Posts tagged ‘the collective review’

10 June, 2010

Beating Berlusconi

Paul Duckworth as Kenny Noonan

Paul Duckworth as Kenny Noonan. Image courtesy of Martin Shippen Arts Marketing and Media

King’s Head Theatre, 8 June – 4 July

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide and cross-posted to The Collective Review

If you’re on tenterhooks for the World Cup, you could do worse for a warm-up than Beating Berlusconi. But you don’t need a review to tell you that; you can work out from the poster alone that it’s pitched at football fans. This review is for everyone else, in whom the idea of the World Cup inspires anything from indifference to nausea, and its advice is this: give Beating Berlusconi a try. It’ll surprise you if you let it.

In a nutshell, this one man show is the story of one Liverpool fan’s quest to see his team beat AC Milan at the Champions’ League final in Istanbul – and to nearly lamp Silvio Berlusconi in the process. But it’s as much about how and why he gets there as it is about the match (or the Berlusconi encounter); and the forces driving him Istanbul-wards are personal, political and social as often as they are sporting.

Paul Duckworth is Kenny, our affable EveryScouser; and as well as being a fine comic character actor, Paul Duckworth knows how to play to the crowd, which is invaluable in a play that encourages a certain amount of chanting and heckling. He’s got that instant familiarity that turns the show from Theatre into an extended barstool anecdote.

But it’s the occasional touching, visceral appearance of his lifetime’s worth of emotional baggage – his indignation at the demonisation of his community after Heysel and Hillsborough, the regret he carries after parting on bad terms with a close friend, his estrangement from his father – which, whatever your views on football, will make you root for Kenny to reach Istanbul whatever it costs him.

If you need an antidote to World Cup fever, Beating Berlusconi is not it. Beating Berlusconi is an inoculation. Even if you don’t buy into the hype yourself, it might help you understand why the game means so much to so many people. Like most things worth getting excited about, theatre included, it’s “a chance to escape all the shite”.

Written by John Graham Davies

Crew includes Matt Rutter (director) and Mike Wright (designer)

Cast includes Paul Duckworth (Kenny Noonan)

Need a second opinion?

28 May, 2010

Napoleon Noir

Katrina Nare and Cavin Cornwall in Napoleon Noir

Katrina Nare and Cavin Cornwall in Napoleon Noir. Image courtesy of Theo PR

Lost Theatre, 19 May – 5 June 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide and cross-posted to The Collective Review

Poor Toussaint L’Ouverture – known in his native 18th century San Domingo (modern Haiti) as the Napoleon Noir – is apparently doomed to historical oversight. Despite being a hero to his nation, a liberator of slaves, he’s reduced to a bit player even in the play that bears his nom de guerre.

Though in writing Napoleon Noir Marcus Heath presumably intended to raise L’Ouverture’s public profile, his portrayal of the man is decidedly ungenerous. Cavin Cornwall has the necessary presence and poise to lend Toussaint a dependable solemnity, but he still comes across as a poor strategist, blinded by stubbornness.

There’s the seed of a great tragic plot there just waiting for nourishment. Instead, the play suggests Toussaint’s assertion that he “cannot trust any white man!” is the root of his downfall, and that he would have been better off had he heeded the advice of his second-in-command, the rather ineffectual (white) French general La Terre (Maurizio Molino).

Perhaps if Toussaint were allowed more stage time, Heath would have the space to do him justice, but swathes of the play are given over to the underdeveloped intrigues and romances of the underdeveloped characters that comprise Toussaint’s household. These predominantly female supporting characters aren’t well served by the script or by Hannah Kaye’s direction, which resorts too often to comically overplayed cleavage-plumping and saucy asides.

Toussaint’s half-French mistress Mireille (Katrina Nare) is probably the largest part in the production, and should probably be its emotional core – abandoned by her general to the mercies of the French military aristocracy, she should stand in for all the wronged people of San Domingo. But Toussaint pays her too little attention in their few scenes together for their bond to be emotionally engaging; Heath gives her a lot of whiny speeches and soppy, forgettable power ballads to sing; and Nare, alone of all the cast, retains a drama school RP delivery that sets her jarringly apart from what should be an ensemble.

The whole production, in fact, is a jumble of jarringly distinct styles and elements. Each scene is airtight, so tension and momentum built up in the opening minutes, as the white and black Napoleons’ incompatible desires steer everyone inevitably towards violence, dissipate uselessly and are forgotten once the focus shifts to the household.

Heath’s poppy musical compositions sit uncomfortably alongside Duncan Walsh-Atkins’ more African-accented, drumming-and-chanting-led pieces. Excruciating naturalism blurs suddenly into expressionist movement pieces. Every four or five lines someone drops into GCSE-standard French small talk. And once, in the second act, Mireille reacts to news of yet another unlikely affair by addressing a pantomime “Ooh la la!” direct to the audience.

Where, meanwhile, is the neglected hero, Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Napoleon Noir? Either trying his level best to look dignified amongst it all, or very sensibly backstage, staying beyond the reach of the circus.

Written by Marcus Heath

Crew includes Hannah Kaye (director), Duncan Walsh-Atkins (musical director) and Iain Storey (choreographer)

Cast includes Cavin Cornwall (Toussaint), Maurizio Molino (La Terre), Hayward Morse (Le Clerc), Katrine Nare (Mireille), Katherine Newman (Pauline) and Zama Precious Siphengana (Yamaya)

Need a second opinion?

24 March, 2010

4.48 Psychosis

Magdalena Cielecka in 4.48 Psychosis

Magdalena Cielecka in 4.48 Psychosis. Image by Stefan Okołowicz

Barbican, 23 – 27 March 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide and cross-posted to The Collective Review

4.48 Psychosis is a gift for a director. Kane’s text – her last – is more prose poem than script, lacking stage directions or delineated characters: a nearly blank slate onto which a director can impose context, character and narrative. To Grzegorz Jarzyna, of Polish company TR Warszawa, that creative freedom is a double-edged sword: by over-exercising it in certain areas, he almost crowds out the strongest elements of his interpretation.

Every scene of this Polish language production has its conceit. In one, pills rain from a table onto the floor. In another, lead performer Magdalena Cielecka is silently mirrored by a small girl. Later, a naked old woman circumnavigates the stage while Cielecka speaks. These images are more of a visual accompaniment to the dialogue than an interpretation of it, and actually serve to distract from the production’s main strengths.

One of these is the oppressive atmosphere, sustained largely by the monotonous bass drones and seasick pitchshifted showtunes of Piotr Dominski’s soundscape. Combine that with lighting designer Felice Ross’s palette of confining spots and sickly washes and even the 1,166-seater Barbican Theatre starts to feel claustrophobic.

But the production’s stand-out, defining feature is Magdalena Cielecka’s performance. Her every twitch, tic and gesture is more fascinating and meaningful than the production’s whole complement of devices and visual metaphors.

As she details her planned method of suicide, she clutches her belly, or wrings her hands together masturbatorily through her trouser pockets. Eloquently but venomously she rails against the doctors that rattle off easy chemical fixes for her every symptom, and against the people and circumstances she blames for them.

It’s clear without any supplementary imagery that this person is grieving rather than self-pitying, that she’s damaged as much by unfeeling diagnoses and labels as by whatever’s happening inside her, and that, far from taking the easy way out, she’s desperate to free herself by any means, however extreme.

It takes until the play’s final passage for Jarzyna to whisk away all the window dressing. Here Cielecka’s face, softly illuminated by a narrow spot, is all that’s visible on an otherwise darkened stage; Jarzyna decodes Kane’s final lines solely through the medium of his star’s delivery and countenance. It’s revealing that this understated moment, rather than, say, Cielecka’s earlier crazed, blood-drenched assault on the cyc, is the production’s most enthralling.

Written by Sarah Kane

Crew includes Grzegorz Jarzyna (director), Małgorzata Szczęśniak (set design), Piotr Domiński (music and sound design) and Felice Ross (lighting design)

Cast includes Mariusz Benoit, Janusz Chabior, Magdalena Cielecka, Katarzyna Herman and Rafał Maćkowiak

Need a second opinion?

1 March, 2010

Lyn Gardner fully expects to be replaced by Katie Price

Written for The Collective Review, 1 March 2010

The national newspapers’ habit of replacing their retired head theatre critics with columnists and political sketchwriters is pretty worrying for those of us on the bottom rungs of the theatre criticism career ladder, as I pointed out in January, when The Times announced Libby Purves would be replacing Benedict Nightingale in their top spot.

Well, it turns out up-and-comers like me aren’t the only ones concerned by the trend:  some of the country’s most influential theatre critics also expressed reservations about the appointments last Friday, at Theatre Critics In The Spotlight, a panel discussion hosted by The Student Workshop of Royal Holloway, University of London (pictured).

Even before the panel hosts – Royal Holloway lecturer and Variety theatre critic Karen Fricker, and Student Workshop Creative Learning Officer Sheryl Hill – formally posed the question, panellist Mark Shenton – critic for the Sunday Express and daily blogger for The Stage – repeatedly brought up the topic.

In Shenton’s view, the trend is a cost-saving measure, symptomatic of the problems facing the newspaper and media industry as a whole.  His fellow panellist Kate Bassett, lead critic for the Independent on Sunday, pithily summarised those problems, saying, “Newspapers don’t know how to make money any more”.

Shenton explained that papers could avoid paying an extra salary by simply adding theatre criticism to the duties of an existing member of staff, adding that editors no longer consider theatre criticism to be a full-time occupation.

Ian Shuttleworth of the Financial Times recalled – enlighteningly, for those of us relatively new to the business – the appointment of former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Michael Portillo as theatre critic for the New Statesman, which he considers to be the beginning of the trend.  Worryingly, he also pointed out that his own promotion to lead critic at the FT is the only instance in living memory of a retiring lead critic being replaced by their number two at the same paper – most second-stringers have to defect to a different publication in order to secure a top slot.

Lyn Gardner, critic and blogger for The Guardian, concluded the discussion with this bleak yet matter-of-fact premonition of the industry’s future:  “I fully expect my job will one day be done by Katie Price”.

19 February, 2010

‘I’d rather be in the pub’ is not an excuse

Written for The Collective Review, 19 February 2010

It’s understandable that a lot of people would rather spend their evening in the pub than at the theatre.  Who cares if the tickets are more affordable than you might think?  Theatres are stuffy and elitist, plays are boring, and you can’t even fortify yourself beforehand or commiserate properly afterwards because the beer is expensive and the wine is expensive and nasty…

…all right, you’ve caught me; that was a test.  If you found yourself showering that paragraph in indignant spittle then give yourself a pat on the back and move on.  If, on the other hand, you found yourself nodding in agreement, keep reading:  this article is for you.

I’m taken by surprise on a regular basis by people (theatre people and ‘normal’ people alike) who have no idea that there are theatres in pubs.  It surprises me because I see plays staged in little studios above or behind London pubs all the time (I’m the British Theatre Guide’s current go-to guy for pub theatre), and because they seem to me to be such a winning formula.

In this city at least, pub theatres (and theatre pubs – there’s a delicate distinction) are everywhere.  The tickets and the drinks alike are affordable.  There’s none of that gin-quaffing air-kissing atmosphere that puts so many people off the theatre.  The sets and lighting are often basic, but that encourages directorial innovation, and there’s a wealth of interesting, well-performed work to be found as a result.  So how come everyone I talk to reacts like pub theatre is London’s best-kept secret?

I think it’s largely a marketing issue.  The first time I visit a particular pub theatre I often realise I’ve walked past the pub before without realising there was a theatre in it.  From the street, the only evidence that – for instance – the Oxford Arms in Camden also houses the Etcetera Theatre is a sandwich board in the porch.  Presumably the publicans are worried pub-only punters could be put off by the thought of sharing the bar with a bunch of ginned-up luvvies.

Equally, while they don’t deliberately obscure the fact, few theatres make a selling point of being situated in a pub.  It’s possible to book online and turn up at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington and only then realise it takes its name from the pub it’s attached to; likewise the King’s Head or Hen and Chickens in Islington.  The name ‘Theatre503‘ in a listing or review does not immediately suggest a connection to the Latchmere pub in Battersea, and the Greenwich Playhouse’s website studiously avoids mentioning that it can only be accessed through an O’Neill’s.  They seem to want to be defined as theatres that happen to share premises with a pub, rather than the joint entity ‘pub theatre’.

It’s like the pubs and their theatres are determined to be the awkward bedfellows they are on paper – in which case we need to be the mutual friends determined to show them how perfect they actually are for one another.  No one’s consciously keeping people in the dark about the pub theatre movement, but people are in the dark nonetheless, and that benefits nobody.

9 February, 2010

Olivier Audience Award shortlist: four musicals and a horse

Written for The Collective Review, 9 February 2010

I promised you a reminder to vote in the second round of the Olivier Awards’ brand-new category, the Audience Award – so here it is.

The winner of the Audience Award for Most Popular Long-Running Show of 2009 is determined by the votes of the general public – the first time an Olivier Award winner has been decided by anyone outside the Society of London Theatre.  The first round of voting whittled a long-list of 20 eligible productions down to just five.

Those five are (in alphabetical order):  Billy Elliot – The Musical, The Phantom of the Opera, War Horse, We Will Rock You and Wicked.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand the enduring popularity of We Will Rock You, Ben Elton’s nonsensical jukebox musical featuring the music of Queen – but popular it is, and acknowledging popularity rather than critical acclaim is the point of the Audience Award, so I suppose I must grudgingly admit that it deserves the nod (while simultaneously grumbling under my breath that plenty of shows on the longlist managed to be both phenomenally popular and good theatre at the same time).

What is heartening about the shortlist is the eerily perfect proportional representation of musicals and “straight” theatre.  The longlist consisted of 16 musicals and four plays – an 80-20 split, if you want to talk percentages.  The shortlist contains four musicals and one play, War Horse – another perfect 80-20 split.

Now, unlike a lot of critics I could name, I don’t hate musicals (unless they’re We Will Rock You).  I’m perfectly happy to see musicals dominating the Audience award shortlist:  they’re the golden geese of the commercial West End, they get people into theatres and (with the aforementioned exception) the ones on the shortlist are actually good.

But all the same, it cheers me up to see War Horse holding its own up there.  It’s evidence that the taste of the British theatregoing public – your taste, in other words – is more varied than it’s often portrayed in the media.  Mindless handclappy escapism is not the only reason to visit the West End, and the spectacularly emotional War Horse – plus the intelligent, literate and iconic musicals featured on the shortlist – proves that.

Click here to help decide which of the five will take the gong, but be warned – I’m compiling a shortlist of my own, and voting for We Will Rock You is a surefire way to end up on it.

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.

22 January, 2010


Theatre 503, 19 – 23 January 2010

Reviewed for The Collective Review

What do you remember about the Noughties? (Yes, it turns out that is what we’re calling them.) Theatre503 asked that question to ten playwrights – five established, five as-yet unproduced – and the result is Decade, a collection of ten ten-minute plays, each one representing a single year. So what do the Decade writers remember about the Noughties?

First and foremost, they remember global catastrophes. Summing up a whole year in ten minutes of drama is a tall order, of course, so most of the ten focus on one or two iconic events – and it seems most of the iconic events of the Noughties were disasters. The Millennium Bug (okay – only a potential disaster), 9/11, the war in Iraq, the Christmas tsunami of 2004, Guantanamo Bay and the election of BNP MEPs all feature.

This could be because, as we’re often told, Conflict Is The Essence Of Drama. Alternatively, this could be how we’re fated to remember the last decade: as one disaster after another.

It was also a decade dominated by the USA, and American accents permeate Decade. Behind his vacant stare, President George Dubya Bush is dancing inside, in Beth Steel’s surreal 2001. Nimer Rashed personifies the post-9/11 USA as a seductive, manipulative but brutally wronged neighbour. In Richard Marsh’s 2007, two Guantanamo guards find themselves in thrall to an inmate’s superior knowledge of the final Harry Potter book.

Surprisingly, despite suspicion of Muslims and Middle Eastern peoples dictating many powerful countries’ foreign policy, and despite the landmark election of the USA’s first black President, race is hardly touched upon. Marsh’s inmate Khaliq (Sartaj Garewal) comments briefly on the consequences of assuming certain people are all the same, but it’s left to Rex Obano to tackle race single-handedly in 2009 – a task he accomplishes defiantly, though not without the odd flop in onstage energy.

The quality of the writing is consistently high enough that, without the programme, it’s difficult to distinguish the seasoned pros from the unknowns. Newcomer Nimer Rashed struggles to find an original angle on 9/11, but still outdoes Market Boy writer David Eldridge’s limp offering (though Eldridge’s scene isn’t helped by weak, overly static direction from Gene David Kirk). Amy Rosenthal and April de Angelis both deliver strong, pacey, dialogue-driven contributions, but so too does the unproduced Richard Marsh. Beth Steel delivers more meaning via her surrealism than Phil Porter’s weird, overwrought piece.

The finished product – cemented together with period pop music and news headlines – is a dreamlike reassemblage of half-faded memories. Not a complete picture of the decade by any means, but a more potent epitaph by far than the kind of bland, Jimmy-Carr-hosted nostalgia thrown together for TV.

Written by April de Angelis, David Eldridge, Fraser Grace, Richard Marsh, Rex Obano, Phil Porter, Lou Ramsden, Nimer Rashed, Amy Rosenthal and Beth Steel

Crew includes Jessica Beck, Anthony Biggs, Gemma Farlie, Antonio Ferrara, Steve Harper, Gene David Kirk, Tim Roseman and Charlotte Westenra (directors)

Cast includes Victoria Bavister, Phil Brodie, Jamie de Courcey, Sartaj Garewal, Vincent Jerome, Jamal Noland and Henry Steele

Need a second opinion?

21 January, 2010

New Olivier Award celebrates the power of you

Written for The Collective Review, 21 January 2010

This year’s Laurence Olivier Awards will include a brand new category, the Audience Award, introduced to celebrate the nation’s favourite long-running production of 2009.  Notice that I say ‘the nation’s favourite’, not ‘the Society of London Theatre’s favourite’.  The nominees and eventual winner of the Audience Award will be decided by a public vote.

Public opinion polls aren’t exactly news, especially in Theatreland; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group make their most significant casting decisions via televised phone-in these days, after all.  But the Oliviers, like the BAFTAs and the Oscars, have always been a strictly industry affair.

The judging panel for the Theatre category (which also includes musical theatre) consists of five experts and eight members of the theatregoing public; but nominations can usually only be made by members of the Society of London Theatre, so the ordinary mortals on the panel can’t fight for a show that isn’t already endorsed by the industry.

The Audience Award nominees, on the other hand, will be determined by an online poll that’s open to everyone.  Once the nominations are announced, in the week beginning 8 February, a second round of public voting will determine the winner.

To be eligible for nomination, a production must already have been running on 1 January 2009 and still have been going on 31 December 2009.  To run for that long a show has to have immense popular appeal, so it’s only appropriate that the people who kept them open – who made them eligible – should be the ones to honour them in British theatre’s most prestigious ceremony.

The eligible productions, in alphabetical order, are:  The 39 Steps, Avenue Q, Billy Elliot – The Musical, Blood Brothers, La Cage Aux Folles, Chicago, Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage, Grease, Hairspray, Jersey Boys, The Lion King, Mamma Mia, Les Misérables, The Mousetrap, The Phantom of the Opera, Stomp, War Horse, We Will Rock You, Wicked and The Woman In Black.

Click here to vote for your favourite – and stay tuned to t5m through February for comments on the nominees and a reminder to vote in the second round.

14 January, 2010

No excuses: theatre is affordable

Written for The Collective Review, 14 January 2010

Hey, did you see Avatar?  Did you see it in 3D?  What about IMAX 3D?  What did you pay?  I paid £12.50, plus online booking fee, to see it in IMAX 3D (at the Odeon in Wimbledon, if anyone’s asking), and I was just one of millions:  millions of people who have proven themselves willing to spend £12.50 or thereabouts on an evening’s entertainment.

If you’re one of those millions, you can easily afford a night out at the theatre.  Not nearly enough people realise this.  The expense is probably the most common excuse for not attending the theatre, but if you can afford a cinema ticket – especially in London, where a peak ticket can cost up to £11 even without IMAX or 3D or other trimmings – you can afford a theatre ticket.

No one’s disputing that the West End is expensive, but there’s more to theatre than Theatreland.  And cheaper tickets don’t necessarily equate to a poorer quality product:  thanks to a sponsorship deal with Travelex, you can see certain productions at the South Bank’s National Theatre, arguably the UK’s most influential venue, for just £10.  Production values at the National rival the commercial West End, and there are no bad seats in the theatre’s vast Olivier space; the £10 view is as good as the £40 view.

A short walk from the National, in an atmospheric vault under London Bridge, you’ll find Southwark Playhouse, whose ‘airline-style’ pricing means you can get tickets for as little as £8 if you book early enough.  A little further afield, but still in Zone One, is the Royal Court, which specialises in brand new work by up-and-coming writers; on Mondays, every seat in the house costs just £10.  A lot of the Royal Court’s productions end up transferring to the West End, where top price tickets can cost five times that sum – so see them while they’re cheap!

If you want somewhere to spend the money you’ve saved on your ticket, try the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill.  It’s a tiny but very flexible space located above the Prince Albert Pub.  They specialise in new translations of foreign plays, and tickets for the first three performances of every production are just £8.

If 100-seater spaces under bridges or over pubs aren’t your idea of theatre, you could do worse than the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith; their main performance space is an impressively ornate Victorian proscenium arch, complete with stalls, circle and boxes, and they offer £10 tickets for certain performances of every production.  Or for a less baroque experience try the Almeida Theatre in Islington – cheapest tickets £8.

As if all those affordable venues weren’t enough, if you’re under 26 you can get into some of the best performances around without paying a penny, thanks to the Arts Council’s A Night Less Ordinary scheme.  Just go to, type in your postcode and you’ll find a list of theatres, including most of the ones I’ve listed above, that you’re entitled to patronise free of charge.

Understand, too, that this is just a sampler of the venues and deals on offer.  Even the West End can be affordable (ish) if you don’t mind visiting the TKTS booth in Leicester Square in person, and I’ve barely begun to cover London’s thriving and criminally overlooked pub theatre scene.  So no more excuses:  if you can afford a cinema ticket, or three pints in a London pub, you can afford a night out at the theatre.