The Signalman

One of my favourite ghost stories is Charles Dickens’ The Signalman, so when I saw that there would be a promenade performance of an adaptation of this piece at Harrow Arts Centre, I booked straight away. Written by Martin Malcolm and performed by Endpaper Theatre, it began with a silent sweeper (Rich Keeble) beckoning us across the dark grounds of the arts centre into the studio building, where we met the signalman of the title (Andrew McDonald).

The show cleverly intertwined Dickens’ story with the real-life train crash in which the author and his mistress Ellen Ternan were caught up. We spent some time in a room full of newspaper cuttings and other information about the accident, which caused several deaths. Dickens, who rushed to assist the victims, was profoundly affected by the experience.

So was the signalman in this version of the story: the accident was the first occasion in which he witnessed the ghostly presence of the figure by the tunnel. The audience by this time was seated at the production’s final stop, watching as he regaled the still-silent sweeper with the tale. This part of the play was enjoyable, but not as spooky or as impactful as it might have been.

Overall, though, the production deserves credit for the intriguing way in which it blended fact and fiction, and for the atmospheric promenade elements.

The White Devil

I’m pretty familiar with John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, but my knowledge of his other major play The White Devil is much more limited. I was less than enamoured with the RSC’s production of a few years back, but luckily this production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse hits all the right spots.

The convoluted plot begins with the love affair between Brachiano and Vittoria, who are both married to other people. Its pretty hard to follow, but director Annie Ryan does her best with the material and makes it as clear as it probably can be. My favourite characters include Flamineo, Vittoria’s brother, who wins the audience on side with his wry asides.

The costumes are beautiful, giving the production a Victorian Gothic/steampunk flavour. It got me wondering whether the Gothic literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries might not have its roots in Jacobean revenge tragedy.

Another striking thing about the production is its complex use of candlelight to create atmosphere and change the mood of the scene. This has always been the case with the Playhouse, but it seems even more apparent here. The cast tackle the complex language well, bringing clarity to a difficult work.

While not up to the standards of The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil is an important Jacobean play, and I can’t imagine it getting a better production than it has got here.

The Glass Menagerie

It’s strange, but I completely loved The Glass Menagerie. It’s strange because I studied this play for A Level and absolutely hated it. My experience left me with a lasting dislike of Tennessee Williams that only the Young Vic’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire was able to fully expel; and yet I fell in love with John Tiffany’s production at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Whether this is because of the way my own personality has developed in the intervening period, because Menagerie is a play you have to see to appreciate, or because of the excellence of this particular production, I can’t say; but already it’s a contender to be among my top plays of the year.

Loosely autobiographical, it sees the narrator, Tom, looking back on his life with his mother and sister. His mother, Amanda, is a former Southern belle in the best Williams tradition; his sister, Laura, is shy and quiet, with a disability as the result of a past illness and few interests beside her glass animals: her “glass menagerie”. Amanda wants nothing more than to get Laura married off, and nags Tom to bring home a ” nice young man” for dinner. The resulting young man, Jim, seems promising but ultimately ends up breaking Laura’s heart.

The play takes on the quality of a dream, with an expressionistic set by Bob Crowley including a staircase ascending into nowhere. All four actors are wonderful in their respective roles: Michael Esper as Tom, Cherry Jones as Amanda, Brian J. Smith as Jim and especially Kate O’Flynn as Laura. Its wonderful and heartbreaking to see her blossom in the young man’s company; heartbreaking because you know what is going to happen. When I originally studied the play, one of the things I remember disliking about it was its supposed simplicity and heavy-handed metaphor. Its only now that I can see that it’s not simple at all, but complex and delicate as Laura’s glass figures.

This production is a relevation: profound and perfectly balanced. I loved it.

Nice Fish

So basically I booked to see Nice Fish because of Mark Rylance, and I had no idea what to expect. The play, co-written by Rylance and the poet Louis Jenkins, started life on Broadway, and then transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre, directed by Claire van Kampen.

It opens with a landscape of ice (Todd Rosenthal’s stunning design), on which a tiny puppet figure is fishing. A flicker of the lights and we see the figure close up: Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl), who is trying to catch fish on a frozen Minnesota lake while his friend Ron (Rylance) hangs around, messing with the equipment, dropping his phone into the icy water, and regaling his pal with bizarre anecdotes. Much of the early part of the play is taken up with this simple banter, and once I got into the rhythm of it, I began to enjoy myself.

Things get even stranger with the arrival of assorted other characters, leading to outdoor saunas, barbecues and a breaking of the fourth wall before our initial pair of pals face an unexpected crisis. The arrival of the other characters was where things got a little bit too strange for me; either that or I found their conversations much duller than the initial two. The ending was surreal and completely unexpected.

What does it all mean? Is it some kind of bizarre metaphor for the meaning of life? I have no idea, but I’m glad I saw the play if only for Rylance’s performance.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

I missed out on this new production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat when it first toured last year, so I was pleased to see that it was coming back to the New Wimbledon Theatre, and booked a ticket. Joseph holds powerful memories for me: it was the first musical I ever saw, with my grandparents who have since died, so it has strong associations for me.

The plot is based on a story from the Bible, although I should stress you really don’t have to be religious to enjoy this show. Joseph is the youngest of several brothers, and his father’s favourite; jealous, his brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt, but Joseph’s dream predictions endear him to the Pharaoh and ensure he gains a powerful position in Egyptian society.

The songs are catchy and memorable; something I didn’t appreciate when I was younger was just how many musical styles Andrew Lloyd Webber imitates and parodies during the show, including country, jazz and gospel, as well as the good old musical theatre ballad. The Pharaoh is even portrayed like Elvis.

X Factor winner Joe McElderry takes on the role of Joseph, and he really impressed me. His voice is excellent, most notably in the heartfelt ballad Close Every Door, and he exudes a hugely likeable charisma and charm. This is important as, let’s face it, Joseph is a bit of an arse. Arrogant and full of his own importance, its not really surprising that his brothers take a dislike to him, but McElderry makes you root for him anyway. When he sings, “I look handsome, I look smart, I am a walking work of art,” its more like the naive delight of a child rather than the excessive narcissism of an arrogant young man.

Lucy Kay takes on the demanding role of the narrator, and pulls it off really well, while the supporting cast bring to life the brothers as well as the various people Joseph meets on his journey. The touring set is serviceable but a bit basic, although I wasn’t too sure about the inflatable sheep, some of which failed to inflate properly and remained lying feebly on one side until a cast member scuttled by to right them.

Joseph might not have the emotional pull of Phantom, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar, but it’s a hugely enjoyable show for all ages. It was my introduction to musical theatre, and I hope it will serve the same function for future generations of kids.

Nothing Like The Sun

I saw Nothing Like The Sun by Brock Elwick and Tasmine Airey at the Bathway Theatre in Woolwich, a new play which takes its title from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It imagines a hidden cellar in which several of the Bard’s female characters languish; the only interruption to their monotony is when the writer removes one of them to the stage to re-enact their traumatic stories.

The women are naive, exuberant Juliet; dour, plain speaking ‘Mac’ (Lady Macbeth); aged but caring Rosaline; motherly Hermione; and determined writer Kat. The way they interact with each other allows us to explore their characters and the differences between them. Like any women, they bicker amongst themselves, but they also offer each other support.

The play is provocative and thought-provoking, and it’s well worth seeing whether you’re a Shakespeare fan or not.

The Lower Depths

The Arcola Theatre in Dalston recently announced their Revolution season, to mark the Russian Revolution of 1917. It kicks off with The Lower Depths, a 1901-02 play by Maxim Gorky that explores the lives of a group of down-and-outs. Translated by Jeremy Brooks and Kitty Hunter-Blair, the play is directed by Helena Kaut-Howson, whose version of Chekhov’s Platonov, Sons Without Fathers, I enjoyed at this venue a few years ago.

In a dingy basement, a former aristocrat, a poet, a sick woman and assorted other beggars live together, paying rent to a ruthless landlord. The play follows the group over the course of a few days. Gradually the focus settles on certain members of the group: newcomer Luka, a kind, selfless otherworldly man like something out of Dostoyevsky, and the sister of the landlord’s wife, who has fallen in love with one of the residents but risks provoking her sister’s ire.

Yes, the play is a bit long and unrelenting but the misery of the characters is profoundly documented without sentimentality. There isn’t a single weak link in the large cast, and the set makes the most of the unusual Arcola space.

If you’re at all fascinated by Russian history and the origins of theatre, this play is definitely worth seeing.