An archive of our reviews (Part 6)
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Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury, at the Young Vic
What's it about? Racial perception and prejudice, though that gives no idea of what you experience.
What did it have going for it? A Pulitzer prize for drama in 2019 and a surrounding mystery about what is really happening up there on stage. The cast includes Nichola Hughes, Rhashan Stone and favourite David Dawson (unrecognisable!)
Did we enjoy it? Only after it was all over and we discussed it at length did we really decide whether we 'enjoyed' it. It was an experience, we were impressed and glad we didn't miss it. Do not be deceived by the opening sitcom scene – a black family are preparing a birthday meal; light humour, affection, family squabbles and a deft touch of all-so-familiar US prime-time tv. Then there's a gear change – (SPOILER ALERT) the scene is repeated, same characters and situation but with a sound-over track of a white conversation on what race you would choose to be if you weren't white. The humour fades and an unease takes hold. What happens next, reviewers are asked not to say – there's a further gear-change or you might say a crashing of theatrical gears. It really would spoil the effect of what is controversial, eye-opening, highly theatrical, bizarre, funny, challenging and ultimately moving. It turns clichés on their head, points up possible prejudice all around us and within us, and begs for an active response. Like it or loathe it, it just refuses to be ignored.
My Rating: 4/5 (but 3/5 from Fredo)
Would the Group have booked? Probably not an easy sell for us, and yet a sell-out at the theatre.
Would the group have enjoyed it? I guess “interesting” would be an average response.
Group Appeal: 3/5
Coming Clean by Kevin Elyot, at the Trafalgar Studio 2
What's it about? A gay couple living in a semi-open relationship employ a third guy to clean their apartment....
What did it have going for it? It was written by Kevin Elyot of My Night With Reg fame.
Did we enjoy it? With a shirtless young guy on the poster and a double entendre in the title, this was one aimed straight at a gay male audience. It achieved its aim and there we were, I have to admit, more for the author's reputation for his now contemporary classic My Night With Reg than for...er...anything else. This debut play was produced in 1992, twelve years before Reg appeared, but even then the Elyot signature was there – the humour, the relaxed approach to what in those days was a controversial culture, the understanding of gay guys' lives - well, some of them! Here we have two guys in search of domestic bliss while at the same time seeking the sexual freedom to be themselves. When young Robert, out-of-work actor (of course), arrives in Tony and Greg's nest as their cleaner, the sexual tension rises while their camp neighbour recounts his own adventures encouragingly. The rom-com situation is a test for the almost-happy couple, while the audience, responding to every warning sign and erotic frisson, can run through a check-list of their own (would-be?) gay lives. It understandably lacks the maturity of Elyot's later Reg and I thought the final scene was misjudged, but it's a lot of fun and has a moral sting in its tale.
Our Rating: 4/5
Would the Group have booked? It would be too up-front for some, so probably not, though nowadays the humour of the situation would be a popular draw (as the play's tranfer from King's Head to Trafalgar Studio 2 has proven).
Would the group have enjoyed it? These guys are good company.
Group Appeal: 3.5/5
Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, in a version by Conor McPherson,
at the Harold Pinter Theatre
What's it about? A family and their retainers live on a remote estate in the Russian countryside, where they are visited by the local doctor, Astrov. Vanya’s brother-in-law the Professor, and his new wife Yelena, arrive and upset the routine, and make Astrov, Vanya and his niece Sonya confront the fact that they have colluded with their circumstances to allow any chance of happiness and fulfillment to slip away.
What did it have going for it? It’s a great play, and one of my favourites. Why? It’s tightly constructed, yet each character is fully realised, and within the narrow confines of their lives, Chekhov explores worlds of emotional experience.
Did we enjoy it? I’ve seen at least 3 outstanding productions of Uncle Vanya, and I hoped that this would be a fourth, but it didn’t quite make it into that category. It scored highly in most areas. Conor McPherson’s very faithful adaptation was very clear on the complicated relationships in the family (and you really do need to get those sorted out in order to understand the tensions within that family) and also spells out how the estate has been inherited in the excellently-staged argument in the third act. Toby Jones in the first two acts is one of the most tiresome Vanyas I’ve seen, and that is not a bad thing. Rosalind Eleazar develops sympathetically as Yelena, but I missed a necessary erotic tension between her and Richard Armitage’s slightly underpowered Astrov.
However, there are certain scenes that looked like exercises for the actors, and they should have been left in the rehearsal room – Vanya’s drunken crawl into a cupboard, and later dropping his pants to retrieve the morphine he’s stolen from Astrov. The final embrace between Astrov and Elena was extreme and unearned.
In a lesser production these faults wouldn’t have mattered, but Ian Rickson had done such a good job in setting and pacing the action that these infelicities stood out.
Our Rating: 4/5
Would the Group have booked? I would very much have liked to take the group, but it’s only a year since we took them to a solid if uninspired production of this play, and I thought it was too soon to offer it again.
Would the group have enjoyed it? Yes.
Group Appeal: 3/5
Magic Goes Wrong by Mischief Theatre and Penn & Teller.
at the Vaudeville Theatre
What's it about? Turning a trick into a joke, big time.
What did it have going for it? The 'Goes Wrong' phenomenon combined with the magic masters Penn & Teller.
Did we enjoy it? Maybe the classic Noises Off! started it all. London (and the world) has seen The Play That Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, etc.; and TV currently has The Goes Wrong Show spreading the Wrong word. It's a phenomenon which has passed us by. Nimax Theatres invited us so we try not to say No to an invitation and went along to discover why the franchise is so popular. Personally I prefer everything that goes right and with Penn & Teller on the credits we hoped for bafflement. The first joke is outside the theatre on the amended poster saying “Penn & Teller are <not> appearing at this performance” - of course not, they are advisers and the humour aims at deflating the whole idea of creating magic. It seems this is what the people want - just as they turned the Wrong play into a box-office hit, this Magic show will be another hit with those looking for put-down silliness and a party vibe. We are supposedly at a charity show for deceased magicians but have conjuring apparatus that fails to work, performers who fall about, the mis-reading of minds, dead doves by the dozen, and a saw-in-half illusion ending in bloody mayhem. The audience respond on cue like that switched-on laughter effect in TV comedies. Fredo said at the interval that it was "quite good, better than expected". Quite! But I mustn't be condescending when the show creates so much enjoyment for so many. It is well produced and certainly brings in a new audience to the Theatre. Among all the on-stage disasters are a half dozen examples of perfect classic magic, including (SPOILER ALERT) the usual escapes from locked cupboards, and a signed playing-card reappearing in the hand of a guy handcuffed and submerged in a tank of water! If only just one real dove had been conjured from a hat, I would have been happier. If only....
My Rating: 2.5/5
Would the Group have booked? If in party mood....maybe.
Would the group have enjoyed it? It certainly pleases those who like Things That Go Wrong.
Group Appeal: 3/5
Dear Evan Hansen Book by Steven Levenson, Music & Lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul,
at the Noel Coward Theatre
What's it about? High School misfit Evan Hansen writes uplifting letters to himself...to "boost his confidence", instructed his analyst. When bullyboy classmate Connor commits suicide, one of Evan's letters is found in his pocket. Connor’s parents wrongly believe that Evan was their son’s closest friend, and Evan is drawn into their lives. It get's complicated, and Evan's single mum gets concerned.
What did it have going for it? We were guests of Delfont Mackintosh. The songs are from the team that wrote the lyrics for La La Land and the songs for The Greatest Showman, and it’s been playing on Broadway to sold-out houses for 3 years.
Did we enjoy it? It’s a very slick, high-tech production, and the cast of 8 bring sincerity and commitment to their roles – and a high degree of precision as well. West End debutant Sam Tutty is outstanding as Evan. The audience loved it, and jumped to their feet for a standing ovation at the end.
For our taste, it was so highly-tooled that some of the darker corners of the story got brushed aside. The grief of the parents, and the revelation that Connor’s suicide is the best thing that ever happened to Evan needed further development. It lacks the edge that Teenage Dick brought to a similar setting.
The songs are delivered with confidence – the cast all have all the high notes – but for me, there wasn’t a memorable tune or lyric. I concluded that I’m simply the wrong demographic: this show is aimed at the audience that has finally grown out of Wicked, but still yearns for a show that reassures them that however much of a misfit (or green) they are on the outside, their inner goodness will triumph.
Our Rating: 3/5
Would the Group have booked? No-one has enquired, and I doubt that a plot précis would sell many tickets.
Would the group have enjoyed it? Mike and I identified one friend who would absolutely love it!
Group Appeal: 2/5
Mike adds – The cynic in me saw this as mindfulness for simple minds, manufactured for exercising the tear ducts, and I soon built up a resistance to its vapid Hallmark lyrics and High School clichés. Certainly it's a slick teens-today show and brings in a younger audience, so for that I should. be grateful. We were the only ones to sit through the standing ovation
Endgame and Rough for Theatre Il by Samuel Beckett, at The Old Vic
What’s it about? With Beckett it’s never easy or wise to attempt to be too precise. However –
Rough for Theatre II: A man (C) is standing in a window frame, seen from the back, and two men (A&B), similarly attired enter and sit at two identical desks each carrying a file of papers. These two men appear to be advocates for a higher, or perhaps much lower, authority reviewing the putative jumper’s life.
Endgame: In a cavernous space we have Clov, a servant, dealing with the demands of his master/employer Hamm who is blind and in a wheelchair. There are also two dustbins each containing Hamm’s parents Nagg and Nell. Nobody is happy with their lot but there is an inter-dependence which creates a circle that is hard to break.
What did it have going for it? Rough for Theatre II (just 25 mins) is seldom performed. Endgame is regarded as being one of Beckett’s best works and has been performed often, by actors of note. This production features Alan Cumming (as Hamm and B) and Daniel Radcliffe (as Clov and A). In addition, we had Karl Johnson and Jane Horrocks in the dustbins.
Did we enjoy it? There's surprising humour in both plays as well as a deathly fatalism. In the curtain-raiser, A and B partake in a snobbish sparring, and an anglepoise interupts the two characters' bickering. Endgame displays a battle of wills with a highly animated Clov up against the paralysed but domineering Hamm and his discarded parents. It fascinates in mystifying and mundane ways, and we were particularly impressed by Alan Cumming’s performance in both plays. He displayed a mastery of the nuances required in each character and achieved the almost impossible by making Hamm deserving of some sympathy. Daniel Radcliffe ably tackled each role, exhibiting considerable physicality as Clov and took a further and brave step to move away from Harry Potter. Karl Johnson gave his character impressive pathos and Jane Horrocks, who had the smallest part, played a touching role.
Our rating: 4/5
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Beckett’s plays don’t appeal to everyone but the accomplished cast raised the enjoyment level.
Group Appeal: 3.5/5
Death of England by Roy Williams and Clint Dyer,
at the National: Dorman Theatre
What's it about?. The state of the nation, given a personal twist and a very up-front approach.
What did it have going for it? Rafe Spall in a 100 minute monologue
Did we enjoy it? With this title the play was likely to be about Football and/or Brexit, as well as our nation, good or bad. England on the pitch dies regularly and the nation has been in its death throes since our country voted narrowly for Brexit. Our funeral awaits. A funeral features importantly in this vividly told tale of a father-son relationship. This is personal story-telling in the form of one powerhouse performance by Rafe Spall. He's Michael, a personable working-class lad, an angry motormouth with a dad about to affect his life in more ways than he can anticipate. He races about the George's Cross shaped platform stage, finding a multitude of props, and handing us biscuits and bananas as he tells his tale in a vivid torrent of words. There's discord, racism, cocain, football and flowers. Disaffected dad loves his footie, disallusioned mum rages, sister fucks around – you get the picture – but this is a passionate tale tied to the fabric of society right now. Congratulations to the National for choosing a play for today without obviously signaling racial and gender virtues - it's two authors are black (Dyer also directs) yet it touches the heart of England by giving a white man's perspective of life today. And cheers for Rafe Spall's tour-de-force presence which serves the play so well.
Our Rating: 4/5
Would the Group have booked? If Rafe Spall's name sells tickets (as it should) then Yes.
Would the group have enjoyed it? They should be impressed.
Group Appeal: 3.5/5
Luisa Miller – opera by Giuseppe Verdi.
Dress Rehearsal at the London Coliseum
What’s it about? This “middle period” work (1849) follows Macbeth and precedes Rigoletto. The libretto by Cammarano was derived from Schiller’s 1784 play Intrigue and Love (maybe readers saw it staged at the Donmar in 2011). We are, as often in Verdi, in a world of the possessive parent and the put-upon offspring – the father/daughter relationship (see also Rigoletto) and here that of the father/son also (see Don Carlo) - as well as one of class and power differences. Luisa, the daughter of the ex-soldier Miller, loves Rodolfo, the son of the villainous local overlord, Walter. Neither offspring accepts the marital ambitions that their respective fathers have for them. Walter sees the mature aristocrat Federica as the only suitable match for his son. Miller becomes hostile to Luisa’s yen for Rodolfo (initially operating under the nom d’amour of Carlo). The resolution of this tense situation involves the deceptive entrapping conduct of Wurm (Walter’s sinuous henchman), the violent aggression of Walter himself, Rodolfo’s momentary doubts as to Luisa’s honour and loyalty and his catastrophic action in the final scene. (Believe me, it is no less tortuous on stage).
What did it have going for it? It is something of a rarity. Indeed it’s a first for ENO. Its theme has a contemporary resonance in the #MeToo era. It’s sung in English. The (international) casting is colour-blind. And that cast is super, all with terrific voices. And as it’s part of the ENO season, it is a characteristically brave production (actually a co-production with Oper Wuppertal, direction by the Czech Barbora Horáková).
Did we enjoy it? By any measure, it’s a dark work, lightness soon dissipating after the opening chorus of party-goers. The action takes place in a (paradoxically) white box, a sort of featureless aircraft hangar - all sense of time (originally 17th century) and place (Verdi provided for a rural setting) has been drained out of the piece. Up to a point, no doubt the universality and contemporaneity of the issues are thereby underlined, but it leaves the characters rather less than three-dimensional. However, the intensity of feelings expressed vocally by all the principals was in no way compromised. In the pit, Alexander Joel drew energised playing from the ENO orchestra.
The admirable Elizabeth Llewellyn in the title role deployed her wonderfully flexible soprano to great effect. As Rodolfo, David Junghoon Kim also gave his all, spectacularly so in his main dramatic aria in Act 2, and indeed when engaged in a bout of convincing wrestling/kick-boxing with some of Walter’s bully boys. As Miller, Olafur Sigurdarson brought us a robust sharp-edged baritone. Count Walter (James Creswell) showed that he can do beastly things involving an oil barrel to (a) a near-naked youth in a large plastic bag and (b) Miller, and at the same time have a beautifully-rounded bass. Wurm (Solomon Howard) also evinced strong bass power (and in this production escapes death). Christine Rice’s fine mezzo was assured and well-deployed in challenging her unlikely rival, Luisa.
Verdi’s demands on his cast are tough enough; the production adds to them, the acreage of the Coliseum stage being one and the testing physicality of so many roles another. The translation while clear and distinctly enunciated (not always the case in this huge space) did bring occasional distorted stresses to English pronunciation (only a sad pedant would remark on that).
If the production fell a little short of clarifying the story, in fairness, I should report that the device of deploying both Luisa and Rodolfo as youngsters was a skilful touch, making clear that as a boy Rodolfo witnessed his father’s murderous route to power and that the pair were bonding long before the current drama. And the doomy atmosphere was enhanced as the white walls of the set were despoiled with black graffiti and eventually with sinister trickles of black fluid – oil? blood? pure evil?
Finally. Before curtain-up, we old grey-hairs in the plushier seats were told that in the gallery were children from schools in this country and the USA. They were, a source assured me the following day, thoroughly entranced by the performance, using the interval to experiment with coloratura. Good news does not stop there. The previous afternoon, Covent Garden opera house was thronged with similarly attentive pre-teens for Gerald Barry’s rambunctious Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. Hope for future opera audiences!
My rating: 4/5
Would the Group have booked? There's always a small group willing to try an opera
Would the group have enjoyed it? The production may dismay and confuse.
Group appeal: 2.5/5
Collapsible by Margaret Perry, at the Bush Theatre
What's it about? Essie, a young Irish woman working in London, leaves her job, and as she tries to rebuild her life, reveals to us how far it has fallen apart.
What did it have going for it? I got to know the playwright Margaret Perry slightly, as she is one of the most pleasant box-office assistants at the Royal Court. She told me that her play was being presented at the Bush, and I promised to see it. I’m a very loyal friend.
Did we enjoy it? Very much. I’m always nervous about reviewing work by people I know, as I tend to be over-critical, but by the second scene, I was completely involved in this story and its dramatic presentation. It even overcame another impediment of mine: it’s a monologue - just one hour.
We entered the studio theatre and found the actress Breffni Holahan already perched and spotlit on a broken plinth in the striking black set. Initially assured, her fluent account of loosing her job progresses into a torrent of words. The tension escalates in each succeeding scene, charting her emotional disintegration. The loss of control was carefully calibrated by both Perry and Holahan, directed by Thomas Martin, and in an intense hour, delivered a breath-taking experience. We were impressed, and mentioned Beckett’s Happy Days and Not I when we discussed it.
(Already the run has been extended until 21 March so we recommend this if you can get to the Bush.)
Our Rating: 4/5
Would the Group have booked? The Bush is a long way to go to see an unknown actress in a short play, but the attraction of a £10 matinee and a shopping opportunity at Westfield might have sold tickets!
Would the group have enjoyed it? Yes, I think they would.
Group Appeal: 3/5
Far Away by Caryl Churchill, at the Donmar Warehouse
What's it about? It’s a dystopian view of where the world is heading: As a child, Joan stays with her aunt and uncle on their farm. She hears and sees disturbing things at night, and despite her aunt’s reassurances, we sense that something sinister is taking place. Later events in the play confirm that it’s worse that we imagined.
What did it have going for it? First of all, it’s a Donmar production, and it’s directed by Lindsey Turner. I’m assured that it’s 'a modern classic', and indeed 'a masterpiece', from the great Caryl Churchill, visionary, seer, prophetess. I’ve been agnostic about Churchill up till now; so would this be my moment of damascene conversion?
Did we enjoy it? It’s mightily impressive, from the moment you see a mirrored structure on Lizzie Clachan’s red set. Jessica Hynes strikes a suggestive note of unease, and this is compounded by Aisling Loftus and Simon Manyonda as the play progresses, swelling to a startling (and brilliantly-staged) coup de theatre at the end of Act Two.
For me, the final act doesn’t work, though for many, this is the most disturbing and powerful part of the play. Afterwards, I reflected that Daphne du Maurier’s story The Birds covered the same territory with more internal logic.
Churchill is an economical writer, and this allows directors and actors the opportunity to exercise their talents, but she isn’t generous to the audience in filling in gaps. Several of the (much) younger Donmar team told me that they studied her work at college, and I have a feeling that her plays work as texts better than on-stage. For example, in the first scene, the child Joan is burdened with a long scene with dialogue that drips significance. Good as the young actress was in this production, this exchange seems beyond the capabilities of any child actor, and it meant that Jessica Hynes had to do the heavy lifting here. In the second act, the tentative relationship between Joan and Todd is hardly given room to breathe in the writing and atmosphere of foreboding.
And the play lasts 40 minutes, which amounted to an ungenerous evening from the Donmar, though we were fortunate at this performance to have a post-show discussion with the cast. At the end, neighbouring members of the audience asked us, “Is that it?” Churchill has many short plays which could have been added as a curtain-raiser; even Endgame at the Old Vic has another Beckett on the programme.
Nevertheless, we had a good evening, and are now able to contribute to the discussion around this play, though not as enthusiastically as some others.
Our Rating: 4/5 for the production; 3/5 for the play.
Would the Group have booked? We offered it, but so few stalwarts booked that it wasn’t viable to hire a coach.
Would the group have enjoyed it? I think they would have shared my feelings.
Group Appeal: 2/5
The Haystack by Al Blyth, at Hampstead Theatre
What's it about? Surveillance from GCHQ and security leaks and personal betrayal and conspiracy, all very contemporary concerns.. Two young geeks become involved with a Guardian journalist when an espionage suspect she is investigating is murdered. It’s all wrapped up as a thriller with hi-tech packaging.
What did it have going for it? It had four-star reviews, and it was recommended by a friend. It had proved so popular that Hampstead Theatre had taken the unusual decision to extend the run by a week.
Did we enjoy it? Very much. It’s an absorbing story, and the presentation is dazzling (literally - in fact, one performance had to be cancelled when one of the technical team responsible for the complex graphics was unable to attend). The surveillance techniques demonstrated in the play exist, and it’s all too plausible. However, it would have been an empty exercise if it hadn’t been anchored by believable and flawed characters, played expressively by Rona Morison and Oliver Johnstone. Sarah Woodward embodied the smoothly manipulating GCHQ chief.
This is Al Blyth’s first full-length play, and it was a little too long. Some judicious editing would have helped the first act. Yet he has a way with dialogue, creating tension and intrigue, and drew loud gasps from the audience in the second act. Certainly a writer to keep under surveillance.
Our Rating: 3.5/5
Would the Group have booked? We like going to Hampstead Theatre, but in advance this was a very unknown quantity, so possibly not in great numbers.
Would the group have enjoyed it? Definitely
Group Appeal: 3/5