“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

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“My thoughts are whirled like a potter’s wheel”: I know not where I am, nor what I do”

Henry VI part 1, Act 1, Scene 5

William Shakespeare

Two men killing time whilst waiting for something that might never happen. Remind you of anything…? blog-2Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins’ new play Nice Fish shares many similarities with Waiting for Godot, but far outstrips even Beckett in its absurdity. So absurd is the script, in fact, that it seems like it really belongs at a fringe or off-West End theatre, rather than being a Broadway-to-West-End transfer. The Harold Pinter Theatre feels an odd location, something based entirely on Rylance’s reputation rather than anything about the specific production. To be fair, I only booked to see the show because of Sir Mark; plays about ice fishing in Minnesota don’t tend to be my usual fare…

The set, however, is an immediate assuager of doubts. The stage is an ice-field, perspective given by a tiny road in the distance, with the lights of cars and trains speeding past miniature electricity pylons. An automated doll picks at the ice next to a tiny house – and then in an instant the lights black out creating one of the darkest darknesses I’ve ever experienced.
The kind that makes you almost have to shut your eyes because it’s so overwhelming. When the lights come up again the doll has become a real life person. It’s an early warning of the crazy perspective shifts to come.

At first it appears to be a straight-forward two-hander. Jim Lichtscheidl plays straight-man Erik to Rylance’s rather more ridiculous Ron, the kind of person who, during the first moments of the play, manages to drop his mobile through an ice hole into the freezing lake below. blog-4A big pro for this play was that, within ten minutes of it starting, I heard my mum laugh out loud at a joke. (It was about walking into multiple rooms and forgetting R why you were there. Classic mum-joke fare). This is generally rare. It’s not that she doesn’t find things funny, she just doesn’t actually lol. As it were. So well done Mark Rylance for that. To be perfectly honest I would watch him read the Yellow Pages (if they still exist…?) He brings a sense of immediacy to a performance that few other actors can pull off, and it is put to great effect in this production. He is allowed to roam the stage, play with audience reactions, even play with one of those singing fish you put on your wall. loved this bit so much, we used to have one of those in my house when I was little.

At first, we get quite a few interspersed scenes between the odd couple, poetic reflections scattered among the more classic time-killing interchanges between the two. I personally find reminiscing monologues as a concept to be a little tiresome, and a bit short-handy, but the language during these sections rhythmic enough to work a kind of spell over the audience, even if you don’t listen to exactly what everyone is saying all the time. blog-6The more comedic sections are the real charm of the play, however. Ron pretending to be a snowman is a great sequence. Then, unexpectedly, other characters start to arrive. Bob Davis appears briefly as an officious DNR man, followed by Raye Birk and an Ariel-like  Kayli Carter as grandfather and precocious granddaughter who own a sauna in the middle of the frozen lake. With their arrival the oddities which have occurred so far start to build and build until next thing you know they’ve all disappeared in a snowstorm/hurricane, and Davis’ head pops like a seal out of an ice hole clutching Ron’s lost phone in his hand.

From then on the absurdity only increases. **SPOILERS for the end coming up (not in terms of plot, just in terms of design)** Lichtscheidl and blog-3Rylance strip off their thick coats and scarves to reveal businessmen suits – they must be sweating like pigs under those stage lights wow – and then almost immediately take those off to uncover yet another costume change, with Lichtscheidl as an old man, and Rylance as his elderly wife, hobbling about the stage and complaining about life as if it was a movie they didn’t understand (that’s not me being poetic, that’s literally the concept). This was one of my favourite scenes. By this time you’ve just accepted and embraced the ridiculousness, and when two massive fish hooks descend from the ceiling and reel Rylance and Lichtscheidl’s confused OAPs up into the sky it’s a fittingly hilarious ending to a baffling but enjoyable evening.

Where the production falls down, I think, is the middle section. Although director Claire van Kampen does her best to keep providing newly interesting scene changes, tents that fly away, new weather conditions,blog-5 there are definitely moments where you wonder if this play has any point at all, especially during any particularly poetic reminiscing scenes. And not in a “wow, the point is that it has no point” way, like we get by the end, but in a “who knew ninety minutes could be this long” way. Still, this is only a brief feeling, and it is soon made clear that the bemusement is purposeful. This is a play I certainly won’t forget seeing, and I’m so glad I went to see, because it’s really not something I’d usually book to see. Go and see it for an entertaining, bewildering (and short!) night of theatre – and remember, if you turn up in a fish or fisherman costume you get a free box!*

Nice Fish at the Harold Pinter Theatre: 3.5/5 stars

*sadly no one did this when we were there, and I didn’t have the guts to do it myself.

“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

“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”.

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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.

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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.

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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