tea room in 1950 – is warm and graceful. I struggled a bit with the exact point of a smattering of wife-beating jokes at the start. Mostly, it’s nice, a portrait of two black workers at the tea room – Lucian Msamati’s smart, kind, middle-aged Sam and Hammed Animashaun’s dopey younger Willie – as they practice their ballroom dance steps for an upcoming regional championship. Eventually they’re joined by Hally (Anson Boon), the bright, awkward 17-year-old son of the tea room’s white owners. Sam, who has worked for the family for years, has become something of a surrogate father to Hally, who has a fraught relationship with his real father, who is a drunk. There is a slight edge to the trio’s interactions – Hally’s mood is all over the place. But really, the first two-thirds of Roy Alexander Weise’s production has the straightforward, old-time elegance of Shelley Maxwell’s ballroom choreography. It perhaps doesn’t take an apartheid scholar to work out that eventually there is a falling out along racial lines. I’ll be vague, given that we’re basically talking about the final half-hour of the show, but what a stun
Christopher Gluck's stately 18th century opera opens the ENO's season of takes on the Orpheus myth. 'Orpheus and Eurydice' will mix distinguished musical stylings with unbuttoned dance scenes, choreographed by contemporary ballet master Wayne McGregor. Alice Coote will take the role of Orpheus (which was originally written for a castrato) opposite Sarah Tynan as Eurydice.
Comic opera master Offenbach's playful take on the Orpheus myth is set in the Underworld, where an obnoxious array of gods party in style. Perfect fodder for director Emma Rice, who's made her name with shows that are packed full of fun and whimsy. 'Orpheus in the Underworld' is also famous for originating the 'Can-can' dance, so expect to see a high-kicking chorus line or two. Ed Lyon and Mary Bevan play the central romantic pairing.
'Peter Pan' transfers to Troubadour White City Theatre in July 2019. This review is from its 2016 premiere at the National Theatre There's a kind of melancholy embedded in JM Barrie's 'Peter Pan'. It's a story that's perched, anxiously, on a window ledge, between domestic comfort and rip-roaring adventure. Sally Cookson's gloriously confident adaptation takes a step out and soars.First staged in 2012, her revised version rampages across the Olivier Theatre's vast stage. Peter Pan's pirate adversaries are led by a bloodthirsty female Hook - Anna Francolini might have stepped in at the last minute (to replace an injured Sophie Thompson), but she wields her iron appendage with abandon, mixing ferocity with knee-wobbling existential terrors. Time's ticking crocodile is on her trail. Around her, the all-adult cast transform from Lost Boys, huddled in knitwear and clutching teddies, to furious pirates in the bloodiest kind of red Breton stripes.But before we get to the gory bits, Cookson makes sure we really care about the relationships at the heart of the story. Madeleine Worrall's performance as Wendy is especially wonderful. She's full of childlike wonder and pettiness, bickering with her brothers John and Michael. And that makes it extra poignant when the Lost Boys of Neverland try to trap her into mothering them - she fights furiously, at first, before settling into endless games of Mummies and Daddies.But then, Cookson's play always has one foot in the adults' camp. Instead
‘Six’ returns to Arts Theatre in January 2019. This review is from August 2018. ‘Remember us from your GCSEs?’ It’s Henry VIII’s six wives – and they’ve back, bitch, to re-tell ‘her-story’ as a slick, sassy girl band. Think Euro-pop remixes of ‘Greensleeves’, Anne Boleyn spouting tweenage text-speak (‘everybody chill/it’s totes God’s will’), and K-Howard warbling #MeToo tales of gropey employers. ‘Hamilton' looms large here, and although ‘Six’ has its own moments of clever-clever hip-hop rhymes, it’s a tough comparison: this musical started life as a student show (Cambridge, obvs). But its creators, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, have succeeded in crafting almost brutally efficient pastiche pop songs – here a ballad, there a ballsy, blinging R&B number – performed with snappy dance routines by a talented, diverse cast (and all-female band). Since inception the show seems to have been given a good lick of gloss, too; it stands up in the West End. But beneath its super-shiny surface, ‘Six’ is totes vacuous. And so basic in its feminism that it’s hard to believe it’s written by, like, actual Millennials. The whole thing is staged as a deeply unsisterly competition, each wife getting a song in which to prove they’re the biggest victim, the one who suffered the most at Henry’s hands. This is treated weirdly as comedy though, OTT shrieks and snarks escalating until they’re actually in a catfight, pulling each other’s hair. Several of the wives are characterised as dim and ditzy;
One of the biggest feathers in the Rufus Norris-era National Theatre’s cap is that the Dorfman has become the London home for the works of the brilliant American playwright Annie Baker. Following ‘The Flick’ and ‘John’, here comes ‘The Antipodes’. It premiered off-Broadway a couple of years back, but the NT’s production is notably distinguished by the fact Baker herself co-directs, alongside designer Chloe Lamford– suggesting a much more aesthetcially eccentric style than the previous two. The play itself is by all accounts her most cryptic to date, following a group of people locking into a bizarre, seemingly endless brainstormiong session.
If you’re a plucky producer hoping to get your new show into the Criterion Theatre, you’re flat out of luck once again. Because less than nine months after 'The 39 Steps' shuttered after almost a decade glowering over Piccadilly Circus, it’s now home to the brand new comedy by Mischief Theatre, which, if there’s any justice in the theatre world, will run for even longer. 'The Comedy About A Bank Robbery' is the latest play by the bogglingly prolific and talented team behind 'The Play That Goes Wrong' (or more accurately the 'Play That Goes Wrong' franchise) and it’s their best and funniest work yet. A genre pastiche, screwball comedy and classic farce that’s as clean and clear as its brassy branding, it spins with a manic energy from Two Ronnies-esque wordplay through surreal set-pieces to slapstick stunts prepped to bring the house down. The story of a bungled jewel heist in a sleepy Minneapolis bank branch, it features a host of hilarious but well-drawn characters who roar across the stage and tumble into disaster after disaster, each one more elegantly drawn than the last. The writers’ ability to snatch a laugh out of every line, and to intricately prime each scenario with zinging punchlines and pay-offs is stunning, as call-backs and running gags pile up into teetering edifices of absurdity. The entire cast is bang on the money, but Mischief Theatre’s own Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer are the standouts as booming bank manager Robin Freeboys and hapless loser (and eter
The posters have been plastered around the London Underground for years – long enough for this show to become the most successful musical of all time – but nothing prepares you for the sheer impact of 'The Lion King's opening sequence. With the surge of 'Circle Of Life' reverberating through your chest, Julie Taymor's animal creations march on, species by species. Gazelles spring, birds swoop and an elephant and her child lumber through the stalls. It's a cacophonous cavalcade that genuinely stops you breathing. You'd think Noah's Ark had emptied onto the stage. For a global blockbuster, 'The Lion King's absolute theatricality is astonishing. Techniques from all over the world – African masks, Japanese Kabuki costumes, Malaysian shadow puppetry – are smashed together in an explosion of spectacle. It's perfect for a musical, allowing both distinct flavours and an eclectic carnival spirit. Admittedly, things deflate when it sacrifices this defiant originality for subservient approximation of the film. Timon and Pumba (Damian Baldet and Keith Bookman), though impressively like their screen counterparts, step into the savannah from a different dimension. The hyena-infested elephant's graveyard swaps menace for goofiness and the famous stampede scene, so delicately handled and moving in the film, is merely ticked off with a sigh of relief. The familiarity of the film is a root cause of the show's commercial success. But, ironically, 'The Lion King' can't afford such compromis
Alexander Mackendrick’s 1951 film about a chemist in a northern mill town who invents an indestructible fabric is a strange piece of atmospheric post-war gothic. Notionally a comedy, it’s dark, melancholy and mainly devoid of lols. Sean Foley’s stage version is bright, upbeat and also mainly devoid of lols. It keeps the ’50s setting, adding skiffle and brothel creepers, sacks off the austerity and dials up the farce to industrial strength. Everyone bellows their lines in generic ‘northern’, there are awkward knob gags and Kara Tointon – as the mill owner’s daughter Daphne – gets to randomly resurrect one of her old ‘Strictly’ routines. It’s single-handedly saved from total crassness by Stephen Mangan. He’s not entirely convincing as idealistic chemist Sidney Stratton but he at least tries to give him a second dimension. He’s a great physical comedian, and is fun in the first half as he blows labs up and his trousers off. Mangan was the silly-ass Bertie in Foley’s much better ‘Jeeves and Wooster’. But Sidney Stratton isn’t a silly ass: he’s an unworldly genius who can’t understand why the owner of a cotton mill and an old woman who does laundry would both be horrified at the prospect of an everlasting, dirt-repelling fabric. ‘The Man in the White Suit’ is a story about how capitalism condemns every link of its food chain to co-dependency. If one fails, they all do, and in the ’50s, the UK’s textile industry was about to be history, taking whole cities down with it. That’s
Harrison Birthwhistle's contemporary take on the Orpheus story took him a whole decade to write; it's got an avant garde, non-linear approach that looks at its protagonists for every angle. Former ENO boss Daniel Kramer is at the helm of this production, the first London revival since it premiered over 30 years ago. His flamboyant take on 'The Mask of Orpheus' includes designs by outlandish costumier Daniel Lismore, who's known for his bold sculptural shapes, and features crystals provided by Swarovcki. Martyn Brabbins will conduct.
I’m not sure any show ‘deserves’ to be the most successful entertainment event of all time, but I’ll hand it current holder of that title, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ – it still works hard for its audience. Sure, chunks of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s opus have never left 1986. But whereas describing a musical as ‘stuck in the ’80s’ is usually shorthand for cheap, thin synth orchestration, nothing could be further from the truth here: the portentously swirling keyboards and crunch of hair metal guitar that powers ‘Phantom’s title song have a black hole-like immensity, sucking you in with sheer juggernaut bombast. Mostly, though, ‘Phantom…’ remains strong because its high production values haven’t been allowed to sag. The late Maria Björnson’s design is a heady barrage of ravishing costumes and lavish sets that change frequently, working in everything from pastoral jollity to an ancient Carthaginian theme on the way to the Phantom’s stunning underground lair. It’s totally OTT – in one scene the Phantom zaps at his nemesis Raul with a staff that fires actual fireballs – and anybody who describes the plot (homicidal lunatic grooms girl) as romantic should probably be put on some sort of register. But its blazingly earnest ridiculousness and campy Grand Guignol story are entirely thrilling when realised with the show’s enormous budget. And while Hal Prince’s production may have been hailed as rather gauche back in the day, in 2013 it all comes across as rather more tasteful than the a
Well you have to admire the chutzpah: the creators of long-running immersive London hit ‘The Great Gatsby’ have followed up with an interactive adptation of Jordan Belfort’s hit memoir ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. It details how the former Wall Street trader made a colossal amount of money in the ’90s while behaving extremely poorly, before being put away for fraud for 22 months and reinventing himself as a motivational speaker. Given Belfort is chiefly famous for making millions while taking monumental amounts of drugs plus breaking the law and being jailed, it will be intriguing to see exactly what this show involves. Exact details are somewhat opaque at present, but the show will take place in a four storey building in central London that will house a recreation of various locations from the memoir. You can either play an amoral Wall Street trader or an FBI agent, which sounds noticeably less like actual fun. The tickets are pricey but there will be a £10 and £25 day-seats lottery, or VIP packages for people who want to spen Belfort-like levels of cash.
It's been decades since this skillful adaptation of Susan Hill's 1983 Gothic horror story first started setting West End audience a-shiver. 'The Woman in Black' remains perennially popular – particularly, it seems, with generally hard-to-please teenagers – which is testament to its rough-theatre appeal and the extraordinary and enduring potency, not of guts, gore or special effects, but of simple suggestion. Ageing Arthur Kipps is haunted by sinister events that befell him 30 years earlier. In an effort to exorcise his demons, he hires an actor to help him tell his story for an invited audience. As they rehearse, though, their staging itself becomes prey to supernatural visitations from the titular hatchet-faced, whip-thin, funereally garbed woman. Stephen Mallatratt's dramatisation and a deft production by Robin Herford exploit the peculiarly spooky atmosphere of an empty theatre, making us, as an audience, feel almost like spectral voyeurs. And the chills are irresistibly effective: swirling fog, a creaking rocking chair, a locked door, a pale visage looming out of the gloom. Only occasionally does the staging show its age. The projected image of the gaunt, sinister house of Kipps' tormented memory looks hopelessly cheap and crude, and a graveyard conjured with dust sheets struggles to convince, even within the low-tech aesthetic parameters of the piece. Yet the shrieks and gasps that greet the performance demonstrate that, even in the twenty-first century, this doughty
Step inside the Lyric foyer and you'll be greeted by a gleaming Michael Jackson memorial. Enter the auditorium and you'll find another in 'Thriller', a shining homage to The King of Pop. This is a sparkling, singing and shimmying conveyor belt of more than 30 of Jackson's greatest hits. It's a bit like watching an extended episode of 'The X Factor' – except the performers are actually very good and they've all picked Jacko. What really hits home in this jubilant jukebox show, which recently celebrated its thousandth performance, is the range of repertoire available. 'Thriller' is a reminder of Michael Jackson's versatility and the unique gloss he lent to pop, rock, dance and even the ballad. 'Heal the World' is crooned by a throng of suitably seraphic kids, 'Beat It' is blasted into the gods and a silver-gloved groover glides majestically through 'Smooth Criminal'. The show, held together by the loosest of narratives, begins with a selection of Jackson 5 numbers. These earlier songs are among the best of the night: pure, funky, relatively simple and uniformly upbeat. Salient facts are flashed furiously across the screens (750 million records sold worldwide!) and the show segues into Jackson's solo career. Some of these later songs are terrifyingly idiosyncratic – made and moulded for the man himself – and the lead vocalists struggle with the quirkier numbers, such as 'Jam' and 'Dirty Diana'. But it is the dancing that dazzles, no more so than Michael Duke's confident and w
Is a feelgood jukebox musical the absolute best medium to tell a story about domestic abuse? Put crudely, that is the problem at the heart of big-budget global premiere ‘Tina – The Tina Turner Musical’. The erstwhile Anna Mae Bullock’s eventful life and beloved back catalogue are perfect subjects for adaptation. But too often Phyllida Lloyd’s production struggles to make a sensitive synthesis of the two.Where ‘Tina’ undoubtedly succeeds is in the casting of its lead. Broadway performer Adrienne Warren is virtually unknown over here, but it’s instantly apparent why she was tapped up for this. She doesn’t so much imitate Turner as channel her: her technically dazzling but achingly world-weary gale of a voice feels like it should be coming out of a woman decades, if not centuries, older. And while Warren doesn’t really look anything like Turner, she perfectly captures that leggy, rangy, in-charge physicality. From a musical standpoint, she virtually carries the show, singing nigh-on every song and even giving us an encore at the end.Almost as good is heavyweight Brit actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who brings a demonic charisma to the role of Ike Turner. Tina’s abusive bandleader and husband is monstrous in his self-pitying, manipulative rage, but it’s not hard to see the appeal of his raw wit and powerful sense of certainty. It is a deadly serious performance.But the talented creative team of director Lloyd and writer Katori Hall never really crack the correct way to use their lea
Backwoods Barbie, rhinestone queen and all-round country music legend Dolly Parton has her glittering fingerprints all over this musical. She’s written all the songs, bar the iconic title track, especially for the show (this definitely isn’t a jukebox affair). She’s basically in it, as thinly disguised poodle-coiffed doppelgänger Doralee. And in case this escaped you, Parton pops up in video footage to introduce this whole bonkers confection to an audience of mad-keen fans. ‘9 to 5’ is a musical theatre version of the 1980 movie of the same name, which involves Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda running round an office and outwitting their dastardly male boss. And although this show started out in LA in 2005, it feels (shudder) pretty post-Weinstein, with its uncompromising focus on male shitness and violent retribution. Doralee (Natalie McQueen) can’t so much as climb a stepladder without her sleazy boss theatrically ogling her – and climbing any kind of career ladder is out of the question. Meanwhile Judy (Amber Davies, of ‘Love Island’ fame) is struggling to get to grips with some delightfully ’80s office tech, including a malevolent photocopier that attacks her with sheets of paper. And Violet – played by Caroline Sheen, subbing in for an injured Louise Redknapp who returns to the role next month – is a natural leader who’s longing for the promotion she deserves. The plot, when it shows up, is about as ridiculous as these women’s ultra-glam interpretation of ‘office wea
'Translations' returns to the National Theatre in October 2019. This review is from 2018. Ropey ‘Macbeth’ aside, the National Theatre’s mercurial Olivier has been crushing it vis-à-vis revivals lately. Hot on the heels of ‘Follies’ and ‘Amadeus’ comes this fine take on the late Brian Friel’s 1980 masterpiece, ‘Translations’. In a way, Friel’s play about a British Ordnance Survey expedition’s attempts to map and translate the place names of a rural slice of Donegal in 1833 is so rock solid that it’s tempting to think all director Ian Rickson needs to do is make sure his cast know their lines and point them in the right direction. Its great conceit is a deceptively simple linguistic trick. As the play opens, in the hedge school run by intense, earnest teacher Manus (Seamus O’Hara) and his loquacious, self-mythologising father Hugh (Ciarán Hinds), we see a group of locals sitting around discussing Ancient Greek and Latin literature. Ten or so minutes in, it’s revealed that the ‘English’ they’re speaking is, in fact, Gaelic; when a contingent of British engineers led by Adetomiwa Edun’s Lieutenant Yolland show up, the entire cast continue to speak in English, but the two nationalities can’t understand each other (the Irish are further bemused that the British can’t speak Latin or Greek). It is a brilliant idea: understated enough that Friel can use it to deftly tell a bilingual story without surtitles or whatnot, but much deeper in its symbolism. It’s poignant that the Irish
Nancy Harris was inspired to write this play after seeing images of Melania Trump and Brigitte Macron standing awkwardly near their husbands. ‘Two Ladies’ certainly cleaves close: the glamorous Sophia, our American First Lady, might be Croatian, and Helen, the French president’s wife, might be British – but they’re still recognisable portraits. Which I suppose lends a frisson, albeit a fairly cheap one. The idea of dramatising such women, who are so close to power, and examining whether or not they wield it themselves, is fruitful. But if the first half is a static, talky piece, Harris’s play takes some unearned and unconvincing swerves that ultimately feel faintly ridiculous. Zoë Wanamaker is always hugely watchable as Helen: sharp, a little tetchy, dryly sarcastic; Zrinka Cvitešić coolly inhabits the initially glassily closed off, and later fiery, Sophia. Their ping-ponging dialogue can be snappy (‘we’re just women with tiny handbags and big husbands’), and both do potent, detailed work with their big emotional speeches. But Harris hampers them by limiting the action to real-time in a single room. The women make a dramatic entrance – Sophia’s sexy white suit covered in animal blood, thrown by a protester. They must hole up for safety in a bland conference centre room while their other halves potentially change the course of history. The American president wants support for military action, following terrorist attacks, which Helen believes her liberal husband will refuse.
There’s a lot of big talk around ‘Variant 31’. It’s billed as an incredibly complex fear-fest, as close as you’ll get to gaming IRL, so much so that its opening was pushed back twice. And since 90 percent of my friends refused to join me prior to my visit (wimps), surely, I thought, this had to be good. And by good, I mean shit-your-pants terrifying. As we approached for our midweek slot, green lights shone through the windows with a menacing glare. Smoke bellowed from the tattered New Oxford Street building complex it’s housed in, congealing with blobs of rain and fogging up the street below. It would have been creepy if we hadn’t been waiting out there for 45 minutes while it ran behind schedule. Still, once you’re inside things ramp up. Sour-faced ‘lab staff’ thrust you into hi-tech gear – a light-up military vest with a pretend gun. Then a safety briefing happens (goal: collect points by tapping your bracelet on hidden scanners and kill zombies) and then you’re thrown into the belly of the beast, along with a burgeoning dose of hyper-vigilance. There’s a husk of a plot here. A (not so) brilliant scientist has concocted a serum to reanimate the dead. What could go wrong? Well, everything, it turns out – because his experiment went tits up and now the undead are gonna getcha. Oooooo. But despite the actors putting up a good fight (often having more fun with their elaborate deaths than we do), things are mostly one-note. Your actions don’t seem to make any difference,
Lucie Jones has now taken over from Katharine McPhee in the role of Jenna in 'Waitress'. Blake Harrison and Ashley Roberts have also joined the cast as Ogie and Dawn. The specials board in the diner in ‘Waitress’ advertises a bacon and blueberry pie. Most of the pies in Diane Paulus’s Broadway-conquering show are allegorical: their lurid lists of ingredients are flights of fancy in the mind of Katharine McPhee’s titular heroine Jenna, a pie-making prodigy who dreams of escaping her abusive marriage. However, as far as I can tell, the show is serious about the bacon and blueberry one. Bacon. Blueberry. Individually these are reasonable things, but with apologies to American readers, I cannot conceive why anybody in their right mind would even put them on the same level of the fridge, let alone lock them inside a pastry crust. Similarly, ‘Waitress’ is made from the very finest ingredients, but often they don’t actually feel like ingredients that should have been put together. Adapted from Adrienne Shelly’s cult 2007 indie flick of the same name, ‘Waitress’ is a moving musical full of flawed, morally compromised characters of the sort you so rarely get in this type of glossy Broadway show. Everyone, on some level, lets us or themselves down: indeed, the big showstopper, ‘She Used to Be Mine’ – delivered with exquisitely controlled sorrow by McPhee – is Jenna’s bitter ode to her disappointment in herself. There are no heroes here: not Jenna, not her hunky gynaecologist lov
‘War Horse’ will run at the Troubador Theatre Wembley Park in October 2019. This review is from 2012 and the show's now-ended West End run. The National Theatre's 'War Horse' has become ubiquitous. The toast of the West End and Broadway, as I write this it's sold out at the New London Theatre for the next two months – by contrast, you can book to see 'Matilda' next week. Its enormous success has negated the impact of Arts Council funding cuts on the NT, to the extent that the show has started to be singled out by some commentators as an example of 'safe' post-credit crunch programming. And, of course, there's the Steven Spielberg film, a curious affair sparked by the director's genuine love of the play, in which he gives Michael Morpurgo's 1982 a lavish screen treatment that has everything bar the one thing that made the play so special in the first place. That is, of course, Handspring's astonishing life-size puppets. Skeletally modernist in form but utterly, magically alive thanks to their talented army of puppeteers and Toby Sedgwick's phenomenal choreography, they are the true stars of Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott's production. Without them, Morpurgo's tale of how Devon-dwelling teen Albert Narracott signed up to throw himself into the meat grinder of World War I – in order to track down his beloved horse Joey – would be a likeable, humane, slightly formulaic introduction to the catastrophe of the war. With them, it is something different entirely, a virtuoso spec
The film world continues its love affair with werewolves, vampires and all things 'Twilight'. But theatre types have always known witches are where it's at. After its 2006 opening at Apollo Victoria, Oz prequel 'Wicked' continues to fill this massive theatre with an international crowd of voracious consumers (glass of champagne and a choccy for £16 anyone?). But this stylish and bombastic musical still delivers, sailing over its patchy score thanks to a gravity-defying performance from its current leading lady Rachel Tucker, as the intense green-skinned undergrad who goes on to become the Wicked Witch of the West. 'Wicked' is a spectacle that rises or falls around its central performance. In the midst of a gigantic production full of bangs, bells and whistles Tucker, with her small frame and searing vocal ability, simply flies off with the show. She's closely followed by Gina Beck, who plays good girl, Glinda. Glinda and Elphaba's relationship forms the heart of this story and, as the Good Witch, Beck is a consummate clown, playing up the silliness of her character at every turn. But she can raise a tear, too, and her final duet with Tucker, 'For Good', is genuinely heart-rending. The Tim Burton-inspired ensemble oscillate between the hypnotic and grotesque and a sweet but thin voiced Matt Willis charms as the rather superfluous Prince. As in classical ballet, this is all about the women and, even by previous lead Idina Menzel's standards, they are in soaring form here. T
It wasn’t all about Poirot’s little grey cells or Miss Marple solving murders at the vicarage. In her lifetime, crime writer extraordinaire Agatha Christie wrote 16 plays and a massive 73 novels. Apart from the immortal ‘Mousetrap’, ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ – which Christie adapted in 1953 from an earlier short story – is one of the most famous. Like most of Christie’s work, you can’t say much for fear of ruining the ending. Leonard Vole (a butter-wouldn’t-melt Jack McMullen) is on trial for murdering an older woman who has left everything to him in her will. He insists he’s innocent, but it all rests on the testimony of his wife, Romaine. What will she say on the stand? When Christie adapted her original story, she shifted the focus almost exclusively to the Old Bailey courtroom. Here, Lucy Bailey’s production has the gift of being in the main chamber of London County Hall. Big, austere and grand, it’s the perfect setting for the legal theatrics of Christie’s forensically precise plotting. Some audience members are even addressed as the jury. If the courtroom is a stage, this play is all about performance. Few are as good as Christie at leading us down the garden path, expectations-wise. She constructs her plot like Vole’s barrister, Sir Wilfrid Robarts QC (a charismatic David Yelland), builds his case, before knocking over apparent ‘revelations’ like dominoes. Bailey plays up the melodrama beautifully, in some scenes lighting the judge’s bench like something fro
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