Monthly Archives: December 2014

My picks for 2015

With 2015 only days away, I’ve already got my eye on several shows coming up in 2015:

The Railway Children at King’s Cross Station
16th December 2014 to 6th September 2015
Already in preview at its new specially built home in King’s Cross, I first saw this stage adaptation of E. Nesbit’s famous tale when it was at Waterloo’s old Eurostar terminal.  If the words “My Daddy! Oh my Daddy!” cause you to have something in your eye all of a sudden, you should definitely make time to see the wonderful staging of this enchanting family show.

The Ruling Class at Trafalgar Studios
16th January 2015 to 11th April 2015
James McAvoy returns to the stage as Jack, “a possible paranoid schizophrenic with a Messiah complex, who inherits the title of the 14th Earl of Gurney after his father passes away in a bizarre accident. Singularly unsuited to a life in the upper echelons of elite society, Jack finds himself at the centre of a ruthless power struggle as his scheming family strives to uphold their reputation.” 

The Nether at The Duke of York’s Theatre
30th January 2015 to 25th April 2015
A very well-earned transfer of this exceptional play from its stint at The Royal Court earlier in 2014 – the vast majority of the original cast will be reprising their roles.  Set in the unspecified near future, the script tackles the uneasy subject of how to deal with paedophilia.  It presents the audience with a very real dilemma – yet it never tells you how you should feel about it.  You decide that for yourself.  I will definitely be going back for a second viewing.

The King’s Speech – UK Tour
5th February 2015 to 8th June 2015
This is the stage adaptation of the film which won more awards than you could shake a sceptre at. It had an outing on the West End a few years ago, but it was perhaps timed a little too close to the DVD release for it to fly. This production is starting in Chichester and touring the country from there, with Jason Donovan playing Aussie speech therapist, Lionel Logue. Perhaps now the time is right for this show to return to the stage.

Jason Donovan King's Speech

A View From The Bridge at the Wyndham’s Theatre
10th February 2015 to 11th April 2015
A recommendation from a fellow theatre blogger, Jake Orr.  In his words: “The most breathtaking synergy between direction, design and text I’ve seen in theatre… …Seriously, if you’ve not seen the show it is transferring to the West End in 2015, book now and hold your breathe at the end, you won’t have a choice but to.”  I’m prepared to take it on good faith that it’ll be every bit as amazing as described!

The Producers – UK Tour
6th March 2015 to 11th July 2015
Much as I hate to be swayed by a celebrity cast, I do love Ross Noble (he joins the cast from 18th May). A musical about making the worst musical ever – with songs like Springtime For Hitler is my kinda show.

Gypsy at the Savoy Theatre
28th March 2015 to 25th July 2015
Just about all of my more musically-inclined theatre blogging friends have been raving about this ever since they saw it at the Chichester Festival Theatre.  Again, I’m willing to believe them that this is going to be good.

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The Audience at the Apollo Theatre
21st April 2015 to 25th July 2015
I saw the cinema screening of The Audience starring Helen Mirren – a fantastic play based on the imagined conversations between Her Maj and the Prime Minister du jour.  All 12 of them.  Kristin Scott Thomas takes to the stage in a play which is a fascinating insight into the woman who has the right “to be consulted, to encourage and to warn”.  For those who would happily do away with the monarchy, this play might persuade you that there’s a lot to be said for one piece of continuity that holds fast from one government to the next.

Shakespeare’s Globe New Season
From 23rd April 2015
In a bid to repair the damage done by my English teachers at secondary school and sixth form college (and University, to be honest), I’m slowly working my way through seeing lots of plays at Shakespeare’s Globe in the hope that they’ll be less boring on stage than they were in the classroom.  The Merchant of Venice was the first play I saw when the Globe opened (I was studying it for GCSE, which kind of ruined it) and I’m also looking forward to Measure For Measure, which has some familiar characters like Falstaff, so I’m hoping it’ll be funny rather than the painfully dull chore that it was for A-Level.

You Me Bum Bum Train
Dates to be confirmed
All aboard! YMBBT – one of the greatest immersive theatre companies in existence – have set the wheels in motion for a 2015 show. It’s all very secretive, but reportedly, audience members are sent through one by one into a series of situations which you probably wouldn’t encounter in your everyday life. From driving a JCB digger to conducting an orchestra to leading a dawn raid with armed police, you become the star of the show. What they have lined up this time is a closely guarded secret and the less you know, the better.  Apparently.

Of course there’s loads I want to see – the full list is here.

Top 10 Theatre Shows of 2014

You’re asking me to pick just 10?

I’ve basically binged on theatre this year, totting up over 50 different shows, some with multiple visits. Thank goodness reviewing has permitted me to see a few shows for free (Thank you to Bargain Theatre and #LDNTheatreBloggers for letting me see shows with you/on your behalf and lessening the impact on my bank balance). The vast majority of what I’ve seen this year has been of a really high standard, which has made it hard to choose. I should point out that the ranking on the first few is purely arbitrary – they’ve made it into my top 10 ahead of 3 or 4 other shows that I really really liked.

10. 1984 – Playhouse Theatre
Oh God, this was harrowing. I can’t say it was an enjoyable play to watch, but as a piece of theatre, it was incredible. Every bit as visceral, unnerving and horrifying as I expected it to be. For theatre that moves you to feel something, it doesn’t get much better than this.

9. Ring – Battersea Arts Centre
This was probably the best piece of audio theatre that I’ve experienced this year. This show proves just how heightened your sense of hearing becomes when you’re sitting in complete darkness (and I really do mean complete darkness). It plays tricks with your mind and your perception of the space around you. Definitely worth “seeing” again.

8. Forbidden Broadway – Vaudeville Theatre
Just the right balance between jazz hands and acerbic wit, Forbidden Broadway packs in showtune after showtune, each with new lyrics. If you’d seen the shows in question, it was hilarious – even if you hadn’t, the humour was well pitched for the uninitiated.

7. Good People – Noel Coward Theatre
From the very beginning, Imelda Staunton gave one of the greatest performances on the West End stage. She machine-gunned through her desperate pleas to her boss, barely stopping to draw breath. She was fragile, unlikeable at times, yet funny and sweet. A very complex character, with faults and foibles.

6. The Knight of the Burning Pestle – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Pure Jacobean silliness and my first visit to the breathtakingly beautiful candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. This was a well observed satire about badly behaved audiences, with a good dose of slapstick thrown in. A play outside of a play filled with mirth and mayhem.

5. The Nether – Royal Court
Probably one of the best “this could really happen” plays I’ve seen in recent years. The uncomfortable dilemma of how to deal with paedophiles, brilliantly written and cleverly staged (another incredible set by Es Devlin) – yet it never told you what to think or how to feel. I was stunned into silence for 5 minutes after. A real thinking play.

4. Titus Andronicus – Shakespeare’s Globe
Gloriously gory and wickedly funny, I first saw Lucy Bailey’s production of Titus Andronicus 8 years ago and was thrilled at the prospect of a revival. It didn’t disappoint – the ever accelerating cycle of revenge and politics played out in a mêlée of tit-for-tat violence and careful manoeuvres, all the while, making us laugh at some pretty chilling stuff.

3. The Play That Goes Wrong – Duchess Theatre
A sheer comic delight – everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Things fell to pieces, stuff went missing, people couldn’t get on (or off) the stage… but meanwhile, the cast did everything they could to downplay – and adapt to – the chaos unfolding around them, and valiantly carried on with the show. A fresh take on the old art of coarse acting.

2. Let The Right One In – Apollo Theatre
This was more than just another teen vampire love story – the staging was exceptional. As a portrayal of the horror genre, they made good use of suspense – there was a tortuous wait for the impending ‘jump’. There was a real elegance to the scene changes, making the whole thing completely seamless.

1. The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable by Punchdrunk
Could it really be anything else?  The show that changed my life and redefined everything I know about theatre? From the multi-layered stories to the performance logistics of 32 actors each having to be in the right place at the right time. From the meticulous detail in the set to the glorious choreography, to the sheer inter-connectedness of everything, I take my hat off to everyone involved. I still miss this show, but I’m just thankful that I had the chance to go as many times as I did.

Possibly the best Christmas present I could ask for (short of them reopening Temple Studios), they’ve released footage of the final finale.  I am in that crowd somewhere, on the verge of tears.

Here’s to another year of fantastic theatre!

Shows to see before they close

If there’s one thing London theatre has taught me, it’s that there are not enough evenings in the week.  There are just too many good shows on in London at the moment – and due to some being on restricted runs, if you’re at a loose end in the next couple of weeks, here’s my list of shows that you REALLY need to see before they close:

Urinetown at the Apollo Theatre – final performance Saturday 10th January 2015
Even though I’m not a big one for musicals, this was my kinda show.  Deliciously dark and satirical, Urinetown has a strong story, good characters, infectious songs, some very timely political observations and a wry nod to the fact that this is a musical that knows it’s a musical.  Don’t let the name put you off – I adored it.  It’s been nominated in 7 categories in the upcoming What’s On Stage Awards, and for good reason.  I’m really hoping this gets a reprise later in 2015 – it deserves to.  But just in case it doesn’t, you’ve got  just under 3 weeks to do so.  If you need any more incentive, TKTS in Leicester Square are offering silly discounts on top price tickets.  Go before they change their minds.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – final performance Sunday 11th January 2015
Not only was this one of my highlights of early 2014, it’s back for the festive season.  Unashamedly silly and boisterous, TKOTBP left me grinning from ear to ear.  What’s more, most of the original cast are back, including Pauline McLynn (Mrs Doyle from Father Ted) and Phil Daniels.  This is also a great chance to see inside the beautiful candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – and that is worth the ticket price alone.

La Soiree at the Spiegeltent, Southbank – final performance Sunday 11th January 2015
If a night of deliciously grown-up naughtiness appeals to you, then head down to the opulent and cosy Spiegeltent for the saucy treat that is La Soiree.  From acrobats to contortionists to spangly camp, this assortment of curiosities will make you gasp and giggle.  Even the seats at the back are pretty close to the stage, so everyone gets a good view.  If you need any further persuasion, here’s my review from November.

Grimm Tales at the Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf – final performance Sunday 15th February 2015
Once upon a time, fairytales had a slightly sinister streak – then the Disney machine came along and romanticised the stories and toned down the really scary bits.  But Philip Pullman has put the ‘grim’ back into the Grimm Tales.  This stunning and inventive adaptation invites audiences to wander through the forests and take in a story.  Some are more familiar than others and after the show has finished, you are free to wander through their frankly mindblowing set, and even take pictures.  A joy of a performance, suitable for everyone aged 8 and upwards.

How to win £100 of theatre vouchers – by going to the theatre

How do you fancy winning yourself some theatre vouchers?  £100 worth.  Enough to indulge in 2 good seats in the dress circle.  Or 4 tickets in the cheap seats.  How about earning some vouchers for just a teeny bit of effort on top of watching a show in the West End?  Well read on…

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Apologies for the click-baity headline and intro – but it’s for good reason.  A few weeks ago I met some of the team behind Seat Plan.  They want to help improve your theatre-going experience.  Because, when you think about it, buying theatre tickets can sometimes be a bit of a gamble.  You buy them based off a boxy diagram which, at best, bears a passing resemblance to the actual position of seats, and at worst, is wildly misleading.  Even if you do buy them in person from the box office, I’m not sure how obliging the staff would be if you asked to have a wander around the various tiers of the auditorium before choosing your seat(s) and parting with money.

Here’s the layout for the Aldwych Theatre.  Have a good look at row AA in the Grand Circle and then row A in the Dress Circle (and Boxes B, D and E):

aldwych-theatre-seatmap

Now look at a photo of the inside, taken from the Dress Circle:

 

 

You see the problem?  That grid hardly indicates the curvature.

Much as I hate to be cynical, theatres want your money.  Provided they’ve listed a seat as ‘restricted view’ and possibly detailed what that actually means, you’ve got very little comeback if you decide you’re not happy with the view.  You wouldn’t shell out £40 on a pair of shoes without trying them on first, especially if you knew you couldn’t get a refund or another size if they didn’t fit (unless you’re one of those oligarch-y types who has a diamond-encrusted toothbrush just because you can).  Yet this is exactly how we are expected to buy our seats in a theatre – and West End tickets aren’t cheap.  Price brackets are sometimes a bit of a conundrum.  Is a £27.50 seat in the back row of the stalls comparable to a £27.50 seat in the front of the Balcony?

So Seat Plan want to help take some of that mystery out of buying tickets by reviewing all 50,000 seats in London’s theatres.  For that, they need YOU.  It doesn’t matter whether you go to the theatre once a year, once a month or once a week – your opinion is valuable and it is needed.  So this information is there for you to use too, but right now, over 90% of those 50,000 seats are, as yet, unreviewed.  You can work retrospectively on shows you’ve seen in the last few years (dig out those ticket stubs you have lying in a drawer or go through your confirmation emails for seat details) or review your seat after you’ve seen something.

The site is very easy to navigate, so you can search by either the theatre or the show you saw, find your seat by tier, row and number, then fill in as much detail as you can.  How was the legroom?  How was your view of the stage?  Did you have to lean forward to see over the front?  If someone tall sat in front of you, was this a problem?  If you were over to one side, did it curve around more or less than you thought it would?  Did you lose one side of the stage completely?  Were there lots of stairs?  Was it steep?  Could you see this being a real problem for someone with vertigo?  Did you think it was good value for money?  Did you get a bargain or did you watch the show wishing you’d sat somewhere else, even if that meant paying a bit more?  All of this is useful.

By simply filling in these reviews, you gain points – and what do points mean?  PRIZES!  You gain points (well, awards) for reviews, photos of your view (taken while the safety curtain is down), photos of your ticket stubs etc.  50 awards gets you a £10 theatre voucher.  The more detail you provide, the more awards you’ll tot up.  Every month they’ll choose their favourite seat review and that person wins one hundred smackers in theatre vouchers.  I did.  And I think this is the first time in my life I’ve ever won anything.

So come and join the Seat Plan revolution – let’s help each other to make informed choices on our theatre tickets.

Now – what shows to see with my vouchers.  And who to take.  And where to sit.  Ahhhh, I know just the website…

This Is Not A Christmas Play – Top Secret Comedy Club

There is a famous John Mortimer quote that “farce is a tragedy played at 1000 revolutions per minute.”  If that is true, then This Is Not A Christmas Play is a tragedy that ambles along at its own leisurely pace.  The ideas for a farce are there, but they rarely gather the necessary momentum.  The script meanders through too many different styles of comedy for any of them to be properly funny.  At best, it raises a couple of mild titters.  At worst it is bewilderingly awful.

The strained friendship between sponging layabout extraordinaire Tim (Jordan Kouame) and beta-male David (Matthew Leigh) is very well observed.  We’ve all had that friend who has taken advantage of our good nature, but we can’t quite get rid of.  Even if they have pushed you to the brink, it’s just not the done thing to sling someone out on the street on Christmas Day.  Unless they’ve done something really terrible – sadly for David, Tim not paying rent and spending his days making up an incomprehensible boardgame (rather than looking for a job) isn’t awful enough to warrant evicting him.  There is some subtle tragi-comedy at play and some brilliant sight gags as Tim tries to squirrel away items of David’s shopping.

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But then we lurch into an inexplicable (and failed) attempt at farce as the hapless pair fall victim to a couple of bungling scam artists – the chameleon-esque Clive (James Unsworth) and the seductive Mary (Alice Coles).  We’re never quite sure whose side we’re meant to be on.  Tim and David aren’t loveable enough for us to feel sorry for them, and Clive and Mary are a bit too superficial and inept for us to hope they’ll get away with it.  A hostage situation throws up an opportunity for some really dark humour or menace – instead, I found myself asking why David doesn’t just call the police (it’s not as if he has anything to hide from them).  There is a real Shaun of the Dead moment as the resourceful Mary holds them to ransom with a potato-peeler.

Aside from the fact that this is such a swerve away from the low-key opening, most of the jokes lack a lot of set-up and follow through.  Well executed farce is all in the anticipation and it takes time to construct the required tension.  It should wind itself up like a watch spring, then unravel in a satisfying jumble of mistaken identities, close shaves, lies, counter-lies and people having to hide in cupboards.  Instead, the gags in this play untangle themselves far too quickly and easily to elicit much (if any) laughter.  You need to build a precarious house of cards before you let it fall, not lean two cards against each other and flick them over.  The script would’ve benefited from using fewer plot devices and milking the best ones for all they’re worth.  It either needs to be totally plausible or totally ludicrous.  This falls through the gap between.

Comi-tragedy?  Tragi-farce?  It’s occasionally funny, but there’s no real sense of cohesion to the style or the plot.  Most of the time it just sags.  Perhaps the ideas contained would’ve worked better as two (or three?) separate plays.  Of the hour, I spent 45 minutes willing it to end.  More miss than hit.

This Is Not A Christmas Play is on until Sunday 4th January 2015 at the Top Secret Comedy Club, 170a Drury Lane, London, WC2B 5PD.  For tickets and more information go to http://www.encompassproductions.co.uk/this-is-not-a-christmas-play/4587188236

Neville’s Island – The Duke of York’s Theatre

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  In all honesty, Neville’s Island is a 30-minute sketch squeezed into 2 hours with an interval.  Even a cast of stellar British comic actors can only do so much with a flabby script (I’ve never really rated Tim Firth’s writing).  But it is very funny.

Neville’s Island is a simple concept: a team-building exercise gone horribly, horribly wrong.  A gaggle of middle-aged men in middle management are taken out of their natural habitat of spreadsheets, conference calls and never being more than 100 metres from a Starbucks, and let loose in the great outdoors.  It’s 4 David Brents unleashing their inner Bear Grylls’.  But in their enthusiasm to beat the other teams, they misread the instructions, almost drown and wash up on a nearby island, minus a few crucial bits of kit.  They are stranded, hungry… and it is raining.

The set is quite incredible.  A rocky shoreline surrounded by trees and shrubs.  Before the show starts, drizzle pours out of the ceiling and the smell of damp forest drifts out into the audience – the British weather at its most miserable.  It’s almost a shame that the rain stops during each scene.  The show gets off to a strong start as Gordon (Adrian Edmondson) unceremoniously flails his way out of the water and onto the shale beach with all the elegance of a drowning goat.  He’s soon followed by his bedraggled comrades, the so-middle-class-it-hurts Angus (Miles Jupp), sensible Neville (Neil Morrissey) and the shy, troubled Roy (Robert Webb).  Their prudish costume changes, complete with clumsy-under-towel-pants-switch had the whole audience in stitches.

There are strong performances from all four – yet this is very much a case of typecasting in the roles that each play best.  Adrian Edmondson revels in his role as the vindictive and malevolent Gordon; his tirades are delivered with relentless bile – a thoroughly unlikeable man.  Thankfully he’s a contrast to the other 3.  Neil Morrissey plays Neville with a great blandness – a man with no real authority, just a very steady temperament.  Miles Jupp is effortlessly genteel as gullible Angus, who seems to have brought everything but the kitchen sink, in the highest spec possible, although very little of it is of any use.  However tempting it may be to play the character for laughs, he remains beautifully oblivious to the fact that he’s the butt of so many jokes.  But the star of the lot is Robert Webb as Roy, a man who is newly back at work after a mental breakdown and though a little odd, there is a real complexity to his vulnerability and you cannot help but warm to him.

This is a play that starts well and then doesn’t know where to go.  It loads almost all of its best gags into the first 10 minutes and doesn’t leave much for the rest of the play (apart from 4 men, 1 sausage).  The script has been updated with some modern references, but the 90s attitudes contained in the play haven’t.  While Gordon may be a completely unsympathetic character, the script occasionally calls for the audience to laugh with him at Roy’s mental health issues – there were some uncomfortable titters and at one point, stunned silence.  Thankfully, this was short-lived, but there were still plenty of lulls.  At its best, it becomes The Apprentice crossed with The Hunger Games – in cagoules.  When it’s funny, it’s hysterical.  The comic timing and the dynamic between the 4 is absolutely spot on.  Would you expect anything less from a cast like that?

Neville’s Island is playing until Saturday 3rd January 2015 at the Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4BG.  For tickets and information go to http://www.nevillesisland.co.uk/ 

Ghost Stories – Arts Theatre

I jumped.  And I screamed.

It was a completely involuntary scream, caused entirely by something I wasn’t expecting to happen.  A bit embarrassing when you realise no one else seems to have screamed at that point.  But I’m the type who jumps at mundane stuff like someone bursting through a door when I’m about to open it.  For writers Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman (The League of Gentlemen), Ghost Stories is a big exercise in misdirection and springing stuff on you when you’re not ready for it.  The “well that made me jump, but I wouldn’t really call it sc- BWAAAAAAAGGHHHH!!” effect.

The back of my programme says: “Ladies and gentlemen.  Please, keep the secrets of Ghost Stories.  Thank you and sleep well…” which does rather limit what I can tell you.  But I’ll write what I can without giving anything away.  In some ways, the show starts the minute you step through the door: sound effects play throughout the foyer bar – not the haunted house cliches of creaky doors or ghosty howls, but unsettling sounds.  Scuttling.  Rats?  Cockroaches?  The crackle of static electricity?  Dripping.  Echoey dripping.  And other noises – but you can’t quite pinpoint what they are or why they feel unpleasant.

The show itself is a collection of stories interspersed with mini-lectures on the psychology behind being scared, all engagingly delivered by Paul Kemp as Professor Goodman – he seems to relish the details in his examples, all with a hint of condescension.  We dart back and forth between rational explanations for things and the theatricality of fear.  With each tale, you relax into the story – there is the determination to “not be scared” because “it’s only a play”.  But the irrational side of the brain takes over at little things, like being aware of something moving about in the dark and not wanting it to jump out at you.  Sometimes it does – sometimes something else catches you off guard.

Each story seems to toy with the concept of being alone somewhere – usually in the dark.  Simon Holmes as The Nightwatchman is suitably gruff and no-nonsense, the sort of man who shouldn’t be afraid of the dark.  Chris Levens as Simon Rifkind is simpering and reluctant, a victim of a lie that spiralled out of control.  Gary Shelford as the odiously pompous banker with more Mercedes than sense.  All 3 stories have an element of the mind playing tricks on you and not wanting to believe you could be so easily frightened, which helps to slowly build up the suspense.  Very slowly.

The lighting is used to great effect to both set a scene and to hide things from you until the right moment, or to give you enough of a glimpse of something to heighten your nerves.  As a lover of the immersive, I was also glad of the addition of ‘scent effects’.  Smell is a very under-used sense in theatre, but in small auditoriums, it works well.  It’s amazing how a sudden waft of TCP can really add to a scene.  It was interesting to hear the reactions of the other audience around me – different things scare different people.  The things I had managed to anticipate had other people reeling in terror and vice versa.  But my pre-empting did sometimes take so much of the edge off that I wondered if the timing was out – a split second earlier and they would’ve had me.  Again.

I liked it.  In a scare-the-crap-out-of myself kind of way.  But I get the impression that you have to be in the middle of the scare-ability spectrum to get the best from this show.  Too easily scared and you’ll be so traumatised that you won’t sleep for 3 days.  Too psychologically distanced and you’ll moan that it wasn’t that scary.  If you’re prepared to allow the show to have the desired effect, it’s an absolute scream.

Ghost Stories is playing until Sunday 15th March 2015 at the Arts Theatre, 6-7 Great Newport Street, Leicester Square, London, WC2H 7JB.  Not suitable for under 15s.  People of a nervous disposition are urged to consider carefully before booking.  For tickets and more information go to http://www.ghoststoriestheshow.co.uk/