Review: POSH ****

In a week where leaders of one of the world’s biggest banks have been forced to resign, a play about scapegoating individuals to salvage the reputation of the group seems particularly timely. Indeed, while playwright Laura Wade’s Riot Club may be a spin on the heady days of Bullingdon, the debauched characters and religiously upheld belief that money makes the world go round still retain cultural relevance two years after its debut.

The Conservative party, if not the entire right wing of Britain, are clear targets for attack in POSH: here a microcosmic world in which wreaking havoc and female subjugation are not only encouraged, but enforced. Having undergone something of a rewrite since the original, the play seeks to make an example of the Bullingdon Club and those now at the helm of this country, namely David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson, all of whom were members of the elitist institution. Art imitates life as Alistair Ryle (Leo Bill)’s abhorrent drunken antics secure him a place on the parliamentary ladder.

POSH is certainly a show of two halves, and the joviality and frequent bursts of a cappella in the first undeniably lull the audience into a false sense of security. But towards the interval, it appears all is not well as Ryle lambasts the lower classes with unfettered vitriol, apparently sickened by their sense of entitlement. By the time the curtain goes down, no one is laughing anymore.

The second act continues much in this same fashion: gone are the jokes and the japes, and in their place an extended  tirade against the  social groups who steal a pair of trainers and label the act a form of protest. ‘Dr Dolittle could talk to animals, that didn’t mean he wanted to be mates with them,’ they whine, attempting to rationalise their contempt for those of lesser lineage. Things go too far, however, when their anger incites them to beat the restaurant’s proprietor to death after he returns to the dining room to find it has been defaced. For the good of the club, and for the good of each other, allegedly, one must take the fall for the Riot Club and take sole responsibility. It is pertinent that club president James Leyton-Masters laughs, ‘this isn’t a democracy’ in the first half, and yet when it comes to saving their skins at the expense of a ‘friend’, the majority rules.

What can at first be laughed off as the idiosyncrasies of Tory posh boys quickly becomes a contemptible satire of those currently in power, and how corrupt beginnings can only lead to similar ends. Wade’s Riot Club go to show that it’s a rich man’s world, and anyone who begs to differ is expendable.

Review: The Undateables

I wrote a column in February questioning Channel 4’s judgement when it came to invasive documentaries. The Wedding Proposal, a show engineered to make the most garish and over the top proclamations of love possible for its participants, made me seriously question what the channel deemed sacred enough not to air. And if new show The Undateables is anything to go by, I’m still not sure.

The programme seeks to explore the lives of people who are unlucky in love, get them signed up with a dating agency and hey presto – Channel 4 to the rescue of the lonely hearted. But there’s a problem: all of the participants either have learning difficulties, disabilities or deformities. What goes from a simple dating experiment then immediately transforms into some kind of grotesque Victorian freak show, where we are ogling at these people simply because they have some kind of health issue.

This just cannot be right, can it? Yes, the people involved have willingly agreed to be featured, but as the programme shows, their judgement is not always sharp, and had they known they were being signed up purely to entertain audiences with their idiosyncrasies, they might have thought better of it. Take last night’s programme, where poet Shaine, who has learning disabilities, was telling a woman he loved her after meeting her once. If it were any other show, we would be condemning the man for being so ridiculously forward, yet because he has learning difficulties, it becomes a source of entertainment and empathy for the viewer. Laughing may be deliberate mockery of their situation, but is pity any better? Is condescendingly cooing over how ‘sweet’ these inept daters are really dispelling the myth that people with deformities or disabilities are an entirely different breed to those without them? I suspect not.

The title sums up everything that is wrong with the show, and that is it purporting that people who have learning difficulties and the like are undateable. To my mind, there are only two possible reactions to the show: one being that people find it ‘cute’ (although they would never date any of the participants themselves, of course), and the other being that the show makes a rather vulgar mockery of those involved with it. Having Tourette’s, as Luke from the first episode did, understandably made him nervous around the opposite sex, but to label him undateable? And to expect the viewer to be jubilant because he finds a girl who doesn’t mind his outbursts? The people that truly believed those with Tourette’s and the disabilities featured in the programme are undateable are the ones I feel sorry for, not the participants. Maybe Channel 4 should make a documentary about them – they could call it ‘The Ignorants.’ Oh, sorry, they already did that. It was called Make Bradford British.

Had The Undateables shown a mix of people – disabled and otherwise – who were struggling to find love, this entire social pigeon-holing issue would have been avoided. But by dedicating an hour a week for us to gawp at the ineptitudes of deformed daters, they have turned it into something far more sinister. From the patronising voice-overs to the regular inorganic Twitter hash-tagging the channel has decided to introduce at every ad break, I suspect that this programme did not set out to broaden people’s awareness of disabilities at all, but to yet again exploit some sort of freakery in a bid to make headlines.

Review: A Dangerous Method ***

When thinking of Freud, one thing springs to mind – sex, and lots of it. But horror king David Cronenberg’s biopic of the famed psychoanalyst and his work with Carl Jung is hardly the raunchy tale of lust one might have imagined.

The film centres around Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a patient at the mental hospital where Jung (Michael Fassbender) works. Far from the prim and pouty Knightley we are used to seeing, her Spielrein is haunted and disturbing, grappling with her sadistic sexual desires and seeking solace in the words – and bed – of her doctor. Her affair with Jung quickly sours when his reputation gets tarnished by their dalliance, and she writes to his contemporary, Freud (Viggo Mortensen), asking if she may study alongside him.

The simmering tensions between Jung and Freud reach boiling point when Spielrein comes between them, distancing herself from her past as an institutionalised schizophrenic and proving to be an astute psychoanalyst. But Jung, encouraged by patient and fellow doctor Otto Gross (the inimitable Vincent Cassel), cannot shake his longing for Spielrein, and further abandons his former strict monogamy after she leaves the clinic. Freud cannot forgive Jung’s lack of professionalism towards his female patient, and their subsequent encounters are fraught.

Mortensen is superbly subtle as Freud, and Fassbender delivers an assured performance as the creator of ‘the talking cure.’ But whilst the performances are strong, the film as a whole is missing a certain spark. The stunning scenery does not compensate for the fact that the script simply does not translate well to the big screen, and would work far better in its original play format. There is much potential for greatness within its framework, but aside from Knightley’s disturbing facial expressions, the vast majority of the film is forgettable.

Review: Look Back in Anger ****

 Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, Off Broadway

Look Back in Anger was, and still is, a landmark of British theatre. John Osborne’s 1956 play doesn’t go anywhere except the filthy room in which it is set, but emotions run so deep and tensions so high you’d be forgiven for not noticing. Playing the original angry young man is Matthew Rhys as Jimmy Porter, who embodies those three little words as completely as Osborne intended.

 A frustrated graduate from humble beginnings, Porter shares his own dissatisfaction with life whilst simultaneously condemning those around him for doing the same. His wife, Alison (Charlotte Parry), is tired of his lamentations, and lodger Cliff (Adam Driver) is constantly called upon to mediate their intense relationship. Add Alison’s haughty friend Stella into the mix, and the amount of dysfunction in that one tiny room is explosive.
Rhys is a superb lead, perfectly encompassing Porter’s split personality as a raging bull, tender husband and frustrated intellectual. He truly carries the piece, which is sadly hindered by Driver’s appalling ‘Welsh’ accent – a mixture of Irish, Scottish and Jamaican in equal measure. Rhys is also called upon to play the trumpet in the brief musical interludes throughout, setting the tone as one of deep sadness and regret.
In a play that characterised a generation of British writing, Look Back in Anger has lost none of its potency in the 56 years since its debut. With emotions so raw and palpable from start to finish, this snapshot into fractious family life reveals human weaknesses and the very real pain of love.

Top 5 plays of 2011

5.  Richard III,  Old Vic

The production as a whole may have had its flaws, but Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of England’s bloody king was a real theatrical experience. Limping around the stage for the best part of three hours, the Hollywood star wowed as the angry autocrat, and brought one of Shakespeare’s most widely performed plays into the modern era with a bang.

4.  Hamlet, Young Vic

Another modern interpretation of a Shakespearian classic appeared at the Young Vic this winter with Michael Sheen playing the lead. The action began before audience members had taken their seats, with the backstage of the theatre transformed into a mental asylum that spectators could wander around before the show started. The concept was not necessarily played out to perfection, but Sheen was undeniably a stellar Hamlet.

3. One Man, Two Guvnors, National Theatre
James Corden has received a wealth of adulation for his role as impish Francis Henshall in Richard Bean’s fast-paced farce, and deservedly so. The play, which has now transferred to the Adelphi Theatre due to popular demand, was initially staged at The National, the bastion of British theatre where Corden found fame with The History Boys almost eight years ago. But while Corden was again part of an ensemble with One Man, Two Guvnors, this time, he is quite clearly the star. He may always play the fool, but he plays it well.

  Read my review of One Man, Two Guvnors here

2. Jerusalem, Apollo Theatre
This year has been awash with spectacular leading performances, but Mark Rylance in Jerusalem has to be the finest of them all. The play has achieved unparalleled critical acclaim worldwide, and coveted tickets for the remaining sell-out shows are tipping the bank balance at over £100 per seat. The play has been going strong with several runs both in London and across the pond since it debuted at the Royal Court in 2009, and as soon as Rylance as Rooster Byron struts onto the stage, it is easy to see why.

Read my review of Jerusalem here

1. Cause Célèbre, Old Vic

2011 was certainly the year of the Rattigan revival as several theatres paid tribute to the late, great dramatist to mark the centenary of his birth. Cause Célèbre was a stunning production in every sense of the word, from the fantastic staging to Anne-Marie Duff’s wonderful performance as lustful Alma Rattenbury. Based on a real life trial in 1935 where Rattenbury and her young lover were charged with bludgeoning her husband to death, Thea Sharrock’s revival of this play brought the mix of heartfelt emotion and quick wit back to the forefront of                      the London stage in what was, in my view, the best play of the year.

Review: Matilda the Musical ***

I began my last blog noting the dangers of a flawless review, the kind that make shows into entities bigger than themselves and often fail to justify the hype. And indeed, it was those very reviews that sent me off to see Matilda the Musical, where I sat awaiting a five star feast for the eyes and ears that would leave me begging for more. But unfortunately, while it may have been a five star show for kids, there was little for the few of us old enough to purchase alcohol at the bar to engage with.

Of course, people might think that as a book aimed at children, the musical should follow suit. But many adaptations from such stories into stage productions defy age constraints and have produced entertainment that people of all generations can enjoy. This, sadly, is where Matilda falls short. That, and the fact they have removed what are (in my opinion) the majority of the best parts from the original. Or made them worse. Neither of those options is really ideal when you’re paying £60 for a ticket.

The bare bones of the story are still there: bookish girl with foul parents gets terrorised by the evil headmistress and everything works out alright in the end. But that is largely where the similarities end. Instead of getting to know Matilda’s character, or her lifelong struggle with the aforementioned grotesque guardians, we are subjected to long periods of her talking to her local librarian, and several songs exploring the neurosis of a psychologically damaged Miss Honey.

Characterisation was one of the biggest issues for the piece, and Bertie Carvell’s Miss Trunchbull, which has been undulated in praise by critics, did nothing to allay this. There is no doubting that he was vile, as the horrible headmistress should be, but his claw-like hand affectation and lack of vocal projection did not seem to strike fear into the hearts of the young audience members as it should have done. My biggest worry was not getting locked in the chokey after the bell rang, but rather avoiding the oceans of spit spraying out over us poor spectators in the front few rows of the theatre.

The fact that Trunchbull is played by a man, I can deal with; in fact, it may even be an inspired idea. But from then on, things are so over the top: the hairy warts on his face, the mangled false teeth, the bosom that sits unhappily above the waistline – it was all just a bit too much, and diluted the brilliance of Dahl’s character. This, coupled with Matilda’s severely socially retarded brother (who also doubles as a tie-chewing older pupil at Crunchem Hall…one dimensional much?), the hideously precocious stage school kids who take on the roles of Matilda’s peers and the fact Tim Minchin’s songs were, in the main, forgettable, combine to make a show that falls well short of the mark.

In fairness, watching the film, which was a true stalwart of my childhood, one week before the event was probably misguided. And Kerry Ingram, who played Matilda, did a reasonably good job (peculiar facial gurning aside), especially when dealing with her wonderfully wicked parents played by the fantastic Josie Walker and Paul Kaye. But the real show-stealer was Rob Howell’s utterly brilliant set; a kind of Willy Wonka’s factory for books that really came alive in the ensemble pieces. Revolting Children, a catchy number that comes near the end of the show, really got the crowd going in the way that the entire musical should have from the get-go. But for the most part, this musical was simply fine, and when billed as ‘the hottest ticket in town,’ this failed to make the grade.

Review: Jerusalem *****

Reviews are quite possibly the most dangerous by-product of any performance – particularly the good ones. Jerusalem, which has swept Olivier and Tony awards for its lead, the inimitable Mark Rylance, is the perfect example of how five star reviews and years of sold out shows can turn what was once a small, naturalistic play at the Royal Court into an entity far greater than itself. The play is no longer simply that; it is a cultural phenomenon, an event, tales of which will span far longer than its run.

Jez Butterworth has written a play that feels deceptively simple at first glance, but delve beneath the drink, drugs and four letter expletives, and you find a script that is endowed with complex relationships. Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron is the Shrek of his Wiltshire village, residing in a beaten up camper van at the back of a forest, much to the dismay of the local residents. Well, except for the bunch of freeloading youngsters who frequent the site in the hopes of some free whizz and a good night. With just hours to pack up and leave after being issued a warrant by the local council, Rooster is going nowhere – fast.

Part of Rylance’s brilliance is his embodiment of the two very different sides to Byron’s personality. On the surface, he seems to be nothing more than a drug addled, ageing good-for-nothing; a burden to society and to himself. But when the truth finally hits that he is alone, that the people who he calls friends are the ones filming each other urinating on his passed out body, the raw emotion is palpable. When his young son comes to visit, party animal Rooster disappears, and in his place comes a cautious and tender father desperately seeking the love of his child.

It is a credit to Ultz’s excellent stage design, Butterworth’s intriguing script and of course, Rylance’s dynamism that viewers are captivated for over three hours by a man limping around the exterior of a caravan. Mackenzie Crook delivers a wonderful performance as Rooster’s friend, Ginger, and there are comical gags aplenty from Max Baker as Morris dancing publican Wesley and Alan David as the eccentric professor. But Rylance truly is the star of the show, and it would be impossible to imagine Jerusalem without him.

Review: The Amazing Vancetti Sisters ***

 Jane Vancetti is a rebel, or so her safety-pinned Sex Pistols t-shirt would have you believe. But when she arrives six months late for her father’s funeral, her feisty exterior cannot mask the pain of tormented youth, and home truths quickly come spilling out.

After spending a childhood behind the glitter curtain of her father’s magic act, Jane’s anorexic, agoraphobic sister Elisa is desperate to have her moment in the spotlight. Trapped by thoughts of how to attack intruders with an egg slicer, the damage done by the legacy of the Amazing Vernon Vancetti is evident.

This is the writing debut of Athena Stevens, the disabled actress who plays Jane. Her script is often sharp and engaging, and although a little unoriginal at times, Stevens, Lorna Beckett (Elisa) and Timothy Knightley (Michael) do it justice. Nevertheless, events become melodramatic towards the end of the play, damaging what is otherwise a very credible piece of theatre.

There is nothing groundbreaking to Hanna Berrigan’s production, but the wonderfully tender relationship between Jane and boyfriend Michael and the simmering tensions between the sisters make for engaging, albeit fraught, viewing.

Review: Gregory Charles: Musicman! *****

Gregory Charles is proof that you don’t need a pitch perfect voice to put on a five star show. His hour long set blew the roof off the Pleasance Dome and had the audience on their feet after a show stopping finale.

Musicman! is the product of Charles’ life-long infatuation with music of every genre, which has given him an incomparable encyclopaedic knowledge of his craft. In fact, he is so confident in his ability that he pledges to visit the house of any audience member whose song request he does not know. Given that he lives in Canada, this is a brave promise.

The show begins with Charles asking the audience to shout out a year post 1953 (when the Billboard chart officially began) for him and his band to play hits from. Mash ups, medleys and general melodies ensue as 1962, 1976, 1989 and 2004 are revisited with blistering guitar solos and the audience acting as backup singers to Charles’ growly tones.

Charles’ name may be on the posters but his stellar three piece band truly bring the show to life. They do not rehearse together, and Charles does not inform them of the requests he has been given before he plays them: they must simply jump in when they realise what the song is. This takes an incredible amount of skill, and the band are most certainly up for the challenge.

There is no denying that Charles’ music knowledge knows no bounds (he can tell you what was number one on this day 39 years ago. Seriously), but he is not word perfect on many songs, leaving the audience to fill in his gaps. For a singer not to know every lyric is pretty dangerous territory, but somehow, he makes this work.

This is definitely Charles’ year at the Fringe, and he could not be more deserving. From ABBA to ACDC and UB40 to U2, Musicman! is an hour long feel good trip down musical memory lane, and a perfect example of the sheer talent Edinburgh has to offer.

 

 

Review: One Man, Two Guvnors ****

I have seen productions in which the fourth wall has been broken, but never have I witnessed it so colossally obliterated as in last night’s performance of One Man, Two Guvnors. Strangely enough, however, what initially had all the trappings of a car crash came dangerously close to brilliance.

Writer Richard Bean transforms Goldini’s 18th century comedia dell’arte The Servant of Two Masters into a farcical few hours spent in early 1960s Brighton. The gags are frequent and the puns easy, and for this to work, the show relies on a hugely talented cast to carry off the predictability of such overtly slapstick comedy. It is thus fortunate that James Corden, Oliver Chris and Daniel Rigby are just that. Bean has interestingly made the plot almost superfluous to the simple misdemeanours of his characters, for which the play benefits no end.

Corden’s Francis Henshall is a loveable rogue, blithering and blundering his way through the easiest of tasks. It comes as no surprise, then, that when the opportunity to take a second job and serve two ‘guvnors’ arises, he makes a total pig’s ear of it. Incessantly perplexed by the demands of his superiors, neither of whom knows he is working for the other, Corden engages wonderfully with the audience, inviting them into his confused world and refusing to let them leave for the duration of the show. Aided by Chris’ boarding school toff Stanley, Rigby’s fledgling thespian Alan and a stellar four piece band, this reworking of the play’s archaic formula makes for utterly original viewing.

The rulebook had certainly been thrown out of the window for this performance, with the actors repeatedly corpsing onstage and several times (on Corden’s part) coming out of character. But somehow, their clear enjoyment of the play and will for it to succeed made these faux pas endearing, and often hilarious. One Man, Two Guvnors achieves the rather rare feat of stirring deep belly laughs from its audience, rendering it quite impossible not to fall for its clumsy charm.