Mendoza, Los Colochos @ Southwark Playhouse

24 – 28 October 2017

CASA Festival

Directed by Juan Carillo
Los Colochos Teatro

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Photography by Alma Curiel

General Mendoza encounters a witch who prophesies his rise to leadership. Persuaded to take action by his wife, Mendoza begins an increasingly brutal and murderous rise to tyranny.

Performing in Spanish with English subtitles, Los Colochos, a theatre company from Mexico City, has created a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which is powerful and refreshing. The adaption is rustic and earthy, and feels deeply entwined with Mexican culture and politics. Partly inspired by the writings of Juan Rulfo and Elena Garro, the production offers an allegorical beginning to some of Mexico’s violent recent history.

It also features a live chicken. Which is amazing.

The adaptation of the Shakespeare is clever and effective. Characters are merged and changed in a way that only develops and humanises them further. For example, the play has been streamlined from the Shakespeare version – the porter, nurse, and most of the various court underlings and a few lords have been condensed into a single servant for the Lady Macbeth equivalent. Her gossipy, chatty character makes her instantly likable. Seeing Lady Macbeth with a childhood friend and her nanny brings a whole new side to the character, making her far more dimensional, and her actions and her madness more justified.

That goes for all the characters. They feel real, human, historical, down to earth, even if their actions are still monstrous. It has none of the pageantry of Shakespeare, but cleverly echoes it’s language, and retains it’s poetry.

The cast is wonderful to watch. Playful and engaging, and when the play requires it, intensely dramatic and emotive. They’re a cohesive and powerful group of performers, and on more than one occasion gave me goosebumps. They engage with the audience, melding in and out of them, confiding in them, and handing out food and beer.

That bears repeating. It’s very hard not to love a cast that hands you beers.

Juan Carillo’s direction is masterly. The play is dynamic, and a pleasure to watch. The props and staging are creative, the cast provides music and soundscape, masks are used to great effect for various characters, and the deaths are moving, gory and shocking.

It’s a mesmerising production. And did I mention the free beer?

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Insignificance, Arcola Theatre

18 October – 18 November, 2017

by Terry Johnson
Directed by David Mercatali

Photo by Alex Brenner

Photography by Alex Brenner (info@alexbrenner.co.uk)

Marilyn Monroe makes a surprise visit to Albert Einstein in a New York hotel room, each dogged by their celebrity and the pursuing figures of Joe DiMaggio and Joseph McCarthy. In the fame-obsessed nuclear age of the 1950s, the play places these four titans of their time in the same room, and we can only wait for the fallout.

You ache for the story to be true so badly it hurts.

Described as a bittersweet comedy, it certainly lives up to the title. The talented cast deliver Terry Johnson’s witty, often deeply touching dialogue wonderfully, and they’ve obviously done their research. The production is brought to life by the craft of the performances, who create a very real world with almost no suspension of disbelief required.

Alice Bailey Johnson nails her performance of Marilyn, capturing a remarkable truthfulness in the starlet’s passion, and vulnerability. It’s a reincarnation that brings allure, sexuality, brittle anger and deep pain. An incredibly magnetic performance.

Simon Rouse delivers a wonderful still, and slightly doddery charm as Einstein. Watching his crazy-haired shadow on the back wall was downright spooky sometimes, like a well-written séance.

Oliver Hembrough is a tremendous presence on stage, filling the room a alpha-male Joe DiMaggio swagger. He’s thuggish, and volatile, and completely hilarious. He’s an idiot who tries so hard to show that he’s not stupid, that his attempts to keep up with the rest of the characters, and his frustration at failing to do so, provide infectious moments of comedy as well as moments of heartfelt vulnerability. An utter contrast to Tom Mannion’s McCarthy, a fawning, slimy, chilling performance of the notorious senator.

They’re perfect historical characters to explore the isolation of fame and its true insignificance. Relativity, the Einstein theory of changes between the observed and observer is a clever connection, and the play contains some profound exploration on the nature of imagination, thoughts, and emotion. Solipsism, the belief that no one other than yourself exists, is an idea that makes an appearance in the play and sums up perfectly the entrapment felt by Monroe, the isolation of Einstein and DiMaggio, and the selfish cruelty expressed by MaCarthy.

The play is gracefully directed by David Mercatali, who has managed imbue the often static scenes with life and subtlety.

The sole problem I found with the production comes down more to my taste than anything. It feels like a portal in space-time has opened for you to see the events of the play, but the play then struggles to shrug off the sense of detachment that this creates. It’s a compelling and emotional piece of fly-on-the-wall theatre, but when we watch it, it feels like we’re doing so from a long, long way away. At its best it feels like you’re spying on something intimate, but on the whole the production closes the forth wall so completely that it shuts us out, and lacks an immediacy that I craved it to have.

So, maybe aim to book the front row seats?

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Richard III, Front Foot Theatre @ The Cockpit

12 October – 4 November 2017

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Lawrence Carmichael

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Front Foot Theatre has produced an intensely twisted and compelling retelling of one of Shakespeare’s most powerful works.

The direction by Lawrence Carmichael is masterly. The play is dynamic, the blocking creative and powerful. Carmichael’s previous experience in movement and fight director roles is plain to see, and gives the production its energy and originality.

The battle scenes are beyond incredible. Involving the entire cast, the fights are heart-thumping adrenaline-rushes, climactic brawls worthy of HBO or Hollywood.

The Cockpit was the perfect choice to stage the show, matching the dark tones and epic scale of the production perfectly. The design elements are exceptional, and included remarkable puppetry and memorably gruesome props. The spine-tingling sound design has been created by the multi-talented Kim Hardy, who also plays the production’s titular character.

Hardy is supremely engaging, and is one of the best Richards I’ve seen. He is animistic, erratic, brutal, and often terrifying.

Having said this, I think the play suffers slightly from Richard playing his hand too early. Hardy’s Richard frightens and intimidates to achieve his goals. It’s an M.O. that works fantastically in the last acts, but makes it hard to invest in Richard, and so sympathise with his demise as the play progresses. More than that, by using violence early and throughout, it leaves him very few places to go. Scenes that could potentially provide moments of vulnerability, sincerity and charm, such as the famous Lady Anne scene, instead often colour Richard solely as a volatile and unsympathetic villain.

Despite this, Kim Hardy is undoubtedly a formidable and charismatic leading man.

The playfulness and comedy of this production is beautiful to watch, and brings a level of joy and engagement to the show that lightens and enlivens the play fantastically. It’s very much an ensemble piece, the cast working together flawlessly in telling the story.

It’s a talented cast well worth watching. All the royal women, played by Julia Papp (Lady Anne), Anglea Harvey (Queen Margaret), Helen Rose Hampton (Queen Elizabeth), and Fiona Tong (Duchess of York) are powerful, regal and emotive, holding their own and playing off each other to great effect.

Matt Hastings (Hastings) is superbly engaging and likeable. Guy Faith (Buckingham) gives a charming, charismatic performance, and the on-stage relationship between him and Hardy’s Richard is often electric.

Liam Murray Scott, brilliantly memorable as the dark and creepy Sir Catesby, with James Unsworth are a pair of endearingly sociopathic murderers; the comic high points of the play along with Luke MacLeod’s Bishop of Ely.

I’d recommend the show to Shakespeare fans, and anyone who finds themselves missing Game of Thrones. This show might just ease both cravings.

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Albion, Almeida Theatre

10 October – 24 November 2017

by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Rupert Goold

Albion production shots. Victoria Hamilton (Audrey Walters) and Nicholas Rowe (Paul Walters). Photo credit Marc Brenner (13).jpg

Victoria Hamilton (Audrey) & Nicholas Rowe (Paul) – Photography by Marc Brenner

A successful business woman attempts to restore a ruined garden estate to its long-gone glory at any cost. A new play by acclaimed playwright Mike Bartlett, it is a biting political satire, a deeply moving character drama, and one of the best plays I’ve seen all year.

The play is a powerful ‘State of The Nation’, with characters providing a political conversation more nuanced and complex than almost any newsroom or editorial. It is to be ignored at our own peril.

Mike Bartlett substitutes the epic scale/giant cast/many locations style he displays in plays like King Charles III, Earthquakes in London, and 13, for something more intimate: a single location in a garden that becomes an increasingly emotive setting for the play’s events. It changes and grows, and becomes breathtakingly layered with trauma, allegory, and meaning.

Under the expert machinations of Rupert Goold, the play is visionary and ecstatic, dialogue leaping off the stage with Mike Bartlett’s characteristic wit and humour, undercutting one-liners, biting insults, and scorching satire, with allusions to Trump and Brexit receiving huge laughs, and occasional gasps from the enwrapped audience.

It’s a masterly cast without a weak link among them. Victoria Hamilton (Audrey) is completely sublime in the lead role. She brings a deep humanity to her performance of an often intensely unlikable character. It’s a superb performance, and it’s worth coming to the show just to see her.

Supporting her are standout performances by Helen Schlesinger (Katherine), who brought me to tears with her genuine, truthful and gripping delivery, Luke Thallon (Gabriel) who gives an intensely likeable and tragic performance, as well as Charlotte Hope (Zara) and Vinette Robinson (Anna) who are moving and powerful presences on stage.

Edyta Budnik (Krystyna), Nicholas Rowe (Paul), Christopher Fairbank (Matthew), Nigel Betts (Edward) all give captivating and charismatic performances in smaller roles, with Margot Leicester (Cheryl) in particular stealing several of her scenes with her quiet mannerisms and brilliant comic timing.

It is nuanced character and text at it’s best. Do yourself a favour and book a ticket.

 

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All the Little Lights, Fifth Word/Nottingham Playhouse @ Arcola Theatre

10 October – 4 November 2017

by Jane Upton
Directed by Laura Ford

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Tessie Orange-Turner & Sarah-Hoare – Photography by Robert Day

Three girls spend a night by the railway tracks. Joanne and Lisa are reunited, haunted by the ghosts of their past and the monsters in their present, in an extraordinary play about sexual exploitation and children who fall through the cracks.

It’s a play that has been brewing, developing and touring since 2015, and it shows. The set and performances are immersive in their quality, the performances are slick, and the production is near flawless.

I was left the theatre with my heart pounding in my chest, unable to form coherent sentences for half an hour.

Jane Upton’s script is simply superb. She treads the line between the heavy themes and engaging dialogue, character and humour with masterful sensitivity. It’s a deeply compelling, often hilarious drama, and is not only a terrific piece of theatre, but an essential one.

The characters are empathetic, recognisable, and poignant, and the sense of threat is pervasive and chilling. The cast is wonderfully engaging, convincingly playing much younger characters in a way which is alternately hysterical and heart-breaking. Sarah Hoare gives a grounded and wrenching performance as Lisa, while Tessie Orange-Turner drives the play as Joanne, a manipulative and often terrifying 16 year old which she performs with power and nuance. Esther-Grace Button (Amy) is a particular pleasure to watch, balancing the ensemble, and combining vulnerability and innocence with magnificent comic timing.

I hope to see more work from all three of them.

Watching this play is like standing on train tracks. It’s electric, exhilarating, and by the end you feel like you’ve been hit.

 

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This production deals with issues of child exploitation. To learn more and support a worthy cause, please visit the ‘Safe and Sound’ website here.

The Castle, The Space

10 – 28 October 2017

by Howard Barker
Directed by Adam Hemming

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Stucley and fellow soldiers arrive home from the Crusades to find a new society run by women, with no religion, no class-system, no fences, no work, and no desire to return to how things were. He orders the building of a castle to restore the old order, and not everything goes as planned.

It’s a strange script deeply imbued with issues of religion, ideology, feminism and gender. It’s heightened language creates the tone of a Greek tragedy. It feels medieval and brutal, rather like Macbeth but with more funny bits.

It’s heightened poetic language is a source of both the play’s genius and its flaws. While it is a beautiful vehicle to convey the play’s story and themes, and much of it’s humour comes from the knowing undercutting of it’s own extremes. It is intelligent writing, with snatches of almost Shakespearean truth, and wit.

However, it is not an easy play to understand.

The Space is incredibly ambitious with it’s approach to The Castle. In fact, it’s the grandest, most epic fringe show I’ve ever seen in terms of its scale. The venue, a converted church, is more than perfect for the setting, and the dynamic blocking and direction is excellent.

The cast is crammed with superb performers, and every member of the ensemble has at least one moment where they shine. Anthony Cozens (Stucley) gives an impassioned, and powerfully emotional performance, Shelley Davenport (Ann) packs the smallest words with depths of meaning, Chris Kyriacou (Krak) embodies a stoic, complex figure, while Kate Tulloch’s Skinner is extreme, and at times terrifying. Matthew Brent (Nailer) and Matthew Lyon (Holiday) are timid and hilarious nice guys, and John Sears (Hush), Isabel Crowe (Cant), and Ross Kernahan (Brian), each bring personality, impetus, and stakes to their scenes. Their compelling performances carry you into their world.

However, the production itself falls into a few of the traps of heightened, poetic language.

First, it could stand to have at least 50% less shouting. It’s not unjustified shouting, the actors are believable and passionate, and the lines often require the violent proclamation of emotion, but particularly in the final act the message of the piece risks being lost in vocal extremes. And the more shouting there is, the less impact it has.

Second, if a character goes nose-to-nose with another character, it needs to end in a backing down, a pushing away, violence, or kissing. Otherwise the power-play has no purpose, nowhere to go, and the stakes disappear. It’s just a bit of a pet peeve of mine.

But these are problems which I seem to see in almost every Greek/Medieval style tragedy in productions from pub theatre to the West End.

I’d encourage any reader of this review to see it. Some of you will love it, others might hate it.

It will definitely leave you asking questions.

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The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Attic Theatre Company @ Merton Arts Space

6 – 29 October 2017

Adapted by Stephen Sharkey, based on the novella by Leo Tolstoy
Performed by Jack Tarlton
Directed by Jonathan Humphreys

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I often struggle to enjoy Russian text. It leaves me feeling like I’ve been hitting my head against the wall, either from the density, or because it’s reading-the-news level of depressing. Attic Theatre Company’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a wonderful exception.

In this one-man adaption of the classic Tolstoy novella by Stephen Sharkey, we join Ivan Ilyich in the afterlife as he walks us through how he came to be there. It’s a contemplation of mortality, and a confronting examination on the meaning of life. It’s energy is superb, and the storytelling and character pull you through in a way that is both tender and ultimately human.

The atmosphere is wonderful. Globes of light sit on round tables through which Ivan roams, masterfully creating the impression that we’re witnessing a séance. Or as a fellow audience member described it, ‘Hogwarts 2.0’.

A one-person show rests entirely on the performer’s shoulders, and with Tarlton we are in safe hands. His performance is engaging and intimate, bringing Ivan to life in a way that feels like he’s joined us straight from 19th century St. Petersburg, which his Scottish accent oddly suits. He times his beats wonderfully, for both laughs or impact, creating a complex, dimensional character.

It’s a memorable production from a local theatre company worth supporting.

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Jane Eyre, National Theatre

26 September – 21 October 2017

Based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë
Devised by the original company
Directed by Sally Cookson

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Photo by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

A return visit from a triumphant tour, The National’s Jane Eyre is an ensemble retelling of the Charlotte Brontë masterpiece of an orphan’s tribulation’s in an unjust world, her growth into a governess, and her love for her passionate and peculiar master.

It’s an incredibly ambitious production that unfortunately suffers from the fate of many book adaptions in its attempt to abridge 500 or so pages of original story. The thirty-or-so years that pass in the book aren’t easily squeezed into a performance-length space, even one which lasts three-hours.

Sally Cookson’s solution to the problem is to construct transitional scenes where design, choreography, and music all shine beautifully. However, especially in the first half, the play feels like montage, too brief scenes flying past like turning pages. Jane Eyre’s first-half love arc must develop in full, from meeting to heartbreak, in only three or four brief encounters. We don’t delve too deeply into any of the relationships, and so the tragic events of the play often fail to earn their pathos.

It gives a slightly hollow feeling in a play that is otherwise spectacular.

Cookson’s vision is remarkable, And the design is National Theatre standard gorgeous. The cast is superb, with Nadia Clifford and Tim Delap as strong leads to be watched, surrounded by a tight and talented ensemble playing multiple roles to great effect.

Particular standouts included Hannah Bristow, whose stoic martyrdom as Helen and utter charm as Adèle are a marvel to watch, and Paul Mundell, whose constant and memorable character work, and superb comic relief, that provide much needed levity throughout the play.

The music is a highlight of the show, providing a rich and epic landscape of sound that suffuses the production. The band blends into the play seamlessly, and Melanie Marshall’s singing brings an emotional narration to the piece which is like bathing in aural honey.

Having said that, the performing of a Gnarles Barkley cover during an emotional climax was a little bizarre.

All in all, a wonderful evening of theatre, but not an emotional one.

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And a big shout-out to the SMs, you’re amazing! #stagemanagementday

Glue, Time Won’t Wait @ Ovalhouse Theatre

3rd – 7th October

Written & performed by Louise Wallwein
Directed by Susan Roberts

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Photography by Benji Reid

Glue is an orphan’s journey of torn identity, nuns, rebellions, and family reunions from the wings of aeroplanes; jumping through time from childhood foster care, to the very present past, in a memorable one-woman show.

It’s an amazing story, and Wallwein’s unique blend of poetry and prose is a perfect vehicle for it.

I was not surprised to discover that the piece has been previously published as both book, and BBC radio drama. Wallwein’s words hold their own, her imagery, pacing, poetics, humour and energy hold the piece together, her performance wrapped up in infectious Mancunian charm.

The live music by Jaydev Mistry is simply sublime. His ethereal swells guide you through the piece, and transport you, lifting the performance into something beyond itself.

In fact, the whole production side of things was superb; the lighting, design, multimedia, sound, direction, and movement, expertly supporting the performance.

Wallwein has created an incredibly vulnerable piece, her life laid bare in a way that’s still very present, even decades after some of the events portrayed. The most touching moments were when the audience were welcomed into that; when the stylized narration bled into the deeply personal, and when you saw the lost child in her. And then the music would lift you the rest of the way.

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