Friday 28 October 2022

Goodbye Easy Street - Review

Vout-O-Reenee's, London


Lyrics and book by Julie Burchill
Music by Robin Watt
Additional dialogue and lyrics by Jim Owen and Daniel Raven

Goodbye Easy Street, Julie Burchill’s new musical, made its debut in the capital at the intimate Vout O Renee’s club on the fringes of the City of London. Burchill’s first iteration of the show, Hard Times On Easy Street had played in Brighton earlier this year. Since then she has taken a sharp pencil to her prose and the result is a slicker, tighter, wittier show.

Featuring a cast of just two, Deborah Kearne and Temisis Conway return as Elle and Anna, two former nightclub singers now the resident turns on a cruise liner. Both in love with each other, the younger bisexual Anna is taking the cruise gig to escape her unrequited love for gay club manager Otto. The worldy-wise Elle has a far more sanguine view of the world. Together however, the pair’s relationship is passionate, credible and fuelled by sharply-tongued banter

In stripping her original show down to the two women only, Burchill’s scripting scalpel re-arranges her earlier love triangle into a far more plausible parallelogram. The interval has been ditched too with the whole piece coming in at just under the hour. Best of all, away from the original over-complicated structure, this simple little love story allows Burchill’s wit to take flight. She’s a gifted writer and her lyrics and dialogue sizzle with sexual frisson and just a hint of political edginess too.

Early on in the show Conway stuns with the numbers Lazy Kind Of Love and Incorrigible You, with Kearne soaring in Speculate To Accumulate. There is a hint of Gershwin in Conway’s There For You, while the pair’s endgame duet of Let’s Be Selfish /Self Care sparkles in its wit and rhythm.

Burchill’s amassed years of premier league writing are on display throughout the piece – her understanding of sex and relationships is blistering, making her points through the most economic use of English. Elle speaks of having had her past love life “fringed by crime tape” – a fabulous metaphor!

Burchill’s Woke-sceptic and staunchly feminist take on the world blaze through this show that demands a bigger audience.

Tuesday 18 October 2022

Local Hero - Review

Minerva Theatre, Chichester


Music & Lyrics by Mark Knopfler
Book by David Greig
Based on the Bill Forsyth film

Hilton McRae

The twentieth century gave us few finer rock musicians than Mark Knopfler, whose talent both as a writer and guitarist place him as one of the UK's greats. In 1983 Knopfler wrote the score for Bill Forsyth’s BAFTA-winning film Local Hero and he has now now taken those themes penned some fourty years ago, weaving them into a musical based upon the movie.

Local Hero is a whimsical tale of humanity and the cosmos set amidst the Scottish Highlands. Offshore oil was big business for Scotland in the 70s and 80s and Forsyth’s story focussed on a Houston based oil corporation sending out Mac, a high-powered executive, to acquire the coastal village of Ferness together with its beach for the purposes of constructing a refinery. Mac arrives amongst the canny villagers who are quick to sense the fortune that may be coming their way, and in an era that long pre-dated the internet or even mobile phones, one of the story’s most cosily comforting images is the village's old red telephone box on the beach that proves Mac’s only way of privately communicating with his USA Head Office. Of course the plans do not proceed as anticipated – love, charm and a respect for nature and the stars combine to chart a course that leads to an unexpected but decisively happy and inspiring ending.

Broadway's Tony-winner Gabriel Ebert makes his UK debut in the role of Mac. His is a performance of charm and assured voice, completely believable as the Texan city-slicker who falls for the beauty of Ferness' remote idyll. Opposite Mac is Paul Higgins as Gordon, the village’s pub-landlord cum accountant cum lawyer, who is appointed to negotiate with the oilman and strike the best deal possible. The musical’s triangular love interest comes from Lillie Flynn’s Stella who forges an emotional connection with both men. Arguably stealing the show however is Hilton McRae’s beachcomber Ben, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the stars in the Scottish skies serves to bring together the narrative’s various strands.

Daniel Evans directs a sensitive ensemble piece from his company which is only enhanced by Frankie Bradshaw’s set design that ingeniously transforms into a sandy, pebble-strewn beach. Ash J Woodward offers up video projections that strive to create the aurora borealis in deepest West Sussex – an effect that relies heavily upon the audience’s ability to imagine the Northern Lights.  

The production's star of course is unquestionably Mark Knopfler’s rich score. His original movie soundtrack offered up a raft of melodies, most of which have been fused into the stage show and it is a mark of the man’s talent that he has been able to create so many songs from these gaelic and celtic themes. The music is powerful, stirring and fresh, containing a heady mix of beautiful balladry and rousing numbers written for guitars and violin. That musical director Richard John’s seven piece band contains no less than three guitarists speaks to Knopfler’s love affair with strings.

This is a show built around Knopfler’s love for Local Hero, itself one of the finest British movies. It makes for an evening of charming, gorgeous theatre.

Runs until 19th November
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Friday 14 October 2022

Good - Review

Harold Pinter Theatre, London


Written by C.P.Taylor
Directed by Dominic Cooke

David Tennant

The moral narrative that underlies Good is as sound as its title. David Tennant drives the piece as Halder, CP Taylor’s German gentile protagonist, an academic, who we see from 1933 through to 1941 being slowly seduced by and drawn into the Nazi machine.

Tennant’s performance is outstanding and the glimpses of ordinary mundanity that he offers, as at first he disbelieves and then ultimately succumbs to Hitler’s horrific ideology are fine acting. Taylor’s writing however vacillates between the discombobulating psychodrama of the first act, and a second half that sensationalises horror over dramatic structure  As Halder implausibly shins the greasy pole of the Nazi machine, over the course of an hour or so Taylor takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the Holocaust that starts with book-burning, moves on to Kristallnacht and ends with a grim finality at Auschwitz. Taylor even includes some conversations between Halder and Adolf Eichmann, just in case the audience hadn’t got the message.

The noble strength of the play is its argument that all it took in Germany was for “good” people to essentially enable Hitler’s horrors and allow the fomenting of antisemitism along with a euthanising contempt for the elderly and infirm.

The flaws of the play – or possibly this specific production – are the bewildering multi-roles foisted upon Tennant’s two fellow actors Elliot Levey and Sharon Small. Levey (himself only recently out of the excellent Cabaret that charts subtly yet brilliantly the Nazis’ rise to power) plays Maurice, Halder’s Jewish doctor friend. There is sound work from Levey, but there was little on-stage credible chemistry of friendship between the pair. And whenever a strand of consistency was developed, it was instantly shattered as the penny-pinching producers swapped Levey into yet another role.

Equally Small, who has to tackle the triumvirate of Halder’s mother, wife and lover as well as a senior male official in the SS fails to suspend our disbelief with so many confusing facets to her onstage work. When late in the second half, and in the role of Halder’s lover, she complements Halder on looking so handsome in his SS uniform, the line is as expected as it is cliched.

Fans of David Tennant will not be disappointed. 

Runs until 24th December
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Tuesday 11 October 2022

The Crucible - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Lyndsey Turner

Erin Doherty and cast of The Crucible

Arthur Miller's The Crucible was penned in 1953 as an allegory to Senator Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Miller’s work is horrifically exquisite as his drama meticulously dissects the history of the Salem witch-hunts of the late seventeenth century. This stain on the history of the pre-United States saw a toxic confluence of church and government in which the word of children, accusing their elders of witchcraft, grew into an almost unstoppable untruth in the communities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Based on these allegations of sorcery, 19 adults were hanged, countless others imprisoned and it was not until some 20 years later that government compensation was awarded to the families of those executed or convicted. 

Miller proves himself to be not just a historian, but as this website has long recognised, a dramatist whose understanding of the human condition is virtually unmatched. Much like Shakespeare, he can offer an analysis of events that may well be hundreds of years old and give them a context that is not just timeless, but timely and chillingly relevant.

Lyndsey Turner directs a show that presents the subsidised National Theatre at its very best, with lavish production values. This is what Arts Council money should be spent on: brilliant (albeit vintage) writing; imaginative stagecraft and a luxuriously massive cast list.  Entering the auditorium Es Devlin’s stark, striking staging sets the scene with the Olivier’s magnificent thrust boxed in on three sides by a curtain of cascading water and for the thousand or so souls in the audience, there will be at least a thousand different interpretations as to what this deluge of a mise-en-scene suggests. My take on this shower-curtain is to see it as the most transient of barriers between us and history. It appears tangible but is in an instant, permeable – a powerful suggestion that there is in fact no difference between a terrible history and the world of today.

Brendan Cowell leads as John Proctor, a noble yet flawed citizen who resists the accusations of the children, calling it out for what it is. Proctor is a striking character, saintly in his principles and courage yet profoundly and fallibly human too. The detailed, complex crafting of his relationship with wife Elizabeth (Eileen Walsh) defines Miller’s writing genius.

Another gem of characterization is in Karl Johnson’s take on the curmudgeonly, upright, elderly Giles Corey, with Johnson winning our love for the defiance he displays in the face of the madness enveloping his community. Erin Doherty plays the young Abigail Williams, her excellent performance reminding us that evil actually lies not in the Devil, but in mankind. 

There isn’t a weak link in the entire cast. Rachelle Diedericks as Mary Warren has us rooting for her as she strives to swim against the tide of her peers. Nick Fletcher’s Reverend Parris defines the odious hypocrisy so often found in the clergy while Matthew Marsh as Deputy Governor Danforth, effectively the supreme head of the local judiciary is equally, marvellously, malignant in his role. Credit too to the remarkable Nathan Amzi who, in an understudy step-up so last minute that the National Theatre (disgracefully) failed to inform the audience of the cast change, played Reverend Hale so well that it was not until studying the programme later that one realised that there had been a cast change. Hale is a complex character, starting off as a “bad-guy” inquisitor who goes on to find redemption in the second act and Amzi commands our sympathies throughout.

Paul Arditti’s sound design and Tim Lutkin’s ingenious lighting plots combine to make the sensory experience of the evening nothing less than immaculate.

Many of today’s writers would do well to study Miller’s work. There is not a sloppy sentence to be found in the text and amidst much modern mediocrity, it is a breath of cold, sobering air to be presented with such genius. McCarthyism and its accompanying mob-terror may have inspired Miller, but it is a tragedy of our times that his words are so relevant in today's era of polarising culture wars and internet-fuelled cancel culture. Much as it took immense moral courage for John Proctor to face his own destiny, so too can we see modern-day heroes bravely weathering the slings and arrows of outraged, vile opposition. 

The Crucible is unmissable theatre for everyone. 

Runs until 5th November and screening live via NT Live on Thursday 26 January2023
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Friday 7 October 2022

Noises Off - Review

Richmond Theatre, London


Written by Michael Frayn
Directed by Lindsay Posner

Felicity Kendal, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Matthew Kelly

Every now and then the planets align to create a production of sheer theatrical genius. So it is with Lindsay Posner’s touring take on Noises Off, currently playing at the Richmond Theatre.

Firstly, the script. Michael Frayn’s farce, penned 40 years ago, is a work of meticulous accuracy as it lays down gags, plots, sub-plots and nuance as we follow a touring theatre company rehearsing and performing the play-within-a-play Nothing On, around which the narrative plays out. Without ever resorting to corniness, Frayn mines the traditional farcical components of slamming doors, trousers around ankles and plot-lines of delicious sauciness. But its not just that Frayn’s text make us laugh, it is that he also offers a witty and at times poignant critique of the human condition – from the frailty of ageing through to alcohol addiction. No word of the script is wasted in the show’s three acts that treat the audience to whirlwind tours backstage and front of house as the plot’s calamitous events unfold.

Next up, the direction. Lindsay Posner has a visionary talent who understands the structure of each of the shows countless laughlines. Posner has form with the play, having directed the Old Vic production in 2011 and it shows. This production is slick, seamless and lifts the audience with its brilliance.

Finally, the cast, and Posner has been gifted a platinum-plated company to work with. The show’s seven key roles (the six characters of Nothing On together with that show’s director) include some of the nation’s finest comic pedigree - and in Noises Off there is no real star. The play only stands on the strengths of its company working as a team, and this team is strong. Felicity Kendal, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Matthew Kelly, Alexander Hanson, Joseph Millson, Jonathan Coy and Sasha Frost are all sublime in their roles that span a raft of characters aged from 70-something through to a glamourous starlet in her 20s. Their timing is honed to split-second accuracy and it is a credit to both actors and director that the show’s physical comedy, that in lesser hands could just be a ridiculous and clumsy distraction, is here delivered to side-splitting perfection. Pepter Lunkuse and Hubert Burton complete the cast list as the stage management team of Nothing On and though less accomplished than the show’s bigger beasts, are equally faultless in their work.

After Richmond, Noises Off heads off to Brighton and then Cambridge. Don’t miss it!

Runs until October 15th, then tours
Photo credit: Nobby Clark