Posts tagged ‘henry hitchings’

11 July, 2010

The Comedy of Errors

Sophie  Roberts and Daniel Weyman in The Comedy of Errors

Sophie Roberts and Daniel Weyman in The Comedy of Errors. Image courtesy of The Corner Shop

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 24 June – 31 July 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

The first and final scenes of this open-air Comedy of Errors feel dashed off, as if director Philip Franks couldn’t be bothered to do much with them. This isn’t as big a problem as it might be in a different play: The Comedy of Errors is mostly middle.

Franks appears to have judged, by no means incorrectly, that the sob story Egeon (Christopher Ravenscroft) feeds the Duke (Alister Cameron) in scene one isn’t nearly as important to the audience as it is to Egeon (who is, after all, telling it in order to secure himself a stay of execution). Adoptions and shipwrecks don’t concern us. All we need to know is that two sets of estranged identical twins are about to be set loose in Ephesus and hilarity, as they say, will ensue.

So yes, the opening scene is interminable, there’s little evidence of “grief unspeakable” in Ravenscroft’s performance and as such his climactic reunion with his wife and sons is emotionally flat. But as soon as Egeon yields the stage to the twin Antipholi and Dromios, Franks and the audience alike sit up and start paying attention.

The production has a fantastic sense of fun, embracing the absurdity of the play’s premise and embellishing it with brand new absurdities, like unexpected song and dance numbers and Scooby-Doo-style pursuits with mobs racing past people hidden in convenient wicker baskets.

The contrasting relationships of the Antipholi (Daniels Weyman and Llewelyn-Williams) to their respective Dromios (Joseph Kloska and Josh Cohen) are convincingly fleshed out: Ephesian Dromio (Cohen) is beaten and put-upon by his wealthy master (Llewelyn-Williams) but they always make up in the end, while the less affluent Syracusan pair are on a more equal footing.

This means that when the Antipholi unwittingly swap Dromios or vice versa, as they inevitably must, there’s an extra level of humour to enjoy. One Dromio leaves in search of bail money for Antipholus and another returns with a bit of rope – that’s worth a giggle. But when Ephesian Antipholus, used to getting his own way, is faced with a Dromio who isn’t used to taking orders, hilarity ensues.

Perhaps if Franks had paid as much attention to Egeon’s characterisation as to the twins’, the production could have gained yet another layer, this time of poignancy. But this production gets belly laughs from a capacity crowd using Elizabethan dialogue, so I say, who needs depth when hilarity is ensuing?

Written by William Shakespeare

Crew includes Philip Franks (director), Gideon Davey (designer), Quinny Sacks (movement director), Paul Frankish (musical director)

Cast includes Alister Cameron (Duke), Josh Cohen (Dromio of Ephesus), Joseph Kloska (Dromio of Syracuse), Daniel Llewelyn-Williams (Antipholus of Ephesus), Christopher Ravenscroft (Egeon), Daniel Weyman (Antipholus of Syracuse)

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3 February, 2010

My Stories, Your Emails

Barbican, 2 – 13 February 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Ursula Martinez is an enigma and so is her new solo show, My Stories, Your Emails. An original member of La Clique, Martinez exists in the borderlands between stand-up comedy, burlesque dance, stage magic and performance art. Similarly, My Stories, Your Emails is a lecture, a stand-up act, a play, a confession and an autobiography while simultaneously being none of these things.

It also appears simultaneously to be a constructive, creative response to a potentially upsetting situation and a petty, misdirected act of vengeance.

As the title suggests, it’s a show of two halves. The first involves Martinez reading (mostly) humorous autobiographical anecdotes from a lectern. Her deadpan delivery is disconcertingly reminiscent of Jimmy Carr, though Martinez excels at getting laughs by leaving stories hanging, instead of by comic over-explanation.

The stories serve as a brief introduction to Martinez’s life, revealing aspects of her upbringing and career, details about her family and so on, without sketching anything like a complete picture of her as a person.

The second half concerns a similarly incomplete picture – a video of her magic/striptease act Hanky Panky, which was released onto the internet without her permission – and some of the astonishing conclusions people the world over drew about her as a result. It’s a pageant showcasing some prime examples of that uniquely 21st century prose genre, the speculative online solicitation, in which the objective is to coat every syllable in steaming sexual subtext, but convince the receiving party that you are not just another hopeless case begging for sex.

There’s a surprising variety of pretexts, from those who idolise Martinez as a campaigner for Nudism, to those who want to book her act, through those seeking friendship to those barefacedly requesting sex. What they have in common is that they all think they know, understand or have some kind of claim over Martinez just because they’ve watched a video of her stripping and making a silk handkerchief disappear.

The concept of this segment is a problematic one. A piece of Martinez’s work not intended for mass online consumption ended up online; she responds to this by taking fanmail (complete with full names, photos and even some telephone numbers) presumably meant for her eyes only and performing it publicly. The majority of the men (and they are all men) don’t come out of it especially well. On paper it feels like an eye for an eye.

But she performs the emails without commentary: the men are allowed to present themselves in their own words (though she provides each with an appropriate accent). It also becomes clear from occasional instances of two-way correspondence that their permission has been sought and granted to incorporate their words and pictures into the show.

To presume to draw a definitive conclusion regarding the motivation and ethics behind My Stories, Your Emails would be to make the same mistake as the men. Best just to present the facts and let Ursula Martinez remain an enigma.

Written by Ursula Martinez

Crew includes Mark Whitelaw (director)

Cast includes Ursula Martinez

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29 January, 2010

Excuse me, you’re standing in my dead men’s shoes

Written for The Collective Review, 28 January 2010

Theatre reviewing is a dead men’s shoes business.  One someone lands a chief critic position at a national newspaper, they’ll traditionally hold onto that position until they’re buried or senile.  So for all the deputies and second-stream critics, and for all us up-and-comers watching hawk-like for new deputy or second-stream opportunities, the voluntary retirement of two chief critics within a year of one another should have been a cause for (slightly guilty) celebration.

In March of 2009, Nicholas de Jongh of the Evening Standard quit so he could concentrate on writing plays of his own.  And this week, the mighty Benedict Nightingale, chief critic of The Times for two entire decades, announced he was stepping down too.

What many of us assumed would happen next – what we’d been counting on happening next – was that everyone would effectively shuffle up one level.  Dominic Maxwell would take Nightingale’s position as chief critic, one of The Times’s favourite freelancers would probably get Maxwell’s job, and a space would open up on the paper’s freelancers list.  In short, there would be opportunities.

Instead, both de Jongh and Nightingale were replaced in pretty short order by, respectively, writer Henry Hitchings and journalist Libby Purves, both figures from outside the theatre journalism bubble.  Bold and unexpected moves by the Standard and the Thunderer – but while Hitchings is doing an excellent job, and it’s difficult to imagine Purves putting a foot wrong, what does this mean for the rest of us?

It means we all stay on the rungs we’re on, of course, but more importantly it means we’re less likely than ever to move up even by one.  There are fewer paid critics’ positions than there’ve ever been, they’re only vacated once in a blue moon, and the message we’re now gettingis that even when one does open up we have zero chance of getting it, no matter how much commitment and drive we show, no matter how much talent we display and develop, no matter how many years we spend working for free to build our portfolios.

Well, fine.  Forget the nationals.  Forget the dream of being paid to do what you love.  Instead, get a day job and embrace the internet.  Make a hobby of it, not a career.  Critics were once commonly viewed as dilettantes and dabblers – and if we aren’t allowed to climb higher, moving backwards towards that romantic image may be our only sensible option.

17 November, 2009

Public Property

Trafalgar Studios, 16 November – 5 December 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

At first glance, Public Property is a boilerplate Trafalgar Studio 2 production. Recognisable faces: check (Robert Daws, Nigel Harman and even Stephen Fry, phoning it in via vid-cameo). Humour that doesn’t tax the brain: check (sight gags and comic situational escalation best enjoyed after a glass of wine in the bar). Skilled but slightly overly wordy scriptwriting: check (courtesy of Sam Peter Jackson).

On closer inspection, however, this is something of a rare find: a play about three gay men in which the characters’ sexuality is almost incidental, an extra thematic layer rather than the piece’s raison d’être.

Daws is celebrated newsreader Geoffrey Hammond, who throws himself on the mercy of his ruthless publicist, Larry De Vries (Harman) after being caught by paparrazzi in flagrante delicto with 16-year-old Jamie (Steven Webb). Geoff does protest once or twice that the press wouldn’t be interested if Jamie had been a girl, but the play is more concerned with celebrity, PR and fickle public goodwill than “LGBTQ issues”. Geoff knows, despite his protestations of innocence, that this incident matters more to his reputation than any number of broadcasting gongs, and even Larry is branded repeatedly by his lowest point: the media only remembers him for being booted off the judging panel of a failed reality show.

It’s often difficult to feel any sympathy towards Geoff, who really has only his own indiscretion to blame for his downfall, but Daws does an excellent job of showing the desperation behind the bluster, and his raw vulnerability when talking to or about his offstage lover Paul provides the production’s tenderest moments. Harman is believable whether smooth-talking and in control or plain incredulous at his client’s behaviour, though he flips a little too easily between the two modes, and reacts so little to mentions of Larry’s debts and vices that they seem more a throwaway subplot than an integral part of the character’s backstory.

Jackson’s script, too, is generally sound, though a bit baggy towards the end of Act One, and overly reliant on the repeat-repeat louder-shout-shout-pause formula for writing arguments. Like most Studio 2 shows, Public Property has its flaws, but is still a satisfying enough night out; and it boasts the additional merit of sidestepping the damaging and judgmental “gay play” label which, given its premise, it could easily have been slapped with.

Written by Sam Peter Jackson

Crew includes Hanna Berrigan (director) and Helen Goddard (designer)

Cast includes Robert Daws (Geoffrey Hammond), Nigel Harman (Larry De Vries) and Steven Webb (Jamie Sullivan)

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21 September, 2009

Punk Rock

Lyric Hammersmith, 3 – 26 September 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

Each scene of Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock is abruptly curtailed by an uncomfortably loud belch of feedback and a mangled excerpt from a rock song. By the second hour, each of these sonic interjections sends ripples of uneasy laughter through the stalls. The whole audience is on edge, braced for a shock. Stephens’ clutch of Stockport sixth formers, seen between lessons in Paul Wills’ towering, forbidding onstage library, seem incapable of reining in the impulse to probe and prod and push one another’s boundaries; everyone in the auditorium can tell someone’s going to snap.

By the time the anticipated act of violence occurs, Stephens has laid out a whole smorgasbord of potential contributing factors: unrequited teenage love; body image issues; the spectre of trouble at home; alcohol; an environment in which parents and teachers allow sixth formers to believe a C grade in an English mock means they’ll “never get out of Stockport”; plus Bennet Francis (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), a bully whose aloof disregard for those he hurts is worse by far than actual malice, and whose effect on the group debunks with ease that maxim about sticks and stones so beloved of adult authority figures.

Yet Stephens’ real achievement is that despite all the factors presented to us, when our minds reach, as they tend to do, for a simple, catch-all way to explain the tragedy, there isn’t one. It doesn’t even feel satisfactory to conclude, “it was probably a combination of all those things”.

As an examination of the overly simplistic adult tendency to classify teenage behaviour as the direct result of easily identifiable causes like alcohol, pornography and violent media, Punk Rock delivers; though no alternative theory is forthcoming, unless you count, “some people are just broken”.

Stephens’ love of language carries him away into the odd overwrought line, and Director Sarah Frankcom’s love of Stephens’ language leads to characters delivering extended passages straight out front, while the characters they’re supposedly addressing slouch behind them in a symmetrical chorus-line chevron. The script is excellent – funny in a terrifying and guilt-ridden kind of way – and it deserves to be placed centre stage, but such unnatural blocking actually distracts from the words. Or is that too simple, too immediate an explanation…?

Written by Simon Stephens

Crew includes Sarah Frankcom (director), Paul Wills (designer), Philip Gladwell (lighting designer) and Pete Rice (sound designer)

Cast includes Nicholas Banks (Nicholas Chatman), Ghazaleh Golpira (Lucy Francis), Henry Lloyd-Hughes (Bennet Francis), Harry McEntire (Chadwick Meade), Jessica Raine (Lilly Cahill), Tom Sturridge (William Carlisle), Katie West (Tanya Gleason), Simon Wolfe (Dr Richard Harvey) and Sophie Wu (Cissy Franks)

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18 July, 2009

The Container

Young Vic, 15 – 30 July 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

If you manage to get a ticket for Clare Bayley’s The Container – and with a capacity of just 28 per performance, that’ll make you part of a fairly exclusive group – first check the weather forecast, and pray for rain.

Staged in a freight container parked outside the Young Vic, The Container simulates the experience of illegal immigration aboard a long-haul lorry. Inside it’s pitch dark and smells slightly musty (avoid this production if you’re claustrophobic or afraid of the dark).

The whole space rumbles and vibrates to create a convincing illusion of movement, the result of designer Naomi Dawson and sound designer Adrienne Quartly’s combined technical efforts. That vibration creeps into your body, through the floor and the uncomfortable wooden crates that serve as seats, and sets your guts squirming.

Compound the rumbling and mustiness and darkness with heavy rain, rattling relentlessly on the container’s roof and sides, and the word ‘tense’ begins to sound woefully inadequate. The sound of rain makes the space feel even smaller, and requires the cast to raise their voices, which has a much greater effect in a metal box than it would have on stage.

It’s also a constant reminder of how hostile the outside world is to the characters, all of whom are braving unscrupulous traffickers and European police to escape war, oppression and refugee camps. The door is locked from the outside, forcing the characters – and the audience – to trust sporadic reports from a threatening Agent (Chris Spyrides) concerned more with putting one over on the authorities than with their wellbeing.

The Container is deserving of its Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award simply for its lateral-thinking approach to altering British perceptions of asylum seekers. Rather than try to release immigrants from their pigeonhole, the play puts the British public right in there with them.

Written by Clare Bayley

Crew includes Tom Wright (director), Naomi Dawson (designer) and Adrienne Quartly (sound designer)

Cast includes Amber Agar (Mariam), Doreene Blackstock (Fatima), Abhin Galeya (Jemal), Hassani Shapi (Ahmed) and Chris Spyrides (Agent)

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17 June, 2009

The Mountaintop

Theatre 503, 9 June – 4 July 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

In this imagining of Martin Luther King Jr’s last night alive, award-winning young American playwright Katori Hall boldly combines hard historical fact and in-depth character study with a comparatively barmy supernatural twist. It’s a volatile concoction that could corrode the credibility of a lesser play, but which instead provides an already dynamic production with a surging second-stage boost.

The man in the King’s shoes is David Harewood, who seems to be aiming for a career playing inspirational black leaders (he’ll soon appear on TV as Nelson Mandela). Harewood convincingly recreates the booms, swoops and tremulous vibrato of King’s legendary oratory, maintaining the vocal cadence of a preacher even alone in the privacy of his motel room. He evokes a man consumed continually by a struggle he ironically believes he alone can carry to conclusion.

He’s matched and challenged by Lorraine Burroughs as motel maid Camae, who surprises King with her views – rooted in the same beliefs as his own, but a step removed in their conclusions – and by proving no mean orator herself. Her presence brings out King’s roving eye and patriarchal views to contrast his civil rights work, which makes for much more interesting theatre than a blindly reverent onstage beatification.

Camae is also the crux of that sudden supernatural gear-change, which, far from derailing the play, not only provides some unexpectedly surreal and comic moments (mostly involving one-sided telephone conversations) but also allows us to experience anew through King’s eyes events he didn’t live to see. Thus The Mountaintop is upgraded from period character study to a history with an immediate bearing on the modern world, drawing causal links between the life and death of King and the appointment of Barack Obama to the White House.

Written by Katori Hall

Crew includes James Dacre (director), Libby Watson (designer), Emma Chapman (lighting designer), Richard Hammarton (sound designer) and Dick Straker of Mesmer (video designer)

Cast includes Lorraine Burroughs (Camae) and David Harewood (King)

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31 May, 2009

All’s Well That End Well

National Theatre, 28 May – 30 September 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

All’s Well That Ends Well is supposedly one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, though you wouldn’t guess that from Marianne Elliott’s production at the National (the third of this year’s Travelex £10 ticket plays).

Apparently, the play’s usual flaw is Bertram, the male romantic lead. When the King of France forcibly weds him to Helena, in return for her curing him of a fistula, Bertram’s reaction is one of extreme distaste. He proceeds to abhor his wife for the rest of the play, joining the army to avoid her and promising to consummate his vows only if she fulfils certain nigh-impossible conditions. Then, when she duly fulfils those conditions, he turns on a sixpence in the interests of a happy ending.

Here, Bertram (George Rainsford) is a snooty child of privilege whose rejection of Helena is a reactionary response to their class difference, and his sudden turnaround is the logical result of his confidant Parolles’ exposure as a coward and fraudster, which shows Bertram that his judgement of character isn’t as sound as he thinks it is. It’s then perfectly natural for him, upon his reunion with the wife he thought dead of heartbreak, to be grateful for a second chance with a woman whose praises are sung by every other character, but whom he foolishly dismissed without a second look.

More importantly, Bertram’s change of heart is a victory for Helena, who takes the traditionally male role of dogged suitor and stubbornly refuses to take “no” for an answer. Michelle Terry, who deftly handled multiple roles in season opener England People Very Nice, here deftly embodies Helena’s strongest aspects – her determination and her good-humoured mischievous streak. Perhaps fittingly, her performance is weakest when showing Helena’s weakness; the monologues mourning her unrequited love are drastically overplayed.

The only ‘problem’ aspect remaining is what Terry’s independent Helena sees in Rainsford’s spoiled Bertram in the first place.

None of which is to say that this is a flawless production. The stylised silent vignettes Elliott uses to cover scene changes seem pasted in, at odds with the dark gravity of Rae Smith’s imposing, tumbledown set; and Helena’s ‘resurrection’ is greeted with saccharine streams of golden light and a rain of sparkly rose petals. All that’s missing is a choir of angels.

Perhaps under other circumstances having ’solved’ All’s Well would be enough of an achievement, but this is the National we’re talking about; it’s perfectly justifiable to demand more.

Written by William Shakespeare

Crew includes Marianne Elliott (director) and Rae Smith (designer)

Cast includes Oliver Ford Davies (King of France), Clare Higgins (The Countess of Rossillion), Conleth Hill (Parolles), George Rainsford (Bertram) and Michelle Terry (Helena)

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