Sunday 31 December 2017

Highs and Lows of 2017

Time (almost past time) for my annual roundup...

Best Opera: A tie between the unforgettable, over-powering Bergen Philharmonic/Edward Gardner semi-staged Peter Grimes at the Edinburgh Festival and the Glyndebourne Traviata – breathing fresh life into a familiar classic.

Worst Opera: Kaspar Holten's dismal version of Die Meistersinger at the Royal Opera.

Best Play: Exceptional competition for this. Even with honourable mentions for the almost unbearable to watch West End revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the fine Old Vic revival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and the politically powerful Limehouse at the Donmar it's still impossible to separate Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, Angels in America at the National and The Ferryman (which I was lucky enough to see during Royal Court run).

Worst Play: Equally another year of exceptional competition for this one. The National and the Almeida continued to produce far too many turkeys – the former's dire Common particularly lodges in the mind. But the Edinburgh International Festival takes the palm for the almost unbelievably tedious Real Magic.

Thursday 21 December 2017

Pinocchio at the National, or, Talking Down to the Children (Again)

Note: A review of the matinee on Saturday 16th December 2017.

Despite some blazing highlights (Follies, Angels in America) it has been another year of too many indifferent to poor productions for the Norris National, and this year's childrens show adds another failure to that list. Despite clocking in at modest 2hrs plus interval it feels at times painfully long. The narrative and characters lack emotional depth, the moral lessons are overly didactic in delivery, and though the cast do their best nobody really transcends the weaknesses of the material.

The first problem is the narrative itself which creaks rather badly. In case you're not familiar with it,  there are two strands. One – the attempts of Pinocchio to become a real boy by discovering what is the common element to all humanity. In pursuit of this he runs away with a travelling theatre and visits Pleasure Island. Two – the evolving relationship between Pinocchio and his father Geppetto. In this version the whole thing just never quite gels into a convincing whole. As the afternoon dragged on I found myself thinking of The Fantasticks – it shares similar themes – running away from a home life that seems dissatisfying and dull and eventually learning there is more to that life than was first seen. Of course the songs in that show are rather better which helps, but the book also possesses a greater subtlety, and the characters more depth. Overall here, Dennis Kelly fails to replicate the wit and heart that made Matilda such a wonder, and the moral dilemmas of the story left me cold.

Saturday 16 December 2017

Heisenberg: the Uncertainty Principle at Wyndham's, or, A Play Like a Broken Pencil

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 9th December 2017.

Simon Stephens is, it sadly seems, on a downward trajectory. I loved Port (magnificently revived at the National by Marianne Elliott a few years back). Birdland at the Royal Court was odd but interesting (and the gradual flooding of the stage was a real coup). But Carmen Disrupted at the Almeida was interminable. This new work benefits from stronger personnel, but as a play is equally poor.

The work is, possibly, about Georgie (Anne-Marie Duff) and Alex (Kenneth Cranham), their meeting at a railway station and the development of their relationship. I say seems to be because given the bare indeterminate setting and Georgie's self-confessed habit of lying I became rather doubtful about the veracity of any of it. There was a kernel of an interesting character in Alex and I wish the play had done more to explore him rather than wasting time on the unconvincingly over-the-top Georgie. The relationship fails to emotionally convince, and moments obviously intended to tug at the heart left me unmoved. There are also quite a number of dubious plot twists – it is particularly hard to believe given the present day setting that it has occurred to neither of them to try and track down Duff's alleged son by use of that little thing known as the internet. Some of the dialogue is painfully cliched – not even Anne-Marie Duff can save a line like “My sadness is deep enough to fill a well”.

Saturday 9 December 2017

The Lady from the Sea at the Donmar, or, Symbolic Paddling Involved

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 2nd December 2017.

Regular readers will know that I've never really got on with Ibsen. This was not a performance of his work that changed my mind.

Adaptor Elinor Cook and director Kwame Kwei-Armah relocate the action from Norway to the Caribbean. There are various problems with this. Cook's text retains all of the characters' original names without accounting for what these Scandinavians are doing in the Caribbean. There's also a description of a lagoon which I'm afraid sounds much more like the dark seas of a fjord. More seriously, the relocation assumes that an interracial marriage in the Caribbean of the 1950s would be  accepted without question by everybody and, indeed, that there are absolutely no racial tensions at all – neither position struck me as convincing. There is one heavy handed attempt to compare marriage to slavery late on which doesn't really help the problem. Overall, the relocation comes across as half baked, undermining rather than reinforcing belief in the text.

Matters are further not helped by Tom Scutt's peculiar set. The stage is bare except for a square shaped pool within a glass and silver frame stage left. The frame seemed oddly modern for the 1950s to me, but perhaps that's unfair. At the back right hand corner of this pool a heap of rocks rises from within. Under the water are various miniature boats and houses – it never was quite clear to me why. This pool is, I assume, meant to make us think of the regularly referred to sea. Unfortunately, it is confusingly used sometimes as if it is the sea (in which guise it never convinces), sometimes as an ornamental pond apparently in the back garden of Wrangel's house, and on one occasion as what appears to be a pool of the mind because we have just been informed that the characters are up on a mountain and the sea is miles away. Intermittently characters jump into this pool or splash people with water from it. The whole thing is a muddled, ineffective device, and, indeed, as the show went on I couldn't avoid the feeling that Kwei-Armah didn't really know what to do with it. Heavy handed contributions from Lee Curran (lighting), Emma Laxton (sound) and Michael Bruce (composer) also feature – they appear to have been directed to give a quasi supernatural atmosphere every time something that might be supernatural is talked about – for example Ellida's account of The Stranger. These effects feel intrusive and undermine rather than assisting the credibility of the narrative.

Thursday 30 November 2017

Labour of Love in the West End, or, Ultimately Ducking the Question

Note: A review of the matinee on Saturday 25th November 2017.

In advance of this show I was disposed to like it having been strongly impressed by James Graham's This House at the National and Ink at the Almeida. Interesting issues are raised and there are some funny moments, but ultimately Graham can't quite decide whether he is writing a political drama or a romantic comedy, and ducks the final hard question.

The play tracks Labour MP for Ashfield, David Lyons, backwards from his 2017 election defeat to his first by-election victory in the late 80s, and then forward again to 2017 in Act Two. Graham's structuring is certainly clever and brave, but it doesn't pack the emotional punch of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along say – though granted that simply goes back in time. Graham doesn't quite find the richness that a truly great use of such a structure could yield where lines or interactions sting in different ways depending on the period, and where all the characters are completely convincing creations whose changing nature we understand better for having followed them in this way.

Saturday 25 November 2017

Albion at the Almeida, or, Time for a Moratorium on State of the Nation Plays

Note: A review of the matinee on Saturday 18th November 2017.

Mike Bartlett's new play is anxious to tell us about the state of England. So anxious that he hammers the point home in the title and on several other occasions in the body of the play. England, in this instance, is like a garden. A garden in which, it seems, a lot of pretty unpleasant people are trapped with each other. Unfortunately, after what felt a pretty long three hours, I was convinced neither that this was an illuminating representation of England, nor in these individual characters and their relationships.

Bartlett's premise is that Audrey Walters (Victoria Hamilton), a successful businesswoman, has left her London life and bought a run down mansion with extensive garden somewhere rural (possibly the precise location is mentioned but it didn't stick in my mind). The house was previously owned by a great uncle, who constructed a massive and allegedly pioneering landscape garden. Now that I reflect on this it seems to me something is awry with the chronology because the relative in question is supposed to construct at least some of the garden on his return from World War One, but I feel sure that the history of landscape gardening goes back rather further than that. Despite some laboured expository passages on the matter quite why the garden was so significant never really comes into focus. The same insufficiency of illumination applies to Audrey's decisions first to buy the house and reconstruct the garden and by the end to abandon the whole business.

Monday 13 November 2017

Network at the National, or, I'm Feeling Bored

Note: This is a review of the matinee preview on Saturday 11th November 2017. The press night is this evening.

About midway through this long two hour show a performer demands to know how we are feeling. We're expected to join in a collective applauding of fictitious TV anchor Howard Beale and shouting out of his catchphrase (“I'm mad and I'm not gonna take it anymore”). As far as I'm concerned theatre has to earn my participation, persuade me to become complicit in such an act. This failed. I was bored and I quietly said so.

I haven''t seen the 1976 film on which this show is based, but a read of the plot on-line, scan of quotations on IMDb and a viewing of the trailer suggests that Lee Hall has made a pretty fair copy of the original. Looking at the trailer there is a noticeable difference to the emotional pitch – zany, tending to crazed, which this wearily slow-paced version fails to match. But I also wonder if the politics of the film – the power of television, the threat of a faceless corporate America, were more original and provocative in 1976 than they feel now. I felt I was listening to lectures on these matters I have heard frequently before and which, as so often at Norris's National, were not subjected to sufficient on-stage critique.

Saturday 21 October 2017

St George and the Dragon at the National, or, The Tedium Resumes

Note: This is a review of the matinee performance on Saturday 14th October 2017.

After the too brief glory of Follies, the run of flops in the Olivier resumes with this latest National new commission. This show appears to be yet another attempt by the venue to comment on the state of the nation. The result is two hours and 45 minutes of often painful tedium.

Rory Mullarkey's play starts from the premise that St George reappears age after age to slay the dragon which mutates into different guises. We start in pre-industrial England, move forward to a country in the grip of the industrial revolution and finish up in present day London. The cyclical approach is unfortunately reminiscent of Common's repetitions and problematic, albeit in different ways. Firstly, the play asserts that only a year passes between each encounter but there is really no sign that anybody ages at all in that year. Secondly, the village still seems to be inhabited on each occasion by exactly the same people, but there is almost nothing in the way of individual character or relationship development. This is compounded by the cliched nature of many of the characters – the fact that nearly all of them are denied a proper name and referred to instead by trade both indicates and exacerbates this (crier, butcher, healer etc. - as with Eggy Tom in Common I despair that it seems to have occurred to nobody in the National's commissioning process that there was any problem with this). Then there's the shallow political commentary which Mullarkey will insist on bolting on to this rickety structure – a tiresome anti-capitalist screed in the second cycle, wearily familiar remarks about the breakdown of communities in the third, and general unexplored assertions that there was, at some point in the past, a better, possibly golden, age. The net effect of all this is to bore. Apart from one or two brief sparks in the second half the play basically committed my cardinal sin of failing to make me care about anybody on stage, or to make me really believe in any of the relationships being represented.

Saturday 30 September 2017

Follies at the National, or, Living Up To All My Hopes

Note: A belated review of the evening performance on Saturday 23rd September 2017.

I feel like I've been waiting for this revival for forever. Indeed for years, inspired mainly by the correspondence between the line that the Weissmann theatre is to be a car park (though in this version office block) and the Yes Minister joke about the National's building that the architect was given a knighthood so no one could say the building looked like a car park I've thought the National should do it. That it should be the often dismal Norris era that finally sees this revival was a pleasant surprise. Fortunately, it met all my high hopes.

From my seat on the side of the central Stalls block I found the show superbly made to fit the Olivier space. Vicki Mortimer's straightforward set works well. We see a central wall with an archway on one side of which the theatre's advertising lights are sometimes illuminated. To the left the stairway for the descent of the girls, to the right a muddled, dimly lit ruin of rubble and red theatre seats. Often, though, the central playing area is bare but this focuses attention on the drama – Cooke finds an intimacy that can elude in this space.

Friday 25 August 2017

EIF 2017 – Oresteia: This Restless House at the Lyceum, or In Need of Restraint (2)

This final Scottish production of the 2017 Festival arrived trailing highly positive reviews from its original Glasgow run. There are quite a number of positive aspects to it, but it is, finally, undermined by failures of restraint, and a third part that goes off on a not wholly convincing tangent.

I don't know the original text well enough to know how far Zinnie Harris has taken liberties with the adaptation but the programme note suggests expanded roles for Clytemnestra and Elektra, and there are certainly oddities with the third play which we'll come on to. As in Meet Me at Dawn, Harris demonstrates a capacity for charged, intense scenes – her writing of several of the paired relationships is especially strong – Agamemnon/Clytemnestra in particular, but also Elektra/Orestes.

Thursday 24 August 2017

Edinburgh Fringe 2017 – The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk at the Traverse, or, That's Real Theatrical Magic

I booked for this show because I was curious to see something directed by Emma Rice after the recent controversy over her Globe tenure. It turned out to be one of the best pieces of theatre I've seen in Edinburgh this August.

Daniel Jamieson's script chronicles the married life of Marc and Bella Chagall from the Jewish community in Vitebsk (Russia) where they both grow up through the upheaval of wars and revolution to exile in the United States. Apart from the framing device, subtly done, this is a refreshingly straightforward chronological narrative. It is also worth noting that, although the couple are the central focus, subtle reminders are also conveyed about larger issues - effects of censorship, prejudice and exile in particular.

Wednesday 23 August 2017

EIF 2017 – Real Magic at the Studio, or, I'm thinking of a word, and it begins with B

Years ago the International Festival staged a dire production of Three Sisters by the American Repertory Theatre. Finally, after years of trying, the EIF has found a show which is equally dire.

We are presented with three performers (Jerry Killick, Richard Lowdon and Claire Marshall) in an unconvincing version of a game show. The premise of the show is that one person thinks of a word (displayed on a piece of cardboard), the second person (usually blindfold) makes three unsuccessful attempts to guess the word, the third person acts as the host. Oh and some, sometimes all, are dressed in bright yellow chicken costumes and periodically do a silly dance. Some in the audience (bafflingly as far as I was concerned) found this latter aspect funny. After the first failure, the trio swap roles twice until each member has played each of the parts. This cycle, a bald and unconvincing narrative to start with (to borrow from Gilbert), is repeated for an interminable 90 minutes.

Sunday 20 August 2017

EIF 2017 – Had We Never at the Portrait Gallery, or, It Will Be Long Ere I Forget His Face

After a couple of disappointing EIF late nighters it's a pleasure to be able to report that this was 50 minutes powerfully spent at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in the company of the poet Jackie Kay, members of the Scottish Ensemble, David James (counter tenor), Brian Bannatyne-Scott (bass) and Ghetto Priest (reggae singer).

The programme was a mix of Jackie Kay's poems and settings of Robert Burns by the poet himself, Shostakovich, Part and at the centre a newly commissioned version of The Slave's Lament performed by Ghetto Priest and the Scottish Ensemble (with the assistance of an uncredited technician).

EIF 2017 – Macbeth at the Festival Theatre, or, In Need of Restraint

When the EIF programme was announced I questioned the decision to programme Verdi's Macbeth for the fourth time in twenty years. After this performance I have not changed my mind. I still don't find it an especially distinguished opera, and this production was not of sufficient quality to merit the repeat programming.

The first problem is with Verdi's work itself. It lacks the masterful dramatic craftsmanship of later works like Traviata or Don Carlo. Pacing struck me as off, motivations insufficiently illuminated by  music, and textual setting not always convincing. There are a number of potentially powerful moments – particularly the mad scene – but there's quite a few places where the music seems to me to chunter on in an overly cheerful mood that doesn't properly match the sombreness of the subject matter.

Saturday 19 August 2017

EIF 2017 - Martin Creed's Words and Music, or, What This Festival Needs is Some Fringe Shows (Because Nobody Else is Offering That)

Martin Creed apparently thinks he's at least a triple threat – artist, singer, writer. Presumably Fergus Linehan agrees and commissioned this show on that basis, alongside the evident desire that the International Festival should have more Fringe-like elements (quite why the International Festival should be moving to do work the Fringe can perfectly well do is a question nobody seems inclined to discuss). I occasionally laughed in this show, one or two songs were enjoyable enough, there are some perceptive remarks (though I think Creed is not so insightful as some seem to imagine). But a great deal of this is tiresome, familiar and wearily self-indulgent.

The show begins with a projection of the following on single slides: “No-A-E-I-O-U-Yes” (it eventually becomes clear this is related to Creed's issues about the slipperiness of words). Then we get a rambling voice over about, amongst other things, sorting socks. Finally Creed hops into the room and proceeds, eventually, to play a number on the electric guitar while standing on one leg. I began to wonder whether I should have brought a larger glass of wine in with me.

Thursday 17 August 2017

EIF 2017 - The Divide at the King's, or, A Fatal Flaw

After Part 1 of this six hour epic I thought the critics had, perhaps, been a bit harsh. After Part 2 it was clear to me they had not been. This new play by Alan Ayckbourn suffers from a fatal flaw, and it is a flaw which the commissioners should have spotted and required to be rectified before proceeding with this staging.

Ayckbourn's new play is a narrative of a dystopian future version of Salisbury. Owing to an unspecified plague but presumably some form of sexually transmitted disease, men and women are now forced to live separately from each other and, when they meet, they have to go visored (it has to be said the visors don't look particularly effective as disease preventers). All relationships are now same-sex. The country or possibly the world, again the play is vague on the point, is under the rule of the Preacher – though we are early informed that he is in fact dead by this point and has been replaced by a committee – a whole area of this invented world that barely features during the rest of the six hours.

Monday 14 August 2017

EIF 2017 - Peter Grimes at the Usher Hall, or, Worthy Of A Standing Ovation

When the festival programme was announced I expressed some scepticism about the merits of another performance of this opera, given frequently in the Britten centenary year, though this was mitigated by the many years since the work had been seen in Scotland and the exceptional cast. I also personally wondered whether it could live up to the extraordinary experience of Grimes on the Beach at Aldeburgh. I was wrong to have doubted on either count. This semi-staged performance found an equivalent emotional punch. It took me in its grip almost from the first notes and held me with an intensity not often experienced in this kind of performance.

Vera Rostin Wexelsen's semi-staging is subtle, but very effective. The cast are in modern dress. The nieces as a result recalled to my mind (I thought maybe I'd seen a comment on this in a review of the Bergen performance but I now can't find it) the prostitutes of the musical London Road (set nearby in Ipswich). The variety of dress amongst the chorus of townsfolk leant extra power to their denunciations – it was all too easy to see them as a baying mob even though in practice they stayed in place in ranks in the Organ Gallery. A few key props are added – the fatal embroidered jumper, ropes, souwester for the apprentice. Mostly, though, the staging depends for its impact on the individual characterisations and interactions. In both cases these had a consistent emotional intensity. A few moments especially stand out in memory – Stuart Skelton (Grimes) a hand persistently going troubled to his temple, Erin Wall's (Ellen Orford) disturbing struggle with the apprentice as she tries to discover what he's hiding, various moments when Christopher Purves's (Balstrode) either does, or does not lay a hand in attempted comfort on Ellen's shoulder. Also worth noting was Grimes's final exit through the auditorium – a subtle hint I felt at our own potential complicity with the village in what has passed.

Saturday 12 August 2017

EIF 2017 – Meet Me At Dawn at the Traverse, or, The Rest Is…?

After the disappointing Rhinoceros earlier in the week I wasn't especially optimistic about this show. It turns out to be well worth seeing. It moved me in places to the point of bringing tears to my eyes and if the writing can't always quite meet the challenge of the set up it is often powerful.

Zinnie Harris's new play is about a couple Helen (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) and Robyn (Neve McIntosh). At the start, it appears that the two of them have escaped from a boating accident – though there are suggestive hints from the outset that all is not as it seems. Eventually we realise that one of them died in that accident. There is an effective ambiguity, to my mind, about which of them this is. Two narratives unfold from this – firstly the puzzle of what exactly happened in the accident and the related mystery of who has survived. Secondly, the question of where in fact we are and why.

Friday 11 August 2017

EIF 2017 – Meow Meow's Little Mermaid, or, What This Festival Needs is Sexual Innuendo (Apparently)

This show reflects, I suspect, two things. Firstly, another instance of Fergus Linehan's broadening of the range of cultural forms represented in the programme. Secondly, an attempt to repeat the success of last year's magnificent Alan Cumming residency. I wish I could report this show was as good.

The title implies a retelling of the fairy tale of the Little Mermaid but one which has “gone rogue” and is “subversive” according to the festival brochure. I'm prepared to accept the first, though I found it increasingly a dull roguery, but not the second – unless sexual innuendo is still considered to be subversive.

EIF 2017 – Karen Cargill/Simon Lepper at the Queen's Hall, or, A Joyous Morning

One of my favourite things about Edinburgh in August is getting to return to the Queen's Hall, one of the great venues for chamber music and vocal recitals (one day the city will wake up to this and properly support the planned refurbishment of the front of house areas, but that's another story). This particular recital was one of those lovely occasions when the performers swept me, beguiled, into their musical world.

Karen Cargill and Simon Lepper's recital was largely of late 19th/early 20th century French songs by Hahn, Debussy, Duparc and Chausson (with Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder as the finale). This is not a world with which I am particularly familiar, and I booked originally because I wanted to hear Cargill. It was a treat to discover these songs. The Hahn works in particular, which opened the recital, made a real impression on me – I think I must have occasionally heard his songs before but they didn't strike me then.

Thursday 10 August 2017

EIF 2017 - Don Giovanni at the Festival Theatre, or, A Welcome Return

When the 2017 Festival Programme was announced this stood out amongst the opera offerings after  the Budapest's glorious Nozze di Figaro in 2015. This Don Giovanni isn't quite as outstanding but it is still very good.

In my past experience this is a really difficult opera to stage – I've sat through poor attempts from Tim Albery at Scottish Opera, Rufus Norris at English National Opera and Kaspar Holten at the Royal Opera. This felt rather less of a staging than the Figaro. There are a couple of raised platforms of different heights with stairs at the two back corners of the reduced playing area. Other than that set is provided by a troupe of young actors, dressed to look (it seemed to me) like classical statuary. This provides some lovely moments – for example the carriage they form to carry in Zerlina on her first entrance, and the descent into hell where they form a writhing body of grasping hands like something out of an Old Master painting dragging down Don Giovanni works better than any other staging I've seen (though the blackout should come before they leave the stage it being otherwise too obvious (at least from the Upper Circle) that Giovanni is walking off unharmed. But at other times Ivan Fischer (who directs as well as conducts) seems less sure what to do with them, and particularly when acting as walls and balconies, impressively dexterous though they are, I didn't think it was as effective as the similar device in the recent Opera North Billy Budd. Fischer is also uneven in his direction of the principals. Overall I felt they came across as more convincing and moving characters than in any of those fully staged productions I mentioned, but there are still missed psychological depths here. In particular, I didn't think anyone had quite decided what has happened to Donna Anna in that opening attack, which is rather crucial. There are also a few clumsily managed escapes (most notably Leporello sneaking off at one point in Act Two), and Giovanni failing to recognise Elvira in their first scene in Act One was also not convincing.

EIF 2017 - Rhinoceros at the Lyceum, or, A Missed Opportunity

About two thirds of the way through this mediocre production an overt reference to Donald Trump and the United States is crowbarred in. It was at that point that it struck me that a much more powerful production of this play relating to matters closer to home would have been possible. It doesn't surprise me that this isn't the version given.

I previously saw this play in a visually striking production by Theatre de la Ville-Paris at the Barbican in (I was slightly horrified to realise) 2013. That version also succeeded in really conveying the sense of fear. It wasn't, I think, that the setting was massively more realistic than it is here, but it managed to make it feel much more real.

Tuesday 8 August 2017

EIF 2017 - Flight at the Churchill, or, An Unusually Strong Reinvention of the Form

In advance I had misgivings about this show. Descriptions made it sound like another variation on immersive theatre of the kind seen at recent Festivals in, for example, The Encounter (about which I had more mixed feelings than many). This does turn out, at least as far as my experience is concerned, to have an originality of design which is most impressive. I also found it, more successfully immersive than The Encounter. The narrative which all this serves is, however, more problematic.

The design of this show is essentially a revolving diorama – with the screen divided into windows of various sizes which light up in turn as the story progresses. You sit alone in a tiny dark booth while the lighted windows pass before you, and the soundscape and dialogue unfolds over a pair of headphones. The detail of the designs in the windows by Jamie Harrison and Rebecca Hamilton is remarkable.

Monday 7 August 2017

Khovanshchina at the BBC Proms, or, An Intensely Dramatic Evening

I'd been looking forward to this since the announcement of the Proms programme back in April. Khovanshchina is a work close to my heart, but I hadn't been able to get to Birmingham for the recent performances there, and I knew I wouldn't be able to make any of autumn Welsh National Opera performances. Add to this the fact that Semyon Bychkov was conducting, having demonstrated his credentials for epic opera a number of times at Covent Garden, and on paper this looked unmissable. I wasn't disappointed.

Mussorgsky's opera, left unfinished at his death and completed by a variety of hands – this was (with I gather some variants) the Shostakovich completion – explores the tumultuous state of Russia on the eve of Peter the Great's assumption of power. Various princes – the Khovansky brothers of the title (in command of the Moscow Streltsy or militia), Golitsyn and Dosifey (a former prince who has renounced his rank for religious reasons) jostle for position – but all are bested by the Tsar's agent Shaklovity. It was evident from chat around me in the Arena that not a few found this hard to follow. I don't feel as if I ever have, but I expect I benefited from having seen the magnificent Zambello production at ENO twice and having heard the broadcast before seeing it for the first time which I recall explaining lucidly who everybody was. In particular, it's important to realise that it was illegal to represent the Tsar on stage – hence Shaklovity – but my recollection is the ENO production did a fine job of making one constantly aware of that lurking off-stage presence.

Friday 4 August 2017

Mosquitoes at the National, or, No, you really don't need to tell us this

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 29th July 2017.

This was my first encounter with the work of Lucy Kirkwood, having missed her widely praised Chimerica. Sadly for me this new play did not live up to that reported promise.

Kirkwood presents a rather wearily cliched and overloaded tale of familial disfunction. There are two sisters whose lives are in different ways collapsing – with the addition of the familiar device of one sister Alice (Olivia Williams) starting the play under the delusion she has things far more under control than her badly messed up sibling Jenny (Olivia Colman). Then there's Alice's unhappy teenage son Luke (Joseph Quinn), the sisters' mother (Amanda Boxer) suffering from both incontinence (showing this on stage seems to be in vogue at the National these days) and dementia, Alice's new partner Henri (Yoli Fuller), a recovering alcoholic (he's also black making an inter-racial relationship which I'm afraid came across as contrived) and a mysterious character named in the programme, though not I think in the spoken text, as The Bosun (Paul Hilton) who may be Alice's mentally ill ex-husband. There are a number of problems with all of this. There are far too many plots struggling for stage time. And this is before you add in Jenny's dead child and her role in that death, Luke hacking into and apparently bringing down the Large Hadron Collider (a crime for which Jenny is then arrested, and which the authorities at the LHC then apparently decide is a technical fault – there is also the frankly baffling question as to how on earth the pair of them get inside the facility in the first place), Jenny attempting to sleep with Henri and then trying to commit suicide and so on and wearily so on. As with the Old Vic's Girl from the North Country, Kirkwood misses that less is nearly always more powerful. More seriously, Kirkwood rarely succeeded in making these characters convincing as individuals – they remain too much types seen before.

Friday 21 July 2017

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Apollo, or, Wondering About Cake Not Characters

Note: This is a review of the preview on Monday 17th July 2017. Press night (according to news reports) takes place on Monday 24th July 2017.

I booked for this show for two main reasons. Firstly because reports of the Benedict Andrews directed Streetcar Named Desire, which I missed, were so strong. Secondly because, as an Americanist, I feel I should see more Tennessee Williams. As I skimmed through the programme before the start I was optimistic having seen several of the performers do fine work in other shows. Sadly this revival is not a fine show.

Andrews's first major error is his choice of setting – this is partly a case of coming adrift in time and partly a problem of design. In terms of time Andrews tries to move the play out of its original 1950s setting – most obviously by having phone conversations take place on mobiles and a modernistic sound system periodically blasting out music. It is, however, very unclear where we are chronologically beyond this vague suggestion of the present day. This is compounded by Magda Willi's set design. Brick and Maggie's room is set on a sloped platform – it's furnished with a bed and a make up table of indeterminate date but certainly to my eye more recent than the 50s, and a modern shower. This is surrounded on three sides by a flat space backed by enormous golden walls. Characters can thus walk round the platform on all three sides. This design robbed the play, as far as I was concerned, of pretty nearly any feeling of oppression and claustrophobia. The text is persistently trying to emphasise this sense of entrapment but I just never believed it. In the fights, for example, there's just far too much space for people to escape into that the threat is never convincing. Then there are the collisions between the specificities of the text and this somewhat abstract design – a jarring example is the mention of the clock during the Brick/Big Daddy scene. A loud chime starts in one pause – I couldn't think why it was doing so, and when they then refer to a clock in the dialogue I simply did not believe that such a clock was actually there. The same applies to wider context, the possession of the enormous plantation outside the room is a key theme of the play, but I never really believed it was there – the setting felt more like we were in some sort of urban modernist hotel.

Thursday 20 July 2017

Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic, or, Adrift in Minnesota

Note: This is a review of the preview performance on Saturday 15th July 2017. The press night takes place on Wednesday 26th July 2017.

The curse of the new musical strikes again with this show. The cast throw themselves into it, the songs are well performed and in themselves make for enjoyable listening, but the show as a whole, I fear, suffers from significant flaws.

The biggest problems lie with the Conor McPherson's book and the marriage between that book and the Bob Dylan songs. McPherson crams the episodic narrative with incident – two accidental pregnancies, one likely murder of a handicapped boy, a dementia patient, two escaped convicts, various adulteries and so on. I can imagine any one of these narratives providing sufficient drama for one musical. The result is that McPherson struggles to find space to give meaningful depth to these characters, and I felt I just didn't see enough of them to become really emotionally engaged in their plights. There are some other oddities which caused me to raise an Americanist eyebrow. Firstly, I was a little bit dubious about the idea that a white woman in Minnesota would have adopted a black child left on her doorstep in c.1910s (another plot line which is never properly explored) – in general the treatment of race in this show is muddled. Secondly, I question whether Americans in the 1930s went around saying “fuck” - but again I may be wrong. Finally, on the book, McPherson could usefully have another look at the rather rambling ending (a perennial new work problem), and I was left puzzled by who exactly the title is supposed to refer to – there are quite a few candidates another symptom of the narrative's problems of focus.

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Committee* at the Donmar, or, A Limiting Approach

Note: This is a review of the performance on Friday 14th July 2017.

Verbatim theatre continues to be in vogue. I think this was my fourth encounter following the NT's London Road and My Country, and the Almeida's Little Revolution. I've never been wholly convinced by it, and this latest attempt at the Donmar did not fundamentally change my mind.

First, as I try now to do, the positives. The ensemble of performers are excellent singing actors and actresses. Their commitment cannot be faulted and the impersonations are across the board convincing. The five MPs and the two committee officers also have to double as other witnesses and they do so very effectively. It is a pity that the text doesn't allow much space for a number of the MPs – I'd have particularly liked to see more of Rosemary Ashe's Kate Hoey.

Sunday 16 July 2017

Ink at the Almeida, or, At Last, Thank God, A Hit!

Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 6th July 2017.

There are two schools of thought about the Almeida under the management of Rupert Goold and Robert Icke. Everybody else seems to think it has resulted in something close to hit after hit. I think it has produced a long, mixed line of misses or shows flawed to some degree. It is, therefore, a pleasure to be able to report that for the first time since, I think, Goold's early imported Our Town, the venue finally has another really consistently first class show.

Writer James Graham follows up his excellent This House at the National with this compelling examination of the advent of Rupert Murdoch to Fleet Street. We follow his purchase of The Sun, the battle with the Mirror, and the increasing revolutionary and problematic acts which the editor Larry Lamb makes in trying to overtake the circulation of the Mirror, culminating, in Act 2, with the page 3 moment. Occasionally early on I felt the play was trying a little too hard to force laughs, but it soon settles down. There are quite a few genuinely funny moments, and Graham also avoids the trap of many an “issue” play of coming down too far on one side or the other of the debate. This is, primarily, a play driven by the characters, the issues emerging from them rather than imposed upon them – the best kind of such writing in my experience. Moreover, neither the Fleet Street establishment nor the Murdoch revolutionaries come across as unflawed. Graham is particularly clever in exploring the question of responsibility – is this revolution possible only because of Murdoch and his acolytes, or because they are tapping into aspects of the character of the wider public. And if the latter, which I think the play finally convincingly argues, what can then be done about some of the more problematic effects? The question has contemporary relevance in our age of fake news, but Graham again avoids the trap of making those links too explicit, or of posing too simple solutions. The page 3 debate captures effectively the fact that nobody at the time, at least in this reading, anticipates the longer term arguments.

Friday 7 July 2017

Otello at the Royal, or, Musically Electric (But Cut the Statues)

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sunday 2nd July 2017.

Unusually for me I booked to see this because of a singer – Jonas Kaufmann – whose career I have had the good fortune to have been able to follow since early unforgettable appearances at the Edinburgh Festival in Schubert and Mahler. I hadn't been particularly sold on the work when I previously saw it in a revival of the venerable Moshinsky production (though I was lucky to hear the outstanding Anja Harteros as Desdemona), and I've never got on well with Keith Warner as a director. As it turned out, and a little to my surprise, this was in many ways an excellent afternoon.

At the heart of this success was a blazing dramatic musical performance from Antonio Pappano who drew superb playing from the Royal Opera House Orchestra – sounding far more comfortable and convincing than under Rousset in Mozart at the beginning of last week. This provided a strong platform for the singers. Kaufmann was in very fine form in the title role, at least to my ear. Where heft was needed he possessed it, without compromise of tone. He successfully found both ringing heroism and soft emotion. Perhaps occasionally towards the bottom of his range one might have liked a little more power, but overall it was a very satisfying performance. Maria Agresta doesn't quite have the flexibility and beauty that I remembered from Harteros but she was very moving in the scena that opens Act Four, and never less than fine elsewhere. From my usual perch in the Amphitheatre I felt Marco Vratogna's Iago could have done with more heft but again it's a perfectly fine performance and he certainly brings great character to the role. The minor parts were solidly taken. The Chorus found a weight that I've sometimes missed in other recent performances.

Warner's production has much to commend it. Firstly, it is solidly revivable. More than that, it was for me, convincingly in harmony with the music nearly all the time. The way walls open up and close down, assisted by Bruno Poet's lighting creates convincing internal and external worlds. Furniture is fairly bare but this is overall not a problem. Having Iago give a wall a shove here and there during scene changes is nicely done. Just occasionally I wished for that bit more naturalness to the changes – that is, you don't notice the best changes of scene because they fit so completely into the rest of what is going on – and here there are occasions when you see people in costume moving bits of set and it doesn't feel part of their character but simply an external requirement. Chorus movement could also do with a bit more of the same – the ideas behind the movement in Act 3 are fine, but I'm afraid it currently looks a bit mechanical.

The one snag in Warner's approach is that in the second half I had the feeling that he suddenly grew anxious to show he had interpretative ideas. Up till that point everything is flowing along in a straightforward, dramatically effective manner. The first sign that Warner was getting restless was the enormous statue of a lion which is pulled across the stage by the Venetians, pauses for a moment or two, so we can be sure to appreciate they've brought the thing, and then disappears off the other side never to be seen again. It serves no useful purpose that I can see. Statues are obviously on Warner's mind because at the end of Act 3 a wall swings round at the back to reveal an upper room in which another enormous piece of marble is located – the back of a naked man with some sort of wing over his head. It's presumably intended to emphasise ideas in the piece about sexual promiscuity but it just feels unnecessary. Warner's other misstep comes at the start of Act Four. Firstly Desdemona's bedroom appears to be below the room containing the naked male statue – this struck me as just bizarre. Then the couple's bed – a vivid white in contrast to the black of just about everything else (an unnecessarily obvious move) is on a truck which is slowly pushed down to front of stage through the quiet opening prelude. As with other such movements this season (the wall at the end of the new Rosenkavalier came to mind) it seems this can't be done silently. I also really couldn't see that it served any dramatic purpose – you could perfectly well simply raise the curtain with the bed already in position. Finally, the breaking in of personnel at the end loses effectiveness by the decision to trap some of them in the upper room with the statue, and it is a bit odd that Otello ignores a perfectly good sword right in front of him and instead circles round the bed to pick up a previously concealed dagger to kill himself.

Overall, this is a very strong afternoon of opera, but as with the new Rosenkavalier I do feel a little judicious tweaking might be in order before the first revival.

Thursday 6 July 2017

Hamlet at Glyndebourne, or, A Contrast In Acts

Note: This is a review of the performance on Friday 30th June 2017.

As Ryan Wigglesworth's Winter's Tale a few months back showed, turning Shakespeare into opera is fraught with peril. Brett Dean takes on an arguably even more formidable challenge than Wigglesworth in attempting Hamlet. There is much to admire, but as a completely satisfying opera I think this falls just a little short.

Before turning to the work itself though, the unquestionably outstanding side of the evening should be mentioned – that is the musical performances. In the punishing title role, onstage almost constantly apart from a respite at the start of Act Two, Allan Clayton is simply magnificent. He displays an impressive dynamic range, catches the famous “antic disposition” but without losing the ability to catch at the heart – notably in his relationship with Ophelia, and in the final moments of the work. Barbara Hannigan is a moving, beautifully sung Ophelia. Jacques Imbrailo is underused vocally as Horatio, but makes his limited interventions tell and adds a fine still presence to many scenes. Setting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a pair of counter tenors is nicely comic, and Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey are in fine vocal form. John Tomlinson can really only now do one thing vocally, but as Ghost and Gravedigger it works perfectly well (the Player King might benefit from a little more flexibility). Rounding out this fine ensemble are Rod Gilfrey's Claudius, David Butt Philip's Laertes and Sarah Connolly's Gertrude. In the pit and up in the Upper Circle the London Philharmonic and the Glyndebourne Chorus are likewise in powerful form. On the podium Vladimir Jurowski holds the whole expertly together.

Wednesday 7 June 2017

Common at the National, or, Perhaps They Could Try Playing It For Laughs?

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 5th June 2017. The press night took place last night (Tues 6th June 2017).

On paper this new commission had promise. I loved D C Moore's The Swan, staged a few years back in the Paintframe, and Anne-Marie Duff is a very fine actress. Sadly, that promise is not fulfilled.

The principle problem with this show is Moore's text. It is both elaborately over-written and plagued by mangling of word order – one spends a fair bit of time trying to work out what people are actually saying. It rarely achieves naturalness in delivery, despite some of the acting talent involved. Quite often it comes across as just plain silly (did nobody query the name Eggy Tom during the production process?). In itself, the text, much of the time, simply fails to work as dramatic language.

Sunday 4 June 2017

Angels in America at the National, or, Hopefully Not Elliott's Farewell

After a run of uneven to poor shows it's a pleasure to be able to report that finally the National has a hit with this outstanding revival of Tony Kushner's epic.

Kushner's play is an often heartbreaking exploration primarily of the experience of the AIDS epidemic in 1980s America but also of the rich complexity of the gay community. It's also a terrible reminder of a world in which it was often far harder than it now is to be open about one's sexual identity. The play begins as a comparatively realist saga of a number of protagonists – the closeted Republican lawyer Roy M Cohn (Nathan Lane), the Pitts – a Mormon couple (Denise Gough and Russell Tovey), and a gay couple – Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) and Louis Ironson (James McArdle). But there are already blurred lines between the imagined and the real. These increase in the second part when Prior receives a visitation from Amanda Lawrence's Angel that eventually leads us to a despairing, death-longing Heaven. Part Two could occasionally have done with a little judicious trimming, but ultimately I forgave the occasional flabbiness because the play is able to laugh at itself, strikes at prejudice with an undiminished power, and, often, brought tears to my eyes. One can't of course really know what it must have been like to see this when it was originally performed, especially if you had direct experience of that world and the epidemic, but watching this revival does offer powerful glimpses.

La Traviata at Glyndebourne, or, Making the Familiar Fresh

Note: This is a review of the performance on Sunday 28th May 2017.

Doing a rough calculation after this performance I reckon that I must have seen at least six different productions of this work in my opera going life. As the first opera I remember really connecting with it's close to my heart. But the last production I saw was the dismal ENO red curtain effort and, had it been solely up to me, I doubt I would have gone to this Glyndebourne run. Fortunately, a regular fixture in my summer calendar now is a trip with my partner and old friends now in East Sussex to Glyndebourne. This year our friends proposed seeing La Traviata. Thank goodness that they did. For this is a show that, for me, wiped the slate clean. I felt I was seeing this familiar work with a powerful freshness. On several occasions, it brought tears to my eyes.

Tom Cairns directs both thoughtfully and subtly. The sets are spare – a curved wall to the left, a smaller wall partially enclosing a bedroom space to the right, the bed itself and occasional other furnishings. There's just enough hint of gardens, open skies in Act 2 Scene 1, and otherwise we are in enclosed, often oppressive spaces. Cairns adds pointed dumbshow during the preludes – Violetta emerging into a circle of predatory men at the very start, preparing wearily to leave for Flora's party, lying asleep at the beginning of Act 3 while Annina (Eliza Safjan) weeps. On each occasion these scenes added intensity to the drama.

Sunday 21 May 2017

Don Carlo at the Royal Opera, or, A Revival That Falls a Little Short

This is one of those works I always try to catch when performed. To me, it is one of the most satisfying music dramas in the repertoire. This revival gradually finds electricity but the search is often a bit laboured.

Aficionados will know that there are multiple versions of the score. The Royal Opera does at least include a version of the opening Fontainebleau Act, but persists with a crucial omission (as it has done on every occasion I've seen this work performed there). The opening chorus of distressed French peasants adds a crucial layer to the drama of Act 1, fleshing out Elizabeth's motivations for accepting Philip II's hand. The House should really catch up with other British companies and include it.

Wednesday 10 May 2017

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar, or, Mistakenly Dispensing with Subtlety

My previous encounter with this play was at Chichester in 2012 in a stunning production by Jonathan Church featuring a chilling, compelling central performance by Henry Goodman. So this new staging at the Donmar was up against very tough competition. Unfortunately, it falls some way short.

Almost from the moment of arrival this is an in your face show. A cast member confronted me at the ticket check to wish me an enjoyable evening, programmes are wrapped in brown paper (this is the second novelty programme in recent months – at least less bulky than the ridiculous hospital notes folder at the dreadful NT Pacifist's Guide – I do hope this isn't going to become a thing). The Stalls with their cabaret set up clearly aim to embed the audience in the action, up in the Circle performers are soon appearing to issue instructions. The result, as far as I was concerned, was that this show and I got off on the wrong foot. I don't take kindly to being ordered to participate like that, indeed my immediate reaction is to get my back up and resist.

Monday 8 May 2017

The Ferryman at the Royal Court, or, There Is No Escape

The fundamental mood of this gripping piece of theatre is established in the first scene as a fearful Catholic priest, Father Horrigan (a fine, understated piece of work by Gerard Horan) is threatened by representatives of the IRA. Lighter, indeed often very funny, moments follow over the following three hours but that threat never goes away. My gaze periodically drifted to the door at the back, expecting doom to enter through it and, in due time, inescapably, it comes.

Jez Butterworth's new play at the Royal Court is, as should already be clear, a tale of a Northern Ireland imprisoned in a cycle of hate, violence, revenge. Butterworth explores this through an extended Irish Catholic farming family. To begin with, we may deceive ourselves that this family is managing to stand aside from the events of 1981 – alluded to, at first subtly, via Thatcher's voice on a radio. Slowly, inexorably, they are ensnared, one by one. Trapped in my seat, I kept wanting them to choose some other path but this is a play that offers essentially no redemption or escape for any of them. Among a plethora of striking scenes in that process, I would mention Shane Corcoran (Tom Glynn-Carney) boasting about his recent IRA activities and, slowly, fatally, corrupting others, and the poisonous rage Aunt Patricia Carney (Dearbhla Molloy) has built on one event decades before.

Obsession at the Barbican, or, Unengaging and Self-Indulgent

Note: This is a belated review of the matinee on Saturday 29th April 2017.

This was, I think, my third Ivo van Hove directed show. I remain very unconvinced of his alleged brilliance as a director. This isn't as annoying as his Shakespeare mash up Kings of War but it is slow, dull and gimmicky.

The show is, apparently, based on a film by Luchino Visconti. Not having seen the film, I have no idea how closely the scripts compare but if they are very similar I can only assume that the film being in Italian masked the cliched nature of the dialogue. Certainly the text confers few plaudits on either adaptor Jan Peter Gerrits or English translator Simon Stephens. The story is a familiar love triangle – woman married to older man falls for passing younger heart throb who eventually murders husband, is consumed by guilt and everything ends unhappily. To make this material work you need persistent high tension between the characters and a sense of pace driving everybody towards the successive disasters. For reasons that were never clear to me, van Hove moves things forward at the speed of a snail, leaving me longing to shout at the ensemble to get on with it. Minimal tension is created at any point.

Tuesday 18 April 2017

Limehouse at the Donmar, or, Yes, This Is How It Might Have Been

Note: This is a belated review of the performance on Wednesday 12th April 2017.

My hopes were high for this show after Steve Waters's powerful Temple at the same venue in 2015. I was not disappointed. This is an outstanding play, superbly performed: politically charged, emotionally moving, and posing us difficult questions.

The drama focuses on the hours prior to the Gang of Four's famous Limehouse Declaration founding the SDP. David Owen (Tom Goodman-Hill), and his wife Debbie (Nathalie Armin), Shirley Williams (Debra Gillett), Roy Jenkins (Roger Allam) and Bill Rodgers (Paul Chahidi) gather at Owen's house to argue, by turns bitterly, ambitiously, idealistically, and with anguish about political futures – their own and the country's.

The Royal Opera Season 2017-18, or A Doubtful Legacy

Note: You can find the full listings for the 2017-18 Royal Opera House season here.

The 2017-18 Royal Opera House season bears strong marks of departing artistic director Kasper Holten. If his farewell production, a dismal Die Meistersinger, saw him, as some suggested and I'm inclined to agree, shaking his fist at an under appreciative London public, this season reminds us of the broader legacy he leaves behind. It is, overall, not an encouraging one.

Starting first with the pick of the new productions which for me only arrives in March with Krzysztok Warlikowski's take on Janacek's From the House of the Dead. As a director he will be new to me, and I am slightly uneasy about someone who thinks the director's task is "to inject life into the structures imposed by the score and ossified conventions" (quoted in a fuller profile here) which suggests a distrust of the form which makes me uneasy. This new staging will also be up against stiff competition in Opera North's recent fine production, but it's great news that Janacek finally returns to the House after too long an absence, and Warlikowski's operatic work has been well received elsewhere, so I hope for the best. The conductor, Teodor Currentzis will also be new to me, but there are some fine singers in the ensemble – most notably Johan Reuter and Nicky Spence.

Monday 17 April 2017

Twelfth Night at the National, or, Played Too Much For Laughs

Note: This is a slightly belated review of the performance on Tuesday 11th April 2017.

This is a production that finds its groove after the interval. Director Simon Godwin at that point seems to realise that this is not a pure comedy. The melancholy and uneasiness which exist throughout are allowed to properly emerge and moments of real power result. But the effect, with one notable exception, is less than it should be because it doesn't emerge from a sufficiently complete reading of the piece.

Quite where Godwin's Illyria is never comes into focus. Elements of the new (a buzzer entry to Olivia's house, motor vehicles) and old (swords for the duel) are juxtaposed. My partner identified various references to current popular culture which passed me by. The show gets away with this on the whole, but I think a more concrete sense of place could have added depth.

Friday 24 March 2017

EIF 2017 – The Opera and Theatre Programme, or, Don't Let the Volume Deceive You

After taking a couple of years off (once through busyness and last year because we were pretty annoyed with the Festival) our annual commentary on the Opera and Theatre programme returns...


After some comparatively lean years, the 2017 edition of the festival presents nine operas. The devil, however, is in the detail.

Let us start with the positives. After their stunning Nozze di Figaro in Linehan's first year, the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Ivan Fischer return with a semi-staging of Don Giovanni. This is a revival of a production first staged in Budapest in 2010 and in New York in 2011 (warmly reviewed here and here and less so here). Laura Aiken, evidently a standout in New York, reprises her Donna Anna, and I look forward to hearing Christopher Maltman as the Don. The 2015 Figaro in Edinburgh was one of my finest operatic experiences of recent years. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 21 March 2017

Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg at the Royal, or, A Near Complete Removal of Feeling

I've been privileged to see some exceptional productions of this work, which is very dear to me, in recent years, of which the outstanding Glyndebourne production by David McVicar still stands out. The Royal Opera's previous production, by Graham Vick, was also pretty strong. This replacement is another dismal effort from departing Artistic Director Kasper Holten which left me unmoved and, in what should be one of the most emotionally moving works in the repertoire, increasingly alienated and fed up. I wouldn't put it past Holten for that to have been intentional – there are certainly distinct elements of contempt for work and viewer lurking in this show.

Each prelude is played with the curtain down – one of the few moments in the show when the music is allowed centre stage. Once it goes up on Act 1, the oddities start. We are in a classically, for modern opera stagings, geographically confused building. The main element is a central staircase leading up to a door. To the viewer's left the opening chorale is in rehearsal watched by Sachs (if you're thinking that usually he doesn't appear until rather later in Act 1 you would be quite correct). Nearby Eva is hovering. This causes two fairly rapid problems. I accept that the sequence when Eva keeps forgetting things so she can prolong a conversation with Walther is not the easiest thing to stage convincingly but Holten doesn't even try. She stands a few feet from a table on which the objects are resting – needless to say it's daft that Magdalene is sent that small distance to fetch them, and equally that this is supposed to grant space for the lovers meeting. The second problem is that, having put Sachs on stage in defiance of the text, Holten seems to have no idea why he has done so. He (Sachs) hovers about ineffectively for a bit and then wanders off – now one might suppose that a man as concerned for Eva as the text will later bear out that he is (and this production sometimes accepts), might want to hang around and observe the new man on the scene – but no.

Monday 20 March 2017

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (West End), or, A Visit with Our Worst Selves

Directors and writers often try to shock. But it's rare in my experience to encounter theatre which is truly shocking or unsettling. This is a such a play. It does it not with the kind of cheap shots of nudity and violence I've seen so often but with a dissection, through words and silence, of some of our worst capacities as human beings. Partnering this text with the superb production and ensemble seen here makes for an enormously powerful, if sometimes hard to watch, piece of theatre.

Edward Albee's play takes place in a small New England college town. The quartet of characters are an older history professor George (Conleth Hill) and his wife Martha (Imelda Staunton), daughter of the college President, and an ambitious young newly arrived biology professor Nick (Luke Treadaway) and his wife Honey (Imogen Poots). At the beginning we're given the impression that George and Martha are your fairly standard, bickering, long-married couple, though already here the barbs being traded are very sharp. They've returned from a faculty party but, just as George is relaxing, Martha drops the first bombshell – for reasons that are never entirely explained Nick and Honey have been invited to continue the evening with them. The stage is set.

Thursday 16 March 2017

Lost Without Words at the National, or, Yes, We Have Him

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 11th March 2017.

In advance I had no expectations about this show. Indeed, on paper it was the kind of piece that seemed likely to annoy me – signs of possible gimmickry, no script – though I have enjoyed improv on other occasions. But it turns out to be a gem.

The premise is to take a group of experienced performers in their 70s and 80s who have never previously done improv and have them do so (at the performance I was at the line up featured Georgine Anderson, Caroline Blakiston, Anna Calder-Marshall, Lynn Farleigh and Tim Preece). They are provided with occasional guidance by directors Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson. The resulting scenes range from an ensemble family group, brilliantly transported by Anna Calder-Marshall to a failing farm, to a lovely solo by Tim Preece's bus driver who wishes he'd been a musician (and sounded at times as if he was recalling one of Peter Cook's monologues in Beyond the Fringe).

Thursday 9 March 2017

She Loves Me at the Menier, or, I'd Call Again If I Could

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 4th March 2017.

The previous occasion I saw this show, at Chichester, I enjoyed it but it didn't especially stick in my mind (apart from the Act 2 number Where's My Shoe). So when this revival was announced, I was a little hesitant about booking. Thank goodness I did. This is a fabulous revival in every sense, and sent me out into the street grinning from ear to ear.

The show by Joe Masteroff (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (music) tells the story of the love trials of the staff of a perfume shop in Budapest. At the centre are Mark Umbers's Georg and Scarlett Strallen's Amalia. They have been writing love letters to anonymous correspondents they've never met, whom they know in each case only as Dear Friend. The astute among you will doubtless have spotted the plot. There's also a second, more tempestuous, romance between Katherine Kingsley's Ilona and Dominic Tighe's Kodaly. There are occasional darker moments, but overall this is a lovely, frothy, what I think of as perhaps slightly old fashioned musical comedy. I treasure this type of musical, and what I particularly loved about this show is everybody involved evidently treasures it too. They don't try to make it more than it is, but they treat with love everything it is. The results are rich.

Wednesday 8 March 2017

The Winter's Tale at ENO, or, Sadly Insufficiently Dramatic

Note: This is a review of the performance on Friday 3rd March 2017.

In advance I had high hopes for this new opera. I previously heard Ryan Wigglesworth's Echo and Narcissus at the Aldeburgh Festival, a dramatic cantata with real drama, emotional punch and superb word setting. I hoped for the same here since the source work, in theory, provides so much to work with. Sadly, despite excellent committed performances, it was not to be.

The best aspect of the evening comes from the work of the performers on stage and in the pit. ENO has assembled a very strong line up of familiar faces for this premiere and they give the work everything. I particularly enjoyed Sophie Bevan's Hermione, Samantha Price's Perdita and Neal Davies (doubling effectively as Antigonus and the Shepherd) but there isn't a weak link. The ENO Chorus are musically strong, though not always well enough directed. In the pit the ENO Orchestra under the composer is on fine form, particularly in the many exposed solo passages, though I did think he wasn't always sufficiently careful about the balance between pit and stage.

Friday 3 March 2017

My Country at the National, or, A Limited Form of Theatre

Note: This is a review of the third performance on Thursday 2nd March 2017. No press night is listed in the NT brochure.

I haven't missed a main stage NT production since 2011. It was for that reason alone that I booked for this show. The thought of having to relive the EU referendum as theatre did not remotely attract me. Nor did the prospect of another issue play which, in my recent experience, tends to produce one sided lectures. To my considerable surprise, this show does have things to recommend it, but in the end it is limited in scope and I'm not convinced of the value of the exercise in this form.

I did hate the opening in which Penny Layden's Britannia insists on explaining both the show and the presence of the audience. I've seen this kind of device countless times and I'm sick of it. Just do the play and let the audience react as they will. If it's a good show we'll listen, but you will get nowhere, at least with me, by ordering me to do so – indeed you will have a precisely opposite effect.

Hamlet at the Almeida, or, Overly Ambiguous

In advance of this show I was not optimistic. A 3hr 45min run time did not inspire confidence especially after the same director's overlong and unconvincing Oresteia. I have not generally been convinced by Robert Icke's work, and the Almeida's recent form has been poor. Fortunately, there are some marvellous things in this production but for me, finally, it was unsatisfying.

The production itself is rather simpler than some of Icke's recent efforts. We are in modern times – this produces the occasional jarring effect between elements of text and setting. The guns are a mistake, as is nearly always the case in Shakespeare, for the simple reason that they can rarely be fired – it is telling that Icke has to revert to swords for the final fight, and the television news broadcasts are a familiar and indifferent device.

Thursday 16 February 2017

Beware of Pity at the Barbican, or, Technically Impressive (if Familiar) but Emotionally Cold

Note: A belated review of the performance on Sunday 12th February 2017

My past experiences with those involved in this production have been mixed. I thought Complicite's The Master and Margarita was remarkable. I had mixed feelings about Simon McBurney's The Encounter, and I was not impressed by the Schaubuhne Berlin's Richard III (touring alongside this show and featuring some of the same cast). As I seem to be saying depressingly often these days other critics, and social media opinion, have largely raved about this one but it left me cold.

As a staging it reminded me strongly of The Encounter. Although some scenes are partially staged (usually in lighted space centre stage) and there is some use of props and the wearily familiar projections around the sides and to the back, far too much of this show consists of people delivering text into onstage microphones. As a radio play this would work better, as theatre, for me, it had an alienating effect which the show never transcended. A similar problem bedevils the adaptation (by McBurney and colleagues). I haven't read the book, but other reviews suggest that the adaptors have maintained the narrative style – wherein the older Hofmiller recalls the experience of his younger self. There are two issues here. First, because the narration is constantly telling you how people feel and what to think about things there is little room for the viewer to use his or her own imagination – like far too much theatre at the moment there is a lecturing element. But secondly, and more seriously, on too many occasions the narration drags on (there is also not enough variety of delivery) with insufficient visual accompaniment. On a radio, where you have to imagine the scene from the words this might work quite well – on a stage cluttered with actors sitting at their microphones there is a constant unconvincing divorce between text and visuals.

Thursday 9 February 2017

Hedda Gabler at the National, or, “Why are you talking like this?”

I'll begin by admitting to three possible biases. Firstly, I've been unimpressed by the last two van Hove shows I've seen (Kings of War at the Barbican, Lazarus at King's Cross). Secondly, I am currently generally dissatisfied with the National Theatre which under the Norris administration is, in my view, falling short too often of the standards it should attain. Thirdly, despite many attempts I have never really managed to get on with Ibsen. It may be that one or some combination of all of those three issues and not the flaws of this particular show explain why it failed to wow me.

Ivo van Hove and his set designer Jan Versweyveld set events in one large, unfurnished room. I like to have an aisle seat and, in advance, I was rather staggered that somebody could have managed to direct in the Lyttelton in such a way that side Stalls have to be sold at restricted view – in fact there was scarcely any visible effect. The problem instead is primarily one of sound. In consequence, I assume, of the bare nature of the playing area, everybody sounds, most of the time, as though they are shouting. This badly undermines the finding of nuance in the drama – because the performers start, or it sounded where I was sitting as if they start, by shouting – as relationships fray there is nowhere vocally for people to go. Related to this is a second problem of emotionless delivery – having seen several of these performers give fine performances in very different roles I assume this to have been at van Hove's direction. It becomes particularly apparent after the interval leading me to increasingly wonder whether van Hove actually thinks any of the events are taking place at all. Van Hove also seems determined to make motivations as clear and in the audience's face as possible. Ruth Wilson's Hedda is so hostile to her husband (and indeed everyone else) from the first scene that, again the play gives itself nowhere dramatically to go.

Tuesday 31 January 2017

Love's Labour's Lost/Much Ado About Nothing at the Haymarket, or, An Undeserved Transfer

In advance of these performances I was looking forward to them. I hadn't seen Love's Labour's Lost since Ian Judge's fantastic 1993 RSC production, and Much Ado is very close to my heart. Sadly it proved to be a thoroughly disappointing day featuring uninsightful direction, weak casting and poor verse speaking.

Christopher Luscombe has chosen to set the plays on either side of the First World War. Thus Love's Labour's Lost ends with the four men going off to the front, and Much Ado About Nothing begins with their return. In the case of Love's Labour's Lost this is especially unfortunate for someone like myself who saw Judge's production. In that case, the hint of what is to come was done with great subtlety – simply with a dimming of the lights and the distant sight and sound of the guns in Flanders. Luscombe forces the point, by bringing the quartet of men back on in their uniforms and loses the punch of the moment as a result. In Much Ado, with the exception of Don John and Dogberry there is really no sense of any of the other characters having been through the horrors of the conflict. Dogberry does appear as if he might be both mentally and physically injured but the way in which this is turned into a subject of mockery is frankly disturbing and, I finally felt, inappropriate. As an aside there is something similarly troubling about the way all the lower class characters are afforded regional accents.

Sunday 29 January 2017

Mary Stuart at the Almeida, or, Ultimately Untrusting of the Audience

Note: A belated review of the matinee performance on Saturday 21st January 2017.

Regular readers will know that I have not been a fan of recent work at the Almeida, or of Robert Icke's work as a director. As a result I was not optimistic in advance of this performance. There are some strong aspects to this show, but overall I found it a more mixed experience than many.

Icke chooses to set the work in an unspecified modern time and place. That's to say although the script keeps all the stuff about prisons, England/Scotland etc. there's really nothing in terms of the almost bare circular stage to help to make that concrete. The show gets away with this in the scenes at the English court, it is rather more problematic in Mary's prison where the set completely fails to give any sense of oppression, and in the outdoor meeting at Fotheringhay where there is no assistance to the contrast the script evokes between prison and the outside world. Within this bare environment, Icke's movement direction is bizarrely inconsistent. In the English council scene and the intimate Leicester-Elizabeth encounter which follows it is excellent – adding point to the sparring councillors, sensuality to the duo. But elsewhere Icke is much less sure footed – his decision to have the queens sprawled on the ground for much of the famous encounter is a mistake, as is the choice to have the subsequent debate over the death warrant conducted by the participants charging round in circles while the set simultaneously revolves beneath them – it's distracting and ineffective. Icke also commits the familiar error of leaving a dead body (Mortimer) on stage and clearly visible to the protagonists of the next scene despite the fact that they are clearly not supposed to be able to see it or to know that character is dead, and of not getting people off stage swiftly enough at the start of other's soliloquys which they (those departing) clearly should not hear. On several occasions, I was reminded of the unsuccessful film close-up style Icke employed in his recent indifferent The Red Barn at the National. Here as there, I felt that Icke expects you to watch particular faces and places and therefore pays insufficient care to his onlookers, or to how people get off the stage. The problem is that, unlike in film where the director can give effect to such wishes via what he chooses to film, on stage that power is not the same.

Tuesday 17 January 2017

Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal, or, Greater than the Sum of Its Parts

The Royal Opera is retiring a few much revived productions these days, with the Schlesinger Rosenkavalier the latest to go. There's always a risk involved and, equally, it's clearly a necessary process. In this case picking Robert Carson, on the basis of recent work that I've seen, was a sound choice for a popular work which needs a revivable production. The Board can breathe easier knowing that his new version is revivable. Whether it has the endurance qualities of Schlesinger's is rather more open to doubt.

Carson has chosen to set the work in 1911, the year of its composition. This is most conspicuous in Act 2 and during the final moments of Act 3, elsewhere it is unobtrusive. Carson's best work comes in his direction of the principals. He draws a nicely judged masculinity from Alice Coote's Octavian which creates a really effective physical contrast between her and the other two women. He has thought, as so many opera directors don't, about the interaction between the leads – on many occasions in those powerful intimate scenes at the ends of Acts 1 and 3 he gives extra point to music and emotion by how he has them move. When the large bed was first lowered in Act 3, in a manner reminiscent of the recent Glyndebourne production, I was not convinced but Carson makes eloquent  use of it later – as the Marschallin stares at it we feel she is looking back to her Act 1 assignation with Octavian, and when Sophie draws Octavian to it for the final duet there's something lovely about it. Carson also seems to be interested in the idea of moments of this opera taking place as some kind of internalised dream. There is textual support for this – and it creates some effective pictures – the Marschallin listening to the Italian tenor at the levee as if to a record and at the same time remembering nights at the opera (it reminded me of The Drowsy Chaperone, a whole show based on a similar conceit), Octavian and Sophie's first duet in Act 2 where Carson contrives to make the whole room fall away.

Wednesday 11 January 2017

Love at the National, or, Ultimately Evading the Harder Arguments

In advance of this show I had considerable misgivings. Partly because my run of poor experiences at the National over the last year or so has given me low expectations. Partly because this has garnered considerable critical praise and I've disagreed with similar choruses on several NT offers lately. And partly because the advanced advertising made clear this was an issue play – and I have seen far too many poor plays in that category in recent years. As it turned out, some aspects of this 90 minute one act grew on me. There are some strong performances in the company and at times I was moved, but I found the end less powerful than others and I think this is a show which takes an easier way than might be apparent at first sight.

The setting is a shared flat with communal kitchen/living room and bathroom. Its inhabitants (so far as we are shown) are Nick Holder's Colin looking after his incontinent mother (Anna Calder-Marshall). The mixed race couple: Luke Clarke's unemployed and recently evicted Dean and pregnant Emma (Janet Etuk), plus Dean's two children (if I understood correctly Emma is not their mother and one of several flaws in Alexander Zeldin's script is that it is never established how this situation has arisen or what has happened to their mother). Finally we have two under-written refugees – Hind Swareldahab's Tharwa and Ammar Haj Ahmad's Adnan.

St Joan at the Donmar, or Ineffective Modernisation

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 7th January 2017.

The previous time I saw this great play was at the National Theatre in 2007 directed by Marianne Eliot and starring Anne-Marie Duff in the title role. Shortly before I attended this new version a debate arose in my twitter timeline about the appropriateness or otherwise of making comparisons to past productions/performances. I personally think that criticism to be meaningful needs benchmarks. In addition a great production of a work I've seen previously actually usually has the effect of making me forget, while I'm watching it, that I have seen those previous versions (a recent show that achieved this was the Opera North Billy Budd). But to return to St Joan. That 2007 NT production was outstanding. Josie Rourke's new version doesn't run it close, mainly because of a badly judged attempt at modernisation.

Recently I've felt that rather a lot of directors appear haunted by the Iraq war (Ivo van Hove's recent Barbican Shakespeare mash-up and Robert Icke's ineffective Oresteia at the Almeida spring to mind). This seems to result in a desire to make plays which weren't specifically dealing with that conflict overtly speak to it – the results in my experience are rarely effective. Rourke's St Joan falls into this trap. Robert Jones's set (bar the beginning and the end) consists of an enormous glass conference table and pastel covered chairs on wheels, backed by video display screens. The table is further placed on a revolve, and proceeds to do so for almost the entirety of the show – this device adds nothing. As on other occasions with this kind of narrowing of focus of geographically expansive work, the show loses a sense of kingdoms being at stake – not only because the world is so circumscribed but more significantly because rooms and costuming are so nondescript we could be pretty much anywhere in the modern world. No doubt that is the point, but it falls down when the script is so very clear about when and where we are supposed to be. Putting only Joan in more medievalish garb only further confuses the issue. The table also imprisons the actors – it hampers the ability to create effective tension in positioning and interaction. On occasion Rourke goes even further to deliberately hamper this – most notably in the bizarre decision to have Joan's meeting with the Dauphin staged as a video conference call.