Measure for Measure – Almeida Theatre

There are not many Shakespeare plays I haven’t seen over the years but for some reason Measure for Measure has escaped me – until now that is.

In his first Shakespearian production as Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre, Michael Attenborough tackles what is seen as one of The Bard’s ‘problem plays’. It may be his first stab at Shakespeare at the Almeida but he sets the standard high in a near faultless production.

Vienna has become overrun by the sex trade, heralding a brief appearance from the pole dancers, the first of many indications that this modern dress production may not follow the usual conventions of Shakespeare. While it could be seen as a gimmick it works and gives the piece a modern relevance. In an attempt to restore order the Duke appoints Angelo to restore order. Unfortunately his best intentions don’t go exactly to plan when Angelo turns out to be as corrupt as the city he’s supposed to be cleaning up.

As the Duke and Angelo Ben Miles and Rory Kinnear excel, Kinnear in particular giving a gripping performance that commands attention. Equally impressive is Anna Maxwell Martin as novice nun Isobella who bargains with Angelo for her brothers’ life. A performance even more impressive when you note this is her Shakespearian debut. A performance filled with emotion, ever gesture and inflection spot on.

Les Brotherton’s visually stunning set of twin revolving walls is lit perfectly by the Lord of Lighting Designers David Hersey, framing this chamber piece with a variety of locales while focussing on the central performances.

Fine supporting performances from the company and a fluid direction make this an instant classic – not so much a problem play anymore but a timely, relevant and powerful exploration of morals and the abuse of power.

Cider With Rosie – Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

Like many I studied Cider With Rosie at High School and, while the basic premise sticks in my mind, it is with shame I have to admit I haven’t picked up the book since. Now having seen the marvellous Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds production I am inspired to dig out a copy and re-read it again.

Rural life may suddenly be the flavour of the month thanks to the likes of Larkrise, Cranford and The Victorian Farm but in Daniel O’Brien’s new stage adaptation of Laurie Lee’s classic the lost charm of this way of life has never been more real.

Set against the context of the four changing seasons we are aware of not only time passing but also an era soon to be lost to the modern world, innocence lost in a race to embrace new technology.

What is interesting with this adaptation is we see life not only through the eyes of young Laurie but also through his brothers, sisters, mother and neighbours. This expansion gives a much broader view of village life and offers a range of vivid characters for the cast to sink their teeth into – and they more than rise to the challenge.

Director Abigail Anderson draws out the full poignancy but also the humour in Lee’s words, helped by clever and evocative scoring by TJ Holmes (who also appears in the production).

Designer Dora Schweitzer and Lighting Designer Mark Howland create a visually impressive playground for the cast, who turn everyday objects into a multitude of scenes with filmic quality.

This is a true ensemble performance with not a weak performance among the six strong cast. After its run at Bury ST Edmunds, the show will be touring and is one to catch for a gripping view of a bygone age. A truly outstanding production.

Forever In Your Debt – New Wosley Theatre Ipswich

There are some shows that should just be put down to experience and never spoken of again – Forever In Your Debt is one of those shows – we shall mention it here but lets never speak of it again.

It’s hard to describe exactly what Forever In Your Debt is or, to be precise, what it wants to be. I suppose a play with music comes closest but Foursight Theatre Company’s production leaves you somewhat baffled and more than a bit depressed. Nicole Kidman’s Blue Room may have been described as ‘pure theatrical Viagra’- this is more like pure theatrical Valium.

A family hit by chronic debt seems an apt topic in these credit crunch times and loosely (very loosely) this show follows the tale of one family who, for some unexplained reason) all seem drawn to the roof of the same skyscraper. Teetering on the edge they are coaxed back from the brink by the office cleaner. Sadly this is one of those productions where the brochure blurb is more exciting than the show itself.

One by one each of the family tell of their hardships in song, but after hearing the same tune for the umpteenth time with just a change of lyric you just begin to switch off. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter if the song was catchy or well performed but its sounds more like the wailings of a third rate folk band after too may scrumpy’s.

Therefore the relevance of the disfigured daughter, the moustache wearing other daughter, the cross dressing father and the piano tooting mother just pass you by – yes I said it was baffling.

Despite their hardships you don’t actually care for any of these characters and I use the word Characters loosely as they are little more than thinly drawn stereotypes.

Now not all plays need or indeed should have a happy ending but after 90mins of people throwing themselves off tops of buildings you do need some redemption and this is desperately missing from Forever In Your Debt. 

Foursight are an experimental theatre company but this is one show that is in desperate need of The Samaritans. A three quarter empty auditorium gives some impression that this is not going to be a huge hit for Foursight and perhaps in a way they should be grateful for the small numbers – reputation is only as good as your last show and based on this outing they will need to work hard to entice back punters in the future.

Mark Shenton discusses future of theatre critics

In his latest blog for The Stage, Mark Shenton discusses the future of Theatre Critics.

Now having reviewed for the local press this is a subject close to my heart.

Now I know that in the views of some publishers ‘the arts’ are lurking on their priority list somewhere just below WI cake sales and possibly just ahead of the annual tax inspectors conference. What never ceases to amaze me however is the lack of any theatrical knowledge required for wannabe critics. You wouldn’t send someone who has no interest in football to cover the big local derby but any passing bod seems fair game for theatre critics.

So who do we get? – a pick from one of the following:
a) Whatever junior reporter just happens to be free that night and isn’t needed to cover the more important annual general meeting of the local branch of Trainspotters Anonymous
b) Friend of reporter who is covering the annual general meeting of the local branch of Trainspotters Anonymous, who has always wanted a free night out at the theatre
c) Someone who was once third dancer on the left for the local am-dram production of Sound of Music On Ice
d) Mother/Father or Daughter of one of the cast/directors/writers

While they may be enthusiastic the actual value of any review to the theatre is questionable – many times I have read with interest the review of the fellow critic who sat in front of me and wondered if they actually understood a word of what was being said. Reviews tend to fall into three groups

1) The school report “I went to the theatre, we had some ice cream, the seats were nice, the play started, the set was pretty and the lighting colourful, some actors did some acting and dancing and singing and we all laughed/cried (delete as appropriate) and then went home. PS the ice cream in the break was lovely”
2) The recycled press release “Schindlers List the Musical is an instant classic, this thought provoking play will delight theatre audiences up and down the country. Director Sebastian Shakespeare direct from his acclaimed production of Titus Andronicus in Latin will give you one of the most unforgettable nights in the theatre.”
3) The family postcard “Despite only having two lines in the entire 14hour production of Tantalus, John (or little Johnny as we affectionately call him) is undoubtedly the star of the show. His costume – sewn with great love by Aunty Joan (thank you!) was perfection. I don’t know what the rest of the show was about as I left to take Johnny home after his scene but you should go see this wonderful child, sorry show”
Now I exaggerate of course but I have seen reviews scarily close to all three of those examples.

Do they give the theatre or production any true value? Yes they may contain ‘rave’ quotes but unless justified will damage reputation for any customers who book on the back of the recommendation to find that the show is in fact a turkey that even Bernard Matthews would reject.

An even more worrying trend if for local BBC websites to invite theatre reviews from the public in return for two free tickets. Anyone can apply with no selection criteria.
This ‘user generated content’ can of course produce some worthy submissions and give an accurate reflection of a play but how often? Judging by the evidence of content from the local BBC site the quality and more worryingly knowledge of the ‘critics’ leaves lots to be desired. Plays credited to incorrect authors, plot devices missed and whole sections covering the leads role in EastEnders rather than the play in question.

So while West End and National Critics may be under the spotlight, perhaps its also time to consider the state of theatre critics in the regions.

Lloyd Webber ‘furious’ over bloggers

So Andrew Lloyd Webber isn’t happy that people have been blogging about Love Never Dies before it officially opens tonight.

Given that punters have been paying up to £90 for ‘premium’ seating (or even more if booked via a ticket agency) and that his Lordship states the show is a work in progress what did he expect?

LND ticketing is a sore point here anyway. Lloyd Webbers own box office sold me two tickets an hour after the show went on sale back in October but when chasing a few weeks ago for the tickets was told due to some unexplained error they had cancelled my booking. No notification, no apology and no tickets available apart from 2 premium seats at £90 each (nearly 3 times the value of the cheapskate seats I’d booked and received confirmation email for)

Now LND may have taken a huge advance but is this the way to keep loyal customers booking for shows when the initial hype dies down? Lloyd Webber’s See Tickets (part of his Really Useful empire) states they are top for customer service but a manager advised someone in their complaints team ‘may’ call me back and a month on I’m still waiting. Perhaps if ALW did some mystery shopping to his call centre rather than worrying about bloggers more people would be filling his theatres.

The Long Way Home – Jubilee Hall Aldeburgh

For only the 2nd time in their history, Eastern Angles have staged an ‘off the shelf’ play instead of one especially commissioned for them and it turns out to be a poor decision.

Instead of a locally inspired play we are transported to a Greek island and a widow’s journey back to her birthplace.

On the way she meets a young lad who thinks he’s a dog and slowly a touching relationship develops between them.

There is potential here and some effective staging on a simple set. The current theatrical fashion to include puppets is continued here with an effective ghost of the woman’s husband conjured up from a clay jug.

The clever staging however doesn’t manage to hide the fact that the play itself is paper thin and stretched way to far to fill two acts. The long way home it certainly is and could do with a desperate short cut.

Hidden here is a one act play for children but for a full staged adult production fails to inspire. Come on Eastern Angles, return to doing what you do best – stories rooted in East Anglian life.

Sweet Charity – Menier Chocolate Factory

An oversight I know but lets start with a confession – I have never seen Sweet Charity on stage or on film. I blame having to light a rendition of Rhythm Of Life at college that left me in a cold sweat.

So it was into the dark at the Chocolate Factory for their latest sell out hit. Yes some of the songs would be familiar and Tamsin Outhwaite will always be my Nancy but the rest would be a whole new ballgame.

As is always the way it never ceases to amaze they manage to squeeze shows of this size into the shoebox that is the Menier – the band alone seems to take up most of the space – but as ever the intimacy does wonders with the staging – not only can you see the cast sweat, you are likely to get covered in it!

This 60’s musical is in many ways an American version of Cabaret – a dance hall hostess tries to make good. But while Sally Bowles may have had a darker side, Charity Hope Valentine is as the title suggests sweet. Wronged in love she sets out to meet Mr Right but how will he cope with her profession.

Tamsin Outhwaite shows her theatrical pedigree, with a note and foot perfect performance that milks both the sympathy but also knows when to hit the comic edge – her performance in If My Friends Could See Me Now is spot on and timed to precision.

It is perhaps in the big show stopper numbers that Sweet Charity works best and Big Spender turns into the demon love child of the aforementioned Cabaret and La Cage Aux Folles while Rhythm is a glorious Hair parody full of wide eyed madness.

This is once again a spot on production but one that I fear will get lost on the forthcoming transfer to the larger Haymarket – It may be controversial but I would suggest that Sweet Charity is not the ‘classic’ show it’s long history has lead us to believe and perhaps is best suited to this small scale production.

Dunsinane – Hamsptead Theatre

Well theatre professionals see Macbeth as a cursed play so its brave of the RSC to stage a new sequel of the dreaded Scottish Play.

It turns out however to be a brave and bold move, in David Griegs’ epic Dunsinane they have found a play that not only adds something to the Bards original but also stand alone in its own right.

Never mentioned by name in this show the ‘Tyrant’ Macbeth has been overthrown – for those who recall his proclamation of his safety until Burnam wood came to Dunisnane will see the line ‘you be a tree’ take on a whole new significance. Although Macbeth may have perished Lady M’s demise has been prematurly reported and she is very much alive. Gruach – for that is she is still very much the power behind the throne and is coldly planning her restoration to her rightful place as Queen – something incumbent ruler Malcolm may have problems with.

Although a fine company piece (with some strong support of local youth actors in the ensemble roles) it is the two crowns that stand out – Siobhan Redmond’s passionate Gruach and Brian Ferguson’s chilling Malcolm. Both roles could easily be overplayed but in these hands are delivered with a cunning restraint.

In a departure for Hampstead Theatre the auditorium is reconfigured to echo the RSC’s Courtyard – while it does allow Robert Innes Hopkins’ craggy set to thrust into the auditorium – it does lead to some sight line problems and a question on if it is really necessary.

Evocative lighting and effective use of Gaelic music create some stunning set pieces – no more effective than an emotional climax, beautifully staged against the driving snow of the highlands.

This is a piece that stands alone as a powerful exploration of the effects of war and invasion – parallels to the modern world anyone? It could have rammed its message home but instead does so with a subtle hand.

Lets hope the RSC gives this production a further life after it’s Hampstead run – it would also be good to see it in a double bill with the Scottish Play with the same creative team/cast – a truly epic experience

Noises Off – New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich

There is often a suspicion that there is more interesting drama backstage than onstage in many productions and in Michael Fryan’s classic comedy Noises Off the backstage drama is certainly more watchable than the terrible production of ‘Nothing On’ that the company are desperately trying to tour to the poor unsuspecting theatre going public.
For anyone who’s stepped away from the safety of the auditorium into the manic world of producing a play the problems being experienced here will be all to painfully real – although hopefully none of the audience will have been in a production where things have gone this wrong – violence, whisky, marital affairs and a dangerous cactus all conspiring to derail this already wonky wagon.
Act one is always something of a slow burner – its dress rehearsal (or should that be tech rehearsal) and it’s already after midnight and we’re still only half way through act one. We get (after much distraction) to see how (nearly) the Act should look. Act two switches viewpoints backstage after a long few weeks on the road and all is not well – the cast are at each others throat, the Stage Management team have given up trying to control the chaos and to top it all the Director has arrived on a break from Richard III.
Act Three returns Front of House on the final week of the tour and all hell has broken loose – will the company get to the curtain call or will they kill each other first?

Peter Rowe’s production pitches the action perfectly – a slow intro setting up the laughs for the madness of the following acts – and once the laughter starts it doesn’t stop – doors, sheets and sardines fly in all directions as the production disintegrates in front of our eyes.

Showing that she is more than a West End Musical star, Rosie Ashe gives a tour-de-force as leading lady Dotty Otley, hamming it up to just the right level. This is a show though that relies on all the company giving their all in split second perfection and there is no weak spots here.
You will never be able to look a sardine in the same light again.

Stephen Sondheim – Royal National Theatre

It’s always good to support young, up and coming, writers and so its a trip to the National to support some whipper snapper called Stephen Sondheim!

Seriously though its hard to believe that the maestro is 80 years old this year and shows no signs of retiring.

There are few people that can truly be described as a living legend but for Sondheim its no exaggeration – the wave of affection that spread throughout the theatre was palpable.

There were no great revelations here – but it was surprising to hear negative opinions of some of the perceived greats of musical theatre and an aborted attempt to film Into The Woods with Robin Williams.

An hour flew past and could easily have gone on all night – a heartfelt standing ovation once again demonstrates the awe in which Sondheim is held.