Retro Reviews – London 2011

You may (but probably don’t) remember that several months ago, I posted that I was going to start posting ‘retro reviews’ of productions I’d seen in the past. My plans have changed slightly: I don’t think it’s viable to post long reviews of any of these, as I simply saw them too long ago, so instead I’ve written a sentence or two about each production. I’ve focused on the productions I saw after I moved to London in 2011, but before I officially started this blog at the end of the year.

After Troy, Glyn Maxwell after Euripides, The Shaw Theatre, 28 March
This was the first play I saw after moving to London, over a month after I arrived. My friend invited me to see it. It was based on Euripides’ The Women of Troy and Hecuba by poet Glyn Maxwell.

The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov, Olivier, National Theatre, 19 May
My first experience of the National Theatre, I loved this production of The Cherry Orchard starring Zoe Wanamaker.

Cause Celebre, Terence Rattigan, Old Vic, 21 May
Rather an odd play to be my first Rattigan, but I enjoyed this, inspired by the trial of Alma Rattenbury, starring Niamh Cusack.

As You Like It, William Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Globe, 22 May
My first Globe production since moving to London, this version of As You Like It was set in the nineteenth century and was lots of fun.

Pygmalion, Bernard Shaw, Garrick Theatre, 26 May
This production starred Rupert Everett and Kara Tointon, and I really enjoyed it.

Rocket to the Moon, Clifford Odets, Lyttelton, National Theatre, 28 May
I basically went to see this play because I found out that it starred Joseph Millson, who I used to have a major crush on in his Peak Practice days, and I wanted to see if he was a good stage actor. Yes, is the answer, although I don’t remember much about this play.

All’s Well That Ends Well, William Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Globe, 29 May
Not my favourite Shakespeare play, but given a good performance at the Globe.

The 39 Steps, Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, rewritten by Patrick Barlow, Criterion Theatre, 30 May
I thoroughly enjoyed this long-running comedy, so much so that I went to see it again before it closed.

Blithe Spirit, Noël Coward, Apollo Theatre, 9 June
Later overshadowed by the production starring Angela Lansbury, this earlier version was my first encounter with the Noël Coward play.

Ghost Stories, Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, Duke of York’s Theatre, 10 June
I booked to see this after some friends recommended it. I found it quite spooky, but very clever.

Flare Path, Terence Rattigan, Theatre Royal Haymarket, 11 June
I took my mam to see this one, because she loves anything to do with World War II. I enjoyed this 1942 play, too, and though that Sienna Miller and Sheridan Smith did a good job.

The Government Inspector, Nikolai Gogol, Young Vic, 14 June
I brought a friend along to see this famous Russian comedy, given a modern twist by director Richard Jones. Julian Barratt gave a good performance, although it wasn’t until recently when I went on a tour of the Young Vic that I realised Louise Brealey was also in it.

Betrayal, Harold Pinter, The Comedy Theatre, 15 June
It seems apt that the first play I saw at the Comedy Theatre was by Harold Pinter, as it was subsequently renamed the Harold Pinter Theatre. Betrayal is the story of an extra-marital affair told back wards, and Kristin Scott-Thomas and Lia Williams swapped roles every night.

The Beggar’s Opera, John Gay, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 23 June
My first experience of the Open Air Theatre was to see John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, a wild romp through eighteenth century London with a surprisingly modern ending.

Richard III, William Shakespeare, Old Vic, 26 June
Kevin Spacey starred as Richard III in this Old Vic production and I thought he was brilliant, wonderfully villainous. I’ll never forget the image of him blowing a party popper collapsed into a chair.

Cymbeline, William Shakespeare, Tabard Theatre, 29 June
This was my first experience of Cymbeline, and it was pretty interesting.

The Railway Children, E Nesbit, adapted by Damian Cruden, Waterloo Station Theatre, 30 June
I loved this and it nearly made me cry. Incredibly charming with an unforgettable appearance from a REAL STEAM TRAIN.

Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Glenn Slater, Adelphi Theatre, 1 July
The story was a bit dodgy, but I adored the music. Also, this was notable for being the first time ever I saw Ramin Karimloo on stage.

Emperor and Galilean, Henrik Ibsen, Olivier, National Theatre, 5 July
This was… very long. That’s all I really remember about it.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard, Theatre Royal Haymarket, 7 July
Funny, clever, thoroughly enjoyable.

Hamlet, William Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Globe, 9 July
My first experience of Hamlet at the Globe. Not the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen, but decent enough.

Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Globe, 14 July
Eve Best and Charles Edwards together on stage. An intensely joyous production.

Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 July
An intriguing and unforgettable production.

Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare, Wyndham’s Theatre, 4 August
A decent effort by David Tennant and Catherine Tate, but it didn’t compare to the Globe’s version.

Anne Boleyn, Howard Brenton, Shakespeare’s Globe, 9 August
Thoughtful, engrossing play about Henry VIII’s second wife.

Journey’s End, R.C. Sherriff, Duke of York’s Theatre, 15 August
Incredibly powerful and moving.

South Pacific, Rodgers & Hammerstein, The Barbican, 22 August
I thoroughly enjoyed this, a lovely old-fashioned musical.

Betty Blue Eyes, Stiles & Drewe, Novello Theatre, 25 August
Quirky and very British. Amazing animatronic pig.

Chicago, Kander & Ebb, Cambridge Theatre, 27 August
Loved this, very well done with some great tunes.

Shakespeare’s Globe Mysteries, Tony Harrison, Shakespeare’s Globe, 29 August
The Globe was the perfect venue for this kind of medieval-style play.

Dreamboats and Petticoats, Playhouse Theatre, 31 August
A jukebox musical, but pleasant enough.

Billy Elliot, Elton John and Lee Hall, Victoria Palace Theatre, 3 September
I’d wanted to see Billy for ages and I loved it.

Betwixt!, Ian McFarlane, Trafalgar Studios 2, 6 September
Small-scale hugely enjoyable musical.

A Woman Killed With Kindness, Thomas Heywood, Lyttelton, National Theatre, 8 September
This is another one I don’t remember all that much about.

Million Dollar Quartet, Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, Noël Coward Theatre, 13 September
Enjoyable and surprisingly moving musical.

The Tempest, William Shakespeare, Theatre Royal Haymarket, 15 September
This was possibly one of the worst Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen, even though on paper it should have been a good one.

Yes, Prime Minister, Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay, Gielgud Theatre, 20 September
This one was pretty funny, and I wasn’t disadvantaged by not having seen the original TV show.

Ghost: The Musical, Bruce Joel Rubin, Piccadilly Theatre, 1 October
I went to see this with my auntie and I enjoyed it more than I’d expected to.

The Phantom of the Opera, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart, 25th Anniversary Performance at the Royal Albert Hall, 2 October
This was brilliant, one of my most unforgettable theatrical experiences.

Cool Hand Luke, Donn Pearce, adapted by Emma Reeves, Aldwych Theatre, 20 October
Quite enjoyed this play.

Crazy For You, George & Ira Gershwin, Novello Theatre, 10 November
‘New’ Gershwin musical, this was nostalgic and fairly enjoyable.

Antony and Cleopatra

From Julius Caesar to Antony and Cleopatra. This second play takes place several years after Caesar but is very different in tone. The link between them both is Mark Antony, far removed from the cunning soldier and politician of the earlier play, an ageing warrior now more concerned with drinking himself into oblivion in Egypt in the company of its queen Cleopatra than in keeping order in the Roman Empire.

Iqbal Khan’s production uses the same set as Julius Caesar, with gorgeous props and costumes conveying the splendid nature of the Egyptian court. His productions always seem to use good music, too: here it’s composed by Laura Mvula.

Antony Byrne did a good job as Antony. At first I was unsure about Josette Simon’s Cleopatra. She seemed far too over the top, petulant and childish. Thinking about it, though, I realised that this portrayal is entirely supported by the text. By the end I had warmed to her and her final scenes were very moving.

Whereas Egypt is often contrasted with dour and serious Rome, this production made clear that Rome was every bit as drunken and full of revelry as Egypt, an interpretation which I found interesting. What also fascinated me was how the play, often seen as a tragedy, combined the two in a way I normally associate with the nineteenth century works of Chekhov. The scene in which Cleopatra pulls up a dying Antony to her mausoleum, causing him untold agonies, manages to be both hilarious and moving.

This production complemented Julius Caesar well and will stick in my mind for a while. Antony and Cleopatra was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the 2002 production starring Sinead Cusack that was performed in Newcastle. This one restored my love for the play, which is one of my favourites, and is definitely worth seeing.

Julius Caesar

I’ve been eagerly anticipating the RSC’s Roman season, consisting of two of my favourite Shakespeare plays and two plays that I would like to get to know better. I headed up to Stratford this summer in order to experience the first couple of these plays, beginning with Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, perhaps because I studied it at school and therefore have a bit more understanding of it (I hope). Based on the real-life assassination of the first Roman Emperor, Shakespeare’s tale is a timely one that raises questions about power, democracy, the voice of the mob and the role of rhetoric.

Angus Jackson’s production is set firmly in the original Roman era; having already seen a very different RSC production in recent years, set in Africa, I thought this provided a nice contrast. I thought the setting brought home the significance of the feast of Lupercal at the beginning of the play, and made me think about how an original audience might have responded to this play, which even then was set in a time many years before.

There was no one particular actor who stood out for me, with the exception perhaps of Martin Hutson’s memorable Cassius. Having said that, I thought they were all strong: James Corrigan in particular made Antony’s famous ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech sound fresh. This production really emphasised how Antony is a soldier, not a politician, and how unexpected his speech would have been. I wasn’t convinced by Alex Waldmann’s Brutus at first, but his understated performance grew on me. In a very male-dominated play, Hannah Morrish shone as Brutus’ wife Portia, the first time I’ve actually wished the character had more to do.

This was a solid production of a fascinating play that explored the themes with clarity and was highly enjoyable.

Gloria

I wasn’t bothered about going to see Gloria until I found out that it was written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who penned the recent, brilliant production of An Octoroon at the Orange Tree Theatre. Stylistically, Gloria is full of surprises and sharp wit, like the previous play; plot-wise, however, it couldn’t be more different.

Gloria is set in the world of magazine journalism, and the first act introduces us to a group of young people working for the same production, including a naive intern, a disillusioned editorial assistant, and a would-be fashion writer who spends more time in the Starbucks queue than she does actually working. Not to mention the Gloria of the title, a long-standing member of the team who’s seen as slightly weird. It’s an on-the-nose take about working life for millennials, but just when you think you know what’s going on, a major event occurs that will have repercussions for everyone involved.

The play as a whole becomes an intelligent look at who has the right to tell whose stories, how these stories are manipulated to make money, and how people get caught up in the cut-throat world of the media. The actors, including Colin Morgan, Ellie Kendrick and Kae Alexander, play more than one character throughout the piece, which is cleverly done and often surprising.

Gloria was nominated for a Pulitzer, which I don’t find at all surprising. It’s funny, shocking and very clever, with the sort of themes and characters you can’t stop thinking about for days afterwards. Based on this and An Octoroon, I very much hope that more plays by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins make their way over to the UK.

The Trojan Women

As part of the Women and War festival at Streatham Hill Theatre, I went to see a modern adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women. Adapted and directed by Luke Ofield and Pip O’Neill, it is set in a post-nuclear fallout in which a group of surviving women gather in a camp in the south of England. They include Hecuba, an MP, her daughters, Cassandra and Andromache, and assorted other women searching for normality in an increasingly uncertain world.

The women come into conflict with an ambassador and the military, who want to send them away, but they are determined to assert their independence. This clever adaptation is short but memorable, looking at how people might react in the face of crisis and how they might pull together. There are strong performances from all involved, particularly Elizabeth McNally as Hecuba, who struggles to hold on to power and maintain her dignity.

The Nursery Presents: Impromptu Shakespeare and The Maydays’ Happily Never After

I went back to the Nursery Theatre to see some great improv.

First up was Impromptu Shakespeare. I’ve seen this group before and they were just as good this time, weaving a tale involving a duel, a jester and impressive sounding Shakespearean language.

Next, a Tim Burton-inspired improvised musical, Happily Never After by The Maydays, which featured secretaries, a chute and the secrets hidden in the basement. This was enormous fun and I have no idea how they were able to improvise something like this.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

Whatever else you might say about Tennessee Williams, his plays have the best titles. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof isn’t a play I’m familiar with, but the prospect of a Young Vic production in the West End was too good to pass up.

Directed by Benedict Andrews, the 1955 Pulitzer Prize winner stars Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell as Maggie and Brick, a troubled couple struggling to relate to one another and battling their demons. Maggie wants a baby, but Brick won’t touch her: he steeps himself in whisky to try to cope with his own feelings over the death of his friend Skipper, and as the play goes on we learn that there was more to their friendship than meets the eye.

The play has attracted some very mixed reviews, but I honestly enjoyed it, and the near three-hour running time flew by. I found Miller convincing as Maggie, and O’Connell even more so as Brick, his body language saying a great deal. It’s true there’s nudity in the play, but I found it appropriate to the production: we see Brick naked in the shower, nursing a damaged leg, at the beginning of the play and this emphasises his physicality, his past as a professional footballer and his awareness that he is getting older. Similarly, Miller’s nudity shows how Maggie is willing to use her body to get what she wants.

The strongest scenes are those featuring Maggie and Brick, but dramatic tension is added with the entrance of family patriarch Big Daddy (an excellent Colm Meaney) and his overbearing wife, their other son and daughter-in-law and their clutch of children. This intimate domestic drama becomes a family saga as there is the threat that the family estate will be left to the larger family, and Big Daddy learns of his approaching death from cancer.

I wasn’t sure about the bare gold set, which would have looked fine in the Young Vic itself but seemed a bit out of place in the ornate Apollo. The production as a whole, though, held my attention and it’s one that I’m glad I’ve seen.