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.’
Some of London’s high class women want sex but not with their unattractive, sometimes abusive husbands. A young man wants sex without commitment so targets married women. How to get the two together while keeping up the image of respectability? The answer: He pretends to be impotent.
The shock caused by the open and judgement-free discussion of sex, particularly by women, when it was first performed, is different to the shock The Country Wife causes today.
The play was first performed in 1675 but many of its elements could form the plot of a play for today, which may be why director Jonathan Munby has shifted the action to modern London.
However I can’t help feeling it would have been better to leave it in the context of its own time because the problem with updating the setting to modern London is not that people’s behaviour has changed- it’s that attitudes have changed. Men patronizing or abusing women doesn’t sit well today as a subject for a jolly romp.
Setting it in the time of the #metoo movement means it’s inevitable that we will question the sexist, controlling, even abusive, men more than we would if it was simply of its time. A production set in the modern day could still be funny but it would need to be darker than this in order to give us some acknowledgement that we are looking at these people through 21st century eyes. Instead, the production remains in Carry On mode, except for a hint that commitment-free sex may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Also, the plot struggles to work in a mode setting. Today’s well off women, if they want to cuckold their husbands, are usually independent enough financially and in lifestyle to be able to do it. Men or women who want sex without commitment only have to visit Ashley Madison or swipe on Tinder.
A lot of the verbal humour hasn’t aged well either but the cast throw themselves into it, especially Scott Karim as Sparkish, a would-be one-of-the-lads who thinks he’s much wittier than he is, and Susannah Fielding, hilarious as the naïve wife of the title. All the cast are excellent but Lex Shrapnel in the central role of Horner and John Hodgkinson as the vicious but foolish cuckold Pinchwife deserve a special mention. The laughter quota is helped by a lot of French farce style going in and out of doors.
Although I’m dubious about modernising the setting, I did like Soutra Gilmour’s black-and-white set and costumes- the kind of exaggerated outfits that you wouldn’t normally see outside of a fashion designer’s catwalk contrast cleverly with the naive country woman’s colourful everyday clothes.
It’s worth saying that, lthough The Country Wife seems like a celebration of sexual liberation, two of the characters, Alithea played by a pitch perfect Jo Herbert and Harcourt played by a very amusing Ashley Zhangazha, are driven by romantic love, suggesting that Wycherley didn’t think all men and women were thinking only of sex.
It was an enjoyable enough evening but I can’t see this production lingering in my memory.
This is the sort of night at the theatre I live for. Killer Joe was written by Tracy Letts, an actor who understands how theatre works and how to create great roles.
Despite all the sex and violence in the play, it is a moral tale. It’s reminiscent of Jacobean revenge tragedy with a nod to the claustrophobic overheated southern dramas of Tennessee Williams. In this case the claustrophobic set by Grace Smart is a convincing, trashy mobile home in a Texan trailer park. The intimate ‘cockpit’ of Traflagar Studio One really helps the oppressive atmosphere.
The literal trailer trash is very detailed and adds to the play’s recreation of the trailer trash lifestyle with its automatic switching on of Prozac television and Fast food diet. (One use of a fried chicken leg may have a permanent effect on how you view a bucket meal.)
The Smith family who live there are poor and ignorant which adds a layer of welcome humour but they could be anyone led by greed and a total lack of morality. They want someone close to them killed so they hire a hitman. Inevitably things go wrong and there are plenty of twists along the way.
In a series of scenes of sexual abuse which are uncomfortable to watch and shocking violence which is extraordinarily well done, we see what can happen when people are not controlled by morality or law.
Orlando Bloom is a revelation as a the smooth talking cold eyed sociopathic Joe. His sinister alpha male dominates the evening but each character is far more subtle than stereotypical trailer trash and every member of the superb cast seizes the opportunity to show a wide range of emotion.
Sophie Cookson is brilliant at walking the tightrope between being frightened of Joe’s sexual advances and, because she is used to being controlled, willing.
Steffan Rhodri as her father Ansel is a subtle mixture of bravado, cowardice, fear and excitement.
Her frantic, gullible brother Chris is the kind of person who always has a plan and the plan is never thought through. He’s a person adrift in a world he doesn’t really understand and that seems to be against him. He recognises feelings of love and regret but doesn’t know how to handle them. Adam Gillen conveys this with jerky body movements and looks of wide-eyed wonder as he realises what’s going on.
When we first meet her, she is confident, sassy which makes her downfall is all the more shocking.
Killer Joe is a unique theatrical experience. For example, there is no substitute for seeing someone hit in the face actually in front of you. The graphic fights directed by Jonathan Holby are incredibly well done.
Director Simon Evans keeps what could easily be an over the top grand guignol production under control right up to a beautifully choreographed violent finish.
The warnings about this production are many and it certainly is not for the faint hearted. On the matter of nudity, there are three instances. At the beginning, in one of the many humorous moments in the play, Sharla answers the door to her stepson Chris wearing only a top. Her pubic hair is clearly visible. When Chris complains, she responds by saying ‘I didn’t know who it was’.
Another occasion is a glimpse of Orlando Bloom’s bottom. By far the most shocking is a moment when Dottie is told to undress by Joe. He has his back to her but she is facing us the audience. It’s an unnerving moment which makes us feel complicit in this abuse, just as the Smiths have become responsible for much more than they bargained for in hiring this monster.
Finally a word about the excellent use of music by Edward Lewis, both his own unobstrusive mood creating music and his sinister use of known pop songs.
Killer Joe is a kind of pact with the devil and involves a sort of virgin sacrifice: the devil being Joe and the virgin being Dottie.
This week’s podcast features the best of the week’s openings, reviews of The Chalk Garden with Penelope Keith and Killer Joe with Orlando Bloom, and the latest theatre news including a new tour of Buddy, a new Alan Bennett play and a hip hop musical about the suffragettes.
1956, the year Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden was first performed in Britain, was also the year in which Look Back In Anger exploded upon the British stage and made all those upper middle class drawing room comedies like The Chalk Garden with their standard formats and neat conclusions seem irredeemably old fashioned. On the strength of this Chichester Festival Theatre production, you can understand why.
Which is unfair on The Chalk Garden because it’s an intelligent mysterious drama about mothers and daughters, old age, death and the human need for love. There’s also much consideration of old age and death which should put it right on the wavelength of Chichester’s baby boomer audience.
There was no pace to the production which wasn’t helped by Simon Higlett‘s enormous, naturalistic set. It was impressive but the actors spent a considerable time getting from a to b. I did go early on in the run and it may be that once the actors bed down into their parts, the pace will improve.
There’s a lot of witty dialogue cloaking the deep sadness of some intriguing characters’ but on this occasion, for the first half at least, all I heard of this witty dialogue was blah blah blah.
The epigrams scattered throughout which should rival Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward just didn’t flow with the conversation and ended up sounding far too pleased with themselves. I suspect Bagnold aspired to be like Wilde and Coward but lacked their ability to incorporate bon mots into dramatic dialogue.
We’re presented with an unhappy mistress of the house Mrs St Maugham, played by Penelope Keith, who is directed or rather misdirected by a fearsome unseen dying butler (for which read ‘old testament god’?). She can’t control her granddaughter nor can she make anything grow in her garden. Dame Penelope captures the Lady Bracknell-like imperious entitlement wonderfully but much less so the emptiness at her heart. Emma Curtis plays her troubled granddaughter with energy.
Then there’s her mysterious new companion Miss Madrigal, whose contained passion was beautifully conveyed by Amanda Root, understands both the granddaughter and the garden but is hiding something devastating from her past.
After a somewhat monotonous first half, the second half with its revelations and resolutions was much more involving. Even so, there is far more to be got out of this play and its characters than Alan Strachan’s production managed.
Laura Linney, Andrew Scott and Aiden Turner are among the big names opening in shows in June
Possibly the most anticipated opening in June is the West End debut of American actor Laura Linney in My Name Is Lucy Barton, a dramatic monologue based on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the complexities of family life. It opens at the Bridge Theatre on 2 June for a very short run.
Octoroon opens at at the National Theatre on 7 June. Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ play was described by The New York Times as ‘the decade’s most eloquent statement on race in America today’. Meanwhile the National’s The Jungle which was co-produced with the Young Vic transfers to the Playhouse Theatre from 16 June. ‘The Jungle’ in question is the one just across the Channel in Calais. The play tells the story of the refugee camp from its creation to its destruction. We meet some of the residents and learn about their stories, their hopes and their fears.
Beirut was written in the USA in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis. Alan Bowne’s play is a cutting examination of a society ravaged by a nameless disease. Although written at a particular moment in history, the play transcends the issues of its time and could be about the spread of any incurable disease. At its heart is a dark love story, questioning how society deals with the ‘abnormal’ in a society gone mad with fear and ignorance. Beirutwill be performed at Park Theatre from 12 June .
The Royal Shakespeare Company has two major openings in June. Imperium, Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ best selling Cicero books transfers from Stratford to London. It had great reviews when it was in Stratford including five stars from Michael Billington in The Guardian who called it ‘one of the finest achievements of the Royal Shakespeare Company in recent years’. It’s an epic drama set in turbulent times for the Roman Empire (it covers the assasination of Julius Caesar). Imperium is in two parts lasting a total of seven hours. Richard McCabe’s performance in the central role of Cicero was much praised. It opens at the Gielgud on 14 June.
Back in Stratford, the RSC are putting on a new musical. Miss Littlewood tells the story of the anarchic revolutionary of 20th century theatre Joan Littlewood. Her Theatre Workshop was responsible for many famous productions including Oh, What A Lovely War!, A Taste of Honey and The Hostage, and breathed new life into the then-derelict Theatre Royal Stratford East . This new musical of Joan’s life story, told with her own uncompromising candour, reveals a mighty love story at its heart. Clare Burt makes her RSC debut to play Joan Littlewood. Miss Littlewood opens on 22 June.
Andrew Scott, famous for television’s Sherlock and his recent stage performance of Hamlet, will be reprising his almost legendary monologue Sea Wall, written by Simon Stephens. Andrew Scott first performed this at the Bush Theatre in 2008. You can see it, if you can get a ticket, at the Old Vic from 18 to 30 June.
When it was performed on Broadway, Fun Home won five Tony Awards including Best Musical. The New York Times said it was ‘a poignant and raw exploration of family, memory and sexuality’. Now we get the chance to see it at Young Vic from 18 June
Cordelia Lynn’s new play One For Sorrow opens at the Royal Court on 20 June. During an attack on London, 20 year old Imogen joins a campaign offering refuge to victims. Before her family have even had a chance to have a reasonable discussion, John is at their door. He is different to them. He isn’t what they expected. And although they’d never admit it to themselves, he isn’t necessarily what they want.
Following his success with Red (here’s my review), Michael Grandage directs The Lieutenant Of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh at the Noel Coward Theatre on 23June. Aidan Turner, a great actor who is probably best known for baring his chest in Poldark, stars. If you know the films In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri or the plays The Cripple Of Inishmaan and Hangmen, all written by Martin McDonagh, you’ll know the kind of black comedy to expect. In this play, a republican Irish paramilitary goes on a rampage after his cat is killed. This is the link official Noel Coward theatre box office.
Dusty, a new musical based on the authorised biography of Dusty Springfield, will have its world premiere at Theatre Royal Bath on 23 June before touring to The Lyceum in Sheffield, Newcastle Theatre Royal and The Lowry in Salford.
Here’s the first of my weekly podcasts with news of shows opening in the coming weeks, new shows going on sale, reviews and the latest theatre news. In this podcast, there’s news of new shows with Laura Linney and Andrew Scott, new seasons in Bath, Newcastle and Stratford East, a review of Red with Alfred Molina and find out why Harry Potter And The Cursed child may have to close.
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