Talking Theatre – Mental health in the modern world

Back once again with further theatre chat. A whole bunch of plays in this podcast episode. I was particularly engaged this week with People, Places and Things (National) and Song From Far Away (Young Vic), which by chance I had booked within days of each other and that turned out to compliment each other perfectly. It is unusual to see two new plays of such high quality close together, and even rarer when they cover very similar ground. Both explore issues related to people who are experiencing a crisis event; yet how the plays unfold due to the nature of the crisis and the personality of the person in crisis is absolutely fascinating. They are performed with total commitment and great emotional honesty by two fantastic actors (Denise Gough and Eelco Smits), and are written and produced with a rare perceptiveness.

I must also confess an additional interest in both these plays, as I have recently spent almost a year and half looking into many of the issues that surround people in crisis, and (plug alert!!) have just written a report on crisis care in England (which you can find here). However when I booked the tickets I didn’t know what either play was about, and was knocked sideways by how accurately the events on stage had reflected the experiences people had shared with me.

You can hear my further reflections, and those of my trusty companions on the podcast – brought to the public as ever by Tim Watson at the (As Yet Unnamed) London Theatre Podcast. The full bill contains reviews of Photograph 51, Casa Valentina, People, Places & Things and Song From Far Away.

You can listen here: As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast 

Enjoy (and, as always, thoughts and feedback are welcome)

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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.

<<Continue to full review>>

 

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)

The Civil Shortlist

The Contenders

Well the plays have been revisited, the little grey cells put back into action and the oracle consulted. In short and without further ado, Civilian Theatre is proud to present the runners and riders in the inaugural shortlist for The Civil Awards. [Cue much fanfare, fireworks and underhand, dirty trick campaigns].

Bribes, whilst having little effect on the outcome, will still be gratefully received. Your comments and opinions are also welcomed.

Winners will revealed next week following a countdown of the Top 10 plays of 2013.

Best Actor – Male

  • James McAvoy          Macbeth (Macbeth)
  • David Tennant          Richard II (Richard II)
  • Serge Maggiani        Berenger (Rhinoceros)
  • Henry Goodman       Arturo Ui (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui)
  • Rory Kinnear            Iago (Othello)

Best Actor – Female

Best Supporting Actor

  • Kyle Soller                     Gaveston (Edward II)
  • Vanessa Kirby               Isabella (Edward II)
  • Jonathan Slinger           Parolles (All’s Well That Ends Well)
  • Ben Whishaw                Baby (Mojo)
  • William Gaunt                Dogsborough (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui)

Best Director

  • Susan Stroman              The Scottsboro Boys
  • Katie Mitchell                  Fraulein Julie
  • Jamie Lloyd                    Macbeth
  • Declan Donnellan           Ubu Roi
  • Gregory Doran               Richard II

Theatre / Theatre Company of the Year

  • Young Vic
  • Barbican Centre
  • Trafalgar Transformed
  • Harold Pinter Theatre

Surprise of the Year

Best thing to happen in theatre in 2013

  • The amount of £10 seats for the Michael Grandage season
  • Rupert Goold appointed as the next artistic director of the Almeida
  • The opening of The Shed

Biggest disappointment of the year

  • Not going to see Chimerica
  • The general flat direction and conservative productions in the Michael Grandage season
  • Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench in Peter and Alice 

Worse thing to happen in theatre in 2013

  • The growing trend to not allow people to book seats so that there is only one left on its own
  • The continuing upward creep of top-end theatre ticket prices
  • The cull of theatre critics across the mainstream press

Introducing the ‘Civil Awards’

Over the next few days, and in keeping with all the other blogs and newspapers that got there already – and in the right year – Civilian Theatre will be unveiling its inaugural annual awards and revealing our Top 10 plays for 2013.

Given the sheer amount of theatre available it is not difficult to find plays that were fantastic, moving and challenging but reflecting on what Civilian Theatre has been to see across the year (and the expectations that had built up in advance), it does not feel that 2013 was a vintage year for theatre.

It would be easy to equate the drop-off in quality with the cuts to Arts Council funding; the first cracks beginning to appear as the money begins to run out. However this only tells one half of the story – and if anything The Events by David Greig  An Actors Touring Company, Young Vic, Brageteatret & Schauspielhaus Wien Co-Production 9 October - 2 November 2013much of the best of the year’s theatre occurred in unexpected locations and in new voices that are beginning to emerge. Good theatre does not big budgets or big stars, it needs ideas and the willingness to take risks; in very different ways The Events and Fleabag proved this point.

Indeed the drop in quality, if anywhere, appeared at the top-end. The gap between bloggers and newspaper critics never appeared wider than in the debate around the Michael Grandage season. Routinely given 4/5* reviews in the press, the majority of the programme provoked the ire of seasoned bloggers who felt it promised much and then failed to deliver.

Civilian Theatre lauds elements of the programme: a West End season that was committed to drama and even included a new play; the sheer number of £10 seats, which if booked early enough didn’t have to be back of the balcony where the most pressing concern is not seeing the stage but rather calculating the risks of deep-vein thrombosis. However the dull production and conservative directions produced lifeless and leaden work that challenged the audience’s endurance rather than their intellect.

One rarely looks to the West End for intellectual challenge and radical drama but the publically-subsidised sectors also appeared more unfocused than usual. It is a transitory time in British Theatre and whilst this may bear fruit in the coming years, it felt that many people were still finding their feet. An honourable exception goes to the Almeida who – in snagging Rupert Goold – may have pulled off the biggest coup of all, and also managed a season that gave audiences, successively, Chimerica, Ghosts and American Psycho at non-West End prices.

Harriet Walter as  BrutusJosie Rourke’s tenure at the Donmar Warehouse has so far produced interesting plays in isolation but there has been little sense of coherence in the overall scheduling, and some productions that were just hard work full stop;Trelawny of the Wells proving that just because a play is forgotten doesn’t necessarily make it a classic in waiting.

That the National Theatre had an uneven year was unsurprising given all the speculation around the top job. Rufus Norris is a bold choice and one that is likely to bring a very different feel to the National and perhaps reshape to more accurately reflect a modern British theatre. He, like audiences, should benefit from the development of The Shed, particularly if its early inventive and innovative programming continues into 2014.

Outside of London, (or into the hinterland for this blog), the argument about funding distribution continues unabated. There was more change at the top as the National Theatre of Scotland lost Vicky Featherstone to the Royal Court (a canny move to breathe fresh, non-London-centric life into an organisation that is always at the risk of being subsumed by the voice of the metropolitan middle-class).

The other powerhouse, the RSC, have crafted a seamless transfer into handing the reigns to Gregory Doran. The RSC seem reinvigorated and scored a big hit with David Tennant in Richard II, and Doran seems to be keen to move through the history cycle as Henry IV Parts I and II are planned for 2014, which mark both the return of Antony Sher to the RSC and the continuance of a partnership with the Barbican that will seem them return as part of a 3-year deal.

Anyone winning 'A Civil' can expect a fine certificate as proof of their excellence. Lucky them.

The Civil Categories

  • Best Production
  • Best Actor – Male
  • Best Actor – Female
  • Best Supporting Actor
  • Best Director
  • Theatre / Theatre Company of the Year
  • Surprise of the Year
  • Best thing to happen in theatre in 2013
  • Biggest disappointment of the year
  • Worse thing to happen in theatre in 2013

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<<You can find out everything that happened in 2013 here>>

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Mission: Accomplished

Mission Drift – The Shed, National Theatre, until 28 June (some tickets available)

You can’t fail to notice the The Shed, the National Theatre’s striking addition to London’s Southbank. It looks a little like a student’s upturned IKEA table. In bright red. Walking into this new temporary venue, which on the inside is somewhat reminiscent of The Young Vic, is quite an adventure in itself; the smell of new wood, a wonderfully up close and personal stage area, visible stage management and technical. I like it already.

The Shed or Battersea Power Station after an elaborate student prankThe idea behind The Shed is for The National Theatre to celebrate original, ambitious and unexpected new theatre in an excitingly small venue. And on this level, boy does Mission Drift deliver.

Created by New York based The TEAM, Mission Drift is a stunning, well-crafted and inventive musical, yes it’s a musical, which takes us on a whirlwind journey through the American dream. From Las Vegas to New Amsterdam, covering 400 years of political and economic history (atomic bombs, economic downturns, slavery, prospecting, gambling; it’s all here), we follow two couples on their pioneering adventures.

In the world we recognise is Joan; a cocktail waitress laid off from her job and alienated from Las Vegas – the city she once lived for. Joan’s life is changed by the arrival of a mysterious and beguiling

Mission Drift's take on Americana

stranger who offers her a way out of everything she knows. And loves. This is equated to the mythical journey undertaken by two 14 year olds, Catalina and Joris, setting sail from Europe with the Dutch West India Company to start a new dream, in a land where space, as well as life, is cheap.

All of this is overseen by Miss Atomic (Heather Christian), an all at once alluring and repulsive figure who epitomises the best and worst of American capitalism. Her narration is funny, sleazy and engaging – a clever way of holding this bubbling pot of ideas together. She has a voice that grabs you by the balls and dominates the space. I wish her character could have been more intertwined with the two couples but it was a stunning and strong performance that captured the fragility of the American Dream perfectly.

<<Continue to full review>>

Radcliffe crippled by burden of expectation

The Cripple of Inishmaan – Noel Coward Theatre, until 31 August (some tickets available)

It is the website that gives it away. Alight on Michael Grandage Company and it is all too clear that this play is less about the ‘Company’ and very much about a certain Daniel Radcliffe. This is not in itself a criticism of Michael Grandage or Daniel Radcliffe. One must swallow the bitter pill of realism when it comes to the financial dynamics of the West End, which is, if you want to stage a play like The Cripple of Inishmaan for 12 weeks in one of the larger theatres of the West End then you must have an ace up your sleeve to get the audiences in.

Daniel Radcliffe is quite an ace, and paired with Martin McDonagh – notably of In Brugges and, rather less notably, Seven Psychopaths fame – the evening is set for quite a potent mix. The problem is that at times it feels that Michael Grandage has been so keen to find an edgy, modern play to entice a young actor looking to mould his career that he has failed to notice that he has chosen one of McDonagh’s weakest plays.

In Brugges had some incredibly dark scenes but was leavened by its acute sense of place and the fish-out-of-water verbal sparring of its two leads. The Lieutenant of Inishmore looks for black comedy and manages to eventually locate it in something the colour of pitch; a breathtakingly offensive yet hilarious play about the troubles of an Irish torturer considered too mad for the IRA.

McDonagh’s first play – The Beauty Queen of Leeane – won four Tony Awards and has a plot that marvellously manages to deceive its audience at every turn. It is rightly revered as a near-classic and a stunning achievement from the then-25 year old. Unfortunately the Young Vic revived it in a celebrated production less than two years ago and there are certainly no Radcliffe-shaped parts in it.

Daniel Radcliffe - STAR (not pictured: other actors)

The Cripple of Inishmaan is not a bad play and it follows McDonagh’s other plays in exploring an Ireland that seems to exist out of time. Eventually it can be placed temporally in the mid-1930’s but realistically it could be anytime from 1780 to 1980. On these rural islands the sense is that life continues much as it has always done; roles are fixed and nicknames determine character rather than other way. The arrival of the film crew on a nearby island is the jolt that throws the island off its axis – it acts as the classic outsider who engenders change on the local and drives the actions of the play.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Cripplebilly – a young man cursed with a limp and a name that he cannot shake. He sees the arrival of a film crew as his chance off the island and Hollywood as a place where his disability can be, if not accepted, at least overlooked.

It is another undeniably smart decision in the post-Potter career for Radcliffe. He deserves a great deal of credit for tackling Equus – a difficult play and a difficult part – and so far he has broadly eschewed the Hollywood-fodder that would seem so tempting. The lead in a reasonably intelligent The Women In Black and acting alongside Jon Hamm in ‘A Young Doctor’s Notebook’ on Sky Arts are the only real mainstream exposure he has received in a post-Potter universe. If the adaptation of Bulgakov’s short stories was a bit of a mixed bag it still represents a remarkably leftfield step for someone with the choice of pretty much any script.

<<Continue to full review>>