Fear and Misery of the Third Reich

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich is one of Brecht’s most openly anti-Nazi plays, amazingly first performed in 1938. It consists of 24 small playlets that together paint a picture of what life was like in ordinary German households while the Nazis were in power. Hint: the clue’s in the title.

Performed by the Questors Student Group in the Ealing theatre’s smaller studio space, the production was a powerful one with strong performances. It lacked the continued interest and tension that an ordinary full-length play would have had, but it did convey the stress, worry and fear felt by ordinary people and it gave a sense of what life would have been like during the period.

The Vampire and Mrs Riley

It’s testament to the acting ability of the stars of this piece, Pat Abernethy and Dave Marsden, that I didn’t recognise them at all from their previous production, The Man Who Left the Titanic, even though I only saw it a couple of months ago. Produced by Isosceles Theatre and directed by Jim Dunk, this piece, like the previous one, was written by Patrick Prior.

The Vampire and Mrs Riley is about two very different actors: Arthur Lucan, a British theatre drag act known for his “Mother Riley” persona, and Bela Lugosi, a Hollywood horror star famed for playing Dracula. Both entering the twilight of their careers, they were signed up to make a cheap B movie called Mother Riley Meets the Vampire.

This moving piece looks at the actors in their downtime, the pauses between filming and the quiet moments in which the two very different men get to know each other. Lugosi is arrogant but conscious of his fading popularity and battling with a drug addiction, while Lucan hides his marital and monetary woes under a jolly façade. The play is often funny, but is also a meditation on the fickleness of fame and the value of friendship. Definitely recommended.

Tamburlaine the Great Parts I and II

On two subsequent nights at Jackson’s Lane in north London I attended Fourth Monkey’s adaptation of both parts of Tamburlaine the Great, the historical epic by Christopher Marlowe. Performed by FM’s Two Year Rep actor training company and directed by artistic director Steven Green and associate Sarah Case, the plays were incredibly well done and really showcased the group’s talents.

Different casts performed the plays on different nights, which slightly confused me at first, but it’s understandable that as student productions it’s important that everyone gets a chance to show their ability. I was impressed with the gender-blind casting: the second play in particular had an overwhelmingly female cast, with a female Tamburlaine and daughters instead of sons. The performances were very good, evoking the warlike atmosphere of the stories with compelling battle and negotiation scenes: the story often reminded me of Game of Thrones. Some performers in particular stood out, including both Tamburlaines and other advisers and warriors. The stage was simply but effectively laid out, with vine-clad ladders representing trees – fearless actors were often swarming up and down them.

I do have some criticisms, but these are actually aimed at the plays themselves rather than these productions of them. Marlowe loosely based his works on the real Tamerlane (or Timur the Lame), who died in 1405. Unlike the historical plays of Shakespeare, for instance, I didn’t find that Tamburlaine the Great offered any real psychological insight or character development. The plays tell the story of the Central Asian emperor as he grows in power; he negotiates, defeats an enemy, celebrates, and repeats the process all over again until he dies, ordering his sons (in this case, daughters) to carry on conquering the world. Some powerful language is used and some particular scenes stand out – such as that where Tamburlaine’s wife, Zenocrate, confronts Zabina, wife of the Turkish emperor – but overall the effect is rather one-note. A production of a lower quality than this one could have ended up being rather boring.

Despite my misgivings over the actual work, though, these are two excellent productions and confirm my opinion that Fourth Monkey are a hugely talented group. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Treasure Island

I’d read mixed reviews about the National Theatre’s new adaptation of Treasure Island, so when I got the chance to go and see it I was slightly apprehensive. However, I needn’t have worried. Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale has been ably adapted by Bryony Lavery into a compelling play, directed by Polly Findlay, that had me gripped and amazed throughout.

The story tells of Jim Hawkins (a boy in the original, a girl in this version, superbly played by a standout Patsy Ferran), who lives with her grandmother in an inn by the sea and gets mixed up with a bunch of pirates, eventually embarking on a search for treasure, the clue to which lies in the map left at their inn by one of the pirates. With Squire Trelawney (Nick Fletcher), Dr Livesey (Helena Lymbery) and a motley crew, Jim heads off on an adventure, not knowing that the wicked Long John Silver (Arthur Darvill) is lurking on board, waiting for his chance to pounce.

I found the story to be as exciting as the original tale, with a great deal of tension and some brilliant characters, including Jim, Silver, the assorted pirates and Ben Gunn (Joshua James), the former cabin boy left behind on the island. My favourite was Grey (Tim Samuels), a dour presence with a deadpan manner who is frequently forgotten by the rest of the crew. If I have one criticism, it is that Darvill’s Silver wasn’t quite frightening enough. This does not mean that his performance was bad – I found him convincing in the role – but I just didn’t find him particularly scary. In fairness though, it is a children’s show!

The real star of the show, however, is the set – the play is worth seeing for this alone. The Olivier’s famous revolving stage is used to its utmost, and the space becomes, in turn, the inn, the ship, and the murky, smoky island itself. I also loved the animatronic parrot, who, despite not being real, was one of my favourite characters.

A brilliantly entertaining adaptation for kids and big kids alike, this is a hugely recommended piece of theatre.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

With music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a book by Jeffrey Lane, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is a musical based on the film by Pedro Almodóvar, about women driven to distraction by their caddish husband/lover. I went to see it with a friend after hearing good things.

The musical stars Tamsin Grieg who is great in her role as Pepa, the actress who is dumped by her lover. She is quirky, on-edge and very funny, with a surprisingly good singing voice. My favourite character was Lucia, Ivan’s ex-wife, who has just returned from incarceration in a mental health institution and who, with her flamboyant outfits, still appears to be stuck in the Sixties. She is brilliantly played by Haydn Gwynne. I also liked Anna Skellern as Candela (she had the best song in ‘Model Behavior’) and Ricardo Afonso as the taxi driver and narrator, whose evocative guitar strumming opened the show. It’s refreshing to see a musical so dominated by women, both in terms of the cast and their lives and feelings.

Bartlett Sher’s production is surreal and dreamlike, with colourful props and bright lighting to take us out of rainy London and into technicolour Madrid. The music is strong with plenty of memorable songs, but despite the farcical nature of the plot – much of it centres around the gazpacho laced with sleeping pills and imbibed by many of the characters – I didn’t think it was absurd enough and it wasn’t funny as it could have been. Despite enjoying the show, both my friend and I felt that there was something missing; we liked it, but didn’t love it.

Having said that, I am certainly glad I went to see this new musical and it’s worth a try if you want something a bit different.

Dead Simple

After enjoying the first adaptation of novelist Peter James’s work, I returned to Richmond Theatre to see another. Dead Simple, adapted by Shaun McKenna and directed by Ian Talbot, is based on the first novel starring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. I’m pleased to say that this one also kept me gripped.

It’s a bizarre and rather terrifying set-up: wealthy property developer Michael Harrison is buried alive by his “friends” in a stag night prank, which takes an even more serious turn when a car accident kills them all. It seems that no one else knows where Michael is, but even when he starts to see light at the end of the tunnel, it turns out that someone who could help him has a vested interest in ensuring he stays missing…

This was an enjoyable thriller with some very tense moments. Though some aspects were predictable and a tad formulaic, other twists were ones that I really didn’t see coming, and my attention was captured throughout. I wasn’t keen on some of the performers to begin with, but their portrayals grew on me as the evening went on. Jamie Lomas does a good job as the hapless groom-to-be, while Tina Hobley impresses as his fiancee Ashley. Josh Brown does very well in a difficult role as teenager Davey Wheeler, while Gray O’Brien is a calming presence as Grace, doing his best to solve the mystery before it is too late.

I was particularly impressed with the set, which had been carefully designed to showcase a number of locations ranging from Michael and Ashley’s comfortable home to the claustrophobic underground coffin in which Michael is trapped. It isn’t the most sophisticated play and it doesn’t exactly break any theatrical ground, but it provides a good couple of hours of entertainment, and I’d be happy to go and see another Peter James adaptation.

The Producers

After seeing the film of The Producers several years ago I’ve long wanted to see the show on stage, and at last I got my chance with the launch of this touring production. The musical by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan is about Broadway producer Max Bialystock who teams up with shy accountant Leo Bloom to produce a “surefire miss” in order to run off with all their investors’ money. Surprisingly for them but inevitably for us, their show Springtime for Hitler turns out to be a hit…

The musical is certainly not politically correct, but is rather egalitarian in that it pokes fun at absolutely everybody. It’s not for the easily offended, but it is very funny. Cory English is superb as Max: he has to carry the show and does a great job, especially in the piece towards the end in which he re-enacts the whole show up until then (including the interval) in a fast comedic number. Jason Manford proves to be a warm and sympathetic Leo, and reveals a surprisingly good singing voice. Other big names have been drafted in to help promote the show: Phil Jupitus as ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind, author of Springtime for Hitler, is suitably daft, and Louie Spence essentially plays himself as directorial assistant Carmen Ghia but it works, with the audience erupting in cheers and applause whenever he flounces across the stage. As director Roger De Bris, David Bedella is a standout – a highlight is when he gets to sing the musical-within-a-musical’s title song as a Hitler covered in sequins. This touring show doesn’t have a huge budget, but I didn’t feel the lack of a massive set: I was enjoying myself too much to care.

The musical is touring across the country and I recommend you catch it: a combination of star casting and established industry professionals have created an excellent show that is hugely enjoyable.