Tag Archives: comedy

Countdown to Edinburgh Fringe

I’ve never been to Edinburgh Fringe before. (I know, right?) I haven’t been deliberately avoiding it, it’s just been a lack of the fates aligning for me to have enough annual leave to go away for a week in August.

So I have my accommodation and trains booked. I have spent weeks drowning in spreadsheets and maps, meticulously planning how best to pack in everything I want to see, both cost effectively and efficiently so that I’m sticking to venues in the same locale rather than madly criss-crossing the city. This is all good in principle, but I do have a talent for cutting it fine and being easily distracted, so my military precision may all count for nothing.

Last night I begrudgingly accepted that with 8 shows all starting around 2 o’clock, and only 6 days in which to see them, I’d have to let a few things slip. It’s heartbreaking, because so much sounds so promising. The more you look, the more you find. So unless Professor McGonagall can lend me a Time-Turner for the week, I’m going to have to deal with a lot of FOMO (Speaking of which, I should probably find time to go and have a cup of tea in the cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter).

But I’ve found some real gems which I’m hoping will be good. Most of my picks seem to fall into the following categories:

  • Comedy
  • Circus
  • Friends’ shows
  • Shakespeare-based
  • Confined spaces/darkness
  • “Please wear sensible shoes”

Some shows fit into more than one category – although I’m yet to find a comedy Macbeth performed to one audience member at a time in a series of dark cupboards in Edinburgh Castle and told through the medium of circus – if someone wants to make that, I promise I will come and see it. Admittedly I dreamt a week ago that I went to see Thunderbirds on Ice which also had audience participation.

So I have a hugely diverse bunch of shows to see: improvised lost Jane Austen titles, 1940’s Hitchock-inspired circus, a Shakespeare where the audience play the other characters, a series of conversations in the back of 3 cars, a choose-your-own-adventure where the audience determine the order of the scenes, frank explorations of mental health, my friend’s older brother trying to transmute base metals into gold, Game of Thrones spin-offs, and a steampunk scavenger hunt. It will be nothing if not eventful. I am quite concerned that I will be torn between the need for sleep and the need to see more shows.

So here are my picks, all beautifully listed for you with links (some of these I’ve managed to see in London previews):

Comedy

Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel
Fake It ’til You Make It
John Robertson – The Dark Room: Symphony of a Floating Head
Sooz Kempner – Character Activist
Thrones! The Musical
Will Seaward Has a Really Good Go at Alchemy
Will Seaward’s Spooky Midnight Ghost Stories II
Winter is Coming. Again.

Circus/Physical Theatre

Blind Man’s Song
Bromance
Close Up
Hitch!
Ockham’s Razor: Arc and Every Action…

Shakespeareish

Hell Hath No Fury
Mrs Shakespeare
Richard III
Titus Andronicus: An All-Female Production
To She or Not to She

Immersive/Confined Spaces/Darkness/Sensible Shoes

Awakening, Sweet and Sour Sensory Composition
Comfort Slaves
Father Time
Fiction
Helpless Doorknobs
Jethro Compton presents Sirenia
Phantasmagoria
Tate Postmodern
This Time Tomorrow
We This Way

Other

Citydash
Down & Out in Paris and London
I, Elizabeth
Much Further Out Than You Thought
My Beautiful Black Dog
The Eulogy of Toby Peach
We Can Make You Happy
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream – The Savill Garden, Windsor

“Immersive” is theatre’s buzzword of the moment. But it has come to mean various different things. On one hand, it can be the sensation of stepping through the fourth wall and being immersed in a world which feels completely real, leaving behind the humdrum of ordinary life.  On the other, there is the complex niche genre where you as an audience member have a bearing on your experience of the performance, be that through making active (or passive) choices which then have a tangible impact on how things play out, or wandering through spaces where there are several scenes running simultaneously and it would require repeat visits in order to see all of it. Just when you think you’ve understood how to pinpoint what is and isn’t immersive, another company comes along and throws that definition out of the window.

Watch Your Head’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is very much the former: a site-specific promenade production. But in truth these are clunky words which risk alienating the general public before they’ve even bought their tickets –  and that would be a terrible shame as while it doesn’t break any new ground in terms of immersive theatre, this is a very strong, imaginative and accessible Shakespearean production filled with magic and mischief, set in the breathtakingly beautiful Savill Gardens near Windsor. We were well attended by families, with kids boisterously racing from one scene to the next, lapping up the novelty of multiple locations in the fresh air and fading daylight.

All of Shakespeare’s familiar story is here: bickering lovers, bumbling mechanicals and troublesome fairies – but with plenty more besides. This versatile cast double up as woodland creatures that trill, chirrup and squeak as they guide us deeper into the park.  There is the added bonus of live music, ranging from close harmony singing to bluesy jazz, perfectly complementing the 1920s-inspired costumes.  The passages of text delivered as song add an extra dimension and are pulled off with great finesse. There’s even a little bit of audience participation snuck in, to great comic effect.

My cast highlight was Joss Wyre as a very magnetic Puck – veering between remorseful child and wild-eyed sprite, there are times when you’re never quite sure if she’s made a genuine mistake or is reveling in the havoc she has created; but then an impish twinkle flashes across her face and we know exactly what she’s up to. There are some roles which demand that you crank the overacting up to 11 and Oliver Lavery is the quintessential Bottom, brashly steamrollering through the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, much to the horror of earnest director, Quince (George Jennings).

By far the stand-out performance of the lovers is Paige Round as Helena – bruised of heart by her unrequited love for Demetrius (Edward Firth), she cuts a very sympathetic character – partly because he comes across as so spiteful that it’s a wonder what she sees in him in the first place, apart from his unattainability. Sara Langridge is effortlessly elegant as Hermia – right up until she loses the affections of Lysander (Jared Garfield) to Helena in a slight ‘puck up’ as the flower juice takes effect and everyone falls in love with the wrong person. It is a joy to watch the two boys squabble over Hermia in a hilarious fight scene.

There’s a large amount of doubling up in the cast, e.g. Theseus/Oberon by the brooding and serious Jack Bannell, and Anneli Page who switches from the gentle, reserved Hippolyta into hippy-dippy Titania. While the mechanicals provide the obvious comedy, it’s really refreshing to see them bring contrast and personality to their secondary roles as the fairies. Joshua Considine as the almost Gollum-like Moth, Bruno Major as a very dopey Mustardseed, and Emma Jane Morton as ethereal fruitloop Peaseblossom.

The only thing that spoils it slightly is the inescapable noise from the Heathrow flight path. There are many beautifully subtle moments which are sadly drowned out by passing aeroplanes – but it is testament to the performers that they still manage to tell a very rich story, even if we do miss a few lines. While this is closer to a traditional Shakespeare than the more experimental end of the immersive theatre spectrum, it is still nonetheless a bewitching production filled with wit, depth and invention that is absolutely worth a trip outside the big smoke. Go and see it.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing until Sunday 19th July at The Savill Garden, Wick Lane, Englefield Green, Windsor, Surrey TW20 0UU. Running time approximately 2 hours including an interval. This is a promenade (walking) production through parkland. In the event of rain, an indoor version will be performed instead. For those travelling from London, the closest station is Egham and taxis are available outside; it takes around 10 minutes and costs about £9 each way. For tickets and more information, please go to http://watch-your-head.co.uk/

Absent Friends – Richmond Theatre

“The past is a foreign country.” ~ L.P. Hartley.

In 2015, Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends feels very dated – and so it should. It’s one of the greatest arguments for feminism and shows just how far Britain has come from the primitive gender politics of the 1970s. While this may be billed as a comedy, it’s probably better described as a “tragedy of manners” with Ayckbourn’s toxic mix of characters constantly battling to keep up appearances in a two-act exploration of embarrassment. It has more in common with the gawky humour of The Inbetweeners, packed with plenty of cringeworthy moments that had me wincing and laughing (often both at the same time).

Diane and Paul have a lovely home* and a loveless marriage (*lovely by 1970s decor standards – the whole set makes use of every conceivable shade of orange and brown). When they discover that their friend Colin (who they haven’t seen for 3 years) has recently been bereaved after his fiancée drowned, they rally around a few old friends and invite him over for a sympathetic catch up. What begins as a well-meaning get-together, soon descends into an awkward melting pot of gripes and bickering.

Kathryn Ritchie makes for a thoroughly crass and gormless Evelyn, with an accent so caustic that you could use it to strip wallpaper. She barely contains her contempt for her husband, John (John Dorney) who seems to spend the entire play hoppitting about in a one-man pre-cursor to Riverdance (at times, a little distracting from the main action) and sliding off bar stools in his vomit-hued corduroy flares.  Neither is particularly inclined towards hiding the fact that their brief marriage has already gone sour.

By contrast, Diana (Catherine Harvey) is cripplingly neurotic and frantically trying to disguise the fact that she and the boorish Paul (Kevin Drury) are a long way from wedded bliss. He treats her with utter disdain, and as little more than a catering manager for his business clients. Alice Selwyn is a cheery-but-vacuous Marge, constantly talking, but with nothing of value to say. Ashley Cook exudes social ineptitude as beta-male Colin, in a performance reminiscent of Michael Palin as Mr Anchovy in the Lion Taming sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Director Michael Cabot stirs up plenty of uncomfortable moments to good comic effect – conversation-killing anecdotes, deafening silences and tiptoeing around sensitive topics are all made fist-gnawingly awful. There is great physical comedy when John is abandoned with Colin and very quickly runs out of things to say to him – he buckles under the pressure of silence and it takes several attempts to extricate himself from the room.  But there is also tender pathos as Diana confesses to her desperate unhappiness with life – in spite of financial comfort, she realises it is too late to fulfil any of her own aspirations for a happy marriage (and of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police).

While the characterisation does occasionally stray into caricature, the cast very much do justice to Ayckbourn’s writing which ultimately holds the mirror up to the audience, forcing us to examine our own lives and to think about what – and who – we take for granted.

Absent Friends is on tour around the UK until 18th July 2015 visiting Crewe, Greenwich, Margate, Tunbridge Wells, Derby and Cheltenham.  For tickets and more information go to http://www.londonclassictheatre.co.uk/index.php/2014/05/absent-friends/ 

Vote For Me – London Theatre Workshop

With the UK general election over and done with, you’d think that’d be enough voting for one week – but step inside the London Theatre Workshop and you’ll find Vote For Me: A Musical Debate, a wickedly funny satire on US politics from the writers of Avenue Q. Watch the presidential candidates weave through the minefield of difficult questions in “the world’s biggest popularity contest”, aided (?) and abetted by political advisors and ruthlessly ambitious spouses – and then vote for your favourite at the end.  For those unacquainted with the US political system, this is a very accessible production. A reference guide in the back of the programme is even provided to assist you.

Hans Rye as inept Republican candidate Buddy Rounsaville frequently turns to his advisor to find out what he thinks, yet comes across as a very amiable, jovial man of the people, backed up by his tigress of a wife, Amy (Jennie Jacobs), whose ruthless streak frequently bubbles over, to great comic effect.  By contrast we have the neurotic, try-too-hard Democrat Janet Tilghman (Emily Lynne) who wavers beautifully between the desire to do the best for her country and the pressures of being the first woman president.  As the show progresses, the vulnerability in her eyes becomes ever more evident.  At her side is her beta-male husband, Roger (Arvid Larsen), resplendent in bland beige, equally unsure of how to fulfill his duty and be “…the First First Lady, who stands up when she pees.”

My ticket was courtesy of Bargain Theatre. To read the review in full, please click here.

The History Boys – Churchill Theatre, Bromley

In 2013, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys was voted The Nation’s Favourite Play. It’s certainly one of mine. After a successful run at the National Theatre, a stint on Broadway, a film adaptation and a scene in the NT’s 50th anniversary celebrations, how do you pull off a successful revival of something so iconic and beloved by the public?

After a clean sweep of exceptional A-level results, 8 students return to the classroom in order to spend a year preparing for Oxbridge entrance exams.  At odds with each other are teachers Irwin, who is determined to coach the boys in how to write outstanding essays and wow the university dons, and Hector, who is more preoccupied with broadening their horizons and knowledge for its own sake.

Director Kate Jackson does a great job of setting the scene with 80s pop hits as we walk into the auditorium, and Libby Watson’s set design perfectly captures the drab Sheffield classroom with the addition of Hector’s motorbike suspended from above, which adds an extra dimension that prevents this from being too “naturalistic box set”. At times the lighting does seem to be trying too hard to be evocative, occasionally leaving the actors speaking asides in semi-darkness.

My ticket was courtesy of Bargain Theatre – to read the review in full, please click here.

The History Boys is on until Saturday 2nd May 2015 at Churchill Theatre, High Street, Bromley, Kent, BR1 1HA.  It is on tour until July 2015.  Contains very strong language.  Cigarettes are smoked during the performance. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.historyboysuk.com/ 

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!

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/