Cabaret-infused Conrad is confusing cocktail

The Secret Agent – Theatre O @ the Young Vic, until 21 September

Note: This review was a preview performance

London in September; leaves begin to turn autumnal brown and regular theatre-goers, who have shunned the opportunity to join the annual pilgrimage north of the border to experience rents higher even that those for a 1-bed The Secret Agentshoebox in Clapham and a population densisty that rivals Waterloo Bridge at 11:59 on New Year’s Eve, settle in for one of the more interesting months in the London theatrical calendar.

September is the month for quietly baking in one studio space after another as London’s theatres take their chances of the pick of the fringe, and companies from across the country set out their stall and make their pitch for the hearts of audiences and the wallets of producers.

Working out of the Maria Room at the Young Vic, Theatre O have certainly snagged a prized piece of theatrical real-estate. Despite it being the first night of previews a bustling atmosphere is in evidence, which is testament to the anticipation of Theatre O’s return after five years away and to the strides made in both the Young Vic’s innovative programming and muscular promotion over the last few years.

03-Young-Vic--The-Secret-Agent.-Photo-by-Stephen-Cummiskey..previewThe mixture of highly inventive company and classic novel with modern resonance is a potentially intoxicating blend. Theatre O take a high-concept, extremely physical approach to staging the play – not exactly a rarity amongst the Fringe where naturalism tends to push budgets to the limit, but all too infrequently seen in London since the likes of Berkoff and Bond have been pushed into the shadows. Edinburgh is increasingly a refreshing anecdote to the depressing move towards a process-heavy, formulaic approach to the development of new writing that is affecting London’s major fringe venues.

Theatre O’s production highlights the best and worst of physical theatre. There are moments when actors and actions synchronise and time appears to slow down to a point of transcendent stillness. Theatre O’s use of an expressionist style enables them to capture the physical manifestation of a character’s emotion and then focus on it with such a relentless intensity that the world appears to have shrunk around it and all that remains is a tableau of emotion frozen forever in time.

<<Continue to full review>>

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Charming production that wears its art on its sleeve

Flyer for OrpheusOrpheus – Little Bulb Theatre @ Battersea Arts Centre, until 11 May

It is always a joy to spend an evening at the Battersea Arts Centre as, no matter the quality of the production, it provides an opportunity to spend an evening inside one of London’s great Victorian buildings. Many companies have looked to make the space an integral part of the performance; Punchdrunk exploded into the public consciousness with the Masque of the Red Death, a production that exposed the development of their unique style to a wider audience. They turned the BAC on its head – celebrating its beautiful interiors whilst building pocket worlds within it and ending with a strange blend of gothic classicism.

The BAC has a strong history of supporting new companies and providing spaces for those whose work doesn’t fit into more obvious spaces. The roll-call of success stories show a keen eye for understanding what works and what has audience appeal; providing a London-base for Kneehigh and partnering with Ridiculusmus, Complicite and Told by an Idiot demonstrates an important ability to spot the difference between the threadbare and the deliberately ramshackle.

WP_000121It remains to be seen where the emerging company, Little Bulb Theatre, slots into this picture but if awards were given for fitting productions to locations then their charming and quirky take on the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice would be walking away with a basketful of silverware. The BAC proves a lovely backdrop to an evening that strives valiantly to give a flavour of the 1930’s Parisian scene but knows enough of its flaws to have its tongue placed firmly in cheek throughout.

The problem, encountered in dreamthinkspeak’s latest production, with site-specific work is often they try to shoehorn a concept into a space that does not fit, or that the budget cannot do justice to. What remains is often a po-faced production that hopes you won’t notice that more time was spent dressing the set then developing characters.

Little Bulb’s Orpheus has similarly paper-thin characters – Orpheus is apparently Django Reinhardt but, other than explaining his ability with the guitar, that fact has no bearing on the play and is not developed with any real sense of purpose – but it spends a great deal of energy winning over its audience with an exuberance that is in keeping with the vaudeville staging.

The cast perform and the BAC is transformedThe silent movie backdrop is another way of avoiding explicit character development in favour of style without undermining the production. It allows for big, expressive gestures and emotion demonstrated through action rather than internalised – another reminder to the world of the music hall. This creates a deliberate undercurrent of comedy that runs through the production; to the modern audience this style of acting seems so alien – a strange hybrid of Victorian stage-acting, mime and early 20th century cinema – that it is difficult not to warm to despite it undermining the tragedy within the Eurydice story.

Little Bulb are well supported in their endeavours by beguiling central performances; Eugenie Pastor as Eurydice and Dominic Conway as Orpheus look as if they have just stepped of the set of the latest Dietrich film. Pastor’s doe-eyes deserve a special mention of their own, as they retain a now almost-lost Clara Bow-like ability to portray a moving tableaux of longing to tragedy to absurdity in one fluid movement, whilst Conway’s profile is every-inch the slightly louche heartthrob – never the matinee idol but the one that parents would warn their daughters about.

<<Continue to full review>>

Three Kingdoms: Three theatre companies, three languages, three countries and three genres

Three Kingdoms – Hammersmith Lyric, playing until 19 May 2012 [With Munich Kammerspiele and Estonia’s Teater NO99]

Three Kingdoms is an ambitious collaborative work that pulls together the best of Britain, Germany and Estonia in the shape of playwright Simon Stephens, director Sebastian Nübling and designer Ene-Liis Semper. If Simon Stephens is a well-known name on the British stage thanks to critically-acclaimed plays like Wastewater and Punk Rock, the general lack of recognition for the other two is more a result of our insular Anglo-American approach to theatre rather than any lack of talent on their part: Sebastian Nübling works with Munich Kammerspiele, whilst Ene-Liis Semper co-founded Teater NO99 in 2004, and I am reliably informed by Estonian cultural emissaries that they are generally regarded as being towards the top of a vibrant (?) theatre scene in Estonia.

This trio of talents have rather curiously taken it upon themselves to work with a narrative that would not seem out of place airing on ITV in three parts on successive Tuesday nights. Three Kingdoms begins by giving every impression of being a staged version of a TV crime drama; bleak scenes of cold, stained police rooms, dysfunctional domestic relationships and stereotypical Russian gangsters.

As the narrative begins to open out the ambition of the play starts to be revealed. Increasingly the action takes on a woozy, slightly sickening feel as the audience watches events as the alienated Detective Inspector Ignatius Stone (Nicholas Tennant) sees them, rather than his bi-lingual partner, Detective Sergeant Charlie Lee (Ferdy Roberts).

<< Read full review here >>

Watch the trailer below:

Transcendental Translunar Paradise

Translunar Paradise –  Theatre Ad Infinitum at the Barbican Pit, until 21 January

It takes a little less than ten minutes of Theatre Ad Infinitum’s remarkableTranslunar Paradise, a show that is about death and then process of moving forward, to be assured that its creator, George Mann, has developed an intimate understanding of the rhythms of grieving. The programme provides background but you do not need it to know that this devised work was forged in the pain of experience. It captures, and expresses with sublime beauty, a simple truth that is missed time and time again in lesser works: that the true tragedy of death lies not in the moment of loss but in the moment of realisation that life continues relentlessly onwards.

A bravura opening sequence sees two masked performers enact the final moments of a long-lasting relationship. We watch actions that have been repeated so often it is as if they have been instilled in the muscle memory of the characters; a pat on the elbow, an offer to carry the suitcase, a crossword clue. These little touches are what remains after a loss and offer a gateway to the past, where the man can relive the key moments in his life and create a way of holding on to what has been lost. In some ways similar to Pixar-film Up, Translunar Paradise begins in tragedy and then expands the scope to explore how this impacts on the surviving partner.

Continue to full review here

The Cultural Olympiad: Better late then never?

Well the big news of the day is the announcement of some major theatre projects that will be heading our way in 2012. One of the elements of the Olympic legacy that never really seem to have caught the public imagination is the Cultural Olympiad – something aptly skewered in the BBC’s painfully accurate picture of life as a middle-manager on the Olympics (something that I have at times had the questionable fortune to view first hand). 

World Stages London is (and this sounds does sound a little to close  to the clip above for comfort) “…a once-in-a-lifetime celebration through theatre of the exhilarating cosmopolitan diversity of London’s people and culture”. Well okay, in fairness London is one of the great international cities of the world – and what sets it apart on the cultural stage is it is ability to be a melting pot that blends the ingredients of the art and world view of different cultures to create something unique – in a way that only New York can really claim to challenge..

With talents as varied as Peter Brook and Jonathan Dove, and pieces including a 500 strong site-specific work about Babel and the first-ever production of Wild Swans, it seems pretty certain that there will be something for everything in the run-up to the Olympics (where it will be wall-to-wall British sporting patriotism for the best part of six weeks).

Reasons to be cheerful…

The Suit

Peter Brook, in a collaboration with Marie Helene Estienne, continues his exploration of fables and the art of story-telling and  myth-making with this adaptation of a short-story by Can Themba. Now personally I have found Brook’s last two outings at the Barbican insubstantial and well below the standards that he is capable of. Lately his reduction of the stage to its barest essentials have taken on the feel of an ascetic. However one always lives in hope of a return to the form that made him a colossus of 20th century theatre.

It runs from 21 May to the 16 June. More details can be found here

Babel

In what looks like a very special production and the possible flagship event of the whole project, Battersea Arts Centre and WildWorks (responsible for the critically acclaimed The Passion at Port Talbot) are teaming up for Babel, which includes a cast of 500 community and professional actors, musicians and performers. It is site-specific and the location is yet to be revealed, but it seems likely that a famous London landmark is involved and one imagines that it will have to be somewhat tower-shaped (my personal hope is Big Ben but one imagines security concerns may make that one tricky)

It runs from 08 – 20 May. More details can be found here

Wild Swans

A literary classic and a world-wide best seller (no hyperbole here, over 30 translations and 10 million copies – thanks Wikipedia!), Juna Chang’s novel looks set to be one of the more popular smash hits of the festival. Telling a story of one family’s multi-generational struggle against the backdrop of an ever-changing China, it effectively contains the biographies of three generations of women in the Chang family.

I must admit it has never held any interest for me whatsoever. I haven’t read it and can’t imagine doing so soon. No doubt it is my loss but then so are many of the other books I have never, and sadly will never, read. It is almost certain going to be a complete sell-out and if you want to go, you should get your tickets soon.

It runs from 13 April to 13 May. More details can be found here

Three Kingdoms

Despite being one of the more mysterious offerings on the programme, its sheer intriguing nature has me hooked and will be what I will be most looking forward to this spring. Written by Simon Stephens and exploring the trade in trafficked women and organised crime across Europe, it doesn’t profess to being the most uplifting evening you are likely to spend in the theatre. However a new play by Stephens is always worth catching and it is interesting to see a plotline that seems more suggestive of a film being given the stage treatment – throw in the puzzling trail picture (above) and you can count me in.

It runs from 03 – 19 May. More details can be found here

Much more on World Stages London

Roll up, roll up. Take a seat for the greatest show on earth

There are plenty of fantastic theatre blogs on the internet already (although less for London than I expected) so before getting underway I had to ask myself before beginning on this venture is ‘what am I trying to do differently?’

Well for a start, as the name suggests, this is written by someone who is peering through the looking glass. I am not ‘in the biz’, an ‘actor’, a ‘luvvie’ or even someone ‘following the craft’. However I am someone who has seen and read an awful lot of plays in my time, who is interested in what theatre means and what theatre can do. Some of my most abiding memories come from the theatre; a spellbinding performance by David Suchet as Salieri in Amadeus. Enjoying Rupert Goold’s rich and textured productions of Macbeth and Six Characters in Such of an Author, whilst being left feeling entirely alienated by the same director’s version of King Lear with the (greatly missed) Pete Postlethwaite.

At one point I started to list all the plays that I remember seeing but had to give up when becoming depressed over realising that I may well have forgotten seeing more than I remember. Ever since then I have become yet more obsessive compulsive and frantically keep the tickets from every show. It soon became apparent that looking at a ticket would trigger a memory, but often little more. Soon notes and reviews seemed like the only way to ensure that everything I see is tabulated, recorded and accounted for. And if I do it for myself, why not go the whole hog and share it with the world. These posts will contain my own personal view about the state of plays. I hope, over time, to widen its focus. Start to introduce articles, maybe a few interviews, add a sprinkling of news and rumour.

This site will by personal reflections on these plays; thinking about what they mean and how they go about telling us. It will be informed by dipping into the archive of my memory and supplemented by the fauxdemia that I have picked up along the way.

Ultimately it is to entertain and inform. Over time I hope to widen its focus; Start to introduce articles, maybe a few interviews, add a sprinkling of news and rumour. If you would like to get in touch about any aspect of the site or its content then please email: civiliantheatre@gmail.com