Category: Londonist

Review | La Meute

LaMeute_credit BEN HOPPER
This review was written for the Londonist

“Just watch out if you’re in the way of the Russian swing”, warns the man on stage before the lights go out. Russian swing. Sounds like it might be some kind of dance music, or perhaps a parlour game popular with married oligarchs. No? Maybe a military manoeuvre, a new tool for annexation?

It’s actually a type of circus. And it’s a suitable starting sentence, heralding as it does the beginning of Circus Fest’s five week programme of dare devil acts. Circus is, after all, partly about performers taking risks that make audiences squirm, that make them “watch out”.

Take the classic apparatus you’d find in a playground, then imagine something much more solid and able to host six men at once. Sometimes it’s strapped to the floor, sometimes it’s unnervingly loose. In full swing, it’s able to propel a person at high speed some distance into the air.

Compagnie La Meute (The Wolf Pack), dressed in nothing but precariously placed towels, are currently showing audiences how Russian swing is done in the main space at the Roundhouse, London’s very own big-top of bricks.

Their show – also called La Meute – is loose, shifting nonchalantly in pace and mood. Sometimes it’s slow, silent and even comes to a worrying halt (we’re unsure if this was planned or not). At other points it’s frenetic, slapstick, loud. Music is important, with the all-male cast able to sing and play sax and guitar, as well as perform acrobatic feats. Sometimes they do both at once.

The men, in their rather bemusing towel nappies, use the Russian swing to full and comic effect, blending ease with nerves of steel. They are careful to make sure we realise its power, letting it smash cups out of their hands and landing with thumping force when they fly off it.

The swing is, of course, a focal point but only half the action takes place on it. The rest is floor-based tumbling and balancing acts. Clearly a close knit group of friends, the performers enjoy playing tricks on each other, plus inflicting a certain amount of pain – from toying towel slaps to the face, to some eye-watering handstands resting on each other’s groins.

La Meute isn’t breathtaking or flashy; the company lay their effort bare to an extent. A quiet moment towards the end, where one performer carefully applies chalk to his hands under the warm glow of an anglepoise lamp, has a welcome intimacy and honesty. Overall, it’s an interesting start to a festival that promises an exciting array of circus shows over the next few weeks.

Review | Rift Zone

Rift Zone © Richard Davenport

This review was written for the Londonist

A potent performance delivered with thrilling intensity by Night Light Theatre, Rift Zone transports you to Iceland with minimal props but maximum atmosphere. Dubbed ‘a brand new saga from the land of fire and ice’, it’s a burst of energy and magic that progresses over 90 minutes from sweet to searing.

The story, which put simply is a coming-of-age one about misplaced love, is told through a script that ripples with humour and poetry. It features an Icelandic family (mother, sister, brother) who are all, in their own way, obsessed with their country’s legends and folklore. There’s also an American increasingly intent on raping the land’s natural resources, and a wild academic who spends a lot of the time in only his pants and favours speaking in alliterative verse. The boundaries between myth and reality are always blurred.

The young ensemble are all accomplished actors, musicians and movers. It’s not a musical but the live music and songs are essential to the plot, and have an edgy, raw quality. There’s something of the indie rock gig about this performance. With a few bare light bulbs and some rich language, they manage to create a landscape where the breath hangs thick in the icy air (like curling steam from a kettle just before it boils) and the Aurora pulses in the mind’s eye.

Rift Zone is inspired by the emerging company’s own trip to Iceland in search of elves and Vikings, and reflects stories they heard and people they encountered while they were there. Despite the fact we watch it just off the relentless Euston Road (in the tiny New Diorama), and none of the cast are Icelandic, it’s a convincing experience. For the next couple of weeks, Euston offers the chance of an evening in the Rift Zone, a place that has a dark electricity all of its own.

Review | The A-Z of Mrs P

THE A TO Z OF MRS P, Southwark Playhouse, London, UK.

This review was written for the Londonist

How many people walk about wielding an A-Z these days? Pre Google maps it was normal for even hardened Londoners to have one about their person when they ventured into unknown parts of town. Do you even know where your battered, once-essential street guide is any more? Find it and you’ll probably discover you harbour a surprising amount of feeling for its well-thumbed pages – it will take you back to your earliest days in the capital – which is why a musical about the humble A-Z might prove popular. That and the fact Isy Suttie from Peep Show is the show’s star, her first ever venture into musical theatre.

The A-Z of Mrs P is a “fable” based on the autobiographies of Phyllis Pearsall, the woman responsible for the first ever A-Z street map of London. Intensely sweet – occasionally sickly saccharine – it shows how Mrs P transformed herself from whimsical painter to master map maker. There is only so much you can say about the A-Z in this context and the musical focuses increasingly intently on Mrs P’s family, especially her relationship with her overbearing father. It’s this that adds a welcome dash of darkness and pathos, and makes the musical a less glossy but much more engaging production.

The A-Z of Mrs P - Su Blackwell sculpture

In the spirit of Mrs P’s endless lists, here’s my (slightly dubious) A-Z of The A-Z of Mrs P:

Art – the play gently explores the clash between artistic tendencies and hard nosed business
Best foot forward” – one of Mrs P’s relentlessly cheery mottoes
Ceiling – the theatre is strung with an explosion of suitcases, street signs, miniature houses, furniture and postcards
Drawing – being a good draughtsman, we learn, is one of the keys to good map making
Elastic – as Mrs P, Isy Suttie’s expressive face often speaks a thousand words
Family – ostensibly about maps, the musical is more of a family portrait
Geography – who knew a musical could be made about it?
Hungarian – Michael Matus plays Mrs P’s demanding father, an ambitious but adulterous immigrant who drives Mrs P and her mother to distraction
Indexing – another key to good map making
Jumps in time – we zip back in time to the understand more about the family’s past, then rush forward through a world war, a crippling plane crash and into old age
King – context and insight is offered by cabbies, bus drivers and hawkers. We learn of the king’s abdication, and Mrs P’s loneliness, from a newspaperman
Lovely London Town – Mrs P’s greatest love is the city and The A-Z… pays due homage
Maps – obviously
Nostalgia – there’s oodles of it here
On we go!” – another stoic Mrs P motto
Mrs P – she’s an enigmatic character, her more recent past glimpsed only in tantalising snatches, including a period sleeping rough in Paris and a husband she leaves with apparently little consequence, no mean feat in the 1930s
Quickstep – Mrs P literally walks the whole of London in order to plot out her first map
RP – Mrs P is deliciously well spoken in a 1930s Chelsea sort of way
Southwark Playhouse – the musical is on here until 29 March
Telegrams. Stop. Lots of them. Stop. Used cleverly to allow transatlantic conversations.
Upset – the second half is darker and more dramatic, as Mrs P’s mother is driven mad and her bullish father shows his true colours
Venice – we first meet Mrs P as she steals away from Venice, leaving behind a life we learn nothing about
Women – the frustrations of being female in the 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond are keenly felt
eXtraordinary memory – Isy Suttie sings long, tongue twisting lists of street names with aplomb
Yellow trousers – Mrs P’s wardrobe of wide trousers, brogues and head scarves is a vintage loving Londoner’s dream
Zeal – Mrs P exudes it, and all the actors approach the story with a charming gusto that is hard to resist.

Review | Folds

Photo by Gerardo Sanz
This review was written for the Londonist

It turns out the wrapping can be as much fun for grown-ups as it is for toddlers, if the four men in Folds are anything to go by. They manage to construct a whole show almost entirely out of cardboard and brown paper. Using circus skills and gentle humour, production company Enfila’t explore some of these humble materials’ possibilities. Paper can be twisted into a tightrope as well as used as a projectile; and who knew a man dashing around inside a cardboard box could be so amusing?

Music is central to this show – the double bass acts as both apparatus and instrument; a length of stretched sticky tape is plucked like string. Accordion, banjo and tuba provide more of the soundtrack. There’s also a huge metal rocker thing that the men tumble all over, rolling nailbitingly close to the edge of the stage. The moment when the ensemble are all on the rocker, making music in eccentric positions, is a highlight.

Down to earth, Folds shows a more intimate and simple side of circus. Multilingual (French, Spanish and Danish, as well as a smattering of English), it’s the shapes thrown on stage that are important rather than the words. There isn’t a narrative as such, just a playful spirit and a dash of derring-do. If you’re looking for a family show this Christmas, this one is sweet without being sickly. It’s not glitzy or jaw dropping, but it has charm.

Review | Fortune’s Fool

Fortune's Fool at the Old Vic. Photo by Jay Brooks.

This review was written for the Londonist

The back story to ‘Fortune’s Fool’ makes a somewhat soap opera-ish comedy of manners political rather than just petty. Turgenev’s play was banned when he first tried to publish it in 1848. The Russian censors didn’t like the fact it exposed the pettiness and vulnerabilities of the rural gentry, and by extension quietly criticised the wider Russian social system.

The world Turgenev depicts is one he knew well – he hailed from an estate far grander than the one in the play, boasting 5,000 serfs and a despotic mother. Four years after ‘Fortune’s Fool’ was banned, the writer found himself imprisoned and then exiled to this estate for writing an admiring obituary of Gogol. Turgenev was producing work in a revolutionary era that loaded everything with extra potency.

We live in less potent times. But the play does have something of an edge right now as it’s the first time it’s ever been staged in London’s West End. In fact Fortune’s Fool was pretty much lost until Mike Poulton, via a bored bookish friend, stumbled upon it. Poulton’s lively adaptation, which was a hit in the US, has finally found its way to our shores.

Sometimes a play is so absorbing you forget it’s make believe. That’s never the case here. It depicts a world where show and surface are all, and the characters follow such strict social rules it’s like they are all merely pretending to live. None of them has enough depth to make you truly care about them, but they are entertaining enough. And it’s always fun to see the upper classes looking ridiculous.

The play’s original Russian title translates as ‘hanger on’, and the story charts the fate of such a sponger, a gentleman called Kuzovkin. He’s lived in another family’s house for 30 years but the daughter’s recent marriage and return to her country pile makes his future uncertain.

Enter the sweet young couple, swiftly followed by an outrageous neighbour and his fishy sidekick. Add some bickering below-stairs staff and oodles of booze and you’ve got yourself an explosion. Iain Glen as Kuzovkin is suitably mawkish and Richard McCabe as the interfering neighbour Tropatchov is as wildly vile as he can be.

The daughter’s parentage is called into question as events turn from hammy to decidedly sinister towards the end of the first half. The truth will out, socially acceptable cover stories are devised, and people are paid off. Humiliation hangs thick in the air, hastily buttered over with politeness. Thankfully, even that cracks in the end.

Review | Roots

Roots by Arnold Wesker - Donmar Warehouse 2013

This review was originally written for the Londonist

Exploring the fiery dynamics between a young upstart who’s moved to London and her family back home in rural Norfolk, ‘Roots’ at the Donmar is a play many Londoners will identify with. It’s set in the 1950s, when upstarts clambered atop chairs to preach about socialism but still, the clash between town and country is one that plays out in many a household today. Beatie Bryant thinks her family is backward and third rate; they find her moody and snobbish.

Thick Norfolk accents, which are decidedly (and distractingly) dubious at points, are the defining feature of a play that’s ultimately about language and finding your own voice, in spite of your family and your lover. The regional dialect is rich and wonderful, and often very funny. And it is the thing that both unites and divides Beatie (Jessica Raine) and her kin.

Linda Bassett is brilliant as Beatie’s mother. A master of her Norfolk tongue, and completely immersed in her mundane life, she’s tragic and comic all at once.  A play divided into three parts, it’s the second focusing on the relationship between mother and daughter that’s the most interesting. Mrs Bryant wants small talk, Beatie wants profundity. They meet awkwardly somewhere in the middle.

Intimate domestic details are a highlight of a production that’s engaging, though far from gripping. The two women preparing water for a bath; Beatie creaming butter and sugar for a sponge; a family meal of liver and mashed potato actually eaten on stage. The everyday clothing and kitchenware are also enjoyable. The floral aprons, the stately brown colander, the pastel green enamel pan, various metal pails.

A so-called kitchen sink drama (this one boasts a couple of lovely Belfasts), pierced with the mad energy of the main protagonist, Roots is the middle play of an Arnold Wesker trilogy. It pivots around a person from the first play but, funnily enough, it’s only when Beatie is free of him that she starts speaking for herself.

Review | Blair’s Children

Blair's Children

This review was written for the Londonist

Five people walk into a café and deliver five separate monologues about how their lives have turned out. Their voices interweave but never become a conversation. The café is a faceless high street joint, complete with bored barista, that gets its colour from the people that pass through. London can always provide characters – here we have an energetic Glaswegian activist, a social climbing political secretary, a youth with an electronic tag, a refugee and a mum on a date. For some reason they all decide to share their life stories with us and, coincidentally, each one has been shaped by Tony Blair.

‘Blair’s Children’ – a new Cockpit Theatre production inspired by a 1970s play called ‘Kennedy’s Children’ – boasts five playwrights as well as five performers, with each actor’s script provided by a different writer. These coffee drinkers are both archetypes and individuals, stereotypical in some ways but with a depth and humour that reminds you not to judge people on appearance and accent alone. They are also vehicles for the writers to make a political point – that Blair had a profound impact on ordinary people, in this case ordinary Londoners.

During the New Labour years, Marie worked for a celebrated inner city youth project that’s now lost its funding; Maggie marched against the war then lost her son in Iraq; Dee watched his dad disappear and his aspirational mum try to make something of her life; Vlatco fled his war torn home and found a kind of solace in kitchens and clubs; and Jennifer was an aide on the inside, complicit in all that occurred.

The café setting works, as does the trick of five playwrights collaborating yet remaining distinct. Some parts of the play are very funny and some very sad. Yet there’s something missing here. Dave Wybrow, who commissioned the play, talks about the need for “a new generation of radical theatre” and this is the first play published under the Cockpit’s exciting new Theatre of Ideas and Disruptive Panache banner. But it falls short. It’s interesting and engaging in a soap opera kind of way but, as political theatre and a review of the Blair years, it doesn’t feel challenging or revelatory enough.

Blair’s Children plays at The Cockpit, Gateforth Street, Marylebone, NW8 8EH until 22 June.

(rhyming) Review | The Trench

The-Trench

This review was written for the Londonist

Five musically minded men take on the task
Of using compact rhythmic, drumming, rolling verse
To tell a tale of trenches, battles, bombs and worse
In a 2012 Fringe hit that affirms war’s curse.

A shifting set of wooden planks and dirty sheets and screens
Conjure up an underground world where all’s not as it seems.

Our protagonist, an old miner by trade
Finds ways of coping in this dire, blood soaked maze
But a letter and bone shaking blast propel
Him, broken, into another kind of hell.

A series of puppets, operated by keen rods and hands
Join him on a terrible journey through a harrowing land.

Throughout, a guitarist in a Snow Patrol/Elbow style
Sings of the miner’s hopeless battle with death, his grim trial
Beneath the earth as reality fades, and all the while
Shadows and animation illustrate things truly vile.

At times the music drowns the narration, and the puppets’ hands lack attentive manipulation,
But, overall, this is vivid visual theatre for adults that’s unusual and engaging.

‘The Trench’ by Les Enfants Terribles played at The Pleasance in May and will return to the Edinburgh Fringe again this summer.

Review | Children of the Sun

An experiment for the Londonist to investigate the theatrical properties of Children of the Sun

Purpose
To find out whether the latest collaboration between director Howard Davies, writer Andrew Upton and designer Bunny Christie at the National Theatre is worth seeing.

Hypothesis
After working together on Russian classics The Cherry Orchard, Philistines and The White Guard, we predict the trio will create something gripping, funny and sad.

Apparatus
- A new version of a play by Marxist playwright Maxim Gorky about the floundering middle classes
- A magnificently detailed and realistic set, complete with science lab

Materials
- An idealistic but hopeless would-be chemist, who’s a handkerchief of a man
- A misunderstood but stoic wife with artistic tendencies and a love interest
- A cynical but romantic Scot who expects less and dreams of small pigs
- A deeply sad and prescient sister; and a cringeworthy, slightly mad one
- A slutty, social climbing maid; and a nostalgic nanny, who knows her place
- Various peasants
- Lingering doubts
- Dry ice

Method
1. Suck people in fast with a high impact, disorientating opening
2. Use a daily encounter between siblings and their nanny to set the scene for a play about chemistry, bourgeoisie preoccupations, liberal hypocrisy and crippling poverty
3. Make the dining room table the centre of the characters’ world, which the action can revolve around
4. Use a cast of strong actors to deliver a script that is bold, intelligent and very funny
5. Introduce humour and hopelessness via a churlish Scotsman and his melodramatic sister
6. Add jeopardy in the shape of a cracked vat and an experiment gone wrong
7. Drop in some abject poverty and a poisoning
8. Inject a splash of Romeo and Juliet style tragedy
9. Finish with a big bang

Results
Explosive

Conclusion
Children of the Sun is a fantastic production that any fan of dark comedy, intricate dialogue, political theatre and awesome set design should seek out.

Children of the Sun plays at the Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, until 14 July. Tickets are £12-£34.

Review | Die Zauberflöte

Die Zauberflote © ROH : Mike Hoban

This review was written for the Londonist

Featuring one of opera’s most famous arias, Mozart’s last singspiel offers a heady blend of magic, morality and masonry. David McVicar’s production returns to the Royal Opera House this spring for a run dedicated to the memory of the late Sir Colin Davis. It’s comic, grand and glittering, with great performances all round and a looming set that looks like it’s made of marble and is cast in a mystical kind of light.

As sweet as the lovers are, the highlights are of course the misguided Queen of the Night and the comic folk hero Papageno, who favours wine and women over wisdom. Flawed characters are always more entertaining and here are given the most memorable tunes.

The queen and her three ladies are stunning. Their hair is scraped back into tight peaks, revealing white dome heads with seriously receded hairlines, and their long dresses sparkle midnight black and blue. Their impressive high-pitched voices and mischievous vengefulness are in welcome contrast to the earnest ‘Initiates’.

Visually, the production design (by John Macfarlane) is simple but heavy with a symbolism that adds to both the humour and seriousness of the story. There are glowing globes and solar systems, a huge crescent moon and an enormous golden sun, a massive staring eye, a great old tree and towering columns, but also an over-sized rod puppet serpent, a comedy bird-on-a-stick and a flying wheelbarrow. And, of course, a magic flute.

The run is short and perhaps unsurprisingly sold out but 67 tickets are on offer from 10am on the day of each performance if you visit the box office in person, and returns are sold over the phone. See the Royal Opera House website for more info. It plays on selected days until 9 May and is sung in German with English surtitles. Ticket prices vary wildly depending where you sit.