Ballyturk poster

High-energy/High-concept

BallyturkLyttelton @ National Theatre, until 11 October 2014 (Tickets)

The pull quote for The Telegraph’s review for Edna Walsh’s Ballyturk is simply ‘hard to fathom’ – well, they got right. Twice I have been pulled into the Lyttelton for a Cillian Murphy / Edna Walsh collaboration and twice I have left frustrated with the outcome. The high points have remained the same and they lie in the wonderful sets created by Jamie Vartan and in the virtuoso performances by the cast.Cillian Murphy Ballyturk

In Misterman, Vartan turned the Lyttelton’s stage into a cavernous warehouse that seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance, whilst Murphy was magnificent in a performance of spectacular energy and verbal dexterity. My main reservation was the play seemed to operate under the illusion that it was a far more complex than it really was. The ending, presented as a big reveal, was something that could be seen a mile away.

Well in Ballyturk, Vartan creates another ingenious set and Murphy gives another high-energy performance. This time he is joined by Mikel Murfi, who is given every chance to showcase the benefits of a Jacques Le Coq schooling as he is jumps nimbly into the shoes of an entire Irish village’s worth of characters, and also by Stephen Rea, playing a languid, louche Stephen Rea-character.

The cast are all excellent in what they are asked to do. There are issues with the clarity of their speeches but this feels more of a studied directorial decision to give the play a frenetic feel in order to keep the audience off-balance at all times. Played on the edge of mania it is exhausting just to watch; The sudden explosions of music, the high-octane performances, the rapid fire dialogue, the conversational tics and character changes ensures that the 90 minutes is a mental strain.

<<Continue to full review>>

 

Watch the trailer:

Oh the humanity banner

Woe, the humanity!

Oh, the Humanity and Other Good IntentionsTabard Theatre, until 20 September 2014 (tickets)

Will Eno has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, Lynn Gardener called him a ‘supreme monologist’ and was described in the New York Times as ‘Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation’. On the back of ‘Oh, the Humanity…’ I must admit to being utterly mystified by any of these facts.

Comprising of a series of monologues and duologues, Oh, the Humanity is primarily a display in the type of vacuous, meaningless pretension that you would be disappointed to see from a student in the first year of a creative Oh-The-Humanity-3-1024x682writing course, let alone an award-winning playwright. It is supremely self-indulgent, remarkably irritating and, for a play that is clearly interested in the fragile connections that exist between people, stunningly lacking in self-awareness.

It is difficult to not feel sorry for the actors – more than one of whom looked genuinely uncomfortable as they delivered lines that fell flat against the stony silence of the audience. One can imagine that discomfort that comes from having to play a semi-comic supremely insensitive PR Rep for an airline company that has just seen one of its planes go down in flames. If timing is everything in comedy then this has butted rather too uncomfortably against reality.

OhtheHumanityNEWframe2I had really wanted to like this production if for no other reason than because I wish End of Moving Walkway every success. Whilst not a habitual attendee on the fringe-scene, I appreciate anyone willing to challenge the existing iniquitous model where access to performing is limited to those with the deepest pockets. End of Moving Walkway have taken the brave step of guaranteeing actors at least minimum wage for rehearsal and performance. It may not be a lot but it is better than expecting actors to exist on a wing and a prayer, and for this the company deserve praise.

One can see the logic of choosing Oh, the Humanity as a first play. A series of monologues means that you can keep rehearsals to a minimum and staging relatively simple. However this has been a year of sensational monologues, and whilst this may have heightened awareness in the form it has also set the bar very high. We have had terrific performances from Fiona Shaw, Juliet Stevenson and Lisa Dwan early in the year. There was Kevin Spacey chewing up the stage in Clarence Darrow and Danny Braverman’s low-key but potent Wot! No Fish? Even now it is up against The Me Plays and, more pertinently, Neil LaBute’s Autobahn.

I have always struggled to like Neil LaBute plays but one has to admire them; his control over his writing, his use of language and the way that words become recurring motifs lead to powerful and impressive work. He is able to grab the audience and hold them in his sway no matter how distasteful the subject. In comparison Will Eno’s work is flabby in content and flaccid in power. In thrall to his own brilliance, he lets his monologues go on and on. Oh, the Humanity clocks in at over 90 minutes for five pieces and does nothing to justify holding the audience’s attention.

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Forbidden but not forgotten

Forbidden Broadway – Vaudeville Theatre, booking until 22 November 2014

With a song in my heart and a smile on my face, Civilian Theatre came as close he ever will to skipping with joy out of theatre at the end of Forbidden Broadway. This relentlessly silly, endlessly enjoyable show has transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the Vaudeville to a fill a gap in scheduling after the short notice postponement of Rabbit Hole. It is a mark of the show’s fluid nature that a joke about being a ‘late season replacement’ hasanna-jane-casey-damian-humbley-ben-lewis-and-christina-90856 already been shoehorned in.

Forbidden Broadway has been around New York since the early 1980s but the nature of the show allows it to seamlessly weave in new musicals as they appear and as a result it broadly resembles the current West End, with The Book of Mormon and Once coming in for two of the most vicious sketches.

Joining the London cast is Christina Bianco, a star in the Broadway run and perhaps as importantly from the ticket agencies point of view, someone whose Youtube video of Let It Go has racked up more than 5 million hits. A not insignificant number when you have a mainly unknown cast and a West End theatre to fill.

The variety on display is quite startling. There is no plot, not even an attempt at one. This is a musical revue through and through, and the talented performers seem to be enjoying themselves as much as the audience. It reminded, more than anything else, of the Reduced Shakespeare Company – a fixture in London for many years.

The cast, Christina Bianco, Anne-Jane Casey, Damien Humbley and Ben Lewis, are impressively versatile and can switch between musical genres at the drop of a hat. They work well together as an ensemble and there isn’t a weak link among them, but it was Bianco demonstrating a stunning range in her pitch-perfect takedown of Kristin Chenoweth that came closest to bring the house down.

Like all parody shows there are hits and misses. However the ratio is certainly in favour of the hits, and even the misses are well sung. It is a show that does require a pretty good knowledge of musical theatre, and it has been written by people who know the form inside out – something seen in their canny choice of beginning with their take on ‘Fugue For Tinhorns’ from Guys and Dolls; a song that any musical aficionado will know has a fair claim of being the best opening number of any musical.

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I must thank the good people at Official Theatre for the tickets. Even without this shameless plug, please do check out their website to find out what is going on across the West End; it has links to tickets, venue contact details and bits ‘n bobs about all the theatres – the sort of thing I would do if I wasn’t so damn lazy.  (www.officialtheatre.com)

return of the soldier

What we leave behind

The Return of the Soldier – Jermyn Street Theatre, until 20 September 2014 (Tickets)

The Return of the Soldier is one of a number of WW1-themed productions out this year that, if nothing else, proves that theatre land is not entirely unaware of events in the outside world. Having always been a sucker for a new musical and with source material that gives voice to the rarely heard, it was one of the few that intrigued Civilian Theatre enough to be filled with a genuine sense of anticipation.

The production adapts Rebecca West’s novel about a shell-shocked captain who returns from war and turns the lives of the three female protagonists upside down. The original novel is remarkable for its frankness in tacklingThe Return of the Soldier, Tristan Bates Theatre, Laura Pitt-Pulford and Stewart Clarke, 2014. Courtesy Darren Bell these issues before the war had even ended and presents an openness to issues of class and gender that reflects a Britain on the cusp of a series of social revolutions that ultimately were as important as the war in ushering in a post-Edwardian modern era.

The plot is simple enough but contains a refreshing moral ambiguity that makes it difficult to take sides with the characters. The damaged captain cannot remember his wife and instead has eyes only for his young love, a lower class girl he met years ago on Monkey Island. Now both married, they find themselves caught in the rapture of the life they could have had. Yet it is Margaret who must carry the burden of unfaithfulness and remember they are trapped within a fantasy of his creating. Eventually they must re-engage with the real world and he must face the trauma that stops him connecting with the present.

The Return of the Soldier, Tristan Bates Theatre, Zoe Rainey and Stewart Clarke, 2014. Courtesy Darren BellThe war looms as a dark presence unmentioned in the background as he recuperates, and the unspoken knowledge that to be ‘cured’ means an expectation of a return to the frontline. The ‘return’ of the title has a multiplicity of meanings; it leads to the return home, the return to first love, the return to normality and, finally, the return to the front line.

The decision to turn it into a musical is a curious one and the limited space at Jermyn Street necessitates a chamber approach; it would be difficult enough to swing a cat in the space and it is a credit to Matthew Cole’s dextrous choreography that there were at least a couple of items that could be called dance numbers. This fluidity was generally matched in Charlotte Westenra’s direction that stopped the cast from tripping over one another, and managed to create two very distinct worlds on one very small stage.

The cast and musicians also deserve praise for modulating delivery to match their surroundings. One of the biggest criticisms reserved for Dessa Rose, a similar ‘big theme-little venue’ chamber musical at the Trafalgar Studios, was that it seemed to be produced with one eye on a larger theatre and during the bigger numbers the audience were subjected to a sonic assault. The Return of the Soldier was beautifully delivered, at exactly the right volume. Delivery matched the style and crucially it recognised that lyrically clarity does not necessarily equate to maximum volume.

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Have a listen:

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If life gives you lemons, make monologues

The Me Plays – The Old Red Lion Theatre, until 20 September 2014 (Tickets)

Filed by our roving reviewer, Emily Howe

Written and performed by Andrew Maddock, The Me Plays are a couple of self-penned, semi-autobiographical monologues, currently showing at The Old Red Lion. The space is perfect for the piece; intimate yet with a buzz to it, and it certainly helps that this little theatre is sold-out for tonight’s show.

Maddock is bursting with energy and self-deprecating humour. Both of his monologues are directly addressed to the audience in a brave performance where (although I don’t know with any surety how much of the content wasAndrew Maddock, photo by Hannah Ellis Photography true or how much fiction) it feels like he is opening his life up for us to see.

The first of the two pieces, “Junkie”, describes Me’s modern life in the digital-age, and seems to be aimed more towards the men in the audience. Covering Tinder, internet-porn, facebook and pill-popping, its message is that there is a declining need in us to make real connections with the rest of humanity, as we can so easily find what we need online. Me is comforted by the safe, virtual atmosphere of the internet which allows him to switch off when he gets bored, and where there is no chance of rejection and pain.

In the second play of the evening, “Hi Life, I Win”, Me is in hospital and is nostalgically re-living his formative years for us; reminiscing about his school-life, discovering weed for the first-time, being shipped off to a Catholic camp, and the death of his beloved grandad, amongst other very personal moments. Interspersed with his present-day situation in hospital, this is a much more personal journey than “Junkie”, but the experiences that Maddox shares with us, although engaging, were too unique to the writer for me to be able to wholly relate to.

The direction in the first play was clear and consistent; nice use was made of the interesting set and lighting, and the audience believed in the different scenes that were played out in various locations of the set. The second play seemed less slick and was perhaps too static for a stage performance. Although some of the emotional instances were a bit clunky and overly sign-posted, there were also some lovely, subtly-nuanced melancholic moments, particularly during the end of the first play.

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Onto the West End

With the Almeida Theatre putting out a trailer advertising its West End transfer of the fabulously entertaining King Charles III, and with what appears to be most of the original cast intact – including, crucially, Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles, Oliver Cris as William and Lydia Wilson as Kate – it seems a good time to revisit Civilian Theatre’s review from the Almeida run.

Oliver Cris has been pulling double duty on the satire front this year, as he hops back from playing a hapless policeman in the National’s Great Britain into an eerily pitch-perfect William, whilst Lydia Wilson reprises her Lady Macbeth-fuelled Kate. Lydia Wilson also has previous form in such matters, having come to attention of people outside of theatre-land with her role in Charlie Brooker’s most memorable Black Mirror (yes the one where the PM has *ahem* relations with a pig). However for those more conversant with plays, she has also been seen in Cheek by Jowl’s excellent ‘Tis pity she’s a whore and Sarah Kane’s Blasted

<<Read Civilian Theatre’s review of King Charles III>>

Watch the trailer:

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/105039584″>King Charles III West End Trailer | Almeida Theatre, London</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/almeidatheatrelondon”>Almeida Theatre</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Book tickets here