Thursday, 28 April 2011

London theatre reviews coming up

Just a week into this new dedicated London theatre review site I am thoroughly amazed by the huge amount of support I've had from my blogger friends (a special thanks has to go to LibertyLondonGirl), my fellow Twitterers as well as my 'real life' friends.

I can but thank you humbly as I plan my next set of reviews:

Frankenstein at the National Theatre - I'm very excited about seeing this production by Danny Boyle, especially after The Time Out magazine voted it as the best in London at the moment. It also has Benedict Cumberbatch in it. Sadly, its sold out. (We got tickets when a set of additional dates were added to the schedule.) There are some live broadcasts in cinemas across the world, so you may be able to catch one of those. Details are on the site above. Review will appear here on Monday 2nd May.

The next play is much more my cup of tea (or coffee actually): Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre. I have seen this Chekhov play many times before, in Helsinki as well as here in London. It's one of my all time favourites, so let's hope this production, which has the wonderful Zoe Wanamaker in the lead, lives up to my very great expectations. Review will be up by Sunday 15th May.

My up-coming theatre season seems to be totally dominated by the National Theatre because we are also going to see one of Ibsen's less known plays, Emperor and Galilean there. Now Ibsen is, after Strindberg of course, one of the playwrights I most feel at home with, so I am very much looking forward to this play too.

'Charting the true odyssey of an astonishing man, Julian, as he struggles to find spiritual fulfilment and political pre-eminence, Ibsen’s lost masterpiece sweeps across Greece and the Middle-East from AD 351 covering 12 crucial years in the history of civilisation.' (From )

It sounds terribly grand but I am sure Ibsen has scattered his Greek characters with some good old-fashioned Nordic angst. At least I hope so!

In addition to these planned performances, there may be some ad hoc plays that I see in the press reviewed or advertised and just feel that I have to see. I will obviously share with you my opinions on those too. In the meantime, I hope you are looking forward to the reviews coming up as much as I am to seeing the plays!

Monday, 25 April 2011

Moonlight by Harold Pinter - my very first guest post!

Deborah Findlay and David Bradley in Moonlight. Photo by Johan Persson via uk

Someone who two years ago, when I started blogging over on Helena Halme I admired  from afar, has now asked me to write a guest theatre review on her site! I know! In the unforgettable words of Kate Winslet on accepting an Oscar, I can only mumble, 'Gather, gather'.

Here are my words on LibertyLondonGirl - the blog of the ultimate fashion editor who lives in London and Manhattan and writes about life, love, fashion, design and food. Hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Mike Leigh's Ecstasy at the Hampstead Theatre

Mike Leigh is best known for his gritty work such as Abigail's Party, Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake. At the beginning of his career he wrote a frank play about the common tragedy that can be everyday life in Britain. Now he's decided to resurrect this play, directing it himself to boot.

There is something exciting about seeing a play that a famous film director has not only written, but is also personally directing. So when, just before the curtain went up, I spotted the veteran director in the audience a few rows in front of me, my heart started beating just a little faster again.

Ecstasy is set in 1979, a time that I too find fascinating. It's the end of the the Labour rule in Britain, end of the Winter of Discontent with its strikes, electricity cuts and student demos. Margaret Thatcher has just won the elections and there's a faint whiff of hope in the air.

Except none of this makes the slightest bit of difference to Jean, who to combat the boredom and poverty of her life as a petrol station attendant drinks heavily in her bedsit, while a string of uncaring boyfriends come and go. Jean's quiet suffering is brilliantly portrayed by Sian Brooke who with her shoulders slumped, chain smokes and often struggles to curve her slips into the faintest of smiles.

Even Jean's best friend, Val (Sinead Matthews), a frantic mother and wife of a loveable drunk, Mick (Allen Leech), fails to penetrate - or even see - Jean's private misery. Then when Jean's old boyfriend, the boring but gentle, Len - skilfully played by Craig Parkinson - suddenly reappears the audience is led to believe Jean could at last find happiness.

But Mike Leigh's work is never this straigth-forward.

Because even though the misery and unhappiness of the actors is tangible there is also great comic moments in the play. Sinead Matthews pins down the multilayered emotions of the wife of an alcoholic - her desperate worry for the future of her family encased by a willingness to love and be loved - with the funny lines Leigh has given her. While Craig Parkinson's Len, who's also looking for love, is oblivious to the complexity of human emotion. His naivety too is comic but also frustrating. At times I felt like shouting down to the stage, 'Kiss her, NOW!'

The run of Ecstasy has now ended at Hampstead, but luckily it has moved for a short time to the Duchess Theatre. I urge you to go and see this play - it's like a short, live piece of a Mike Leigh film. What could be better?

Monday, 18 April 2011

Small Hours at the Hampstead Theatre

 My marathon week of theatre-going started tonight with a one-woman play at Hampstead Theatre. This play, starring Sandy McDade and written by Lucy Kirkwood and Ed Hime,  has been selling out since it opened on12th January with a 'World Premiere'. The run was extended by two weeks to allow more people to see it.

All I knew about this play was that the audience would sit around the living room where the action takes place. What I didn't know was that we had to leave everything that we couldn't keep on our laps in the cloakroom (not a problem) and take our shoes off in a downstairs ante-room (a problem if your socks aren't immaculate which mine obviously were...hmm...), or that the audience was so very small in number - there must've only been twenty of us in total sitting around a basement flat living room.

To me the play was uncomfortable both physically (we were sitting on a hard veneer sideboard) and mentally. The subject matter of a young woman trying to cope on her own while her partner is away is so close to my heart that I very nearly left the set. But I remembered the little talk we'd been given just before we were told to remove our shoes about the play being an installation piece, where the audience is present but mustn't partake and most pointedly mustn't leave the set unless absolutely necessary. They even told us that there was a guard member of staff posted outside the door in case we tried to escape leave mid-performance.

Seriously, though, the play and particularly the performance of Lucy Kirkwood as a woman on the very brink of mental and physical breakdown is explosive. But watching her private hell at such close quarters seems wrong somehow. Several times during the hour-long play I found myself turning my face away from her, and I noticed others around the room do the same. So it begs the question, do we go to the theatre - or to any art exhibition or performance - to enjoy ourselves, or do we go to watch suffering? There must be a middle way. Let's hope my next two theatre pieces this week have a little more joy and happiness in them...

The Children's Hour at The Comedy Theatre

Image from

There's been a lot of conflict about this play in our household. Months ago, my friend, 'the theatre agent', found seats on a matinee that fitted our busy calendars. We decided to treat our daughters to it, thinking that our husbands wouldn't be interested in a play about a girls' school in New England. This was well before I knew that the subject matter was largely lesbianism, which in this case would be acted out by Keira Knightley and Peggy from Mad Men (sorry I know her real name is Elisabeth Moss but for me she's forever locked in her excellent TV character). It was also well before all the hype created in the press about the play.

Husband wasn't impressed 'What? I have to suffer your bleak Ibsens and Strindbergs and then when there's Keira in a hot steamy sex scene with Peggy I'm not invited?'

After seeing the play I could, with relief, report back to him that there wasn't even a whiff of a girl-on-girl action. Sadly, I thought the whole performance boring.

The set-up with the young students (girls in far too realistically unflattering and uncomfortable-looking potato sack uniforms) went on for far too long. This first scene was only rescued by the scatter-brained, mildly drunk Lily Mortar (aunt of Martha played by Carol Kane), a teacher who in her previous life had been a stage actress. She spent her time swigging from her hip-flask and instructing the flock of highly excitable teenage girls on what was ladylike and what wasn't. This scene was the only entertaining part of the play.

I also felt the widely celebrated performance of Bryony Hannah as the obnoxious 14-year-old girl Mary Tilford who, with her lying and blackmailing, causes the school to close down thereby destroying both the lives of Keira Knightely and Elisabeth Moss' characters, was false. Her hand wringing, teenage outbursts and jerky movements are highly unbelievable.

When Keira Knightley makes her long-awaited first entrance to the stage, I got a strong sense that the audience was supposed to clap, such was the power of her celebrity. Not in a million years did I ever feel that she actually was a wronged teacher in a girls school, nor did I believe in her relationship with the local doctor, Joseph Cardin, played by Tobias Menzies. The thin blouse she wore without a bra (we saw too much of her two pointy female bits - a pay-back to the few male members of the audience?) did little to convince us of any head-mistressy dowdiness.

Elisabeth Moss was more convincing, although in the last pivotal scene when she finally comes out with her confession of love for Keira - something which had been so obviously signalled throughout the play I was incredulous that she hadn't guessed - she too feels the need to overact.

The last scene, where Keira Knightley dramatically opens up the windows to let in sunlight (signalling new hope) was so far from subtly symbolic and so farcical I very nearly laughed out loud.

I know I may sound harsh about this play. It may be that I was just 'over-theatred' this week after seeing two other plays in almost so many days. My expectations could also have been too high due to the excellent reviews that The Children's Hour had received in the press. Or the fact that I kept seeing it as 'the hot ticket in town' in every magazine and newspaper in the last two months or so. Or I might be in a bad temper because the cold which I've been trying to fend off all week finally broke through last night and this morning I woke up with acute laryngitis. (Nature's way of shutting me up for a day or two,' says Husband who's still bitter about missing 'the lovely Keira')

Whatever, I woke up this morning having decided last night to just write a one-line review of this play, 'The cast all believe their own pr,' but couldn't resist having a more of a rant.

So many apologies, I promise now to crawl back to bed and try to make myself better in mood as well as in health for the week ahead. After all, theatre-going is all about the lows as well as the highs. Seeing something you don't enjoy makes plays that are excellent so much sweeter. That's the theory, anyway.

Strindberg's Apartment at The New Diorama Theatre

The New Diorama Theatre is a small 80 seat venue in central London, a mere hop and skip away from Great Portland Street and Regent's Park tube stations. It's a busy area on a weekday, but on a Saturday evening this side of Euston Road was deserted. The offices and a few cafes catering for the nine to five working folk were eerily empty.

Luckily there was the Queens Head and Artichoke nearby where we had a quick tapas and a glass of Rioja before the play started.

The pub was near empty but the food was excellent.
When we arrived at the Diorama we were told the play would start, 'Approximately seven thirty' and that we would be called in when the cast were ready. I love this kind of relaxed atmosphere in an independent theatre (I never realised how many there are in London).

So off we went to find a drink in the brightly lit bar, which after the darkened pub and quiet streets outside made me worry about the state of my make-up. Trying to be less self-conscious I read the programme and prepared myself to see another experimental piece of theatre. I saw Strindberg's Apartment was produced by The Faction Theatre Company, which is dedicated to innovative revivals of classical texts. The programme likened the play to Twin Peaks (the early nineties semi-supernatural TV series by David Lynch). I knew then we were in for an interesting evening.

But this experimental piece of theatre wasn't all bad; the premise of using Strindberg's works (The Storm, After the Fire, The Ghost Sonata, the Pelican and The Black Glove) as the plot for a play set in his own apartment block on the posh Drottninggatan in Stockholm is an excellent one, and I was fully sold on the play at the end of the first act.

Strindberg in his salon. Image from
The scene was set in the middle of a small room, where chalk marks divided the apartments. Looking like an architectural drawing, this helped the audience - seated all around the room - to understand these were separate flats we were peeping into and it also seemed to help the actors to keep inside the invisible walls of their particular apartment. (At this point I was relieved to see that the seats were real theatre ones, not part of the furniture, and that we were allowed keep our shoes on unlike at the set of Small Hours at The Hampstead Theatre)

At first when the characters, by walking around in a circle, ascended or descended the staircase, again depicted by a chalk-drawn square block in the middle of the stage, I had to stop myself from shouting, 'You're pretending, aren't you?'. Slowly I got more used to this and drawn into the various mini-dramas played out in front of me. The many actors had a varying degree of talent, but I was mostly drawn to the performance of Janine Ingrid Ulfane as the recently widowed, embittered Fru Vesterlund. Her contained suffering was well portrayed. It's no mean feat to pretend to jump to your death on a flat stage, from the top of a coffin lying at the feet of a couple of members of the audience (us!).

But when a fire devastates the house, sadly the plot falls to pieces too. First there were the recriminations - who started the fire? Then there's the appearance of the younger son of the owner of the apartment block, who returning from America has a grudge to bear and confronts his elder brother. 'Don't you remember?'  he says ominously. This scene, although seemingly nothing to do with the rest of the play is actually quite engaging.

But the question of who started the fire is never satisfactorily answered. We're plunged instead into a scene where a young student from the attic finally declares his love to the girl from the posh family in the upper, better apartments. The problem is she's now a ghost, amongst about half of the other residents of the apartment block. The whole play ends with a obscure monologue by the same student where he comes close to uttering the immortal song lyrics, 'The children are our future.'

It is a shame that this 2.5 hour play wasn't cut down to - say - two hours. There were several scenes which we could have done without, in particular the last monologue which just had me squirming in my seat, eager to leave the theatre.

I love Strindberg's work and here were several recognisable characters and scenes well turned into a new play. But on the whole this piece by Simon Reade lacked structure - it was as if the playwright wanted to omit as little as possible from the five Strindberg plays, while still adding his own mark on the piece.

Still, I'm glad I saw the play. It spurred me onto to work more on an idea involving Strindberg's life that I've had on the back burner for a while. Since I'm going to be in Stockholm later this month, I may do some more research. At least I shall visit the 'Blue Tower' as the master himself described his apartment. It now houses a museum with regular talks, exhibitions and even a Strindberg shop. I cannot wait.

National Assurance at The National Theatre

We very nearly didn't make it.

A few minutes before the curtain was due to go up, Husband and our two friends were still running along the Embankment, weaving our way around tourists, who'd braved the drizzly London river side, past the imposing concrete landmarks to The National Theatre. I was wearing flat pumps in favour of high heels, a decision which I'd agonised over and which probably was partly responsible for our tardiness. (I'd only packed two pairs of shoes). But at least I could run, even if I had to make the occasional jump over puddles to avoid ruining my light coloured suede Pretty Ballerinas. (You'd think that at my age I'd know what to pack for two days up in town, but this is one of my weaknesses well documented on this blog...)

The moment we sat down in our (2nd from the front, middle row - thanks to the excellence of our theatre-booking friend!) seats, the curtain rose. I had a faint feeling that the cast had been waiting for our entrance. For a while I could only concentrate on the not so faint cloud of disapproval emanating from the rest of the audience, which in comparison to our usual haunt, The Donmar, was substantial. But soon the excellence of the play overtook my sense of unease.

For those who don't know the play (as I didn't approximately 7.29pm on Saturday), it's a satirical farce written by Dion Boucicault set in the mid-nineteenth century. It's about vanity, money, privilege and love.

To say that Simon Russel Beale as Sir Harcourt Courtly is brilliant is an understatement. His every gesture, facial expression and the way he delivers his lines is the embodiment of the ageing, over-weight, disillusioned, vain, greedy aristocrat. Equally magnificent is Fiona Shaw as Lady Gay Spanker (are you getting the idea of the play?). Her portrayal of the horse-loving, hunt-mad, jolly, no nonsense wife of an ageing country gentleman is so true to life it's scary. The way these two actors spark off each other's talent, one feels they alone could hold the show.

But there are other excellent performances, not least the valiant valet, played by Nick Sampson, or Lady Spanker's long-suffering husband, played by the veritable Richard Briers.

Though the play is well written and well adapted with a simple and more than predictable plot and ending, one feels that these actors could have made a glum Ibsen tale into a fast-moving romp. Which is something I know the two men in our regular theatre-going company can only dream of as our next play is Bergman's Through The Glass Darkly. Not only will this play challenge their capacity to remain awake under the spell of all that Nordic suicidal moroseness, to Husband's absolute horror, it also clashes with first England match in the World Cup. Oh well...

Dominic West in Life As A Dream at The Donmar

Donmar never disappoints. As an almost fanatical fan of The Wire, I had high expectations of Dominic West in 'Life as a Dream' last night. The play is a new adaptation by Helen Edmundson of a Spanish 17th century classic. This dark, but in places humorous piece is reminiscent of Shakespeare's work in the social interplay of its characters. But for me, it wasn't the brilliance of the script that shined on the night. I could run out of superlatives to describe West's performance, his presence threatening to overshadow the other actors on the stage. There was none of the womanising, boozing Baltimore cop here. West was the embodiment of the wronged, passionate prince that the role required. Enough to say I and several other members of the audience did all to resist a collective swooning over his impressive physique. I think I might be love.

Vicky Shaw at The Almeida

Well, my wish to have a jolly play next came true. Becky Shaw, a modern, witty play by Gina Gionfriddo, was just what I needed. (Don't be fooled by the poster above)

The play, which is set in New York and Boston among other places, centres around the fall-out from a father's death in a dysfunctional family. Sounds gruelling? But the play is above all a comedy, and a sharp and quick-witted one at that.

The marvellous Daisy Haggard, who's currently starring in BBC's 'Episodes', in the title role is as gormless as she is intense, totally meeting the challenge of being the desperate, funny singleton a la Bridget Jones.

Daisy Haggard
Haydn Gwynne (I remember her best from 'Drop the Dead Donkey') as the cynical mother of the family is also excellent, but the performance I most enjoyed was by David Wilson Barnes, who as the dry, realistic, un-emotional step-brother of the highly-strung Suzanna (Anna Madeley) really hit the mark, igniting many belly laughs from the audience. 'My date is Amish?' he comments on hearing Becky doesn't own a cell phone.

From left to right: Anna Madeley, Vincent Montuel (Andrew) and Daisy Haggard

David Wilson Barnes who I find myself having a tiny, tiny crush on this morning (though not my type at all!)

Haydn Gwynne

In spite of the gags, the play still tried to examine the state of the modern family and marriage. Here I must say it failed, trying to go deep into the psyche of the characters in a play, so littered with excellent comic dialogue, is not advisable in my view. It goes too near TV sitcom territory, which this play really didn't need to do. Ignoring the final scenes where attempts at some seriousness met with a stone-walled silence from the audience, the majority of the play was incredibly hilarious and with the casts' unfaltering American accents made a throughly enjoyable night out at the theatre.

Can't wait for Children's Hour later today, though after this weekend I think I might need to got to some kind of clinic to dry out from an overdose of art - the gym perhaps? Now that's an idea...

Rope at Almeida

This weekend I found out that it is possible to get lost on your way to a place you've frequently visited. All it takes is a dark evening and a closed road. And a little bit of stubbornness on behalf of a male driver. A husband, obviously.

We did eventually find our way to our destination through the winding, hilly lanes of Hampstead and were able to carry on with the weekend's activities. One of which was to see Rope at the Almeida Theatre in Islington.

The play was by Patrick Hamilton, a popular and talented London novelist and playwright, writing in the 1920's and 30's. His work reflects the darker side of society, and specialises in 'the lives of the lost and lonely' (Nigel Jones in the Rope programme). He also wrote Gaslight, which The Old Vic staged with Rosamund Pike in the lead role in 2007. Both plays are highly atmospheric, using darkness and light to create a menacing air.

Rope is set in a 1920's London town house where two Oxford undergraduates commit a senseless murder without motive, 'for adventure'. They hope it'll be the perfect crime. Minutes after the deed is done, the pair host a dinner party, inviting along the murder victim's elderly Father and Aunt, as well as a couple of young hapless upper class twits, and an astute, intelligent poet. You may well have guessed that it is the poet who starts to suspect something is amiss with the evening.

But to me the play is about so much more than 'will they or won't they get away with it?'. It is a clever study in human behaviour: in pride, in vanity, philosophy and in morality. Is it wrong to take a life if a human life has no value? This play was written in the shadow of World War I, and performed amidst the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression when life did indeed seem cheap and meaningless. Frighteningly all this resonates highly with the current economic situation and the shocking loss of life in wars as well as natural disasters.

The cast of  Rope at the Almeida Theatre London. Photo John Haynes

The stage at Almeida was arranged in the middle of the theatre, with seats around. Think Shakespeare's Globe Theatre or The Roundhouse in London's Camden. This was a stroke of genius. It made the audience feel as if included in the party and in the macabre goings on, as well as affording great views for all and sundry. Such a democratic way to arrange a theatre production.

Blake Ritson and Alex Waldmann in Rope at the Almeida Theatre London. Photo John Haynes

I've left the best part of the play till last: the acting. I couldn't say who was the most talented, or the most believable character in the production. They were all brilliant. Blake Ritson (of BBC1's recent production of 'Emma') as the scheming, cold-blooded Wyndham Brandon (above sitting in chair) was chillingly charming, with a dangerous undertone of temperamental violence. His partner in crime, Alex Waldman as the affable Charles Granillo (behind chair above) portrayed beautifully the weakness of those of us easily led by a stronger character such as Brandon.

Bertie Carvel in Rope at the Almeida Theatre London. Photo John Haynes

But a special mention must go to the absolutely wonderful Bertie Carvel (above), who played the intelligent and ascorbic poet, Rupert Cadell, with an affected accent and wooden leg. He did it with such brilliance that I was incredulous when I noticed his painful limp had gone at the curtain call. For wearing the hairstyle that would have made Marie Antoinette proud he should also receive a medal.

(All pictures by John Haynes on

Breakfast at Tiffany's at The Haymarket

There's almost nothing I hate more than seeing a bad play. Perhaps expecting a good evening at the theatre and then being utterly disappointed is worse. The waste of your time, money and effort is infuriating to say the least. Added to this, you then have to sit there, clap before the interval and then again at the end of the play.

OK, I'm sounding like a complete lovey, an art buff, who's life is filled with art gallery visits, plays, exhibitions and champagne events....but I'm not. I am a perfectly normal, financially challenged person who'd rather not pay for bad art.

So you've guessed it: I really did not like the Theatre Royal Haymarket's production of Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Firstly, the American accents were universally awful. The actors spoke in put-upon phoney inflection no New Yorker would have understood, let alone dreamt of expressing themselves in. Even Miss Friel seemed to have forgotten herself and descended back into 'English actress does American' rather than use her considerable experience from starring in a US TV series.

Second, the script, which I believe was probably quite good, lost its effectiveness due to the fast and frequent stage changes. One or two actors would barely have time to deliver their lines, before the stage was dimmed and furniture was moved about, by these same actors or stage hands, and we found ourselves in a different room or a different time of day. If the production was aimed at the 30-second attention span society, it succeeded. I don't think there was one scene that lasted longer than this. In a two and a half hour play this means a lot of stage arranging.

Many of these short scenes played for either laughs or wanted to titillate. We saw the lovely Miss Friel naked. In what I can only presume was in the interest of balance, the male lead also stripped down and showed us his assets. Give me Dominic West any day. In fact give me a Donmar production every time. Even a bad one. At least what you see at Donmar is in some way honest, done with integrity, with the aim to want to put across the theme and message of the play, rather than what I believe was attempted here at the Haymarket: to sell as many seats as possible with a favourite and actually a good actress in a play that the theatre knew would be popular, in a way (with nudity) that would be popular.

I have nothing against popularity, or popular art. It's what makes it possible to have culture, to produce art, I get that. But call me a purist and a spoil sport. Nudity is not sexiness. And there was no sexiness in this play which after all was about a prostitute and her life during the Second World War. How can you do that? How can you produce a play with these actors, with this script, with this subject and not make it sexy? Somehow The Royal Haymarket managed it.

Husband, who loved Anna Friel in Donmar's Lulu, which had more than its fair share of nudity and titillation, had been looking forward to seeing Miss Friel again. But even he thought the play poor. After we'd discussed the various artistic merits of the piece (or lack of them) he made a comment which became my favourite, 'Her bum was a bit saggy.' In hindsight, just for those lovely words it was worth sitting through one of the most painfully boring plays I've seen in a while.