“Here walk I in the black brow of night / To find you out”

King John, Act 5, Scene 6

William Shakespeare

The Red Barn is a triumph of cinematography on-stage. Bunny Christie’s set design is absurdly slick, and the National’s Lyttelton stage transforms from blizzard to country
house to New York apartment with unbelievable rapidity. It’s just a shame the story is so underwhelming.

Based on Georges Simenon’s novel, La Main, David Hare’s script is at first thrillingly pacey and mysterious. Two couples struggle against a New England snowstorm, clinging to each other for safety, when one of the men vanishes. What happened to him? blog-4Did he purposefully let go of his best friend’s hand? Was he deliberately left behind by said best friend? Can he possibly have survived mid-blizzard? The characters also initially appear intriguing. Mark Strong seems affable as Donald Dodd, whilst Hope Davis is eerily in-control as his wife Ingrid, and Elizabeth Debicki(of Night Manager fame)’s Mona Sanders seems numb with shock at her husband’s disappearance. The beginnings of an interesting, if not a great, thriller are there.

The rest of the play sadly fails to live up to this tension and promise, spiralling into the classic white man mid-life crisis drama. blog-6Ray Sanders’ disappearance is explained relatively quickly – don’t worry, no spoilers – and relatively boringly so we can get down to the real action: Donald’s dissatisfaction at his perfectly okay life.
Obviously people do feel frustration at having been the best in their class/year/college/state and ending up right back where they came from; at not making it in the big city because of fear. They’re scared that settling down is settling. These are all acceptable and real things. They are also things which I feel like I’ve seen on the stage, read about countless times before. Strong is as compelling as usual, but even he cannot make Donald’s plight that interesting.

Ingrid is by far the most intriguing character of the play. Davis’s perfectly made-up face is imperturbable. Determined to preserve her perfect small-town existence, Ingrid is dispassionately shrewd, apparently aware of everything, even before it happens. This disquieting perception, like the rest of the play, is at first exciting, and then lacks any real expansion. Davis deserves more stage time, and more character development. The other female protagonist, Mona, is similarly underwritten.blog-3 Essentially playing a slightly less helpless version of her Night Manager ‘damsel-in-distress’, Debicki is impossibly elegant even when tearfully mourning her vanished husband. I should be upfront about this – I find this type of female character indescribably irritating. The type which floats around seducing men by an inexplicable combination of reclining on various white sofas looking sophisticated and modelesque, and suddenly crumbling in a tragic show of fragility and vulnerability. Well, perhaps not that inexplicable… Debicki plays this as well as she did in the Night Manager, but the character herself just seems like someone no woman would ever write, because she’s so boringly reductive. Strong’s character is the only one who seems vaguely developed – we at least get to meet his father (played with grumpy catankerousness by Michael Elwyn). But are middle-aged men really that immature? What sets Donald off on his mid-life crisis? Not his career, not his kids, not his family, not politics, not news. Nope, he’s jealous of how much sex his best friend gets. Wow. Such character depth, Hare.

What makes the production worth seeing is the set. Pitch black panels cover the front of the stage, sliding open into various rectangles or squares of light, to reveal beautifully chic houses and apartments behind. Props (haha) to the stage crew for the impossibly quick transitions between Mona’s icily glamourous expansive apartment, enacted flashbacks to the night of the party, and the Dodd’s immaculate New England chalet/cabin.blog Given that Simenon’s novel is written in the first person, the black panels cleverly allow this sense of subjectivity to become clearer, closing in oppressively as Donald feels increasingly trapped in his life. In fact, the only excuse I can make for the underdeveloped characters is that the whole production takes place through Donald’s eyes. Drama is, however, an objective medium, and it’s so tough to get rid of this audience preconception. People, Places, and Things and 1984 have achieved it (the latter also directed, and written, by Robert Icke, the director of The Red Barn). I think it’s great that theatre in general, this production included, is experimenting with how to subvert expectations – I just don’t think The Red Barn makes this intention clear enough.What the set design is trying to achieve is fantastic, but whether it does so is dubious.

The key word for this production is stylish. Rarely have I seen such a glamorous production. blog-5The actors make the most of what they are given, the opening is gripping, and the finale is thrillingly tense, although not unexpected. What Icke and Hare are trying to achieve, dramatizing a subjective viewpoint, is exciting. Sadly, I just don’t feel like script, design, direction all meshed together to successfully show this. It’s also worth mentioning that, whilst the set is amazing, its gimmick feels almost too cinematographic at times. There is only ever one piece of action going on at once. Your gaze is directed only to one piece of dialogue, one piece of drama. When a character finishes their piece, they leave. What The Red Barn suggests is that, rather than trying to employ cinematic or bookish techniques, the theatricality of stage performance must be exploited to create really successful on-stage subjectivity.

The Red Barn at the National Theatre: 2/5 stars

“Beauty dead, black Chaos comes again”

Venus and Adonis, line 1020

William Shakespeare

What is it about Ibsen that inspires the most beautiful lighting design? Ghosts was gorgeous, Little Eyolf, for all its flaws, was beautiful, and now Ivo van Hove’s new Hedda Gabler is suffused with the most stunning sunlight, streaming in from one huge wall-window in the stylish white set.blog-6 Maybe it’s the claustrophobia of being trapped inside, away from nature, if I get all English nerd about it. Whatever it is, I’m in favour. The streamlined design of Hedda’s apartment, filling the entire expansive stage of the Lyttleton at the National, makes the ensuing chaos all the more shocking.

I feel like I should warn; this is the very first Hedda I’ve ever seen, so I can’t really compare Patrick Marber‘s translation to any thing else. I did think his classic mix of beautiful and brutal language worked well, was easy on the ear and yet heightened.  I also can’t do one of those extended comparisons with great Heddas of years and theatres gone by. blogRuth Wilson, however, seems to me someone whose performance everyone will appreciate. With the same passionate cruelty she shows as Alice in Luther, her Hedda is by turns raging, witty, seductive, wretched, and elated, but always always utterly mesmerising. The beauty of allowing the whole stage to be just one, largely empty, set is the really the beauty of theatre; you can let your eye wander all over the stage. You don’t have to focus on the person talking all the time, and with Wilson in the background, you can indulge this temptation to the max.
There’s always something interesting to look at. I have to say, I’m intrigued to see how this will work out in the National Theatre Live screening in the new year. Let’s hope they don’t direct our gazes too much, because that would really ruin part of the beauty of this production.

The cast supporting Wilson do not quite match her, but this is no surprise. It feels like they are taking a step back on purpose to let her shine, rather than competing for attention.blog-4 The play is named after her character after all! Rafe Spall grows increasingly threatening as Brack as the play continues, and his final scene with Wilson is classic van Hove menace. Not give anything away – but think blood and lots of it. Not quite the bucket loads like at the end of A View from the Bridge, but a fair amount. Not to sound too much like Anna Mann, but “it was visceral, it was real, it was true”. And for once I mean that non-ironically.

Against the almost sadistic cruelty of these two characters, Kyle Soller as Hedda’s husband Tesman and Sinéad Matthews as school acquaintance Mrs Elvsted bring some much needed sweetness to the stage.
Just like the set, what this production understands is that it is the light which draws attention to the dark, and this is what these supporting characters provide. I was pleasantly surprised with the independence of Mrs Elvsted; she was like a Nora liberated from her Doll’s House. Matthews’ husky voice worked well in the role, although sometimes (very rarely) it became rather too pathetically plaintive for my liking.blog-5  Soller, meanwhile, bounded about the stage, his face showing every high and every low as the emotions hit him, his childish enthusiasm for slippers and tears for his ill aunt contrasting completely with Wilson’s gleeful cruelty. As his rival Lovborg, Chukwudi Iwuji was similarly impassioned, and Éva Magyar was inscrutable as the constantly present and constantly ignored maid Berte.

This is a production of force and passion and energy, revolving around Wilson’s captivating performance. Hedda may not be someone I’m able to understand, but she is certainly someone I’m totally intrigued by. blog-3From the moment you walk into the auditorium, Wilson is there, head down, centre-stage piano, playing the same few notes over and over again. Her ennui is evident; and the repetition lulls us into the same mood, desperate for a proper melody, some proper action. Speaking of, the soundtrack to this production is great, the piano refrain returning transformed into a full song, plus excerpts of better known tunes. But really it is the set that sums up the production for me; a site of beautiful chaos, it provides a simply white background where dark and dirt can shock us even more.

Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre: 4.5/5 stars

P.S. Shock horror I just realised I used the quote in my last post “I would not be queen for all the world” on a review before! Rest assured this will (hopefully) not be happening again for a while. Blame Shakespeare for not writing enough sentences with ‘queen’ in them…

“I would not be a queen for all the world”

Henry VIII, Act 2, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

Getting to see not one, but two, great, older actresses live is never less than a treat. Add the intense theatricality of these actresses switching roles on the flip (well, spin) of a coin, and you have a stagey must-see. The Almeida was already onto a winner when they cast Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams in the same play. Luckily the actors are not let down by either the production or the script of Robert Icke’s new adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart – and the coin toss turns out to be far more than a gimmick.21995_show_portrait_large

For here, the two Queens, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart (aka Mary, Queen of Scots), are two sides of the same coin. The former a Protestant and a calculating politician, the latter a Catholic and a fervent lover, their differences are evident. Yet the dual casting highlights their similarities on top of this. Both raised to rule, with a huge sense of entitlement, they were also both imprisoned for long stretches of time by their own family members. The set emphasises this sense of entrapment, with the audience almost surrounding a circular, boxing ring-esque stage. Even though it is Mary who is jailed in this play, as Elizabeth paces about the small space it is clear that she, too, is confined in her role.

One of the most striking scenes for me occurred towards the end, the stage revolving as Mary (Stevenson, when I saw it) was preparing for her execution, Elizabeth (Williams) to face her people. Whilst the Stuart, gowned in a simblog-5ple nightdress, was surrounded by women and taking Holy Communion, the Tudor was forced into full Elizabethan dress, complete with ruff, huge hoop, dead white face-paint and bejewelled wig, assisted only by men. The rest of the production is entirely in modern dress, making this transformation even more powerful. Before, Elizabeth’s velvet pantsuit makes her fit in with her male courtiers; we can see her as a modern female politician, and therefore her harshness and vanity are less excusable. The period costume reminds the audience of just how difficult it was to be a woman in general at the time, and particularly a woman in power. What the production gets crucially right is emphasising the complexities of these characters, retaining a balance so that, for me at least, it was virtually impossible to decide who to agree with.

With one thousand, two hundred and nineteen lines between the two main roles, learning the script alone is an accomplishment for Stevenson and Williams. In the parts I saw them play, I couldn’t fault them; Stevenson was a fiery, incensed Mary, even as Williams was haughty and turbulent Elizabeth. I’d love to see them the other way round to see how much their portrayals differ – although of course the coin-spinning element means there are no guarantees!

The rest of the cast varies. John Light is incredibly intense as the blog-4cowardly, flatterer Leicester, making his weak characteristics clear whilst also showing enough passion to make it clear why both Queens fall for him. Vincent Franklin, too, is powerful as the hard-line judiciary, Burleigh, with David Jonsson, Carmen Monroe and Sule Rimi all putting in strong performances. However, there were a couple of roles that became rather proclamatory. Rudi Dharmalingam as the young rebel Mortimer, was particularly guilty of this, the words becoming quotation-marked ‘speeches’ rather than spontaneous dialogue.

Saying this, even though this production is a lengthy one – over three hours long, including the interval – it is a tribute to the cast and crew that it doesn’t actually feel that long. When my dad and I saw the first act alone was an hour and fifty minutes, we groaned out loud. Weirdly, though, the first half breezed by; it’s the second half that starts to drag. blogIt’s the trouble with a play about real history. Most of us know Mary’s going to die at the end, so her many farewell speeches to countless admirers and handmaidens who only appear at this point begin to feel more like hindrances to action, than particularly stimulating in themselves. Just hurry up and die already!

The production is classically Almeida/Icke, especially the sound design, with almost imperceptible underlying notes subtly creating a tense atmosphere, and dramatic bass drops at every dramatic moment. There is also a curious ticking noise which appears every so often. I struggled with this. Part of me appreciated the sense of impending doom it brought, but it came in and out so randomly I feel like a spent way too long trying to figure out why it came in only at those moments, so that it actually distracted some of the time. #EnglishStudentProblems. blog-3Still, overall the soundscape adds to the tension, and Laura Marling’s songs are particularly effective (I mean, I just like Laura Marling’s music anyway!). The brick wall of the Almeida once again serves as a simple backdrop, with an added element to create the shock factor of Mary’s final execution.

The audience is likewise typically Almeidian (new word, roll with it). Mainly older, middle-class, North London intelligentsia, there are frequent knowing titters and chuckles at any of the overt references to Brexit; and there are plenty of those. The timeliness of the production is stressed constantly – rightly so in many cases, the focus on appealing to a mass audience particularly relevant. I just found the laughter at the idea of these ignorant masses rather smug – although perhaps that’s a problem with the audience, not the production. It would be interesting to see how it would play to an audience made up of less of the metropolitan elite. This is, then, a far more timely production than one might expect of a play about the late sixteen-hundreds. The programme is really great, jam-packed with articles and photos. The coin toss is a great way of creating a tension you can only really get with live theatre and the two actresses are fabulous – this is definitely you want to get tickets for.

Mary Stuart at the Almeida Theatre: 4/5 stars

“I know thee well; a serviceable villain.”

King Lear, Act 4, Scene 6

William Shakespeare

As usual my pre-university post-summer September spike is here, and I’m back reviewing. First up, the National Theatre’s production of The Threepenny OperablogIn a new adaptation of Brecht and Weill’s famous collaboration by Simon Stephens, Rory Kinnear stars as king of the murky underworld of the East End, Captain Macheath aka Mack the Knife – that’s right, the one from the song. I had no idea, in fact, that the ‘Mack the Knife’ song of Michael Buble and Robbie Williams was originally from this show. It’s actually in a way a relief for a Brecht/Weill virgin like me to be introduced to their dark and spiky theatrical and musical style through a jazz standard. In fact, I’ve attached Buble to give added atmosphere while reading this review – enjoy!

Kinnear was my main reason for going to see this production; he’s never let me down before and he did not disappoint this time either. His Mack was a completely immoral, shameless, self-centred arsehole, who nonetheless – or perhaps unsurprisingly – was very entertaining to watch. blog-5His singing voice was unexpectedly good as well, and his trademark distinct diction came in very handy in this musical where the words seemed really more important than the music. Rosalie Craig as Polly Peachum, Nick Holder as J.J. Peachum, and Sharon Small as Jenny Diver were all equally clear in their phrasing which was much needed. However, although Haydn Gwynne brought much to the part of Celia Peachum, it was very hard to understand a lot of the words when she sang. It sounded to me (not to get too technical) like the break between her chest and head voice was weirdly low in her range. This meant most of her solos couldn’t be belted; instead they became a little shrill and less clear.

George Ikediashi had the most beautiful voice of the cast as the Balladeer. blog-4I only wished he’d had more solos than just the ones at the beginning and the end. I can’t lie, the music wasn’t necessarily what I’d listen to on a daily basis, and it did feel occasionally like some of the songs were unnecessary, particularly in the first half. Saying this, the band was absolutely fantastic. It’s always lovely having the music-makers visible on stage, and this production particularly used this to great effect. In fact, the staging in general was one of the best things about Rufus Norris’s production. Vicki Mortimer has worked out a fascinatingly bare-yet-cluttered set design which makes full use of the Olivier’s famous revolving drum. blog-3The effect is to provide something obviously theatrical, where the atmosphere, rather than the image, of London’s East End is produced. It is made very clear when the actors and crew are moving sets, and these sets are made out of quite ordinary materials (paper and wood), yet altogether, lifted out of the depths of the stage, they make something extraordinary.

This is a play that gets better as it goes on, with the overtly melodramatic ending as the clear highlight of the show. Peter de Jersey and Matt Cross as the consistently corrupt Police Inspector and Police Officer also stood out comedically. blog-2I loved that the amorality of the play was made clear from the start. Nonetheless, despite Kinnear’s excellent performance, and the staging, this self-proclaimed amorality and the focus on satire rather than emotion somewhat distances the audience. You can be entertained by the foul and lewd behaviour, yes, but you can’t emotionally connect with it. That’s not really the point of this I suppose, and yet it did leave me feeling a little unsatisfied; I guess I’m somewhat of a sentimentalist, but there you go. The Threepenny Opera will be screened as part of NT Live sometime this month, I believe; it is worth going to see, if only for the set, but it’s not a play that left me with any sense of lasting impact.

The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre: 3/5 stars

“O, she is rich in beauty”

Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

I feel like I’ve missed a lot of great things at the St James Theatre recently, and indeed lots of great theatre starring Catherine Tate, so buying tickets for Miss Atomic Bomb was an obvious one. blog 5It’s also refreshing to hear of a new musical that isn’t based on an existing film, book, or music; which has a completely original plot. And original this certainly is! It’s just a shame that the five years which have apparently gone into developing the production aren’t particularly evident from the overall scrappiness of the narrative, as hard as the performers work to cover this up.

To quickly summarise the plot for you – or at least attempt to (!) – the whole thing takes place around Las Vegas, where in the deserts of Nevada, farm-girl Candy Johnston (Florence Andrews) and her fashion designer friend Myra (Catherine Tate) watch the atom-bombs go off like they’re a “second sunset”.

blog 2

Through a series of extremely random coincidences involving an escaped soldier, a pair of ruthless gangsters, an officious bank employee, and a lot of dead sheep, Candy ends up deciding to enter the brand new Las Vegas ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ beauty pageant. As I said, it’s complicated.

The thing is, there are quite a few funny moments in here; it’s not like it isn’t an enjoyable evening out. ‘All My Sheep Are Gone’ is utterly ridiculous, the drag queen entrant Carol (Charles Brunton) to the beauty pageant is fab, and I really appreciated the hyperbolic Les Mis-Javert tribute by Daniel Boys at the end – but it was just all so haphazardly put together that it was hard to focus a lot of the time.

blog 3

It felt like each idea with potential had been developed by a different person or team and then they’d had a quick meeting and kind of smushed it all together.

This means there are several amusing jokes either buried under tons of dancing Las Vegas girls, crazy scientists or army generals, or drawn out for rather too long – like Simon Lipkin and Tate’s duet about sugar daddies and beards (I can’t find the titles of the songs anywhere, and I was too cheap to buy a programme, sorry!).

 

To be more succinct, the jokes are either dwelt on too much, or not dwelt on enough. The timing of the script seems off, a fault saved only by the excellent comic timing of some of the cast, particularly Lipkin and Tate.

The singing was also of an extremely high quality.blog 4 In the lead male role of Joey, Dean John-Wilson produced some absolutely beautiful moments, particularly those in his higher range. I found myself thinking about downloading the soundtrack simply because of the vocals to be honest. It was just a shame we didn’t really get a proper exploration of his character; and that, in the twenty-first century, we’re still lumped with the whole ‘boy-meets-girl, they fall in love almost at first sight (or at least within the space of a song), and change everything bad about themselves in order to get together’ trope. To be fair, Joey and Candy’s relationship could perhaps be taken as a pastiche of this, but only at a pinch.

blog

Thank god Tate and Lipkin’s characters had a more interesting relationship. Still, Andrews’ voice, too, was lovely and very expressive. Tate had a fine pair of lungs on her, although – as I think many have noted – her accent sways from Southern to Australian and back with astonishing rapidity.

This is a show, then, where the overall scrappiness of plot, and the general blandness of the music lets a strong cast down. Tate and Lipkin’s comic talent deserves better than jokes about having a long name, or being shot in the foot. I should also mention David Birrell’s excellently camp number in the role of General Westcott. There were just so many random moments in this musical that the real issues of nuclear bombs, when to run away and when to stick around, and indeed the central love story between Candy and Joey weren’t focused on nearly enough. That being said, it’s still an enjoyable evening out; the cast is of a high enough quality to smooth over the cracks, and there are quite a few pretty funny moments. Miss Atomic Bomb isn’t one you should be hurrying to buy tickets for, but if you’ve already booked definitely go, you’ll have a fun night out.

Miss Atomic Bomb at the St James Theatre: 2/5 stars

“Music oft hath such a charm / To make bad good and good provoke to harm”

Measure for Measure, Act 4, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

That theatre is often supposed to make you uncomfortable is a received view. blog 6Yet it feels to me like playwrights and directors increasingly use extreme violence, swearing and sex as almost shortcuts to achieving this effect on their audience. Perhaps this is partly a result of my seeing student theatrics increasingly coming with ‘trigger warnings’ (I saw a brilliantly-acted, but gruesomely graphic production of Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur a few weeks ago), but one need only think of the furore surrounding the National Theatre’s Cleansed (Sarah Kane) or Jamie Lloyd’s visceral productions of Macbeth or Richard III to see this trend of explicit gore.

Dominic Cooke’s revival of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre does indeed include violence, sex, and swearing; but what makes the production so brilliant, and actually so important to see, is that this isn’t what made me squirm in my seat. Rather, it is the powerful rendering of black African-American life in the 1920s that makes a white, middle-class, privileged viewer like myself uneasy.

blogThose more experienced theatre viewers than myself will have to bear with here; I’d never seen an August Wilson play before, or, to my shame, even heard of the playwright before this. In fact, I am embarrassingly ill-educated about BME playwrights in general, something I’ll definitely be making an effort to rectify.

For those of you, like me, who also know little about the play, here’s a quick summary: in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, four band members rehearse and talk (and argue!) whilst waiting for the ‘Mother of Blues’, Ma Rainey to arrive. The play takes place just before, and during this recording session, as we are introduced not only to Ma herself, or rather Madam, as the diva likes to be known, but also these four musicians; Cutler, the leader; Toledo, the intellectual of the group; Slow Drag, the quieter, superstitious bass player; and Levee, the loud, wildly unstable trumpet player, desperate to become a big jazz star in his own right.

It was O.T. Fagbenle in this latter role who was really the star of the production, blog 4every moment a performance, whether he was checking himself out in the locker mirrors, or stammering and stuttering over his lines, or dancing around the rather cramped area of the stage to which the musicians were confined for a large amount of the action.

I thought this staging worked pretty well; with the recording studio taking over the whole of the Lyttelton stage, the white characters of the managers and recording executives symbolically placed ‘above’ in the sound booth, and the band’s thin slice of a rehearsal room, where most of the action takes place, rising out of the floor at the front of the stage. Its thinness provided an important sense of claustrophobia, as the drama heightened throughout the course of the show.

blog 2A lot of this drama, and particularly the ‘back-story sections’ which – to sound old-fartish – I have grown to loathe in modern drama, only works so well because of the superb acting from the cast. With ‘back-story sections’ I mean those moments when a character suddenly launches into a long epistle about their past, explaining their entire character and motives for action in one dramatic monologue; it feels to me like these are just psychiatrist couch outpourings which are an easy way for a playwright to get out of having to tell a character’s mind through subtler mannerisms and oddly placed words. There were quite a few of these long speeches in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and yet the actors, particularly Fagbenle and the excellent Lucian Msmati as Toledo, managed to make them seem spontaneous enough that they didn’t jar too much in the course of the action. Giles Terera (Slow Drag) and Clint Dyer (Cutler), meanwhile, managed to create a strong sense of the bond between their two characters, without so much of the storytelling. I was especially impressed by the musicianship of all four actors; although there is actually less music than you would think from a play set in a recording studio.blog 5

Luckily, we do get to hear some of Sharon D Clarke’s smooth vocals as Ma Rainey. Clarke inhabits this central role totally, portraying both the extreme diva and her reasons for being so demanding. Finbar Lynch as Irvin, Ma’s manager who maintains constantly that he can “sort it”, was excellently efficacious, and I also liked Tunji Lucas as the shy, stuttering Sylvester, Ma Rainey’s nephew.

In fact, the only real problem I had with the performance I went to see was the audience. Perhaps it was a result of being at a weekday matinee, but it felt as though the largely white, elderly audience was self-congratulatory. The setting of the play in both the past, and another country, seemed to allow them to distance themselves from any blame, with even some outright laughter being heard during the final, most distressing climax. There was blog 3also laughter during Slyvester’s stuttering: “Oh, don’t make him do it” was heard through titters. I’m aware that this may sound typically-critic-like, as if no one quite understands the play as well as I do. Yet the outright laughter just really irritated me, when such important issues – which are still relevant – were being raised.

The National Theatre have combined with playwright Kwame Kwei-Amah to create the Black Plays Archive, a website providing information and digital resources addressing the contribution of African, Caribbean and black British playwrights to British theatre. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an excellent revival, worth seeing for the acting alone, but made more important because of its message. My hope is that its success will not only impact the thoughts of those seeing it, but also encourage Rufus Norris and his team to put on more BME works in the future – particularly contemporary British ones, so that it is not quite so easy for an audience to distance themselves from guilt by means of accent or dress.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre: 4.5/5 stars

“So quick bright things come to confusion.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

If what you’re looking for in the theatre is colours, dance, crazy blog 6scenery and exaggerated characters, then wonder.land, the National Theatre’s new, modern, musical version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, is the show for you.

Having read many recent reviews rubbishing this adaptation of the famous book, both in newspapers and in many of the reviews by my fellow #LDNTheatreBloggers. I entered the Olivier Theatre therefore with reasonably low expectations; of a mediocre score, a chaotic set, and a confusing storyline. And these three things were all true. Damon Albarn’s songs are pretty forgettable, the set is insanely cluttered, and the storyline, already confusing in the original book, is even more so with the added layer of modern conceit

wonder.land
Musical
Royal National Theatre, London

_R2_5191

However, surprisingly, none of this really mattered! I really enjoyed this musical; it’s not one for the ages, no, I can’t see it transferring or anything, but the experience was never boring – and what’s more, at least it was an experience, and one which is actually surprisingly hard to forget. wonder.land pictures the mythical land of Wonderland as a virtual reality website; as the Cheshire Cat (an exuberant Hal Fowler) loudly proclaims as he whizzes about the stage on his seemingly magical armchair, “www dot wonder dot land….”

Aly is our hero, played with spirit by Lois Chimimba, a shy girl who escapes from her mum and dad’s traumatic separation, three school bullies (amusingly named after the original Alice’s cats Dinah, Mary Ann and Kitty), and her baby brother who won’t stop throwing up, by creating an avatar, ‘Alice’, for herself. It is pointed out by the actors (just in case we didn’t get it ourselves) that this avatar is white, in contrast to Aly’s mixed race heritage.

wonder.land
Musical
Royal National Theatre, London

_R1_5440

“I hate me” proclaims Aly with a typically teenage melodrama mixed with truth. “Who are you?” is the repeated question she is asked; problems of self-identity which most can relate to. In fact, the entire musical has a very One-Direction-esque message “You don’t know you’re beautiful” aka ‘be yourself’; be comfortable in your own skin. In this sense, then, it really isn’t particularly ground-breaking at all.

What is fascinating, and the most fun to watch, is the way this world of wonder.land is created on stage, in contrast to the grey and dull world in which Aly, her mother, father, brother and schoolmates live. It’s easy to see why headmistress Mrs Manxome (in the star turn of the night, a hilariously hyperbolic performance from Anna Francolini), after confiscating Aly’s phone, is immediately drawn into this world of colour and creatures and craziness.

wonder.land
Musical
Royal National Theatre, London

_R2_5117

There’s the digital purple, widely grinning Cheshire Cat face and the gas-masked, white tutu-ed White Rabbit (Joshua Lacey). There’s the glittering blue Caterpillar (played by Fowler with another golden-toothed grin) and his body, each orb played by a different dancer with some incredible choreography by Javier De Frutos. There are the other avatars; a transvestite dodo, bulimic ballet dancers Dee and Dum, and a giant mouse, who in real life is “a short twat” who can’t get any girls, among others. And, of course, there’s Alice herself, played with bold sweetness by Carly Bawden, who becomes almost like a big sister to both Aly and Mrs Manxome. Enyi Okoronkwo is also convincing as Aly’s only school friend, Luke, battling zombies in a very entertaining number within his own smartphone game.

wonder.land
Musical
Royal National Theatre, London

_R1_3946

With all this going on, it’s hardly surprisingly the whole thing gets rather fragmented and chaotic as it continues. This isn’t helped by the fact that all the ‘real world’ scenery and characters stay on stage whilst the larger-the-life avatars invade to create wonder.land. I see why this is done -to make it clear that it’s only a virtual layer over the top of life, but it does just confuse things so much. Another recent production aiming to recreate the chaos of the internet Teh Internet is Serious Business managed this by not crossing the two worlds too much, and director Rufus Norris and set designer Rae Smith would be wise to consider the successful chaos of that production.

This was evening, then, that far exceeded my expectations. Thanks to the National Theatre’s excellent Entry Pass Scheme I ended up with a second row stalls seat for only a fiver so I got to experience the confetti shower (of course there’s a confetti shower) and felt like my eyes and ears were being constantly crowded with new, and even more crazy elements. blog 7The actors are excellent – I can’t really think of a weak link – with the three female leads particularly standing out in both voice and character. The music is bland in that you don’t really exit singing one of the songs, but they aren’t so bland as to be boring when actually watching. The set is far too chaotic, especially during the last frantic number, and the overall message is pretty standard musical fare yes. It’s not one for the ages. But I and my friend both had a really enjoyable night out watching wonder.land – and experiencing the fabulous exhibition enter wonder.land downstairs (it has a whole 3D virtual reality music video!) – and so I can’t agree with all those critics who’ve slagged this musical off so much. Moira Buffini and Norris may not have created the next West Side Story, but I highly doubt you’ll forget seeing this colourful, chaotic, crazy production.

wonder.land at the National Theatre: 3/5 stars