Friday, 19 August 2016

'Jungle Book' review or 'Awesome trees - but where's the wood?'

Jungle Book (Metta Theatre after Rudyard Kipling)
Southbank Centre - 17th August 2016
Written for Time Out 

I’m lost in the jungle. Metta Theatre have shifted Rudyard Kipling’s classic children’s story onto the streets of London. Baloo is now a beat-boxing bin man, Bagheera a graffiti artist, Shere Khan a street gangster, and jungle-lad Mowgli – a feisty woman and a mean gymnast. They may or may not still be animals; it’s quite hard to tell. There’s such imagination in here, and heaps of brilliant circus and street dancing skills – but it’s also pretty baffling and perhaps a little too edgy (Shere Khan mimics shooting poor Mowgli at one point) for a family crowd. 
Director Poppy Burton-Morgan is trying to push circus into bold new areas – but she hasn’t quite made the leap. Most of the skills on display – trapeze work, pole dancing and beat-boxing – are essentially solo disciplines. That makes it hard for the cast to gel, despite some inspired choreography from ZooNation’s Kendra J Horsburgh.  The styles also clash. Stefan Puxon is a sparky beat boxer but phrases like – ‘To you I’m invisible, a figure derisible’ – fly right over the children’s heads.
There’s a mesmerising pole-dancing routine from Nathalie Alison as sinister snake Kaa – but it doesn’t help the story. After Mowgli (Natalie Nicole James) flees the jungle, she tries to bond with her mother. Endless dance sequences – such as ballroom dancing and ballet - are disrupted as Mowgli struggles to adapt. It’s a neat idea but - once again - goes on for much too long.
The curtain-call is the best ‘scene’ of the night. Freed from having to tell a story, the cast let rip – and tear up the stage with their mad circus and street skills.  

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

'Marco Polo: An Untold Love Story' review or 'I think we've veered a little off track...'

'Marco Polo: An Untold Love Story, Rogelio Saldo Chua 
Shaw Theatre, 9th August 2016 
Written for Time Out 

Venetian merchant Marco Polo rewrote the map with his travels to Asia in the thirteenth century. Cartographers literally shifted boundaries because of him. He also penned the ‘Book of the Marvels of the World’, which is why his name sounds familiar. Rogelio Saldo Chua’s new musical is based on Polo’s travels, although the love story bit is pure conjecture. Unfortunately, no boundaries have been pushed in the making of this muddled and plodding show.
The first half feels very slow – despite the fact that Marco Polo (Lawrence Olsworth-Peter) spends the entire time travelling eastwards (walking endlessly around Mio Infante’s spiralling platform). Olsworth-Peter has a strong, clean voice but the peppy songs about hope and journeys begin to merge. Meanwhile, in Cathay, Princess Kogajin (Stephanie Reese) is determined to marry for love. Marco Polo and the Princess fall head over heels – but their union isn’t meant to be.
There’s a slight snag with this love story: there isn’t any love. The pivotal moment arrives when Princess Kogajin takes off her helmet and swishes her hair about. That’s it. There’s also an excruciating seduction scene, in which Marco Polo strips down to what can only be described as a nappy but – otherwise – there’s very little love to go on.
The second half focuses on Marco Polo’s quest to become a baron – and hence worthy of the Princess’ love. That sounds quite fun – but the script gets bogged down in dry details and fussy diction. Director Preece Killick constantly refreshes the sepia projections on the back wall and even brings on some ballerinas – but it feels laboured. It doesn’t help that the seven-piece orchestra is sat in the wings. There’s no feeling of spontaneity and the story of this great traveller grinds to a halt.

Monday, 8 August 2016

'The Secret Garden' review or 'Are you sure you can smell the roses?'

'Secret Garden', Marsha Norman (after Frances Hodgson-Burnett)
Ambassadors Theatre, 3rd August 2016
Written for Time Out

P2P productions used a huge rotating cast of children for their production of Annie Junior last year – and they’re up to same tricks with The Secret Garden. The stage is positively bursting with kids – and the occasional rose-bud – in this pruned version of Marsha Norman’s Tony award-winning musical adaptation. But a sea of kids doesn’t necessarily make for a relatable or exciting piece of children’s theatre – and for all the charm of the young actors, this garden is a little wilted.
Norman’s book stays faithful to Frances Hodgson-Burnett’s original novel – and sees 11 year old Mary Lennox whisked off to her uncle’s house in Yorkshire, following her parents’ death. Here, Mary encounters jolly country folk (Samantha Bingley sparkles as maid Martha), a bed-bound cousin – and a dead aunt who will not stop singing about her beautiful garden.
The fun of this story has always come from Mary and her moody ways – and Alana Hinge pouts and stomps her way through the show with a bright energy. She’s great fun to watch – as is Sam Procter as stroppy cousin Colin. The older characters are less appealing – and whilst the actors have strong singing voices, they’re guilty of rattling through the script.
The young cast swirl about the stage with gusto - but I’m not entirely sure what they’re doing there. Jamie Neal’s choreography grows repetitive as the children dash – mindlessly - back and forth, and Lizzy Leech’s sheet-strewn set is a bit bland. As Mary’s new friend Dickon might say: there’s plenty of wilt (promise) in director Jamie Neal’s show – but it never bursts into bloom. 

Friday, 1 July 2016

'Chester Tuffnut' review or 'Flirting snails and flying moles.'

Chester Tuffnut, Rosanna Lowe
Polka Theatre, 26th June 2016
Written for Guardian Stage 

I’m no expert in woodland creatures and neither is my four-year-old theatre companion, Frida. Before going to see Chester Tuffnut, we carry out a quick Google search to double check that tree moles – the star of this show – are not in fact real. They’re not. Chester Tuffnut is one of a kind: a mossy and floppy green creature who is awfully fond of adventure. Director Matt Addicott’s family show isn’t always adventurous enough but it is still an attractive and relaxing stroll of a show.
The action unfolds deep in the woods but – much to Frida’s delight (she isn’t a fan of mess) – there’s not a speck of dirt in sight. Designer Robyn Wilson-Owenspecialises in hand-drawn artwork and there’s an attention to detail about her delicate design that sets it apart. Everything on stage, from the woodland itself (sensitively lit by Chris Randall) to the puppet creatures that scurry about the undergrowth, has been created with palpable affection and care.
Wooden crates line the stage, each with beautifully realised animal homes nestling inside. When nighttime falls, an owl’s eyes glow brightly in the dark and lights flicker from inside the crates. A spindly tree sculpture plays host to a range of quirky animal puppets. Ants scuttle up the tree trunk and an injured bat (an artfully shaped piece of leather with a felt head) rests high in the branches. Two snails – with stunning suede tapestry shells – slither across the ground. There’s a really smart symbiosis between the material and personality of the animal puppets: the snails have grey socks for heads, which somehow makes them seem lazier than ever.
The puppets captivate but Rosanna Lowe’s story – which is little more than a woodland tour – begins to flag. Animal puppeteers Amy Tweed and Clare Fraenkel have heaps of energy but the endless stream of animal gobbledy gook gets a little tired. Sanjay Shelat has slightly more to play with in his role as nutty professor and, at one point, even licks the trees he loves so deeply. It would’ve been nice to have a few more oddball moments in a show that plays it slightly too safe.
Frida is pretty restless by the time the show’s “message” comes round: “Watching the world go by is plenty adventure enough.” We’re not convinced. But then the actors step out into the audience and the real adventure begins. A bat settles on Frida’s head and a snail wriggles over her toes. Frida rolls around on the fake grass and begins scampering about, her own imagination set free.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Richard III review or 'Bad is the world...'

Richard III – William Shakespeare
Almeida Theatre, 18th June 2016

There’s an aching pertinence to this version of Richard III, which I’m not sure is entirely earned (I can’t figure out the driving force behind Goold’s production) – but is horribly powerful all the same. There is something so awful – given the terrible news that is pouring in at the moment - about watching a show in which evil wins. This is a painful, shameful and frightening piece of theatre.  ‘Woe is England’, comes the cry, and fuck does it sting.

Rupert Goold has dressed his Richard III (including an exceptionally elegant Ralph Fiennes) in contemporary garments – and framed the production with references to last year’s discovery of King Richard’s bones in a car park in Leicester. But despite this specific framing device, the modern-day context feels fuzzy around the edges. Mobile phones are occasionally used but not with no real commitment. The women wear modern dresses but their submissive behaviour is positively medieval. So, yes, a stinging sorrow clings to the audience – but that sorrow feels like a slightly fortunate bi-product of Goold’s beautifully gloomy production, rather than something that has been carefully teased out of us.

Still, there is glibness about the violence that Richard reaps that is deeply upsetting. Fiennes is a relatively restrained Richard and is careful to keep the spitting ferocity of his Richard hidden until the last possible moment. First we are charmed and then we are appalled. Fiennes smiles and sneers and toys with us. He wiggles his eyebrows and pauses coolly over his words; his speeches drip with disdain for the spineless creatures that lay in the path of his twisted form. There are few who can match Fiennes for on-stage charisma and the audience is mesmerised and appalled. It is a hateful experience to enjoy this Richard.

Hildegard Bechtler keeps the stage dark, glittering and open, with plenty of space to hide real horrors. A huge metal orb hangs above the stage and glows. It comes to mean all sorts of things: it is the God that has forsaken Richard’s world; it is the goodness that lies beyond; it is the crown that taunts all those who stand beneath; it is the nothing to which this world has been reduced.

There’s an awful emptiness about this production that hits the audience, cold and comfortless. But this emotional shallowness has some strange consequences, especially on the female characters. Goold’s show has no space for fragile emotion and Margaret, Anne and Elizabeth – who are so wounded and conflicted by Richard’s actions - are all-but blotted out. Anne (Joanna Vanderham) spits and shouts at Richard but we do not feel her pain. Margaret (a slightly lost looking Vanessa Redgrave) floats about the stage, clutching at a baby doll and prophesizing doom – but this hard and cold production has no time for Margaret’s shimmering threats. Elizabeth (AislĂ­n McGuckin) is casually raped by Richard, who barely stops to catch his breath as he rams himself inside of her. The production steamrolls on and the audience is given no time, no space, to feel the horror of Elizabeth’s abuse.

There’s so much ugliness crammed in here (and not always with good reason) - but is the moments of hope and light that cut the deepest. The death of innocent Clarence has never been this painful. Scott Handy finds such tender passion, hope and fear in his final speech, as a desperate Clarence pleads for his life. Clarence describes a recent nightmare; a terrifying journey through the dark depths of the ocean, where ugly creatures crawl through emptied skulls. He talks of a sunken world that has turned to dust and it is our world - and he is our last hope. The stage glows with something good and, for one beautiful moment, it feels like the murderers might let Clarence go.  But then the greed, the darkness and the doubt set in and Clarence – and all the light that burned inside him – is snuffed out for good. 

Monday, 13 June 2016

'Phaedra' review or 'I think I work best in profile.'

Phaedra(s) –
Barbican Theatre, 10th June 2016

There are at least three different Phaedras rammed into this sprawling LIFT production, all of which are played by the riveting French actress Isabelle Huppert. She is spectacular and manages to maintain her dignity despite an awful lot of fuss, blood and writhing. But Christ is this show long, draining, largely humourless and – weirdly – male. There’s Greek tragedy, Kane and a bit of J M Coetzee in here but – despite all these influences – ‘Phaedra(s)’ feels a little cheap.

In some ways, Krzysztof Warlikowski’s stylish production is the epitome of European glamour – a glamour which is personified by Huppert but also written into the make-up of Malgorzata Szczesniak’s elegant set. For the first third of this production – written by Wajdi Mouawad and based on Euripides’ and Seneca’s writings on Phaedra – a huge reflective wall lines the right hand side of the stage and the rest of the set remains cool and bare, except for the misty projections that flicker against the back wall. It looks like a rather classy dream laced with malice. Kane’s section plays out in a huge glass box  (all the better to admire our specimens in) and the final third of the production - a post-modern wink based on J M Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello - unfolds on a clear and contemporary-looking stage. The lines are very clean, the staging crisp, the camera work classy.

But this veneer of sophistication is very thin. I guess that makes sense thematically: this production asks a lot of questions about the contrast between a woman’s public appearance and private self. But it also makes for a very ugly show – and I’m not convinced the ends justify the demeaning means.

The first third of the show is particularly ugly. Huppert spends much of this opening segment screaming out in desire or agony and rolling about on the stage. She wears a straggly blonde wig, black sunglasses and a raunchy outfit. I’m not sure we once see her eyes.

There’s some groaning about Hippolytus – and some talk of a world in which ‘palaces have paved the ground over the anger of the earth’ – but there’s mainly just blood and boobs and sex. An Arab dancer - Rosalba Torres Guerrero – wiggles about incessantly in a tiny silver bikini. There is something very masculine about her dance and perhaps all those head-flicking stomps are meant to be empowering but it all looks pretty Eurovision to me. At various stages of the dance, Guerrero turns her back to the audience and wiggles her bum in our faces. I look away.

Huppert rolls around in blood-stained pants, plays ball with a shaggy dog and simulates sex with Hippolytus. She screams I LOVE at the top of her lungs. If there had been a shaft of light in here – a glimpse of irony – then all of this might’ve been quite interesting but these scenes are closed, obscure and dark. They feel shallow and vaguely depressing. Huppert just about manages to ride the wave but only in spite of - rather than because of - the performing requests made of her.

Kane’s ‘Phaedra’ kicks off and things get a lot more interesting and ripply. The dynamic between Huppert’s Phaedra and Andrzej Chyra’s Hippolytus is fascinating. Chyra finds strange shafts of goodness in Hippolytus – an 'odd sort of purity' - and Phaedra begins to exert a twisted control over things. But the focus in this Phaedra feels off. This is Huppert’s show but Kane’s Phaedra is – at heart – about Hippolytus and his depression. With Hippolytus in the shadows, the Kane's devastating rewrite is muted. Hippolytus’ explosive agony in the closing scene – as he marvels at how alive he feels with death about to engulf him - never comes to light. 

With our senses and patience worn down, the final third of this odyssey begins - and it’s easily the best sequence of the night. Huppert plays a brilliant novelist – J M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello – who dazzles as she fields questions about women, mythology, sex and feminism. Huppert's Elizabeth is strong, outraged, fiendishly smart and a little bit broken. At one point a clip is shown of a Jessica Lange film, in which Lange’s character gets a lobotomy. Huppert coils up in her chair and covers her face. The pain she feels at this moment seems to encompass so much. The conversation moves onto the impact of old age on female identity – and it is a question that Huppert haltingly navigates. Am I still a woman as middle age approaches, asks Huppert? A great silence opens out on stage and it is filled with sadness, defiance – and just a hint of fear.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

'The Little Gardener' review or 'Do you dig it?'

The Little Gardener - Emily Hughes
Lyric Hammersmith, 8th June 2016 
Written for Guardian online 

My theatre companion for the day, Frida, doesn’t have a garden at home. She does, however, have a balcony with a “flower plant, an orange tree, a tomato tree and a bouncy ball”. Like most four-year-olds, Frida isn’t a huge gardening enthusiast. I’m concerned that this adaptation of Emily Hughes’s picturebook The Little Gardener isn’t going to appeal.
How It Ended theatre company (led by director Eva Sampson) have set their puppet show inside a mini-greenhouse, which stands outside the Lyric Hammersmith in London. As always with gardening, the first concern is the weather. The audience gather round the greenhouse to watch the show from outside. It’s June, so naturally it’s pouring with rain. Luckily, the shower stops just in time for the show and a slightly soggy crowd look into designer James Lewis’s greenhouse. The children move in closer, while the parents peer anxiously at the clouds overhead.
Inside is a mini-garden with tiny paths, a scattering of flowers and gardening tools and a dinky puppet gardener. A gentle-looking giant – actor Peter Hobday – controls the puppet and the contrast in size between Hobday and his puppet makes the little gardener seem littler still. Andy Lawrence’s puppet gardener looks exactly like Emily Hughes’s original creation, with a shiny smiling face, jolly blue dungarees and a raggedy straw hat.
There’s not much narrative to speak of, and we spend much of the time watching the little gardener struggle with his big garden chores. Darren Clark’s soundtrack chirrups overhead, but it’s so loud that Frida clamps her hands over her ears. A perfectly lovely theme song is woven into the piece but, on the 10th hearing (“Why does your garden grooooow?”), it becomes a little wearing.
The gardener struggles with a plastic bag and shelters from the storm but these elements, which are surely a conservationism nudge, feel muted. Frida asks a lot of questions (“Why is he smiling? Why is he sleeping?”) that I struggle to answer. It’s only when the gardener falls asleep and the children are invited inside – to help plant his flowers – that this show blossoms. There is such care on the children’s faces as they earnestly dig away at the soil. One kid keeps to the paths in an attempt to protect the grass. It’s a gorgeous and cheering sight.