My London Your London

A cultural guide

Author: Natalie (page 1 of 42)

Theatre Review: Untitled Matriarch Play (or the Seven Sisters) at the Royal Court

First published on Blogcritics

By Natalie Bennett

Good roles for female actors are hard to find, but like London Tube trains, in one play, <i>Untitled Matriarch Play (or the Seven Sisters)</i>, playing for this week only at the Royal Court, seven come along at once.

Playwright Nikole Beckwidth has given the fine cast – who are playing in ensemble with six plays over seven weeks – one can only hope there are this many good women’s roles in all of them – a comic but not light piece that they can really get their teeth into.

A dysfunctional mother, powerfully played by Siobhan Redmond, has gathered her four daughters together, all childless, all hopelessly self-centred and dysfunctional each in their own way, to tell them that she’s finally going to make her life complete, through having a son through a surrogate mother.

This is a true ensemble piece – each character has, literally, their time in the spotlight, but there’s also plenty of opportunities for multi-actor mayhem as the family, and surrogate, gather in the family living room, and rapid-fire two-handers, as they interact in turn.

The subject is well, life really, particularly female life, aging, dissatisfaction with your lot in life, and the difficulty of changing it. Sometimes the gags are a bit on the obvious side – Anna Calder-Marshall as Grandma Sylvie has some powerful monologues, but some of her misunderstandings through deafness or confusion are on the groan-inducing side.

Some of the gags, particularly those focusing on the restrictions on female roles, however are laugh out loud, if bitterly, funny. “You don’t even like any of the children you have. All the more reason to have another.”Then determined single and sexual, body-obsessed Mimi (Natasha Gordon): “You have kids and everything you own is sticky.”

And there’s an excellent topical gag about 15-year-old Beckah, convincingly played by Farzana Dua Elahe, not reading her emails.

The play is a long single act of one hour 40 minutes – no readmittance we’re firmly told at the entrance. But it held a near-packed audience tonight tight in its grip – there was little shifting of buttocks or rattling of bags. I did wonder if it might be considered a bit too overpoweringly female for some of the audience, but overheard comments from male audience members on the way out were universally glowing.

And if the ending is a bit too tight and neat, and way out – as is the whole frame really – well this production is so well put together, amazing in the apparent week’s rehearsal, that the cast pull it off.

One to see if you get a chance.

Another view: Partially Obstructed View.

The play continues at the Royal Court until July 13.

Theatre Review: We’re Going On A Bearhunt at the Lyric Theatre

by Sarah Cope

Last month, my six-year old co-reviewer and I saw a charming stage adaptation of ‘We’re Going On A Bear Hunt’ at the Little Angel Theatre in Islington. We commented then that this larger-scale, West End production would have to go a long way to beat that charming production, which held us spellbound for 40 memorable minutes.

Rather than puppets, this much-anticipated adaptation at the Lyric has adults taking the roles of father, daughter, son and, curiously, the dog. Rowena Lennon, who plays the daughter, deserves special mention. Lennon appears to specialise in playing children (she played Phyllis in the stage adaptation of The Railway Children, also reviewed here). It is something about her buck teeth, which she exploits to good effect, and her quite hapless expression, that somehow means she excels in portraying characters much younger than herself.

This is a high-energy show, which employs audience participation to keep the kids interested. The actors come out into the audience and put a lot of effort into involving the children, and the results pay off.

This approach is especially important when staging children’s theatre productions in large venues; it is all too easy for children to start focusing on the sweets their neighbour is eating rather than the action on the stage. As a reviewer, I’m always checking whether the kids remain engaged throughout, and here the majority were captivated.

Not only is this an interactive show, but it’s one where one becomes physically involved too. Squirted with water – or should I saw drenched? – I would advise people sitting in the stalls to bring a small towel along with them. I was surprised that the theatre allowed such extreme water-based shenanigans. Perhaps they reasoned that the upholstery would be protected by the audience’s bodies and clothing. They were right.

When the characters had to wade their way through mud, we were worried this might also be lobbed our way. A curious thing about the ‘mud’ was that it was very red in colour. “Is it ketchup?” I heard one child ask. My only conclusion is that, when the characters start smearing the mud around, perhaps it was thought that if it was too brown it would’ve looked too much like a dirty protest. Fair enough.

Although we were not covered in mud, our sensory journey was not over at this point, as we were later to be covered in very fine soap-suds, which, as any parent who has read this book to their offspring 20,000 times or so will know, is meant to be the “swirling, whirling snow storm”.

This totally sent the kids into raptures, though I wondered whether the kids who weren’t sitting in the stalls got the benefit of the bubbles too?

This is treat of a show, though if I had to pick one adaptation over the other, I would plump for the Little Angel’s smaller though slightly more charming production. The music, songs and singing were sweeter, more refined, and infinitely more memorable at the smaller show.

We’re Going On A Bear Hunt continues at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue until September 8.

Theatre Review: Payback: The Musical at the Riverside Studios

by Natalie Bennett (First published on Blogcritics)

An entirely new musical,with ambitions towards West End standards, with an entirely new collection of songs – that’s a big project to take on. It’s something that takes years to develop, to workshop, to stage, and the effort that’s been put into Payback, which opened on Friday night at the Riverside Studios is obvious.

The choreography is notably snappy, the singing excellent, if occasionally suffering from the inevitable unamplified challenge of instruments overwhelming voice, there’s a fair bit of humour and interest in the script, and a storyline that goes well beyond the musical minimum of boy meets girl, loses girl, gets her back again.

It makes a thoroughly entertaining evening overall. But … There is one big problem, which means that I think this is unlikely to reach its obvious ambition to reach beyond the fringe to leap on to the West End. It’s the basic premise: Payback is built around a reality television show of the Jeremy Kyle type.

This is presented as though it were the thing of the moment – that moment being 2016 (admittedly updated with the story line that the government has outsourced paternity hearing from the courts to the show), when it just isn’t. These were the reality TV shows of note a decade ago – around about the time of Jerry Springer – The Opera, to which Payback is obviously more than a little indebted.

It just feels a bit old and tired, the twin sisters apparently impregnated by a feckless Essex holiday rep on the same evening are a tabloid stereotype worn way beyond thin – and since we are talking about paternity cases, whatever happened to DNA tests?

Yes this is a musical, and musicals with mighty silly plots have gone a long way over the years, but I just kept being distracted by the feeling that I had seen this all before, some time ago, and by some gaping holes in the plot.

It is a pity, because there is much to praise about this production, and the efforts of the mostly young cast. Probably the standout presence on the stage was Sarah Earnshaw as thetelevision show’s producer Sam, at war with the inevitably vile and rapacious presenter Matt Matthews (Matthew White).

Katie Bernstein and James Yeoburn as the central romantic pair, Isabel and Guilherme, who are struggling to keep an internet cafe running in a Rio favela, both give fine singing performance, although there’s little meat in their parts for acting.

That falls most perhaps to Adam Flynn as Joe, the wanna-be presenter of Payback, who does succeed in attracting the liking of the audience – although the twist at the end in which he succeeds is both rapid and ill-explored.

So there are faults here, of a rather major kind, but still it is a pleasantly entertaining evening, an ideal evening for a party of friends or a couple seeking an unchallenging and entertaining couple of hours.

Recommended if you’re happy to have your entertainment light and energetic.

The production continues at the Riverside Studios until June 30, with online booking.

Other views: A Younger Theatre and The Upcoming.

Children’s Theatre Review: We’re Going on A Bear Hunt, at the Little Angel Theatre

by Sarah Cope

I think I probably speak for a lot of parents when I say that my heart always sinks when my daughter proffers Michael Rosen’s well-known We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Sacrilege though it is to admit, I find the book dull, repetitive (I know, that’s the point), and the illustrations wishy-washy at best.

It’s a slip of a story, and I was genuinely intrigued as to how it could be adapted into anything near long enough for a decent stage production.

So it was in both the spirit of curiosity and altruism, since my daughter is such a fan, that I took my co-reviewer along to the always enchanting and intimate space that is the Little Angel in Islington.

I detest it when a reviewed writes a review along the lines of ‘I thought I would hate this, but actually I loved it’. However, thanks to Peter Glanville and Barb Jungr’s excellent adaptation, I’m going to have to do just that.

This was a totally captivating 40 minutes. The puppets, animated by four actors attired in blacks, greys and blues, were excellent, endearing portrayals of the characters, faithful 3D craftings of Helen Oxenbury’s original illustrations. The small boy, Bertie, in his pink babygrow, was almost unbearably cute.

The adaptation is set to music and the songs are both catchy and yet haunting; a tricky combination to muster. The actors all had excellent voices, and gamely took up instruments as diverse as the guitar and the flute. A special mention should go to Jess Mabel Jones, whose voice was staggeringly sweet, powerful and soaring.

As veterans of the book will know, the story presents several staging difficulties, what with squelchy mud, whirling blizzards and dark forests. The adaptation keeps it simple and charming, with, for example, a blue gauzy fabric doubling for the river, and the trees being a simple cut-out, complete with puppet owl (who, although appearing only twice, and briefly both times, seemed to captivate the children).

My six-year-old daughter, a massive fan of death and accidents, said “I liked it when Lizzie fell over, because the Dad said ‘Oh! What a bad cut!’” However, being a stickler for realism, she didn’t like it when tiny Bertie went swimming on his own; this she deemed “scary”.

There’s to be another adaptation of We’re Going On A Bear Hunt at the Lyric Theatre this summer, which will no doubt be a much fancier, up-scale production. We’ll be reviewing it here in July, but it’ll be hard for it to beat this smaller, almost perfect production, which I feel tempted to see again.

Grab a random child and take them; you’re in for a memorable treat.

We’re Going On A Bear Hunt continues at the Little Angel Theatre, Islington, until 21 July.

Children’s Theatre Review: Bringing Down the Moon at the Pleasance, Islington

by Sarah Cope

My daughter and I are always keen to review children’s shows at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington. An intimate space, meaning that kids are close to the action, means that those hard to please seat-shufflers are more likely to engage with the production. Indeed, we managed to get front row seats and such was the physically energetic nature of the show that we felt a little too close at some points!

Four actors take the parts of the mice, the guitar-playing hedgehog, the rapping squirrel (my personal favourite), the wise rabbit and the delusional mole, who falls in love with the moon and tries to bring it down from the sky to play with. As you do.

My almost-six-year-old was I think a little perturbed by the physicality of the play, and told me she didn’t like the mole character, though couldn’t specify why. I had a look around and she wasn’t the only child who was nestling into her parent for comfort, so it could be that the cast need to tone down the squealing and cart-wheeling just a notch.

Audience participation was encouraged from the start, although the children weren’t very forthcoming. They may have been overwhelmed by the high-octane antics, although the cast tried in earnest to engage them.

The show’s publicity boasts that the songs are very catchy, and this is indeed true. Why else could I be later found impersonating a squirrel, scampering up York Way, singing “It’s so beautiful and so brii-iight!”, much to my daughter’s embarrassment?

I did have more to say about this play but unfortunately the squirrel squirted the audience with a huge water gun and the ink of my notes ran somewhat. Take your waterproofs. And don’t sit too near the front!

Bringing Down the Moon, suitable for age 3 and over, is at the Pleasance Theatre, Islington until  January 2.

Revolutionary fervour and family tensions – a near-perfect theatrical pairing

by Natalie Bennett
First published on Blogcritics

Passionate, polished, sexy, sophisticated, energetic and thoughtful – these are  adjectives that  I don’t use often in reviews, yet they all can be entirely deservedly applied to Be Good Revolutionaries, which opened last week at the Ovalhouse.

The phrase “devised by the cast” in the programme struck fear into my heart when I read it – some truly excruciating nights at the theatre have such origins – but this is a production that has not the slightest feel of being patched together.

The storyline, about the collapse of a family living in the forest, largely cut off from the world, waiting for their father, a revolutionary, to return, is tight and strong, without being overneat. Seldom has the fact that both families and revolutions destroy individuals been so well presented.

And the production is tightly and effectively directed by Georgina Sowerby and Jon Lee, with an original, lively set (designed by Christopher Lawley) that even harnesses the power of smell through a shredded bark “floor” (which also makes a grave).

The cast – Anna (Juliet Prague)  and her three children, Emilia (Laura O’Toole) – the dutiful one; Red (Francasca Dale) – the sexually frustrated rebel, and Curly(Alex Britton) – the cossetted lone male in the household, do a fine job, and when they’re joined by an injured soldier (Liam Clarke) and the spirit of Dark (Citlalli Millan),  an apparently forgotten fourth child, the in-the-round stage, is ably filled with powerful emotions.

Prague and Clarke present one of the sexiest, most powerful and utter non-cringe-inducing sex scenes that I’ve seen on the stage, and Millan, in an almost non-speaking part, manages to powerfully haunt the stage while remaining invisible to the other actors.

If there’s a weak part of this show it’s the music – particularly the sung parts, which were difficult to follow – but the priestess-like figure (Rebecca Thorn) who provides most of the music does introduce a universalising element to the character’s tragedy, and the instrumental music worked well.

The subject matter makes it difficult – it would be a real sellling job to get a mainstream theatre audience to a show like this – but in terms of quality, this is a production that would sit perfectly comfortably in the West End.

See it now if you can, in case it doesn’t make the move…

Be Good Revolutionaries continues at the Ovalhouse until June 23.

Older posts