“The commons, like an angry hive of bees that want their leader, scatter up and down”

Henry VI part 1, Act 3, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

If there was ever a political year we can be certain will be dramatised, it’s 2016. One can only hope it will be James Graham writing the script, given the poignancy and wittiness he lends 1970s politics in This House. blog-3First produced in the National in 2012, this revival was clearly calculated to highlight a growing sense of political déjà vu – see the first three lines of the blurb for details: “Is a political revolution coming? Will the Labour party collapse? Can the kingdom stay united?”

Set amongst the Whips’ offices in the heart of parliament, the play sees the harassed and strained Whips attempt to control a bunch of chaotic and unruly MPs in a government which is hanging by a thread. Sick and dying politicians are wheeled in for motion after motion because each and every vote matters like never before. It’s this atmosphere of chaos, the real drama of politics, which the play captures so well.

The protagonists are the two Deputy Chief Whips. Steffan Rhodri (aka Dave Coaches from Gavin and Stacey) plays the Labour hardman Walter Harrison, whilst Nathaniel Parker is his slickly spoken Tory opponent, Jack Weatherill. Both of these characters were engaging and, crucially, likeable. blog-4As a rule, it’s the unlikeable characters who create better theatre (see Hedda Gabler, Richard III, A View From the Bridge for details). Here, however, it felt important to give both men some sort of integrity, perhaps because of the political subject. It’s refreshing to see people with contrasting opinions and world-views represented as equally understandable, and equally human. It’s not that the stereotypes of stuck-up Tory and chippy Labourite weren’t there; Malcolm Sinclair was gloriously pompous as Conservative Chief Whip Humphrey Atkins, whilst as his Labour counterpart Phil Daniels was equally gloriously foul-mouthed a la Malcom Tucker. But whilst showing the ludicrousness of British politics in abundance, This House also paints an overall picture of the nobility at the heart of the system. Throughout the play, frazzled MPs complain about the presence of people messing up an otherwise perfect way of government. And whilst that may be true, the ending shows the flipside; that human emotions, codes of conduct, and honour systems, are also part of the beauty of the British political system. blogYou come away with a deep sense of respect for the people behind-the-scenes, who dedicate their lives to making sure the party they believe is right remains in power – even if a sense of futility often haunts their frantic manoeuvrings.

Phew. That’s enough lyricism for one review. Back to the practicalities of theatre. The staging at the Garrick Theatre is mostly well done. There is a sense of streamlined chaos to the people pacing back and forth within the two Whip offices onstage. The best bit of direction is having the Speaker of the House announce each character by their title as they enter (e.g. “the Member for Oxfordshire East”). A small issue was that the Speaker changed after the interval – in itself not a problem, but it made it appear like this new Speaker was a character who’d already appeared. Which he wasn’t. Just a bit unnecessarily confusing.

I also had a big problem with a part of the staging. The blog-6offices are surrounded by the wooden walls of the House of Commons, with a whole upper level of green seats filled with audience members looking down on the action. This in itself is a great idea, an attempt to recreate the intimacy and audience engagement of the Dorfman. However, any action on this upper level was completely invisible to those sitting in the back half of the stalls (like me). The majority of the drama, to be fair, took place on the mainstage, but quite a few scenes (including one immediately after a key character’s death) were totally hidden from view. I understand transfers are difficult, I understand older theatres are built with different requirements, and I understand this may have looked fantastic to the rest of the audience, but theatre is expensive. Just getting there takes effort and time and money, and I think directors like Jeremy Herrin should factor in the view from every seat when they produce a show. That’s not to say everyone has to have a full view at all times – that’s just unachievable – but it shouldn’t be physically impossible for a whole section of audience to see entire scenes.

Anyway, rant over. Despite these flaws, this is an engaging, informative and witty political drama, with an important sense of poignancy throughout.blog-5 The ensemble cast are excellent; I particularly liked Lauren O’Neill as Ann Taylor, the only female Whip, and Kevin Doyle as her boss Michael Cocks. For someone who knew virtually nothing about this period of politics, the anecdotes and stories that feature (including Michael Heseltine seizing the parliamentary mace and John Stonehouse’s fake disappearance) seem almost unbelievable. But funny. The blackly comedic atmosphere is what this play gets right. It makes for an entertaining and powerful night out – just don’t sit at the back of the stalls.

This House at the Garrick Theatre: 3.5/5 stars

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“It is an heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in’t.”

The Winter’s Tale, Act 2, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

This is I think the fourth Winter’s Tale production I’ve seen – more different productions even than Romeo and Juliets or King Lears. It seems like this has become the ultimate Christmas Shakespeare (to be fair the clue as to why is kind of in the title), a comedy that so almost becomes a tragedy at several points and involves the infamous Exit pursued by a bear stage direction.blog 5

This production really plays up the Christmas factor as well, and a Victorian Christmas at that (which seems slightly odd given the obsession with the Greek oracle but oh well, this is theatre, we can suspend our belief). The Sicilian court features a Nutcracker-esque Christmas tree, laden with red and gold presents, boxes which are excitedly opened by little Prince Mamillius and handed round to the adults – Leontes, Hermione, and Polixenes – who gasp and thank in childish awe and playfulness. blog 2However, this warm and festive world soon has a cold shadow cast over it, the lighting darkens the wide stone hallways and snow, which at the beginning is tossed joyfully over the audience, drops instead at the back of the stage, and later exclusively on Leontes, a picture of grief with white hair and tortured expression.

Now, this is where my English student-ness comes out, but this, and projections of snow swirling around, seemed designed to make the stage reflect one of the gifts most ostentatiously opened at the beginning: a snow globe. Now this is a trope often used, not just in Christmas entertainment but all the year round to show dreams, these dreams or illusions being shattered (think Hilary Duff in A Cinderella Story), or a la Sylvia Plath, a stifling glass jar impossible to escape from.blog 1 Obviously, given the relatively dark subject matter (particularly in the first half), it was the latter that director and star Kenneth Branagh chose to focus on. The snow and who is was showered on showed this growing claustrophobia; first of all, a Christmassy sense of togetherness, then the court closing in on itself in the wake of scandal, and then Leontes, alone with his grief and trapped in an icy kingdom of his own making. Even Hermione’s statue set-up had Elsa-from-Frozen levels of frosty beauty, which made it seem like she, too, was trapped in a walled-in winter… and then of course the walls break down, the glass is shattered, and everyone is happy and together yay (except *SPOILER ALERT* Mamillius who’s dead a fact which is always forgotten at the end. I mean, a child died. But oh well get over it and move on. It is Christmas after all.

So as well as getting my lit nerd on, I really enjoyed the less interpretive elements of this production too! Branagh was excellent as the passionately jealous, and then grief-stricken blog 3King Leontes, with Miranda Raison as his resilient, incredibly human, wife Hermione. This is the third time I’ve seen Jessie Buckley in a Shakespearean ‘ingénue’ kind of role (previously she was Miranda in the Globe’s The Tempest and Princess Catherine in the Micheal Grandage Company’s Henry V) and she does pull it off incredibly well, with exactly the right balance of innocence, strength and vitality. Tom Bateman of Shakespeare in Love theatre fame played a vivacious, energetic Florizel who seemed far more at home among the peasants of Bohemia than in the courtly clothes his station required. blog 4In fact, the peasant dance was almost over the top in its determination to focus on the physical and the carnal; especially during the kissing bit of the dance when all the men suddenly started stripping off – which reminded me quite a lot of a university party rather than sheep-shearing festival, but I guess the youthfulness ties the two together? It was definitely fun to watch anyway…

Now, how could I go this far without mentioning the one, the only, Dame Judi Dench, as Paulina. Warm and imperious, she brought both humour and gravity to the stage – particularly in the line I’ve used as my blog title. Her Paulina commanded attention and respect; although she was hilariously blogmanipulative in reminding Leontes of his terrible actions to get him to do things. I kept picturing how they’d have lived day to day for the sixteen years basically alone together – every time they order takeout:
LEONTES: I think I’ll go for the American Hot.

PAULINA: Remember how you caused the untimely deaths of your wife and children because of your outrageous jealousy? And also the death of my own husband?

Leontes bows head in grief

PAULINA: On phone So we’ll have a Margarita each please.

(If someone is a cartoonist and fancies illustrating a situation like this then I would love you forever)

So anyway, back on track. This production of The Winter’s Tale is beautifully designed and very festive, with enough bitterness to make it not a sugar overload. It all feels very filmic, especially the beginning, with lots of atmospheric background music. There were also some really fun comic turns from John Dagliesh as Autoclyus and Jack Colgrave Hirst as Clown. The only element that’s slightly sour is when Paulina and Camillo are conveniently paired together right at the end – but to be fair, that is kind of Shakespeare’s fault. I guess I would have just cut that out if I were Branagh. But that was a very small feature. The actors are great, and the set design is pretty; it’s a lovely production of what seems to have turned into a festive classic.

The Winter’s Tale  at the Garrick Theatre: 4.5/5 stars

“The miserable have no other medicine but only hope.”

Measure for Measure, Act 3, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

Who would have thought a musical with a name like Urinetown could be quite so fantastic? I went into the Apollo Theatre last Thursday afternoon with a curious mixture of low and high blog 1expectations; I mean, the name, the dark dystopian subject matter (which I’ll explain later) and the fact that I got a £15 front row ticket, all told me not to get my hopes up. And yet… have you seen the reviews?! Five stars from The Telegraph, four stars from just about everywhere else – surely it had to be pretty good, right?

The basic premise is that, in America, twenty or thirty years into the future, they have been suffering from a serious drought. So serious, in fact, that private bathrooms are non-existent and everyone must use public toilets – you have to pay to pee. And, like in any good dystopia, the rich (the owners of the urinals, UGC or Urine Good Company *ba-doom-tsh*) are getting richer and the poor are suffering because of it. Anyone who pees on the street or refuses to pay is taken to the terrifying ‘Urinetown’ and never seen again; I’m sure you can imagine exactly what ‘Urinetown’ actually stands for in this kind of society. When Bobby Strong, the assistant at Public Amenity #9 – the grottiest bathrooms of them all – and Hope Cladwell, daughter of UGC Director, Caldwell B. Cladwell, meet in the streets and fall in love instantaneously, this sparks off a chain of events which change the landscape of the city forever.

blogYes, it sounds totally mental, and dark, and depressing, but it’s not like they don’t realise it and play on it to the utmost. Our guides, Officer Lockstock (played with a great mixture of compassion and cynicism by Jonathan Slinger) and Little Sally (Karis Jack, who holds her own perfectly against Slinger) constantly break the fourth wall and make references to all the problems with the musical, a touch which I, personally, loved. There are also some fantastic bits of over-the-top gospel in there, which are not only really funny but also very well sung.

The songs themselves are great; there were definitely touches of Little Shop of Horrors in there. And unlike in other recent musicals, they are actually catchy – so much so that they are now playing on my Spotify. I’m not saying they’re the new “One Day More” or “Edelweiss” or anything, but they are well sung, clever and memorable.

However, the thing that stood out the most for me was the ensemble cast as a whole. There were, ofblog 2 course, some standout players: Julie Jupp as Penelope Pennywise; Phill Juppitus as Caldwell B. Cladwell; Rosanna Hyland as a naïve Hope Cladwell; Matthew Seadon-Young as idealistic Bobby Strong (although sometimes he seemed just a little too quiet for my liking). These characters could have been awful had the actors not realised the comedic potential to their stereotypical ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ labels and used this to their advantage.

But it’s the ensemble who make the musical. Kane Oliver Parry, Jeff Nicholson, Aaron Lee Lambert, Madeleine Harland, Liz Ewing, Cory English and Katie Bernstein (I have to mention all of them!) are all hyper-energetic and all make each character they play unique and interesting. Everyone is just so full of character, it’s hard to know where to look on the stage; everyone is constantly performing which I absolutely love. Any production where I begin to look out for certain blog 4ensemble cast members is a good one in my book. In fact, if there’s one problem with the show it’s that great characters like Mr McQueen (Alisdair Buchan) don’t get enough lines! I want to know all of their backstories; each of them should have a song to themselves.

Okay, enough gushing.

The staging is well done, with the revolving stage adding a lot to the action. However, there are two levels to the stage, obviously symbolising the upper and lower classes. Unfortunately this meant that, from the front row, at least, much of the performance on the upper level is lost, and you have to just rely on voices and maybe vague shadows to tell you what’s going on. Helpfully, the actors don’t stay up there for long, but it’s still a little irritating.

This is really the only fault I can find with the musical, however, and it really wasn’t a major blog 3disturbance. As far as I’m concerned, Urinetown is highly recommended and it’s shocking that the theatre wasn’t fuller when I went – admittedly, it was a Thursday matinee, but still. Theatre-goers, I expected more of you! This is a brilliant, unique musical, in an age where people complain of the non-originality of ‘new’ musicals on Broadway and in the West End. If you enjoyed Avenue Q or The Book of Mormon, you’ll love this as much as I did.

Urinetown at Apollo Theatre: 5/5 stars