An archive of our reviews (Part Five)
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Earlier Opinions for 2019 can be found HERE
The End of History by Jack Thorne, at the Royal Court
What's it about? A left-wing couple, Sal and David, have tried to bring up their children to follow their principles. Over the next 20 years, these ideals are tested, embraced, betrayed and rejected. The distance between family bonds and family tensions is explored by the writer, sometimes hilariously but most often with powerful emotion.
What did it have going for it? First of all, the writer Jack Thorne and the director John Tiffany have a good track-record in their body of work. Then the casting of theatrical heavyweights Lesley Sharp and David Morrissey confirmed that we were right to make our booking. The added attraction of Kate O'Flynn (A Taste of Honey) and Sam Swainsbury (tv's Mum) added to our anticipation.
Did we enjoy it? Very much. Lesley Sharp commands the first act as though the part was tailor-made for her, and the family situation is set up convincingly so that the explosions that follow are plausible and gripping. The following scenes bristle with resentment between the children and their parents and each other. Laurie Davidson, as the sensitive younger son, exposes the awareness that they all share of being a disappointment to their parents' aspirations, and Zoe Boyle is an effective catalyst as she develops from a shy girlfriend to a resentful daughter-in-law. David Morrissey, strong throughout, rises to the occasion in the difficult final scene.
Our Rating: 4/5
Would the Group have booked? The Royal Court announces its season up to a year in advance, and then casts the plays much later. It''s always difficult to sell enough tickets to make a coach viable when we don't who's going to be in the play. By the time casting was announced, it would have been difficult to arrange a group booking. This is unfortunate, as I think the group would have booked for this one.
Would the group have enjoyed it? Yes, I'm confident that they would. I'm sure everyone could identify with the predicaments in the family. It was funny and sad, and there is a lot to talk about – although we both enjoyed it, Mike and I had slightly different interpretations about the theme of the play.
Group Appeal: 4/5
Mike adds: Yes, we slightly disagreed on this one. It was certainly sharp and very funny, but a play 'of two halves', or more precisely 'two thirds and a third'. It started so well - the Socialist parents from Hell, flaunting their principles and so aware of the world's problems, yet blind to the growing problems within their family, thoroughly middle-class but scornful of anyone slightly more posh. Sal is the eternal Geenham Common Woman reliving her past, and David the Intellectual Socialst, tense, aloof, and always on a short fuse. They were too Left to be right. They despise their children’s choices in life putting ideology before family. This may sound heavy but it’s continually funny and I found myself laughing at them with no admiration for the way they Put Politics First. The family’s pain was evident too. Then came the coda - a serious eulogy for a lost champion of causes, no mention of misapplied socialist dogma. For me this was a cop-out, an excusing of a mismanaged life, there to please an audience maybe wanting redress after seeing their champions of Leftie politics the butt of so much laughter.Thorne says the play is a memoir of his beloved parents. So was this Wesker rewritten by Ayckbourn? A compromised attempt at combining the two, I say. Still 4 stars though - a lively portrayal of how earnest leftwing devotees can alienate those they want to convert.
The Doctor very freely adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi by Robert Icke,
at the Almeida Theatre
What's it about? Professor Ruth Wolff, head of an institute treating and researching dementia, has admitted a 14-year-old girl who is dying of sepsis after a botched amateur abortion. The girl’s parents are Catholic, and have sent a priest to administer the last rites. Ruth refuses him permission to visit her patient, in case it distresses her. From this initial conflict between medicine and religion, the play explores issues of political correctness with regard to religion, gender, race and any other targets that get in the way.
What did it have going for it? This is director Robert Icke’s final production as Associate Director of the Almeida, and Juliet Stevenson plays the title role. We were glad we’d booked when we read the 5-star reviews.
Did we enjoy it? It’s a very slick production, and Robert Icke is playing with loaded dice: Juliet Stevenson is at her most intense and compelling mode, and is given good support by the other members of the cast, especially Nathalie Armin and Paul Higgins. The script is vital and articulate about the issues it raises. And there are surprises: white actors play black characters, women play men, and vice versa, and the audience is consequently wrong-footed and has to adjust its understanding of who and what is presented to us. It’s all quite exciting….
But I’m afraid it doesn’t get 5 stars from me. First of all, I found the premise of the play a bit dubious, and then as the arguments escalated, I began to suspect the contrivance behind the surface dazzle of the play. Juliet Stevenson’s Ruth is uncompromising and doesn’t ask the audience for sympathy, but her colleagues reveal streaks of venality, and it’s not as even-handed as it pretends to be. It’s all played at an unrelenting pitch.
The second act pulls some of the themes into clearer focus, and the scene of the television interview is sheer genius. Alas, we have the signature anodyne song that is a feature of Icke’s productions, and there’s a protracted scene at the end which is overloaded with previously-withheld information that is designed to keep us on Ruth’s side.
I couldn’t help feeling that it was impressive, but the words “hollow” and “bogus” crossed my mind. I’m sure Mike and Kathie would not agree
My Rating: 3/5
Would the Group have booked? Juliet Stevenson is a draw, so I think so, but there’s a difficulty in getting suitable seats at the Almeida.
Would the group have enjoyed it? Yes, there’s enough there to impress, but some may have been confused by the unusual casting decisions by the director.
Group Appeal: 3/5
Mike adds - Fredo thinks I may disagree, so here's my two-penneth again. The critics were unanimous in praise so I was not expecting controversy, except the production is designed to stir up discussion. When Paul Higgins is referred to as a black priest, it's one of those theatrical moments where a total rethink is required. I liked that. And the doctor's interview by a team of minority-group leaders shows just how fascist liberals can be in their self-righteousness. Did you know the word 'uppity' is racist and should nevert be used? This was QT-style sparring. I liked that too, especially in politically correct Islington. I'm with Fredo there. Hollow and bogus - no, I don't go along with that - it was too jam-packed with fashionable concerns to be 'hollow', but 'bogus' can certainly be up for discussion in any liberal household (there's a welcome put-down for indulgent 'woke' usage). I will add an extra star to Fredo's but assume that all those five-star responses from the crits may be leaving presents for Icke as he moves his talents to theatres new. On current form, he deserves his following.
And Kathie adds - I’m not sure that bogus applies as far as I’m concerned. I felt it was a worthwhile premise, at its core, but the addition of the various race/colour/religion/gender issues made it feel somewhat contrived. Also, the fact (SPOILER) that Ruth was banned from practicing was handled very baldly. If the priest, at the end, offers understanding it’s odd that Ruth, with her mastery of language, failed to get the decision-makers on her side, unless perhaps they had decided, tacitly, to bow to public pressure and be seen to be ‘woke’!
The Weatherman by Eugene O’Hare , at The Park Theatre
What’s it about? Two men in a small flat are obliged by their dodgy landlord Dollar (David Shaal) to house a Romanian girl Mara (Niamh James) who has been trafficked. One of the men, O’Rourke (Alec Newman), plans to help the girl. The second man, Beezer (Mark Hadfield) whose USP is a knowledge of weather forecasting, and the enforcer Turkey (Cyril Nri), have other ideas.
What did it have going for it? It’s a new play, performed by an experienced cast (though Ms James is making her professional debut) and it’s quite well staged. It revolves around current burning issues of modern slavery and human trafficking and in so doing gives the audience something to ponder.
Did we enjoy it? Only up to a point. Advertised as a black comedy, the play did not quite know where it was going. The opening scenes had an ersatz Pinterish quality with brutish humour and uncertainty in relationships but this was not really sustained. Later, Beezer and O’Rourke deliver extensive, self-revelatory monologues, awkward in the extreme and (perversely perhaps) aimed at establishing some kind of sympathetic connection with the girl. These speeches suggested hinterlands and themes which if pursued would have toppled the play’s structure. Also raising one’s curiosity, unsatisfied of course, was the question of Dollar’s true feelings for O’Rourke.
The playwright has lighted on a powerful theme, one which stains contemporary society. He does not preach about it, nor does he offer any consolation or resolution. And, rather cleverly, in making underage Mara a mute, he forces the articulation of her sufferings to come from the four men complicit in her situation. Nor is he short of ideas on other forms of exploitation and social debasement. Dollar’s two wretched tenants, feckless and helpless, are themselves effectively enslaved and imprisoned, both physically and psychologically. O’Rourke is mentally unstable and insecure; Beezer is a drunk and a failure, While it was dramatically (and meteorologically) pretty clear how O’Rourke ended up, the closing scene left the audience to speculate on the fate of Mara.
Here was a play that seemed to have emerged from a creative writing class rather too early, replete with ideas/symbols/even jokes that the author was determined to wedge in, still in need of some pretty ruthless editing and nailing down. A pervasive sense of unease grew as much from the uneven writing as from the plot points. Mark Hadfield seemed a shade uncomfortable with his words; Alec Newman was more at home with his unstable character. David Shaal was fully inside the ruthless, domineering Dollar. Cyril Nri made his cheerful thug only too convincing. Niamh James’s role spoke for itself…..
I am not unhappy when given by a playwright some work to do after the curtain falls, but quite what O’Hare intended his own searchlight to explore remained rather unclear.
My rating 2.5/5
Would the Group have booked? Unlikely - little going for it to encourage booking.
Would the group have enjoyed it? 'Enjoy' is not a word anyone would use.
Group appeal: 2/5
Peter Pan by J M Barrie in a version by Sally Cookson,
at the Troubadour White City Theatre
What's it about? A boy who never grows up (but you knew that) and an awfully big adventure in Neverland.
What did it have going for it? This is the Bristol Old Vic & National Theatre's well regarded production now transferred to a brand new theatre - two good reasons for investigating, especially as we had been invited by Delfont Mackintosh Groups.
Did we enjoy it? We were apprehensive about finding our way to White City, way out of our theatrical comfort zone, but the trek proved easy. This brand new theatre was just a fairy's flight from White City tube station and, it seems, Westfield. How exciting, and what a venue it proved to be – as huge as a hangar, coloured patterns on the outside, industrial chic girders and lightbulbs inside, with acres of functional but comfortable seating facing a wide open stage. But would it have the right atmosphere for a magical fairytale adventure? Could we suspend our disbelief in Brexit long enough to believe in fairies and take flight to Neverland? Yes, we could!
J M Barrie might raise an eyebrow but a smile too. The show starts small in a bedroom of backcloth and a few props, with a quartet relaxing us with familiar tunes, but once we reach Neverland it's a bigger world of make-believe scenery, ingeniously improvised props and ragbag costumes, and a rock band to remind us this is a 21st century 'Peter Pan' – old story, old morals, but new thinking. For the most part it all works remarkably well. The well known tale remains intact with all the exciting bits, and the boring bits too, all brought alive by the excellent cast bringing a refreshing originality to their roles – the agile Peter Pan is black (John Pfumojena); mischievous Tinkeerbell is male (Shiv Rabheru); Captain Hook is played by Mrs Darling (Kelly Price, the spitting image of a show-off Helena Bonham Carter); and Daisy Maywood, playing Wendy, you may remember as the singing cleric in 'Company'. For those who have never taken flight before, Peter tells us that to fly you need genuine Fairy Strings and we see them being attached by Fairy String attendants – a suitable warning for kids not to try this at home with mum's ball of twine. From the moment Peter soars, so does the show. He takes off and flies right over the heads of the audience – it's one of those magical theatrical moments to make one's heart soar too. There's a troup of interchangeable Lost Boys, Pirates and Mermaids; there's a crocodile with glaring eyes and made from a procession of corrugated board – the kids could try that in the garden at home because the show happily and unfashionably encourages the joy of Let's Pretend. Younger kids may prefer their iPads to play with, but for older kids (and that includes us all) it's entertaining fun. If it sags occasionally with some tiresome plot developments, we must blame Barrie for those, but mostly it really is an awfully big advenure, especially with no polution guilt attached to flying, and it's certainly worth the trek to White City, with or without the help of Fairy Strings.
(For those of you still regretting a Captain Hook played by Mrs Darling, apparently this is what Barrie intended with his original title 'Peter Pan - The Boy Who Hated Mothers' because Peter's mother had closed the window when he flew home.)
Our Rating: 4/5
Would the Group have booked? Most likely, especially with grandchildren to accompany. We would have loved to take the Group BUT the show has now closed early due to dwindling audiences after the end of the school hols.
Would the group have enjoyed it? They would sign up to be one of the Lost Boys!
Group Appeal: 4/5
Heartbeat of Home at the Piccadilly Theatre
What's it about? It’s a dance spectacular form the producers of Riverdance, involving Irish, Latin, and Afro-Cuban dancing, with a bit of tap and Hip-Hop thrown in. Its thesis seemed to be that folk dance all comes from the same roots, but it didn’t manage to prove this.
What did it have going for it? We were guests of Delfont Mackintosh. We’d never seen Riverdance, and this was a chance to sample something new.
Did we enjoy it? To be honest, the tradition of Irish dancing was starting to disappear when I was growing up. I can’t recall any of my family or friends doing it, apart from Ciaran, who sat behind me at school, and who won medals for it (and swore me to secrecy not to tell anyone). From this point of view, I wish we’d learned a bit, as it’s a shame when folk traditions die out.
This show is a high-octane version of Irish dancing, and is done with great precision and energy. It’s impossible not to admire, but in all honesty, I felt that it had become repetitive by the interval. But the second half had a few variations and innovations, and was quite witty. The show has high production values too, with impressive cycloramas of landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, etc, and exhausting (for the dancers) changes of costumes. With so much to see and so little to understand, this was the perfect show for visiting tourists.
However, I could have done without the songs and minimal commentary.
Our Rating: 3/5
Would the Group have booked? Possibly. Riverdance has a following, and if you enjoyed that, you’ll enjoy this. It looks like a lavish production, with its CGI backdrops and striking lighting, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it turn up on tour at the Cliffs Pavilion.
Would the group have enjoyed it? See above.
Group Appeal: 3/5
Peter Gynt by David Hare after Henrik Ibsen,
at the National: Olivier Theatre
What's it about? P Gynt's picaresque adventures.
What did it have going for it? David Hare rewriting Ibsen;James McArdle in the lead.
Did we enjoy it? First an admission - I avowed many theatrical moons ago never to see Ibsen's Peer Gynt again. I find it tedious, overwitten, too preachy, too schematic, too mystical, and frankly life is too short to endure such indulgent writing. But surely David Hare could put a more interesting slant on it? And James McArdle has charm enough to give our hero a new lease of life, doesn't he? Well, yes and no. This version is certainly more lively. We start off in Scotland (northern but not Norway) but travel far - we have Las Vegas cowgirl dancers, arms talks with Saudi royalty, some enthusiastic dad-dancing on the back of a wagon, and a violent CGI storm at sea. And James McArdle chats to us with a winsome Scottish lightness thoughout his dubious dealings and Johnson-esque lies.
But the ghost of Ibsen's Norway resides uncomfortably in the fabric so we still have pig-like trolls, a two-headed boy and other fantastical characters. This epic could go anywhere, and it does, at great length (three and a quarter hours). The hard-working cast and the big production hold attention - a French boy in the front row, maybe 6 years old, paid attention throughout with scarcely a murmur - amazing!
Our Peter ends up at the crossroads, too good for the devil and too bad for heaven, which is maybe where we shall all end up; but worthy or not I shall not be joining the saga of Peter or Peer again.
Our Rating: 3/5
Would the Group have booked? I doubt it, especially if they know the play. The Olivier on a Friday evening was nowhere near full.
Would the group have enjoyed it? Like a curate's egg.
Group Appeal: 2/5
Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. by Caryl Churchill, at the Royal Court
What's it about? It's four playlets with unconnected stories, in a quadruple bill. A juggler and acrobat entertain during two brief scene changes.
What did it have going for it? Caryl Churchill, Toby Jones, Deborah Findlay, names to lure.
Did we enjoy it? The actors lured us, Ms Churchill not so much. We are always in two minds over Ms C – the critics all adore her but some of her plays we have liked and other definitely not. She seems disinclined to wite full length plays these days but at least here we had 4 for the price of 1.
Glass – Four glass ornaments on a mantlepiece chat among themselves.
Kill – a god sitting on a cloud, smoking, chats about Zeus and Family.
Bluebeard – Bluebeard's friends chat about the serial killer, his wives, his notoriety, etc.
Imp – A couple of senior citizens are visited by friends; an imp is kept in a bottle to grant special wishes.
You can tell the thin plots with their mundane nature are meant to carry more weight. I don't see it myself (is she 'aving a laff?) but there is a quirky humour which helps pass the time, mercifully short. The most substantial piece lasts about 50 minutes (the others average 15 minutes) and has a creeping grip as we wonder what influence, if any, the imp in the bottle will have on them....and us. The working class quartet, rather self consciously played, recall Pinter and Ayckbourn, without those playwright's imagination or purpose. I'm sure all four plays will be analysed in theses for Theatre Studies by enthusiastic students, but for me they meant just a lightweight afternoon catching up with what Royal Court audiences are chatting about nowadays. I prefered the juggler.
Our Rating: 2.5/5
Would the Group have booked? Most likely not.
Would the group have enjoyed it? Just as much as we did, unfortunately.
Group Appeal: 2/5
Vassa by Maxim Gorky, adapted by Mike Bartlet
at the Almeida Theatre
What's it about? Vassa is the head of a dysfunctional family. As she waits for her husband to die, she bends every member to her will to secure her own inheritance, destroying them and herself in the process. It’s set just before the Russian Revolution, and it’s an emblem of the death of capitalism.
What did it have going for it? We saw this play nearly 30 years ago, when another Almeida production of it transferred to the West End. I remembered it as a tightly written play by a major Russian dramatist, with strong roles for all the characters. And Almeida productions are usually worth seeing. This was announced that Samantha Bond would be in the title role. Unfortunately, Ms Bond had a back injury, and the equally vivid Siobhan Redmond stepped in to replace her, just prior to the production opening.
Did we enjoy it? It started strongly, and the first two short acts before the interval were interesting. However, the pace of the production was fast and farcical, and that didn’t allow the actors room to breathe. Siobhan Redmond gave a strong performance in broad outline, but I felt that she was still under-rehearsed, but that she was striving for a more nuanced and detailed performance. She was given good support by Michael Gould, Amber James and Arthur Hughes, but the rest of the cast seemed mismatched and in certain cases clumsy.
Sadly, the final act was not good, and the impact of the play was diminished. Perhaps the cast was thrown by the change of leading actress at a late stage in rehearsals? Don’t expect a West End transfer for this one.
Our Rating: It lost a star for the last act. 2/5
Would the Group have booked? We would have sold tickets with Samantha Bond in the cast, and probably with Siobhan Redmond as well.
Would the group have enjoyed it? I think they would have enjoyed it less than I did, and probably no more than Mike.
Group Appeal: 1/5
The Antipodes by Annie Baker
at the National Theatre, Dorfman
What’s it about? A small group of people (6M+1W) sit around a table tasked with producing stories, real or imaginary. They are overseen and facilitated in their task by Sandy, a larger-than-life character, and supported by a cooly efficient assistant who provides news and food. Every member of the group has their own intimate memories and imaginations mined, prompted by a specific theme. ‘Passing’ garners disapproval.
What did it have going for it? Annie Baker’s earlier plays The Flick and John have been performed at the National to some acclaim and this new play has secured an impressive cast including Hadley Fraser, Arthur Darvill, Sinead Matthew and Fisayo Akinade with Conleth Hill in the role of Sandy. Playwright Annie Baker has directed the play herself along with Chloe Lamford, who is also the set and costume designer.
Did we enjoy it? Not as much as we’d hoped nor as much as some of the critics. There have been some less favourable reviews and we could see why. We did stay to the end, unlike several escapees during the straight-through 2-hour run.
The play itself is quite interesting and there are a few good scenes for some of the characters. We see them in action, as in a corporate focus group, over several daily sessions, each one accompanied by a change of the assistant’s clothing. Other characters are mentioned or heard, who are higher up in the organisation; the tension and stress level rises, but frustratingly the ultimate end result is not explained.
However, generally, the play is let down by the set and the staging where the oval table is positioned on a raised stage (audience on 3 sides) with Sandy at the head and the group sitting in pretty much fixed positions down each side throughout. Half the cast were hidden most of the time from our seats, which was a waste and rather clumsy. Sadly though, even with better blocking, the majority of this fine cast would still have been under-used with few opportunities to shine.
Our rating: 2/5
Would the Group have booked? Possibly, on the strength of the cast, although Anne Baker’s plays are not for everyone.
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Some may have appreciated it more than we did, but unlikely.
Group Appeal: 2/5
Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca,
in a new version by Marina Carr, at the Young Vic
What's it about? A bride prepares for a wedding to a man she doesn’t love. In the meantime, her former lover continues his blood-feud with the family of the future husband. Passions run high: there’s a wedding, and there’s blood.
What did it have going for it? We were guests of our friend Jan. It’s one of the three great plays by the leading Spanish playwright of the twentieth century, and it was directed by innovative director Yael Farber.
Did we enjoy it? I’d seen two earlier productions of this play, neither of them successful. Lorca needs to be played with a high-pitched intensity; his characters are fuelled by overwhelming emotions. This is a particularly difficult play as it draws in all sorts of elemental forces.
I had misgivings: Yael Farber is a brilliant director, but has had the occasional misfire. Marina Carr had reset the play in Andalucia, Co Offaly, and I worried if this would work.
In the event, I was persuaded by this production, and found it totally absorbing. Marina Carr writes with the same controlled intensity as Lorca, and provided a poetic and muscular text for the actors to sink their teeth into – and they did with relish. Are there two actresses that savour bitterness as much as Olwen Fouere and Brid Brennan? The set was imaginative, and I was convinced by the ingrained hatred that forces the characters to their destruction.
Mike missed the stifling heat of Spain, but I recognised the passions erupting through the damp and chill of Ireland.
Our Rating: 4/5
Would the Group have booked? No star names – a hard sell.
Would the group have enjoyed it? Yes, I think they would.
Group Appeal: 3/5
Lungs by Duncam Macmillan at the Old Vic
What's it about? Having a baby!
What did it have going for it? Claire Foy and Matt Smith, directed by Matthew Warchus
Did we enjoy it? The title sets me thinking anatomical thoughts but, Yes, this really is about having a baby and that is barely the half of it. A young couple spar off each other with their thoughts, arguments, delights and worries about bringing a newborn into this world of crises - political, personal, environmental, and every other worrisome reason...and yet, isn't it the most natural thing in the world to do...maybe? On a circular stage, clear apart from solar panels and rocks, with just the two of them to engross our attention, they segue from scene to scene through their young lives, from first meeting, then sharing life's experiences together, and finally accelerating towards death. Their enthusiasm or otherwise for Life and Birth is always counterbalanced by the 21st century's many gender pressures and threats of disaster to the planet. This may suggest it is an earnest piece with Greta, teen-of-the-moment, in its sights, but No - this is funny, sad, lively, youthful, and ultimately life-affirming in the most entertaining of ways. The Old Vic's sound system ensures we hear every word, and there is certainly not a moment or syllable in this short but intense piece we would want to miss. Matt and Claire personify with charm and compatibility Everycouple who ever had a thought of procreation. They could not be better company for us.
Our Rating: 4.5/5
Would the Group have booked? Surely The Crown would ensure a coachful (if that had been possible)
Would the group have enjoyed it? Surely they would.
Group Appeal: 4/5