Tag Archives: london

People, Places and Things – Wyndham’s Theatre

It’s only April and I think I’ve already found my favourite play of 2016. Technically I found it in March, but it was so good I had to see it a second time. It’s intense, funny, traumatic, beautiful, terrifying, poignant and inspiring – and Denise Gough has more than earned the accolade of Best Actress in the 2016 Olivier Awards.

People, Places and Things takes us into the messy world of rehab, as Emma (Denise Gough), and a selection of other recovering addicts, work through the minefield of physical withdrawl, and the subsequent therapy sessions as they battle the psychological demons which always lead them back to substance abuse: the people, places and things they associate with using.

Denise Gough is absolutely magnetic as Emma: from the minute she ricochets into reception, high as a kite, slurring expletives into her phone, and expecting a quick fix to her problems, she invites us into the unfiltered wreckage of “I can quit anytime I like.” She’s an almost permanent fixture on stage in a role which seems equally draining and exhilarating, and Duncan Macmillan’s perspicacious writing more than passes the Bechdel Test. (Take note, playwrights: THIS is how you write good roles for women).

Bunny Christie has created yet another stunning and versatile set – staged in traverse with some audience seated on the stage, the tiled walls feel very clinical, compounded by the hallucinatory graphics as they start to crack and float away during certain scenes. Backed up by a pounding soundtrack from Matthew Herbert, stunning sound design by Tom Gibbons, and vivid lighting by James Farncombe – this is every bit another success by Headlong, to rival their previous work on 1984 and The Nether.

 

PEOPLE PLACES AND THINGS

Photo by Johan Persson

She is backed up by a tight ensemble cast who play roles including medical staff and fellow service users in various stages of recovery (and relapse). The lucid scenes of withdrawl with multiple Emmas staggering, pacing and twitching about the stage are quietly harrowing. Barbara Marten plays a selection of calm and withering professionals who, according to Emma, “look just like my mother”. Her offbeat sense of humour helps to temper some of the seriousness of the situation, offering Emma a ‘stool sample to eat’, before joyfully announcing “it’s FALAFEL!” But her appearance in the final scene adds a real thump of poignancy, showing us the enormity of Emma’s wayward past.

Jeremy Herrin’s directing helps us to navigate through a potentially confusing narrative of the things that Emma perceives, both real and imaginary. The group therapy sessions present snapshots of the lives of other addicts, the familiar patterns of behaviour, and Emma’s reluctance to engage with the process. Gough delivers several monologues with real punch: how exactly are you supposed to live sober when the world around you is so screwed, that drink and drugs are the only things that make it tolerable? But towards the end, we are all rewarded with the fruits of her hard work and honesty, as she practises her apology to her parents – a tender and moving piece of vulnerability.

Theatre is my addiction. And I am craving another hit of People, Places and Things.

A HUGE thank you to Seat Plan for the tickets!

‘People, Places and Things’ is playing until Saturday 18th June 2016 at the Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DA. Contains strong language, strobe-like lighting effects and short complete blackouts in the auditorium. Suitable for ages 15+. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.peopleplacesthingsonstage.com/ 

In The Heights – Kings Cross Theatre

I’ve found it – my favourite musical of 2015.

“Gail, would you like to come and see [insert show here]? I know you don’t like musicals, but…” so begins almost every musical invitation from theatre friends. It’s not that I don’t like musicals, it’s just that I’m very picky on the ones that I do like. This year I’ve really enjoyed Thoroughly Modern Millie, Memphis, The Producers and Once – but they all pale into insignificance in the shadow of In The Heights. I’ve been dancing salsa and bachata for about 9 years, so for me, the music style is very familiar. At the What’s On Stage Awards in February, the original cast did a small showcase which left me half rapt with joy at what I was watching, and half in despair at what I’d missed when it was on at Southwark Playhouse. I have been waiting for this show to return for London ever since, and it didn’t disappoint.

It’s summer in Washington Heights, New York’s latino district. Everyone is just about getting by, but they’re surrounded by poverty and have been hit hard by the economic crisis. With money tight, businesses going under, properties being bulldozed for regeneration and power cuts becoming increasingly regular, low morale is starting to get the better of them. But there is hope, love, passion, flirting, dancing, and a sizeable lottery win: with nothing left to lose, the populace of this tight-knit neighbourhood dare to dream about the future.

Played in traverse at the Kings Cross Theatre (usually home to The Railway Children), it has that feeling of a story far more ancient – similar in staging to Greek theatre. From the lilting salsa soundtrack playing in the bar, I step into the auditorium which has a few bits of set at either end of the stage to suggest a shop, a flat, a taxi rank and a beauty salon, leaving plenty of space in between for flexibility of locations.

By far and away the strongest aspects of this show are the music and dancing. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cool fusion of latino and hiphop has the audience around me tapping their feet, and is a perfect backdrop for Drew McOnie’s exceptional choreography: salsa, merengue, reggaeton, contemporary, hiphop, and even the bewilderingly complex footwork of Cali-style are all delivered with energy and attitude. Both the solos and large ensemble pieces are jaw-droppingly good and the atmosphere is electric.

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Photo by Johan Persson

Sam Mackay reprises his role as Usnavi, oozing a cool demeanour, making light work of the irregular rhythms and colloquial Spanish in his songs, bouncing rhymes off Sonny (Cleve September) with effortless charisma. September matches him beat for beat, and the rapport between them is a real joy to watch. David Bedella (last seen in The Producers) makes for a fiercely proud father as Kevin Rosario who looks to sell his taxi business when his daughter cannot keep up with her college fees. This does incur the wrath of his hotheaded tiger of a wife, Camila (Josie Benson) who is determined to find another way – and heaven help anyone who tries to argue with her!

By contrast, their daughter Nina (Lily Frazer) exudes a real lightness and warmth, but also the complex range of emotions as she finds herself trapped in a vicious circle between ambition and funding. Jade Ewen is a self-assured Vanessa, slowly giving in to Usnavi’s tongue-tied advances. The progression in their love story feels far more real than the typical West End schmaltz, with endless stumbling blocks and hiccups. But the character that we all fall helplessly in love with is Eve Polycarpou as Abuela Claudia. Honorary Grandmother to all, she is brimming with affection, and is the much respected epicentre of their community. It is her trajectory through the show which has the most profound effect on the audience – it has been a long time since a musical moved me to tears.

Musical highlights include the salsatastic In The Heights, the punchy hiphop beats of 96,000, the beautiful harmonies of Blackout, subtle ballad Sunrise, and the explosively defiant Carnaval Del Barrio.  I need to get myself another ticket to see this. It is truly deserving of its extension through until April and a great antidote to the cold miserable weather.

Now if this is the sort of thing pouring out Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical box of tricks, who do I have to harass for them to bring over Hamilton from Broadway?

In The Heights is on until 10th April 2016 at the King’s Cross Theatre, Goods Way, London, N1C 4UR. For tickets and more information, go to intheheightslondon.com/

American Idiot – Arts Theatre

Green Day’s 2004 Grammy Award winning album American Idiot is brought to the stage with explosive panache, and is targeted squarely at fans of the band. In the uncertainty of a post-9/11 world, three boyhood friends take very different paths in life, searching for meaning and purpose in their choices – one to drugs, one to the military, and one reluctantly to fatherhood. Although the show is packed with high-energy accomplished performances, the narrative does take a back seat. But that’s not what we’re here for. Give coherence the night off, and sit back for a riff-fuelled, foot tapping musical assault on the senses.

For those familiar with the album, everything about the show feels right: the grimy, divey, graffiti-covered set, the worn dishevelled punk-rock costumes, the battered skate shoes, the Mohawks and grown-out bleached spiky hair, the general “f***-the-world” demeanour of the ensemble, the delivery of the songs, the sound of the live band – all of it brimming with authenticity and anarchy. The creative team have definitely done their homework, and it’s a treat to have a cast on stage who can all play guitar.

Aaron Sidwell in the lead as Johnny is full of swagger, and finds every way possible to press the self-destruct button. His well-observed descent into drug addiction yanks at the heartstrings, with everyone else around him powerless to do anything. The atmosphere is tense and you can hear a pin drop as he staggers about the stage on the verge of collapse. His friend Tunny (Alexis Gerred) becomes a soldier and is injured in the line of duty, travelling from bravado to pitiful vulnerability. Last of the trio is Will (Steve Rushton), a no-hoper who makes a mediocre job of being a new parent.

Photo by Tristram Kenton

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

Martyr – Unicorn Theatre

Teenage rebellion manifests itself in many ways: parents are primed for dealing with issues surrounding drink and drugs… but not religion. In Martyr, When Benjamin Sinclair develops an unhealthy obsession for a sacred text and starts making increasingly Puritanical demands on his mother and school, the responsible adults in his life suddenly find themselves out of their depth in the face of his self-imposed indoctrination. Originally written in German by Marius von Mayenburg, this translation by Maja Zade is presented by the Actors Touring Company (a group who use Theatre “to examine the world around us”). Martyr explores the grey area between standing up for your beliefs and dogmatic fixation, but it does feel as if it has tried to tackle too much.

On an open set comprised of various boxy levels and rooms (cleverly designed by director Ramin Gray), the cast are neatly slotted in amongst tables, chairs and benches, remaining on stage the entire time. Whilst it may look a bit jumbled and abstract, it allows quick transitions between the many short scenes and makes the most of the depth of the space in the Unicorn Theatre. Scenes are lightly underscored with the occasional bit of music, including what sounded like a very apt instrumental bit of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Daniel O’Keefe is a thoroughly obstreperous and volatile as Benjamin, his every word punctuated with malevolent bile; He visibly revels in the knowledge that the school is obliged to respect all religious beliefs, even a very medieval approach to the Bible, much to the chagrin of his teachers. Farshid Rokey plays the foil as the impressionable and gawky George Hansen: a prime example of how easily the vulnerable can be influenced by those they idolise. Their scenes together strike a perfect balance between comedy and tragedy, as George so willingly becomes a disciple without a thought for the ramifications of his actions. Jessye Romeo is effortlessly feline as their classmate Lydia, deliberately taunting Benjamin with everything he would deny himself.

Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

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

We Know Where You Live – Finborough Theatre

“Gentrification” is a word that inevitably crops up in any conversation about the London property market. Affluent young upstarts move into an up-and-coming area, and before you know it, it’s all beards, cereal cafés and free-range quinoa. But what of the people who’ve been there since they were born? We Know Where You Live aims to examine the culture clash between the long-term residents who are desperate for regeneration, and the new arrivals who want to preserve its edgy urban feel for posterity (and have a cereal café) – and it mostly succeeds.

The play is a little chaotic, zipping about between a young couple who are just getting their first shoebox flat together and the fractious relations between what’s left of the Residents Association, all affected by some strange and ominous goings-on in the local area. While there are a few revelations about the history of the people, none of them quite feel like the monumental bombshells that they were perhaps meant to be.

 

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Photo by Alex Fine

 

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

Secret Theatre – Secret Studio Lab

A secret location, a closely-guarded plot line and the need for sensible shoes – music to the ears of any immersive theatre fan. Secret Studio Lab have a few productions under their belt on both sides of the Atlantic, and the latest Secret Theatre promises a visit to a city island to immerse yourself in their summer tragedy of love. But the biggest tragedy of all is that this production massively under-delivers on several aspects vital to immersive theatre.

I’m not sure what came first: the choice of play, or the location – but neither really compliments the other. The key to successful site-specific work is to create something which nestles perfectly in its setting – to make it feel as if the piece were written just for that space. So a marketing suite for the swanky new blocks of flats being built on City Island, surrounded by a moat of gravel, and desolate concrete piles with steel girders protruding through the ground isn’t exactly an obvious choice for the text in question, even if the story is set in East London. If you are going to stage the work on an island, there are other more fitting texts in this playwright’s repertoire.

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

Lesere – Jermyn Street Theatre

1921: John and Jane Lesere have put the war behind them and settled into a gentle-paced life of tending a vineyard in France. Their quiet existence is shattered by the arrival of George, an injured stranger who preys on their good nature and seems unnervingly curious about their respective pasts. With a little bit of cold-reading and the theft of a notebook, he skilfully extracts all the ghosts they thought they had laid to rest and forces them into an evening of confessions about their wartime experiences. As innumerable skeletons come tumbling out of cupboards, the masquerade of their idyllic marriage slips.

Although billed as being “Hitchcockian”, its formula is more reminiscent of An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley, and while this play certainly matches it for dramatic bombshells, it somehow falls short overall. In the intimacy of the Jermyn Street Theatre (converted into the round for this play), a small room with white painted floorboards is surrounded by an ominous earthy wilderness – complete with gloomy lighting and the sound of howling wind, it requires a leviathan effort to cross this no-man’s-land to the safe haven of the drawing room. What may only be a few small steps might as well be a journey of miles. The shuddering physicality of the actors during these interludes is harrowing to watch, but this device is overused and quickly starts to feel like a bit of a gimmick (a few choice moments would’ve had far greater impact).

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