Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Theatre 2015 review.

It's that time of year again, ubiquitous top this and top that, so not to be left out, here's some theatre ranking...

10. Saturday Night Forever 

A late entry, the second to last production I saw this year and one that really will stick with me. Full review is here, but what I loved was a combination of humour and emotion. It felt incredibly intimate and personal and one of the most engaging nights I've had in the theatre this year.

9. Edward Scissorhands

Not a new production for this year but new to me, so I'm including it. I'm a massive fan of Matthew Bourne's work, and although the film isn't a favourite of mine (I think I've seen it once) this production is just magical. It's also what Bourne does best-real storytelling through dance. And there was snow, magical snow.

8. Beneth the Streets (Punchdrunk/Hijinx)

This production for me (reviewed in detail here) was firstly a next to perfect example of what inclusive theatre should look like. Second it was a damn brilliant piece of immersive theatre. I'm a big fan of Punchdrunk's work and this was a glorious little (by their standards!) production. It had everything I could want from an immersive piece and I finally got the Punchdrunk "1 to 1" experience (with a local actor I've long admired as a bonus).

7. Blue Sky Festival (The Other Room at Porters)

This may be cheating slightly as not technically one performance. But in the spirit of the 'work in progress' festival I felt it was unfair to single out a single performance. And the festival itself-the sum of it's parts-is what made it so special. Showcasing a diverse range of plays and writers at varying stages of their careers-while also giving actors and directors a chance to explore and perform in a supportive place, this is one of the things that makes The Other Room so special. I could have built half of this list from work in this theatre, but I'll settle for this brilliant festival that showed the talent Cardiff has to offer (and that London isn't the centre of the theatrical universe. Check out The Other Room here.

6. Finding Neverland

I was going to put this in a 'guilty pleasures' or 'shouldn't love this as much as I do' category. But I don't believe in guilty pleasures, theatre or otherwise. If it makes you happy it makes you happy. And goddamn if this combination of Peter Pan and Gary Barlow didn't make me happy. I've been singing it ever since (which is either my desire to be Laura Michele Kelly or Gary Barlow I'm not sure) But it was also a lovely, well produced musical with a book incredibly witty (and so British it was wasted on the Americans) by James Graham. So I'm a proud Neverland fan. It even exorcised the demons of working a Christmas show based on Peter Pan a few years ago, at which point if I ever saw Tinkerbell again I was certainly not clapping to save that little monster's life. This time, I clapped.

5. Sweeney Todd (WNO)

I'm a bit of a Sondheim snob, and 'I want to see a 1970s set version where Mrs Lovett eats a pie off Sweeney's crotch' never featured high on my list of Sweeney production wishes, I loved this version. Scary German-accented Sweeney certainly had the menace for the role, and the pipes to match. And hearing that glorious score played by the Welsh National Opera orchestra and chorus was truly glorious. And despite the odd sounding premise, the whole production was full of fascinating directing choices that made me think about this familiar piece over again.

4. Spring Awakening 

Not only is this a better version of the original, it's just an incredible piece of theatre. Deaf West take hearing and deaf actors, as well as, in this case other actors with disabilities, and put them together in one inclusive performance. Inclusive for both deaf actors and audience members the show combines American Sign Language and surtitles incorporated into the performance. The integration of written word alongside the ASL is done in a logical, manner and the ASL itself far from being a barrier to performance really enhances it-as in signing it's as much about the intention as the actually 'writing' of the word. The Deaf West re-staging of Spring Awakening is both a masterstroke in showing how inclusive performance should be done, it's also a masterclass in how to take apart a show and put it back together better than before.

3. A View From a Bridge 

Usually when I travel to New York I have a rule: nothing I could have seen in London (or has announced a transfer so will see in London) and nothing I've seen before. I broke these rules for A View From a Bridge, and if my #1 and #2 shows weren't so damned special themselves, this would be hands down the best thing this year. I saw it in the cinema so technically I didn't cheat my own rule, and the chance to see it up close from the stage seats in New York was just too tempting. It didn't disappoint. Mark Strong is an utter powerhouse in every respect in this production, and taking on not only a monster of a play, but a stripped down and turned inside out production from Ivo Van Hove. Also any chance to see both Nicola Walker and Russell Tovey in the flesh

2. Hamilton

There's little I can say that hasn't already been written about Lin Manuel Miranda's tour de force of 2015. I was a reluctant convert, but much like my 'guilty pleasure' comment above-just because everyone else on the planet seems to love it, is no reason not to. Hamilton hooked me from it's impecably produced cast recording, and I by a stroke of unebelivable luck won a ticket to see it live. As a piece, do I think it's the second coming of musical theatre? well it's still too early to say. What I can say is Hamilton is clever in a way that doesn’t feel laboured or pretentious.  There are layers and layers to be unpicked, references to the history it’s based on, references to musical theatre history, nods to rap and hip hop history and integrated musical elements that are brilliantly integrated and executed. And I've not stopped listening to it, or unpicking it since I heard it. So for me that's certainly enough to put it in my top ten.

1. As Is

There's almost nothing I can say, or want to say about this piece other than it was absouletly the best theatrical thing to happen to me this year. I'm far too close to it to make any sensible artistic judgements. But having spent too many years with my head in HIV/AIDS theatre, I could not have asked for a better play, or a better production of this. My more detailed ramblings here and here. But for me what I loved so much about Andrew Keates' production of this play was it struck right to the heart of William Hoffman's writing, allowing the words (through some outstanding performances) to speak for themselves. Theatre at it's best is sometimes simply being in a room together and sharing a story, and over all the times I saw this that is what I felt most strongly, and that, as well as my personal attachment to this play/production is why it's undoubtably my number 1 production of 2015.

And a random collection of favourite performers (in no particular order)

1. Mark Gatiss (Three Days in the Country)

Because a year without Mark Gatiss is a sad year indeed. But also because his proposal scene in 'Three Days in the Country' (NT) was worth the ticket price alone. In general his hapless Doctor was well worth seeing the play for.

2. Javier Munoz (Hamilton)

Understudy to Lin-Manuel Miranda in 'Hamilton' and a difficult pair of boots to fill. Personally I like his voice better than Miranda's and his performance was exceptional. 

3. Kevin Kern (Finding Neverland)

The 'not being that bloke from Glee in Finding Neverland' and out singing the man he understudies.

4. Shaun Evans (Hello/Goodbye)

For being less Scouse even when playing a Scouser on stage, and for being a damned lovely human being when I ran into him after. But also for giving what was hands down the most heartwarming performance I saw all year.

5. Lee Haven Jones (Hamlet, Theatr Clwd)

For firstly, being Hamlet in the year of THAT Hamlet. And for doing a damned fine job of it regardless of who else was being the Dane this year.

Best Dog (very important category) 

Analeigh Ashford gets honourable mention here, for the best human dog I've ever seen in Sylvia. Best actual dog I'm going with the Shakespeare in Love dog, for being both excellent canine and recurring joke.

Best Set

For sheer 'What in the holy hell is that and how did it get in here' the Barbican/Cumberbatch Hamlet. On a smaller scale the 'Hello/Goodbye' set at the Hampstead was a masterclass in stage mangment interval turnaround, and contained some excellent working appliances.

Best food on stage

Shaun Evans in 'Hello/Goodbye' did some excellent breakfast making, as did an ensemble member in 'High Society' (unfortunately I was very full and felt slight ill at the smell...)

Best Celebrity Spots

A-plus for initially missing John Major at High Society. But when combined with Obama (technically entering a theatre) it's obviously been a year for political leaders...

Best Curtain Call Speech for Charity

Nope not Cumberbatch. Though valiant effort. For comedy value, Laura Michele Kelly for "Surprise I'm not dead. Come here my fake children pass me the poster" For actually being the most moving, Krysta Rodriguez, for recounting the story of her breast cancer diagnosis and the support Broadway Cares gave her.

Worst Audience Members of the Year

Certain members of The Globe 'in crowd' for attempts to sabotage 'normal people' during closing weekend; you give other dedicated theatre fans a bad name, theatre is there for us all to enjoy and share and the competitive nature of it all put me off ever being a groundling again, and certainly ever setting foot there in the final weekend. Being a fan should mean wanting to share the thing you love, not keep others out.

Close second: the "Ladies" who thought Jersey Boys was a sing-along night.

So that was 2015 in theatre....what does 2016 hold? 

Monday, 7 December 2015

Mack and Mabel

Although this show has now ended it's UK tour, it's still one worthy of reviewing. 

Before I get into the reivew, two important things are going to become aparant as I go through, so we might as well get them out of the way now. 

1. I am a John Barroman fan. 

2. I am a Michael Ball fan. 

Phew. It feels good to confess such things. The latter is obviously neccessary to know for this production the former less obvious. So lets start with that. I first discovered Mack and Mabel as a musical thanks to John Barrowman, at in fact the concert in this very clip: 

(If anyone is interested, yes a field in North Wales in September is as cold an wet as you'd imagine) 

Barrowman sings the song, and introduces it as the love song that his partner thinks perfectly describes him. As it happens it's the song that I feel perfectly describes my own approach (yes I realise this is not perhaps something to put on an online dating profile, however it is the truth)

In 'I won't send roses' Mack Sennett sings: 

I won't send roses

Or hold the door
I won't remember
Which dress you wore
My heart is too much in control
The lack of romance in my soul
Will turn you grey, kid
So stay away, kid

Like Mack I'm disinclined to romance. The later line 'I'd be the first one to agree, I'm preoccupied with me' also struck a chord.Mack doesn't need romance, but of course he does really, and maybe we all do. In the show Mabel retorts that she can get along just fine, without a gushing valentine. But of course she would have also been better off with a bit of romance from Mack. 

Mack and Mabel is an unconventional old fashioned romance in an unconventional old fashioned musical. In both elements, the outside looks like what we'd expect-young girl meets older powerful man who turns her head, a musical set in the glamour of 1920s Hollywood. But neither thigns are quite what they seem. Jerry Herman's quirky yet beautiful score against Michael Stewart's fascinating play makes for a twist on Hollywood musicals and Hollywood romance. 

In this production as well the casting of Michael Ball by director Jonathan Church (until very recentl artistic director at Chichester where this produciton originated) plays with this going againt type. Although Ball went roaring against type by playing Sweeney Todd in 2012, we all know Ball for playing the romantic hero and belting out big showtunes. Oh and also a cheery voice from a Radio 2 show. 

Confession number 2: I'm a Michael Ball fan. Or Michael's Balls as he is for inexplicable reasons known in our house. I'm a child of the 80s who grew up loving musicals. How could I not have a soft spot for the curly haired dimpled Marius? I've grown up with him, like a favourite uncle (if I had a favourite uncle, I don't, mine are either awful or dead so if Michael wants the job it's his). I've rarely gotten to see him perform live in musicals either, so this was a real treat. 

And although Sweeney was labelled as a big break away for Ball, I'd argue Mack was a bigger challenge, and a bigger reward acting-wise. Sweeney is a big brash departure and a villain to revel in. Mack in complex. He wants to make people happy-he lives to make people laugh, but he can't make himself or the woman he loves happy. Like many a clown he's tortured and conflicted. He has, as his signature song says, a quick temper and one that came out dangerously in Ball's interpretation, but he isn't too quick or too harsh with Mack's harder side. His downfall is gradual and heartbreaking and it's a real showcase of the acting skills that Ball has rarely shown before. The final scene with Mabel was beautifully heartbreaking. 

Both leads in fact are delightful and believable. Although vocally it isn't the best fit for Ball's voice and it did seem to be showing the strain by the final performance.  Rebecca LaChance's voice and acting were also spot on for Mable, starting as the quirky clumsy girl from the deli and blossoming into an actress, and then crumbling as she unravels. I found myself falling both for Mack, as Mabel does, in spite of his failings still loving him, but also loving Mabel, her mixture of endearing sweetness but also the vigor and strength to get her through all that life was throwing at her. A great musical theatre lady brought to life brilliantly by LaChance. 

The production as a whole is beautifully staged, making clever use of video projections to show clips of Mack and Mabel's films, and to create scenes beyond the sparse soundstage on which much of the action takes place. Praise must be given also to the incredibly hardworking ensemble who not only inhabit many different characters as extras in all the film scenes but also execute some incredible dance routines. 

Mack and Mabel is a difficult musical to stage. It's a hard sell to give old Hollywood and romance this darker twist. Indeed I overheard an audience member saying on exit it 'Wasn't what I expected'. Sadly I don't think that individual meant in a good way, but I disagree, Mack and Mabel is a great musical becuase we don't get what we expect or what we want.

I find this musical a heartbreakingly beautiful piece of writing, and this production more than did it justice. 

Sunday, 29 November 2015

New York Theatre (Part 1)

Finally managing to do a round-up of New York theatre from the beginning of the month. So in no particualr order, starting with the plays....


I booked this in part because my a fluke of fate I've not missed Matthew Broderick in anything he's done on stage for nearly 15 years. Somehow the man formerly known as Leo Bloom and my New York stage schedules overlap. Also it's a play about a dog, how could I resist?

I will admit to some reservation when I realised that the dog in question is played by a human (Analeigh Ashford here) but within minutes of her arriving on stage her 'Sylvia' had won me over much like Broderick's Greg in the play. Ashford's dog really is hilarious (there's a sentence you don't get to write every day.) blending physical comedy and action to embody the dog, while talking to Greg she manages to encapsulate what any dog lover knows to be the mannerisms of a canine without it being too cartoonish.

It is of course hilarous at times, and in this, an early preview, with Ashford's legs flying over the sofa while exclaiming as the dog, Broderick struggled to keep it together. Not only is there physical comedy but wit also, Sylvia being the wittest retriver I've ever enountered-with an excellent line in sarcasm as well. Additional comedy is also found from Robert Sella's performance as, well everyone else in the play. First appearing as the creepy dog-walker that inhabits every dog walking park (dog owners will soon recognise) he also appears as 'Phyllis' and 'Leslie'. As the former doing a line in drag performance that can teach the most seasoned of drag queens a lesson, and in the latter the play using his triple role to make some witty and interesting remarks about gender portrayl-while keeping a firm sense of humour in place.

At it's heart though, the play has real heart. Sylvia represents the mid-life crisis of Greg and the breaking down of his marriage with Kate. Although the dog initally drives them apart-with Greg spending more and more time and attention on Sylvia, and Kate growing ever resentful, actually Sylvia helps teach them both a lot about love and each other. Sweet and a bit sentimental 'Syliva' is highly entertaining, and as a conisor of dogs on stage, up there with the best I've seen-real dog or not.

A View From a Bridge 

A play and staging that couldn't be more differnet from 'Sylvia's light comedic traditional play, Ivo Van Hove's reworking of Arthur Miller's classic play is dark and intense, made more so by it's straigh trhough staging and on-stage seating.

Having seen this in the NT Live broadcast in the UK I knew what to expect but was keen to see the production live, and see new addition (and personal favourite of mine) Russell Tovey. Niether disappointed. The on-stage seating is really worth doing (and worth noting substantially cheaper!) for the intimate intensity of this production.

Van Hove is known for his radical interpretations of texts, and this is no exception. Stripped back completly the whole play takes place inside a plain boxed off section of stage which opens like peeling a lid off a coffin at the start. One door at the rear of stage and no props, the actors enter and exit but no other indication of scene changes other than subtle musical cues takes place. Mr Alfieri in his role as narrator patrols the edges of the box, sometimes sitting and observing scenes as they unfold. All the characters inside are barefoot throughout, and when Alfieri (played here by Michael Gould) removes his shoes to step inside and take his part within the action, returning to the outside and putting his shoes back on to continue narrating.

Mark Strong holds together this production with impressive prowess. Doubtless and intimidating figure physically he comands the space without giving Eddie an overbearing physical presence too early. His is a slow burn up to the level of delusion and anger that sees the life he thinks he has built around him crumble with tragic consequences. Likewise the relationship with Catherine (Phoebe Fox) and his wife Beatice (Nicola Walker) is managed subtly by Van Hove. The early indicators that all may not be 'normal' in his relationship with Catherine (the lighting of the cigar, his reluctance to let her take the job) walk a grey line between a protective unlce, and the possablity of something deeper and possibly more distrubing to their relationship. This grey area, and a level of uncertainty about who thinks what or may do what is maintained across the prodcution. The stripped back nature of the performance helps the audience to in fact make their own mind up about Eddie. And although many may come familar with the play, and with their own preconceptions about Eddie's motives and actions, this production does allow the actors to open up further questions within each of their roles, making it a refreshing interpretation of a classic.

The whole cast, alongside the pillars of Michael Gould's narration and Mark Strong's inimitable Eddie, are exceptional. Although I'd personally pay to see Nicola Walker read the phone book, there is no denying her strength in this role, more than holding her own as Beatrice against Strong's performance as Eddie, and showing different angles and shades of Beatrice between the performances I'd seen of this production. Russell Tovey as a newcomer to this produciton, and perhaps not the obvious choice for Rodolpho shows the range of his acting abilities.

The final sequance in which, like much of the production, the lines of what really happened are blurred, and as with the rest of the production clear cut fight choreography is replaced with a movement piece that makes the actions of the final scene much more open. The intensity that has built over the two hours straight through performance is held by the final moments, as blood rains down on everyone and the box of the stage closes it's lid once again.

Van Hove's interpretations of plays often divide opinon and this is no exception. The stripped bare production puts much in the hands of its audeince, and asks new questions of an old play. It's not a textbook interpretation, but it's a compelling one.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Putting on the Ritz

I defy anyone to sit through this show and not smile just a little bit. Unless of course you have a pathological aversion to sequins, then you might want to stay away. 

In fact the costumes are a star in their own right in this show, with elegant ball gowns and sparkly skirts (and a few brightly coloured dinner jackets for the boys) help set the scene in this journey through dance. 

A look back at the 'Golden Age' of Hollywood Putting on the Ritz dances through Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin as well as a tribute to the music and dance of the Cotton Club. Classic songs including 'Night and day' 'I got Rhythm' 'Easter Parade' and of course 'Putting on the Ritz' showcase the amazing dance skills as well as the talented singers. 

It's not a traditional musical, but a dance piece and dance takes centre stage introduced by the singing team, and delivered by one of the most talented dance ensembles I have seen in a long time. Moving effortlessly through ballroom and Latin they show off polished routines and a clear enthusiasm for their routines. 

Alongside the ensemble are two star couples of Strictly Come Dancing Fame. Trent Whiddon and Gordana Grandosek and Robin Windsor and Anya Gardis. Positioned between bigger ensemble numbers the two couples showed the power and magic that just two dancers can create. Whiddon and Grandosek showed off their polished partnership and a sense of quirkiness and humour to their dances. It's a shame that Strictly audiences didn't get to see more of this pair last year. When Robin Windsor and Anya took to the stage it was a true masterclass of performance. Credit first to Anya who has huge shoes to fill in place of Robin's usual professional partner Kristina Rhiannoff and who shines in her own right. Anya's chemistry with Robin is fantastic and she is a beautiful and talented dancer-I'd love to see more of her. Robin Windsor puts reals sparkle in his dance (and some fabulous outfits) and to see him dance is a real lesson in how it's done. Everyone in this production is flawlessly excellent but there is that certain something about Robin's dancing that puts him above the rest and a real 'wow' factor. For me the electric Rumba he and Anya performed was a highlight of the evening.

Putting on the Ritz is a real treat for dance fans, and I'd say a great introduction to watching a dance show for those unsure. The classic songs and high-paced atmosphere makes for a fun evening of dance. The talent of the ensemble and principle dancers will wow you and hopefully convert the dance newbies for life.

Puttin’ On The Ritz, New Theatre, Cardiff until the 26th September
Evenings 7:30pm and Wednesday, Thursday & Saturday Matinees 2:30pm

Monday, 3 August 2015

Review: Songs for A New World

Songs for a New World. Often the 'Other' Jason Robert Brown musical (after the more famous 'The Last Five Years') has long been a favourite of mine (for those interested it's a hotly contested number one JRB slot with Parade)

A difficult show to stage, being a revue show more than an actual musical, it's songs have become staples of musical theatre cabarets and auditions in the last 20 years. So most of us musical nerds know it well. Hell we've even picked out 'our' songs. (Again for those interested, 'I'm Not Afraid of Anything')

It's always tricky seeing something you've imagined for years realised on stage and there are always going to be moments that rub against the idea you've created. For me it was more musical phrasing choices, having become so entwined with the recording and various other incarnations of the piece. Sometimes when you've spent so long entwined in the music in a certain way, even the best performances live can take you out of the moment of what you've felt it should be. But that is also sometimes a good thing. By the end I was won over by the style of the performers and orchestrations, and seeing things in the music I'd never before noticed.

The performances also brought to life and brought out things that I never realised were there, the mark of really great performers and initiative directing, particularly in a piece like this where the context means there's far less to work with than a traditional musical.

As much as I love the musical, it was also Jenna Russell that was a primary motivator for seeing the show. Having adored her performance as Dot in 'Sunday in the Park with George' several years ago, I've been such an admirer of her work. As ever, for me at least she didn't put a foot or note wrong. The humour she brought to songs like 'Just One Step' and 'Surabaya Santa' was brilliantly pitched and matched with equal emotion in another of my favourites 'Stars and Moon'. Alongside Russell the other female part was the formidable Cynthia Erivo-and make no mistake I say formidable as the biggest compliment. Many have described better how talented she is, but what always strikes me is the emotion Erivo puts into her songs, as well as the power behind her voice.

For the men Damian Humbley demonstrates once again that he's an actor who just 'clicks' with Jason Robert Brown's music.(he previously played Jamie in The Last Five Years) In this, as with everyone else switching characterization with each song, he also gets to show off his impressive vocals. And it must be said, looking dashing in his suit (I've always had a bit of a soft spot for him) Against three musical theatre veterans Dean John-Wilson (who has done his share as well) was in danger of getting a bit lost. But his strong vocals, and it must be said beautiful voice, means he's able to hold his own.

Songs For a New World has some fantastic pieces in it and this cast do it more than justice, they reshape it into something not new but something you wouldn't perhaps imagine of it. Breathing new life into a piece I thought I knew inside out and backwards, I think is the best compliment I can give it.

Songs for a New World is at the St James' theatre London until 9th August.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Positive and new AIDS theatre

I’ll start by saying I’m both the best and worst person to be reviewing this play. Having spent 4 years immersed in HIV/AIDS theatre doing my PhD (further details on…) I freely admit I’m far too close to this topic.  

A lot of the time I spent looking at the history of AIDS plays was also spent wondering what a contemporary play on the subject would look like. While the odd play in recent years has made reference to or indeed deliberate non-reference to (The Boy From Oz I’m STILL looking at you for not ever naming what Peter Allen died of) HIV/AIDS over the years, there’s been little direct address, particularly from British theatre, so this play is certainly significant in that.

While thinking of that I’ve also spent much time, and may actually get down to now the thesis is done, writing my own version of the ‘AIDS play’  (do we still have to call it that? That’s another of my issues…) and I have many strong, particular ideas about what I think needs adding to the stage discussion of HIV/AIDS. But those are my stories to tell, so my feeling on Positive was it’s not the play I’d write, but it’s a play whose voice adds something important to the discussion. And it is so important we keep adding voices to that discussion, as ACT UP said so early on 'Silence = Death' and while the risks and dangers continue to change, I think our cultural dialogue has been too silent on the whole lately. Theatre should  return to doing what it did at the start and continue to lead the way out of that silence.  And Positive is a welcome addition to that. 

Positive is grounded in the 21st Century experience of HIV. It centres on impact emotionally of a positive diagnosis for young people today. Focused on Benji, diagnosed we learn around a year before, his life has taken a battering, being a bit reclusive and certainly not embarking on love (or sex) his health is good but the psychological impact is great. This is an important element to address when talking about HIV, particularly today where the fear of imminent serious illness (and death) that was at the focus of the earlier years where many of the plays on the subject come from, is shifted. Today a diagnosis for most will be a managed condition, one that will hopefully affect their lives only minimally if correctly treated. However the impact diagnosis can have on a person’s mental health is not one to be underestimated, and this play addresses that brilliantly. 

Benji struggles with the news, and with negotiating relationships-all kinds of relationships from family, to friends, to sexual to romantic. Positive gives a very honest open insight into what can happen to someone’s mental health as a result of their diagnosis. In having two positive characters, one of whom is a woman, we get a broader look at the impact of diagnosis today. Nikki has a different experience and one that is refreshing to see in a traditionally male dominated genre of plays. If I am honest I’d like to have seen more of her story too, but appreciate it’s a balancing act in crafting such things in a stage narrative. As it is Nikki’s story supports and expands on the experience we see Benji have with his diagnosis. Although initially she was supporting Benji as he discovered his diagnosis, we see how her own diagnosis, and initial ill health, continues to affect her life decisions. But importantly that both characters are still continuing with their lives.

The play also raises the valid, important issue of knowing your HIV status. It’s not the people like Benji, HIV positive but knowledgeable in the risks and precautions, that are a danger to anybody, but those like Olly the misguided (arguably intolerant) student. While humorous in his outrageous behaviour, there is a dark, sad undertone that bars, clubs and yes Grindr, is inhabited by boys like him, who intentionally or more often unintentionally are at risk. In not knowing his status Olly puts himself in danger as well as others. Although it is through his misguided ‘scare’ with Benji we see Olly being tested by the end of the play, the world is filled with Ollys, both in their prejudice and the ignorance in every sense which informs it. A valid point and the lesson of the play as a whole.  

The play is also mapped against a very young, and very ‘now’ backdrop. The minefields of texting etiquette, dating apps, and flat-shares along with ubiquitous smartphones populate the play. And the issues of HIV aside the nature of career, life, love and parents is a familiar one for-if I can use the horrible term ‘Millennials’ out there. And this familiarity of the world the characters inhabit may well bring in a younger audience, because while I’m a strong advocate for learning from historical pieces equally I also can’t doubt the power of also having something which contemporary audiences identify with. The language of the play, written by Shaun Kitchener who also appears as Matt in the play, is rich, vibrant and reflects the young demographic of its characters. For someone like me who has spent the best part of the last decade with my head stuck in 1980's AIDS plays this was really refreshing. What is also refreshing is another British voice to the theatrical discussion of AIDS. Although British playwrights have taken on the subject it is an area dominated by American voices.

The production itself is well staged. Director Harry Burton uses minimal staging but gives the piece real character. The setting in the round is a great approach, and the intimate setting of the Park Theatre is a real advantage. The whole case are excellent, and there is a sense they are really at home with these characters. Particular mention also to the performance I saw which was interrupted by a fire alarm a few scenes in and the actors for dealing with that unscheduled interruption so seamlessly!

As I said at the start I am probably the best and worst person to write about this play. Best perhaps because I know the rich and varied history that Positive builds on, and that is quite the legacy to take on particularly for a young writer and cast. There’s inevitably also the muttered backlash I feel sure has came from those who ‘were there when’ who would like to disregard any modern take on HIV/AIDS. But that modern take is so important, and it's exciting to me that young writers are lending their voice to this rather than dismissing it as another generation's problem.

I am the worst person to write about this as I say,  because I am so 'in it'. So crtically attached and emotionally attached to the subject matter after all these years. I also have, as a result many, many ideas of my own about what AIDS plays should be doing now. But in a way that’s irrelevant, that’s my story to add. The beautiful thing about ‘AIDS theatre’ is the myriad of stories that have been told, and the desperate sad thing that there are so many more stories to be told. So no, positive is not the story I would tell, but there’s plenty of time for that. There are so many stories we need to tell.

I think also it’s interesting this play has been on stage parallel to the revival of As Is, the first AIDS play (and incidentally I saw them on the same day, because why not make a day of it)  And actually Positive has many similar themes, not least a message of hope that sometimes gets lost in the more, shall we say ‘worthy’ AIDS theatre. As well as this a sense of humour, vital because in trying to talk about darker topics we need the light to balance it. These plays exist in very different worlds, but they do have their sense of the humanity of those affected by HIV at heart, and that is the mark of the strongest work on this topic.

Positive is at the Park Theatre, London until August 1st
As Is is at the Trafalgar Studios until August 1st

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Review: Everyman Beauty and the Beast

"Tale as old as time...."

It probably comes as no surprise to anybody who knows me that Beauty and the Beast is my favourite Disney film. I mean it's about a girl who lives through books, and then gets to live in a castle with a giant library...oh and she meets a Prince as well.

It is one of the classic Disney films, and among one of the best Disney film to stage adaptations. And again anybody who knows me also knows what a sucker I was/am for John Barrowman as Gaston.

All to say I was pretty excited to see what the Junior production at the festival would hold, but also apprehensive as ever when seeing something you love so well adapted. But as with As You Like It on Wednesday I needn't have worried, because Everyman's young cast do a sterling job.

It's a hard one to pull off, especially outside with minimal props, but the cast pull it off expertly. The whole piece is wonderfully sung, showing great talent from the young cast.  Charlotte Tonge makes an excellent Belle, and sings beautifully as well as delivering a beautiful performance while Ben Joseph Smith does an excellent job of the difficult role of the Beast (acting through that costume is certainly a challenge!) And mention must go to Ross Broad for a wonderful and funny Gaston.

The rest of the cast also do a brilliant job from the various villagers and servants that show just how much talent Everyman has to offer, to those in the Beast's castle from Mrs Potts to Cogsworth, working with difficult costumes and bringing great humour and charm to the production. The costumes by Dave Parker and Ruth Rees are really excellent bringing elaborate costumes to the household items, and beautiful dresses to Belle and the ladies.

This is an ideal production for parents looking to introduce children to the theatre. A lot of fun with a sprinkling of theatrical magic, I highly recommend for a summer holiday treat. And (shhh) parents will enjoy it just as much!

Beauty and the Beast runs until 1st August but the last day is already sold out! So get your tickets fast, shows at 12.00 and 2.30pm and tickets available here:

Meanwhile, As You Like It continues until August 1st also. Tickets available here:

And my review here:

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Everyman: As You Like It

Is is too much of a pun to say 'As you like it...but I think you will?' ...ok then I won't. But you get the idea.

As You like it takes place predominantly in the forest of Arden, so it was the perfect setting with the backdrop of trees in Bute Park. Complete with occasional animal noises (well seagulls and dogs...) but as the light darkens the green lit stage and the backdrop of trees creates the perfect atmosphere for the play.

One of the most popular Shakespeare comedies, it's easy to see why. As You Like It is a heartwarming play about romance and love-in various forms, from at first sight with Rosalind and Orlando, to the harder won romance of Phoebe and her Shepherd.

The play starts with a banishment, Rosalind's mother has been banished to the forest, while she remains with her aunt and cousin Celia. After seeing young man Orlando wrestling his way to victory (in a piece of excellent and hilarious staging!) it is love at first sight for Rosalind. Soon after she finds herself banished to the forest also, taking Celia with her. Orlando leaves for the forest with his elderly servant Adam soon after the ladies.

What follows is a classic disguise and mistaken identities drama, which takes on the subject of love, declaring 'Love is merely a madness' with Rosalind disguised as a boy, teaches Orlando about wooing a woman. The backdrop of characters from forest and court provide a funny and touching story of love and life. And it's surely not revealing too much to say that all rights itself in the end.

Director Rebecca Gould weaves a wonderful production out of these elements. Setting the play in pre-World War One attire allows the world of the play to become distance but not too distant for the audience. The set is minimal, with two trees fashioned of branches and offcuts flanking the stage, while the performance makes use of the different levels and even the audience section to create different worlds. Being set within the forest, the backdrop of Bute Park creates a better set than anything than any dressing or props and this pared down approach allows the actors and Shakespeare's words to take centre stage.

The leading roles have a lot resting on them-if an audience doesn't root for or even like Rosalind and Orlando the play falls flat. There's no fear of this being a problem here. I must confess Rosalind is a favourite Shakespearean leading lady of mine, which always makes me anxious that actors or directors will get her wrong. Bridie Smith here allayed any fears. Her Rosalind is funny and heartwarming, but also retains the strength and intelligence of the character. Playing opposite Eifion Ap Cadno as Orlando, who brings charm and warmth to the character but also again shows the intelligence beneath Shakespeare's Orlando. It's easy to slip into silliness and cliche with these leading roles, but both actors bring a humour and intelligence to their versions which make them a cut above. You are immediately drawn to the individually which means you root for them-and fall a bit in love with them yourselves, which is exactly what the audience should do.

They are supported by an equally talented cast who all have excellent comic timing, and really bring to life even the smaller stories within the play and make it a rich and varied production. Victoria Walters as Celia provides an excellent partner in crime for Rosalind, while Charlotte Rees as Phoebe delivers a real sense of fun with the character and not forgetting Sophie Wilmot-Jackson as Audrey completing the quartet of ladies looking for love-and stealing she show.

The production is punctuated by musical interludes which really add to the production, giving the world of the play a real sense of character and allowing for some innovative transitions between scenes. Things end, as they did traditionally with a triumphant jig, which sums up wonderfully the jubilant nature of this play.

For anybody looking for a first Shakespeare to see, As You Like It is always a good bet-straightforward, funny, touching it's hard to go wrong. And it's hard to go wrong with this production. Equally, if you've always meant to check out Everyman, or have just heard of them, this is a great production to start with as it shows the company at their best.

Until 1st August at Sofia Gardens Cardiff


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Thursday, 9 July 2015

Everyman Festival: Sweet Charity

Last night saw the opening night of show 2 in Everyman's Festival repertoire, this time musical theatre with Neil Simon's Sweet Charity. 

Set against the backdrop of 1960s New York, Sweet Charity follows the life (and many loves!) of Charity Hope Valentine (Helena-May Harrison). The girl who proclaims her religion in love, doesn't get off to the best start when her 'fiance' (aside from the minor detail he's married to another woman) turns their romantic stroll into the park into quite a 'wet' affair for Charity. Her job as a dance hall hostess doesn't fill her life with the glamour she is quite certain she deserves...or the kind of men either. Along the way Charity manages a night to remember (in not quite the right ways) with Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal (the perfectly accented, and wonderfully voiced Matt Preece) Charity doesn't give up on love however and one day on another quest for love ends up trapped in a lift with a mild-mannered accountant (Tim Reynolds) Could this be the man to change Charity's life and love? well that would be telling of course....

What is certain is that this is a fun-filled production. Filled with classic numbers including 'If my friends could see me now' 'Hey Big Spender' and 'Rhythm of Life' (which I promise will be stuck in your head for days after)  all sung in fine voice by the company. The leading roles are filled brilliantly across the board giving real life and soul to Charity, her friend and suitors. In particular the 'Fandango Girls' are a joy to watch as a group, The whole ensemble is a hard-working group who all bring individual life to whichever character they're currently taking on-from onlookers in the park to the rich and famous at a Manhattan club. 

The choreography is always central to a musical, and director Richard Tunley has done an excellent job with this production. By far my favourite number was the 60s club number, the ensemble in monochrome moving through not one but 3 complex dance numbers in quick succession. In the choreography he really captures the spirit of the piece and the 1960s club scene that features so prominently. The costumes and set, both designed by Anna-Marie Hainsworth give really give the piece the feel of the era also-and just like last week's Blackadder, they make the most of minimal staging creating countless scenes out of the smallest backdrops. 

This is a fun filled and high quality musical production. If you haven't yet been to the Everyman Festival this one is a great production to start with. It runs until 18th July but musical offerings are always popular so book soon! 

And if you can't make it to Sweet Charity, this year's Shakespeare offering 'As You Like It' follows on 22nd July-4th August. 

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Monday, 6 July 2015

Review: As Is

‘As Is’ is the first AIDS play, the first response to a crisis, from those on the front line. It could be asked why then is this still relevant over 30 years on, but it is precisely because it is that first response that gives it such drive, such impact still. And that the crisis may have changed, but that AIDS is still an issue, and one that urgently still needs our attention is why it is  so important that this play is revived.

Director Andrew Keates brings the production first staged at the Finborough in 2013 to the Trafalgar Studios, and the new setting brings even more life to this dynamic production. A real ensemble piece with each actor taking on multiple parts to paint a picture of New York in the early days of AIDS. At its centre are Rich and Saul, who we meet in the midst of a breakup

The production begins with an affecting soundscape of discussions about AIDS. The terrifying news reports that declared the ‘Gay Plague’ and condemning those who had it. This soundscape not only pulls the audience into the world of the play, foreshadowing the action with the real life news reports that preceded it in reality, but also allows the audience to reflect on their own experience. Asking ourselves ‘when did you first hear about AIDS?’ makes us enter the play considering our own expectations, experience and afterwards what we might now do about those.

As Is puts people at its centre. The relationship between Rich (Steven Webb) and Saul (David Poynor) is disintegrating as the play opens and they squabble about their possessions and Rich’s new lover Chet. When Rich begins to show signs of AIDS his new relationship breaks down and he asks Saul for help. As their relationship shifts and develops as Rich’s illness manifests, there is backdrop of characters who flesh out the backdrop of the early days of AIDS. We see his struggles with both physical and emotional toll of the illness, not only on Rich but those around him. The relationship with Saul, with his friends and movingly his brother all show the life-changing and terrifying impact an AIDS diagnosis had at this time.

These characters, played skilfully and equally hilariously and movingly by the rest of the cast, show the Doctors, Nurses, support groups, helpline staff and friends who were attempting to confront the AIDS epidemic. The often chaotic scenes pull the audience into this colourful and confusing world. The staging brings this sometimes literally into the laps of the audience with the fourth wall being broken, involving the audience in this world as well. Most moving of these surrounding characters is perhaps the hospice worker who bookends the piece, she sees these patients come and go, and also the treatment they get from the hospitals and the outside world. The Hospice Worker’s closing thoughts, thinking about two patients-one Rich who is currently fighting and fighting hard, and another man clinging onto life the audience is reminded of the vast spread of AIDS and it’s reaching impact. As the lights come up and the audience sees the walls set up so audiences can graffiti the names of those lost, they might then go back to that original question of when they first heard of AIDS, and all that has happened since.

Despite the subject matter As Is has to be one of the most hopeful plays ever written. It ends for Rich and Saul on a hopeful, and also defiant note. In any play this is a powerful ending, but for one about AIDS it seems so very important. To leave the play feeling optimistic about love and life is surely its greatest tool. A less overtly political play than some of its contemporaries, but the lack of political content doesn’t make it apolitical. The message may be centrally about love, but what else motivates us to action more than love? For an enduring message on AIDS through theatre, this first response, and the response of care and love has more longevity than the politics of the time.

As Is runs at the Trafalgar Studios until August 1st. There are also a variety of post-show events discussing the past, present and future of AIDS.

On Fridays there is also free HIV testing.


Thursday, 25 June 2015

High Society, The Old Vic.

High Society is a really beautiful production, in the literal sense. Staged in the round once again at the Old Vic its small set makes the most of the in the round setting, and of the ensemble who conduct perfectly choreographed scene changes. From the opulent living room to a pool the world of High Society is created.

Opening with a half concert half sing-along with Joe Stilgoe, it was clearly going to be a different take on the classic musical, and it is real treat of a production. I’d seen the musical once before, but never the film. Unfortunately aside from a vague recollection of crossed wires and ill-advised love matches within rich Americans I had little memory of the plot. As it turns out the plot is sometimes a bit hard to keep track of (despite not being extensive) as keeping track of who is who or who wants to be with who or who knows who is who can be a little confusing. Or perhaps I was just blinded by scene changes. Either way it doesn’t actually matter because the Old Vic’s production is a gloriously staged version of a good old fashioned musical.
A highlight for me, as ever, was Jamie Parker who is given a great deal of comic work to do as Mike Connor. It’s great casting for Parker, although doesn’t let him show off his singing talent as much, which is as always a shame. Credit also should be given to Richard Grieve, who does lovely things with the overlooked (in every sense) role of George Kitterage. Meanwhile Rupert Young does excellent work as the romantic lead Dexter,  bringing life to what could end up as a rather flat romantic lead. Also all three leading men (because it really does feel like an ensemble piece) know how to work the old fashioned suit. The leading men doing stellar work, for me however the women stole this show Kate Fleetwood is a force to be reckoned with as Tracy, but also gives the character depths that could easily be missed or glossed over. 
The musical itself is a bit dated, and a fair criticism of the material might be why to care about the comings and goings of some rich folks and their marriages. However it is a charming musical with a lot to say about people in general (regardless of how many boats they may have).
What the Old Vic also delivers is a stunning production. Using a dynamic ensemble, cast as the staff within the house, stage one of the most visually stunning productions I've seen in years, without any of the flashy bells and whistles of a big-budget West End Musical. I'd love to see the Old Vic keep this up and stage more musicals, and stage them in this way. In particular the in the round setting gives a perspective and intimacy that many musicals staged across the river lack. I love a big flashy musical, but I also love a classic twisted into something a bit different and High Society manages this.  

I'd urge anyone so seek out this classic musical, the material speaks for itself-there's a reason classics are classics. However the twists on the classic format that the staging and direction give allow the production a breath of fresh air. It runs until 22nd August so grab a ticket. Ticketing tip too, the 'restricted view' seats in what was the stage area are barely restricted at all and have an excellent view as well as being close to the stage. 

In sort of unrelated news, epic 'celebrity spot fail' my friend an I were sat opposite John Major and utterly failed to notice...

Everyman Festival: Blackadder III

Last night the 2015 Everyman festival opened in style with Blackadder III. It's a tough job opening a festival but Blackadder's hilarious Regency England adventure was perfect for the first night. 

Firstly though, a confession: I've never seen Blackadder. 

I am the turnip head

Well I've seen bits. And I've seen quite a bit of 'Blackadder Goes Forth' because I used to use it teaching Year 9 History. But other than that...the odd clip here and there...I know the gist of it but have no clue really. But actually this was a blessing, because aside from an obvious awareness of who played who on TV I have little to compare it to, so could just sit back and enjoy the laughs. And of those there are plenty. 

Comedy is difficult. Comedy is made even more difficult when the audience already knows the jokes (aside from me obviously). So absolute respect to the cast for bringing to life much loved characters in their own way. Brian Smith as Blackadder and Peter Harding-Roberts as Baldrick in particular for taking on iconic roles and giving them their own spin. The entire cast is both hilarious and talented, special mention to Osian Llewelyn Edwards and James Pritchard for services to over-acting-as-actors in a play. 

Edwards and Pritchard Thesp it up

Additional praise must be given to the inventive stage design, that allows a simple wall to be transformed into various locations. The ingenious use of doors also as ever offers opportunity for more comedy. Costumes too are delightful, with wigs and fake facial hair galore! Who also doesn't enjoy a man rocking a nice pair of stockings? 

Blackadder the Third is a hilarious piece, with a lot of fun (mainly, as ever at poor Baldrick's expense). What is also has that makes it an excellent opener to the festival is an undercurrent of political commentary fitting for this year. It's also equally reassuring and disturbing to think that politics in fact never changes! 

A brilliant opening night to the Everyman 2015 Festival, Blackadder is sure to sell out so I urge you to get tickets asap!

And not forgetting the rest of the festival-I'll be blogging and tweeting from all of them:

Blackadder the Third - 24th June-4th July
Sweet Charity- 8th-18th July 
As You Like It 22nd July- 4th August 

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Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Memphis lives in me.

Firstly credit to my friend Jen for getting up at an ungodly hour, and braving a slightly scary day seat queue for this one.

I've seen Memphis twice now, once in New York and again in London. Both times I confess it was really to see the leading man (Adam Pascal and Killian Donnelly respectively) but both times I've been really surprised at how much I like the show.

Memphis, if I were to describe it, is a darker, more adult Hairspray (interestingly this was the last thing I saw at the Shaftsbury in London too)  It deals with many of the same themes, from a similar era. But Memphis has a darker edge, and it's central characters are older, their experiences less sunny, the outcome also less cheery. Perhaps it's because I'm a cynical grown-up I actually prefer Memphis' take on race-relations in America.

Taking place in, funnily enough, Memphis, the story centres on Huey, an somewhat unsuccessful and unlucky young white man, who has a passion for 'black music'. Huey breaks convention to go to Black clubs, and then defy authority to play what his boss calls 'race music' in a department store, and is subsequently fired. Huey goes on to blag his way into a radio station, and through playing 'race music' becomes the most successful radio DJ in Memphis. In the process he is forming a relationship with (black) club singer Felicia. Their relationship against the backdrop of the 1950s South, ends up having serious consequences for everyone. And without giving everything away, Memphis doesn't end on a fairytale ending.

When I first saw Memphis I appreciated this honesty of depiction. That the white boy couldn't just sweep a black girl off her feet and live happily ever after. As a historical piece that would be a betrayal, and tragically as it turned out just this week, even in contemporary America these themes resonate. I don't want to dwell on these issues here, partly because such discussions deserve their own space. But in a week where Black Americans were murdered in cold blood, in 2015, the attitudes, the dangers, that Memphis shows a glimpse of, are still so tragically not far away. That's why I appreciate that Memphis doesn't gloss over these elements, and that it also doesn't make things easy for it's characters. I'm not claiming it's a hard hitting political drama, but if anything Memphis shows that a piece of theatre doesn't have to be that in order to still have resonance and truth.

History and politics slightly to one side, Memphis is also a well put together piece of theatre. Musically it's not the strongest new piece of recent years, but the score is solid, inspired by Blues and Rock and Roll, it sounds very much of the era it is set. Personally I'd have preferred more balance between leading man and leading lady numbers, with it being weighted in favour of the latter.

The best part of Memphis for me remains the reason I bought a ticket: Killian Donnelly. My theatre nerds will appreciate when I say there are those times, those shows where you just go and fall in love with an actor. Not their character, not them as a real person, just them as a performer. Sometimes there's just that extra bit of theatrical magic when everything falls into place. He's an actor who was born for musicals, and not only is his voice glorious, he has that particular musical theatre acting skill that's rarer than you'd think. It's the kind of performance that makes you just fall for an actor's talent regardless of the type of role. I'd urge anyone who can to see Memphis before he leaves in a few weeks. Or failing that Kinky Boots later in summer. An actor whose talents that I'll long be admiring. And yes, ok, fact that he's a tall, bearded Irishman is doing him no harm at all.

Memphis is a great smaller musical with a serious edge. It's ensemble is excellent and hardworking and everything from staging to choreography is slick but not overbearing. And although I've urged anyone thinking of going to see Donnelly before he leaves, if that's not possible head to an understudy performance- some true musical theatre talent in Jon Robyns and Rachel John as well.

Here's a sneak peak of 'Memphis Lives in Me'

Falsettos: The Other Palace 5*

The genesis of  Falsettos  over 12 years as William Finn developed his original story  In Trousers  in1979, to create  March of the...