Cor! monkeys…

reviews by stewart pringle, some of them anyway

Month: December, 2013

Dark Woods, Deep Snow review

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It’s been another great year for Chris Thorpe. The smart, dense but slightly austere brilliance of There Has Possibly Been an Incident was balanced by the warm paean to human communication of I Wish I Was Lonely. It’s topped off by a weird and wild Christmas show that scrambles the wobbly high-concept charm of a Sylvester McCoy Doctor Who episode with a big sloppy smooch for the power of story-telling.

Luka (Assad Zaman) was the little boy lost in a deep, dark wood until he was found and adopted by the story-catchers, an oddball gang of interdimensional yarn-stitchers who protect the earth from destruction with a kind of ozone layer of imagination. That makes the heart of winter a busy time for them, as people gather in the dark and the cold to tell stories. There’s been an accident with the boisterous Johann’s (Gary Kitching) new invention, the Fabricator, and it’s threatening to let evil forces from another dimension rush into our world where they’ll presumably do something very, very bad.

It’s a bit confusing, if you hadn’t spotted that, and Thorpe seems to have a little trouble keeping the story together in the first act. It’s never entirely clear how the story-catchers work, where they’ve come from, or who the reverberant hell-dimension voices really are, let alone where Luka fits into all of this, but it’s loaded with charm and a genuine freshness that feels neither saccharine nor loaded with irony. The Doctor Who comparison isn’t an idle one; from the TARDIS-a-like Fabricator through the glowing crack that appears in the universe to Garance Marneur’s Maplins-punk costume design, that spirit of uncompromising, unpatronising space fantasy is everywhere.

Thorpe has developed the story-catchers among admirably original lines, avoiding clichés and creating a gang who share a warm and unconventional friendship. The female characters, Lily and Mila, are particularly impressive and offer punchy, exciting role models that are a world away from the pantomime princess. It helps that both Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen are such strong and likeable performers, proving excellent matches for Kitching’s kilt-wearing scientist and Paul Charlton’s pen-pushing Wil. Zaman makes an excellent lead, dislocated both from his world and the cheerful story-catching group.

This is director Lorne Campbell’s first Christmas show at Northern Stage, following his assumption of the artistic director role earlier in the year, and though the story slips away from him a little in the first hour, by the climax he’s ensured Dark Woods, Deep Snow doesn’t forget to warm your heart while it’s romping about through space and time.

Despite the spectacle of Marneur’s sylvan set-design and Joanna Holden’s crowd-pleasing turn as a cackling witch who forgets which story she’s in, this is probably a Christmas show for slightly older children. The cross-dimensional terrors are a booming tax on the sound system, and it’s not the easiest of plots to follow. There’s also disappointingly little to show for the brill RashDash’s involvement, with only a few short movement scenes that, truthfully, could have been added by just about anyone.

So there are disappointments in the woods, but there’s also genuine magic, and it’s a thrill to close the year in the company of one of Britain’s most exciting, formally inventive writing talents.

Written for Exeunt

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Aladdin review

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© Craig Sugden

★★★★

Where other venues are content to merely stage their pantomimes, the New Wimbledon fires it at you from a massive, glittering panto-cannon. ‘Aladdin’ is the epitome of the commercial, celeb-ridden Christmas show, and it’s totally irresistible.

It’s largely down to the sheer density of talent on stage. Alright, so Jo Brand looks like she’s on community service and the Genie of the Lamp’s some bloke off ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ that had the magic carpet pulled out from under his career when Michael Jackson died, but everyone else is golden. The brilliant Matthew Kelly must be dame of the season and Oliver Thornton, who started the year as Frank ‘N Furter in ‘Rocky Horror’, is perfectly, wonderfully gruesome in the toothy title role. Street dance troupe Flawless turn up inexplicably as the Peking Police Force and are so good they almost outshine Matthew Rixon’s hilarious Major Pong. It’s all very loud, pretty rude, not even slightly politically correct and extremely funny.

It’s hard to be critical when you’re having a billion megawatts of Christmas cheer burned into your corneas. The Lyric Hammersmith may be quirkier, Hackney panto’s got the charm, but with enough pizzazz and pyrotechnics to take your face off, Wimbledon wins the arms race.

Written for Time Out

Well review

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It’s not quite Big Top meets Big Issues, but Metta Theatre continue their integration of circus skills into narrative theatre in an exploration of the Bangladeshi well poisoning crisis. A sharp and quietly harrowing blend of documentary and aerial dance, Well is a successful piece of awareness raising that draws attention to a neglected issue with sensitivity and striking visuals.

The well-intentioned drilling of tube wells in the poorest regions of Bangladesh in the 1970’s had the tragic consequence of exposing communities to toxic levels of naturally occurring arsenic, which polluted the apparently ‘clean’ water that had promised (and in many cases delivered) such an improvement to their lives. The consequences were appalling, and a combination of insufficient education and funding to rectify the error means that it’s a disaster that’s still unfolding.

Director and dramaturg (the writing process apparently collaboratively mediated by various scientific advisors) Poppy Burton-Morgan has approached the story on two levels. The international scientific and medical community are represented by fragments of recorded speech from Professors Stuart Reynolds and Andrew Mehrag, describing the background to the incident and the effects of arsenic poisoning; while the human tragedy unfolds on the stage and in the air above it.

Performers Leyla Rees, Lindsey Butcher and Shreya Kumar move between silk, hoop and rope to tell the story of young Asha, who finds that the impact of her own arsenic poisoning runs deeper than the damage it deals to her body. In four movements we see Asha’s wedding day, where her sister notices red rashes that she can’t explain, through her eventual banishment from her adopted family and eventual tragic death. Between this we flash back to the 1970’s, where Asha’s mother comes close to death from constant bouts of dysentery – a major killer which the drilling of the tube wells helped to combat.

Well’s greatest strength is in the depth of its engagement with the hidden consequences of arsenic poisoning. The damage it deals to a woman’s marriage prospects, the subsequent destruction of a family’s economic instability, the difficulty of convincingly educating communities about the poison’s slow-burning danger.

There are moments in which the beauty of the aerial work tends to pull against the weight of the subject matter, and where it feels a strange partner for the traditional Indian dance, but others in which the work of choreographer Shreya Kumar harmonises perfectly. Butcher’s clotted, spasmodic dance of dysentery down a long intestinal rope is genuinely difficult to watch, and the language of pouring silks draws important links between water and the specific spheres and working lives of women in these communities.

The sound design fails to fully integrate, with Filipe Gomes’ backdrop of drips and splashings standing at a distance from the movement, and the voice-over work often too muted to fully impact. This may be a conscious decision to retain an intellectual distance from the subject matter, to avoid over-awing and therefore restricting or guiding an audience’s emotional response (this is ‘meta-theatre’ after all) but the lack of punch is tangible.

There may be room for further development, but Well is already another impressive work from Metta. There’s no doubt that the message is heavily filtered by the medium, but the horror of the situation and the human story Burton-Morgan illuminates still seeps acridly through.

Written for Exeunt

Let the Right One In review

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© Manuel Harlan

★★★★★

There must be some strange alchemy to John Ajvide Lindqvist’s cold-skinned, warm-blooded vampire novel. Transformed into a truly masterful Swedish film in 2008, that even when remade by Hammer Studios two years later still retained so much of its queasy, mesmeric power. And this stage version, adapted by Jack Thorne for the National Theatre of Scotland, may be its most impressive resurrection yet. It hangs in the Jerwood Downstairs like a winter fog, broken here and there by terrible, beautiful things.

Thorne is a canny choice for retelling what is at base a coming of age story, albeit one swerved by supernatural intervention and corrupted by far more worldly horrors. Resetting the Swedish tale in some remote Scottish community is a brilliant move from Thorne, retaining the isolated otherworldliness that director Tomas Alfredson captured so perfectly in the first film version.

 

Thorne shifts the balance of the story slightly, favouring scenes of systemic bullying and cruelty that place 12-year old Oskar at the bottom of an unscalable social tree, as well as the family pressures which leave him almost dangerously volatile and vulnerable. Oskar’s aggressors are seen within the context of cycles of abuse, the bullied side-kick of the bully, himself bullied by an older brother. Oskar is a link in a chain that’s being stretched to breaking point when young vampires Eli walks into his life, made clear by her entrance as Oskar and a silent chorus of other schoolboys practise desperate self-defence with bread knives pilfered from family kitchens. Eli is a symbol of rebellion and escape, teaching Oskar how to taunt a local sweetshop owner and urging him to fight back, but the consequences of drifting into her feral world become increasingly clear. It could be argued that Thorne pulls away from some of the more explicit psychosexual content of Lindqvist’s novel, but by relying on suggestion to a greater extent than either film version, questions are left to hang threateningly in the wintry air.

Martin Quinn proves himself an incredible find in his stage debut as Oskar, immediately likeable but frighteningly weak, his timing and physicality just couldn’t be better. He’s matched by a thoroughly disturbing performance by Rebecca Benson as Eli, who perfects the balance between agelessness and adolescence, shifting from pre-teen casualness to animalistic ferocity. Most chilling of all is Ewan Stewart’s turn as Eli’s protector Hakan, haunting the woods with his gas cylinder and tarpaulin, foreshadowing a more terrible chain of violence that Oskar is sliding unknowingly towards.

Thorne and director John Tiffany understand that Lindqvist’s story must function as a gothic horror as well as teenage tragedy, and spare no opportunity to spill blood or invoke real fear. The gorgeous woodland set by Christine Jones is constantly played against sudden, graphic bloodshed, and Jeremy Chernick gets a special nod for his convincing and ambitious special effects. Music by Icelandic artist Ólafur Arnalds is similarly indispensible: an electronic score of frozen beats and loops that moves at a post-rock pace, building synergistically with Tiffany’s careful direction.

The stage-craft is immaculate and filled with surprises, while the script’s occasional missteps into banality are quickly forgotten, and Thorne more often finds the perfect handful of words to dress the situations which are told so eloquently by Tiffany’s stage pictures and Quinn and Benson’s superb performances. It’s told in bloodier terms and painted in bolder colours than most plays that find their way to the Royal Court, but it’s one of the best things that’s been there all year. Lindqvist’s masterpiece of modern horror has never looked better.

Written for Exeunt

Puss in Boots review

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★★★★

Do you know the story of Puss in Boots? I mean, do you actually know what happens? It’s the one with the cat who becomes mayor or something, isn’t it? No, that’s Dick Whittington (and the cat doesn’t become mayor, that would be mental). The one with the weird under-the-sea bit with the dancing octopi? Nope, see above. The one with the evil Rat King and his legions of rat accomplices? Na-ah, that’s DW again. So what, I ask you, the hell happens inPuss in Boots?

Loads of stuff, it turns out, loads of really strange and disconnected stuff. Despite having a very familiar panto ring to it, and having been mulched up into a fewShrek films along with everything else that was pure and good about childhood, Charles Perrault’s story of a bossy, suited-and-booted magic cat isn’t actually a very familiar one. And it’s not going to be a whole heap more familiar after a night at the Hackney Empire, that’s for sure. This is as confusing a night in the theatre as you’re likely to have this December, but it doesn’t really matter because panto-goddess Susie McKenna has pulled off another evening of pure joy and spectacle that makes the finer details of the plot (almost) irrelevant.

It’s all got something to do with an evil miller who cheats his brother Tom out of his inheritance by threatening to drown his cat, leaving Tom and pussy-cat to roam the fields of France until they run into a shoe shop, where the cat requests some boots which may or may not make him magical, because actually it’s pretty damn magical for a cat to request boots in the first place. The evil miller might look like a likely villain, but actually he never turns up again and Puss and Tom instead travel to a kingdom populated by a villainous queen, a villainous witch, an ogre and assorted rogues and unfortunates. There’s a bit where Tom gets nekkid for Reasons and a complicated wrangle over royal succession, with Puss applying his skills in sword-fighting and silver-tongueing to save the day.

It’s glorious nonsense, and McKenna makes no effort to untangle it. It means there’s plenty of room for great comic set-pieces and musical numbers, but it does also create some basic problems. With at least two villains floating around it’s not always clear who to boo and hiss and who to root for, likewise the romances get hopelessly muddled and muted, and characters such as Celestine the Good Sorceress vanish almost entirely. Panto thrives on plot twists, but its moral universe must be clear and explicable for the audience to throw themselves into. McKenna hasn’t quite managed that here, and it makes for a slightly less satisfying evening than Hackney usually pulls off.

Luckily, there’s a glowing cast, Steven Edis’ winning musical score and more good-hearted, glitter-streaked pizazz than you can shake a fibre-optic wand at. The superlative Kat B, who played a mean King Rat in last year’s whizzo Dick Whittington and his Cat, plays Puss with slinky charm and a thick Jamaican accent, sparring with the audience and putting his charms to work on the ladies in the front row. Sharon D Clarke blasts the roof off as (slightly) evil Queen Talulah, raising Edis’ gospel-inflected score to spectacular heights, while Josefina Gabrielle pulls out some classic panto villainy as (very) evil witch Evilena.

Two years after Clive Rowe hung up his wig, there’s another new dame in Hackney, with Stephen Matthews taking on the role of Nettie Knowall. Matthews is loads of fun, though perhaps a touch less engaging than either Rowe or last year’s excellent Steve Elias, and he’s unfortunately saddled with a lot of dated jokes about social media. Nevertheless, he gets a great slop scene during a bout of (inexplicable) art restoration that puts the Lyric Hammersmith’s half-hearted milk-squirting bit to shame.

The decision to cast Matt Dempsey as Tom rather than the traditional cross-casting of the male hero is something of a break from panto tradition, and unfortunately Dempsey lacks the sparkle to justify it. Compared to the high-energy performances put in by the super Amy Lennox as spoiled Princess Petunia and Darren Hart as screeching maid Amnesia and Dempsey’s hero has trouble standing out.

Stephen Edis’ music can scarcely be praised enough. Where other panto’s stump for a solid score of re-worded chart hits, Edis creates a blend of genre pastiches and original tunes that gives Hackney panto it’s own thrilling identity year on year. The highlight of Puss in Boots comes during an inspired mash-up of ‘One Day More’ from Les Mis and ‘Last Midnight’ from Into the Woods that opens Act 2 with an uproarious hurrah. If there’s a better moment in a London panto this year I’ll eat my hat.

All things considered, it’s another winner from Hackney panto, and you’d have to be a sour-puss indeed not to fall in love with it by the final number. The problems here are bound almost inextricably with Puss in Boots itself. There was a barmy article by John Stevens in the Daily Mail earlier this month predicting the death of the pantomime dame in the face of political correctness (in a reversal on their usual perspective on men who choose to wear dresses). It bemoaned the rise of pantos such as Aladdin and Robin Hood, usurping ‘classics’ such as Puss in Boots and Mother Goose but rather than seeking some nefarious lefty plot to explain the shift, isn’t it more likely that they’ve fallen out of popularity because those Perrault stories just aren’t very engaging? That the best of their component parts have been refigured and reconstituted into ‘new’ panto scripts that also boast greater clarity and speak more coherently to a modern audience? After all, re-arrangement and cross-textual borrowings have always been at the heart of the commedia dell’arte and pantomime traditions.

But if it must be Puss in Boots, you’ve got to be thankful that it’s this one. Combining home-spun charm with great-hall razzle-dazzle and performed by a belting, brilliant cast. The Lyric Hammersmith’s side-splitting Jack and the Beanstalk may just have the edge on Puss for me this season, but it’s a close run thing, and fans of a more traditional bout of ‘It’s behind you’ would probably give it to Hackney on points. Quite seriously, McKenna and the stunning team at Hackney Empire could do a panto of Finnegan’s Wake and still have the whole family cheering in the aisles.

Written for Exeunt

Henry V review

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★★★

Henry V occurs on the rim of war. It’s twice enclosed: externally by Shakespeare’s own history cycle, completing the first tetralogy and preceded by its trilogy of grim sequels; internally by the narrating chorus that stands outside of its narrative, setting the scene more literally and directly than anything in the canon.

The action takes place, as Chris Goode elucidates in his superb theatrical essay The Forest and the Field, within the great ‘O’ of the round theatre scaffold, as well as on the fringes and cool-spots of the siege of Harfleur and battle of Agincourt. These factors, and more within the text, give it a peculiarly over-watched quality, a sense of self-inquiry and reflexivity that is unlike practically any other play. For a work with such a reputation for bombast and jingoism, its greatest success lies in its relentless contemplation of its own grimly warring internals.

 

That doesn’t, if it isn’t already clear, necessarily make for the most satisfying experience, but it does make Henry V a braver and more interesting choice than is immediately apparent to close the Michael Grandage Company’s first West End season. More honest than bold, more sturdy than exciting, the three out of five productions that I’ve seen have been the definition of whelming, none quite escaping the slightly snoozy orbit of those rubbish GAP-catalogue-esque posters.

There’s plenty in Grandage’s production that’s tedious. There are moments in which six or seven boring people in cloaks stand in a semicircle and talk pretty boringly about pretty boring things for interminably long periods. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, it has the virtue of tradition, but it’s the sort of Shakespeare that could put a child or a candid adult off the Bard for life. For all the trims Grandage has imposed, there’s a stubborn plainness and mannerism to the early scenes of Dukes, Earls and Archbishops that’s utterly fidgetsome.

Compare it to the Unicorn Theatre’s re-imagining ‘for kids’ earlier in the autumn and you’ll make yourself dizzy. One made an audience cry with the pricking of a balloon, one almost sent it to sleep with a dozen of the country’s finest Shakespearean actors. One trod delicately over the text but with sureness in every step, the other paces the text with great galumphing strides but almost stumbles at the first hurdle.

Then there’s Jude Law himself, who’s almost faceless until his sojourn among the camp in Act IV. There’s a sort of gravitas to his Harry (not that you could believe anyone would call him Harry, he seems like the sort of person you’d call Mr Lancaster on the rare occasions you even bothered turning up to his Geography classes) but it’s the weight and solemnity of a statue rather than the bearing of an impressive, once impetuous ruler. His Crispin’s Day speech sees the first spark of something hotter, though it’s far from a great rendition, but it’s only really in his first moment of soul-searching following his confrontation with Williams that he registers as more than a palimpsest behind the verse.

Law is best in his final scene with Katharine, when he turns on the charisma, and something of his wilder, smoother days shines through. In a way the gear-change exaggerates rather than soothes the play’s own fractured final act, where broad comedy sits uncomfortably in the seat tragedy has just vacated and then squats there for slightly too long.

The meat of Henry V comes from Cheapside, rather than royalty, and its an element that Grandage has gone a long way towards perfecting. A great comic cast, headed up by Ron Cook’s blustering Pistol, fill the Falstaff-shaped gap in this late history, and prove the apparent subplots of the play to be among Shakespeare’s most profound and integrated uses of black comedy. Through Pistol, Nym and Bardolph, we see Mr Lancaster’s war from two removes, from the sidelines of the battlefield where these rough men squabble and pontificate, and from the perspective of the common man, expected to fight, bleed and die for a dubious war.

Shakespeare passes an extremely humane eye over the parallels that emerge between the drunken squabbles of poor men and the arcane tugging and warring of polity. As foolish as Pistol may be, when he contemplates his return to Cheapside, where his Mistress Quickly (an excellent Noma Dumezweni, doubling as Katharine’s handmaid) has died and the honour Mr Lancaster promised on the field of Agincourt already feels tarnished with the taste of leek, it’s clear that the band of brothers will quickly be disbanded when the war is over.

There’s excellent work from Jason Baughan here as Bardolph, Norman Bowman as Nym and Williams and Matt Ryan as Fluellen. Their scenes relocate the apparent concerns of Henry V, they present the low and usual level of the social strata which war cuts through and so temporarily disrupts. When themes such as Mr Lancaster’s religiosity fail to carry through and resonate, Shakespeare’s political satire continues to impress.

The one nod towards the contemporary in this largely traditional staging is the presentation of the Chorus, dressed somewhat inexplicably in a T-Shirt and backpack. Luckily, the part is performed by the always-watchable Ashley Zhangazha, and his delivery is excellent. Henry V conceals some of Shakespeare’s finest writing about theatre itself and his most evocative pleas to its power. Zhangazha’s delivery of lines such as ‘O, do but think/You stand upon the ravage and behold/A city on the inconstant billows dancing’ is shiver-inducing, and fitter by far than the laughable battle scenes, where men in armour rush from one wing to the other like the inhabitants of a Star Trek skirmish.

Maybe that’s the point. Caught in its own hall of mirrors, Henry V questions rather than confirms any perspective on the righteousness of its protagonist or his occupation. The hand of God is invoked so frequently that even Henry seems to question its existence or its placement in his heart of hearts. But the play’s truest and best qualities lie in its farce, its dark and bloody farce, that comments – and comments so directly, in a moral universe of misdirection and indecision – upon the dark and bloody farce of war.

Written for Exeunt

Jack and the Beanstalk review

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© Tristram Kenton

★★★★

They’ve changed the guard at the Lyric panto, West London’s smart-arse alternative to Hackney’s cosy seasonal leviathan. The superb Tom Wells (who has a major hit over at the Bush right now with ‘Jumpers for Goalposts’) has taken over as writer, with longtime associate director Dan Herd stepping up to the top job. And it’s quite possibly better than ever.

Show regular Steven Webb is a flashbang of charisma as wannabe florist Sprout, while Nigel Richards swishes and swooshes his way through a highlight performance as rent collector Mr Fleshcreep. Howard Ward’s dame is a shade too pallid, and his tussle with a horrifying pantomime cow too restrained, but Herd’s rollicking direction keeps on coming on.

Wells’s script is the silver bullet, skewering more pop-culture references than a nail-bomb in the ‘Family Guy’ studio, while managing a surprisingly sweet love story and some subtle LGBTwists.

There’s a bit that sees a roomful of eight-year olds shout ‘it’s Bonnie Tyler’ to distract the villain, and then they mistake Bonnie Tyler for a giant goose – because they’re eight years old and don’t know who the hell Bonnie Tyler is. And that’s ludicrous. And that’s brilliant. Your move, Hackney.

Written for Time Out