City of Angels

City of Angels is my all-time favourite musical and I take any chance available to see it. I heard about this Rollers Theatre Company production at the Stockwell Playhouse and knew I had to go.

As an amateur production (all the cast are Durham University alumni and they all have day jobs), it was not up to the standard of a professional production. However, all involved have obviously worked very hard on it and it was very enjoyable. The performances of Russell Lamb as Stone and Ben Whittle as Buddy were particularly strong, and it was a treat to see this show performed again.

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John Gabriel Borkman

Ibsen’s penultimate play, John Gabriel Borkman, was performed at Upstairs at the Gatehouse by Handplay Productions, directed by Harry Meacher. This 1896 play is the story of a man whose pursuit of wealth and power leads to tragedy for himself and those around him.

The play begins with Borkman, having served a prison sentence for fraud, living upstairs in the family home, leaving only rarely and spending his time walking backwards and forwards in his room. His wife Gunhild is determined that their son Erhart shall redeem the family name, but he has other ideas. Meanwhile, Gunhild’s sister and Borkman’s former lover, Ella, arrives for a visit with her own agenda.

There are some good performances, particularly from Harry Meacher as Borkman and Judi Bowker as Ella. Overall this was a decent production of a powerful play.

A Very Very Very Dark Matter

A Very Very Very Dark Matter is a very very very confusing play. Performed at the Bridge Theatre (the first time I’ve been there since Julius Caesar), it is a new play by Martin McDonagh, whose work I’ve really enjoyed in the past. Sadly, it didn’t live up to my expectations.

The story is bizarre to say the least. It centres around famous fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen, who McDonagh portrays as a truly reprehensible individual: sneering, arrogant and dismissive of the children to whom his stories mean so much. Worst of all, he has a secret – he keeps a Congolese pygmy woman (his description), Marjory, in his attic, and it is she who is responsible for writing all his stories.

Meanwhile, two blood-soaked Belgians arrive from the future (with their Yorkshire accents they reminded me of the Chuckle Brothers), linked to Marjory who must apparently travel forward in time to kill them. Oh, and Andersen also travels to London to stay with Charles Dickens, who has his own skeleton in the cupboard (literally).

There are some good ideas in this play, but as a whole it feels very confused and incoherent. If McDonagh wanted to make a point about women and black people being exploited and erased by white men there are surely a million other ways to do this that actually make sense. On the plus side, the play is often very funny, and the Dickens section in particular is highly amusing (It is actually true that Andersen visited Dickens in London and outstayed his welcome, and I think this would make a highly entertaining play in its own right).

I wasn’t sure about Jim Broadbent’s performance as Andersen, though in fairness this is perhaps because his character was so different to how I’d imagined it. I thought Phil Daniels was great as Dickens, however, and Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles, in her debut stage role, was superb and one to watch in the future. Anna Fleischle’s set, too, was eerie and fabulously rich in detail.

Though it was not totally without merit, I don’t think this play was up to McDonagh’s usual standard. It was memorable, but often for all the wrong reasons.

RCM Chamber Music (Kodály, Purcell, Messiaen, Martinů, Boccherini, Rachmaninov, Piazzola)

I enjoyed another evening of chamber music at the RCM, themed around music for cello and piano.

Kodály Sonatina
Purcell When I am Laid in Earth from Dido and Aeneas
Messiaen O Sacrum Convivium
Martinů Variations on a Slovak Theme
Boccherini Cello sonata in A major
Rachmaninov Vocalise
Piazzola Le grand tango

Two-Body Problem

Two-Body Problem, performed at the Old Red Lion Theatre as part of the London Horror Festival, appealed to me because of its Antarctic setting. Written by Louis Rogers, it is a one-woman show performed superbly by Martha Skye Murphy, who is excellent as a cynical and acerbic academic whose desperation – like all academics – for funding leads her to accept a dubious invitation to Antarctica, where researchers are grappling with the sort of problem explored by Mary Shelley in her novel Frankenstein.

The show is atmospheric and occasionally creepy, and, surprisingly, often funny. I suspect there were several academics in the audience, as they laughed knowingly at our protagonist’s narration. The story was intriguing and compelling, a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon.

Tamburlaine

The second play I saw during this Stratford trip was Tamburlaine. Originally a two-parter by Christopher Marlowe, it has been condensed into one play, and is directed by Michael Boyd, former Artistic Director of the RSC.

The play tells the story of the real life ruler Timur (Tamerlane/Timur the Lame), who conquered huge parts of the known world back in the fourteenth century. Condensing Tamburlaine into one play works, because the plot is actually fairly repetitive. Tamburlaine conquers a country, kills its former rulers and takes the crown for himself. Repeat ad nauseam. The production deserves credit for making these very similar events stand out and keeping the play interesting. There are so many characters that most of the actors play more than one character, and there is more than one fourth wall-breaking aside remarking on this, and acknowledging the difficulty of keeping track.

There are some wonderful moments of staging, such as the symbolic painting of characters with red to mark their deaths, which is especially impressive when the young boy playing Callapine hands over his role to Rosy McEwen who plays the older prince. I also liked how Tamburlaine comes on stage with a cage containing an increasingly large collection of crowns.

The cast do a great job. Jude Owusu doesn’t have much character development to work with as Tamburlaine, but exudes the authority and charisma required of the role and makes the devotion of his wife and followers believable. Rosy McEwen is also superb as Zenocrate, the Egyptian captive who grows to love her husband Tamburlaine. There are too many superb supporting performances to mention, but there isn’t a weak link in the cast.

Tamburlaine was hugely popular in its day, but strikes me now as an entertaining but flawed piece. This production is an excellent one and well worth seeing.

Troilus and Cressida

Shakespeare’s 1602 play is not one of his easiest. The tale of a pair of doomed lovers might sound like Romeo and Juliet, but it’s far more political and ambiguous. Set against the backdrop of the Trojan War, it spends at least as much time focusing on the big players in this drama as it does on the young couple.

Luckily, Troilus and Cressida is directed by Gregory Doran, who has the knack of bringing clarity to even Shakespeare’s most convoluted plots. You still have to pay attention – but with that in mind, it isn’t too hard to work out what’s going on.

We join the Trojan War five years into it, as explained by Helen, who descends from the ceiling in an impressive metal sphere from the midst of futuristic ornaments (design by Niki Turner). The fighting is dragging on, and Hector, Priam and Aeneas, on the Trojan side, and Agamemnon, Ulysses and Achilles on the Greek, are thinking about how they can bring it to an end. Meanwhile, Hector’s brother Troilus is in love with the beautiful Cressida, and her uncle Pandarus resolves to bring them together.

Gavin Fowler and Amber James bring a youthful modernity to their roles as the titular couple, complemented by the funny Oliver Ford Davies as the rather over-enthusiastic Pandarus. Where the rest of the cast is concerned, I was impressed by the roughly 50-50 gender split, with some traditionally male roles being played as female. Among the standouts for me were Adjoa Andoh as Ulysses, Suzanne Bertish as Agamemnon, and Sheila Reid as Thersites. Among the roles that remained male, the swaggering masculinity of Achilles (Andy Apollo) contrasted with the deranged fighter Menelaus (Andrew Langtree) and the elderly Nestor (Jim Hooper).

One of the most striking aspects of the production was the music, composed by Evelyn Glennie, a powerful cacophony of percussion sound evoking the soundtrack of battle. In what is a rare move for me, I waited in the auditorium after the end of the play to hear the end of the music. The modern design managed to be both futuristic and evocative of the classical world, with the metal objects used also complementing the music.

Troilus and Cressida will never be my favourite Shakespeare play. However, this production is a worthy one and well worth the effort.