A Midsummer Night’s Dream – New Wolsey Theatre

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is arguably Shakespeare’s most adaptable play. Dream’s magical and mythical elements lend themselves to imaginative staging and, in the hands of one of the country’s most imaginative theatre companies, Headlong, the pairing seems ideal.

Director Natalie Abrahami has chosen to set the action against an early 1950s Hollywood film set where director Robin P(for Puck) Goodfellow is shooting a Sword & Sandal epic starring a Burton and Taylor-esque Theseus and Hippolyta. It’s a clever concept that is staged well with a mix of film and backstage props but it never comfortably sits within Shakespeare’s plot. The glamour of Hollywood film stars only being at best a tenuous fit with the tale of Athenian nobility.

The relevance of the concept becomes clearer once the film’s director has a breakdown and we enter the dark forest of his nightmare. Goodfellow is transformed into Puck and his love-struck film stars into King and Queen of the Fairies. Oberon and Titania. Mischievous sprites and fairies take on a sense of the absurd and some of Shakespeare’s wittiest comedy takes full flight.

There is plenty of surreal humor here as the dream-like qualities are fully explored in song, dance, slapstick and full use of theatrical special effects. The Mechanicals’ play within a play works well as a climax to the madcap fun but, overall, its not quite enough to fully redeem the production.

You have to admire the sheer theatricality and energy of Headlong’s staging but generally the staging does upstage the text, with many lines rendered inaudible under the exuberance of the slapstick action. Hermia and Helena’s verbal duel, for example, is reduced to little more than rapid fire mumbled shouts, losing much of the cleverly constructed wordplay.

Much more focus is needed from the ensemble to ensure that the Shakespearian verse is delivered with clarity and conviction. Without this backbone of the text, any attempt to make the play accessible to those new to Shakespeare becomes much more difficult.

There are, however. some wonderful elements in the production; David Holmes’ lighting and Tom Scutt’s design create an atmospheric setting. Ian William Galloway’s video designs add to the cinematic authenticity. Overall, though, while the concept is exciting and hilarious in parts, it does need some more work to become fully successful.

Photo: Emily Joyce and members of the company in Headlong Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photograph by Keith Pattison

Company – Southwark Playhouse

After the glut of Sondheim stagings, concerts and celebrations to mark his 80th birthday last year, Southwark Playhouse has waited until the glut died down to produce Company as their first ever musical.

It’s an inspired setting as the bare brick of London Bridge railway arches easily conveys Manhattan loft living.

Company really works well small scale, focusing as it does on the intimate and here the show has been stripped back to their bare essentials of staging, allowing the wit of music and lyrics to shine through.

As Bobby faces the dawning of his 35th birthday, friends are desperate to see him settle down and marry, seeing his singleton status as a sign of fear of commitment.

Company is never a light and frothy musical, nor should it be, but here the tone is darker than normal.

While never entirely likeable, Bobby is often played with a sympathetic tone, Rupert Young’s Bobby, however, is much more complex, a predatory serial cad who rather than fearing loneliness actually embraces the freedom it provides. It’s an interpretation that makes it initially hard to engage with Bobby but when you consider his so called friends are equally manipulative its easier to accept.

With such a minimalist production and small performance space performances become key. Thankfully director Joe Fredericks has cast the company (no pun intended) well.

As ever with Sondheim this isn’t an easy score to sing but here the complex rhythms and lyrics are delivered with style and wit.

Highlight of the evening has to go to Cassidy Janson’s manic reluctant bride to be Amy. Her rendition of Getting Married Today a masterclass in Sondheim delivery. Siobhan McCarthy invokes the spirit of Elaine Stritch in an acidic The Ladies Who Lunch, while Katie Brayden’s dizzy air stewardess April is a joy.

The Bobby character ultimately needs to cement the show and initially takes some warming to. While his Act One finale solo Marry Me A Little seems insipid and underplayed, his rendition of one of musical theatre’s great male torch songs, Being Alive, shines.

In such a small space, over amplification of the small but effective band results in music lacking clarity at times and some lyrics are lost but when it all comes together it works beautifully.

Many see the non-linear structure of Company problematic, but stripped here of unnecessary frills it proves to be a timeless classic chamber musical.

Clybourne Park – Wyndham’s Theatre

There is perhaps a danger when going to see a show that has received almost universal rave reviews that the actual product can never quite live up to the hype.

Clybourne Park has received a raft of glowing reviews for both its original run at the Royal Court and now for its transfer to the Wyndham’s theatre. While it is enjoyable and well performed it never quite matches the level of expectation built around it.

It’s a clever concept to look at the same property in a Chicago suburb 50 years apart and use the overt racism, which perhaps surprisingly features just as heavily in 2009 as it did in 1959, to force the audience to confront the wider subject of prejudice.

In 1959 Chicago, Russ and Bev are packing their possessions as they prepare to move from the family home. It’s a charged atmosphere as a dark family tragedy hangs over the household. Tensions are not helped when neighbour Karl arrives to complain that the house has been sold to a ‘coloured’ family. The fact that this argument is played out in front of the black maid and her husband seems not to bother this community at all.

Act Two sees the same property, now in a dilapidated state, facing demolition from a young white couple who are now seen as the outsiders in a predominantly black community. Have community relations improved over the preceding 50 years or is the talk of heritage just a cover for another form of prejudice?

Author Bruce Norris deliberately makes this uncomfortable viewing, the dark comedy raising concern within the audience as to if they should be laughing or not. Political Correctness certainly plays no part here as jokes are played against race, sex and even disability with a deaf women virtually ignored as nothing more than wallpaper.

It’s all very well constructed and clever in its use of comedy to deflate stereotypes of discrimination but, at times, it does seem clumsy and never quite making the brilliant mark. Act One does take what seems an age to pick up pace and, while Act Two turns the comedy dial to full, the poignant ending seems in comparison rushed and tacked on.

There are, however, some stella performances led by Sophie Thompson as the neurotic grief-stricken mother, who seems to be on the verge of a complete breakdown as she force feeds her guests iced tea. Stuart McQuarrie also impresses with his rage-filled Russ, a pent up force of repressed emotion that is just waiting to erupt. There are also wonderfully detailed performances from Lorna Brown, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Sarah Goldberg.

While it is entertaining and thought provoking, it does leave more questions unanswered than resolved. Some characters such as the deaf Betsy seem woefully underused and only included as a source of comedy potential. Yes it may be that these characters have been introduced to demonstrate the destructive force of discrimination but their use as a figure of fun leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Overall, a strong production that just never comes quite to the point of brilliance that the hype suggests.

A reponse to Matt Trueman and the future of previews

There has been something of a virtual explosion over the last 24 hours to a post by Matt Trueman on the Guardian blog regarding the subject of previews and bloggers.

As perhaps was the intention it has provoked fierce response with strong views being aired on both sides of the debate. I have thought long and hard about responding. On one hand I think the best approach is to ignore the piece and not fuel this increasingly futile blogger v critic debate. As time has gone on though I do think the central argument is so fatally flawed that it does merit a response.

In the spirit of openness though I do want to set out my background first. I trained as a Stage Manager, have worked backstage, in theatre administration, in press and marketing and yes as a freelance theatre critic. So yes I’ve experienced the free drinks, free tickets, programmes and the odd free canapé. On the other hand I do also blog. Mainly in the regions where previews are less prevalent but also in London.

I’m going to keep this response brief as many have succinctly responded what a load of tosh many of the points in the blog are but there are a couple of points I’d like to make.

I’m also perhaps going to take a slightly different tact and ask why we produce theatre in the first place? There seems to be a lot of talk about the rights of performers, directors, writer’s et al but we seem to have forgotten the consumer. As Alastair Smith pointed out in his article that triggered Matt’s response, the position of previews themselves need examining

Yes previews are valuable as a way of refining the production, however they should be seen as tweaks however not an excuse for under rehearsal. Yes pieces of dialogue may need changing, timings altered to allow for audience reaction and yes pace does take time to settle in but if you are talking major surgery you should be asking yourself if the show is ready for the public?

What message are you sending your customers if the product you are charging them for the privilege to see is far from finished? How likely are they to return to see another one of your productions if the product they see isn’t ready?

Now there is a wafer thin argument that this is acceptable if you charge reduced prices but how much should this reduction be? As the trend now seems to be to charge full price from the very first performance in what way can it actually be classed as a preview?

Some regional theatres have tried to bridge this gap between rehearsal room and public by opening up their final dress rehearsal to the public at a nominal fee. For instance today theatre goers in Leicester can queue at the Curve box office from 12pm for tickets to the Dress rehearsal of Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. The theatre and producers make a call on the day if the show is ready for public viewing and if the public will be allowed in. They recognise if the show is ready the feedback from audiences is vital and such feedback is often used on social media channels to promote the show.

If however we follow Matt Trueman’s argument what happens in Leicester? That show has the double whammy of being in preview and prior to London following Matt’s argument should all comment be embargoed until the National Critics take their seats in the Gielgud in 6 weeks time?

Some theatres and producers have realised that media is changing and that like it or not that social media has changed the face of theatre opinion and comment. Its a more consumer savvy world and in these times of financial pressure there is increased competition for the public pound. Should we not be celebrating the fact that through the expansion of Social Media that coverage of theatre has never been more accessible?

Nobody is saying that a blog is the same as a newspaper review and there is room for both.

Sadly while he may have been trying to generate a discussion on the topic, Matt’s patronising and ultimately unconvincing argument has done little but cause anger and frustration. In the Social Media week should we not be looking at how we can use the medium rather than stifle it? Time to stop the endless round of ‘ban the blogs’ posts and learn to work together rather than the constant sniping.

For some other responses well worth reading try:

Much Ado About Nothing – Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

2011 seems to be the year for Much Ado About Nothing. The much-publicised David Tennant/Catherine Tate production, the Shakespeare’s Globe staging and, first out of the blocks, the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds.

Director Abigail Anderson has embraced the intimacy of the Regency playhouse and produced a chamber version of Shakespeare’s battle of the sexes. The audience here are not mere observers but co-conspirators in the plot. House lights remain on throughout and asides are not only directed to the audience but the audience is positively acknowledged. In a play, more than most, centred on overhearing snippets of gossip here the audience are fully complicit in the action.

Much like Bury St Edmunds boy Sir Peter Hall’s current Twelfth Night at the National Theatre, this approach focuses attention on the text, though sadly it also shares the same feeling that, somehow, the comedy has been overlooked in favour of this textual clarity.

Much Ado is often played as a bawdy romp but this is a much more static production; there are moments of comic tomfoolery that delight but the overall impression is of a staid affair. At times the production seems over long and in need of an injection of pace. More variety of blocking would also aid engagement of the audience, many scenes being played with characters standing in line across the stage speaking dialogue directly to the audience.

At the heart of Much Ado is the pivotal relationship, or more accurately the fear of relationship, between Beatrice and Benedick. This is classic battle of the sexes as wit and wordplay come to the fore. Polly Lister gives a wonderfully feisty Beatrice, outwardly strong but also full of doubt when mislead by her cousin and maid. As her counterpoint Nicholas Tizzard’s Benedick seems less secure in his affections, easily led by the mischievous rumours left by his compatriots.

When the comic moments are allowed to the fore they work well. Nick Underwood’s Borachio, a fine comic turn full of song, works well and the reactions from Benedick and Beatrice to the overheard plotting delight as they make full use of the Theatre Royal’s stage and auditorium. Careful thought, though, does need to be given to the positioning of some of these scenes given, the Regency theatre’s challenging sight lines.

Other performances are less successful. Ellie Kirk’s Hero suffers from projection problems, making emotional connection difficult, while James Wallace needs to pull his Don John back from a flaccid caricature of Alan Rickman to make a more rounded villain.

Libby Watson’s simple set of frames and sliding panels works well, effectively lit by Mark Howland, who manages the difficult task of balancing stage lighting with house lighting. Pat Whymark’s evocative score provides a strong sense of place underneath the action and, when combined with Yael Lowenstein’s choreography, provides the requisite emotional release.

Overall there is much potential here; the company just needs to relax into the piece more to allow both the comedy and tragedy to flow in what is one of Shakespeare’s more naturalistic pieces. The piece does seem at the moment woefully slow in places and attention to pace and blocking should easily resolve these issues.

Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays and the delights of Beatrice and Benedick sparring will enthral many newcomers to the Bard of Avon’s work. And, ultimately, isn’t that the aim of any Shakespeare production?

Photo: Ellie Kirk and Suzanne Ahmed in Much Ado About Nothing. Photographer Keith Mindham.

Julius Caesar – The Roundhouse

In these times of arts cutbacks and financial woes, the RSC are not stinting on fake blood. There production of Julius Caesar may look traditional but this isn’t a sanitised vision of Rome. Here we get blood and guts by the bucket load.

Although set in period there is something strangely topical about this Julius Caesar. With the current political unrest sweeping through the Middle East, a tale about power struggles, political deals and betrayal seems strangely apt. Coincidental timing it may be but it does add a sense of urgency to the piece.

Lucy Bailey’s production creates a sense of near anarchy in Rome, balancing the political speeches with a much needed rebellious air. William Dudley’s simple design, aided by projections of marching armies allows the action to flow freely and turns the three hour piece into what seems a much shorter affair.

There has been some talk that this current RSC ensemble doesn’t quite gel. In Julius Caesar however the ensemble works well. With a large cast of characters it can be difficult to follow each sub plot and twist; however the ensemble works well here to create a sense of the epic Rome.

Particular performances do stand out however. Sam Troughton’s politically misguided Brutus is both manipulative and moving. Greg Hicks in the title role works well to show the two sides of Cesar, inwardly the man of doubt while putting on a public front as the great showman.

It is however Darrel D’Silva’s Mark Anthony that has the finest performance of the night. A performance of power and command, it is easy to understand why the rabble followed him. D’Silva’s delivery of the famous ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ speech is a fine example of political oration.

Julius Caesar may not be the Bard’s finest hour and isn’t easily accessible to those not up to speed with Roman history. Lucy Bailey’s production however does make it intensely watchable, though not for those squeamish at the sight of blood.

Greenland – National Theatre

How many playwrights does it take to draft a piece on global warming? According to the National Theatre it takes four but sadly Greenland, the end result, is not something any of the quartet will be listing on their greatest achievement lists.

There is so much potential here, an emotive topic, first class writers, the technical facilities of the National Theatre all offer great potential for a piece of contemporary drama. Sadly it fails on nearly every level, instead of a piece of thought provoking drama it turns into a 2hour deathly dull lecture that doesn’t drive any view, pro or anti climate change, forward.

Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne have created multiple and occasional interwoven story arcs that ultimately don’t go anywhere. A raft of characters debate the effects of climate change but we don’t really ever get to see more that a faint outline of character and never a resolution to the various arguments surrounding the subject.

It does look incredibly stylish – with a full raft of theatrical effects thrown at it. Stylistically it resembles Enron but while that show was inventive and actually used effect to drive narrative forward, Greenland seems to use the spectacle as just a desperate attempt to stop the audience from walking out.

Instead of stirring any debate on the vitally important subject of climate change the only thing that stirs at the end of this show is sympathy for the cast and anger that this dire, ill conceived mess could ever reach the stage. Truly awful.

Vernon God Little – Young Vic

A bloody massacre has descended on to small town America. A shooting at the local high school has left 16 dead and, as the media frenzy begins, 15-year-old Vernon Gregory Little finds himself at the centre of the storm.

His best friend carried out the shootings before turning the gun on himself and, without a live perpetrator, the locals are turning their blame on Vernon.

Adapted from DBC Pierre’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Vernon God Little returns to the Young Vic following its 2007 run in an updated production. It’s a surreal world as larger than life characters and improbable events collide until near anarchy ensues. Add in a hefty dose of country music and line dancing and it’s clear from the outset this isn’t going to be a traditionally staged play.In many ways it is like watching a stage adaptation of a graphic novel but, despite the surreal nature, with recent events in Arizona, the revival seems incredibly topical and relevant.

As befits the subject this is rapid fire staging, walls, props and furniture wheel on and off stage at an alarming pace, snatches of music permeate the script and some wonderfully observed over the top set pieces add to the whole bizarre set up.Director Rufus Norris sensibly keeps the action fast and furious and, while tipping a knowing nod to the absurd, keeps just the right side of ridicule. Ian MacNeils designs are wonderfully inventive and witty, conjuring up surprise after surprise with clever transformations.

The central role of Vernon is a dream of a role for a young actor and Joseph Drake in his professional début excels. It would be easy to overplay this role but Drake delivers a nicely understated performances that hints at a much darker torment barely simmering behind the outwardly meek and mild exterior. There’s something mixed up about his Vernon, not surprising as we discover his background during the piece, but also a sense of innocence and vulnerability.

Supporting Drake is a strong supporting ensemble, many playing multiple characters in this mad-cap town. Particularly strong are Clare Burts’ Mom, Johnnie Fiori’s powerhouse Pam and Luke Brady as a nicely subtle but vocally impressive spirit of gunman Jesus.

This was a preview performance and so there is some slight tweaking still to be done. Sound balance in some of the musical numbers needs attention as we miss some of the humour in the chosen lyrics while the lighting department need to address a couple of dark spots.

Overall, though, this is an impressive production. What on paper sounds an unworkable mix of musical, dancing, comedy and tragedy translates well. The sheer inventiveness, dark humour and pace thrills and, once you enter into this madcap world, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable ride.

Five – Jerwood Dance House Studio

Theatre at its best stirs the emotions, tugs at the heart strings, and leaves an audience mentally challenged and enriched. Theatre can be engaging and only hit a few of these things but all too rarely you see a play that shakes your very core. Five is one such play.

As we reach the 66th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz it’s more important than ever we remember the atrocities that took place there. As time takes the first hand witnesses, work such as this plays a vital role in ensuring that the same horrors can never be allowed to happen again.

Lorena Cenci’s new play looks at five former women prisoners of the infamous death camp. Each has her own story to tell but, given the horrors they have witnessed, there is a surprising amount of hope.

Tales of love, loyalty, survival and music permeate the horror but, for every slight glimmer of light, there is the feeling of betrayal, hurt and despair.

Encouraged to share their experiences by a narrator, slowly the women show they share a common bond enforced by their mutual experience and how their time in the camp has shaped their future or dashed their dreams.

Staged with effective use of archive images, evocative lighting, and well integrated music. this one act play flows with cinematic clarity. Co-directors Helen Wheatley and Cenci herself allow the horrors of events to speak for themselves without turning them into melodrama.

To pull off such challenging material requires total commitment from the cast and there is not one weak link in the company. Colin Lee Bennett, Molly Scurrell, Sheila Garnham, Hattie Bennett, Jane Cole and Sally-ann Scurrell all give exceptionally strong performances, instilling each of their characters with a quiet dignity regardless of the degradation they have been subjected to.

Five is a story that must be told, and the horrors of the Holocaust need to be remembered. This production will enable generations to come to listen, learn and understand what happened in Auschwitz and the other death camps.

It may be painful and emotionally draining but it is also essential viewing.

The Last 5 Years – Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

It is a welcoming trend to see local companies tackling new musical material. Sure, classics such as The Sound of Music and Oklahoma! have their place but there is a wealth of new material out there that deserves to be seen.

Jason Robert Brown’s The Last 5 Years is one such jewel. A one-act, two-hander musical that looks at a couple’s short but tempestuous relationship. He is an up an coming writer, she a struggling actress. They fall in love, argue and split up. All sounds pretty standard musical fare but Brown’s witty score has a twist. We follow Cathy’s life in reverse chronological order while we follow husband/ex Jamie’s story in a more conventional order. Story arcs briefly overlap in the middle while they marry but, apart from that, they wend their separate way.

It’s not an easy plot device to pull off but one that Half Hour Call’s production manages with aplomb. Simple staging, complete with onstage band, focuses attention rightly onto the couple and provides an effective frame for Brown’s song cycle. Think Lloyd Webbers Tell Me On A Sunday meets Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along and you get the idea.

Comic numbers mix with soul-searching ballads to create a musical map of hope, love and despair as the balance of power shifts in the couple’s relationship.

At the heart of the piece are two impressive performances from Birgitta Kenyon and Christopher Longman. It’s a tough call to hold an hour a half show with just two performers but it’s a challenge the duo rise to admirably, delivering the complex score with deceptive ease.

Credit should also go to Paul Schofield’s musical direction of the onstage band. Played with passion and energy the rich score soars through the Theatre Royal.

The Last 5 Years has gained something of a cult following since its premiere and this spot on production shows why.

Jason Robert Brown has shown that big is not necessarily better and that musical theatre can be topical and fresh. With this production Half Hour Call show they are a company to watch.