Thursday 29 February 2024

Nachtland - Review

Young Vic, London


Written by Marius von Mayenburg
Translated by Maja Zade
Directed by Patrick Marber

Jane Horrocks

Nachtland is an intriguing, brilliantly delivered examination of post-Holocaust German identity. 

Philipp and Nicola (John Heffernan and Dorothea Myer-Bennett) are brother and sister meeting in the house of their recently deceased father to clear his belongings.

Opening with typical sibling squabbles over who had cared the most for their father in his decline, their dynamic soon shifts on the discovery of a framed picture in the attic that on close inspection, is found to be one of Adolf Hitler’s early watercolour paintings. The drama quickly evolves into an exploration of base greed, as the siblings engage Evamaria (Jane Horrocks) to verify the artwork’s provenance with a view to realising its value, contrasted with the emotional agonies of Philippa’s Jewish wife Judith (Jenna Augen), who is appalled at the siblings’ crass materiality in their exploiting an artefact of Hitler. 

Marius von Maayerburg’s genius (expertly translated by Maja Zade) lies in his crafting of brilliantly worded arguments that never once fall into maudling or simplistic explanations, but rather outline the ongoing traumatic legacy of the Holocaust and its impact upon modern Jewish identity - and counterpointing this impact with the blunt disinterested disconnection of Judith’s in-laws.

The second half of this ninety minute one-act work introduces Angus Wright as Kahl, a would-be purchaser of the painting and Nazi sympathiser, who is found to be a vile misogynist. Throw in a small turn from Gunnar Cauthery as Nicola’s husband Fabian who contracts tetanus in picking out nails from the picture’s antique frame and the evening’s sextet is complete.

The writing is brilliant, the cast is flawless and as the evening evolves, occasional pockets of humour lead to a final act that is both harrowing and shocking. Anna Fleischle’s deceptively mind-bending set is the perfect complement to Patrick Marber’s assured and deft direction.

With occasional musical interludes ranging from Bowie to Beethoven and Mahler, Nachtland is outstanding theatre.

Runs until 20th April
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

Monday 26 February 2024

Cable Street - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music & lyrics by Tim Gilvin
Book by Alex Kanefsky
Directed by Adam Lenson

The cast of Cable Street

Not so much a Cable Street as a road to hell that’s paved with good intentions. Tim Gilvin and Alex Kanefsky’s musical is framed around a massive story, that of the Battle of Cable Street that saw thousands of Londoners join forces to halt Mosley’s British Union of Fascists’ march through the heart of London’s Jewish East End.

An ambitious conceit, but the show’s narrative however fails to capture the enormity of the Battle’s achievement, focussing instead on micro-vignettes that seek to wrap up most of the East End’s minority communities. The linking threads of an unconvincing romance and a contrived vengeful finale just don’t move one’s soul in a way that such a remarkable episode of history should command.

An ensemble cast play a multitude of roles and there are moments of excellence from most of the performers. Standout numbers in particular across the two acts come from Sophie Ragavelas, Sha Dessi, Joshua Ginsberg and Jez Unwin.

Gilvin’s rap numbers are frequently garbled and his lyrics too simplistic - that being said, his melodies for What Next, Let Me In and Only Words are charming.

Adam Lenson directs a piece that ultimately fails to reflect the immense humanity of its underlying historical grounding. The production also makes an offensive casting choice by placing an actor of colour in a fascist’s uniform.

Sold out for the entire run but check with the box office for returns.

Runs until 16th March
Photo credit: Jane Hobson

Friday 23 February 2024

Just For One Day - Review

Old Vic, London


Book by John O'Farrell
Directed by Luke Sheppard

Craige Els

In a fabulous musical tribute to the 80s, Just For One Day takes David Bowie’s lyric as a link back to the global phenomenon that was the Live Aid concert of July 1985 and the Band Aid single that had preceded it in Christmas 1984. For the over-45s in the audience it is an evening of unashamed nostalgia as hit after hit is pumped out from the outstanding onstage band and sung by a cast who are all at the top of their musical theatre game.

Disbeliefs need to be seriously suspended though, for while Craige Els offers up a decent Bob (Geldof) and Jack Shallo (vocally at least) a passable Midge Ure (younger readers please Google) the other characterisations don’t quite hit the spot. 

John O’Farrell’s book crafts a corny tale that follows composite fictional character, Suzanne, from her teens in the 20th century to a middle-aged woman today, looking back at the excitement of the concert in her youth. There’s also Amara, a relief worker working at the famine’s coalface in Africa who takes us through the horrors and the challenges of what the epic fundraiser was all about.

On the night of this review, understudy Kerry Enright stepped up to the role of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, bringing just the right of comedy to counter the gravitas and delivering the show’s one original number written for the theatre, a rap duet with her and Els’ Bob: Mrs T/Mr G.

Soutra Gilmour’s striking set is driven by gig lights encased in a floor-to-ceiling 3-sided video box. It’s a stark concept that works well, conveying the rushed and improvised aura that actually belied the brilliant execution of both Band Aid and Live Aid.  

The stars of the show however are unquestionably Patrick Hurley’s 6-piece band, with standout guitar work from Matt Isaac and Kobi Pham. These musicians have the unenviable task of recreating many of the greatest rock songs ever recorded and they do so sensationally. Their work alone is worth the ticket price.

Runs until 30th March

Thursday 22 February 2024

Hadestown - Review

Lyric Theatre, London


Music, lyrics & book by Anaïs Mitchell
Developed with & directed by Rachel Chavkin

The company of Hadestown

Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown is drawn from one of the strongest tragic storylines around: Orpheus’ love for Eurydice that draws him into the Underworld in his quest to rescue her from Hades’ grasp and return her to the mortal world. It’s a banger of a yarn and credit to Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin whose cracking songs and outstanding cast have breathed a bold life into this ambitious vision. The UK first encountered the show in its 2018 premier at the National Theatre. Now in the West End it’s a glorious fusion of a raft of musical styles, sung perfectly.

Dónal Finn and Grace Hodgett Young are the two doomed lovers. Both are magnificent with Finn possessing a gorgeously fragile tone that makes his number Wait For Me sparkle. Amidst the grown-up roles, Zachary James’ Hades offers a bass baritone the like of which is rarely heard in musical theatre. His is a towering performance of vulnerable cruelty. Gloria Onitiri is Persephone, wonderfully reprising the part from her time at the National, while in a sensational turn as (basically, narrator) Hermes, Melanie La Barrie cleverly weaves the tale’s threads together. Sung through, the show is an impressive performance from Tarek Merchant’s 7-piece onstage band. Rachel Hauck’s set design is ingenious - think Hell fused with New Orleans - brilliantly lit by Bradley King.

The show’s frustration lies in its crass shoehorning of a modern political agenda onto the Greek classics, with the narrative not being enhanced by the childishly oversimplistic That’s Why We Build The Wall that closes the first act.

But there is excellence on stage here and for what is (mostly) a bold piece of new writing, Hadestown is worth seeing.

Booking until 22nd December
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Tuesday 20 February 2024

Dear Octopus - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by Dodie Smith
Directed by Emily Burns

Lindsay Duncan, Billy Howle, Bessie Carter and Malcolm Sinclair

Dodie Smith’s 1938 play is given a glorious revival at the Lyttleton. Dora and Charles Randolph (spectacularly played by Lindsay Duncan and Malcolm Sinclair) are celebrating their golden wedding in their country home that has been the family base for generations as relatives including children, grandchildren and one great-grandchild join them for the weekend’s festivities.

The sensitive genius of Smith’s writing is to observe the dynamics between the couple’s four daughters and a son - and to extract from all of these relationships the tender complexities of love, embarrassment, shame and even loss with a language that while of its time and dated, remains just as poignant for the 21st century and which never once descends into mawkish sentimentality. A lengthy first act slightly drags - but the second half soars through moments of the sweetest reconciliations amongst the assembled clan.

The cast are all magnificent. Of the adult children Bethan Cullinane’s Cynthia stands out for the remarkable interplay between her and her mother, while Billy Howle as gauche son Nicholas is another performance of remarkable sensitivity. Outside of the family, the role of the housemaid Fenny is a part of acute emotional complexity, skilfully delivered by Bessie Carter. A nod too to Kate Fahy’s Belle, Dora’s sister and a woman who has aged disgracefully yet wonderfully.

Duncan and Sinclair head their family with a perfect combination of warmth, understanding and gravitas. Duncan in particular delivers her role in a spectacular display of understated excellence. Rarely is such a loving matriarch to be found on stage.

The time and place of Dear Octopus (the plays title is drawn from a reference to the tentacular grasp of the family) is reflected both in Smith’s text - the losses of the Great War still smart, as the radio tells of a need to prepare for war as Chamberlain appeases Hitler - and in Frankie Bradshaw’s glorious set design that makes full use of the Lyttleton’s lofty fly tower and impressive revolve

Emily Burns has directed with a sure but nuanced hand, coaxing and crafting an evening of the finest talent from her company. Exquisite drama. 

Runs until 27th March
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Monday 19 February 2024

The Moonwalkers - Review

Lightroom, London


Written by Tom Hanks and Christopher Riley
Directed by Nick Corrigan and Lysander Ashton

An image from The Moonwalkers

The latest immersive audio-visual experience to arrive in London is The Moonwalkers, playing at Lightroom at Kings Cross. For 50 minutes the history and scale and above all achievement of the Apollo rocket launches that sent 12 men to walk on the surface of the Moon is played out in a beautifully compiled narrative.

The event kicks off with 1962 footage of President John F Kennedy pledging to put a man on the Moon. Tom Hanks narrates a commentary that’s factual if a little airbrushed into cosmetic nicety. JFK’s words were stirring but the show makes no mention at all of the space race that pitted USA against USSR in the bid to be the first to reach the Moon.

Throughout, the immaculate sound and projections teach us a lot about the various launches (from 1969 to 1972) and include stunning photography taken from the various Moon visits. The scale and achievement of what was accomplished more than 50 years ago is made clear and there are frequent references to today's Artemis II project that hopes to return astronauts to the Moon’s surface in 2026.

For all its beauty however, The Moonwalkers is more about the Moon and Tom Hanks than it is about the men who actually walked the Moon's surface. While we learn a lot about Hanks’ chilldhood and his passionate interest in the Moon landings – and to be fair, Hanks has been a driving force behind the creation of this show - we learn very little about the 12 Moonwalkers themselves. An immersive analysis of what motivated one or more of those 12 explorers, offering perhaps a glimpse of what gave them the ‘right stuff’ to make the unimaginably brave decision to fly to the Moon (rather than Hank’s recollections of discovering weightlessness in his parents’ backyard paddling pool) would have been fascinating.

But Anne Nikitin’s soundtrack played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is gorgeous and Corrigan, Ashton and Andy Saunders’ work on restoring the images and clips to this 360-degree digital screening is stunning. Lie back on the cushions and lose yourself in outer space. The history is humbling.

Runs until 9th June 2024
Photo credit: Justin Sutcliffe

Saturday 17 February 2024

Deathtrap - Review

The Mill At Sonning, Sonning


Written by Ira Levin
Directed by Tam Williams

Issy Van Randwyck

Tam Williams directs a cracking take on Ira Levin’s classic murder mystery. Set in the home of established crime-author and lecturer Sidney Bruhl (Nick Waring), as student Clifford Anderson (George Watkins) pays a visit seeking expert guidance on a playscript that he has written, nothing is quite what it seems.

The setting is gorgeous, with antique axes and weaponry lining Bruhl’s walls only adding to the impending sense of doom and foul play.

Such a ripping yarn depends upon classy acting from its cast of five to make the hokum work and Williams has coaxed excellence from his quintuplet of performers. Both the male leads keep one guessing throughout and there is fabulous supporting work from Emily Raymond as Bruhl’s wife Myra, Philip Childs as lawyer Porter Milton, together with an enchanting turn from Issy Van Randwyck as psychic, Helga ten Dorp.

Two acts - fabulously performed - in two hours and a delicious meal included as part of the ticket price, Deathtrap makes for an evening of great theatre.

Runs to 30th March
Photo credit: Andreas Lambis