War Horse – Theatre Review

Pure Theatre That’s Heartbreaking and Uplifting

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National Theatre production of War Horse reviewed by Paul Seeven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews
National Theatre production of War Horse

If, like me, your first experience of professional theatre was a puppet show, you may be surprised that a story for children featuring puppets should be a huge theatrical hit.

Don’t let anything you’ve seen before put you off. The quality of the puppets in the National Theatre production of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse is extraordinary, a world away from Sooty with Harry Corbett. In the hands of their expert operators, the wooden frames are capable of the most subtle and realistic movements. Using the power of the imagination, it is pure theatre. I would recommend getting a seat close to the stage in order to catch all the detail.

Near the front, you’ll also feel right in the middle of the frightening battle scenes which, partly thanks to Rae Smith‘s imaginative design and Paule Constable‘s dramatic lighting, create the horror and chaos of war before your eyes.

The direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris and the script by Nick Stafford deserve credit for turning Morpurgo’s brilliant story, which was written from a horse’s point of view with children in mind, into a tale of love, courage and hope that resonates with all ages.

While telling the story of a farm animal enlisted by the army to take part in the First World War and his owner’s attempts to find him, it is also the tale of the common humanity of the people who were forced to fight each other.

Before we are transported to France, we experience wonderful heartwarming scenes conjuring up the pre-war age of a countryside where working animals were at the heart of farming.

War Horse is uplifting at times and, at others, heartbreaking. Make sure you take a hankie.

War Horse is touring to Melbourne, Sidney, Perth and Singapore until 3 May 2020. More details at www.warhorseonstage.com

An American in Paris at Dominion London

Gershwin’s Musical Is A Balletic Treat

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An American in Paris by George Gershwin at Dominion Theatre London reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis of one Minute Theatre Reviews
An American in Paris at Dominion Theatre London

Bob Crowley’s set design and Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography are a treat for the eye in An American in Paris but the story fails to engage the heart.

The sets are the real star of this ballet, now playing at The Dominion in London. Animations projected on to a backdrop recreate the process of drawing Parisian scenes in pen and ink which then become glorious colour. They are a paean to the city of light that inspired so many artists.

One of those artists is Jerry, the lovestruck GI familiar from the original Hollywood film. In many ways, this stage show improves on the movie. There are extra Gershwin songs and a more interesting story which emphasises the euphoria of Parisians liberated after the war and adds some love rivalry.

Yes, ’SWonderful to see pure ballet in a West End musical, but beautiful pliés and pirouettes don’t excite like the thrusting I-Got-Rhythm energy of more modern dance forms. By comparison, this year’s tap-based On The Town at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre was a constant excitement.

The leads Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope have perfectly adequate voices but their singing fails to attain the emotional heights of their superb dancing. Wheeldon is more impressive as a choreographer than as a director: the ballet soars but the storytelling is pedestrian.

What the show lacks is a Gene Kelly. I know it’s unfair to expect anyone to possess Kelly’s charming persona or muscular dancing skills but regrettably no other aspect of this excellent ballet is quite enough to make you forget that, for all his classical aspirations, George Gershwin was a product of the jazz age.

An American in Paris is performing at the Dominion Theatre London until early 2018.

See my video review below or at One Minute Theatre Reviews on YouTube

Common with Anne-Marie Duff at National Theatre

DC Moore’s Common- I liked this ‘dud’

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Common at National Theatre with Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo
Common at National Theatre with Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo. Photo:Johan Persson

How much notice do you take of theatre critics? These days there are not only the heavy guns of the professionals but also the hundreds of bows and arrows of amateur reviewers. So, it is possible to get a good consensus of what a theatre show is like and whether it is well or badly done, especially if there is a consensus.

Given the price of West End tickets, it’s probably sensible to do some research but in the end you must use your own judgement on whether the critic’s reasons for loving or hating a show stack up and whether they match your reasons for making a decision.

Theatres try to get you to book in advance so you’re committed before you ee the reviews. Star names, a ‘limited’ run, a special offer are all part of the incentive. For me, Common at the National Theatre is a case in point. I bought tickets in advance as soon as it was announced. I thought a new play by DC Moore was likely to be good, I wanted to see Anne-Marie Duff, an actor I admire, and the director Jeremy Herrin was responsible for the brilliant People, Places And Things and This House.

You can imagine how disappointed I was to see so many one star reviews, the worst of which said, ‘It has been cut from 3 hours to 2 hours 20 minutes, which is exactly 2 hours 20 minutes too long.’ The critics said the language was obscure and the story incoherent.

My experience over many years of theatre going is that I don’t always agree with the critics. They see a lot of theatre and get jaded. They have their prejudices. I never forget that the critics didn’t like one of my favourite musicals Les Miserables when it opened.

Common was a hit for me

It was a few weeks after the press night by the time I saw Common so the director may possibly have done some work on it. All I can say is, this didn’t seem like the ‘dud’ that I’d read about. I found the language easy to understand. It’s undoubtedly strange the way words and phrases are mashed up but I found it poetic and evocative.

I have some sympathy with the suggestion that the plot was hard to follow. Ostensibly it was about the enclosing of common land at the beginning of the 19th century to allow it to be owned and exploited by the few rather than the many. It also touched on the use of immigrant labour from the North and Ireland to carry this out on behalf of the landowners. The huge scale of the Olivier auditorium suggested that there were ‘big issues’ of capitalism and communism being explored.

Excellent acting by Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo

At its centre is an intimate story of a woman from a poor agricultural community struggling to make a success of herself in the sinful big city so that she could return to her first love. This did make the narrative confusing at times because all the contradictory things she did, whether in support of or undermining the enclosure of land, was to the end of winning the woman she loved.

Even so, it was not ‘incoherent’ and there were some outstanding theatrical moments of affection, manipulation and explicit violence. I found it a good evening of theatre helped by excellent acting by Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo.

So, my bow and arrow gives Common three stars and the thought that if it’s ever revived in the Dorfmann or another more suitable small scale venue, it could be earn more.

A version of this review appeared on the Seven Experience website

See my video review below or at One Minute Theatre Reviews on YouTube

Yerma starring Billie Piper at Young Vic – Review

Billie Piper’s Performance Of A Lifetime

★★★★★

Yerma starring Billie Piper at the Young Vic reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews
Yerma starring Billie Piper at the Young Vic. Photo: Johan Persson

I was worried that looking through the action at members of the audience in the opposite seats would be distracting. Fortunately there was no chance of that in the Young Vic production of Yerma, thanks to a riveting script by Simon Stone and a visceral performance by Billie Piper.

The traverse stage not only puts the audiences on two sides of the stage but designer Lizzie Clachan encases the acting area in glass. This means you are much more aware that you are part of an audience watching performers, as if in a goldfish bowl or on a catwalk fashion show. You feel you are examining what is being presented before you.

Simon Stone’s brilliant production

Before the play began, for a few moments it was difficult to tell whether you were seeing a reflection of yourself or different but very similar people in very similar seats. I fully expected the glass to fly out but it stayed in place. As a result, I felt I was looking at fish or lizards or some other animal trapped in a tank. This was enhanced by there being no exits for most of the performance (actors entered and exited between scenes under cover of darkness). Not to mention moments when Billie Piper fell against the glass and more.

Director and writer Simon Stone has updated the classic Lorca story cleverly. The central character is still a woman who wants a child but the emphasis has changed from her being pressured by Catholic society to her inability to fulfil her desire driving her to destruction. Billie Piper’s portrayal of a gradual descent from an intelligent, fun woman to someone driven mad by her inability to conceive left me shaking.

This is theatre at its best: a brilliant production serving the acting performance of a lifetime.

A version of this review has appeared on my website seven experience.co.uk

See my video review below or at One Minute Theatre Reviews on YouTube

Touch by Vicky Jones at Soho Theatre

Amy Morgan and Edward Bluemel in Touch, written and directed by Vicky Jones at Soho Theatre
Amy Morgan and Edward Bluemel in Touch, written and directed by Vicky Jones at Soho Theatre. Photo: ©Tristram Kenton

Funny Bone Not Touched by Touch

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Touch is said to be a sex comedy from the creators of Fleabag. There’s not much sex, it’s not that funny and it’s no Fleabag.

People often find turning thirty difficult. Touch written and directed by Vicky Jones is about Dee, a woman who’s reached that dangerous age and has found her provincial life so restricted that she has moved to the anonymity of London and embarked on a voyage of sexual libertion.

For a play ostensibly about sex, there is very little actual sex: no nudity, hardly any simulated sex and not even descriptions. Take spanking. Our protagonist wants to try it but we never see the act and later when she says she enjoyed it, we get no detail of what she felt.  Clearly not a play for the prurient then.

The much publicised association with Fleabag (“From the creators of the international cult hit Fleabag”) made me long for the kind of detail that made that TV show so real. Who can forget the opening of the first episode when her willingness to take part in a ‘taboo’ act and then her concern about the implications made it one of the funniest and at the same time filthiest three minutes in TV sitcom history?

Writer Vicky Jones is an excellent director

Much of the dialogue with Dee’s lovers is instead about relationships and an analysis of her motives, leading me to think this play is using sex and potentially ‘shocking’ references to sexual practices to smuggle in a story about a woman seeking liberation, a liberation that is ultimately gained not by using people for sex but by being loved.

Vicky Jones also directs and here she is on more solid ground. The messy bedsit with its broken toilet reflects the chaotic and dysfunctional nature of her life and there’s considerable humour in the cast constantly reacting to and navigating around it. The timing and physical comedy are excellent.

The problem is, the script isn’t funny enough. Amusing, yes, but sex and relationships are such fertile ground for comedy. Despite some laugh-out-loud moments, I was surprised to find there were long periods when I didn’t even smile.

Fine acting from Amy Morgan

I think Vicky Jones should have taken more time to develop her main character who for me remained too one dimensional. Perhaps the link with Fleabag, which started as a play, made me think I was was being used as an audience for a pilot for TV sitcom. I did feel that Touch would have worked much better if each encounter were a half hour episode in which we could really get to know and understand our hero.

That said, Amy Morgan is a fine comic actor and all the others gave good support. Edward Bluemel in particular excelled as an overconfident teenager and James Clyde was very droll as the older roué.

It’s good to see a play about a youngish woman who is defining herself rather than allowing herself to be defined by others, I just wish Touch had touched me more.

A version of this review has appeared on Paul’s marketing website Seven Experience and on the Daily Echo website

Forty Years On with Richard Wilson at CFT

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Alan Bennett’s Play Not Ageing As Well As Richard Wilson

It was a pleasure to see Richard Wilson performing in Forty Years On by Alan Bennett at Chichester Festival Theatre. Age and illness have not diminished his rich voice, his comic timing or his arched eyebrow.

Richard Wilson in Forty Years On at CFT
Richard Wilson in Forty Years On at CFT

Sadly Alan Bennett’s play hasn’t aged as well as Mr Wilson. It’s not that it doesn’t have plenty of funny moments but it lacks the cohesion it may once have had when the mishmash of recalled events led to the present day. Now it seems more like random sketches from a random period in the past.

Even the concept of an old guard defending traditions against a new radical generation expressed in the form of a retiring headmaster versus his successor seems dated with the liberal hegemony now under attack by neoliberals.

On the plus side, it was a splendid set by Lez Brotherston replicating a school hall and the actors playing the main ‘boys’ were strong and funny.

On The Town – Open Air Theatre – review

It’s a helluva show

★★★★★

On The Town

On The Town at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is a helluva show. From the moment the three sailors appear in the previously languid dock scene, it’s a joyous, colourful celebration of life. It could be called Seize The Day.

With the songs and sub plots of the original stage play restored, this is a much more explicit eulogy than the film version to enjoying the moment . Even the opening line of the opening song is more explicit- ‘helluva town’ instead of the bowdlerised ‘wonderful town’.

The sailors have 24 hours in New York and they want to make the most of it. There are three strong female characters who want to make the most of them. Lizzy Connolly as cab driver Hildy has her eyes on Chip (superbly played by understudy Jacob Maynard). When she takes him back to her place and sings I Can Cook Too, we don’t have any doubt what else she can do. And I don’t mean that she sings well and has excellent comedic skills.

Although World War Two is not played on in the heavy handed way of that other revived Gene Kelly vehicle An American In Paris at the Dominion, it is there in the background. The sailors have faced death and survived. The women are doing ‘men’s jobs’. Everyone is living for today.

Miriam Teak-Lee is a wonderful find as Claire, the anthropologist and fiancée of The Judge, who gets, in the words of her song, Carried Away when she meets other men, including Ozzie (Samuel Edwards). Making her professional debut, she sings and dances like the best of them.

Siena Kelly as Ivy, Miss Turnstiles, is another graduate of Arts Educational Schools making her professional debut. She has a great personality, making it clear why Gabey (Danny Mac) would fall for her. Danny Mac himself, yet another of the Arts Educational Schools alumni, acquits himself well. All three male leads present their characters as ‘nice guys’, straightforward, sensitive and sentimental, adding to the joy of this show.

The production never flags. Director and choreographer Drew McOnie has honoured Jerome Robbins’ original concept with some exuberant, dynamic dance sequences, including the most moving moment in the show, a secretive liaision between two men danced to Lonely Town, reflecting those more prejudiced times.

Peter McKintosh is to be congratulated for his industrial style set contrasting with his colourful costumes. The music by Leonard Bernstein has aged well. The lyrics by Comden and Green are fresh and amusing.

This was one of the most enjoyable nights I’ve spent at a theatre. I can’t imagine a better summer treat.

On The Town performed at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 1 July 2017.

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf with Imelda Staunton – review

Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill tear one another apart in front of our eyes

★★★★★

Conleth Hill & Imelda-Staunton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

You might think it odd that my wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary by seeing a play about a marriage breakdown. If you knew us, you’d know that one of the reasons our relationship has lasted over 20 years is that we both love theatre. We have shared many wonderful experiences that provide the cement of our marriage and theatre is right at the top of them.

When you’ve been married for a long time, you understand one another so well. You reach the point where either you love each other’s ‘perfect imperfections’ or they drive you mad. In Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, it’s the latter. Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill act like they really have been married for two decades. They tear one another apart in front of our eyes.

Even then, the brilliance of this play is that you can recognise their repartee as being similar to that of any established marriage. They know each other. They anticipate what the other is going to say, they get both frightened and excited when the other goes off-script. Okay, their marriage is falling apart but it is totally real as a married couple’s relationship.

I’m happy to say the relationship between my wife and myself is of the former kind but watching Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf was like seeing a Portrait Of Dorian Grey version of our marriage.

This play is a classic, well worth reviving and with a cast commensurate to it.

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? is playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London until 27 May 2017.

This House at Chichester – review

James Graham’s play shows politicians as human beings

★★★★

Steffan Rhodri & Nathaniel Parker in This House

James Graham‘s play shows politicians as human beings. It’s set in the 1970s when Labour was running minority governments and ends at the moment the Tories returned to power. But it’s not about Wilson, Callaghan or Thatcher. The play is set in the Whips’ Offices, the people who organise their party members’ voting.

These were dramatic times as Labour struggled to maintain its majority and govern. I would never have thought day-to-day politics could be quite so tense, especially when ‘pairing’ is suspended. This is the agreement whereby members absent through government business or illness have their missing vote cancelled by someone from the opposition not voting. To go behind the scenes and see that our democracy can only work by co-operation and compromise is an eye-opener, especially as our politics seems to be becoming more emotional, populist and confrontational.

Many people- some of the Brexit voters and Trump supporters, for example- seem to be rebelling against the perceived cosiness of the establishment. This House shows that there is a purpose to this comity. We only have to look across the Atlantic to see how the extreme differences between Republicans and Democrats have brought government to a halt after decades of working together.

But more than that, in This House we meet the real people behind the parliamentary constituencies. Plays and other forms of storytelling need characters and This House is packed with flawed human beings with feelings. They are sometimes bullies, sometimes desperate, and most movingly they show compassion. We see that in many cases these are people who care passionately about their beliefs but still respect their opponents and act honourably. Outstanding are Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker as the opposing Chief Whips

Politicians often try to show their human side in PR exercises- a pint down the pub or an appearance on Have I Got News For You– but a play like This House shows them as flawed human beings, just like you and me.

This House started at the National Theatre and more recently performed at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva where I saw it.

Unfaithful at Found111 – review

Powerful acting from Niamh Cusack and Sean Campion

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Sean Campion & Niamh Cusack in Unfaithful at Found111, reviewed by One Minute Theatre Reviews
Sean Campion & Niamh Cusack in Unfaithful at Found111. Photo: Marc Brenner

It’s a long time since I’ve seen a play on a traverse stage. Unfaithful at Found111 reminded me just how powerful it can be compared to the usual proscenium arch. As you know, a traverse stage runs the full width of the auditorium with the audience on two sides. Unfaithful at the temporary Found111 space was in a small room with barely 60 people facing the same number across the stage.

You might think that looking through the action at members of the audience in the opposite seats would be distracting and I guess it could be if the action were not riveting. Fortunately there was no chance of that. Instead you are much more aware that you are part of an audience watching a performance. In this respect, the arrangement is the same as the catwalk in a fashion show. You feel you are examining what is being presented before you.

This feeling that you were examining the characters was what made Unfaithful so powerful. This story about an older couple who, bored with their years of marriage and pushed by mid life crises, have liaisions with younger people who themselves are struggling to separate sex and love.

Ruta Gedmintas and Matthew Lewis complete a strong cast

Intimacy is the other characteristic of the traverse stage. With the audience divided in half, we’re all close to the action. Every twitch, every blink is visible. There’s no possibility of an actor taking a rest. Any lack of concentration will be noticed. The kind of actor that says acting is about learning your lines and not bumping into the furniture doesn’t stand a chance in this arena. The good actor who inhabits the part physically and mentally can form the strongest of bonds with the audience, as did the four actors in Unfaithful- Niamh CusackSean CampionRuta Gedmintas and my cousin Matthew Lewis.

Niamh Cusack in Unfaithful at Found111. Reviewed by One Minute Theatre Reviews
Niamh Cusack in Unfaithful. Photo: Marc Brenner

There is a moment when the husband of Niamh Cusack’s character makes a surprising revelation. We’re as shocked as she is. We know she can’t let her husband realise the full effect on her of what he’s said but we can see the slight widening of the eyes and ripple that goes through her body as she stiffens. On another occasion, Sean Campion rubs his nose. It’s a small gesture easily missed in a large auditorium but it matters because of what was said earlier about him.

Under the magnifying glass of a traverse stage the script and direction also have to be spot on. So full marks to Unfaithful’s Owen McCafferty for a script without a wasted word and Adam Penford‘s direction that ensured every moment was filled wherever you looked.

And a special word for Emily Hobbs for finding and adapting this temporary theatrical space and putting on a tremendous season.

Matthew Lewis and Ruta Gedmintas in Unfaithful
Matthew Lewis & Ruta Gedmintas in rehearsal