Women In Power at the Nuffield Southampton Theatres’ city venue is a new version of Aristophanes‘ Assemblywomen. It sticks pretty closely to the original story in which women take over the government from the weak and incompetent men.
Aristotle was having a go at the male politicians rather than seriously suggesting that women could run things so, while they turn the tables on the men by, for example, making it law that the oldest and least attractive women have first choice of male lover, they also introduce pure communism with disastrous results.
What’s great about this production is that women are in power on stage and off and they’ve produced a very entertaining show that makes some good points about male and female behaviour. It’s written by seven prominent women- Wendy Cope, Jenny Eclair, Suhayla El-Bushra, Natalie Haynes, Shappi Korshandi, Jess Phillips MP & Brona C Titley. Thedramaturg is Clare Slater and it has a cast of six women, directed by Blanche McIntyre.
In effect it’s a series of sketches, and perhaps because it’s the work of so many different hands, some work and some are stilted and clichéd but the ones that work are very funny. I should also say, in the tradition of Aristophanes, it’s also very rude, filthy even. I can’t remember ever seeing someone defecate on stage before and, while the scene goes on a bit too long, it’s cringingly convincing.
There is much fun made of men and their genitalia but also mockery of the women. In one hilarious scene the women vie for a young male’s attention by competing in droopiness and looseness, if you get my drift. In another, Lisa Kerr (whose all round performance skills are very impressive) plays a man who is following the law that he must give up all his possessions. He is persuaded to follow this to its logical conclusion by giving away his clothes, revealing a very funny nude body suit.
The songs which intersperse the production are excellent pastiches of well known musical songs and have uniformly witty lyrics. Whisper it, but they are written by a man Tim Sutton.
Despite the show’s unevenness, Women In Power is well worth seeing.
Flowers for Mrs Harris, a musical based on a Paul Gallico story and directed by Daniel Evans, is set in East London just after the end of the second world war. In a world of rationing and drabness, Mrs Harris has a dream of owning a Christian Dior dress. She goes about achieving this, mainly by being nice to people and bringing out the niceness in them.
There are set backs along the way but they are easily resolved within minutes. I think this is the essence of why I didn’t enjoy this musical. There is no grit, no tension, no sense that this won’t have (spoiler alert!) a happy ending.
Richard Taylor’s opera-style sung-through music is unmemorable. To complete a dull presentation, the sets are grey. Even when we relocate to Paris for the second act, they offer hardly anything in the way of scenery or dynamic changes to delight the eye. Only the Dior dresses and of course flowers provide colour, which I guess is designer Lez Brotherston’s point but you have to wait quite a while for those.
And just because it’s a musical, don’t expect any dancing.
On the plus side, there are some good characters well acted by a strong cast that includes Claire Machin, Joanna Riding and Gary Wilmot and especially Clare Burt who is brilliant as the self effacing, resilient Mrs Harris.
I admit I did feel like a miserable git when I saw people around me crying at the end.
The Goon Shows are classic radio comedy. Many of us have caught up with them through the eternal repeats on Radio Four Extra. Part of the appeal is the imagination that radio encourages you to exercise. That makes it quite a challenge to present three of Spike Milligan’s Goon Show scripts as stage shows.
Apollo Theatre Company get round that by making it seem like we’re the audience for a recording of the show. That way we can continue to imagine the explosions, falls from great heights and other crazy happenings.
The team of Julian Howard McDowell, Colin Elmer and Clive Greenwood make a good stab at imitating Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe. They are well supported by Tom Capper and musicians Rachel Davies and Anthony Coote.
What was brought home to me was just how well these shows were written. Yes, some topical references are sixty years out of date but Spike Milligan’s surreal humour seems as fresh as anything written today. I laughed a lot, even at the tongue-in-cheek corny jokes.
Nostalgia and laugh-out-loud comedy as Goons go on stage
And there was the undeniable warmth of nostalgia for those long departed comic geniuses and their familiar characters like Bluebottle and Eccles.
If the production is short of anything, it’s the sense of anarchy and spontaneity that Sellers and Milligan brought to the original recordings. You know, the corpsing and improvisation (whether genuine or not). To be fair, I did see this production at its first performance at Salisbury Playhouse and I’m sure that missing element will come as the cast relax into both the show and each other’s company.
If you want an evening of nostalgia and laugh-out-loud comedy, I recommend you see The Goon Show at one of its many stops around the UK.
The Goon Show is at Salisbury Playhouse until 8 September and is touring to Churchill Theatre Bromley, Yvonne Arnaud Guildford, Everyman Theatre Cheltenham, New Alexandra Birmingham, Brewhouse Theatre Taunton, Trinity Theatre Tunbridge Wells, Theatre Royal Winchester, Richmond Theatre, Lighthuse Poole, Blakehay Weston-Super-Mare, Octagon Theatre Yeovil, Princess Theatre Torquay, Haymarket Theatre Basingstoke, Theatre Royal Brighton, Key Theatre Peterborough, The Capital Horsham, Lichfield Garrick Theatre, Leatherhead Theatre, Norwich Playhouse, Theatre Royal Bury-St-Edmunds, Waterside Theatre Aylesbury, Grand Opera House York, South Hill Park Bracknell, Mercury Theatre Colchester, Theatre Royal Windsor, Theatr Clwyd Mold and Leicester Square Theatre London (11 November). For links to box offices, go apollotheatrecompany.com
Further thought: To be fair, theatre is also a medium that encourages imagination.
Exit the King is about how we come to terms with the shocking fact that we’re all going to die. As a character says in the play, ‘everyone is the first person ever to die.’
Patrick Marber has done a brilliant job both as director and as the adapter of Eugene Ionesco’s original play. It sounds contemporary and there are funny lines galore and there remains Ionesco’s intention that theatre itself with its exits and entrances should be a metaphor for life. The characters speak in a theatrical way and the King is told early on ‘you’re going to die at the end of the play.’
And as the King, Rhys Ifans is extraordinary. He goes through denial and anger and all the other emotions experienced by those who are dying. Physically he declines before our eyes. He sounds like one of those declamatory stage actors of old like Laurence Olivier and his physical comedy reminded me of Jerry Lewis.
He’s supported by Indira Varma as the cool first Queen, Amy Morgan as the not-so-dumb blonde second Queen and Debra Gillett hilarious as the irreverent servant. Adrian Scarborough and Derek Griffiths complete an all round superb cast.
My only disappointment was that the ending felt dragged out and momentum was lost.
Oh, and credit where it’s due to set designer Anthony Ward. So often designers are defeated by the size of the National Theatre’s Olivier stage but his solution is to have the small cast at the front for most of the play with a big crumbling palace wall behind them, then, in a gobsmacking ending, the set disappears and the whole grand canyon of the stage area opens up as the king dies and fades into eternity. It’s a theatrical moment of which one feels sure Ionesco would have approved.
Much as I loved many of the Nicholas Hytner era productions at the National Theatre, not least his collaborations with Alan Bennett like The History Boys and The Madness of George III, I did find myself thinking that for all the criticism of his successor, Rufus Norris is at least trying to jolt us out of our comfort zone.
In Allelujah!, one National Treasure writes about another National Treasure- the NHS. What’s the diagnosis?
It’s like Alan Bennett is giving us a bed bath. He covers all the familiar places but there are no surprises. He does have some strong words to say about the care of the elderly and the creeping privatisation of the NHS but his play feels so old fashioned.
It’s set in a geriatric ward of a small general hospital threatened with closure. And straightway there’s a problem. if the play was a patient, the doctor would say it’s confused about where it is. This is more like a care home than a geriatric ward (which by the way are called Care Of The Elderly wards these days). I didn’t believe for a moment there would be time for a nurse to organise a choir among the patients. This play is living in a world of its own, a world we might call Alan Bennett Land.
Like the elderly patients in the play, Allelujah! is confused, unfocused and old fashioned
The next symptom. Our patient can’t seem to concentrate on any one character. There are 25 and most are little more than clichés or ciphers. I just didn’t believe the kind, touchy-feely immigrant doctor (Sacha Dhawan) who ‘loves old people’, nor the neoliberal privatising consultant (Samuel Barnett) nor the yobbish work experience lad (David Moorst). The only one we get to know slightly better is the stiff ward sister, played by the excellent Deborah Findlay, who has a radical solution to the twin problems of incontinence and empty bed targets.
Repetition is another worrying symptom. The familiar Bennett humour is there but really it’s too familiar. There are some amusing lines but many more fall flat- I’ve gone beyond thinking the names of Yorkshire towns are funny in their own right, like the bathetic threat of Tadcaster.
Mood swings are another worrying sign of a patient who is no longer in control. There’s also an uncharacteristic burst of anger from the patient when the immigrant doctor berates us the audience for the way we have become as a country.
The best bits were when we went into the minds of the elderly patients and saw them as a chorus line performing singing and dancing of old songs. And that apparently was director Nicholas Hytner’s idea, not Alan Bennett’s.
I’m afraid this play felt very dated or, as the doctor in the play might say, the patient is suffering from old age.
So, I regret, it’s a Do Not Resuscitate from me.
Allelujah! by Alan Bennett is performing at Bridge Theatre London until 29 September 2018
Watch Paul Seven Lewis’ review on One Minute Theatre Reviews-
Mad Padraic is an Irish terrorist in the time of The Troubles, he’s too violent and unpredictable even for the IRA. But he loves his cat. When the only thing he loves is killed, Padraic wants vengeance. So begins Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant Of Inishmore at the Noel Coward theatre in London.
If you’ve only seen Aidan Turner in Poldark, you’ll be amazed at how hilarious as well as threatening he is as this man of extremes, flipping from anger to tears to a twinkling smile in the space of a few seconds.
He’s well supported by Denis Conway as his father Donny, Chris Walley straight out of RADA but hitting it out of the auditorium as the hangdog youth Davey, Charlie Murphy as Padraic’s equally crazy love interest and, in fact, all the cast. Every character is as thick as two slices of peat- but maybe we all are when it comes to understanding terrorism.
Martin McDonagh’s play is the blackest of black comedies. Written nearly 25 years ago but more relevant than ever, it satirises terrorists and how their distorted idealism, in which violence breeds violence, leads to a blind pursuit of their goals at the expense of morality or even decent human behaviour.
Michael Grandage’s comical production
The first act has some great funny lines. I particularly liked a description of cats as ‘full of themselves’ but it mainly serves to introduce us to the characters and set up all the fastmoving action of the second act. That’s when it really takes off with one violent incident leading to another in a series of twists so ingenious that that every so often they got a round of applause from the audience.
And what violence! Michael Grandage’s triumphant production is so exaggerated that everything becomes comical but even so, it’s still quite a shock to see someone’s brains splattered across a wall, live on stage.
It’s so totally over the top, it goes down the other side and over another top.
The Lieutenant Of Inishmore with Aidan Turner is at the Noel Coward Theatre London until 8 September 2018.
Here’s the YouTube review of The Lieutenant Of Inishmore with Aidan Turner on One Minute Theatre Reviews-
Fun Home is a perfect musical- a joyous story driven by mystery and tragedy; songs with clever lyrics and catchy tunes that give an extra depth to the tale; characters you believe in and care about.
The musical is based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. We meet Alison as she’s in the process of creating her book. It’s an attempt to look back and understand how she tackled coming out and how her closet gay father came to commit suicide. As a song from early on says, ‘I want to know what’s true, dig deep into who and what and why and when, until now gives way to then.’
Although there is a central tragic event, this does not stop it being an uplifting evening.
Two younger versions of Alison take us through episodes of her life as today’s Alison narrates and comments. All the cast are tremendous singers and actors- Kaisa Hammarlund as the nervous narrator Alison, Eleanor Kane as the gauche teenage Alison and on the occasion I saw it, Harriet Turnbull as the troubled small Alison, displaying a skill rare in an child actor.
Jenna Russell plays the suffering mother and Zubin Varla is tremendous as the complex father. There’s also great support from Ashley Samuels and Cherrelle Skeete.
The songs, composed by Jeanine Tesori with lyrics by Lisa Kron, are by turns humorous, heartbreaking and, most importantly, totally integrated into the story. Perhaps it helps that Lisa Kron also wrote the book.
A quick word of praise for David Zinn’s clever set which is like an extension to the father’s character. It’s detailed when it needs to be, spins round as scenes change, and is bleak and blank at appropriate times. And there is a wow moment late on.
There’s a lightness and movement in director Sam Gold’s tender, funny production that give the still moments huge impact.
Fun Home is a touching look at the relationship between parent and child and a wonderful celebration of being true to yourself. It’s the kind of evening I always hope for when I go to the theatre.
As shocking fact is laid upon shocking fact, it becomes hard to judge SS Mendi- Dancing The Drill Of Death as a piece of theatre, such is one’s outrage at how the British behaved towards black people from the Empire a hundred years ago. But Isango Ensemble have created a powerful musical to tell the human story behind the appalling facts .
Directed by Mark Darnford-May, SS Mendi is about the last voyage of a ship that transported black South African men to support British troops against the German army.
They see themselves as warriors going to fight but actually they will be digging trenches because one of the many appalling things we hear is that the black man is not allowed to raise his hand against the white man- even the German enemy.
The ship is sunk in an accident off the English coast and over 600 dead black South Africans become, as far as Britain is concerned, a footnote to the history of world war one. Until now.
The brilliant Isango Ensemble from South Africa bring to life what is actually an uplifting tale of the life of the people sailing to their doom. It’s a great piece of storytelling that could only happen in theatre.
This is physical theatre at its best, relying entirely on the performers. It’s a mixed gender company but it’s all about the acting so women take on male roles. On a bare stage with minimal props, they talk, sing, mime, play music. They tell individual stories with humour and compassion; they celebrate the men’s pride and humanity; they move fluidly together to provide a physical metaphor for their community as well as for the sea and the ultimate tragedy.
There were moments when some of the co-ordinated movement could have been tighter and some of the voices stronger but I don’t want to quibble in such an excellent production.
The terrible patronising racism is there almost from the start when, as the men are recruited, they are given British names to replace their real names. Although the colonial white racism is appalling, SS Mendi does make clear that, there was class and racism among all of humanity as well as a specific British white racism a hundred years ago. The white officer in charge himself faces class prejudice. The black South Africans are prejudiced against each other’s tribes and some initially won’t have anything to do with mixed race person they call a ‘half breed’. So it is more nuanced than a simple attack on British racism.
Despite the horrors, there was humour. I liked the interspersing of traditional British songs into the South African music which was terrific by the way- at times joyous, at others haunting.
Not all the attempts at humour work. Just prior to the sinking, a performer comes on stage with a fog machine. It’s one thing to want us to stand back and understand this is a story being told but that intervention did strike a false note.
I would have liked the play to have been a little longer so that more time could have been spent looking at the lives of these individuals chosen to represent the 600 dead, to give us more chance to connect which would have made the tragic outcome even more poignant.
But it’s a story worth telling and Isango Ensemble use the full power of theatre to tell it. I congratulate Nuffield Theatres Southampton on them to Britain to mount this important production.
SS Mendi: Dancing The Death Drill is performing at NST City until 14 July
Watch the youTube review of SS Mendi: Dancing The Death Drill on the channel One Minute Theatre Reviews-
On the face of it Miss Littlewood at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon is a celebration of the theatrical revolutionary Joan Littlewood. Actually Sam Kenyon‘s marvellous musical is a celebration of theatre, or at least of the kind of theatre that she pioneered with shows like Oh What A Lovely War and which is now long established.
Miss Littlewood imagines Joan putting on a production of her own life story. In her now well established theatre workshop style, there is no set, only a few props and an open stage. The storytelling is episodic. There’s a narrator in the form of Joan. It’s always clear this a play, being directed- by Joan. The actors take on many parts in a very egalitarian way.
In a touch which I’m sure Joan would have loved and which is still a little revolutionary, the casting in Erica Whyman‘s production is colour blind and gender blind. So while the story is set in a past age dominated by white men, the cast reflect today’s society: which means women play some of the male parts and black people play what were historically white people.
I suspect some won’t like it but it works, because good stage actors seize your imagination and take you beyond the literal facts of appearance, as happened in Joan’s productions.
There are some vivid characters, although we don’t get to know many of them in depth. Even Miss Littlewood herself remains enigmatic, although the narrator Joan played by the splendid Clare Burt displays charm, humour, emotion and ruthlessness (she changes the person playing herself six times).
Central to her story is the grand love affair between herself and Gerry Raffles, the man who made a lot happen on the practical level. Unfortunately there seemed little spark between them, charming as Solomon Israel’s Gerry is.
It’s not a full stage musical in that there is very little dancing and the musical numbers advance the plot with witty lyrics rather than moving melodies. However there is one showstopper magnificently led by Sophia Nomvete.
If you love theatre, by which I mean the whole art of theatre, you really must see Miss Littlewood.
Miss Littlewood is at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until 4 August 2018. To book, click here.
Here’s Miss Littlewood reviewed on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews–
Polly Stenham said in an interview that she wanted her new play to show the ‘dark heart of liberalism’ and to ‘go for the jugular’. So did the audience leave the the National’s Lyttleton Theatre reeling with shock? I’m afraid not. If Ms Stenham wants to shock the white liberal middle class National Theatre audience, she’s going to have to try a lot harder.
Julie, played brilliantly by Vanessa Kirby, is a privileged white woman in her thirties who’s clearly been given everything she’s ever wanted except love. She’s used to ‘taking’, including taking from her servants whom she sees as possessions.
She affects to talk to the servants as equals but doesn’t really see them that way. So the ‘help’, powerfully played by Thalissa Teixeira, thinks her mistress is her friend but gets a rude awakening.
Julie wants the chauffeur Jean, a nicely judged performance from Eric Kofi Abrefa, for his body but he has his own agenda, looking to use her as a step up society’s ladder.
So how much of ‘the dark heart of liberalism’ is exposed? I suspect we know there is still a big gap between entitled rich and exploited poor, despite the fact that we’re all on first name terms. There is no real shock in a relationship between a powerful woman and her male servant or between the rich who take and the poor who are taken from. Making the two servants black immigrants provides echoes of the western empires’ treatment of their colonies but a liaison between a white woman and a black man is hardly shocking.
There’s a wild party going on in the background of the early part of the play that uses the Lyttleton space well, but it’s very tame, as is the sexual coupling.
Perhaps what is exposed is that we don’t really care about people. Certainly the audience seemed to find the terrible treatment of a pet bird, which appears in Strindberg’s original Miss Julie, much more shocking than anything that happens to the human beings.
Vanessa Kirby, Polly Stenham and director Carrie Cracknell have created a monstrous but at the same pathetic character
We’re left with a portrait of two self-centred cold hearted people for whom it’s hard to feel any compassion. Tom Scutt’s wide open set has an appropriately bright, sterile feel.
Maybe if the play had been longer (it lasts less than an hour and a half), we could have found out more about the two main characters and then maybe we would have felt more. Maybe it just needed more development in a smaller space.
Having said that, Julie is worth seeing. In their portrayal of a privileged western woman whose blinkered life of drugs, drink and sex is on a downward trajectory, Vanessa Kirby, Polly Stenham and director Carrie Cracknell have created a monstrous but at the same pathetic character that is actually shocking. Vanessa Kirby is able to behave like a wild child while still showing the underlying brittleness. When Julie starts to realise that she is not as in control of the people around her as she thought and that her actions have consequences, Ms Kirby’s portrayal of her collapse is powerful.
There was a mixed response from the critics but no-one seemed overwhelmed by Julie.
Among a number of two star reviews, the Evening Standard said ‘there’s an impulse to provoke, but no real sense of danger’ and The Guardian said it ‘doesn’t make sense’.
Others gave it three stars but didn’t like the update. The Telegraph said the ‘vital sense of societal transgression piling in on top of psychological flaws is lacking’ and The Independent said, ‘the dramatic stakes are lowered.’
‘The play struggles to make the class transgression feel dangerous,’ said BroadwayWorld.
On the other hand there were some four star reviews. WhatsOnStage called it a ‘sleek, satirical update’ and The Stage described it as ‘brilliant’.
All eyes were on Vanessa Kirby in the title role. Radio Times said she gave a ‘virtuoso performance’. The Guardian praised her ‘genuine pathos’. ‘Kirby excels’ agreed The Independent.
The Observer’s three star review said, ‘as a brave and peculiar character study, this is extraordinary. Both witty and vicious. Vanessa Kirby’s Julie is panic and scorn.’