Pick of 2018 Theatre Shows

Promotional image of Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in Macbeth at National Theatre London
Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear in Macbeth at National Theatre. Photo: Jack Davison

I had a great year of theatre going in 2017. My best evening out was at the Soho Theatre where I saw Mr Swallow in Houdini. It was an hour of continuous laughter at its cleverness, clowning and sheer madness.

As for actual comedy drama, I really enjoyed The Lie by Florian Zeller at The Menier and James Graham’s Labour Of Love with Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig but outstanding for me was the revival of Joe Orton’s Loot at Park Theatre and The Watermill Newbury (where I saw it), now uncensored and funnier than ever.

The best musical I saw, Follies and An American In Paris notwithstanding, was On The Town at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre.

The best drama was the revival of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf with Imelda Staunton. In fact there were many great acting performances this year- I’d also pick out Imelda Staunton again in Follies and Robert Lindsay in Prism but the crown must go to Ian McKellen as King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Looking forward to 2018

If 2017 was a good year, 2018 looks like being even better. There are so many wonderful prospects that it’s going to be very hard for we theatre lovers to choose what to see. Here’s my choice.

And straightway I’m having to choose between two productions of Macbeth. My money’s on Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff at the National Theatre (26 February – 12 May) but there’s no denying the  prospect of Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack performing for the Royal Shakespeare Company (13 March – 18 September) in Stratford is hard to resist.

Promotional image of Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change at Hampstead Theatre
Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change at Hampstead Theatre

There are some fabulous musicals on their way. Tony (Angels In America) Kushner’s Caroline, or Change with Sharon D Clarke was rapturously received in Chichester. In 2018, it reappears in the lovely Hampstead Theatre (12 March – 21 April). Strictly Ballroom The Musical which I saw and loved a year ago at West Yorkshire Playhouse gets a well deserved London run at the Piccadilly Theatre (29 March – 21 July). The emotionally charged winner of five Tony Awards, Fun Home has its UK premiere at Young Vic (18 June – 1 September).

There’s a star studded production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party appropriately at the Harold Pinter Theatre (9 January – 14 April). When I say starstudded, the cast includes Toby Jones, Zoe Wannamaker and Stephen Mangan to name but three.

Promotional image of Carey Mulligan in Girls And Boys at Royal Court
Carey Mulligan in Girls And Boys at Royal Court

I thought Carey Mulligan was wonderful in Skylight so I’m looking forward to her return to the West End in a one woman play by Dennis Kelly called Girls And Boys which describes the unravelling of a relationship. That’s at the Royal Court (8 February – 17 March).

Alfred Molina reprises his 2009 success playing the painter Mark Rothko in Red at the Wyndham’s Theatre (4 May – 28 July). It will again be directed by Michael Grandage and will also star Alfred Enoch.

Near to where I live, Nuffield Southampton Theatres open their exciting city centre space with a new play by local lad Howard Brenton. The Shadow Factory looking at Southampton in the Second World War runs from 7 February to 3 March.

Happy theatregoing!

Nativity! The Musical on tour

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Nativity! The Musical- the birth of a Christmas tradition 

See my YouTube review on One Minute Theatre Reviews

Production photo from Nativity The Musical showing Simon Lipkin, Daniel Boys and children
Nativity! The Musical with Simon Lipkin, Daniel Boys and children
Photo Credit: The Other Richard

Nativity! is already one of the nation’s favourite Christmas films, now Nativity! The Musical is destined to become a fixture on theatres’ advent calendars for many years to come.

For this, we have to thank writer and director Debbie Isitt. She did the same jobs on the Nativity films but, before she went into moviemaking, she was a renowned theatre writer and director. And it shows. Ms Isitt knows what works on stage.

So she has taken all the elements that made her film such a hit: the story of the disadvantaged schoolchildren attempting to put on a five star nativity show against all the odds, the memorable characters, the upbeat songs like Sparkle And Shine and Nazareth. Then she’s added many more songs (co-written with Nicky Ager) and some scenes that are pure theatre, such as a satirical number about Hollywood and the nativity show itself,  and turned it all into perfect theatrical entertainment.

You smile all the way through and come out beaming like a red nosed reindeer.

Debbie Isitt knows how to create a hit

This touring production, which I saw at Leeds Grand Theatre, is also blessed with an excellent cast. Simon Lipkin is very funny as the wildly enthusiastic man-child Mr Poppy. Daniel Boys as Mr Maddens finds the same combination of inner sadness, quiet determination and basic niceness that Martin Freeman found before him.

And the children, on whom the show stands or falls, are disciplined, well rehearsed and a total delight- the icing on the Christmas cake.

A bit of sentimental light entertainment is just what you need in the deep midwinter but there’s more to Nativity! The Musical than that. It has something to say about the importance of inspirational teachers, it captures the spirit of Christmas and it’s faultless theatre. Only a Scrooge wouldn’t love it.

Nativity! The Musical is performing at the Eventim Apollo London for Christmas 2018. In autumn 2019, the production will visit Wolverhampton Grand, Aylesbury Waterside, Canterbury Marlowe, Wales Millennium, Theatre Royal Plymouth & Southampton Mayflower. 

Here’s my YouTube review-

Amadeus at National Theatre – Review

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Bold & Ambitious Production of Peter Shaffer’s Play

Click here for my review on YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Adam Gillen & Lucian Msamati in Amadeus at National Theatre
Adam Gillen & Lucian Msamati in Amadeus at National Theatre Photo: Marc Brenner

National Theatre designers abhor a vacuum. Faced with the big space of the Olivier and Lyttleton auditoria, they feel the need to fill them with sets that dominate and slow down the plays.

Not so Amadeus. The stage is filled, but with people, mainly an orchestra. So Mozart‘s sublime works literally take centre stage, not to mention Simon Slater‘s wonderful additional music with its jangling jarring sounds conveying the states of mind of the two protagonists.

Chloe Langford keeps the sets simple and nothing distracts- appropriately a simple piano dominates every scene.

Brilliant acting by Lucian Msamati & Adam Gillen

The two central roles of Salieri and Mozart are acted brilliantly. Lucian Msamati is the wily member of the establishment. You can feel his anguish at understanding the greatness of Mozart’s music while being denied the talent to match it. You understand why he wants to bring his rival down.

It’s a difficult trick to pull off but Adam Gillen communicates the great composer’s annoying child-like innocence while still exuding the power of his genius.

There is so much in Peter Shaffer‘s play that a revival is more than merited: the frustration of recognising great art but being unable to create it oneself; the ease with which a cynical dissembler can destroy a naive open person; that Man tests God’s achievement rather than the other way round; that immortality can be obtained through evil or through association with the immortal; and much much more. All of which is brought out vividly in this bold production directed by Michael Longhurst.

Amadeus returns to the National Theatre  from 11 January to  24 April 2018.

This review, originally written on 21 February 2017, was revised on 19 January 2018. A version has appeared on the Southampton Daily Echo website.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

Take a chance on this love story with Anne-Marie Duff & Kenneth Cranham

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Click here to see my review of Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Anne-Marie Duff & Kenneth Cranham in Heisenberg The Uncertainty Principle by Simon Stephens at Wyndhams Theatre London
Anne-Marie Duff & Kenneth Cranham in Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

I predict you’ll like Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle but whether you do or not depends on so many factors. An evening at the theatre is unpredictable, like the relationship that’s the subject of Simon Stephens’ new play.

Don’t let the title of put you off. It isn’t about quantum mechanics or science generally, it’s a charming love story, albeit an unlikely one.

The title does hint that it’s not a stereotypical romantic comedy designed to tug at our heartstrings. It’s more of a study of how two apparently incompatible people- a wild forty-something woman and a buttoned-up old man- start by thinking they want one thing to achieve contentment but end up finding something else is what they needed.

Anne-Marie Duff & Kenneth Cranham are masterful

The characters are complex and contradictory. The woman even contradicts herself in the same sentence. She is over the top with confidence when she feels in control, falls apart when she doesn’t. The man is outwardly calm but he cries without warning.

As in a good mystery story (or the science of quantum mechanics), you sense that much lies between the lines of the script. It is crammed with clues and hints about their characters and why they might be attracted. As the man says of great music, it exists in ‘the spaces between the notes’.

This calls for masterful, nuanced acting and that’s what we get from Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham. Listening to them is like hearing a violin and cello recital.

Nodding to Heisenberg’s theories about atomic particles, the play shows that we can only ever think we know people and we can’t predict how they will behave. There’s a lot to savour in noticing how your first impression of the characters- her unbearably loud, him boringly quiet- changes as you get to know them and see them react to each other. Add to which, there is pathos in the losses that have shaped their lives, plus a lot of humour, particularly about getting old.

Marianne Elliott’s brilliant production

Bunny Christie’s fabulous minimalist white set reinforces the sense in Marianne Elliott’s brilliant production that we are observing a scientific experiment. It has no scenery or props to distract us. With each scene, the colour of Paule Constable’s lighting changes and the proscenium arch aperture alters from square to letterbox to oblong to almost crushing the woman at one point. This all affects our perception of what’s happening.

The play and the way it is presented inevitably make one think about the art of theatre. Heisenberg, in a different theory, talks about scientific experiments and the way atomic particles behave differently when observed. As an audience, we are observers. You may react differently to the person sitting next to you. Your enjoyment will be affected by that night’s audience (as will the performance). Like atomic particles, these two people’s fictional lives are changed unpredictably by each other but also by the audience’s observation of them in a play.

Simon Stephens has wrapped an unexpected love story around a fascinating look at the way theatre itself is an unpredictable experience.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is at Wyndhams Theatre, London, until 6 January 2018. Click here for tickets for Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle.

Below is the review from One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel

Things I Know To Be True – Touring

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
Scene from Frantic Assembly's Things I Know To Be True
Things I Know To Be True

Click here to see my review on YouTube channel

This review was commissioned by Southampton Daily Echo. Here’s a slightly longer version:

It is a tribute to Things I Know To Be True, which I saw at Nuffield Theatre Southampton, that, in all my evenings at the theatre, I can’t remember an audience more quiet than this one. Even coughs and sneezes were subdued in this engrossing and at times visceral production. The stillness was broken only by periodic laughter and widespread sobbing at the end.

This was all the more surprising because a significant portion of the audience were school/college parties and past experience suggested I was in for an evening of chatter and mobile phones.

Co-produced by Frantic Assembly and State Theatre Company South Australia, the play presents us with a close, loving family comprising middle aged parents and their four grown up children.There follow revelations about each child and about the parents’ relationship that stretch the family ties.

Frantic Assembly adds physical theatre to riveting play

The kindly father and tough mother, played by the excellent Ewan Stewart and Cate Hamer, have to come to terms with the fact that, once children grow up, they are their own people, not ‘better versions of themselves’, as the father puts it. Your family may not be exactly like this one but you will recognise the situation and the complex relationships.

From the start we are aware that a tragedy is looming and the question of what business is going to be left unfinished hangs over all that happens. There are perhaps too many shocks crammed into two hours but Andrew Bovell’s writing, at times poetic and at others earthy, is nearly always believable. Many of the most touching moments are the quieter more domestic conversations.

Co-directed by Scott Graham of Frantic Assembly and Geordie Brookman of State Theatre Company South Australia, the production has two distinct styles. On the one hand, there is a riveting naturalistic drama with a minimal set that concentrates on the acting- and that acting is very good. Kirsty Oswald is moving as the fragile, barely adult Rosie still learning about life. Matthew BarkerSeline Hizli and Arthur Wilson play the older siblings.

On the other, there’s the physical theatre that Frantic Assembly are famous for. It was less evident than I expected. Once in a while actors moved furniture to accommodate others. On a few occasions they lifted someone into the air. This may have been intended to illustrate their inner emotional support and understanding of each other.

On this occasion, tender as the moments of physical theatre were, they sat uneasily alongside a naturalistic drama.

Things I Know To Be True continues at Nuffield Theatre until Saturday 18 November then at The Lighthouse Poole (21 – 25 November), Lyric Hammersmith (11 January – 3 February 2018) and Bristol Old Vic (6-10 February 2018).

Click here to read the review on the Daily Echo website.

Quiz at Minerva Theatre Chichester

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Click here to see my review of Quiz on YouTube

Paul Bazely, Gavin Spokes & Keir Charles in Quiz at Chichester Festival Theatre
Paul Bazely, Gavin Spokes & Keir Charles in Quiz at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

James Graham’s Comedy Puts The Media On Trial

When you watch one of my reviews on YouTube, is how I look the main thing you remember? Does my actual review only account for 7% of the impression I make on you?

According to Quiz, that’s what MPs were told when parliament was first televised. Television, it argues, blurs appearance and reality because it’s a visual medium and an entertainment medium. The assertion that in today’s world image is more important than facts runs through James Graham’s latest play which has opened in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre and may well follow This House, Ink and Labour of Love into the West End.

In Quiz, we learn about the history of popular ITV quizzes and their connection to the commercial nature of the channel thence to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire via pub quizzes throwing in along the way the televising of parliament and the way the dangers of news becoming entertainment.

These many facts sprinkled throughout the evening distract from what is at heart an amusing, interesting story about the trial of Charles and Diana Ingram and one other for defrauding the makers of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire of a million pounds.

The trial wasn’t televised but Quiz is a warning about what might happen if courts cases were on TV. Television is a visual medium that values appearance above facts and entertainment over reality. And, appearances are deceptive.

The quiz show gives the appearance of being fair but may not be. Major Ingram appears to have cheated but maybe he didn’t.

Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street are splendid

Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street as the Ingrams did a splendid job of keeping us guessing as to what was appearance and what was true. Were they more clever than they appeared to be or more stupid?

Keir Charles provided excellent impressions of an unctuous Chris Tarrant and numerous other game show hosts.

Just as politics and the news (and by extension, because of social media, many people’s whole lives) are said to have become entertainment, the trial is turned into a show.  It is presented as a two act theatrical entertainment with act one delivering the case for the prosecution and act two the defence. Laying it on thicker, Daniel Evans‘ production is also set in a TV quiz show studio. Nearly everything on stage is filmed and shown on monitors. We were even given Millionaire style voting buttons on which we can say whether we think the defendants are guilty or not guilty.

If placing much of the action inside a cubic frame that blocked one’s view was meant to have a Brecht-style alienating effect,  the production succeeded too well. I simply saw it as a gimmicky production that added to the bewilderment I was already feeling from being bombarded with so many facts (or fictions) about television.

As a result, it is hard to get involved in the characters as real people or the story or the interesting issue of television blurring image and reality.

James Graham has had a series of winners with Our House, Ink and Labour of LoveDaniel Evans has put on a victorious first season at Chichester. Neither of them have hit the jackpot with Quiz, but that’s entertainment.

Quiz runs at the Minerva Theatre until 9 December 2017. It transfers to the Noël Coward Theatre on 31 March 2018 where it will run until 16 June

Further thoughts on Quiz

Quiz is a warning against televising one of the last parts of public life that is still not filmed, arguing that the media will turn justice into entertainment. Whether it makes a convincing case, I am unsure.

The trial of the ‘coughing Major’ inevitably excited the media in the way that most don’t because it involved a hugely popular TV programme and massive amount of money. Making it carry the burden of showing that television turns everything into entertainment is asking too much of it.

Courts are already a form of theatre in which judges and advocates play to their audience. Juries have a tendency to decide verdicts on appearances rather than evidence whether cameras are present or not.

I don’t believe television has made as much difference to politics as James Graham thinks. It seems to me politicians were aware of the importance of image long before the televising of parliament: Harold Wilson put a pipe in his mouth for public appearances; President Roosevelt made sure he wasn’t seen in his wheelchair. In fact, leaders have been image conscious for centuries as evidenced by the work of Holbein, Van Dyck and others.

The news media have been inventing stories for most of their existence. Hollywood decided early on to encourage media interest in the lives of their actors, thus making their often fictional offscreen lives an extension of the onscreen entertainment.

Labour Of Love with Martin Freeman & Tamsin Greig

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Martin Freeman & Tamsin Greig sizzle in James Graham’s comedy

Click here to watch my YouTube review of Labour Of Love

Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig in Labour of Love reviewed by One Minute Theatre Reviews
Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig in Labour of Love. Photo: Johan Persson

Don’t be put off by ‘Labour’, James Graham’s comedy Labour Of Love is about ‘Love’. Among other things, it is a love letter to the Labour Party but you don’t need to be a Labour supporter to appreciate this scintillating comedy.

It’s about an MP played by Martin Freeman and his agent played by Tamsin Greig. They represent two sides of Labour- the moderniser and the traditionalist, the centre left and the hard left, the Blairite and the Corbynista. They may disagree but they both love the cause. Like Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing, they argue but they know they need each other.

There’s a chemistry between Tasmin Greig and Martin Freeman that, thanks not only to their comic acting skill but also James Graham’s script, evokes almost continuous laughter.

In fact, for me, their scenes together are as funny as their equivalent in Shakespeare’s comedy about love. They use the same insulting repartee that only true friends can get away with. I loved them.

Sarah Lancashire was originally cast as the agent and I don’t doubt she would have been brilliant but I cannot imagine anybody performing this part better than the wonderful Tamsin Greig. Her comic timing and expressions are perfect.

James Graham’s script is witty, clever & moving

The lead characters are no mere ciphers- you feel their human joy and pain at the fate of their party. When they’re alone together, this play sizzles. There is a noticeable drop in the temperature whenever other more stereotypical characters appear but those scenes still have plenty of humour and hold the interest.

The play, directed by Jeremy Herrin, takes us on a trip through the last 25 years of the Labour Party- its triumphs and its disappointments- as well as showing that the familiar pattern of internal conflict was set from its foundation. The location is always the same- the local party office. We start with the most recent election and in a series of scenes go back to the MP’s first election. In the second act we go forward revisiting the same scenes but learning more about what happened.

Lee Newby’s set, by the way, is also inventive, appearing to be the same with subtle changes for each historical period but in fact alternating two identical sets to give the crew time to change the props.

The concept of perceiving something differently by seeing it backwards is important to the theme and outcome of the play. James Graham has created a script that is not only witty but clever, moving and, dare I say it, educational.

This House, Ink, Quiz, Labour Of LoveJames Graham is on fire!

Labour Of Love can be seen at the Noel Coward until 2 December (Click here for info & tickets).

The Lie at The Menier – Review

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Alexander Hanson & Samantha Bond Excel In Zeller’s Comedy

Alexander Hanson and Samantha Bond i n The Lie by Florian Zeller at The Menier Theatre
Alexander Hanson and Samantha Bond in The Lie by Florian Zeller at The Menier Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Watch my review of The Lie at One Minute Theatre Reviews on YouTube
Is honesty the foundation of a strong marriage or should you lie in order to preserve your relationship? The former is ideal, the latter inevitable: that seems to be premise of The Lie, Florian Zeller’s new play at Menier Chocolate Factory.

A couple may or may not be having affairs. The fast-paced 90 minutes without interval is a constant cat-and-mouse game between them and with us the audience. Truths are stated that may be lies and lies that may be true. As an audience, every time we think we know where we are, the ground disappears from under us and we fall upon the next truth or deception.

Just to rub in that we really didn’t know what was going on, there is a clever moment when you think the play is finished and you get an extra scene in which you find out you really had no idea.

Tony Gardner and Alexandra Gilbreath are the epitome of French chic

Florian Zeller, as you may know from The Father, The Mother and The Truth, writes clever dialogue, full of tricks, and Christopher Hampton supplies a superb translation from the original French. To work, comedy needs pace and timing. Lindsay Posner’s production is fortunate in having a cast that couldn’t be bettered.

Samantha Bond’s facial expressions are to be treasured. Tony Gardner and Alexandra Gilbreath are the epitome of French chic. But it’s the facial reactions, the double takes, even the way he says ‘hmmm?’ that make Alexander Hanson the star of the show. You can see his character’s brain working.

This was an exhilarating evening, with many laughs and offering quite a bit of food for thought. It falls down through the lack of depth of its characters. And, although there is a more serious edge than in many comedies, the world of middle class marital deception is overfamiliar, the more so if you saw this play’s companion piece The Truth.

Since deception, of one’s self and others, is the foundation stone of comedy, The Lie should probably be even funnier than it is. Having said that, Florian Zeller slightly below par still provides an enjoyable evening.

The Lie continues at The Menier Chocolate Factory until 18 November 2017

Here’s my review on my YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

P.S. I love Menier Theatre but felt let down by the venue on this occasion. For the first time, I sat in the area of seating near to the air conditioning on the high numbers side. I asked for it to be turned off but it stayed on throughout the show. Consequently my neck and ear were subjected to an uncomfortably cold draught the whole time.