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.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour – Royal National Theatre

The nemonic Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is ingraned into the minds of any music student but in Tom Stoppards collaboration with Andre Preven the phrase takes on a wider metaphor.

A play for actors and orchestra sees a full size symphony orchestra fill the stage while two political prisoners are ‘imprisoned’ in a mental institution. One imagines an orchestra in his head while the other sees innocent people being arrested by the state – who is mad and who is sane?

Its almost Chekhovian in tone but the use of the orchestra adds a grander scale. It takes some time to come to terms with the set up and in a play that only lasts just over an hour this is a problem. By the time the concept is imbedded though the two elements work well and adds a further dimension to the play.

The epic Olivier stage is needed for such as a production as this but the very scale of the theatre somehow distances the emotional connection. It may be a contradiction but such an epic production may be better served by a more intimate venue.

An interesting exploration but not wholly satisfying.

Andersen’s English – Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

It sounds like a made up event – Hans Christian Andersen arrives as an unexpected guest at Charles Dickens’ Kent home but this isn’t one of those ‘6 people you invite to your dinner party’ fantasies, it actually happened.

Andersen’s English – Out of Joint Theatre Company’s latest touring production focuses on this unlikely meeting of literary giants and the destructive background Andersen stumbles into.

Andersen’s limited English makes it difficult for him to realise he is in the middle of a family imploding and for the audience also all seems initially well. A love triangle, Dickens’ controlling nature and a son about to be banished to India soon begin to show their ugly head however and events continue in motion like a train out of control.

Sebastian Barry’s play makes no attempt to either judge or glamorise the famous writers, instead the audience are left as perhaps reluctant intruders on this tragic scene.

Strong performances throughout make this a gripping evening, with Niamh Cussak, David Rintoul and Danny Sapani giving especially believable performances.

Director Max Stafford Clarke pushes the action along with pace while allowing the claustrophobic tension to shine through.

Dickens and Andersen will never be read in the same light again.

Huck – New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich

There is always a danger in adapting classic novels for the stage that the audience will have such a strong vision of the novel in their mind that any stage adaptation will fail to live up to that image. When the novel has been filmed on numerous occasions the problem is compounded. It is against these problems that Shapeshifter Theatre Company launches their version of Huck – an adaptation of the Mark Twain Huckleberry Finn novels.

Despite a valiant attempt its sad to say that ultimately this production of Huck sinks midway down the Mississippi.

Central to the problem is the inability for the cast to make the characters likeable – over 2hrs 45min we just don’t care about the outcome. Some of this could be down to the length of the piece, the Mississippi may be long but at times it seems like we are set to travel the entire length.

Graeme Dalling as the title Character in particular fails to convince us to like Huck but many of the characters are little more than sketches.

Staging is fluid but the lighting fails to conjure the steamy Deep South.

This was the first night of the UK tour so some pace may improve further down the road but the show would benefit but trimming about 30mins from the show to appeal to a family audience

One Man Lord Of The Rings – Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

Ok – just to protect me from Sam Jackson’s lawyers let me say from the outset this review is not linked or authorised by anyone connected with The Lord of The Rings – better to be safe than sorry.

Given the epic scale of the books and the subsequent films how do you condense these down into a one man show just over an hour long? The answer lies in writer and performer Charles Ross who has an obvious affection for the piece and injects just enough knowing jokes in to mock the film characters to keep the most ardent fans happy.

With no props, minimal lighting and just a boiler suit for company Charles swaps from voice to voice with a frantic speed that would make any psychoanalyst flinch.

Ross’s Canadian overtones vanish as we get the spirit of Sir Ian Mckellan manifest itself while poor Olando Bloom is targeted for particular lampooning.

While there is humour here and some micky taking of the films it is clear that this is done with affection – if you cant sit down through all 12 hours of the extended DVDs of the films this show should be top of your must see list – if you do regularly sit through all 12 hours you should get out more and this is the perfect vehicle to start your rehabilitation to the outside world.

2010 A Space Oddity – New Wolsey Theatre

Gavin Robertson has created a whole new theatrical genre – geek theatre. Outside of a Sci Fi Convention never has there been a auditorium buzzing with comments about the obelisk on stage during the preset being of the wrong proportions. Its one of those shows – if you spend far to many hours in front of the TV watching the Sci Fi channel you will most probably revel in 2010 A Space Oddity. If you don’t you will be left horribly confused – unfortunately although known to like a bit of Sci Fi I fell into the latter group.

A parody of 2001 this two man show gets off to a very slow start and doesn’t pick up any pace during the piece. Full of in jokes relating back to the film for some bizarre reason a series of catering equipment props are wheeled on to represent various spacecraft, planets etc. While this may work for a one off joke after an hour it wears thin.

There are many successful spoof shows out on the road but unfortunately this one should be left out in a far flung orbit

Arabian Nights – The Courtyard Stratford Upon Avon

There are some moments in theatre when you just have to take a chance. A £10 ticket offer on Facebook for top price seats was just one of the moments. A family show by the RSC at the end of January not a must see but reviews outstanding and a bargain ticket so why not.

And what a good choice that proved to be – Arabian Nights is not only a good show, it rates up their with one of the best shows for many a year.

The king has been betrayed by his wife and therefore is only marrying for one night before despatching his poor wifes to the executioner. Shaharazad is determined to buck the trend – her neck is on the line next – and sets out to tell the king one of her famous stories.

So begins the night as we see a selection of the famous Arabian Night tales. Its a gripping sight from the outset as this multi taleted cast use every theatrical trick in the book to thrill audiences of all ages.

Thanks to War Horse puppers now seem to be a requirement for many theatre shows and Arabian Nights is no differnent but here they are integrated seemlessly into the action with some ingenious twists.

It just shows that sometimes its best just to take a shot in the dark with your theatre bookings.

The Habit of Art – National Theatre

A new Alan Bennett play for the National Theatre is always guaranteed to get bums on seats and The Habit of Art is no exception – all performances sold out shortly after going on sale. So is this likely to be another History Boys? Unlikely but that doesnt mean its bad, Bennet has to have a real off day to be bad, but perhaps the subject matter will prevent the stellar success of History Boys.

If you’ve ever been backstage at the National, walking into the Lyttleton will be a little of a shock for the senses – where you expect a set is a detailed replica of one of the Nationals rehearsal rooms.

History of Art is therefore a play within a play – we are witnessing rehearsals for a play examining a meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten. Neither are likable characters and nor are the ‘actors’ playing them in the rehearsal room and that’s part of the problem – you don’t really warm to them and therefore don’t care.

Yes the clever writing is here and yes the plot is well conceived and delivered and its nothing short of entertaining but at the end of the day you just dislike both Auden and Britten.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof – Novello Theatre

Darth Vader does Tennessee Williams screamed the headlines as the sell out Broadway all black production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof hit London. And yes as soon as James Earl Jones opens his mouth it is clear the voice of the Sith Lord has indeed landed, but that’s were any resemblance to Star Wars ends.

Here it is a family at war rather than the galactic empire. In the Deep South Big Daddy (Jones) has his family gathered round for what could be his final birthday. In the bedroom son Brick (Adrian Lester) had turned to the bottle instead of his wife – over the ensuing three hours the family falls apart as things are revealed that perhaps should have remained hidden.

Much has been made of the all black casting but it doesn’t matter a jot – what is needed in COAHTR is a strong connection between frustrated Maggie and Brick and between Brick and Big Daddy and its in these scenes that this production truly turns up the heat. The Act One scenes between Lester and Sanna Lathan (Maggie) are almost too painful to watch as their marriage teeter on the edge of collapse, and just when you think things couldn’t get any more emotional Act two sees Lester and Jones go head to head in one of the most powerful and emotionally gut renching father and son scenes ever to have graced the stage. Any wannabe actors should be made to study these performances for an acting master class. When the likes of Sir Ian Mckellen go on record stating this scene should filmed for future generations you have to agree.

If there is one criticism for this production it is you never get a sense of the oppressive Southern heat that drives the action to boiling point, I know it was a cold January in London but I never sensed the humidity of the southern states.

It’s a limited run in London but one that will be remembered for many years – not because of skin colour but the strength of performances

The Rivals – Southwark Playhouse

For those whose only theatre experience in Southwark entails just The Globe or Chocolate Factory should head to the arches under London Bridge Station and The Southwark Playhouse.

Sheridan’s Rivals is not an immediate choice for a sell out show on a cold Wed January evening but perhaps thanks to a certain Celia Imrie being cast in the show this is the case.

As it happens Ms Imrie is cast in support (and as it happens sports a corset of equally supporting nature) but that matters not a jot as this restoration romp gets just the right amount of updating. As it happens Ms Imrie’s cleavage should get its own Equity card and puts a whole new meaning to the phrase heaving bossom!

Played against a simple set and featuring little ditties from well known restoration period artists such as Beyonce, this is a well conceived and performed Rom Com. Cads, Mistaken identities and Mrs Malaprops famous twists of the tongue give the audience plenty to chuckle over.

The overhead rumbles of the passing trains may not be period sounds but the audience are too engrossed in this frothy romp to care.

If you are trying to read the programme in the bar you may need to bring a torch to cope with the gloom but otherwise this little should delight